CHAPTER FIFTY SIX
Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha
With a soft grunt, Kirsten lays the crumpled map flat against a rock whose cap of snow has melted away in the warm summer sun. Removing her makeshift mittens, she pulls out the old-fashioned compass, surprised she still knows how to read one in these days of GPS tracking, takes a reading, and looks back down at the map, frowning. "The compass says Im going the right way. The damn map says Im going the right way. So would someone please tell me what the hell this mountain is doing here?!?"
The world around her is, unsurprisingly, silent on the issue.
"Jesus H. Christ on a crutch, three goddamn hours of walking for what?!?" She looks slowly left, and then right. The snow-covered cliff face, nearly vertical and reaching almost as high as the clouds, stretches to the horizon in both directions. The town of Craig is only five miles away. Five miles and an unscalable mountain away, that is. "Fuck! What now?" She cant turn back. That much is certain. Just the memory of her lover, lying still and pale as death, fills her with a desperation that fires her nerve endings and urges her muscles into action. Any action.
"What I wouldnt give for a goddamn pair of wings."
Perfectly on cue, a piercing call sounds above her head, and as she looks up, she sees the trademark shape of a hawk circling above her. A disbelieving smile comes to her face. "Wiyo? Is that you, girl?"
The hawk, who is indeed Wiyo, calls out once more, then gracefully shoots in for a landing atop the rock where Kirstens map is perched. "It is you! God, its so good to see a friendly face around here." She reaches out, but Wiyo takes a step back, not quite as trusting of this woman as her two-foot companion. Kirsten laughs. "Thats okay, girl. I was only wishing for wings. I wasnt planning on stealing yours." Sighing, she slumps forward, leaning her elbows on the sun-warmed rock, letting the heat of it bleed into her cold-numb body. "I hope Dakotas doing ok. I hated leaving her. It was the hardest thing Ive ever done but I had to do it. I have to. There isnt any other choice. And now this this blasted mountain is keeping me from getting back to her."
Wiyo cocks her head, dark eyes piercing and somehow frightfully aware. After a moment, she takes off from her perch on the rock, crying out her signature call. "Sorry, girl," Kirsten says, watching her go, "I guess Im not very good company. Be safe, wherever youre off to."
Which, it turns out, isnt very far at all. The hawk lands atop a huge, snow-covered fir and screeches out again, twice.
"Im sorry, girl," Kirsten calls. "If youre talking to me, I dont understand you. Dakota would understand you, but shes not here and Im not her." She looks around, slightly abashed. "Great, now Im talking to birds. Im definitely losing it here."
Wiyo calls again, lifts off a bit from the top of the tree, and lands once more. "What? Are we playing charades? I dont understand you, girl!"
With yet another call, Wiyo jumps from her perch and lands on the next pine over, fluttering her wings. If it were possible for a hawk to look supremely frustrated, Wiyo is accomplishing the task admirably.
"Ok, ok, I get it. Youre trying to tell me something. I dont know what it is, but its something alright." Shoving her map and compass back into her pockets, she slogs through snow still up to her knees toward Wiyos current perch. Just as she arrives, the bird takes off, arrowing for another pine a hundred or so feet away. "Great. First its charades, now its tag. Youre definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Or maybe you are and you just cant read a map. Or a compass."
At the sixth hopscotch, and approximately a mile away from where she had stopped at the rock, Kirsten stands staring in amazement at a tiny pass through the mountain. "Holy Jesus! I never would have found this in a million years!" She looks over her shoulder at Wiyo, perched on yet another tree and presumably agreeing with her. "Yeah, I know, Im not super tracker, but thanks, Wiyo. I owe you one. And Ill pay up. I promise."
With a screeching call, Wiyo takes off once again into the skies, circles once, and is quickly gone from her sight.
Craig, Colorado, a small city which, in its heyday, boasted a population of just under ten thousand souls, is a ghost-town. Wandering through its empty streets, Kirsten cant help wishing for a set of eyes in the back of her head. Something about the town is eerie, though she cant quite put her finger on just what that might be. Her raccoon hallucination hadnt seen fit to give her the name of the clinic she is supposed to be raiding, nor its exact address, so she finds herself wasting yet more precious time trying to track down the medicine she needs to save her lovers life.
