The day had been going well up until the point where Waverly had committed a felony.
Perhaps it was a bit hot. Perhaps the bugs were a bit hellish. Perhaps passing the government property markers made her subject to a fine upward of a thousand dollars. But it was worth every minute of lugging up her equipment and over-packed backpack and taking the winding, baffling, almost contradictory trails that led here and being absolutely soaked through with a mixture of sweat and cheap bug spray.
Worth it for the photography.
Waverly Earp stood stock-still, framing the perfect picture of the way the sun slanted high noon, catching the color of the plants and the now-turning leaves and making it a landscape worthy of Eden. Beyond the roads and signals and RESTRICTED AREA: NO TRESPASSING signs lay untouched, forbidden beauty, unsullied by discarded bottles and clumsy feet, just waiting to be captured permanently.
There was still a trail. Waverly was being risky - reckless, even - but she wasn’t that much a fool.
At the moment, ahead of her, a fawn and doe inspected the woods around them curiously. It was a shot worthy of live action Bambi, bar the horrendous fate of his mother that left Waverly sobbing for days. They perched, mid-step, like curious forest spirits that could show only in the spotted rays of the sun through the canopy.
Her sixth shot is of white tails and movement, the deer spooked off by something imperceptible. Waverly stood up, disappointed, only to become aware of a strange sort of pause, like the forest had taken a great big inhale and was waiting to burst into laughter. The hairs on her neck rose to attention in the still air and Waverly blinked rapidly, feeling a bit dizzy. She cautiously looked around, trying to pinpoint the source of her concern, and finding only silence and a distinct, lingering feeling of being watched.
But all concerns fled Waverly's mind the instant she heard the call for help.
“Help me! ”
The cry, desperate and distinctly feminine, startled Waverly to panic. This was far out in the middle of Nowhere, USA. Someone injured here, miles from the nearest chance of help, would be in fatal danger.
Waverly couldn’t leave them. She jumped into the undergrowth and shot like a bullet towards the source of the sound without a second thought.
"Hey! Can you hear me? I'm on my way!" Waverly shouted back, pushing aside plants with her walking stick and running through others. She sailed through the forest like it was carrying her forward, pushing her on like a ship in the ocean, the undergrowth never causing more than a moment's pause. It was as if it watched her and, knowing her desperation, allowed her the fast lane.
"Help me! Please!" The agonized cry rose again from somewhere ahead.
She muttered a curse as poison ivy flashed into her vision. "Hey! I'm coming!" Waverly shouted, voice already hoarse from the volume. The woman had probably suffered a fall. She had heard that happen once, a traveler had gotten lost and suffered a broken ankle from a sudden drop. They had found her days later, still alive, just barely due to her supply of water.
How long had this woman been here? The massive Southwestern wilds stretched for miles all around, federally protected. Was she alone? Who in their right mind went here alone?
Well, Waverly herself did. But that was another matter entirely. She was experienced, she'd been solo camping for years. She'd left the trail some half-mile behind her. She'd be able to find it again.
"Help me!” the woman begged. Waverly was close enough to hear the desperation in the voice, the pain, the helplessness. “Help me, please!”
"I'm here! I'm coming!" Maybe she had suffered a head injury and couldn’t respond. Still, Waverly called out ahead of her as she ran herself ragged. She ducked, narrowly avoiding a low hanging branch, and leaped over a fallen tree. This was untamed wilderness, perhaps never knowing more than a couple brave humans a year (or perhaps none).
"Help me! Please!"
The woman had to be a few yards ahead. By the echo in the woods around her, she must be right on top of her.
Maybe it was the sun in her eyes. Maybe it was her wild desperation, her headlong rush, her heedless bravery at a call to action.
Either way, Waverly stepped off the cliff into open air.
Her stomach dropped as her foot found nothing below it and her weight carried her beyond the point of safety. Time slowed and she watched, strangely fixated and curious, as gravity started to take her camera from around her neck.
Sometimes, when Death faces you down and you slip into acceptance, your final thoughts will tell you about what you cared about most. What you regret. What you wish you had done, if you had the time.
Waverly’s last thought was Wynonna’s going to kill me if I die out here.
Adrenaline shot through her body as she was jerked by her backpack's handles. Waverly tumbled, thrown hard through the air, and she landed breathless a few yards from the cliff edge, right on top of a stinging bush. Her camera landed awkwardly under her, definitely broken.
Images flashed through her shocked mind: Rocks. Yellow rocks. Yellow shapely rocks with holes in them. Twisting plants and sharp edges.
Bones. So many bones. Oh god, they were bones at the bottom of the cliff.
Her fight instincts kicked in and Waverly rolled to the side, clutching her walking stick and coming to her feet so fast she felt dizzy. All she saw was a figure with a gun on their back. She launched herself at it, screaming in her reckless terror and slammed her sturdy walking stick into the figure's chest, knocking it backward towards the cliff.
"Shit-- Ah! Ow!" The figure cried, raising a hand in defense. "Ah!" The walking stick connected a second time to the ribs. "Stop!" Again, this time to a shoulder. "Please stop!" her victim cried, covering themselves with their arms.
Waverly stopped, panting heavily with eyes wide with panic and wobbling slightly. She held her walking stick in a tight grip above her head, waiting for movement.
"Please stop hitting me," begged the woman, raising her hands in surrender, "I'm no threat, I just saved your life. Please don't hit me again." She muttered a curse. "God, that hurts so bad."
Waverly stepped back from the woman and took a long look. Tall. Pretty. A shock of red hair tied back in a messy bun. Her clothes were an absolute mess -- though, Waverly is sure that she herself looked no better. On her back was a pack much like her own, and a large hunting rifle slung across the shoulder for easy access.
Had she really thrown her that far...?
That gun is huge. Definitely for bears.
The woman turned her face up. Soft brown eyes watched her searchingly. "Hey, can I get up now?"
"Who are you?" Waverly snapped, still not ready to let down her guard.
"Uh..." The woman rubbed her head. "Nicole. Nicole Haught. Search and Rescue."
"Okay, Nicole." Waverly eased her grip on her staff and reached down a hand to help the other woman to her feet. "My name is Waverly. Waverly Earp, solo hiker." She inspected the other woman critically. Had they both been following the voice? Why did she have a massive hunting rifle on her back, and mud and dirt caked everywhere? Her face was gaunt with too many sharp edges, a shadowy cast to a beautiful face. She looks like she hasn’t seen a person in weeks, Waverly thought, Just like me.
"All right then, Waverly," Nicole said as she took the hand and got to her feet. She was surprisingly tall and good-natured by the way she smiled when she talked. She didn’t seem to harbor much ill-will towards her attacker. "What are you doing out here in this part of the forest? It’s restricted."
