The Bearheart cabin sits in a quiet, rarely-visited corner of Mt. Rainier National Park, a ten-minute walk from Carbon River Ranger Station. It is a small, deep-brown cabin in the middle of a one-hundred-foot forest clearing -- a tiny island amidst an ocean of snow-caked spruce trees. The sudden snowstorms and resulting water-damage to the visitor centers have left the park mostly uninhabited this winter, apart from the rangers overseeing repairs, the construction workers who come out to the park whenever they feel like working in the cold (not often), and the five teenagers on holiday who decided to take advantage of the situation.
Spending a weekend in the snowy mountains had been Shawna White Cloud's idea: her father was a park ranger, and she and Bly Bearheart were rangers-in-training who had spent many weekends helping their seniors at the station, or enjoying the wilderness at the cabin with their families. Bly, being the oldest and most responsible of the group, convinced Shawna's dad to let her coven use the cabin for the weekend while the park was under repair. Coley, Stella, and Gretchen were virgins to the wilderness, and initially tagged along out of tradition, if anything -- the Hellraisers Club (as the five had called themselves since junior high) historically did everything together...especially in the absence of responsible adults.
Gretchen tunes out Stella's annoying, pointless Tennis Club anecdotes and instead listens to Shawna White Cloud in the kitchen, deducing the other side of the phonecall she's having with her father.
"The roads are closed," growls Gretchen, pulling her wool-lined leather coat tighter around her shivering body.
She sits at the dining table with Coley and Stella on the morning of their second day at Carbon River. Before she'd spoken, Coley had been hunching angrily over her smart phone and trying to comprehend its lack of service bars; while Stella had been warming up with another shot from the silver whiskey flask she'd stolen from her alcoholic father. Now Coley looks up in abject horror, her big doll eyes growing bigger. Stella merely blinks once, then takes another drink.
"She said we were only gonna be here for the weekend!" whines Coley.
Gretchen's sigh is almost a hiss as she lays her head on the table. Phonecall concluded, Shawna White Cloud walks slowly out of the kitchen and toward the table, smiling that sweet, sheepish smile of hers -- the smile that means she's happy, or confused, or annoyed, or about to deliver news worthy of killing the messenger.
Bly bursts through the front door just then, her blue coat and beanie caked with powdery snow. "Generator's all fueled up for the day," she says cheerfully.
"The half-breed's done it to us again, Tonto," says Gretchen, gesturing lazily to Shawna. "Got us into another fine mess."
Shawna's optimistic smile begins to crack. She looks at Bly to avoid having to look at the others. "The, um...roads are closed. Papa just called. We're gonna be stuck here for a while longer."
"How much longer?" says Bly, zero concern in her voice.
Shawna shrugs as she glances out the nearest window: "outside" has become a vague, distant outline of a forest lost in a flurry of white and gray. "Dunno. The phone lines are taking a beating, too, 'cos of the storm. He called four times before he got through, and he hasn't been able to reach the city at all. He or one of the other rangers will come check on us tomorrow or the day after. They have their hands full assessing the weather damage, though, so unless things get serious, there's no telling when they'll come. We're basically on our own, probably for the rest of the week."
Bly's energetic demeanor remains unchanged. "Okay," she says, and strides over to the kitchen, her braided hair wagging behind her. "I'll get breakfast started. Maybe we can go for a hike when the weather clears up."
Gretchen snorts loud enough that Shawna flinches. "Joy," she says.
"I don't mind hangin' out in the woods for another coupla days," says Stella, smiling stupidly.
"At least 'til the liquor runs out," says Gretchen, smirking.
Stella scowls at Gretchen. She caps her flask and tucks it back into her pocket.
Mid-evening on Day Three. The snow has started falling heavy again, and the sky is turning orange as the sun descends. During their fireside dinner, Bly -- noting Coley's skittishness each time the wind howls -- begins telling her friends about all the mythical monsters she knows from Chippewa legend, and legends from other tribes.
She tells stories about the skin-walkers, terrible witches who can shape-shift into any animal they desire, so long as they carry that animal's pelt; and the windigos, snow-dwelling demons with glowing orange eyes and gravestone-sized teeth, who terrorize their human victims before carrying them into the sky to be devoured; and Ugjuknarpak, the colossal, un-killable Alaskan sea-rat that drowns its victims before feasting on their bones. Through it all, Gretchen only pays mild attention to the details, while Coley hangs on every horrifying word.
Bly is in the middle of teaching the others how to pronounce "Ugjuknarpak" when the lights suddenly go out.
Coley immediately reverts to four years old and rattles off a string of terrified obscenities. Bly leaps from her seat and moves to the big metal furnace: it's dead, and quickly going cold. Shawna is already up and digging out the flashlights from her backpack.