Choosing a street more or less at randommore or less only because she has seen a physicians shingle hung out on one of the well-tended houses and figures where the doctors are, a hospital cant be all that far awayshe lengthens her stride, peering fitfully at the sun which has already started its downward descent. The road she is on is narrow, curving, and steep, and as she breasts the hill, the clinic, or what remains of it, comes into full view. It had once, she surmises, been a rather beautiful place, as medical clinics go, with its broad expanse of lawn just now going to seed and a fantastic view of the mountainous wilderness seen in panorama like a postcard in a fancy boutique. It is now a mostly burned out hulk with the words "YOUR BABIES WERE MURDERED HERE" scrawled across its once-pleasant wood and stone facing in huge, red letters. "Great," she sighs, unsurprised to feel the sting of tears, once again, pricking at her eyes. "I walk all this fucking way to find a bombed out abortion clinic. Shit!" Still, her desperate need presses her onward in the hope that something, anything, of value might yet be scavenged from the wreckage. "Please, God, just this once, ok? Ill never ask for another thing again as long as I live."
As prayers go, its been heard before, and many times at that, but she means every word with all of her heart and soul.
Stepping over fallen beams and shattered glass, she enters the clinic, wrinkling her nose at the stench of melted plastic and cordite that still permeates the air despite the obvious signs that the damage was done several months ago, at the very least. A fitful sun shines through what remains of the roof, turning the ugly scene oddly beautiful as the shards of glass sparkle like diamonds in the snow. At the rear of the reception area is a door that has somehow escaped the brunt of the blast. She walks to it and, with a hard yank, pulls it open. Beyond is more destruction. To the left, the walls and ceiling have collapsed, leaving whatever is beyond inaccessible to her. Straight ahead, a long corridor has, for the most part, been left to stand on its own. Taking out a small, but powerful, flashlight from her pocket, she switches it on and shines it down the undisturbed hallway. The walls are a soothing blue, and the doors, six to a side, are painted in cheerful primary colors. She walks slowly, cautiously, down this hallway, opening each door in its turn. All reveal neatly kept examination rooms with real beds instead of sterile tables, and all the high-tech medical equipment a prospective mother could want to be assured of the continuing health of her developing fetus.
The corridor ends with a stark white door, larger than the others, and bearing the legend: "Authorized Personnel Only".
This door opens easily, and she steps through, into yet another corridorsterile white, this time. "Now were getting somewhere," she says, feeling a faint spark of hope bloom. There are several doorways with no doors to bar the view, and she walks to the first one, peering inside. A rather large centrifuge and other identifiable pieces of equipment identify this room as a lab. Her light reflects back at her, sparking off of many rows of glass tubes used for blood collection. The open cabinets reveal nothing of great interest, but she goes through them meticulously anyway on the off-chance that some needed item might be stored within. Coming up empty, she plays her light in a last sweep over the room and steps back into the hallway.
"Paydirt!" Her happy cry echoes through the empty corridor, though the squeaking of disturbed rats tell her the place is not exactly as empty as she might have liked. "Ok, time to find out if my furry, striped hallucination is worth the ulcer hes giving me."
Stepping into what obviously is the pharmacy portion of this little operation, she shines her flashlight over row after row of open cabinets, and several which appear to be securely locked. "Oh well, no narcotic bliss for me. Lets see. Pills, pills, caplets, tablets, pills, pills, more pills, vials! Yes!!" Walking over to the cabinet containing the vials, she squints at the names on the boxes which house the ampoules of liquid medication. "Damn, I should have remembered my damn glasses. Stupid . Ok, what do we have here. Sodium chloride. Potassium chloride. Gentamycin. Vancomycin. Zythromycin. Erythromycin. Im not gonna even try to pronounce that one. Ampicillin. Amoxicillin. V-Cillin, Hello Levaquin!" She pulls down a box of twenty five 50cc vials. "Ok, theyre not pre-filled syringes, but the dose is right, and with my crash course in Shot Giving 101 yesterday, I think I can manage. Now all I have to do is find some syringes."
