“You’re dead! You’re dead!” Josh’s voice cracked – half because of the sob that had been building pressure at the base of his throat and half because his vocal cords were failing him after so much screaming. With each breath came a wheezing rattle in his chest – a husky, invisible force that kept expanding, making him choke over the words he just needed to screamscreamscream.
Why? Why could they not just go way? Why couldn’t they leave him alone? Why couldn’t they see it wasn’t his fault?
But it is your fault, Joshua. You didn’t help them.
“No. No, no, no, no.” He shook his head, wishing dearly that he could dislodge the image of his sisters’ walking corpses from his mind.
You didn’t save us.
He couldn’t even tell the voices apart anymore. Or the faces. They were blurring too much. But not because they were leaving – oh, no. They were still as present as ever, just obscured by the tears warping his sight.
Pain flared across his right cheekbone, the sting amplified by the wound that was already there – courtesy of Mike.
Wait… Mike? The pain was receding, the voices and his visions seemingly forced back by the impact. No more corpses. No bloody pigs. Just… black and tan with a splash of red on the tan and two spots of brown and purple and some green below that, and then there was some bright light–
Oh. Josh blinked several times as the colors sorted themselves into the proper order. “M…Mike?”
Two solid, real hands gripped his shoulders, steadying him and grounding him to reality as he swayed slightly on his feet. “Josh! Hey man…” Mike squinted as he studied Josh’s face.
Josh’s cheek was throbbing from the double assault on it, and he brought his arms up in defense, in case Mike decided to try for a third. “Don’t h-hit me, p-please.”
Mike stepped back, showing his palms upright. “You were deep in it, man. Full mental jacket.”
It was then that Josh really placed what those blobs of red and purple had been: Mike’s face. Or, more specifically, his black eye and split lip. He hadn’t had those before, had he? Back at the shed? Had Josh just not noticed? No, no, he would have noticed that.
“We didn’t think we’d get you back.”
Sam? Sammy, Sammy, Samantha? His gaze flickered over to the light in the corner of his eye. It was so bright, but when he squinted, he was able to make out Sam’s kind, green eyes beneath the headband-flashlight thing she was wearing. He knew those eyes well. He’d seen them so many times, over the last year in particular.
His stomach lurched as the dark smears of blood on her face and neck mocked him.
Your fault, your fault.
No. No, Sammy wasn’t supposed to get hurt. No one was supposed to get hurt, but especially not her. She hadn’t even been involved in the prank. She’d been there for him this whole year, helping when even Chris couldn’t.
Is that how you repay a friend’s kindness?
“Josh…” Sam’s voice drew him from his thoughts like it had so many times in the past. “Hannah was down here for… weeks… a month?”
What? How could Sam know that? A month? His baby sister had been stuck in this horrible place for a month? And why had Sam mentioned only Hannah? What about Beth?
“She dug Beth up.”
Hannah did what? Why would she do that? How was Beth buried in the first place? Hannah? But why would she dig her up? How did Sam know any of this?
Mike was saying something. Josh should probably have been listening.
“Okay…” Sam replied to whatever Mike had said. “Josh, do you have the key for the cable car?”
Ah, okay. They were leaving. Good. Good, good, good. Josh nodded a few times, fishing through one of the pockets on his ‘Psycho Outfit’ overalls. “Uh… Y-yeah…” His fingers fumbled with the cold metal before grasping it. “Here.”
“Oh, good…” Sam accepted the key with a sigh of relief.
Josh swallowed thickly as he spotted the gashes and fresh streaks of crimson all over her hand. She pulled back, not seeming to notice. She turned away from him to walk a few steps away. “See that over there?” She pointed to the one other light source other than her headband-flashlight thing. “That means there’s a direct way out. C’mon.”
Josh forced his feet to move so he could trail after his two friends. Friends. Were they still friends?
A scoff escaped Mike’s mouth as they stopped under the moonlight that was pouring down the circular shaft to the surface. “There’s no way Josh is gonna make it up there.”
