It’s guilt that brings him back to the mountain. Guilt, and rumors, the latter care of two Rangers who’d gone investigating the while stories of a bunch of frightened kids. They hadn’t gone up expecting to find monsters. They’d both come down missing chunks of flesh.
So. There’s still something up on Blackwood Mountain. And now there’s Chris, trying to find out what.
This time, he thought he’d been prepared. Blown every single cent in his bank account on alpine survival gear; a pack, a tent, a sleeping bag, tools. So much fucking food he can barely move and more flares than the surface of the sun. So much for his college savings, but what’s college compared to the gnawing guilt in his gut and the screaming horrors in his mind?
Chris left his best friend to die. He keeps coming back around to that, no matter what the others tell him.
“I’m sorry. But there’s nothing you can do, man. The wendigo got him,” Mike had said, but he couldn’t meet Chris’ eyes when he did. The wendigo, as if they didn’t know the beast’s name.
It’s easier, Chris knows, to just think of them as monsters. Big dumb animals, predatory and vicious. Like some kind of fucked-up snowshark, made to eat and kill. Much easier to think that than to imagine the snarling monstrosity with its claws buried in his leg is all that’s left of his best friend.
Because, yeah. That happened. Chris, as it turned out, was not prepared.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, Josh, oh fuck…”
He didn’t even last one fucking night, that’s the worst thing. Now all he’s got is a ripped-up tent, a torn-up leg, and a mess of fangs inches from his face.
Chris knows, in that moment, that he’s going to fucking die. This is it. He’s too late.
“I’m sorry,” he manages. “Josh, man. I’m so sorry.” If he’s gonna get eaten, at least he’s gonna get eaten doing what he came up here to do. No regrets, and all that, except for all the rest.
The wendigo—and, yeah, really is hard to name them, go figure—shrieks into his face. Chris probably does the same thing back, he isn’t sure. All he knows is he slams his eyes shut, waiting for an end that never comes.
Instead, there’s another sound, another shriek, and a flare of pain that slices up Chris’ leg and straight into his shuddering heart. Then the weight on his chest is gone.
Chris opens his eyes just fast enough to see one very startled-looking wendigo being hauled back out through the rip in the side of the tent.
“Holy fuck,” he says, because there’s something else out there. Something that just saved his pathetic, guilty little ass. Something that’s currently tearing into the wendigo with violent gusto, judging from the sounds and the gouts of blood that are spraying everywhere, inside of the tent included.
Chris scrambles towards the rip. It’s a dumb idea, as far as dumb ideas go, but his other option is hiding in here until the whatever-else-it-is gets bored of its current prey and comes after him. Chris is almost certain, from the sounds, that it’s a second wendigo which, shit. Didn’t they burn all the fucking things to a crisp last time? Where do they keep coming from?
If there’s more than one, though, then maybe that means the thing in Chris’ tent wasn’t Josh. Which would be great. Fantastic, even, given said monster is currently being torn apart outside.
Chris is crouched into a crawl, head nearly at the tear, cold air ripping like claws, when an severed arm lands in front of him. Chris screams, he can’t help it. The sound is sharp and awful in the darkness, particularly because all other sounds stop when he makes it. So much for escaping by stealth.
Chris looks up, out into the gloom. Two pairs of silver-disc eyes stare back at him. The first are dim and dying, attached to the wendigo that hurt Chris’ leg, the one that lost its arm. It’s losing more than that by the looks of it, ribcage busted open in an explosion of red and gore. Chris doesn’t even know how it’s still alive.
The second pair of eyes belongs to the wendigo that killed it. This one is crouched over its prey, claws buried up to the elbow in the first wendigo’s chest. It’s absolutely soaked in blood, red from head to toe, and none of that obscures the fact it has a shock of dark hair above its awful, dripping maw, and is wearing a pair of too-big overalls below.
“… Josh?” says Chris, and it really shouldn’t be a question.
The Josh-wendigo looks at Chris, head tilted, dead eyes watching. Then the ruined mess of flesh beneath it, beneath him twitches, and Josh’s attention flicks downwards. He shrieks, and Chris thinks he might throw up at the sound. He does throw up a second later when Josh tears the first wendigo’s heart right out of its chest, then opens his huge jaws to eat it.
Chris ate a pizza, right before he got on the cable car to come up here, then some jerky in the tent. Neither taste as good coming up as they did going down.
His puke steams when it hits the snow, already starting to freeze over. Chris watches it with a weird sort of dislocation, head swimming. He’s still on his hands and knees, still bleeding all over the snow, still—
He hears a strange trilling sound, inches from his head. He looks up, right into the round silver eyes and massive, jagged teeth of what used to be Josh Washington.
As he passes out, Chris has just enough left in him to fall sideways instead of down. If he’s going to get eaten on a mountain, he thinks, he’d rather it not be while lying in a puddle of his own puke.
It comes back, bleary and slow in the dim light of dawn; the pain in his leg, the sick taste in his mouth, the awful sight of the blank silver discs where Josh’s eyes should’ve been.
Chris groans. When he does, he feels something next to him startle, than freeze.
There’s one terrible, awful second in which Chris realizes he’s not as cold as he should be. Considering he passed out in the snow.
Then there’s movement. Not from him, from the… weight next to him. One moment it’s there, the next it’s gone, disappeared out into the snow through the torn slit in the tent, leaving nothing but the reek of death in its wake.
For a long time, Chris doesn’t dare move. Just counts off seconds in his head, wondering if they’ll be his last. But, no. The only things that happen are the sun getting slowly brighter, the pain in Chris’ leg getting steadily worse, and the pressure in his bladder reminding him he needs to piss.
Outside, it’s dawn, and he’s alive.
Slowly, carefully, he sits up.
He’s been moved in the night. He can see where he fell, from the frozen puddle of puke, and where he was dragged by the long smear of blood. He’s been moved, of all things, back into his sleeping bag. Sort of rolled rather than zipped, but the bag itself is a horror-show nightmare of bloodied handprints and torn fabric. Almost as if someone with large claws tried to pull open the zipper.
Chris himself is, asides from his leg, not so much as scratched, even if he is covered in a lot of blood that isn’t his. He spends a long time looking at the stains, his own hand hovering over one particularly visible print.
Long fingers. Much long than…
Chris swallows. Lowers his hand.
The world is blurry, but it doesn’t take him long to find his glasses, folded up neatly on top of his pack. One arm is a bit out of kilter—he must’ve fallen on it when passing out—and the lenses are smeared with more bloody fingerprints, but…
So. He wasn’t eaten. Was dragged back inside the tent. Wrapped up so he wouldn’t freeze. And his glasses were folded and left where he could find them.
Chris sits there for a long time, thinking of that, and of the weight he woke up next to, and about a pair of blank silver discs, staring at him in the dark. He thinks about all of that and then, when he can’t put it off any longer, he leaves the tent, and takes a piss.
