Actions

Work Header

I Trust You

Chapter Text

At the Larch Creek Café, where she stops before heading up the mountain, Samantha Abbott orders herself a bacon double cheeseburger. It tastes like fucking death—which is, after all, the point.

“You okay, hon?” asks the waitress when she comes by again.

The blonde stops choking down her food like it’s poisonous and looks up. Torturing herself is not productive—or even timely; at least she’s finally doing something, right?—but it’s a hard urge to resist. Before the premonitions, and before she’d unearthed this last ugly Washington family secret, she could still cling to the idea of herself as a good person. ‘Brave and selfless,’ the papers had called her for helping her friends survive. But that’s bullshit. Hence the butterflies. Hence the premonitions.

Hence this trip.

She parrots a smile that feels more like a dog’s fear grimace. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

With her fresh sense of complicity, the lie that’s grown dull with use these seven months has been re-sharpened. This last in a long line of wrongs is not all her fault, but enough of it is that her heart feels ready to rupture if she lets herself dwell. And since she can’t change the past, a part of her wishes she had never learned the truth, had never thought to support Bob and Melinda Washington in their time of loss and stumbled upon the damning evidence. Like a clown car, that family—the horrors just keep coming, and this one’s swept her legs hard.

Hell, it will probably be the one that finally kills her.

And maybe that’s what she gets for not preventing . . . well, any of this.

Don’t talk like that.

But she is here. She is trying to fix it now.

 “Well, just let me know you need anything else,” the waitress tries again. “You staying in town?”

“Just the check, thanks. No, not in town. Up on Mount Washington, actually.”

A laden pause. “Are you really? You know about what happened up there, don’t you?”

“To me and my friends?” Sam blinks, can’t quite contain the icy chuckle. “Yeah, I know. Believe me.”

“Oh. Uh.” The woman’s sudden recoil says it all; she drifts away like Sam’s crazy is catching.

Oh, you’ll get used to that, Sammy-bird. That’s their favorite look; you’re gonna see that one a lot.

“Great. Thanks,” she mutters to the familiar voice that has recently made itself at home.

Not that she doesn’t deserve it, but she must look bat-shit crazy. Maybe she is. Regardless, she’s not an idiot. She knows any shrink would say the voice—and the butterflies that have recently begun gathering at her window, the “dreams” that now torment her nightly—are just lingering survivor’s guilt. That there are and never were any monsters on Blackwood Mountain and that crazy Josh Washington is dead.

Naturally, the police report concurs.

But fuck shrinks, and fuck Dr. Hill in particular. The monster that still roams those dark mines is his negligent handiwork, too, and it is very real. The premonitions aren’t wrong. They’re never wrong.

Sam Abbott is shit. She’s neither brave nor selfless. But once she was a friend to a sad, broken boy who trusted her, and she doesn’t take such things lightly. So after all she hasn’t done for him, she can do this.

Is doing this, actually, now that there is a chance.

She is here.

She is going to bring him home.

* * * * *

The burger has the desired effect: she sicks it up in the parking lot of the cable car station.

Look, why’re you torturing yourself anyway, weirdo? That’s my job. Knock it off.

Josh has a point. Or he would—if. But as mayor of Crazy Town, he’d get a kick out of this, too, being a voice in someone else’s head for a change, if he were here. Would probably make some bad joke about how this wasn’t what he meant when he fantasized about being inside of her, or . . . God, something even more offensive than that. In a way, she had to admire his careful act, the way that creepy-smooth façade could hide a head so full of rusty metal and shattered glass. It’s a skill she’d do well to learn.

But, like, things got pretty jagged there at the end, though, right? Sorry about that, Sammy.

And now she’s apologizing to herself. Lunatic indeed.

Except for the flashbacks that come sluicing into her brain as she steps aboard the cable car, the ride up the mountain is uneventful. It’s a pleasant fall day, cool and bright, the first snow of the season still a ways off. As she fights to keep her breathing steady, everything below is disarmingly picturesque, craggy cliffs and tall pines flanked by a stream ducking back and forth beneath the lone access road. For a second, through the trees, she catches the glint of chrome from a work truck trundling its way up.

The ongoing reconstruction is something she already knows about, but still the proof churns up vague disgust. In a gentler world, the ruins would stay a shrine forever to all those who had suffered here. Only Bob Washington is desperately invested in not thinking about his own role in this—even more so once Melinda’s secret had come out—and this is why he’s rebuilding an exact replica of his former lodge, complete with bedrooms for his dead children and a gourmet kitchen for his creepy-ass wife. Rewriting his own personal horror script from scratch so he can pretend the bad things never happened here.

It’s painful to watch. She wonders who he’ll get to play his shiny, new kids.

She can’t fully loathe the man, though. Yeah, he should’ve been around instead of off in Hollywood petting his Golden Globe Award and his piles of cash. And he shouldn’t have left Melinda in control of everything and unquestioned, even if his tail-tucking retreat in the wake of Hannah and Beth was born of genuine mourning. Still, this whole thing is Chris’s butterfly effect, a nightmare born of ifs.

And he’s tried to make amends with Sam and the other survivors. Didn’t question when she asked to come back, even though his lawyers will have synchronized aneurisms. Even though he is firmly aboard the non-supernatural version of events—the one where wendigos aren’t real, a drifter killed Jess, and his embarrassment of a son is merely dead. About the latter, Sam suspects he may even be relieved.

But he doesn’t say it and she doesn’t dare ask and at least he is willing to indulge her.

* * * * *

This whole thing—what passes for her shit plan—comes down to finding this cure, a needle in a sea of haystacks. Well, it’s like that, only she doesn’t even know what the needle looks like. Which means she has a ton of aimless scouting to do once she’s checked out the state of things. She hikes down to where the new lodge is nearly finished. Word from the foreman is the mountain’s been quiet all summer.

That means nothing, of course. They may have killed all the existing wendigos, but the Stranger’s journal says their spirits never really leave. And since the police are lazy and half-assed—or pathologically stupid, or terrified of the truth and avoiding it—no one’s been back down into the mines since the initial cursory search turned up nothing. But this is not her first rodeo: that’s where the lurking danger is.

Lurking danger? So it’s like that now, huh?

Yeah, it is. But she’s got this plan and a tenacity fueled by mountains of guilt. She’ll find a way.

I thought we were close. What’d you tell those dicks again? We had a connection?

“We were, Washington. We did. Jesus Christ,” she mutters. Sitting on the cabin porch and staring off into the gathering twilight, she pours herself another shot of Jameson. Besides the phenelzine, whisky is—was?—Josh’s drug of choice. It burns going down, and that’s okay—is probably, actually, the point.

That connection is why she’s here risking her life now. Well, that and her insatiable guilt, but the two are related. Sam and her dead best friend’s brother: they’d been a non-event, a gradual, discreet sliding into one another’s headspace and lives. Nothing romantic, despite the obvious and ineffable tension there.

Just . . . close. Which is how they came to be even closer, to grieve together after Hannah and Beth disappeared. How she’d caught glimpses of his shambling demons and figured them responsible for the wild paranoia about his mother, his unspeakable fears. He’d asked for Sam’s help one night last fall—carefully at first, then not carefully. Through streaming tears (okay—okay—I trust you) and shuddering, hitching breaths. And that was something, she knows, a rare gift. It wasn’t everyone that got raw, honest Josh Washington instead of the silly dude-bro veneer. He’d goddamned confided in her.

And, as it turned out, she’d let him down in the most spectacular way possible. Sent him right back to the very person who wanted him messed up and broken and needing. Fucking hell had she fucked up.

But enough about that. She is going to find this damned cure. Find Josh and fix this.

For now, one more shot of Jameson to get her through this first night back.

Okay, two. Two shots. She’s fine.

* * * * *

In the days that follow, Sam splits her time between the mountain and town, between wandering through what’s left of the old hotel and more of the desultory research she started back in California. She rereads the stranger’s journal, long since released from police evidence since no body means no case. In town, where she has cell service, she surfs various mental health pages, pouring salt into old wounds, and reads local newspaper articles about Blackwood Mountain and its rich history of tragedy.

When that gets too numbing, she reads through Hannah’s old Facebook posts.

Hannah, to whom she owes Josh’s rescue just as much as she owes it to the boy himself.

The posts are everyday stuff, mostly boring detritus—stories of school and choir practice, thinly veiled references to Mike. Also tales of endless tennis camps she’d been force-marched off to, photos of trophies she never cared about winning. The words make Sam wince. It’s all there if you look—Melinda Washington’s weird habit of using her kids for glory and attention, her penchant for iron control.

Goddamn.

All the things she could’ve done—could’ve seen—should’ve said—that would’ve prevented this.

And it’s not that she doesn’t feel equally horrible about Hannah and Beth’s deaths. She’s still gutted. The fact that she couldn’t save her best friend will always cut deep, but at least she’d tried to intervene in their case. Had attempted to stop the horrible prank that started all of this. Even though she’d failed, she definitely hadn’t made things worse—had never encouraged Hannah in her hopeless, doomed pining. And she hadn’t known what was happening to Hannah in the mines until it was too late.

With Josh, this was hardly the case. Plus she’d fucking promised Hannah to look out for him.

At night, alone with the dreams-that-aren’t-dreams, guilt is an endless ocean and she is

        lost

                  lost

                                Lost at sea.

Chapter Text

Los Angeles - December, 2013

The Washington mansion blazed bright, all lit up like a classic cinema marquee with white lights strung over everything. Sam was of two minds as she pulled into the long, brick driveway. Christmas was only two days off, although that hadn’t kept Bob Washington from scouting film locations in Chicago or Melinda from dragging Beth off to yet another fancy equestrian competition. Bad form, right? And yet the upside was that Hannah and Josh had the house to themselves. So—a party. Friends. Loveliness.

She parked behind Chris’ beat-up Volkswagen and found them in the basement, Matt and the girl who was soon to dump him having some tense discussion in the great room and the rest of them in the home theater. She ducked in. Hannah, Ash, and Chris lay sprawled across one set of seating with a passed-out Mike and a sulky Em on the other. Josh was alone—Josh was always alone; on some level, they all knew this—in the captain’s chair, big, sleepy, green eyes reflecting the glow of the movie’s opening credits.

“And what are we watching?” she asked, flashing her sphinx-smile as she considered where to sit.

“Only the best Christmas movie ever made,” Josh replied at the same time that Hannah groaned.

“Don’t get him started,” Em warned. “We’ve already heard his lame dissertation once.”

“It’s freaking Gremlins,” Hannah said. “There’s beer in the mini-fridge, Sam. Lots of it. You’ll need it.”

She laughed and grabbed one. Was about to take up a spot on the floor when Josh snagged her hand on the way past. He didn’t say anything, just eased her down into the oversized chair and she let him. This meant what, then? With Josh, she could never ever tell. Nonetheless, her heart skittered about her chest like an excitable purse dog, though she did her level-headed-Sam-best to seem nonchalant.

He was warm and solid as she snuggled against him. And he smelled ridiculously good, all smoke and sage like a bonfire on the beach, which was what happened when your parents had more money than God and you could buy expensive everything. The impish prankster who she had—up until recently—thought of only as a surrogate brother was handsome in an off-center way. He was popular, an unapologetic flirt, and had been without any serious girlfriend for the three years she’d known him.

For only the thousandth time in recent months, she thought, ‘What the fuck, Washington?

The boy was a mystery.

Like he knew what she was thinking, he unfurled that slow, enigmatic smirk as he leaned closer. “It is totally a Christmas movie, Sammy.” He sounded a little drunk, voice low and lazy and fragile, but that was normal for him, so who knew? “S’also a movie about the ethics of pet hoarding so, you know, you should love it regardless. Well—” A pause, then: “Uh, maybe don’t watch the part with the microwave.”

“Fucking spoiler alert, bro!” This from Chris, who was full of shit. They’d all seen Gremlins before.

Josh laughed. “Piss off. Rosebud’s the sled. Tyler Durden is Jack. Jigsaw’s the body on the floor.”

“Josh is the asshole who other movie viewers secretly want to gag.”

“Oh, you can gag me anytime you want, Cochise. Your handcuffs or mine?”

Chris stammered something unintelligible, cheeks blooming red. Sam empathized even as she snorted.

They watched the movie in relative peace after that. For the duration, Josh kept his arm around her, fingers lightly brushing. Whispered horrible, perverted asides that she didn’t want to laugh at but had to, things that made dangerous trapdoors open in her head. She drank fast—four beers, two long pulls from Josh’s flask when he offered it—faster than she might’ve otherwise because, goddammit, he was sweet when he wasn’t being endearingly awful, and when exactly had this nonsense happened, Sam?

He was definitely flirting. She just couldn’t tell if he meant any of it.

After Gremlins, they watched a Christmas slasher whose title she forgot and then Josh guided them straight into Hitchcock’s The Birds, which had nothing to do with Christmas at all, Hannah pointed out. Then it was late—like, really late—and the only ones left in the dark room were a softly-snoring Hannah and the two of them. She wasn’t aware of this and then she was and—ugh—Jesus—suddenly the air was very heavy. So dumb, Sam. Josh was Josh. If she had half a brain, she would go find herself a guest room.

Or, hell, she would just ask him what his deal was if she really cared to know after all this time.

The Washingtons were so weird about their personal stuff, though.

For now, his arm was a quiet torture wrapped around her as every molecule in the room waited expectantly. “Josh,” she sighed—an almost-question. She rested her head against his chest, listened to his heartbeat. Fast. Faster than his face let on. Armed with this knowledge, she experimented by trailing her fingers down to brush his. He took her hand and folded it into his own without acknowledgement.

“Sammy . . . you ever think about acting?” he asked after a while, as if this was any kind of answer.

She snorted into plaid flannel. “Sorry, Washington. Probably the only blond in L.A. with small dreams.”

“Sounds tragic.” Something about the way he said this made her lift her head. He quirked a half-smile and shrugged. “Chris and I were talking about making another horror movie. You should be in it.”

“Oh. Well, I’d have to check with my agent. Tight schedule, you know.”

“Mm-hmm.”

When he didn’t say anything else, only looked and looked at her the way a wolf looks at the moon, she thought maybe? She shifted forward an inch, licked her lips. Lived in hope on the edge of a second.

“You’d make a good Final Girl,” he went on, all infuriating serenity poured onto her upturned face. She was a chump. She was a total chump and he knew it now. She settled back as discreetly as she could. “Because you’re, like, the perfect combination of—” He chuckled softly. “Well, you’d be good at it.”

“Duly noted.” God, she hated how much she liked this creepy, stupid boy. “Speaking of good, you know, while it pains me to say it, you’re legitimately very talented, Washington. Why don’t you stop dicking around in your parents’ basement and go to film school already? Give old Bob some competition.”

His slow head-shake said this was a dumb question. “Mm. Now’s not really a good time.”

Which made no sense. “Oh? The trust fund life’s got you busy like whoa these days, I guess?”

“Something like that.”

She gave up on both fronts. Laid her head back down like a scolded child. The DVD player flipped to the main menu screen and Hannah whimpered in her sleep like some subconscious part of her sympathized with Sam’s plight. In the meantime, Josh’s hand migrated upwards, stroking absently over her hair in a slow, comforting cycle. Maybe he wasn’t even aware. It felt nice, though, and she loathed him for it.

She opened her mouth again and said, “Josh, you’re not gay are you? Because if you are, I wish you’d just tell me.” Not quite what she’d been expecting, but in the aftermath, she found she had no regrets.

Miles of silence rolled by before he murmured, “No, Sam. I like girls. Like, like girls. With my penis.”

She rolled sideways to meet his gaze. “I don’t suppose you’d like to prove it right now?”

Well, that was definitely the alcohol talking, but he didn’t laugh at her. Why not? Josh loved bad jokes.

Without thinking, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his. His mouth was warm, soft, sweet with the ghost of liquor. For ten blissful, aching seconds, he kissed her back. Then he stopped. Stiffened.

When they drew apart, he did that thing where his eyes got all huge, grey-green swimming in a sea of white, and gently eased her off his lap. Took a deep breath. All surreptitious smile and meticulousness now as he withdrew to the farthest side of the chair. Clearly, she’d done something wrong, but—?

“Sorry,” he sighed, fingers curling in his lap. “Just. Don’t. That’s not what you want. I promise.”

“Don’t what? Josh, what did I—?”

“Nothing. You’re fine. You’re, like, honestly amazing. Good night, Sam.”

Before she could even process what was happening, he’d slid up from the chair and left.

* * * * *

Hannah called her out a few days later. Hannah Washington, who was too sweet to ever be straightforward about anything and who never talked in detail about her weird older brother. And yet.

“So, I . . . heard some things,” she said softly. “About you and Josh. From the other night.”

Sam’s stomach rolled over and over, a car crashing in slow-motion. “Oh, God. Han, I thought you were asleep. Awkward.” How much had she heard, then? All of it? “You know, I was a little drunk, so—”

“Oh, no kidding. And no. I was asleep. Josh told me what happened.” She giggled at Sam’s grimace and offered up her best reassuring smile. “Relax. I’m not, like, busting you or anything. It’s not like he told our mom.” She chose her words carefully. “Look, you know I love you, Sam. You’re the best. And Josh deserves something good in his life. I wish he understood that. But whatever you’re thinking—”

“I wasn’t really thinking anything. It just sort of happened.”

“Yeah, I know. Which is why I wanted to talk to you.” Hannah sighed. “And maybe I should’ve said something a long time ago, but I just—Josh doesn’t want anyone to know about it, you know?”

Sam said, “Uh, not really,” because that was the truth.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful with him. Be his friend, Sam. Josh is more fragile than he looks.”

Hannah—sweet, naïve Hannah, her boy-crazy BFF, already hopelessly twitterpated over Mike—was telling Sam to back off with her feelings. Up was down. Black was white. Crazy world. But the sincerity in Hannah’s voice was profound. Whatever this was, it was real. All Sam could do was nod numbly.

“Yeah. I—okay, yeah. I will. Josh is cool, you know. He and I get along. We are friends.” She slid a careful side-eye at the darker-haired girl. “But, uh, are you gonna tell me what we’re actually talking about?”

And the funny thing was, suddenly she didn’t need to ask. She’d seen the prescription bottles on the counter in Josh’s bathroom. Not to mention the faint scars on his wrists—“kitchen accident,” her fat ass. Knew he’d missed a lot of school. She’d heard Melinda, in her melodramatic, put-upon way, drop the word ‘therapist’ more than once. ‘Fragile,’ okay, she knew that. She just hadn’t understood the extent.

“Yeah,” Hannah said. “I am gonna tell you. You won’t like it, though.”

And sitting there in Sam’s kitchen, as she began talking in a subdued tone, it was like she’d only been awaiting a reason to blow the dam. As if the telling was a relief in its own way. She told Sam everything. The endless doctors. The mountains of prescriptions. The hospitals. The suicide attempt. All of it.

It was a hard thing to accept. Josh had always seemed so light-hearted, so smooth and self-contained.

After that—and even more so once Hannah and Beth were gone, when all of their lives were eclipsed by the loss—Sam was Josh’s friend. As promised, she was so, so careful, right up until she wasn’t.

Hannah—

I didn’t mean to—

* * * * *

She wakes up gasping, wet cheeks and the memory still gnawing, numb and alone in the dark.

Chapter Text

Her kind-of-sort-of plan is going to take forever. But she doesn’t have forever, it would seem.

Hiking down to the cable car early one morning, she finds a wolf carcass by the south entrance to the mines, insides scattered about like an overstuffed suitcase dropped from a second-story window. It’s still steaming. As she stands in numb disbelief, the wind gusting hard at her back, a few fragile snowflakes swirl through the air to kiss against her cheeks. So cold. Fall is falling away fast.

As if summoned into being by the thought, a distant, unearthly scream echoes through the pines.

Hibernation season? Definitely over.

“Crap,” she breathes and lets her hand slide down to touch steel. “Come on, you asshole—it’s morning.”

She takes the shotgun everywhere already. It’s little comfort, though.

* * * * *

Down in town, like a good girl, she checks in with her oblivious mother—yes, yes, Utah and the animal sanctuary are both lovely and the internship is going really well. Lying feels shitty but it’s necessary.

After that, she calls Mike for the third time and—finally—finally!—he answers.

“Sam, hey. Just got your messages. So—you’re joking, right? You didn’t really—I mean, I know—” His chuckle strains for air. “I know we like our jokes and all, but this is . . . uh . . . this is a little much.”

“Mike. I really did. I had to. Did you read my texts from eleven million years ago?”

“You really did. Damn.” She’s managed a rare feat: Mike Munroe sounds genuinely rattled. Another pause, then: “Uh, yeah, I read it. I didn’t answer because I don’t even know what to say. Jesus Hermione Christ, Sam, how sure are you? Because I saw her drag him away. That was not just speculation.”

She takes a deep breath and spills it out slowly. “I’m sure. I keep getting those . . . weird dreams, you know?” she says carefully and bites her lip. Maybe he doesn’t. “It’s like before, only I’ve been getting them clean back in Cali. They’re not really dreams. More like premonitions? Every night, there’s a little, brown butterfly at my window before I fall asleep, and then it’s like I’m him. Climbing and hunting and . . . so hungry. Like I’m seeing the mines through his eyes. I swear this isn’t the PTSD talking. It’s real.”

“Whoa, hold up. Are you saying—?”

“He’s not dead, Mike! I know what you saw. I know they looked for him, but he’s not. He’s down there like Hannah was, all alone. Killing things. Eating them. I found a torn-apart wolf on the trail today.”

“Shit. Good that he’s not dead, I guess, but then . . . why are you there? I know you’re a sucker for lost causes, but what the hell can you do for Josh besides be his dinner? If the police couldn’t find him—”

“I am here, Michael, because he is our friend and no one else is going to do this.” Her voice trembles with sudden irritation. Not that she was expecting him to nominate her for sainthood, but a little understanding would’ve been nice. Then again, there is a part of Mike that will probably always blame Josh for Jess’s death. Unfairly, but pain is rarely rational—Josh himself is proof enough of that.

Fortunately, Mike is only half a dick. “Yeah, you’re probably right about that,” he replies. “So do you want any help? I could take a blow-off week, be there in a few days. Em’s already pissed at me anyway.”

“No,” she sighs. “Well, I do need help, but I don’t need you to come up here or anything. Just a small favor. I told my mom I was in Utah at an animal sanctuary. I need you and Em to corroborate for me.”

“You want me to lie to your mom? She’s, like, the sweetest lady ever.”

“Not to her; just post some crap about my trip on my Facebook page or somewhere that she’ll see. Come on, Munroe—you’re good at short-circuiting lady-brains. Use your powers for good for a change.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” He pauses, lowers his voice. “So, uh, any luck finding your cure?”

“Not yet.” Sitting in her car with the journal open on the passenger seat, she presses fingers to her forehead and groans. “I don’t know what I’m looking for. It definitely uses the word ‘cure’ in two different places. But there are pages torn out—did I tell you that?—anyway, it’s something called saskahwaw, whatever the hell that is. It’s Cree. Do you remember seeing anything with that word on it?”

“Nope. What’s it mean?”

“Professor Google says it means, ‘He is set on fire.’ Super helpful, right?”

“Yeah, I’m, uh, I’m drawing a blank here.”

“Great. Honestly, I need someone who already knows about this stuff. A wendigo hotline would be awesome, but I just really wish this Shiner guy wasn’t dead, you know? I mean, I’m sure he does, too.”

Jack Shiner. Thanks to the police investigation, the weird flamethrower guy has a name.

“No kidding.” He’s silent, thinking. “Well, Chris is a super-nerd. Have you asked him about any of this?”

“Of course not; you know how he’s been. If I told him his best friend was still alive, he’d be here. His parents, his doctors, his therapist would all kill me. Actually, Ashley would probably beat them all to it.”

“Yeah, probably. So, then . . . this is just you, huh?”

“Yep. Well, Mr. Washington knows I’m here—he fixed up the cabin for me—but that’s it.”

“Why is that, Sam?” He parcels the words slowly. “Why is this your suicide gig?”

She sifts through the piles of broken glass in her head for the words she’s yet to say aloud. It’s the truth that’s been eating her since she put the pieces together. Getting it out there ought to be cathartic, but even now they don’t usually talk so openly about Josh’s illness. She mutters, “Because it’s my fuck-up.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, Josh never told you about his mom’s weird-ass crap. Hell, he never even told Chris. And if he hadn’t been off his meds, none of this would’ve happened. Just me. That whole night is on me.”

He swallows audibly. Silence, then: “You, uh, you guys were pretty damned close, weren’t you?”

“Yeah,” she says simply. “We were.”

“I don’t get it. You were awful casual when I told you he was dead. Why didn’t you—”

“Because I thought we were about to be next! Priorities! Survival! And, also, well . . . maybe I didn’t want you to know it just then, considering what he’d done. And don’t even say it, Munroe. Please.”

“Hey, no, that’s cool—okay, it’s a little weird, him being occasionally violently insane and all, but—I think I feel you. You still can’t blame yourself for everything. No matter what else was going on in his life, he was legitimately messed in the head. I wouldn’t have believed half his shit, either, Sam. Come on.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. Anyway, I should go; I have things to do. Make that Facebook post, okay?”

“Yeah, sure. Keep me posted. Don’t get dead.”

The things Mike’s saying—his counterarguments—they almost sound reasonable.

Almost.

But new habits die hard.

After she gets off the phone, she heads into the gas station. Buys a dried-out, ancient hot dog, downs it in three gagging bites, and throws it up in the nasty bathroom a few minutes later. This is a disgusting and unhealthy new predilection. Really disgusting, stupid, MTV-reality-show shit. She knows that.

And knows that somewhere down there in the endless dark, Josh is eating far worse than hot dogs.

* * * * *

Whatever his feelings about his former-friend may be, Mike has promised to do what he can to help her. She isn’t expecting that to be much, but two days later, when she should be buying groceries for the coming week but is instead standing in the lunch meats section at Sky High Foods, he calls her back.

“So I was reading the newspaper articles online,” he says, just cocky enough that she knows this must be good, “There are a ton of them. Mostly worthless. People around Blackwood Pines don’t really like the Washingtons—did you know that? Anyway, though, one tiny, little article mentions Jack Shiner’s son.”

“Mentions his what?”

 “Exactly. I know the idea of hermit dude doing the dirty is a little icky, but, hey—there’s a lid for every pot, right? Anyway, here’s the deal: Shiner’s son lives in Lake Celeste. Better than a wendigo hotline.”

It takes a second for this to settle. “That’s just up the road.”

“Yep. I thought—hey, if Shiner learned from his grandfather, then if anyone else might have the low-down on wendigos, it’d be his son. You can thank me later.” She hears typing and another voice in the background. “I’m sending you his address. In the meantime, how’s it going? Any further sign of our messed-up friend—hey—Em—no, wait—”

The rustling sounds give way to Emily’s incredulous gasp: “Sam? Oh my God, Sam, Mike just told me where you are. Do you have Stockholm syndrome or something, you crazy whore? Josh Washington was a sadistic piece of shit. Also, do you have my white Escada cardigan? I think I left it at your house.”

“Yep, total Stockholm, Em. Good call,” she sighs. “Dunno about your sweater. Feel free to go check.”

She doesn’t have time for this right now. It’s already noon. If she’s going to go up to Lake Celeste and find this Joseph Shiner—and she is; she totally needs the dude’s help—she’d better get a move on.

“Mike, how about I just thank you now? So, seriously, thanks—this is super helpful. I gotta go!”

* * * * *

Lake Celeste turns out to be an upscale, mid-sized resort town just north of Blackwood Pines. It’s stylish—cultured—the main street brims with adventure gear outfitters, cafes, and boutique shops—which makes the prospect of what she’s doing here seem even more surreal than it already does.

What’s an up-and-coming, young wendigo hunter doing in a place like this?

Nobody’s home at the address Mike has sent her, but she sits on the duplex’s steps for an hour or so until a girl with cherry red hair and a leopard jacket comes by and asks her what she’s doing there.

“Uh, actually, I’m looking for Joseph Shiner,” Sam replies.

She gets a funny look in return, and: “Jay? He’s at work now. Go on over and you’ll see him.”

The girl nods at the coffee house across the street. Sam doesn’t move at first, stays folded up on the stairs like bad origami for another moment because surely she has misunderstood. It’s one of those hipster hangouts, the kind that’s all fair trade this-and-that with posters in the window for the Lake Celeste Farmers’ Market and the local co-op. The kind of place Sam likes, actually—vegan hippie tree-hugger that she is—but nothing about the place says, ‘badass flamethrower dudes this way.’

Inside, the only male behind the counter is a tall, slim twenty-something with delicately-chiseled features and perfect hair. ‘Pretty,’ is the word Sam would use—not exactly what she’s been expecting.

“Really, Mike?” she mutters. “Really?” But this would be a very bad time for another prank.

From the overhead speakers, Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire plays faintly beneath the sound of frothing milk, making her skin prickle. She waits for the milling customers to get their drinks and depart. This is the wrong place. She has to be in the wrong place. But she’s come all the way here so she’d better be sure.

A slow slide up to the counter and she steels herself with her best smile. He says in a soft, fastidious tone without looking up, “What can I get for you, darling?”

“Are you Joseph Shiner?” Now he looks up, a quick, darting glance that’s acknowledgement enough. Something like wariness flickers behind his dark eyes. She takes a breath. “I’m, uh, looking for a cure.”

“Well . . . I can add a splash of Bailey’s to anything you like. Or a quadruple shot of espresso—”

“Not a cure for sleep. Your father is—was—Jack Shiner, right? I need to talk to you.”

She has his full attention now. “Seriously?” he groans. “Don’t you people have anything better to write about? ‘Big Scary Murder Man is still dead; town remains relieved.’ There’s your story. Now fuck off.”

“I’m not a reporter. Please—my name’s Sam Abbott.” He flinches at her name like she’s just slapped him with it. “I was one of the people rescued off of Mount Washington the night your father died.”

“Oh. Great,” he replies. “You’re one of those idiots.”

“Yes. Wait, no—look, your father saved our lives. And I’m so grateful and very sorry for your loss, but—”

“Oh, don’t bother. I lost that crazy fool a loooong time ago.” Despite his dismissiveness, his tone is brittle. His fingers find his nametag, trace the edge. “Now what do you want? Chai tea latte, perhaps?”

“I’m serious. I need your help. Your father’s journal mentions a possible cure for the wendigo curse—”

He leans forward sharply, eyes darting left and right to his two coworkers and the other lone customer, and pinches her lips together to silence the flow of words. “Uh-uh. Shhhpt. None of that. Not here.”

No one has ever actually done this to her before. She’s too surprised to even be offended.

“I have caught enough hell already, sweetheart,” he whispers. “Don’t need any more, thanks.”

While she stands stiffly, mouth closed, he looks her up and down, dissecting and weighing all the pretty and sanitized parts of Sam Abbott that she shows to the outside world. And, okay, she gets it. Clearly Joseph Shiner is not made from the same stuff as his father. Has maybe even fallen unwillingly into his family’s shared knowledge and responsibility and the infamy that has been the dead man’s legacy. But he’s still the only one who can help her with this, and she’s not going to take no for an answer, so . . .

Finally, he offers a bone-deep sigh and says, “Fine. I get off at three. Meet me across the street.”

“Okay, great. Seriously, thank you. My friend is still up there, I think he—”

“Doooon’t care right now,” he sings and flashes an empty smile. “Fuck off until three, sweetheart.”

And, somehow, improbably, she manages to.

Chapter Text

Later, sitting in a living room adorned with autographed photos of drag queens and filled with every video game console ever made, Sam recounts the story to Shiner’s son, who has arranged himself on the sofa like an exotic bird poised to fly. She leaves out the part about the bathtub and her clothes.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt,” he sighs, eyes rolling, when she finishes. “What a bunch of spoiled, little princesses. I mean, no offense, but who owns a multi-million-dollar ski lodge and visits so infrequently they don’t even notice the goddamned wendigo infestation? I always told Pops it wasn’t gonna pay to do rich peoples’ dirty work, but did he ever listen? Nope. Obsessed, you know.”

She says, “Right. Um, so this is awkward, but about rich peoples’ dirty work: I need some help.”

“Oh, if you think I’m strapping on a flamethrower for you and marching my happy ass up that mountain, you certainly do.” He doesn’t sound indignant, only honest, and now maybe a little apologetic. “I don’t hunt wendigos, sweetheart. Sorry. Gonna be the first Shiner in three billion generations to die of rectal cancer or autoerotic asphyxiation or something. Spontaneous combustion. Fugu poisoning . . .”

Well, this is going well—not that she doesn’t understand his reservations.

“No, that’s not what I was asking.” She pulls the journal from her backpack and sits it on the table. “I just need information. Please. I don’t know if you know what your father was doing up there, but—”

“Yes, yes, I know all about it. Used to help him when I was too young and stupid to know better.”

“Great. Well, the journal mentions a cure—something called saskahwaw—but I can’t find anything else about it. I need you to tell me what it is—where to find it—how it works—to save my friend. Can you?”

“It doesn’t work,” he says quickly and hops up, doing an admirable job of ignoring Sam’s small, sharp gasp. While he drifts across to the desk in the corner to riffle through drawers, she tells herself she’s misheard. He calms the storm threatening to blow wide inside of her by amending, “Well, mostly it doesn’t, and I assume that’s why my father gave up on it. It all depends, though. What kind of wendigo, how long they’ve been one. Why do you want to help that shit-ass, little, psycho-rich-boy anyway?”

Like a blade twisted between her ribs. “He’s not a psychopath. Kinda sick of hearing that, actually.”

“Darling, did you listen to the words coming out of your mouth?” Jay Shiner’s low, hollow laugh brims with pity as he turns around, a sheaf of ragged-edged pages in-hand. “He gassed you unconscious and tied you to a chair. I don’t care how hot your boyfriend is. That sounds rather text-book psychotic.”

“He was off his meds. And there were extenuating circumstances. Also, he’s not my boyfriend.”

His muffled snort says exactly how well all of this is going down.

She can’t blame him, although she would love nothing more than to explain the whole story. How Josh didn’t know he was off his meds. How the little, red pills that should’ve been stamped ‘NL 360’ had been swapped out for junk pills at some point by his messed-up mother. Would love to tell Jay to google ‘Munchausen by Proxy,’ but there’s no time for more ugly Washington family secrets just now.

Besides that, Sammy, he does have a point: Obergruppenführer Melinda is only half an excuse.

She grimaces. “Look, can we just not with the ‘psycho boyfriend’ stuff? Can we move on?”

“Have it your way.” He sits back down on the couch, licks the tip of one finger and commences flipping pages. “Anyway, blah-blah-blah-fire, blah-blah-claws, lovely, and . . . ah. Yes. Here: Fiddler’s cure. Messy. Dangerous. Torture to survive and only works in the first year after turning. Takes a long time, so even more dangerous. Fun! Also, it won’t work on anyone who turns naturally.” At her bewildered look, he gnaws on his forearm like a dog with a bone and then shrugs. “You know—by eating people?”

She cocks her head. “What other way is there?”

“Oh, Lord. You’re going to make me read some of my father’s bad poetry, aren’t you?” He flips back a page and clears his throat like a Shakespearean actor. “Umm . . . okay, here you go: ‘Once, the wendigo spirits existed in harmony with nature’s balance. Only those who resorted to cannibalism of their own free will could be possessed, and in this way the curse was a deterrent to upsetting the natural order.

“But some wendigo spirits—like the Makkapitew—are tricksters. These began to take possession opportunistically of whomever they could, without any consumption of flesh—for these, cannibalism was an act committed only after possession had occurred and the unnatural hunger had infested the host. Such possessions violate the fragile balance and are susceptible to Fiddler’s cure, which drives the spirit out without killing the host. But the process is too dangerous. I do not advise attempting it.’”

Sam’s brain clatters along the tracks; for a moment, she can’t do anything but stare at the floor. Difficult and dangerous she’d kind of figured on. As for the other part, how would you even know which kind?

“Oh, you won’t,” Jay confirms. He slides the pages towards her like an afterthought. “So, there you go. Enjoy. And, well, there’s some confusing gobbledegook directions if you really want. Chances are your boy’s garden-variety wendie, though, so . . . guess you’d better invest in a good muzzle.”

“I don’t care. I want to try it anyway. Where do I get this saskahwaw stuff?”

“Mm, I think we might still have a jug of it at my grandma’s house. This is stupid, though. I just have to put that out there uh-gain. At best, you’ll be gutted alive and get to watch him eat you. And I don’t mean in the sexy way. Also, how do you plan to confine your blood-thirsty monster for a full month?”

“Dunno. I’ll figure something out.” After all—when it comes to Blackwood Mountain and not dying, she always has before, right? She takes the pages, stuffs them inside the journal, and resolutely ignores any gnawings of doubt. “I mean, I have to. It’s complicated. So . . . off to Grandma’s, then, my new friend?”

“Patience, child. Come back Monday and I’ll have it. In the meantime, I have something else for you, something more important, and you’d better goddamned appreciate my bottomless generosity.”

This gets her attention. He withdraws a tiny object from his pocket and presses it into her hand.

She examines the offering. It’s a carved wooden turtle—a totem.

“That’s the only one I have, so don’t lose it. My grandfather gave it to me for protection. Maybe you’ll find more squirreled away in Dad’s hiding spots, but either way, keep it on you. Especially at night.”

“Why? What will happen if I don’t?” she’s not skeptical, only curious.

He arches a brow. “Did you miss the part about opportunistic spirits? As it stands, traipsing around up there like you’ve been, it’s just a matter of time. They’re dirty. They don’t play by the rules, those ones, and since you burnt them all to a crisp last time, there’s a whole bunch of them floating around.”

“Oh. Right.” Well, that is a super-comforting thought. Like regular wendigos aren’t bad enough.

The totem doesn’t seem like much, but it can’t hurt. She pockets the gift, thanks him, and heads out. 

* * * * *

It snows that night. She hasn’t seen snow—which she used to think she liked—since the last time she was on Blackwood. With the breath of winter hanging heavy, the whole mountain is a silent monument by the time she ventures outside and it’s downright cold. That’s not what turns her blood to ice, though.

Shit.

Shit, shit, shit.

A set of large, clawed prints mars the otherwise pristine white, slinking from the edge of the woods and across the trail. They go right up onto the porch to the front door, circle around to the bedroom window where Sam has spent the night with her dark dreams. Heart rabbiting in her chest, she stares hard at the impressions and is indebted to Mr. Washington for humoring her with the newly-installed window bars.

God, how long has he been hunting her?

Easy there, girl. This is why you’re here. What you came for, right?

Yes, and maybe she can use his interest to her favor. He’ll be hungry, of course. If (when) he comes back, she can lay a trail to lead him up to the ruins of the sanitarium, where she hopes to build her trap. It’s not a bad idea. Dicey, but what part of this isn’t? As she sets off up the path, the only sound in the otherwise preternaturally still morning is the crunch of her boots in the snow and the faint patter of blood dripping from a half-eaten deer carcass tucked away in the crook of a knotty pine.

She gives the leftovers a grimace and a wide berth and hurries on.

Up at the sanitarium, things look promising. Half of the structure has collapsed in the aftermath of the fire, but a section of the main building still stands, and one of the caged-in alcoves in the chapel has two doors. If she can rig up a trip-wire system to close the first door and get the second closed in time, she can probably use herself as bait and trap him inside, assuming she can run fast enough not to die.

Well, Godspeed, little bird. Good thing you kept that gym membership, huh?

She spends the afternoon watching Youtube videos for ideas on rigging the cage door, buying supplies, and filling Mike in on the latest developments. Her mother phones once, but she lets it go to voicemail.

It’s a long day.

By the time she’s hiking back up to the cabin, moving slowly with the weight of her laden backpack, the shadows of the trees have grown long across the sparkling snow and a faint wedge of moon hangs overhead. The temperature’s dropping—her breath laces the air with little, white puffs. She keeps alert, straining for any faint sound of movement or, God forbid, that blood-curdling, high-pitched screaming.

The screams are a subtle torture, an irrefutable reminder that some things never change. Just like in the year leading up to his loss—although she never quite understood it at the time—Josh is still waiting.

For her to come to him. To do something. To save him.

“I am doing something,” she mutters. “I am. See? I told you I would. This is happening.”

A crow cackles from its perch on a stump. She hears nothing else save the sigh of the wind, but he is in her head as always: Aw, don’t worry, Sammy. I won’t forget about you, either. See you soon, little bird.

Back at the cabin, she slats the heavy board across the solid oak door and sinks down slowly against it.

Now the bad stuff, the nothing time. These long nights when she is stalled in place are the hardest part.

An hour passes. Two. Couch. Bedroom. Bathroom and back again. The shrieks have started at some point, distant but unmistakable through the heavy, barred glass, somewhere out there in the dark and ravenous woods. Between the violent death lurking outside and the lack of TV and WiFi, there isn’t much else to do now but pace herself to the point of exhaustion, back and forth, back and forth over the creaking floorboards. She reads Jack Shiner’s instructions twice more, although they’re still confusing.

“Well, Jameson?” she mutters and reaches for the half-empty bottle on the table. She drifts into the bedroom. Maybe drinking will help her sleep. Can’t hurt, anyway. She flops down. A tiny movement on the periphery of her vision makes her jump up fast, bottle raised high in defense, heart thudding.

A single yellow butterfly rests on her pillow, wings flexing.

She exhales forever. “Really? Really?” Or: fuck this fucking mountain, as Mike would say.

There’s no humor in her brittle laugh.

This is already harder than she thought it would be.

Chapter Text

Los Angeles – Mid-February, 2014

It was late and she needed a shower. Needed it bad. Was already peeling off her nasty scrubs on the way down the hall because it was two a.m. and she had the house to herself, right? The open window in her bedroom said otherwise, curtains billowing in like the sails of some ghostly ship, stopping her cold.

Mom had finally relaxed enough to leave her for New York this week. No way she’d opened that window.

Some sick, little part of Sam actually enjoyed the instant adrenaline rush, the feel of her skin prickling, nerves twitching, everything ramping up and coming online. And she hated it—screw this neighborhood, this crappy ranch house. Fight-or-flight time, only she didn’t have a weapon. Well, not unless you counted the atrocious odor of cat piss still clinging to her skin courtesy of her shift at the ER clinic.

If she was lucky, they were just thieves who’d already gotten what they wanted and gone.

Three cautious steps into her dark bedroom brought the sound of ragged breathing and a soft sob from the corner. She swung round fast, hitting the wall switch in the same movement to reveal a sight she couldn’t quite make heads-or-tails of at first. No need for a weapon, though—that much was clear.

Actually, it looked like somebody’d already used one on him.

Josh?” Now all her adrenaline had a different purpose. “Jesus Christ. What are you doing here?”

 No response—not even an upwards glance—as she sprung across the bed in her underwear and knelt down. He was folded over on himself, knees drawn against his chest, filthy. Tears traced tracks through the dirt and blood on his cheeks. One brow was split. Bruised jaw. Abrasions on his arm. Road tar, it looked like, smeared all over his ripped jeans. When she touched his arm, he flinched away, but then something in his enormous eyes shifted and he turned, blinking and sniffling, seeing her at last.

“S-Sam?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry; I couldn’t—I didn’t—” His voice was thick, slurred, punch-drunk. She watched as he forcibly collected himself. Deep breath. Hands raised. Slower now, too slow, like he was explaining things back to himself as they came: “I was listening to my mother talking to some police sergeant about calling off the search. And I couldn’t listen to that—I couldn’t hear—I just needed to—I needed you. I’m so sorry. Everything is all fucked up, Sam. They have to find them, okay? They have to.” 

He looked so miserable, the tears sprang instantly to her own eyes in solidarity. She wrapped her arms around his trembling shoulders, pulled him close. “I know. They will. Shh. Something will turn up soon.”

It had been ten days since the twins disappeared—truthfully, she wasn’t sure she could still believe that. Right now he needed comfort, though, not hard truth. She hugged him tight and they sat in silence for a long time, Josh’s wet, dirty face pressed into the crook of her neck, his fingers clinging to the shoulder strap of her bra for lack of anything else. Eventually, his breathing quieted, but he didn’t move away.     

“Josh,” she attempted, and was glad when he raised his head to look at her. He didn’t look entirely lucid, but this was a little better. At least he was listening. “Where’s your car? How did you even get here?”

His swollen lips were slightly parted, slick with spit and blood. As he considered her question, his huge eyes widened even more. He blinked several times, shook his head, looked away. “I . . . I dunno.”

Carefully, she untangled herself from his embrace and studied the pathetic mess before her. This looked like a fight. Josh was not a fighter—which was not to say that he couldn’t, only that he was typically the least confrontational of their group, the one most interested in maintaining the peace. Nonetheless.

“You don’t know,” she repeated, voice low and slow like she was talking to a child.

“No, I—” At least he was present enough to sound irritated with himself for not knowing. The way he rubbed his eyes and held his head in his hands was like he was trying to clear away a fog. “I don’t remember. Think I hitch-hiked. I remember jumping out . . . under the freeway . . . walking . . .”

“Jesus. Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He closed his eyes and sank against her again, cuddling up like a little boy in his mommy’s lap. It was weird—they were still on the floor, both filthy, she was in her underwear—but she didn’t entirely mind it. He sighed, breath warm against her belly. “Yeah, I’m better now. Thanks, Sammy. Thank you.”

For all that, the tears wouldn’t stop seeping from beneath his lashes. She’d never seen him like this before. Never seen him so depressed it was like something had flat-out broken off inside. As she led him down the hall to the bathroom, he continued to mumble mournful nonsense. If Hannah were here, she would’ve known how to help him, this new, extra-broken Josh, but of course that was the point.  

Sam was doing the best she could.

In the bathroom, she tried to dab away the dirt and blood with a washrag before giving up and shoving him towards the shower. “Go on. Get cleaned up and then we can try to get some sleep, okay?”

“No, don’t! Stay—I don’t want to—I don’t want to hear them, Sammy.” Hear who? But he sounded desperate, and he clung to her hand like a child lost in the woods. “Please don’t go. Please just—”

Well, she did need a shower, too. And she could keep her underwear on. Old Josh was an enormous pervert, but she didn’t think this one had actually even noticed her state of undress. So she just nodded and turned on the water. Eased his shredded tee-shirt up and off to find his side littered with road-rash.

She muttered, “Christ, you really did jump out of a moving vehicle, didn’t you? What the hell?”

“Yeah, I did. I’m sorry,” he murmured. “They were yelling at me.”

“Who?”

“Hannah and Beth. They wouldn’t stop.”

“Oh.” Evidently, the view inside his head was more disturbing than she’d actually anticipated.

He hung his head and stood silently in his boxers as she washed his wounds, the water running pink down the drain. When they were both reasonably clean, she dragged him out and coerced him into a pair of her dad’s old sweatpants that were somehow still lurking in the laundry room. Put ointment on the abrasions and curled up beside him on her twin bed. Somehow they managed to sleep, but of course this was not the sort of thing you slept off. This was more drugs and more hospitals and more pain.

* * * * *

In the morning, however, he seemed better. Back to the old Josh, albeit a subdued version.

A boy-shaped puzzle. If nothing else, he was predictably unpredictable.

Sitting on the foot of her bed in a thin shaft of sunlight, he listened to her recap of the night’s events with his usual quiet attentiveness segueing into chagrin. When she was finished, he flashed a weak smile. “Shit,” he mumbled, and turned away to study the ancient wallpaper. “Sorry I broke into your house like a fucking psychopath. Seriously, I don’t even know. I’m such a fucking douche. So sorry.”

“Yes, you are a douche,” she replied carefully, “But it’s okay. I forgive you.”

“Thanks. I mean thanks for that, but, also, thanks for . . . everything. Can I make it up to you? Buy you breakfast, or . . . God, a small island? Fuck, I’m such a tool. Why didn’t you just kick me out?”

“Are you joking? Because you’re my friend and I care about you, you dipshit.” In his eyes, a momentary flicker of desperate, raw hope flashed. Jesus, she would die if she had to see much more of that. She squeezed his arm. “You know, Josh, whatever you need—I’m here. Whatever, whenever. I promise we’ll get through this. But next time maybe just . . . text me first? Or call? At least use the front door?”

He scrubbed a hand across his face and nodded. “Yeah, sure. Got it.”

“Great. I’m going to get dressed now, okay?”

He fell silent for a time, glancing up furtively now and then as she drifted about the room. She ducked into the closet to find a shirt and pull on her sneakers. By the time she was back out and sweeping her hair up into a ponytail, he was still snatching glances and she could practically hear the wheels turning.

“You know, Sammy . . .” he began.

She braced herself for whatever impishness was imminent. “Yes, Josh?”

“You look good without your clothes on. Just sayin’.”

“Really, Washington?” Although his announcement conjured a sudden cacophony of odd feelings, she managed to merely roll her eyes and snort. “Whatever, you jackass,” she replied. “Like you even care.”

Crazy asshole or not, it was good to hear him laugh again.

* * * * *

Eventually, she drove him home, where they sat in her car in the long, brick driveway as Melinda Washington watched them through the front window’s heavy curtains. The woman was a haggard wraith even from here, all bulging eyes and curled fingers and tension—naturally, given the circumstances. Sam couldn’t even imagine. She felt awful for her and for Josh’s father, who was still up in Canada waiting and hoping. Losing one child was hard enough. Two at the same time was . . .

“Your mother looks worried about you,” she observed, raising a hand in acknowledgement.

Melinda Washington did not wave back, only went on thousand-yard staring.

Josh winced. “Shit, don’t say that. She probably is.”

“Did you even tell her you were leaving last night? Or did you just let her find out the hard way?”

He sat in slack-jawed thought before meekly shaking his head. “I dunno. Probably not.”

“Josh . . .” she sighed. But she wasn’t going to chide him. He was no better off than Melinda—probably far worse, in fact, given that he and Hannah had been so close and he’d been in no great shape mentally going into this whole nightmare. “Well, tell her I’m thinking of her, and if I can help—if she needs anything, big or small, to let me know and I’ll do it. That goes for you, too, okay? I’m serious.”

“All right. I will. Sam, again, I—” The car door was already open, but his hand found hers across the seat, thumb tracing a slow, soft circle over the back of her knuckles. Given the absolute non-viability of anything beyond friendship with this labyrinth-headed boy, the feelings his touch solicited were merely awkward. He went on: “I’m sorry for being so weird, but I just have to tell you I really appreciate everything you’re doing. It means a lot to me. It would mean a lot to . . . to Hannah and Beth, too.”

“Yeah,” she murmured. “Of course. Hey, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. So call me, you asshole.”

One last, thin-lipped smile and then he was gone, up the long driveway with that slow, rolling step that made him seem more care-free than he really was. Melinda had come out onto the front steps at some point, hands on hips. Sam couldn’t hear what was said, but Josh’s hunched shoulders got hunchier and his eyes stayed firmly on the ground. He shook his head. His mother slid her arm about him, a sort of firm, protective hug that was also something else. She leaned closer, lips moving softly against his ear.

Just before they disappeared inside, Melinda Washington cast one long, lingering glance back.

Her black eyes when they met Sam’s were startling—fierce, icy, mad with pain.

Sam’s heart broke for her, but there was nothing she could do that would touch that.

Chapter Text

“I don’t know what it is, so don’t ask,” Jay Shiner says on Monday, holding up an ancient brown jug that looks like it came straight from some moonshiner’s still by way of time machine. “My great-grandfather made this batch. I mean, it’s some sort of nasty-ass poison, so don’t, like, drink it or anything.”

“And I was just about to do that,” Sam replies, brow arched as if to say, ‘Who’s the crazy one now, Jay Shiner?’ She takes the jug, hands shaking only a little bit, and stows it in her trunk. Sets a hand lightly on his arm and says, “Thanks. Uh . . . see you around, I guess? Unless I die violently. Then I guess I won’t.”

She’s hoping for a laugh, but it’s a no-go. Standing outside Custom Brew, he resettles his skinny ass against the ledge and gives her that long, appraising look again. Her whole body begins to itch beneath the weight of it. “You look like shit,” he says finally and without malice. She doesn’t doubt it; with its new take on premonitions and its rehashing of painful memories, last night’s sleep was minimal and fractured at best. He nods at the door. “Come inside, Princess. Take a nap; have some food. It’s on me.”

The hospitality is unexpected but appreciated, and she sleeps surprisingly well on the couch in the corner nook for nearly two hours. No nightmares this time. When she wakes, the shop is empty save the two of them; he brings her a soy milk latte and a vegan brownie. Listens quietly as she tells him about the prints going up to her door and the dead animals and the arrangements she’s been making. 

“Well,” he says, shrugging. “That sounds just like the sort of crazy-ass thing my Pops would do, so you’re probably on the right track. Then again. Maybe he’s not one to emulate, all things considered.”

Was that a joke? She can’t quite say, doesn’t dare risk smiling, even in the face of his own tiny smirk.

“So do you feel better now?” he asks, moving on.

“Yeah, actually.” She is not fully awake yet and the breaks on her mouth have gotten loose. She says, “I’m so embarrassed. I just—I can’t believe how tired I was. Sleep up there is . . . hard, you know?”

He just nods.

“And last night there was a butterfly right on my pillow. A yellow one this time. That was new. And then I dreamed I messed it all up somehow. Josh was—he was on top of me, so close, all teeth and claws.”

“Yes, well, they do that.” Does he mean butterflies? Wendigos? Joshes? He pats her arm and stands as the bell over the door chimes and some cute, little snow bunny bounces in. “Deal with that mountain long enough, you get used to the premonitions, although—can of Raid on the nightstand. Pro tip.”

“Oh, Shiner’s got jokes,” she murmurs, half in wonder.

It’s been so long since she’s seen the humor in anything. Now she smiles—a little, anyway. Granted, she wishes it were Mike or Chris or even Ashley here helping her forget the magnitude of what lies ahead. That’s true even if things after Blackwood II have never been the same. Given everything they’ve been through, she’ll always feel bound (actually, the term is ‘trauma-bonded, isn’t it?) to them in some way.

But it’s nice to have someone in her corner, especially someone with knowledge.

“Good luck saving your boyfriend,” he says as she heads for the door. “And, Sam: Be. Careful.”

She should protest the ‘boyfriend’ comment again, only a part of her wonders if she’s not just being willfully obtuse as usual. But that’s a stray thread that leads to a tangled mess of paradox, a place where love and hate swallow each other’s tails, and she can’t go there—not now, not yet. Maybe not ever.

Because how can she listen over and over to his old voice messages and still not be able to take a bath?

How could he tell her how much safer she made him feel, and then go out of his way to terrorize her?

There are no answers, only her stupid, crackhead heart mumbling nonsense into the void of the past.

The truth is you can’t be careful and really, genuinely care about Josh Washington.

But she just nods and pushes out into the remains of the afternoon.

* * * * *

Soon Josh’s visits become a nightly occurrence. She should be glad. This is useful to her purpose.

Mostly, the knowledge makes her feel hollowed-out and sick. She sits and listens hard and hears him out there, pacing, circling, occasionally shrieking. Once, he tries the door handle and her heart feels like a bomb exploding into a million tiny fragments in her chest, but the lock holds. She doesn’t risk the windows to catch a glimpse. Doesn’t want the glass broken and the wind howling in through the bars.

Don’t want to see what I’ve become is what you really mean, right, Sammy-bird?

Yes, that, too. But she will have to soon. It’s almost time.

Eventually, there are no more preparations to be made. The trip wires are set—she runs two, top and bottom, in case he hits the doorway in a leap—and the trail is baited with her scent, pieces of her own worn clothing hung from the trees. She has shotgun shells, good running shoes, her lighted headband. At dusk on the night this must finally happen—“I’m doing this, Washington, okay? You see? What did I say?”—she stations herself against the base of a towering fir tree a quarter mile from the sanitarium.

From here, she can pick up his pursuit and still have enough head-start (you hope) to avoid being caught before they reach the cage. This will work. It has to work. She can’t think about the alternative.

The hour passes at a glacial pace with her heart leaping away into a hundred false starts, her breath catching at every snapping twig. By the time the first scream sounds in the distance—high, haunted, like something slipped from the ether—it’s almost a relief. She bounces on her feet, shaking her arms to keep warm, and turns slowly to scan the panorama. Everything waits, time grinding down, the trees and the birds and even the air itself, it seems. Only her brain plunges ahead, conjuring up toxic memories.

Because this is familiar, of course, this pregnant moment.

It’s The Psycho and the lodge basement all over again.

Only worse.

And look at how that worked out.

If he catches her this time—

“Shut up, idiot,” she whispers. “Just shut up.”

The screams draw closer, closer, and then stop. The silence is torture, gnaws at her sanity.

Something cracks in the darkness. Muffled thuds, the sound of snow hitting the ground. Then the whoosh of something heavy moving fast, racing towards her, branches splintering in earnest. She doesn’t stay to get a visual—any longer would be suicide—but instead bolts away over the hard-packed snow, adrenaline spilling like a levy has given way somewhere, everything just flashes of white and green, just the sound of her breath, her pounding heart, this one singular thing that must happen.

And yet.

Fuck, he’s fast.

Too fast.

Jesus.

He’s close already, scrambling hard and making that awful, wheezy clicking sound. She would turn and shoot him with the shotgun to buy herself some distance, but there’s no time; instead she just finds another impossible gear. Beneath the bled-white moonlight, the ruins of the sanitarium appear ahead, looming shadows towards which she pelts like a tiny, blond missile, dodging and gasping fire.

Oh God—there’s the steps—

The charred pews—overturned desk—

Almost—

Against her back, the ghost of a caress as clawed fingers reach out, straining for soft flesh. She yelps and leaps over the pews like a gazelle, hits the ground and rolls, springs up and races on. Behind her, the wendigo emits a terrible shriek that echoes off the half-collapsed walls, the sound bouncing back so fierce and loud that suddenly it sounds like half a dozen of the cursed creatures are hard after her.

Which is not the case, of course, because they’d killed Hannah and the miners in the explosions.

They’d killed all of them.

She knows this.

She saw it.

And it’s been quiet on the mountain all summer.

So there is no particular explanation for the sudden crash that sounds behind her now, the thump of large objects colliding, or the volley of screams and howls that accompanies what sounds like a bar brawl in hell. Whatever violence is happening back there, it puts enough distance between Sam and her pursuer that she risks snatching a glance over one shoulder, and sees that—

Shit

Oh Shit

Fuck

How?

Somehow (The mines are endless, Sammy; so many cozy hidey holes for everyone!) there are two wendigos rolling in the dust, howling and ripping and snapping at each other with razor claws and teeth.

One of them is—was?—Josh, and of course she knew this, but seeing him in this state still makes her stomach turn over as she stumbles to a halt. He is the smaller of the two, filthy and ragged, so pale, still more-or-less human in shape and not so emaciated, but his face—God, his face—his mouth—

The other creature suddenly breaks free and launches towards her with jaws gaping.

She shoots it with the shotgun that she doesn’t remember unshouldering, knocks it back enough that the Josh-thing tackles it. Ducks behind the desk with a whimper as they clash again. Her nerves protest the proximity, beg her to flee for the safety of the cage—no, you can’t; not yet—as more unearthly screams fill the air and claws open trenches in pale flesh. In the watery blue glow of the lanterns she’s hung earlier, their blood looks black. Or maybe it is black; why not? Jesus, so how many more—?

Like she’s invited this by thinking it, a sharp movement flickers at the edge of her vision.

She slants her gaze that way. Another wendigo, this one in an ancient, shredded leisure suit, skitters into the chapel and hangs upside down off the archway, silver eyes roaming hungrily. Old hotel guest, perhaps? Sam’s heart plummets. She has never failed this epically—is supposed to be smart, dammit. In addition to terrified, ashamed, riddled with guilt, and screaming, now she is going to die embarrassed.

Her attention swings back to the battle raging feet away when a scream cuts off abruptly and a gush of hot blood splashes across her face. Somehow, she manages not to flinch. When she can open her eyes again, the other wendigo has crumpled to the ground, a mess of gore where its throat used to be.

The Josh-thing whips about to meet the newcomer bounding towards them. Sam uses the opportunity to creep backwards towards the cage—not all the way, not inside yet, but closer, within leaping distance—and forces herself to stand motionless, watching as the wheel of her fate spins and spins. In an entirely inhuman voice, Wendigo Josh screams and uncoils into the air, a devil with invisible wings.

A funny thing (okay, not ha-ha funny, but): he is smaller, less grotesquely elongated than the other wendigos, but he is stronger. He’s like Hannah was, whatever that means. She has no time to question as this battle proves brief and one-sided, the fatal blow tearing the other’s head clean off. As it rolls away into the shadows and he begins to devour chunks of the body, her brain races to recalculate.

So can she—?

Timing is everything now. She takes one small, calculated step.

Instantly, he rounds on her. His eyes aren’t fully silvered, but they are every bit a predator’s. Nostrils flare as he sniffs the air, searching. One more step. Her muscles tremble, nerves drawn so tight she can hear a high-voltage hum in her head. She stands at the threshold. Glances down and steps carefully over the trip wire. He continues to watch her, and he is trembling, too, she sees—leaning hard—but instead of lunging as she’d expect, he merely cocks his head and trills at her, a disconcerting, bird-like sound.

Come on, Josh, please—just this one thing

Behind her, the faintest creak of weight on wood.

Somehow, time turns to syrup, then, or perhaps a part of her detaches and floats up to observe from a safer distance. Darkness blows across his horrible, mangled face, translates itself into a predatory crouch in the instant it takes for Sam’s heart to freeze solid in her chest. At the same time, another creak sounds and an icy breath kisses the back of her neck, prickling and intimate as a lover’s, then—

“No, please . . . no . . . oh, God, no no nooo . . .” Jess whispers in Sam’s ear.   

She turns. Has just enough time to see the nightmare of teeth before a freight train slams into her back.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVEN: CRACKS


 

Los Angeles – April, 2014

“Josh, you have to try.”

--“I am trying. I’m trying so hard, Sam. Wish you could understand what she’s been like.”

“She’s like that because she wants you to get better.”

--“No, I don’t think she does. That’s what I’m saying, Sammy; if you could just see how she—”

“Because she worries about you! I know it’s smothering and weird, but she wants to make sure you take your meds and get well. Because you can’t go on living like this. You can’t hide in the dark forever.”

--“Can’t I? Nobody can fucking fix this. Anyway, you don’t see them, don’t hear them. It’s so bad. Nothing’s right anymore, and I can’t stop thinking bad things about everyone, or wanting to hurt—”

“I get it. Life’s really shitty right now. And I miss them, too, so much—”

--“No, you only think you get it. I love you, Sammy, but you have no idea. It gets so much shittier; it gets so much worse. Fuck, I just want to end it. But whatever. My phone’s dying. I’ll talk to you later, I guess.”

“No, Josh, wait—”

. . .

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHT: REGROUP


 

Ow.

She opens an eye. Results being decidedly inconclusive, she opens the other.

Pale light. Through the slats of the blinds: a cold, white, dead sky.

How—?

The mattress she’s lying on is new, still wrapped in heavy plastic now smeared with blood and dirt. The bedroom looks like a stripped-down version of the master suite in the lodge. Which means it is the master suite—the new one, anyway—the one that’s only recently been finished and has yet to see occupation. The heat must be on, though—she’s not freezing, and her jacket and shirt have been confettied by wendigo claws. She’s in the brand-new lodge, torn-to-shit and half-dead, but—

Better than all-dead, Sammy. Besides, did you really think it would be that easy?

Her head’s too foggy to solve for x yet. She sits up slowly, every muscle in her body silent-screaming and a not-fucking-around-type pain stabbing into her lower abdomen. Which makes sense, considering the twelve-inch laceration gaping across it. It looks like the goddamned Marianas. The kind of deep that wants an emergency room or a morgue, only for some reason, she’s not bleeding anymore.

She can’t remember why that is.

It seems like maybe she should get up and figure some things out, but this is easier said than done. She staggers into the bathroom. No water, of course, and the basement might as well be the moon right now. In the mirror, she observes the sum of her gross miscalculations: the various shallow cuts and bruises and the ominous array of deep puncture wounds nestled into the hollow above her collarbone.

Shit. So close.

She follows the drops of blood downstairs, where the icy draft answers one question before she even sees the swinging door and the broken glass. Did she break in, then? Why can’t she remember breaking in?

Actually, why can’t she remember anything after

The sanitarium

That awful screaming

And—

Fuck.

She remembers one thing: Josh’s face. The grotesque gash in his cheek and that nest of teeth.

With a shudder that turns into a wince, she bends to snag a drop-cloth from a pile beside the door. Wraps it around herself and steps out onto the deck. The snow is too churned up to read, although the blood makes the trajectory back into the trees easy enough to follow.  She would like to stay here where it’s warm, but there’s no water and no anything and—more importantly—way too much exposed glass.

Her head is pounding, probably from the blood loss. Stomach churning, clearly in the mood to void itself if it could. She has to get back to the cabin. Patch herself up in a secure place and figure this out.

By the time she stumbles into the cabin an hour later, though, she is ready to pass out again from the one mile walk and the patching up isn’t happening; it’s all she can do to start the fire and find the bed. She gulps the bottle of water on the nightstand and curls into a ball of pain as snatches from last night’s clusterfuck resurface. How many surprise wendigoes did Josh kill? How many more are still lurking?

She is an idiot. She can’t do this.

She has fucked up yet again and she should be dead—why isn’t she, actually?

As she stares at the wall, waiting for the oblivion of sleep to reclaim her, tears slide down onto the pillow. There are conclusions to be drawn from this—later, once her self-pity has played itself out and her physical wounds have been attended. She will regroup. Reanalyze. Return and try again.

For now, hiding out’s not just for cannibalistic monsters.

* * * * *

When she wakes, moonlight filters in through the bars on the bedroom windows. Her head feels a bit better than before; regardless, something is wrong.  As in: more wrong than normal, than it’s been for going on two years. The sheets are soaked. The gash on her lower abdomen is bleeding again.

“Awesome. Because that is super helpful,” she mutters to the rafters.

She tries to sit up, aborts midway. The blinding pain that supernovas through her guts is part of it.

Also, there is a wendigo at the foot of the bed.

Oh.

Well, then.

All she can do is blink. No panic. No adrenaline rush, which probably only means her blood pressure’s too low to circulate it. He crouches down, half-silvered eyes reflecting her own face back at her, and doesn’t move. Now that she’s aware, she can smell it—smell him—the dank earthiness of the mines and the stink of things decaying. All of that underlying the bright copper tang of her own oozing blood.

So this is how it happens, then. So anticlimactic. So dumb, Sam.

And, in some macabre way, so fitting: one last late-night visit from Josh Washington.

She wants to cry, but no tears come. Instead, she licks her chapped lips and sighs.

“Fine.” Her voice is hoarse, already a ghost’s dull rasping. “I don’t even care. Just do it.”

She closes her eyes and tries not to wonder what the police will tell her mother. How disappointed she’ll be having a stupid, dead liar for a daughter, or how guilty Mike and Em will probably feel for not blowing the whistle on her when they could. She wonders whether she’ll have time to feel it. Asks herself how an allegedly intelligent person could forget to twist the goddamned lock on the goddamned cabin door.

The bed creaks as his weight shifts forward. What she feels next, though, is not claws or teeth.

Hot breath fogs over the bare skin of her stomach. Something soft. Warm. Flickering.

She can’t not look. And, okay, this is actually happening. Wendigo Josh is licking her, lapping gently at the laceration that looks and feels like a bad Cesarean hack-job. She is too stunned to move.

It’s the blood, right? It has to be. They’re insatiably hungry—that’s the whole point of wendigoes—and she is an easy meal laid out like a buffet. And this is not even Josh, not anymore, just a creature acting on instinct—as evidenced by that decidedly inhuman rumbling sound—so he—it—is just feeding—that’s what’s going on—and any minute he is going to take a big, sloppy bite.

Only . . . he’s being absurdly gentle, hovering and just mouthing at her skin.

And it feels almost . . . good.

Okay, not ‘good.’ The wound hurts like a motherfucker. But whatever he’s doing—maybe something in his saliva?—is taking the edge off the pain. After five more surreal minutes, the bleeding’s stopped again. Pisser for a hungry wendigo, she imagines, but he only pauses, trembling badly, and growls once.

Coagulating saliva. Well, at least now she knows one of their tricks.

“Josh?” she tries when he settles back onto his still-shaking haunches. At the sound of his name, he lifts his chin and angles his head to fix her with the less cloudy eye. That’s a good sign, right? She’s flying blind, doesn’t really know what she should say. And now that her death seems negotiable, it might actually matter. She pulls a deep breath through her nostrils and murmurs, “So are you . . . you, then?”

“Are you . . . you?” he echoes back in her own voice, yowls, and thrashes backwards.

Okay, that’s not creepy at all—nope—no sir—not at all.

Is he just playing with his food? But, no, why would he bother to stop her bleeding , then? And why did he save her from the others? Because he did that, didn’t he? He must have. The premonition—

Yellow butterfly. Yellow. For guidance.

Vaguely, she remembers being sprawled on the ground, Josh crouching over her.

Some part of her troubled friend must still be lost and wandering around in that disfigured shell. And she hates the unfairness of this—hates how Josh Washington, goofy liberator of a million grudging smiles with his dark humor and his pranks, has been the captive of something or someone his whole life.

He growls softly as she manages to sit up. Pain continues to rule her, but at least it’s manageable.

“Well, uh, either way, thanks,” she murmurs and gestures at her stomach. “For whatever that was.”

Can he even understand her? Probably not, but it feels good to talk to him anyway. It’s been too long, too many months with nothing but his raving ghost roaming her head. And too long having to fake it—to pretend that his death didn’t hurt as much as it did because he’d gone out a crazy, messed-up asshole.

Now that he’s here and decided against eating her for now (and, uh, thanks for that, too, Washington) she doesn’t know what comes next. If he were in the cage as planned, it would be different.

“Jesus, can I . . . look at you?” she murmurs. She inches over to switch on the lamp.

The bulb’s not bright. He flinches anyway and shifts, creeping backwards off the bed with that strange, spider-like movement. The sound he makes as he does so is muffled, less a shriek or yowl than a soft cooing. She’s never heard a wendigo make it before, but it reminds her of the macaques at the primate sanctuary where she used to volunteer: lonely, uncertain, a request for reassurance. He settles against the wall and finally she can see just how badly Blackwood Mountain has cursed its prince.

Everything is worse in the light. The overalls are rags. Filth cakes every inch of his corpsed skin, and he is bruised and gaunt. His left cheek is downright horrifying. She wonders if it hurts. Oddly, he still has his hair, but it doesn’t appear to have grown. Maybe everything else stops once the transformation starts.

“Josh,” she whispers, voice cracking, tears stinging and threatening to spill. “Josh, I am so, so sorry.”

He says nothing, of course, but the half-silvered eyes snatch several darting glances.

Moving gingerly lest she open her wound again, she eases herself up and across the creaking floorboards. Says a prayer to any gods that might be listening as she reaches out to rest her palm against his right cheek, the one that hasn’t become medieval. He flinches. Trembles. Eventually exhales and presses gently back against her touch, eyes closing. For nearly a minute, neither of them moves.

She is here.

She is doing this. She will fix this.

Then, from just beyond the bedroom window, a shrill shriek shatters the silence.

In the time it takes Sam to gasp and spin on her heel, Josh has already cleared the bed. He skitters away up the hall, out the open front door and into the night. It’s possible he plans to come back to her—she isn’t quite sure what they were in the midst of working out—but some other roving horror might show up first and she doesn’t even have the shotgun. She’s already been plenty dumb enough for one day.

She locks the door, weight like a medicine ball settling down into the hollow of her chest. Sinks the board into place and drags herself off to the bathroom to fix what little can be fixed right now.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINE: PALAVER


 

She needs stitches. So there’s that.

Given the size of the wound and the likelihood of its reopening, and given the fact that she can’t say when she’ll see Josh again, it only seems prudent. The next day, stiff and sore and moving like a geriatric crab, she hobbles down to the cable car and makes the trip to urgent care. Makes up a lame story about some rusty scrap metal and gets herself sewn up with only a few raised brows and a tetanus shot for the road.

When she gets back, although she would rather rest, she heads up to retrieve the shotgun instead.

In the chapel, the bodies of the dead wendigoes have disappeared. No big surprise—bodies do that on Blackwood Mountain. While it’s possible Josh dragged them off into the mines, in this case, it’s also possible that whatever he didn’t devour on the spot simply dissolved into nothingness. Judging by the forensic report on the burnt-out ruins of the old lodge, for wendigoes, that’s certainly an option.

In any case, she’s glad she doesn’t have to see them. No need to be reminded of her latest screw-up.

It’s mid-afternoon when she gets back to the cabin. There, she’s surprised to discover Josh crouched in the shadows on the porch. She stops in her tracks. Glances up to double-check: yep, definitely the sun hanging there overhead. Then again, blood-thirsty as they are, they aren’t vampires. If only a little sunlight was all it took, Jess and Jack Shiner and countless others would probably still be alive.

As she stands frozen at the bottom of the steps, he stops licking at his bicep through a hole in that nasty button-down and shifts forward. For a moment, his posture is the restless and predatory leering hunch of the monster he now is. He trills at her. Growls and grows still, chest rising and falling hard. Abruptly, he cracks his neck and hurls himself against the side of the cabin with enough violence to rattle the windows. Sam yelps as a dusting of snow from the roof comes cascading down over her.

Head down and panting now. A cough, followed by a word so soft it might be her imagination.

She cocks her head.

“Sam,” he says again, quietly. With only half a human mouth, the S comes out slurred, so that it sounds like he is calling her out for the fraud she is. He swallows hard. “You’ve got . . . to be . . . more careful.”

She blinks. One second. Two.

“Holy hell,” she exclaims, lets the breath spill out of her and starts to rush up the stairs.

“No—Don’t—” The way he flies backwards into the corner sends an ominous message. “Stay.”

She stays. Says, “Jesus, okay.”

“Just . . . just give me . . . a second to . . . get used to you.”

She probably doesn’t want to know what that means.

After a while, he appears to relax a little.

 “How are you even talking?” she asks softly when he seems ready for it, and is rewarded with a shrug.

“S’getting harder. But . . . I can still do it during the day. I haven’t seen you in forever, Sammy.”

She winces. “Josh, I feel horrible. I’m so sorry—we thought you were dead. Mike said Hannah took you away, and it just seemed . . . inevitable. I would never have left you alone down there if I’d known.”

“Yeah, I know.” It’s oddly nonchalant, but Josh has always been good at faking it. He squints up at the sky. “After you and Mike left, everything got weird. Like, I can’t talk at night or . . . even think much. I’m always hungry. Always. Just want to hunt, kill, eat things. Dunno why. Why’d you come back?”  

The way he talks, she is struck by a sudden realization. He’s never met Shiner. Never seen the journal.

“Um, do you know anything about this mountain’s curse? Do you know what’s happening to you?”

“Nope.” A pause, during which he licks what’s left of his lips. "Shit, you smell good. Like, really good.”

So there’s a compliment she’ll never take at face-value again. She shivers and takes a step backwards.

From her marginally-safe distance, she explains: “It’s the wendigo spirit that makes you so hungry. That’s the thing inside you. The thing you’re . . . turning into.” Adds, “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” which is such a hopelessly inadequate thing to say she sort of wants to choke herself afterwards.

