SHYLOH DIDN’T HAVE friends. He found people interesting; their behavior, their motivations, but from a clinical, not personal perspective. He had difficulty empathizing and was far more interested in issues than relationships.
The exceptions were Judith and Aiya.
Lately, he’d asked a lot from them. Now they were all attending university his goal of building a better world meant involvement in campus clubs and organizations, some they were less than enthusiastic about. But he was persuasive and since neither seemed to want to disappoint him they helped advanced his agenda, though on occasion, reluctantly.
Shyloh viewed friendship as an emotional bank account, it was a good idea to keep it balanced. You couldn’t continue to make significant withdrawals without making the occasional deposit or eventually your friend would wonder what was in it for her?
Since he felt incomplete without Judith and Aiya, he did for them what he would never consider doing for anyone else.
With Judith it was rock climbing, with Aiya it was the opera,
As it was with her life, so it was with her climbing, Judith was on lead. Shyloh belayed her from a wide ledge twenty feet below.
“Slack,” Judith called out and disappeared around a prominent outcrop.
Shyloh let out slack so Judith could make her next move unencumbered by the rope. “How is it?”
“Beautiful. Five ten and a bit.”
That meant the face was overhung with small holds and sustained or sequential moves were required. To stay still meant to fall off the mountain.
It was late, it was cold, Shyloh was tired. Two more pitches and they’d reach the summit. The descent was via a gentle trail down the back side of the mountain.
Judith loved to climb, to test herself against an unfeeling, unflinching foe. Shyloh liked it as well. For him it put things in perspective. A moment of inattention, lack of preparation or going beyond your skill level and you paid the ultimate price. Right now his partner was pushing the boundaries, but then that’s what made her Judith.
There was a clatter of stones bouncing off the cliff face then the full weight of Judith’s falling body hit the rope. Shyloh hung on, barely slowing the rate of descent as the slack slid through his gloved hands causing the leather to smoke and scorching the flesh beneath. Would the protection Judith put in place on her way up hold? If it didn’t would the increase in the distance her body fell create enough impact to snap the rope and kill her, or dislodge the anchor and kill them both?
The rope held, stretched, retracted and held. Shyloh ignored his burning hands and checked the anchor. Solid.
No answer. She was unconscious from being hit by a rock, slammed into the face of the mountain or dead.
First thing to do was to remove the gloves since Shyloh couldn’t tie knots with them on. As the gloves came off so did the flesh on his seared palms. He secured the belaying rope to the anchor then unclipped from it. The jackknife from his backpack went into the pocket of his shorts and he looped the extra rope they always carried around his shoulder. He’d have to free climb to where Judith was dangling, climb above her and find a secure anchor for the extra rope, climb down and tie her on, cut the original rope and lower her down to a ledge below within reach of the rope–if there was a ledge below. He needed to do it fast because if she was alive she could be hanging tangled in the rope and asphyxiating.
Shyloh figured his chance of success was fifty percent if all the subjective factors were in his favor and how likely was that?
He moved over the cold rock focused and unafraid. He turned the corner of the buttress and there she was hanging above a wide ledge ten feet below.
Judith appeared alive, no blue lips, no obvious signs of trauma except for swelling above her right eye. Shyloh moved past her and found a natural cleft in the face that would provide a secure anchor. He climbed down to where she was dangling, reached out, grabbed her belt and pulled her toward him. Using only one bloody hand and his teeth he secured the knot on her harness.
“Judith. Judith. I’ve got you. I’m going to lower you to the ledge.” No response. Shyloh cut the original rope. Judith’s body dropped a foot. The new anchor held.
He climbed to a position above her and began to lower her down. Rather than fight the pain in his palms he welcomed it, let his mind explore it until it became a thing onto its self, took shape, ebbed and flowed, burned and froze, was in his hands then throughout his entire body. Finally the rope went slack. Judith’s body was on the ledge. He climbed down to her.
“Judith. It’s Shyloh. Talk to me.” He wet his fingers from the water bottle and ran them gently across her parched lips. Her tongue licked the drops. “Have a drink, Jude, then talk to me.”
