Movie-verse for the appearance and ages of the characters, the majority of which are not mine and are gratefully borrowed from the genius of Mr Anderson et al.
It was so quiet. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the memory of a roaring rumble that had seemed impossibly loud. Now there was nothing.
At least it had seemed at first that there was nothing. In reality there was a shrill ringing in my ears that was becoming irritating and a steady pounding in my head that was more than a little painful. It felt like the time I had been rugby-tackled a little too hard and had thudded against the sand beneath the weight of my older brother. Dad had launched a torrent of angry retribution at him but after I had come round and finally been able to take a breath, I had laughed and quickly defended my brother. It was my fault; I knew I wouldn't be able to take him on but I had wanted to join in the game.
I must have hit my head. And it would explain why I couldn't remember much. I lay still for a moment and let the dizziness wash over me. It was soothing; somehow I knew that if I moved any further out of semi-consciousness then I wouldn't like what I would find. It was confusing and more than a little worrying but the warning somewhere deep within me was telling me to just stay asleep.
I don't know how long I slept. I don't know how much time passed between my brief ascents up out of the blackness. But suddenly my body had decided that I had slept enough. I opened my eyes to meet the surreal dim greyish light that surrounded me and tried to remember where I was. Moving my head to look around, I could see nothing except the same strange dull glow; there were no shapes, no colours and no clues as to where I lay. I was lying on my side, my left side. I knew that much from the slow return of my orientation. Finally intrigued and beginning to worry, I tried to move and a slight sob erupted from somewhere within me as I realised with horror that I couldn't.
The pounding in my head quickened to match my suddenly racing heart and adrenaline soared through me. I didn't know what was making me lie still; was I trapped or was I paralysed? I lay there helpless for a few moments and tried to focus on my body, trying to locate any part of me that might still be working. My hands were numb but as I flexed my fingers I felt a tingling of life returning and soon I could make a strong fist. It was a start.
As my right arm returned to something close to life, I urged it to move and felt the slight shift of my limb against my body. It was only the smallest of distances that I had managed before my hand then met resistance and I then knew that there was something on top of me. It wasn't solid; it shifted as I moved and it gave me an idea. It took all of my effort to try and move my arm the other way and then make another rush at whatever it was that covered my body and gradually I had worked enough of a space to slide my arm up towards my head and free.
I searched around me. There was a crevice around my head, enough to stretch my arm out in but below my shoulders I was trapped, my left arm pinned beneath me and my legs stuck tight. I groaned in dismay and my fast, panicked breaths rasped against my dry throat. After a moment the fear subsided long enough for my rational mind to kick in. There had to be a way out. But first I had to work out where the hell I was. And what the hell I was stuck in.
I reached out and touched thenearestsideof the almost dark crevice. My fingers could feel nothing as I ran them across the surface and I frowned in confusion. It was then that sudden understanding gripped me and I rubbed my fingers together, hearing the sound of friction caused by the thick material. Gloves. I put my hand to my mouth and bit the tip of one of the fingers, grunting with the effort it took to pull my tightly secured glove free. My tongue was about the only thing that wasn't numb and I was suddenly aware of something trickling into my mouth. Oh god. Blood? Had I bitten off my finger? I could hardly tell; my hand was so numb. I reached up and took the glove from my mouth, touching my lips with what I guessed was my fingertips and probing out with my tongue.
My mouth was warm. The slight heat of my tongue against my fingers was almost painful but I left them there, thawing in my mouth. This was why I was so numb. I was cold. Sudden dread surged through me and I began to slowly remember.
Once slightly warmer, my tingling fingers could feel again and as I pulled them from my mouth they brushed against something hard. My goggles. I touched them again and felt the soft, powdery matter that covered the lenses. Oh god. I knew what that was. I reached out and scraped a handful from the side of the crevice. The cold matter melted slightly in my mouth and my heart sank. Snow.
And now suddenly I knew. I remembered in harsh Technicolor reality all that had happened and something inside my chest began to hurt. I could hear the warning claxon and the shouts. I could recall looking behind us and seeing the immense white wall that raced impossibly fast down the mountain. I could see the dozens of adults who were now suddenly thrown into a panic, their happy, care free run down the slope now suddenly a race to escape from the horror that was fast approaching.
"Into the trees!" Someone had shouted.
It made sense. Maybe if you had something to grip onto then you might be okay. The arrival of the torrent was inevitable, there was no way we could outrun it. It seemed logical to find shelter and up near the top of the ski run, the only possibility was the forest.
We stopped our descent, curling across to the side of the slope just as the instructors had taught us. Kicking skis off in haste wasn't easy but somehow we had and we scrambled awkwardly down the uneven bank of snow and hurried in amongst the trees.
I peered through the thick trunks of the forest and saw her waiting for me. She smiled in relief at having found me amid the chaos but as I neared her there was a fear in her eyes that made my heart skip a beat.
"It'll be okay!" She reached out and grabbed my arm as I neared her, pulling me to the underside of the thick trunk.
"Mom?" I managed through the tears that had suddenly formed.
"It's okay, honey. We'll be okay." The husked through her own almost sobbing and clutched at the small form in her arms. "Stay with me. We'll be fine."
