Erica woke in the dark. And in silence. It was an odd silence, as though the night had been smothered in its sleep. When she opened her eyes she felt something light fall away from her lashes onto her cheeks. She lifted her arm to brush away whatever it was and that was when she realised her arm was pinned by something heavy. She tasted dirt on her lips.
She must have fallen. She couldn’t remember. She wondered how long she had been unconscious. She tentatively tested her limbs. Everything seemed to be working albeit with some complaint, except her right arm which was wedged uncomfortably. She tried to push away the obstacle with her free hand. It was a someone, not a something, she realised.
She nudged them, feeling panic rising when there was no response. “Hey!” She said urgently. She shook them slightly then more roughly. “Wake up,” she pleaded.
She tried to roll them away to free her arm but she couldn’t get the angle right to get enough purchase. Eventually she gave up. She wondered where she had put her head torch that morning. Had she put it in the front pockets of her pack where she might have some hope of getting to it? She wished she was as organised as Franky. She fumbled with the zipper, struggling with it in a silent battle until at last it surrendered and she was able to slip her hand inside the pocket. She fumbled around, searching through the collection of items she had stuffed in there. A Whitman’s chocolate peanut bar, hand sanitiser, a pack of tissues, a hairband, she listed them off mentally as her fingers found them. No torch. She grappled with her other front pocket, wrestling again with the zip, swearing internally as it resisted her efforts. She took a breath, paused, and tried again. This time she went more slowly, encouraging the zip to let go and eventually it did. This time her fingers found what she was looking for. She switched on her torch and saw what she knew and feared she would see. Franky’s lifeless body.
They were on a ledge, and they were flirting. And if Erica had thought flirting with Franky in usual circumstances was fun then flirting on a ledge no wider than the length of her foot at roughly thirty metres from the ground was exhilarating. All her senses were buzzing as adrenaline coursed through her veins. She should be concentrating on where to put her hands, on her balance but instead she was listening to the sound of Franky’s laugh. Franky’s laugh in this particular moment was delightfully sinful, which Erica knew she was solely responsible for. Erica had suggested they use the climbing ropes to practise tying knots, she had suggested that Franky show her how it was done by tying her up. She was pretty sure Franky was up for it from her response.
“Are you trying to distract me?” Franky asked her as she navigated around a section of wall which jutted out awkwardly.
“No,” Erica refuted. If she was being honest she would have admitted to distracting herself. The climb up to the ledge and traversing the difficult path reminded her too much of her father’s fatal fall. If she wasn’t making daring sexual suggestions to Franky she would likely be glued to the rock wall incapable of moving. “I’m motivating you. I want to give you something to look forward to. I want you to make it safely across.”
Franky laughed again. “Like that’s not gonna happen,” she said cockily.
“Well I hope so,” Erica huffed out as she manoeuvred past the awkward section. “But what if you didn’t?” She added in after thought. She wondered if Franky had considered what she would do if she injured herself and could no longer guide.
“Huh?” Franky looked back at her, watching and waiting until Erica had passed the difficult bit. She gave her an encouraging smile. “That’s the worst of it for now,” she told her. “Just gotta scale this section and we’re over this pass.”
Erica nodded, feeling relieved. One down, another two to go, each one more difficult than the last. She had been glad Franky had stuck with her that morning because talking with her had made it all seem a little easier. She hadn’t slept much the night before and while she had adopted a no regrets policy, she also knew her concentration was suffering as a result. She had post rest day blues as well which wasn’t helping. Her body was rebelling against having to carry her pack, which seemed heavier for some reason. Franky had told her clean clothes weigh more, and she knew she was teasing because that wasn’t logical but even so, something was different. Her mind yearned for a late start where she could lie cocooned in Franky’s tent enjoying the warmth and personal attention of the guide. Instead she had been woken by Franky’s movements as she got ready to leave the tent to start breakfast. Part of her mind also knew that each kilometre they walked was a kilometre closer to reality.
She climbed the last section just behind Franky and focused on her smooth tanned legs. She watched the muscles shift as she climbed, subtly changing the shape of the stylised tattoo on her calf. It was less intricate than her other tattoos and Erica wondered idly if it had been her first.
She remembered Franky commenting after their first swim on her own lack of tattoos. Erica had been dismissive in her response saying she wasn’t interested in pain without pleasure. Franky’s eyes had lit up at the time. “Is that right,” she’d murmured with an enlightened smile and Erica could tell she had tucked that snippet of information away in some back corner of her mind for later reference.
