Tree Line - Chapter Three

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Chapter Three

Angela woke up first. She always did, her eyes popping open a full hour before the first rays of the sun would gather and tip-toe out over the crisp eastern sky.

She freed her hand from inside the heavy folds of her thick sleeping bag and reached up to rub a mitten-covered fist over her eye, feeling a chunk of soot-heavy sleep there as she worked her padded knuckle in circles. She switched to her other eye, grinding the knitted wool against it in a way that was almost pleasant, sighing into the darkness that still filled her tent as she worked to dislodge a similar clump that was trapped in the corner, too sticky to come loose, but loosening, starting to slip.

She was exhausted. It had taken an hour, maybe more, to put out the fire that had started in Nate and Chase's tent. Then, it was at least another hour to get everyone settled back down again. Chase moved in with Dave and Gus. Nate squeezed, somehow, into Owen's tent. What Angela hadn't expected was having to listen to Joelle cry for hours after, the woman clutching her crucifix necklace to her lips as she whispered through one prayer after another.

Joelle had been through a lot. What little she had confided to Angela, usually in the anonymous safety of the dark, the two whispering to each other like sisters after bedtime, had been heartbreaking. The weight of those experiences, the burden of what Joelle had to endure, softened Angela's usually sharpened edges, but as patient as she tried to be with Joelle, as understanding, Angela still needed her sleep. Twice she had to swallow down the urge to snap at her roommate, to tell her to shut up, somehow managing to hold her tongue and her temper, even when it seemed like Joelle would never stop.

Maybe it was because Angela couldn't really understand what Joelle was saying. Praying in a whispered Spanish, ragged and slow after hours of tears, Angela only heard a handful of words that she could recognize. Sometimes Angela heard a word she didn't know repeated, a strange sound that became almost familiar, even as its meaning continued to evade her. As Angela's exhaustion grew Joelle's cries and praying seemed to disintegrate, just becoming noise, something almost like music. It wasn't soothing, but close to it, the lifts and drops of repetition, the unknown syllables and unexpected breaths like a new song. Maybe Joelle's prayers and weeping would have been more jarring, more disturbing, if Angela actually knew what Joelle was saying, if she knew what prayers Joelle repeated, over and over again, as she softly cried out to anonymous saints in the dark.

Angela rolled her head to the side, squinting through the dark at her sleeping roommate. The early morning was still dark, Joelle was just a lump inside of her sleeping bag, a slow breathing bump under layers of blankets, completely still, covered under still more piles of shadow. In the stillness of the early morning, with everything so quiet, Angela thought she could see waves of despair pouring out of Joelle, coming out in slow, wide ripples through the dark. It made her stomach hurt, a dull ache that throbbed in time with the emotional waves that washed over her, so Angela shut her eyes, tried to imagine anything else but the sadness that filled the tent she shared.

The important thing was that everyone was okay. Aside from some burnt clothing and a little bit of singed hair both Nate and Chase escaped their tent none the worst for wear. At least, they were okay physically. Chase was still shattered, never having recovered from his experience down in Fraser, months before. Thankfully the fire didn't seem to make him any worse.

Angela let out a heavy sigh as she thought about their tiny group and what the years had done to them. Joelle, a refugee from a camp that used to be to the south, near Heart Lake, was an emotional mess most of the time. Chase had been an ass, obnoxious and eager to push on everyone around him, but when he got separated from the rest of the group during a supply run in the spring, something happened to him. What he said didn't make sense, no matter how the others tried to parse it, tried to rationalize it, but whatever he had gone through, whatever things he thought he saw while he was alone in that deserted resort town, had shattered him.

It had almost been a relief when he stopped running his mouth, stopped pushing so hard on everyone else, but nature really did seem to abhor a vacuum. In almost no time at all, Nate took the obnoxiousness mantle from his older brother and things in the camp got even worse. The younger DeWitt brother somehow managed to step up the abuse and criticism unloaded on his fellow camp inhabitants, quickly eclipsing his brother, exceeding his every small cruelty, his every snide word.

At least they had Dave, their rock, their north star. Dave didn't say much. He kept mostly to himself, but he was a lot like Angela and she appreciated that. He had a willingness to work, to do what was needed, when it was needed, without any complaints or negotiations. He was steady. He was dependable, reliable when it mattered, and Angela liked that.

