When they roused Rose, she wouldn't wake. When they stood outside her room and she could smell their coffee and hear mention of her in their friendly chatter, she kept the blankets tight over her head. Even when they threw in the Beags to her warm, nothing but the fullest bladder seemed capable of getting her out of bed.
Then there was a silence.
It made her look around.
She didn't know where she was. Whoever was playing caretaker had overdone it on the blankets and most had been kicked to the base. They'd changed her clothes, too, to a T-shirt and sweats and no underwear which really creeped her out, even if it'd been Quinn, but she must've been exhausted to sleep through it and in socks no less! Normally they constricted her tootsies too much to be comfortable. She stroked Beagsley's ears and he turned to look at her, blinking, but had little joy left in his doggy heart. She felt the same. Her head was so foggy and when she thought about getting up and out of bed, she let that thought go and lay back down.
Then the door opened and a woman in a Batman t-shirt with her hair covered jumped into bed, too, and before Rosie could say anything, the woman pinned her hand to Rose's mouth. "You need to listen to me." She seemed more scared than Rose.
When she pulled her hand away, she put a finger to her lips and Rose nodded.
Using a notepad, the woman drew a rough map of the complex. A research center. Her name was Marwa. She explained as she labeled the exit and the landmark rooms and where they were now. With enough time, the map might've been a masterpiece, but in a hurry, it was passable. "There are soldiers here that want you and your dog. Your friends have already escaped, but you need to sneak through here. There are at least two guards but it's the only way out. Don't let them take your dog."
"I won't," Rosie finally managed to say.
"They think I'm still on their team but now that I know what they're doing with anyone outside the Hush.Ca Organization..." Marwa trailed off. "Wait till you hear a door down the hall close. That's the signal to go. Be quiet and be quick, and please, be safe."
Marwa slowly closed the door behind her so as not to make a noise and Rose listened to the rhythm of her footsteps. Too slow. And suddenly too many. And there were voices.
"They just radioed from the holding room," a man said. "We've got reports of a woman in the group unaccounted for."
"You have all the ones I know about," Marwa replied. "But maybe Lenka brought in another? Don't know."
Quinn was dead.
Right in front of Roger and Damion.
She'd been sitting there telling Damion to shut up and that no amount of logic or reasoning would save them from this people so they just had to shut up when Roger made a break for it, and he got all the way down the hall, to a metal door. He pulled the handle. Locked. He kicked it. The two soldiers striding toward him. Their footsteps echoed through the hall but went quiet with every hard kick Roger gave to the door. He had to be close, he thought, when they arrived behind him. Until they touched him, he had a chance. Until they grabbed him, maybe he could get this open, or weakened, and then when he got another chance, he could bust it down.
They never grabbed him.
The soldiers just let him kick until his breathing was heavy and his spirit abandoned.
He walked back on his own.
The woman in charge said, "This place is locked down. We're bringing your other friend over before we decide what to do with you all." The soldiers all called her Gunney.
"She nearly froze to death. At least bring a blanket with her."
The Gunney's professional shell cracked and through it, the group saw astonishment. "She?"
"Shut up, Damion!" Quinn screamed.
As the Gunney was on the radio, the soldiers took Quinn, who'd done nothing. Damion had been a constant whine. Roger had run. And Quinn had sat there, planning, and so they took her, and she thought if she didn't resist, she'd be okay. She was wrong.
The soldier talking to Marwa had orders to search every room, again, and Marwa had no more authority here. If the soldiers had missed one of their targets, it was because someone, Marwa, had falsely reported a few rooms empty.
The footsteps in the hall, they were slower than Marwa's, but now too fast. They were coming right for Rosie.
Her covers were inadequate to hide her. If she submitted, perhaps she'd be fine, but why would Marwa risk anything if that were the case? She hid against the wall next to the door. The soldier would come in and in that second, she'd do something. She wasn't sure what but she had to do something.
He opened the door and Rosie leapt too soon.
She tackled his arm, and had a good hold of it, but could do nothing. He was trained. He squeezed her between his arms so every limb was secure. Even her kicking feet did nothing. He swayed with her as she wriggled until soon, his tight arms crushed the air from her, and her eyes closed. Her mind went dark.
And he dropped her.
The floor was hard on her knees but the pain woke her from the daze. She looked around for what had saved her. The man's face was disfigured, a swollen purple mess, the mouth agape in terror or pain.
On the bed, standing on all four legs now, was Beagsley.
Whatever had happened didn't matter. The commotion would draw others in and Rosie needed to go, though she didn't want to. She grabbed the hand-drawn map and peeked out the door. It was clear. As she reached the end of her hall, the one Marwa had gone down had the boot steps of first responders, and Rosie hurried before they searched her way.
Beagsley was a perfect doll in her arms.
Even last night, when they'd been freezing, after Quinn handed him off, Beagsley had kicked a little. Shivered. Adjusted in her arms to get his snout as nestled into her armpits as possible, for the warmth, not the smell.
But now, he was lifeless. Truly still.
That, with earlier, scared her more than a little.
She shook the fear away. It wouldn't be right to abandon a little boyo after struggling so much together. If they survived, it'd be together. It'd be as much because of him as it was because of her.
Soldiers down the hall pulled her out of her thoughts.
She ducked into a room with an open door and waited, but they stood, chit-chatting. She had a plan. Unbuckling Beagsley's collar, she could throw it into a room further down the hall to lure them then sneak past. All she had on her feet were socks. She'd be so silent.
She threw it.
The soldiers walked past.
They tentatively looked into the room as Rosie watched from behind the door, looking between hinges.
They were inside, threatening that they knew someone was in there and to come out.
She made her move.
And her hip bumped against the door. The door creaked as it swung into the wall, a quiet thump against the door stop to be sure, but still too loud to maintain stealth. Her clumsiness had doomed them.
The men turned.
"You know why you're hunting me," she said. Her eyes were locked on theirs. They were so much bigger and yet she felt her spirit rise above. Her threat: "One of you is already dead. Get out your radio and ask how agonizingly slow it was. Then ask yourselves if you ever want to see home again."
She waited for their decision, then took a step back, and another, and turned, and no one stopped her. She walked right out the swinging door.
Then bolted because she knew they'd be on the radio soon enough and every soldier in this place with whatever equipment they'd prepared for that thing, for Beagsley, would flood down the mountain till they found her and whether she surrendered or not, fate awaited her.
Out the exit, she found that little cave they'd collapsed in. If they'd gone just another twenty steps, they might've found the front door.
The forest in the day shimmered. Snow loosened by the melting sun fell from the branch and kicked up powder and the branch hung, sodden and limp, like it might never perk back up. And though the forest looked so different out in the light, an experience like last night was so beaten into her body that her legs just moved. They knew where to go and she let them lead.
When she heard a sound.
They were here. Already? She wasn't far at all.
"Shouldn't you be wearing a coat, Rose?" Colby came out from behind a tree, like he'd been hiding, too. "It's been a helluva night."
Rosie threw her head back and laughed, which hurt. Her lungs felt frozen. And Colby came up to hug her but she yelled, "Stop!"
She set Beagsley down, then she felt comfortably going to Colby, leading him several more yards, and then finally, hugging him.
"Did anyone else make it?" he asked.
"No," she said, knowing Marwa had lied. She could put together what she'd heard in the halls. "It's just us, but we'll be okay."
She wondered how he'd survived. What he'd seen. The relief of it all made him cry streams. He was getting choked up just letting it out and she knew whatever she'd been through, he'd have his own half of the story.
"It's okay," she whispered. "Cry as much as you need to."
His tears hit her cheek and he was shaking, really coughing trying to get through it all. She patted his back. It felt wrong.
She opened her eyes.
That soldier from earlier--she looked around for Beagsley, still a ways on, sitting motionless, and she turned back to her friend who had just fallen to the ground, swollen, purple, and dying.
A wasp came at her and she ducked, flailing her hands, but as it landed on her, it found an opening in her skin and burrowed inside. Back to where it came from.
There wasn't anything she could do now for Colby. Or for Quinn, Roger, Damion. Not even for Marwa probably. But for whoever else was out there, whether she knew them or not, there was something she had to do.
Back at the cave, where the front door was, she pounded on it. "Get whatever you need to contain me. I'm giving myself up. I don't want anyone else to get hurt." She was holding Beagsley.
Quinn held the knob leading to the son's room and it felt cold. The heat was obviously on in the cabin. They could smell the rust it kicked up, but the knob was so cold she needed gloves if she was to hesitate much longer.
She was about to twist when Elyse pushed her aside.
The doctor went in without flipping on the lights, then emerged with her son. "Hey little man. How long have you been up? Did we wake you?"
The kid's platinum blonde hair needed a trim as it was in his eyes and all staticky, sticking to his forehead even after Elyse brushed it away. He couldn't be more than seven. Thin and pale. Eyes wide. They were the same blue as his father's, icy, piercing, but something about them unsettled Quinn.
"See? Just a room for our son. If you want to check the other, I'll put him back." She bounced him in her arms but his mouth, just ever so agape, did not curl into the expected smile. Maybe tiredness killed the joy. Maybe he was already feeling too old for this and didn't like being babied. Maybe he was just naturally sour-faced. Quinn knew what that was like. Elyse explained, "Him and the dog are inseparable and this much past his bedtime, I don't want him getting wound up."
Margie wobbled to her feet. "Not till we check the room."
The patience James had because his wife insisted had suddenly run out. "We don't keep guns. Definitely wouldn't store them in a kid's room."
"Marge, it'll be toys and clothes," Quinn said. "Let's just trust them for once."
"Let me check then," Margie said but she grunted with every step. Her breathing labored. It'd take forever if she went.
"Fine, I'll give it a pass and show you there's nothing." Quinn reached in the dark room for the light. The wall must've been freshly painted. It was wet. Goopy. Cold.
None of the other rooms were painted.
She poked her head in. It was too dark to see. Fumbling for the switch, she just kept getting paint on her hand and when she finally looked in the light cast through the doorway, her hand was black. The paint throbbed on her palm.
Letting out a yelp, she shook it off, but not a drop fell. Damion got up. Elyse set down the kid. James looked to her for a signal. Margie eyed the rifle, plotting. Rosie stayed under the blanket.
Sucking up her squeamish surprise, Quinn found the switch and when the light turned on, glistening black goo that squirmed on the ceiling seemed to endlessly trickle down the walls. The dresser. The bed. Everything that might've been there was a mound of this stuff. The ceiling fan dribbled a curtain of muck to the floor, and it gummed up the cracks in the floorboards.
"I told you, I fucking told you," Margie screamed at the room.
She fought for that gun even as Elyse held it over head and James grabbed it and the women wrestled till Margie's injuries forced her to back down.
"Give it to me so I can blow that thing's head off!"
"Calm down!" James yelled. "He's just a kid."
"Like hell he is!"
"Will you come with me?" the boy asked. He offered a hand to Damion, still on the couch by Beagsley.
Damion looked from the boy to the room and then to the others. "That's okay. I'll stay here."
Damion shook his head.
Then his head slumped down. It all happened in a flash. Something had shot out of the boy's mouth to crush Damion's neck. It didn't get through the spinal chord, but the skin, the muscle were ripped through and squirting arteries dangled out.
With whimpers, Rosie retreated under her blanket holding Beagsley too tightly. He was about to bite.
"Put that thing back to bed," Quinn yelled at Elyse. "Or I'll strangle you both before he gets to me."
Damion's eyes were still open.
"You'll wish it was that quick," Quinn threatened.
But then, the boy grabbed Quinn's hand, ever so gently. Just a kid holding hands with an adult like they were walking through the mall.
With that sugary mother's tone, Elyse bent over to say, "Hey buddy, did you brush your teeth? You know you gotta get all the way in the back before you go to bed," but behind her smile, it gave away ever so slightly her real feelings when her voice quivered.
"Will you come with me?" the boy asked.
Quinn didn't need to look at Damion again to know the right answer. "Sure. I'd love to."
And from then, he didn't let go of Quinn's hand. He held out the other for Rosie. "Will you?"
From beneath her covers, seemingly deeper than was possible, her drugged and fear-ruined mind came up with, "I have to go home."
The boy said, "Okay."
Then it was Margie's choice.
The glossy panel door of flat cedar with dark knots to add depth was identical to the other, the one hiding the son, and behind it, in darkness, was a doberman.
"Go ahead," Elyse encouraged Quinn.
With every deep, slow breath Margie took, she groaned through gritted teeth. Her eyes were on Elyse's hands, the rifle, planning how to get it back, but until then she needed Quinn and the others to be smart. On her side. "Don't listen to her."
"It's just a door. It's just a dog."
Their own, Beagsley, was on the couch between Rosie and James. Rosie had hidden under the covers in her current state and James had coaxed Beagsley into rolling over. The big man genuinely smiled when he found that paddle point by a mole on the Beags' belly.
Quinn touched the handle.
There was silence beyond the dark of the door.
"We just want you to root around until you feel safe with us," Elyse said. "Maybe we can get to the bottom of what's got you all so spooked."
Quinn started to twist.
But Margie yelled, "If there's a dog in there, why haven't we heard a sound from him?"
"To be what?" Damion asked.
"A guard dog."
Margie stumbled to her feet. "Shouldn't it be out here then?"
"You folks aren't the danger."
"Did you forget he tackled me?" Damion pointed at James who now cradled Beagsley. His tongue flopped out--the dog's then the man's.
"He's not well-trained."
James gasped playfully and the two shot glances at each other, the glances of a loving couple, and Quinn saw that all, but that instinct she'd had since she was a kid told her not yet. Don't believe them yet. Elyse had that eternal patience of a pediatrician or a kid's favorite teacher, the kind of patience saints aspired to, and even holding the rifle, Quinn felt dissonance.
Elyse said, "I don't know why you all barged in. Why you have a gun. Why there's only one bullet left. But I'd like to know all that you're willing to tell me and maybe help if we can. This gun is useless without that bullet."
Maybe the night had her unfairly on edge and not because of these people. With a deep breath that quelled her nerves, Quinn said, "If I open this, will he attack?" She took that joking tone but it was a real concern.
"She," the doctor said. "Bailey."
"YES!" Margie screamed leaning on the counter. Her forehead banged a cabinet and her raspy breaths filled the room.
Elyse shook her head.
Putting her hand back on the doorknob, Quinn told herself, it was just a dog, Bailey. She knew the danger animals could pose and she knew how to handle them and with Damion and Margie and Rosie and even these strangers, one dog wouldn't kill her. If she could just bring herself to open the door.
Elyse walked over, setting the gun down on the table by the briefcase. "Here." She grabbed the doorknob.
But a childlike whisper stopped her.
"Beagsley, don't you want a friend?" Rosie asked from under the covers. Just a bloodshot eye peeked out.
"Hey, yeah," Damion said getting up as his suspicions did. "Dogs are beasts without restraint."
"Come on now," James said taking that insult for himself.
"Why isn't he sniffing the door? That's what dogs do, right? He's not well-trained."
"See?" Margie shouted, laughing so hard it might've been crying. "See? You don't know what she wants to sic on you. Rose and I know. We've seen it."
