Tree Line - Chapter Twenty-One

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Chapter Twenty-One

Pat pulled off the glove on his right hand and lifted it to his neck, digging his exposed fingers under his thick jacket collar and scarf to scratch at the soft whiskers that were matted and moist against his neck.

It felt good to be out of the wind. The dark, mostly empty condominium where they had found shelter was still cold, easily below freezing, but at least they were out of the snow and wind, protected by walls and sliding glass doors that took the brunt of the assault, shaking and vibrating as the wind smashed against them over and over again.

Pat pulled on the zipper of his coat, opening it up a bit, giving him better access to his sweaty neck and the long, white wisps of his beard there. His fingers found a bit of itchy skin, then another bit, the sensation of needing to be scratched moving around each time he relieved it, a kind of Whack-A-Mole of sensations that came from being too hot in such a cold place.

He was laying on the couch in the same unit that Chase and Angela had rested in, a couple of the blankets they retrieved from multiple units spread out over him. Dave was in the bedroom space in the loft overlooking the unit, tucked between old, stale, dusty-smelling sheets, tossing and turning enough that Pat knew he wasn’t asleep yet. Owen? Owen was standing guard at the sliding doors, looking out into the darkness, watching for signs of either Chase or Angela, or perhaps, looking for something much worse out on the tree line, obscured, looking back at him.

The poor kid was wound up. They all were, Pat could admit that much, but Owen had been spooked by whatever he thought he had seen in the trees. Pat tried to calm him down, tried to reassure him, but he could see a nervous energy behind the younger man’s eyes which jerked from place to place, an anxious energy that the rest of his body only just barely contained, just barely held back.

Dave and Pat, on the other hand, were calm. What shook and echoed inside of them was only frustration and bitterness, a growing despondence at what happened to their tiny group, what they would have to explain when they got back to the near empty Camp Corona.

Pat wasn’t sure what he would say to Nathan. Dave had probably already decided it was his responsibility to break the news to Chase’s brother, to tell him what happened, but as he laid in the darkness of the empty condo, Pat started to think that he wasn’t going to let Dave take the weight of that conversation onto his shoulders.

Pat knew that Dave blamed himself for what happened. Of course he did. The rest of their group, Pat included, were perfectly happy letting Dave do their thinking for them. They were more than happy to let Dave take on all of their short and long-term planning, settle their disputes, and lead them whenever they were faced with a difficult choice. They had all put him in charge, just by remaining silent, and so everything fell on Dave. It was time, Pat thought, to step up. He would talk to Nate when they got back to the camp. It would be a hard conversation. Nate would probably blame them, all three of them, for the choice his brother had made, but Pat wouldn’t leave that to Dave. It was time, past time, for Pat to help.

Done relieving the creeping, electric sensation that crawled over his neck and the top of his chest, Pat pulled the zipper of his coat up again. Then, using his bare hand, he patted in the darkness, trying to find the soft, thick fabric that he pushed down his body when he freed his hand to scratch at his neck. Not feeling the top hem of his blanket, surprised by how it could have gotten so far away from him, he lifted his head and looked for it, steering his hand in the dark towards a lighter shade of shadow, a softer, but more solid darkness.

He caught the silhouette of his hand in the darkness and lifted it in front of his eyes, holding it up to look at the back of his fingers and the thick veins that clumped and twisted under the skin that covered his knuckles. Like most of his fellow survivors he almost always had gloves on in an attempt to keep his fingers warm. It felt odd to catch a glimpse of his hands, weird to be reminded of the distance he felt from his own body, but as he looked at his fingers what he saw were his grandfather’s hands.

It was the fingernails. Wide and flat, ridged with long, parallel lines, just like his grandfather’s nails. He first started noticing them in the later half of his forties and early fifties, first started seeing reminders of his grandfather’s hands, feeling equal parts amused and saddened.

Pat didn’t have a father growing up, at least, not for very long. His family had a long history of alcohol abuse, a direct inheritance that ran through every male in his family tree, straight into Pat’s dad. It was that wasteful inheritance that took Pat’s dad away when he veered his car into oncoming traffic one night while coming home from the bar.

Pat’s grandpa stepped up after the dust and sorrow of the funeral had settled, trying to be the father that Pat needed, tried to be the father that he hadn’t been for Pat’s dad while he struggled with his own addictions. Pat was just a boy when he lost his dad, not even into double-digits yet, so the two of them spent a lot of time together, usually after school or during the long, hot summers when Pat’s friends were all off at camp and he was left at home with a mother that had to work to provide for him and his sister.

Despite the terrible, selfish examples, the harsh reminders of what booze did to his family, Pat also had a few years when he started to drink too much, started to drink too often. Those kinds of decisions, those slow moving mistakes, were easier to manage as a younger man. Pat held down a decent job. He had a comfortable place to live and a pretty, smart woman who he was seeing, a woman that was close enough to him to start making ultimatums about his drinking and who knew his family well enough to reach out for help. It was Pat’s grandpa that stepped in to help the young man sober up, to talk him through the urges and cravings that seemed to seep into his nights like ink dropped into water, urges that grew thicker as the night got darker.

