The Next Tower

I drag piercing, ragged air into my lungs, fingers slipping on ice-crusted granite. The burn sinks behind my ribs, leaving me reaching for the next foothold in hopes of escaping the whiteout. A crack of twigs turns me to my partner. He’d slipped against the trail, one hand desperately clutching at a pine tree limb. Snow dumps across his shoulders and head. You okay? I sign, dashing my gaze to the horizon and the undergrowth.

Slick spot. He reassures. Quietly, he pulls his way back to my side.

You hear them? The pounding of my heartbeat in my ears is footsteps in the timberline.

Not yet. You good to move? He motions toward the top of the ridge. The fire watch tower stands against the dim wane of the moon, leaving shadows on shadows. Swirling crystals blanket our legs. I rub my gloved hands together, puffing to warm them momentarily and nod. The hills echo with the precipitation of winter in its twisting black and blue deluge. A tug at my elbow has me following my partner, the reflectors on his coat marking my path.

Trudging against the murk, billows of wet snow cling to my trousers. My waterproof boots do nothing against the water wicking down my socks. The swing of his red backpack lulls me into miserable indifference. Blisters and chilled fingers demand their due. 

The hordes no longer clamber against the wind. They creep through my ears. Cling to the back of my mind. Snake up my spine.

The base of the tower splays wider than I expect. Staring up at the rusting struts, I swallow. Sleet coats the ladder in a glimmering coat. Think it’ll keep them away? I take out my carabiners and check my knots.

Hopefully. He tugs at my harness, squaring the straps before turning me to the rungs. Hand over hand, snap and clip of the hinge, I ascend the death trap. The growl of snow shifting through the trees runs nails up my shoulder blades. I rush, trying to escape the terror at the base of my neck, foot slipping as I miss a pole. The metal clangs beneath my equipment. I suck in my breath, turning to the skyline. A hand tapping at the bottom of my boot sends my heart to my throat. I gulp, looking down, green eyes reassuring below me. He secures my footing and puts a finger to his lips, pointing to the top. I swallow, returning to my task, the wind tugging at my hood.

The deck is a white sheet beneath my treads. I collect the sniper rifle and shotgun he hands up before helping steady my partner as he pulls himself over the edge. A freestanding desk at the wall of the cabin makes for a passable trap door. I cringe at every shuffle and groan of steel and wood, the backs of my ears cramping from listening for the scream beneath the sleet.

Let’s get in. He points me at the peeling white cabin door, a set of lockpicks in hand. I flip on my keychain torch, blocking the shine with my body while he slips the tumblers. Hinges squeal as he tests the door, rust and neglect forcing us to push against it until we stumble into the windless glass box. He spins to the threshold, eyeing the makeshift cover at the end of the deck, waiting, counting, fingers curling five times five until all we hear is the howl of the blizzard against the tin roof. I cower in, watching, searching, keeping my light low under the sills to search the thin shadows. Empty save for the minor furnishings of the last tenant, we count ourselves lucky. A chest of drawers and moving boxes filled with books, pinecones, and firewood are all we can shove against the door. Not that the four walls of glass windows will do much if they determine to make us into midnight hors d’oeuvres.

I slump into the far corner from the door. Too often I’ve seen others grabbed for being too close when they come. A crowbar at hand will break the glass above my head. The shotgun at my heels is close enough to my reach, the ammo box tucked into a pocket on my hip. I can jump the rails and slide the struts down. I can get away. My heart and gut say otherwise.

Fingers, chapped and cold, draw my attention from gnarled floor boards. He leans over me, concern crinkling lines in his forehead. My smile dips and warbles in an attempt to reassure him. Nose to nose, his hands cover my ears from the persistent ticking flakes until my limbs ease their shaking. 

Our glance snaps to the wood stove in the centre of the single room. Regret and reluctant acceptance flicks across our fingertips. Dinner will have to be partially frozen, non-perishables dug from our bags. The pop and hiss of the tins as he opens them have me watching the glass surreptitiously. Canned meat, canned fruit, our plastic utensils muffle under our gloves. All I taste is salt and syrup. Flavour in this wasteland is worthless. Many things are worthless in this desolate blackness under a starless sky as the storm blankets spectres on the window sills. Empty cans resting against panes are our last alarm against the horde.