Quinn tried to get between the woman and her door, but she had already twisted the knob and flung it open.
Braced for a lunge of fur and fangs, Quinn whirled toward the dark room.
A block of light coming from the main area illuminated the bedroom. In the rectangle, a muscular dog stood. Unlike most doberman, this one was a pale color like a latte. It had a pink nose. White markings. Even its eyes were a pale, icy blue. It stared out. The tail stump did not wag.
"She's a good girl," Elyse said.
At all times, Quinn wanted an eye on the dog. She stepped forward, offering a hand to sniff, but that light pink nose didn't twitch. Its eyes stayed fixed on something out the room. If she wanted to see what had its attention, Quinn would have to look away and she wasn't going to do that.
Elyse reached in to fumble for the lights. They popped on, and most dogs, being used to the gradual reveal of sunrise, might still look at the instant illumination like magic, but this dog had no reaction.
"See?" the doctor said. She stayed by the door but made no concessions to the dog. The usual stuff of scratching behind its ears or squatting down to its level for slobbery kisses some found controversial. No baby talk. "Nothing but the dog. Check the drawers. Under the mattress."
James got up, carefully setting Beagsley on a pillow and giving his ears a good toss. The boy waited for more. But the man was heading for the door as Quinn walked in.
Margie shrieked at him in warning.
The doberman did nothing.
The alarm sent Quinn spinning to see James had stopped, holding his hands up in surrender, trying to explain, "I just don't want the dog getting out. You know how it is. Close the door just a crack."
"Nuh-uh," Quinn said. "You can stand there and catch her if she runs for it, but I'm not getting locked in here."
He sat back down, his eyes and anxieties on the dog.
Margie's alarm had almost drawn enough attention to her for someone to notice she had slid along the wall, ever closer to the kitchen table. Where the briefcase was. Where the rifle was.
As Quinn looked around, giving the dog a wide berth and at least one eye at all times, she noticed the two large beds were untouched. The bedspread was as smooth as an employee might make it when hurrying to do his least favorite part of the job. The four pillows were at the top of the bed. The other bed was the same. And if the son slept in the other room, maybe his parents did, too, but why waste this room on a well-trained dog? Why didn't the dog use the bed if they were available? James's behavior with Beagsley indicated that he was fine with animals on the furniture.
She pulled open the drawers to find nothing in each. The bedside tables had nothing and as far as she could tell, nothing was hidden in any crevasse or secret compartment. She even looked under the mattress as Elyse suggested. No rifle cartridges.
Which was reasonable.
But nothing? Nothing but the pale doberman?
Quinn came out and shrugged. "I think we're safe."
Margie wanted to insist on the other room, but she was closer still to the kitchen table, and another word from her, even another heavy breath, might tip off Elyse.
"Can you close the door?" James asked.
"Light on or off?"
"Doesn't matter," he said hurriedly, just trying to get it closed. "Off is fine."
"Does she like the dark?"
"For sleeping, yeah. But if you think on is better, whatever. Just, please? The door?"
A kitchen chair clattered against the hardwood. Everyone's attention spun on the sound except for James's, never leaving the dog, and they saw Margie's silence had paid off. She had the rifle once more. Damion backed away and Quinn went to block her path, but Elyse shrugged.
She said, "I told you. That thing's useless without the bullet."
"It'd make a pretty good club," Margie said. But her arm was still too weak to lift it, let alone aim, let alone swing, and just as that injury had led to a clumsy grab tipping off the entire house, setting it down, still in her clutches, she knocked over the briefcase. It fell on its side and the flap came undone. A clear plastic container, like the kind you pee in the first week on the job, rolled out and inside was a cicada.
It was so still it might've been dead. It stayed glue to the floor of the container as it spun until the jar stopped.
Quinn slapped her hand on the rifle and Margie was too weak to really do anything about it. She tried. She struggled and the gun shifted around on the table, but Quinn had it pinned until Margie gave up. Margie slumped back over in her corner. Elyse collected the container and stuffed it back in the briefcase, checking the latches to be sure they locked.
"Will someone close the dog in?" James yelled after the commotion settled.
Damion was nearest. He reached in for the handle when a solid rapping at the front door turned his attention. It caught everyone's.
Elyse looked to James; his eyes still waited on Quinn. Neither knew who it could be.
"Police," an authoritative voice shouted through. "We just have some questions maybe y'all can answer for us."
Everyone waited for someone to get the door, or to give that look that said they weren't getting the door, but no one gave the look and no one moved despite the police seeing the lights on through the window and probably hearing the voices talking right until the knock. The sudden silence was suspicious, but maybe not any more suspicious than what they were used to. Police gave most people that reaction, guilty or not.
The police opened the door on their own.
Elyse made an effort with long confident strides to appear like she'd been just about to head to the door when it opened, and she had that cordial smile as she asked, "What can we do for you?"
"Looks like a bit of a party in here," the uninvited man said. He had a ski mask covering his lower face and a hat. His eyes immediately found Margie. "Maybe a bit of a wild one."
"One of us had an accident. Fell down the mountain. It's been a whole night."
After the man came in and pulled down his mask, revealing a beard, his partner came in and Quinn, Damion, and Beagsley especially reacted--his favorite lady with all the treats. Sunny.
"What are all of you doing here?" Sunny asked as stunned as they were and more so when she saw Marge all beaten to hell, slumped over and wild-eyed. "And what the hell happened?"
Her reaction seemed to them alien because they'd been simmering in this all night and she'd only ever gotten the Rose Reports back when everyone thought it was craziness, so unless she'd seen, an explanation would be more craziness.
"Where's Glenn? Malia?" Quinn asked.
"Probably at the car by now. We ran into Jimmy on the way up and split up so they could call for more cops and emergency services."
"Jimmy?" Quinn couldn't believe that. He was in the initial planning but no one wanted him there. Maybe Hunter or Damion had let it slip. And yeah, he recommended the place, but when he couldn't come there was a collective unclenching in the group. Mostly from the women. Most of all, from Sunny.
"How's it going, Q?" Jimmy asked with that stupid grin.
But if he was a cop, he had a gun and that was some protection. "Fine. So questions?"
"Our contact with the ranger's station got cut off."
James interrupted. "Maybe the storm."
"Could be. Could be," Jimmy said.
James was no longer comfortable with Beagsley on the couch, living out dog dad fantasies, but he was up and near the officer at all times. He offered a seat at the kitchen table to the man but in doing so, he had to move the briefcase to the counter, just to give more space to the cop.
"Been firing this?" Jimmy asked, talking about the rifle. "You know it's not hunting season. Or a hunting-designated area. Not even sure there's much up here to hunt."
Quinn came in with the answer. "It was target practice. That was when she got hurt."
"Still illegal. Do any of you have a license for this?"
"Back at our lodge," Sunny said. "Hunter probably has it."
That drew silence in the room as the party focused on that secret tragedy, but Jimmy heard something else in that statement. "This isn't your place?"
"All of us crammed into one another mile up. This must be their place." Sunny motioned to Elyse and James.
"You're not with them?"
"We just met," Elyse answered. "To tend to Maggie's wounds."
"Margie," Damion corrected her.
Jimmy paused. He'd been listening intently. He had to with everything going on, and he made notes in his head as he connected the stories for a good picture of the situation as he saw it. He had that key piece though that really made everything clear. "Mind if I have a look around?" he asked.
"Go ahead," James said. "Nothing to hide." With the group, Elyse had been helpful. Now it was James. "First we should lock the dog up."
Jimmy looked to Beagsley. "Seems harmless."
"The other--" James looked at the open door with the lights still on. It was empty. Pale little Bailey had stepped into the main room.
"Oh! A big girl," Jimmy said and Sunny cooed, too, asking if she was friendly.
There were no more lines about being well-trained. Just James and Elyse watching it step toward the other door and stare.
"She seems curious about what's behind door number two."
"Our son," Elyse said slowly. "He's sleeping."
"Just turned seven."
"Is everything okay between the boy and the dog?" Jimmy caught onto the anxiety, but not the severity of it. "Any reason to put the old girl away?"
Elyse tried to stay composed. "You know dogs. Don't know their own strength. Still thinks she's a lap dog."
"Sure, sure. What do you want me to do?"
Nestled against a glossy pea green wall under one of the seven blankets she started with while the other six with six different designs like plaid and spotted and two-tone reversible were kicked into a mound against the wall because the heater had been turned up and yet, despite the stuffy air, Rosie pinned the blanket over her head.
In all the times they'd come in to check if she was awake or alive, they couldn't get it off. She would, still deep in sleep, curl up tighter. The hole that made visible her face would cinch to give only her nose access to outside.
Rosie opened her eyes.
The hallway light reflected like the sun off the moon from the hall and lit inside the blanket. Just barely.
And the bleariness that always comes after too little sleep.
And the last moments of a dream shaping reality.
Why were there holes in her hand?
A honeycomb of dried flesh.
A weevil, like the kind that flourished in rice left open in a humid cabinet, peeked out with its horn then turned and crawled back inside and the dream crashed away as she could feel every step inside her and how the passage narrowed as it got deeper, how using its chitinous shell it squeezed open a valve to get inside her veins for transport to construct more holes throughout her body. There wasn't just the one. But too many, all with so many legs, chittering.
Roger, after a three-course meal of Funions from the vending machines, returned to Rosie. Sat by her. Waited. Got impatient and, with one hand on her shoulder, sent her into a frenzy as she flung off the cover, banged her head on the top bunk, rose and danced, shrieking as she slapped her hand against every part of her trying to squish what was inside until Roger caught her.
"Stop! Hey! Rose," he called, yelling to be heard over her rising voice, holding her too tight for her to hurt herself further. "It's okay now. Just a dream. Just a terrible, awful, stupid dream. You're okay."
Breathless and in shock, she looked at him till the wishy-washy dreamscope she'd been seeing faded and he stayed. "Roger."
He loosened his hold then let her free completely but she leaned against him.
Her hand was whole. No holes. No dents.
"You okay now?"
"It was so realistic."
"Hate those dreams. What was it?"
She could still feel the march of an army through her, but without the holes, without the weevil, with the knowledge she was awake now, she knew it had to be imagined. "I don't know how to explain exactly. Holes in my skin. Bugs. I had a dozen fucking nightmares that kept waking me up but I can't even remember them after that last one."
"We'll get you some coffee." Roger hugged her, gently this time, and she took some deep breaths. "You can forget all about them now you're in the waking world."
"Yeah, probably won't sleep until we leave tomorrow. Or today, I guess," Rosie said. Then she looked around. At the bunk beds. The pea green walls. The long tiled hallway outside. No wood to be seen. No cramped cabin loaded up with people and decorated by suitcases. "Where are we?"
Groaning as he attempted to explain, Roger said, "You know that large kaleidoscope thingy in Europe that can see black holes or something? It's a research station like that, I guess. Like where Damion worked. Sciency stuff. The lady explained it but I was in over my head so I let the doctors sift through it. Did you know Damion and Quinn are doctors? Technically."
She sat back down on the bed. Tony and all that. That hadn't been part of the nightmares.
She could've cried.
Instead she swore. "Fuck."
But her group had made it through the cold. Damion. Quinn. Roger. Her.
"Where's Beagsley?" she asked.
A soft echo in the hall caught her attention. A jingle.
"Oh, the Beags?"
Again, that jingle jangle. He had to be responding to his name. Shaking his head in the other room to get himself out of sleepy little boyo mode.
Then a door swung open so hard the backside hit the doorstop. He must be excitedly running in, she thought. He's going to leap onto my lap any second.
But the door closed.
And the jingle jangle of what was now obviously keys again sounded and the familiar thunk of a deadbolt and steps and there were Quinn and Damion and a dark skinned woman in a distressed Batman T-shirt and a grape red hijab. She held the deceptive keys.
Rose's sour expression of concern didn't register as Quinn rushed in for the hug.
But Rose needed an answer. "Where is he?" she practically yelled, finding her breath gone without warning.
Quinn let go. "Who?"
"He made it, didn't he?"
Roger shot in. "Yeah! Sorry, oh god, sorry. There was a lot going on. He's fine."
"You idiot." Quinn backhanded his chest. "He's way down the hall, sleeping. With Marwa's... gecko?"
The woman in the Batman shirt spoke up. "Similar. He's an Ackie. A dwarf monitor. Little spotted dragon but he's pretty permanently hibernating so your dog's fine. No fire breathing or anything." She laughed a little, letting it trail off, then clearing her throat and closed-mouth smiling with her cheeks. "How are you feeling?"
"She hit her head pretty hard on the top bunk," Roger said.
"Oooh!" Marwa winced. "I still do that all the time and I know it's there. No blood, right?"
"Good." There was a silence as Marwa waited for someone else to talk but everyone was looking at her and she wasn't great about that and so though it'd only been a few seconds, she said, "Awkward silence." It then became awkward.
Quinn stepped in. "She's the one that saved us."
"Oh, no. No, not me. I mean I brought some hot coffee for whenever you guys woke up but by the time you actually woke up, it'd gotten cold so I threw it out. There's more brewing. If you want some. Do you like coffee? But no, really it was Lenka, the other guy on shift this month. You'll probably see him around. Old South African guy. He's got the accent. White. A bit shy. Sometimes awkward." She threw out a lot for Rose to process and before there could be a response, just a few seconds unbearable for her, she said, "Anyway. Want a tour? I was just showing..." Marwa hesitated with the names and Rose saw the distress on her face, thinking that her shoddy memory insulted the guests. Then she snapped her fingers. "Dr. Quinn, biology woman."
Quinn's smile eased Marwa--a bit.
"And Dan--" she mumbled the second syllable.
"Damion," Quinn corrected her gently.
"I'm so sorry. Damion, Damion, Damion."
Roger leaned over to Rose to whisper, "She's great, isn't she?"
"Can I see Beagsley first?" Rosie requested. The relief let her tears come and Quinn resumed that welcoming hug once again.
"Of course. This way."
Marwa led Quinn and Rosie to the room with a window in the door where Rose stopped at the sight of the pup. Its belly was on a throne of pillows and snoot between its paws, eyes closed, and a fuzzy blanket covering from tail to collar. Honestly, it had to be the most comfortable bed this whole week. Tony always let the good boy sleep with him, but Tony had that restless leg syndrome. He kicked. He turned over. He pulled the blankets up then threw them off. He was under them then on them then flipping them over to sleep on the other side. Whenever the current up of his pillow got too warm, he rotated for the cold side, and Beagsley, smart little boyo that he was, had learned the floor was better.
"I just need a minute then we can look around," Rose said.
When she crept inside, the dog stayed down in its dreams. She scratched behind the floppy ear, in her fervor of smoothing the skin folds to the neck where they piled up, she turned the ear inside out. It had that corn chip smell. Before she turned it back over, the shadow over his ear canal shrank but it wasn't with the light. Rosie didn't notice. The fur was so coarse, not soft, but good for combing her fingers through.
Through it all, the dog opened its eyes, sniffed, then went back.
A little disappointing.
But the boy had survived so much tonight. She didn't need the dog to be his usual loving, barky self. He'd wake up tomorrow and do just that.
