Above the Tree Line
Lois Cloarec Hart
Change is a constant, in my writing as in my life, and that’s a good thing. I am, however, deeply grateful for what doesn’t change; the two women who have, for so many years, proofed, polished, and improved my short stories and novels. My deepest thanks go to my beloved wife, Day, and my dear friend, California Kathy. You both have my profound respect and appreciation for the wonderful work you do year in, and year out.
If you’d like to comment on my story, I’d enjoy hearing from you at email@example.com
“Liv, can you get Reta or Toby to cover for you tomorrow?”
Hunched over her computer, engrossed in her end of day sales calculations, Liv Teager barely heard her business partner and best friend. When the quiet words finally sank in, she lifted her eyes from the screen. “Sorry, Kai, what did you say? Something about Toby?”
As she stared out the window into the dark, Kailyn nodded. “Yes. Do you think Reta or Toby would be available to take over the shop tomorrow on such short notice?”
“I don’t know. Toby might. He’s been asking for extra shifts. Why? What did you have in mind?”
“I want to go up Faeroe Peak.”
Liv straightened in surprise, her sales figures momentarily forgotten. “Faeroe Peak? I didn’t think you’d ever want to go back after the Labour Day fiasco.”
With a wry smile, Kailyn shook her head. “Well, I definitely don’t want to go with Patty and Mia, but I’d really like you and me to make the hike again.”
Liv looked longingly at her screen as she made rapid mental calculations. “Couldn’t it wait until next weekend? I’ve got more inventory slated to arrive tomorrow, and I’d rather Toby didn’t have to process it all on his own.”
“Olivia, if you don’t want to go, just say so, but don’t make excuses. Toby is perfectly capable of checking in a bunch of boxes. If you’re worried, have Abby or Ethan come in after school to help him, but you know damn well that all we’re getting right now are the leaf tourists, and those mostly on the weekends. There couldn’t have been more than half a dozen people in the store today. Anyway, I’m going. The only question is whether you’re coming with me.”
Liv frowned at Kailyn’s sharp tone, but she couldn’t argue with her friend’s logic. Their shop, Teager and Teale Gifts, a fixture in the small mountain tourist town for thirty-three years, always experienced weeks of slowdown after Labour Day and before the beginning of the winter sports season. It was logistically a good time for them to play hooky and leave the store in the capable hands of their employees.
“What’s so important that we can’t put off Faeroe for a few more days?”
“The forecast isn’t great for the weekend. If it’s raining down here, you know it’ll be snowing at the upper levels. I want to get back to the spot on the trail where Patty broke her ankle. You remember, it was just above the tree line on the western approach.”
“What’s so important about that spot?”
Kailyn hesitated, and Liv’s interest was piqued. Her old friend was an avid hiker, but their expedition three weeks ago had been such a trial she was sure that Faeroe Peak would’ve become a permanent bane in Kai’s memory.
Kailyn mumbled something, and Liv strained to hear. “Sorry, what?”
“I want to find my hiking pole. You know I lost it in all the chaos.”
“I know, but it’s just a pole. It’s not like you don’t have others.”
“That one was special.” Kailyn turned to look directly at Liv. “You gave it to me our first Christmas together.”
A wave of bittersweet nostalgia swept over Liv. She remembered that Christmas well. After being friends since middle school, they’d finally acknowledged their love and become a couple. Their union lasted scarcely two years. Liv had been devastated, but at some level unsurprised when Kailyn broke it off. No woman had yet been able to make a relationship last with her mercurial friend. Liv had been hopeful that she would be the exception, but she was unable to find the elusive key to induce Kai to make a permanent commitment. She was, however, truly thankful that ultimately they had been able to salvage their friendship and business partnership out of the wreckage.
Given their history together, Liv was touched to hear that the old hiking pole meant something to Kailyn. “Okay. Let me call Toby and if he can come in, we’ll go.”
As Liv reached for the phone, she saw Kailyn smile and turn back to the window. Liv counted the ringtones and wondered what Kailyn could possibly see in the darkness that fascinated her so. Even her beloved mountains were obscured by the early nightfall.
Liv shrugged her daypack onto her shoulders as she watched Kailyn lock up the Tahoe. Settling the pack into place, she checked her boots one last time to ensure her laces were double tied, and picked up her hiking pole.
Kailyn strode around the truck and grinned at Liv. “Now aren’t you glad you ditched the shop for one day?”
Liv inhaled deeply and filled her lungs with clean air. It was a perfect morning for a hike, cool and crisp with a brilliant blue, cloudless sky overhead. “I suppose it’s marginally better than the store, but really, can anything beat the fragrance of fresh money?” Then she bolted for the trailhead, knowing full well that Kailyn would be swinging a hiking pole at her rear end.
Liv was fifteen feet down the trail before Kailyn caught up and they settled into a familiar pace. Liv grinned as she heard a muttered “brat” from behind her. In truth there was nothing she loved more than one of their adventures, whether they were hiking, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing or kayaking. They’d grown up here. Even though Kailyn had left after high school while Liv stayed, both of them were equally familiar with, and at home in the mountains.
As dry leaves crunched underfoot, Liv allowed her mind to drift back to the day Kailyn left, determined to see the world beyond their small hometown. Liv was working for her Uncle Stephen who was the original owner of Teager Gifts. She couldn’t understand why her best friend wanted to abandon their mountain paradise, and was heartbroken that Kai left her behind.
The moment that the bus pulled away from the depot, Liv understood something that they wouldn’t acknowledge to each other for another fifteen years: she was in love with Kailyn, she always would be. It took time and a lot of internal soul searching, but Liv accepted that it just wasn’t meant to be. She was content to be a small town girl, and Kailyn had bigger dreams.
