In Strange Company

 

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Copyright

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are from the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual person, living or dead, locales, and establishments are entirely coincidental.

IN STRANGE COMPANY

First published in 2013

Copyright © 2013 Eva Acharya

All rights reserved.

This book or any part thereof may not be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form, or by any means without prior written consent of the Author.

ISBN: 978-0-9875483-0-6

Published by Eva Acharya/Papermashed

www.papermashed.com

Cover design: M. A. Garcia

Cover art: Eva Acharya

Created in Australia/Printed in Nepal by New Nepal Press

 

 

 

 

To my loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SNOW

Trees spear the wintery sky

With their leafless, lethal barbs

And flake by frozen flake

Whitely, ever so quietly

The sky begins to fall.

 

 

 

 

 

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Prologue

Day 1

“Attention passengers, due to engine complications, the scheduled flight for Charlotte is delayed until further notice.” The female voice rang out clearly through the small airport.

A young woman turned to the tall, slender, greying man who stood beside her, holding her overstuffed duffle bag in his hand. She eyed him with hostility.

“What?” he asked, innocently shrugging his narrow shoulders.

“Hurry up, Clare!” she mocked. “How’s that for being on time? The stupid flight’s delayed”, she replied curtly.

The man chuckled. “Well, for once you’ll find out what it means to be kept waiting.”

“Funny!” she spat out, despite a slight grin spreading across her face. “So what do I do now, just wait?”

“Yeah, that’s how it works.”

“But that’s boring,” she moaned.

“I’ll stick around till the flight’s confirmed, if you want. In the meantime, shall we grab a hot drink?”

She nodded enthusiastically.

Clare waited, seated in an uncomfortable plastic chair, her eyes roaming the small, yet busy café. She yawned, sleep still inviting her. It was far too early a start to the day for her liking. If it weren’t for Henry, she’d still be snugly tucked up in bed, the ski trip completely forgotten and rightfully so, she hadn’t wanted to go in the first place. She scanned the counter and saw Henry waiting in queue. She was rather shocked to see so many people already moving through the airport. Did they know what time it was? Dawn had only broken through an hour or so ago.

She could hear snippets of conversation from people around her, who sat sipping from their cups of coffee. She could do with some coffee, strong coffee. She yawned. Her eyes drawn to a middle-aged couple immersed in deep heated conversation. The husband, with a balding patch on his ash coloured head, and round rimmed glasses propped on his thin nose didn’t seem too pleased with his wife, Clare presumed. The freckled rosy faced woman with curly hair tied in a bun had either packed too much food or not enough. She wondered where they were headed. She cocked her head to one side and looked at a couple of young men a few tables ahead, one of whom was fruitlessly trying to pick up the waitress. She smiled at his daring and wished him luck. The other, however, couldn’t help but look around the café, uncomfortable at his companion’s shameless behaviour. Noticing Clare’s amused stare, he apologetically smiled.

Clare looked over to the counter again. Henry was next. Her stomach grumbled and she wondered if he would bring some food. She got up from her seat and snaked her way around the tables, noticing the young man’s embarrassed eyes on her as she passed. She smiled back and continued to the front of the café.

By Henry’s side, she looked at the glass food cabinet. “Henry, shall we get something to eat too? I’m hungry,” she whispered. The guy before them was already done with his order. He turned around, oblivious to Clare’s sudden presence. He glared at her for a split second before uncomfortably swerving around her. She apologised after him half-heartedly. His hazel eyes were too quick to dismiss her for her liking as he hurried to a table.

Seated at a table again, Clare searched for the young man, finding him seated alone in a corner, away from everyone else, his eyes skimming the cafe.

“Who’re you looking at?” Henry asked, sitting down opposite her. She shook her head. He sighed, “Clare”, his tone was so intense that Clare nervously found herself looking at his haggard face, apprehensive. People only addressed her thus if she was in trouble. She wondered what she’d done this time.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you something for a while now”. He straightened in his seat, watching the waitress approach the table with their order. He waited until she put their food down and was once again out of earshot. “Actually, Daniel has been pestering me to…”

Alarm bells rang in her mind. What did Daniel Peterson want with his estranged daughter? She cleared her throat and nervously picked up the cutlery, trying to appear as calm as she could. How long had it been since she’d talked to her father, a year or two at least? “What does he want?” Her voice, out of habit, was curt. Henry’s eyes flashed in anger.

“I’m sorry. I mean, what is it that he wishes to inform me about? I’m curious”, she asked, her tone a bit softer now. She took a forkful of food and anxiously chewed it.

“It is his personal business, what he would like to talk to his daughter about; however, he has voiced a wish to meet you.” Henry sipped his flat white and picked up his own cutlery.

“When does he want to meet? I’m sure he’s fairly busy this time of the year.”

Henry finished chewing his food then put his cutlery down on the plate. “Actually, he’d prefer you to come home after the trip, and spend Christmas with him. He has a surprise for you, which I hope you’ll be pleased with.” Clare’s mouth flew open; a surprise. “It concerns the Peterson family.” Henry swallowed nervously. Had he said too much?

“What family, Henry?” Clare chuckled and put another morsel of food in her mouth. “The last time I checked, we met on appointment basis.”

“Attention. Passengers waiting to board flight to Charlotte. Due to engine trouble, PanAir flight 380 has been delayed indefinitely!” The female voice echoed around them and Clare saw that most of the people seated in the café were shaking their heads in disbelief. They were all waiting, just as she was.

“However, transport has been organised to get you to your destination. We’ll keep you posted as to when it arrives. Thank you.”

Clare shook her head and took a sip of her coffee. “The one time I get where I’m supposed to on time and this is what happens.”

“So, will you be returning to the main house when you get back?” Henry asked. He’d already slid his plate away; half its contents still steaming. “Too much salt,” he replied to her questioning glance. “Shall I tell Daniel you’d love to spend some time with him?”

Thinking, she looked down at her food, took another morsel, sipped again, and then finally looked up to meet the man’s eyes. “Is it absolutely necessary?” she asked with half a smile on her face. He nodded. “He’d really like to see me?” she asked, yearning in her voice. He nodded again.

She brought her hand to her mouth and nervously bit down on her nail. Henry gently slapped her hand away. “Do you trust my decision?” It was her turn to nod. “Then please, promise me, you’ll come and spend time with your only family, and me. It is my wish, and your father’s. God knows how long he’s been trying to reach you.”

“Henry, I…”

“I’ll drive all the way to Charlotte myself in order to pick you up if I must, but please, give this a chance, one chance…all is not lost yet.”

