Diefenbaker refused to accompany me to the airport this morning. (Interesting, I note in passing, how swiftly my mind has abandoned its always-tenuous grip on the pronoun "us" and reverted to the first person singular.) His refusal surprised me—not that I expect cooperation from him, certainly, but I thought he might at least be willing to lend some support on this occasion. Perhaps I should, in charity, attribute his decision to some canine sensitivity to emotional atmosphere.
However, I'm not feeling charitable this morning, and I have decided his obstinacy is due to his own lupine self-willed pigheadedness, his disinclination to consult anyone's wishes but his own, or to accommodate his nature to anyone else's design. Whether in the heart of Chicago or here in Inuvik, he has always been simply who he is, wolf-dog, dog-wolf, a misfit in both worlds, belonging nowhere—and serenely unconcerned about it, hence fitting equally well wherever he goes, simply by being himself.
(And I cannot keep from following that thought, cannot silence the wretched part of me that whimpers If that's so easy for him, then why must it be so impossible for me? For Ray?)
There was a blizzard down in Edmonton, of course, this being December, so of course the flight is delayed. And, of course, this has propelled Ray from his chronic edginess into outright anger, and I know very well how close that is to explosive rage. I sit entirely still, knowing all it would take to propel him over the edge is one sigh, one wrong look, one clumsy word—and all my words have been clumsy, of late.
Nothing about Ray is clumsy, I think as I watch him pace. Not now, not ever. In the relative warmth of the terminal he's shed his parka, balaclava, mittens, even traded his boots for sneakers. He's prowling up and down the passenger lounge, turning the rows of chairs and their inhabitants into partners in his private quadrille. There's a rucked-up hump of carpeting in the aisle; every time he nears it I think this time for sure he'll trip over it, so intent are his eyes on the windows, scanning the runway and sky. And yet every time he steps gracefully over it, as if every cell in his body is sensate, perceiving.
Every so often he takes off his glasses, scrabbles under his sweater for the hem of his t-shirt, and scrubs the lenses with it. He's taken to wearing them habitually of late, as if he needs the clarity of vision they give him now even more sorely than he did in Chicago, when his very life at times depended on getting off a clean shot.
He stops pacing, finally, and turns from the window (difficult to see anything out there in any event, the sun stopped rising three days ago). He runs his fingers through his hair, then drops into a chair and stares back into the terminal from hooded eyes. The airline clerk, behind her small desk, is in his line of vision, and he fixes on her a stare of such concentrated malevolence (Ray in his cobra incarnation, I know that look well) that it seems to compel her to glance up, and to flinch, visibly, when she catches his gaze. But she's a brave girl—Canadian North hires no weaklings—and after a moment she stands and walks over, closer to him.
"Mr. Kowalski? I'm very sorry about the delay. Can I get you anything while you wait?"
"Can you get me anything." This tone, too, is familiar to me, I've heard him use it on the street with armed thugs, in interrogation rooms with unlucky suspects. At home, recent nights, with me. "Yeah, you can get me something, you can get me my flight out of this fucking place. Nineteen hours it's gonna take me to get back to civilization, and I got to be held up, right here at the get-go, cause in Canada they don't have rubber bands strong enough to run the propellers when it's snowing." He leans back, grinning at her. "What a surprise, hey? Snow, up here, who'd'a thought it."
Then he stops, looks down, and raises his hands. The other passengers in the lounge are very pointedly not noticing him. "Sorry. I'm sorry. Shouldn't take it out on you. Not your fault, I know that." His sharp gestures are conciliatory, as if trying to pull back his words and his anger, reallocate them, to him, to me, to us. The fault is indeed no one else's. It is his, mine, ours.
You're so pale, in the fluorescent glare. Bone-white skin, pulled tight over bones. You've lost weight ever since the weather turned cold and the days began to shorten. I've noticed how little you've eaten, how badly you sleep. How you pace the house, deep in the night, silent in your thick socks, when you think I'm asleep.
Pale skin, pale wolf's ruff of hair, pale eyes—it's so hard to sort out, to categorize all that I've come to love in you, but those might have been the very first. Northern eyes, the grey-blue of winter, malamute's eyes, with the slaty cast of ice over them, and yet so hot with life.
I had known you and loved you for what seemed like a long time before we ever came north, but when I truly saw you for the first time in northern light, in the arctic dawn, I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful. You looked like you belonged here, like this was your landscape, your home. I began, in that moment, to dream things I never would have hoped for, in Chicago.
Romantic delusions. Lies to oneself are the most damnable lies of all.
The flight, whenever it finally arrives, will take him through Norman Wells, to Yellowknife, Edmonton and finally to Chicago, but his stay there will likewise be temporary.
His ultimate destination is, to my knowledge, as yet uncertain; if he has new information, he's not shared it with me. I know he has a job interview arranged in Los Angeles, and one in San Antonio. "Warm, Fraser," he told me. "Goin' for warm, here, goin' for absence of snow, lose the mittens, burn the mukluks. That's the agenda, top to bottom. Someone give me one of those whatsit, Franklin Planners, I'd sit down and write 'Warm' on every day of the year, and we're including January in that."
The craving for heat is a mystery to me; I recall so vividly the heat of that cheap apartment, my first summer in Chicago. The nights when there was nothing for it but to leave, to walk to the lake and sit by the shore. Even then, with the open expanse of water before me, I felt myself suffocating in that choking air, and had to force myself to be calm, to breathe steadily. I would tell myself I was merely back in Toivo's sauna, in Fort Reliance, that any minute I could go out and leap into the snow, and that helped me to keep breathing.
Chicago is already unreal in my memory, but the heat is one of the few things I vividly remember—that, and the awful sense of need that gnawed me the whole time I was there like a sickness, the emptiness and the desperation for something, I wasn't certain what, something to fill the ache and make me whole.
At times, back then, I let myself dream that Ray could be that something, though I was certain he never would. At times I'd dream that being back here would heal me, to be back in the cold, the snow, the darkness, the great empty sweep of the arctic, the home that seemed lost to me.
So when it seemed, for a while, that I could have both Ray and home—well, that was the sweetest delusion of all, and the most pernicious.
Ray's digging in his carry-on bag, pulling out one item after another, scowling at them and shoving them back, until he finds a bag of candies, rips it open, and starts munching them ferociously. He must be hungry; he'd declined breakfast, refused to give me one last meal with him (and that's disgusting self-pity, stop it right now). I have a feeling if I brought him any food he'd knock it out of my hands, and there's nothing at the refreshment kiosk worth eating in any event; but they do have coffee.
He'd—we'd—run out of coffee a few days ago, and Ray had refused to let me buy any more. "What exactly would be the point of that, Fraser?" A quick grin, with no humor in it. "You planning to take up the habit or something? Mountie all jagged up on caffeine, there's a scary thought."
"It couldn't hurt to have some around. Guests—"
"Yeah, you're big on the guests, I've noticed that, the Conrad Hilton of the tundra, that's you."
He knew perfectly well, of course, why we so seldom had guests, why I had striven to keep some tattered shred of privacy around our lives—a futile attempt, to be sure, in a town the size of Inuvik.
Even here at the airport—many of these people are strangers, of course, merely passing through, but some of them are locals, and they know exactly who I am, who he is, what is happening in this terminal this morning. They're watching with placid interest, in the hope that drama will explode and give them a story to recount over coffee at the Sunriser tomorrow morning. My mother used to say, with some bitterness, that our chief obligation to our neighbors is to provide entertainment, and I do believe one thing I inherited from her was a dislike for being the object of small-town nosiness.
So I feel eyes on me as I rise and walk to the refreshments kiosk, purchase a large coffee, spoon in an appalling amount of sugar, the way I know he likes, and walk back. He's slumped in his seat, legs sprawled. Nearing him feels dangerous, like approaching a high-voltage line, but it's a sensation I'm accustomed to by now, and I walk right up to him, and hold out the tall cardboard cup.
For a moment I think he's going to ignore it and me, but after a moment he slides up in his seat, and, without looking at me, holds his hand out. I give him the cup, step back—it feels like handing off a bomb—and sit, carefully keeping an empty seat between us. He doesn't drink the coffee right away, but sits for a minute with his hands wrapped around the cup, warming them. He's had cold hands since the moment he arrived here, nine months ago, and the frostbite certainly didn't help. Though the marks it left have faded, I still know exactly where each frozen spot was—those four fingers, there; the left cheek and ear; toes. Those places will likely always be tender to cold, a permanent reminder, as if he needed one, a memento, a painful trophy of the Quest.
The Quest . . . well, to say that the whole thing was just romantic idiocy on my part would be letting myself off far too easily. I could say I was unhinged, as you've often told me, but it would be more honest to say that I was indulging myself, unforgiveably. Selfish, as you've also told me. There is no excuse for it, and no escape from the shame of it. It nearly got you killed.
You thought you might be near death when you first brought the idea up, there in the crevasse. As impetuous as ever, you were envisioning new adventures even while the one in progress was doing you in, and it was hard for me to tell if the idea of a quest for Franklin was just a fancy borne of fatigue and delirium, or a bone thrown out to keep my spirits raised, or if it was the truth of your deepest desires, a secret of the kind that can reveal itself in moments of extremity.
But however carelessly you might have flung the idea out, it took root in my imagination, and grew there. When all the adventures of the following days were over, when our mission was done and Muldoon in custody, when the prospect of your departure back to Chicago impended, it leapt up again in my mind—the dream of what it might be like to keep you here, to show you my country and travel through this landscape with you beside me. The vision was too strong for me, stronger than my common sense. Not the first time I abandoned sense in the grip of dreams, and, as events have proven, certainly not the last.
A nearby loudspeaker crackles on, announcing the imminent departure of an Aklak Air flight to Paulatuk. Ray glares at it, twists around to glare out at the runway, and, seeming unable to sit still another moment, leaps to his feet and resumes his pacing, abandoning his coffee. I watch him—I have no choice but to watch him, take him in, storing away memories in a kind of desperate greed. Some part of my brain is snivelling quietly—this is it, this is the end, this is the last I'll see of him—and to silence it I set myself to calculating how many kilometers he must have covered in pacing the terminal since we arrived, estimating the dimensions of the lounge, timing out the seconds per circuit, running the arithmetic in my head, the distance of this last absurd lap in the long journey we've taken together.
Our journey ... how did it start, where did it go wrong, why did it lead us here, this place, this moment? I can't stop wondering, can't stop thinking about how we came together, how we fell apart. All the days and weeks and months, the miles travelled, the choices made and not made, and how did we end up here, how in the world, how the hell, Ray, did we end up here?
Regret solves nothing, I know that; chewing over the past serves no useful end. What's done is done, and to retrace my steps, trying to find that moment when our tracks came together and joined, when we turned together onto the long and twisting path that led us to this day ... it's a hopeless quest, a search that spirals back endlessly. The day we set off in pursuit of Muldoon? The day Ray materialized in Ray Vecchio's stead? The day I first took a plane south to Chicago? The day my father died?
I watch him pace back and forth, so close and yet already a thousand miles away, face tight, eyes turned from me, and out of all the jumble of time past the moment that comes back to me is that night ... can it be only nine months ago? That night when I thought it was all ending between us, that night by the fire, under the winter sky—do you remember, Ray? That night you sat by me, so near and so distant, eyes turned away from me, that night I thought we'd reached the end of our journey, that night we turned onto a new road together ... do you remember it as I do?
We sat by the fire, silently, in the same spots where we'd sat and talked the night before. It was late; everyone else had turned in, and the air was still, without a breath of wind, the only sound the crackle of the flames. It was snowing, a dense fine snow that fell straight down out of the enormous sky and hissed into the fire.
It should have been a moment of triumph; Muldoon was in custody, we had won once again, justice had prevailed. I had avenged an evil done to me and mine so long ago that even the memory of it had hidden itself away. But there was no joy in me. I felt bruised, inside and out, and hollow, as though I might crack apart at any moment. The cold was intense; it held me upright, held me together, in an iron grip that was familiar, solid, and yet indifferent, and as empty as the sky. It would never leave me; it cared nothing for me; it would always be here for me.
As tired as I was, I felt tempted to simply sit there through the night, letting the cold fill me up, harden off those painful tender places inside me. And yet—there was the fire, that small irrepressible flicker of light, heat; and sitting hunched up beside the fire there was Ray. No matter how long I sat, I knew he would outsit me, outstubborn me. He hated the cold, and yet he was out in it with me, wrapped up in his parka, staring into the flames.
We'd often sat up together after a case was closed, debriefing, rehashing—or just talking, helping each other ease down from the jittery high of excitement and tension. I could not, simply could not, get my mind to come to grips with the idea that this would be the last time we'd sit this way. I watched him—for once, I let my eyes take in their fill of him—but it wasn't enough, I had to reach out, and without forethought I simply found myself saying his name.
"Hm." He didn't look up. In the firelight, his eyes looked hollow, smudged with fatigue.
I had no conversation ready, and found myself fumbling for words. "You—you should probably turn in and get some sleep. It's been a long day."
"Nah, I'm good." He pushed his hands into his coat sleeves. "Couldn't sleep anyway."
I didn't argue, though I was certain he was exhausted. He'd shadowed me ever since I'd been hauled out of the mineshaft, staying at my shoulder through all the rigmarole of tidying up the case. He'd held off the array of helicoptered-in officials with his fiercest snarl until I'd gotten medical attention for the insignificant injuries I'd sustained in my fall; and then he brought me hot food he'd found somewhere, and made me eat it, while I was giving my reports. It was as if he could sense that something large and painful had happened down there, as if he could feel how bereft I was, and how badly I needed his presence, the solid warmth of his care.
"I haven't yet thanked you."
"Thank me? What for?"
"For—for all of this. Everything you've done." He kept staring at the fire, not giving me his eyes. "For cooperating in my continuing endeavors to place your life at risk in bizarre ways."
My feeble effort at humor seemed not to touch him; his face was oddly still. "Thanks. Yeah. Thanks for everything, pal, it's been great, sayonara. That's it, isn't it?"
"You're staying here. Aren't you?"
"Well, there are a number of options to explore—"
"You're staying here."
"Being back in the north does have a certain appeal, although Chicago—"
"Fraser. You're staying here."
I opened my mouth, shut it, swallowed, and said "Yes. I am."
He nodded slowly, still staring at the fire. "Yeah. I guess I kind of knew that the minute I saw—it's not like I was even paying attention, you know, I was too busy trying to figure out if I'd broken any important body parts, but—and I mean, nothing wrong with it, a guy's got a right to be happy, I guess, if he's enough of a freak to be happy when he's just jumped out of a friggin' airplane into seventeen feet of snow in the middle of nowhere, but—"
"You looked so happy. And I guess I knew then. I never saw you look that happy before." He raised his head, finally, but looked away from me, into the darkness. "Not even when that hotel door opened up and you saw Vecchio in there."
"It's not the same thing." That moment, in fact, already seemed long ago and far away to me. "Of course I was happy to see Ray Vecchio again, he's a dear friend and I'd missed him, but..." I paused, searching for words.
He turned to look at me, finally, a little crease between his brows. "But—you wouldn't go back even to partner with him again." He spoke slowly, as if he were deducing something, and then shook his head and gave a quick little breath of laughter. "Well. I guess that's something."
That wasn't actually how I'd intended to end my sentence, and I wanted to ask Ray just what he meant, but he looked so tightly wound, arms wrapped around himself and hands shoved deep into his sleeves, that it made me cautious. An icefield, full of unseen crevasses. There was in any event a more important question I needed to ask, and I let some time pass until I couldn't hold it in any longer.
"So, Ray. What are your plans, from here?"
He shrugged. He'd become fascinated with the fire again. "Who knows. Go back to my old district, I guess. Can't stay around the two-seven, that'd screw with Vecchio's gig."
I tried to picture it—Ray, back at the Twelfth, with his old name and a new partner—tried industriously to imagine him happy and productive, moving onward with his life, without me; but somehow the picture refused to clarify in my mind. I had never, in all our time together, heard him once mention his old district, his former colleagues or lieutenant, not even in private. My brain was telling me This is for the best, this is what he must do, it would be unutterable selfishness to wish otherwise; but something deeper in me was murmuring Wrong, wrong, this is all wrong.
All I said, though, was, "You don't sound very excited about it."
He shrugged again, pushing his hands deeper in his sleeves. "It's cop work. I'm a cop. Makes logical sense, right? It'll be OK." He glanced up at me briefly, and when he spoke again his voice was gentle. "It'll be OK, Fraser."
I was startled at how badly that angered me, for a moment—that he could sit there, uncharacteristically offering me inane platitudes, when it was suddenly so clear that neither he nor I, nor anything about the situation, was "OK" in the slightest. He looked miserable, in fact, and I didn't think it was just due to the cold. It was so unlike him to be this still, this constrained (wrong, wrong, wrong); and he hugged himself fiercely, as though he had nothing else left to hang onto.
And it was that, the sight of his misery, that pushed me into speech. My reason was still insistent that it was best for him to leave, that my greedy yearning to keep him must be tamped down, that the only way to take off a bandage is with one fast rip. But the unruly and unfamiliar voices of intuition, impulse, were loud in my head. Ray was, apparently, trying for once to be logical; perhaps it was my turn to go with a hunch.
I craved more time, time to order my thoughts and consider things more carefully, but we were—abruptly, after all our months together—out of time. He had a seat allotted on the helicopter that was leaving in the morning. The river's fork was right before us, and there was no stopping the current of life rushing us along.
I took a deep breath. For a moment I was riven by the longing to have my father back, to have him murmuring something in my ear, some encouraging platitude about partnership is like a marriage, about meeting in the middle. But he was gone; I would have to do this on my own.
"I'm sure that you will, in fact, be OK wherever you go, Ray, or more than OK. You're a singularly competent individual." He snorted at that, and I pressed on. "But the thought had occurred to me that you might, perhaps, wish to—not with the intention of pressuring you in any way, it's just that you'd expressed an interest in—possibly, expanding that competence into new arenas." He looked up at me, brows drawn together. "What I mean to say is that life presents us with a vast array of opportunities, some of which recur through time, and some of which appear only within a limited window of chance and propinquity—"
"Fraser—" I could hear energy coming back into his voice, in the form of exasperation, but I'd welcome it in any form it took.
"There is, as Shakespeare put it, a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at its flood leads on to—"
"Fraser, take the marbles outta your mouth and get 'em back in your head where they belong." He'd pulled his hands from his sleeves and made a sharp gesture at me. "Just say what's on your mind. Twenty-five words or less."
I turned to pick up a log from the pile in the snow behind us, and spent a minute arranging it on the fire with great care, positioning it to catch quickly. I wiped the snow from my hands onto my pants legs, and then I tried again. "Before taking up any new duties here in Canada, I feel the need for some—time off. A desire for a different challenge. You've been working under great pressure for the past year and a half. I wondered if you might feel the same need. You'd mentioned, earlier, a desire for an adventure. The hand of Franklin. I wondered if—if these desires might not intersect." I leaned forward to poke compulsively at the fire. "And that's more than twenty-five words, Ray. I'm sorry."
"Sixty-five, to be exact, but I—"
"Can it." He was gazing steadily at me; I could see the reflection of the fire leaping in his eyes. "So, what're you saying here? You need a break, I need a break. You want an adventure, I want an adventure. Hand of Franklin. Us, together. Is that what you're saying?"
"I know it's presumptuous—"
"Screw that. Cards on the table. That what you're saying?"
