There was something magical about the lodge’s tub—Sam had always been of that opinion, and despite the rocky start, tonight was no exception. Sure, the rest of the lodge was still horrifically cold…and dark…and maybe kinda spooky, but she was wrapped up in layers of cozy clothes, hair damp and fingers pruny, and life felt just peachy.
She made her way down the stairs with a pleased little sigh, having spotted a few familiar shapes in the great room. “You guys have gotta try a hot bath this weekend. I swear, it…” Her voice trailed off slowly. Uncertainly.
She’d expected to find the others sipping cocoa and laughing over Emily and Jess’s earlier catfight, and uh…
Well, it appeared she was mistaken in that assumption.
There was no cocoa. There was no laughter. No, all she walked into was a cold-ass room with three supremely unhappy people sitting on the couch.
“…oh, I missed something,” she muttered to herself. Quickly, Sam tried to take inventory of the situation: There was Josh all by his lonesome on one side of the L-shaped sectional, grimacing down at the floor; there were Chris and Ash, sitting on the other end of the couch, angled so that they could glare daggers at him while giving him the widest possible berth, both of their faces—
Oh holy shit.
“What happened?!” Her feet sent her reeling forward with great, lurching steps, kneeling in front of Ashley to get a better look at the massive, gnarly bruise blooming there. “Ash, oh my G—wait. Wait.” It was only then that she was able to fully process the bruising on Chris’s face. They looked like they’d been on the losing end of some kind of brawl, but…but shit, that didn’t make sense for a whole slew of reasons, really. “What happened?!” she asked again, feeling a wave of frenzy threaten to bubble over.
The strangest part of the whole thing—if there could be only one—was how calm the two of them seemed. Mad? Oh sure they were mad, maybe even furious, but it was the scary, quiet kind of anger that bided its time until just the right moment.
Ashley turned just so, speaking to her though keeping her eyes firmly on Josh. “Huh! That’s a really interesting question, Sam. What happened? Hmm…what happened…well, it’s a funny story.” She sat with one leg crossed over the other, arms folded resolutely across her chest, fingers drumming against the sleeve of her hoodie. “I’ve got just…the worst headache right now. Shocker. I know. But because of this headache, I’m actually having a little trouble remembering what the three of us have been up to while you were in the tub.” There was something worrying about her tone; it was jerky and jagged in a way that made Sam think of an overstretched rubber band right before it snapped. “Hey Chris?” Ashley asked, voice suddenly bright—saccharine. “Do you remember what happened while Sam was upstairs?”
The anger in Chris’s expression was more…complicated than Ash’s. It was there, but so were a lot of other things: confusion, apprehension, exhaustion, betrayal. It was hard to place, and God help her, Sam was beginning to wonder whether she actually wanted to know what had gone on between them. “Strangest thing, Ash, my head hurts real bad too, all of a sudden. Crazy how that happens.” He raised his eyebrows and immediately winced, sucking in a hard breath through his teeth as he reached up to tenderly pat at his bruising. “I bet Josh remembers.”
“Yeah, know what? I bet he does! Hey Josh? Why don’t you explain, Josh? Why don’t you tell Sam what happened, Josh?”
Sam looked from one to the other to the other, the poster child of confusion. When her eyes fell on Josh again, the corners of his mouth tried to turn up into something resembling a sheepish smile.
It didn’t work.
Not by a long shot.
“Sooo…” he began, speaking slowly in that special way of his—the way that suggested he was flying by the seat of his pants. “I may have made some, uh…let’s just say ‘questionable decisions,’ tonight.”
Though she couldn’t describe how, both Ash’s and Chris’s postures changed in her periphery.
Josh’s mangled smile became a wince. “Okay, that was admittedly a bit of an oversimplification.”
She looked between them again. The puzzle pieces were starting to click into place, but…the picture wasn’t making sense in her head. “Did you hit them?!” she asked, perfectly aghast; her eyes flicked to the others for confirmation. Lo and behold, there it was. “Josh!”