Marwa and Quinn stayed outside the room to chat more about the experiments here. They were both biologists. On Orcas, Quinn was the warden of nature, watching it blossom, tasked with preserving it for but also against visitors, and Marwa's experiments sounded the same on a smaller, artificial scale.
"Are you looking for a new job?" Marwa asked. "Wish I could guarantee anything if you apply, if you want, but we're recently in need of two new lab assistant. Pay's pretty good but basically living up here a month at a time."
"After this week, I probably won't be coming back. And I'm not an entomologist. Thanks though."
"Oh, me neither. You might be better suited for expansions here. I'm sure upper-management would be interested in studying the effects on marine life just as much. I mean I specialized in parasites, but here I am."
Just then Rosie walked out and Damion and Roger walked up, Roger with his fourth bag of Funions.
"So!" Marwa announced. "Ready for the tour? This is my first real tour so sorry if it's a bit all over the place." Though it was impromptu, ever since they arrived and woke up just fine, she'd been preparing. She had notes on her tablet.
The line started with her and when they got through this heavy sliding door that Marwa waited for everyone to get through before she sealed and locked, now in a hallway with inches thick glass walls, she walked backward to address Quinn and Damion, the most interested, while Rosie and Roger lagged and lingered looking through the glass on either side of them to the trees with large fronds of complex leaves, curled at the ends, the bark and branches covered in moss. The tall grass. The thick, woody vines. Meters of real dirt that the plant-life had rooted into. The heat and humidity of it seeped out. It even smelled differently in this hall.
Marwa had to talk loudly.
The cicadas had come alive. A cacophony of grating chirps that modulated as the butt of these creatures vibrated. It seemed ever present, but as they took a few steps, it softened. It wasn't a blessing of timing, but of science. Using CRISPR, they had engineered cicadas as often awake as a regular cricket.
Quinn knew the sound. Some species were annual but these weren't. These were the ones she knew, the 17-year Brood X cicadas. Thousands, maybe even millions, all singing together. She'd only been in high school then. The first day of it had been beautiful.
The fifth week, however, she was glad they'd be dead of old age soon.
Now, she was all smiles. For the natural beauty and the science providing it.
The singing drowned out the tour for the two in back. Roger's Funions bag had part of the aluminum inner lining torn but the yellow wrapping held its shape. It was translucent. Could see his fingers reaching in and the prize it pulled out.
When he offered a nibble to Rose, she saw a shadow move. It had antennae.
She hesitated, aghast like any normal person at the sight of a cockroach or anything vaguely shaped like a cockroach, but that long wait only confused Roger so he shook the bag to urge her to take one, shuffling the interior, and the shadow disappeared.
She peered inside.
And the abyss behind the Funions, what they might be hiding inside their greasy depths, she feared it might be one of those international cockroaches that regularly flew and of course it'd fly right into her mouth.
The wait went long enough that she was sure the sounds of the rainforest around her had colored her imagination.
She reached in.
Her fingers were safe. She ate the Funion then took the whole bag from him.
But she felt the weight of something scurry out and buzz toward her ear. She had to drop the bag to defensively windmill her hands and she scratched at her hair, though she felt nothing. Stopped.
The commotion had caught the entire groups attention over the singing. She looked at Roger, who'd been holding the bag yet saw nothing. Then to Quinn and Damion, and finally Marwa. That was the embarrassing one.
"Everything okay?" Marwa asked.
Rosie looked at the walls. If she could find it, she could point and absolve herself of these blushing sins but it wasn't anywhere. And she hadn't seen anything. Nor had Roger. She just had a sound and the sounds were everywhere already. She admitted, "I thought I saw a cockroach."
"I'll make sure to spray. We obviously have to keep traps everywhere but usually our prison's a tough one for them to get out. And they like it there. There's not a lot for them out here so usually they just wander back. But hey, if you don't want to join us inside, totally fine."
Rosie immediately, without processing the offer, said, "No, I'm good."
Then as they went into a locker room and Marwa handed white denim suits with a transparent plexiglass head cages to Quinn, then Damion, even Roger, Rose realized the offer. She was too embarrassed to refuse now.
In their suits, everyone looked identical. The plexiglass masks were transparent but tinted.
After the locker room was a wash station, then through that next heavy sliding door was a buffer zone that lit up red whenever either door was open, and finally, with the door behind closed, Marwa opened the last door to a blast of forest sounds. Red lights above shined throughout. The peaty smell from the hall was stronger than ever. The acid almost burned Damion's first breath. This was not like any lab he'd been in. The creepy crawlies all around disturbed him and when one flew by he backed up, but there was no retreat. The door was sealed.
Marwa twisted a deadbolt. "Don't worry. It's just so the door doesn't accidentally slide open. There are locks on both sides." The red lights turned off. "There are some buddies in here with stingers and pincers and too many legs, but nothing outright dangerous. Last time I was in here, I saw a mama giant centipede curled around her hundred 100-legged babies and it was super gross and I wanted to smash them all to hell, but it was kind of sweet, too. So just try to keep that in mind before squishing anything. There's a trail I always take but it's not as big as it seems so you shouldn't have any problem with finding your way back. If we get separated, find a wall and just follow it around."
Quinn stayed pretty close to Marwa asking questions. "There's nothing but insects, right?"
"Some arachnids. Spiders and ticks. But no mammals, no birds, no lizards. In nature you always have checks and balances till you get to the top of the food chain, but our apex predators are much lower so they tend to overeat and we have to artificially inflate certain species. Otherwise, they'd go extinct."
While those two walked beyond a tree, Roger went on his own, like a kid again fascinated by the little things that also gave him the willies, and Damion disappeared after him, not wanting to be alone, and in doing so, he left Rosie at the entrance.
That dream still bothered her. She could feel everything inside riding her like the subway and it took a lot of mental force to quell those imaginary sensations. They weren't real. They weren't.
But even so, bugs weren't her thing. Who the fuck liked bugs?
She'd wait here, leaning against the door then she realized something might crawl down it and she stepped away.
And it looked like Damion was already back.
"Not your thing either?" she asked.
He was silent. His steps were dragging. There was a low hanging branch and he walked into it letting it press against his head cage until he was beyond and it whipped back shaking a few hornets from it. They landed upon him but maybe with the suit he didn't notice because there was no reaction.
"Damion?" It was him, right? Rose couldn't see beyond the tint of the plexiglass.
He kept coming toward her.
She backed into that door and sure enough her previous worries of something creeping down it were right but right now, she didn't care that a spider was on her shoulder looking for an opening into her suit. She only cared that Damion had been taken. This wasn't him. It was that thing. The thing that wasn't a nightmare. The thing that took Tony.
And she was trapped in here with it.
Fumbling at the door, her gloved hand slipped on the locking mechanism trying to twist the deadbolt but that thing was already behind her. The lock thunked open. Her world went red.
He whispered, "Which one are you?"
The gruff voice had an accent, familiarly Euro-influenced but long ago in its separated and mixed. The humanity in its timbre let her relax. She took her hand off the door.
"Rosie," she mumbled.
"Louder!" he commanded.
"Rosie!" Over the cicada songs, it was hard to be heard.
Marwa with Quinn came running over to see why the door had been unlocked; the red lights had signaled her. "Do you need to leave? Are you feeling ill? A bathroom break?"
"I startled this one," the man said. His voice carried in a way Rose's didn't and he didn't have to shout.
Till the voice, Marwa had only seen two figures. Easily could've been Rosie and Roger or Rosie and Damion. She hadn't expected a sixth in the forest. Her usually chirpy voice sank into polite suspicion. "Why are you in here, Lenka?"
"To relax. But too many now."
The whole group of white denim suits had gathered around Rosie and him. An audience of faceless figures closing in with their backs to the door. She was trapped in her embarrassment.
"How about we move on? Maybe Lenka can show you his area," Marwa said.
She slid the door open for everyone. Lenka went through first and though he was meant to wait for her to close the door before unsealing the next, the room lit up red, the forest's own red light filtering in still. He was in charge of the lab and did not care much for the rigor of safety protocols. He already had his helmet off. His beard was gray and his head bald. Marwa just hurriedly closed her own door without complaint.
In the next wash room, everyone except Lenka took a shower in the bug suits to get off any buddies that were too attached. The itsy bitsy spider looking for a home on Rosie was washed out and never seen again after he fell into the pipe.
As Damion took his suit to hang up and dry next to the others, Roger stopped him. He reached for Damion's eye like he had a stray eyelash or something, but then Roger said, "How'd you not notice this thing?"
"What is it?" Damion asked.
Rosie saw it was a round lump. A fly had been caught in his eye and squished. She stifled her sound of being grossed out, which distracted Roger, and when he turned back, Damion's eye was clear.
It must have fallen.
Been washed down the drain, like the spider.
Except no one was running the water.
Only Rosie paid it any attention, looking for the pellet under their boot soles, finding nothing before everyone left.
The main locker room was a four way intersection. The north door went to that glass hallway. The east door went to the forest they'd just been in so it was logical to assume the west went to the other forested area.
"What's different about that side?" Quinn asked.
Quinn could still hear the sounds through their door, but the west side seemed quieter. Silent actually. Maybe that was the difference.
Lenka went through the south door.
"Hey, would you want to show them your lab? We stopped the filtration process for a reason, right?"
"It was your idea."
"Yeah, sure, of course, but I'm not really up to date on my neutrino... anything."
His wrinkles deepened. He relented. "Fine."
He walked through the door without them and Marwa excused him, saying, "He's shy."
With one tour guide gone and their replacement less friendly, they entered to the south. Equipment lined the walls with metrics and read-outs and a computer with four screens: center, sides, and one above in portrait mode.
He pressed a button labeled down by the door on the far side.
Machinery cranked to life and a cog turned. He waited for silence from the machine, then opened it and went through.
He did it all wordlessly. By "shy," Marwa had maybe meant "an asshole."
The group followed, missing Marwa, even Roger and Rosie who hadn't understood the purpose of this place. And in the new room, Lenka was gone. But they heard him shout, "Are all of you capable of climbing a ladder?" It was coming from a hatch in the floor and he was already down a few dozen rungs.
It led to a dim room as large as it was deep, a hundred feet across and another hundred down, empty but for bubbles on the cylindrical wall, even the ceiling and floor. They glowed faintly. These photosensitive tubes were underground and below a mountain to shield them from radiation. Only what came from the sun and supernovas was allowed in, but evidence of those particles was rare. It took this multi-hundred million-dollar chamber and years of monitoring for one instance.
A caged ladder reached down to the floor.
Only Damion knew what this was. "A neutrino detector? Here? When? How?"
The delight was such that he wanted to skip Roger and Rosie. If they would not hurry, he might kick them off. He urged Rosie with sharp impatient words and a body that vibrated in excitement, giving Quinn that little panic that someone might fall. Quinn was struggling with the ladder. The height. The way it swayed. The metallic echoes of their footsteps. How much more was there?
But Rosie made it fine and felt for the floor with her foot. Her foot got wet.
The last few feet of the chamber were flooded with purified water.
Roger said, "I think you got a leak."
Damion explained since their guide would not. "Normally the whole chamber is filled with water. Must be 40,000 tons. 50 maybe? Clear, pure water. It has a refractive index of 1.3. Lets light particles go farther than air."
Lenka was in an inflatable raft, maybe big enough for the group, but he was too far to let anyone in. "A teacher. Great."
"I worked at CERN," Damion said in a huff. "But looks like your purifier's broken."
The water was dark, but only in one spot, and it wasn't from the dark behind the plastic bubbles. It wasn't a shadow. It wasn't pollution. It was solid.
And it was moving.
Quinn had the best view of it from so high up. She saw it snaking toward them and she took off, her foot slipping as she hurried but that only spurred her faster. She screamed, "Back up!"
The ooze came for them.
They were too slow up the ladder. Rosie had to wait for so many people. She was doomed.
It reached the first rung.
Damion was screaming, "Go!" Quinn stepped on his fingers and he caught himself on the outer cage.
Like a plant growing up a lattice, it weaved through the rungs and the cage and it was going faster than them and only Rosie had a view of it now.
It was just below
At her feet.
Without question, it'd take her like it took Tony. With no hope, she let go. It'd catch her, but she'd be off the ladder. And the rest would get that much more time.
Her head wanged the cage on the fall and when she hit the water blood spilled out. Everything went black.
The thing had passed her.
Quinn could only look up as she went, yelling as she heard the splash, but no one responded so she had to look through the bars in the cage.
Damion didn't look. He only knew Quinn was ahead and going too slow, getting distracted, getting them all caught, and Roger was below punching the shoes the lab had given Damion. But this time, when Roger reached up for the next rung, he instead grabbed Damion's ankle.
"Let go!" Damion screamed.
They were the last words of Roger that were his and he yelled them again but Damion knew what was next. The light went out from Roger's eyes and he let go of Damion's ankle. Damion didn't question it. He kicked Roger's face. Broke his nose. Crunched his fingers. Let him fall into the water as well.
That thing could go after Rosie. Damion had saved Quinn.
Whose final journey do you follow?
When Tony knocked on the door, what did the group do?
Margie and Colby ran off after encountering Tony. Who did you follow?
Who went to help Sunny after she slid down the mountain?
Recap: Tony is dead. The party can't decide what to do.
Her bare fingertips steadied her on the ice when she skidded to a stop. She had just realized. Malia had left the deep of the woods where snow had tripped her up and now she had found a frozen lake dusted over by the wind. Her shoes were wet with the water that flooded over the outer edges. She turned to return to shore.
And there was Glenn barreling after her. She put her hands up and yelled, "Stop!"
Like a mad bull, he didn't care.
He tackled her and she slammed onto that thick slick sheet inches deep; it cracked; she slid and the crack followed. A dull triangle of water followed her out then receded. In his rage, he wanted to chase her on but his first step sunk into a puddle. He stared her down.
Malia's hat, what was once Tony's, was left on the shore.
Sprawled out, her instincts urged her to get up but her eyes were drawn to the sound of an echoing... laser? She looked around for it. Glenn too.
As the ice shifted and gave rise to whistles and whirling pops and an effect perfect for an abduction movie with only the undertones of a crack. It was unbelievable. Her experience with ice was always in cubed form. It'd been so long since she'd seen icicles hanging from roofs and cars that she thought she'd conflated movie props with reality. In truth, now, she didn't know if these sounds were that thing giving chase or the ice.
She felt the crack. The top layer was smooth still. But as she moved, she saw it shoot off into the dark. She stopped. If she waited, it'd settle, and she'd slowly, very slowly think of what to do.
Glenn had a long stick above his head.
"Please," she begged. Anything more than a whisper might stir too much movement.
Jimmy tackled him down into the snow. The two wrestled on the bank until Jimmy pinned him flat. "You take a step onto that lake and they'll need to thaw her body out for ID."
She clenched up, staring up at the cloudy sky.
"Good!" Glenn screamed. He jolted up but Jimmy, straddling him, shoved him back down and a puff of snow drifted onto their shoulders. "That's not even how lakes work, idiot."
"Malia, you need to crawl back to the trees. Don't stand up. Go slow."