For fourteen years Liv received cards and notes, often from places she had to hunt for on maps. She marvelled at how adept Kai became at navigating the world with little money in her pockets, but a wit and willingness to do whatever job was available in order to earn her way.
When Kailyn did return to Faeroeton, she appeared willing to settle down. Kai parlayed her knowledge of foreign cultures and marketplaces into a career as a buyer for Teager Gifts. With Uncle Stephen’s enthusiastic support, Kai expanded their inventory beyond traditional tourist paraphernalia to encompass the unique and exotic goods that now defined their brand and made their shop a magnet for tourists and locals alike.
Liv was as surprised by the beginning of their love affair as she was by its abrupt ending two years later. Kailyn had been back for a year by then, but while they had swiftly resumed their old friendship, Kai hadn’t done anything to indicate she had any deeper feelings for Liv. So when Kailyn proposed a night kayaking trip under a full moon, Liv assumed it was another in their long series of outdoor adventures.
They pulled off at a small island to have a midnight picnic. After the meal, they sat on a sandy shore and quietly watched tiny waves bumping up against their beached kayaks. Liv was about to suggest they resume their trip when Kai turned, gently pressed her back against the sand, and kissed her. It was the beginning of the best years of Liv’s life. She was deeply in love, happy at work and busily nesting at home. Then one summer night, while Liv was plotting a midnight return to their island to celebrate their second anniversary, Kai said the words that brought her world crashing down. “I can’t do this anymore, Liv. It’s not you, I swear. I love you—I’ll always love you, but I just can’t do this.”
From the depths of her desolate heart, Liv was certain that Kailyn would resume her globetrotting ways. She rationalized that wanderlust had to be the reason Kai broke things off; she could think of no other justification. To her surprise, Kailyn stayed in town and continued working for Teager Gifts, though she expanded her buying territory and was gone for longer and longer periods. Liv couldn’t argue with the quality and variety of goods Kai found for their shop. It made both of them a very good living after Uncle Stephen bequeathed them the store and his chalet, but Liv knew she’d have given it all up in a heartbeat to return to the halcyon days of their love.
Giving her head a fierce shake, Liv banished her gloomy thoughts, determined not to let anything ruin their perfect day. “Hey, Kai, did Mia get hold of you last night?”
“We met for coffee last night after you left. When she heard we were going back up Faeroe Peak, she asked us to look for her turquoise bracelet. Apparently it got torn off when she tried to grab Patty and stop her fall. She figured if you found your hiking pole, her bracelet might be in the same area. She was going to text you about it.”
“She might’ve. When I was over at Lori’s last night, I turned off my phone and never turned it back on. I’ll keep an eye out for the bracelet, but I would expect it to be harder to find than my pole. Given the way Patty was thrashing around, she probably kicked rocks all over the damned thing.”
Liv was glad she was in the lead and Kai couldn’t see her face. She knew Kailyn was casual about her on-again, off-again relationship with Lori Childers, but it still hurt. “Well, anyway, Mia’s hopeful, so I said we’d watch for it.”
“Sure, why not. There’s no way I’m bringing them here again, and the snow’s going to fall any day now. Once it starts, we’d never find a bracelet.”
“Mia said Patty is getting around pretty well on her crutches now. She’s hopeful she’ll be walking without them by Christmas.”
Liv sighed at the dismissive sound. “What is up with you, Kai? It’s not like Patty broke her ankle on purpose. I know it was a bitch getting her back down the mountain, but geez, let it go already.”
“She shouldn’t have been with us that day. You know that, Liv. Neither she or Mia were fit enough to do the western approach.”
“Well, you didn’t want to take the eastern slope.”
“So you’re saying it’s my fault?”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Kai. It was no one’s fault. It was an accident. Accidents happen.”
“They happen to careless people.”
Liv stopped and turned to face Kailyn. “When did you get so damned judgemental?”
“I told Patty three times to stop mooning about and pay attention to where she was putting her feet. But she didn’t pay any heed, and as a result she not only screwed up our day together, she put all of us through hell carrying her back down. Because of her, I lost my pole, and we never made it to the summit.”
Startled by the distressed look on Kailyn’s face, Liv gentled her tone. “Why was that so important, Kai? It’s not like you haven’t been all the way to the top before. You and Lori just climbed it at the beginning of August, for crying out loud.”
“I know. It’s just... Oh, forget it. Let’s keep moving. Okay?”
Struck by the way her friend avoided meeting her eyes, Liv stared at Kailyn a moment longer. Finally she turned, continued up the trail and pondered what exactly was going on in Kai’s head. Soon, however, the increasing difficulty of the uphill hike shifted her attention away from her enigmatic companion as she focused on her breathing.
By the time they stopped for lunch several hours later, Liv could see glimpses of the rock scree through the thinning trees above them. They had just entered the shale field on Labour Day when Patty had taken her disastrous misstep and they’d been forced to descend, carrying her between the three of them.
Kailyn had been quiet for most of the morning’s hike. Liv knew they should’ve been talking and making noise in order to alert any foraging bears, but she hadn’t felt much like conversing either. She counted on their bear spray and bear bangs to get them out of any potentially sticky situation. Now they were at an elevation where they were more likely to see marmots or mountain goats.
They found a large rock to sit on, and pulled their lunches out of their daypacks. Wordlessly, Liv swapped half her ham sandwich for half of Kai’s roast beef sub. It was an old habit of theirs, born out of Kailyn’s need for variety and Liv’s need to make Kai happy.
“Does it seem to you that the trail has gotten steeper over the years?”
Kailyn chuckled at Liv’s wry inquiry. “The mountain hasn’t changed, but we sure have. Remember when we were sixteen and we ran most of the way up here?”
“God, at sixteen was there anything we couldn’t do?” Liv flexed her legs; she felt the pleasant ache of challenged muscles. “I’m going to be blessing Uncle Stephen tonight when I soak in the hot tub.”
