Saturday, 14 September 2019

Interlude: Chloe: Day 29

The Search did not go well.
The snow had been a constant hinderance, burying her own tracks here and there. She knew immediately that there was no hope of finding his footprints. The powder under her treads was too soft to hold up an ATV; and she was constantly burying herself, trying to find ways in and out of the terrain, feeling like she was trying to thread a needle.
She found the remains of one campfire; and it was much further along than she’d thought.
Okay, Sam’s always saying: Do the math.” Chloe said aloud. “You assumed he stayed at the Jeep; where he’d have food and shelter. But the campfire says he started out a lot sooner. So, you know what day he was meant to arrive. Assuming he left right away… He could be at the station with all his supplies, waiting for you or Ewan to find him.”
She had found the Station quickly, even after dark.
She’d leaned on the horn as she pulled up to a halt; but the windows stayed dark. “Sam?!” She called as she hurried up the stairs. The power was still out, but she could tell at once that Sam had been there. The furniture had been moved; the room smelled of woodsmoke and cooked food…
And the blanket was gone from the cot.
He’s not here.” Chloe hissed, and went to the balcony outside. “SA-A-AM!” She shouted into the night. Her call fired up a chorus of birds, wolves, possums and dozens of other creatures who squealed at the unusual noises. They’d never heard her blasting the horn of her ATV, or someone human howling into the night.
But from human voices, nothing responded. Just the wolves, responding to her call with howls of their own; daring her to come and shout to their faces.
Chloe went back inside, exhausted; and collapsed on the bare cot. Her sleeping bag was outside, but she was too wiped to bother going back outside for it. She hadn’t slept a wink the night before, sick with worry; and a day of searching hadn’t relaxed her at all. She was still going crazy over what might be happening, but her body knew what it needed better than she did, and she passed out the second she lay down.
When the sun came up, she got a proper look at the Station. It had changed dramatically since she’d been there last, the night Sam hadn’t shown up.
He was a hundred meters away, and I came here instead.
It was clear Sam had moved in for a while. The spare jacket that her Uncle had left in the locker was gone. For some reason, the notice board had been shifted and pointed to face the windows. The firewood was gone, as was the food stores.
Chloe sank her face into her hands. “Why didn’t I stock the shelves? Every year, I spend all Summer and Fall gathering and preserving and canning food. Why didn’t I ever keep any of it here?!”
There was a page torn from one of her uncle’s notebooks. On it was a sketch, done in pen. Sam wasn’t an artist, but it was clear this one had taken a lot of work. It was a drawing of a Cougar, with one eye missing, bared teeth, nasty scars drawn across his face; and his body couched into a ready-to-pounce posture. Chloe had seen a Cougar only once before, from a great distance. This posture was the last thing their prey usually saw.
And then she found the note, pinned to the console with the useless radio.
To Whom It May Concern
Chloe, or Ewan, I hope you find this soon. Sorry about your Station, but needs must, when the Devil drives. I’ve spent some time trying madly to coax this radio to life; but it’s not working. I know the Station has been empty this long because the place is a lightning rod; and I’ve already survived the storms outside. Enough that I’d feel safer in the place that doesn’t need glass feet on the stools, just to keep the guy sitting here from being electrocuted.
My food supply is running out; and I have to find Chloe’s cabin if I want to stay alive.
If I don’t make it past the lake, you probably won’t find me until it’s too late. Just in case that happens: There’s a letter to my sister enclosed. Don’t read it. Just deliver it. If she gets it, then she’s lost Dad and me in less than a month. The letter won’t be worth much, but I had to leave something.
Chloe, if it’s you reading this; don’t feel bad. None of this was your fault. And the truth is, if you’d told me to stay away, I would have wanted to come up to the Valley anyway, even if just for a little while. Ewan, if you’re the one reading this, sorry to take your jacket. First time in my life something your size has fit me. I couldn’t pass that up, now could I?
I’ll see you when I see you. And whoever rescues me first, I’m buying the drinks.
Just in case, if I don’t make it; I leave everything to my sister. My will had things left to my dad, and I never got around to changing it. Everything except my kindle. That goes to Chloe.
Wish me luck.
Chloe put the letter in her pocket, along with the one addressed to his sister. “The Lake.” She said to herself, and hurried down to the ATV.
Searching for him over such a long distance would have been easy in a straight line, but there were no straight lines in nature. She’d had to retreat from snowstorms, waiting them out. She’d had to return to the Cabin, packing food and medicine in blankets, praying that she’d find Sam, and have a packed meal ready for him.
