Sunday, 11 August 2019

Chapter Four: Sam: Day 8

Dear Chloe,
Not dead. Though not for lack of trying on behalf of Diablo. And yes, that’s my official name for the Cougar. I can’t believe that thing tracked me for a whole week. You’d think I was the only helpless bipedal prey in the area. Oh, right. I am.
I thought animals were afraid of fire. It took three seconds for me to figure out that they’re not scared of anything. At least, that one’s not. Like all Demons, it’s fine with firelight. I was brandishing that torch, and the thing flew at me like it was part of the wind. One second it was crouching, the next it was right on me. I could barely track the movement, let alone defend myself.
The spear was useless at grappling range. But I still had the bone-blade. It wasn’t much, but it had a pointy end; and I nailed the cat right up under its front leg. Doctor Wilson, whom I don’t think will ever read this, told me to focus on things that stand out in my perception. Well, what stands out about that moment was when I struck back. I could feel the point dig into his joint, through sheer dumb luck. I could feel the resistance suddenly let go as the point managed to pierce through the fur and skin.
The Cougar sure noticed. I haven’t heard a sound like that since Liz trod on the tail of her late Siamese. Only this cat was bigger than I was, and currently exploring my throat for a good spot to take his first bite. The yowl that came outta that thing was right in my face.
But I must have hit a tender spot; so the fight was over, for a time. The cat darted back, and I was close enough to the Station that I had somewhere to run to.
So now I’m at the Station. It’s empty.
There’s nobody here. Chloe was apparently right about her Uncle’s budget. My tax dollars being saved; even if I’m not.
I can barely move. My clothes are torn, and so’s my flesh. The cat had paws the size of frypans. Frypans with razors. I’m not dead, and I don’t think the cat got any major arteries…
Thank god that the Station had a first aid kit. Even without people, this is a Wilderness Station; and it’s not dismantled yet. It has some standard supplies. It has some furniture, too. I’m writing this in an actual chair. And there’s coffee. If I could move without bleeding, I’d feel like a dragon in his cave of treasure.
My hand is shaking. I think I’m in shock. I need to hydrate, and to r-
Dear Chloe,
Rest. That was the word.
I’m not sure how long I slept, but I know it was dawn when I woke up. I can’t really move, but I don’t really have to. There’s a cot, and a blanket, and that’s a suite at the Ritz compared to the last week. The Station has a wood heater, which is good because there’s no electricity.
More importantly, there’s not a lot of perishables left. I don’t know if your uncle packed before he left; or if the shelves are always this bare. I’m glad he left the medical gear. The radio is dead. So is the fridge and microwave; but I can live with that. There’s a locker for clothing, with a winter coat and a rain poncho. The Cougar got my coat good, so I’m glad to trade up. I wrapped the last of my meat in the poncho and stuck it outside where it’s still icy. That little walk alone took me more than ten minutes, the amount of pain I’m in.
The First Aid kit has antibiotic pills, and I took a few, just in case the Cougar gave me an infection.
And there’s toilet paper. The joyus, rapturous, holiest of human inventions! Ewan didn’t decide to clean out his latrine supplies when he left. Sing Hosanna! Toilet Paper is real! It’s not some mythological treasure!
Oh, and I found this notebook. There are several notebooks here, for record keeping, but only one empty one. My phone’s finally given up, so I’m writing my journals again, instead of dictating it.
Looking through the notebooks also answered a few questions. First of all, I know why Chloe and Ewan aren’t looking for me. There’s a record of a conversation here between them, and how Ewan’s plans changed. He was supposed to show up a day or two after me and take my rental back to town.
It explains why I can’t see your plane, Chloe. I know your Uncle used it for his patrols, and his own supply runs; and now apparently for collecting reinforcements so he could beg for his job. If he didn’t make it back as we originally planned? That storm was a week ago. The power’s been out since then. I can see the lake from this lookout, and Ewan’s not back.
Chloe, that means you don’t even know I’m in the valley.
One thought. Can I repair the radio? Or the generator? I’m not exactly at my best, but it’s gotta be worth trying. The Station was empty when I took my tumble off the bridge. That storm also had plenty of thunder and lightning. Looks like the Station got hit, and it burned out the grounding wire. According to these records, it happens at least once a season. It’s the whole reason for having a grounding wire, in fact
It’s my job to manage repairs for things like a radio tower; and I know for a fact that the room I’m currently calling my ‘home’ is a lightning rod. The next storm could burn this spot to the ground. The Station is nothing but windows. I can see the whole valley from here, and I’m surprised to see how little of it I hiked since the accident. I’ve got more than double that trip to make if I can cross the lake. Five times as long if I have to go around it.
This ‘slow walk’ is far from done. And right now, I can barely keep from bleeding.
