by Kevin Winter
For the longest, Marco pretended not to hear.
There was no voice, no manipulated vibrations that constitute modern communication, just the chunky pops and thuds of the ice compacting around them and the layered quietude of the cold. Szatkowski was not speaking. He just sat all purple-faced with his knees under his chin and his hands in his armpits, a blurred mist of breath hanging over his ski-capped head like wispy cirrus clouds over the windward foothills. He hadn’t uttered a single God-forsaken word in hours – or had it been a whole day since his last hissy-fit? – and so there could be no voice, no voice, no voice in Marco’s ear. Even simple arithmetic said so: one (himself) plus one (tight-lipped Szatkowski) equaled two and two living people minus two non-speakers (again, himself and Szat) came out to be exactly zero, zilch, nada.
And for the longest, he was almost convinced.
Marco, rouse your crazy ass and perk those ears! Dammit, I ain’t talkin’ cuz I like the sweet sound of my own voice. Well, not just cuz.
Before he could stop himself, he acknowledged it. The slightest shake of the head, just a little no-no wag, but it was enough. Plenty enough and more’n a little, Thad would have said. Or would say.
Yup. I’m a-gettin’ through to ya now ain’t I?
And then louder.
Ain’t I, pop-sickle?
Marco shook his head again but it was useless. The jig was up and his little game of quiet mouse, still mouse had failed to eliminate the voice. And as much as Marco wished it wasn’t true, it was Thad’s voice. Down to the letter.
Yeah, I reckon I getchoo. You don’t wanna talk the obvious. I can live with that. Roaring laughter, deep guttural Thad-laughter, and the thick deliberate slapping sounds of big hands clapping. Thad always applauded when he got really tickled. We’ll sidestep the cow-pie for a bit, but we’ll be comin’ back, Marco. So, you best trade out your prissy shoes for some good-ole boots and set y’self for it.
Marco twisted his head slightly and cut his eyes at Szatkowski. He thought he might find some sort of recognition on the other man’s face, a twitch, a knowing look, any sign that he too was hearing Thad. There was going crazy and there was going crazy alone and although he didn’t know which was a better flight, Marco was curious if he was flying solo. But there was nothing. Szatkowski’s scraggly face was a blank screen of defeat and behind the puffs of wispy air escaping his mouth, his eyes were dull and vegetative.
Him? Don’t bother with him. He’s gone all ga-ga, mushy-mushy in the head. Somethin’ broke a-loose in that brain of his after that last shoutin’ match he had. There was a sharp tisk. A shame. Givin’ up’s like dyin’ before you’re dead, momma always said. But me and you ain’t like that, are we Marco? I knowed it since’t I first laid eyes on you. You got that survival blood runnin’ through you just like me. Hell, if I wasn’t dead, I’d be survivin’ right alongside you. And then that laugh again. It was even stronger than the first bout and the claps grew louder and louder until Marco was almost forced to cup his hands over his ears.
Instead, he cut his eyes in the other direction and there was Thaddeus Little sitting just as he was, holding up his end of quiet mouse, still mouse, only he wasn’t quiet. His hands lay lifeless in his lap; they hadn’t thought of clapping together in jest or any other kind of way in days. Tiny frozen stalactites hung from his mustache unbroken. Just to be sure, Marco scanned his eyes down to the thigh and was almost relieved to see the sickish white of Thad’s femur jutting out a full three inches. There were the frayed ribbons of his climb-suit pants where the jagged bone had poked and sawed its way through. There was the frozen pond of icy red blood.
Looks bad don’t it?
For a moment, Marco could not tear his eyes away. That bone, that blood.
Hurt, too. Hurt like nothin’ I ever felt before. For a while, it did. And then once the blood – good Mis’sippi survival blood, mind you – leaked its way outta me, it didn’t hurt so bad no more. It was like all that fire and all that pain in that leg was being carried away from me. Or I from it. And then… then I reckon I was dead.
Marco cursed himself for speaking and sliced his eyes back toward Szatkowski. This time he was hoping to see the same slack face as before. The face that had stared blankly into the glowing filament of Marco’s lithium-powered torch for hours upon hours without reaction. He wasn’t so lucky.
