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Tree Line - Chapter Eighteen

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Chapter Eighteen

Dave lifted his knitted scarf from his neck to place it over his mask, squinting into the wind that slipped through the trees of the nearby woods. The snow had just started, carried on the wind that had been threatening them all day, flakes coming in fast and heavy, so hard that they felt like a bombardment.

The snow had made Dave’s job easier. Angela fled the building using the front door, the same door they had all used to enter the facility, and so she had left a clear set of footprints like breadcrumbs in the fresh, growing sheets of white. Dave simply followed the path she had left, his feet trampling her footprints, sprinting over what looked like a simple, slow stroll, based on the distance between the steps he could see.

“Angela!” he shouted, his words being taken by the wind and tossed away, sent spinning off in other directions, away from where he wanted his voice to go. It echoed inconsistently, bouncing off different surfaces, scattered and then concentrated by each hard blast of wind. He tried again, tried being louder, yelling, “Angela, come back!”

Dave ran down a slight decline, an asphalt driveway that would bring visitors and their cars up to the main doors, the fresh snow like marbles over the layers of frozen water left by the previous storm. The sudden slickness made Dave slow, flailing his arms, trying to keep his balance as he slid over the icy, powder-covered asphalt.

“Angela!” he shouted again, the howls of the wind singing louder still, a chorus that drowned out Dave’s attempt at a solo.

Somehow he heard heavy steps coming down behind him, steps that slowed and then came to a stop. Still fighting to keep his balance on the icy, slippery decline, Dave turned to see Owen jogging toward him, his heavy boots stomping down the ridges and features of Dave’s own trail of footprints. Behind Owen, Pat and Chase also came sprinting in his direction, bursting free from the dark building.

“Where do you think she went?” Owen shouted into the same wind that tore apart Dave’s words.

Dave pointed at the path that Angela left for them, her footprints catching slivers of the inconsistent moonlight, highlighting the contours of each footfall with thin shadows that somehow stood out even in the growing darkness of the new night. Owen squinted at where Dave was pointing, his head rolling around inside of his coat’s over-stuffed hood, trying to find what Dave meant, then he saw it. He gave Dave a quick nod, then continued past him, following the path like a bloodhound tracking a scent.

Chase had sped into a full run, somehow impervious to the unsure footing that hampered the others, blowing past Dave, and then shooting after Owen who was putting more and more distance between them all. Not even seeing the footsteps, Chase just lurched forward, maybe thinking that Owen had seen something, that he had answers when he was actually only chasing clues and best guesses.

“Now what do we do?” Pat asked. He was beside Dave before Dave expected it, just suddenly there, shouting into the wind, lifting his arm to shield his face from the snow that came down on him in the form of tiny knives.

“I don’t know,” Dave panted, surprised that he was already out of breath. “I just don’t know.”

Dave’s mind was moving faster than his body, but without food, without rest, his brain was sluggish like it was treading through much deeper snow than what surrounded them. Shouldn’t they stick together as a group? If Angela had just left, and was only moving at the leisurely walk her footprints suggested, did they really need to run to find her? They’d need to conserve their strength for the hike home in the morning, need to conserve whatever energy reserves they had for collecting still more supplies, for finding a way to divide things up so that Angela would have what she needed. His mind took a turn, a dark one, and Dave began to wonder if they should even be going out into the darkness to find her, given that they were planning on sending her away. Wasn’t Angela doing them a favor by leaving on her own?

Dave shuddered at that last thought, finding it colder than even the wind that pressed against his body. Pragmatic to a fault, Dave sometimes felt his mind slip away from him into areas that were darker and more logical than even he was willing to admit. It scared him sometimes, this overriding logic, this slip into simple math. He didn’t like that he sometimes needed to stop and try to factor in his own humanity, that he needed to remind himself that they were all more complicated than the simple, binary decision-making his brain tended towards. That descent into plain logic always happened quickly, so fast it surprised him, like when he’d be in his tent reading out loud to Gus, and then he would suddenly begin to wonder how many days of food they would get if they were forced to eat the dog.

It was no surprise that Dave took to coding. It wasn’t that he was particularly interested in computers or what they represented. They didn’t open new windows for him, unlock new ideas about the world or himself. There was just something about a computer’s logic that clicked in his mind. For Dave, coding represented a way to express a thought. It was a straightforward process of breaking down and recognizing a problem, reducing it into smaller, easily digested pieces, then working over each piece, inspecting it, turning it over and looking at it from every angle until every single facet made sense, until it became an answer that solved a problem.

