Disclaimer 1: I own nothing. Not even my car.
Disclaimer 2: I know nothing about nature. I'm not outdoorsy. Work with me.
Disclaimer 3: I'm not a doctor. All of my medical insight comes from WebMD and Grey's Anatomy. Be kind…
Author's note: To all who reviewed my last (and first) story, you have my sincere thanks…I so appreciate your taking the time to tell me what you thought. Some of you suggested a chapter story vs. a long one-shot. What can I say…I'm a fan of the long one-shot. But maybe my next attempt will be chapters. We'll see…
"Jesus Colby, what are you eating?" Megan Reeves fanned her hand dramatically in front of her face, twisted into an expression of both humor and disgust. "Where'd you find that, on the side of the road?"
Colby shrugged, stuffing another huge bite of his sandwich into his mouth. "S'good," he mumbled, stopping briefly to wipe his mouth as he chewed noisily. He swallowed. "I can't remember the last time I had a liver and onion sandwich." Next to him, David Sinclair grimaced. "It smells like a dead guy." Colby smiled. "Nah, that's just the garlic."
From the driver's seat of the SUV, Don Eppes glanced in his mirror, amused, watching his team. He raised his hand to take a bite of his sandwich, a much less offensive tuna melt. The smells from the back seat wafted forward, assaulting his senses. He sighed, dropping it back into the bag. "Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us," he said to Colby, only half kidding. Colby shook his head, going after his food again. "Don't know what you're missing," he mumbled to himself.
The vehicle lapsed into comfortable silence as its occupants consumed their lunches, recently acquired from a dive looking truck stop just off the highway. They'd decided to get them to go, hoping to make good use of the remaining daylight to maneuver themselves to their destination. Don checked the clock, pleased to see that they were making great time. Initially, he'd been a bit resistant to the idea of a vacation with his team. Hell, they all had. Director Merrick had informed them last month that the bureau was implementing a mandatory two-week leave period for all active agents. Apparently, it was part of an initiative to alleviate some of the stresses of the job, forced people to take a mental and physical breather, and hoped to ultimately reduce the instances of burn-out that so often claimed the careers—and sometimes more—of good agents. They'd been bewildered; after all, crime doesn't go on hiatus just because the FBI wants a break. But they'd been assured that the office would have a skeleton crew of operatives from other agencies on a contingent basis, and that the LAPD would be ready to pick up the rest. After several dead-end arguments brought the debate to rest, Merrick dropped the second bombshell—that while he could not require it, it was strongly recommended that each team use at least part of this time to do something on a personal and social level—together. In fact, taking a road trip or vacation was number one on his short list of viable suggestions.
Don's response had been one of derision. Who the hell'd they think they were? This was his job, his life. And they wanted him to walk away from his responsibilities, from people who needed him, to take a vacation? He hadn't taken a vacation in years; hell, his idea of a vacation was catching the occasional ballgame at Dodger Stadium on the weekend. And to take a vacation with his team? Yeah, he trusted them all, and considered them his friends, but so what? What were they gonna do, eat ice cream and watch scary movies together? Go fishing? Come on.
He'd expected the four of them to laugh the preposterous notion off together, maybe grab a beer later before heading home, but quickly discovered that he was entirely alone in his reservations. After stepping out of Merrick's office, Colby spun around to face the rest of them, hands together in anticipation. "So? Where we going?" Don started to scoff, but to his surprise, David and Megan had jumped right in. "We could go to Vegas," David had said, his eyes gleaming. "No," Megan had said dismissively, "the point is to come back relaxed and refreshed, not hung over and broke. Why don't we go to a spa?" At the immediate exclamations of protest, she held her hands up, submitting. "Fine, no spa. I get it, it's too girly for you men," she said, teasing. David, smiling, turned to Don. "What do you think?"
Don hadn't known what to think. He had three options: one, he could shut the whole idea down, refuse to go, and disappoint everyone. Two, he could refuse to go, they'd go without him, and his team would shift to the Three Amigos and No-fun Don. Or he could go. When he broke it down like that, option three definitely had the most appeal. So he'd shrugged his shoulders, pointed out that they had a month to think about it, and ordered everyone back to work.
After they'd wrapped up for the day, he'd headed over to his dad's—no, his brother's house—to unwind for a bit. At the thought of his brother, he glanced to his right at the fifth and final occupant of the SUV. Charlie was slumped over in the passenger seat, his atlas and various road maps sprawled on his lap, sound asleep. His head was resting precariously on his elbow, and Don grinned, waiting for the inevitable bump in the road to knock it loose and jostle him into consciousness. They'd been on the road for about five hours, and Charlie'd been conked after the first three and a half. He knew that his brother had been scrambling the last week to finish up his various projects to allow himself this week off. He was glad Charlie was coming with them. After all, it had been his idea.
He'd gotten to the house just before dinner—lucky timing—and had told Charlie and his father about his upcoming break. While his father had immediately suggested a world-class golf retreat in San Martin, Charlie had come up with a different idea.
"Why don't you guys go skiing?"
Skiing? Huh. Don looked at his brother. "That's actually a really good idea Charlie. Hadn't thought about that." Charlie had shrugged, gathered up a forkful of pasta. "I'm surprised. You said months ago that you hadn't skied in awhile and wanted to go again. Figured you'd never have a chance to get away. No better time than now, right?" He stuffed the linguine into his mouth, reaching for a napkin to wipe the cheese from his fingers. Don had been a bit surprised. Come to think of it, he had said that. He was actually a little touched that Charlie had remembered. His brother swallowed, then resumed. "Actually, if you're interested, there's a guy in the Physics Department at CalSci, Bob Haskell, that has a cabin up near Mammoth Mountain. He only gets up there a few times a year, and he's been trying to get me to go up there for a few years." Don had smirked at that. "What, with him?" Charlie had rolled his eyes. "No Don, not with him. I think he just wants to show it off and figures I'm the one most likely to take him up on the offer."
"Why's that?" Don had asked.
"Because it's in a pretty remote location. I mean, you can take a car most of the way up, but it's pretty high up the mountain and you have to hike the last eighth of a mile or so. But he says there are ski trails within a mile of the cabin, so it's pretty prime real estate. And from they way he talks about it, it's a really nice set-up. Nice and big, three bedrooms, a big fireplace. Not exactly roughing it." Charlie stopped again to grab a sip of water, leaving Don to ponder what he said. Don hadn't let on, but he was actually growing excited at the thought of it. Mammoth was only about eight hours away, and a nice cushy cabin with private ski trails sounded fantastic. Plus, despite the fact that they wouldn't exactly be 'roughing it,' there was an element of physical exertion, and Don was happiest when he was pushing himself. Yeah, this sounded much better than a week at the beach.
As he nodded his consent, Charlie smiled widely. "All right, I'll talk to him tomorrow and let him know you're in. I should have all the details for you by the end of the week." Don smiled back, then paused as a thought struck him. He considered for a moment, decided, and spoke. "Well hey, can you get the time off?" Charlie glanced up, not comprehending. "Time off for what?" Don rolled his eyes. "Time off for the ski trip Chuck. I mean, you're gonna come, right?" Charlie looked up fully then, his eyes wide and surprised. "I—well, uh—isn't this supposed to be a thing for you and the team, Don?" Don nodded. "Yeah it is Charlie, and you're part of the team. I mean, how many cases have you solved for us? I want you to come."
