Short story: Iron Youth

Short story: Iron Youth

“You guys are nuts! You’re not supposed to drive on logging roads on weekdays. A logging truck can whip around a corner and run you off the road. You’re kidding!” Matt bellowed in his riotous laugh. His voice is disarming, filling the room with warmth despite his ominous message.
“Matt, we are not!” I retorted indignantly. “I’ve driven up roads like this a million times with my dad. Chill,” but still my girlfriends and I glanced at each other darkly.
We sat around Chloe’s living room, draped lazily over furniture and eating leftover Christmas chocolate. Her mother offered us chai teas, silently acknowledging our hangover without judgement. Chloe’s house was the best for parties, with her parent’s small detached cabin and hardly any concern about underage drinking. Her dad rolled joints in the shed while her mom shared beers around the bonfire and chain-smoked, her low raspy voice chuckling warmly. Her younger sister would make quiet conversation, shyly nursing a cider and letting guys flirt with her while Chloe shot them defensive glares.
It was early January and my friends and I were recounting stories from the previous night, shaking off the hangover like only seventeen year olds can. The next day Kara’s new stepdad, Hal, would pick up Chloe, Andrea, Kara and I to drive together to the base of Tin Hat mountain. From there we would snowshoe to the A-frame, a public hiker’s cabin where we would stay overnight. “Matt, I don’t think that trucks are working this time of year anyways, so close to New Years,” I said casually, closing the subject.
The next morning I watched Andrea expertly pack the gear into Hal’s orange and white Ford Bronco. When she suggested the trip I said yes without hesitation, eager to have an independent excursion, but it occurred to me when I saw her high-tech gear that I might be underprepared. I’d worn thick cotton socks and my winter coat. I stuffed food and a sleeping bag into my school backpack, flimsy with a broken zipper. Andrea was in the Girl Guides and Air Cadets, and had extensive outdoor training and technical gear. I had been camping and hiking countless times and considered myself to be outdoorsy, but I’d never backpacked or snowshoed. As Hal closed the Bronco’s canopy, I wondered if overnight snowshoeing required skills that I hadn’t considered.
Kara was less naive about what this trek would be. Her mother was too over-prepared on her behalf for her to not to be. She hovered over us while we climbed into the truck, asking Kara worriedly, “Did you bring a pillowcase? Did you pack the waterproof matches?”
Hal brushed her off with a dismissive wave. “She’ll be fine! You girls are tough, right?” and gave us a wink.
We were tough. The previous weekend, Andrea, Kara and I had held hands and ran into the frigid Pacific Northwest ocean together for the annual Polar Bear Swim in our small town. We had something to prove, and we wanted to win. At least, I did, and I wanted it enough for all of us. Years later Kara told me that she assumed we would run in and out of the water, but I’d announced that we had to win by staying in the ocean the longest out of anyone on the beach. No one objected, so that was decided.
As we shivered on the beach in our bathing suits awaiting the starting call, I understood that the reality of what we were about to do was going to be very different from my idea of it. The water scraped our skin like barnacles, eliciting cries of pain as it hit untouched areas of skin. The outrageous cold assaulted every sense. It echoed the feeling of limbs falling asleep, urgent and sharp, but then acclimatizing to acute numbness. Our bodies turned pale and lips blued. The pain in my feet was extraordinary as they lost mobility. Most contestants were in the water for only a moment, but another trio of girls remained in the water after the crowd had sprinted back to the shore. We knew that this was a battle of attrition, and there was no question in my mind that we would be staying until they left. “This is building mental toughness, you guys!” I announced, forcing cheer into my voice. Kara closed her eyes and breathed vigorously. I briefly wondered who it was that I was trying to impress by staying in the water. Myself?
A tree branch scraped the side of Hal’s truck, startling me out of my day dream. Chloe was talking brightly about her plans to join Canada World Youth the following year, speculating about which country her program might place her. I smiled at her, musing that she had the most interesting post-graduation plan out of anyone I knew. Chloe’s world always struck me as bigger than mine, with her well-traveled parents who would host international exchange students, and friends from places like Namibia and Ontario. Yet, the risks she took were always measured, unlike my frenetic and fun-motivated recklessness. In sharp contrast to her principled strength, her thin frame and frailness gives her a birdlike quality. Chloe had watched the Polar Bear Swim spectacle from the shore with Kara’s mother, supportive but too pragmatic to run into the Canadian ocean in January. As Kara later darkly put it, she hadn’t participated because “she knew.”
