The walls moved.
In the day, outdoors, Margie might pass it off as a trick of the light, some sheen sparking the horror planted in her imagination by the night, but there was no light. It was darkness and yet she could see, though there was nothing to see but these walls painted with the black. The ceiling painted with the black. The soft floor painted with the black and all of it moved, pulsated, like blood vessels and they were heading to the heart.
The heart was deep and the slope steep. Margie, dragging her twisted ankle, stumbled most of it. Her own pace would have been slow, plodding, careful, but the boy holding her good hand and Quinn’s, too, pulled them at the quickest walk the little legs allowed and Margie struggled to keep up.
Quinn caught this in glances. She also caught how Margie still had an open wound on her arm that she held away from the wall. Even injured, even now, while there was no hope and no plan, Margie had some survival instinct and she wouldn’t be infected.
Through the cabin window, the light of the still hidden sun outlined the clouds, bathing in blue, silver.
Rosie had not gone home.
She had stayed on the couch, peeking out under the blanket, holding Beagsley, looking at Damion’s shredded neck.
James and Elyse watched his body as well. It did not move.
Quinn took a special interest in the corners, not just the ones the boy led them around, but the ones they passed, the ones ahead, the hallways and the ramps, and none ever seemed to dead-end.
“Where are we going?” Quinn asked.
The boy pulled them around a corner in silence.
He pulled them further down a slope.
“It’d be really comforting if you said no.”
“No,” he answered finally, but he did not stop pulling and yet he maintained that loose grip of a child holding a parent’s hand.
Maybe Margie didn’t have a plan...
Quinn bolted down a hall.
Elyse opened the door to the boy’s room for Rosie, who had wanted to buck off her blanket but Elyse made her wear it like a cape and beneath, Rosie held a canister covered in scientific warning stickers.
The floor swelled beneath Quinn’s feet. It sent panic through her, thinking any second a tentacle of goop would spring forth and drag her down or tear through her neck or force its way inside till she was gone. In truth, something Quinn recognized, the swelling was no different than earlier. Each pulse was the heart pumping. Slow. Forceful. A consistent rhythm. She recognized nothing had changed and yet it scared her still.
It had seemed amazing before that the boy had known where to go, but on her own, she almost admired whatever hive mind led him so perfectly through this maze. If the boy chased Quinn, that’d leave Margie to run her own way, and if not, she was free.
If this was the chance Margie had been limping through the night for, she’d take it.
The boy didn’t move from the spot. He held Margie’s hand as loose as he had Quinn’s.
After it’d been long enough, Quinn stopped running. Her lungs were fine. Her legs, too. But her footsteps squished the floor and walking provided more stealth.
At each corner, she listened for the splish-splash of the boy’s steps. It was quiet. At the next ramp, she did the same before continuing up. At a four-way intersection, she waited in the center and spun around looking for any challenger only to come up empty. Even behind her, there was nothing. No one chased her.
Still, when she approached every darkened corner, she paused to listen.
She’d gone so far up that she had to be near the surface.
After ascending the dozenth slope, a particularly steep one, she came upon a corner. Silence around it. She peeked around.
Resigned, she strolled ahead.
The boy held out his hand and she took it.
The path for Rosie was down. Straight and down. There were no spiraling halls or branching ways. There were no corners. There was only down and she went, her blanket dragging behind.
They had finally arrived at the heart of the mountain. The vessels in the walls had separated to extremes. There were a few meaty ones that fed big gulps through but also stringy venules that wrapped around the final room leading to the pedestal in the middle holding a tangled mess of capillaries that was made of material by all rights that should have melded together. They fed the floor. A single pump of the heart lifted the trio softly then lowered them just the same.
The boy stared at it.
Margie looked around. Was now the time? Was this the final chance and if it were, what was she to do?
“You went home,” the boy said.
Margie had not looked behind them. She had not seen Rosie walk up still draped in her blanket. It was over her head, clenched at her chest from the inside by a single hand.
Out the window, James watched the sun’s rays ignite the clouds and cut through the cold to begin melting the fresh snow. A big powdery pile slid off the roof. It would be a warm day.
