"I can't believe you." He threw his arms out, and banged his knuckles into a cast-iron pan hanging from a ceiling beam, which normally would have hurt like a mother, but in his fury he barely noticed it. "I can NOT believe you!"
"Believe." That was Kowalski, back in the corner, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, and Ray ignored him, he wasn't dealing with Kowalski yet, that'd come later. He kept his head turned toward Fraser instead as he paced, noting that there really wasn't all that much room for pacing without running into something—not that the cabin was tiny, it was probably bigger than Fraser's old one that got blown up, Christ, all those years ago, but it also seemed to have a whole lot more stuff in it, which he assumed could be attributed to Kowalski, and the hell with Kowalski anyway, he was talking to Fraser.
Fraser, who sat still in the armchair beside the stove, with a blanket over him, moving only his eyes as he watched Ray pace a fast angry arc around the room, looking very calm, almost cheerful, like having Ray here and furious with him was a nice trip back into the old times, except this wasn't actually anything like the old times at all, those times were gone and never, ever coming back. "Ray, honestly, I know it's very upsetting, but I've thoroughly investigated all the options, I've spoken to very competent professionals, and I've made my decision. It's not just that I'm reluctant to cause more trouble—" There was a loud snort from Kowalski in the corner. "—but also that it would do no good. None at all. I'm sorry, Ray."
"Damn it." He stopped, blew out a breath, and then grabbed his carry-on and pulled a sheaf of papers from the side pocket. On top was the piece of crappy lined tablet paper with Kowalski’s crappy barely-legible handwriting on it, with the directions and the kindergarten-quality hand-drawn map. Ray had kept it handy for the map and the directions, and folded it so that was all he saw, not the rest of the letter, the part that started Hey Vecchio — OK, it's not like I want to see you ever again, but Fraser does, even though he'd never write and fucking say so, or tell you any of the rest of this stuff, but anyway, assuming you want to ever see him again, you better get up here soon, and went on with biopsy came back labeled "Adios" and spread all over everywhere and doctor says maybe six months, max, and yeah, sure, you're probably thinking hey, this is Fraser, so who knows, right? But this is bad shit, Vecchio. He'd carried that paper all the way from Miami, being very careful to only look at the directions and the map. Now he flipped past it to the other piece of paper, the fine bond stock with engraved letterhead, and pulled it out, snapping it open with a flourish.
"OK, look, look. Listen. Just hear me out, OK? Benny?" He glared at Fraser, and then looked away again because it hurt too damn much to see him sitting there so still, wrapped in blankets, face pale like he'd been bleached, dwindled down to bone.
"OK. Sloan-Kettering, see? You know them?” He waved the paper again, flapping it in the chilly smoke-smelling air of the cabin. “Best cancer center in the world, and I got you an appointment there with this guy, who is the guy for what you have, got his name from one of the city commissioners who sent his own mother to be treated by him, and she's hanging on OK, so ..." He pulled out more papers, held them up. "Travel agent's standing by to make the plane reservations as soon as we get you chartered out to someplace with an actual airport—I got some rooms booked at one of those suites hotels right by the hospital, all we got to do is get you packed and—"
"Ray." There was some of the old snap in Fraser's voice, but he just looked tired. "Ray, while I'm very grateful for your concern—believe me, I do appreciate it—I can't do that."
Ray wheeled around, sighing deeply, sliding his eyes past Kowalski, who was looking at him from the shadows with some expression Ray chose to interpret as a sneer. He gave him a brief sneer back, and then returned to Fraser, working to put some calm and patience into his voice. "Of course you can, Fraser, what's not to be able to do about it? You get on the plane, we can line up someone with a wheelchair to help you transfer in Vancouver—" Fraser was shaking his head, slowly, with determination. "If you're worried about the money, that's not an issue, we made a killing when we sold the old house in Chicago, and—"
Fraser sighed, and pulled the blanket up a little higher around his neck. "That reminds me, forgive me for not asking before this, how is your mother, Ray? I hope she's adjusting well to Florida, given that—"
"No!" Ray shouted. Damn it, he didn't want to get mad here, but the way Fraser looked, like even his eyes had gone pale, a dim grey instead of the blue he remembered, and the soft scratchiness of his voice—it made him nuts, he was shaking with anger, feeling like his skull was going to explode. "You do not get to argue about this! You're gonna go with the program if I have to drag you onto that goddamned plane, and—"
"Ohhh-kay, that's it." He'd forgotten for the moment about Kowalski, who was abruptly right there at his elbow, who grabbed him by the arm and spun him around and started hauling him toward the door. "Yelling at Fraser, that's a time-out."
He swung a fist at Kowalski, who knocked it aside, grabbed his wrist, kicked the door open, shoved Ray out, and followed, slamming the door shut behind them.
Ray took one last wild swing with the sledgehammer, heaving it up and smashing down on the little pile of boards, watching them splinter and crack, and then he let the iron head drop to the ground, and stood panting and sweating.
He'd kind of expected that the exit from the cabin would be followed by a punch-out with Kowalski, and he was up for that, fine with that, but instead Kowalski had shoved the handle of the hammer into his belly, pointed at a wooden crate sitting nearby, and said, “Go for it,” and as much as he hated to admit it, that had been a good idea on Kowalski’s part. He felt considerably calmer, surveying the pile of wreckage at his feet, listening to the dozen or so dogs in the chain-link kennel baying and yelping excitedly.
