The wind took the smoke off the chimneys of the log cabins, engineered rustic, that dotted the snowy mountain range. Tents were sealed around burnt out fire rings. The logs so gone that even snow tossed atop by the ready-for-bed campers or by the ever-increasing gusts didn't sizzle, just piled on then melted. Everyone up on the secluded getaway had hiked a few unadvertised miles because the roads were for service vehicles only, and while the paths had markings, they hadn't been cleared. Not enough foot traffic to pack it down and most campers wound up with wet socks.
For five days now, the group in the cabin farthest from the road and separated most from the other housings, by obstacle more than distance, hadn't seen each other since graduation. They'd met in Europe, separate groups studying in France, Belgium, Lithuania, Wales, but their relationships hinged on Rosie's free-spirit because when she crashed with Malia in Lithuania on the host family's couch, something no one was thrilled about, she called up Sunny, Roger, and Glenn who were "just over in France" but they had time off so came anyway and then Glenn and Sunny made their way back with their new friend Malia, while Rosie went with Roger but stopped off in Belgium to party with Hunter and Quinn, somehow meeting Damion for the third time but finally remembering his name. And so on. Till Rosie had tramped across the whole continent, uniting the Americans from the same college in a web so convoluted that not one of them told it the same way, often forgetting key players, even arguing their way as the sweet reminiscence turned to a drunken blow-up.
This week was, as Margie suggested, a spiritual revival of their friendships after work and life and love lost separated them. Though no one will take ownership of planning it, a few hands gathered specific people until the trip snowballed in a massive group message that Malia hated being in ever since it woke her up at 2 one afternoon.
The lion's share of booze had gotten pissed into the snow where some, women included, tried writing their names. In cursive. And after some precise measurement, they decided they had enough alcohol to stay tipsy the final few days or enough for one last great night that'd leave them hungover till it was time to leave. They chose the latter.
And now, locked away on that secluded mountain, their fate hinges upon an unseen hand--yours.
“Why the hell even bring it?” Roger was finally excited enough (read: drunk enough) to start yelling, but the rest in the cabin had tuned him out because tonight was going to be a good night.
“We won’t need it,” Hunter assured his old theater buddy. “But—if we do—better to have it.”
“Gun owners are 50% more likely to shoot a friend or family member than a bad guy. Or themselves.”
“Where you getting that number?”
“I read it.”
“Well where are you getting your information?”
“There are bears out there!”
“Are there really?” Damion asked coming up from the Samsung tablet he bought for this trip to the wilderness then boot-loaded with a pure Nexus Android OS because he hated bloatware. He was trying to fact-check the conversation as it happened, like when Hunter swore the ever-present they were coming for his guns if not for the heroes of Congress, but the Wi-Fi was too slow to get even Wikipedia to load so he wasn’t comfortable submitting his perspective.
Sunny walked up to the Johnnie Walker Blue, the last remaining brand, to fill her drink. Whisky and Pepsi. They’d put the wrong person in charge of supplies. "Freaking Glenn," she muttered as she poured herself a double. “Can we please stop arguing? We’re here to have fun.”
“This is fun,” the boys said in unison. Even Damion nodded along.
“Also.” Quinn came up behind the couch with the two master debaters to interject her knowledge on the subject. This wasn't her Orcas Island so she wasn't exactly an expert, but she had gathered a base knowledge of their current environment. “There aren’t any bears here.”
“I know like not black bears. Or pandas, obviously. But look around!” Hunter said in his defense. Out the window was all white except where conifers filled the forest going diagonal up the ridge and dead deciduous shot up like a black scraggly antenna. The craggy slopes of higher peaks cracked through the top layer of snow. “Perfect for a polar bear.”
Quinn put her face in her hands and growled worse than any mountain beast. Damion laughed along with her. He also put his hand near her like he was about to pat her shoulder or rub her back or something, but then thought better of it.
“Our gun-advocate, ladies and gentleman,” Roger said presenting his opponent.
“You absolute moron.”
“What?” Outraged, Hunter's voice went up a few octaves. “It could happen!”
Sunny took a long drink of her whisky and Pepsi. “Yeah, maybe that’s what has Tony so spooked.” Everyone could hear the eye roll in her voice.