Clare blinked desperately. Her relationship with her father was a delicate subject and Henry knew how to hit that note. “Can’t you tell me what this is about?”

“No, I’m afraid not. It’s not my place to.”

“If you think I must.” Henry nodded, “Then I’ll come, Henry,” she whispered.

It was half an hour before another announcement was made confirming that a cargo transport had been organised to ferry passengers to the small town of Charlotte, half an hour away by air. Henry handed Clare the duffle bag, gave her a hug and a kiss, and wished her a safe flight.

“I’ll see you in a few days’ time,” he said, smiling down at her. She nodded and watched the young man who had ignored her earlier walk past. Then they were suddenly swamped by a mob of twenty or so other passengers, amongst them the elderly couple and the two other young men she’d noticed before.

Clare turned to Henry one last time. “So you’re coming to pick me up at Charlotte then?” her tone rather cheeky. Henry’s brows climbed high. “I’d hate to travel like this again,” she chuckled, heaving her bag up to her shoulders.

“I’ve spoilt you far too much.”

She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cold cheeks. “See you in Charlotte, Henry”. She whisked up to the check-in counter, deposited her bag, grabbed the boarding pass and made her way to the specified departure gate.

By the time the flight was up in the air it was noon.

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Day 1

Morning, Charlotte

“John better be home sick, or I swear to God, Paul, he can kiss his job goodbye.” Sam barked as he keyed the lock.

The Mountain King charter bus business had run successfully for the past five years and Sam was not about to risk any loss over an irresponsible driver.

“What’s he done this time?” Paul asked, sipping his cappuccino.

“I’ll tell you what he hasn’t done.” Sam turned around briskly. “That drunkard hasn’t brought back a whole, damn bus of mine. How the hell am I supposed to organize passenger pick up at the tarmac for that mountain trip? You know I don’t like refunding money, Paul!”

“My bus is free, Sam, I could refuel again and pitch in for now,” Paul offered hastily. He knew if Sam had to refund any money, he would not only cut back John’s wages, but those of all the drivers who worked for him.

“You think you’re up for it?” Sam asked. “You can concentrate for a few hours. Not going to fall asleep behind the wheel or anything?”

“I’ll be all right, nothing an hour or so at home won’t fix.”

Sam reached in his pocket and took out ten dollars, “Go eat something. I need you ready by eleven thirty,” he said, scratching his grey head. “They arrive at one and you need to get to the airfield before then.”

Sam was middle-aged with a short fuse and a protruding belly which had, since his fortieth birthday, rounded out into the solid barrel-shaped overhang so common in those with an over-enthusiastic love of beer. He owned a bus business in the sleepy town of Charlotte, supplying buses and drivers to the towns nearby as well. However, it was during winter, when Christmas drew near and the exclusive mountain trips were offered, that the charter business usually boomed.

“Ok, I’ll do it, but don’t expect me back soon. I’m going to take a break up there,” Paul said, gulping down the last of his drink.

“Fine, but if you see that drunk-ass, tell him I want my bus back. If I get my hands on him…”

“John could be on his way as we speak,” Paul said feebly, “maybe he got bogged down at the top with that hell of a snow fall last night”. He rubbed his hands together, looking up at the sky and then at the empty snow-covered streets. “I heard they sent snow ploughs up the mountain early this morning.” He shoved a free hand in his pocket. “Winter’s come early this year, and worse. Do you think it’s safe for them trips to be operating?”

“I don’t care as long as they bring in money,” Sam said, pushing the door open and running inside to turn off the alarm.

Once Paul saw Sam moving towards the reception, he entered. “So how many trips have we got this year?”

Sam looked up, “Only one this time. Oh, but don’t you worry. I’ll find some work for you. You’re the only man I can trust, Paul, and I know you got a wife and kids…but John, he won’t be getting a damn thing anymore.”

“Well, it’s Christmas you know, lots of spending,” Paul said with a worried look.

“You do this trip for me, and I’ll double your Christmas bonus, scout’s honour,” Sam looked up from his desk and stuck his hand up in a salute gesture.

“Thanks Sam, that means a lot. I’d better get going. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to get this week’s pay. The bonus I’ll take a week before Christmas”. He smiled and left. When the door shut behind him, the bell dinged overhead. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” he exclaimed, tossing the coffee cup in the bin, and walked towards the parking lot.

Paul got into his car and raced back home. He knocked on the door twice. His wife, still in her night gown, opened it, gave her husband a welcome kiss and closed the door behind him. “You are an hour and a half late.” She hugged him around the waist. “Take a shower and I’ll have some tea ready.”

He kissed her again, “Are the kids still asleep?” She nodded. “You look beautiful.” He smiled. “I’ll be back,” and ran upstairs to take a quick shower.

Paul snuck back into the kitchen. Helen was waiting for him. “The children have been asking for you since yesterday morning. Kevin has a soccer match this evening and he wants to go with you, and Kay wanted the whole family to go see that re-run of Cinderella.”

He pulled out a chair and sat down. She played with her bottom lip. “You have to go out again, don’t you?” she sighed, putting the tea tray down on the table. When Paul remained silent, she continued in a whisper. “The children would rather have you this season than presents, Paul. You’ve hardly spent a day with them.” Paul still sat quietly. “Paul, say something.”

Paul shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “John hasn’t come back from the mountain and you know Sam. He was talking about cutting back wages.” He tried to meet her eyes but she was staring down at the mug in her hand. “He’s going to give me double bonus. Besides, he has given me a week off, from Christmas Eve till the second of January, all that time is for you and the kids! Helen, look at me.” She looked up teary eyed. “Don’t tell me the extra money won’t help. After this trip I’ve got tomorrow off. We’ll go to the movies and we’ll have a family soccer day, the works!”

“Where are you going this time?” she sounded resigned.

“Snow Valley Lodge” he dragged his chair towards her. “I have to be at the airfield by one. It’s only a few hours’ drive to the lodge and I’ll stay there the night if you are worried. I’ll be back before ten tomorrow morning.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Paul. The weather’s worsening; the roads are covered with sleet.” She looked at him desperately. “Every time you do the lodge rounds I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.” HHH er voice broke into a soft whimper.

Paul took her hands in his own and spoke softly. “Helen, I’ve done these rounds many times, I know those roads like the back of my hand. There’s no safer driver for these mountain trips than me, and you know that very well.”

“Paul, the weather is unpredictable, it creates problems even for the most experienced drivers, and I just don’t think it’s…”

“I’ll be very careful, I promise.” He tried to reason. “I’ll come back to you no matter what. Besides…” he said with a slight grin, “do you really want Sam to wait for John to drive all those people up that strip of road? He’s worse than this weather.”