Acting on a hunch, she pulls open a large drawer beneath the cabinet and finds a plethora of sterile-wrapped syringes of different sizes, from 10cc down to TB. Grabbing handfuls, she begins stuffing her pockets with as many as they can possibly carry. "Thank God there arent any cops around anymore. With my luck, Id get arrested for drug pushing. I know it." Another drawer reveals hundreds of alcohol prep packets, and she grabs those as well.
Pockets filled to overflowing, she takes a final look around, sees there isnt anything else she thinks shell need, and steps back out into the corridor. "Alright, I think its time to blow this one-horse town and get back to where I belong."
Without thinking, she turns the wrong way and faces a somber brown metal door with a safety bar across it and an "EMERGENCY EXIT" sign just below the wire-crossed window that is too high for her to see through. Seeing no reason to take the long way around, and well aware of the need (and desire) to get back to Dakota as quickly as possible, she ploughs ahead, hitting the safety bar and taking a step outside, before just as quickly reversing and allowing the door to slam closed in front of her. When it does, she sinks to her knees, breathing deeply and trying to convince herself that what she thinks shes seen out there isnt what she did, in fact, see. The visual imprint of the scene plays itself out behind her closed eyes, cutting her futile hopes in that direction to shards.
The first thing that comes to mind is a newsreel, seen long ago in some dusty History class in schoolHigh School, she thinks, though it doesnt really matter. Done in black and white, it showed, in incredibly vivid and heart-wrenching detail, scenes captured just after the liberation of the concentration camps of post World War II Poland. She remembers giant bulldozers pushing before them the emaciated bodies of dead Jews, Gypsies, and gays into gigantic earthen trenches.
The trenches are here, as they were there. Shes seen them, no matter what her mind tries to tell her. Instead of musselmen, however, these slashes in a weeping earth bear the bodies of infants. Not fetal abortionseven assuming an abortion clinic would toss their remains in some stinking, rat infested pitbut infants, and even, she would swear before court, toddlers.
"Jesus Christ," she moans, her body rocking in a completely unconscious self comforting gesture. "Oh sweet Jesus Christ. What the hell is happening here?"
Her plaintive wail goes unnoticed and unremarked in the cavernous emptiness of the bombed out clinic. Even the rats, it seems, have no answers for her.
Ok, Kirsten, she thinks, putting her hands over her ears like a child not wanting to hear a fight between her parents, youve got to let this go for now. Theres nothing you can do here. Theres nothing anyone can do here. Theyre dead, and dead theyll stay. Youve got someone out there who loves you and depends on you, and damnit, youre not going to fuck this up. Get a hold of yourself and get the job done. Mourn later.
Thus bolstered, she rises to her feet. A spasm hits her belly, and everything shes eaten for the day comes up in a large glut, pooling on the ground between her feet. Black speckles dart before her eyes and she stumbles blindly until her back is against the wall, her flashlight falling to the ground and breaking, plunging her into total darkness. She can feel panic begin to draw its icy talons down her spine. She fights it down as she fights the waves of nausea and the threat of fainting, digging down deep to a reserve of strength she senses is Dakotas as much as her ownthe bond they share. That same sense of her lover tells her that shes running out of time, and that scares her far more than what shes dealing with here. Her stomach settles and the dizziness and cold sweat of panic recede, enabling her to move away from the wall, hands in front of her like a blind woman. One booted foot slips in the mess shes left, but she continues on, one hand skimming along the corridor wall until shes able to find the door. She opens it quickly, and steps into the second hallway, this one just as night-black as the first. Hurrying now, a map of this corridor firmly in her head, she runs down the hall and grabs the doorknob, yanking it open and breathing a sigh of relief when the charred rubble of the waiting area appears before her.
Its snowing again. Hard. The flakes fall in straight, heavy lines through the roofs many holes, adding to the accumulation already on the floor from the earlier blizzard. Kirsten barely notices as she stumbles through the partly covered wreckage and into what remains of the day. Frosty breath jutting in twin streams through her nose, she secures her hard-won and newly gotten gain and begins to run.
