Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Interlude: Chloe: Day 0

Chloe was at her uncle’s Firewatch Station, which was a lot closer to the road that led into her Valley. Sam was due in a few hours, and this was the most comfortable spot to wait for him.
CQ, CQ; Chloe, can you hear me?”
Chloe twitched in surprise at the voice. She routinely went weeks without speaking to anyone, including her uncle. The Station Radio was always on; as a matter of procedure, but she was surprised to hear from him. “Uncle Ewan? This is a surprise. Don’t tell me you’re on the way back to Fairbanks early? Over.”
Afraid not, sweetie. I’m still in Anchorage; and I wanted to let you know that I’m going to be here a lot longer than I thought. We were right: The Department is closing a lot of the stations in the deep woods. I’m under orders to clear out the station and leave it shut down.” Then, almost an afterthought: “Over.”
Chloe sighed. “Well, we knew it was going to spread, once it happened to you. Over.”
Actually, there was a development this morning. A bunch of the other Station-Chiefs are getting together to plead their case to the Department personally; and it looks like we might have a shot. But it means I’m not coming back so soon. They’re pulling in people for a sort of Class Action, but given how far apart we are, it might take a few weeks. Over.”
Chloe glanced back at the clouds and did the math in her head. “A few weeks means the lake will be icing. You want to fly back now? I have to meet Sam in a couple of hours, but if you come in now, I can fly you back right away and hold onto the plane. I don’t know what we’d do with Sam’s rental, but...” Her eyes flashed as that thought hit her. Oh. That’s the point of the call, isn’t it?Over.”
That’s why I’m calling.” Ewan responded. “I can’t get back. They want me to pick some people up, since I’ve currently got a plane that can make the trip relatively cheap and easy. And I got a call from Chase at the Hangar in Fairbanks. Apparently there’s a delay on your refit. The usual supplier went bust over the Summer. Your plane is fifteen years old; and the skids you need won’t be installed until they arrive from someplace in Illinois. And all that after I go pick up a bunch of retrenched Firewatchers before the snow hits. All told, that could be another month. At least. Over.”
Chloe scowled. “Are you kidding me?! I’ve got a standing order with Chase. He’s been refitting my plane from floats to skids every winter since I got my pilot’s license! If his usual guy went bust months ago; why wasn’t he ready?!” She lowered the handset, and then remembered. “Um, Over.”
A lesson well learned, kid. But right now, the schedule has changed dramatically. Do I need to call in the Rescue Choppers? Over.”
For me? I’ve got more than enough supplies to make it through Winter.” Chloe assured him, imagining her shelves automatically; doing math in her head. “The problem is Sam. The snows are later than I thought they’d be. Once the snow comes, I can tell you, down to the day, how long until it’s safe to land on the lake with Skids. That’s still a month or more away. The plan was to have Sam come up here; and then you take his rental on your way home. Then I fly him back when it’s time to rig my plane for Winter. But if you aren’t coming...” She released the microphone button, trying to fit the puzzle together.
He spoke before she could say anything more. “You forgot to say ‘over’. Chloe, I can’t come back yet. There are a number of Rangers like me over here, trying to keep our Stations open. I can’t leave. They’re trying to get the Department to give us a hearing. It could take another week or more. Given that they’d rather fire us all by phone, and they don’t want the meeting, it’ll probably be longer. Over.”
Chloe said nothing for a moment, looking at the clouds again. They looked more menacing with each passing minute.
You get where I’m going with this, right?” Her uncle’s voice came again. “Sam’s rental will be sitting up there for an extra three weeks, your plane would have to take its chances with the ice floes, your last supply run would be sitting in a Fairbanks warehouse for weeks until someone got back to it, and you’ll have an extra mouth to feed for a lot longer than you expected… Over?”
It was a question, and Chloe lifted the microphone, knowing he’d left it to her to finish the thought. “Sam can’t come. Over.” She summed up, disappointed.
Well, he could, but he’d have to wait it out until the lake goes solid completely. With my new flight schedule, plus the Intervention? It’d be way too dangerous to try and land on the lake in that transitional stage; and there’s nowhere else in the valley that’s open enough for a runway. I can try and make it back before the lake starts to ice. I know you’ve been looking forward to seeing him again. Over.”
