Even putting the pedal to the metal—a good six miles over the limit the whole way—it was past sunset by the time Gus got off the highway, and fully dark before he reached the mountain. And global warming, El Nino, or simply the standard metrological effects of coastal currents and mountain ridges—it still got surprisingly chilly only a few hours away from Santa Barbara's temperate January. Gus rolled up the windows and blasted the heat, along with a Creedence Clearwater Revival CD to counter the looming darkness of the mountains outside.
Traffic thinned and vanished, leaving him driving alone. The road was a black ribbon in the dark, white snow shimmering in the headlights on either side. Half-buried, barely glimpsed signs informed him when he was entering and leaving national parkland and private grounds. Other, more obviously colored signage warned about icy roads, rock-falls and avalanches, and a bear crossing he really hoped was a joke. Just his luck to drive all the way out here and find that Shawn had been devoured by a hungry ursine.
With that in mind, Gus drew the phone headset back over his ears and hit speed-dial one. He'd been calling regularly during the drive, not wanting to drain Shawn's phone's battery—it was bound not to be fully charged; it never was—but needing to check in. This time, the phone rang once, twice, three times without being picked up, long enough for Gus to need a deep, hyperventilation-delaying breath.
Finally it was answered. "'lo."
"Shawn! What happened?" Gus tensed, listening for a gun cocking in the background, threatening voices.
"Ah, sorry," Shawn said, over the comforting sound of silence. "I missed the first ring—kind of zoned out there." His mumble sounded significantly less alert than he had forty-five minutes ago, and that raised a whole new set of urgent worries to send Gus nearly driving off the road.
"Are you feeling sleepy? Are you still cold?"
"No, I'm not cold anymore," Shawn said, sounding encouragingly more awake. "I'm freaking freezing."
"Do you have matches?" Gus pressed. "Or a lighter on you? Something you could build a fire with, you have to keep warm—"
"Gus, I'm not freezing to death here. I'm bored." He considered. "Besides, a fire might draw company I don't want, even if there was any wood in crawling distance that wasn't under a foot of snow."
"Well, I'm almost there," Gus said. "The private drive's off Timber Road, right?"
"Right, if you've passed the Blue Ridge trail sign, it'll be on the right, about two hundred yards past. There's a big hunk of rock before it, you can't miss it, it's shaped like Bert's head from Sesame Street."
The rock, Gus saw, even topped with a headful of white snow hair, but he nearly missed the turn-off anyway, and the Toyota Echo's tires spun without traction for a second when he turned. Black ice on the seemingly clear road, and he dropped to half his speed as the car bumped onto the dirt drive. At least he had a little experience driving in such conditions, thanks to Shawn's stint as a snowboard instructor a few years back.
He got a couple miles down the rough road before he reached the gate demarcating Ibersen's property, and promptly dialed Shawn again. "You didn't tell me the gate was closed and locked!"
"It's not a problem," Shawn said. "Look on the left side, there's a path for ATVs. Someone must've cut it to go off-roading, it's how I know no one's been around this side for a while."
Gus got out of the car, experimentally kicked the sturdy metal crossbars barricading the road, then examined the off-road tracks in the headlights. They led up to the high fence running along the mountainside. Sure enough, there was a hole cut in the wire between two posts. "Shawn, I'm not going to fit through that."
"Of course you will, unless you've really been hitting the Krispy Kremes today," Shawn said, "and so will the Psychmobile, it's a good foot narrower than that hole."
"Ten inches. Maybe," Gus said, but he got back in the car, steered it off the road and carefully lined up the hood with the gap in the fence. It looked encouragingly wider in the headlights.
He held his breath and hit the gas. For a moment he thought he was going to make it, and released the breath in a whoop of triumph—and then there was an awful grinding shriek of blue paint being stripped by a jagged metal prong, and the Toyota jerked to a stop. He pushed his foot to the floor and the engine whined to the smell of burning rubber, snow churning up in a cloud outside the windows. The car didn't move.
With a terrible sense of foreboding honed by long acquaintance with Shawn, Gus put the car in reverse and tried again, to no avail.
He thumped his head once against the steering wheel and called Shawn again. "It's not going to fit."
"How do you know?"
"Because I'm halfway through, and the other half isn't fitting." The front doors were wedged shut, but the back doors were still free. With difficulty and a few well-chosen epithets, he squeezed over the seat to the back and shoved open the door to clamber out into the knee-deep snow. Experimentally he tried rocking on the car's back end. No luck; it didn't budge. "As a matter of fact, it's stuck!"
"Stuck? Gus, what did you do?"
Gus gritted his teeth rather than dignifying that with a response, poked back into the car to retrieve his parka and backpack.
"So what you are going to do?" Shawn asked, wisely modifying his tone to something more placating.
