The beard is the first thing she notices.
“Ash! I’m so glad you could make it!”
The beard is the first thing, but it’s not the last. Not when Chris takes the two big steps to close the gap between them, not when his arms are wrapping around her shoulders, pulling her against a broad chest barely hidden beneath an old flannel and a too-small tshirt.
Holy shit he got ripped, thinks Ash’s brain, even as she tries to be a Good Girl and return Chris’ hug in the most platonic way possible.
It’s been nearly two years since Chris went up Mount Washington—both figuratively and literally—and never came back down. It’s not like they don’t chat with each other nearly every day—Facebook and Snapchat and WhatsApp and all the rest—but they haven’t seen each other. Ash hasn’t had her hands on Chris’ shoulders, hasn’t had her cheek pressed against his. He’s bigger than she remembers, firm and solid beneath his clothes, and hairier, and “You look really great,” she ends up saying, maybe unwisely.
Chris just grins the same dopey grin Ash fell in love with, what feels like a lifetime ago, as he steps back. “Thanks,” he says. “Blame Josh. Eating lean protein and lugging deer carcasses around all day does a body good. Who would’ve though?”
Josh… Ash tries a laugh, thinks she gets it mostly right. “Where is the man of the house, anyway?”
Chris points upwards, at the sky. “Dead to the world for another few hours at least,” he says. “Josh doesn’t really do daylight nowadays, so this is, like, his 3am. He’ll probably wake up around five, six o’clock, but will be wendigo-y. He humans-up about ten, then he’ll crash again at dawn.”
Chris says this all smooth and easy, smiling the whole time, as if nothing is unusual. For him, Ash supposes that it isn’t.
“’Wendigo-y’?” And if her heart trips a little at the word, then who could blame her?
Not Chris, judging from his laugh, and the way he reaches for her bags. “Here, let me take those.” Then: “Don’t expect many coherent sentences or much blinking. He also gets really cuddly but”—another laugh—“you probably won’t have to worry about that one.” He gives her a smile, big and bright and untroubled. Ash tries to return it.
She’s the last to arrive. Chris gives her a brief tour of the new lodge, so recently rebuilt she still catches the edge of fresh paint in the air. The place is huge and luxurious, but that’s about where the similarities with the old place end; where that had been heavy and conservative and dark, this is all modern minimalism and plate-glass windows. It’s bright, airy, and kind of amazing. Not the sort of house she was expecting.
“Wow,” Ash says, when Chris opens a door and the lights inside come on automatically.
“I know, right?” Chris says. “Fully automated. Lights, windows, everything. RFID in our watches so the house knows where we are.” He holds up his wrist to demonstrate. “It’s mostly for Josh. So he doesn’t end up accidentally blinding himself if he has to get up to pee and I’ve forgotten to turn off the lights in the bathroom.” A pause. “Also, I like programming the APIs.”
Ash grins, punches him in the arm. “Nerd.”
The room he takes her to is her bedroom, clean and neat and spartan, with an ensuite and a massive window overlooking the mountain. There are no curtains, but Chris shows her the button on the wall that turns the whole thing opaque then back again. “Smart glass,” he says, by way of explanation.
“That… sounds expensive.”
Chris shrugs. “Josh’s parents. I think his mom’s been on this Grand Designs kick, got me to download the whole show for her. I guess rebuilding this place was her excuse.”
Ash has not seen an episode of Grand Designs, but she has seen Melinda Washington’s Facebook posts. “Well, it’s pretty amazing,” she says, and means it. The house is, indeed, amazing.
It gets even more amazing when Chris takes her to where the others are waiting. It’s this huge sunken conversation room thing, more picture windows overlooking the mountain, surrounded by a ring-shaped white leather lounge dusted with blankets and fluffy pillows. There’s a huge TV on a wall between the windows, a fire pit beneath it, and Matt and Mike are busy arguing over how to correctly stack wood in the latter.
Ash accepts hugs from Emily and Jess and Sam, and waves from the two boys.
“Ashley!” Sam says. “It’s been too long!” Maybe it has been. Ash can’t remember the last time gang was all together like this. Or, rather, she can, and wishes she couldn’t.
And yet, here they are again. She wonders who’s going to get eaten this year, then hates herself a little for the thought.
She sits between Chris and Sam on the couch, talking about college and her parents and her ex. Her ex is the least interesting topic, but Emily won’t let it go. Ash is convinced Em just wants her to admit Adam was her rebound-Chris; big, soft-spoken, computer science major. It’s not like Emily is wrong, exactly, it’s just that Ash doesn’t feel the need to blurt it out. Not to mention the entire thing ended badly. Really badly.
