Nine More Hours to Heathrow: Stonemaster John Long’s Latest Fiction Masterpiece
From Long's latest book "Icarus Syndrome", this chapter weaves a hair-raising tale of fate, trauma, and mountain endeavors.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
To purchase Icarus Syndrome, please visit here.
She was the only person sitting in first class, coiled in a window seat. I glimpsed her coming out of the bathroom stall up front, behind the pilot’s cabin. When I paused in the aisle and she glanced over with her rowdy green eyes, I knew that was her —which was impossible because she was dead.
I could picture it all from the moment we found her. And hear her voice, frank as rain, how she’d probe us with questions and grab arms till she heard a true answer. I remembered her tattoo, barely visible under the reading light—a thin black line circling her wrist, like a delicate bracelet inked on, with a small heart stenciled in the middle. And I could still see her face as she’d died. I’d watched it happen. I dropped into the aisle seat, and she gazed out the window at nothing. It was ten p.m. and pitch-black outside.
“Eight or nine years ago,” I said, “a woman tumbled off the Yosemite Falls trail and got banged up, and we carried her down in a litter. Her name was Hope.”
She turned from the window, uncoiling a little in her seat. “I wasn’t sure if you were you, or some creeper. Thanks for remembering my name.” She reached out her hand and I shook it, and she held on for one moment longer, in that way which changes everything. “You’d climbed one of the big rocks and got all sunburned and had white stuff on your face.”
Hope smiled and said, “You looked like a radish with frosting on it.”
She could say wonky things and somehow make them sound normal. “It’s crazy you remembered that,” I said.
“Who really forgets anything?”
Hope sipped a little wine from a champagne flute sitting on her tray table, and I imagined her springing back from the other side, straight into a SoHo loft full of cubist drawings and Kutani ware. She jumped straight into everything. No brakes. No filters.
“What about Bama?” she asked. “How he got all tweaky and kept fussing over me like Uriah Heep. And the muscley guy. The med student.”
“Chet,” I said. “He’s a doctor now. Up in Vancouver. He thought you were leaking inside.”
She hiked up her shirt, exposing a thin red scar rising off her belly button and over her stomach. “My spleen. They took it.”
“Ouch,” I said, and I clutched my belly. “I went back to school a couple days after the rescue, and never heard back about you. I thought you were gone.”
“Three times,” she said. She’d twice been resuscitated in the helicopter, doctors had told her, and once more in the ER, where they transfused her with everything they had. She pressed her palms together, giving thanks. She talked a little more about battling back, how sometimes her knee hurt at night, her words coming slower and slower. She had bruises on those memories.
“You seem OK now,” I said. “Better than I remember, and you looked good then—till the end.”
She shrugged and said, “Well, I’m sorta rich and sorta famous these days.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Don’t even act like you’re impressed by that.” She grabbed the wine but didn’t drink it. “I’m allergic to lies,” she said. “And I’m living one. I come clean with myself by the time we land at Heathrow, or I walk off this plane in rags.” She wasn’t Cinderella. She was buzzed on Pinot blanc, and so thrown open and bombs away, sitting next to her felt like camping in an avalanche zone.
“So, what about you and your wingman, Bama?” she said. “You couldn’t even look at each other.”
“How’d you remember that?”
She cracked a wintry smile, like I’d asked the stupidest question.
“Bouncing down the trail in the litter, there was lightning between you two. With me stuck in the middle, remember?”
“Pretty much,” I said.
“I asked Bama what happened between you, and he lied and said nothing happened. So did you. Remember that too, Sunburn?”
There was laughter in her. And her razing felt like summer. But I had good reason to say nothing. I stood, and she took my arm.
“If you ever sort yourself out, tell me how you did it.” She grabbed her wine and chuckled again, but the flight attendant frowned as he pushed the cart past us and saw me homesteading in first class.
“Just leaving,” I told the attendant. I glanced past Hope, not at her, and said, “Glad you made it, Hope.”
I hustled to the way-back, found an empty row and crawled into the window seat. Nine more hours to Heathrow. Bama ghosted in and lowered into the aisle seat, all hate and grimace, like he was sitting on a stove. No telling where Bama had actually run off to—I’d only caught the rumors—but I could sense a presence: Bama stewing with the intensity of a thousand suns. Hope was the second person we’d lost on a rescue, both in the same month, and some intangible thing had flown from our lives and we could never call it back. That was my last full season climbing in the valley, my last rescue, and I hadn’t seen Bama till now. What Hope said: We never forget anything.