Owen was okay. Angela's initial evaluation of him was that he was little more than a clueless beanpole. Her assessment managed to be right, even over the long term. He didn't always think about what the camp needed to do, wasn't proactive in the way they all needed to be, but he did what he was told easily enough, rolling up his sleeves when the circumstances called for it. Owen could be counted on, when he wasn't complaining, that is.

Pat? Pat was hardly worth mentioning. He was useful in a pinch, especially with his EMT training from a couple of decades before, but Pat was starting to feel his age and seemed to be slowing down. It wasn't a completely fair criticism. Angela wasn't exactly young herself, but despite her graying hair, the way the skin on her neck seemed to be drooping in a way that reminded her of her mother, she was still strong. She was still the first person up in the morning and the last to go to sleep, doing her part and more, like she always did. The limits that age imposed on a person weren't resolute, weren't immutable. It took will to overcome them, sheer strength to push past them, and Pat just didn't seem to have the will that Angela did, didn't have her determination.

Angela's thoughts eventually fell on Stacey, the young woman who shared Pat's tent. Everyone had to do their part, to work together for the combined good if they were going to survive at the top of the world, but Stacey just hung around the periphery, not pitching in, and having all of the men fawn after her like she was too delicate or precious to do any work.

Angela shook her head on her pillow. She didn't want to start down that road. She told herself to stop being critical of the younger woman, but she couldn't help herself.

She was tired. That was the real problem. After everything that happened the night before, first with the fire and then her sobbing roommate, she was exhausted. Angela wasn't a religious person, not by a long shot, but her mother had been. And, of all of the sayings her mother repeated to her, of all of the teachings she was supposed to cherish as wisdom or truth, one quote always stood out for her, making a simple kind of sense: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

She lifted her arm from her sleeping bag again, pushing back the sleeve of her sweatshirt and the cuff of her mitten to reveal her watch. It was 6:04 in the morning. The sun would be up soon, so even though she was tired, even though she wanted nothing more than to burrow down deeper into her bedding and sleep, Angela reasoned she may as well get up and start her day.

Unzipping her sleeping bag from the inside, she sat up, gritting her teeth at the bitter cold of the early morning air that hit her like a punch. The wind had died down, the paper-thin walls and roof of her tent only twitching occasionally, jerking and dancing under the force of sporadic gusts, but the air the storm had blown in, left behind when the snow pushed on to other places, was painful in the brutal sum of its cold. Somewhere around four or five degrees Fahrenheit it stopped being cold and just started to hurt, overriding Angela's senses and their ability to pick up variations in temperature, becoming just a constant, inescapable ache. In the mornings, after hours of darkness, the temperature plummeted further still, leaving a sensation that seemed to dull the mind even more than it robbed the body of feeling.

Wanting to keep her warmth, to sustain the heat she had trapped within her heavy sleeping bag and inside of her muscles, Angela reached over and quickly pulled on the down jacket lying next to her, fumbling only slightly in the dark thanks to so many years of practice dressing before the sunrise. Once she had her jacket on, zipped, the hood already pulled over her head, she lifted her hips up from her bed, pulling on a pair of snow pants she had liberated from some skier in Winter Park, some skier that had either succumbed to Henry or moved to a peak settlement like the one she called home.

She lifted her mittens to her face, inhaling their scent deeply, finding only the faintest traces of something chemical, manufactured, but still pleasing and reassuring. It was called something flowery, Mountain Meadow maybe, which was ironic given her current living situation, but it was the only bit of luxury she still allowed herself, still enjoyed. Wanting to keep that scent, that indulgence, she removed her mittens from her stiff hands and tucked them inside of her pillowcase before she quickly covered her bare fingers with a pair of gloves that she had placed in the pile that had contained her coat and pants.

The gloves, like her worn coat, were dirty, stained grey with layers of dirt that had been wiped away and then replaced with still more dirt. Her coat had been divided into sharp sections of light grey and crisp whites, fashionable on the slopes years before, but time had faded everything that had once been crisp, making it dirty and haggard. Her ski pants had been purple, a strong, bold eggplant color, but like her coat they were muted from the years, drab from exertion. It was as if the world couldn't tolerate color any longer, like brightness no longer had a place, so the passing days gradually chipped away at those hues, gradually smashed them until only grays and browns remained, everything left as only a faded memory of what once was, what had once existed.