Outside, in the desolate getaway, chosen for a beautiful view of the sunrise through a crack in the range, but at night, the basin below was abyss. Not an outline. Not a sound. Just swirls of snow getting tossed off the rough cliffs into a void. Everyone, in this group or previous, had tossed a rock down but it just disappeared.
And Tony was out there staring. Also unsure of what he'd seen and what he thought he saw now. Was he willing his mind to perceive movement or was it real? Shadowy tendrils pulsating in the distance?
It was a tree.
He didn't know that. It was too far off. But behind it, maybe it wasn't just.
Dressed like a dinosaur, Rosie was banging the door for Margie to "Please, just—please!"
Colby, a wildlife photographer, snuck up to get a selfie with Rosie. His phone was full of them. From the night. From the week. From his alone time at home. He looked great in all of them, that primped and maintained beard he hadn't shaved bare since he'd grown it, that contagious smirk, and yet all the other guys had their heads cut off by the top of the frame or were mid-blink or it was at an angle that was too honest. However, the ladies here he got selfies with got to review and approve his camera roll. "Someone got diarrhea? Or the pukes?"
"THERE'S A SPIDER!" Margie yelled through both the door and her fingers. She didn't want it leaping in her mouth. "RIGHT ON THE DOOR! Big and thick and—" The sound she made—she might've puked.
"Let me in and I'll bust it up." Colby said in his most desperate heroic voice, "I'll save you!" He started jiggling the door handle till she shrieked.
"Fuck no! This place is so small that you open that door and it'll not only hit my knee but also knock the spider into my crotch. That's worse than my mouth!"
"It’s probably not poisonous. I've seen poisonous spiders. Colonies with tens of thousands of tiny ones that could trap a Bolivian cow and dissolve it in a minute. They don't live anywhere near here."
Rosie stared at him. "Do you really think that's helping?"
"Just kidding!" he yelled through.
"I'm gonna die."
Then Quinn practically tackled Rosie from behind. "You brought yours?" she cried in so much giddiness that it had the party turning on them for a laugh at typical Quinn, still treating hugs like lacrosse checks. "I totally should've brought mine. It's a koala. This little nubby tail shakes when I twerk. But I didn't want everyone saying, 'Ha! That's so funny,' then secretly muttering to each other, 'Aren't we a little old for those?' Goddammit! Should've brought it."
In a raspy, pleading whisper, Rosie asked, "Is that what people are thinking?" She was in a dinosaur kigurumi, great for the cold, but the tail got in the way for sleeping. Also tended to drag and Beagsley would chase it if someone let him out of his room.
"You look fantastic. The tongue totally matches your hair." Both were pink.
"Well I'm about to explode and Margie's probably in till she's hungry enough to eat her fear so this dinosaur's going for a hike." She called back over her shoulder, "Avoid lemon snow."
"Sorry!" Margie yelled.
Rosie threw open the front door as Tony was coming in. He bumped into her then stepped on her tail, mumbling apologies, but not stopping as she growled at him, finally at one with her spirit animal.
He nodded at friends welcoming him back to civilization, as he wiped the snot dripping from his nose.
"Lock boxes are for children. It's fine," Hunter was explaining to Roger.
They offered Tony drinks that he shook his hand at.
"I made it myself!" Sunny told him. "Three parts whisky and one part also whisky because blech--Pepsi."
He got to the door for the garage. Malia was leaning against it, watching the the twins till she spotted Tony, then she waited for him to say something perfect. About how it was better outside than in here and she'd agree with a scoff. He hid it around the others, put on a better capitalist smile than she could, but they had their own language dripping with sardonic disdain.
But he didn't say anything.
He got to her, leaning against the door, and he waited for her to understand. He wanted her to move. She scoffed at him. "Fine." Then she joined the others.
Tony went into the garage. It was where Hunter had stashed the rifle.
Rosie's tail dragged a path through the woods until it was soaked through. "Dinos are not snow beasts." She squatted but needed to revert back to human if she didn't want to piss in the crotch and obviously she didn't.
She was on her back with her feet overhead, thinking to herself maybe it'd be easier to just go like this, but even if no one saw, she had dignity. Some.
