And if he’s alive?
I couldn’t answer that question.
Because if he was alive. If he was okay. It meant I’d chosen his survival over my own. I would never get another chance. I was turning my back on my family for a man, and I didn’t even know his name. I was admitting to myself that for all my bluster and bravery, something had blossomed inside me.
Something I couldn’t even acknowledge without cursing my stupid, stupid heart.
I exploded into action.
Leaping to my feet, I grabbed my overstuffed backpack from where it’d waited patiently by the tree and shrugged it on. Securing the straps tight and buckling additional ones around my waist, I stepped off the edge and descended.
If he’d survived, I’d need supplies. I’d need every tool and trick I had to fix him.
My backpack upset my balance as I climbed faster than I’d ever climbed before. I shut off every thought and focused.
Toe hold, traverse, hand grab, drop.
I yelled at my panic-pounding heart the entire way down, forcing myself not to think about him, not to second-guess or fret. Not to worry about anything until my feet touched earth safely.
If I fell too, then we would both die.
Side by side, entombed in his valley forever.
My knees threatened to buckle as the distance to the valley floor decreased. Sweat poured down my back, and my hands slipped on a few rocks.
I made the mistake of looking down. There, obscured by leaf matter and lower crisscrossed branches, a foot existed.
A man’s dirty, leathered foot, splayed to the side and not moving.
My stomach lurched.
My hand latched around a branch, and I kept climbing.
I climbed until I reached the valley floor and then I ran.
I ran to his side, shoved off my bag, and crashed to my knees.
I pressed my fingers against his throat.
My fingers burned against his skin. I willed every power in the twisted universe for him to open his eyes and reveal that sinful sneer. That arrogant cruelty that hid so much inside.
I slumped over him.
I pressed my ear to his naked, scarred chest.
My own heart thundered in my ears, pounding without pause.
Holding my breath, I shouted at my nervous system to shut the hell up. I pressed my ear harder to his sternum. I dug my fingers deeper into his jugular.
Faint and almost unwilling, the soft thud of his heart.
Rearing back, I shook him. “Hey. Can you hear me?” I tapped his filthy cheek, brushing aside leaf-tangled hair. “Open your eyes.”
God, what is his name?
I needed his name so I could scream it. So I could yell it into his ears and force him to stay alive.
As I shook him, my temper spiked. “Come on, Simon, Andrew, Colin, whoever you are...open your damn eyes.”
Not even a twitch.
I kept trying. I pinched his cheek. I punched his chest. I listened again for a pulse to see if it was stronger or weaker.
But still there.
Late afternoon sun hid behind clouds as I sat back and surveyed his body.
With the mess of last night and the wounds I’d given him in my key attack, it was hard to tell what was dirt and what was old blood. Fresh cuts spilled crimson along his side, a few good lacerations but nothing to suspect broken ribs or internal hemorrhaging.
No black bruises hinted at pooling blood beneath the skin.
His lips weren’t turning blue.
His face was blank and serene.
If I didn’t continuously check his pulse, I would’ve been convinced he was dead.
He lay like a corpse. Legs splayed and arms palms up, flat on his back as if he hadn’t fought the fall at all. As if he’d stayed lax and limp, accepting the end in a way no happy person ever could.
I glanced around for it. He’d been wearing my spare when he went over. It must’ve fallen off—
A few feet away, covered in leaves, rested the bag he’d stolen from my Jeep. Full of treats and sugar from a society he no longer belonged to. He was just a wild man, with nothing and no one, forgotten on the forest floor.
My heart broke all over again.
What if he’d wanted this?
What if, in those final few seconds, he’d chosen not to fight and let the ground catch him in whatever cradle it wanted.
In a way, he’d saved his own life.
Survivalists all said that the best way to fall was to do it without any tension or anticipation of the crash. The harder you braced, the harder you broke. And in his case, he hadn’t braced at all.
Tears shot up my spine, tingling and hot as they pooled in my eyes.
I didn’t know why, but that simple fact told me so many soul-shattering things. It revealed more complexities and vulnerabilities than he ever could’ve shown me while awake.