Dear Dad,
I just realized it’s been four days since I thought about you. I’m sorry if that seems cold, but I know all about cold now.
I have been in this Station for three days. There’s nothing to charge up my phone, and no way to make the radio work. I’ve been recovering from the Cougar, slowly. I’m lucky that he decided to go straight for the neck-bite; because the rest of me was mostly left alone. Soft tissue damage and more sprains. Some slashes, but nowhere near as bad as it could be. My jacket saved me.
Besides, I need the downtime. I have an ‘indoors’ for the first time in over a week; a cot with a pillow and blanket. Who could ask for anything more?
I realize I’ve acclimated to the cold a bit. I don’t need a fire in the stove until I’m trying to cook something. The blanket on the cot is enough for warmth. I’ve missed my bed. But part of me doesn’t want to be warmer. Part of me wants to stay frosty; because deep down, I know I can’t stay here.
My body is crying out for food, and I’m rationing what I have very carefully. I need those calories to restore my health. I’m down another belt loop. I’m actually at a medically approved weight now. I think. There’s no bathroom scale in here.
I’ve been taking short walks, just around the Station; just to stretch my limbs before they completely seize up. I have zero endurance. But it’s enough to take inventory. The poncho is currently posing as a large freezer bag. I bring in some of the frozen meat and let it thaw when I let myself eat. Normally, I wouldn’t worry; but the Demon Cat is out there, and I don’t want it coming to my doorstep. I doubt it’ll climb the hundred or so stairs, but he’s already gotten a taste of me.
And it was only a taste. I have an amazing pattern of small sharp bruises in a neat semi-circle around my pulse point. Either it was closer than I thought, or Dracula is up here with me.
Dad, I remember when we took camping trips when I was a kid. You knew ways to pass the time. Card games. I Spy. You used to play harmonica, remember? Well, I don’t have any of those things. How does a Ranger Station not have a deck of cards?
I keep my routine. I wake up and test the damage, I drink plenty of water in small sips. I have one pot, which is heavy when full. I light a small fire in the stove. It has to be small, because there’s only so much wood stocked, and I’m in no shape to go chopping more. Or take those stairs, to be honest.
I drink most of the water and heat up some of the meat. There’s some dry goods and soup mix in the cupboards here, but the meat I harvested gets priority. If it gets warm enough to spoil, it would actually be a sign that my luck is changing; but the Demon Cat isn’t going to stalk around outside for soup mix. I go as far as the handrail and collect snow in the pot, and bring it back in to melt and warm up. I use the water to make a broth by boiling the meat. Yesterday, I made soup first and added meat to it. I’ve never had powdered tomato soup with Elk Meat before. Hunger is the best seasoning on the market.
I sleep to heal. My periods of being awake are getting longer, which is a good sign. I make sure and collect another pot of snow before I sleep and leave it inside to thaw out. Twenty-seven matches, one storm lantern, various utensils; a pot and a bowl. Windows, and lots of them. With all the lights out, my hours are set by the sun; so I set the lantern in the window after dark and flash a light out into the night.
Dad, I know for a fact you can’t see this Station from Chloe’s usual haunts, so I’m hoping there’s someone out there who can see it. Someone who isn’t looking to murder a transient, anyway. Huh. It just hit me that back in civilization, I’d actually have more things to be scared of. I mean, sure; you’re less likely to get eaten, but statistically, I’m probably more likely to be murdered. Civilization. Still the only place to get pizza.
Pizza. I’m dreaming about deep dish. I mean that literally, dad. I had a dream so vivid about that Italian place on the corner, where we used to live before mom left. I would have recorded it in my Dream Journal, except that you weren’t in it. Neither was the waitress. Neither was Chloe, or anyone else. Just me and the pepperoni. And the garlic knots, of course.
Of course, I’ve never had moose meat on pizza. I estimate I have just over a week’s supplies. One small irony, the Firewatch Station has little firewood. Makes sense when you unpack it. The place is meant to keep fire from breaking out in these trees. The firewood they have stocked here is the same kind I can get at a hardware store back home. Cut to the right size, treated for whatever, and sold in bundles. Out my windows, I can see a toolshed, near the parking area. No vehicles. I can see a water tank, but it’s down at the ground, and the taps do nothing, so I assume there must be an electric pump.
I’ve given up on repairing the generator. The lightning strike did a better job of breaking it than I can of repairing it with flint and bone tools.
There have been two storms since I became a castaway. Snow, wind; and a little lightning. It’s only a matter of time until the Station gets hit again. The support struts are all metal.
So, it’s time to start making some choices. If there was a search, heading back towards the road out of the valley might bring me closer to the search area, given the GPS screw-up. Unless there’s no search; which is far more likely. I haven’t seen a search chopper or seen a flashlight from searching people. In fact, it just occurred to me that I’ve never gone for more than a week without seeing another person at all. Wild. Why didn’t that occur to me before?
