Sunday, August 10, 2014

On The Wrong Trail

On The Wrong Trail

*Story contains fantasy elements*

Craig had spoken so many "Dude, no," in a row that the words had started to sound like a chant. But when gentle persuasion had tilted into aggressive pressure and that had been given up for shaming, Craig had turned tail and floundered his way back to the ski lodge without looking back. If Max and his buddies wanted to break their necks, good for them – Craig on the other hand was more than content to drink the afternoon away with a novel in his hand and his feet on the hearth.


What he would have preferred would have been for the lot of them to choose a smaller slope and let him work his confidence up. What would have been nice would have been a "Don't worry about it. You'll get it. We'll help you." But as the likelihood of that happening had fallen to nil when Max had started calling him a pussy, it helped to keep telling himself he didn't care.

It's not like he hadn't known the trip wasn't going to be successful; he didn't need to be told that it had been a bad idea to agree to join them. He'd recognized that when his roommates had asked him to come along on their ski trip it had been for one reason and one reason alone – the fact that Craig had a car on campus and none of them did. He'd pre-accepted the sneering and the rolled eyes that would come from his lack of experience. Yet as much as he'd hoped he could prove his inklings wrong, he had no intentions of flinging himself down a snow-slicked hill of death, valiantly trying to keep balance whilst hurtling at break-neck speeds, just to try and make himself look good in front of a bunch of guys acting like jerks. He might be desperate for friends, he might have a crush on Max that was as heavy as Atlas' burden, but he wasn't that stupid.

Still ... it kind of sucked to be the odd man out again. He'd figured college was going to be different. New men, smarter men, more reasonable men: men that weren't going to laugh at him for being who he was. Tolerance, acceptance, understanding; all those little concessions that made life bearable.

He'd been wrong.

He didn't bother to explain to the ski rental counter what he was doing back so soon, he merely shook his head at the attendant and turned away. Somewhere a vodka-laced hot chocolate was moaning his name and he fully intended to put the poor beverage out of its misery.

"There's no refund on the ski rentals," the chipper clerk warned him as he stepped from the desk.

"I could give a fu—" The words died on his tongue as Craig watched a happy couple suit up on the bench a few feet away. They were smiling, chatting, with backpacks at their feet, all the requisite layers in place and Thermoses in their hands. As if they were planning on making a day out of things, a trip, a one-on-one event, a nice quiet track through snow and sunlight. "What about exchange?"


"Cross country skis for the downhill ones. Can I do that?" It was a nice bright day. And as much as his roommates might not appreciate his company, Craig didn't mind it in the least. Let them bust their legs into bent matchsticks. Let them wrench their necks and snap their wrists. He was going out in the sun and the snow with a flask of vodka in one pocket and something hot in the other. He was going to cloud-gaze and bird-watch, identify tracks and name trees – every damn geeky thing he could find, in fact.

Fuck Max and fuck Max's minions.


The ski trail Craig selected was well-maintained and beautiful. It ran, for the most part, along the rear perimeter of the lodge, parallel with the tree line of the provincial park. A wise man, he told himself, would have brought a proper camera. He had his phone though, a brand spanking new Galaxy S III and it took damn fine pics for a mobile. Although considering the unit was struggling to grab a single bar in connection, it was a good thing it did something.

He shifted his stance to dig the vodka out of the side-pocket of his ski pants and zipped his phone back into his jacket pocket at the same time. The air was milder there beside the trees and Craig took a quick nip out of the flask while scoping the scenery. As far out as he was, it was almost like being alone. He'd long since left behind the sounds of families and associates chatting between themselves as they passed him on the trail. Even the whoops of the downhill skiers and snowboarders had faded away. Watchful hawks and curious crows eyed him from the treetops, feathers puffed against the cold. Branches snapped under the weight of snow and echoed through the air like the cracks of pop-guns. The lake, unseen and yet heard, shifted ice in mournful sighs and startling coughs.