"I could ask you the same thing," Waverly responded warily, taking a few steps back. Nobody came here. Not even ‘Search and Rescue.’
"Saving your life, obviously!" Nicole pointed, turning to look over the cliff. "You almost ran right off this. Would have broken a leg or two, or struck your head."
Waverly stepped to the cliff edge and took a look over as well. Yes, bones. Her first view was correct. She shut her eyes from the sight and backed away towards the trees, suddenly violently ill. The adrenaline was wearing off already and she swayed slightly.
A hand reached out to stable her and leaned into it gratefully. Nicole looked over her shoulder briefly at the sun’s level.
“Hey, didn’t you hear that woman --” Waverly began.
A branch snapped. A heavy, thick sound, made only by a large weight.
“W--” Nicole slapped a hand over Waverly’s mouth and shushed her brutally. The hand turned into a hard grip as they stood stock still, listening. Great. She’s a serial killer. I’m being kidnapped. She lured me here.
“Listen. ” Hissed Nicole, breath hot against her ear. There was no sound. Though it was just past noon, not a bird sang. Nothing moved. The forest held its collective breath along with the two startled humans.
Waverly’s eyes widened, catching Nicole’s gaze. Those brown eyes reflected her confusion back at her. No, she’s just as spooked as I am. Her neck hair rose skyward as they stood there, completely frozen, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
They turned slowly towards the sound of a rustling branch.
A shape hidden behind the thickest part of the brush, positioned perfectly, an inscrutable mound of fur - a coyote? No, this was too large - sitting back in the woods, watching. Orange eyes locked on the two women with a promise of intelligent design.
Waverly almost relaxed. A bear! Just a bear! I have bear spray, Nicole has a gun --
Then it stood.
Vertigo. Waverly's mind reeled as it realized that her world, how her brain formed assumptions, was turned completely upside down and left her spinning, struggling, almost suffocating before she could right herself and find the right reaction.
I should take a picture, some part of her mind thought. All other thoughts had fled, which was a perfectly understandable reaction.
It wasn't fear that made them vanish - No, fear brings to mind spiders and closets, it was somehow deeper than fear, a close kin to dread and desperation, and its name was terror.
Terror is realizing that the bear you saw is not a bear at all and had never been a bear. It is not a coyote, or a fox, or a cougar, or even a curious looking deer. It is humanoid. It is leaving the bush. It has a face (horrendous, half hidden, long teeth laid bare, a coppery smell accompanying it like twisted background music), and god, it was getting closer.
Adrenaline thundered in Waverly's veins, too early, too late, leaving her crystal clear aware of her surroundings -- of everything -- and Waverly could hear her own heartbeat through her skull. She could hear Nicole’s breathing, the small whimper (was it hers?) she made when the thing stood and changed. She could feel her blood sprint cold through her body and her legs tense. The pressure behind her eyes made her feel like she would explode, or perhaps her soul would literally leave her body in fear, and she was left desperately wishing the ground to swallow her whole. Her primitive brain took over.
… Or flight?
A branch snapped under its foot, with a resounding crack that was far too loud in the stillness, and that’s all it took.
"Run.” Nicole rasped, throat sounding constricted with fear.
They tore through the undergrowth, heedless of obstacles as they ran for their lives. Each step sounded like a gunshot against the dead silence of the forest around them. Their passage was a cacophony of branches and unfortunate leaves and desperate panting of two exhausted humans.
“But,” Waverly panted out in between bounding steps, “That woman could be back there!”
“That’s not a woman, Waverly, and she doesn’t need our help!” came the response. Nicole slowed briefly, only to latch onto Waverly’s wrist and begin tugging her up to speed.
“What do you mean? I heard her --”
“You heard wrong! ”
Waverly almost stopped, almost tugged Nicole to force her to stop or tear their arms, but she glanced behind her.
Nope. That lady’s dead. So are we.
It was fast. Too fast. Waverly couldn’t believe she thought it was a bear. The way it loped awkwardly along on strange legs, running from tree to tree to stay half-hidden behind them, causing her mind to whisper terrible thoughts about why it moved like that, like a hunter or a stalker or something in a category of its own.
She whipped her head back forward so fast she strained a muscle.
Don’t think about it. Think about anything else, anything else! Run!
Waverly stared straight ahead at the back of Nicole’s head, focusing on one leg after the other, trying to keep her broken camera from thumping painfully against her chest with each bounding leap. Her thoughts raced, as if trying to outrun her.
How fast a runner can apply pressure to the ground is directly affected by how much time it takes for the fibers in the muscles to contract.
In theory, a human body could support a run of speeds up to forty miles an hour.
‘That’s theoretical science, Wynonna.’
An agonized scream rose from the forest left of them. A man's desperate yell, reaching high into a scream before suddenly cutting off.
The sound was so sudden, so startling that they both froze. The two clutched at each other without realizing it, eyes searching, breath panting.
"That," Waverly breathed, "was not a fox."
Movement. More branches snapped behind them, catching up rapidly. It was large and crashing through the trees with terrible noise that couldn’t be made by a fox, not at all.
And they were running again, not daring to glance back at what it was. They both already knew. The only thing that would come of looking back would be certifying that it was too fast to outrun.
Humans are not built for speed, they are built for endurance. They are remarkably slow when compared to other animals. Even a common cat can reach thirty miles an hour, beating the human record of twenty seven miles an hour, Waverly thought, trying to ignore the sounds behind her. These thoughts were not helping. Humans were endurance runners and she was very quickly running low on endurance.
Tears blurred her vision as her legs (and Nicole’s momentum) carried her forward at a brutal pace, trees flashing by as they desperately outran their pursuer.
Slowly, slowly, it felt they might be gaining ground. Each fallen tree they dodged, each hole they leaped, only seemed to slow it down. Its strange gait seemed at odds to the environment.
It could have been minutes, or an hour, or a lifetime before they finally stopped.
Nicole raised a hand and they slowed to nothing, collapsing against nearby trees and sucking air desperately. Neither dared sit down, for fear they might not be able to stand up again. Birdsong rose from the wilderness around them. The forest rustled and whispered as if speaking again now the danger was gone. They looked behind them, straining their eyes, but by all accounts the feeling of being hunted had evaporated.
Waverly pushed a hand through her hair and ignored the disappointment that struck her when Nicole dropped her wrist. Her nerves were frayed from the reckless sprint and she needed to focus on something else.
(Her nerves were destroyed, honestly, she might not sleep for weeks if she was being realistic.)
