a serial short story, part two of three
read part one here
by STEVEN FINKELSTEIN
ill roused Henri from his reverie and informed him of this unpleasant finding, which the other man quickly confirmed for himself. They were entirely buried. Perhaps there had been heavy drifts, blown by the wind, which had engulfed the cabin…that was the preferable scenario. The other one was considerably worse, and could be summed up in just one word: avalanche. For the last several hours of their hike, they had been traveling almost blind. This cabin could conceivably be at the base of a slope or mountain range, and a disruption up above might have caused untold tons of snow to drop on them. While under normal circumstances they would have been immediately aware of such an occurrence, they’d been so worn out when they’d arrived that just about anything happening outside the cabin might have passed unnoticed. Gill was all but certain he’d lost consciousness for a time, so now, since Henri claimed not to have slept, he asked the other man if he’d felt a tremor outside, or the impact of a massive snow wall hitting the cabin. Henri shook his head, but slowly. He didn’t seem sure. “Well,” Gill said, “let’s think about this for a second. We were able to get the fire started, and the smoke seems to be escaping from the chimney, indicating that there’s no obstruction at the top. So one would think that the top of the chimney is above the snow. We may not be as deeply under as it appears.”
Henri shook his head. “Not necessarily. I should think that the heat from the chimney and the carbon monoxide in the smoke would cause the snow to melt. So the place could still be buried, chimney and all…that there doesn’t seem to be an obstruction proves nothing.”
Gill disagreed, and the two started going back and forth about whether or not smoke causes snow to melt. For Gill, the whole thing had taken on an entirely surrealistic quality. They were arguing about what seemed like a completely semantic matter, and yet their situation was deadly serious. Who knew how much snow was over their heads just now, and pressing in on all sides of them? And while they bickered, the dead man, whose house this was, lay staring at the ceiling, white teeth bared in what seemed more and more like a sadistic smile. Finally, Gill called an end to it. “Enough!” he said. He was replacing his socks and boots, while the other man stood glaring at him, his teeth still ceaselessly grinding. “It doesn’t really matter which one of us is right. The point is whether we think it’s possible to tunnel out of here.” Henri only shrugged, so Gill went on. “There’s very little firewood here to give us light and warmth for long, and I have precious little food either. Do you have any?”
“Then what I propose is this. You must be hungry; I’ll share some of my food with you, then, when we’re feeling up to it, we’ll try tunneling out together. Agreed?”
The other man’s dissatisfaction was plain, but maybe he understood that there really was no other alternative. “Agreed,” he said. Gill unpacked his rucksack to take a look at his provisions. He had an extra blanket and sweater, the flashlight and waterproof matches, a Bowie knife in a hard plastic sheath, and a tin cup and silverware set. Then he had a package of beef jerky, two hefty packages of trail mix, and a can each of stew and franks and beans. He opened the jerky and one of the packages of trail mix and shared it out, then he filled up the cup with snow from the smashed window, which he then melted in front of the fire so they could have water. Henri ate and drank his share, but all of his good humor when they’d started on their journey was long gone, replaced by petulant sullenness. It was impossible for Gill not to notice it; indeed, the other man made no effort to hide it. Gill wondered at the change. Could the bitterness really stem from so illogical a reason as Henri believing Gill was to blame for what had happened to them? It hardly seemed possible but, for whatever reason, a black mood had fallen on the French Canadian. His eyes in the firelight were streaked with red. He looked almost in poorer health than the third member of their party, whose home offered so little in the way of hospitality.
As they made ready for their escape attempt, Gill looked the place over a bit more carefully, not that there was much to see. It was one room, with one door and window, from which a cold draft now blew. Aside from the cot on which the former inhabitant reclined, there was a much weathered wooden table, a couple of chairs, and some cabinets set in the wall in the area that, if you were feeling generous, could be called a kitchen. There was a massive black stewpot, like a witch’s cauldron, sitting by the hearth. There were no appliances and, of course, no electricity. Gill checked the cabinets and turned up a salt and pepper shaker, a box of desiccated crackers that bore the teeth marks of rodents, and a can of green beans. “Jesus,” he said. “What did this guy live on?” Further search of cracks and corners turned up dust, rat droppings, and a dog-eared mystery novel that might have been used as a doorstop. Gill couldn’t help but wonder about a man who would choose such a hermetic existence. He could understand the desire for solitude, for simplicity, to set oneself apart from the rest of humanity and to denounce material possessions, but this seemed to be taking it to the absolute limit. The dead man was unable to shed any light on the mystery, and before too long the travelers were ready to seek better accommodations.