If Charlie had been smiling before he was positively beaming now. Alan looked on, both wholly appreciative at his older son's gesture and genuinely amused by the reaction of his youngest. "I think that's a great idea," he stated. "You boys never do anything together that doesn't involve chasing criminals or getting shot at. Take a vacation like normal people." Charlie was nodding enthusiastically. "Okay, yeah. Uh, thanks Don. I'll cash in some personal days." He glanced at his watch and stood. "Actually, there should still be someone at the office. I'll call now," he said as he all but dashed from the room. Don had smiled as he leaned back in his chair, taking a swig of his beer. "That was nice of you Donnie. Made your brother's day," Alan said. Don had waved his hand dismissively. "Well, I wasn't lying dad. Charlie's part of the team."
Don remembered the days and weeks that had followed, most especially the morning immediately after. He'd arrived at work and was slightly apprehensive about telling his team that Charlie would be joining them. Not that he expected anyone to take issue with it, but maybe he should have run the idea by them first. When he got to his desk, David and Colby were standing nearby, drinking coffee and flipping absently through some files. Colby looked up when he approached. "Hey Don," he said as he walked over, "I know it's early and we haven't made any plans for our little vacation yet, but we took a vote and made a decision." Ah shit, Don thought to himself. What'd they come up with, a trip to Graceland or something? His fears were abated, though, when David interjected, "We want Charlie to come too, wherever we end up going." Don looked up, his face registering surprise. Colby hastily added, "I mean, he's worked with us on so many cases, and he's just part of the team. You know?" They waited, trying to gauge Don's response, and were relieved to see a grin spread on Don's face. "Actually guys, I'm glad you feel that way. I already invited him." At their smiles, he continued. "Matter of fact, he had a great idea…"
So here they were, about two hours away from Mammoth, and ready for a week away from the hustle and bustle of the FBI. They drove in silence for a while, content to listen to the single radio station able to force its way through the impending barrier of mountains. When the signal started to wan, after the intermittent breaks of static began to connect into a long and continuous buzz, Don reached over and shut the radio off.
After several moments of quiet, Colby spoke up. "Hey, we should play a car game or something." David snorted, glancing at him incredulously. "A car game?" he said. Colby nodded. "Well the radio's broken and nobody's talking, so yeah, I think we should play a game." Don interjected, "The radio is not broken, Colby. We just can't get reception up here." Colby rolled his eyes. "All right, let me rephrase. The radio is not working right now. I didn't mean to insult your fine vehicle here, boss." Don kept his eyes on the road. "Damn straight," he muttered. Megan piped in. "We can play the license plate game. I know that one." Colby sighed, craned his neck around to stare out the back windshield, turned forward again. "Yeah, that might be fun if there was another car within miles. When's the last time we even passed anyone else?" Megan slouched back in her seat. "Hey, I was trying to be on your side, Granger," she said. "I don't see you coming up with any ideas." Colby shrugged. "I came up with the idea to play the game." David chimed in, grinning. "Why don't we have a sing-a-long?" Don caught his eye in the mirror and smiled. "Yeah, how about 'On Top of Spaghetti'…that's one of my favorites." David laughed as Colby slumped back into his seat, arms crossed and pouting. "Ah, forget it then. You guys are no fun at all." David snapped his fingers. "I got it—Truth or Dare. Colby, seriously, pick one. Truth or dare?" Colby shook his head, amused. "Nope, not playing." Don glanced back. "Aw, come on Colby. You were right, this is a great idea." Colby ran a hand down his face. "All right, dare," he said, turning to David. "I dare you to jump out of the car," Megan interjected. "Well sorry Megan, but its not your dare, so you don't get to pick," Colby said smugly. David smiled sinisterly. "What if I dare you to jump out of the car?" he asked. "Then I'll jump out of the car," Colby said. "I don't back down from a dare."
Don drove the next thirty minutes with a smile on his face, listening to the antics in the backseat. He glanced again at Charlie, wondering if he planned to sleep all day. He'd need to wake him up soon—he wouldn't be able to read the map and navigate the winding mountain roads while he was driving. He figured he'd give him another fifteen minutes or so, but the problem was solved for him when Megan suddenly screamed from the backseat. Don swerved the SUV sharply to the left as Charlie darted up, hitting his head on the ceiling, blinking his eyes owlishly. "What's going on?" he asked, confused. Don pulled over, shifting the car into park and whirling around to a flush-faced Megan, sitting with both hands securely over her mouth. "What the hell Reeves! Are you all right?" he asked, whipping his navigation sunglasses off for a better look. Megan's guilt-filled gaze shot to her right, where David and Colby also cowered into the dark fabric of the interior. "Jesus Don, I'm so sorry. I just—he—Colby ate a dead fly!" Don stared flabbergasted, said nothing, turned to Colby. Colby shifted, cleared his throat. "It was a dare Don. I didn't think she'd scream like a little girl over it." Don's head dropped. He lifted his arm, returned the sunglasses to his face. "Okay, Truth or Dare is over. Play road-kill bingo or something. Jesus." He turned again, satisfied with the sounds of silence behind him. He looked at Charlie, who was rubbing his eyes wearily. "How you doing Charlie? Feel rested?" Charlie glanced at him, tired. He looked to the backseat, back at Don, a question forming on his lips. "What?" Don prodded. Charlie put a hand on his head. "Why did Colby eat a dead fly?"
"All right, do I stay straight or take this fork?"
Charlie sighed as he squinted at the map, tracing the jagged line of the marker with his finger. They were halfway up the mountain and had long ago encountered the first traces of snow. The higher they climbed the more there was, and Don was now navigating through about six-inches of fresh powder. "Um," he started, "give me one second here." He followed the line up, looked outside to verify his surroundings. It was starting to get dark, and he had a raging headache. He'd started feeling under the weather a few days ago, and had sincerely hoped that he'd be back to form by the time they left. If anything, he was feeling worse than he had before they'd headed out this morning. He wasn't too concerned—he often got stress headaches when he found himself bogged down with ten too many things to do, and that had certainly been the case over the last week. He'd had three classes worth of papers to grade, a curriculum to write for next semester's advanced class, two separate conferences to attend and a whole bevy of loose ends to tie up. Don had known all that, and had graciously kept him off their recent cases to allow him every possible second. Charlie had been enormously appreciative of that, and had used the time well. In fact, he had just finished up the last of his commitments the previous evening—up until that moment, Charlie truly thought he'd have to back out of the trip.
And thank God for that, because to do so might quite possibly have broken his heart. He was still giddy at the thought of the week ahead—an honest-to-god vacation with his brother and, dare he say, his friends. Although Charlie's adult life had leveled out to a more bearable existence than had been true of his adolescent and teenaged years, he still craved the fantastic simplicity of normalcy. This elusive state of being had always seemed to exist just beyond his reach, the demands of his genius driving his life in an almost bullish fashion for so long. After he'd settled in at CalSci, the frenzy began to abate; when he'd started working with Don at the FBI, he had actually begun to evolve socially, finding people to interact with aside from Larry and his father; and as he and Don grew closer as colleagues and, more importantly, brothers, it had disappeared almost entirely. He finally felt that he was at a stage of life where he could just…be. And he loved it.
So canceling his plans simply had not been an option. He was ready for a break and, damn it, he'd earned it. So he had pushed himself almost to the point of exhaustion, and now he was paying for it. But after a day of rest and relaxation at the lodge, he'd be up and running again. He knew the drill.
