The ash settled thick on the tent, weighing down the sides, bowing out the struts like whale ribs. Rhonnie, nestled in a sleeping bag , back-handed the roof above her sending the sheet of grey pumice sliding off with a skurr of descending grit. “How long until we can leave?” She licked her lips, a pattern of clear skin showed as a kiss around her mouth.
“This last activity spasm has slowed. As long as the fuming remains steady, you know, no explosive ejecta — like with rocks and stuff — the eruption should quit in about a half a day.” Bissa Magouti, a grad students from OSU studying volcanism on a grant from the Alaskan Department of the Interior, re-scrunchied her voluminous hair, each strand, she could feel, coated in the microscopic dust of Mt. Finfalla’s eruption.
“I”m down to my last four canisters.” Rhonnie hefted the sack of sealed screw-on mask disks. She dropped it abruptly. “You said this wouldn’t happen. You said we were just going to camp under the stars and take some seismic measurements.” A childhood friend of Bissa’s, Rhonnie struggled through the six years it took her to get through undergraduate classes in ergonomic design. Bissa and she would spend nights as children re-imagining the glimmering star patterns as their own Greek heroes and heroines.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea this would happen.”
Rhonnie blew her pale lips out in frustration. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that the Pleiades meteor shower is like, full bloom right now. ”
“If it makes any difference, none of my teammates have ever been this close to an active eruption. If we live–”
“What? Don’t tease me Bissa–”
“If we live, we’ll have a story to beat any lame-o tale Ben or Terrance could bring to the table.”
“Damn, but I could use one of those good Bridgeport brews right about now.” Rhonnie smacked her lips again, grit catching on her tongue. “Pptuuh, god I hate this dust.”
“Pumice, or more accurately tephra.”
“Screw you Bissa. It’s dust and I wanna get out of here alive.”
“Here, I’ve got a spare canister.” Bissa pulled her last can from her stash. She offered it to her friend without a second thought.
“How did this happen Bis’? How did we get trapped up here? I, I don’t wanna die up here.” Rhonnie took the canister and swapped it for the grey coated one she removed from her mask. She couldn’t wipe her tears through the mask, nor would she want to. The abrasive sand that covered everything in their tent, despite the enclosure’s seals, would have ground into her delicate lens and eyeballs and over time, rendered her blind.
“We’re not gonna die. It’s almost over, Rhon. We’ll be okay. We just have to hold out a little while longer.” Bissa’s words felt canned, like a soap opera starlet placating a dying costar. “I, I don’t know why it won’t stop. The tremors are over. The rumbling has stopped. We just need a good wind to blow the last part of the cloud away.”
“But it’s nighttime now. We can’t risk walking out now even if it did quit.”
Bissa shifted her own mask, tapping the filter to free some of the caked on tephra. Flakes fell into her lap and she brushed them off carelessly. Their LED lamp would last much long than their air. In its glare she studied her friends face, her dirty blond hair, the purple garnet stones in her earrings. She’d given Rhonnie those earrings when her friend had finally graduated.
“Do you remember the night we drank all that absinthe?” she asked while rummaging through her pack.
“The green fairy had one wicked punch.”
“Yeah, she kicked our ass.”
Rhonnie chuckled silently. “Kicked it down the street and into that gutter, what was his name?”
“Curt.” Bissa found the flask she’d been saving. “Here, hold your breath and take a sip.” She unscrewed the cap and handed the curved, leather encased vessel to Rhonnie.
Rhonnie gave it a sniff, and frowned. She tilted back the flask and swallowed a hefty drought. She immediately began to cough, but snapped the mask back tight. “I hated the taste of licorice before that night. And I still do,” she said muffled through the rubber and plastic.
“That’s funny,” Bissa took her own hit, “but I recall you perfecting that ice water drip over the sugar cube technique. Got pretty good at it I believe.” Learning to talk through a mask had taken Bissa a number of trips up to volcanoes of the Aleutian Islands. She did eventually discover than one had to talk more slowly and enunciate.
“Yeah, well. My sweet tooth would not be denied.” Rhonnie gestured for another swig.
“Nor would your libido, right, am I right?” Bissa took her turn at the flask.
The pair of them swapped the bottle back and forth, reminiscing their recent and ancient histories. The sagging tent pressed lower and lower, touching the tops of their heads. A good five centimeters of ash covered their camp. From the outside, if you knew where to look, all you would have seen was a mound of boulders, with one larger, out of place in the middle.
The mountain’s voice spoke, murmuring into the night. The winds that cast the ash cloud back over the ridge on which the two woman camped, shifted south in the early morning before the sun rose. The yellow rays scratched at the ash that covered the collapsed tent, but could not penetrate it. The south wind now began its job of clearing the grey piles from the crest of the hill. Eventually the bright orange skin of their tent shown through; the sharp points to either end springing up when enough of the volcano’s tephra had dispersed. The sides of their tiny pavilion now flapped energetically in the growing breeze.
Inside a pair of green fairies slept.