“And dangerous…” she said shakily, smiling at her husband’s attempt at a joke, “but time doesn’t wait for one man’s promise. Please don’t go, just this time, don’t go!” She squeezed his hands tightly, desperately.

He hugged her tight and kissed her forehead. “Stop worrying about me so much. I’ll be all right.”

She looked at the clock on the wall. “You’ve got couple of hours before you leave, do you want anything?”

“Well, I haven’t looked at my wife closely recently. Just want to spend some time together,” he stood up and pulled her towards the stairs, slipping his hands from her back across her stomach and pulled her close to his body. “Shall we?” he whispered, gently kissing her neck.

*

Paul pulled up at the side of the tarmac and waited in the bus until he got bored. It was well after one o’clock in the afternoon. He got out and walked towards the small group of buildings affectionately named the termite terminal by the locals. “Excuse me,” he called to a man standing guard, “when is the one o’clock flight arriving?”

“Which flight?” the man asked with a haughty laugh. Paul looked at him sourly; everyone in Charlotte knew only one flight arrived each hour, if they were lucky. Finally the man said, “It’s running late.”

Paul looked at his watch and then went back to his bus, wondering just how long it was going to take.

Clare shifted uncomfortably on the chopper floor. “This is ridiculous,” she mumbled under her breath and looked at the strangers huddled up in the compartment around her. She turned to a guy next to her. He didn’t seem that deterred by the inconvenient transport. In fact, he was busy talking with a young woman seated beside him.

Clare looked out the small window framing the patch of land below, miles and miles of nothing but the white canvas of snow. In the middle of it, looking like a muddy bike track, sat the tiny tarmac of Charlotte-Hasting Domestic Airport.

She turned around and anchored her body to the floor. The chopper had begun descending. Oh God, you’ve got to be kidding me, she thought, looking around at people’s faces contorted in false smiles. I’m going to kill Henry! He’s sent me to the middle of nowhere with a bunch of crazy strangers I’d rather not be with.

Socialise, Clare. Socialise…” She heard his mocking voice in her head.

“Socialise, my ass,” she mumbled bitterly. Five days. Five days, before she could go free. She sighed in defeat as the chopper touched solid ground. To her, it wasn’t touching ground; its door wasn’t opening now to let her go free. In fact, it was sending her out into the biggest cage she’d ever seen; a remote, freezing, country cage. She took a deep breath and rose up to join the line of people filing out one by one. Grabbing her duffle bag, she slid in behind the hazel-eyed guy.

Once on the wet ground, Clare followed the group and hung around the outskirts. She turned to find the hazel-eyed guy next to her. “Quite a ride, huh?” she smiled at him. He cracked a hesitant smile and nodded.

“This way please,” the co-pilot was saying to the group at large and, before Clare could try another ice-breaker, the guy was already marching with the group towards the waiting bus.

Paul approached the group of tourists, half of whom were excited, the other half ready to wet their pants in anxiety. He cracked his best smile. “Welcome to Charlotte, it’s not much but it’s our humble home.” A few passengers gave him a forced smile.

“Excuse me.” He nodded at the co-pilot, then quickly marched past the group, towards the pilot’s door and yanked it open. “Hey Leo, I didn’t expect you to fly a chopper. I thought a big white bird was scheduled to come”.

“A real bird got into the engine,” he said, chuckling. “Nah, just something with the engine … had to fix it and, since the chopper was free…”

Leo jumped out and stood next to Paul, watching the strangers stuff their bags in the luggage hull of the bus. “So how are your wife and kids?”

“Doing fine. Money’s a bit tight, but isn’t it always. How’s the missus doing? Heard she’s expecting!” Paul asked as they shook hands.

“Yeah, running her last miles; the baby is due in two weeks,” Leo answered gleefully. “So, where’s John? I was told he would be coming.”

“He sure was supposed to. Sam’s pissed. He hasn’t returned from his last assignment.” Paul said, looking back and forth from the strangers to his friend. “I had to fill in.”

“Don’t tell me … Sam’s worried about the damn bus.” Leo laughed.

Brandon stuffed his bag into the luggage compartment and took a step back, waiting to get on the bus, his gaze skipping to the driver, Paul Reeves. Paul’s gaze landed on Brandon, who smiled faintly and quickly looked over at the bus, reading its name in awe. Wild Thing, had a good ring to it he had to admit. This is going to be quite a week, Brandon thought. He needed a release, the prospect of nothing but unspoilt nature surrounding him for days was a refreshing thought. He hated people but this lot didn’t seem to bother him as much, they were too preoccupied to pay him much attention.

The previous week had seriously been a drag and he was looking forward to the coming days with an earnestness he’d never felt before. He heaved his satchel higher and took a step towards the bus.

“Excuse me!” came a soft whisper from behind him, and he was certain that there had been a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turned to face a young brunette, her blue eyes imploring him. “Could I ask you for a little help? I can’t seem to get my bag to fit.”

Clare smiled innocently. Of course she was perfectly capable of hauling her own bag but why pass up a chance of getting help? “Please!” she added, fighting an urge to bat her eyes at him. She didn’t want to overdo the cuteness.

Brandon stooped down and easily brought up the bag and stuffed it into the compartment, then stood back up without waiting for gratitude. He pulled up his satchel again and entered the bus.

Clare stood dazed. That was the second time in one day the same guy had dismissed her so easily. She narrowed her eyes in a flash of anger. How dare he? Well, if he wants to play hard to get. She looked up to the window and watched his figure move deeper into the vehicle. She jerked her head back to the door, smiled innocently as she passed the driver, and entered the bus. Most of the front seats were already occupied. She scanned the back half of the bus and walked deeper.

She was nearing the seat where Brandon had settled himself. He looked up, his gaze almost quizzical. She knew a trick or two too. Both seats on the opposite side of the aisle were free. She slid in gracefully, not taking any notice of him until she’d settled.

She turned suddenly with purpose. “By the way, thanks for helping me out.”

He nodded once again and turned his attention to his satchel. He dug deep and brought out a sketch pad and charcoal. Her eyes narrowed. He hadn’t yet spoken a word, and the reason had to be that he couldn’t speak. He was looking intently out the window, his hand-eye coordination so smooth Clare was mesmerized. The poor, dumb guy had quite a talent. He sketched the dark hulk of the chopper against the snow so accurately in such a short time that Clare felt the urge to speak to him again. Just then a human plunked himself on the free seat next to her. She looked up startled and saw a face beaming down at her.

“Mind if I sit here?” he asked.