“You should be blessing Bradley, not Stephen. It was Brad’s idea. He told me so.”
“Brad always was more of a hedonist, wasn’t he?”
“He was, but he was also good for Stephen. He got your uncle to take his nose out of the ledger now and then.”
Liv nudged Kailyn with her shoulder. “Does that mean you’re Bradley to my Uncle Stephen?” She was surprised when Kai responded by resting her head on Liv’s shoulder. She was even more surprised by Kai’s wistful tone when she responded.
“I wish. They were together thirty years, we barely made two. They certainly knew something we didn’t. I think Stephen died purely of a broken heart after he lost Brad. He only lived what...another six weeks?”
“About that, yeah.”
“You know, I’ve often wondered why Stephen didn’t change his will to cut me out of it after we broke up. I mean, it makes sense that he’d leave everything to you. You were more like a daughter than a niece, and you’d worked together for years in the store. But why include me? We’d been broken up for four years before he died. He certainly had lots of time to change his will.”
“Uncle Stephen loved you too, you know.”
“I know, but it still puzzles me.”
“Maybe… No, it doesn’t matter. Hey, you want to get moving again? I want to leave us lots of time to get back down again before dark.”
The remainder of the trek to the shale field was a difficult and challenging climb. Mindful of Patty’s mistake, both women focused intently on where they placed their feet and dug in their poles as they came in sight of the scree.
Liv halted and breathed deeply; she was pleased that her routine conditioning was proving its worth. She knew she spent far too many hours in the store, but she tried not to let more than a day or two pass without a strenuous workout in their basement gym. Nothing beat actually being outdoors, though.
Kailyn drew even with Liv on the narrow path and rested a hand on her back. “You okay?”
“Fine as frog’s hair.”
Kai chuckled. “Well, in that case, I think I see where Patty crashed. Let me take the lead.”
“Sure.” As Kailyn edged past, Liv added impulsively, “Tired of the view from back there?”
Kailyn looked back over her shoulder with a smile. “The view was great. No complaints at all.”
Liv chastised herself for her involuntary flirting, then relaxed and allowed herself to enjoy Kai’s response. She followed Kailyn’s carefully chosen route, and planted each foot cautiously. Liv also tested the shale before she took the next step.
Liv was concentrating so hard that she was startled to hear Kailyn’s exclamation. She looked up to see Kai pointing down the steep hill that dropped off the edge of the scree.
“I see it, Livvie! I see my pole. It went over the cliff and got caught in some trees.”
“Great, but don’t do anything. Wait for me.”
Kailyn ignored Liv’s admonition and started scrambling over the shale toward the edge of the cliff.
For an instant Kailyn looked back at Liv and tried to stop, but forward momentum caused her boot to catch on loose shale. Kai’s foot shot out in front of her, and took the startled woman to the ground. The unforgiving scree carried her to the edge of the cliff.
“Kai!” Terrified, Liv watched Kailyn scramble desperately for a foot or handhold, but a miniature rock fall swept her over the edge. “Kai! God, no!”
Faster than she should safely go, Liv made her way across the unstable scree. She dropped to her belly and spread her four limbs as ballast to counter the moving rock. She inched to the menacing edge and fearfully peered over. “Oh, shit!”
Kailyn had tumbled about fifteen feet and was trapped between two trees. Her daypack had been torn off in the fall, and its contents were scattered over the steep incline.
What worried Liv most was the contorted agony on Kai’s face.
Liv eased to her knees and surveyed the situation. She had to secure her own safety or she’d be useless to Kailyn. Five feet off to her right, a stunted tree, barely the size of a large bush, jutted from the side of the cliff at a 45 degree angle. She looked around for a better anchorage, but none was in close enough proximity.
Liv carefully eased over to the tree, detached her static rope from the daypack, and fastened it around the trunk. For an instant Liv chastised herself for not having any of the speciality climbing equipment they kept for more difficult climbs, but they hadn’t expected more than a challenging hike.
Liv took a deep breath as she tugged on the line; it felt reassuringly solid. “Okay, Livvie, Kai’s depending on you. You gotta do this right. No screw-ups, no slips, no falls.”
Liv checked her pack again and began a slow descent. She flinched at every loose rock that threatened her foothold or shot from beneath her boots towards the helpless woman below. It felt to Liv as if it took an hour to reach Kai, though in reality it was only minutes.
Liv left her tether rope in place as she knelt close to Kai. She didn’t like the sound of Kai’s rapid, shallow breathing, or the look of her pale, bloodied face. She gently touched Kai’s shoulder.
“Hey you, open those big, beautiful eyes. C’mon, Kai. Tell me how you feel.”
Kai opened her eyes. “Like I was run through a cement mixer and then spat out.” She tried to struggle free of the trees, then uttered a sharp cry of pain. “God, I think I really messed up my leg.”
“Stop moving, Kai. Just stop. Let me take a look.”
Liv carefully moved around Kai until she was below the trees. She winced as she saw the way her friend was trapped. The lower half of Kai’s body was wedged between two pines. Her left leg was bent at a grotesque angle and appeared to have been broken by the force of the impact.
“I fucked up royally, didn’t I, Liv?”
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be skiing this winter, but we’ve gotten out of worse. Remember when we overturned in white water and I got hung up under that rock. You got me out then. I’m going to get you out now. First, I need to splint your leg before I do anything else. Kai, I’m sorry. This is going to hurt like hell, but I can’t avoid that.”
“I know. Just do it.”
Liv looked around at what was available. She could use her aluminum hiking pole as a splint, but needed a second splint to stabilize Kai’s leg as rigidly as possible for the extrication process. “Kai, do you know where your pole went when you fell?”
“Lost it somewhere down below me, but I do have this.” Kai squirmed and groaned as she wrestled with something trapped underneath her body.