He just nods, filing it all away. Does he even want any of this? A dry, textbook explanation for the horror he’s been living first-hand for months? Is she just playing another version of Dr. Hill now? The last thing she wants is to make him feel like a specimen to be pinned down and studied, but maybe he does want to know. And if she’s going to try to cure him, particularly absent the cage, she’ll need his cooperation.

So she offers, “There was a man who saved us that night. He knew all about these things. About the history and how it works. And maybe how to help you. I could tell you everything, if you want.”

For an eternity, he stands there looking at the churned-up snow, lost in consideration or maybe listening to something. Then he mutters, “Okay. Okay,” but not to her, not like he’s answering her question.

He takes a step towards her, slow and inching. Another. Before she can decide if she should be alarmed, he has crossed the porch—striding, at least; not skittering—and jumped down. He is on top of her now, so close she can see pine needles clinging to his soiled collar and the flecks of blood at the edges of his torn lips. He leans in, gleaming teeth inches from her jugular. Okay, yeah—she’s definitely alarmed.

Those strange, half-clouded eyes flicker and dart as he sniffs her hair. He breathes deep. Holds it.

Twenty seconds and she doesn’t dare move. Thirty.

Finally, all of the predator draining out of him in a blink, he brushes his knuckles across her cheek and settles back against the railing post. Trills once, startling her all over again, grimaces, and coughs.

“Sorry,” he murmurs. “Just wanted to check. Most of the time you aren’t real.”

“Jesus Christ,” she sputters. “A little heads-up, maybe?” She has the old, familiar instinct to smack his arm like this was merely another dumb prank, but that might not be a good idea. Also, the fact that hallucinations are just part of his everyday now is an awful beyond words; sympathy quickly swallows her irritation. She sighs. “You’re pretty scary right now, Washington, so . . . you know. Go easy.”

His hollow chuckle is the rattling of old bones, a spell to stand all her little hairs on end.

“No, I was always scary, Sammy,” he says softly, offering what she assumes is his version of a sly smile with the side of his mouth that can still manage it. “The great thing about you is that you never noticed.”

In retrospect, she supposes he’s right. “Whatever,” she mutters. “So do you want to come inside? Get warm? Um, I don’t know, clean up maybe?” He just nods and gets out of her way, ducking in close behind her as she heads up the steps. “I can tell you everything I know about this and what I want to do. And I have other things to tell you and about a million questions, so . . . I hope you’ve got the time.”

He snorts against the back of her neck as she unlocks the door. “Where else do you think I’ve got to be?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you’ve got . . . a dinner date with the other wendigoes? I’m flying blind here.”

“No, s’not really like that. There’s no solidarity. We’d all eat each other if we could.”

“Nice. Sounds like high school all over again.”

“Just about. Hey, so you never answered me,” he says. “Why are you here? Are the others coming?”

Her heart stutter-steps. God, has he always been this thick? Is it the wendigo-brain? The lack of meds?

She drops her pack. Turns and forces herself to meet that unsettling gaze. “For you, Josh. I came back for you. And, no, nobody else. Like I said, we all thought you were dead. I started getting visions about you, though. Don’t know how, but it was like the mountain sent them. That’s how I knew. So I came.”

For a moment, his face does this weird, twitchy thing, the clouds in his moon-wide eyes growing dark and gloomy. Then he looks away. Scuffs the floorboards with the long claws on one mutated foot and mumbles, “Oh. So what you’re saying is you’re completely insane, then. That makes sense.”

“Pot, meet kettle,” she replies. “Now, come here. Sit your ass down. Let’s talk.”

* * * * *

Again, Sam Abbott is neither brave nor selfless.

For the next two hours, it feels like they never stop talking—she tells him about Jack Shiner, about blowing up the old lodge, killing poor Hannah and the others, being rescued, the investigation, Jess’s death, the endless reporters. About the aftermath, in which Matt and Em broke up, Chris broke down, and everyone who survived was left damaged in some lingering way.  She spills almost everything—except the truth about the woman whose own mental illness got this giant ball of shit rolling.

Not a single word about Melinda Washington.

There are reasons, and they’re mostly valid. Fiddler’s cure is some nasty business, and in order to get through it she’ll need him to trust her. Which he won’t if she makes clear just how well it worked out the last time he put his well-being in the hands of someone who allegedly cared about him. Besides that, for a boy (creature?) who’s been off his meds for months, he’s already got more than enough to process.

But she’s a chickenshit. That’s the other reason.

As for what she does share, he listens quietly and never interrupts, though when she gets to the part about Chris—the PTSD, the hospital stint—he growls softly and hunches over. Head in hands, he closes his eyes, a solitary claw tapping against his skull. “Shit,” he mutters. “Is he better now? Is he okay?”

That’s a difficult question to answer. Also, it comes precariously close to acknowledging the other elephant in the room, the one she’s yet to mention because she’s in no fucking way ready for that chat.

“He seems to be,” she says, which is true. “He’s going back to college soon. Ashley’s helped him a lot.”

“Oh, yeah? Chris and Ash are . . . together now?”

“They are, finally. They’re pretty cute, I have to say.”

“Good,” he sighs. “At least I got one thing right.”

Although his tone falls well short of self-congratulatory, his conclusion still makes her a little sick. On one hand, he’s suffered plenty for his sins. On the other, she isn’t about to offer him a shred of validation for torturing his friends. She sits stiffly, lips parted. It only takes a moment for him to deflate again.

“Hey,” he says, licks his shredded lips and tosses her one of those slanting, sideways glances like a dog showing its belly. “Okay, yeah. I fucked up. Just in case you’re wondering, I do know that. Dope as it is that Cochise has finally grown a pair, I’m still sorry I did that shit. And I know I deserve this.”

Given how out of it he was the last time she saw him, she’s surprised he remembers anything from that awful night. Oddly, he seems quite a bit more lucid now—more like the old Josh than that sad, babbling lunatic from February. Which is weird, considering he’s unmedicated and, you know, possessed by a freaking evil spirit. But even a broken clock is right twice a day, as her grandma used to say.

She grimaces. “Great. But we’re not going to talk about that stuff now, okay?”

“Why not?” When he exhales, he makes that soft cooing sound again, which does nothing to still the panic rising suddenly inside of her. “Sam, what I did to you—fuck, I wish I could explain—”

She slaps Shiner’s journal down on the table with the loudest, most startling thump she can manage.

“Washington! Seriously, enough. How long until you forget how to use your words?”

He looks properly alarmed and chastised. Mumbles, “I don’t know. It’s . . . awake already. It wants the woods, wants to be fed. An hour, maybe? When it comes, it comes fast. It doesn’t fuck around.”

“Then tell me about the wendigoes while you still can. Tell me what you remember about transforming.”

* * * * *

By the time she opens the door to let him out an hour later, he’s doing little more than growling and trilling, although the way he listens to her voice suggests he still understands some of what she says. The other wendigoes are shrieking out in the pines, darting and calling, making her chest go tight. She would hate to be a deer tonight. Would hate to be Josh, for that matter, although he seems too far gone and too singularly focused for self-pity. For now, it’s clear hunger has become his whole world.

“Come back to me in the morning, you dipshit,” she whispers. “Please?”

He moves fast, lunging with that awful, bobbing, spider-step. Presses his teeth against her throat and chuffs hot air against her—Jesus, okay, Washington—before slinking away into the twilight. This from the boy who was still making jokes only an hour ago. He wasn’t kidding about the speed of it.

Also, wendigo affection is . . . well . . . interesting. Hopefully, she’ll get used to it with time.

After he’s gone, she heats up a can of soup and reflects on the day’s developments.

The good news? For now, for whatever reason, he still has a daily grace period. Has fought the monster inside back enough to retain some tattered shreds of his humanity, and that will only make doing what needs to be done easier. Not so good? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the wendigo spirit took him.

That conversation had gone something like this:

“Honestly, I’m pretty schizo these days.” A soft laugh and that grotesque grin. “You don’t really . . . notice? . . . one more voice. Not at first. Not until it gets loud enough to make you notice it.”

He had a point, unfortunately. She tried, “So you don’t remember if you were starving for weeks?”

“Uh, maybe? I’ve been starving for months. My brain does not work right—have I mentioned that?”

“Yeah, about that.” Why not? Her sleuthing was going nowhere and now was as good a time as any. “I brought you something. I know it’s not the right kind anymore, but I figured it was better than nothing.”

She retrieved the bottle of pills from a bag in the corner. Slid it gingerly across the table.

“Amitriptyline? Did you get this from my mom or something?”

Something slithered around her stomach at the mention of Melinda. She felt like a bomb technician, picking carefully through exposed wires. “No, I stole it from work. We don’t stock phenelzine.”

His chuckle was nearly half trill now. “Depression a big, uh . . . problem . . . for housecats, is it?”

“The biggest. You have no idea. Seriously, they use it for litterbox issues.”

“Awesome. I have terrible letterbox . . . fuck, litterbox. What is that word? Habits. Fuck. Yeah, let’s fix that.” He unscrewed the cap and dry-swallowed three pills. She hoped that was the right dose.

Look how easy that is, Samantha. Such a nice, trusting boy, isn’t he?

Disconcertingly, the voice in her own head had recently turned into that other screwy Washington.

So, yeah—that was how that conversation had gone, and now here she is, alone for the night and no nearer to knowing which came first, the hunger or the wendigo—to knowing if the cure will even work on him. But it’s why she came and it’s clear he can’t stay like this. He looks like hell, with that gaunt frame, those starving eyes, and that cheek. And though he hasn’t come right out and said it—Josh Washington, smooth Zen master of pretending everything’s just great—he must feel like hell, too.  

“Can you do it anyway?” he’d asked, which was the closest he’d come to admitting his current misery.

Of course, she still hadn’t told him what the cure specifically entailed.

When she does tell him, it’s possible he might choose the wendigo.

Hell, it’s possible he might prefer death.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TEN: MASKS


 

Los Angeles - October 31, 2014

It felt weird to move on, but eventually it also felt inevitable. After nine months, all leads had dried up and only one cold, clinical truth remained: Hannah and Beth Washington were still missing.

Even Josh seemed to have finally accepted that his sisters weren’t coming back. Out of the hospital now and on new meds, he was nearer to his old self, his late-night visits with Sam more a function of habit and friendship than desperation now. As a group, they were back to doing ordinary things, hanging out and even daring to have fun again—as the twins would’ve wanted, stupid, shitty prank notwithstanding.

And maybe it was always this way in the wake of life-changing loss. You went on going through the motions, mimicking normalcy until one day the mask had become skin and it was no longer an act.

So when Halloween came round, Sam found herself back at Casa de Washington with only a mild twinge of nostalgia at the memory of last year’s party. She tried the door—open—and stepped inside. The dramatic, marble-floored entry rose up and up around an elaborate chandelier and currently echoed with Melinda Washington’s low, affected murmur drifting out from the nearby living room. Which was not unusual, being that Melinda had stopped going out much since Blackwood had happened, except—

She paused.

“—Yes, he was in in-patient treatment at Ocean View Hospital this spring. Thirty days. Suicide watch. Nothing was working—the meds, the CBT, none of it. They nearly used shock treatment. It was bad.”

Four slow, silent steps and she pressed against the wall, head cocked and frowning.

Not that she didn’t already know all of this. Her interest was merely instinctive.

“Really? Oh, Melinda, I had no idea! How awful.” Sam didn’t know this voice. Female. Middle-aged. Probably the silver Mercedes she’d just parked beside. “So on top of the girls—and that’s, just, really, I have no words—you’ve been dealing with all of this. You poor thing; I can’t imagine how that’s been.”

“Not easy. Some of these doctors are just idiots, you know, if you don’t stay after them. And—”

“S’bad manners to eavesdrop, Sammy,” Josh murmured from the stairs.

He sat on the landing halfway up, elbows on knees, faint smirk belying his words. She winced—in part for having been caught and in part for his having to hear this crap. When she scurried up to sit beside him, he offered her a swig of his nearly-finished bottle of beer. She patted his arm and grimaced.

“Your backwash? Gonna take a pass. And I wasn’t eavesdropping, Mr. Hypocrite. How are you?”

He shrugged and swallowed the dregs. “I’m awesome. Seriously, I don’t know why she has to tell everyone she knows. Not like I haven’t been messed-up for years. It’s like she’s proud all the sudden.”

He had a point—used to be the Washingtons had kept Josh’s illness hushed up. “Who’s she talking to?”

“Just some lady from the property association. Yesterday it was Dad’s assistant. Whoever. I think she misses the daily detective visits and the reporters about as much as she misses Beth and Hannah at this point. Without tennis practice and lame-ass awards ceremonies, she really has nothing to do all day.”

There was no real anger in his words, though lurking beneath them was the ghost of April Josh—the one who’d been wracked with guilt, terrified, and paranoid about everyone, including his own eccentric mother. The one who’d begged Deer-in-Headlights Sam to help him leave home and been pissed as hell when she’d called his parents instead. In this case, however, he didn’t sound unreasonable—though harmless, Melinda’s dramatic wallowing did seem a bit much. Before Sam could suggest that perhaps his mother had genuinely struggled with all of this and that people moved on from tragedy in different ways, Josh shook his head and stood up. Grabbed her hand and pulled her gently back up onto her feet.

“Whatever; come on. We’ve gotta pick up Chris, Matt, and Ash. It’s a long drive and it’ll be busy.”

Glad to move on to lighter subjects, she followed him upstairs. Cast the hairiest of eyeballs at the mountains of dirty clothes, empty soda cans, and moldy dishes stacked everywhere as he changed shirts and dug around for his keys. The TV was on, whatever gruesome horror movie he’d been watching—one of the Saw films, it looked like—paused and a notebook full of scribbled notes on the bed. Which was a good sign, contrary to all appearances. Josh hadn’t shown any interest in film-making in months.

She wondered what he was working on now.

“So are you up for this?” he asked, fishing the orange prescription bottle from a pair of jeans on the floor and slipping it into his hoodie. “Not gonna freak out at the first bloody clown mask, are you?”

She almost wanted to ask him the same thing, considering, but he really was doing so well these days. No more paranoia. No hallucinations. He and Chris had even gotten back to their usual goofing around and careless alcohol-induced fuckery without incident. While a haunted house might not be the most traditional recovering-from-a-mental-breakdown activity, Josh had never been a traditional guy.

“Nope,” she replied. “I’ll be fine. I am surprisingly high-functioning when terrified.”

“Mm. That’s good to know.”

But—you will owe me if it’s really, really bad. A favor yet to be determined.”

He chuckled. “No, no, I won’t—Chris will owe you. Assuming Ash is as big a scaredy-cat as she says.”

It figured. With Josh, there would always be the plans and then the subtext to the plans.

“Pretty sure she is,” Sam said. “She squeezed my hand off on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.”

“Good. Then I think this is gonna be a good time. And you know, Sam—” The sudden deadpan of his drawl made her ears prick. Snagging the case for his fancy video camera and tucking it under his arm, he said, “Matt’s single now. He’s a total action hero and he thinks you’re a fox. Just putting that out there in case you hadn’t noticed, what with all the working and school and babysitting hopeless losers and all.”

She did her best to keep a Zen face—after all this time, stuff like this really shouldn’t have had teeth.

Hell, she genuinely liked being Josh’s girl-space-friend.

To be fair, it was just a little bite, the tiniest of stings, and mixed up with this was a frustration of a more general and empathetic nature: regardless of what he might have convinced himself, Josh was not a loser. Also, Matt was far too much of a sweet, dumb Labrador for her, and Em had already pointedly called dibs. No way Sam was putting herself in a position to be chewed up by that force of nature.

 “Yep, I’m aware,” she replied, and forced an exaggeratedly bright-faced thumbs-up for good measure.

He snorted softly. “You don’t care. Not even gonna try, are you?”

“Haha, nope.”

“What about that dude at your work? Dr. Whatever-the-fuck. You’d have his babies. Let’s call him.”

“Josh, you can’t force these things. Besides, I’m fine like this. I’ve just got other things on my mind now.”

For a moment, he merely studied her with his big, sleepy eyes. There was something hypnotic about the slowness of his mannerisms—the way his serene, close-lipped smile unfurled now was akin to watching a leaf uncurl over a span of hours. He sighed. “I’m trying to help you, you know. But whatever.”

“I know that. That’s sweet of you.”

Before she could try to parse this development, his phone began to buzz. He shook himself loose and answered it. “Cochise? Hey, yeah, bro, I know. Keep your g-string on; we’ll be there in a second.”

And that was that. They went out and she forgot all about Josh’s half-hearted plan to find her a man.

* * * * *

It isn’t until a year later, after another sweat-soaked nightmare of being chased through the lodge basement, that Sam realizes what he’d been trying to do. What she might’ve spared herself, if only.

You should’ve listened to him, Samantha. He tried to push you away gently that time.

Which is true, and also still gross for a multitude of reasons, and—yeah. Well, then. So.

The Psycho is not going away. Eventually, she will have to confront him.

For now, she pads out to the kitchenette. Rummages in the dark for something awful to eat as penance.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER ELEVEN: CAUGHT AND PINNED


 

No feral Josh Washington on her doorstep in the morning. No feral Josh Washington by noon. In the meantime, she’s moved on from the dark thoughts of her waking moments to more practical things.

Specifically: the spirit-letting and how best to perform it without getting hurt. The cage and poles were a good idea—primitive, but better than nothing for a mindless wendigo. As long as he’s willing to cooperate, however, she might be able to do better, assuming the police have been as lax as she’d expect. Tired of sitting around waiting for Josh to show, she limps gingerly out to the shed, fingers crossed that this proves feasible and a grim and involuntary sense of poetic justice looming.

The shed’s as she’d have guessed. The saw is gone. Ditto for the full-body prosthetic and the pig guts, and she can’t be any happier about that. But the twin sets of shackles are still there, ready and waiting.

It’s impossible to look at them and not remember the last time she was forced to do so.

As a workshop for performing wendigo exorcisms goes, the shed has a few advantages over the ruins of the sanitarium. It’s got electricity and an industrial space heater, for one thing. It’s a shorter hike, too, from both the cabin and the cable car station. Also, the chain-link fencing inside it looks secure enough to keep out any other wendigoes that might come prowling. Since the spirit-letting will run all night and Josh himself won’t be able to fight them off, the importance of this feature can’t be overstated.

She spends the better part of the afternoon relocating the items she’ll need per Jack Shiner’s instructions: the saskahwaw, the kerosene, rags and stakes, her newly-purchased hunting knife.

The snare she has made is just an old mason jar filled with the fragile remains of the messenger butterflies that continue to find her each night. Nothing fancy, but it ought to serve the purpose. She pokes around the shelves. Finds some wire to wrap around it and hangs the jar from one of the rafters over the heavy, wooden work table she’s pushed into the center of the space. The shackles come down from the wall and get secured to support posts on either end of the table. When she’s finished, she takes a moment to wrap her head around the whole surreal set-up. It’s a world away from the sterile surgical suite at the Rio del Mar Veterinary Hospital, which is her only real basis for comparison.

Well, whatever it takes. Anyway, it’s not like he’s going to get an infection, or—

“What’s all that for?” Josh whispers over her shoulder, claws tickling up the back of her arm.

She nearly projectile-vomits her own heart as she whirls around.

“Jesus, fuck, Washington! Are you insane?!”

He flashes his sly, one-sided piranha grin. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“No. Oh my God. You’re lucky I didn’t have the shotgun. Where’ve you been all day?”

“Not lucky—I knew it was over there.” He tips his chin. “Had to stand and watch you for a while to be sure I only kinda wanted to eat you.” She doesn’t much appreciate that disclosure or the whole déjà vu Psycho voyeur aspect, but he’s moving on, running claws over the back of his neck. “Uh, I don’t know where I’ve been. I just woke up all pathetic under a table in that old shack. Think I was hiding from Hannah and Beth. Or Dr. Hill. Or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Who knows? I feel okay now, though. Before that, it’s all just . . .” He taps his temple and gestures like his thoughts have blown clean away on the breeze.

God, how the hell does he live like that? She hopes these meds work. Hopes they kick in extra fast.

“So for real—what’s it all for? We gonna make another movie or what, girl?”

She can’t tell if he’s joking or not. “Um . . .”

“I’m joking,” he adds helpfully, and eyeballs the shackles. “Hey, what is it about this shed and people wanting to tie me up?” Despite his words, he sounds oddly unconcerned. “You all have serious issues.”

“You started it,” she mutters before she can stop herself.

Now he’s concerned. His wan face goes a shade more ashen. Caught and pinned and he knows it.

But she decides to be merciful. It’s still not time for that. She’s not quite ready to tear the scab off.

“So, yeah,” she says, because it probably is the time for this. She snags her backpack from the floor and digs through it for Shiner’s journal and the instructions. “Look, I told you this cure wasn’t going to be a party, right? I wasn’t just saying that. I’m dead serious. Here. You, uh, you can still read, right?”

He gives her a wary side-eye. “I’m not that blind. And I’m only moron-stupid at night.”

Good to know. She waits quietly while he flips through the pages. No response to any of it.

“I just want to make sure it’s what you want,” she says. “This is . . . I’ll basically be torturing you.”

He snorts softly. Goes on looking at the pages and mumbles, “God, you have no idea, do you?”

“No idea about what? I mean, I don’t know what else I can do—not a lot of options here—”

“Never mind. I want to do this.” He hands the pages back, meets her gaze, draws a breath. “I want to go home so bad. Sleep in a bed. See my parents. Grovel pathetically for forgiveness from my ex-friends. I don’t want to forget who I ever was. This fucking hurts and I’m scared shitless. So it’s fine. I don’t care.”

More of that rare and elusive Josh Washington-brand raw honesty that makes her eyes sting.

“Josh, you can . . . you can sleep in a bed right now,” she offers lamely. “Come back to the cabin. Take a shower. Take your meds. Take a nap. Stay. I mean, hell, it’s your cabin. I got you some new clothes . . .”

His sad eyes laugh and laugh; suddenly she’s the crazy one.

“Sam? I am a literal monster now. Like, I eat human flesh. You get that, right? See?”

Until now, she hasn’t realized how much wider his mouth actually opens. Or that there are teeth everywhere, like a lamprey, points straight-up poking through his upper palette. Definitely could’ve gone on living in cheerful ignorance about that mess, but it must feel a hundred times worse than it looks.

Reaching gamely for nonchalant: “Yep. That’s the point. But, uh—you won’t really eat me, right?”

He winces like she’s insulted him. “No. I can control it enough. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Then, come on—there’s no reason for you to go back into the mines. Anyway, I need a watchdog.”

She’s so used to his self-pity she expects more of an argument. Instead, he just shrugs and follows her.

* * * * *

The first thing she does is stuff some more amitriptyline into him and point him towards the shower—he really does smell like death. Also, if she never has to see The Psycho’s overalls again, she will die giddy. She leaves the shirts and the pair of jeans she picked up in Lake Celeste on the bed and goes back to the front room. Twenty minutes later, he remerges, a cleaner and marginally more palatable abomination.

Speaking of palatable—

“Sammy, what is this?” he asks when he sniffs out the mini-fridge. “Since when do you eat—?”

“Uh, that is none of your business is what that is,” she replies, carefully taking the package of hotdogs from his claws and setting it back amongst the carrot sticks and carry-out curry. At his arched brow, her cheeks burn with shame. Change-of-subject time. “So, hey,” she says as tactfully as she can, “Since you brought it up, what exactly are you existing on these days? Do I even want to know?”

He hops over to the couch, springs up onto the back with a tiny shriek before remembering himself. With a very calculated effort, he settles down to sit like a human. “Probably not. But mostly animals.”

Mostly?”

He trills and coughs. “I haven’t killed anyone. Maybe I find things, or . . . take things from the others.”

“You mean corpses.” The macabre smirk that says she’s right chills her blood. “Christ. Who? Where?”

“Mm, I found three in drawers in the sanitarium. Guess it was a morgue or something.” To her horror, he actually sounds proud of himself. “They were fucking ancient, but hey—I’ll eat leftovers.”

“Gross,” she says and eases herself down beside him. She doesn’t want to admit it, but a part of her is morbidly fascinated by this—not because it isn’t awful, but because it is. He is Josh, her friend, her half-a-second high school crush, and yet . . . now he eats actual people. Maybe he ate Jess or Jack Shiner.

Either way, she is partially to blame for this.  

Well, that is what you get for not paying attention. Not so damned perfect after all, hmm?

While she carefully blinks away the nagging voice, he shakes his head. “Not gross. You don’t understand. Remember Madison?” He means Em’s old modeling friend, the one who’d ridden heroin-chic straight over the cliff to an overdose. “It’s like that. I can choose not to eat you, but I can’t choose not to eat.”

“And when you run out of moldy oldies?”

“Leisure Suit killed some hippie squatter a week ago. I may have chased him off the body.”

“Leisure Suit? Your friends have names?”

“They’re not my friends.” He growls softly, perhaps subconsciously. “And he’s dead now, so . . .”

Dead because Josh decapitated him, she reminds herself. Just the memory makes her cringe.

Apart from the violence of the act, however, something else about that night at the sanitarium has been nibbling away at her subconscious, and here it is now: saving her life was brave, and brave is not the first word she’d use to describe Josh Washington. Complex? Definitely. And sweet, and funny, and sad.

But brave is for the Mikes of the world—for the Emilys, even—not for Josh. Getting up every day and slogging on in the face of depression definitely required a type of courage. Blowing the bridges on his closest friendships, though? Deliberately alienating every single one of his allies the way he’d done? That was a clear act of cowardice. It was—as she’d already told him—a pathetic cry for help.

And yet, she is alive now because of him.

Josh undoubtedly has too much else on his fractured mind to even notice the implications. To mark Sam’s sudden bout of gooseflesh or the quietly unsettled way she looks at him now as it dawns.

Not all of the ways this mountain is changing him are for the worse.

Christ, that’s a mindfuck.

So it’s possible he’s brave enough to get through this—if she doesn’t accidently cut too deep. And if he’s strong enough to survive the violence that will shortly commence inside of him. And if it turns out he’s even the right kind of wendigo. Which they won’t know until the bitter end—dawn of the very last night of letting—since the cure is all-or-nothing, less gradual recovery and more straight-up Cree magic.

Great. Ideally, all of her desperate, muttering self-reassurance isn’t just that.

“Yeah, about that other night,” she says. “I guess I never did thank you for, uh, saving my life.”

His eyes get big and wide. It must be getting late, because instead of using words, he just nods.

* * * * *

In the morning, she finds him curled up on the porch again like a misbegotten stray. He lifts his head, blood smears turning his mouth into a child’s Tempera-paint version of a smile that never quite reaches his eyes. Her stomach’s gotten pretty hair-trigger about things these days—it would if it could—but it’s empty again. Unfortunately, her head’s not. The ghost of Melinda Washington tuts and mutters.

“Jesus Christ,” she murmurs and ushers him inside. “Go sleep in the bed—you’re not an animal.”

Only he is, but whatever. At least he bothers to wash his face before crawling between the sheets.

For the next five days while they wait for the blood moon that may or may not help their cause, they fall into a symbiotic routine. Sam makes sure he takes his meds, which actually (Jesus Christ, Melinda, exactly how long were you fucking with his pills?) seem to be helping. Josh chases off the other wendigoes that have been lurking around. Sometimes they talk about the twins. About Chris. About home, old movies, random crap like the best kind of pizza and Sam advocates for cheese-less, of course. No acknowledgement of the hotdogs in the mini-fridge and not a word breathed about the Psycho.

 * * * * *

Just before twilight on the sixth day, he whispers, “Payback time” in her ear, hops up onto the wooden table and lays down to be shackled, but all his new-found bravado is a sham; he’s trembling badly.

She doesn’t show it, but inside, she feels much the same. God knows Em would—Ash, too, probably— but she can’t think of this as revenge. She won’t. She is far too complicit in past events, and revenge is what got them here in the first place. And whatever she feels about and for Josh after all the terror he put her through, it certainly isn’t unadulterated hatred. You’d think the idiot would realize that by now.

 “This first,” she murmurs and hands him the shot glass of amber liquid. It’s awkward with his claws, but he manages to down it. By the time she gets him chained up, he’s already sweating and panting.

Shit. Jay Shiner wasn’t kidding about this stuff.

As she waits for full dark to descend upon them, Melinda whispers, Do you think these are the last happy moments of this creature’s life? And Sam could take a goddamned ice pick to her own head if it would get that sort of masochistic shit out of there. But she just sits and tries to look positive as panting devolves into writhing, as the air fills with human moans that soon become pitiful wendigo cooing.

Six nights of this over the course of the next month.  Hard to fathom. Hard not to run screaming.

Instead, she turns the torch stake over and over in her hands and eyes the bucket of kerosene.

She can do this. It’s why she’s here. She will do this.

At her slow approach, he thrashes and whimpers in the flickering light, inhuman eyes blowing wide.

She holds her breath.

So sorry, Josh . . . so sorry . . .

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWELVE: WOUNDS, OLD AND NEW


 

She is at work. Yep. Just another day with Dr. Whatever-the-fuck, another ‘triage, stat!’

The hiss and sizzle of burning flesh and Josh’s ear-splitting shrieks make it difficult to maintain the illusion, but she manages to hold onto the operative sentiment. As she brands torturous, charred tracks up and down his rigid torso, she rolls all of her abhorrence up into a tiny ball and stuffs it in a box. The better focused she stays, the faster this part will be done. Not that the next part’s much better.

By the time she douses the torch, the air is thick with smoke and the nauseating aroma of cooked meat. Josh’s cloudy eyes are squeezed tight, tears streaming from beneath dark lashes to leave gleaming trails over his cheekbones. His chest rises and falls like a bellows as if he might somehow gasp the spirit out.

If only it were that easy. She reaches for the antique Cree hunting knife. Hesitates.

Is it better to give him a chance to recover first—?

No, that will only prolong this hell. Better to get it all done fast and let the letting commence.

She sets the sharp edge of the blade against the newly-charred and now penetrable flesh above his collarbone. Presses it down. His back arches and his eyes burst open again, rolling towards her as his white-knuckle grip rattles the shackles. Despite the scorching, his skin is still tough as leather—she has to push hard to break through and even then the cut she makes down his chest is a jagged, artless thing.

He tries to yowl, but there’s no breath left in the bellows. It comes out noiseless, teeth snapping at air.

“Hang on, hang on—you’re almost there,” she mutters.

The second cut spans his too-prominent ribs. The third opens his abdomen. The fourth digs deep—a little too deep, maybe; she’s not trying to kill him—into his side. She keeps going as his blood wells up and spills onto the table. Finally stops when the pattern is complete and he’s mercifully passed out.

And that’s it. Now the saskahwaw will have to do its work unbinding the two spirits inside.

She has no idea what this should look like. Josh doesn’t stir. The only sound is his ragged breathing, the slow drip of blood onto concrete, and the occasional distant shriek from somewhere out in the woods. An hour passes before she observes a faint shimmering—like a heat mirage, almost—snaking through the air. The thin, wispy fingers trail up from the open wounds to the snare jar hanging overhead. As she watches, the hawk feathers dangling from the wire around the lid sway lazily as if touched by a breeze.

It’s nothing dramatic, but it’s something.  Whether it’s the right something or not, she can’t say.

Eventually, Josh comes to and just lays there staring at her, nonverbal and pitiful. She is about to reach out and squeeze his hand for lack of anything else when he is wracked by a sudden fit, thrashing and convulsing hard enough to rock the table. She can do nothing but watch until it passes. In its aftermath, his cloudy eyes gleam with fresh silver and her attempt to wipe the cold sweat from his brow is met with a lunge and snapping teeth. She yelps and snatches her hand back minus a chunk of flesh.

Great. Hopefully that will pass soon.

With nothing else to do, she sits and waits as the saskahwaw works or doesn’t work and the hours drag on. Fills the silence with trite words of comfort and support that he probably doesn’t understand. The bleeding stops after a while, even without the benefit of his magic saliva. Wendigoes—they’re nothing if not tough. Yet more convulsions blow in and out like storms throughout the night, making his chains rattle. She wonders if there will be anything left of his long-suffering brain when this is all said and done.

Somehow, in the early pre-dawn hours, she manages to doze off in her chair. When she jerks back into consciousness some time later, the lone window holds a tinge of pink. She rubs her eyes and glances warily. Josh is awake, too, looking more like the sacrificed corpse of a wendigo than a living creature.

The snare jar has turned sooty black on the inside.

At this, she has the vague sense that someone’s gone and replaced her own blood with liquid nitrogen. She stares and stares at it. Josh trills softly, coughs, and rattles his chains some more, drawing her attention back down to the immediate issue. Which is: she’s not sure what to make of him. Is he safe again? Is he still Josh? Her heart feels like a wrung-out sponge after this long, dark night, but the faint scrape of his human voice over that low wendigo growl is enough to summon tears of relief.

“Done . . ?” he croaks.

She creeps closer, observes no more ethereal wisps of whatever seeping out into the air.

“Yeah, I—I think so,” she replies. It’s a real struggle to keep the quaver from her voice.

She starts to reach for the shackles. Checks herself at the last second and cocks her head.

Yes, he seems lucid again, but . . . what if?

Shit.

Too bad she doesn’t have one of those prop hands they use for temperament testing rescue dogs—

She manages to hold this thought for all of half a second before a maniacal giggle bursts from her lips.

Oh, God—it’s too much, this whole night. She hasn’t had enough sleep and this is crazy but for real—she doesn’t want to end up like Mike. She is awfully fond of her fingers. And she is nonetheless serious about wishing for a prop but she’s got nothing and this whole deal is ridiculous. She cringes, eyes half-closed, and reaches her hand out in increments of nano-inches in the direction of his cheek. Can’t let him loose without being sure he’s safe again or she stands to lose a lot more than fingers. But still.

Pleasedon’tpleasedon’tpleasedon’t—

He whispers, “What’re . . . you . . ?”

His skin is cold, clammy as her fingers brush it. Nothing horrible happens. He flinches and blinks at her, pain evident in the creases at the corners of his eyes and the faint parentheses flanking the good side of his mouth. She takes her hand away as all of her tension spills out in one quavering, endless gush of air.

He scrounges up the energy for a frown and three more words: “Sam . . . you . . . okay?”

Which is just about the most soul-crushing thing she’s ever heard—she should be asking him this, not the other way around—but at least he isn’t snapping at her anymore. She winces and nods, releases the clasps on the shackles. Pulls his wrists and ankles free when he doesn’t move to do it himself.

He doesn’t sit up, just rolls sideways and collapses in a heap on the floor.

“Oh, shit, Josh—wait,” she manages. “Here. Let me help you.”

She slips an arm carefully beneath his shoulders, not that this is much help. Josh was not huge to begin with and he’s skin-and-bones now, but Sam is—as Hannah used to put it—a “pocket person.” She’s built for speed and agility, not brute strength. Fortunately, he still has the supernatural on his side—he’s not so much death-bed dying as merely weak, stiff, and very sore. When she suggests that he wait and rest before trekking back to the cabin, he chuffs, shakes his head, and starts dragging her towards the door.

She can’t say she’s not equally eager to get the hell out of this place.

* * * * *

Josh spends the next ten hours in bed, literally and metaphorically licking his wounds. Although she can’t help but feel guilty regardless, he is a freaky-fast healer—by the time the scent of the raw venison she’s bought lures him out to the front room, his cuts and burns are already beginning to scab.

Venison? You didn’t break into a funeral home for me?” Before she can sputter a protest, he skitter-limps across to where she stands incredulous. Nudges his face against hers like he’s part-cat, which is kind of weird, but whatever. “Relax; I’m only joshing you. Thank you, Sammy. And seriously—fuck.”

“Fuck what?” She says instinctively, then braces for the inevitable crude suggestion.

But the only thing he stifles is a trill. “Why are you doing all of this for me anyway?” he asks.

She arches a brow. “Um, do you mean the ‘touching raw meat’ part or the ‘stabbing you’ part?”

“I mean all of it. Why are you even here? Why don’t you hate me? I would. You were supposed to.”

And there it is—not that she didn’t already know it. She wonders if she’ll ever understand the sort of bottomless self-loathing required to devise and execute such a stupid, self-sabotaging plan. Wonders if it’s worth putting this conversation off any longer. Probably not. It’s too bad she’s out of whisky, though.

“Yeah, sorry,” she mutters. “I really did try. Then I got over it and remembered you were my friend.”

Twenty seconds of his unnerving wendigo stare, nostrils flaring like he can actually sniff out the lie.

“No you didn’t,” he murmurs. “You’re still not over it.”

Ouch. She kind of misses the self-absorption of Crazy-Depressed Josh—this one’s way too perceptive.

“But you’re being super nice to me anyway,” he continues, “And that’s my point. You came all the way back here when you should be off living your life for yourself, doing kind things for people who actually deserve them. God, I’m such a dick. Like, I don’t even know how I make you do it, but I just . . .”

She hopes her voice isn’t too brittle-sounding as she waves him off. “Yeah, yeah. You are pretty lucky.”

“It doesn’t even matter what I do to you, does it? You’d forgive me anything.” His melancholy is not so surprising, but it is disquieting. “That’s gross, Sam. That’s, like, creepy abusive relationship type shit.”

Really? I’m being gross?” Her anger blazes suddenly, in part because he’s not at all wrong, but mostly because he’s the last person on Earth who should be criticizing anyone’s questionable behaviors or sketchy mental state. “Look,” she hisses. “Do you want me to keep helping you or not? Because it’s me or no one, Washington; take it or leave it. Or have you decided to stay a wendigo?”

“No, that’s not it. Nothing’s changed. I definitely want your help—fuck, I’m so grateful—”

“Hey, if last night was too much for you, I get it, but spare me the insults and just say it, okay?”

“It wasn’t! I’m good! Sam, stop. Please just listen to me.”

She stops. Looks at him. Despite the teeth and the claws and the grisly wounds, for a moment he looks entirely human, vulnerable and breathless and alarmed. He mumbles, “I just want . . . I just want you to be okay, all right? And I want to be worth all that you’re doing for me. But I’m not. I’m so not. I’m sorry.”

And back to this. It’s like a cancer she’ll never ever cut out of him. All of her anger siphons down the drain in an instant, replaced by the usual pity and that other thing she can’t name. She doesn’t on account of his injuries, but she has the sudden urge to hug him, stupid, blood-thirsty monster or not.

But, really, how can she make him understand?

If Hannah and Beth couldn’t—

If countless therapists couldn’t—

“Josh, goddammit,” she sighs. “Enough. You’re an asshole, but you’re not irredeemable. Is this what you need to hear? You did some sick, messed-up stuff, including making me feel grossly violated and convincing me I was about to be murdered. Not cool. But you were off your meds and I don’t hate you. I won’t ever, so just give it up, motherfucker, and let us get on with dinner. Can I be any more clear?”

He considers this. Shakes his head. “I wasn’t off my meds, though.”

“Yeah, you were. Trust me.”

The way he cocks his head and half-smiles is like he thinks she’s playing some prank of her own now. Which is annoying but just as well, probably, since she can’t finish with what she ought to say—can’t tell him why she’s really doing all of this for him. The part about his mother and the pills, about her crushing guilt, she will spill eventually, even though he’ll likely hate her for it. It’s the other part she can’t voice.

The part about why her inadvertent betrayal even matters.

The part she hasn’t yet even told herself.

“Fine,” he murmurs. She can’t tell if he’s truly ready to drop it or just feigning. God knows the boy’s capacity for deception is next-level. “Okay, fine. Didn’t mean to upset you. Thanks for the food.”

“Yeah, no problem. Now shut up and eat your damned Bambi.”

She turns away and opens the fridge. Stares for a while before pointedly selecting a can of Spam from the cabinet and retreating to the porch. Despite this act of masochism, she can’t quite bring herself to watch him eat. The ripping and snapping sounds drifting through the open door are gruesome enough.

* * * * *

Sometime in the night she wakes to the gentle nudge of knuckles against her cheek.

She’s on the lumpy couch beneath an old quilt, Josh having crashed again in the bedroom shortly after eating. Only now he’s standing over her, claws folded safely away against his palms, silver eyes gleaming in the dark. The tilt of his head and his soft chuffing ask the question his words can’t right now.

She sits up slowly and says, “Well, it is your bed. And you need your rest. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Ordinarily, he’s nocturnal so this hasn’t come up. As it stands, she gets a macabre version of his skeptical grimace, but she can never be entirely sure how much he understands. He tips his head up and back, gesturing in the direction of the bedroom. Which would be a laughable joke in another time and place, another world—if she had a dollar for every time Josh Washington pretended to want to seduce her, she’d be able to buy this damn mountain and dynamite it and its stupid curse into oblivion.

That’s not what he’s doing, of course. He’s just being nice after their fight.

 

The bed is more comfortable than the couch. She gets up and pads down the hall, Josh following behind and nearly on top of her as he tends to do when he’s at his most wendigoey. As she climbs in, he finally notices the blood-flecked bandage she’s had stuck on her hand all day. He catches her fingers. Frowns. Another questioning head-tilt that makes her think of a rabid family dog and smile despite herself.

“You bit me, jackass. You don’t remember?”

The way he cringes now is rabid-family-dog-that’s-peed-on-the-rug. Before she’s even aware, he’s peeled off the bandage and brought her hand up to his razor-mouth. Which is totally unnecessary, and which she would like to point out is the thing that made the gash on the side of her palm to begin with, but she can understand wanting to make amends and somehow he manages to be gentle again.

For one long minute, he sucks on her skin like he did before and it feels nice.

But, also, it feels weird because it feels nice. He is, after all, a scary cannibal monster perfectly capable of killing her. Like he understands this, he doesn’t look at her the whole time. Just lightly suctions and lets his cursed magic do its work, making everything tingly and warm. She never feels teeth, only the delicate flickering of his tongue and the softness of what’s left of his lips. The wound is minor compared to the one she had sutured. Pretty soon it doesn’t hurt at all and she could tell him, could let him stop, but . . .

It feels really nice. Like a kiss, almost. She tilts her head back. Draws a long, shaky breath and holds it.

What the hell, Sam? Wendigo, remember? What. The. Hell.

For a change, that one’s her own voice speaking truth.

He stops anyway. She has to straighten up and look to see that he’s staring, cloudy eyes full of disbelief.

And here she thought she was being subtle. Shit. Either way, that’s the road to Crazy Town.

She eases her hand back and quickly hides beneath the covers, glad for the darkness to conceal the prickling heat creeping up her cheeks. Whispers, “Thanks. Um. We should get some sleep, right?”

He chuffs at her and settles back onto his side of the bed.

She does the same. She is sooooo not going to sleep, though.

Not right away. Not after that business.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: INTO THE DARK RUINS


 

In the dream, she is back in the lodge. Downstairs. The home theater.

Terror floods the control room in her head, all systems red. She throws a vase. Races down the stairs to the basement, and the killer—The Psycho, with his pale corpse visage and his gas canister—follows.

This is not a memory. Yes, all of this has already happened; yes, she is in a towel, barefoot, certain of her imminent death. The differences are subtle: right-hand door to the basement, not left. Red towel, not white. Halfway down the stairs something feels different in a more concrete and immediate sense. First comes the wave of confusion. A thick fog swallows everything inside her head, silencing the ringing of alarms. She keeps going but she barely remembers the reason for her panic now—something, there was a thing, a man coming, but everything is dream-blunted and suddenly her fear just seems frivolous.

Why are you running, Sam? What if you just—?

Yes, that sounds really nice.

Her pulse follows the lead of her feet. Jogs a bit before returning to its usual, more leisurely pace. Only because it seems like she must have come down here to play this game—and she would hate to disappoint; she is, after all, an overachiever—she trots along the rows of shelves. Hides obediently and darts away from the man in the mask like they are engaged in some sort of complex performance.

She laughs each time she eludes him, slipping away at the last second to scurry deeper into the basement’s depths. She finds the hidden door handle, emerges into the dark ruins of an old hotel where dank, moldering air hangs heavy and plaster dust coats everything like snow. She doesn’t see her silent pursuer as she creeps along the hall, picking her way past so many broken, ruined, once-familiar things.

Then suddenly he is right there. They look at each other; some wordless message transmits.

She doesn’t try to run this time. Reaches instead for the edge of the towel and lets it fall about her feet.

His arms encircle, pull her close, warm breath tickling against her throat.

When did he lose the gas canister or take off his gloves? She can’t say, but his cool, dry hands moving over her bare flesh—stroking, squeezing, caressing—feel incredible. She would like to reciprocate. So many buttons—hooks—padding—infernal obstructions—but finally she’s peeling off a black tee-shirt and tossing it aside, then it’s sun-kissed skin and her lips whispering over the angle of his collarbone.

She would kiss his face—his jaw, his eyelids, his lips—only he still wears the mask. When she reaches for it, he silently shakes his head and smooths fingers through her hair, folds her gently against his body. His fingers move again, finding other things to stroke, and she forgets her frustration. Forgets about everything pretty soon as time stretches out like melting taffy and she arches against him, gasping.

He turns her. She has no breath to say that she has wanted this forever—that some things may decay but not this—but he must know. He sinks into her with a soft sigh. They begin to move together.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: OLD FRIENDS


 

 In the morning, her hand is fully healed and Josh must be feeling better because he’s gone. God knows where or why, but she is quietly glad. Her head feels like the beach after a violent storm, strewn with things arguably better left to the depths. She won’t say she doesn’t understand the dream, but . . .

It’s pointless. That’s the real problem.

Firstly, there is just no way.

Secondly, there are more pressing issues and, anyway, Josh doesn’t think of her that way. She is some sort of holy symbol to him, not an ordinary human being with ordinary human flaws. Either way, she’s been neglecting her butterflies. Four different colors—brown, yellow, white, black—are represented amongst the week’s worth of specimens on the sill. No way to identify the color of last night’s messenger.

She takes a shower and as she’s getting dressed she discovers that the warding totem Jay Shiner gave her is no longer in the pocket of her puffer vest. In fact, she can’t recall seeing it in days. A quick search reveals it’s nowhere to be found in the cabin, which means it must have fallen out somewhere.

My goodness, Samantha. You are really bad at this, aren’t you?

Nothing terrible has happened in its absence, but she’s inclined to believe that it could. Anyway, for a change she has time to kill and her brain is desperate for a distraction. It won’t hurt to go look for it along her usual routes before she heads down to town to touch base with Mike and Em and home.

Fortunately, it hasn’t snowed again, which makes retracing her steps a little easier.

She heads back towards the shed, moving slowly, head down. Turns up nothing en route and nothing inside the building save a dull and pointless queasiness at the sight of the table and all that dried blood. The snare jar is still there, still ominously sooty and dark. Which means nothing, of course, or maybe something—Jack Shiner’s instructions are particularly opaque on this point. No totem, though.

It occurs to her that it may have fallen out when she was attacked, so back up to the sanitarium she goes, backtracking first to pick up the route she ran that night. The day is slightly warmer than average, blessed with an abundance of sun that’s just starting to melt the top layer of snow. Water drips idly from black branches. Her boots crunch and slosh as she trudges along, eyes scouring the ground.

Still nothing—not even in the cage where she was tackled and knocked unconscious, where the dust is all churned up from the fight that took place there. She pokes into every neglected corner, dread mounting as she realizes she’s going to have to go back to Jay and tell him what she’s done. It would be wrong, of course, to assume he’ll turn into some stereotypical, sassy hell-beast and chew her out, but then—she has fucked up pretty egregiously. Hopefully he’ll have a solution and won’t be too put-out.

While she’s standing in the courtyard chewing on this and still optimistically studying the ground, a hint of movement catches her eye. Rabbit or bird, she figures. Maybe a deer. Or else Josh has tracked her down with his crazy wendigo sense of smell. She throws away the chunk of brick she’s been tossing from hand to hand and glances up. Freezes instantly, though it takes a second for her brain to even process.

A different familiar wendigo—the one who nearly gutted her that night—is perched on the stone wall.

Somehow she’d just assumed Josh had killed it, but evidently not. She can see why now: it’s huge. Long, lean, spidery limbs angle out from its torso, which is bare and the same ashen grey as the tattered, buckskin leggings it wears. A few strands of long, black hair sprout from its otherwise bald head.

Shit. If the miners were old, this Cree wendigo must be ancient.

And, like Josh, it doesn’t seem to follow the rules.

As if to taunt her, it parrots something in a language she can’t understand. Trills loudly and leaps down with a sort of smug indifference to the sunlight dappling across its bony shoulders and the fact that it’s the middle of the morning. On all fours it slinks towards her, slow and deliberate, chirping hypnotically.

Sam ceases to breath—does her best to cease to exist. Like an idiot, she’s set the shotgun against the railing ten feet away. It’s too much, she supposes, to hope Josh will swoop in again. Who knows where he’s gone, and even if—he’s wounded now, weak. At his very best he hasn’t been able to kill this one.

Shit.

Shit, fuck, shit.

Although she hasn’t moved a muscle, it must have her position pinpointed from before she noticed it. But it doesn’t lunge—doesn’t decapitate her or spill her entrails into a steaming heap upon the snow like she fully expects. Instead, it just bumps against her and saunters off into the trees as she stumbles.

Like a shark. Like a shark investigating its prey before an attack.

She stands there in agony for another twenty minutes, heart pounding, before she risks turning to look.

Nothing but pines and snow.

She bolts to the stairs, snatches up the shotgun, and high-tails it back down the trail.

* * * * *

“You did what?” says Jay when she has him on the phone. “And then what? Slow down, darling.”

“Okay, first: I lost your totem. I know I suck.” Sitting in her car in the lot at the base of the mountain, she shifts the phone from one shaky hand to the other. “I don’t know how it happened. I had it on me and then it was gone. I was wondering if you had . . . I don’t know . . . any idea where to get another one?”

In the thirty seconds of silence that follows, his weary consideration is nearly audible.

“Well,” he replies at last, “Congratulations on not being dead yet. But, yes, you do suck. I tell you what: if you help me with a little project of mine, you’ll probably come across another protection totem.”

“Yeah? And what project is that?”

“Ah. So after Pops died and the police decided he was a craaaaaazy murderer, they got a warrant for his house—my grandma’s house—the family house, I guess you’d call it. The place was tangled up with legal crap for months—and no great loss there, believe me—but a couple months ago that finally got sorted out and it’s mine now, like it or not. I haven’t gotten around to doing anything with it.” Interesting. She has an idea where this is going, which he quickly confirms. “It’s a dump and, quite frankly, full of crap memories, but it’s also stuffed with wendigo-hunting paraphernalia. That’s where the saskahwaw came from, anyway. If you want to come help me box up his crap, you’re welcome to anything you find.”

“Yeah? Sure, okay. When?”

“I’m actually on my way there now, so . . . if you’re not busy torturing any wendigoes or anything . . .”

“Uh, nope. Not again until Saturday. Tell me where to go and I’ll be there.”

 * * * * *

The unassuming stucco-and-cedar home is only about a quarter mile from the Blackwood gates. It’s been in Jay Shiner’s family since it was built in the 1920s, and was probably a fancy, little chalet at one point, but he is right—it’s definitely seen better days. While they box up old Tupperware and things like the late Beulah Shiner’s hookah collection, Sam tells him about the first night of spirit-letting with Josh and about this morning’s encounter. At her description of the Cree wendigo, he shudders and nods.

“Ah, yes. He’s the one who killed my great-grandfather. Figures he’s still around. We call him Nip.”

“‘Nip?’ That’s a bit of a soft-sell, isn’t it? He did a lot more than nip me the other night.”

She shows him the line of sutures on her belly, to which he responds with a dramatic grimace.

“No, not like that,” he explains. “It’s short for . . . oh, what is it? Nipwahkaw, I think? It means ‘clever.’ And he is. Pops said anymore he’s so old and so intimidating he gets the other wendies to do most of his hunting for him. He’s a clever bastard, but he’s a lazy, clever bastard. Hmm. Can’t say I don’t relate. Anyway, mostly he stays in the mines. He’s got some swank, little lair there, I imagine.”

She can’t imagine wanting to stay down in that dark, horrible place. But, then, she isn’t a wendigo.

She asks, “So why’s he out now? And I’m not complaining, but why didn’t he attack me this time?”

“Not sure. I am but a failed apprentice, you know. Maybe your amazing, domesticated wendi-boy knows. Which—while we’re on the subject, I have to say—holy shit. How? Anyhoo, you should ask him.”

“So true. And just as soon as he turns up again, I will.” At Jay’s arched brow, she shrugs. “You got me. I woke up this morning and he was gone, half-dead or not. I don’t know how he controls the spirit inside of him or the hunger. It’s not perfect—he’s not, like, a normal human or anything. The meds are helping a lot with his other stuff, so he’s not really hallucinating anymore, but he’s . . . well, you know.”

“Still a ravenous cannibal monster with self-esteem issues?”

She points a finger and smiles wanly. “That’s it. I knew there was something.”

A ravenous, cannibal monster you still have feelings for, Sam.

Pointless feelings.

Wholly inappropriate feelings.

“Shut up, dipshit,” she mutters and tumbles another stack of moldy, old survival cookbooks into a box.

Jay gives her a funny look, but she isn’t too concerned—of all people, he must already know she’s crazy.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THINGS UNSAID


 

Sam strings her new protection totem—this one a tiny bear—on a leather cord around her neck for safer-keeping. After she answers texts from her mother and Ashley (nothing but gentle lies for those two sweet souls) and Mike (a pared-down version of the truth), she thanks Jay and heads out again.

Given this morning’s encounter, even a late afternoon hike up Blackwood feels like an act of bravery. When she gets back to the cabin, there’s an old, burlap bag sitting on top of the front porch and a wendigo just scuttling out from the shadows beneath it. She swings the shotgun, takes aim fast.

Shit—not again—

“Easy there, Tex. I surrender,” Josh drawls, raising his claws to the sky.

He sounds silly, harmless. Doesn’t exactly look it, but she lowers her weapon and he comes limp-skittering over to her with an amused shriek. A quick sniff before he absently nudges his face against her throat, whereupon she discovers that he smells like the mines again—dank and wet—and like decay. She is peripherally aware of his fists resting against her lower back. His arms are around her—like, hugging her, she guesses. Physicality is sort of just a Josh thing, but now every gesture is slightly laden.

Into her ear, he murmurs, “It’s kinda sexy when you go all Terminator 2 Sarah Connor and shit.”

Oh, she could do without that sort of talk right now. Is he trying to mess with her? Is he ever not?

“Not really what I was going for,” she replies, “But thanks. What were you even doing under there?”

His impish smirk flashes wide. “Oh, you don’t want to know. Boring stuff. Wendigo stuff.”

A dramatic sigh with a dash of side-eye as she ducks out of his grasp. It’s enough to compel him.

“Fine. I was moving my leftovers. Those other dick-ass losers were gonna steal them otherwise.”

As they talk, she drifts up the steps and lets them inside.

“Wait, so you . . . you just put a rotting corpse right below where I’ll be sleeping tonight?” Morbid as this is, chances are eating his preferred diet will help him keep his strength up as the lettings get worse. All the same, she crinkles her nose and fashions a faux-polite smile. “Awesome. Super stoked about that.”

Even with that wolf’s face, he manages to look sheepish. “S’not a rotting corpse. It’s all dried out.”

“Ah. Well, that’s a relief.”

He frowns, as if it takes a measure of concentration now to perceive things as a human might. With a soft shriek, he rests claws on the back of his neck and says, “Okay, okay. I’ll move it somewhere else if you want.”

“No, don’t bother,” she says. “It makes sense. And I don’t want you thinking about me like that, so—”

“Come on; I don’t. I might joke around, but that’s not really how I think about you,” he murmurs.

Great. So Sam Abbott ≠ food. That’s comforting. But while they’re on the subject, there’s about a Grand Canyon’s worth of distance between ‘not food’ and the way she’d actually like him to think about her. Not that this is the time or place to be worrying about such things, she reminds herself, but—

Jesus. She sets her things down, shrugs out of her coat, and flops onto the couch with a groan.

In a way, it was better when she was still hung up on the trauma he’d inflicted upon her. But he’s right: she really wants to forgive him that. And she will finish working through that trauma eventually, and it doesn’t seem to be inhibiting her stupid feelings, and now here she is. Reconciling with Josh is good, but she is absolutely not going to start pining away over a freaking demon-spirit-possessed cannibal monster.

Seriously. Nope, nope, nope.

Oblivious to her angst, Josh goes back out to grab the burlap bag, which he slides into the corner. At Sam’s questioning look, he trills and coughs, eyes glued to the knotty floorboards and says, “Uh, it’s just some stuff I collected when I was down in the mines. Hannah and Beth’s stuff. Things Hannah left there from before she was, you know. I just . . . I want to keep it. I guess that’s kinda lame and creepy, huh?”

Not really. ‘Sweet’ is the word she would’ve used.

She says, “I thought the cops took all that stuff into evidence.”

“Not all of it. They were pretty half-assed.”

Sam remembers Beth’s watch, that awful diary. His disclosure makes her heart ache, both for her departed friends and for the knowledge that this is how he spent his time down there—staging a solitary memorial to his dead sisters with a few scraps and listening to them berate him in his head. No wonder he’s still so down on himself. He risks a glance up to check her reaction and she catches his wrist.

“Josh, it’s not lame at all. You were a good brother to them. I hope you finally know that.”

He snorts. “The fuck I was. I wasn’t a good anything to anyone.”

“You were. They both loved you so much, you know? At your funeral—”

She catches herself, pulls up short. Talking about the joint funeral held for all three Washington siblings in the aftermath of Blackwood II means coming precariously close to talking about Melinda Washington and Sam’s inadvertent discovery, and she doesn’t want that. Fortunately, Josh is already grimacing.

“You had a funeral for me? Really? Was it—I dunno—was it nice? Did you cry, Sammy?”

“Of course we did. I told you: we all thought you were dead. It was a joint funeral for all three of you.”

“Oh. I guess that’s—”

“It’s whatever.” She pats his arm decisively. “Doesn’t matter now. You aren’t dead and you aren’t going to be, because we are going to get through this stupid ritual and it’s going to fucking work, okay?”

At her heavy-handed attempt at optimism, he just snorts again. Mouths, ‘Okay, coach.’

* * * * *

It feels like too much at once, and so she waits until the next day to tell him about Nip.

“Who?” he asks, blinking at her from his perch on the porch railing. It’s early—pale orange sun just starting to wink through the trees—he’s just back from roaming, only just found his human voice again.

“That’s what Jay calls him. You know him. He’s the one that would’ve killed me up at the sanitarium if you hadn’t showed up the other night. He’s Cree. Really old. Makes the miners look like babies.”

 “Oh,” he says, and she can hear the bad news in his tone. “That one. Yeah, I know him.”

“What’s his deal? I asked Jay why he didn’t kill me and why he’d be out during the day. He didn’t know.”

“I don’t know, either. I mean—” He chews absently on the side of his finger, puncturing it, and sucks on the blood like a kid with a juice box, “Obviously, there’s nothing stopping us from being out during the day. The spirits are asleep then, so you’d have to have some human left to want to, I guess, and that's not common. I know he and my wendigo don’t get along. At night, whenever he’s around, I can hear it screaming things. Some crazy demon-spirit language. And his hates mine, too. We fight a lot. He’s . . . kinda scary, honestly.”

Understatement of the century right there, Washington.

Though to be fair, she can only think of one wendigo who doesn’t instantly terrify her.

So, yes, this new development is scary. And yet nothing particularly alarming happens for the remainder of the week save the blizzard—on Thursday, the temperature drops brutally and it snows buckets, the drifts piling up nearly to the cabin’s windows and making the trails a challenge. The storm makes it easy to imagine being trapped up here on the mountain, easy to understand the desperation that would set in without food. Sam’s respect for Nature was already quite healthy, thank you, and still she’s impressed.

But no more Nip sightings, and at night, when Josh answers the spirit’s urgent call to go roaming, Sam’s butterflies bring only happy or neutral dreams: of Chris and Ashley holding hands, of Mike and Em laying flowers on Jess’s grave. No premonitions of violent death or any fresh impending tragedy.

* * * * *

In the meantime, Josh continues to heal himself so that he’s physically good-as-new come Saturday. Which seems like a waste, considering she’s only going to undo all of his meticulous handiwork. But what must be done must be done, and this time, at least, they both know what to expect of the letting ritual.

As such, the walk down to the shed as the sun slips towards the horizon makes her feel like an executioner. Josh lopes ahead, occasionally on all fours, shrieking and darting off into the woods after god-knows-what. He’s been like this all day—a little manic—probably trying to compensate for his fear and dread. She can’t really blame him. Still, his restless energy is doing nothing to calm her own nerves.

“Are you ready?” she asks once they’re inside and she’s finished arranging all of the necessities.

He glances back from where he’s been standing quietly, staring at some old, fly-specked poster on the wall she hasn’t previously noticed. When she steps closer, she sees it’s one of his Victor Milgram “Wanted” flyers. For a moment, she wonders if they weren’t all absolute idiots back then for never even suspecting a prank—Josh was, after all, a talented special effects artist, and that had been common knowledge. No reply to her question, but then, she wasn’t expecting fist pumps or high-fives.  

“All right, well—” She nods at the wooden table. “Come on, then. Take your clothes off.”

“Ouch, Sammy,” he mumbles through a sad half-smile. He catches the edge of his shirt with hands that shake just a little. Peels it up and off and reaches for his fly. “Your foreplay needs some work, girl.”

God, he’s killing her. She is maybe going to slip and kill him one of these nights if she’s not exceedingly careful. For now, though, he’s the one obliviously perpetrating violence against that part of her that would otherwise be happy to watch Josh Washington strip down to his underwear at her command.

If she’s not already said so: this whole goddamned thing sucks.

They get down to the horrible business of it, then, Josh quickly shrieking himself unconscious, Sam gritting her teeth and pressing on, hollow-eyed, until her part is done. Then the slow letting commences and the seizures that accompany it, which are even worse this time. They come faster, last longer.

Hang on, Josh. Just hang on.

The wendigo spirit is angry as ever, shrieking its resentment and hell-bent on revenge. When the vessel called Josh isn’t being thrashed about by its fits, it’s straining against the restraints, the wendigo trying desperately to tear into Sam with teeth or claws. Eventually, she can’t watch anymore. She excuses herself to the shed’s far corner to vomit into a bucket and weep herself into a self-protective sleep.

* * * * *

When she wakes again, it’s full-on morning and the small window above her has been broken out, the floor surrounding her sleeping bag strewn with glass. She jumps up, exploding into alertness, but other than her own blood rushing in her ears the room is silent. A quick glance at her phone: it’s after ten a.m.

How the hell did she sleep this long?

And how the hell did something break out a window and not wake her?

As she approaches Josh’s motionless body, a sense of dread washes over her. He looks awful—any inch of flesh not charred black or drenched with blood is bone-white. The window’s too small for a wendigo to fit through. She knows this—there’s no doubt—so if he’s dead it’s because she killed him. And this is exactly what she fears: she’s all but certain that the wrist she risks touching now will be cold and stiff.

And you fell asleep afterwards, Samantha? You did this to my boy and then you FELL ASLEEP?!?

Her stomach rolls again, propelled on a wave of self-loathing. She glances to her bucket, just in case.

“Please, please, please be okay,” she whisper-sings, “Please don’t be dead, Josh? Because I really—”

His eyelid slits, cloudy, dilated pupil contracting back to normal before settling on her.

She nearly screams her relief as he draws a rattling breath. Coughs and gasps, back arching in pain.

“Fuck,” is the only thing he says as she hurries to unshackle him and staunch the trickles of blood. He sits up, clearly woozy. Tolerates her ministrations for a bit before gently pushing her and her gauze pads out of the way. A hint of amusement colors his weary side-eye as he spits onto his palm and works it into a wound. Repeats the effort—Sam is reminded of a cat taking a tongue bath—until he’s no longer leaking.

What a strange, creepy magic this mountain makes, she thinks for perhaps the thousandth time.

“Fuck,” he sighs again and hunches over, wincing.

“Hey, how come you never accidentally heal your prey?” she asks after a while. It seems a more benign ice-breaker than ‘Real sorry about nearly murdering you again,’ although this, she hopes, is implicit.

For one long moment during which she fears his brain’s finally been fried, he only stares at her.

“Cuz I’m not . . . a moron,” he says at last, and fashions a weak snort for her evidently dumb question.

Whatever. As if the details of wendigo spit magic are Googleable. But she’s glad he feels up to being amused. She watches as he pushes himself up. He wobbles like a newborn deer before steadying.

She asks, “You mean it’s selective? You can turn the healing bit on and off?”

“Yeah.” He takes three small steps and has to stop. “That part’s not even magic. It’s like snake venom.”

“Okay, next question.” This is possibly a mistake. “Are you . . . aware . . . at all during the letting?”

He takes two more steps and then she’s darting forward to steady him. He’s still a bloody mess, of course, and with him leaning heavily upon her as they stagger towards the door, pretty soon she is, too. He hovers his mouth beside her ear and murmurs, “Don’t ask me that. Please, Sammy, just . . . don’t ask me about any of that. You don’t want to know. I don’t want you to know. Let’s just go home, okay? ”

Which is answer enough, she supposes. Later, when he is safely tucked away and asleep in the bedroom and she has the rest of the day to herself, she considers his response at greater length. And though everything he won’t say makes her skin prickle and her stomach churn, she’s in awe of his poise and stoicism. Not long ago, he was crumpling into a sobbing ball of sorrow and self-pity for far less.

What a strange, creepy magic indeed.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: AFTERMATH


 

Los Angeles – February 14th, 2015

For two weeks, she’d felt nothing.

It was easy enough to fake it. Now she knew how Josh had gotten by all these months. Every time her mouth moved, she had the sense of some puppeteer manipulating the strings, making her jaw bounce up and down, her teeth click together, drawing the corners up into some grotesque parody of a smile.

Somehow, no one had yet noticed that her recovery was crafted from pure bullshit.

Everyone in this city—no, fuck it, in this whole world—had gone insane. Despite glaring evidence that evil spirits that turned people into cannibal monsters actually existed, nobody cared or even wanted to hear about it. She’d learned that pretty quickly. Sam was an adult—a young adult, sure, but old people had no problem treating her like one most days. One word about wendigoes and suddenly she was five years old again, patted on the head and told to run along and find some candy.

Her heart and brain were small, hapless creatures to which a sadistic child had strapped M-80s. In the meantime, the machine that manufactured the glossy veneer of everyday life rolled on, crushing their tiny carcasses beneath its wheels. And when it was gone, Jess and Beth and Hannah were still dead and Chris was still broken, probably irreparably, locked away in some mental hospital. Ash was badly traumatized and lashing out left and right to compensate. Matt was just gone—as in incommunicado.

Mike and Emily were more-or-less their normal selves, although that wasn’t exactly saying much.

And Josh Washington, her secretly-insane friend, was still dead. For some odd and ineffable reason—odd particularly considering the awful things he’d done to her—this part alone she could feel.

It fucking hurt.

* * * * *

As she pulled the car into the packed lot of the Polk Brothers Funeral Home, she was suddenly exhausted from pretending. She wanted to stare at the grass for the next three days. Wanted to drool on herself like Chris was probably doing now. The thought of straining for meaningless Hallmark sentiments, trite condolences offered to obscure relatives she’d never seen before and never would again, was enough to put a thin layer of sweat down her back. Ditto for the news vans lurking across the street like hungry vultures. At its heart, Sam was convinced, ‘spectacle’ was a four-letter word, but anymore, tragic spectacle was all the Washingtons ever did. This was going to be nothing if not awful.

She considered simply not going in, but being that her own mother was already here—there was her Camry—ditching would only result in some kind of seriously awkward forced heart-to-heart later. And, also, she did want to offer her support to Bob and Melinda. They were weirdos, but they were Hannah and Beth and Josh’s weirdos, and after countless dinners, sleepovers, and tag-along vacations, she’d managed to grow vaguely fond of them. They were hurting now, not that there was anything she could really do. Lastly, Mike and Em would be here. Probably no one else, but they’d be expecting her.

She gulped a breath. Carefully arranged her face to generic somberness and got out.

The air that enveloped her upon stepping through the double-doors was cool, thick, and cloyingly floral, as was the way of such places. Clusters of sober people milled about between the lobby and the adjacent viewing room, talking softly and glancing at new arrivals. A few urgent whispers sounded at Sam’s entrance, but she chose to ignore these and drifted across to the padded chairs where her friends had settled themselves. Bob and Melinda held court at the front of the room, where three ostensibly-empty coffins anchored a sea of framed photographs and scads of ostentatious floral arrangements.

As it turned out, it wasn’t just Mike and Em—Matt had shown up after all, the three of them weaving an ephemeral tapestry of tension with chewed lips and awkward, quickly-lowered glances. For a change, no one was sniping or talking shit. Em’s dress fit weirdly across her bandage. Mike’s mangled hand—wrapped in a thick, white bandage—looked like a prize fighter’s. Everyone’s other cuts and bruises had begun to heal, but all three sported heavy, purple circles beneath their eyes that matched Sam’s own.

She embraced each of them in turn, then shoved her hands back into the sleeves of her cardigan and just stood there. What was there to say, really? They were the survivors, but did they deserve to be?

“Have any of you talked to Bob or Melinda yet?” she asked, finally.

“Not yet,” Mike replied, sounding none-too-eager. “Melinda’s pretty . . . she’s pretty worked up.” 

That much was evident from the sound of her muffled sobs. Bob Washington looked like he’d sat on something sharp and was trying to discreetly weather it—lips pressed tight, face periodically twitching.

“Who are all these douchy assholes, anyway?” Em sulked, reaching out to pluck a stray thread from Sam’s skirt. Which was Em’s way of saying that she, too, was tired of being stared at, questioned, disbelieved.

“Probably B-Wash’s army of lawyers,” Matt muttered. A low blow, but true—at least some were.

A lot were familiar faces from school, too, people who Sam politely nodded at as they caught her gaze. A month ago, she would’ve called them friends, but everything was different now; this improbable rift had come along to split her whole world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Now when people looked at her, it was like she’d been diagnosed with cancer. This was the sort of thing she’d have gone to Josh about, ordinarily—with his missing sisters, his pills and his hospitals, he understood well what it was to be alone in a crowd.

Only now she couldn’t.

Only now she never would again.

She had to blink to dissipate the moisture newly rimming her eyes. “I’ll be right back,” she murmured. 

Down the hall. A forced smile for her mother, who was on a couch just outside the viewing room, most likely trading therapist stories with Ashley’s and Matt’s moms. On through the heavy, brass-knobbed door marked “Ladies.” Her wedge heels echoed off the tile in the otherwise-silent room. Deep breath.

Did you honestly forget, you fucking idiot?

The stalking?

The being gassed and tied to a chair part?!

She leaned against the tile wall of the stall, swiped at her eyes with the heels of her hands and stifled a snort. She was ridiculous. She knew it. He’d betrayed her trust completely. There was no reason to mourn him. If she kept on like this, she’d be no different than poor, pathetic Hannah with her hopeless crush, even if her relationship with Josh had been platonic. Even if it had once seemed reciprocal.

And, Jesus, poor Hannah. The sweetest girl ever turned into . . . well, death itself. What a horrible end. Hannah and Beth had been completely innocent and they’d suffered so awfully. That was the real tragedy here. Not Josh. As Em had already grown fond of saying, that miserable fucker had made his own bed. The sooner Sam internalized that fact and moved on, the better off she’d be.

She took several more long, deep breaths. Braved the mirror to make sure her makeup hadn’t run.

Back to the East Viewing Room, where the memorial service was about to start.

“Come on,” Em said, grabbing her elbow, “Let’s go get this over with.”

The service was long and predictably artificial. A pastor who knew nothing about the Washingtons rambled on about what fine and wholesome young adults they were (Em snorted and Sam elbowed her discreetly) before turning the podium over to Bob Washington. He was still holding it together, although when he began to speak, it was like he was reading from a distant teleprompter he could barely see. Or maybe like he was drunk, though he wasn’t. His eyes found the exit and fixed on it, never wavering. 

“I never thought I’d be standing here in a room like this,” he continued, “You’re not supposed to outlive any of your children.” A long pause as he stared off, caught by some memory or thought. “One lost child is a tragedy. Losing all four—three, rather—now has been like . . . I can’t even tell you. You know, when Melinda was a little girl—excuse me; when Beth was a little girl—I remember her telling us she wanted to be President. And as she grew up, with her sense of justice and the fearless way she never backed down from anything, I believed she could do it. She could be anything she wanted to be. Hannah, too—there was never a kinder soul on earth. I didn’t know what the future held for any of my children, but it wasn’t this. I would never have fathomed it could be this, and it shouldn’t have been. I hope that we can all remember them for the happiness they brought, for their warmth, and I just . . . I pray that they’re at peace. That we’ll all see them again someday and be able to tell them how much we love them.”

It was an okay eulogy. No mention of Josh, but then, that may have been in the interest of conflict avoidance. Still, it all felt hopelessly wrong. Wendigoes were real, but somehow this didn’t feel like it could be. Any moment, Bob would yell, “Cut!” and all three Washington kids would come spilling out of whatever secret room they’d been hiding in. Only Melinda’s quiet, steady weeping said otherwise.

There was a break between the service and the cemetery, during which Sam made her way over to Bob and Melinda to offer condolences. Mrs. Washington looked like hell, naturally, her wet, makeup-less face all puffy and blotched as she hunched on a chair, eyes closed, holding her head and moaning. Hands resting on Melinda’s shoulders, Bob glanced up, nodded, and pressed out a thin-lipped smile.

“Hi, Samantha. How are you holding up through this?”

“I’m fine. It’s just . . . it doesn’t feel real, you know? Like, any minute now, Hannah’s going to call me up to go out for Thai, or . . . you know, maybe Beth is. I only came over to tell you both how sorry I am.”

“Likewise. And, uh—” He cleared his throat, glanced around quickly before leaning closer, “With everything that happened up there at the lodge, I wanted to say that—if you need anything—if there’s anything that I can do, you know, to make things right, considering, I will be happy to do it—”

“Oh, please. Hush.” She patted his arm as if she, not he, were the parent. “That’s not what today is for, and anyway, I’m fine. So, um, how are you two doing? I’m sure that’s a stupid question, but . . .”

“Awful,” Melinda muttered, and moaned again. It was the first word she’d spoken.

Sam winced. “Oh, gosh. I’m so, so sorry, Mrs. W. I’ve been really worried about you both.”

Ordinarily, Mrs. Washington was one of those consummate hostesses. She was an orchestrator, a doer, not unlike Beth had been. Seeing her like this was excruciating, though perfectly understandable.

“Melinda’s got a bad migraine,” Bob explained. “It’s the stress, I’m sure. And she forgot her medication.”

“I can go get it for you,” Sam offered instantly. “I still have my spare key.”

He seemed startled, although this was a pretty obvious solution. “Oh, really, Sam? Could you?”

The Washingtons’ house wasn’t too far away. Plus, anything that would get her out of this macabre social performance for even a little while would be a win-win. She was running out of empty platitudes.

She managed a wan smile. “Of course. It’s the least I can do.”

“It should be on the nightstand. I forget what it’s called, but it’s the only one with Melinda’s name on it.”