She remembered him from the airport café. His friend was the one who had tried in vain to woo the waitress. She scanned the bus. There were still many more seats free. Well, if he chose to sit next to her…

She smiled. “Sure.”

Leo’s assistant had emptied the chopper of its passengers and luggage, before heading over to where Paul and Leo were still talking. “Yo, Leo, we’re done here.”

Paul nodded, “I’ve got to run. I’ll see you around. Better not be late, with Sam on the war path.” He hugged his friend. “Fly safe.”

“Drive safe!”

Paul checked that the baggage compartment was properly locked before he entered the bus and greeted his passengers once more. “My name’s Paul Reeves, I’ll be your driver,” he said, looking around at them. “If anyone has any queries, toilets you need, etcetera. Ask me now, else we’re set to go.” Paul looked around and was met with silence. “Okay”. He slid into the driver’s seat.

He glanced at the strangers in the rear-view mirror before keying the ignition. The whole bus shuddered into action. Before going to head office, Paul planned a stopover at the petrol station to fuel up for the dreadfully long drive to the Snow Valley Lodge, a newly refurbished collection of old cabins near the summit of the mountains. It was designed at the request of the public, asking for a sanctuary where they would be able to experience the clean, crisp air of pure winter, snow and all.

From the gas station Paul turned onto the main street and pulled up at the bus terminal. He turned to the passengers. “I just have to run inside and get the list with your names, we have to keep a record of our passengers.” He jogged lazily toward the building and tried the door. It was locked but Sam had left an envelope wedged under the handle:

You left the list back here. I had to go to Hasting to sort out our new bus service. Don’t know when I’ll be back so take the list with you and bring it in next time. There have been a few cancellations so take note of who’s there and who’s not. Sam

Upon returning to the bus, he took attendance, popped the list back into the envelope and slipped both into his inner jacket pocket. He slid himself in the driver’s seat, started the engine, and drove the bus slowly onto the highway, following road signs that pointed the way up the mountain and toward the lodges.

After what seemed like an age of zigzagging through the forest on dirt roads, Paul finally turned the bus onto the steep curve of asphalt which hugged the sides of the mountain in spirals. The twenty or so passengers seemed to be either asleep or wowed by the breathtaking scenery. They were to be the first lot to try the renovated Snow Valley Lodge situated deep in the holds of the mountain region.

Outside the frosty windows, more snow-covered plain came into view, the wilderness stretching out before them as far as the eyes could see. As evening approached, darkness slithered across the landscape. The sun made its slow descent toward the horizon and splashed a soft golden hue onto the icy canvas of the snow.

Paul felt exhausted as he turned the steering wheel in his hands like a little toy that might belong to his two-year old son. Perhaps he had really bitten off more than he could chew. He was surprised at how hard it was to keep his hands on the wheel, let alone concentrate on the road.

He glanced in the rear-view mirror, at his passengers scattered around the seats. For the past three hours he’d noticed a young man either concentrating at the windshield or out the side of the bus, forever moving charcoal over a notepad hidden from Paul’s view.

Two passengers, no doubt husband and wife, seemed to be in deep argument every few minutes. The busily sketching young man behind them displayed a tortured expression every now and then, shooting angry darts at the older couple. Paul didn’t doubt that the young man might actually harbor negative thoughts towards the warring couple.

Paul looked ahead; the road was still winding up the mountain but never seemed to grow shorter. He glanced in the mirror again. There was plenty of entertainment, on the other side of the bus too.

“But, like I was saying, skiing is a dangerous business. I’ve broken the same leg twice at two different places, trying to do mid-air tricks the Olympians do too easily.”

Clare chuckled loudly, causing everyone in the bus to turn their way. The guy looked sheepishly back at her and whispered something else that made her laugh more. Paul smiled. The young woman looked very much like his wife when she laughed. He sighed, stepping on the accelerator some more. The next kilometres or so were one of the steepest strips of road on that mountain, one that concerned him a bit. The engine groaned and whined and pulled the heavy bus further up.

He glanced in his mirror again. The noise hadn’t seemed to faze anyone out. In fact, one seat behind the giggling brunette and the young man, another young man was keeping busy. He doddled pictures on the condensation that clung to the window. The things people did when they were bored! Paul turned back to the road…and his eyes flew open. He was quite alert now, perhaps for the first time that day.

He was looking at a bus coming at them from around the bend. His mind sounded alarm bells. They were on a collision course. In a split second instinct kicked in and he slammed on the brakes. Before rationality took hold, his foot hit the pedal beneath him. Don’t skid, don’t skid, he mumbled beneath his breath. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, trying to keep the tyres on the road. The passengers screamed fearfully as the bus jerked to the left. Where the hell did it come from? No lights, nothing! Paul’s thoughts reeled. Wild Thing was on the verge of the road, a little nudge and it could fall down the slopes below.

Paul hated to admit, but he was losing control of the bus on the icy road, wheels refusing to follow his steering command. Heart thundering its flesh and bone cage, Paul stared at the oncoming bus. A sudden jerk grabbed his attention and he eyed the side view mirror. The back wheels had run off the edge of the road. At that moment, his wife’s fear rang loud in his ears.

Taking a deep breath, Paul closed his eyes, hands tightly gripping the wheel. His mind blocked out the piercing screams coming from behind him. He thought about his wife and kids. I love you with all my heart. He clenched his teeth as fear hooked its crippling claws into his every pore. His heart slammed like a tortured bird against his ribcage. And at that point, he knew he’d never see his family again.

The boom of the two giants crashing was deafening. Paul uttered a last prayer before the bus convulsed and morphed like an alien caterpillar, but the result wasn’t going to be a beautiful butterfly. The sounds of death took over; glass breaking, metals scratching against each other; agonizing screams of people who had entrusted their lives to a stranger.

Then the hiss as the bus fell through the air. Paul gasped, remembering that morning with his wife. “The children would rather have you this season than presents, Paul.” His wife’s voice echoed eerily into his ear. It was the second last thing Paul Reeves ever heard before hearing his own skull crack against the sheer force of the bus coming in contact head on with the rock hard slope.

The bus crashed and slid, wreaking havoc amongst the forestry. When it finally came to a halt, it had left a trail-blazing tail of a clearing behind it.

Above, on the road, a shaken and scared driver of the other bus got out, walked to the edge, and looked down. Shaking with fear at what had just happened. He stared at the wreckage for a while before fear gripped him, and he hobbled back to his own vehicle and sped away, not knowing if there were any survivors.

Time passed as if holding its breath. The sun set, leaving only streaks of light remaining in the sky. And in the crumpled wreckage of the overturned bus a few eyes opened. A few woke up.