“Not bad, Vecchio,” Kowalski said. He had a hatchet in one hand, and as Ray watched, wiping his forehead, he began picking up splintered boards from the pile, setting them on a log, and splitting them into smaller strips, with quick effortless-looking blows. It was kind of unnerving, actually, watching him. Just as Fraser didn't really look anything anymore like the picture of Fraser that Ray had carried in his head all these years, so too with Kowalski—he'd remembered the guy as a scrawny sullen kid, and then with the knowledge that he and Fraser were—well, together, the memory had shifted until he'd become this little willowy thing, probably too frail to make it up here without Fraser taking care of him.
The guy standing in front of Ray, though—he looked way more than ten years older, with the deeply-lined face, and way more solid, though not with fat, and like he needed nobody whatsoever taking care of him. He'd buzzed his hair off short, too, and all in all, Ray had to admit, he looked about as willowy as Clint Eastwood.
“What the hell was that thing, anyway?” Ray asked.
"Cazzie's old doghouse." Kowalski jerked his head toward the kennel, and now that he looked, Ray could see a whole row of similar crates. "I had to replace it, he chewed it up pretty bad last year when Lil went into heat, so I figured we could get some kindling out of the old one."
"Oh, that's great, Kowalski, you know something, I didn't come three thousand miles to help you do your damned chores." He let the thick wooden handle drop to the ground, and sat on a log, breathing hard. The blind stupid high of violence was ebbing, leaving him with the same old pain, the ache in his gut from thinking about Fraser. Hell, maybe another fight would help. "So. You want to tell me how you let this happen to him?"
"Let this happen." Kowalski seemed disinclined to fight, though. He picked up another board and whacked it into sticks, the hatchet moving with an easy grace, like it was an extension of his arm. "Jeez, Vecchio, didn't you used to work with the guy? I know you're getting old and all, but you losing your memory already? You forget what he's like?" He kept grabbing boards, hacking them, not even breathing hard.
After a minute, Kowalski said, "Maybe a year ago last spring, he starts feeling crappy." His voice was soft, barely audible over the noise of the dogs and the thunk of the hatchet. "So—what does Fraser do when he starts feeling crappy? Does he piss and moan and whine like some people might do?" He shot Ray a look. "Nah, this is Fraser, so of course what he does is, he starts working twice as hard, and he embarks on a—on a programme of exercise 'cause he thinks he's maybe getting old and out of shape, and he maybe cuts back on the tea a little bit, and what he does not do, the very last thing he'd ever do, is actually talk to someone about it, like maybe a doctor." He paused and straightened, stretching his back and pushing a hand across his face. "And by the time he's feeling so bad he can't even hide it any more, I end up having to make an appointment for him 'cause he won't do it, and then come to find out there's a fucking list, there's a ten-month wait before he can even see anyone, and—"
"You couldn't fix that?" Ray said in disbelief. "You're from Chicago and you couldn't handle a stupid bureaucratic—"
Kowalski overrode him, with a glare. "—and when I go down there and get him bumped up—then, of course, he won't go with it. Because that'd be line-jumping! That'd be, y'know, transgressing the integrity of the fucking Canadian health care system! Next stop, mass murder!" The pile of boards was gone, and Kowalski stared at the hatchet a minute, jaw tight, and then slammed it into the log, burying the blade an inch deep. Then he himself dropped to the ground as if the strength had gone out of him, and wrapped his arms around his knees. "He was gonna wait his turn. Completely relentless about it. Not a fucking thing I could do to change his mind. Because, after all, Ray—" His voice took on a acidulated primness. "—I'm sure it's nothing to worry about, nothing at all, and there are others whose conditions take priority. And by the time he finally got in to see someone—" He waved one arm in a gesture that managed to suggest anger, defeat, failure.
They sat for a while, and then Ray said, "You know, the terrible part is, I believe you."
"Oh, thanks so much, that takes a real fucking load off my mind," Kowalski said, but the tightness in his face eased maybe a little, and after another minute he stood, shaking out his shoulders. "OK, so ... I let you do that little two-step with Fraser back there because I figured you needed to get it out of your system. But listen up, Vecchio, you're done with that now. No more of this Sloan-Kettle-whatever, no more fucking airplane tickets, no—"
"What the hell's wrong with you, Kowalski? You going to just let him die out here? You're not even going to make him try?"
Two fast steps, and Kowalski was right next to him, staring down at him, a bleak heavy stare. "Oh, fuck you, Vecchio. Number one, your track record on making Fraser do anything? Yeah, so much better than mine. Numero du-oh, you’re a moron. Use your head a minute, think about it. When did Fraser ever not try? When did he ever go down without a fight? Hey, that seems freaky, huh?" He turned away, and began kicking the kindling into a pile, smacking it into line with his scarred steel-toed workboots. “When Fraser’s doing freaky shit that makes no goddamn sense, what’s the one thing you can always fall back on to try to figure it out?