It’s… weird to be there. The place is a bit of a mess, smashed windows, snow covering the floor, wolverine shit in the kitchen. Chris dumps his gear just inside the door and, in lieu of a better plan, goes about clearing the place out to make it habitable. There’s scissors and duct tape in a drawer, and he used them to fix the broken windows with cut out patches from his former (and formerly expensive) tent.
“There,” he tells no one in particular when he’s done. “Absolute genius.”
The next thing is his leg. Chris has been putting off looking at it, given the bleeding has stopped and the pain is tolerable beneath the cold, so long as he doesn’t put weight on it. He knows he should’ve checked it first thing but, truth be told, he’s terrified the wounds will be worse than he can deal with on the mountain. That he’ll have to go back down, find a hospital.
That he’ll have to leave Josh. Again.
On the other hand, he’s not use to Josh with gangrene or septicemia. And so, as soon as he works out the hot water, he’s sitting on the bathroom floor, first aid kit exploded all around him, cutting off his (also expensive) snow pants.
The wounds are, surprisingly, not as bad as he thought they might be. Mostly punctures, no long rents. He can deal with it on his own with time and antiseptic. But first, he’s going to take a shower. Chris has to admit that, all things considered, he’s really not cut out for this mountain hiking bullshit.
He gets halfway through washing his hair before he starts sobbing and can’t stop. Ends up curled up on the floor of the shower stall, choking back, “Josh, oh fuck, oh fuck Josh, I’m sorry,” for an hour. Maybe more.
By the time he can drag himself out, the sun has dropped behind the mountain, and the temperature following in its wake.
Chris makes a fire, because it gives him something to do. He boils some water and reconstitutes a freeze-dried chicken tikka. It doesn’t taste great, but it’s food, and he’s halfway through it when the noises start up outside. Thumping and dragging. Footsteps, but not falling in a human sort of pattern. Chris stars into the fire and thinks that, maybe, just maybe, if he does nothing, they’ll go away.
The sounds do not go away.
Very quietly, as quietly as Chris can manage, he gets up. There are a bunch of flares on the table, and he grabs one. Creeps carefully to the front door. The sounds are coming from just outside, hidden by the darkness. Chris hovers on the inside of the door frame, hand shaking over the switch for the outside lights, counting down in his head.
Three… two… one…
He slams on the lights and bursts through the door at the same time. Ready for anything, or so he thinks. It occurs to him, a moment later, that the one thing he was not ready for was to see Josh, covered in blood and hunched over the dead carcass of a deer. Josh is hissing as if in pain, bloodied claws up to ward off the light. He’s squinting like a man staring into the heart of the sun, but what he’s actually looking at is Chris. When he manages to get one eye open, his iris is very, very green.
Chris gasps at the sight. “Josh?”
Josh makes a strange sound at the name, a kind of trilling whine. It doesn’t sound human, nor like any other animal Chris has ever heard.
It doesn’t sound aggressive, either.
For a moment, nothing. Just Chris, stunned and half-out the front door, and Josh, shoulders hunched, blinking into the light. The outside lights aren’t that bright, certainly not to the point they should be hurting him, but…
Chris flicks the switch, plunging the outside of the cabin into gloom. He braces for something—for Josh to lunge forward, to attack—but it never comes. Instead, Josh just lowers his claws, and goes back to eating his deer.
It is… a deeply disturbing sight. One half of Josh’s face seems to be made entirely out of jagged teeth, and his hands are long-fingered and heavily clawed. He’s not shy about using either things on the deer, tearing organs and cracking bone. Occasionally, his eyes flick up to regard Chris, and the contrast between the humanity of those green irises and the monstrousness below turns Chris’ stomach.
“Fuck,” Chris says. “Fuck. Josh…” He feels his legs give out, and he ends up sliding down the doorframe until he’s on his ass on the boards of the frozen porch. He needs to go back into the cabin, he knows. It must be twenty degrees, max. Much too cold to be sitting outside in his thermals, shaking. Eyes slammed shut and trying not to hear the sound of cracking bone.
When he feels cold, wet fangs press against his neck, Chris screams. Everything goes white for a moment inside his eyelids, and he wonders if he’s going to pass out for a second time in as many days. Not very manly, bro, his mind supplies, in Josh’s voice, and thought bubbles hysteria up and past his lips.
The fangs, which had pulled back, return. It’s Josh, Chris knows; pressing the ruined side of his mouth against vulnerable flesh. Chris can feel Josh’s breath, cold and rotten-smelling, huffing against his ear. It tickles, which doesn’t help the laughter.
He sits there, giggling, and waits to die. Waits for Josh to open his awful maw and bite, to tear out Chris’ throat. When Josh doesn’t comply, Chris wonders how many near-death experiences a man can have before he winds up mad.
“Fuck,” Chris mutters. “Fuck, b-bro.” He shudders, a whole body wrack against both the frozen air and the horror in his heart. The motion makes Josh pull back again, just enough to start pushing his greasy-ass, blood-matted hair against Chris’ shoulder. It’s not until he adds a hand to the gesture—claws folded back so he’s just pushing with his knuckles—that Chris realizes Josh is trying to urge him back inside.
Chris complies, scrabbling backwards on his ass, eyes wide and watching in terror as Josh follows him on all fours. When Josh clears the door, he kicks it shut behind him, and then Chris is trapped in a shitty little cabin, staring down a wendigo.
Josh… does not look very well, though it’s hard to tell what blood is his and what comes from the deer and… and other sources Chris is trying not to think about. The left side of Josh’s face in particular is a mess, skin split open in jagged gashes both horizontal and vertical, huge fangs jutting up through the rents. His skin is so pale it’s almost white, his cheeks hollow and sunken, the ruined overalls hanging off him like he’s somehow managed to lose thirty pounds in the last few weeks.
He’s a mess, in other words. A mess and a monster, but his eyes are bright and green and shine with an intelligence that has a sob catching in Chris’ throat.
“Oh, fuck,” Chris manages. “Oh f-fuck, bro. Wh-what happ—” Chris cuts himself off before he can ask any stupid fucking questions. He knows what must’ve happened, with Josh lost and isolated in the mines. Left with nothing but the mad monster that had once been his sister, and then not even that.
Chris feels tears spilling over his cheeks, feels sobs breaking in his throat. He brings a hand up to his mouth, as if he can hold the emotions in. “I’m sorry,” he tries to say. “I’m sorry, we… we thought you were dead. I’m sorry we left you. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry…” He reaches his free hand out, unsure if he’s trying to touch Josh or ward him back.
Josh just tilts his head, the gesture alien and birdlike. Then he’s moving forward, smooth and perversely graceful on four long, thin limbs that don’t bend the way any human’s should. Once again, he pushes the top of his head against Chris’ hand, throat making a series of weird chirping trills. He keeps moving, keeps getting closer, until he’s practically sitting in Chris’ lap, and Chris is giggling again, the sounds hysterical and wet as they push past his tears, because his best friend is a monster but that monster is comforting him, or trying to, in its own crazy, monstrous way.