“Can I maybe give some context, here, Sammy?”
“Context?! You punched them and you think I want context?!”
“I can admit some mistakes were made.”
What could she do but stand there and sputter? This was…this was too much. It was like somewhere during the course of her bath, she’d relaxed her way into a parallel dimension—one where shit didn’t make any sense. She resisted the urge to pinch herself; if she was having some batshit dream, she’d wake up eventually and laugh it off, but if this was real…she almost didn’t want to know.
“Mistakes?!” Ashley’s voice went shrill with fury. “I’m gonna have a black eye tomorrow!”
Josh defensively held his hands up. “To be fair—to be fair!—I wasn’t aiming for your eyes. I really, genuinely thought Cochise woulda been the first one through the door, so…yeah, I went a little high.”
“You still punched her! I—yo—fu—and me!” Chris pointed at his own face before wincing again.
His grimace resurfaced, a sad simulacrum of his usual grin. “I…look. I already said I was sorry about that shit, okay? But you both just like…charged the door, and that didn’t really give me time to get the gas ready—”
That did it. Sam found her voice again. “Gas?!” Neither Chris nor Ash seemed taken aback by that, and God, she didn’t like what that meant for the rest of the story. “What gas?!”
He turned back to her, gesturing vaguely. “So I had this tank of—”
Chris had the wherewithal to reach over, not unlike a parent, his arm keeping Ashley from launching herself across the couch at Josh. It couldn’t have taken too much effort (she did, after all, weigh all of a hundred pounds soaking wet), but for a second, it really seemed she was going to throw him off of her. Now, whether that was due to some surge of adrenaline-fueled strength or Chris only holding his arm out for show…well, Sam couldn’t tell.
Ashley’s face was so red by that point that it bordered on purple, the usual pout of her lower lip threatening to become a snarl. “You chained me to a frigging torture rack in the shed!”
She definitely recognized them as…words.
But put together in that order? Nope. Nope, didn’t compute. Sam couldn’t find it in herself to sit down despite the weakness in her knees; the idea of putting herself physically between the three of them was hardly an appealing thought. “Wait. Wait! Ju-just wait, okay?” She took to pacing instead, fingers knotting themselves into the sleeves of her sweatshirt as her numb legs carried her around the great room in wide, sloping circles. Finally, she whirled back towards Ashley. “What about the shed?”
“Th-th-this maniac—” she began, showing no sign of settling back down, “Socks me, knocks me out, then frigging drags me outside into the shed, where he chains me to a wall and tries to slice me in half with an industrial saw!”
Huffing, Josh crossed his arms and sank deeper into his side of the couch, shaking his head all the while. “Notice how she says ‘tries,’ okay? I didn’t actually do it.”
“Dude, shut up,” Chris snapped.
Sam finished another circuit around the great room, desperately trying to connect all the dots Ashley was throwing her way. “You what?!”
“I wake up and it’s dark. Then suddenly, there are all these lights, and I’m in the shed,” as though her head was on a swivel, Ashley’s face snapped back to Josh, “Chained. To. A. Wall.” His only response was a slight shrug. “And I look around and there’s Josh! Chained up next to me, only guess what? No he wasn’t!”
“Sure convinced you, though,” Josh muttered under his breath.
“All of a sudden, there’s this huge, terrifying, rusty old saw blade, and it’s going a million miles an hour, and it’s coming at me.” Her lower lip quivered for a moment, and Sam was positive Ashley was about to start sobbing…but the moment passed. Even from that distance, she could see her arms and legs trembling with what must’ve been nearly lethal levels of leftover adrenaline. “And I think I’m going to die, and next thing I know, Josh’s stupid body is still next to me, but his freaking head is gone, and then he’s standing next to me and he’s like, grabbing at me—”
She held her hands up to stop her. “What do you mean his head was gone?”