Sometimes you just have to leap, son. "I ... yes. It is."
"OK. Let's do it." No hesitation, leaping right after me, for once without question or quibble.
It was so utterly not what I was expecting, I was so shocked by the both of us, that I began babbling. "Of course, I understand that you'll need some time to think it over, consider your options, perhaps consult with the lieutenant about your assignments, or—"
"Fraser. Did I not say OK? I said OK, I mean OK " A sharp nod, never taking his eyes from mine. "So. When do we start?"
It shouldn't have surprised me; although I'd become accustomed to thinking of Ray as the less impetuous of us, the one less ready to leap into life-threatening situations, I should have recalled his willingness to leap, perhaps less riskily but more profoundly, into someone else's life, when his own seemed at a dead end.
In that moment, I couldn't encompass it, couldn't accept it without further affirmation. "Are you certain about this?"
"I'm sure. Sure I'm sure. You think I'm blowing smoke here?"
"It's just that—" I was groping, fumbling. "Well, I recall you saying once that you were prone at times to making verbal commitments that you found it difficult to fulfill in actuality."
"Fraser, I'm pretty sure I never said anything like that."
"Well, you did phrase it differently—I believe the exact language was something about letting your mouth write checks your—uh—"
"Yeah? My uh what?" His eyes glittered with amusement in the firelight.
I took a breath, spoke fast. "That your, as you phrased it, ass can't cash. It's a colloquialism, I believe. A vivid piece of idiomatic—"
I stopped, cut off by a snort of laughter. "You said it! Never thought I'd live long enough to hear a word like that out of your mouth." I looked away, feeling self-conscious, not knowing how to respond, and when I looked back he was looking a little unsure himself, no longer smiling.
"Fraser, I know I kind of—stomped on the gas a little hard there. You sure you want to do this? With me, I mean?"
"I believe that's what I've been saying, Ray." Asperity, my refuge in times of emotion.
"That's—OK, then, that's good. That's great." He was staring into the fire, with a grin that he seemed wholly unable to control. Then he looked up at me, and again seemed to pull back a little, speaking with elaborate dismissiveness. "I mean, as long as I'm up here anyway, what the hell, might as well stick around a few weeks, and hey, how often does a dumb Polack from the southside get to make like a hero at the North Pole?"
"Well, actually, Franklin's route didn't take him anywhere near the North Pole, which is just as well, as the sea ice conditions would make any search effort considerably more difficult."
He let it pass. "You really think we can pull it off?"
"Whatever the outcome, Ray, I believe we can make a noble effort."
Just like that, the deal was struck And god forgive me, you trusted me; you gambled your life, so easily, on my judgment. Not for the first time, of course, but always before the stakes had been nobler —justice, the righting of wrongs, the protection of the innocent, and not my personal gratification. Then, too, we had always come through intact, and I had, perhaps, become too pleased with myself, too sure of my ability to manage circumstance.
Grandiosity, my old familiar curse. I do believe I felt omnipotent, at that moment, almost drunk on the knowledge that you wanted to stay here with me, just a little longer. Having shut the door on my past—having well and truly orphaned myself—I believed I could start all over again, back here in the place where it all began. That I could start a new circle, when the old one had been closed forever.
The days leading up to our departure are a blur in my memory, a tumult of list-making and planning and packing. Sergeant Frobisher took on our outfitting as a personal mission, digging into stockpiles he'd accumulated over the decades, and while I was a little uneasy about the adequacy of some of his equiment—he scorned such modern frippery as thinsulate and polypropylene—I let myself be reassured by the thought that generations of men, he and my father among them, had managed in the arctic with gear even more primitive than what we were taking. My own preference would have been to take the time to outfit ourselves with indigenous materials that had ensured human survival and comfort here long before Europeans had arrived. But time was speeding past, and Ray's impatience to get going was a constant goad, and I had some strange conviction that luck was with us, an irrational hubristic belief that having so improbably survived all the dangers we'd faced together so far meant we were invincible.
The one sane thing I did, in those days, was to alter our planned destination. I knew that the Franklin expedition had likely come to grief near King William Island. This was almost a thousand kilometers east of us, far too great a distance to be covered by sled in the time we had before the ice would become unreliable, and the journey there would take us into profoundly remote country. I knew that even if by some miracle we made it to the general vicinity of the expedition, we hadn't the resources to arrange for a pick-up in such a locale, or to get ourselves resupplied.
So I plotted a journey that would instead take us west, toward country I was more familiar with, that had some scattered outposts of civilization. I didn't inform Ray of the change, telling myself that the hand of Franklin had really been a pretext, that the journey not the arrival matters, that what he and I were both seeking was adventure rather than discovery. I rationalize well, and it was in any event clearly the only sane course of action. But I didn't tell Ray about it.
In my more superstitious moments, I sometimes wonder if that act of doubt might have set some seal of doom on our enterprise, from the very outset. (But such thoughts are idiotic, I tell myself; had we gone east instead, we surely would have died out there. Things worked out as they had to, and as it was, our very survival should be miracle enough for the less rational sectors of my brain to brood over.)
In retrospect, of course, I should never have let us start out in the first place; certainly not so underequipped; absolutely not when Ray was already exhausted from the journey over the mountains, and, despite that experience, still so lacking in real knowledge of what we were heading into.
And I should have paused a moment to contemplate why he would propose such an adventure, should have at least tried to understand the stakes he was laying on the table. I thought at the time that I was being most marvelously attentive to his needs and wishes: making sure that we packed coffee and a means of brewing it; encouraging him to acquaint himself with the dogs, and choose ones with whom he felt a rapport; taking great pains to consult his tastes in provisions, clothing, gear. I asked every question of him but the essential one: Ray, why in the world are you doing this? A child given a gift doesn't question the giver's motive, and I was boyishly happy through those busy days, and full of a child's blithe arrogant certainty that whatever made me happy must likewise please all. Ray had said this was what he wanted; I pressed no further, thinking only of the adventure ahead, and never of what might lie at the end of the trail.
Out of all that blur of days, the one thing I do remember, with utter clarity, is the morning that we set off. The dogs, pulling hard in their leads and yodeling happily; the snowfields, lying pure and open ahead of us; the sun, rising golden over the mountains; Ray, in front of me, on the sled, eager for whatever would come next, eager to leap into it with me. All the vast skein of life's possibilities, his and mine, spinning together to this one moment, our lives wrapped into a single steel strand, fusing us in hope and joy, pulling us into the future, together.
I don't think much about my death, but I hope that, whenever and however it comes, that is the last memory I have, the last image to hold in my mind as I leave this world forever, that one clear moment of earthly perfection.
"—it's a mental exercise, Ray, one that merely requires practice to perfect."
"Mental exercise, Fraser, my head's frozen like a slush pop, I don't have enough brain cells left to be doing exercises with."
We were huddled over the campstove at noon, two days into our journey, heating some soup for lunch. The weather had changed since our departure, with a steady scouring wind out of the northeast, temperature dropping.
"Imagine, as you sit here in the cold, that you're retracting your nerve endings deeper into your body."
"Retractable nerves. Oh yeah, that's one of those mutations you guys have evolved up here in Canada, right? Along with the gene for curling, and the hereditary insanity."
"Ray, if you don't want my assistance, all you need to do is say so."
"Okay, okay. Retracting the nerve endings, got it." A pause. "Okay, I got no idea what that means."
"Imagine that the top layer of your skin has only muted sensation. You're aware that the cold is out there, but you just don't feel it as strongly, because your nerve endings have pulled back to a deeper layer of epidermis."
"Uh huh." Another pause, longer. "The nerve endings are staying right where they are, Fraser. I think they got frozen in place."
"Very well, then, try this. Picture your sensation of cold as being controlled by a large knob, like the volume knob on your stereo. Imagine yourself reaching out and turning that knob, so that the volume, or in this case the temperature—"
"Imagine that I'm going to pop you one in about three seconds, Fraser, I mean it. What the hell's the point of me sitting here on an iceberg imagining knobs?"
"Interestingly enough, the yogis in the Himalayas are actually able to raise and lower their body temperature by dint of such exercises. Visualization is a very powerful technique, and we'll keep trying until we find one that works for you."
"You are relentless, you know that?"
"And you're cold, Ray. I simply don't want you to suffer unnecessarily. Now. Close your eyes, relax, and picture yourself turning the knob, slowly, counterclockwise. As you do so, you can feel the sensation of cold diminish. With every millimeter it turns, you feel less and less."
I gave him a minute, stirring the soup, testing its temperature with a knuckle. Not ready yet. "How are you now?"
"Cold." A pause. "That stuff really works for you?"
"Well, yes, but of course I've had more opportunities to practice than you have."
"So you're saying—you can just stop feeling stuff, huh?"
There was something in his voice that startled me. I looked up to find him watching me. His nose was running, his face was tight, his eyes were very serious.
"The feelings—they're—well, it's not as if—" I was floundering, and took a grip on myself. "They're always there, of course, but one learns to just—not feel them."
"Yeah, that sounds logical." He smiled briefly, but then turned serious again. "And so when you're where it's warm again—does it go the other way around?"
"What do you mean, Ray?"
"The knob. You turn it the other way, the feelings come back up? Loud and clear?"
The question seemed a silly one, which left me unsure of precisely what he was asking. "Well, assuming there's no permanent damage to the nerve endings, as in the case of severe frostbite, yes, of course, sensation returns. Homeostasis is the guiding principle of physiology, after all, and—"
"Yeah, imagine me turning your volume knob down, Fraser." But his tone was kind. "We're fast-forwarding through the homeowhatsis, cut to the chase, you're telling me it comes back okay? All those nerve endings get right back on the surface where they belong?"
"Certainly—although there's pain, of course." I stopped. What in the world possessed me to say that? That wasn't what he needed to hear; but one look at him told me I had no chance whatsoever of not explaining that remark.
"Pain. Just what kind of pain are we talking about here, Fraser?"
I paused, ordering my thoughts, finding words that would give some distance from whatever was going on here, now. "Pain is—a curious phenomenon. I've experienced a certain amount of it myself in my life, and oddly enough, the worst physical pain I've encountered wasn't from being shot, or falling from buildings, or being beaten by Warfield's thugs."
"Yeah?" He was attentive, listening closely.
"Rather, it was those occasions when I'd come inside, after several hours on duty, in weather like this, in my regulation boots. Even if you put on two pairs of socks, they offer little protection from the cold, you know, and in time one's feet would be entirely numb, up to the knee. So I learned to come in, go to my room, get the boots off, and wrap myself tightly in a blanket." He gave me a puzzled look, and I explained, "To prevent myself from doing any damage by involuntary thrashing about. I also folded up a corner of the blanket, to give myself something to bite down on." I paused, recalling. "The pain would last for approximately fifteen minutes, during which it felt very much as I would imagine it would feel having one's feet held in a fire."
The soup was ready, and I broke off my storytelling to serve it up. It was only later that I realized that asking Ray to retract his nerve endings was just foolish—if ever there was anyone whose nerve endings hung out all over the place, quivering in the breeze, it was he.
Over the next few days the weather eased, we hit a long stretch of relatively smooth snow, and we began to settle into routines. If Ray felt the cold, he no longer mentioned it, and I watched with pleasure the energy with which he tackled the challenge of learning how to manage the sled, the tent, the campstove.
He clearly enjoyed the dogs above all else, although working them wasn't precisely his strong point. One morning, when we were getting ready to begin harnessing them up, I called to Milo, an oversized irascable Malamute whom I'd placed as lead dog when it became clear Dief wasn't particularly interested in that role. (I was soon given to understand, in fact, that he had serious reservations about the entire journey, and would have preferred to be back in Chicago with Ante and doughnuts, or at least at Sergeant Frobisher's outpost.)
As I bent to gather up the harness, Ray suddenly said, "Milo. Fraser, think about it, what the hell kind of name is 'Milo' for a hard-ass sled dog?"
"Well, I'm afraid you'd have to ask Sergeant Frobisher his thoughts behind—"
"Frobisher. That freak. Look, Fraser, this is your lead dog here, your top gun, the big enchilada on the combo platter. You cannot be letting him get humiliated in front of the second-string guys with some putz name like Milo."
I began trying to explain to him why dogs don't cope well with changes of name in the middle of a trek, but he wasn't listening, he'd dropped down on the snow in front of Milo and crouched, giving him a baleful basilisk stare, and growled, hunching his shoulders. Milo growled back, humping up his neck, weaving, and the lecture dried up in my mouth as I watched, frozen in terror that he was about to have his throat ripped out before my eyes by an eighty-pound malamute. If Milo had leapt, I would have had to leap faster. But the dog was unmoving, lips pulled back but ears well forward, seemingly caught between outrage and curiosity and intimidation. (I knew rather how he felt.)
When Ray finally spoke, it was still in a half-growl. "Ditka."
"I beg your pardon—"
He was ignoring me, addressing the dog. "Ditka. That's your new name, guy." And suddenly he reached out, cuffed Milo on the side of the head, the dog jumped, and they were rolling in the snow together. I heard yelping, Ray's and the dog's mingled, but it sounded gleeful rather than angry. The other dogs were yelping and leaping, pulling at their chains to get into the fray.
I waded in, grabbing Milo's harness and hauling him off. Ray was lying on his back half buried in the snow, panting and laughing. "Look out there, Fraser, he's got a wicked right hook."
I reached down and yanked him to his feet. He was glowing with cold and excitement, brushing the snow off himself, and it was all I could do not to put my hands on him, under pretext of helping out. "I'm delighted you take such pleasure in agitating the dogs, Ray, and I certainly hope you'll be equally willing to get them resettled."
"Oh, come on, they're fine, they just—" He looked up, saw my expression, stopped. Then a little grin. "Hey. You were scared."
"You were scared." He nodded, confirming his hunch. "You got nothing to be scared about." He reached down again and grabbed the dog's ruff of fur, shaking hard, getting a happy yelping growl out of him. "Ditka and me, we understand each other just great. We're copacetic."
And in fact from that moment on, Milo—Ditka—was rather readier to take direction from Ray than from me. It both confounded and pleased me to see Ray take charge of the team, embroidering the standard gees and haws with his own profane ad-libs, and to see the team heed them. Soon we were able to trade off on pretty much equal terms, one driving, the other following along on skis.
Ray never did get comfortable with snowshoes—I think they were just too plodding, too pedestrian, to fit his own rhythms—but he took to the cross-country skis as if born to them, picking up the quick kick-glide movement almost immediately. Within hours he was swooping ahead of the team, seeking out hills so that he could speed down them, falling sometimes but jumping right back up. It became one of the greatest pleasures of the journey, to watch him skimming over the snow, dancing his way across the skin of the Arctic.
But there were days—as time went on, more days—when the terrain was too rough for skis, when the only progress we'd make between one camp and the next was a few miles across fractured battlements of ice, miles bought at the cost of endless hours of brute labor, heaving the sled up and over, up and over. It was a kind of ox-like toil he wasn't suited for—it needed a draft horse, not a thoroughbred—and though he gave all his strength to it, it drained his spirit as well as his body.
After the day's labor was done and we'd made camp I found myself facing a new kind of challenge, one I hadn't anticipated. The first night or two Ray was talkative, his words spilling out with their usual scattered exuberance as he rehashed the day's small adventures, the dogs' misdeeds and the sights we'd seen. But with time he became quieter; he'd sit staring at the stove, once our dinner was done, seeming preoccupied, while I tidied away gear and wrote in my journal. At first, I must admit, the quietness was a relief. I found I was exhausted by day's end myself (it was worrisome how badly out of shape I'd gotten in Chicago), and keeping up with Ray's chatter had been wearing.
But it had at least been familiar, the usual accompaniment of our work together. His silence was something new, unaccustomed, and it was worrying to me. Then, too, in those long moments of quiet, between eating and sleep, I found myself aware of him in uncomfortable ways. The tent was small, and he was so close, always, that there was no way to ignore him, even buried in my journal: the smell of his sweat, the play of lamplight on his face, the little sighs he made as he stretched out sore muscles, the twitches and murmurs of his sleep.
I had spent nights before in proximity to Ray: across the width of a vacant apartment in Chicago; side by side in the Tucci's back yard; in the car, on stakeouts. Always, before, I'd had responsibilities in the forefront of my mind, cases to preoccupy and distract me. Now—well, of course the journey provided its own concerns, but really all we needed to do was to keep going, in a kind of dogged routine devoid of strategy and requiring little thought. My brain, without much to occupy it, was left free to range in unsafe directions, and I was often too tired to call it back to heel, or keep myself from contemplating Ray as something more than spirit and mind, friend and colleague; from seeing him as a whole man—physical, sensual. As someone whom—well, I'd already said as much to him—whom I found attractive. Very much so.
These feelings were nothing new to me, but I was often too tired for the familiar discipline of damping them down. To turn my thoughts away from myself and my wayward desires, I tried to imagine what was going through his mind, in those spells of silence. Thinking he might be homesick, I'd try starting conversations about Chicago, his friends there, our past cases, but he seemed almost averse to such topics. Any inquiries about how he was doing, his mood or physical condition, got me an abrupt "I'm fine," and nothing more.
It perturbed me. One thing I'd selfishly hoped for, on our journey, was more time to simply be with Ray, for evenings of conversation without the interruptions of gunplay or traffic or television. I'd hoped that, on my turf, without the armor of his Chicago life and persona, he'd let me in to the mysterious recesses of his head, disclose more of his thoughts and feelings. But though he was no more than an arm's length away, in some ways he seemed more remote than ever.
Eventually I gave up trying for conversation; but I noticed that, when I'd pause in my journal writing or my chores and look up, I'd often find him watching me. I tried not to make too much of this—there was, after all, little else in the tent for him to watch—but the intensity and focus of his regard was new, in my experience of him, and unsettling. Being looked at by others, with a certain degree of intensity, is something I've learned largely to ignore—it's a matter of putting up a mental shield, of a sort, and then carrying on with one's tasks, impersonally. But there was, from the beginning, no way I could be impersonal with Ray, and very few shields that held for long against whatever he aimed in my direction.
Something was changing between us, some shift in the climate. I know how to read weather, the smell of wind and the movement of clouds; but these changes were a mystery to me, and, wary, I pulled further into myself, and the odd silence between us grew and deepened.
One night, about a week out, he broke the quiet with an abrupt question. "Fraser, I was wondering, this Franklin reaching-hand thing we're looking for—what the hell is that, anyway?"
I looked up, startled. It was late, we were in our sleeping bags, I was making some journal entries with the lantern angled down low to the page, and Ray, I had thought, was sleeping.
"What do you mean?" I shifted the lantern so that some of the light spilled on him and I could see his face.
"I mean—I've been thinking about it, and—y'know, when I heard 'Hand of Franklin' I was kind of picturing some guy's hand sticking up out of the snow—" He pulled one arm out from his sleeping back and stuck it up in the air, at an angle. "And we'd be sledding along, and then we'd see it, and it'd be like—OK! Cool! There it is! Mission accomplished!" He waved with vigor, and, drawn in as usual by Ray's imagination, I had a brief absurd vision of the corpse of Sir John Franklin, waving us a friendly greeting. Then Ray burrowed his arm back in the bag and went on. "But then it hit me that that was pretty dumb, because—well, that was what, a hundred years ago or something? And he'd probably be, I don't know, buried, or rotted, or the wolves would've eaten it, or something."
