Chapter 3 (020)

Malia wasn't waiting. Malia was clawing through the snow, up the trail, running, running, running.

 

She could still hear

 

Pop,

pop,

pop

of the pistol pegging the snow, the trees, the dark.

Miss.

Miss.

Miss.

 

Glenn screaming at Sunny to wake up and grab his hand, then how he screamed when their gloves touched and the goo wrapped around his wrist. Oozed up his arm. Bound him to his sister and would not let him go.

 

The rifle sounded so different, quiet as the bullet left the barrel but it tore louder. Hit.

 

Glenn's silence. He tumbled down. His arm connected to Sunny's, they hung on the wrong sides of the same tree and that tendril wrapped around her tugged but his deadweight would not untangle. It pulled. The tree was too thick to break. The skin around Sunny's wrist tore. Her glove was still connected to Glenn, but the all the bones and the muscles and the ligaments slid out of its skin.

 

Still alive, Glenn held his sister's glove while Malia ran.

 

Jimmy watched the snake retreat down the mountain with Sunny's body, then back up to snatch Glenn. He aimed the rifle with a clear shot, knowing now that it pulled left. He squeezed the trigger--but he was out of bullets.

 

~

 

A mile on, he asked, "The hell kind of snake was that?"

 

Malia wasn't done resting but she wouldn't be seen trembling against a tree so she walked away. "Don't be an idiot."

 

"I had to have hit it like five times and it just kept coming."

 

"That wasn't a goddamn snake, Jimmy."

 

"Then what?"

 

If she heard, she didn't say anything. She continued up the path Glenn had come down to save them from Margie. It felt like yesterday, like it'd been weeks since they'd seen Tony, and laughter years away. Not earlier tonight.

 

"What the hell was it?"

 

She gave him the only answer she had: silence. And she kept going.

 

After he cried for her to stop, he seized her by the wrist. He needed the world to fit into a neat schema. Long, legless animals were snakes. Even if it were a snake, snakes didn’t live in the cold. Snakes stopped when shot. His shots always hit the stationary targets at the range. He needed the world to make sense, but Malia’s world had never made sense. She never had any control, and now neither did he.

 

"It was a snake," he spat in her face.

 

"Okay."

 

"We'll find it. You'll see." He loosened his grip. Slid it down. He was like a boy holding his mother's hand.

 

Malia shook away from him, her wrist red under the coat. It ached more than the hand exposed to the cold. She tucked them both inside her sleeves.

 

"Where are you going?" he asked.

 

Same answer as before: silence.

 

He got in front of her. His long-legged strides experienced with snow. This was his backyard, and yet his footing was unsure. His eyes watchful of shadows. His gun drawn. "I know a place we can go." Jimmy reminded himself of the story he learned in basic training. Of the sheep, the wolves, and the sheepdog. He looked every bit as dangerous as the wolves to sheep. She didn't know he was protecting her.

 

There was nowhere else to go. The singular path was straight. Danger behind them. Malia stopped anyway. Jimmy stopped. She went. He went. She stopped. He trusted she had seen it and aimed in the direction of her gaze, listening, confusing the silence with stalking, and maybe it was but neither of them knew. He just aimed where she pointed him, but she stared at him while he thought she looked ahead.

 

The path split.

 

He knew the way, and she would not follow.

 

"No, it’s over here. We’re close."

 

She kept going.

 

"Hey, where are you going?"

 

It was all she could do.

 

"You’re going to get us both killed. There’s safety in numbers."

 

The specks of black goo on Malia's jeans were still there, though she didn't know that. They were hidden in the dark. They stayed with her, always knowing where she was, how to find her, how to break her. There was no safety on this mountain. Maybe not even off it. She didn't know any of that, yet somehow she did. "No, there's not," she told him.

 

"If I have to arrest you to keep you safe, I will.

"Hey! Don’t take another step.

"It’ll get you like it got her."

 

"What will?" she asked. "The snake?"

 

He couldn’t admit aloud how his imagination, that which usually magnified the breeze into crazed murderers and other worries of the unimaginative, had unveiled the horrors that lurked, horrors that his imagination was not strong enough to invent.

 

"You shot it like five times," she said. "It must be dead."

 

He could only picture it because it was real.

 

"Don’t leave," he cried, then pulled his gun on her.

 

She turned and waited for him to do it and he didn’t so she kept going.

 

He aimed and waited for her to believe him and she didn’t care so he followed. He knew safety, if it existed, was the other path, but it was a long stretch to travel alone.


As Malia stubbornly trekked this way, she didn’t know up ahead was the ranger station. A log cabin like theirs but with a stilted viewing deck extending over the slope that’d panic any afraid of heights. Hunter would hate this place. She remembered from their time in Europe. They’d gotten on the same connecting flight home in Helsinki and he asked to switch seats with her neighbor, an old Armenian woman with excruciating body odor and yet Malia preferred her to Hunter, who wanted to hold her hand during landing. That was the second time they had met.

 

Jimmy had joined her peering over the railing. She saw, in her mind, a beautiful sunrise coming in a few hours. He saw the snake. "Let’s go inside. Maybe the ranger’s asleep."

 

The windows were dark and the inset door was orange. And it was open.

 

Cracked for some time, the inside was cold but the jug in the water cooler wasn’t completely frozen. Jimmy sloshed it around and got a wax Dixie cup, but nothing dribbled out. He rocked it. Nothing. The blue transparent casing hit against the wall. Finally a drop. Malia left the door open.

 

While Malia watched him, Jimmy peeked through the cabinets.

A box of Swiss Miss: empty.

A box of Quaker Oats Chewy: empty.

A box of Chips Ahoy!: empty.

A box of those orange peanut butter crackers: empty.

 

"There has to be something here stronger than this airsoft you guys brought," he mumbled. He'd kill to have a thirty-aught-six with a scope. That'd split it in twain. That thing would take down an elephant. "Want to help?"

 

The salt and pepper shakers were left, but knocked over. Whatever else might have been in there was taken. Malia scavenged the other side of the room. She did not notice the shadow outside.

 

In the back behind drawn privacy curtains, someone had folded the bed covers, stacking them neatly with the pillow on top. The bed was pointed at a computer desk and the monitor sat atop, perfectly in view for nighttime blu rays. A note with the Wi-Fi password stuck to the back. It lit up with the Dell logo then settled on a brightly lit black screen. Below was the actual computer and she kicked the power button.

 

"How ya doing?" he asked her and she jumped. If she'd had his gun, or found her own, there might be a hole in her foot.

 

"Haven't found anything."

 

He leaned over with her, watching the boot sequence roll through to a password screen. "Tonight. How are you doing with everything tonight?"

 

"Trying real hard to be nice to you."

 

"Let it out. I can take your tantrums, kid."
 

"Go look over there."

 

"I already--"

 

"Go."

 

She hit the enter key and it accepted that as the password. Icons littered the desktop and Mal wanted to right-click and make folders and sort this all out, but instead double-clicked one. Some boring pamphlet about safety in winter: "Even in winter, it's important to stay hydrated." And because why not, she clicked Chrome. It opened the pixel T-Rex saying there was no internet connection.

 

Outside, at the window, they loomed.

 

She searched available networks.

 

None.

 

They watched.

 

Ran diagnostics.

 

Nothing.

 

"Anything on your end?" Jimmy called over.

 

They were drawn to Jimmy's shouting. He was near an open door.

 

"If there was, I'd say something."

 

"Would you?"

 

Not now, she thought and kept feeling for an Ethernet chord that fell loose. The casing was cold and the wires a mess, but even after pulling it out, there was nothing. Why have Chrome if this place didn't have internet?

 

Her vision of where she fumbled suddenly went darker than it already was, a shadow looming over her, drawing closer. Jimmy. Behind her, again, with a map that had locations marked, dated this week.

 

"So what?"

 

He laid it out for her flat on the rickety table with folding legs. Malia pointed to their lodge. Jimmy pointed to their current location. North up the mountain from the lodge and directly west from here was the heaviest lines of topology, heavily circled with a question mark. "What do you think that is?"

 

She shrugged. "How does this get us off the mountain?"

 

"The military was here, last I knew." He pointed at nothing, well south of that question mark.

 

"Military?"

 

"They wouldn't climb such a steep peak to set up camp. But there's this other circled area, taking a route up the mountain--that's probably them."

 

"So?"

 

"The military is moving on this. Whatever's here. It has to be important."

 

"It doesn't have to be anything and even if it's important to them, how does it affect us or our situation or that snake out there?" She dropped out of the conversation before he could respond. The outdoor air was refreshingly miserable on her cheeks and now the cabin lit the observation deck. If she turned around... She looked off instead. Saw the base of the stilts. Saw the body, a bite torn from its neck.

 

The snow around it was white. The skin had marbled purple and pale, but it was recent.