Somewhere underneath his own mad babbling, Chris realizes he can hear a rumble. It’s coming from Josh, and it’s not a growl. Doesn’t sound threatening at all, in fact. Instead, it sounds like a purr.
Very hesitantly, Chris brings up his arms. Wrapping around Josh’s shoulders which, now that he can feel them, are definitely thinner than they were. Josh’s skin is cold—his body and his breath are cold—and the realization sets Chris off into another round of sobbing, even as he crushes Josh against his chest.
Chris has to admit he wasn’t expecting this. He came up here expecting to find either a corpse or a monster, not this… whatever it is Josh is. Changed and grotesque and inhuman, but…
“I’ll get you out of this, bro, I swear it,” Chris says. “We… we’ll get you off this hell-crag, get you… get you some doctors or a shrink or… or a fucking exorcist, I don’t know. Get you something. You’ll be back to your old self before you know it.”
Josh sighs, a cold huff of air that ghosts down Chris’ chest, though it’s hard to know if it’s in reaction to the words. Chris has no idea if Josh can even understand him, or whether he’s just running on some kind of basic emotional instinct. Chris isn’t sure which option he finds more disturbing.
They stay like that for a while, or at least until Chris’ head aches and his tear ducts burn. Then he pulls back, rubs his face with his hards so hard he sees fractals dancing behind his lids.
When his vision blinks back into focus again, Josh is still there. Crouched just within arms’ reach, head tilted, trilling softly.
“Okay,” Chris says. “Okay. Um. Fuck, okay. I’m… I’m okay. You… you’re alive. You didn’t eat me. That’s… we can work with that.”
He pushes himself to his feet, stumbles when his leg gives a lance of protest, and ends up with Josh’s claws under his arms, helping him upright.
“Fuck!” Chris exclaims. He didn’t even see Josh move.
Josh just trills in response, eyes narrowing as he crouches back down, sniffing at Chris’ leg.
“I, uh. I bandaged it up,” Chris says, unsure whether he should feel stupid for talking or not. “It’s okay. I’ll heal.”
Josh makes another sound, a kind of snuffling grunt. Then he’s standing again.
“Um, bro?” Chris says. “Since when did you get taller than me?”
He is, though not by much. It’s the longer limbs, Chris thinks, which, okay. That’s super cheating. Also, weird to think about.
Chris’ eyes keep getting drawn to Josh’s torn-up cheek. Before he’s really thought about it, he’s brushing his thumb across the gash. Josh makes a startled sound at the gesture, jerking back, which makes Chris jerk back even further. Because, yeah. Startling the crazy nonverbal wendigo? Maybe not such a great plan.
“Sorry,” says Chris. Josh is breathing hard, air huffing noisy and fast between his teeth. He’s turned his head to the side, as if trying to keep his teeth out of Chris’ reach.
“Sorry,” Chris says again. “Um. Does it… does it hurt?” Josh says nothing, just stares, wild-eyed and unblinking which, yeah. Creepy. But okay. “Um. I can help you clean it up or whatever. If you want?” Chris tries. “And… and your eye?” He gestures to Josh’s right eye, which looks sort of… crusty. Actually, a lot of Josh looks crusty. And he reeks. Maybe getting him into the shower would be a good start. Somehow.
Chris takes a step backwards. “C’mon, bro,” he says. “I’ve got a first aid kit and everything. I came super prepared, you should be proud of me.” It’s a stupid idea, but maybe, Chris thinks, if he just keeps talking to Josh like he’s okay, then Josh will start responding like he is. It’s something Chris can do, anyway. Something he used to do, all the time, back when Josh was getting fucked up either from his meds or from the lack of them. It didn’t always work, but Josh used to appreciated that Chris tried. A lot of other people didn’t.
It occurs to Chris to wonder if wendigo need antidepressants. Maybe that’s why Josh hasn’t eaten him? Maybe he’s just too dazed-out to give a shit except, no. No, he caught the deer, right? Caught the deer, saved Chris from the wendigo that was trying to eat him, then stopped Chris from freezing to death in the snow. So maybe he’s not Mr. Depressdigo. Maybe he just… doesn’t want to eat Chris, in which case, awesome! A++ work, Josh Washington. Keep that shit right up, preferably forever.
Chris takes another step backwards. “C’mon, man,” he says. “I’ll be gentle, I swear.” He tries a grin, waits for Josh to say something dumb like, No homo, bro. Which he doesn’t, of course, but he does take a step forward. Haltingly, like he’s not sure if he should.
Fuck it, Chris thinks, and decides to be bold. If he’s wrong about a single thing tonight, he’s a dead man anyway. If he’s gonna die, at least he’s gonna die trying his best.
So he reaches out, grabs onto Josh’s big, long-fingered claw, and pulls him forward.
“Move it, bro. Don’t got all night.” Then he turns around, and starts walking towards the bathroom.
There’s one small tug of resistance when he gets to the end of Josh’s arm, one tiny breath where Chris thinks maybe he’s misjudged. Then, miracle of miracles, Josh is walking. Or… loping, maybe is a better word. His gait is weird, like he’s not used to walking on two legs. But he manages, at least until they get to the door of the bathroom. When Chris pushes it open, Josh freezes, hissing in pain, and no amount of tugging on his arm will move him. Josh is strong now, as it turns out, which is something Chris files away for later.
For now, he flicks off the bathroom light.
“Sorry,” he says. “Have to find some lower watt globes or something, yeah?”
Josh says nothing, but allows himself to be brought into the darkened bathroom.
Chris sits him on the closed lid of the toilet, then leans back, considering. “So, yeah,” he says. “Dilemma: I’m gonna have to turn the lights back on to get a proper look at you. My night vision is shit.” He thinks for a minute, then, “Okay, I got it. Stay here for a sec. I’ll be right back.”
He jogs back into the cabin, silently praying Josh stays docile and quiet, that he doesn’t decide this is the moment to give into his new wendigo nature. The gods must be listening, because Chris gets to his pack unmolested, then continues to be so for the next five minutes it takes him to find what he’s looking for. The exercise ends up with everything he owns sprawled out across the cabin floor, but, more importantly, with Chris’ fingers closed around the arm of a pair of polarized, wrap-around sunglasses.
He holds them aloft when he gets back into the bathroom. “Ta-daa!” he announces. “Bought these ‘cause the guy at the MEC told me snow glare is a bitch. Figure they should work for you and lightbulbs, too.”
Josh is still sitting on the toilet, and he looks up at the sounds of Chris’ voice, blinking slowly as if emerging from a daze. He’s been looking down at his claws, Chris thinks, which he’s holding palms-up between his knees, opening and closing them like he’s seeing them for the first time. Chris decides to take the gesture as something positive—as some kind of sign the old Josh is in behind the monster—and his grin as he slides the sunglasses over Josh’s ears is a genuine one.