Josh was pretty sure Mike wasn’t exactly up for a straight climb like that either – Sam was the rock climber, not him – but he still had a point.
“Okay.” Sam looked around the base of the shaft. “If you help me up I can go back to tell the others we’re okay.”
“Yeah…” Mike agreed. “Yeah, good.”
“You bring Josh back the way we came and we’ll all meet at the lodge.”
But shouldn’t we stick together? Josh’s mind questioned, but he could make the words leave his mouth. That was rule one to surviving any horror movie – don’t split up. Why were they splitting up?
“Be careful.” Mike squatted down, cupping his hands for Sam to use as a stepping point.
“You too.” Sam put he hands on his shoulders to get her balance before he hosted her upwards.
Sam caught onto the ledge above them, swinging her leg up like climbing a vertical mineshaft was one of her daily activities.
No. Sammy. Come back.
Never split up the group.
Don’t stand near widows.
Never, ever send someone off alone.
But Sammy was the Final Girl, right? She’d be okay.
This isn’t a movie, you idiot! Sam doesn’t have Final Girl armor!
Mike had said something. And he’d missed it again. Oops. He had to start paying more attention.
Mike apparently hadn’t noticed, because he was already walking away and clicking on a flashlight. Josh gave Sam one last glance and then followed. She’d be okay. She wasn’t the one going through the abandoned, unstable mine, after all. They were in more danger than she was.
Josh trudged after Mike, keeping his gaze on the ground to avoid tripping on something. The air was unnervingly still around them. Still and quiet.
The right side of his face gave a twinge. Ow. He could tell the skin there was swollen and hot without even touching it. “You didn’t… You didn’t have to hit me so much, man.” Couldn’t he at least have hit the other side instead of the same place twice?
Mike stopped, slowly moving the flashlight’s beam around the tunnel in front of them. “Ah, yeah… I’m sorry about before, man. I thought you killed Jess… I was wrong.”
I was wrong. Those were not words he had ever expected to hear from the mouth of Michael Munroe. Neither did he expect him to sound so… subdued. Mike was sassy and jovial. Mr. Pretty-Boy-Class-President. But not anymore. Not with the dirt and blood and bruises covering his body. Not as he pushed back mourning for a girl he clearly cared more about than he had realized.
Josh had assumed that Jess and Mike’s relationship was a fling. He was pretty sure Jess and Mike thought their relationship was a fling. But that wasn’t what Josh was seeing now. Not with how Mike had been acting since he’d gotten back from the cabin. Hell, Mike had gone from typical Popular-Pretty-Boy to Battle-Ready-Apocalypse-Survivor in just a few hours.
“I showed you parts of yourself that you were too afraid to visit!”
Josh had been aiming that statement more at Chris and the games he’d put him through, but whatever Mike had been through, it clearly applied to him now.
Fear had made him braver – brave enough to plunge headfirst into an abandoned mine without even blinking. Fear had made him resourceful – resourceful enough to somehow get his hands a jacket, a flashlight, and a machete. Not to mention that gun he’d hit him with earlier.
But what had fear done to Josh? Nothing good. It had just been fuel for his hallucinations to feed off.
Mike was moving again. Josh forced one foot in front of the other so he could keep following.
“Do me a favor: if you hear anything down here, don’t move.”
Josh wished he didn’t have any idea what that was about. “Was it real?” A bit vague, but he couldn’t think clearly enough to form a more specific question, so he hoped Mike would get his meaning. Josh may have been hallucinating, but he sure as hell hadn’t spaced out and walked down here. He’d been dragged. By what, he had no idea, but it had happened.
Mike’s shoulders tensed visibly. “Yeah… yeah, man. Those bastards are real, all right.”
They passed through a rotting doorway and into another room of the cave.
The smell filled Josh’s nostrils first, and he gagged before he even realized what it was from. “No… No!” Bile rose in his throat as he saw the pair of legs hanging from the ceiling ahead of them.
“Just… don’t look up, man. Just keep your eyes down,” Mike said thickly, doing exactly that himself as he walked under the body, his lips setting into a line so tight they paled.
