Chloe was driving. Behind her on the ATV, Sam kept one hand on her shoulder, one around the radio in his lap. It was amazing to him, the way the technology ate the distance. He had spent weeks pushing through snow; and they were flying over it. He had spent weeks feeling out each step, peering for predators around every tree; and they were moving fast enough that he was quickly losing his place.
Which was fine, because he was trying to hold on, more than anything else. He hadn’t heard an engine in a lifetime, but he could have sworn they weren’t this noisy. It felt like he was riding an earthquake.
“This isn’t the route I took.” He called to Chloe over the ATV.
“I have to change it up a bit, every time it snows. Some of the drifts are deep enough to bury us both; and some of them are solid enough to carry the weight if we move fast. Takes a bit of luck, and a lot of familiarity. Good news is, it’s a much faster trip when we can go acrossthe lake instead of around it.”
Sam kept one eye on the sky. “The weather’s closing in faster than I thought. Should I be concerned that I’m not seeing the Station yet?”
“You said yourself, it is a different route to the one you took.” She nodded. “Don’t worry. We’ll get there in time.”
“Well. We got there before the storm hit.” Chloe offered sadly.
Sam said nothing for a long time. In truth, he had suspected it for half the drive; and then they got close enough to be sure.
The Firewatch Station was gone. What was left of it was scorched and torn down, the supporting metal struts blackened, and the cabin on top in pieces, scattered around the burned-out structure.
“Lightning?” Sam guessed darkly. “There have been half a dozen storms since I left. It was whyI left, in fact.”
Chloe noded. “Very likely.”
Sam stared up numbly. “My god…”
Chloe shook her head grimly. “It was going to happen eventually. We had to replace that grounding wire every season for the last three years.” She gestured. “First time my uncle hasn’t been aware immediately, and had the parts replaced in a day. We usually had a stockpile of replacement cable, but… It’s not like this particular tower was anyone’s highest priority at the best of times. So we got put on a waiting list this time.” Her voice dropped. “The storms are getting worse. Harsher. Colder. Every year, the lake fluctuates up and down by a wider margin. The winter storms are wild enough to dump enough snow on everything. It fills into the lake during the thaw, and the streams run lower and slower during the summer.”
“A far more serious problem when you live in a place where the difference between rain and sun can mean thirst.” Chloe agreed. “You saw me boiling snow into water for your bath. My pump draws water from a river that goes past my cabin and feeds into the lake. This time of year, I don’t dare try to pump water in from outside, because it’s ice. Six months from now, I may have to boil lake water.”
Sam was still gazing at the scorch marks. “I made the wrong choice.” He said quietly. “When I was here last, I knew the next storm would be a real hazard, and I decided to push on before I starved. I could have tried to wait it out. If I’d stayed another week, you would have found me. I wasn’t sure I had that long.” He looked at her. “If I’d stayed, you would have found me, and we could have figured out the radio weeksago. I made the wrong choice.”
“Not a choice. A calculation.”
“No, not whatever.” Chloe said, trotting after him. “This is what survival is all about. Informed intuition, making judgement calls. You were right about the Station being unsafe from storms. It’s not your fault that you didn’t know where I was.” She grabbed his arm. “It’s not your fault.” She insisted, sounding almost desperate.
She was being very serious about it. More serious than was in character for her. It suddenly struck him why she cared so much. “It’s not yours either.” He promised her.
She said nothing to that, and Sam started poking around at the carport. “The survival shelter I built here is wrecked. Falling debris, I’m guessing. Speaking of making calculations, let’s figure this one. Can we make it back to the Cabin?”
“Before the storm breaks?” Chloe looked up at the clouds, growing black. The wind was getting stronger. “Maybe. Possibly not.”
“How about this side of the lake?” Sam asked. “My proper shelter is there. I’m betting it’s intact.”
Chloe smothered a smirk. “Sure, I’d love to stay over at your house.”
Sam grinned and they hurried back to the ATV.
The storm hit just as they arrived back at the lake. Sam led the way as the snow swept down on them. The wind was strong enough that they had to push each other through it, the snow firing quick and hard enough that Sam could feel it digging into him.
