He woke up to pitch-black and stars, the way a lost soul wakes up to the afterworld — slowly. He could barely breathe. He couldn’t feel his body — a few moments wondering if he was dead, but no. Some pain still pulsed, just enough to let him know he was alive, and not dead, after all; but the feeling that a white sun was straining to break through, catastrophically, led him to stop thinking about it at all.
He was freezing. He could see looming black shapes blotting out the crystal stars — trees — waterfall — Horse.
He tried to sit up. Not. His pack was stuck, somehow, the straps pinioning him to the earth. He tried to yell. No can do, buddy. He tried to roll over — shift, shift, shift, little movements to work his body free of this paralysis, concentrating in his best sorta-yoga style to get — things — working —
And he was free. Five or six back-and-forths, and ooooooover… face, in the snow, rocks in the ribs, pack pressing down, bad vibes from the dead zones, and Max could sense that perhaps freezing nearly to death had small benefits. One cannot feel, one cannot feel pain. Face. In the snow.
With a groan of some long-ago ancient creature, he lifted his head up, moved up an arm, collapsed onto it. Other arm. And then — up.
Fascinating blackness. He strained a little — a black and white universe — a steep hill, two, three trees, snow, no Horse. Over the next fifteen minutes, he managed to look both left and right. Nothingness and Stars.
Max had always seemed to have good survival skills, a lot of it just stuff you picked up along the way reading sci-fi and history, and a good thing, too. Lying numbly on the small cliff, he went through the whole database on a) freezing to death, b) starving to death, c) leaving last notes for loved ones. His mental image of the pack contents was clear — a good inventory, a mixture of food, fuel, and brandy. If he could find shelter — but the cliff offered nothing within even walking distance, so it seemed, and he couldn’t even do that, so –
Snow cave. Like that guy who died on Everest, with the cell phone. At least Max wasn’t going to die of oxygen deprivation, not at ten thousand feet. But his legs dangled out behind him like posts, and he knew one of them was at the very least broken, if not shattered. He would have to drag himself around on his hands.
It took him hours. When he was done, though, he started to feel better. He couldn’t build a real snow cave, with the dropped entrance and the water-vat, and the ledge-and-chimney; he made do with an upsloping chamber, using the little orange REI poop-shovel and his Magnalite. The sleeping bag alone had taken at least an hour, and his foot was starting to throb, now — the activity was heating it up, and that was a bad thing, so he downed a handful of Advil and drank a third of the brandy, and right before he started to feel like singing a Waterboys song to cheer himself up, he fell asleep.
Some time later, Max woke to a terrible sound. A large predator, snuffling through snow, tracking a scent. The grunts and wuffles, the sounds of large pads on snow, were enough to immediately reduce his waking thoughts to completely primitive levels — the hairs on his neck stood straight up, he froze, he stopped breathing, he was paralyzed with such a total fear that it kick-started the higher levels, and he suddenly realized he must be listening to a bear, a giant mutant freak of a bear –
He very, very slowly and quietly pulled his sleeping-bagged feet away from the snow cave entrance, and cursed himself silently for leaving the entrance so goddamn large, what was he thinking, apparently nothing at all, a rubber-brained fool, and now he was going to be eaten. Eaten alive, just like in all those fucking nightmares; it made him want to punch himself right in the face, but the creature would hear him, and his hindbrain just wouldn’t permit such a suicidal gesture at this moment. So he concentrated on being quiet, and small, and odorless.
The snuffling got nearer. The bear was approaching the cave’s mouth, following the odors like Burma-Shave signs to an all-night diner. Max’s sphincters, all of them, tightened. He struggled desperately not to panic, until
the bear’s giant head
Max felt at one with an ancestor so far back in the line that he was a quadruped with a tail — a complete and total freeze washed over him, a complete expelling of every drop of sweat from every pore at once, a state of total panic that ended with Max almost fainting, as the obviously fatal situation deteriorated to the point that appearing to be dead was the final option.
The bear shoved forward; Max didn’t move. It appeared that the bear could not see him, since the entrance was low to the ground, and sloped upwards, and the bear appeared to be as large as a dinosaur, or even a True Monster, one of those creatures that haunt every childhood — the giant head withdrew.
Max still did not breathe. The head returned, shoved forward violently once, making Max jump involuntarily — then withdrew, and was gone, the huge pads crushing snow, fainter, dropping, then disappearing. The Monster had gone.
Max began to breathe a few moments later, when the pounding in his head swelled to a warning roar. His body refused to move for a long time. He fell asleep while trying. His dreams were vast, inexplicable, life-altering — long conversations with his long-dead dog Simon, and a sharp memory of the childhood origin of his Fear of Lions, and a wide-ranging matrix of vision that led him from Mars to Antares while fixing a buggy module and writing a new bass line, with lyrics about a beast who loved and had lost. The dreams lasted for years, and he knew he would never sleep like this again, the sleep of an ancestor safe for the moment from the Predator, the Gargoyle, the True Monster.
Which is why he reacted so violently and viscerally when he woke from his slumber to find himself being pulled through the mouth of the snow cave by a powerful force that had seized his feet, and was inexorably dragging him to certain, grisly, death. His scream was a ululating peal of human force; it rosed to the cave roof, it broke into a thousand crystal shards and plunged snow into his face, he writhed, he fought to escape, he screamed his life out.
Horse finished pulling Max from the cave, and staggered back, struck by the force of Max’s furious terror, almost as if Max must know something terrible that Horse could not yet see — he shook his head, and tried yelling, which proved to be a small pebble in the stream of screaming Max — but it slowly worked, as Max focused on Horse’s face, and the light dawned on the convulsing primitive soul that had been drawn from the womb.
Horse had yelled, “HEY! MAX! CUT IT OUT! JESUS! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU! WHAT IS IT?! WHAT IS IT?! WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME!”
Max slowly stopped screaming and writhing, and eventually collapsed back on to the snow, spent.
“Jesus,” he said. “I’m going to be sick.” Max threw up as Horse stepped back and watched him, breathing heavily. Then, for awhile, they watched each other, as they breathed heavily, in complete and traumatized silence.
Max swallowed. “You’re alive,” he croaked.
“Duh,” said Horse.
“You were shot. We were running. I skiied off a cliff.”
Horse sighed. “Stupid goddamned paintballers. In the goddamned middle of the winter, in the goddamned middle of nowhere. We walked right into an ambush, you went over, but I just piled into a tree. I got knocked out. We’ve been looking for you for two days.”
Max stared at him. “Two days?”
“Two whole entire days. You okay?”
Max’s stare lengthened to a thousand yards. “Bear,” he forced out.
Horse nodded. “Okay. Well. Bear. You saw a bear?”
The look in Max’s eyes shamed Horse into silence, and he turned to the process of getting them both the hell out of there, which involved a lot of yelling at the paintballers, who all murmured apologetically at Max as they hauled him on an improvised stretcher up the waterfall.
On the way home, Max considered his strange conversation with Simon.