"I'm going to come get you," Gus said, pulling on the parka. "If someone's behind the wheel to give it gas while the other one pushes, we can probably get it out. You're a mile down the road?"
"About that, yeah. Maybe a little less."
"I'll be there in a bit. Hang on." Gus hung up, closed the door and climbed through the hole in the fence over the Psychmobile's hood, then switched on his flashlight and started trudging down the icy road.
The snowy slopes glimmered along the roadside, ghostly blue shadows scattered with twinkles as the flashlight's beam caught individual crystals. It was utterly silent but for the crunch of Gus's boots on the frozen dirt drive. Above the looming bulk of the mountains, stars shone distantly brilliant in the moonless black sky.
It would have been beautiful, except it was cold. His breath came in white puffs, and the warmth trapped in the parka's lining soon faded, leaving the toasty interior of the car only a wistful memory. There was a reason Gus had never gotten into snowboarding, for all the free lift tickets Shawn had offered him. And not just because he, unlike Shawn's students, had known that their new instructor had never actually been on a board himself until a week before the class started. (Surfing didn't count, whatever Shawn had insisted; waves and mountainsides were two totally different things. Mountainsides had more rocks to break a leg on, for one thing.)
After about fifteen minutes his phone buzzed. "Please tell me that's your Maglite," Shawn said in a whisper, "and not someone else's search party."
"It's me," Gus said, flicking the light off and on again to confirm it. "There's no one else around here. Where are you? I don't see you."
"Right side of the road—you look about a hundred feet away. Watch the edge, there's no fence here."
Gus reflexively looked both ways before crossing the road. No cars in sight—luckily; any cars now would be bad guys. On the right side he still didn't see anything, just more snow weighing down the black boughs of pine trees. "Shawn, where—"
"Over here!" Shawn called, not over the phone but aloud. Gus pocketed his cell and followed his friend's voice.
The drop-off at the edge of the road was concealed by the snow, white on white showing no shadows in the flashlight's beam. He barely stopped in time, shining the flashlight down.
Shawn blinked up at him, his face grayish in the incandescent white light. "Geeze, dude," he said, throwing one arm protectively over his eyes, "and I thought that thing was bad when there wasn't snow-glare. Are you trying to blind me?"
"Yes, Shawn, I drove four hours and walked a mile though snow, uphill, just to blind you."
"Ouch." Shawn's teeth were chattering. "Okay, thank you for coming all this way just to save my sorry ass."
"That still doesn't sound very grateful," Gus said. "Here," and he tossed down the sweater and hat, then crouched on the edge of the road, the packed snow hard and chill under his knees, to examine the situation.
"You're a life-saver," Shawn said, more suitably fervent, as he caught the sweater and pulled it on over his leather jacket. "I'll kneel and kiss your boots as soon as I get out of here. I'll wax the car. I'll give you my first-born—"
"How about your first edition Millennium Falcon Micro-Machine?" Shawn was sitting on the seat of his motorcycle, which was upright and standing against a pile of plowed snow. On its other side the mountainside dropped steeply, bare rock showing through the ice.
"The Teeny Falcon?" Shawn's voice rose to a protesting squawk. "Just for dragging me out of a ditch?"
"This isn't a ditch," Gus argued. "It's a ledge. Or a canyon." The Grand Canyon, might as well be. "How the heck did you expect me to get your bike out of there? Get me so mad I turn into the Hulk and toss it back up onto the road?"
"I thought you'd have the Psychmobile to tow it up," Shawn said. "Though I'm game for the Hulk thing, if you are. Does Bill Gates still make you froth, or did that go out with Windows XP?"
"Just give me your hand." Gus clipped the flashlight to his pocket, took firm hold of the largest adjacent pine tree, his glove gripping the rough bark, and stretched his other hand down. Shawn reached up and grabbed his wrist with both hands, folded his legs under himself and pushed off the motorcycle's seat, as Gus hauled backwards.
Fortunately, Shawn's wiry build was still pounds less than Gus's own trim figure, and he scrambled up the embankment without too much trouble, if a lot of swearing through clenched teeth. When he was beside Gus, he dropped ungracefully into the snow piled on the roadside between the trees, the bank sinking under him like an expensive mattress, as he muttered, "Ow, ow, ow, ow."
"Let me see your ankle," Gus said, but Shawn pushed him away.
"I'll need to take off the boot, and my toes are cold enough already. Can wait until we're back at the car. The heat works, right?"
"The engine works, so yeah, the heat works," Gus said. He shone the flashlight at Shawn's knees so as not to blind him, and took stock of his friend in the reflected illumination. Shawn was panting from the exertion or the pain of the climb, his head bowed and his arms crossed over his chest, hands tucked under his biceps. He was in jeans and the leather jacket he hadn't bothered to take off before putting the sweater on over it. And he'd pulled the wool hat down over his ears.