Chloe checked her calendar, and then the barometer. “I’m amazed the snows didn’t start three days ago. Don’t chance it. Besides, if there is a chance to keep the Stations open...” She shook her head. “It’s either Sam’s visit, or all your jobs. He’ll understand. Over.”
Copy that. Give me the number. I’ll call him, and warn him off.”
Chloe was already pulling out her notebook. “You forgot to say ‘over’.” She teased gently, and gave him the number. “Call fast. He’s already on his way; and odds are there’s lousy phone coverage. I’ll stay here until I know you got through to him. Over and out.”
Her uncle called back a few hours later. “Chloe, if you can hear this, there might be a problem. I haven’t been able to reach your friend, Sam. Over.”
She was waiting by the radio this time, and was quicker to answer. “Not a surprise if he’s only a few hours away. Listen, I was going to meet him at the Fuelling Depot, where I usually leave the ATV when I go back to civilization. Our plan was to park his car under cover, transfer his supplies to my ATV, since it’s better suited to the terrain; and then refuel him from that fuel tank. I can head there; just in case you can’t reach him in time. You never know. He may decide to stick around the extra few weeks. Over.”
Copy that. You head for the depot and wait for him. It’s just inside the Valley; so if he makes it there; you can turn him back yourself before the pass snows in. I’ll keep trying to reach him from my end. He may get in range of a tower or two before he makes it to you. But I just got handed a weather report for the Valley.” There was a shuffling sound over the speaker. “Looks like that storm is going to hit harder than we thought. If your beau does make it in; I want you guys to wait it out at the Station, rather than trying to drive all the way back to your cabin. You know how fast the ground turns nasty; even on an All-Terrain Vehicle. Over.
Chloe smiled a bit, despite herself; and scribbled down a quick note about the call in the Station records. It was her uncle’s habit to record communications to and from the tower. “Yessir. Over. I’m leaving now. If Sam doesn’t show, I’ll know you reached him. Tell him he’s welcome to delay the trip by a few weeks and fly in with you once the lake freezes solid. Over.”
I will. Check in to make sure. You don’t want to take any chances up there. Over and Out.”
Chloe kept one eye on the sky as she circled the lake on her ATV, driving up the walls of the Valley, sure-footed as a Mountain Goat. Her uncle wasn’t wrong about the weather. It came on fast this far north; and Chloe had spent the majority of her life out in it, learning the tells. There was a storm coming with enough force to bury anyone out in it. There were flecks of green in the black storm clouds; and Chloe knew the lightning would come soon.
Even with the ATV, it would have taken several hours to reach the Firewatch Station. Chloe knew some of the shortcuts; rises between trees that would be deadly when going back downhill; or after the rains. She’d made this trip multiple times. Over this kind of terrain, it would have taken her days to walk it.
She paused twice, eyes glued on the coming stormfronts. She was sure she’d make it there; but wasn’t so sure she’d make it back. The weather was unpredictable enough that she always packed some survival gear with her ATV. By late afternoon, she reached her destination; just as the rains began.
The Depot was little more than a carport, which stood empty. It had been filled with leaves, blowing in under the cover of a rusted, holey tin roof. There was a large fuel-tank for whatever vehicles were parked here; and Chloe refilled her tank first thing. The rain settled in heavily; pouring down like her lake had leaped into the sky and was falling back down on her.
Aw, Sam I hope you didn’t make it this far.” She breathed, and her breath misted. The Depot, worthless as it was, still kept the rain off. It was impressive to watch from a position of being dry; and Chloe settled in to wait.
The storm only got worse. Lightning forked across the sky at regular intervals; striking close enough that it shook the air apart. Even over the downpour; she could smell the ozone as the air burned from the whipcrack of energy.
The cold started to bite; and Chloe pulled her furs in tightly around her neck. “So, how long do I wait here?” She asked herself, checking her watch. “You were due in about ten minutes ago.” She looked at the rain. “If it stops; I’ll head for the Station-”
The lightning blew up hard enough that she felt her back teeth shake; and she sank into her coat a little, drawing back from the rain. “Or I might just set up here for a while.”