Some other people Sam didn’t know—a fawning group of ladies from Melinda’s support group, it sounded like—had come up to say their piece, so she ducked away. Out in the parking lot, she found Mike leaning against his car and staring at his phone with glassy eyes. He straightened up pretty quickly at her approach, scrubbed a forearm across his face and flashed his cocky grin, but she wasn’t buying it.

She nudged his arm. “Come with me? I’ve got to go get Melinda’s migraine medication.”

“Happy to,” he replied. “Can’t take much more of this ridiculous crap anyway.”

They hopped into Sam’s Nissan and rolled out into the perfect Southern California morning. “Us and them now, isn’t it?” she offered and cast a glance at the passenger seat, at Mike caught somewhere between the crying he must’ve been considering and a harsh laugh. She reached over and gently squeezed his elbow, at which he sighed like she’d released a pressure valve somewhere.

“Yeah, you’re not kidding,” he replied. “It’s crazy.”

She nodded.

“I can’t believe no one even wants to hear about it. Holy cats—fucking wendigoes. And they’re just like, ‘Nope, nope, flamethrower dude did it. Don’t care what you say.’ It’s like they think we all caught what Josh has—had. Let’s have a funeral, bury Beth’s fucking head, and call it good. Jesus Peanut Butter Armageddon Christ.”

Sam snorted, although she was anything but amused. She pressed the gas a little harder. “Right? If they ever find that poor guy’s body, they’re going to feel pretty stupid about this. ‘Excuse me, Detective Harding, so did he decapitate himself, too, then? Oh, he did? I see.’ I don’t get it either, Mike.”

They rode in silence for a while before Mike muttered, “Well, at least they got Jess’s body out.”

Sam stiffened. This was the closest he’d yet come to talking about that prickly business.

“Yeah, I’m . . . glad about that, too. It’s good she got a real burial.” She chewed her lip. “But I wish . . .”

She didn’t have to finish; he was already nodding. Jess’s funeral had been last week, not that any of them had been welcome to attend it. Her parents had made that much crystal clear. Sam suspected this only added to Mike’s guilt. He and Jess hadn’t been together long, but he wasn’t a total asshole, either.

Eventually, she turned onto Bella Vista Avenue and then up the long, brick driveway.

The Washington home looked the same as ever—stately and a little imposing. If she squinted now, she could almost see Hannah standing in her bedroom window or Beth in her bikini draped across one of the chairs on the terrace. Inside, plates of a half-consumed breakfast were growing mold on the dining room table, but there was little else to suggest the scope of the tragedy that had occurred. Beth’s car keys still hung on the hook. One of Josh’s hoodies dangled precariously from the back of a kitchen chair.

Bob and Melinda’s master suite was on the second floor, so she headed there. Mike followed her up the stairs, but he stopped outside Hannah’s room with an odd expression on his face to stare at the poster-covered door. Eventually, he nudged it open and went in. She left him to whatever it was he was working out and continued on, passing Josh’s room without a glance en route to the end of the hall.

No prescription bottles on either nightstand flanking the immaculate king-sized bed. Suitcases sat beside the entrance to the vast walk-in closet—the Washingtons had only flown back in early this morning—but she would save rooting through those for a last resort. She drifted through the arched doors to the Moroccan-style master bath. An open box of Sudafed, a pharmacy bag, and an orange prescription bottle were the only things on the counter, plus a few little, red pills that had spilled into the sink. Sam hopefully scooped up the bottle and read the label. But it wasn’t Melinda’s. It was Josh’s Nardil.

Well, there was a wasted refill even if he had survived—obviously the jackass had stopped taking his pills weeks ago. The lid was loose; she snapped it back on and set it down. Resolutely ignoring the sharp pain in her chest, she glanced again and realized there was a second, unopened pharmacy bag stapled to the first one—this one did indeed have Melinda Washington’s name on it. She fished out the bottle.

No Mike out in the hallway yet. She was certainly in no hurry to get over to the cemetery, and anyway, she wasn’t dumb, either. For as much as Mike was an incurable player (and he was) and in as much as his good looks and charisma often made his life a jaunt down easy street, he was still a good guy deep down. He had a heart and a brain when he elected to use them, which meant he was well aware of the role he’d played in Hannah’s death. If he wasn’t out in another ten minutes, she’d go and check on him.

Until then, she found herself drifting towards a different door, although a part of her knew she would be better off doing anything but. She could go wait in the foyer. Could go do the kind and responsible thing and clean up those nasty dishes. Instead, she carefully unlatched the door and shuffled in. Everything looked much like the last time she’d seen it. Heaps of dirty clothes (that would never be worn again) and stacks of DVDS (that he’d watched for the last time) augmented the familiar furnishings. It didn’t look like the abode of a depraved psychopath—like the kind of place where sick, sadistic plans were hatched.

But it was. She need look no further than the rope burns on her wrists to know that.

With a shudder, she sank down onto the unmade bed, which still smelled faintly of Josh’s fancy cologne. Drew a deep breath as she let the pain and anger, her sense of betrayal and indignation all wash over her in crashing waves. She cursed his phantom: she hadn’t deserved this abuse. She really hadn’t.

Teary-eyed, she bit her lip and fell back into the flannel pillows, curling over on her side to regard the vast, black TV screen. Come to think of it, she had smelled this same scent on the psycho—make that Psycho—who had chased her through the basement, and yet she had never put two and two together.

Whoops. Jeez, Sammy—that was kind of a high pop-fly, huh?

It really was. And yet, for an allegedly intelligent person, sometimes she was so damned oblivious.

As had already become habit these past two weeks, she began to replay their old conversations, hunting for more clues, more hints of the soul-deep cracks that had all this time been lurking. They were everywhere, of course, once she started looking for them. But something else floated up now, an old phone conversation. From the bad time last spring, she thought—just before his long hospital stay.

“Josh, you have to try . . . You can’t go on living like this. You can’t hide in the dark forever.”

Well, she’d been wrong about that, hadn’t she? He could hide in the dark forever. The abyss was his home now, although maybe it always had been. But what was it they’d been arguing about that time?

“Are you ready? Did you find Melinda’s stuff?” Mike asked, leaning in through the open door.

She rolled over and sat up. “Oh.” A little red-eyed, maybe, but otherwise he looked okay, and she hoped he was. “Uh, yep. Guess we should get going, huh?” He gave her a funny look as she passed by—probably for being in here, of all places—but didn’t say anything. Out into the hall and down the steps they went, probably for the last time, Sam realized. Which was crazy—this place had been her second home and now it would just melt out of her life. Every day now was like a bad Salvador Dali painting.

Halfway out the front door, she walked into a wall in her head and stopped cold. “Oh . . . oh, shit.”

Mike, who was already on the front steps, cocked his head at this. “What’s the problem?”

“Um. Hold on a second—I just need to go check on something. It’s probably nothing.”

Probably nothing, and yet an icy hand rose up to stir her insides as she turned and hurried back up the stairs. She was wrong. She had to be. She did take Sudafed sometimes, but only when her allergies got bad. Not, like, every day. Not often enough to recognize the pills out of context. Anyway, she was super out of it these days. It was possible she couldn’t even correctly identify a cat without a well-placed label right now.

Never one to sit on the sidelines, Mike followed her as she strode back down the hall.

Josh’s new prescription still sat on the counter as she’d left it. She looked at the pills that had spilled into the sink. At the ones still in the bottle, which were identical. Picked up the box of Sudafed. Two of the blister packs were empty and already in the trash, but there was still one blister pack rattling around in the box. When Sam shook it out, a single pill remained: little and red. She compared the stamp to those on the pills in Josh’s prescription bottle. Both read “L432.” Then, just to be good and certain as her stomach dropped down through the floor, she googled images of Nardil pills: also little and red.

But not a single “L432” among them.

“Oh my God,” she breathed, heart pounding so hard she was sure Mike could hear it.

The look on his face said he wasn’t that far behind her. “Um, Sam? Is this . . ? Was someone . . ?”

--“I am trying. I’m trying so hard, Sam. Wish you could understand what she’s been like.”

“She’s like that because she wants you to get better.”

--“No, I don’t think she does. That’s what I’m saying, Sammy; if you could just see how she—”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.” She snatched up the pharmacy bag, feeling suddenly queasy. Per the receipt, the prescriptions had been filled on January 31st—Josh would’ve already been up in Blackwood. And from what she’d overheard, Bob had flown straight from his satellite office in Vancouver. So—

That left only one person.

All the oxygen fled Sam's lungs at once, leaving her slack-jawed and gasping.

He was right. This whole time, through the hospital and all the months after, he was fucking right—

And you—oh, God, you didn’t—you could've, but you didn't—

“Whoa.” The word was a ghost’s whisper passing across her trembling lips.

Probably she’d meant to say more, but it was at this point that the room tipped slowly sideways. Black blotches bled across her field of vision. Later, she would think how it was a good thing Mike had been there, what with all that marble and tile everywhere and her only having the one head and all.

It was true: everyone in this world really had gone insane.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: MESSENGERS


 

Los Angeles – February-August, 2015

Fact: Josh Washington was still dead.

Fact: Melinda Washington was fresh out of kids, mentally-ill or otherwise, to mess up.

Anyway, the police had already filed her and Mike under ‘Batshit.’

And Melinda didn’t even seem to be faking the ‘absolutely devastated’ thing.

This whole thing was a surreal clusterfuck that made Sam physically ill.

It felt like sacrilege to do absolutely nothing, but in the end, there was nothing to do. Sam took pictures of the tampered prescription, but only to show Bob when the time was right, which was looking like half past never. Beyond this, her discovery would just be another entry in the “Us vs. Them” file—something for their little group of survivors to mull over along with everything else that had happened to them.

She told her therapist, but the woman just made a tisking noise and made a note on her notepad.

In the ensuing days, Sam’s soul quietly crumbled away like old plaster as she roamed the ruins of her life. The Melinda business made everything that had happened since last April—Josh’s psychosis, their being back at Blackwood in the first place—her fault, only no one else was in a position to know it and she was too chicken-shit to tell them yet. And maybe there was no need to ever tell them, since Ash and Em vehemently insisted this news changed nothing: the fact that it wasn’t his own fault Josh’s sadism got out of its cage didn’t negate its very existence. Which was a damned good point, really.

And yet she still ached. He’d been her closest friend, once.

Fuck—why was this so hard?

Though, truthfully, no part of the Washingtons’ tragedy came with simple, clear-cut conclusions, as evidenced by the various conversations that occurred over the ensuing weeks. They talked and talked, Sam and Mike and Ash mostly, although nothing definitive ever seemed to come of their discussions.

 “But why?” Sam wanted to know. “I don’t get it. Melinda was always so doting. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Because she’s crazy,” Ash hissed. “Pretty clear. Like, now we know where Josh got it, right?”

Mike shrugged his agreement. “She always was a little out there, Sam . . .”

That wasn’t explanation enough, though; there had to be something more. Sam shook her head. “Fine—whatever—that part I won’t argue, but I mean: what would she even get out of it, you guys?”

From some dank, dark crevice in her head, Josh’s ghost leaned out and cackled maniacally.

Attention, Sammy-bird! Scads of attention for her doting!

Tons of sympathy from friends and doctors at every relapse!

Who wouldn’t get a lady-boner for all that?!

That seemed to be the clinical consensus as well, and yet the more she thought about it, the more Sam hated this explanation. It turned Melinda into that stupid, drunk-driving afluenza kid—as if deliberately sabotaging your only remaining child’s mental health was the inevitable outcome of too much privileged boredom. That was ridiculous. And it didn’t mesh well with the Melinda she had once known, the woman who was plenty eccentric, who was an overbearing pain-in-the-ass, sure, but who still loved her kids and wouldn’t ever knowingly hurt them. But there was nothing else that even came close.

In the end, she supposed Melinda was merely Josh all over again—sick and desperate—nothing but rusty, broken parts and missing nuts and bolts all concealed beneath a bright, shiny paint job.

Hell, mental pathology wasn’t supposed to make sense, right?

But she hated that answer. She hated all of this.

* * * * *

In the months that followed, the shock became weary acceptance steeped in guilt. Always guilt—so much crushing guilt for her role in this. That, it seemed, was never going away, even though Ash and Em’s point was entirely valid. Even though she still struggled every day to repair the damage Josh’s hideous actions had wrought. Nothing about her post-Blackwood life was shaping up to be easy.

After a while—and probably out of some subconscious sense of self-preservation—she began to imagine that she’d been wrong about Melinda after all. That she’d somehow misinterpreted the evidence. This was a tiny, gossamer-thin thread, but one that might finally lead the way out of this ever-encroaching darkness. Then, one day in early August, Chris snipped her delicate, little hope-thread to bits.

“Maybe there was some valid reason,” she mused as she slouched on the couch of Ashley’s new apartment. She fashioned a tiny smile for this idle fantasy and stretched her way into a shrug. “I mean, there might be. It’s not wholly impossible. Not like I ever straight-up asked her about it, so . . .”

“Nah, I really don’t think you’re wrong,” Chris said softly, glancing up from his phone.

He had the decency to sound apologetic, which didn’t stop her from tossing him a weak scowl.

“Why not? You weren’t even there. What if it’s just that I’m the one who’s really crazy?”

For a moment she regretted her choice of words—he was only a few months out of the psychiatric hospital himself now. A pretty low blow, but he only took off his glasses and slowly wiped them, sucking on the inside of his stubbled cheek the whole time like he was sitting on the very cusp of a thought.

“I think I need to check on something,” he said, finally. “I always thought it was just another one of Josh’s pranks—like, he showed me a newspaper clipping once and then we never really talked about it again, and maybe it wasn’t even a real clipping, right?—but if it’s true, I’d say it’s pretty conclusive proof that you’re not wrong about what Melinda was doing. You want to go for a little drive with me now?”

Well, that didn’t sound even remotely like a trapdoor waiting to waylay her fragile sanity. Nope. Not. At. All.

“A drive to where?” Stupid Masochist Sam cocked a brow.

He didn’t answer, just stood and grabbed his keys and waved her out the door.

She was desperate to be wrong, of course, but too fatalistically curious now to argue—if he had something that proved things one way or the other, she needed to know. It was a nice day for a drive, anyway, and she was glad that Chris was back to his old self enough that such offers were even possible—that the jabbering PTSD terrors that for months had reigned were mostly behind him now.

Ash was at work, or else it would’ve been the three of them off to wherever. While he texted her their plans, Sam slid into the passenger seat of Chris’s ancient Volkswagen, which was oddly immaculate. No wrappers anywhere and every surface dusted and polished to an almost obsessive degree in stark contrast to the Crap-Wagon’s old days. So weird; it made Sam a little wistful to see it this way.

Things changed, though. That was the take-away from all of this, wasn’t it?

All good things were fleeting. And people changed. Sometimes even the people you thought you knew best.

Sam . . . Sam, Sam, Sam . . . no, don’t put this on me. Maybe you should’ve paid closer attention?

Well, no shit, Washington.

She turned her attention now to what lay beyond the passenger window and sighed.

After they’d been on the road for a bit, it was apparent they were heading out of the city, going north on the I-5 towards Bakersfield. When Chris still didn’t offer anything more, not even the usual goofy small talk, she caught his eye and asked, “So what is this thing? We have to go see it? You can’t just tell me?”

He chuckled grimly, like he knew she thought he was being unnecessarily whimsical. “Nah. I want to be sure before I say it. I really always thought he was bullshitting, but now I’m like . . ? Eh? For real, bro? I dunno. But I’ve never gone to check. We drove past this place once and he pointed it out, or else . . .”

“Chris, what on Earth are you talking about?”

“You’ll see.” He looked a little frayed, perspiration misting his pale brow. Whatever it was had him as uneasy as she was. A weak shrug, then: “Or maybe not. Kinda hope not. But we’re almost there.”

They got off at a Burbank exit just north of the city. If Sam remembered right, Burbank was where the Washingtons had lived way-back-when, back before Bob had written and directed The Valley of Midnight, his breakout hit, and Hollywood had suddenly decided he was a big, fat, lucrative deal.

A mile down the road, Chris pulled into a Shell station. While the tank filled and Sam stared aimlessly, he poked his phone for the address to wherever they were going. Two little girls came running out of the gas station at one point, laughing and screaming in their high-pitched, shrieking voices. At the sound, he jerked around abruptly, breath clipping off, the whites of his eyes flashing wide, wild panic.

Sam winced for him. She suspected Chris’s nightmares were still full of shrieking sounds.

He was quick to recover, though, and managed a weak laugh. “God, really? Nice. Reeeaal badass, right?”

“Nonsense,” she replied as he sank down into the seat. Mostly, he was better, but he still had his moments. To be fair, they all did—she was pretty sure she was in the midst of one of her own right now, since her palms were sweating and her heart vibrating like the motor of a shoddy, old jalopy at the thought of his impending disclosure. As always, though, she did her best to look calm and serene.

“Not nonsense. I’m, like, legit terrified of small children. Shit, when did I become such a pathetic dork?”

If Josh were still alive, he would’ve cheerfully reassured Chris that he’d always been a pathetic dork. Sam being Sam, she just patted his knee like a mother. “You’re sensitive. There’s a difference.”

He didn’t laugh or even smile, though. Just gave a slow, pensive blink and started the engine again.

* * * * *

They were back on the road soon enough, rolling past strip malls and fast food restaurants, movie theaters and banks. She wished he would just tell her where they were going. Eventually, they turned through a set of wrought-iron gates flanked by a sign that read “Broadview Memorial Park and Mortuary” and then she understood why he’d not been so instantly forthcoming. This was . . . unexpected. Suddenly the warm, dry air breezing in through the open windows felt chill and clammy.

They parked. She slanted a double dose of side-eye. “Aaand . . . what are we doing here?”

“This is what I have to check on. Sorry. Unfortunately, it’s relevant to your original theory.”

“Also totes creepy and disturbing, or did you miss that part? You could’ve told me, Chris.”

His glance held the tiniest scrap of amusement. “Then you wouldn’t have come.”

With only a faint trace of his limp, he led the way across the asphalt and into the mausoleum. The bright, empty halls stretched out before them, endless rows of plaques set on smooth, white marble panels. The proximity of so many stacked bones made her remember all the horrifying remains squirreled away down in the Blackwood mines—she shuddered at the thought as Chris stood there, hovering and reading names. He gave a soft grunt and began walking again, fingers trailing over the raised lettering.  For lack of any alternative, Sam followed him along the long, white corridor.

She whispered, “Chris, come on; this is going to take forever. Who are we even looking for?”

“Well, for ‘Washington,’ obviously. I really have no idea if it’s here, though.”

She had an idea where this was going. Definitely nowhere pleasant.

After twenty minutes of unproductive searching, he suddenly stopped.

“Boom,” he whispered. “Aw, no shit. Sam, come here, come here—look at this.”

She came.

She looked.

The plaque read:

Jacob Elijah Washington

 February 25th, 1994 –April 12th, 1995

Beloved Son, may you dwell forever with the angels.

As the mortuary itself had been a pretty big clue, she’d had time to inoculate herself against the shock—no ghostly fingers skittered up her spine; for a change, nothing whispered in her head. Hell, hadn’t Bob even slipped up on his head-count at the funeral? Mostly she just felt a dull and resigned dread for the last remaining details still to emerge. And she felt chagrin because—stupidly—she’d spent months thinking she’d hit the hard, rock bottom already. Somehow, things were even worse than she’d thought.

February 25th, 1994, was Josh’s birthday. He—they—would’ve only been a year old.

“So this was what Josh showed you? That he’d had a twin brother once, too?”

“Yeah. No. Well, when we were, like, thirteen, he showed me the obituary—we found it stuffed in the back of some drawer in his mom’s desk. Obviously, he wasn’t torn up about it or anything. He’d been waaay too young to remember his brother; he just had what he’d heard. ‘Jake was always really sick and none of the doctors knew why. One day he just croaked.’ That’s what he told me. Then he spent the next week scaring the ever-loving shit out of me hiding creepy, bloody baby dolls everywhere we went so I honestly just thought he was being an asshole, you know, just messing with me about the whole damned thing. I guess not, though. And the way he said it makes it sound like . . . like . . .”

Now her dread grew legs. It became a living, breathing thing inside her chest.

 “. . . like maybe it was Melinda who was making the poor kid sick. Like whatever she was doing to make him sick killed him. Yeah, I get that, but fuck, Chris—why the hell would you show me this?!”

 “Because I want you to know you aren’t insane. Not you.” His counter to her trembling anguish echoed stark and raw. “And I want you to understand just how messed up Melinda really is and that this whole thing Wasn’t. Your. Fault. Hell, you wanna go that route? Then we’re all responsible. I was his best friend since third grade. I’ve known Melinda Washington forever and I had no idea. Yeah. Bam. None. So there. So just, like, please promise me that you’ll stop doing this to yourself?” With one long finger, he made a stirring motion in the vicinity of her head. “It’s not okay. It’s not what any of them would’ve wanted.”

It was sweet of him to even notice—no one else had. Even sweeter of him to care.

Still, she didn’t know how she could promise anything. Best-friend-since-the-third-grade or not, the fact was Josh hadn’t told Chris anything about his mother’s increasingly disturbing habits. Their brand of friendship had largely been about goofing around, rough-housing, getting drunk, and various self-destructive shitheadery—what Josh had always laughingly called his physical therapy. A yin-and-yang complement to what Sam had offered the boy, and she and Chris both knew that.

So they both knew whose job it had been to manage their friend’s messier emotional needs.

No matter what Chris said, she was still the one who’d fucked up.

* * * * *

“Sam?”  A thread of fear wound its way through his voice as they walked back to the car.

They got in, but he made no move to start the engine. He seemed to understand that his plan was backfiring. For that, she felt bad for him. But she felt worse for Josh, even though he’d been a sadistic asshole, because she was the one who had allowed him to become this. And despite all of her posturing at friendship and her stupid, frivolous promises, he had died horribly as a result of her oversight, alone and terrified. Now she would carry that certainty with her, secure in her own guilt for the rest of her life.

Fuck, she was terrible.

And there was nothing she could do about it. No way to reverse course and fix this.

“I’m fine,” she offered. “It’s whatever.” She sat stiffly, licked her lips. Considered letting it drop. Only: “Chris, what if we—like, you and I—what if we had just talked to each other? Why didn’t we?”

He sighed. “We talked all the time, Sam. There was no way we could’ve known what we each knew. I mean, remember what I said up on Blackwood? Well, it sucks to admit it, but sometimes the inverse is also true. Just a bunch of tiny, random decisions we didn’t make and here we are. That’s life. It blows.”

“No, fuck that.” She slapped the dash. “I want to go back and get it right, Chris! I want—”

Outside of the car, movement caught her eye.

A living, shifting cloud drifted silently through the air. She froze, lips still parted.

In one of those eerily prophetic moments, the swarm of orange-and-black monarchs passed directly overhead. As she watched breathlessly, a single individual fluttered down to light upon the wiper blades.

August was too early for monarch migration. Anyway, they wintered along the coast near Pacific Grove, not here in L.A. Nonetheless, the loner just sat there, mottled wings illuminated by the early evening sun. The warm breeze sighed and Sam’s skin prickled with gooseflesh. All around them, the light held that rare, diffuse, spun-gold feeling—it was the time the cinematographers called the magic hour.

“Oh, shit,” Chris breathed, eyes gone all moony. “Well, that was freaky . . .”

And it was. But so was all of this—everything that had happened to them these past two years.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: BATTLES


 

A moment ago, she was asleep. Here in her warm, dark nest in the cabin’s cozy bedroom, as night shadows flit across the ceiling, she listens to the sounds of a battle raging outside. The heavy thud of unnatural bodies colliding. Breathless grunts, snapping teeth, and the occasional high, indignant shriek.

Josh is three days post-letting—not yet fully healed—and this sounds serious.

If he’d done the reasonable thing and stayed in the cabin tonight, it wouldn’t even be happening.

She rolls over and scrunches her eyes closed, conscious of the fast, rhythmic rush of blood through her veins, the ever-escalating tightness in her chest. If she can get back to sleep—if she doesn’t know what’s going on outside—she won’t have to worry about it. As she’s attempting this, something slams hard against the side of the cabin, rattling the bed. She puts a pillow over her head. Nope. Not happening. Against her better judgment, she gets up and pads over to the window, peers out into the night.

She’s concerned, mostly. She doesn’t want to be angry with him for going out. Or for anything, really, considering how difficult everything has been for him and how much of that is on her. But the first thing she sees is the half-eaten rabbit lying in the snow. All of this over something so small and trivial, and with half a perfectly good corpse still moldering away beneath her feet. There’s absolutely no reason for this. Her heart beats a little faster with the knowledge, knuckles whitening as she grips the sill.

And the other wendigo is Nip. Of course it is.

Josh is the one who told her that wendigoes have no solidarity. So if this situation were logical, he would stay inside at night now that his body is weakened from the letting. But it’s not logical, and anyway, she’s already asked him why he doesn’t and his hollow chuckle was the only answer she got.  

Josh Washington: not the world’s best communicator. Although—considering the number of holy-shit-items she’s still keeping from him—neither is she. Regardless, they should really, probably talk about how his admirable, new bravery is starting to look like recklessness. Assuming she gets the chance, that is. In his weakened state, it’s possible he’ll end up worse than just torn up tonight, at which point all of her efforts coming back to Blackwood and finding this cure will have been for nothing after all.

Samantha, you will NOT let that happen. You will NOT.

Out in the clearing, Josh is already bleeding. A trail of crimson drops follows him across the snow. Flanking him, Nip is a foot taller easy, nothing but starving eyes, gaunt muscle, and sharp points. And there’s not a goddamned thing she can do about this imbalance, no way to help Josh. Too many other ethereal shrieks echo through the nearby trees. Shotgun or not, going out there now would be suicide.

Back to bed. One last, balls-out effort at sleep. When this goes nowhere, she remembers the bottle of whisky. Heads out to retrieve it, arriving back in the bedroom just in time to hear Josh scream. As wendigoes do, she tries to tell herself. But this scream is cut from a whole different cloth, and when she bolts to the window again, heart sinking even deeper into the pit of her stomach, she sees why.

Nip’s insanely-long claws—at seven plus inches, they’re more knife than nail—penetrate clean through Josh’s shoulder. He’s an entomology specimen pinned against a tree, trapped and helpless.

As she watches, hypnotized, Nip rears back, mouth wide. Before he can strike the final blow, Josh sinks teeth deep into Nip’s forearm, tearing away flesh and bone. The enormous wendigo lets out a howl of his own as Josh shoves against him, feet scrabbling. They break apart and circle one another. Nip’s arm dangles uselessly. Josh’s thin trail of red across the snow has become a robust stream.    

Fuck. She can’t watch any more of this.

She retreats into the bathroom with her whisky and the bag of jerky she discovers oh in her other hand when she looks down. Her primitive lizard brain wants this is your fault Sam your fault you did this if he dies all you another punishment, but that’s stupid; all of this is stupid, of course. But how else should she cope? She sinks down onto the cold tile, draws her knees up tight against her chest. Something wet falls onto her trembling hands as she’s unscrewing the bottle cap. She takes a long pull. Another.

She is supposed to save him. That’s why she’s here.

If he gets himself killed being the stupid, careless asshole he is, she will fucking kill him, though.

* * * * *

The creak of floorboards. Shuffling footsteps. A click and suddenly she is bathed in too-bright light.

Stomach agitating like a washing machine, she rocks sideways until the back of her head finds the wall, one hand raised to shield her squinting eyes. For some reason, her head is clear—no spinning—she’s not drunk, just asleep on the floor and now she’s not anymore. She’s looking up, perplexed. Josh leans against the door frame, wrecked and bloody but alive, head cocked. She can’t quite read his expression.

“Jesus,” she mutters, alarmed to find her mouth still sour with bile. “Thank god. I didn’t think you’d—”

As she scrambles to sit upright, she kicks over the open bottle of Jameson, which goes rolling away across the tile, contents emptying. He follows the sudden movement with his predator’s eyes.

Shit. Not that Josh isn’t an alcoholic in his own right, but that looks bad.

Worse, a quick peek into the toilet reveals she’s already emptied her own contents at some point—what started in the empty, plastic package crumpled beneath her has already made its way back up again. She winces, embarrassed at having been caught at this, and flushes her shame away. Stands up with the intention of rinsing her sour mouth out at the sink, but her left leg is asleep and she stumbles instead into the counter like a total sloppy drunk, which she is not, dammit, but he must assume nonetheless.

Josh catches her, of course, which only salts her more, especially when he releases the faintest bewildered chuff against her ear. She turns the spigot on and pushes him away. She’s beyond relieved that he’s okay, but he shouldn’t be seeing her like this and he shouldn’t be taking care of her. It’s bass-ackwards; he’s the fragile one. He wasn’t well in the first place and now he’s freshly wounded again—maybe he licked himself halfway to better while she was asleep, but this close, he still reeks of blood, the metallic tang filling her nostrils. As for her unorthodox coping methods, those are not his business.

Besides, he’s the goddamned cause of this.

It’s the tail-end of the night. Lacking a voice, he catches her eye in the mirror, raises his brows in a silent question. This is pretty rich, considering. The teeth on the left side of his face—the ones he can’t hide behind his swollen lips—are a sea of gore, bits of Nip’s ancient, withered flesh still clinging to them.     

“Don’t start. We’re not talking about this.” She hands him his toothbrush and turns away. Throws a towel on the spilled liquor and turns on the water for the shower, because he’s sure as shit going to need one. When he catches her about the waist and pulls her back with a trill, she has a scowl for all that raw concern clouding his already-cloudy eyes. “Josh, let me go. I was fucking worried about you, okay? That’s why. It isn’t easy listening to you maybe getting yourself torn in half out there for no reason at all and if I need to do things sometimes to help me deal, that’s just how it is, okay? That’s just . . .”

He slowly shakes his head. As in ‘No, it’s not okay,’ she gathers.

Which—seriously, Washington? No. You of all people do not get to make that call.

He lets her go, but the way he goes on looking at her—those quick, darting glances as he brushes his teeth and strips out of his ruined shirt—are like nails in the coffin of her secret. Just as soon as he has a voice again, he’s going to want to talk about this and that is not happening. Nope. Not a chance.  

Anyway, his shoulder’s still bleeding a river and his cuts and burns aren’t healed. He’s a patchwork of ruin and he doesn’t even fucking get it, what she would be losing if she lost him again. Annoyed at the barbed-wire coils of sentiment wrapped around her idiot heart and the moisture welling up in her eyes, she mumbles a half-hearted “Fuck you, Washington” and slinks back out to the dark bedroom.

Bed. Eyes closed. Sleep—for real this time. She is seriously over this entire night.   

A little while later, after the shower shuts off and the dawn is just starting to pink up the window, his weight settles gently onto the mattress beside her. She doesn’t acknowledge him—not because she is still angry, but because there’s really nothing else to say. He is okay, or alive, at least, and that’s what she cares about. And now he knows she is as psychologically maladjusted as he is, so there’s that.

She feels the covers move back as he slides in. Senses his presence hovering over her—this is odd; this is not normal Sam-and-Josh co-sleeping protocol—and then something presses her forehead, soft and warm. She opens her eyes, one more than the other. By the time she’s deduced that he’s kissed her with what’s left of his lips, he is already back on his side of the bed, curled up on his side with his back to her.

Three seconds of shocked silence tick away in her head. Lips parted, she stares at him in wonder.

Then all of her own lurking voices begin shouting their questions like reporters at a press conference.

The boy is impossible to read. So . . . what the hell, Josh? What the hell?

Chapter Text

CHAPTER NINETEEN: 15-All


 

In typical Josh Washington fashion, the next day it’s like nothing happened.

Having been out all night, he spends the better part of the day asleep. That’s no surprise, but she doesn’t want to wait around so she loads herself up with dirty laundry and heads down to town to the Laundromat. In the late afternoon, when she returns and leans through the door to check on him, he’s sitting up and casually licking his wounded shoulder. At the sight of her, his sleepy eyes widen appreciably and he hops off the bed to meet her in the doorway, circling about like a cat that wants petting. “Hey,” he says, and presses his face into her neck like the creepy, weird, mythological creature he is. He chuffs softly, his breath warm against her throat. “Where’d you go? You smell like . . . soap.”

“Well, I can think of worse things to smell like.” Like blood, for example. Or barbequed meat. Or, you know, vomit. She ducks away, content to keep her dark thoughts just that, and walks backwards down the hall with her usual surreptitious smile. “I was doing our laundry, Washington. Someone has to.”

He follows, skittering absently up the wall and back down again, and lights on the couch.

“Really?” Like it’s never occurred to him ‘someone’ isn’t fairies. He looks momentarily perplexed, then embarrassed. Which means he has correctly intuited what that task has been like. “Wow. Um, thanks.”

“Yep. Can I just tell you, by the way, that blood stains make people uncomfortable? Good thing the cops in this county are so oblivious. Anyway, you look . . . uh, well, not dead. So that’s something.”

“Aw, don’t hold back. You can say ‘sexy as hell,’ Sammy. I won’t take it the wrong way.” He trills and waves one set of claws about in a vaguely dismissive gesture. “Yeah, sorry about all that shit last night.”

Inside, she feels the thin ice cracking. Outside, she doesn’t so much as blink.

“Sure, yeah. Me, too. So, um, what the hell is the deal with that asshole anyway?”

“Nip? Dunno. Just wants to kill me, I guess.”

Just wants to kill you? Um, that’s kind of a problem, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. But my life is problems, so . . .” She is alarmed by his lack of alarm, or rather, by his avoidance. If he notices her concern, he doesn’t show it, though, and he doesn’t offer anything further. Instead, he tips his chin and asks, “What’s in the bag? If it’s anything else dental-related, you know you’re gonna give me a complex, right? I’m trying here. Three times a day, with floss. Seriously trying.”

Goddammit. She doesn’t want to be distracted by his humor, but he is as adept with this as he is with deception when he wants to be; in a way, his humor is its own sort of deception. She’s not taking the bait this time. “Did you try giving him your leftovers?” she asks. “Jay says he’s like a mob boss; he likes to lay low and make the other wendigoes hunt for him. Think maybe that’s what he’s after?”

A touch of petulance flickers in his eyes, probably because she hasn’t been steered off. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he replies. “I drug them out. Dried-out mummies? Not his jam. But, hey, I get wanting to kill me. I am an asshole. I’d kill me. It’s not like I haven’t tried to before. So maybe he’s just being . . . helpful?”

She rolls her eyes and flops down. “Speaking of, you are not being helpful at all.” He’s not, but at least he hasn’t said anything about her own messed-up shit yet. And maybe he won’t—if he’s being a manic smartass, he’s still playing defense. Which is good, but this Nip situation is not good. Not at all. She probes, “Is he serious about this? Is he stalking you? Do any of the other wendigoes want to kill you?”

“I don’t know. It’s a big mountain, and the mines are . . . sometimes he’s around is all. So this bag—”

She lets him pull it open and peek inside. Wonders if he’s checking for meat products.

“Movies I borrowed from Jay,” she explains. Already she feels silly about her idea, but it’s too late to nix it now. Faint heat prickles her cheeks as she shrugs. “I don’t know; I just thought . . . while you’re still healing up, at least, maybe if you had a distraction, you would . . . possibly not be so quick to . . .”

“That I’d stay inside all night like a good boy?” His groan becomes a shriek as he presses his face into the place where the cushions and her body meet, like a child hiding from punishment. “Sam. Sammy-Sam. Firstly, I can think of, you know, other ways for you to distract me if you wanted. Just sayin.’ FYI.”

She grimaces and smacks his arm, although the better part of her wishes he wasn’t joking.

“Secondly, this thing inside me—it’s not like I have the chickenpox. I know I’m supposed to be ignoring the voices—and seriously, it’s so much quieter in here now, so mostly I am—but it gets angry if I fight it too much. It gets serious.” He sits up, hair rumpled, and goes all innocent Dickensian orphan, wide-eyed and sweetly earnest despite the teeth and the charred flesh and the spirit possession and the fact that he’s basically a walking corpse; somehow, he makes it work. “I am trying to be good. I will try some more, even harder, I will try so, so hard, but I don’t know if I can do what you’re asking. Either way—”

Again with the random cuddling and chuffing against her throat. She’s mostly over the terror factor by now—wants desperately to lean into it, to reciprocate, but then she would do something stupid. Again.

Against her neck, he mumbles, “Thank you for trying to help. Super-Sammy-Bird, swooping in to save my shit again.” A frustrated, keening chuckle, then: “God, why don’t you have anyone or anything better to spend your energy on, Sammy? Why? It’s so wrong that you’re even on this mountain. You need a Chris or a Matt. You need . . . Jesus or lesbianism or a pet monkey or anything but my fucking bullshit.”

More of that shrieky, half-manic laughter muffled against her collarbone, then he sobers up and focuses his heavy-lidded eyes on her face. She has just a moment to feel the shadow of panic roll across her landscape before he ducks his head and murmurs, “What I’m saying is: I’m afraid I’m going to ruin you. Because last night did not look okay. Last night looked sketchy as hell, and I ought to know. So are you okay, Sammy? Cuz if you aren’t, if this is too much to deal with, you don’t have to do this, you know. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but it’s not your job to fix everything all the damned time.”

Well, shit—right in the feels. And totally unexpected coming from the neediest, most self-involved dude she’s ever known. She draws a slow, deep breath before settling on: “I’m as okay as you are, Josh.”

He snorts. “That’s not saying much. I’m a batshit-insane horror show.”

“Haaay, me too!” It feels good to finally admit it. Granted she hasn’t faked her own death or anything; nonetheless. “I mean, I thought we’d already established that on day one with my rando butterfly premonitions and the whole Return to Death Mountain thing. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me.”

He seems to consider this. His slow nod reads like, “Well-played, Abbott. Well played.”

“Point is,” she adds, and dumps out the DVDs onto the table beside her laptop. “It’s gonna have to do, because you need my help and I’m not leaving. So that’s that. Now stop dragging out my skeletons.”

He must recognize the truth in this since he just studies her for another moment then begins to read through the titles. She picks a movie at random—To Wong Foo, which strikes her as a very Jay movie and is about as far from horror as it gets. Josh gets up to grab a ratty blanket. When he sits back down, he pulls her into his lap like the old days, like his whole torso isn’t made of pain—she stifles a gasp and winces at how this must feel, but he just trills, the mismatched corners of his mouth curling impishly.

It’s no secret that she loves him, but she wonders if he understands exactly how she loves him.

He has to. Like he said the other day—he’s not that blind.

He probably doesn’t believe it, considering, but he has to see she’s never quite kicked her attraction.

So why, Washington? Why, when you know this is sweet, sweet torture?

She considers the possibility that Josh Washington might really, truly be a sadist.

Whatever. This is not her first rodeo; she’s not doing anything lame this time. She pulls her shit together and relaxes serenely into his arms, snuggling down the way she often did in that in-between time last year—those late, fragile nights when physical contact meant only comfort and solidarity. And it’s nice, despite the lurking tension. He seems content. Calmer than usual. They watch movies until long after his humanity recedes, and though he glances a few times at the windows, he doesn’t go out that night.

15-love, she muses as they curl together in a warm, sleepy pile, though she’s fairly certain evil spirits don’t play tennis and even she barely understands the stupid scoring. 15-love, advantage Abbott.

Suck it, wendigo.

* * * * *

The next day is a Letting Day, although she’d prefer to ignore this fact as long as possible.

Already perched on the back of the couch when she shuffles out in the morning, Josh stops gnawing the deer leg he’s been working on and slips it behind his back—not that she’s even had time to be disgusted yet. For some reason, he looks particularly inhuman today, ashen and gaunt and oddly assembled, as he cocks his head to follow her movements about the room in a way that she can’t deny is unsettling.

Is he getting worse? She shoves the thought away like it’s contagious and yawns her way into a smile.

“You’re up early,” she observes.

He nods slowly. Gives up trying to hide his prize and instead hunches over it. “I was hungry.”

“As usual.”

In that soft, illusive slur that makes him sound sloppy drunk: “Don’t be a hater, Sammy.”

She snorts and drifts to the window. More snow has fallen overnight. Not too much. Just a fine dusting of confectioner’s sugar over the existing base. Which is fine by her—it covers the grotesque evidence of the bloody battle now two days past. Now everything beyond the glass looks like the inside of a snow globe again, a picture of peaceful winter solitude. Which is a lie, naturally. Nip is out there somewhere.  

“I was thinking,” Josh says, stretching the word out like a piece of taffy, “Let’s go somewhere.”

“Do what?” She turns around, brow arched, and moves across to the cabinet—grabs a bagel, jelly, sits. “Um, you can’t leave the mountain. I thought that was the whole point of our little experiment.”

A simpering flash of teeth and he shakes his head. “Not what I meant.”

It occurs to her she has never actually asked. “What would happen if you even tried to leave?”

“Oh, huge explosion,” he mumbles. “Just like the microwave scene in Gremlins, probably.

She’s getting a little better at detecting his deceptions, harmless or otherwise. At her skeptical side-eye, he just smirks a bit more and stuffs the remains of his breakfast down between the cushions like a dog burying its food. She grimaces. “I dunno. If I get too far down, my wendi-pal starts screaming and everything burns like I’m on fire. I black out. Wake up back uphill hours later feeling like shit.”

“Ouch. Sorry I asked. So maybe let’s not go somewhere?”

“Yeah. It’s the cow’s tits. I didn’t mean, like, Vegas. I just need to get out of this cabin.” He hops up and circles her where she sits, all submissive chuffing and restlessness. “Come on, it’s my last okay day. The lodge is finished, right? Let’s break in and see if Bob’s minions have stocked it with anything useful.”

His idea isn’t a bad one. Everything she’s doing up here is on her own dime, and unlike Josh, she’s no prissy trust fund kid. But she has things to do prior to tonight’s letting. Windows to board up, kerosene to replenish. She tells him to go if he wants—and she can’t really stop him; he’s not in her cage—but he arches his whole body like a parentheses around her and runs the smooth side of his claws up the back of her arms. “No, I said ‘let’s.’ Let us. Come with me. I’ll help you with the other stuff later.”

Something shifts inside her chest. It would be nice to pretend that this is just another fun winter getaway weekend like the ones they used to have. To do things that aren’t centered around death and violence for a change. With a shrug, she relents and an hour later follows him out into the snow.

They set off down the trail, Sam plodding along slow and steady and Josh darting about as usual to chase after any hapless wildlife. After a while, the peaks of the new/old lodge emerge above the shaggy treetops. Sam’s walked past the place almost every day, but since the night Nip attacked her and Josh dragged her to safety there, she hasn’t been back. Weeks ago that was, though it feels like years now.

Beneath the white sky, Josh slows down as they approach the behemoth from the rear until he stops walking altogether. His expression is impossible to read. Mouth ajar, he spends a moment just taking it all in, the sumptuous, rough-hewn timbers and the fieldstone, the acres of glass. He’s seen it all before, both the original and this new copy. And he’s grown up in a world of wealth, so it’s not like the ostentatiousness of it shocks him. Nonetheless, he must have some complicated emotional attachments—as he stands there gaping, a faint and pathetic coo slips out through his nest of teeth.

Oh, jeez. After a minute, she nudges his arm. “So?”

Nothing.

“My name is Bob Washington! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” she jokes, a little too interested in breaking his trance to care that lame poetry references are lame. Still nothing.

Has Josh been back inside the Washington Winter Palace since he brought her here? If he has, he hasn’t said anything about it. Hasn’t said much about his family at all, at least not lately. Which is very un-Josh-like but awesome news, considering. However, her fabulous luck can only hold for so long.

Finally, he shakes himself loose. “Do they—they don’t know I’m like this, do they? Fuck, I hope not.”

Just like that, she slips quietly into dull-panic mode. “Uh, your parents? No, they don’t.”

“So you didn’t tell them about your dreams?” He starts towards the steps. “Do they know you’re here?”

“Yeah. And, no, I didn’t tell them; they wouldn’t have believed me even if I did. I mean, hell, this is your dad we’re talking about. Plus, I didn’t want to say it in case you didn’t . . . uh, in case you . . .”

Whoops. That is so not the eternal optimism she means to provide. Mentally, she kicks herself—hopes he hasn’t been listening too closely—but he’s already glancing back over his shoulder with a sly smirk.

He says, “In case I don’t survive the cure, you mean,” and bounds up the stairs on all fours.

Shit.

“But you will survive,” she declares for the thousandth time, and follows him. She’s not quite sure when she became his own personal Gloria Gaynor. Whatever. “Hey, you’ve made it through the first two lettings, right?”

She’d be a crap cheerleader to admit it only gets worse from here—that saskahwaw, like most poisons, has a cumulative effect. Not that Josh doesn’t already get this. He read Shiner’s notes. He knows.

“Mm-hmm,” is all he says, though, as he rattles the door handle. He looks relaxed. Sounds wholly unconcerned despite the fear she knows is bobbing there just below the surface. Classic Josh. Then: “So how are my parents doing, anyway? I guess I should ask. Have you talked to them lately?”

Careful, Samantha. Careful. Play nice now . . .

There is never going to be a good time to tell him, but a Letting Day does seem a particularly bad time. He’s under enough stress already. If—when—they complete this cure and they can leave this cursed mountain, she’ll come clean. Hell, she’ll have to—he can’t very well go back to his parents’ house.

But that is for another day. For now, a few more gentle deceptions.

“Um. They’re okay, I guess,” she fudges, slipping along the deck to check each of the windows. The last one is unlatched; she shoves it up and sticks her head inside. Her voice echoes around the vast, open space. “Your mother didn’t really take any of this very well, you know, but they’re whatever. She’s got her friends—her support group—around her, so that’s a good thing. I hear your dad’s working a lot.”

“When is he not?” he mutters, and casually tips her through the window.

About the time she’s gasping and scrambling to break her fall, he catches her by the hem of her jacket.

“Josh! I’m going to kill you, you ass,” she growls over the sound of his soft, shrieky chuckle, though secretly she will be happy if this segues into anything not involving an in-depth discussion of Melinda. He lets her go and she slithers down to the floor. Twists round and coils her legs for the kick he deserves, but he goes full wendigo and springs high through the window to land on the hardwood ten feet away.

“‘Josh! I’m going to kill you,’” he taunts her with her own voice.

One of the many things she has learned over the course of their friendship and in the wake of all this: the more Josh hurts, the harder he fakes it. Knowing this makes such microbursts of bullshit tolerable.

“Har-dee-har. Very funny.”

He manages to look repentant as he extends a hand to help her up. Slides knuckles along her lower back before drifting over to the nearby cluster of leather couches and making a face. With his weird, clawed foot, he nudges the nearest one. “This is the exact same couch,” he marvels. “Like, the exact same one.”

“Yeah, it’s a little creepy. I gotta say,” she agrees, glancing about at all of the meticulously-resourced décor as she wanders further. It really is surreal—like something lifted straight from one of Bob’s own movies. She blew this place sky-high; that was not a dream. Yet here it is again, fully resurrected.

“What the hell?” he mumbles.

Considering the numerous pitfalls, every word she speaks now she weighs first. “I think your dad just . . . didn’t want anything to change, you know? Like he thought he could trick himself into forgetting.”

Josh shakes his head. “Bob? Yeah, no, dude. That’s not how it works. Believe me.” He reaches down to inch the couch off its ninety-degree alignment so the perfect square sits awry. Pushes an end table over and skews the nearby wall art. Satisfied, he slinks back to her and mutters, “And I’m the fucking embarrassing one? Seriously. Maybe Doc Hill and Co. will give us a family discount, you think?”

Inside, she’s one giant, infinite wince. Outside, a thin, strained smile. He has no idea how spot-on he is.

“Josh, you are not an embarrassment,” she replies.

His strange wendigo eyes flick down and up, taking in the full measure of her with a scrutiny that makes her skin itch. “Right, sure,” he murmurs eventually. “You don’t have to lie to me all the time, you know.”

Ouch. She’d rather hoped he’d bought one or two of her charming fictions.

Then again, he is the Zen master. Who better to sniff out bullshit?

“Whatever. We should move back in here,” he says, looking away and mercifully letting her off the hook.

He’s not serious, of course.

At this, she lets out a tiny sigh of relief—not because this isn’t an awful idea, but because the subject, at least, is a safer one. It’s a nice fantasy, too. On one hand, the place is a vulnerable death-trap and full of all the bad juju she could ever ask for, rebuild notwithstanding. On the other, it has luxurious everything and a cavernous wine cellar that’s hopefully been restocked. Right up until Nip and friends came crashing through the glass to kill them, it would be whole a lot comfier than the cabin’s rustic basics.

“Oh, totally.” She unzips her coat and shrugs. “Board up all eleven billion windows and I’m so into it.”

She is rewarded with a soft snort. “So what are we shopping for here?”

“Anything good. I could go for some better towels. Don’t suppose he keeps the pantry stocked, huh?”

“Dunno. Maybe.” He reaches into the liquor cabinet. Snags a pair of Bob’s expensive whisky glasses and hands them to her with the tiniest smirk. “Check it out: now you can be a classy bathroom drunk.”

“Really, Washington? Do I mock your struggles? Do I buy you rabies shots and muzzles?”

He shrugs. “Hey, you want to muzzle me, I’m game. Always figured you were into bondage . . .”

All the eye rolls. Every last one, but at least they are having a little stupid, mindless fun for a change.

* * * * *

They continue their aimless exploration, and everything is fine until she drifts into the kitchen.

On the counter: a set of keys and a cell phone. It takes a moment for her brain to piece it out and dispatch an icy blast of adrenaline. Her awareness has come stupidly late, considering it’s warm in the lodge and it wouldn’t be if the place were closed up as expected. She flips through the other detritus on the counter: water bottle, camera, a leather-bound notepad with interior photos of the old lodge and detailed notes on the furnishings and accessories. Turns on her heel and jogs back out to find Josh.

Better hurry, Samantha . . .

Last seen, Josh was headed down into the lower level. She’d elected not to join him because the lower level was the home theater; the lower level was the basement and their messy, terrifying shared past. Kinky dreams notwithstanding, she wasn’t quite ready to face all of that today, too, she didn’t think.

No choice now, though.

Down the stairs and into the gloom she skims, sticking to the edges as to avoid any squeaky steps. No sign of him or anyone else in the open sitting area, so she risks a hissed “Josh? Where are you?” and moves hesitantly towards the unlit doorway ahead. She tries the switch—predictably, nothing happens. A few feet into the dark room she tries again: “Josh? Are you here? We have a problem.”

From some distance away, something moves wordlessly towards her through the pitch black.

“Josh?”

Maybe it’s being in this exact replica of the home theater—the place where, not so long ago, her journey of fuck-this-shit began—that brings out her otherwise defective sense of self-preservation. As the floorboards creak and a soft trill reaches her ears, her blood turns to ice water in her veins. Shit.

It’s probably Josh. Occam’s Razor and all that.

What’s that old adage about assuming things, Samantha?

Heart thumping, she freezes in place. Just about the time she wants to spin and run balls-out for the stairs, she hears a grunt. Another second and she’s yelping, stumbling, being caged against the wall.

“What’s up?” Josh murmurs from somewhere just beside her ear.

She still can’t see him, but his presence looms; she feels the weight of his arms resting on either side of her head. If she could see him—at least well enough to avoid his claws and teeth—she’d be slapping the ever-loving shit out of his dumb ass right now. This is more than a minor microburst of bullshit.

“Oh my God, fucker!” She shoves her hands against his chest. “Seriously, do you hate me?”

Less smirky than she would’ve expected:  “Uh, no?”

“Are you trying to give me another heart attack? And in this room, of all fucking places?”

Several roiling, raging seconds pass in which she can practically hear him puzzling it out.

Then: “Oh, shit. You can’t see in here, can you?”

“Of course I can’t see, you ass; it’s pitch black!”

“Sorry—” Still no smirk; in fact, he sounds mortified. “Really, I didn’t mean—”

“You mean you can see? How the hell—?”

“It’s . . . it’s night vision. Predator, you know? I forgot. Sorry, Sam. So sorry. I’m a shit.”

Right. He is Josh, and he is not Josh. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that. This is what she gets, after all, for wanting to rescue a supernatural, flesh-eating monster as if it were a mewling stray kitten.

The seconds tick away. Her brain feels like a python that’s just swallowed a whale.

Deep breath. And maaaaybe she won’t kill him after all.

But she didn’t deserve that. She really didn’t.

Finally, she exhales such a deep, shaky sigh it’s a wonder she doesn’t deflate. Tips her head forward until it’s nearly touching his and mutters, “Jesus, Washington. Jesus, okay. Please don’t do that again.”

On the positive side, no one comes running in response to the commotion.

She attempts to gather up her thoughts from where he’s scattered them about like a rabid terrier. Doesn’t get too far because she can’t help but notice he hasn’t backed off out of her space. And with Josh, of course, intentions are never clear-cut. It’s possible he doesn’t even realize. It’s also possible he’s just fucking with her in a different way now, diabolical ass that he is. Either way, here in the dark, she remains pressed against the wall, caged between his arms while his breath laces warm over her face.

Focus, Sam. Focus. This doesn’t mean shit.

“Hey,” she murmurs. “So . . . did you hear me? We have a problem.”

“Mm. What’s that?” He sounds terribly, pathologically unconcerned.

“We’re not the only ones here. I found keys and a phone in the kitchen.”

In response, he draws a long, deep breath. She wonders if he can scent the visitor. And then, since he doesn’t say anything else, since he just keeps hanging there expectantly in the space directly before her, she wonders what would happen if she just leaned forward and kissed him. Two seconds ago she wanted to murder the boy, but this is the magic of Josh. Would he let her? Would the act serve to write over their ugly past, to purge any remnants of The Psycho from their collective memory? Who knows?

Only it’s shit timing and she knows it and she doesn’t quite have the courage.

But she lets the hand still resting on his chest trail lightly up to his neck. A little higher, then. Runs her thumb along his jaw, over his chin and he doesn’t move. She’s shocked. Carefully, carefully, with the sort of heart-thudding, breath-held wonder she would typically reserve for hand-feeding woodland creatures, she brushes fingers over the soft, unravaged part of his lower lip. How is this happening? Such a subtle gesture, but the intimacy of it sends fire licking down into the basement of her insides.

He draws another deep breath—

And eases away from her. “Thought they were all done with the work,” he mutters, turning, and she swears she hears a faint, wendigo coo shivering just beneath his words. “Who the hell’d be here?”

God, it’s fucking torture letting him walk away.

“The decorator, I think,” she replies as casually as she can. He breaches the brighter gloom of the landing and keeps going. “There were notes about furniture and stuff. Finishing touches, I guess.”

“Mm.” He drops to all fours to slink slowly up the steps, claws clicking. Trills softly and murmurs, “So what kind of soulless person makes a career petting the egos of rich blowhards, do you think?”

Now he sounds concerned. Or at least interested. Josh and interior design—who knew?

“I don’t know. From the writing, I’m going to say ‘dude, mid-forties, possibly gay,’ but that’s trading in an awful lot of stereotypes and, honestly, I have no idea. Doesn’t really matter, does it? We should go.”

Something weird is happening, and by ‘weird,’ she means alarming. With every step closer to the upstairs and the possibility of meeting this mystery human, his movements become more wendigo.

He glances back at her. To his credit, only his ravenous eyes belie his innocence. “Why would we do that?”

“Um, because I’m afraid you will kill and eat him or her? Pretty big pacifist here. Not super into murder. So, seriously stop that. Stop whatever that is you’re doing. Josh, if you kill them, the cops will come.”

What scares her is how long he has to think about this. He draws himself up out of that awful wendigo crouch and leans back against the banister. Still no sign of the decorator, thank god. His claws flex and strain, flex and strain; he glances at her and, finally—to her horror—bites down on his own wrist. He sucks the blood for a while like an infant eagerly nursing a pacifier and then he seems mostly better.

Sam, not so much.

Seeing his trembling desperation, it occurs to her that she really should be dead by now.

That she’s probably come very, very close more than once.

That for all his reassurances, he is, after all, the most accomplished liar she knows.

Fuck.

She’s not panicking, okay?

She’s not, but she really, probably ought to be more careful.

Like, a lot more careful.

He’s Josh, but he’s also not Josh.

“God, why’d you have to tell me?” he sighs, and in the way he asks this, she knows he knows. The window is still open; head down and slinking, he heads that way. “Before we go,” he says without looking up, “You should see if my dad’s had the gun cabinets stocked yet. You could use the shells.”

It’s a good idea—the last thing she needs is to run out—though it’s a little hard to care just now.

“Yeah, okay,” she manages. “Where are those? And how do I open them?”

“Should be in his office.” He sinks onto the sill. “Down that hall, up the stairs, go left. They won’t be locked. He’s not big on safety—” His lip twitches and curls as he looks down at himself. “—Obviously.”

Shit, Josh, please don’t—

Her heart says hug the pathetic, mopey fucker. She doesn’t, though.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY: NEW PLANS


 

The butterflies have been trading in old memories this week, so she’s on her own with this.

She does have time, over the course of an afternoon spent in Josh’s now-subdued company, to think this over and chill out. He’s had eleven million chances to kill and eat her. That’s a fact that stands regardless of how unreliable his assurances may be, so pretty soon her concern about him lessens—she doesn’t really expect he will attack her out of nowhere now—while her concern for him only grows.

She is here to save him, to bring him home, and to atone, not to pretend like nothing has even changed between them. Of course things are different now; the very fabric of reality has changed. So there’s no reason to make controlling the ravenous hunger any harder than it already is for him. From here on out? More focus on the task at hand and more distance. Less physical contact and fewer stupid gestures prompted by the ill-timed resurrection of her feelings. This is the new plan. The better, smarter plan.

She hopes he understands.

* * * * *

Oh, Samantha. Silly, little Samantha . . .

Yeah, okay.

By sunset, she feels like an ass for imagining something so trivial even matters to him.

It does not. He has far bigger problems to worry about and she of all people should know that.

Has always had far bigger problems, in fact, but never more so than now.

She is going to stop being so whimsically self-absorbed. One of these days, she really is.

For now, she is just going to get them through this shit night.

Maybe.

Hopefully.

* * * * *

Sitting on the table in the shed, Josh is already breathing hard, face a mask of poorly-concealed horror as he stares at the cup of saskahwaw she’s just poured. And she gets it. The stuff smells like shit. Obviously tastes like it and makes him feel even worse than. But it’s got to be done. Shaking, he reaches for the cup. Lifts it halfway to his lips and stops, gagging. Like even looking at the stuff is too much, he turns away and swallows another breath of stale air. Sam can do nothing but chew her lip and watch.

This part has never been easy, but this is worse than normal. Based on the low, rumbling growl rattling up his throat, the wendigo inside of him is figuring out cause and effect. Not good. Very not good.

“Shit,” he mutters. Steadies himself. Tries again.

 Another inch or two closer to his mouth this time and then he’s flinging the cup away, the contents hitting the floor with a splash. The wide-eyed look he gives his hand in the wake suggests he’s as surprised by this violent rebellion as she is. But she’s only surprised for a moment: Shiner did say it would get harder. She wonders what other pleasant surprises Josh’s wendigo might have in store.

He manages a weak laugh and collapses backwards. “Fuck. Gonna have to force it down, Sammy.”

He lifts his wrists into the shackles. Before the demon inside him can override, she pounces forward and slams them closed. Ankles next. In the time it takes her to retrieve the cup and pour another measure of the letting’s horrible catalyst, his internal struggle progresses to the point that the approach of her hand is met with thrashing and clenched teeth. No way she’s getting close enough to those daggers to pry his mouth open even if she did have the strength to overpower him, which she most certainly doesn’t.

Goddamn this wendigo. Why is it awake already? It’s not even full dark yet.

She withdraws to consider her options.

“S-sorry,” Josh mutters. “Wish you could . . . hear it. S’so mad. Can’t help it.”

Well, that’s interesting news. Can he—? “Really?” she asks. “You can understand it now?”

“A little bit. Sometimes. It’s not English, but . . . used to the voices, you know. You start to learn.”

She can’t hardly judge him for whatever odd relationship might be evolving inside that troubled head of his—god knows she has her own cache of lunatic voices yapping at her. At least hers aren’t real, though, and she knows it. And at least they all speak English. Although she imagines it might be better, in Josh’s case, not to know what the wendigo is saying. It can’t be anything good. Nothing comforting, anyway.

“So can you talk back to it?”

“No. Doesn’t listen. Just rants and bitches. Sucks.”

Whatever. Not like she thought they might talk the damned thing into cooperating with its own eviction.

If it’s mad now, though, she has an idea for making it happy. Before she can come to her senses, she reaches for the knife. She’ll need her hands for the work to come, so she presses the blade against her forearm and draws it down, gasping at the icy sting of the cold metal parting her flesh. Josh watches, moon-eyed and silent. She slides over and directs the trickling flow of blood into the cup of saskahwaw.

“Oh, shit,” he whispers through half-clenched teeth. Is that wonder? Despair? Both?

When the contents are about three-fourths blood, she bandages up the incision. Josh can fix it tomorrow or, if he’s not feeling up to it, she can go down to town. In the meantime, she brings the cup towards him again. He jerks away at first. Then the wendigo must catch the scent and he turns back.

Trembling, he closes his eyes as the battle plays out. Thumps his head softly against the stained wood, then relents and opens his mouth, desperate and straining. At first, she’s too shocked to even move. Which is stupid, really—why wouldn’t her trick work, given that wendigoes are hunger personified?

Everything Shiner’s ever written, everything she’s personally witnessed, says this much.

Quickly, she pours the contents down his throat, flying backwards out of range of his teeth as he begins to thrash and snap again. He fills the room with an ear-splitting shriek before finally settling back into some bastard hybrid of groan and laugh. “Shit. You . . . you taste like heaven, Sammy. So good . . .”

Given her once-upon-a-time fantasies, the irony of his words ought to sting; if nothing else, she should be horrified. No time for either sentiment now, though. She just reaches for the torch and lights it.

“Great. Well, hold on to that, then,” she murmurs. She tries to smile. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Another moment and the room is nothing but shrieks and howls and the horrible scent of burning flesh.

* * * * *

Sometime after she’s finished cutting the last stroke of the pattern into Josh’s torso, she hears a sound at the plywood-covered window. A faint, demure scratching, like a cat wanting into a room. If Josh were already seizing as he soon will be, she probably would’ve missed it, but in this transitory moment of silence, the scritch of claws on wood is enough to set all the tiny hairs on her body standing on end.

She watches the ethereal wisps of fog snaking up from Josh’s unconscious body to the snare above and swallows hard. Nothing she can do now except hope her visitor goes away. The woods are full of deer and other wildlife—all manner of warm, squishy, blood-filled things. Not human things, granted, but she’s shut up snugly in here and counting on the wendigoes to be more desperate than discerning.

Barring that, she’s counting on the plywood and the heavy-duty locks to hold.

Like the ridiculous optimist she is, she settles back into her chair and attempts to resume reading the book she got from Jay on her most recent visit. The scratching goes on, drifting to each boarded-over window in turn before reaching the exterior door. She grits her teeth as the door handle rattles.

Then silence descends once more. She has just about decided whatever was out there has moved on when it throws itself against the door. It slams hard, again and again. Which is—okay, yes, admittedly alarming—but also just plain nonsensical and annoying. She’s been on this mountain every goddamned night for a month now. If something wants to eat her that badly, sure, fine, great, but why now?

Evidently she’s not the only one with a new plan.

Well, they aren’t stupid, god knows. Josh is proof that wendigoes can retain every last shred of their human intellect, so that means only one thing—it’s come for her now because it wants to eat her, but it doesn’t want to fight for the privilege. That’s the only difference between this and all those other nights that she can see: somehow it must know Josh is incapacitated. How terribly, wickedly cunning.

In any case, she is doing cartwheels inside over her decision to reinforce the door this afternoon. The new steel bar is mounted with heavy-duty bolts set directly into two of the structure’s main support timbers. Wendigoes are ungodly strong, but they’re not superheroes. The door isn’t going to give way.

Nonetheless, the intermittent attempts at infiltration steep the ensuing hours in even more anxiety. While Josh’s body is wracked with violent fits that make the table rattle and buck, the predator—or is it predators?—roams around outside, circling and searching for a way in. Eventually, it manages to yank a board from one of the small windows on the opposite side of the chain-link inner-wall and quickly shatters the glass. She can’t see well from here and she isn’t about to go out there, but that shriek sounds familiar. A moment later, her suspicions are confirmed when Nip’s pale, half-bald head appears.

Right. Of course it’s Nip. Fortunately, that’s all the shit-ass bastard can fit through the opening.   

Although he can’t get to her, she freezes on instinct. He swivels his head and trills, nostrils flaring. Whatever shred of lingering humanity kept her alive that day up in the ruins is long gone now—everything about that straining, yearning expression says he would tear her to pieces given the chance.

Since he can’t do that, he takes his rage out on the wooden window frame instead.

Sam sets her book down. Sort of silly reading about Cree history when she’s got a piece of it right here staring at her. All things considered, the shotgun seems like a better accessory for now, anyway, although she has faith that the heavy oak will hold. This shed is old—it’s weathered its share of storms.

Nip goes at it for a while, though. Meanwhile, the scratching continues at two of the other windows—while Nip may be the mastermind, evidently he’s not alone. Which makes her wonder about Josh’s assertions regarding wendigo solidarity. Are they working together? Or are they all just that hungry?

If she were only a little bit braver, a little bit stupider, she would go out to the outer entry. She’d march right up to that window and lay a flaming torch against that ancient asshole’s face. But it wouldn’t be enough to kill him, and knowing her luck, she’d probably set the whole building on fire in the process. So she doesn’t, though she must admit that Nip has officially become her second-most-hated wendigo.

* * * * *

Midnight.

Three a.m.

Five.

Somehow, the sleepless night passes and morning comes, and with it, the departure of her would-be killers. This is the good news. The bad news is that Josh is still seizing at dawn. At nine, when she finally tries to try to wake him, he doesn’t stir. He’s still alive. Still breathing, albeit shallowly. His pulse is thready but present. Still, the hours roll on and it’s nothing but cloudy, blown pupils and catatonia; no one’s home behind those heavy lids and she is afraid. More afraid than she’s ever been for him.  

By mid-day, Sam’s done all she can think of—she’s tried smelling salts, slapping his cheeks, even tried dripping some more of her blood into his mouth in the hopes of rousing him. Nothing. So she washes the blood away and doctors his mangled body as best she can, which is not well at all, considering the extent of his burns. In desperation, she considers swabbing his mouth for magic healing saliva, but if the healing component is voluntary like Josh says, that won’t even work. She’s got nothing else, though.

No crying. This is not over, and even if it is, she is not going to fall apart all over again.

No. Screw that.

She is not.

At some point, though, her exhaustion gets the better of her and she falls asleep beside him in her chair. She doesn’t dream about anything. Or, rather, what she thinks at first must be a dream turns out to be real. Josh’s voice, thin as gossamer, floating down from somewhere far away. Calling her name.

“Arghh,” she says, finally, as the sound persists and draws her reluctantly from her sleep. “What?”

A weak sigh. “Sorry. It’s just . . .”

Abruptly, her eyes snap wide open. Which is less than ideal, given that it’s mid-afternoon and the sun is slanting directly through the narrow skylight and onto her face. She throws a hand up to shield her vision and sits up. Somehow, she’s on the cold, filthy floor now. Must’ve fallen out of the folding chair.

Who cares, though? One glance at the table and it’s clear she wasn’t dreaming at all.

Josh is awake enough to have rolled over. He’s looking at her.

A tidal wave of relief spills over her as she scrambles up.

“Jesus, I thought—I didn’t think you were coming back,” she says, struggling to keep the quaver out of her voice. “I was so scared I’d really wrecked you this time, but, I mean, Christ, Josh—are you okay?”

“No. I dunno. Maybe. Everything hurts. Just wanna . . .”

She’s released him from the shackles hours ago but he doesn’t move except to pull the blanket she’s laid over him higher, like a child hiding under the covers. Which breaks her heart to see, of course, because he is the monster; he can’t hide from it. A few seconds later, he leans over the side of the table and vomits a horrifying mess of half-digested blood and flesh onto the cement. At the sight, it’s all she can do not to mimic him, but somehow she manages to keep the knee-jerk dry heaves to just that.

“Fuck. Sorry,” he whispers when the retching finally stops.

“Are you kidding me? Do not apologize. Here.” She hands him her water bottle and a towel. “I’m not surprised—you were seizing so bad. Worse than before. I don’t think your guest is very happy, but . . .”

She casts a hopeful glance at the snare jar, but it’s long since gone black as pitch. No way to judge what progress, if any, they may have made last night in exchange for Josh’s suffering. And he has suffered—no doubt—more than anyone deserves. More than even a depraved freak like The Psycho deserves. For the stalking? The filming? For punching Ashley and torturing Chris? Surely this more than makes up.

Which brings her to an abrupt idea, one rooted in hope despite its apparent morbidity. Probably she should wait to ask him, considering his current state, but it is a good idea. And, after all, it is only fair.

She tucks the thought away for later. For now, she needs to get him back to the cabin.

He finishes rinsing his mouth and spits into the bucket she’s slid over. Wipes the bloody drool away and casts a wary eye, evidently waiting for her to decide what’s next. He looks so pathetic, so thoroughly destroyed, that she breaks her promise not to touch him without due cause and gently pulls him to her. While she pets his rumpled hair, he rests his head on her shoulder. She can’t see his face at this angle, but the cooing and the seeping wetness tells her enough. He is wrecked. How could he not be? 

“Josh, shh. You’re okay. You made it through again; you’re okay. I’ve got you.”

For a long time, neither of them move. Finally, though, he extracts himself from her embrace and, eyes cast shamefully away, slides to his feet, which promptly give out. He catches himself against the table. Hisses and tries again. Three steps and he sinks to his knees in defeat, bone-white and shaking.

“Wait,” she says, and she can’t look; she can’t even. Poor Josh. “Hang on a sec.”

While he coos forlornly and begins to tend to his wounds where he sits, she moves to unlock the inner door and the outer one. The toboggan, another gift from Jay, sits just inside the outer entry. Thank god for it, too—Josh doesn’t look like he’s going to be walking anywhere soon, even with her help.

 She slides it out onto the snow and goes back to collect its pathetic passenger.

As she’s pulling away for the trek back to the cabin, Josh reaches up and taps her arm. “Sammy.” His voice and touch are so weak she hardly even notices them. He coughs. “Sammy . . . wait. Stop. Look.”

She stops. Turns around and follows his wide-eyed gaze to where it rests.

“What the . . .” she mutters, mouth cotton-dry in an instant. “Seriously? What the hell does that mean?”

Josh manages a weak shrug. “No clue. Nothing nice, I’d say.”

As she watches the blood drip lazily onto the snow, she’s inclined to agree with him.

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: NOTHING NICE


 

Nope. Definitely not a love letter, that right there.

Then again, she can’t read the marks gouged into the wood by wendigo claws and washed in the blood of some hapless creature. An assortment of hooks and triangles, they look a bit like the Cree syllabics in the book she’s been reading, which makes sense, given Nip’s background. A bit, but not exactly. But maybe that’s what Cree writing filtered through the depraved mind of a four hundred year-old supernatural sociopath looks like. She copies it down into Shiner’s notebook and gets moving again.

Back at the cabin, which looks like Shangri-La after the long, harrowing night they’ve spent, another surprise awaits. This one’s nothing horrible, at least, but clearly this day is hell-bent on being anything but dull. On the doormat, placed carefully as if anticipating her arrival, is her missing turtle totem.

“Ookaaay . . .” she breathes, her skin abruptly tightening with goosebumps. “How . . ?”

She reaches down to retrieve it. A single drop of red now adorns the turtle’s smooth shell.

Josh leans weakly against the wall like a rickety mannequin. “What’s that?” he mutters.

“It’s my warding totem. The one I lost.” She reaches into her pocket to fish out the other one. Holds them out on her palm to show him and is not inordinately surprised when he winces and moves back. Right. Stupid. When she slips them both out of view again, he relaxes. “It wasn’t there last night. I’m sure. Which means someone’s been here. Someone who knows what it is and where it came from.”

She watches this news process—the tightness it brings to his already tight mouth, his darkening gaze.

“Jay?” he offers, a thousand layers of wary lassitude wrapped around the single word.

“I don’t think so. No way he’s crazy enough to come up here at night. Someone else, I think.”

He manages to stand unsupported long enough to lean across the railing and scan the treeline, although they’ve just come from down-mountain and passed absolutely no one. Head tipped back, he sifts the crisp air for any scent, then shakes his head. No surprise there. Whoever it was, they’re gone now.

She opens the door. It’s been a strange day already. Lots to think about. Lots to do, too.

Later, once Josh is settled into the bedroom to sleep off his most recent near-death experience, she sets about translating Nip’s message with Jay’s book. Gets a plausible approximation, maybe, although the resultant  words mean nothing to her. She needs someone who speaks Cree. Jay’s not fluent, but he’s a quarter Native—he’s got to know more than she does. Not enough light left to get out to Lake Celeste and back, but come morning, she’ll go. She owes both her mother and Mike check-in calls anyway, and if she can afford it, if she hasn’t completely maxed out her credit, she should get her arm sutured up.

For now, she does what she can to keep Josh comfortable and settles in for a night on the couch.

* * * * *

But she doesn’t go down to town the next day, either, because Josh has a seizure in the early morning hours, and another one shortly after. They’re small, brief affairs. Nothing like the violent fits that happen during lettings, when the saskahwaw is coursing and his wendigo is in high rage, but it’s the first time he’s had any outside of the letting ritual itself. This doesn’t bode well for the two lettings still to come.

Probably not a good idea to leave him alone right now, either. So she stays. Waits and worries.

By the following morning, he’s been seizure-free for twenty-four hours and he seems to have mentally recovered himself. He still looks like deep-fried death, but his wounds have begun to scab and he’s up and walking around again like everything is normal—maybe he truly feels better. Or else he’s faking it for her benefit, overcompensating for having broken down so badly after the last letting. Guarded as he usually is with his true feelings, she wouldn’t put it past him, but if that’s so, he’s committed to the ruse. He spends the morning quietly teasing her, making bad jokes and brushing off her further efforts.

“I’m fine,” he says finally, waving her away with the ghost of a smirk when she continues to vacillate. “Seriously, Sammy, you should go. Find out what it says. What if this shit’s time-sensitive or something?”

He has a point. Not really a good idea to keep her ancient nemesis waiting.

So she goes; she calls her unorthodox spirit guide from the lower cable car station.

“Oh, my,” Jay says after she fills him in on the latest. “Pushy, old shitball, isn’t he? But secret messages are new; I’m intrigued. And, hey, I have something for you, too. Found some old security logs from the Blackwood Pines Hotel at ye old Shiner homestead this week. So you’re coming by right now, I assume?” 

She asks a lot of Jay, who owes her absolutely nothing. She knows this. “If that’s okay with you . . .”

He chuckles. “Oh, you’re cute. Where else are you going to go with this loony crap?”

“I don’t know. To the tinfoil-hat chat rooms of the internet and hope for the best?”

“Haha, exactly. See you in an hour, darling.”