Craig's grandparents had lived beside a lake in Northern Ontario until his grandmother's cancer caught up with her and his grandfather had packed them up and moved back to Toronto. Craig would never forget that property – he'd spent countless hours beside that lake growing up. In the summer it teemed with every living thing one could expect: salamanders and frogs, dragonflies and moths, ladybugs and sand beetles, sunfish and perch, loons and snapping turtles. In the winter it became its own creature though. While everything else buried itself into brush and mud, sand and murky depths to try and survive the next several months, the lake shrugged off its calm serenity and became a constantly-moving, shifting, groaning, cracking, whistling beast. Year after year it swallowed the season's quota of snowmobiles and ATVs. One winter Craig had even stood and watched in fascination as a group of rescuers chipped out the body of a tourist that had met his demise while foolishly attempting to cross the supposedly "rock-solid" surface.

"Never trust the ice over a lake," Craig's grandfather used to tell him. "She's a liar and a temptress." But watch it? Watch the sun turn the surface into a diamond-sprinkled blanket? Watch the wind swirl gossamer strings of snow through dance-like bows and pirouettes before drawing them into drifts that rippled and sprawled like landscape? Yeah, that he and Grandpa could do until their toes were numb and their teeth were chattering.

He wondered if this particular lake had the same dangerous beauty. It couldn't be far from the trail; not if the sounds could be trusted. Surely no more than five, maybe ten, minutes away? And while no manicured trail wound its way through the trees, the snow still sat thick and full and Craig was sure travelling with the skis would be fine. If worse came to worse he could always unsnap them and just walk in his ski boots.

After all, he had all afternoon to kill and damned if that didn't sound like a nice way to do it.


"Having some trouble?"

The voice was warm and sweet and Craig's heart lurched towards it before his body managed to. Things had gone from bad to worse very quickly and the last thing Craig's body was doing was responding well.

He hadn't found the lake. While his grandparent's lake had been massive, the one he'd sought had either been as small as a puddle, or demonically elusive. Every time Craig had thought it should have been right there, just past the next set of trees, all he'd found had been more trees. And every time he'd told himself to turn around and find his way back to the trail, he'd heard another haunting call from the ice that had kept him forward. He'd given up the chase when he'd looked into the sky and realised the sun, though bright, was suddenly far more eye-level than it was above him.

A wise person would have followed his own tracks out but Craig had serious concerns about the amount of time it would take for him to follow his wandering, constantly-adjusted path back. He'd been more than sure if he kept a straight north-west it would take him if not back to the trail, at least back in the direction of the lodge.

By the time he realised that had been foolish, dark had been advancing with the speed of flying bullets and he was sweating like a pig from exertion, regardless of the dramatic drop in temperature. It was tension that kept him sipping from the flask but that just made his mouth dry. It was frustration that him cursing at his phone—that damned phone that had looked so shiny and new in the display case, that had all but called his name and promised its devotion and perfection—had sucked the battery dry with every picture and refused to grab even a trace of signal out there among the trees.

When Craig lifted the Thermos of coffee to his lips and found the liquid inside was ice cold, tension bloomed to anxiety. When the trees got too heavy to ski between and he had to slow down his advance by walking, anxiety became fear. But when he finally had to abandon the skis because his arms hurt too much to carry them and the weight made exhausted legs that much more so, fear turned to outright panic.

He'd only stopped beside the arm-span-wide trunk for a second, just to catch his breath and try to orient his mind into thought. His arms and legs trembled but they were nowhere near as bad as the aching, all but useless limbs that had once been his nimble hands and sprite feet. It wasn't until Craig had lifted his left hand to try and push hair from his forehead that he'd noticed the missing glove, nor could he place the time or event that caused the loss. Could, in fact, recall very little of the last couple (few? several?) hours.

"You look like you could use a hand."

"Two actually," Craig thought, though the words refused to form. "At the very least I'll need a few new fingers anyway."

The voice chuckled and Craig finally forced himself to search it out in an effort to locate the person behind it. "Who?"