"I thought you said the generator was full!" says Coley.
"The cold mighta froze it up," says Bly. "Just a matter of thawing it out in that case. The furnace is dead. Get a fire going, Gee."
Groaning, Gretchen complies and starts piling wood into the fireplace. She, Coley, and Stella gather around the fire while Shawna and Bly put on their coats and head outside to the generator shed.
They bring no power back with them, only bad news: the fan belt is busted, and no replacement could be found. The generator is officially useless. This prompts Shawna to call Papa at the ranger station.
There's no answer. She calls twice more with no result.
"We have plenty of firewood," says Shawna, trying to keep hold of her waning cheer. "Now we're basically camping in the woods with better shelter."
"Yeah," growls Gretchen, "and assloads of snow, and no roads to drive on in an emergency, and no goddamn phones."
"It ain't so bad, is it, Gee?" says Stella. "The air's clean up here at least. We got a warm fire to cook over. Remember when we got snowed in at yer gramma's place and stayed up all night tellin' ghost stories?"
"Remember the time I had my license suspended," says Gretchen, "and Bly was too drunk to drive us home from Tony's kegger, so I tried to drive us home and got pulled over? And while me and Bly fought over what we were gonna tell the cop, Shawna and Kenny Galloway started fucking in the backseat, with no clue what was going on?"
Stella is already giggling uncontrollably at the memory. Shawna isn't.
"We never get stranded in the woods when I'm the event coordinator," says Gretchen. "When I'm in charge, worst case scenario, somebody gets laid." She moans in agony and splays across the floorboards like a murder victim. "Sarah Moore's having a party at her house tonight, and we're stuck freezing our asses off in a blizzard!"
Shawna looks at her feet in silence for a minute with moist eyes. She says in a quiet voice, "I just wanted to do something special. Next semester we'll be too busy with finals to hang out much. When we graduate...it's basically 'goodbye Hellraisers Club,' y'know?"
Gretchen sits up with a mock gasp. "You mean no more camping trips?"
Shawna looks at Gretchen for a long time, then sulks through the kitchen to the back rooms and disappears. Gretchen sits with her legs criss-crossed, draws a cigarette and daintily lights it, then takes a long drag. The others try to find something to look at during the awkward silence.
"Wish her little brother hadn't killed himself," Gretchen mutters though a cloud of white smoke. She chuckles, reminiscing. "Wouldn't mind being snowed in with him for a week."
"Hey," says Bly.
Gretchen and the others glance up at Bly as she leans against the hearth: the shadows paint the Chippewa girl's gentle face into a mask of menace, and the hunting knife hanging from her belt is clearly visible.
"You watch your mouth," she says when she has Gretchen's attention.
Gretchen blows smoke in Bly's direction through her Cheshire Cat grin. "Great minds think alike, huh, Tonto?"
With a flick of the wrist Bly's knife leaves its sheath and embeds itself in the floorboards right between Gretchen's legs. Stella explodes with tipsy giggling.
Bly bends down to retrieve the knife, making sure to lean within kissing distance of Gretchen's shocked face. "No more 'Tonto' shit, either," she says.
Morning, Day Four. Bly grabs the foot of the snoring Gretchen's sleeping bag and pulls upward, dumping her onto the cold wooden floor. She awakens with an angry shriek.
"Breakfast is almost ready," says Bly. "Get your snow clothes on and go collect Shawna. She's outside somewhere."
The shivering Gretchen glares at her defiantly, but the tall Chippewa is unmoved. "Why me?" says Gretchen.
"'Cos you're an asshole," says Bly. "'Cos you're the reason she's out there, sulking. 'Cos I fuckin' said so. Take your pick from any o' those reasons, but do it anyhow." Then she strides back into the kitchen. With a sigh, Gretchen gets dressed.
The snow falls gently outside in the morning sun, but the wind is still strong enough to howl occasionally and shake the snow out of the tree boughs. Yawning, Gretchen scans the brilliant white field surrounding the cabin until she spots the fresh boot-shaped tracks leading fifty feet ahead, where the half-Indian in the dark green coat stands atop a hill on the edge of the woods: she faces away from the cabin, staring out into the swaying sea of trees.
She doesn't turn around as Gretchen crunch-crunches through the ankle-deep snow to the top of the hill. She only looks when Gretchen stops beside her, watching her curiously. Shawna gives her a half-hearted smile, then continues gazing at the forest.
"Tonto says to come inside," says Gretchen. "Almost time to eat."
Shawna mumbles a reply, but she doesn't move.