Liv shook her head as she saw what Kai was trying to push down to her. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Through all that, you held on to your old pole?”
“Actually, I fell on the pole when I hit the trees, but I did manage to stop it from getting away. I’m not leaving it behind if I can help it.”
“Stubborn, pig-headed, mulish—”
“Yell at me later, okay, Liv?”
“Count on it.” Liv hoped her insults disguised how scared she was. She finished pulling the old ironwood hiking pole from under Kai’s body and set it next to her own pole, then swung the daypack off and rooted through it for the first aid kit she always carried. She extracted a bottle of Advil and tucked it into her jacket pocket, then removed a small roll of duct tape. “How did civilization ever get along without this stuff?”
“Did you say something, Liv?”
“Just commenting on the all-around usefulness of duct tape. Okay, Kai, now comes the hard part. I need to straighten your leg out. I’ll be as careful as I can, but—”
“I know. I’m ready.”
Liv took hold of Kai’s leg and slowly eased it out of its contorted position. Anguished screams filled the air and echoed off distant peaks. Liv forced herself to ignore Kai’s pleas for her to stop. When she was done, she wiped sweat off her face. “Well, the good news is that, judging by the way you kicked me with your right foot, there’s nothing broken in your spine.”
Liv was gratified to hear a strangled laugh. She quickly used the duct tape to secure the ironwood pole to the outside of Kai’s leg and her lighter, aluminum pole to the inside, completing her handiwork with several loops of tape around Kai’s boot to hold everything in place. Then she worked her way back around the trees and knelt at Kai’s side.
“Hey, you doing okay?”
Kai panted as she answered, “Okay is relative, right?”
“Absolutely. Look, I’m going to give you a couple of Advil. It won’t stop the pain, but it should help ease it a little.”
Kai nodded; her eyes closed. Liv shook two pills into her hand and took her water bottle from the side pocket of the pack. She flipped the cap off the bottle and lifted Kai’s shoulders.
Kai wrapped her hand around Liv’s and accepted the medication and water. When she had swallowed both, she slid her hand up Liv’s arm and touched her face with shaky fingers. “What now?”
“Now we call for help.” I hope. Kailyn had been carrying the cellphone, and the contents of her daypack were scattered. Liv hugged Kai and impulsively kissed her forehead before lowering her to the ground. “Hold on while I find the phone, Kai.”
Still tethered, Liv carefully covered the debris field and collected the contents of Kai’s pack. She added them to her own as she hunted for the phone. She finally found it. “Goddamn it!”
“What’s wrong, Liv?”
Liv knelt to pick up the remains of the phone, which were littered around a large rock. “Looks like we’re going to have to write a letter of complaint to the phone company. These things aren’t nearly as durable as advertised.”
Kai was silent and Liv glanced over at her. “Hey, don’t worry, Kai. I can be down the mountain to get help long before nightfall. We’ll have you out of here in a matter of hours, I promise.”
“I have to, Kai. I can’t get you out of here by myself.”
“You left our trip plan with Toby, didn’t you?”
“Then he’ll alert the authorities when we don’t get back.”
“Damn it, Kai, that could be a helluva long time from now. We could end up spending the night here.”
“I know.” Kailyn was silent for several long moments. “Please...don’t leave me.”
Liv was shocked at how frail and frightened Kai sounded. Kailyn was the strong one. When she was barely out of her teens, she had travelled distant and untamed parts of the world alone. Liv had never even seen Kai shed a tear, not when her beloved dog was run over by a car right in front of their eyes, or when either of her parents died, and certainly not when their relationship ended. Yet now her voice was filled with pleading, and Liv was helpless against it.
“Aw, Jesus...all right. We’ll stick it out together.” Liv thought for a minute. “Kai, I’m going back up top to place a marker so they’ll know where to look when they come to get us. I’ll be back to you in a few minutes.”
Liv zipped the now overloaded pack and started inching her way back up the steep slope, using her anchor line for stability. It took fifteen minutes before she was able to heave herself over the edge and lie flat on the treacherous shale. “I’m on top, Kai.”
Liv groaned, then chuckled in relief. That was more like her indomitable Kai. She rolled to her knees and slipped off her pack. Rummaging through the combined contents, she came up with Kailyn’s spare socks — bright red, knee highs. She used them to create an arrow that pointed over the edge, and then anchored the signal with small rocks.
“That should do it.” Before descending again, Liv took some time to look over the cliff’s edge and survey their situation. By the time she climbed back down to Kailyn, she had a plan.
“Kai, I have an idea.”
“I’m not going to like it, am I?”
“Why do you say that?”
Kai grimaced as she shifted. “Because I know your voice like I know my own thoughts. That was your ‘eat your lima beans because they’re good for you’ tone.”
“Yeah, well, they are good for you, and my plan will be too, especially if we’re stuck here for twenty-four hours.”
“Do you think it will take rescuers that long?”
“I don’t know. By the time they figure out we’re missing, it’ll be too dark to send a team out, so I assume they’ll start at first light tomorrow. They’ll make better time than we did on the ascent, but then they have to find us.”
“Will they find us, Liv?”
“Absolutely. I left a signal up top that a blind man could see. Plus, I’ve got my whistle and when they get here, I’ll blow it like my life depends on it.”
Liv shot Kailyn a sharp look. “Hey, no defeatism allowed. We got into this mess together, and we’ll get out of it together. That’s our way, right?”
“Right. Okay, so what’s your plan?”
“If we’re going to spend the night here, we need a better spot than these trees. About five feet below us and to the right, there’s a ledge that’s wide enough for two. It’ll be tight quarters, but it’ll serve our purposes. I’m going to get you unstuck from these trees, then slide you over to the ledge.”
“I am so not going to enjoy this.”
“Probably not, but in the long run you’ll be a lot more comfortable spending those hours in the prone position rather than dangling between these trees. It’ll be worth a few minutes of pain.”
