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