Angela pulled on her boots, dirty like everything else she wore, and reached for the zippered door of her tent. Her hand passed over a long rip in the door flap as she found the pull tab, a rip that had been sewn shut a couple of years before by Angela herself, two different colors of overlapping thread holding the separated edges together, holding them closed.

Her tent was no different than any of the other ones, littered with long and short scars cut across fabric that wasn't meant to rip, wasn't designed for damage. There was no shortage of reasons for the wounds, disasters ranging from the heavy snow from seasons before, back before they knew to move the frozen moisture away from their tents. Other rips came from the endless winds that pushed on factory-sewn seams and strained against weak points where only tiny flaps held on to the tent poles. Some of the wounds were the result of just simple clumsiness, campers returning to their tents after long, difficult hours of labor, carrying something sharp or just sharp enough. Perhaps most of the damage was just the accumulated strain of their constant use, tents put into service as permanent residences when they had only ever been meant to be used for weekend getaways for gentle, summer nights, instead of the strain of years of constant sun, wind, and cold.

Tugging at the zipper, Angela slipped outside, closing the door behind her, leaving Joelle to sleep and maybe recover from the stress that had overwhelmed her the night before. They had been closest to the tent that Nate and Chase shared, so Angela just had to turn her head to see the dark mass that had once been home for the two boys, a wide crater of black that she could see even in the darkness of the early morning.

Sunrise was still many, cold minutes away, but there was a growing, grey light on the horizon, a pale, thin line that changed colors as it expanded over the mountain range to become daylight. Already the stars were turning away, disappearing into the sparse clouds overhead that were only just becoming visible, only just then solid enough to be seen in the early morning.

A few of the stars remained bright, bold and defiant. Angela raised her face to the sky, saw a large, bright dot, and wondered if it was Venus or Mars. Maybe it was a satellite, endlessly spinning overhead, waiting to bounce signals back down to a civilization that had disappeared under its watchful, persistent, but ultimately unconcerned gaze. Maybe one day man would reach out to it again, ask for its help to communicate, to see, to find some reliable path, but Angela had no idea when that would be. She only knew that it wouldn't be today.

She walked across the hasty path her boots had made the night before to what had been Nate and Chase's door, taking in the damage. Seeing it more clearly, she crouched down, and reached into the soot and ash that had been a tent, a home. Like all of their tents, the geodesic dome that had been the permanent residence of the DeWitt brothers was packed, every available inch filled with tools for warmth, for empty stomachs, for survival. Angela could make out the remnants of t-shirts and sweaters, socks half-consumed by flames, metal pots and plates that spilled and scattered when the cardboard that held them turned to ash.

There hadn't been time to talk to the boys about what had happened, but it wouldn't take much to start a fire in a space so cramped, so cluttered. One of them might have moved their leg, accidentally knocking over an unstable lamp, its fuel spilling across an old blanket so dry and brittle it wanted to burn. Or maybe one of them was changing their shirt, tossing the one they had been wearing aside to quickly get on a cleaner one, not realizing that it fell on top of their tent heater. They used to have camp meetings about safety, about when and how to use a lamp, a heater, how dangerous any kind of open flame could be, but it had been a while since the last meeting. Maybe this was their reminder that complacency could be deadly. Maybe they were lucky that the previous night hadn't turned out much worse, lucky it had been a lesson learned instead of a lesson regretted.

Angela heard the squeak and moan of weight moving over packed snow, and so she looked up, seeing Pat approaching her.

"Angela," he said, softly, saying her name like he might if he passed her on the street to retrieve his paper or if he opened the door for her at a coffee shop. Something about it, that simple verbal gesture, made Angela clench her teeth together.

"What can I do for you, Pat?" she answered, terse, releasing her clenched jaw, but the tension in the muscles around her teeth remained.

"I heard you get up. I thought I might come out and see if I could help," he offered. He had his hands in the pockets of his parka as he approached, crossing ground that had been stomped down the night before, the snow uneven, clumped in some places and flat in others, making him teeter as he moved. When he came in behind her, he stood like he only meant to supervise, his hands still hidden in his jacket's pockets. It was too dark for Pat to see Angela roll her eyes at him, but the light was growing steadily around them.