But even snowblind, Sam found his way to his ‘house’ and the two of them wrestled the entrance shut.
Chloe pulled her scarf off and looked around. “Not bad.” She said approvingly. “It held up well.”
Sam gestured around. “Does it pass muster?”
She gave it a practised look. “Nice.” She said finally. “Windproof, sloped roof. I like the fireplace.”
“Reinforced with dried mud. Reflects the heat inward, and doesn’t burn out the wood.” He chuckled. “I couldn’t believe it last year, when you showed me this trick. A fireplace and chimney made of wood.”
Chloe laughed. “Speaking of…”
Sam winced. “I used up the firewood, making that bonfire. Didn’t expect to be back.”
Chloe looked to the fireplace. “We need a fire, or the heat will get sucked right outta here. I saw some fallen branches back-”
The wind outside howled again. Going back outside wasn’t a good idea.
“Use the bedding.” Sam gestured at the pile of pine boughs. “It’s dried out some. It won’t last for long; but it won’t have to. We’ve got warmer clothes than the last time I was here; and there are two of us to warm the space up this time. We can wait it out.”
Sam had fought his way out to the ATV and returned with her survival kit, and the rifle. Chloe collected the boughs from his usual sleeping area and stripped them with her knife. The main branches were left as bare sticks, and Chloe started twisting the rest together. She twined the drying twigs that still had leaves together in a tight weave. Inside, she put her tinder; and worked her flint and steel quickly. “With the sticks wound together so tight, they’ll burn slower; keep the heat inside.” She said, and unpacked her kit. She had the buckskin rolled up, and she spread it out to replace the bedding they burned. “I figure I can make another two or three of these; and the sticks will provide fuel once it’s going. I’ve got long-life fire-starters in my survival kit on the ATV. We keep the fire low, it’ll last.” She put the small fire in the fireplace, and sat cross-legged at the edge of it.
“Are you mad at me?” Sam asked finally. “Seems like an odd question, given that you’ve been waiting on me hand and foot for days now, but… I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting better at picking up the cues. Remember, back before; I couldn’t see a rabbit den when it was right in front of me. Now I can tell you where every single one on the hillside is. Last year, I was wondering how to keep a conversation going when there wasn’t much to say. Now I know the difference, and I feel like you’re angry about something.”
Chloe shook her head, but didn’t seem surprised by the question. “No. I’m not angry at you. But I’m trying to decide why youaren’t angry at me. At least a little bit.”
“I wanted to come up here.” He told her firmly. “You didn’t have a gun to my head.”
“So why would I be mad?”
“I don’t know.”
“You told me the first rule of living alone was being honest with yourself.”
“I did, didn’t I?” She sighed. She was silent for a long time. “I never told you, why I came to live up here by myself. It wasn’t just some rebellion against authority, or a protest of civilisation. I was looking for something.”
Chloe prodded the fire, more to give her hands something to do as she told the story, looking away from him. “My dad brought me up here when I was young. I asked him what was so much fun about his hunting trips. Some hunters, they drive out and camp in a hunting blind somewhere; make conversation until something walks past. My dad did things a different way.”
She never talks about him.Sam observed silently, letting her talk.
“Pop had enough money to rent a helicopter for the trip.” Chloe continued, almost monotone. “He and I sat in the back while the pilot circled around, looking for something worth hunting. After about an hour, he came across a wolfpack. Dad always liked trophies from other predators. So he had the pilot swing low, and the rotors made so much noise and wind that the wolves scattered. Dad… he hunted with an automatic rifle. He must have emptied the clip, spraying everything that moved. It was hard to aim straight, everything moving, everything running. But he nailed four of the pack. The other three kept running. Dad had the pilot set down, and he went picking through the bodies, looking for the best trophy. He found one, climbed back into the chopper, and we went home. My hot chocolate wasn’t even cold yet.” She wiped a tear away absently. “My clearest memory of the trip was when we took off, I saw a little grey wolf cub, still alive, trying to get his mother to wake up.”
Sam winced hard. “God.”