*

“Is everybody okay?” A smooth rumbling voice cracked the still air. Brandon struggled to find his footing among the debris. He squinted into the looming darkness of the bus, hoping perhaps that everyone would reply, but he heard only three voices and a faint groan of pain from someone on the back seats.

“Who was that?” he asked, focusing on three figures rising up from the belly of the bus. He pulled himself forward, grabbing on to whatever support he could find. A sharp pain ran through his left shoulder as he attempted to reach out in the darkness, almost crippling him.

“It’s from the back,” Clare answered, her vision blurred from drying blood that had clamped her right eye almost shut. For a moment, panic struck her; had she lost her eye? Her hand instinctively flew over her face to find both her eyes intact. It was her head which had received a mighty fine cut that had bleed down her face.

Brandon started to move towards the back of the bus. A dark shadow fell on Clare’s face as Brandon’s frame blocked what little light there was. “Are you okay?” he asked.

He wasn’t dumb after all, was he? She looked up at the dark shadow of his face and nodded. “Other than the cut on my head and few bruises, I think I’m fine.”

“Good, good.” He nodded, holding onto his injured arm; to the other two guys, “How about you two, how are you guys?”

“Alive,” They let out a great sigh of relief in unison.

Brandon stood there a moment, trying hard to ignore the shooting pain in his shoulder. “Are we the only ones?” he asked turning to a body on the seat next to them. He stretched his right arm under the neck, trying to locate a pulse. He stood back up slowly.

“Anything?” Clare asked in a raspy whisper.

Brandon shook his head and continued to scan the bus. He swallowed hard, fear seeding inside him as he realized for the first time that the bus was lying on its side, and people had been literally tossed about.

“What do we do now?” one boy asked, looking horror-struck around him.

Just then the air was pierced with a male groan.

“I definitely heard that,” the other one mumbled.

“Feel everyone’s pulse,” Brandon immediately advised. “There’s got to be more people alive than us.”

The four of them scattered about the bus, dividing it into sections between them, but their efforts were of no avail until one of the boys tripped over a body in the dark. The rest heard him yelp.

“Jack, you okay?” asked his mate.

“Yeah,” Jack exclaimed as he reached down to find a pulse. Then he realized someone was trapped underneath that body. “Matt, give me a hand.”

As soon as they managed to safely lift and put aside a woman’s body, Matt located a head and felt for a pulse. The man groaned again.

“Can you hear me?” Matt asked gently. “Can you tell us how badly you’re hurt?”

Again the man let out a short groan as he tried to lift his head, then rested it back down. “My wife…where is my wife…Nora, where are you?” His groans dissolved into small hiccoughing sobs as he turned his head to his left and saw his wife’s body soaked with blood. His hand moved clumsily to stroke her face. “No, Nora No…” he cried out, shaking his head. His voice cracked with sudden dryness.

Matt tensely spoke again. “Please, sir … are you hurt?” his voice as calm as he could maintain it.

The distraught man stared at him a moment before refocusing on his dead wife.

“We’ve got to get him out of here,” Brandon whispered from behind.

Nodding, Matt turned to the man again. “Sir?”

The man nodded his trembling head and with a quivering voice he spoke. “I can’t feel my right leg.”

Jack squinted down to where the man’s legs should have been, but he could see nothing. “Can’t see anything in this light,” he said, patting the air. Suddenly, his hand found wetness of blood. “He’s bleeding, probably a gash or something,” as his hand brushed something sharp and thin sticking up from the right leg.

Jack touched the mystery object again, causing the injured man to scream. Jack yanked his hand away immediately. “Sorry.”

“What is it?” Matt asked.

“Some kind of a sharp object, perhaps a sheet of metal, it’s not thick enough to be a piece of glass.”

“We can’t help him in this light.” Brandon leaned over Jack’s head.

“Do you think you can stand up at all?” Jack asked the grieving man. “We need to get you out of the bus.”

“No,” the man cried stubbornly. “Not without Nora.”

“We’ll get her for you, but right now…” Jack hesitated.

“No, I want you to check on her. Please!” he pleaded, reaching out to his wife.

“Check on her,” Matt jerked his head towards Jack, nudging him with his knee.

“Okay, okay,” Jack nodded. He moved towards the woman’s body. A trembling hand reached out to check the carotid artery in her neck. Jack slumped back, shaking his head. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, no…”

Awkwardness passed between them, and suddenly Brandon spoke. “We can’t help stop his bleeding in this light.”

“We should try and hoist him out of here,” Jack suggested.

“And how do we do that?” Matt asked quietly. “The bus is on its belly.” His whisper hissed and echoed around them.

“From the front,” Brandon stated before anyone had a chance to even think about it. “Through the windscreen area, it’s wide enough.”

“Okay, then,” Matt pushed his jacket sleeves up slightly. “Help me carry him out gently.”

“I’ve got an injured arm,” Brandon replied.

“All right Jack, help me.”

Seeing at least some sort of action happening, Clare relaxed a bit and watched Matt and Jack move the man.

Matt anchored the man under his arms, while Jack took the feet. “One, two, three…lift.”

When the boys reached her, Jack turned around, “Sorry, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Ah…” she stared at him. “Clare.”

“Well, Clare, could you please move things out of the way so we can get him outside without tripping over?”

Clare nodded and moved ahead of the two, feeling around in the darkness to move aside any handbags or jackets. But when it came to moving a body, she froze.

“What’s wrong?” Matt asked as he saw her silhouette frozen on the spot.

“I…I’m… I’m going to need help,” she struggled to keep her wits about her. “I can’t…move the bodies on my own”.

Brandon strode forward. “I’ll give you a hand.”

As Jack and Matt stepped onto solid ground, Brandon turned to Clare. “We should grab a few blankets and perhaps some sleeping bags, if we can find any. I have a feeling we are going to be here through the night.”

Clare nodded as she stared out of the windscreen space. “Do you think he’ll be okay?”

Brandon looked out to the injured man. “Depends.”

He turned back to the dark inside of the bus, grabbing anything that he thought could be bags, and threw them out the front of the bus. Clare too started snooping around the interior of the bus, her hands brushing against a dozen things, but always reluctant to hold onto anything for fear she might grab onto a body. When Brandon approached the front of the bus, he stopped short behind her.

“Anything the matter?”

She swallowed hard. “I can’t see a thing.”

Brandon chucked out the bag he was holding. “Whatever I’ve thrown out should have at least a few things that might come in handy.” He stepped aside a little. “After you.”

Clare stopped just outside the bus, sniffing the air zealously. “Do you smell that?”

