The Secret of Mount Haile
By K.M. White
Copyright K.M. White 2017
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn
The thing I hate most about winter break is how there’s so much pressure for togetherness.
Being a freshman at college and living away from home for the first time in my life hadn’t given my family much time for togetherness. Sure, I came home once every few weekends for a home-cooked meal, but it’s a meal where Dad attempts (in vain) not to burn the pasta while his wife tries to decide which wine goes best with spaghetti and meatballs and my little sister insists she should be able to have a sleepover on the single weekend she’ll get to see me this month.
So, all being said, I’m not a fan of togetherness.
“Melissa,” Carol—Dad’s wife—says to my little sister. She’s not actually my little sister. She’s my half-sister; same dad, different mom. She’s almost thirteen now and she damn well acts like it. “Melissa, did you remember to pack your snow boots?”
I don’t know why she’s asking now. We’re already ten hours into this trip and halfway up the mountain. Dad’s old SUV is spluttering under the strain, but it keeps on keeping on.
“I did,” she says, but with the way it comes out of her mouth, it sounds more like “did-uh.” It’s the way every girl sounds when she’s annoyed with her parents and whining about how they’re even acknowledging her. I know it well.
“Okay,” Carol says. “Making sure, honey.”
I’ve been reading this whole time. I brought a bagful of books on this trip, and I’m already on the second. My stash isn’t doing too good at this point—at this rate, I’ll finish them all by the fifth day, and I’m not sure how long I could survive in a cabin on a mountain with no internet, no phone service, and no books.
“Ruthie?” Dad says, and I have to put my finger on a word to hold my place. He’s glancing in the rearview mirror as his SUV trundles through the snow. “You doing alright back there?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“You’re awful quiet.”
“Well,” I say, “I always am.”
He smiles, and I smile back. He’s a good dad, even if he does trip over his own feet in the parenting department sometimes (just like when he encouraged me to do cross country for a second year even if I hated it. At least he means well). When he turns back to the road, though, I sigh and settle deeper into the back seat. Melissa is already bored without the internet, so she’s just listening to her music and leaning against the window. She inherited Carol’s mousy brown hair and Dad’s appealing and slim Greek nose; I got Dad’s cotton-blonde hair and barely-brown eyes with my mother’s stick-out bottom lip. I always look like I’m pouting. It’s gotten me in trouble with Carol a few times.
In the pictures hidden away in my father’s desk, my mother glared at the camera with black, angry eyes. What would I look like if I had gotten those, instead?
The resort cabin on the side of the mountain had been a deal “too good to be true,” in the words of Carol. She always bitches about those things, about how every deal is a scam and we should never take anything for granted or something like that. It’s why I tune out every time she starts talking. Still, though, this was the one time I ended up inclined to agree with her.
Dad found a vacation cabin for fifty dollars a night, and it really did seem “too good to be true.” The two of them scoured the website, searching for anything that would give away what was wrong with the cabin to make it a minuscule fifty dollars a night. Melissa stood in the background and suggested we should rent a cottage in California, but for once, neither of her parents listened to her. Dad’s idea was that the price was because it was a mountain cabin in the winter; Carol kept saying things like, “It doesn’t talk about the windows, do the windows have glass?” (Why would that make any sense?) and “Is there heating? There better be heating, I swear” (There’s a thermostat in picture twelve, you’re fine).
But still, despite everything, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something off about it all. Carol wouldn’t stop huffing about the decision at first, but after Dad took the plunge and booked it for a week and a half—we would be spending Christmas here, after all—she started to warm up to the idea. By the time we were supposed to head out, she wouldn’t stop talking about how excited she was to spend some time with her family.
Yeah. Almost two decades of living with this woman, and I can’t say I’m thrilled. I take solace in Melissa’s bad mood because that makes two both of us. I focus on my books instead.
However, when Dad’s SUV pulls into the driveway of the cabin, I’m pretty sure every single one of us forgot every single complaint we’d had about the place. Dad puts the car in park, leans against the seat, and lets out a big, happy sigh. Melissa perks up like a puppy hearing the rattle of a leash and climbs around the seat to look, and Carol lights up with a barely-contained giggle.
“Oh, David,” she whispers, “it’s wonderful!”
“See?” Dad says. “I knew you’d like it.”
Carol unbuckles her seatbelt and climbs out of the shotgun seat, clouds gathering around her lips as she gazes up at the cabin. Melissa crams herself onto the armrest of the front seat, watching with big blue eyes. The cabin is tall and majestic, with large sprawling windows and a charming stone chimney surrounded by warm ochre planks of wood. It’s…beautiful.
“Looks like fifty dollars was a steal,” I say. Dad laughs.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sure feels like it.” He turns to me with this big dopey grin on his face and pats my shoulder with the back of his hand. “Go help carry stuff in, and I’ll make hot chocolate.”
Hot chocolate is a good trade. I pack up my book and climb out of the SUV, letting in a shock of winter wind. Melissa says “it’s cold!” like we aren’t on the side of a mountain in the middle of winter, and I walk around to the back to pop the trunk and grab a suitcase or two. I’m not the strongest person around, so I pick up what I can.
It’s weird being behind the car. Carol is up front and Dad and Melissa are inside talking and I’m back here, out of sight for the most part, by myself. It shouldn’t be weird, but a tingle runs down my spine and my shoulders jerk up towards my ears.
Behind us is nothing but forest. It’s a dark pine forest, too, made of the single thing that can survive the altitude. Every now and then, a pile of snow tips from a bow and falls to the forest floor. Dammit, it’s a forest, Ruthie. There’s nothing to worry about. Back when my grandparents were still around, a big, dark forest loomed behind their house where Melissa and I would go running around without a care in the world. This is no different, I tell myself, even though I can’t get the goosebumps on my arms to go away and the churning in my stomach to leave.
I pull the suitcases out of the trunk and heft one over my shoulder to keep it out of the snow and circle around the SUV so I’m even the smallest bit farther away from the woods.
“Well,” Dad says, getting out of the car and putting his hands on his hips like a proud Superman. “Welcome to Mount Haile!”
What a place.
No matter what kind of place it is, though, Dad and I are the ones to take most of the suitcases inside. Melissa grabs her bag and nothing else, which I know is hiding some weird board game I’ve never bothered to learn and two of my old horse figurines. I’m still bitter that Carol made me give them to her—just because I stopped playing with them doesn’t mean I’m still not way too attached to them. I try to pretend I don’t know they’re there and help Dad get the biggest suitcase up the front stairs and onto the porch.
“It really is beautiful, isn’t it?” Dad says. I wish I could agree with him, but the woods aren’t agreeing with me, so it’s all I can do to nod.
“Yeah,” I say. “It is.”
When we drop off the last suitcase, Melissa and Carol are already on a self-guided tour of the cabin. Dad decides to start up the generator in the basement and I drag my personal suitcase up the stairs.