"One hundred fifty one years, to be precise. And interestingly enough, the arctic climate, with its combination of cold and aridity, can have a sort of mummifying effect. In fact, a 1985 expedition found the remains of three of Franklin's men in a remarkable state of preservation."
"Yeah? Cool." The light picked up just a quick glint of his grin, the fog his breath made in the cold air. "So, maybe he is out there, huh?"
I closed up my journal and slid deeper into my own bag, choosing my words. "The odds of actually finding any remains of the expedition are—well, they're extremely remote, you should understand that." I closed my eyes, mentally squaring my shoulders. "In fact ... Ray, I have a confession to make to you."
I looked over to see him watching me, brow furrowed, eyes shadowed with fatigue but intent on me.
"I—when I was planning our trip, it struck me that a course plotted to reach the actual region where the Franklin expedition is believed to have perished would be—well, perhaps a bit of a reach. Not to disparage either your competence or your determination, nor mine for that matter, but the distances involved, and the extremely harsh nature of the climate and terrain, rendered it ill-advised in my judgment, overly ambitious, and it seemed wiser to attempt a journey more in keeping with the limited nature of our resources, bearing in mind that the ultimate goal, at least as I understood it, was to undertake an adventure rather than the achievement of a fixed destination per se, and—"
"What the fuck are you trying to say?" He didn't sound angry—baffled, rather, blinking at me from the depths of his sleeping bag.
"What I'm saying, Ray, is that the actual route we're pursuing is—taking us in a somewhat different direction than, ah—"
"We're not going after Franklin?"
"Ah—in point of fact—no."
He considered that for a moment. "OK. So where are we headed?"
"I'm sorry, Ray, I realize that I should have consulted with you long before this, or at least—"
"Fraser. Just tell me. Are we actually headed somewhere, or just, y'know, roaming around seeing the sights? Cause we can consider these sights pretty much seen by now, and I'd like to think we're going to end up someplace eventually, besides in another freakin' crevasse."
I took a breath. "We're headed west. Towards Inuvik, eventually. It should take us perhaps two more weeks to get there."
"OK. Right." He still sounded calm, surprisingly so. "And the reason you didn't tell me about this before is why exactly?"
"I'm sorry," I said again. "I suppose—I was concerned that you might not consider a mere trek to Inuvik to qualify as an adventure. I was afraid that—" I stopped.
"Afraid? Of what?" However tired he might have been, his wits were by no means asleep, whereas I'd let fatigue make me careless.
"Nothing, Ray, that's not important—"
"Yeah? Who died and made you the god of deciding what's important? Afraid of what, Fraser? You were ... shit, Fraser, were you thinking I'd bail on you? Like if this wasn't some kind of big National Geographic Special I'd just cop an attitude and back out?"
I was silent. To say no would be a lie; to say yes would be to expose the foolish depths of my fear, and my needs.
"Damn it." His voice wasn't angry; exasperated, rather, and he reached up to scratch through his hair. "I thought we did all this already. You know? You remember? The I-listen-to-you, you-listen-to-me thing? The communicating thing?" He propped himself up on an elbow to stare at me, hard, across the stove. "Partners, Fraser. Partners."
I looked back at him. "I remember, Ray. And I understand."
He pointed at me with one gloved hand. "You got some news you think I'm not going to like, you tell me about it. Maybe I'll get pissed off, maybe not, either way, big deal, we work it out. But don't go treating me like cargo. Y'know? And don't go treating me like some kid who—who you can't tell him there's no Santa 'cause it'd break his little heart."
"I understand," I said again.
He flopped back down on his side and let out a deep sigh. "And ... jeez. Fraser, did you really think I'd crap out on you just because maybe we wouldn't find some scuzzy mummified dead guy hand?"
"I thought that the prospect of discovery was what gave the trip its allure for you."
"No, see, that's not what it's all about. Adventure, Fraser, that's the concept here." He pulled his arm out yet again to gesture around the tent, and I reflected in passing that talking while wrapped in the confines of the sleeping bag must be frustrating for him. "Adventure. That's what we're having here, right?" He fell silent, huddling back into his bag, and when he spoke again his voice was quieter. "So, how far are we from wherever the hell it is we're going?"
"Approximately 180 kilometers. Perhaps two weeks, if the weather's with us."
He was silent for so long that I thought he'd gone back to sleep, and reached to turn the lamp off. But then he said, "What happened to 'em, anyway?"
"Franklin, and his guys. They were up here somewhere, right? That part of the whole thing's real?"
The doubt in his voice cut me, and I'm afraid I answered sharply. "You mean to say that you've never learned the story of the Franklin expedition?"
"Chrissake, Fraser, I didn't grow up in a library, unlike some people. I went to high school at Englewood, you think we had a special unit on Nutjobs Who Froze Themselves in Canada? If it wasn't for the Blackhawks-Leafs games, we'd've never even heard of Canada. Shit, if it wasn't for the fifty dollar bill I wouldn't know who Ben Franklin was." He paused briefly. "That, and the kite."
I put my notebook away, slid deeper into my own sleeping bag. "Sir John Franklin joined the Royal Navy at fourteen, and fought with Nelson at Trafalgar. Later made Governor of Tasmania, he—"
"Fraser." Ray thrashed around in his sleeping bag. "Cliff Notes."
"Reader's Digest. Cut to the chase."
"Ah. Well, in 1845 Franklin set off from England with a crew of 128 men in search of the Northwest Passage—the long-sought open-water route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They—"
"Why was that such a big deal? Why'd he do it? I mean, he could've stayed in Tasmania, which granted you got the giant bug situation there, but at least it's warm."
"He seems to have been a restless man, driven by his own conceptions of glory and honor. Then too," I added, "the financial considerations were significant. The existence of such a passage would mean vast profits for trade."
"Money." Ray snorted. "That's what it all comes down to, isn't it? First thing you learn when you're a cop, cherchez the bucks." He seemed unaccountably annoyed at a man who'd been dead a hundred and fifty years.
"Well, I rather think in Franklin's case, it was more about the glory. He was a brave man, but an arrogant one." I paused, trying to gather up the thread of the story. "His ships were the best that the Royal Navy could provide, with steam engines and inch-thick steel hulls. They were outfitted sumptuously, with an organ, a library with two thousand books, china place settings, cut-glass goblets and engraved silverware. Franklin and his men lacked few comforts. What they did lack was any knowledge of how to survive in this terrain, or any inclination to learn."
I glanced over at Ray, to see if I'd put him to sleep yet, but he was listening attentively.
"Their maps were erroneous, and consequently they followed the wrong stretch of coastline. When winter came on, their ships became locked in the ice somewhere near King William Island. The men disembarked, and apparently tried to travel overland. But they headed in the wrong direction, and in any event they were underequipped, underprepared. Modern researchers have blamed their provisions—they may have gotten lead poisoning, or botulism, from substandard canned goods. But even so, they might have survived had they not felt it beneath their dignity to adapt to Inuit ways, and equip themselves to hunt and fish. They disdained using sled dogs, though they had some dogs as pets." I paused. "In the end, they ate their dogs. They ate their clothing, and their boots. Finally ... it would appear that finally they ate each other. And they died anyway, all of them."
I stopped, and after a silence, Ray said, "Gotta hand it to you, Fraser, you know the pick-me-up for every occasion." He had burrowed deeper into his bag, and his voice was muffled. "That's the stuff to give the troops."
"Well, you did ask, Ray."
"Yeah. I guess. And, uh, you said they—ate each other? Like, cannibalism?"
"It seems a plausible conclusion, from the condition of the remains that were found." I put my journal away, snuffed the lamp. "Go to sleep, Ray. We both need our rest."
I was half asleep when he spoke again, in the darkness. "Two weeks, you said?"
"Approximately, depending on weather and terrain."
"And ... we're gonna make it OK, right?"
"Certainly, barring unforeseen catastrophe."
"Right. Uh. OK, then."
I pushed my head up and tried to make him out in the blackness. "Don't worry, Ray. I know what I'm doing."
A few days later, a storm blew up out of the east, hard and fast, bringing a cold more fierce than we'd yet experienced. We managed to get camp made before it struck, and then rolled ourselves into our sleeping bags to wait it out. I lay awake, too deeply chilled to sleep, watching the tent walls shudder in the wind, counting to one hundred in every language I knew to distract myself from the misery.
At one point the roar of wind quieted momentarily, and I could hear a faint rattle. I realize that for most people the sound of teeth chattering is cartoon material, but up here it's just one reliable indicator of early hypothermia. I was briefly angry that he hadn't told me how cold he was, but that emotion was unhelpful and I set it aside. "Ray. Ray. Ray." The wind had kicked back up, and I had to shout to be heard.
"What?" His voice was muffled.
I rolled over and reached a hand out to touch him. Through the sleeping bag, I could feel the curve of his back—he was coiled into a tight ball—and how hard he was shivering.
A gust of wind tore at the tent viciously, rattling it with a noise like gunfire, and I thought for a moment something might give way. My fingers were already numbing, from just a few seconds out in the air, and it suddenly became clear in my mind—which was working more slowly than usual—that even inside the questionable safety of the tent Ray was in danger, that in fact we both were.
"Ray, I'm going to make some adjustments in how the sleeping bags are arranged. "
I began moving, getting my own bag unzipped. "I'm going to put the two bags together, so we can share body heat. It should be a more efficient arrangement."
"Fraser, you fucking lunatic, touch that zipper and I will personally kill you." The ferocity in his voice heartened me, but the shake in it was alarming. "I've got about one degree of warm built up in here, anything moves and I'm gonna lose that, and then I'm gonna die "
"Hold on, Ray, the discomfort will only be temporary." I paused, taking a deep breath while an especially brutal blast of wind slammed into the tent, and then I reached, as quickly as possible, to unzip his bag—he yelled, and I think he actually tried to hit me, but his movements were too uncoordinated by then —flipped the top half of his bag to the ground underneath me, threw my bag over the both of us, slid down and fumbled for an agonized minute to get the zippers matched, the icy metal burning my fingers. I could hear Ray cursing, and then the zipper caught, and I got it pulled all the way up. I grabbed Ray and flipped him over and pulled him tight against me, his back up against my front, and wrapped myself around him as completely as I could. He was still cursing me, in a monotone almost inaudible under the wind, but he pushed himself hard back against me, twisting deeper into my arms.
I lay there, willing the heat to leave my body and go over to his, but radiant convection through as many layers of clothes as we had on takes time, so I put my mouth over the big knob of spine at the base of the cervical vertebrae, and blew hard, forcing warm breath through the fabric of his turtleneck. He'd been wearing that garment pretty much continuously since we'd set out, so it was redolent of him, and for a moment I could smell the two aromas mingled, his body and my breath.
He was still shuddering hard, as if the cold were some huge animal that had grabbed him and was shaking him, but as minutes went past the shivers became less violent, and then diminished to tremors. Finally he quieted, but his body was rigid against me, still clenched tightly—against the cold, against my warmth. "Ray," I whispered to him, "it's all right now, relax." And slowly I could feel him begin to let go, a little at a time, each increment setting off a new round of shivers.
I kept holding him. I was holding Ray. Right up against me, my arms around him, his body curled into mine, fitting perfectly against mine, top to bottom. An amazingly perfect fit. I was cold and exhausted myself, hungry, worried about the storm. But that all seemed distant; all I could really feel was amazement, and a disturbingly intense pleasure in the closeness of his body, the smell of him, the feel of him trembling in my arms.
I took in one more lungful of air and breathed it out again into his collar, into the base of his skull, and he sighed deeply. I think he went to sleep almost immediately—his breathing took on the deep regular rhythms of sleep—but I lay awake for a long time, holding him, filled with awe and joy at this unexpected gift the storm had blown my way, this closeness I'd so long desired but never really thought to have.
By morning, the storm had blown itself out, and, no longer having any plausible excuse to linger, I pulled away from him, got up and started the stove. Over breakfast, Ray was a little apologetic and a little truculent. "Bet you didn't get any sleep with me crowding you."
"Actually, Ray, I slept better than usual." It wasn't really a lie; I had slept less than usual, but what sleep I'd had had been sweeter, more refreshing.
We made decent progress that day, but it was very cold, in the storm's wake, and by the time we made camp again the temperature had dropped to -42 C. It seemed to take forever to get the food heated, and the air in the tent never did warm much. After we ate, Ray sat huddled in on himself on the far side of the stove and watched as I laid out the bags—one below, one above, zipped together.
"Uh. Fraser. You—uh, we're gonna—" He nodded at the bags. "Like that again?"
"I thought so. Did you find it uncomfortable?" I got into the bags and stretched out, leaving a space for him.
"No, I mean—it was warmer, sure, so—comfortable that way, yeah, but—"
I considered his uneasiness, assessed it as insignificant compared to survival issues, turned a deaf ear to that part of my brain that was murmuring about my own selfish motives, and set about reassuring him with brisk practicality. "Simply maintaining body temperature in this weather burns up a great many calories. Given that our supplies are limited, it makes sense to do whatever we can to reduce that drain on them by utilizing whatever heat sources are available."
"Uh huh." A pause. "So—what you're saying is ... Fraser, is this one of those buddy-breathing kind of things again?"
The analogy startled me badly, and I felt a sudden nervous stab of guilt, as though I'd been found out. Just as on the Henry Allen, I resorted to defensive pedantry. "One could see a certain similarity, given that in each case the goal of physical survival dictates equal sharing of whatever resources are most essential—oxygen, heat, and so on—by the most direct and efficient means."
"Ohhhh-kay." After another moment's hesitation he shed his parka and got in with me, back to my front, with no further words beyond a muttered "G'night."
The next night we simply set up and crawled in together, self-consciously but without discussion; and so it became one of our established rituals, like Ray's morning coffee and my evening journal writing (which I soon began postponing until after we'd crawled into the sleeping bag together—the lamp turned down to a dim glow, the length of Ray's body nestled against mine, and my notebook braced up against the back of his drowsing head, as I scribbled notes).
It never became routine to me—a recurring miracle, rather, a visitation of grace, like the shimmering marvel of the aurora borealis that glowed over us some nights. I reasoned with my willful and greedy heart, I told myself it couldn't last, that like everything else it would end. And in the meanwhile I timed the passing of those nights by the rhythm of Ray's breathing, the rise and fall of his chest within my arms, the metronomic beat of his heart against mine, counting off the minutes toward the end of our journey.
I suppose it's tautological to say that disaster, when it came, struck unexpectedly. Such is, after all, the nature of disasters, and it's a man's responsibility to be adequately prepared for them. As it developed, I was not.
A storm had forced us to halt and make camp early one day, and then had kept us pinned down for the next day entirely. Though I welcomed the rest, Ray had been impatient, jittering and thrashing around until the tent seemed entirely filled with his arms and legs and edgy energy. I tried to keep my attention off of him and focused on my book, but still it was a long day, and we were both relieved when the next morning dawned clear and quiet.
The dogs were as antic from their enforced layoff as Ray had been, leaping and barking and tangling their harness, and when we finally set off they threw themselves forward, slewing the sled around wildly. It was Ray's turn to drive, and though I was sorely tempted to ask him to trade off and let me handle the team, I forebore, and saved my breath instead for my skiing. He seemed to have them reasonably well in hand, though I winced at the language he was volleying at them.
We made excellent progress that morning, and I was lagging a bit, trying not to get overheated with exertion, admiring the open sweep of the land, wondering idly if Ray would call a lunch stop soon, when from over the small rise ahead of me I heard "Gee, gee, gee, god damn it," then a loud whoop, and a crash-thump, and Ray yelling, "Ditka, you asshole!"
I sprinted forward and, cresting the rise, saw the dogs milling wildly, Ray flailing in the snow, and the sled tipped over like a turtle, gear strewn about. Ray seemed uninjured; by the time I reached his side, he was sitting up, red-faced, slapping snow off himself, and launching a fresh tirade at Ditka, who, along with the rest of the team, was tearing into a large bag of dog food that had split open and spilled.
"Ray. Ray." I put a hand on his shoulder, shook him. "Are you all right?"
"Me, yeah, I'm fine, I'm a whole hell of a lot better than that fucking dog is gonna be once I get my hands on him—" He squirmed around in the snow, trying to get his feet under him.
"Steered us right into that bump is what happened. Damn it." He was panting, his breath clouding around his face.
I put a hand under his elbow and helped him to his feet. "Strictly speaking, the fault isn't Ditka's. Erskine and Dief were on wheel, and steering is more their responsibility."
"Yeah, whatever. Shit, I hate it when I get snow down my neck." I watched with a critical eye as he stamped and shimmied, snow flying around him, checking to make sure that he was in fact unhurt; then I turned to the team, and discovered that they'd already devoured an alarming amount of their provisions. It took some effort and shouting, and a few blows, to get them pulled away from the food, and rather to my surprise, Diefenbaker was helping out, lunging around as best he could, snarling and snapping the others back into line. When I had the team staked down again, I squatted next to him. "Thank you," I said. "Of course, if you could also put a little more effort into steering—" He made a low unpleasant sound and turned away from me to glare at Erskine. "Very well, then, I know you're doing your best."
I rejoined Ray; we righted the sled and began gathering up our gear. As long as he and the team were all right, I wasn't particularly worried, though I was concerned about the depletion of our remaining supply of dog food. So preoccupied was I, in fact, with mentally recalibrating their daily feedings, that it took me a moment to recognize true catastrophe, even as I was holding it in my hands.
After a minute Ray noticed my immobility. "What is it? Something broke?" He came over, looked down at the fragments I was gripping. "Oh, geez. The stove? How'd it get that wrecked?"
"I believe the brush bow must have landed right on top of it," I said mechanically.
"Damn." Ray touched the twisted metal with one mittened hand. "No more coffee," he mourned.
"Coffee is the least of our problems, Ray."
Though I was working to keep my voice calm, he must have caught something in my tone, and he gave me a quick uneasy look. "What do you mean?"
I took a deep breath, let it out. Somewhere in my head a small voice was saying Partners, Fraser, communicating, remember? But I simply could not speak my fears; I knew him to be a worrier, and worry would only be another burden on him, in what had abruptly become a far more challenging situation. And after all, it was my responsibility to find some way to right the situation. "Well, it's just that we need some steady heat source in order to melt snow, for water. We'll have to devise some alternative, that's all."
He stared at me with a look I'd come to know well, the slightly blank look that meant his brain was triangulating its way toward the truth by some intuitive celestial navigation that would forever be mysterious to me. What he finally said was "Alternative." He waved an arm around, taking in the barren landscape. "Look around, Fraser, you see any alternative, uh, fuel sources here?"
"I do realize that we're above the treeline, yes," I snapped.
"No stove, no heat. No heat, no—we're gonna freeze. Our. Skinny butts off, right? We're gonna freeze and we're gonna die—no heat, no coffee, no soup, no—"
"I think we'll be able to stay warm enough." Inwardly I eased, just a little—he hadn't, after all, intuited the true nature of the hazard that faced us, and with great good luck and effort, he might not need to ... possibly, just possibly, I could devise some other way to supply us with water, or there might possibly be some way to fix the stove before dehydration took us down. I set the twisted remnants down on the sled, with care. "And the best way to keep warm is to keep moving. If you could attempt to get the dogs disentangled, I'll finish loading up here."
