Avalanche (22-28)

22.

It could not be happening.

-No way -he mumbled, backing away from the snow to warm up a bit. -No fu*king way.

There was no Kat, alive or dead, at the end of the rope, only a heavy branch tied securely. Tied. She tied a log to the rope instead of herself. She tricked him to believe that she was hurt, while in fact, she basically-

-No. Way. What the hell, Kat?!

He stood up, staring at the log, his chest lifting to allow all the tension in the form of air into his lungs, and out of them. A hand on his mouth, he blinked at the mound of snow in utter disbelief, again and again.

Did she just leave him there? Just- like that? How? Why? What was going on? What in the name of-

Ruffling his hair in anger, he paced up and down, breathing heavily, doing his best not to lose his nerve and start yelling by himself. Focus, Groban, focus. Check the alternatives. Try to think with her brain.

Her brain? Ha. He almost burst out laughing despite the panic that was slowly but surely starting to seize him. Her brain was a mess of domination and surrender, of want and refusal. She wanted this, and then that, and she probably had no idea what she wanted in the first place.

She possibly left him as revenge for… doing her? After all, she acted all weird after it happened. But she had… she had, hadn’t she? He scratched his stubble like a maniac, feeling his skin itch and irritate under his impatient fingers. And if she had, then why punish him? And if she hadn’t, why put on a play?

Completely at a loss, he threw himself on a chair, clasping his hands on his thighs, leaning forward. His head hung, he tried to really focus. Okay, so he was alone now. She had gone, god knows why, and where, and it might have all been a trap, maybe she trapped him in the first place to do an experiment, maybe she had watched Lost too long, maybe she had turned into Rousseau… good thing she never tied him to the bedpost to torture him. Lord. She probably had it in her. Maybe she had tied all her previous lovers to bedposts. Maybe all of them were lying there, dead, skeletons of oblivion, her sick past.

He shuddered, then kicked himself mentally. For Christ’s sake, what is your mind doing to you, Groban? She is not a perv, only injured, hurt, humiliated. She probably thinks you’re too good for her, or something. Yes, that was an explanation. He was too good for her. She was expecting him to act like all the jerks she had previously met. And when he didn’t, she freaked out.

And subsequently, left him alone under the snow to die. There was no other bloody alternative.

He buried his face in his hands, feeling all his reasoning collapse under the weight of dread. He had not been alone ever: all the time, people were bustling and running up and down around him, all the commotion, the noise, the excitement. All that life around him. And now, completely alone, buried in the silence that screamed of fear and the heartbeats that were speeding up, leaving him breathless.

Standing up, he walked to and fro, biting his lips and collecting his thoughts. What he could do. What he could do was… not much. Either he stayed to wait for the ghosts of her friends who may or may not exist, or… or he got out himself to see if there was an escape route. Maybe she was waiting for him to do that. Maybe she was testing him…?

He stepped to the door, looking up, holding his breath to make out any sound, any whatsoever, of the world out there. But there was nothing to be heard, nothing at all, and when he relaxed his lungs, the air broke out like a torrent of despair.

-Kat! Are you there? Kat! Answer me, Kat, please?!

In the silence, the biting of his lips sounded like a cascade of sound.

-Is this some kind of game? Where I have to realize something by myself? Or admit something to you?

His yelling hurt his ears. He sounded ridiculous to himself, he sounded like someone cornered and forced to say things he did not want to say otherwise. He felt like being nice to her and beg his way out. It seemed to be his only chance.

But… no. The more he thought about it, the more absurd the whole situation seemed. She could not have left just like that. She was not that kind, or was she? There was no telling what kind she was. Even if he tried to defend her, in his solitude, against his own better judgement, his arguments fell, one by one, until they left him standing there all alone and exposed to the facts.

And the facts were ugly.

He was alone in a cabin in the mountains, buried in the snow. He would have liked to believe he could count on Kathleen, but as matters stood, she was not there. He could not count on her, even if the knowledge was unexpected and painful: it was always painful to be disappointed in someone. He had not been let down by many people, and therefore his trust in mankind he liked to know was firm and well-founded… but he may have completely misinterpreted her actions, her words. She was more unknown to him now than in the first few minutes of their conversation.

He walked further, passing the table, letting the air out of his lungs. Whatever happened, happened. It was history. The present included him, and only him, alone, to rely on no one else but himself.

And his mind was screaming to him to get out. If she made it, he would, too. There was probably an easy way, once outside. In any case, he had to try. He would not sit there and wait for something to happen.

His resolution scared the hell out of him. His hands were shaking when he stepped to the food provisions to grab the chocolate bars, the only nourishment he was able to place in his pockets. He put his jacket on, his boots, realizing in dismay that his ankle started to act up again. Squeezing his lips tight, he took a few deep breaths, wondering if he was taped, and maybe Ashton would appear out of nowhere and scream, Josh, you got punk’d, dude. And then, he would laugh his head off in relief, and grin into the camera, I so got punk’d. He waited, listening to his heartbeats, hoping against hope, that maybe now, they would appear.

No one was coming, and he swallowed his bitterness. He would have to be his own man now.

He stood under the broken planks, looking up, wondering when the whole roof would give in and let all the snow tumble down to crush him. Perhaps it was good that he was forced to leave. But as he was looking up, he had no idea how to start. He knew that once he started climbing, if he was able to find good angles and spots to cling to and climb on at all, he would have to do without air for a while. Like underwater. Panic bubbled in his throat and he swallowed it with his saliva. Oh god.

He could not do it. He would suffocate before he got even halfway. Who was he kidding? He was no alpinist. Or athlete.

Biting his lower lip, he felt instant pain, and tasted his own blood on his tongue. Dammit. Not that it mattered. He would probably freeze out there in the snow.

Which snow felt like ice powder on his face. It fell, and fell, and fell on him, without end, like wet, tiny crystals that clung to his warm skin. He felt his nostrils fill up with snow, and his free hand was unable to clear the stuff from his mouth, either. He could not see anything, or hear anything, save his blood that ran in his veins, throbbing in his ears. He tried to grab anything he could, and placed his feet clumsily higher, and higher, until he hit his head in something. He opened his eyes and saw that he was right under the roof, where there was a little air he could revive himself on. He was cold, shaking, scared. And tired. His ankle hurt, his hands hurt, as he was forced to stuff his gloves into his pockets to be able to hold onto things better.

He knew he was closer to the surface, as he started to hear noises. Wind, and… well, the wind. It was better than the deafening silence that would have driven him totally crazy, had he stayed by himself.

After he caught his breath, he reached back to grab the upper part of the roof somehow. The wood was slippery and terribly well rounded. His fingers groped for fissures in the perfect boards, and he placed his feet higher, now leaning at an angle he had always thought out of this world, something befitting Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. There was no time to revel in the fun of it, though, as he started to run short on air, so he pushed and lifted himself, feeling his muscles tense and weaken by the second, praying that his arms and hands would not let him down now.

The chilly mountain air blew into his face, and he breathed gratefully, trying to find a spot on the roof where he could sit down. Seeing the chimney, almost completely covered in white, he crawled next to it, cursing himself for not remembering to light a fire. At least he could have had some warmth for a while.

Well, it was too late now, he thought bitterly. There was no way he could do the trip twice.

Settling himself, he realized he was totally done. Everywhere he looked, the grey light of a sun covered in snowclouds hung low, making it impossible for him to see anything.

-Kat! Can you hear me? -he yelled, not expecting a reply.

The wind stifled every other sound, and the snow blew into his face with terrible power. He pulled his knees up, and his jacket around himself, blowing into his hands, then pulling his gloves back. His fingers hurt and stung and ached like crazy. But at least he did feel something in them.

His feet, on the other hand, were growing numb. He tried to move his toes and did not feel them.

-This is great -he mumbled, feeling a tear of agony roll down his cheek, freezing in an instant, becoming a snowflake, turning into one of his attackers. They came and stung his skin, pricked his eyes, filled his nose and ears.

He could not possibly die. Right? Not him. Not now. Not this way. He was on a stupid skiing vacation, for god’s sake. Having fun with his family, enjoying time off, relaxing with friends.

