Her gnarled finger caresses the rim of her cup. A hack and a breath, a hack and a breath and a hack and a breath and a wheeze. Fever and Flu and Fuss. Scrape forward, squeak back, scrape and squeak and scrape, rocking to the dancing hazy firelight, whispers and moans of the gale needling the fabric of her musings. Clutching her shawl tightly, she shifted nearer the warm glow from the embers in the airtight stove. Two fat candles gutter in expectation on the scarred wooden sideboard. Power is dicey. The electric lamp flickers.
The flame in her heart flickers too, a feverish reflection of deeds haunting her thoughts. A few years back, there had been Carly, and her tortured nasty-fat, nasty-me, nasty-you mania. Just managed to take care of that in the nick of time, to arrest the corrosive words before they devoured the girl's marriage. The broccoli had looked so inviting, and the oranges were sublime, and the yogurt was positively seductive in the diet that "wasn't possible," a careful script of culinary encounter after culinary encounter, down to the last stalk of celery and the final kiwi. Smiles at the checkout and bathroom scale readings included gratis.
And Ben, ah yes, what a challenge Ben had been. The incarceration decisions had all been real eye-poppers, a vigorous shaking of the family tree. Fruit spewed everywhere, into the far corners of the universe, its remoteness an improvement on the hellish proximity that had consistently sucked Ben into its vortex. That web contorting his heart in an eternal tug-of-war torn asunder, the boy was freed courtesy of a little well-placed zeal. And every one of the nut-cases was a 30-hour Greyhound ride away. What a beaut.
Little Spunky had been a special case, too. Most wouldn't have bothered with a cat. But Emily Sue had been so earnest, and adamant, and believing. How could she resist trying? The hardest part had been imagining oneself ten inches tall, ravenous, panicky, disoriented, and sure prey. The risk factor had gotten all screwed up though. She hadn't calculated that cats could be so steadfastly stubborn, positively suggestion-resistant. Independent little bull-headed cuss, he had balked, and made excuses, and nearly backed out...well, in the end he scraped through, benefitting from many rewrites. Strangely, he had been one of the more grateful.
Then Bill's fractured neck had been a horrific responsibility on its own. So much medical terminology and technique and procedure to sift through. And she had wanted to stop and look, really look, at the operating theater longer, but the deadline had absolutely prevented further learning. So sad that stellar opportunity had to be sacrificed. Bill had squeaked out of it, in spite of the unmentionable, undocumented, and positively litigious degree of ineptitude in the assisting physician. But potential complaints were insupportable. There was simply no proof.
And now, she was waiting for the phone call that would tell her about little Amy. Barely eight, her height, weight and current wardrobe now a matter of public record with the authorities whose squads were scouring the darkened mad forest for her and her rambunctious puppy, Buttons. In this wind. In this rain. In a deluge of hopes and prayers. One burp from the phone and she would have to...
A muted ring. "Grandma, you know my girlfriend's little sister, Amy Jeanette?" Stephanie's subdued sniffs were ripened clues hanging by clusters on the vines of the tale. "Grandma, well, they haven't found her yet. And she's only eight, and her puppy Buttons is gone too, and well, Grandma, I'm scared. Mama said I better call you and tell you. She said things always work out better when you know. Can you pray, Grandma? Or whatever it is you do? Please?"
"Sure, sure, Stephie. Now don't you worry. I'll be doing everything I can from this end. Don't you worry now, probably by tomorrow everything will have worked out. You just stay real quiet with your Mama now, and call me again in the morning. Hear?"
"Okay, Grandma, it's just so awful to be lost in this weather. Or whatever happened to Amy. Oh Grandma, if she is still...if she is still.... Grandma, I'm just so afraid."
"You just don't worry now, I'm sure it will all work itself out. You call me, hear?"
"Okay Grandma. I will. Soon's we know anything."
