Exposures

by Dira Sudis

Notes:
Thanks to Bluster for beta!

A bush pilot spotted all the red in the snow and landed to check it out. The dogs were all dead, each with a single gunshot to the back of the head; exit wounds had torn out their throats, which was why there was such a lot of blood. They lay in a companionable heap, the way dogs do. If not for the blood and the bullet holes, they might have been sleeping.

There was a sled nearby, all neatly packed, everything expertly lashed down. The harnesses were all coiled, tent and bedrolls folded just so. Whoever had done this had left everything behind: food, medical kit, radio, spare clothes.

The pilot pushed the sled onto his plane, but left the dogs where they were; he couldn't bury them and didn't really want to take them along, and anyway they marked the spot. He'd turn in the sled to the Mounties, and let them figure it out.

 


They found the camera carefully wrapped in plastic and packed among the extra socks. Frobisher added it to the box of personal effects, and shipped the lot to Lieutenant Welsh in Chicago.

Welsh, thinking the photos might shed some light on the situation - they still weren't absolutely positive, as the searchers hadn't found Fraser, Ray, or Dief, though God knew they couldn't have gotten far without any of their gear - handed the camera, one of those disposables 'for outdoor use,' over to the police lab to be developed immediately.

A tech brought up the folder of glossies, but he wouldn't meet Welsh's eyes, just set them down on his desk and high-tailed it back to his darkroom. Welsh closed his eyes and took a deep breath, fighting down all the crime scene scenarios his mind's eye had offered in the last hour. Please God, let there be one in here that I can show to Mrs. Kowalski. Then he opened the folder.

 


1.

The upper third of the image shows a banner, tacked up on the outer wall of a log cabin, bearing the name of Sgt. Frobisher's Northern Detachment. Fraser, in cold weather gear and his Stetson, is posed beneath it, on one knee, his smile fixed and frozen in the grimace of a man holding back a laugh, his eyes twinkling but firmly focused on the camera. Dief sits decorously beside him, but has relented so far as to turn his head. The rest of the picture is a tangle of limbs and fur, an indeterminate number of sled dogs having apparently managed to bowl Kowalski over before the picture could be taken. He's managed to push up to one elbow, with at least two of the dogs sitting squarely on top of him and the others milling around. His stocking cap is half pushed off, revealing a shock of bright blond hair. Kowalski is looking toward Dief and Fraser, his face captured in profile, laughing so hard the flash reflects off tears streaming down his face.

2.

A river of blue ice bisects an undifferentiated field of white, under an enormous sky of a deep dusky blue, perfectly clear. A few stars are visible, and in the corner of the picture, a hand is pointing out some feature of the view.

3.

Mountains rise in a chaotic jumble of rocks and snow and ice, shadows and sparkles suggesting the location of the sun somewhere behind the camera. The picture includes neither the foot of the mountains nor the peaks, so that the image would be almost completely incomprehensible if not for the arm which intrudes from the right side, pointing onward.

4.

Fraser, dressed in a parka, with the fur-trimmed hood pushed down, revealing unruly dark hair. His hands are bare - clearly the hand and arm from the previous two pictures were his. He is looking away from the camera, once again pointing to something in the distance, but the landscape is a bright blur of white and blue; only Fraser himself is clear.

5.

Taken from a low angle, as though the photographer was on his knees. Fraser, several feet away, is standing silhouetted against the sky, his hands at his sides, his head tipped back. The night sky is filled with a blaze of stars, and there is a hint of color near Fraser's elbow that may be the aurora borealis, or water on the lens.

6.

Fraser, mouth open and a slightly bemused expression on his face, is caught in the act of turning toward the camera. His arm is half-lowered, as though he had been pointing something out, and has just realized his audience is not paying attention. His cheeks are flushed, his eyes bright, and he is very nearly within arm's reach of the camera.

7.

A close up shot of Fraser and Dief. Fraser's face is flushed, his hair thoroughly mussed and wet, and he is grinning broadly. Dief, his muzzle covered in snow, has his mouth open in what seems to be the lupine equivalent of Fraser's expression. They are cheek to cheek, and it is impossible to tell which way is up.

8.

Kowalski, standing behind the dogsled. His hat has vanished, his hair sticking up in spikes, and he is squinting in the sunlight. The shadows suggest early morning. The sled is fully loaded, and the dogs are all harnessed, everything ready to go. Kowalski looks enormously pleased with himself, and is flashing two thumbs up at the camera.

9.

Two hands, pressed palm to palm, fingers interlaced, one emerging from a blue parka sleeve, the other from a brown one. Both hands are reddened and chapped, and they grip each other tightly, stretching the skin where each fingertip digs in. Just visible at the edge of the picture is Dief, sitting a short distance away, looking almost straight into the camera.

10.