 

"Listen," Jimmy started as he came out the door. Malia freaked at his footsteps, not listening, but just staring at his moving mouth. "We were both close to Sun in our own ways. She and I were more tender, and you two were more experimental and--"

 

"Stop."

 

"It's hard to hear, but she's gone and we can't lose each other now."

 

Malia pointed at the body and he shut up about Sunny as he looked for the safest path down. The hill sloped gently and he stepped slowly, watching the dark close in, till he was at the body, half-buried by impact. Not enough blood in the snow to be the kill site. It'd been thrown over after. "Get me my light from the bag," he barked at Malia.

 

Inside, Malia looked through his bag on the counter by a window. The shadow passed by, and finally she noticed.

 

She looked up.

 

Gone.

 

She crouched below the counter. If it hadn't seen her, it wouldn't now.

 

"Hurry, would you?" Jimmy called.

 

She peeked at the next window in the shadow's path, inching up, and when she saw out, she dropped. She hadn't seen anything. She peeked back up.

 

"It's on the table. Or wait, maybe the counter."

 

Out the door way, she saw it. The shadow. The person. Their hood up.

 

Who is it?

 

1. A woman. "Sunny?"

2. A man. Malia runs out the back.

Chapter 3 (010)

The muzzle drew a line in the snow as Margie aimed the rifle past her foot up the hill she'd slid down. Her back to a tree. Her head ached. When she slammed against it, like a seven-year-old who couldn’t stop the sled, her puffy coat popped but did not cushion her ribs.

 

She rested. Listened to the sounds between heavy breaths. She could hear its approach.

 

Peeking over her shoulder, she spotted the next stop. An aspen that with leaves could have inspired the Truffula tree but its branches were barren.

 

She twisted off her spot. Slid down, spun, wound up sideways, started to roll through a powder shower, building speed as the loose hair beneath her skullcap streaked gray and for long enough she lost count of time, she rolled. She knew she had missed the tree altogether when her ribs hit another trunk.

 

She hacked out wet breaths.

 

However, she didn't let go of the gun.

 

Nothing would make her.

 

She was halfway down. Two more jumps? Could she survive that? Could she walk after?

 

Above, she heard that thing's many footsteps as they rushed and wriggled along the trail she had skipped because the slopes and gravity were so much faster, but if she wanted to stay hidden, she needed her breath steady. Even the blood in her ears seemed loud. It had to know she was there. It had to be on its way. Plotting to catch her if she lingered.

 

Another aspen but if she missed, a fallen one. The jagged edges aimed at her. Maybe they'd be softened by rot, she thought, but nothing about tonight suggested she had any luck.

 

On the other side, nothing close. She could try walking but she already feel gravity tugging one side of her to tip beyond the tree so it could drag her to dark unknown.

 

She risked impalement foot-first. She just had to hit that first tree.

 

Off she went.

 

Miss.

 

She flung her body even if it meant she'd catch the trunk on her chest again, but it was too far, and her arm not long enough.

 

Down, down, down, down.

 

On her stomach, watching her goal get smaller farther up the mountain. Snow flew into her coat.

 

Down, down, down.

 

Knowing how close that fallen splintered log was.

 

Down.

 

And she watched the log as she blew past.

 

Saved from that danger but what below? What'd stop her? Was there anything before the trail? Was she even hoping there was another stop? The screen of snow flew around her. She only knew about the trees she nearly hit when the rushing wind sounded different. Eventually her path would be obstructed. She knew it. She knew this wouldn’t last but the longer it did, the faster she’d splatter against it. However, she burst across the trail, slowing, her chin snapping against flat land.

 

Then the momentum sent her to that next slope.

 

Flailing at the ground, she tried to swim freestyle up the frozen current, but it had taken her.

 

Only a tree, knocked over, stopped her.

 

She felt the aches on her face from bumping against the ground sting to life as adrenaline ebbed. Her nose had hit and her eyes blackened for the first time since childhood when her mom had tossed up a ball for pop fly practice and the sun had gotten in little Margie Marigold Mae’s eyes. But whatever the little pains, even the big ones like her ribs, at least she was lying on a big ice pack.

 

Rest was short.

 

That thing was still on its way. She reached for the gun and it was gone.

 

When? Where? How? Her memory jump cut from the tree up the hill to the one down it, from when she clutched the rifle to empty-handed.

 

On the trail.

 

It had lost momentum when the corner of the stock caught the hard packed snow and it had cartwheeled till the muzzle aimed her way. She scrambled for it. Then up the slope a few trees, however far she could get, before gravity fought too hard.

 

That thing was already here.

 

There were three of it now. Four. Three and a half. And the ones inside Tony and Hunter must have split off. Taken Roger. Who was even left?

 

She aimed on it, knowing it was useless, but still feeling some safety in the act. If any of it moved her way, she'd blast it. Her finger on the trigger. Her breath finally steady.

 

Until that thing was gone.

 

After holding for so long, she sucked in a big, aching breath and held till it hurt.

 

How soon till it turned around? Split the group into continuing on and coming back for her. If she stayed, that thing would find her and so she had to risk going down the next slope and going down faster. No breaks.

 

So she went.

 

Faster until she'd given up control and closed her eyes, though in the dark and in the shadow of the mountain, she had poor visibility anyway, but this took away every scary silhouette that whizzed by. She was halfway down. She'd picked a good, clear spot. Her luck had held. Only spray and chunks of ice pelted her face but with her hands up, guarding her face, nothing slit her cheeks or tested the durability of her eyelids. Until her hand hit. The tree was already up and away by the time she could see but she was spinning then going backwards and rolling, hitting her ear with her knee, feeling it strain in her neck. The rifle just another limb flailing against her body in this violent tumble.

 

She flopped upon the trail.

 

Her ear was fine. Her knee. Her neck a bit sore. Toes and teeth intact. Not a drop of blood dribbled from her.

 

But she shrieked.

 

She had stiff-armed a tree. Groping her forearm in the dark, tugging at it despite pain in the stiff elbow, she wasn’t sure the hand, numb, was still hers.

 

There was no time to examine these tears and closed-mouth screams and figuring out what exactly she had suffered. She needed cover. Ahead, a lodge identical to theirs, the lights off except this security light flickering. Probably empty.

 

Carrying her own arm, she scurried with a bit of a limp behind the lodge.

 

She waited for it.

 

Testing her arm, her dominant, disabled arm, she had to switch how she aimed. She held the trigger with her left hand and propped up the barrel of the rifle on her upper arm. It had a distinct tilt down but she could do no better standing. And prone she had stealth and an accurate aim but no mobility and that was what she needed most.

 

Here it came. All three of it trotting along, one holding the half in its arms, curled tight against its chest.

 

Margie screamed, "Hands up!"

 

One of that thing didn't and she almost shot but it stooped to put the half down. The rest obeyed. The half shivered in the snow but didn't make a move for her. She kept the gun trained on it and her eyes on the rest.

 

"Margie?" one of it asked, sounding almost human enough still to express some happiness.

 

"Shut up," she barked.

 

"It's us."

 

She swung the gun to the big ones. It would not trick her.  "I said shut up."

 

"We've all had some shit tonight, Marge. Put the gun down."

 

"She's not going to do anything."

 

"Don’t test it, Ion."

 

"Why? It's either her or that thing and I'd rather it be quicker than getting pulled through a window and devoured. And where were you two? I was screaming for help and you were already out the back."

 

"You weren't far behind."

 

"What's in your hand?" Margie motioned with the gun and clenched her teeth. Without her winter layers, they'd have seen every muscle in her neck tense. With light, they would've seen how she whimpered.

 

It held up a butcher's knife.

 

"Cut yourself," Margie instructed. "Hand, arm, face, I don't care. Just bleed for me."

 

It looked at each other. The silence following was full of schemes and glances and concerns of being found out but she already knew and if they dropped this pretense sooner, good.

 

"Show me if you can still bleed."

 

"This is lunacy!"

 

The silent wrapped-up thing eyed the gun, though, more nervous than the rest, while the half sniffed at the door. "Ion, let's just do it."

 

"No! No way."

 

"It'll take a second and we'll be fine after."

 

"Will we? Look at her! First a cut then what next? Slippery slope and today's been hell enough knowing two of my--three..." Its fury trailed like the puff of vapor in its breath.

 

"Just do it."

 

All the while Margie stared. One wrapped in a blanket. What was it doing beneath? What was the half doing at the door?

 

One cut its hand and let the blood drip into the snow. Quinn handed the knife over, but it did nothing so she grabbed a hand from beneath the blanket and it winced as the blade went in and blood came out. Quinn tied a corner of the blanket around Rosie's hand.

 

"Is a finger, okay?" it asked.

 

She said nothing. Waited.

 

Damion.