Thirteen and a half agonizing minutes passed before the other group of girls ran out of the ocean, screaming and laughing, finally relieving us of our post. We stayed a few moments longer to prove our point, and then we ran too, holding hands and gasping as our feet touched the rocky shore. Andrea and I yelped with exhilaration and triumph, but Kara was muted. She was quiet as we threw a towel around ourselves and sprinted to the van. Her mother drove quickly so we could leap into her hot tub to warm up, bringing us hot chocolate and sitting outside to chat. Kara shivered for hours, refusing hot chocolate and only periodically participating in conversation. We worried, but Kara could be withdrawn and anxious at times, so we let it go when she reassured us.
“One kilometer to the trailhead,” Hal said, reading a signpost and looking over his shoulder. “I think that-” He was interrupted by a tremendous roar as a logging truck thundered around the corner, passing us narrowly. Hal startled and we exploded into screams as the windows shook. Hal gripped the steering wheel and pulled over roughly to the side of the road. “Girls!”
“Oh my god! Matt was right!” Kara yelled, her voice cracking.
“Jesus Christ.” My heart was racing. I composed myself, and glanced sideways at Andrea. We broke into nervous laughter, holding our chest and collapsing forward. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Matt.”
“Don’t do that again,” Hal said, exhaling heavily, chuckling slightly. “You scared the daylights out of me!” He pulled back onto the road, and Chloe’s eyes met mine for a moment, still shaken.
“That can’t be a good sign.”
“It’s fine,” I retorted abruptly.
Once we pulled up to the trailhead Hal helped us unload the Bronco, moving aside boating rope in the back to pull our bags out. Hal was in the Coast Guard, with a formidable greying moustache and an approachable ease about him. He showed us how to use the radio that Kara’s mother had insisted we bring. The radio connected to the Coast Guard’s internal communication system, which he would monitor that night should we get into trouble and send an alert. Andrea tucked her auburn hair back into a toque and demonstrated how to strap on the snowshoes she’d borrowed from her Air Cadets leader, snapping them on swiftly and cleanly. I clumsily adjusted mine, looking over at Kara’s to check that I was doing it right. They felt awkward but secure enough, so I stood up and joined the girls standing before the wide creek that was at the very front of the trail.
Hal scratched his moustache. “Girls, your feet are going to get soaked if you cross that.” We shifted nervously.
“Um, well, maybe if we…” Andrea trailed off.

“Here, I’ll piggy back you across. My boots are made for this,” tapping his knee-high waterproof work boots. I was reluctant to accept help at the very beginning of our hike, but he was right. The water was deep enough that it would go over all of our ankle-high boots, and too wide to jump. We nodded, and he carried each of us across, followed by our bags. I couldn’t help but giggle as I hopped on his back, feeling childish.
“Thanks Hal!” We called to him once we were all across, and he gave us the thumbs up. He jumped back in his Bronco, and we watched him drive away down the dirt road.
“That was really nice of him,” Chloe observed.
“It was,” Kara agreed thoughtfully, and bit her lip. For years it had been her and her mom and brother as her family team, and she was still adjusting to life with a stepfather.
We looked around; we were alone. Andrea clapped her hands together and started down the trail. “Off we go!” Kara, Chloe and I shared an almost imperceptible moment of eye contact, then followed in her steps.
The mood was light as we stepped on the tree-lined path. The untouched snow was fairy-tale white, the trail winding naturally as though the forest opened a path just for us. It was almost suspiciously inviting, too perfect to be real. Kara looked over at me. “This is definitely leading us to the Blair Witch’s cabin.”
Chloe burst into laughter. “Kara, no!”