“Sorry?” Szatkowski’s eyes were wild. “Sorry? Is sorry going to stop the ever-loving blizzard? Is sorry going to dig us out of here? Is sorry going to keep us alive? NO! So you just shut your ever-loving mouth and be still and pray this thing doesn’t come down on top of our ever-loving heads!”
“Okay,” said Marco, as soothingly as possible. “Okay Szat, okay.”
Gradually, Szatkowski’s eyes reduced themselves to their normal size and seemed to glaze back over. He picked back up where he had left off staring into the tiny white bulb in the center of the three men. And for a while, everything was quiet again. Every now and then a big whoop of wind could be heard overhead. And that thick weight of ice settling around them and atop them as the sky dumped more and more snow onto the roof of their private little ice cave.
What the ever-lovin’ hell was that? I’m tellin’ ya, there’s somethin’ ain’t right in that Polack’s head. He can’t remember shoutin’ to high heaven and throwin’ that big crybaby tantrum? It’s a true-blue miracle this place didn’t come down on top of us then. Right down on top of his ever-lovin’ head with yours and mine thrown in as a three-for-one close-out bargain. Miracle’s what it was. What my momma woulda called One of Life’s Hidden Treasures. And that ain’t been the only one, neither. One broken leg outta six ain’t bad, not when the ground up under your feet takes a notion to roll off down the mountain like a big-ole giant rug bein’ snatched out from under you. And this place. Take a gander around, Marco. This little one room apartment’s a Hidden Treasure if I ever seen one. Yeah we’re buried under it but you’re alive and that’s somethin’, ain’t it? And who’d a-thought a tiny little-bitty battery could light this place up as bright as Christmas morning for as long as it has, huh?
He paused and Marco did take a look around, wondering to himself how many pockets of ice large enough to house three grown men could survive an avalanche like the one they experienced. Surely not many. And how did they happen to fall right into such a rare and blessed occurrence? It was like tripping off a fifth story balcony into a moving truck lined with thick fluffy pillows. Then his eyes fell on the battery-powered candle just beyond his feet. Had its clean white light faded in the minutes/hours/days since their entombment? Were the shadows it cast on the ice-walls behind their heads any less sharp, their borders any less defined than they had been hours before? Perhaps and maybe, but the fact that it was still burning at all was surely a sort of miracle. Surely One of Life’s Hidden Treasures.
Things ain’t perfect – momma used to say things ain’t been close to perfect since Patsy Cline sang with her livin’ voice – hell, they ain’t even so-so, but you gotta agree: that’s some bunch of Hidden Treasures to string along together. And I could name another. Although, I shouldn’t have to tell you, you bein’ the doctor and all.
Marco clenched his jaw. “I’m a chiropractor.”
Szatkowski shot him a quick crazy-eyed glare and seemed on the verge of another tirade but after a long moment, simply shook his head and puffed out a breath of white smoke before resuming his lifeless pose.
Chiropractor, aye? Well, I’m just an ole tractor supply man with barely no schoolin’ a’tall, but I know what a body needs to survive. I know it needs water and we got plenty of that. Plenty enough and more’n a little if you look around. And I know it needs food. It needs meat.
Marco’s head began to wag back and forth slowly but he couldn’t stop the voice, couldn’t stop the truth.
You remember that steak down in Mason City, don’tcha Marco? That purdy waitress brought it out on a platter big as a trash can lid and that steak was just gorgeous sittin’ there seared on the top and pink in the middle. It was an inch thick edgewise and as big as two of my hands put together, wasn’t it? Juices cooked in it and bubblin’ out the top of it and poolin’ all ‘round it just made the mouth to water like a puppy’s.
Marco’s mouth was watering, he felt it rising up off his tongue as his stomach began to churn itself in large gurgling circles like a moistened grinder. A deep rumble rose from his middle that he tried to muffle by folding his arms but it was no good. It echoed off the smooth shiny walls like the roar of a tiger. Szatkowski didn’t budge. He stared straight into the light of the torch, and was its light waning now? But he stared into it nonetheless. Through it.