The wind seemed to blow harder, and the air was thicker, too. Grey and dark, heavy, icy, painful. He was shivering with his head between his knees to keep his nose clear of the snow. God, how cold he was.

Luckily, it seemed to pass. The feeling of being terribly cold was disappearing slowly. It was as if his body refused to be any colder. As he wanted to move his legs happily, he realized he did not really feel them anymore.

But at least he wasn’t cold.

He breathed into his knees, slightly shivering, listening to the wind that sounded more reassuring and soft now. Almost like a melody. If he pricked his ears, he could make out quiet tunes of choir and violin. His mind processed what he heard and his lips instinctively joined the melody.

-Don’t give up, it’s just the weight of the world…

He hardly heard it, but he knew the words were there. His voice was there, too. Floating on the wind, embracing it freely. The melody was so familiar. He knew he had sung it a short while before. To a beautiful girl named Kat. A very whimsical, crazy girl she was. Vengeful, strong, taking the bull by the horns. He was the bull, and she wore red. Covered in it, in blood. Somewhere. Probably. Dead, like he would be shortly.

Faces and sounds floated to him from the back of his numbing brain, filling his heart with warmth and regret. So much love he had got. And given, too. He had done well. He was happy.

There was just one tiny doubt in his mind. He had not made Kat happy. In fact, he had made her unhappier than she ever was, apparently. Miserable enough to let him die alone.

He wanted to think of her and figure out where he did wrong, but he was terribly tired. He could not resist the urge to close his eyes and rest a little. It felt so peaceful, resting. Blocking the thoughts, while the wind blew his arms around the tiny, curled up body on a snow-covered roof, rocking it to sleep.

23.

She had never climbed so fast in her life. Intimately familiar with her friends’ cottage, she grabbed the wooden planks with precision and speed, fuelled by her inner turmoil. She got to the top of the roof in record time, and she wasn’t even out of breath.

The light blinded her, and for a few moments she was unable to see anything, only vast plains of sparkling white that turned into flaming red spots whenever she blinked. Sunshine! It was intoxicating… and the air, so fresh! Crisp, clean, charged with hope. She climbed on top and stood carefully, making sure she was not slipping or losing her balance, and looked around.

Seeing the small clearing and the pine forest in the distance, with the familiar path buried under the snow somewhere, she had a vision of heaven, endless, pure, perfect. For an instant, she forgot to worry about what she had done, about what he must be thinking of her, about what a mess her father, her craving for love, and all her self-doubting had turned her into. Breathing deep from the clear winter air, she positively felt happy to be alive.

Remembering to tug the rope to let him know she was fine, she stood and watched the landscape, so motionless and still. There was no change, nothing moved, there was no sound. She felt like a ghost, a new arrival in the land of heaven, and with a smirk on her face, she almost expected tiny little puffy-cheeked angels trot out of nowhere to take her hand and drag her to… to wherever they would drag her. Lunch, or something. Vanilla clouds and cinnamon rain and… hell, no. Roasted, juicy beef and spicy chicken, marinated vegetables and fries with mayo, and… Her stomach screamed. Swallowing her hunger, she wondered what to do next.

Then, her stomach growled once again. And then, again, only much lourder, and it wasn’t her stomach any more. Looking to the right, she noticed the clear blue skies turn a misty grey in the distance, and approaching fast. Heck. Before she could start worrying, she heard a noise, a distant and different growl: an engine. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she scanned the vast lands of white, and noticed some movement ahead. Judging from the sound of it, it wasn’t very far, and amazingly enough, it was moving very slowly.

-Hey! Hello! -she yelled, waving her arms. -Hellooooo!

The moving black spot did not stop, and she grew desperate. She had to get to it, she had to let somebody know they were trapped.

Her favourite tree, the one so close to the cottage was tall and majestic, beautifully covered in snow. She noticed then that probably from when the avalanche hit, there were random things scattered around: logs, branches, stones. If she could jump from tree to tree, she would get to where the snow couldn’t have been higher than five feet. She would get through that at all costs. She had no time to go back to Josh and tell him what she was doing, but she hoped that if she tied something to the rope, he would know that she left it as a sign for him. Pulling the branches of the large pine tree apart, she found a log that, well, was not exactly her weight, but it was heavy enough. Hurriedly undoing the knot on her waist, she tied the rope to the log, and then, without thinking too much, jumped and caught a branch of the huge pine.

She instantly sank under the snow, but the branch was holding her up just enough to allow her free breathing. Snow was falling all around her, following her body’s movements. Oh dear god, help me now, if you never help me again, help me now, she thought, suddenly scared. She knew, however, that pondering would be wasting time, and time was precious. She tried to waddle across the snow, holding the branch, until she caught another which she grabbed forcefully. The snow was receiving her weight, and she sank like into a soft pillow. It actually felt amazing, but the circumstances did not allow her to enjoy the (hopefully) unique experience, and she waddled and tore the snow with her gloved hands, undug the sleeping branches of pine and held onto them, loving those trees more than she had ever loved them. They assisted her with so much care that she swore to try and save more of them, if she was spared.

Having no clue whatever as to how much time had passed, she suddenly found no branches within reach. That could only mean one thing: that she had got to where she would be able to walk on the ground. Aware that if her calculations were wrong, she would sink into the snow and die, she swallowed and breathed heavily from the exertion. She could return the way she had come. Go back and wait with him.

She really thought of Josh for the first time since she got to the roof. Had he noticed she was gone? Was he worried? He must be, all alone, porbably scared for the lives of both of them.

No, she could not go back. If she was spared that far, she would be spared a little more. She would walk on the ground, and would reach that path, and…

She let go of the branch and tried to take a large step ahead. She instantly sank, and with panic in her throat, she waddled on, trying to breathe in as much air as she could before the snow covered her completely.

Her limbs moved on their own accord, while her brain focused on one thought only: she would die. She would certainly die. And then, he might die also. She had had a life that she would have exchanged gladly, but her instincts made her realize how much she would lose. Work, a purpose, a good one. Saving the planet. Impossible task, but someone had to try. Her morning coffee. The neighbour’s smile when he collected his mail, old George, dear old George. Jake with his soft glance and soft hands, and a love she could never reciprocate, and he knew it, but he loved her nevertheless.

And Josh. Amazing, surprising, handsome and wonderful Josh, the first man to treat her with respect and genuine tenderness.

She would not give those up, she could not. She fought her way through the layers of snow, until she felt wind on her hair. A little digging and pushing and she was breathing again, heavily but gratefully. Blue sky was above her, but she heard the grumbling horizon come closer. A blizzard was coming.

Gaining some strength, she waddled on, and within minutes, her upper body was out of the snow. Looking back, she saw that she had come a significant distance from the cottage. Wow, Kat. No one will believe this, she thought, lifting her head to scan the lands ahead of her. There was the moving spot?

She noticed it. itw as making slow porgress, almost teasing her. I am here, hurry up, Kat, you have two lives to save. Hurry up, do everything you can, and I will help you, too.

-Hey! Wait! -she screamed, panting. -Hello! Wait!

The snow was reaching up to her knees only, and she tried to bounce on, extremely tired, not feeling her leg muscles any more.

-Hello! Hello! -she yelled as loud as she could, and stopped to catch her breath. If they did not hear her now, they would never hear her. The blizzard was getting closer, it would drown everything out.

She took a few deep breaths and she spat her lungs out, her two hands by her mouth to send the sound further ahead:

-HEEEEY!

She stood panting, begging the gods to have mercy- and they did. The engine stopped, and the spot stopped moving in the snow.

Kat felt a happy lump in her throat and she could hardly yell any more, but she still did a few times, waving- and she noticed that someone waved back.

~~~

It took her a long time to reach that person, a businessman who adored winter sports and had come to the mountains to enjoy the vast snowfields with his family. She explained her situation in a few short sentences and after that Alan quickly called home, alerting his family and asking them to notify authorities.

The trip to his exuberant winter house was a very long one, or it felt so for Kat, who sat struggling with her feelings, fighting to keep her tears back. She had made it. She had saved them both. Thinking of Josh, alone in that cabin, the lump in her throat grew and grew, until it spilled and she broke out in a sob.

-Don’t worry, dear, we’ll go back shortly -Alan hugged her shoulder. He was in his fifties, half bald and benevolent with spectacles, and she was thankful for his kindness. -You are a hero, you know that? I don’t think many guys would have don what you just did -he shook his head with appreciation in his eyes. -What we do to stay alive, hm?

-I don’t care about my life… so much -she mumbled, sniffling.

-Well, then you must care for that guy’s life in there -Alan replied, giving her a warm smile. -You saved his, risking your own.

She sat in silence, happy that they reached the house finally.

After that, there was such commotion that she was hardly able to follow her own thoughts. Rescue teams, police, cellphones, dogs, a cup of hot tea and dry clothes Alan’s wife gave her. She showed the exact place on the map, and insisted that she go with the rescue team in the helicopter.