 

In better light, they might’ve seen the instant she softened, the regret in her expression, how horrified she was at herself, the apology forming on her lips and the her grip on the gun loosen so she could with her one working arm hug them all including---in better light, they might’ve seen the instant that relief died.

 

She waited, stone-faced.

 

"Marge, please put the gun down. Rosie is already beyond the edge and this isn't helping."

 

She pointed the gun at the half.

 

"No."

 

Every time it scratched the door she itched to pull the trigger.

 

"You're not serious. Come on! He's freezing out here and we don't have any shelter yet."

 

"Why is it any crazier than making us?"

 

It barked.

 

Margie needed just one more reason to do it.

 

"I'm not cutting Beagsley."

 

Her finger twitched. It looked just like him but she was decided.

 

Her finger...

 

The door opened.

 

The rifle snapped up at the lighted opening.

 

The door closed.

 

"Open up!" she screamed.

 

Quinn and the rest froze in place, watching the door, the windows.

 

"That door's not thick enough to stop this rifle."

 

It barked again.

 

Staring at Margie's finger, the barrel swaying and shaking with her worn body, Quinn felt it was her responsibility to get everyone out alive, even whoever or whatever was behind the door. "Look, we've had a really shit night and we just need somewhere warm for thirty minutes, an hour, then we'll leave. She's not dangerous, but she doesn't trust you."

 

They waited for the door, but when there was no response, Margie got closer to the trigger.

 

Quinn kicked it. "Fine, then I'm busting this goddamn door down."

 

Again but harder.

 

Again but softer because her frozen toes might've chipped.

 

And she reeled up for another when it opened. There was a blonde woman with her hair loosely braided for the night, her hands already up. "Please come in." Her eyes darted to the side of the door, maybe counting the intruders or looking for a face she knew.

 

It rushed in like a typical dog. Sniffing. On the couch behind a throw pillow. In the crack. Settled. Warm again.

 

Then Damion rushed in. And from the side of the of the door, where the woman had glanced, a man tackled him. The man pinned Damion to the ground with little effort between the surprise and general mountain man physique, but Damion struggled beneath him anyway, wriggling, screaming.

 

The man stopped.

 

Got off.

 

Also put his hands up.

 

Quinn and Rosie entered and everyone backed up to wall with two doors. From the crack under the one on the right, darkness. From the crack under the other, light and a shadow, but the group didn’t see and Margie’s eyes and aim were on the new two. When she was inside, she shut the door with her back.

 

"The knife," Margie barked.

 

Quinn raised it up to gleam under the electrical lights, uncertain what Margie wanted. To cut them or to hand it to them. Neither seemed like they'd go over well.

 

The woman in a calm voice explained, "We have a young child here. James was protecting him, like any father would, but he should have just talked to you folks. And you," she said to Margie wobbling as she leaned against the door. "You look like you're concussed. Maybe a broken arm, too. That's not your dominant hand, is it? Any other injuries?" She opened the question to the group with what sounded like genuine concern. "I'm Dr. Elyse Willems."

 

"What's your specialty?" Damion asked. He'd already found a blanket to wrap around his feet. "I'm not letting a pediatrician treat my gangrene."

 

"Ion, she's offering to help. Don't be a dick."

 

"What? I'm a doctor, too, but you wouldn't want me drawing blood from you."

 

Seeing Elyse's confusion why any doctor wouldn’t be able to do something so basic, Quinn told her, "He means he has a PhD."

 

"That doesn't count."

 

"Sure, it does!" Damion yelled. "I've worked at CERN before."

 

Elyse made a face.

 

"I only got my doctorate for the joke. Dr. Quinn, biology woman."

 

"Yours counts, then."

 

"Hey!"

 

Elyse had torn off Damion's foot blanket to examine the affected areas. "You don't have gangrene, but you shouldn't be running through the snow in socks. I'm more concerned about her."

 

Margie had collapsed into the corner nearest the door and aimed toward them as they had this reprieve from the dread of the night. She could hardly hold the gun up anymore, but if anyone tested that, they'd get their knees blown off. "Stay where you are."

 

Elyse stopped. Her hands never fell from the surrendered position. "Can you take your coat off, please? I need to look at you. You probably need some bandaging, maybe stitches, even a splint. It'll be tough to do a full examination from here but I won't move until you trust me. So please, the coat?"

 

Margie mumbled.

 

"What?"

 

"I can't."

 

"Broken, huh? We'll need to cut off the coat. At least it looks like the skin's intact since you're not bleeding through. Would you let Dr. Quinn, biology woman, do it? You're friends, right?"

 

"Test her," Margie told Quinn who still had the knife.

 

James had watched this exchange from between the doors and nearly lunged across couch and room for Quinn when Elyse gave him a sit down command with a look. He joined Rosie on the couch till he saw the dog behind the throw pillow then moved to an armchair but he made sure Margie was in sight. And Quinn. And he kept peeking at Damion over his shoulder.

 

"Him, too."

 

Quinn held the knife handle toward Elyse, hoping that made this easier, but Elyse wouldn’t take it. "She needs to see you both bleed. Just a drop. A paper cut basically.” Quinn struggled with the words. “I can't explain why."

 

Elyse agreed, but with a condition: "Do whatever to me, let me examine you, then you can do the same to James, okay? Otherwise no deal."

 

Quinn waited for Margie's go-ahead. Truth be told, she knew sweet old Marge had always had this devilish streak, back before the commune, when she was an architect. Stress turned her into this budgeless type, silently staring without expression, till people obeyed. The rifle helped. Quinn had never seen it fail. Margie nodded.

 

With red blood drawn via syringe and the hole sealed by a purple band-aid, Elyse started toward Marge but Marge got jumpy.

 

"This would work better without the gun," Quinn said.

 

"That's okay." Elyse shook out eight pills from a bottle of ibuprofen, giving them to Quinn to give to Margie. "We don't have any real painkillers and even taking off the coat will hurt. A lot. Snapping the bone back in place and splinting it is going to be rough so take these now and hopefully they’ll help." She had so much patience, closing in with baby steps, her hands always up, turning her back to grab supplies that she piled near Marge but then scooted the bag over with her foot so Margie could peek in, check it, and then Elyse could start.

 

Quinn cut off the coat, too slow for Margie, but she didn't want to catch her arm. And kitchen shears weren't meant for nylon and cotton. Margie groaned but said nothing and kept hold of the gun, though it pointed at no one.

 

The elbow jutted out. "Thank goodness," Elyse said with an exaggerated sigh of relief, for the patient's ease of mind.

 

"What?" Quinn asked.

 

"It's just dislocated. It's not pleasant and we're not completely clear, but a dislocation is easier to treat out here. Broken bones could cause internal bleeding. Plus complications from being away from a hospital... Well, let's just be glad it's only this bad."

 

"Good news, Marge."

 

"I'm going to put it back in its socket and it's going to hurt, but the relief after--ho! You’ll love me."

 

Quinn offered Margie her hand. Elyse told her not to, warning of broken fingers, and Margie refused because she'd have to let go of her only comfort. Afraid of tensing up, she did move her trigger finger, though.

 

Elyse grabbed the wrist and below the elbow, instructing Quinn to pull up on the arm. Margie's hips arched upward as the pain came strong. The ligaments tensed and the skin around it was gaunt, stretched and dipping. Elyse's hand strained.

 

Then a gritty bone-on-bone pop! "Nnngh!" Margie seethed between grinding teeth then a guttural noise of relief that caught Damion’s curious gaze. Everything felt right again. Back in place. Release from a steady torture.

 

"We need to test your nerves now. First pinky to thumb. Good. Hand bent up like you're saying 'Stop.' Good. Spread your fingers..."

 

The light-headedness came on quick. The doctor was touching her fingertips to see if they'd blanch when she lurched off, rifle in hand.

 

James pinned Quinn before she could react.

 

"Let's all calm down," the doctor said. "Let her go." The gun pointed upward and her hands were still in the surrender position.

 

"Why?"

 

She gave him a look.

 

"If you're sure."

 

Rosie was asleep. Damion hadn't been able to react. Beagsley was barking, which freaked out James and another dog behind the closed door with the light on.

 

Elyse ejected the magazine from the rifle and then cleared the chamber. There was only one bullet left. All this tension, these commands obeyed from the threat that could be carried out once. Elyse actually laughed. She set the bullet on the kitchen table. "We split it up and this thing is harmless, right? The bullet with your group. The gun with us. Everyone’s safe then."

 

"Give us the rifle and you take the bullet," Damion said. "You could have other bullets."

 

"This isn't our gun."

 

"We don't even have one," James added.

 

"We're less likely to have bullets for your gun in our pockets than you guys are."

 

"You can check us," Quinn suggested, turning out her coat pockets.

 

Elyse shook her head. "You can check us."