“We made it back to the Hunting Lodge, my Uncle was there to verify the kill, make sure my dad hadn’t blown away a tagged animal. He was working for the Parks Service, so… I took my questions to him. He talked my dad into letting me go on another trip. My Uncle and I hiked in, we camped for a while. He had me watch, listen…” She shook her head. “It was like I had moved into a new neighborhood. When I was with my dad, I felt like I blew upa new neighborhood.”
“You were a kid.” Sam said swiftly. “None of what happened was becauseof you.”
“I know, but my dad called it hunting, and after my second visit with Ewan, I understood the difference between hunting and killing. And the more time I spent back home… My dad took advantage, Sam. He had power enough to shred a dozen living things, and he did it for fun. My life up here isn’t always fun, isn’t always safe; and it’s never been that easy. But it’s right. It’s just… better. You’ve seen the wolves. You can’t tell me that little cub didn’t know exactly how much damage people like us could do. For fun.”
Sam sidled over next to her at the fireplace, putting his arms around her tightly. “Sounds like an origin story worth holding onto. But what does that have to do with me coming up here?”
“Maybe… Because…” Chloe thought out loud. “You didn’t come up here to see the lake freeze over. You wanted to see me. Maybe I feel like I’mthe one who took advantage this time.”
“Of what? Of you!” Chloe nearly erupted. “Your father died. That does things to a guy. Ewan told me stories of what he and my dad got up to when their mom passed; and that was before I was born.”
“No, I mean-” He shook his head. “Howdid you take advantage? I was having a bad time, sure; but so what? It’s not like you had an ulterior motive. It’s not-”
She kissed him suddenly. They were curled up in front of the fire in a nest made of pine boughs and blankets, and she closed six inches between them without a word, merging their lips together enjoyably for long enough that Sam was short of breath when they broke.
“No ulterior motive.” She repeated his words back to him softly, their foreheads still touching. “You sure about that? Because I’m not.”
Sam’s eyes were huge in his head as he stared at her, wondering if that had happened. “Oh.” He said finally. “Um… When?” He caught himself. “No, that’s not important. Chloe, I thought… I mean, the last few weeks; I’ve gotten a better picture of our ongoing ‘my-world’ vs ‘your-world’ debate; and I was finally figuring out why you’d never... I even agreed with you after a while. You invited me up here before all this. Before I… changed.”
“Nothing has changed.” She interrupted quickly. “Change is choice. You did all this because you didn’t have another option. You’ll be back home in another week, eating deep dish pizza in front of your big screen, with chocolate bars hidden in every corner, and your phone glued to your hand.”
Sam froze. “I… I haven’t actually thought about it. I mean, I guess you must be right. But after the first couple of weeks… I don’t remember the name of any shops, I don’t remember which books I have on my living room bookshelf. I mean, you’re not wrong, I was hoping to go back; but that kind of faded away into some mythical future.”
“I know you weren’t suggesting anything serious, last time.” Chloe whispered. “The last two months of your story, weighing up what you’ve got, and what you need to leave behind? That’s my whole life. I don’t have a whole lot of room in my world for casual. More than you’ve had on this hike, but…”
“But that was before. So why did you invite me back?” He asked, tapping a finger against his lips, then hers; as if reminding her about the kiss.
“I don’t know.” She admitted.
“I have no answers for you.” Chloe admitted. “It’s a question I’ve been fighting with myself about since I found your Jeep.”
“Maybe you invited me up here because you wanted an answer to that question?” He asked finally.
“And then you died because I couldn’t answer it by myself!” Chloe hissed, suddenly fed up. “All the things I can do by myself, and this one thing… How selfish could I be?!”
“Chloe, you’re the only person in your world. The fact that on some level you want someone else to be part of it at allis amazing. And me? Truth be told, I never realized how much I didn’tbelong here last summer. Not until recently. But I’ll let you in on a secret that you only learn when you spend time with other people. Wanting them to be in your circle, humoring them when they screw up, deciding that they’re worth more of your time? That’s what other people are all about. Friend, relationship, work colleague, family member. It’s how all human interaction works.”