"Okay, take the fork. Then there will be a road on your…right. You'll turn there. Then it's basically a straight shot to the cabin." Don nodded, gripping the wheel just a bit as he maneuvered the turn. He had good tires and the snow wasn't too deep, but he wasn't accustomed to driving in it and wanted to be extra careful. Getting stuck on the side of a mountain road in the frigid cold would be a hell of a way to start off their vacation.
They drove for another ten minutes or so, all mesmerized by the still and pristine beauty around them. Snow had begun to fall lightly, and glistened like diamonds as they hit the path of the high beams. Finally, as Don came around a wide turn in the road, Charlie pointed to the left. "I think that's the driveway—yeah, turn there." Don made the turn, and the three in the backseat craned their necks in anticipation.
Unfortunately, they'd forgotten that the road didn't go all the way to the cabin—instead, it ended in a small clearing, and Don pulled to a stop. Charlie peered out the window, searching, then pointed slightly to his left. "There's the trail. Just ahead." They started piling out of the SUV, eager to complete the final leg of the trip. "Why didn't they just extend the drive to the cabin?" Colby asked. "I figured that it was too steep or something and they couldn't, but this looks pretty flat." Charlie shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe they wanted to keep it scenic." Colby nodded. Yeah, that made sense. They gathered up their bags and began the trek ahead, stiff from so many hours of travel. It wasn't an especially long walk, but the path was somewhat uneven, and the snow, while breathtaking from the warm confines of their vehicle, was now just…cold. After a minute or so, Charlie pointed forward. "It should be just at the top of this rise." The 'rise' was actually a rather steep incline, and they grumbled a bit as they attempted to scale it. It was somewhat slick from the snow, and they were all completely bogged down with luggage and supplies. Don had suggested two trips, but when he didn't get any immediate volunteers, he dropped it. He wasn't going to get stuck coming back here to drag in all the food himself. Like hell.
They all had high expectations for the cabin, and weren't disappointed. As it came into view they saw that while it wasn't humongous, it looked warm, roomy and very well kept. Megan caught David's eye and they smiled, both eager to see the inside. Charlie shifted his duffel bag and dug the key from his pocket. He pushed the door open and felt for the light switch, flipping it as they all piled in behind him.
"Sweet!" Colby exclaimed, looking around approvingly. They were standing in the living room, just beside a giant stone fireplace. Two plush wrap-around couches sat in front of it, with a recliner positioned in the corner of the two. A well-veneered oak coffee table filled the gap, and various lamps and end tables completed the furnishings.
"Complete with a bear skin rug," David stated as he moved forward to explore. "This is great Charlie." Charlie nodded. He'd have to take Haskell out to dinner or something for this one. He repositioned his duffel bag on his shoulder and stepped out. "There are three bedrooms, so how do you guys want to arrange sleeping?" Don looked around. "Well, you and I can take one," he said, speaking to Charlie, "David and Colby can share, and Megan gets the third. That okay with everyone?" They all nodded. "Fine with me, but Megan gets the smallest room," Colby said, grinning.
They split up and took their bags into the rooms. Don and Charlie took the master bedroom, situated to the left of the living area and boasting a King sized bed and private bath. The other two rooms sat on the opposite side, and much to the chagrin of Colby and David, their bed was a Queen.
They reconvened a few moments later and headed to the kitchen. It was separated from the front room by a solid wood counter, and two stools sat on each side for a casual eating area. There was also a table with five chairs, and a small pantry to the left. Colby walked up and opened its doors to reveal shelves heaping with canned foods and non-perishables. "What did he say about eating his food?" he asked Charlie. "Go ahead," Charlie said. "We can eat whatever we want as long as I pay him for it when we get back." Colby smiled and helped himself to a box of raisins. "Anybody want?" he inquired, holding it forward. They declined, and he shrugged. "More for me, then."
Don headed back toward the door. "Here's the food we picked up. I don't know about you guys, but I'm starving." They'd stopped at a small store at the base of the mountain and picked up all kinds of meat, pasta, vegetables and snacks, probably much more than they'd need for a week's stay. Colby and Megan had gone a little crazy in the back section, picking up a few cases of beer, some hard liquor and two bottles of red and white wine—each.
The evening passed quickly and pleasantly as they ate and imbibed in front of what would become known as 'the fire that almost wasn't.' Colby, in his haste to be "mountainy," as he called it, had dropped an entire box of matches into his glass of wine. Fortunately, after a ten-minute search Charlie found a stockpile of them in a cabinet under the counter, so they were able to light it off. But now it was warm and roaring, and Charlie felt his eyelids growing heavy. He'd hoped he'd feel better after he ate, but now his stomach was bothering him in addition to his headache, which was still going full force. He didn't want to let on to the others though…no reason to drag them all down. He just needed a solid night's sleep.
"All right guys, I'm packing it in. I want to get an early start on those slopes tomorrow," Don said as he stood and stretched. He wasn't actually too tired, but he'd been watching Charlie and it was obvious that his brother was beat. He also knew that Charlie was stubborn and wouldn't just get up and go to bed. Someone else would have to make the first move, so he decided to take pity and do it himself. The others followed his lead, and after exchanging their goodnights, they headed in to bed.
Charlie almost had to drag himself up from his position on the couch, but the expedition was worth it when he flung himself down into the bed, immediately wrapping his arms around the pillows. But before he could drift off entirely, one hit him square in the face.
"Hey bed-hog, don't forget that we're sharing here. Move over," Don said, reaching down to take back his pillow. Charlie obliged with a groan, and Don flopped down on his side. He reached over to set the alarm on the bedside clock, then stopped. "Screw it," he thought to himself. "This is a vacation, right?" He nestled into the mattress, which was remarkably soft and comfy, and turned out the light. "Night Charlie," he said, glancing at his brother. A muffled sound came from the pillow that Don couldn't quite interpret. He stared at his brother's back for a moment. Charlie had seemed a little off, a little more sedate than usual, all evening. "You okay?" Charlie shifted his head out from his pillow. "Uh huh. Jus'tired." Don looked at him a moment longer. Yeah, okay, he could buy that. The kid had been running on fumes for the last few days. He just needed to sleep. Satisfied, he rolled over and closed his eyes.
"See you in the morning Chuck."
Charlie felt like hell.
He looked at the clock again, not surprised to see that nearly an hour had passed since he'd awoken. He wasn't sure what had ripped him from his sleep, but he could name at least three that were keeping him from returning to it. His head still pounded and ached, his stomach still hurt, and he was cold. He'd tried to pry a few more feet of the thick down comforter from Don's side of the bed, but his brother was wrapped up like a damn mummy in the thing. 'Yeah, I'm the bed-hog,' he thought. Certainly there were more blankets somewhere, probably in the closet by the door, but his unwillingness to get up outweighed his desire for heat, at least for the moment. He lay there miserably, staring at the ceiling, wishing desperately that he could sleep. And he was beginning to suspect, much to his disappointment, that maybe he was actually sick, not just run-down like he'd thought. Of course he was sick. He hadn't been sick, as in bona-fide 'go-to-the-doctor-and-eat-chicken-soup-in-bed-all-day' ill in years. Nor had he taken a bona-fide vacation in years. It all made sense…the world hated him. As his buddy Larry Fleinhardt would say…well, nobody could ever anticipate what might come out of Larry's mouth, but he was certain it'd have something to do with irony and the cosmos and how they were surely aligned against him.
