The following is a short story I started working on a little over a month ago for the nosleep subreddit. If you have the time for a read, let me know what you think!
Part 1 – Hello Neighbor
I live in a small town, if the word “town” is even appropriate, off of highway 97 in British Columbia a bit south of Prince George. The mines are closed and have been for decades. The lumber mill burned down over seven years ago and never re-opened. Our gravel and dirt roads cut through the forest and connect the few cabins that are still homes.
Last night was looking to be just like the previous night, and the night before that. Cold, dark and silent except for the sound of the wind through the trees.
I was getting ready for bed and cleaning up from dinner when I heard a soft knocking at my door – soft enough that I thought I had at first imagined it. I opened the door and there stood my nearest neighbor, Paxton, caught in the yellow glow of my single porch light. His white stubble was longer than usual and it looked like he had somehow lost considerable weight in the three weeks since I had last spoken with him. Paxton, never having been close to chubby, was now an alarming sight.
“Hey Paxton, is everything alright?” I asked as I peered around. I didn’t see any sign of his old Ford.
“Hi neighbor…” Paxton started. His pale eyes shook a little as he hesitated. “I need your help.”
“Of course, what’s the problem?” I asked, trying to sound encouraging, trying to overcome the unease growing in my gut.
“I need to get my,” Paxton shivered, “my things. Yes. But it is cold and slick on the way.” I had no idea what he was talking about but didn’t have a chance to ask. “Well my vehicle is stuck!” he shouted the final word and started coughing but kept his hands at his sides. Once the coughing had subsided, he simply gazed past me.
“You hiked here in the dark from your house?” I asked, equally confused and concerned. His house was at least a twenty minute drive through dense forest. Paxton didn’t seem to hear my question.
“Yeah that’s right, the old machine is buried in snow and rocks! If I was stronger. Can you come with me? Help me, please?” he asked, his eyes still not really focusing on me properly.
I was perplexed. We hadn’t had any significant snowfall in almost a month. I noticed Paxton smelled weird but not of bourbon. “How about I give you a ride home and I come up tomorrow morning to see what can be done, when we have some light?” I asked hoping to sound reasonable. Paxton didn’t blink. “Maybe I can warm you up with some coffee before we head out?” I added. What were the signs of a stroke? And what about his wife, Jessica - what was she thinking right now?
“We cannot drive. We can walk? The night is nice.” Paxton looked at me and twitched.
“I’m sorry Pax”, I began slowly, “but I’m exhausted – I was hoping to get a good night’s sleep tonight.”
After a brief pause, Paxton broke out in the widest smile I’d ever seen on his face. “I’m so sorry neighbor!” he burst out laughing. The laughter turned into another series of coughs. He smacked himself in the chest, hard. “I will go!” he abruptly announced, and then turned away.
I started after him but stopped when I noticed the back of his jacket. Down fluttered from the edges of large tears. The back of his jeans appeared dark, as if stained. I watched as Paxton disappeared into the night. I closed the door, locked it, and went to the phone.
I picked up the phone and dialed his home hoping to speak with Jessica. The phone rang and rang and no one picked up.
Something was clearly wrong. I looked around my living room for nothing in particular, trying to come up with an idea - or maybe more of an answer than an idea.
I picked up the phone again, but this time dialed Roger who lived much closer to Paxton. After a few rings the phone was picked up. “Huh?” a tired voice answered.
“Hi, Roger? This is Dan.” I explained.
“Dan?” Roger asked, still half asleep. “Dan? What the hell?” he demanded. “God damnit,” he grumbled as something was knocked over.
“Roger, I’m sorry to be calling late and waking you up. Have you seen Paxton today?” I asked, hoping to pull Roger’s attention back from whatever the hell was going on, on his end.
“Actually, Paxton was by tonight. I think he was drunk,” Roger said from a distance. Something made a loud smack near the phone. “There,” Roger noted and continued, “yeah he was acting, if he was 45 years younger and we were in the city I would have said he was on drugs.”
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “He was just here, here at my place, a few minutes ago. I thought maybe he needed to go to the hospital?” I offered, “he wasn’t making sense. And it looked like…” I tried to think about how to describe what I had seen.
“Looked like what?” Roger asked.
“It looked like he had been attacked or something,” I tried to explain, “his back was all torn up.” Roger was silent. “And when he left, just a few minutes ago I tried calling Jessica, but no one would pick up.”
“I’ll get dressed and go on over,” Roger stated, “and see what is happening.”
“Thank you,” I replied, relieved, “I’ll get in my truck and meet you there.”
“Okay,” Roger confirmed and hung up.
I put down the phone and grabbed my jacket and keys. I rushed through the front door and locked it. I wrestled with the idea of bringing my revolver for a moment but decided I was overreacting. I ran to my Toyota and started it. As I rolled down my driveway I wondered if I was going to pass Paxton on the way to his house.
The drive through the forest was oddly uneventful. I never did see Paxton on the road. I eventually turned onto Paxton’s driveway and zigzagged my way up to his cabin. Roger’s newer Toyota was already parked, and the front door to the cabin was wide open. There was no sign of anyone.
I parked along side Roger’s truck and got out. I noticed that there was no snow on the ground and no sign of Paxton’s old Ford.
I couldn’t hear anything as I walked to the front door. Even the wind had died for the moment. I got to the front door and peeked inside. The lights were on and nothing looked out of place. I walked in slowly, into the center of the large living room. Even with the fireplace dark, the room still felt cozy. I thought I heard something below. Paxton’s cabin was quite large with both an upper and lower level.
“Hi, it’s Dan!” I announced as I went to the stairs that would take me down. The sound became clearer as I descended the stairs. At the bottom was an open door leading to a poorly lit room. The sound of someone sobbing spilled out in bursts.
I cautiously entered the room and looked around. The wall opposite me was lined in shelves while the area to my right was a mass of wooden drawers and cabinets. The left wall was divided by a wide doorway which opened to another room. Flopped on the floor at the opening was Roger with his head pressed into the floorboards.
