Parts 1-23 are here. Thank you for reading and for being seriously awesome. Xo]
James doesn’t go back to sleep. Once Alexander’s breathing had returned to an almost normal rhythm, he and Michael got him dressed and put him back to bed. It took a little convincing, but James had managed to make Michael to swap places with him once Alexander was asleep. Michael had fallen asleep in minutes.
James sits in a chair beside Alexander, watching him breathe. His breathing seems laboured, like it is an effort for his lungs to pump oxygen in and out of his body. James touches his forehead. It’s still warm, but his fever has gone down. He thanks God for small mercies.
A few hours later, as the sun begins to rise, James stands up and stretches his cold, cramped limbs. Both Alexander and Michael are snoring softly. He picks up Michael’s discarded jacket and pulls it on. The warmth from the radiator had started to fade a few hours ago, causing the temperature inside the cabin to drop. He adjusts the bomber hat over his ears and pulls on the spare gloves before picking up Michael’s phone and quietly heading outside.
The sky is a brilliant orange as the sun rises over the mountains. The ground is piled high with fresh snow, but for the moment it is not actively snowing. He turns on the phone – Michael had turned it off to conserve the battery – and holds it above his head, watching the signal bars for any flicker of hope.
There is none.
He begins to walk up the nearest slope, holding the phone up and staring at the screen. His shoes sink into the soft snow, making it difficult to keep moving. Still he pushes forward.
I just need to get higher, he thinks, barely watching where he is going. I just need to get high enough.
Suddenly the porous snow disintegrates from beneath him and he falls forward, hitting his head on a frost-covered boulder. Michael’s phone slips out of his hand and slides down the slope, stopping a few feet behind him. He stands up and rubs his throbbing forehead. His glove comes away bloody. He scowls and scoops up a handful of snow and presses it against his head as he walks down to retrieve the phone. He’s only taken a few steps when something catches his eye.
What is that?
He stops, squinting against the morning sun and peering into a cluster of pine trees a few hundred feet to the left of him. He takes another step forward. A flash of red blows in the wind.
His heart leaps into his throat.
There’s someone else out here.
He grabs Michael’s phone and runs down slope towards the scarf, refusing to slow down even when the snow trips him over three times in a row. As he gets closer he can see the person sitting under a tree, looking out into the distance. He calls out to them.
“HEY! HEY! HELP! HEY YOU! I NEED HELP!”
The person doesn't respond. He speeds up and yells louder.
“HEY!! EXCUSE ME!! HEY!! HELP!!”
They don’t seem to hear him.
It is only when he is almost there that he realizes his mistake. He stops abruptly, covering his mouth to keep from screaming. What is left of the person is propped up against the tree. He can see it is a man now. Was a man. Bits of him are missing, probably eaten by wolves or bears. The snow around him is tinged in pink, although by the looks of the snow covering him, he’s been there for at least a few days. James starts to back away, feeling queasy. But the logo on the man’s jacket makes him stop. He’s seen it before. He stares at it, trying to remember where.
On a sign in the ski lodge.
Colorado Parks and Recreation.
You’re a park ranger.
He stares at the body, praying with every fibre of his being that the man had it with him when he died. That it’s here. That he found it.
He sees it.
Tucked into the man’s bloody pocket.
The satellite phone.
He inches forward.
Just do it, he tells himself. Just pull it out of his pocket.
He takes another step. The man’s frozen face stares back at him. James tries not to wonder how he ended up here.
He holds his breath.
Takes another step.
He reaches forward. His fingers brush the tip of the phone.
He takes another step.
He curls his fingers around the phone and pulls.
It takes a little manoeuvring, but after a moment the phone is in his hands. Frozen blood coats the surface, gathering in the cracks between the keys on the keypad. James wipes it clean with his glove. He swallows. His mouth is suddenly very dry. His heart thuds erratically. He presses the power button.
He stares at the screen and presses the power button again.
The screen remains black.
He presses the power button over and over again, growing increasingly frantic, refusing to believe that their only hope for calling for help is lying uselessly in his hands. He looks at the dead park ranger.
Maybe he had a spare, he thinks desperately. Or maybe he had his own.
He crouches down in front of him and puts the phone down in the snow.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, gritting his teeth and running his hands all over the man’s mangled body. Rigor mortis has set in, making it impossible for James to move or manipulate the man’s body in any way. Nausea rolls through him as he searches all the man’s pockets, desperate to find something, anything that will help. But after a couple of moments, he is forced to give up. Apart from his wallet, a set of keys and a handkerchief, the man’s pockets are empty.
“I’m sorry,” James whispers again, standing up. “I’m so sorry.”
He picks up the discarded satellite phone and turns away. He can just make out the cabin in the distance. He can almost see the ranger coming out here, innocently walking towards the trees with no idea that he would never see the cabin again. Never sleep in the bed again. Never see his family again. James bites the inside of his cheek, overcome by an overwhelming desire to see Alexander. To hold him. To know that he is okay.
He is halfway down the slope when the realization hits him with enough force to knock the air out of his lungs.
The ranger had keys.
Keys means a car.