He closed his eyes again, his tired mind not prepared to undertake the ruminations of Larry just now. He glanced at the clock again, and sighed.
Don woke slowly, his senses not yet catching up to his consciousness. He was warm and cozy and refreshed in a way that he hadn't been in a long time. Too long. He glanced lazily at the clock and was surprised to see that it was half past eight. He forced himself out of bed, noticing that Charlie was already up. The others probably were too…he usually snapped awake at 5:30 am, and found it hard to believe that it was so late in the morning. He pulled a t-shirt over his head and stepped into the bathroom to take care of business before making his entrance.
Fifteen minutes later, freshly showered and shaved, he headed out to the living room, ready for the good-natured taunts from his team about his late start. To his surprise, Charlie sat alone at the table, his laptop opened in front of him and bottled water in hand. What the hell, had they all gone off without him?
"Where is everybody?" he asked by way of a greeting, heading to the counter for his standard cup of coffee. "Still sleeping," Charlie answered, pushing a few buttons before shutting the screen. Don smirked at the news. Lazy asses. He watched as Charlie pushed the computer away from him across the table and leaned his head heavily into his hand. He sat down across from his brother, taking a long—and hot—sip from his mug. "Your laptop, Charlie? I didn't even know you brought that with you." Charlie looked up and shrugged. "Gotta have something to fill the downtime, Don." Don frowned a bit. Charlie didn't look rested at all. He had circles under his eyes and a slight flush to his cheeks. "What's up buddy?" he asked, concerned. "You sick?" Charlie shook his head. "No, I'm okay. Still just a little tired. Catching up on the last few days." Don nodded. He knew what that was like. He was going to say more when Megan came stumbling out of her bedroom, still wearing her flannel pajamas. She sat without a word at the table, grunting as Don passed her a steaming mug of her own. "Megan, you live in LA. Why do you have flannel pajamas?" he asked, teasing. "I bought them for the trip. LA is hot, but snow covered mountains aren't, are they." She sat for another five minutes, nursing her coffee, before jumping up to shower. "Better get in there before Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber get up," she cracked with a smile. "And if they ask? We were up at six." Don smiled at that, and she turned to Charlie. "Got that?" He gave a mock salute in response.
Her timing couldn't have been better, for just as she shut the door to the bathroom the last bedroom door opened, and David and Colby both emerged. They too pulled up chairs and helped themselves to coffee, Colby grabbing a bagel as well. "Is it really nine-fifteen?" Colby asked between mouthfuls. "Holy crap." David nodded in agreement. "I don't think I've slept eleven straight hours since I was born." They lapsed into comfortable conversation, and the next hour or so went quickly as they began preparing for a day on the slopes.
Charlie again found himself sitting alone at the table, with half a bottle of water and a head full of resentment. 'La-dee-da, we slept so well,' he thought bitterly. 'Rub it in.' He, on the other hand, had given up on trying to sleep last night and had instead come out to the living room to work on some files he'd saved. It was nothing important or interesting, just something to keep him from dwelling on how shitty he felt. All told, he'd gotten about three and a half hours of sleep.
Don was suddenly next to him, completely geared up and ready to roll. "Are you coming? We're heading out in a few minutes." Charlie stood up, heading for the sink with the empty mugs from the table. "Nah, I'm going to stay in today, catch up on some sleep. I'll get a few more hours and be good to go tomorrow." Hopefully, he thought to himself. "All right," Don said. "Do you want someone to stay?" Charlie rolled his eyes. "No, I think I can handle sleeping all by myself Don. But thanks." Don reached out and cuffed him lightly on the head. "Just asking. We're heading to the trails about a mile west of here. Should be back by late afternoon." Charlie looked out the window. The sky looked pretty clear, if a little gray. "Watch the weather," he warned as Don headed out to the other. "It can get nasty up here. Remember it this way—big flakes equal big trouble." Don looked over his shoulder as he pulled the door open. "Get some rest."
Yeah, Charlie thought. Right.
"Charlie's not coming?" Megan asked, glancing back toward the cabin. "No," Don answered, snapping his boot into place. "He's a little behind on sleep from the last week, so he's just gonna chill out for today." Megan looked disappointed, as did David and Colby. "Is he sick?" Colby asked. "He slept for most of the way up here." Don stood straight, satisfied that his skis were securely fastened. "He says he's not. Don't worry about it." Actually, Don was a little concerned, but wasn't going to let on. Hopefully, Charlie just had a cold or something like that and would bounce back with a day of rest. If not, they'd talk tomorrow about getting him off the mountain and to a doctor. Don truly hoped it wouldn't come to that. He'd really been looking forward to spending the week with Charlie, and quite honestly, was feeling a little guilty for leaving him alone today. But Charlie was right, you don't need two people to sleep. He looked at his watch. It was almost 10:30. They'd probably be gone until 5:00 or 6:00, so that would give Charlie plenty of time to rest.
"You guys ready?" he said, shoving off and down a gentle slope. "Let's go!"
Don was having a blast. He loved skiing, always had, and he really didn't get to do it enough. They'd found the slopes they'd been seeking relatively easily, and it was fantastic. It felt like they had the whole mountain all to themselves. He and David were both pretty comfortable on skis, and Megan was no slouch herself. Colby, on the other hand, was on his ass more than he was on his feet.
"Why didn't you tell us you'd never been skiing?" David asked, laughing as his partner dug clumps out snow out of his jacket for about the fifteenth time. "Didn't think it'd be hard," Colby said, a little miffed that he wasn't already an expert skier after a full hour of attempt. "What the hell am I doing wrong?" Megan glided over, a smile on her face. "Well, first of all, try bending your knees once in awhile." David grinned as Don shouted over, "Yeah, and then try to stay on your feet once in awhile!" Colby laughed sardonically at Don's comment, while quietly filing Megan's away for future reference. 'Bend my knees,' he thought. 'Gotta try that.' David clapped him on the shoulder. "Back to the bunny trail, man." Colby glared at him. "It's a training slope." He shook his head as David laughed and zipped away, and began moving slowly back to the top of the little knoll he'd adopted for his training. He'd conquer it yet.
Well, this was a new development.
After Don and the others had left, Charlie had made a serious attempt at going to sleep, determined to drive himself back to good health. He'd been in bed for about ten minutes when a pesky little tickle in his throat had turned into a proper cough, and soon after into a painful and relentless hacking. He now sat on the edge of the bed, shuddering, taking small sips from his water bottle. Just as he thought it was beginning to ebb away, back it came, ripping viciously from his lungs. After a particularly nasty round he moaned and leaned back across the blankets, spent. Yeah, he was definitely sick. And with the wide variety of symptoms currently assaulting him, he didn't know if he'd be able to stick out the week here. Maybe Don could drive him back into the town and he could catch a bus home. Not that an eight hour bus ride in his condition sounded particularly appealing, but he wasn't going to be the one to ruin his brother's vacation—he wouldn't make Don baby-sit him all week long, and he sure as hell wouldn't let them pack up to take him back to Pasadena.
He checked the time—just ten after one—and hoped that his brother was having fun.
Don almost shut his eyes as he went whizzing by a stunned and baffled looking Colby, who had wandered his way directly into the path of Don's descent. He breathed a sigh of relief, felt himself slowing, and skidded to a halt. Turning, he began the trudge up to where Colby was standing. "Man you're fast," Colby said in awe as Don approached. "I looked up and you hadn't even started down yet…I take two steps and you just about cream me."
