Heavy rain clouds scudded the mountains throughout the night. The tent erected the previous afternoon, withstood the messenger wind signaling the onset of a late autumn storm. The rain coming shortly afterwards continued its pattern: arriving in torrential bursts, each one seemingly more purposeful than the last. Andrew, vigilant in a state of tense anticipation was convinced the fibre-thin tent would be breached at any minute and they'd be soaked where they lay.
Discovering evidence of his father had catalysed their plans. They'd agreed that two things needed to happen: searching for Malcolm and setting up a base camp. Andrew would begin the search for evidence of his father's movements after leaving the plane, and Jenni would walk the ten kilometres back to the car, drive to the nearest township, contact Deidre and her uncle and bring back supplies. On the face of it, their plan was simple. Yet so much was still unknown.
It would be an hour or two before dawn when they would begin their individual tasks; yet neither Andrew nor Jenni slept. Tucked in to their sleeping bags, separate and still, their thoughts of the next day's mission called and taunted them in choruses of uncertainty and anticipation. This mixed with the frisson between them that had surfaced that afternoon as they celebrated the discovery of Malcolm's plane, meant that every cell in their bodies was alert and aware.
Needing to navigate the confluence of his thoughts, Andrew quietly asked: are you awake?
Ahumm, Jenni confirmed, with a tone that implied she'd been waiting for him to break the tension.
Andrew hesitated; he prepared a question, decided on another, then held that one back as well. His heartbeat increased as he pictured the person lying next to him. He was confused that thoughts of Jenni, his longtime friend since childhood, dominated those of his father. Until this point he'd been consumed and pre-occupied by nothing else other than finding his dad. Now after having miraculously found the first piece of tangible evidence that indicated his father was most probably still alive, his mind was elsewhere. Inner conflict kept him silent.
Jenni waited. She wondered if that was all? Did he want a conversation or did he just want confirmation? She too was in turmoil. She wanted to touch him; feel his skin; hold him against her. She wanted him to want that, but she had no way to express this to him. This was not who they were to each other. Her feelings for Andrew had surfaced that afternoon: she'd been like a diver short of breath, rushing up from the bottom of the sea to draw in fresh air; the gasp releasing and awakening her into a world that had changed while she'd been underwater. Her senses tingled. So much she wanted him to know how she felt, yet this was all so different, so sudden and so - not the right time. Or was it? She couldn't tell and decided she should stop tormenting herself by trying to work it out. It would soon be light and the necessities of taking action would once again inform proceedings. She resigned herself to more 'pretend sleeping' and rolled on her side away from him.
Hearing the skin of Jenni's sleeping bag slide against the tent floor brought Andrew back to the present moment. He'd let it hang too long. Just like the dream he'd had the night before, he felt again the anticipation of being at the precipice, knowing that one step would change everything. He lay immobilised and silent as he imagined the consequences of possible rejection, embarrassment or worse. But before he could descend any further into a pit of self-created anguish his senses detected the threat of imminent danger.
The wind gusted in even greater force and at that moment a large fig tree near the edge of the forest left its moorings; with its branches and thick leaves spinnakering the wind, 120 feet of timber began to crack and crash through the canopy as its vast spread of buttress roots tore away from the shallow soil.
They both sat up simultaneously: Jenni flashed on their last moment alive together. Andrew only partially out of his sleeping bag, ripped the zip of the tent-door back with a force that split the flysheet along the seam. Half turning and squatting at the same time he grabbed Jenni and dragged her backwards in such a way that they both barreled and tumbled out through the opening before the tree had finished falling.
Andrew up on his feet, absent of night vision, pivoted his gaze frantically through the darkness in the direction of the tree. But the night had no face. He had nothing to guide him and could not get his bearings. The ripping and cracking sounds had finished and all that remained was the voice of the wind rushing against him. The tree had missed them; by how much he couldn't tell. The wind had carried the sound; the fallen elder further off than he'd imagined.
Relief and terror tremored through them both; nerve endings bathed in adrenalin still being instructed to take flight.
Shaking and saturated, Jenni shouted into the wind; let's get out of the rain. It was her turn for physical instruction. She grabbed Andrew's arm and guided him back to the tent.
Come on Andy, we're OK. She said. Help me find the torch.
I thought we were gonners. He said, as he fumbled through the torn opening of the tent.
Jenni found her headlamp and turned on the light. Look at us; she said. They were both wet through and adorned with grass and mud. Jenni sensed she needed to take charge of the situation. OK, lets get as dry and as warm as possible.
She instructed Andrew to fix the torn flysheet. He found a small roll of plaster tape from the first aid kit and sealed the rent in the fabric. Fortunately the opening was in the lee of the wind so their packs and Jenni's sleeping bag had stayed relatively dry. Next, Jenni found herself some dry clothes and suggested that Andrew do the same. He reached for his bag, uncertain how to proceed. The danger had passed; now awkwardness returned.
How do we do this? Andrew questioned.
Turn around, she said; I'll get dressed first.
Andrew complied immediately. Trying not too, but still listening intently as Jenni removed her wet clothes and re-dressed.
Your turn, she said, when she'd finished.
He thought he heard a slight tone of amusement in her voice. What's funny? He asked.
Nothing, she replied. It's just that three minutes ago we were terrified of being killed and now we're worried about our modesty.
Yeah, he agreed. I guess that is kind of funny. I still want you to turn around though.
Jenni turned her back while Andrew clumsily changed out of his wet clothes. Now and again he bumped her, apologising immediately. When he finished they sat cross-legged in front of one another.
Guess what? Jenni said in a tone of exaggerated seriousness. We've only got one dry sleeping bag between us.
Misreading her completely, Andrew fired off several replies, one after the other.
Oh that's Ok. I've got my jacket. I'll be fine. It's cool. You get some sleep. It'll be light soon. Yeah, you get some…
Andy! She cut him off.
What? He asked.
Quietly, she reached over and held his hands. She paused. Then. Will you lie next to me and keep me warm?
In an instant, all resistance and awkwardness drained out of him. It was the simplest request that made the most perfect sense.
Yeah. Sure. He agreed.
They folded their arms together as she spooned into him, her back against his chest.
For the next few hours, they lay together, tightly nestled in friendship and safety; in the deepest belonging either of them had known.