Tree Line - Chapter Twenty-Five

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Chapter Twenty-Five

Stacey pressed her open hand against Owen’s forehead, first her bare palm, then flipping her hand over, using the backs of her fingers to test the man’s temperature. Under her gentle, faint touch, Owen was swimming within the confines of his sleeping bag, moving his arms and legs within the folds of the bedding like he was trying to escape it. He tested his limbs, concentrating on the way they moved and sometimes stuck as his muscles worked, trying to reacquaint himself with their usage.

“What are you doing?” he asked, looking up at Stacey who was kneeling beside him. His throat was dry, his words brittle. Owen didn’t wear glasses, but Stacey was blurry for some reason, like they were separated by a thick fog.

“I’m not sure,” Stacey admitted. She smiled, just a little smile, as fleeting and soft as her fingers on Owen’s forehead, adding, “Pat told me to take care of you.”

“Okay,” Owen nodded, shutting his eyes to the blur, trying to blink it away, his legs still moving, up and down, churning in place.

A smile moved over Owen’s mouth. It may have been a grimace, a reaction to the tingling pain he felt in his limbs as he pushed them. It was strange to him that his expression could be seen at all, after so many hours with his face covered by his surgical mask. It was strange that his expressions could be so easily read, stranger still that Stacey, of all people, was the one who could see his weak display.

Owen knew a little about Stacey. He knew not to interrupt her when she was focused on something, some task for the camp or herself. He knew not to tease her about the work she did, something he watched Angela do to disastrous effect a few times, but he also knew that anything else was fair game. He knew that Stacey thought jokes about her clothes and lack of make-up were not only allowed, but likely to get her to laugh. He knew she appreciated comments about her newfound “tomboy” phase, wore those comments like a badge of honor. He knew all of these things about her, easy and shallow things that maybe the whole camp knew, but the truth was that the two of them rarely said more than a handful of words to each other, both of them happier to be quiet, to be reserved and cautious.

Lanky and weak, he pushed his body towards the bottom of his sleeping bag, wincing as he did it. There was a bundle of something hard in his calves, a tightness that made each movement sore, tender, but he pushed against it again and again the way someone might work a loose tooth with his tongue. It was compulsive, in a way, and the more he moved the more he felt his soreness, moving higher up his thin legs, coiling and squeezing the long fibers in his thighs. The soreness in him didn’t seem to get any worse or better as he pushed against it, instead it just radiated and complained, pulsed under the surface of his skin.

“Thank you,” Owen finally said, opening his eyes again. The tent seemed to be filled with less fog, but some of it lingered, in the corners, on the periphery. “For taking care of me, I mean. Thank you.”

Stacey didn’t say anything, but Owen could see her frail smile return and spread across her face as she pulled her hand away from him. The skin on his forehead felt cold when she withdrew her fingers from him.

“I don’t think you’re running a fever,” Stacey said.

She tucked her hand away, burrowing her fingers back inside one of her knitted gloves as Owen watched her, looked up at her, covering her once bare flesh again. For some reason it made Owen’s cheeks flush to see such a thing, his head feeling light and untethered in a way he might normally fear as the sign of something wrong with him, something more serious.

“That’s good,” Owen answered, weakly, stretching out his legs again and wincing at the pain he was teasing, daring. It wasn’t as sharp then, but it lingered, soft and deep.

“Pat says you fainted,” she offered, softly. Her hands covered, Stacey crossed them and rested them on her lap, still sitting back on her feet like she was about to pray.

Owen nodded, agreeing, even though he wasn’t sure what happened. He remembered watching the other two men talking, but their words seemed distant, foreign, like there should be subtitles scrolling beneath them. He remembered how blue the sky looked, like it was a solid thing, something thick enough that a person could cut away a piece of it and put it in their pocket. He remembered saying something to Dave and Pat, answering some kind of question with a voice that echoed and shook inside of him. He remembered the blue sky growing dark as he felt himself lifting up to it, weightless as the bright, brilliant daylight began to bleed away, leaving only a starless night that pulsed in his ears like distant drums, like the thunder of his words just moments before.

