Tree Line - Chapter Four
Most of the tents in Camp Corona were variations on the same theme: hexagon or square-shaped floors with criss-crossing tent poles that bowed from one corner to its opposite side to form the structure's shape. Owen Mitchell's tent, on the other hand, was a bit like Owen himself: a little bit different than everyone else, a little odd.
It might have been a backpacking tent originally, a low thing that skipped the dome shapes that the other tents used. Instead it was long, skinny where the door was located at its end and then flaring out from its entrance, with a smaller dome-like shape at the opposite end, giving it the vague outline of an ice cream cone. It was a two-person tent, in theory at least, but like all of the other structures in Camp Corona, it was overloaded with Owen's possessions and supplies, to the point where the larger space at the far end was just storage. Filled with clothing, stacks of canned and dried goods, and a couple of CB radios that served as the camp's communication center, Owen's tent was crowded for just one person, claustrophobic for two.
Owen usually stretched out in the longer space inside his tent, just beyond the door, so when Nate moved in with him they were forced to sleep side-by-side, Owen's head pointed at his tiny supply space, Nate laying with his head pointed at the door. The two of them constantly, uncomfortably bumped into each other as they fought to find a comfortable position throughout the night, but regardless of their cramped confines, sleep came easily for them both once their combined adrenaline burned off, their limbs heavy from exertion, minds left dulled and flat after so much shaking panic. It might not have been the best night of sleep either of them had ever enjoyed, but given the evening before, any sleep was welcome.
Owen was the first of the pair to rise once morning came, groggy, disorientated by having a part of his tent filled with another form, by having a part of his usual routine interrupted. It made the dim, early morning feel like a dream, sticky and persistent, just a little disconnected from the reality he knew, just a little bit unreliable.
As he considered what he should do, tried to sort out his options, he might have slipped back into sleep. It was difficult to tell, time so elastic in the dark, so difficult to measure reliably, but eventually his eyes started to stay open, started to find focus points on the walls of his tent, identifiable things in the piles he had stacked around his pillow.
Finally awake, Owen slid out of his sleeping bag like a snake squirming out of old skin, the first rays of the sun just starting to illuminate the burnt orange nylon panel that ran along the length of his tent's wall. With no fat to be found on his lanky body, Owen was instantly cold once he climbed out of the shelter of his sleeping bag, shivering violently against the freezing morning air that was awaiting him. He reached for his massive winter coat, carefully pulling it over his thin, angular frame, trying not to bump into his sleeping guest as he searched for the arms of his coat, trying to keep his churning limbs from his tent's thin, low walls. Lifting his coat's loose hood up over his head, the quilted, puffy shroud didn't turn with his head as he started to move around the confined spaces of his tent, trying to find extra socks and his usual, fingerless gloves. His every motion was stiff from confinement, from the cold, the tent providing barely more room than a coffin.
Owen reached into his coat's right, outside pocket, finding a dark, inch-wide elastic band. Fighting it with fingers that were still a little clumsy from sleep and stiffening from the cold, he pulled the floppy band over his shaggy mop of dirty-blond hair, struggling under his loose hood to pull it down to his forehead. Tugging and twisting it, Owen made sure to center the tiny LED light positioned on the band directly above his eyes. Then, after switching the light on, he crawled to where he had his CB radio, his coat dragging on his tent floor has he moved through the small space.
From his left pocket, Owen retrieved a compact piece of plastic, a little fatter than a ballpoint pen, square instead of round, with a hexagon-shaped cap. Lifting the plastic shape to his mouth, he grabbed the hexagon cap in-between his lips and pulled, removing the cap, then he pulled the simple, mercury thermometer from its case. Eyeing the last temperature it read, Owen shook the silver liquid down again, putting it into his mouth and maneuvering it under his tongue. He could taste his morning breath from the day before still on the glass, and while he waited, he struggled with the zipper on his coat, trying to pull it closed without too much noise, too much motion.