Shawn was not a hat kind of guy. He insisted it was because he had counted enough of them to last him a lifetime, but Gus suspected it had more to do with messing up the 'do he spent way too long styling every morning. But he had stuck the knit cap over his hair without so much as ridiculing the colored stripes. And his teeth were clacking like the rhythm demo of Gus's Casio keyboard that Shawn had broken in sixth grade.
"Here," Gus said, unzipped the backpack and dug out the metal thermos. He unscrewed the cap and poured the cocoa, steam rising from the liquid into the darkness.
Shawn's hands in their fingerless riding gloves were shaky; he wrapped them both around the cup, closed his eyes and drank. "Th-thanks," he said, when he'd finished, and that sounded absolutely sincere, if a little pathetic. "Though it could use more kick than marshmallow fluff."
"No, it couldn't. Alcohol makes you feel warmer, but you actually get colder; it opens the blood vessels." Gus studied the way Shawn was sitting hunched in the snow bank, shivering even harder now. "We got to get back to the car and get you warmed up, or you're going to be in trouble. Can you get up?"
"Anything for you, Gus," and Shawn fluttered his lashes romantically. Bits of ice caught on them glittered in the flashlight. "'Sides, my butt's getting numb." He took Gus's hand again, shoving himself up out of the snow bank as he was pulled to his feet. Gus didn't miss his wince as he put his right foot down, but he balanced some weight on it, cautiously, and said, "Let's go."
"Do you want my parka?" Gus asked, starting to unzip it.
"I've got the sweater, I'll be fine," Shawn said. "Besides, that shade of green with this hat? No way. Come on, walking will warm us up."
Gus sighed, zipped up his coat again and put his arm around Shawn's waist. "Lean on me."
"When I'm not strong, and you'll help me carry on?" Shawn grinned. "Who's up for a little mountainside karaoke?"
"Might get the criminals' attention, when the local wildlife starts fleeing in droves from your voice," Gus said, and didn't comment when Shawn's hand tightened painfully around his arm as they took their first step.
"Oh, come on, it'll be like camp. What's your favorite fireside ditty? How's it go, that one about the Scotsman in the kilt—"
"I think that's a drinking song. Camp tunes are usually child-appropriate."
"Okay." Eight steps, nine. Shawn bit off another swear, unclenched his teeth enough to go on, "Then what about that one on American Duos, the one sung by those twins?"
"The girl twins, or the boy twins?"
"The girl and the boy, with the red hair. Raggedy Ann and Andy."
"That's Annette and Rodney, Shawn. And which song? They made it to the finals, that's eleven songs." And more than eleven steps. They weren't exactly making great time, but at least they were moving. It wasn't the most awkward three-legged race Gus had participated in—that would have to be the fireman's muster where Shawn had signed him up with Harold "the Walrus" Weishaus—but the icy road made for an extra challenge, and the cold was numbing Gus's fingers through the gloves. His toes ached from it. And the way Shawn was shivering against him made him feel even colder.
Gus didn't check his watch; he didn't want to know how long it was taking. But it felt like a good half an hour before they reached the final bend in the winding road, almost in sight of the gate—
Shawn lurched into him, and for a moment Gus thought he had slipped on the ice, but rather than try to right himself, Shawn grappled for Gus's coat. "What are you—" Gus started to say, before Shawn's glove clamped over his mouth.
"The flashlight," he hissed in an undertone, "turn it off—"
He put too much weight on his injured ankle, caught his breath in a sharp gasp and overbalanced. Gus moved to catch him and slipped himself, getting no traction on the snowy, frozen dirt. They fell together, hard enough that the wind was knocked out of Gus's lungs. The flashlight cast a long silvery beam along the ground, and then Shawn reached across him to click it off.
"What?" Gus demanded when he had caught his breath.
Shawn's shadowy shape in the darkness pointed down the road. Gus looked at the gray of the snow-covered mountainside, the pointed forms of trees and the light gleaming through their snowy boughs—
That wasn't starlight. Gus blinked. Yellow-white illumination; artificial light.
Quietly, muffled by the snow, Gus pulled Shawn to his feet, and they stumbled down the road to the copse of trees at the curve, pushed apart the branches and peered through.
Just past the gate, a truck was parked in the road, facing towards the drive, its headlights shining on the bright blueberry blue of Gus's car. Two figures were silhouetted against the beams, standing around the Toyota; a third person was at the gate.
"Maybe they're rangers?" Gus whispered hopefully.
Shawn shook his head. "Dude, I really don't think so."
The gate, unlocked, swung open, and the third guy headed back toward the truck. And Gus, catching the headlights' glitter on the barrel of the semi-automatic rifle slung over the man's shoulder, was forced to concede that Shawn was probably right about this one.
to be continued...
Thanks for the reviews, hope you continue to enjoy it!