"I'm not sure this is a two-person job," Angela said, reaching out to pull a charred pan from a tiny mound of ash. She held it up. Cold, spent cinders fell from it as she lifted it in front of her face, the burnt residue as dark and rich as moist soil. The heat from the fire had twisted the pan, warped it. Turning it over, Angela could see that it was useless now, so she just tossed it aside, a piece of junk that they would have to find some way to discard.

"It could be a two-person job, if you'd let me help," Pat offered, stepping closer to the crouched woman. He was so close they were almost touching, his knee almost at her back.

"Really, Pat?" Angela grumbled. As she talked, her words gained speed, force. "Like it's a two person job to sew up the tents when they rip? Like it's a two-person job to cut everyone's hair and to cook all of our meals?"

Pat took a step back. Maybe it was because of Angela's words or because he felt like maybe he had moved too close to her, invading the invisible bubble of space she always kept around her, bigger than everyone else's, stronger. Maybe he took a step backwards because his balance was unreliable on the thick inches of snow that had been packed unevenly under their boots. Neither one of them knew why he moved away from her, but they both lowered their shoulders as he did.

"You can accept help, you know?" Pat said, softly, his tone a little unsure, testing her, testing the air between them. He took in a breath, then let go. "No one expects you to do it all."

Angela twisted around, quickly, ready to respond, poison collecting on her tongue, but she fought the urge to spit it out, holding her words instead. It took a moment, a handful of seconds that felt much longer than what they added up to, but she eventually nodded, agreeing, swallowing her pool of venom.

"You're right," she said. She took a breath, one that Pat could see in the frozen air, a slow, dense cloud floating up from her lips and into the sky, a sky so close they could all just reach out and touch it. "I'm sorry, Pat. I didn't get much sleep last night."

Pat nodded, then moved around Angela, carefully lowering down onto his knees next to her like he was about to pray. He grunted as he did it, his right knee not moving as smoothly as his left. Once he was finally down, he reached into the ash pile to push some of it away, move it around, to start his own search for anything they could salvage, something solid in the soft dust.

"Joelle was pretty upset last night," he said, his words coming even more softly, as cautious as his descent to his knees. "We could hear her way over in our tent."

He used a turn of his head to gesture to the tent he shared with Stacey on the other side of the camp. It seemed far away sometimes, on the opposite end of the camp from Angela's tent, but all of the tents were close, all of them contained within the crumbling, mortared rock walls of the old, demolished restaurant's foundation. It felt a little strange to be reminded of how close they all were, how many of their conversations could probably be overheard within the small, compact camp. It made Angela cringe a little, wondering what she might have confessed to her roommate in the night, what she might have inadvertently broadcast, when it was meant to be held in confidence.

"It's not surprising that she was upset," Angela replied, lowering her voice to something like a whisper, trying not to be heard by Joelle who was just a few feet away, behind a thin nylon wall, "considering everything she's been through."

"Is she okay?"

"We're all doing our best," Angela answered, this time not trying to keep her voice down, too distracted to remember that she probably should. She pulled out a couple of tin plates from the ash, moving them to a small pile behind her, a pile of things that they might still be able to use.

"That's not the same thing as being okay," Pat offered. He stopped pushing his gloved hand through the pile of ash in front of him and sat back on his heels, looking at Angela.

"I think it's the best we can hope for," she answered, a little of her venom returning. She took another long breath, another cloud-summoning exhalation, and for a moment watched as it lifted from her face, dissipating, disappearing overhead. "I don't know what you expect me to say, Pat. She's had a rough time. She misses her family. We all miss our families. I think we all deserve a chance to let it out once in a while."

Pat smiled. Angela couldn't see it exactly, but the way the whiskers around his mouth moved, it was clear what he was doing, even if his eyes didn't show any of it.

"I agree," he finally said, nodding his head for one bob, then two. It was a white flag. He had enough experience with Angela to know where they were headed, where her tone was pointing them. He didn't want a fight, even if Angela did. "I just don't like to hear people hurting."

Angela let out an annoyed sigh, not caring if Pat could hear her. It made the older man laugh.

"I mean it," he said after his chuckle faded. "Like it or not, we're all we have now. We have to look after each other."

Finished with her break, or maybe just finished with their conversation, Angela leaned forward again and busied herself with scavenging supplies from the wreckage of the fire. Pat followed her example, but just found light, thin ashes of paper, so delicate and fragile it hardly seemed to be there at all. The ashes evaporated under the force of his thick, gloved fingers, disintegrating to something less than dust, and then they floated away.