Don’t think about whatever that just was. If I think about it, I might go crazy.
“Once, I was camping up the Appalachians,” Waverly started, to fill the silence. Anything to fill it. She spoke before catching her breath, heedless of her own exhaustion. “I was hiking alone. Not smart, I know. Whatever.” She threw a leaf at Nicole’s disapproving face, trying to relax the fear from her body. “I camp for the night and I wake up, and there’s these huge, massive tracks. Cat tracks. Cougar tracks.”
She pulled a water bottle from her pack and took a full thirty seconds of drinking. Nicole opened her mouth to comment but Waverly raised a hand.
“So, I continued on. I didn’t have a walking stick back then, so I found the largest branch I could. That’s what they tell you, right, look as big as possible, get a stick, et cetera… But I didn’t have much. I had enough food to reach the next point and a tent. That was it.” She sighed and wiped sweat from her eyes before continuing. Her heart had almost returned to normal. “I got this feeling. I mean, I knew it was behind me, right? But at the same time, I could feel its eyes. Sometimes, if I turned around slowly or quickly enough, I could catch a glance of its eyes, maybe a tail, a shape… anything. And you know what I did?”
Nicole shook her head, listening curiously.
“I started singing. Like, belting out. Loud as I could, I swear birds flew for miles. I was singing Stayin’ Alive. And the worst part was, I didn’t know half the lyrics.” At this, Nicole let out a cackle of laughter and Waverly struggled to fight her own and continue. “It was the only one I could think of at the time! It felt right.”
“Did it work?”
"I guess it did. I’m still here, aren’t I? I made it to the next point and met a few other hikers there and warned them.”
After they finished their laughter, coming easily from relief and nervous exhaustion, a comfortable silence fell. The forest still thrummed with life around them and Waverly struggled to relax. She desperately wished her camera was working. The sun slanted and caught Nicole’s red hair, setting it ablaze in the light, worthy of a photo (or two).
Damn, if she wasn’t covered in mud, bleeding from half a dozen cuts, and covered in bruises...
Waverly felt a pang of guilt. “Sorry for hitting you, by the way, I was just… scared.”
Nicole winced, giving herself a once over and coming to the same conclusion as Waverly. “It’s fine. I probably would have had the same reaction.” She stood up and brushed the leaves from her pants. “We need to start walking again, find the trail.” Nicole reported, pulling out her GPS. Then she froze.
“What?” Waverly asked, putting her water bottle away and stepping closer.
“Uh.” Her mouth hanging open in a way that was almost funny.
“Nicole, what? ” The smaller woman stomped over and snatched the GPS from calloused hands.
It was dead.
Then Nicole unhooked something from her pack and Waverly collapsed against a nearby tree in relief, sliding down to sit leaned against the trunk. “A radio. You had a radio and you waited until now to pull it out.” She covered her face with her hands and found herself fighting back tears. They could leave. Get someone else to drive up and take them away from whatever that thing was.
Nicole only answered with a frown as she turned the dial and was answered with quiet static. Empty static.
Not in range static. Nobody’s here static. Nobody is coming with a car and refreshments and maybe a nice movie static.
Waverly gritted her teeth so hard they creaked. When she finally could speak she asked, “I suppose that’s not a good sound, is it?”
“Nope.” Nicole shook her head, “Out of range. Sorry to get your hopes up, but this part of the forest isn’t explored much, even by rangers.” She pulled something from her pack and held out a hand for Waverly. She glared at it for a while, as if it was Nicole’s fault that Waverly had chose this place to hike.
“You still didn’t explain why you were out here,” Waverly said, narrowing her eyes at the other woman.
“Saving pretty girls isn’t a good enough reason?” Nicole responded easily, then continued in seriousness when Waverly shook her head, “Does it really matter right now? We need to get going.”
Waverly decided to keep a close eye on Ms. ‘Search and Rescue.’ Eventually, she surrendered to the burning pain in her legs and took the hand, hauling herself to her feet.
Puppy dog eyes, that’s it. I blame them. Nobody could look that cute and not be a vicious killer in disguise.
Nicole’s handy-dandy compass put their backs to the sun as they headed off again into the forest.
It was calm - Picturesque, even. Birds flitted from tree to tree as the pair stomped their way through the forest, avoiding fallen trees and poison ivy. A deer sprang from the undergrowth at their approach, prompting Waverly to stop and watch as its white tail vanished into the treeline. A bitter taste rose in her mouth at the realization how much taking a picture had become part of her routine, her habit, her instinct when she saw something beautiful. Now I’ll have to get a new one, if I can afford it.
“Wait,” Waverly hissed, and Nicole whipped around, half pulling her rifle off her shoulder. She stopped and reslung it after seeing what Waverly was referring to.
It was a bird, high above them, perched proud as a princess upon its personal branch.
“Shh. I think I remember what kind it is,” she whispered as Nicole moved a bit too loudly to join her in staring.
“It looks disappointed,” the redhead commented drily. The bird took insult and fled.
“Look what you did! ” Waverly cried, smacking Nicole firmly across the chest, trying to wipe that cheeky grin off her face. Ow. “Of course it looks disappointed. It’s because you’re here, making all sorts of noise and insulting it and you smell terrible. I didn’t even manage to see what it was.”
“I smell terrible?” came the response, that infuriating grin still present, “And what do you smell like? Head and Shoulders: In the Woods Waverly edition?” She leaned in with a wink, “I like it.”
Waverly blushed, flustered and confused. Anyone else, it would have been incredibly creepy, perhaps even repulsive, but Nicole grinned again with that disarming smile, now smug with her victory at causing Waverly to stumble and turned to lead them again.
“It was an Evening Grosbeak, by the way. We’ll see more of them, I hear them up ahead.”
Is she flirting with me?
She shook her head, bemused, trailing after the taller woman.
Keep your head straight, woman! She could be a cannibal!
Waverly started to relax, but the lack of familiar landmarks made her uneasy. It must have been around four o’clock, judging by the sun’s position. They fell into another silence for about twenty minutes, just walking next to each other and glancing about at anything that moved. They did see another Grosbeak, which Nicole pointed out, and they watched it silently before continuing their trek.
“It’s polite for you to share a story of your own now, too, you know,” Waverly pointed out as they cut through particularly thick brush. The bugs were driving her insane. Any conversation would do, as long as it distracted her from the biting. And the feeling of being watched. She shook her head, dispelling the fear. The forest was still filled with noise. They had left it far, far behind. In a few minutes, they should be somewhere familiar, close to the trail. It was the only thing that made sense, passing in this direction for so long they were bound to hit it.