“There,” he says. “I’m gonna turn the lights on again now, okay? If it still hurts, uh… give me a hiss or something.”
He snaps on the lights. Josh flinches at the sound, but he doesn’t hiss. Instead, Chris can see the muscles in his cheeks and brows working, like he’s blinking behind the glasses.
“Success?” Chris asks. “Good enough. Now, let’s get a look at you.”
If Josh looked bad in the dim light of the cabin, he looks even worse under the bathroom fluorescents. The skin around his ruined cheek is a nasty mix of purple and red and green, bruises and scratches running down beneath his shredded clothes.
“Gonna have to get your clothes off, bro,” Chris says. “No homo.”
Josh doesn’t laugh, but he does allow Chris to unclip his overalls and stands up enough to allow Chris to strip him down to the skin. Josh makes no complaint or comment about being naked, and it’s weird or whatever, but Chris has got more important things to worry about than Josh’s modesty. More important things like the way Josh’s seems to be covered in a thicker layer of filth and grime than body fat, or the masses of ugly bruises and healing bite marks that cover him.
“You been fighting with locals?” Chris asks, fingers ghosting over one particularly nasty-looking wound. “Reckon this is a bit too much for a washcloth. How do you feel about a bath?” The cabin has one, even if it’s not a big jacuzzi like in the now-ruined lodge.
Josh is making soft keening sounds. Anxious, maybe, but he allows Chris to sit him down in the bathtub.
Chris strips off his own shirt, then starts running the water. The bath has a shower-head like sprayer on a hose, so Chris uses that, not even bothering to fill the tub. He figures Josh is filthy enough without stewing in a bath of his own mank.
“You know, I’ve never given another dude a bath before,” Chris says conversationally. “See the things I do for you? And if you so much as breathe a word of this to anyone else when we get outta here, I am going to tell your mom and all of her friends about exactly where her lipsticks went that time in the fifth grade.” If Josh understands the reference, he doesn’t acknowledge it. But he is purring again, quiet and broken, like he’s not quite sure of himself.
Chris talks while he works, washcloth in one hand, spray hose in the other. The water sluices down the drain in a brown-red slurry, a mix of dirt and old blood, scabs and new blood and pus following. It is truly disgusting work, and it must hurt Josh, if only a little, judging by the whimpers that escape through the purring.
The bites are the worst. They don’t look like much on the surface, just little holes. But they go deep, and they go angry; even the slightest a pressure sending streams of yellow-grey oozing out into the tub.
“Got to stop you fighting, bro,” Chris says as he works. “I don’t care if you have super wendigo healing or whatever. This has to make you feel shitty.”
Josh whimpers, but he allows Chris to work.
Chris gets Josh to stand to do his legs. He has more of the infected bites on his pale, bony ass, and Chris awards himself Best Friend of the Century in his head as he cleans the wounds.
Yeah, when they get out of here, he’s going to be reminding Josh about this forever.
As he works, Chris talks. Not about anything in particular, just TV he’s watched and updates from his family. It’s when he feels Josh tense at the mention of his disastrous not-quite date with Ashley, that Chris says, “Oh. Yeah. Um. Everyone’s okay. I mean, as okay as they can be. I guess… I guess you didn’t know that, huh?” An awkward pause. Chris thinks the fact that the cause of it isn’t that he’s squeezing pus out of his best friend’s ass cheek (no homo) really says something about their lives.
When Chris is as done with cleaning bites as he can be, he has Josh sit back down. “Gonna do your face now, bro,” he says. “But I’m going to have to take your glasses off. You close your eyes, okay?”
Josh gives a trilling noise Chris interprets as an assent. So he goes to remove the sunglasses and, yes. Josh’s eyes are closed. Chris feels his heart speed up, just a little. Josh understands him. He might not be talking, but he’s listening.
Fuck, thinks Chris. This is gonna work. We’re going to get out of here. Everything’s going to be okay.
He does Josh’s eyes first. The right one is super-gross, crusted with something Chris tries not to think too hard about. But they clean up just fine, and when Chris is done, he’s treated to a moment of pure Washington green for the half second it takes for Josh’s photophobia to kick in.
Chris helps his slip the sunglasses back on, then pauses for a moment as he wonders what the hell he’s going to do about Josh’s ruined cheek.
“This,” he says, “is a bit of a mess.”
It’s an understatement and a half, and Chris isn’t even sure if what he’s looking at is a wound or some part of the transformation.
Josh, meanwhile, is shaking, choked little whimpers replacing his earlier purring. It occurs to Chris that, if Josh is cognizant enough to understand human speech, then he might know exactly how monstrous his mouth looks. Might know, and feel self-conscious about it. Chris’ reaction probably isn’t helping, so he forces out a smile.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, man,” he says. “Chicks dig scars. Tell me if it hurts, okay?”
His washcloth is barely touching Josh’s skin when he hears:
Chris freezes, unsure if he heard something or is just imagining things. “What’s that, bro?” He looks up, trying in vain to meet Josh’s eyes behind the sunglasses.
“No,” Josh repeats and, yeah. He’s talking. Chris can see his throat working. “No… hurt.”
Josh’s dark brows are drawn down hard above the plastic rims of the sunglasses. Like forming words is taking every last ounce of concentration that he has. Chris thinks his heart has stopped beating, but he making himself say: “You want me to stop because it hurts?” Which earns him a frustrated growl, so: “Or I can keep going because it doesn’t hurt?”
The tension goes out of Josh’s face, one of the weird trilling keens rising in his throat. Relief that he’s been understood, and Chris knows the feeling. Inside his own head, Chris is doing fucking backflips.
“Okay, man,” Chris says. “Growl for me if it changes.” Another one of the noises Chris realizes must be wendigo for sure, bro.
He finishes off Josh’s face. With the blood and grime gone, he has a proper look at what’s wrong.
“I think this looks worse than it is,” he eventually says. “I can kind of see where it’s already healing up.” He presses lightly against the far corner of the mess. “I dunno what you did, but… maybe try taking smaller bites of food for a while, yeah? Stop tearing it open all the time. And, like, no smiling. None. No smiling, no laughing. No humor at all. Doctor’s orders, okay?” He gives his own grin, poking Josh in forehead as he says it. Josh doesn’t laugh or even so much as grin in reply, but he’s purring again, and Chris figures that’s close enough.
“Okay,” he says. “Almost done. One last thing, and that’s I’m gonna wash your hair. Because, seriously? It’s nasty, man. Like, vegan hippy nasty. No one wants that.”
A raid of the bathroom reveals two bottles of shampoo. “We’ve got, like, citrus and elderflower? What the fuck is elderflower? Anyway. There’s that, or, uh, wood chips? I dunno, man. Whoever the hell stayed here last has some weird fucking taste in shampoo. Here, choose one.”