Josh locked his eyes onto a dirt splotch on the back of Mike’s jacket and took a few rattling breaths. One step… Two steps… Three steps…
He just needed to focus on walking, and they’d be out of here soon enough…
He only took his gaze from the splotch when Mike stopped again and dropped to one knee to lower himself into… a lake.
They were going through a lake? In this weather? With those… things out there? Had Mike ever paid attention to any of the movies their group had watched?
Mike dropped into the water, a faint shiver rippling across his shoulders as he held his arms up to keep them dry.
Only way out. Right. Josh would just… keep following, then.
He quickly copied Mike’s actions, biting his teeth together to stop them from chattering as he sank into the frigid water. His heart thudded wildly just above the water level, and he moved timidly forward. Gotta keep moving…
He was just beginning to lose all feeling in his feet when Mike staggered, looking down at the water. He must have tripped over something–
The water exploded in front of Mike, showering them both as a tall, spindly monster burst from the depths of the murky lake with an ear-splitting shriek.
Josh froze, not because of Mike’s advice before, but because he was raking his eyes over the monster… over the ripples around them… over Mike… trying to figure out if the thing was real.
The thing shot out its ugly, lanky arm, grabbing Mike around the throat and hoisting him into the air as it shrieked into his face. A strangled yell escaped Mike as he clawed at the hand, his eyes blown wide in utter terror.
“Mike!” Josh yelled before he could stop himself.
The monster shrieked again, its head snapping towards him. In an instant, the monster raked its claws across Mike’s chest and threw him aside, clear across the cave and into the wall on the other side of the lake. He hit the wall with a sickening thud and crumpled to the ground, motionless.
Josh’s entire body felt like immovable stone. Drops of warmth dribbled down his face.
Mike’s blood. Mike’s blood was all over his face.
No, no, no, no, no, this couldn’t be real! This was just his mind. It had to be! Any second now, Mike would punch him in the face again and bring him back to reality.
But the monster did seem real. So, so real. But so did his hallucinations.
Another gut-turning screech. Blank, milky-white eyes swept past him and then back the other way.
“Don’t move,” Mike had said.
Move? He couldn’t even blink he was so petrified. The monster stalked around, looking for any sign of its prey.
Josh stared straight ahead, terrified even the slightest eye twitch might alert the thing to his location.
Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, don’tmovedon’tmovedon’tmove.
It was so close.
His lungs burned – when had he started holding his breath, anyway? – and he knew he couldn’t stay the way he was much longer.
Crack, clatter, clatter…
The thing shrieked one last time and tore off in the direction of the sound. Josh released his breath in a long whoosh, sucking in two more as he trembled and searched for Mike’s form in the darkness of the cave.
The green of Mike’s jacket stood out against the rock, and Josh’s heart skipped one of its hammering beats as he saw Mike’s arm flop back to the ground.
Oh. He’d thrown something to lure the monster off.
Wait, Mike was still alive! Barely.
Josh charged through the water with a newfound vigor, hosting himself onto the shore with a strength that had to be fueled by the adrenaline now coursing through his system. “Mike!”
Mike was on his side, breathing shallowly with his gaze unfocused.
“Mike!” Josh rolled him onto his back, clamping his hands over the long gash that had split the cloth of his shirt and the skin of his chest. Mike’s chest heaved and he bit his lip, a muffled cry trying to fight its way out.
Oh, hell. The blood. The blood. This wasn’t the movies. This wasn’t pig blood. This was the actual, human blood of his friend literally on his hands.
“Hannah,” Mike choked out.
Josh bit the inside of his cheek in surprise. What about Hannah? No, never mind. Mike was out of it. It didn’t mean anything.
Josh racked his brain, trying to remember all the details he’d learned about blood loss over the years. The cut was long, but it wasn’t deep. That was good, right? Mike still had a good chance of making it, but they needed to get out of here. “Mike. Mike, Mike! Look at me, Mike!”
Mike’s eyes focused a bit.
“Hey, man, we gotta get out of here, okay? I’m gonna help you up.”
