The bar smelled of stale alcohol and body odor, but the beer was cold and the liquor cheap. When Trevor was out on the trails, he liked to stop there, the most remote of watering holes. His Polaris sled was cold and lonely outside. He’d been there some time and it was growing difficult to gauge whether his vision was blurred, or if it was just the haze of the smoke from other patrons, long-since departed.
“Last call,” the bartender said, wiping the counter in front of him.
“Whiskey and a beer,” Trevor said, polishing off the pint in his hand.
“You sure? That’s quite a few this evening.”
Trevor slapped a dirty bill on the table and nodded. The bartender poured him a shot and another pint, placing both in front of him. The whiskey went down in a twist of his hand, fire in the depths; the beer in several large gulps, quenching the flames. With a wipe of his mouth and a word of thanks on his lips, Trevor tumbled for the door.
“You need me to call someone?” the bartender offered.
He gave a dismissive wave and grunted disapproval. When he opened the door and was assaulted by the arctic air of northern Maine, he instinctively raised a hand to ward off the sting on his flushed cheeks. Snow crunched under his boots as he shuffled across the lot to his sled parked on the far side. A dusting of fresh flakes whitened the seat, and he brushed them haphazardly before sitting and firing up the engine. With a loud growl, man and sled shot off into the dark night.
Headlights illuminated the trail, trees flashing dimly off to each side. Trevor knew the way. He’d travelled that major thoroughfare on previous trips up north. It was twelve miles to the hotel room he had rented, the warm shower, and the soft pillow that awaited his swimming head.
His vision swirled, the world fuzzy, and he blinked trying to clear it. There was a turn off, a shortcut, on a side trail that would cut miles from the circuitous route he was on. The only problem, it was infrequently used, rough, and cut through unused wilderness. Judgement be damned, when he reached the junction four miles from the bar, he turned off the main trail onto the shorter route.
The way was narrow and bumpy, but his impatience with the ride grew. Trevor longed only to lay down and pass out. In sleep, the alcohol could burn through his system. He would deal with the hangover tomorrow. In haste, he gunned the throttle, careening between the trunks of huge evergreens.
There was no warning before the imperfection below the snow’s surface derailed him. The light from the sled was ill suited to highlight every danger. Something caught, and the machine veered. Trevor was thrown, his body tumbling out of control. There were snaps of limbs, both arboreal and human, and Trevor knew agony. A final slam against a tree and a sharp pain at his back wed the loss of air. He collapsed to the ground and lay motionless on his side.
Silence engulfed the forest as the snow machine’s engine failed. Trevor’s world spun, but he was aware of the sled’s headlights, cracked, but still shining off the battery power somewhere in the trees. Alcohol and pain mixed and he vomited, the foulness assaulting his senses.
He swore and worked to right himself, his right leg refusing to work, blinding pain in his ribs. Tenderly, Trevor reached around his body to feel the spot where his discomfort was the worst and his hand met the remnants of a branch, still lodged in his back. Shudders erupted through his being and he drew back a shaking hand. He needed medical attention, immediately, but what hope lay in the wilderness?
Then, in the distance, the dim light of a window, a glowing beacon of hope. Trevor began to crawl, willing his body through pain and discomfort. If he could make it, perhaps he would live. Death pursued him on healthy feet, should his effort fail.
* * *
A fire crackled, popping occasionally, sending wisps of smoke curling through the ethereal light of its glow. The old man sat watching it, nothing to occupy him but time and forlorn memory. The pounding at the base of the cabin door didn’t startle him. No, he was expecting eternal company. But the sight of the young man, bloody and broken when he opened it, caught him off guard.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Please, help me,” Trevor wheezed.
The old man looked at the trail the younger man had blazed, dragging his body through the snowy night. It was ragged and marred by human blood, crimson in the light of the cabin door. Looking down, he saw the branch sticking out through the cloth of the jacket, and the terrified look from the dim eyes begging for help.
“Please,” Trevor managed again.
Weakly, the old man bent and grabbed Trevor’s hand. He managed to pull him up and into the cabin and helped him to lay face down on the couch. His eyes moved down from the puncture wound in the back of the body to the legs, dangling off the couch. One pantleg was drenched from the area of a sharp protrusion at the shin, blood dripping from it to the floor: a compound fracture. The young man couldn’t walk, that much was clear. And he was losing blood quickly. Turning, he shut out the cold night and returned to throw another log on the fire.
“Can you call for an ambulance?” Trevor asked.