~~~

By the time everything was coordinated and they could set out, the sky was covered in grey snow, and a cruel wind was blowing. The air was thick with eddies of snow, and she was unable to see anything from inside the helicopter.

-We’re here! -the pilot cried, and the team nodded. Kat tried to look down, and for a while only saw grey snow that the loud wind was throwing to the helicopter almost in chunks, and then, she saw the tips of her faithful pine trees. She felt like stroking their gentle arms, feeling her eyes moisten.

-I can see something on the roof, by the chimney! -someone yelled, and everyone looked down.

Slowly ascending, the propeller of the potent machine sent the whirlwinds of snow away. They were a few feet away from the roof when Kat saw him.

-Guys, we need to get him inside as fast as you can blink! He may well be frozen to death already… -she heard someone say, and her heart stopped.

With the opening of the door, she felt the blizzard force its way to her, but she sat there, numbed and senseless. She had no power to follow the rescue team’s moves with her eyes.

She did not expect that to happen. Why had he gone there? Did he think he could follow her? Trying to be a hero, trying to be a man…

-Was he suicidal, miss? When you left him?

-No -she shook her head slowly. Suicidal? Josh? Never. -I did not leave him. I went to call for help.

-Did you tell him that?

-There was no time, I…

She realized then. He must have thought she had left him all alone.

Two members of the rescue team were lifting his limp body and within a few moments, he was inside and lined on a stretcher.

-Is he alive? -the pilot turned to ask, while he lifted the noisy machine further up into the air.

She stared at those beautiful curls that were covered in snow. His stubble was white from the ice, his lips were blue. His lashes, those long, perfect lashes were laden with ice above his closed lids. She could only be dreaming the worst nightmare she could ever imagine. Her life that she had thought ugly, was heaven compared to what she felt in that moment.

-I do not have a pulse, sir -someone replied.

Kat knew for certain that her life would end in that same moment, with his. There was no reason for her to live. Not without him.

Turning away from the ghastly scene, she buried her face in her hands, wishing it all would end right there- but she had asked God before- and she was out of requests. Her tears were hot on her fingers, and a great silence enveloped her as she slipped into unconsciousness.

24.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself alone in the helicopter. She saw commotion outside, she heard yelling, and noticed the snow falling furiously, coming down in bucketfuls everywhere. Her glance fell on the bottom of the helicopter, now empty. She hardly had the strength to sit straight, but she would have to go out, face them, his parents, his fans, the journalists, whoever. And her guilt that was already stifling her.

-Is everything okay, miss? -someone asked through the door they opened.

She nodded and stood up, then stepped off into the blizzard. Someone put their arms around her shoulders and walked her inside the hospital, into the white and turquoise warmth.

-We need to check up on you, so please sit down here and someone will be with you right away.

She didn’t say a word, only sat with numbed limbs and a breaking heart. It was not possible. Why did he do it? She should have told him… she should not have climbed up to the roof so suddenly, without thinking it through. She had saved herself… and lost him. He was so… kind, so gentle, and so funny. He really listened to her, he really looked at her. He had appreciated her every speck of generosity, however little she offered him. He had sung to her… he had kissed her…

Kat sobbed into her hands, thinking of the short time she had known him, and all the precious moments they had had. He was no stranger to her, not after he saw through her every move. And yet, he was careful and considerate, and probably the first man she hd known to not take advantage of her. He was someone she could have loved… and she fought against it… if she hadn’t, perhaps he would be alive now.

The prospect of facing her remorse all her life was terrifying. She wished she could be dead, and wept all her sorrow into her shaking hands.

-Miss, is there something wrong? -someone asked, passing. She wiped her eyes and nodded. Nothing mattered any more.

She stood up to stretch her legs and to keep her mind from focusing on that sickening sight. She had to do something to keep his snow-covered curls from flashing in front of her eyes continually.

-You’re the other patient they brought in from the cottage buried under the snow, right? -the receptionist asked her. She was young and had dark hair tied in a ponytail. Kat nodded through her tears. -Would you like to see your friend?

Kat shook her head. She could not see his pale cheeks again.

-But it’s fine, miss -the girl said with a smile. -He’s asleep and his family hasn’t arrived yet. He’s in room 201.

Kat stared at the face she didn’t see.

-What? He’s…

-Asleep. He had severe hypothermia but his heart was beating when they brought him in. He is being warmed up right now, and there’s no sign of any major organs failing.

-How… how do you know all this? -Kat asked, shaking.

-Well, he’s Josh Groban. The press has gone crazy and they phone every second. I was told to withhold information until his family arrives, but I’m a fan, so I was kinda fishing for info.

Kat propped herself on the counter, feeling her knees give in. Alive. He was alive. Her tears rolled and wetted her face, making her unable to see anything.

-He’s gonna be fine -she heard the gentle words and she nodded unseeingly, walking in a daze towards the direction she had been shown. 201. She did not see any numbers, she was so weak and grateful that he was alive.

Before she could locate any of the numbers on the doors, she heard some talk behind her back, and someone rushed ahead, a woman, and a man followed with a younger one by his side. They disappeared behind a door, and when she got to it she noticed it was his room.

Standing outside, she looked in timidly, sobbing into her palm at the sight of the mother hugging her unconscious son. His father and probably his brother stood on the side, shaken and worried. Josh had an oxygen mask on, and a tube sticking out of his abdomen. Kat closed her eyes; however horrible it looked, he was alive, and nothing was damaged. Oh, could she have been so lucky…?

-Excuse me, are you family? -she heard, and jumped slightly. A doctor was standing next to her with a questioning eye.

-No, I… I was in… I’m a friend -she swallowed, trying to shake off her doubts.

-There’s nothing to worry about -he said, patting her reassuringly on the shoulder. -He’s getting warm oxygen and we’re doing a peritoneal lavage. He’ll be perfectly fine in a few hours. Do you want to go inside?

She shook her head.

-Thank you, doctor -she smiled finally through her tears.

The doctor walked in and greeted the family, and Kat watched them, the outsider that she chose to remain. She did not belong there. She almost killed him: he would be better off if she stayed away. His mom nodded and wiped her eyes, hugging her husband happily, and Kat smiled again. The perfect family, one she never had. The father had a very kind look on his face, and Kat saw now where Josh inherited his gentle eyes from. Her tears fell unstoppably at the memories of her own father who had never really hugged her with the love she would have needed. Always checking her progress, seeing if she was going to make him proud. That is what she had lived for, all her life, to make sure her father, long dead, would be proud of her. She was not sure he would have been proud of her that day, even after she saved a life, but right now, as she was watching Josh lie unconscious on a bed because of her, it was the least of her worries.