My sister might be home in another few days; but she has her own place. The pass I came in is at the top of the valley walls; and I can just barely make it out from here. Odds are it’s completely snowed in by now. According to Chloe, it does so every year.
My food supply is running out. My injuries are more stiff than bloody. I think the bandages will hold. Which means my next move has to be staying alive. So it’s time to think longer term. As comfortable as it is, the Station is a lightning rod. I can’t stay here all winter.
So, my best option (such as it is) is to head deeper into the Valley. The lake is my best shot at finding Chloe’s cabin. She was right. The whole place is like another universe. I’ve never seen it under a blanket of winter. I have some time, with the Station. My meat is running out. The soup mix won’t give me much, but enough to live off while I find another option on food.
Another option. Right. Like going to the supermarket and buying rows of pork chops, on little styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, the way God intended.
Dream Journal
Ugh, I hate you.” Chloe moans.
I sit against the bathroom sink, holding her hair back. “That’s fair. Y’know, you aren’t truly friends with someone until you hold their hair out of the way for a good hangover.”
I’m not hungover.” Chloe moans. “I didn’t drink at all last night. I don’t know what this is. Is it possible I’m allergic to the city?”
If anyone could be, it’s you.” I tell her. “I don’t know, maybe you caught something from the street meat.”
I don’t know how you think it goes in the Valley, but trust me, my stomach is stronger than that.” Chloe insists, before retching again. “Ugh. This has been going since the day I got to town.”
Maybe it is an allergy.” I admit, just as there’s a knock on the door.
It’s Elizabeth, wearing her omnipresent sunglasses and a black denim dress. “Surprise, little brother! I have arrived!”
Liz.” I hugged her tightly. “I wasn’t expecting you until Monday.”
I wanted to meet this Wood Nymph you’re dating.”
Don’t call her that and we’re not dating.”
The sound of Chloe groaning from the bathroom makes Liz’s eyebrows rise into her hairline. “I’m not interrupting anything sordid, I hope?”
Chloe staggers out of the bathroom, looking green. “Oh good, new people.”
Not my best timing, ever.” Liz concedes. “For what it’s worth; you still seem healthier than the guys I treat at the hospital.”
Oh, this old thing?” Chloe tries to smile around her nausea. “I just threw it up. On. I meant to say ‘on’. Everything else, up.”
What did you do to her, Sam?” Liz demands of me, immediately taking Chloe by the hand and leading her into the kitchen. Liz was the natural caretaker of the family. A role she had fallen into naturally.
I did not one thing!” I insist. “I met her at the airport yesterday, and she’s been getting worse ever since. We were thinking it might be an allergy. Where she lives, there’s zero pollution and such.”
And I don’t think it’s that.” Chloe promises again as she sits at my kitchen counter. Liz is already making her soup. “I come back to civilization once a month. Check my mail, make a supply run; that sort of thing. I never react like this.”
Something specific then?” Liz reasons. “You didn’t take her to that Thai place, did you? You know they haven’t cleaned that kitchen since Clinton was President.”
As a matter of fact, she didn’t eat for almost half a day.” I am quick to defend myself. The only thing more aggressive than ‘Maternal Liz’ is ‘Med-Student Liz’. “Jetlag. She’s from a few time zones away. The only thing she ate was gelato. I got her a slice from Papa Toni’s today... ”
Toni’s.” Liz pounces. “Deep dish? Pepperoni? Three kinds of cheese?”
It was amazing; at least on the way down.” Chole tells her with a wilted smile. “And just so you know, my stomach is stronger than anything a city has ever dished out. Usually.”
And gelato yesterday.” Liz suddenly smiles. “Chloe-oh, may I call you that?”
It is my name.”
Chloe, back in your ‘day trips’ to town, do you usually get ice cream?”
Well, now that you mention it, no.”
I wanted to get her something she wouldn’t have back home.” I put in.
Back in the valley, where you live off-grid.” Liz is leading us somewhere. “All kinds of wild fruits and herbs, different kinds of meat, and roots, and wild greens... I’m guessing you don’t have a lot of milk products though.”
Hard to keep fresh; and it’s not like I keep cows.” Chloe nods. “Why?”
It’s not a stomach bug.” Liz declares profoundly. “She’s lactose intolerant. I’m guessing she hasn’t had dairy in a long time.”
I actually slap my forehead, but I can’t help but notice Chloe bursting into giggles; despite her green pallor. “Okay, Townie. You win the bet.” She notices my sister’s questioning look. “I had a bet with your brother that I could handle his world better than he could handle mine.”
It was a poorly thought out bet, on my part.” I quip. “Because there’s only one way to test it.”