Gretchen clears her throat. "If I say I'm sorry, will you share whatever you're smoking?"
Shawna's breath comes out in misty white clouds as she laughs. "I'm not high. I'm just listening."
Gretchen stares up at the boughs of the nearest tree, towering at least sixty feet overhead. She sighs. "Well, I am what I am: a nasty bitch. So there's no point in my apologizing, 'cos you know I'll just make you upset about something else later. And Stella and Coley will be idiots, and Bly will be pissed at me, and we'll repeat the cycle 'til doomsday."
Shawna says nothing and continues gazing across the woods, her brow furrowed. Her optimistic smile is on vacation.
"Listen," she says finally.
Gretchen buries her gloved hands in her armpits and listens. Overhead the boughs rustle and whisper and the wind hums like a passing whale. Elsewhere the wind hums again in reply to its own call.
The woods seem to hypnotize her for a moment, and she finds herself curiously staring at one particular spruce tree in the far distance, somewhere near the river, bearing large, abnormal fruits in the upper boughs. Maybe weather balloons caught in the branches.
"Listen to what?" says Gretchen.
Shawna gazes a moment longer, squinting as if she's not sure of the answer, herself. Then she turns and starts crunching down the snowy hill. "I haven't seen or heard a single bird since we got here," she says finally.
"Birds migrate south for the winter," says Gretchen, crunching after her.
"Yeah. So do the birds north of us. They migrate here." Shawna stops and looks at the treetops again. "It's like they went home early."
Walking back to the cabin, Gretchen realizes Shawna isn't following her: she's heading for the forest, where the trees part slightly to indicate the path to Carbon River Ranger Station.
Gretchen calls her, annoyed. "Where you going?"
"I'm gonna see if someone's at the station. Maybe they got a fan belt we can borrow."
"Eat first, will ya?" says Gretchen with a wrinkled basset hound brow. "If I go back alone, Bly's gonna make me into a new coat."
Shawna smiles her sweet little smile and laughs. She follows Gretchen inside.
"You're sure she's seen a generator before?" says Gretchen with a huff. "Coming out here with Shawna wasn't just a weird recurring dream?"
"She oughta know how to fix it by now," says Stella, watching for Bly at the window like a dog waiting for its master to come home.
Come late evening, while searching the cabin for any supplies that she might have missed, Bly had come across a miracle: the misplaced generator fan belt. With the retreating sun plunging Carbon River slowly into darkness, she'd promised light and warmth within the hour as she donned her blue winter coat and bounded outside to the generator shed behind the cabin. That was eight minutes ago, and still the cabin's only source of light and heat is the crackling fire.
Gretchen and Coley sit at the fire, waiting. Outside the wind is rough enough to give drivers steering trouble on the highway, but the snow falls in thin sheets.
"You can't see the generator shed from there, idiot," says Gretchen to Stella. "It's in back of the cabin. You'd hafta go outside."
Stella walks back to the fire and sits with her legs crossed, breaking out her flask again. "Fuck it, then."
Gretchen snatches the flask from Stella's hands and takes a swig from it. "You're hoarding it," she says, waggling the flask for emphasis. "Gonna end up like Daddy if you keep it up."
Stella glares at her friend as she snatches the flask back. "Izzat how it works? Then your Mommy Dearest must suck a lot of old man cock."
Gretchen laughs. "My Mommy Dearest is a brownie scout."
Two minutes pass in silence, apart from the crackling of the fire and the low, steady howl of the wind. Outside the snowstorm casts a thick white veil over the woods, as if something has agitated it.
Coley shivers. "I hate that," she says. "Wind isn't alive. It shouldn't make sounds like it's alive."
"Of all the stupid things I've heard come outta your mouth," says Gretchen.
She doesn't finish: outside the snow crunches under the weight of rapidly moving boots. Then Bly bursts through the door, scattering snow all over the floorboards. She flings the door shut behind her and leaps to the window, watching the sky with erratic eyes as her breath comes in short gasps.
The other girls stare at her like she's wearing a clown suit.
"What's up?" says Stella.
Bly doesn't hear her: she strides into the kitchen, grabbing the telephone receiver and dialing with trembling fingers. She puts the receiver to her ear and returns to the window to stare at the forest. The line rings endlessly.
"What is it?" says Gretchen, standing.
Muttering obscenities under her breath, Bly starts to dial again when Gretchen takes the receiver from her hand and shouts, "Talk to me!"
Bly suddenly seems awakened from a bad dream, staring first at Gretchen, then Coley, then Stella like a deer put on high alert.
"Can you...?" she says, and trails off momentarily. "Can you guys come look at something for a minute? I just...need someone to tell me that I'm not crazy."