The branches of cedar and Douglas-fir trees bowed under the weight of the snow, burning my nostrils with their sharpness. The air was remarkably crisp and unpolluted, its austerity occasionally broken by chipmunks running across our path or birds rustling the bushes. Within minutes, though, my Blundstone boots which I normally used for horseback riding were saturated with wet snow. My feet went numb with cold, making my movements stiff in the snowshoes. My backpack which I had stuffed to the zipper sat awkwardly on my shoulders, shifting heavily with every movement. I glanced at my friends and noted Andrea striding briskly ahead. Chloe stepped lightly and tentatively, hands on her backpack straps, while Kara kept her eyes straight ahead as she moved forward with stiff intention.
“My feet are soaking wet,” I crinkled my nose, looking towards Kara for commiseration, “are yours?”
“A little”, she said without elaborating.
“These boots are waterproof!” Chloe flipped her straight sandy blonde hair back and did a little tap-dance, as best as she could in snowshoes.
“Must be nice” I grinned at her, giving her a playful shove. I oscillated between feeling sorry for myself and frustrated for not being better prepared. Why do I not have proper boots?
“I am cold though,” she admitted, her eyes flashing with suffering, “this is kind of hell.”
The trail intersected with a creek and we stopped to analyze our path. I stepped forward confidently on the icy rocks to pick my way across the creek, the girls following in my path once they saw me reach the other side. As children my sister and I raced along rocky British Columbian beaches, conditioning my ankles and bestowing me with a sure-footedness that I trusted. Leading my friends across the river, I felt reassured. Maybe I could handle this.
I recalled a day two years earlier when the four of us uncharacteristically skipped school and walked down to the ocean. Hopping along the rocks, we stripped to our underwear and jumped in the waves, feeling like outlaws. We swam free as salmon, our rainbow scales glistening in the sun. At that point we didn’t know Kara well, as she’d moved from Port Moody that year. She had a peculiar way of looking at the world, a weirdness that made us connect instantly. She was generally quiet, but would break out into loud film references when it was least expected, causing everyone to look at her in surprise, at which she would turn inward again. She was a brilliant observer and caught subtle interactions and expressions. With just a glance we could communicate that we’d seen the same vulnerability in someone, and would spend whole afternoons imagining their inner lives. That day at the beach, Kara later told me, with female friends who had accepted her, was one of the most exhilarating of her life.
Andrea was a little less comfortable with Kara than I was. She was capricious in her own way, always up for adventure, but was the most measured of us. In contrast to Chloe’s hippy parents, Andrea’s were reserved, sensible people; her sister was the town pageant queen and a solo airplane pilot. Andrea felt a great deal of pressure and comparison between her and her sister, and was about to become a pilot as well. She had achieved high levels in Air Cadets, Girl Guides, choir, and the school band. She and Kara had become good friends, but I always felt an uneasiness between them, like neither of them felt fully safe with the other. Chloe was more at ease with and closer to Kara, but would often become frustrated at her social anxiety and heightened sensitivity.
We passed a sign nailed to a tree stating “3 km”, and Andrea glanced at her watch. “It might be starting to get dark by the time we get to the cabin. We should pick it up a bit.” How has it only been 3 kilometres? Chloe and Kara glanced at each other miserably, but Kara nodded.
“Ok. We should definitely get there before dark.” Chloe agreed.
“Let’s march!” Andrea and Chloe broke out into a Girl Guides song together, linking arms and attempting to skip in the snowshoes. I walked behind them with Kara, willing my feet to move forward. I didn’t want to complain, but my physical needs felt urgent and considerable. With every step my wet socks rubbed against my blistering toes, my feet and hands so cold that I wondered what the threshold is for frostbite. I wondered if my friend’s discomfort was the same as mine and they were just tougher, or if their gear was making this easier on them. I looked longingly at their boots, dreaming of finally pulling mine off once we reached the cabin, and throwing on my dry socks. I ached with the thought of it.
I needed to get out of my head. I smiled weakly at my friends’ singing, but their tones felt so earnest and light that the contrast to my heaviness only stung me further. I looked over at Kara who kept her eyes on the ground a few feet in front of her, matching Chloe’s steps. I wondered what she was thinking. She always seemed so disciplined to me, like she had mastered her physical needs. She could be so quiet that I sometimes thought of her as alien, outside of the physical needs spectrum. I internally vowed not to complain for the rest of the hike.
