Tree Line - Chapter Five

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Chapter Five

Dave lowered his eyes, unaccustomed to being the center of the camp's attention. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jacket, letting his shoulders slump downward as he looked at the trampled, dirty snow that had just the day before been a pristine sheet of clean white filling the spaces between their tents.

"So, basically, that's what I think we should do," Dave said, softly. Despite his lowered voice, the effort he made to soften his words, his voice still grumbled like thunder, low and powerful, felt more than heard.

No one answered him. Instead, the rest of the survivors at Camp Corona looked to the ground, considering Dave's words, his proposal.

It was late afternoon, the sun having already peaked overhead, already starting its long, downward arc, but the skies were uncharacteristically clear, the rays of the sun mercifully warm. As they stood in a circle around the space they designated for cooking, just outside of their collection of tents, everyone's breath came in thin clouds, puffs of air that signaled every word, but many of them had their coats unzipped. Many of them left their hands bare, no longer hidden in their gloves. It was a rare day, warm, something to enjoy, knowing what might be ahead of them when fall invisibly turned into a long, relentless winter.

Owen was the first to speak, uncomfortable when the camp turned from Dave to focus on him, so he cleared his throat before he started talking. Looking around nervously, he said, "We don't usually do supply runs through the snow."

"I know," Dave said, nodding. "And, you're right, but Angela and I did a quick inventory of our individual supplies, as well as what we have stored in the supply tent, and I'm not convinced we can make it to the spring with what we have saved up here. What we lost in last night's fire really hurt us. Not only are we going to be below what we need in terms of food, I'm not sure we even have enough clothes to get Chase and Nate through the winter. We barely had the supplies we needed before the fire. Now? We're short on food, clothing, and even more short on space."

"Don't we have a spare tent?" Owen asked. He gestured toward their supply tent, standing dark and alone, just to the east of Owen and Dave's tents.

Dave opened his mouth to answer, but Angela stopped him, saying, "We used to, but we've been using it to patch the tents we already have up. If I couldn't sew the holes the wind tore open, I'd take pieces out of our spare. I mean, I mostly just took chunks from the rainfly, but a tent without a fly doesn't leave much of a shelter for someone up here. We all know how rough the winters can be. A rainfly doesn't do a lot, but it does provide a little extra protection from the wind."

Owen frowned, but nodded.

They were silent for a moment. Standing no more than a few feet from each other during their impromptu meeting, each of them could just turn their heads to look at their camp, to see the entirety of it. For some of them, individuals who had to forage on their own before joining the group, it was a paradise, but there was no denying that their camp was small, hardly more than just a speck when compared to what humanity had once been.

"What about emptying the supply tent and moving Chase and Nate in there?" Stacey asked.

Dave nodded.

"I thought of that," he said, his voice still low. He was trying to persuade the group with his words, not the power of his voice, nor the intimidating display of his physical size. He added, "We could just empty our supplies out into the snow, but that doesn't solve the issue of the food we lost."

Chase, standing on the opposite side of the circle that the members of Camp Corona had formed for their meeting, mirrored Dave's body language, his hands pushed deep into the bottoms of the pockets of his coat. Like Dave, his shoulders lowered, and he hung his head down, his chin in his chest.

He said something, so soft it was maybe just the wind, but then he felt everyone's eyes on him. Looking up, seeing everyone look at him, he frowned. Gus, who was sitting in a flattened chunk of snow next to Dave, sniffed in Chase's direction.

"I said, I'm sorry," he mumbled, just barely louder, a couple of his fellow campers still not hearing him.

"No one is blaming anyone here," Dave replied, quickly, his eyes moving from each member of their camp, maybe stopping anyone from doing just what he had just claimed they wouldn't do. "The thing is, the longer we wait, the harder this is all going to be. We have no idea when the next storm is going to blow through here, so I think we need to make it a priority to get down to Fraser, find what we need, and get back before we accumulate any more snow. It's not going to take very long for it to get so deep we no longer have that option."

Angela turned her head, her eyes traveling over her fellow campers the way that Dave's had just done.

"He's right," she finally added. Her tone was bitter, biting. "The weather is only going to get worse. We all know that. The sooner we go into town and replace what we lost, the better off we'll be. I'm not excited about making the trip, but like Dave said, the longer we wait, the more difficult it is going to be."

Owen nodded, agreeing, then he looked up to see if anyone else was nodding or if he was the only person who felt like Dave and Angela's plan made sense. He saw just a couple of other nods, unsure if that strengthened his position or weakened it.

"How soon are you thinking we should go?" Owen asked.

"Tomorrow," Dave answered, immediately. He lifted his eyes and watched for signs of surprise, for recoils or nods. "I know it's soon, but we don't know how long this weather is going to hold. I'd like to try to go while the skies are still pretty clear."

Owen nodded again, this time not bothering to look to his fellow campers.

Like a few others, Pat's parka was unzipped, revealing his overalls and an ugly, plaid flannel shirt underneath, baggy under his arms. On his waist he had a fanny pack clipped around him. It wasn't a fashion statement. Even after the fall of humanity it looked ridiculous, but Pat wore it everywhere, the tiny bag filled with gauze, tape, scissors, and gloves. He took his job as the camp's medic very seriously, carrying his supplies everywhere, the bag hanging taut under his pot belly.

"Well, how many of us are going down?" Pat asked. It was the first time he had spoken during their impromptu meeting.

Dave shot a look to Angela, not seeing anything useful in her expression, and then he frowned.