I looked down at Alan's pale face and saw the confusion in his wide blue eyes. He didn't understand what was happening. All he knew was that Mom was scared and was holding him almost too tightly. I watched him tighten his grip around her neck and Mom kissed his cheek in reassurance.
As the head of the avalanche met the top of the forest, it seemed the ground had been taken from under us. The noise was deafening; a loud rumble, almost like thunder, interspersed with sharp cracks and groans.
I wanted to look. Something inside me had to see what was coming. I peered around the trunk and caught a glimpse of the white clouds of powdered snow that preceded the main bulk of the drift.
I gasped as Mom grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back behind the tree. She clutched me against her and I heard Alan whimper in protest as he was squeezed between us.
It was only seconds before it hit. It moved down the mountain with unimaginable speed. As it neared, the sound of cracking and snapping became louder and I realised with horror what that noise was but it was too late to run. I clung to Mom and braced for the impact as the immense wall of snow barrelled towards us, breaking the huge trees like matchsticks in its wake.
I lie still in my tomb of snow and let the tears fall. I had no idea what state my body was in beneath the snow and perhaps it was a saving grace that I couldn't feel it. I knew then that running into the trees had been the worst thing to do. It would have been better to tumble with the headwater than to be tossed about amid the broken branches and shattered trunks of the forest. But regret was of no use now. It was done.
And then there was the slow realisation that I was alone. Perhaps my mind had blocked out the details that I couldn't handle or perhaps this is how self-centred that waking from such a trauma can make a person. But as I now suddenly wondered where the hell Mom was, there was a new aching in my chest and I yelled into the semi-darkness.
There wasn't much air in my small crevice. It wasn't long before my chest became tight and there was a new fear; I didn't want to suffocate down here. I had to find Mom and Alan. I had to know if they were all right. In panic and despair, I ignored my instinctive need to breathe shallowly and screamed out in protest.
That was how she had found me. Chance had set her a path across the snowdrift amid the shattered forest and she had heard my shouts. The other teams were lower down the mountain, digging out the people that had been swept away with the forest and following the rescue dogs that scrambled amid the snow and dug frantically down to the victims beneath.
It was a while before the thudding of her ice pick filtered through to me and I continued my weak shouts up towards where I guessed she must have been. Soon there was a flicker of light amid my dull grey tomb and I craned my neck to look up towards her.
She had called over one of her colleagues and between them it took what seemed no time at all to dig down to me. The powdered snow was light and easy to move, which was apparently a stroke of good luck for those that had survived.
She climbed down into the trench they had dug and I could now see that I had been trapped almost a metre beneath the surface, the trunk of a broken tree sheltering me like an umbrella over my head. I began to turn to look around me and with the action my body rolled back a little. She gasped and grabbed my shoulder, warning me to lie still. It seemed an odd command and now that I could finally move it was hard to not to.
"Mom?" I managed huskily, my throat raw from shouting.
"Easy." The woman moved to smile down at me and nodded in reassurance. "Let's check you out first, okay. What's your name?"
"John." I replied, watching the concern on her face as she and her colleague moved gentle hands over my body to check for any damage.
"My name is Kate." She offered softly, frowning in concentration as she examined me. "How old are you, John?"
"Thirteen." I replied quietly, wondering why that mattered. "Where's my Mom?"
Kate glanced back up at me and smiled thinly. "I don't know, honey." She replied honestly. "We're just starting to gather everyone together. Maybe we'll find her, okay?"
"She had my little brother with her." I held my breath as I caught the recognition that passed across her face and I closed my eyes. "Oh no!" I sobbed suddenly, "MOM! Mommy!"
"Hey! Hey!" She was up by my face again and her hurried tones tried to be soothing. "Okay, honey. Let's just sort you out." She carefully started running her fingers under my hat to feel for any skull damage.
"Mommy!" I repeated pitifully and reached up with my free arm to grab at her wrist. "Please! Where is my Mom? And my brother – Alan – is he dead?"
"Lay still, John." Kate cautioned firmly. "Come on. You might be badly hurt and you could make it worse."
"I don't care! Where's my Mom! I want my Mom!" I could feel anger growing inside me and I pushed her hands away from me as fresh tears fell. "Where's my Mom!"
"Okay, okay. Calm down, John. Let us help you."
"No! I want my Mom!" I couldn't help it. I was scared and not thinking straight. I lashed out at them, kicking out with the legs that I didn't realise I could move. And god that hurt.
"Okay, okay." Suddenly forgetting her previous warnings, perhaps because it was pointless now that I had moved so much, Kate gathered my shoulders into her arms and hugged me tightly. "Hey ... hey … shh … I know … I know."
"My – leg – ow! – my – leg – hurts!" I managed between sobs and clung to her tightly.
"I know … shh …"
"Where's – my – Mom?"
Kate sighed loudly and squeezed me closer to her. "We need to get you sorted, John." She leaned back a little and her eyes were wet with tears as she smiled thinly at me. "And then I'll take you to her."