For a moment he smelt nothing but the slight hint of her perfume carried off by the breeze. He shook his head. “No. Why?”

She walked around the corner towards the wheels, continuing to sniff the air. “I think the tank’s leaking petrol.” She turned to him, and couldn’t clearly make out his expression.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

She nodded.

“We need to do something about the guy’s leg. Bleeding’s uncontrollable.” Jack suddenly appeared behind them. “What’s wrong?” he suddenly asked seeing their dead-pan faces in the dull light.

“The bus is leaking petrol,” Clare stated.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Exasperated, Jack sniffed.

“We need to stay away from the bus in case the tank bursts into flames,” Brandon was struggling to speak through the pain in his shoulder. For a moment he had forgotten about it. Only for a moment though.

Huddled on the other end of the trail-blaze clearing, Brandon kept his gaze focused on the mystery object wedged into the old man’s thigh. When he looked up, the poor man was peering at him, questioning his chances.

Brandon held out his scarf in front of Matt. “Tie it around his leg, just above the wound, as tight as you can. It should help slow down the bleeding long enough.” I hope, he thought looking up to the quiet night sky.

“Did you find a first aid kit?” Matt asked, tightening the scarf.

Brandon tore his gaze away from the leg. “We don’t know what we grabbed; it was too dark to make out anything in there.” He shifted uncomfortably, trying not to think about the crippling pain in his shoulder. “Majority of the luggage is in the luggage hull, we could try in there when it gets a bit lighter.”

“Can’t we do that now?” Matt asked desperately.

“I wouldn’t want to risk it,” Jack stated, staring at the bleeding leg with discomfort.

“And why not?”

“Tank’s leaking. We don’t know how big the leak is or where it’s flowing. A tiny spark can ignite the fuel,” Jack replied.

“Great! This is just great!” Matt mumbled under his breath, struggling with the knot on the scarf, anger boiling under his cool demeanour. “What do we do then?” He looked up. “We can’t even call for help. I don’t suppose anyone has a cell phone?”

Clare, as if suddenly brought to her senses, reached into her pocket. A look of guilt washed over her pale face. She had a cell phone but that was not the problem. The problem was, as usual, she had forgotten to charge the battery. It was flat, rendering the phone completely useless.

“This is great!” Jack chirped. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

She swallowed nervously. “Err…the battery’s dead. I kind of forget to charge it.”

“What?” he choked in utter disbelief. “What sort of a person forgets to…”

“Anybody else have a phone?” Brandon asked, making effort to avoid sounding condescending.

“Excuse me.” The injured man spoke. They turned to him. He was holding out a mobile phone. “This might work...”

Matt reached for the device. “No harm in trying.” He stood up, peering into the little screen. He shook it, hit it, and held it high above his head, looking rather silly.

“No signal?” Jack asked, holding his breath.

Matt screwed up his face and shook his head.

“Maybe the bus has a radio. We could try and find it in the morning. Better yet, I’m sure the bus has GPS tracking on it.” Jack continued.

The others looked at him, but their minds were still on the phone.

“They may track us by the morning,” Jack added.

“Let’s hope so”. Matt sighed and turned off the phone.

“What are you doing?” Clare asked panicked.

Saving the battery, we may need the phone yet.” He smiled gently and turned to Brandon. “So, we just wait I guess.”

“Wait,” Brandon said as he peered up to the road overhead. “Hopefully they’ll send out search and rescue as soon as the weather lets them”.

As the night grew deeper, they sat around the foot of the cliff, huddled together to keep warm, occasionally checking on the injured man. The boys stayed close to each other; Clare sat separate, in shock. It had been a while since anyone had spoken. She sat crouched near the foot of the cliff, her slender figure shivering in the icy weather. She pulled her knees closer to her chest and laid her head down on them. Tears drizzling down her pink cheeks slowly.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked, looking at her.

“Those people in there,” she wiped her tears on her pants. “They’re all dead... I mean, we are the only ones that made it.”

“Be thankful that you did,” Matt said, putting a hand on her shoulder, and she nodded. He looked back towards the others. “So, what do we do now? We can’t dress our wounds without a first aid kit.” Brandon sat nearby, pain evident on his face. “You okay?” Matt asked.

Brandon shook his head. “I think my shoulder might be dislocated.” He looked at Matt. “You think you could, maybe set it for me?”

Matt looked stunned; he had never set any dislocated limbs, and to be honest, he hadn’t the slightest clue as to how.

“I can guide you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Brandon said quickly, seeing the hesitation. He needed his arm set, and set quickly; he couldn’t imagine enduring the pain any longer. “Please, I need to have it set.”

Matt heaved a heavy sigh. “Okay, what do I have to do?”

Brandon looked around briskly. “I need a flat surface to lie on, knee high”.

Matt scanned the surroundings. “I can’t see anything like that”.

Brandon nodded. “On my back then”

He struggled to remove the clothes from his upper body, unbearable pain shooting through his tender shoulder every time he was forced to move his arm. Finally, when all the clothing was off, only then could he distinguish the exact state of his left shoulder. The entire joint seemed to be swollen and blue.

“Are you sure that’s dislocated?” Matt asked, leaning in for a closer look. “It doesn’t look dislocated, just very badly bruised - you must have landed on it…several times.”

Brandon bravely scouted the surface of his shoulder, feeling for the bones. They seemed to be in place. “So it seems,” he said through clenched teeth. He grabbed his t-shirt with a relief; he was already feeling the chill through to his core. As he finally zipped up his jacket all the way, he cleared his throat. “I might need to sling the arm though, until the bruising clear up a bit.”

“Excuse me,” they heard a soft, raspy voice behind them. The older man was struggling to sit up.

“Yes,” Matt moved towards the man.

With a swift but weak grasp, he held the front of Matt’s jacket and nudged at it, trying to get him to come closer. “I don’t think I can make it through the night,” John Wilbur whispered. It was a statement, not a question.

Brandon crouched down to Matt. “Shall we try the luggage hull regardless of the situation?”

Matt shot a glance at him. “No, no, we have to think of something else, we can’t risk an explosion.”

From above, Clare whispered. “We have to do something for him though.”

“Perhaps we could tie his leg tighter, maybe it can slow down the blood loss till the rescue party arrives, hopefully at the crack of dawn,” Jack nervously cracked his knuckles.

Clare flashed him a disgusted glance.

“Excuse me,” they all turned back to John Wilbur. “What about snow?” He was struggling to talk. “Could it slow the blood to the leg?”

“No,” Brandon said quickly. “We can’t risk you catching hypothermia on top of your injury.”