Bama kept blazing up the trail till he collapsed in the dirt at the elbow of a switchback. As soon as we caught him, he wanted to push on. An hour before, Ranger Reggie (the only name he’d answer to) swung by Camp 4—where all the climbers stayed, including us on the rescue team—and grabbed Chet and me. We were smoking hand rolled cigarettes and holding down a picnic table, peering through the pines at ragged flocks of birds. They were flying high, at rim-level, and heading south. It was last August, and our spring was gone, and our summer. The few of us still slumming in camp were running on fumes after three months climbing in the valley. But we couldn’t leave Mecca till college started in a couple days. Even the birds knew better than to hang around. Served us right we got fetched for a rescue. We had to go. And we had to hit the Falls Trail, said Ranger Reggie. Full speed. Immediately.
We finally caught Bama, a mile above the trailhead, and we all doubled over, sucking air. All Bama said was that a hiker had skidded off the steep part of the trail, right below the rim, and she’d gotten scraped up.
“Well, hell,” said Chet. Why kill ourselves, he wanted to know, sprinting after some hiker with a couple measly scrapes?
“The Juniors radioed down she blew out her knee,” said Bama, annoyed, “so she can’t hike out on her own.”
“So we’re schlepping her down?” I asked, cringing at the thought.
“You wanna try that shit in the dark?” said Ranger Reggie. “On this trail?”
I scanned across the rubbly north wall above us, and the narrow trail slashing across it in a ragged series of Z’s. We’d never get the woman down this trail before dark. Bama shot off again. The trail steepened just above.
“What gives with Bama?” asked Chet, wobbling to his feet.
“He’s a hick with a badge,” said Reggie. Like we didn’t know that. Reggie threw on his daypack and trudged off.
Reggie always got along with us climbers better than he did with fellow rangers. For a hundred reasons.
We charged on, chasing Bama. The last heat of summer hung on us like a cloud without rain. After plowing up the initial slope, we cut across a ledge system, dunking our heads in a streamlet that pooled on the trail. Just above, the trail hooked left and climbed a ramp angling across a bushy granite wall. Then up through a maze of shale inclines and tiered rubble. A few hikers stumbled past, all rubber legs and sunburnt faces.
The rusty sign at the trailhead read: FOR ADVANCED HIKERS ONLY. Every day from May through September, hundreds tried living up to that sign. The Falls Trail rises 3,200 feet in a little over three miles and feels like climbing the stairs to the top of the One World Trade Center. Twice.
Out right and far above, Yosemite Falls pours through a cleft and straight off the north rim, free-falling into a bridal veil. Every summer day, down on the valley floor, thousands march a quarter mile up a paved access road toward the base of the gusher and get soaked to the bone, watching the white cascade. It seems to stretch out a hand to you. Miwok legend says when a tribal member approaches death, their souls travel to the foggy granite slabs below the falls, which locals call the Lost World, where swirling mist and water, streaming over stone, heal their wounds and their memories.
We jogged across the ramp and swarmed up the last 1,000 feet of elevation, covering about a mile over increasingly loose terrain. These final switchbacks formed an invisible barrier against everything below, and all that level ground represented. For anyone, at any time, the way could crumble underfoot. At 7,000 feet elevation, it took us a minute to catch our breaths and debrief the two Juniors—ranger interns—who Bama had sent ahead to fetch the litter chained to the footbridge on the rim.
The Juniors had loaded Hope into the litter, and she kept apologizing for causing all this trouble. Her left knee was red and swollen and she had some scrapes that the Juniors had dressed. She’d tumbled off the crumbling upper switchbacks and, with no secure place to put her, we could only cram together in a single file. Hope and her litter balanced on steep rubble. Bama eyed the queue piling above us, which snaked all the way up to the rim. Nobody could hike past till we got Hope to a clearing half a mile below.
“We best get you to lower ground,” said Bama. “Then we regroup.”
Hope’s eyes settled curiously on Bama, tall and thin as a rake, with his wiry red hair and Baby Jesus face. Add in the plantation accent—leaning towards a higher register—and his tense decorum around women, and no wonder people felt they were meeting the Spider from Mars. Not Hope, who grabbed Bama’s hand and said, “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re very welcome, ma’am,” he said, as the worry lines between his eyes relaxed. “Now, let’s get you outta here.”