The woman with a tender smile on her face glanced up at Kat, who hurriedly disappeared and walked the other way, towards the reception. She needed to make a phonecall and get out of there, as soon as possible.

~~~

Josh noticed his mom asleep on a chair next to him, and his dad’s coat on another one. He was probably out for a coffee, he thought, and woke himself up fully at the image of her dad and Chris drinking the black stuff together, both of them stuffing their free hands in their pockets.

Lindy stirred at the sound of him moving on his bed and sent him a huge smile.

-Sweetheart -she said, standing up and stepping closer to him. She stooped and pressed a long, tender kiss on his forehead and he smiled at her.

-Mom. So great to see you.

-We were so worried -she said, putting her hand to her mouth, trying to fight her tears back. -For four days we had no news, no trace of you, nothing…

-I know -he said, feeling his own tears well up in his eyes. -I was worried about that but there was no way of letting you guys know I was fine.

-Thank god you’re okay -Lindy said, pulling her chair closer. -I don’t know what I would do if…

She shook her head and wept, and his own tears fell for her as he squeezed her hand. The love of his mother was warmer than all the insulated blankets he was enveloped into, and if there was anything he wished for, it was to take away all the heartache his disappearance had caused.

Jack and Chris returned shortly to bring on more tears, and presently Josh felt he was the luckiest person on earth.

Until he remembered Kat.

Oh my god, Kat. He had no news of her since she had gone. Was she killed in the blizzard…? The thought made his face lose its colour and Linda looked at him with concern in her eyes.

-What is it, hon? Something hurts? Should I call someone?

-No -he shook his head. -I… how did they find me?

-A rescue team was alerted.

-By who?

-A woman, they said.

So she made it. Josh closed his eyes for a moment and sighed a sigh of relief.

-Hey… -he said, and all three of them looked at him. -Did you guys meet Kat?

-Who? -Chris frowned.

-Kat. Kathleen. She was the one who saved me in the first place after I almost broke my neck taking…

-…the short cut -Chris finished with a grin. -Dude, one of these days you are gonna break your neck.

-Yeah yeah, shut up -Josh grinned and asked again. -So, did you meet her? It was probably her who told them about me.

-There was no one to meet -Linda replied with a frown.

Josh bit his lip, and realizing how dry it was, he moistened it with his tongue.

-They probably got her name at the reception. I’ll call her and say thanks for saving me, twice -he said, smiling.

-I’ll send her a bloody car -Jack said, and they burst out laughing.

-I think that would be overdoing it, dad -Josh grinned happily.

-What, you think you’re not worth a car to me? -Jack asked with indignation.

-I hope I’m worth a little more than that -Josh laughed -, but Kat would appreciate a family dinner more than anything -he added with a sad smile.

-So, let’s invite her for dinner -Lindy suggested.

-I’ll go get her name and number -Chris jumped and disappeared behind the door.

-He was so worried about you -Jack said, looking after his younger son. -He kept blaming himself fot not being more stubborn with you about that short cut.

-I was the only one to blame -Josh replied. -I’m so sorry for causing so much trouble. I really am.

-Oh, and your message board -Jack rolled his eyes. -Somehow word got out through Chris telling Tariqh and Tariqh telling Lucia and Lucia telling…

-Yeah okay, I get it. It got out -Josh grinned. -Such a gossipy band. Anyway, they found out? I bet there was hell on the boards.

-Yeah. They are unbelievable. They started praying chains and collections for I don’t know what exactly, probably a thousand get well cards all made of dark chocolate or something.

Josh laughed happily.

-Oh my god. They really love me, don’t they?

-Everyone loves you, sweetheart -Lindy said, squeezing her son’s cold hand. -You have to write a special thank you post to them once you get better.

-I will, of course -Josh smiled. Under the warm blankets, surrounded by the love of his family and that of his fans, he really felt blessed.

-Bro, there’s no number. Or name -Chris returned, closing the door and shrugging when Josh looked at him askance. -They said she refused to sign papers and she left without giving her name or address.

-Why would she do that? -Linda asked Jack. -She knows the whole world would have been thankful to her for saving Josh.

Josh said nothing, only smiled when they looked at him. They had had so much to digest, he could not possibly start telling them about his affair with Kat, or what they had exchanged in those two days locked together. He felt he knew Kat more than she would have liked to admit, and he sensed that she wanted to run and never show herself to him, for fear of him seeing through her in a way that surprised him and probably scared the hell out of her.

His family chatted on happily, making plans, making him smile. He smiled and loved them for every moment spent together.

But behind his smiles, he was hurting. He missed Kat more than two days of forceful interaction should have resulted in.

25.

Kat in her flat, staring at her sink and the dirty dishes she had left soaking in water before she left to the mountains. Doing her best to stay calm, opening the kitchen window to let the fresh air in. Pushing her hands inside the water, squirmish, feeling nausea and an overall sense of uncertainty not even her favourite coffee mug and Jake’s leaf-painting managed to appease.

Morning in her own place seemed only vaguely familiar. Waking up in a warm bed, she squinted at the sunlight. Light. White, clean, blinding. Slowly changing colour and shifting as the day progressed. Turning to her other side, she faced the empty half of bed. No curls, no snoring, no warmth greeted her: her bedroom smelled only of herself, a scent she never sensed any more, and of a slightly discomforting mouldiness.

She had slept since the previous evening when she stumbled into her flat. Seven o’clock, fully dark, gloomy. The loneliness of her flat had never struck her as strongly as when she closed the door and no other sound came for a good few minutes, as long as she stood undecidedly in the hallway, listening, waiting for something, thinking of what next.

Her pantry did finally remind her of the previous few days: there was hardly anything she could consume. Boiling herself strong coffee, she nibbled at some stale cookies the box of which had been left open. The crumbs rolled lazily on her tongue, sticking to her palate; she had difficulty swallowing them, despite the coffee. Spitting out the remains of the cookie from her mouth, she grunted and stomped angrily into the bathroom for a hopefully invigorating shower.

Hot water, shampoo, aplenty. She could basically stand there forever, if she wanted to. Eyes closed, mouth open to breathe heavily through the hot steam rising from her own skin. Listening to water reaching her flesh, making it sore, rolling down onto the tiles, hitting her and the glass door with different sounds: one muffled, one strident. If she stood there long enough, the water would start gnawing at her. Perhaps there was someone waiting inside her skin to be carved out, someone simpler, easier to please, someone… better.

Tears of reminiscence and remorse stung her eyes, recalling Josh, almost frozen to death. Her stubbornness almost cost his life. Because she was unable to accept someone’s approaches, that someone almost died. How much longer could she live like that? Always on the run, always clinging and then pushing away?

Scrubbing her hair furiously, she wondered if he was really alright. They told her he would be, but she was still worried. She should have stayed longer… at least she avoided a terribly uncomfortable encounter, and neither of them would ever have to explain any of the events that had occured inside that cabin. She knew he would be grateful, eventually: she only made it easier for him to forget her, like a bad dream.

She rinsed her hair and suddenly remembered the feel of his curls around her fingers. How soft they felt… how amazingly soft. Her hands slowed down to smooth down her own hair, pressing it to her skull and neck and shoulders. Water running down her back, her breasts, running unstoppably. Like herself. It was so good to stop for a moment, slow down, become one with a situation. Even if it was that of solitude and regret.

The tap was dripping, a lonely drop of water crashing against the wet floortile, and another, and another. Sending an echo circling around her bathroom while she rubbed herself dry, then, smelling her towel, pulled a face and threw it into the laundry basket. How natural that felt, discarding something dirty to be washed later. She recalled the only towel the two of them had, and the fact that it had her smell on it when he dried himself after the clumsy bath. Stepping to the mirror to look at herself and comb her hair, the intimacy of what they shared struck her like a bolt of lightning: the same towel, the same bath water, the same bed. Her dirt-cells touched his, her particles of old skin were rubbed into his, her warmth permeated his body while he slept. Biting her lower lip, she combed her hair straight and started to blow-dry it, combing through it with her fingers, feeling the heat on them and the cool, silky touch of her hair as it encircled her hand. Closing her eyes for a moment, she pictured him standing there, his eyes closed, allowing her to dry his wet hair for him.

