Friday June 22, 2012
Crouching at the fire pit, Will waited for the water to boil for tea as he stared into the heart of the coals, mind racing. His head hurt. He felt like both hemispheres of his brain were battling, each competing for control: one side running a continuous loop of Eva’s words, her stricken face, her screams, while the other flashed random information bytes stored in his memory about the fateful expedition.
Eventually the lawsuit had come to nothing, though by the time the case was thrown out of court, the ordeal had taken its toll. He remembered the cover on a magazine he’d seen at a kiosk in some airport he was passing through: A pale face, sorrow-etched, hair pulled tight at the base of a slender neck, head just turning away from the intrusion of the camera, though not quick enough to hide the tear slipping down the woman’s cheek. Will recognized the pain—he’d seen its like in his mirror for years—and had wanted to punch his fist into the photographer’s face for exposing her anguish, allowing the ghouls to pick at her like carrion birds.
Rubbing a hand over the back of his neck, he questioned the kismet in bringing that very woman into his orbit. When he heard a slight rustle as Eva came out of the tent, he looked over his shoulder. “The tea is almost ready. If you want to stay there, I’ll bring it to you.”
“No, I’d rather be out here.” Sitting down next to her gear, she folded her legs, then glanced up at Will. “I’m sorry about the...screaming. I haven’t had a nightmare that bad in a long time.”
“Don’t,” he said, briefly pressing a finger against her lips. “You have nothing to be sorry about.” Fixing the tea, he murmured, “I remember most of the details about the climb, but...” he hesitated. Was it any of his business? Should he back off, give her a break, resist his need to know, to understand who she was?
“But...what?” Waiting for him to explain, Eva sorted through the leaf packets, pulling one out of the stack and handing it to him. “A very little will sweeten the tea.”
Carefully opening the small packet, Will took a pinch of the reddish powder, sprinkled it into her cup, and handing it to her, said, “I’m wondering why you think you were responsible for Nick’s death? You didn’t kill him, Eva. It wasn’t your fault. I don’t get why you think it was.”
Eva held the cup in both hands, warming her cold fingers. “I was the one who let those two guys in the group. Nick liked to climb with just a few people, but they offered an exorbitant amount of money, determined to be included, and I gave in.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. “For money,” she grated, “the whole nightmare, everything that happened, goes back to that. The money.”
Clearing her throat, she took another sip of tea. “But even worse,” she said, “was after those bastards took off, and Nick refused to wait for the rescue team. I was really upset; at myself, at those assholes, but also at Nick. I told him he had to wait, it was too dangerous for him to go alone, but he wouldn’t listen. No, not Nick. He had to do it his way.” Eva’s voice trembled. “The last thing I said to him—I was so angry—was ‘go ahead, get yourself killed, see if I care.’”
“Oh, Eva.” Will leaned toward her, rubbing his hand on her arm. “If they'd been decent guys, things would have turned out fine, and your decision about the money, or adding two extra climbers to the group, wouldn’t have mattered at all.” He sighed. “And believe me, I know we all say things we regret. Nick had to know you didn’t mean it.”
Her words, dismissive and bitter, growled out of her throat. “But I said it. And he died.” Roughly, she brushed his hand off her arm. “Don’t you get it, Will? The fact is, they weren’t decent guys. If I hadn’t let them climb, none of it would have happened. There’s no way for a different outcome here. I made the wrong decision—I did, just me—and it changed everything.”
“Come on, Eva, you have to know the fault, the blame, was theirs. You might have made the initial decision, but they caused the tragedy by their actions, their arrogance and stupidity. You must see that.”
When she said nothing, Will huffed out a frustrated breath. But after slowly drinking his tea, relaxing for a few minutes, listening to the soft crackle of the fire, he quietly said, “If you’re still speaking to me, there is one more thing I’ve wondered about.” He waited patiently until she met his eyes, and at her slight nod, he asked, “Where did you go? After everything was over, it was like you just vanished.”
Blowing in her cup to cool the tea, Eva took a tiny sip before replying. “I had a place in Chicago, a condo, that was mine before I even met Nick. I sold everything in Anchorage, the house, the car, everything. The business was already gone by then, so once I was free and clear…” Eva shrugged. “I bought a ticket on the first plane out of Alaska.”
Will settled next to her with his tea. “But what have you been doing for the past…” He cocked his head, brow furrowed as he counted back in his mind. “Five years?”
