Stupid fucking thing to do, she thinks and in her mind she hears Carol’s inevitable, “Don’t swear.” But it was stupid. Stupid to have stepped off the porch without looking and here she is, flat on her back on the ice.
Only she can’t move. God, please, she thinks, let something move. A finger even. Let me turn my head and see something besides gray sky. Let me be where I think I am and not back on Denali. Anything but gray sky and random flakes drifting down. I don’t want to live that again.
“Bad fall that.” A man’s voice, not someone she knows.
“Who’s there?” Silence for a moment then footsteps crunching on the sleet that fell during the night.
“Call 911,” she says. “I can’t move.”
“Now that’s a pity,” he says, but it’s only words, there’s no pity in that voice.
“Who are you?” Besides an asshole, but don’t say that. No, not out loud.
Jesus, she thinks, it’s Carol’s old wanna-be boyfriend. Just what she needs right now, someone else who blames her for Carol’s death.
“C’mon, let’s glissade.”
“Carol, we got the sled strung between us.”
“Wus. Drag a bit and the rope’ll stay taught. C’mon.”
Too late to argue, Jessie thought, she’s already taking off her crampons. And it did sound like fun. Was fun, sliding down the slope on their butts, the speed building until she was about as scared as she cared to be and dug in harder with the spike of her ice axe, slowing them down more and more until she gets a angry shout back from Carol. The words are lost in the rasp of nylon on packed snow and the plastic sled scratching along between them, but she knows ‘Wus’ is one of them.
But soon the steep part is past and it looks like a good runout across a flat bit. Jessie lifts her spike so they can ride out the rest of the slope. The ice here is hard and slicker than it looked and they pick up speed again and she lets it happen, doesn’t want the ride to stop until suddenly there’s open space ahead of her where Carol and the sled used to be.
She rolls over onto the pick of her axe, panics a bit as it bounces along, but soon it’s scratching, slowing them a bit, then a bit more as the pick digs its way into the snow, and finally stops her just short of the crevasse and the only motion she feels is a faint sense of something swinging at the other end of the rope.
“That was an accident.” She says. “It happens in the mountains.” Just like here.
“There are no accidents,” he says, and she feels a shadow cross her face, like the sun going behind a cloud.
No accidents? Like I chose to fall flat on my back on the ice. And then she realizes, it isn’t just sleet she’s lying on. Beneath the the crunchy surface there’s a sheet of solid water ice. Now where did that come from?
A face floats above her. Handsome once, perhaps, but gone fat, almost flabby, and two dark eyes set deep in the sockets. Then he pulls back out of her sight.
“Let’s get comfortable.” He says, and lifts her head by the hair. There’s a scraping sound, and he lets her fall back with a laugh. Her head rests on something cold and hard and she’s staring at the back steps now, her head tilted, chin stabbing into her collarbone.
Another block bumps against her, and after a while, another. She’s getting the rhythym of it now, hears the blocks as he drags them over something metal. The hobnail sound of his boots as he walks back, grunting now and again with the effort. His hair is matted with sweat, and he’s breathing harder. You wouldn’t last five minutes on a mountain, asshole. But he keeps going and after a while, she’s lying in a coffin of ice.
She picks him up out of the corner of her eye as he walks around her, hand fishing a package of Camels out of a shirt pocket. He drops the ice tongs and settles onto the steps with a grunt, shakes a cigarette out of the pack.
“Hard work.” He says out the side of his mouth that isn’t clamped on the filter of the cigarette and flicks the Zippo open – closed, with a flourish and squints when a stray wisp of smoke goes in his eye.
Her eyes take him in, the paunch pushes against the plaid shirt, but not enough to open it up. A thick pad of leather covers his shoulder, water stained and still wet on top.
“Hard work.” He says. “But it’s gotta be done. What happened, bitch, was it too much work to save Carol?”
She takes another wrap on the leash of her axe and sets the front points of her crampons into the hard ice until she can push against them, take some of the strain off her arms, but she doesn’t move. Her legs can’t fight the weight of Carol and the sled.
No answer. Carol’s out of it.
“Carol! Can you cut the sled loose?”
Nothing. She tries to fight the rising panic. Tries to think. Set a screw or two, this stuff’s hard enough. Tie off the rope and then cut loose, go to the edge and see if she can reach the cords that tie the sled to the rope.
“How would you know how much work it is, asshole.”
“Watch your mouth.” He says and reaches out with tongs, swings them at her ankle. She hears something snap, but there’s no feeling and he grunts.