“Look, all I’ll say,” Ash finally admits, “is that it turned out he owned a fedora.”
The girls react to this as if it’s a physical blow, leaning back with a chorus of “oooh”. Even Chris says, “Aw, man.”
Mike, meanwhile, pops in with a, “What’s wrong with fedoras?”
“I’ll tell you later honey,” Emily promises. From Mike’s expression, he takes this to mean it’s something dirty. Ash doesn’t have the heart to hint he’ll be disappointed.
“Don’t worry,” Jess says, leaning across Sam to get closer. “There’s always plenty more where he came from.” She doesn’t look at either Mike or Em when she says it.
At 5:06, the lights go dim. It happens so suddenly and so unannounced that Jess and Matt both give choked-back screams. Ash is mostly fascinated by the way the windows go from crystal clear to solid black, plunging the room into artificial twilight. Smart glass, indeed.
She doesn’t want to turn around. Especially not when Chris does, looking over his shoulder with a, “You’re awake early.”
“Lotta noise, bro.”
She knows that voice. They all do, even if it sounds different than they remember. Rougher, more slurred.
It’s Sam who moves first, squealing and vaulting over the back of the couch.
“Whoa, wait up—” Chris starts. Too late, and Ash can see Sam’s fuzzy reflection in the smart glass, arms thrown around too-thin shoulders, face buried against a too-pale neck.
It’s not that she hasn’t seen photos. They all have. Not many, because nowadays Josh doesn’t like light and that includes camera flashes. But there’ve been enough that they know what to expect. Should know what to expect.
It occurs to Ash, as she watches what’s left of Joshua Washington awkwardly return Sam’s hug, that she did not know what to expect.
He’s too tall, which is her first weird thought. Josh never was, before, and now he doesn’t quite tower over Sam, but it’s close. He’s too tall and rail thin; long sleeved tshirt hanging from shoulders that seem made of pure bone, skinny jeans fitting like baggy skate-pants. He’s pale, too. Wendigo pale; a kind of sickly purple-green, mottled in the shadows of his once-bronze skin. He still has hair, which is something, though it’s a rats’ nest of loose curls. Ash is trying not to look too much at his mouth. At the scars. The teeth.
“It’s so good to see you again,” Sam is saying. Her voice is cracked, like she’s crying. Josh’s fingers are too-long where they curl just above her shoulders, tipped with massive claws. He has more sticking out beneath the ragged hem of his jeans.
He doesn’t say anything, just allows himself to be hugged for as long as Sam wants to hug him. After Sam, it’s Mike’s turn, with one of the hand-grasping brohugs boys do. “Hey, man,” he says. “Good to see you again. You look like fucking death.”
“You look like food,” Josh replies. Ash thinks he’s grinning, though it’s hard to tell beneath the teeth.
“Kinky,” says Mike. “Better ask your boyfriend’s permission first.”
“Don’t encourage him,” Chris says, laughing. Ash wonders what the joke’s supposed to be; Josh eating people? She tries not to notice how big his mouth is, tries not to wonder if he got the wendigo strength along with the body.
When they return to the couch, Josh sits on the far end, next to Chris, because of course he does. From Chris' other side, Ash tries not to be unsettled by Josh being so close. It’s not even all to do with the teeth and the claws and the unblinking stare. Josh was their friend, once, but Ashley still remembers being cold and hurt and terrified, paralyzed in a chair, watching Chris point a gun at his own head. Josh had done that, all on his own. No wendigos required.
“He remembers,” Chris had told her, an age ago now. “But it’s like he was a different person. He doesn’t understand why he did the things he did. It upsets him to think about it. So we don’t. I mean, his life is very… immediate now. I don’t think he really understands long-term planning. But he’s happy. There doesn’t seem to be any point in… in punishing him for the other stuff.”
When Ashley dares to look, Josh is watching her from the far side of Chris, gaze green and flat and empty.
“Josh,” Chris says, barely audible.
The man in question has his eyes closed, his face pressed against Chris’ neck.
“Purring?” Ash asks, voice as low as Chris’.
She gets a nod in response, Chris’ hand reaching up to card through Josh’s hair. The rumbling sound intensifies, Josh stirring just enough to burrow himself deeper against Chris’ side.
It’s… cute. Ashley won’t deny it. Josh purrs. Chris has mentioned this before. Now Ash has heard it.