We scanned the switchbacks cutting across the hillside. On solid ground we could take turns and piggyback Hope down, but the gravel, shale, and narrow trail made a fireman’s carry too dicey. Chet mumbled out, “The toboggan from hell.” Everyone groaned as we stared at the trail, trying to picture something before us that wasn’t there: four people carrying a woman across a crumbling balance beam. This could quickly go way wrong, but that was a problem for the future, and the future never felt real to me.
“I’ll take the front,” said Reggie. He’d suffer, which he liked.
I pulled on my climbing harness. Chet pulled a long nylon sling from the gear pack, tied it with two hand loops at four-foot intervals and clipped the sling into the back of my harness. Hope’s eyes closely followed our moves, but we couldn’t explain with a hundred hikers bottlenecked behind us. If only she knew.
The litter described a shallow, stretcher-like basket. Hope lay lashed inside it, face up. A thin, aluminum rail ran around a wire mesh bed, contoured for a human body. We’d normally carry this litter with six people, two on each side, one up front and one in back. But not on a trail barely a foot wide, with no room on the sides for the carry. A couple years later, they started making litters with a single wheel and an all-terrain tire mounted below the basket. We could have used one.
Bama reached into his day pack and fetched a small thermos of jet black coffee. We each took a shot, which committed us to get going. We double- and triple-checked everything that might separate us from the accident report. I grabbed the rear rail. Bama and Chet locked their wrists through the hand loops on the sling coming off the back of my harness. Reggie, facing forward, squatted and grabbed the aluminum rail with his hands matched behind his waist. Soon as we hoisted the litter, the weight nose dived onto Reggie’s hands, thickly calloused from hard service. But the shock load nearly buckled his legs as he plowed across the steep trail, heels digging into the loose packed rubble, the three of us behind getting dragged down the slope like we were tethered to a runaway horse.
Lying powerless in a litter made wimps out of El Cap speed climbers, but Hope owned it. Even when we’d totter and the litter yawed sideways, she never lost her amused little grin, which made us believe we might do this. We were redlining from the first step, burning energy we couldn’t get back. I knew that would cost us as we made our way down. It took over an hour of 50-foot pushes to tractor the initial half-mile, our bodies absorbing thought and feeling, condensing them into sweat. We collapsed in a small clearing above some fortified steps, cut into living rock. Waylaid hikers streamed past. One of the Juniors held out a water bottle and I gulped, then offered the bottle to Hope. Reggie beat me to it.
“I’ve been coming to Yosemite since grade school,” Hope said to Reggie, “and you’re the first black ranger I’ve ever seen. Can’t imagine what it feels like to be you.”
Reggie smiled thinly and said, “It’s not so bad as all that.”
“You’re a lousy liar, Ranger Reggie. This place is as white as the glacier that made it.”
“The Miwoks tell it differently,” said Reggie.
An uneasy divide, wide as the valley, had always loomed between Reggie and us. He was so much his own man, maybe race only told half the story. Hope closed the distance in four sentences flat. Reggie was just people to her. They talked a little longer and Reggie laughed, and Reggie never laughed. He glanced at me and thrust his chin toward Hope, as if to say, “Who is this woman?”
Good question. I put her around 21, likely a runner with her toned legs and the lug-soled trail runners on her feet. Straight black hair, cut stylishly short, and deep olive skin, like a Persian or a Turk, with eyes just as green as imperial jade. And the delicate tattooed line circling her wrist, with the small red heart in the middle. Back then, the only tattooed females I’d seen were biker chicks and convicts. Hope was the future.
Bama and Chet took a knee next to us and Bama asked Hope how she felt.
“Knee’s pretty sore,” she said, “and my side hurt at first. But it doesn’t anymore.”
“Better check,” said Chet.
Hope glanced at Bama, who said, “Not to worry, ma’am. Chet here’s a medical student.”
“Only first year,” said Chet.
Ever since high school, Chet spent all ninety days of every summer break climbing in the Valley. Never enough but, at that age, three months feels like a year. He’d return in his mind for the rest of his life.
Chet hiked up Hope’s t-shirt and we grimaced at the purple hematoma on her abdomen, just below her ribs. Chet gently pressed his hand against the wound, and said, “Better get her down.” Bama motioned his head for Chet and me to follow, above Hope’s earshot.