“Ruthie!” Melissa calls, running down the hallway. The cabin boasts wide halls and a balcony presiding over the first floor, giving room for a chandelier to reach down. It’s well-built with an eye for detail, I’ll give it that. “Mom let me pick my room!”
“She did?” I ask, already frowning.
“I got the biggest one!”
Of course she did.
There are four bedrooms, which we don’t need, but Melissa went and took the master bedroom anyway. Dad and Carol unpack into the room furthest down the hall, and I grab the one by the stairs. It’s nice, I figure. The room’s a little small, but it’s not like it’s much different from my bedroom at home anyway.
It’s not until the last thing, at the bottom of my bag, that I pause. It’s a planner. Packing it was stupid—it’s not like we’re planning to do much of anything up here. “It’s a little winter getaway,” Carol kept saying. “We don’t have to do a single thing.” There’s food packing the fridge and pantries to the brim, enough clothes so we don’t have to do laundry, and enough of Dad’s DVDs to keep a small army entertained. There’s nothing to do, and here I am, bringing my planner. It’s silver and spotted with the year embossed in gold in a bottom corner, so it’s kind of a nice planner if you’re into this sort of thing. I kept up with it the first week, and then it’s nothing but blank calendar boxes the rest of the way through. Typical.
Taped on the front, though, is a photograph. It’s weird to get photos printed these days, especially on the shiny plastic stuff Walmart and CVS print photos on, but I did anyway. It felt like the right thing to do. It’s of me and…KC.
KC. She never told me what it stood for, and it probably didn’t stand for anything at all. We had taken this photo during our high school graduation party, right in the back of the youth development center our school had rented for the occasion, lounging on stupid striped couches where nobody would bother us. I had meant to take a selfie, but she kissed me right as the shutter went off and I liked it so much I didn’t delete it.
We had been together for, what? Eight months?
I always did like the photo. She wore her beanie and flannel with pride, and I called her a “baby butch” whenever she did. I had decided to go out on a limb and put on the rainbow dog tag necklace she had gotten me for National Coming Out Day. After she got accepted to a different school, she promised she’d wear the same thing when we met up again during the Columbus Day weekend. I promised I’d wear the necklace in return.
I mean, we never met back up after the graduation party, but it had been a good idea.
“Ruthie!” Dad calls. “Dinner’s ready!”
“Coming!” I call back, and set the planner down. I keep the necklace tucked into my shirt these days.
Dinner is okay. It’s Dad’s favorite, which means it’s also Carol’s favorite and I don’t like it at all. I’ll never understand adults’ obsession with sloppy joes and Melissa actually agrees with me for once. Trying to distract myself from the food, I scan the kitchen to find a bright black and yellow radio sitting on the side table. It’s old, with what might be a walkie-talkie attached, but I’m not the person to ask when it comes to technological stuff.
“Hey, Dad,” I say, gesturing at it with my fork. “What’s that?” He makes a small surprised noise as he turns around to figure out what I’m talking about.
“Oh, that?” he says. “Emergency radio. In case something happens, you know?”
“Which it won’t,” Carol mutters. Melissa nods with her mouth full.
“It won’t, it won’t,” Dad says. “But it never hurts to be prepared. Besides, I heard it’s really going to start snowing tonight. I’m glad we got up here when we did. Now, what movie do you guys want to watch tonight?”
The truth is, nothing happens until midnight.
I’m the last one up at this hour; I’m always the last one up at this hour. Even when I was hours away, huddled up in my dorm room on campus, I would be awake until one in the morning on my phone doing nothing important. But my phone doesn’t work here, so it’s midnight and I’m lying on my new bed reading. The small room is cozy, I’ll admit. I settle in and admire the decor, with a cute quilt folded at the foot of the bed and wooden walls. Melissa went to bed at ten and Dad and Carol turned in at eleven, so now I’m here awake in this empty house alone. I drew the curtains because dark windows always make me shiver and those woods are doing nothing to help, but with the lamp and my book and being alone, it’s a good evening.
The cabin is noisy, though, so when one of the doors down the hall opens, the hinges squeak loud enough to make me jump. Knowing Dad, he’ll raid the basement to see if there’s any WD-40, considering it had been loud enough to wake him up too. As much as it makes me shiver, I try to ignore the footsteps headed towards the steps. The steps are soft. Probably Melissa. Shit, if she had a nightmare and wants to sleep in my bed, I swear to god…
Nope. She heads down the stairs. Must be thirsty. I turn back to my book. My left hand is fiddling with my rainbow necklace as I turn the pages with my right.
Until the front door itself creaks open, too.
I sit up a little bit in bed, holding my necklace tight so the ball chain doesn’t rattle and distract me. The only sounds are the gentle wind blowing outside and my own heartbeat. After a few seconds of this quasi-silence, I can’t help it and swing my legs off the bed to go out into the hall.
It’s colder in the main part of the house than it is in my room. The one light turned on out here is the dim fluorescent over the kitchen sink, only visible when I lean over the balcony. The cabin seems like the perfect haunting ground for ghouls at night, making a shiver run up my spine, and the shadows from the kitchen aren’t helping. Dark, unfamiliar buildings are an innate human fear. Dim red and green lights from the TV and VCR stare like eyes, and I can catch the sound of the generator running in the basement. And, down in the front room, the door is open. Cold air eddies inside, blowing in heavy flakes of snow. Dad had been right—it’s coming down heavy outside. I let out a sigh. Dammit. Melissa’s nowhere to be seen, and telltale footprints lead outside.
I hurry down the stairs, pausing by the massive front window to see what’s going on outside. Bullshit. The footprints lead all the way into the woods. I shiver for a second, running my hands down my arms. Gooseflesh is raising across my spine and the hardwood and fancy ranch-style rug are sprinkled with snow.
She couldn’t have gone far. Melissa is a prissy little teenage girl and she complains every time the temperature drops below forty. What reason would she have to run into the woods at midnight?
Dad would be better at dealing with this than me. But the woods are staring at me, and a cold shiver runs down my spine the way it had when I was unloading the suitcases. I grab onto my own t-shirt, straining my knuckles until they ache. Even beyond the sheets of snow falling in waves from the sky, the forest is dark and angry and the footprints are fading fast. There’s no time to get Dad. I shove my feet into my boots and force myself into my parka and remember at the last second to shut the door behind me as I step out into the blizzard.
Before my grandparents died, they always told me about my mother.
They were Dad’s parents. I had never met Mom’s. They’d had a big house out in the country, with three dogs and a farm across the road. They had loved Mom. Dad never talked about her but when he would drop little Melissa and I off at our grandparents’ so he and Carol could have a proper night out, Grandma would let me sit on the arm of the couch while she told me about my mother.