The look Chris leveled at her was not one she’d ever seen on his face before. It was the long-suffering stare of a Wal-Mart cashier on Black Friday, warning her before he even opened his mouth that he had seen things, and the worst was yet to come. “This motherfucker went and made a goddamn piñata and stuffed it with fake guts. Then dressed it up in his clothes. You know, like normal people do!”
When she whirled, wide-eyed, to Josh, he actually had the audacity to roll his eyes. “The guts weren’t fake.”
“Wow.” She wouldn’t call the noise Chris made a laugh, per se, but it was close enough. “Wow, man, just…wow! Really? That’s what you care about right now?”
“I didn’t go through all the time and effort of special ordering all those pigs—you know what? No, it’s fine. They were fake. Whatever.”
Sam didn’t have time to process any of that before Ashley was talking again. “So there I am, literally hanging from a wall! And there’s this literal saw! Trying to slice through me! And Chris is on the other side of the wall because Josh locked all the doors! So I’m next to a headless, uh, uh, uh—”
“Human-sized Gusher.” The visual was horrendous. Chris didn’t seem to take any joy in that artful description, sort of cementing the gravity of the situation in her head; if Chris wasn’t laughing at his own jokes, shit had absolutely hit the fan.
Ashley just kept going, “I can’t pull myself up, so this idiot’s just like, pushing my legs away from it and over it so that I don’t literally get sliced in half! And he just keeps screaming, ‘Turn it off! Turn it off!’ Only surprise!” Before any of them could react, she’d grabbed a coaster off the table and hurled it at Josh’s head as hard as she could. It was only through some kind of miracle that he managed to dodge it. “Chris can’t turn it off, because he doesn’t know how it works, because they don’t make user manuals for bootleg medieval murder machines!”
“But did you die, though?” Josh shot back, his tone the petulant snap of a sibling about to be tattled on. “Did you die, Ash? No. You didn’t. So maybe—”
“Oh my G—I’m going to kill him.” She said it to Chris, lowering her voice dangerously. “I’m going to wring his neck with my bare hands.”
“Big talk coming from the girl who almost sobbed cuz a Ouija board was talking to her…”
Chris’s head snapped up in Josh’s direction again. “Hey, fuck you!”
“Fuck me? Fuck me?” Josh narrowed his eyes. “No, know what? Fuck you! Fuck you, man, you were gonna pick Ash over me! You were gonna just let me die!”
“Yeah.” The admission seemed to startle him. Though she had absolutely no idea what Josh had meant by ‘picking’ Ash, Sam watched the realization dawn in Chris’s eyes, jolting him like an arc of electricity. He sat up straighter, staring at Josh with a newfound surge of outrage, hands bunching into fists on his knees. “Yeah! I was! And honestly? Honestly, Josh? Feeling like I made the right call on that one!”
“Man, go to Hell. Some friend you turned out to be!”
Sam, ever the mediator, threw her hands out to her sides. “Stop! Everyone just…just stop, okay? Obviously we’re all…” she paused, doing everything in her power to avoid making eye contact with any of them. “…upset. And tired. And confused.” That last one was, admittedly, mostly for her. There was a soft, unimportant sound as she dropped her hands to her sides again, fingers brushing the fabric of her sweatshirt. She exhaled a heavy breath, scrambling to collect her thoughts before saying anything else.
A minute of silence passed in the room, stretched and made syrupy by the cold, feeling like its own lifetime.
When she found it in herself to look back to the couch, she could see things had (mostly) cooled down: Josh had resumed his earlier pose, arms folded and eyes down; Chris had leaned over and seemed to be muttering something under his breath to Ash; and in turn, Ashley sat listening to him, nodding occasionally while keeping her watchful gaze on Josh. It wasn’t ideal, obviously, but it was better.
God help her.
“Josh.” She had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to control her expression when he turned his sad, angry eyes on her. “Any other…” she sighed through her nose, “…booby traps you need to warn us about?”
He considered her for a long moment, then shrugged. “Not up here.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means stay out of the basements and you’ll be a-okay, buckaroo.”