Roger was not a small man and blocked most of the doorway. I crouched down and put my hands on his shoulders. After a moment, he looked up at me, his leathery face wet and blotchy. He opened his mouth to say something, but there was only silence as tears dripped free from his gray beard. After a moment he just closed his mouth and shook his head.
My stomach tightened and a cold sweat flashed along my back. I looked past Roger into the room which was full of tools and tables. On the ground a bit past Roger a single small shoe was sitting on its side. Behind the shoe, a motionless leg lay partially obscured by a workbench.
I stood up and moved to go past Roger. He made a wet sound and grabbed at me but I brushed his hands away as I stepped over him. I grew cold as I approached the leg. I walked around the workbench and looked down at Jessica.
She was clearly dead. Her torso was oddly twisted and misshapen. Her head was a mess and I couldn’t find her face. Her fists were splattered with blood but there was strangely little blood on the ground – from movies I would have expected Jessica to be soaking in a lake of blood.
I violently sucked in some air and backed away toward Roger. The abrupt knocking of overhead steps shattered the silence. I stumbled and latched onto a nearby table for support. I stared upwards as the steps came to a halt. I looked over and Roger was dragging himself up off the floor. The hard footsteps resumed.
I began looking over the room, searching for potential weapons. I spotted a claw hammer and took it off the wall and played with it in my hands. It felt good and heavy. I started searching for a weapon for Roger but when I looked over, he was gone. “Roger!” I hissed. What the fuck!
The footsteps above seemed to be moving toward the staircase which led to the bottom floor. I quickly snatched the nearest tool, a mallet, and ran out and through the storage room. I caught Roger climbing the staircase, already halfway to the top. Maybe he didn’t need a weapon? He was at least three times the size of Paxton, but after seeing Jessica I didn’t feel confident in anything.
“Roger!” I shouted as quietly as possible. Roger ignored me and continued climbing. After a moment of hesitation, I jumped to the first step and followed after him.
I heard talking as I approached the living room. I surmounted the final step but could go no farther – Roger had his back to me and blacked out most of the living room. I pushed past his right side, eager but not ready to confront Paxton. Instead I found a dark-haired woman with a canvas duffle bag slung over her shoulder and some kind of gun holstered on her right hip.
Roger was still wiping at his face. He moved to give me some space and the woman took a step back to accommodate the growing circle. “Dan, this is Sam,” Roger explained, “I called her just before I left. I thought it might be better if she…” he trailed off.
“Hi,” I said and fumbled with the hammer and mallet. I put my hand out.
“Hey,” she returned as she quickly shook my hand.
There was a moment of quiet confusion as I looked to Roger and Sam, and then down to Sam’s gun.
“Look,” she began, “you two wait here, I’ll be back in a minute,” she stated as she moved to the staircase. Roger and I both started to object as she descended. “If the guy comes back, just shout for me, okay?” she ordered as she disappeared.
I looked at Roger and he looked at me. “Well, who the hell is she?” I asked, “and, where did she come from?”
“I don’t know her very well,” Roger confessed. “I just know she started renting the vacation cabin near me about two months ago,” he continued. “We’ve talked a couple of times,” he added and sniffed. “She does a lot of hiking and running.”
“Um, okay?” I said and gave Roger a questioning look.
“I just thought,” he exhaled, “Jessica might have an easier time talking to another woman.” Fresh tears started to form in the corner of his eyes. He collapsed on the couch near the fireplace and resumed wiping at his face and nose.
I walked over and sat down beside him. I gave him a minute to collect himself. “Here,” I offered and held out the mallet.
He looked at the mallet and a hint of a smile formed. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked as he took it from me. It looked like a toy in his meaty hands. He studied it for a moment and gave the wooden coffee table a dull smack with the rubber head. He looked at me and we laughed, weakly.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “you were gone, and I thought we needed weapons, so I just grabbed something.”
Roger nodded like he understood.
The sharp report of Sam’s boots sounded up the stairs and we looked up. She came over to us and gave us a sorry look but didn’t look especially affected by what was downstairs. After a moment she dropped her duffle bag at her feet and began rummaging around for something.
I didn’t know it at the time, but while we were gathered in the living room and Sam was looking in her bag, Paxton was emerging from the woods near our local gas station – the kind of gas station with an unrecognizable name and logo to everyone else on the planet – and honestly, the only reason that most people ever stop in our area.
Luckily, I was later able to collect the security camera footage and hide the bodies before anyone else stumbled onto the scene.
At approximately 11:54 PM Jason Martin and his wife Ashley pulled off of highway 97 heading northbound, in a U-Haul truck. Ashley appeared asleep in the passenger seat when they pulled up to one of the two pumps. Jason exited the truck and went inside the station.
Inside, Jason met the night manager Judy, a gentle woman in her late fifties with wavy gray hair and a severe nicotine habit. She moved to our area after some sort of personal tragedy and mostly kept to herself. Jason asked Judy if he could use the washroom. The station’s washroom had been out of order long enough for it to be converted into a storage room. There was an outhouse behind the station. Jason paid for his gas, some snacks, and walked around to the outhouse.
It’s unclear exactly what happened next due to the limited camera coverage, but I found Jason’s body a short distance past the outhouse at the edge of the forest. His head had been partially pulled free. His jaw and the surrounding flesh, had been completely torn away. Eventually I spotted his jaw overhead, tangled in the upper branches of a nearby tree.
Paxton came into view, his front looking dark and wet. He walked swiftly to the parked U-Haul, ignoring the station completely. Ashley still appeared asleep. He circled the truck twice before stopping next to the passenger door. He opened the door and immediately tried to drag Ashley from her seat. Ashley woke and started fighting back after a moment of confusion. Paxton grabbed hold of her right arm and started pulling, but her seat belt was evidently secured, and it was resisting Paxton. The pulling became more and more frantic and the seat belt retained its firm grasp on Ashley. Finally, Paxton yanked and twisted away from the U-Haul; Ashley’s body could no longer endure the assault – her arm came apart at the shoulder. Blood splashed out the passenger side of the truck and Paxton continued away from the vehicle for a few steps clutching the severed arm as if he thought he had been successful in dragging Ashley from the vehicle.