Vecchio couldn't tell if Kowalski was expecting an answer, but as he thought about the question, he found himself saying, slowly, "Yeah … so in Fraser’s head the right thing to do here would be …”
“Bingo.” Kowalski pointed at him, mouth twisted in a near-snarl. “Being Fraser, he decides that god forbid they use scarce fucking resources on him when they could use it for, I dunno, prenatal care for Eskimo babies or some fucking thing like that. ‘Cause he figures, spend the money on them and they’ll get better, whereas he—" He stopped, shook his head, suddenly looking not angry but just tired and beaten. "He is not gonna be getting better, and that's not giving up, Vecchio, that's just—I talked with the doctors, I looked at the x-rays, it is in his liver, in his bones, in—it's in his brain, god damn it, and I just—" He stopped again, moved his arms meaninglessly, and then just stood, blinking hard.
"OK." Ray swallowed, nodded. "But—I mean, if there's even a one in a million chance, maybe some new treatment, or—"
"Look. Where do you think the guy wants to die? In some hospital in New York City, for chrissake, with the needles and the tubes and the machines? Or—" Kowalski gestured to the cabin, with its plume of woodsmoke; the dogs, barking and sniffling and rattling their food bowls; the trees, all around, the tallest trees he'd seen since his last trip to Canada; the mountains, shining with snow, rising in the background, like something out of movie, like nothing anywhere in either Chicago or Miami, like a dream of a cleaner and better world.
"Yeah." Ray finally nodded, accepting defeat. "Yeah, OK."
"Right." Kowalski nodded at the pile of kindling. "So, how about you haul that in, and you can have a nice quiet talk with Fraser."
"Me? Carry that shit?"
Kowalski shrugged, turning away. "I gotta feed the dogs."
"It's all splintery, damn it, it's going to snag my sweater! You know how much I spent on this sweater?"
"Tough shit!" Kowalski yelled back over his shoulder, as the pack of dogs surged around him, leaped up on him, barking joyously. Ray cursed and began gingerly gathering up the kindling.
Fraser appeared to be dozing in his rocking chair, and Ray set the stack of kindling down as quietly as he could, cursing in a whisper when one piece slid away and banged on the floor. A glance over showed him Fraser still snoozing, though, so he spent a minute easing the splinters out of his sweater and brushing off the dirt. Then, feeling aimless and awkward, he wandered over to the wall by the door, which was covered with framed photos and plaques and stuff. Strange, because Fraser had never been one to exactly decorate a place. He leaned closer to look at the photos.
"Ray calls it his hall of fame."
"Huh?" He spun around, and there was Fraser, awake and watching him. Fraser gestured toward the wall, and Ray obediently turned back. About a dozen photos, each one showing either a bunch of dogs pulling a sled across a finish line with a guy in a parka standing and waving an arm in triumph, or else a guy standing in the middle of a lineup of cheerful-looking people with something being handed to him, everyone smiling for the camera. In each case, the guy was Kowalski, and as Ray looked down the wall, the photos got bigger and glossier-looking, the thing being given to him changed from staged-looking handshakes to plaques to trophies. And, Ray realized, there were also framed certificates hanging on the wall, mixed in with the photos. He squinted to read them: Canmore Classic, 2004, Third Place, Eight Dog Class; Copper Basin 300, 2005, Fourth Place; Arctic Circle Championship, Kotzebue, Alaska, 2006, First Place.
"He's made some notable achievements, in a remarkably short time," Fraser said.
"Yeah, I guess that's pretty impressive." He gave the photos one more look, for politeness' sake, and then sat down across from Fraser and held his hands out toward the woodstove. "I saw the dogs out there, and I figured he was just taking care of them while you're—y'know, under the weather, but … so, what, you're having him race them too?"
"He cares for them, he races them, he breeds them, trains them, works them." Ray could hear the pride in Fraser's voice. "They're his dogs, Ray. I helped him buy his first team, and of course I've offered advice along the way—"
"Yeah, big surprise there." Ray tried a grin, and Fraser smiled back.
"But all the accomplishments and the honor are his." Fraser glanced once more toward the wall of photos, and went on, more quietly. "He was planning on the Iditarod again this year. But … well. Next winter, I imagine, he'll be able to train and race without any distractions."
Ray pulled in a breath, and blew it out, hard. "Cut it out, you know you'll be there at the finish line to cheer him on, right?" As soon as he'd said it, as soon as he'd heard the tone of false good cheer in his voice, he pitched forward in his chair, putting his face in his hands. "Hell, Benny, I'm sorry, that was—"
"Not at all, Ray, that was a very kind sentiment."
"—the kind of thing Great-aunt Viola used to say to people on their deathbeds, and—" He stopped, realizing he was digging himself in deeper, and slapped a palm against his forehead. "Damn it."
"Ray." There was such warmth in Fraser's voice—and when Ray looked up, he was smiling at him. "Really. I know it's considered inappropriate, in conventional social interchanges, to talk about one party's impending death, but I would hope that you and I could—well, could continue the disregard of social convention that always made our partnership so enjoyable." He picked up his teacup, looked inside it, set it back down.
"Yeah, sure." Seeing a path of safe retreat, Ray grabbed it. "Like the time I tried to get you to have dinner in a nice restaurant for once, and you went back in the kitchen and started looking for rodent droppings, that was a good time, right."
"Ah, yes." Fraser tipped his head, looking up in reminiscence. "But I believe you derived even more enjoyment from the time when—"
Ray listened, trying not to notice how much effort it took Fraser to push the words out, the little sips of gasping breath every few seconds—trying only to pay attention to the words, remember the good times gone.