Just the thought of movement and she heard the lake moan around her. "I can't."
"You have to."
"Then what else will you do?" the cop yelled at her. "Just lie there forever? If you've already given up just stand up and it'll be over with sooner."
Slowly, painfully, feeling the aches in her joints resonate through the ice, she got to her knees.
"You need to spread the weight out."
She put her hands down. If she could've army crawled, slither around while also icing her belly, she would've, but there was no traction, and so, she had to rise up and have that shaky moment putting pressure, not knowing what would happen. She was okay. She crawled and she was okay. She heard it threaten and she stopped but she was okay. She was okay.
In a mockingly feminine voice, Glenn cried, "'Help me! Help me!'"
"Stop," Jimmy said.
"'Pull me up, pull me up!'"
"Shut the fuck up, Glenn."
"'I've got her.'"
Malia stopped crawling. It wasn't okay to stay like this for long but she couldn't move that last ten, maybe only five feet. She felt the ice burn into her one gloveless hand. The hand Sunny had ripped the glove off. The hand she stretched out for Sunny. The hand that thing had almost touched.
"That's what you said, wasn't it?" Glenn yelled at her from the snow. "'I've got her,' right?"
"I didn't hear that," Jimmy said.
"Shit happens, man, and we've got a lot more coming at us if we don't get out of here."
"Shit happens? That was my sister." Glenn's rage broke to tears. "Who do I even have left?"
In the quiet that followed, when everyone was still but for their hearts, from the woods Sunny was lobbed onto the lake. The cracks her corpse made shot right toward Malia.
Everyone stared. Glenn rose to wander toward his sister, just to see that it was really her, and he took a step when Jimmy stopped him, gently this time.
"I've got to."
"You're not stopping me."
Sunny got to her feet. It was awkward and she swayed and slipped but, alive once more, she stood. She looked at Malia.
"How?" Malia whispered. Then she saw the black line that had dragged Sunny down and how it still hooked around her leg. Whatever that thing was, it was fishing. And it'd caught Malia. She went to join Sunny.
"Hey! HEY!" Jimmy screamed from the shore.
Even Glenn looked on, concerned, but with a gaping mouth, said nothing.
"This is what you wanted," Malia said. If they could've seen the nerves she held down.
Jimmy got onto the ice. The most heroic action of his life was going bow-legged, twisting his ankles so that his heels went in and out as he shuffled along the ice in the safest possible way he knew. It was a race. Malia to Sunny. Jimmy to Malia. He had to stop this sacrifice.
"Stop!" he screamed. Jimmy had lost.
Mal let Sunny grab her one last time. Then Malia stomped the ice. It was weak but it needed two, three, four good stomps.
Jimmy's panicked reaction broke the ice beneath him. One foot fell in; he tipped over; he thrashed on instinct trying to grab the edge, which broke, and he tried for the edge farther and that broke too till there was a wide lane leading to shallow water where Jimmy could stand and shiver.
The women were gone.
Malia had always been able to squash her survival instincts and so their hole was neat and there was no splash. They were just gone into silence.
With sloppy wet footsteps back to shore, Jimmy looked at Glenn. He shook his head. "This is what you wanted, right?"
Glenn couldn't look away from the hole. Like he could still see her memory standing there and that'd how he always remember her, though it wasn't even her. "At least they're together."
"Oh fuck off! What did you do?" Jimmy yelled. "I tried saving Malia and she tried saving Sunny and maybe we both failed, but both times you did jack shit."
"I was scared."
"So was she and you guilted her into--THAT!"
Jimmy needed out of the wet clothes but didn't know if it was better in them or naked. He grabbed a hat from the shore that was just lying there. It had dangling yarn balls. He didn't know its history. He didn't know it was Malia's. He just needed it to live a little longer.
Glenn watched the hole, hoping for a miracle, and he saw the dangling black fishing line stir. He whaled on Jimmy's arm, too panicked to warn him with words, but he didn't need it. The fishing line was loud enough as it shredded the ice when dragging its hook back to shore. It flipped over chunks of ice.
"We're going," Jimmy said but Glenn had fallen to the ground, resigned.
A dark circle moved in the water. It grew taller, dripping. It was Sunny, walking out of the water, cradling Malia. She was coming toward them.
Jimmy yanked on Glenn but the man wouldn't move. He was about to run on his own, when he saw movement in the forest. Dark shadows approaching. They were surrounded by whatever was controlling Sunny. There was no escape. The forest army charged at him.
Then beyond him.
Men and women in winter gear with backpacks hooked to long metallic contraptions fired steaming water that crystallized as it rained down on Sunny and Malia.
Sunny's movements slowed. She dropped Malia's body. She fought forward against these water sprayers but as her loss became evident, the line at her foot dragged her back so violently her face slammed the snow and skin ripped off against the trees.
The soldiers sprayed Malia down so heavily she was cocooned in ice.
One without the backpack and water weapon took off her mask to talk. "You boys okay?"
"Gunny!" Jimmy cried both as Eureka and relief. They'd found a way to win against this thing. And knowing this, Jimmy had two options.
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?
With his face in the snow, Colby thought of plan after plan and they all ended in death. Six soldiers pointed flamethrowers at him. What could he do?
The Svalbard reindeer around Norway are fluffy white darlings often with brown or gray backs and even muzzles. The markings are more pronounced on calves. Around harsh Christmases, their hoof rims cut into ice so they can easily dig for lichen. The cows shed their antlers later in the spring when the pads of their hooves have gone spongy for better traction hiking across the tundra. Rodents devour the antlers for calcium.
They aren't skittish, but Colby first met them through the Sami reindeer herders, native Scandinavians who sleep in the midnight sun during summer weeks 200 miles north of the arctic circle. Their day-night cycles are dictated by the reindeer migration. They're fair-skinned people blushing for warmth beneath pelt hats and traditional clothing that's often red and blue, trimmed with white and accented green or yellow. Though many trapped in endless Arctic sun cannot cope, suicide rates at 12.0 per 100,000 people (Sweden), 14.4 per 100,000 (Finland), and 83.0 per 100,000 (Greenland), Norway, Sami population included, is ranked 102nd in the world at only 9.3.
Colby was thankful for the trip through the snow to capture people and animals and the two living with one another, but he had been prepared for that weather and hated it still. Now, he didn't risk cursing it.
In the dark, in the cold, expecting only an hour out in them, he waited for that thing to leave. Quinn, Rosie, Damion, and Roger ran out the back of the lodge. Tony had chased them. Margie fled the other way. Hunter had chased her. Their tracks so fresh and their panic so apparent, loud, tempting, that Colby thought himself hidden by his silence in the forest.
But he couldn't stay.
He crept through the snow, occasionally crossing a path torn up by dragging boots, and he'd go the other way. And he'd come upon another, and again he diverted his course.
There was nowhere to head but away. Away was safety.
He didn’t know that the black specks on his pant-legs resonated, quietly crying out, “He’s over here.” He just knew he had to go.
That was how Colby wandered for the hours that followed. Through the wind and snow. Through the cold he hated. Shivering beneath his beard.
Then he came upon a fairy circle. Brown grass dead from flooding with no snow cover. He walked towards it, slowly, because leading to it, like some ritualistic dais, were mounds of snow. Uniformly spaced and sized half-buried spheres that came to his belly button arcing on either side toward a dead grass patch. He crept closer.
He reached it.
With one foot, he tested the ground. Solid. Dry.
He bent down. Looking side to side.
Reached out a hand.
And felt the crisp blades of grass flake at his touch.
Nothing around him still. Just the mounds.
He stood in the circle.
And walked back the way he came, feeling foolish for making a big deal of it. It was odd but nothing, and after tonight, even nothing made him jump.
So when the ground trembled and men rushed from crumbling dust to surround him, pointing long metallic nozzles attached by insulated accordion tubes to canisters on their backs. The gauges pumped into the red. Pressure ready. Fingers on the triggers.
The men were silent as Colby dropped to the floor. Their gator masks and goggles held in their cold glares. Gloves, hats, hoods, thick coats, layers of pants and shirts, every inch of their skin was covered.
He needed a plan, but what could he do?
"Please help me!" Colby screamed. "I was hiking and got separated from my friends and I don't know how to get back or even where our lodge is. I'm not very good at this outdoorsy stuff."
They stayed silent, but behind their goggles, their eyes darted to neighbors and those across the way and then to one woman pulling down her mask to speak clearly. “Gunny?” one asked.
"Name," she barked.
"Colby. C-C-Colby Davis. I'm a photographer. Mostly weddings and senior portraits."
She bit her lip while considering his answer. "The quadratic equation."
It took him a minute to even place what that was. He got it wrong. "I haven't taken a science class since high school. Probably 15 years ago."
"First line of Moby Dick."
"'Call me Ishmael.' I read it twice.” In the panic, he blathered and could not stop. “High school then college. I appreciated it more the second time. Still a bit long. Dry. Dense."
"What was your last name again?"
In the circle of soldiers, the six with flamethrowers lowered them. The others were unarmed. None broke formation.
“So why are you pointing weed sprayers at me?” Colby asked as the gunnery sergeant or Gunny whispered to her men, saying more with glances than words. “Not actually weed sprayers, huh?”
Two men unzipped him and pulled it off as he spun around from the rough treatment. And the one warm area of his body felt the agony of his legs and toes and cheeks, both sets, heat leaving him and the shivers coming on stronger. “Wait.” Colby grabbed a puffy sleeve.
But the Gunny commanded him, “Let go.”
The polyester ripstop fabric fell away from his fingertips.
Colby backed up, prepped to resist being stripped bare in this weather. “Can you please tell me what’s going on or who you people are or what your name is?”
Her stares, though, neutral and mysterious, were enough encouragement that he listened, pulling off his many layers, getting to his tube socks and boxer-briefs and seeing all eyes on him, Gunny’s included, and so he continued pulling them off. He covered himself, both from embarrassment and for warmth.
Two soldiers escorted him by his elbows to a mound of snow where one grabbed him by the back of the neck and pushed him to bow before it. The snow drifted atop the monument. Both soldiers kneeled for the ceremony, their gloves buried.
Glancing behind him for answers, Colby saw soldiers hang his puffy jacket between two iron rods and the soldiers that had stripped him aimed their flamethrowers to sacrifice it.
He started to sweat.
He remembered the videos from history class. Back in World War II those things could cut fifty feet across the muggy Pacific island and the jungle hiding enemies would go ablaze. Seventy years ago! What modern innovations had they made since? He couldn’t run. He couldn’t fight. He could only bow before one of their gods.
Each soldier raised a hand to the heavens--holding elastic nylon strings that’d been staked to the mountain so snow wouldn’t get inside the tent. They folded over the fly. Unzipped part of the door. Waved Colby into the warmth. Then they left.
A portable space heater in the center of the room danced blue onto the nylon walls that would’ve been translucent, hinting at life outside, but the thick shell of snow gave occupants privacy. Even kneeling and hunched, he felt the ceiling lifting his hair.
He poked his head outside the flap. To either side were soldiers, armed with their flamethrowers and he got a closer look at the canisters on their backs. Padded hard shell containers for the fuel, humming and dry.
They turned toward him but the nozzles were holstered.
These could have been the same soldiers that escorted him in. Maybe the same that had stripped him. Behind the masks, they were interchangeable intimidating presences save for some inches up or around.
He slid back into the tent and zipped it.
Naked, he could only obey. And shiver.
In a few minutes, two soldiers opened the flap. Maybe the same ones as before. Maybe the guards. One backed in and undid his boots outside and set them in a plastic bin.
“Can I have my clothes back?” Colby asked.
He lowered his mask. Snot was frozen in his nostrils. “No can do, bud, but don’t worry.”
He pulled inside a metal briefcase that, when the buckles unlatched, popped open to release that new car smell. There were vacuum-sealed bags stacked inside and one had a corner caught by the edge when it was last closed and the seal was broken. The soldier tossed it outside. He opened another with the edge of a key. Like the briefcase, it popped open, and the contents sprung out. A thermal shirt. Long underwear. Thick pants. Three pairs of socks. Gloves. A mask. All fluffy and warm, waterproof even, but a little tight.
“What about a coat? Or shoes?” Colby asked.
“Coat’s coming up but no extra boots so we’ll get yours back. They’ll be a bit frosty so make sure you put on all the socks. Colby, right?”
“And what’s your name?”
The ginger bearded soldier just smiled and covered it with his mask. He swung his legs out the flap to put on his shoes and then threw a coat in for Colby. When Colby left, same way as the soldier, his shoes were out there--frozen.
He put them on. The insides were chipped clean of any ice.
Hanging from the iron rods were his boxer-briefs. A soldier aimed and fired a steaming mist that crystallized upon his dirty undies.
The ginger soldier and his partner led Colby to a bigger tent that peeked out of a snowdrift. It was the Gunny’s. He tried to make a joke, “She must be cold sleeping here alone,” and the ginger one maybe smiled behind his mask but no one said anything.
The soldier stamped his foot outside and the gunny told them to enter, but they just parted the door for Colby then stood outside.
Her tent had the same blue heat with a map laid out before it. The contour lines were hard to see, but otherwise it worked. The folds had been so worn that it stayed flat on the floor, a slightly thicker material than the walls, but it had to get cold at night, even in the bag. Colby counted the number of soldiers he’d seen and the tents and thought two to a tent was a cozy fit, good for the weather, but if they kept him till morning, all the free space would be taken except here. And with her mask down, he saw reason to turn up his charm.
“Lovely place you have here.”
“A wedding photographer.”
“And senior photos and some people even want professional pet photos, which are my personal favorite but I don’t have any with me to share. You could try my website sometime but be warned, there are some boudoir sets.”
She wanted none of it. “Why are you here?”
“I got lost. I told you. Glamping with friends, still a bit rugged for my taste, but till tonight, it’s been fun.”
“Point out your cabin and I’ll send an escort back with you.”
He studied the heavily annotated map, not letting his eyes rest on his cabin for too long, finding the other markings important mysteries to be solved, really squinting and contorting his mouth and concluding, “I don’t really know. I haven’t used a map… ever, I don’t think. Always had GPS.”
“Try.” She was at least 20 years older than him. Maybe she couldn’t imagine growing up never stopping at a gas station for directions, or maybe she knew not to trust him.
“Maybe it was…” He shook his head and traced his fingers along trails. He even wandered as far over as the ski lodge. He perused every circle and alphanumeric code scribbled on the map, trying to tease out the information. The ranger’s station was obvious but what were these Xs? These initials? EW? JW? They just south of his lodge. “I’m trying. Can I ask about the change of clothes?”
“Yours were wet.”
“Not as wet as after we--oh, that sounded bad,” he said with a laugh. She maybe didn’t get it, he thought. “What was with that anyway?”
Her words and looks, while short, were never harsh, just neutral. A wall to run up against that killed conversation. As much as he wanted to scale it, to crack what was behind, he couldn’t find a ledge.
“It just seems like a lot of unnecessary drills.”
“Regulations keep a squad alive,” she said. “However unnecessary they seem, we run through procedure until it’s routine.”
“I’m sorry. Have you lost people?”
