Tree Line - Chapter Twenty-Three

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Chapter Twenty-Three

Stacey could feel the humidity that collected and swirled inside of her coat, a warm, damp air that thickened inside of the folds of fabric under her armpits and that spot just below her shoulder blades. Every new exertion seemed to add to that humidity; each shovelful of snow threatened to compress its sticky heat into liquid that would only be the fabric trapped between her skin and her dirty coat.

She wanted to stop. Moving the remnants of the first storm of the season had left large, tight knots in her shoulders, knots that were just starting to leave, yet here she was again, trying to clear the same thin paths that snaked through their camp. Here she was again, moving still more snow, carefully pushing it away from delicate tent walls and scraping it from the wind-blasted bones of the restaurant’s forgotten, crumbling foundation.

It had to be done. She knew that, but every time she lifted another shovel full of snow, every time she gave a half-heart effort to fling it away from the ditches that snaked through their camp, she wanted to give up. She wanted to toss the shovel onto the mound of snow that resisted her, leave it there like it was just a piece of discarded trash, and climb back into her tent. Maybe she would climb back into her sleeping bag and doze off, disappearing into dreams about the life she used to know, the life she used to live, back when her phone still worked, when she could roll her eyes at her dad’s corny jokes and off-key singing, and when the wind wasn’t constant: always there, always loud, but never consistent enough that it could just be ignored.

Stacey remembered her mom reading an article to her once, while she methodically paged through the morning paper, telling her daughter about a town in Texas that had an abnormally high rate of mental illness. When researchers started spending more time with the data, really digging into it, they discovered the problem was larger than just that single, little town. There had been a number of towns in that area, small villages and single ranches that stretched beyond the borders of Texas into the panhandle of Oklahoma, reaching even into the flat and featureless plains of Colorado and New Mexico, that all experienced higher instances of mental health concerns.

The researchers put forward a number of theories about what caused the mental illnesses that were clumped in that region: the chronic, suffocating depressions and the fidget-prone attention deficient disorders. They thought that the sleeplessness and mood swings that wracked the area were caused by something in the water, some concentrated element or heavy metal the rural areas had dredged up from their various wells. Then, they thought it might have something to do with the power lines that stretched out to them, carrying a steady stream of charged particles over rivers of iron and copper, lines that ran for miles and miles. Maybe it was the sun, some of them hypothesized, unhindered by stretches of shade or trees, day after day, burping out sunspots and static on an unsuspecting, unprotected population.

In the end, they decided that it was just the wind: the constant, relentless, unending blowing of the wind, always present, never letting up for more than a second or two, for more than a breath. If white noise was a calming influence, a frequency of tones that put the mind at ease, caused it to unclench and let go, the wind was the opposite of that, pushing all the time, nagging, never letting up.

Stacey thought it had been a funny tidbit when her mother told her about it, just an amusing piece of trivia, but now she understood it. Above the tree line, stuck in the path of a persistent, howling zephyr, she had begun to understand how those farmers and ranchers out on the plains felt. Laying in her tent, feeling it shake and jerk under the force of each gust, turned that tiny bit of amusing trivia her mother shared into something else, something almost ominous.

She shut her eyes for a moment, her shovel growing lax in her hands as she tried to block out the wind from her mind, but shutting her eyes didn’t help. The wind, like on most days, would not be ignored. She let out a sigh, one that was shredded and lost in the blasting currents, and got back to work, each lift of her shovel making the muscles in her arms vibrate, hotter and hotter inside of her many layers.

She had woken up late in the morning, jerking into consciousness when the sun had finally risen high enough to illuminate the top of her tent, making the dome of her nylon home glow like it was lit by an electric appliance. Stacey had given up her sleeping bag to her guest, tucking herself deep into the warm folds of Pat’s bed on the other side of the tent.

It was that lack of familiarity, sleeping slightly offset to her usual spot, her skin expecting the feel of different fabrics on her cheeks, that pushed her into a confused wakefulness. The morning sunlight shook her by the shoulders, made her eyes pop open. And so, instead of the usual, easy drift between her long, meandering dreams and the waking world, instead of the slow transition she was used to in the mornings, she had been jolted awake, sitting up as her mind struggled to understand the differences of just a few feet.

Joelle had slept fine, oversleeping gracefully, her hair climbing out over her borrowed pillow like a tangle of vines, each strand hungry and curious, brave and adventurous in this new, unfamiliar space. Lost to her dreams, visions so persistent and heavy that she was able to sleep through the steady lightening of the tent walls, Joelle’s face had finally been revealed to Stacey, finally free from her veil of hair.

It was so shocking. It wasn’t the sight of Joelle’s scars that surprised Stacey, the twisted flesh that was darkened in some places and lighter in others; that was taut and thin along the edge of her jaw, then bunched and overgrown in ugly clumps by her ear. The sight of Joelle’s wounds, finally uncovered, was horrible, a kind of brutality that was difficult to understand even while looking at it, but the damage wasn’t what Stacey had found so jarring. Instead, it was the sudden reality of it, the totality of it, her snarled, angry skin real in a way it hadn’t been while Joelle had been able to keep it hidden.