Chris and Ash frowned in unison, both looking to one another before turning to Josh’s side of the couch. “Basements?” Chris asked. “Like…plural?”
With an unaffected sniff, Josh shrugged. “Yeah, plot twist, I know.”
Sam ignored that line of questioning for the time being. “But there’s nothing up here? Nothing at all?”
“Nothing at all, Sammy,” he repeated, albeit stiffly. Josh continued to glower at the floor for a second or two…then something in posture shifted, softened, gave way completely, and he dropped his head into his hands. His shoulders slumped inwards, a pathetic, eerily juvenile attempt at protecting himself.
She was still too far away to tell for sure, but…Sam thought maybe, just maybe, she could see him shaking in much the same way Ashley had been.
When he spoke up again, his voice was strained and strange, sounding thick in the back of his throat. “The saw wasn’t supposed to go that way. That wasn’t how I built it, something must’ve…I didn’t…I wasn’t gonna hurt you guys. I wasn’t. I just wanted to…fuck…” A crack shattered his voice into a weak warble. “I just wanted to fucking scare you! That was it! And yeah, I wanted it to be bad—real bad, like badbadbad—but I wouldn’t hurt you…I wouldn’t have let you die!”
Ashley hardly seemed moved. She only crossed her arms tighter, her forehead wrinkling with an emotion Sam couldn’t begin to parse. If their story was true (and jokesters though they were, she had very little reason to doubt that it was), she thought it was going to take more than an apology to smooth things over with Ashley. A fruit basket, at least.
“I just…” And oh, it was hard hear Josh like that, but harder still to see the three of them in that state, so detached from their usual nerdy, goofy selves. “I wanted you to get it, okay? To know what Hannah felt last year, to know how shitty it all was, and—”
A scream rent the air, bringing an abrupt end to whatever else Josh had wanted to say.
For the first time since they’d arrived that night, the four of them moved as a unit, whirling around to look towards the front door.
A clatter, a choked gasp, and Emily appeared in the great room, tripping over snow-slick boots in her hurry. Sam saw what was about to happen and lunged forward, managing to catch her right as she began to topple; Emily clung to her as though she was the only thing keeping her from sinking into the hardwood.
She heard Chris and Ash get up from the couch more than she saw them, the cushions groaning quietly against the backdrop of Emily’s frantic sobbing.
“Hey,” Sam tried, contorting herself to meet Emily’s eyes. “Hey, hey Em, hey…it’s okay! You’re okay, you’re okay!”
“No I’m not!” She made as though she was going to shove herself away from Sam, but only succeeded in falling further against her, chest heaving and pulse pounding so heavily that she felt like a windup toy chugging its last.
Before she could ask what she’d meant by that, Sam felt a pressure at her shoulder blade. Turning, she saw Ashley looking pale and grim—more so than usual, that was. She stared at Emily, her brow furrowed, and it only took a curt nod from her for Sam to realize what was wrong.
The fabric of Emily’s jacket had been torn away to reveal a raw, bloody wound on her shoulder, already made horribly discolored by the cold.
“Em,” Sam breathed.
But she pulled in a drowning woman’s breath, chest rattling with the effort, and finally—finally—looked up to her. “Monster,” she coughed out, her eyes wide, pupils pinpricks even in the half-light. “There’s some kind of fucking monster out there!” The words spilled from her like vomit. “We need to go, we have to go, it’s going to get me, it’s going to—”
“Emily…” That time it was Ashley who chimed in, speaking with the tiny, uncertain voice Sam was more accustomed to. “There’s no monster. It’s just a really, really shitty prank Josh is pulling on us.”
Josh, for his part, hadn’t gotten up from the couch. He watched the scene with a detached expression. To Sam, it sort of seemed like he was attempting a particularly tricky math problem in his head. “I…didn’t do anything like that,” he said, oddly thoughtful.
Ashley spun around to shoot him a fiery glare, but Emily only sobbed harder.