Taken at close range, from above and behind. Kowalski's back is bare, its winter paleness warmed by the quality of the light, which appears to come from a lantern. His hair is dark with sweat, and a few drops are visible, running down the back of his neck. His head is turned slightly to the right, showing his parted lips and half-closed eyes, combining in an expression which can only be described as blissful. The dimly visible background appears to be an unzipped sleeping bag with a green plaid lining.

11.

Taken at arm's length. Fraser on the left, Kowalski on the right, smiling mouths joined in a kiss that is on the verge of disintegrating into laughter. Fraser's grin shows a flash of teeth, Kowalski's reveals a hint of tongue. Dark hair and light are both wildly disarrayed and damp, Kowalski's standing on end while Fraser's falls in half-hearted curls. Both men's eyes show smile lines, but while Kowalski's gaze has strayed to the camera, Fraser's eyes stay fixed on Kowalski.

12.

Fraser, reclining on a sleeping bag in the tent, wearing a pair of bright red long johns with all the buttons undone. An updrawn leg conceals his skin below the waist. His eyes are dark and intent, but his mouth is tight, fighting a grin, and he is blushing from his hairline to his chest.

13.

Double exposure. One image shows Fraser, in a similar pose to the previous picture, this time naked. His head is tipped back, showing the tendons standing out in his throat, and one open hand is reaching toward the camera. The second image shows Fraser asleep, wearing a white knit shirt, lying face down in a half- zipped sleeping bag. His head is pillowed on his arms, and his face is visible in profile, his hair pushed back. He is smiling slightly.

14.

Kowalski, asleep. The image is taken up almost entirely by his face, a left profile. His head is pillowed against the curve of Fraser's chest, covered in a white knit shirt, and there is a damp circle spreading across the fabric from the corner of his mouth.

15.

Taken on an angle, so that the image includes a great deal of tent wall behind Kowalski, who is sitting up, hair in a state of early-morning disarray. The back of his right hand is pressed to the side of his mouth, and his left hand is raised in a fist. His eyes are alight with humor, though the joke is obviously on him.

16.

Two pairs of booted feet, pressed closely together, rest in front of a propane stove on which a kettle is heating. Two enameled tin mugs, also pressed closely together, sit in the snow. The string of a tea bag hangs over the rim of one mug.

17.

Kowalski striking a heroic pose against the sky.

18.

A mountain slope, viewed from the top. Fraser stands on an outcrop of rock, wearing his Stetson, head tilted to one side. His open hands are gesturing downhill, as though inviting the viewer to join him in proceeding. In the extreme foreground, the tips of Dief's ears are visible.

19.

Close up shot of Kowalski, wearing the Stetson, pushed back on his head. The lower half of his face is concealed by the mug he holds in both reddened hands, but his eyes crinkle with a smile.

20.

Two of the dogs, lazily eating the last of a mess of biscuits and dried meat. The others, apparently having already eaten their fill, lie tangled together in a heap nearby; both of the dogs who are still eating are touching the others. In the foreground, the medical kit is lying open on the snow, its contents in obvious disarray. On the left side of the image, behind the dogs, the dark slash of a crevasse is visible. Dief is lying beside it, his head resting on his paws at the very edge.

21.

Two walls of blue-gray ice. The Stetson rests halfway down, on a small ledge, and at the bottom lies a body in a brown parka.

22.

Letters formed out of a dark powder, probably instant coffee, on snow: WON'T MAKE IT

23.

WITHOUT HIM

24.

SORRY

 


Welsh faxed the picture of the dogs to Frobisher, telling him to have his searchers check for a crevasse. Then he called Ray and Stella Vecchio into his office, and told them he had something he needed them to look at. Once they'd both calmed down, Stella agreed to help him explain things to the Kowalskis, who weren't nearly as shocked as he expected them to be. It probably didn't hurt that they'd taken out the pictures that, in Stella's educated opinion, weren't meant to be shared. Still, when Barbara got tears in her eyes over a photo of her son kissing another man, her husband just snugged his arm around her and steadied her shaking hands on the pictures.

 


Coroner's examination revealed that Dief died on impact. Kowalski and Fraser were found lying face to face on their sides, their parkas buttoned together. Lying between them was Fraser's service weapon, which contained three bullets. Neither of them had died in the fall; Fraser's back was broken, and both of Kowalski's legs. Fraser's left hand was extended to rest on Dief's muzzle, and Kowalski had both arms around Fraser.

 


They were buried, as they died, together, in the North. Frobisher, with the Kowalskis' permission, chose a spot near the Beaufort Sea, where their trail was to have ended. A photo of the site, complete with an RCMP color guard standing at the cairn, was among those on display at the memorial service in Chicago, along with the first picture from Ray's camera, showing them at the beginning of their journey.

A few days later, an 8x10 of Kowalski drooling on an indistinct white surface was tacked up on the bulletin board nearest his old desk. Vecchio claimed to have no idea how it got there, muttering something about how a man couldn't be made to testify against his wife, and it made everybody smile and confused the hell out of the new guy, so Welsh left it up. It stayed put for years.