“Do you want to stop for lunch?” I asked the group a while later.
“It’s too early,” Andrea said, “we still have more than halfway to go.” I nodded and went on gamely.
A couple kilometres later, Chloe turned to me meaningfully, desperation flashing in her eyes. “I’m starving.”
“Guys, let’s eat when we get to the cabin. I don’t think there’s that much further to go.” Andrea responded firmly.
“You’re just saying that! Come on. We need to sharpen the saw,” I countered, referencing an idea I’d recently read in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. “It’s better to rest and refuel so we can move more efficiently when we get going again.” Andrea rolled her eyes and carried on.
Chloe sighed and muttered to me quietly, “We don’t need her permission to eat. This is stupid.” I agreed and sat down in the snow defiantly, loudly unpacking my thermos of soup. Kara was too exhausted to take Andrea’s side. She laid on her back, looking up at the sky while Chloe and I ate. Andrea rolled her eyes in reluctant defeat, came back to us and pulled some food out of her bag too, as well as the radio.
“Let’s try sending a signal,” she said, fiddling with the dials. Static sounds pierced the air as she looked for the Coast Guard channel. “This is Andrea Miller up at E-branch cabin; please pass on a message to Colleen and Hal at fower art fife tree tree fower fife. The message I want to pass on is that we’re ok. We’re about halfway there. Over.” She frowned at the radio, and turned the volume knob one way, then the other.
“Did it work?” Chloe asked, her mouth full with her hummus and sprouts sandwich.
I glared at Andrea. “Hey, I thought you said there’s not that much farther to go!”
Andrea ignored me, turning to Chloe. “I think so. It’s hard to tell.” We waited for a response but heard nothing,. She shrugged and put the radio back in the bag.
“What were those weird words you were saying?”
“It’s the phonetic alphabet for radios.”
“Oh. Of course,” Kara said cheekily.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Chloe turned to Kara, tilting her head slightly.
“Not really. I had a big breakfast. I don’t want to fill up my stomach too much for the hike either,” and we nodded.
The following summer, Kara and I sat on the beach, tossing rocks in the water, as she turned to me and told me about her eating disorder. She told me about years of starvation, binging, and purging while I stared at the water, shattered. Though she was skinny, not once had it ever occurred to me that this was not her natural body state. It was true that she often didn’t eat lunch at school, but I had never really thought about it, at least not through the lens of concern. I’d had the sense that she was indifferent to food, that she didn’t require it in the same way that I did. I was so naive to this that I responded, “But, you… I don’t…you think you’re fat?”
She smiled dryly, “That was the concern.” It was incomprehensible to me. I wondered if other people in my life had invisible conditions that I was insensitive to. On this day on the mountain, though, I couldn’t see it. I just felt weak next to her and admired her stoicism. The pain of this hike made it impossible to think of anything other than my most urgent physical need.
Sitting still made us even colder, so we started quickly up the trail again, only making it a hundred feet before Andrea stopped abruptly. “Those are cougar tracks.” She pointed to the ground ahead of her in alarm. “These are fresh. There’s no new snow on top.” The four of us gathered around them, trying to reason our way out of seeing them. The tracks, though, were undeniably there, softly indented in the snow.
“Are you sure? Couldn’t they belong to a dog or something?” I tried, not allowing myself to acknowledge the lack of human footsteps accompanying it.
“No, there are no claw marks, and see how the shape is rounder. And the toes are farther apart.” Andrea replied matter-of-factly, and I nodded as if I knew that. “It must have crossed the path right before we stopped to eat,” she replied, glancing at me resentfully.
“Well, we can’t go back now,” Chloe breathed, her voice questioning.
“Let’s keep going, we’ll just make a lot of noise and move quickly.” Andrea decided. We moved up the trail four abreast, singing loudly and making up songs. Our eyes darted as we examined our surroundings, suddenly feeling watched. I tried to look ahead, but couldn’t resist turning around every minute to make sure we weren’t being followed, waiting for a slinking sandy-brown body.
“Stop that, you’re making me nervous,” Chloe muttered.
“I can’t help it. But ok, if we do see a cougar, everyone wave your arms to make yourself look big, and yell,” I instructed confidently.