If I had been born with black hair—hair as black as her eyes—I’d be her little porcelain doll, her little look-alike, she’d say.
The way I would spend hours running around in the woods, chasing lizards and bugs and rabbits? Exactly like her, she’d say.
When I punched a girl in my third-grade class for taking my colored pencils, Grandma laughed and said, “Your mother would be proud.” I wasn’t sure, with the way I had busted my knuckles bloody, split the girl’s lip open, and cried for an hour because I felt bad. Grandma hugged me anyway.
I take one step into the woods, and they swallow me whole. The snow is an inch away from covering my boots, and the wind is blowing my hair in front of my face hard enough I can’t see unless I keep it pinned back with my hand. My eyes are taking their sweet time getting used to the dark and I squint. My throat burns from the cold.
“Melissa!” I call. “This isn’t funny! Where are you?”
Grandma would always tell me how my mother was the toughest, strongest, and meanest bitch this side of the Rocky Mountains, and aside from that one day in third grade, there has to be a reason why every single one of those genes got overridden by my dad.
My voice might sound tough, but it’s not. I’m shivering and when I check over my shoulder, the cabin has been completely obscured by the trees. The footprints are almost gone. I might not even be following them anymore—they might be random depressions in the snow I was hoping and praying were footsteps seconds ago. Another bow snaps, and the branch tumbles down three dozen feet to land a few yards away from me. I yelp, turning to face it with a heaving chest.
What direction was I going?
What direction am I going?
There’s a moment of panic when I realize I can’t see the house. I can’t see anything. Beyond even twenty feet, everything is pitch black. The snow muffles the porch light of the house, and I’m sure it’s there in one direction before it catches my eye again in another. I’m shivering and my teeth are chattering together despite the parka, and my fingers ache whenever I move them the slightest bit.
There’s no way she could hear me. I can’t even hear myself.
The footprints are gone now. I turn around in a circle to find nothing. I tug my hair away from my face again, and it’s caked in snow and the movement makes my entire hand protest in pain.
And then, off to the side, there’s a footprint a bit smaller than mine, almost filled up with snow but not quite. It has to be her. I let out a choked little sigh of relief and stumble towards them. Even then, I’m already planning what I’m going to say to her when I find her. “What the hell were you thinking, running off like that? You could have gotten lost and we never would have found you again! It’s goddamn stupid! Sure, go ahead and tell Carol I’m using ‘bad words,’ I don’t care. You’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted from both your parents when I only want Dad back, so don’t try dragging more attention to yourself with some bullshit disappearing act!”
Well, scratch that last sentence.
The footprints, fading fast in the blizzard, lead down a steep slope. There’s a little more warmth in me now but I’m not sure why as I grab onto the low branch of a pine to help keep my balance. More snow rains down on top of my arm, and I brush it off as I turn to figure out why the footprints are leading back and…
There’s a cave in the side of the slope, the snow around it trampled and flattened. The opening comes up to about my shoulder, an almost claustrophobic size, and the night makes it almost impossible to see how deep it goes. I lean down, trying not to get snow on my jeans, and stick my hand inside. There’s ground there, and it opens up almost as soon you get inside.
I pause. There’s no way Melissa would have gone inside. It’s pitch black in the middle of the night and…she wouldn’t have. But it’s cold and getting colder, dark and getting somehow even darker, the snow is deep and I have no goddamn idea which direction home is in. And I’m legally an adult. She’s not even thirteen, she’s more worried and scared than I am and maybe, maybe, she’s inside.
After a second to steel my bones, I duck under the lip of the cave and step inside.
It’s even darker in here. It’s dark enough that my brain begins to freak out about the lack of visual stimuli and starts calling up flashes and swirls of muted colors, and I blink as fast as I can to get it to stop. I start to reach for my phone—the flashlight works without service, after all—but a quick pat of my pockets and sides reminds me that it’s still sitting, turned off, on my bedside table. I swear a few times, not bothering to keep it down.
“Melissa,” I call. “Are you in here?”
My voice echoes.
With my luck, there’s a bear or a ball of hibernating snakes down here, waiting for me to step on them. After a few shuffling steps, I can stand without hitting my head on the jagged cave ceiling. The ground crunches under my boots, and I can’t see my hand in front of my face. The floor starts to slope downward, and my eyes are adjusting to the light again, picking out the grey and uneven walls and the sticks and rocks and leaf litter blown down here by the wind.
No, it’s not my eyes getting adjusted to the dark. There’s a candle sitting on the floor of the cave. I stare at it for a second. It’s almost burned down, with the wick standing tall in a puddle of shining liquid wax. Every now and then, it flickers, sending shadows back to encroach on what had been taken from them only to be fought back again.
This is obviously a joke. At this point, it couldn’t be anything but. Hell, I remember the story about the two twelve-year-olds who stabbed their friend over Slender Man; kids can be fucking weird. I never pegged Melissa as one of those girls, but then again, I never pegged her as much of anything other than “the ‘cute’ one,” and it’s always those you have to watch out for.
“Melissa, this isn’t funny!” I press my hands together in front of my mouth. “If you come out now, I promise I won’t tell Dad or Carol.”
Something rumbles in the distance. It sounds like the clatter of rocks sliding together down an incline, or a bookshelf scraping across a hardwood floor. I stand up a little straighter, trying to lower my heartbeat so I can hear something besides the blood rushing in my ears. My breath comes faster now, clouds gathering around my lips. But the sound doesn’t come again, and I’m standing there with my hands in my pockets, trying not to panic.
It has to be her. There’s nothing else it could be. It has to.
I pick up the candle by the small metal base, hot wax spilling off the sides and making me wince. The flame flickers and almost goes out, but it comes back as strong as it was.
Even with the candle, the cave swallows every inkling of light like a black hole. The further I go in, the more the entrance disappears in the distance, the more it seems like some sort of mine; the passageways become bigger, wooden structures hold up the walls (and they’re old enough I’m terrified to touch them), and one point I find something carved into the walls. I almost call for Melissa again, but the cave demands silence and I give it willingly.
The noise comes again: this time, from behind me. I turn around fast enough that the flame protests and splutters, turning every nook and cranny into a flickering dance. The entrance is gone. I can’t see it at all, and the light of the candle does nothing to force the dark back more than a few feet away. It’s still so cold, and I can’t tell if I’m shivering because of the temperature or out of fear.
“Melissa?” I say, half-turning just in case. Just in case.
And then, something else. A massive, earsplitting sound that could have been the scream of the universe being torn in two; something that knew it was wrong and dared reality to deny its existence anyway.