“There’s some important machinery under that welt,” said Chet. “She’s three hours out from her accident, and her vitals check out—”
“We’re going,” Bama cut in. “Now.”
We lurched down the lower steps, taking short breathers to shake the sensation back into our hands, setting Hope on a patch of grass and monkeyflowers flanking the trail. Bama kept asking how she felt. Offering her water, raisins, fruit bars. Hope unclipped her straps, sat up, and asked, “What’s your real name, Ranger Bama?”
“Bama’s okay,” said Bama.
“Stop your worrying,” she said, grabbing his arm. “I’ll be fine. But I still want to know your name.”
I mentioned the time we didn’t have, and Hope asked Bama about his name again. Injured people often binged on questions like this. A good connection, talking about anything, can crush a lot of fear. But Hope wasn’t scared. She was the stranger you meet on a plane or in the barbershop—or on a rescue—and you stamp the heat in your secrets through private disclosure, much as you douse a campfire before moving on. Then you pray to never meet that stranger again so long as you live.
“My name’s Beau Dobbins,” Bama finally said. His nametag read Dobbins, but “Beau” was news to us. Even the Chief Ranger called him Bama—as in Alabama, his home state—a slightly pejorative handle he lived with.
“Would that be Beaucifus Dobbins?” she asked. Bama flushed a little. “That’s world class,” said Hope. “Family name, Ranger Dobbins?”
Bama paused, and said, “So they tell me. We gotta get this party moving. We’re racing the clock here, ma’am.”
“What’s up with you two?” she asked, glancing at Bama and me in turn. “You guys act like you shot each other’s dog.”
The woman had a genius for bluntly asking awkward questions in a way we felt obliged to answer. It was impossible to ignore someone two feet away.
“He’s a climber,” said Bama, as if I weren’t there. “And climbers only respect their own authority. That’s the problem right there.”
“Your pants are on fire, Ranger Dobbins,” she said.
Bama peeled her fingers off his arm and we both said, “We gotta go.”
The trail widened slightly so we could handle the carry with two to a side, one on point and another in back. We hoisted the litter and slashed across the middle switchbacks.
“I think you’re a frustrated artist,” Hope said to Bama as the litter pitched and rolled. “I’m sorta one myself. You play an instrument or anything?”
Bama mumbled, “A little piano, ma’am. But not very good.”
Another lie. A big one. The previous summer, after the annual climbers-rangers softball game, and halfway through our second keg, we straggled into the backcountry ranger’s cabin, which had an old piano in the corner. Bama sat and banged out a medley of ragtime tunes from Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Lucky Roberts. All the classic stuff. The Billy Bob Thornton of the Park Service was a redneck who’d been touched.
“Pick it up, hilljacks,” said Bama. “It’s dark in two hours.”
But racing up the trail and the toboggan-from-hell had ruined us. It took Reggie two tries to even stand after our next break. We barely made it 100 yards before our hands went numb and our forearms pumped out, and we had to set Hope down on a flat-topped boulder in the shade. Hikers, spent, staggered by.
“Three minutes,” said Bama. “Not a second more.”
“The climbers and the rangers,” said Hope. “How come you’re working together?”
Enough already with the questions. Couldn’t she see us cruxing here? She grabbed my arm, so I told her — that ambitious climbers needed the whole summer to round into shape and do their projects. But with the seven-day camping limit, the only way around it meant working on the rescue team for burrito wages. Climbers came in handy for technical rescues when they broke out the ropes and the tackle; but rescues were run like military operations, and climbers were never huge on taking orders. A few years later, all the rescue rangers were climbers. Good ones, too. But not back then.
“But you get to stay here all summer,” she said, sweeping her hand across the valley.
“We make it work,” I said. “Barely…”
“So, what’s up with you and Bama?” she asked.
“Nothing that matters now,” I said. It wasn’t getting any lighter outside. But Hope was. The second we set Hope down in the shade we saw her skin blanching. Chet tapped the crook in her arm, checking the vein. She sounded a little dreamy when she answered his questions. Chet didn’t pull us aside this time.
“She’s bleeding inside,” he said.
Bama went off. “You said she was fine an hour ago!” “Two hours ago,” said Reggie. “We’re gonna need help.”
My head felt heavy and my insides raced. An eerie freeze crept through me.