“Easy for you to say, Liv.”
Frustration flared, but Liv held her tongue. She knew Kai was hurting and probably unable to think clearly. She also knew her idea was the best of bad choices, but it wasn’t as if she was looking forward to the whole endeavour.
Liv drew in a deep breath as she looked off to the horizon where the sun was noticeably lower. A hand touched Liv’s face and she looked down at Kailyn.
“I’m sorry, Liv. I know you’re doing your best, and I know I’d be in big—way bigger trouble without you. Let’s do what we have to do, and I’ll try to keep my big mouth shut.”
Liv let her gaze linger on Kailyn’s mouth as she sadly noted the dried blood that had congealed at one corner. “If you have to scream, Kai, scream, but if you could keep from kicking me, I’d sure appreciate it.”
Kailyn gave a half-hearted chuckle. “I’ll try. So how do you propose to get me out of this mess?”
“First, I’m going to move a bunch of the rocks underneath you. Your jacket is all bunched up, so I’ll try to straighten that. Once I’ve got you loosened a little, I’m going to roll you on your side and tug you out from between the trees.”
“Sounds good. Go ahead, and let me know where I can help.”
Liv had no doubt the plan roused Kailyn’s apprehension, and she appreciated her friend’s determination not to complain.
It took Liv almost an hour of careful manoeuvring to get Kailyn into a position that at least held a hope of extrication. Kai had been a mostly silent participant, aside from a few moans she had been unable to suppress when Liv rolled her partially onto her side. Liv was heartened as the first gentle tugs moved Kai’s body, then she stopped.
“Damn it. What the hell—”
“I think it’s my belt, Liv. I think it snagged on the tree.”
Liv worked her way back to the upper side of the trees and quickly saw that Kailyn was right. She reached around and unbuckled the belt. With a little manipulation, Liv was able to remove the belt and add it to her pack.
“Oh sure, trying to get into my pants again.”
Liv released the stress of the last few hours in a gale of restorative laughter that was unwarranted by the mild jest. She deposited a kiss on one of the few semi-pristine patches left on Kailyn’s cheek. “You wish.”
Liv heard Kailyn mumble a response as she returned to the other side of the tree, but was too intent on her task to ask for a repetition. This time Kailyn slid relatively smoothly, using her good leg to brace herself as Liv supported her broken leg.
Kailyn rolled onto her back and flexed her body carefully. “We did it!”
“Not quite yet. Your five-star sleeping accommodations await, but I’ll bet you feel better.”
Kailyn started to say something, then stopped. She smiled and nodded. “Much better, thanks.”
“I’m going to go clear your boudoir. I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t forget to put a chocolate on the pillow.”
Liv snickered, then climbed over to the ledge and spent a few minutes clearing as much of the loose debris as she could. They had nothing but their outdoor clothing to cushion the hardness of the ground, but at least she could ensure no rocks were left to stab at them. Once she was satisfied that their aerie was as comfortable as it was going to get, Liv returned to Kailyn.
As carefully as she could, Liv grasped Kailyn under the arms and began pulling her across the rocky ground. She was almost to the ledge when her feet slipped and she had to grab her anchor rope. Kailyn grunted with pain as her head and shoulders dropped to the ground.
“God, I’m so sorry, Kai. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It couldn’t be helped. Let’s keep going.”
Kai’s voice was thin, but resolute, so Liv took hold of her again and dug her heels into the ground. When they reached the ledge, Liv settled Kai on the interior side and collapsed beside Kailyn. “Now we did it. We’re safe.” She rested for a few moments, gratified to hear Kailyn’s laboured breathing begin to even out.
“Right then, we need to get you warm and as comfortable as possible, then we’ll find something to eat. I believe I can offer you energy bars, trail mix, and water. How does that sound?”
“Like five-star cuisine to go with the five-star accommodations.”
Liv smiled as she dug through her pack. She had managed to recover Kailyn’s emergency bag and she had her own. The heat-reflective metallized polyester films were no substitute for their down sleeping bags, but would do in a pinch. She also brought out the whistle, which she tucked into her breast pocket, and the small first aid kit.
“Close your eyes, Kai, and let me see if I can clean some of the gunk off your face.”
“Gunk as in blood and gore?”
Liv dabbed gently at Kailyn’s cuts and scrapes with antiseptic wet wipes. “Not so much gore but definitely some blood, and a lot of dirt.” She worked diligently, relieved to see that none of Kai’s wounds looked too serious. One cut required extra effort and two bandages, but overall, Liv was sure that the fractured leg would prove to be the worst of her patient’s injuries.
Liv finished her task and stored her supplies. “How’s the pain, Kai? Do you want another couple of Advil?”
Liv got the pills out and helped Kailyn take them. Then she took their toques and gloves out and put Kai’s on her before donning her own. “Darned if I don’t feel like Mary Poppins with her magical carpetbag. Let’s see what else I have here.” Liv took an emergency blanket out of its pack and wrapped it completely around Kai. She used the second blanket to add an extra layer of warmth, and her spare pair of socks rolled up to provide a small pillow. “There you go, all swaddled and set for the night. Now for some supper.”
“I’m really not hungry, Liv. Do you mind if I nap for a bit first?”
“Of course not, but I do want you to eat something later, okay?”
Kailyn murmured an acknowledgement and closed her eyes. Liv turned to dangle her legs over the edge. Her movements were complicated by the anchor rope, but she wasn’t about to remove it. She knew she wouldn’t sleep much that night, but she didn’t want to take any chances of inadvertently rolling off the narrow ledge.
Liv stared out over the magnificent vista that fell away beneath her. Deep green gorges highlighted by patches of golden larch soared into towering peaks dusted with early snow. She could see the glint of a waterfall as it caught the setting sunlight, and watched a bird circle in the hunt. A nearly full moon was already apparent in the gathering twilight.