The question repeated itself and then again. Who ... Who ... Wh-who?


Seconds (minutes? hours?) later, Craig shook his head and gazed around his immediate space. Had that been him? Had he asked the "who?" Or had it merely been a figment of his imagination? A misplaced hoot twisted by maniacal reasoning into a question?

No warm breath found his face. No soft spoken man stood at his side. He was sinking. Quickly. Fabrication was edging into consciousness. He needed to get out of the cold. He needed water. He needed strength...

"What you need to do is get up."

It took everything Craig had to lift himself up on his arms and tuck his knees under him. He crouched there, like a dog on all fours, and insisted his lungs keep breathing. When had he fallen? How long had he been there?

"Further up – all the way up. The kind of up that's going to get you walking again. And you have to do it now."

"Oh..." Thought had to take over for speech from that vowel forward. Oh, you arethere. Oh, there is someone. Oh, my. Oh, bother.

There in the dark awaits a man...
He holds both sword and outstretched hand...

"Forget the nursery rhymes, Craig. I need you to focus."

But that was a tough demand, Craig thought. There in the snow concentration was hard to master. Distraction, on the other hand, was so damn easy to fall into.

Who waits for me in the cold, dark hall?
Who sings my name with sweet recall?

"Please, Craig." And still the voice remained calm and strong.

Palms found Craig's cheeks and the warmth that radiated from what must have been bare skin was so powerful it was almost blinding. Behind closed lids, eyeballs rolled forward as though mechanically forced. Breath stuttered into Craig's chilled lungs. He reached up and clung to powerful wrists with both hands, forcing stiff fingers to curl where they were able and hoping pressure would suffice where they were not.

Hey, ma, I might just lose those fingers.
Hey, ma, I might just lose this fight.

"Not on my watch, Craig."

Strong arms helped muscle him back to standing, caught him when he fell forward and forced him into small, hitched steps.


Movement felt good somehow. In spite of the bone-wrenching ache, regardless of compounding exhaustion, the shuffling and the bumbling seemed to pump the blood and the movement of blood seemed to force a little vitality to bloom.

Still, working his tongue was an effort and Craig shuddered with every word. "Did they send you for me?"

Silence answered.

"How did you find me?"

Craig could feel eyes on him, a sixth-sense nudge that was completely free of malice and yet still, somehow, chock full of odd. He turned towards the man who assisted him and by the swinging light of the man's battery-operated lantern, Craig noted the strange ski suit, almost vintage styled in a grotesque orange, yellow and brown; the odd cut of layered blond hair a touch too long; the lack of skis.

"Who are you?"

The man's smile was warm, his eyes kind. "A friend."

"I have no friends," Craig chuckled, and the stretching of frozen skin split his lip. The pain brought more heat, the dribble of blood more still, and he wondered if perhaps he might actually be feeling a little warmer...

"You're not," the man replied as though reading Craig's mind. "Severe hypothermia is setting in. In a few moments you will start getting rushes of heat that will feel like something is burning you. As they say, one is never truly freezing to death until one feels the heat. If you stop to rest now, you'll die. If you succumb to these feelings and do something stupid like start shedding clothing, you will die. If you do anything at all but keep going, you will not last the night and you will die. So please, Craig,start walking again."

Stunned Craig dropped his gaze to the ground. A wave of vertigo hit him and he wobbled. When had he stopped walking?

"Where are we—" It took too much effort to look up, to try and orient himself with anything – a distant light, a flickering flame, a familiar star.

"So close now, Craig."

The sentence was mouthed as reverently as a vow. And if only I can trust it, Craig thought. If only there was a way to know if the "close" that was being promised was salvation, and not end game. Because it feels like it, Craig told himself. It feels like I'm dying. White and yellow spots made patchworks on the puffed, blue-gray skin of his exposed hand. Every breath was a chore.