“I’m going to die here,” John said, crushed by the nature of his condition. He laid his head down on the snow again, exhausted. Giving up.

The sheer helplessness of the situation spread and all fell silent; the air between them seemed to grow darker and heavier. Defeated, Clare seated herself closest to the bleeding man.

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye every so often. A scared expression remained on his lonely face and she figured the least she could do was keep him company until … well, until.

“What’s your name?” she asked gently. Not that she knew how to talk to a dying man. His eyes were vacant. “If you don’t mind me asking…?” she quickly said, “I’m Clare.”

A thin appreciative smile crept to the corners of his bluing lips. “John Wilbur.”

Clare smiled back. “What brought you here, Mr Wilbur?”

“Please, call me John,” he said, as he once again tried to sit up. This time Clare helped him, and as he leaned against the cliff; sniffing, he answered, “It was our thirtieth anniversary. Me and my wife, thirty years, we’ve been together.”

Clare’s eyebrows lifted in amazement. “That’s a long time; you must have loved her a lot.”

John nodded. “I remember the first time I met her in high school, boy, was she gorgeous.” When he looked up, he saw the boys moving in to hear his story.

“You’d been together since high school?” Jack asked curiously, a sense of awe in his tone.

“No,” John replied, shaking his head. “We never even spoke back then.” He smiled slightly. “I approached her at the ten year reunion, that was the first time I talked to her…nerve-racking it was.” His eyes welled up again, and he quickly looked away, struggling to compose himself. “Did she go quickly?” he asked; the question had been eating away at him for a while.

Brandon cleared his throat. “I think she didn’t suffer much,” he lied, overwhelmed with sympathy.

John nodded slightly, his gaze averted. “I hope that was so.”

*

The shaken and shocked driver pulled the damaged bus into the dark backstreet behind a pub and clambered out, his legs trembling violently beneath him. Pulling his bomber jacket’s collar up, he rounded the corner and entered the jaunty, loud establishment which was his daily haunt. The air inside was thick with cigarette smoke.

He pushed his way to the bar, squeezing between two chunky men seated on unsteady barstools. He slid money to the barman and ordered a neat whiskey.

It was well past midnight when the barman served him his last drink. “No more whiskey for you, John. You get your drunken ass home now, you hear.” John sculled the last of his drink with a nod and slammed the glass down on the bar. “You need a ride?” the barman asked taking the dirty glass from the bar.

“Maybe I’ll walk, Bryce.” John got off the chair unsteadily.

“Need to clear that head of yours, aye?”

“Something like that,” John replied. He pushed the door open and walked out into the chilly night. He turned into the backstreet where he’d parked the bus. He approached its dark silhouette apprehensively. He could see Paul’s wild, shocked eyes staring back at him accusingly. He blinked into the dark night, and something ahead of him blinked red and blue.

A couple of men in uniform were standing by the bus parked in a no parking zone. John was tempted to turn on his heel and walk back into the pub, but unfortunately for him, Officer Kent had already spotted him.

“John, you haven’t been driving under the influence, have you?” he asked observing the damaged front of the bus, whilst keeping John within his sight.

John nervously cleared his throat, clenching his clammy palms, and tried to stand as straight as his drunken self would allow. “No”, he replied.

“You drive this bus?” Kent asked, putting away his notepad. John was at a loss for words and simply nodded. “Humph. Sam reported the bus missing early this morning.”

“Yeah, that’d be right.”

“So, how’d this happen, John?” Kent asked, pointing at the front right corner of the bus where the damage from the crash had occurred.

“Err…an animal, tried to avoid it…couldn’t help crash into a tree though,” John slurred, swaying on the spot.

Kent nodded, eyeing up the soused man. “You’re not planning on driving this tonight, now, are you?”

“No,” John replied, rather too quickly. “Thought I’d catch a cab home, maybe…”

“Out on the back street?”

“Err…just checking up on the bus, you know, to see if it’s all locked up and that. Sam’d kill me if it were stolen and shit…”

“That’d be right.” Kent considered the man for a while. “You need a lift home? Come on then, John, let’s take you home.”

“What about the bus?”

“What about the bus?”

“Nothing.”

“Give me the keys and I’ll have my partner take it down to the station and park it there for the night.”

“The bus station…?”

Kent walked forward and grabbed the half senseless man by his upper arm out of habit. John didn’t protest. Possibly out of habit as well. As they approached the patrol car, Kent threw the bus key to his young partner and told him to take it down to the station. Then he put John into the back seat of the patrol car.

“What really happened to that bus, Johnny?” he asked, keeping his voice low and intimidating.

“Nothing, Kent,” John said slurring his words. “Just a dumb grazing animal.”

Kent nodded and shut the door, locking John in. He then rounded the front of the car and got in the driver seat.

“I’m going to have to report the damage to Sam. If you’re telling the truth then, it’s up to him to decide how he’s going to go about the repairs.”

“Yes.”

Kent pulled the car out onto the empty night street.

“What do you reckon Sam’s going to do to John when he finds out about that bus?” Logan, Kent’s night patrol partner asked when he entered the station.

“Oh, nothing besides sell even the clothes on his back to raise the money to cover his loss,” he replied exhausted, dropping into his chair.

The phone suddenly rang. Kent picked it up, frustrated. “Charlotte Police Station.”

“Is this Simon Stacey?” the male voice asked.

Kent sat straighter on his chair. “No, this is Officer Kent.”

“Oh…” the voice was hesitant a moment. “Its Larry Hanson from Snow Valley Lodge.”

“Oh, yes, Larry, how’s the weather up them peaks?”

“Splendid,” he replied. “More snow by the minute.” He sounded tired; no doubt the result of a long hard day. “But listen, Kent. I’m ringing about a situation up here. We were meant to have a busload of holidaymakers arrive at the very latest, eight in the evening, but the thing is, it’s past two in the morning and no one’s arrived yet. I’m starting to worry.”

“Are you sure it was meant to be today?” Kent asked, leaning back on his seat.

“Yes, Sam rang up this morning and confirmed.”

“Not Sam’s lucky day today, huh,” Kent twirled a pen. “Well, Larry, it could be that Sam got the date wrong and they are supposed to get there tomorrow, he’s been known to make such mistake”.

“Ah…” Larry was still hesitant. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

Kent yawned. “Well, I could try and chase Sam for you in the morning, but it’s quite late for tonight. But I wouldn’t go past Sam having simply passed on the wrong date.”

“Yes. Perhaps, I’ll ring him at daylight.”

“Not a bad idea, my man.”

“Good night then, Officer Kent.”

“Night, Larry.”

