by Beatrice Steele |
At the bottom of Hollow Hills, eight miles from Independence Pass, there lies a solitary cabin. It is the only one for miles around. Lying empty for most of the year, it is occupied in the summer, when the weather is warm enough for hikers to properly enjoy the valley landscape. Throughout winter, and even for a good part of the springtime, thick snowfall covers the placid hills and the river is glazed over with ice. There are a few roads around the park, which are seldom used except in tourist season as they lead exclusively from the highway to the woods. The snow always renders them impassable if someone did want to visit during winter. The sentinel mountains to the north fence off the relative calm of Hollow Hills from the rest of the world. Its valley revolves around the Big Thomson River, the longest river in Colorado.
The Ranger’s cabin is well-stocked, just in case any overly ambitious hikers happen to lose their way in a blizzard. It consists of one room, with a locker containing supplies straight ahead of you as you enter. The locker contains dehydrated food, water, firelighters, matches and a flashlight with extra batteries. There is a portable radiator too. Outside there is a generator around the back and inside there is a bunkbed with a few mothballed blankets. It is not much of a home, and it is not surprising the Ranger takes all his things with him when he leaves. It has chronic damp, and in addition, a rampant vermin problem. The Ranger is wary of the bears and wolves that populate the Colorado countryside, but he encourages the presence of the mountain lions. These are skittish animals, rarely as aggressive as the grizzly bear, and much more graceful than any other creature in the area.
The sun was sinking faster than a stone the night they arrived. Three men had burst into the Ranger’s cabin, and in with them swept a chill gust of snow-laden air. It had hardly a few seconds to invade the place before they slammed the door shut behind them. One of the men approached the locker and felt inside it for anything that might be useful. He managed to turn on the flashlight, illuminating the sparse room and his haggard companions. They huddled in their meagre coats, so desperate for warmth they clung to each other like small, scared children. The gathering darkness outside brought a drop in temperature they were not prepared for, yet inside the cabin the chill seemed even worse. Through one of the simple windows they saw the diminishing red of the sky, diminishing rapidly behind mountains. Somewhere back towards the road their car sat with an empty fuel tank and a deflated front tyre. They had used the feeble light from their phones to find their way, but now two of the phones had flat batteries and the remaining one had not been able to find any signal.
The first light arrived about mid-morning, and the weather was still freezing but notably calmer. The sun sparkled on the newly fallen snow, and a robin chirped in the branches of a nearby pine tree. One of the men woke up. He had a horrific ache in his right foot and a rancid taste in his mouth. He had been the wisest of the trio, choosing a heavier jacket than them for what had promised to be a short trip though the scenic mountains. Now, in bitter hindsight, their scheme looked ridiculous. He unwrapped his right ankle and examined it. His socks were still soaked through and he thought he might have twisted his ankle on the steep journey down the hill before they hit the cabin. The only saving grace was he thought he could still walk on it reasonably well; it would just be rather painful.
He couldn’t make out much of the room, which was still trapped in a darkness as oppressive as heavy funeral clothes. His bleary mind soon recognised that one of his companions was missing, or at least, was no longer in the room. Maybe he had come to his senses and had gone to seek a power source. Turning to his left, he tried to wake up his remaining friend, who was slumped over in a sitting position. He gingerly touched his gloved hand, then shook his shoulder, but the man did not wake up. He lent down to catch a glimpse of his friend’s face, to make sure he too had not silently departed during the night.
They waited all day for Jim to return. During the night, Andy had lapsed into a terrible, deep sleep which he likened to being dead, although there was no way of knowing what that felt like. The more active of the pair, who had woken up first, paced up and down the cabin to keep warm. Every so often he paused to stare aimlessly out of the window. Perhaps he was hoping to see Jim, but really, he was not. He would rather have seen the Ranger, one of the local Appalachian people ̶ anyone else who might offer real help. Jim was fairly useless. His life revolved around gym trips and avocado on toast, and he couldn’t for the life of him do something so practically simple as change the fuse in a plug.
‘Andy, do you think there’s a power source around here? Like a generator?’
Andy tore his gaze away from the floor and stared at Kai. ‘I don’t know, but that’s a great idea. Maybe take a look around back?’
The snow was knee-deep as Kai stepped outside, and the day eerily quiet. He took large steps to reach the back of the cabin, and kept shuffling his feet as he stood looking at the imposing metal casket that contained the generator. The cold was seeping into his boots quickly, and he figured that Jim had definitely succumbed to exposure out here. Still, he couldn’t blame Jim too much for this disaster, even though the whole thing had been his idea. Kai was very drunk when he agreed to go, but the chill in the air today had lessened the effect of his hangover. Every second of this freezing, torturous cold was reducing him to a base level of humanity whose only wants were warmth and shelter.
Inside, Andy wanted to take off his shoes. He knew that it was a very bad idea. When Kai had turned the generator on, they’d have heat, and then he could put his feet under the radiator. The problem was, he couldn’t feel them, and hadn’t been able to feel them for the past three hours. Nor could he move them. The night’s plunging temperatures seemed to have taken their toll on him especially, but then again Kai’s boots were proper mountain-boots. He regarded the sorry state of his hiking shoes with dismay. Why had he thought they were appropriate? The blatant, dangerous stupidity of their joint venture, which seemed now to have taken place millions of years ago, hit him anew and made him want to throw up with fear. They probably would die out here. He pulled off his shoes, desperate to know whether his feet were okay.
It had taken an extraordinary effort to pry the casket open to access the generator, but Kai had done it. He’d almost laughed out loud in relief when he recognised the model of the generator, which was identical to the one that powered his dad’s hunting cabin up in Ohio. They must be common, cheap, whatever, but what counted was that they were the same. He pumped the plastic handle three times, until a dim green light signalled that the generator was ready to go, and then he pressed the power button. A glorious buzzing sound, weak and distant sounding as it was, confirmed the best. He waded back though the snow, excitedly calling Andy’s name. In reply he heard Andy groaning and sobbing from inside the cabin.
Kai sat with his back to the radiator. It was a strange sensation, sweating like this in the midst of a Colorado winter. He checked his watch: 10:30pm. Jim had not yet returned. He thought of a programme he’d seen on Nat Geo, where people suffering from hypothermia had a common delusion of feeling too hot, and took off their clothes in the snow before their bodies gave out. It had seemed morbidly funny when Kai watched the documentary, but now seemed like a final indignity. Maybe it was a fitting one, given their massive blunder in judgement. He looked over at Andy, who was in a half-dead stupor. His skin was turning yellow. His lips moved silently while his eyes were fixed on an impenetrable middle distance. A pair of blackened feet stuck out into the centre of the room, toeless pins like the burnt ends of matches.