“Not just human.” She countered. “You must have seen it by now. Wolves never hunt or rest alone. Deer have herds, or at least family groups. Rabbits are never alone in their warrens for long. Ditto the beaver, the birds; even the insects. Everything alive makes room for their pack.” She looked back at the fire. “I never have. I don’t have a pack, Sam.”
“Granted. But your lifestyle means that having anyone around at all is a bigger deal than it would be for most people; and you’re afraid that doing so makes you selfish?”
Chloe said nothing to that for a long while, but his arm was still around her, and her hands had tightened around his wrist. He made no effort to remove them. The fire flickered, and he pulled away just enough to toss a little more fuel onto it, stoking the flame.
Finally, she broke the silence. “You asked me if it was okay, having you here. This isn’t a life you choose if you need human company, Sam. But I have really enjoyed yours. And as awful as it was, thinking you had died; I don’t know how much better it’ll be when we send you home.”
I may not want to go back. The words were on the tip of his tongue but he couldn’t bring himself to say them out loud.
Heavy silence. Chloe moved away from him finally, as the fire flickered. “Storm’s easing up.” She said quietly, and unrolled her bedroll, drawing it across the last of the boughs he used for bedding. “But I’m good staying here till morning if you are.”
Staying in the shelter meant staying together. Unlike the cabin, there wasn’t room for a guest to sleep elsewhere. They’d doubled up before, but that was when finding each other alive felt like a fleeting dream. Staying in the shelter when they could leave at any time was a very different choice. Sam knew it, which meant Chloe knew it too. He unrolled his own bedroll and lay it alongside hers. “So. We’re part of the same pack, now?”
“Are we?” Chloe asked neutrally as she stretched out.
He lay alongside her. In the movies, this is the part where we’d fall into each other’s arms, kiss passionately, profess undying love...
Instead, he stretched out without a word. She put an arm around him automatically, making room in the tight, one-person space.
The storm came back around sunset. They hadn’t moved, hadn’t spoken, warming each other against the air growing cold.
I didn’t dream of a memory last night. I dreamed about the Beavers. In my dream, I was the beaver. I was in the dam, holed up in a little den. The other Beaver was there, curled up with me. We were warm and safe, and in our own place. We’d made it for ourselves. I could hear the Cougar raging outside, howling, hissing; but neither of us so much as stir. We’ve never been so safe.
“You’re smiling.” Chloe murmured, waking up.
Sam put his journal away. “Nice dream.”
“What time is it?”
“Late morning. Storm broke around dawn.” Sam reported. “Closer to afternoon now, in fact. You really crashed.”
“I did.” She yawned. “I’m usually awake with the dawn. Must have needed it.” She looked around again. “This is a nice little house you built, Sam. If I could walk around a little more, I’d consider it a holiday home.”
“If you ever decide to camp long term on this side of the lake, you’re welcome to use it.” Sam offered. “Next time I come back, I might too.”
“We’ll have to schedule it for Spring.” She sat up, stretching. “You deserve to see the Valley wake up.”
As if to answer her, they suddenly heard an engine. One that Chloe recognized instantly. “My plane!” She blurted. “Uncle Ewan!”
They were suddenly both scrambling for the exit, as fast as they could go. They clambered outside just in time to see the plane pass over them. They both danced out over the snow awkwardly, in time to see Chloe’s seaplane dip, turning around over the lake to come in for a landing on the ice. It was flying low, and slow enough that they could see the pilot, waving down at them.
They waved back, eager enough to miss the truth. He wasn’t waving hello. He was trying to warn them.
Sam noticed first. He didn’t hear anything, exactly; but the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He froze in place, and his head cocked. In a flash of insight, he recognized his own pose. It was a prey response; the same thing the rabbits did when instinct warned that a predator was close by. “Chloe, LOOK OUT!” He shouted, even before he turned around.
The Cougar was there, already in a pounce. Sam threw his arms up defensively, but The Cat wasn’t lunging for Sam, flying straight past him.
It was after Chloe.
The Cougar hit Chloe hard, sending her against the ice and snow. Sam lunged at the Cougar in the same instant, unarmed; with no idea of what he’d do, but he lunged anyway, punching at the Cougar’s face and eye.