Owen plucked the thermometer from his mouth and held it up to the light trickling out from his LED head lamp, slowly twisting it between his fingers to get the right angle. It read normal, a sliver less than normal actually, so he popped it back into his mouth, giving it a little more time.
Looking over his shoulder again, but careful not to shine his head lamp directly onto his sleeping guest, Owen watched for movement from Nate, a sign that he might have inadvertently awoken him. The young man, maybe just a handful of years younger than Owen himself didn't move, so Owen turned back to his CB radio, and pulled his thermometer from under his tongue again to recheck his temperature.
"Still normal," he thought to himself. "Thank god."
Holding the tiny shaft of glass between his thumb and forefinger Owen brought it down to his lap, wiping the glass on the thick sweatpants he used as pajamas, cleaning it the way he imagined a barbarian might clean a bloodied sword, then he carefully returned it to its plastic container. Replacing the cap, the thermometer went back into his left pocket for tomorrow's temperature check.
Just to be sure, Owen brought his right hand up to his neck and pushed gently on the soft flesh there, the space just under his jawbone, feeling for the two lumps of his lymph nodes. Moving his fingertips around them in a practiced, careful manner, he determined that they didn't seem swollen, that there were no new lumps that had grown or attached themselves to his glands. He did this every day. Sometimes he did it twice a day. It never hurt to be sure.
He lifted his hands in front of his face and flexed his fingers a few times, "limbering up" he liked to call it, then settled into a kneeling position in front of a small, metal box that was wired to a marine battery sitting next to it. He was hunched over, practically folded in half due to the low ceiling, almost like he was about to pray to the device, a CB he knew pretty well, its handful of dials and its collection of quirks. Using just enough force to ease the volume knob from its off position, to overcome that first little bump of resistance, he was able to switch the radio on. Its gauges lit up, a signal strength meter jumping to maximum and then settling back down again, a burp of static coming out louder than Owen expected. He looked over his shoulder, his hood still not twisting with the motion of his head, but he still didn't see Nate move, so he fixed his attention back on the device.
The CB was an older model, something that was probably picked up in the late 70's or early 80's and then never really used. It had an analog meter flanked by a series of channel and tuning dials, measuring signal strength with a tiny needle that floated over a painted graph, drifting back and forth like seaweed being pulled on a gentle current. Owen watched it for a while, waiting for it to do something, to show any kind of activity, then he grew impatient and reached out to adjust the volume, turning it up a little more, static squawking out as he turned the dial, but otherwise no sound coming from it.
"What are you doing?" came from behind him, the sound unexpected, so sudden that Owen jerked inside of his coat. Nate sounded annoyed, maybe just groggy, not much difference from those two states.
"Morning radio check," Owen answered. He brought his hands to his face and exhaled onto the exposed, fleshy ends of his fingers, squeezing his hands around them to keep them warm, cradling them like something small and fragile. "Sunrise and sundown. Every single day."
Nate groaned into the dark air of the tent, squeezing deeper into the sleeping bag they had found for him.
"It's morning?" he asked, his eyes still squeezed shut.
"It should be soon," Owen answered. He looked over to see the light slowly growing across the outside of his tent wall, inadvertently causing it to grow a little more with a turn of his head, as he aimed the headlamp he was wearing at the same wall his eyes were focused on.
Nate let out a sound. It was something like a sigh, maybe a groan, then he coughed. It was a shallow cough at first, hardly more than an exhalation, then it became harder, a full-body cough that lasted and brought thin tears to his shut eyes. Nate kept his eyes shut, screwed them together even harder as his body shook, making sure to trap the moisture there.
"All of the camps turn their radios on at sunrise and sunset," Owen explained. "Just for a few minutes to conserve the batteries."
"How many camps are out there?" Nate asked, his eyes still shut, his head slowly rolling back and forth across his pillow, maybe stretching the muscles in his neck, maybe trying to find a divot in his pillow that would fit his head. It almost seemed like Nate could be talking in his sleep, but his words were clear, even if they were disinterested.
