At the tip of his finger a single crystal emerged, as delicate and ephemeral as a snowflake. He concentrated, smiling now, as the crystals multiplied. Swiftly, a tiny winged dragon grew between his fingers, taking form from the air.
The child held the crystalline figure aloft, in the hot beam of sunlight streaking through the window. The wee wings glistened in the sun, refracting the light into tiny rainbows, that brightened the room.
The boy listened to the footsteps approaching his door…near-silent, as though to catch him out. Swiftly, one small hand swallowed the winged beast, and held it, till water drops spilled between his fingers and dripped down his wrist.
"Good-bye," he whispered, and for just a moment, lifted his face to the sun’s light. Then, humming a cheery off-key tune, he turned his back and ran out of the room.
"Why do I ever listen to you?" Zachary Logan pulled the sweatshirt hood further down on his forehead.
"You don’t," Shane Merrick replied. "If you had, you would’ve brought rain gear." He shrugged out of his poncho and tossed it to Zack. "Take it," he insisted, burrowing in his daypack. "I have a jacket."
This time, Zack didn’t argue. He’d been getting progressively wetter for the last half-hour, and it was still a long way down the mountain.
"Nothing like lockin’ in the moisture," Shane said cheerfully.
Zack didn’t like water. The closest he ever got to swimming was his bathtub. "If you start to steam, I’ll let you know."
Shane pulled out his compass. "I say, we save some steps. If we head due south, we’ll get me dry much faster." He suited action to words and left the trail to head off through the bush.
His compass must be off.Zack blurted out, "Then we’d better go that way." He pointed at a spot about twenty degrees to the right.
"Damned insightful of you, but no thanks," Shane retorted. "Compasses don’t lie-much, anyway."
Arguing will get you nowhere.Zack merely nodded, and followed Shane down an increasingly steep trail. What bothered him most was the way they were hitting rock now-shale which was becoming damned slippery with the water pouring across it like this. Shane was beginning to find it hard going. Worried, Zack gradually moved ahead, eventually taking over the lead.
Shane couldn’t believe it. This was the first time he’d ever been hiking with Zack, and the damn fool seemed as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Shane had always figured the reason Zack didn’t come along on these hikes was some fear of heights, to go with his weird fear of water. Now, Shane knew he’d misjudged him.
Fifteen minutes later, Shane was sweating, but it wasn’t with exertion. Zack was scaring the hell out of him. Shane’s stomach was in knots and it kept doing that queasy elevator thing. "Zack!" he yelled. Zack had to slow down, or they were going to end up peeling him off the rocks below. "Zack!"
Zack came out of his reverie with a regretful, "Oops," and an apologetic wave. He’d been balancing on a narrow rock crest, and at Shane’s yell, he’d spun around and bounded back the way he’d come. Shane’s fists were clenched, his jaw tight. He didn’t know whether to punch the guy and haul him down the mountain, or try to talk some sense into him.
He’d known Zack since he was nine, and he could still remember the way they’d met. He, Will Conway, and Harpo Hastings had gone to the pool for diving lessons, and Zack had been there, too, with his mom. His family was new in town and she’d come to sign him up for swimming lessons. Zack had just stood there, staring at the water, all tense and white. Shane had joked about what a dumbass he was, and, of course, he’d pushed Zack in.
Zack had sunk like a stone. He’d kicked and flailed, but he didn’t come up, even once. There were just those endless bubbles…
Shane and Will and Harpo had jumped in and yanked Zack to the surface, but he’d been limp, and for a panicked moment, they’d thought he was dead. It was as though he couldn’t tolerate the water…at all.
He’d finally sucked in a big breath, then coughed and choked, but even after he could talk again, he’d never said anything to his mom. And when the lifeguard had come bounding over, Zack had opened glassy eyes and forced a smile.
They’d been friends ever since. Zack had somehow become their personal project, and even though he’d never become a swimmer, they’d managed to turn the nerdy newcomer into something of a sports-hound. He became a maniac at gymnastics and fencing, and the coach said Zack had the best balance of anyone he’d ever seen. But, if it wasn’t an indoor sport like gymnastics or fencing or ice hockey or basketball, Zack wasn’t big on it.
This hike was tradition. Shane’s tradition, anyway. He nagged Will and Harpo about it every year. Each summer, they’d explore a different trail, fish a little, and drink a lot. He’d nagged Zack at first, too, but he’d never come along, so eventually, Shane had stopped asking him. He’d figured Zack must be scared of heights, the way he was scared of water.