Gill went first, his rucksack strapped back on, while Henri followed, wearing his book bag back to front, slung over his chest, as before. The fire had burned down to embers, and the cabin was once again dark. It was now just after nine in the morning. Gill opened the door, and some snow fell in, but not much. The white wall in front of them was hard packed, and proved to be largely solid. There was nothing with which to make a tunnel but their hands; at least they had the protection of gloves. What quickly became a problem was the density of the snow. Gill started a tunnel, making a burrowing motion, his legs slightly apart so that the dislodged clumps could role between them. Henri, for his part, tried to push the snow out of the way to either side. But there was no way to shore up the tunnel. Gill couldn’t tunnel straight up; he needed there to be somewhat of an angle on which to rest his body as he worked. But he hadn’t gotten more than a few feet when the tunnel collapsed, both on himself and Henri, who was close behind him. What a feeling it was then, to be surrounded by the immense cold, by the whiteness of oblivion. It was peaceful, only for a moment, and then it was terrifying. For the realization was not long in coming that his heavy parka and many layers would not long avail him. If he lay still, if he let his mind wander, then in short order, he would freeze. He would be like that poor, wide-eyed stiff back there in the cabin, rigid as a piece of cordwood, dried out like an old leather strap. But through the snow he could hear Henri scrabbling back behind him and wildly cursing.
That was the first attempt; there were many more, each with the same result. At first, though Gill could hardly believe it, Henri blamed him for the initial collapse, claiming he hadn’t made the tunnel wide enough. Gill only looked at him and shook his head. Whatever changes had come about in the other man, and whatever had caused them, his reasoning had become completely irrational, and it seemed pointless to argue with him. Henri took the lead next time, but hadn’t gotten much further before another cave-in, and so it had gone. The two men tried together and they tried individually, but each time a cave-in occurred sooner or later. By mid-afternoon they were both discouraged, and Gill was trying hard to remain calm and avoid becoming frantic. But he was trapped in a grim thought cycle, from which there seemed to be no escape. If the snowfall had been that heavy, and they were in fact so deeply buried, the only thing to do might be to wait for some of the snow to melt, and that idea was simply unrealistic. They were getting on toward the coldest time of year; it might be weeks before a day warm enough to bring about significant runoff. And by then the two men would have long since starved.
Sometime after three o’clock, Henri had taken another shot at it, as unsuccessful as the others had been. He was crawling headfirst out of the latest collapsed tunnel, coughing and sputtering, and he had thrust his red book bag back through the cabin door ahead of him. It so happened that it was partially unzipped, and a parcel that had been inside went scooting across the floor. Gill picked it up, and in doing so could see another, similar one peeking out of the book bag. They were done up in green cellophane like Christmas presents. Gill wasn’t a drug user other than alcohol or occasionally tobacco, but he thought he had a pretty good idea of what they were. His suspicions were confirmed when Henri saw him holding the bundle and furiously snatched it from him. “That what I think it is?” Gill said.
Henri half-smiled, an expression that was probably meant to be coy and ended up being merely deranged. “Well, that depends,” he said. “What do you think it is?”
“Drugs…cocaine, probably, or meth? I know it’s not smack, or else you wouldn’t be acting as hopped up as you are.”
Henri shrugged. He walked across the room and seated himself in one of the chairs, by the rickety table. “It’s coke,” he said. “So what? You going to tattle on me, or something?”
“No,” Gill said. “Even if I had the opportunity to tell someone, why would I? It’s none of my business.”
Henri nodded slowly. “That’s good,” he said. “It’s good to hear you say that. As long as that’s your attitude, we should have no problems.” Gill watched as the other man laid his book bag down on the table, the parcel of coke beside it. “Well, as long as my cards are showing anyway,” he said, “why don’t we have a little pick-me-up?” After rooting around in the book bag for a few seconds, he came up with a different package, but this one had a corner unraveled, from which he carefully shook out a small pile of white powder onto the table. From a pocket, he produced a driver’s license, with which he cut the coke into neat lines with a practiced hand. From another pocket came a rolled up dollar bill. Then he lost no time in holding the makeshift tube next to his right nostril, pinched the left closed, and vacuumed up one of the lines. He looked up at Gill. “You want?”
“No thanks.” Henri shrugged, lowered his head again, and in quick succession gave the other two lines the same treatment as the first one. What granules were left over, he picked up with a pinkie he’d dabbed on his tongue. Then he rubbed the pinkie along his gums.
