Mark Vahn was attempting to turn over the four horse-power engine of the small jeep. It belonged to his friend Jeremy: at least it once did.
“Come on, baby,” he coaxed, “be good for Daddy.”
The morning was chilly and dry and the Jeep had been sitting in his driveway for just under a week. The roommates had begun making disgruntled noises about it being parked there although Mark had been in no position, mental or physical, to make any decisions about it. Only this morning, he’d talked to his mother again and mentioned that he didn’t know what would happen to the jeep. It still contained what remained of the camping gear he and his friends had taken with them to the mountain that fateful weekend.
“I’m just so sorry for what happened, Mark. You must feel awful,” Mom had said, a tear creeping into her voice.
“Yeah,” he said after a slight pause of measured thinking, “gravity is a terrible force of nature.”
Although now his body only showed the last remaining burns of frostbite from his ordeal, Mark was still numb from the loss of his three friends. His last memory of their faces was not the smiling joking pals he’d driven up the mountain with. Now, all he could see when he closed his eyes, were the bruised but pale impressions of each still and sleepless face. Eyes half-closed, expressionless, shadowed by spotty beard growth and frost bite, contrasting either to the Navy of a parka, the hot pink of a ski jacket collar or the knot of a red checkered kerchief. Each crumpled body, twisted and broken by the terrible power of the mountain, was strapped to aluminum frame stretchers waiting to be carried away by helicopter, each coffin shape encased in orange zippered parachute cloth that reflected light of the late afternoon sun off the fabric’s weave at different angles; the soapy white of their skin, tinged with yellow and blue bruising, haunting him.
He barely remembered the burning pain of his own frostbite, the bitter cold wind on the hillside that lowered the chill factor and chapped his skin. He didn’t remember the conversations of the rescue workers, handsome older men with gentle voices and large calloused hands, confident in their own mastery of the mountain’s capricious nature. All he felt was the great emptiness in his heart knowing that his friends were dead and he, goddess only knew, was the loan survivor.
Even then he knew better than to hate this moment. But the morning of the disaster Jeremy had woke wrapped in Mike’s arms, their sleeping sacks zippered together for warmth turned to him and had simply said, “Hey, you know I love you, Man.” Mike had wanted to die right then, in Jeremy’s arms, but fate determined that wasn’t going to happen, at least not in this lifetime.
Mom interrupted his reverie.
“I will meet you at the courthouse. You’re going to need our support.”
Good old Mom and her partner of thirteen years was always there to back him up whenever he should need it. More times than not he didn’t, but he never turned her down or told her she couldn’t participate in his life. She had taught him to be his own man and stand upright on his own feet, but they had an unspoken relationship that allow each other to observe and watch in the background when things were tough.
He’d been there for her when she was getting her divorce from his stepfather. He realized that in the long run it had very little to do with him and he was happy that she was delivering them both from the hands of an unhappy and sometimes abusive man. She always said she’d married Ron mainly for Mark’s sake, but Mark had always known it was really because she was afraid of raising a son on her own. When it came down to it, she’d done a pretty good job. Mark was happy and well adjusted. He worked for himself and surrounded himself with friends and acquaintances he’d met while DJ-ing at the raves he helped organize and promote.
At thirty, Mark didn’t do drugs anymore, rarely drank more than a single beer at one sitting, liked to be outdoors watching the light on a mountainside fall. He liked the challenge of powder under a freshly waxed board, liked the meditative focus of a well mixed trance beat, but also the chaotic energy of Pogo, his white terrier.
For three years Pogo had been the pride and joy in his life; a reason to clean himself up and not involve himself in mindless relationships that would only lead to dissatisfaction and dissolution. Pogo loved him with a seemingly unconditional devotion and affection, waking Mike in the morning for their twice-daily walk around the neighborhood, waiting quietly when Mike was out running errands, then barking wildly for joy whenever he returned, barking relentlessly at anyone he did not trust and then behaving like a perfect gentleman sitting on the couch until his name was mentioned and then as if on cue, running for a chew toy and tossing it in the air for the guest to catch.
But then Jeremy was someone different, even Pogo had accepted him into Mark’s life like he’d always been there. Mark had never met anyone before who he’d connected with on such a deep level. Jeremy was a musician, skateboarder and subsequently interested in snowboarding, but he was also focused and spiritual, meditating daily, maintaining a sobriety he’d never once compromised. A man with a really big heart, among other things.
And now he was gone and Mark needed to drive to the inquest to acknowledge and confirm the statement that he’d made the week earlier absolving him of any responsibility regarding the three deaths of his friends, a simple community ritual, but rife with meaning and memory. With a cough and a small bang the stale engine of the jeep turned over in the frosty light of the morning sun. Mark leaned back with a sigh and let the engine warm up. Over the roar of the four cylinders Mark could hear Pogo barking inside the house, obviously startled by the noise of the engine’s backfire.
Coming home after the meeting with his mom, the county coroner, a judge, the parents of the two other’s