She arose and settled before her computer screen. Her eyes shutting in the vision, she was in the dark, cold out there. Now if she could just figure out what part of out there she was in. Behind her closed eyes a faintly-colored, sketchily-labeled topography map appeared. Oh really? In there? Where she had been herself, hiking one summer fifteen years before? Her fingers massaged the computer keys:__________________________
"Are you sure this is the right road?" Plum fussed for the tenth time.
"My dear, dear partner, chill out. We are exactly where we should be." Mark shot the clipped words across the cruiser.
There were two of them, riding out the bumps, plastered left and right of the four large coffees in the front seat. When you counted the sniffer dog (who also liked donuts), that was two males and one female to share the assorted dozen wedged into the Tim Horton's box on the back seat. Addiction and forethought had carefully chosen necessary sustenance for the long night ahead. The cruiser slid to a stop on the muddy slope, the overhead cabin light bright. The others in the cruiser following a few miles back would stay at the base of the mountain while Mark and Plum climbed the trail, looking.
"Darn," Plum muttered, "it's Lemon and Medina on our tail. Wave goodbye to all of the long-johns." Then she griped as she slurped, "These pants were getting kinda stuffed anyway."
Mark grunted, managing to inhale both a long-john and a precious confetti-topped wonder, in back-to-back mouthfuls, then "Better get rigged up and outa here. Not gettin' closer to a discovery of any kind warmin' our backsides."
Jet, outfitted with a reflective vest and collar, managed to wolf down an old-fashioned and Plum kissed the box, popping it into the recesses of the trunk. The progress report from two miles back had hinted at a caffeine-dry and foodless cruiser. Medina's excuse had been too little time to arrange a drive-through donut and java grab. What a crying shame. She slammed the trunk.__________________________
The keys fell silent and she picked two oranges from the bowl on the counter. These food stories did it every time. She just had to eat something. Taking out a muffin tin, she slapped it down behind her computer. Spitting distance for the seeds. She numbered the cups. Number 7 would be perfection. Might as well make the experience count for something. Pt-t-t-tooey, and the ejected seed spiraled noisily to the bottom of....Number 6. Well phooey. Fell short. Not a good sign. Needed to be more careful next time. Shoot, these tangelos had a lot of seeds. Spit and type, note the proportion of sevens, spit and type and spit.__________________________
They hiked, breathless and sweating in the mist and driving rain, hugging the side of the slope. The dog was a little scared by all the wild smells, hanging back towards Plum's leash hand. As the trees creaked in the wind, they could barely hear the frantic scuffle of small animals escaping the dim rays of artificial light from their headlamps and flashlights. They carried bear spray, but prayed not to need it. They had side-arms, but no rifle.__________________________
They had no rifle? In bear and cougar country? She nearly choked on an orange seed when she read what she had typed. Try to delete the sentence. Couldn't seem to get it out of there. Kept coming back, in different words. And the delete key had gone flaky again. This was what happened when she missed the provisioning phase. How unwise not to have helped them through packing the car. Now she was stuck with their decisions about equipment. She cradled her head in her hands, wondering whether to continue. She could not be responsible for fools on such an escapade. But the little girl was in the dark and the cold somewhere. Possibly where these two were headed. Keep going, and pray a bear or cougar doesn't inject itself into the narrative. Keep on, for the little girl.__________________________
They had gained about three hundred feet of elevation when Plum began to feel uncomfortable. "Mark, I have to use the facilities. It's that super-strength coffee, you know. Would you just go up the trail about twenty feet or so and turn your back?"
He snorted. "Yeah, I guess. Equal rights, women on the force, hey, no problem, all that." He took Jet's leash and moved away.
She turned to set down her pack and slid off the packed trail, stepping onto the softer forest floor. "Oh rats," she squealed, slipping on a mossy log, "I just wrenched my ankle. It's so slick here."
