“Save her?” asked the Gunny, an older disciplined woman, too covered in cold weather gear to see much but the skin around her eyes was a dark brown. “Did I hear you right, soldier?”
A grunt in black pulled Glenn away but his desperation to see Mal was stronger, at least in spurts, than they could handle one-handed. Glenn kneeled by her. He wanted to crack into that icicle around her, even if it’d ruin that beautiful final memory he had.
But a second soldier dragged him away.
“You are not to go near that body.” The Gunny’s voice commanded an authority even Glenn snapped to attention for. His eyes, though, and his mind wandered to escape plans. Heists.
“Why not?” Jimmy asked.
Her eyes darted to the hole in the ice, already frozen over. "You know why. Dooley, Vicente, drag that thing back to the lab while we track down the main body.” She pulled a radio from her belt. “Report.”
“Obviously you know what’s been happening here, but explain it to us.”
“It’s nearly contained.”
“When you called me last night, you said two rogue scientists and a small outbreak, but of what?” Jimmy got in front of her. He didn’t dare touch her or get near her, but at least he had her attention.
“I also told you to bring backup canisters of acid. Where are they?”
“My bag, but it’s further down the mountain.”
“You don’t have any at the lab?”
“That’s the problem with traitors.” Her eyes fixed on Jimmy then. “And incompetence.”
“You didn’t see how that thing sprung up on us. What the hell was it?”
“It’s classified.” Their eyes locked and finally she put down her radio. In a voice hushed so Glenn wouldn’t hear the following human moment, she admitted, "Even I don’t understand it. We were told it’s a fungal parasite, contained by ice and susceptible to acid. Liked smaller hosts: bugs and shit. But six months ago, it started to show new preferences and then, some samples disappeared. Went quiet till this weekend a scientist and an investor disappeared with their son, but who knows who else is in on it? I’ve been authorized to deal with the others at my discretion and there will be a lengthy debriefing when we get the main body back. I’m only telling you because you’ve seen too much already.”
“Thank you, Gunny.”
“I’m sorry about your friends.”
The trees this morning went blue from the rising light reflecting off the mountain. The lake was quiet, the ice whole again but the air released. No more alien whistles.
The Gunny with her squad headed up the snowy path and the soldiers with Mal went down it, where the forest thickened. Glenn and Jimmy were stuck in the middle. Jimmy would have assisted the Gunny or gone back for the acid, but felt some pity for Glenn. How much had he lost tonight? Without someone to push him on, he’d just stay on his back in the snow till he froze.
Jimmy grabbed his coat around the zipper track to pull him to his feet, but Glenn’s limp body just flopped into the snow. “I’m giving you two chances to get your ass moving before I leave it,” Jimmy yelled.
“She’s not dead,” Glenn mumbled.
“That was one.”
After being hoisted up again, this time Glenn actually got to his feet, supporting himself, even walking, then sprinting after the two soldiers. Like Jimmy, the soldiers were too surprised to do anything. Glenn grabbed Mal between them but, small as she was, human bodies are heavy. He didn’t have the balance to carry her on the slope. Then, when Jimmy caught up to him suddenly, it was like a tackle and the three bodies went rolling down the gentle slope. The living boys caught trees. Mal, frozen, probably dead, could not. She banged against them like a game of plinko then the steep angle kept giving her momentum. Her cocoon just thickened.
Jimmy rose ready to thrash that idiot when he saw the soldiers had drawn their weapons. Not the make-shift weed sprayers, but rifles.
He yanked Glenn along the path Mal had scratched into the mountain snow. The trees thinned. The slope worsened. They both rolled, with all the control Mal had, and it was a long, painful ride till they were at the bottom.
Staring from his crater, Jimmy expected the soldiers to pop over the edge and laser sights to train on him, but they were looking for the safe way down.