The darkness beyond the candle is deeper than it should be. Like if I reached out to touch it, it would keep going. Like it was so much bigger than the mouth of a mineshaft cave, but clung to its walls and screamed. You know how sometimes you see something, maybe it’s on the weird part of the internet or maybe you’re on the bad side of town, that makes you go all warm inside but not in a good way? It makes you go all warm inside like your blood is scalding in your veins and you know you’re looking at something you really, really shouldn’t be looking at? It’s like that. But on…on an atomic scale. Every piece of me knows what I’m seeing is wrong, and I would scream if I could fucking move.
The darkness stares at me. Massive yellow and bloodshot goat eyes open across the walls of the cave, a gaping maw of broken, uneven teeth splits apart and spreads wide like a leech. A fat, formless limb falls to the ground, and every inch of it glistens in the faint candlelight. And then another one. And another. A body begins to build, pulling pounds and pounds of flesh out of nothing. It’s hideous and mottled and trying to describe it as anything other than wrong makes my brain want to claw out its eyes and scream.
When it lunges at me, I drop the candle and run.
In all honesty, there’s no time to process it. My brain won’t let me even if I try. I come across a split in the path, illuminated by a crack in the ceiling allowing one or two flakes of gentle snow to come floating down, and I take the left out of sheer force of habit. It shrieks again, and for a second something wet runs down the side of my neck. I slap at it like a bug, and my fingers come away red. My chest heaves and I stumble, clutching at the wall of the mine to keep from falling and gouging a bright and angry line down the middle of my palm. The cold makes the pain of it a hundred times worse. Another left. Fuck it. Why not. My lungs are starting to burn and my legs hurt and my eyes sting with tears, and—
The horror behind me stops and howls, the sickening wet crunch of snapping bone and splitting flesh far too loud in the cramped tunnels of the mine. When I turn around, a dark form in a winter coat stands with a red fire axe buried in what I guess, I can’t tell, to be the creature’s neck, a lantern hanging from their belt and illuminating the whole passage in bright, almost painful light. Black blood spills from the creature over the floor, sizzling across what it touches, but the person doesn’t seem to give a single shit about any of it.
They turn to me as the monster shrinks back and screams again, its bulbous fifty-eyed head hanging from a tendon and being engulfed by the body itself as it tries to retreat to a darkness that isn’t there anymore. Staring back at me from underneath the hood of the parka isn’t a human face: it’s a gas mask. The eyes are nothing but dark panes of glass, a single respirator hissing in and out and a lopsided filter protruding like a tumor. Everything, combined with the fire axe and an actual goddamn shotgun strapped to their back, looks like something out of a horror movie, but right now something with arms and legs and an actual solid body is the most beautiful thing in the world.
“The fuck are you standing there for?” the person in the gas mask roars. “RUN!”
I don’t have to be told twice.
This time, there is no fork in the path to take, to get away from the monster. I run, the light of the lantern getting fainter and fainter until there’s nothing but darkness around me. I falter here, my chest heaving as I gasp for air despite the cracking, arid dryness in my throat. There aren’t any wooden beams keeping up the sides of the passageway, either—it’s pure rock, hewn by pickaxes what must have been centuries ago.
Beside me sits a small, person-sized hole. It kind of goes off at an angle built half into the floor and half into the wall, and it’s the definition of claustrophobic. But, there’s light. Light at the bottom and off to the side, somewhere down there. Still, fuck no, I’m not going down the hole. What if I get stuck? The monster is only so far away, it would tear me in half, it—
Somewhere in front of me, down the mineshaft, a bloodshot goat eye opens, and the claustrophobic hole is immediately a very good idea. I sit down on the ledge, push myself forward, and slide down.
Gravel and pebbles follow me down, and condensation from dripping stalactites smears the back of my sweatpants with freezing dust-mud. The slope is about as twice as tall as me, and when my snow boots hit the bottom, I stumble. A lantern hangs from a metal, hardware store hook screwed into the rock. It’s not a high-power lantern like the one the person with the axe had. It’s just a regular lantern. Nothing special about it. It lights up a massive room, with columns and spires and massive limestone spikes jutting out of the floor and ceiling. I can’t see the top of the cave, and puddles of the clearest, purest water collected in depressions in the rock reflect what little they can despite that.
There’s no time to admire it now. I sprint to the biggest column, boots splashing in the puddles, and scramble behind it. Thigh-high stalagmites jut up from the floor, and I pick between them before leaning against the stone and trying to still my shaking fingers. I shiver against the cold rock pressing through the back of my wet sweatpants and my cut-up hand aches and stings. I clamp the hand over my mouth, trying to pretend my head isn’t pounding and there aren’t tears tracing down my face.
A low growl reverberates through the cave, an undertone of the sickening, universe-defying whine making my bleeding ear ring. There’s blood stuck to my hair and it’s clinging to the side of my neck. Behind me, wet, fat flesh slithers across the rock floor and I can hear the massive goat eyes blinking with a sound like pulling a boot from the mud. Jesus Christ, listening to for too long it will make me retch. I try to put together what I saw, try to reconstruct it in my mind’s eye, but nothing comes. Thinking about it is some kind of rebellion against nature, and my brain revolts when I try to force some connection between my eyes and my mind.
Something clatters to my left. My throat seizes and I turn as slow as I can, not daring to move my head for fear of startling whatever it is…or seeing it again at all.
And then, to my right: a scream, and feeling like two tons of razor blades and concrete has been dropped onto my shoulder. At first, my brain comes up with the excuse that part of the cave had collapsed and part of the stalactite-riddled ceiling had slammed into my shoulder, but seeing is enough to drag me back to reality. The ring of broken glass teeth is attached to my shoulder like a leech, and staring back at me are the yellow bloodshot goat eyes. My coat is in shreds and flecks of blood and froth spill down my chest, pulsing fat and muscle constricting my arm like an anaconda until my fucking bones are grinding together like sandpaper and gravel. It doesn’t hurt—shout-out to adrenaline and endorphins, nature’s painkillers—but if I pull, my arm is going to
Some deep, visceral thing in my gut drags my attention not to the teeth inches deep in my flesh, but to one of the thigh-high stalagmites at my feet. I lash out at one with my foot, and it snaps, clattering to the floor. The monster’s attention breaks for a second, and I ram my shoulder into its mouth. I hit something wet and soft and squishy, like raw meat or uncooked fat. The teeth point backwards, into its maw, and they slip free from my skin. Blood rushes in to fill the space, and the serrated edges tear even deeper as they’re pulled out, but there’s no pain yet. The creature’s eyes widen, and—what I’ve been waiting for—so does it mouth.
I lunge for the broken stalagmite, about as thick as the handle of a baseball bat, and manage to reach it when the tendril snaps taught around my arm and there’s a sudden sliding in my shoulder like something coming loose that should not be loose, my arm pinned behind me at an angle that it should not be at. I fall and manage to clutch the shard of rock tight despite how I hit my nose and can taste blood. I can’t tell I’m shaking until I look at my hand.