There was no audio on the security footage, but Judy must have heard screaming because she abruptly rushed outside just as Paxton had started tugging on Ashley’s arm.
Judy came upon the U-Haul just in time to witness Paxton ripping Ashley’s arm free. Paxton had his back to Judy and was distracted by the arm in his hands. The scene must have been traumatic, because Judy slowly sank down to the asphalt and then fainted a few seconds later.
Paxton realized he was holding only part of Ashley and dropped the arm like trash. He noticed Judy not long after. He evaluated her for a moment and then stepped over her and entered the station. He found some cheap florescent camping rope and returned. Paxton bent down and crudely bound Judy’s legs and arms. He then lifted her with little effort and flopped her over his shoulder. Without hesitation, he briskly walked back toward the forest in the same direction he had come, leaving the dead, or perhaps still dying, Ashley alone in the U-Haul.
Part 2 – A Starless Night
Back in Paxton’s living room, Sam continued to dig around in her bag as Roger and I watched from the couch.
I didn’t know what Sam was doing, but it was obvious that we needed to call the police. I got up and started looking around. I found a phone on the wall in the kitchen and picked it up – Sam came out of nowhere and snatched it out of my hand, yanked the cord out and tossed the receiver. It broke into pieces by the stove.
I was stunned. “What the fuck?” I demanded as Sam walked back to her bag. “We need to call the cops,” I stressed.
“Hah!” Sam barked, “the R-C-M-P can’t do shit for us.” She pulled something metallic from the side pocket of her bag as I started to protest.
“We don’t have time for a meeting at the townhall,” Sam interrupted sarcastically. “Take this,” she requested of Roger and dropped something into his hand. She studied Roger for a moment then came over to me and held her hand out, palm up. Resting in her hand was a large silvery disc which looked like some kind of oversized ancient coin. I picked it up; it was cold and heavier than it looked. I couldn’t read the circles of engravings. Apparently satisfied, Sam turned from me and took a seat in front of the fireplace. I slipped the disc into my pant pocket.
“Ok, I need both of you to tell me exactly what happened earlier tonight,” Sam instructed, “leave nothing out.”
“No!” I argued. “I don’t know who you are, but there is a dead person downstairs and a murderer out there somewhere. We need to get help.”
Sam sighed and pulled a leather wallet from her inner jacket pocket and tossed it to me. I caught it and opened it. Inside on one flap was a silver badge and on the opposite flap was an official looking card – it identified her, Captain Samantha Lacroix, as a ‘Special Incidents Investigative Officer’ of Joint Task Force 2.
I silently returned the wallet to Sam and took a seat beside Roger.
“Satisfied?” asked Sam. “Good. Now tell me what happened.”
Over the following five or ten minutes, Roger and I both went over our bizarre encounters with Paxton. Afterwards Sam sat in silence mulling over our testimonies. “You’re both very lucky,” she concluded. “The husband is, infected,” she tried to explain, “he is no longer himself. Have either of you heard of that ant zombie fungus?”
It sounded familiar but apparently it was a rhetorical question.
“It’s this creepy fungus that gets into ants,” she continued, “it takes over their brains and sprouts out of their heads and forces them to act like idiots to help spread the fungus. This is like that.”
Roger and I looked at each other.
Sam continued, “I know one of the old mines around here, is the source of the infection, I just don’t know which one.”
Roger thought for a moment. “Paxton talked to you about snow?” he asked me.
“Yeah, said his truck was buried.”
“There are only two mines that could still have snow right now. One of them is about two hours away. The other one,” he said, and pointed easterly, “is about a forty-minute drive east from here up an old logging road.”
“That sounds promising,” Sam said.
“Except,” Roger continued, “the road doesn’t get you the entire way. You have to hike for about three kilometers to the mine once the road ends.”
“Amazing, thank you, both of you,” Sam said. She sounded genuine. “Help me find this mine on my map and then the two of you should get out of here. Maybe stay together until tomorrow, to be safe.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to end this so no one else gets hurt. Tonight,” Sam stated plainly, like this was just another day for her.
“I’m coming with you,” Roger asserted.
“I’m sorry but, no.” Sam shook her head. “This is dangerous, and I can’t do my job and look after you at the same time.”
“I’ve known Paxton a long time. He deserves better, he needs my help,” Roger insisted.
Sam clenched her jaw. “There is no cure or treatment,” she stated, getting angrier with each word, “or anything that can help! There is nothing you can do.”
The two glared at each other and then spent the next few minutes arguing. Finally, Sam relented. “Fine, you can come,” Sam compromised, “but only if Dan comes too.”
“Uh, what?” I asked.
“The chances of Roger not getting killed are better if the two of you stick together,” Sam explained. “Now, can we please get going?”
“I’ll be right back,” Roger said and marched through the kitchen. He wasn’t gone long – when he returned, he was holding a bolt-action rifle in one hand and a large hunting knife in the other.
We headed outside. Beyond the lights of the cabin, the forest was pitch black. There was no hint of the moon or any stars; the sky was smothered. Except for gusts of wind, and the creaking and scratching of the trees, the night was otherwise silent.
We loaded our gear into Roger’s truck and got in – the truck was better equipped for the logging road than Sam’s black sedan. Roger started the truck and illuminated the driveway. We pulled away from the cabin leaving Jessica behind like a bad memory.
We cut our way through the dark like a solitary torch. In the back seat, my mind drifted as we drove. Was Paxton just wandering around in the woods, with this fungus stuff growing inside his head? I watched the shadows dance past. My leg felt cold and I reached down. I touched something hard and remembered the strange disc Sam had handed me. I stared at the back of her head. I didn’t trust her.
“Hey Sam?” I asked.
“Hm?” she replied without looking back.
“Why did you give us those discs?”