"I don't think we all need to go," he offered. "But, on the other hand, the more people we take, the more we can carry back with us. I was kind of hoping I could get some volunteers."

Owen smiled, a sly, even bashful grin, and then he said, softly, "Well, I certainly don't want to go, but you can count on me anyway."

"Thanks, Owen. I appreciate that."

Pat smiled beneath his white beard and gave Owen a reassuring, almost fatherly nod. It was equal parts attaboy and genuine admiration.

After a long beat, a moment filled with expectation but no other words, Pat finally offered, "I guess I'll tag along too."

Angela shot a glance over to Dave, dismissive, something too close to a teenager's eye roll to come from a grown woman, but either Dave didn't catch it or he ignored it completely.

"I'm glad to get your help, Pat," Dave said. "Thanks for joining in."

Dave looked around, searching the faces of the rest of their camp for a sign of intention, for a hint of coming words and promises. It looked like Joelle's eyes were still puffy from her long night of crying, her long dark hair pulled over half of her face, hiding her scars, her angry, puckered skin. She didn't meet Dave's gaze, just stared at the snow, at their feet, quiet as a ghost, a fading dream.

Stacey stood next to Pat, her hands in her pockets, her coat still zipped. Like Joelle, Stacey didn't make eye contact with anyone else, instead of having her face lowered to the snow, Stacey's face was lifted to catch the rays of the sun, her eyes taking in the empty fields of rock and snow that stretched out around them.

Nate stood next to his brother, kicking at a little piece of snow with the toe of one of his boots, moving his mouth like he was chewing gum. Gus swung his head up to look at Dave as he scanned the small group and Dave smiled, leaning down to give Gus a scratch on his neck.

"No," Chase said, breaking the silence. Like before, his statement came softly, carried on the smallest gust of wind, a hiccup of breath so tiny, so delicate, it might have been nothing at all, but then he started shaking his head, slowly at first, building in speed. "No."

"Chase, you don't have to go," Dave said, trying to match the volume of Chase's first tone, low and soft, gentle. "It's okay."

"No!" Chase spat at him, his voice louder, a shout, his face red with the effort of yelling back at Dave.

"Chase," Dave started, a little more urgently, a little louder, but still softened by concern.

It was enough. Chase lowered his gaze again, lowered his tone, but he continued, whispering, "You can't go down there. You can't. Don't you understand? You can't go down there."

Dave took a step forward, reaching out to console the younger man, comfort him, but he could feel the fear and rage coming off of Chase, even if he just looked hollow and deflated. It stopped Dave in his tracks.

"I don't think you should go. None of you should go down there," he continued. His fear grew as he spoke, catching in his throat, smashing his words into sob-filled pieces. "The Statues are down there. None of you believe me, but they are there. I know they are! They'll follow you back here and kill all of us!"

Chase lifted his face and although he was controlled, his eyes were wild. He turned his head as he scanned the camp for an escape, somewhere to hide, but instead of seeing an escape route, instead of finding shelter, his eyes found his ruined tent: a burnt out crater of ash and melted plastics that looked frozen in a scream. The sight of it, curled up at the edges where his tent walls might have been, its center thick with the decimated remains of his life, stopped him, made him freeze. It was a slap across the face, a shock to the system that overrode the creeping fear that bubbled up inside of him, threatened to grow into a panic. It wasn't until that moment that he could feel his thick, quick tears race down his reddened cheeks, feel them turn to salt in the corners of his eyes and on his eyelashes. Where did the tears come from? He could feel the heat that built so quickly inside of his own body start to retreat, to fade a little, even though his face remained red and angry.

"I'm sorry," he offered, softly again, little more than a whisper again.

Then he turned and stumbled off, clumsy on his feet like he was drunk, like his rapidly modulating emotions had robbed him of his strength, teetering and swaying as he made his way towards Dave's tent.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, leaving the circle of campers, his tears starting again, this time slower, maybe lighter, but more persistent. These tears would keep coming.

Gus shot another look up at Dave, then he leaned forward enough to lift his haunches from the snow and trotted after Chase.

Dave looked up, watching Chase and Gus disappear into his tent, and he smiled weakly, trying to put a brave face on it, trying to lighten a mood that had suddenly soured around them. Chase had talked about the Statues before. They were mirages as far as anyone else was concerned, vague demons that tormented his dreams and his visions of what lay below in the lower altitudes. He had claimed to have seen them when he was separated from the rest of the group, claimed to have been trapped by one, but no one else had seen a thing. No one else had believed that the scratches on Chase's face had been caused by anything more than clumsiness when his fear completely smashed his rationality and he sprinted through the dark, through the greedy branches of trees.

"Okay," Dave finally said, casting just one more glance at his tent, now closed, holding the young man and his dog. The word came out of his mouth slowly, stretched out like Dave was using it to sprinkle breadcrumbs, like he was trying to leave a path for all of them to lead them back to their previous conversation. "Anyone else want to go down into town?"

He looked around the group again. Owen lifted his eyes and did the same thing, looking at each person, waiting.

"Nate?" Dave asked, his eyes on Chase's younger brother.

Nate didn't look up.

"Stacey?"

Everyone's eyes passed from Nate's downturned face to Stacey, watched as she just shook her head. The wordless expression summoned a snort from Angela whose eyes burnt a hole through the younger woman when Stacey declined to go.

"Typical," Angela spit.

Like he had done with Chase, Dave leaned towards Angela, raised a hand to stop her from saying more, to try to keep things calm and civil. Angela had already turned away, on her way to Dave's tent, her feet filling the shoe falls Chase had left during his own march, seconds before.


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