The monster starts to move. Its heavy, wet body is sliding over mine, looming closer until wet, hot drool slides between its teeth and onto the back of my neck. My shoulder is starting to pulse and get warm, the bare beginnings of pain. My lungs ache, my mouth and nose pressed to the frigid stone and wet dust-mud, until the teeth are grazing my neck and my chest is straining under the wet of the fat flesh and hundreds of eyes.
Fuck. No time to waste. Do it, do it.
I roll onto my back, my pinned arm trapped between us and pressing against my chest and making my shoulder muscles scream, and drive the stalagmite into one of the massive yellow goat eyes.
It doesn’t hit dead center. It’s off to the side, shoving itself between the eye itself and the eyelid, and the entire thing pops out of its socket with an audible squelch before the eye is swallowed back into its pulsating body. The monster screams, reeling back like a startled horse, the tentacle around my arm slithering back to the safety of the body and pulling away from my twisted waist. I gasp and flop back onto my stomach, dragging my legs out from under it. It’s still reeling and blinking, whining so loud and high it could shatter glass, the spear of limestone jutting from its flesh.
Somewhere in front of me, a shotgun racks.
I have half a second to catch a glimpse the glint off the glass panes of a gas mask before the trigger clicks and buckshot explodes from the barrel. I wrap my hands over my head and press my face into the floor as flesh tears and splatters across the stone. That it’s not my own makes me sob with relief. Another rack, another shot, this time behind me, and my ears are ringing again and I cough and splutter the dust-mud out of my mouth and try to sit up. My left arm gives out and I fall to the floor again, the muscles in my shoulder protesting and screaming that there’s red-hot iron embedded in my bone. Something crashes shut, the sound of a garage door slamming onto a concrete driveway, and then silence.
Hands grab my good arm and haul me to my feet, and I struggle to get my legs under me. My left arm hangs limp by my side, and I can’t get a good look at the damage but the blood smeared onto the down of my coat and I want to vomit. It’s mine. It’s my blood.
“Look at me,” says the person in the gas mask.
I manage to glance up, bloody hair strewn across my face. I mull for a second over the voice and realize it’s a woman holding onto me. For some reason, that makes the rest of the tension drain from my muscles and I slump my straining back.
“Fuck,” she says. The gas mask muffles her voice, but it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard. I glance over my shoulder, and there’s nothing. No monster. No blood. Just us and the cave. “Come on. Sit down.”
She leads me a little rougher than necessary, but I follow her anyway. The axe is tucked into her belt loop, the shotgun is resting against her back with a strap slung across her chest, and a pistol on her leg bumps against my hip as we walk. Every step jolts my bad shoulder a little further and I’m biting my tongue to distract myself from it. I taste salt. And then she pushes me down, and I’m sitting on the ground and she kneels in front of me.
This woman is so much bigger than me. She’s not too tall, but she’s big. The bulky parka isn’t helping, but it’s the way she carries herself and the strength behind her hands. There’s something dark and cruel behind the gas mask—I can see it in the way even the faintest of light glints off the glass, the universe obscuring something for what’s no doubt my benefit.
“Take your jacket off,” the woman says. “It’s serious.”
I stare at her for a second, waiting for her to say anything else, but after a second of dead silence besides the whistling of the wind through the caves, I unzip the coat with my good hand and shrug out of it the best I can. She reaches out to help slid it off my left arm and tears spring to my eyes. I blink them back.
“Did…” I whisper, in case something besides her is listening. “Did you kill them?”
She shakes her head and slings off her backpack. “No,” she says. She reaches inside to pull out gauze and a collection of other things I tell myself not to stare at. “You’re lucky you’re not dead, you know.”
“I know,” I say. My voice sounds terrible. She pours cold water over the wound, and I shiver hard enough my teeth clack together. When I try to pull away, she grabs the part of my shoulder closer to my neck and presses her gas mask in close.
“Your shoulder is dislocated,” she says. “Don’t fucking move it. You’ll make it worse.”
“I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me.”
She stares at me for a second, the nothing behind her mask making it all the more bone-chilling, before she sets down the bottle of water and picks up a pair of tweezers. I stare up at the ceiling as a pair of cold metal tongs poke around in the shredded hamburger meat of my shoulder. Tears are carving paths down my cheeks, and my chest shudders as she works. They grab onto something, and when she pulls, her free hand holds me down by the collarbone.
She holds up a tooth the size of my pinkie finger. I stare at it.
“You broke one of its teeth,” she monotones. “Be glad it was in the muscle, not bone.” She tucks the bloody tooth in one of her pockets before unscrewing a bottle of alcohol. “Next time you see your fhaliih, tell them they’re a fucking idiot and they shouldn’t have sent somebody like you here alone.”
“I…” I whimper a little bit as she presses the dirty rag of rubbing alcohol to my shoulder. It stings and I try to pull away as hard as I can but parts of my body have forgotten that my arm is actually there. “I don’t have a fhaliih.”
As soon as the word passes my lips, a chill runs down my spine. I know that word. I know it. How the fuck do I know what it means?
“Did you hit your head?” she asks.
“I d-don’t have a mentor, I don’t have a teacher,” I whimper, “I don’t understand…”
There a moment of gut-churning silence as the dark panes of glass stare at me. There’s something dangerous, now. She’s stopped touching me.
“Who are you?” she asks.
Something cold presses against the soft skin of my throat. I glance down to find the free hand that had been holding me by the collar not a second ago is holding a pistol to my neck.
“Who are you?”
“Ruthie!” I wail. “My name is Ruthie and I came here with my family on vacation and I’m looking for my little sister because she got lost and I didn’t mean to come here and I don’t know what’s going on and I’m scared and please, please don’t kill me, please.” I choke on my own words and cough. “Please, I’m begging you, please don’t kill me.”
And then the gun pulls back from my neck and my good hand flies to my throat and I start shaking again, shivering against the cold and my chest hitching every time I try to draw in the frigid winter air.
“I’m sorry,” I whimper, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” the woman says. “Stop crying.”
She finishes dressing my shoulder and wraps it with gauze. It bleeds through as soon as she ties it tight, but it will keep out the dirt and polluted mineral water dripping down from the ceiling. I’m still shaking. The pain is coming in hard now, and I curse myself for being proud of having never broken a bone growing up. At least something like that would have prepared me, even if slightly, for the pain of this.
“Now,” she says. “I’m going to put your shoulder back into place.” She hands me a torn up t-shirt from her bag. I have to wipe away my tears to get a good look at what it is, and when I do, my stomach goes warm. “Bite down on this for me.”
The woman in the gas mask helps me to my feet. Her hands are big and her movements are rough and brusque but there’s a finesse to them somehow.
“How are you feeling?” she asks.
“Better,” I manage.
“Good enough,” she says. I shiver and it makes my shoulder pulse with a stinging, heavy heat. My sweatpants are soaking wet all the way down the back of my legs from the condensation and wet cave floor. “You’re lucky I found you, girl. The shoggoths have been restless these days.”