She had told me that this was what it would be like but it didn't soften the blow. I clutched tightly the edges of the stretcher and clenched my teeth against the jarring pain that shot up through my leg with each slight movement as they carried me down the mountainside. Now moved away from the thick blanket of snow that had laid over me, my body was beginning to warm slightly in the pale sunshine and with sensation came searing pain from broken bones and bruising. My teeth were chattering involuntarily as my body gradually realised how cold I was but they gave me no blankets or covers, telling me that it was better to stay cold right now, something about less bleeding. It was confusing and scary and I could still feel the slight hiccups of the remaining sobs left over from my outburst.
"What's your Mom's name, John?"
I arched my neck and could just see Kate looking down at me in concern. She was carrying the head end of my stretcher and I was glad, it meant I could glance up at her for reassurance if I needed to.
"Lucy." I replied quietly, "Lucille Tracy."
Kate nodded thoughtfully, "You remember what she was wearing?"
I closed my eyes and gave her a detailed description of Mom. I know now that she was trying to keep me distracted from the pain. And awake. I was in worse shape than I realised and she was very worried about me.
The makeshift medical station was basically a large tent that had been erected to protect us from the winds that had picked up and the snow that was forecast later that evening. There was no danger of further moving drifts, they said, and so the shelter had been hastily set up half way down the slope. Kate said we'd leave the mountain completely soon but it was easier for the teams to rendezvous here for now.
They carried me inside and I glanced across to see the many people that had been rescued. Some looked battered and were being bandaged by helpers. Others just looked scared and huddled inside blankets, staring blankly into their warm drinks.
Set aside from the main assessment area was a small desk and Kate and her colleague set me down beside it. I watched as she checked through the list on the papers lined across her desk and she frowned in thought.
Crying from somewhere behind me caught my attention and I turned to look the other way. There was a man sitting with his back to me, cross-legged on the ground sheet. I couldn't take my eyes away from the sight of his shoulders shaking as he sobbed pitifully. He was clutching something to him and I watched as he rocked and the arm that he held could just be seen. I followed the arm down and saw the woman that it belonged to. She didn't look well.
It made me think of Mom and I shuddered as I looked away, trying to convince myself that this what not what Dad would have to face.
"Okay." Kate hurried back to me and smiled thinly. "Your Mom's been found, John."
I held my breath and tried to read in her eyes what she might say next.
"She is very badly hurt. They're going to airlift her out to the hospital."
"Is she here?" I urged hurriedly, trying to sit myself up on my elbows and falling back against the stretcher as pain tore through my leg.
Kate gently held me down against the stretcher and nodded slowly.
"She is? I want to see her!" I demanded in a panic.
Kate shook her head and sighed again. "You need to stay here. The doctors need to take a look at you."
"No!" This time I pushed harder and managed to sit upright, ignoring the pain. "Let me see her! I want to see her!"
"It's best not to, son." Said another voice.
I turned and watched the man approach from behind Kate. He had a large red cross on his jacket and a stethoscope hung about his neck. "Your Mom is in good hands."
"Where?" I demanded angrily, hot tears filling my eyes. "Where is she?" I watched him glance behind him and saw the slightly open tarpaulin door that he must have emerged from. There was another room back there. "Let me see her! I want to see my Mom!"
"Let's take a look at this leg, first." The doctor smiled thinly and crouched down beside me.
"No! Get away from me! I want to see my Mom!" Suddenly I was sobbing again and I looked from Kate to the doctor and back, willing them to please listen to me. There must be a reason why they wouldn't let me see her and thought of that only made me want to see her more. I didn't understand the fear that was growing inside me but somehow I knew that this might be the last chance I had to be with her.
"Okay, John, okay." Kate soothed and took my hand in hers. Her fingers were warm and they squeezed mine tightly. She turned to the doctor and shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe we ought to let him go back there."
The doctor frowned in concern and shook his head doubtfully.
Kate turned back to me and her eyes were filled with tears as she squeezed my hand again. She seemed to understand my fear and she nodded slowly. "Let him see his mother." Kate urged and glanced back at the doctor.
I didn't like it in the other room. It was quiet and there were no helpers muttering reassurances, no one talking about what had happened. I balanced myself upright on the stretcher as they carried me through and suddenly saw why it was so quiet. My heart sank as I looked down and saw the blankets that covered the unmistakeable shapes lying on the ground. There were five of them and it made me feel sick to look at them. I turned away and then saw what was at the far end of the small room.
Paramedics and mountain rescue personnel buzzed around the three stretchers that lined the end of the tent. Bags of IV fluids were being squeezed into the lines that ran down to the three people and everyone was talking quickly, giving hushed orders and calling out for equipment in a strange whisper.
As Kate and the doctor carried me closer I could see the pink pattern on the trousers of one of the people they fussed over and I knew it was her. They turned my stretcher and set me down alongside her. I stared at her still form and held my breath.
I took it all in; the inflated splint on her leg, like mine; the tapes that held her tightly against the stretcher; the tube that emerged from her lips and connected with the bag that the paramedic was gently squeezing in a slow rhythm.