“Grab a few guys off the trail,” said Chet, still bent over Hope, “and rotate them in for the carry.”
“Get ‘em!” said Bama, who jumped over to try and rally Hope, already slurring her words. Chet grabbed Hope’s wrist and checked her pulse.
“We’re getting her down,” said Bama, stepping close and looking right at me, spit flying off his lips. “You hear me?”
We had a debt to pay, known only to ourselves, and the fear and panic of adding to it thrust us right into each other’s face.
“We gotta get going,” I said, only half-aware I was gripping Bama’s arm. Everything inside me felt like ice. Reggie’s legs were gone, but he somehow backtracked up the trail to try and enlist anyone big and fit enough to help.
We grabbed the litter and wobbled off with five carrying: Bama, Chet, and I, and the two Juniors. We fought like crazy, hell-bent to hang on and keep busting down the trail; but our hands opened after 100 feet, and we half-dropped Hope to the ground. She forced a smile, but couldn’t hold it for long. Bama jutted between trying to reassure Hope and swearing at creation. We had a hard, vertical mile to go.
Reggie returned with a half a dozen guys, all strangers to each other. Two grabbed the litter from each side as a big Newfie took the front, and another guy took the back, and the train charged down the switchbacks. Bama shot ahead, calling out obstacles and guiding the carry. I kept swapping out up front with the Newfie. I could only manage three or four minutes at a go but, without something to do, only jogging alongside, my mind kept attaching to events from the past, and the freeze made my bones chatter. I could only warm out of it by grabbing the litter again.
Others joined as we descended: an Italian in soccer shoes, a burly Kenyan diplomat, a pilot from the Indian Air Force, and more random strangers we shagged off the trail, and who spontaneously found a teamwork that thawed me out as Hope and the litter jounced down at speed. Ankles twisted. Shins barked off rocks. Grunting sounded in multiple accents—but quietly—so as not to disturb Hope, all as Bama drove the train for greater speed. Chet kept checking on Hope, who started nodding in and out, and he made us set her down where the stream cut across the trail.
Hope’s eyes were open but focused on infinity. Bama grabbed her shoulder and said, “Talk to me, girl.” She moved her lips but didn’t say anything, just stared straight up and a thousand miles past us. Bama gently shook her again. Hope cocked her head a little to the side, as if she recognized something in outer space. Bama couldn’t stand it, and said, “What you looking at?”
She wasn’t looking at anything. She was listening—to whirling mist and water rolling down the slabs below the falls. Sounds only she could hear. She closed her eyes and breathed out the words, “It’s…OK. OK…”
I pictured Hope following those sounds down the trail, left across the buttress to the streaming foggy slabs below the falls. Her body might last another few hours. But the Lost World, I figured, if it was ever a place at all, was always the last stop.
Chet told Bama to call for the Med Evac. The little valley clinic couldn’t handle this. Hope needed to get to a trauma unit. “It’s gonna be tight,” said Chet, who’d interned that summer in a Calgary ER, in Alberta, where his mom came from. Bama called it in, nearly screaming into his radio, the veins jumping off his neck.
Reggie grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Ain’t nobody quitting here, Bama, so don’t go sissy on yourself and lose your shit. We got this.”
For a second, Bama trembled like an anxious boy and said, “You think?”
“I know, you fucking hillbilly,” said Reggie, who’d probably waited years to say those words, and which put the thunder back in Bama. He checked Hope then yelled, “Load her up!”
Eight females emerged from nowhere and strode to the column. Word had trickled up the trail and they’d raced down to help. They were members of USA Volleyball, tall as oaks and fit as antelope. One woman grabbed the front of the litter, another the back, as four setters and spikers took each side and we trundled off, Bama jogging ahead, yelling, “Watch the ledge!” and “Left between the rocks!” Twenty men trailed, ready to spell the ballers, but grateful for the relief as we flowed down widening switchbacks, pausing at the hairpin turns.
Bama blared into his radio, “Where’s the goddam chopper?” The Valley was graying over.
Hope hadn’t spoken for a whole bunch of switchbacks, and her silence was deafening. The volleyball team swapped out with the trailing column, and Chet checked Hope’s pulse for a tenth time. Thin but steady.
“Where’s that fucking chopper?!”