Then, he remembered seeing the sky again, the tips of the trees moving past him, his own eyelashes just as tall as the treetops that glided past his eyes. He remembered the sensation of moving when he knew he wasn’t moving, the sky so blue above him that it made him want to cry. The color was wrong, not the color of anything in nature, but it was so perfect, so idealized, it broke Owen’s heart at the same time it filled him with something like hope.

He remembered being pulled into a tent, not his tent, but another one, Pat’s white beard hovering over him like a cloud that had escaped the bright, blue sky from before. He remembered the man stripping off Owen’s jacket and helping him into a sleeping bag, the blue sky replaced by a field of olive green, faded and drab, more grey than green, shaped into an arch that stretched from one corner of his vision to the other.

And finally, there was Stacey, kneeling beside him, fidgeting, touching his forehead, his cheek, gently, carefully, like maybe Owen was a fragile thing, a delicate thing. For a moment Owen thought that maybe Stacey was like the sky that had hovered above him, too much, too perfect, overwhelming in a way that pulverized his rational thought, leaving him just feeling, throbbing with too much sensation.

He smiled at the thought, at his odd sensitivity, then he smiled at Stacey, seeing that her eyes were blue just like the sky.

She reached over Owen’s horizontal form, her mitten-covered hands disappearing from sight, and when she returned to her original place in front of Owen’s eyes she was holding a small, plastic envelop, shaking it for a moment.

“Hungry?” she asked.

Stacey lifted her hand to her face, pulling her mitten off by grasping it between her lips, then she worked at tearing apart the small packet. A sweet smell erupted from inside of it, an explosion of aromas that filled the tent, too much scent for such a small packet. It was sweet and also salty, a meaty smell that fell down onto to the reclined man, making his saliva glands start working again, even as he stomach clenched and tightened inside of him.

“No,” Owen let out, shaking his head weakly, like he wasn’t sure, like he could be wrong.

“Pat thinks you fainted because you haven’t had anything to eat,” Stacey explained. She fished her fingers inside of the bag, working her digits like chopsticks and trapping a small piece of dried meat between them. She carefully pulled it out, holding a piece of jerky between them. “Your body needs energy. Just start with a little piece, okay?”

She didn’t wait for an answer from him. Instead she brought the small piece of dried meat to Owen’s lips, gently placing it inside of his mouth when he opened it. Her fingers brushed his lips as she withdrew them, made her freeze for a moment as she looked at the gentle, soft contact they shared, one she hadn’t expected. Then, her fingers disappeared, no longer touching Owen, but leaving a smile there, a strange one that she couldn’t recognize.

“What?” Stacey asked, defensively, her eyes trained on the look spread across Owen’s face. He was too tired, too weak to try to hide his expression from her, so it just laid there, unmoving, even after Stacey’s slight wisp of a question.

Owen shook his head, trapping the piece of meat between his teeth, sucking on it because he was too weak to chew. The salty taste of it, the sweetness of whatever sauce they had used to season it, was almost overwhelming to him. It felt heavy on his tongue, his tongue so starved, but the heaviness stretched back behind his eyes, a sensation that felt slow and dark.

“That look has to mean something,” Stacey insisted, smiling back at him, a little shy, but intrigued, curious. “What’s going on?”

“Pat tried to give you to me,” he blurted out, smiling back at her, serene, like he was floating in the blue sky again.

“What?” Stacey asked, confused. Her eyes went wide. “What are you talking about?”

Maybe Owen was too tired to withdraw from Stacey’s challenge, too weak to try to protect himself, because he dared to be honest with her.

“When we were down in Fraser,” Owen started, simply, like it was an easy thing to say, a normal thing to admit to another person, even when it went against everything inside of him. “He wanted to talk to me about you.”

Stacey looked away. The expression on her face shifted, moving from curiosity to a harder look, stiffened with a sudden frustration. Owen recognized the expression, the same one she’d wear when one of the DeWitt boys teased her, commented on her appearance in a way that fell outside of the jokes she allowed about her wardrobe or her new, shorter hair. He regretted saying anything, concerned that bringing up his conversation with Pat had caused that change, that shift in her eyes.