 

Damion and Quinn split the task under Margie’s drowsy supervision. Every drawer opened. The tray of silverware jangled as they took it out and checked under then put it back in. The cabinets full of freshly washed plates and glasses with a ring of drips still freshly soaked into the shelves. Damion even thought to check under the couch cushions. Up from her nap anyway, Rosie helped but might have still been out of it. Only that single bullet in Quinn’s pocket.

 

But, there were two doors. The dark one on the right that had Beagsley’s attention. And the one with the other dog on the left.

 

“Go ahead,” Elyse said.

 

"Are you sure?" James asked.

 

"We want them to trust us.”

 

Which do you choose?"

 

1. "That one's where we keep the dog, a doberman. He's professionally trained. Harmless."

2. "That's our son's room. Try not to scare him. He's a sound sleeper, but there’s been a lot of commotion tonight."



 

Chapter 3 (000)

Don't open that door no matter what.

 

Quinn heard it above the chaos.

 

Damion pulled at the door, unaware that the Quinn had locked the knob earlier, so he and Tony rattled the door from separate sides to no effect. Rosie hung on his shoulders. It slowed him down, frustrated him, but it was typical Rose, drugs or no. Roger helped by getting Rosie back, and while she was loose and near limp, that made it like wrangling a noodle. And the three of them were unprepared to be bowled over by Quinn.

 

"You can't open that door." She guarded it with her body.

 

"We have to," Rosie pleaded. "I have to see that it's really him."

 

She was the first on her feet, the others stunned by confusion, and Beagsley got in her way but she stumbled over him and as he lunged for her, fangs and teeth, he ripped open her tail when he tried to drag her back. And back she went. Drugged up, she didn't have the mental fortitude to take on a mighty beast--and Quinn, who wrestled her away. Quinn's own panic took over. Rosie was down, but Quinn kept pushing, and Roger ran over to break it up by pinning Quinn in an armbar he learned from the WWE. Someone stepped on Damion’s toes.

 

The thuds on the hardwood. The yells and guttural calls. The growls more vicious than anything that sweet dog had ever needed.

 

And through it all, Tony banged at that door. No faster. No slower. No calling through to ask what the hell was happening. Just knock.

 

"Stop!" Roger screamed when Quinn punched.

 

Knock.

 

Damion gave little ineffective kicks to shoo Beagsley.

 

Knock.

 

"Where's the gun, Tony?" Quinn yelled.

 

And the room went quiet. Even the dog. They could hear the buzz of electricity in the waiting. The heater sputtered. Quinn panted, swallowed the build-up of spit, and with this one question winning her some small victory, she wondered what to do when they all realized what she knew.

 

Knock.

 

Damion peeked at the window.

 

Knock.

 

"Tony?" Roger called out. "Show us and she'll let you in."

 

Damion shook his head.

 

Knock.

 

"He probably left it. Out of bullets," Roger made a guess.

 

"Or saving them," Damion said.

 

The door safe and the group settled, Beagsley resumed barking desperate to be heard and Quinn went silent.

 

"This is Tony, guys! Not some psycho."

 

"What's the difference?"

 

Quinn looked away from the dog. "We have to leave."

 

"What?" both the boys sounded in unison.

 

"What happened to the lodge being the safest place? We stayed for a reason."

 

Quinn grabbed her coat and hat and wrapped the blanket around Rosie like she was a burrito. "You'll die here. I'm leaving with or without you. Let's go, Rose." She grabbed Beagsley's leash still attached to his harness on the counter and she didn't have time to fiddle with that so she carried the dog.

 

Damion got in her way. "He's not producing enough force to break through. Why run? You sneak out the back and you expose the rest of us."

 

"Lock it after me."

 

"It's TONY!" Roger yelled.

 

Beagsley licked Quinn's cheeks, tasted the salt running down them. "No, it's not. Tony's gone."

 

In the silence they noticed--the knocking had stopped. Damion looked at one window, the one where Beagsley liked to lay, and didn't see Tony at the door anymore. They went to the other window and there he was. His face a mess.

 

It wasn't just the light hitting a weird angle. His face was like a prune. Mushy, desiccated, discolored. So many wrinkles.

 

"He needs our help!"

 

Roger started for the door, but Quinn had her knife again.

 

However, Damion couldn't look away from Tony.

 

His pores leaked. The lines on his face weren't wrinkles but swollen veins. The fattest ones ran up either side of his chin, connected over the nose, traced his eyebrows, and sprawled across his forehead like spiderwebs and where the capillaries ended, there leaked his pores. Black droplets. Hanging. Then tearing along his blood vessels. Damion saw Tony's skin split open like canvas as black goo covered his face. Damion leaned in, fascinated.

 

Tony smashed his face against the glass.

 

It cracked.

 

Knock.

 

The cracks spread.

 

"We're leaving." Quinn bolted for the storage door.

 

Knock.

 

Roger, too, ushering Rosie.

 

And Damion...

 

He saw Tony smash through the glass. It tinkled onto the floor below the window sill.

 

Knock.

 

Tony kept pushing through.

 

The crossing wood frames ripped like paper as Tony shoved his face inside. The jagged edges cut his shirt and caught dead skin but he would not bleed. He would not stop.

 

And Damion could not move.

 

Outside, the rifle fired into the air. Hunter, on one knee, aimed at the back of Tony's head and ordered him, "Down on the ground!"

 

Tony stopped.

 

Damion was saved.

 

And yet, he still ran.

 

The others hadn't gotten far, just outside the door, when Damion heard screams and a gunshot and more screams and another shot and this sound like ketchup squirting and Rosie stopped to look so Damion shoved her ahead, not stopping to help her up, Roger did that, and Damion just ran, ran like wild for Quinn and Beagsley. If anyone could, they'd protect him; only Quinn knew they couldn’t.

 

Whereas Glenn, Sunny, and Malia went south down the mountain, this group in their panic fled north, up, where the forest thickened with evergreens so thick snow never landed and they walked on pine needles. However, even the tall trees arched from the weight of an old ice storm. Nothing could block this blizzard.

 

Overhead, Damion spotted powerlines. Thin silhouettes that swore warmth if they could follow far enough.

 

Quinn asked, “Why are there--” but Damion interrupted.

 

“Doesn’t matter.”

 

He took the lead from Quinn, who had walked slow, scanning the dark, but Damion kept his eyes ahead, even as they hit the timberline where perforated orange plastic ripped at one metal stake and hung limp from another that had all its paint chipped off. Pushing aside seedlings with their young roots insulated, Damion walked past the snow fence, climbing over the snow drift that had stretched it till the paint faded and then torn. There was no more wind cover. But Damion swore at the other end, they’d find warmth.

 

The electrical lines ascended a crag. It sloped enough for a goat, maybe even for them, if they had light, climbing experience, and energy beyond desperate adrenaline.

 

“Back to the forest? Not so windy,” Roger said.

 

Damion tried climbing but slid down. He paced around the snow in his socks.

 

His favorite part of the cabin: the hardwood. It was like when he was a kid and his mom polished the hallways and the wall at the end had smudges from times when he'd picked up too much speed from new socks. His last apartment had carpet and roommates. They wore their shoes in the apartment, too! Lunacy. He could do it at his current living quarters with its wide, regularly swept corridors, but he didn't want to draw attention to how casually he treated his university office, lest they find his pillow.

 

And now, through the snow, up a mountain, his socks were not just soaked, but ice shoes. The group needed the promise of those electrical lines to be true.

 

Willing the slope to get gentler soon, Damion continued around the crag for that breadcrumb of hope.

 

“What should we do, boy?” Quinn asked Beagsley, nestled under her coat with her breasts a perfect cover. She looked like she’d given up her daily jogs in favor of daily Korean barbecue, but at least the little pup kept her warm, through his body heat and the added effort of hauling him. “Please talk to me.”

 

But Beagsley had nothing he could say other than what they all felt sapping them: Too cold.

 

The group followed each other in the dark by the heavy breaths and the snow trails everyone kicked up with big clomping steps through knee-high snow. No one had a phone or a light but Quinn advised them, “Close your eyes for a minute and let your rods and cones adjust. You won’t see many details but better than blind.”

 

Roger saw no details on the back of his eyelids, but he was paired with Rosie under her blanket and she guided him along ridges too tall to be buried by the snow rose up. The current ridge started to turn in on itself and so Damion scrambled over. He expected the group to follow.

 

Roger slipped.

 

Damion didn’t stop.

 

Rosie helped him up.

 

The path Damion took them on ended at a cliff, straight up. “We’ll go--we’ll go the other--other way.”

 

That other way was a ten-minute backtrack and they couldn’t find it again in the world of white and shadows.

 

Damion retreated into math as Quinn took point. About -4 C. Wind speed: 15 m/s. The windchill formula. -17 C. Dry, covered skin, safe. But toes. In this blizzard. And out, thirty, forty minutes--hypothermia.