Now she was experiencing the pain of climbing vertically up the side of a ravine while having the pleasure of perving on Franky’s butt. And for a change it wasn’t a guilty pleasure.
She remembered a colleague once saying that it was easy to know which way you leant by who you checked out in a bar. Everyone had laughed. Erica had also laughed but she remembered thinking at the time that it wasn’t true because she always checked out everyone. The whole conversation should have told her something, probably had told her something if she had wanted to listen but she had clearly been in deep denial. Now she wondered if maybe she only looked at the men in bars because she thought it was expected. She laughed at herself with sudden self-awareness.
Erica realised they had reached the top of the climb while she had been thinking about other things. “Oh,” she gasped in awe as she looked back to where they had come from. A ripple of mountain ranges stretched out before her, receding into the distant haze hued with a deep almost violet blue.
She turned back to Franky, smiling, and found the guide armed with her phone taking a photo of her. “Gotta capture the moment,” she said with a grin. She swung around and stuck her face close to Erica’s, snapping a selfie of them before Erica knew what had happened. “I’ll send it to you,” Franky promised, sliding the phone into a side pocket on her shorts.
That had been earlier. Now they were underground in some kind of shaft. The rocky walls were smooth and seemed to stretch up beyond the beam of the torch. The ground beneath them was also rocky but Erica’s pack had cushioned her fall sparing her a broken back and a cracked skull. She could see now her arm was caught between Franky’s pack and the ground. There was blood coming from Franky’s head and a panicked thought careened to the front of her mind. What if Franky was dead? It was an idea too frightening to contemplate. Erica dropped the torch onto her chest and reached out to the guide, willing her to be alive, to respond to her touch. “Franky!” Her voice was strangled with fear. “Franky!”
She felt a wave of claustrophobia wash over her. They were trapped down here, she realised, and it didn’t sound like anyone was looking for them. “Hey!” She shouted, “we’re down here! Hey! Help! Can anyone hear me?”
There was a faint groan and Franky stirred. Erica felt a change in pressure on her pinned arm at the same time as relief washed over her. She shone the torch on Franky and saw her eyes close suddenly against the blinding light. “Jesus Franky, are you okay?”
“I’ll be better when you point that thing somewhere else,” she grumbled.
Erica did as she asked, muttering an apology and asking Franky if she was able to move.
“I think so,” Franky said without much conviction. “Fuck, what the fuck was that?” She muttered, attempting to sit up. It was no easy feat with the weight of her backpack keeping her on her back like a turtle. Erica had to laugh at her attempts. “Not helping,” Franky said, aggrieved.
“I can’t help, you’re on top of my arm,” Erica told her, equally aggrieved. At last Franky shifted sufficiently for Erica to free herself. She tested her arm and found it to be functional. “You’re bleeding,” she told Franky, “above your eye.”
“It’s a scratch,” Franky said dismissively as she felt for the source. She unclipped her pack and slipped out of it.
“What happened?” They both asked simultaneously.
The second pass had required ropes and an abseil descent. They had been rappelling down, Erica, Franky, Jake and Vera. Erica had been slower than the others. She saw the rock fly past her and managed to yell a warning to the three climbers below. She looked down to see it narrowly miss Jake and bounce off the side of the cliff below him once, twice, three times before dropping to the distant ground below. She looked up nervously. She thought she saw someone peering over the edge but whatever it was vanished. They were the last to descend of their group. There was no one left at the top of the pass. It must have been a bird or a trick of the light, she decided.
When she reached the ground they were talking about it. It had been a close call. Jake said he had felt the air movement as it whizzed past his ear. They speculated about how it had been dislodged. Vera suggested an animal. Erica wondered if that flash she’d seen could have been an animal.
“What is it?” Franky asked her. “Come on, I know something’s up, I can see that cute frown of yours,” she added with a grin when Erica shook her head.
So Erica told her. “It was probably nothing,” she finished with.
“How sure are you?” Franky asked.
“Not very,” Erica admitted. Franky was studying her with her own frown. “What is it?”
“Dunno, something,” Franky was looking back up towards the top of the cliff.
There was no movement and nothing out of the ordinary. Eventually Franky shrugged and walked over to where their packs were waiting for them. Franky had lowered the packs separately to Dan who had gone down first. Erica had been grateful because initially she had thought naively that she would have to carry it down herself.
The four of them headed off together. They were behind the rest of the group by at least twenty minutes. They split into natural pairings with Jake and Vera ahead and Erica and Franky bringing up the rear, both lost in their own thoughts.
Erica broke the silence. “I’ve got an idea,” she began with.