“The fucker that took a chunk out of your shoulder,” she says. Even the name makes me squirm. “There’s about a dozen of them in this cave alone.”
“Then why are we still here?”
“Because if we’re careful, we’ll be fine.” She sounds like she’s talking down to a scared toddler. “Come on, let’s go.”
She puts a hand between my shoulder blades and starts to walk. I have to follow to keep from getting knocked over. We don’t walk towards the hole in the wall—the slope is too steep to climb—but instead go further into the cave, further away from the entrance, and by extension the exit. It makes my guts squirm to look over my shoulder and wonder how I’m going to get back. There are more lanterns flickering high on the columns, and old candles stand strong in puddles of wax. There must be another way back up to the surface.
“Have…” I say. “Have you seen my sister?”
“Your sister,” she deadpans.
“I’m looking for my sister,” I say. “She’s—she’s twelve, almost thirteen, brown hair, light blue jacket?”
“I have to find her, Dad and Carol are going to be worried sick about her and I saw her footprints come into this cave and I have to find her, what if one of the—the shoggoths got her, oh god, what if one of them—”
It isn’t until I stop and sniffle I realize my voice is still echoing.
“You’ll draw in the others,” she snarls. “Stop it. You’re hysterical.”
“Of course I’m hysterical! She’s my sister!”
The woman turns to glare. Something clatters in the distance, and it might have been a stalactite falling but it sounds enough like teeth on stone to make me shut up. I’m trembling.
“I need to go home,” I say, barely.
“We can talk about this in the morning.”
“In the morning, girl.”
I don’t say much else.
We go further into the cave, finding another mine shaft and following the lines of markings carved into the cave walls. There are clusters of two, three small lines drawn about shoulder-height, and the woman follows them without a single falter. Most of the time, I’m moving my lips in something that could be speaking, but I’m not sure if I’m saying anything at all. Fhaliih. How did I know what it meant? It’s an ugly word, like a lot of words I’ve heard today, but it’s overshadowed by the fact I know.
I hate it. I need it out of my head. Maybe if I think it enough, it’ll work.
We turn another corner, and the woman in the gas mask shoves aside a wrinkled old blue tarp that’s bolted across the entrance of another fork in the path.
“Watch your head,” she says.
Past the tarp isn’t a mine shaft—it’s a man-made cavern, with hewn walls and a single stone column holding it up. Walls of junk wood separate it into crude rooms, and the furniture are all patio chairs and backyard tables that might well be pilfered from suburban backyards. A fire pit sits in the center of it all, a dirty old mattress beside it topped with a threadbare sleeping bag.
“You need to eat something,” she says, and leads me over to the mattress before tapping my good shoulder as if telling me to sit down. I do.
“You live here?” I ask.
“Mm. Stay here.”
She slings the shotgun off her back and lays it on a plastic table before walking off towards a makeshift storage shed and shelves. I take the opportunity to get a better feel for the cavern. A generator sits in the corner, but it’s dim and silent and surrounded by empty and abandoned gas cans. There’s a cooler against one of the shacks, and I would give into the temptation to open them if the woman wasn’t so close. Ashes have built up in the fire pit and charcoal and charred logs sit inside; labels of canned food make up the kindling while the tin of the cans themselves have been turned into little storage containers or hammered out of shape to make minor repairs.
The woman comes back a minute later with a frozen chunk of soup about the size of her hand. She sets it in an old black pot and starts a fire in the pit. I’m not sure what kind of soup it is, but at this point I don’t care. Picky eater or not, my stomach is growling.
“Do you think you could leave out something for my sister?” I ask her. She glances up from her work, but even behind her gas mask I can tell her eyes are on me. “Not food, but…I mean like a note, or a sign, or something to help her find you? In case she’s still alive?”
“We’ll see,” she says, and sets the pot on the grate above the fire. “You’ll want to sleep on your back. It helps to keep shoulder injuries level, in my experience.”
“You sound like you know what you’re doing.”
“I got bit a lot starting out,” the lady in the gas mask says, “but it takes more than a goddamn shoggoth to kill s’ghna.”
S’ghna. The Corrupted.
“Do you know what that means, girl?” she asks.
After a second, I nod. I wish I could figure out what’s going on beneath her mask. I would give anything to see her face, to see what her lips and eyes were doing.
“Do you?” she asks again.
“I want to hear you say it.”
I swallow, lower my head, and say: “S’ghna.” The word is rough and guttural, almost violent in my throat, with a disgusting croak in the middle of the word that makes my tongue numb. It sounds like the way she had said it, and it makes my fucking skin crawl and my guts want to come out through my mouth. I cough out the sensation the best I can.
There’s silence in the cave for a second, and then she nods. “I’ll get you a sling for your arm,” she says. “Keep an eye on the soup for me.”
The woman in the gas mask does as she promised. She gets me a sling for my arm, hands me a bowl, and pours in the soup. I’m not a fan of anything in it, but I eat it anyway. She sits down on one of the old white and blue patio chairs, the seat creaking under her.
Neither of us say anything to each other. It’s easier this way.
When I finish, I hand the bowl over. She places it in a metal tub, kind of like the one I would wash my feet in before going in my grandmother’s pool years ago, and hands me a blanket. Asking for the time isn’t worth what it would take to work up the courage to talk to her.
I lay on my back like she had suggested, and do everything I can to get Melissa out of my head.
The next morning, I wake up and my heart almost tears itself out of my chest in sheer panic when I don’t recognize where I am. I sit up in a rush and my entire body slumps as I recognize the mattress, the junk-wood walls, and the fire pit. The woman is standing by one of the shacks, retying a knot holding two pieces of old cloth together to make a crude roof. She’s still wearing her parka and gas mask, but now the only weapon she has is her pistol. The fire axe and shotgun are nowhere to be seen.
“Good morning,” she says. It doesn’t sound very sincere, but it’s not snappish either—it’s a formality she doesn’t care much about. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Okay, I guess,” I say.
“Good. Good.” She gives me another bowl of soup, and I take it. It doesn’t smell nearly as good this time, but I eat it anyway. She sits on a crude bench made from two lawn chairs with the armrests snapped off. The extra plastic seems to be reinforcing the legs.
“Are you going to eat?” I ask.
“I did,” she says, and that’s that. The glint from the lanterns off the panes of her mask keeps me from finding the outlines of her eyes again, so I look at anything else I can find. Three lines mar one side of the tarp-covered doorway, and two on the other. Different paths. I sigh.
“Thank you,” I say. “For saving me when you did. I can’t imagine…” Bullshit. I very well can imagine what would happen if she hadn’t—my brain is good at that sort of thing, worst-case scenarios and all. “My parents will be grateful.”