 

"L-l-let-t-t me..." he stammered.

 

Roger had shoes, but in the rush, he grabbed Malia's leather coat. It hadn't been enough for her during the warmest days inside. With the collar of his graphic tee hooked over his nose, his slow, shallow breaths no longer warmed his arms tucked inside. Even under the blanket with Rose wasn't enough. Not warm enough, not big enough.

 

"Not." Roger tried to say "Not yet," but couldn't.

 

Rose gave up her spot. She had her kigurumi still, wet till the legs froze like greaves shielding her shins from logs. Tripping did not crack her armor.

 

"Down," Damion stuttered, needing Roger, just a few centimeters taller, to duck because the cold air was in.

 

"Wait." Roger mumbled.

 

The blanket rode up on Roger's calves as Damion walked too fast and he yelled between clenched teeth, "DOWN!" They stumbled in the snow as Damion yanked the blanket down and Roger wouldn't get up and Damion carried on, wrapping the blanket tighter around himself.

 

Quinn stopped him. He looked at her covered with hat, gloves, a coat, shoes, and plotted mutiny. But she sat him down next to Roger, all of them sharing warmth, and counted her breaths. When she got to one hundred, she punched Roger to wake him.

 

"Mmm," he said in a shiver.

 

"You've had your 20 minutes to nap," Quinn told him. "Now let's go."

 

Rosie helped him up with bare hands going blue, despite keeping them in her pits. He joined Damion under the blanket again.

 

"Here." Quinn handed Rosie Beagsley. "Little radiator will keep you warm."

 

"Hey." The dog had gone silent, not even shivering. The group had trodden quietly so as not to be tracked and the weather kept them quiet save for these squabbles and soft whimpers.

 

Quinn felt the cold same as the rest, but she could no longer carry the dog. Exposure had sapped her. And no one knew what to do. Or how long till the road and even if they found that road, how long till shelter. Or did they build shelter? But then it'd find them.

 

"Wait." Roger dropped.

 

Again, Quinn gathered the group and counted her breaths but the soothing rhythm of numbers was putting everyone to sleep, herself included, and even a ten-minute snooze in this would kill them. "Get up. That half hour should’ve done you some good."

 

Roger said closed-mouth, “Mhm.” The group started on again, but Roger stayed standing. He leaned against a tree. Closed his eyes again.

 

Quinn kept her hands tight to her body but bumped Roger with her shoulders to say “Let’s go,” and again he grunted affirmative, like he understood, and the group started but Roger stayed where he was.  

 

Damion kept walking. Rosie, too. And, with one last look, Quinn.

 

Then Damion huddled under his blanket, where the chill swaddled him like only his nanny could. And he found sleep quick.  

 

The women marched on.

 

Rosie set down Beagsley. His legs buried and chin on the edge of the hole he sunk into, he waited.

 

"I'll stay," Quinn said and sat with her hands in her crotch.

 

Rosie walked, eyes closed, asleep, until she ran into a bluff.

 

That opened into a cave.

 

Where it was safe.

 

And quiet.

 

Warm.

Sleep.

 

She needed to go back.

 

She propped Roger up on her shoulder, as he had done for her. Damion took a few kicks to rouse but would not move till she stole the blanket then he joined the mound of people, staggering through the trees. Roger hit one. It stopped them all. They waited, unaware how near Quinn was. Quinn thought they were it and wandered toward, but it was them, just people. Blind, moving like sleepy drunks in a tied-leg race, they found the bluff. Stopped. Rosie nudged Damion and he fell but caught himself and kept falling and kept catching himself and that started their tangle of legs inching toward the cave. This ugly frozen huddle collapsed against the wall. The frozen blanket contained little warmth and little life. Roger slept with his nose smooshed.

 

They were safe in their dreams that felt forever, when Rosie remembered Beagsley, still waiting.

 

She could not make it the final steps to those kneeling under the blanket so she slept curled around the dog.

 

Someone tried to wake Rosie. Does she wake up?

 

1. Yes.

2. No.

Chapter 2 (02)

"You're all a bunch of idiots," Quinn cried out as Sunny, Malia, and Glenn left for the car via the service road. The unmarked route split as they came upon a cabin identical to theirs. The security light in back flickered. The door was locked and windows dark and the wind hit hard so they discussed their options beneath the orange light, and Malia echoed Quinn's favorite word, "Idiot."

 

Glenn had wandered onto the wrong path. Neither continued down; however, Glenn's had an incline. He had just been scoping it out until she fought him on it. "Barely!" he yelled. "And you can see it turn in on itself, toward the parking lot."

 

When the whole party had arrived on the mountain a few days ago, they ignored the warnings and attempted to drive the service road, at Hunter's insistence, but the bends were narrowed by snowdrifts and they reached a roadblock. The road was also too narrow for a J-turn. Their three-car caravan had to back down an icy mountain in the dark.

 

"What do you think, Sunny?" Glenn asked his twin.

 

Both routes looked wrong. "Let’s just pick." Then she noticed Malia had taken off the hat Sunny had given her. "You'll freeze, little lamb."

 

Woven with multiples thread, pink and blue and shades of each, they named the concoction "cotton candy" and it was so sweet it was repulsive. Malia's ears were folded over by the friendship that also locked the hat upon her head. The pom poms hung with the immeasurable weight of knitted yarn soaked in shame. "I feel like an idiot."

 

Glenn teased, "For good reason." Sunny slapped his down coat. He didn't feel a thing, but said, "Ow," anyway.

 

"It's adorable. Plus she needs it. When was the last time you got snow in Arizona?"

 

Every night here, on the lodge's couch with a blanket for a cape and the sun warming Malia in the stuffy, rusty heat, her hands clutching fresh coffee, not for the taste or energy, but for the warmth, she had shivered. After college, Malia had moved home to the blazing winter sunshine of New Mexico.

 

She took off her hat. "What grandma even bought this?" She thought the hat was Sunny's.

 

The security light died and Glenn fiddled with the casing to magic it back on. "Tony."

 

"You put a dead man's hat on me?" Malia ripped the hat off.

 

"We don't know he's dead." Sunny tried sliding the hat on once more, but Malia fought this time.

 

"Better stop thinking like that." The hat wound up in the snow. "Aren't you a doctor? Isn't half the job prepping for that sweet kid you made a connection with to wind up with late-stage toenail cancer?"

 

Sunny picked up the hat but just held it.

 

And Malia mumbled, "That's all they show on TV anyway."

 

The light fell dead for good again. Like it’d been cut. They flipped a coin and picked Malia's path, a stretch that narrowed between rock faces so they had to continue one by one till it opened up and there, they could still see their cabin lighting the ridge above. They were mostly down with a few more bends when they heard the gunshots. Two at the cabin.

 

"Guess they found the gun," Glenn said in that joking tone but the punchline: that nervous tension of feeling it aim on them. No one laughed.

 

Mal said, "Great. Let's head back."

 

"We don't know who that was."

 

"Sure, we do. It’s our old pal Tony, right? Just bringing the gun back." She started back up the trail but Sunny, connected by vice grip fingers, anchored her from taking another step.

 

Glenn let out a hard laugh at his own joke before he ever made it. "Rose can explain when we get back." He mocked how she hyperventilated.

 

The only sound as reply were footsteps crunching snow as they marched on, but Malia stopped.

 

"What's funny about that?"

 

"Just a joke. Can’t take it?"

 

"There's not a person alive so far from the edge something can't push them over and some of us are so fucking close already. You'd shove us off for a bad laugh?"

 

Sunny got between the two and pushed her brother back as he got in Malia's face. Maybe unaware of the habit; being a tall guy in good shape, he won a lot of arguments for a reason. No physical violence ever came of these primal threats. Sunny didn't even know if he was aware he was doing it, but it was a habit he should've grown out of. It was a habit he never should've learned. "Glenn, let's keep attempts to lighten the mood sensitive. And disagreements civil."

 

"Fuck off," Malia said.

 

It was like getting clocked from behind. "I'm agreeing with you, Mal."

 

"We both know what you're doing."

 

"I wasn't doing anything."

 

"Well I'm the asshole willing to say what we're all thinking. Never should've let you manipulate me into coming and now we're going to die because of you. You think everyone decided to hell with it, let's shoot some squirrels? Whoever shot Tony is at the cabin. Two shots, two more dead, wanna take bets on who it was? Then let's just get the hell out of here."

 

She marched on.

 

Sunny didn't.

 

Glenn saw the opportunity to part ways with that ticking time bomb. This wasn't the first time she screamed at someone over nothing this week and in their history together, how many times had Malia berated Sunny over some perceived slight? Too many. “I’m taking the other path.” He waited for Sunny to join him.

 

"Come on, Glenn," Sunny said. "The coin said this way."

 

"Malia said that way. The coin fell in the snow. She picked it up."