He holds each bottle out for Josh to smell, then has to laugh at the reaction. “Wood chips it is,” he says, even as Josh coughs and splutters and tries to get the smell of elderflower (whatever that is) out of his nose.
Washing Josh’s hair earns Chris an exceptionally loud purring. Loud enough that Chris kicks himself for leaving his phone back out in the main part of the cabin. Recording this would’ve been blackmail gold. For, like, years. Like, all Chris would have to do is narrow his eyes and mutter, “Elderflower, bro” and Josh would do whatever the hell he asked. Probably still will, honestly, but at least with a recording Chris could’ve shared it on Facebook. Oh well.
Hair washed, Chris turns off the faucet and grabs a towel. He’s steeling himself up for having to dry his best friend’s junk when Josh takes the towel and manages on his own. He even wraps the thing around his waist when he’s done, or tries to, given that his claws keep getting stuck in the cotton. All that’s left is for Chris to do one last go-around with a tube of antiseptic cream, and they’re done.
“There,” he says when he’s finished. “Now you smell like a forest fire, not a crime scene.” When he flicks off the bathroom light, Josh removes his sunglasses by himself.
The eyes that look back at Chris from beneath dark brows are, he thinks, much more lucid than they were an hour ago. It occurs to Chris that being covered in blood and full of infected abscesses probably wasn’t doing anything for anyone’s mental health. When he gives Josh a grin, he almost thinks he sees a curl of lip in return.
“Gimme a bit,” Chris says, “and I’ll find you some shit to wear that didn’t come out of the Friday the 13th Winter Collection.”
Chris’ clothes are both comically too big and too short for Josh’s skinny-ass half-wendigo body, but they’ll do. The hour is so late it’s early, and with his most immediate problem solved, Chris feels the night pulling down hard against his eyes.
“Man,” he says. “I’m wrecked. I’m gonna get some sleep. Feel free to crash here, too. Given that, yanno. It’s your cabin and all.” He punches Josh on the forearm, light and playful, and takes the fact he doesn’t get eaten in return to be a good sign.
Yeah, Chris thinks, as his head hits the pillow. Shit is massively fucked up. But it’ll be okay.
He’s asleep not long after.
When he dreams, he dreams of teeth. Teeth and claws and eyes like silver dollars, shining blank beneath the moon. When sharp claws sink into his middle, Chris screams. Meanwhile, Josh just grins his jag-toothed grin, and laughs and laughs and—
—and Chris’ eyes shoot open, and he screams for real. Because a nightmare is a nightmare is one thing, but waking to the weight of claws on his chest and the shine of silver eyes inches from his in the dark is quite another.
He has one moment of pure, bowel clenching panic, before his mind catches up to the soft halo dark hair and the rumbling sound of purring, and his lips manage to gasp out, “Josh?”
Josh is in his bed. Josh is in his bed, practically sitting on his chest. Because… because he heard Chris having a nightmare? Which is kind of sweet, but also terrifying, because holy fuck Josh.
Josh, who’s settling down on the bed, head resting on Chris’ chest.
“Uh,” says Chris. “Bro?”
But all he gets in return is a faint whine, and a rumbling purr. Josh seems disinclined to move, so Chris just… lets him stay where he is. And if the purring is kind of relaxing? Well. That’s someone no one back at sea level ever has to know.
Chris falls asleep not long after, and this time, he doesn’t dream.
Chris sleeps the entirety of the next day, which has him cursing when he rolls over to check his phone for the time. His irritation lasts for exactly as long as it takes from him to sit up and to catch sight of Josh. Who’s sitting on top of the far side of the bed, happily eating breakfast.
“Dude!” Chris says. “Dude, what the fuck? Is that a deer leg? You can’t eat a fucking deer leg in the bed. Dude! No! No way.” This earns him a growl, which: “Fuck off, Josh. I cleaned your fucking abscesses for you, you knife-toothed jackass. The least you can do in return is not eat a raw fucking deer leg in my fucking bed.” And then, because apparently, somewhere, somehow, Chris is now and forever will be twelve, he adds: “I’ll tell your fucking mom!”
This earns him another growl, and a hiss, but at least Josh takes his goddamn leg off the bed.
“Fuck,” Chris then tells no one in particular.
So the rest of the night, he spends washing the sheets. Josh lurks around the cabin in the dark, sulking and growling in corners and, on one unexpectedly sphincter-clenching occasion, the ceiling.
Chris puts up with it for a while, then goes outside to find Josh sulking on the roof.
“Hey, man,” he calls up. “It’s as cold as Elsa’a snatch out here. You wanna come back inside or what?” Which earns him a silver-eyed stare, before Josh pointedly turns away. “Dude,” Chris says. “Don’t be like that. I’m sorry I was shitty about the deer leg. It’s just… it’s been a really fucked-up couple of days, okay? I shouldn’t’ve called you… what I called you.” A pause. “And I totally won’t tell your mom you were eating raw meat in the bed. You weirdo.” This time, when Josh turns, Chris tries a smile.
Whether it’s his words or his shit-eating grin, something must work, because Josh jumps down from the roof, landing in an near-silent three-point crouch. It’s impressive in its athleticism, now that Chris isn’t worried about it being a prelude to having his head ripped off.
When Josh walks back into the dim light spilling out from the interior of the cabin, Chris sees something else new; Josh blinks, and the silver film rolls back from his eyes, leaving them green and clear.
“That’s kinda cool,” Chris says. “The eye thing, I mean.” Josh tilts his head, and it occurs to Chris he may not have any idea what he looks like when he does it. “It’s when you turn on your, like, super wendigo vision I guess,” Chris says. “You eyes go kind of silver and shiny in the dark. It’s creepy. But, like. Cool creepy.”
He tries to make it sound upbeat, but Josh still scowls, raising a claw as it to check Chris’ story by touch.
Josh clawing himself in the eyes sounds like something Chris really, really doesn’t want to deal with, now or ever, so he says, “Hey, I think it’s like, time for midnight-lunch or whatever. You hungry? I got astronaut food.”
Josh follows him back into the cabin, sitting perched on the kitchen counter like some weird gargoyle in skinny jeans. While Chris boils water, he gets Josh to take off his shirt—“No homo, bro”—then checks the wounds from he day before.
“You heal like a fucking mo— beast,” Chris says, fingers ghosting over nearly-inviable marks that, just yesterday, has been seeping, pus-filled holes. “You feeling better?”
Josh blinks, scowling as if Chris just asked him some kind of complicated math problem about trains and velocity. The reason for the concentration becomes clear a moment later when Josh says:
“Itches. But… headache’s gone.” He puts his claw against his forehead as if to demonstrate.
“I’ll bet,” Chris says, trying to keep it cool while inside-Chris does backflips in his mind. “At this rate, by tomorrow you’ll never know you were in a fight.” Even Josh’s mouth is looking better. Still terrifying, but less raw around the edges. Amazing, Chris thinks, what a hot bath and some first aid can do for a guy.