Time passed, in an unreal, disorienting kind of way. Kowalski mostly stayed out with the dogs, and didn't have a hell of a lot to say to either of them when he was inside, ignoring Ray completely and being short with Fraser. Fraser napped a lot, did a few rounds of "You remember when...?" with Ray when he had the energy, and liked to look out the window, at nothing in particular that Ray could make out. He also liked to be read to, so Ray pulled books off the shelf, trying one after another to find something that would hold Fraser's attention for a while, maybe make him smile. Given the nature of the reading material Fraser had on hand, this was kind of a challenge, but it wasn't like Ray had anything else to do but cook soup and wash dishes and wish to hell he could get cell signal up here so he could phone Stella, get a reality fix and maybe some advice (she was a woman, after all, this was the kind of thing she ought to have some ability to handle). But then it probably was just as well, because who knows, she might ask about Kowalski, how he was doing, and Ray didn't really want to tell her her ex-husband was acting like a horse's ass.
After a couple of days had gone by, he decided it was time for him to be the bigger guy and make an effort, at least. He left Fraser on the porch, dozing in the autumn sun, and wandered down to the kennel, where he leaned on the fence and watched Kowalski clean up piles of dog crap, wrinkling his nose against the smell. The dogs were jumping around on their chains, barking and yelping and making an ungodly amount of noise.
Kowalski wasn't looking at him, but finally Ray offered, "Good thing you don't have any neighbors around to get bothered by that."
Ray tried again. "I mean, I'm assuming you do have—well, maybe not neighbors, but people living somewhere around here, right? You're not all that far from town."
Kowalski shrugged. "Some."
It was a thing he'd worried about, actually, lying awake at night on his horrible cot—the idea of Fraser having no one else around, only Kowalski to rely on, which to his eyes would be sort of like lying down on a nice comfortable bed of pointy gravel. "You know, when I knew Fraser back in Chicago, he had a lot of friends. I'm kind of surprised he doesn't have anyone coming by here, or helping out, or whatever." He didn't actually say "Which I can only assume is because you drove them all away," and if he implied it with the lift of a brow, well...
Kowalski dumped another scoopful of dog turds into his bucket, and then straightened up, rubbing his back. "You think Fraser doesn't have any friends any more? You think that's my fault, like maybe I queered that for him?" He tilted his head, gave Ray a hard stare.
Ray spread his hands. "I'm just saying."
"You're saying shit." Kowalski spat, wiped his mouth. "You can think whatever you want, Vecchio, but I'll tell you one thing, if it wasn't for me we'd have the entire population of Fort St. James out here twenty-four-seven, bringing him pies and holding his hand and he'd never get a god-damned minute of rest, because you know perfectly well he'd never tell anyone it's time to go."
"Yeah? I'm looking around here, and I don't exactly see the surging hordes."
Kowalski scooped and dumped another pile. "They're staying away right now because of course every last one of 'em knows he's got a guest, they knew you were coming a week before you got here, and they want him to be able to have some time with you. Soon as you're gone, it's back to me running 'em off." He pointed one finger like a gun, cocking his thumb. "Put the coffeecake down there, back away slowly, and no one gets hurt!"
Ray shook his head. "Bet they love you for that."
"About as much as they always have." Kowalski shrugged. "Not that I give a shit."
Ray watched Kowalski prowling the dog yard, scowling down at the ground looking for piles he'd missed, shoulders hunched up, and felt a moment of solidarity with the good people of Fort St. James. But ... "Doesn't it bother Fraser? That you don't exactly hit it off with them?"
"It's one of those things he's decided he's not gonna notice. You know how he thinks he can make stuff he doesn't like disappear with his brain," Kowalski said, grimacing.
It startled Ray into a quick laugh. "Yeah. I remember that."
Seemingly satisfied with his work, Kowalski picked up the bucket and hauled it over to dump in a bin, yelling "Shut up!" in passing to the milling dogs.
Ray followed him, feeling like maybe he should grab the moment as long as he and Kowalski were still talking semi-civilly. "Hey, I was thinking I should ask you—not that I want to, uh, jump the gun or anything, but I was wondering what you were thinking about in terms of ... I don't know, a memorial service or something, down in Chicago. After—" He gestured toward the house. Kowalski stared at him, and he hurried on, "I just thought—I'm going to change my flight and stop in there on my way home, check in on Frannie, and I thought maybe it'd be a good idea to start lining up some plans, or—"
Kowalski turned toward the house. "Yo! Fraser! Vecchio here wants to know if there's going to be a funeral or something in Chicago." Ray waved his arms wildly, in an agony of denial and mortification, but Kowalski ignored him, striding toward the cabin with Ray trotting behind, expostulating. "You hear about anything?"
Fraser appeared to be giving the question serious thought. "Well, I don't recall having heard any such thing—but then of course I'm not dead yet, and I don't believe my old colleagues, those who are still there, are aware of my illness, so that's hardly surprising. It seems a little indelicate for me to suggest such a thing..." His voice sounded a little muzzy, like maybe he'd taken some of his pills and was feeling no pain.
"Fraser!" Ray was still waving his arms, Kowalski was still ignoring him. "I wasn't trying to—I just thought that maybe Kowalski had talked to someone, or—"
"I always think it's good to plan and prepare, of course," Fraser added. "But I don't think Ray is the one to ask about it."