"I'm pretty sure we might have a spare tent over in our supply," Pat finally offered. "It's probably not as nice as the tent they had, but I guess anything would be a step up over this."

He chuckled at his own words, then Pat leaned back onto his heels again, resting his dirty hands on his knees.

"We were really lucky last night," he started, maybe talking to himself more than he spoke to Angela. "That fire could have easily spread to your tent or mine. We're so close together the whole place could have burned down."

He lifted one of his hands from his knees and gestured at the other tents around them, a sweeping motion that included all of them in the path of his imagined apocalypse.

"I guess it could have been even worse. One of those boys could have been hurt, maybe killed," he trailed off, considering the full weight of what his imagination was able to conjure. Made mute by it, he was only able to repeat himself, "We were damn lucky."

Angela nodded her head. She had already pictured some of those same scenarios, let her mind wander to those same dark spaces. She wasn't sure if it was good to hear them from someone else, unsure whether that made her feel better to share such pessimistic predictions.

"We shouldn't be relying on luck," she finally offered.

Angela looked over her shoulder, seeing the sun start to break over the ridge to their east. It seemed especially orange this morning, something close to golden, bathing the camp all at once like it was casting a spotlight on them. Its first few rays, strong and newborn, felt good on her face, a kiss of warmth that seemed warmer still because of the relentless cold before it.

Pat followed the path of her eyes, squinting into the sun for a moment, watching it rise. The long whiskers around his mouth curled again as he smiled at witnessing the start of the day, smiled at the gentle warmth he also felt.

"This camp wasn't the plan," Angela continued, turning back to the dark, circular pit of ash. "We never really had a plan. We just kept moving our camp higher and higher until we ended up settling here."

Pat didn't answer, just nodded in agreement.

"I don't think this is viable, long term," she continued. "We're living in camping tents, eating out of cans we can scavenge from the towns below us. We can't grow anything up here. That's the point, isn't it? We moved up this high because nothing can grow, even the virus, but that leaves us with nothing to eat. We're going to run out of food and these tents aren't going to last forever. Hell, I'm not sure they'll even last through the winter."

"What are you suggesting?" Pat asked, genuinely curious. He wasn't used to new ideas, just the constant spinning of the same ones, the same conversations, over and over again in their tiny, unchanging circle. Their community, with its eight members, was practically the definition of an echo chamber after so many long, boring winters. "Like you said, we're having a tough enough time just getting food and supplies up here. There's no way we could get materials up the mountain to build something more permanent. And, even if we could figure out a way to get lumber up here, we're in constant danger of lightning strikes. We could spend months building a more permanent structure only to have it burn down. Just one snap of God's fingers and we'd be back in these worthless tents."

Angela shook her head, her eyes falling on the metal pole they had raised thirty feet from the camp, a hollow, thin thing that had been knocked down by the wind several times in the last year. It had been their lightning protection, but only just barely. They had seen strikes rain down on nearby peaks, scarring the earth in a single, bright moment, knowing they were completely exposed at the top of Rollins Pass. The pole was supposed to help them, protect them, but maybe all it really did was make them feel better. If a lightning strike was really going to come down, wasn't it out of their control? Could that single pole keep their camp safe?

"I'm not sure what I'm suggesting," she finally offered. Angela wasn't the type to lose hope. Her will was iron, but there was something in her voice that approached despondence. No matter how strong she was, no matter how much she worked, she couldn't control everything. "My point is, we've been relying on luck for too long. We've been living day-to-day for too long. We're not going to make it like this. We're barely making it now."

Pat nodded. He didn't necessarily agree, but he couldn't argue with her either. Instead, he pushed himself forward, resting the weight of his upper body on one arm as he reached deeper into the pile of ruined clothes and destroyed boxes with his free hand.

"Hey, do you think the boys had any nudie magazines that survived the fire?" he asked.

Pat flashed a smile at Angela and she let out a laugh, a genuine laugh that surprised even her.

"It's all yours if you manage to find one," she said, finding another flame-darkened enameled plate that she tossed into the small pile behind her. "You're a dirty old man."

Pat laughed too, his chuckle inspiring Angela to join him, as the two of them continued to sift through the ruins of the tent. They both fought their chuckles, tried to stifle their shared laugh, tried not to wake the others, but in the early sunlight it felt welcome enough.

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