“Are you going to walk me back?” I ask. “I’m not sure I could—”
“I’m not walking you back.”
The words come like a slap.
“B-but,” I say. My voice rises an octave of its own accord. “I need to go home.”
“What we need to do,” the woman says, “is talk.”
“But you said you’d take me home today!” I protest.
The woman snorts at me. “I said we’d talk today,” she says. “You need to learn how to listen too, apparently.”
I swallow back the fear rising in my throat and set down the bowl of soup onto the side of the mattress. It’s not empty, but at this point I don’t care.
“Fine,” I say. She pulls back an inch or two. “Fine. What are we going to talk about?” Despite the coldness of my voice, tears are pricking at my eyes again. It’s not all because this much moving around is agitating my shoulder. “What the fuck do you have to say for yourself?” The words slip out before I can stop them. I’m not sure how good of an idea it is to backtalk a woman with three deadly weapons within arm’s reach, but to be honest I’m not operating at full capacity right now. “Go on. Talk.”
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” she says. “I did a sweep of the mines while you were asleep, and I found no sign of anybody else. If your sister was left alone in these mines for that long, there’s no chance of finding her alive.”
I choke. “You—you can’t say that! You don’t know!”
“I do know,” the woman growls. A painful croak of disbelief forces its way up from my throat. “And for the safety of everybody else, you cannot go back to the cabin.”
She says those words like it’s not the single thing I need to do. I clutch at my wounded arm, inches away from getting up and scream and demand she say otherwise, but she’s so much bigger and even if I can talk back, I can’t bring myself to move.
“No! I have to!”
When the woman stands, though, I do too. I scramble to my feet, staring at her, to back away. The blue tarp with the lines carved into the limestone is a few yards behind me.
“You can’t,” she says. “The shoggoths know a s’ghna is here and will track a lone straggler like you. If you lead them back, your family will die.”
“I’m not a monster!” The woman snorts at me. “Stop saying that! I’m not!”
“You knowing what it means says otherwise,” she says. Her voice is so fucking cold and emotionless and I hate it. I keen wordlessly, sounding like a whipped dog or a broken toy.
“Please let me tell them,” I plead. “Dad needs to know, Carol needs to know, they…”
“No. Going back is murder. You’ll be putting them all in danger.”
“That’s bullshit!” My voice is shaking again. It’s always so impossible for me to say anything, my voice always breaks and I always sound so goddamn scared and I’m tearing up again, goddammit. “I want my parents. They need to know.”
I stare at her, every muscle in my body tensing. We’ve both gone a few steps now—her forward, me backward. She looks strong as hell, but a body like hers is built for power, not speed or endurance. Distance is what I was made for. I swallow, trying to gather the nerve and trying to get my heart to stop beating like a jackrabbit. My pulse should not be as high and hard as it as right now when all I’m doing is standing. My arm hangs uselessly in its sling.
“I…” I say. “I’m sorry.”
And then I run.
Running is one of the most painful things I’ve ever done in my life.
Not just “emotionally” painful, but I’m pretty sure that’s got to be at least part of it. The woman’s words about Melissa are still ringing in my ears and I wish my ragged gasping and the beating of my heart could drown it out. I clutch my bad arm to my chest, but every step jostles the torn-up flesh and I’m biting down on my tongue hard enough my mouth is beginning to taste like copper.
The one thing I can do is to follow the three lines carved into the cave walls, so that’s what I goddamn do. We came from the side with two, so I ran towards the side with three. There’s a deep paranoia in my gut, and it’s everything I can do to not glance over my shoulder every five seconds—but the paranoia is what keeps me going, the itch like there are eyes on the back of my neck tracking my every move.
And when sunlight streams under a dip in the shaft, I almost burst into tears. Not even caring about the blood soaking through the bandage and the way the sling shifts when I get down on my knees, I force myself through the gap and step out into the forest.
It’s mid-morning, I’d guess by the way the shadows are long and stretching towards each other. It’s not snowing anymore, but it comes up over my knee and when I take a step, wet pieces fall into the lip of my boot and soak down my sock. I don’t care. Feeling the fresh winter air force itself down my throat makes me almost laugh in hysterical relief.
There’s no time for even that, though an awkward giggle manages to bubble up from my lips. The next order of business is to figure out what goddamn direction home is in.
I try to imagine, closing my eyes and doing my best to remember the directions the shadows had been going when we pulled up to the cabin yesterday afternoon. My mental picture isn’t clear, though, and the idea is useless. I open my eyes, sigh, and decide that the best thing I can do is to start walking.
Even in the bright, pure white of the snow and cloudy skies, the wet bark of the trees makes me jumpy. My arm is throbbing.
Melissa not being beside me is what makes it so, so much worse.
It must be at least half an hour before I hear:
I can’t make out the words at first, the words carried by the wind into something resembling earshot but not quite there. I pause, clutching my arm and my hair strewn across my face from the wind, silent as I listen for the words again.
“Where are you?”
I pick my head up, a hysterical laugh bubbling up from my lips.
“Dad!” I call. My voice is high and painful. “Dad, over here! Over here!”
Off in the distance, almost obscured by the trees, a man in a dull orange coat begins sprinting towards me. He’s followed close behind by a woman in pink, and as soon as Dad stands in front of me the tears in his eyes are glittering and there are worry lines carved into his forehead and cheeks I can’t remember being there before. Carol holds her hands in front of her mouth, makeup smudged from the day before.
“Shit,” Dad gasps, his fingertips millimeters away from touching the sling on my arm and the bandage around my shoulder before he tucks my hair away from my face. My vision blurs with tears. “Shit, baby girl, don’t ever do that to us again, you were gone for hours, we thought—” He pulls me against his chest, and I don’t even care how cold the fabric of his coat is. I bury my face into the cloth and curl my fist into it so he can’t back away. “What happened to you? Where’s Melissa?”
“I…” I squeeze my eyes tight. “I couldn’t find her.”
“Oh, god,” Carol breathes. She’s crying, and I don’t want to see it. Seeing Dad cry is bad enough.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry, I tried.”
“How long have you been out here?” Dad asks, and I let out a weak laugh.
“Since midnight,” I say, and he lets out the air in his lungs like I punched him in the chest. “I got lost.”
“You got lost,” he says. “Let’s go back, baby girl. Let’s go back.”
Those words have never sounded so damn beautiful to me.
Dad won’t stop asking questions, but I can’t blame him. “Why did Melissa go out into the blizzard?” “Why didn’t you tell us?” “What happened to your arm? God, what happened to your arm?” I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I fell. The last one slips out before I can catch myself, and I weave a quick little story. There was a cave, and…I fell on a stalagmite.
“Why were you in a cave?” Carol asks when we can see the mountain cabin in the distance.