Slamming the hair drier on the glass shelf, she applied a comb on her hair, tearing at it relentlessly. Gasping at the mental image of a Josh with eyes closed and smiling mischievously under the hot air. He would be aware of what the sight of his bare back would do to her, and he would enjoy the knowledge of it. Those eyes of dark passion that hid behind his jokes and tenderness would open and look at her reflection and that would probably be the end of the hair drying business.

Giggling despite her anger at the sudden images flashing before her, Kat brushed her teeth and scuffled back into her living-room. After leafing through her mail, she threw the whole pile onto the floor. Who cared.

She’d ben too tired and depressed to check her answering machine the previous evening, so she did it now. One from her boss telling her she was terribly missed, one from Jake who mumbled a kind of invitation to a rock concert of some sorts (Kat cringed inwardly), and a last one that iterested her the most.

“Hey Kat, gosh I feel so stupid. I’m not gonna make it after all, so please… uhm, are you there? Pick up. Christ, you’re gone already… okay… well, I can’t come to meet you at the cottage. Awful sorry about that. Helen just threw a fit and I need to stay beside her and… I hope you had a lovely time and we’ll talk later. Bye!”

Kat flopped on her couch, staring at the machine. Okay. Calm down Kat. So, you did save some lives there. Even though you almost killed somebody. Swallowing on a dry throat, she stepped to the bookshelf and pulling Webster’s Dictionary out, she grabbed the well hidden bottle of Johnny Walker. Lifting it to her lips, she took a generous sip, grimacing at the stinging sensation trickling down her throat. She saw stars for a few moments, before the warmth started settling in, and she was able to sit back, breathing more normally.

What day was it? She had no idea. Or what time it was. Noon. Ish. Was it snowing? She turned to check. It was. It was Montana, after all. Glorious weather. Lovely snow, lovely pines. She drank more, welcoming the buzz in her ears and the feeling of floatiness on her soft couch. Was she slowly lifting from it, too? Placing down the bottle on the floor, she threw herself back on the couch, turning the TV on. Work tomorrow. But until then, she had a day only to herself. To spend whichever way she wanted. Her stomach hurt from the alcohol, and she rubbed it with a face, vaguely thinking that some shopping would be in order.

News. Iraq. More dead. Iran. More nuclear weapons that would never surface. Terrorists threatening. Politicians shaking hands, smiling benignely into the stupid camera. Africa, a flash of war between sports and the weather. And all the while, her beloved state was oozing a sense of serenity, snow falling on the world like stardust frozen by the angels. She nestled comfily, pulling the knitted throw she had found for ten dollars at a garage sale over her feet. The whisky had numbed and pacified her senses and everything reached her like a fuzzy cloud of shapes and colours and sounds. Breaking news. American singing sensation, Josh Groban was found almost dead after he had disappeared five days ago close to a ski resort in the Big Belt Mountains. Having suffered severe hypothermia, doctors fought for his life and brought him back, to the joy of his countless fans. His grateful family will fly him back to their home in Los Angeles later on today.

The remote slipped from Kat’s fingers as she stared hazily at the flashing pictures of a happily laughing Josh, waving to the camera, then cut to his fans outside, dozens, hundreds, screaming, weeping, praying, with flowers, plush toys, whatnot. Kat was quite drunk, and so not too much emotion entered his brain at the sight of him, and the fact that she wasn’t even mentioned. Snort. Why would they mention her? In what context? Mysterious woman alerts rescue team after she leaves superstar Josh Groban to freeze in the blizzard.

Wow, so many fans, was her last thought before she shut the TV off. She had no idea he was this… big. That is. In this sense of the word. She giggled in her half sleep, pulling the throw over her shoulders, blowing under it and enjoying the warmth cover her own lips.

Call boss later. Work. Get some food and…

She was floating, thrown softly to and back, up and down, like in one of those airport souvenirs of local cities trapped in a plastic ball, with snow falling inside if shaken. She definitely felt like being in one of those. A snowflake floating over Montana, lost among all the gazillons of snowflakes, unable to escape. Shaken at times, floating for a while, then settling into the background. Then, shaken again, unable to enjoy her peace.

To hell with you, Bob. You should have called earlier you bastard. Not going would have been the right option. But then. Josh with a sprained ankle. Covered by the avalanche. Frozen.

Shuddering between unconsciousness and dream, Kat succumbed to sleep finally, a long and heavy sleep. A snowflake she was, fat and happy, floating around in the half-sun, settling on a still warm lip. The abyss behind the parted lips scared her, but she stayed, knowing it would be safe once the lips got cold. They did get cold shortly, and she sat merrily, enjoying the view, the hills, the pines, the endless fields of white. Until she was a snowflake no more, but Kat, shaking him by the collar, feeling his lifeless cheeks, staring at his eyelashes laden with ice.

Too drunk to be scared, she only turned on the couch and slept on, with the winter dancing outside her window.

26.

He woke up late. He knew it was late, as the sun blinded his half open eyes. He turned his back on the windows and buried his face into his pillow. More sleep. More silence. More-

In a flash, he remembered the events of the previous day. Sitting on the roof, waiting for death, slowly freezing, his thoughts slowing down, at times recalling Kat, at others, just floating in a place that was neither life, nor death, nor present, nor future. Something that was in between nothingness and endlessness. Where nothing seemed to matter any more. His heart raced and his ears buzzed with the sudden fear that gripped him at the memory of almost dying. Because he did almost die. The thought terrified him now, lying in a soft, warm bed, knowing for certain that breakfast was awaiting him, a warm hug from his mom, a joke or two from Chris, and on the whole, a mellow, serene Los Angeles day. Safely, cosily spent in the house, or walking Sweeney. He had been a hair’s breadth away from croaking and he had no idea at that point, but he certainly knew it now, waking up in a warm bed.

Trying to calm his frantic heart, he rubbed his eyes and moistened his lips. Water. He needed water. And a shower. A real one, not one from a basin and melted snow and a towel wet from someone else’s skin.

Sitting up in his bed, he wondered why his head felt so heavy. He had slept more than a day, after lying half of one in a hospital bed, and napping a few more hours on a plane. Gees. All that sleep did him good, though. His body felt refreshed and so did his spirit, and as he scratched his left knee, at the back of his mind he toyed with some work to do later on, maybe calling David to discuss ideas for a new album. Maybe just playing the piano a little. Or maybe, he would do nothing at all, only rest and watch TV and play games. Any alternative sounded glorious, and he walked into the bathroom with that happy thought spreading warmth to his limbs.

Standing under the water felt unquestionably and surprisingly nice: he stood there for a good twenty minutes, twice as long as usual. Just standing there and soaking hot water in made him think life was beautiful. Life that he got back. Life that… she gave him back, so to speak. Even though she almost killed him, technically. Well, it wasn’t her fault. Her intentions were good. True, she could have warned him… or something. He spat some water out of his mouth and rinsed his hair from shampoo, remembering her fingers on his skull… how gentle they felt.

Uh-oh… his memories, especially the ones that came after the hair-washing assaulted his senses out of the blue and with a force that got his eyes blurry with desire. He stood in the shower, wondering whether to try and kick her out of his brain or give in to his urge and…

A few minutes later he stumbled out of the shower, spent and with shaking knees. Like it would ever work. Willpower did not exist for a guy, especially when no one was around.

-Morning, br… whoah Josh. You look like someone who needs breakfast bad -Chris said, his hand on the doorknob, staring at his brother.

-I was basically starving for days, remember? -Josh retorted, tightening his towel around his waist. Chris had the worst custom in the world: he never knocked. Ever.

-I’ll tell mom to make you extra toast and eggs. And pancakes.

-Why not make them yourself, for once? She needs the rest, too.

-Why not come down and make them yourself, if you’re so much into helping her?

-Get out before I throw this towel at you.

-You’d never do that. You don’t bare yourself, not even in front of me, dude.

Josh grumbled under his nose as Chris retreated. He was right. He was very particular about who he undressed for. And that, considering the past few days, was in itself a shock.