"Yeah, well, gravity does that," Don said dryly. "Where are Megan and David?" Colby pointed. "They're heading down now." Don and Colby waited, and after a minute were joined by the others. Megan glanced at Colby. "How's it going? Can you ski yet?" Colby snorted. "Like a pro, Reeves. I'm just warming up." David opened his mouth to retort when a big gust of wind came blasting from the east, swirling the snow from the ground in a blinding cloud of white for a few moments. It settled down, but the snow didn't, and began to fall lightly from the increasingly gray skies. Don looked at his watch, noting that it was somewhat dark for the time of day. That, and it was already a hell of a lot later than he'd have guessed. "We should probably be heading out soon. We're probably about three miles out from the cabin now…it'll take us a little time to get back. And it looks like the weather is picking up." Colby nodded, eager to put this humiliating day behind him with a six-pack of beer and a nice hot meal. Megan looked at her watch, then at Don. "One more pass?" Don and David exchanged glances, and shrugged. "What the hell," Don said. "Let's go once more."
Charlie looked worriedly out the window. The sky had darkened considerably, and the snow was really starting to fall. He noted the size of the flakes as they landed gently on the window—big, but not enormous. He hoped that Don had heeding his words and would watch the weather. This particular mountain was notorious for its sudden and severe bursts of snow, and the last few years had seen some pretty intense storms. It was a little early in the season to be too concerned about that, but Charlie still wished he'd see Don and his friends coming up over the rise and back to the safety of the cabin.
It was only 4:30, though it felt much later to Charlie. He had actually dozed off, albeit rather restlessly, for a few hours, and while he wasn't as outright tired as he'd been earlier, he felt completely lethargic. And he was cold, freezing in fact, and had been roused from his slumber shaking and shivering. He had moved out to the living room to make a fire, but they'd used all the firewood last night and he'd have to go out to the storage shed to get more. He hadn't quite worked up the steam for that just yet, but knew that he'd have to make a move soon or he could very well freeze to death before Don came back. He gazed out the window some more, willing his brother's face to appear amidst the falling snow. He sighed, and pushed himself up and out of the sofa. He may as well get it over with.
He shuffled over to the door, sticking his feet slowly into his sneakers. He had boots, but they were tucked away under his bed. And he was pretty sure that if he went in to get them, the beautiful sight of his warm and inviting bed would strip him of any and all motivation he had to come out again. He reached for his coat, put it on, very aware of the snail's pace at which he was moving. He'd have to kick it up a notch—he didn't want to spend any more time outside in the cold than he had to. With a deep breath, he pulled the door open.
The cold was instant, bitter and all consuming. While it was probably just a little below freezing, Charlie would have sworn in that moment that he'd stepped out onto an arctic glacier. He put his head down to avoid the gusting wind and pulled his coat tight, and headed stiffly outside. It was about one hundred and fifty feet to the shed. He could do this.
He had taken about ten steps when his stomach lurched abruptly. The swirlings and discomfort he'd felt for the last two days hit him full force and all thoughts of the shed were abandoned as he fell to his knees, retching violently. His arms shook under his weight, and his bare hands reacted immediately to the freezing snow. He coughed, heaved again, spit acrid bile from his mouth. He sat a moment, the cold and wind and fatigue sending him into an almost hopeless despair, and an urgent need to get inside. He stood shakily, turned, and stumbled as quickly as he was able back to the house, his hand over his mouth. He made it to the bathroom just in time, dropping heavily onto the tile, vomit rising in his throat once more.
They were in trouble.
While their "one last pass" hadn't taken too long, it had proven to be valuable time that they were now very sorry to have lost. Snow blew viciously across the mountain, cold and blinding, and Don knew that with well over a mile to go, they had to take shelter.
"Hey!" he yelled over his shoulder to his team, struggling on behind him. "We need to get out of this!" He doubted they could hear him, as they were all as bundled up as they could manage, heads bowed lowly as they forced their ways forward. He lifted his arm, gestured to a cluster of trees nestled against an overhang. Colby, who was directly behind him, nodded and shifted his angle to indicate their new direction to Megan and David. The four of them moved quickly, the deepening and blowing snow making their progress difficult.
Don pressed himself between the trees, and was relieved to see that the overhang jutted out further on one side than he'd initially realized. It served as a makeshift lean-to, and did an admirable job of blocking the wind. They crowded together, pausing a moment to regain their breath and consider their situation.
David removed the scarf that was tied tightly around his face. "Jesus," he said breathlessly. "Is this ever going to stop?" They'd been moving for almost ninety minutes, the weather becoming worse and worse the closer they got to the cabin. Don shook his head. "I don't know," he replied. "But we need a plan. We're not gonna be able to stay here all night." Megan and Colby had disrobed enough to join the conversation. "Well, we can try to wait it out for awhile," Megan suggested. "The wind is what's killing us right now. If it starts to die down a bit we can keep moving, and shelter up again farther on if we have to." Colby nodded his agreement. "Yeah, at this pace we've probably got close to an hour left, right? Even if we just rest awhile, we can probably push through it."
Don sighed, nodded. "All right, let's take a breather then. Man, Charlie said the weather could get bad up here, but this is crazy." He thought for a moment, then looked up. "Anyone know what time it is?" David pushed the cuff on his jacket back, checked his watch. "Seven-thirty," he answered. Don groaned, unhappy. "I told Charlie we'd be back around five. He's probably got a rescue squad looking for us by now." Colby smirked. "Where'd he find the rescue squad, in his back pocket? Cell phones don't work up here." Megan rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but the transistor at the cabin does. Duh," she trailed off, sparking a look from Colby.
They waited for about twenty minutes, until the wind coming in gusts instead of the continuous and relentless barrage. Don began to wrap his scarf again. "All right, I don't think it's going to get much better than this, at least for the time being. Let's get moving while we still have some light." The others nodded, followed suit, and they trudged off into the storm once more.
Charlie's hands shook as he struggled to rip the plastic off the small bottle of travel aspirin. He'd woken from a fitful sleep in desperate need of the restroom, but had discovered upon raising from the bed the unwelcome presence of yet another symptom: vertigo. He'd nearly taken a dive to the floor, and had tripped and staggered his way to the toilet. His eyes clenched shut and his head—still—pounding, he tried to come up with a more proactive solution to curing his ailments, as good old fashioned rest didn't seem to be helping. His search of the bathroom had come up empty and he'd resorted to rifling through the luggage of his travel companions for anything that might offer some relief. He'd found the aspirin in Colby's bag, right under a well-worn paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Even in his miserable state, he made a mental note to bring that up to Colby later, preferably at dinner and in front of the entire team.
After about one minute and three expletives later, he tossed the mangled packaging aside and dumped two pills into his hand. They burned all the way down his throat, sending him into another unwelcome coughing fit, and he stumbled back toward his bedroom to curl up under the covers. The cabin was getting chilly in the absence of a fire, but Charlie just didn't have it in him to make another attempt at retrieving firewood. And all the bedrooms had electric space heaters, so that would do until the others came back.
The others. Where were they, anyway? He turned, detoured from the bedroom and found his watch on the small end table by the couch. He turned it over to check the time, dropped it, his own feelings of ill turning quickly to concern. It was after eight o'clock, well past the hour in which his brother had promised to return. He walked to the door, noting the dark hue of the sky, flung it open.
