This story is by Michelle Mace and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Metaphorically speaking, Daniel had drawn the short straw. By now his friends were back in the truck, and on their way down the mountain in search of a cell signal. Against fading daylight and biting November winds he hurried down the steep trail. The woman’s cries for help were much closer now.
Struggling to keep his footing on the loose rock and low scrub, the sight up ahead brought him to a skidding stop. The trail was gone. In its place, an open wound. A collapse had wiped out the path taking a chunk of the mountainside down with it.
“Can you hear me?” he called out.
“I’m down here.”
Hesitant to approach to the breach, he set his pack down and looked-for signs of instability. Steadying his nerves, he knelt and then crawled to the furthest edge of the trail.
Daniel estimated the slide to be at least a hundred feet of dislodged earth and stone that had paved its own path down the mountainside. Large rocks and piles of dirt and shrub had accumulated at the cliff’s brink. Beyond that lay the menacing expanse of the canyon below.
Roughly thirty-feet below him the woman was perched tenuously among eroding piles of loose debris. In stark contrast to the disfigured surroundings was her obvious beauty. She was covered in fine layers of dust, painting her monochromatic; she resembled a starlet of the black and white film era. The only definitive color that he could see was in her eyes, blue or maybe green, he thought.
“That bad huh?” She asked looking up at him.
“No, it’s just …” He faltered. “My friends have gone down to call for help.”
The urge to scramble down and help her was immense. Heroic was not a trait that Daniel would have normally ascribed to himself, and neither was helpless; but, as he watched grains of earth trickle away from beneath her shivering arms, helplessness was the only thing he felt.
“We need to try and keep you warm.”
She nodded in agreement, “my jacket was in my backpack.”
Daniel heard exhaustion in her voice.
Wanting to keep her talking, “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sam, I’m going to go get my bag, I’ll be right back okay?”
As reluctant as he was to leave sight of her, he needed a moment to collect his thoughts and figure out how he could help her, and not just bear witness to her misery. Backing away from the breach, he retrieved his bag and stopped to survey the landscape around them. He could see his breath now as the silhouette of darkness inched up the mountainside. Overhead, the earliest stars were faintly appearing.
Daniel began to shiver as well, and realized that they were both at risk. He knew that the condition she was in meant that she would not be able to fight off the worst effects of hypothermia. Regardless of what it meant for his own safety he wanted to get his wool flannel shirt down to her.
“Tell me a story Sam,” he called out as he unbuttoned his shirt, “where are you from?”
She was slow to respond.
“I’m a local.”
Again, her reply was delayed.
“Just came up, for a day hike.”
Holding on to the flannel, he returned to the ledge. He did his best to ignore the cold that radiated up from the ground through his t-shirt.
“Yep, us too,” he told her.
She had been resting her head on her arm, she raised it and looked up at him. The dirt on her face was more darkly streaked now, still, the only expression of color was in her blue, perhaps green, eyes.
More concerned than cautious, he leaned out even farther over the edge, a small cascade of dirt and rock warned him against going any further. With the flannel shirt in his hand, he tried to estimate where it would be best to drop it from. His goal, was to land it as close to in front of her as possible.
“I’m going to drop this down to you.”
Daniel saw that she became more alert at this piece of good news.
“It’s dangerous for you to move, do you understand?” he searched her eyes for agreement.
“You can’t reach for it,” he continued. “Just wait and see where it lands.”
This time she only nodded.
Feelings of doubt began to surface, shaking his confidence. Unnerved by insecurity he wanted to pull back and rethink the situation; but the look in her eyes told him that she was counting on him. He knew that she desperately needed the additional layer of warmth and protection, and it was that desperation that scared the hell out of him.
“Do not move,” was his final instruction to her.
He gauged the distance between them one more time, pushing aside his uneasiness and focusing solely on where he wanted the shirt to land. Taking in a deep breath and holding it; finally, he let the shirt go.
They both watched as it fell through the space between them. At first on track falling, twisting, then catching loft and splaying out; sooner than he’d hoped, it hit against the mountain side. The heavy flannel shirt slid, rolled over and stopped. The rumpled heap lay an achingly impotent five-feet above her.
Sam was silent.
His thoughts immediately turned to what he might be able to do next to get the shirt closer to her.
Without warning, she broke the stillness, lunging toward the shirt.
“Hey,” he yelled down at her, “no, NO!”
Even if the mound that she had put all her weight on had held, it still would have been out of her reach. But the mound didn’t hold. It collapsed. Instantly falling apart and dispersing into the millions of tiny pieces of dirt and rock that it actually was. The void that it created invited the rest of the debris that had been supporting her to give way as well.
He watched helplessly as she fell backward, flailing, into the moving sea of debris. Losing sight of her in the darkness below.
Daniel continued to call out to her long after the sounds of moving rock and earth had gone quiet. Alone in the darkness, engulfed by guilt and grief; only the sound of the wind rustling across the mountainside to remind him that he was still in danger.
He knew that he was freezing. He knew that he needed to get a signal fire going. He knew these things, but acting on them seemed so much more difficult than sitting with his despair. Grief turned to regret and regret into anger. Hadn’t he thought that he’d drawn the short straw at the beginning of all of this? Why was a woman’s life put into his inept hands? Why the hell hadn’t he just made sure that she’d kept still and waited for help to arrive?
The last thought shook him out of his muddled and depressed thinking, circling him back around to the original thought. Getting a fire going was the only chance either one of them had now.
His movements were slow and clumsy, and the emotional fatigue didn’t improve as he stumbled through the dark to collect shrub and grasses. His fingers had gone stiff and numb. He dug out as much of a pit as he could, then fumbled through his pack for the fire starter. His fire-starting efforts were challenged by his own failing coordination as much as they were by the gusting winds. Only the thinnest feeling of gratitude registered when the small bundle of tinder finally ignited.
Exhaustion overtook him as he piled on the last of the shrub onto the heatless fire. His thinking slowed further, growing more confused, but he held on to a new thought; that once he got some sleep, he would go down the slide and look for her.
Plagued by a question he couldn’t answer, had her eyes been blue or green? Daniel drifted off to sleep as plumes of smoke were carried away on the wind.
From somewhere beneath the darkness, he was aware of someone near him and the enormous whop-whop-whop vibration that disturbed his entire body. He wanted to fall back to sleep, he needed to right the wrongs in the nightmare he’d just been having. The sensation that he was being lifted off the ground, and the increasing noise and vibration, all prevented him from reentering the dream.
Daniel began to come more fully awake, his thoughts clearing, as two rescue crewmembers maneuvered him into the helicopter. As one of them worked to loosen the buckles and straps around him, he saw the woman strapped into the wire basket across from him.
She was looking at him, smiling and finally, he knew… her eyes were blue.