The door to the shack opens reluctantly on its one squealing hinge. A gust of bitter wind enters and flows over Dakotas uncovered, sweat-shiny body. She shivers, then stirs. Sunken eyes, ringed with deep, dark circles, flutter open, dazed. A huge wolf, gray-pelted and sleek, steps through the open door and looks down at Dakota, dark eyes wise, calm, and affectionate.
Dakota struggles to sit, but it too weak to do more than lift her head the merest inch from its makeshift pillow. "Wa Uspewicakiyapi? Am I dreaming?"
"No." His voice is deep and comforting in her mind. "Nor do you walk the Blue Road, Mato Sica Kte." (ed. Note: Killer of the Wolverineloose translation.)
From the depths of her illness, Koda musters up a smile. "You saw that, huh?"
"Indeed. It was most impressive."
She looks away, hopeful that the slowly guttering fire hides the blush that creeps onto her cheeks, but knowing that her old teachers eyes are keen indeed.
"The reason I have come," he continues, "is because your mate is in danger."
Kodas eyes snap back to him, wide and fearful. "My m .Kirsten?" She cranes her neck, looking frantically about the tiny shack. Asi lies, oblivious, next to her, deeply asleep. "Kirsten?!?"
As she struggles to rise, all thoughts of illness, and its attendant weakness, forgotten, Wa Uspewicakiyapi steps forward and places a forepaw on her shoulder, easily holding her to the floor. "As you are now, there is nothing you can do, young one. Your mate has gone to The Far Away Place to gather healing for your wound. Your body is too weak to follow."
"You dont understand! I have to--."
"I understand well, my friend," he replies, putting more of his weight down on her shoulder, sharp claws not quite digging into the tender flesh beneath them. "As you are now," he repeats, words measured and deliberate, black eyes staring deeply into hers, willing her fevered, panicked mind to understand, "you cannot help her. Remember."
"Remember what? I cant --."
Again she struggles and again he presses more of his weight into her. He can feel his time growing short. The solidness of his body begins to shift and grow insubstantial. "Remember my lessons. Remember where your true strength lies. Goodbye for now, my friend. I will be watching."
"Wa Uspewicakiyapi! No!! Wait!!! Please!!"
Her frail strength depleted, Dakota slumps back on the ersatz bed, shivering in pain and distress. "Remember. I need to remember ." Her gaze darts about the empty cabin, searching searching. "Kirsten!! Kirsten, where are you?!? I have to find you! I have to ." She struggles, but its one thats over before it has truly begun. Her body is weak, wrung out, her mind delirious with fever. Delirium tells her she is simply dreaming, but the more rational part of her mind, buried deep and struggling to maintain its hold, tells her the truth of the matter. She is not dreaming, and Kirsten is in danger.
"Remember," she mutters to herself, dragging her good hand through her sweat-tangled hair. "Remember ."
Her eyes drift closed and a vision, not of Wa Usepwicakiyapi, but of her grandfather, appears in the darkness. His face is exactly as she remembers it; lines as deep as river-cut canyons running down from the corners of his somber mouth, braids iron gray and tightly wrapped, eyes stern, but always with a tiny twinkle of amusement sparking their pale depths. He holds in one gnarled hand a teaching stick. A feather, tied off with rawhide, dangles from its end.
In this vision, fever induced or otherwise, she sees herself as she was many years ago, a weaning-child, all pudgy arms and legs, a mop of coal-black hair, and pale blue eyes. Giggling with joy, this younger version of herself reaches for the pretty feather and topples forward, into the feathers bright colors and the paleness of her grandfathers eyes. Dakota finds herself merging with this younger version, and together they fall into the swirling void.
The blizzard has grown greatly in intensity, but Kirsten, at the bottom of a deep ravine, barely notices. Both sides of the ravine bear signs of her struggle. The back side, scuff and tumble marks from where she had, in her haste, blundered off the path and down the steep embankment, end over end, and the front side is covered in the broken branches and muddied snow that marks her scrambling, frantic attempts to get back out.