From inside his poncho, he extended a hand to steady her back onto the trail, but Jet pulled him the other way. Something went "pop," skittered through the bushes downslope, and Mark yelped, "Great, now our walkie talkie's gone."__________________________
She was forced to quit typing again. Served him right for criticizing a woman, she thought. Where did they get these two, anyway? Flaky delete key couldn't take care of it. She sat back from the screen. Maybe she should just leave them to find their own way back without the girl. Why weren't quality people available anymore? It seemed the only scripting choice left was between moderately or maximally dysfunctional. Stop the crabbing, she chided herself, and for little Amy Jeanette's sake, keep on.__________________________
Mark had carefully pulled Plum back on the trail, keeping Jet's lead.
Plum muttered, "Seems to be a slight sprain. I can put most of my weight on it. How much farther, Mark?"
"We're about two-thirds of the way there, now. Have to keep going. I should have held on to that walkie talkie better. Just flipped right out of my pack on me."
"And your cell?" she whispered hopefully.
He rearranged his dripping parka, and extracted his cell phone. "Dead. Out of range, Plum. Remember, Medina warned me it would be, here. Too many mountains."
At the bottom of the slope, the other cruiser's occupants, Lemon and Medina, joined by another carload of searchers, had set up a crude base camp. Their first and most telling action had been to throw lots for the four coffees and six donuts. Their cell phones and walkie talkies lay silent.__________________________
Hungry again, and not enough seeds in cup Number 7. Hey, a hook shot to the far wastebasket with the peel was all net. How encouraging. But a second peel landed offside, smack in the cat's water dish. Yes, the elements were arrayed against her. The computer screen had flickered three times in the last five minutes, as the storm gained fury. Through her haze of fever, she wondered what would happen if she couldn't finish? The rain water tank attached to the roof creaked. They had shimmed it up last summer so it wouldn't slop so badly, but in this wind, if she lost even one shingle, there would be leaks fast. She typed faster. Hurry.__________________________
Mark and Plum had reached the darkened cabin off the trail, now. The rain and bitter wind had turned to freezing sleet. The sturdy cabin door was padlocked, so they shone their lights through the grimy window. Jet had been unable to find scent at the trail base, but she whimpered now on the covered porch, when she sniffed Amy Jeanette's coat they had brought.
"Amy, Amy, are you there? We are here to help you. Is anybody in there? Amy don't be afraid." Plum called.
Silence. But Amy had been here. Somewhere. Outside. They went around back, under the fir trees thrashing in the wind. Ah, there was a sizable hole chewed in the shakes that sided the cabin. Animal damage. Just about the right size for a child to crawl through. Mark took out his axe and began to remove more shakes. Jet seemed satisfied.__________________________
She stopped typing, sweating with exertion. Always felt this way at this point. Close to the action, but drained. Flu was an extra burden. Her head sank into her arms. No, no, no sleep. Not now. Must keep on for Amy. Especially considering the mistakes these two had made so far. Might not make it otherwise. She smelled the fir trees, and wet dog. When things turned olfactory, the end was close. Hurry, hurry. Had to get rid of the smell of wet dog.__________________________
They were inside the tiny cabin, now, huddled over the still bundle in the corner.
"Amy? Wake up sweetheart." Plum stroked her face. Breathing, but unconscious or deeply asleep.
Above Amy's head was an open hole in the low ceiling. The hole led to the loft. Beside her was a ladder with a broken rung. In the loft, an animal scratched and whimpered. They jumped when Jet barked. One dog greeting another. Mark was just tall enough to place a dog biscuit on the floor of the loft near the hole. A small puppy mouth appeared and devoured the biscuit. Buttons whimpered. Mark repeated the treat and grabbing the puppy, stuffed him in his backpack carrier. Plum who was a nurse, was checking over Amy, who seemed to be reviving slowly.__________________________
The electricity dipped and recovered, dipped and recovered. Should she download this much and let Plum and Mark figure the rest out themselves? Must finish. She often felt symptoms of diagnostic empathy at this stage. Her back and neck felt fine. Now, they thought ahead to bring a pack to carry the dog. What have they brought to carry the girl? She looks closer at Mark's face. Must be First Nations descent. Good.__________________________
"Don't think she's hurt her neck or back, but be careful," Plum cautions Mark as he straps Amy to the special folding travois he brought to carry her out.