“I thought you’re supposed to be quiet but make yourself big and back away,” Kara looked over her shoulder at me, “that’s what Hal said.”
“No, you have to yell, that’s what my mom’s friend did, she saw a cougar on a trail once.”
Andrea interjected, “Look, I don’t think a cougar would approach four people, so let’s just stick together and keep an eye out.” We all nodded in deference and trod forward, our eyes searching the adjacent woods.

“I’d be the first to die in a horror movie,” Kara muttered to me.
“Ok guys. Here!” Andrea exclaimed with false cheer, reaching into her jacket and thrusting a Hershey’s Kiss in our hands. “Who wants chocolate? If we make it around the next bend I’ll give everyone a piece.”
“Works for me!” I replied, picking up the pace, my voice straining despite my attempt at delight. Chloe grinned and did her snowshoe skip in reply. I adjusted my pack as the trail gradually became steeper, the trail widening and forest thinning. I leaned over to Chloe and whispered, “How are you doing?”
“I am so out of my element,” she whispered,“how are you?”
“My feet are killing me Chlo. My blisters have formed their own identity.”
I glanced over at Kara and registered her quiet gloom. Andrea did too, and she turned to Kara, her voice rising. “Let’s play a game. Kara, would you rather… um.. If you had to choose, would you rather have fifty fingers or no fingers at all?”
My legs burned as the path got steeper. I wanted to stop, but afraid that the cougar might be behind us, I pushed forward miserably. Determined not to complain, I tried to distract myself with chatting, but after a few minutes trailed off into silence that overcame the four of us. Andrea was considerably faster than the three of us so she started running ahead on the path, taking our bags with her, and setting them down farther ahead. I had never felt so much affection for her as when I handed her my bag and relieved my shoulders. As she jogged away from me, she tossed me a piece of chocolate, grinning. “I think we’re getting closeee!”
“You better not be messing with us,” Kara said, her voice cracking. Andrea ran on ahead happily, and Kara turned to me desperately. “I feel so unfit.”
Up the trail I heard a hoot, and I felt my heart leap ten stories high. “I think I see it!” Andrea shouted triumphantly.
“Ow owwww!” I hollered back and quickened my pace, the warmth of the cabin beckoning me. I was desperate to tear my damp socks off and warm my hands by the wood stove. Chloe let out a holler and threw her arms up, and we lengthened our strides as much as we could, the closest we could get to running. As we neared the corner we heard a dull thud, and turned to see Kara collapsed in the snow, laying on her side, eyes blank.
“Kara, are you ok?” She stared at me emptily in response. “Friend!”
“Steph, I’m dying. You guys go, I’ll catch up in a few minutes.”
“Friend, we’re so close. The cabin is right around the corner! You’ll be so happy when you’re there!” I pleaded uselessly.
“Let’s go Kare-bear!” Chloe said in her best cheerleader voice. There was a heavy pause, but Kara’s looked vacantly back.
“It’s right there, Kara. You’re holding everyone up. I know you’re tired but you need to get up,” Andrea reasoned. “And the cougar, remember?”
“Kara, come ON. Get up.” Chloe insisted sharply, rolling her eyes.
“I don’t want to get there without you, you have to be part of this moment with us.” I pleaded, racking my brain. I was tired, and irritable, and I needed to get to a warm place. An image from a book we were reading in English class together, All Quiet on the Western Front, came to mind. “Kara, you are Iron. We are the Iron Youth, and you have to get the hell up and finish this thing with us.”
“This isn’t fair to the rest of us,” Chloe crossed her arms.
Kara inhaled and glanced at us dryly, conceding. With a great effort she stood and closed her eyes, exhaling heavily.
“Okay.” We walked slowly ahead, matching her pace. “Okay.”

Around the corner the trail opened up to a broad clearing, and all at once we stepped into a world so serene that my breath caught in my throat. The cabin stood regal but seemed surprisingly short, the snow banked high against its walls, belying its true height. The vastness of the snow field and sharpness of the intermittent trees against the blue sky was unbelievable. Stepping into that clearing felt like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, sending chills of sublimity through me. We were hushed by the inexplicable sound of snow. I had never experienced silence with a pulse, and I felt unworthy. This was a world that I didn’t belong to. I was an honoured guest with a one-time invitation.