He winced.

“What exactly did Pat say?” Stacey asked, her stern expression fading some, softening a bit and becoming a little curious again.

Owen shrugged, then decided to maintain his honesty, to continue to be as direct as he had already been.

“He told me that you deserved better than what he could provide you,” Owen said. He could feel his mind getting sharper as he chewed on the dried meat. “It wasn’t like he was setting us up for an arranged marriage or anything.”

Stacey laughed, despite her obvious discomfort. It surprised them both.

“I think Pat really loves you,” Owen said. “He said that he just wants you to be happy. I don’t think he believes he can give you that.”

“And you do?” Stacey asked. Her eyes were razor sharp at that moment, accusatory, as she trained her full attention on the man laying beside her.

Owen didn’t answer. He just chuckled softly, maybe to himself. He didn’t expect such a direct question from Stacey, a question that felt more like a confrontation.

As he considered her inquiry, Owen could feel the effect of the tiny bite of meat already at work inside of him. It was just a tiny jolt of salt, sugar, and protein, barely a handful of calories, but it hit him like a surge of electricity. The abrupt change in his blood sugar made him dizzy, let him feel the spinning of the earth under him, as he laid motionless in Stacey and Pat’s tent.

Owen spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how his body felt, picturing every possible, worst-case scenario his imagination brought to him. He mentally logged what felt like hundreds of afflictions so he would have a complete list of ailments that he could point to when he got sick, truly sick, and there were no doctors to diagnosis him. It made him feel better, ironically enough, made him feel like he was in touch with his body, present within himself and his moment. And yet, after two days of exertion that deposited a powerful soreness deep inside of his legs, leaving him weakened and light-headed, he felt himself letting go of his vigilant awareness. Unfocused, lost in his fasting-induced confusion, in the clouds that filled his body and mind, he suddenly felt himself focusing on the moment he was inhabiting, maybe too tired to analyze it, maybe too hungry to pick it apart. Suddenly, he was present in a way he had thought he had been all this time. It put him off-balance, a little unsure, like a teenager walking on legs just after a growth spurt, but there was something freeing in that haze, that unexpected focus.

“No,” he finally offered, weakly, after some consideration. “I don’t think I can make you happy.”

He smiled. Like his words, his smile was weak and understated.

“Pat was just pushing me to talk to you,” he explained. The saliva summoned and churned by the bite of salty meat lubricated his words, let them come easier, but one or two would still catch, still trip in his previously dry throat. “He thought we had a lot in common. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m tired of being too afraid to try to get to know people. I’m always alone and I don’t even know why.”

He took in a breath, the inhalation swirling the smell and taste of the dried meat inside of his mouth and in his mind. His worlds were coming too fast, tumbling out of him, tripping over everything, but it felt strange to try to stop them.

He added, wincing with a self-consciousness that grew within him, his usual self-censorship small, too small to stop him, but still painful, “I guess I’m just afraid of what it might mean to be me in front of other people. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why I’m like this. I’m tired of it, of feeling like I have to hide myself.”

Stacey squinted her eyes at Owen, trying to find something there, maybe meaning, maybe a hidden motivation, but as he looked up at her, he only offered her that same weak smile. So, giving up on finding something else, finding some ulterior motive, she lowered her eyes and nodded. She had made a similar leap of faith, had taken the same chance the day before with Joelle, and had been surprised by the outcome, thankful for the courage she accidentally exhibited to find some kind of understanding, maybe friendship.

“I think I know what you mean,” she said. It was too much to explain, still a little vague in her own mind. The lessons of the previous day were still hidden in shadow and mystery, but Stacey thought she and Owen might have been talking about the same thing, putting a name to the same fear.

She reached into the tiny pouch of beef jerky again, her fingers finding another piece, withdrawing it delicately, carefully, at the ends of her chopstick fingers.

“You want another piece?” she asked, holding it up.

Owen nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Another piece would be good. Thanks.”

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