She wasn’t sure if she had expected something worse; if Joelle’s face was somehow even more horrific than her pessimistic imagination predicted. All Stacey knew was that it made the nerves in her own face tingle and twitch, but what the young woman hadn’t expected, might never have guessed, was how pretty Joelle was behind her hair.

Joelle had a round face, the sticky remnants of baby fat still making her soft in places, her lips as plump as her youthful cheeks. Her nose, untouched by the flames that had otherwise split her face in half, was on the smaller side, but like the rest of her face, pleasantly curved, rounded like something that had been painstakingly ripened, not made, not sculpted.

The picture that Stacey occasionally got to see, the one of Joelle’s husband smoldering out from underneath his cowboy hat, his thumbs tucked into the pockets of his tight jeans, always intrigued Stacey. That picture always made Stacey wonder about what might have brought the two of them together. Julio was so handsome, but seeing Joelle so exposed, so relaxed, no longer hidden under her hair or her nervous mannerisms, Stacey started to think that maybe Julio had been the lucky one in their courtship. Being able to see a glimpse at what Joelle might have looked like before the entire world disintegrated around them, Stacey’s mind started to fill in the burns, smooth them over. It wasn’t hard to guess how Julio felt whenever she smiled at him and how hard he must have worked to earn her love. Even with his assured, playfully stern heat on display in Joelle’s photo, it wasn’t hard to see that Julio might have been completely smitten when he saw the woman who eventually became his bride.

For some reason, that caused Stacey’s chest to clench even more. She couldn’t exactly place why, couldn’t trace the logic of it, but somehow the idea that this beautiful couple found each other and then been torn apart felt especially tragic, especially cruel, even alongside the cruelty that had already taken so much from the world.

When Joelle finally woke up, perhaps feeling the weight of Stacey’s eyes through the padded layers of her dreams, she quickly turned away to comb her long, dark hair through her fingers, pushing it all back into place, pulling her veil back over her. Then, the two women got dressed in silence, their backs to each other in the small tent, Gus turning his head back and forth between them, their movements so careful and so different than what he was used to with Dave.

Finally dressed, the three of them went outside, finding their camp buried again under a fresh layer of white. The storm hadn’t been as bad as the first one of the season, the one that had left more than a foot of snow over the wide, rocky plateau where they lived. This storm was just a quick blip of winter, a momentary tantrum. Leaving just half the previous amount of snow, this new layer seemed dry and slippery as Stacey pushed on it with her shovel, the flakes quick and erratic as Stacey tried to clear the paths they had already dug between their tents.

As Stacey cleared the pathways dug between their tents, Joelle worked her way around each of them, shuffling sideways, digging gaps between the nylon walls and the snow that had filled in around them. Her shovel was smaller than the one Stacey used, the amount of snow she needed to move smaller as well, each gap hidden from the wind, protected from it, but her work was also more delicate. In some ways that made it harder, but Joelle, like Stacey, kept her frustrations to herself, silently doing the job that needed to be done as Gus paced around them, sniffing at the air, his tail low, ears flat.

It was hard to know where Nate had gone the night before. They thought maybe he was hiding in Owen’s tent, hiding from the day and from the work that was required of them all, but they didn’t see his silhouette inside of the sun-bleached, rip-stop fabric when they moved by the long, squat tent. Maybe, like them, he had overslept, his body afforded a rare bit of rest, just as he had enjoyed a rare bit of solitude.

Regardless of where he had been, eventually Nate just turned up, helping to clear out the snow like he had been there the entire time. His face was twisted in the same snarl of dissatisfaction that Stacey wore as he lifted snow from their thin trenches, piling it up on either side, building ever-deepening tunnels between their individual tents, but he didn’t say a thing, all of them working in silence.

The sunlight, unhindered by the open, expansive blue skies, seemed to erase the apprehensive feelings that Stacey held the day before. Looking over at Nate, watching him as he struggled with his own partially filled tracks of snow, as he fought with the uncooperative end of his bent and dinged shovel, he no longer seemed threatening. If anything he just looked young, looked his true age. Barely even a man, Nate had a few, long whiskers, kinky and uneven on his chin: a teenager’s beard filled in with more hope and bravado than any actual hair. The things that Stacey feared, the things she thought Nate might do, seemed impossible now in the light.

He looked like a baby, an innocent little boy, but as Stacey considered that, weighed his innocence, she frowned. She knew he wasn’t that innocent. She was being too kind, too gentle in her assessment of him. Nate talked a lot, talked like his older brother used to do, making crass and ugly threats that he tried to soften with a sneer and a laugh, but just because he hadn’t actually done anything didn’t mean that he wouldn’t, if given the opportunity. It would be a mistake to trust his baby face, not to believe what he had already said, what he had half-threatened when Pat was safely out of earshot. Still, looking so young, so much like a child, the center of his chest hollow, his arms skinny and too long for his body, Nathan didn’t seem as dangerous as his laugh or as dark as his gaze.

“Just concentrate on the snow,” Stacey thought to herself, feeling the muscles in her back roll and stick under her skin as she bent over to scoop up another chunk of dry snow, her t-shirt beginning to stick to her skin.