“Wow,” Chloe breathed, and I nodded softly. “I’m so glad we made it here before dark.”
“Thanks, Andrea,” I smiled at her, meaning it.
We opened the door to the cabin and saw a cozy room with a wood pellet stove, bench, small dining table with chairs, and kitchen which comprised of a sink and propane camping stove. We dropped our bags and I immediately ripped into mine, looking for my socks. I released an audible “ahhh” as I luxuriated in the feel of dry cotton. I would never take dry feet for granted again. We admired our home for the evening, the novelty of having our own private space elating us. There were rickety stairs leading to a loft bedroom, with a foam mattress on the floor and single blanket, the air thick with dampness.
We went back outside, arms outstretched, breathing in the crisp air deeply. We tossed snow in the air, feeling a renewed lightness now that we were free of our snowshoes and bags. To be here, to have made it here despite everything, widened my heart space to new possibilities. I could not believe that such beautiful places existed this close to my home, and that I could carry myself here. It all felt worth it.
“Let’s go get the wood stove started,” Andrea said, turning towards the cabin. I didn’t want to disturb the magic of being outside, but I needed the fire. Andrea opened up the hopper to add pellets, added the fuel and lit the stove. It briefly lit, and then sparked out in seconds. Silence. She fiddled with it a second more, held her lighter up to the pellets, as the three of us stared expectantly. This time it fully lit, and we cheered in relief as smoke started to billow out of the stove. The fire petered out after a minute though, and the smoke still poured out heavily. She tried lighting it again, but once more, it lit briefly and the cabin filled with more smoke, making us all break out into a coughing fit.
“It won’t stay lit,” Andrea frowned, and Kara came over to inspect it.
“Is it jammed?” Kara knelt down and attempted to light it. “I think you did everything correctly, it should light.”
“I don’t understand.” Andrea put her hands on her hips and bit her lip. Chloe and I came over to investigate, although we knew we were the least qualified to do this. We inspected the stove, pretending to know what we were looking at, and we all made several more attempts in vain, making small adjustments each time. We inhaled sharply with the realization of what this meant, causing us to choke again on the thick smoke.
“So…we can’t turn it on? We won’t have a fire?” Chloe crossed her legs and pulled her sweater up to her chin.
“I don’t know what else to do” Andrea said weakly. Chloe dropped her head in her hands and started sobbing softly in frustration. I put my arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “Goddamnit.” The cabin was frosty inside, and the thought of sleeping that night with no fire was alarming. My frozen toes were still stiff and I shivered even underneath my shirt, sweater, and jacket. I felt my heart close back up again, shattered and angry. “Oh my god. This is bad.” I bit my lip, fighting back tears. I could not imagine sleeping tonight with no fire. Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better. No complaining.

“Um, let’s get dinner started then.” A hot meal would help, at least. I pulled out the camping stove and started boiling water for spaghetti.
“I have heat packs- Em, let me get you one,” Andrea rustled through her bag and tossed one at Chloe, who didn’t reach to catch it.
“I don’t understand how this is happening. We can’t sleep with no fire. We’ll freeze to death.”
“Chloe, what do you expect me to do? I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not happy about this either,” Andrea crossed her arms and turned away.
Kara looked over at me awkwardly. “Ok well… I have to pee. Will someone come with me?” I nodded. Kara stepped out but jumped back in and slammed the door a moment later, turning around, her eyes wild. “More tracks!”
“What? Are you serious? From the cougar?”
“They’re right by the front door.” We went over to look, tentatively opening the front door. There they were, freshly imprinted a few feet to the left of the cabin door.
“This can’t be happening,” Chloe shrieked. “We’re going to die up here.”
“Ok, no one is going to die tonight. We’re safe in here.” Andrea said firmly.
“Well, there’s no way I’m going outside tonight. I saw a bucket under the sink. We can just pee in there!” I announced proudly.
Andrea frowned. “No way guys, that’s so gross. We can’t just go around peeing in other people’s buckets.”
“Andrea, there’s a cougar outside! Are you serious?”