Looking at him now, trying to imagine a man as large as Dave, hulking and powerful, working his thick fingers over the tiny, square keys of a laptop, might have seemed ridiculous. It seemed like a hilarious joke, this literal mountain man with curly, crazy hair making his livelihood as a coder, but the few people who knew him, knew him well enough to have seen the kernel that laid at the center of his personality understood. It wasn’t about the computer, the opportunities found in the interconnectivity of the electronic world, or even the money his slowly expanding catalog of mobile apps provided him. It was about the clarity. Dave appreciated that, appreciated shining a light on a problem that felt too big, too complex, and turning it into something smaller, something easier to grasp.

“We have to find her,” Dave finally said, turning to yell into Pat’s ear.

Pat gave him a look, hard to decipher, but critical of him nonetheless. Dave could see that much, at least.

“I’m serious, Pat,” Dave insisted. The look Dave returned to Pat was hard, determined, a granite resolve that Pat could see even with most of Dave’s face hidden behind his mask and scarf. “This isn’t what I wanted. She deserves a chance. I wanted to give her that chance. We’re not going to let her die like this.”

Pat took a breath, swallowed down a handful of words that had just filled his mouth, ready to spill out, then he shut his eyes and nodded.

“Fine,” he finally said, opening his eyes again, meeting Dave’s gaze. “Let’s find her.”

They started after Owen and Chase, the two of them trailing behind the younger men, all four of them following Angela’s steps to the main road. Their small group moved across that narrow stretch of asphalt, then jogged to the south edge of the tennis courts that were there, empty metal cages lacking even their nets, their painted lines hidden and meaningless beneath the snow.

The snow that had blown against the tennis court was thicker, taller where it had hit the mesh green fabric woven around the chain link. Angela’s footsteps were deeper there, easier to find, so the four of them sped up, increasing their pace a tiny bit as they moved along the courts. They followed Angela’s steps to where the sidewalk gave way under their own feet and became just dirt and low, rugged shrubs; where it should have become a grass field, but didn’t, spaces like that not worth the expense of watering in the wind-blown, thirsty mountains of Colorado.

“Is she heading back to the camp?” Pat asked. He lifted his arm to point at her path, showing the arc of her trip, and then he pointed to where their camp lay almost ten miles away on the horizon.

Dave felt the muscles in his neck and face tighten as he watched the route that Pat was tracing.

“Jesus, I hope not,” he said, considering the implications, the dangers. If Angela made it back to the camp ahead of them, made the decision for them before they had a chance to weigh in, she could infect Camp Corona with Henry, could eventually infect them all.

They marched forward. To their left was a wide pond where summer visitors could try their hand at fishing. Dried cattails stood against the wind, fought the snow that blew against them, the reedy plants drawing a jagged border between the pond and the road, marking the gap between the marsh and the tennis courts. Angela’s steps swung her away from the pond, maybe not trusting the thickness of its ice, tracing towards the woods they had walked through on their way to the condo.

“This way!” Chase screamed back at them. He pointed with one arm, gesturing wildly with his other, beckoning them closer, urging them to move faster.

Dave could see that Chase wasn’t wearing a hat, didn’t have gloves covering his fingers as he gestured into the snow and wind. That dark side of himself, the one that focused on the logic of every conversation, the rational argument, thought of the dilemma of saving a drowning person, how a panicked person could end up drowning two if the second person wasn’t prepared to let the downing person die. He shook his head, tried to let that logic go, despite its persistent whispers.

“She went this way!” Chase shouted again, continuing to gesture ahead of them.

Chase broke into a sprint, Owen speeding up to a jog again to try to keep up. Chase’s increased pace rippled back to Pat and Dave who fought to keep the other two men in view.

It was a short jog, maybe two to three hundred yards from the edge of the pond to the first few trees. They were aspens, standing tall, their pale bark barren and smooth and clean until a handful of feet above the men’s heads where their branches spread out to the sunlight that sustained them in the spring and in the summer. The great field of aspens was sprinkled with a few pines here and there, just a few trees that hadn’t been choked out by the more dominant trees, rare splashes of dark greens and browns in a field of white-skinned stalks.

Dave remembered reading that an entire grove of aspens were literally just one tree, the entire thicket a single, connected organism, something powerful and unfathomably huge. Knowing that, it felt like something intelligent was hidden beneath the snow. Walking through the thicket felt like trespassing to Dave, treading on an ancient thing, a dangerous, sleeping entity, but it couldn’t be helped. They had to find Angela.

Their pace slowed inside of the trees. Chase paused, putting his hand on one of the cold trees as he searched for the trail of footsteps, steadying himself as he came to a stop, as he wheezed in the frozen air and looked at the ground to find the next direction of their path.