“Let’s see. Appalachians, right? I went there once. Hiking along the C&O Canal. Did it often, too. I wrote down all the trail names I heard and I heard some… interesting ones.”
“I paired up with this cute girl, uh, I mean she was on the same trail as I was, and she was cute -- But anyway ,” Nicole stated heavily, avoiding Waverly’s curious look, “Her trail name was Neil Degrasse Tyson. Loved him so much. It was entertaining, watching her introduce herself as Neil.”
Waverly giggled at that. “And what was yours?”
Nicole muttered something under her breath.
“What was that? Didn’t hear you.” Waverly caught up to the taller woman, a grin at how she blushed in response.
Nicole heaved a sigh, “Officer Dimples”
Waverly cackled so loud it echoed. Nicole cracked a smile and god, yes , those dimples --
In a flash her face went hard, haunted, all sharp edges and cold eyes. “Waverly, don’t look.”
This is it, we’re done for.
She snapped her head around to what Nicole was referring to and immediately regretted it.
High in the treetops, three deer corpses hung free, impaled like shrike prey on the branches above the two women. The faces were half-rotten, buzzing with heavy flies, and rigor mortis in a terrible and almost comical expression of surprise.
And the smell -- to say it hit them like a wall was cliche, but Waverly took two steps back when the first wave of it struck her. Before she could even fight it, her stomach revolted and she was forced to lean against a tree, horribly sick.
Nicole unslung her rifle and approached the corpses, inspecting the trees and bushes nearby.
“No marks.” She reported, inspecting the nearby trees. “Nothing else is here. No broken branches, no scratches, no blood trail, nothing.”
Waverly knew that made absolutely zero sense. None.
Before long Nicole was back, cool hands holding Waverly’s hair as her breakfast, lunch, and honestly everything she’d ever eaten was given up. “Here,” She said, holding a water bottle, which Waverly accepted gratefully.
“We need to get moving,” Nicole said quietly, feeling watched.
It was all Waverly could do to nod, following Nicole away from the clearing and back eastward towards the trail. She couldn’t shake the feeling of revulsion. They weren’t even eaten, or otherwise damaged, just left to hang there. Uselessly. They died for nothing. Waverly would have screamed in the face of a hunter who dared do that to his deer. To treat life like some kind of plaything. But somehow she felt that a hunter had not done this, that without pulleys and ropes, no man nor woman would be able to haul those bodies up there without leaving some marks behind.
“What is -- What could have done that,” Waverly gasped in between heaving breaths. Their pace was harsh, almost a jog, and it was taking its toll. You could only sprint terrified so many times in a day before the body started aching like mad. Whenever she shut her eyes to wipe away the sweat, she would see the corpses, hanging there, swinging in a rotting wind.
“Haven’t you done any research in this area, before you went solo hiking in the middle of nowhere?” Nicole asked, almost offended by the question.
“I did, a lot actually -- maybe a bit too much, but the stories, they’re just stories -- “
Nicole whipped around so fast Waverly almost ran into her. Considering she had a gun and a hard look on her face, that wouldn’t have gone particularly well. Her frown deepened as she watched Waverly closely. “You can’t honestly believe that.”
“Believe what, Nicole? Huh? That something back there is… not right? Or that we may have left an injured woman, crying for help, back there starving and in pain --” Waverly ran a hand again through her long hair, pushing the sweat coated strands back. Her panic threatened to overtake her.
“I told you, that wasn’t a woman, Waverly.”
“Yes, you told me.” She replied, poking a finger at Nicole’s chest, tapping against the sternum, then continued before she could stop herself. “You and your gun and your dimples, and your charm, honestly ‘search and rescue,’-- If the stories are real, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were the monster.”
“Excuse me?” Nicole huffed, reslinging her rifle to point an accusing finger at Waverly. “I saved you! I pulled you back from that cliff you were running off of, right into where it wanted you to be? And what do you think that thing was, huh, a bear? ”
“Maybe it was! We didn’t get a good look, did we?” Waverly was right in her face now, almost tiptoe to be in Nicole's space. “but what do you think it is, Nicole? Huh, you want me to say it? I’ll say it.”
“No --” Nicole backed up, hands raised in surrender.
“I’ll say it, right here. I know exactly what it is, or what you think it is.” Waverly was relentless, her finger tapping against Nicole again.
“No, Waverly, don’t -- “
“I will. You want me to say it? Here goes. I’m saying it!” Waverly danced back from Nicole’s outstretched hands, trying to silence her. “Skin--”
“You’re really cute! ” Nicole almost screamed.
They both froze and stared at each other in equal parts confusion and surprise as birds fled from the noise.
“What? ” Waverly asked, dumbfounded.
Nicole took a deep breath, trying to dispel her blush. “That’s not something the monster would say, is it?” Waverly paused, thoughtful. “Listen. You’re really cute, I’m gay, and I can tell you’re really smart, too smart to be making bad decisions right now. Let’s leave it until we find the trail, okay?”
She thinks I’m cute.
Get it together, Waverly. Life or death time. You still don’t know why she’s out here.
But she’s gay.
She could be a gay serial killer.
“Okay,” Waverly squeaked, abashed, still not sure how to process all this new information. They headed off again and the silence stretched between them.
...merely speaking its name could draw its undivided attention…
Waverly shivered with equal parts fear and regret. She was starting to believe, and fast, and she wasn’t liking what she was believing in.
Then she heard it. It was as welcome as singing angels. Balm for the soul.
“A river!” Waverly broke into a run, a second wind filling her sails as she grabbed Nicole and half-dragged, half-lead her towards the noise.
The stream was picture perfect, a sight for exhausted eyes, it gently rolled downhill in the center of a comfortable clearing. If Waverly hadn’t been -- Don’t think about it, don’t -- she would have taken a photo. They approached the stream and inspected it critically. After seeing the corpses, it was better safe than sorry.
When Nicole had declared it safe they cleaned off their clothes and their faces in the crystal clear water. Tiny fish darted around them in frustration at the intrusion.
“Does this look familiar to you?” Waverly asked, slightly hopeful.
“No, it doesn’t, I’m sorry.”
They both settled into setting up camp a few yards away, uphill to avoid possible flooding. It was too good a spot to pass up, and they were both exhausted from the sprinting.
“So…” Nicole began, with a glance at Waverly. She answered with a stern look. Don’t. We’re not talking about it. “How did, uh, how did you choose this place to hike?” She said, trying not to look at Waverly as she set up her own tent.
It was a long time before she answered. Nicole had already accepted she wasn’t going to answer at all, then --
“My boyfriend chose it. Said it would give me the best photos, was out of the way, but still safe if I brought bear spray.”