* * * * *

Jay is off work, lounging around his living room in a kimono and pajama pants and evidently in the midst of an epic The Evil Within bender, judging by the TV and the carry-out remnants littering the table. Before she can even comment—not that she was planning to—he rolls his eyes and laughs. “I know, I know. I’m a total hypocrite. But the real thing is sooooo much messier. And scarier. And way less fun. Well, you know that. Anyway, let me see what our old friend Mr. Nipples thinks you should know . . .”

She open’s Shiner’s journal to the page where she worked out her translation.

“Wow, hmm. Well, ‘waciy’ means ‘mountain.’ You got me on the rest. ‘Get-the-fuck-off-my’ perhaps?”

She arches a brow. “Why would he want that? I thought I was supposed to be their dinner?”

“Good point. Hold on.” While she waits, he makes a phone call to someone named Nadie and leaves a voice message. “Great aunt,” he explains. “She’s a peach. And she’ll know what this says. In the meantime—” He tosses three dog-eared ledgers into her lap. “Thought you might be interested. These are from when my pops and great-grandpa were working security for JG Bragg. I haven’t read them because I’m not, in fact, an insomniac, but there’s lots on our friendly neighborhood wendigoes.”

“Wait, when they were working for who? You lost me.”

She turns the top ledger over. Notes the Blackwood Pines Hotel logo stamped in gold on the cover. With every passing second, something scratches more insistently against the back of her brain, an idea that’s been fluttering there for some time now that she’s not quite managed to piece together. But now—

“JG Bragg and Co,” Jay replies. “That’s who owned Blackwood forever, since the very beginning. They owned the mines, the sanitarium, all of it. After that mess in ’52, most of their operations were shut down, but they went right on raking in cash with the old hotel right through the nineties until it crashed. When the Washingtons came looking to buy they were like, ‘Sure! See ya, suckers!’” He slants a side-eye her way with a chaser of apologetic smile. “Not to, uh, make light of your friends’ deaths or anything.”

“Whoa, wait. Time out. Are you saying the people who sold Blackwood knew about the wendigoes?”

Ah, there it is: the thing she’s suspected all this time.

“Lord, yes. The company president is Jefferson Bragg’s great-nephew. Wendigoes on Blackwood are old news; we’re just not allowed to talk about them say the men with the big money. Like, check out the BP police chief’s fancy chalet sometime and tell me he’s not getting mad hush money. True story.”

For several long seconds, all she can do is stare at him. That certainly explains a lot of heretofore-inexplicable bullshit, although it really changes nothing. Too bad Bob Washington, like everyone else back in the warm-and-cozy real world, doesn’t believe in wendigoes. His lawyers would have a field day.

“Anyway,” Jay continues, “My great-grandpa was their head of security—that’s how my fam got into this stupid gig in the first place. It was security’s job to keep the wendies locked up in the sanitarium and the clueless hotel guests away from the fence, although that didn’t always happen, you’ll see, if you read those things.” He nods at the ledgers. Frowns. “I thought I told you about all of this already—I didn’t?”

“That those jerks set us all up to be murdered? Nope. Pretty sure that would stick with me.”

“It is, indeed, some epic bullshit. But that’s JG Bragg for you, so . . . Anyway, they’re my gift to you.”

Whether or not the ledgers prove useful, his timing is certainly spot-on—as there’s nothing else to do now but sit and wait for the call-back, she might as well keep her mind occupied. Jay goes back to playing his scary video game; she opens the first record and starts skimming for a familiar name.

* * * * *

Two hours later, when she is slightly more enlightened, Jay’s phone finally rings.

She tries not to fidget as he does the obligatory old-relative-catching-up small talk—she is, after all, half the reason for this two-day delay, and he’s doing her yet another solid. Patience is ordinarily her strong suit, but now that the moment of knowing is at hand, it’s all she can do not to tap a hole through the floor. The weird face he makes as he listens and writes doesn’t help, and then he just goes on and on, back to small talk and killing her by the second until she gives up, gets up, and reads over his silk-clad shoulder. It takes a moment. Then she’s got her own bewildered expression laced with creeping alarm.

His elegant handwriting reads:

The one you keep is an abomination Nature cannot bear. Look to sleeping giants and see how the mountain suffers for this chaos. Help me put an end to it or I will end you instead.

Um.

Okay, so . . . really?

Really?

Nip’s like the butterflies? He serves the will of the mountain?

But Nip is an evil, bloodthirsty monster; how is that even possible?

Her head swarms, cascades of implications tumbling over one another so fast she can barely keep up. It’s no secret Blackwood’s a strange and otherworldly place, but whatever dark magic governs it is not without its own internal sense of order. And every government, she supposes, must have its ambassadors. Ideally, however, they’d all be of the gentle and whimsical sort, like the butterflies. Less contradictory, too—why summon her back here with the premonitions only to send Nip to thwart her?

Seriously, what the hell, Blackwood?

“So what does that mean?” she breathes, settling back and eyeing Jay from beneath freshly-knitted brows once he finally gets off the phone. He flashes a thin, nervous smile. “The last part I understand, but—well—screw that. Regardless of his many shortcomings, I’m not about to offer Josh up on a platter; I mean, what wendigo doesn’t want to end me? But what sleeping giants? What’s he talking about?”

“You got me. Not so good with metaphors; you can ask my English teachers. I, uh, I don’t think it’s all bad news, though.” When she serves him a faceful of skepticism, he taps the first line. “Really. See?”

“Um, I see smack-talk and a death threat. That falls pretty clearly under ‘bad news’ in my book.”

“Well, if the mountain’s got its panties in a bunch about your boy, it has to be for a reason. As I see it, ‘abomination’ suggests his wendigo is the renegade, extra-assholey, rule-breaking kind that never should’ve happened in the first place. So that’s why the mountain’s unbalanced, maybe. Just a hunch.”

Her brain hasn’t yet stumbled this far, but if Nip’s telling the truth, it would make perfect sense. Not that she has any idea whether he is or not—as far as she’s concerned, all wendigoes are abominations of nature, and she has no particular reason to trust the monster that’s repeatedly tried to murder her.

Has he, though, Sam? Repeatedly?

Well, definitely that one time. But if he’s telling the truth—

She draws a breath. “So that would mean the cure should be working, then, assuming I can complete it.”

“Exactly.”

“Only Nip plans to murder Josh before I ever get the chance. Or did you miss that part?”

“Well, there is that. Didn’t say it was all good news.” He leans back, folding hands behind his head, and shrugs. Then, like it’s the easiest thing in the world: “So just don’t let Nipples get inside your fortress.”

He’s just playing this power-of-positive-thinking thing for her benefit, so she only gives him half a serving of hairy eyeball and a side of snort. “Oh, right, sure thing. Easy for you to say, Captain Playstation.”

“Now, now. I don’t judge your appalling taste in boy-toys and you leave my cowardice out of this.”

“Fine. Whatever.” She sinks forward, sucking on her lip as the words she can’t stop staring at seem to caper wickedly across the page. Ponders the implications some more and sighs. “God, I . . . I hope he’s right, actually. Do you really think he is? Think Nip’s got a direct line to magic mountain HQ or what?”

“Magic mountain? Isn’t that a theme park? No. I don’t know. I don’t know how the mountain’s magic works. This is the first I’ve ever even heard of wendigoes trying to communicate—other than your goofy pet one, that is. But for sure your boy’s breaking all sorts of rules, so I’d believe it. And Nadie says Nip is Blackwood’s first. He’s the original wendigo—who knew? I’d imagine that counts for something.”

“Well, do you think he can be reasoned with? Like, what if I just wrote back, explained what I was trying to do with Josh and the cure and how the mountain brought me back, and asked him to kindly fuck off?”

“Oh, kindly fuck off? Well, then, I’m sure he’ll oblige. That sounds eminently reasonable.”   

“I’m serious, Jay.”

“I know. And I’m agreeing with you, darling. Who knows if it will work, but it can’t hurt.” He reaches for his pen again, sits poised to write. “So what exactly do you want to say to your new pen pal, then?”

Oh, plenty of things, but as the point is—hopefully—a negotiated compromise, she will refrain.

When she has her response ready, Jay calls Nadie back and has the last conversation in reverse.

* * * * *

By the time she heads back up—freshly sutured, calls made, a new set of Cree symbols copied down—she still isn’t sure what the net sum of this development will be. Despite Jay’s optimistic theory, her gut says it’s a negative, although she’s been de facto prey for all of Blackwood’s wendigoes since day one and Nip wanting to kill Josh is hardly new. On equal footing, he can’t do it; she takes comfort in that.

The problem is that Nip clearly knows where and when Josh is most vulnerable. He is clever. And strategic. He knows Sam is the key. And if he ever figured out just how long Josh’s vulnerability persisted post-letting, or ever decided to ambush them the morning after, they’d be well and truly screwed.

But he hasn’t. Not yet.

And he won’t, Sam. So post your sign and just stay focused on what you have to do, okay?

The voice in her head is Hannah. That’s fine—she could use a benevolent imaginary friend for a change.

Back at the cabin, she finds Josh curled up on the couch, reading the Cree history book and trilling softly to himself. He sits up when she comes in, yawns and stretches, and fixes her with an expectant look.

“Hey, hi,” she says, shrugging out of her coat and boots and sitting down. “Jeez. It’s cold out there.”

“Mm-hmm. Want me to warm you up?” A lazy smirk pulls at the uneven corners of his mouth.

She lets it slide. Is glad that he doesn’t sweeten his pitch with any of that weird wendigo cuddling, which would only make it harder to ignore him. The new plan. Right. The new plan remains firmly in place.

“No, thanks. I, uh, I got you some pig’s blood for next time.” She pulls the bottle out of her bag and sits it on the table, faintly repulsed at the way his eyes light up. “Don’t drink it before then, okay?” When he doesn’t answer, just keeps staring, she repeats herself. “Okay? I’m serious, Washington. I’ll hurt you.”

“You’re gonna do that anyway,” he replies casually, but before she can be stung, his expression goes kitten-soft and he nudges her hip. “Fine. So . . .you all better?” At first she doesn’t know what he’s talking about until he touches her arm—the new bandage—the wound she wouldn’t let him fix.

Actually, she feels stupid even acknowledging her minor injury with him sitting there looking like he does, but she appreciates that he cares enough to ask. She gives a thumbs-up and inches carefully away. “Yep. All good. Except they yelled at me for waiting so long to come in. They almost wouldn’t do it.”

“Told you. And what bullshit story did you give them this time?”

“Um, hunting injury? I’m sure they think I’m suicidal at this point. I was a little afraid they were going to say something about it or make me stay there. Involuntarily hospitalize or whatever it is they do.”

His tone slides towards languidly mischievous. “Oh, that’s always fun times. So . . . what else?”

“Um, well, I got some more reading material from Jay. Did you know there was an earthquake on Blackwood back in ’96? That’s how Nip and Makapitew and a whole bunch of others got loose again.”

He cocks his head and gives her a long, incredulous look, before reaching out to fiddle with her keys. Murmurs, “Actually, I did know that. Not the wendigo part, but the quake. That’s what sunk the hotel.”

“Is that even normal for this area? Are there any major fault lines around?”

“Dunno. Not a geologist. The mountain does what it wants, though.”

She nods slowly. Funny he should say that . . .

“Anyway, so that was something I learned today. And I talked to Mike. Everyone’s good back home.” In the silence that follows, she can practically feel him twitching. She clears her throat. “Hey, so how—”

“You gonna tell me what this freaking message says or what, girl? Come on, Sammy. Have a heart. Spill.”

Has she been stalling? She hasn’t noticed.

“Is it embarrassing? Is it ‘For a good time, call Sam Abbott, 323-614—”

“Joshua Washington, that is unkind. And no. It’s . . . um, interesting, I guess? It’s good and bad?”

Reluctantly, she pulls the journal from her bag. Now that she thinks about it, she has been stalling—she really doesn’t want to show him. Wants to forget Nip ever weighed in on the subject of his fellow aberration. Which is impractical, but once she does, all this light and playful banter is going to dry up like so many autumn leaves. He’ll be down again, morose, unsettled. Best to get it over with, though.

She slides the tattered journal along the surface of the table and he takes it.

He reads quietly. Returns it without comment, although her prediction is absolutely right. Worry has instantly etched itself into his pale face and his long sigh; he hunches forward, elbows on knees, and glowers at the floor. Sighs again then stalks over to the window as if expecting to see Nip waiting for him there already. When he doesn’t, he slinks back and just stands there looking at her like she’s suddenly morphed into some complex math problem. Which she hasn’t, last she checked. Josh processes things so oddly, though, god knows, so who knows what he’s thinking now? She tries a sliver of smile.

“You know, this probably means your wendigo is the rogue kind. That’s good news, right?”

He shrugs, which in turn makes him wince, which in turn makes him pretend not to.

“That would mean the cure is going to work, assuming Nip’s telling the truth. And he is. Or, at least, I’d say he believes what he’s saying.” At his arched brow, she continues. “Well, I’ve been thinking about this. If Nip serves Blackwood, and if maintaining its balance is the thing that matters to him, then I bet he’s the one who brought the warding totem back to me. Because he’d want to keep the free-roaming spirits from violating the natural order again. He doesn’t want another you. That’s my guess.”

He flops back down. “Maybe,” he mutters, and growls softly. “But he’ll still kill you, unless—”

“He’s not going to kill me right now; that’s why he brought the totem back. He just wants to scare me into letting him have you. And, anyway, wendigoes kill people—yawn, whatever; it’s what they do—” She catches his silvery gaze, holds it with her own. “Well, except you, weirdo. But that’s nothing I haven’t already figured out. That’s why I stay inside at night. Why I have the shotgun. No big deal.”

His hollow chuckle knifes right through her cavalier bullshit. “Sammy, a shotgun won’t kill us. S’better than nothing, better than titty-twisters or pulling his hair, granted, but you know that, right? It won’t.”

For a moment she wonders what exactly he’s seen or done for him to know this. But whatever; he’s right, of course. “Uh, yeah. I know. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of nuclear warheads, though, so . . .”

He drops his head into his hands again and sighs like his lungs are bottomless. “Fuck. Screw this.”

“Agreed.”

“No, I mean screw your cure. You should just go. There are worse things than . . . being this forever.”

“Come again, asshole?”

“Sammy, He doesn’t know what we’re doing in the shed. How long until he decides you’ve blown him off too long? Seriously, I know I wanted this, I know I asked you to do it, but I am not worth your life. Not even close, and I’ve done far too much horrible shit to you already. You should leave—”

“Josh, shut . . . the fuck . . . up. No more self-loathing. Just stop. You’re done with that.” At her raised voice and sharp tone, he actually looks startled, and then he looks like a scolded puppy, only with more teeth. She draws a deep, steadying breath. Widens her eyes at him for emphasis and he settles back down. “He’ll know what we’re doing because I’m going to tell him. We’re still finishing this. I’ll be fine.”

His cocked head asks the question his mouth isn’t quite ready to. She shows him the message she and Jay crafted, the one she’ll be painting onto a board and mounting on the shed door come morning.

“You . . . think he’ll care? Think he’ll believe you?” he asks, but he sounds sincere again, less cynical.

“Yes. Maybe? I think it’s worth a try, and we’re going to board that place up like a super-max this time, okay? Anyway,” she continues, more than glad to be moving on, “That’s just part of the message. I don’t know about the middle part. ‘Look to sleeping giants’? Is that code? Is he talking about a person, or . . ?”

Josh blinks. Frowns. Shakes his head and in his slow, thoughtful way, says, “No—not code. Think he’s giving directions. Sleeping Giant’s what they called the granite ridge on the north side of the mountain.”

Her breath stutters a beat. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah. Those cliffs. Guess they’re supposed to look like a guy on his back. I’m the master of seeing things that aren’t there, right, but fuck if I can see it. Just looks like a ridge. Hannah always said I was blind.”

His tiny smile is a desert wildflower, blooming and fading in an instant.

Somehow she’s forgotten that Josh and his late sisters grew up on this mountain—she hasn’t even considered that the answer could be so simple or so close at hand. The new puzzle piece sets her brain to racing again—what’s over there on those cliffs? Could it change the meaning of Nip’s message?

She stands up fast. Faster than she means to. “Where exactly is it? Can you draw me a map?”

“No,” he says softly, returning to his feet with considerably less enthusiasm, “But I’ll take you there.”

“Josh, no. You should stay here and work on your healing. You don’t have to come with me.”

He runs claws across the back of his neck, head down, and flashes a humorless grin, the tip of his tongue pressing against one of his innumerable canines. “Yeah, I do. What if he’s there? Besides, I can’t be your bitch about everything, Sammy. Most things, sure, and I totally deserve it, but you do get that I’m kind of an expert in devious bullshit, right? And I don’t trust that fucker. I’m coming with you, so suck it.”

She supposes he could be right; it could be a trap of some sort. Only Nip really wants Josh in the shed, chained up and defenseless, or he’ll have no guarantee. All evidence says he’s still set on persuading Sam to deliver this in exchange for her life, and that he only does the mountain’s dirty work at night.

So there’s no point in arguing. There’s no danger in this.

Which is good, because looking at him, she really doesn’t know how well Josh would match up in a fight right now. The knowledge that he’s willing to face one for her anyway is . . . well . . . distracting, to say the least. But they have things to do. Important things. And, as usual, she’s probably misinterpreting.

With her dispassionate game-face affixed: “Fine. You’re sure? You really feel okay?”

He’s a walking wreck, but he doesn’t wince as he pulls on his shirt and nods. So maybe he does; it’s impossible to truly gauge. With the supernatural nature of his healing, even a few hours can matter. He skitters over, grabs the shotgun and her coat and brings them back to her, lingering in her space for a long moment. Mutters, “Yeah, I’m sure. If I’m such a fucking abomination, I want to see my handiwork.”

And just like that, danger or no danger, she feels uneasy again.

Look to sleeping giants and see how the mountain suffers for this chaos . . .

A sudden shiver ghosts through her muscles. She’d blame the chill air, but the door’s not yet opened.

Look . . . Look . . .

There is something in the shadows of the cliffs that the mountain wants them to see.

Something undoubtedly not good.

“Come on,” he breathes, still hovering, and guides her with a light touch out into the falling snow.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: BLACKWOOD


 

For a change, Josh stays close beside her instead of loping off ahead to explore or chase things.

They take the trail up towards the sanitarium but skirt around the fence to the far side and drop back down. Weave through the forest, past an abandoned shack, and cross the stream via a rickety bridge. Sam’s never come this far in this direction. Is positive, in fact, that the trail used to end beyond the place where a huge, old behemoth of a pine spans across what has now become a narrow footpath. But a quick climb over reveals the path widens out again, more of Blackwood unfurling as if newly-made.

For all of her eagerness at departure, Nip’s reveal is most likely something awful; she vacillates now between wanting and not wanting to get there. Either way, it’s a long walk. As the snow tapers, she turns her focus to Josh, who drops down frequently to skitter on all-fours and sniff the breeze.

Despite her earlier misgivings, he seems better recovered than she would’ve guessed. He moves easily, without a hitch or any hint of unsteadiness. Wendigo magic: when it’s not being totally horrifying, it’s wonderful. In any case, Josh doesn’t seem to share her growing ambivalence about the Sleeping Giant. He circles about her with a long, restless stride, his eagerness manifesting as the occasional soft trill.

“Wow. You’re slow,” he remarks eventually, less jab than mere observation. “This was your idea, right?”

“I’m not slow; I’m human. Anyway, weren’t you just half-dead? We can’t all be magical, you know.”

He considers this. In his soft deadpan, offers, “Well, you could be, if you wanted.” When she grimaces, he cocks his head like a Spielberg velociraptor, lips curling, and murmurs, “Come on, all the cool kids are doing it.” What a horrifying idea. Still, there is something sadly charming about his willingness to make light of his own suffering even now. Something reassuring, too—it’s the antithesis of The Psycho, the opposite of bottling up the pain until it ferments. As such, she manages a thin, enigmatic smile.

 “Yeah, no thanks. Vegan, remember? Not really interested in eating people.”

“Your loss. Seriously, though . . . you gotta be back at the cabin before dark. We should hurry up, yo.”

This is true. As disinterested as she is in eating people, she’s even less interested in being eaten.

Through the rock cuts, they follow the trail down into a grove of barren, white trees, the slender trunks rising up like a forest of bones. Eerie silence hangs heavy here, dreamlike, so muffling and somber it kills her desire for any further tension-relieving banter. Ten minutes pass like this. No birds hopping along the branches. No splashing from the nearby stream. For all the abruptness with which it’s descended, she might as well be back in that Burbank mausoleum hunting down Josh’s dead brother. With each step deeper into this surreal gloom, her awareness coils tighter into twitchy, skin-prickling alertness.

“Oo-kay,” she mutters, bracing for whatever unpleasantness must be imminent.

Only nothing happens and nothing happens and maybe it is just a bunch of bizarre, identical silver trees in a forest grown momentarily taciturn. It’s been a long, exhausting day already; she’s tired and every emotion she owns has been tossed about her skull, the walls spattered like a Jackson Pollock painting with hope and despair, fear and anger. Maybe this whole Blackwood business has finally tipped her over the precarious edge of her sanity. She kicks at the snow, keeping one eye on the still periphery and the other on Josh, who has given up his guard-dogging her to wander off ahead on a scouting mission.

When she catches up, he plucks a dead leaf from her hair and hands it to her like a gift.

“Thanks. You shouldn’t have,” she whispers, and frowns. “Are we almost there?”

“Little further.”

“Good. This place is all kinds of freaky, huh? It’s so quiet. And the trees all look the same.”

The corner of his mouth twitches—tension or amusement; she can’t tell. “That’s because they are. It’s a quaking aspen clonal colony. It makes the same genetically identical tree over and over again.”

“You mean like clones?”

“Yeah. It sends out roots. Everything’s all connected underground.”

“Oh.” She supposes she’s heard of such things.

“Didn’t you read the plaque, Samantha? That’s not very nerdy intellectual of you.”

“Was there one?”

“I dunno.” He glances back up the trail, his voice gone soft. “Maybe not anymore. It’s been a while since anyone’s maintained this side. There used to be, though. I remember reading it as a kid.”

Right. For a moment, she imagines a child-Josh racing through ghost-white trees with his sisters.

Remembers that, once, Blackwood was a refuge, not a prison and a final resting place.

Even with this mundane explanation, as Josh gives her an ambiguous, sad-eyed smirk and they continue on, she finds herself shuddering. These trees—tree?—are like a microcosm of the mountain itself. The hidden complexity. The fragile network of living things all bound to a single will. Only Blackwood’s will is fickle and far from harmless—sending Nip to solve a problem she’s already been called to correct is contradictory  and redundant at best, psychotic at worst. She’s always admired nature for its innovation, its tenacity and resilience, but never imagined the game played as desperately as Blackwood plays it.

And yet a part of her understands why it does:  the mountain’s synergy is terrible, frightening, but also rare, fragile, hauntingly beautiful.

Something like that is worth saving no matter how unsettling.

As they drop down through another passage between boulders, her gaze pulls instinctively to the shabby creature that walks beside her. Like you, her heart whispers at this sad, broken boy who still trusts her even now, even after deducing that she’s just as batshit as he’s ever been. Who she trusts although he’s a danger to her three times over. The unspoken truth that’s been gathering in the rich, dark soil beneath her thoughts for forever pushes just shy of the mottled surface now, twisting and nudging, worming its way out, threatening to trip her flat on her silly, little ass real soon.

Until then, whatever Nip wants to show her, it won’t matter. It won’t change anything important.

* * * * *

At the edge of the aspen grove, the trail ends abruptly where the remnants of an old guard-rail flank a scenic overlook. No signs or plaques here, either, but Josh stops walking and says something about watching the drop-off and she gathers that this is the place to which the message has directed her.

The tree-lined ridge on which they’re standing, which must be the Giant itself—its head or body; impossible to tell from here—slopes away in either direction. She looks around, blinking, heart a steady allegro but ready to go prestissimo at the first alarm. Nothing strikes her as glaringly amiss, though.

Above: the colorless sky, sputtering its last flakes. Thirty feet below: a sprawling, frozen meadow.

No sign of any other wendigoes, but scores of tiny, dark forms dot the snow.

“Oh. Oh, Jesus,” she mutters. “Are those—?”

Josh doesn’t say anything out loud, but his abrupt stillness says plenty.

Got to get closer to know for sure. After making certain the shotgun’s strap is secure, she swings a leg over the rail and begins a careful descent down the face. Josh bounds over after her, faster and more sure-footed on account of his claws, and together they scrabble down until they’re on the ground again.

From close-up, the truth of whatever sickness has claimed this place is glaring. The meadow’s few trees and those lining its perimeter aren’t just bare and dormant; they’re dead, charred black as if burnt.

She trudges a few feet down the slope, bends, and winces.

As she’s cradling the first of many dead birds, she and Josh share a look. She doesn’t know whether his ravenous wendigo allows him to feel sorrow for the creatures he kills or not, but he looks sorry enough now—looks ashamed, even, despite his earlier bravado. It may only be her own visible anguish that pains him; regardless, as she wanders further amongst the scattered corpses, muttering apologies, Josh sniffs the air again, swears, and slinks off towards the scorched underbrush at the base of the cliff.

She should follow him, she supposes—should stay close in case what he’s swearing at is not just his own malignant sense of worthlessness—but she’s suddenly too full of sharp ache and dull confusion to actually care. Because . . . why? If anything, why not the other wendigoes? The natural ones?

How is this any kind of counterbalance?

Whatever complex mechanism forms the Blackwood scales, there is no hope of undoing this damage. No amazing cures that she knows of for either the birds or the ruined land itself; what’s done is done.

She looks down again, brushes her thumb over the robin’s cold feathers. Sighs and knows she’s the world’s biggest hypocrite—hell, she’s been choking down dead animals all month just to entertain her burgeoning masochism. Plus it’s hardly the first death she’s witnessed up here, and nowhere near the most violent. But it’s certainly the most pointless, the victims innocent, and there are so many of them. Dead birds are everywhere, tiny feet curled, beaks gaping. She casts about the corpsed meadow, counting dozens of sparrows, owls, even a few ragged squirrels, and not a mark of violence anywhere.

It’s like the spoiled magic itself killed them.

As if to confirm, as she ponders this possibility, a passing crow drops from the sky like a meteor.

Her heart plummets through the floor of her chest. Down, down, down into the cold, frozen ground, into the mines, where the wendigo spirits linger and the corporeal wendigoes scuttle and lurk. But even these, like Nip, honor the delicate harmony. They hunt and kill, brutalize their prey, but they also hibernate for years when they’d otherwise cull too heavily. Efficient predators, yes, but not a scourge.

And like every other creature that’s of here, they answer to Blackwood’s unbreakable rules.

All of them but one.

Well, Hannah whispers suddenly, At least now you know for sure what he is.

Yes, but she hates his rogue wendigo; would kill it a thousand times if she could.

Hates herself, too, because—however indirectly—she is responsible for this patch of rot. For whatever will die here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until the mountain becomes a desolate, lifeless wasteland. If she had just listened to Josh way back when, he would’ve gotten real help. Then he never would’ve become The Psycho, never would’ve brought them back here; his wendigo would’ve never had the chance to seed this entropy. But she didn’t listen. And her one stupid mistake birthed all of this.

Boom—butterfly effect, right? But that’s BULLSHIT, Sam. You know it’s not true—

Well, she does know this much, even if she lacks the power to resist the temptation: true or not, it won’t help to get lost in the k-hole of her bottomless guilt just now. The only useful thing that can come of this will be a renewed conviction—that not only is she doing the right thing working to SAVE Josh, not kill him (get fucked, Nip) but that it isn’t just Josh’s life at stake here. Or hers, either, for that matter.

For the sake of every living thing on Blackwood, she had better get this letting ritual finished.

And she is doing her best. She is really trying.

“Sam.” Josh’s voice rings suddenly across the clearing, calm enough for now but hinting at something. She turns around, scanning for him. He calls again. “Sammy, um . . . c’mere. Like, right now. Please.”

No, no, no, please no more—come on

Seriously, today is long on terrible and short on uplifting and this doesn’t sound good.

A stand of trees blocks her view of him, but she slogs north along the slope towards the sound of his voice. Finds him standing in a niche—a natural alcove-of-sorts—at the cliff base, a few yards up from another poorly boarded-up mine entrance. As she approaches, the newest bad news all but shouts itself from the hard set of his jaw and the wary flash of his eyes, though they soften at the sight of her.

Over his shoulder, she catches a glimpse of what he’s been staring at.

“Oh, shit,” she hisses, her slow trickle of dread turned flash-flood in an instant.

Evidently Nip’s distaste for needless death does not extend to outsiders.

“Mm-hmm,” Josh murmurs and laces claws behind his neck. With his faint trembling and obvious yearning—the way his tongue darts hopefully—he looks like a sad dog with a biscuit balanced on its nose. Before he can and she hurls, she hooks his shirt and walks him five steps back from temptation.

“Don’t,” she whispers. “Please, Josh . . . I really can’t. Can’t take much more of this right now.”

Something about this seems to surprise him. His moon eyes grow enormous before he scrubs a hand over his jaw and shakes his head with vehemence. “I won’t. Hey, yeah, I mean, we can just go home. I think we’ve seen what Dickhead wanted us to see, right? S’just—the writing—I thought maybe—”

She forces herself to take in the scene before her. Everything about it says the man did not die gently, although oddly, his death is days-old and no part of him has been eaten. The eyeless corpse lies split open, ropes of intestines strewn about like macabre garland, just beneath Nip’s new message. Only it isn’t really a new message. More a reiteration of the same old threat—by now, she recognizes the rehashed symbols. Also, she recognizes the dead decorator’s cell phone lying in the snow nearby.

Fuck.

And here she thought she’d done the man a favor by not letting Josh kill him.

Deep breath. Easy, Sam. Easy.

Her heart, which has lodged itself in her throat like a scared rabbit cowering in its burrow, recedes a bit.

Another breath. She smooths her cool fingers over her burning cheeks, blinks and looks up.

Yeah, okay. Okay. Can’t lose her shit here, so . . .

“It says, ‘Help . . . Me . . . Or,’” she reads out loud, careful to contain her soft quaver.

The last word, scrawled in shaky English directly above the grotesquely lolling head, is ‘Ѕɑм.’

So this kill wasn’t driven by hunger. That would be bad enough. This is worse. It’s merely the sneak preview for her own murder if, in two days, she doesn’t give that impatient bastard what he wants.

Which changes nothing, or almost nothing. Even if there is a difference between abstractly knowing something—what she risks here, the totality of it—and truly, viscerally understanding it, she won’t be swayed. She understands, too, that Nip’s love for Blackwood has made him insane—as love is wont to do; hell, just ask Josh—but Nip, God knows, does not have the local market cornered on madness.

She will save Josh. Still, she has a tally. A list. On top of Jessica and Jack Shiner, now this one.

The fresh guilt hurts more than expected. She’d rather hoped she was already at capacity, but nope.

Whatever Josh mutters under his breath after a while isn’t English—isn’t even Human—but it sounds cold, full of bitterness and impotent rage, so she nods. Turns away, head down, and he follows.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: AVALANCHE


 

The result of all her sanctimonious do-goodery, her endless stubbornness, is more death.

That’s it.

That’s the take-away from this day.

And in the meantime, Blackwood’s still pulling a Josh and intentionally sabotaging itself.

Once they’re safely sequestered within the cabin’s sturdy walls again, everything she’s been holding inside for the better part of seven months lets go; she throws herself face-down onto the bed and doesn’t move. An hour passes. Every part of her feels heavy, leaden. Or maybe it’s the air itself bearing down, settling the weight of every mistake, every missed opportunity and stupid, selfish choice related to this mountain, firmly onto her soul. She could stay here forever. Die like this, simply by being too apathetic to move, and given her track record, this might even qualify as a public service.

So much for not spiraling into melodramatic despair, Sam, Hannah whispers. Get up. Seriously.

She does get up, eventually, but only to pour herself some anesthetic from the new bottle of whisky and then slowly and grimly scrub the cabin from top to bottom. It’s not enough, though—she still feels the dead birds, the man’s ghost, Josh’s possession and imprisonment. Everything else, too, all of it. So she does the other thing that’s long past due, her own rebalancing that will maybe, just maybe, help. Cheeks burning with shame, she gathers up into a trash bag every single awful meat product she’s purchased.

Spam.

Hot dogs.

Pork rinds?

Really?

Fucking pork rinds?

Enough of this. She can start by finding a better brand of masochism.

When she opens the front door to take the bag out to the trash bin, she’s not surprised to find Josh perched on the railing, his gaunt, hunched-over frame silhouetted against the coming twilight. As she stands there, looking sullen and flushed and half unhinged, probably, he gives her the up-and-down.

“What’re you doing?” he mumbles, frowning.

A quick glance at the orange sky. He still has his words, but not for long, she’d guess.

“Nothing,” she sighs. “Just . . . cleaning up. I wanted to do something useful for a change.”

He serves her a quizzical look and slowly slides down. “Are you high? All you ever do is useful shit.”

Can’t bullshit a bullshitter, she reminds herself, which would be reason enough alone for his probing stare to make her squirm; being a goddamn wendigo is the other part. The flare of his nostrils and deepening crease between his brows says he’s caught a whiff of her current state. Carefully, like he’s just noticed what she’s made of, he eases the trash bag from her hands. Looks inside and rolls his eyes.

She braces for the inevitable. Instead, he just tips his chin to indicate she should go back inside as he pitches the bag into the shadows. She feels a little better for its departure. But not enough. Not nearly.

He slinks in after her, the wary curiosity he’s channeling coalescing into something like awe at the sight of their newly spic-and-span digs.“Jesus,” he breathes. “You throwing a dinner party or something?”

“No. Everything was gross. Totally filthy.” She kicks at a stubborn stain in the wood. “It needed it.”

“If you say so, Chief. Seriously, though.” He cocks his head, assessing. “About today—about all of this—”

“Josh, please don’t start with me again on your ‘You should just give up and run away’ shit, okay?” He doesn’t quite flinch, although the sharpness of her tone is a surprise even to her. “Because I’m not doing that. It’s fucking complicated and, no, I don’t want to explain, but that really is not an option here and we’ve already had this conversation once today. So, just don’t. Please? Just . . . I can’t. I really can’t.”

“I wasn’t.” His eyes are suddenly half-sclera. The tip of his tongue wets his lower lip. Disappears again.

Great. And now she’s being snippy. Because that will help immensely.

Glassy-eyed and lethargic, she wanders around for a while, wiping things that are already spotless. Pours another drink and then, for lack of anything else, sits and revisits her preparations for the next letting.

Josh finds the wooden chair in the corner and backs up onto it. Spends the next ten minutes silently watching her sharpen the knife, until the tears she doesn’t even realize she’s crying blur her vision and she slips, nicks herself. He draws a sharp breath, full of wonder. Starts to rise, to come fix her, but she hisses and waves him off. She sucks her own stupid finger. It’s only a little cut. Not like—not like what—

Nope. She can’t even think about that.

“Sammy,” Josh says, his voice a little slurry and edged with his familiar brand of half-manic unease, “What is this? Thought you were invincible. Balls out, eyes-on-the-prize and all that. You cracking up?”

She forces a smile, a macabre laugh. “Shouldn’t I be? That guy. His death was for me. It’s my fault.”

“You’re, uh—” Eyes to the ceiling, mouth twisting, he concentrates. Tries again: “You’re joking, right?”

“Nope. Not joking. Hell, I should’ve let you kill him the other day. It would’ve been kinder. You wouldn’t have gouged his eyes out or gutted him while he was still alive, right? Fuck me and my good advice.”

She can tell he wants to argue this, but there’s no question. Misguided priorities of The Psycho notwithstanding, Josh has never really been interested in torture. Not even now, as far as she can tell.

He shrugs. Flashes a lop-sided smirk and says, “Who cares? Everybody fucks up. S’one, little thing.”

“‘One, little thing?’ God, you have no idea, do you?” She gets up, stalks over to the empty table because she can’t bring herself to say it to his face. “I fuck up everything. I ruin lives. Yours, for example.”

His laugh is a sudden, half-mad screech that makes her overtaxed heart clench. “What? No, I ruined my life. That one’s all mine. Jesus, you sound like me. What the hell? Totally fuckin’ Twilight Zoneing here.”

Is she going to tell him the truth, then? Finally? Right here and now?

She hadn’t planned on it—not after guarding herself so carefully. Not when there are still two lettings to go and she desperately needs him to trust her. And lettings or not, she doesn’t want him to hate her for what she’s failed to do, and he will; no question about it. But she has already lost control, somehow, tumbling wildly, lost in the avalanche. She turns back to him at a glacial pace. Smiles through her tears.

“Actually, that’s not true. Which you don’t know because I never told you, and that’s sort of my point. You feel better now, right? Mentally? I mean apart from being a weindigo. I know you do. There’s a reason for that. And the reason is something you told me before, something you knew and you fucking begged me to help you with and I didn’t listen. So it’s my fault all this happened. My fault you’re here.”

He’s not laughing his confusion anymore. Oh, no. Not a smirk to be found, either. All at once, everything in the room goes very still except for his chest, which goes up and down, up and down, with each slow, deliberate breath. The way he’s staring at her—eyes wide, lips parted, motionless—she has the forlorn sense that he’s starting to receive what she’s transmitting. Starting to get what it means to him, too.

Only he says, “Jesus Christ. No, it’s not,” and shakes his head. His voice, low and tight, trembles like a plucked wire. “What’re you even on? Coming back up to the lodge for the . . . the . . . fuck, what is the word? . . . the anniversary . . . was my idea. Not one of my better ones, okay, but still. It was my fucked-up plan for taking a shit on all of you because I was out of my head, which is a thing that happens, you know. Because I am crazy, hence the years of doctors and the pills. You know all of that. Let it go, okay?”

And now she’s the one laughing, wildly and without humor. “Is it a thing, though? Maybe it isn’t, under normal conditions. Which is—again—my point. I had a chance to stop this nightmare and I failed you. You don’t remember calling me that night back before you went into the hospital? You were so low . . .”

He blinks like this is some kind of non sequitur. “I remember. So what? You’re not seriously—”

“YES! Yes, I am seriously saying it. You told me you didn’t think your mom wanted you to get better. And you were right! You were right, but I told you you were wrong; I told you to trust her. Every time I think I’m doing the right thing, everything I do, I just . . . I always just make it ten times worse. FUCK, Josh!”

Oh, this was a bad idea. The worst idea, only now it’s too late to go back. Still laughing, sobbing, she flops back against the wall as the tears wash down her cheeks, over her trembling throat, drip onto the floor. With all her seams splitting at once like this, she sounds—probably looks—completely insane.

Can’t be helped now, though.

“Josh, your mom swapped out your meds for Sudafed,” she whispers, letting her eyes close because she can’t look, she can’t look, she can’t. “You didn’t go off your meds—well, you did, but not by choice. Who knows how long she was fucking with them—she’s sick, too. Real sick. But you bringing us back up here for the anniversary of your sisters’ disappearance? Everything you did to us? It was because you were off your meds. And if I’d listened to you, you wouldn’t have been. You wouldn’t be a wendigo now. Jess and Jack Shiner and that guy wouldn’t be dead. So, ultimately, I’m responsible for all of this and that’s why I came back; that’s why I can’t leave—I have to make it right, I have to fix this, I have to save you.” She draws the deepest breath, spills it back out, and turns her head so she’s muttering to the wall as much as to him. Rasps, “Plus I’m fucking in love with you, you asshole, so yeah. There’s that, too.”

* * * * *

A million excruciating years later, Josh mutters the softest, “Fucking hell.”

Is that disgust? In the wake of her confession, with all systems flashing red, even imaginary Hannah has fled the meltdown in her head. As such, there is no one to confirm her take, but it sounds like disgust. Meaning she never should’ve opened her fool mouth—as usual, though, she’s made the wrong call.

Chair legs scrape. Claws click and the ghost of a breeze kisses her face as he moves fast.

He will run now—bolt the hell on out of here to digest this mess. At least, that’s what she would do.

Out into the coming night, far away from her and her parody of wholesome goodness, and—

Except suddenly he is right there.

Hovering over her.

Pulling her from the wall.

What? No, you—

“Sammy,” he breathes, like her very name is the bite of the letting blade sinking into him.

Arms circle, fold her in, and she is too shocked to even process, eyes fluttering open like someone waking from the most harrowing nightmare. He chuffs once, twice, against her throat. Kisses with his ruined lips the place that his breath has warmed, the place where her jugular sings just below the surface of her pale skin. He is not leaving. He’s not even mad. She knows nothing—nothing at all.

“Shit, you think I didn’t already know that about my mom?” he asks softly. “It didn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure it out, what with the amotryptaline magically working again, but whatever. You gotta stop listening to Chris. Yeah, he’s my best bro, but you want to buy that butterfly effect shit, then you’re the reason for every earthquake and every e.coli outbreak and you are why children get cancer and why Michael Bay has a career and holy shit. No. You can’t do that. No, Sammy. I can’t even believe this is what you’ve been doing to yourself all this time. You didn’t do this to me. You didn’t hurt or kill anyone.”

She’s never seen him look quite so unguarded before, his silvered eyes brimming with a sweet ache. Never heard him speak so plainly, either—Josh, with all his easy deceptions and half-truths, his pranks.

She knows Playful Josh. Creepy Smartass Josh. Scared and Fragile Josh. This one is new.

He bows his head towards her. Issues a soft, lilting coo, voluntary or not, and whispers, “Shit. And I can’t believe you’re making me do this to you while I’m still a . . . still a fucking horrible monster . . .”

Before she can manage more than a tiny gasp, his warm lips press hers.

JOSH?! Oh, fuck—

What—

Ahh—

Oh.

OHHH.

The kiss is soft. Gently probing. Somehow he tastes not of blood but of toothpaste, and for all that he’s packing a mouthful of razors, she never feels a single prick. He is so, so careful with her, this boy she has no right to be kissing, considering. Only he knows, he knows now what she’s kept from him and he doesn’t care; he doesn’t blame her. No more secrets here and he is kissing her, kissing her, kissing her.

She could explode with joy and relief.

Wonder, too. This isn’t happening. It can’t be.   

Five years.

Five long, complicated, frustrating years of friendship and something more than friendship, a twisted codependency, maybe, and now, here on this insane mountain, Josh Washington is finally kissing her.

And she actually feels better. Feels like maybe—maybe—she was wrong.

His knuckles brush her cheek, stroking away the wetness. When he draws back, tongue licking lightly over her lower lip, he presses their foreheads together and sighs. “Okay? Right? Do you get it now?”

Does she even have a voice to answer him? Nothing seems certain anymore.

“Wow,” she tries, and that goes okay. A little hoarse. “Um. Holy shit, Washington. Since how long?”

He kisses her forehead, draws her head down against his chest so she can feel his beating heart and screeches softly. “Oh, God. Since forever. For-ever. Why the hell you think I’ve been such an asshole?”

Damn—so much pure, unadulterated Josh Washington sincerity right here.

If she’d known this would be the payoff, she would’ve lost her shit years ago.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: BATHING BIRD


 

For a long time, he just stands there and holds her. But such a fragile, gossamer-fine moment can’t last.

She can almost feel his humanity fading by the second. Plus he’s Josh—allergic to prolonged bouts of unadulterated decency anyway. Ten minutes later, though he’s still lucid, his posture has turned spiderlike and she gets nothing but chuffs, trills, and screeches in response to her questions.

His frequent, wary glances say he’s nowhere near checked out, though. Somewhere in there, he’s still worried about her. And understandably so, head-case that she’s just proven herself, but if he can’t stay with her much longer, if he has to answer to the wendigo, she will be all right now. She feels oddly better—calmer—having been given the gift of two of his many secrets. Which was, of course, the point.

As he moves about the kitchenette, awkwardly crafting a veggie sandwich that he sets before her like a proud housecat depositing its kill, she has to give it to him: he’s good. Good like someone who knows the anatomy of a breakdown. Like all those years of having his sketchy brain relentlessly scrutinized must’ve taught him a few tricks. Now, in the aftermath, she rolls his gift around in her head like a shiny, new marble, searching for the imperfection that must be hidden within, but she can’t find it anywhere.

Damn.

Josh may fake entire personas when it suits him, but maybe he really does love her back.

That he cares for her is obvious; she’s known that for years. But he’s never really understood the entirety of her, never seen her flaws, however glaring. And with as many times as he’s pushed her away even before the big push that was The Psycho, he could’ve had her filed under ‘replacement sister.’

So . . . all this time, though?

Even before Hannah and Beth disappeared and he came to her out of sheer, abject desperation?

That night in the basement of his parents’ house, even?

A million things she could ask him in the morning when he is mostly himself again, but something tells her she’ll get the Cheshire Cat grin and a whole lot of nothing. That this was a one-time special offer.

Still . . .  

He knew about his mother’s treachery.

For how long? Weeks?

He freaking knew and he never mentioned it all this time? How could he not blame her at least a little?

Hell, it’s taken her a full seven months to maybe get over the mindfuck he’d pulled on her in return, and unlike Josh, who’d been under the influence of his own unmedicated brain, then, she’d had no excuses.

But nope. Not a single bitter word.

That sounds a little like love, flaws and all. So maybe he really does.

Of course he does, Sam. How freaking dense are you?

“You’d be surprised,” she mutters, hunching forward, and reluctantly draws the plate of food closer.

Score another for maybe-he-does: if he notices her crazy-talking herself, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

Eventually, it occurs to her that she owes him some sort of response for, well, going against everything in his incorrigible nature and for still being here right now. She tries a tiny, self-deprecating smile: “Hey, um, thanks for . . . God, I don’t even. I don’t know what to say.” She is new to this side. Would much rather be the one scraping up the fragments and refashioning them into a human. “Just . . . thanks?”

He returns an almost-imperceptible nod and looks away fast, sentiments like an iceberg obscured once more beneath the still surface. Is he embarrassed to have tipped his hand, now that her immediate crisis is averted? Maybe a little. Or just distracted by the thing inside yowling away for its dinner. With Josh, whoever knows? Barring these rare exceptions, he will probably always be a story written in some unknown language. Either way, he lingers over her for another moment, resting a hand on her shoulder like he isn’t quite sure what else to do with her. One claw toys absently with a loose strand of her hair.

After a while, when no further melt-down seems imminent, he retreats to the far corner to let her eat.

Since his wendigo will tie itself in knots until he crawls under the cabin and feeds it, and since her proximity can’t be helping that, a little space is probably good. Besides that, this day’s already been so long and full of messy feelings and she has a lot to think about. After she rinses her dish, she selects another bone-dry Blackwood Hotel log to peruse and heads back up the hall towards the bedroom.

At this, Josh chuffs out an exasperated-sounding sigh and springs across to the bookcase.

She stops, curious as to what she’s done now.

The bookcase holds mostly Bob and Melinda’s old, forgotten summer-reading—bad Seventies romance novels, second-rate mysteries, a bunch of horror and suspense story collections. He selects one without looking and hops over to her with furrowed brow to pluck the offending hotel log from her hands. Chucks it. Gently, he presses the fiction collection into its place and tips his chin. The implication’s clear.

And, yeah, okay, maybe she should ease off the mysterious wendigoes and her pathetic obsession for one night. A little diversion wouldn’t be the worst thing for her overstressed brain now, would it?

She glances at the author list. At the book’s cover—Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories my Mother Never Told Me—and feels the skin on her arms go all goose-fleshy. Everything up here is always so uncanny. She shrugs in what she hopes is a convincingly indifferent manner and mumbles, “Fine; whatever.”

He will go feed now, she thinks, but instead he follows her into the bedroom. While she settles into the pillows, he finds the edge of the bed, the footboard, draws his knees up into himself and leans back.

Ten minutes later, she’s yawning and turning pages full of comfortingly empty, meaningless words. Feeling more and more certain that this is, wonder of wonders, actual reality and she has not gone and destroyed out of guilt everything she’s so desperately sought to repair here after all. Somehow, she’s earned a pardon she never deserved nor dared to hope for. This world is a crazy, unfathomable place.

You both have, Hannah whispers. Now enough wallowing—Jesus Christ, Sam. Just don’t screw it up.

Right. Okay, yeah. She can maybe do that.

A faint sound catches her ear and she looks up from her musings. Is unsurprised to see Josh still shamelessly monitoring her from beneath his heavy, placid lids. At the same time, his mouth is working against his wrist, softly sucking. A single drop of red escapes, trickles down. At some point—in lieu of leaving her unattended with her dangerously faulty thoughts, she supposes—he’s inflicted the wound that’s now providing his pathetic dinner. This again. Wincing, she sets the book aside and straightens up.

“Hey.” He cocks his head, blinks. “Hey, I’m okay now, you know? You don’t have to . . . I’m good.”

It’s not a lie. If she wasn’t quite there a moment ago, seeing the depth of his devotion laid plain like this is enough to make it so. Whatever he feels for her, it’s stronger, even, than the hunger. She is at once horrified, touched, and relieved. The two former for obvious reasons, and relieved because at least this conversation will pull them back into their familiar roles. Imaginary Hannah is right—she can’t be the fragile one for long, can’t keep doing this weird inversion thing. And he needs her just as she needs him.

She presses: “Josh, please don’t do that to yourself. Just go. I’ll be all right.” When he blinks and doesn’t move, she nudges his hip with her foot until he spills sideways off the bed. “Go on. Go eat. You need to.”

Also no lie, and he must know it. He’s not a vampire—blood alone won’t sate him. He picks himself up off the floor and slinks away; another moment and she hears the wooden bar lifting from its frame, the door opening and closing. It shouldn’t take him long to dig up his revolting leftovers and come back.

She rolls sideways, sandwiching her hand beneath her head and the pillow while she waits.

* * * * *

At dawn, she wakes from a dream of the mountain in ruins, everything everywhere scorched and dead.

For sure it’s one version of the future she didn’t need to see, but Blackwood is well into this panic state and the butterflies have always done what they will. She sits up, blinks at the pale light and the sudden unexpected passage of hours. Like the world in her dream, the space beside her in the bed is vacant, cold. When she pads barefoot down the short hall, she finds herself alone in the cabin with no indication as to whether Josh ever came back. Probably not, or she would’ve heard and he would be here now.  

She has no memory of anything beyond his departure.

Outside, where she ventures after pulling on her coat and shoes, a single set of wendigo tracks trails off into the trees. She’s no survivalist, but the spacing says his pace was unhurried. She’s not worried, then. A little annoyed, maybe, although when he is deep in his wendigo, he can’t read or write, either; it’s not like he could’ve explained anything. Whatever his reason for going, she can only hope he comes back soon. The shed needs a lot done before tomorrow night, and he is handier with carpentry than she is.

She heads back in and dozes for another hour. Eats breakfast and is getting ready to shower when the thump of the front door yields a creaking of floorboards and Josh’s playful trill sounds from up the hall.

“Sam? Sammy? Hey, girl, you awake?”

Glancing down at her discarded clothes, she calls back, “In here. Just—give me a second.”

Through the half-ajar bathroom door, she catches a glimpse of him as he minces in, her errant pet who ought to look guilty for being out all night and almost manages it, despite his obviously affable mood. For some reason, he’s wet and filthy like he’s been down in the mines again; God only knows why.

Quieter, now: “Sorry, I got lost. Side-tracked, I mean. Don’t tell time so well at night, you know?”

“Yep, I do know.” She fishes her underwear off the floor and asks, “What were you doing? Dare I ask?”

Another creak as he moves closer, sends his answer through the crack. “Uh, do you really need to?”

As soon as he says it, the answer is no. Well, about why he’s been down in the mines again, yes, but not about the other thing. Duh—he went to feed on something better than sixty year-old leftovers. Something like that fresh corpse. The realization makes her suck her pursed lower lip between her teeth, but for a refreshing change, she manages to tamp down her knee-jerk guilt without much trouble.

“Oh,” she replies, doing a shit job nonetheless of sounding unruffled. “Right.”

A beat of silence. When he continues—“Also, I was looking for something I had before, something for you, but I didn’t remember where I left it on account of I was pretty much insane then”—his cheerful quaver holds its own fresh thread of unease. He knows the dead man is a dangerous subject for her.

She doesn’t answer. A very dangerous one, yes, but she is working through it, like she’s worked through other horrible things before. She is not going to fall apart again; she really hopes he knows that.

“So I . . . I got his wallet. ‘Ken Cho.’ I ever get out of here, maybe I’ll write an anonymous letter.”

She wants to remind him that he is getting out of here, and to say that this would be kind; the man’s family will need the closure. But Josh already knows that, and for some reason, her tongue is stuck.

Then, like merely thinking of past horrors has conjured this surreal moment into being, the floorboards creak again and—shit—she has just enough time to grab a towel and wrap it about herself before he nudges the door open: “Hey, uh, you are all right in there, right? You’re not, like, pulling another—”

“Josh—”

 “Whoa. Fuck,” he breathes, wide-eyed, and stops halfway across the threshold. “Sorry.”

He sounds painfully sincere, even as he gives her and her thin scrap of white terrycloth the obvious up-and-down. The tip of his tongue presses against his endless teeth, fighting to suppress a wolf’s grin.

“I’m good, Washington. Not freaking out in here yet. Just . . . about to shower. Busy day ahead and all.”

As she stands there frozen, the swell of déjà vu raises goose bumps all along her bare arms, even though things are clearly not the same between them as they were the last time he saw her like this. He’s in his right mind now. Still, her heart pounds. Beneath her serene veneer, something big is on the move.

Shit. What is this?

While he watches, she touches fingertips to her parted lips. Feels a sudden sense of weightlessness, of being hung in that instant at the top of some archetypal cliff, about to swan-dive to her doom. But it’s not doom that he offers, and that’s the point: it never really was. She has anguished over this violation for so long, cried and nearly ruined herself, but a moment later and it’s just . . . done. The tension and complicity of their shared past with all its grotesqueries spills away into a nervous laugh, a faint tickling warmth in her lower belly. She’s still working on her guilt, but she is over trauma of The Psycho.

Finally.

She is good and he is still there shamelessly staring. She’d be more annoyed at his perving if it weren’t such a comfortingly Josh-like gesture. And if they weren’t . . . well, whatever it is they are now.

She shivers; the fluttering in her belly kicks up a notch.

“Anyway, so that’s what I was about to do.” She says too-loudly, nods at the shower. “But what—”

“Oh. Right.” Shockingly, he doesn’t make any tasteless jokes, just turns fast to leave.

She surprises herself by grabbing his fingers, taking care to avoid the sharp claws. “You’re fine, perv. You can stay.” He stares at her hand on his. “So what were you looking for down in the mines anyway?”

“Oh.” He licks his lips the way he does when he’s slyly processing things and backs up to the vanity. Hops up to slouch amid her modest collection of beauty products. “S’a surprise. Left it at the shed, though.”  

“Not to sound ungrateful, but, uh, your track record for surprises is—”

“Come on, Sammy. No pranks. No gas anesthetic. I’m not usually that much of an asshole. You’ll like it.”

The truth is she liked his most recent reveal plenty, so maybe he’s right. Speaking of: what the hell is she even doing now? Nothing, really, because they have things to do today and, anyway, this thing is far too new. Just testing, she supposes. A little prank of her own. Her skin prickles as she turns on the water.

“If it came out of the mines, that’s doubtful. Hey, hide your eyes a second, would you?”

“Aw, really?” In the mirror, his brows lift, creasing his forehead. He blinks plaintively. Not quite begging, but it’s close. Not an unfamiliar Josh tactic, either. The difference is this time, he could really mean it.

 “I’m serious,” she replies, smiling sweetly. “You know I know how to castrate things, right?”

“Why do all the women in my life want to hurt me?” he mumbles, but he turns to face the wall.

She drops the towel. Stands there for a moment just looking at the back of his head.

She is over The Psycho, right?

And they are . . . well . . . something more than friends. Definitely something.

 “So where did you say that paint was?” The curtain rings screech as she steps beneath the pelting water. It’s hot. A little too hot, but the truth is she was already feeling flushed. “If it’s still there, I mean.”

More screeching and she’s once more hidden from view.

“It’s down in my . . . in the old hotel,” Josh replies.

“In your evil torture lair?” For a change, the words roll off casually.

A beat and, then: “Yeah, that.”

In the ensuing silence—well, silent save the sounds of the shower running—she can hear him thinking.

“Sammy?” he says, finally, and waits. He’s not begging now. More like . . . hopefully probing.

“Yes, Josh?”

“You know I never would’ve . . . I didn’t ever want to hurt you back then. You know that, right?”

Hmm. It hasn’t fully hit her that she isn’t the only one here who’s been traumatized by the actions of The Psycho, but now that the realization settles in, something sweeps into her chest, clutching tight about her heart. Jeez—like he wasn’t wrecking her enough already. But it’s true: he hadn’t asked to have his demons brought to light; this was just something that had happened to him. And to the rest of them, too, of course, but which was worse? Didn’t she have a thousand shambling demons of her own?

Hell, didn’t they all?

Doesn’t she finally owe him the same clear affirmation he’s given her?

It’s possible, she thinks, that they’ll both kill themselves with caring this much. But she peeks her head around the curtain to look at him, sitting there all full of want. “Yeah, I know that,” she says, gently.

“I know my mom’s fucked up. Don’t even know why she did that, really, but what I did was pretty messed up, too. Shit, you ever gonna be able to take a bath again? Because I feel . . . I do feel like a huge, gaping asshole about that, Sammy. You never want me to talk about it, but after last night, I think probably you should hear it. Like, huge asshole. The biggest. Even if it wasn’t entirely my fault. Sooo . . .”

“Hey, no—wait.”

She isn’t quite sure what she’s doing until it’s done. Knob depressed, the spray of the shower becomes the splash of water spilling from the spigot. She flips the drain stopper into place. Watches the water creep along the old, white porcelain, up about her ankles, with a feeling that’s part nausea, part exhilaration. A soft thud as Josh hops down off the counter, his wendigo senses evidently tingling.

“Uh . . . what’re you doing?”

“I can take a bath right now, Josh,” she murmurs.

And it’s true. At least, she’s pretty sure it is, despite what she’s previously told him: she really is over it.

She licks water from her lips before it can drip into the rising bath. Is acutely aware of his looming presence just beyond the thin curtain: the click of claws, his shallow breathing, the faint coo that lurks just beneath his thick words. “No, you don’t have to do that—come on, that’s not what I meant—”

“I know, but . . . I can.” Deep breath. “You and me . . . we’re good, right? We’re okay now, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, Sam,” he whispers hoarsely. “We are. We’re all good.”

She may never get tired of hearing those words.

“Then just . . .” She squeezes body wash beneath the tap, watches serenely as it turns into a thick, white lather of bubbles. “Do this with me, okay? The right way. The way we should’ve done it forever ago.”

On shaky legs that seem to belong to someone else, she lowers herself down into the steaming bath water. Eventually her nakedness is partially obscured—well, not very, but whatever—and she slides the curtain between them out of the way. Josh looks fragile as a museum artifact, like the exhaled breath of a mouse might knock him over. Nothing sleepy about his eyes anymore. He swallows hard, jaw slacked.

“Sammy.” He sinks down to sit on the floor beside her. “Please. You’re killing me.”

“No . . .” She reaches out to hook the edge of his collar. “I’m doing the opposite. Come here.”

She pulls him towards her. Presses a light kiss to his cheek, finds his mouth as she slips the buttons on his wet flannel. Another moment and the flannel’s a thing of the past, followed shortly by his tee-shirt. Sitting down like this, she can’t well reach the button on his pants over the rim of the tub. Fortunately, he has the idea by now and he stands and does the work for her, peeling them off along with his boxers.

The recent infusion of fresh human flesh has him fully healed. No surprise there. He moves too quickly to notice much more than that, despite the discreet sweep of her gaze. Another moment and he is in the bath with her; they are one creature, then, a tangled mass of arms and legs and breath and touch.

“Just . . . like this,” she whispers with his arms wound tight, head rocked back to rest against his chest.

“Yeah, sure.” His mouth nuzzles into her wet hair. “I got you, Sammy-bird. I got you.”

He means in this moment, here and now, but he has always had her. Always.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: THE DEEP END


 

They stay like this until the water turns cold. Until the silence sounds like wasting daylight.

“Come on,” Josh murmurs eventually, easing her forward. “Got shit to do, right?”

His knuckles glide down the small of her back, over the swell of her buttocks when she steps, dripping, onto the rug. She gives him a look, brow quirked, and he just grins, inviting her to knock out a few from his surplus of teeth. She has no desire to do anything, of course, but perform the well-worn charade.

“I’ll declaw you, Washington,” she admonishes.

“Yeah?” He looks practically giddy at the prospect. “God, I wish you would.”

“But then . . . how would you scratch your fleas?”

“That’s just mean, Sammy. And I’m sensitive, remember?”

She chuckles.

Towel. Clothes. Then out into the world once more to do what must be done. Only now hope like a bright, shining lure waits just beyond the far-off horizon—hope that what she’s working for is not just redemption but something bigger, something sweeter, on the off-chance that they both survive this.

And so the ensuing hours that are filled with the banal task of readying the shed for another siege pass rapidly. Supplies are restocked. Old blood stains scrubbed, though this is more a symbolic gesture than anything, as they are shortly to be made anew. By the time she remembers she’s been promised a surprise or that there’s something delicate she still needs to ask Josh—has been meaning to for days, actually—all the steel grates they’ve hauled from the sanitarium are mounted over the replaced boards. Serious business now, these windows, just in case Nip doesn’t get the message from the message itself.

So. About that surprise.

“Oh, yeah,” Josh says, voice dripping lazy as maple sap when she nudges him about it. “I almost forgot.”

He skitters off into some shadowy corner and returns a moment later with . . . well, she isn’t sure what, at least not at first. Then it clicks: it’s a flamethrower. Specifically, Jack Shiner’s flamethrower, or so she gathers, though she’d really rather not dwell on how it is that Josh has had the thing in his possession all this time. She’s at a loss for words in either case—his concern for her safety is touching, but what exactly does he expect her to do with it? Even if it didn’t weigh a ton, she has no idea how to use one.

She can see all of this processing behind his crooked grin as he sets the unwieldy thing down on the cement with the enthusiasm of a cheerfully rabid golden retriever. “Oh,” she says. “Wow. Okay.”

He looks from her diminutive frame to the hulking device and back again, snorts and mutters, “Haha, shit. Forget how little you are. Just thought . . . ah, fuck it. Those windows are solid now, right?”

God, she hopes so. Wasn’t that the point of all this?

Later, the day’s work done, she eats a late lunch—or is it an early dinner?—outside at the rickety picnic table, picking with disinterest at her pasta salad and wondering how best to broach the subject that remains to be discussed before tomorrow. Mounted on the shed doors in place of the existing gouged symbols, the red paint has dried on her new sign, beneath which Josh leans casually, watching her.

Her carefully articulated counter-offer to Nip—now that she’s seeing it made real—seems a bit too simple, a bit too foolishly optimistic, but it certainly can’t hurt to try negotiation. Anyway, she’s done second-guessing, at least about that. She snaps the plastic lid back on the container and flicks another glance at the surreal monster-boy. Her monster-boy, she tentatively allows herself: speaking of surreal.

“What?” Like he knows she’s up to something. He nibbles absently on the tip of one claw.

She clears her throat and offers, “I, uh . . . so I told you I talked to Mike yesterday, didn’t I?”

Two syllables stretched out like warm taffy: “Mm-hmm.”

“It was . . . mostly about things back home, how everybody’s doing, and . . . well, about you.”

He straightens slowly, spits red into the snow and nods. “What about me?”

“Just, you know . . . what comes after this. About you coming home again. How that’ll be.”

She expects the usual protest. That she’s putting the cart miles before the horse. That there is Nip and two more lettings and the ever-unpredictable dying Blackwood and how this business is nowhere near a done deal yet, how everything here is unraveling by the minute; did she forget that? All of which is, of course, true, and the reason she’s only just recently begun to consider the possibility of After again and all of its concomitant ramifications. Instead, he laughs and drags his palms over his half-ruined face.

“Yeah? Hey, you know they’re all gonna be pissed as hell if you pull this off, right?” She grimaces, but he just goes on. “I’m about the last piece of shit any of them want to see unflushed from the bowl.”

“That’s not true,” she lies.

“Come on. Ash wants to ass-fuck me with a porcupine. I know she does. Or she should.”

A ribbon of nausea unfurls in her belly, morphs into a sickly smile at the ease with which he accepts this. Like being ostracized is only fair, given his defective brain and the things it pounces upon when left unattended. Like it only stands to reason his curse should follow him home like a lost puppy. If they survive this, she will have to do some serious work on his outlook. Work like he’s done for her already. Work like they will probably both be doing for each other now and forever, crazy kids that they are.

So, okay, she will do that. For now, she shakes her head.

 “Um, no? That’s not entirely true. Okay, so maybe ‘Josh’ is a four-letter word for some people, but you’d be surprised. We’re talking about your friends—not necessarily ‘former.’ Mike is pulling for you, Josh. I think Chris will come around, too, if you give him some time and space. In a way, he was the one who helped me the most when I was still deciding what to do about you. Anyway, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about now. There’s something we could do, I think, that might help your cause.”

A clump of snow falls from the eave, dusting Josh in white. When she looks up, a squirrel chatters squirrel expletives and races along the roof. It launches into a nearby pine and disappears, alive and well in a way that she might not have appreciated only yesterday. Josh snorts and brushed himself off.

The arch of his brow says, Oh, really? Bullshit, but go on.

“For all of them, I think if they understood what you’ve gone through up here—if they could just see what this has been like—maybe they’d have an easier time forgiving you.” This earns her another snort, which she astutely ignores. “I mean it. Aside from that, I’m afraid people just won’t buy the truth about your absence if it’s nothing but another story. I mean, they haven’t bought any of ours so far.”

“To be fair, ‘Afluenza Teens Get Bad Batch of Drugs’ does sound way more plausible.”

“I’m serious. So I mean, without proof of what’s happened to you, if—when—you come home, I’m afraid there might be . . . repercussions for you. Legal, or . . . personal, you know? You don’t need that.”

She watches the process of his deflation without any particular satisfaction. “Sam.” His tone is soft, still half-amused. “My sisters are dead. My own mom prefers sadistic psychosis to my actual personality. Everyone else hates me like a fat kid hates gym class. What else is there, personally, for me to lose?”

She gets up, squeezes his arm. “Well, you’re gonna need your dad to believe you, don’t you think?”

“Oh.” He cocks his head, considers her not-quite-articulated point. “You mean, otherwise, he’ll figure I’ve just staged my own death again and been fucking with everyone this whole time.” She gives a sheepish nod. “Yeah, maybe. That does sound like me. What do you think he’ll do in that case?”

“I think I’d rather not find out.”

After a long minute in which he doesn’t even move except to blink and she can practically hear him snapping the pieces into place, he looks up. “Wait, does he know about my mom? Does he under—”

“Yes. No. Sort of. He knows she’s sick. I’m not sure he really believes that she did . . . what she did.”

“Pfft. Tell me about it, Bob.” A hollow laugh as he bites his bloody lip. “So what are you asking, Sam?”

 “Let me film tomorrow’s letting. So there’s proof of all of this.”

“Seriously?” A heavy silence follows. “Damn. Never pegged you for the torture porn, girl, but hey—I’m game.” At her eye-roll and half-heartedly-raised fist, he dances away out of reach. Settles back with a sly grin and shrugs. “Yeah, sure. I deserve it. Hell, I’d be a huge fucking hypocrite if I said no, right?”

The vulnerability tucked carefully beneath his cavalier tone feels like a fist in her gut. Yeah, some serious work needed there—sane or not, he’s still wired bass-ackwards, still full of the masochist’s bottomless appetite for abuse that she knows so well. She can’t argue about it when this is her idea, though.

“Yep, something like that,” she replies.

“So, fine. Let’s do it.” He slides over, settles his arm about her shoulders. “My camera or yours?”

“What? Oh, pleeease tell me the cops took all of yours. Those were evidence, for Christ’s sake.”

He makes a face like, These cops? This town? What do you think?

Fucking JG Bragg and Co. At this point, she really shouldn’t be surprised.

* * * * *

They go down to the old hotel. It’s not her first time back inside, but it is her first time with Josh.

And she’s still okay. And the place is still an otherworldly time capsule, a shrine to yesteryear’s forgotten opulence turned subterranean by the mountain’s strange whims. They wander the moldering halls, poke into half-collapsed rooms. Somehow the déjà vu enveloping Sam is nothing but a dry artifact in the aftermath of this morning’s epiphany. No fear stirs her. No panic. It just is. She is here and he is here.

The Psycho is dead and buried.

For his part, Josh’s mood is caught somewhere between human and wendigo as he trills softly beneath his breath, mouthing the occasional muffled swear whenever they turn up some remnant of his past psychosis and its desperate quest for self-destruction. A stack of fake newspapers. A creepy, old doll. Now and then, he yawns expansively and she is reminded that he hasn’t slept at all since yesterday.

They would be done for the day—heading back to the cabin to rest up by now—except that they haven’t yet turned up the one thing they actually came for. Nothing in the old restaurants. Ditto for the front desk and the shops. For all of Josh’s earlier cock-surety, his left-over cameras are in very short supply.

Eventually, he stops her not far from the main lobby, smiling faintly. Asks, “So . . . you up for a swim?”

Pretty soon, she’s just going to give up and name this particular style of side-eye the ‘Josh Washington.’

For her trouble, she earns a gleaming flash of teeth. “Aw, no suit? So what?”

He grabs her hand and drags her towards a set of steel doors marked ‘Natatorium,’ nudges them open and pulls her through into pitch darkness. She stands motionless as he fumbles about. A faint click and then a vast and dazzling network of carnival lights flickers unexpectedly into existence overhead.

As usual, he’s half-bullshit. Amber light bounces off of dusty, bone-white tile, lights the faded mural of Poseidon on the ceiling. She takes a few tentative steps, taking in the dim, chlorine-haunted tomb at the center of which—down in the drained pool—sits a trio of rollaway beds draped in white sheets.

Three beds, surrounded by a detritus of old candy wrappers, comics, and . . . horse magazines?

It takes a few seconds for Sam to process. “Wait, did you—was this—were Beth and Hannah—?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah. We used to camp out down here in the summers when we were kids.”

Like this is not even really worth discussing, he slinks through the rubble to where the floor-to-ceiling windows broken out when the mountain spilled in have become a wall of rocks. Woven discreetly through these like a lurking python: a black power cord leading to a camera hidden in a crevice.

“Boom,” he murmurs, lifting the camera free and dropping it into her bag. “There ya go, Eli Roth.”

She doesn’t know who that is, but with Josh that might be a good thing. But a camera—yes, good.

“About time,” she teases. “I was starting to wonder if you weren’t hallucinating things again.”

Maybe she’s pushing it with this, but he just pulls a surreptitious smile.

He saunters over to the pool’s edge and drops down while she rearranges things in her backpack. By the time she’s rejoined him, he’s flat on his back on the nearest shrouded bed, hands beneath his head, eyes half-closed. He sits up just long enough to tip his chin and pat the mattress, sending a faint cloud of plaster dust ghosting into the still air. Sam sits, not quite sure what it is they’re doing now.

“So . . .” she begins, and glances down at his clawed fingers as they creep beneath her fleece jacket. The pressure of his knuckles against her hipbone comes a moment later—light, vaguely suggestive, independent of his otherwise politely attentive gaze as he waits for her to continue her thought.

For being a rollaway and god-knows how old, the bed’s not half bad. On impulse, she sinks down, nestling into the comfortable space beneath his arm. They are not sleeping here, but for now?

The corner of his mouth twitches. He slants a look from beneath heavy, purplish eyelids.

“So I take it,” she continues, “That Bob and Melinda didn’t know about this ‘camping out’ thing?”

“Not at first. What, you really think Melinda would’ve signed off? She didn’t go crazy til way later.”

“Right. Your genius idea, I assume?”

“Hey, Beth and Hannah were all for it. It was our secret clubhouse. They loved this place. Look.”

Down in the deep end where he’s gestured with a sweep of one hand, the wall is scrawled with fading graffiti, which she supposes is the sort of thing kids do when trapped on a mountain with no cell reception. Old song lyrics written in Hannah’s florid script. A cartoon butterfly. “Hannah + Benjamin 4ever.” A huge, poorly-drawn penis that’s been half scribbled-out and replaced by “JOSH SUCKS.”

The longer she looks at this ancient, forgotten monument, the more her skin chills and prickles with a morose disorientation. Hannah and Beth. Gone two years now, gone forever, but for a moment she imagines something different. Imagines the twins still here—alive, happy, laughing, shuffling out of the shadows to chide them and offer the one thing they will never have: an absolute, definitive forgiveness.

If only.

So many if-onlys.

It must show on her face because Josh stretches across to kiss her forehead. “I know,” he murmurs.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

And this, of course, is the other thing that she and Josh do best: they mourn. Her pain has matured immensely in two years, though, its edges worn smooth with time and familiarity. She settles back now, tucks the old, dull ache away in its box and snuggles closer to the only Washington sibling she has left.

Better than no Washingtons, though, and for this one, she must admit now, she would do anything.

Another thought, then: what would Hannah (not Imaginary Hannah, but real Hannah) think of . . . recent developments?

Would she finally approve, now that things are the way they are?

Imaginary Hannah and all the voices that once crowded Sam’s skull have gone silent. Nonetheless, peace touches her heart now like a spring thaw, sending warmth all through her. She is reminded of lazy afternoons back home, listening to sweet, silly Hannah go on and on about her latest crush. Of her friend’s incessant, good-natured begging, pressing her to spill the carefully-guarded secret of her own.

She slides a tentative hand across Josh’s stomach. Toys with his buttons until he cocks a brow.

“So, uh, you got caught eventually, though, right?” she asks. “Your parents had to have—“

“Sure. If you can believe it, Melinda used to give half a shit about parenting. She found out, beat the Sweet Baby Jesus into me that time. Long history of almost getting my sisters killed and all that shit.” She winces; he shrugs. “I know. S’bullshit. It’s just what she spent all last year telling me over and over again. Anyway, until then, this place was the bee’s meow. No dickhead parents. No scary wendigoes. Just falling rocks, bricks, plaster, rusty nails, other wholesome, harmless shit. We had a lot of fun.”

She slips a button. Two. Sneaks her hand inside his shirt. “Yep, that sounds totally harmless . . .”

“Sam, nothing bad ever used to happen to us. This place was—I dunno—it was different, then.”

She doesn’t doubt it. The muscles of his abdomen tighten as her experimental palm flattens out.

Without any windows, and with her useless phone back at the cabin, she can’t say for sure what time it is. Definitely later, although he isn’t having any difficulty speaking yet. He is tired, though, and she ought to care—she does care—only her fingers have gone rogue, possessed by some wholly inappropriate curiosity. Yesterday, he was a fragile mess, and he will be a mess again tomorrow. She is out of line regardless, so out of line considering the sanctity he must ascribe to this place, but she can’t help it.

She sits up. Pops the rest of his buttons and eases the flannel from his shoulders. A black tee-shirt still remains, but she burrows beneath it to caress soft fingertips across his warm, oddly-smooth skin.   

“Sam.” When she doesn’t answer, he says it again, softer.

Another beat and he’s rolling over on top of her, his weight sinking her into the mattress as his mouth—his hot breath—finds her throat. She closes her eyes as he commences a strange blend of kissing, licking, and chuffing, the sudden bursts of air hissed through pressed teeth simultaneously tickling and igniting everything combustible she’s kept hidden for so long. Her body rises, arching into his touch.