The Cougar deigned to swing a paw at Sam, and he was hardly able to duck out of the way; batted aside like a baby mouse. It was time enough for Chloe to come up with her survival knife, never far from her hand. She swung out with the knife in Sam’s defense, even from the ground; and nailed the Cat right in the paw. The Cat hissed and darted back.
Sam had been knocked away, but didn’t try to get back in the fight. His fingernails were nothing to the Demon Cat. Instead, he ran to the shelter, where Chloe’s rifle was waiting. There was a fire burning in his arm; and he knew he’d been hurt; but he’d been moving fast while hurting for weeks now. The ice was slippery, but he’d been moving on ice for just as long; and was able to almost sprint; even without traction; even with the pain.
It was more like dancing than running, gripping with his toes, keeping his steps light; like the deer did. He heard Chloe shout a warning but didn’t turn back; pouring everything he had into the last sprint.
The Cougar had knocked Chloe down, and had gotten a blade across his paw. It was enough to drive the Cat back a step. Chloe had fumbled, trying to wave the knife, and stand up on the ice in her snowshoes at the same time; which was slow and awkward. Even on three good legs, the Cougar was faster, and had decided to go for the retreating human before he got too far away; loping after Sam.
Sam reached the shelter and drew Chloe’s rifle from within. The world dropped into slow-motion in a way that it hadn’t done before. He was spinning to face the Cat, and doing it in such slow motion that he felt like he was moving underwater. But instead of feeling slow, he felt aware of everything. He felt like he could feel every speck of snow as it touched on him; he could see the Cougar from the corner of his eye, and he was already calculating what would come next.
There was a half-heartbeat when they made eye contact with each other. The Cougar wasn’t in the best way either. One paw was hovering off the ice, there was dried blood on his foreleg, where Sam had stuck him the last time they’d clashed. Sam was very aware of the thin marks on his neck where the Cougar had nearly finished him last time.
It was like an out of body experience as the rifle swung around. Sam had never fired Chloe’s rifle before, but knew that if he missed with the first shot, he’d never reach the bolt-action to try again.
And then the Cougar leaped, and the tan fur and scarred face was suddenly replaced with a streak of color moving so fast there was no shape to it. The world fell out of slow-motion suddenly, and Sam moved; falling back against the wall he himself had constructed for protection; no time to aim, or even consider. The rifle shifted up and Sam squeezed the trigger. The blood was roaring in his ears so loud that he never heard the shot; and for a split second, he wondered if it misfired.
The Cougar stopped dead, as though it had run into a brick wall.
And it was over.
The Cougar stumbled away from Sam, back out towards Chloe on the lake, but his legs didn’t work right. Those huge, snowshoe paws were flopping, unable to find their footing. The Cat was weaving, as if drugged; like he could only work two of his legs at once. His one good eye was scanning around, wide with panic… and finally, resignation. The large tawny body fell against the ice, making pained, groaning mewls.
Sam didn’t chase after the Cougar, going instead to Chloe. The whole confrontation had happened so fast she hadn’t had time to stand up again after being knocked down. Chloe rose, weaving a little on her feet. Sam was at her side quickly, half-carrying her as she collected her knife. “Gotta end it.” She hissed painfully. “He’s suffering.”
Sam suddenly realized he agreed. The Cougar had given him a few scars and a lot of nightmares… and yet he didn’t want the animal to suffer. It seemed out of character, given what he’d been through, but it also seemed right.
Chloe’s limp faded a bit as he walked her over to the Cougar, and she went down on one knee with her knife. She rested one hand on the heaving flanks, and finished the job, quickly and painlessly.
Sam was breathing hard, almost unable to believe it. The Cat was dead. It had been his own personal monster since he’d been swept off the bridge; and now it was dead. It had only been two months, but part of him felt like the Cat was immortal, always hunting him. And it was suddenly over.