 

“Do you really think that?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Mal trudged down the path, scowling at even the snow, pretending not to listen. Sunny followed.

 

Glenn went his own way. Sunny just watched both get farther from her and said a little prayer that the paths met up again and soon, before she hurried toward Mal.

 

In the dark, Malia focused on her footing but did not notice the black goop stuck to her frayed pant-legs. It squirmed. Every few steps, she landed on black specks embedded in the snow that wormed their way up her mismatched Converse sneakers and it grew slowly but impatiently. Hungry.

 

"Should've brought the Xanax," Sunny said.

 

But Malia wouldn't be coaxed into talking.

 

"You probably have your own medication, I guess. Dangerous to mix and match."

 

The more Sunny tried, the more Malia hated herself, frozen tears held back with sniffs that she swore, in her head, were because it was cold, and the heavy breathing, too. Malia lied even to herself. She wanted an excuse to apologize, but the biggest roadblock, pride, kept her from opening her mouth.

 

Sunny kicked the snow, accidentally, then again playfully, and again trying to cover Malia.

 

Malia turned around. Almost ready to give in. Then continued on.

 

Sunny would not stop. It got in Malia's hood.

 

While wiping it out, the spray hit Sunny, who threw some back, and then and then and then Malia had Sunny's hood full and pulled over her head and Sunny was screaming, "Stop! Stop!" and Malia flew off. She'd taken it too far. She was already on her feet ready to continue walking, continue scowling, continue in silence.

 

But Sunny came out laughing. "You little butt. Pretty sure that got down the back of my shirt."

 

"You started it."

 

"And like usual," she said good-naturedly, "you returned fire with so much force, I had to relent."

 

In a small voice, "I can't help it."

 

"It's okay. You're trying."

 

The two curled together in the snow, both shivering, Malia's lip were split because she'd chewed them all weekend, but they were finally made up. At least for this last fight. And to seal the deal, Sunny walloped a scoop of snow into Malia's face, pinning her.

 

The black goop on Malia’s pants had rubbed onto Sunny, but neither had noticed yet.

 

"GET THE FUCK OFF HER!" someone cried out. A small spotlight hit them and it was tough to see past.

 

Sunny rolled off and as the spotlight trained on her, Malia saw who held it--Margie. The phone was in her pocket. Her hands were full with the rifle.

 

"No one move," Margie yelled. Her raspy voice carried a desperate authority.

 

"Hey, hun," Sunny cooed. "What's going on?"

 

"Shut up!" She wouldn't get closer, but she cut a wide berth down the switchback. The slope was too steep for walking, thus the path that turned back on itself, but Margie would not wait. She couldn't. She tripped and her itchy trigger finger luckily fell as she did.

 

With Margie face down in the snow, Mal rushed toward her.

 

"Don't!" Sunny yelled.

 

She was too far. Margie snapped the crosshairs on Malia and she froze.

 

A snowflake landed on Margie's cheek and instantly she wiped it off on her shoulder then retrained her sights on Malia. Sunny's foot settled into the snow with just a little sound and the gun pointed at Sunny. Every little motion agitated Margie. Putting hands up, the sign for surrender, almost got Sunny shot. "You're really scaring us here."

 

"You shot him?" Malia demanded.

 

"Shut up."

 

"Did you shoot Tony?"

 

"Malia, please. Margie would never." Sunny approached Malia just wanting her to shut up for once but that girl pushed every situation toward more conflict, waiting for someone to finally do it because Mal believed she'd never be as lucky as Tony. No dog would save her. No matter how Sunny tried, she couldn't save Mal, and a decade ago, Sunny took that job in New York because she knew Mal couldn't follow.

 

Margie stepped away from them both. Armed, but retreating. Why was she so afraid? She was ready to slide down that slope risking injury. Something made it so she needed to flee.

 

"Tell me!" Malia shouted. Malia focused the attention on her. The gun on her. Whatever risk that carried, at least Sunny would be safe. Glenn would make sure of that as he sneaked through the woods behind Margie.

 

Malia kept talking, trying to get away from Sunny. "Tony was so goddam alien this whole trip because he was the one of us getting his life back on track. He had a dog. He had cleaned up. He'd kept a job for months. And you shot him, didn't you?"

 

"She was in the house with us. We know she didn't do anything. Just put the gun down and we'll talk this out."

 

"Yeah, I shot him. He just wouldn't die." Margie was paralyzed at the memory. "And I shot Hunter. You're all next. If it hasn't already taken you."

 

Sunny got distracted from the light and the gun and the madwoman with frozen tears because she finally saw Glenn.

 

He was almost on Margie.

 

He waited for her to aim slightly away and then he could pounce. He could wrestle Margie no problem.

 

She leaned against a tree.

 

The paranoia trained into her that night raised every sound of nature to a threat to be dealt with. As Glenn packed down some snow, Margie turned. The barrel of the gun led. And as it landed on the dark figure approaching her, Glenn, she didn't know that--

 

Three shots.

 

To Margie's chest.

 

The rifle fell into the snow and then Margie with it.

 

In the immediate moment, as they heaped out staggered breaths frozen from fear, everyone felt relief. Glenn’s tears kept coming after he wiped them away. Sunny grabbed Malia and Malia let her.

 

Then… “Step away from the gun and put your hands on your head.”

 

The group looked for the authoritative yell.

 

But it came again. “Do it now!”

 

Sunny buried her face in the snow, and she pulled Malia, who hesitated, with her. Glenn stared at Margie’s body.

 

“I will shoot if you don’t comply.”

 

His sorrowful gaze locked onto the gunman. A pistol trained on Glenn’s head. “What the hell did you shoot her for, man?”

 

“Are you trying to get yourself shot tonight.”

 

“Glenn!” Sunny’s voice was loud with panic.

 

Finally, Glenn knelt into the snow. Next to Margie. “She wasn’t going to do anything.”

 

The man in flannel with his face half-covered by a mask came closer out of the trees. “Sunny?” His light fixed on her then scanned the others as he grabbed the gun and swung the strap around his back. “Glenn? Can’t stay out of trouble can you?” His voice behind the mask softened.

 

Sunny breathed again. She finally placed the voice to an old flame that haunted her still. “Thank fucking christ--Jimmy! What are you doing here?” She started getting up but the white man motioned for her to stay still. He hadn’t put his gun away but it at least aimed at the snow now.

 

“Hold on. Tell me what’s going on.”

 

“Margie went mad. She shot Tony and Hunter and that’s all we really know.”

 

“We don’t know that,” Glenn interrupted.

 

“She admitted it!”

 

“That was old Margie? Well fuck me.” Jimmy stared at the body and then rolled it over to get a look at her face. Familiar but not the one he remembered. He asked, “Had she been acting erratic? Strange at all?”

 

“Not that I noticed.” Sunny looked at Malia for corroboration, but she’d retreated into herself. She’d probably be quiet for a while. “What are you even doing up here?”

 

“I’m the one who suggested this place! It’s practically my backyard. But I’m actually up here for work. We got some reports.”

 

“That was probably this whole crisis. Another lodge must’ve called it in.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“I still can’t believe it happened.”

 

“We don’t know that it’s over yet. If she had an accomplice or if it was planned. I mean how many people came on the trip? It’d be pretty tough to get them all. Or maybe she had a grudge against Tony or Hunter and wanted it to look like an accident. Can’t rule anything out.”

 

Glenn had heard Jimmy say that before. Right when his parents had died. When they investigated it as a murder. “Going to cuff me again?” Glenn asked.

 

It wasn’t an easy time for Sunny, either. “Ancient history, Glenn. 9 years. Let it die.”

 

Jimmy interrupted the start of this old feud. “9 years wasn’t that long ago, was it, Sun? We don’t have to let everything die. I did just save y’all.” He was so close to her. And wider than Glenn. He pulled his gator mask down for a reward. Nervously glancing to Mal, who looked away, she gave him a little kiss. “All right, all right, but if you feel like you need someone after this ordeal, it’s pretty common. Fear makes people more, uh, open. Hey, what’s with your leg?”

 

As he squeezed her butt, he noticed her jeans were soaked dark.

 

Malia accused him, “You shot her!”

 

“I don’t miss.”

 

“I’m fine, promise.” She felt nothing. It was just some crap she rubbed up against, she figured, but as she tried scraping it off on a rock near the edge, she saw a trail of the stringy goop stretching from her leg down the slope under the snow, darker than its cover. She was holding Malia’s hand.

 

Malia’s glove ripped off as Sunny was tugged down the slope.

 

The snow she clawed gave way till she held a snowball as she slapped the ground looking for traction and had none. Her ACL ripped. She knew the feeling from an old soccer injury. Her chin hit rocks and dug its own trail until a tree caught between her legs and she stopped. She could not catch her breath enough to wail.