"Just one," Owen answered.
"Just one," Nate repeated, his tone flat, impossible to read.
Owen tweaked his radio's volume a bit, just a tiny bit, then blew on his fingertips again. Turning to face his guest, Owen explained, "Well, that's not entirely true. What I mean is that I can only communicate with one camp. My CB's range isn't very far, just twenty to thirty miles, depending mostly on weather conditions, so I'm only able to get a hold of the camp over on Longs Peak. If I could get a taller antenna, I might be able to stretch out my distance a little and communicate with other camps out there, but for now it's just the one."
His CB gurgled, but didn't say anything, its signal-strength needle wavering, leaping and falling, twitching like it was wanting to show something more, like it was trying. Ultimately, despite its spasms, it decided to remain silent.
"I used to be able to reach the camp to the south," Owen began to say, then his eyes looked down, unsure if he should say any more. He decided not to, bit his tongue, refusing to say anything about the camp that Joelle had called home before she had come to them, badly injured, half-frozen. Rather than talk about that, talk about what happened to the other camp, Owen decided to focus on the technical, saying, "The problem is the lightning. We have our lightning rod at the edge of camp, so nothing else in our camp can be any higher than it or we risk it becoming a target. I mean, technically, my antenna is already a target for lightning. Everything is, but it's..."
"Yeah, I got it," Nate groaned. He opened his eyes for a moment, looking up at the low ceiling of Owen's tent, burnt orange like its thin walls. His boredom was a tangible thing, solid, right there in the tent with them, taking up even more space than either of the young men, stretching out, not interested in sharing. "Are there any girls at Longs Peak?"
"Women," Nate said. He lifted his head from his pillow, casting his gaze onto Owen. Owen looked back at him, squinting at his guest, confused. Eventually Owen shook his head, like he was shaking away a fly that buzzed to close to his face, so Nate continued, saying, "No? Not your thing? Okay."
"What?" Owen repeated.
"Girls aren't your thing," Nate said, letting his head fall back onto his pillow. "That's cool."
"No," Owen protested, then stopped himself. The furrowed brow expression he wore persisted. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about women," Nate laughed. Owen thought he was immune to Nate's obnoxiousness, his games, but his laughter made Owen's cheeks red with frustration. "You've heard of those, right? God knows this shit-hole doesn't have any."
Owen shook his head again, still a little confused, still annoyed.
"Longs Peak is a camp like ours," he explained, carefully. He paused, unsure, but feeling like he should say something else, something more. "We're all just trying to get by."
The CB radio behind Owen squawked again, a burp of static and shrill feedback noise coming after, causing Owen to turn his attention from Nate to the gauges that moved in time with the sounds. He waited, turned the volume up, then turned it back down again when nothing else announced itself.
"I'm just fucking with you, man," Nate finally said, chuckling again. "Relax."
Owen smiled, then thought better of it, his smile twisting into a bitter grimace. He hated this game. He had played it since he was young, this back and forth, this tension and release, not with Nate, but others like him. Nate would insult him, then offer a half apology. If Owen didn't accept it, the fault would lay with him. It would be Owen who was unreasonable or who held a grudge. If Owen laughed it off, decided to let it go, then Nate would jab at him again, some other mean comment, some nasty insinuation. Then, another apology would come. Not a real apology, not anything sincere, just enough that he could follow it up with something like, "What's your problem, bro? I'm just playing around. You don't have to take everything so personal."
It used to be Chase that egged him on like this. A couple of years older than Nate, Chase was the camp blowhard, the guy who was always pushing, always testing everyone around him. Chase always talked so big, made such huge claims, before he got separated from the rest of the camp during one of their supply runs, then it was like he just deflated.