~~~

-He called earlier, David. He wanted to know if you were available later on -Lindy told him, serving him a dose of pancakes and toast and juice and cereal enough for an army.

-Stop, mom, or I’ll get fat.

-You won’t. You jerk around too much on stage -Chris snickered into his bowl of cereals.

Josh swallowed his retort, his mind fully fixed on Kat now. The fact that she left before he could talk to her was very typical of the person he got to partly know, based on the few days spent together. If he was an average guy, he would just drop the subject and forget the whole thing; or perhaps only remember the details pertaining to his miraculous survival. Chewing on his second toast, he wondered if anything was expected of him at that point.

-Do you guys think I should look for her?

-Who? -Linda asked.

-Kat.

-The girl who saved you? Well, she ran away on her own accord, because she probably had her reasons. She is fully aware that you’re grateful, and who knows, perhaps she would even resent you starting a search party.

She did have her reasons alright, he thought, blushing into his juice.

-Was that a blush, Mr Sex-me-into-sleep-with.your-voice Groban? -Chris sputtered and laughed aloud. -What exactly happened in that cabin, yo?

-Shut up Chris -Josh replied, slightly upset. His brother was cracking a joke at something he had no idea about, even if he was probably touching on the truth. He just hated Chris’s quick conclusions. He hated them because he was? most of the time, right.

-Well, I’m sorry but you’re just so damn obvious -Chris muttered, a little softer. -You were always easy to tease. Plus, you can never lie.

-I can, too -Josh said triumphantly, remembering how well he fooled Kat on several occasions. And then felt ashamed of it, just like now, sitting in his parents’ kitchen, drinking orange juice.

-Not to us, you can’t -Chris retorted. -In any case, I don’t know what happened between you guys in there, but your question is very telling in itself, so… I’d say go for it. Or, for her.

Linda watched the two of them silently and only squeezed Josh’s hand when Chris returned to his cereals.

-Is there something you’d like to talk about, sweetheart?

-I don’t know, mom… two strangers locked inside a cabin. Imagine the rest -Josh said bitterly, wiping the crumbs of toast from his mouth with his hand.

-Considering that both of you made it out alive, I would say you are not exactly… enemies -Linda ventured, cautiously looking at Josh.

Josh rolled his eyes in despair. Trust his family to always nag it out of him. Whatever he wanted to keep secret.

-Okay. Yes. I kissed her. Not once, and she probably fell for me. And then, more happened, and she left right after that.

Chris was staring with half-chewed cereals in his open mouth, and Linda was just… just staring. Even Jack was paying attention now from behind his newspaper where he had buried himself in silence.

-Remember to swallow, Chris -he said, then looked at Josh above his glasses. -So, you two fell in love.

-I don’t know -Josh moaned, scratching his head and looking aside.

-What ybout you, then? -Linda asked, sending a concerned side-glance at Jack.

-I don’t know, mom -Josh replied, his eyes full of doubt. -Can’t you see? She left when I thought she was happy. Without a word, and I almost got killed. If this is how the relationship between us would work, then… for the sake of the physical health of both of us, maybe it’s better if we stayed away from each other.

-She left because she wanted to save your life, and her own -Linda said gently.

-And you should have behaved like a grown-up that you’re not and sat on your bum for a while longer -Chris mumbled, not daring to look up.

-She was probably dead worried when they found you on the roof -Linda added. -I know I would’ve been in her place.

Josh stared in disbelief, first at Chris, then at his mother. Jack was shrugging his shoulders and returned to his paper before Josh could send him a reprimanding look.

-So you’re all against me now? Is this what it’s all about? What kind of family are you?! -he asked. -I almost died there, people.

-And we are endlessly happy you didn’t -Linda got up and squeezed his son in a loving hug. -Alright? I love you, Josh. We all do. We’re just saying that if anything important… for you, that is… happened between you and that courageous girl, then you should look for her and tell her.

-I agree, dude -Chris added, giving Josh a hearty pat on the back.

-Yeah? You may be sorry, because it’s you who’s gonna help me locate her, dude -Josh replied, giving Chris a glance that said ‘I have not forgiven you yet’.

-Sure thing -Chris grinned, rubbing his hands together. -Hey, this is gonna be fun! Give me her name…

-…that I don’t have, remember? -Josh pointed his finger to his temple, giving Chris a face.

-Then what do you have? -Chris asked, more cautiously this time.

-A first name. And the fact that she’s working as a… a… volunteer at an environment-saving organization or what -Josh said, leaning back in his chair.

-A city? Or state…? -Chris tried, his enthusiasm quickly diminishing.

Josh shook his head, and Chris hung his.

-You’ll find her -Jack said, his face hidden. -When I met your mom it was at a dance, and she never left me any number or even name. I had no idea who she was.

-And? -Chris asked eagerly.

-Well, I kept going back to that place. The next evening, and the next one, for weeks. Three weeks and two days, actually, until she appeared again.

-So, using that logic, I am to return to the cabin in the mountains for… several years, and spend… how much time there…? Until Kat returns to spend her holidays -Josh nodded, pursing his lips and smacking them. -Right. Can I go back to bed now?

-I’m saying you have to really want to find her -Jack said, placing his paper down. -If you feel you need to be with her, then you will. If you want to find her only to tell her thank you, you may just stop looking before you even start.

Josh pondered for a moment before he replied. Did he really want to find Kat? Get entangled with her again, body and soul, get drawn into her dark moods and past, try to make her happy… what if she didn’t want to be made happy? Maybe she was happy being unhappy. After all, some people were like that.

-Yeah. We have her first name, and we know she works on saving vegetables -Chris said, making his own choice easier. -Man this will be a long search. Have you considered posting something on your message board?

-Let’s see. ‘Hey Kat, I want to thank you in person for saving my life so please contact me’. That sounds even lamer than when I asked Jane Desmond out at the age of twelve.

-Oh, I can foretell the reaction of the fans -Linda giggled, clasping her hands together. -My dear boy, you would be the gentleman of the century.

-I don’t know, okay, it sounds lame but it would help my position… -Chris tried, again, and failing, he gave up. -Okay. You got it. Kat. Vegetables.

-Nature, you stupid -Josh hissed through his teeth, trying to be angry, when in fact he felt like chuckling.

-Whatever. I’m on my way, but make sure to bring pizza to my room exactly every three hours -Chris said with an exaggeratedly condescending look.

-Forgot I’m going back to my place tonight? -Josh grinned at his brother’s back.

When he disappeared, Linda looked at Jack and gave him a smile, then turned to Josh and smiled at him, too.

-You’re doing the right thing, honey. If she’s the one, you will find her.

-Mom, I’m not sure of anything at this point, so please stop making it sound like she would be my dream wife -Josh said, his voice a little tired. -I’ve only known her for a few days and she’s… honestly? She’s a handful. I’m only doing what my conscience, that is, my family is telling me. I have no idea if it’s a good idea or not.

-That’s to be seen when you find her -Linda said simply, and stood up to arrange the dishes in the dishwasher.

When he finds her. Josh contemplated the phrase. When. What if there was no when, but an if? What if he never finds her. He propped his head on his left hand and looked outside the window. The sun was shining at full blast, but parts of the sky were already covered in rainclouds. It was the rainiest season in LA and he loved rain, so he knew he should be happy, and in a way, he was. Rain falling on the world, refreshing rain. To listen to from inside the warmth of a room. Or even walked under.

He grabbed his cellie and walked to the window, watching the clouds take over the sunny sky for a few minutes before he dialled David’s number.

27.

-Kathleen, my dear, where have you been?

Kat faced the sincere smile of at least forty bright and sparkling teeth that belonged to Abbey Hodgins, her employer and friend. Abbey enveloped her in a long hug and Kat stood a little embarrassed, still, after all those years surprised that anyone could care for her as much as Abbey did.

The Nicodemus Wilderness Project had many offices around the country and Polson boasted one of them. The organization had many things to do in the small Montana town, especially since the Flathead Lake was such a tourist attraction. Abbey always jested that next to the State Prison, they were the second largest employing business in town.

-Oh, I had a week full of adventures –Kat replied as soon as her lungs were able to receive some air in them, free from Abbey’s squeezing hug. –I went to our cabin in the mountains but my precious friends refused to show up. And then I also rescued some… stray animal lost in the woods –she added, biting her lip. She was not sure she could be honest about Josh yet. –Luckily, I got out. Unharmed.

-And what did you do with the animal? –Abbey asked, leading Kat to her desk where a steaming cup of coffee awaited her.

-I… I healed his leg and then sent him back into his natural habitat –Kat said, taking the cup in her hands.

-An environmentalist at heart –Abbey smiled, patting her favourite employee’s cheek. –Hey, before I forget, some person called yesterday and asked if any Catherine was working here.

Kat froze and did her best to keep her hands and eyelashes steady.

-What did you tell him?

Abbey narrowed her eyes.

-How do you know it was a he?

-My exes usually look for me, that’s why –Kat urgently swallowed a sip of coffee that proved to be extremely hot.

-Some exes if they don’t know your name properly –Abbey snorted and collecting a fat pile of papers from the desk, placed them into Kat’s arms. –I told him no Catherine works here. It was true, wasn’t it? If he doesn’t know your name then he can go to hell.

Kat frowned at the files and a painful pang of disappointment descended over her. He didn’t even remember her real name.

