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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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."
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?"
"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.
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.
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?"