I reached out and ignored the worsening pain in my leg as I leaned over and touched her hand. Her fingers were cold and limp and a slight sob shot from me as I took her hand in mine. Looking back up at her face, I could just see her amidst the neck brace and the head guards and the bandages. She looked peaceful and I could remember waking up like that under the snow. "Is she sleeping?" I asked carefully.
"Yes." Kate crouched down behind me and gently placed her hand on my shoulder. "She's very sick, John."
I nodded slowly and kept my eyes on Mom's face as Kate's words sank in. "Will she wake up?"
"I don't know."
I sat in silence and absorbed the awful truth in front of me. I knew what they were saying. It was one of the perks of having a mind so much older than my years and I was so grateful that Kate had somehow sensed that and let me have this time with Mom.
I was calm and collected while I sat there. Right up until the helicopter arrived and the tent walls shuddered with the wind it's landing generated. I panicked for a moment then and refused to let go of Mom's hand, fighting with the personnel that were desperately trying to save her.
It was Kate that finally pulled me off and I fought against her, lashing out and my elbow slamming into her cheek. She held on tightly to me and whispered gently. After a few moments I was suddenly too tired to resist her and I fell back into her embrace, crying bitterly.
"I know, I know … shh … they'll do everything they can, John … I promise."
I lie wearily against her and let the tears fall. Too tired to do anything except listen to her soft voice beside my ear. Then I suddenly remembered and I gasped in horror. "Alan! Where's Alan? Where's my brother?"
Alan was being cradled in the arms of a greying woman who had also been rescued from the snow. She was singing softly to him as we approached and I noticed that he seemed almost asleep. He appeared unharmed but that was why Mom had been so badly hurt, she had protected him.
"Alan?" I called out carefully to him as my stretcher was set down on the ground.
Alan wearily blinked open his eyes and frowned at the familiar voice. He lifted his head and gasped in delight as his eyes rested on my face. "Donny!"
I held out my arms and winced as he was carefully lifted over to me. It hurt to have him sat on my lap but I didn't care. He clutched at me and sighed in relief, mumbling his toddler interpretation of my name.
"Hey, Sprout." I looked down and watched him snuggle up against me, wondering if he knew what had happened. My heart sank as I then saw the material that he clutched in his chubby hand; it was one of Mom's gloves andone finger was damp with drool where Alan had sucked on it.
"Momma don." Alan mumbled quietly.
"Yeah," I husked, "Mom's gone to the hospital."
"Because she got hurt."
"In da sow."
I closed my eyes and rested my face against his soft woollen hat. "Yeah."
"Donny poorly?" Alan asked suddenly, peering down at the splinted leg that he was half perched on.
"No. I'm fine." I replied quietly, slipping my arms further around him and hugging him tightly. "And I'm glad you are, too, Sprout." I didn't know how much he understood of any of this and for a moment I envied his seemingly blissful ignorance.
"We doe home dow?"
I lifted my head and saw Kate watching me in concern. I hadn't realised that she had still been sat there and I smiled thinly.
"One of the snow trucks is on it's way back up to take you down." She answered Alan's query and returned my smile.
"My dad." I began quietly, "My dad will be worrying."
Kate nodded in understanding. "The incident co-ordinator has already been in contact with the lodges and hotels. They've sent a list of people we've found. I'm sure your Dad knows you're okay."
I smiled again and hugged Alan closer to me, trying not to think of the mess Dad and the others must be in by now.
It had apparently taken five men and several warnings to keep my Dad and my eldest brother off of the mountain. They had been in a different area,racing down the faster slope for the more experienced skiers, and had only heard about the avalanche when they rejoined the group at the slope base. They had then quickly called the hotel to ensure that Virgil and Gordon were still in the apartment, Virgil having not felt well enough with his head cold for skiing that morning.
When we arrived, they were waiting anxiously at the bottom of the mountain behind the hastily cordoned off police line but at the first sight of Alan and I, Dad ignored the urgent requests of the officers and hurried across the barrier.
"Oh god!" Dad skidded across the snow-covered forecourt of the medical centre and followed us inside. "John?"
Once set down on the stretcher that waited inside the entrance for me, I pulled myself upright and held out my arms. Fresh tears fell as I was gathered into my father's strong embrace and I could feel him trembling in relief. I was then aware of Scott behind me and felt his gentle pat on my shoulder.
"Oh, my son." Dad groaned beside me and squeezed me tightly before then leaning back and looking down at my splinted leg in concern.
"Mr. Tracy?" Kate hurried over to us, clutching the still sleepy but scared Alan and smiled in cautious greeting.
"Alan!" Dad sighed and held out his arms to let Alan clamber into his embrace. He closed his eyes tightly and buried his face into Alan's shoulder as he hugged him. "Thank god."
"Dad …" I began carefully and watched him turn back to face me. "Mom - " I couldn't say it. The words refused to move past the lump in my throat. I blinked away tears and looked to Kate for help.
"Where is she?" Dad asked quietly.
"She was airlifted to UCH." Kate offered.
"How bad?" Dad frowned.
"Bad." Kate sighed, "Our assessment on the scene seemed to indicate fractured C-spine."
"A broken neck!" Scott gasped in horror.
Kate nodded sombrely and glanced at me. "It was a nasty accident. Your sons are very lucky to be alive."