“I’m sure he’s not, like, actually hunting us. They wouldn’t stalk a group a four. One of us can go pee and the other can stand watch.”
“You must be kidding. You’re going to feel really bad about this when a cougar rips us apart.”
“Steph!” She rolled her eyes.
Kara had her hands on her hip, staring blankly ahead. “Well, I have my period, so both the bucket and going outside with the cougar lurking are pretty bad options.”
“Okay, Andrea, are you really going to veto the bucket? What are we supposed to do?” I pleaded.
“I just… I’m not trying to be a jerk. I just don’t think it’s right to pee in a public hikers’ cabin bucket. Someone might use it for cleaning or something later.” We sighed and resigned ourselves to what we had to do.
Kara stepped outside. “Steph, will you stand watch?” I grabbed a flashlight and stood in the doorway while she crouched a few feet away, singing to make our presence known. When she finished she got up and let out a cry of exhilaration as she joyfully bounded through the door and shut it. “Aren’t you going?”
“Not now. I’m holding this for as long as I can. I’d prefer not to die tonight, thank you very much.” I shoved a chair up against the door. “Just in case.”
“Right, because cougars can open doors,” Kara laughed and rummaged through the cupboards for seasonings as the water came to a boil. We heard a gasp and a loud screech, “Tequila!”
“No way!” Andrea grinned, “YES!”
I threw the pasta noodles into the water, shaking my hips and singing the oldie tune, “da da da da da da da da… da da da da da da da…. tequila!” We gathered around the table, the bottle in the centre of us like a sacred nectar. Chloe sliced up an orange she pulled from her bag and passed us each a piece.

Kara turned to us seriously, raising her hands with the grandiosity of performing an ancient ritual. “Ok friends. So you take a shot, and then name which Pokemon you would do if you had to.”
“Kara!” Chloe laughed, but then answered, “Mewtwo,” and she took a swig from the bottle and chased with an orange slice, then passed it to Andrea.
“Forever a cat lady. Umm… I think… Squirtle.” She took a shot, screwing up her face as it went down, and we burst into laughter.
“Squirtle isn’t evolved though. That’s like doing a kid,” Kara said, and we cracked up hysterically.
Andrea passed the bottle to me, and I thought for a moment. “Diglet.” The girls laughed and I said defensively, “What, look at his shape! What’s yours?” I asked, passing the bottle to Kara.
“Onyx.” She took a quick swig, a bite of orange, and then chased it with a pinch full of processed parmesan cheese, choking it down in disgust.
“Oh my god, Kara!”
“I thought it would cut the tequila better,” she laughed through tears. “That was disgusting.”
“Well, of course it was,” Chloe laughed so hard that she fell off her chair, breaking her despondent spell.
“Let’s see what else is in the magic tequila cupboard,” Andrea yawned and started rummaging. “Ooh, a guest book!” She laid it flat on the table and we flipped through eagerly; in our town, the likelihood of knowing the guests was high.
“Mr. Clarke!” Chloe exclaimed, referring to her choir teacher. “Oh my god, he stayed here with his wife.”
“Ew,” Andrea laughed, “That’s so weird.”
We wrote our own entry between a muted game of cards. We were too afraid to open the windows because of the cougar, so the cabin was still filled with heavy smoke that subdued us. The tequila had softened the sharp cold, but made me acutely aware of how exhausted I was. Eventually we tired and crawled up the stairs, and set up our sleeping bags on the damp foam mattress. The room smelled soggy, and while we’d hoped the attic might be warmer than the main floor, we were disappointed to find the chill just as unforgiving. The floor creaked heavily as we moved, Kara and I jumping at every noise. “It’s creepy up here.”
I nodded. “Guys, there’s no way I can sleep on the outside, I don’t want to get picked off first.”
“Come on!”
“I know it’s irrational, but I’m scared of the cougar even up here. What if it somehow broke through the flimsy door or window?
“You can’t be serious.” Andrea sighed exaggeratedly. “Fine, I’ll take the outside, you big baby.” We crawled in our sleeping bags and wriggled closer to each other, cuddling up for warmth. Kara wrapped her arms around me, pulling me into a spoon.
“I don’t want to die tonight.” We stared at the ceiling in companionable gloom.