“Even me.” He scooted closer under the guise of looking at the map from her angle. There was one suspicious area left unmarked but a series of Xs fanned out from it. She caught onto his curiosity so he started checking elsewhere. “Tell me about it?”
But that neutral stare curdled.
“Obviously the people I’ve lost--that stuff has a different weight. Anyway, I don’t see my lodge. I’m sure it’s here, but I just don’t recognize it. Maybe in the morning I can help find the way back? But it seems like all the tents are full and I don’t want to kick anyone out.”
“We’re not staying till morning. Camp should already be broken down and we’re just waiting on you.”
Colby quickly memorized the path and location of the suspiciously barren area. “You know, I think I can trace my path back. Thank you so much for the clothes. You probably hear this all the time but thank you for your service to our country and thank you for tonight. You probably saved my life.”
Outside, the soldiers had packs on that must’ve weighed seventy pounds and the several with water-throwers strapped on sleeping bags and tents. The mounds, like the one he prayed to and changed in, were shedded clumps around flat holes in the terrain. As the soldiers gathered in a two-by-two line, Colby saw their boots sink deep into fresh snow.
With hand signals, the Gunny called for two soldiers to escort Colby.
Does he let them take him back or does he insist on going by himself?
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?"
As Damion opened the door, Beagsley bolted into the night and stopped until briefly it wasn't night at the horizon and then he sprinted again for the dark, never to be seen again.
Quinn almost chased the dog but Tony stumbled in with the cold air. His dragging footsteps kicked snow under the couch. He looked awful, like a prune, like he'd been sleeping in the snow. He was missing a shoe.
They stared, silent, in disbelief. Roger went for a hug.
Quinn planning ahead because Colby and them would be back, but the twins? They wouldn't hear the good news till after the cops came calling. Someone would have to chase them down. Probably her.
Damion thinking everyone was stupid for getting so worked up over nothing.
Relieved, Rosie fell onto the couch where she pulled her blanket over her head and cried happily. She only heard her squeaks, stifled by embarrassment.
"Think we could let Tony use the blanket for a while?" Quinn asked her. Maybe it'd be good to have emergency services called to treat him. He looked awful.
Rose really thought she had seen him... "Yeah." She pulled down the blanket.
Tony hugged back. His arms, which shouldn't have fit around Roger as round as he was, hooked together. Roger, laughing it off to start, felt the breath squeeze out of him till he couldn't protest. He couldn't wriggle away.
Damion stared and waited for Quinn to notice.
"Tony! What the fuck, man?" She backhanded his shoulder but felt the solid, unearthly cords beneath. Not of muscle or bone, but of an evil spread through him. She felt him not move an inch and not pay any attention. She punched him. Right to the back of the head.
It hurt her hand. She knew it would. She had to punch a horse once when it was gnawing on a friend's finger. This hurt more. And the horse had let go; Tony didn't.
The punch had torn the skin loose on his skull. Peeled off a desiccated strip from his ear to his cheek that hung from his nose. Beneath was black pulsating sludge. There was no sheen off the electric light. Just matte black. Looking dead on, it seemed to go deep into the void where Tony, the real Tony, had been lost forever.
Roger's tiptoes lifted off the hardwood floor. His mouth wanted air in but the pathways were squeezed as Tony closed his arms. Tighter, tighter.
Rosie scrambled for a closet. She'd been right.
Quinn whacked more skin off with an iron poker. More tore off his shoulder, knee, and neck. A solid stab demonstrated how deep the dark went.
From Tony's mouth sprouted a long black tendril that went up then swept down, feeling at Roger's face, for that opening. He closed his mouth. Tony squeezed, trying to open his lips once more, but Roger pursed his lips till his teeth bit into the gums.
The tendril didn't need the mouth though. It had the nose. The ears.
It chose the eyes.
No matter how tight he squeezed his eyelids, they were not shields and they would not hold. Once pierced, his mouth popped open to let out a hiss of air meant to be a scream.
It dropped him. It had soaked up the blood before it could spill and leak and the body just thumped before Quinn who let her poker fall, too. She waited for her turn.
But it sensed someone familiar. Someone out there during its first meal tonight.
The stove hissed as Damion turned the knob to high. He sniffed the range, then turned on the other three. He needed that rotten egg smell they pumped in to really get him light-headed.
The bi-fold closet door between Rosie and it had slats. It pounded itself against the door as it had against the front door, but this one would break. Or unhinge. The round pivot clattered against its tract. Where Quinn had stripped away skin, the goo dripped before Rosie's feet, and the puddle started to squirm.
Damion sparked the ignition. The fireball launched from the stove top singed his arm hairs and whooshed against the tile back splash, but died in the vent. The gas range could only let out methane so quickly and ideally they needed five to ten percent methane in the air, but not so much that carbon monoxide pushed out the oxygen. This was their only chance to kill it and it could take a whole day to get that much gas in the cabin. He slapped his newly bare arm. He couldn't see half his stubble was gone, too, but he smelled it all.
That thing in Tony smelled nearly cooked meat. Heard the whoosh. Felt the heat. It stumbled toward Damion, a threat.
The screeching feet of the oven scraped the wood floors so he could get to the gas line but it was metal. The paring knife he'd been given did nothing to it. Quinn waved him away and smacked her iron poker against the line like she was swinging a golf club. A few good hits uncoupled it from the joint and gas blew out in stink waves.
She reached for the ignition.
"No!" Damion yelled. "Once that's lit, there are no more tries. We have to let the room fill up."
He'd done the calculations and lied. "Ten minutes."
"Might as well pray for a nuke."
Slow, staggering Tony couldn't catch them both. If they ran for it, if they left Rosie...
The couch was between Tony and Quinn. It was not hard to outpace him with those corners till she stumbled on Roger's corpse. But even as her knee banged the floor and her arms sprawled out and her chin hit, she had time. It was still behind the couch. It could turn and go for Damion, but he could do it just the same. She'd rather it went for him so she could grab Rosie and they could bolt through the snow after Beagsley.
Tony didn't turn for Damion.
Tony sent the couch scratching across the hardwood with so much force it pinned Quinn to the door.
In the panic she rocked herself forward. Her weight tipped the couch backwards and she was sprawled on the floor by Roger again, except the couch frame had shattered her shins. She wasn't the one to rise. Roger was.
"No," she whispered.
His eyelids were still pierced but dry and beneath them black and he leaned over her.
She watched the black goo swell from his eye sockets and the holes knitted themselves together and the dark skin faded till it matched the tone around him. He opened his eyes. Whole once more. But there was only death in them.
"Damion!" she screamed. "You have to light it now!"
It hadn't been long enough. Even if she'd distracted them for the full ten minutes he quoted her, they needed longer. So much longer it was impossible. It always had been.
From Roger's mouth a little black snake seeped out.
"Don't let them take me."
The screaming stopped when she was gone.
Now, only Damion and Rosie remained and both were hidden behind doors that did not lock. The gas still hissed from its line. The creatures lumbered for their doors to bang against. It was more of a slow-motion ram. Hit with face or shoulder or whatever was nearest. Tony's skin had been so peeled away that no one could've mistaken it was him and as he banged his face against the slats he smelled Rosie through, dribbles sprayed. She was behind the coats. They dripped down. The puddle neared her feet. She could not get higher up on her tiptoes.
The bedroom windows didn't open. They'd been told when they arrived by the welcome pamphlet. They had tried. Damion tried again.
Then banged a suitcase against the glass. The suitcase dented. His android tablet was the hardest thing available with its aluminosilicate glass and yet the screen just shattered and the window stayed adamant. With every knock he grew more desperate and with every knock, he broke something else that wasn't the window until finally it was his hands.
Knock at the closet door.
Faceless Tony, his skin hanging down his back like a hood, was half inside the closet. His face screaming from a puddle for Rosie who threw a coat over him but more trickled down and it slowly grew.
Knock at the bedroom.
The door swung open, the jamb finally giving way. Damion was under the bed and it knew that.
Knock at the front door.
The viewing window shattered. Hunter climbed through and hefted the couch out of the way for Margie and Colby. While her body was in the corner of his eye at all times, he refused to focus on Quinn. The screams of the living were more pressing than the memory of the dead.
Damion saw beyond his terror and screamed for help.
Rosie from behind the coats screamed for them to run.
First thing Margie did--shut the blinds tight over the hole Hunter had made.
As Roger's toes unpeeled and let out black worms lapping at the hardwood to catch Damion, Hunter took aim with the rifle. He had seen Tony's nose hanging off that skin of a hood, the missing head, the dead body, the matte black ooze that left footprints.
Tony started toward Margie, the nearest and newest meal. Her smell suppressed by the cold but Rosie's panic tenderized her meat, marinading it in desperation. She could wait. She'd be the longest to stew. The tastiest of them all. She'd be the last bite.
Margie yelled at Colby, "Get the stove."
It was pushed out of its cubby. The gas line behind it hissing. The air smelling like rotten eggs. She'd figured out the plan immediately, but now, with this little instruction, so had Colby.
And he couldn't.
Tony cornered her.
"You have to," she said.
All the fumes around him lifting up and hissing and making it hard to breathe. The carbon monoxide. The years of PSAs. The drills. News stories. And he was about to be another.
Before he could take the first of his final steps, Quinn grabbed his leg. He kicked her but her hand stayed. She anchored him in place and as he flailed, her fingernails sunk in with a black poison squirming through his veins and maybe if he amputated immediately he'd be safe from it but it started to take him.
And Hunter, his runny nose too clogged to sniff out the plan, pulled the trigger.
The puff of fire trailing the bullet lit the air and the whoosh of pressure and heat blew open the hinged window above the sink so it smacked against the outer wall, shattering the glass. A kitchen chair was sucked outside. The couch, the wall, the ceiling, the cabinets, the table, everything that could caught flame. Including the people. Damion. Margie. Hunter. Rosie. Their fat sizzled. The burns, the pain, neither killed them instantly. They screamed away the oxygen.
This was the brief daylight Beagsley saw in the distance, but it was not why he ran.
That little dog ran because from the house emerged Colby, Quinn, Roger, and Tony. Its charred skin suits chipped away against the bark as it chased its next meals.
Don't open that door no matter what.
Quinn heard it above the chaos.
Damion pulled at the door, unaware that the Quinn had locked the knob earlier, so he and Tony rattled the door from separate sides to no effect. Rosie hung on his shoulders. It slowed him down, frustrated him, but it was typical Rose, drugs or no. Roger helped by getting Rosie back, and while she was loose and near limp, that made it like wrangling a noodle. And the three of them were unprepared to be bowled over by Quinn.
"You can't open that door." She guarded it with her body.
"We have to," Rosie pleaded. "I have to see that it's really him."
She was the first on her feet, the others stunned by confusion, and Beagsley got in her way but she stumbled over him and as he lunged for her, fangs and teeth, he ripped open her tail when he tried to drag her back. And back she went. Drugged up, she didn't have the mental fortitude to take on a mighty beast--and Quinn, who wrestled her away. Quinn's own panic took over. Rosie was down, but Quinn kept pushing, and Roger ran over to break it up by pinning Quinn in an armbar he learned from the WWE. Someone stepped on Damion’s toes.
The thuds on the hardwood. The yells and guttural calls. The growls more vicious than anything that sweet dog had ever needed.
And through it all, Tony banged at that door. No faster. No slower. No calling through to ask what the hell was happening. Just knock.
"Stop!" Roger screamed when Quinn punched.
Damion gave little ineffective kicks to shoo Beagsley.
"Where's the gun, Tony?" Quinn yelled.
And the room went quiet. Even the dog. They could hear the buzz of electricity in the waiting. The heater sputtered. Quinn panted, swallowed the build-up of spit, and with this one question winning her some small victory, she wondered what to do when they all realized what she knew.
Damion peeked at the window.
"Tony?" Roger called out. "Show us and she'll let you in."
Damion shook his head.
"He probably left it. Out of bullets," Roger made a guess.
"Or saving them," Damion said.
The door safe and the group settled, Beagsley resumed barking desperate to be heard and Quinn went silent.
"This is Tony, guys! Not some psycho."
"What's the difference?"
Quinn looked away from the dog. "We have to leave."
"What?" both the boys sounded in unison.
"What happened to the lodge being the safest place? We stayed for a reason."
Quinn grabbed her coat and hat and wrapped the blanket around Rosie like she was a burrito. "You'll die here. I'm leaving with or without you. Let's go, Rose." She grabbed Beagsley's leash still attached to his harness on the counter and she didn't have time to fiddle with that so she carried the dog.
Damion got in her way. "He's not producing enough force to break through. Why run? You sneak out the back and you expose the rest of us."
"Lock it after me."
"It's TONY!" Roger yelled.
Beagsley licked Quinn's cheeks, tasted the salt running down them. "No, it's not. Tony's gone."
In the silence they noticed--the knocking had stopped. Damion looked at one window, the one where Beagsley liked to lay, and didn't see Tony at the door anymore. They went to the other window and there he was. His face a mess.
It wasn't just the light hitting a weird angle. His face was like a prune. Mushy, desiccated, discolored. So many wrinkles.
"He needs our help!"
Roger started for the door, but Quinn had her knife again.
However, Damion couldn't look away from Tony.
His pores leaked. The lines on his face weren't wrinkles but swollen veins. The fattest ones ran up either side of his chin, connected over the nose, traced his eyebrows, and sprawled across his forehead like spiderwebs and where the capillaries ended, there leaked his pores. Black droplets. Hanging. Then tearing along his blood vessels. Damion saw Tony's skin split open like canvas as black goo covered his face. Damion leaned in, fascinated.
Tony smashed his face against the glass.
The cracks spread.
"We're leaving." Quinn bolted for the storage door.
Roger, too, ushering Rosie.
He saw Tony smash through the glass. It tinkled onto the floor below the window sill.
Tony kept pushing through.
The crossing wood frames ripped like paper as Tony shoved his face inside. The jagged edges cut his shirt and caught dead skin but he would not bleed. He would not stop.
And Damion could not move.
Outside, the rifle fired into the air. Hunter, on one knee, aimed at the back of Tony's head and ordered him, "Down on the ground!"
Damion was saved.
And yet, he still ran.
The others hadn't gotten far, just outside the door, when Damion heard screams and a gunshot and more screams and another shot and this sound like ketchup squirting and Rosie stopped to look so Damion shoved her ahead, not stopping to help her up, Roger did that, and Damion just ran, ran like wild for Quinn and Beagsley. If anyone could, they'd protect him; only Quinn knew they couldn’t.
Whereas Glenn, Sunny, and Malia went south down the mountain, this group in their panic fled north, up, where the forest thickened with evergreens so thick snow never landed and they walked on pine needles. However, even the tall trees arched from the weight of an old ice storm. Nothing could block this blizzard.
Overhead, Damion spotted powerlines. Thin silhouettes that swore warmth if they could follow far enough.
Quinn asked, “Why are there--” but Damion interrupted.
He took the lead from Quinn, who had walked slow, scanning the dark, but Damion kept his eyes ahead, even as they hit the timberline where perforated orange plastic ripped at one metal stake and hung limp from another that had all its paint chipped off. Pushing aside seedlings with their young roots insulated, Damion walked past the snow fence, climbing over the snow drift that had stretched it till the paint faded and then torn. There was no more wind cover. But Damion swore at the other end, they’d find warmth.