Kowalski, meantime, had put one booted foot up on the porch steps and was stretching his back out. Ray said to him, "I figured you'd be the one to put together something like—not that I'm saying anything like that is going to happen any time soon, but—"
"Nah," Kowalski said. "Chicago can do whatever the hell it wants, I'm not going back there."
Ray wrinkled his forehead. "It's your home, dummy."
"Not any more." Kowalski shrugged, switched legs, did another stretch, grunting softly. "Damn, my hip's killing me."
"Well, sure, maybe you don't live there now but you were born there, it's where you—"
"Not any more." Kowalski was grinning, giving Fraser a quick glance and away, and his voice sounded smug. "Not a Yank any more, you know?"
Ray stopped short, looked at him. "You got Canadian citizenship. Is that it?"
Kowalski straightened up, brushing dog hair off his pants. "You got a problem with that?"
"Nah, I just figured Canada was smarter than that." Kowalski flipped him the bird, out of Fraser's line of sight. "And I thought it was harder to get in here, like you had to meet some standards. But hey, if they'll take you, I guess they'll take—"
Fraser jumped in, clearly trying to keep the peace. "Well, actually, our marriage expedited things considerably, so—"
Ray yelled "What the hell?" at the same moment that Kowalski yelled "Shut up, Fraser!" Then there was a weird and extremely awkward moment of silence while Ray stared at Kowalski, and Kowalski shoved his clenched-up fists in his pockets and stared at nothing, and Fraser looked back and forth between the two of them, with a bemused expression.
"I'm sorry, I thought that you knew—" He appealed to Kowalski. "Hadn't we told them?"
"No," Kowalski said in a tight voice. "We did not tell Stella, for reasons I hope I don't have to explain at this juncture, and we didn't tell this jerk, on account of how I knew we'd get exactly this reaction."
"You got married," Ray said slowly, trying to process it. "You ... right, because you can do that in Canada, and—" It was just too much, on top of all the other bad weirdness of the past few days, and he felt something dark and nasty and hurtful twisting its was out of his head through his mouth. He turned to Kowalski, smiled the smile he'd learned in Vegas. "Sure," he said. "I guess that makes a lot of sense, from your perspective. That's gotta be an expensive little hobby you got down there. This way, when Fraser kicks, hey, you get the cabin, the land, plus his insurance, his pension, the whole—"
He'd forgotten how quick Kowalski was, he'd been expecting him to maybe take a swing but he hadn't expected that he'd be flat on the ground before he could even see it coming, with his jaw throbbing and his neck twisted, Kowalski standing over him with his fists clenched, and Fraser in the background going, "Ray. Ray. Ray."
"I ought to kick the shit out of you," Kowalski told him, and then yelled over to Fraser, "OK, all right." He turned away, slammed a boot into a chunk of wood and sent it flying, and then strode down toward the kennel, shouting back toward Fraser, "I'm taking the team out for a run! Before I kill that asshole!"
Ray lay on the ground a moment longer, feeling the damp chill seep into his back, and then slowly sat up, holding his knees and working his jaw, waiting for the pain to dull.
From behind him, Fraser said, "That was a reprehensible thing to say, Ray." His voice sounded hollow and terrible.
"I know. I'm sorry." He rolled over, getting his knees under him, and slowly and painfully fought his way to standing. "I'm really, really sorry, Benny." His jaw didn't seem to be broken or anything; he was just going to have a hell of a bruise, and he supposed he deserved it. "It was a totally stupid thing to say, and—you know I don't mean it, right?"
He looked up at Fraser, who was staring off down the hill toward the kennel, lips tight, not replying.
"I just ... this has been about the worst week of my life and I'm not handling it real well. You gotta believe, Benny, I didn't mean anything against you. And—just—I'm sorry" he said, and after another moment Fraser nodded once.
"Let's go inside, Ray. I'm tired."
He helped Fraser in, giving a gentle hand under his elbow, and got him and his blanket settled in the big armchair by the fire. "Can I make you some tea?"
"No, that's all right." Fraser leaned back, eyes shut, and Ray thought maybe he was going to doze off. But instead after a moment he said, "I know you didn't really mean to be hurtful, Ray."
"No! Not at all, you got that right!" Ray found himself babbling in relief, but stopped when Fraser held up a hand.
"And actually, I'll confess it's been a comfort to me to know that Ray will be well provided for after my death."
"Sure! I mean, that's, uh, that's one reason for doing the whole thing and making it legal, right?" Ray nodded vigorously.
Fraser groped around on the side table, found a handkerchief and coughed gently into it. "Well, such practicalities certainly weren't at the forefront of our minds, at the time. And even now, for Ray..." His attention seemed to drift for a moment, and then he blinked, and refocused. "He gave up his US citizenship, you know."
"Yeah?" Ray said cautiously. It seemed like a non-sequitur, and he thought maybe Fraser was wandering a bit. "He didn't have to do that, though, did he?"
"Of course not. Many people hold dual citizenship. But Ray ... well. He'd been following the debates and the votes in the US, of course. He could see the general trend of public opinion. And—our marriage means a great deal to him. A very great deal." Fraser's voice was husky, and he spoke very quietly, hands moving as if he were gently opening something folded, closed, deeply secret.