“Nothing,” she said, “unless hiding is considered doing something.” She stared into her cup for a moment. “I felt better if I stayed out of sight, behind locked doors, no one hounding, questioning, following.” She shrugged. “I didn’t mind it, really, being alone. In the beginning, it was enough that I could get out of bed, read a book, prepare a meal. Eventually things got easier and I was doing okay. But for some reason, this past year it was different. I could feel myself sinking, drowning, in the memories, the silence. I knew things had to change before I got too lost to find my way back. Then, in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm, I saw a program on television about Australia.” For a brief moment, her eyes lit up. “I knew I had to go. Somehow I knew it was right, and I had to go. I left Chicago a few days later.”
“Wait. Back up. You became a recluse, in your condo...for five years?”
“I told you, when I left Alaska, I didn’t care what happened. I’d lost it all, everything I loved was gone--Nick, the business, climbing--and I just didn’t give a damn anymore. There was--” She stopped, narrowed her eyes. “You’re a fine one to talk!”
Will blinked. “Meaning?”
“Ten years? You flit around the globe for a decade, like some kind of aimless butterfly, and you think I’m weird?”
Abruptly he set down his cup, got to his feet and stalked to the mouth of the cave, standing just inside the opening. Oblivious to the cold air that eddied around him, he tried--and failed--to fight the inexorable tide of his memories. When Eva gently touched his arm, he started, his mind leagues, years, a lifetime removed from where he stood, too deep in his thoughts to realize she’d come to him.
“Will.” A whisper. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that, especially not knowing your story.” When he didn’t answer, or turn to look at her, Eva stepped in front of him, the gusting wind shifting the two long braids that hung between her shoulder blades. Looking down at her, he slowly reached out, pulling them forward, their texture like velvet between his fingers as he slid his hands down the lengths of plaited hair. When he got to the tips, he gently tugged, bringing her into his arms. Resting his chin on the top of her head, he continued to stare silently out into the night.
Eva’s cheek pressed over Will’s heart, the steady, comforting beat as solid as his arms, now wrapped tight around her. It occurred to her that she hadn’t been held like this in a very long time; the thought brought an unexpected, painful sting to her eyes.
Will let out a breath, then quietly said, “I wasn’t flitting around the globe.” Eva tried to pull back, wanting to see his face, but he smoothly moved a hand up to keep her head against his chest. “I wasn’t flitting,” he said again. Pausing, wondering at this sudden compulsion he felt to tell her everything, to trust her with secrets no one else knew. “I was running. As far and as fast as I could. But no matter what I do, or how many years I’ve spent searching for absolution, trying to atone, doing my penance with every step, every breath, when I think surely I've done enough, still they always find me.”
“Who?” Eva breathed. “Who always finds you, Will?”
Gently he turned her away from him so they were both facing out into the darkness. He put his hands on her shoulders, then lowered his head, whispering his words, bleak, harsh, incongruous with the soft caress of his breath on her neck, the feather-light brush of his lips on her ear. “Pain. Remorse. Regret. My constant companions.”
Straightening, easing back slightly, Will said softly, "A long time ago, in college, I met a girl, we fell in love. A few years after we graduated, I was offered a very good job on the West Coast. I was eager to go, she wasn’t. Her life, all that mattered to her, was in Boston, not California where I saw my future. I broke things off with her, took the job and left town without once looking back.”
Eva could feel the movement as he shook his head, hear the self-disgust in his voice.
“A few months later, I got a call from her best friend. She told me to call Sara—that was her name. Sara. I was busy with the new job, starting a new life, I wasn’t interested in the past. Then, another month, another call. I told her to leave me alone, Sara and I were done, we’d moved on. I hung up on her.”
He bent his head again, hushed words drifted warm across her cheek. “I was selfish, rude, acted like such a jerk. I could have—should have—behaved differently, been a better man. Christ, I owed Sara kindness, not cruelty, if for no other reason than we had once loved each other.” He ran a restless hand through his long, dark hair, then stepped past her to stand in the frigid wind, head back, staring up into the night sky.
After a few deep breaths, Will took Eva’s hand and drew her back into the warmth of the cave. Replenishing the fire, he sat next to her, one hand resting on her thigh as if to anchor himself. “The last call came about six weeks later. Sara’s friend told me to get my head out of my ass, and come back to Boston to deal with things. Before I could get a word in, ask her what the hell she was talking about, the line went dead.
“Now I was worried, confused. Something was obviously wrong, really wrong. I called our old house, expecting Sara to answer, but the phone had been disconnected.” Will sighed, weary. “I spent two days calling everyone I could think of. All I got for my efforts was an earful of grief about what a loser I was, and phones slammed in my ear more times than I care to admit. In the end, I really didn’t have a choice. I asked for time off work and flew back to Boston.”