Chloe loved her cabin, but she didn’t consider it her home. The Valley was home. Everywhere in it was as good a spot to settle as any other. She’d spent most of her life there. Waiting out a storm in her survival tent was not a new tactic. There were huge piles of dead leaves blown deep into the carport that she could pile up over her tent as a windbreak.
She had a large tin with a sealed, reusable lid; containing some of her apple slices. There were wild groves of fruit trees growing in the valley; and she’d spent the summer collecting and preserving for the winter, which was about to bury her world. She spent an agreeable time munching on her preserves, emptying out the tin completely; and putting it away carefully for later. She lit a single candle for heat and light; more than enough to warm her tent as the storm raged outside.
So.” Chloe said aloud. “This time of year, the days are shorter and shorter; but I’m quite certain you’d be here by now, Sam.” She tossed the cold ashes of her small fire away. “Which means my Uncle got through to you.”
The rain had stopped; but the wind shifted just long enough to rip against her tent; bringing a shockwave of chill on the air. Chloe didn’t shiver. She’d been through a dozen winters; and knew the signs. Traveling by ATV in the dark was dangerous, but Chloe didn’t know how many days she had until snowfall; and she’d made the trip enough times that she’d risk it.
With the decision made, Chloe was in a hurry; gathering her tent quickly.
She drove slower in the dark; but the ATV had headlights, and she found her way to her uncle’s Firewatch Station in a few hours. The sky was pitch black by the time she reached the stairs.
Once she was inside, the first thing that hit her was an acrid smell. She didn’t think much of it; too glad to have made it safely. By the clock, it wasn’t that late; so her first stop was the radio. “CQ. CQ. This is Station 230. Come back?”
The radio screen wasn’t lit up. She worked the power switch. The LEDs flicked for a moment; but the signal read as non-existent. Chloe went to the lightswitch. The lights stayed off. She went to the mini-fridge, and found it was off too.
Chloe sniffed again; catching the smell of burnt wire; and realized. “Lightning strike. The close strike did hit here.” Chloe shook her head. “Dammit, every single year! No wonder they want to close this place down!”
Chloe slept till dawn. The rain stopped sometime during the night. There wasn’t much in the way of food; and Chloe didn’t take anything. She had stores of her own.
She made a quick survey of the Station once the sun came up, and was not surprised. Lightning had indeed fried the generator, and the grounding wire. The radio had a battery backup that would last it for a day or two, but the antennae was a different matter. That far out into the wilderness; it took a lot of power to contact anyone, let alone Anchorage; and the antennae was a lightning rod at the best of times.
Happens every year.” Chloe sighed hard. “Alright. Sam didn’t show; so he must have turned back. I can’t call anyone to verify that, and my Ham Radio back at the Cabin doesn’t have enough range for anyone outside the Valley.” She shook her head. “Nothing else for it then.” She looked around the Station. I hate the thought that I won’t ever come back here.
The Station was due to be closed down, and her Uncle’s last task would be to clear it out. Chloe took some of the personal items herself. They’d be safe at her Cabin until her Uncle returned, and it would save him some time. The firewood was of more use to her than her uncle; but she couldn’t carry all of it. She took all the ‘perishable’ food since the power was out. She left the paper packets full of soup mix that she knew her uncle liked. She’d never cared for it herself.
The weather had held, and she took another hour to admire the scenery. The Station was nothing but windows. Every time she came to visit her Uncle, they talked about the view. They both loved the wilderness; feeling more at home with the trees than they ever could with roads.
And in the distance was the lake. “Funny.” She said aloud quietly. “From here, it all looks so far away.”
She was usually buoyed by the view; feeling more like herself than she ever did. But this time, she felt a little melancholy. She had been expecting a couple of weeks of company; and now it wasn’t coming.
Probably for the best, anyway. She told herself. He’s just lost his dad, and you invited him to a secluded mountain cabin, miles from anyone? How else was he supposed to take that?
And you knew that a week ago. She countered. So if you didn’t want to seem forward, then why did you invite him; dummy?
Chloe shook her head. “Doesn’t matter.” She told herself. “He’s not coming.”


A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'Dear Chloe' in its serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.