The three girls look at each other, then back at Bly.
"Before nightfall," Bly adds. She puts noticeable weight on the statement.
They leave the cabin in a color-coded line: Bly in her blue coat, Gretchen in her dark brown wooly coat, Stella in bright green, Coley in purple with a fuzzy white collar. They appear to have stepped out into a giant Carbon River snowglobe -- beyond the first few rows of trees, the forest all around them is obscured by misty white. Just above the horizon, the sun wades in an otherworldly pink-and-orange sky.
"I'm gonna follow the tracks I just left from the front door," says Bly. "Walk single file behind me, and only on my tracks. The tracks to our left are Shawna's from when she left for the ranger station. Don't touch 'em."
"This is what you were doing instead of fixing the generator?" says Gretchen, already bored.
"Just watch her tracks as we walk. You'll see what I mean in a minute."
Shawna's trail curves right from the cabin door, past the window, past the olive green ranger jeep, toward the parted trees indicating the path to the ranger station. The four girls walk in silence, Coley shuddering every time the wind howls, Bly pointing at Shawna's tracks again every few yards.
Twenty feet from the edge of the woods, Shawna's tracks stop.
Coley, Stella, and Gretchen stand in the snowfall, staring and saying nothing. They take turns glancing at their surroundings, finding only the tracks leading from the cabin, and endless undisturbed white in all other directions.
Gretchen looks at Bly and finds her staring skyward again, scanning the treetops with moist eyes, clutching the hilt of her hunting knife in a white-knuckled fist.
"Bly," says Gretchen slowly.
"I'm not crazy, right?" says Bly in a low, unnaturally calm voice. She points her blade at the ground. "The tracks just stop, right?"
"Bly, what's the knife for?"
Bly doesn't hear her: she turns slowly in a circle, watching the treetops. Now Coley and Stella are doing it, too, unsure of what they're looking for.
Gretchen repeats Bly's name, but Bly ignores her and says, "D'you guys have any thoughts to add?"
"They're just tracks in the snow, Bly," says Gretchen.
Bly looks Gretchen in the eyes and flails the knife at the tracks. "And they don't go anywhere! They just stop dead! What'd she do, flap her arms and fly to the ranger station?"
"What's in the trees?" says Coley, her voice trembling. "You keep watching the trees."
"Bly, for real," says Gretchen. "Put the knife away."
"Everyone back inside," says Bly.
"What about the generator?" says Stella.
"No generator. We're going back inside. All of us. Now."
"What the hell's got you so worked up?" says Gretchen.
Coley, shivering harder, says in a very small voice, "Windigo."
Everyone looks at Coley. Coley stares at Bly, awaiting a reply. Bly says nothing.
Gretchen points her finger at Coley's nose. "Don't even think about it. Bly planted those spook stories in your head, and now they're running away with your tiny little ape-brain! Shawna's at the ranger station, or she's spacing out in the woods again. Snow coulda fallen from the trees and covered the rest of her trail."
"I called the station," says Bly, shaking her head, still watching the forest. "Nobody's there."
"So the phones are out. So we walk ten teeny little minutes to the--"
Bly looks hard into Gretchen's eyes. "The phones are working! There's nobody there!"
"So we walk and wait for them!"
"The sun'll be down before we get back. Everyone inside! I mean it!"
"What if she got hurt on the path?" says Stella. "She could freeze to death!" She then sighs in disgust as Coley dashes back to the safety of the cabin.
Breaking out her smart phone and accessing her flashlight app, Gretchen says, "We can look for Shawna 'til dark. No sense in all of us getting lost. We just walk to the ranger station and see who's there, then we head right back. We're gone a half hour tops."
Bly neither speaks nor moves while Stella is already trudging through the snow to the ranger station path. The sun has already begun creeping beneath the distant mountains.
For once, Gretchen looks at Bly without a sign of disdain or smarm. "We'd feel a lot safer if you were with us."
Bly clenches her jaws together as she reflects on Gretchen's solution to the traffic cop incident, and several other terrible scenarios in which Gretchen's boneheaded resolve had been the rubber cement keeping the Hellraisers Club from breaking apart. She swallows hard, then reluctantly heads into the trees with Gretchen at her heels.
Carbon River Ranger Station is an even smaller cabin than the Bearheart, slightly larger than a public restroom facility -- it sits in its own little snowy clearing on the lip of a sprawling valley, with the park road cutting through the clearing's belly like an asphalt river. A ramada reaches ten feet out from the road-side walls to protect visitors from rain and snow as they read the historical bulletin boards by the entrance.