Dad looked down at me and managed a smile through his tears. He was clearly trying to stay in control of his emotions and I soon found myself crying for him.
"What about John?" Dad asked huskily, hurrying closer to me to put his strong arms round me and support me while I sobbed.
"We need to prioritise the casualties and then ambulances will take them to UCH also." Kate responded and smiled thinly down at me. "You're son is very brave. He has serious injuries that need attending to."
Dad relaxed his hold on me, suddenly worried that he might damage me further. I clung to him desperately and pulled him close again, burying my face into his jumper and wishing that the nightmare would end.
Ten years later.
It was that time again. Even without the various clocks and date displays that blinked away the seconds, I would know. A cold dread would build somewhere inside me and I would spend every minute of the approaching days trying to fight off the memory.
It was the one day of the year when all operations stopped. Gordon and Virgil would fetch me down from Thunderbird 5 and we would all spend precious hours together, remembering how lucky we were to be alive. And knowing painfully well how much we had lost.
This year seemed to somehow be that much more poignant. Something about this anniversary felt so much harder. It was an important date in most celebrations; the year you finally reached a two-figure age, the year couples received tin, the first milestone that many latched onto. But what bothered me most was the term Dad had used last night. Closure.
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps it should be easier to deal with by now. But the loss seemed harder with each 365 days and still so raw. As far as I was concerned, it could have been ten minutes, even ten seconds ago. I could picture that day so clearly.
I stood from the central control panel and switched off all unnecessary equipment. Thunderbird Five would still monitor the airwaves, calls would be redirected to Dad's office and it would be ultimately down to Brains to decide which ones to respond to. We would try to sink away from the world for a while but there was no way we would leave people to face danger alone.
I watched the slow approach of the bright red craft with the same wonder that always filled me with pride. We had done this. We had created these magnificent ships and we had journeyed into space. I began to wonder for the umpteenth time if Mom knew what we had created from our grief.
"Thunderbird 3 to Thunderbird 5. Permission to dock."
I smiled as I heard the light tones of my brother and sighed gratefully. Gordon would keep the sombreness to a minimum. He could be a foolish child at times but on days like today his optimism and vitality were more than welcome.
"Hi, guys." I responded evenly, "Ready when you are."
Usually my brothers would speed through the access tunnel and run onto the station in a mad rush of post flight need to get rid of some energy. I opened the hatch and instead wandered slowly onto Thunderbird 3.
"Good to see you." Virgil smiled warmly.
"All set?" Gordon inquired.
I nodded and settled myself into the seat, pulling the harness down over my shoulders. "All present and correct, sir."
"Thunderbird 3 to base." Gordon called into the comm. "Returning planet side."
"FAB. Safe journey. See you soon."
I glanced at the comm. and frowned in concern. Dad sounded tired. Much as he had done last night when I had spoken to him. This year was getting to him too and he had admitted as much. But at least I would be able to talk to him face to face, instead of watching the weariness hang on his shoulders and be helpless to offer support. He was grateful that I was there to listen to him whenever he needed to talk but sometimes I could sense that he needed more.
I was right. We made our way through from the hanger to the main house and he was there waiting. I dropped my bag and was aware of Virgil picking it up and taking it through to the house as Dad threw his arms around me and hugged me tightly.
No words were needed. I could feel Dad trembling and I closed my eyes as I buried my face into his shoulder and hugged him back.
After a moment he pulled away and smiled thinly as he turned and led me along the corridor towards the house. "Brains and I were checking out the modifications you designed for Thunderbird 5." He offered lightly.
"Oh?" I urged and listened to him chatter away as we wandered into the lounge. And that was it. The moment was over. There would be plenty of time for grieving later.
Alan had excused himself and wandered from the lounge shortly after lunch. His feet dragged against the floor and his shoulders were heavy. It didn't take rocket science to figure out that something was wrong but we were unsure whether to investigate or leave him be. After a moment I stood from the table and, deciding that today was about being together, I hurried after him.
He had wandered out to the poolside and was fiddling idly with the leaves of one of the small potted palms. I walked slowly over to him and offered a thin smile of reassurance as he glanced my way.
"I guess there's no chance you'll just leave me alone."
I sighed and shrugged slightly, shoving my hands into the pockets of my jeans. "I don't think so … not today."
Alan managed a smile and a slight nod.
"You think it's odd that we do this, don't you." I offered quietly.
Alan turned to me and frowned as he tried to think of a response. "It's just … I don't …" He sighed and shook his head in annoyance. "I don't get it. How are you ever going to move on if every year you put yourselves through this?"
"That's why today will be different." I replied, "We're trying to move on."
Alan regarded me for a moment and his frown deepened. "Maybe I'd get it if I'd been older." He turned away and looked out across the pool and beyond. "But … I don't miss her … I never have … not like you do."
I closed my eyes and shuddered at the sudden memory of my tiny brother watching us all in confusion and fear as we'd sobbed together at Mom's funeral.
"I mean … I know what happened and I know that there's always been something missing but …"
I watched him fighting back tears and it hurt that he felt guilty for not feeling the loss as we did. He felt bad for having adjusted so quickly, for having grown up thinking that not having Mom there was normal.