Sam was silent for a second. “They are an effective way of testing for infection, in the field.” She replied. “They cause, blistering, when in contact with someone infected.”
I wasn’t a scientist, but that didn’t make any sense to me.
“There’s something on the road,” Roger announced.
Sam sat a little straighter. I leaned forward between the gap of the two front seats. Up ahead on the road, two small lights blinked out from the shadows. We slowed down. Our lights revealed a single doe standing in the gravel road. She looked at our vehicle for a moment and then sauntered back into the trees.
Roger let out a nervous laugh and we relaxed. He took his foot off the brake and we resumed our journey. Not long after, we turned onto the logging road for the mine. The road was bumpy and the trees along the road were overgrown. Thin branches slapped the glass and metal as we made our way upward. A sparse coating of snow started to appear on the ground.
We could see the tire tracks of a previous vehicle as the snow deepened. We followed the tracks all the way up until the end of the road. We parked just before a pair of posted signs. They must have been forty years old at least, but they were still quite readable in our lights.
DO NOT ENTER. SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH BEYOND THIS POINT. NO TRESPASSING. FALLING ROCKS.
We got out of the truck – I found the snow to be only a few inches deep. We collected our things. I slipped the claw hammer through a loop on my pants at my side. Roger slung the rifle over his shoulder and put the hunting knife on his belt. Sam handed out spare flashlights from her bag.
We approached the posted signs. The tire tracks we followed up the road ran between the two upright signs. Scattered between the signs and across the tire tracks were the wooden remains of a third sign. The tracks disappeared into the darkness ahead of us.
Sam turned to us. “This is literally life and death,” she said. “Do what I say,” she continued, and looked to me, “without question, and we might all survive this.”
She adjusted her bag on her shoulder and started hiking forward. Roger and I followed with our flashlights aimed at the ground before us.
As we hiked, the trees started thinning and the terrain on our left ascended. At the same time, everything on our right gradually dropped away. For the time being, our path was still comfortably wide. Strangely, the tire tracks continued on with no sign of the vehicle that had created them.
Suddenly Sam stopped. I looked around, anticipating danger. She walked over to where the ground started to drop away and crouched. I cautiously approached Sam. Roger stayed where he was.
With a bit of moonlight, the view would have likely been amazing. I thought I could see Paxton’s cabin – it was hard to make out the distant speck of light. But Sam wasn’t interested in the view, she was focused on a set of fresh tracks in the snow which seemed to originate from the steep slope below. She followed the tracks with her flashlight. They moved away from the soft edge, and turned toward the direction of the mine.
I moved a few paces away from the edge and studied the tracks. They were irregular. It looked like something was being partially dragged. At first, I thought some kind of animal must have left the tracks. Maybe a mountain lion with a fresh kill. But the occasional, well defined, human footprint was impossible to ignore.
I wanted to dismiss what I was seeing. No one was scrambling up mountain sides in the middle of the night. Paxton was too old, and too far away, wasn’t he?
Sam came over and gave me a hard look. “Can you shoot?”
I nodded. “I own a pistol.”
Sam dropped her bag and fished out a semi-automatic pistol. It was smaller and more conventional looking than the one she wore on her hip. She handed me the gun and two additional magazines.
“It’s loaded, and there’s one in the chamber,” she warned.
I pocketed the magazines. I couldn’t fit the gun in any of my pockets, so I tucked it under my belt at my back; the metal was freezing against my skin.
We walked over to Roger. “What is it?” he asked.
“There are tracks. Probably Paxton,” Sam explained. “He might have someone with him. One of your other neighbors, I don’t know.”
“Ah hell,” Roger grumbled.
“Listen, both of you,” she continued. “If I say shoot, you start shooting. And you don’t stop. I’m serious.”
Roger and I both reluctantly nodded.
“Center mass, body shots, they will only slow them. You need one or two clean headshots to put them down,” she finished. “Come on, time is against us.” Sam shouldered her bag and resumed hiking toward the mine.
I wasn’t eager to enter the mine, I just didn’t want to be left alone. Roger and I quickly followed after Sam.
The three of us continued hiking upward – following both the tire tracks and the other, more recent, irregular footprints. The path narrowed and the surrounding terrain became more severe. Eventually we were flanked by two bare cliffs: one high above us on our left, and a sudden drop on our right. At this height, with little surrounding cover, the wind was piercing. I wished I had brought some gloves.
Gradually, the path became more difficult underfoot. Small stones, echoes of the old rockslide, were becoming more and more frequent under the snow.
It wasn’t long until we came upon the bulk of the slide that had never been cleared. With the snow, it looked like a soft white hill. In reality, it was a treacherous pile of slippery large boulders, loose footing, and hidden gaps waiting to snap ankles.
But at least we finally had an answer to the mysterious tire tracks. Paxton’s old Ford was wrapped around a series of boulders at a bizarre angle. I wouldn’t have said it was buried, but it was definitely lodged in the side of the slide. I can’t imagine how fast he must have been driving at the moment of impact.
There was no way around the slide. We were going to have to climb over it. The other tracks indicated that Paxton had recently done the same.
“Hey,” Roger called out. He had his flashlight aimed at something near the start of the route that Paxton had taken over the slide. We came over and looked at what Roger had found.
“Paxton quit smoking,” he said as he held up a pack of cigarettes. The pack didn’t look like it had been sitting out for long. There were still two untouched cigarettes inside.
“Shit, that supports the idea that he has another body with him now,” Sam said.
“So, there are two infected then?” asked Roger.
“At least. Anyone we find inside will be infected,” Sam answered.
“Okay, but we’re going into the mine?” I asked.
“Obviously,” she replied.
She didn’t catch what I was trying to imply. “Yes, but if we’re going into the mine, aren’t we also going to get infected by the fungus?” I asked.
“Right,” she said and paused. “Um, the way it works is you need to be in close proximity with the, the source of the infection, for a prolonged period of time – for at least 30 minutes. We’ll be fine.”
Sam looked at her watch. “How far is the mine after the slide?” she asked Roger.
“Not very. A few minutes I think.”