Wrenching off one shoe, then the other, at first looking back in case someone was approaching—she thought she heard something—but now was sure that she was alone, thank god, and then she had to get those socks off and... Being a dinosaur was so rough, but so worth it.
Tony followed that mystery trail into the woods. His first evidence. He clutched the rifle.
Little Beags swiped at the passing shadows under the door, squealing when he heard one get close, and when one stayed, oh boy, one stayed. He could smell them. Her. She had food. Or had eaten food. She smelled so gloriously of food.
"Hey, my dude," Sunny said getting her cheek against the hardwood so the boy, just older than a pup, could see it was her and would love her most or at least second most to Tony.
Tony had gotten him for their old buddy Bob as a wedding present last year, a late one, as usual, and then the accident happened. The wife pulled away after Bob’s death so Tony just kept the dog. Word got back to everyone through Facebook photos that this adorable little dude was living with someone that hardly fed himself. It wasn't a money thing but a priority thing. Cocaine was expensive.
"I don't know," Sunny said when her twin Glenn asked whose skirt she was trying to look up. "I really think this guy's been good for Tony. Just like being back with everyone's been good for you."
He put on his usual tired grimace, but then admitted, "I wouldn't mind Tony crawling in bed with me again."
"Quinn’s probably thinking the same after all these years. Too bad Jimmy couldn’t make it or we could do a drug test on Tony’s hair. Maybe I’ll save some anyway. Think it's clean?"
"Okay, Dr. Psycho.” Then sulking, he added, “Definitely glad that fake cop didn’t come now."
“It’s been years, Glenn! We weren’t suspects. Total routine questioning." Sunny quickly got back to thinking about Tony. Per usual, she couldn’t stop analyzing. "He wasn't even drinking the last few days. I tried giving him a whisky and whisky, you know, his favorite, but he practically ignored me. Ignored it."
Malia came up to them pretending she wasn't really interested, just near, and then Sunny pulled her in by the waist.
"What do you think, little bae?" she asked her sullen friend.
"Ugh," Glenn wretched. "Hate that word."
"It's all right. Ironically," Malia mumbled, smirking. "And what about what?"
"He's looking hot, right?" Glenn asked.
Then the rifle sounded.
And there wasn't a soul in that room brave enough to break the silence after.
Careful where to step, Rosie tried getting her socks back on without stepping in the snow. It didn't work. But the snow was frozen enough that her foot wasn't soaked like if she had stepped in a puddle. Just cold. The legs of her kigurumi, however, had been sitting in the slush for long enough that as she pulled them on, she felt them wet and already crisp with light freezing.
She threw the arms on and then the hood and straightened her hair when she saw someone in the distance she could only guess at in the starlight. "Tony?"
She pointed her cell phone flashlight at him
He had the rifle.
He trudged beyond the range of her light and she hurriedly zipped up to go after him but the zipper caught on her shirt and she spent a minute fiddling, her light pointed down, the night quiet but his steps crunching, her breathing through her mouth, occasionally sniffing up some running snot. She had lost him when she looked up.
Then the path to him lit up with gunshots—fire and thunder.
And in the flashes she saw.
She bolted to the cabin, tripping over branches, clawing at the snow to get back to her feet and to get away and she hit the cabin door, locked, or were her fingers too desperate to work the thumb-operated handleset?
She hit it. She cried. She kept fidgeting the lever, looking behind her for it, till the door swung open, Roger catching her as she fell in.
"Rose, are you okay?" a few someones asked as she crumpled to the floor to catch her breath, still frozen in her, gasping, sucking in air, choking on it. Colby brought a Pepsi in the can to let her hydrate and Quinn threw the sofa back's decorative quilt, still folded into a rectangle, around her shoulders.
But Rosie's panic turned the mental cogs to the worst conclusions and she ran to the door, locking it, sealing the windows, the blackout curtains, going out to the garage and locking the outer door and coming back in and locking the inner door as the troupe of friends followed her asking what was wrong and what she was doing. She couldn't talk yet.
Then Hunter went to the front door. His hand on the lock.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to have a look."
"No, no, no," she pleaded and shoved him away from the door. *She was not bigger than him, not in shape, but he fell back.
