Timble was afraid that he'd started too late. A good fifteen minutes from the top, the rain began; the drops, like cold bullets, pocked the ground around him. The sky looked like purple irises, the great, showy thunderheads simultaneously rolling up and down on themselves, their edges curling into petal shapes. There was no way he would make it this time, and nothing to keep him safe from past and present: the memory of Alec's evasive eyes, Alec moving ever farther away. Soon there would be nothing to fill up the increasing emptiness--not even Joannie. Nothing to keep him from scrounging in the dark recesses.
"The way that you hold me--it's the only comfort I know," she'd told him once when they were together, "the only closeness I can depend on." But it had been a lie. He could see that now, see that there was nothing mysterious about his complicity. At the end, Joannie had understood, too.
"You're just a body," she'd cried that last day when she pulled away from him. "Just arms and legs going through the motions. Everything that matters is numb!"
The rain continued, fell in sheets as he approached the summit. But there was nothing else to do but go on, he thought--what with the safety of the rock outcroppings near the top so close by, and the house and Kate, so far away--the distance between them, so exposed to the storm.
He was almost there, another hundred yards up the narrowing trail, he thought, when the memory of Kate in her ruined garden overtook him--a vision so clear and sharp that he stumbled, felt himself reeling out of control. When his shoulder caught on a rocky ledge he began panting, grasping for anything that might shelter him--make him forget the way she'd knelt beneath the tree that day three years earlier, holding on to Peter, refusing to give up--the way she still refused to surrender.
The memory held him fixed against cold granite while it buzzed and burned itself into his brain, so strong that he felt the hackles rising on the back of his neck.
A flash close by and a sound like steel cables snapping brought him back to life, brought him charging back onto the path.
He saw Alec on the ledge not fifty feet away. Like a great ragged bird, he stood, clothes flapping in the wind, arms spread defiantly into the storm.
The energy that set Timble in motion was too quick for forethought. Almost quicker than the crash of the second bolt when it struck somewhere above. Timble was instantly aware of its effect, aware of the precise moment when Alec lost his balance. He saw the boy's arms begin a desperate flailing motion like a bird's uncertain lift-off. But there was no time to check his forward momentum. No time for more than one last effort, a final push to feel his arms lock around the thin, hard frame. And then the sensation of falling again, turning, spiraling in unison--and the awful fear that he wouldn't recognize the moment when it came, that he wouldn't feel a thing.
When Timble opened his eyes he saw clouds drifting away. For a moment there was only silence, and then the pain took him on an indrawn breath, took him alone so that there was nothing to do but ride the crest until it subsided, nothing to do but to cry out for everything he'd let slip away. And then Alec was kneeling over him, his face, flushed, streaked with rain and dirt, the bruise over his eye and cheek like a strange birth mark.
"Dad! It's me, Alec. Try not to move your leg!"
Timble looked into his son's face and from a great distance, he felt his senses come sliding back. Everything so real again: the boy's breath against his skin, the rocks gouging into his back and hip, the musty smell of rain mixed with sweat; even the heaviness in his extremities, the tingling sensation as the circulation was slowly restored. And when he raised his arms, when he grasped Alec's head close to his chest, there was something else--the burden of pain rising again. Inescapable, throbbing in every muscle, in every breath he took.
"Dad, I'm all right," Alec said, easing himself away. "We didn't go all the way down. But your leg," he stammered. "It caught. I think it's broken."
It was a long while before Timble could bring himself to sit up, before he could help. Despite the care Alec took in freeing his ankle from the aspen saplings that had stopped their fall, every movement sent fresh waves of pain spiraling down beneath the bridge of his foot to collect like something molten. Working with Alec, he managed to re-position himself legs first down the mountain. Then the boy moved closer and crouched behind him. A moment later, Timble felt his son's fingers guiding his shoulders back until he was reclining tensely against the boy's bony knees.
"It was Russell Hawkins, that kid in the hardware store, who did this to my face," Alec said at last. "He said it was a joke, my being with the twins; that he could tell I wasn't the kind of guy who had any real feelings for girls." It was the tone of Alec's voice, the complete absence of cutting sarcasm, that got to Timble--that made him feel privileged.
"When I tried to prove he was wrong, he decked me a good one," Alec said. "Hurt like hell, too."
Timble closed his eyes. "I know," he answered. And then he let himself melt into the moment, content to live in the pain, satisfied that, at least for now, he could take it.
The sound of Alec's footfalls on the path above had only just faded when Timble sat up to survey the situation again. The fledgling aspen grove that had stopped them lay thirty feet beneath the trail ledge. He found himself on a slide of ancient mine tailings that extended several hundred feet down the mountain before it was absorbed by the forest. From time to time small rocks broke away towards the bottom, the sound of their falling echoing back.
Already he could feel the swelling around the top of his boot. It would be difficult to drag himself back up the unstable slope but it was what he would have to do, he decided--what he wanted to do. Just to make it back to the trail. Then he would be ready, waiting when Kate and Alec came for him.
"Purple Irises" © 1995 by Jack A. Urquhart
Original graphics © 1995 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal and Canéla A. Jaramillo