Liv never took for granted the beauty that had surrounded her since birth, but now it seemed even more poignant. Suddenly overwhelmed, she felt her eyes fill with grateful tears. Kai was safe. Toby would alert the authorities, and rescue would arrive tomorrow—she was sure of it. When she was home again, when she was safe in her bed and Kailyn was safe in a hospital, then she would allow herself to process today, to feel in full the agonizing fear of watching Kai tumble off the cliff. For now, she pushed the terrible memory aside and filled her soul with the splendor of her surroundings.
It was almost completely dark before Liv heard Kai speak from behind her.
“Liv, do you remember David?”
“David? You mean your cousin from Vancouver?”
“No, the Earle Birney poem—the one we studied in high school.”
Liv narrowed her eyes, not liking where this was going. “You’re talking about the story where the two friends are hiking in the mountains and because of Bobbie’s mistake David takes a terrible fall and breaks his back. Then he begs Bobbie to throw him to his death because he can’t bear the thought of being paralyzed. That David?”
“That’s the one. I was just thinking about it.”
“That damned poem haunted me for months after we studied it. And if you were thinking you were going to ask me to toss you off the ledge, think again.”
Kailyn laughed softly. “No, of course not. But I was thinking about the bond between David and Bobbie. It was a terrible thing that David asked, but Bobbie loved him enough to do it, even though he probably spent the rest of his life mourning David and what happened to them both.”
Liv was very uncomfortable with the topic. “And your point would be?”
“I was just appreciating having someone in my life like that. I asked you to stay with me, and you did.”
“Yeah, well, you’re a hard woman to resist. But I’m still not pushing you over the side, so don’t even think about it.”
Liv shook her head in affectionate exasperation. It wasn’t unusual for Kai to come up with oddball trains of thought, but this one took the cake. Though she supposed being compared to David’s devoted friend was a compliment of sorts.
“Liv, I hate to tell you this, but I need to pee.”
Liv had been prepared for that eventuality. “We’re going to have to do this very carefully, but I’ve got my trusty pStyle with me so we can manage. We just need to get you closer to the edge.”
Liv had already stashed a small flashlight in her pocket. She activated it and was surprised when their surroundings instantly felt more intimidating in the glare. The moonlight had softened the landscape and the details of their predicament. The flashlight illuminated the stark reality of how tiny the limits of their refuge were.
Suck it up, Liv. You’ve got work to do. Liv was sure she had never moved more carefully in her life as she eased Kailyn close to the edge, positioned her to use the women’s outdoor urinal, and clung to her to ensure she didn’t move. It was a huge relief when Kai was finished and she was able to slide her back against the cliff again.
They ate a meagre supper, and Liv checked to ensure Kailyn was securely wrapped in the light, silvery blankets. The air was cold, but thankfully the wind was light, so she was confident Kai wouldn’t get hypothermia.
“You have to take one of the blankets for yourself, Liv.”
“I don’t need it. I wore my silks today, and with my hood up and my toque and gloves on, I’m just fine.”
“At least lie down close, and if you need added warmth in the night, you can just pull the blanket over you.”
“I don’t think I have any choice about lying close, Kai. I’m not sure this is even as big as a twin bed.”
“Remember the twin bed we shared when we visited your aunt?”
Liv chuckled as she snuggled next to Kailyn. “You mean when she put us in the room with two twins instead of the one across the hall with a queen bed in it?”
“That’s it. I think she was making a statement about our relationship.”
“Geez, you think?”
“Uh huh. I always wondered what she must’ve thought after we left and she only had one set of sheets to launder.”
“I’d say the absence of a return invitation made her opinion pretty clear.”
“I always wondered how your uncle and his sister could’ve been so different. He had to be one of the nicest guys I ever met.”
“Uncle Stephen told me that after our visit, he got a letter from Aunt Phoebe blaming him for making me gay.”
“You’re kidding! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He didn’t tell me until long after we’d broken up.”
“Huh. Now I wish we’d actually made love while we were in her house. It might’ve lightened all those negative vibes she was putting out.”
“Or given her a heart attack.”
“Nah. Only the good die young, right?”
“That was certainly true with Uncle Stephen and Bradley.”
They were quiet for a while, watching the stars overhead.
“Liv? Earlier you indicated that you knew why Stephen kept me in his will.”
“I have a hunch, because of some of the conversations we had after you left.”
“So, what was it?”
Liv wasn’t sure she wanted to share her theory. It meant tearing open old, long-healed wounds.
When her silence went on, Kai nudged her. “C’mon, Livvie. Trust me, okay?”
“I do, it’s just...” Liv closed her eyes. It would be easier to say this without the stars as witnesses. “I was a complete mess after our break-up. Uncle Stephen and Bradley did their best to comfort me, but I was sure not only that my heart was broken, but that I’d never find love again. I was also sure I’d lost even your friendship forever, and I couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing you again. One evening, after I’d spent days in bed crying, Uncle Stephen came to talk to me. He told me a story I’d never heard, about a time in his and Bradley’s relationship when he didn’t think they’d make it either. He said that even though he knew that Brad loved him, Brad wouldn’t commit. Uncle Stephen finally had had enough, and he told Brad to leave. Said he’d rather live without him, than with the uncertainty of where Brad was and who he was with.”
“Did that change things between them?”
“Yes and no. Brad left. It was eighteen months before he came back to beg for a second chance. When he did, Stephen took him back without an angry word, and from that time on they were never apart.”
“Huh. So Stephen thought I’d come back?”
“Not necessarily. He said he could see some of the same things in you that drove Bradley when he was younger—the wanderlust, the restlessness, the—”
“The inability to commit?”