“No,” Rosie said.
“Then become us.”
The floor around her shot black up to yank her by the neck down. Her grip on her blanket released as her hands got stuck in the sticky quicksand goop dragging her deeper and like a parachute, the blanket drifted above her, landing fully spread, covering her body, but the little movement of struggle beneath it stopped and when Margie investigated, lifting the blanket, Rosie was gone. There was no light in the room, but she could see clearly under the blanket. She smiled. She held her fallen friend’s blanket in a ball.
Beneath it, the lid was still on. Rosie hadn’t had time.
“You,” the boy said, looking up at the woman still holding his hand: Quinn, who had felt just the slightest of hope when Rose arrived but did nothing because she’d known that that hope was a lie. Tonight had beaten her. “You can join us or become us.”
The final choice of the night. What had any of the others accomplished but to muddle it all, branch the misery into different forms? It all led here where there was nothing. This was a false choice. Another one. They all were. It was not join or become us. It was not join or die. It was not A or B. It was die believing they could’ve changed it or die seeing through it all.
“How are they any different?” Quinn called out with her final spirit of defiance. It died. “Do whatever you want.”
“No,” Margie said. She was standing right on a fat vein that led to the heart. “Do it the same to me you did to Rosie.”
“Okay,” the boy said.
“Now!” she screamed at him.
The vein opened up and dragged her down and she flung a metal disc at Quinn, who caught it on instinct. Margie went down, never to be seen again, holding the open canister of acid, injecting it into the heart.
The cabin shook as the ground beneath it became unstable. The snow melted. The ice melted. The bedrock that the cabin rested on melted. The heart of the mountain had dried up and so everything it had replaced on this mountain--the people, the animals, the trees, the very cabin they were in--melted.
The cabin walls started to go. James and Elyse’s feet were heavy. Then the cabinets dripped into puddles and the plates crashed to the floor, but the shards of ceramic lost their form, joining the puddle of floor and cabinets, and the food they’d brought up was swallowed into the goop.
James held Beagsley in one arm. Elyse held his other hand.
The doorway to the boy’s room melted and soon the couple knew they’d be drowned in this, but fighting through the heavy mess of what was once a bed, Quinn emerged, just a hand pleading to be pulled free.
When the two hoisted her from the depths, she gasped for a big raspy breath and then needed several more as they wiped her eyes and nose and mouth clean, but there was no time.
James handed her Beagsley.
“Go,” Elyse said.
And Quinn raced down the melting mountain, the trees and the slopes fading away, until she was running on surface tension like a water glider and the waves carried her faster then broke and lapped back, tripping her up as the goop diluted to this watery filth that she could no longer stand on, only swim through, and she almost dropped the poor kicking pup, but she held on, hugging him as the volume of the mountain flattened toward the horizon.
She sank below the surface.
Beagsley kicked her trying to get back to where there was air. She could not see down there. She flung a hand out, to swim back up but the water was so heavy and she was so tired and there was nothing left in her but to hold onto whatever solid form she’d found by dumb luck.
The mountain expanded till something unclogged the drain. Faster than the tide of the mountain had gone out, it was sucked down.
Quinn held on for dear life to whatever handhold she had found and held on even tighter to Beagsley.
He had stopped kicking.
Her grip was failing.
The riptide took them and she sank deeper down with no more energy left to struggle.
But as the water receded, Quinn hit a solid vertical surface that held her from being sucked down and when the current stopped, she stared at a brick wall ahead of her. Behind her, another wall. She’d fallen into an alleyway between a pizzeria and the local car insurance provider of the town they’d driven through before getting to the mountain.
Cars had been lifted and sucked away, some left toppled, some moved until they crashed through a storefront window. Many still had drivers and passengers. The pedestrians had not been so fortunate. They’d been pulled down the drain with the mailboxes and the pets playing outside.
When it was safe, calm once more, the townsfolk looked around, all befuddled. None were aware that Quinn knew the most among them, but if she ever tried to explain where the mountain had gone, she’d stammer just the same as any of them.
She looked to her arms, trembling from exhaustion.
And she felt guilty for smiling, but at least Beagsley had survived.