“God, you’re the devil,” he sighs against her jugular.

She smiles. For months now, she’s believed this or something like it, though not in the way he means it.

“Maybe. But—” She glides hands up his sides as he kisses her, tugging folds of material until he pauses to let her yank his shirt off. “I’m just a little bored with torturing you all the time. Can we maybe do something else for a change?” She’s not sure what she’s asking for. “Something a little . . . more fun?”

He rocks back onto his haunches and stares at her for twenty years, his pupils beneath their film of silver blown wide and black. Carefully, along her midline, he draws the tip of one claw, activating an invisible current of heat. Oh shit. So, yeah, okay, maybe she does know what she’s asking for. He does, too.

He blinks, yawns, scrubs a hand over his jaw. “Uh, yeah, Sam. If you’re sure that’s what you want.”

It’s not what she came down here for. Not what she was thinking about even ten minutes ago, but . . .

With vague disbelief, she follows his movement as he grasps the zipper on her fleece and eases it down.

“Oh. Oh, shit,” she sighs when he begins nuzzling his way down her body. Knuckles pressed to ribs. Hands beneath her shirt, slow and cautious. How many times has she dreamed this? And of course her timing is awful, so awful. “Oh god, but . . . you’re exhausted, aren’t you? You are. You really need to sleep—”

Against the skin of her belly, he voices a muffled affirmation, but he doesn’t stop kissing her.

She lets him return the favor and help her out of her shirt. After that, time drifts; the world tips sideways and continues to slowly, disorientingly revolve on this new axis, but the cold she feels distinctly. No heat in here and the air makes everything newly exposed go tight and puckery. But pretty soon she is warm again; pretty soon she forgets all about that. As the long, slow sweep of his tongue dips lower, a pattern emerges that eventually she recognizes as a question. Her breath catches. The fingers curled lazily in his hair tighten, pull him up until heavy-lidded eyes find hers.

Neither of them speaks—not out loud, at least.

Are you—?

Yes. Can I—?

There is fear, too, bright and shining, reflected in those strange, wendigoed eyes.

For some reason, though she should probably be horrified or terrified or both, she instead settles back and shifts her hips in silent acquiescence. He chuffs softly and a sweet ache settles into her, one that’s only augmented by the quiet ghosting of claws over skin as he eases her pants and underwear down.

“Josh . . . please . . .” she finally manages to whisper.

 He doesn’t answer her and she doesn’t have anything else. After five long years, the rest is implicit.

Okay.

Okay.

I trust you.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: HELP


 

One eyelid slits slowly open.

Amber light from above. Frigid air. Mildew and the ghost of old chlorine. Near-silence.

So much for not crashing in the natatorium. Time, arguably, has ceased to exist down here, and yet its absence has only sharpened her sense of it. Were they to resurface now, it would be into perilous moonlight. That’s not happening, so the natatorium it is for the night, and save for the cold, she could think of worse places to be trapped were she fit for thinking right now, which she absolutely isn’t.

Just feeling. She is fit for feeling, for savoring and for wonder and for disbelief at the way things work out. A million years ago—a thousand miles away—several lost lives and discarded understandings of the universe ago—she had grown a tiny, harmless crush on her best friend’s weird-but-cute older brother.

And never imagined anything would really come of it.

And never imagined being with him would be anything like this.

She gets up, the muscles in her thighs still trembling and half-gelatinous in the aftermath of their recent exertion, and pads naked up the concrete steps. At the steel doors, where she listens carefully and hears absolutely nothing beyond, she wedges a long, rusty skimmer pole through the handles just to be sure.

When she returns to the makeshift bed where Josh is out cold, she spies an old sleeping bag peeking from beneath one of the other cots. Probably full of mice, but she unzips it and is pleasantly surprised. She drapes it over him and climbs back beneath. As she lies there shivering, cheek pressed to his chest in search of some elusive warmth, the shadows lurking in the musty corners seem to shift, wax, and wane.

She turns her head. Just as she decides the lights strung above are vibrating ever-so-subtly, something rumbles and groans from somewhere deep beneath them. It’s nothing alive, thank god. Not the growl of any wendigo, rogue or not; this much she knows. Per the map, the mines don’t connect to the hotel on the northern side of the property, so there’s no chance of a subterranean sneak-attack happening here.

She allows herself to breathe. It’s just the lunatic mountain talking in its sleep, restless and uneasy.

A part of her still knows how it feels, and yet . . . so much of her doesn’t anymore.

Because they are going to survive this—they just are; they have to now—so why be uneasy about it?

As if to confirm, a pale butterfly plummets from the darkness to light upon her shrouded knee.

* * * * *

 The next time she wakes up, Josh is licking and sucking on her earlobe.

Weird. Weird but nice. She hums a non-word, cards fingers into his hair. “Mm, wow. What time is it?”

He shrugs. Goes on looking at her with just a touch of new-found chagrin behind the usual smirk.

“Well . . . do you have your words yet?” she asks. “Because that would be one way to know.”

The time does matter. It would be bad to open the doors prematurely. Really bad, potentially.

He sits up and cocks his head, brow furrowing. One finger raised like a magician about to perform a trick, he licks his lips and makes various behind-the-scenes attempts until he screeches and shakes his head: nope. Not quite yet, but he is, at least, human enough to be annoyed, so sunrise and the relative safety of daylight must not be too far off. An hour? His big, sleepy eyes roll dramatically; he shrieks again.

“I dunno, Washington. All those horrible sex jokes, I’ve been meaning to tell you: this no-voice thing might be an improvement. So peaceful, you know?” She nudges him with her freezing toes and does her best imitation of his crooked, impish smile. “Too bad we can’t pick and choose what to cure, hmm?”

This earns her a snort. Beneath her arms, folded modestly across her breasts, her bare stomach is unguarded. With the tip of one claw upon her skin, he carefully traces the letters ‘F-U-C-K-Y-O-U.’  

“So rude,” she chides, but she’s too distracted by the sensation to dish out any more.

Knowing Josh, it’s probably a genuine offer in addition to a good-natured insult. His hand lingers suggestively, knuckles smoothing tiny circles about her navel. The weird, plunging feeling this stirs in her lower belly—like driving too fast down a steep hill—says it’s an offer she wouldn’t mind taking him up on again sometime soon, because that? That is never going to get old, monster or not. In the meantime, she reallocates one arm to drawing him back down against her and snuggling close. Mumbles, “Sorry. Freezing to death over here,” although she’s not, in fact, sorry at all. Not about this part, anyway.

The speed with which he slides down and resumes kissing and chuffing against her collarbone says he doesn’t mind one bit. Says he’s got a pretty good idea how to kill this long, icy hour before dawn.

Later, when his too-thin body goes rigid above her and he collapses into the after-ripples of her own breathless release, she finds his wolf’s mouth at her ear. “Sam,” he whispers, panting, reverent. He trills. Clears his throat. “Fuck, Sammy.” His voice is the sad, lost, shattered boy she once held, shaking, in the dark of her bedroom and the monster of Cree legend all at once, and it is something else, something more—an intriguing emissary from the future. From a time when wendigoes and mountains are long past and nothing but this intimacy remains to remind them of the horror from which they were born.

Sharp teeth nuzzle against her cheek. “Oh. Hey,” she murmurs, still half blissed out of her head.

He is silent a moment. Sheepishly, then: “Yeah. Hey.”

And just like that, dawn has come and they are free again, or as free as they can be until he is cured.

Dawn and, with it, the second-to-last Letting Day.

Time to go.

* * * * *

“Do you see that?” she asks, frowning, as they drift along the trail beneath the pale, pinking sky.

The air is bitterly cold and still, a layer of ice frozen over the deep snow. A trio of wendigo prints that must pre-date the temperature drop crosses the path up ahead, but that’s not what she means—if only.

“Don’t need to see it,” Josh mumbles, not looking. “I feel it. My parasite feels it. S’spreading, right?”

Off to their left and down the slope a bit, a line of silver birches stands newly blackened and stark against the snow, charred limbs twisted in anguish, the very air around them gone smudgy and dull grey. Yesterday, this side of the mountain was untouched, but like malignant cancer cells, the spoiled magic is spreading, seeding itself all about. A shudder wracks her. No wonder Blackwood was restless last night.

She is trying hard to take Josh’s advice—to let go Chris’s silly idea about the snowballing of tiny choices into an avalanche of consequence. If she can’t quite, however, she can always make the concept work in her favor. Can remind herself that sometimes, too, good things grow from the smallest word or gesture.

“It is,” she agrees with a careful nod that precedes the resurrection of her usual plucky optimism. “But pretty soon it won’t be. Another week and this place’ll be all better. You, too.” A short step and she’s close enough to bump his shoulder with hers. He looks down into her bright, serene face, spends a moment silently appraising. Whatever conclusion he reaches in regards to the return of Optimist Sam, she can’t quite read it in his expression. But he slides his arm through hers and pulls her on.

“Hey, yeah,” he calls out suddenly like an obnoxious twelve year-old, fragile voice echoing down the slope. “Hey, she means you’re not gonna die after all, Blackwood, you fucking pussy. So chill out, yo.”

Josh. Washington: Epic. Dork.

But she’s smiling anyway, laughing, “Um, I don’t think it works like that. Think maybe—”

“Whatever.” He kisses her forehead. “You’re writing notes to that piece-o-shit Nip, yeah? Thought we were embracing the crazy. I mean, if anyone knows what it’s going through—figure s’worth a try, right?”

Yeah, okay, so there’s a part of Josh’s lunacy that’s very charming.

That is maybe even half of why she loves the fucker.

* * * * *

 For all of his disarming charm, that afternoon brings a sobering reality check.

Not that she’d ever really forgotten about Josh’s condition—that would be impossible. But since he constantly bends the rules for her, it’s increasingly slipped her mind that there are rules, that Josh has primal urges beyond the very human ones with which she’s recently acquainted herself. And yet he does. Nestled in his lap and pretending to watch a movie, she tenses when he abruptly sits up. Head angled, stiff and still as a crouching wildcat, he weighs whatever distant sound her dull human senses must have missed, the subtle thump of his heart growing faster with every beat against her cheek.

“What?” she mumbles, lifting her head just in time for him to ease her gently onto the couch.

No answer. He stands in slow motion, trills an unsettlingly hypnotic, inhuman query.

To the front window—whatever he sees there only makes his tension more pronounced. Before she can discover what fresh horror lies beyond the glass, he bolts for the front door, sending torrents of icy adrenaline sluicing into her veins. That kind of speed says nothing good’s going to come of this.

“Jesus—” She races out onto the porch after him. “Josh—what is it?”

Shit.

So singularly focused. So fast. Across the little clearing with a curdling, predatory shriek, he pelts on all fours, claws punching ominous holes through the sheet of ice. To their credit, the lone figure at the far edge of the trail stands silent and frozen—a good survival plan, if only Josh were a traditional wendigo with that creature’s limited vision to temper this bloodlust. Unfortunately, he still sees pretty well.

Down the steps and into the snow. “JOSH, WAIT, NO!”

It’s only the second time she’s witnessed him in the presence of another living human being, and the last time was from afar, without visual contact. Nothing disarming about her rogue wendigo now.

His stride shortens a notch, but that’s it. She squints as she runs, can almost tell—

 “STOP! That’s Jay, goddammit! It’s JAY!”

Blessedly, her words reach his brain at last. He skids to a halt just shy of the lanky barista, who looks certain of his own imminent demise but—surprisingly—still holds his ground. Not quite the hopeless coward after all, then, although as she races to close the distance between them she can see Jay trembling like an epileptic Chihuahua at the over-fanged creature still menacing his personal space.

“Josh, stop it,” she snaps, yanking him back by his shirt collar. “Jay Shiner, okay? You can’t EAT him.”

“Please don’t,” Jay whispers, eyes popping. “I would feel really, really stupid about this if you did.”

In the second or two it takes Josh’s human half to wrestle back control, Sam gets a desperate hankering for her old friend Whisky and a pretty good feeling for how hostage negotiators must feel, which is to say: not good. Why is this even happening? Why is Jay here? Of all people who ought to know better.

Finally, with considerable effort, Josh gives one last trembling screech and steps back, clenched fists pressed to the back of his bowed neck. “Fuck—fuck—okay.” A sad, awkward laugh filters through his grin as he fidgets. “Okay, fine.” He mutters something else in that inhuman language and falls silent.

“Thank you,” Jay manages, shuddering. “Canadian Grade Z, okay? Stringy. No fat. So not worth it.”

Relief crashes over Sam in a wave that makes her legs go rubbery, though she remains at a loss, brain three steps behind and scrambling to catch up. “I thought it slept during the day, Josh?! Jesus Christ.”

He doesn’t look at her. “It does. I dunno; it gets insomnia sometimes. Give me a second.”

“Um, Sam,” Jay murmurs, “Can we maaaybe revisit your definition of ‘tame’ sometime?”

After that, the three of them stand blinking, stretching out the moment until the very air feels ready to crack like glass. Once Josh processes several more shaky breaths, the tension radiating through his posture finally dissipates and he raises his claws in genteel surrender. “Shit. So sorry. Seriously, though, the hell’re you doing up my mountain unannounced? Wendigo, bro. I eat people. You know that.”

Although he sounds calm enough now, his silvered eyes dart away—afraid to linger too long on all that fresh human flesh, stringy or not. Sam slides a hand up his arm, conveys her understanding via a soft squeeze even as she still doesn’t quite understand how and why she is exempt from this. Josh casts a discreet glance her way—half ashamed, half grateful—and her heart breaks all over again. He’s suffered far too much already, fought way too many battles alone, but she can offer no more than this.

 “Yes, genius,” Jay groans, “I know that is what you are. And I am asking myself the very same thing just now, believe me.” To Sam, with a wan smile, he adds, “Actually, I came to offer you a hand, finally.”

She lifts a brow.

“Aunt Nadie called me back after you left. Laid an e-nooormous guilt trip for sitting on my ass while you’ve been up here all this time trying to fix this on your own. It’s a Letting Day today, isn’t it?”

“Wow, Jay. I didn’t think you’d ever—”

“Grow a pair? Yeah, well.” Looking more winter Gap ad than wendigo spirit guide, he tugs the edge of his beanie, glances away. The cold—or chagrin—has flushed the skin beneath his cheekbones a rosy pink. “It’s a sacred family tradition or some such booollshit, you know. Did I say Nadie was a peach?” He sounds more weary than melodramatic. “I rescind my assessment. A meddling, old bag is what she is.”

Josh barks a dark, shrieking laugh, because if anyone can relate to meddling family members, it’s him.

Sam winces, torn between instinctive empathy and not letting the seeds of a fresh, new guilt take root.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” she offers. “I didn’t mean for you to get drug into this. You don’t have to be.”

He waves her off. “No, it’s fine. She’s right. You’ve made it this far—I really didn’t think you would, to be honest. And I can’t be a lazy, petulant chicken-shit forever. Pops would say otherwise if he could, but . . . he can’t, and arguably if I’d been less of a chicken-shit sooner, that might not be the case. Surprise! You’re not the only one with a raging guilt complex, Sam. Sooo . . . whatever. I’m here to help.”

His tone is a spare, desolate country called Regret whose geography Sam knows well. She supposes she isn’t surprised by any of this. For some time, she’s suspected the playful sass is only a careful mask.

She won’t say it, but intrinsic as Jay’s been already, she’s not entirely sure his being here is a good idea. The last thing she wants is for yet another Shiner to die on this god-forsaken mountain. And the ritual is a far more terrible business in actuality than on paper, so Jay may not realize what he’s in for. Mostly, though, it’s that she and Josh have journeyed this far on their own, through pain and loss and dysfunctions untold. Bringing anyone else into this delicate space at this late date feels—well—wrong.

But she’s not a total fucking idiot, past evidence notwithstanding: Blackwood isn’t pulling punches, and the lettings are only getting worse. Plus, Jay is experienced. Hell, he was born for this world, right?

 “Well . . . okay,” she murmurs, and offers a sad, little smile. “Thanks, Jay. That means a lot.”

Josh, for his part, looks vaguely mortified.

“Yeah, sure,” Jay murmurs.

Josh clears his throat. “So . . . uh, exactly how many members of your family have died up here, then?”

“Hmm? Oh.” Jay ticks away on his long, thin fingers. “Six. Seven if you count my grandmother’s dog.”

That look: like Josh might like to disappear right into the ground about now. “Damn. Now I feel like an even bigger shithead.” He licks his lips. “If you could just smell yourself, tho. I’m just saying. It’s like—”

“Josh, shh.” Sam grimaces. “I don’t think that’s going to put him any more at ease—”

“Well, he is possessed by an insatiable, cannibal demon spirit. He can’t help it.” Jay eyes the rogue wendigo warily but manages to pull off a semi-convincing shrug. “That’s the point of this whole shit show, isn’t it? He can’t help it. If he could, we could all just go home.” To Josh: “I forgive you, Cujo.”

Josh’s nod is enthusiasm personified. “I CAN’T. S’not like I asked for this. In a manner of speaking, okay, sure, karma, since I was a huge dick when I was jacked outta my skull, but . . . yeah.” Another step back. Deep breath. A soft chuckle, eyes averted. “Let’s go inside. I’ll be so good, Jay. So ‘tame.’ Scout’s honor.”

If Sam didn’t trust the depth of his loyalty—hadn’t already witnessed it—she might mistake his tone for more of that creepy, predatory, classic Josh Washington bullshittery. But it’s not—at least, she doesn’t think it is. Hungry or not, the devotion that connects them really is a two-way street. He may want to, but he won’t hurt Jay. Because he owes the man, for one thing, and because she’s asked him not to.

Jay considers this, relaxes a little more. Takes a step closer. Josh steps obediently backwards.

“Fabulous. No idea how that’s even possible, but okay. After you, then.”

She follows them across the clearing, brain wrapped in a fresh layer of surreal. It’s Letting Day and they have company. The door hangs open; they go inside and fall into more awkward, uncertain silence.

“Well, might as well get comfy,” Josh offers after a while, voice fragile with the strain of behaving. He sounds like an actor reciting new lines. She likes Jay, of course, his humor and his kindness, but all of this is new and strange and outside their routine and she gets Josh’s uncertainty, even minus his own unique struggle. Starting abruptly, she clears away the nest of blankets on the couch. Josh waves his claws and Jay sits. With a trill, Josh hops up behind him; the barista turns sideways to keep a wary eye on him.

“Oh,” Josh says, parsing Jay’s look and sliding down. “Sorry.” He slinks away like a bad dog.

“No, no—don’t—please, I didn’t mean you had to go sit in the corner,” Jay says. “This is just . . .”

“Josh!” Sam grabs the armchair. Turns it, sits. “Come back here. Sit with me, okay?”

He wedges himself into the narrow space. Another fleeting glance at Jay—this one tinged with chagrin—before he pulls her in to nuzzle and chuff against her throat. As she’s being rearranged into the warm sanctuary of his lap, arms encircling her, Jay watches them with a delicate smirk.  

“Well,” he says, brow arching, “Glad we got that ‘not my boyfriend’ thing squared away, then.”

Josh gives her a curious look. “Shut up,” she tells them both, cheeks flushing.

“Now, now. So what’s the plan? Also, what’s with all the dead birds and squirrels down by the cable car station? They’re everywhere. It’s like Disney Princess movie meets straight-to-television Stephen King.”

Oh, right—he doesn’t know yet. So as the afternoon creeps on towards nightfall and its inevitable unpleasantness, she tells him everything that’s happened since they last spoke, or almost everything. Obviously not the personal stuff, although Jay is the sort who would probably prefer that kind of news to this business. And when she finishes her tale of creeping, rotted magic and the black ruin left in its wake, Jay rolls his eyes as expected and sighs. He hates this mountain. She doesn’t blame him.

“Great. That’s new.”

“I figured.”

“And . . . well, I guess that means we’ve never actually seen an unnatural possession before. My family, that is. All this time; no wonder the cure never worked when they tried it. All the same, you know, we’re not entirely worthless. We did try to warn your father, Josh. For years. Pops left warding totems all over the place, wrote letters, begged; we tried. But your dad is . . . well . . . how to put this delicately—?”

“A stubborn asshole?” Josh offers. “Yeah, I know. You’d think a guy who makes horror films for a living would be a little more open-minded, right?” He bites down on his own wrist. Slurps a bit of blood before turning his palms up in ambivalence. “Shoulda talked to Melinda. She’s a little more . . . mm, out there.”

“So I’ve heard.” The way Jay’s mouth stays half-open suggests he might’ve had something more, but nothing else comes out. Instead, he stares, transfixed, as Josh continues to suckle his new wound. “Jesus Lord,” Jay breathes eventually, grimacing, “Are you eating yourself? Is that because of me?”

“Mm-hmm.” Josh follows up with a macabre smile—very wet, very red. “Better me than you, bro.”

“Nooo argument there. It’s just . . . wow. You really are something entirely different, aren’t you?”

Sam catches the glimmer of awe, as if the magnitude of all of this has just finally hit him.

Outside, the shadows are lengthening. Cold wind chuffs against the little cabin, setting bare, ice-robed branches to chattering against the window bars. Although it’s neither here nor there to Jay right now, the truth is Josh has always been different—even before, even back home in plain, old, ordinary L.A. with its predictable characters and banal dangers, which might as well be the other side of the universe anymore. So rogue spirit, yes, but perhaps that’s the other reason he’s held on to his humanity this long.

“Well,” she replies, and gives Josh’s elbow another discreet squeeze, “Blackwood certainly thinks so.”

“Fuck Blackwood,” Jay sighs. “Anyway, sorry about your family and everything.”

Josh nods thoughtfully. “Likewise. Thanks for coming, man. Thanks for giving a shit.”

* * * * *

An hour later, they’re back in the shed.

Or, rather, she and Jay are. Josh is still somewhere out in the yard, lurking.

“So, uh, you don’t, by chance, know how to use a flamethrower?” Sam asks him.

 “A flamethrower? You have one?” With feigned incredulity, then: “Naturally, yes. Doesn’t everyone?”

“Sorry. Guess I skipped that day in Girl Scouts.” She pauses, licks her lips. “We have your dad’s, actually. Only it’s too heavy for me to carry and I don’t know the first thing about using one. But it might be better than the shotgun just in case something gets through those window grates. I mean, in case Nip doesn’t like the new terms I’m proposing. Which, knowing our luck, he won’t. Hey, Josh, are you—”

“Well, you’re not using it in here, for starters. Not unless you’re planning to burn the place down.” His expression hangs somewhere between alarmed and intrigued. “I know that’s your thing and all, but . . .”

“No, it is not ‘my thing.’ And no. Probably only so many times Bob will forgive me for arson, right?”

“You never know. But I would stick with the gun. And nothing’s getting through those bars, believe me. Wendies are strong, but they’re not that strong. Anyway, so are we . . . um . . doing this, or . . ?”

“Josh?” she calls out.

Still no Josh. She ducks back out, finds him leaning against the shed wall, head back and panting. Understandably, although he’s usually more stoic than this. He gives her a sheepish glance like she’s caught him jerking it to kiddie porn or something and pushes up. Gets as far as the threshold when everything in his body goes rigid, claws bracing on the wood like a cat fighting a trip to the vet. He grunts, shrieks, shakes his head. Strains forward, feet scrabbling in the snow, and collapses back.

So soft she almost misses it, then: “Shit.”

“What?”

Monster or not, he sounds as fragile as he ever has. ‘Sammy, I . . . I can’t.”

Sympathy carves a path straight into her heart. “Hey, no, you can do this,” she soothes, sliding a hand up to rest between his trembling shoulder blades. “I know it’s terrible, but just two more and then—”

He pulls away. “No, I mean I CAN’T. I can’t go in. It won’t let me.”

Like a depth charge bursting in the pit of her stomach. She should’ve guessed this was coming. With a sad laugh, he falls down in the snow, draws his knees up and rests his arms. Sets his cheek against them, and he looks like a little boy, sad and lost again—like anything but the unnatural killing machine he is.

“Was hoping, but . . . it knows what’s up on these nights,” he murmurs. “It is So. Mad. S’like a bunch of fucking wasps in my head. Loud. Stinging. It’s not even sunset yet. Shit.” He gives a slow head shake and glances back into the darkening woods. “Get the chains, I guess. And Jay. And that muzzle. Please.”

“Jesus. You want us to drag you inside?”

“Fuck yeah, girl.” Barely more than a whisper. It pains her that he’s still trying for bravado on her behalf. His grin spreads grotesquely. “Aw, come on. You’re gonna cut me anyway. What’s one more thing?”

He’s right. Still, she doesn’t have to act like any of this is in any way acceptable.

* * * * *

Josh’s anguished shrieks cut the night, rattling the window panes as they cross the threshold.

“Jesus Christo,” Jay mutters, wincing, dragging her wendigo by the ankles as he twists and thrashes.

She struggles to keep hold of shackled wrists. To avoid claws and the rusty iron muzzle, salvaged from the rubble of the psychiatric wing, that swings wildly, chain jangling, teeth flashing and snapping behind it. Across the floorboards and through the door into the inner room they drag him. Carefully, Sam thinks, but that’s easier said than done. Josh is strong as anything, full of fight and desperation and dark magic.

It’s a goddamned miracle that they get him lifted up. He is cold, bare skin red from the snow. The back of his head slams the oak table. Spine arched, claws digging divots in the wood, he gasps—tries to pant something that might be English—but whatever it is dissolves into another hopeless, curdled yowl.

“Josh, please,” she begs. “Can you just try? Can you—hold still for two seconds—?”

“. . . am . . . trying . . .” he whispers.

It’s a losing battle, her attempt to secure shackles to hooks. But Jay throws his weight into the double-team and they just manage. Above them, the snare jar swings wildly, a red glow emanating from beneath the thick, black soot. It’s a grim reminder that—for all its strength and rage—they are only fighting part of a rogue wendigo. The part that hasn’t yet been excised. The part that’s grown wise.

So maybe it will and maybe it won’t—“Can you hold his head?” she asks Jay, just in case, as she mixes the saskahwaw with pig’s blood in a cup. “I don’t know if this will still work—if it can even make itself refuse, but if it can—” With her gamest fake smile, she picks up a steel dosing syringe, shakes it.

It still wants the blood, though. And her flesh, too, if only it could reach her. Of course it does.

With Jay holding him down, she pours the contents of the cup through the bars of the muzzle into Josh’s open, keening mouth. “Good. Good, you stupid asshole; drink up. Choke on it,” she hisses, and Jay cocks a brow at her. The saskahwaw gets down to work unbinding parasite from vessel. Or she assumes it does—since Josh was already thrashing about in a rage, it’s honestly hard to tell the difference.

“Great. Good job, Josh,” Jay murmurs. He gives Josh’s arm a tentative pat before stepping away.

“Yeah, so . . . that was kinda the easy part,” she explains in the space between yowls.

Jay knows this, of course, but somehow taking the instructional approach—How to Violently Torture Your Supernatural Boyfriend, by Samantha Abbott, she thinks, smiles grimly—makes this business a little more bearable. Because otherwise? These lettings have never exactly been easy for her to perform, but now that she and Josh are—well—whatever they are, her role here borders on excruciating.

Jay  snorts softly. “Oh, love, I hear you. I’ve read that book enough times. Want me to do the rest?”

When she turns, he has the torch in-hand and a look of thin-lipped, knit-browed pity on his face.   

She balks on instinct. “No, I’m fine. I can do it. Hell, Jay, I’ve been doing it all this time, so—”

“Oh, I know you can. What I’m saying is: let me. Because I—” He looks from Sam to Josh and back, the gesture laden with implication. “I’m not blind, Samantha. I’m here to help you, remember?”

He is being kind, but she can’t quite say it. She shakes her head. “But—no, I wouldn’t want—”

“Sam,” Josh rasps, and she spins about to find him panting and staring at her. “S’okay. Let him do it.”

His eyes are oddly clear—glassy, even. For just a moment, he is very still and very silent.

The corners of her mouth draw back, a ramshackle facade of a smile held together by a single thread of straining resolve. She nods and lowers her head. Deep breath. If it’s what Josh wants, then . . . yes.

“Okay. Okay, fine,” she sighs. “Don’t hurt him.”

“No more than I have to, darling.”

Jay lights the torch. She steps to Josh’s head and strokes her palms lightly along his sweaty temples.

When it’s all done and Josh is lost, shuddering his way through the seizures, the air above him gossamered with that hateful spirit bleeding out of his wounds, she and Jay fall onto chairs to wait out the night. And she is glad for the intervention and the company. They talk quietly about nothing and pretend to be untroubled by the sounds of suffering only feet away as the long, slow hours roll by.

* * * * *

Sometime later, Jay shakes her awake, eyes saucered, finger pressed to his lips.

She is a light sleeper, particularly when doing it upright in a wooden chair. Even more so when circumstances suggest she’s being roused because something is very wrong. Just like that—from asleep to high alert in an instant. She eases forward, elbows on knees, and cocks her head: a silent question.

He points up into the rafters and then she hears it, in between the soft drip-drip-drip of blood migrating from table to floor and Josh’s sporadic gasps and the thudding of her own heart: a muffled thump and the click of long claws. That tree—the leaning one. Shit.  With its old roof and the added weight, the building creaks and groans like old bones grudgingly reanimating. Weak scrabbling sounds carry across from the front door again and then an abrupt pop as something pries loose. Jay spins, swearing quietly.

She reaches for her shot-gun; her brain feels like it’s submerged in the same liquid nitrogen that’s gone and replaced all the blood in her veins. For a silent eternity they can do nothing but stare at one another and dare to hope, even though she already feels the truth with a sick, bone-deep certainty, the pieces snapping into place and she knows and Jesus fuck they are idiots for not thinking of it all this time—

The skylight is utilitarian, hardly gratuitous, but it’s a hair wider than the windows.

She knows what’s coming. Even if it’s never happened before. Even if they’ve never once tried it.

Because ‘never’ is all just so much dumb luck, isn’t it, and her luck’s never been infinite, or even, when you get right down to it, very good at all. And Josh’s luck has always been pure, unadulterated shit.

There’s no time for Jay to get the flamethrower going even if he wanted to. He pulls some kind of serious-looking handgun (Really, Jay? Since when?) from his pocket and thumbs off the safety.

A slow, skittering stride moves overhead. Close. Getting closer.

Nipwahkaw, I think?

It means

‘clever’

And

He is—

The glass breaks.

Something falls, fast and silent.

Panic swallows her into its bottomless belly.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: VISITOR


 

The wendigo lands on its side and springs up, shrieking in triumph.

Sam is a creature of simple, raw information now.

One foot: the distance between those teeth, those claws, and the table where Josh lies chained.

Can’t fire the shotgun without hitting him, too. Not an option. Can’t run, either.

Shit.

Faded lavender: the color of the wendigo’s once-upon-a-time silk dress.

It’s not Nip. Just some random abomination conjured up by Blackwood’s depravity—a relic from the 1920s, judging by the ratty tassels and the grimy pearls. Seriously: pearls on a bald, leathery, ageless, slavering, lady wendigo. A wendigo Flapper—Jesus Christ, it should be laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

She is doing nothing out-loud at the moment, but there is an upside to this, and she allows herself just an instant to appreciate it: maybe the not-Nip-wendigo is merely here to kill, not to kill Josh specifically.

Fifteen feet: from here to the smallish storage closet on the back wall.

Wooden door. Rickety, no lock. Very dicey. But there is nothing else doing, so . . .

She and Jay make eye contact and she rolls her gaze to indicate all the finer details of what is arguably another abstract, half-assed plan—the Sam Abbott specialty, no doubt. Yeah, okay, so Jay is skinnier than Mike—not quite such a dude-bro—nonetheless, it’s déjà vu all over again. As before, there’s no way to tell if he fully grasps every aspect of her idea, although his chin gives a tiny dip and he blinks.

Good enough.

Time to move, and not a second too soon. The wendigo has caught sight of the free meal.

“Hey! Hey, come on!” she yelps, stutter-stepping backwards with arms waving like a madwoman.

At the first hint of movement, the monster wheels, crouches down and creeps along the floor, chittering and tilting its head, the needles in its torn-up mouth gleaming. As her heart ricochets against it, her diaphragm momentarily forgets how to operate, leaving her with no breath or voice, but the mere act of retreat is tantalizing enough. Back into the corner she sinks, drawing it forward, so close to Jay that it nearly brushes his frozen arm as it passes. Once it’s put him out of its sight line, he deflates like a balloon and recedes towards the opposite wall. No time to see what he does next, because

The wendigo leaps

She swallows a scream

Dodges and bolts hard, staying just out of reach as she pelts around the room’s perimeter

She has to draw it—has to circle it back—

“Fuck! Wait!” she wheezes. “NOT YET! JAY, wait—!”

Wide sprint. Overshoot. Hook the edge of the closet door just so, and—

SHIT SHIT SHIT

—the air beside her head explodes. Jay’s gun is a beast, something out of a Hollywood war movie.

Now she screams, a scream so loud and raw it feels like she’s aerosolizing her own blood.

But it’s perfect. The play works flawlessly, like they’re a pair of NBA stars performing an easy alley-oop. The blast cartwheels the wendigo a solid six feet into the open storage closet—she doesn’t see this, of course, but she hears the crash; feels the sudden absence of menace. Before it can right itself and burst out after her, she skids and spins, slams the door and throws every ounce of her weight against the oak.

Jay is beside her in a flash, swearing breathlessly.

“Hammer?” she gasps. “Nails?”

She gets a blank look, but he hooks the leg of Josh’s table with one foot and somehow manages to drag it across the floor. They get the blockade in place just before the wendigo hurls itself against the door.

Sam winces despite her relief—on one hand, the monster is contained for now. On the other, the increased distance puts a strain on the wispy trail of smoke or fog or whatever it is rising up out of Josh’s numerous gaping wounds to spiral its way into the snare jar. If they’re lucky, the connection between the two vessels—the ethereal ribbon that is the rogue wendigo’s spirit draining out—will hold until they can get the closet door boarded shut. If it doesn’t? Well, she doesn’t know what happens then.

The wendigo crashes again, shrieking in indignation. The table—and Josh—rock with the impact.

Something cracks.

“Go!” Jay hisses. When she looks skeptical: “It’ll hold for now. Get that shit, wherever it is. Hurry.”

She flies over and unlocks the rusty inner door, snatches up a hammer, nails, and a few boards from where she and Josh left them yesterday. On the way back, she spends several precious seconds staring up at the gaping hole in the ceiling, letting the full extent of their precariousness settle. Are there more wendigoes coming? Is Nip out there? Nip, who would probably be too clever for a closet trick even if they had a second closet, which they do not. She sucks in a long, shaky breath of the already-chillier air.

For now, the opening overhead holds only black sky and a scattering of far-away, indifferent stars.

That could change at any time, of course. Not a damned thing they can do about it, either.

When she gets back, the door is bucking despite the weight of the table and Josh’s body. Jay is wide-eyed and straining to hold everything in place and Josh has begun to seize again—bloody foam flecks his bluish lips. She can’t say whether this is merely the progression of the cure or the fact that they’ve fucked things up by dragging his body so far out of the prescribed alignment; either way, it’s not good.

She tries not to look—concentrates instead on nailing as many boards as will fit across the door.

“Fuck—make with the quickness, Samantha,” Jay mutters, stomping a heel on the claws peeking out from the space below door. They snick out of sight; the wendigo hits a new octave. “Jesus, bitch. Ow.”

She winces, wishes she could cup hands to her ears. Two more boards. Nails. Good.

After a second trip to the scrap pile, she shoves Josh’s table aside with a grunt and together they add three more boards to the space it was occupying. The door is completely covered; abruptly, the situation feels less dire. Not great. Not even good, really—sort of a ‘tiger by the tail’ scenario, since this problem’s obviously not solving itself—but it’s a definite improvement, considering the alternatives. She sinks a few more heavy-duty nails through into the frame, just to be sure. Tentatively, they step back.

The door rattles and groans a bit, but everything seems to be holding.  

“Lovely,” Jay says, brightening. “Now. Do your supplies include fresh underdrawers, by chance?”

“Afraid not.” She’s too drained to even smile. “And if they did, I’d call dibs. But if you want to—”

“Oh, shit. Sam. Look.”

That tone—welp, so much for coming back down from her adrenaline surge. Her stomach lurches wildly as she turns, certain she’s about to see that hoary, old bastard squeezing his way through the breech, but it’s not that. It’s Josh. It’s Josh on a table sprinkled with glass, silent and still and bled pale.

It’s Josh not breathing. When she bolts across to check his wrist, he has no pulse.

Fuck. Actually, all the fucks. Every last one.

“Nooo, no. No, you can’t—” She explodes herself into shoving the table back into place; after a second, Jay leaps to help. Behind the door, the captured wendigo falls silent, either resigned or biding time.

Back in position, the chain of mist linking Josh’s savaged body to the jar coalesces once more, but that’s it. Twenty seconds and his chest still refuses to rise. Her panicked gaze dashes back and forth at an ever-increasing pace, from Josh’s lifeless form to the look of nauseated pity percolating behind Jay’s wide eyes. He doesn’t know. None of this is in his dad’s playbook. No choice now but to dredge up her CPR.

“Sam, what are you—?”

She vaults onto the table, perched precariously in a sliver of space, and begins chest compressions. Josh is charred black, so slick with blood her hands want to slide off. Wise to her madness now, Jay unlocks the iron muzzle and tosses it. For just a moment, she hesitates. While she would not think twice anymore about pressing her lips to Josh’s, he is deep in the throes of a letting—even if she succeeds in resuscitating him—god, please—there’s a good chance that will mean getting her face chewed off.

But

Well

She loves the pitiable, toothy motherfucker.

So be it, then. She pinches his nostrils. Bends low, lower, and finds his messed-up lips with hers.

One breath.

Two.

Nothing.

She repeats the cycle, every nerve taut and singing like over-stretched rubberbands.

Again.

Again.

Then finally—finally!—he issues a desperate, hacking, blood-sputtering gasp and surges upwards.

As she spills backwards off the table, unbitten but nearly liquefied by her pathetic relief, he resumes the business of being alive again, at least technically. Before she can hurt herself, Jay’s cool, wiry arms catch her, settle her gently onto her feet. Josh is still alive. He is still alive. And she is, too, incidentally.

Jesus fuck.

“Nice work, Doc,” Jay murmurs. “They teach you all that at the vet clinic?”

“Girl Scouts,” she mumbles.

“Damn.”

She would fashion one of her small, appreciative smiles for him, but the well from which she dredges up emotion has run dry; she just stands and blinks. He disappears his mouth into a thin, white line and pats her arm. After that, they are silent for several minutes, wordlessly watching the slow, steady up-and-down of Josh’s sternum. Once it’s clear that this is the way of things once more, not a passing fad, she turns away, glances again at the gaping hole in the ceiling. She retrieves her shotgun, cradles it warily.

Claws. Scrabbling at the closet door. Scratching along the windows, constant as the patter of rain. Now and then: a frustrated scream. Fuck these wendigoes and this mountain; seriously, mother-fuck them all. Something hits the front door, digs deep into the protesting wood and pulls something away.

Nothing else on the roof, though. Not yet. But morning’s still hours off, and if any of them saw . . .

“Well,” Jay says once things have quieted enough outside that siting down again doesn’t seem quite so blatantly suicidal. He lifts a brow, crooks the corner of his mouth. “Now you have two pet wendigoes.”

“Mm.” She sighs and sinks down, one eye still on the breeched ceiling. “Guess so. Super.”

“This is how it starts, you know. Another year and you’ll be a hoarder. Wendigo memes. Wendigo sweaters and socks. Wendigo-themed birthday parties. Lord. I’m already embarrassed for you.”

He’s shivering with cold or stale adrenaline or both. God bless Jay and his bravado.

“I’m not sure that’s an inevitable outcome, but, hey—thanks for the warning.” She pauses before leaning across to examine the gun in his lap. Handguns—she really doesn’t know anything about them. In a perfect world, she never would, but she’s pretty grateful for this one just now. The words ‘Desert Eagle Pistol – Made in the USA’ are stamped on the barrel. She hands it back. “And for your help.”

God bless Jay’s great aim, too. She hasn’t expected it from a dude who mostly just plays video games.

“Yep. It’s been a real hoot,” he declares.

“No, seriously, Jay. Thanks. Pretty sure we’d be dead right now if you hadn’t decided to come up here.”

He takes a minute to digest this.

“Maybe,” he says, lips curling into a sly, shy smile like perhaps he’s thinking of his father. Of families and tradition and redemption and all that shit. He tugs his jacket collar up. “Yeah, sure. Any time, darling.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: BECAUSE NOTHING COMES EASY BUT THE DAWN


 

Somehow, dawn arrives.

It comes silent and unheralded, bleeding pale pink through the glass-toothed maw in the ceiling. Its icy breath bites colder than ever. Sam doesn’t care. She is ecstatic. No sign of Nip and they’re all still alive.

Earlier: another wendigo on the roof. A soft screech and the glassy glint of moonlight on cloudy eyes.

Jay’s gun, which beats the shotgun for precision at a distance, put it off. Or maybe it was too big to fit. But she hasn’t slept. Now she gets up, stiff and sore, joints snap-crackle-popping unpleasantly.

“You’re making the coffee, right?” Jay mumbles. “Lord, why? Why is this my life?”

 “Hey, you’re the barista,” she replies and flashes him a watered-down smile. “That’s your job.”

She shuffles the short distance to where Josh’s improbably-still-breathing carcass rests in a puddle of congealing blood. Looks down. In the past few hours, she’s taken eyes off of him only briefly, yet facing this head-on is strangely numbing, like mainlining Novocain. His being alive makes no sense, none at all, and yet he is. The thought sets something warm shifting about inside of her. She knuckles her eyelids.

“Fucking scared me, asshole,” she whispers.

If he were conscious, maybe he’d grin. He likes scaring people, after all. But he’s not. Probably not for a while, although he hasn’t seized in an hour, so there’s that. The letting’s done now—it’s dawn, so it has to be—and he is the embodiment of stillness, save the faint fluttering of his throat as his breath rattles.

Just to be sure, she squints into the empty space above his body. Nothing. No more wispy, deadly-frail ribbons of smoke drifting up. They could move him now; it would be safe. They’ll have to soon enough. For now, she brushes a solitary finger down his arm, elbow to triceps. His skin is cold, pale, clammy.

She moves her palm to cup his jaw, tracing a thumb over his soft, dry lips.

No response, and she hasn’t really been seeking one. Just this. Just the reassurance.

“You, uh . . . you don’t actually want him to wake up right now, do you?” Jay asks from behind her.

“Hmm?”

“Into that wreck? Really?” He nods at the bloody mess. “He’s breathing fine. Let him rest, baby doll.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean—no. Anyway, he won’t. Not yet.” She tosses a grimace over her shoulder. “But kinda, yeah. I want him to start healing himself. He has to. I hate thinking about how . . . well, never mind.”

Jay’s voice is soft. “Sam—he probably can’t.”

She blinks.

“Think about it. He’s less wendigo every time you do this.”

She has thought about it—thinking about it is why she has a whole duffel bag of recently-ordered medical supplies—but in the aftermath of last night’s trauma, it’s slipped her mind. To be sure, Jay’s never done this before and the instructions for the cure have already gotten some things wrong, so who knows how the process of de-wendigo-ization will actually occur? They have zero reliable guidance.

Josh doesn’t look any different this morning, but . . .

“Yeah, I guess, maybe,” she sighs. “I mean, he still has these, though—” She runs a wary thumb the length of his long claws. Reaches down to gently peel back his lips. “And these. But whatever. Here.”

She rifles through her duffel and tosses him a Starbucks Frapuccino on her way to grabbing an IV bag. If Josh can’t heal himself anymore, then she’ll have to do the healing for him to whatever degree she can.

Jay watches, silently impressed, as she sets everything up: dilute Nolvasan, alcohol, catheter, tape.

“Let me guess: Girl Scouts?” he murmurs.

“Vet clinic. Now you’re just being silly.”

“Do you actually know what you’re doing?”

“Sure. Sometimes on the overnight shifts, if we got bored, we’d practice on ourselves.”

“Seriously? God, I hope I never get that bored. Words with Friends? Netflix? Ever heard of them?”

She just smiles.

A few bags of IV fluids probably aren’t going to do much. But he’s lost a lot of blood, after all, and he’s still a little tachycardic. Once she gets the catheter in and the drip going, she sets to work irrigating the wounds on his chest and stomach as best she can. She hasn’t ordered enough suture material to close all of them up, but again—anything’s better than nothing. And at least she’s doing something for him.

Now that they’re up and making noise again, the wendigo in the closet registers its presence with another ear-splitting screech. It doesn’t bother ramming the door anymore, but the silence that follows is thick with plotting. After a moment, a voice—a little girl’s voice, soft and fragile as gossamer—whispers through the cracks, “Please, Mama? Pretty please? I’ll be good. Mama, I promise!”

“Some messed-up shit right there,” Jay mutters, looking up from examining the camera Sam’s forgotten all about. “Hey, Sam, what is this? Pleeease tell me you weren’t filming our near-deaths last night.”

She shrugs. “Well, I was filming the spirit-letting, so . . .”

“Yeah? So you’re a creepy creeper now like your hottie monster-boy?”

“No. I just wanted to show—I wanted Josh’s dad to know what he’s going through up here. To see that this is real, not another dumb prank. And, well, our friends, too. It’s completely unfair, but even after this nightmare, he’s gonna have penance to pay back home. If they see he’s already started, it’ll help.”

Or she hopes it will. Ash and Em may still be a hard sell, considering, but never mind that.

Jay chews his lip for several long seconds. The way he’s looking at her with those soft eyes and that creased forehead, she has the sense she’s said something silly—told him how she’s going to marry Santa Claus or whatever. He sighs. “Sweet of you, Sam, but it won’t work. This mountain likes its secrets.”

“What do you mean?”

“Darling: if it were possible to toss a few clips up on ye ole You Tube and prove the existence of goddamn-freaking-wendigoes . . . well, you know. My family would’ve done it by now. Hell, we’ve tried.”

Her heart does a slow roll into a crash-and-burn. Of course. Of course they would’ve. Stupid.

She has a feeling she won’t like this conversation very much, but if it’s true what he’s saying, then she might as well get it over with. And it’s going to be the truth. If anyone in the whole world knows how this shit works, it’s probably Jay Shiner. She finishes suturing up what she can and sits back down.

“So, okay . . . what happens?”

He shrugs. “Nothing much. Once you take it off-mountain, film disintegrates. Files erase themselves. Shit like that. Or they just get weird—like, maybe you can still see the people in them, but all the good parts are chewed up or . . . missing. One time Pops shot some footage of his pals over in the psych wing and, by the time he got down to town, they were crows. I mean, same footage and all, but it was just cell after cell of crows pecking dust. Blackwood’s got crazy power, Sam. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

She scowls. “Great. Well, then Bob will just have to haul his ass up here and finally see this for himself.”

Like she’s just offered him a dead kitten for breakfast. “Eww. You don’t actually want that, do you?”

Her face softens into something more thoughtful. “Josh’s uber-skeptic father tromping around Blackwood when it’s feeling extra-murdery? No, I guess not. Not really. But I want him to BELIEVE—”

“Good. Then we are in agreement.”

She gets up to go stump into the slant of morning light and kick listlessly at one of Jay’s spent shells. “Bob wouldn’t come anyway. I know he rebuilt an exact replica of the lodge we burned down, but I think that was just principle. He was pretty messed up about all of this, too, even if he hides it better than Melinda. Honestly, I don’t think they’re coming up here ever again.” She squats down, elbows on knees, and sighs. “But whatever; this sucks. If we ever make it home, he’s gonna call major bullshit on Josh.”

 “You don’t think he’ll just be happy? That’s his son. ALIVE AGAIN. Crazy-ass rich people; I swear—”

“He’ll be happy, but he’ll be pissed, too. Given Josh’s track record of screwing with him, I can’t even blame the guy. Doesn’t really matter, though, I guess.” She glances up at the hole twenty feet above. Back at the closet, from which a child’s soft sobs now emanate. “Bigger problems and all that.”

Bigger problems and no easy solutions. They’ll have to find somewhere else—somewhere safer, somewhere not compromised by a closetful of cold, calculating death—before the last spirit-letting.

She knew it would be like this in the end. That doesn’t make it any better, though.

* * * * *

Josh sleeps for two-and-a-half days straight.

No seizures. No anything, really, his only movement the slow rise and fall of his chest.

He looks like hell, of course. Charred skin. Thinner than ever and deflated, somehow, as if the wendigo spirit infesting him has also been the only thing keeping him alive. Whenever the door opens, she expects him to become ash and blow away, but he doesn’t and he doesn’t and then finally, on the afternoon of the third day, she alerts to a tiny miracle: the feeble click of claws across old hardwood.

She comes running. He is in the kitchenette, half-collapsed, retching blood into the sink. Which should not be a welcome sight, and yet it is. With her hand on his back, he works his way through the inevitable shakes, then slides down to press his cheek to the cool Formica. She forms herself around him, half hug and half support structure, and strokes his hair until he coughs again and turns to look at her, tongue working against his teeth. It’s like looking at a ghost—he’s so pale she can nearly see through him—but he finds the thinnest edge of a smile, one corner of his mouth drawing up. Then he turns back to the sink and reaches up fast to shove claws between his lips. She doesn’t see what he does. Another moment and there is a soft ‘clink’ and then another. He whispers an expletive and spits more blood.

“You okay?” she breathes, although ‘okay’ has grown very relative of late.

“Mm-hmm.” Another ‘plink,’ like he’s tossing chips of glass. “Just . . . getting a little Kentucky here.”

She leans in over his shoulder. Mixed in with the spit and red on the white enamel are three teeth.

“Oh.” Gross. He’s literally falling apart, but she doesn’t want him to see her worry. “That’s good, right?”

“Dunno. Let’s see what else falls off. Nothing you like, I hope . . .” God, he shouldn’t be making bad jokes. And she shouldn’t be snorting against his thin neck, all things considered. His sigh rattles long and low, autumn wind sifting through dead leaves. “So,” he rasps, “The fuck happened? What day is it?”

“It’s been three days. It’s Monday.”

“And? Something happened, right?” He turns fast—that sharp, skittery movement grown so familiar—but his knees give out. She doesn’t quite catch him and they both end up in a hapless pile on the floor.

“And stuff. Bad stuff. I’ll tell you, but let’s . . . let’s get you . . .”

Carefully, she eases him back towards the couch. It’s slow going—whatever energy he’s scraped up has been exhausted getting to the sink, so this is more of a hands-and-knees thing. It’s graceless, very human. Jay is down in town, getting dinner and checking the neglected messages on Sam’s phone per her request, so lifting him is out of the question. Finally, she gets him settled back and pulls the blanket to his waist. He spends a moment looking down at himself, at the sutures and bandages, the decimated wasteland he now occupies, and closes his eyes. Siphons air deep into his lungs again and holds it there.

“Sam,” he says, finally, as she looks on uselessly, “Do you . . . do you maybe have some morphine?”

Sympathy fissures across her insides like lightning; she shakes her head. “You can’t do it anymore?”

“Hmm? Oh, that. No. S’gone. I can’t hear it anymore, either. I can feel it, but . . . s’not talking to me.”

“Yeah, I was afraid of that. I don’t, sorry. I could try to get you some, though. I’m really sorry, Josh.”

“Shut up. Not your fault.” He tries to reach for her. Winces instead. She makes up the difference, taking his hand and lacing their fingers together. More coughing, then: “Anyway, where’s Jay? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. He went down to town.”

“Oh.” Listless but relieved. His hand squeezes hers. “Good. Was really afraid I ate him.”

“No. You didn’t do anything bad, Josh. You were fine. You did really, really good.”

She is startled by the quaver in her own voice. This boy, though—her heart—seriously.

She spends the next hour relaying everything that’s happened. The breached roof, the camera, all of it. How she has no clue where Nip stands on her counter-offer—the sign was torn down, left in the snow and pissed on, but that could’ve been any of them, and the asshole never did make his move, so . . .

“Who knows?” she sighs. “Honestly, it was probably him. He’s too small for the skylight is all.”

He takes everything well—even the part about his dying and miraculously reviving. He’s too weak, she supposes, to be anyone but Stoic Josh, or maybe he’s just expected it to get this bad. When she gets to the captured wendigo in the closet and their needing somewhere else to do the last letting three days from now, he just nods. Makes a point of carefully sitting up, then, and glancing around the room.

“Um. Don’t mean to state the obvious, yo, but . . . this place is a little fortress, right?”  

God—if only. “Yeah, but it won’t work. Ceiling’s too low. We need at least twenty feet for the snare jar.”

“Man, fuck all these rules.” He’s long on weary, short on defiance, but she appreciates the sentiment.

The truth is she doesn’t even understand the rules. Something about energy lines that untethered spirits follow and how the snare draws along them—the proper distance and alignment being critical. Maybe this is something else the instructions have wrong, but maybe not. Probably not. And after what happened last time, she doesn’t dare risk it. So the cabin won’t work. Somewhere else, then.

They talk some more. After a while, she offers Josh his meds and the last remnants of the old corpse that’s been all this time stored under the cabin. Getting it out has been . . . unpleasant, but it’s the least she can do. He perks up a little. Nibbles at the scraps of withered flesh clinging to a forearm while she politely looks away and presses knuckles to teeth. She sends a silent plea to her somersaulting stomach.

You’re okay, you’re okay; I promise I will never again feed you anything like that or—

As he finishes chewing the last of his grisly meal, he waves the now-skeletal hand at the front door like a bird dog on point. “Jay’s back,” he mumbles, although she’s heard nothing herself to indicate this. Another minute, though, and there’s footsteps. Jay’s key hits the lock, scrapes. Goosebumps. For all that he’s already lost, Josh still has some wendigo left in him, then. The door swings open and Jay steps in.

“Oh, God. You’re awake. We’re still good, right?” The barista’s eyes widen as he kicks snow off his boots.

Josh trills and licks his lips—mostly for show, probably. He’s barely hungry and too weak to be a real threat now. “Yeah, do I look like I could even catch you, bro?” He hunches, coughs. “You’re fine.”

Jay looks him up and down and fails entirely at concealing his assessment. “Sorry—probably a stupid question. I’m glad to see you’re feeling—what?—alive, at least? Your lover was very worried about you.”

And she’s blushing. Only Jay’s tone is preoccupied, mirroring the tension tucked discreetly in the glance he tips her way. Just like that, she forgets all about her silly, girly chagrin. He’s got news of some kind.

“Hey, about that—” Josh has to pause to catch his breath again, grimacing as he props himself back up on his elbows. “Sam says you saved her life the other night. Shit, dude. Thanks for being there.”

He gets a dismissive shrug. “And for killing you? Did she tell you I did that as well?”

Josh finds a weak grin. “Yeah, she did. Lot of people’ll be lining up to high-five you back home. For real.”

Sam grimaces. “Josh—”

“Well, anyway, it wasn’t like she probably made out. More of a mutual saving, really. Sidebar: Samantha,” Jay says, turning briskly with fingers steepled. “Step into my office a moment, would you?”

Whether Jay realizes it or not, following him into the bedroom is just a formality—with his wendigo senses still intact, Josh will hear whatever conversation they’re about to have even with the door closed. Whatever; she’s done keeping secrets from him. In the meantime, if it makes Jay feel better, why argue?

“So I listened to your voice mails,” he begins, closing the door and tossing the fast food bag onto the dresser. It can stay there forever for all she cares—she’s no longer hungry. “We may have a problem.” 

She whispers, “I was under the impression we had several of those, but okay. What now?”

“Message from Mike. He says Emily was talking shit to . . . mm, Ashley? Is that it? Yes, right. To Ashley and she accidentally spilled what you were doing up here. Basically, that Josh is still alive and you were trying to bring him home. And Ashley—she really, really hates your boy, I guess?—went and confronted Bob Washington because—Mike quoting Ashley here—“If Josh is alive his worthless ass should be getting skull-fucked in prison.” Seriously, your lady-friends are stone cold, Sam, but the point is: Bob came to Mike. And apparently Mike has some guilt issues—hey, Mike, join the club!—so he couldn’t keep lying to Captain Hollywood and so now Bob knows Josh is alive. And, like, wigged the fuck out like you said he would and now Casa Washington is dark, shades drawn, no BMW. They gooone, my dear.”

“Wait, what? Gone where? Did his message say—?”

“Oh, I called him, Sam. He doesn’t know for sure, and nobody at Bob’s office would say, but IMDB shows Bob’s not in-production on anything right now, so given the order of occurrence, he’s afraid maybe—”

“He’s coming here. Shit. Fuck. Son of a fucking bitch mother fucker fucking Ashley fuck—”

“Easy, killer. Put down the axe.” Jay’s got his palms up, got his soothing-the-bear-voice firmly in place. “You don’t know anything for certain. Maybe they went to Vegas? Toledo? Burkina Faso? Who knows?”

Violent depth charges replace her heartbeat as Ashley’s girlish giggle spills out of the shadows.

Whoops! So much for ‘never coming back to Blackwood again,’ Sam! Tell Josh payback’s a—

He’s right. They don’t know. Too bad her brain won’t accept any less complicated possibility. She thumps her forehead against the wall and groans. “Oh, I could strangle her. I like Ashley—I do—but—”

 “Relax.” He pats her head. “Even if, Captain Hollywood’s not here yet. All we need is three more days.”

She’d like to admire Jay’s optimism—and now that she knows it’s half-faked, probably she and Josh both could learn something from it—but her eyebrow has a mind of its own; it cocks itself into a skeptical peak. “Really? You’re just going to assume the best-case scenario? This mountain’s dangerous, Jay.”

“I am aware of that. It always has been. That is the entire point of my family’s existence.”

“Like, more dangerous than usual. And Bob Washington’s a clueless doof. You know that.”

 “Well, yes.” He sucks in his bottom lip. “Okay. Do you know how to disable the cable car? I assume Bob’s got spare keys for the station and the lift itself. I don’t want to break the thing outright, but—”

“Not a clue. Josh might, though. I could ask him.”

“Oh.” She’s surprised him, somehow. “Didn’t think you’d want to tell him about this just now.”

“I don’t. Honestly, I don’t know how he’s going to handle seeing his father again. He wouldn’t let me tell him he wasn’t dead. And Bob is Bob. I mean, yeah, he’ll finally believe in wendigoes, but . . .”

About this time, something solid hits the other side of the wall. She makes a face. Jay follows her out and down the hall again; in the front room, a skeletal arm sits crumpled against the baseboard. Josh is propped up on the couch, a panting, bone-white wraith who still manages to look vaguely self-satisfied.

“Jesus, you dorks suck at deception.” His hollow smile surfaces from the depths. “I can hear you, yo.”

Well, she already knew that. So it’s too late to worry how Mike’s news will impact him now, although he doesn’t appear to be panicking. He’s had time to think about his father. About this maybe-reunion.

“Sorry,” Jay murmurs. “Hopefully Mike’s wrong? But it would be safer if he couldn’t get up here in the event he does show up. That black rot is killing a lot of wildlife. Making your ‘people’ even hungrier.”

“Not possible,” Josh murmurs, which makes Sam’s skin go all goosebumpy again.

Jay shrugs. “Right. Point taken, Cujo. So, uh, do you know how to batty-fang the cable car, then?”

Either way, he won’t be able to do it himself. He can’t walk and his wendigo won’t let him get to the lower station, anyway. But if he can tell them how, that might be enough. If. If his adventures in psychosis led him to research such things alongside gas anesthetic and giant saws and home electrical and hog anatomy and everything else. Honestly, Josh is half-genius to have pulled off what he did that night, especially being three-quarters out of his mind. Either way, he has a lot of esoteric knowledge.

 He looks from one of them to the other now, lips lazily peeling, as if this is some elaborate joke.

“If you don’t . . . ” she offers lamely when he still looks like he’s waiting for the punch-line.

Finally, he snorts, swipes his red-rimmed lips and nods. “Of course. Do you even have to ask?”

“Right. Lordy, you’re a creepy fuck,” Jay informs him and offers a cheerful fingertip-salute.

Oh. She exhales and leans to press a kiss to his clammy forehead. “Good. First thing tomorrow, then.”

She really shouldn’t adore his nonchalance about this stuff. It’s messed-up, right? Or is this just what ‘healed’ feels like? Being able to joke, to be whimsically charmed by the darkest monsters of their past?

One day they will joke about wendigoes, too. She hopes, anyway.

If the planets align, Nip doesn’t come, and their atypical luck goes on holding.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: PIECE BY PIECE


 

In the middle of night, the ruined magic cat-foots its way across the clearing.

She knows this only because Josh knows this.

He touches her arm. Soft. No urgency. She’s awake, too, then—enough to hear the hint of her name in the single chuff he breathes into the dark room. She rolls over, finds him sitting stiffly in bed and catches a glimpse of half-closed eyes and creased brow, of his unmasked pain, before he composes himself for her. And as she watches him do so, banishing his tells like a priest exorcising demons, she feels it: the faint vibration coursing through the earth beneath them. The cabin creaks—her whole body prickles.

The soured magic, hungry as any wendigo, creeps closer.

Something in his steady, silent stare articulates interest, curiosity, but not fear. Which makes sense. She and Josh exist separate and apart from the mountain’s web—the ruin itself can’t harm them, though when the magic finally rolls over the cabin like a dense fog, she wants to scream anyway. In her ears, or maybe just in her head, a high, mournful keening sounds: crazy, ancient Blackwood’s lament for itself.

The end to all of this is coming soon, one way or another.

She feels it.

Josh feels it.

Beneath the sheet, he finds her fingers with his own and weakly squeezes them.

* * * * *

Come morning, when she looks out through the ice-frosted glass, the trees are corpsed, reduced to post-apocalyptic skeletons smoldering above the untouched snow. Strewn on the path: three dead crows. One sparrow. There will be more soon. She doesn’t like to think about it, but it can’t be helped.

Josh is up, barely. His tenuous relationship with gravity has him leaning heavily against the wall, head bowed. He still looks like death—trying, but not very effectively. Yet another thing she doesn’t want to think about. When she meets Jay at the lodge in an hour, maybe he’ll have the drugs she’s begged him to get. It’s a long shot—Jay’s friends in Lake Celeste are mostly clean—but if so, it will be a true mercy.

“So I thought of something,” she offers, carefully sidestepping the two giant elephants in the room.

“Yeah?” He lifts his head slowly, cocks it. “What’s that?”

“About the last letting. The natatorium. We could do it there.”

Improbably, he smiles at this, and when she gives him a curious and expectant look, he licks his cracked lips and says, “No. I won’t say it. Being good, Sam.” A slow downward slide until he’s sitting on the floor.

Oh. Oh, gawd. As bad jokes go, it’s the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.

He winces and coughs, gives a weak nod. “Shut up, Josh. I know. No, that’s good. You think it’ll work?”

“Well, I think it’s a windowless room with a high ceiling and solid doors. Not a lot of those around here.”

He points one of his remaining claws—two, it appears, are bloody stumps now—as if to say: this is true.

So that’s settled, at least. She has a new plan, something to keep her mind and her hands occupied.

* * * * *

“Got you a present,” Jay announces as she settles herself against the long, stone fence that flanks the lodge. Before she can parse this, he shakes an orange pill bottle and presses it into her gloved hand.

“Oh?” Surprise and relief in equal measure roll over her. “Your friend from Vancouver panned out?”

“Not yet. That’s my ex’s leftover antibiotics. Figured Josh could use those. We gotta meet my girl later if you want something for pain. Don’t know what it’ll be, either, but anything’s better than nothing, eh?”

“At this point, I’d say so. He hides it, but he’s having a hard time. Meet her where? When?”

“Three o’clock. Custom Cup. If you’re lucky, I’ll let you buy me a coffee.”

Three o’clock seems a long ways off. She hates to leave Josh alone and suffering all day, but he wouldn’t have asked for pain meds if he wasn’t desperate, and it isn’t like they can just walk into the local CVS. As for the antibiotics, that’s a good idea, too. Per the label: Cephalexin, five hundred milligrams, recently filled. She silently thanks ‘Riley Clearwater’ for his or her generous contribution and pockets the bottle.

Speaking of better-than-nothing, she tells Jay about her plan for the natatorium, which he agrees is as good as anywhere else. And since the shed is just up the way, they decide to start there. Afterwards, they can kill time grabbing groceries down in town and anything else they might discover a need for in the process of tearing down and relocating the Sam Abbott Traveling S & M Circus of Bloody Horror.

“Oh, my,” Jay snorts and slants her a look. “And you think I’m melodramatic. You are not all that.”

She wants to believe him. And she might if Josh wasn’t literally falling apart right now. No time for arguing semantics, though. The shed door is locked up tight just as they left it, the painted sign—her sad, failed attempt at diplomacy—disappeared beneath the fresh layer of snow. Everything looks peaceful and serene from out here. Inside: not so much. Once in the inner room, she stands gaping.

 “Well, that is intriguing,” Jay says and curls his fingers thoughtfully against his sculpted lips.

‘Intriguing’ is not the word Sam would use. “Um, what the hell? How?”

The boards are off the closet door, scattered about the floor like matchsticks. Josh’s blood-stained table is overturned and clawed all to hell and the remaining kerosene’s been spilled across the floor. So, okay, wendigoes aren’t dumb animals. They did leave the roof unrepaired—the shed open and vulnerable—upon departure. Somehow she’s overlooked this fact and its inherent possibilities for days now.

But wendigoes aren’t—at least, she didn’t think they were—

“It got rescued? But Josh says they don’t even care about each other. I don’t get it,” she sighs.

“Mm.” Jay shrugs. “Josh isn’t really one of them, though, is he? I’ve seen them cooperate. And . . . not. Also seen them tear each other’s heads off and chow down. It all depends, but Nip’s got pull.”

Ultimately, it also doesn’t matter. As for the day’s plans, even sans-wendigo-prisoner to worry about, the shed’s still a no-go. They didn’t repair the broken skylight because doing so would be too dangerous—the snowy roof is too steep and icy for anyone not sporting claws to navigate. Plus, now the whole place is soaked in kerosene. Not exactly an improvement to the overall safety of this operation.

So they spend the next hour abandoning the place as planned, loading supplies onto the old toboggans.

Before they head out for good, Sam climbs onto the righted table and uses a long hook to fish the snare jar—carefully, so carefully—from its nail. A part of her is hesitant to bring it down. The hawk feathers have been charred away to bare quills and even the outside is rot-black, although a faint red fire burns even now from deep within. When she moves to touch it, the whole jar sways away like something sentient—something sullen and angry that would have its revenge on her if circumstances allowed.

In her hip pocket, where she keeps her warding totem, a tiny vibration flickers.

She swallows her gasp and snags the jar by the wire around the lid, drawing it back. Cups the glass and a little of the soot gets on her hands, but it doesn’t sting or burn or do any of the things she’s feared it capable of. Still, she’s happy when it’s been wrapped in a towel and tucked away in a traveling box.

She takes a long look and closes the door on the shed for what she imagines is the last time. And though it’s kept her safe these many restless nights, she can’t say she’ll miss the place. Too many close calls and far too much pain for everyone. Too many bad memories. Although that’s all of Blackwood, really, so . . .

* * * * *

After that, it’s down to the cable car station. To the parking lot shared by the Washington property, the forest service, and the ski resort on the next mountain over. To stark reminders and more complications.

Firstly, Jay’s Subaru is parked nearest to the iron gates, beside a black luxury-SUV with California plates that hasn’t moved for days. Old news, this, yet she still cringes every time she sees the damned thing—still struggles not to picture the man’s gutted body, Josh hunched over it, growling and chewing fast.

But you didn’t kill him, Sam. You didn’t, and Josh didn’t, either.

Not your fault, okay?

One deep breath is all it takes now. Just one and she’s calm again.

She’s getting better. Getting to be even more like her old, even-keel self, the one whose cool head and quick thinking saved everyone’s lives the first time around. To be fair, she has Jay’s optimism to thank for this trend as well, but mostly it’s Josh. What he’s done for her when she was at her very lowest. What he’s still doing now, somehow, in between trying not to kill anyone and trying gamely not to die.

Regardless, there is the SUV and what it means on a more basic and banal level. At some point—when someone reports Ken Cho missing and the worthless BP police get around to it—the vehicle will be the impetus for another search-and-rescue operation. A pointless one, naturally, as no matter what anyone finds tramping around in the safety of daylight, the police and the mountain itself will carefully conceal the truth. Sure, they’ll make a good show of pretending to care. In the end, they’ll be one more obstacle.

That’s not all that troubles her about the abandoned vehicle, though.

Something else. Something just at the edge of her consciousness.

“Do you think,” she muses, still staring at the SUV through the window as Jay slips the Subaru into drive and glances over, “I mean—there was a long time when Blackwood was under control, right?”

His tone slides to quizzical. “‘Under control?’ Yeah, sure. Sort of. Mostly.”

In the Eighties, she thinks—when Jay’s dad and great-grandfather worked security and the wendigoes were locked up or trapped underground. Or before the mine disaster, when there were simply fewer of them around. Not that things were exactly normal then, but . . . more manageable, at least? Yes. That.

“And so . . . it will be again, right? Once Josh is cured and the balance restores itself?”

She’s read the hotel logs, read Shiner’s journal and its lore. She already knows the rules, but . . .

“That’s the idea. No more black rot. Nip’ll slink back to his lair. Peace and love and harmony á la Disney musical for all the happy, little woodland creatures. You know that, though, so what’re you after, love?”

“Well, the wendigoes—all the ordinary ones—they’ll still be on the loose, though.”

“Shore-enuff. Til some fool wrangles them again.” His wan smile twitches. “So maybe not all peace . . .”

Now she realizes what it is about the SUV that’s still eating at her. It’s not Ken Cho. Not the promise of anonymous Blackwood victims yet to come. Rather, it’s that those victims may not be anonymous at all.

“By ‘some fool,’ you don’t mean you, do you? Please say no. I know Nadie gave you shit and all, but . . .”

Amazingly, even in light of his change-of-heart, it hasn’t occurred to her to ask Jay what exactly he intends for After. And now that it has, she’s half-terrified. Helping her and Josh is one thing, but the Shiner family tradition is nuts. It just is. And Jay is awesome; she can’t be the catalyst for his death.

He shrugs. “Depends on what happens with The Washingtons, I guess. I really hate this mountain. But if YOU ASSHOLES still insist on coming up here, I guess I should. Probably will eventually, balls willing.”

She grimaces. “No, you shouldn’t. Don’t say that. I don’t ever want to find out that you’re . . . that . . .”

In the uneasy silence that settles, she can just about hear him examining her curious admission. This raw concern must amuse him, given the cat-like curl of his lips. Whatever; after all he’s done, he deserves it.

“Relax, my dear,” he replies, finally, and gives her thigh a comforting pat. “Still in no hurry to die.”

“That’s good to know . . .”

“Honestly, I’ll probably just dynamite the road and the cable car station. Problem solved.” When she flashes with alarm, he adds, “Carefully. During the daytime. And after everyone’s out, of course. Hell, I’ll keep dynamiting it if I have to. Over and over. Whatever it takes to keep the place off-limits to stupid Hollywood hot-shots with bottomless bank accounts and no common sense. Bob might hate my crazy pyro-ass, but you really think the corrupt po-po will arrest me for making their lives easier? I don’t.”

It’s not a half-bad idea. Definitely safer, explosives notwithstanding. And the shit-ball cops will most certainly look the other way considering it will prevent the need for missing person cover-ups later on. Eventually, Bob will have to give up and eat his losses—but God knows the guy can afford to.

She likes this plan much better for the androgynous-hipster-Canadian she now considers a true friend. In fact, her only real issue with it is that—in all the decades countless short-lived Shiners have spent reigning in Blackwood and its terrible, deadly occupants—no one’s ever thought to do it before.

“No. I don’t, either.” She chews her lip, finally gets around to exhaling. “That’s pretty smart, actually.”

“I know.” Jay winks at her. “Contrary to prevailing assumptions, I’m not just a pretty face, Samantha.”

* * * * *

In the parking lot of the hardware store, Jay twirls his beanie on one finger. “Sure, whatever.”

Seconds later she’s phoning Mike, hoping for a fresh update, but it goes straight to voice mail.

Dammit.

Chris? If Ashley knows about Josh now, Chris must, too, right?

Only Ashley’s indelible hatred of Josh might just be enough to keep her from spilling the secret that will send her boyfriend racing northward. And, pissed or not, PTSD or not, Chris would do just that for his resurrected best friend the moment he found out, Sam reminds herself. Not what they need right now. So no—no Chris. No point trying Matt, either. He won’t know shit about Bob’s whereabouts anyway.

In desperation, she calls Emily herself, but it’s dead-end voice mails all around. Speaking of which—she’s got three new messages herself, all from her mother. All crazy-long, left this morning, one after another.

Which means one thing only, of course, fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck.

She sighs at length, pokes at the screen until it goes black. Like they needed yet another complication.

So.

(Deep breath)

Okay.

Here is where things currently stand:

Josh is dying, more or less.

Nip and a score of wendi-minions are still hunting him just in case he doesn’t do it fast enough.

Bob Washington is probably on his way here, and maybe even her own mother, too, if she’s super lucky.

Possibly also her friends and the Blackwood Pines police.

She taps the phone against her kneecap in a restless rhythm.

Oh.

And crazy, magic-haunted Blackwood is eating itself piece by piece.

“Fucking. Awesome,” she mutters, tipping her gaze back to seek solace in the blank, grey ceiling.

She wonders if the mountain has, in fact, caused all of this escalation. If the scope and reach of its insane, supernatural meddling extends beyond these lonely peaks, which—yeah, okay, of course it does; she already knows this. Hell, when it was in a saner, more collaborative mood, it sent messengers to her all the way down in L.A. So most likely, yes. And, if so, she can’t help but compare it to Josh in the worst throes of his own psychosis—when it sets out to self-sabotage, Blackwood sure doesn’t fuck around.

But they will push through this. They will. They have a plan.

“Soooo . . . what’s all the angst for?” Jay hazards.

She forces her brow to unsnarl itself. “Nothing. Just . . . my mom. She knows where I am now.”

“After all this time? Bless that sweet, clueless woman.”

She nods. “It has been a really long time. I’m kinda shocked. Although . . .”

“Is she pissed? Did she call the American Embassy to report you kidnapped or what?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” When he frowns at her: “I’m not about to listen to her ranting right now.”

“No?”

“She’ll just make me feel awful. Rightly so, but we still have things to get done today.”

“Listen to you, blowing off your own sweet mother. All corrupt for a supernatural bad-boy like some cheap Twilight tramp.” For all his knee-jerk levity, he still manages to look vaguely troubled by this.

“Oh, shut up,” she grumbles, although he’s kind of right on the Twilight-supernatural thing—for now. Not for much longer, hopefully. Once upon a time, Josh had been human; he will be again, dammit.

While Jay does not shut up, his voice softens. “Well, you should call her soon. She’s probably worried.”

Undoubtedly. But call and tell her what, exactly?

