“JESUS!” Michael yells as James approaches the cabin. He’s standing out in the snow, looking highly strung. “What the hell, J?? I wake up and you’re gone! No note, no indication of where you’d gone or if you were okay…What the hell were you thinking?! What if something happened to you?!” His eyes fall on the still-bleeding lump on James’ forehead. “And I see something DID happen to you! What the hell, brother?? Why didn’t you wake me??”
James ignores him, walking around to the other side of the cabin. The side that bore the brunt of the avalanche.
“Is Alexander okay?” he asks without looking at Michael. The snow is piled high, almost reaching the roof of the cabin. He looks out into the distance. There’s a relatively clear path between the trees. A car or truck could drive through there.
“Alex is still asleep,” Michael says, shivering. He folds his arms across his chest. “Where did you go?? Why didn’t you wake me?? What happened to your head??”
“You needed the sleep,” James says, starting to dig into the mountain of snow. It has to be under here. This is the only place it could be. It has to be under here. “Did you take Alexander’s temperature?? What was it?”
“What are you doing?”
James pulls the keys out of his pocket and tosses them to Michael. “I found the park ranger. He had the phone on him.”
“What?!” Michael starts, staring at the keys. “Did you—”
“It doesn’t work,” James says, returning to the snow pile. His fingers feel like blocks of ice and are about as effective at digging through the snow. He looks around for a shovel. “The battery is dead or the phone is broken or something. What was Alexander’s temperature and when did you last take it?”
Michael looks at James, trying to follow his train of thought. “I haven’t taken his temperature yet,” he says, frowning. “I woke up and found you missing. My thoughts were on how I was going to find you.”
James stops looking for a shovel and turns to go back inside the cabin. His brain feels like it is firing too many synapses at once. He can’t get his thoughts straight.
“J!” Michael calls. “Where are you going? What is going on?? Where is the park ranger?? Talk to me!!”
James goes inside the cabin. Alexander is still asleep, but his face is flushed and he is squirming. Michael follows James inside, still holding the keys.
“James,” he says, leaning heavily on the back of a chair. “Stop. Start at the beginning. I’m completely lost here. Why are you digging in the snow? Where is the park ranger? Where is the satellite phone?”
“His fever is back?” James takes off his gloves, picks up the thermometer from the table and walks over to the bed. He crouches in front of Alexander and puts his hand on his forehead. He feels even hotter than he did last night. James swallows and pushes the thermometer between Alexander’s lips. Alexander opens his eyes.
“It’s just me, buddy,” James says softly. “Sorry to wake you. You might need another pill, that’s all. We just have to check.”
Alexander doesn’t answer, but he allows James to slide the thermometer under his tongue.
“The park ranger is dead,” James says flatly, waiting for the thermometer to beep. “Looks like he passed out in the snow and was eaten by wolves or bears or something.
“What??” Michael says, still scrambling to keep up. “He’s dead?!”
The thermometer beeps.
One-oh-two point one.
James tries to keep his face neutral.
“Michael,” he says, pulling the blankets off Alexander. “Tylenol.”
“He’s dead??” Michael repeats. “Where? Did you see any bears and wolves?? Were you attacked?! Oh God, is that what happened to your head?? Are you hurt anywhere else??”
“Michael!” James says, louder than he intended. “We can talk about this later. Right now I need the Tylenol. Now.”
He hears Michael pick up the pill bottle and limp over to the sink. He comes over with the pills and the water. Alexander eyelids droop. James puts his hand on his flaming cheek.
“You need to take this before you go back to sleep, buddy,” he says, standing up and lifting Alexander into a sitting position. His body is floppy and his skin is slick with sweat. He coughs and closes his eyes.
“Come on, buddy,” James says, sitting down on the bed beside him and drawing him into his arms. “Once you take this you can go back to sleep.”
“I want James,” Alexander mumbles. “I want…” His voice trails off and he appears to fall asleep again.
James looks at Michael. “We can’t give him a pill like this. He might choke. But he needs to take it. His temperature is one-oh-two-point-one. Is there any liquid stuff in the first aid kit?”
Michael shakes his head. “No, nothing…I guess it’s adults who stay here so…” He looks down at the pills in his hand. “We could crush it. We could crush it and mix it with water. Wake him up long enough to drink it. He’s less likely to choke on water than a pill.”
James looks down at Alexander. He twitches. His cheeks seem to have taken on a deeper shade of red.
“Do it,” he says, putting his hand on Alexander’s forehead, hoping his cold skin will help. Alexander twitches again.
Michael doesn’t waste any time. He puts a pill into a plastic bowl from the cupboard and finds a wooden spoon in one of the drawers. He uses the handle of the spoon to crush the pill, pounding it until it becomes a fine powder. He tips out most of the water in the glass and scrapes in the powder, mixing it with a teaspoon.