And in between; she’d had to turn back to the Depot, to refuel her ATV. She couldn’t take the spare fuel canisters, since she was hoping to have a passenger soon.
The ATV was only good in some areas. Sam could have taken several routes. If he was walking straight downhill, he would have had to walk or ski down thick powder snow. If he’d followed the streams, he would have been going back and forth across rough terrain. If he’d taken the gentlest slope, he would have been going in a huge semicircle.
If you’d just mentioned what kind of supplies you had, this would be so much easier to guess at.” She complained aloud to the still air, sending birds and little animals scurrying away. “If you had a compass, you could be going through the trees. The ATV is useless in the trees. If you were using the Station as your guide, you’d be going through the snowdrifts; and I’d have better luck searching on foot…”
Inwardly, she wondered if she should just go back to her cabin and cross her fingers. The lake was almost as wide as the Valley, which was why the trip took all day, even on an All-Terrain Vehicle.
I know your destination, Sam. But I don’t know your route.” Chloe thought aloud. “And I can’t assume you’d do what I would. I live up here, and I have no idea what kind of bushcraft you picked up since last summer. Or what you’d remember from last time…”
And then, quite suddenly, she found a clue.
She almost drove past the tree, when she noticed that some of the low hanging branches had been snapped off. She stopped the ATV, trying to figure out why that had struck her as important. By itself, it wasn’t unusual. Moose often grew that tall, and routinely pushed through trees; tight in as they were. It had been two months since Chloe had seen a moose in this part of her valley; but this sign had got her attention.
It didn’t fall.” Chloe said suddenly, realizing. “It’s nowhere on the ground. The branch didn’t fall down, it was taken away!”
She climbed off her ATV, and went over to the trees. On foot, she could see the angles that had been hidden from her when driving past. There were other low branches taken too.
SAM!” She called out. “Are you out there?!”
There was no answer. Snow had fallen the night before; and buried any tracks, but after searching around the trees; Chloe eventually found an entrance to a shelter.
Chloe shouted again, making as much noise as she could as she crouched to enter. If it was Sam’s shelter, she wanted to know it. If it belonged to some wild animals, she wanted to announce herself before barging in on something’s den. If it was a wolf den, she’d regret it quickly. If it was a skunk den, she’d regret it a whole lot faster.
But it was empty.
Chloe crawled into Sam’s abandoned shelter and checked it out. Basic A-Frame, stable enough with snow and debris on top. Clearing some snow away from the entrance, she found the remains of a campfire. With a fire, and a windbreak; you’d be safe from the storm. Maybe even comfortable. She checked the branches and boughs she was laying on. Dried out a bit. Probably… days ago, at least. Probably longer.
Chloe crawled out of the Shelter and scanned around. On an incline; open to the downhill... No bush compass… But the Station is still in view.
She checked her map. The distance he could cover was hard to judge; given that she didn’t know how long he had been walking to get to this point. “Is this your second stop? Your first?” She studied the map again. “Okay. Assuming you’re going in a straight line from the Station to the Lake; and clearing this much distance in a day… Your next stop is probably…” She tapped the map. “About there. Give or take.” She looked up at the sky. “I don’t have the daylight to try and reach all that ‘give or take’ on the ATV. The terrain around here means going in with a vehicle is a major liability.” She crouched down and looked in the shelter again. “Well, it’s not a bad shelter.” She looked around. “And you didn’t give me any clue which direction you walked in from here; so you obviously don’t think anyone’s looking for you.”
She checked the sky again. Her ATV had enough fuel; but she’d only found this shelter by stumbling around on foot. In the dark, she didn’t like her chances.
So Chloe gathered some wood and restarted Sam’s campfire, settling into his shelter for a night.
I could make him a bonfire, see if I can get his attention, wherever he is. She thought, eyes closing. But if he’s going forward, I doubt he’s looking back. The wind is strong enough that he won’t see the smoke. He’s heading for the lake; so he probably won’t see the flame through the trees either.
She had an idea of where to search now. And if he wasn’t in that grid, then her next best bet at finding him would be to head for the lake directly. The lake was wide enough that to go around it on her ATV brought her towards the Station at a nearly ninety degree angle to the direction he was walking. But she knew that now.
One more day. You made it this far. Please, God; let him make it one more day.” Chloe whispered. “Hold on, Sam. I’ll find you.”
Chloe was up with the dawn, feeling hopeful. Sam’s shelter had been livable enough for the night. Even comfortable in her cold weather gear. She knew Sam had taken her Uncle’s winter jacket, so he was probably able to survive the cold.
He would have had supplies in the Jeep; and I know he’s made at least one campfire. If he’s got food and can handle the cold; he’s probably fine. Chloe told herself. And now that I know where he’s going, and by what general route; today’s the day.