“I saw footprints go in,” I say. “I thought…”
“Oh,” she says. Her voice is in shambles, and the only thing keeping me strong enough from glancing her way is Dad’s arm on my back.
“When we get inside,” he’s saying, “I’m going to check if we have gauze or anything. How long have you had this on? What is it made of?”
Again, I have to come up with another lie. “My shirt,” I say. “I’m…going to need to change when we get inside.”
“Carol can help you,” Dad says.
“No, I’ll be fine.” I smile the best I can, which isn’t very well at all. “I’ll be okay, Dad. I promise.”
“Okay,” he murmurs and runs his hand up and down my back. “Okay. I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re back.”
We go inside and I duck into my room before either of them can say anything else. Dad stands outside my door, his back to me, as I take off my coat and open a few drawers and close them without taking anything out.
“Are you sure you don’t need help?” he asks.
“I’m sure,” I say, and then hiss to make it seem like I’m hurting my shoulder trying to get the shirt on. It’s awkward as hell, but I have to keep up the lie. After a second, I step out of the room and he leads me downstairs so I can sit while he finds gauze. Carol is in the kitchen, using the old emergency radio. I’m not paying attention to her, but I catch the words “daughter is missing.” Nothing about me, but then again, I’m not missing anymore. I sigh and slump down in the chair and raise my free hand to my neck. There’s still dried blood there from my bleeding ear. I cover one ear with my good hand for a second before doing the same with the other, trying to test if my hearing is shot. I can’t tell.
Dad comes back a little bit later with a roll of gauze, and he pulls a chair up beside me and starts taking off the sling.
“This isn’t for a broken bone or anything, is it?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “Just so it doesn’t hurt.” He nods and sets it on the table.
“Good,” he says, and starts unwinding the makeshift bandage—or, at least, what I’ve convinced him is one. “Did you do this yourself?”
“Yeah,” I say. He smiles a little bit.
“You did a nice job with it,” he said. “Health class taught you well.”
“That was years ago.”
“I know, I know,” he chuckles.
When the entire bandage is off, he stops and stares at it for a second.
“Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “It must have been one hell of a cave.”
Carol sneaks a peek, but goes pale and turns away. Dad sighs and sets the gauze aside. “Let’s go wash it out first,” he says. “How long has it been like this?”
And that’s what we do. Dad washes out my shoulder in the tub and cites his Boy Scout training with a little bit of forced sunshine in his voice, and I manage to laugh. Carol sits in the kitchen, staring at her hands in silence. He bandages my shoulder and ties my hair back and helps me clean the blood off the side of my neck. It still hurts. It still hurts so fucking much.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he says. “And we’re going to find Melissa. I promise. You did everything you could.” He brushes a single stray strand away from my face where it had fallen out of its ponytail. “Thank you for what you did.”
“You’re welcome,” I say.
“You did your best.”
Dad goes back out into the forest while I stay at home with Carol. I make him promise not to go into the caves—they’re dangerous, after all, look what happened to me—and he makes Carol promise to change my bandages if he’s not back by lunch. She’s a little pale when she nods, but she does anyway.
“You didn’t find my daughter,” Carol says once he’s gone, like I’m not legally her daughter as well.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She doesn’t reply. We sit in the living room in silence, the emergency radio sitting on the coffee table, and don’t make eye contact.
Dad comes back empty-handed, and Carol gets up from the couch and disappears into the bathroom. He’s about an inch from following her, but sits down where she had been instead. He asks if I want hot chocolate, and I shake my head. After a few minutes, he gets up to follow his wife after asking if I’ll be okay.
“I’ll be okay,” I say.
It’s been hours since we radioed out. There’s been nothing silence from the other side so far. Dad makes a late lunch and changes my bandages again. He does it this time in silence, and I can tell he’s studying at it and realizing it doesn’t look like a fall at all. He doesn’t talk until he stands: “We need to go to a hospital.”
“I wish they’d hurry up,” he says, and walks out into the main room again. “Dear! Could you radio again?”
“I already did,” Carol says. Dad runs his hands through his hair.
“Jesus,” he mutters.
Night comes. I bleed through my bandages a little slower this time. Carol yawns, and Dad leaves on the front porch light for the rescue crew—but mostly Melissa—to find. The snow swallowed up the SUV and we have no idea where the road is at this point, so it’s not like doing all this ourselves is an option.
“Ruthie,” Dad says at the end of the day. “I would feel better if you slept in our room tonight.”
“What?” I say.
“Please,” Dad says. “If somebody shows up, I want to be able to wake you up as soon as possible.”
I know that’s not really the reason, but I nod anyway. “Okay.”
Dad drags in the sheets from my bed and makes it into a makeshift little sleeping nest the floor of their room. I do everything I can to doze off, but Carol weeps where she’s laying across the room and Dad holds her to his chest. I close my eyes and press my face into the pillow until they’re asleep. I can’t. The clock on my phone—I have it in my hand again, thank god—reads eleven-thirty. I sigh, turn it off, and put it face-down on the floor beside me.
There’s a tap, tap, tap on the bedroom window. A warm jolt rushes through my entire body, and I scramble upright, trying to see over the edge of the bed. I clutch my arm, trying my best to keep it still as I get up onto my knees, and then one foot and the other. The world is darkness beyond the window, and I wrap one of the blankets around myself as I walk around the bed.
It’s just a tree. It’s a fucking tree scraping against the window, nothing else. Nothing. Fucking. Else.
I force myself to look at the window, and a bloodshot yellow goat eye stares back.
END EPISODE 1
Thank you for reading the first episode of The Secret of Mount Haile! If you really enjoyed it, please feel free to drop me a review wherever you can! To get access to art, helpful info, and an inside look into the series, check out tsomh.tumblr.com . You’ll even find exclusive scenes and extras not included in the episodes! If you want more from K.M. White, check out The Secret of Mount Haile on Facebook, or follow the author @scribiterx on Instagram or @Writing_isTough on Twitter.
"If I pull, my arm is going to Come. Right. Off." It starts with a winter vacation. Ruthie Sivan, an eighteen-year-old college freshman, isn't exactly excited about the idea of spending a week and a half in a secluded mountain cabin with her father, stepmother, and half-sister for Christmas. There are no plans--just her, the rest of her family, and the woods around them as they wait for Christmas Day. But when a blizzard rolls in over the mountain and her little sister disappears into the whiteout just minutes after midnight, there's no time to get the parents. Heading out into the storm in hopes of reaching her before the tracks are lost to the falling snow, Ruthie stumbles upon an ancient mining cave: a perfect refuge for a thirteen-year-old girl lost in the woods. But there's no little girl inside the cave: only horrifying monsters that bend the rules of the universe to allow their existence, and a mysterious woman with a shotgun and a gas mask who may hold the unwanted and terrifying truth about Ruthie and her family's past. The Secret of Mount Haile, Ep. 1: NGLUI.1.