The lights are on inside, the furnace toasty warm. Apart from a couple coffee cups in the front office -- cold to the touch -- the girls find no trace of Shawna or the park rangers. Bly finds a set of car keys on the reception desk and ducks outside to check the perimeter; Gretchen dials the Bearheart cabin on the office phone. It rings a dozen times before Coley finally answers, only to get an earful from Gretchen for taking so long.
"Shawna turn up?" says Gretchen.
"N-No, she hasn't. Guys, it's real dark here now. Hurry back already, wouldja?"
Gretchen's throat growls in disgust as she hangs up.
Bly returns, tossing the car keys on the reception desk. "There's a jeep out back," says Bly. "I can't find hide nor hair of anybody who drove it. No tracks anywhere."
She leans forward on the reception desk and takes a deep breath, her eyes bouncing erratically around the office. "If the tracks have been snowed over, that means nobody's been here since Shawna talked to her dad."
"It's not their only jeep," says Gretchen. "It just means they've been working all this time. He probably called from one of the visitor centers."
"It means," says Bly, "that I was right, and Shawna never made it here."
The girls stand in silence, listening to the low howl of the wind outside.
"What now?" says Stella. "Do we chill here or go back?"
Bly stays frozen at the desk, clenching her teeth, staring ahead at nothing. Gretchen stands with her arms folded, looking from one friend to the other.
"Coley's getting scared," says Gretchen, tucking her trembling hands under her armpits. "We should head back before she has a psychotic fit."
Bly doesn't seem to want to move, but after a minute her muscles relax and she lets out an unsteady sigh. "We spread a hundred feet apart on the way back. You south of me, Stella north. I'll take the normal path. If Shawna's in the woods, maybe one of us will find her that way." She glances out the rear window, at the dim orange sky glowing on the other side of the valley. "When the stars come out, you both head toward me with no delay. I'll stand and wait, and we'll all head back together and try again in the morning."
Gretchen scribbles a note before following the others out the door, leaving it in an obvious spot on the reception desk.
"Call Bearheart Cabin as soon as you're in! --G"
In the daylight the forest is vast enough; at night it becomes an endless hell of shadows and trees that, even with access to a compass, seems to lead only in circles, if anywhere at all.
Even Gretchen's echo refuses to answer her cries to Shawna. When the first star shines in the sky, Gretchen accesses her compass app and starts heading north. After a minute's stumbling through the forest, she reaches the cabin trail at the same time as Stella.
"Where's Tonto?" says Gretchen.
Stella looks all around them. "You didn't see her?"
They waste a few minutes circling the area, calling Bly's name, neither one leaving the other's sight. There's no response.
"God....damn it," Gretchen snarls. "Stupid squaw!"
"We can't find either of them in the dark," says Stella. "We should head back."
"I'll bet you even money she's already run back to the fuckin' cabin," says Gretchen. Then she shouts into the trees, "Enjoy sleeping in the woods tonight, Shawna, you half-breed slut!"
Neither Gretchen nor Stella says anything on the brisk walk back to the cabin, hoping to hear anything that sounds remotely like Shawna or Bly. They only hear the rustling of the tree boughs, the crunch of their boots in the snow, and the low, steady howl of the wind. A nagging feeling tickles some primal part of Gretchen's psyche, like the forest itself is watching her. She refuses to turn around and look, like Stella does every six seconds.
Now and then a cold gust of wind rolls through the trees to chill them to the bone and wrinkle their noses with an ancient, rotten smell from deep within the forest. Each time they smell it, the scent is stronger, as if it's gaining on them; and each time, Stella quickens her pace, forcing Gretchen to do the same. By the time they break out of the woods, they're moving at a dead run.
Bly isn't at the cabin -- only Coley, trembling in the corner by the fireplace.
Midnight. Outside the storm howls on, playing soft, hideous, droning notes on the cabin chimney. Coley huddles by the window, staring out at the surrounding woods, trying not to shiver or sniffle and failing at both endeavors. Stella and Gretchen sit in the warm orange glow of the fire, now the only light source in the entire park -- thick shadows carpet everything beyond arm's reach of the fireplace, and past the kitchen door the building ceases to exist.
Stella tosses another log on; Gretchen sits with the cabin phone to her ear as it rings unanswered for the thirtieth time. She debates whether or not to share something that had bothered her during their fruitless search for Shawna.
Loathing the silence, she decides to share. "We shoulda run into some kind of wildlife out there, shouldn't we? Before nightfall."
Stella glances at Gretchen briefly in mid-drink from her flask. "Be glad we didn't."
"Shawna said there've been no birds in the woods since we got here. The forest's been dead quiet all this time. I never noticed 'til she pointed it out. Did you?"