Mike’s nod was so weak it might have been his imagination. That didn’t matter either. Wether or not Mike was up for it, they had to move, or they’d both be dead.
Fortunately, that… thing had thrown Mike up on the far side of lake, so he didn’t need to drag Mike through the water.
Josh grabbed Mike’s arm, throwing it over his shoulders before he lifted. Josh grunted, struggling under the weight of the taller man. Damn, he was heavy.
“Mike. Mike, which way?”
Mike’s answer was so soft, Josh couldn’t make out what he said, but he followed his line of sight in the direction he was supposed to take.
“Okay, okay, good. We’re going, we’re going.”
Mike grunted softly, his head falling off to one side.
Are you leaving us so soon?
Josh shook his head, trying to ignore Beth’s taunting voice.
Their progress was slow but constant as Josh staggered on under Mike’s deadweight–
No. Not going there. Not using that word. Mike was not dead. Mike wasn’t going to be dead.
Josh almost let out a cry of joy as the cold mountain air hit his face, but his fear of the thing kept him quiet. They were outside. Outside was good. It may have been cold and unwelcoming, but it was progress. It wouldn’t be long until he found a landmark he recognized. He may not have had any sense of direction in the mines, but nobody knew the surface of this mountain like he did. He’d be able to find his way back to the lodge. He had to.
Are you sure you want to go? It’s much warmer in here.
You’re not real, Hannah, Josh thought. No matter how genuine she sounded, there was no way his sweet baby sister would tell him to go back into some creepy-ass mine with a monster running around in it.
After his third time tripping on some unseen twig or rock in the snow, Josh was almost ready to take back his earlier thoughts. Almost. His breath fogged in front of his face, clouding his already hazy vision, his shoulders and calves ached with the effort of lugging Mike’s ridiculously heavy ass around, and the lower, uncovered parts of his arms were shaking with cold. Hell, Mike’s body heat was probably the only thing keeping him from hypothermia or frostbite right now.
Josh made a face at the thought. Sharing body heat with Michael Munroe was not something he cared to think about ever again.
He tripped over another snow-covered rock, stubbing his freezing toe. The string of swearwords that left his mouth was rendered unintelligible by him biting his lip. Mike’s weight was thrown forward again, nearly tipping them both over.
Should’ve paid more attention in weight-lifting class.
“Shut up, Chris,” Josh muttered.
Where the hell were they? He couldn’t see a damn thing with the trees blocking the moonlight, and Mike had dropped his flashlight back when that… thing grabbed him.
Josh froze – haha, pun not intended, but that too. He hadn’t stepped on any twigs or branches.
“Come on, Jess! We gotta keep moving!” a voice from behind him encouraged.
“Matt?” Josh shuffled around, turning the two of them before mentally berating himself for being so loud.
There were two startled gasps and then several more snapped twigs before Matt shoved his way out from behind a dense collection of branches… with Jessica staggering behind him.
Jess? She wasn’t dead? Mike had said she was dead. The blood on his shirt had been hers – well… the blood that was there before his chest got sliced open. Was this Jess real? Or something else his mind had conjured up to torture him with?
“Josh?” Matt’s eyes looked like they might pop out of his skull.
Josh flinched at the volume of Jessica’s voice, about to warn her to keep it down when she limped close enough for him to really take in her appearance.
She looked terrible – bruises and cuts littered her pale skin, all over her face and neck especially. Somehow, she seemed to have gotten her hands on a coat like the green one Mike had, but it was pretty easy to see that the only other thing she had on was her underwear and a pair of too-big boots. Damn, and he thought he was cold! What the hell had happened to her tonight? And was he sure he was ready to accept her presence as real?
Jessica was weeping something too distorted for him to understand as she reached out and cupped Mike’s face with both of her hands. The only thing he really got out of it was: “Mike? Michael!”
“Jess…” Josh gave the trees around them a nervous glance. “You need to keep your voice down. There’s… something out there…” Great. Now he did sound crazy. Like they were going to believe that–
“Yeah.” Matt let out a humorless laugh. “We know, believe me!” His brow was still pulled tight in confusion, though. “What I don’t know is how the hell you’re alive.”
