Malia wasn't waiting. Malia was clawing through the snow, up the trail, running, running, running.
She could still hear
of the pistol pegging the snow, the trees, the dark.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
"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--"
"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.
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?