Snow blanketed the fields, barren, but for the odd bale of rolled hay. The wind whistled through the leafless branches, and left them creaking and moaning with its passing. With only a week until the winter solstice, the mornings rose dark and still and laden with the musings of Morpheus, still lost in the labyrinth of the dreamy night. Today, the lingering full moon cast just enough light on the earth for a trail to be visible. A lone cross-country skier glided across the top of the hill at the horizon, dipped down below on the opposite side, then resurfaced.
Avery stood at the back door watching Gil ski up and over the top, disappearing only to intermittently reappear, a small, barely distinguishable figure in the shadowy dawn. Gil wore Marty’s headlight and Avery watched the light shine and recede, shine and recede.
Avery wore his ski pants and an unzipped jacket. His gloves dangled at his side, his ski boots propped in the corner. His stockinged feet curled at the sudden gust of wind that shot through the door.
“Either in or out, huh?” Kori shuffled in, still crunchy from sleep, and clutched her robe tightly to her chest, an impenetrable shield against the wintry gust. She headed straight for the coffee pot. She had a long crease down her right cheek where the side of her face had lain, smashed into a rumpled pillow for too long. Avery closed the door and watched out the window.
“How’d you sleep,” Kori asked, her own eyes red and swollen.
“I don’t think I did.” He turned his haggard face to her. “Or if I did, I don’t remember.”
“How long’s he been out there?”
“Since about four this morning.”
“Are you going out?” she asked. Avery shrugged, but didn’t answer. Kori stood and grabbed a mug from the cabinet. “It’s pretty hard core to go out into below freezing weather at 6:30 in the morning just to get an hour of skiing in.”
“Gil’s out there.”
“If he’s been out since 4 o’clock, it’s not exactly like he needs you.” She sat down at the table and fiddled with a stray napkin, rolling it up and unwinding it again and again. “Why’d you let him go out so early? It’s so dark.”
Avery watched the horizon where his brother had just reappeared on the surface of the world. “It’s not like I have complete control over him, Kor. He went out before I got up. I heard him clanging around in the garage trying to get the skis down, is all.” He turned back to her. “He left mine on the deck.” Avery sighed, zipped up his jacket and grabbed his boots. “Did you know we were supposed to get snow?”
Kori yawned and covered her mouth, nodding her head. “School’s canceled. I saw it on the news.”
Avery laced up his boots and stood. “Bonus.” He drew a deep breath before asking his next question. “Do you think it’s true?” Concern had etched lines in his face that weren’t there the day before. He knew Kori didn’t know, that it was pointless to ask, but she was older, and therefore, wiser and Avery was looking for confirmation or consolation, anything but resignation.
Kori picked up the dog tags that were lying in the middle of the kitchen table, pulled the chain out to its full length and rested her fingers upon them. She closed her eyes as if divination could be had by mere touch. She shook her head, slowly at first, and then with more vehemence.
“Me either,” Avery said. “I just have this feeling. I hope I’m not making it up.” He put on his gloves, pulled his hat down over his ears and eyebrows, and opened the door.
Avery?” Kori walked over and stood behind her brother.
“Did Gil have any dreams?” She shrunk and inch into herself as if bracing for a blow.
Avery touched Kori’s shoulder and smiled. “I guess I’ll find out now,” he said, grabbed his skis and was gone.
Kori watched until he vanished over the hill.
The moon, low in the sky and paling more with each creeping minute of dawn, looked like a magnificent deity bestowing blessings upon all who gazed at her. The last of her beneficence left a light touch, a shimmering wake across the snow-covered fields. Even the landfill looked beautiful: a white, proud mountain of refuse. Avery caught up to Gil as he approached the backside of it. They skied together in silence for the last hundred yards until Gil stopped at the foot of the landfill’s fence, flicked off his headlamp and jammed his poles into the ground. He stared at the mound of trash, deftly hidden beneath a cloud of white, and began to hum.