Judith sipped, coughed, drank more. “I’m freezing.”
“You’re in shock, but you’ll be okay. You had a fall.” Shyloh dumped the contents of her backpack on the ledge and found a toque. He took off her helmet and pulled it on her head, then replaced the helmet. “Sit on this.” He wedged the backpack between her and the cold rock.
“Call for rescue,” Judith mumbled.
“Too late and besides no cell phone reception. They’ll come looking first thing in the morning. I left our trip itinerary with Aiya.”
Shyloh took off his anorak and spread it over Judith’s shoulders. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “Looks like we’re stuck with each other for at least another sixteen hours.”
“You’re tired? I’m the one who’s been up and down, up and down, while you’ve just been hanging around.”
“Not funny.” Judith drifted off. Shyloh struggled to keep his eyes open but the adrenaline rush and now physical exhaustion won out. He woke up shivering. It was black below but above the sky was sprinkled with diamond dust and studded with gems.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” Judith was awake and lucid.
“Yes. How are you feeling?”
“Remarkably good.” She snuggled against him. “Is this what I have to do to get you alone?”
Shyloh smiled into the dark.
“You saved my life, Shy.”
“Yes. Yes I did.”
* * *
THOUGH SHE’D NEVER admit it, Shyloh considered his account with Aiya to be seriously overdrawn,
When it was announced the famous Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, was coming to town to direct the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in three performances of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Pathétique, he saw a way to pay her back.
Aiya loved classical music and her favorite composer was Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
The problem was how to get tickets. First, they’d be offered to VSO subscribers, then the few left over would go on sale to the public. All three performances would be sold out within minutes so Shyloh bribed the volunteer music critic on the campus newspaper for his complimentary review tickets. Shyloh would attend the concert on behalf of the paper, write the review and give the student journalist two hundred dollars.
“Magnificent, absolutely superb.” Aiya was excited, energized, ecstatic. “As much as I love his popular pieces this is his magnum opus, don’t you agree, Shy?”
The concert had been a tour de force. Shyloh found it interesting that a great conductor could elicit a brilliant performance even from such a mediocre orchestra.
“You’re the expert, but I must admit it was impressive.” Impressively long. He was ready to leave at the intermission.
“And box seats, how did you manage that?”
“I’m not without influence. Would you like to go for coffee?”
“Yes, that would be lovely. I definitely need time to unwind.” She linked her arm in his.
Patrons from the concert crowded the streets and Shyloh noticed how people looked at Aiya, stared would be more accurate–women and men. She was exotically beautiful, a mane of black curls, flashing dark eyes, and a smile that made you smile back. She stopped people in their tracks, made them pause mid-sentence and when she passed their eyes followed.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s go to my place.”
“It’s late, we’ll wake up your mother.” Aiya still lived with her widowed mother partly out of tradition, partly because it made sense financially, but mostly because they were the best of friends.
“She’s visiting her sister in Toronto.”
Shyloh hesitated. This was what he didn’t want to happen.
With the women he had sex with before it was like they were getting something from him. Shyloh hoped he’d been sensitive to their feelings in his few encounters, but they all appeared remarkably resilient.
With Aiya it would be the opposite, he knew she would be giving herself. She’d vulnerable. Sex for her meant commitment, something Shyloh couldn’t fulfill. If he went to her home, and she wanted to make love, denying her would be the ultimate rebuke. It was a lose-lose situation.
“Knowing how much you enjoy cheesecake, I went online and found the best place in the city,” Shyloh said. “It’s just a block and a half from here.”
Aiya was studying his face. Gone was the smile. “Sure.”
They each had lattes and shared a piece of cheesecake in silence.
“I’m sorry,” Shyloh said.
Aiya reached across the table, clutched his hand, but didn’t meet his eyes. “It’s okay.”
It didn’t sound okay.
“I love you, Aiya, I really do.”
“I know you do.”
“Are you disappointed?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Me to. This cheesecake isn’t anywhere near as good as the seventy-eight online reviews said it would be.”
Order had been restored.
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