Chloe was actually looking sadly at the animal, crouching beside it. “On my first hunt; I was a kid. I went with my dad.” She said, carrying out her little ritual of confession, as she always did after making a kill. “He had a guide take him out into the woods by helicopter. The blinds were built; and animals brought to the territory near the resort; released for the guests. My dad decided that we would stay in the chopper; because it was snowing.”
Sam winced at the thought, and looked back to the lake, where the plane had landed. A figure was hurrying their way. He waved, automatically.
Chloe was still with the Cougar. “I don’t know why you were so determined, but I vowed never to treat an animal, even a predator, the way my father did. This is honest… And I promise it won’t be a waste.”
Ewan came running up to them. “So, Sam.” He said lightly. “How are you enjoying your visit so far?”
Sam couldn’t stop staring at Ewan. He was a newperson. He’d been expecting Chloe, but Ewan was someone else. Someone new. Part of Sam had never expected to see ‘new’ people again. It felt a little like meeting an extraterrestrial. Chloe had taken the Cougar off the ice, promising to catch up with them soon.
“Deep enough that they need stitches. It might have gotten the muscle; but no major arteries.” Ewan reported as he gave Sam another round of first aid. “That Cougar wasn’t playing around. What’d you do to offend that thing so much?”
Sam was swigging from a bottle of Chloe’s homebrew to ease the pain a bit. “I don’t know, but I would have been happy to apologize if he’d agreed to stop slashing me.” He grunted. “How bad?”
“Going to leave a beauty of a scar. Four of them, in fact.” Ewan reported. “How many guys in your neighborhood can say they killed a Cougar in a straight up fight for survival?”
“Not many.” Sam admitted. “But to be fair, I don’t think I won. He was distracted by Chloe, and I had a rifle. That Cat’s been toying with me for weeks.” He looked over his shoulder and hissed at the rubbing alcohol Ewan applied. “Chloe always says there’s no cruelty in nature, but I’d swear that one was enjoying it. And for all that, it was everything else that nearly got me killed most often.”
“Seriously, though. Cougar are solitary predators, and they’re very skittish around man. They’re more likely to run if there’s more than one human. Why’d it press the attack?”
“Not to anthropomorphize, but I think he was gunning for me.” Sam winced again as Ewan wound the bandages. “I’m betting that Cougar has a story of his own.”
The door opened, and Chloe came in. “I’m betting you’re right about that.” She reported, clearly having overheard. “Here’s something that might help you find out what it is.” She tossed something small in Ewan’s direction.
The Ranger caught it. “The Cougar was microchipped?”
“Wherever it came from, we weren’t his first contact with humans.” Chloe nodded as she came over and took the bottle from Sam, draining the rest of it herself. “Next time you’re in civilization, you can look it up.”
“Well, it sounds like you did amazingly well in a critical situation.” Ewan summed up now that the story was over.
Chloe grinned. “I think Sam was starting to enjoy himself, once he found his footing. You should see the ‘house’ he made for himself, Ewan. It’s impressive.”
“Hate to say it, but I wasstarting to like it.” Sam nodded. “The one thing I couldn’t handle by myself was telling Liz I was alive. I wasn’t even sure she knew I was missing.”
“She did not.” Ewan reported, filling in the blanks on that one. “I reached your sister on Day One, and told her the plans had changed. Day three, she called me back from Europe; because there was no answer at your house. I asked if she wanted me to call rescue, since she was Next of Kin, and she was convinced that you’d probably decided to stay until I returned with the plane. Since your phone never came back ‘into range’ even once, it seemed the simplest answer.” He turned to Chloe. “When I lost contact with the valley; I assumed he must have made it in. I know, I should have brought the plane back sooner; but I had appointments I couldn’t get out of.”
“The problem was a backup failure.” Sam said simply. “I didn’t turn back, so Ewan assumed I made it safely. I didn’t arrive, so Chloe assumed I turned back; and the radio at the Station being offline meant you couldn’t double-check with each other.” He shrugged. “I’m alive. There’s only so many reasons to complain.”
Chloe’s eyes were glued to her Uncle. “You had ‘appointments’ that you ‘couldn’t get out of’.” She repeated, knowing what that meant.