Gill was less than pleased with this development. It answered several questions: the moodiness, the bloodshot eyes, but now what had already been a serious situation had been compounded by this revelation. The coke explained the French Canadian’s volatility, but now that it seemed they were well and truly trapped together, who knew what the man might be capable of? Having finished his “pick-me-up,” he was leaning back in his chair now, and his too-sharp gaze was fixed steadily on Gill, who decided the casual approach was the best way to handle things. He crossed the room and seated himself in the other chair. “So,” he said, “I guess we know now what the job was up north you were heading toward.”
Henri bobbed his head slowly up and down. “I guess we do. Since it seems like we’ve got a little bit of time on our hands, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to tell you about it.” He looked at the parcel of white powder with the open corner, returned his eyes to meet Gill’s. “My old man kicked off a few weeks ago. He was a real roughneck, always whaling on me when I was a kid. Nothing so unusual about that, I guess…”
“No.” It was a challenge for Gill to keep meeting the other’s gaze. Though coke is an upper, it seemed to have calmed him down a bit. It was just the eyes, flaming red with the broken capillaries, bugging out of his head! Gill wanted to look somewhere, anywhere else, but he didn’t want to be seen as inattentive.
“So the old man had a rap sheet a mile long, in and out of jail a bunch of times, drugs, assault, hell, even indecent exposure. But in the last ten years of his life it seemed like he was keeping a low profile, or at the very least, whatever he was doing for money he was being pretty sneaky about it. I knew he was up to something, I just wasn’t sure what. Not that I really cared, honestly…it’s not like we had much to say to each other. He kept a run-down house in Toronto, in the suburbs, and that’s where he died. I heard they found him in the shower, all swelled up, he’d probably been there a couple of days. Seems like he slipped and cracked his head, or something…not exactly the most glamorous way to go. He left no will. Typical of him; he was never one to plan ahead. But I was his only child, so I was named executor of his estate.”
Henri had broken eye contact, and was now looking in the general direction of the man in the bed. He sniffed to clear his nose. “So I was at his place, figuring out what to do with all his things, and the phone rang. I was able to have a bit of a conversation with the guy on the other end before he figured out it wasn’t the old man he was talking to. Me and my dad, people always said our voices sounded just alike…anyway, from the gist of this conversation, I realized pretty quick what Pop had been doing for money in his golden years. I guess he’d gotten plugged into drug running with some guys he’d met the last time he was inside. It sounded like he was helping them get weed they were growing in British Columbia back stateside. And then he had a line on coke, really good stuff now, Peruvian flake, that he was selling back to them. God only knows where he was getting it from, because apparently, according to the guy I talked to, they couldn’t get him to reveal his source. He insisted on acting as middle man, so he could get his mark-up. The guys he was selling to were okay with it, because ultimately they could cut it up, dilute it, you know, with additives, and still make a serious profit. Now, eventually, of course, during this conversation, I had to reveal my real identity, and you would think that would have been the end of it right there. But what I made clear was that, like my old man, I also sometimes had a, shall we say, slight disregard for the rule of law. And that maybe while Pop was no longer in a position to be of any assistance to them, I still might be…you see, the reason they were calling is because they’d had a buy set up, a shipment they were expecting through the old man, and it was several days overdue. Now I was able to tell them the reason it had never shown up; they expressed their condolences, and inquired, in the most sensitive way possible, if I might know the location of the shipment they’d been expecting? I didn’t. Not then, anyway…
“I found it, though. Last week. I had to practically tear the house apart, the attic, the basement, but eventually I found an old army foot locker under a pile of bric-a-brac in a shed behind the house, and there they were, four kilos. All that remained to be done was to call Pop’s old contact, set a price, and make delivery. So even though my dad was a real piece of shit in life, and never gave me anything but the back of his hand, he’s giving me a little present in death. That’s all I’m getting out of him, too; estate taxes claimed most of what the house was worth, and he’d let it fall into disrepair anyway. So I was on my way to do the deed.”
“When you ran into me,” Gill said. “I have to say, that’s the only part I find strange. Why bring along a guy you just met on a drug deal?”
“Well, but then, of course, I was going to part ways with you before the actual deal happened. I just wanted a traveling companion, that’s all, somebody to talk to along the way. And I figured you’d share some of the driving duties with me, too.”