It was becoming harder to follow Angela’s footsteps, her trail of breadcrumbs, inside the thicket of trees. What little moonlight there was, peeking out from between the snow clouds that raced and roared above them, was cut into uneven slats by the tall, thin trees, patches of darkness and a thin gray light laying side by side across the ground.

The snow was as unreliable in the trees as it had been earlier in the day. The aspens and the occasional pines fought the winds, cleaving each gust into smaller chunks, making it hard for the snow to spread evenly across the ground, making it harder for it to settle in every space, every plain. They would follow Angela’s footsteps for eight feet, ten, then her steps would disappear in a patch of snowless ground, the four men losing her path in a thick, spongy carpet of old, fallen leaves and dry, brittle needles.

“This way!” Chase repeated, kept repeating, as he jumped from one patch of snow to another.

Their route was becoming more erratic, no longer a straight, easy line, Angela’s steps winding around trees as she moved through the aspens, turning one way for a while, then going another. Dave breathed a sigh of relief when he realized they were slowly veering off from the direction of camp, Angela headed more to the east than the southeast path that would take them home. He didn’t dare say anything about it, didn’t bring up their change in direction to Pat, instead concentrating on the path and not its meaning.

The space between the men collapsed with each pause that they needed to find Angela’s new direction, the four of them becoming a group again. The wind roared above them, the snow coming faster, heavier, blowing over their heads like a solid curtain of white above the tops of the aspen trees. Dave could see how the snow was coming down heavier, faster even in the shelter of the thicket of trees. Again, he said nothing, just followed Chase, followed Owen, as they ran after the footsteps they could find, paused when they couldn’t find them, then ran again once they located new, fresh sets of footprints.

During one of their stops, another pause to reorient themselves, Dave turned around and looked behind them.

“Wait!” he shouted, lifting one of his arms, shaking it a little. “Everyone, hold up!”

It was hard for any of them to see anything through the trees. Each individual tree was thin, hardly anything at all, but together they created an almost solid wall in the space behind them. The falling snow and the blowing winds contributed to the poor visibility, the flakes becoming a vast sheet of static projected in front of the uneven wall of trees. Dave opened his eyes wider, then squinted into the wind, trying to adjust his eyes so that he could see further, to somehow see through everything that was in front of him, but all he found was still more trees and snow.

“What is it?” Pat asked. He was panting, the breast of his coat heaving up and down with each deep breath, each pull of air that never felt like enough.

“The building,” Dave answered, as if that was enough, as if that explained everything. Then, seeing the blank, questioning looks in the eyes of the others, he added, “I can’t see the condo. Does anyone else see it?”

He took a step, just one step, then two, as if a couple of feet would somehow improve his vision. He ducked, moving closer to the ground, then stretched up higher, trying for a better vantage point. None of his small adjustments helped to clear a path for his eyes.

“Come on!” Chase shouted. His voice was getting weaker, scratchy and thin from his constant shouts, from the frozen temperatures of the air he drew into his lungs. “We have to be close now!”

Chase turned, pointing his face into the trees that stood above them, yelling, “Angela! Angela!”

“We can’t afford to get lost out here,” Dave shot back at him, interrupting his cries. “Just hold on a minute!”

“No. We’re close! I can feel it,” Chase insisted, facing Dave again. Chase was moving faster, talking faster, filled with a manic, desperate kind of energy that was almost visible, dripping from him like the sweat that was collecting under his scalp and inside of his coat. “We can’t stop now. We have to find her!”

Dave turned towards the younger man, seeing how red his face was getting from the cold, from his exertion, seeing how blue Chase’s hands were getting, all of it visible even in the unreliable light of the moon.

“We can’t get lost out here,” he repeated. “Not with a storm blowing in.”

Dave pointed up into the sky, pointing at the thick snow that blew over the trees, the snow that trickled down between the gaps in the dried, vacant foliage. He stopped himself from saying more, but the look in Chase’s eyes, the desperation, made him reconsider, made him press the issue with the seriousness of their situation.

“We could all freeze to death if we get careless,” he shouted. “We need to slow down. We won’t be any help to Angela if we get lost out here.”

“Can’t we just follow our footsteps back to the building?” Owen offered. He pointed at the ground, at the overlapping, chaotic mass of tracks the four of them had left, five sets of tracks if they counted Angela’s older set of footprints.

“In this wind, we can’t rely on them,” Dave pressed, that pragmatism coming back to him, exerting its strength, its logic. “They could fill up with snow. The wind could cover them up and then we’d be stranded out here in the dark.”