“Only you could hum while looking at garbage,” Avery said. He stuck his own poles in the ground and watched the trash pile intently, waiting for something to shatter the tranquility.
“I was thinking about Daddy.” Gil said.
“Really? About Dad? Not about Robbie?”
Gil shook his head, slow and deliberate, like a metronome.
“Well, what about Dad?” Gil turned Marty’s headlamp on again and focused it on a specific spot in the center of a frozen mound.
Avery followed the light and thought he could see a computer monitor, but he was only guessing. He looked at Gil’s nose, dripping profusely. Gil didn’t seem to notice. Avery grabbed a clean, but crumpled tissue from his coat pocket and pushed it toward his brother who ignored the gesture. Avery held the tissue up to Gil’s nose and Gil blew, releasing more than a single tissue full of his own goopy refuse. Avery fumbled for another tissue while still holding the first to Gil’s nose and brought it to the aid of the first. He wiped Gil’s nose and grimacing slightly, jammed the soggy remnants back into his own pocket “Anything else I can do for you?” he asked.
“He wouldn’t answer me when I asked about Robbie. I kept asking, ‘Daddy, where’s Robbie? Is he okay?’ and he just kept smiling at me. Then he took me into the barn and showed me the TDU. He fiddled around and made a few adjustments….” The trash pile still showed no signs of movement. “I think he wants me to finish it.”
Avery’s eyebrows shot up. “Did he say that?”
“He didn’t say anything. But I just thought that was what he wanted.” Gil pulled a single pole out of the snow and drove it back into the ground. “Do you think maybe Dad doesn’t know about Robbie? Like maybe, if Robbie’s alive that he can’t see him very well or something?” Gil looked at his brother. “Or maybe Robbie doesn’t want to be seen. Like maybe he’s hiding.”
Avery had contemplated this same theory, but had not voiced it. His brother was canny, knew how to live in the woods off of nuts and berries and roots and other queer stuff, knew how to build a fire from two tiny little sticks, a veritable boy scout geekazoid. He would be a great guy to have around in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world kind of event. But disappearing without a trace from a crowded market in the middle of a suicide bombing attempt leaving nothing behind but a set of dog tags, well, things seemed a little convoluted, even for Robbie. Still it was a relief to hear Gil voice the opinion.
“I don’t know. If he is still alive, he’ll be in touch soon.”
Gil nodded. “Will you help me?”
“Absolutely. With what?”
“With the TDU?”
“I thought you didn’t want to work on that anymore?”
“Well, I don’t because of Dad, you know. But I think…” Gil’s words tumbled out in a jumbled, yet coherent flurry. “I really don’t, but what if that’s what he wants, Dad, I mean, and if I didn’t do it well then he might be mad at me and maybe he wouldn’t visit me anymore so I really should do it but it really gives me the creeps I mean what if those creepy bad guys come back so I need some back up which is why I’m asking if I did would you help me? I’d need, you know, to get the TDU up and running and help get the feedstock from the landfill and…. I guess, well maybe it’s okay, cause I think Dad wanted it….actually, I don’t know what he wanted, but he kept showing me the drawings, and some newer ones that he’d worked on for the refining part. I don’t know what he was saying since I never really looked at the refining drawings – I was more interested in the TDU – so we didn’t talk much about it, but….why do you think he just didn’t come out and say what he wanted?” Gil said finally, frustrated.
Gil’s nose was running again and this time he ran his gloved hand underneath it catching most of the watery mucus. Avery grimaced and made a mental note to wash Gil’s gloves. He stamped his ski-shod feet on the ground to tamp down the cold creeping up his legs, cold to which Gil seemed impervious.
“I don’t know. It’s near Christmas time. Maybe he was trying to be the ghost of Christmas future.”
“The one with George C. Scott?” Gil smiled. “That one was my favorite.”
“C’mon. Let’s get moving before my legs freeze off.”
“Let’s go this way,” Gil said, turning toward the woods, the long way home.
to be continued. . .
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