“Ok, let’s get going,” she said and started climbing with both hands and feet.
The business of getting over the slide was a slow and awkward one. More than once I nearly lost my balance. But in the end all three of us made it over safely. I wasn’t looking forward to the return trip.
We could see the mine’s entrance from where we stood. It looked like a rocky blister swelling from the side of the cliff. In the approximate center, was a rough black hole.
The tracks ahead of us led directly to mine; we followed them silently for a minute or so until we reached the cankerous mouth. There were no signs or plaques identifying the mine: just rock and old timber. I was surprised that there was nothing official about the lives lost during the cave in and rockslide.
We stood outside the entrance for a few minutes while Sam silently leaned against a support beam with her eyes closed. It almost looked like she was praying or meditating. Besides the tracks entering the mine, there was no sign of any recent activity. There were no sounds or lights or anything coming from within.
I remember just staring into the dark, trying to crush my anxiety – trying to fool myself into thinking I was ready for whatever was about to happen. Now though, I just wish that I had walked away. If I had the chance to do it all again, I would have sent ten people in my place and continued living my average life, with my average thoughts.
Part 3 – The Truth About Heaven and Hell
“Alright, guns out,” Sam ordered and pushed away from the frozen dark wood.
We complied. Roger pulled the rifle from his shoulder and inspected it in a familiar manner. I grabbed the pistol from my back. Somewhere in the forest below us, an owl screeched. I jumped and dropped the gun.
“Sorry,” I apologized to no one in particular, and fished it out of the snow at my feet.
Sam freed the pistol that had been on her hip this entire time. She looked it over, with her small flashlight held in her lips. The pistol was large and silver with dark engravings which reminded me of the disc in my pocket. I couldn’t tell if the gun was ornate and ultra-modern, or if it belonged in a museum.
We ventured past the threshold with Sam again leading the way. Sam and I provided the light - Roger couldn’t hold a flashlight and his rifle at the same time.
The main tunnel was immediately tight. Roger and I could barely walk side by side without rubbing up against the rough stone walls. Roger had about a foot of space between the ceiling and the top of his head. We moved through the tunnel at a slow but steady pace. My flashlight caught our white breath no matter how I angled it.
After a few minutes I lost sight of the entrance. Deep black darkness surrounded us. We pushed against the shadows with our lights and moved deeper into the earth.
Eventually we came to a fork in the tunnel. We paused for a moment while Sam considered the two choices. Our situation reminded me of a scene from The Lord of the Rings and I smiled. I tried smelling the air, but my nose was too cold.
“This way,” Sam whispered, and headed down the larger of the two tunnels. We started to descend.
The ground was hard stone littered with pebbles and dirt. Our footsteps crunched and echoed down the shaft. No matter how I stepped, I felt like I was creating far too much noise.
Suddenly, Roger ducked and tumbled over onto his side. I jumped back and waved my light around. I couldn’t see anything.
“Something grabbed my hair,” Roger frantically whispered.
I pointed my light up. Twisting dark roots dangled from above. Sam shook her head. I helped Roger up off the ground and suppressed a laugh.
Gradually the tunnel began to curve. We came across a side passage, but it was caved in. We moved on.
“Shh,” Sam said, and stopped without warning. We stood completely still. I couldn’t hear anything.
We waited for what felt like minutes. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. Roger adjusted his weight to his other foot. Then the noise of something small and hard bouncing on stone, reverberated through the tunnel.
Roger gripped his rifle tight enough I could hear the wood strain. We looked at one another. Sam put her finger to her lips and gestured down the tunnel with her gun.
We continued moving forward. I had no idea how far the sound had traveled – every little vibration seemed to carry forever.
The tunnel started curving more dramatically but we continued to decline at a mild rate. We passed two more narrow passages, barely wide enough for a single person, but Sam ignored them. We spotted something on the ground ahead of us: an old lamp, rusted and shattered. We carefully avoided it and continued on until we arrived at a thin rectangular chamber, wide enough to accommodate three people abreast.
Sam coughed into her elbow and made a disgusted sound. Even in the cold, I could tell that the room stank. I was reminded of the time when I had to clear several dead raccoons from an old chimney.
I quickly glanced around the room with my light but could find no obvious source for the odor. Old mining equipment was piled nearly all the way to the ceiling in the corner closest to me. I explored down the right side of the room. Fragments of yellowed paper with hints of faded ink hung from the wall.
Roger took out his flashlight and looked over the wall opposite, while Sam watched the entrance and exit from her spot in the middle of the room.
“Uh, what is that?” Roger asked.
Sam and I immediately turned towards Roger.
“Is it the fungus?” Roger asked as he backed away towards me. A shaky light illuminated a section of the wall. There was a recess, except it wasn’t empty. The space was full, from ground to ceiling, with some kind of fuzzy, brown substance which reminded me of mold.
Sam silently aimed her light and gun at the oddity in the wall and slowly moved toward us. A shiver ripple over the brown surface, causing Sam to abruptly stop for a split second – and then she started shooting into the brown mass.
In the enclosed space, the shots were deafening. My ears started ringing immediately. Roger dropped his flashlight and started fumbling with his rifle. I was confused, how would bullets help against a blob of fungus?
The mass unfolded itself from the recess in the wall with surprising speed. Long limbs appeared. It hit the ground and dirt fell from the ceiling. It was a god damned brown bear! I tried shooting but nothing happened. I remembered the safety, flipped it, and opened fire.
The bear rushed Sam as she was reloading her pistol with a fresh magazine. She tried to dodge the attack, but the bear connected with her mid-roll. She was sent flying into a wall. Roger was now shooting with his rifle, but he wasn’t getting many shots off due to having to operate the bolt.
The bear turned on us as I ejected my first magazine. I had seen a few brown bears before, and I knew something was wrong with this one. It showed no sign of animalistic fury. It made no sound. It looked floppy, like something was wearing an oversized bear costume.