When we made camp that evening, a half-hour's fiddling proved conclusively that there was no repairing the stove without a welding torch, and we ate a cold dinner of pemmican and cheese, huddled with the sleeping bags wrapped around us. I don't know what Ray was thinking—he kept silent, giving me occasional anxious looks—but I was busy with calculations and strategies. After eating, I unloaded everything, got out my saw, and began the grim task of shortening the sled. With the wood that yielded, I built a small fire, sufficient to melt enough snow to give each of the dogs, and us, a scanty drink. Then I filled with ice the zip-lock bags I'd brought along for keeping clothes dry, and tucked them into the sleeping bags with us, over Ray's howls of protest. We had a miserable and cold night, but in the morning our body heat had melted enough water to start us off with, at least. When it was fully light, I sorted all our supplies into those that were essential and those that could be spared, and the latter pile into flammable and non-flammable. Ray stood a little ways off, watching, but when I began reloading the sled he came over to help me. When that was done, and I was about to go harness up the dogs, he stopped me with a hand on my arm.
"Fraser. We're in trouble, aren't we?"
Reflexively, I sought to turn the question away. "Well, there are various things we can do to cope with this inauspicious turn of events. Though I'm afraid the rest of the trip is going to be a bit less pleasant."
"Yeah, 'cause it's been like a day at the beach so far." He kept his hand on my arm, squinting at me against the glare and the wind. "Look. Are we gonna die?"
It was a child's question; but there was nothing childish in his rough voice, the set of his face, the sharp look he was giving me. The assurances I'd been about to offer died in my throat. This was my partner,a courageous and resourceful man, someone with whom I'd faced death before, asking me for an honest assessment of our fate. I owed him no less than the truth.
"It's possible," I said at last. "I don't think we will. But it's going to be difficult."
He nodded, releasing my arm, but still holding my gaze. If anything, he looked oddly relieved. "So, OK," he said. "Tell me what's going to happen."
I took a breath, feeling it sting my lungs, wiping my nose with a mittten. "We're going to be short of water, as you've no doubt discerned," I said. "The difficulty with that is that sustained exertion, in a climate this dry, demands a great deal of water."
He thought about that. "Right. You been nagging me to keep drinking."
"I won't be having to nag you any more, I'm afraid."
It looked like he was trying to smile, with his cold-stiffened face. "There's one upside, anyway." Then he looked at me more sharply. "What else? There's something else, right?"
"Well ... simply that dehydration lowers the body's core temperature, and makes one that much more vulnerable to hypothermia."
He took that in; I could see him considering the ramifications. "OK," he said after a moment. "The one-two punch, got it. But we're not going down, right? You got a plan."
Such a weight of confidence in his voice, so much trust ... it was at that moment that I felt my first real twinge of panic. If I were to die out here, that would be nothing more than fair payment for my own carelessness, a squaring of accounts. But if I were to let Ray down—if he were to know the extent of my own fallibility, and suffer for it, before he too died ... It was unthinkable, that was all, something I couldn't allow to happen.
The wind picked up, and we turned to put our backs against it, standing shoulder to shoulder and staring out across the empty snowfields. I breathed out, watching my breath instantly crystallize into a hundred glittering specks of ice; I noted the infinite subtle shades of white and grey and blue in the snow and sky, the luminous, endless beauty of this land. It brought me a moment of peace. I had always known that death, whenever it came for me, would find me in such a place. But I was not yet ready for death, and the brush of Ray's shoulder against mine reminded me that he was even less so, that he was waiting for my plan.
"I have a cabin," I said. "East of Inuvik, near Colville Creek, well-stocked with food and firewood. If we can reach it, we should be fine."
"If?" Ray bumped his shoulder against mine. "Cough it up, Fraser, just how big an 'if' are we talking about here?"
I ran through the calculations in my head once again—distances, speed, hours and days. Finally I said, "With luck, we should be able to reach it in five days, or perhaps six, depending on weather and snow conditions. We should have just enough food left for the dogs to last that long. Our own supplies will run a little tight, since we can't spare water to reconstitute any of the dried food." I heard the rustle of his parka hood as he nodded. "We'll need to carry ice in plastic bags under our clothing—" I paused for his moan of protest, and went on. "—to be melted by our body heat. It's the most efficient way to provide at least some water. The important thing is to keep making steady progress, without any delays."
"Well, what're we standing around talking for then?" He started toward the sled, but I took hold of his shoulder and stopped him.
"Ray—the emphasis is on steady rather than swift. We can't burn up our own energy, nor that of the dogs, with sprints. And now more than ever, we can't afford to overexert to the point of perspiring. If we can maintain a good moderate pace, and barring any further mishaps—well, we at least have a chance." I released him, with a pat that I hoped was reassuring. "Now wait there while I fit you up with some ice to carry."
He accepted it, with no good grace but no protest beyond an involuntary whoop when I settled the ice-bag under his sweater. Then I geared myself up in like fashion, unstaked the dogs, and we were off. I kept my eyes forward, watching the team, checking Ray's pace on the skies, scouting our path; but I thought I could sense death whispering along behind us, not yet on our heels, but following our trail.
Most people believe that survival in a climate as harsh as this must be endless fight, endless struggle. But those who thrive here know that the key is acceptance. One could see it as religious. Though I'm not a religious man, or a drinker for that matter, I understand it as very like the A.A. credo of surrender to a higher power. In the far north, winter is the highest power of all, and to surrender fully to it, to let one's purposes and habits and self and soul be wholly shaped by it, is to live in harmony. In that harmony, there may be, will surely be, pain, but there's no suffering. To fight against winter, though, is to suffer endlessly. It will always beat you.
You fought, Ray, you fought so hard, far harder than you ever fought Mason in the boxing ring, and it was an unspeakably mismatched fight, one where none of your Chicago street smarts could help you at all. It's a fight I should have stopped in the first round, when we were still back at the camp. But I couldn't; selfish, selfish, selfish, I couldn't let go of you so soon. Refusing to admit that you would lose the fight and then I would lose you, sooner or later, and that "later" would only give you more suffering and leave you more scarred.
The days that followed are vague and muddled in my memory, or perhaps it would be more honest to say that I have little inclination to try to recollect them. No useful purpose is served by dwelling on past pain, once the lessons it has to teach have been fully absorbed. Suffice it to say that the descent from discomfort and inconvenience, into outright misery, proceeded inexorably.
I can remember a few things rather too vividly: the daily struggle to portion out the food and water among the dogs, when there wasn't enough of either to meet their needs. (I asked Dief to try to explain the situation to the others, but I think that was straining our anomalous lines of communication a little too far.) The terrible shudder that Ray would give every time I secured a fresh bag of ice under his parka, against his belly. The burn of cold air in my throat, a little sharper every day, and the gummy sticky weight of my own tongue in my mouth, before the evening's blessed mouthful of water would loosen it.
The weather, at least, was with us most of the way, cold but steady and clear. But on what must have been the fifth day another storm hit, forcing us to stop early and make camp. Ray struggled to do his part of the set-up, but he seemed confused and uncoordinated, and finally I sent him into the tent to warm up and rest while I dealt with the dogs. Their tempers were beginning to turn ugly; Natty slashed at me while I was feeding him, almost catching my arm. I cuffed him away, and went on with my work, while the wind sliced through me, with an easy, casual savagery.
When I finally got into the tent, Ray was curled up in the sleeping bags, and above the noise of the wind I could hear him making a little whining sound, over and over, with every breath. I shed boots and parka, crawled in behind him, and pulled him close to me.
"Hey. There you are." He was shaking hard. "I didn't know where you were."
"Just feeding the dogs." I made an effort to sound brisk and off-hand. "Are you all right?"
"This kind of sucks, Fraser." His voice was gone; all he had left was a rough whisper. "Hey. Can we maybe not have the ice in here tonight?"
"Certainly," I said. In fact, before I'd gotten in, I'd shoved the bagful of ice down my own back, under my sweater, away from him. Though suboptimal, it seemed the best solution: we needed water, but he couldn't afford to lose any more heat.
"Really? Cool." For a moment the only sound was his harsh breathing, and the hiss of snow blowing against the tent. "Hey, can we ... uh ... can we just go home now, Fraser? I wanna go home, can we just do that now? No place like home..."
He trailed off, and I shook him a little, to get his attention. "Ray," I said into his ear. "Hang on. One more day. Tomorrow we should reach the cabin. Just hang on."
"I dunno, Fraser." It sounded like he was trying to swallow. "I dunno if I'm going to make it."
"You will. You will." I was almost snarling. "I'll get you there if I have to carry you."
He burrowed back harder against me. "Just ... don't leave me here, OK?" He groped for my arm, took a grip on it.
"Never." I could feel the cold eating slowly into my back and shoulders, could feel my spine locking up and my muscles cramping, but I tried to put that aside. "I would never leave you, Ray. Now get some rest."
That night was endless. I didn't think I'd be able to sleep, but I drifted in and out of nightmarish delusions—half-conscious dreams of Ray lying dead in my arms, of falling endlessly into crevasses, even of being back in Fortitude Pass, holding Victoria. I would wake from these muttering jumbled nonsense, trying to talk, with my cracked lips and thick tongue, to find Ray jerking on my arm, whispering urgently. "Fraser? Don't leave me here, you gotta stay here with me, Fraser, you leave me and I'm gonna die." And I'd apologize, over and over, for everything, and try to hold him closer, warm him better, though I felt I'd no warmth left in me anywhere to give.
When dawn came at last, I got us up and into boots and parkas, and doled out a mouthful of water for each of us. Then I crawled out of the tent —and into a world of swirling, opalescent, silver-grey. The sky was heavily overcast, shimmering with ice-haze, the sun was a diffuse directionless glow, and the wind was whirling the fresh snow around, obscuring the horizon. It was a terrible day for travel, but at this point it was move or die.
I gave the dogs a scant handful of food each—we were down to the dust in the bottom of the last bag—and one swallow of water. I packed and loaded the tent, with Ray fumbling alongside me, trying to help, and my own movements were not much more efficient than his. Every motion was pain, every step a fight against the temptation to simply lie down and stop trying. Then I went to harness the team, but when I finished I straightened, squinted around me, blinking against the wind's sting, and realized I had only the vaguest idea of direction. I dug out the compass, painfully, but it seemed terribly hard to decipher its symbols, and the gummy blur of my vision made it difficult to see. I stood there for a minute, breathing, fighting down fear. Then I went back to the team. I took Ditka out of lead, and staked him down while I unfastened Diefenbaker. Then I led Dief to the front and harnessed him in the lead position, biting my lip against the pain in my bleeding fingers.
When I was done, I squatted down beside him. "Dief. The cabin. You've been there. Can you find it?" He looked at me, with an expression I couldn't make out. "I'm sorry. I'll do everything I can, but I need your help. Please."
After a moment, he shoved his muzzle against my knee. I stood, and went to harness Ditka into Dief's old place. But Ditka was taking his demotion in bad part, howling and snarling, and as I neared him he lunged for me, sending me sprawling backwards in the snow.
I lay there, panting, and then I heard a noise behind me, a voice as harsh and raw as the caw of a raven. "You!" It was Ray, staggering toward the dog, unsteady and ferocious, fixing him with a glare. "You shut the fuck up! Asshole! Get in line and do your fuckin' job!" Ditka growled at him, and Ray gave him a clout on the side of the head, jerked his lead free of the stake, and dragged him over to the team. By the time I reached Ray, he was grappling with the harness, cursing in a low steady voice, and Ditka was growling quietly, sullen, but subdued.
I took over, forced the fastenings into place, and then turned back. "Ray. Thank you."
"Yeah. I just..." He turned, took a few steps back toward the sled, and suddenly his legs gave way and he collapsed in the snow.
I gathered him up and got him into the sled, over his protests—"I'm OK, I just got dizzy, lemme steer or something."
"No." I shook out a sleeping bag, wrapped it around him. "You're riding."
"Fraser, I can't—that's not fair to the dogs, they shouldn't have to haul me, they got enough—"
"Be quiet." I pulled the bag up around his head, but he stuck it out again.
"You're being nice to me here, Fraser, don't do that, I can—"
"No," I told him. "You can't. And I am not being nice. This is about survival."
It was not, in fact, an act of kindness, but one of grim necessity. The surest way to keep warm in Arctic temperatures is to keep active, and I knew Ray would suffer worse from the cold if he were lying still. But there was no way he could ski, and no point in his trying to steer. I put the skis on, made my way to the front of the team, took a final stab at a compass reading, tried to rub my eyes into focus. Then I nodded at Dief. "Let's go." And he surged forward, the rest of the dogs shuffling behind him, as we headed into wind and the swirling snow.
We travelled. Miles went by, featureless and indistinguishable, marked only by the slow passage of time, the slow dwindling of my strength. My vision was blurred, and I kept hearing things in the wind—voices, mostly, mocking me. I began fancying that I could hear death behind us, gaining on us, whispering to me, and I'd drop back and lift the sleeping back to check on Ray, to make sure he hadn't been overtaken.
Every so often Dief would call a halt and stand, sniffing, ears alert, casting about, and then he'd set off again, on a slightly altered course. During one of those stops, I squatted down beside him, and told him that if worst came to worst, I'd cut him and the others free before I succumbed. He gave me a soft growl that in any language clearly meant Shut up, and pushed me to my feet again.
The day grew brighter, and then slowly, slowly, began dimming again—or perhaps it was my vision, I thought, fading out. I lowered my head, and pushed forward. There was nothing else I could do.
Some unmeasured time later, when I had long since stopping thinking about anything at all, the team halted again. I raised my head and looked around, discovering that evening was truly darkening around us, thinking to myself Well, this is it, I suppose; then I realized there was a darker shape, a familiar one, looming in the darkness. I blinked, rubbed an icy mitten across my eyes, looked again, and it was still there. The cabin.
For a minute I just stared at it. Then I shuffled my way to the head of the team, and dropped down beside Dief, throwing an arm around him, burying my face in his fur. Thank you, I whispered over and over, knowing he couldn't hear it. Thank you.
Then I stood and took my skis off, cursing at the snow-clogged bindings. Walking felt like the strangest thing I'd ever done, and I couldn't feel my feet at all. I staggered back to the sled and fell over on it, panting for a moment, before I found the courage to reach down and uncover Ray. He was still alive, blinking at me, moving his mouth soundlessly. And he was shivering hard, a good sign. I slung his arm over my shoulder, grabbed the sleeping bag, and half-carried him into the cabin, lowering him as gently as I could to the floor in front of the stove. Wood, tinder, matches were in their places, and despite the shaking of my hands I managed to get a fire going.
As soon as it was burning, I got a kettleful of snow and set it on the stove to melt. I unwrapped the sleeping bag so the stove's heat could reach Ray, gently putting aside his flailing arms and unzipping his parka to expose his torso. The fire would warm him slowly enough to avert after-drop, I trusted, and there was little else I could do for him at that point, so I went to the pantry, collected a bag of dog food, and went back out to tend to the team. That was a hard and dangerous job; the team had to be hauled around to the leeward side of the cabin, where they could shelter in the lean-to, and then they had to be individually short-staked. Hungry as they were, left unstaked they'd have ripped me or each other to ribbons, to get at the food. It seemed to take hours, as slowly as I was moving, and the only thing that kept me going at all was the shrieks of dogs waiting their turn.
When I was finally done, I stood and stared at them stupidly. It had only taken them seconds to wolf down the food, and already they were burrowing down into the snow to sleep. For a moment I had the crazy idea of joining them—it seemed so much easier than walking all the way back to the door of the cabin—but I knew I had to get back in and tend to Ray, and so I began moving. The wind was blowing even harder by then, and as soon as I came around the corner it hit me full-on. I wasn't sure I'd make it to the door, but my legs somehow kept pushing, my hand rose and turned the knob, I got through the door and shut it behind me, and suddenly I was in a different country.
I 'd forgotten what it felt like, to be in warmth; the shock of it was too intense yet for pleasure, it drove me literally to my knees, and I knelt there panting, stripping off my mittens, unzipping my parka. Without bothering to take off my boots, I crawled across the floor to the stove, to where Ray lay.
He was awake. He looked groggy and confused, but his eyes were open, and they recognized me. He tried to speak; it took him several tries to make sound into words.
"Hey." He licked his cracked lips and went on. "Thought maybe I was dead. This was heaven." A worried frown. "But you weren't here. Pretty crappy heaven."
I smiled. It broke open the cracks in my own lips till they bled, but I didn't care. "Not heaven, Ray. Just the cabin."
"Yeah." He was still shivering, but less hard, and the color was coming back to his face. "We made it."
"Yes. We did."
"Kind of figured ... 'cause if was dead, I don't think my feet'd hurt so much."
His feet. I cursed myself for spending time sitting and gabbing when I should have been checking their condition, and slid down, pulling at his boots, cursing myself again for having left these icy shrouds on him.
"Hey—Fraser, you—oh shit that hurts—no, Fraser, cut it out, I didn't mean—oh shit shit shit—"
I apologized over and over, telling him he'd warm faster this way, getting blood on the laces where the frozen fastenings cut into my fingers. I was as quick as I could be, knowing how much it likely did hurt and fearful of what I'd find when I was finished. I got the boots off, peeled away stiff layers of socks. His feet were waxy and pale, but not entirely rigid to the touch, and there was no gangrenous blackening anywhere. I hadn't crippled him, not permanently.
The relief drove the breath from me, bent me double, and I hunched over, hugging his feet gently to my chest. We had made it. We were alive. He was going to be all right. In the primal joy of that moment, I bent and pressed my face against one bony arch. My mouth was still bleeding, and it left a faint smear of blood on the chalky skin.
"They hurt, Fraser." Ray's head was thrashing restlessly, back and forth. "They really really hurt."
"I know. I'm sorry." I stood, resettling him and shaking off my momentary self-indulgence. Warm fluids, I told myself, treat hypothermia and dehydration first. I dipped up a mugful of hot water from the pan on the stove, mixed up some watery cocoa, sat Ray up, and got him to drink it. I found a can of stew in the cupboard, emptied it into a pan and set it on the stove to heat. I found a box of crackers and crumbled some into the stew. By the time the food was ready Ray was asleep, but I woke him and got him to eat along with me.
The feel of hot food in my belly was like a drug, but I couldn't sleep yet. I found large thick socks, warmed them on the stove, put them on his feet. I dragged over the single bed from the corner, set it close to the stove, got him up on to it, and covered him well with the sleeping bag. I melted more snow, and took out water to the dogs, shaking them awake to make them drink; being out in the cold again after having gotten warm was a fresh and distinctive agony. I hauled in more wood, built up the fire, unloaded a mat and sleeping bag from the sled, spread them on the floor beside Ray's bed, and crawled in. Then, at last, I slept too.
I couldn't tell how much time passed. Sometimes the wind would fall, and sometimes it blew hard. Sometimes it was light, but more often it was dark. From time to time I would wake, feed the fire, feed the dogs, feed Ray and myself, and then we would sleep again. There were endless dreams, of snow, of city streets, trying to run with legs that wouldn't move, trying to ski with skis locked in ice; and then waking again, fire, dogs, food, and then more sleep, more dreams.
I woke at last to a sound that wasn't wind. A thud, then a voice, a familiar voice, saying something too softly for me to understand, and then a familiar whine.
I opened my eyes to find the cabin bright with sun, and turned my head, blinking. Ray was sitting cross-legged on the floor in a pool of light, sorting stacks of canned goods, while Diefenbaker nosed at a stack he'd toppled.
"Now look what you did, you woke Fraser up. Goofball. Get outta there, that's fruit cocktail, that is not a dog item." Ray thumped Dief on the side, and then looked over at me. "Hey." He looked dishevelled and tired, but his eyes were clear, and he gave off that hum of elemental energy, the distinctive Ray-vibration. I hadn't realized till that moment how sorely I'd missed it.
