The Wind of Lonely Places
Blair grasped the steering wheel with a sudden, galvanic start, gazing wildly about himself. He calmed slowly, as he found himself parked in his driveway, the motor off, falling snow building a pale chevron on his windshield above the wipers. He got out of the car slowly, locked the door behind him, detached his skis from the rack and carried them inside his house. A hot shower relaxed his body somewhat, but his thoughts remained a disordered tangle. He carried a book and a bottle of beer into the bedroom and settled himself. Half an hour and two paragraphs later he gave up the effort to concentrate, switched off his bedside lamp and lay back, staring at the shadows cast across his bedroom ceiling by the streetlight outside his window. The darkness in his room was greying toward dawn when Blair woke from the sleep that had stolen on him unaware. The glowing numerals on the bedside clock showed a quarter past six. His breath grew as shallow as the night; his heart bounced woodenly against his ribs. Something had brought him awake. What? A sound? A presence. Nothing there. Something. What is it? Don't know. Go see? ...Fear... Blair hesitated, eased himself out of bed, wrapped himself in a tattered plaid bathrobe, and groped his way cautiously from the bedroom, into the hallway. The intruder was easily discerned in the pre-dawn gloom, sitting quietly at the table in Blair's front room, a dark presence beneath the pale banner of his hair. Blair drew a hissing breath, taking a step backward in shock. The seated figure didn't move. "Kelly?" Blair said tentatively. The white-haired shadow moved slightly. "Sorry to...trouble you at this hour," said Kelly, his breath sounding labored. "However, we left matters between us...unfinished." "Are you all right?" Blair asked, peering through the darkened room. "A slight injury," Kelly said. "It was worse awhile ago." For reasons he was unable to define or acknowledge, Blair was unwilling to pass close enough beside Kelly's shadowed figure to reach the light switch near the front door. He fumbled for the switch on the wall beside him. The reflected glare from the hallway light cast a dim illumination across the seated figure. "Jesus, Kelly!" Blair gasped. The right side of the old man's face was clotted with blood, around four parallel gouges that started at his hairline and disappeared beneath the collar of his ski jacket. The jacket itself was soaked down the right breast and arm. Kelly smiled slightly, a ghastly-looking gesture through his half-mask of blood. "I look very poorly, no doubt." "You should be in a hospital," said Blair, staring. "How are you even managing to sit up straight?" "I heal quickly. The bleeding has already stopped, and I'm feeling stronger by the hour," said Kelly, his voice firmer now. "In any case, a hospital would be of limited use to me." Blair could see now that Kelly's wounds were in fact no longer bleeding. He stared at the old man, at a loss for words. He started to speak, and found he had nothing to say. "Aren't you going to ask me how it happened?" asked Kelly softly. Again Blair opened his mouth to speak, and again the words would not come. Finally he managed a question. "What do you want?" "Satisfaction, to begin." "Satisfaction?" "Of my morbid sense of curiosity," Kelly amplified. "I seem to recall telling you about that." "Oh. About what?" "Just a few details - I think I know most of it, already. How a local college teacher and his lover, one of his students, went hiking in the Pecos wilderness one day. How they lost their way, and a snowstorm came howling over the mountains. And how the man was found when he stumbled, half frozen, into the search and rescue team's control point at the base area of the ski basin." Blair became extremely pale as Kelly spoke. He slowly approached the table, pulled out a chair opposite the old man, sat heavily. "That was all in the newspapers. What I am not entirely clear on is what happened in between - how the two of you were separated." Blair licked his lips. "Where exactly we were, I don't know - somewhere below Lake Peak, I think. Visibility was very poor. One moment we were together, and the next she was gone. I looked for her, called out for her, but I couldn't find her..." Kelly was shaking his head, and Blair trailed off. "That's the story you gave to the authorities, and that was printed in the papers. We both know differently, though. You were below Tesuque Peak. I'll grant you might not have realized that before you were