Chloe let herself breathe hopefully for the first time since finding the Jeep. It was going to be okay.
He’s dead. Chloe thought numbly, less than two hours later. He has to be dead.
She had predicted his path as best she could; and had driven ahead of that line, working backwards on foot. She had resolved that if she found no trace of him by lunchtime, she would take the ATV to the lake, and set up a fire, to wait for him to find her.
Instead she’d found a scene of carnage.
The new shelter had been torn apart. Protected from snowfall by branches overhead, Chloe could see the tracks left behind. Wolf tracks. Lots of them.
They came into the shelter…” Chloe narrated as she read the tracks. “But why would they do that? Wolves usually avoid people… Unless Sam was in worse shape than I thought.” She crouched down and looked through the wrecked bedding… and found an empty plastic bag, with a faded M&M logo on it.
Seeing the M&M packet made something click in Chloe’s mind. Something that had been missing from the Station, and from the last survival shelter Chloe had run across. Wrappers. There had been none. Sam snacked constantly on his last visit to her valley. But this time, she’d seen no sign of any candy bars or wrappers of any kind.
Which means Sam was out of food before he made it this far.” Chloe hissed. “If he was in a bad enough way… The wolves might have decided to go for it.”
She drew a grid in her mind and started searching the area around his Shelter, looking for any trace of him. She carefully prodded at the snow, looking for other tracks, or wolfsign…
And found blood. Plenty of it. Messy bits, under a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. The snow had kept it from drying out, making it a rich, fatal red; even days later.
No!” Chloe whispered mournfully; feeling the legs go out from under her. She fell into the snow, crushed. “No, please!”
She searched for another hour, trying to find him. Or at the very least, a body. “SA-A-A-AM!” She shouted hoarsely, choking up.
There was no answer, and she started her search, moving in ever increasing circles out from the ruined shelter. She looked to the trees, for any trace of him. If he’d needed to escape a wolfpack, going up a tree was his best bet. But she found nothing.
There’s no body! She thought frantically. If there’s no body, then he’s not dead! He could be hurt! He could be holed up in a hiding spot somewhere, waiting for rescue! Is there enough blood to be fatal? He could be… There’s no body! There’s still hope!
But looking out at the snow covered forest, she knew that small hope meant nothing. She had seen a wolfpack tear a meal from their prey while it was still running. Those teeth would leave a deer smeared across a hundred feet, bite by bite, eaten alive. The thought of what they could do to Sam made her nauseous.
Feeling the sick, horrified moan growing in her throat again, she returned to the shelter and started tossing the snow, looking for more evidence.
And she found the jacket. Her uncle’s winter jacket, with teeth marks all through it, tearing it open. There were smears of blood on the jacket too; inside and out.
T-they got him. He wouldn’t go without the jacket if...” Chloe whispered. She was out of ideas. There was no trace of the rest of him, but… If this had happened days before…
If he had limped away, they would have chased him. Chloe fought to think logically. Wolves can run for days at a stretch. If, by some miracle, he fought them off, there’d be some sign of the wolves themselves. If they ran him down, he is most certainly dead.
And if he escaped, while bleeding enough to leave small chunks of meat behind, and not even my uncle’s jacket to keep him warm...
Chloe sank to her knees, leaned over into the snow and threw up from the sheer horror and grief of it. Sam. Oh, Sam. I got you killed. I’m so sorry!
She kept searching for another hour, with no further trace. The snow was steady enough that what was left of him would be found after the Spring thaw. Lots of people lost on hikes or in avalanches were found in Spring.
What did you do, Stupid Girl? She asked herself mournfully. You got him up here, and you didn’t even meet him when he arrived. And why? Because he didn’t come the last hundred meters to the Depot? So you just… you gave up on him?
Hating herself, she had made it all the way back to her Cabin in some kind of automatic daze. She pulled her ATV to a halt in front of her cabin. The bones she had collected for broth days before were still in the basket, forgotten completely during her search. The ravens had found them; three big black birds, picking at the bones. They saw her and squawked, but did not fly away.
And where were you?” She asked the birds miserably. “If I hadn’t fed you here, would you have found Sam for me?”
The bones unnerved her. They were so much like human bones when dismantled that way. Somewhere up here is what’s left of Sam. Sooner or later I have to find him. Send the body back to his sister.
Chloe wanted to retch again. His sister. I hadn't even thought about that. She may not even know he’s…
She fingered the letter in her pocket. The one Sam had left in the Station, just in case it needed to be delivered.