“Wasted effort.” He says. “Too bad, I wanted you to suffer the way she did.”
“You’re closer than you think.”
She listens to the chips of ice falling into the crevasse as the rope rubs back and forth against the sharp edge of ice. Should have used both ropes, but we were coming down, still high on the view from the summit. She hurries, twisting the screws into the ice as fast as she can with one hand, counting the swings of the rope, steady as a metronome. At last the screws are deep enough and she clips a sling between them, gives it a twist and clips in a carabiner.
When she gets to the edge, she can see blood running out from under Carol’s helmet, but her eyes are still open and they go wide when she sees Jessie looking down. But the worst of it is her back, bent backward so much further than it ought to.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He says.
“Her back was broken. You did know that, didn’t you?”
“Before or after you let her drop?”
“I didn’t let her drop! The goddam ice cut through the goddam rope!”
“So fast you couldn’t get to her? Come on.”
“Oh, and you could have done better?”
“I wouldn’t have been there in the first place! Goddam crazy bitch dragging her from one mountain to another. I’d have kept her safe!”
Safe. So that was it.
Carol smiles up from the end of the rope. “Guess I should have stayed with Arnold, huh? Boring as shit, but at least I wouldn’t be here.”
“Jesus, Carol, just stay still. I’ll cut the sled away and pull you up.”
Carol looks up along the rope. “Don’t think so, Hon, it’ll hit me on the way down. Finish the job this crack started.”
“I’ll tie it off first.”
It’s at the very end of her reach, but she hooks a trekking pole into one of the sled’s straps, pulls it up against the side of the crevasse and cuts the thin cords binding it to their rope.
“Damn, you’re good Hon.”
“I almost had her.” She says, frustrated by the memory and Arnold’s ignorance.
“Almost ain’t good enough.”
She looks at the rope, at how frayed it is where it crosses the edge of the ice. It won’t hold much longer and she turns to shrug off her pack so she can get at the utility cord stuffed under the bungee. Behind her, the last threads of the core rub through and there’s silence for a moment, then a series of muffled thumps, then a silence that goes on forever.
But she didn’t say goodbye. Remembers that now. There was only the shock and the rest of the climbers coming down to help. Fast, but not fast enough.
I never said goodbye. Never went back to Denali, not even for the memorial service their friends held for her when their attempts to recover the body had failed.
I never climbed again. Never loved again, just wrapped myself up inside those five years we shared. It was safer that way, wasn’t it. Guess I should have stayed with Arnold, huh? No, Hon, never.
“Getting cold is it?” Arnold asked.
“Only my neck,” she says. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a towel or something.”
“You get what Carol got, bitch. Nothing more, nothing less.”
He flicks the butt across the patio and gets up, stretching.
“Well, back to work.”
She watches as the wall of ice around her grows until it’s five rows high. Neither of them speak, but her anger grows with the blue green walls around her.
How could she explain what they found up there? ‘Adrenaline junky’ is not an easy label to live with, but they did. Laughed when people said that and shook their heads. No way to explain the joy of measuring yourself against something as big as a mountain, but sometimes they’d catch a glimpse of something, of jealousy, perhaps, and they would look at each other and know they’d chosen well. Worse, much worse to want and be afraid to try.
Suddenly she wanted to climb again. To go back to Denali and stand on the summit again. To be close to Carol again in the only way she could. But there was no chance of that, not the way she was now.
Arnold leans over the top row of blocks.
“I guess I’ll be saying goodbye, now,” He says.
“Yeah. Hey, thanks Arnold,” she says, and is surprised to find she really means it.
“Anytime,” he says with a wave of his hand and turns to leave.
She looks up at the snow drifting down and remembers how much she loved walking through snow in the mountains and waking up to find the inside of their tent covered in hoar frost. Fairytale stuff.
The sound of his truck starting up jolts her out of her reverie and she listens to him drive off. Alone now, but somehow not afraid. Carol’s waiting out there, somewhere. Maybe that’s why she didn’t say goodbye. Maybe she was just biding her time until they were together again. Are there mountains in Heaven? There must be.
Pain shoots up her leg, twisting around where there was nothing just a moment ago, and she convulses, rolls onto her side and curls up. Another flare of pain as the broken ankle grates along the ground. Her teeth grind, but then she’s laughing.
“You blew it, Arnold!” She screams. “Twice!”
It takes time, but she manages to sit up against the wall of ice that looms four feet around her. No problem, she thinks. Ice, I know how to deal with.