For the moment, she lies at the very bottom, bruised, aching, sore, and above all, tired. It does not seem like she is lying on snow at all, but rather a soft, warm bed that appears to promise her a restful sleep if only shed close her eyes and sink into the gift it offers. The scientist in her knows the dangers of such seductionhypothermia will kill her far more quickly than any animals who might slither down this cut in the earth looking for an easy meal. The medicine she has somehow managed to keep safe, though the thought of Dakota seems far awayhazy almost, as if shes dreamed that part of her life. "Sleep," she murmurs, laying her cheek into the soft, so very soft snow. "Just a little rest. I can try again when Im stronger. Shell understand."
Some part deep within her fights this sudden lassitude, but the pull of seduction, like the Siren Song of old, spins its false promises to avidly listening ears. Her eyes begin to drift closed, by slow degrees until her outside view of the world is cut off completely in the darkness that follows.
A minute later, an hour, she isnt sure, she is awakened by something that feels suspiciously like a tongue licking her cheek. "Ew! Dog kisses!" she mumbles, pushing the furred snout away. "Cmon, Asi, just a few more minutes, ok?"
A low, deep throated growl that could never have come from Asimov snaps Kirstens eyes open, and when she sees an enormous black wolf staring down at her, she forgets her aches, bruises, and tiredness and begins to crab-scrabble backward on hands and heels until her back is slammed into an overturned log, preventing her further retreat. Her heart slams against her ribs, her mouth going dry as cotton. She crab-scrabbles backward on hands and heels until her back slams into an overturned log, preventing her further retreat. Duck and cover. The scream dies in her throat. High, shrill sounds mean distressed prey, and Kirsten wants to do nothing to provoke the four-footed death in front of her. Making herself small against the log at her back, she curls up with her head down and her hands over her neck. "Nice wolf," she sing-songs softly. "Niiiice wolf. You don't want me for dinner, Mister er .Miz Wolf. Really. I'm too tough. Bad for the digestion." With effort, she clenches and unclenches her hands, stiff and chapped with the snow. "Nothing but gristle."
Growling again, the wolf takes another step toward her, then sits down on its haunches, looking down at her. Kirsten, risking a glance upward, swears that she can see a look of expectancy in those eyes, even in her fear.
Those blue eyes.
Staring at them in frank wonder, she quite unconsciously echoes Dakotas earlier words. "Am I dreaming? .or dead?" She unfolds slightly from her crouch; a firm pinch to the inside of one reddened forearm answers that question quite nicely. "Ok. So youre a blue eyed wolf. Tacoma said they werent as rare as I thought they were, and he should know, right? Right." So why does it seem that this particular blue-eyed wolf is laughing at her?
Scooching forward a bit, the wolf places a fist-sized paw on Kirstens thigh, then cocks its head in a gesture so familiar that it steals her breath. Then the more rational (she believes) part of her mind reasserts itself and she laughs in self deprecation. "Must be hypothermia," she mutters to herself, staring down at the huge paw still resting on her thigh. "Are you uh testing for choice cuts," she hazards, "because Im telling you, an old boot would taste better than me right now."
After staring at her a moment longer, the wolf lowers its massive black head, takes her wrist, very gently, between its long, sharp teeth and tugs lightly. Startled, Kirsten cries out before realizing that she isnt being hurt and that, in fact, like Wiyo, this animal is trying its best to communicate with her. And like Koda's wolf, like her own--patron? mascot? familiar?--raccoon, this one must be at least in part a denizen of the spirit world. Gently she reaches out to touch the massive shoulder, knotted with muscle under the thick fur. Not entirely a spirit, then. At least this one doesn't talk, or dress up in hospital whites. When the gentle tug comes again, she sighs and shakes her head sadly. "I think I know what youre trying to tell me," she comments, feeling vaguely embarrassed to be having a rational discussion with a wild creature who, logically, should be ripping into her guts right now, "and I wish I could, but Ive tried and I just cant make it up there." The tug comes again, and with a sigh, she gets stiffly to her feet, crying out softly as her twisted left ankle is forced to bear weight.