“Your boyfriend?” Nicole responded, voice strangely high before she cleared her throat and tried again, “Why isn’t he here?”
Waverly shrugged. “Business trip. I usually go hiking when he leaves, to get out of the... Be alone, all that.”
“You like it? Being alone, I mean.”
“Kinda.” Another shrug as she finished her small tent and pulled her backpack closer. She started to rummage through it, hoping Nicole wasn’t watching too closely. “Sometimes I wish for a partner, but he doesn’t really do this kind of thing. Says it gives him the creeps.”
What she didn’t say was that out here, it was the only time she could avoid his suffocating presence. Even when he left, she still felt… trapped. She didn’t like talking about it, or him, not in the slightest. It always ended in arguments with her sister.
Sensing it was a sore spot, Nicole changed the subject. “School?”
“University. History, mostly.” Waverly stopped and sat on a stump, watching Nicole work. “No money, though. Had my dad’s old hiking gear and,” she waved her hands and cracked a strangled smile, “that was it. You?” she questioned, pointedly. Narrowed eyes and all.
“Search and Rescue, like my dad, before...” Nicole looked away and down back to her own tent, though it was complete.
A long silence fell. It was Waverly who broke it first.
“So when are you going to tell me the truth?” Waverly gripped the handle of her until-now hidden weapon hard, hands going bone white with the tension.
Nicole didn’t bother asking what. She simply turned, rifle in her lap, staring back at Waverly, not even remotely surprised to see her holding her own gun. “What do you want to know?”
“Are you planning to kill me?” Waverly asked, serious.
They stared at each other for a long time, inspecting the other for signs of anything worthy of their suspicion.
“Are you planning to kill me ?” Nicole asked, after a period of heavy silence.
“No, no -- what?”
“I mean, what is that? A .45 colt? Why would you bring that in a forest?” The question was coated, barbed. Suspicion was well and settled on Nicole’s mind, judging by the narrowed eyes and readied shoulders.
It was so ridiculous Waverly almost laughed.
“I’m the one asking questions here, Ms. Leave An Injured Woman Behind with A Bear Monster .” Waverly replied, equally drenched with suspect. “Tell me the name of your best friend, if you’re human.”
“Uh, Chrissy, she --”
“Do you have a pet?”
“Yeah, a cat, named --”
“How do you order your coffee?”
“I don’t, I like tea, which is funny because this one time I was so nervous I --”
“Do you really think I’m cute?” Relief from fear made Waverly giddy, bubbly, almost.
“Uh.” Nicole blushed red, giving the answer away, but fired back -- “Do you think I’m cute?”
“That’s it. I’m certain you’re the monster,” Waverly joked, feeling the tension leave her body. They smiled at each other, then --
"Shit, " Nicole barked, springing up like a catapult so fast Waverly almost fell over in surprise. "The sun!" She cried, pointing at the horizon.
"But it was barely noon!" Waverly shouted uselessly, staring in disbelief at the rapidly setting sun. "It's the middle of summer! There's no way it's been that many hours!"
A flock of birds rose in the sky, fleeing towards the mountains as the sun fled the day. It was impossible. They had not been running that long, nor talking that long, for there to be any mistaking the time lost. Now half of the day, perhaps a whole six hours even, had gone missing with no chance of recovery.
"Fire! " Nicole said, running towards the trees. "I'll get the wood. We need fire!"
The call to action snapped Waverly out of her paralysis. She put her gun aside and dragged her bag towards her, ripping it open and frantically pushing aside items. This was all happening too fast. She pulled out her pocket knife and power bars, almost sending the matchbox flying in her panic. She grabbed it and put it aside, pulling out more items from her pack.
Flashlights. Gotta have flashlights. All of them.
One of them, apparently. Damn it, Past Waverly!
Nicole returned, carrying an assortment of wood, leaves, and small branches. She dropped the pile and began building the fire, her practiced movements coming easy from habit. “Here, I got it.”
Waverly nodded and took the matchbook in her shaking hand and pulled out one. Her gaze was firmly fixed on the splash of colors that announced the sunset.
Strike. Strike. Then it lit, and she nearly let out a sob in relief.
Waverly dropped it and watched it go out. She almost burst into tears at the pure frustration. “Shit .”
Her hands were shaking too badly. Then, two cool hands covered her own and again --
Strike, strike, light. Nicole led their match to the waiting fuel and watched it crackle to life.
It rose and they both settled back, leaning against each other in their shared anxiety. Nicole unpacked her radio and sat there as the sunset, tuning and calling desperately into the unanswering static.
"Is anyone out there?" Nicole repeated, voice heavy with exhaustion, "Anyone at all?" She leaned her head against her knees. "Please?"
Night fell. Waverly watched the color wash out of the forest with a dim feeling of dread. The stars began to appear, rebelling against the night, but it would not be enough to see by.
“Listen, we get through the night, all right?" Nicole said, at last putting the radio down. "I’ll take first watch. We wake up, we find the trail, even if we don’t, I have a flare gun. Okay?” Nicole scanned the treeline. Waverly glanced at her and saw the cracks under her facade. Nicole was absolutely terrified of the night, and perhaps only speaking reassurance to reassure herself.
Waverly felt a pang of understanding and put a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Okay. Just through the night, then tomorrow we’ll be sipping coffee with pissed-off rangers. Or tea, in your case.”
Nicole smiled at that and Waverly felt her own face answering. She turned and slid into her tent, setting up her sleeping bag while Nicole took up sentry by the fire.
Waverly had never been one to fear the dark. It was a nice place to hide, get away, see the stars. She would sometimes sneak out of the at night just to watch the heavens, away from her sisters and father. Just be herself, alone. She knew the constellations almost by heart, even had her own favorite star.
She thought back to when she was hunted by the cougar. Even then, she had the hope that it would choose something else, that she wasn’t high on its list of food. It had been a good year and it couldn’t have been that desperate. She still had hope.
Now, with the fire right outside and Nicole on watch, she was grasping for that hope again. Whatever it was in the forest -- No, she had a perfect idea what it was, -- it would not stop stalking them until they finally reached safety. And safety could be any number of miles or hours away, flare or no.
Nicole could abandon you, make a run for it herself while it’s distracted.
She pushed these thoughts away. No one was that good a liar.
The darkness was nearly absolute. Even with the fire, they could see only an approximation of shapes, a guess of trees, an assumption of small bushes in the tall grass. The stream still bubbled behind them, a sharp contrast that grated instead of relieved.
Like it didn’t get the memo, Waverly thought, and almost laughed.
Nicole pulled her own bag close, pulling out her box of ammo and carefully tending to her rifle in the light of the fire.