What had been some disconcerting flakes at his last glance out the window had turned into a full-fledged blizzard. He took an unsteady step outside, wincing at the cold on his bare feet, continued on, uncaring. "Don?" he yelled in a shaky voice, desperate for a response while knowing that he'd receive none. He whipped his head around, peering through the blasting snow for any sign of his brother and his friends. This sudden choice in movement proved disastrous—a wave of dizziness washed over him and he fell hard to the ground, disoriented. He gasped, tried to right himself, gave up and started crawling for the door. He made it inside and used the doorjamb to pull himself up, pushing the door shut behind him. He leaned against the wall, panting and stunned, when the cold set in. He lurched forward to the couch for a blanket, fell heavily onto the cushions and wrapped himself up as tightly as he could. The room swam around him and he was struck by how afraid he was—for his brother and his team, stuck outside in who knew what condition, but also for himself. Jesus, he could barely walk straight. How sick was he?
He sat a few moments, contemplating his situation. There was a blizzard. Don was stuck in it. He was here. He was, obviously, much more ill than he'd realized. Don was out there. He was in here. What could he do. What could he do.
The answer struck him suddenly and he shot up, once again forgetting the need to cease all sudden movements, chastised himself thoroughly, stood again from the couch—slowly, this time—and headed for the small transistor radio at the far end of the cabin. He plunked himself down in the chair, his vision blurry, and squinted to examine it. A big red switch on the side seemed like a good place to start and he flipped it, holding his breath for the crackle of static that indicated the possibility of communication with the outside world. Nothing. He tried all the buttons, banged on it in frustration, screamed into the speaker as if a voice might magically appear from its depths. Nothing. He groaned, headed back to the couch to think.
He had to think.
"Where the hell is the cabin?" David yelled over the force of the wind, which had picked up almost immediately after they'd set out. He and Don turned to wait for Megan and Colby, who had begun to lag behind. While his inexperience on skis had been a great source of amusement just hours earlier, Colby was now having serious mobility issues as they encountered deeper and deeper snow. They finally caught up and huddled against a large pine tree, seeking refuge from the wind. Don addressed his team.
"We must have gotten turned around somewhere. Even at the pace we're going, we should have come up on the cabin by now. Anyone have an idea about which direction to go?" Colby shook his head, frustrated. "All the damn trail markers are under a foot of snow. And with the way this snow is whipping around, I probably couldn't tell you which way the sky is right now." David nodded in agreement. "Much as I hate to say it, I think we're going to have to come up with some more long-term shelter. It's gonna be pitch black out here in the next thirty minutes. We can't just be out wandering around in this weather." Don contemplated the thought…he'd come to the same conclusion, but like David, he just didn't want to say it. Where the hell were they going to go? And what would Charlie do when they didn't return?
Colby pointed back the way they had come. "There was a rock face back that way a little bit. There might be an enclosure there." They looked at Don for confirmation, and he nodded. "Let's go."
Colby was right on the money—not only was there a rock face, but after a few minutes of searching, Megan found a small cave. They piled in, and despite the cramped quarters they were all grateful to be fully out of the elements, finally. There was room enough to sit, not quite enough to stand, and the area extended back enough to eliminate the wind and snow entirely. "Good enough," thought Don as he removed his skis and sat against the cool stone wall.
Colby had also removed his skis, and as the others settled against the wall for what could be a long and chilly wait, he darted outside again with a "Be right back," called over his shoulder. David stood, and grimaced as his head hit the wall above. "Colby!" he yelled to the retreating figure. "Where the hell is he going?" he asked the others, who shrugged in bewildered response.
He returned a few minutes later, his arms full of small branches. "Christ it's cold," he said as he set to work with his findings. "A fire?" said Megan. "Will that wood even burn?" Colby looked up, a grin on his face. "I may not be the best skier, Megan, but I'm pretty damn good at survival. Hand me those rocks."
Within fifteen minutes, Colby had produced a small but very welcomed fire that filled their temporary home with warm and radiating heat. And Colby, pleased as punch with his creation, took every opportunity to gloat and praise his accomplishments.
"Man that feels good," he said, holding his hands over the fire, rubbing them together obnoxiously. "Nothing like a roaring campfire on a cold winter night, eh Megan?" She glanced at him, bemused. "Oh Colby, what would we have done without you. Because not one of us would have thought to make a fire…we'd be dead before morning, frozen right to the rocks no doubt." David and Don laughed, enjoying the repartee. "Now," Megan continued, "if you go out there and hunt us a boar or something, that would be noteworthy." David nodded vigorously. "Yeah, that'd be something man. I'm starving." Colby raised his eyebrows, sucked in a breath. "Yeah, food, that'd be impressive, wouldn't it. Oh, wait a second...what's this?" The three looked at him, eyes widening as he reached into the pocket of his jacket. His hand retracted, clutching four granola bars that he tossed onto the ground in front of his fire. Megan slumped back, unimpressed. "Granola bars? I don't know what I thought you'd have in your pocket, but that wasn't it." Colby shrugged, tossing one to David and another to Don. "All right, if you don't want it, the three of us can—" He was cut off as Megan reached out to snatch it from the ground. "I didn't say I didn't want it—I just would have preferred a pizza or something." Colby talked through a mouthful of granola. "Least I came prepared Reeves. That's the Granger motto—always assume you're going to get stuck out in a blizzard." Don raised his eyebrow. "That's the Granger motto?" Colby nodded. "Is now. And I got four more where those came from." David clapped him on the back. "Hey, you got my vote man. Colby Granger, King of the Cave." Colby nodded.
He sat up, slowly, blinking to clear his vision. He kept the blanket wrapped around his shoulders, walked slowly into the kitchen, coughing the whole way. He held a glass under the tap, trembling, feeling weak and disconnected. The water was cold, welcome. He looked back to the door to his bedroom. Too far. He made it to the couch, wondering if he could convince Don to bring him another blanket. He called out for him, waited for his brother to come. He didn't. Charlie lay down, closed his eyes.
Don must be sleeping. He'd let him sleep.
"You did not!" Megan yelled, laughing. Don coughed a little, wiped his eyes, the memory still cracking him up twenty-five years later. "Yeah, I did. Wasn't the nicest stunt I ever pulled, but I'll tell you what—he never went through my closet again." Colby and David laughed too, each of them picturing a pint-sized Charlie Eppes being terrorized by his big brother, a man they all held in highest esteem as both a boss and a friend. Colby sighed. "Too bad he wasn't a genius yet…he would have seen that coming a mile away." Don smiled. "No, he was already a genius. With numbers anyway. Just not with…life. He was five. Gotta give him a break."