Stella struggles to think in spite of the alcohol sloshing around in her head. She shakes her head no.
Gretchen slaps the flask out of Stella's hand and across the room. "Sober up, goddammit!"
"What the hell!" shouts Stella.
"Nobody drinks or smokes anything 'til we get outta here, you got it? Bad enough that the best of us are missing. Don't need a drunk tripping us up, too."
"Oh, now you call 'em the best of us," says Stella, baring her teeth as she speaks. "Why can't ya say that when they're around to hear it, you fuckin' hypocrite? What kinda nice things d'ya say about me n' Coley when we aren't around?"
Gretchen doesn't reply and stares at the wall; her phone call remains unanswered, so she hangs up. Stella sits quietly fidgeting, already missing her flask, but not daring to retrieve it.
"Somethin' scared 'em off," says Coley after a long silence.
Stella and Gretchen turn to Coley and find her still staring out the window, watching the woods with eyes that seem ready to pop out of her head and bounce off the glass.
"When animals get scared," she says, "they don't hang around what scares 'em. They leave. That's why it's so quiet here." Coley looks at her friends over her shoulder. "Somethin' new moved in. Somethin' that doesn't belong here."
"Don't start with that Indian legend bullshit," says Gretchen.
"What the hell you talkin' about?" says Stella.
"Don't you listen to anyone but yourselves?" snaps Coley, frightened tears welling in her eyes. "The windigo! The snow demon that brought the storm and trapped us here! Bly said it's giant and gangly and has huge orange eyes the size o' jeep tires and teeth the size o' gravestones and smells like an old slaughterhouse! It hoards human flesh in pots and containers, and it's always hungry! It's only takin' us one by one 'cos it loves to stalk and torment its prey just for the f--!"
WHACK! An airborne firewood log crashes against the window frame by Coley's head: she shrinks away from it with a mousey squeak.
"Not another word o' that childish crap!" shouts Gretchen.
"Where's Shawna, then?" sobs Coley. "Where's Bly? What's happened to 'em?"
"Maybe Bly's snapped and she's brought us out here to kill us all. She brought up the windigo, and it was her idea to split up and search--"
"Bly would never hurt us! She sure as hell wouldn't hurt Shawna!"
"She's a crazy bitch who throws knives at people! She's been acting nuts ever since we arrived! You'd rather believe there's a mythical monster watching us from those woods, waiting for us to separate again?"
"It makes more sense than Bly sittin' out there in a blizzard with no fire!"
Gretchen doesn't reply. She scowls at the phone as she dials another visitor center. Coley, lip quivering, resumes staring out the window.
"Paradise Jackson Visitor Center," says a park ranger voice after the fourth ring.
Gretchen nearly hits the ceiling. "Yes! Hello!"
"Mt. Rainier National Park is currently closed. If you would like to leave a message..."
Gretchen hangs up.
With a long sigh, Stella pulls her legs in and rests her chin on her knees. She rocks back and forth, gazing into the fire. "Why don't we just drive outta here?" she says after a minute. "We got the keys. Just drive home and tell somebody what's happened."
Gretchen stretches out on the floor. "Dunno the condition of the roads. If we crash, we'll be walking home across miles of forest and blizzard. Maybe Shawna and Bly could survive a brutal hike like that. Not three pampered bitches like us."
"So how long 'til someone comes to check up on us?" says Stella.
Gretchen shrugs. "Figured they would have by now."
Stella curls into a tight little ball as she gazes into the fire. "What if," she starts to say, then pauses as if the words are painful to get out. "What if he already did come to check on us? What if he's disappeared, too?"
Gretchen says nothing.
"What if the rangers went first?"
Gretchen still says nothing.
All three girls nearly jump out of their skins as something solid hits the front door from outside. The door creaks and groans as it slowly bends in its frame, flexed inward by some powerful force.
The girls sit motionless for a minute, waiting for the door to burst off of its hinges.
It suddenly returns to its normal shape, rattling slightly.
Standing quickly to her feet, Gretchen moves to the door just as Coley looks back out the window.
Coley erupts in an insane frenzy of screaming and backs away from the window, unable to tear her bloodshot eyes from it.
"Izzlooknatmeee!" she babbles between screams. "Jezchris'izzlooknatmeee!"
Gretchen and Stella run to her as she crashes against the opposite wall, sinks to the floor, and continues to scream until she faints.
Stella lays her friend on her back and fans her pale, sweat-drenched face in the hope of reviving her while Gretchen runs to the door and throws it open. There is nothing beyond it but endless snow, endless forest, and endless night.
Stuck blade-first in the center of the door is Bly Bearheart's hunting knife.