No part of the truth is even remotely reassuring. Not the wendigoes and not the ‘Josh’ part, either. Hannah Washington Mom had loved. And Beth. Not so much ‘that poor, troubled Washington boy’ and that was even without knowing about his late-night visits; it was well before Josh had gone off the deep end with his psychotic break and everything after. It most certainly did not factor in his turning into a supernatural, man-eating monster, either—Kim Abbott was just going to love that part.

She shakes her head. “I’ll text her. Let her know I’m okay, but the rest will have to wait til I get home.”

Unless her mom’s already headed this way, in which case it won’t. Either way, if (when!) they finish this stupid ritual and get the fuck out at last, Josh won’t be the only one desperately begging forgiveness.

* * * * *

They buy food, more kerosene and shotgun shells, heavy chains and padlocks to seal the natatorium doors. Afterwards, they stop at Jay’s dad’s house to scrounge for parts to repair the flamethrower. Then it’s out to Lake Celeste, to Jay’s work, to meet a girl with a tiny purse dog and a promise of Vicodin.

“This way,” she says and leads Sam down the hall to the ladies’ room. Once they’re safely behind the locked door and the baggie of white pills is in her hand, she asks, “So you Jay’s new girlfriend or what?” Her voice is hoarse, like she’s been up all night partying, and maybe she has. The dog, a Chihuahua, welcomes the rustling of plastic enthusiastically and yaps once. “Shush, Lucy. It’s not yummies.”

“What? No. Just his friend. I didn’t think Jay—I thought he was—anyway, how much?”

The girl laughs. “Gay? Jay’s not anything. He’s an aesthete—a connoisseur of all the pretty things. Not in a bad way, though; he’s not, like, inauthentic. Five bucks a pill, cash only, obvs. How many you want?”

Five bucks Canadian—is that a fair price? Either way, she’s in no position to haggle. “All of them.”

“Damn, woman.” The girl counts them out, then adds, “Hey, don’t go and do anything crazy now, okay?”

Somehow, Sam chokes back her laugh, turns it into a serene smile. “Crazy? Oh, no. Never.”

* * * * *

They ride back with the radio on, sipping lattes in amicable silence. That part’s fine. For a moment, they could be anyone, headed anywhere. Idly, Sam wonders if Jay’s dealer friend knows about his other life. If not—and, okay, probably not—she wonders further how he manages to compartmentalize so well.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he muses. “You just do. Being born to lunatics helps. Got an early start, you know.”

Back up-mountain, skimming above the wintery, charred-black wasteland in the cable car, things begin to feel . . . off. Nothing she can quite pinpoint, at least not until she turns from the lengthening shadows and lavender-tinged sky beyond the glass and checks her phone. It’s only four-thirty. She frowns.

Sunset’s not for another two hours. Or . . . it shouldn’t be.

“Jay? Does it, uh, does it look like it’s getting dark already to you?” she asks as casually as she can.

He glances out, sucks his lip as he thinks. “Yeah. Guess Blackwood’s bending the rules tonight.”

“It can do that?”

“No.” He shrugs his resignation. “Not usually.”

Another of the mountain’s ploys? Or just a sign of the ever-progressing decay of whatever holds this place together? She can’t say, but in either case, they’ll have to hurry if they’re going to make it back in time. Being that she’s got too many other things to carry, for a change, she doesn’t have the shotgun with her. Things could get ugly fast if Blackwood wanted them to. And a part of it surely does, but . . .

It’s not dark yet. Nothing they can do but cross their fingers and hope.

A few more uneasy minutes and the car jolts into the station. They get out. Josh’s diagram for nixing the works in-hand, she opens the door to the control room and is met by an explosion of butterflies. In a flurry of black, red, and yellow wings that leaves her breathless, the creatures batter out and whirl into the icy air. At the edge of the platform, all at once as the magic catches them, they abruptly drop dead, tiny bodies cascading down into the ravine below, into nothingness. All she can do is stand and watch.

She turns back slowly. Catches Jay’s widened eyes, but there isn’t anything to say, not really. 

Death? Danger? Guidance? Who the fuck even knows at this point?

She uncrumples the paper. They go inside without a word and set to work.   

* * * * *

Disabling the motor that drives the cable car is surprisingly straightforward—just the removal of a few screws and a belt. By the time they have the toboggans loaded and set out, it’s full twilight, though, however impossibly. At the edge of the magic’s charred zone, where the living trees tentatively pick back up again, all remains silent save for a few terse bird calls, but that will change soon enough with the looming dark—in her mind, she can already hear the high trills and sharp calls. She can’t jog—the sled’s too full—but she’d like to. Would love nothing more than to dissipate the tension in her muscles.

When Jay pulls his monster-handgun from his bag and waistbands-it, she feels a little bit better.

Then they emerge from the covered bridge and round the long bend.

Light. So much bright, inviting light blazing from the windows of the lodge.

In an instant, her stomach is a ball of venomous snakes, twisting and roiling about her insides.

No. No, come on—

They just disabled the damned cable car to prevent this—

Hell, they’ve only been gone half a day—

“You have got to be kidding me,” Jay murmurs. For a change, he doesn’t sound optimistic at all.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY: RESCUE MISSIONS


 

A part of her realizes, of course, that all those lights behind all that glass are suicide. If Bob doesn’t turn them off and take cover down in the basement soon, he’ll be inviting every wendigo for miles around to dinner. But there’s no answer when they knock on the front door, and before she can consider whether walking in unannounced is appropriate, a horrible thought occurs: what if he’s already at the cabin?

Footprints in the snow on the path that leads there. Are they hers and Jay’s from this morning, or—?

“Shit. If he’s already on his way up there—Josh can’t be alone when he—”

Heart pistoning, she spins and clears the front steps in one leap.

Jay’s right behind her.

They leave the toboggans beside the snow-covered remnants of the hotel’s second floor and take off through the woods at a hard run. Trees whir past in a blur as the cold air bites at her flushed cheeks. Over downed limbs. Around the towering rock formations shadowed in deep purple and across the bridge, the stream frothing and misting everything with flecks of ice. Then up the far bank, scrambling, the shortcut through a stand of charred aspens that are nothing but silhouettes in the waning light.  

Her lungs feel ready to burst by the time they arrive.

The door’s still locked. She shoves the key in the hole and flings it open.

On the couch, illuminated only by the flickering of whatever’s playing on the laptop, Josh perches wide-eyed and alarmed. He must have been sleeping here earlier, but he scrambles up fast when they tumble in. Faster than she’d have guessed possible, given his condition, although her head shake and soft “No, no, no; it’s okay!” bleed the tension from his coiled muscles almost as instantly. Once it’s clear they’re not outrunning anything deadly, he sways faintly like a sheet in the breeze before sinking back down.

A quizzical head cock, intent gaze darting from one to the other. “What?” The word stretches out like a piece of warm taffy, like a part of him hopes to postpone whatever awful news he must know is coming.

For a moment, all she can do is stand and pant and offer up a hundred silent apologies.

“Sammy?” he tries again.

Should she? Is he even well enough to handle the stress of a family reunion right now?

Hell, is he safe enough for one?

He looks demonic, of course, his wounds rendered that much more macabre in shadow, but that means nothing. Still, there’s a more pronounced hollowness to his cheeks since this morning, even—an awkward, new hunch to his posture like a pill bug desperately trying to curl in on itself. Worse: his lips are red-rimmed like he’s been sicking up blood again. Beside him rests a scattering of bone shards—pieces of that old radius bone, it looks like—now broken open and sucked clean of their marrow. He’s hungry again, or maybe ‘ravenous’ is a better word. She can’t decide if that’s good or bad, though.

Down in town she bought venison for him, but that’s back on the toboggan still.

He ducks his head, unfurls a slow, deceptive smile. “Um? This is . . . the part where . . . you guys talk.” 

Jay clears his throat and flips on the lights, wanders off to the far side of the room to begin carefully examining the partially-disassembled flamethrower. Translation: she’s on her own with this business. Which is fine, considering the flamethrower needs fixing and Jay and Josh barely know each other.

So, then . . ?

 “Josh, okay, look.” She groans and settles down beside him. “Your dad is here. He just is. I’m sorry.”

In the aftermath of her disclosure, he sits motionless, gaze so steady and devoid of reaction that she could scream. Instead she mumbles, “He must’ve flown straight here and come up while we were in town. He didn’t answer the door. We were afraid he’d already come looking for you, so . . . yeah.”

Josh blinks. The cabin doesn’t even have a wall clock—that tick-tick-ticking sound is all in her head.

“Shit,” he says, softly, calmly, and she can finally start breathing again.

Not that ‘shit’ suggests he’s okay with this, but at least he isn’t blatantly panicking.

“I can talk to him first if you want. He’s gonna be mad, but he cares about you—that’s why he’s here—”

He shakes his head and sighs. “S’not that. Happen . . . eventually, right? Six one . . . half-dozen other. Anyway, I’m used to . . . his shit.” She frowns at the choppiness of his tattered, struggling voice. And, okay, right—the descending darkness—no wonder he’s having trouble speaking normally. “But I . . . thought maybe . . . running because  . . . you knew . . . why this—?” He tips his chin at the window, at the anachronistic night as it swallows the last of the light in an instant, fast as any curtain drop. No reasoning with batshit Blackwood, and no question about it now. Barely five o’clock and night is here.

She turns back, half expecting him to segue on the spot into trills and chuffs and screeches.

“The fuck?” he breathes instead. “Did that . . . just . . ?”

So. It’s full dark now and he can still speak, more or less. That’s new, promising.

“No clue, my friend,” Jay calls. “Part of the whole ‘unbalanced’ thing, perhaps? Or just Blackwood talking more nonsense to itself. Speaking of, it’s dark and you got your big boy words still, huh? Good on you.”

Josh flips him off half-heartedly with one bloody, clawless finger and shrugs as if to say, ‘Sort of.’

“No, really. I mean it. In as much as I’ve never done this before and I don’t reeeeally know what I’m talking about, I’d say that’s a good sign. Do you feel any different than yesterday? Any better, or—?”

Josh doesn’t respond, just pulls himself up again and limps over to the window. It doesn’t really matter, anyway; Sam reads the answer in his gait. Jay must, too, because he shuts up. They let Josh process it all.

 The lodge where Bob Washington is currently too preoccupied to receive visitors is too distant to see from here, but she suspects he’s seeing it all the same now. Picturing his father settling into the new, old digs. Visualizing their imminent reunion. Wondering which is worse: Bob not believing his son is a literal monster or the alternative? Or if Bob already believes the truth of this, metaphorically-speaking? She would do anything to make this easier, but she can’t. Bob is Bob, unpredictable as Blackwood itself.

As he stands staring out in silence, a faint scream sounds across the lonely wasteland.

It’s soon followed by two others, the second one alarmingly close.

They sure don’t waste any time . . .

Josh taps a claw against the breath-fogged glass, a slow, rhythmic sound like he’s thinking hard about many things. Whatever he mutters just before he turns back to them makes no sense—it’s in that weird, other language that the monster in his head must’ve taught him. She wonders if he even realizes he does this, but in any case, its meaning is writ clear in his clouded eyes, furrowed brow, and the soft coo that lodges in his throat. “We have to go,” he says softly. “Like . . . now. We have . . . to warn him.”

“What?” Her tone is the sound of a thousand cartoon eyeballs popping.

She has been in these wendigo-infested woods after dark before. Alone, even. But that was different. At the time she didn’t realize how infested they were. Plus it was a calculated risk taken to assuage her guilt and to rescue the boy she had not yet admitted she loved. Conversely, she hasn’t done anything to cause Bob Washington to be here. He shouldn’t have come and does she even really like Bob? He is stubborn, arrogant—just a dumb, rich, self-important jerk—he is definitely not her responsibility, and—

And goddamn is she bad at this.

She groans again, insides roiling. Josh is right. Bob’s in danger; she already acknowledged this much before their mad dash up here. He needs to get to the basement or he’ll be dead before dawn.

It’s the ‘we,’ however, that concerns her. Not her own part. Rather, Josh’s role in all of this.

“Josh, you can’t. There’s no way. Can you even walk more than ten feet without falling down?”

Like her point wasn’t clear enough, he has to pause to cough blood into the crook of his arm before replying. “That’s . . . low, Sammy.” He smiles, sits back down. “No. Not right now. But . . . if I . . .”

“Um, darlings, I don’t disagree with either of you about this conundrum, but I feel I should note that we do not yet have a working flame thrower. Was really hoping the parts were in here—” Jay pats his fancy backpack. “—But, alas, still on the sled. We done fucked up, I’d say. If I’d known—if we’d just—”

“You and I can go back and talk Bob into the basement,” Sam interrupts. Her brain’s racing, desperate to avoid the unavoidable. Goddammit, why does it have to be dark now? Why must there be wendigoes on the prowl already? When Jay still looks uncertain, she adds, “We’ll be faster just the two of us. Josh stays here. We’ll come back for him—for you—” She turns, finds clawed fingers. “In the morning, okay?”

“Won’t work,” Josh sighs and curls against her. “You need . . . me, or . . . he won’t . . . believe you.”

She opens her mouth to disagree, but she can’t. If Josh’s dad was susceptible to easy convincing, the Shiners would’ve long since done it. And, yeah, okay, didn’t she already try to make a believer of Bob herself? She has told him that there are wendigoes on his damned mountain. That they are exceedingly dangerous, that they killed his own children, that they own the night. And still he’s here, lodge lights practically begging, prepared for nothing more exciting than an epic ass-chewing of his fuck-up, resurrected son. Except that the goal is to save Bob’s life, she could just about kill the doof herself.

Josh chuffs against her throat, his breath metallic. “Besides . . .”

When he doesn’t continue, she turns to look at him. “What? What else?”

“Just that . . . might not . . . be . . . any morning,” he murmurs.

The moment he says it, she is plunged into a dark, icy, slippery-sided well. She has no particular reason to feel this with such certainty—well, other than her absolute faith in Blackwood’s insanity—but somehow she knows it’s true. Until this is over, there won’t be another dawn to save them. Which means whether he goes now or later, the only way Josh is getting to the old hotel for his final spirit-letting is a long, slow trek through the dark. And Nip is out there, waiting. There’s no fucking way.

“I hate to say it,” Jay interjects, coming over to glance morosely from one of them to the other. “But that’s a very distinct possibility. Blackwood’s dying. It’s not above cheating the game to save itself.”

“Has it ever . . . done this . . . before?” Josh asks.

“No, nothing like this. Nothing this drastic ever. Little tweaks here and there, sure. But the stakes have never been this high. I think probably we’d better assume this is what we’re working with, loves.”

“Permanent night? No,” Sam snaps. “Fuck that.”

“Sammy . . .” The way Josh is looking at her now, messed-up eyes awash with pity, makes her ache.

“We’ll have my gun,” Jay offers. “And yours. We’ll just have to go slow. Let him rest when he has to.”

 “It’s a mile,” she whispers. “He’ll be a sitting duck—”

He will—Nip and his cronies working together, surrounding them—she can already see it—

“Maybe, but . . . something that . . . will help.” Josh looks away, cringing. “Only don’t want . . . to ask it.”

“What? Josh, please. Just tell me. What can we do? Wait, wait—here—” She pulls out the baggie, shoves it into his hand. Hardly a real solution, of course, but what else is there? What else can she give him to get through the misery and horror that’s clearly coming to him? “Vicodin,” she explains pathetically.

He just looks at it. “Thanks, but . . .” Again he looks to the window, trills once, and turns back. Everything about him—his posture, his downcast eyes—screams ‘apology.’ “Sammy,” he rasps. “I need to eat.”

Shit. Of course he does. And she fucking left the venison behind. But—

“Okay, well, I could find you something. Something already dead from magic—a rabbit or squirrel—I could get you meat,” she replies brightly. Too brightly, probably—she sounds half-crazed. Jay, who’s already begun slipping useful items into his backpack, stops to cock a brow at her. “Would that—will it make you stronger, though? Will you be able to heal yourself again? I didn’t think it worked like that.”

“No. Not like that.” He squirms away from her attentive gaze, still refuses to look at her. The rest of his explanation is directed at his own feet. “And . . . no rabbits. Can’t be old. Can’t be . . . inhuman.”

“Oh, lordy,” Jay breathes. “Are you saying—?”

Josh looks up just long enough to pop a pill and nod sheepishly. Evidently Jay’s understanding is correct.

Jay takes a step backwards, eyes widening. “Oh. Well, that is alarming news. I mean, good if it works, but . . . how? Not that I’m volunteering. Actually, I’m not even human—have I mentioned that?”

Josh makes a face at this absurdity and coughs again. “Not asking . . . to kill you, bro. Don’t need to. Blood’s enough. Won’t heal this—” He gestures to the wounds riddling his torso. “S’not like spit. But . . . fresh blood will fix . . . bad shit happening . . . inside. I’ll be . . . stronger for a little while. Long enough.”

“How do you know?” she asks.

His sad smile is like a flower blooming in the snow. “Remember . . . when I fixed . . . your hand?”

It seems like years ago now, but she does. That night in the bedroom, after the first letting, his mouth sucking gently at her torn flesh. Although that was nothing—maybe a teaspoon of her blood at most. And he was only one letting into this nightmare. Barely even hurting. Now he’s nearly in his grave.

He’s going to need a lot more than a teaspoon, you know—

“So that wasn’t just about healing me?” She lifts a brow. “That made you feel better, too?”

He shakes his head. “Was about . . . you. Didn’t know . . . until . . . I did it. But . . .  it helped. A lot.”

It takes a moment for the implication to come home to roost. When it does, she can’t quite suppress a gasp. “Wait a second—so you’re telling me all this time you’ve been lying around here half-dead and suffering, if I’d just given you some of my blood, you would’ve—you mean you could’ve been—?”

“NO.” He closes his eyes, sighs and presses claws to his temples. “Okay, yes, but . . . didn’t want that.”

“Why the hell not? How much blood are we talking?”

Now, finally, he looks at her. Replies softly: “Because . . . you already do . . . way too much for me.”

She almost, nearly hates him for this. For the pain in her chest and for thinking it in the first place.

 “HOW MUCH, Josh? Because that’s it—if we all absolutely have to go now, then we’re doing this.”

His cheek is clammy when she brings her palm to it in the wake of this decision. She strokes her thumb back and forth, caressing his jugular, not caring that Jay will see them being sappy and probably tease her for it later, assuming there is a later. Whatever tension Josh has been holding in finally releases itself and he turns into her hand, nuzzling against it in weary resignation. He chuffs softly—once, twice. 

Eventually: “Not that much. Pint? Pint and . . . a half? Not sure. You’ll be . . . okay.”

“Two pints might put her into shock,” Jay murmurs. “Just sayin.’ Sam, can you use your IV stuff to measure it out? Sounds safer than—well, those aren’t exactly cute, little vampire fangs, are they?”

“I don’t have my IV stuff,” she laments. “It’s down at the hotel already.”

“Oh. Well, motherfucker, I declare. We seriously suck at this.”

“I’ll be careful,” Josh mutters.

Can you?” Jay’s voice is tinged with equal parts empathy and unease. “Is that even possible?”

“It is,” Sam replies. “He’s . . . done it before. Sort of.”

In her head, the memory reel’s running: wendigo Josh, pre-domestication. Crouched over her wound in the dark bedroom. Being pre-letting, he’d had no need yet for her latent healing trick. The fact remains that he didn’t harm her, only helped, and yet Jay’s got a point. Josh isn’t a vampire. He can’t just delicately puncture her throat. In fact, any bite in the vicinity of an artery or vein will probably kill her.

Be smart, Sam. For once in your life. Please be smart.

Okay, so maybe no biting, then.

She stands up, grabs a knife from the kitchenette. Heads off into the bathroom to see if she at least has any bandages left—the last thing she needs is to leave a blood trail through the woods. Josh follows slowly behind, and Jay slower still. When she steps out into the bedroom, she pauses for a moment, head down, considering. She’ll need her hands for the shotgun. Her legs for running. Not her throat. Not anywhere she’ll risk nicking a tendon. Nothing sounds particularly appealing, but her hip will have to do.

“I’ll, uh, just wait out here, then,” Jay says when she slides her fleece leggings halfway down her thighs and settles back onto the bed. He gives Sam a wave. “Don’t die, darling.” To Josh: “Don’t kill her, Cujo.”

She rests on her side, propped up by a hand. The knife hovers over her pale flesh, tip just barely pressing. It’ll have to be a deep incision to produce enough blood. Deep as in ‘will need stitches.’ Which she won’t be able to do until they get down to the lodge. If they can. This is, of course, a horrible idea.

“You ready?” she asks, annoyed at the quaver of fear that’s threaded itself into her voice.

He nods, climbs onto the bed. Muffles another wet, rattling cough before easing himself against her.

“Thank you,” he whispers and chuffs against her throat, making her shiver. “Won’t . . . hurt you.”

“I know. I trust you,” she says without turning. Time is of the essence. She gets to it.

He doesn’t make any more sounds, but she feels his breath catch along with hers as the blade moves. Pain blooms exquisite—the wound gapes dark and evil, a leering, crimson demon’s grin. Josh nuzzles his way down and then his mouth is there, kissing it, licking away the blood that wells copiously and spills freely, and his hand is on the small of her back. The other slides up between her thighs, an unexpected but welcome gift. One clawless finger slips beneath the strip of cotton there to trace sweet distractions.

OH. Okay, yes, that’s . . . thoughtful.

She closes her eyes. Spreads her legs a bit more and rests a hand on his head as he feeds.  

* * * * *

“Everything go okay, my dear?” Jay asks later as she steps out onto the dark porch.

She is sore, mildly light-headed, ready to get this walk over with. She shrugs. “Sure. It wasn’t too bad.” 

“So I heard. Actually, it aaalmost, aaalmost sounded like . . .” He doesn’t finish, just readjusts the straps of the flamethrower that wrap about his shoulders and winks. “Never mind me. Glad you survived.”

Really? Damn these walls. Fortunately, she doesn’t have enough excess blood to work up a good blush.   

“You know what? Shut up, Jay.” She smiles sweetly. “Mind your business.”

He issues a nervous laugh; she continues to scour their barren surroundings. No sign of Nip yet, but the clever bastard will probably wait until they’re as far away from shelter as possible to strike. In her hands, the shotgun is little comfort against this knowledge. The flamethrower—currently just a bluff—is even less. Whatever. It has to be done now, this rescue mission, and they are as ready as they’ll ever be.

She just hopes they’re not too late. Bob’s a fool, but Josh has lost enough family members.

Speaking of, Josh emerges a second later, dressed and looking considerably less ashen than usual. No more limping, either—his gait is once more fluid, fast, predatory. He brushes a claw along Sam’s sleeve, vaults over the railing, and lopes a few feet across the snow before turning, issuing an inquiring trill.

“Damn. What did you do to him?” Jay whispers. “Is your blood half cocaine or what?”

She shakes her head and trots down the stairs, stifling a wince. “Nothing. I guess it just really works.”

Josh circles back to walk at her side. Briefly, he pulls her into him and whispers, “Thanks. Owe . . . you.”

It’s not worth correcting him. Instead, she just shoulders the shotgun and they set out into the premature night, into the cold and the ruin and the snare that dirty Blackwood has set for them.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE: REUNION


 

No ethereal shrieks.

Not yet.

Only the sound of her own diminished blood rushing faintly in her ears and the whisper-crunch of snow.

In the magic-scoured waste where the trees have all lost their needles, it would be easy to see a threat approaching, but nothing happens the whole way down the long slope. Only a breeze meanders aimlessly through the barren trunks here, carrying a hint of wood smoke. Overhead, the moon hangs low, its slanted Cheshire grin half-heartedly lighting the way. They trek silently, watching and waiting, Sam doing her best to mask the pain coiling tendrils up her right side and down her leg. It’s not easy, but given that Josh, too, must be in more pain than he’s letting on—blood tricks or not, his torso’s still covered in charred lacerations—she’s not about to be anything but stoic. Anyway, she’s suffered worse.    

Still no more screams. Is Nip just toying with them, then? She wouldn’t put it past him, only—

Bastard’s got just as much riding on this as you do. So, no. It’s well past time for games.

The thing is, Bob is a wildcard—an unexpected twist Nip would’ve had no reason to anticipate. So he’s got no reason to expect anyone to leave the safety of the cabin tonight. He knows their letting schedule by now, even if he doesn’t know what it’s for. Knows the cabin’s impenetrable and his adversary hasn’t lately been roaming the woods at night, which is why he mostly leaves them alone on the off-nights.

So he must not know they’ve ventured out yet. They might just get lucky.

The ruined magic’s demarcation line sits just north of the old, abandoned shack. At that point, they’re surrounded by living forest again, the muffling, snow-laden boughs carving away swaths of moonlight and casting all the cloaking shadow a wendigo could ever want. And yet silence prevails and no inhuman tracks score the snow. She keeps the shotgun ready and her eyes peeled all the same, turning around periodically to shine the flashlight over their back-trail. Once she catches Josh scenting the air, chin tipped, nostrils flaring, but he sifts and sifts and eventually bows his head, expression pained.

He mutters another nonsense word, then—one she doesn’t actually need to have translated.

“What?” she whispers. “Do you smell them?”

“Can’t . . . but . . .” A shrug. “I might be . . . broken.” Abruptly, he cocks his head like he’s caught some faint sound—she still can’t hear anything, but that doesn’t mean much—then he sighs and walks on.

Jay glances back at them. She gives him a slow head shake and a look that says, ‘Beats me.’

Once they’re deep in the woods again, the first scream sounds. It’s weak. Distant. She sees nothing living—no squirrels, no birds—but every snapping twig becomes a bomb, making her heart tremble and breath catch. Then the mountain itself decides to shift beneath them. She’d like to blame the slight vibration on the stream they’re approaching—well, the forest service calls it a stream, but the waterway’s broad, rushing—only it’s not that that broad and rushing. And they’re not yet close enough.

So, nope. This is just Blackwood unhinging itself a little more.

The rumbling lasts for nearly a minute, sends pebbles tumbling down from the cut they’re passing through. She half expects to see Nip perched at the summit of the rocks with a cohort of minions at his back, but he’s not. All the same, she and Jay swing wide, moving clear of the shower of gravel, and keep walking as Josh, three steps behind, vacillates between walking and skittering along the trail’s edge. She casts another glance—already he’s back to short-stepping every fifth or sixth stride, hunching low to disguise it, but she sees anyway. So the blood trick is very, very temporary. Figures. How much longer before he’s back to dying? And how much longer do they have to walk? She should know—she’s made this trek countless times—but never with stakes like these. The weight of it is messing with her head.

Another far-off shriek cuts the air. A subtle hiss from behind as Josh suppresses an instinctive response.

Silence, then.

They drop down the last loop to the bridge and there’s blood in the snow at the center of their path—a small patch that’s so fresh it’s still steaming. She and Jay freeze. No body—rabbit or squirrel, Sam guesses based on volume—although the snow is all churned up with claw prints and a trail of red runs into the underbrush. She swings the shotgun that way. Hears nothing. Waits. Considers firing anyway, but that would draw attention, and it’s possible whatever made this kill is moving away now, unaware.

The bridge, illuminated by a single sodium lamp at either end, lies just ahead.

She looks back. Josh has his head cocked again, but he rattles himself loose and springs up onto the slanting trunk of a massive dead pine. Wincing, he scampers up about fifteen feet or so and studies their surroundings. From down here she can’t read his expression, but eventually he comes down again.

“Well?” Jay whispers.

He just frowns and shakes his head, which isn’t particularly helpful.

‘No’ as in ‘nothing to see?’ Or ‘no’ as in ‘not safe to talk right now?’

She takes a step. Another.

He doesn’t stop her, so she continues onto the narrow foot bridge; after a moment, Jay follows. Fifteen feet below, the freezing water splashes over icy, black rocks. Ahead, the path slants upwards, hair-pinning along a rock ledge before widening out. She’s perhaps twenty-five feet from the far side when movement catches her eye. At the top of the switch-back is a half-boarded cave-in that opens to the mines below. From here, a wendigo has scuttled out to perch atop the old, rickety picnic table.

She stops. Flicks off the flashlight.

Somehow, it doesn’t see them, but that’s only because it isn’t looking this way. If it did—

Jay’s hand touches her arm. He’s seen it, too—shares her instinct to freeze—although she’s not sure how effective this will be. They’re on a bridge. No walls to hug. No nooks to duck into. Even if it doesn’t see them, it will smell them soon, and if it decides to cross the bridge, it’ll run right into them regardless.

She wants to warn Josh, but he’s behind her and she’s afraid to turn. Then, like thinking of him has willed him into ill-advised motion, she hears the faint scrabbling of claws on the railing, feels the sway of the bridge. A soft thump follows. More scuffling as he moves towards them with a long, low trill.

The fuck are you doing, Washington?!

Even if he hasn’t noticed the threat up ahead, common sense has kept them quiet until now. Slowly, she angles her head about forty-five degrees. Through lips peeled hard with tension, hisses, “Josh—hush—”

Only Josh is still at the edge of the bridge, frozen in place, eyes wide.

Her gaze sweeps down.

Oh god—

The creature crouched a foot away is a child. Or it had been, once. Now it’s grown ageless, hollowed out and sexless, with its gaunt features, its bloody lips, its scraggle of matted hair. A naked, grinning bag of bones with a thousand gleaming teeth that’s coiled itself tight in preparation, silver eyes dancing with visions like it’s Christmas morning in Hell. Was it waiting? Hanging under the bridge all this time?  She has roughly two seconds to appreciate its cunning and its patience, to think of spiders in webs.

Then it shrieks and springs. Her stomach plummets as she fires the shotgun point-blank.

The wendigo hits hard all the same, knocking the breath from her lungs. Teeth embed in her shoulder, shredding her jacket and the flesh beneath as she tumbles backwards with its weight into the brittle railing—the railing that splinters amid a chorus of more gunfire and more shrieking. Things only get more disjointed, then—her world becomes a whirling cartwheel of shadow, the clash of bodies and teeth, a hiss of expletives spilled into the night air. She grabs at anything, desperate, as she falls.

Not the rocks! Please not the rocks—!

An instant later pain slices into her wrist and she gasps, her body whiplashing.

Her hand is caught in the sagging steel cable that runs halfway between the rail and the platform. She dangles there, twists, watches Josh and the smaller wendigo yowl and roll about above. For all his frailty, Josh is a furious flurry of sharp teeth and claws, but this thing is not going down easily, and he’s not meant for this; not anymore. She can’t see Jay or the other wendigo they’d spotted up the hill, but from somewhere in that direction comes the sound of more gunshots, which is both good and bad. Jay’s still alive. Still fighting. She needs to do the same—has to get up, get out of this mess and help them both.

She swings wildly, flails. Reaches up like she’s trying to snag the moon, wrist and shoulder on fire.

Please—come on, please—

Her bloody fingers find purchase at last and she claws her way back onto the bridge. Rights herself just in time for the battle to find her again, the monster’s back colliding with her legs, rattling her back a step. Already she misses the shotgun, which is somewhere in the water below. Still, she has to do something. Instinctively, she drops onto her knees, reaches out and snatches the creature’s upper arms.

She yanks them back hard, panting, taking care to avoid its sharp claws. She’s not sure what she hopes to accomplish because wendigoes are strong, of course—they are fearfully, supernaturally strong—so does it even matter that this one is smaller? Is she being foolish to think she can make any kind of difference now against something that can probably punch a fist straight through her body?

If nothing else, the creature is surprised. With an indignant screech, it arcs its head up to snap at her, and that turns out to be enough. Just before it wrenches free of her grip, Josh hurls himself at its exposed throat. This time its scream is the guttural sound of pain and bottomless anguish, a telling prelude to the warm splash of blood that hits her cheek a moment later. She is disgusted, and . . . relieved. It twitches once as she cradles it. Twice, then falls still, and she is glad there is no time to think.

Josh shoves it over the edge and pulls her to him, nuzzling his bloody face against her neck. “Okay?”

“Yeah.” She is on her feet just like that, dragging him up with her. “Thanks. I—Jesus, I thought—”

Another flash of movement at the edge of her periphery sets her heart to ricocheting and she spins hard. Jay is halfway down the hill, red-faced, waving frantically at them in the dark and mouthing something that looks like “Hurry the fuck up!” Arms around one another, she and Josh limp-scurry that way. She peels away for half a second to slide down the slippery bank and fish the shotgun from where it’s fortuitously wedged itself between some rocks. Then she’s back and they are running, stumbling, scrabbling up along the rocky path to where Jay is looking increasingly pale and panicked.

“In here!” He pants and pulls them into a shallow depression in the slab of granite. “Shh. They’re—”

They press their backs against the rock and don’t move, don’t breathe—if she could still her very heartbeat she would. The one adult wendigo she spotted earlier has become four, all of which pass within two feet of their barely-a-hiding-place on their way to the stream. Close as they are, she doesn’t know why the predators don’t sniff them out—why they don’t pick up on the blood trail drawing a big, red arrow to her and Josh regardless of how still she stands here, too scared to even close her eyes.

Maybe it’s because the puddle on the bridge is much larger and more inviting. One of them stops to lap at it, then sinks down with a trill to roll like a cat in catnip. Which is even more horrifying, somehow. One of the others answers, then scrambles down to the water to retrieve the half-submerged corpse. It carries its prize to the far side, drawing the attention of the others as it tears off a bite. When they begin to move eagerly towards it, trilling hypnotically, it shrieks a warning and takes off into the trees. The others follow in a flash, and just like that, they are alone again in the still, unnatural darkness.

Ten seconds. Twenty.  Finally, Jay’s shuddering exhale cuts the air.

“Ho-lee-FUCK.” He steps out, flutters fingers over his chest like they’re the only thing keeping his heart in place. Shivering, he turns to flash an overly-forced smile. “Well, then. That went well, I thought.”

Leave it to Jay to make her laugh at a time like this.

He flicks an uneasy glance over her shoulder, does the elevator up-and-down thing. “Sweet Jesus, Cujo, you look like the prom scene from Carrie. I hope that’s not all yours . . . is it? Are you dying on us?”

Josh doesn’t answer at first. Frozen against the granite, he’s making the very strangest face. Even if he weren’t, he does indeed look awful—like he’s literally bathed in blood. When she cocks her head and slides fingers up the slickness of his arm, he finally blinks, frowns, and his hand presses down over hers.

A sigh. He licks his lips, testing—suppresses a tiny, satisfied smirk. “No. Not . . . Not most . . . of it.”

“Okay, good, cuz we gotta go. Come, come.”

They still manage a decent pace for being the walking wounded. Pretty soon she’s pressing the button on the electric gate and they’re circling around to the front of the lodge again. Nothing further has shown up to menace them since the bridge, and the lodge looks the same as they left it—which is to say, lit up like a goddamn Super Bowl stadium but without the broken windows or other tell-tale signs to send her heart galloping off in a fresh panic. So that’s good. And at least stupid, donkey-stubborn Bob will be forced to believe them now that they’re walking in all blood-drenched and dripping adrenaline.

She gives Josh a nod, slides her arm about his shoulders. “You ready for this?”

“Sure. Gotta . . . happen . . . sometime.” For all his feigning, she still feels a tremble, like her words are a stiff breeze and his whole body is made of brittle leaves. She wishes she had more than words for him.

“It’ll be okay. He loves you, even if he is mad. And absolutely none of this is your fault. Remember that.”

He nods slowly, although she suspects that’s just to appease her.

Since he didn’t last time, she isn’t sure if Bob will answer her knock, but after a few moments, the heavy, oak door swings open. Thanks to the glare of the porch lights, the lodge’s foyer is steeped in deep amber shadows and Bob is standing back from the doorway, partially hidden. Sam takes a small step forward, waiting for her eyes to adjust and bracing for Bob’s first words. Which will hopefully be ones of shocked relief and gratitude rather than anger. Josh is alive. He is here, not buried in the cold, hard ground somewhere. Only it’s not Bob standing there at all, staring back at them with a wild, glassy expression.

Sam’s heart stops. Behind her, Josh gasps softly.

Melinda’s initial reaction mirrors her son’s. And then Josh’s mother simply stands there, lips peeled in what might well be ghastly horror, moon eyes impossibly wide, the silver cross resting below her bony collarbone riding the swell of her rapid breaths. Sam glances furtively to where Josh stands, his face a transcription of her own jumbled thoughts. Why is Melinda here? She was in the hospital the last anyone had heard, safely contained under the care of Dr. Hill and those other pompous assholes.

A weird hissing sound escapes the woman as she takes a step backwards and another, her body instinctively seeking a chair that isn’t there—somewhere to collapse as her dark eyes narrow and her prominent jaw tightens. Her mouth works silently, fingers curling and uncurling against her palms.

“Um . . . hi, Mrs. Washington,” Sam manages. “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting  . . . you.”

Melinda doesn’t move. Doesn’t even look at Sam. Her eyes are fixed on one person only, and something about that unhinged look—the pain and shock and raw anger seared into it—says this is going to be so much worse than the walk over here. So much worse than all the not-knowing and the what-ifs.

“Mom . . ?” Josh whispers. He sounds vulnerable, wounded, alone again. “Fuck. Are . . . you . . . real?”

And just like that, Melinda’s kettle boils over. It happens so fast Sam can’t even process.

One minute Josh is shuffling uncomfortably on the porch. The next instant Melinda’s fingers are twisted in his collar, spit and tears flying as she sobs and hauls Josh inside, hurls him down on the hardwood. Sam and Jay both jump back, startled, and then Melinda is down, too, red-faced and bawling as she straddles her son and slaps his face over and over and over, cutting her palms on his teeth. Soon Josh is so balled up into himself that Sam sees nothing but glimpses from behind his upraised arms—scrunched-up eyes, lips curled into a grimace. ‘Josh!’ she wants to scream at him, because he is a wendigo, dammit, and even wounded, even dying, he could easily stop this assault if he wanted. Instead she watches in horror as he tolerates this manifestation of true madness, of a maternal love gone twisted and necrotic. Submits to it with a familiarity that turns Sam’s heart to so much pulverized dust.

Melinda Washington is definitely real. It might be better if she wasn’t, though.

As soon as she recovers enough to do so, she leaps to stop this, but Josh’s mother has turned as preternatural as her only remaining child, her muscles twitching like they’ve been threaded with live wires. She strains, tries to claw her way back; it takes Sam and Jay both to get her off and hold her.

 “All this time?!  You stupid, selfish—another prank? ANOTHER FUCKING PRANK, JOSH?!”

God, how long has it been since Melinda Washington was sane?

 “Easy, easy,” Sam coaxes, struggling to contain the tiny hurricane. The woman’s hands are dripping blood—hers and Josh’s and the dead child-wendigo’s—but still she sobs and reaches out for him.

“We BURIED you! We buried three children all at once, Josh! We were destroyedheartbroken—!”

“Mrs. Washington, please—it’s not a prank—”

“They locked me up after—hospitalized, all alone; wouldn’t even let me feed myself—! You shouldn’t have left me—shouldn’t have left—I needed you, Josh, and where were you?! Playing games again?!”

The irony-meter in Sam’s reeling brain hits the danger zone. Is she kidding? She must be, right?

 “Melinda!” Sam hisses and grabs the woman’s face, wrenching it hard so she has to be still. Her eyes are vacant as deep space; she’s as gone as Josh has ever been. Sam breathes deep and glares at her.

. . . and gets a tiny smirk in return.

“No, Sam,” Jay murmurs, but it’s already too late.

Melinda has gone abruptly, defiantly limp in Sam’s arms, a puppet with cut strings. Sam barely notices—like so much whisky and fetid meat, everything is on its way up, up, and out after all these months and there’s no stopping it. She pauses to draw a deep breath, the fire in her chest burning hot as any sun.

“Does this look like a game to you, you selfish harpy?”

No response.

“Because that’s not fake blood, okay? Not just some stupid prosthetics! He is a WENDIGO! An actual Cree wendigo because that is what your awful family mountain does to people, but you know what? This is on you, all of it, you and your psycho-fuckery. Josh’s breakdown? His psychosis? His being trapped up here like this all this time? It’s because you swapped out his pills for garbage! Why?! Why the hell would you do that to him?! Did you really need more attention?! Or was killing one son not enough?! And if you think he hasn’t suffered far worse than you, lady, that he hasn’t destroyed himself with guilt for everything that’s happened and everyone we’ve all lost, then you’re as batshit as your illness makes you sound, and I’m sorry I have to say all this because I know you’re just sick and I really do sympathize, but either way, get a grip and stop making this mess a thousand times worse. Jesus!”

She hasn’t realized it, but she’s been shaking the woman to punctuate every blistering word. Melinda looks a little pained through her haze of lunacy, but so what? Sam stands over her, still glowering, waiting and hoping, and maybe she’s just as crazy as anyone because that’s an apology she should know will never come. But Josh deserves it. He deserves a real mother, one who can love without hurting him.

She releases her death-grip on Melinda and turns to him. He’s sitting up, hunched over with elbows resting on knees, looking dazed and dull. As she watches, though, he shakes it off and finds her, his cloudy eyes sharpening until suddenly, with a soft gasp, she recognizes what she sees reflected there: pure, raw adoration. Which is crazy, but it’s as if—despite all of her constant reassurances—he hasn’t really believed she could possibly love him until now. A moment later footsteps thump across the hall above and he looks away, but the tiniest smile lifts the corner of his bloody mouth and it’s everything.

Bob calls down something, but she can’t make it out. The stairs creak. Jay glances up before settling himself against the wall beside the door. Melinda scowls at the gashes on her palms like she isn’t sure how they got there and Sam feels far less sympathetic about that than she normally would.

She moves to sit shoulder-to-shoulder beside the boy who will forever own her heart, murmurs “No good deed, right?” and he finds a soft snort for her. He feels solid pressed against her, less broken than he looks. Thank god. It must be wrong to think it, but in a way she is glad he’s used to his mother’s shit. And that he is, at least, in his own right mind now. As with everything else, they’ll get through this.

From the landing above, Bob calls again, oblivious as usual to the havoc his carelessness has wrought.

Josh leans into her, hooks the collar of her ruined fleece and uses it to wipe his face. That barely makes a dent, so she slips it off and hands it to him then lowers her eyes to examine her wounded shoulder.

“Bad?” he murmurs, gently tugging the jagged tear in her tee-shirt open enough to see in.

She shrugs. And now that the adrenaline is wearing off, instantly regrets it. It’s worse than she’d hoped.

“Melinda? Sweetheart, what were you yelling about? Are you oka—Oh. Sam? You’re here?”

“Mr. Washington. Hi.”

He takes a moment to take it all in. Once he processes the current state of the broken thing he calls his wife, however, Sam, Josh, and Jay are forgotten. He guides Melinda over to the stairs with a gentle hand at her back. She goes easily, silently accepts being seated and the towel he ducks into the hall bath to retrieve for her bloody hands. When she is settled and he’s finished whispering whatever soothing thing it is he tells her, he turns back with folded arms and his sweaty brow creased with bewilderment.

“Sam? Why on Earth are you still doing here?” he asks. “I spoke to Mike Monroe and Ashley Reed the other day about what you’ve been telling them, which is very worrisome. What the hell’s going on?”

Sam lifts her brows—if he’s already talked to Mike and Ashley then he knows why she’s here. Since he seems to need it, though, she tips her head at Josh as if to say, ‘Really, Bob? Isn’t it obvious?’ But maybe it’s not, if the strained silence that follows is any indication. She waits for him, but he’s not coming.

Shit. It hasn’t occurred to her that he might not even recognize his own son.

“I’m here because of him,” she says simply. “What else?”

But he doesn’t even glance at Josh, and she doesn’t yet detect any hint of the anger she’d feared—only pity. “Sam, no. You can’t stay forever. You can’t do this to yourself. Listen, I also talked to your mother. You lied to us. When I told her about your request and where you were now—you said it would only be a week, but I gather you’ve never left?—she was worried sick. She’s getting on a plane tonight.”

Great. More people. Exactly what this carnivorous mountain needs.

Melinda cackles. “You LIED to your own mother, Samantha? Naughty, naughty. No supper for you.”

Jesus Christ. Sam has never felt more grateful for her own sensible, boring, hopelessly-well-adjusted mother than she does right now. Which is why her mom can’t be here, but that’s a problem for later.

Bob hushes Melinda with a stroke of his hand across her wildly frazzled hair.

 “The hell . . . you bring . . . her . . . here for?” Josh mutters, only he might as well be a ghost.

When Bob doesn’t answer, Sam murmurs, “Do you really not see him? Are you blind?”

“He brought me because I missed my baby,” Melinda rasps—evidently she’s not shutting up without another fight. “I missed you so much, Joshua. So much. So much . . .” Her cackle has become a rasping, sing-songy whisper, and Sam can’t help but shudder at it. “Missed my Joshua. Even if he has been very naughty, too . . . even if he did run away to hurt me . . . but he came back . . . he always does . . .”

Bob winces. “Josh? Sweetheart, no. Josh is . . . he’s gone. They’re all gone now.” His words—soft, embarrassed, and—well—wrong—are still better than the emanations from that woman-shaped abyss.

“But he’s not,” Sam offers and feels Josh’s body tense beside hers in response to the flicker of Bob’s scowl. The man is running out of patience with her, but she can’t stop. “Really, Mr. Washington. Look.”

Bob’s glance is only cursory before he clears his throat. Carefully, then: “Sam, enough. I know you want to believe whatever. And, yes, I did have the cabin’s windows barred for you. Maybe that was too much—I shouldn’t have indulged you. But it’s been a year. More importantly, the police had so much on Shiner and his victims, and as much as it pains me to say it, I know Josh was one of them. There were bones, Sam—DNA—matching dental records. So I don’t know what you’re playing at or who you’ve got dressed up over there, but I don’t think it’s helpful. I think it’s pretty sick, actually. You need help.”

Well, this is miles off the anticipated script. She hadn’t expected the BP police to falsify actual forensic evidence. Hadn’t thought there’d been anything recovered to bury, but god knows how far they’ll go. Was everything they fed him only so many lies on paper? Or did Bob really bury someone else’s bones?

Either way, he obviously hasn’t come up here to confront his fuck-up son.

He’s come here to fetch Sam Abbott, his dead children’s mentally-unhinged friend.

It’s almost funny. With as much mental illness as he’s seen, poor Bob probably thinks it’s contagious.

Beside her, Josh’s lip curls into a ragged smirk as he chuckles. “Oh. So this is . . . awkward.”

“Forgive me, but the police are corrupt,” she replies. “They’ve been covering up for JG Bragg; there’s so much more to this story than they’ve told you. Josh isn’t dead, but he is a wendigo. This IS your son—”

“No, Sam.” She’s half-expecting him to shout, but he is quiet, and it’s almost worse. “My son is dead.”

A full minute of tight-wound silence passes during which, it seems, no one can think of anything to say. Standing half-in and half-out of the still-open door, Jay could be a statue. She catches his eye and he just rolls his lower lip and shrugs helplessly. Like a contently purring cat, Melinda hums softly to herself.

Oscars . . . after-party,” Josh says quietly. Startled, Sam looks at him, only his eyes are on Bob. “2008. Was . . . fourteen. Drunk. Threw up . . . Rose McGowan’s  . . . Jimmy Choos. Zebra print. Remember?”

Something only Josh would know—smart tactic. Evidently it’s enough to make Bob waver as he comes closer and squats down. She can practically see the fuses blowing behind his widening eyes, the hamster running on its wheel until the truth becomes unavoidable. When Bob reaches out a hand to touch Josh’s savage face, Josh doesn’t recoil, but he does close his eyes and sigh. From beneath his long lashes, a single tear slips and tracks the length of his good cheek. She feels the shudder—the deep breath he draws to try to steady himself—but it’s not born of hunger. Before Sam, he was alone here for months.

“Oh God,” Bob breathes. He looks to Sam. “What is this?”

“Folks already done told you what it is, ya doof,” Jay mutters and ducks out the door.

“The curse,” Sam sighs, wondering where Jay’s off to. “It’s like we told you. Only worse, actually.”

 “A curse?” He is almost, nearly there, but the word must be too much. She can see it: the change on his face when he snips off his newly-germinated belief. He stands abruptly, body stiff, mouth tightening. “No, don’t—just tell me the truth, please. Okay, yes, this is Josh, I see that, and it’s very authentic work. Still, he’s not—he can’t be—because curses aren’t, and wendigoes aren’t . . . they’re not real, Sam.”

“Jesus,” Josh mutters, eyes still closed. “Talk . . . to me. I’m . . . right here . . . asshole.”

 “They are.” Sam can’t do anything but shake her head at his stubbornness. “You’re looking at one.”

 “Liar!” Melinda hisses suddenly, her face smug when Sam and Bob both jump. “No such thing as wendigoes. Are you fucking my son, Samantha? Is that why you’re lying for him? It’s one of his tricks, Bobby. A shoddy costume—look closer. Bad boy, Josh. You know what happens to bad boys, yes?”

Josh opens his eyes to stare at her—not with anger, which would be better, but with a weary, mournful resignation. It occurs to Sam that he’s maybe never dealt with his full-blown-messed-up mother when he wasn’t himself a mess. Without a word, his hand darts to the side of his face that never quite heals, extracts a loose fang, root and all, and under-hands it to her. She recoils. So he shrugs, strips off his blood-soaked shirt. Sam has grown used to his gauntness, to the third-degree burns and the poorly-sutured cuts, the pallor, the monstrous maw and the claws, but for anyone else, it’s pretty unequivocal.

Bob picks up the bloody fang and examines it. Grimaces.

Do the math, Bob. Do the freaking math.

However much he might want to agree with his wife, the look in his eyes says he knows. Horror is Bob’s singular expertise. And Josh is still Josh, but this close it’s obvious he’s something more—something made inhuman in a way that nothing short of CGI or true magic could ever accomplish. Only this isn’t Directed by Robert Washington; this isn’t the wizardry of Greg Nicotero. Hell, the tang of rusty iron and copper hanging in the air all around ought to be proof enough of that. Red corn syrup this isn’t, Bob.

Sam waits. The tiny pinprick of understanding takes forever to reach critical mass, but then it does.

 “Aw, shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Bob’s voice is gossamer-thin. “So . . . everything you told the police, then—?”

Sam groans. “Not that anyone ever cared, but yes. What we told you was—is—exactly what happened.”

“Tell me again?”

What she’d really like to do is shake him just as hard as she shook his wife—does he really not remember any of this? But she can’t. Instead, she spills it all as fast as she can so she can get to the part that’s key—the part about why they’re here now and what they must do. She finishes with, “So this mountain is currently crawling with wendigoes, and they aren’t all as nice as this one.” A pause as she pulls Josh to his feet and he trills softly like she’s made a joke. “Anytime it’s dark, they’re out of the mines, hunting. Which is why we came to see you now—as long as it’s night, which it’s probably gonna be for a long while, this lodge isn’t a safe place to be. We have to get down to the basement right now.”

While Bob’s processing this, Jay returns. He slings a load of supplies from the toboggans inside the door and turns back. There’s more stuff stacked on the porch—Sam moves to help.

“Okay, but . . . why?” Bob asks.

“Look . . . around,” Josh mutters. And , really, the sea of glass ought to make it self-evident.

“I understand what you’re saying, but we’ve spent a thousand nights in this place—well, the old one, I suppose, but same thing. I thought you said they’ve been on the mountain forever? So as long as we stay locked inside, then, won’t they just hunt elk or whatever’s out in the woods? That would be easier.”

“Seriously?” Jay snorts. “Robert, think. Why do y’all imagine Sam blew up your last lodge?”

“I—well—” He frowns, scratches his bald spot. “Wait, you? You’re that psychopath’s son, aren’t you?”

Sam cringes, although Jay seems delighted. He closes the door, locks it—not that there’s much point.

“Indeed, Captain Hollywood, I am, so maybe you should listen to me. Look, I know you’re used to Blackwood Mountain being your buddy, but you picked a really bad time to come back. You’ve only ever had Makapitew to worry about. Now all of Mak’s friends are loose, too, and their panties is bunched. And then there’s Nipwahkaw, who’s desperate to kill your son—” Bob makes a puzzled face. “Never mind. Point is: you’ve got this place lit up like a Christmas tree and you’re looking like a big, fat roast turkey. They’ll come through the glass and tear our heads off if we don’t go soon.” He re-shoulders the flamethrower, pats it. “Besides, in the presence of psychopaths—and it seems like you’ve had some experience?—” A pointed look for Melinda. “Probably best not to antagonize, eh? So . . . shall we, darlings?”

Bob seems to sense he’s outmatched, or maybe just that it’s not an argument worth having.

“Fine. For now. We’ll need our bags, though. Mel shouldn’t be without her medicine.”

Or without a team of psychiatrists and a padded cell, Sam thinks, and winces when Josh laughs softly and mutters, “Course not.” The laugh turns into a cough that leaves a mist of red on the back of his hand before he wipes it off. Great. Whatever reprieve her magic blood trick has bought him is nearly over.

Indeed, his first few steps are shaky before he disguises the fact by dropping to all-fours to scuttle up the stairs. Sam follows after him, not quite sure why they’re the ones grabbing the luggage from the master suite rather than Bob himself. But maybe Josh doesn’t want to spend any more time in the presence of his toxic mother than he has to. And, yeah—she’s on board with that decision.

In the dark of the bedroom, she slides a hand up his back, his bare skin clammy beneath her fingers. Something about the gesture reminds her of all those other nights spent with Josh shivering and broken in her own dark room, so many hours spent trying to undo that sad, sick woman’s nasty handiwork.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “She shouldn’t be here. I had no idea.”

He surprises her by turning and pulling her into him. His mouth, slick with blood, finds hers.

“S’okay.” He kisses her hard, then, sending a burst of unexpected heat rattling down her spine. Clawed fingers twine themselves into her hair and cup the back of her neck and then they are barely kissing, the exchange more akin to sharing breath as their foreheads gently press. He whispers, “Thanks, Sammy.”

And maybe it really is okay? Melinda or no Melinda, in thirty-six more hours this it will all be over—

As if summoned, Melinda’s abrupt laughter grates from the open doorway. The sound is like someone choking on broken glass.

Sam jumps; the overhead light clicks on. Melinda stalks into the room and snatches her overnight bag from the bed. To Sam’s surprise, she is in and out and doesn’t make any snarky comments about their proximity or what she’s obviously just witnessed. But, then, she doesn’t have to—the smug look on her face says it all. Josh, for his part, looks torn between killing and eating her and curling back up into a submissive ball. He must settle for something in between, because he just shoulders Bob’s oversized duffel bag and leads Sam into the hall where Bob, looking apologetic at the top of the stairs, takes it.

They head back down and help Jay pack their supplies down to the lower level. Well—Sam and Bob help. Melinda has no interest and Josh is getting worse, his borrowed strength fading fast. Then it’s down to the basement at last, and while she could be mistaken, Sam almost thinks she hears glass breaking as Bob locks the door. Or not. It could also be the residual adrenaline and her imagination.

As they make their way towards the pass-through to the old hotel, one thing’s certain.

It’s going to be a long, dark night.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: LICKING WOUNDS


 

“You want a snack, Cujo?”

In the long, low storeroom that once served as The Psycho’s workshop, Sam looks up to find Jay standing over them, looking resigned. He’s stripped off his coat. A jagged gash that’s still dripping blood meanders the length of his forearm, which he now holds towards Josh with only a hint of a nervous twitch. She didn’t realize he’d been hurt as well—his coat must have hidden it. Didn’t think he was on-board with feeding any part of himself to the resident wendigo, either, but Jay is always full of surprises.

Josh, for his part, looks just as startled by the offer as she is. Startled, but interested.

“Uh . . . seriously? You . . . want me to . . . lick you?”

“Not at all, but I’m already bleeding.” Jay shrugs. “Besides, who knows what fresh hell Blackwood’s got planned for us next? Better to keep you functional, and blood’s blood, right? Anyway, I’ve always wanted to tell a Washington to eat me.” He casts a pointed glance at Bob, who is situating a still-sulking Melinda on the other side of the room and not listening. “You wouldn’t be my first choice, but . . .”

Josh snorts and licks his bedraggled lips like a dog who’s just been offered a Kobe steak.

He takes Jay’s arm and gently latches on as Jay’s breath flutters. Sam halfway expects him to make a joke—something awkwardly sexual, knowing Josh—but before he can, Melinda is up and stumping over and then the tension filling the air is of an entirely different nature. Sam pauses in the midst of unpacking her suture kit to run interference if needed, but Melinda only observes them with a sour look.

“What is that? What is he doing?” she grumbles. The way she stands there, eyes steady and unflinching in the face of all this palpable uneasiness, it’s like she’s already forgotten her earlier outbursts. She almost sounds normal—normal for Melinda, anyway. Bob drifts closer and sets a hand on her shoulder.

“Buying time,” Sam replies, and then the three of them—she, Josh, and Jay—spend the next hour explaining the strange laws that govern Blackwood, the concept of rogue wendigoes, and Josh’s condition. Who knows if Bob and Melinda really believe it, but at least they listen and don’t argue much.

When Sam gets to the part about curing Josh, Melinda’s eyes manage to be both glassy and haughty at once. “Think you can make him better, hmm?” With absolutely no sense of irony, she shakes her head and flounces back to the workshop’s lone cot. “Good luck, sweetie. I’ve heard that one before.”

Sam resists the urge to strangle the woman because at least she’s no longer cackling maniacally. Now she only sounds tired and as lucid as she’s probably going to get, and it would be a shame to inadvertently re-summon her previous incarnation. Maybe she doesn’t even remember messing with his meds? Either way, Jay is in the middle of sloppily suturing her shoulder laceration now so she can’t get up. And rather than anguish at this latest, Josh’s pale face reflects only a tattered, weary acquiescence.

He leans in and whispers, “She’s . . . kinda right. I’m not . . . I still sometimes . . . hear things, you know.”

On some level she does know this, even though he’s been so much better these past few weeks. Medicine is imperfect magic, after all. It’s still a nasty and hypocritical thing to say, considering.

“So what? That’s not even what we’re talking about now.”

“Just sayin’ . . . I appreciate . . . the sentiment, but don’t . . . kill her, okay? Please.”

“Why not? She’s like a different person now. And she did terrible things to you. Hell, she’s still doing—”

“Because . . . she is me. Do you . . . not get that?”

She bites her lip and looks away. He’s not wrong, yet she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of a Josh with this much acuity. Blithe forgiveness is the last thing she’d expect from the guy responsible for The Psycho, but things have changed, and the look on his face says this is important, even if he is grateful for her protectiveness. And she does understand: no matter how traumatizing the last two years have been for him because of his mother, this is the only way he can make peace with his own lingering demons.

Maybe it’s not forgiveness exactly. Not yet, but . . . it’s probably a good thing nonetheless.

“Yeah, I do get it, and I won’t, but—” She hisses when Jay pushes the needle through her skin. “It’s still hard to listen to her dump on you. Anyway, I don’t know what we’re going to do with her for the next day-and-a-half. Your dad, either. This was going to be tricky enough even without them. I’m sorry if I’m not helping; I just wish there was a way to keep them safe but, you know, out of our freaking way.”

“Want me to . . . knock them out . . . and . . . tie them to . . . chairs?”

 He’s so perfectly deadpan, it takes a moment. “Jesus Christ, Washington—NO,” she mutters, but she can’t quite suppress her snort. Which is wrong, of course, but Josh is good at making wrong feel right.

* * * * *

After Jay finishes clumsily suturing her shoulder and hip, she returns the favor, then does her best to patch up Josh. She’s just finished and donned a fresh shirt when she feels a faint, familiar rumbling. The vibration gradually swells, augmented by a mournful keening that seems to emanate from the earth itself and the unsettling prickle of electricity all along Sam’s goose-fleshed skin. She has known that this might happen—that the soured magic might spread this far—but knowing doesn’t make it any easier.

“Make it stop—make it stop—make it stop—” Melinda mutters. She is curled up, eyes closed, rocking.

Jay casts her a pitying glance. “Does that ever actually work?”

Bob foregoes attempting to console his inconsolable wife and just frowns. “The hell is that?”

“S’just . . . the mountain coming apart,” Josh replies. A harsh, half-shrieked laugh escapes him when Bob goes ashen. “Don’t worry. S’been . . . doing that for weeks. S’my fault. You know. Like . . . everything.”

Something brittle flashes in Bob’s eyes at this last part—if she had to guess, Josh is referencing some other horrible family secret of which she is not yet privy. The Washingtons have too damn many of these; she can’t keep track of them all. But she has a pretty good idea about this one, since it seems to be a new flavor of the same old shit. As if to confirm, Bob mutters, “Josh, hey,” his voice lowering. “It’s not all your—come on, you know I didn’t mean that. Certainly not as the last thing I ever said to you—”

“I know.” Josh ducks away from Bob’s awkward and way-belated attempt at a hug, macabre smile belying his words, and settles back. “You were just . . . sad for them. People . . . say things sometimes.”

Sam cringe internally. Jeez—had those really been Bob’s parting words back in February?

Awful as that is, she is surprised at the rawness of Josh’s resentment, given how ready he is to shrug off his mother’s actual violence. But he must’ve found his father’s rejection worse. That makes sense, she supposes. He has far more in common with his father, has looked up to him professionally since forever. And of Josh’s parents, Bob’s the allegedly sane one—the one without any excuse for accepting the consensus opinion of his son as something toxic and unsalvageable, as the sole cause of their suffering.

It must sting to see Bob forgive Melinda’s mental illness so readily now. An overcompensation born of a year’s deep remorse, Sam guesses, but Josh—not having witnessed this—may not see it for what it is.

She glances to the adjacent wall, where the photo board of Beth and Hannah still hangs in silent indictment. There are things Sam Abbott cannot fix, no matter how hard she tries. And now she can’t even engage in her usual optimistic denial because there is literally nothing she can say—no gentle white lies to be told here. All she can do is try to steer the conversation away from this dangerous cliff.

“Right, uh, the mountain. Did you notice the charred trees and dead birds around the cable car station?”

Bob blinks. “Yes, of course. They’re everywhere. Looks like a wildfire came through or something.”

“Yeah, no wildfire. Turned magic is what caused it. It kills the trees, the animals, anything that’s of Blackwood except the stupid wendigoes, I guess. Don’t ask me why not.” She looks pointedly at Josh. “And a violation of the supernatural order is the only thing that caused this nightmare. Anyway, that’s what you’re hearing now, the shaking—it’s the ruined magic spreading over us. It’s like a cancer.”

Bob, with another distrustful glance at the walls: “Is it dangerous to us?”

She shrugs. “Only indirectly.”

After several more minutes, thankfully, the ground stops trembling. Sam breathes a heavy sigh of relief, although it’s probably premature. After all, Josh’s family dynamics are an endless minefield—plus they aren’t going to sit in here twiddling their thumbs in relative safety forever. Since the protection of dawn evidently isn’t coming, they might as well move their gear down and secure the natatorium tonight.

For now, however, it seems a good time to compile a hasty dinner, so she does—bread, dried fruit, and water for everyone else and raw venison for Josh. She unwraps the butcher paper and slides it to him.

“Oh, God. You’re not serious.” Melinda looks from the meat to Bob and gags. “I’m going to be sick.”

“It’s not for you,” Sam mutters.

“I don’t care—that’s disgusting! It’s raw!”

She tries to snatch the meat away, but Sam dodges. “It’s what he has to eat now. Get over it.”

“He most certainly does not! Shame on you and your poison! I know what’s good for him—”

“Think you might want to revisit your definition of ‘good,’ there, you know?”

Josh walks the long way around and accepts his dinner without comment.

“Mel, honey, come on—”

“Bob, no! Please, tell him not to—I can’t even watch—”

“Then don’t, you dumb pelican.” Jay smiles serenely and thumps her forehead like she’s a cat that’s trying to steal people food. Melinda gapes at him and recoils. “Really had just about enough of you, Princess Crazypants. Shut up and be grateful you’re even here. You could be meat confetti right now.”

Aw, Jay—truly, the guy warms the cockles of Sam’s heart. And, okay, yeah, she knows Josh wants to minimize Melinda conflict if possible—she is trying—but this? Maybe the worst fits of psychotic mania are forgivable, but this is shrewd, calculating. Bob starts to bristle on Melinda’s behalf, but must think better of it. Instead, he points a finger at her—a half-hearted warning? If so, it’s about damned time.

And just like that, Melinda abandons her act and grows stiff and still, arms folded like a petulant child.

Sam’s blood chills itself. Jesus Christ. I’ve known purse dogs that were less desperate for attention.

Regardless, Josh takes himself to the farthest, darkest corner and turns his back to the room to eat, hunched over and guarded. Which is silly, considering how much more grisly his meal could be, but mostly pathetic. Jay’s blood has helped him a little, but he still looks awful. Plus this family reunion is like watching someone run on an open fracture. She doesn’t want him to do anything but rest for the remainder of the night—to do that, though, he’ll have to come when they venture to the natatorium, and she supposes they will have to stay there. Because, at this point, she can’t think of anything more sadistic than leaving Josh with these two self-absorbed idiots on what may be the last night of his life.

Jay flops down with a groan beside her. “What’s that saying? ‘Home is where you hang yourself?’”

She hasn’t heard that one, but in this case, it sounds about right.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE: BREACH


 

The wendigoes have breached the lodge above.

After dinner, with grim satisfaction, Sam calls Bob over to where she stands beneath the tiny grate in the ceiling. Through it, the scuttling footsteps and soft trills and shrieks are just audible. She lifts a brow.

Bob turns a shade paler. “You weren’t joking.”

“Nope.”

“Okay, I see.” His mouth puckers like his own words are made of stomach acid. “So what now, then?”

It’s strange having Bob Washington, a man she’s known since she was a flittering, naive fourteen year-old, suddenly turning to her for hard answers. Not strange in a bad way—it beats the hell out of being patronized and dismissed, and as feelings go, it’s the polar opposite of the helpless guilt that birthed her own recent depression. For a change, she can do something to help, even if it is just to keep him and his loony wife out of their hair. And if he feels just the tiniest bit chagrinned, then so much the better.

“Well, they probably know where we are, but there’s not much they can do about it.” She tips her chin at the other shotgun—a last-minute retrieval from Bob’s office—which rests against the wall. “That will definitely slow them down. Plus you’ve got two solid, lockable doors. We’re going to go further into the hotel to do what we have to, but there’s no reason you have to come with us. You’ll both be fine here.”

“Why on earth would you go out into the hotel, Sam? The ruins were dangerous even before all of this.”

“We have to,” she says slowly, amazed that he seems already to have forgotten. “That’s the only place where we can finish the ritual that will cure Josh. And until he’s cured or dead, none of this stops.”

You know—Josh? Your son? The whole fucking reason we’re here?

Correction: the reason she’s here. Obviously, Bob came back to save himself another dead-kid lawsuit. And now that he’s learned the truth, a part of her wonders if—had she told him about Josh from the very beginning—he wouldn’t have forbid her to come. No, that’s not fair at all, but she still thinks it.

Dad loves Josh, too, Hannah whispers. He really does, Sam. This is just a lot to process, okay?

“Oh. Right,” Bob replies, then turns his attention to his fancy loafers. In that moment, Sam dredges up a morsel of hope—that maybe he’ll offer to come, to help them help Josh. Not that she’d want that or let him, but she would like to know that Imaginary Hannah is right—that at least he cares enough to offer.

When he looks up, however, it’s only to flash a sad and fearful smile. “Well, good luck with that. I wouldn’t know the first thing about curing curses—I mean, if I did, of course, I’d go with you, but—anyway, I’ll try to keep Mel here and quiet when the time comes. She’s not well, obviously, but I’ll do what I can. Thank you, Sam. You’ve always been a good friend to all of my children. Josh especially.”

Behind her own smile, Sam’s jaw clenches to hide her disappointment. “Yeah, well . . . he deserves it.”

* * * * *

Later, out in the darkness of the ruins, they push a loaded luggage cart along the winding hallway.

The air is thick with dust and silence. Piles of broken furniture and crumbling bricks lie everywhere, making for slow going even with flashlights and Josh’s night vision to guide them. She kicks a rock—no, a wooden totem like the others strewn about—and it clatters off into the dead elevator shaft. 

“Oh—so the flamethrower should work now,” Jay informs them as they pick their way along. He thumps knuckles against the contraption he’s spent the past hour tinkering with. “At least, I think it will. But . . .”

“But what?”

“It needs fuel.”

“It doesn’t just use gasoline?”

Apocalypse Now, Sammy,” Josh mutters from beside her and stifles a wet cough. She frowns and turns her flashlight on him, not sure exactly what he’s saying. “Come on, girl. Don’t . . . break my heart . . . over here. Smell of . . . napalm in . . . the morning? I never made you . . . watch that shit? Never?”

Jay laughs. “Yeah, that’s the stuff. It uses gasoline, Sam, but it needs a thickener added. There might still be some in the tunnel to the sanitarium, assuming it didn’t all blow up. We’ll have to go look for it.”

They are halfway across the once-resplendent lobby, now bedecked with faint and fleeting fairy lights as their flashlights reflect off the elaborate chandelier, when the ground begins to shake beneath them once more. In an instant, it stops the breath in her chest and all the thoughts spinning in her head.

She stumbles, gasps, and grabs the cart. For all that it’s getting fairly predictable in its end stage tantrums, intuition tells her Blackwood’s not fucking around this time. “Shit!” she yelps. “Down there!”

As a fellow Californian, Josh doesn’t need to be told twice. He’s already shoving Jay forward and down as chunks of plaster rain from the ceiling to crash onto the slate tile. Together, they dive beneath a big marble table in the center of the room, which seems as viable a shelter as anything. Sam’s heart hurls against her ribcage. No, the belly of hundred-plus year-old ruins is probably not the best place to ride out a fucking earthquake, but outside has its own surreal dangers now and, anyway, here they are. They huddle close, voices lost to the cacophonous din. She nearly shrieks when something big smashes down onto the table directly above, but finally the violent trembling passes and the world grows still again.

The subsequent silence rings in her ears.     

She climbs out, coughing. Sweeps her light up, down, peering into the shadows and numbly noting the fallen beam as Jay swears and Josh brushes plaster off of his head. The place was already a terminal wreck, so who can say how much more compromised it’s—she stops. Blinks. Takes a few steps to be sure she’s seeing, and then she is. Whatever hope she’s scraped up blows from her heart like ashes.

Goddammit.

Near the hotel’s former main entrance—a set of grand brass doors long since boarded over—a huge section of the wall has caved in. Drifts of fine snow obscure the fresh debris and swirl like phantoms across the moonlit tile. To be sure, the ruins were never a guaranteed sanctuary, but this is . . . well, it’s offensively unfair. It’s egregious. Practically a red carpet rolled out for Nip by insane Blackwood itself.

Are you kidding?! You brought me here to HELP you. I’m still helping. What more do you want?!

A part of her seriously considers sitting down on the floor and crying.

She jumps at a soft thud from behind and spins around. Their luggage cart has tipped over in the chaos, spilling boxes and packs and the canisters of gas and kerosene (thankfully capped) into the rubble. Jay’s just righted it; she joins him in gathering things. Has a moment of icy panic as another thought occurs that sends her frantically digging through the wreckage. The snare jar—she wrapped it in a towel, but—

There. Breath held, she unswaddles it.

One tiny, hairline crack runs the length of the blackened glass, but it’s still intact.  

Oh, thank you, sweet Jesus—

“Well . . . that would’ve . . . sucked ass,” Josh murmurs from beside her ear.

He coughs again, a long, painful-sounding hacking, then hunches away and spits into the dark.

She tenses. “Josh?”

“Yeah?”

Carefully, she rewraps the towel and sets the jar back in its box. “You still doing okay?”

His arm slips around her and he leans in—because that’s the kind of sneaky, deceptive bastard he is, she can’t tell if it’s to give or take support. “Mm-hmm” is all he says and this is, of course, his favorite non-response, but either way, there’s nothing else she can do for him. He has to be okay, and so he is.

They move on.

* * * * *

Josh plugs in the Christmas lights as soon as they’re through the double doors. Other than a heavy dusting of plaster and paint chips from the Poseidon mural, a few more cracks in the concrete, and a fresh spill of rocks near the former windows, the natatorium seems to have weathered the earthquake.

“Oh, wow. Didn’t know all this was still here,” Jay remarks, spinning a slow circle.

“Yep. My dad says it was . . . too expensive to . . . have it taken out.”

“Too expensive?” Sam scoffs. “This from the man who just rebuilt the whole damned lodge.”

“Hey. Never said he . . . isn’t a stupid . . . illogical . . . asshole.”

And, yet, you still care what he thinks, don’t you?

 She masks her discomfort behind a tiny chuckle.

They unload the kerosene, gasoline, torches, the shackles, and everything else into the empty pool. Locate a wrought-iron chaise lounger that can take the place of the wooden table and drag that down the steps. Over in the deep end, the beds are just as she and Josh left them the other morning, and as Jay stands above her on the edge, eying them curiously, she feels a touch of heat pinking her cheeks.

“Why are there beds in the pool? My pops didn’t usually—like, did you know these were here, or . . ?”

Sam chews her lip. “Yes? I, uh . . . I dunno why. I think Josh told me.”

“Because . . . why not?” Josh grunts and eases himself down to sit on the edge of the pool, legs dangling. He’s moving stiffly, trying not to show it. “Doesn’t matter. They’re for our . . . slumber party now.”

“Oh, is that what this is?” Jay quirks a brow. “Well, I knew I brought my footie PJs for a reason.”

“Right? We can make . . . popcorn. Watch movies. If you’re nice, I’ll . . . let you paint . . . my claws.”

Jay laughs and tosses the bedrolls down. Sam would laugh, too, except their playful banter makes her think of Chris, who would normally be on the receiving end of Josh’s signature deadpan smartassery. Chris, who may or may not still be Josh’s friend at all if they ever get back home to find out. Anyway, the two of them are only bullshitting—performing a sort of artful self-hypnosis to distract from reality. The same dull, anticipatory dread that simmers in her chest still lurks plainly just beneath their easy words. 

All the same, she lets them go on for as long as they’re inclined.

“Um, sounds great, guys, but could we maybe go find that fuel stuff now?” With an apologetic shrug, she vaults herself out of the pool. “You know—since the front door’s wide open and all now and Nip’s prooobably figured out we aren’t upstairs by now. Just sayin’. Could we go do that soon, maybe?”

Josh’s expression sobers so fast it’s indeed obvious he’s only been faking it; another second and he’s dragging himself to his feet. A low, faint trill is lodged in his throat, its steady rhythm repeating like a mantra to ward off whatever it is that hides behind the ruse—his increasingly desperate wendigo or merely pain—the pain of slowly dying or the pain of ever-present hunger. How hard was it drinking Jay’s blood and not killing him? Or being around multiple humans in an enclosed space? Harder than he let on, undoubtedly. She touches his arm and he quiets, but not before she catches his guilty look. Hates the way it makes her feel like Melinda herself, now that she’s seen the way the woman operates.

A guilt-trip was not her intention here.

“You’re fine,” she murmurs. “Just want to stay ahead of this shit is all.”

 * * * * *

Like an idiot, she’s forgotten that the steel doors leading to the access tunnel have been locked since February. Shrieks and trills, distant but unmistakable, echo up the dark hall behind them when she rediscovers this inconvenient truth and smacks her palms against the cold metal with an angry groan.

“Seriously?! The search party never even came down this way?”