“I’ve never been this cold.” Kara whispered.
“Even in the Polar Bear swim?”
“Shut it.”
Chloe turned around in her sleeping bag to face me, eyes wide. “Mr. Clarke had sex on this mattress. I just know it.” We burst into laughter, breaking our frozen grimace.
It was one of the most desperate nights of our lives. We shivered violently all night, waking at every sound, the thin foam mattress barely cushioning us from the hard floor. We woke the next morning huddled together, having only slept for minutes at a time throughout the night. We shuffled down the stairs bitterly, still wrapped in our blankets.
Kara made oatmeal while Andrea fiddled with the pellet stove again. “It just doesn’t make sense,” she said, shaking her head, “Why won’t it work?! I’ve done this before and it was easy. I don’t see a jam.” Chloe and I huddled together on the bench, warming each other. She rested her head on my shoulder sadly. There was a soft clunk and Andrea gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. “The damper!”
Kara gasped and covered her mouth. “Oh my god.”
“Wait, what?” Chloe looked up.
“We didn’t pull the damper out. It was jammed. That’s why the room filled with smoke and why it wouldn’t light. OH MY GOD.” Andrea stared at us wide-eyed. We all felt incredibly stupid.
“I…” I didn’t feel like celebrating. I thought longingly of how the night would have been different with the warmth of the stove. I couldn’t tell whether Andrea was happy or upset.
“I can’t believe this!”
“It’ll be getting warm just as we’re leaving,” Chloe scorned. We huddled around the stove and tried to warm our hands, but it gave off little heat as it was getting started. I walked away in frustration and started packing up my bag. I wanted to get the hell out of there. The stove starting now, as we were leaving, pissed me off more than if it had never worked at all.
After breakfast, we grabbed our bags and tentatively opened the front door. Andrea made another radio attempt, but couldn’t tell if the message was successful or not. She grabbed her bag and stepped out first, scanning the ground for fresh tracks, waving us through when she didn’t see any. I clipped on my snowshoes, which did up easily in a snap. I frowned. It seemed too easy. Did I clip it in wrong yesterday?
“Um, I think there’s something wrong with my snowshoe. It won’t snap up properly,” Kara said, looking up at us.
“Really?” Andrea came over to investigate. “Oh damn, it looks like this one is broken. Sorry Kare-bear.”
I leaned over to take a look. “Those are the snowshoes I used yesterday. They were broken that whole time?! No wonder I had such a hard time on the hike! Let’s go.” I shook my head. We left quickly, bounding down the hill exuberantly. I took one last look behind me at the incredible landscape, thanking it silently, still dazzled.
The way down went by exponentially faster than the way up. My limbs were still freezing, and my feet got wet again, and they rubbed my blisters even more. But this time, I knew what to expect, and there was no demoralizing relentless climbing. I practically danced as we reached the trailhead. As we came through the clearing, Hal stood leaning against the Bronco with a big grin. “Sooo? How was it?” I turned to the others, unsure of how to answer. Kara winked at me and turned to Hal.
“It was an….experience.”
“Well, I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
“Did you get our radio?”
Hal looked at her a bit askance, scratching his moustache. “Well, we got a call saying that there was a message for me from Andrew Nealer, which said that you’re ok. We thought that it might have been from a hiker who you met on the trail. It wasn’t?”
The following Monday, the four of us sat against the lockers at school, the mood subdued. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I had spent the day after the hike soaking in the bath and curled up in bed, too empty to think. Our other friends stood around the lockers chatting in high spirits, fresh off of holiday break. An acquaintance named Wolf nodded over to us. We didn’t know him well, but he went to huge parties he hosted at his family’s remote house in the woods. “Hey, what’s up? How was your Christmas break?”
We told him flatly about our hike. “It was… it was really fun.” My feelings about the trip were beyond my ability or interest to explain.
“No way! I hiked up to the A-frame on Saturday for a day trip.”
“What? Really? You must have just missed us.”
“Yeah. I figured someone had just been there too, because the stove was still lit when I got there. It was actually hot in there.”
Chloe grabbed my arm in alarm, and we burst into laughter.


Stephanie Moore

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