“This isn’t fucking Josh! There’s a monster out there and it—I th—” She collapsed against Sam again, her face dripping with tears and sweat and thawing snow. “It got Matt!”
Sam looked to Ashley…then Chris…and then Josh. Each of them looked more confused than the last. She didn’t like that. No, she didn’t like that one bit.
Josh’s asshattery aside, something was…fuck. Something was wrong, here.
Still, she knew from experience that panicking was as good as lying down and dying. She took a deep breath in, steadied herself, and tightened her grip on Emily’s arms.
“Matt?” Belated though it was, the realization hit Chris all at once. “What do you mean, it g—”
There was a distant BANG! that brought them to attention, Emily shrieking and reaching up to cover her head and face with her hands. The rest of them stared at each other, heads cocked and bodies tense like deer sensing danger, eyes darting every which way to try and place the sound until…
“The basement.” There was still a watery edge to Josh’s voice that made him sound as though he was dealing with one hell of a cold. “That’s…” his eyes narrowed in bafflement, “…that’s the fucking basement.” He did get off the couch then, showing no sign of noticing the way both of his ‘best friends’ pulled back to avoid him as he made his way to the staircase, peering down into the darkness of the first floor landing. “Who the fuck went into the base—”
He didn’t have time to finish.
Great, clomping footsteps pounding their way up the stairs, Emily and Ashley screaming when a tall, broad figure lurched up the steps and into the moonlit room with the rest of them.
The shape of him didn’t make sense at first. He was slumped, panting, his face and arms streaked with grime and dust and…blood. Oh God, there was so much blood. Sam’s eyes followed the worst of it, trailing down his left arm, where it became thick and black, and, and, and…
“Shit, dude,” Chris said slowly, sounding dazed, “What happened to your fingers?”
Sam found herself pushed away out of nowhere, Emily dashing over to the stairs to throw her arms around Mike instead. She was too confused for her feelings to be hurt.
There wasn’t any confusion on Mike’s face, though, just the mournful resignation of a man facing his own execution. His right arm, seemingly unhurt, moved to circle Emily’s middle, but he leveled his gaze at the rest of them. “Jessica,” he started…then stopped. He screwed his eyes shut, seeming to struggle with something internally, and tried again. “Jessica is dead.” It came out horrendously flat, matter-of-fact.
The sky was blue. The snow was falling. The lodge was cold. And Jessica was dead.
They stared at him.
Time went syrupy again, stretching seconds out into hours.
Sam blinked. “What.”
She couldn’t tear herself away from the sight of Mike and Emily, him with his missing fingers, her with what sure looked to be a gaping bite wound on her arm, but even so, she had to figure Chris and Ash had once more rounded on Josh.
“I didn’t do that,” he said, though something just under the surface of his atonal drone suggested he was creeping frighteningly close to panic, himself. “I did not do that.”
A rustle of fabric as though one of them (probably Chris) shoved him. “How are we supposed to believe that?!”
For the third time, they were startled by a jarringly loud sound. Only that time, there was no mistaking what they were hearing.
Someone was knocking on the door. The side door. The door they were mere feet from.
All five of them went silent as the knocking grew louder, more intense…but never frantic. Never afraid. Even Emily’s fearful crying tapered off into quiet hiccupping as she clutched at Mike’s arm. But none of them moved.
None of them moved a fucking muscle.
Slowly—so slowly—Sam turned to Josh, the tendons of her neck creaking with the effort.
He tore his eyes away from the door only long enough to look at her. “Spoiler alert, Sammy,” he said with that same peculiarly distant quality in his voice. “I’m not doing that either.”
And he was right. It obviously couldn’t have been him out there, pounding at the door.
“Yeah.” Sam’s voice felt so tiny that she couldn’t tell whether or not she’d actually spoken aloud. “That’s the problem.” Whatever had happened to the others, it hadn’t been Josh pulling the strings.
The knocking continued.