"You're up." I had to clear my throat. My mouth tasted vile.
"Yeah. Woke up a few hours ago."
"You brought Dief in."
"Batting a thousand so far, Fraser, glad to see those amazing powers of observation came through okay." He gave me an accusing look. "You left him out there, y'know, with all those other bohunks."
"They're dogs, Ray. He's a dog." I rubbed my eyes, trying to get fully awake. "Dogs live outside, in this part of the world. This isn't Chicago. He's designed to thrive in this climate."
Ray considered this for perhaps one second, and dismissed it. "Not Dief." He picked up a can of corned beef hash and appeared to be giving it careful study. "So. How're you doing?"
I sat up, trying to work the kinks out of my neck and shoulders. "I'm doing well, Ray, and yourself?"
"Fine. I'm fine. Thought I'd see what else there was to eat besides stew." He set the can down and looked around the cabin. His hair was filthy and sticking in all directions, but it still glinted gold where the sun caught it. "Nice place you got here."
"Do you like it?" I felt foolishly pleased.
He gave me an instant's grin before looking away again. "Beats the hell out of the sled, I'll say that much for it." He started getting to his feet, stiffly, gathering up cans. "That's an experience that'll adjust your attitude for you. Course, I'd like this place a lot better if I saw anything that looked like a hot shower around here."
I watched him limp back toward the shelves. I had wondered why he hadn't simply stood in the pantry to sort through provisions, and now I knew. "Ray, let me check your feet."
I got up, pulled on pants and socks, followed him. "They're not fine, Ray, they're frostbitten. You should have received medical attention right away, but—"
"Fraser, do not be playing Nurse Nancy with me here. Leave it alone, the feet are fine." He set down the cans with a clatter, turned, and dodged past me, back into the center of the room, and I trailed after him. Dief was watching us as if this were some kind of new game.
"Sit over here and let me see them." I motioned toward a chair, but he only stood glaring at me, refusing to move.
"And you say that I'm stubborn," I told him. He ignored it, so I knelt down swiftly and grabbed an ankle, putting my elbow in the back of his knee and giving a push. It's not all that different from dealing with a recalcitrant horse that refuses to be shod; one difference, though, is that a horse has three other legs to balance on. Ray swayed for a moment, giving a little yip, and then he grabbed my head to keep from going over.
By the time he'd finished god-damning me and telling me to let go of his leg, I had his shoe and sock off; he was wearing a pair of my old moccasins that hung loose on his narrow feet, and the thick socks I'd put on him the night we arrived.
"Fraser, if I ever wanted to kick anybody in the head, it'd be you right now and I warn you you're in prime kicking position —"
"That would be singularly unproductive, Ray. My head is extremely hard, and your foot is—" I poked one toe gently, and he yipped again. "—quite tender. A kick would cause you far more pain than it would me."
In fact, he seemed to be in better shape than I'd feared. There were a few blisters, but they were clear, not bloody, and the color had pinked up reassuringly. In time some dead skin would slough off, but it seemed evident that the flesh beneath was sound. Relieved, I patted his calf and leaned to reach for his sock, and the motion unbalanced him again; he took a stronger grip on my head, clutching my hair, and I grabbed him around the waist to steady him. He stilled; we both froze, for a moment, just like that; and then he made a little noise and pulled his hands back, and in that same instant I released him, backing off quickly, and stood. "Thank you for allowing me to reassure myself as to your—"
"Allowing you—Fraser, I didn't allow you zip, you just went and did. Stop thanking me." There was an odd note in his voice, and as I sat to put on my own shoes I looked up at him. I had a number of questions in my mind, but only one I felt I could ask.
"Why were you so reluctant to have me examine you?"
He gave a little snort, and settled himself back on the floor, next to Dief. "You've gone through enough shit for me, you shouldn't be having to deal with my revolting feet."
"They're not revolting, Ray. They're mildly frostbitten, yes. And dirty. But apart from that, you have very nice feet."
It got him laughing. "Only you, Fraser. Only you." Then abruptly he turned serious, his mouth pulled down—the emotional lability of someone who had been pushed past collapse, and had not yet recovered. "You know something? You could've gotten killed out there hauling me in. You realize that? You understand?"
"Well, actually, Ray, I was there too, and my own view is that—"
"The smart thing—forget all that shit I was saying out there, the smart thing would've been to leave me behind. Get yourself back safe."
Whatever I'd expected from him, even at his most labile, it wasn't that. "How can you suggest such a thing?"
"I slowed you down." He was working his fingers through the fur on Dief's chest. "I know I did. Dead weight."
I struggled to put all I was feeling into my voice. "Leaving you was never an option, Ray. Never. Not even for an instant."
"Yeah, well maybe it should've been." He was hunched over, both hands dug deep into Dief's fur. "If you'd died out there, trying to haul my pathetic ass in—if I'd gotten you killed just cause I wasn't good enough to keep up—"
"Ray." I slid off the chair to the floor, moved toward him so we sat facing each other with the dog between us. "You've risked your life for me, numerous times. For me, or for causes I thought were important."
"It's not the same thing."
"And how exactly is it different?"
"Just—let it alone, Fraser. Doesn't matter. You just shouldn't have."
"How is it different? Because it's you this time instead of me?"
And then the surge of anger I'd been waiting for, the heat that let me know I was tapping truth. "Because you never had to have your ass hauled out of the fire just cause you weren't good enough! Hell, yes, there were times I had to jump in cause you were acting like a fucking deranged idiot, or trying to do something phenomenally stupid all by yourself, but—it was never because you just flat couldn't cut it. Couldn't measure up."
I didn't know what to say to that. "That's not ... Ray, you never ..."
"So that's how it's different." He made a little gesture of finality; I knew the topic was closed for now, and that if I wanted to pursue it I'd have to reopen it later. "So anyway. You hungry? Food sounds like an idea, here, and I think it's my turn to run the can opener." He stood, brushing Dief-fur off his hands, and headed back toward the pantry. "What sounds good to you? And if you say stew, I'm gonna pop you one."
Over corned beef and canned peas, I raised the topic of going into town, certain that he'd find it a welcome prospect.
"Not today, certainly, we need some more time to rest up." I was thinking aloud, watching him section up his corned beef with the side of his fork. "But tomorrow, perhaps, if the weather's good, and if you're feeling up to it..."
That got me a level stare, and I could have bitten my tongue. "You think I'm not up to it? Hey, Fraser, anytime you're ready, any time, I'm good to go." It was close to a snarl, and I suddenly remembered—it seemed very close, for a moment—Ray, at my side, staring down a roomful of armed killers, cowing them with only his attitude and his anger, hands empty, facing possible death, for my sake. Good to go.
"I'm sorry, Ray, of course you are. I meant to say, we could both use some time to rest and recover. I know I could."
The set of his mouth relaxed a little. "OK. Tomorrow, that sounds good. Bright lights, big city. Bring 'em on."
"Well, Inuvik's not precisely a metropolis, of course. But it's a modern town, and in summer it hosts a fair number of tourists. So there are facilities where we can do laundry, get a shower and get cleaned up, get groceries and supplies. I have a friend who can care for the dogs while we're running errands."
He nodded, chasing stray peas around the plate with his fork.
"And Ray—" I stopped, and then forced myself to go on. "There's an airport in Inuvik. Air Canada and Canadian Airlines both have flights out, to Yellowknife and Edmonton. If you—whenever you wished, you could book a flight through to Chicago."
Having gotten it out, I looked up at him. He was staring down at his plate.
"Yeah. OK." Then he looked up, not at me, but at Diefenbaker, who was drowsing in a patch of sunlight. "Hey, Dief!" He waved with vigor. "Hey, time for a little infield practice, guy, how about it?"
Dief lumbered to his feet, panting happily, and Ray gestured him to stay where he was, then picked up a pea from his plate and lobbed it at him. "Easy comebacker, up the middle," and Dief caught it with ease. "Hard line drive, second base side"—a quick toss to the right that he lurched for, snapping it out of the air. "Way to pick it, Dief, how about a high pop fly?" This one rose in a leisurely arc, dropping into Dief's waiting jaws.
They played on until all the peas were gone and Ray seemed more cheerful. Dief had missed a bouncer that had somehow scooted under his nose—"Gotta get the glove down, fellah!"—and I went and retrieved it from under the stove. I would have tossed it to Dief myself, but he wasn't watching me, he'd gone to Ray and had his nose shoved into Ray's chest, and Ray had wrapped his arms around him, whispering something into one furry ear, a pointless exercise, as I forebore from pointing out. The sight of them made me ache oddly, and I turned and opened the stove, throwing the pea inside, watching the flames leap and dance.
When I turned back, Dief had settled at Ray's feet, and they were both looking at me, two pairs of pale eyes so oddly similar. They looked like kin, at that moment, fellow creatures, emissaries from some animal world where things were either simpler or more complex than in mine but were in any event foreign to me as I stood there, clumsy, trapped in my human brain. Words were of no use in their world, and they were of scant use to me, as I found myself saying, to my horror, in a tone of false cheer, "He'll miss you. Won't you, Dief?"
"Why should he?" Ray's voice sounded harsh, over the mutter of the woodstove. "He's your pal. Hey, he's back home. He's, what'd you say, designed for this climate? He's A-OK."
"Ray..." I had no idea what to say, and he cut me off with a gesture. Rising, he hobbled over to the cot.
"Might as well get some rest so I'll be all, y'know, rested up for tomorrow. Hate to slow you down." I opened my mouth, but he wasn't listening. He wrapped himself up in the blankets and stretched out, facing the wall, away from me. Dief made a little sound of disapproval, of reproach, looking up at me; I looked back. I didn't know what to say to him either.
The afternoon passed slowly. I hoped Ray was getting some sleep; he lay still and silent, at least. I read, caught my journal up to date, looked out at the snow. I knew that I should be planning, that the next few days would bring a welter of chores and responsibilities, but I found myself wholly unable to think ahead. All the plans I tried to make seemed to lead, not into town and the tasks that lay there, not to my work and the decisions I'd need to make about finding a posting, not to any of the pleasure I'd anticipated in being back here, but only and inexorably, however circuitous the path, to the Inuvik airport, and a deep ache of pain came with that thought.
When it got dark I lit lanterns, and then moved to the kitchen, making a carefully calibrated amount of clatter with pans and dishes, and as I'd hoped, Ray finally stirred, stretched, and at last sat upright, raking his fingers through his hair and scratching.
We ate in silence, the few conversational gambits I attempted about the history, culture and civic attractions of Inuvik falling flat. After we'd finished, and I'd cleaned up, Ray still seemed disinclined to talk, instead taking dog-feeding duty upon himself, and once he came back in and got his layers of outerwear peeled off he got back into the cot. I crawled into my bedroll, and read for a while by lamplight, until I could no longer pretend to myself that I was making any sense of the words. Then I doused the lights and we lay together in the darkness, silent.
Neither of us had any luck falling asleep. I listened to Ray thrashing around, feeling every twitch of his restlessness in my own body, thinking that perhaps I shouldn't have let him nap so long. Finally I heard him whisper, "Fraser?"
I could hear him climb out of bed, and assumed he was going out to relieve himself. But instead he walked the few steps to my bedroll, stopped, knelt. I heard fumbling sounds, and then the scrape of a match striking. I watched as he lit the lantern beside my pillow, moving my book out of the way. Once he had the flame adjusted, he turned to look at me.
"Ray, is there something—"
"Shh." He put his fingers over my mouth, and the surprise of it silenced me as much as the pressure. His touch was very gentle—his fingertips were still ragged, deeply crevassed from freezing and cracking and freezing again, and my lips hadn't healed either—and after a moment he lifted his hand again. "Cold out here."
I stuck an arm out from under the covers and waved it around; the room was no chillier than usual, and I was fairly sure the stove had enough fuel to last at least seven more hours. "It certainly doesn't seem that—"
He touched my mouth, silencing me again, and with his other hand he reached and caught my wrist, guiding my arm back under the blankets, letting his arm follow, and then giving me a little push backwards. "Cold out here," he said again. His face, in the lamplight, was very serious.
Well, the rigors of the trail were not all that far in the past, and Ray was still recovering from them. If he felt cold, it was my responsibility to warm him. I moved back as far as I could in the narrow space, and he slid in beside me, a tense shivery presence in the heated cave of blankets. But instead of turning, as he always had on the trail, to huddle his back up against me and let me hold him, he lay facing me, one arm crooked under his head. He reached out with the other and, slowly, watching me, slid it around my waist. Under my shirt, against my skin.
The cabin was so silent that the fire muttering in the stove sounded loud, and Ray's breathing louder still. I looked at his face, inches away from mine. He was marked with frostbite and windburn, clearly visible under the stubble. In the lamplight, he looked like someone entirely different—no longer Chicago's Ray Kowalski, but someone remade by the cold, erased and redrawn with the scars of that suffering. Remade, reborn, a creature of this place. My place. Mine.
I reached up a hand and, as gently as I could, traced those marks on his face. He gave a shaky little laugh. "Yeah, well, you're not looking so pretty yourself these days, Fraser." I drew breath, but whatever I was planning to say was forestalled when he said. "Listen. Tell me one thing. You want me to go?"
For a moment I thought he was asking if I wanted him to leave the bed, and reflexively I reached over, curling my arm around his back, holding him there beside me. "No, of course not. I don't want you to go," I said, and only as the words left my mouth did I begin to realize what he was asking, what I was saying. I could feel the words hang in the heated chasm of air between us, blooming, opening, deepening. Heavy words, heavy with layers of meaning. They terrified me, those layers, and they gave me the reckless courage to say again, "I don't want you to go."
"Sure about that." It was a response, not a question; an affirmation. I nodded, not knowing what more I could say, and any words I might have gathered were scattered and lost forever when he slid forward and kissed me.
It was like the moment when the ice begins breaking up on the Mackenzie in the spring—shattering, an upheaval that tears the familiar world apart with a noise like cannonfire, a shock like the end of the world—and yet wholly inevitable in the cycles of time; something dreamed of, yearned for, for so long through the dark frozen months, that it seems idle fantasy, right up until the instant it explodes into reality. And under that ice, set free by that explosion, is dark water running fast and hard; a man caught in the break-up, whatever he might wish or will, has no choice but to be swept away in it, to his likely doom.
For a while we just lay like that, clutching each other, kissing hungrily, clumsily. When it was no longer enough to rub and grapple through layers of cloth, the only way to get undressed in that narrow space was to roll out in the open air, on opposite sides of the bedroll, and pull off clothing as quickly as possible, shuddering with chill and arousal. We slid back under the covers at the same moment, and the feel of his skin against mine, his flesh right up against me, all the way from top to bottom, made me shudder all over again, with a moment of pure terror. To be touched that way, to be stripped bare and touched, naked and open ...
But this was Ray, after all, and I took a deep breath of his familiar smells to be sure of that. Ray, whom I would trust with my life absolutely, and whom I could therefore, perhaps, trust even with this. I had never done this before with someone I knew so well and trusted so entirely, and that gave me the courage to keep moving, to reach out and wrap a leg around him and pull him even closer. There was fresh shock in feeling all of him against me like that—as sharp a shock as the tumble into the ice-crevasse had been—but now, just as then, he was with me. He was with me, and the joy of that burned away my fear.
In my memory, that night is as lovely and awkward as any newborn thing. Unimportant, the details of our fumblings, of who did precisely what to whom; what I recall is my gratitude and astonishment, to have reached this place at last. I remember thinking that so must the explorers have felt, the first Europeans to reach this new world—eager and terrified, unready and arrogant, knowing they were heading into new land, but wholly unprepared for how abundant, how dangerous, how rich, how savage, how utterly strange it would be.
When I woke, I thought for a muddled minute we were back on the trail, but I couldn't figure out why we were both naked. Every part of me that was touching Ray—which was quite a considerable portion of my body—was warm, but every other part of me was freezing. I shifted a little, and Ray pulled me closer, and in that instant memory flooded me.
"Yes?" We hadn't done this. Had we? We had. Oh dear god.
"You leave a window open or something?"
It brought me briefly back to practical matters, with an inner thump of relief. "Don't be silly, Ray. We must have overslept. The stove's gone out."
A pause. "I'd say we just stay here till summer, if it weren't for the fact that I gotta pee so bad my molars are floating." Another pause, one that seemed to last forever, while I lay there, my mind simply refusing to take a grip on the situation. I could smell a strong musky aroma there in the bedroll with us, something new, different from all the smells of Ray and myself that I knew so well by now.
"You know—" He drew the word out, and I waited in terror for whatever he might say next— "What is it with this get up and throw a log on the fire routine? You guys never try putting that on automatic? I mean, think about it. You fit a chute that goes from your woodpile right into the top of the stove, okay? And there's a thermostat control that, every time it gets down to the nut-freezing zone, it kicks another log down the chute into the stove. See? It wouldn't be tough to put together at all." He was talking fast. "You know, maybe I could play around with that. If I could get that working, hey, I could start a business, maybe, make my fortune here."
"It's an interesting concept, Ray. Unfortunately, you'd probably need some sort of power source to run the device." I couldn't begin to make sense of this conversation, or why we were having it.
"Mm." He paused for only a moment. "And that's just one more reason why electricity's such a happenin' thing, Fraser."
The words were no different than the usual loops and swerves of Ray's mind running loose, but he was louder than usual, more jittery.
"OK," he said abruptly. "Let's do it." He pushed away from me, and only then was I fully aware of the crusty layer of stickiness that had been gluing us together. He leapt from his side of the bed, I from the other, and and we began throwing on layers of clothing, even more swiftly than we'd thrown them off the night before.
Once dressed, we simply stood for a minute, at opposite sides of the cabin, not looking at each other. Then Ray pulled on his parka and went to the door, and at the same moment I moved away, to the stove. I heard the door close behind him, and I squatted down and began the mechanical labor of rebuilding the fire, trying not to panic, wondering what in the world we'd done, what we'd say, how we'd face each other.
A minute later he hurried back in, stomping snow off his boots. "Whooo. Cold one out there."
I cleared my throat and stood, closing the stove door on the briskly-burning fire. "Yes, I noticed that it's a clear morning. We should have good weather for the trip into town." I still didn't turn around, and after a minute I heard him rattling dishes in the kitchen. He came up behind me suddenly with the teakettle, and I almost stumbled over the rug moving out of his way.
"Easy there, Fraser." He took my arm to steady it, and just that, the familiar grip of his hand on my arm, was too much for my precarious composure.
I pulled away, and with utterly unconvincing jocularity said, "I'd better make my own trip outside."
The first thing I did once out was to suck in a deep breath of the clean air, feeling the cold burn my throat and lungs. I unzipped my parka and pulled up my sweater, and cleansed my belly, fast, with a handful of snow, gasping at the shock of it. Mortification of the flesh seemed appropriate, and as I wiped myself off, shuddering, my mind dealt me a number of crisp and flinty remarks about my baser nature, my greed, the way I'd taken advantage of Ray's emotional lability, the damage I'd likely done to our friendship.
After I'd relieved myself and fed the dogs, I walked a little ways from the cabin, to the edge of a spindly copse of spruces, and gazed out over the open tundra. The snow lay deep and pure, unmarked, and the air was dead still. Perfect travelling weather. I entertained for just one crazy moment the idea of harnessing a couple of the dogs to the small sled stored behind the woodshed, and taking off, as fast and far as I could.