"I almost don't want to go." Alan continued quietly. "I can't bear to watch Dad crying again."
"I know." I moved closer to him and slipped an arm around his shoulders, feeling him resisting at first but then slowly leaning into me. "But he needs you there." I offered quietly, "I need you there."
It was surprisingly warm as we climbed out of the mini-van and looked around at the all too familiar hotel complex. It hadn't changed. Somehow that made it easier. We knew what to expect and what today would be like. It helped us prepare.
There was no need to drag the day out and, as we did every year, we greeted the owner of the ski-lodge and asked permission to go up onto the slope. He nodded and made reference to the clear skies and fine weather, just as he always did.
We were quiet as we made our way up the marked footpath that wound up through the re-sewn forest and high up into the mountains alongside the ski runs. It wasn't far before we could see it nestled in the hillside amid the snow and our pace slowed a little, just as it always did.
Other families made the same pilgrimage as us every year. Fresh flowers gave evidence of such and we gazed down at the neat arrangements that were propped up against the marble slab, trying not to read the very personal messages on the cards that were attached to the bunches.
It wasn't where they had been found. The avalanche had taken the six lives much higher up on the mountain. But it seemed more fitting to place the memorial stone somewhere within easy reach but also secluded in privacy from the main slopes.
I read down the list of names and blinked away tears. These were the forms that had lain under the blankets in the emergency shelter. The five lives that had been shattered instantly when the snow hit. Plus the one soul that had hung on for ten agonising days.
I closed my eyes and allowed myself a moment to sink back into the memory again. It was hard to contain the sobs that desperately wanted to break forth and I bit my lip as I remembered clinging to her hand before she had been airlifted away.
I hadn't seen her in the hospital. It had taken days of operations to piece together my shattered leg and the pelvis that none of even realised had been broken. Dad shared his time between visiting me and sitting with Mom and he had suggested that perhaps I ought not to see her. I needed to focus on getting well myself.
The others saw her. I could tell on their faces on the few times when they visited me after having sat with her that things were not getting any better. But I knew that already. I had known when I had seen her in the tent, air being forced into her collapsed lungs.
I was aware of someone stepping closer to me and I was grateful for the gloved fingers that slipped inside my own. I squeezed his hand and nodded my thanks, hoping he would see.
We stood there in silence. Each saying what we needed to say in the silence of our own thoughts. It was Dad who suddenly interrupted the stillness and I clutched the unknown hand in mine as I heard the tremble in Dad's voice.
"We'll not be coming back here again, Lucy." Dad began quietly. "We need to move on with our lives now. But … I wanted you to see … to see what has become of your family … of your boys." He paused for a moment and I could hear him fighting back tears. "I hope … I hope they make you as proud as I am."
I covered my mouth with my free hand and could hear my brothers also sighing with the weight of the grief that suddenly fell on us.
"We've done great things, Lucy." Dad managed to continue shakily. "We were inspired … we made a promise that we would try and prevent other families from experiencing the loss that we have … and we did it for you."
I could remember it well. Virgil had been doing his homework up at the kitchen table, banished from the lounge and the computer games within. Gordon and Alan could be heard giggling excitedly as they raced each other round the virtual track and Scott had been outside, tinkering again with the rusty old Ford Thunderbird that Dad refused to give up on. I had been reading one of my latest science journals and keeping a watchful eye on Virgil's math progress when Dad had then come home. He dropped his plans on us with an excitement and determination that we had not seen for some time.
"Me and Uncle Brains are going to build rockets. Big rockets!"
But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The younger siblings had been ushered off to bed, despite their excited protests, and Scott and I had sat together in the lounge and listened to the full extent of Dad's plan.
We were hesitant at first; Scott was enjoying soaring up the ranks of the air force and I was in my second year at ESU with a future in NASA all but guaranteed. But Dad simply said that we kept these links, continued with our current jobs and how useful the contacts would prove.
"I miss you, Lucy." Dad continued, a slight sob finally escaping his tight lips.
I opened my eyes and watched Scott move closer to Dad and he slipped an arm around his shoulders to give him a gentle squeeze of reassurance. I then turned to look at the person beside me and my heart suddenly thudded against my chest. I watched Alan for a moment and saw the tears that were free flowing down his flushed cheeks. I squeezed his hand and watched him nod in silent reply.
Dad wiped his face with a gloved hand and stepped forward to place against the slab the roses that he had carried here. Ten roses. One for each year since her death and in the bright red that was Mom's favourite colour. "Goodbye, my love."
Dad stepped back from the stone and closed his eyes. I watched Scott step forward and could not hear the words that he muttered. He stooped down and placed his hand on the stone, stroking the pale marble lovingly.
Virgil was trembling as he moved towards the stone and Gordon quickly moved to his side to support him. Together they placed their flowers beside the memorial and then backed off, too moved by the moment to do much more. It was years since either of them had mentioned the guilt they had felt for staying inside that day. Somehow they had concluded that perhaps if Virgil had not been ill, if they had gone with us to the slopes, if we had maybe taken a different route. Too many variables and no way of knowing if changing any would have made a difference. But I could still see the weight of the never knowing sitting on their shoulders even now.