"I couldn't stop her," snivels Stella as she kneels over Gretchen's sleeping bag, wearing her snow gear.
Gretchen squints her sleepy eyes at the morning light. She sits up halfway and says, "Whunh?"
"Coley," says Stella with a sob. "She's gone. I woke up to her cryin' and just caught her runnin' out the door, sayin' she had to get away from this evil place. I got up and ran out after her, and she was already gone!"
Gretchen throws on her coat and follows Stella outside, where the storm has lulled into a strong breeze. Last night's heavy snow has nearly erased all traces of yesterday's tracks. Only one fresh set of tracks can be found, leading in great strides from the front stoop of the cabin.
They lead twenty-five feet from the cabin and stop.
That nagging feeling again. Gretchen watches the surrounding forest, and it seems to watch her back. Beside her Stella cries and snivels quietly to herself.
"I swear I wasn't drunk or nothin'," says Stella. "She was just gone. I was sober, I sweartagawd."
Gretchen half-hears her as she finds herself staring at the odd spruce tree in the distance again, its colorful "fruit" clustered near the top of the trunk. Still watching the tree, Gretchen wraps one arm around Stella's shoulders and pulls her sobbing friend into a hug, kissing her on the head.
"We'll chance the road," she says. "And don't leave my side, all right?"
The jeep moves at moderate speed as Gretchen gets accustomed to driving on the snow-blanketed road through Mt. Rainier National Park, towards the exit that will take them back to civilization. Twice she's narrowly avoided skidding off-road and straight into a ditch.
"Probably shouldn't mention that my license was suspended again," says Gretchen. The girls manage to laugh a little.
The jeep skids and bumps and wobbles around every icy turn as it gets closer to the river crossing. Gretchen finds herself watching the skies instinctively -- damning Bly under her breath -- as she searches for signs, markers, or any indication that she is indeed going toward the highway and not to another area of the doomed park.
"The hell's that?" says Stella, pointing toward the very thing Gretchen is now staring at high up in the trees. The distraction nearly causes her to veer off the road at the next turn.
Gretchen slows to a stop and gets out. Stella, asking what the hell she's doing, follows suit. They stare up at the top of the spruce tree where dangle the mystery objects Gretchen had seen twice before and failed to identify. She uses her phone's camera app to get a closer view of them.
"Sacks" was the word she'd been looking for: jackets and coats tied into makeshift sacks, hanging apple-like from the highest branches nearly ninety feet up. There are six in total. Three of them once belonged to park rangers.
Gretchen and Stella recognize the other three right away: Dark Green, Blue, and Purple with White Fuzzy Collar.
"Are those ours...?" says Stella.
Gretchen's feet want to go toward the driver's seat. The squirming feeling inside her gut reaches upward, toward the jackets.
"Gee," says Stella, backing toward the jeep. "C'mon, Gee, let's go!"
Gretchen is only vaguely aware of her friend's words as she watches Shawna's dark green jacket sway gently in the breeze, the snow clinging delicately to the fabric.
She finds herself choking on a sob, covering her face with one hand. When Gretchen doesn't respond to her name, Stella approaches her and gently puts her hands on her friend's shoulders.
"It's gotta end like this, doesn't it?" Gretchen says in a strangled voice. "With me being the asshole. Especially to her. Cuttin' her down, callin' her all that vile shit, all for tryin' to be nice..."
"Gee, don't," says Stella. "It's okay."
Gretchen looks at Stella, half-blinded by tears, mewling, "They knew I loved them, right? I mean...I just do everything the mean way. I just do. It doesn't mean I didn't...that I don't love all of you. You all knew that, right?"
"Sure," says Stella.
Gretchen stares up at the jackets and wipes the tears from her eyes. She takes a deep breath and releases it. "Sure," she says flatly.
She grabs the lowest of the spruce's branches, planting one foot against the bark.
"Gee!" says Stella. "Leave it!"
"I owe 'em this much," says Gretchen. "It might be all we'll ever see of them again. I hafta take 'em with."
When she has a firm grip, Gretchen starts climbing, ignoring the melted snow dripping in her eyes from the branches above. She can't remember when she last climbed a tree. The tree in her yard seemed so tall as a child. Impossibly tall. A shrub compared to this tree. A fern.
Ten feet up the tree she hears Stella say from the base of the trunk, "You're gonna break your neck, stupid!"
Gretchen ignores her and keeps climbing, more swiftly as she gets the hang of it for the first time in ten years. She makes it thirty feet up the tree, then forty, then fifty, remembering never to look down. The strong breeze rarely threatens her foothold -- it could accelerate to brutal, sweeping gusts any minute, and then what?
Her breath comes in narrow wheezes and she curses the cigarettes in her jacket pocket.