“What?” Josh asked blankly.
“Dude. Chris and Ash said you got ripped apart in front of them by a–”
Oooh, right. Oh, damn. Matt was behind the times. Out of the loop. So far out of the loop, he wasn’t even in the circus. Circus? Where had that come from?
Matt was still talking. Oops. He’d tuned someone out again. Whatever. “Look, it’s… complicated.” There was no way in hell he was taking the time to explain that now. “I’ll fill you in later, but right now, we gotta get to the lodge.”
Matt snapped his mouth shut. “Right. Fine.” He looked Josh over once more. “You don’t look so good, though, man. Why don’t you let me take Mike?”
Officially the best news all night. All year, maybe. Especially since Matt – Josh was just noticing now – barely had a scratch on him and he was the tallest and most athletic of the guys in their group. He easily supported Mike’s weight.
“Try not to move him too much – he’s bleeding pretty badly.” At least the cold had slowed the blood loss a bit. That was one silver lining.
“What happened to him?” Jessica sobbed out. “That… creature?”
Josh gave a weak nod, the chill of the air biting his skin even more now that Matt had Mike and the adrenaline was dying down. He needed to say something. What was it? Something about that monster… Right. “Hey, um, that thing… It, uh… If you see it, don’t move. It can only see you if you’re moving.”
“Yeah, it also doesn’t like flare guns,” Matt muttered.
…Okay, there was obviously a story there, but they didn’t really have time to talk about it at the moment. “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare one of those on you, would you?”
Josh’s gaze flickered down to the glinting metal that was hanging from Mike’s side. “Well, machete it is then.” Not that he’d feel good about going up against that thing with a machete, but it was better than nothing.
Josh pulled the weapon from Mike’s belt loop and pointed with it. “Lodge is that way. We were supposed to meet Sam and whoever’s left there.” Whoever being the ‘everybody’ she and Mike had referred to.
Matt’s eyes lit up. “Em? Is she–”
Josh shook his head. “Dunno, man. Haven’t seen her.” Not since he’d locked the gate behind the two of them when they’d been heading for the cable car station.
Matt’s shoulders visibly sagged. “Okay… let’s just get moving.”
Josh hesitated, turning to Jessica again. Geez, she looked ready to keel over. “Jess, come here.”
She looked confused, but too tired to ask, so she limped over to him. He looped his left arm around her shoulders and gently pulled her to his chest. “We’ll walk slow, don’t worry.”
She gave a whimper in response, leaning into him as she shivered. She was weak, but at least she was lighter than Mike and still mostly standing on her own. He held her tightly as they started walking – if she caught her foot on something right now, she would fall on her face. They settled into a rhythm as they went along, and she let her head fall to rest between his shoulder and neck.
Josh let his shoulders relax a bit. She was real. Had to be.
Josh suppressed a cackle at the irony of the situation. Here he was, the original villain of this story, and now he was the one with the girl on one side and a machete on the other, leading their small group of battered survivors to safety. What the actual hell? This was supposed to be Mike’s thing, wasn’t it? He was the Action Hero, and Sam was the Final Girl.
And on that thought, a movie poster popped into Josh’s head. He bit his lip to keep quiet as he pictured Mike slightly to the right of the center, brandishing his machete while Jessica had her hands on his chest and looked up at him with doe eyes. Haha. That seemed about right. Yeah, and Sam would be a little to the left, standing alone and confident, her headband-flashlight thing illuminating the three of them in an otherwise dark setting – probably the mines. Oh, and Chris and Ashley would probably be in the background somewhere, gazing longingly at each other, but not touching. Totally like them.
Yep. He was so pitching this idea to his dad. Sounded just like one of his movies.
Jessica shivered again, pressing as close to him as she could. Well, at least now he was sharing body heat with someone other than Mike. Granted, he’d still prefer it to be a different blonde from their group–
Oh, shut up brain. Not the time. Sam probably hated him now, anyway. They’d all hate him when they found out the truth.