This was the first year both Will and Harpo had been unable to go. It was usually one of them, sometimes both on their little trek, but it had never been Shane on his own. This year, though, the others had been too busy: work and women. Rather than give up his tradition, Shane had been preparing to go it alone when Zack had asked whether he wanted company. Shane’s grin had been enough of an answer.
And, on Harpo’s advice, Shane had never said a word about how much coercive convincing he’d guessed it must have taken for Harpo to goad Zack into coming. The Harpie had admitted laying the guilt on thick, over missed opportunities and lost traditions.
So, here they were. If Zack had been damning the rain which had soaked him to his skin, Shane was now damning Zack’s reckless careening down what seemed to him an impossibly steep slope.
Zack, though, didn’t seem to realise what qualms he was causing Shane. His eyes, which Shane had always thought of as a weird hazel, had taken on a silvery cast, and his excitement seemed out of place, over the top. Great sense of balance or not, he was now perched on the lip of a ledge, idly staring out at the view, apparently unaware of the vast amount of space beneath his feet.
"Zack," Shane whispered, through a suddenly hoarse throat. "C-C’m here."
Zack wandered over. "Need a rest?" he asked carelessly.
Shane grabbed the front of Zack’s shirt and shook him. "Are you out of your mind?!" he yelled, pointing at the drop. "What’s wrong with you?!"
The silvery glint faded from Zack’s eyes, and he paled. There was a trace of something like fear in his expression.
Good, Shane thought, satisfied. About time…
But Zack’s next actions threw him. Zack shook off Shane’s hands, lifted his head, and forced a smile.
Shane recognised it. It was the same smile Zack had worn at age nine, when he’d almost drowned.
In that moment, Shane realised it wasn’t recognition of his lunacy which had brought that trace of fear to Zack’s eyes-any more than it was the daredevil height or the crumbling rock face.
Zack was scared of him.
They hiked the rest of the way down in near-silence. Even after the sun popped out, and the grey skies cleared, there was no talk of heading back up the mountain or finishing the camping trip. Shane had a feeling it was because both of them were just too scared. He was sure Zack would end up at the bottom of a cliff somewhere, and Zack? He hadn’t lost that dark look to his eyes-it was there whenever Shane looked at him. Every once in a while Zack’s steps would slow, and veer absentmindedly toward the drop, but Shane would nudge him, and set him back on track.
"Maybe he’s one of those people with perfect balance, or no fear of heights," Harpo told Shane reasonably, later that day. He shrugged, glad Shane didn’t have a VidPhone. He’d take the shrug personally.
I’ve told Shane often enough he has a pronounced gift for exaggeration…
Try as he would, Harpo couldn’t picture Zack traipsing along a sheer drop.
"Maybe," Shane replied darkly. He was glad Harpo couldn’t see his face. No way would he tell Harpo the rest-about Zack being scared of him. Hell, they’d known each other for years. That was crazy.
"He’s a maniac at gymnastics," Harpo reminded him. "You just introduced him to one more sport."
"Well, he was a maniac, all right. I was sweating more than he was."
"What’re you thinking, Shane?" Harpo asked incredulously. "Death wish or something? Are you crazy?" At Shane’s silence, Harpo prompted, "This is Zack, you dumbass."
"It was just so weird…" It sounded lame, even to Shane’s ears. Sounded like he was making way too much out of nothing, just because his camping tradition had been disrupted. Sour grapes.
"Tell you what: I’ll go around and see him. Ask him about the trip…"
"Good idea-" Shane began. The business with Zack was really bothering him.
But Harpo wasn’t finished. His voice held just a hint of wry humour as he added, "…and then, I’ll tell Wilhelm to locate a psychiatrist who handles ’hiking’ maladies. You know, things like a-phobias of heights. Let me see, what would that be called? Oh, yeah, aeroacrophiliacs…"
Shane hung up on him.
But the next afternoon, it was Harpo who phoned him. "He did come back with you, didn’t he?" He said it jokingly, but Shane knew he wouldn’t have called unless he was concerned.
"Who else?" Harpo asked sarcastically. "He’s not home."
"What about last night?"
"I have a key…"
"So do I. He’s not there." Harpo hesitated, then complained, "Why do I ever listen to you? He went out. Big deal. He’s at her house."
"I don’t know! Someone he met at a bar. I’m merely providing content to a reasonable hypothesis."
