They haven’t talked about that night since they got off the mountain. There’s an unspoken agreement between them not to bring it up, as far as Mike can tell. And he gets it; he does. He doesn’t like thinking about it either.
It’s just... well, it’s tough. He feels like the things that happened that night are locked inside him, pressing against his heart and his stomach and his intestines, and they’re only going to get harder to live with if he doesn’t get them out of him somehow. But he can’t talk about them, and he doesn’t know what else he can do.
Everyone else seems to be handling it way better than he is. They’re carrying on with their studies; they still seem able to concentrate. Maybe it should be comforting: proof that it’s possible to get past this, or at least to hide the damage. It just makes him feel worse. What’s wrong with him? Why has he let this completely mess up his head?
They seem worried about him, and he hates that he’s the only one they need to worry about.
The downside of still being friends is that he can’t look at her without constantly thinking about, you know, the gun thing. He almost shot her. She must be thinking it as well.
“Hey.” Emily kicks him on the shin. “Are you even listening?”
“What? I’m here. I mean, yeah. I’m listening.”
Emily raises her eyebrows.
“Sorry,” Mike adds. “Really. I’m sorry. I want to make it up to you. I just don’t know where to start.”
“Not that I don’t love hearing you grovel,” Emily says, “but overapologising isn’t attractive. You weren’t listening? I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. Might take me a few years.”
Is she saying she’ll eventually forgive him for nearly shooting her? Or is she deliberately not hearing what he’s really apologising for? He doesn’t know how to read any of their conversations any more.
The loud music sets him on edge the second he walks through the door. He knows in his head that they’re not in danger, but some part of him insists that they need to stay quiet, they need to be able to hear if something’s creeping up on them.
And then he forgets about all of that.
Because Josh is here, talking to Chris in a corner.
Josh is here.
Mike blinks, twice, and tries to focus. Jess. They’re in her bedroom. “Jess?”
Jess sighs. “Well, thank God for that.”
“Like I know. It was like you were asleep with your eyes open. Super creepy. Are you sick or something?”
He thought he was... somewhere cold, somewhere snowy. How did he get here? “Why are we in your house?”
“Uh, the party?”
It wakes him up, and he remembers. “Shit. Sorry. I just... I thought I saw Josh.”
“You... thought you saw Josh?”
“Yeah.” He presses a hand over his face. “God, it was like he was right in front of me.”
“I see,” Jess says. “Any chance that Josh being here had anything to do with it?”
Mike stares at her.
“If this is a joke, I’m not laughing,” he says.
“Well, yeah, ‘Josh came to my party’ would be a pretty bad joke. Seriously, do you have a fever?” She presses a hand to his forehead, sucks in a breath through her teeth. “Nope. You’re freezing.”
“You’re telling me that Josh is here,” Mike says. “Josh is alive. No one told me?”
Mike walks straight past her, out the bedroom door. Runs along the corridor, toward the sound of music.
There’s no way it’s real. He’s dreaming.
He slams open the door to the living room.
Josh. Right there, breathing and talking to people like it’s a completely normal thing to do.
“Mike,” Josh says, spotting him. That’s his voice. “You okay? Seemed like you kind of shut down there.”
“Josh,” Mike says, “I’m so fucking sorry.”
Josh frowns. “For...?”
“How the hell did you get away?”
“I’m not really following this conversation,” Josh says. “Away from what?”
“From—” Hannah seems too cruel to say. “From the fucking monster!”
There’s a pause.
Josh is staring at Mike. Chris and Sam are staring at Mike. Nobody seems to recognise this as a pretty reasonable outburst when a guy was being dragged away by a monster the last time you saw him.
Mike takes in a breath. It’s strangely difficult. “Are you...”
Nobody’s talked about that night since it ended.
“Are you saying that...”
Emily’s still talking to him.
“Are you saying that you didn’t get attacked by a monster?”
“I didn’t say anything,” Josh says. “But I, uh, also don’t remember getting attacked by any monsters.”
“Are you okay, Mike?” Sam asks.
“I, uh.” What the hell is going on? “I don’t know.”
Did that night in the mountains never happen? Yeah, some of the things that happened seemed impossible, but... it felt so real. He remembers it so clearly.
Is everyone just pretending not to remember? Yeah, they’ve always pulled pranks on each other, but he doesn’t think everyone would go along with a prank this fucked up. He finds it hard to imagine any of them still have a taste for pranks, really, after... after everything. Sam would tell him, right? Sam wouldn’t just let him think he’s losing his mind.
Are the others not real?
Mike feels a chill creeping down his neck.
Sam said that wendigos could mimic humans. Is it possible...?
No. No way. Voices, maybe. They can’t actually look like people; they can’t act like them for days. There’s no way those monsters disguised themselves as his friends and came down off the mountain. If they had, he’d be on a meat hook by now; they’ve had more than enough chances to grab him.
There’s no explanation. There’s nothing that makes sense. Unless he can’t trust his own mind.
He stares at his bedroom ceiling. Rubs his thumb over the stumps of his fingers. It was real, he tells himself. He has evidence. It’s not like he got his fingers caught in a bear trap at college or something.
Okay. If that night really happened, he almost got eaten by mythical monsters. So maybe that’s not the only impossible thing that’s happened to him. Maybe he’s somehow... fallen into the wrong universe, or something.
So are they out there somewhere, the people he lived through that night with? Do they know he’s gone? Do they miss him?