Pat grimaced under his painter’s mask, his breath coming out around its edges and through the dense paper material in weak, thin clouds.

“Dave is right,” he said, his voice dripping with bitterness, frustration. He took a handful of extra breaths, still trying to fill his lungs, wheezing more than breathing.

“No!” Chase yelled, turning to Pat, then back to Dave again. His body shook with his manic energy, so much he looked like he might start jumping up and down like an angry child. “We have to keep moving!”

“We just need to figure out where we are,” Dave insisted. “Once we do that, we can keep looking.”

“We have to go now!” Chase cried, shrill. He gestured in the direction they were traveling, then he spun around, pointing in another direction, then another, as if Angela were appearing and reappearing all around them. “The longer we wait, the further away she’s getting!”

Pat took a step towards the younger man, casting a quick glance toward Dave, then said, “You’re going to need to calm down.”

Dave could see Pat’s posture, the way he was leaning towards Chase, could hear that his usual, almost characteristic patience looked to be wearing thin.

“It’s my fault,” Chase wailed, red-faced from running and screaming. “We have to find her, because this is my fault. It’s all my fault!”

Owen was closest to Chase, the two of them running together since leaving the condo. He reached out, put his hand on Chase’s shoulder, and said, softly, “Hey, it’s going to be okay.”

“No!” Chase shouted, spinning around, throwing his arm up from his side to knock Owen’s hand away.

“Easy,” Owen replied, withdrawing his arm, taking a step backward to put some space between him and Chase. “Pat is right. Let’s all just calm down.”

“You don’t understand!” Chase pressed. He lunged forward, planting both hands on Owen’s chest and giving him a hard shove that sent him backward.

Owen stumbled, his boots moving fast through the snow as his feet struggled to keep up with his backward motion, his barely contained stumble eventually stopping when he backed into one of the nearby aspen trees. He hit the trunk hard, not enough to do more than change the expression on his face, going from shock to anger in an instant, but the shove had been hard enough that he could feel the bumps and knobs of the tree’s hardened bark through his puffy, oversized coat. The impact had been hard enough to leave an impression of the tree on his skinny back, even if just for a second.

That was when Dave stepped forward, moving to stand between the two young men, separating them. He had his back to Owen as he leveled the full weight of his gaze on Chase, his words carrying even more weight, “You need to calm down, Chase. Right now or I’ll put you down. Don’t think for a moment that I’m not prepared to do it.”

Owen, who had been trying to stand, pushing his weight against the tree to get himself standing on his own again, froze. Pat didn’t dare move either, all eyes on Chase and Dave. The two men had their hands curled into fists at their sides, their shoulders up, ready. For a moment it looked like Chase was about to test Dave, to challenge his threat, but after a few seconds of indecision, a few seconds of time where things could still go either way, Chase took a step backward, moving away from Dave, breaking his heavy gaze and looking away. The younger man’s shoulders lowered, his bare, blue fists opening at his sides, unclenching stiffly in the frozen air.

“We can’t have gone too far,” Pat said, trying to change the topic, working the problem now that Chase had control of himself again. “Maybe Owen and I can go back a little ways and see if we can find the building from further back.”

“No,” Dave argued, shaking his head. His tone held the stern residue of his threat to Chase, still tense, unbending. “We need to stick together. I don’t want to have to find three people out here instead of just one. Let’s all head back. We’ll follow our footsteps until we can see the building, then we’ll come back this way, marking our route as we go.”

Chase opened his mouth to protest, his mask changing shape as he moved the muscles of his face underneath it, but then he shut it again when he saw the look that Dave gave him.

The larger man turned his eyes back to the path behind them, their footsteps through the snow and thick, wet leaves. He couldn’t see anything in the distance, couldn’t see anything through the seemingly endless field of trees, so his eyes fell, instead searching their immediate space, looking for distinguishing features like stones or broken tree trunks. There was nothing, just the trees, countless tree trunks surrounding them, stretching up to the sky, so he started looking for anything else he could find: branches, rocks, hoping to find even a pile of dark, mountain dirt that he might be able to use as a kind of temporary paint. His shoulders fell when all he could see was snow, mostly thin spans of it, and dry needles, beds of decaying leaves, piled thick, thicker than the snow, the ground hidden beneath it all.

“Shit,” he whispered to himself, but still loud enough that the others could hear him over the roaring cries of the wind.

Chase, calm for a moment, bullied into calm, started to shake again, vibrating from his coiled, reserved energy.