“Walking can do that,” Franky replied, looking across at her with a grin.
“No seriously,” Erica went on, “have you ever thought about getting into the dehydrated food business?”
“Nope,” she replied immediately.
“Your recipes are fantastic, it’s not just me everyone says so,” she added when Franky gave her a dubious look. “You could really compete in that market.”
“And give up guiding?” Franky didn’t seem keen.
Erica didn’t push it other than to say, “you should think about it, one day it might suit you better than the outdoor life.”
Franky laughed. “Nah,” she took Erica’s hand in her own. “Not likely.” She scoffed.
Erica felt disappointed and she knew why. It wasn’t because Franky had dismissed her idea. It was because recently she had been imagining a different life to the one she currently had, one where Franky figured more prominently, maybe one where they shared a life. She couldn’t see how that could work if Franky spent most of her time in the wilderness.
They reached a river and followed a track along its bank for a while before climbing up and away from it up rocky steps that were tortuous in their steepness and number. Erica stopped abruptly, needing a breather, and looked up hoping for a sign they were near the top. It was magnificent the way the cliffs dropped away dramatically to the gorge below. She lost her balance momentarily and swayed. Franky was behind her and grabbed her arm to steady her. “I gotch ya,” she said, pulling Erica against her and holding her away from the edge.
Erica felt her heart pounding as she looked over the drop. She could have fallen so easily. “Thank you,” she murmured unsteadily.
“Can’t have you ruining my stats,” Franky said lightly, “if you go I go.” She didn’t release her immediately though, instead holding her close, as close as their packs would allow.
Erica tried to concentrate on the remaining part of the climb, being careful in her foot placements and only looking at the two steps ahead of her. It was making her nervous, how high they were and how little room there was for error. Eventually they crested the highest point and she discovered going down was worse. The steps seemed impossibly small and harder to navigate when there was no way of avoiding the view down to the valley below. She saw Jake and Vera almost half way down. They looked like toy miniatures. She took a breath and continued.
Franky remembered first what had happened. Despite her head injury, her memory was intact. They had traversed the last pass of the day and were walking through fairly flat country only about three kilometres from their planned camp. It wasn’t anything sinister that made them leave the track. Erica had needed to pee. Franky had been reluctant to walk on without her.
“Nah,” the guide said firmly when Erica said she’d be okay and would catch her up.
“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. She wondered if Franky’s reluctance related to Erica’s strange adventure at the hut the other day. “I promise I won’t go far.”
“Good,” Franky replied, “but I’ll wait anyway.”
Erica gave up and walked off into the bush. It was scrubby and there weren’t many good places to pee. She spotted a grassy clearing, which looked perfect, and took a path through the bracken towards it. She saw it just before she stepped into the clearing and froze, because curled up in sun was a large black snake. She slowly backed away, hoping she was quiet enough not to disturb the sleeping reptile.
“You know I don’t need to pee,” she told Franky a minute later when she had returned to the path. Franky looked quizzical so she told her about the snake.
Franky wasn’t very sympathetic. “What are you gonna do? Hang on til we get back to civilisation?” She asked with a grin.
She had a point and Erica knew it. “Fine, I’ll pee but if I get bitten on the bum by a snake, you can suck out the poison.”
Franky laughed. “Yeah, no worries, I can think of worse ways to die.” Erica heard the guide say as she stomped off through the scrub on the other side of the path from the snake. She thought if she made enough noise she would scare away any snakes. That decision meant when her foot hit the edge of the shaft, she had too much forward momentum to pull herself back and fell.
Franky had heard her cry out. “I fucking thought you had been bitten by a snake,” Franky recounted. She had raced in the direction Erica had gone, concentrating on finding her and not where she was putting her feet. She hadn’t seen the shaft and had no hope of saving herself. She had fallen as well, banging her head on something sharp on the way down and losing consciousness.
“What now?” Erica asked.
“Now we’ve gotta get ourselves out,” Franky told her. “It’s not like anyone knows where we are and as neither of us left our packs on the path, it’s not likely they’ll ever work it out.” Franky said ominously.
“Great,” Erica muttered drily.
“Good news is,” Franky sounded bizarrely optimistic given the circumstances.
“We’ll die together?” Erica offered.
“We’ve got our packs.” Franky finished.
“And that helps us how?” Erica asked, thinking even if she could somehow manage to climb out, there was no way she could manage it with her pack.
“You’ll see,” Franky said smugly.
And momentarily Erica bought into Franky’s optimism until something crawled across her leg. “Fuck! Snake!” She said in a startled cry.