The electrical lines ascended a crag. It sloped enough for a goat, maybe even for them, if they had light, climbing experience, and energy beyond desperate adrenaline.
“Back to the forest? Not so windy,” Roger said.
Damion tried climbing but slid down. He paced around the snow in his socks.
His favorite part of the cabin: the hardwood. It was like when he was a kid and his mom polished the hallways and the wall at the end had smudges from times when he'd picked up too much speed from new socks. His last apartment had carpet and roommates. They wore their shoes in the apartment, too! Lunacy. He could do it at his current living quarters with its wide, regularly swept corridors, but he didn't want to draw attention to how casually he treated his university office, lest they find his pillow.
And now, through the snow, up a mountain, his socks were not just soaked, but ice shoes. The group needed the promise of those electrical lines to be true.
Willing the slope to get gentler soon, Damion continued around the crag for that breadcrumb of hope.
“What should we do, boy?” Quinn asked Beagsley, nestled under her coat with her breasts a perfect cover. She looked like she’d given up her daily jogs in favor of daily Korean barbecue, but at least the little pup kept her warm, through his body heat and the added effort of hauling him. “Please talk to me.”
But Beagsley had nothing he could say other than what they all felt sapping them: Too cold.
The group followed each other in the dark by the heavy breaths and the snow trails everyone kicked up with big clomping steps through knee-high snow. No one had a phone or a light but Quinn advised them, “Close your eyes for a minute and let your rods and cones adjust. You won’t see many details but better than blind.”
Roger saw no details on the back of his eyelids, but he was paired with Rosie under her blanket and she guided him along ridges too tall to be buried by the snow rose up. The current ridge started to turn in on itself and so Damion scrambled over. He expected the group to follow.
Damion didn’t stop.
Rosie helped him up.
The path Damion took them on ended at a cliff, straight up. “We’ll go--we’ll go the other--other way.”
That other way was a ten-minute backtrack and they couldn’t find it again in the world of white and shadows.
Damion retreated into math as Quinn took point. About -4 C. Wind speed: 15 m/s. The windchill formula. -17 C. Dry, covered skin, safe. But toes. In this blizzard. And out, thirty, forty minutes--hypothermia.
"L-l-let-t-t me..." he stammered.
Roger had shoes, but in the rush, he grabbed Malia's leather coat. It hadn't been enough for her during the warmest days inside. With the collar of his graphic tee hooked over his nose, his slow, shallow breaths no longer warmed his arms tucked inside. Even under the blanket with Rose wasn't enough. Not warm enough, not big enough.
"Not." Roger tried to say "Not yet," but couldn't.
Rose gave up her spot. She had her kigurumi still, wet till the legs froze like greaves shielding her shins from logs. Tripping did not crack her armor.
"Down," Damion stuttered, needing Roger, just a few centimeters taller, to duck because the cold air was in.
"Wait." Roger mumbled.
The blanket rode up on Roger's calves as Damion walked too fast and he yelled between clenched teeth, "DOWN!" They stumbled in the snow as Damion yanked the blanket down and Roger wouldn't get up and Damion carried on, wrapping the blanket tighter around himself.
Quinn stopped him. He looked at her covered with hat, gloves, a coat, shoes, and plotted mutiny. But she sat him down next to Roger, all of them sharing warmth, and counted her breaths. When she got to one hundred, she punched Roger to wake him.
"Mmm," he said in a shiver.
"You've had your 20 minutes to nap," Quinn told him. "Now let's go."
Rosie helped him up with bare hands going blue, despite keeping them in her pits. He joined Damion under the blanket again.
"Here." Quinn handed Rosie Beagsley. "Little radiator will keep you warm."
"Hey." The dog had gone silent, not even shivering. The group had trodden quietly so as not to be tracked and the weather kept them quiet save for these squabbles and soft whimpers.
Quinn felt the cold same as the rest, but she could no longer carry the dog. Exposure had sapped her. And no one knew what to do. Or how long till the road and even if they found that road, how long till shelter. Or did they build shelter? But then it'd find them.
"Wait." Roger dropped.
Again, Quinn gathered the group and counted her breaths but the soothing rhythm of numbers was putting everyone to sleep, herself included, and even a ten-minute snooze in this would kill them. "Get up. That half hour should’ve done you some good."
Roger said closed-mouth, “Mhm.” The group started on again, but Roger stayed standing. He leaned against a tree. Closed his eyes again.
Quinn kept her hands tight to her body but bumped Roger with her shoulders to say “Let’s go,” and again he grunted affirmative, like he understood, and the group started but Roger stayed where he was.
Damion kept walking. Rosie, too. And, with one last look, Quinn.
Then Damion huddled under his blanket, where the chill swaddled him like only his nanny could. And he found sleep quick.
The women marched on.
Rosie set down Beagsley. His legs buried and chin on the edge of the hole he sunk into, he waited.
"I'll stay," Quinn said and sat with her hands in her crotch.
Rosie walked, eyes closed, asleep, until she ran into a bluff.
That opened into a cave.
Where it was safe.
She needed to go back.
She propped Roger up on her shoulder, as he had done for her. Damion took a few kicks to rouse but would not move till she stole the blanket then he joined the mound of people, staggering through the trees. Roger hit one. It stopped them all. They waited, unaware how near Quinn was. Quinn thought they were it and wandered toward, but it was them, just people. Blind, moving like sleepy drunks in a tied-leg race, they found the bluff. Stopped. Rosie nudged Damion and he fell but caught himself and kept falling and kept catching himself and that started their tangle of legs inching toward the cave. This ugly frozen huddle collapsed against the wall. The frozen blanket contained little warmth and little life. Roger slept with his nose smooshed.
They were safe in their dreams that felt forever, when Rosie remembered Beagsley, still waiting.
She could not make it the final steps to those kneeling under the blanket so she slept curled around the dog.
Someone tried to wake Rosie. Does she wake up?
"You're all a bunch of idiots," Quinn cried out as Sunny, Malia, and Glenn left for the car via the service road. The unmarked route split as they came upon a cabin identical to theirs. The security light in back flickered. The door was locked and windows dark and the wind hit hard so they discussed their options beneath the orange light, and Malia echoed Quinn's favorite word, "Idiot."
Glenn had wandered onto the wrong path. Neither continued down; however, Glenn's had an incline. He had just been scoping it out until she fought him on it. "Barely!" he yelled. "And you can see it turn in on itself, toward the parking lot."
When the whole party had arrived on the mountain a few days ago, they ignored the warnings and attempted to drive the service road, at Hunter's insistence, but the bends were narrowed by snowdrifts and they reached a roadblock. The road was also too narrow for a J-turn. Their three-car caravan had to back down an icy mountain in the dark.
"What do you think, Sunny?" Glenn asked his twin.
Both routes looked wrong. "Let’s just pick." Then she noticed Malia had taken off the hat Sunny had given her. "You'll freeze, little lamb."
Woven with multiples thread, pink and blue and shades of each, they named the concoction "cotton candy" and it was so sweet it was repulsive. Malia's ears were folded over by the friendship that also locked the hat upon her head. The pom poms hung with the immeasurable weight of knitted yarn soaked in shame. "I feel like an idiot."
Glenn teased, "For good reason." Sunny slapped his down coat. He didn't feel a thing, but said, "Ow," anyway.
"It's adorable. Plus she needs it. When was the last time you got snow in Arizona?"
Every night here, on the lodge's couch with a blanket for a cape and the sun warming Malia in the stuffy, rusty heat, her hands clutching fresh coffee, not for the taste or energy, but for the warmth, she had shivered. After college, Malia had moved home to the blazing winter sunshine of New Mexico.
She took off her hat. "What grandma even bought this?" She thought the hat was Sunny's.
The security light died and Glenn fiddled with the casing to magic it back on. "Tony."
"You put a dead man's hat on me?" Malia ripped the hat off.
"We don't know he's dead." Sunny tried sliding the hat on once more, but Malia fought this time.
"Better stop thinking like that." The hat wound up in the snow. "Aren't you a doctor? Isn't half the job prepping for that sweet kid you made a connection with to wind up with late-stage toenail cancer?"
Sunny picked up the hat but just held it.
And Malia mumbled, "That's all they show on TV anyway."
The light fell dead for good again. Like it’d been cut. They flipped a coin and picked Malia's path, a stretch that narrowed between rock faces so they had to continue one by one till it opened up and there, they could still see their cabin lighting the ridge above. They were mostly down with a few more bends when they heard the gunshots. Two at the cabin.
"Guess they found the gun," Glenn said in that joking tone but the punchline: that nervous tension of feeling it aim on them. No one laughed.
Mal said, "Great. Let's head back."
"We don't know who that was."
"Sure, we do. It’s our old pal Tony, right? Just bringing the gun back." She started back up the trail but Sunny, connected by vice grip fingers, anchored her from taking another step.
Glenn let out a hard laugh at his own joke before he ever made it. "Rose can explain when we get back." He mocked how she hyperventilated.
The only sound as reply were footsteps crunching snow as they marched on, but Malia stopped.
"What's funny about that?"
"Just a joke. Can’t take it?"
"There's not a person alive so far from the edge something can't push them over and some of us are so fucking close already. You'd shove us off for a bad laugh?"
Sunny got between the two and pushed her brother back as he got in Malia's face. Maybe unaware of the habit; being a tall guy in good shape, he won a lot of arguments for a reason. No physical violence ever came of these primal threats. Sunny didn't even know if he was aware he was doing it, but it was a habit he should've grown out of. It was a habit he never should've learned. "Glenn, let's keep attempts to lighten the mood sensitive. And disagreements civil."
"Fuck off," Malia said.
It was like getting clocked from behind. "I'm agreeing with you, Mal."
"We both know what you're doing."
"I wasn't doing anything."
"Well I'm the asshole willing to say what we're all thinking. Never should've let you manipulate me into coming and now we're going to die because of you. You think everyone decided to hell with it, let's shoot some squirrels? Whoever shot Tony is at the cabin. Two shots, two more dead, wanna take bets on who it was? Then let's just get the hell out of here."
She marched on.
Glenn saw the opportunity to part ways with that ticking time bomb. This wasn't the first time she screamed at someone over nothing this week and in their history together, how many times had Malia berated Sunny over some perceived slight? Too many. “I’m taking the other path.” He waited for Sunny to join him.
"Come on, Glenn," Sunny said. "The coin said this way."
"Malia said that way. The coin fell in the snow. She picked it up."
“Do you really think that?”
Mal trudged down the path, scowling at even the snow, pretending not to listen. Sunny followed.
Glenn went his own way. Sunny just watched both get farther from her and said a little prayer that the paths met up again and soon, before she hurried toward Mal.
In the dark, Malia focused on her footing but did not notice the black goop stuck to her frayed pant-legs. It squirmed. Every few steps, she landed on black specks embedded in the snow that wormed their way up her mismatched Converse sneakers and it grew slowly but impatiently. Hungry.
"Should've brought the Xanax," Sunny said.
But Malia wouldn't be coaxed into talking.
"You probably have your own medication, I guess. Dangerous to mix and match."
The more Sunny tried, the more Malia hated herself, frozen tears held back with sniffs that she swore, in her head, were because it was cold, and the heavy breathing, too. Malia lied even to herself. She wanted an excuse to apologize, but the biggest roadblock, pride, kept her from opening her mouth.
Sunny kicked the snow, accidentally, then again playfully, and again trying to cover Malia.
Malia turned around. Almost ready to give in. Then continued on.
Sunny would not stop. It got in Malia's hood.
While wiping it out, the spray hit Sunny, who threw some back, and then and then and then Malia had Sunny's hood full and pulled over her head and Sunny was screaming, "Stop! Stop!" and Malia flew off. She'd taken it too far. She was already on her feet ready to continue walking, continue scowling, continue in silence.
But Sunny came out laughing. "You little butt. Pretty sure that got down the back of my shirt."
"You started it."
"And like usual," she said good-naturedly, "you returned fire with so much force, I had to relent."
In a small voice, "I can't help it."
"It's okay. You're trying."
The two curled together in the snow, both shivering, Malia's lip were split because she'd chewed them all weekend, but they were finally made up. At least for this last fight. And to seal the deal, Sunny walloped a scoop of snow into Malia's face, pinning her.
The black goop on Malia’s pants had rubbed onto Sunny, but neither had noticed yet.
"GET THE FUCK OFF HER!" someone cried out. A small spotlight hit them and it was tough to see past.
Sunny rolled off and as the spotlight trained on her, Malia saw who held it--Margie. The phone was in her pocket. Her hands were full with the rifle.
"No one move," Margie yelled. Her raspy voice carried a desperate authority.
"Hey, hun," Sunny cooed. "What's going on?"
"Shut up!" She wouldn't get closer, but she cut a wide berth down the switchback. The slope was too steep for walking, thus the path that turned back on itself, but Margie would not wait. She couldn't. She tripped and her itchy trigger finger luckily fell as she did.
With Margie face down in the snow, Mal rushed toward her.
"Don't!" Sunny yelled.
She was too far. Margie snapped the crosshairs on Malia and she froze.
A snowflake landed on Margie's cheek and instantly she wiped it off on her shoulder then retrained her sights on Malia. Sunny's foot settled into the snow with just a little sound and the gun pointed at Sunny. Every little motion agitated Margie. Putting hands up, the sign for surrender, almost got Sunny shot. "You're really scaring us here."
"You shot him?" Malia demanded.
"Did you shoot Tony?"
"Malia, please. Margie would never." Sunny approached Malia just wanting her to shut up for once but that girl pushed every situation toward more conflict, waiting for someone to finally do it because Mal believed she'd never be as lucky as Tony. No dog would save her. No matter how Sunny tried, she couldn't save Mal, and a decade ago, Sunny took that job in New York because she knew Mal couldn't follow.
Margie stepped away from them both. Armed, but retreating. Why was she so afraid? She was ready to slide down that slope risking injury. Something made it so she needed to flee.
"Tell me!" Malia shouted. Malia focused the attention on her. The gun on her. Whatever risk that carried, at least Sunny would be safe. Glenn would make sure of that as he sneaked through the woods behind Margie.
Malia kept talking, trying to get away from Sunny. "Tony was so goddam alien this whole trip because he was the one of us getting his life back on track. He had a dog. He had cleaned up. He'd kept a job for months. And you shot him, didn't you?"
"She was in the house with us. We know she didn't do anything. Just put the gun down and we'll talk this out."
"Yeah, I shot him. He just wouldn't die." Margie was paralyzed at the memory. "And I shot Hunter. You're all next. If it hasn't already taken you."
Sunny got distracted from the light and the gun and the madwoman with frozen tears because she finally saw Glenn.
He was almost on Margie.
He waited for her to aim slightly away and then he could pounce. He could wrestle Margie no problem.
She leaned against a tree.
The paranoia trained into her that night raised every sound of nature to a threat to be dealt with. As Glenn packed down some snow, Margie turned. The barrel of the gun led. And as it landed on the dark figure approaching her, Glenn, she didn't know that--
To Margie's chest.