-The reports on the forest clearing and the tree cutting we did a month ago. I need to have them wrapped up and clean to forward to the main headquarters by Friday. Do you think you’re up to this kind of work now? I can always push Mick’s nose into these…

-No no, I’ll manage –Kat said absent-mindedly, dying to ask Abbey what the voice of the man sounded like. It had to be Josh. It somehow fit the pattern. He seemed like a nice guy who would want to locate her and…

And what? Thank her, probably. Or question her about why she had run away. Or…

-Kat, lovely Kat –Mick the accountant, and also general assistant to everyone in the office said when he spotted her from behind his desk. He had glasses and dark hair that was thinning around his forehead. He rose to his feet and approached them to place a kiss on Kat’s cheek. –I missed your sarcasm around here, girl. Where have you been?

-Trying to take a rest off my work –Kat giggled, wondering why it was so damn difficult to believe that she had a right to go on a holiday. –I’m starting to think I’m indispensable or what.

-Don’t flatter yourself –Mick retorted. –Your coffee sucks and your figures abound in mistakes.

-Well then, how about you clear these up for me? –Kat asked with a wide smile, pushing the pile into Mick’s hands.

-Only if I can ask you out someday –he said, seriously blinking.

Abbey grinned and sidled away into her office, while Kat looked after her friend in despair. No, not Mick. Why?!

-You don’t wanna ask me out, Michael –she said, calling him by his full name to emphasize her words. –I am a royal pain and I can only make a guy happy by making him get rid of me.

-Well, I’d be happy to take the risk, Kat –Mick said but not insistently, and he walked back to his desk before she could retort, or change her mind.

A little pissed off that he gave her no time to properly contemplate his offer, she sat down behind her desk and read all the memos and messages she had received, trying to organize herself. From the corner of her eyes she saw Abbey watch her and also Mick watch her and she knew they were watching him for different reasons. She had to fight off their curiosity and Jake was not even in the picture yet. After an inward moan she pretended to busy herself with some file and even dialled a number, then placed the receiver down to make them get off her back. And they did. When she was safe, she took a pen and started taking notes from a report that had been left from the large pile. It all went well for a few minutes and then she found herself ignore all the figures and dry sentences, her pen propped on a column of numbers.

If only she could make sure it was him he called. Not that it was really important any more. She had officially exited his life and she was not supposed to think of him as of someone belonging to her. Not that he ever did belong to her. Not even when he was kissing her, he didn’t. It was only a way of passing time… the instinct of survival. A gut reaction. He would probably be better off without her in his organized celebrity life. And she was better off without his limelight expectations and all those fans tailing him and…

If he called, then he wanted to talk to her. The thought gave her goosebumps as she tried to look very busy and engrossed in her work, for fear of being bothered by Abbey again. Or worse, Mick. Since when did Mick want to ask her out?! Maybe men had invisible sensors that told them when a woman got laid, and the moment they did, men instantly saw them as more desirable. The stupidest, most annoying, and also most proved rule of mankind.

It was true that since she saw the screaming fans lined up outside the hospital on TV, she thought of Josh as… well, more desirable. For lack of a better phrase. Swallowing the visuals that accumulated in her brain, mostly memories of an undoubtedly desirable Josh, she blushed into her file, praying it would go unnoticed.

It didn’t.

-Tell me what really happened this last week –Abbey stood in front of her, one hand on her full hip, the other holding a bar of chocolate, signalling to Kat to follow her into her office. After shutting the door, she sat into her revolving chair and clasped her hands on the table, raising her eyebrows. –Well?

Kat flopped into another chair and broke a piece of chocolate.

-I… I’m not sure what happened –she admitted, munching on the chocolate that had a hint of rum in it. Just what she needed.

-Tell me more about that rescued animal –Abbey helped with a benevolent grin, and Kat blushed.

-Dammit, is it that obvious? –she asked desperately.

-For me it is. I know when you’re speaking in metaphors, my dear –Abbey laughed and helped herself to a piece of chocolate.

-It was this guy who sprained his ankle while skiing and when I took him in, an avalanche fell on us –Kat spoke with her mouth half full.

-So you were like… locked? Buried?

-Yes.

-Oh my god –Abbey said, propping her head on both hands and looking at Kat with shining eyes. –I don’t think you need to tell me more, sweetie. Damn how I envy you.

Kat laughed nervously and wondered if she was really enviable.

-Well, it’s not like we have each other’s numbers –she said, biting her lips. –Besides, you know me. I’m seriously screwed. I won’t even start telling you how… ugly it became at some point.

-Oh, don’t worry, hon –Abbey flicked her hand nonchalantly. –Men need to feel you’re insecure.

-Insecure, yes. Neurotic, no –Kat laughed, pulling a face. –No, I really acted horribly in there. And you don’t know half of it –she added with a sigh.

-Hey, wait a minute –Abbey whispered aloud. –I know who called today! It was him, wasn’t it?!

-You tell me –Kat shrugged, trying to look as if she didn’t care, but Abbey was not to be fooled.

-His name was… uhm… dammit I should have written it down… Chris. Chris something. I didn’t cath his family name.

-Groban…? –Kat asked, half hoping and half dreading the answer.

-Yes! –Abbey exclaimed triumphantly. –Yes, that’s it. Or… hm… Groban, you said? –she added suspiciously.

-Yes, why?

-You mean you were buried under the snow with the brother of Josh Groban?

Kat covered her face in embarrassment. Oh dear.

-It was him, not his brother –she whined, breaking a generous piece of chocolate for herself and stuffing it into her mouth.

Abbey froze with her mouth agape and her eyes asparkle.

-No… damn… way –she whispered. –That GOD?!

-I… I guess –Kat shrugged, blushing deeply.

-What, you don’t know who he is?!

-I know now… saw him on the news –Kat replied, swallowing her chocolate, ruefully contemplating the last piece.

-Take it, I have another bar –Abbey said quickly, producing a giant bar of chocolate from the drawer of her desk.

-I love you –Kat moaned and tore the wrapping open.

-How is he? –Abbey asked, leaning forward. –I mean, no intimate details are needed, but… how is he?

-Really sweet and gentle –Kat said, blushing again. –He was so patient with me. Though he did throw a fit or two in there –she added with a giggle.

-Oh my good lord I can’t believe this is really happening! –Abbey squealed and covered her mouth. Her large hair and wide eyes seemed even larger and wider when her plump fingers covered her plump lips. She looked like a fairy godmother, and she usually was just that for Kat.

-So how did you get out? But more importantly… WHY? Did you ever want to get out of there? Being locked with Josh Groban! Oh my sweating lord –Abbey continued, breathing with difficulty.

-I got scared and besides we were running out of food so I… I climbed out and reached a rescue team –Kat said simply, calmly leaning back in her chair.

-You got scared? Of what? Of that sweet, cuddly, adorable specimen of a human?! –Abbey rolled her eyes, ferociously munching on chocolate.

-You know he deserves someone better than me –Kat replied, looking aside. –I would have probably run out on him in a month, anyway.

-After which I would have taken you to the psych ward, for sure –Abbey retorted. –The place you should have been shown to a looong time ago, my girl. You have to stop being so… SO. Period.

-But… he would have left me, sooner or later –Kat said, folding her arms defiantly. –They all do.

-That’s because you chase them all away –Abbey replied, and Kat had a sudden flash of Josh saying the exact thing to her. How hurt she had been then. And how logical it sounded now from her friend’s mouth.

She shrugged and looked at the older woman for advice or an opinion, but Abbey purposefully kept silent.

-In any case, it’s over now –Kat said, pouting a little.

-Not if you go looking for him –Abbey suggested.

-I will not –Kat retorted quickly, her eyes flashing. –I am not begging for any man, you hear me? No man is worth my running after them.

-If he is just any man, no. But we both know he is not just any man. I don’t even know him properly but the big picture is sure as hell more flattering than all of the men, husbands and lovers I have ever had, combined. And I have had a busy love life –Abbey added with a snort.

-Oh, let me be –Kat moaned. –I won’t go after him, Abs. I won’t. Stop hurting me more with this, okay? He’s tough enough to forget –she added quietly.