 

The goop had snaked its way up her leg, her body, and now her outstretched hand.

 

Who raced down the mountain for her?

1. Glenn

2. Malia

 

 

Chapter 2 (01)

"Please hurry back," Quinn said after the vote split the party in three.

 

Staying (five votes), going for help (three votes), or going for Tony (one vote and one coerced); Colby was the coerced. His expertise in animal behaviors stole his vote. Hunter said he should come and Colby was wishy-washy about it and then Margie said Hunter needed him out there, and he had to go.

 

"I will," Colby replied.

 

Rosie, before going vegetative, had said she wasn't far from the lodge when she'd seen Tony. Maybe two, three minutes walking.

 

As they reached just under the forest where the winter night light filtered between bedraggled trees but still the dark kept the trail impassable, where every sound echoed in the tunnel of branches and amplified in the most cowardly corners of their hearts, where even their neighbor's foot landing heavy on a twig caused alarm, Hunter announced, "Better to not be introverts now."

 

Despite an undeniable intelligence, Hunter thought ideas out and expressed the conclusion prior to evidence that led him there. Maybe his country club ruled over his backwater Wyoming suburb but he was still educated in and by the area. No escaping that.

 

Colby probed, "What does that mean?"

 

"First time my dad took me out hunting, he told me 'Stop crying like a little bitch.'"

 

"Jesus, man." The snow next to them crunched and they both turned, only to find they strolled side-by-side. Colby waved him to the front. Hunter would panicked about the sounds ahead and Colby fretted over what was behind, which put them at ease till mysteries and threats sounded on either side. Colby found comfort in exploring Hunter's family dysfunction. "How old were you? Middle school at least?"

 

"Like Kindergarten. Maybe."

 

Colby put his face in his hands. His gloves needed a wash.

 

"To be fair, they all laughed at first as the dog ran up with the duck hanging."

 

Nature's alarm whistled.

 

They waited.

 

Nothing.

 

The wind.

 

"Thirty minutes on, however, I was still crying so much my war paint was dripping." He recounted the story in a yell that'd echo through to tents a mile away. That'd scare the wind into dying down, he hoped. "More reasonable now, right?"

 

"Not really."

 

From behind!

 

They heard it.

 

Hunter looked back to see the back of Colby's head.

 

But now that they were certain there was a danger, they dealt with it by returning eyes to the front and pretending it was still their imaginations.

 

"Plus that's how I got my name. In the blind with everyone, learning to do the duck call without a whistle, I shot a popgun at a duck."

 

Colby had known Hunter since college orientation, only getting close when Colby was lonely in the UK and stopped over in Belgium for waffles, chocolate, and to meet an American. They bonded after bailing on a sketchy nightclub where it was their group and then two dudes with unibrows who were dancing shirtless till the DJ threatened to kick them out—the Americans; they weren't spending enough on overpriced, watered-down drinks. And Hunter wanted to stay and could afford to, but it wouldn't have been fun alone so he bought Colby bottle service. Three hundred dollars on a bottle of wine that tasted like the vineyard collected the branches with the grapes and they later saw that brand in a grocery store for ten bucks a box. They'd been through a lot together. "Hunter's just a nickname?"

 

"No?"

 

"But--" Colby had to trace this logic. It distracted him from what was coming for them. "You said you were in Kindergarten when you went hunting and on that trip you got your name."

 

"Why are you kicking me in the dick about this?"

 

Colby was silent.

 

The sound from behind was near.

 

Hunter heard it too.

 

The phone light hit every forgotten dark corner till it glinted off the stalker's eyes. "Ah!"

 

They jumped. Guttural sounds of fright leaked out. They struck kung fu poses they'd practiced since childhood Jackie Chan movies but were unsure how to strike.

 

Margie chuckled. "Hey guys." She had heard the entire story but wanted the right moment to announce her presence till she got absorbed in the naming mystery; she had waited too long.

 

"What the hell," Hunter cried.

 

Colby hugged her till she pried him off. "I'm just so glad it's you. Not just because it's wonderful, wise, good-smelling you, but because--" He didn't want to admit his true fears.

 

And she was fine letting him trail off. "Real question: Hunter, you weren't named until you were five?"

 

"I don't know," he said. "I wasn't there. Not really anyway since I don't remember being five."

 

They had stopped walking and Margie's light shined in the accused's face. "You don't?"

 

While he tried to shield his eyes, the light flooded between his fingers marking his face in shadows. "Maybe I was younger than five. I don't know. That's just the story they tell at family reunions."

 

Shaking his head, Colby said, "The story of you crying like a--" He stopped to look at Margie. "Like a baby because you were actually a baby."

 

"We don't know what's out there. What's watching us. If it's another Margie or—whatever. So we talk, and we yell, and we cry, and it'll stay away."

 

Now Colby wondered if this was just Hunter creating a topic for them to talk about naturally so they weren't scared of any beasts that'd already killed once tonight. And his yelling now seemed reasonable. But it was also possible that the effect was coincidental to the truth.

 

"What if it's people?"

 

Instantly, as if he already decided and just needed reason, Colby patted Margie on the arm. "That's why it's good you're here. Easy to get stuck in the idea that it's something more wild."

 

Now here, she was more silent than her approach and it stained the air melancholy.

 

"You all right?"

 

"Mhm."

 

~

 

On the once in a millennium summer when the arctic environment melted away, dripping floods that shimmered as they watered the basin below, then peaks became perches for the passing gulls, mistaking this destination for a feeding spot. Normally, such as now, the hot days leaked out a river that swayed with the terrain but, then, when the ice caps shifted and collapsed and stirred in the lake, the current shaped the land from the outer curves of the old river, uprooting saplings, drowning unlucky elks as they fought the current and lost and went under, but most—battered, impaled, and dying on the rocks—were more fortunate. There was life in this land, but beneath it, frozen, was death.

 

Tonight, black specks felt the tremor of footsteps.

 

They wriggled in the snow—excited that more were coming.

 

~

 

Margie had her phone out to shine the way but the battery was low. All of their phones were; it was a familiar if rusty stretch to transform "Damion" into "Damn him." As they set out, the faint glow of the porch on their backs, they held out phones to compare battery life.

 

"How long does yours usually last?" Hunter asked in his loudest voice. He'd also taken to clapping as conversation died waiting on Margie's responses.

 

"Active?" Colby thought about his airport days. Usually he was by the plug, checking through the camera roll, posting to Facebook or messaging his dad who loved the environments that felt dangerous: the Gobi Desert, the Ngorongoro Crater, Mount Thor until they discovered it was in Canada, but still it was the steepest mountain on Earth with a 4,101-foot vertical drop. He never climbed it, but it made for a great selfie backdrop before he headed to the former whaling station and abandoned Inuit community, Kivitoo. His life was one of waiting in secret for his prey to stumble in his view, forever unaware how lucky they were it was him watching. "Probably about an hour with what I've got left."

 

"And yours?" he turned the question to Margie, who often lost it in the seat cushion at the commune and wouldn't notice until one of her models returned it in secret, a mystery that she might've cracked if she ever checked the photo album and saw the hundreds of ugly, quadruple-chinned selfies from one of her artistic-nude models.

 

"I charge it like once a week. I think."

 

Thus hers was chosen to guide them deep into the woods they'd hardly explored in daylight. It was at 60 percent when she left the lodge and now, already below 50.

 

If she had just shined it slightly to the left, they would have seen. They would have died. Sooner.

 

~

 

Curious, curious, it stalked them, surging together all its black tracker specks that flamed purple under the stars, but every step toward the group left new ones behind. They wandered and it followed.

 

~

 

Hunter fell behind, trying to be discreet, but his belt buckle jangled as it fell undone. "I've gotta piss."

 

Margie stopped, too. "That's how all this started." She chewed the inside of her cheek and the flashlight pointed at the ground again so Colby was buried by the dark.

 

Trying to be charming, he lifted her hand so the light shined her face. "Brighten up, sunshine," he said with a laugh that he hoped would start them all on some cheer but maybe she didn't get it and he stammered some explanation. Neither responded. "How about we wait on the bathroom break? We're hardly away from the house. I can hear the Beags getting worked up about playtime or something. Probably helping Rose relax."

 

"Don't want anyone else dying because they didn't use a real toilet," Margie whispered.

 

"Death by burst bladder would be bad, but we won't be out that long."

 

"Fine." Hunter did his belt up and they waddled farther away from the right path.

 

~

 

It was so close to them. They called out so loud, screaming for it to find them. It could smell their dinners on the fog of their breath. Meat eaten meat. Salty, savory fresh meat that'd go down wiggling and tear apart and drip juicy but it wouldn't let a drop go wasted. It did not breathe. It never did. It did not drool. It couldn't. But if it could...

 

A sharp yelp clapped from behind, yelling for it, no, at it.