Deep shadows bled over the southern rim of the valley, streaking down the deepening draws, gulches, and rearing north faces. We charged, the bathroom lights in Camp 4 shining through the gloom as the sound of thumping copter blades ricocheted up the valley. We passed Hope from person to person over a lopsided staircase of railroad ties, racing her past the last switchback to the trailhead and reaching the dirt parking lot and the idling Med Evac right as the sun started setting.
Twenty-five exhausted people bent over the litter and watched Hope’s green eyes dim. And she faded, in the way a ballad or a movie ends. The medic strapped a blood pressure cuff onto Hope’s limp arm and pumped and pumped. But he couldn’t pull a reading. The trauma unit in Fresno was 93 miles away, he said, and he said no more.
They slid Hope into the cargo hold and Bama and I stumbled out onto the loop road—blocked for the rescue— and watched the chopper, and Hope, fade to black. We walked away in different directions. I never saw Bama again.
The Jumbo Jet jounced off some turbulence. I dropped from a dreamless sleep and found myself on a plane. Took a minute for my eyes to pull focus on the small video monitor mounted on the seatback, the flight tracker showing the little yellow line edging out across the Atlantic.
I spotted Hope shuffling down the aisle, holding something in her hand and squinting in the blacked-out cabin. She’d find me eventually, so I stood and waved an arm. She took a well-practiced fall into the aisle seat, flipped open the tray table on the empty middle seat, and plunked down a plate with a key lime pie. Dessert from first class. She handed me a fork—a polished metal one, not the plastic articles they give you in economy. The wine, evidently, had worn off.
“Sorry about getting all heavy on you,” she said. “But I’m in a kinda strange place these days, and I keep pulling people into it without trying. My boyfriend told me so, when he left for Colorado.”
I told her to forget it and handed her back the fork. I never took food for granted. Back in my climbing bum days, we rarely had the good stuff and, even years later, a full fridge always amazed me. But I couldn’t eat. I still felt cold inside, even after napping for an hour. I tossed off the triple-shot can of espresso I had in my carry-on, and my head began to clear.
“What takes you to England?” she asked.
“I’m a writer on a show, and we’re shooting in Wales next week.”
“Good show? Have I seen it?”
“Hope not,” I said. “It’s fluff. Bottom-feeder stuff.”
Hope shrank back in her chair. “We did a concert last week in Baton Rouge,” she said. “I’m a singer, by the way, and before the last set, I race backstage and change into heels and this fuck-me dress. I go back onstage and start belting out…” She paused, and jammed the fork into the pie. “Second we hit the bridge I have this sinking feeling that everyone knows I’m a poser. I can do pop, but I despise it. I’m not too good for it. I never said that. But there’s hell to pay when I fake anything.”
“You can afford it, anyhow, being all rich and shit.” “The Devil doesn’t take cash,” she said.
“Sounds like a song right there,” I said.
“Know how I got through that set?” she asked. “I saw myself back in that litter, at the end. All fog and liquid space. I let the rocking push the words outta me.”
She was edging me back to the Valley, and we both knew it.
“Let’s not do this,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said, grabbing my arm. She wasn’t sorry. She was the person who put words to the snakes in our soundproof minds, and to the masochism of living there, alone. But it all went miles beyond Hope. This reckoning caged me like a mob loan I’d refused to pay off, and the vigorish was sucking me dry. I ran my finger over the gossamer tattoo circling her wrist.
“You asked about Bama and me,” I said.
She raised a hand and said, “Doesn’t make your business mine.”
“Does now.” My tongue started swimming from the triple shot. I didn’t fight it. “Couple weeks before your accident,” I said, “Bama gets word the sous-chef at the Yosemite Bar and Grill had gone missing. We both know the guy—a trail runner who’d set a bunch of records for out-and-back runs. He’d jogged out to Cloud’s Rest. That’s a big granite dome in Tenaya Canyon. When he doesn’t show at work that night, Bama grabs me and we go searching next morning.”
The plane bounced off some currents again and we nearly lost the pie.
“The trail’s pretty good,” I said, “but it’s seven miles back to Cloud’s Rest, and it takes us a couple hours to get there. No sign of the sous-chef, so we follow a watershed up toward the dome. Then some wild animal starts howling. Like it’s gutshot or something. But it isn’t an animal. It’s the sous-chef. He’s slumped in a heap at the base of Cloud’s Rest. Legs shattered and twisted around. Got open fractures on both arms.”