A hot bath, some first aid, and some freeze-dried dinner. “We got, uh, lasagna, or chili mac,” Chris says, holding up two packets. “What do you think?”
Josh leans forward enough to sniff the packets, though from his scowl, Chris suspects he doesn’t get much through the vacuum seal.
“How ‘bout lasagna?” Chris suggests. “The guy at the MEC in Calgary told me it’s, quote-unquote, ‘surprisingly not terrible, eh.’” Chris’ attempt at a Canadian accent is awful, but it makes Josh’s smile. Maybe. Just a little, beneath the teeth.
Josh says nothing, which Chris is beginning to learn means he has no opinion on a particular subject. It’s… odd, un-Josh-like, to be so reserved with words. But it goes with the whole “predatory efficiency” vibe he’s got going on, so whatever. Chris will deal.
Then minutes and eight ounces (“two hundred and fifty Canada-ounces, exchange rate’s brutal, man”) of water later, and they have two servings of reconstituted lasagna. It smells like airplane food and tastes like someone went a little crazy with the salt shaker, but otherwise the MEC-guy’s sales pitch was accurate.
“Man,” Chris says. “I will not lie; I am looking forward to getting back to civilization and eating me a proper meal.”
Josh, meanwhile, is sniffing at his bowl like it might bite him.
“It’s edible, I swear,” Chris says.
Very hesitantly, Josh picks up a piece of lasagna—in his claws but, baby steps—sniffs it, then puts it in his mouth.
Five minutes later, when Josh is whining and retching over the sink, and Chris has to admit maybe even “baby steps” is too adventurous.
“Sorry, man,” he keeps saying, hand rubbing up and down the knobbly ridges of Josh’s spine. “Guess you’re not back on solid foods, huh?” Josh hasn’t actually puked, but he’s making sounds like he wishes that he had.
“Fuck,” says Josh, very clearly. He turns on the faucet, rinsing out his mouth then spitting, over and over. “You trying to poison me, Cochise?”
Chris’ eyes go very wide. So, okay. Josh can call him nicknames but not eat lasagna, got it.
“Sorry,” says Chris. Then: “This is fucked up.”
“Yeah.” Josh turns off the tap, leaning his elbows on the counter and rubbing at his face with his knuckles. He’s making an awful, piteous whining in the back of his throat, all while very obviously trying not to be. “I… I’m fucking starving,” he finally admits. “Gotta find something to eat before… before…” Before I end up eating you, Josh doesn’t say.
“You do what you gotta do, man,” Chris says. He’s not sure what he doesn’t want more: to be eaten, or to have Josh eat him. If that sort of fucked-up Sophie’s choice isn’t love, he isn’t sure what is.
“Thanks… thanks for trying,” Josh says, mostly to the faucet. “For everything. I… I’m sorry I…” But whatever he’s sorry for is swallowed by another inhuman whine. Josh hunches in on himself with the sound, shoulders shaking. Chris wonders if this is how he cries, now.
“Hey,” Chris says. “Hey, it’s okay, man. It’s been like one day. You’re doing really great.” This, Chris thinks, is the longest conversation they’ve had since they found each other. That’s something. Even if Josh spends the entire rest of his life eating nothing but raw meat, it’ll still be something. He’ll take obligate-carnivore!Josh over nonverbal-animal!Josh any day.
Chris gives Josh one last reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Go on, man,” he says. “Still got a few hours before dawn. Go out and bag yourself a deer or whatever.”
Josh nods, standing up a little straighter, even if he won’t look at Chris. “Just don’t eat it in the bed, huh?” he says. His voice is getting clearer, more coherent, the entire time. Still sort of wet and rough behind his teeth, but less like each word is a struggle.
Chris laughs. “No raw meat in the bed. New house rule.”
“Gay,” says Josh. Chris is standing on the toothy side, so it’s hard to tell, but he’s pretty sure Josh is grinning.
Then, because Josh is apparently feeling talkative and Chris just has to ask: “So do you just, like, catch shit with your hands now or what?”
Josh holds up a hand, wriggles the claws. “Yeah,” he says.
“It’s not hard,” Josh says. “Deer are stupid fucks.” Chris supposes that, for a predator designed to hunt humans, an animal without the ability to use tools or abstract reasoning would be a pretty simple catch. Which see: fucked-up. But also: badass.
Josh gives one last choked-off whine, huffing out breath like he’s steeling himself for something. Then: “Okay. I’ll… I’ll be back?” He doesn’t quite manage to keep the question out of his voice. Like Chris is going to kick him out now.
“Happy hunting, bro,” Chris says. “I’ll be here.”
He gets one flash of bright green eyes, and the edge of a crooked grin. Then Josh is gone.
Sleep does not come easy, despite the weariness in his bones. He’s almost grasped it when the shrieking starts. A wendigo, howling in the dark. Chris hopes against hope it’s Josh.
When a second voice is added to the first, he’s pretty sure one of them is Josh. If only because he can hear the fight. It sounds close by the cabin, and Chris’ hand reaches out, opens the nightstand drawer and closes around the flare hidden inside.
The sounds stop not long after. Then the door of the cabin opens, and Chris’ heart is pounding so hard he thinks it might burst.
The door of the cabin opens, then closes. Then someone turns on the shower.
Very slowly, Chris releases the flare, and shuts the drawer.
About half an hour later, the bed dips. Chris can smell blood and wendigo settle in behind him, but also wood chips and toothpaste. A rumbling purr starts up not long after, and Chris finally lets himself sleep.
Waking Josh up during the day is not, as it turns out, an easy feat. But damned it Chris is going to try and make the trip down the cable car in the night. He’s learned that lesson already.
Josh growls, inarticulate, but allows himself to be hauled out of the bed and bundled into the sunglasses and a hooded parka. The parka is Chris’, and he only has the one, but he figures him layering against the wind is easier than Josh stumbling around blinded by the sun.
Twenty minutes later, he’s packed up, and is shaking Josh awake for the third time.
“You don’t melt in the sun, right?” he says, which earns him a tired growl.
Josh does not, in fact, melt in the sun, though even bundled under sunglasses and buried in the fur of his hood, he struggles with the light. The fact that it’s a blisteringly sunny day doesn’t help matters, but damned if Chris is going to spend another night on that freakin’ mountain, waiting for better weather.
“Get you to the hospital in Calgary,” he tells Josh as they wait for the stupid cable car to get its ass in gear. “Then call your mom. She’s gonna flip out.” This earns him a pained whine, so: “Seriously, man. They’ll be happy to see you. Everyone will.”
Josh offers no comment on this, his talkative mood from last night apparently evaporating with the early morning fog.
The cable car is as terrifying as Chris remembers, a rickety piece of shit suspended by a thread above a deadly drop. His knee jiggles anxiously as they swing slowly in the wind. “I hate this thing,” he says, just to make conversation, although he’s pretty sure Josh has long since fallen asleep against his shoulder.