“He should be able to drink this in one go,” he says, handing the glass to James. “But it won’t taste very good.”
James takes the glass. “Alexander,” he says, patting him on the arm. “Alexander. Wake up, buddy. You need to drink this.”
Alexander mutters something James can’t understand. His eyes remain closed.
“Alexander,” James tries again, louder this time. “Buddy. Open your eyes.”
“James,” Alexander mutters. “Where’s…James…”
Michael goes over to the sink and returns with a damp dish towel. James takes it and dabs it on Alexander’s face. He stirs.
“There we go, buddy,” James says. “Open your eyes and drink this, then you can go back to sleep.”
Alexander’s eyes open a crack. He finds James’ face.
“Are we home now?”
“Sit up, buddy,” James says, ignoring the question. “Drink this.”
He helps Alexander sit up.
“What is it?” Alexander whispers. His head lolls on James’ chest. James raises the glass to his lips.
“It’s medicine. Drink it in one go.”
Alexander clumsily reaches for the glass. James helps him hold it steady as he gulps it down like a shot. He cringes as he tastes it and pushes the empty glass away.
“Good job,” James says, putting the glass on the bedside table. “Good boy.”
“A pink one,” Alexander mumbles, closing his eyes and resting against James’ chest. “Not that…Not that one…”
“Is it the pain?” Michael asks, taking the glass to the sink. “Is that what’s causing the fever?”
James stares at Alexander. His lips move soundlessly, muttering inaudible words. He coughs.
“I don’t know,” James says, brushing his sweaty hair off his forehead. “He’s been coughing a lot. It’s probably a combination of the pain and getting sick from falling through the ice.” Saying the words out loud sends him spiraling back into the memory. Into the terror. He grits his teeth.
Michael sits down on the chair beside the bed.
“There must be a car or a truck here,” James says to distract himself, stroking Alexander’s hair. “The ranger had keys. And he must have driven here, right? He must have.”
“That’s why you were digging through the snow,” Michael says, breathing out in understanding. James nods.
“It has to be under the snow. He must have parked it beside the cabin and the snow covered it. Who knows, maybe he was going to call for help when he passed out up there.”
“Was he…Was he attacked by the wolves or bears? Do you think that’s how he died?”
James shakes his head. “No. It didn’t look like he was fighting to get away. I think they found him after he was already dead.”
Michael rubs the back of his neck. “That’s probably better.”
James nods. “Yeah.”
They both fall silent, watching Alexander sleep. The twitching has stopped.
“What happened to your head?” Michael asks after a few minutes, standing up and hobbling over to the first aid kit. James watches him go. His leg seems even worse.
“I tripped and hit it on a rock,” he says. “I’m fine. How’s your leg feeling?”
Michael returns with antiseptic and gauze. He drags the chair to the other side of the bed and sits down beside James. “You know,” he says, cleaning the cut on James’ forehead. “Leg-like.”
Michael tapes a square of gauze over the wound. “It’s fine,” he says, standing up. “I’m fine.” He puts the antiseptic back in the first aid kit and sits down on a chair by the table. He rubs his thigh.
“Michael, you –”
“Look, even if my leg were to fall off there’s nothing we can do about it right now, so just forget about it, okay?”
“You could take something to help with the pain.”
Michael sighs. “We’ve been through this. We need to keep the Tylenol for Alex. I’m fine, brother. Really I am. Now please just drop it.”
James wants to argue, but he doesn’t know what to say. Instead he looks out the window. Storm clouds have started to gather.
“I need to get out there before it starts to snow again,” he says, turning back to Michael. “I need a shovel. I won’t get anywhere with just my hands.”
“There’s one in that cupboard over there,” Michael says, nodding to a long door on the other side of the cabin. “I’ll get it.” He starts to stand up.
“No,” James says, extracting himself from Alexander’s grasp. Alexander stirs and mumbles, but doesn’t wake up. “You stay here and watch Alexander. I’ll do it.”
“I can help,” Michael says, frowning. “I’m not an invalid. I can help.”
“We can’t leave Alexander in here alone,” James says, walking over to the cupboard.
“You’re just saying that because you think I can’t handle digging through the snow.”
“Partly,” James says, grabbing the shovel. He turns back to Michael. “But mostly I’m saying it because I mean it. Please, Michael. Stay here. Look after him for me.”
Michael can’t argue with that. He sits back down. James gives him a small smile and puts the gloves back on.
“Do you think it will work?” Michael asks as James reaches the door. “After being under the snow for God knows how long…Do you think the car or truck or whatever will work?”
James pauses. He hand lingers on the door knob.
“I have to believe it will.”
He opens the door and goes outside before his brain has a chance to entertain the possibility of the alternative.