They decided to treat it as their second honeymoon. It was the first time in three years either of them had been up on the Death’s Head. There were other camping and hiking trips, but this part of the Back Country had been neglected. Lankin harassed them about it, saying becoming parents made them soft. He didn’t believe either of them when they said their excursion had nothing to do with spiting him.
Jimmy was with Bethany’s mom for a week, so they had plenty of time. Aside from the Death’s Head, they wanted to climb Hell’s Watchtower as well. The original plan was to conquer both in the same day, but the dark clouds began to build early that day. Despite that, they were filled with a feeling of accomplishment.
“You think we’ll beat the rain down?” Bethany asked.
“I hope so,” Donovan said. “And I guess we’ll do the Watchtower tomorrow.”
“It’s a date, Mister!” Bethany said excitedly, giving a kiss that tasted of accomplishment and uncounted adventures waiting to be had and forever.
Between the Death’s Head and Hell’s Watchtower is a saddle of rock with a seven-hundred foot drop on one side down to jagged scree, known as the Abyss. It was here, still above tree-line, that the sky opened up on them; one of those storms with very little warning and a great deal of savagery. There was no choice but to press on.
“There’s that little cut in the rock on the other side,” Donavan yelled over the wind and rain. “We’ll hole up in there.”
“Not the way I imagined snuggling with you in the rain, Donnie,” Bethany called back.
“I imagined us snuggling on top of Hell’s Watchtower and it not raining.”
They inched along. The wind and rain seemed to intensify with each step, making their movement across the wet rock slow and precarious. Donavan took a small amount comfort in the fact he could see the cut they were going to shelter in. It wasn’t that much further.
There was a blinding flash and its accompanying roar, which echoed through saddle between the Death’s Head and Hell’s Watchtower. Donovan heard a loud pop and something that sounded like either a yelp or a scream. As he turned in its direction a scent filled his nose that reminded him of overdone meat that had been forgotten on a hot grill.
Bethany was staring at him in smoldering disorientation. Her skin was burned black in several places and blistering in others. The clothing that wasn’t melting onto her was slowly burning even as the rain put out the last fires across her small frame. She took one drunken step toward him before pitching sideways.
And she toppled over the edge, taking every dream, every hope, every promise of forever with her. At first all he could do was stare in disbelief. Her body plummeted, the last remnants of embers winking out as she raced to the bottom.
He didn’t remember how he got to the edge and not fall off himself. His screams were muffled by the wind and rain. He searched along the bottom desperately, trying to see where she landed, but the rain obscured his vision.
Another flash and another roar brought him back to the situation at hand; he was above tree-line, out in the open, in the middle of a rather brutal thunderstorm. The next bolt of lightning might very well get him. There was still little Jimmy to think of. His young son was all Donovan had left of Bethany now. With that resolve, he pushed toward the cut in the rock on his hands and knees, blinded by the wind and the rain and his own tears.
Lankin stood looking at the scree-field that marked the belly of the Abyss. Perhaps at another time he might have found the differing perspective at least a little interesting. As it stood, he found the scene in front of him quite repellant. The hurried footsteps and labored breathing was authored by someone he was not looking forward to talking to. With a deep breath, he turned around.
Donovan Tabor was not a small man. Some of the old-timers likened him to a bear; slow to anger, but of incredible strength. He could be a fierce protector and could survive a good long time in the Back Country by knowing when to forage and when to hunker down.
Lankin, by contrast, was the cat; enigmatic. Aloof glances and sphinx-like smiles. He was solitary, often disappearing for long stretches of time, only coming back right before anyone really considered worrying about him. Down at Magpie Jack’s, Grizz would tell stories, with perhaps a little whiskey-lanced embellishment, but the moral of the stories were all the same; Lankin was an odd one that no one in their right mind would want to tangle with.
Bethany had been the glue between the two men; this willowy, almost sprite-like girl with ash-blond hair, whose three year old son was almost her mirror image. Lankin loved her like a sister and Donavan as his wife and mother of their son. Bethany, as with a great many things between the two of them, was the reason they stood facing one another in the belly of the Abyss.
“Did you find her?” Donavan wheezed. Lankin slowly nodded. “Well?!?”
“I’ll take care of it, Donnie.”
“Don’t I get to see her?” He felt himself tensing. There was a look in Lankin’s eyes he did not like.
“You don’t want to.”
With a roar, Donavan pushed his way past, although, it was not as if Lankin offered up much resistance, which might have seemed out of character if any rational thought was given in the heat of the moment. Blindly, he was running to the scree. It was only at the edge did he catch sight. In that moment, Donovan’s legs gave out from under him. Something low and primal that tasted of bile and lament clawed its way out of his throat.
Her charred body was carelessly splayed across the rock like a ragdoll. He had two days from when he got down and got help to prepare himself for the sight, and had reconciled himself to the burns and broken bones. It was the fact her eyes were now empty sockets and some of the unburned flesh had been picked at by something, most likely a raven, that brought him to his knees. There was still the disoriented look on her face he remembered from right before she fell. A look that seemed to beg questions;
Why? What about forever?
He was crying. For what felt like days, he laid, curled into a ball on the tundra, being wracked by long sobs. Finally, he shakily brought himself back up and turned to see Lankin watching, his head cocked almost inquisitively to the side.
“I tried to warn you,” he said with as much warmth as seemed possible for Lazarus Lankin.
Donovan lashed out, his fist connecting firmly with Lankin’s jaw. His head spun around and returned to its original position in a flash. Single trickles of blood began to ooze from his left nostril and the corner of his mouth. His eyes narrowed, but did not waver.
“Do you feel better now, Donnie?” Lankin growled.
Once more, he pushed past. Tears again began to flow. He found himself blindly running away from the scene letting out a bellow of lament that caused the mountains themselves to shudder.
“They both died up there,” Lankin muttered as he took a hearty swig from his wine glass. “The difference being your mom may have been the lucky one.”
“How can you say that?” Tarot inquired in shock.
“Because, relatively speaking, with your mother it was quick,” Lankin replied. He paused briefly to drain the rest of his wine in a single gulp. “It took your dad fifteen years to catch up.”