I gave myself a hard mental smack for that one, but what followed it was a petulant whine—It was his idea, he started it all, I didn't make him do it, it's not my fault. Pathetic. Eventually I decided any confrontation would be better than standing out here witnessing my own decline into infantilism, and in any event my feet were going numb. I turned, squared up my shoulders, and, one step after another, walked myself back to the cabin and through the door.
The air inside seemed considerably warmer than it had been, and was full of the smell of coffee. Ray glanced up at me from the pot he was stirring on the stove. "Hey. Thought you'd maybe frozen to the wall out there or something."
"I was just—" I stopped, fumbling guiltily for a lie. "Looking at the weather," I managed.
"So what's the thermometer say?"
I'd completely forgotten that particular part of our morning routine, and grabbed wildly for a plausible-sounding number. "Thirty-seven. Below."
"Yeah, the below part I figured out myself. So what's that in real degrees?" It was a safe question, and I gratefully calculated the conversion. He was dishing oatmeal into the two bowls that sat on the table, and I braced myself for the ritual of breakfasting together, something that until this morning had been an interlude of comfort and relaxation .
I pulled the container of pemmican out of the cupboard and began distributing pieces onto two plates. "We may as well finish this off. We should be able to get fresh meat in town."
We ate in silence, heads bent. Often in the time I'd known Ray I'd wished I could see into his head, read his thoughts, but never more urgently than at that moment. In the covert glances I took at him, he looked—not angry, not upset, but thoughtful. He was eating with appetite, which was faintly reassuring.
We were almost finished, and he'd replenished his coffee, when I heard him make a small choking sound, as if he'd swallowed wrong. I looked up. He had a hand to his forehead, shaking his head slowly, and he was—laughing? Laughing. He was a man who smiled readily, but seldom laughed out loud.
Catching my look, he began laughing harder, and to my astonishment I found myself joining in, both of us shaking with whoops and snorts. I caught my breath, finally, and managed, "Ray, what's so funny?"
"Hey, you tell me." He wiped his eyes. "Nah, it's just ... oh man ... it's just, you know—" He gestured with his spoon at the table. "Oatmeal and pemmican. I mean, christ almighty, Fraser, think about it."
"For breakfast, yet. Someone tell me a year ago I'd be sitting in Numbfuck, Canada, eating oatmeal and pemmican ..." It almost set him off again, but he pulled himself together. I waited, still not quite seeing the humor. "And liking it." He jabbed his spoon at me accusingly. "Liking it. What've you done to me, Fraser? Huh?" There was edginess in his voice, nerves, mockery, unease—but there was no anger. He was looking me straight in the eye, and I could see no anger in him anywhere.
It lifted a huge weight of fear from me, but left me no less confused. I took in a breath, tried to loosen my neck, and said, "Ray ... I don't know what to—" And stopped, as he sliced a quick slash through the air with his spoon, a gesture so clearly meaning don't go there that I could almost hear his voice saying the words. I coughed, and went on, "Actually, Ray, as you know, oatmeal and pemmican are excellent survival fare in this climate, providing a mix of complex carbohydrate, protein, and animal fat essential for hard physical labor in extreme cold. Enjoying it simply evinces your fine adaptive capabilities."
He snorted, predictably, and then he was up, gathering dishes with a clatter. "OK. Town. Let's make a plan." He set the dishes in the washbasin and looked over at me. "How long's it going to take to get there?"
I tried to pull my thoughts together. "The team's rested and well-fed, the weather's good. No more than two hours, I'd think."
He stared at me. "Two hours. Thought you said we were close to town here."
"Well, that is close. Relatively speaking." I realized I sounded a little defensive. "There are many people in Chicago who spend at least two hours a day on the freeways, commuting to and from work."
Ray had already let it pass. "And the time right now, not that we have any clue about what time it actually is by the clock, cause we got no clock, but —" He went to a window and looked out at the sun, assessing, and I felt a little surge of pride at him making the attempt. "OK, if this was anyplace normal, I'd say it'd be around ... oh, maybe ... I dunno. Nine, ten maybe." He tapped his fingers on the glass, staring out. "But I'm probably wrong. Right?"
I came up behind him, intensely conscious of keeping an appropriate distance, putting my hands behind my back and angling my neck to look out the window. "The first thing you always need to work from is the date. Now if I've been keeping accurate track—"
"I'd say we take that as a given."
"—it must be April 4th. So, if that's the case—you're probably quite accurate. I'd say around ten."
"Cool." I might have edged too close despite my resolve, because he abruptly spun away from me. "OK. A plan. Here's what I'm thinking." He sat down at the table and warmed his hands on his mug. "First off, two hours there, two hours back, ten now, that leaves us not a whole lot of time for whatever we gotta get done. Right?"
"So, I'm thinking, you said there's tourists, tourists mean hotels, and a hotel means—hot baths." He said the words with the yearning rapture of a man describing his hopes of heaven. "And central heat, the kind that you don't gotta get up and throw a log on. And real beds, the kind with—y'know—mattresses." He made a bouncing gesture with one arm. I didn't know how to respond safely to that, so I just nodded, as neutrally as possible. He gave me a sharp look. "Fraser. Play along with me here. They got a place in town like this, or do they put the tourists in igloos? Do not be letting me get all worked up about nothing."
"Actually, the Mackenzie Hotel is very well-appointed. Not the Sir Francis Drake, certainly, but—hot baths, central heat, mattresses—" and I echoed his gesture, for just a moment. "Certainly."
He tapped out a complex taradiddle on the tabletop, closing it off with a fist-thump. "So. Plan. We head in, we do the laundry thing, the grocery thing. We get a room. We hit a restaurant—they got restaurants, right?" I nodded. "Steaks?"
"The Peppermill has good steaks."
He closed his eyes in anticipatory bliss, and then snapped them open again. "Right, dinner. And then I figure—we got a couple of choices." He stood up, looking away from me, gathering up the breakfast dishes. "We could go take in the night life of Inuvik, which I imagine has got to be an education in itself. Or—we could go back to the room, think of something else to do."
He said it lightly, but with a sidelong glance at me, as though trying to make some meaning clear. I went hot all over. Feeling painfully self-conscious, I said, "I'd like that." It struck me that was unclear, so I went on, "And Ray, I can assure you that Inuvik has very little nightlife of any kind."
I feared I might have gone too far, but he flickered a little grin at me. "Waste of time to go looking for it, huh?"
Greatly daring, I said, "I think we could come up with better things to do."
He rocked back just a bit, as though surprised at me, and then he nodded. "OK." And then he was in motion, digging through our packs, tossing things out onto the floor. "Laundry, OK, t-shirts, socks—Fraser, where'd you put that bag with the jacket Axel peed on?"
The trip into town was almost anticlimactic, after all our recent travail. The dogs had regained a great deal of their strength during our layover, and seemed to take confidence from my certainty about the route, the familiar trail I'd followed many times. Ray had at first been mulish about wanting to ski alongside, but after a mile or so, when his energy was clearly flagging, he was willing to accept my suggestion that he reserve his strength for the chores we'd need to do in town, and let himself be conveyed on the sled, much to my relief.
I steered us first to Wendell Koe's place, several miles outside of town. I had known Wendell as long as I could remember, and had earned some money during one boyhood summer helping him outfit and lead hunting parties. His business had apparently thrived in recent years; the place was as much of a mess as always, but there were even more snowmobiles and trucks, in various stages of disassembly, strewn about the property, and a large assortment of dogs in improvised kennels. They began baying frantically as soon as they caught the smell of our team, and Wendell came out of his cabin to greet us, crunching through the snow and raising his hand as I pulled the dogs to a halt.
"Benton. Good to see you again."
I stepped off the runners and gave Ray a hand up from the sled. "Likewise, Wendell. May I introduce my friend, Ray Kowalski, from Chicago."
"Yeah, I heard you were down there." He nodded to Ray, and gave us, our sled, our team, a thorough once-over. "You look kind of beat up."
I gave him a truncated and no doubt garbled precis of our journey, and he listened calmly, nodding, frowning from time to time. "Sounds like you guys are lucky to be here," was his only comment.
"Yeah, better to be lucky than smart," Ray muttered. He was stamping his feet restlessly, hands jammed deep in his pockets.
"So, you heading into town?"
"Yes, and though I know it's quite a bit to ask, I had hoped that possibly I might impose on you to care for—"
"Leave the dogs here for now. Good team, it looks like, or they will be when they get some weight back on 'em." He bent down and gave Cody a few thumps.
"In the meantime, since we lack other transportation, I was wondering if there might be any possibility, by chance, that—"
"There's a jeep, back by the shed. I won't need it till May. You keep it till then."
"Thank you, Wendell." I curbed the tendency to offer him more effusive gratitude, but in fact I was very much relieved, and moved as well. The simple recognition of need, the easy offer of what might meet that need, the implicit trust of it all—it was sustenance of a sort that had been scanty these past few years.
Ray was quiet while we transferred our bags from the sled to the jeep, while we helped Wendell unharness and stake the dogs, while I gave Dief a few stern words about minding his manners until I could come to retrieve him the next day.
Once we'd set off, jouncing over the ice road, he said, "Guy must know you pretty well, huh?"
"Oh, not particularly well. We're acquainted." I was concentrating on keeping the car out of the deepest ruts. It felt very odd to be driving, with Ray to my right in the passenger seat, rather as if the magnetic polarities of the globe had been reversed.
"But he gives you his car? Just—here, take it, just like that?"
"It's the way things are up here, Ray. If someone needs something, you help out. It's very difficult to try to survive here entirely on one's own."
"Huh. That's a weird one."
"What is?" We hit a bump that bounced both of us, hard, on the ungiving seats.
"You. Saying you might need other people. That you maybe couldn't make it all on your own."
Something about that annoyed me—perhaps the hint of smugness in his tone. "Well, of course I can survive on my own in this country for quite some time. A competent hunter who knows the basics of dressing hides can keep himself fed and clothed and sheltered." I slowed the car still more; the wind had come up and was trying to push us off the road. "But if I were to—oh, lose my knife, or break a bone, I'd certainly need the help of others. And it's very useful to have a source for resupply of certain basics—flour, and ammunition, and matches. Cooking vessels. Luxuries, I suppose, but they do make life pleasanter."
"Luxuries." He snorted, and I expected him to start haranguing me about the true definition of "luxury," something involving plumbing and television and Chinese food, but he fell silent again, looking out the window. He seemed out of spirits, which puzzled me—I'd thought that the prospect of town would cheer him. After a while he said, "So, knife, ammo, stuff like that, that's all you really need?"
"A knife is fairly essential, yes. In a pinch, of course, you can fashion one from bone, using sharp rocks. With that, you can make harpoons and spears, from bone and sapling. With those and the requisite knowledge, you can hunt and fish, tan hides and furs, make bone needles and sinew thread, perhaps build a kayak. Rocks and tinder will give you a fire, and—"
"Yeah, OK, got it." He let a minute pass in silence, and then when he spoke it was only to say, "Hey, Fraser, look out for that rut up there, you want to pull it to the left a little."
I'd been wondering how long he could go without correcting my driving. "Right you are, Ray."
Inuvik was visible for quite a ways across the open tundra, and as we neared it Ray was silent, gazing at the jumbled outlines of buildings and storage tanks and telecommunications antennae. The road smoothed to pavement, we began passing a few outlying warehouses and trailers, and suddenly we were in the town. It seemed larger than I'd remembered, or perhaps any settlement would look large after the weeks in wilderness. I drove slowly, memories sparking with every block, and Ray swiveled his head around, taking it all in.
"Shall I show you the main street?"
He nodded, looking blank, brows up, and I turned onto Mackenzie Road and piloted us past the row of businesses, pointing out the Visitors Centre, the Aurora Research Institute, the hotels and restaurants, the traffic signal. It seemed somehow hilarious to see a traffic signal again, and to stop obediently at the red, but Ray appeared not to share my amusement.
He said nothing until we got to the edge of the business district and I turned onto Franklin Road so I could show him Twin Lakes. Then he said, "Stop a sec."
I pulled over to the shoulder and put the car in park, and he got out, stretched, and took a long look around him, pivoting in a circle where he stood, his breath clouding around him. Then he shook his shoulders out, took one more long look at the town, shook his head and got in the car.
"Fraser," he said, "I don't want to be disrespecting your home turf or anything like that. But I have got to tell you, my friend, that this is one ... butt-ugly ... town."
A little nettled, I replied, "Well, it's certainly not a masterpiece of urban design, I'll grant you that, but I hardly think it's any worse than—oh, Gary, Indiana, for example."
"I'm just sayin', Fraser."
"What were you expecting of it?"
Instead of snapping back at me, he seemed to take the question seriously, to give it some thought. "I don't know," he said at last. "Something more—frontier-like. Y'know? Not so new. And not so, uh, ugly."
"Inuvik was only founded in the mid-1950s, so it makes sense that it would lack buildings of historical distinction. And it was never really a frontier town, in the sense you probably mean."
"Uh huh." He motioned to me to drive on, and I did, easing back onto the road and turning up Reliance to loop through the residential district.
"What the hell are those things?" he asked after a while. "The, uh, pipes?"
I explained to him about the utilidors, their function in providing water and sewage service, the need to have them above ground to avoid damaging the permafrost. I'd expected some further expostulation from him, some incredulity about the crack-headedness of people proposing to live in a place where the ground never thawed, or about the unsightliness of the whole thing; but he was silent, seeming a little quenched. When he did speak at last, all he said was, "Look, can we get to the hotel and do that hot-bath thing? Cause frankly, I don't know if I can stand to be in the same car with me another minute."
"Certainly, Ray." I turned and headed back toward the main street. "We'll try the Mackenzie Hotel; I believe you'll find it the most aesthetically pleasing of our various options."
"Options? How many hotels you need in a town this size, anyway?"
"Well, Inuvik does get a certain amount of tourist traffic, drawing —"
"Oh, yeah, I can see how this'd be a big vacation paradise. Who needs Club Med when you can freeze your ass amongst the freakin' utilidors?"
"—drawing hunters and fishermen, as I was saying, as well as outdoors enthusiasts in general." Ray's foot was pushing impatiently against the floorboards, as if he were willing the car to move faster. "And then of course there are those who seem drawn toward benchmark destinations for their own sake."
"Well, Inuvik is northernmost point in this hemisphere reachable by paved roadway. The Dempster Highway terminates here, so—this is quite literally the end of the road, which in and of itself seems to make it an alluring destination for some."
I had stopped behind a car that was waiting to let a tanker truck manouvre its way around a corner, backing and filling, grinding its gears. "End of the road, huh." Ray seemed to contemplate that for a moment, drumming his fingers on the dashboard. "Look—uh, Fraser..." And then the truck lurched ahead again, and his attention abruptly shifted to the driver in front of us. "C'mon—c'mon, c'mon, lady, the guy's giving you room, Jesus Christ, you could get the Queen Mary through there—"
Fortunately, the windows were up, and I was able to push Ray's hand away when he reached over for the horn. The timid driver eventually edged through, Ray yelling instructions at her the whole way, we followed, and in another minute we'd pulled up in front of the Mackenzie Hotel. I shut off the engine and took a breath. "You were saying, Ray?"
But he was already out of the car, pulling out bags, and whatever he had been going to say was lost in the flurry of getting checked in.
We hauled the bags up to the room before it struck us simultaneously that we had no clean clothes to put on, so bathing was postponed while we went back out, visited the bank to draw cash (Ray seemed surprised that I'd kept my account there open, all the years I was in Chicago), and then purchased a new set of clothing for each of us—underclothes, socks, pants, sweaters—from a sales clerk who eyed us warily and seemed relieved when we refrained from trying on any of our selections.
Once back at the hotel, I told Ray to take his turn first. I could hear, through the closed door, the roar of the tub filling, then silence as the water was shut off; and then a series of sounds, as Ray apparently lowered himself into the hot water—little gasps and yelps, some sloshing noises, and then a long deep moan of bliss, trailing off into a sigh. It struck me that he sounded, in fact, very much as he had the night before, when we—when he... Immediately a brief heated fantasy filled my mind, of opening the door, kneeling down beside the tub, reaching in to touch him where he lay, naked and wet and loose-limbed in the steaming water—
I shook myself hard, and went over to the window for a moment to stare out at the street, making a mental list of all the tasks we had yet to accomplish that day. Far too many, I told myself, to allow any distractions. Besides that, this was the first real chance for privacy and solitude that Ray had had in weeks, and I would not intrude myself or my selfish carnality on that, not without invitation.
I returned to the chores at hand, sorting our filthy clothes into stacks, phoning the Peppermill to make sure they were open for dinner, and then, as I had the phone book to hand, leafing through it, looking up the names of old friends half-forgotten, distracting myself from the faint sounds of pleasure I could still hear. Eventually there was a final great slosh, the gurgle of the tub emptying, and then a bang as Ray flung open the door, and his voice behind me. "I have been to the promised land, Fraser, and it's got hot running water. Hallelujah and amen."
I turned, to see him standing there with a towel slung low around his hips, scrubbing at his hair with another. I could see the spot of blood on his face where he'd tried to shave his wind-chapped skin; I could see the bluish shadows under the clean lines of collarbone, and droplets of wet on his chest and thighs, and the faint line of downy hair leading down from his navel. I had never seen him that way before, nearly naked, with the low-angled sun painting his skin. He looked almost like a stranger for a moment, and I must have stared like a ninny before I jerked myself back to coherence, and said, "Well! My turn, then, I suppose," and made a circle around him, almost tripping over a dufflebag, on my way to the bathroom.
Once I had the door shut behind me, I took a deep breath, then stripped and showered quickly, not wanting to loiter and savor, wanting to get us both dressed and out of this room before I did something untoward.
When I was done, I wrapped the towel tightly at my waist, cursing myself for not having thought to bring my clothes in with me, and emerged, only to be brought up short yet again at the sight of Ray. He'd dressed, and gotten the scissors out of my kit, and was making a stab at trimming his hair in front of the mirror, with his glasses on, squinting and snipping. While not completely even, and still a bit scruffy on the sides, it was back to its normal length, more or less, and he'd even made some attempt to spike it up while it was still damp.
He caught me staring at him and turned, his shoulders coming up defensively. "OK, OK, so I should've waited to get it done right, it was driving me crazy, though." He turned back to examine himself glumly in the mirror. "So I look like a doof, right?"
"Not at all, Ray. You look—you look like yourself." And it was true; with his crisp hair, his new jeans and t-shirt, his glasses, he was once again Ray Kowalski, my good friend, my partner; and at the same time he was still that mysterious and infinitely desirable other, that man who'd stood before me minutes ago almost naked, who'd come to my bed the night before, who'd kissed me, held me, made love to me. It was bewildering, and when Ray turned again I was still standing there, nervously clutching the knot of my towel. He seemed suddenly to become as self-conscious as I had been before, and said, "Right! Uh, light's better in there, I'll just—uh, even it up a little—" He grabbed the scissors and darted back into the bathroom, and I doffed the towel and got dressed as quickly as I could.
When at last we were both ready to go, we put on coats and made our sortie, laden with bags. We started the clothes washing in the laundromat, and then went to the grocery store. ("Fraser, you can't just leave the stuff here!" "This isn't Chicago, Ray, they'll be perfectly fine unattended." "Anybody steals my Bulls t-shirt, I'll shove 'em through the utilidor.") We stocked up on canned goods, frozen meat, frozen vegetables, and, in deference to Ray, a few frozen pizzas ("Can you cook 'em on top of a woodstove?" "I have no idea, Ray, having never made the experiment." "We'll give it a shot.").