It got strangely quiet, until David spoke. "How did it come about?" At Don's questioning glance, he continued. "I mean, how did you all find out about Charlie's talents?" Don leaned back, his arms resting on his knee. "My mom had to take me to the doctor and Dad was working, so she asked one of our neighbors to watch Charlie for a couple of hours. She was in junior high and brought some homework over to work on. Charlie kept bugging her to play with him, so she tried to bore him away and started asking him math questions, like five-plus-four and two-times-six. He knew the answers, and she just kept going, until she was up to things like 135-times-361. And he just knew them all." Don laughed. "Her plan backfired. Didn't bore him at all." The others laughed at that. "How old was he?" Colby asked. "Three," Don said. "Couldn't tie his shoes or write his name, but he could tell you what three hundred and seventy-five squared was…once someone explained what 'squared' meant, anyway." Megan looked at him, speaking quietly. "Must have been something, growing up in that shadow." Don glanced at her, seeing the profiler in her glowing amidst the firelight. He laughed. "What shadow? He was a twerp then and he's a twerp now." His comment earned a chuckle from his team, but he could sense their curiosity, and he sighed. "Look, I mean, yeah, it was tough to deal with sometimes, having my kid brother always stealing the thunder. He…required a lot of attention. And he got it." He sighed, not loving this foray into the psychosis of his childhood. His sessions with Dr. Bradford were enough—he didn't need it with his team too. But strangely, it didn't bother him like he'd have thought it would. There was a time when his past, and his history with his brother, were entirely off-limits. They were bitter and painful and his. But, chagrined as he was to admit it, talking helped. And in a sudden burst of confidence, he found himself sharing with his team, confiding in the, letting them into the bubble that was Don.
"The thing I've started to realize though, is that it wasn't just tough for me. I mean, it was, but honestly, of the two of us…I think it was worse for him. He got a lot of shit for something that he couldn't control, that he didn't ask for. Most of it from me, and I'm his brother. I should have been in his corner." He looked at his hands, feeling their eyes on him, judging him, and spoke softly. "He was always in mine."
The three of them were silent, absorbing this unexpected glimpse into Don's past. Megan was the first to speak. "You know, Charlie's told me a couple stories about the two of you when you were kids too." Don looked at her, interested. "He told me about that kid…oh, what was his name…Jason Fletcher? The one that lived around the block and used to chase him home from school?" Don's face changed, remembering. "Yeah, that kid was a son of a bitch. Used to hide in different places, waiting for Charlie to come walking by, and he'd tear after him all the way to the house. Charlie was fast though…he usually outran him." Colby leaned forward, listening. "Usually?" Don nodded, glowering. "Yeah, there was one day that Charlie just didn't see him coming…he was lost in his own little world, wasn't paying attention. Kid jumped out from behind a tree and knocked him right over. Didn't hurt him too bad, but he gave him a bloody nose." Megan nodded smiling. "Yeah, and he got home and didn't want you to find out about it, but you saw him and made him tell you who did it. And he told me that you were more pissed off then he'd ever seen you." David smiled at that. "So what happened?" Don smirked, remembering. "I cut class and staked the kid out. Watched him leave school, pick out his hiding place. He got himself all tucked away between a couple bushes on a corner. So I came up on the other side and pantsed him." David looked confused, while Colby looked positively jubilant. "You pantsed him?" David asked, obviously not familiar with the term. "Dude, he took his pants. It's a classic. You've never heard of that?" Colby shook his head at his partner, dismayed. "So what'd he do," he asked, turning his attention back to Don. "I told him I was gonna kick his ass, and I chased him all the way back to school in his underwear. He must have passed, like, a hundred kids on the way. And I gave him a bloody nose to match my brother's. Never chased Charlie again." His smile turned to a small frown. "Of course, if I had paid any attention to Charlie at all, I could have stopped the whole thing before he got hurt. I didn't know anything about it until after the fact…and it had been going on for months." Megan gave him a small smile. "Well, that's not how Charlie remembers it. Charlie remembers that after that, he was never afraid to walk home again. Because of you." Don smiled a little at that. But he had a question too. "Why the hell did Charlie tell you that story?"
Megan looked at him levelly. "It was last spring. You guys were out on scene and he was at the office working through some files you'd given him. He'd been there all afternoon and looked like he needed a break, so I told him to call it a day and go home. But he stayed there until he was finished…took him hours. I made him go with me grab dinner, and he was telling me about everything he had going on—things at school, projects he was working on, other consulting he was doing. I asked him about his work with the FBI, and how he was able to fit it in. And he told me," she said, pausing for effect, "that you've always had his back. And that the least he could do was have yours." Megan watched as it sunk in, leaned back, and continued.
"I guess you were more in his corner than you think."
He was on fire.
He kicked the blankets off, only vaguely aware of the whistles and shrieks of wind from beyond the window. He moaned, restless. What was he doing here? His eyes opened, and darted around the room. Where was he? A sudden chill struck him, light at first, then sharp, painful. He reached unsteadily, seeking warmth, wrapped the blankets blindly around him as he shivered, freezing. He coughed again, his throat raw and painful. His lips were dry, craved water. He turned, hacking, kicked the blankets off.
He was so hot.
Don was awake, but his eyes remained closed.
He could sense the difference already—the sounds of the wind were gone, and a quiet stillness seemed to have settled over their dwelling. Despite the aches and pains he knew were coming, he felt rested. Hard though it may be to believe, it was a great night.
They'd talked for hours, laughing and sharing memories of their childhoods. He'd related stories about himself and his brother that he'd long since forgotten, and his only regret was that Charlie hadn't been there to throw in his perspective.
They had to get going. Charlie was probably hysterical by now.
Don's eyes cracked open, slowly, and he glanced around. Megan and David were still dozing, but Colby was up, his head stuck outside, checking the weather. He saw Don, nodded a greeting. "Snow's pretty much stopped. It's still falling, but real lightly. Won't have any trouble getting back." Don stretched, his limbs sore and stiff, and his movements roused the other two. Megan rubbed her eyes, and David groaned as he too began to feel the pains of a solid rock mattress. Colby, having already cleared away the traces of his precious fire pit and gathered his skis, held out his hand.
Don sighed. The clear skies had done wonders for their navigation, and they'd quickly found out where they had gone wrong in their trek back to the cabin the day before. He guessed that they were about ten minutes away, and he increased his pace, impatient, wanting to get back to Charlie.
"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I don't know that I feel like skiing today. I'm thinking more along the lines of a good meal, a hot shower and a nap. In that order," Colby said with a grin.
"I second that," said Don, and Megan and David quickly voiced their agreement. Colby continued, "Whiz Kid better have a damn feast set out for us. I'm talking appetizers and candlelight, the whole nine yards." Megan rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'm sure that was his number one concern Colby…not for our lives or safety or anything, but in making sure that he didn't overcook his salmon kebabs." Don smiled, but wasn't quite as humored by the thought. David seemed to share his sentiment. "If I were stuck in that cabin while all you guys were out in a blizzard, I'd be freaking out. The last thing I'd think about is food."
This sobered them a bit, and Don noticed a rapid increase in pace. His anticipation was building, and reached a pinnacle as the cabin finally came into view. He half expected Charlie to be standing at the door, or directing a chopper full of mountain rangers. But it was quiet, and as they glided up and pulled off their skis, he reached a gloved fist up and pounded on the window. "Charlie!" he yelled, announcing their arrival. When the expected curly head of hair failed to pop up, he tossed his skis aside and headed in, eager to see his brother.
He moaned, exhausted, his head swimming. Needed to get to campus, find the letters. Couldn't breathe well. Heard a clatter."The truck is snowed in…can't drive out…"
Something was on him…he swatted it away, but it came back…felt cool against his head. He shook, felt his teeth chatter. Too tired.
"On their way."
He was jolted awake, tried to sit up, hands held him down. He shook his head, struggled, tried to yell but his throat was too dry.
"Buddy, relax. Just lay still."
Don. What was Don doing in France?
He awoke again, slowly this time, his brain becoming aware before his eyes dared to open. He felt different. Better, and yet not. His head still hurt, but it didn't ache. His stomach felt better, settled. His chest hurt, constricting painfully as he breathed. He cracked an eye open, slowly. Where was—
"Hey. Hey Charlie, you awake?"