The shell around Mal had cracked on impact. When Glenn peeled the pieces off, some stuck to her skin, like a kid in a movie licking a metal pole, the skin stretching till it ripped, but she didn’t bleed. She didn’t wake up. It was too cold. And her heart wasn’t beating. She wasn’t breathing. Sunny had taught him CPR for a lot of situations, but probably not this one exactly.
When Jimmy got up, Glenn was already bouncing on her chest.
“Knock it off. Hey, I said stop.”
Glenn lifted her chin to breathe in.
“You’re not even doing it right! You’re gonna pop a lung.”
Glenn stopped breathing for her and was sweating, looking at Jimmy like he might say something back, but then went back to chest compressions. Hand over hand. Two inches deep. 100 per minute.
“It only works like 10 percent of the time and that’s for people that can get to hospitals. If by some miracle she wakes up--”
With that set finished, Glenn went back to the rescue breathing. In through his nose, into her mouth.
A second breath.
“SHUT UP!” Glenn screamed back.
“You don’t want her to wake up!”
“Excuse me?” came a soft voice from the woods. “I was out walking my dog when I heard something fall. Did you say you’re giving someone CPR?”
“She fell in a lake,” Glenn said in grunts as he continued compressions. His stamina waned. And he could feel something rattle around in the back of his head.
“And down a mountain.”
“Maybe I can help.” The blonde white woman stepped out from the trees. Her husband was with her, holding a well-trained doberman that didn’t need its leash. “I’m a doctor.”
“I’m sure you’re both great doctors, but--”
She cut Jimmy off. “He’s not a doctor.”
“Just the husband. James. Elyse is the doctor.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jimmy said. “She’s dead. Don’t give my buddy any false hope, all right?”
Elyse explained, “Sometimes the signs of death are a little off out here. The cold slows blood pressure down so you can hardly feel a heartbeat without a monitor. We use similar tactics in the operating room.”
“Listen, lady, I know it’s a hard, sad truth, but sometimes people are beyond a chance and a prayer and--”
“I’ll be back. Our place is just around the bend.” She disappeared into the trees, leaving James behind holding the dog.
The dog didn’t sit. It didn’t pant. It didn’t sniff or even look at the body.
“You can probably stop,” James told Glenn, who had returned to compressions and breaths. James was a large white man, maybe even paler than his wife, but very fit. His bright blue eyes and little dimples on forever smooth cheeks gave him this youthful appearance but the top of his head had thinned hair. Jimmy thought he could take him if this went wrong somehow, but he offered a hand to test him just a little. James refused with a smile. Jimmy was sure now. Only the dog complicated things.
Glenn ignored him. And the dog, as much as he could.
Jimmy commented, “Her ribs are probably bone meal by now.”
But nothing could convince him to stop till the doctor returned with her medical bag.
She reappeared, her hand holding not a medical bag, but a child’s hand. She wasn’t especially tall which only made the young boy even shorter by comparison.
“Hey, champ, playing nurse today?” Jimmy squatted down, trying to get him to turn from the dead body.
The boy had those same bright blue eyes as James. He might have had the same dimples, too, but his face stayed blank.
“Okay.” Jimmy felt the silence turn awkward. "Well, can you let your mommy take care of my friend for a minute? She needs her sleep right now. She’s very tired.”
The boy stared at her, paying zero attention to Jimmy.
“How about we go over there?” James said, but he wasn’t talking to his son. Instead to the two squeamish about seeing their friend about to be operated on. The boy stayed, actually stepping closer to be right over the corpse while his mom stood a ways back and then James turned them around and pulled them away for their own check-ups, a more informal sort. “How are you both doing? Seems like maybe you’ve had a similarly rough night to your friend.”
But Glenn couldn’t stay pointed that way, and so, he was the first to see.
Mal sat up.
Like she really had been sleeping.
Glenn let out an exasperated, disbelieving, “What?”
And like at the lake, he rushed for her, to tackle her, to hug her, but Jimmy caught him this time. “Hey, stop it,” Jimmy yelled. “Don’t touch her. We don’t even know if we’ve got another Sunny situation so until she says something, you stay back. How did you do that?”