 

Again.

 

A series of them.

 

It smelled different. Marinaded in its own juices, not the cacophony of scents ahead. This was loud, frenetic flesh that pulsated.

 

Dinner barked for it to come and come it did.

 

~

 

"Quinn was pissed." Marge explained why she'd come in half-truths.

 

"That's just Quinn, isn't it? Don't forget what she's like. Pleased as peach with herself but everyone else, it's a loving rage. And maybe living alone and away for so long has her rough around the edges with civilized discourse. Right, Hunter?"

 

"Maybe." Margie ran into a tree branch.

 

"Point it ahead or Quinn's going to be right for once," Hunter said. "How about I hold the light so we don't lose an eye?"

 

She handed it over.

 

They got too deep in and knew it. Rosie hadn't gone this far to pee so they circled back, creeping along new trails in the delta formation till they saw the house again, then went deeper through the woods, shuddering at every sound, waiting for the real one. They didn't have a clue where Tony lay. No blood. No body.

 

Then, unknowingly, they found the spot.

 

Hunter stooped over to get refreshed with some snow. He just munched away at it like it wasn't sitting on dirt. Like deer had never pranced across with soiled cloven hooves. He was as fine as if it came from a bottle.

 

"You should really watch for snow fleas," Margie warned. Even in the winter she tended to her garden, and as some crops thrived in the cold so did their nibbling predators, and she had spotted a few black specks already.

 

"Yeah, yeah." But as he stooped, he saw tree roots dug out from the snow. They sprawled across the rocky surface, looking for cracks to anchor themselves, but the ones that found nothing were baby tendrils tap-tap-tapping till they could slowly force a rock in two. Fresh powder dusted everywhere. Chunks kicked out and flattened and a trail leading away. "We found it," he told the others. "This is where Tony died."

 

Margie felt the spirit around her and her own ghost reached out a comforting hand to Tony's, but he pulled until hers nearly lifted right out of her. He didn't want to go on to the next world alone.

 

"There's no blood," Colby pointed out.

 

Margie's spirit reattached as if by a two-half-hitch around her spine. And there it'd stay.

 

"Then it's where he struggled. Look! This hole says it all. He must've fired at whatever once; it lunged. They wrestled till they kicked up all the snow, gun went off again, and then someone won and executed the other. That solves it. It was another person."

 

Margie nodded along.

 

"Nice story, but still no blood. No body. No gun for that matter."

 

"What if," Margie suggested, the wheels in her head still imagining the story, "the beast was in the tree. Like a snake or a monkey. That'd explain the three shots. Hard to hit! And that must mean Tony's fine, just lost, right?"

 

Colby smiled at hers but said, "I think we're making too much of a hole. Making the evidence fit into our stories instead of letting them tell us what really happened."

 

"Maybe."

 

Hunter was still convinced he was right and the more Colby reasoned with him, the more Hunter believed himself. "Just wait."

 

Looking around more, they each had their phones out. Hunter tracked the path a bit farther when Colby's quiet chatter with Marge died. "Oh my god."

 

Rushing back, ready to be vindicated even if it meant seeing Tony's frigid hand sticking out of a powdery grave, Hunter pushed them aside. He needed to see it.

 

Near the struggle hole, where Hunter had first scooped up snow, Colby aimed his light.

 

"No." He reeled back. "It can't be."

 

And to the side of Hunter's scoop... Margie whispered, "Lemon snow."

 

"No!"

 

In a sudden breath he'd held too long, Colby let loose a laugh so hard it echoed to the house, probably to a few other houses, too. Margie even giggled along. "Didn't it taste odd?"

 

"It's miles away!"

 

Colby came up for air to explain it like, "You know how they only pour flavoring on top of snow cones but you taste it all the way down?"

 

"It does look pretty yellow," Margie admitted.

 

"That's the light bulb! Everything looks yellow under it!"

 

"I don't know."

 

Despite his humiliation, they agreed this was needed relief from the tension of the night, but as it faded, quickest for Hunter, they looked around again, realizing—if this was where Rosie had peed, this was where she saw Tony die.

 

~

 

At the cabin door, a man knocked.

 

Roger called out, "Who is it?"

 

Tony.

 

~

 

After Rosie's hole, the trio easily found where Tony had been, where the gun had gone off, where this nightmare started. Near the basin, beyond the trees. The snow was kicked away. And there was the rifle, the butt dangling over the dark edge.

 

"That stupid idiot asshole." Hunter seethed. He picked up his gun and calmed himself enough to explain the scenario he'd dreamed up. "So Rose ran out here to pee for whatever reason, right?"

 

"Me," Margie admitted guilt in mumbles no one heard. "You think Tony did, too?"

 

Colby gently put an arm on her shoulder as he reminded her, "Guys don't have to squat, Marge."

 

"Even to shit?"

 

"Bingo," Hunter continued. "Classic Tony, he's out in the mountains with a big cliff: of course he's dumping off the edge."

 

Peering over, Colby saw nothing. No evidence either way. "So he fell?"

 

"Probably was steadying himself with the gun. Slipped. Grabbed the trigger."

 

"Three shots, though."

 

"I don't know! He stumbled, grabbed it, saved himself, rinsed and repeated till he went off. Or the shot was exciting and he just wanted to fire the gun. They're as fun as fucking, you know."

 

Colby admitted, "That last part's possible."

 

"Sounds probable even."

 

"It's what happened," Hunter said. "Guaranteed."

 

"So he's wandering back to the house!" Margie was the first one back on the trail, her light already shining the way. The battery nearly dead.

 

The curtain of light outside the forest led Hunter. He overtook Margie, in no mood for her dawdling or wandering with the phone light. He stomped ahead. She tried to keep up, her shoes sinking through the top layer of snow, while Colby tried to keep up with Margie. Then the house was in view. A man was at the door.

 

Knocking.

 

Hunter charged ahead. He knew the outfit. He knew it was the rat bastard Tony.

 

"Hey!" Margie barked at Hunter.

 

He was clutching his rifle.

 

Not wanting to agitate the situation, she went silent as she followed. Colby stayed just within the woods, uncertain, feeling the little voice of imagination that haunted their trek out, that added sound effects when their were none, and that made every sound a threat on his life. It told him to stay.

 

But as Hunter was upon his target, he dropped the gun.

 

Tony banged on the door. With his face.

 

His arms hung. His body swayed with such force that once would've hurt but Tony planted his face against the door three times and he wound up for a fourth when Hunter reached him. Stopped him. Pulled him back by the shoulder. Turned Tony around and saw--

 

Swinging wildly, Tony knocked Hunter over.

 

Tony's nose was no longer centered or long, but folded. Smashed. His brow ridge flattened. His eyes bulged. His cheeks had swollen early on while battering the door and he pounded till they popped.

 

But no crimson blood dripped.

 

His face was stained with viscous black fluid, as was the door, and as he pulled back, the goop suctioned and suckled.

 

"Hey! Hey!" Hunter shrieked at him, grabbing his shoulder but getting shaken off, ignored, then Hunter grappled him about the waist from behind, dragging him back but Tony was heavy, and Hunter's years of tennis coaching, of hunting, of working those glamor muscles for Instagram meant nothing as Tony refused. But at least he had stopped.

 

The sound...

 

The sound of Jell-O flapping in its plastic cup as a kid tried to shake it out, but loud.

 

That sound.

 

Hunter heard it but could not process what it was. Couldn't find the source. And he wouldn't let go.

 

Black tendrils seeped from where Tony's nose had been, from his mouth, from his brow, from his eyes, ears, every hole Tony had already had and every wound he'd caused upon himself with that door, tendrils sprouted out till they were thick arms that wrapped around Hunter's skull. He let go of Tony's waist but the goop trapped his hands. He couldn't claw at the bondage. Tony, whatever was inside him, held Hunter's head and pounded it against Tony's. The crack of two skulls colliding, Hunter's yelps, the snow on the doormat rustling beneath, a solid thud as Hunter unwillingly hit Tony again, and the third time it went soft. A mushy smack. And there was blood, Hunter's, and sticky black on Tony's skull, and Hunter, quiet, dazed, hit Tony again, and Tony would not stop. So Margie shot them.

 

A chunk from Hunter's skull exploded. He was limp as he was pounded into Tony.

 

But the bullet stopped in its next target. The fluid sucked it up. As it tried to do Hunter. It kept hitting him until Hunter was paste.

 

She fired again at Tony. It opened a dark hole in his neck but it did not stop him.

 

Margie didn't know the rifle only held one more bullet in its magazine, but she knew the gun did nothing. She took it and ran to the side of the house, where Rosie stared slack-jaw, and Damion shoved Rosie along, and Margie ran away from all the people.

 

Colby saw it all from behind a big tree and bolted into the woods.

 

Who would you follow?

 

1. Margie

2. Colby