On the positive side, the earthquake has put enough of a gap between the doors that she can just squeeze three fingers through. The bolt is tight, rusty and slightly bent, but she applies a liberal amount of grunting and swearing and manages, finally, to slide it across. The doors themselves don’t want to give, either, but with the shrieks moving closer now, all three of them throw their weight into the task.

They make just enough space to shove between—maybe not enough for someone of Mike or Chris’s stature, but Jay is naturally slim and Josh is unnaturally gaunt and for once that works in his favor. Once wrenched apart, there’s no closing them again, so all they can do is hope their pursuers go another way.

The tunnel stretches on with a slight upward slope. Thankfully, there’s no indication of other wendigoes on this side—as far as she can tell, at least, although her flashlight doesn’t penetrate very far. Since he can see in the dark, Josh skitters up and creeps along the ceiling ahead, cocks his head and listens to be sure, then waves them on. He doesn’t so much leap from the ceiling as fall from it, but he lands on his feet and falls in again at Sam’s side, limping a step or two before evening out. She is glad for the added reassurance, but wishes he would stay on the ground. The whole performance reminds her of being back at the emergency clinic—of puffed-up, hissing, bloody kittens trying their damnedest to look tough.      

“So . . . what exactly are we looking for?” she asks.

“Well, Pops got his stash from an old Army buddy a long time ago, so look for something old with the words ‘napthenic acid’ and ‘palmitic acid’ on it. It’s a powder, so like a canister or a bucket . . .”

Currently, the only things lining the perimeter of the long, tiled hall are industrial-sized drums of laundry detergent, but given Jack Shiner’s habit of squirreling away necessities all over the place rather than maintaining one centralized stockpile, she supposes the stuff could be tucked in anywhere around here.

A few minutes later as they move warily towards the sanitarium, she hasn’t noticed anything promising. She does, however, notice Josh mumbling to himself under his breath again. It’s that strange, sibilant, nonsense language that he occasionally lapses into. Probably she should’ve questioned this odd behavior long before now instead of politely dancing around it. She hasn’t only because he always seems averse to talking about the unpleasant specifics of life with his parasite. However, as she was under the impression he could no longer hear the wretched thing, she probably should ask him now.

“Hey, who are you talking to?” she whispers.

He startles like she’s caught him doing something bad, shakes his head sheepishly. “I’m not. Not to anyone, I mean.” She gives him a look that makes him cringe a little more. “I told you I . . . I still hear things sometimes. S’weird. Voices . . . talking to each other. Not to me. Dunno . . . where it comes from. My . . . fucked-up brain, I guess.” He rolls his eyes as if to say, ‘Where else?’ “S’different, though . . .”

She opens her mouth to press him but he stiffens suddenly, hushes her with a raised hand.

Farther ahead, where the narrow tunnel widens out and becomes the sanitarium’s basement-level landing, moonlight spills down from the vast windows above. There, a pair of wendigoes scurries silently over the rubble. One of them is the escapee from the shed. Sam, Josh, and Jay press themselves hard against the wall and keep still. Neither creature turns as they move towards the staircase and up it.

They wait another three minutes. Josh spends the uneasy duration wearing a puzzled frown.

Surprisingly, once they reach the laundry room, it doesn’t take too long to find the thickener. It was the other building, the one that housed the psychiatric ward, that Mike blew up. This one is relatively intact and Jack Shiner’s cache here is just as he left it—there’s cigars, a flare gun, more shotgun shells, a pair of goggles, and several buckets of fuel additive. Sam doesn’t see what amount Jay mixes into the gas can he’s been hauling or if there’s anything more to it than that, but after he dumps the fuel into the tank, tugs the goggles up, and fires the thing up at last, she can’t help but see the dramatic results.

“Oh, wow. Damn,” she breathes, struck both by the heat the thing packs and by how incongruous her favorite pretty-boy barista looks wielding it, although judging by his ease, it’s clearly a familiar accessory.

“Haha, yup.” Jay grins. “She was Pops’ baby—poor, misguided bastard that he was. He used to sleep with her beside his bed like a dog. Anyway, darlings, though I sincerely hope it won’t come to this, I am nonetheless comforted to inform you that we’re cooking wendigoes with gas now. No offense, Cujo.”

For Josh’s sake, she tries not to look too excited, but . . .

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

* * * * *

They poke around for anything else that might be of use then head back to the natatorium.

“Fuck. Should we  . . . check on them?” Josh asks no one in particular, staring down the hall like the condemned eying the rope swaying on an empty gallows. He takes a slow, small, dragging step in that direction, but she can tell his heart’s not in it this time. He looks like a half-assedly reanimated corpse—like he’ll fall down if he doesn’t have the sense to lie down soon. Definitely intervention time.

“Josh, they’re fine,” she replies and hopes she’s not lying. She grabs his hand and gently tugs him back inside. “The lodge is brand-new. It’s a lot sturdier than this place, right? And don’t you think we would’ve heard—well—shouting or something if they were in trouble? Your mom isn’t exactly stoic.”

He lets himself be convinced and that’s good, because it isn’t too much later that he’s slinking off to sick up what sounds like five gallons of blood and venison. While mostly Sam’s concern is for Josh and what this says about the state of his health (nothing good), she does take a moment to imagine Melinda’s reaction—if she thought the venison’s original incarnation was bad, she would absolutely unmake herself over this. Reason five-thousand-nine-hundred-and-two Sam is glad she’s not here. Although . . .

“Did you take your medicine yet?” she asks, shuffling up behind him.

“Sort of.” He looks at the mess—blood and venison and Vicodin and amytriptaline, then—and kicks dust over it like an animal burying its waste, then smiles weakly. “Don’t think it’s . . . going to work, though.”

“Probably not. Hey, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you feel like shit.” She slips her arms around him and wishes she hadn’t noticed in that brief glimpse just how pale his gums are. He’s anemic. If she looked closer, which she resolutely refuses to do, he probably has petechiae. “You want some water?”

He nods.

This is the hardest part, of course—the bitter end. The instructions for the cure don’t give many specifics, but given the magnitude of what they’re trying to accomplish, it doesn’t take a genius to see this is a race against time. If they could move things up—do the last letting tonight, say—Josh’s chances of survival would be much, much better, but that’s one point where the instructions are unequivocal.

Five days.

Five full days between or else.

The water jugs are sitting just inside the chained doors where they off-loaded them. As she’s pouring, she hears an anxious voice calling from somewhere out on the other side. It’s muffled. So much so that she’s probably the only one who’s heard it. Which means she could ignore it, but it sounds like Bob, and although there’s a good chance it’s only a wendigo coyly mimicking the man, there’s an equal chance it’s not. If not, the suicidal dipshit’s going to draw scores of the things right to himself calling out like that.

Jesus Christ, Bob—could you listen for just once?

She brings Josh his water, then returns to the entrance and unchains the doors.

“Um, whatchya doin’ there, princess . . ?” Jay sounds casual, though he’s staring at her intently.

“I gotta check on something. I think Bob is . . . being Bob. Hang tight.” Before he can protest, she hoists the shotgun to show him she’s got it and shakes her head. “I’m not going far, believe me. Just past the lobby—gonna stick my head up the hall. Leave the doors open in case I come back in a hurry, okay?”

Jay stands guard as she trots away. Is she being an idiot? Maybe, but she owes it to Josh since she told him his parents would be fine. Plus keeping those twats safe is the whole reason they came up here—the reason they’re not still holed up in the cabin where at least they’d have heat and running water.

In the lobby, the voice is louder, but she still can’t make out much. Which is good—she doesn’t want to get too close yet. She picks her way up and over a pile of rubble that’s nearly blocking the hall to the workshop. She hadn’t noticed it before, but then, she hadn’t been looking this way. Chunks of cement roll from beneath her feet, sending her sliding precariously. She grabs some jutting rebar and swears.

Another cry echoes from up ahead. She climbs a little higher, straining to see. The building shifts beneath her and issues a deep, guttural groan, mimicking the exasperation she’s currently steeped in. It would be just her luck if the whole ancient, ramshackle hotel collapsed right out from under her now.

“Mr. Wash?” she hisses. “Answer me so I know you’re not a wendigo, then shut the hell up, okay?”

No answer.

“Last chance, Bob. Is that you? What do you want? I told you to stay inside the storeroom.”

“What do you want?” her own voice echoes back. “I told you . . . I told you . . .”

Shit. See? That is your death you’re chatting with, Sam. Now get down and get back inside.

Well, she had to be sure. She turns and scrambles back. From here, Jay is no more than an oddly-shaped silhouette, hands on hips and a big, mechanical hump on his back. As she gets closer, his features flesh out—he gives her the sort of arch glance one might give an amusingly precocious child.

Josh has drug himself up from the pool to join him, leaning unsteadily in the doorway and listening.

“And what did we learn?” Jay sing-songs as she steps past.

“That I’m dumb,” she mumbles. “It was a wendigo. It was using Bob’s voice, though.”

“Kinda their thing, darling. Guess they’re starting to feel a little desperate with whatever’s going on above ground if they’re already pulling that old trick. Poor things. They can dish it out, but . . .”

“But why even bother?”

“Hmm?”

“With the mimicking thing. We’re not total idiots. And they know we know about it at this point.” She looks to Josh, whose creepy mimicry demonstrations have been sparing but illuminating. Josh, who cocks his head and sniffs the air unsettlingly and doesn’t even acknowledge this train of thought. “Hey, you don’t think they actually understand what they’re saying, do you? I mean, I know Nip’s never spoken a word of English, but even the ones that did—we’re sure they’re just parroting now, right?”

“Of course.”

She closes and re-chains the doors, leans against them with a grimace. “How sure?”

She asks because Josh does understand the things he mimics—at least when he’s not in the deepest throes of his possession. Granted he’s a different sort of wendigo and arguably only a half-blood at this point, but he would’ve understood even before she started curing him. And god knows wendigoes store up their audio clips forever. Moldy oldies like Nip probably have enough to approximate an actual human conversation—if they were still fluent. She’s never heard one try, though. Isn’t even sure why this matters, but there is something there, fluttering like a moth about the edge of her thoughts.

“Pretty sure,” Jay replies—slowly, as if he’s waiting for Josh to correct him.

 “Uh, Washington?”

She’s also hoping he’ll weigh in, but he just frowns and shakes his head, clearly still distracted by something. Which, now that she thinks about it, should concern her in the immediate considerably more than the subtle nuances of wendigo vocalization habits. The way he’s standing—stiff, still, staring hard at the wall to their right—makes her skin go all goose-bumpy. There’s nothing over there that Sam can see besides the crumbling remains of a poolside juice bar and the entrances to the changing rooms. And the changing rooms are dead-ends these days, half-collapsed inside beneath the weight of the earth, so . . ?

What?” she edges, tensing. “What is it?” 

Her heart ticks three tremulous beats, then—

“Aw, fuck,” Josh breathes, and bolts forward. Or tries to—he is wobbly, weak, half-staggering.

“Josh!” She leaps after him, dodging overturned pool chairs. “What are you doing—?!”

A wendigo screams. Very loud. Very close. Then another. Shrieks and trills and—

“Block . . . block the door!” Josh pants, nodding to the right as he veers left. “Sam, they’re—”

But it’s too late. Before either of them can get there, the door directly in front of Josh flies open.

Like a celebrity arriving on the red carpet, the wendigo called Nipwahkaw lurches into the room.

Sam screams.

Somehow he seems to fill the vast, shadowy space, his long, inhuman limbs jutting to form a living barricade. His thin, tangled hair hangs like a silver-black web over milky eyes and a face utterly devoid of expression. His monstrous entourage skitters in behind him, leaping and scampering and fanning out.

Sam freezes—chokes on her own breath—on her terror.

Fuck—fuck—no—

You can’t—

But the wendigoes keep coming. High and low, shrieking and silent, far too many. More than a dozen and Josh is too far away—she can’t get to him and Jay might as well be in Siberia and, anyway, they are dead; they are all dead. Josh just looks at Nip with bulging eyes that are half sclera, his chest rising and falling slowly. He trills, back-steps until the surrounding ring of enemies stops him, and then he just . . .

He gives up. Her mind shatters.

No, Josh, please, no, don’t

Nip towers over him, a living monument to Blackwood’s insanity. The last thing Josh will ever see, she realizes, and she has never hated anything so completely. The monster leans close, his movements unhurried, and chuffs deeply, breath puffing hard enough to ruffle Josh’s sweat-dampened hair. Dusky lips peel to reveal an endless nightmare of fangs, slick and shining in the glow of the Christmas lights.

Blackwood don’t! You are braver than this! Fucking fuck, just TRUST US!

You are violating YOUR OWN DAMNED LAWS; don’t you see—?!

Head down, lips moving silently, Josh stands and waits for the inevitable. It’s too much; Sam’s heart explodes. She springs, screams for Jay’s help and feels the blast of heat at her back almost instantly, and then her shotgun blast pitches the nearest wendigo backwards into the juice bar and she fires again—moves and keeps firing, shouting, until the gun is empty but it’s not enough and Josh is in the air, skewered in Nip’s iron grip, head wrenched back in anguish and she will not—he will notNO—

Something hits her hard and the pain explodes, rupturing her senses.

Like she’s being torn inside-out. Dissected. Set on fire.

Then she’s falling, falling, falling, drifting through the detritus of old memories

—Of the first time she met Josh Washington

—Of the last time she saw Hannah

—Of a long-ago August day in Burbank, another world

The melancholy sound of Chris’ voice catches her, wraps around her like an icy fog.

Just a bunch of tiny, random decisions we didn’t make and here we are . . .

That’s life.

 It blows.

. . .

. . .

. . .

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: BELLY OF THE BEAST


 

She snaps awake. If not for the pain and the cold, she might believe she was finally dead.

Beneath her is something soft—a body—Josh’s body!—she gasps and his arms curl around her, loosening as she stirs and tries to sit up. Bad idea. A jagged knife stirs her guts, making her eyes bulge and her lips peel; her cry cuts the silence. Everything feels dangerously loose inside, like something vital might slip free at the slightest provocation. Against her better judgement, she probes fingers along her abdomen, or tries to. Josh’s hands nudge hers away, pressing down gently against the wound.

“Gotta keep . . . pressure,” he whispers. Even though his breath is hot at her ear, her blood runs cold.

 “Josh, how . . ? Where are we?”

Her voice is fragile as a guttering candle—she has no strength to make it more. Even if she did, she is at a loss for words. They are in the mountain, a vast cavern somewhere beyond the man-made mines. Without her flashlight she shouldn’t be able to deduce this—shouldn’t be able to see anything —but the cavern is illuminated by a million improbable stars. No, not stars. Her head swims with fog but she knows this: it’s bioluminescence. Tiny constellations swirl across the rock walls and the dome high above, the algae or gnat larva or whatever it is casting a pale blue glow, sparkling and otherworldly.

Under other circumstances, it might almost be breathtaking, but . . .

“Nip’s lair,” he answers, and as he speaks it, as her heart plummets, her eyes adjust a little more.

Now she sees the cage in which they sit, the rusty iron bars arching ornately around them like they’re a pair of overgrown canaries. On the cold, rocky ground all around them: piles of old bones. Some are in disorderly heaps. Others have been arranged into macabre sculptures and ornamented with bits of glass. There are other things here, too, receding into the shadows—things too dark to make out, mostly.

So—not dead, then. Imprisoned.

Why? Are they saving us for later?

She finds her pathetic voice again, forces herself to ask. As she does, a movement flashes beside the nearby stagnant pool of water. It becomes the slow, deceptively meandering approach of a familiar lady wendigo—the one that’s very nearly killed her, she suspects, judging by the blood on the lavender dress.

“It’s because I . . . made an . . . arrangement . . . with him.”

Something about this makes her stiffen. She’s in too much pain to turn and study him, though.  

Lavender stops just on the other side of the bars, demanding her full attention. Head tilted, Sam’s former prisoner-turned-jailer grips the iron and peers between; her trill edged with amusement. Sam pulls her feet away, trembling and pressing into Josh, although the cage is small and there isn’t really anywhere to go. And, okay, stupid move, because the motion draws an instinctive response: bright white eyes widen and one slender, deadly hand punches through the empty air like a bullet, claws stabbing into the earth in the space Sam’s just vacated. Lavender smirks, shameless, and trills again.

Splotches crowd the edge of Sam’s vision, threaten to swallow her. “Arrangement? How did you . . ?”

“Because I . . . figured something out.”

His speech is so halting anyway that at first she thinks he’s bound to pick back up again—he hasn’t really told her anything yet. But the silence stretches on and finally she pushes herself up, gasping a little, and finds him—his face is tight and drawn, and at her subtle prodding, he ducks his gaze and winces.

“Okay, yeah, way too fucking late,” he concedes, “But whatever. Figured out . . . how to talk to them.”

“They talk?” In her head, a thousand tiny explosions boom and reverberate. Josh the anomaly notwithstanding, she’d really assumed wendigoes weren’t much for retaining any of their formerly human ways. Well, other than the eating. That they still did, god knows. She draws a breath. “Really?”

“Really. S’not what I . . . Those voices, they’re . . . telepaths, Sammy. I’m so fucking dumb.”

* * * * *

When she wakes again, Josh is turned away from her—hunched over and retching up gore, it sounds like.

He wipes his too-wide mouth, crawls back and resumes holding her. His crumpled tee-shirt, dark and wet, presses against her abdomen. Without it, the bluish glow makes his skin look bone white wherever it’s not charred black. New puncture wounds adorn his collarbone and ribs. They look shallow, at least.

She tries a hoarse whisper: “Telepaths? Like, in each other’s heads? That’s how they . . . talk?”

He startles a little, but recovers to stroke his knuckles along her cheek. “Mm-hmm. In my head, too, cuz, well, yeah. Only in mine . . . s’little crowded sometimes. My mom, Dr. Hill, Hannah and Beth—”

“Still? Even with the meds?”

Behind her, what feels like a slow nod. “S’only once in a while. Like I . . . told you, I’m good, but I’ll never be fixed-fixed. Whatever; doesn’t matter. Point is . . . that’s how they . . . communicate. But I . . . didn’t think it was real, you know? Or I . . . just thought . . . was my own wendigo shit-talking me some more.”

 “It wasn’t? So they’ve been trying to talk to you? What were they saying?”

“It was both. No, they were trying to kill me. Because of . . . what was happening to the mountain and . . . because most of them’re . . . just fucking eating machines, naturally. Anyway, all of a sudden, I could . . . understand it. S’another language.” He gives a shrieky laugh and scrubs a hand over his face. “Guess I should’ve noticed, then, but . . . my brain does crazy shit, right, and . . . it wasn’t that often. Plus . . . when you’re chronically nuts, you . . . try hard to ignore that stuff. S’just . . . static, right? Today, though, I finally noticed . . . s’only when they’re . . . close that I hear it. Something clicked. Then, when Nip had me—nothing to lose, so . . . I tried sending it back . . . their words . . . their way. And it worked.”

“You’re telling me you talked to Nip, like . . . telepathically?”

“Mm-hmm.”

 “And that’s why we’re still alive now.”

“Yeah.”

Well, that has got to be the most surreal thing she’s heard all day.

Given how weak she feels and the rate at which her blood is seeping into his shirt, she doesn’t know how much longer ‘alive’ will hold true—for her or for him. As if to emphasize the point, Lavender is still watching them, leaning against the bars with a self-satisfied grin, the beaded tassels on her dress shimmering and dancing in the faint blue light. The monster trails claws over Josh’s bicep and up to his throat, teasing the tips across his Adam’s apple. He looks annoyed, doesn’t move except to lick his lips.

Are they . . . conversing, then, in their respective heads? If so, he doesn’t offer to translate.

Sam closes her eyes on all of this and sighs, venting pain and unease in equal measure. “Holy shit, Washington. That’s nuts. So . . . what did that giant dickwagon have to say?”

* * * * *

He breezes through the explanation quickly. Too quickly, she thinks.

The dull ache in her belly has gotten sharper, but she stifles her gasp lest he use that as an excuse.

“So . . . what aren’t you telling me?”

He flashes that grotesque, humorless smile. “Only that . . . I’m a dipshit. Shoulda . . . known. I can’t . . . read . . . my own fucking name come . . . full dark. Not til now, anyway. So he must’ve carved those . . . Cree symbols in the early morning, once he was . . . more human, less monster. My guess is . . . he never even saw your response. Or if he did, it was still dark and . . . he couldn’t read Cree then. He seemed . . . surprised about the ritual. And he wants Makapitew . . . permanently contained more than anything.”

Makapitew—Josh’s wendigo, she gathers. The same evil spirit that possessed poor Hannah.

A curl of smile lifts the corner of his crooked mouth at the mention—he’s comforted by this tiny connection to his late sister, macabre as it is. Pity nips at Sam’s heart. As for the reading issue, it does feel rather glaring in retrospect. Maybe if she’d tracked Nip down in the daylight, things would’ve gone differently. Although how was she to know the wendigoes had developed their own silent language?

While she ponders, Josh watches her carefully. He still seems uneasy, although he continues with a shrug. “Granted, Nip’s a . . . ravenous motherfucker same as . . . all of us, but he was . . . fair. He doesn’t have a . . . vendetta against you per se. Plus, I told him if he . . . killed the ‘shaman’ before the letting completed . . . the snare jar would break. Mak would be free to . . . possess the next unlucky douche who came up here and . . . Blackwood’s shit show’d . . . just start over. So that’s it. He gets to keep Mak’s jar when . . . this is all over. You do your part and he’ll . . . let you walk out of here. There will be others that don’t . . . answer to Nip, but . . . you’ll have a pretty solid shot at . . . getting home in . . . one piece.”

She isn’t currently in any state to walk anywhere, but never mind that. “And what about you?”

“Listen: Jay’s still alive . . . maybe. Pretty sure. Find him and . . . get my parents out, okay?”

She is distantly aware that this is good news RE: Jay, but . . .

“Josh, what about YOU, you asshole?!”

The nothing that follows her cracking voice and weak flopping is the most gutting thing she’s ever heard.

She tries not to picture it. Josh, human once more. Already horribly wounded, so vulnerable, and alone in a circle of shrieking wendigoes. If that’s how this ends—after all this time and all they’ve done.

It can’t.

I won’t let it—

But he just chuffs sadly and nuzzles his face into her hair. “Sorry, girl. Can’t have . . . everything.”

A phantom fist clamps her ribcage. The only sound is the slow, incessant drip of water onto rock.

“Unacceptable,” she whispers at last. “Tell them the ritual won’t work if they kill you, either.”

“Can’t. Can’t lie . . . too much, Sammy. If . . . they don’t believe me . . . probably just kill you, too.”

“I don’t care. Then tell them I won’t do it unless they promise not to . . . if they . . . they just promise . . .”

But what good is a wendigo’s promise, Sam?

Come on, really?

For a moment, she loathes Imaginary Hannah and stupid, masochistic Josh Washington who still hates himself too much to even fight and everyone else whose fault this epic failure is. Herself, too, because of course she should’ve double-checked everything after the quake. She especially hates Blackwood. Had she thought its morbidly interlaced magic beautiful once? Had she really been that stupidly naïve?

Fucking broken-ass Blackwood, who had summoned her here just to feast on her pathetic heart.

“Then they’ll . . . definitely kill us both. Besides . . . I feel like shit. M’half-dead already.” As she squeezes back stinging tears, he kisses her temple. His lips linger there, softly tracing, as if reading her face like Braille. Against the shell of her ear, in a tone gone disconcertingly peaceful, he murmurs, “I don’t think you can . . . fix this anymore, Sam. I know you . . . would if you could, and that . . . means a lot. It means . . . so fucking much that you . . . came back and . . . stuck with me . . . all this way, all these years. And hey, it’d be . . . fucking aces if you could . . . save me. I don’t want to die; it’s not . . . like that this time. But I . . . don’t think that’s on the table now, so you just . . . get out, okay? Call it a wash. I’m so sorry.”

“Fuck that,” she rasps, and somehow she sounds calm again. “This isn’t some cheesy war movie, Washington. You aren’t Tom Hanks; you don’t get to be the martyr. I’ll find a way to come back–”

She would press him for more if not for the spasm of pain that erupts when she tries to sit up again. She manages to smooth her yelp into a moan, at least, as she settles back against him, cold and trembling.

“Right,” he breathes, re-slinging an arm about her. “Do that later. For now, just . . . rest. Try to relax.”

This is not likely, but she is too weak to argue any further.

* * * * *

Drifting about in the in-between of semi-consciousness, she mistakes the rusty shriek for a wendigo at first. She opens one eye. Both eyes. Manages to keep silent as adrenaline surges through her veins.

Technically, she’s not wrong—it is a wendigo. At the now-open door of the cage, where Josh is a ramshackle scarecrow leaning against the bars with a wary gaze, Nip fixes him with an unreadable expression. Nip’s long, yellow claws scrape the iron, setting Sam’s teeth to clenching. She’s afraid to move—in part because of the pain that already swaddles her, also because of that which she anticipates is soon to come. There are no clocks at Casa de Nip, obviously, but certainly it’s not been a full day yet. 

So it’s too soon to begin the last letting.

Apparently, Josh has already explained the fickle time table for the ritual to the ancient monster who’s even now reaching a hand into their tiny cell. Which means that unless Nip’s an extra-thick idiot—he may be many unfortunate things, but not this—he isn’t here for that. So maybe he’s changed his mind about their deal—found a work-around that will allow him to dispatch both of his prisoners right now?

“Shit.” She scrambles backwards, gasping. “Josh, what is he doing?! I thought you said—”

“Shh. S’okay. Err . . . pretty sure it is. You’re stomach . . . the hole. He says he’ll . . . help you.”

She’s fairly certain the world is not, in fact, slowly spinning about her—that would be the hypovolemia talking. All the same, she has the sense of being slouched woozily at the center of the world’s most grotesque carrousel. It’s difficult to keep her focus on either of the two wendigoes who’ve evidently been discussing her in absolute silence. She manages just enough to give Josh a wide-eyed head-shake. 

“He’ll do what? No. No way. Are you freaking kidding me?”

 He winces. “Do you . . . wanna bleed to death? I can’t make it stop. Believe me . . . I’ve been trying.”

She does believe him, and not just because she’s got his wadded-up, soaked-through shirt in her lap to prove it. His tattered lips are smeared with blood like he’s been lapping at the wound while she’s drifted in and out of consciousness. Since he knows his healing trick doesn’t work anymore, he must’ve been pretty damned desperate . . . or else just wendigo-hungry, but now he’s got Dr. Nip scrubbing in for him, which makes about as much sense as asking Melinda Washington for heart-felt parenting advice.

Gonna go with ‘desperate,’ then. He’s probably not exaggerating his concerns, either, Sam.

It would seem she really doesn’t have a choice, then, but to trust Josh’s negotiating skills.

She can’t even drag herself to the door, but her blood has revived him enough that he has no trouble picking her up and carrying her gently out. With Lavender and two sexless, dusky-skinned wendigoes hovering close, shrieking and trilling in anticipation like over-eager, demonic schoolchildren, he sets her down on a low ledge and slides her shirt up to reveal the wound. She doesn’t want to look, but the alternative is staring Nip in the eye as he slinks towards her. The laceration is four flaps of ragged flesh that span the length of her abdomen. Pink tissue glints in a pool of dark blood. It’s the worst kind of bad.

Before he can do anything else, Josh is dragged away and shoved onto his knees on the rocks. Against a chorus of her companions’ gleeful trills, Lavender makes a show of clamping fangs at his throat. She doesn’t draw much blood, although the message is clear: don’t move. Josh doesn’t. After ten seconds or so, she releases him and hooks a corpse-like arm about his neck. Nip watches all of this impassively.

Then he is looming over Sam and she can’t think because every cell in her body recoils at once.

Her nemesis climbs slowly, his hovering presence thick with menace. The air turns heavy with the stench of rotted meat. Teeth chattering, hands shaking, eyes squeezed shut, humming with fear—this is how she endures the first flick of the monster’s long, fleshy tongue, which feels like it’s made of fire. The more he licks and slavers, the more desperately she burns, her screams echoing across the vast cavern.

Oh God Oh Fuck; that’s—

Entirely unlike the vaguely pleasant sensation of Josh’s healing magic. Nip’s magic—ancient, so powerful, like nothing words can even approach—sears and boils her fragile flesh into compliance. She can feel it bubbling, reluctantly knitting itself as she shoves feebly against his mottled scalp until something grabs her wrists and yanks them up and then—everything is falling away and she’s—

* * * * *

Jesus.

Holy fuck.

Back inside the skeletal bars of the cage, she comes awake with a jerk, hands flying to slap the empty air.

There’s no one there.

Which is a good thing, all things considered, although she feels different and different is probably better.

Yes: different. The aftermath of Nip’s treatment is . . . very odd.

Gingerly, she sits up. So far so good, so she lifts her shirt: nothing. She’s healed save a slight, pink puckering, impossible as that is. Not even a dull ache remains, and her shoulder, too, has been fully healed. Even her wrist feels good as new. She might dwell a bit longer on this wonder-of-wonders if not for the other thing that has her stomach twisting in on itself, but there is no damping this fresh alarm.

She peers across the dim expanse, but nothing moves and the only sound is that faint drip of water.

No Lavender. No Nip. She calls out, low and plaintive, but there’s no response save her echo—and it’s a true echo, not a wendigo’s mimicked one. No Josh, either—neither beside her nor out beyond the bars.

Deep within Blackwood Mountain, she is alone.  

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: BALANCING ACTS


 

Josh is fine. He has to be and their deal is still in place or Nip wouldn’t have bothered fixing her.

She clings to this certainty as the hours stretch on into the night. Then suddenly something’s screeching from directly behind her and she leaps up, nearly coughing up her heart in the process. Lavender’s deadly claws ghost through her ponytail as she spins around. Nip’s henchwoman and the other two wendigoes have returned with Josh hemmed in between them, a familiar box in his bloody hands and Sam’s laden backpack slung over his shoulders. Josh looks miserable—more miserable than usual.

When she glances down at what rests at Lavender’s feet, she understands why.

Oh, no. God, no—

Why didn’t you just STAY where we told you?!

She closes her eyes, lashes already damp with the tears brimming beneath them. A moment later, the cage door screeches open and she lurches forward to catch Josh as he’s shoved inside. He stands limply in her arms as she hugs him, his gaunt face dry, though his cloudy eyes glisten as he stares off into the gloom. After a few seconds, he settles his hands upon her back and they stand there, not speaking.

Somehow, on some intuitive level, she’d believed no more horror could touch them. That they’d had more than their share by now and that the universe might, like Blackwood, have its own sense of cosmic balance. Ken Cho was bad, yes, but she didn’t know the man personally and maybe he’d be the last one.

But no.

Lavender dances a skittering circle about Bob’s mangled corpse before impaling it on a hook. One of the others sniffs at it and gets a slash of claws to the face for its trouble. Shrieks and a half-hearted tussle ensue, although in the end, all three dart off together towards the tunnels on the far side of the cavern.

Josh sits, his movements disjointed as a marionette whose strings have gotten tangled. He draws his knees up and folds arms atop them and she observes that his bare feet, too, are bloody. Fucking bastards—they’ve torn all of his remaining claws out. And yet it’s not their absence that makes him look a little more human, but rather the way he regards his father’s sorry corpse hanging there—not so much with hunger as with a careful, almost child-like disbelief. As she settles herself beside him, feeling more despondent than ever, his shoulders hunch and shudder. She takes his arm, tucks herself beneath it.

“My mother, she . . . wasn’t there,” he says eventually.

Not what she’s expected to hear, but . . . this is good. It’s more than she’d hoped for, anyway.

“No? So they didn’t . . . um, is she . . ?”

“No. Don’t know where . . . she went or . . . why, but . . . score one for . . . the crazies. How do you feel?”  

She feels fine now and conveys this much with a shrug. “Better. And how about Jay? Anything?”

“Dunno. I did smear a . . . few arrows . . . on the walls, though, where I could. Maybe he’ll see them.”

She winces at how this must’ve felt; still, it’s a good plan. Good about Jay, too, in the ‘no-news-is-good-news’ sense, though she does wonder what has become of her new friend. Is he still on the mountain? Or did he have the good sense to bail? These aren’t currently her most pressing questions, though.

If she were just a little bit kinder, she would leave what’s left to ask alone, but if she’s to be of any use to herself or to Josh later, she really should know what’s changed. Because something must have. “Josh, how did they . . . get Bob?” she asks softly. “I mean, he was in the storeroom, wasn’t he? He was safe—”

His nod is nearly imperceptible. “I know. He . . . came out . . . and . . . tried to fight them off.”

What? Why in the hell would he do that?”

“Because he saw . . . through the peephole . . .” He offers a lazy wave of one mangled, still-dripping hand to flesh out the explanation and somehow manages to look ashamed. “We were. . . just outside the room there. He saw what . . . they were doing . . . to me, which was . . . this. And he . . . came out.”

Oh, God—they were using Josh as bait?!

“Jesus. That’s terrible.” The bile in her stomach threatens to swim up her throat. Like Bob’s being murdered wasn’t bad enough, but to make Josh feel responsible for it? They’ve been down this fucking road before. It wasn’t pretty. “Shit, I’m so sorry. I don’t even—I can’t—I really wish I could’ve . . . told him more before we left them. He doesn’t know—didn’t know—what they’re capable of. Poor Bob.”

Wishes and regrets—the patron sentiments, useless as they are, of this entire mission. Expressing them feels particularly useless at this moment, with the latest tragedy still blindly staring them in the face. Josh has already lost his sisters and a friend to this mountain. Now he’s lost his father, too, witnessed it firsthand, and that’s it; that’s what’s happened. She could keep fumbling for words, but why bother? Her words are nothing—tiny scraps of ash fluttering into the abyss of his loss. Plus, he already knows.

He looks at her with something like envy and nods again like his joints need oiling. Another beat of furrowed brow and pressed lips and then, numbly: “Hey . . . you should . . . watch out for . . . her.” He tips his chin in the direction of Lavender’s departure. “When you go, keep . . . clear. She’s . . . different.”

No kidding, but for strategy’s sake, she’d like the specifics if he has them. “Different how?”

He draws a sharp breath—abrupt enough to startle her, even—and holds it. Scrunches his eyes closed and holds very still. It wouldn’t surprise her if he broke now—it’s too much; it really is—but eventually he just exhales, opens his eyes again, and that’s that. Like he’s driven past the twisted wreckage inside, made his way back onto the open road—something the old Josh could never have done. He murmurs, “Not sure she . . . believes me about . . . the rules of the letting. Like about . . . keeping you alive, for one. Also, she’s Nip’s, but . . . she has . . . her own agenda. Has some . . . harsh things to say to him, too.”

Hmm. Interesting to know, but it doesn’t really change anything, does it? She’s never for a second considered herself safe down here—never planned to stop watching her back around Nip and company, regardless of this so-called truce they’ve forged. Especially not when she has absolutely zero intention of walking out of this subterranean maze without Josh, insatiable wendigo appetites be damned.

Although Lavender’s not the only one with a mind to go rogue on the official arrangement, she won’t burden him with her decision right now. Instead, she kicks idly at the immobile bars surrounding them and wonders how long they’ve been down here. Is it close to morning yet? She has no idea—she’s not particularly tired anymore, so maybe. Either way, Josh can’t just sit here staring at his dead dad forever, and he hasn’t slept and he needs to before this last grueling ordeal. Anyway, she needs to think, to plan.

She snags the thin blanket Nip must have tossed in here while she was unconscious, casts another sad glance at Bob’s bloody remains. God, what she wouldn’t give for a curtain. A wall—a screen—a fake ficus—anything. Like, fuck—how the hell is Josh supposed to sleep with that horror show going on?

She does the next best thing with her limited resources: she nudges him down onto his side, back angled towards the horror. Nestles her body into the shallow crescent made by his and settles the blanket over them both. At first, he is a lifeless lump acquiescing passively to her manipulations. When she draws his wounded hand up and over her, though, he tenses then sighs, chuffing softly into the back of her neck and squeezing her into him. Some soft expletive escapes his lips, and then it’s nothing but stillness and heartbeats and floating in this galaxy of faint, blue stars, the whole universe gone cold and distant.

Hannah . . ?

I will do anything to keep my promise. I really will, but . . . I could use a little help.

Please?

* * * * *

She dreams of drowning in the dark, of choking on warm, stagnant water, then of butterflies. Of squirrels and robins and a murder of crows, herds of deer, a great army of mournful doves. And when she wakes again, stiff and cold, mouth sharp with the taste of iron, she finds that the two worlds—the surreal dream space in which she’s been hiding out and this one—have become one and the same.

 “Whoa. Wow, uh . . . what the hell, Blackwood?” she mutters.

A mantle of multicolored butterflies rests upon her shoulders and in her hair. When she sits up, remembering at last to breathe, they whisper off into the gloom, drawing the attention of a swallow that’s roosting in the nearest bone sculpture. It ghosts after them and she follows its trajectory, blinks and gasps at the impossibility of everything she’s seeing. On a jutting stalagmite a few feet away, a snowy owl sits motionless. Perched on the ledge opposite: a lynx, of all things, quietly cleaning its paws. Further downslope, at the edge of the lake, a vast, shadowy mass of shaggy bodies has congregated.

Are those—? Seriously? Are those . . . ELK?

“Josh, are you seeing this?” she mutters—to no one, as it turns out, because Josh is gone again.

At least, he’s not in the cage with her. A quick glance over her shoulder shows he’s sitting up on Nip’s stone altar, brow pinched, breath ragged, too-wide mouth slightly agape. Everything about his posture radiates tension, and that’s no surprise. Nip stands next to him, a study in bone-chilling menace, though his attention is directed not at Josh but at Lavender, who is currently crouched and sucking on Josh’s mangled fingertips. Really. Her sour scowl suggests she would rather be hurting than healing, and yet . . .

Is she . . . making amends for what she did yesterday?

Sam can’t decide which is more unexpected, this or the fact that a whole mess of ordinarily surface-dwelling wildlife is sheltering down here. The long, shimmering cavern that is Nip’s court is enormous—there’s certainly plenty of room—although it’s an incongruous scene regardless, predator and prey forced by proximity into a state of uneasy tolerance. God knows how any of this came to be, but it seems to be a unanimous understanding. The few wendigoes she sees roaming about may stare longingly and lick their torn lips, but like everything else, they make no attempt to kill anything.

Sam stands in the open cage door for a moment. Nothing stops her when she steps out, although she has the sense of being watched intently. An upwards glance reveals another of Nip’s henchmen (women?) dangling from the domed ceiling above, nostrils flaring, teeth bared. It chitters brightly at her. On instinct, she freezes. Then it does nothing but stare—at the empty space where it formerly detected her, she supposes—for several long seconds. It pries a chunk of rock loose from the ceiling and drops it on her. She jumps back, naturally, and it shrieks with . . . amusement? Then it carries on with whatever it was previously doing, which looks to be making preparations for the ritual shortly to commence.

The snare jar, she sees, hangs from a rope about the creature’s thin neck, the grim, red light swaying haphazardly as it skitters along upside down. It reaches the point directly above the altar where the others are gathered and does something she can’t quite make out to fasten the rope into place. Yesterday, when they took him to retrieve the supplies, Josh must have told them what they’d have to do. It’s still crazy to see it happening. She’s had time to get used to the idea by now, to be reminded that these monsters are formerly human, but . . . a wendigo-assisted wendigo exorcism? Yeah. Still nuts.

She ventures forward with muscles coiled, casting a horrified look at Bob Washington’s body, which is now minus a leg and an arm. The clothing and flesh has been stripped away, leaving a glimpse of torn tendons and pale, jutting bone. At her soft gasp, Josh turns. His quickly averted gaze tells her everything.  

“Sammy,” he hedges, “I . . . I was . . . getting sicker . . . getting so much worse and I was . . . so hungry.” When she can’t quite formulate a response, he cringes and adds, “If I don’t . . . even make it to the letting, if I can’t . . . give them Mak . . . pretty sure this deal is . . . off. Didn’t want them to . . . kill you, too, just . . . because I screwed up again. I know it’s sick . . . like, seriously, my own dad; fuck, I know. Please don’t think I’m . . . a monster. Please. I was just . . . trying to survive a little longer for . . . you.”

God, she hates him for wording it that way, even though he must mean it. He would never try to save himself for his own sake. But if he’s making an effort again—for whatever reason— instead of continuing down the path of pathetic resignation, then that’s something, isn’t it? However disgusting the revelation is that Josh has eaten part of his father’s corpse, she’s not going to make him feel worse.

The rest of what he’s said is true: the saskahwaw has been liquefying his insides for days, slowly killing him from the inside out. In fact, having fed robustly on fresh human flesh is probably the only reason he’s not on death’s door right now. This means the wendigoes may have saved Josh’s life—for now, at least— by killing Bob, since there’s no way in hell Josh would’ve made that awful choice for himself.

She wonders if Nip realizes this. If that was, in fact, his intention all along.

‘He is clever,’ Sam. It’s all right there in the name.

In any case, she really can’t take watching Josh squirm any longer.

“Um, yes? It is gross,” she concedes, “And sad, and I’m sorry you had to do that. But please stop torturing yourself. What’s done is done, and I really think your father might understand in this case.”

His eyes widen in silent disbelief.

Yes, really. He loved you, Josh. He tried to help you, remember? And—” Somewhere nearby, a crow squawks loudly, clipping off the rest. Lips pressed, she glances around at the whole Disney-Princess -Meets-Stephen-King makeover that the cavern’s rather abruptly undergone. “Um, so . . . what is this?”

“Huh? Oh.” He is all subtle, sly-eyed gratitude at the change of subject. “It’s another . . . temporary truce, I guess. S’good, right? Figured your . . . tree-hugging, vegan ass would . . . approve.”

It’s just about as she’s suspected, then, bizarre as that seems. Nip the Conservationist. For real.

“Wow, okay. I mean, I do—yes. Wendigoes are really serious about this ‘balance’ business, huh?”

“Mm-hmm. But, then, it’s just . . . common sense. If this rotted magic shit kills . . . everything else that . . . lives on this dumbass mountain, s’gonna be a . . . hella bad time to be a . . . wendigo, even after Mak’s curse breaks. Unless they’re . . . defective losers like me, they can’t . . . technically starve to death, but . . . still feels like it, so . . . the alternative is . . . they end up eating each other. This seemed . . . better.”

She makes a face. “Uh, yeah, I guess it would. Did he tell you all that?”

Her eyes lift to Nip, who watches them intently. The fact that he’s made no move just yet to tear Josh’s head off or to eviscerate her is very little comfort. Yes, yes, he did save her life yesterday, but she can still see Josh, desperate and yowling, pinned to a tree by those awful stiletto claws. Still remembers how Nip almost took her life, too—that night at the sanitarium when she’d first begun this fucked-up project. That anything so twisted and wrong could possess even a shred of empathy is hard to believe, but . . .   

“More or . . . less,” Josh replies. “He’s like a . . . diplomat. A supernatural politician. S’kinda creepy.”

Kinda creepy? Ya think?”

“Okay . . . a lot creepy. Whatever. Anyway, that’s . . . the story. He says the others . . . the wendigoes that aren’t his, which is most of them . . . they don’t buy in. A lot of them are . . . pretty much brainless. They just . . . kill, eat, rinse, repeat. S’why all your furry friends are . . . not just underground, but . . . stuffed in here. He’s got—” He chuckles softly and glances at the tunnels. “S’got guards posted, Sammy. Fuckin’ wendigo civil war going on or . . . something; I dunno. Place just gets . . . weirder and weirder.”

Before Sam can digest this news, Lavender has finished tending Josh’s fingers and drops his hand like it’s a rotting fish. She’s gathering herself up when Nip stops her with a look. Well, probably it’s more than a look. All Sam knows is that the wendigo appears more agitated than ever, the grayish flesh stretched across her cheekbones twitching as her lips peel. With a short, explosive shriek, she shoves backwards and leaps away, splashing into the water. Another moment and the lake’s surface looks like glass again.

Clearly, there’s more going on here than she or Josh will ever really know. That’s fine. All of these intricate connections, the tangled, dark roots of Blackwood’s heart, she doesn’t especially care to understand intimately. She only needs a way to leverage these things in her favor. There’s not much time to figure out how to do this, though, as confirmed by the watch Josh has salvaged from her backpack, and as they are quickly ushered back into their cage, there’s even less opportunity.

She’s counted thirteen wendigoes in Nip’s party—down from the original fifteen, so maybe Jay’s managed to torch a few? Or not. Either way, that’s still too many for her to overcome with nothing but a knife and a torch. For Josh’s sake, she does her best to maintain the balancing act, to keep up her serene façade, although panic—real panic, not just some vague uneasy feeling—has begun nibbling at her frayed edges, unraveling hope like so much yarn. Once, this had seemed doable. It really had.

Now she’s not so sure.

* * * * *

They pass the remaining hours back in the cage. Still she has nothing. No plan, no ideas.

She has come all this way to fail after all.

And to watch this very personal failure play out in agonizing detail.

Somewhere around five o’clock, a commotion sounds from the tunnels—a mélange of shrieks and crashes that spooks the elk and puts every sheltering creature on edge. As they’re too far away to see, she can’t say what exactly it’s about, although several of Nip’s wendigoes scurry off in that direction. Nip himself doesn’t seem overly concerned. Things quiet down soon and an hour later the cage is unlocked.

It’s time.

It’s time and she is a blank screen, crackling static, nothing but melted film.

Shit, come on, Sam! Think of something—anything—!

The wendigo that hung the snare jar earlier offers a cheerful screech and yanks her out.

While she digs through every last forgotten pocket in her brain, she makes a show of setting up her implements. It’s all she has—this pretense of her own intrinsic role in this ceremony. Probably best to play it up, yes? To that end, from the bottom of her bag she takes a clay bowl and the bundle of dried sage and sweet grass that Jay gave her a week ago. “For smudging the new space, darling—cleansing shit,” he’d explained, as if this much was obvious. “I’d make fun, but it kinda works. You should do it.”

While she hadn’t even remembered his suggestion when they were back in the natatorium—roughly eleven million years ago now—she is suddenly glad for the items. The ‘need’ to waft magic smoke throughout the entire cavern will mean sticking around after the cutting is done. For now, she sits the bowl aside along with the knife and torches and gets busy pouring out kerosene into a bucket. 

Josh is still in the cage.

As soon as the monster sees the shackles approaching, it sends him recoiling. Sweat beading and the whiter sclera of his already-white eyes flashing, he chuckles and hisses and presses against the rearmost bars. But the other wendigo ducks his snapping teeth, and his hands are no longer weapons. His strength isn’t supernatural anymore, either—Nip’s assistant hauls him up with minimal effort, carrying him to where Sam stands grimacing and overrides the thrashing as she chains and muzzles him. She would’ve liked to kiss him one last time, wendigo mouth and all, but it’s too late for that now, at least if she wants to keep her face intact. Fucking Makapitew. Like she didn’t have reason enough to hate it.

Whatever. Tenderness would probably feel misplaced, considering what she’s about to do.

Five seconds pass. Twenty. There is not enough air in the whole cavern for the calming breath she’d like to draw. Her heart is already an overtaxed engine, pushing adrenaline into the furthest backwaters of her body and priming itself for ruin. This is not okay. She won’t be okay if this goes as she fears, but all she can do for now is follow the script like a good actress. And when—if!—she fails, she will have circled back around to the very beginning again. To knowing that if she’d just done one little thing differently, chosen a different course, turned right instead of left at the last junction, everything would’ve—

No, don’t do this, Sam. Please don’t do this to yourself all over again. You aren’t allowed to—

“I’m sorry. You’ll be all right,” she lies. Josh just looks at her, face glazed with fear, and laughs. “I mean it, Washington. It’s almost over. And if you think I’m just gonna waltz on out of here without you . . .”

She has nothing to offer with respect to how she will do otherwise, and mercifully, he doesn’t ask.

But behind the silvery clouds marring his vision, a glimpse of green flashes, verdant and alive.

“S’okay, Sammy,” he whispers after a moment, still with that desperate grin. “Either way, thanks for trying and . . . for caring about me. S’the thought, right? For putting up with everything. All my shit. All of it. And . . . hey, thanks for sleeping with me. That was . . . pretty charitable of you.” She coughs at this and he goes full-smirk, laying it on thick enough she almost doesn’t notice his trembling. “I mean, not saying you could’ve . . . done any better than . . . this fine shit right here or anything—” He glances down at his sad, ravaged body. “But, like . . . still, thumbs up, girl. Would . . . make the sequel if . . . well, yeah.”

She blinks. Somehow, in the middle of all of this skewering anguish, she’s . . . snorting?

Wow, yep—that’s her mouth contorting into a smile; her tear-streaked cheeks prickling with heat. Which is stupid because the wendigoes can’t understand a word of what he’s just said, and hell, half of them don’t even have genitals anymore—like they care about her pristine reputation? But she’s crying and laughing and blushing simultaneously like the messed-up freak she is. And she hates him for being so cheesy, for falling back on silly bullshit at such a poignant and possibly even final moment, but . . .

Mostly she just loves him.

God, does she love this awful shit-show of a boy who she promised Hannah she’d be good to.

Fuck. Fucking Blackwood. Fucking hell.

If their lives are just one big movie the way he so often posits, then this ending? It fucking sucks.

In lieu of letting “Shut the fuck up, idiot,” be the (potentially?) last thing anyone ever says to Joshua Washington, she merely kisses him on his clammy forehead, wipes her tears away, and nods.

Another second and he’s hoisted onto the stone altar.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: SNARED


 

Nip stands ready with a sledgehammer and mining spikes to secure Josh’s shackles to the stone.

That done, he and Lavender and the others arrange themselves in a semi-circle on various perches to watch the show. Nip, at least, is solemn. Lavender looks annoyed and bored, and if there wasn’t a language barrier, Sam would have a few choice comments. Many of the others seem excited, chirping and chittering like junior high schoolers at an R-rated movie. No surprise—this is, after all, a significant prize she’s set to offer them: the permanent containment of the one who defies their god, whose selfish shirking of natural law has brought them precariously close to the destruction of their entire world.

Still, she could punch every last one of their billion teeth out of their hideous, heartless faces.

Josh’s suffering is not fucking entertainment.

Jaw set, she funnels the last of the blood-laced saskahwaw through the muzzle. Josh swallows, lets his mouth hang open again, corners quirked up. Makes a long, vibrating ‘ahhh’ sound halfway between a laugh and a groan, a hypnotic rhythm commencing as he thumps the back of his head against the stone.

When she lights the torch, the wendigoes tense up, stifling screeches. Inside, she grins with all the satisfaction of a dog that’s just gotten its itchy spot scratched. Her power is an illusion, of course—they could still kill her in less than a heartbeat. It feels good, though, to make them nervous, to imagine the tables reversed. It feels far better than pressing the flame to Josh’s much-abused skin and watching him arch, strain, and gasp, which is what she does next. He is kind enough to pass out almost instantly, so that she doesn’t have to look him in the eye when she takes the knife and climbs up to sit on his thighs.

For a moment, she closes her eyes. Quiets her breathing, her heart, and leans over him, blade poised, trying not to notice the smell of cooked meat. As usual, it hangs heavy, sweetly lacing the thick smoke and making her want to gag. Never again after this, though. She steadies her hand and begins to cut.

In the dim light, Josh’s blood wells black, spilling across pale flesh. Several of the wendigoes shriek their approval. Teeth clenched—fuck you, assholes—she follows the angry lines, the old wounds that haven’t healed, reopens them to make the intricate pattern whose meaning she will never really know—the Cree magic that her clueless, white-girl ass can only clumsily borrow. Somewhere, Jack Shiner and his father and his father’s father are all cringing. Nonetheless, the misty fragments of Makapitew’s spirit dance up into the air, seeking reunion for the last time with their other half in the glow of the snare jar.

The last time. Feeling the weight of this, she watches, transfixed, as the wisps rising out of Josh’s new incisions grow sharper, thicker. They’re darker this time, different. Not mist anymore but heavy smog, something sooty and acrid and substantial. Not silent, either—a faint keening rises with them, conjuring goosebumps all along her flesh. Mak may at last be forced to go, but it will not go quietly, it seems.

Is she surprised? Not at all. Nothing about this has ever been easy.

Indeed, just as she makes the last cut, Josh surges upwards, spine arching, straining hard against the chains. Hard enough she swears she hears a snap as she’s tumbling backwards, falling heavily against someone, some . . . thing. She twists around. Finds herself face-to-chest with Nip, who has crept down from his perch for what? A closer look? Another opportunity to make her vomit up her lungs in fear?

His flesh is like a mummy’s, ancient and desiccated, heady with the scent of rot. She yelps and shoves away fast, sliding down and putting even more distance between herself and the king of the wendigoes. Unperturbed, he leans over Josh’s thrashing, ruined body, white eyes peering with interest at the evidence of Makapitew’s eviction-in-process. And then, for the first and hopefully last time—Jesus, please, let it be—he smiles. He smiles not at her but at her work, yellow fangs gleaming in the flickering torch light and dripping with thick saliva. Either way, it’s something she never needs to see again.

Sam quietly dry-heaves into the crook of her elbow. This is so much worse. She liked them better, she decides, when they were nothing but mindless killing machines—something more akin to crocodiles than people. Granted most of them still are—she is holed up here with the anomalies, the non-conformant minority, and isn’t she a raging hypocrite, then, for feeling like this? At least with these ones she’s been given a chance. And, hell, hasn’t she made it her policy to champion the world’s misfits anyway? If Josh—the goddamned poster child for misfits—were awake, he’d probably laugh at her squeamishness.

But Josh is not awake—far from it. She’s in this alone.

She keeps herself busy as his demon sings an ever-escalating protest. As if the last cut released whatever had been constraining it, the faint keening has ramped up to a shrill wail that reverberates far across the cavern. The noise must catch the attention of whatever other wendigoes are lurking in the mines nearby—soon enough, distant screams and trills echo back from the direction of the tunnel.

Nip’s gaze swings back that way, narrows.

Exactly how far does their telepathy range? Josh has never really said, but from the sudden stiffness of Nip’s posture, the cant of his head, and the distance in his ghost-white gaze, she gathers he has immersed himself in a discussion with someone. After a moment, he gives one last, unreadable look at Josh’s contorting body and drops to all fours, scuttling purposefully in the direction of the calls. With an abruptness that suggests they’ve been ordered to, the other wendigoes leap up and scurry to follow.

A dreamlike twenty minutes passes and Sam wonders what comes next. Whether, after all her fruitless worrying—her failure to devise any sort of post-letting escape plan—the solution will fall into her lap this easily. Is Nip honestly leaving her alone to wait this out in relative peace? This seems . . . unlikely.

More screams now, scissoring her tiny reverie to ribbons.

She waits, listens.

And still more screams. Coming this way. Louder. Angrier.

So much for getting lucky. Something bad’s going down just beyond the entrance, it sounds like.

She doesn’t need to see, nor does she need Josh to translate. Curiosity is what probably led the other wendigoes back here—Mak’s otherworldly wailing is loud, and like nothing she’s ever heard before—but this is more than curiosity now. If she had to guess, she’d say the mindless majority who are not part of Nip’s entourage must have figured out all the warm, delicious, meaty things he’s been hiding in here.

They sound pissed, naturally.

Goddamn wendigoes and their goddamned bloodlust . . .

Not that she cares about wendigo-on-wendigo violence—not hardly. It’s that the logistics of getting Josh out of here post-letting were already next-to-impossible. Only one way out, she doesn’t know the tunnels . . . throwing another twenty or so wendigoes into the mix will not help her cause at all.

So, yeah, okay: shit.

She waits and waits and silently begs the new arrivals to back down.

Tucked into a lull in Mak’s keening: the dull thud of what could be—probably is—bodies colliding.

The shrieks that follow bleed rage.

Yeah, nope. Not good.

Between Mak’s eerie howling, the endless thump of Josh’s body sunfishing on the altar, and the war exploding at the cavern’s entrance, Sam’s world becomes a symphony of primal horrors. The not seeing what’s coming is the worst. Pulse ticking, she squints into the gloom. Save the occasional shadow of some terrified animal hunting for cover, she sees nothing moving this way . . . so maybe . . . maybe . . .

“Feel free to kill each other off, guys,” she mutters.  

A cackling trill answers from somewhere above and she dies on the spot.

Oh. Shit. But—?

Slowly, she turns. Perched atop a high pillar, Lavender resembles a gargoyle as she bores holes into Sam’s skull with her icy gaze. And, okay, somehow Sam’s failed to register earlier that Nip’s skag was not amongst the departures, which—yeah, it figures. Showdown or not, Nip would leave her a babysitter.

Sam grimaces. “You. Of course it’s you . . .”

Lavender twitches. Taps a long claw. Leans forward, wiry muscles coiled beneath her ridiculous dress, and Sam braces for it. But her apprentice nemesis settles back again, all the while still trilling soft and high like a cat singing to birds. Just when Sam decides she’s only being toyed with, the wendigo leaps.

Sam gasps and jumps back so fast she nearly trips over the bucket of kerosene.

Another lunge. Teeth an inch from connecting, Lav pulls up hard and shrieks into Sam’s face, spraying flecks of tingly spittle tinged with decay. They may not share a language, but Sam gets the point: she’s been standing here doing nothing for over half an hour. She is being toyed with, and also warned.

She steps back slowly, heart hammering, and wipes her cheeks. “Jesus Christ, okay . . . okay.”

Fact: if she fails to be convincing now regarding the necessity of her continued presence, she’s screwed. With her part complete, upholding the terms of Nip and Josh’s bargain would only mean Lav driving her out into the midst of the currently unfolding rumble to suffer whatever consequences may come.

Not that Lavender seems like the bargain-upholding sort. Probably she’ll just kill and eat Sam herself.

Either way, that’s less-than-ideal, so . . .

Hands shaking, Sam takes up the clay bowl and the bundle of sage and sweet grass—a kinnickinick, Jay called it, and fuck does she ever wish Jay were here now. Jay with his flame thrower and perpetual optimism and a spare SWAT team if he’s got one. Alas. Lavender cocks her head, following her motions.

Honestly, she knows jack-all about smudging, or about any Cree practices not explicitly detailed in Shiner’s journal. With the torch that’s wedged into the altar, she lights it anyway, mutters some solemn-sounding nonsense over it as the smoke curls up. The whole thing feels woefully transparent. She keeps a purposeful face all the same and uses a hand to waft fragrant smoke about as she plods the perimeter of Nip’s court, pretending not to care about the sounds of death and violence that seem closer than ever. How much time will this even buy her? No clue, but shitty improvising is all she’s got for now.

“I’m sorry. You’ll be all right,” Lavender solemnly intones in Sam’s own voice when she passes by her again. A little too apt for a creature that allegedly doesn’t understand English, but what-the-fuck-ever; maybe she does. If Josh could still speak in the daylight? If Hannah still had her memories? Then anything’s possible, even if Lav has been a speechless bitch-of-a-wendigo for ninety-plus years.  

On the off-chance she’s right, Sam mutters a low “fuck you” and keeps walking.

Lavender leers at her and settles back into the shadows.

* * * * *

There are some people who enjoy surprises.

Josh is one of these. Surprises are not quite pranks, but close enough, she supposes, and she has been over the years on the receiving end of several of his more innocuous ones—impromptu parties, road trips, the occasional small gift. All the same, Sam is not a fan. If she was at all uncertain as to where she stood previously, she is currently quite sure—fuck surprises. Fuck them and the horse they rode in on.

Josh: corpse-white, blood trickling from beneath dusky eyelids, from the corners of his slack mouth.

Sam: teeth clenched, frantically flipping pages of instructions in search of a nonexistent explanation.

However the lettings may have gone before, this one’s well off-script, and not in a good way.

As she stares helplessly, Josh’s body continues to buck and thrash with a violence she’s never before seen, spine arcing like a half-moon. The way he lifts and hangs in the air, it’s as if gravity no longer applies. She issues a strangled cry—cringes at the sickening new angles of his limbs and what they signify. Beneath the shackles cutting his flesh, the contortions have snapped bones in his wrists and ankles, are even now breaking him further, grinding the resultant shards into fragments. God knows what else is happening to him on the inside; it all adds up to one thing.

Makapitew is killing him.

Please, no . . . fuck, we’re so close . . .

And speaking of the monster behind this—as if the ones warring at the gates aren’t enough—the faintest hint of a figure flickers into being in the space above Josh. Only not just above. Within. Through him, somehow, as if it straddles the thin boundary between worlds and means to come fully across.

This possibility? Also not in the packet of letting instructions.

“No, no, no!” she yelps and stumbles forward on a hunch, slapping at the half-formed figure.

Surrounded by smoke and glittering with orange sparks, the charred, smoldering, chattering skeleton appears in the process of trying to sit up, of shedding Josh like a worn-out husk. It burns her hands as they pass through it, the shrill wailing faltering upon contact then resettling. Sam screams, too. Pulls back from the pain, spits another load of curses, but is relieved to see the smoky edges of Mak’s spirit catch back onto the stream of magic sucking it up into the glass jar like some supernatural shop vac.

“You can’t. You can’t,” she breathes, and stares at the blisters already forming on her ravaged palms.

Crisis averted? For now? Maybe? Regardless, she is gobsmacked, and even Lavender gapes silently.

If the world were fair, she’d have the time now to check Josh over and to consider the significance of—well—whatever the holy shit that was. Did she do something wrong? Will it try again? Unfortunately, the world is not a fair place, and Blackwood Mountain sure-as-shit isn’t. Which is why the clash of wendigoes selects this moment to spill over into the cavern proper. Only a few individuals at first, then suddenly Nip’s defenses are well and truly breached and there are wendigoes skittering everywhere, screaming and lunging, killing anything within reach that doesn’t have the sense to freeze or hide.

Sam stares. “No,” she mumbles, as if it’s a long-ago Monday morning and her mother is rousing her for school.

The chaos sends birds swooping wildly and a stampede of panicked elk rolling towards her, sends her adrenaline spiking right back into the toxic range. For a moment, she can’t even move. Then Lavender shrieks in her ear and bounds off to join the fun, hip-checking her hard on the way. As she stumbles, as the ground rises up to high-five her wounded palms, shadows flash towards her. She hits awkwardly, just manages to roll away into the small space at the base of the altar as a flurry of hooves descends.

The full-scale nightmare has arrived and it swallows her up.

Screeches and thumps and bodies colliding—going to die, going to die, SO going to die; see you soon, Hannah!—Mak’s incessant wailing and the pounding of her own heart and—was that a gunshot?! Crazy? Hearing things, or—?! A deer leaps by overhead—shit!—and then a wendigo. Somewhere in the forest of stalagmites beside the lake, the herd must get turned back, so that—Jesus Christ, really?!—she is obliged to scramble round to the other side of the altar for cover or get trampled all over again. The lynx she saw earlier is there, hunkered down and motionless as a statue, a wise Alpine sphinx.

Feeling infinitely less wise but just as desperate, she does the same.

Then, she is silence.

She is the noiseless rush of blood that wants nothing more than to keep flowing.

She is the cold rock pressed to her back and regret, the camera that records this senseless slaughter.

You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay

Two wendigoes she doesn’t recognize double-team a buck, opening its underbelly and decapitating it simultaneously. They move on to the next and the next, gouts of blood raining into the air. Another pounces from the ceiling, snatching a zig-zagging hare and tearing it to shreds. Nip’s wendigoes fight these, screaming and slashing, sometimes killing them, but everything blurs and death is everywhere.

No not okay fuck no make it stop please—

She is at the mercy of Blackwood now, sick with fear and horror. Unable to watch, only she can’t turn away, can’t run and can’t possibly stand against this but she’ll have to try because Josh is chained above her and free for the taking to any of these monsters who might want what’s left of him. He’s already unsalvageable, a part of her knows—body wrecked, shattered, soul nearly gone, or maybe he is all-the-way-gone by now, lost to Mak’s unfair violence, lost forever to these mines, this cursed mountain

It’s too late

She has failed

NO!!! Wendigoes fade to nothing when they die, Sam, at least if nothing eats them first! Remember?!

Makapitew has killed him, forced its way out into the ether and she is next she is next

Shut up and LOOK! Josh is NOT DEAD! He’s still there! Still breathing, and so are you, idiot!

Any moment and one of them will find her—she is too scared to hold perfectly still and

GET UP, Sam! Shut up and get up! Do what you came here for, what you promised me! BE SAM!

The  voice in her head—the part she calls Hannah because it is too terrible to be all alone in this moment—is relentless. The words hit like missiles, and just like that, she is able to breathe again.

She is here. Still untouched. By some miracle, Josh is still alive.

Although, still: shit.

But she is Sam; how can she not be? She is brave, diligent and considerate and ADVENTUROUS, dammit.

Yes, yes, yes, you are; you can do this! Get up! Get up!

And she is still friend to a sad, broken boy who trusts her, and she doesn’t take such things lightly.

So after all she hasn’t done for Josh or any of the god-forsaken, doomed Washingtons, she can do this.

Is doing this, actually.

She is here.

She is going to bring him home.

* * * * *

Somehow she pulls herself back onto shaky legs. Gulps stagnant air and shudders it out.

She takes the torch from where it’s wedged, ignoring the sting in her burnt palms. Scrambles up onto the end of the altar to stand sentinel over Josh’s pathetic near-corpse, which is barely moving now. Mak is still there, translucent and smoldering, caught halfway between worlds. Watching the blackened skeleton gnash its teeth as it burns away, sucked up in slips and smoky wisps, calms her a bit more. The ritual is working. Just a little longer. All she has to do is guard Josh from further harm until it finishes.

She can do that, right?

She can totally ward off thirty-something frenzied wendigoes with . . . a torch.

Whatever. She can and she will and that’s what’s happening now.

She casts about the cavern, processing. On the ground nearest them, a waifish wendigo in a newer-looking forest service uniform hunches over the remains of its kill. Hooves and antlers and bare, white femurs jut everywhere, ribs with a few strips of bloody meat still clinging to them, but not much.

There’s very little left of the elk, despite the wendigo’s lean, unfed look. She doesn’t dwell long on the impossible physics of this. Only stands crouched and wary, so certain of the creature’s inevitable rise-and-turn, the ravenous glance that will catch on Josh’s shuddering form, that she doesn’t even flinch when it comes. Of course you see him. Its expression goes giddy. Of course. A soft expletive rasps from her lips as the wendigo chirps and stalks disjointedly towards them, head cocked, voice hypnotic.

She stands over Josh and Mak, holds the torch out like a sword as the wendigo scuttles up. It eyes the flame and screeches its frustration, attempts to sidle around but Sam parries. When a feign to the right gets it nowhere, it tries to dart low and sink its teeth into her calf, but she pivots on a prayer and swings.

The torch cracks the side of its bald head. Flesh sizzling, it’s thrown from the altar. She jumps down before it rights itself, hooks the bucket of kerosene, and flings the contents in one smooth movement, dousing the creature. A second later, the wendigo springs at her again and she just barely leaps clear, grazing the flame along its side and blessedly igniting it. She feels like Hell’s most celebrated matador.

Shrieking and burning, the wendigo bolts away.

See? You CAN do this . . .

One down, but there will be others.

There is just enough kerosene left in the jug to pour a Johnny Cash-style ring of fire around the stone platform. It won’t burn for long, but it’s better than nothing. Probably her only real chance. With the flames licking into the air and two more wendigoes already pacing on the other side of them, she rests a hand on Josh’s clammy brow. It’s doable now—he’s no longer bucking, only weakly trembling—although this is not really a good thing. Is the end near? Jesus, she fucking hopes so. And like she’s made it so by thinking it, something inside Josh makes an awful cracking sound and Mak slips a little further. The entirety of the blackened skeleton hangs above Josh now, tethered only by a few wispy, sinewy threads.

Abruptly, it goes quiet. Not that she was enjoying its shrieking, but the sudden change is unsettling.

For all that, it continues to dissipate into smoke in a maddening lackadaisical fashion.

No time to wonder about the possibility of nudging it along, though, because one of their new would-be-murderers finds the courage to leap over the flames just then and everything is fuck-fuck-fuck all over again. It lands directly on top of Josh, claws punching deep into his thigh. She has only a second to process—its maniacal presence, the triumphant screech, the endless sea of glinting fangs descending—

Sam lunges, swings.

The wendigo makes contact with Mak’s ethereal form hanging over Josh like a storm cloud.  

—and screams. Not a happy scream this time. She pulls up short.

Holy shit; what—?

The ghostly sparks rioting along the charred-black surface flare and leap, skitter greedily down the wendigo’s body and turn to robust flames in an instant. It shudders backwards, howling, tries to scuttle away and falls as it’s swallowed up in a ball of fire. Sam is too shocked to do anything but watch.

She touched Mak earlier just as it was beginning to manifest—felt the blistering heat its departure promised, so . . ? Anyway, what is it that saskahwaw means in Cree? Isn’t it ‘He Is Set On Fire’?

“Yeah, well, okay. Yep,” she manages. Gratitude in this context: a very strange feeling, and yet.

The infernoed wendigo gives one last, desperate screech and expires, its wretched spirit spiraling skyward as its body crumples. She shakes her head. All this time, she’d figured the ‘he’ meant Josh, that the name was a metaphor for his suffering, but . . . maybe not. Evidently, she knows nothing for certain. Would’ve never predicted Mak could protect Josh while killing him, for example, however inadvertently.

Crazy times here at Casa Nip . . .

On the other side of the wall of flames, the dead wendigo’s companion seems to reconsider. After a brief pause, it turns away—ostensibly to seek easier prey. Then: absolutely nada. While the fighting and slaughter continue full-speed-ahead all around, nothing arrives to take up where these two have left off.

For a moment, anyway, she and Josh are safe. Or . . . sort of safe. Safeish?

Gingerly, she slides her hand into his, taking care not to jostle his broken bones or make contact with the deadly apparition. “Wake up, Washington,” she whispers. “You’re missing some nutty shit here . . .”

She doesn’t actually expect him to and he doesn’t, but . . .

That thing in her chest now that feels like a thousand Blackwood butterflies?

She’s pretty sure that’s hope.

* * * * *

Half an hour later, several things happen almost simultaneously.

The first is that the last gossamer-thin threads connecting Mak’s spirit to Josh give way.

They break silently, and in defeat the flaming wraith that is Mak is silent, too, as it drifts up.

It dissolves into smoke and slips into the jar. Into what Sam hopes—please?—will be its eternal prison.

For a full minute after the jar gives one final, blinding flash of red and settles down into a sullen flickering, she is afraid to take her eyes off of it. But it just hangs there, motionless and innocuous-looking as compared to everything else nearby, as the air around it slowly clears. Sam dares a breath.

After a moment, there comes into her head and chest a low vibration and that familiar, all-over prickling feeling like when the ruined magic was rolling in. This time it brings with it a tidal wave of relief, a feeling so vast, so alien in nature and scope and . . . well, so fucking primordial . . . that it can’t possibly be of her own creation. Or, rather, it can’t be exclusively her own. She is relieved about Mak, God knows. But this is much more. This is feeling what Blackwood feels, communicating with the sentient mountain directly.

Which is creepy as fuck, but also . . . good to know.

Because if the mountain’s ready to acknowledge what she’s just done for it, maybe it will help her now?

She turns sharply on her heel, torch raised, because it would also be just like this stupid, goddamned place to kill her anyway now that she’s gone and perhaps delivered its salvation. But all of the wendigoes she sees are standing like statues. Not feeding. Not fighting anymore. Just staring at each other or up at the jar with their silver eyes wide and reverent and looking uncharacteristically startled.

Did they feel it, too?

They must have. Nip and his devotees, certainly, although she doesn’t see that asshole anywhere.

In any case, after a few more seconds, the cavern’s occupants slowly shake themselves loose and resume the business of killing-or-being-killed, though the deer and birds, all the other captive wildlife, must also sense that something intrinsic has changed for them. Up on the surface, amongst the stifling silence and the bare-ruined trees, is that black rot at this very moment also dissipating? Given the drift of furry and feathered bodies towards the cavern’s sole exit, wendigoes trailing them, Sam suspects so.

She has broken the curse. She has really, truly done it.

Tears slip down her sooty cheeks. Her chest feels ready to crack with the pressure of all it contains.

But you’re not done yet. Not hardly, Sam. Still gotta be smart, be strong.

Of course she isn’t. Only halfway home, if that, but still.

When she risks a glance back at the altar again, she is just in time to see Josh’s fangs disappear.

“Mm?” The sound she makes is somewhere between a gasp and a hopeful whimper. “Washington?”

To be specific: they don’t fall out or retract. They just fade and fade until they cease existing and a different reality supersedes. A faint trembling is next, rippling visibly through his sapped muscles like wind across still water. His proportions shift, mangled limbs and spine contracting ever-so-slightly. Something about his skin changes, too—a sort of thinning; the slightest touch of human warmth blooming—but on account of his having bled nearly out by now, it’s not much. He’s still so ashen, still far too gaunt, and the cruel tear along his cheek, the unspeakable wounds littering his torso, all remain.

But suddenly he is just Josh again—three-quarters-dead and half-starved, admittedly; nonetheless.

It’s all she can do to contain the mad, sobbing laughter that wants to burst forth, to stop herself from hugging him. Not the time or the place; anyway, she’s half afraid to touch him. Later, if and when they make it to the hospital, she’ll spend a year kissing his beautifully human face.

 First things first, though: how to get him and herself the fuck out of this death palace?

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: LOST AND FOUND


 

She is carefully unhooking Josh’s shackles when an explosion blasts across the cavern, the ground shaking out from under her like a horse lazily twitching flies. She lands hard on her skinny ass, gaping stupidly as creatures dull from prolonged panic dart everywhere and a flurry of rock dust rains down.

Ringing in her ears.

How . . ?

Wet sawdust in her brain and she can’t move, can’t think—

Why . . ?

She staggers to her feet. Takes a wincing step towards her barricade, which has burnt itself mostly down to flickers by now, and leaps across it. When the air clears a bit, she can see that the tunnel and the front of the cavern have collapsed. Several wendigoes lie half-buried in the rubble—not dead, of course, but trapped, their spidery limbs flailing and clawing. Not that she gives a lick about their shit luck.

It’s the other thing that kills her. Because the tunnel . . . the tunnel was the only way out, wasn’t it?

Her stomach drops and fresh tears spring up where the old ones have only just dried. Then she remembers something she saw earlier and thought nothing of: Lavender in the lake, disappearing beneath the water’s still surface. Maybe? She’ll have to check. In the meantime, what the hell was this?

Not the mountain’s doing this time—at least, she doesn’t think so.

Already, a few wendigoes are beginning to climb along the pile of rubble, pulling and shoving at rocks.

Collapsing the tunnel doesn’t even make sense. The mountain seeks balance—a natural order—is less than keen on the wholesale destruction of its native inhabitants, which is why Nip and his minions were sheltering everything down here in the first place. So Blackwood didn’t do this, and Jay—wherever he is, if he’s even still alive—certainly wouldn’t. She can’t think of any plausible explanation, though, and the fact remains, it’s 1952 all over again. It will be days—weeks?—before the wendigoes dig their way out. By then, every other creature left down here will be dead and eaten, Nip’s mandate notwithstanding.

Nope. Fuck that.