It wasn’t an easy change and for a while he stumbled more than he succeeded. Eventually that pretty, smart woman got tired of the mistakes, grew tired of the excuses, so it was Pat’s grandfather that listened as Pat cried his way through the loss of that relationship and the woman he loved.

Pat’s grandpa had been there through it all, Pat’s North Star, until shortly after Pat’s sobriety had finally stuck, until he had finally started to succeed in a struggle that had only been a string of loses. That was when Pat’s grandpa had a fall, a tumble that led to a bout of pneumonia, which eventually led to his death at the age of 92.

It had been a tough loss for Pat, an emotional hit that left a crack in his heart that never really healed, but here he was, years later in a broken world, and he had these hands. It had been decades since his grandpa’s clumsy injury, a fall that somehow withered and shrunk him, even though his grandpa had always been so large and heroic in Pat’s eyes. It had been decades since his grandpa had started his quick fade from strength and then disappeared forever, but Pat carried this reminder, was this reminder, of the man who became a father to a boy who desperately needed one.

There was a lesson there. Pat believed in lessons, in learning from your own past and carrying that wisdom forward. His past had dug deep grooves into his psyche, left lasting, sometimes painful scars that were too slow to heal. He never forgot what he lost when his early years of drinking chased away the woman he considered his one, true love. He never forgot the guidance he received from his grandfather when his father died in a fit of carelessness and selfishness. Pat didn’t feel indebted to his grandfather, but there was a powerful example there, a lesson left for him, left in him, one that was hard to ignore as his own years added up to the same pile of years his grandfather had when he had stepped up for his grandson.

Pat thought about that lesson often, his mind going back to it again as he considered his hands, his grandfather’s hands, while he pulled his blanket over himself. Maybe that was why he tried to start the conversation he shared with Owen before everything got out of control, before everything came unraveled. He appreciated Stacey’s company, had tender feelings for her, but he knew those moments of tenderness were not enough to justify monopolizing her, were not enough to keep her from real companionship.

He looked across the room, seeing Owen’s dour face barely illuminated by the moonlight coming in through the sliding glass door. The younger man was eyeing the trees past the tennis courts, looking at the long, empty spans of undisturbed snow between those dark spaces and their shelter from the storm. Owen’s expression was tight, eyes alert, despite having been up for twenty hours, maybe more.

“Maybe you should let me take a shift,” Pat said, swinging his legs out from the couch to find the floor, rotating himself to sit up. His blanket fought him as he pushed himself up into a seated position, clinging to him and slipping away at the same time. “You look tired.”

“I’m fine,” Owen answered, not looking away from the glass, his eyes on alert.

Pat chuckled.

“I don’t know if that’s entirely true,” he said, reaching down to massage his calves. The couch was small, a little too short, so he had been dangling his feet over the end, the arm rest leaving a impression deep in his muscles. “I can take over guard duty and give you a break. We have a long walk ahead of us in the morning. You should get some rest.”

Owen turned away from the sliding door, squinting through the darkness at the seated man.

“You’ll be making the same walk, Pat,” Owen argued. “Maybe you could use the rest. I’m good.”

Pat nodded, but dismissed the younger man’s comment anyway.

“Humor me,” he said, softly as he climbed up onto his sore knee. “Maybe you could let an old man feel useful for a moment or two.”

Owen smiled under his mask and nodded.

“Okay,” he said, as the two men passed each other, took up the positions previously filled by each other. “But don’t let me sleep too long, okay? I just need to shut my eyes for a few minutes.”

“Sure, kid,” Pat said. “Just a few minutes.”

Owen lowered himself down onto the couch, trying to fill the space that was still warm from Pat’s time on it, inhabiting it with his lanky form. He stretched out, like Pat had done, trying to dangle his legs over the end of the couch, but found that position uncomfortable and awkward. Owen was quite a bit taller than the older man, so he looked ridiculous as he laid across the couch, the backs of his knees bent over the end, his feet dangling and useless, almost reaching the floor. Eventually, he pulled his legs up, tucking them towards his chest in a position that was almost as uncomfortable, but freed from gravity’s pull on his long, thin limbs.

Pat would have laughed, had a good chuckle at Owen’s awkward movement across the short couch, but he didn’t feel like laughing. Instead, he turned his tired eyes outside, looking out at the same dark, snowy scene that Owen had been so focused on, not looking with the same intensity, but still searching, scanning. He searched for a distraction from what had happened that day, from the collected examples from his past that he felt held up a ruler to the life he had lived up until then, and from the responsibilities he felt he needed to take on, even though he didn’t want them or ask for them.

“Are you okay?” Owen asked, the rustle of his coat and blanket moving together, as his limbs shifted and rearranged themselves as he folded and refolded them, trying to fit on the small couch.

“Yeah, kid,” Pat answered. He looked down at his hands, still bare, seeing his fingernails in the moonlight. Even in the dim light he could see the ridges that stretched over them, the wide, flat nails that looked square at the ends of his fingers, and he smiled. Then, he pushed his hands back into his gloves, crossing his arms over his chest, and turned his gaze back to the snow outside. “I’m good. Just get some rest. I’ve got this.”


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