“I see.” And even though Gill nodded his head, and did his best to make it appear like he understood, the fact was, he was sure the man was lying. What he thought was a little more likely was that Henri had wanted a patsy along, an unsuspecting dupe who could take the heat if something went wrong unexpectedly. It was why the French Canadian had seemed so unusually generous, and Gill couldn’t help but give his head a rueful shake. It went back to his thoughts from before, that human kindness for its own sake was a rarity up here. Just when he thought he’d encountered some of it, it turned out to be a sham, a ruse. And as a result of his naiveté, or perhaps just his bad luck...look at the situation he found himself in now…
Ultimately, knowing that Henri’s book bag was full of coke had no bearing on their problem. If it had been full of food, that would have been another story. As it was, the two men agreed that they had little choice in the matter now but to wait, even though both of them understood that waiting, in and of itself, was probably useless. What were they waiting for? They were in an extremely remote location, and no one was likely to come along and offer help anytime soon. If the cabin was completely buried, anyone passing wouldn’t have known they were there anyway. And, as Gill had already concluded, it just wasn’t realistic to think that the temperature would be rising anytime soon, at least not to the point where they’d be freed from their prison. The options here were to wait, for what, they didn’t know, or else just try to tunnel out blind, fighting their way through the hard-packed snow in an all-out effort to reach the surface, while behind them the tunnel inevitably collapsed. The real problem was, at that point, the only option aside from making it to the surface would be to die trying, since chances were they wouldn’t be able to find their way back to the cabin. They’d be out there somewhere in that blinding whiteness, and if their strength flagged, and they couldn’t make the surface…the only question then became, would they freeze or suffocate? Both men were aware of this. They talked about it. The coke seemed to have leveled Henri out, at least temporarily. Clearly, the man was in some sort of multiple day binge. Gill no longer found it at all hard to believe that he hadn’t slept. Gill allowed as to how at some point he would probably try the all-or-nothing tunnel out idea, because that had to be better than the alternative. At least that way, he had a fighting chance. Henri didn’t seem to agree. Out there was the relentless, freezing cold…in here there was little food, but plenty of coke! And Gill couldn’t argue with that logic. For the time, he stayed. And while Henri kept offering to share his stash, he continued to abstain...
Two days passed. It had been Saturday morning when they’d started their trip, and they were in agreement that it was now Tuesday, not that it much mattered. They’d eaten sparingly, but still, they were down to one package of trail mix, and the can of green beans they’d found in the cabinet. Gill had slept, seldom for more than an hour or two at a time, but his dreams were unpleasant, on a par with his reality when he awoke. It was cold. Even though both men were still bundled up in all their gear, it was a very oppressing feeling to be constantly subjected to such extreme temperatures for hours and now days on end. To Gill, it felt like his core temperature had dropped, that he would never be able to get warm enough again. They had found a few more sticks of firewood out on the porch and brought them inside, but then, wet as they’d been, the two men had a devil of a hard time getting them lit. They couldn’t even burn them all at once, instead having to ration them as they were doing with the food. Gill still hadn’t actually seen the other man sleep. Henri must have had superhuman reserves…but he looked bad. He sat at the table, arms wrapped around himself, lines of coke laid out in front of him, or else he would pull the chair up in front of the fire and adopt the same posture. There were crystals of ice in his beard. He talked some about his father, stories involving the old man, few of them involving Henri himself. Gill listened, and tried to convey a sympathetic attitude. The man seemed to be in the process of working through some things, and they needed to pass the time some way. Conversation was as good of a way as any, even if it was a bit one-sided. When Gill made contributions of his own, telling anecdotes about his own father, for instance, and his own childhood, Henri didn’t really seem to be listening. Gill had the feeling the other man was speaking more for his own catharsis than anything else.