The rifle fell into the snow and then Margie with it.
In the immediate moment, as they heaped out staggered breaths frozen from fear, everyone felt relief. Glenn’s tears kept coming after he wiped them away. Sunny grabbed Malia and Malia let her.
Then… “Step away from the gun and put your hands on your head.”
The group looked for the authoritative yell.
But it came again. “Do it now!”
Sunny buried her face in the snow, and she pulled Malia, who hesitated, with her. Glenn stared at Margie’s body.
“I will shoot if you don’t comply.”
His sorrowful gaze locked onto the gunman. A pistol trained on Glenn’s head. “What the hell did you shoot her for, man?”
“Are you trying to get yourself shot tonight.”
“Glenn!” Sunny’s voice was loud with panic.
Finally, Glenn knelt into the snow. Next to Margie. “She wasn’t going to do anything.”
The man in flannel with his face half-covered by a mask came closer out of the trees. “Sunny?” His light fixed on her then scanned the others as he grabbed the gun and swung the strap around his back. “Glenn? Can’t stay out of trouble can you?” His voice behind the mask softened.
Sunny breathed again. She finally placed the voice to an old flame that haunted her still. “Thank fucking christ--Jimmy! What are you doing here?” She started getting up but the white man motioned for her to stay still. He hadn’t put his gun away but it at least aimed at the snow now.
“Hold on. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Margie went mad. She shot Tony and Hunter and that’s all we really know.”
“We don’t know that,” Glenn interrupted.
“She admitted it!”
“That was old Margie? Well fuck me.” Jimmy stared at the body and then rolled it over to get a look at her face. Familiar but not the one he remembered. He asked, “Had she been acting erratic? Strange at all?”
“Not that I noticed.” Sunny looked at Malia for corroboration, but she’d retreated into herself. She’d probably be quiet for a while. “What are you even doing up here?”
“I’m the one who suggested this place! It’s practically my backyard. But I’m actually up here for work. We got some reports.”
“That was probably this whole crisis. Another lodge must’ve called it in.”
“I still can’t believe it happened.”
“We don’t know that it’s over yet. If she had an accomplice or if it was planned. I mean how many people came on the trip? It’d be pretty tough to get them all. Or maybe she had a grudge against Tony or Hunter and wanted it to look like an accident. Can’t rule anything out.”
Glenn had heard Jimmy say that before. Right when his parents had died. When they investigated it as a murder. “Going to cuff me again?” Glenn asked.
It wasn’t an easy time for Sunny, either. “Ancient history, Glenn. 9 years. Let it die.”
Jimmy interrupted the start of this old feud. “9 years wasn’t that long ago, was it, Sun? We don’t have to let everything die. I did just save y’all.” He was so close to her. And wider than Glenn. He pulled his gator mask down for a reward. Nervously glancing to Mal, who looked away, she gave him a little kiss. “All right, all right, but if you feel like you need someone after this ordeal, it’s pretty common. Fear makes people more, uh, open. Hey, what’s with your leg?”
As he squeezed her butt, he noticed her jeans were soaked dark.
Malia accused him, “You shot her!”
“I don’t miss.”
“I’m fine, promise.” She felt nothing. It was just some crap she rubbed up against, she figured, but as she tried scraping it off on a rock near the edge, she saw a trail of the stringy goop stretching from her leg down the slope under the snow, darker than its cover. She was holding Malia’s hand.
Malia’s glove ripped off as Sunny was tugged down the slope.
The snow she clawed gave way till she held a snowball as she slapped the ground looking for traction and had none. Her ACL ripped. She knew the feeling from an old soccer injury. Her chin hit rocks and dug its own trail until a tree caught between her legs and she stopped. She could not catch her breath enough to wail.
The goop had snaked its way up her leg, her body, and now her outstretched hand.
Who raced down the mountain for her?
"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?
"You're a bunch of idiots," Quinn said, having joined Rosie under the quilt.
The Xanax put Rose in a deadened place. She thought she could see Tony again, like he was in the car smooshing his face against Beagsley’s scruff, not like he was in the woods where his face was... She didn't care as much as Quinn that half the group was leaving to die. She was just cold. Quinn kept her warm.
"But please hurry back."
Damion, Quinn, Rosie, and Roger were staying. Beagsley, too, but Damion, a cat person, almost kicked him out with the others after all the yelling turned the Beags into a howling maniac. Roger told him to stuff it and he argued that it was just a joke and Quinn told him to stuff it and he did. After the rest left, they even let the little dude out. He jumped up on Rosie, and Quinn let him under the blanket and he got to work chewing up Rosie's tail like he liked. Rosie almost stopped him. Almost rubbed his belly. She wanted to. Like she wanted to stop the others and the voting. But she couldn't work up the energy. She had little sense of time. Watching the wall clock made it seem broken. Then she'd blink, and it'd be so much later, but everyone would be where they'd always been till she spoke and they responded from behind her. She swore she still heard Hunter's shrill voice even after he'd gone.
"Rest up, Rose," someone said and she thought she had been.
Beagsley sprung up.
On their first day here, Sunny had set up a table by the window that he liked to look out when he was allowed among the peoples and he'd lie there and watch and be a good boy, scanning the treeline for a squirrel invasion or visitors, then falling asleep since there was never anything to see. He always snored.
Now, his head was up. And his teeth bared. A growl not quite out, but revving up.
Then his lips fell and whatever he saw had retreated into the shadows cast through the forest by the pale moonlight. Once again, he had saved his humans.
Damion and Roger were in back discussing Rosie. They could've done it in front of her and she wouldn't have minded, for once, but to be polite and to avoid Quinn's wrath, they did it where no one could hear. "I'm not saying she didn't see anything, but maybe it wasn't what she claimed," Damion suggested. It was in a whisper even behind a shut door.
"How could anything else trigger her like that?"
"She's never been the most stable girl. Like graduation? Almost everyone had a job lined up but she didn't hear back on the one application she sent out and suddenly she's fleeing through Europe, which you all thought was so cool at the time, but I was just shaking my head, also living in Europe to work on research that if we'd had proper funding could have changed our understanding of the universe, not just walk around like she did, but no one seemed excited for me. Could any of you even understand it? I'm surprised she even ran back to the cabin. If she had a car key, it'd be logical that she'd–"
"Dude." His tone could've stopped a stampede.
But Damion didn't pay attention to such intangible things. "She'd have left us with whatever danger she claims is out there. And maybe it is something. A bear. A wolf. A lunatic. Maybe she saw something bad, but something reasonable. Explainable."
"That's not the point. Someone says they saw something horrific, you don't call them a liar."
"This isn't the first time Tony's done something stupid and it finally caught up with him. No idea why she ever dated him to start."
"Rosie and Tony?"
Quinn busted into the rooms one-by-one till she found the conspirators. She saw them cross-legged on Roger’s bed like they'd just been playing Patty Cake and, wordlessly, she waved them to the main area.
"What's happening?" Damion asked.
But she made a motion to zip his lips as she ushered them toward the large viewing window the sun always hit first and Malia, who had chosen the couch, said the sunrise helped her get to sleep. It was where Beagsley liked to look out. Where he'd been growling earlier. Where he growled now.
"It's just the beast. Again. He's gone crazy at every little thing, even me."
"Maybe because you blew an outlet," Roger explained to him for not the first time. Damion had brought an octopus strip so he wouldn't take up all the plugs with his laptop, phone, external battery, tablet, and rechargeable headlamp, but it was too much of a drain on the antiquated wiring. Margie had confiscated the power strip and that night someone had thrown it in the snow. Malia was the only accused, but it'd actually been Glenn. Damion ended up hogging the other outlets. "Electrical sparks tend to scare animals, especially if there's smoke."
"So what is it this time? The bear?"
"If anyone mentions that stupid bear again..." Quinn threatened Damion with the handle of a kitchen knife. She was actually handing it to him--safely, but he found her intimidating. He liked that she was intimidating.
Roger had a steak knife covered in last night's grease. Broccoli and red pepper shreds stuck to Quinn's butcher knife. All that'd been left in the drawer was a paring knife, still clean because how useless they'd found it during meal prep. Damion got that.
"Now shut up. There's something out there."
"You tell me to shut up, but not the dog."
"I'm telling everyone to shut up!"
The porch lights carried far in the winter canopy. They felt almost unnecessary given how trapped the ambient light was, a permanent incandescence, like looking at the world through snow goggles, and so the simple iron-and-glass-encased porch lights gave off no neatly lit circle, but added to the range that campers could see in so long as they squinted and only wanted silhouettes. Whatever was out there was just at the edge of visibility, trudging forward.
Beagsley's table didn't have the space for everyone and him and he got kicked out, being the smallest and kindest, and he tried the other window, identical but without his table and he was too short to stand up and see.
But as he ran to the other window, the others assumed he had a better sense and ran to see why he'd gone over.
He liked being part of the group and so he stayed until people crowded him and again, he was kicked out, but could return to his table and see. When the group came this time, his fur was up. His lips. His voice. He would not be shoved away now, and though Roger pulled at his collar, he growled through choking till Rog let go and his teeth clacked the window. They couldn't see it. They couldn't smell it. But it was coming. The flickering shadow that existed between the winds.
Rosie laughed so hard from the couch it scared them all into turning around. A hearty, lively laugh that kept going until she had no more air then a sudden gasp. "Why does it hurt to laugh?" she said, still wheezing.
"Gotta breathe, hun." Quinn laid her hand on Rosie's shoulder, who nuzzled against her friend's arm.
"It's not that," Rose spoke dreamily.
"There's nothing," Damion said coming over with Roger. They'd been staring at the window without a sighting of anything real. "Just the dog responding to everyone else's paranoia."
"It's funny that we're going to die together."
"Can we lock her in a bedroom?"
Quinn glared at Damion. He claimed he was tougher than he looked and she hadn't actively trained in a while beyond morning runs, but she could and would kick his ass if he kept this up. She said that all with a look.
But then Roger agreed. "I'm starting to get freaked out. I'll watch her."
Raving, Damion said, "Nothing happened a minute ago. Nothing happened five minutes ago. Or ten. Or an hour when the others left. Nothing has happened."
"What about Tony?"
"Well, him, but we don't even know what and like you said, probably got himself shot, and since then, nothing; we have no reason to think anything will happen—we have no reason to panic."
"Ion," Quinn said in a gentle voice. "Please stop yelling. You're scaring Rosie again." The lifelong hitchhiker was curling into her dinosaur kigurumi, sinking away.
"And me," Roger admitted.
"I wasn't–" Damion took a breath. Roger touched his shoulder and he flinched. The paring knife in his hand caught on his pants pocket, but it wasn't pointed enough to scratch through. "I didn't realize–" He needed another breath. They were coming too fast. Beagsley's barks were getting to him.
"It's okay. We're all worked up."
The alcohol had burned off and they were coming into a harsh reality dehydrated. Everyone sat on the couch with Rosie. It was too small for all of them but no one got up for another seat. They needed to be off their feet for a second. To get their wits together.
But a knock on the door scattered them.
Rosie laughed again.
Beagsley hollered with his teeth hitting the glass panes.
Quinn got up to check, gripping her knife.
The knock was erratic. Solid and wide and slow. Like it wasn't a fist, but someone with groceries in their arms hip-checking a locked door. And there was a doorbell, lit well and easy to find, but they knocked again. They hadn't tried the handle. They only tried force.
"Who is it?" Roger called from the couch. Quinn shot him a glance and he gave one back like, "What else am I supposed to say?"
Quinn peeked through the eyehole, but they were standing too close. They were just a blurry form but there was definitely a shirt. A sweater. Seemed to be hood strings tucked into his neckline. She felt safe calling out, "Hunter?" He’d been wearing something similar.
A hard knock.
The door thumped against Quinn's eyebrow. She shook her head at the others who were waiting for a sign, good or bad, anything.
Damion crept to the window, the one opposite the Beags because the pup was still viciously barking which he'd done at Glenn and pretty much anyone that'd gotten locked out during this week. He just liked to bark. Sharp claps of instinct signifying nothing but a lesser evolved brain.
Damion looked out the window.
He pulled back the curtain for a better angle.
He gaped. "Open up!"
When he rushed over to the door to do it himself rather than explain, Quinn stopped him. She covered the handle with her body and would not be moved. "Who is it?"
The knock again. The thud hit a sore spot on her hip. Her mattress hadn't been as soft as advertised.
"Tony," Damion said.
Rosie laughed breathlessly till it faded away.
Roger got up from the couch and went to look for himself and got all excited saying, "Yeah! It really is him!"
Quinn looked, too.
Roger kept cheering. "Rose, come look. It's Tony."
Beagsley barked wilder than ever.
Roger shoved his bud over to the window though she was limp on her feet and needed him as a crutch just to stand so he basically dragged her and pointed her head toward Tony! Tony! Tony.
She was done laughing.
"See? He's okay!"
Wide-eyed with stilted breaths, Rosie lunged for the door Damion was unlocking but her legs failed her. She stumbled. Roger caught her. But as he was trying to get her to stand, she wrestled with him thinking he meant to stop her. She had no control over her words. The shrieks came out slurred, but god, she got the volume up so loud Hunter in the woods could hear her pleas.
And in the scramble of panic and emotion, Quinn heard Beagsley.
Not the barks.
But what was beneath. Like she swore she had ages ago and only her sister had believed her but she was gone, long gone, dead with a tire mark across her neck, and Quinn had buried these confessions in her studies and career. She had left for Orcas Island and every morning listened as the birds sang or at night, the sounds of the wild lighting up the world. But they said nothing she knew. Even the crickets she begged to tell her one way or the other. Had it been childhood fantasies? They didn’t say. Nothing did. Nothing till now.
Now she heard Beagsley’s frantic excitement.
The wind took the smoke off the chimneys of the log cabins, engineered rustic, that dotted the snowy mountain range. Tents were sealed around burnt out fire rings. The logs so gone that even snow tossed atop by the ready-for-bed campers or by the ever-increasing gusts didn't sizzle, just piled on then melted. Everyone up on the secluded getaway had hiked a few unadvertised miles because the roads were for service vehicles only, and while the paths had markings, they hadn't been cleared. Not enough foot traffic to pack it down and most campers wound up with wet socks.
For five days now, the group in the cabin farthest from the road and separated most from the other housings, by obstacle more than distance, hadn't seen each other since graduation. They'd met in Europe, separate groups studying in France, Belgium, Lithuania, Wales, but their relationships hinged on Rosie's free-spirit because when she crashed with Malia in Lithuania on the host family's couch, something no one was thrilled about, she called up Sunny, Roger, and Glenn who were "just over in France" but they had time off so came anyway and then Glenn and Sunny made their way back with their new friend Malia, while Rosie went with Roger but stopped off in Belgium to party with Hunter and Quinn, somehow meeting Damion for the third time but finally remembering his name. And so on. Till Rosie had tramped across the whole continent, uniting the Americans from the same college in a web so convoluted that not one of them told it the same way, often forgetting key players, even arguing their way as the sweet reminiscence turned to a drunken blow-up.