found, but you surely knew it once you reached help. Why didn't you tell them where to find her?" Blair's face had become even more ashen. "I was confused...we'd been separated..." "You left her." Blair lowered his head. "She told you, didn't she? The whole thing. Why are you asking me this now?" Kelly's voice was soft, remorseless. "Yes, she told me. Now, you tell me. Finish it." Blair spoke in a faded monotone. "The weather had been so fine that day," he said. "We were only wearing light clothes. We hiked up to Nambe Lake, then went off the trail over the ridge. We were going to climb into the ski basin from the north side of Lake Peak. I'd done it before on my own, but I couldn't find the way I'd been before. And then the storm came up so suddenly - it started with hail, you know. Stones the size of marbles. We sheltered beneath a tree, trying to wait it out, but the air only got colder, and then the hail turned to snow. We walked and walked - I don't know how long. "In one place we slipped on the hail stones and slid down a long slope. That is where Kate wrenched her ankle. I helped her walk after that, but she couldn't go on. I found a hollow in the mountainside that seemed more sheltered than other places. I told her to wait for me there, that I would get help. She begged me not to leave her, but..." Blair put his face in his hands and wept. "But," Kelly continued, "you knew you weren't both going to make it out of there alive. You thought you might have a chance on your own. So you abandoned her." Blair raised his head, staring angrily at Kelly through reddened eyes. "You're a superior son of a bitch aren't you, old man? You think you'd have acted differently, do you?" Kelly sighed, shrugged. "That kind of self knowledge is hard for a man to come by, and it always comes at cost. I won't insist I'd not have done the same." Kelly looked at Blair steadily. "But you did far worse, Rob Blair. You denied her a chance at survival, simply because you couldn't bear the thought that people might know what you had done. So you lied to S&R, and they went searching in the wrong place. You abandoned her twice." Blair looked away from Kelly's gaze, and the two sat in silence for a time. At last Blair raised his eyes, his expression resigned. "How much?" he said. "Beg pardon?" Kelly asked, confused. "How much is your silence going to cost me, and for how long. You didn't dig all this up just to watch me bleed." Kelly stared back silently. "Look, I don't make all that much, but I'll pay whatever I can. I've got tenure, damn you!" Kelly shook his head. "You don't know," he said, wonderingly. "I don't know what?" Blair demanded. "Where have you been, and what have you been doing for the last four months, Mr Blair?" "What are you talking about?" Blair said uncertainly. "Think about it!" said Kelly. "Why have you been sending all of those poor souls over the Blood Rock?" Blair's stomach clenched with sudden fear. He felt a pounding pressure behind his eyes, and swayed dizzily in his chair. A shrill keening arose in the back of his mind, growing louder, reaching a maddening volume. Something darted from the shadows: a wiry, red- eyed, gnomish figure covered with mangy, ochre fur. It flung itself toward Kelly with astonishing speed, needle-tipped claws extended. A dark shape detached itself from the shadows beside Kelly, its eyes flaring a sulfurous yellow that trailed an afterimage as it leaped. It struck the creature in mid-air, sending it in a squalling tumble across the floor, into a darker corner of the room. Blair stared, horrified, at the monstrous animal, and the squeaking, writhing thing pinned beneath its huge forepaws. "Hardly enough to work up a sweat over," murmured Kelly. The dog whuffed. Blair seemed unable to tear his eyes away from the sight, even when Kelly left the table and passed into the kitchen. He felt a presence beside him, looked around to see Kelly placing one of his drinking glasses, half-filled with a pale liquid, on the table before him. "Drink," Kelly told him. "Huh?" "Drink it. My associate over there grows anxious for his meal. You can be thankful he has eaten once tonight already. Usually he is something of a glutton." The dog produced a sound mid-way between a cough and a snort. The words reached Blair with their meaning dulled. He looked from Kelly to the glass, and back. "Drink," said Kelly again. "You'll go harder into that good night without it." Blair blinked confusedly, but at last took the glass into his hand and raised it to his lips.