She saw the Deerskin as she came inside, where it had been long forgotten. Without thinking, she picked it up. The next step was to work the hide, softening it up.
It was labor intensive work; but Chloe was boiling inside, and wanted to burn it off. So she took it outside and started working the hide, pulling it around a slender tree trunk, back and forth. She kept going until her arms burned. Teeth bared, she forced herself to stop. Add some water to soften it; do it right.
Why should I care about doing it right?!” She snapped at herself, working out her frustrations on the rawhide again.
Because you do. She told herself. Because you killed this deer; and the reason you did so was to stay alive. You promised never to waste anything that cost a life.
What about Sam’s life?” She growled, pulling the hide harder in a rage. “I wasted that completely, didn’t I?”
She was still doing a slow boil as she finished with the rawhide. She’d been away for days; and had left her chores unfinished. The axe was in her hand before she’d even thought about it, taking apart the deadwood and fallen branches, making it into neat, uniform shapes for her fireplace.
She slammed the axe down hard enough that she couldn’t get it free again, and she stopped; gasping for air. She’d been burning energy since she’d found the jacket; and it hadn’t helped.
What do I say to Liz? Chloe wondered mournfully. What will she say?
She shut her eyes hard. “Alright, this is going to make you crazy. Sort yourself out, girl. First rule of living alone; know thyself.”
Self-Introspection was the sort of skill you could raise to an artform out in the wilderness. Chloe had had to reconcile herself to her parents splitting up, an ongoing feud with her mother since she’d moved to the Valley; and everything else involving her particular lifestyle.
Liz won’t blame me, but she’ll want to know why I invited him up here in the first place.” She said to herself quietly.
Because he’d just lost his father. You told him the wilderness was healing.
So why didn’t Liz have an invite?” Chloe thought aloud. “She lost her father too. It never even occurred to you that Liz might need the ‘healing’?”
That thought caught her. She hadn’t even asked about Liz when she invited Sam. They’d hammered his travel plans out in a single chat session; and his sister had barely been mentioned.
Okay, so you wanted Sam to come up here alone.” Chloe finally pulled the axe free. “Liz would understand that. She’d even approve. She already thought we were an ongoing Summer Romance; even if we weren’t. What were you going to do, Chloe? Make it all better again? Take him camping and make that loss just magically stop hurting?”
Chloe suddenly realized she was freezing. She’d taken her gloves and jacket off while chopping wood; and now the cold was working its icy tendrils into her lungs; making her breath hurt. Collecting the firewood, she made her way back to the cabin.
She’d carried the firewood inside, and started a fire. Another task that she could do on automatic at this point.
Chloe pulled out the letters Sam had written. The one addressed to his sister was set aside carefully until it could be delivered. The other one, meant for her; she read again. It was the last word she’d ever get from Sam.
The letter says he wanted to come up here anyway.” She said softly. “Even if I hadn’t invited him.”
So why am I blaming myself for him coming?
Chloe stopped that thought right there. That was a topic she wasn’t ready for. Instead, she pulled out a pad and paper. Chewing her lip until she tasted blood, she started to write.
Dear Liz,
By now, my uncle will have informed you about your brother’s death. I was the one that found what was left of him-
She scrunched that page up instantly.
Dear Liz,
You and I were never very close, but we both loved Sam, and-
She scrunched that page too.
Dear Liz,
I am so sorry. I can’t think of anything to say that will make this right. I can’t even imagine what you’ve lost in such a short time; and I’m sorry for the part I played in it. I really wanted to help. I really wanted only to-
Chloe tore up that one completely and tossed the pieces in her fireplace. This isn’t about you. She rubbed her tired eyes, suddenly beyond exhausted. She’d spent days combing the far side of her Valley, and what she found crushed her.
Sam would know what to say.” Chloe said aloud to the scrunched and abandoned drafts on the floor. “To me, to Liz… He’d know what to do. He felt awkward because I only said half the words he did last time he was here. But…”
She shook that off and went back outside, looking to the woods.
I should do something. It’s so quiet when you’re sad. Make some noise. I have a music player. I should play some music. What would be appropriate?
She couldn’t think of anything.
Sam had a million songs on his phone. He’d made it his mission to fill you in on the latest albums and movies and...
She shook off that thought too. She’d taken out her frustrations on the deerskin, then the firewood, then anything else that required some brute force; but now she had nothing like that left. Nothing to stop the hot tears rolling from her eyes. The oppressive cold sucked away the heat and they crystallized into drops of ice before they reached her chin.
Chloe had lived a lot of her life in the woods. For the first time since moving up here, she suddenly hated being all alone in the valley.


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.