Owen almost felt bad for Chase. Sympathy wasn't something the older DeWitt brother deserved after a full year of taunts and bravado, a year of snide laughter and insults, but whatever happened to Chase hit him hard. It made him suffer, and as much as Chase might have deserved a little suffering, as much as he deserved to be humiliated for his newfound fear and cowardice, Owen couldn't see someone hurting and enjoy it.
Maybe if Owen had found it in himself to be cruel, maybe if he had pushed back on Chase, Nate wouldn't have stepped in to fill his older brother's role. Maybe if Owen had kicked Chase when he was down, kept kicking him, Nate wouldn't have been emboldened, but Owen couldn't do it. It might have been justice, but it wouldn't have been right.
Owen turned back to the CB, shuffling his body slightly to reorientate himself to the radio, and then he picked up the apple-sized microphone. Holding it to his mouth, Owen pressed the talk button, saying, "Camp Corona calling out to all surviving settlements. This is the sunrise broadcast. Anyone reading me?"
He let go of the talk button, the spring inside of it popping open under his outstretched fingers, just a little more slowly than it did during their short summers. It was getting brighter and brighter in Owen's tent, the sun clearing the peaks to the east, the ideal time for a check-in. The signal meter, however, only swayed softly at the zero end of the scale, moving only because of stars whispering to them across the cosmos, because of the pull of the magnetic poles, or some other hiccup of science that Owen didn't really understand.
"Anyone reading me? This is Camp Corona calling all settlements. Please respond."
"Ouch," Nate offered, still lying on his back, still staring at the roof of the tent. "Getting the cold shoulder from an entire camp. Maybe the entire world, if you think about it. That's pretty harsh."
Owen ignored him, repeating his call into the microphone, adding, "Anyone there?"
He worked the volume knob, cranking it up, hearing just the low, white-noise hiss of nothing. Somehow that was better than just silence.
"Morning check-ins are optional," Owen explained, maybe expecting that Nate would find their system of communication as interesting as he did. "People oversleep sometimes. They have chores and miss the sun-up check. It doesn't mean anything."
He paused, watched the needle sway and drift, listened to the sharp groan of electric silence. Owen wanted to hear an answer, even if he didn't expect it. It was nice to have someone to talk to, even if they kept it brief, per their mutual decision to save their batteries for emergencies. It was nice to be reminded that they weren't alone.
Sometimes it felt like the Longs Peak settlement was on another continent, so far away it was impossible to see, to visit, but the truth was it was only about twenty-three miles away. They could walk there if they had to, but it would mean a hike along the exposed spine of the Rocky Mountains, leapfrogging from peak to peak, always under assault from wind, from cold, the unpredictable danger of a blinding snowstorm blowing in. So, Owen was content to speak with them, to trade a few words with Drew or Leslie, depending on who was monitoring the radio at the time, who was up:
"Any update on Henry?"
"Can you see anything in the lower altitudes?"
"Any good squirrel recipes?"
The answers were never as pleasant as the simple fact that they came. Owen used to like to talk with Micah at Hart's Lake too, but he tried not to think about that too much, about what might have happened to Micah and the others in the camp that only Joelle had walked out of, only Joelle survived, and only just barely.
"This is Camp Corona signing off. We'll be on again at sunset. Stay safe and warm out there."
He reached down and twisted the volume knob back to its off position, that last, little bit of resistance amounting to a satisfying click when he pushed past it. Owen watched as the hidden light that illuminated the signal gauge from behind faded slowly into darkness, the power light also dimming to nothing, the CB going back to sleep again, as quiet and cold as everything else in the world.
"I wish I could find some Ham radio equipment," Owen announced, probably more to himself than Nathan. "We'd need a bigger antenna, but even with basic gear we'd be able to speak to the entire state, maybe even other parts of the country."
"It wouldn't do us any good," Nate answered. He had finally rolled over onto his side, holding his head up with a bent arm, eyeing Owen. Nate was unimpressed by the look of reverence Owen wore as he focused on his CB. "What good does talking do? We'd still be stuck up here, freezing our asses off."