"You remember—I believe it was from the feminist movement—that saying, 'The personal is political'? Fraser looked over at him, and he nodded. "For Ray—the political is personal. Entirely and completely so."
Ray said slowly, "So what you're saying is—"
"He still crosses the border; he'll go to Alaska for races. But you need not expect to see him down in the States any time soon, for any other reason." Fraser shook his head, with a slight smile. "I never thought to meet a man as stubborn as I."
"That's a scary thought," said Ray soberly, and Fraser nodded, letting his eyes drift shut.
When he heard the commotion of the dog team returning, Ray headed down to the kennel to do his apologizing and take his lumps, out of Fraser's earshot. To his surprise, though, Kowalski seemed in a wolfish good humor, wrestling his dogs out of harness and onto their tie-out chains, cursing them out and thumping their chests.
He waved off Ray's apologies, impatiently. "Hey, you got the best uppercut I got left in me, plus I'm hoping you got the full-fare guilt-trip from Fraser, so I figure we're square."
"Yeah, well—didn't mean it, nothing personal, I freaked out, sorry about it, the whole thing's none of my business anyway."
"You got that right. Here, take this." Kowalski threw him one end of the harness, and together they hauled it to the shed and hung it up on hooks. Most of the dog hair that had stuck to the harness transferred itself to Ray's sweater in the process, and he brushed himself off as they walked back out into the sun.
"Seriously though, Kowalski—so what are you going to do afterwards? I get you're staying in Canada, but—"
"Staying in Canada, staying right here." Kowalski stabbed a finger toward the ground. "And remember that part where you figured out all that's none of your business?
"I just thought—you said you don't get along with the people here, and without Fraser around..." He threw an arm out, gesturing at the forest, the mountains, the total freaking lack of civilization. "All by yourself? I mean, sure, it's your life, I just can't imagine…" What he was having a hard time imagining, to be honest, was how exactly he was going to answer Stella's questions about Kowalski, what he was doing, what his plans were, without getting her worried.
Kowalski jerked his head toward the cabin. "C'mere. Let me show you something." He led him around to the far side of the cabin, away from the porch. "See right there?"
There was a darker stain just perceptible in the shadow, a reddish-brown blotch on one weathered log. "Yeah?"
"You know what that is? That's where, when we were building the place, I got careless with a saw and took a big slice out of my leg. That right there—" He slapped his hand on the stained timber. "That is my blood, Vecchio."
Ray gazed at it. (Damn, he'd been off the street too long if he couldn't even recognize a bloodstain.)
"This place has my blood in it," Kowalski said again. "Not to mention a whole lot of sweat and maybe some tears. So, what am I supposed to do? Put it on the market? Turn it over to a realtor, maybe?" He turned and put both hands flat on the cabin wall, leaning against it, dropping his head. "Nope. The way I see it, once he's gone, I either stay on here, or I burn this place down." He looked over at Ray. "And I figure, Fraser'd be pissed to have another place of his burn down. So." He stepped back, rubbing his head, and glanced at the sun. "C'mon, it's time to try to get some dinner in him."
"—and so that, you see, was how Amos Zellmer's ice fishing house came to rest in the churchyard of Bella Coola First Baptist." Fraser chuckled, and refilled his teacup from the pot on the stove.
"That's a really funny story, Fraser." Ray was pacing again, circling, and damn, he wished this cabin was just a little bigger, he felt like he was going to end up with one leg shorter than another. He switched directions, and circled the other way instead. "That's the fourth really funny story you told me in the past hour, but you know what, I'm just not really in the mood for that right now."
A pause, and then Fraser said in an equable voice, "Well, what would you prefer? I'd certainly be happy to hear more from you about your life down in Florida—your job, Stella—"
"No, I don't mean that. I guess I was expecting maybe we could talk about—" He gestured. "I'm leaving tomorrow. I might not see you again. I figured—" (You're dying, he thought, is there some way we can maybe talk about that?) "I just figured—life, death, all that stuff. I thought that's what you might be wanting to get into."
"Ah." Fraser tipped his head, peering out the window. "The sun's come out, I see. It looks like a beautiful afternoon, shall we go sit on the porch?"
The porch faced west, and caught the full afternoon sun. It was almost too hot for Ray, but Fraser seemed pleased, and settled into one of the Adirondack chairs on the porch, a slow process of lowering himself and arranging his blanket, until he finally leaned back with a sigh. In the golden autumn light, he looked even worse than he had inside; gaunter, paler, almost waxy. His eyes were closed, his face still, as he leaned back, and Ray suddenly and urgently wanted to shake him, make him move and talk. Instead he pulled the other chair around with a screech, and sat down facing Fraser.
"Life and death." Fraser sighed, and opened his eyes, blinking against the sun's brightness. "Well, there's everything in the world to be said about life, I suppose. Even the most pointless stories I tell you are about life. And death?" He smiled a little. "I once imagined I knew something about death. Now, though ... well, I think that was just imagination."