Maybe they’re with the Mike who’s supposed to be here, the Mike who didn’t live through any of it. He’s probably seriously confused.
And then he catches movement out of the corner of his eye, and he leaps off his bed before realising it’s Sam. “Jesus! Don’t sneak up on me like that. How the hell did you even get in here?”
She doesn’t answer, and it hits him that she looks like crap. She’s pale and bruised and unsteady on her feet, and...
“Are you okay?” he asks, edging closer, ready to catch her if she falls. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”
There’s so much fury and fear in her voice that he takes a sharp step back, raising his hands. “Sorry. I’m not gonna try anything. Just... tell me what happened. Maybe sit down first.”
“Mike! Can you hear me?”
He frowns. “Uh, hard not to.”
“His eyes are open,” Sam says. “I don’t know if he’s – Mike? We’re here. It’s over. Wake up.”
“Please wake up,” Sam says. She’s standing feet away, but somehow he can feel her arms around him.
When he concentrates, really concentrates, he can sometimes catch flashes: the cold of the snow under him, the heat of the lodge burning nearby. Someone’s hand in his. His friends’ voices.
Mike? Mike, come on, those monsters didn’t get you. There’s no way you’re dying now.
I think he got caught in the explosion. If he doesn’t wake up, it’ll be my fault.
Just let him die. The asshole almost shot me.
Possibly former friends, in some cases.
Wake up. Wake up.
“I’m trying,” he says, aloud, just in case they can hear it. “I don’t know how. But I’m trying.”
Sometimes he does it in public, or when he’s with the ‘friends’ in his head. He’s been getting strange looks. Not like it matters. None of these people are real.
And then Josh shows up at his home.
“You’ve been talking to yourself,” Josh says, as soon as they’ve exchanged awkward hellos.
Mike looks at him for a moment. It’s still painful to be around this Josh, knowing what happened to him in the real world. “Look who’s talking.”
“Kind of the point,” Josh says. “Chris said it might be good for us to speak about it. Maybe I can relate.”
“Not to sound ungrateful, but you can tell Chris he doesn’t have to worry about me.”
Josh shrugs. “What if I’m worried?”
His imaginary friends are worried about him. When did his life stop making sense?
“Look, man, I know what it’s like to see things that aren’t real,” Josh says. “It’s not fun. I can give you my shrink’s number.”
“You know,” Mike says, “thanks, but you’re one of the things that aren’t real. And I’m pretty sure your therapist is too.”
Josh laughs. “I think I’m real. I mean, yeah, hard to be sure, but I took my meds earlier.”
There’s a pause.
“Wait, were you not kidding?” Josh asks. “Because that’s seriously worrying. I mean it. Talk to Dr Hill.”
“Josh,” Mike says. “You don’t have to act like you care. I know you hate me. I deserve it.”
Josh takes a step back. “Why would I hate you?”
“C’mon. Don’t make me say it.”
“I mean, you can be a dick, but it’s the same for all of us. Me, Chris, Em—”
“And you hate all of us,” Mike says.
“Okay,” Josh says. “I’m not real and I hate all of my friends. I gotta say, it’s kind of exciting to feel like the most stable person in a conversation.”
He’s going to have to say it. He hates Josh for forcing him into this, even though he knows he only really has himself to blame. “Your sisters.”
Josh snorts. “You’re saying they can’t be dicks? You didn’t grow up with them.”
That makes Mike pause. He hasn’t heard Josh say a bad word about his sisters since they disappeared.
“They’re coming over to mine for dinner this weekend,” Josh says. “And, don’t get me wrong, it’ll be good to see them, but I already know they’re gonna be snide about my cooking.”
Mike opens his mouth. Closes it again. He can feel himself beginning to shake.
“Hannah and Beth?” he asks, when he finally manages to track down his voice. “They’re still alive?”
Josh stares at him. “What... I spoke to Beth this morning. Did something happen?”
“She’s okay? They’re both okay? Nothing... weird happened at your parents’ lodge last year?”
“Mike. You’re freaking me out.”
There’s no possible way this is real. He’s been wondering whether there’s a chance that this could be the real world, whether the mountain and its echoes could have been the hallucination, but he can’t have imagined the entire year since Beth and Hannah disappeared.
But this world is better than the one he knows. His friends are alive, all of them. He didn’t go along with a stupid prank that killed two friends, or killed one and turned another into a monster. Nobody went through that night of hell a year later, except him.
So he’s probably still there on that mountain, unconscious, hallucinating, maybe dying. That’s his reality.
Does that really mean he has to wake up?
He wants to apologise to her, but when she opens the door, alive, everything that’s happened rushes in to choke him. He knows he won’t be able to speak without crying.
“Mike?” Hannah asks, and then, “Are you okay?”
He was going to bring flowers, but he was worried that she’d interpret it as a romantic gesture, and then maybe she’d feel he was playing her or making fun of her, and then...
Well. He’s not going to risk her life again, whether she’s real or not.
Mike, Sam says. I know you’re trying to come back to us.
“Say something,” Hannah says.
“Hi.” It’s a huge effort, and he regrets it immediately. He can hear all the suppressed tears packed into his voice, just in that one word.
“Oh, God, did something bad happen?”
Keep trying. We’re all waiting for you over here. You have to wake up, okay?
“No,” Mike says. There’s a strange lightness in his chest, saying it and knowing it’s real. “No, everyone’s fine.”