That peculiar quiet had fallen again as the forest held its breath. The animals had gone, the wind had followed, and nothing remained except the two women and the silence. If the thing was here, it had followed them relentlessly and effortlessly through the forest, for the trail of their startled flight had hardly been subtle.
Waverly coughed, trying to break the uneasy tension. She felt like if she had to suffer the silence any longer she'd scream. "So…”
“My dad went missing.” Nicole interrupted quietly, not bothering to tell Waverly she should rest, stay in the tent, she could go it alone.
Waverly looked at her feet, confused and surprised by the turn. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it was -- He did search and rescue for years. He went missing in these woods, two years ago.” Nicole finished preparing the rifle and her ammo case, cleared the safety, and stood staring into the trees though they both knew she couldn’t see a thing. “He knew these woods. He found so many lost, rejoined so many families - and sometimes, sometimes there isn’t a happy ending. They wander off the trail for two minutes and they’re gone forever.”
Waverly huddled closer to the fire, watching the shadows play on the other woman’s face. It gave her far too many hard edges. Was she looking for somebody out here? Is that it?
“We had a lot of experienced hikers go missing. Something, whatever it was, caused them to abandon the trail and strike out on their own. We found bodies every now and then, but other times we didn’t. We brought in the hounds sometimes, but the trail would stop suddenly. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere, or at as sheer cliff, the trail would be gone. Vanished.” Her voice grew quieter. “But I heard, I was around. I read the reports and heard the arguments. You don’t talk about those cases. You don’t talk about the weird stuff, ever. You accept the stories and you put them away, you go back out there again and find the little boy or little girl who’s gone this time.”
Nicole's eyes didn’t move from the stand of trees. “One time, he didn’t come back. That’s what goes on in these woods. Even the locals will tell you well enough that you don’t come here alone, ever. Weird stuff happens,” she turned to Waverly then, her eyes narrowing. “But nothing as weird as your boyfriend telling you it’s safe here. Nobody could make that mistake. Nobody.”
Waverly almost didn’t hear her, she was so startled by the change. What?
"Listen," fear crept into Nicole voice, "He really didn't tell you anything about it, at all?"
"No." Waverly said, pulling out her gun and checking the ammunition. Just in case. She pulled out her extra box and set it aside.
‘This gun will save your life one day.’
A monster of a gun -- carried into the wilderness with a singular purpose: Be strong enough to stop a charging bear in its tracks. Or a monster. Or a weird woman in the woods questioning my boyfriend’s motives. She had never used it, never needed to, until now.
"He just said it was photogenic. Turn left on the trail, up to the foot of the mountain then up. Follow the trail back past the sign, and you’re in the clear."
'I don't mean to scare you,' was one of the worst ways to start a sentence. It must be number three under 'We need to talk.' and 'No offense, but... '
"I don't mean to scare you," Nicole began, "But I'm pretty sure your boyfriend wanted you to die up here."
'You're kidding me, right?' also ranked pretty low, next to 'Are you serious?' and 'Is that really what you're wearing tonight?'
"You've got to be kidding," Waverly said, standing to face the other woman, angrily pushing aside the tent flaps (causing one of them to awkwardly bounce back and strike her full on the mouth) and striding into the firelight, clutching the gun in a wholly unsafe manner. “You want to bring my boyfriend into this?” Her voice rose, unheeding of the stillness of the night.
Nicole raised a hand, eyes pleading for her to understand. “Waverly, please. Just listen. This part of the woods, no - these woods in general - they are no-go zones. They take experienced rangers, and even then they go missing. Why would he tell you to go here? Why so specific?”
Waverly was enraged. She was not going to be lectured about her boyfriend by some… some pretty redheaded woman in the middle of the woods! While they were in danger, even!
Champ wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he wouldn’t lie. Not like that, anyway. Not a cunning, dangerous, deadly lie - something that couldn’t even be considered yet somehow made sense …
Nobody was that good a liar. But one of them was. Who?
“Help me! ”
Waverly almost screamed but shoved a fist in her mouth to silence it. It was the same voice as before. It was the same voice. Nicole’s face had gone as white as death. How could..?
Behind her. The sound was behind.
She turned slowly, reluctantly, peering desperately into the dark for any sign of... anything. Yet there was only darkness there and the shapes her mind was attempting to process. Trees. Bushes. Sticks. Branches. Leaves. There was no sound but the crackle of the dying fire and the stream that still bubbled joyfully through the horror of the night.
“I guess there’s absolutely no chance that’s just the injured woman, right? Followed us across the forest somehow?”
“I thought so.”
“The fire, Waverly!” Nicole hissed, taking up position and aiming into the darkness. “And a flashlight!”
She knelt frantically and blew on the fire. Tears, hot and fear-born, ran freely down her face as she fanned the flames back to life.
He said it was perfectly safe, heard it directly from a friend. Head up the mountain by yourself and reach the top, you'll see the heavens like you've never seen it before. You love being alone, it would be perfect. Far from any sign of civilization. Way out beyond, untouched and beautiful.
She wasn’t lying. She thinks I’m cute.
Her memory was tainted now. The close nights on the couch with him seemed predatory. His promises seemed hollow. His eyes no longer looked caring in her mind's eye, she saw them as cold as chips of ice. Was he pretending that whole time? Had her own fear of abandonment allowed her to make such a terrible mistake?
Nicole did not even spare a glance to Waverly’s work. Her eyes were locked onto whatever lay beyond the firelight. When Waverly handed her a flashlight, she took it and immediately pointed it towards the noise.
Waverly hugged her own gun to her chest and sat too close to the fire. The heat did not bother her. The darkness did. It was suffocating. Even though they were in a rather large clearing, Waverly felt boxed in. Trapped. Caught.
Waverly didn't know how long she sat there, building the fire and tending to it like her desperate hope, Nicole standing frozen and silent like a statue sentry. Eventually, she stopped crying. When the fire began to fade and she had no fuel left, her hope followed it quickly.
The fire would not last the night. It would falter well before the sun rose. She rocked back and forth, trying beyond all probability to keep the fire alive. The fire was the last thing that would keep it back. It would be the only thing deterring it from entering the clearing, guns be damned. They wouldn’t be fast enough.
“The fire won’t last, Nicole. It won’t,” Waverly admitted, voice brittle.
“We can’t get more wood. If we lose sight of each other, it will take advantage of that."
“But if we lose the fire --”
"Listen,” Nicole said, kneeling beside Waverly and putting a hand on her back, “We’ll get through this, okay? Together.” The fear in her eyes said she didn’t believe they would survive this. Not without fire.