Sixty feet. She can see the stitch-work of the jackets overhead with her naked eyes. She can't see the ground in her peripheral vision anymore -- just trunks and leaves and the distant mountains suspended in the air. The icy droplets keep landing on her face and now they're running into her eyes. She pauses, steadies herself, wipes the moisture from her face, and reaches for the next branch.
She stares long and hard at her hand.
The chill of the winter air slithers under her coat and across her skin. She catches the next cold droplet on the same hand. It runs deep red down her palm and spatters on her wool collar. The harsh metallic stench suddenly registers in her nostrils.
The droplets are coming from Shawna's bundle, seeping through the stitches now and then as it sways to and fro.
The insane notion of a squirrel hoarding nuts pops into Gretchen's head.
An animal-like sound rolls out of her chest. Her descent is a chaotic, rodent-like scurry: she slips often, narrowly catching branches with her flailing arms to keep her head above her feet. She almost doesn't notice the impact when she finally lands at Stella's feet. Her body doesn't register the pain from all the scratches and bruises, from the ribs she knows she's fractured: the moment she's on the ground she scrambles and slides across the road on all fours, to the trees on the other side. There she vomits and sobs back and forth for a full minute, Stella's frightened questions entirely unnoticed.
When Gretchen's senses return, fear is the first in line. She backs against the nearest tree and stares with insane rolling eyes at the dangling bundles. Stella keeps asking if she's all right, asking if she hurt herself, telling her she's bleeding. Not my blood, Gretchen wants to say, but her tongue has turned to ice and all she can do is make simpering animal sounds.
She throws her hands over Stella's mouth and shushes her, smearing blood on her face. The girls stand there in silence for several minutes, listening. Just the rustling of the trees. The low, steady howl of the wind. The hum of the idle jeep.
"Move," wheezes Gretchen, and races around the jeep to the driver's side.
She slips in the sleet while reaching for the door handle and faceplants on the cold, wet road, snarling from the stabbing pains in her right side that suddenly begin to register -- ribs cracked, shoulder tendons strained and spasming. The wind picks up briefly and washes goosebumps across her entire body, wrenches her stomach with the death-stench from the forest. For a brief moment the road is bathed in shade, as if the sun were blinking. The awful smell is gone by the time Gretchen scrambles to her feet and throws herself behind the wheel.
Her hand is on the clutch when she realizes Stella isn't with her. The passenger door is open, but Stella isn't there.
Gretchen whirls around in her seat one way, then the other. She checks the mirrors. She checks the windows. She checks everything she can without getting out of the jeep.
Stella is gone.
Something the size of a bowling ball forms in her stomach and rolls its way up her throat: it bursts out of her mouth as an uncontrollable torrent of weeping. Her head falls against the steering wheel as sobs wrack her body, her hands beating the dashboard again and again seemingly on their own. In the next minute, pain and survival instinct slap her across the face and she's putting the jeep in gear and pressing the pedal to the floor.
She'd driven another half-mile across slippery, uncooperative road before she came to the massive spruce tree splayed across it like a police barricade. The jeep had skidded to a stop perpendicular to the road, the driver's door pressed against the tree trunk, and it has been sitting in that position for the last three minutes with the engine off. Provided she doesn't get the tires stuck in the mud flanking the road, she can probably drive across the park to another exit and be home before dinner.
Probably, but she won't. That path will be blocked as well by the time she reaches it. If she reaches it at all, which she won't. She's the last one. She's the last one and she can't run fast enough. Nobody can run or drive or fly fast enough.
She can't deny it anymore. Not after seeing those bundles. Not after witnessing the sight before her now. She knows what frightened Bly out of her wits and drove Coley utterly insane. It could have taken them all in one easy sweep, but that would spoil the fun of watching its quarry run in terrified circles each time it snatched one away.
Gretchen sits in the driver's seat of the idle jeep, watching in silent, shuddering resignation as a gangly, bone-white arm the size of a redwood tree rises from the forest, casually reaching to the top of the bundle-tree with a gnarled hand as big as the jeep.
It lovingly adds Stella's bright green bundle to its colorful food hoard.
Then the arm ducks out of sight again. The windigo remains crouched among the snow-showered trees where she can't see it, even though it knows that she knows it's there -- watching her reaction with its giant orange eyes, eagerly gnashing its gravestone-sized teeth, stinking of blood and ancient decay.
The woods are calm, the only sounds the rustling of the trees and the low, steady howl of the wind. As the snowfall thickens, the forest landscape becomes a beautiful, white, mocking portrait of serenity.
Gretchen closes her eyes and waits.
Written by Mike MacDee