It charged Roger and rolled over him. His rifle went flying. I backed up into the doorway and slid a new magazine into my gun. The bear ignored Roger and ran at me. I continued shooting as I retreated. One shot caught its shoulder and the bear stumbled just short of me. It recovered seconds later, and swiped at me with heavy claws. I tried avoiding the attack but fell backwards. I hit the ground hard, and my flashlight went spinning off out of reach. My gun bounced somewhere into the darkness.
The bear loomed over me and I felt my leg grow hot. I desperately tried scrambling away on my hands and heels - but it just turned away and ambled over to Roger, just as he was starting to get back to his feet.
The bear pinned Roger to the ground with his front paws. Roger squirmed and kicked like a panicked animal. “Get the fuck off me!” he yelled. The bear ignored him and bit down on his shoulder. Roger screamed and flailed but the bear was unshakeable.
I looked over to where I thought Sam should be. I couldn’t see her very well – all I could see was a dark unmoving shape at the base of a wall.
Past Sam, movement caught my attention at the other entrance to the chamber. I thought I heard voices, but I couldn’t be sure with Roger screaming and the ringing in my ears.
Two figures stepped forward and I recognized one immediately. Paxton might have been even skinnier, but it was hard to say for sure, with our flashlights scattered all over the ground. It took me longer to recognize the other person. It was Judy, but thinner and with all the warmth missing from her face.
The bear started dragging Roger by his shoulder, and Roger hollered. He grabbed his hunting knife with his free arm, and desperately started stabbing the bear, but the bear didn’t seem to notice. Paxton and Judy moved aside to allow the bear past and Roger disappeared into the tunnel.
Paxton and Judy walked over to Sam and hovered for a moment. I began searching around me with my hands, trying to find my gun in the dark. Judy bent down and reached out for something on the ground. She picked up something silver, Sam’s gun.
The entire chamber and the adjoining tunnels suddenly switched from black, to blinding blue. I didn’t understand what was happening. I had to shield my eyes from the light. Paxton and Judy started shrieking. I squinted over, and Judy was partially engulfed in white, violent flames. She fell to the ground, and started shaking madly. The overwhelming blue light seemed to be coming from within her hand.
Paxton screamed something incomprehensible and seemed to regain some self-control. He watched Judy for a moment as she burned and convulsed. He looked around, and picked up a melon sized rock.
I spotted my gun behind me, and crawled over to it. I grabbed it and checked to see if it was loaded. The smell of smoke and cooking meat started filling the chamber.
I tried aiming at Paxton, but the light was making my eyes water. He knelt down on Judy and tried restraining her. I fired a few shots at Paxton, but I couldn’t tell if I was hitting him. He lifted the heavy rock and brought it crashing down. I fired at him once more. He lifted the rock again, and again brought it down.
The brilliant blue light retreated just as abruptly as it had appeared. Bright afterimages clouded my vision. I tried rubbing my eyes, but I was blind.
A series of quick gunshots suddenly erupted. I could hear hints of a struggle. Someone might have been screaming – I’m not sure. A few more shots shook me, and then there was silence.
I still couldn’t see. My heart was pounding. A fuzzy light seemed to be moving. Without warning, something touched my shoulder. I flinched and covered my face.
But a few seconds passed, and nothing happened. I felt hands on me. Someone was trying to lift me up. The ringing in my ears started to subside.
“Dan, it’s okay!” Sam yelled.
“Sam?” I asked, in disbelief. Sam again tried getting me to my feet, and this time was successful. “I can’t see! The light was too bright!”
“It’s okay, your eyes will adjust in a few minutes!” Sam shouted.
“Stop shouting,” I said. “We have to help Roger. The bear, it dragged him away…” None of this made any sense. “Where the hell did that light come from?”
“Look, it’s complicated.”
Sam silently put a flashlight in my hand and walked away. My vision started to clear, at least where I pointed my light. I saw a body on the ground and stumbled over to it. It was Judy. She had two perfect round holes in her forehead, and a chunk was missing beneath her left eye. The blood from her face looked dark and oily. Her right arm was black and burnt and ended in a ragged point below the elbow. I looked around and spotted the charred remains of her forearm – it was still smoking.
The residual heat around the body, reminded me of the heat I had felt in my leg. I looked down and inspected my thigh. There was no sign of blood, and thankfully, I hadn’t peed myself.
Sam came over with her bag. I could see now that she had a cut somewhere hidden above her hairline. The right side of her face was bright red with smeared blood.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I destroyed the female vessel,” Sam said, and pointed at Judy, “the man, Paxton? I shot him a few times as he escaped.”
“What!” I shouted and threw my arms up. “What do you mean you, destroyed the vessel, and what about the light and fire?”
“Look, we don’t have time for this!” Sam pleaded. “Plus, you’re not going to believe me anyway, we have to go help Roger.”
I groaned and kicked up a cloud of dirt. “What about the rifle?” I asked.
“Leave it, no point bringing something we can’t use.”
We exited the chamber and followed the drag marks left behind by Roger. We rushed down the tunnel as quickly as we could, with our guns out and ready. Our lights bounced around in time to the crunch of our footsteps. There was no longer any point in trying to be quiet, we had long lost the element of surprise – maybe, we had never had it to begin with.
A little bit up ahead, the tunnel looked different and the wooden support beams disappeared. The ground was smoother, darker, and sloped downwards in irregular waves. I could hear running water somewhere in the distance. I didn’t know much about geology, but it was clear that the miners had found some kind of natural cave system.
We carefully started to descend. I could see the tunnel widening around us, with smaller ancillary passages occasionally splitting off into unknown directions.
I looked around and couldn’t find Roger’s trail. “Shit, do you see anything?” I asked.
Sam looked around for a moment with her light. “Yeah, over here.”
Sam illuminated an erratic trail of dark wet spots which led to a narrow side passage. We followed the oily spots to the entrance. Sam dropped her bag and we entered the new tunnel, but we couldn’t move very quickly – I felt like I was being eaten by a stone snake.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” I asked, “I don’t know how a bear would fit down here.”