Liz laughs uproariously. “My brother, in the wild? One game of Candy Crush missed; and he’d lose his mind.”
Chloe works up a smile at me. “Alright, now that I know about the ‘dairy’ thing, the bet is back on. So; next summer, my place.”
Liz suddenly stops laughing and points over my shoulder. “There’s someone you should check in with first.”
I turn to see who she means, and find a huge Cougar with scars across the side of his face. El Diablo. Before I can scream, he’s pounced, teeth going for my throat.
That’s when I wake up.
Dear Chloe,
I made it up and down those stairs for the first time this morning. I collected grass from under the snow, for making Tinder.
I dreamed about that first Summer last night. Remember? A month at my place first, a year before I came out here? I dreamed about that first summer; with a small, shall we say, detour from the accurate historical record at the point where I woke up.
I’ll be honest with you, Chloe: I didn’t expect you to even remember me after I left Fairbanks that first time. My sister thought you came to us for a ‘summer fling’. If I’m honest, part of me was hoping that was the idea. I mean, everyone I work with wants a vacation out in some tropical island or mountain cabin. The whole ‘back to nature’ bit is your life; so it makes sense that if you need a break from it, you’d go to the over-indulgent civilization. Order a pizza, laze in a jacuzzi, Netflix and Chill.
My phone’s been dead for days, but I keep checking it. It’s laughable, isn’t it? I know the screen won’t wake up, but every time I look down, there the phone is, in my hand; and I’m hitting the button to wake it up and check my notifications.
In preparation for spending a month in the Valley; I had a hundred episodes of my favorite shows loaded on; as well as enough movies to open a store. You have solar panels on your cabin, so I knew I could keep it charged. Now the phone is a paperweight; and I don’t even have papers, beyond this notebook.
I’ve been feeling it a lot, actually. Home feels like another man’s life. I woke up this morning and found that I couldn’t remember what my bedroom looks like. Weird thing to forget. But I haven’t seen it in a lifetime. I have a vague memory of this place called ‘work’, and the mythical kingdom of ‘McDonalds’, but I’m sure they were just daydreams.
Chloe, I wish you could have met my dad. It’s the first time I’ve unplugged since he died. I can feel my brain spinning, out of control, the way it did when I heard he was in hospital. It keeps spinning and tossing up random moments like a clip show. When I heard about dad, my brain was going like a kaleidoscope, replaying moments at random. Conversations we’d had, his terrible, terrible dad jokes; the time he’d laughed at something on the news…
The same thing is happening now. But with my phone. And isn’t that just a little disturbing? My brain is running out of control, giving me the chorus of my favorite song; the notification sound when someone retweets me; the opening words of my favorite YouTube video… It’s like a waking dream that won’t stop.
Chloe, I never printed out any of the pictures I took last Summer. Or the one before. You and me, all our pictures were digital, stored safely on Instagram. I may never actually see them again.
Intellectually, I know what’s happening. This is what the books call ‘the psychology of survival’. When your body isn’t getting what it needs; your brain starts freaking out. I’m jumping at shadows, freezing at sounds I don’t recognize.
I have to leave. I know the Station isn’t safe, and my food is almost gone. I’m still moving slowly, but I’m not bleeding anymore, and that’s the best I can hope for. Healing injuries takes fuel; and there’s not much more than instant soup going into the tank. From my windows, I can see wildlife. The Lake is at least a few days walk; and I don’t know if there are fish in the rivers or streams; which are frozen over by now anyway.
The lake isn’t frozen yet. I can see the water moving from here. If Ewan doesn’t bring your plane back in another few days, he’ll have to wait for it to freeze completely before he can land. So I have to collect some supplies; or I’m going to starve.
Chloe, I remember my third day here in this Valley with you. I mentioned that you started your day a lot sooner than I would. You said that there was nobody else out here, so if you didn’t do something; it wouldn’t happen. I’m in the same boat now. Last time I felt this beat up, I would always have someone to take care of me. Dad, Liz. This time, there’s nobody. Just me, and the valley. And Diablo, out there somewhere.
And strangely, this doesn’t scare me as much as it did that day I realized I was going to die up here. In the days since, if I wanted to warm up; I had to warm myself. If I wanted to sleep, I had to make my own shelter. If I wanted to avoid bleeding to death, I had to bandage my own wounds.
If I want to eat, I have to get food for myself too. I’ve done the math, and I think I’ve got about three days to master the fine art of foraging. In Winter.
Wish me luck, Chloe. You’re the one that taught me everything I know. (In Summer) I’ve never hunted anything more than a tin can on a fence. And I don’t have a weapon of any kind. And if I’m bad at it, I have a distinct chance of dying, slow and cold.
So. Should be fun.


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.