"Maybe," Owen offered. "But, maybe Henry is gone. Maybe there's a cure and the rest of the world just needs to know where to find us. We don't know what might be out there."
"Or maybe they're all dead, just like everyone down in Fraser and Winter Park," Nate argued. "What if you got your precious radio and an antenna large enough to talk to Canada, and the only thing you got back was more static and silence? What if we're it and everyone else is gone?"
"I can't believe that's true," Owen said.
"Yeah, well, just because you believe it, that doesn't mean you're right," Nate grumbled. He straightened his arm, stretching it out and letting his head fall back onto his pillow. "Fuck, man, to think the most fun I've had in weeks was listening to Joelle scream her head off during the fire."
Owen shook his head again.
"No, really," Nate persisted. "That's the best night I've had since the snow came in and I had to literally set myself on fire for it."
Owen didn't answer, just frowned again, his brow furrowed in annoyance.
Nate tried to laugh, but coughed instead, a gritty rattle stuck in his lungs that eventually moved up to get caught in his throat. It sounded thick to Owen's ears, like something heavy.
"You think she screams like that when she's getting plowed?" Nate finally asked, turning to catch Owen's eyes with his own. He wore a wicked grin. "I mean her face is all fucked up, but I'll bet the rest of her is still pretty normal."
"Come on," Owen protested, shaking his head from inside of his coat's puffy hood.
"I'll bet she screams like a banshee when she's getting some," Nate laughed. He lifted his head from his pillow, finally inspired, engaged. "What's Spanish for banshee, Owen?"
Owen shook his head again and Nate just laughed, a long, nasty chuckle.
"You think maybe Angela and Joelle are a thing?" Nate pressed, starting up again. "I mean, being up here is like prison, right? There are no other options. One night it gets a little too cold and something innocent gets out of hand. What do you think? You think Angela knows if Joelle is burnt any place else?"
"Jesus, Nate," Owen whispered.
Nate laughed again. It was the same cruel laugh as before, the laugh he released whenever he tried to verbally back Owen into a corner. Nate let his head fall back onto his pillow, a broad, ugly smile remaining on his face.
It was silent for a long time, Owen trapped on one end of his tent, Nate lying between him and the door. Owen thought about excusing himself, climbing over Nate to get outside, but what was out there? More wind. More cold. So, he stayed put, stuck, searching the inside of his tent with his eyes, looking for something to do, something different than continuing his conversation with Nate.
"What about Stacey, huh?" Nate finally asked, speaking to the roof of the tent. "What kind of weird stuff do you think she and Pat get into in their tent? I mean, you never hear anything from them. You think maybe Pat doesn't last long enough to get Stacey screaming?"
Nate coughed again, this time just a light, shallow grumble of noise and breath.
"Nate, that's enough," Owen offered.
"Or, maybe Pat is some kind of pervert and puts a gag in her mouth or something?" Nate continued, a laugh right there, ready, but not quite spilling out yet. "I bet he gets her on all fours, then puts a sock in her mouth, while he just plows into her from behind."
"Enough!" Owen shouted, stopping Nate, but only for a moment, a brief span. Then more laughter rattled out of the prone boy.
Nate broke his laugh long enough to put his fist in his own mouth, miming the expressions and noises he imagined coming from Stacey. Watching Owen's face twist from shock to fury just made Nate laugh even harder, a laughter that transformed into more coughing.
"You're a piece of garbage," Owen roared, lunging toward the end of the tent, stampeding carelessly over Nate as he moved. Nate just laughed even harder as Owen struggled to yank on his boots.
"Oh, Pat, give me that old, wrinkled cock!" Nate laughed, his voice raised into a mock falsetto, watching Owen hurriedly trying to open his tent and storm outside. "Stick your sock in my mouth and ride me, senior citizen-style!"
Owen didn't bother zipping his tent back up as he exploded outside, stomping though the snow, trying to outrun Nate's laughter.
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