“No phone,” the old man said, stoking the flames.
Trevor eyed him closely as he crossed the room and disappeared from view. Then, shooting pain and stars in his eyes as the man yanked the branch from between his ribs. He returned to face Trevor and held aloft the pointed end of the stick, bloody red and black.
“Probably punctured a lung,” the old man said, wiping blood from Trevor’s lips. “Been coughing up blood?”
Trevor’s face was confusion. “It’s dark out,” he said.
The old man nodded. He added the stick to the fire.
“Please,” Trevor said. “Do you have a car? Can you get me to a hospital?”
“You probably wouldn’t make it in time—hospital’s a long way. Even if I did have a car, which I don’t.”
Trevor’s countenance fell. “Please. What’s your name?”
The old man sat in his chair facing the fire and meshed his fingers together. “Does it matter?”
“Why wouldn’t it matter? Can’t you do something to help me?”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
With a moan and a grunt, Trevor tried to roll over and sit up, but the exhaustion of crawling to the cabin compounded with his injures thwarted his attempt. “Will you help me sit up?”
The old man looked at the pathetic mass of humanity on his couch. With a sigh, he rose. He helped Trevor roll onto his back, and swung his legs down so he could sit up. Blood streaked the floor from the soaked pantleg. Then, he returned to his chair.
“Could I get some water at least?” Trevor asked.
“No water. No food. Only time—what little you have—and any thoughts you may have cared to bring with you.”
“No food or water? What are you doing out here then?”
“Dying. Same as you.”
* * *
Time passed in silence. Trevor grew paler with each passing moment as the blood drained from his body. He wished the old man would do something, or at least say something. How could he sit there and do nothing with a man bleeding out on his couch? He wanted to yell at him, demand help, chastise the old man’s indifference. But his voice betrayed his will.
The couch cushions were soaked all down Trevor’s back from the hole where the branch had been. There was nothing to staunch the flow, so he grew weaker, his breathing shallow and labored.
The old man’s eyes never left the fire. He sat in agonizing stillness, his stoicism taunting Trevor’s curiosity. Finally, it overwhelmed his fatigue, his pain, and his weakness.
“Why are you here?”
“I told you, I’m dying. Same as you.”
“You’re just out here to die?”
“Yep. When you knocked, I thought it was death, come to get me. But now I see you came here to wait for him, too. I imagine he’ll be here for you first.” The old man’s head turned and his eyes pierced Trevor’s heart. “Now, we can wait for him together.”
Trevor swallowed hard. The look was emotionless, and cold. “Why are you dying?” he managed through ragged breaths.
“Cancer,” the old man said, turning attention to the flames.
“Why don’t you get treatment?”
The old man laughed, startling Trevor. “It’s inoperable. Doctors gave me three weeks to live. Maybe I could extend that if I wanted to go through a bunch of miserable shit… I don’t.”
“But why come out here?”
“To spare my family the pain of watching me go. To remove false hope. To die with dignity.”
“Dignity,” Trevor scoffed. “You think there’s dignity in slinking away to die alone? Don’t you think your family wants to be with you?”
“I’m sure they do. But they don’t understand what it’s going to be like. I’d like to save them from that reality if I can.”
Trevor sat and watched the old man, motionless in his chair. He wore an air of acceptance and defeat. “Is that why you’re just going to let me die, too?”
“Not much I can do for you.”
Tears began to gather in Trevor’s eyes. “You could try something. Something to comfort me?”
Without so much as a glance in his direction, the old man rose and walked to a table. His picked up a pad of paper and a pencil, tearing the top sheet carefully and placing it back on the surface of the wood. He crossed the room and handed Trevor the items. “Write to your family if you like. When someone find us, they’ll get your words where you want them to go.”
“That’s it,” the old man said, sitting back in his chair.
Trevor sat the pad and pencil on his lap, studying both them and the old man. A fury rose from the depths, adrenaline coursing through what remained of the blood in his body. It gave him a final burst of strength and he scowled. “You’re afraid,” he hissed. That piercing stare hit Trevor again, but he didn’t blanche. “You’re afraid to face your family. Afraid to try and live. You’re a coward. You came out here to hide. If you wanted to die, you’d just do it. Stick the barrel of a gun in your mouth and be done. But you’re too frightened, so you choose to waste away alone like the sniveling weakling you are. And now you’re afraid to try and give me any real help.”
“And you’re afraid to die,” the old man said flatly. “We’re all afraid of something. Write.”
Trevor’s lip quivered. “I have no one to write for.”