Sam stopped ahead of me, and looked back. “You… could be right,” she reluctantly agreed. “But we’re following something, and we can’t afford to get flanked.”
We pushed deeper into the tunnel for another minute until Sam stopped again.
“Sonofabitch!” she shouted.
I tried to peer around her to see what was going on. The way ahead tightened dramatically, forming an impasse for anything larger than a fox.
“It’s wasting our time – the trail was a decoy,” Sam said.
I turned around and started making my way out of the tunnel as quickly as I could. Sam muttered something behind me. I was out of the narrow passage within a few minutes. Sam was close behind me.
My thigh was suddenly hot. I heard something and turned. Paxton swung at me, but connected poorly with my shoulder, throwing me off balance. I fired my gun twice before slipping – one of the shots struck him in the calf. I toppled over onto my side and he stomped after me.
His clothing was loose and filthy. He barely looked human. His skin was tight across his skull and his eyes were dark pits. His mouth was stretched open and full of teeth.
My hands were shaking. I fired until my gun was empty, but I don’t think anything connected. He smacked my gun away and lifted me from the ground. Sam exited the passage with her gun out, and Paxton tossed me at her. She had no time to get ready. I crashed into her and we went tumbling down the tunnel a short distance.
We landed apart. She was already back on her feet when I looked over. Paxton jumped at her, but she rolled backwards and somehow used the momentum to launch him overhead down the tunnel. He crashed somewhere below us.
Sam immediately started searching for her gun with her light. I reached for my claw hammer, but it was missing, it must have slipped out when Sam and I were rolling - but I could see my flashlight up and across the tunnel. I started moving toward it.
Paxton called out. “You hurt.” His words echoed.
Sam and I both ignored him.
“You miss them. I know.”
Sam stopped looking for her gun.
“Join with me. You can see them again.”
“My family is dead!” Sam screamed into the darkness. “And I’m going to kill you for what you did!”
I was almost at my flashlight.
A strange rhythmic sound rang out. I think it was laughter.
“I cannot die, I am like hunger, and I will eat your tiny world.”
I reached for my light but was jerked backwards. Paxton wrapped his arms around me and squeezed. I yelped and squirmed and my leg started to burn. He tightened his arms around me. I heard a crack and felt something in my side move. I screamed and thrashed. I started feeling lightheaded – it was hard to breathe.
Sam was suddenly somewhere nearby striking Paxton. He retaliated with a swift backhand which allowed me to free my right arm. The tension around me was quickly re-established. Paxton’s head was pressed tight against the side of my face. I reached into my pocket and grabbed the hot disc. I thrust it backwards into Paxton’s face and held it there like a brand.
Like with Sam’s gun, the disc immediately burst with bright blue light. Paxton fell backwards and I landed on top. He shrieked and flailed below me as I fought to hold the disc in place. Bright white flames poured up and over me, but I couldn’t feel them. The disc was strangely no longer hot against my hand. I started choking on the smoke.
Sam pulled me away while Paxton continued to convulse. I looked over my arms and I wasn’t on fire. I touched my face and head, and everything seemed fine.
Less than a minute after Paxton stopped wailing, he stopped moving. Sam wrenched the disc free and the bright light immediately died. Once again, I couldn’t see, but I could now feel heat radiating from the corps and could hear the snapping and popping of embers.
I felt Sam sit down next to me.
“Is that your definition of blistering?” I asked.
“In the car, you said the disc would cause blistering,” I explained.
Sam laughed. “I’m going to go find our guns.”
Sam came back a few minutes later with our guns and her bag. I griped about my broken rib, or ribs, and she injected me with a plastic syringe from her bag. Within a minute, I actually felt amazing.
Once my vision was close to normal, we started searching for Roger. We explored the cave system as quickly as possible, but it was surprisingly vast. Slowly my anxiety soured into despair. I guess my state of mind was obvious, because Sam finally started opening up.
“So yeah, the whole fungus thing was a lie,” she started. “This thing we’re fighting, is what you would have traditionally called a daemon.”
I looked at her critically, trying to judge whether or not she was serious. “So, we’re fighting daemons now. Daemons exist?” I asked in disbelief.
“Well, no, I mean, none of that stuff is real. That’s why I said traditionally ,” she explained. “Heaven, hell, angels, daemons, spirits, it’s all just stories.”
We stopped beside a still body of water we had been circumnavigating for the past few minutes. Sam handed me water and I gulped half the bottle.
“But the things and places that inspired those stories and concepts – they do exist.”
“And when you say places?” I asked.
I didn’t know what to say. We walked on in silence. We left the small underground lake behind and followed the converging tunnel. Ahead in the middle of the tunnel, a vague silhouette slowly became visible. As we got closer, our lights revealed the bear.
We stopped a safe distance from the crumpled beast, and It didn’t react to our presence. Sam focused her gun on the animal, and I swept my light around looking for a sign of Roger. I couldn’t see anything else beyond the blob of brown fur.
“Maybe he’s underneath?” I offered.
Sam pulled out the disc I had used against Paxton, and lobbed onto the bear. Nothing happened.
“This is totally new, you know?” Sam said.
I didn’t know what she meant.
“I’ve never heard of this entity using animals before.”
We approached the bear, I pocketed the disc, and then we rolled the limp carcass over onto its back. Roger, bloody and inert, lay in revealed space.
I knelt down to take his pulse and feared the worst. His jacket over his shoulder was torn and soaked with blood – even patches of his beard were stained red. But he wasn’t cold, and after a few seconds, I managed to find a pulse.
I collapsed back on my ass and smiled up at Sam. “He’s alive.”
“Test him with the ward.”
“With the what?”
Sam sighed. “With the metal plate thing.”
“Oh,” I said and took out the disc. I touched it to his face, and nothing happened.
“Well that’s a nice surprise,” Sam said, “but he doesn’t look good. I’m going to rush ahead and disperse the stigma,” she put a hand up anticipating my confusion, “the weak spot the entity was able to use. While I’m gone, see if you can patch Roger up for the return trip.”