*

Throughout the next half hour Clare kept an eye on John, and any change in his pulse.

She heard the soft crunch of snow under feet and looked up to see Matt.

“Are you okay?” His concerned voice drifted down.

“Yeah, why?” she asked him curiously. Big blobs of tears were making their way down her face without her noticing.

“The waterworks,” he said calmly, sitting down next to her.

“I am?” She lifted her hands to her face. “Oh that, my eyes were stinging…” She forced a smile on her face.

“How is he doing?” he asked peering at John Wilbur.

“He’s lost consciousness.”

“How long ago was that?”

She shrugged. “He’s not going to make it.”

Matt looked at her soft features illuminated by the partial presence of the moon. Finally, shaking his head, he replied, “No.”

Brandon joined them, placing a bottle of vodka down as he sat.

“What’s this?” Matt asked, grabbing the bottle.

“Life,” Brandon said. “We can now dress our wounds and drink it too. It will help us keep warm a bit.”

“It’s only one bottle,” Matt exclaimed.

“Whoever the bag belonged to must have been prepared,” Brandon said, as he took the bottle from Matt’s hands. “At least for the cold.” He cleared his throat and cued Jack, who came, holding another bottle as if it were a prized possession.

Matt sighed.

“What about John?” Clare asked.

“As much as I hate to say it, we can’t do anything for him anymore,” Brandon said.

Tears flashed. “We can clean his wounds and perhaps give him a drink.”

“That’d be wasting it,” Brandon muttered under his breath.

“What?”

“That’d be wasting it,” he repeated.

“Wasting it?!” she held his gaze, anger building up inside. “Wasting? You three want to drink it and that’s not wasting?”

“Try to understand, Clare, he is dying,” Brandon said in a defensive tone as he looked at John.

“Yes, yes, he is dying, so that is why we should help him!”

Matt put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Calm down, Clare, he’s right.”

She turned on him, her shoulder jerking away from his touch. “What? You’re with him?” she asked in disgust. When Matt didn’t answer, she looked to Jack. “And you? What about you?”

Jack simply swallowed; he dared not utter what he thought out loud, but he did agree with Brandon.

“Am I the only one who wants to help him then?” she whispered.

“It’s not about helping him,” Matt spoke, keeping his eyes fixed on the snow. “If it would help him, then we would do it without a second thought, but it’s not going to help him, Clare. Nothing we do will.”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

Brandon bravely put a hand on her leg in sympathy. “He’s dying, he’s lost too much blood, he’s got hypothermia, and he’s already unconscious. I hate to say this but John will die well before the night is out.” Brandon swallowed, almost astonished at himself for sounding so calm. “I wish I could say something other than the truth but I can’t. There is simply nothing we can do for him now.”

“The alcohol won’t help him…it’s too late,” Matt added.

She looked away; her body shook, breaking out into sobs she could no longer control. Her moment’s mourning for a man she barely knew, but it felt good.

Clare sat separate, one hand attached as if permanently, to John’s wrist, monitoring his pulse. It had grown so weak she could no longer feel its throb. She checked the carotid artery in his neck. His blood vessel hiccupped ever so slightly and she braced herself for when she would no longer be able to feel it.

“We can’t just sit on our asses and watch the man die. Any one of us could have been in this shit.” Jack’s voice drifted her way, and for a moment Clare thought the boys might try and help John Wilbur make it through till dawn after all.

But she heard completely different thoughts within a few minutes. “I’m a bit hungry,” Jack complained. “Did you find anything edible in the bags?”

“Not that I noticed,” Matt replied almost robotically.

“Maybe we can find something in the bus,” Brandon turned briskly towards Clare who immediately looked away. “We can search when day breaks. I’m sure somebody has packed something at least.”

“I’m hungry now,” Jack said petulantly.

“Did we find any torches?” Brandon asked.

Jack looked up. “Might have come across one in the same bag as the vodka.”

Clare turned to the boys who were rummaging through the few bags. They were quite a noisy bunch working away with intensity.

She heard muffled, excited chatter, not sure whether they had found the torch, or whether they were lucky enough to have got their hands on some food.

She saw the flashlight turning on and off as Brandon tested it. She let go of John’s wrist and got up. “You can’t possibly be thinking about getting into the bus in search of food?” Her eyes scanned the faces of the three in the darkness, and she could sense their eyes avoiding her own.

When the boys didn’t reply, she nodded, licking her lips to moisturize them against the icy breeze that had begun to blow through the thin air of the cold night.

“What about the leaking fuel tank?” she asked, her eyes fixed on Brandon’s face. “You couldn’t risk igniting the tank before to look for first aid and now, when it’s still dark, you are willing to go inside it?”

“I’m not going into the bus,” he stated as he looked past Clare at the limp body. “I’m going into the luggage hull.”

The two boys looked at Brandon, “What?” they gasped.

Brandon stepped back. “I would do the same had we found the torch earlier.”

“You can’t risk an explosion!” Jack nervously reminded him. “We don’t know how big the leak is.”

“I can’t just stay idle!”

“Nobody is going anywhere.” Clare said authoritatively.

“I know you’re angry but there could be something in there that could help us!”

“We don’t need anything immediately. John is the one who could benefit from this, but he is gone.” She took the torch out of Brandon’s hand. “You’re not going anywhere till the sun comes up.”

*

Helen shifted in the bed. With a sudden jerk her eyes flew open, body drenched in sweat. Breathing heavily she looked around the room. All was empty and still, yet she felt jumpy, her nerves jerking with uneasiness. Her thoughts reeled to Paul. No, he’s up at the lodge. She wiped the perspiration from her upper lip. The kids? She got up briskly and left the room, and found her paranoid self, hovering over her children in no time. They were both sound asleep in their own beds at each end of the room.

She leaned over and kissed their foreheads, then walked out of the room quietly, and lingered outside the door a little while longer. “You’re going crazy,” she mumbled, shaking her head. She walked back to her room and scanned it from one end to the other. Satisfied that she was alone, Helen walked over to her bed and slid in. Not surprisingly, she could not get back to sleep. She turned to her side table and turned on the lamp. Her eyes fell on the clock. It was only four in the morning. Paul’s not leaving the lodge until six. He’ll be here by ten just as he promised. Everything is fine, Helen, just like all the other times, she thought to herself, but she was still nervous.

*

Throughout the night, Clare remained awake, her mind keeling over with guilt from having sat there idly, watching John take his last breaths. Her hand still kept a hold on his wrist, although his heart had stopped beating ages before she had confiscated the torch from Brandon. It was only when streaks of light started creeping through the horizon that her eyes shut, and she went into a very shallow sleep.

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