Then he fell silent. That's it? Ray thought, but he kept still, and watched Fraser stare off into the sky. Finally he spoke again. "You know, when I first became ill and was given my diagnosis, I often found myself thinking of my father's death. The suddenness of it ... one moment, full of health and vigor, the next—nothing. Lifeless, in the snow, alone." He coughed, and then fought for a minute to get his breath back, before going on. "To be honest, I always expected that that was how I would die as well. Not that I was looking forward to it, mind you, but it seemed likely. When I found out otherwise ..." He made a noise that sounded like a sigh but might have been a laugh. "I found myself, as I said, thinking of my father's manner of death, with—well, I suppose, with some envy. I found myself thinking... there's a phrase that Ray sometimes uses, and that I believe I remember you using as well—I should be so lucky."
"It's true that I could have—chosen my luck, in this case." Fraser's voice was very low, hard to hear over the soft whisper of the wind in the trees. "I have a gun, of course. But ... I could never do that to Ray."
It was stupid to feel jealous of Kowalski, not over something like that; he was working really hard not to open his mouth and say What about me? Instead he said, "Thank god for that, anyway."
Fraser went on as if he hadn't heard him. "And I find that my attachment to life is even stronger than I thought. I'm very reluctant to leave it even a moment sooner than I absolutely must. Strange, isn't it?" He turned to look at Ray, at last, and he was laughing then, Ray could tell, and shaking his head slowly.
"Considering how many times you tried to get yourself killed? Yeah, I'd say that's pretty strange, Benny." They laughed together, in the golden light, the dwindling afternoon, like one of them had just told the funniest story ever.
His last night in Canada, he woke in darkness, and it took him a groggy minute to remember where he was. Then he felt around on the floor, found his watch, and pressed the button that lit up the dial. 2:47. Oh, great. He'd had pretty good luck sleeping through the night, despite the tortures of the sagging cot and the way that the room got colder and colder as the night wore on and the fire burned down in the woodstove, but now here he was, awake at three in the morning, with a crick in his neck, and the airplane trip from hell in front of him, and—
He froze, at a noise from the other side of the room, where Fraser lay in the big timber-framed bed. A hissing noise, and then another, and another, in the rhythm of breathing, the sound of someone breathing in pain, pulling breath in hard through clenched teeth. Ray lay still, gripping his blankets, trying to figure out what he should do—and then he heard another noise, louder, a rustling and creaking, and a voice. Kowalski's voice, soft and rough with sleep, going Shhhhhh, hang on, 's OK and then footsteps and the creak of floorboards. Ray shifted as quietly as he could, and looked over; there was a dim glow of firelight from the woodstove, enough that he could see Kowalski at the kitchen counter. He watched, eyes slitted, as Kowalski filled a glass with water, shook some pills into his hand, and then shuffled back over to the bed and helped Fraser up onto an elbow. That set off a round of coughing, weak ragged gasping coughs, while Ray closed his eyes, wincing, trying to give Fraser some privacy, trying not to listen. When the coughs finally eased, he heard Kowalski whispering, and then the sound of Fraser swallowing the water, gasping for breath after each swallow, still with that hissing painful sound of breath, and then the rustle of him being settled back into the bed.
Ray waited for the sounds that would indicate Kowalski was, in turn, settling back into his bedroll on the floor. (He hadn't asked about any of it, when he arrived; he knew the score with Kowalski and Fraser, so he'd figured there'd be just one bed, but he'd been surprised to see the bedroll lying next it. Fraser had apparently noticed him looking at it, and said "I'm a lighter sleeper than I used to be, and Ray—well, he tends to be a restless one. We've found this works best." And Ray had said nothing because, god, not wanting to know.)
But he heard the bed creaking some more, and Kowalski's voice, gentle, comforting, just above a whisper. He cracked his eyes open again, to see the bedroll lying empty, and in the bed, Kowalski holding on to Fraser, the two of them huddled and blanketed together in one single big lump. And Kowalski talking, talking to Fraser in a steady soft murmur like the water in the creek. Ray wasn't able to keep himself from listening, straining his ears in fact, but he couldn't make out a single word in that soft private mumble, any more than he could find language in the fire muttering away in the woodstove. Whatever was being said, whatever meaning was in the words going between the two of them, he was on the outside, just hearing the sounds, and finally, he fell back to sleep that way.
And then, all of a sudden, he opened his eyes and it was morning, his last morning, and it was bright in the cabin, which was because it had apparently snowed overnight, the first snow of the year, and the sun was glinting and shimmering off the fresh white surface. Fraser was delighted, Ray could tell, sitting by the window and beaming, and looking better than he had in pretty much the whole time Ray had been there. Kowalski (who looked like shit, unshaven and with dark circles under his eyes like a raccoon) also seemed pretty cheerful, no doubt because Ray was leaving. "Hey, Vecchio, up for a sled ride back into town?"
"With the dogs? You kidding me?"
Kowalski gave him an evil grin. "Up to you, but I thought you had a flight out of town today, and there's not gonna be anything with wheels getting in or outta this place until next week, maybe, if Don gets the highway plowed by then." He opened the stove door, checked out the flame, tossed in another log and slammed the door shut again. "Plus the dogs'd love to have a run in the snow."
"Oh, well, Ray said. "As long as the dogs are happy."
From the window, Fraser said, "You might find it quite a bit of fun, Ray, without armed pursuers firing at you."
And then there was tea, and eggs, and packing to do, and all of a sudden it was time to leave. Kowalski had gone out to harness up the mutts, and Fraser had phoned town to make sure the airstrip was plowed out, and—all that was left was to say goodbye. And holy shit, how the hell was he going to do that?