She still might leave. It would be the smartest move to survive, Waverly thought, but then felt a slash of guilt. Nicole had plenty of chances to leave her behind, and she didn't. Now they would make their final stand together, that much was certain.
Waverly nodded, terror refusing her words as she pulled a flashlight close, clicking it on and holding it under her gun hand to steady it. Her adrenaline had faded long ago and she was exhausted. If she was going to die, she was taking it with her. So, they waited.
The fire fell to embers. Then the embers fell to nothing.
Waverly could feel sleep in the back of her mind, dragging her muscles and her brain down. Her head began to ache from the effort of peering into the dark. The wind rustled every now and again and she started each time, and each time had to fall into deep breathing to keep herself steady. The dull sound of empty radio static buzzed just loud enough to induce a headache as they sat by the dead fire.
Her flashlight faded. She tried another. Dead. All of them. Nicole’s went out as well. The moon, a pitiful sliver, had risen on the edge of the horizon and approached its peak. It would do nothing to help them.
Of course. It’s just like those TV shows. Ghosts always take out technology first. Light goes out, boom. There goes the heroes. Except there’s no film crew to flee to, not this time.
Nicole tried to start a conversation but couldn’t get past the first syllable. Instead, Waverly latched an arm through hers and tugged them together. The strength of her grip was sure to bruise and might even break the skin, but Nicole gripped back just as hard.
The moon briefly peaked out behind clouds, casting shadows in the forest, before retreating. Nothing moved. Then, the wind would come, rustling the trees. It was unlike the sound of the daytime, it was less like the living whispering and more like the rattle of dead things. The moon passed its peak and vanished behind the massive expanse of clouds. Waverly stared upwards at Polaris, the North Star, her favorite star, the star that guided so many home, and watched with a dull sense of acceptance as that, too, was swallowed by the overcast sky.
The legend stirred in her mind, catching the wind of worry. A skinwalker -- someone who had committed a crime so against humanity in trade for horrific power, unspoken of in fear of it listening, waiting, watching. No one spoke of them. Out of respect, out of fear.
But they weren't real.
God, she was so tired. Too tired to pray. Too tired to keep turning to watch the tree line. Too tired to keep the gun steady. Exhaustion was sinking deep into her bones and she could feel Nicole slumping against her, barely keeping her eyes open in the darkness.
But not too tired to hear the twig snap sound of a footfall in the forest. She shot up before Nicole, holding the gun steady towards the sound. There, again! Yet it was a few yards to the left. Again! To the right. Another behind her! How many could there be?
“Wolves?” Waverly whispered. Nicole shook her head without taking her eyes from the treeline.
“No wolves up here,” Nicole reported, hands white on the handle of her rifle.
“You’re really cute!” called a voice from the treeline, echoing Nicole’s words from earlier with eerie tones. Too deep, too strange. As if it was speaking around teeth too large for words. The very sound sent beetles of goosebumps rushing up Waverly’s spine as she pivoted towards the sound, her gun shaking madly in her hands. It had listened. It had watched them, even when they couldn't feel it.
Waverly's heart thudded in her ears as she heard the thing move closer. A heavy footfall in the grass. The last grip of a brush. The whisper of branches being brushed aside.
"Get back!" She cried bravely into the darkness. "I've got a gun!"
Nicole pressed against her back, a reassuring presence. Together.
"Get back! " Cried her own voice from the trees as it mocked her with almost perfect mimicry. "I've got a gun! "
She heard its footfalls press against the ground and the crackle of dead leaves as it pushed past the undergrowth. Closer now. She choked back tears and tried to quiet her desperate breathing. Her heart sounded like thunder in her ears. Her vision blurred, obscuring the last of her view of the creature.
“Steady,” Nicole said, pressing against her back to keep her sane.
“Help me! ” It cried back a few dozen yards ahead of her. A figure came into view, lurching towards them. A human shape separating itself from the shadows of the treeline. “Please, Waverly!”
Waverly almost relaxed, but then, “God, Nicole,” She breathed, wiping her eyes clear of tears, “The legs.”
The legs were bent back, awkward shapes, ending too strangely to be human. What the hell?
“Help me, please! ” It called. No - it wailed, a twisted sound, coming from inhuman lungs. A plea from a predator. How could she have ever mistaken that for anything else? How could she have thought an innocent woman could produce such a sound? It was much too high, much too empty of feeling; the only emotion it carried, which she had first mistaken as need or desperation, was hunger. “Please!”
And then she fired without thinking, without warning Nicole.
"Thassa .45 Caliber, girl! The recoil’ll wreck you!’ A voice from her past whispered, years ago on the range.
‘Watch me.’ was how she had responded, before hitting the target dead on. He had never called her ‘girl’ again.
Once, twice, three times, four times did she fire towards the sound in the space of a sentence. Waverly emptied her clip into the darkness. Her hand shook from sheer exhaustion, the gun jumped so viciously her wrist ached, and she knew with dreadful certainty she had missed every single shot.
She knelt and grabbed the box of ammunition, reloading. Nicole jumped aside, firing towards the thing as well. The sound rang in her ears so loud she could only hear her own breathing.
157 decibels. Pain threshold at 120. Never fire without ear protection...
Waverly's hands felt around her backpack desperately for batteries as she flew into mindless panic. She reloaded the flashlight and clicked it on.
It lit up the thing before her briefly before going out.
She saw in a flash the twisted face and long hair, the mangled teeth that stretched too long for lips to hold, the caved in chest of a starving creature and the protruding bones of something long dead. Dark matted fur covered its body, an unholy mixture of man and beast, an aberration that belonged only in campfire stories and carefully whispered myths. The claws, oh god, the claws were thin and long, too long, too long to believe or think about or consider or --
It slapped her and she stumbled backwards across the embers, kicking them and causing her pants to alight. Blood ran down the left side of her face, covering her eye as she raised her gun once more and fired. It jerked back from the shot as blood ran from a hole in its shoulder. It leaned over the fire, hissing as it knocked the gun aside.
She screamed and kicked at its legs as the pitiful flames clinging to her struggled to stay alive. It backed away with a roar, almost tripping over its own hoof-like feet. Fire bad.
Nicole, Nicole, Where’s Nicole! --
She’s gone --
The beast opened its mouth and let out an angry scream and twisted as a rifle shot reported through the air.
“Get away from her! ” Nicole screamed, firing three more times in incredible practiced speed. Waverly could just make her out, standing on the other side of the clearing, trying to draw the beast away. She stood like a soldier facing the frontline, ratcheting the bolt back and reloading in a breath.
“Get away from her! ” shrieked back the creature as it thundered towards her and sent her flying into the darkness with a blow so hard Waverly could hear it. The creature did not follow Nicole, instead choosing to turn back and finish what it started.