We curl against each other in the drift, desperate for closeness, for reality, for the world to shift. He’s drifting to the beat of my heart, hands curled between my side and his chest as winter digs in. I pull the insulated blanket around us, wishing for sleep which has refused my advances for days. At each moment where I slip the bounds between the waking and the damned, I see the creatures. Clawing, ragged, rawring, screaming, screeching. 

I come awake, one of his hands holding tight to the back of my sweater, the other across my mouth. The shallows of midnight are passing into the depths before the dawn. I draw in alarm, clamping onto his wrist, holding it until I beat the squeak in my larynx into submission. Letting go, I pull at my turtleneck beneath my cable knit.

You’re safe. He signs against my arm, frozen fingers sending shafts of ice to my neck. I squeeze him closer, burying my cold nose into his halo of curls. Tears would have threatened, but they stopped weeks ago. I ease my fingers around his, hoping to warm his hands. They’re the same. I suck in my breath. He stills. I pull the sweater and layers up, tugging the zipper at my salopettes, and shove his hands onto the warmth of my stomach, drawing the layers back down to conserve the heat. He baulks as a shiver runs up my spine, and I pull him until the space between us is parkas and sweaters. A count of heartbeats and he relaxes into the offer, thawing his palms and backs of his hands while I adamantly refuse to let go of him for the ice creeping under my skin.

I watch the snowballs against the bubbled barrier between us and the impossible, begging them not to move as his fingers twitch, shift, ask questions. Tentative promises, permissions, desires number my ribs and trace the hollow of my belly button. I relax my stubborn grasp, stretching into discovery, my heart racing, throat dry. With every change in direction, he waits for my embrace to shift, to switch, to answer in our silent world. Tender spots where the horde got me yesterday morning have me moving away. Singing electricity has me loosening my hold. Fingers dance, skimming curves and ridges. He forms letters against my sternum. This okay?

Don’t stop. I bury my hands under his parka, the wool knit of his sweater scratching against my palms.

You watching? He finds the tuck at my lower ribs. 

A starburst slinks to hide between my lungs and my backbone. Always. The promise of dawn in the blizzard is cascading away with the snow drifting through the rails of the tower.

Heat blossoms between us, his fingers finding heaven. A note catches in my throat. He covers my mouth again, silencing me as I swallow, my glance swivelling the two hundred degrees of vision I can get without moving my head. They haven’t found us yet.

Retribution. I draw in a quieting digit, the pad of his finger salty against my tongue. A stutter in his breathing against my knee leaves a sly smirk on my lips. Two can play this game, even if I’m on watch duty. Twining along the joints, he stills, his thigh flexing against my leg, his teeth nipping at me in protest.

Tight heat wraps around me. Dancing threads of gold and cinnamon race through my sides. His smile sinks into my skin, and I’m struggling to constrain my voice. Determined, he’s pushing, seeing how far he can take me in the silence of our snowbound cabin. 

I tunnel my fingers through his hair as he finds that one point of brightness stretching into my desires. Silk strands brush against my knuckles, through the webbing between my digits. Kindling in the dark. A spark ignites the star behind my lungs, a numb wave washing in tides of light and need through my bones. If he presses much further, I’ll be the tsunami after an earthquake. Please. I tap against his neck. The star is burning me away to a flashpoint, one grain from ignition. He relents, easing back for me to come out of the thunderhead, electricity dissipating.

Warm yet? He asks at my hip.

You think? I pull his sweater from his ski pants.

You watch. He demanded.

I want my fun. I keep my words small against his lower stomach, flipping buttons.

Next tower. He promises, drawing my face to meet his chapped lips. I startle at the vow, leaving him to his exploration. Several more weeks of walking this wilderness, escaping the horde, before I would watch his expression rather than the windows. He carries me along, listening to the hitch in my breath, leading me through skittering pressure until the snow eases with the lavender of dawn. The view lightens, and all that greets us is the grey powder against our window panes. At the peak of the horizon line casting sharp light and shadow through the down blanket of the mountainside, he lets me find satisfaction, his curls twisting in my fingers.

The morning breaks as a chickadee hops across the rail of the fire tower, chirping its cheeseburger cheeseburger call, leaving pronged footprints in the alabaster. Tension eases out of my shoulders at the jumping creature. If the birds haven’t fled the mountainside, we’ve outrun the horde for another day, maybe two. 

He tugs me to his chest in the sunrise bathing the whitewashed walls, pulling the insulated blanket over my head, where I’ll be able to sleep to the bird calls overriding the terror waiting for the silence in the night.

Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.

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