The man lifted a hand while Craig tried to decipher if the slow, smooth movement was actually done in slow motion or if his eyes were just having hard a hard time keeping up to normal activity. His chin was caught by light, warm fingers that made Craig want to fall against the body of the man and be absorbed into the touch and emotion, the feeling of another person caring for him ... being kind to him.

"See?" His chin was pressed an inch to the right and lifted. "Open your eyes and see."

The lights were miraculous in their glory. Dozens, no, hundreds of blazing yellow squares that could only be windows – that had to be glass holding in heat and food and water ... Craig almost sunk to his knees in gratitude. If his tear glands were capable, he'd have wept with relief. Instead he gripped the nylon ski jacket of his companion with his one gloved hand and stumbled forward.

"Wait." The man stilled him with a single touch and as severe as the urge to keep going was, Craig paused.

"Whatever jerk it is that has you out here beating your head against ice castles, trust me, Craig. He's not worth it."

Craig frowned and tilted his head. "Do I know you?"

Unfazed by the question, the man stepped forward and drew their bodies closer.

"We only get one life to live, Craig and we truly are the masters of our own destiny. If you let someone else's broken soul splinter into your own, then you have no one but yourself to blame if those shards make you bleed. Ask yourself this: were you out here chasing the sun? Or were you actually running towards the dark? Were you following the sounds of laughter? Or the haunting mock of disappointment?"

They locked eyes and emotion spiked through Craig's blood.

"If you go out looking for abuse, you need to understand that you will find it."

A bell sounded from somewhere very far away.

"You owe it to yourself to armour your soul with the people and the things that make you happy and whole. You are under no obligation to be part of a broken heart. Step away from those who want to burden you – find fulfillment and solidarity, peace and love. But more than anything, at least right this moment, you owe it to yourself to get up, go on, and get back to that lodge. You need to come out on the good side of this adventure because giving up, even for a second, is going to be the last bad decision you make."

It took a second for the words to register meaning. "You're coming with me?"

"From here you walk alone."

Craig shook his head and the world spun with the movement. "I won't make it."

His hand was gripped, his shoulder squeezed. "You have to."

Craig stumbled out of the tree line, arms stretched in front of him, eyes unfocussed yet trained on the bright squares of hope. He walked.


Craig never knew pain like the pain he went through in the following twenty-four hours. As abused tissue reawakened, as dead tissue was sloughed away, Craig's body felt like it was not only being reanimated but rekindled – in hell fire.

"The other," he kept moaning to the nursing staff and the doctors. "You have to find the other man."

"You were alone," they insisted.

"But he saved me," Craig swore. "Out in the snow..."

It was the janitor, on day three, that finally made sense of it. He'd wandered in, suspiciously attempting to look innocent, before smiling a toothless smile and clearing a whiskey-abused, cigarette-damaged throat at him. "I see you've met Jack."

Craig's finger hovered over the call button, nervous and unsettled. "Jack?"

"Our resident spirit," the janitor nodded. "The wanderer in the snow, the saviour of the lost."

He laughed when Craig's expression dropped to a skeptical frown and images of weatherworn, leather-skinned frogs croaking their approval of the weather filled Craig's mind.

"Jack was a ski instructor at the lodge back in the winter of nineteen-seventy-four. He was one of those guys that everybody wanted to be like and no one ever could: athletic, cool, good-looking. He also had the attitude to go with it. Kind of smart-mouthed, cocky – thought he was better than everyone else. You know the type I'm sure. The legend goes that Jack had only been working at the lodge for three weeks when he'd made a joke about one of the students he'd been teaching that got mistakenly overheard by the little guy. The kid took off, humiliated and upset, and was still missing two hours later when a storm started to blow in. Of course, by that time, Jack was feeling like a total asshole and took it on himself to head out looking for the boy. Seven hours and four feet of snow later the little one stumbles through the front door in a state of shock, damn near frozen to death, insisting that Jack helped him find his way back."

A familiar story, Craig thought. But surely just a coincidence?