Waverly leapt to her feet and scrambled towards the gun, only to find it lost in the darkness. She panicked and sprinted in the direction it fell regardless. With a yell she fell into the river, the fire clinging to her pant leg going out with a hiss.
Darkness closed in and gripped her lungs tight as she heard the strange hoof falls as it lurched closer towards her. She gasped for air and backed deeper into the stream. The water barely covered her prone body as she crawled backwards towards the other shore.
A twisted scream rose suddenly and she clasped her hands over her already-damaged ears. In her barely recovering night vision she saw two bodies collide, a human-sized one pulling at the strange creature that towered over them. Choking noises rose in the night as it twisted this way and that, trying to get at the pest. It collapsed into the river, roaring.
"Shoot it!" Nicole screamed, barely audible over the terrible noise. She was trying to defeat it with rope.
"I don't have the gun!" Waverly cried in response. There was no hope to find it now, somewhere in the dark grass, it would be no help to waste time looking for it.
"My flare gun! By the fire! " Nicole replied desperately before the creature finally caught her in the side, causing her to slam against the rocky shore with a dull thud.
The stories… God, they are real…
She stayed! She stayed! Save her!
“Hey asshole!” Waverly called, and it turned looking… offended.
“Hey asshole! ” It cried back. Then Waverly ran for her life.
She ran to her walking stick and twisted it, breaking it in half with clever positioning and adrenaline fueled strength. She snatched the Flare Gun and looked at it dumbly.
This is not a signal gun. This is a weapon.
Stop staring, stupid! Load it!
She could feel the beast behind her, hear its horrendous lurching gait as it followed her. She fumbled around and found two canisters, loading and turning to fire almost too late. The hungry dark greeted her eyes, the shape too indistinct to know. But the terrible mass rose in her vision as an emptiness and Waverly aimed with a fierce, last-ditch fire of a human that very much does not want to die.
She shot once, the powerful flare gun lurching in her hand, and it struck home with a dull smack of flesh. A howl ripped through the night as the thing backed up, confused by the heat from the wound. It was buried deep in the flesh of its hip, and must have hurt like a bitch.
Nicole yelled a curse and threw a rock at the creature. It paused momentarily, stunned at the useless gesture, then turned and rushed her, too fast for Waverly to shoot the second canister. It raised one blade-like claw to strike.
Too slow, Waverly thought as she sprinted across the clearing, so she aimed, though knowing she might miss completely, to distract the beast. She fired the gun again and this time it bounced harshly against the back of the creature before falling uselessly to the ground, its brief stunning light casting harsh shadows and revealed the extent of their nightmare.
It also revealed on the injured Nicole, raising a useless hand in reaction to the next blow.
Then the creature turned in reaction to the pain, only to be momentarily blinded by the flare’s last insult and howled again, piercing already damaged eardrums with its anger and frustration. It let out a hiss as its vision focused on Waverly, still running towards it with reckless courage.
"Die up here, Wav-er-ly,” It whispered as she approached.
... which story was Nicole talking about? How did it end? ...
No more flares. She’s losing blood. We’re going to die.
It rose up to hits terrible height, and in the flickering remains of the flare she could see the true form if it. She could see the scars of past victims who had put up a fight. The skin stretched and bones protruding hard against its starving form, thick and grey and caked with brown. The matted fur coated the neck and its face, god, its face was almost human. It was twisted and broken by a mouth filled to the brim with dagger sharp teeth and slick with gore. Its claws, thing and long and stained with their blood, and its maw - it yawned wide with a sickening scent of death and a coppery smell of blood.
It has to be the right story. With one glance to Nicole’s fallen form, now terribly still -
"Champ Hardy!” She screamed in its face as it rose to strike her down.
It paused. She could see herself reflected in those terrible orange eyes, which seemed filled with confusion and deadly intent.
Fuck the stories! Fuck everything! Fuck this!
In that second of hesitation, Waverly pulled out her broken walking stick and slammed the stake past its ribs and into its heart.
With a final gasp of surprise, a whispering rattle from its desiccated lungs, it fell over.
...speaking the true name of the creature can defeat it…
Or a stake to the heart, apparently.
There's no way that's actually my boyfriend. But it worked!
Waverly almost snorted, looking at the miserable pile before her. All that was left of her terror....killed by a single stake in the heart. Her ears still rang from the noise and she staggered blindly into the flareless darkness before she heard it.
“Waverly…” She blindly felt for the voice, splashing through the stream and almost tripping over Nicole. She knelt so fast her knees cracked and she hauled the fallen woman through the stream, back towards the remains of their camp. “Leave me…Run... ”
“Shut up, Nicole,” Waverly replied, blinking back tears. So stupid. So brave. So bravely stupid. “We did it, you hear me? We did it. Together.” She stopped by the fallen tents and faded embers.
She pulled Nicole close, feeling for her injuries. Her right arm and her leg were twisted at awkward angles. Her ribs felt bruised, some of them broken. Her breathing was too fast, too labored. Blood. So much. Too much.
Some of the bleeding could be internal. Waverly thought as she fell into the practiced habit of first aid. She wasn’t one to go unprepared into the wilderness, even though the only person requiring first aid might be herself. Her overpacking might save Nicole’s life, as she pulled a too-large emergency kit from her pack and set to work.
I should have trusted her from the beginning, we could have worked on a plan together.
“We did it?” Nicole whispered, still dazed.
“Yes . Yes, god, yes.” Tears fell from her face, splashing against Nicole’s. “We did it.”
Waverly was too scared to leave Nicole and attempt to resurrect the fire. Instead, she pulled both sleeping bags into one tent and made a nest like structure with their supplies. She'd have to wait until morning to venture out for their weapons. For now, The night cooled their damp clothes and Waverly stacked all of their extras against their bodies, huddling close to keep warm.
After emergency bandaging aided by a lucky recovered flashlight, they lay there, Nicole’s head cradled in Waverly’s arms, waiting for sleep to finally come. Both of their injuries were non-fatal, but they would have to signal rescue to avoid succumbing to infection.
“Ah, ah, ah, ah… ” Nicole’s lips moved and her diaphragm jerked with the effort.
“Nicole, what ?” Waverly responded, leaning down. Seizure?
“Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive... ”
Waverly laughed, high and clear, shaking with the joy of it, too relieved to chide Nicole for speaking. They had done it.
They fell asleep like that, exhausted, injured, and half-delirious from the events of the night, clinging together to share heat and remind each other yes, yes, we have survived! Outside, the dull noise of night life in the forest continued around their tent.