They’re about two thirds the way down when he starts thinking something might be wrong. At first, he assumes Josh is having some kind of nightmare, twitching and whimpering in his sleep. It gets worse the closer they get to the bottom. When they finally grind to a stop, Chris tries to wake Josh only to realize the guy already is.
“Hey, man,” Chris says. “You alright?”
Josh nods. Maybe. Chris starts thinking that hospital is sounding better by the minute.
He practically has to carry Josh to the car. Josh’s legs don’t seem to work, his body shaking, throat whimpering like he’s in pain. Every now and again he seems to say something, but the voices don’t sound like his. They sound like Chris’, or like his sisters’. That… worries Chris. It worries him a lot.
He worries more when he manages to haul Josh into his car, only to end up with a backseat full of half-digested deer viscera.
Cleaning that up sucks, but he manages, kind of. The car reeks like vomit and Josh is delirious in the front seat by the time they pull out of the parking lot, but they do make it, and Chris points the car in the direction of Calgary.
“Just hang in there, bro,” he says. He tries to ignore the fact that it’s Beth’s voice that answers him.
Chris gets half a mile before it occurs to him to wonder why none of the other wendigo ever tried to leave the mountain. When he finally works it out, he slams his foot so hard on the brake the jolt sends Josh’s skull smashing into the window. The glass cracks. Josh doesn’t even whimper.
“Fuck,” says Chris, throwing the car in reverse. “Fuck. Fucking cursed mountain. Fuck.”
He gets back to the cable car in half the time.
Josh’s delirium doesn’t lift, even when Chris hauls his skinny ass back into the cabin. His eyes are smooth silver behind the sunglasses, his throat eerily replaying conversations from years ago, in perfect mimicry of everyone’s voice but his own. At least he’s mostly catatonic. Chris really, really doesn’t want to have to deal with a mobile hallucinating Josh with a wendigo’s strength and teeth and hunger.
Chris spends most of his time sitting on the floor next to the bed, rocking back and forth, alternating between sobs and screaming. He was so close. Josh was alive. He was talking. Human, sort of. Everything was going to be okay. They were going to go to Calgary, get Josh a shrink and a dentist and some plastic fucking surgery and everything was going to go back to how it was and—
“Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid.” Chris beats his head back against the bed frame, hard enough for him to see stars.
Somewhere up above, his own voice echoes back.
Chris gets as much of his own sleep as he can manage, which is to say not nearly enough. He watches dawn break over the mountain, watches Josh curl tighter beneath the covers. Then he makes a decision, and leaves the cabin.
He calls his parents first. That, perversely, is the easy part. His dad cries, which is not something Chris wants to hear, ever, but there it is. Chris is vague about what’s going on, only that he found Josh and things are okay, and that maybe he won’t be coming home for a while.
“What about college?” his mom asks. Chris has no answer. He can’t think that far ahead. Not yet.
He says goodbye to his parents, promising to call again soon. Then he makes the hard call.
“Um. Ms. Washington?” he says into the line. “Um, hi. It’s Chris. Um. I found Josh.”
He tells the Washingtons everything. He’s not sure they believe him about the whole ancient-Native-American-wendigo-curse part, but they’ve known their son his entire life. “Isolation-induced psychotic break” and “physical degradation brought on by exposure to extreme conditions” they can understand.
“Anything you need,” Bob Washington says, voice wavering in a way Chris has never heard before. “Anything at all. We’ll pay for all of it, don’t worry about that.”
“Um,” says Chris, who’s always been a little bit afraid of Josh’s father. “Some of the windows in the cabin are broken from— from last time. I was going to try and get them fixed?” He has no idea how much new windows cost, but suspect it’s probably more than his stripped bank account can handle.
There’s a pause at the other end of the line, long enough that Chris starts to wonder if maybe he said the wrong thing. Then Mr. Washington says:
“O-of course, Chris. Just… just get the invoice sent to us.”
“Thank you, Mr. Washington.”
“Please, Chris. Call me Bob.”
“Um. Okay. Thank you.” Honestly, Chris can’t imagine calling Josh’s dad by his first name, but he supposed it’s a nice gesture.
There’s another one of those awkward pauses, then: “Is there anything else? Food? Anything like that?”
“Oh,” says Chris. “Um. Josh is… He’s pretty good at hunting deer? And I can just grab some frozen peas and ramen—”
“Chris, please. I… I’ll arrange a delivery. Tomorrow. Will that work?”
“Um,” says Chris. “Sure. Thank you.”
Another awkward silence. Chris wonders if Mr. Washington is angry with him. The man’s voice sounds sort of strained.
Then he says:
“My— my son is very lucky. To have someone like you.”
“Um, sure,” says Chris, and gives a nervous laugh. “What are best friends for?”
“So, um. I’m thinking… the hunting’s pretty good up the mountain. I might try and get into a bit of that. Um. Would you have any, like. Recommendations? For stuff I might need? We’ve, um. We’ve got rifles and whatever. But, like. Other stuff?”
The glazer, a worn-looking man in his fifties, scratches his head as he ponders the question. Chris tries his best not to look like some kind of serial killer.
“Well,” the guy says after a while. “If you plan on eating what you shoot, you might want to buy a decent freezer. Leave stuff out to rot, who knows what you’ll attract.”
In the end, Chris buys two freezers. They aren’t cheap. He hopes Mr. Washington will be okay with the cost.
The last person he calls is Ashley. Hearing her voice is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it’s Ashley, and Ashley always is. A curse, because, for the first time, explaining things to her finally makes them real.
She cries. So does Chris. Maybe just a little.
“You… you never even considered it didn’t have to be you, did you?” Ashley asks.
He hears a sigh come down the line, big and staticky and choking. “I…” Ashley starts, then: “You’re a really, really great guy, you know that? I’m sorry things didn’t work out with us.”
“Oh,” says Chris, who’d kind of hoped they still might. “Um…” It’s not like they’d been dating dating, what with everything, but…
“You stay safe, you hear me?” Ashley continues, before Chris can think of something smooth to say. “I’ll tell the others what… about Josh. And no radio silence, okay? Phone, Facebook, whatever. We’re always here if you need someone to talk to.”
“I mean it! Just… keep in touch, okay? If we don’t hear from you, we… we might…”
“What, think Josh has eaten me?” Chris means it as a joke. Judging from Ashley’s choked sob, he suspect it was a bad one. “Ash, sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay,” Ashley says, too fast for Chris to believe it’s true. “I just… I’ve gotta go. You take care, okay? Talk to you soon.” Then, so fast Chris almost thinks he missed it: “I love you.”
“Ash, wait!” But all Chris is talking to is a dial tone.
Organizing everything in town takes a long time. Long enough that it’s dark when Chris makes it back up to the mountain, weighed down by Safeway bags, limping as the wound on his leg reminds him of its existence. He figures that, should a wendigo choose to menace him, he’s just going to hit it so hard with power of being so fucking done with today, that it’ll have no choice but to offer to make him a relaxing cup of coco. With marshmallows.