Boy it’s thick, but your knife just glides right through it like butter cuz it’s tenderer than you coulda thought possible. And you cut yourself a big-ole wedge and you skewer it and you can feel its weight tuggin’ on the end of your fork and you know this is gonna be one hell-of-a bite, the likes of which you gotta sit back in your chair and chew and chew and look around the restaurant at all the other people that ain’t enjoyin’ this particular perfect piece of meat.
His head was wagging faster because he knew where this was going and where it would end. On one end of the wag was Thad, that quiet mouse, still mouse that refused to play by but half of the rules, and on the other end was Szatkowski. And would this little game already be over if Szatkowski was not there? Would Marco need all this convincing?
And so you do. You wrap your mouth around that cut wedge of ribeye and the fork and your taste buds start poppin’ off, explodin’ one by one like those Chinese firecrackers you played with when you was a kid. The first time your teeth come together through the middle of that wedge is complete and utter true-blue bliss and your eyes flutter back in their sockets and you begin to wonder what on God’s-Green-Earth could be better. Each little tender chew is like heaven, like a miracle or Hidden Treasure or whatever you’d like to call it, ain’t it? Ain’t it, Marco?
But he didn’t answer. He saw the end of the line. The place where the tracks ran out was just ahead, but he couldn’t stop the train.
Now here’s that cow-pie again and I hope you’re ready for it cuz this time we’re steppin’ right on in. You gotta eat. If you’re gonna get through this, you’re gonna hafta eat, or else this little miracle apartment’s gonna be your coffin and that’s that. And hell, it ain’t just for you neither. You gotta carry what’s left of me outta here and put me in the ground proper. Right next to momma in Two Forks Cemetery. Now you ain’t got a big fancy steak like you had down in Mason City, but what you got will make do if you let it.
And this was the crucial point, the point of no return, the place on the map that would be labeled as Here There Be Dragons. Marco’s head stilled and he stared at Thad, Thaddeus Little whom he liked, Thaddeus Little whom he would call friend.
Thaddeus Little was dead and gone.
But his voice was in Marco’s ear.
And his body lay no more than three feet away.
There was a couple of thick slaps, but not that of hand-to-hand applause. It sounded more like the leg-pats someone might do in order to invite a youngster to sit on their lap.
Thighs are good eatin’, Marco. Good eatin’ and there’s plenty enough and more’n a little. My momma always said I had big-ole water buffalo legs. And lookie-here, you prolly don’t even need your knife. Just dig right in where that bone come out. It’s tender, as tender as you please, and tasty as that Mason City ribeye I’m sure. But you’d better get to work before that miracle battery gives out or you’ll be fumblin’ around in the dark and I don’t reckon that’d be none too pleasant. So come on.
That slap again, a hand to the thigh.
Come on and come an’ get it whilst the gettin’s good.
He couldn’t. He knew he couldn’t. But at the same time, he knew that he couldn’t afford not to. And it wasn’t his imagination, that light had begun to loose its luster. Finally, after days of flawless performance, the lithium battery cells were depleted. The shadows were beginning to bleed through their borders and before long the entire cave would be shadow and his task would be much more difficult and horrific. But he couldn’t…
Just think of that steak, the gleam of the juice pooled up and still simmerin’…
…that robust smell of the grill smokin’ up in waves…
…that first bite and the overpowerin’ taste of meat everywhere all at once…
And that got Szatkowski’s attention for sure. His eyes almost bugged out of his skull and the muscles on either side of his jaws flared beneath his scruff. The breaths were streaming out of his nostrils in short quick wispy bursts. Then he stood up, his head almost brushing the roof of what Thad had called their one room apartment but that Marco was beginning to see as their final resting place, a place that was both miracle and curse. He stood and his hands were fists and the outburst was sure to follow and this might do it, it might be enough to collapse the entire mountain down onto their ever-loving heads.
But instead, he whispered.
“Well, if you won’t shut him up,” Szat said gently, “I guess it’ll have to be me.”
Then Szatkowski lowered himself to his knees and unballed his fists and dug in. He came and got it while the getting was good. And soon enough, just before the tiny candle blinked its last hopeless ray of incandescent light, Marco crawled over on tingling frostbitten hands and knees and joined in.
Kevin Winter lives and writes in Northern Mississippi. His work may be found in Bartleby Snopes, The Battered Suitcase, The Medulla Review, Sparkbright, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Until the completion of his website, he may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.