Sam placed a few items next to Roger, including a small medical kit, and took out a small handheld device.
“Hopefully I won’t be long. Don’t come looking for me or anything, just stay here with Roger.” Sam grabbed her bag and jogged down the tunnel until she was out of sight. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was only a little past two.
I opened the medical kit and got to work on Roger’s shoulder. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I imitated what I had seen before in movies and shows. I cut away the jacket and found a lot of dried blood. I dumped half a bottle of disinfectant over the area and he woke screaming.
It took me a few minutes, but eventually I was able to calm Roger. He didn’t want any of the mystery syringe juice, but he did swallow a few painkillers with some water. He had some first-aid experience and now that he was awake, insisted on giving me step-by-step instructions. As I worked on his shoulder, I explained what had happened with Sam and me, but I didn’t go into much detail – I didn’t want Roger thinking I had lost my mind.
Roger needed a break before moving on to the gauze. He chugged the rest of his bottle of water and recounted how the bear had dragged him away. He had stabbed it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds of times, but nothing would stop it. Eventually, he must have blacked out from the pain, because the next thing he knew, I was kneeling over him and his shoulder was on fire.
Roger looked over at the bear and slowly got to his feet. I called out to him, but he either didn’t hear me or ignored me. He walked over and just stared down at it for a good while. He pushed it around with his foot, and then picked something up. It was the hunting knife. He returned it to its sheath on his belt, and came back over to where I was sitting. He was breathing hard and slow, and his eyes were wet.
It only took a few minutes to put the gauze in place. I then bandaged the area, and then secured the arm in place with a few more passes of bandage.
We didn’t have to wait much longer before Sam returned. I didn’t see any new injuries, but she looked pale and weak. She dropped her bag next to us and clumsily crashed down into it.
“Hey Roger, good to see you’re awake,” she said.
“Arm hurts like a bitch, but better than being dead.”
I studied Sam, and replayed the night over in my head. Maybe it was silly, but I felt obligated to verify that Sam was still Sam.
“Hey Sam, I’m guessing you want this back?” I asked and held out the metal disc to her.
She smiled and took it from me without hesitation. “Thanks.”
The work was done.
Our return to the parked truck was tedious, but uneventful. I drove us back to Roger’s cabin and parked between my truck and Sam’s sedan. Sam helped Roger out of the truck and into her car. The two had argued nearly the entire drive back, but in the end, Roger had agreed to Sam driving him up to the hospital in Prince George.
Sam dumped her bag into her trunk and then handed me something small from her inner pocket. It was a cheap looking business card, which advertised some kind of trucking company. I gave her a questioning look.
“If you ever get tired of doing nothing in the middle of nowhere, give me a call,” Sam said.
“Maybe I will,” I said, as I turned the card over in my hands.
Sam started getting into the driver’s side, but then stopped. “Oh, will the gas station be open right now?”
I immediately made the connection between Paxton and Judy. “Oh shit.”
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked.
“Judy, the woman from the mine, she works the nightshift.”
I got into the back of the car and we drove towards the highway. Roger was already asleep in the passenger seat.
We pulled into the gas station and were stunned by the unexpected bloodshed. Sam offered to help with the body and U-Haul, we didn’t yet know about the husband, but I wanted Roger to get proper medical attention as soon as possible. She recommended I collect any security footage, and suggested I use the U-Haul to hide the bodies.
Sam filled her tank, and then disappeared north down the highway.
I went inside the station and found the security tape recording machine in a cramped office in the back. I stopped the recording and ejected the VHS. Pancaked on top, was a basic VHS player and a dusty old TV. I inserted the tape and skimmed the footage. The events unfolded in black and white, but all I could hear was the steady whine of the VHS player.
I collapsed into the flimsy black office chair and spent a good while working through a fraction of the trauma of the night. I remember thinking I either had alcoholism or a lot of therapy ahead of me. When I was able, I exited the station with the tape.
I carefully picked up the severed arm and put it with the woman in the passenger seat. I backed the U-Haul to where the husband’s body was hiding. I opened the rear doors and moved some boxes around to make some space. I dragged the man from the trees and hefted him into the back. I searched around and eventually found the man’s jaw tangled high up in a nearby tree. I was too tired to give a shit and left it there.
I returned to Roger’s cabin and parked. I wrapped Jessica in a blanket from a closet, and carried her to the back of the U-Haul. I laid her down on top of the man and closed the doors. I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I went back inside to think and made some instant coffee. I couldn’t find any sugar, but did find some milk. I filled the remainder of the mug so I could start drinking immediately.
I was halfway finished my coffee when I thought of an insane solution.
I started the U-Haul and rolled down the driveway. The forest was still dark, but the promise of dawn was visible in the sky. The drive back up the logging road was chaotic. The boxes and items in the back clattered with frenzied enthusiasm as the truck bucked along the rough road. By the time I reached the summit, the overcast clouds had scattered and the sky was warming.
I slowed but didn’t stop. I guided the U-Haul between the two upright signs and followed the path of Paxton’s truck. The truck seemed to be doing okay in the snow, but I maintained a slow and steady speed.
I couldn’t quite see the rockslide yet, but I wasn’t too far away. Once the terrain to my right was sufficiently steep, I stopped. I maneuvered the truck so that it was perpendicular with the drop, but there wasn’t enough room to get the angle perfect. I put the truck into neutral, and opened the door. I jumped out and watched as the U-Haul slowly rolled away. The truck traversed the soft edge and picked up speed. It bounced down the embankment until about the halfway point where it caught the ground awkwardly and then summersaulted into the air. It crashed into the forest below and disappeared from view.
The sun was just starting to peak over the Rockies. The horizon glowed with a furious orange which faded to a heartening blue, elsewhere in the sky. I sat down in the snow near the drop, and stared down into the forest until my ass was numb. No one was going to find the truck or the bodies for decades, at a minimum. I pulled out the card that Sam had given me and played with it as fresh morning wind rushed by.
I held the card out to the wind, but I knew I had no hope of going back to my previous life.