Stowing the groceries in the jeep, we returned to the laundromat and transferred the damp clothes to dryers. Ray was still uneasy about leaving them there, and an idea struck me. "Why don't you stay here and wait for them to dry, Ray? I have one more errand to run."
"What's that?" He was absorbed in counting out quarters.
"Well, it's nothing in particular, nothing urgent, just that I thought I might check in on...um...just for a quick visit, that is..." The laundromat was terribly hot, the air stuffy and thick with lint.
"Geez, spit it out, Fraser. If I didn't know better, I think you had an old flame you were going to look up or something." Then he looked up at me. "Hey, if you do, y'know, that's OK, I mean, I'm not trying to—"
I hastened to assure him. "No, of course not, nothing of the kind, I just thought I'd pay a visit to the local detachment." He looked puzzled, and I went on. "The local RCMP headquarters. It's just a few blocks away."
His face cleared. "Oh. Sure, that's cool, you're probably having lanyard withdrawal or something. You go talk about whatever it is you guys talk about."
As it turned out, the conversation took longer and went further than I'd anticipated, and it was dark by the time I started back to the laundromat. I hurried down the icy sidewalks, wind scouring my face with a light peppery snow. Yet I paused at the window, just for a moment, looking in. Ray was inside, leaning back in a chair, feet propped up, reading a magazine someone had apparently left there. Looking at him, I remembered all the times I'd been in this laundromat in years past, with my small solitary loads of wash, watching people bring in bundles of family clothing. It had always made me feel more alone than usual. Now, seeing Ray there, in the lighted warmth, our clothing neatly folded at his side ... I felt like an idiot for getting choked up, and strode briskly ahead, through the door.
Ray glanced up from his magazine. "About time. Hey, didja know Jodie Foster's pregnant? You gotta wonder how that happened, huh?" Then he looked at me more closely, "What's up? You look like you got something on your mind. How'd the big reunion go?"
"Well, it was most interesting, and did in fact provide me with some news, but..." I didn't want to broach everything that needed discussion, not yet, not here.
"News? What, like they changed form 734W to form 8299-stroke-zed or something?"
"It's—nothing that won't wait until later. Let's take our things back to the hotel and then go get dinner."
I think he sensed he was being put off, but then he shrugged and nodded. "OK. I'm starved."
The restaurant wasn't crowded, and we were seated at a good-sized table with ornate silverware and an oil lamp and an arrangment of dried flowers in a vase. Ray seemed fascinated by these accoutrements of civilization, examining them all with a little smile. We both ordered steaks, with salads and vegetables, and when they arrived conversation ceased for a while, as we dug in. I have no idea if the food was truly good or not, but at the time it was epicurean—tender beef, real vegetables, fresh bread. Every so often I glanced up to see Ray attacking his meal with appetite, and the sight was as nourishing as the food itself.
We couldn't begin to finish everything we'd ordered, and as much as I usually hate to waste food, I hardly minded, feeling a strange expansiveness steal over me, with a full belly, warm hands and feet, Ray across from me in the golden lamplight.
He poked with his fork at the remnants of his steak. "Feels weird, not having Dief here to hand this off to. He'd clean it up in a second."
"I'm sure he'd appreciate the thought." I leaned back, closing my eyes.
Hazy with repletion, we just sat for a while, Ray sipping every so often at his beer, and I—simply feeling, for a while, simply enjoying, letting the animal in my soul relish the deep primal joy of survival, warmth, the full belly, the end of the trail, and the sense of closeness that glowed between us as warm as the lamplight.
"So. Fraser." Ray's voice startled me, and I realized I'd almost been dozing, leaning back against the booth's cushions. He was watching me steadily in the lamp's glow, and for just a moment I was back beside the fire, at Sergeant Frobisher's camp, on that evening—could it be only three weeks ago? It seemed a lifetime. "What's the big news?" I sat forward, confused, and he amplified. "HQ, this afternoon. You said you were going to tell me later. It's later. You ready to spill yet, or you need to percolate some more?"
I picked up my fork, took a last bite of potato, wiped my mouth, folded my napkin with some care and put it alongside my plate. "Yes. Ah. It was an enjoyable visit, actually, Sergeant Gammell was most cordial. A very pleasant man, and so far as I can tell a good officer. I hadn't met him before, but he had some acquaintance with my father."
Ray snorted. "Figures."
"We had quite an interesting conversation about this detachment—patrolling of inland waterways, relations with the Gwich'in Tribal Council—" Ray's fingers were beginning to do a little speed it up, Fraser dance on the tabletop, and I took a breath. "As well as—staffing issues. Retaining a full complement can be a challenge in this locale, and in fact—" I paused and took a sip of water. "In fact, he currently is short-staffed, Constable Akers having left on rather short notice—his wife proved unable to tolerate the climate. He's having some difficulty filling the position, and ... well. To make a long story short, he offered me a posting here. Effective immediately." I looked at Ray; his brows were up, but he seemed not entirely surprised. He'd sensed something had changed, as soon as I came back to the laundromat, and perhaps he'd intuited the nature of my news.
"Real Mountie-type work, that's what you'd be doing here, right? Not like back home—" He stopped. "Not like Chicago."
"There's certainly no need here for anyone to perform ceremonial duties here. It would be a regular field position, providing direct service to the community."
"Right." He nodded, examining his beer with deep attention. "So. D'ja take the job?"
"I told him I was very interested, but that I would need to think it over. That there were—some other factors, to be considered."
He nodded, abstracted, not seeming to take in what I'd been trying to imply. "You like the place, you like the guy, job sounds like the kind of thing you want to do. You'd be dumb not to take it." He seemed to be thinking hard, sorting things in his mind, and suddenly looked up at me. "Two hours each way from the cabin, that'd be a hell of a commute."
"Well—" Another patch of terrain to be crossed; it felt like we were moving very fast, across ice I wasn't sure was sound. "Actually, Ray, the position brings with it a housing allotment. In town."
"What, you mean like a barracks?" His voice was sharp, brows drawn together.
"No, not at all, it would be—nothing fancy, certainly, but by no means a barracks. Row housing, such as you've seen in town here. Small, but of relatively recent construction, modern conveniences, plumbing and heating of course, and appliances are included, though it's otherwise unfurnished—I was told there might need to be some minor cosmetic repair, painting and so on, but it's basically very sound, in excellent condition—" I was babbling, and made myself stop.
He still looked worried. "But—so, you could ... you could, uh, have Dief there, right? Dogs OK?"
I almost laughed, out of sheer startlement. "Well, of course, that would be —" I stopped again. The crease was still between his brows, and I went on, speaking with some care. "The units are intended as family housing, Ray. For detachment members, and their families. But in fact, I could have—whomever I wanted, living there. The RCMP owns it, but it would be a private home."
He took that in, still serious, still thinking, but seemingly still evading the central point, circling away from it. "But the cabin—you'd keep that, right? You don't want to give that up."
"Certainly. After all, I kept it all the time I was in Chicago, and even a constable on active duty gets some days off, some vacation time." I picked up my water, took a sip, feeling the glass cold against my fingers; I was tempted for a moment to hold it to my forehead to cool myself down. I was sweating, all of a sudden, the food lying heavy now in my stomach. "You know, Ray, it's very beautiful there in summer, at the cabin. I'd like for you to be able to see that. To—be here with me."
I stopped. It was as far as I could go; all I could do was wait for him to meet me in the middle, or to drop me.
"Yeah? Summer, huh?" He emptied his beer mug, set it back down, wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. When he lowered his hand, I could see he was smiling. "You trying to make me believe you actually get summer around here? Bluffing, Fraser, you're bluffing big time. Better believe I'll stick around and call you on that one."
"I'd like that."
"You said it."
We were staring at each other, across the table and the detritus of dinner. Flames were licking up between us, hotter and wilder than the tame glow of the lamp, the same heat I'd felt before in the hotel room ... but mutual now, I was almost certain, acknowledged, returned, intensified.
"Let's get out of here," Ray said. Voice like sandpaper, eyes glittering, full of nerve and edge. I waved for the waiter, more vigorously than I needed to, perhaps, because he came hurrying over.
"Everything all right, gentlemen? What can I get you? Dessert, coffee—"
"The check, please."
While he calculated the total, I fumbled in my pocket and counted out bills, taking time over it in an effort to compose myself. After the waiter left with the money, Ray picked up the receipt, looked it over, and pocketed it.
He must have noticed my quizzical look, because he said, "So I know how much I owe you."
"Gotta remember to check on the hotel rate too. And I know it was a hundred and twelve bucks at the grocery store, and the laundry came to—"
"Don't—don't be ridiculous." I was almost angry. "There's no need for you to pay me back anything, you're my guest—" I stopped myself a moment too late. He was looking at me, face set.
"That what I am? Is that what this's all about? Cause if that's what you think, maybe I got the wrong idea about the whole deal."
I rubbed my forehead. "No. No, that's not actually ... I'm sorry, Ray, I don't feel I've quite got a grip on things yet." That much was true; I felt as if my world had been upended, in less than twenty-four hours.
He gave a nod, dismissing it. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. But—look, you gotta tell me how much you spent on all the stuff for the trip, too. Sure, Frobisher loaned you some of it but I know you laid out some cash. I'll do a wire transfer from Chicago and we'll get squared away."
Despite my better knowledge and best intentions, I couldn't keep from protesting. "Ray, really, it's not necessary. The money isn't an issue."
"Yeah, it won't be as long as we get one thing straight, right from the top." He leaned forward, fingers jabbing the air in front of my face. "We go halves on this. All of it. I pay my way."
"If it's that important to you," I began, but he wasn't finished.
"I am not a fucking charity case, Fraser, and yeah, OK, maybe I didn't always haul my own weight out there on the icebergs, but from now on that changes. Partners. Even-up, I do my part, you do yours, and hey, we're back now where you don't need a bone knife to stay alive, you can do it with money, right? Moolah, dinero, that I got, that part I can handle just fine, and I pay my own way from here on, you got it?"
"I didn't know it mattered that much to you."
"Yeah, well, now you know, so you just tie that one up with string and put it someplace you won't lose it, OK?" Then he sat back, rubbing his eyes, and when he spoke again he sounded calmer. "It just makes me crazy to feel like I owe somebody. You know? I just ... it makes me crazy."
"I have no intention of making you crazy, I assure you."
"Intention—yeah, you don't need any intention, Fraser, you can pull that one off without even trying."
The tone was the familiar one of casual jab, friendly grumble, but then he ducked his head, staring down as if surprised by his own words. He chuckled, just a little. "Yeah." Then without looking at me, he jerked his head toward the door. "C'mon."
We walked down the sidewalk, boots squeaking on the dry snow, and I tipped my head back to take deep lungfuls of air, grateful for the steadying effect of the cold. Ray gave me a sidelong look from under his hood.
"You're really happy here."
It was a statement, not a question, but I answered anyway. "Yes. I am." I breathed in again, smelling fresh snow in the wind, feeling the flakes like little pinpricks on my skin. "We might get another inch or so by morning," and even I could hear how ridiculously pleased I sounded.
"Yeah, what were the odds. Must be our lucky day." But the mockery in his voice was warmed with affection, and after a moment he reached out and squeezed my shoulder, a quick hard grip. It was the first time he had deliberately touched me since the night before, and it made me shudder—just that quick squeeze, through the layers of my parka and clothes.
We walked on in silence. Not a word had passed between us, all day long, about what had happened the night before, what we'd done, what we felt, what it meant. A hundred times I'd wanted to open the topic, somehow, but words had utterly failed me. I could only trust that our acts, in the end, would clarify matters.
There were two double beds in the room. When we'd checked in, Ray had strewn our bags all over one of them, which I'd taken as a sign of sorts, but I was suddenly afraid he might move them to the floor, might claim that bed as his, that I might have been misreading everything all along.
But he didn't. He took off his coat and boots and socks, walked to the window, his bare damaged feet sinking into thick carpet, and stood for a minute staring out at the snow. Then he shook his head bemusedly, and pulled the curtains closed. He turned, not looking at me, and took a sudden dive onto the vacant bed. He bounced onto his back, and spread out his arms and legs, semaphoring like a child making angels in the snow.
"Ohhhh man." It was a tone of pure bliss, and the sound of it, the sight of him, stirred heat in me, but I didn't move, watching him for my cues. He bounced a few more times, looking up at me with a grin, and then his look turned serious again. He lay quiet for a moment, then sat up, pulled off his sweater and t-shirt, quickly unfastened his jeans. Lying back down, he shoved them off, along with his briefs, in one quick wiggle that I don't think he meant to be seductive. Then he scooted over so he lay flat on his back on the far side of the bed, bare and still. Or at least most of him was still.
For all his seeming vulnerability, in that tense fragile moment, there was nothing passive about his nakedness—it was a challenge, all cards laid on the table for the highest possible stakes. No bluffing.
And, I suddenly realized, it was my play now, my turn, to see his hand and raise it. He had come to me last night; now I was going to have to go to him, to show him, without any possible ambiguity, that this was exactly what I wanted as well.
The bed looked enormous to me—I remember thinking I had never seen a bed so vast—and yet as I made my way dizzily over to it and sat on the edge I was all at once much closer to Ray than I'd bargained for. It was dreamlike, disorienting. The hugeness of this moment paralyzed me briefly, until I made myself focus on Ray's face and saw the gathering tension there. Then I looked down, took hold of the hem of my layers of shirts—feeling a moment's security in having something solid and real to hold onto—and pulled them all off at once, tossing them onto a chair. I unfastened my pants, pushing them down and away, tugging off my socks. I could feel Ray's eyes on me all the time, until finally, as bare as he, I turned and looked at him, straight on.
Still he said nothing, but after a moment his eyebrows twitched up, and that sudden familiar movement, on the safe terrain of his face, freed me enough so I could move, reach out a hand to him. I touched his shoulder, hesitantly, and then let the touch become a stroke, running my fingertips over his collarbone, watching his throat move as he swallowed, the subtle play of tendon and muscle.
"You're beautiful," I told him.
"You're mental." Two words, said with such an odd mix of humor and scorn and nervousness and—and affection. Love? I shivered once, hard, absolutely shaken by the intensity of my desire to have this work, to make this right, to not fumble and drop what he was giving me. I didn't know what to do next.
He took hold of my wrist and lifted my hand off of him, holding it in both his, examining it as if he'd never seen it before. I looked at it as well, wondering what he was seeing—the calluses, the marks of frostbite. "Big hands," he said at last, with the air of one tacking down a significant point.
"They're not particularly large, for a man."
He gave me a look that said, as clearly as speaking, "Well, duh." Then he set my hand back down on his chest, with no apparent provocative intent, but simply as if it were the most convenient place to put it. His eyes moved up my arm, took in the rest of me, up and down and side to side, while I sat there feeling huge and awkward, hovering over him like some large animal, uneasy in my nakedness.
I cleared my throat. "Have you—have you ever done this before?"
"What, you got that twenty-four hour amnesia thing going or something?" He sounded edgy.
"No, I mean—you know what I mean."
"What's it matter?" He shifted restlessly. "Come on, Fraser. You're the one that likes to jump off ten-story buildings, don't crap out on me here."
I could feel dampness between my palm and his chest, and wasn't sure if it was his sweat or mine. "I don't mean to—that is—I don't know why you're doing this, Ray."
He looked frustrated. "You want it, don't you?"
No words could have conveyed the immensity of my yes—I could only nod.
"You see anything that makes you think I don't want it?"
Having thus been given permission, I looked down at the rest of his body; clearly aroused, tense, almost quivering.
"The fact that we clearly both want—this, doesn't speak to our motivations in undertaking such a drastic change in our relationship."
"Look, we can talk about this or we can do it, and I'd rather do it, Fraser, how about you?"
"I'd rather understand what it is we're doing."
"Yeah, well, understand this." And he grabbed me, with fluid speed, and yanked me down on top of him.
I landed with a graceless thud that knocked the breath out of both of us, and, breathless, I scrambled up onto my elbows and knees, trying not to squash him. Ray once embarked on a course of action was not to be deterred, though. He took a fresh grip on me—my head, fingers in my hair—and, with a look of determination, pulled me down to his mouth.
I had already discovered that, for so vibrant and restless a man, his kisses were surprisingly gentle, slow and deep and wet. I knew relatively little about kissing; for Victoria, it had been more a means to an end (just as you yourself were to her, I couldn't help thinking) Then I shoved bitter memory aside, tried to relax and just give myself up to the present, without apprehension or remorse, to just let myself sink into Ray, into the taste of his mouth. The feel of his skin against mine was still shockingly novel, and as I lowered myself onto him by clumsy degrees, the sensation of him moving under me—under me—was stunningly intense, every fresh point of contact setting off new shocks of arousal.
His hands, restless, left my hair and slid lower, over my shoulders, my back ... he urged me closer still, and I could feel increments of reserve giving way, like steel bands snapping, one after another—this, and this, and then this ...
It was too much, suddenly, and I had to pull away, breathing hard. I pushed up on an elbow, and touched him, awkward glancing touches down the length of his body, shoulder, ribs, belly, down to his groin, and then I hesitated a moment before taking careful hold of his erection. He shuddered all over, pushing up into my grip. I looked down at him, my hand on him, holding him there. Last night the darkness had eased everything, had made it possible for me to focus, accept, manage, but now with the light filling the room everything became all that much more, became overpowering. I pulled my hand away—it hurt, to stop touching him—and groped blindly for the lamp, almost knocking it over. He grabbed my wrist, pulling my hand back to him. "No," he growled. "Light stays on. You can't deal with that, then don't do anything."
Not doing anything was far past being an option at that point, so I took hold of him again, took a deep breath, forced my eyes open, and found another restraint giving way as I let myself sink into watching him, seeing his mouth fall open, his own eyes squeeze shut, flashes of sensation that I didn't know how to interpret—pain? delight?—flicker across his face. I'd called him beautiful; I hadn't realized until that moment how inadequate the word was. Having at last let myself look, I couldn't stop.
The wind rattled sleety snow against the window, and I remembered again where we were—home, home—just as my body found a smooth sweat-wet place to thrust against him, just as my hand found a better grip on him, and the joy of that moment exploded until I felt it could fill the whole of this empty land. Words came pouring out recklessly—"I wish we were out there now, Ray, out in the snowfields, I wish I could see you like this against the snow—"
He pushed hard up into my hand, and gasped out "You're fucking crazy, Fraser—" The words trailed off into a high keening moan, and I clapped a hand over his mouth, suddenly afraid, terrified of being overheard by people in adjoining rooms or the hallway, wishing again we were back in the remote silence of the wilderness.
He bit my fingers, then licked, then bit harder, and I squeezed him with my other hand, too hard, because he sucked in air through his nostrils and reached down to ease my grip on him. Then he jerked his mouth free of my hand, curled up to whisper in my ear, "Fucking crazy," and dropped his head back down on the pillow. I wasn't sure if he was referring to me, or himself, or the entire situation.
We lost our rhythm, found it, lost it again. The night before, we'd been flying on instinct and spontaneity, but now I couldn't keep myself from thinking, trying to figure out what I was doing, what I should be doing, what I was doing wrong. I could tell that reason, so long my mainstay, was of no help here, and that the self-control so deeply laced into my nature, the iron bands that lashed me together, were my enemy. I wanted to let go, I tried to let go, to just feel, humping myself against Ray like an animal, and yet I knew that whatever was going on here was infinitely more complicated than any animal coupling.