He turned. "Donnie?" He was shocked at his own voice—it was cracked and raspy, weak. His vision cleared, and he saw his brother leaning forward, a smile growing on his face. "Jesus buddy, you scared the shit out of me."
Charlie swallowed, slowly becoming more aware. He had a nasal cannula, an IV. In a hospital, obviously. But how? And when?
Don seemed to sense the questions that Charlie couldn't articulate. "We had to take shelter in the blizzard. We couldn't get back, so we spent the night in a cave about two miles out from the cabin. We didn't get back until the next morning." He paused, as if the memory pained him. "You weren't doing too good buddy."
Charlie wanted his brother to go on, keep talking, but the fatigue he'd felt for days was quickly pulling him under. Don must have picked up on this too, and he ran a hand over his face. "Anyway, you have pneumonia, and people with pneumonia need to sleep. So go to sleep. We'll be here when you wake up."
But Charlie didn't need any encouragement. He was already out.
"Hey, how's he doing?" Megan asked quietly as she, David and Colby walked quietly into the room. Don looked up, his neck stiff from sitting for so long in the same position. "He's okay. He woke up for a few minutes earlier. He was still pretty out of it." She nodded, and the three of them sat down around a small window-side table. Colby reached into his pocket. "We brought cards." Don smiled and shook his head. "Nah, you guys go. Go skiing or something. You don't have to sit here." Colby stared at him a minute, then pulled the cards from the package. "Poker or Gin?"
Two hours later, Don stood and stretched. "I'm out guys. Megan, you are the Queen." Megan smiled brightly. "Well at least you weren't playing for money. Colby, on the other hand…" She glanced at him, grinning, while he looked rather miserably at his cards. She kept on, goading him. "Jeez Granger, you play poker about as well as you ski." He sneered at her, looked at his hand again, made a decision. "I'm all in." She shook her head, while David, who had folded long ago, looked on. "You realize that when you lose this one you'll owe me over a hundred dollars, right?" He gazed at her, defiant. "That's why I'm not gonna lose this one." She shrugged. "All right. What have you got?" He smiled, throwing his cards down. "Full house—kings over tens." She exhaled dramatically. "Oh man, all I have are queens." Colby smirked, but as he turned to high-five David, she held a hand up to stop him. "Four of them," she said, laying her cards down. "Damn it!" Colby shouted, temporarily forgetting his surroundings. "I'm telling you she's cheating," he said to David, arguing as Don walked to the window with a smile on his face.
What a day it had been. What had been a surprisingly pleasant morning had turned into a nightmare at the sight of his brother, curled up on the floor, pouring sweat and in the throes of feverish delirium. He hadn't responded to Don's voice, was convinced that he was in France, even tossed out a few phrases accordingly. Don didn't even know that Charlie spoke French.
Colby and David had immediately rushed down to prepare the SUV, returning fifteen minutes later with bad news—the vehicle was completely buried, the wind blowing a wall of snow up against its right side. There was no way they were getting down the mountain in that. Megan, who had been attempting to bring down Charlie's fever with a cool cloth, suggested the radio, and David had immediately gotten in touch with someone from search and rescue—with the storm the night before, quite a few people were in need of an escort off the mountain. They'd arrived rather quickly, considering, and had prepped him for the ride down. They took a blood pressure (too high), a temperature (much too high, at 104.2) and a loaded Charlie into a sturdy looking ambulance with chains on the tires. The trip had been bumpy and uneven, but Don wasn't concerned with their transportation. Rather, he was afraid of the deep and painful coughing, the fever, and his brother's seeming inability to maintain a lucid exchange. That had been yesterday. Once he'd been admitted, Charlie had slept for almost twenty-four hours. And he looked like he needed it.
"Just admit that you're cheating! I won't think any less of you…I just want to hear you say it," Colby said, leaning into his chair, his face blank and disarming. Megan looked around, exasperated. "Don! Tell him I'm not cheating!" Don smiled, walking over to rejoin the conversation. "I don't know Megan. Charlie cheats at Scrabble all the time, but he always swears up and down that he's not."
"I do not cheat at Scrabble." They all turned to the source of the words, and Don smiled at the sight of his brother, awake and alert. "Hey, buddy, how you feeling?" Charlie started to push himself up on his elbows, but Don stopped him, instead handing him a small remote for the bed. Charlie pushed it, adjusting the bed to sitting level. He breathed deeply, coughed a little. "I've felt better," he admitted. Colby leaned forward. "Well, bacterial pneumonia will do that for ya. Kinda scared the hell out of all of us, Whiz Kid. As if we weren't traumatized enough by the blizzard." Megan hit him on the shoulder. "Stop it Colby," she said at the same time Charlie perked up, "What happened to you guys? Where were you?" They related the story to him, from the skiing to the cave to their scary discovery back at the cabin. Charlie listened intently, but after an hour it was obvious that sleep was calling him back.
"All right buddy, we're going to head out and let you get some sleep. The doc says you can probably get out of here tomorrow. We'll be back in the morning, okay?" Don said, his hand resting on Charlie's head. Charlie nodded, yawning, lifting his hand to wave goodbye to the team as they made their way out the door. Don turned to go.
"Don?" He turned back to see Charlie looking glumly at the blankets. "I'm sorry. I ruined your trip."
Don sighed and sat down again. "Charlie, you didn't ruin my trip. Do you have any idea how scared I was, how scared we all were?" Charlie looked up at him. "I could give a damn about this trip Charlie. I'm just glad you're all right. You hear me? That's all that's important." Charlie smiled, that innocent little grin that made him look like he was five years old again, the grin almost solely reserved for his big brother. "Thanks Don."
Don squeezed his hand and stood. "Try not to hallucinate while I'm gone, okay?"
"J'essaierai," Charlie said, with a smile on his face.
True to his word, the doctor released Charlie the next afternoon. He gave him a prescription for antibiotics and another for corticosteroids, which Don took to the pharmacy across the street to fill. He climbed into the SUV, retrieved that very morning by Don and Colby, and leaned back into the seat.
"What do you think Chuck—you had enough of the snow?" Don asked as they pulled out of the parking lot, heading for the highway.
Charlie'd had plenty of snow, but he was sorry that his big adventure with his brother had come to such an abrupt and unsatisfying end. He nodded, somewhat sadly. "Yeah, I guess so. May as well go home."
"Home?" said Colby from the backseat. "Screw home. We're still on vacation. We're going to the beach. Laying out in the sun is supposed to be good for you sickly types." Charlie glanced at Don, surprised. "That all right with you?" Don asked. Charlie smiled back, nodded. "Yeah, sounds great."
They drove in silence, content, until Charlie spoke up. "How'd you get the radio to work?" Don looked him, and he continued. "I tried to use the radio to get help and it wouldn't work at all. What did you do?"
"We plugged it in, for starters," David said, grinning. Charlie's mouth dropped open slightly, dumbfounded. Plugged it in? Colby caught his expression and laughed. "And here you had me all these years thinking you were some kind of a genius." Charlie laughed humorlessly, until another thought struck him. He turned, rested his elbows on the headrest, smiling as he peered into the backseat.
"So Colby, what do you think of Harry Potter?"
That's it. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading...and hey, now that you're down here, why not hit that button on the left. You know the one.