"Unreasonable hypothesis, ya mean." Shane’s impatience showed in his irritable reply. "’Hike all day, fuck total strangers all night’ is not his style." Zack was far more likely to have spent the night on the Internet than picking up strangers in a bar. "Get smart. Check the paper for a gaming tourney. He’ll be online somewhere." Shane’d had a night to sleep on it. At the moment, his reaction yesterday seemed way overblown. He sniggered. "He’s just being a little more ’gamey’ than usual. Big deal."
"He’s not answering his cellphone."
"So? Battery’s dead." The "duhhh" was implied.
Harpo’s teeth were gritted now. Shane could tell, even if he couldn’t see him. They’d known each other too long.
"You’re-the-one-who-said-he-was-acting-strangely," Harpo retorted. "Dimwit." There was a lot of muttering under his breath, then a muffled, but still derogatory, "What are you doing here?"
"Is he back?" Shane asked. "If you tell him I said ’weird’-"
"No, it’s Will. The voice of complacency…"
Will must have yanked the phone out of Harpo’s hand because it was his voice next. "What time did you get back?"
"Around four. Plenty of time if he wanted to go out."
Will was obviously thinking something else. "Harpo, here, says he played mountain goat."
"Scared the shit out of me. I thought I was gonna have to pick up the pieces."
Shane was quiet. "Like what? He was happy-crazy happy-until I talked to him about it."
"Altitude sickness," Will suggested. "It could account for his confusion."
Shane avoided pointing out that although they’d been high above the ground, they really hadn’t been all that high sea-level wise. Altitude sickness was, at least, an explanation he could live with. "Maybe he’s super sensitive to it."
He could hear Harpo agreeing in the background, "…hit him the way alcohol would hit someone else."
"So, do we look, or leave him alone?" Shane asked. If Shane Merrick was going to act like a fool, he preferred it to be in company. "It’s a Sunday afternoon. Where do you think he is?"
"I’ve got a friend in the police department," Will told him, but his words were for Harpo, too. "He’ll make some discreet inquiries at the clubs…"
"-and Net cafés," Shane insisted.
"…and Net cafés," Will agreed, "just in case. No problem. We’ll take care of it."
Apparently, he must have left then, because Harpo hissed into the phone, "Speaking of odd behaviour…"
"Does he really believe Zack went clubbing?" Shane asked, surprised. It wasn’t Zack’s style.
"No," Harpo told him bluntly. "I think he believes the same thing I do-that Zack went back up the mountain."
I’m the only one who knows where we were.
Shane held off for two more hours before he did anything about it. He couldn’t believe Zack would be fool enough to head back up the mountain on his own. Sure-footed was one thing; knowing the out-of-doors was another. Give him an indoor challenge, and Zack excelled, but he hated getting wet. He’d never go back up, after the rain they’d had. Especially today. After those fleeting sunny moments, the weather had gone bad again, with the promise of worse. Too much storm, and too little shelter.
Zack was smart. He’d never do something so stupid.
Shane grabbed his coat, rain gear, first-aid kit, and pack. Then he ran out to his car, tore out of his driveway, and roared out of town.
Only to find he wasn’t the first one there. Shane couldn’t believe it: Zack’s car, yes, but there were six others, too. One of them was Will’s.
Shane recognised one of the people in Will’s office. He couldn’t believe Will would recruit Pete Aranson for a Search and Rescue before he’d enlist him or Harpo. Nor was Pete Will’s only co-worker there. Shane recognised four other people. Hell, even Will’s receptionist was out there!
A little miffed, he stomped over to Pete. "Where’s Will?" he asked grimly.
Pete gave him what could only be called a considering look. "In the helicopter!" he said, shouting over the buffeting wind. "But they’re gonna have to bring it in soon…"
Helicopter? At least, whoever Will’s friends were in the police department, they were doing the thing right-even if they had elected to leave him and Harpo out of it. "Is Hastings here?" he asked.
Pete shook his head. "Not yet."
Nebulous. No admissions. He may or may not have been invited. Shane fumed. "Which way?"
"Take your pick…" Pete told him, with a trace of sarcasm. He might as well have said it was a wasted gesture.
"Thanks," Shane retorted, just as sarcastically. "I will." He’d turned to go when Pete called him back.
"Here!" Pete tossed him a gadget that looked a lot like a miniature cellphone. "Homing beacon-no reception here on your cell."
Will nodded, went to his car, pulled out his pack, and headed back up the slope he and Zack had descended the day before.