"Only thing is though? Jack never made it back. Nor was he ever found." The janitor leaned on his broom. "We had an old native in residence at the time, telling legends for the wee ones as part of the Nature Retreat Package. He sat himself down with a big old pipe, had himself a chat with the birds he says, and he tells us that Jack made a deal with the Snow Spirit – his life in exchange for the boy's. He felt responsible, see, for the child being in danger in the first place. The Snow Spirit granted the request but only on Jack's promise that he instead of death, Jack would continue to wander the woods, saving souls, until the time had passed that he'd paid back his debt to the Universe."

"Quite a tale," Craig mumbled.

"Quite, indeed," the janitor nodded. "And unbelievable but for the reports of those like yourself that have stumbled back into the land of the living." The janitor snorted and patted his pockets until he located a rag. He was wiping the top of the radiator when a nurse stuck her head in and all but surprised Craig into a heart attack.

"All well?" she asked brightly.

Dumbfounded and still nervous, Craig nodded silently.

It wasn't until she'd checked the monitor, patted Craig's hand and walked back out that the janitor turned back. "So tell me if I'm wrong, boy. A pretty man, yes? One who seems to know your whole life's story even though you're sure you've never seen him before? And real old ski clothes—orange and brown I think I've heard—with brilliant yellow hair and a touch that seems to have the power of the sun in it?"

Craig recalled that weird sixth-sense-ness that felt so full of bizarre, even while it remained comforting. "Impossible..."

He didn't realise he'd spoken the word aloud until the janitor gave him another crooked grin. "Then tell me one more thing." The janitor shuffled closer, wringing his rag between both hands. "Did he save you?"

He stood so close that Craig couldn't miss it when the man's expression suddenly shifted. And in the light that streamed through the window Craig recognized the shape and shade of eyes from his moments of lucidity while he walked the snow with death at his heels. "You knew him."

Amusement darkened to pain. Sadness. Loss. "He was my son."

A moment passed while throat muscles worked to reshape words and eyes fought to keep back tears – on both their bodies.

"So did he?" the janitor repeated. "Did he save you?" He caught and held Craig's gaze. "I mean really, truly save you?"

"He's not worth it," Craig's saviour had told him and in the past two days Craig had known the truth in that statement several times over.

"We only get one life to live, Craig ... " And who better to know the importance of that then a man facing his own demise? Or how badly one could fight against the concept when death became a probability?

The number of times Craig had asked himself, pensive and lost in musing as he lay in the hospital bed and wrestled with agony, "What was I actually following anyway? What was I looking for?" was surprising even to him.

And wasn't that really just another way of asking, "Were you following the sounds of laughter? Or the haunting mock of disappointment?"

Max and his crew had been by to check on him. But the conversation had ended with a request to take the car back to the college since Craig wouldn't be up and using it anyway. They'd take real good care of it Max had promised. They wouldn't even drive it around. Nope, just to get back to school – Scout's Honour, cross my heart and hope to die, swear on the Holy Bible. It had been the obvious reason for the visit. And for once in his life Craig hadn't buckled to the pressure to please someone who didn't give a shit about him. There would be no more Max worship. There would be no more bowing.

"From here you walk alone," and Craig was walking. For the first time in his life, he felt like he had the strength to stride with his chin up and a smile on his face. He had a reason to live – and that reason was himself. He wanted to live because he deserved to.

Jack had said so.

"Yes," Craig had to swallow on the word, an attempt to rid himself of the lump in his throat. "He saved me. Really and truly."

The janitor closed his eyes and smiled. "Good."

Dust motes danced through the sun that spilled through the window. Snow had continued to fall and the property around them was brilliant and fresh. Refracted prisms of miniscule crystals turned surfaces into diamond-infused works of art. A child laughed; unseen in the hallway beyond. The low murmur of an adult close by answered it pleasantly.

As though in tune with the steady beep of Craig's vitals, the clock on the wall above them tapped along with the passage of time.

It was a beautiful day. A good day to chase the sun.

The End

Copyright © 2013 AF Henley

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