“Hey!” she heard, a sharp, bullet of a word, a sound, that sliced through the wind. “Hey, look!”

Stacey raised her eyes from her shovel and saw Nate standing still now, pointing away from the camp. She turned, first seeing Joelle nearby, the two of them following the path of Nate’s extended arm out across the buried plateau, seeing two figures coming towards them. They were pulling sleds, both of the men leaning hard away from their heavy loads as they walked, each step labored, each step a struggle.

She recognized the shoulders on one of the men, saw something familiar in the way they swung forward and back with each step, each effort. It was Pat. Stacey smiled at seeing him, at recognizing him, letting her own shovel drop as she started through the snow toward him.

With Pat in focus, his gait its own kind of fingerprint, she was able to see that Dave walked beside him. His height was recognizable now that she had Pat as an anchor for her mind, his curly hair whipping over his head in the wind as he strode toward the camp, his face turned down to the snow at his feet.

Stacey stopped walking.

Where were the others?

She lifted a hand to her mouth, her mind already racing through possibilities, terrible possibilities. She imagined raiders in town, saw flashes of a series of tragic accidents. It was possible that the others were there, just a little behind them, just out of sight, but she knew that wasn’t the case. Somehow, she knew.

“Where is Chase?” Nate shouted. Stacey had stopped walking, but Nathan had started, trudging through the snow towards the pair of men approaching the camp. “Where is my brother?”

Pat and Dave were too far away to hear Nathan, not his words at least, so they just continued towards the camp, pulling, struggling against their loads. That was when Stacey realized that while Pat was pulling a sled that was piled high with supplies, Dave pulled a pair of sleds, tethered together, that carried a body, unmoving, tied down across the two planks that made up his makeshift vehicle.

“No,” Stacey gasped, breaking into a sprint through the snow that separated her from what she realized had been a trio. Each one of her steps cut quickly through the fresh powder, then hit the harder snow underneath, the icy shell giving way to Stacey’s weight only after fighting her, refusing her, an uneven resistance that made each bounding step clumsy and difficult. She couldn’t tell who was tied to the sled, but the clothes looked familiar. She knew everyone’s coats, knew everyone’s dirty ski pants, but somehow, at that moment, she couldn’t remember how to pair up the pieces of clothing to the person who usually wore it. That connection in her brain had been severed, separated, so she just kept running, pushing through snow that resisted her momentium, pulled on her, kept her from anything approaching speed or grace.

“Where is my brother?” Nate shouted again. He had stopped, his hands clenched at his sides. He curled his body forward, his chest over his stomach as he screamed into the wind, forcing his words out with every ounce of effort his diaphragm could muster. “Where is my brother? Where is he?”

Pat waved to them as both Stacey and Nate approached, but it wasn’t a wave to greet them, more like a warning, a shooing away.

Stacey heard one of the men shout back to them, something loud, but they were still too far away for their words to be heard, for their words to remain intact under the constant wind.

Neither Stacey or Nate stopped, the two of them just marching forward. The flag that marked their cleaning station was between them now, a thin and tiny marker that bent and wiggled in the wind. The flag was closer to Nate and Stacey, but not far from Dave and Pat and whoever they dragged behind them, the distance collapsing the faster Stacey and Nate lumbered through the snow.

Pat gave a few, extra waves of his arm, each gesture weaker than the previous one, his shoulders slumped with fatigue. He lowered his arm, stopped trying to wave them away, but he kept walking, kept fighting the weight of the load he pulled behind him.

“Where is my brother?” Nate shouted again. “Tell me!”

His words were strong, but as he raised his voice, as he pushed his question out again and again, each word seemed to tear. They were ripped into smaller pieces as his coiled emotion revealed itself, as he pushed it out at the approaching men.

“Where?” he repeated. The boy was shaking now. Stacey could see it. His rage vibrated in his limbs, or maybe it was his fear that set his panicked mind against his own body, pushing at his own edges like it was testing his confines, finding the boundaries of his thin form. “You tell me where he is!”

“Go back!” Stacey finally heard from Dave, Pat lifting his arm for one last, exhausted wave of his arm. “We need to clean ourselves. Stay back!”

“Where is my brother?” Nate shouted. “Tell me where he is! Is that him? Where is he?”

Nate dropped into the snow, his legs collapsing underneath him, almost disappearing into the snow that covered their plateau. He let out something like a howl, a sustained cry, repeating again and again, “Tell me where he is! You tell me!”

Each repetition devolved more and more, becoming less a series of words, turning just into sobbing, wet, heavy, and forced, the DeWitt brother deflating no matter how many anguished gasps of air he pulled into himself.

“Tell me where he is,” Nate whimpered, still folding in on himself, still deflating, getting lost in the snow that had tangled him up and kept him in place. Stacey’s eyes fell on him again, fell on the little boy she saw before her, and she felt pity for him. Regardless of everything else, regardless of the comments he made about her, the way he stared, and the suspicions she had about what he might be capable of doing to her if given the opportunity, she pitied him. She pitied him, because somehow she knew that the person tied to the sled wasn’t Chase.

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