No wendigo appear to make him hot beverages, but Chris really hopes the fact that the cabin door is swinging on its hinges doesn’t mean one has ransacked the inside.
His heart speeds up when he thinks of Josh, alone and sick, and doesn’t settle when he races inside to find the den an utter mess. Something with claws has definitely been through here; the walls are scratched, the sofa shredded, and—
“Josh! Oh, fuck. Josh?”
Chris hears a noise, spins towards it, then double-takes when he realizes it’s his own voice. “Fuck off, Josh,” it says. “You knife-toothed jackass.”
“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Josh!” He has a sudden image of Josh, lying eviscerated on the floor, some other wendigo chowing on his heart.
In some ways, what he actually finds is worse.
It’s Josh, just Josh. Curled up into a tiny ball beneath the bed. He’s chewing on something, teeth tearing through what Chris realizes is his own now-shredded shirt.
“Josh!” Chris is on his stomach on the floor, reaching a hand under the bed. His fingertips brush one of Josh’s forearms, just, and when one flat silver eye snaps open, Chris wonders if this is when he dies. If Josh has finally, finally snapped. That he woke up, alone. Remembered their fight from before, though Chris has abandoned him on the mountain, lost the last shred of his humanity in the grief.
“Oh, fuck. Josh. I’m sorry, c’mon. Please, man.” God. Chris is such a fucking idiot.
Chris exhales, big and rushed. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, man. It’s me. I’m back.”
“I just went into town. To buy stuff for us. So we can stay here a little longer. I’m sorry I’m late. I thought you’d still be asleep. I should’ve… I should’ve left a note. I’m a dumbass, I’m sorry.” Somewhere in the middle of this, Josh just closes his eyes, and gives such a mournful keen Chris is surprised every single window in the cabin doesn’t shatter. He supposes it’s a good thing he booked the glazier.
When Josh moves, it’s so fast Chris barely sees it. One moment he’s on the ground, the next he’s being hauled upright, big sharp wendigo claws twisting in his jacket, big sharp wendigo teeth pressing against his neck.
Josh is a mess of pathetic-sounding noises, but there’s a purr somewhere underneath.
It’s later. Josh has calmed down, mostly, although he still hasn’t spoken.
“C’mon, it’s in the den. I dumped it with the rest of the shopping.” Extracting himself from Josh’s claws enough to stand up isn’t easy, but Chris manages. He’s still holding Josh’s hand when he does, tugging gently upwards. After a moment, Josh stands, and Chris figures it’s an improvement.
He walks Josh into the living room, sits him down on a patch of sofa that’s mostly un-shredded. Josh picks at some of the exposed stuffing.
“Sorry,” he says, so quiet Chris almost misses it. “’Bout the sofa. And stuff.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Chris says. “You can buy me a new one, rich boy. Speaking of, your parents say hi.”
Josh startles at the comment, his eyes still downcast. “What… what did you tell them?”
“That you got hit by an ancient Native American curse and got half-turned into a wendigo and stuck on a mountain, but that otherwise you’re okay.”
Josh gives a pained whine. “Should’ve let them think I was dead.”
“That,” Chris says, “is a terrible fucking idea, Captain Pity Party. Your parents love you. Your mum cried when she found out you were okay. Like, a lot.”
Josh winces, turning his head to the side, claws opening and closing on his lap. “You… you realize I… I ate someone, right? That’s a pretty fucking long distance from ‘okay.’”
Honestly, Chris has been trying not to think about it, but: “Yeah, man. I know. That’s generally how this whole ‘wendigo’ thing works.”
“I don’t even feel bad about it,” Josh says. “I know I’m supposed to. I know… But I was hungry. You can’t know what it’s like. Just… so, so hungry, and…”
“You would’ve died, otherwise.”
“He had a scar,” Josh says. “Across one eye. I don’t… I don’t know who he was.”
“I do.” Chris’ announcement must surprise him, because Josh looks up.
“I mean, we didn’t know his name,” Chris says. “He was just some crazy hermit. He used to hunt the wendigo here. He, um. He tried to help us. He did help us. We’d probably be dead if not for him. And, uh. He is dead because of us. Because of me.” A pause. “We got jumped, him and me. I got away. He… didn’t. I’m not sure if he meant to save me. But he did.” And I guess he saved you too, Chris doesn’t say. He doesn’t mention they’d been looking for Josh at the time it all went down. That doesn’t seem to be a thing Josh needs to know. Not right now, anyway.
After a while, Josh says: “This is so fucked up.”
“It could be worse,” Chris says. “I mean, you don’t seem to want to eat me. So there’s that.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” Josh corrects.
“Well,” says Chris. “I don’t want you to kill me either.” Which is about as much depressing bullshit conversation as he can deal with right now. “So here. To show my appreciation, I got you this.” He grabs one of the Safeway bags, rummages around before pulling out a badly-wrapped package. “Town down there is pretty tiny, but you know it has an art store? So… ta-daa!”
He holds out the package. Josh stares at him for a long time, like Chris has gone crazy, but eventually takes it. His claws make short work of Chris’ lousy attempt at wrapping, and then Josh is saying:
“And some fancy pencils or whatever. Just, y’know. In case you get bored chasing deer.” Wendigo don’t make art. But Josh used to. Chris doesn’t see any reason why he has to drop the habit.
“I… I’m not sure I can hold a pencil any more, bro.”
“Dude,” Chris says. “You did not see the lady at the store’s nails, man. I reckon she could beat you in a scratch-off, easy.”
Josh doesn’t look convinced, but he snorts. “Thanks,” he says finally. “For… for everything.”
Chris just slaps him on the shoulder. “What are best friends for?” he says.
Things get better. A man comes to fix the windows, another to deliver the freezers. Josh’s parents send them enough supplies to last them a decade, replace the furniture without even asking how the original stuff got damaged, and even manage to hook the cabin up with Internet access. Josh doesn’t eat a single contractor, delivery boy, or repairman.
He still spends his nights hunting food and fighting the other wendigo, although incidents of the latter get less as time goes on.
“They know this is my place, and I can kick their ass,” Josh says at one point. “They stay away.” He’s healthier now, and stronger, and lucid. He still looks like a wendigo, one side of his face is still more teeth than cheek. But he’s okay.
Josh doesn’t eat Chris, either. For his part, Chris learns to love the taste of venison. By day, he watches instructional videos on YouTube, learning skills like how to skin a deer and build a shed. By night, he watches movies with Josh, sitting on their brand new (leather) sofa, struggling to hear the dialog over Josh’s rumbling purr. Not the life either of them had imaged, perhaps, but they make it work. One dawn at a time.
You never even considered it didn’t have to be you, did you? Ashley had asked, way back at the start.
Chris never does work out what she meant.