Middle Ground

The blowing snow no longer stung the man’s face, which had gone numb from frost bite. He trudged forward, or staggered sideways, despite the increasing futility of the effort. He was going to die soon and he knew it.

He fell over with increasing frequency, potholing up to his crotch during a whiteout blizzard while crossing through a desolate pine forest. Earlier that day it had been chilly but bright, perfect for a 20-mile cross country ski, but the weather had come in too fast and the temperature had plummeted along with it. He’d been forced to abandon his skis half an hour ago when he’d gone off the track and into a half-frozen creek, snapping his left ski in two and severely spraining his ankle. Shortly after that, taking a short cut back home became the only option if he was going to make it in time before he froze to death, or at least that’s what he’d come to believe during the drunken stupor that hypothermia had put him in. His heart rate was slowing, blood vessels were restricting their flow to his extremities, and he felt a weakness that he had never experienced before.

Maybe taking on such an ambitious trek had been too much, too soon, given his unfamiliarity with his surroundings and the climate. The trail system up here was extensive and he’d only just moved to town a few weeks ago. The man had become fed up with the four-person company that he had been with for more than a decade, a marketing firm that, in his opinion, had broken its own ethical code of conduct. The owner argued that by doing business with a local bank, they would be able to avoid shutting down and could continue taking on environmental clients. These had never paid well, but had been what the small company was built upon—bringing awareness to clear cutting, mining, and other polluters within the region through grass-roots funded donations. The problem was that this particular bank had been a small time investor in some of the very companies that the firm had created campaigns against in the past. It was too much for the man to take, so he quit. And moved. He dealt in black and white. Good and evil. And this, in his opinion, was crossing the line, even if the end result may have been a “positive,” according to his former boss.

He forced any regrets out of his mind and continued on the task at hand: delaying death for another 10 steps. And then another 10 steps. And another. And suddenly his foot went through a layer of ice and straight up to the knee in near-freezing water. He pulled it out as quickly as possible and would have cursed, but his lips were far too numb to move in any coordinated fashion. This would be the end now. He wasn’t dressed for this weather, having donned just a pair of tights, a long sleeve thermal, gloves, and a light jacket earlier that morning. A soaking wet shoe and leg would put a quick end to him. Then he noticed something odd. Was that steam?

Heavy snow blew sideways and mixed with intense billows of steam that came up from a small pool of water, just six feet across. The man realized that he had not stepped through a layer of ice into a hidden creek. This was a hot spring. This was a hallucination. It had to be. He had read about this sort of thing before, though it seemed incredibly real. Of course it would. His mind needed to believe, though he wasn’t convinced. This was worth testing. If he was having this intense of a hallucination, still miles from home, he would be dead anyways in a few minutes. He  indulged himself in the pointless experiment and dipped his already-wet leg, calf-deep, back in and left it there for a moment. It was warm. He couldn’t feel his foot at all, but the warmth quickly crept up his leg. And burned. Fuck. It was hot.

The man yanked his foot out quickly in reaction to the searing heat of the small pool. He was immediately convinced that this was no hallucination, and the sudden jolt of hope spurred a surge of adrenaline and clairvoyance. A fog lifted from his eyes as he stared into the steam of the near-boiling pool of life in front of him. He was saved. But the heat of the pool. Was it too much?

He stuck his foot in again, this time determined to keep it in longer and let it adjust to the heat. Numb fingers and toes always ached with intense pain when put under a hot, or even lukewarm, shower. Of course this would be painful.

He counted. One. Two. Three. FUCK. He screamed in agony and withdrew his leg from the water. It may not have been boiling, but it felt close. His calf screamed in pain as he fell back and dug his leg into the snow beside the pool. For a brief instant the man imagined the irony of second degree burns and frost bite on the same limb, then an overpowering sense of dread took hold. His hope was crushed as quickly as it had been created. Now he would die. He had no energy to press on.

It took him longer than it would have if he had been thinking clearly, but a few moments later he came up with it. Cool the hot spring down. Pile in some snow. The idea jerked the man to his hands and knees, and pushed him to his feet. He began grabbing armloads of snow and flinging it into the pool. Arm load after arm load. He pushed the snow around the edge of the pool in with his feet, and continued grabbing more and more snow as fast as he could. It was light, powdery stuff, and hard to get a hold of. This wasn’t going fast enough, and the snow here wasn’t as thick as the stuff he had been post holing through earlier. Another brilliant though came into his mind, though it required taking off his jacket.

With great difficulty, he got his jacket off by pinching the zipper with his thumb and forefinger together like a lobster, and biting the cuff with his mouth. He laid it out on the ground and piled snow on, shivering with even more ferocity than before. He grabbed up the jacket by the corners and emptied its contents into the pool. He carried out this process again and again, until he felt that he could do no more. It had to be enough.

He cautiously dipped his leg in. It burned, but with less intensity than before. He dipped the other leg in and slowly let his entire body slide into the water. The heat was almost unbearable. Almost. He forced himself to stay in. He sat on his butt with his legs extended out in front of him, using every morsel of will power to stay seated. The pool was only a few feet deep. His whimpers of pain had been muffled for the last few minutes, but now he let out a screeching, high pitched wail. At last, he pulled himself out back onto the snowy bank.

He curled into a ball on his side, knees to his chin, arms wrapped around, writhing in pain from his blistered and peeling lower half and still shivering uncontrollably from hypothermia. The snow still came down heavily, blowing sideways and sucking every bit of acquired warmth away from the man’s steaming legs. After a few moments, he regained control and rolled over towards the spring. He cupped his hands into the water and released it over his head. This was bearable at least. He repeated the process dozens of times, thoroughly soaking his upper half though not adding any real warmth to his system. The wind cut into him with deadly intentions, and soon he was having trouble using his arms with any real coordination. If he was going to survive, he would have to get back into the hot spring.

In his last few moments of consciousness, the man slid back into the spring. He knew that being rapidly re-warmed like that could kill him instantly, but there was no other option. The pain came rushing back and with considerable effort, he rotated back onto the bank, laying on his stomach with his legs still splayed out in the near-boiling liquid. He crawled forward, out of the water, rested there a minute, and pushed himself backwards into it again up to his waist. He would repeat this process three more times before blacking out.

The snow fell quietly now, days after the storm had subsided; the wind had vanished, leaving the forest and the still man in solitude. His lower half remained submerged in the shallow steaming pool while his upper half was sprawled onto the bank face down. The skin had bubbled off from below his waist and the meat of his legs was cooked through. It could have been shredded with a fork like pulled pork. From his chest up, he was frozen solid. But somewhere in the middle, in the pit of his stomach, it was neither too hot nor too cold. It was a perfect 98.6 degrees. A comfortable gray area. 

 

 

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