"I'll lead. Let me know if you see her moving, trying to sit up, anything else wrong," Mark puffs.
"Will do," Plum murmurs as she feeds Jet the last dog treat and swings the puppy pack up under her rain poncho. Jet whines to go, and to the sound of puppy snores, she falls into a steady limp behind the travois.
Mark gauges their pace and then shouts back over his shoulder, "Got a good two hours ahead of us at this pace."
Dark. Wet. Fog. Limp and scrape and dog whine. Their lights bobbing halos fluorescing the freezing sleet, a jerking tiredness driving them forward, they bow to the task.__________________________
Her head sinks into her arms. Fever and coughing overtake her. The smell of donuts and coffee revives her. Must finish.__________________________
A cheer erupts at the base camp as faint traces of dawn ruby the sky. The little party is in sight. Amy is finally conscious, her mother and father ecstatic. Mark lowers the puppy carrier into the waiting arms of Amy's older sister. The puppy was fast asleep. He had pooped.
"Hey Plum," calls a seductive voice from behind a waiting cruiser, "you want a long-john with sprinks on it, and some java? Somebody left you a little present in the car trunk over there."
"Let me tell you Medina," Plum fumes, balanced on her one good leg, her hand on the cruiser trunk, anticipating the empty donut box inside, "tonight has been like a bad script. I sure hope this is good news." She lifted it, and her mouth dropped open. "How many? Where? Who?"
"Special delivery minutes ago for you Plum baby, donation of 20 dozen assorted, iced, long johns, and a couple of gallons of Java, too."
Even someone with a bum ankle can boogie, at times.__________________________
Typos showing up. And what was this snotty stuff about a bad script, anyway? The puppy wasn't supposed to poop, he "was pooped", as in tired out. And what was the zero doing after the two for the donuts? Not twenty dozen for Pete's sake, two dozen. Delete not working. Insert not working. Typeover not working. Can't get the typos cleaned up. Hit the save key, and publish it to the web site. Then clean up the typos and republish it. Seems to be working alright now. The lights blink hard and long again as she drags to upload the revisions. Won't know anything till morning. She collapses onto her bed, fatigued by flu and fever as the lights flicker and die out.
The rude blare of the phone awakens her. Barely dawn. Either terribly good or terribly bad news. A fumble with the receiver, a neat save over the denture cup and a fast yank over the comatose cat.
"Grandma, you'll never guess."
"Oh Thtephie, you thound exthited."
"They found Amy, and she's all right, and Grandma, it was really funny. The puppy messed in his carrier, and the ambulance guys had to clean him up, and then there was some donut place that sent twenty dozen donuts 'cause they got mixed up and thought there was tons of people there. Grandma, can you hear me?"
"Grandma, are your teeth in?"
"They weren't a minute ago. It is five in the morning, you know. I'm so glad they found her. Did you get some of the donuts?"
"Yeah, Grandma, they were real good, all iced, and there was this lady cop and the ambulance had to take her away too, cause her ankle got all swollen cause it was sprained and then she got so excited when she saw the donuts, she just started dancing."
She replaces the phone and counts the number of seeds in the Number 7 cup. Three. And Numbers 6 and 8 both have six seeds. Her live and learn always skewed way too much to the live side. In Plum's words, a bad script, but if she hadn't bothered at all?__________________________
Years pass, and the headstone rests on the verdant green, beside the dispersing crowd. The several hundred souls present murmur tales that drape and swirl and twist, drawn together by a common thread. Once the obituary she had written for herself was discovered, it led to the web site with its two hundred and fifty passworded stories, proven to exist by upload time-stamp before they were lived out. Many of those who had lived the stories had come to pay their last respects, since they were apparently all heirs.
One young woman stooping to read the words on the stone whispers to another "Stephie did you ever know? I mean, did she say anything?"
"No, Amy. We just knew that if you told her, then things would work out."
Her manicured finger caresses the graven words:
Copyright 2005-2021 Sally Jennings
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