I choose this, I thought then. I choose this. And at that, the other thoughts went silent, and my body lunged forward, like the dogs throwing themselves into their harness, surging ahead with joy and purpose. I pushed, harder and harder, thrust, slid, plunged, and fell—into what crevasse had I fallen, this time? How would I ever get out? And then, falling, I exploded, pleasure that surged from my scalp to my soles, fierce and threaded with a high thin wail of doom.
It was too late. I had chosen already, long before we ever arrived in this room. This man, out of everyone and everything life had put in my path. I opened this door—the words were sing-songing in my echoing brain—I caught this plane, I went down this street, I took this job, I made this journey—too late, thank god too late now to turn back.
Movement, sounds...Ray groaning, moving underneath me, in my hand, lithe and taut and wet as a trout just hooked and pulled from its native water into the strangeness of air, writhing and twisting, all muscle and desperation. I began stroking him again, faster, feeling his struggle as pain, wanting only to set him free, and then with a final thrust he shuddered hard, throwing his head back and making a frightening sound deep in his chest, the sound of a man in mortal pain. He lunged again, and then once more, and then collapsed, panting, mouth open and eyes shut tight.
I let my hand rest on him a minute longer, as he twitched and shivered and subsided; then I got up, on shaky legs, and went to the bathroom. I washed my hands, wetted a cloth and wiped myself off, and brushed my teeth while I was there. Then I rinsed the cloth and brought it back to the bed.
He had crawled under the covers and was asleep already, mouth open, snoring softly. I cleaned him as best I could, given that he kept muttering and growling and trying to push the cloth aside. I wiped up the mess on the bedspread, put the cloth away, and got in beside him, turning out the light. He gave a great sigh and rolled onto his side, away from me, curled around his pillow.
I lay on my back for a long time, back in my mind again, letting my thoughts race along, arriving nowhere. Understand this, he'd said...and yet I understood nothing. Even when I gave up, exhausted, and tried to sleep, I was distracted by the glow from the streetlight outside the window. It made me feel like I was back in the city, a strange through-the-looking-glass city where by some unnervingly beneficent magic I was being given everything I'd so longed for, fruitlessly, in Chicago. I dreamed of Chicago, when I finally slept, long exhausting dreams of chases through alleys and warehouses, never quite catching whomever I was pursuing, Ray always somewhere alongside me, an elusive and sardonic presence whose voice was always in my ear but who, when I turned to look for him, was never there.
I woke, eventually, to a dim grey half-light, and an unfamiliar mixture of physical wellbeing and inner unease. The sheer comfort of the bed was a marvel, and tempted me to drift back into a doze, but I needed to look at Ray, to confirm that he was really here with me, and to try to read from his face the nature of his own dreams. I shifted carefully, not wanting to wake him, but when I got myself turned I found he was already awake, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling. He didn't look over at me when I raised myself onto an elbow beside him.
"Good morning, Ray."
"Hey." His voice was soft and gravelly.
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah, pretty good." He stretched a little, shifting his legs. "Never thought a plain old lumpy hotel mattress could feel so great." He turned his head to look at me then, to my great relief, and behind his half-smile I could see the same nervousness I was feeling.
I looked down at him—rumpled, puffy-eyed, frostbitten. I wanted to kiss him, not so much out of lust, although looking at him, remembering the previous night, I was already feeling a stir of arousal, but as almost a ceremony, setting a seal on the first day of this new life that I hoped, I trusted, we were embarking on together. But as soon as I moved toward his mouth, he rolled away.
"Jeez, I never brushed my teeth last night, yuck." He was running his tongue over his incisors, making a face. "Hang on."
He padded into the bathroom, and I could hear him using the toilet, running water, and then the strange bristly sound of toothbrushing, something so homely and domestic that it wrung my heart.
When he emerged, he stopped halfway to the bed and stood awkwardly for a moment, naked—as if torn between the duelling discomforts of being seen that way, and crawling back under the covers with me—yet, to my great relief, making no movement toward his clothes. Finally he waved his arms around gawkily—"You notice something? like, it's warm in here? What a concept, huh. Central heat, you gotta love it."
Feeling greatly daring, I slid over, pulling the covers back. "It's warmer in here."
He opened his eyes a little wider, blinked, opened his mouth as if preparing a retort, but said nothing. Instead, after a moment, he shuffled over to the bed, climbed in, keeping to his side, and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, covers pulled up to his chin.
Silence lengthened between us. I felt the need to say something, but I had no anecdotes, no observations, no words at all that seemed right for this moment. Instead, finally, I reached over and put a hand on his chest, as I had the night before, feeling his heartbeat, solid and steady. After a moment he put his hand on top of mine and pressed it against himself, squeezing hard. Then he gave a little tug; I came willingly, sliding toward him, and he turned at the same moment, sighing, eyes closed, moving his mouth blindly toward mine. I kissed him then, a kiss that was warm rather than hot, tasting his toothpaste, smelling his sweat. After a minute he pulled away and settled his head on my shoulder, and I held him. The weak light of dawn was just filtering in through the curtains. A new day.
We had to get up and moving soon, but whatever need for action the day brought was inconsequential, nothing compared to the need I felt to keep holding him like this. Skin against skin, the weight of his head trusting on my shoulder, the tickle of his hair against my cheek, his breath on my neck. I stroked his back, over and over, my hand savoring the long smooth sweep of muscle, the odd knobs of bone, the small movements of his breathing. It fed hungers I'd carried in me for so long I'd almost lost awareness of them. Until now.
But there was another hunger at work in me, one more imperious, more used to getting its way, the brain's need to make sense of things. As astonishing and reassuring as it was to touch him, to feel him letting himself be touched, I needed more; I needed to frame this tacit contract in words, my mind needed to reassert its control of the situation.
"Mmm." I could feel the soft exhalation of breath on my chest.
"I ... While I'm extremely gratified by this—this entire turn of events, I must confess I'm also somewhat bewildered."
"Mm-hm. Makes two of us."
"And I was hoping that you could—that is, this seems to represent a rather radical shift in orientation for you—not, of course, that I'm familiar with all of your past history, whether romantic or sexual, but your behavior up until now had appeared to indicate—that is to say, I've never seen you evince an interest in males beyond collegiality and friendship, and—"
He reached up, without looking, and clapped his hand over my mouth. I took the hint and kept quiet even after he took his hand away.
"Fraser. This, uh ... do we have to talk about this now?"
"Well, I suppose we could defer—"
"Let me rephrase that, is this one of those things you're going to keep niggling away at until I crack and start bleeding from the ears?"
"All I'm trying to do is understand this. I'm having difficulty coming to terms with this—this sudden change, in our relationship."
He sighed. "Fraser, a word of advice, don't try to figure this out. Trust me, this is not the kind of thing a guy can figure out. I tried. I give up." He sounded tired, resigned.
I certainly was not about to give up, but I took a different tack. "I'm only saying I'd appreciate a little clarification, given that I'm still somewhat bewildered about—recent developments." He snorted at that, and I went on, trying to speak less pompously, more plainly. "This is what I want. Beyond question. But it's nothing I ever expected. I need to be sure that it's what you want as well."
"Yeah. OK." He pushed away from me, and flopped onto his back. "Right. Um. Doing stuff. With you. Yeah." He paused, thrashed his legs around, kicking the covers loose at the foot of the bed, and then went on. "See, here's the deal. I ought to be dead."
Then he stopped, as if that constituted some kind of explanation. Ray's nonsequiters could either charm or infuriate me, depending on the circumstances, and this one was in the latter category. "What in the world do you mean by that?"
"Just what I said. I should've died out there." He flung a hand in the direction of the window. "Just like the Franklin guys. Stone cold, ceased to be, rung down the curtain, pushing up daisies, dead. Not that there are any daisies out there, y'know, but—" He gestured again, forcefully. "And so that's—you see?"
"First of all, I have no idea what you're driving at, and secondly, as I have told you more than once already, I would never have allowed you to die out there, so—"
"No!" He twisted around, glaring at me, jabbing me in the chest with his fingertips. "You do not get to decide shit like that! You are not God Al-fucking-mighty! And the point is that in any halfway reasonable universe I'd be a stiff right now! Right? Am I right?"
I opened my mouth to snap back at him, and then bit back my words. The last thing I wanted was a short-tempered wrangle with him. Instead, after a moment, I said, "Could you at least attempt to explain how this relates to the ostensible topic of conversation?"
He rolled on to his back again, scratching at his stubbled jaw. I gave him time, musing how that familiar faint rasping sound always seemed to me the audible signifier of Ray's thoughts skittering and scrabbling around in his head, as he attempted to chivvy them into line.
Finally, most unexpectedly, he said, "Did I ever tell you how I ended up proposing to Stella?"
"I don't believe so."
"Yeah." He stared at the ceiling. "That was a while ago. I'd just turned twenty-one, just started at the Academy, and I thought I was really the cat's ass. So—this one Saturday I'm up early, heading down to the gym, and I see this guy in an alley trying to break into the back door of Shulman's Jewelry. Broad daylight, you know? So clearly he's a dumbfuck, but the problem is clearly I'm a dumbfuck too, because instead of calling the cops—you know, the real ones with the guns and the badges and stuff—I go in there yelling at him to step away from the door and get down on the ground, just like I knew what the hell I was doing." He paused a moment, remembering. "I thought I sounded pretty good, actually, but I guess he wasn't buying it because next thing I know he turns around and he's pulling a 9mm out of his belt, and instead of getting down on the ground he's yelling right back at me—'I'm gonna drop you, you mutt!'" He paused, seeming surprised. "I remember that. Weird. And I remember ... he aimed that gun at me—" Ray raised his arms, hands clasped, forefingers pointing an imaginary muzzle to the ceiling. "Right at my chest. And of course I didn't have a vest, I didn't have a gun, I didn't have nothing, including the brains to get the hell out of there. I just—looked at it. And it was like —zzhheeep, zzhheeep, zzhheeep—like in Terminator, I could just zoom in and see his finger moving, pulling that trigger, and I knew I was going to die right there, I knew I was dead. And it—it went so slow, y'know? My head was going a million miles a second, but everything else was so slow."
He stopped, and I made myself relax my hands, which were clutching the sheets in a sweaty grip. I found the scene all too easy to visualize. "And then?"
"Then—" He shrugged. "Nothing. Misfire. I heard it click, and then I waited to be dead, and then I wasn't dead, and then the guy starts swearing, but he was too fucking stupid to just rack and tap it, while me, I finally got enough brains back to jump him, which I did, kicked the gun away, kicked his head, got his arm bent back up, and I start yelling until finally a cruiser shows up. And he's not gonna spill and put an attempted murder on his sheet, and I'm not saying anything to highlight what a moron I was, and so I come out smelling like a rose."
I let out a breath, pulling my mind back from that imagined Chicago alley to the safety of this room, this bed, thousands of miles away and many years later. "Well, Ray, though I've always been impressed by your physical courage, still that seems like an imprudent course of—"
"Yeah, like you wouldn't've done the exact same thing yourself, and anyway, like you say, that's not important, what's important is—" He gave the sheets another kick, flinging them off completely, and I allowed myself a glance over at him, the length of his lean body bare to the morning light. "See, I had a date with Stella that night. And it was like I'd wanted her for forever, but I never really let myself even think about it, 'cause I was this little punk from back of the yards who couldn't cut it at city college. And she was dating the guys from Lake Forest who went to Northwestern and could take her to dinner at Ambria, and order the right wine and stuff. That was her real life. And me, I was like —" He waved his hands around, seeking words. "Like—you know when a chick gets dressed up all Goth and puts on one of those fake nose rings and Doc Martens and her girlfriends tell her how tough she looks and they go out to a club, and the whole thing's just dress-up 'cause you know next day she's going to be back in her suit and her pearls?"
"I ... well, I'm not actually familiar with—"
He waved a silencing hand at me and went on. "And that's what I always figured I was, that it wasn't about me, when we got together, it was just like I was—whattaya call it, an accessory?"
"I doubt that she—"
"That, plus I could dance, which her Lake Forest guys couldn't." He suddenly hauled his pillow out from beneath his head, punched it up with a flurry of blows, and shoved it back into place.
"Ray, it's not that I don't find this engrossing, but perhaps we could revert to the topic of—"
"Shut up. You, of all people on this planet, do not get to tell me how to tell a story." He shot me a glare, and resettled his head. "So, uh. Anyway, that night—it was like up to then I'd always wanted her, sure, I was crazy about her, but I didn't let myself think about it. Y'know? Cause it totally didn't fit with who I was and who she was and so I just stuck it over in a corner and forgot about it. But that night—all that day, ever since I took that guy down, it was like—I should've died, I should've been dead, but I wasn't, and it was like God or somebody said, 'Ray, my friend, you get a do-over. And you get to do it different this time.' Like in a weird way I was dead, whoever I'd been, and ... and so that night, she's going on and on about studying for the LSATs, and some chick in her Poli Sci class who she think's screwing the prof, and out of nowhere, I mean I didn't even know I was going to say it, but out of nowhere—I ask her to marry me. Which I didn't even know I was going to say until, wham, out of my mouth, there it is. It was like—like somebody else was doing it. And then when she said yes, it was like, OK, that somebody else is the person I get to be from now on. The guy who got Stella."
He seemed to have run out of story at last, and I lay silent for a while, mulling over what he'd said, and what he hadn't said. I could hear a couple passing by in the hall outside, the faint sound of their voices and laughter.
Finally I ventured, "So when you thought you were going to die, out on the sled—"
"Thought I had died. Just waiting for the white light and the tunnel to show up."
"Right. And when you found that in fact you continued to live, you—you found within yourself the impulse to—to pursue—"
I stopped, floundering, but he kept his silence—refusing for once, I thought aggrievedly, to lend me a hand. "Ray, are you implying that you—thought about this, back in Chicago?"
"No!" He paused only fractionally. "Well, OK, maybe I thought about it, but I didn't think about it. Cause that wasn't the kind of thing I thought about back then."
"Ray, I'm afraid that doesn't really clarify—"
"It maybe crossed my mind, OK? Weird shit crosses my mind sometimes. OK?"
He sounded angry, and I found myself snapping back, "Ah, so I'm to understand that you consider this, to quote you, weird shit, is that it?"
Unexpectedly, he laughed, a harsh bark, and pushed himself up on an elbow, looking at me. "I dare you, I dare you, to lie there and say with a straight face that this is anything besides weird."
I looked back at him, the shadowed crease in the corner of his grin, the fierce glitter of his eyes, this face I knew so well, that I'd studied so often, so covertly, mine now to gaze at openly. Finally I said, "Actually, I think there's a great deal here besides, or in addition to, weird. Though I won't deny that that enters into the melange."
He stared me down for another moment, and then his smile, his gaze, eased. "OK. All right. Grant you that." He lifted a hand and brought it to my face, pushing back my hair, stroking a thumb over my temple.
For a while it was enough to just accept the gift of that touch, sink into that moment of grace, with gratitude. But there could be no real peace for me without better understanding, and finally I cleared my throat, and said, "So ... this was nothing you ever actually planned?"
"Oh, for christ's sake." But his voice sounded affectionate in its exasperation, and he kept his hand in my hair, combing it out with his fingers. "Planned. That'd be you, Fraser, not me. You make a plan, you follow it out, you make a plan, you follow it out, and everything goes the way you planned it. Get to the end, check it off the list, make another plan, bing bing bing. Me, I never know what the fuck I'm doing until, blam, there I am, and then it's like 'What the hell does this mean? How the hell did this happen?'"
There seemed a world of meaning in the way he said the word, and after a moment, I ventured, "This?"
He slid over closer to me, put an arm around me. "Yeah. This."
I shifted, getting one arm under his head and the other around his back, holding him. This, I thought. Ill-defined, irrational, mysterious, perfect. After a moment Ray said, "So, yeah, doesn't make any sense, but then what the hell does anyway? That's all the answers I got for you, Fraser, you want any more you gotta come up with 'em." He pushed away, sitting upright. "And we got a million things to do today, right? So let's get at 'em."
After a quick breakfast, we loaded all our belongings into the jeep and drove to the detachment, where I signed papers and collected keys, while Ray waited in the lobby. Then I dropped Ray at the bank, at his insistence, to begin the process of opening his own account and transferring funds, and I drove on to the house that had been Constable Akers', that was now ours. I unloaded the car, stacking our clothing on the bare floor and groceries in the empty refrigerator.
I drove back and collected Ray, who was standing in the bank lobby nervously folding and unfolding a sheaf of papers, and we went to a store we'd passed a few times the day before, a new establishment on Mackenzie Street that sold furniture and household supplies. I opened a charge account with the credit manager, an upright older woman who turned to have been a friend of my grandmother's, and we bought a few basic pieces of furniture.
I'd wanted to take the time to scout around for used items, but Ray emphatically vetoed that idea: "Other people's stuff—you don't know what went on with it. I always feel like it's got cooties or something." So I gave in, and allowed myself the pleasure of watching Ray try out various sofas, finally picking one that was big enough to accommodate his long body and was upholstered in Dief-colored fabric ("So the fur won't show so bad."). I let him go off on his own to choose a bed ("You don't wanna help me try out the mattresses?" "I'm sure you'll handle it just fine on your own, Ray." "Chicken.") while I selected a sturdy kitchen table and two chairs. We bought sheets, towels, dishes. I finally signed my name to the charge slip with as much pride and trepidation as if I were closing on a mortgage, while Ray stood to one side, fidgeting. I left a house key with the clerk (who, it turned out, was the niece of my old friend Ed Crandall, though she evinced no particular interest in the connection), and she promised to have the items delivered by the end of the day.
Then we drove to Wendell's, harnessed the dogs, and took a final run back to the cabin, the dogs pulling with energy and joy, as if they were starting a journey instead of closing one. We cleaned, tidied, stowed, working side by side, mostly in silence. When all was in order and secured, I shut the door behind us and we headed back. We left the other dogs at Wendell's again, to stay until Sergeant Frobisher could pick them up in the spring, and, with Diefenbaker in the back seat, we drove into town and parked behind our new home. After I shut the car off, we sat for a moment in the quiet and the gathering twilight, Ray drumming his fingers on his thighs.
"OK. Right. This is it, huh?" He put his chin up just a little, made that odd truculent roll of his shoulders that I'd seen before in moments of danger. Then he was out of the jeep, walking fast. Dief was probably the first through the door, pushy as always in his curiosity, but Ray was right behind him, and I brought up the rear.
They both spent several minutes exploring the house. Dief trotted around purposefully sniffing everything, while Ray wandered. He studied the placement of the sofa, which looked oddly forlorn in the otherwise empty living room; he stood in the bedroom doorway looking at the mattress, its quilted-nylon surface shining bare and shameless under the ceiling bulb's glare. He tried out the bathroom faucets, looked into closets, flipped light switches on and off, rapped his knuckles on the woodwork, face neutral. I followed after him, hands behind my back.
Finally he wandered to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out one of the beers I'd put in there earlier for him. He popped it open, took a swallow, sat down at the kitchen table, and Dief settled at his feet with a gusty sigh.
He took another swallow, set the beer down on the table, and looked at me for the first time since we'd arrived. Smiled, for the first time. "So," he said. "What're we doing for dinner?"
And thus we launched upon our own peculiar and precarious version of domesticity.