The wolf immediately drops her wrist and stares up at her with what Kirsten swears is concern blazing from those strangely colored eyes. She finds herself blushing. "I twisted my ankle falling into this blasted hellhole and twisted it again trying to get out. It hasnt been the best of days for me."
Cocking its head again, the wolf then trots easily down the mouth of the gully, returning a moment later with a large, forked branch in its mouth.
"A crutch?" Kirsten asks incredulously. "Youve brought me a crutch?" She stares down into the disconcerting eyes"Who are you? What are you?"and swears she feels something pressing at the recesses of her mind. Then, like a fleeting dream upon awakening, it is gone and she finds herself taking the stick from her newfound companion and propping it under her arm. It is slightly too short, and pokes at her uncomfortably, but it helps bear her weight and for that, she is grateful. "I um thank you. For this. It helps. Though Im not sure how much good its going to do once we have to start climbing."
Giving her one more look, the wolf turns and trots toward the incline several feet away. Shaking her head in bemusement, she follows, limping and wincing as the snow continues to fall around her. The truth of her prediction is borne out as, two steps into the hill, her good foot slips and she finds herself falling. The wolf is immediately there, and she instinctively wraps her arms around its well-muscled neck and chest, astonished at the easy strength and supple grace of the animal as it climbs the steep ravine, hauling her along as if she weighs no more than a sack of feathers. As it hits the steepest part of the incline, the wolfs sharp claws slip and slide over the loose ground cover, but it digs in and continues climbing, scrabbling over the fallen branches and snow-slick leaves until finally, with a final heave of its sleek, muscled body, it brings them both over the lip and onto level ground once again.
When she feels the ground flatten beneath her, Kirsten releases her death-grip on the wolf and leans back, breathing deeply. She finds herself briefly alone as the animal disappears back down the ravine, then reappears, her crude crutch in its mouth. Still muddle-headed from the cold, she scrambles to her feet as best she can and gratefully retrieves the crutch from the she-wolfs massive jaws. "Maybe you could come home with me and teach that trick to my dog Asimov. Not that of course Im comparing you to my dog. Or any dog, actually. Im uh pretty sure thats an insult to you, being a wolf, and I should probably stop babbling now, right? Right." Once again, the wolfs eyes seem to sparkle laughingly up at her. A thought comes to her as if from out of the blue, creasing the space between her brows in puzzlement before she rejects it as out of hand. "Im losing it. I know I am. Gotta get back to Dakota."
Settling the crutch securely as possible beneath her arm, she sets off, completely unsurprised when the she-wolf trots ahead in the same direction, looking back over her shoulder to make sure her companion is following.
The low sun lays blue shadows on the snow, crusting now as the days melt begins to freeze with the falling temperature. Kirsten stumbles and slips as she crests the last slope leading up to the fishing shack, her attention wandering with lack of sleep and the increasing effort of setting one foot in front of the other. All feeling has gone in her legs, and she knows she is moving only because the wolf still paces steadily beside her as the landscape shifts. Her brain has gone numb, too, all fear gone, all feeling. For the last twelve hours, she has been driven only by will. She has not allowed herself to think of what she will do when she arrives at the cabin, still less of what she may find.
But she will be there. If she had gone, I would know.
The thought comes to her now, and with it the conviction of truth. She does not know how she would sense her lovers death, nor why she is certain that Koda still lives. But she does not doubt, cannot doubt.
"Gonna make it girl," she murmurs, perhaps to the wolf, perhaps to herself. "Gonna make it."
For answer, the wolf glances up at her, a glint in her improbably blue eyes. The last of the light strikes white sheen from her fur, thick and lustrous even through the hunger and sleeplessness of the forced march from the Colorado line. That is strange, as is the fact that she has not seen the wolf eat or drink along the way.
Huh. Whats strange is that a wolf pulled you out of a ditch. Whats strange is that a wolf is trotting along beside you like a poodle.
Scratch that. Youre the poodle, King . Shes the one in charge here.