I glossed over how the sous-chef had somehow wriggled into a sitting position, with his back against the rock. He must have climbed the low-angled slab just above him, because the views up there are worth it. But he’d fallen, head-first, bouncing and sliding straight into the ground. Whatever face he had was still up on the slab. Eyes, nose, lips, and cheeks—gone. All his front teeth were knocked out and his skull had been ground through in spots. It seemed impossible any creature could still be alive like that. I only told Hope enough to paint the picture—that the sous-chef was unspeakably fucked up. The rest she’d have to hear. In detail. So would I.
“His chest kept rising and falling,” I said, “but he hadn’t moved or made a sound—till his limbs started flailing like he’s on fire. And that heinous wailing again. I ripped open the first aid kit and Bama grabbed the morphine auto injectors, the kind they use for buddy-aid on the battlefield when somebody gets their legs blown off. Lucky a stick graphic showed us how to use them.”
I’d compartmentalized the rest of this into a space so small and dense that light couldn’t enter or escape. Now it exploded and I could picture it all lit up, like a film on the seatback monitor. I just narrated what I saw:
Bama pulls off the safety plug, rams the injector against the sous-chef’s thigh, thumbs the firing plunger and twenty MGs of morphine race into him. His limbs stop flailing and his shrieks die off. Bama stumbles over to some scrub and throws up. Then the chef is wailing again, and his busted limbs start flapping against the rock. Bama grabs another injector, pulls off the plug and holds it over the sous-chef’s thigh. His hand shakes so badly he can barely hold the thing. That’ll kill him, I say. You know that. And Bama says, It better! Now we’re playing God. I don’t say anything and Bama yells, What would you want? The sous-chef wails again. I reach and cup my hand over Bama’s and we fire home a second dose. He flatlines in less than a minute.
I’d waited so long to put words to this it rushed out of me like a flash flood. It took me a minute to catch back up with myself. The images still played on the monitor, but weren’t solid like before and the details kept thinning out, as New York fell behind us on the flight map. I didn’t feel so cold anymore. Just hollow.
“We wrapped him in the tarp,” I said, “so the animals couldn’t get him. Bama radioed in and a team met us on the trail for the carry-out. We got him back to the road head around nine p.m. The doctor at the clinic, who signed the death certificate—he told us no human being could ever survive those injuries. The chief ranger said we’d done the right thing. But we’d done it for the wrong reasons: not to help the chef, but to kill his awful wailing. To make him dead so we could wrap him in the tarp and not have to look at him anymore. That’s why Bama and I couldn’t look at each other. We made sure we didn’t have to—till you went and pitched off the Falls Trail.”
We sat there, hurtling through space, saying nothing.
“If I was that chef,” Hope finally said, “all I’d have wanted is for you to make it go away. You start in with your reasons, and do nothing, I blame you both forever.”
“We did it for you,” I said.
“I’d like to meet whoever taught us how to do that,” she said.
I told her how the chef’s friends hiked his ashes to the north rim and dumped them over Yosemite Falls. I pictured the kitchen crew emptying an urn into the torrent gushing off the lip, a half-remembered force much older yet running straight through the you and me.
“I wanna get back there,” said Hope, “but probably not with this knee. Maybe you and Bama can carry me up the trail some summer day. If you know where he’s at.”
“I heard he’s teaching music at some community college in Tuscaloosa,” I said. This could have been hearsay, but it made me curious about the music she did like.
“Torch songs,” she said. “Me and a piano in a smoky little room.”
“You’ll never earn a first-class seat from singing ‘Cry Me A River.’”
“It’s yours if you want it,” she said, thrusting her chin toward the front and the six empty rows of first-class seats, where I could compartmentalize myself, solo in the dimness.
Sometimes I heard a wailing. The sound felt monolithic, and blotted out the sun. Now it mingled with wind and mist, as water streamed over the rock. The Lost World was not so much a place as a crossroad for living ghosts. And I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave just yet. A ghost doesn’t feel, doesn’t bleed. You just float in the mist, neither here nor there.
Hope kept talking, taken by the way things mattered. The wonder in her words, her daring as she leaned in, fetching the whole catastrophe—all these things were beacons of a world beyond the sous-chef.
Hope lowered her seatback all the way and said, “Maybe it’s gonna be OK.” Then she handed me the fork and gazed at the pie. “You gonna eat that, or what?”