“…one hundred five…one hundred six…one hundred seven…”
“There he is!” shouted Tan, pointing.
A hundred yards down the bank, a body lay half in the water, head and one arm hanging over a log. It was Conner. I ran along the river bank, tree branches whipping me in the face. Even from a distance I could see Conner’s face was pale white. “Conner!” I cried. “Please don’t die! Please!”
I collapsed on the ground next to him and Conner raised his head. “Callie,” he gasped, “I’m sorry! The truck was rolling over and over along the bottom. Too dark to see. I swam in through the window. It was too heavy…couldn’t swim back up. I had to drop it…sorry!
Tan arrived, half dragging Pippen. “You lost the shut-off?” Tan yelled.
“No, no!” Conner gasped. He pulled his arm out of the water, hauling out the metal box with the irreplaceable shut-off. “But I lost the battery. Sorry…I tried!”
Tan and I dragged Conner onto dry land. “Tan, your face is covered with blood!” I said.
Tan felt his forehead carefully. “It’s a scalp wound. They bleed like crazy, but it’s not very deep.” His hands automatically reached for his waist, but his medical bag was gone. He pulled off his shirt and tied it around his head.
We sat on the bank, looking like drowned rats. Tan’s head bled through the improvised bandage, and the blood dripped down his nose. Conner was missing his boots and crowbar, and he looked pale and dazed. Pippen huddled in a wet ball, shaking. I felt all hollow and dead inside, like a rusted-out car.
It was getting dark, the wind had picked up, and I started to shiver in my damp clothes. This was probably not good. “Conner,” I said, “we’re in a survival situation. What do we do?”
Conner didn’t respond for a moment. Then he shook his head and his eyes focused. “Uh…survival…right. We need shelter first. Everything else can wait.”
“Can everyone still walk?” I asked.
Pippen gritted her teeth and nodded. Conner staggered to his feet.
“Good,” I said. “We need to get to the houseboat before dark.”
We climbed up the bank to the road that ran alongside the river and walked back toward the boat harbor. I felt if someone were to touch me, I’d fall apart into a pile of rust, but I knew I needed to hold myself together until I’d gotten shelter for my team. Then I could fall apart.
We made it back to the boat harbor where we’d been five long days ago. The pile of junk was still here, and the houseboat. Everything looked exactly the same, except for the dock, which was one segment shorter because that section was now… I stopped myself. I couldn’t allow my thoughts to go down that road yet. We shuffled through the door of the houseboat and collapsed on the floor.
“We have shelter,” Conner said. “Now we need a fire, water, and food, in that order. What have we still got?”
Tan fished through his pockets and tossed a granola bar onto the floor in the center of our circle. “That’s all I’ve got. Everything else was in my medical bag, and I didn’t have that on when we got dumped in the river.”
I still had the backpack I’d slung on just before we hit the wreck. I unzipped it and dumped the contents on the floor. My favorite screwdriver, Conner’s knife, a few pens, and the plastic garbage bag with Jon’s email printouts and my notebook.
Conner added another knife and his survival kit to the small pile. “Sorry,” he said, “I lost my crowbar and I ditched my boots so I could swim.” He searched his pockets. “Lost my lighter too. Does anyone have something we can use to start a fire?”
Everyone turned to Pippen, who hesitated, then started emptying her pockets. She added her headlamp, the pink knuckles, two ninja throwing stars, a set of lock picks, two plastic ID cards, a bottle of water, half a chocolate bar, a sharpie, a can of pepper spray, a postcard of the silver arch, a small porcelain dwarf, three orange seeds, a stapler, a glass slipper, and finally her little oxygen cutting torch. “It’s nearly empty,” she said, “but it might light a few more fires.”
Conner went outside to get firewood. It was getting dark, and we didn’t have a car battery to power the lights in the houseboat. Tan found emergency candles in a kitchen drawer, and Pippen lit them with her torch.
Conner was gone a long time. When he finally returned, he had an armload of wood. Tan found a large skillet and set it in the center of the room while Pippen opened a few windows.
Conner shaved some wood slivers into the skillet and borrowed Pippen’s torch to light them. He added twigs, then larger sticks until we had a small fire going. We gathered close to dry off our clothes.
“A fire always makes you feel better,” Conner said.