Almost as if she understands the thought, the wolf turns to Kirsten, tongue lolling in a wide canine smile. She moves closer, half-pushing, half-supporting Kirsten as she takes the last few steep steps to the crest of the rise, her bulk warm and solid against her leg. Below, the stream runs through the small valley, its floor in shadow now, the square shape of the hut clear along the rising curve of the hill on the other side. Kirsten sniffs the wind for the hint of smoke, but there is none. Koda has not been able to rise to stoke the fire. So much for the forlorn hope that she would return only to find Dakota up, dressed and full of vinegar, wondering where the hell shed gone.
A frisson of fear runs down her spine. Dakota cannot, must not . . .. She cannot even think the words.
A different pressure then, the wolfs nose cold and wet against Kirstens hand. The wolf looks up at her with that same heart-breakingly familiar sidewise glance, then gives one sharp bark, wheels and trots along the top of the rise to disappear into the stand of pines that runs along its western edge. Kirsten can just make out her shape, a shadow among the tall trunks, as she begins the descent to the other side.
"Hey, you sure you dont want to get a signature on delivery?" The small joke bolsters her confidence, and she picks her way down the slope, splashes through the water without feeling its chill, and scrambles up the other side, slipping once and resorting to all-fours where the granite juts from the hillside in broken slabs. Vaguely she remembers that there is an easier path, but she cannot take time to find it in the gathering dark. Besides, the frontal assault is quicker.
At the door she pauses, gathering courage. With an effort of will she quiets her suddenly hammering heart, slows her breathing. It is going to be all right. She is in time. Koda will recover when she has the medicine. Tega said so.
Riiighht. Now youre taking medical advice from a delusional raccoon.
Or maybe its not Tega whos delusional.
Gently she pushes open the door. A blast of air greets her, colder than the evening breeze that now ghosts over the snow. The acrid smell of wet ashes greets her, mingled with the musty odor of unwashed human and unwalked dog. Asi whines, stretches and comes to meet her, his gait stiff from confinement and lack of exercise. "Its okay, boy," she says quietly. "Well go out in a minute. Hows Koda, huh?"
Asi whines again as she approaches the bed. The blanket rises and falls visibly with Kodas chest, but her breath comes in small, rapid gasps. "All right," Kirsten says softly, partly to herself, partly to Dakota. "All right. First thing, get some light in here. Then the shot. Then the fire."
Kirsten turns up the wick of the Coleman lamp and lights it. Dakotas face is pale almost as the puffs of condensate that form with each breath, frosting in the chill air. Her face is not so much pale as grey, its rich bronze faded to brass, her lips cracked and dry. A sliver of white shows between her eyelids, yet she does not wake.
"Okay," Kirsten says, trying to keep the panic out of her voice. Out of her mind. "Lamps lit. Water." From the canteen by the bed, she trickles a few drops into Kodas mouth, raising her head to aid her swallowing. Dakotas throat moves convulsively, a dry tongue running over her lips, and Kirsten dribbles more water from the flask. Twice more she repeats the process, then sets the water aside. No more putting off what she has to do. "Shot. Get it over with."
Kirsten tears open the packet of syringes, and, holding the Levaquin ampoule close to the lamp, she pierces the seal and draws the fluid up to the mark. "All right," she tells herself. "I can do this. Nothing to it. Just stick it in, push the plunger, thats it."
Kirsten pulls back the blanket, vacillating between arm and thigh. The arm is easier; one handed, she rolls up the left sleeve of Kodas shirt and stabs the syringe down, her thumb driving the plunger home. With a sigh of relief, she recaps and discards the syringe. "Hey boy, hows that? I didnt panic and pull it out. Now we just gotta wait." Wait for the medicine to work; wait for Kodas burning skin to cool.
Waiting is something she has never had a talent for. Fifteen minutes of wild running about the small clearing and the desperate relief of a leg lifted against a tree burn off at least some of Asis tight-held energy, but Kirsten feels as though her nerves have wound into a tight spiral within her. Gods, what I wouldnt give for a drink. Just a shot of bourbon, just one. Or a mouthful of old man Kriegesmanns brandy.