He had a tight grip on Glenn’s wrist and even after Glenn shook him off, they both stayed back. Jimmy was right.
“How?” he demanded.
No one answered.
Mal was the first to speak. Wide-eyed. On her feet. Touching her body like she’d been long away from it. “Why did you bring me back?”
It was Mal, all right. Her voice uncanny from the hell she was just pulled from but hope made them blind.
Jimmy was the first toward her.
“Why?” she repeated.
Before he reached her, though, he stopped.
She opened her mouth to cry it again but she stopped. Or was stopped. Black dripped from her lips.
She wiped it away but not before Jimmy saw and then the light in her eyes faded. That voice in her throat was no longer hers. It melted away into this distorted imitation of a human, of something puppeting her vocal cords. “cAn i gET a HUG?” she cried.
Again, Jimmy pulled Glenn into a run as they fled from that thing inhabiting their friend. Through the forest, straight on, under branches, following a steep rock wall, then a sharp left and on, hurrying, until they dared to breathe. They looked back. Waited.
She wasn’t there. She hadn’t chased them. Perhaps her legs weren’t operable yet.
Some branches blocked the path and Jimmy reached for them but they pushed toward him, and through them, Mal emerged.
Back they went and when they got to that steep rock wall, they kept around it, not daring to head toward Elyse and James and that creepy kid of theirs and then the two bolted down a hill, Glenn tripping in the snow, feeling now his ankle had twisting that every step complicated, but it didn’t stop him. Only his burning lungs did. Jimmy felt it just the same, but his horror pushed him on an extra bend around the corner, into Mal.
So a third time they went running and Glenn, despite his ankle, despite his lungs, would have gone until his foot snapped, but Jimmy yanked him toward the twisted roots of a tree in a pile of snow that they shimmied in until it covered even the darkest parts of their coats. Only their breathing might give them away and Jimmy’s hand had clamped over Glenn’s face so tight that that was less of a risk than suffocating, but perhaps a death such as that was preferable.
It was quiet. They wouldn’t for a million dollars peek out from their cover, but Mal was nowhere to be heard. That family of freaks hadn’t tracked them here. Hiding worked.
They’d stay like this until the next sundown if need-be. Jimmy had let up from Glenn’s mouth.
However, their weight was too much for the snow. They began to sink further into it, which they discovered slowly.
After so long putting pressure on his arms, so long in one position, Jimmy needed to adjust. Get the blood flowing again. But as he attempted to raise an elbow, he realized he was suctioned in something and it took serious leverage to pull an arm up.
Glenn, seeing, hearing, feeling the other man scramble, panicked too and came to the same realization.
Something sucked them down.
With their arms freed, Jimmy pulled at a branch while Glenn brushed away the snow to see what had them.
The black goo that’d yanked Sunny from them, that had dripped from Mal’s lips, like tar, it stuck to them as gravity worked, and Glenn grabbed the same branch as Jimmy, which snapped under their combined weights and Jimmy fell backwards, almost unable to right himself from the stickiness. At that moment, he made his decision.
When apprehending a suspect, police training taught an effective grapple called the sleeper hold, made famous by the WWE.
The armpit goes atop the person’s shoulder. Wrap that arm around their neck. The palm of the other hand presses inward against the wrist. It takes three to ten seconds to put someone to sleep.
Glenn took five.
As his friend sunk deeper into the pit, Jimmy made headway on his solo escape. One leg was free. He stepped up onto the root for extra leverage, but it was soft from rot, he thought, so he mostly just pulled himself free with the tree branch.
What’s brown and sticky?
In his hands, the stick mushed like gum and when he tried to let go, it would not. Brown and sticky. His foot sank into the root. The tree, this solid pine tree, bent at the trunk under his weight. The safe land he’d been working toward betrayed him. The mountain had opened up, determined to swallow him.
He fought to the end. His chin up to breathe a few extra minutes. But eventually, it was just his nose, like a dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water, and the black squirmed inside.