Another day dragged by. This made it Wednesday, probably, their fourth day in the cabin, and now they were out of food, with the exception of the can of green beans. The firewood was almost gone as well. It was mid-afternoon, and Gill had been dozing in front of the fire, stretched out on the hearth, trying to take in all the warmth he could. He came awake to the sound of the other man talking, talking to himself. Or maybe not to himself. It was very dark in the cabin. What light there was came from the embers of the fire; the only other light source was Gill’s flashlight, and they’d been trying to save the batteries. From the sound of the other man’s voice, he could tell that Henri wasn’t sitting by the table in the little kitchen area. Rather, he was sitting or standing…over by the corpse lying on the army cot. Henri was talking quietly, but Gill could understand what he was saying plainly enough. “…it’s long past time,” Henri said. He inhaled, and Gill could hear the congestion of clogged, coke-abused sinuses. “Guess we never got a chance to sort it all out, did we? It’s one of those things like losing weight, you keep putting it off, and putting it off, and then, all of a sudden, it’s too late. So I’m glad we have the chance to chat, here…you know what I was thinking of, the other day? Do you remember that time when I was six, I broke that lamp, and you made me strip down and sit in that tub of ice water? You said I had to learn to respect other people’s property, and you said you had to toughen me up, too? Well, damned if it didn’t work, on both counts!” The man laughed, more of a snigger. “There was a time I was upset at you for doing things like that, but I’m not anymore. Really, I’m not. I know you were just getting me ready for the real world, the challenges I would face. But what still bothers me even today, I have to admit, is the way you let your friends watch, while you disciplined me. I remember how they laughed…and that’s the sort of thing, I still feel, should be done in private. Otherwise, it really makes a kid feel ashamed. Could have messed me up bad…if I wasn’t as strong as I am. A lesser person might not have been able to take it, some of what you did to me. You knew I could handle it, though. Because I was your son. Chip off the old block…”
There was a moment of silence, during which Gill tried very hard not to move. He heard Henri shift positions in his chair. “Yes,” he said. “Oh yes. I understand that. He who is without sin, and so forth. And God knows I’ve done some things…but there’s none of us perfect. But just between me and you, while we’ve got a moment alone…you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? I know it’s something you never wanted to talk about, but I thought, if not now, when? So…did you do it?” Again he paused. “Yes you do. Of course you do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Are you really going to make me say it? Mom. I’m talking about Mom, okay? So how about it? Did you do it?” Pause. “You’re a liar. You are so full of shit. We both know…” And it was at that moment that there was a loud pop as one of the logs in the fire disintegrated, sending a shower of sparks up the chimney.
There was now dead silence from that side of the room, and Gill knew the other man suspected that he was awake. Accordingly, he gave an exaggerated stretch, and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He turned back to Henri, a featureless shape in the dark, sitting in his chair as if holding vigil by the body. “Everything alright?” he said, being careful to keep his voice light.
The featureless shape stared at him, the eyes barely visible. “Fine,” Henri said. “Everything is fine.” A long pause, the silence inscrutable. Gill was pondering whether he ought to try that final ‘do-or-die tunnel out’ idea right then and there. Wordlessly, Henri stood and dragged his chair over to the table. From his book bag, he produced the kilo of coke he’d been working on, and tipped some out onto the rough surface. Gill noticed that where before he had been very careful about it, surgical, almost, he used much less caution now. He set about forming it into misshapen lines; all the while his eyes were fixed on Gill’s like laser beams. The grinding of his teeth was audible. “Who needs food!” he said. “What need of hors d’oeuvres when we have the main course! Am I right or am I right?”
Gill made himself smile. “I guess so.”
“We make our own party around here!” Henri said. He had the rolled up dollar bill out now, and like quicksilver his head went down to the table and he was blasting through a massive rail. “Gaahhh!” he said. He leapt up and popped his hips so that the chair went clattering backward against the wall. Then he danced around in a circle, making a kind of ululating, yipping noise. Gill watched this display, tried desperately to pretend there was no cause for concern. But every muscle in his body was as taut as piano wire. He was thinking of his Bowie knife, but it was in the rucksack several feet away. Henri snorted mightily, inhaling first to get any particles he might have missed, then he pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and blew out, sending rockets of blood and mucus splattering onto the floor. “You know, I have to say, though,” he said, “much as I’m enjoying myself, you’re really putting a damper on things. Party pooper, that’s what you are. And you look so glum…hell, I know the situation here ain’t ideal, but there’s no need to sit there like an old stick-in-the-mud. You’d be enjoying yourself a lot more if you were sharing my nose candy, believe me you would. Nobody likes to do drugs by themselves, you know? Makes them feel like junkies! So why don’t you have just a little taste, huh, for me? Go on.” He extended the rolled up bill in Gill’s direction. “I promise I won’t tell.”
To be concluded in the June, 2014 issue of HelloHorror.
Steven Finkelstein is a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of five books, a screenplay, a comic book series, and many short stories and essays. His work has been featured in a variety of publications both online and in print, in the US and abroad, most recently in Bare Back, Shadowland, and The Brave New Word. For more information on Steven and his writing, feel free to visit his website: stevenfinkelstein.com. Steven's story, Old Tom, appears in the August 2013 issue of HelloHorror and Part One of Snow appears in the February 2014 Issue.
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