Ewan sighed. “The ‘Intervention’ with the National Park Service, and the Department of the Interior? Only partially successful. They’ve decided to downgrade my role. This far from civilization, this far from people? I am not a high priority. But when they find out the Station is gone…” He looked sadly out the windows.
Sam saw it in his face. He loved the woods as much as Chloe; and it looked like he wasn’t going to be allowed to stay.
Chloe checked the stitching on Sam’s shoulder. “That’s for tomorrow. For now, we gotta get you home, Townie. Or at least to a doctor. Not to suggest that Ewan can’t handle First Aid, but I’d still feel better if you got that foot checked out. Plus, you’ve gotten mauled by a Big Cat. You probably need some shots.”
Sam fought for an easy-going smile. “Chloe, what is the point of living if you can’t look your kids in the eye and say ‘In my day, we fought wild cougars’ and then show them the scars to prove it?”
Chloe swatted him. “This is serious, Sam. You and I went head to head with a Cougar today. For you, it’s not even the first time.”
“Hopefully the last.” Sam yawned. “But you’re right. I should check in with my sister. Will the radio in your plane reach civilization if it’s on the ground?”
“No. But we won’t be on the ground.” She told him promptly. “Let me douse the fire and put some things away: I’m taking you both back right now.”
“Now? Both of us?” Sam was surprised.
“She’s right. I can’t stay. The Station is gone.” Ewan said with a regretful sigh. “I have to report it immediately… And wait for their ‘revised assessment’ about my posting here.”
“And if Ewan takes you himself, I’m left without the plane again.” Chloe added, her eyes flicking to her Uncle. She could have said it, but they knew already. With the Station gone, her uncle wouldn’t be back, and the plane would be her only option if something went wrong in the Valley.
The sun was setting when they boarded the plane. Sam looked out the window as they took off. It was a strangely emotional moment. Chloe lifted off and it took less than thirty seconds of gaining altitude before he saw it all. He could see the walls of the Valley. He could see the wreck of the Station. He could see the entire lake. All of it was lit up with incredible gold and red as the sunset seemed to burn the whole sky from horizon to horizon.
Months of effort, hiking, hunting; and skin-of-his-teeth survival, and it was all condensed into an area that he could cover with his hand against the window. “It’s all… so much smaller.”
Chloe looked over her shoulder at him, smiling. “You should sleep. I know you didn’t last night. When you wake up, you’ll be able to call Liz.”
Sam smiled a bit, lay a hand protectively over the deerskin blanket, and rested his head against the glass…
...He woke up to Ewan shaking him. “C’mon, Sam. We got you an ambulance.”
Sam sat up. It was dark. The plane had flown all the way and landed without waking him. Sam could see buildings, and people... “Ohh, I crashed.” He moaned as he sat up. His foot was throbbing badly again, as was his shoulder. There was an ambulance nearby, and two EMTs waiting with a wheelchair. The wind was still harsh and icy, but Sam could see the warmth awaiting him.
Chloe was there, helping him out of the plane. “Shock. Your body shut down for repairs. Plus, it’s the first time in weeks you’ve been able to sleep like a person who’s not surrounded by predators.” She told him with a smile… except she looked sad.
Sam met her gaze as he limped over to the wheelchair. “You’re not coming with us, are you?”
Chloe shook her head.
Ewan gave her a hard look as Sam waved the wheelchair away and the EMT’s helped him climb into the back of their ambulance. “You should stay, Chlo’.” The Ranger told his niece. “There’ll be questions. And… With the Station gone, and the Pass snowed in… You could wait out the winter.”
Chloe smiled a bit. “No. I can’t. And Sam already understands why.” She turned to him. “Say hi to Liz for me.”
“Chloe…” Sam whispered. “There’s… There’s just so much to say, and I don’t know how to-”
Chloe leaned in and pressed her cheek warmly against his for a long moment, before she kissed the corner of his mouth. “You’re home, Townie.” She promised him gently. “You did it. You won.”
He held her in place before she could draw away, resting their foreheads together for a long moment. “Did I?”
Chloe pulled free of him gently and stepped back in the direction of her plane, but her eyes stayed on his until the ambulance doors closed between them.
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