This week was, as Margie suggested, a spiritual revival of their friendships after work and life and love lost separated them. Though no one will take ownership of planning it, a few hands gathered specific people until the trip snowballed in a massive group message that Malia hated being in ever since it woke her up at 2 one afternoon.
The lion's share of booze had gotten pissed into the snow where some, women included, tried writing their names. In cursive. And after some precise measurement, they decided they had enough alcohol to stay tipsy the final few days or enough for one last great night that'd leave them hungover till it was time to leave. They chose the latter.
And now, locked away on that secluded mountain, their fate hinges upon an unseen hand--yours.
“Why the hell even bring it?” Roger was finally excited enough (read: drunk enough) to start yelling, but the rest in the cabin had tuned him out because tonight was going to be a good night.
“We won’t need it,” Hunter assured his old theater buddy. “But—if we do—better to have it.”
“Gun owners are 50% more likely to shoot a friend or family member than a bad guy. Or themselves.”
“Where you getting that number?”
“I read it.”
“Well where are you getting your information?”
“There are bears out there!”
“Are there really?” Damion asked coming up from the Samsung tablet he bought for this trip to the wilderness then boot-loaded with a pure Nexus Android OS because he hated bloatware. He was trying to fact-check the conversation as it happened, like when Hunter swore the ever-present they were coming for his guns if not for the heroes of Congress, but the Wi-Fi was too slow to get even Wikipedia to load so he wasn’t comfortable submitting his perspective.
Sunny walked up to the Johnnie Walker Blue, the last remaining brand, to fill her drink. Whisky and Pepsi. They’d put the wrong person in charge of supplies. "Freaking Glenn," she muttered as she poured herself a double. “Can we please stop arguing? We’re here to have fun.”
“This is fun,” the boys said in unison. Even Damion nodded along.
“Also.” Quinn came up behind the couch with the two master debaters to interject her knowledge on the subject. This wasn't her Orcas Island so she wasn't exactly an expert, but she had gathered a base knowledge of their current environment. “There aren’t any bears here.”
“I know like not black bears. Or pandas, obviously. But look around!” Hunter said in his defense. Out the window was all white except where conifers filled the forest going diagonal up the ridge and dead deciduous shot up like a black scraggly antenna. The craggy slopes of higher peaks cracked through the top layer of snow. “Perfect for a polar bear.”
Quinn put her face in her hands and growled worse than any mountain beast. Damion laughed along with her. He also put his hand near her like he was about to pat her shoulder or rub her back or something, but then thought better of it.
“Our gun-advocate, ladies and gentleman,” Roger said presenting his opponent.
“You absolute moron.”
“What?” Outraged, Hunter's voice went up a few octaves. “It could happen!”
Sunny took a long drink of her whisky and Pepsi. “Yeah, maybe that’s what has Tony so spooked.” Everyone could hear the eye roll in her voice.
Outside, in the desolate getaway, chosen for a beautiful view of the sunrise through a crack in the range, but at night, the basin below was abyss. Not an outline. Not a sound. Just swirls of snow getting tossed off the rough cliffs into a void. Everyone, in this group or previous, had tossed a rock down but it just disappeared.
And Tony was out there staring. Also unsure of what he'd seen and what he thought he saw now. Was he willing his mind to perceive movement or was it real? Shadowy tendrils pulsating in the distance?
It was a tree.
He didn't know that. It was too far off. But behind it, maybe it wasn't just.
Dressed like a dinosaur, Rosie was banging the door for Margie to "Please, just—please!"
Colby, a wildlife photographer, snuck up to get a selfie with Rosie. His phone was full of them. From the night. From the week. From his alone time at home. He looked great in all of them, that primped and maintained beard he hadn't shaved bare since he'd grown it, that contagious smirk, and yet all the other guys had their heads cut off by the top of the frame or were mid-blink or it was at an angle that was too honest. However, the ladies here he got selfies with got to review and approve his camera roll. "Someone got diarrhea? Or the pukes?"
"THERE'S A SPIDER!" Margie yelled through both the door and her fingers. She didn't want it leaping in her mouth. "RIGHT ON THE DOOR! Big and thick and—" The sound she made—she might've puked.
"Let me in and I'll bust it up." Colby said in his most desperate heroic voice, "I'll save you!" He started jiggling the door handle till she shrieked.
"Fuck no! This place is so small that you open that door and it'll not only hit my knee but also knock the spider into my crotch. That's worse than my mouth!"
"It’s probably not poisonous. I've seen poisonous spiders. Colonies with tens of thousands of tiny ones that could trap a Bolivian cow and dissolve it in a minute. They don't live anywhere near here."
Rosie stared at him. "Do you really think that's helping?"
"Just kidding!" he yelled through.
"I'm gonna die."
Then Quinn practically tackled Rosie from behind. "You brought yours?" she cried in so much giddiness that it had the party turning on them for a laugh at typical Quinn, still treating hugs like lacrosse checks. "I totally should've brought mine. It's a koala. This little nubby tail shakes when I twerk. But I didn't want everyone saying, 'Ha! That's so funny,' then secretly muttering to each other, 'Aren't we a little old for those?' Goddammit! Should've brought it."
In a raspy, pleading whisper, Rosie asked, "Is that what people are thinking?" She was in a dinosaur kigurumi, great for the cold, but the tail got in the way for sleeping. Also tended to drag and Beagsley would chase it if someone let him out of his room.
"You look fantastic. The tongue totally matches your hair." Both were pink.
"Well I'm about to explode and Margie's probably in till she's hungry enough to eat her fear so this dinosaur's going for a hike." She called back over her shoulder, "Avoid lemon snow."
"Sorry!" Margie yelled.
Rosie threw open the front door as Tony was coming in. He bumped into her then stepped on her tail, mumbling apologies, but not stopping as she growled at him, finally at one with her spirit animal.
He nodded at friends welcoming him back to civilization, as he wiped the snot dripping from his nose.
"Lock boxes are for children. It's fine," Hunter was explaining to Roger.
They offered Tony drinks that he shook his hand at.
"I made it myself!" Sunny told him. "Three parts whisky and one part also whisky because blech--Pepsi."
He got to the door for the garage. Malia was leaning against it, watching the the twins till she spotted Tony, then she waited for him to say something perfect. About how it was better outside than in here and she'd agree with a scoff. He hid it around the others, put on a better capitalist smile than she could, but they had their own language dripping with sardonic disdain.
But he didn't say anything.
He got to her, leaning against the door, and he waited for her to understand. He wanted her to move. She scoffed at him. "Fine." Then she joined the others.
Tony went into the garage. It was where Hunter had stashed the rifle.
Rosie's tail dragged a path through the woods until it was soaked through. "Dinos are not snow beasts." She squatted but needed to revert back to human if she didn't want to piss in the crotch and obviously she didn't.
She was on her back with her feet overhead, thinking to herself maybe it'd be easier to just go like this, but even if no one saw, she had dignity. Some.
Wrenching off one shoe, then the other, at first looking back in case someone was approaching—she thought she heard something—but now was sure that she was alone, thank god, and then she had to get those socks off and... Being a dinosaur was so rough, but so worth it.
Tony followed that mystery trail into the woods. His first evidence. He clutched the rifle.
Little Beags swiped at the passing shadows under the door, squealing when he heard one get close, and when one stayed, oh boy, one stayed. He could smell them. Her. She had food. Or had eaten food. She smelled so gloriously of food.
"Hey, my dude," Sunny said getting her cheek against the hardwood so the boy, just older than a pup, could see it was her and would love her most or at least second most to Tony.
Tony had gotten him for their old buddy Bob as a wedding present last year, a late one, as usual, and then the accident happened. The wife pulled away after Bob’s death so Tony just kept the dog. Word got back to everyone through Facebook photos that this adorable little dude was living with someone that hardly fed himself. It wasn't a money thing but a priority thing. Cocaine was expensive.
"I don't know," Sunny said when her twin Glenn asked whose skirt she was trying to look up. "I really think this guy's been good for Tony. Just like being back with everyone's been good for you."
He put on his usual tired grimace, but then admitted, "I wouldn't mind Tony crawling in bed with me again."
"Quinn’s probably thinking the same after all these years. Too bad Jimmy couldn’t make it or we could do a drug test on Tony’s hair. Maybe I’ll save some anyway. Think it's clean?"
"Okay, Dr. Psycho.” Then sulking, he added, “Definitely glad that fake cop didn’t come now."
“It’s been years, Glenn! We weren’t suspects. Total routine questioning." Sunny quickly got back to thinking about Tony. Per usual, she couldn’t stop analyzing. "He wasn't even drinking the last few days. I tried giving him a whisky and whisky, you know, his favorite, but he practically ignored me. Ignored it."
Malia came up to them pretending she wasn't really interested, just near, and then Sunny pulled her in by the waist.
"What do you think, little bae?" she asked her sullen friend.
"Ugh," Glenn wretched. "Hate that word."
"It's all right. Ironically," Malia mumbled, smirking. "And what about what?"
"He's looking hot, right?" Glenn asked.
Then the rifle sounded.
And there wasn't a soul in that room brave enough to break the silence after.
Careful where to step, Rosie tried getting her socks back on without stepping in the snow. It didn't work. But the snow was frozen enough that her foot wasn't soaked like if she had stepped in a puddle. Just cold. The legs of her kigurumi, however, had been sitting in the slush for long enough that as she pulled them on, she felt them wet and already crisp with light freezing.
She threw the arms on and then the hood and straightened her hair when she saw someone in the distance she could only guess at in the starlight. "Tony?"
She pointed her cell phone flashlight at him
He had the rifle.
He trudged beyond the range of her light and she hurriedly zipped up to go after him but the zipper caught on her shirt and she spent a minute fiddling, her light pointed down, the night quiet but his steps crunching, her breathing through her mouth, occasionally sniffing up some running snot. She had lost him when she looked up.
Then the path to him lit up with gunshots—fire and thunder.
And in the flashes she saw.
She bolted to the cabin, tripping over branches, clawing at the snow to get back to her feet and to get away and she hit the cabin door, locked, or were her fingers too desperate to work the thumb-operated handleset?
She hit it. She cried. She kept fidgeting the lever, looking behind her for it, till the door swung open, Roger catching her as she fell in.
"Rose, are you okay?" a few someones asked as she crumpled to the floor to catch her breath, still frozen in her, gasping, sucking in air, choking on it. Colby brought a Pepsi in the can to let her hydrate and Quinn threw the sofa back's decorative quilt, still folded into a rectangle, around her shoulders.
But Rosie's panic turned the mental cogs to the worst conclusions and she ran to the door, locking it, sealing the windows, the blackout curtains, going out to the garage and locking the outer door and coming back in and locking the inner door as the troupe of friends followed her asking what was wrong and what she was doing. She couldn't talk yet.
Then Hunter went to the front door. His hand on the lock.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to have a look."
"No, no, no," she pleaded and shoved him away from the door. *She was not bigger than him, not in shape, but he fell back.
Beagsley from the room that Tony had shared with Glenn and Roger let out this great whistling, whimpering howl. His collar tags jangled as he danced anxiously at the door, hoping this commotion was a discussion on being let out, and he wanted his opinion heard. He whined. Barked. Howled. Scratched the door. His puppy dog eyes were so big they could be heard, but went ignored.
Sunny curled around the dinosaur panic of pink hair and though Rosie, frightened, shook her to get away, Sunny held tight, cooing, "Shh, shh, it's okay. I got you now." She ordered Damion to go into her room and find the Xanax in her bag. "Should be front pocket, maybe sides."
Margie spun a hopeful tale that no one wanted to break. "That was the ranger's car, right? Backfiring? Just coming to give us a noise complaint maybe?" But that no one believed either
"Look who's missing," Malia said.
"There's no hunting on this mountain," Quinn yelled. "And this late? Is he fucking stupid?"
Coming out of her hyperventilating mess, Rosie told them what she could: "He's dead."
The room hushed. Hunter stepped away from the door. Damion was back with the Xanax, just one pill, but the room needed the bottle now. The heater coughed, spewing rusted air that everyone could taste, and what sounded like a screw bounced around the metal casing, dinging and ringing through the group's silence.
Beagsley saw the opportunity and barked. As if to say, "I'm still trapped in here!"
"He didn't. Not to himself. No." Sunny grabbed her little bae for comfort, her own, not Malia's.
"Suicide doesn't take three shots."
"If he missed."
"It wasn't that!" Rosie's voice needed everyone to understand but how could they when even she didn't know what she'd seen? "It was—I don't know what it was. But we have to—I don't know, do something."
"If it was a bear, a group of us should go. Scare it off with numbers. Bring some pans to bang around."
"There aren't any bears, Hunter."
"Okay, whatever. Wolf or whatever lives up here. Right, Colby? You were telling us about the hunters in Kenya that walk up to lions after a kill and steal their meat."
"They have to do it quick because the lions come back," he explained. "But it could work, I guess."
"Tony's not meat."
"But if he's hurt. Maybe he's not dead yet, just really hurt."
Beagsley yelled. He was a good boy but had no patience to start and now, the emotions were getting to him. He needed out. He needed to kiss. To hug. To be cute and adorable and turn all of this around. He begged until Damion banged on the door. Beagsley was quiet. He misunderstood the banging as a good thing.
"That fucking idiot. What did Tony think would happen going out with a gun? Some other camper probably saw him carrying it, looking all bug-eyed, and shot him. I would. Stand your ground."
The whole group was a mess of conversation, people making noise, trying to think, trying not to feel helpless. But they were. Only Rosie truly had an idea how much they were.
"You can't go out there," Rosie told them. "It's not safe. I don't even know if it's safe in here."
"Then what should we do, Rose?" Sunny asked. She had made herself another drink and was feeling more steady now.
"Not safe here?" Quinn asked. "We’re in a house! With locks. Whatever you think is out there will sniff around, we’ll see it in the porch light, and then call ranger services if it’s an actual concern."
"We should get help. Does anyone have any signal up here?" Glenn raised his phone to the ceiling. It was still an old flip phone with an antenna he had to slide out. He'd kept it to stay less busy and less connected to work where he already got dozens of emails a day. He didn't need his phone reminding him of that. What a small stressor that all seemed to now. "We could split up. A few of us hike down to our cars, drive till we can call someone."
"No one's listening," Rosie said in a quiet voice, feeling herself lose this situation.
Damion, on his tablet, opened his email app but while emergency numbers had been drilled into everyone's head, he didn't know the emergency emails. "Does anyone know the ranger’s office email?"
"Or we could go there. Can't be more than a mile."
"And definitely go for Tony. As a group."
"You're not listening. It's not a bear. It's not a wolf. It's not an animal at all."
Quinn, the only one to live in wilderness, stopped them all. "You’re all talking crazy. It’s dark. You know what’s actually dangerous in the dark? Tree branches gouging out your eyes. Shifting snow that seems solid till gravity's ripping you down a sheer drop. The cold! Not some imaginary horror."
"There are too many people to reach a consensus," Margie said. "We should vote. Or split up into groups."
Quinn was adamant, though. "I'm not going anywhere."
What would you vote for?