Liv heard the sadness in Kailyn’s quiet voice. “Actually I was going to say free spirit, but I guess it boils down to the same thing. Uncle Stephen’s point was that he knew what Bradley was when he fell in love. He had to accept that all those things were a part of Brad, along with his goodness, kindness, and devotion. He wanted me to understand that if I tried to change those essential parts of you, you wouldn’t be you.”
“But Bradley changed. He became everything Stephen could’ve asked for in a partner.”
“True, and at first I hoped that Uncle Stephen was telling me that you’d eventually come back, but that wasn’t it at all. He didn’t want me to wait for you. He wanted me to get on with life and find the joy in it again. At the same time, he wanted me to leave a sliver of possibility that some day you might return, and if you did, for me not to let anger overpower the love.”
“I don’t think I ever told you, Liv, but walking back into the store the first day I saw you after our break-up was probably the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life. I did think of just taking off for parts unknown. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve run from an awkward situation. But cutting you completely out of my life would’ve been like cutting off both my legs. I had to see if we could at least work together, and hopefully even be friends again someday. But in your shoes, I’d have been furious. I’d probably have thrown me out in the street like the cur I was, but you didn’t do that. You were so coolly polite for months that it nearly killed me, not that I blamed you in the least. You hadn’t done anything wrong, and I know I’m the one who blew up our life together.”
Liv couldn’t stop herself from asking the question that had plagued her since that devastating night. “Why did you, Kai? I’ve never understood. Was I just not enough in some way?”
“God, Liv, it wasn’t you at all! You were everything I ever wanted in a woman, and my best friend besides. It may be a cliché, but it genuinely was me, not you. I’ve felt like I’ve spent most of my lifetime roaming the world looking for something, but since I have no idea what it is, I have little chance of finding it. You—and many others—were simply victims of my emotional inadequacies, and I’m so, so sorry that I hurt you.”
“And the others?”
“No, Liv. Just you. I never misled the others about my intentions. You’re the only one I wanted to make a life with. You were the only one I tried to make it work with. I let you believe—I encouraged you because I wanted so much to believe myself that we’d grow old together. You may think I’m blowing smoke, and I don’t blame you if you do, but I regret hurting you more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. If it’s any comfort, I hurt just as bad—maybe worse, because I had to live knowing I deliberately inflicted that pain on both of us.”
Liv thought about that, finding some comfort in knowing Kai hadn’t actually discarded her casually. “I guess what’s done is done. We will grow old together in a way, won’t we? I’m just glad I took Uncle Stephen’s advice and focused on the love rather than the pain.”
“We do love each other, don’t we?”
“But that still doesn’t answer why you think Stephen kept me in the will.”
“That was Uncle Stephen’s way of keeping the door open for possibilities. He truly loved you and he wanted you in my life, even if it was only as my oldest, dearest friend. By leaving the house and business to both of us, he hoped that simple proximity would help us heal.”
“Lori thinks I’m crazy for living with my ex. I told her we each have our own space, but she’s still jealous as hell of you.”
“Why? I’ve never done anything to her. I’ve never said a single bad word about her.” Much as I may have wanted to.
“I think she knew that most of the times when I’d tell her I couldn’t come over, it was just because I’d rather be home with you. Our home is home, and her place was never going to be that to me. It drove her up the wall. We’re no good for each other.”
Try as she might, Liv could not stop the flood of warmth that Kailyn’s words engendered, but she tried to say the right thing. “I’m sorry, Kai.”
“I’m not.” Kai was quiet for a long time and Liv thought she might’ve fallen asleep again. “Liv, can I tell you something?”
“Labour Day weekend...I didn’t mean to be so angry with Patty.”
Liv chuckled. “Changed your mind about accidents, have you?”
“It was never about her accident, and yes, I get the irony...all too clearly.”
“So if it wasn’t about Patty being careless, breaking her ankle and ruining our hike, what was it?”
“You know I like Patty and Mia, right?”
“Sure, I know that.”
“I hate myself for this, but I was pissed because Patty and Mia invited themselves. I insisted on the western approach because I knew they’d have difficulty with it. I thought if it got too tough for them, we could turn back early. It was like they’d ruined my day and, in return, I wanted to ruin their expectations of making the summit. Then when she had the accident, it was just the last straw, and I overreacted. I’m really sorry for being such a bitch. I’ll find a way to make it up to them somehow.”
Liv shook her head in puzzlement. “Why were you so upset about them coming along? We do lots of things with them and you always have a good time.”
Kailyn was silent. Liv tapped her belly. “C’mon, Kai. I trusted you, now it’s your turn.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Liv heard Kailyn take a deep breath. “Remember in August when Lori and I climbed Faeroe Peak?”
“I didn’t want to go with Lori. I wanted to go with you, but it was the provincial long weekend and you were busy with the store.”
The words started to spill out of Kailyn, as if she’d kept them pent up for too long. “So when I talked you into taking Labour Day off—and that was no small chore—I was so excited about you and me hiking together. Then when you mentioned it to Patty and she asked if she and Mia could join us, you said yes without even asking me.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind. You never have before.”
“This time was different. I was trying to work up my nerve to say something, and having Patty and Mia along made it impossible. Plus, they’re a constant reminder of...”
“Of what, Kai? And what were you trying to get up the nerve to say?”
“Liv, sometimes I think I live my life above the tree line, and I’m so tired of it.”
Liv blinked at the non sequitur. “You’ve lost me.”
“Patty and Mia are a constant reminder of my own failure. Just like Stephen and Bradley, they seem to have the secret of how to be a loving, devoted, long time couple. Maybe because my parents didn’t know either, I’ve never been in on that secret. I failed with you, when it was more important than anything to me to be a success. It’s like I stand above the tree line looking down on this incredible beauty below that everyone else has access to, but all around me, above the tree line, it’s cold, windswept, stony, barren and lifeless. That’s the way my life feels too often. I want more.”