She trots down to the shoreline on unsteady feet, fingers crossed that the predators are still too distracted to notice her wandering about. Here, where a series of bone sculptures have somehow survived recent events intact, the slope is gradual, the rocky ground smooth where the water laps against it. On the far side, there is no shore, only a towering escarpment sprinkled with faint blue light. At its base, half-submerged piles of boulders and a thin arch, everything cloaked in a web of shadow.

And a back door. Please let it be true—

Something moves through the black water, making her startle instinctively. Whatever it is seems to glide, slow but purposeful. She steadies herself, squints. It’s the lynx—the same one from earlier.

Silvery head just visible, the cat swims methodically into the jagged rocks and disappears beneath the arch that skims a foot above the water’s surface. She waits a minute, afraid to hope. Can’t quite imagine that the mountain would give her such a high pop-fly after all the curveballs it’s flung her way, but two minutes pass and the lynx does not reappear. Maybe it’s just hiding out—a sensible plan, considering.

But . . .     

Another minute. Still no sign of it.

Really, Blackwood?

So, like . . . we’re friends again now or what?

No answer. And no shit, right? Maybe ‘friends’ is reaching. Regardless, it does appear she’s been shown the back way out of Hell. Still plenty of huge hurdles to address. Such as: Josh is dead weight. Hopefully not literally, though he will be soon enough if she doesn’t move her ass. She’ll be lucky not to drown him in the process. Still, she’ll take what she can get, and she’d do well to take it right fucking now, right?

She takes another quick survey of the surrounding carnage. Ever resilient, the wendigoes look to be getting over their initial shock. Fortunately or unfortunately, the majority of those still roaming about seem to be Nip’s crew. . . or so she gathers, as they‘re using this chance to dispatch and consume those of their own kind half-trapped in the rubble rather than any of the scattered wildlife. So that’s something, and she’s still unnoticed. For once, she’s glad they’re such opportunistic eating machines.

Back at the altar, however, she is daunted once more. Feels like an imposter bomb tech staring at a nest of tangled wires, because how is she going to do this safely? Fresh sweat beads along her hairline. Given his injuries, there’s no good way to touch Josh, let alone drag him across the cavern. No choice, though, and no time. She hooks him under his scrawny armpits, cradling his head against her chest, and eases him off the stone. His badly mangled legs hit the ground with a sickening thump and she grimaces.

“Sorry, Washington, sorry—hang on, okay? We’re . . . almost done . . . I hope . . .”

Josh is not an enormous guy even when he’s a healthy weight. Still, he’s bigger than she is and moving him’s no picnic. He leaves a thin trail of blood across the rocks, but fortunately—well, not fortunately-fortunately—there’s already so much on the ground it barely matters. Nothing notices them slipping away until they’re at the water’s edge. There, as she’s considering using the empty bucket and kerosene jug to help him float, she looks up to see Nip lasered in on her from where he stands beneath the ruins of the gates. After a beat, he shakes his head like he’s being plagued by bees and lurches towards her.

She drags Josh into the water as fast as her depleted body allows. Slings one arm about his neck as she wades out, the water splashing gasping-cold over her legs. Waist-deep. Chest-deep. The bottom drops away suddenly and it’s a struggle to keep Josh’s head above the surface, then, but there’s no time for gentleness, only survival. Too bad she’s no lifeguard—that’s Mike, whose help she would also give anything for right about now—although she manages to gain the rock wall just as Nip reaches the shore.

The rocks are smooth, chalky with mineral build-up, a forest of pillars. Her feet stretch down, searching, but the water here is deep as ever. All she finds are the vertical surfaces of submerged stalagmites and more nothingness. No light save the bluish glow of the algae above. No further clues, either—and no certainty that she isn’t dragging them both down to their watery doom, but she has to do it. There’s splashing behind her—now a cat-like, blood-curdling trill—and that sound is all certainty. That sound is death. In the end, all she has to go on is the knowledge that, above all else, Blackwood believes in balance. And it is currently very much in her debt, so . . . maybe it will help keep her safe now?

Then again, the mountain’s fucking nuts.

With Josh bobbing lifelessly beside her, she gulps what may well be her last breath and plunges him beneath the ink-black surface. Sinks herself down, too, and drags them both into the yawning mouth beneath the arch. Deeper and deeper, swimming blindly. Past the point of safe return and deeper still, until her lungs are empty and burning and then up, up, desperate and hoping and please God

Air.

Just a pocket, or . . ?

As she gasps and tips Josh’s face above the surface, she lifts tentative fingertips and stretches up.

Nothing connects with them.

She blinks into the darkness.

A few more yards of doggy-paddling in this sensory-deprivation chamber with Josh’s dead weight beside her and finally her feet yes, yes, thank you Jesus brush the bottom again. Nip is still coming for them, of course. She slogs on with heart and head sledgehammering, fist and elbows colliding with the rocky walls until she rounds a corner and is surprised to find she can see again. Not well, but well enough to make out the vertical crevice in the rock above and the faint amber light shining out through it.

The light looks . . . electric?

The pool narrows and gives way to a long, gravely slope, which she somehow manages to drag Josh up. On the other side of the narrow opening, which turns out to be a breach back into some part of the mines, something is screaming bloody murder. Something nearby, but not visible. She winces at her bad luck because they can’t get boxed in by wendigoes on both sides; if they do—if they do, well, then it’s

—No, wait. Not something screaming. Not a wendigo, though it sure as hell sounds like one.

That unhinged scream is . . . familiar.

Into a shallow alcove in the old, wooden lathing, she tucks Josh up and presses herself flat over him. Yells, “Melinda, SHUT UP—they’re coming!” but risks no more. It’s no small task stilling her heaving chest, convincing lungs only just reacquainted with precious air that they must give it up again, but from the other side of the wall, a splash sounds from the pool she’s just climbed out of. That does the trick.

Eyes closed, face burrowed against Josh’s cold throat, she becomes nothing: a stationary object.

Thirty seconds. Did the bastard see her climb up? Is there another way out, or—?

Forty seconds. With no other choice, she steals a breath.

As if teased into being by her brazenness, the scrape of long claws whispers over stone.

Shit. Please . . ? Please, just . . . go?

Another trill—far too close—nearly shatters her paralysis. Fucking sadist. Does he honestly think she’ll answer?! Anyway, would it really be too much to just let them be now? And why would Blackwood even show her the way out if it was just going to come to this? Or was her escape just dumb luck after all?

The sound comes again, high and playful, like they’re two small children playing hide-and-seek.

The fuck we are—just keep walking, asshole; just—

Shambling steps. Close already, now closer. A breeze ghosts across her clammy flesh.

Don’t move just don’t move just don’t

Another twenty seconds.

Twenty-one.

Twenty-two—

Just above her, the air explodes with a rank-smelling screech followed by a deep-drawn inhalation.

She feels it coming, muscles already tensed for it. The claws punching into her tender belly. The sudden burst of crimson and her life spilling out, hot and wet. Oddly, she has no sense of melodrama at this late hour—no need to flash back over the highs and lows of her brief existence, the triumphs and failures, the people she’s loved, how close she came to making it. She is merely going to die: a fact as devoid of impact and personal resonance as the weather report in some far-off country. This is what’s happening.

 Only . . . it doesn’t.

One more frustrated screech and that terrible, prickling sense of imminent death swings away again.

She waits.

Really?  For real?

In the electricity jangling her nerves is the whisper of a thousand desperate prayers. Melinda Washington is a Catholic. Was? Sam is not. It doesn’t matter. She will thank anyone and everyone if—

Gravel crunches, the sound slowly receding. Another silent minute and she risks turning her head.

Alone again.

She nearly chokes on her own joyous laughter.

* * * * *

Sam sits up. Stands. Eyes darting wildly left and right, back over her shoulder, but nothing else comes.

Josh is breathing, barely, his pulse thready beneath her fingertips. He is not improved at all, although he is still alive. He needs a hospital, like, yesterday, but what else is new? No way can she drag him the whole way out of these mines, either, only she finds a flatbed cart and a lantern a little further up the tracks, pushes the rusty cart back and manages to wrestle him onto it. From there, the only thing is to start walking in one direction or the other. Neither way looks familiar, and of course nothing is marked.

She picks left—the direction with the slight upwards slope—and sets out, rolling Josh along beside her. The cart’s corroded wheels groan and squeal with every revolution and she murders them with her eyes.

She walks for maybe five minutes before Melinda Washington scurries around the corner, head down, squinty and muttering, covered in so much pale dust that at first Sam mistakes her for a wendigo again.

 Jesus Christ.

She’s not screaming anymore. So that’s something, although her half-mad expression says she could start up again at any time—and probably will. For now, Josh’s mother stops hard, head jerking up. She’s alone, as far as Sam can see. Nonetheless, she spins around, haughty chin jutting, and spreads her arms.

“Haha, see!” Her voice pitches, threatens to crack. “I win! Told you—it’s like the butterflies! Like the dream the dreams everything’s what it seems the dreams and the mountain schemes it screams it—”

“Melinda, hush!” Sam hisses. “They’ll hear you!” And thinks, Butterflies? You, too, weirdo?

Exactly how many people has Blackwood been chatting up for this little project, anyway?

Along those lines, she is just about to inquire as to what all Melinda has been up to down here—to unearth, hopefully, whatever seeds the devious mountain may have planted in the poisoned soil of her brain—when the woman gives a dramatic gasp and zeroes in on the cart. She sinks to her already-scraped knees; her shaking finger pokes at Josh’s limp form like he’s a bear trap, like he might spring on her at any moment. And okay, yeah, Josh is her child and hardly reassuring in his current state, but—

Do we really have time for this now?

When she looks up, Melinda’s gaze is dark, cunning. “What did you do, Samantha? Something bad.”

“I didn’t do anything, you bat.” Her stomach roils and drops, makes the roller-coaster plunge from relief that Melinda is still alive to dread that she’s now stuck with her. Babysitting is nothing she hasn’t done for Josh before, but . . . even at his worst, at his most dissociative and messed up, he was always manageable. Well, okay, there was that one time—but even that was Melinda’s wretched hand pulling the strings. And in the mines, then—when it mattered most—he had listened to her without question.

Conversely, nothing about Melinda’s twisted golem-face says ‘inclined to take instructions.’

“Then what didn’t you do? Some ‘good girl’ you are,” Melinda sniffs. “You broke him. My baby boy. My last living child. Like I haven’t lost enough. Hey, do you see this?! Do you see what she’s done? Look!”

In response, something scuffs the gravel a dozen yards back into the gloom and Sam’s breath turns arctic in her throat. Bob Washington is dead, gone. Perhaps Melinda doesn’t know this yet; nonetheless, the woman’s depraved hallucinations ought not be audible. Unless Sam is going crazy again herself. And on this terrible fucking mountain, of course, anything is possible. She grits her teeth and counts to ten.

Waits for . . . whatever it is . . . to move again.

. . .

. . .

Then a familiar voice cuts through the darkness, long and low: “Ho-lee sheit . . .”

Wuuuhhhh?!?  

and

All the relief. All of it.

Sam’s favorite barista steps into the glow of the anemic work lights; she shakes her head in disbelief. And she could sing hosannas, she could laugh herself hoarse, she could do cartwheels on the ceiling for miles. And he still—thank you, God and Baby Jesus!—has the flame thrower strapped onto his back.

Jay is ALIVE. Whatever celestial creature keeps track of Sam Giddings’ many screw-ups and occasional successes shifts a stone from one pile to the other: his death is not hers to own. Not yet, at least.

“Jay. Oh my god. You’re . . . here,” she sighs. “You idiot. Why didn’t you get the hell out after—?”

Before she’s quite finished speaking, he hauls her into a crushing hug. His heartbeat punches against her like a petrified rabbit’s, though he sounds more or less composed. “Haha, Jesus, muffin,” he mutters, sniffing at her wet, filthy hair, “Dunno—I’m a little shocked myself. What happened to you? How are you not, like, dee-eader than disco? This one swore you weren’t, but she’s gone hella off-the-rails with the nutty dream-babbling; can’t say I reeeally believed her. And I thought . . . Shit, you did it? It worked?!”

She follows his gaze.

Jay, of all people, has always known the cure was theoretically possible—the saskahwaw was his family recipe, after all. So he shouldn’t be so shocked. Nonetheless, she watches his mouth open and close on rusty hinges as he sinks down beside Melinda to stare for a silent minute at the new and . . . well, human (though not-much-improved, she must admit) Josh. It’s as if he’s looking at some entirely novel creature. Not a healthy one—not one that’s long for this world, says the uneasy glance that comes now, knitted brow all shot through with stinging pity, and she knows, she knows the awful truth, dammit, but—

Please don’t say it, Jay.

He bites his bottom lip. Reaches a hand out to touch Josh’s pale, ruined wrist. “It actually worked . . .”

“Uh-huh. Long story, that,” she replies, and gives the cart a not-quite-gentle shove before he can ask. “But later; we gotta move. Nip’s still hunting us. Something blew up the tunnel to his digs so some of them are dead, but there’s another way out—they’ll find it soon. And Josh is . . . Josh is . . . he’s . . .”

“. . . Dying,” Jay finishes. Which is obvious, and though that has been the case ever since they started this grim experiment, this is different. This is imminent. Jay sets Josh’s hand down like it’s made of glass.

She casts him a scowl that is more wounded than wounding. “Yeah. That. So do you know the way?”

“Maybe? I had a map for a while, except this one stole it and ate it.” He grimaces at Melinda. Sam isn’t sure if he’s serious, would rather not ask. “Should be about two miles that way?” He’s on his feet again quick as a cat, faux-smile affixed, and pats Josh’s crazy mother on the shoulder. Welp, let’s go, lover.”

Two miles. That almost sounds doable, although she has made the mistake of thinking this before.  

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: IMPEDIMENT


 

As they jog on, a faint rustling turns into a pair of elk who blow past them up the tunnel, coats dripping.

Good, Sam thinks, even as her heart gallops itself ragged in the aftermath.

Of all the things that might have overtaken them down here, elk are hardly the worst. Yet their sudden appearance serves as an ominous reminder. Jay slips his monster handgun into her hand. “Only five rounds left in there, darling,” he says softly to her cocked brow. “So, you know—no pot shots, eh?”

It feels good to be armed again, even if her handgun skills are bordering on non-existent.

Ten minutes pass and the air churns with wings. A blur of white feathers—owl?—startles her out of the semi-lull that’s almost managed to descend. She jerks back hard into survival mode. Scans everywhere, straining to dissect the hungry darkness. Nip is still out there somewhere. Not here, though—not yet.

But it’s only a matter of time.

“Fly and die, fly or try,” Melinda sings at the rocky ceiling. “Try and pry and lie and cry . . .”

The woman’s medication, like Josh’s, is long gone. Would it even help with this? God knows.

They walk a bit further and two swooping crows pelt by. Sam is pretty sure none of these birds have swum their way out of Nip’s cavern, so that’s a good sign, like maybe there’s a second fissure somewhere in the cavern’s dome. Like maybe Blackwood’s remaining fauna aren’t all doomed after all.

She’s been running on the fumes of hope for hours. It’s not much, this ‘maybe,’ but . . .

Sure, Sammy, they might not be. Probably aren’t. So, like, at least let yourself off the hook about THAT.

She blinks.

Hell, don’t you have enough other shit blowing up right now to worry about?

Josh is back in her head again—a livelier version than the one sprawled silently beside her.

Which is a metaphor, obviously, mostly, but, also, like . . . aren’t you just a little bit curious about . . . the ACTUAL blowing-up thing that happened back there? Maybe just a tiny bit? The fuq is going on, right?

She is.

Then maybe you should . . . I dunno . . . ASK?

“Hey, Jay?” she whispers. “Do you—do you know what that was earlier that collapsed Nip’s tunnel?”

“Oh.” His grimace manages a certain artful delicacy. “Yes. Dynamite, darling. That would be dynamite.”

“Shit. Did you do it? Because I was IN there, you know, and it wasn’t—”

Nooo. Nope. Not me.” When she keeps frowning: “You can ask her where she found the stuff. Old leftovers, I guess, plan and assist courtesy of Blackwood. Surprised she didn’t blow herself up, too.”

You mean . . .” Sam falters. Turns around and grows ever-so-slowly incredulous. “Her? Melinda?”

Haha, what?! Nice. And you wonder why I’m like this.

Granted, she already knew Josh’s mom had snuck out of the workshop. And she was just babbling on about butterfly dreams, so clearly she’d gotten tagged by the mountain for some ill-defined (and ill-qualified) purpose. But this? If the collapse had come earlier—kept Nip and his minions from ever breaching the natatorium, say—Sam could maybe see the point. Maybe Melinda had missed the designated window? Or else there was no actual point and never had been—no sane one, anyway.

Fucking mountain. Fucking tail-chasing, self-thwarting, dissociative mountain.

“So, Mrs. W,” Sam hazards, nodding, “Blackwood sent you a . . . a message? When? And why?”

Josh’s mother tilts her head back, dirty, hollow cheeks streaked with tear tracks, and flashes a slack-jawed smirk. It’s an unsettlingly Josh-like expression, worlds away from the old, composed (fake?) Melinda that Sam still remembers. Like she’s proud. Like she’s eager to flaunt her secret mission.

And why not? Getting drafted by magical Blackwood is probably the most validating thing that’s ever happened to her. When she gets home, she’ll be the center of attention—maybe not in her former upscale social circle, but in the locked wing at Ocean View Hospital or wherever the hell she ends up?

Clearly, she likes the idea. “Now, now,” she rasps. “Don’t be petulant, Samantha. Tell her not to—”

“I’m not. But I do want to know what it showed you. How long have you been having these dreams?”

“Oh, not long,” The smirk broadens. “I fell asleep in the car on the way here. Bug landed right on my nose. Showed me what to do. Boom!” Her laugh is bile-thin, almost a gag. They are still moving, and as they pass by a mess of old mining equipment, she snatches up a shovel. Sam’s feelings on this self-arming are mixed. “It was just a dream, you know. Silly dream, la-di-da. Didn’t understand. Didn’t believe it. But then it came again—in the workshop, I slept a bit more because what else was there to do and—it came. So much LOUDER. So much CLEARER! Felt tingly, you know, and the butterflies—the mountain—it chose me, you see! It needed me, haha! Mmmm—told me if I trapped the bad ones, the baddies—blew them up—pow!— boom!—everything—would!—be!—just!—right!—again!—Sam!”

She shakes the shovel to punctuate each whisper-hissed word.

‘And blowing a tunnel with sixty year-old explosives seemed like a good idea to you?’ Sam almost asks.

Which is completely hypocritical given everything Blackwood has gotten her to do, but seriously. It had taken months for the mountain to lure her back, to convince her that its communications were not the beginning of her own ugly break-up with reality. Months of piecing together clues and doubting herself.

“So you just . . . decided to immediately do whatever the magical, psychotic, sentient mountain asks.”

“Of course.” Melinda pauses to stroke Josh’s pale cheek. “But you messed it all up, stupid cow. It should’ve come to me first. Never should have come to you. Not you—you don’t deserve to be special.”

“Right. Sorry.” No point arguing, is there? Melinda is sick, she reminds herself. Sick. Not well. Very not well. Jesus Christ; of course she’s jealous of Blackwood’s attention—the woman is nothing if not consistent in her obsessions. Softly, Sam asks, “So . . . what else did it ask you to do? Anything?”

“Hmmph. Yes.” The scraggly head rocks side to side—a slow, disjointed movement that makes Sam think of animated corpses, of some creepy haunted house prop like Josh might build. She sets a fingertip to her cracked lips and makes a horrible, wet shhh. “Something important. But Iiii’m not teeelling you . . .”

The slippery ball of electric eels that has replaced Sam’s stomach contents roils itself.

Is she surprised? Not really, although once upon a time, back in the days of Hannah and normalcy, Melinda Washington really had liked her; she knows this. This Melinda likes only herself. When she snickers, Sam struggles to keep her fists unballed, her teeth unclenched . . . Jay’s gun uncocked.

Haha, aw, easy, girl. Deeeep breaths, Sammy. Deep breaths.

“Aaanyway,” Jay says, shoving Melinda on ahead. He gives Sam a look of sympathy and she sighs.

* * * * *

As it turns out, they don’t need to wait for Melinda to complicate things. Around the next bend, a pile up of toppled mining carts blocking the tracks is impediment enough. Six, maybe seven carts. Too heavy to do anything but climb around—which she can do, but that means abandoning her own cart and dragging Josh by hand again, and Jay is too weighed down with the flame thrower to really assist.

After wrangling Josh’s dead weight around the pile-up, she struggles another twenty feet before Melinda finally hooks an arm about her son’s waist from the far side. As much as it irks Sam to consider her true motivation—and, okay, yes, maybe it’s both jealousy and love inspiring the woman—it’s easier going with a second hand and she musters a tiny nod of gratitude. They walk with him slung closely between them—slowly, sometimes stumbling—and always she is acutely aware of the nothing she feels emanating: his lack of warmth, the way his faint breath never quite touches her adjacent cheek.

Twenty minutes pass like the slow drift of tectonic plates.

She has nothing to give back to him, either, save empty platitudes. Somewhere up ahead is a way out, an end to this long, drawn-out hell. A town, a hospital, a chance to heal, perhaps, make amends, but another mountain—this one built of uncertainty—awaits them even there. It all seems so unlikely . . .

Nonetheless: “Almost there. We’re almost there, Washington,” she whispers.

Melinda glances, coughs noisily against her knuckles and smiles.

A little further up, the tracks disappear into a wall of rubble, but a cross-tunnel slopes down into another deep cavern, so they go that way. Several possible routes present themselves. With the map gone and Jay’s memory a bit smudgy, they’re all gambles. Jay picks the one furthest to the right, pushing ahead through a janky chain-link gate into a stretch of mine shaft that looks vaguely familiar to Sam.

Was she here before? That time with Mike and the cable car key?

When Josh was . . . well, he was . . .

. . . Fucked up in a completely different way? That what you’re trying to say?

She winces.

Yeah, maybe we were here that time. I dunno. But, hey, listen . . . it’s getting to be that time, Sammy.

“We go left up here, loves,” Jay murmurs. “This is number nine. Comes out north of the sanatorium.”

She nods, follows. Holds off on the flood of relief that should be spilling because it’s just too easy.

—it feels real weird in here. And it . . .I don’t think I can wait much longer. I’m so fucking sorry.

“Shh. You can.” The words are barely a whisper on her chapped lips. Is that light up ahead?

It is. A wan, pre-dawn glow filters anemically from a vent in the shaft above. Ladder and exit just around the bend, then. None of this matters, though, does it? Because it won’t count if he—if they—

No, I really can’t. So let me say this while I still can. It’s important.

“Shut up, Washington . . . please?” she rasps.

It’s been awesome, Sam. This time we’ve had together, shitty secrets, breakdowns and all, but I . . . I gotta go. You know that, right? Look, I’m legit slowing you down. Just . . . just make sure my mom—

NO!

A muted explosion bursts inside her chest, and—

Sammy . . . come on . . .

NO, FUCK THAT.

And he’s not here—not really—so she can’t even argue.

I WON’T; YOU CAN’T BE

She stops walking, drags Melinda to a jerking halt with her. Refuses to look directly at the sad thing between them, which grows cooler now with every passing second. Melinda is silent, already checked out again. Probably too far gone to even notice any change, let alone care, except as it presents another opportunity for self-aggrandizing drama. Sam envies her this obliviousness—and hates her for it, too.

Closing stinging-wet eyes, she ducks low to press a cheek against the hollow of Josh’s chest.

Nothing beats there.

“Shit,” Jay whispers, ostensibly at the ruins of her face. She hadn’t noticed him watching her. “Is he . . ?”

Her mouth opens, but nothing comes out save a tiny choking sound.

And then her pain is lost beneath the triumphant screech echoing back from the vestibule ahead.

Predictable, is all she can think in her vast despair. And: fuck you. FUCK YOU FOREVER FUCK YOU FUCK—

A nearer one answers from behind. Neither Josh nor Bob could’ve written this script any better, though she can’t rustle up any more emotion beyond the lingering dull annoyance. This place—Jesus Fucking Christ. She has watched cats pounce sparrows bloody, cripple them, and revel in their broken-winged, desperate, futile fluttering. That’s what Blackwood does, too, isn’t it? What it’s doing to them right now.

Still, she forces herself to appear calm as more shrieks volley overhead. It may not sway the outcome of this showdown, but she needn’t give them—the wendigoes, Blackwood—the satisfaction of her panic.

“Whoa, okay,” Jay mutters. He glances on into the gloom and tugs his welding goggles into place.

Hey, you’re gonna tell Chris and everyone I’m sorry, too, right? Please tell them.

JOSH—!

Bye, Sammy. Be good. I fucking love you, girl, always have.

The third shriek is closer still. Time to cock the big-ass gun, but the big-ass gun is a two-handed deal.

Jay sends a plume of fire jetting out ahead of them, sweeping a path high and low. On the ceiling, where somehow Sam has not noticed her creeping up, Lavender hisses and scampers backwards. Jay chases another blast her way and stalks after it, looking disconcertingly like a skinny version of his dead dad.

Beside her, Melinda jerks hard. A second later and she abandons her son’s corpse without a glance, giggling and scampering into the shadows of a nearby alcove. Sam stumbles, overwhelmed by both the literal and metaphoric weight of it all—Josh’s remains, her failure, her loss, the goddamn déjà vu.

She needs to go now. Needs to follow Jay or die on this godforsaken fucking spot, but . . .

Please, just—

It’s her own voice now. Her own voice from here on out, probably, and that’s maybe the worst part.

Her chest feels like she’s been buried in that collapse after all—like a million pounds of rock has settled ruthlessly upon it. But the high-pitched chitter is nearly on top of her and she’s obliged to ease Josh’s remains to the ground, tug the gun from her waistband. She kisses his waxy brow, sobbing softly, stands over him and turns to face Nip, who is ambling around the corner on all fours like a big, lazy spider.

And it is Nip, of course. Who else?

She is shaking too hard to freeze in place. Instead, she points the gun. It won’t kill him, but it will hurt; it will back him off. Hopefully long enough for Jay to come back. She steadies her grip and squeezes the trigger as something arcs across the periphery of her vision and then BANG-BANG! The violent kick throws her backwards as something else hits her arms, something worse, and then pain, pain, pain

She falls hard. Not from the recoil—well, partially, but mostly from the impact of Melinda’s swing.

The gun goes clattering down into a crevice, gone for good, and Melinda’s mad cackling fills her ears.

Vaguely, she is aware of the woman shouldering the shovel like a goddamned soldier’s bayonet and twirling away through the gravel, circling round her like a manic ballerina, eyes glazed with delight.

“I did it! I did it just like you showed me! Did you see?! Haha, did you SEE?!”

Nip, unscathed, rears upright. His pale eyes skim the dim space, settle on whatever’s moving.

“What the fuck?!” Sam gasps. “Are you TRYING to get us killed?!”

She grabs Melinda’s ankles, topples her and snatches the shovel, tosses it away in one motion. There’s little resistance—only more exuberant laughter and a touch of ineffectual, fish-like flopping about.

“Did you see? I’m the one—I did it!—the special one—haha, ME!—Blackwood, did you see?!”

“STOP! Jesus!”

“Oh, hush,” Melinda replies. “It’s what it wanted, Samantha!—the butterflies said—my dream—”

Maybe that’s true, if only because Blackwood is twenty different conflicting versions of itself.

“I think—maybe—” She hauls Melinda up again, hard enough to jostle a yelp loose. “—you don’t get how this place works.” A soft chuff rolls over them, close enough Sam can feel the air move, can smell hot, rank breath. And now there is no choice, she will have to leave Josh’s body behind and she could murder crazy Melinda for this but probably Nip will beat her to it. “Fuck. Doesn’t matter now. Run!”

For once, the lunatic listens.

Up the tunnel they pelt on winged feet, Melinda laughing like a child at the circus.

One more bend—

Another long slope upwards. They are close to the surface now, so close—

Ahead, at the tunnel’s terminus, Jay stands faintly lit by the pre-dawn with the smoldering carcass of a dead wendigo—not Lavender; some other wretched creature—at his feet. He looks up fast and Sam can’t read the expression on his face. Maybe it’s about what’s at her back; maybe it’s about Melinda’s madness; maybe it’s whatever close call he’s just had. There’s no time to consider, no time to do anything but dash for the rickety ladder, and at her heels, Josh’s mother is still giddy with triumph.

“Nip’s coming!” Sam pants. She shoves Melinda up and Jay sends another blast of fire down the tunnel.

“I know. Are you okay?”

She sees her own ghastly reflection in the black lenses of his goggles and understands why he asks. “No. Doesn’t matter. I had to—fuck, I had to leave him behind, Jay!—but we can’t—we need to go now—”

“You first,” he says, nodding impatiently.

She would argue, but he’s already unstrapping the buckles and—right, of course the sketchy ladder won’t support that extra weight—so she goes first. Reins in her wildly clattering mind with effort and starts the climb, the splintered rungs biting her palms because there’s no time to move with care.

When she finally looks up again, Melinda is silhouetted against the sky. She wriggles and disappears over the lip, kicking down a shower of dust and splinters. Sam squints and coughs and pushes on, vaguely aware of Jay’s presence behind her now, of the creaking and groaning of the old, fragile wood. Given Blackwood’s sadism and her shit luck, she’s all but certain a sharp crack is imminent, that they’ll soon go spilling to their deaths. But in another moment she’s rolling over the edge of the hole and onto fresh, pristine snow, gulping the cold air. Then Jay is there, too, nudging her out of the way as he crawls on hands and knees. She pulls him to his feet and then they are alive and out of the mines at last.

They are out

of

the

mines

FUCKING

FINALLY.

* * * * *

But.

But she has never failed so spectacularly in all of her overachieving-good-girl life.

Only in her darkest dreams, and as then, she is both adrift within and hovering far above herself.

How? How can it no it wasn’t supposed to not like

She wipes at her cheeks. They burn raw, wet, cold. Behind what’s left of the sanatorium, the sky looms pink, the low clouds turned to fluffy cotton candy. She knows what this means but she can’t feel the joy it ought to engender. Can’t even muster relief for the changes already unfurling across the frozen land.

Birdsong: tentative but growing bolder.

An indignant squirrel spirals up a nearby pine.

“Look,” Jay whispers eventually, shucking his goggles up onto his forehead. He points.

Beside the trail, a stand of dead, black aspens flickers with a pale luminescence: faint, fleeting, gone. For a moment, then, she imagines she sees them tremble, quaking with animal sinuousness, like something made of flesh and bone and clear intention. Snow topples from branches. One last vibration and the rot infecting them turns dull, fractures and falls. Beneath it, silver-white bark catches the first slanting rays of dawn. She grunts a non-word at this development and Jay slings a steadying arm about her shoulders.

Blackwood, at least, has survived the long, dark night.

And by this she means not just the unpredictable sentience that she has come to loathe, but the physical Blackwood as well. The natural incarnation, which she has always cared about. At least, some younger, more naive version of Samantha Giddings had cared, and still will, she supposes, when she can feel again. A restoration of the sacred balance: it’s what she and the mountain had both desperately wanted, though that moment standing in the snow beneath the Sleeping Giant feels like a lifetime ago now.

Because a restoration isn’t all she wanted.

“Sam, I’m . . . I’m really sorry,” Jay offers, like he can actually hear the sound of her heart cracking open.

The way he’s looking at her—even though he barely knew Josh—she gathers he means it, too.

“I know.” She hesitates. Barks a fragile laugh, startling herself. “Fuck. Fuck, Jay. I can’t even . . .”

He frowns awkwardly, pulls her closer. “Come on. Let’s get you the hellllll out of here, you poor thing.”

As they leave the clearing, the softest breeze touches her cheek and carries off through the born-again trees, taking with it all of the decay like so much black dust. For a second, she longs to blow away with it, to sift out into that icy wilderness and free herself of time and purpose, to laugh and scream and know nothing but the scent of pine and, eventually, when the sun sets and they come out again, her own quick and bloody (and perhaps deserved) death. But she can’t. It’s not what he would’ve wanted for her. In the end, it’s not who she is, either, self-doubt and self-destructive tendencies notwithstanding.

Sam Giddings is not built to break this easily.

But she will mourn him. She will mourn him so hard.

* * * * *

At some point between the mines and lodge, she decides it’s time to GTFO this mountain.

In the aftermath, everything feels banal. Banality after so much supernatural tension feels surreal all over again, but there are certain mundane tasks that must be done to make departure possible, and so she zombie-crawls through them, caught in this web of uncanny anticlimax. Things like cleaning herself up and packing. She’d just as soon leave her belongings behind—standing in the entry of the trashed lodge, already she feels Josh’s ghost lurking—but she and Melinda will need their IDs to get across the border. Melinda obviously needs her meds, though how much they’ll help her now is debatable.

In the natatorium, she sits on the cot, vaguely nauseous, as Jay secures the locker room door where the fatal breach occurred. She wonders what he’ll tell Aunt Nadie. Maybe a lie. Maybe nothing. Then it’s back up to the cabin to get the rest of her stuff, and back down as the morning settles into itself.

By the time they’re ready to leave, Melinda has surfaced again. She sits on the stone fence like a proud bantam rooster, puffed up in the afterglow of . . . whatever the hell it is she’s done for Blackwood. Is she even aware of Josh’s death? Of Bob’s? Sam could try to tell her—make her realize she’s all that’s left of her cursed family. Eventually someone will have to, but that sounds like a job for a psychiatrist. For someone with expertise and—well—lots of sedatives, even if the inevitable wailing fit is all just an act.

The throb in Sam’s wrists notwithstanding, perhaps Melinda’s current detachment is a gift. At least she’s cooperating. They’re not having to chase her down or drag her away from the mines in hogties—a distinct possibility, given how eagerly she’s embraced her new role as Blackwood’s toadie. Instead, she pushes up easily from the fence when Sam beckons her and strides off on her own towards the station.

They trail after, heads down and quiet, dragging heavy luggage, heavy hearts, through the snow.

* * * * *

She is sure this is the end of it. And yet the mountain, it seems, has one last prank. At the covered bridge, a tall shadow drapes itself across the path ahead, long and lean and familiar. She stops cold.

There is no reason for any wendigoes to be above ground at this hour. Particularly not after the ordeal they’ve all just been through and when half of those that aren’t dead are probably still digging their way out. But Blackwood makes its own rules, of course, and so she holds nothing outside the realm of possibility. It could be she’s seeing things. A pine buffeted by the breeze, or one of Josh’s old props . . .

“Sam?” Jay asks. Then, because evidently she’s staring hard and not responding: “What is it?”

Seconds later he unslouches himself and goes bird-dog-on-point-rigid, so he must see it, too.

“Shh. Come on,” she whispers, abandoning the trail to skirt down-slope through the trees.

They don’t hunt during the daylight, so . . . there’s that, at least. But that posture . . . that shape . . .

A hundred yards on, when they slip back onto the trail, she can just make out the figure behind them.

This fixation is getting real old, real fast. Standing alone and still on the path, Josh’s pale corpse hanging limp in his arms like a prize he’s come to flaunt and she might’ve known. Is it not enough that he’s won? Gotten everything he wanted and then some? ‘Some diplomat,’ she wants to say, words like acid on the tip of her tongue, but Jay won’t understand this reference. Instead, she mutters a single low expletive.

Nip cocks his head. He moves deliberately, pivots to face them, glassy eyes fixed, nostrils flaring. No attempt at stealth as he takes a shambling step towards them and another—he wants to be seen.

He is here to gloat, then.

Fuck you, Nip.

Maybe even to make them watch him eat his prize and she can’t, she can’t

She’s running before she even realizes it. Head down and flying, suitcase bucking like mad.

Jay’s not far behind, calling her name in a tone that says he understands completely, commiserates, doesn’t really expect her to stop. At the station, where Melinda barely even looks up, Sam bangs through the door, coughs and coughs until she has air enough to swallow the bile burning her throat.

Her knees buckle and find the floor, but she swallows the howl that wants to blow up and out.

Breathe in. breathe out. Breathe in. You’re okay . . .

Some things are just beyond offensive and the fact is she needs an antidote for the bloody image conjuring itself into her brain, for this whole broken place of could’ve-beens, but there isn’t one.

Because holy almighty fuck how could there be?! 

Josh—Josh, I’m so sorry

I

* * * * *

In the icy silence of the cable car’s descent, she tells herself what feels like the final truth:

Sam Giddings is shit. She’s neither brave nor selfless.

But once she was a friend to a sad, broken boy who trusted her, and in the end it didn’t matter.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES


 

As they near the end of the ride, she spies a lone figure waiting on the platform.

Chris. Shaking in his bundled parka like an unbalanced washer and the fragile hope in his eyes breaks her heart all over. Did Ashley tell him Josh was still alive? Did Mike? Why? And where are the others? Is it too much to hope he’s come alone? In any case, he’s here for his best friend despite his obvious discomfort and she can’t meet that gaze, can’t bring herself to watch hope bleed out to sorrow again.

“Chris. Wow.” She tries for neutral. “What are you doing here?”

“Trying to find you, obviously. Couldn’t get the cable car to work. What the hey?”

“I know—we disabled it. So you’ve been waiting down here? For how long?”

“Mike and I got in last night. Would’ve been sooner, but with the storm, there were no flights. Your mom’s still stuck in Vancouver. Are you okay? Can’t believe you assholes didn’t tell me anything.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to have to come back here after everything that . . . well, you know.”

“Are you kidding?” He chuckles. “It’s Josh, man. Josh. Is it true, then? Is that fucker really still alive?”

She stares through his tentative grin, tries not to notice the way he leans around her to check the car for another occupant. When he finds only Melinda, his eyes go wide and he gives her a baffled look. Oh, Chris. Poor Chris. She considers lying to him, but what can she say that won’t prove itself a lie soon enough, and what would be the point? She can’t produce the boy he came all this way to forgive.

Instead, she shakes her head, blinks away the tears that want to spill again.

“Not anymore, Chris. God, I wish. He did ask about you. He wanted you to know . . . he was sorry.”

Chris is a balloon deflating, a full sail crumpling in the absence of wind. “No, Sam, come on. Really?” The tiniest crack threads his voice and she has nothing with which to patch it. “Shit. What happened?”

* * * * *

Town and the police station and Jay’s apartment and the Lake Celeste Hospital. It’s all a blur.

By the next morning, the BP police have taken their statements (and shredded them, she assumes) and have made a show of towing Bob Washington’s luxury SUV to impound. No indication that they plan to search the mountain now, and that’s really just as well. The news of his disappearance will break soon—
Bob’s famous, after all—and then, when blatantly ignoring the truth is no longer an option, they’ll likely go through the motions of an investigation. The media circus will run its cycle and nothing will change.

In the meantime, a sedated Melinda has been informed of her husband’s death. In Sam’s estimation, her anguish might even be sincere. If nothing else, the (evidently unexpected) loss has cooled her enthusiasm for serving as a liaison of Blackwood and reduced her to a silent, sullen lump in the back seat of Sam’s car. Not the Washington she’d hoped to be bringing back to L.A., but whatever. Optimist Sam has nothing to say anymore, and yet she’s not cruel enough to wish Melinda dead instead of her son.

If Josh were here, he’d probably pat her on the back for this immense generosity of spirit.

“Think she’s waiting for her next secret directive or what?” Chris mumbles, glancing.

Sam eyeballs the back seat and bites her lip. “Hope not. Anyway, be a pretty long wait, I’m guessing.” 

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Blackwood got what it wanted from us. All these years, it’s done its own thing without any human intervention. This was . . . an exception? So I don’t think there’ll be any more dreams. Think it’s . . .” The word, cold and hollow, wants to fracture in her chest, catch in her throat, but she forces it out. “Over.”

Melinda snorts and turns her head, the movement so stiff she probably ought to creak. Sam hadn’t figured she was even listening, but her thousand-yard stare contracts and fixes pointedly. “Wrong.”

“Am I?” She’s too drained to do anything but sigh. “Gonna whack me with another shovel, are you?”

“Hmph. You’ll thank me for that soon enough, Samantha.” A curdled smile, then back to vacant staring.

Well, maybe not entirely done with serving Blackwood, then.

“Jeez.” Chris shudders. “Oo-kay. Um, is she going to be . . . safe . . . to ride beside?”

“She’ll be fine. I mean, I think so. Anyway, who else is gonna drive her ass home?”

“You’re not leaving her. S’all I’m saying,” Jay replies, having emerged from Custom Cup to press a much-needed soy latte into her hand. He hands coffees to Chris, Mike. “I got enough shit to deal with here.”

Jay looks as wasted as Sam feels, but he is trying, at least. And he’s promised to stay in touch, to keep her posted on his destruction of Blackwood’s access points. They’ve known each other only a short time, really, and their alliance has not been enough to bring about the happy ending she so desperately needed. Still, saying goodbye to her new friend—to Blackwood’s last living keeper—is harder than she ever would’ve guessed. She hugs him fiercely, mumbling inadequate thanks as he pats her on the back.

“Of course. Wish I could’ve done more, you know.”

And then it’s time. Bags in the trunk. The cable car mechanics destroyed. Calls made to her mother, Ash and Em, and some distant Washington cousin who sounded unmoved by the bad news. Mike, with a layer of guilt etched into his features for his role in this recent mess, has agreed to drive the first leg.

As the Nissan pulls away, she leans against the window, watching snowy peaks skim the white sky. Her breath frosts the glass in a way that is somehow both comfort and torment all at once. She is alive, safe, but alone. Not physically—not right now—but that place she had carved out in her life, that space in her heart, sits empty once more. It’s what she gets, she supposes, for trusting in the treachery of magic.

“You hanging in there?” Mike asks after a while, like he knows what she’s thinking.

“Yep. I’m good.” The lie is familiar, slips back on as easy as a favorite sweater. “I mean . . . he’s been dead all this time, officially, and we believed it. I got used to it once before, right? So it’s no different.”

Fuck me, of course it’s different, you idiot.

It’s clear from his wince and his rigid jaw that he doesn’t know what to say to that. “Uh, you sure?”

She tries a smile. “You guys are good friends. Thanks for trying to help. And thanks for coming for me.”

He gets even stiffer, his knuckles a touch whiter. A glance, then: “Sam, we came for both of you. Don’t you know that? Nobody hated him, even if he was messed up. We wanted you both to come home.”

Maybe she did know that, sort of. Far better would be if Josh could know—it would’ve meant a lot to him to hear that, for all of his transgressions, in the end, he still had his good friends on his side.

It’s too late now, but it would’ve been nice.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FORTY: POST-SCRIPTS


 

Two days pass on the road. Then they’re back in L.A., and after delivering Melinda to her uncle and a host of Ocean View doctors, Sam Giddings goes home. She suffers her mother’s bewildered anger. Soaks in that caustic guilt she’s grown so used to because everything she stands accused of now is correct. She did lie. Repeatedly. She did put herself and others in danger. For good reason, of course—for the best reason—but the truth is so fantastical that no one but her fellow Blackwood survivors will believe it.

Her mother’s disappointment stings. That her dad takes time out from his research work in Hong Kong to check up on her also means this screw-up is serious. She has no reason to oppose his not-so-gentle request that she get her damned head screwed back on right. Responsible Sam. Yes. That she can do.

Everyone else minces on eggshells and regards her with slinking glances chock-full of pity and she could just about hurl until her insides prolapse. Getting back to normal remains a thing easier said than done, but she tries. After two days holed up in her room, she ventures out to the gym and then Whole Foods, buys her usual quinoa and kale and tofu and goes through the motions. She calls her boss at the veterinary clinic, then her student advisor, and takes the first steps towards getting back into her everyday routine, but they are soft-spoken and halting and so, so careful with her. Do they know she’s suffered a loss of some kind? Did someone tell them? Somehow, all this babying only makes it worse.

And she’s bored—that’s the worst part, how everything feels so pointless now. What did she even do with her days before she became obsessed with saving Josh Washington? She can’t remember. The feminist in her is deeply offended by this fact, though to be fair, what she did for that boy—tried to do, anyway—she did as his friend, first and foremost. As an attempt to right her own shitty mistake, so . . .

So yeah, okay. One day at a time, Sam. You can get through this mess. It WILL get better . . .

But it doesn’t and it doesn’t and she is in trouble.

One afternoon, half-desperate, she goes running up at Griffith Park, hopes that the exertion will clear her head the way it used to. Only the trails there loop around the old zoo and the abandoned animal cages with their graffiti make her think of Blackwood’s sanitarium. Of teeth and claws and everything that fucking mountain has bitten out of her piece-by-piece. With her chest tight, breath hitching like an asthmatic’s and threatening to bail, she comes to rest against a dusty bench and steadies herself, head down, elbows planted on knees. A drop of sweat trickles beside her ear, where the phone strapped to her arm buzzes suddenly. She checks the number: a call she’s been vaguely expecting for a while now.

“Bitch, you’ve been gone forever,” Em informs her in lieu of a greeting.

She pants and nods, strangely relieved by the insult. “I think you might be exaggerating just a little.”

“Whatever. I’m goddamn desperate, Sam. Enough of your moping. You’re coming shopping with me.”

She doesn’t argue, not that she has any money to spend. A mindless diversion might help. It can’t hurt.

* * * * *

An hour later, they are sipping organic smoothies and wandering Rodeo Drive. Beneath the warm autumn sun, a scattering of people steeped in that invisible aura of privilege drift lazily, seemingly insulated from the world’s every ugliness. But it’s a calculated ruse and she knows that now. No one, not even the stupidly rich, is beyond catastrophe. The Washingtons weren’t. She wasn’t, either. Still, there is something oddly soothing about the absurdity of this place—that the world can offer such highs and lows, such vagaries. Not quite a week ago, she was running for her life in a frozen waste. Now she’s helping Em decide on her next pair of designer fucking boots. Which is what she should be doing, all things considered, and so she pretends to care about the merits of Gucci versus Stuart Weitzman, of patent leather over suede. Is this what recovery feels like? Like re-embracing the frivolous?

If Josh were here, he would laugh at her cynical thoughts. For as much as he’d found plenty of reasons to hate himself, his family’s ostentatious wealth hadn’t been one of these. In fact, if he’d ever—

Stop. Not helping, Sam. Not. At. All. Jesus.

She is glad when a Ferrari almost runs them over on their way to Louis Vuitton. It gets her out of her own head, anyway, and into the present again. Eventually, Dr. Davis’ platinum card nearly smoking from overuse, they retire to some swank café for dinner, at which point Em looks up from her endless texting to cock an immaculate brow. Sam knows this look. Knows it well enough to want it to dissipate unindulged, but Em is already licking her cherry-red lips and so she can only brace for the inevitable.

“Sooo . . . Mike tells me you and Josh got pretty close up there before his crazy ass croaked for real this time. Like, reeeal close. That true? You were all Beauty and the Beast with our favorite psycho, then?”

Her heart is a deer on the 405, though she manages to merely blink.

“You’re really asking me that now?” Not that she’d expected tact from Emily, of all people. But she had expected the usual self-absorption and disinterest in discussing all things Blackwood. “Really, Em?”

“Whatever; like I’m not gonna ask about you banging a freaking wendigo? Please.”

“Josh. It was Josh. Not just some rando—”

“Haha, so you totally did do him. Eww.” She leans closer, half-whispering. “So how was it? Like, I guess Josh was cute when he was, you know, NOT A GODDAMNED FLESH-EATING MONSTER, but seriously—”

“Um, I don’t actually want to talk about this, okay, Em? Josh is dead. For real this time. Please?”

“Yeah, I know he is. And, like, I’m a liiittle bit sorry about that? I am. I know this was your big rescue project and you’re super disappointed or whatever. I take back calling him a sadistic piece of shit.”

She is going to scream. Right here in this café, she is going to. “Great. That’s, uh, very generous.”

“Right?” Em flips her hair like she’s auditioning. “I almost died because of him, remember?”

Like a merciful angel, the waitress comes with their bill and Sam snatches it up, grinds out an insincere smile and pushes back from the table so fast her chair squeals all nails-on-a-chalkboard. So much for a distraction. She should go. It’s time to go. Her hands shake a little as she fumbles through her purse.

And Em doesn’t even notice because she’s Em, a study in willful obliviousness. “But seriously, you whore, I’m just curious,” she continues. “When you two were, like, gettin’ your freak on, did he—”

“Emily. Oh my god.” Before she can do something regrettable like screaming or stabbing her alleged friend in the eye with a fork—she would regret that, wouldn’t she?—Sam throws her cash down onto the table and stands. “We are not having this conversation. We’re not. Look, I’ve gotta go, okay?”

* * * * *

After that, Sam is back to avoiding everyone, only eventually she has to go back to work and it doesn’t go any better. Maybe if she worked at a day practice vet clinic, but the emergency clinic is all about—well—emergencies. Emergencies that are mostly about blood and adrenaline and sometimes death.

She’s always been calm and collected under pressure. And she still is—she really is—but . . .

In the space between crises, the down-time, it all catches up and her nerves continuing to unravel, teased apart by memories of Josh’s tortured howls. Every time a dog whines—every time she mops blood off the white linoleum—something frays a little more and a little more and it just gets worse.

Finally, one night on the overnight shift when he finds her standing in a dark exam room weeping silently, Dr. Lane sends her home. She can’t argue, although technically she needs the money.

What she needs more than that, though, is for something to change. This is . . . untenable. 

But it doesn’t.

And it doesn’t.

And it doesn’t.

Until

* * * * *

Dreaming—you’re dreaming, Sam—

Where am—?

Oh

She steps out from the covered bridge, back onto the snow-crusted trail.

Alone this time, silver breath lacing the thin air.

The morning light diffuses across a landscape gone oddly still, though it takes her a moment to notice the absence of birdsong, how the crunch of her footsteps echoes across the ravine below. Nip stands a mere ten feet away, also silent, which is, in a way, even worse. He is watching her. Her and nothing else.

She can’t scream here. Can only freeze-in-place as a deeper chill circles her, raising miles of gooseflesh.

Why are you still taunting me, asshole?

Hell, why am I LETTING you?

Her eyes sweep down to the lifeless bundle in his arms. Josh’s bone-white face almost looks serene. Eyes closed. Blue lips gone full again with humanity, now slightly parted. Like a finger gouged into a bullet wound, the impact, but she finds a tiny measure of relief: he hasn’t eaten Josh’s body. Not yet. For a wendigo, particularly a sadistic one, this seems an improbably disciplined commitment, the hunger being what it is. So why not? Her dream-self stands helpless, trembling, waits to see what comes next.

The king of the wendigoes, Blackwood’s emissary, sets her lover’s body gently onto the snow.

He looks up and his eyes find hers again. There is a humanness there she’s never seen there before.

No, fuck you! Stop lying to me, Blackwood; like you care about any of this anymore?!

Without quite realizing it, she’s taken a step closer. An unknown voice mutters beneath the numbness in her head, or maybe out loud. The words she has herself perhaps spoken before—she recognizes a few syllables, a few sounds, even if she doesn’t know their meaning or—technically—the language itself.

What are you saying? I can’t—you know it doesn’t work like that—

Without warning, a cyclone of butterflies explodes from the ink-black hollow of a nearby tree stump.

Dream-Sam gasps without making a sound.

In the light of this imaginary dawn, their opalescent wings shine with every color in the spectrum. Another burst and another, until the sky, thick with them, nearly shimmers. They spiral, rise, swoop, and swirl in an intricate choreography towards the monster that kneels over the boy she’s lost forever.

Nip swallows the flurry of magic. All of it. Or maybe he breathes them in—a gust of whirring wings that ought to swell him to the bursting point but doesn’t. An impossible feat, but then, what part of this hasn’t been? His leathery skin ripples like wind over still water, alive with the energy penned beneath it. When at last the magic quiets, he dips low. A flash of pinkish grey tongue, darting, cat-quick, and then—

 ‘Kawi pecikewin,’ the voice that’s everywhere now whispers, only she doesn’t know what that means.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE: ELSEWHERE


 

Blackwood Mountain - October 31st, 2015

Beth.

Not the fucked-up, corpse version. Normal kind of Beth. Standing in the nowhere-darkness, whispering something in his ear that had sounded like, “Tucson,” or maybe “Too soon.” Either way. No fuckin’ clue.

No clue. Hahahahaha. ‘Sup, Josh; what else is new there, buddy? Haha, the fuck else is—

Wait, no.

Sam.

Sam was new. Spanner in the works. Sam, who was trying to help . . . trying to save him, only . . .

Okay, okay, wake up, asshole. Take this seriously.

Shadows moved, slipped, danced around the frayed edge of his vision. Voices murmured. This he was used to, mostly. The lack of anything else, not so much. No ground beneath his bare feet. No sky above, although now and then those fairy lights swam across, zipping and skimming. No walls or trees or . . . structures. Nothing. He was in a place that was no place, waiting for a time that had already passed or would never come. He deserved this shit, of course. Had set out once with purpose to arrive right here.

That didn’t make it any easier, though. Because now—now—everything was different.

Sam—

She is going to be so disappointed in you, loser.

Something twitched in the mired air before him.

Hey, look closer. Might be—

“Dad?”

Shit. Never mind.

His mind was hella outdoing itself, serious Oscar-worthy stuff right here, or maybe this was real.

Even worse. Fuckers like you don’t go to heaven, yo, so . . .sorry ‘bout your shit luck and all.

“Please, I don’t . . . I can’t . . .”

His father merely stood in a space that had been empty seconds before and regarded him. No words—just a sad expression and a slowly raised finger, pointing into the gloom that lay somewhere beyond his son’s shoulder. A sleepy toddler curled serenely in Bob’s arms woke just long enough to blink and grin. Heavy-lidded eyes. Green. Like an owl’s. Like his eyes. Jacob, then. Fuck. Too much. Way too much.

He turned. Started walking away. What else, then?

“Yeah, you’re not staying,” Hannah said, falling into step beside him. “That’s the first thing, okay?”

“What?” Hannah!—Jesus, I miss you so much; I wish—I wish— “Why . . . why not?”

“Blackwood’s doing you a solid, as Iiii understand it. Something about cosmic equilibrium, debts paid, eye for an eye, that sorta thing. I dunno. Guess this is what passes for holy gratitude? Ya got me.”

“Seriously?” Something was happening in his chest. He couldn’t exactly feel it. A heart attack, maybe?

Fucking moron—you’re a corpse—you can’t—

“For real. Not entirely unprecedented, but . . . not so common for this place, either. You’re totes lucky.”

“Oh.” It hit him, the full weight of it. He glanced shamefully. “Oh, shit, I’m so sorry, Han. It should be—”

“Sorry?” Her laugh was bells, the tinkling of glass, a tiny piece of heaven. “Sorry for what?”

“Because that’s bullshit. You’re all dead, and . . . it’s my fault. All of you. Not Jacob, but you, Beth, Dad. I fucking did this to you and I’m the one who gets a free pass? You gonna hate me forever now or what?”

“Please, you dork. People have been over this with you. You didn’t kill us.”

Jesus, this was weird—everything—all of it—So. Fucking. Weird. Hannah with composure, serenity? How exactly? He lowered his head and scratched his neck, not because it itched but because he needed somewhere to go with all this uneasy energy. He couldn’t quite bring himself to meet her warm gaze.

“Technically, no. But still—”

“Josh. It was just bad luck.” She shrugged. “Sucks, my brother, but that’s how life goes sometimes.”

“Uh, no? Is it? Hannah, why are you so . . . so fucking Yodafied about all this? You had your whole life to live. And you would’ve done it right; I mean—shit, you—you were—” He was hallucinating; he had to be.

“You’re not hallucinating. Because I just am, okay? One day you’ll understand. Look, don’t blow everything so far out of proportion. Yeah, I’m being a total pot-kettle here—I mean, Mike was not—he’s just a stupid boy, so what, right?—but if I could do it over again, that night, I promise you I would make different choices. And I mean no offense to him, but, yeah, I sooo would. So let it go for good, Josh—that’s the second thing. All of it. You need to. We’re not suffering. You aren’t the devil. And pleeease don’t go back to making up ghost-puppet-versions of us to torture yourself. It’s so creepy. Seriously.”

Everything was happening so fast and he had no words.

“Oh—this Sam thing, though?” A tiny, delighted smile and then she was poking him in the ribs and he almost felt it, the nudge of her fingertips. “That I like. So cute. And saving all those birds and bunnies and deer and stuff? Pretty effin’ awesome. You’re, like, better than ten Disney princesses. Good job.”

Miles past surreal. He had mixed Cuervo, benzos, and coke a few times and never been this fucked-up.

Beth, walking on his other side for who knows how long now, clapped his shoulder. “Yeah, very sweet, Josh. And about damned time. You two were bordering on pathetic.” This he felt. Crazy. It was all very David Lynch, and was that . . . was that snow beneath his feet? Maybe. A light shone up ahead. Faint, pinkish, obscured by fog and shadow. Witch and the Wardrobe shit now; where was the talking fawn? “Anyway, take good care of each other, hey? Also, good luck with Mom. Just, uh, do your best, I guess?”   

He raised a brow, let the implication hang until Beth snorted; for a moment, it was old times again.

“Okay, right. I know. No, but seriously. Just . . . be good. We love you. We’ll be here.”

Another heart attack. The full effect this time. Hard to breath and was that rain? His cheeks were wet.

Hannah nodded. “We’ll miss you, Josh. Someday, though . . .”

The two of them stopped walking and so he stopped, too. Expectant looks. Was he supposed to—?

“Wait, how the hell do I go back, then? Han? Fuck, how do I—?”

“Relax. Just relax.” Hannah’s voice, though her mouth wasn’t moving now.

Arms around him. Warm. Real. So much love. Familiar scents. Shadows coalesced to full dark. Vertigo.

Then

Pain like the inside-out inversion of the greatest orgasm he’d ever experienced in his short, shit-ass life

And

The

Fuck

Is?!

OWW

FUCK

OWW

STOP

* * * * *

Being the head-case he was, it was hardly the first time he’d woken himself up screaming.

Still, this felt . . . unprecedented.

Cold. Snow? Fuck. Who is—?

He lay on the ground, shirtless, freezing, wet. Midday sky above—white—too cold for clouds. Now he sat up, folding arms tight about himself (miserably, ineffectually) and his body was different than he remembered it. Not burned. Not cut. Faintly scarred. Muscle and flesh where there’d been none before.

Fingers flew to his left cheek, confirmed it. Half-choking now, the panic flooding like monsoon season. 

“Naw, fuck, really—?” He dragged himself to his (bare) feet. “Of all the shit-ass people to pardon—”

A clipped shriek that could’ve passed for a snort of disdain. He knew that mocking tone all too well.

One-eighty—hard, fast. Lips peeling to flash fangs that were no longer there, but hey—old habits.

The bridge was twenty feet away. Beneath the peak of the eave: two wendigoes, side-by-side.

Nip and Lavender. Fucking Lavender. He’d had a hunch she still understood English.

“Shut up. No one asked you,” he muttered, flipping her a finger for good measure.

And watched, then, as she licked the last few drops of blood from her companion’s lips, one cloudy eye still trained pointedly on him for the duration. Something nauseating about witnessing this intimacy between them. Even worse—knowing it was undoubtedly his own blood they were sharing, but who was he to criticize? Just the asshole Nip had miraculously raised from the dead at Blackwood’s request.

From the dead? Shit—can’t think about that now.

He’d been hurt. That was all. Badly hurt.

And now he wasn’t hurt and so damn, right, he was human again and he could finally go home.

Haha, home to your fucked-up mom, you mean?

To the dick cops who’ll sure-as-shit ask you all kinds of fun, murder-centric questions?

To your ex-friends who kinda probably might want you dead again, considering

And the vampire tabloid reporters out for their very own taste of blood and—

“Jesus, asshole. Could you just . . . stop . . . freaking out for one second, maybe?”

Three long, deep, centering breaths. And home to her. To Sam. Right.

He needed to sidestep this bottomless well, and she was how he could do that—always had been. He could go home to Sam. His Sam, so perfectly imperfect, who he did not deserve any more than he deserved this second chance at existence, but thank-fuck no one had asked him his views and so it was.

Note-to-self: find your fucking pills. Seriously, asshole. Like, STAT.

For now, he scrubbed a hand across his rhythmically clenching jaw. Glanced up to see Lavender ambling up the trail and Nip, his nemesis for so many long months, silently watching him. Appraising the quality of his own work, maybe, or (more likely) just questioning the goddamn point of it. When their gazes met, he nearly looked away on instinct—he was prey now, clearly no match—and might’ve done so if there’d been any antagonism lurking. But there was nothing hateful, only a quiet calm. Maybe a touch of grudging respect, even? Fucking hard to fathom, that. Shit, he had been through a lot—yeah, sure—but Nip was Nip, and the dude had been pretty giddy on the prospect of murdering him right up until.

Nonetheless, he couldn’t deny what he now saw.

Nerves jangling with the same electricity amplifying the air all around, he lifted his chin in return.

With no common language between them anymore, the King of the Wendigoes merely chuffed once and turned, dropping onto all fours as he loped off into the trees. The shiver that rattled through Josh’s bones just then was probably from the cold—he was half-naked, after all, already freezing his balls off.

Or it wasn’t. Or it was the brush of Truth. Fuck if he knew, and either way, it was repressed just as quickly as it had come. Now was not the time to consider all of the impossible things that had been done to him here—not unless he wanted to freeze to death (again?) in a puddle of his own gibbering tears.

And he couldn’t do that. Somehow, just lately, his survival had become a permanent obligation.

To Hannah.

To Beth.

To his father.

To Blackwood, too, maybe.

Mostly, though, he owed it to her.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO: OPEN YOUR EYES


 

As soon as she wakes from the dream—in a cold sweat, sheets twisted around her body—she scrambles up and races across to the open window. No breeze moves to animate the gauzy curtains there and the neighborhood drowses in rare silence. She doesn’t breathe at all as her gaze sweeps the stucco sill.

It’s bare. Bare of butterflies of any color and all else save a smudge of dirt.

Down onto the bed again, and she is a chump as usual, a stupid, fucking chump for even thinking it.

Blackwood is DONE with you, Sam. All done. Finished. Get that through your skull.

The LED clock on her nightstand flashes 4:43 a.m. She presses hands over her moistening eyes, sighs.

Right. This is only the wishful thinking of her pathetic, desperate subconscious. To be expected, maybe, now that she’s weathered the inevitable melodrama of coming home, the barrage of questions and concern, the predictable disbelief, and things have quieted down again. Had she really thought she’d be okay with everything just like that? One good cry and done? Optimist Sam: such a silly, naïve creature.

With all probability, she’ll go on torturing herself right back into a hospital stay. Maybe her mom is right.

“Hell,” she mutters and throws herself backwards onto the pillows. “Fuck you, Blackwood.”

It’s been a week since she left Canada. Long enough for Kim Giddings’ quiet wrath to give way to tears and a tentative forgiveness. Of offers to get her daughter more help in dealing with her lingering grief, better help, a different therapist, different medication, anything. Long enough for Ash’s awkward, eyes-averted apology to be delivered, reluctantly accepted. For Em’s casual, almost comforting callousness to remind her that for the rest of the world—except, perhaps, the tabloid newspapers who are wallowing in Bob Washington’s disappearance like pigs in a sty—life has already gone on; that hers should, too.

She will have to try harder. Sleeping pills, then, to kill the dreams. No more pointless, illogical hope.

“Oh. Shit—sorry,” murmurs a voice from the corner and she nearly jumps out of her skin.

Upright again, teetering on the edge of screaming. Her fucked-up brain, right? It’s still not done playing this out. She peers into the darkness—at the pile of dirty clothes heaped beside her antique dresser.

Only clothes don’t move—they don’t

“Just didn’t wanna step on it coming in,” he explains, clambering up.  

No.

Fucking.

Way.

Josh . . ?” she manages to choke out.

“Mm-hmm.” He offers a sheepish shrug. “Here.”

“Noo . . .” Rather improbably, she is giggling. “Haha, no. Not Josh. Because you’re . . . Josh is . . .”

A white butterfly perches on his knuckle, wings slowly flexing. It steps onto her hand when he nudges it and she suppresses a gasp. At the foot of her bed, then, he sits down like this is normal, the most normal thing in the world. He’s filthy, looks homeless again. A touch of chagrin lingers in his crooked smirk. Maybe he’s tired of people killing him off like this? But he IS dead. She watched him die, didn’t just hear about it this time. In another world, seventeen hundred miles away, but that only makes this that much more improbable. So she is hallucinating dead people now, pulling a Josh Washington herself, actually.

Why are you doing this to yourself, you idiot?

“I know, I know—not the window, asshole. But I didn’t have a phone, and your house was closer to the bus terminal.” He looks away. “Props to my pal Ken Cho for carrying cash in his wallet, right? Not a ton, but enough for a few Greyhound tickets. Anyway, sorry it took so long. No ID, and legally dead, you know, so couldn’t do the border crossing straight-up. Had to sneak across through Cathedral Park . . .”

She backhands him across the face, startling them both.

“Whoa.” His fingers trap hers; he is shockingly solid, warm. “Easy there. Why are you hitting me?”

“Oh my god. Shit, I’m sorry!” She lifts her other hand, waves away the butterfly and cups his stubbled cheek. “I didn’t think you were—thought my hand would just—Jesus, you’re really here, aren’t you?”

For the longest time, he doesn’t answer, just holds her gaze and her hand. His eyes are green again, huge, the shine there more than just the glint of reflected moonlight. This is what finally convinces her he’s not a ghost. He may be acting casual, burying his truths as usual, but there’s a part of him that must understand the impossible thing he’s done—or, rather, what Nip and Blackwood have done to him.

She’s not wrong. He did die on that frozen mountain.

“Yeah,” he rasps, finally. “I’m here, Sammy.”

Time hangs poised, clings to itself like a tear to a trembling chin.

Then: the mad, lunging choreography of bottomless relief.

She yanks him forward into her arms. Josh! How?! Hugs him tight to her as her lips brush his jaw, urgent with the need to ascertain. It’s true. He is real, alive and whole and here. Was she wrong for relinquishing this impossibility? No. And yet she’d always understood that there were versions of Blackwood that would see the justice in reciprocating, see the balance in offering a life—just one—for the countless thousands they’d saved up there. Perhaps Josh and that crazy mountain are even now.

Eventually, she closes her eyes with a shudder and nuzzles into him, breathes in his expelled breaths. The intermingling is another wordless, welcome reassurance until, finally, she trusts herself to speak again. She slides down and nests in the crook of his arm, cheek settling against the dirty grey flannel.

“What happened?” she whispers. “You have to tell me.”

She gets a sigh in return and another long pause.

“I will. But—” He glances at the door. “Your mom’s gonna bust out some 911 if she sees me here, right?”

It’s a valid point. Kim Giddings was not the biggest Josh Washington fan even before all of this, and now?

“Probably.” Sam sits up, sets her feet on the floor. “Fine, then let’s go to your house.”

He nods, fingers sliding down to the small of her back. “Is anyone at my house right now?”

“I don’t think so. Your mom’s at Ocean View. Guessing she will be for a while.”

A touch of amusement colors his sigh. “Shit, that’s poetic. Home is . . . home’s good, then. Thanks.”

* * * * *

Although she is desperate to know, they ride most of the way through the pre-dawn Hills in silence.

The Washington mansion looks the same as ever, lights on timers to give the illusion of occupation, but the driveway is empty, and only Bob’s collection of fancy sports cars inhabits the garage. Inside, Josh shuts off the alarm and then stands motionless in the vast foyer, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Like an urban explorer, she thinks—like he’s waiting for the whole place, its very structure undercut by all that’s now missing from it, to come crashing down around him. Which sounds silly, and yet she understands the sentiment completely. It’s the way her whole life has felt for the past two years, everything gone derelict in the aftermath of a storm that still hasn’t blown itself out. But maybe now—finally—it has.

It’s not quite a year since he was last here. She brushes his arm, isn’t surprised when he shivers.

“Sorry. I was just . . . thinking, you know?” he murmurs.

They move into the kitchen and she lets him putter for a while, making coffee and scrounging through the pantry for anything edible. It’s weird, this, and at first she can’t quite pinpoint it—then she does, and it’s her turn to shiver. Coffee and Hostess cupcakes: a bloodless meal. She can’t wait any longer, then.

“Did Nip,” she whispers. “Did he . . ?”

Mouth full, he glances and nods. “Mm-hmm.”

“How? How the hell did he do it?”

“Don’t really remember much. I woke up in the snow.”

She remembers how being healed by Nip felt: like being reborn into a sea of liquid fire. And she’d still been alive, then, hadn’t yet slipped past the liminal veil. What had that been like? She has a thousand questions for him and then she doesn’t: he was dead—DEAD—maybe it would be better not to know.

The important thing is that he is not now, and somehow this makes everything better, makes all that guilt that’s been eating her fall away. It doesn’t cancel the other human losses, but at least in the accomplishment of the one goal that sent her slinking back to Blackwood in the first place, her own complicity has been unwritten. That’s enough. She has had her fill of the mysteries of life and death.

Anyway, there are things she should tell him, too, explanations he should hear, in case he thinks that . . . well, she has no idea what he thinks, and the realization chills her. Because she did leave him behind again. Not intentionally—and maybe it was always Blackwood’s plan to use Melinda’s actions for this benevolent purpose—but still. He was all alone up there. Scared and abandoned, just like before.

What if he thinks I just ditched him again?

“In the mines,” she begins carefully, “I . . . I heard you in my head. Talking to me. It was weird.”

He intertwines their fingers, curls his lip to reveal a glimpse of ordinary human teeth. “Was it? Sorry.”

His nonchalance does not stop her from turning to stare.

That was real, then?

She was never a wendigo and he wasn’t one either, not then; telepathy shouldn’t have been possible. But Blackwood’s rules have always been so slippery, the layers of magic catalyzing as to never quite be predictable. In any case, this is a good thing. If it was real, then he knows why; hell, he was there.

“Yeah, a bit. But in a good way? Look, you didn’t have a heartbeat,” she continues, following him out onto the back patio now and taking a seat on the sectional. The air is still brisk, a few birds chirping tentatively. “I checked. You were dead, Josh. I would have brought you home anyway—I tried—but then Nip was on us, right there, and your mother, she . . . well, she made that not possible. Blackwood was working through her, too, as it turns out. The point is I would never have left you behind if I’d known—”

He nods slowly. “I know. I told you to do it. It’s okay.”

In that he had to go through whatever came after that, it really isn’t okay, and probably neither is he, psychologically-speaking. He’s been off meds again for a week now, by her estimate. And, hell, neither of them was ever that ‘okay’ to begin with—how could he be now? Surely this is the kind of reality-shattering experience that will take a lifetime to fully process. For now, the sentiment he’s offering her is enough: it’s not like when they lost Hannah and Beth. He doesn’t want her to feel guilty for surviving.

Whatever else his hard time on Blackwood has done, then, it has made him less resentful of others.

Which is more than any of the drugs could ever do. More than any of the therapists.

For ten minutes, she quietly processes this bizarre feeling—damn, is that . . . gratitude?—gratitude for fucking Blackwood?—before frowning it away and asking, “Soo . . . why didn’t you call me, then?”

“Told you—I didn’t have a phone.”                                                                       

“You could’ve gotten to one if you’d wanted, though, at some point? I would’ve come for you.”

At any other time in the meandering trajectory of their messed-up relationship, he would’ve jumped on such low-hanging fruit. Oh, you can still cum for me, Sammy, her brain automatically replies, and the way he cocks a brow at her stifled smile, she’s half-afraid he can still hear her lame thoughts. It is not the time, of course, for cheesy humor, but it’s easier to be crass than to acquiesce to the truth of what all of this means. Because ‘miracle’ is the only word, and she is far too practical, far too rational. Or she was.

He shakes his head. “I know. That’s why I didn’t call.”

He must sense her uncertainty at this because he pulls her into him and kisses the top of her head, breath warm against her scalp. “Ouch. That’s cold,” she grumbles, and earns a soft snort. He kisses her again, this time on the forehead. On the cheek. On her nose. Now she can’t even feign indignation.

“Not really,” he replies. “Just going on a hunch, but your mom was a lil’ pissed when she finally found out where you’ve been, yeah? Like: no more gym membership, no more credit cards, you’re being sent to a convent or boot camp or some shit? Got a tracking chip in your ass cheek now? Spit-balling here.”

He’s not that far off the truth. “So what? My gym membership? It’s not like I’m gonna die without—”

She catches herself—not soon enough—but he just chuckles into her hair. “Whatever. You’re in enough shit on my account; that’s why. You don’t need to do everything for me. I’m a big kid now, Sammy.”

Like she needs further convincing, he fishes a bottle of pills from his pocket and swallows one.

Where’d those come from?

It’s not the pills or his words or the fact that he’s sitting here now, or maybe it’s all of it. Abruptly, her chest tightens, full of relief and so much more as she thinks of that sad, broken boy who once sobbed himself ragged in her arms. Isn’t this what she’s always wanted for him? Josh is an adult. Complicated, not always stable, but one capable of managing his own life—at least when he’s not trapped by the supernatural or willfully sabotaged. So it’s good that he made it home without her help—that she doesn’t need to be just a benevolent-version of Melinda forever pulling strings from the shadows.

All she needs to be for him is what Hannah once asked of her: his friend.

And, okay, what she wants is a little more intimate than friendship, but the point still holds.

All of this is . . . good. He is alive, safe, mostly sane, and home.

“Yeah, I know,” she replies and lifts her chin as, settling back over her now, he nuzzles into her throat. If he were still a wendigo, he’d be chuffing like crazy, she imagines, and for just a nanosecond, she misses that odd, little sound. “You’re perfectly capable of adulting and I’m not half as perfect as everyone likes to think. Roger that. I just want you to know . . . shit, I can’t believe you came back from the dead for me. Anyway, I’m probably going to get gross feelings all over everything, but like, know that I’m here whenever you need me, okay, Washington? I fucking love you, you creepy, undead, zombie fuck.”

“Zombie?” he mumbles and nips her skin, making her shudder. “Fuck, yeah, girl. Maybe I am now.”

He’s diverting, of course, like she’s scared him by threatening raw honesty.

“Great,” she breathes. “You, uh . . . you don’t still want to eat me, do you? Thought we fixed that.”

“Nah.” He kisses his way back up; beside her ear, adds, “Not like that, anyway.”

Aaand there’s the old Josh. That delicious sinking feeling blooms instantly in her belly and she wants very much to acquiesce to it; also, though, she needs him to understand she’s not bullshitting here.

“Good to know,” she murmurs. Softer still, then: “Josh, I mean it. I love you. You do deserve this.”

He doesn’t answer her and she doesn’t really expect him to. With Josh, it will probably always be the enigmatic stoic or the sloppy mess—no in-between—so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the way he tenses suddenly above her, mouth tightening, chest cresting and troughing like waves on a choppy sea, he doesn’t have to. Eventually, he unfreezes himself and kisses her on the mouth—straight-up, hungry, nothing stoic about that—before pausing again to simply stare. Eyes like a drunk’s—like a junkie’s—like a true believer in the presence of the sacred, and she’s a little bit terrified. It’s a big responsibility, being at the center of all that. But it’s heaven, too, and she is finally home, here in this one shining moment.

She tips her head back, sighing, and blinks peacefully at the stars fading into the coming dawn.

For once, Sam Giddings doesn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about anything.