With Kowalski outside, the room seemed very still. Ray sat down heavily in the chair opposite Fraser, whose cheerfulness was looking a little more forced now. Ray figured he was hurting again, he'd seen him taking another pain pill after breakfast. "Can I get you anything? You doing OK, Fraser?"
"I'm doing as well as can be expected, I guess." Even though it was warm in the cabin, Fraser had moved his chair close to the stove. "Of course, I'm in unknown terrain here, you could say. I'm not entirely sure what to expect."
"Yeah." He pulled in a breath. "Benny—before I go, I—I'm so sorry I never came up to visit you all these years, I just—somehow, I guess I always thought there'd be time. I just—" He waved a hand. "Stuff happens, and then more stuff happens, and all of a sudden—"
"I know." Fraser took a sip of tea. "I could say the same, of course, about the failure of my own good intentions to come visit you. I'm sorry I won't get to see your house in Florida; the photos look lovely."
Why were they making small talk about his house in Florida, Jesus? Outside he could hear the dogs barking louder, the sound of Kowalski cursing as he got them into harness, and he knew he didn't have much time. He opened his mouth, not knowing what he was going to say, when Fraser spoke softly.
"Ray, I feel very bad that I haven't taken the occasion to say—well, before this—to say something about what you ... that is to say, your friendship is what made it possible for me to carry on in Chicago. Without that—well, who knows what would have happened. I might never have—" He fell silent, gripping his teacup with both hands.
Ray blinked hard, and then looked up at the ceiling, rolling his eyes up in their sockets. It was a trick that Stella had told him about—the way she kept herself from crying in public, even when she was new and some prick of a defense attorney was treating her like a dumb blonde—You just stare up at the ceiling, she said, and it keeps the tears from coming. Not that he'd ever expected to need that bit of knowledge.
"Benny—" He cleared his throat, swallowed and swallowed again, and then gave up the fight against tears, hunching over and putting his head in his hands. There was so much to say, and—he'd had days here, why had he not said any of this when he had time? The clock ticked, the dogs bayed, and then Kowalski shouted, "Vecchio, we're ready, let's get going!" And—what, what could he say? He thought, You changed my life, you made me a better guy, you're the best friend I ever had ... but what he finally said, staring at the ground, was "I just, I just wanted to say—if it wasn't for you, Benny, I ... when I went to Vegas, without you I wouldn't have made it back."
There was a pause, and then Fraser said, "Well, I doubt that, Ray, the federal agents were keeping an eye on you, and you're very resourceful—"
"No." He shook his bowed head, painfully, feeling his neck ache. "No, it's—I would've survived, sure, but—it wouldn't have been me. It would've eaten me up. You saved me." Which, having said it, it sounded so stupid, it didn't say at all what he wanted to say, but at the same time—god damn it, he knew, he could draw you a sketch map of the roads he hadn't gone down, despite everything, and he knew without question it was Fraser, the Fraser he'd carried around in his head those years, who'd kept him off those and led him onto the one he had gone down, the one that led to his beautiful wife and his clean white house on the water and his good life. He'd carried Fraser in his head all those years, all that time, and everything else he might have ever said to Fraser came back to that one thing. He knew, in that moment, that at whatever moment he himself was lying on his own deathbed, sure as hell he'd have Fraser there in his head, and when he'd try to figure out how to handle this one, Fraser'd be right there. Giving him good advice, probably.
He sat, head bowed, eyes wet, and all of a sudden he felt—on his head, something soft and chilly—Fraser's hand, resting on his head, and god, it felt so cold. He wept for real then, sheltering his eyes clumsily, and as the moments passed he could feel warmth, a glow of warmness, and he couldn't tell if it was coming from Fraser's hand or from his head, or—both, yeah, it was something they made together.
Outside, Kowalski bellowed "Vecchio! You coming? You miss that plane, you got a long hike to Prince George!"
Ray reached up and took Fraser's hand, pulled it down to his chest and held it there for a moment, squeezing it, then let it go. "Benny. Take care of yourself, OK?" He stood, grabbing his bag.
Fraser looked up at him, barely smiling. "Oh, I seldom do, you know. Luckily, I have Ray to take care of me instead."
"Yeah." Then—finally, he realized what it was he'd wanted to say the whole time—"Listen. You know, if he wasn't here, if you didn't have him—I'd be here for you. I would. I'd be here the whole way to the end. You know that, right?"
"Of course." Fraser sounded a little groggy, a little vague, like maybe the pain pills were starting to work on him, but he looked calm, and his eyes were full of happiness. "Of course, Ray. I always knew that between the two of you I'd be saved."
"Vecchio!" The yell this time was accompanied by a cacophony of barking and howling. "The dogs are gonna go apeshit if they gotta stand around another minute! You coming?"
"You'd better go," Fraser said, and Ray bent and kissed him quickly on the forehead, murmuring ""Bye, Benny." Then he grabbed his bag, pulled on his parka, and threw open the door. The sun stopped
him, blinding him, so that, blinking fiercely and looking back, he could barely make out the quiet figure sitting in the dimness. He turned again, and headed out into the brilliant light, the crisp sparkling air, where Kowalski waited with the dogs, who leaped and bounded, surging with life, waiting to carry him onward.