“No? Parents? Friends? A lover, perhaps?”
“My parents are gone. I don’t have a girlfriend. What friends I have wouldn’t care what I have to say right now.”
The old man nodded slowly. “Then write something for me.”
“Yes. Looks like you’ll die first. Wouldn’t you like to have the last word?”
“The last word? What for?”
“Wouldn’t you like to tell me I’m a son of a bitch for letting you die? Or maybe you’d like to thank me for keeping you company during your last moments? You could leave some final profound thought, try to convince me to seek treatment. Whatever you want, young man.”
“You don’t even know me. And I don’t know you.”
“Does that matter?” the old man asked, grinning.
“Does it matter—yes, it matters.”
“Very well, tell me about yourself. If you think it matters.”
“Forget it,” Trevor said. “It has to matter to you.”
The old man meshed his fingers and turned back to the fire. Once again, silence consumed the room.
* * *
Trevor’s breath came in gurgling, shallow gasps. He was fading. Despite the heat from the fire, he was cold, the blood loss causing him to shiver. The old man glanced over and noticed him shaking, so he retrieved a dusty wool blanket, covered the young man and returned to his chair.
“Thank you,” Trevor managed. Then he picked up the pencil and scratched a few words on the paper before fatigue stopped him.
“Are you ready to tell me about yourself?” the old man asked.
Trevor wheezed and coughed, wiping his mouth with the back of a labored hand. He looked at the smear of blood and blinked away the shadows threatening to consume him.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell you a little… I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston. My father left my mother before I was born, and she did her best to raise me. I lived in the Auburn area most of my life. Typical sob story, right? Drugs, crime, miscreant youth type stuff. My mom overdosed on meth when I was fourteen. In paranoia, she walked out into traffic on Route 202 and was hit by a semi. I dabbled in the hard stuff, myself. Meth, coke, heroin, tried it all. But alcohol was always my drug of choice. I guess you could say I pretty well self-sabotaged from the day my mom died. Always looking for a rush—Fast cars, women, anything to get a high. The real bitch of it is, I was starting to slow down. Got cleaned up, mostly, got a job, made some money. Things were all right. I’m twenty-four now, and after ten years of wasting my life, I was ready to straighten it out. Now, this.”
The old man looked at Trevor. The story had taken its toll. His face was ashen and drawn in, his body was shaking even under the blanket. “What’s your name?”
“You think you’re being punished, Trevor?”
“Yeah, for all the shit you did? I ask myself all the time if I’m being punished. If the cancer is God’s judgement for a lifetime of being an asshole.”
“I guess I hadn’t thought about it,” Trevor said. “Do you think I’m being punished?”
“Yes, I think so.” the old man whispered. “We all are.”
“What are you going to do?” Trevor asked. “After I’m dead, I mean.”
“Nothing. Wait my turn. I haven’t had any food or water in days. It won’t be long.”
“What do you think it’ll be like?”
“No idea. Doesn’t matter.”
Tears began falling from Trevor’s eyes again, so he squeezed them shut. “I don’t want to die,” he said.
“Don’t suppose that matters either.”
“Fuck! Can’t you be of some comfort?” Trevor coughed up more blood from the effort.
“Never have been any good with comfort, or company for that matter.”
“I told you my story. Can’t you tell me yours?”
When the old man turned to face Trevor, the young man’s eyes were half closed, head drooping to the side. It wouldn’t be long now. The floor and couch were heavy with blood, the young man’s spirit only lingering in the world. “Nothing worth telling,” he said.
* * *
Silence fell again in the cabin. Trevor no longer had the strength to speak. He sat, his eyes falling, as a dark shroud slowly surrounded him. All warmth left his body and he swam in a sea of cold nothingness. Eventually, the pain too left him and he was consumed by dreamy peace.
Trevor was still. The labored breathing had stopped, the young man’s chest no longer rose or fell. The old man crossed the room, lifting the paper from Trevor’s lap. His eyes scanned the scribbled words. What is your name? The answer stalled on his lips. With shaking fingers, he reached up and lowered the young man’s eyelids and covered him properly with the blanket. Then, he looked again at the paper and nodded at the text.
With a great effort, the strain of the years, the weight of all regret, and a body wasted away, he leaned close to the young man’s ear and silently mouthed the word, “Ben.”
He turned back and collapsed in his chair, allowing a single tear to escape from his eye. The fire dwindled, but he felt no need to feed it. Death now knew the way; the light was no longer necessary.