I couldn't move. I stared at the stone and swallowed back the lump in my throat. Soon I was aware of Alan slipping his hand free from my grasp and I watched him wander timidly towards the marble slab. He paused for a moment and then reached into his pocket. I couldn't hold back the sob that escaped as I saw the glove that he fondled with for a second before then kissing the soft material and laying it amid the flowers.
He backed off slowly and then suddenly ran across to Dad, wrapping his arms around him and burying his face into Dad's thick coat.
It was quiet in the forest around us. The sniffs and slight whimpers of my family seemed far in the distance as I approached the stone and was lost in the memory of that day ten years ago. So much had happened. And so much was because of her.
She had shoved me hard as the snow had hit. The memory had surfaced a few weeks after I had been discharged from the hospital. And amid the nightmares that gathered was the sense that she had made a choice. She had known the tree would fall. She had flung me clear and then gathered Alan tightly within her, taking the full force of the impact. And I had vowed never to waste the second chance that she had given me.
"I don't know how to do this." I whispered softly into the chill of the afternoon air. "I don't know how to say goodbye." I took a deep breath and tried to clear the tightness in my throat. "So I don't think I ever will, if that's okay." I blinked to clear away tears and read again the name that had been carved into the marble. "I can understand that the others needed to do this … and I know they have to move on now … but I need you with me still. They need the part of you that is within me." I smiled thinly and nodded slightly. "Thanks, Mom." Stepping away from the memorial, I looked towards my waiting family and watched them all smiling bravely through their tears.
I don't know if they heard what I had said. And still don't. We made our slow way back down the mountain in silence and decided to stop in the lodge before heading back to the airport and the private jet that waited there.
The lodge restaurant was quiet, waiting for the mass of hungry skiers that would soon descend. We sat together in the generous armchairs by the open fire and sipped at deliciously creamy hot chocolate.
"Après without the ski." Gordon observed lightly and watched a smile of amusement pass through us.
"Isn't that usually alcoholic, though." Alan frowned.
Virgil laughed and glanced behind us. "I'm sure they could add some brandy or something, if you like."
"Maybe in seven years time, when he's legal." Gordon added.
Alan shot them both a warning glare and I watched Dad smile in contentment as the heaviness of the day began to lift a little. I settled back against the soft leather of my chair and sighed quietly.
"I wish we had a big open fire like this." Alan observed after a moment. "It's so cosy."
"And it would work so well in the 40 degree heat of a tropical island." Scott laughed suddenly.
Alan grinned and his cheeks flushed bright pink. "Crap. Did I say that out loud?"
"Yep!" We all agreed in unison.
I watched Dad chuckle slightly and he then glanced around at the restaurant behind us. I followed his gaze and saw that it was now starting to get busy. I watched the families that struggled to escape from the many layers of protective clothing as they wandered inside and sighed at the sudden heat of the restaurant.
A bright flashing outside the window then caught my eye and I frowned as I watched the ambulance pull to a halt outside the lodge. My heart was in my throat as I then saw the stretcher that was being guided down from the slope behind a small snowmobile. I watched in interest, silently praying that whoever was on that stretcher was okay and remembering how frightened I had been when I had journeyed down here in a similar fashion.
The patient was loaded into the ambulance and I watched the paramedics chatting to the mountain rescue personnel. I had no idea what they were saying but their body language seemed calm and I hoped that everything was okay.
The two mountain rescue personnel parked their transport up beside the lodge and wandered into the medical centre. I followed them as they headed round past the window beside us and I held my breath as she pushed her hood back and I saw her.
Excusing myself for a moment, I jumped up and hurried from the lodge. As I neared the medical centre, I could see her heaving her emergency bag up onto the counter and chatting to the receptionist as she replenished the supplies she had used. There was no doubting it. She looked older and greyer but it was definitely her.
She paused mid-sentence and frowned as she stood from raiding one of the low cupboards in the store behind the reception desk. "Yes. Can I help you?"
I smiled and wandered further inside, shaking my head in wonder.
"Do I know you?" Kate's frown grew and she watched me in intrigue.
"You probably don't remember me." I began quickly, "My name is John. You rescued me once when I was thirteen. I was caught in an avalanche."
"John?" Kate repeated and her frown faded a little.
"Yes." I nodded eagerly.
"But …" She studied me for a moment, eyes moving over my body and then resting on my face. She frowned again and then gasped as she suddenly seemed to remember. "Oh god. That was horrible." She watched me nod in agreement and her frown then deepened. "But … that must have been-"
"Ten years." I agreed and smiled warmly. "You haven't changed."
"Thank you – I think!" She laughed and put down the dressing packs she had been holding. She stepped closer to me and shook her head in wonder. "I'm amazed you remembered me."
"I've never forgotten you."
"Really?" Kate's smile grew and she shrugged in modesty as she neared me. "I don't think I did anything particular that day."
"Oh, you did. Believe me, you did." I took a deep breath and reached out to place my hand on her shoulder. "I've tried to find you many times to thank you but could never trace you."