“Yeah,” agreed Pippen. “Let’s see you do that, dumb animals!”
We passed around Pippen’s water bottle and divided up the granola bar and the chocolate. Pippen tried to give Conner a few extra squares of chocolate, but he insisted everyone get equal portions.
Tan licked off his fingers. “Well, that should hold us until tomorrow, then we can go look for food, and Callie can find us another way home, since the Humvee is at the bottom of the river.”
I stumbled to my feet.
“I’ve gotta go,” I choked out. “Gotta…go look at the junk pile!”
I ran outside and past the junk pile. My jeans made wet flopping sounds as I ran toward the river. I ran onto the dock, sat heavily on the end and buried my head in my hands. I was glad it was dark. I was pretty sure the team wasn’t supposed to see their leader cry.
The dock shook, and someone sat down next to me.
“Hey, Conner,” I said without looking up. My idea of not talking to him seemed pretty stupid now.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“How bad is it? We’re stranded a thousand miles from home. All our equipment is gone. My tools, Tan’s medical bag, your rifle, our food, gone. And Arnold is…” I stopped, choking on the lump in my throat. I swallowed hard. “It’s bad. We lost the battery. I’m not blaming you,” I added quickly. “You saved the shut-off. But now we’re dead. Even if we could find another diesel-powered truck, the battery in it will be dead. If I had a battery charger, I could charge a battery. But to power the charger, I’d have to have electricity, and for that I’d have to have a generator, and to start the generator, I need a charged battery, and…well, you see the problem. I give up. I’m just…I’m empty. I have no more ideas. The quest is over.”
Conner turned toward me. “You remember when you asked me what the most important thing was to have in a survival situation, and I said ‘a lighter’? I was wrong. I’ve been thinking about survival movies I’ve watched, and those people didn’t have a lighter, or a knife, or even food. But they rubbed sticks together or they made a knife out of broken glass or they ate bugs. They tried something. If it failed, then they tried something else, but they never gave up. That’s the most important thing in a survival situation, the will to keep going! That’s what Jon tried to teach us. ‘Where there’s still life, there’s still hope.’”
I didn’t say anything. It was more than just the battery, but I couldn’t explain it. Nobody would understand.
“Here, I brought you something,” said Conner. He handed me a metal bowl-shaped object.
“It’s…it’s Arnold’s air intake cap,” I said, not knowing how to react.
“I walked along the river bank to see if any of our gear washed ashore. This was all I could find.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, “but there’s no reason to save it now. Arnold’s gone.” Suddenly it all came gushing out of me like water from a broken pipe. “Arnold’s gone, Conner! He’s…he’s dead! I know it’s stupid to cry over a machine. It’s not like he was a person, or even alive. But I can’t help it! I remember the day I brought Arnold home from the army base. I fed him diesel and changed his oil. He carried us across half a continent and he never complained. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s crazy to think I can talk to machines. But whenever I was working on Arnold, it always felt like we were talking. Am I crazy, Conner? Does a machine have a soul?
Conner sat silent for a moment. Finally he said, “I don’t know if Arnold had a soul. But I know he was a warrior. He went down fighting to save Jon. A warrior can’t ask for a better death than that. You should be happy for him.”
“I know, I know,” I sniffled. “But it feels like someone’s ripped out a piece of me.”
“It will heal,” insisted Conner. “And you’ll come out stronger. It just takes time. What you need right now is a way to say goodbye.”
“I…I don’t know how.”
“I do,” Conner said. He brought one of the emergency candles out of his pocket and placed it inside the intake cap. He handed Pippen’s torch to me, and I lit the candle. Conner bent down and set the cap gently in the water. It bobbed next to the dock until I gave it a little nudge with my toe and it caught the current and moved out into the river. We stood on the dock and watched the yellow flame as it drifted off on the river. The fireflies were out again, and soon the flickering flame disappeared into the dance of the fireflies.
I wiped the tears off my cheeks with the back of my hand. “Good bye, Arnold.”
“Happy battles,” said Conner.
I turned to Conner. “I do feel better now. Thanks for listening to me.” I paused, then added, “Conner, if you ever want to tell me something, I’ll listen.”
Conner made a choking sound. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but I could swear he turned red. “Let’s get back to the houseboat,” he muttered. “Tomorrow you’ll find a way to get us home.”