But no such luxury is available, and she lays out a few strips of jerky for Asi and sets about rebuilding the fire. When it is burning nicely, she turns to Dakota. In the red light of the flames, her face seems touched with flame from within, the fever eating its way to the surface to show the white bone beneath. Carefully, Kirsten removes the bandages from the injured arm and hand; the skin lies drum-tight over the distended flesh. More carefully still, she wipes the dark blood and serum and oozing pus from the punctures made by the wolverines teeth. Red streaks run through the purpura that surrounds the wounds, and Kirsten forces down her fear, feeling the spring within her tighten another turn. "All right," she mutters. "All right, damn you, you masked quack. You promised shed be all right. She damned well better be, do you understand? Do you understand?"
That is not quite true, but she has no time for nuances. She intends to hold her delusion accountable, promise or not.
But all she can do now is replace the bandage, tuck the arm underneath the sleeping bag
and wait. Somehow she manages to choke down a few bites of jerky, then settles in the one
serviceable chair to keep vigil, Asi beside her.
She is never sure, after, what wakes her. She claws herself up out of the depths of a sleep she never intended to Asis sharp barking, the rustle of cloth, the sound of a voice. Weak and scratchy, vile with every four-letter word in the English language and others in a language she does not understand, but a living voice. Kodas voice.
"Fuck. Shit. Burning up. Goddam. Gotta pee." More rustling. "Damn. Hurts."
Kirsten starts upright to see Koda struggling with the sleeping bag, half sitting up with one leg over the side of the bed. Her face, her hands, her throat are bright with sweat, her lank hair lying over her shoulder as wet as if shed been standing in the rain. A huge wave of relief washes over Kirsten, and she throws her arms around Dakota. "I got you, love . I got you. Its okay. Its okay."
"Goddam arm. Hurts like hell."
"Its okay, Ive got something for it. What do you need?"
"Pee," Koda says succinctly, and, wrapping her in the sleeping bag, Kirsten helps her outside into the first light of morning, the sun barely brushing the peak of the mountain behind them. Half, supporting, half carrying, Kirsten steers her back into the cabin, back to the bed. Lucid she may be, but Koda remains catastrophically weak, and subsides onto the narrow cot with a sigh. "How long?" she says.
Kirsten pauses to do the calculus of her journey. "A couple days, maybe three." Gently she strokes Kodas forehead, cool now beneath her touch. "You can go back to sleep in a few minutes. Just let me change the dressing again and give you your shot."
"Mffph," Koda says, covering her face with her good arm. "Gods. Stink. Mouth feels like a regiment camped in it for a month." Then, "What shot?"
"Antibiotic. Levaquin," Kirsten replies, pulling the injured hand toward her and beginning to unwind the gauze. It comes off slackly, the swelling already visibly reduced. The discoloration has also receded, crimson and purple lingering around the wounds themselves, but the surrounding flesh is clean, normal color returning. Koda flinches under her touch, and she bites her lip. "Im sorry, love. It looks better, though."
"Goddam nerves waking up. Whered the AB come from?"
"A clinic a few miles away," Kirsten lies without even thinking about it. She can tell Koda later about her dream, about the trek across the state line, about the wolf.
About the dead children.
Later. Much later.
She rewraps Kodas arm and reaches for the Levaquin and the packet of syringes. Kodas eyes follow her movements, and she gives the second injection with what she hopes is more aplomb than the first. Rummaging in her pack then, she finds the Vicodin and taps a pill out into the palm of her hand. "Here you go," she says. "Something for the pain."
"Dr. King," Koda says, a faint smile turning up the corners of her mouth as she swallows the tablet. "Howd you know where to find an unlooted pharmacy?"
"Just followed directions." And as Koda glances sharply up at her, "Later. Can you eat something?"
A half hour later, with Koda sleeping soundly, her breath slow and easy, Kirsten leans back in the chair, propping her feet up on the edge of the mattress. Dreamless sleep rises up about her, and she surrenders without a struggle.
And we come to the end of another episode of The Growing. The end isnt far off now, though well likely be taking our customary break before that but not yet. So tune in next week for another episode! firstname.lastname@example.org
Continued - Chapter 57
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