"I moved away. That accident was pretty horrific and it put me off mountain rescue for a while." Kate explained quietly and then her frown suddenly returned. "What happened to your mom?"
"Oh god." Kate gasped, "Oh, I'm so sorry."
I shrugged slightly, "It's why we're here. We came to the memorial."
Kate's frown faded and she seemed to suddenly understand. "Of course. I've seen it. I didn't make the connection."
I nodded slowly. "She died in the hospital."
"And you? I mean, you're obviously okay, but …"
"My leg was broken in five places and I had a fractured pelvis and skull."
"Man …" Kate sighed, "You were so lucky."
"Thanks to you." I offered and watched her about to protest. "You found me. You stayed with me. I've never forgotten it."
"Well, thank you." Kate smiled.
"So where have you been?" I urged in interest.
"I moved away to the city, taught high school biology for a few years, got married, had two kids."
She paused and I laughed softly, offering my congratulations.
"I started thinking about coming back here a couple of months ago." Kate continued, "I missed the scenery and my friends out here. My husband and I came out for a few days and that was it. And it wasn't long before these guys convinced me back in!" She glanced around at the few staff in the reception and rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. "Although I'm not quite as young and agile as I once was! That's why we have the snowmobiles!"
I listened to her chat merrily and could happily have listened all day to that voice. The voice that had somehow broken through the fear and pain of that horrible day. The voice that I had tried so many times to imagine when desperately trying to sleep at night and the nightmares loomed.
I tried to emulate the soft, reassuring tone of her voice when I answered emergency calls. I was often the first person that people spoke to when they were at their most frightened and I tried hard to give them something of the calm she had given me on that day.
"So. What do you do?"
I paused for a moment and felt my smile falter. God, I wanted to tell her. I rescue people, too.
"I work for NASA." I answered eventually.
"Really?" She enthused, "Astronomer or astronaut?"
"A bit of both, I guess."
"Seriously?" She laughed, "You've been in space?"
I nodded an affirmative.
"Wow!" She gasped in wonder. "Top of K2 is as close as I've got to the heavens."
"No way!" I grinned in delight.
"Yeah." She sighed, "God … that was almost twenty five years ago now."
I smiled and watched her lose herself in the memory for a moment. "I guess it seems closer."
She turned back to me and laughed softly. "Actually, it seems way longer than that!" She glanced up at the silver fringe that hung over her eyes.
"Time is funny like that." I observed quietly. "Hearing you now, it seems we met only yesterday."
She looked into my eyes and nodded slowly, seeming to understand exactly the ordeal that I had been through that day and in the years since.
"I'm so glad I saw you, Kate. I've wished for the chance to say thank you for a long while now."
Kate smiled warmly and there was that modest shrug again. "You're more than welcome."
"Well … goodbye." I held out my hand and she shook it firmly with a slight chuckle of amusement. I returned her smile and turned to leave. I had only gone a few paces when I spun back and she gasped in surprise and delight as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tightly. I squeezed her against me and then backed away, aware of the sudden tears in her eyes as I smiled at her and left the medical centre.
Evening was beginning to draw near as we headed out of the town andtowards the airport. I sat in the front passenger seat and listened to the animated chatter of my brothers behind me. Dad was smiling as he heard the joke that was causing such hilarity in the back of the mini-van and he glanced at me to raise his eyebrows in mock despair.
I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head slightly. "I don't get it, either." I offered in amusement.
It was good to hear laughter and wonderful to be in their company but as the journey progressed their childish antics were becoming annoying at best. I knew it was an inevitable part of it all and that their crazy laughter was a welcome relief for them after such a tough day but their giggling started to grate on me. Soon I could hear myself nagging at them and I smiled at the sudden image; I had happily slipped into the maternal role in the family and they teased me for as much. But it was a role I was happy to fill and it was a great compliment when they told me how like Mom I seemed – even if it was in the whiny voice of someone thatshould know better.
After a while they calmed. I laughed to myself as I heard the quiet game of 'I Spy' that had begun behind me and soon was joining in, trying to guess the intricate things that Alan would smugly come up with.
"I'm glad we did this." Dad offered suddenly, quietly, a slight frown over his eyes as he concentrated on the dark road before us. "It felt right." He glanced at me for reassurance and shrugged slightly. "Maybe we should have done it sooner."
I pondered his words for a moment and took a deep breath. "No. I think this was the right time."
"Good." Dad sighed, "I'm glad."
I smiled and turned to look back out ahead of the van. I leaned forward and arched my neck to peer up through the top of the windshield at the stars that sparkled above us. I had thought that perhaps it would be hard to leave again after such a tough day and it was a welcome relief to find that I was still eager to get back up there. Now more than ever. And not only for the people that called into us. They needed my quick, comforting response but there were others that needed me so much more. I glanced behind me and watched in amusement as Alan was again tickled for his latest ridiculous offer in the 'I Spy' tournament.
They needed me. They needed the sounding board that would listen to their worries and never be judgmental. They needed the calm voice that did so much more than relay co-ordinates and instructions. And I needed the solitude that gave me the space to enable me to talk to them without getting frustrated.
Feeling needed and having a purpose felt good. And was my closure.