Beagsley from the room that Tony had shared with Glenn and Roger let out this great whistling, whimpering howl. His collar tags jangled as he danced anxiously at the door, hoping this commotion was a discussion on being let out, and he wanted his opinion heard. He whined. Barked. Howled. Scratched the door. His puppy dog eyes were so big they could be heard, but went ignored.
Sunny curled around the dinosaur panic of pink hair and though Rosie, frightened, shook her to get away, Sunny held tight, cooing, "Shh, shh, it's okay. I got you now." She ordered Damion to go into her room and find the Xanax in her bag. "Should be front pocket, maybe sides."
Margie spun a hopeful tale that no one wanted to break. "That was the ranger's car, right? Backfiring? Just coming to give us a noise complaint maybe?" But that no one believed either
"Look who's missing," Malia said.
"There's no hunting on this mountain," Quinn yelled. "And this late? Is he fucking stupid?"
Coming out of her hyperventilating mess, Rosie told them what she could: "He's dead."
The room hushed. Hunter stepped away from the door. Damion was back with the Xanax, just one pill, but the room needed the bottle now. The heater coughed, spewing rusted air that everyone could taste, and what sounded like a screw bounced around the metal casing, dinging and ringing through the group's silence.
Beagsley saw the opportunity and barked. As if to say, "I'm still trapped in here!"
"He didn't. Not to himself. No." Sunny grabbed her little bae for comfort, her own, not Malia's.
"Suicide doesn't take three shots."
"If he missed."
"It wasn't that!" Rosie's voice needed everyone to understand but how could they when even she didn't know what she'd seen? "It was—I don't know what it was. But we have to—I don't know, do something."
"If it was a bear, a group of us should go. Scare it off with numbers. Bring some pans to bang around."
"There aren't any bears, Hunter."
"Okay, whatever. Wolf or whatever lives up here. Right, Colby? You were telling us about the hunters in Kenya that walk up to lions after a kill and steal their meat."
"They have to do it quick because the lions come back," he explained. "But it could work, I guess."
"Tony's not meat."
"But if he's hurt. Maybe he's not dead yet, just really hurt."
Beagsley yelled. He was a good boy but had no patience to start and now, the emotions were getting to him. He needed out. He needed to kiss. To hug. To be cute and adorable and turn all of this around. He begged until Damion banged on the door. Beagsley was quiet. He misunderstood the banging as a good thing.
"That fucking idiot. What did Tony think would happen going out with a gun? Some other camper probably saw him carrying it, looking all bug-eyed, and shot him. I would. Stand your ground."
The whole group was a mess of conversation, people making noise, trying to think, trying not to feel helpless. But they were. Only Rosie truly had an idea how much they were.
"You can't go out there," Rosie told them. "It's not safe. I don't even know if it's safe in here."
"Then what should we do, Rose?" Sunny asked. She had made herself another drink and was feeling more steady now.
"Not safe here?" Quinn asked. "We’re in a house! With locks. Whatever you think is out there will sniff around, we’ll see it in the porch light, and then call ranger services if it’s an actual concern."
"We should get help. Does anyone have any signal up here?" Glenn raised his phone to the ceiling. It was still an old flip phone with an antenna he had to slide out. He'd kept it to stay less busy and less connected to work where he already got dozens of emails a day. He didn't need his phone reminding him of that. What a small stressor that all seemed to now. "We could split up. A few of us hike down to our cars, drive till we can call someone."
"No one's listening," Rosie said in a quiet voice, feeling herself lose this situation.
Damion, on his tablet, opened his email app but while emergency numbers had been drilled into everyone's head, he didn't know the emergency emails. "Does anyone know the ranger’s office email?"
"Or we could go there. Can't be more than a mile."
"And definitely go for Tony. As a group."
"You're not listening. It's not a bear. It's not a wolf. It's not an animal at all."
Quinn, the only one to live in wilderness, stopped them all. "You’re all talking crazy. It’s dark. You know what’s actually dangerous in the dark? Tree branches gouging out your eyes. Shifting snow that seems solid till gravity's ripping you down a sheer drop. The cold! Not some imaginary horror."
"There are too many people to reach a consensus," Margie said. "We should vote. Or split up into groups."
Quinn was adamant, though. "I'm not going anywhere."
What would you vote for?