“Jesus, Kai, I don’t regard your life that way. You’ve gone everywhere, met a million different people, had adventures that most of us can only read about in books—”
“That was enough once, it’s not anymore. That’s why I’ve wanted so badly to get up here with you. If I could work up the courage, I was going to tell you...I was going to ask you...”
Liv felt like she could barely breathe. “Ask me what, Kai?”
“If you’d consider...if you’ve ever thought of...” Kailyn took a deep breath and then said in a rush, “If you’ll take me back.”
“Wow.” Liv knew Kai was waiting for an answer, but couldn’t shake the feeling of unreality. She had dreamed of this moment, longed for this possibility, but lost the belief that it could truly happen.
“It’s okay. I understand if you don’t—”
Liv turned to face Kailyn and rose up on her elbow. “You’re serious? You want us back together?” The moonlight was bright enough that she could see Kai’s nod. Liv couldn’t help herself. She had to point out the elephant in the aerie. “But you were just with Lori last night. How can you switch gears so fast?”
“I broke up with Lori after we climbed Faeroe in August. It was long overdue and we both knew it, but she didn’t take it well. It was my fault because I’d been procrastinating for months. I let her think we were just going through a rough spell, even though I knew it was over. I think—I know I was scared of what I feel for you. I knew that if I screwed up our love again, there would be no going back, not even to friendship. I was at Lori’s last night because she was a total mess and called me, drunk and supposedly suicidal. I tried talking her down myself, but I finally had to call her sister to come over and look after her. I was home by midnight, but you were already asleep. I stood in your doorway and watched you for a long time. You looked so peaceful that I almost reconsidered. I wondered if I was just being selfish, asking you for a second chance.” Kailyn started to struggle within the blankets. Liv tugged the edges loose so she could move. Kai’s hands flew to her jacket zipper. “This wasn’t how I was going to ask you, I swear. I wanted to get to the top of Faeroe, where it would be really romantic.”
Kai pulled something small out of her inner pocket and handed it to Liv. “I want you to know I got this seven months ago. But being alone above the tree line is all I’ve ever known, Liv. Even when we were together, I kept one foot on the stones because I felt safe that way. It kept me connected to my independence, to my freedom.”
Liv didn’t open the box. She kept her eyes on Kailyn’s. “Are you telling me you’re ready to leave the scree for good?”
Liv thought of all the things she could say, all the questions she’d be justified in asking, and then remembered her uncle’s story about Brad’s return. They couldn’t start anew with useless recriminations. It had to be a leap of faith.
Kai stared at her intently. “Yes? Really, yes?”
“Really, truly, forever...yes.”
A smile blazed across Kailyn’s face. “Then open the box, Woman.”
Liv eased the lid up. Inside were two bands. Even in the dark she could see the shimmer of the square cut diamonds set into the gold.
“One for each of us, Liv. We can plan any kind of ceremony you want—big, small, city hall—I don’t care. I just want—”
Kailyn’s words were cut short as Liv leaned over and gently kissed her. “Shhh. I don’t need anything but you.”
Kailyn locked her hands around Liv’s neck and refused to let go, even as Liv tried to draw back so she didn’t hurt Kai.
Kai hungrily kissed Liv, and Liv forgot everything, even Kailyn’s broken leg, until she heard a hissed, painful intake of breath and instantly pulled away.
“Oh my God, I’m sorry, Kai.”
“Don’t be sorry, Liv. If I’d known it would only take a broken leg to get us back to this point, I swear I’d have broken it months ago...no, years ago. You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”
“You only live one floor down from me, and it’s a rare day we’re not sharing the kitchen or deck or hot tub,” Liv teased.
“It’s not the same as sharing our bed. Oh, Liv, I love you. I always have, even when I ran away like a scared rabbit. I want to come home and have the right to crawl into bed next to you. I want to wake up with you and watch the sun creep across our room from the shelter of your arms. I want it all, and I want it with you.”
They laughed softly together at their old ritual exchange.
“Let’s put them on, Liv.”
“You don’t want to wait for the formalities?”
“As far as I’m concerned, that’s all they’ll be—formalities. I know I screwed up, and while it must not feel like it from your side of things, I’ve been yours since our first kiss on the water’s edge all those years ago. These rings are just a symbol of what I’ve always felt for you. I would be honoured and overjoyed to see them on our hands.”
Liv took off her gloves and then Kailyn’s. The rings were the same size, so she handed one to Kai and held out her hand.
Kailyn’s fingers trembled as she slid the ring into place on Liv’s hand. Liv’s fingers were steady as she repeated the gesture. She replaced their gloves, then tugged the blankets back up and tucked them snugly around Kailyn. She pulled her pack closer and lay down with her arm across Kai’s chest.
Liv doubted that either of them slept the rest of the night, and that was fine with her. There would be many other nights when they would drift off to sleep in each others’ arms. Tonight, renewed with the certainty of old love made new, the hours were to be savoured.
Despite the cold and the precariousness of their situation, Liv was deeply, joyously content. Best of all, she could sense Kai was feeling the same way.
Liv knew that Kailyn might still have a toehold above the tree line, but with love and patience, she was confident that Kai would once and for all, leave the scree. She could wait. After all, her uncle had, and he and Bradley were together over thirty years. Liv figured she and Kai could make at least fifty.
Mid-morning, Kailyn was dozing when Liv heard the sound of people calling their names from the cliff above them. She nudged Kai as she pulled off her glove and reached for her whistle. “It’s going to get a little loud, sweetheart. I didn’t want to scare you.”
Kai turned her head and regarded Liv with tired but peaceful eyes. “I don’t think anything will ever scare me again, Livvie. Blow your hardest. It’s time to go home.”
Liv raised the whistle to her lips and smiled as the morning sun glinted off her new ring.
It was, indeed, time to go home.