“Angela!” he shouted, turning around, facing the way they had been going, then the way they had come, yelling in other directions, trying to summon her from the darkness. “Angela!”

“This is bad,” Pat said, stating the obvious, stating what the three of them might have been trying to keep from Chase, trying to keep from saying out loud.

Dave made a face under his mask that he was thankful none of the others could see. It was bad, maybe even worse than that, and Dave’s pragmatism kept telling him they were risking themselves for no reason, risking all three of them for someone who was essentially already dead. If she had been infected, if Henry had found her in the dark hallways of the condo, she wouldn’t have much time left anyway.

He saw something on the ground, a little bump of dark grey that stuck out, a jagged and hard angle piercing the snow from underneath. He kneeled, brushing the snow away, trying to uncover it. Digging through the wet, brown and gray leaves, Dave uncovered a rock about the size of his hand, maybe a little larger, a spur jutting out from the side. Pulling it free from its spot in the ground, he stood, repositioning the stone in his hand, making it a tool, the jagged bump turned outward.

Moving beside one of the nearby aspens, he pressed the stone against the thin bark, pressing hard enough to draw an ugly scar around it as he walked in a circle around the pale stalk.

“We’ll carve circles on the trees,” he said, “every five or six feet. We’ll use this to find our way, to make a path back.”

He pointed back to where they had come from, singling out another tree. Pat nodded. Owen just looked down at the ground after giving Dave’s newly scarred tree a quick glance.

Dave started back, treading over their many footsteps, ignoring their dog-legged path through the thicket of trees, the unnecessary detours and bends. About seven or eight feet along their path, he hurriedly started to carve another circle around another tree trunk, his inspiration giving him energy, hope.

“No,” Chase argued, following Dave as he worked back towards the condo. “We’ll lose too much time!”

Dave turned around, finding Chase already too close to him, the younger man’s body language aggressive again, tight. Dave could feel his own muscles constricting inside of him, reflexively, happening without his mind’s permission.

“She might be infected, Chase,” Dave snapped. “You saw that she wasn’t wearing her mask! You know what that means. Having the four of us freeze to death out here looking for her doesn’t change that.”

“You’re a bastard!” Chase growled, getting even closer, his breath hot on Dave’s face even through his mask.

“I’m not going to die for her!” Dave yelled back, leaning in, the two of them only inches apart, shouting into each other’s faces, the wind howling around them. “Not tonight. Not ever. She took her mask off, Chase! She came out here alone. She made that choice for herself, not us, and I’m not going to endanger any one of us because of her bad decisions!”

The two of them were silent, staring at each other, maybe looking for a sign of weakness, a stronger sign of aggression, a reason to start swinging. Neither of them saw anything to act on, so they just stared, frozen, ready, the wind gusting overhead, moaning and crying out.

“I can’t leave her behind,” Chase finally said, his voice lowered to just a whisper. “I can’t. This is my fault, Dave. This is all because of me.”

Dave lifted his arm, putting his hand on Chase’s arm, trying to give him a reassuring squeeze through his coat, trying to be anything but threatening as the tension between them slowly deflated.

“I know you’re worried, but you’ve got to think of your own safety,” Dave said, trying to match the softness of Chase’s tone. “It sounds harsh. I know it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, but it is. Chase, we have to take care of ourselves first. We can’t help anyone else if we don’t.”

Chase’s face fell, his head hung low. He made a soft noise, a sharp, but quiet pull of his breath, and Dave could feel Chase’s body shaking through his coat.

“I’m sorry, Chase,” Dave said, “but I’m not going to lose anyone else tonight.”

“I’m sorry too,” Chase said, starting to sob quietly, not lifting his head, unable to move with the weight of Dave’s eyes on him, the weight of Dave’s hand on his shoulder, just looking down at both of their feet. “I’m so sorry, Dave. This is all my fault.”

Dave wasn’t sure how to answer, so he just gave the younger man another squeeze, hoping to say what he couldn’t with his touch.

They stood like that for a long time, then Chase lifted up his face, looking back at Dave with puffy, red eyes, their pink lines even more stark in the thickening darkness of the night. The exposed parts of his face were almost as red as his eyes, blasted by the wind, scrubbed raw by the cold.

“I’m sorry, Dave,” he whispered. Then, with one of his raw, frozen hands, he reached up and removed the mask he wore over his mouth and nose. His eyes locked on Dave’s, he pulled in a deep, long breath, and said, “I’m sorry, but I won’t leave her behind.”

Copyright ©2021 by Robb Neumann. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share links, but no part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written consent of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations in critical reviews or articles.

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