-I don’t want to hurt you, Kathy –her friend, the only one Kat allowed to call her Kathy, said. –But if there is a ray of hope that I can see you happy in this lifetime, I will grab it with both hands and feet, understand?

Kat looked at her through her teary eyes, smiling gratefully.

-I love you, Abs. You’re the only one who takes the time to see who I really am –she said, remembering how Josh did the same. Yes, he was ready to find out who she really was, but she gave him no chance.

Abbey grinned and walking round her desk, buried Kat in a hearty embrace.

-I love you too, doll. You know what we will do now? Find the best table at that Greek restaurant we’d been wanting to test and go stuff ourselves with exotic food until we burst.

Kat smiled and wiping her face, sighed a sigh of relief. She had it off her chest, and she was feeling much, much better. Even his absence was less painful now that she could share her memories of him with someone. And maybe Abbey would be able to tell her more of him, since she seemed to be a fan, or something, she pondered as they walked out of Abbey’s office.

28.

-Guys, I’ll be going then –Josh said, taking Sweeney by the leash after giving his parents loving hugs. –I guess I’ll see you next week…

-Dude, the results of my search –Chris stormed out of his room with sheets of paper in his hand. –Do you have any idea how many environment protection companies there are in the States? I will not tell you because you’ll flip out but I managed to call the first fifty-three and there were no Catherine persons working there… you owe me big time. The rest you can do yourself –he finished, shoving the papers into his brother’s hand, who stared back at Chris in shock. –What?

-What name did you say you asked for? –Josh was hardly able to mutter.

-Catherine. Cat for Catherine –Chris replied, shrugging. –Why?

-Her name is KathLEEN –Josh closed his eyes in resignation.

There was a painful moment of silence between the four of them, then Jack tried to save the situation.

-Another of life’s ironic obstacles, only to prove that you are meant to look for her –he said, hugging Linda’s shoulders.

-If you by any chance managed to hit on the company where she works, and you asked for Catherine, she probably heard about it and she thinks I’m an asshole –Josh moaned. –Great. Thanks Chris… thanks a bunch.

-Shit, Josh, what am I supposed to say?! You said Cat. Did anyone mention any spelling? –Chris asked indignantly.

-This is not happening… I just… argh! –Josh exploded, turning the leash in his hand. –It’s not your fault… it’s mine, probably… but I need to vent right now, okay?

-Kids, it’s all fine. We can help, too. Or, we can ask a private detective to look for her. How’s that? –Jack beamed, an obvious fan of Sherlock Holmes.

-Fascinating –Chris replied with a grin. –I can look up the best detective agency in town.

-Yeah, just make sure you look for detective and not defective –Josh grimaced and gave Chris a painful grin.

-I’ll get you one day –Chris threatened, punching Josh in the arm. –So what will you do now? Continue phoning the companies?

-You out of your mind?! There are… –Josh scanned the pages, turned them and his eyes opened wide-… seven thousand an three hundred companies?! Mom, I want my evening milk –he pretended to sniffle. –I… this is beyond me. Perhaps this is fate’s signal to just… bloody give her up.

-I’ll say you’re tired and feeling hopeless, but after a good night’s sleep you’ll feel much better –Linda smiled and kissed her son on the cheek.

-Sweeney will do the work –Josh mumbled, looking at Sweeney who stared loyally back into his master’s eyes.

-So he will –Linda said and petted the dog until Sweeney rolled on his back and lay there expecting all the idolising four humans could muster.

-Get up, you slutty boy –Josh pulled the leash and Sweeney rolled back to his feet. –Yeah. See you later, everyone. Thanks for the lovely day!

-Call us if there’s anything, sweetheart –Linda told him before the door closed and he was out of his family’s direct love-range.

-Can you believe it, Sweeney? He looked for Catherine! Where were you when I needed you? –Josh wailed, ambling to his car at a lazy pace.

Winter in Los Angeles was certainly different from that in Montana. Hardly cold air was blowing through his curls and a quickly setting sun was painting the skies pink and peach. Puffy clouds chased each other with the wind. It was mostly silent in the parking lot, with only a few people strolling by in the early evening hours.

Thousands of companies where she could be working… He should have paid more attention when she told him where she worked. She said the name of the place, he knew for certain, but however hard he tried to recall it, he just couldn’t. He was angry with himself for that and threw himsef into the driver seat with a loud groan.

Later, driving towards his home, he felt even angrier for being angry. Why did he care in the first place? The fact that she had run away without a word, or message, or note, was a clear indication that she did not want him in her life. She had performed her duty, saving his life, and then she washed her hands clean. End of story. Or so it should have been.

Sweeney was looking out the window, balancing himself on his paws when Josh stopped the car outside his flat.

-If I get to the front door before you, I’ll keep looking –Josh told the dog, who blinked at him lazily, giving Josh hope.

He stepped out of the car and let Sweeney out; the animal shook himself and sat on his hind paws with a blunt yawn.

-Good boy –Josh grinned, looking at the dog for a while to relax him and make him sleepy. He knew that once sleepy, Sweeney was very hard to move from one spot to another. –Good, sleepy boy. Let’s breathe some fresh air, shall we?

He took one step towards the door and Sweeney was up and running, getting to the front steps in two seconds, barking anxiously to be let inside.

-Why? –Josh wailed, walking with his keys in his hands. –Of all the times, you had to choose this one to put on an act.

Sweeney barked and stormed into the flat, a dejected Josh walking behind him.

-If you sit on the sofa and not your favourite rug, I need to give her up –Josh mumbled, following Sweeney with his eyes.

The dog stood in the middle of the living-room and lay flat on his stomach, his rug before his nose, the sofa behind him. He seemed to like the spot and blinked slowly, on the verge of drowsiness.

-That is just great –Josh muttered, throwing his keys down. –Thanks for the help, really.

He kicked his shoes off and put some water to boil for a cup of tea. It was not very cold outside, but he felt he needed something hot, nonetheless.

-If the water boils before you fall asleep, I’ll keep looking –he said under his nose, cursing inwardly. –The last time, Groban. You’re acting like a looney!

The water boiler started hissing, first gently, then louder, and louder, and Josh watched the bubbles grow behind the plastic window.

-Come on, do your job… Bob –he added, feeling the need to give the water boiler a name. –Heat that water nicely, Bobbaloo… that’s it.

He bit his lip and seeing that the water would get to the boiling point very soon, he turned slightly and looked behind his shoulder.

Sweeney was fast asleep, a flattened ball of fur and large paws and a head without ears or eyes or nose.

Josh stepped to the water boiler and poured the hot liquid in a cup, throwing a filter of lemon tea in it. Two out of three. Well, it was decided, then. It was probably a lost cause, anyway… too much hassle, too much work, no promise of success whatsoever, and… who was to say how Kat would react if he did succeed? She would freak out, grow frightened of the sense of commitment he would try to force onto her, be angry at him for not letting her be, and so forth.

Besides, was she that… special? After all. Was she worth all the trouble?

He flopped onto his sofa and watched his dog sleep, sipping hot tea, warming his palms on the cup. Evening hit the world with a greyish pink sun-kissed sky and curious stars peeking down, such a distant, peaceful place… He longed for peace and quiet, that absolute quiet of a winter cottage, cut off from the world altogether, where words were very unnecessary, as they could only do harm… Kat’s voice floated into his consciousness and her face, looking down on her guitar, singing for just the two of them.

A sneeze shook his body suddenly, and a few drops of tea jumped on his hand from the cup. Sweeney pricked his ears in his sleep and his eyelids opened halfway.

-You’re awake now –Josh accused the dog and sneezed again. –Go back to sleep. I don’t need your help any more, thank you.

A third sneeze came and he put the tea down, searching his pockets for a hankie to blow his nose.

-Great… I didn’t die in minus thirty-one degrees and I get a cold in plus fifty –Josh sneezed again in his hankie.

He pulled the blanket he always kept on the sofa for emergencies like this one onto his feet and legs and enveloped himself into it completely, shivering a little.

-Don’t wake me up, Swee –he muttered, closing his eyes. –And please go to your rug. If I find you there in the morning, I might still keep looking…

He had no idea how tired he was until he curled up on his sofa. There was much to think about, much to remember, much to wonder at, but he was alseep the moment he lay his head down.

(To be continued)

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