“I hurt ’em, Sam.”
She breathed in, and breathed out. Her face twitched partway to a smile that immediately seemed tasteless, and so she released it. She kept walking, slower now, with light from the torch catching the edges of the passageway.
The voice was louder when it came up again. “I hurt them. All of you. So, so bad…”
“Yeah,” she said, softly. “You kinda did.”
Ashley had told her in her reading that the monsters could imitate human speech.
“I’m sorry, Sam.” Even louder. “I-I-I’m so… so, so sorry…”
She smiled. “Shh,” she said, “it’s okay, it’s okay.”
What Ashley had not told her was whether she read that they could hold conversations, or only parrot.
It was a risk that she was willing to take, at this point. She noted barrels as she passed them. She hadn’t brought a gun – where on earth would she go to get one – but barrels could be opened, and as for fire…
She scanned in front of her with the torch, feeling orange light on her face and squinting through the dark. Wooden beams. A wooden desk. A few more barrels. A couple of stray bones, fucking god…
“Is it?” said the voice. There was a snort, that pulled back in along with a breath, and came out a second time as a snarl. “No, it’s not…”
“No. No,” she said. “No, you’re right, Josh. No, it’s not.”
Very close now. She closed her eyes and tried to map echoes back to their point of origin.
Had to be in this chamber.
“But neither are you,” she said.
“Sam,” the voice said.
A chill hurried all the way down along her back like a great hairy spider. A stone dropped steadily to the bottom of her stomach.
He was right to her left.
She turned the torchlight.
She had taken the guess that Wendigo were only imitators. That they couldn’t hold conversation as long as she and he had.
She felt gratified by the fact that she hadn’t expected one to be recognizable, either.
She winced—to see him this way!—and then blinked all of the decay in the air out of her eyes, and then smiled.
Long, bony arms around sharp, bony knees loosely sleeved by denim. A bleached-pale face with eyes sinking behind red lids, red sockets, red rings.
“Josh,” she said. “Josh. Hey – Joshua. Look at me.”
“Mmm,” he said. “Mmm, oh my god. Sam…”
“Shh shh shh, hey,” she whispered. Her smile was fixed as if by internal hooks. “Look at me.”
“It’s, uh – heh. It’s pretty dark down here. Uhh. I can’t – it’s hard to make you out from the… everything else, ‘less you… move, a little.”
She shifted her weight onto one leg. He tilted his head. “Like that?”
“Where’re them?” he said. “The other guys. Our – our-our, uh-uh, your friends, Jesus…”
“They’re still alive and kickin’, Joshua, hey. It’s all right. It’s all right.”
“No it’s not. You said so, too. It’s-it’s not all right, Sam…”
“Josh. Hey. Hey.” She sidestepped, crouching with the transfer of her weight, to stand in front of him – she thought of sitting on the ground, but was still halfway prepared to run. “Shh.”
“You heard what else I said, though, right? You’re not all right. I know you’re not. So did they. You hear me, Josh? Joshua? We know you’re not all right, and that’s what the hell I’m doing here. Hey – not gonna leave you like that. Like this. ‘Cause you’re my friend, and I’m your friend. You hear me?”
“Yeah. Yeah – yeah, I hear you. You shouldn’t fuckin’ be here…”
“Well, I am, all right?” She held the torch higher. “I took this down with me. Torch. Better than a gun down here, right?”
“Down here. Ohh, god, down here.”
“They’re down here. Been down and out ‘n around and all since we all came together, looking for me, looking – looking for the pieces of them…”
Two glassy eyes catching lines of orange fire.
She nodded, in case the motion was detectable.
“I,” she said, “am the only one here right now. And if you want to say anything – anything to me, I’m listening.”
“Told you,” he said. “Asked you, ‘mean. The others. They okay, are – are they okay…”
“Yeah. Yeah, our, uh. Our buddies are okay. All of ’em.”
“No, they’re not.”
“They’re over it. There’s – there’s good going on for all of ’em.”
“Chris and Ashley.”
“Chris and Ash. How’re – Count of Monte Cristo and, uh – …her?”
She laughed, finally. “They’re the – they are the happiest I… I-I mean – you know, not the happiest, maybe…”
“Love a’ Jesus fucking Christ in the fuckin’—Moulin fuckin’ Rouge shit…”
“‘Kay, okay, I’m sorry, please, calm down…”
She paused, and licked her teeth. Held her tongue in place. It was technically a question with an easy and cut-and-dry answer.
Took a breath in, and took a breath out. “Been goin’ out ever since then,” she said. “They have, I mean. Chris’s got an internship. Can’t remember the name of the company – maybe you’d have, uh, some idea of where he’d, you know, look to. Misses you a lot.” She swallowed something out of her throat. “And him and Ash are like – more joined at the hip than ever… Cutest couple you ever did see.”
Some dry breath noises. Josh’s lips pulled back. A bone-dry laugh of long white teeth. “Ah. Ah. I, ah. Good,” he said. “I mean, meaning, after all the… trouble I went to.”
“Make each other happy. You know – they do. Even when…” She re-thought a thought. “They went through it together. They can make each other happy when they’ve got to, you know… thinking back on – the loss of… of three of our friends now.”
“My sisters makes two, and with Jess, it’s three.” His eyes moved erratically. “I told ‘im I didn’t know. I didn’t know. And – we ate her.”
“Wait, wha – no. I-I-I… no, you couldn’t have, hey. Listen, keep listening, Jess is… Jess is with us. Sometimes. She came back with us.” She leaned closer. “All of us’re alive…”
“Mike knows, then, really knows, I-I didn’t get Jess hurt, she’s okay, and he doesn’t – he doesn’t hate me.”
“No,” said Sam. Answer pulled out of her ass. She repeated it to make it firmer. “No. None of us do.”
“They still… like… Chris and Ash… Chris and Ash…”
Sam took a guess at the meaning. “They’re… I mean, if you mean Mike and Jess, they’re off and on. Usually on. I, ah.” Fake laugh. “I don’t see it ending in marriage, but… like, they seem good for each other, considering Mike’s the way he is…”
“Matt and Em. Matt ‘n Em.”
“Alive. Quiet. Like – with Matt, you know, that’s pretty kinda usual, and Em… she keeps to herself. Or, you know, certain things.” Pause. “Pretty much just the certain things… But – but Josh, point is we’re all alive, and… recovering. Slowly, but – but surely.”
“Leaves you,” he said.
“Who’s, uhh…” He cleared his throat into his knee. “Who’s – who’s gettin’ you through this, Sam.”
It took a moment to parse.
She sighed through her teeth. Shifted her weight again. “I could, ah…” Breathe in, breathe out. She listened for claws against stone. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Not me, Samantha, you, are you getting through this, please, please…”
“No. Josh, calm down, god – please what?”
“Please, just-just…” Dragged off scraping into a shaky groan. A couple of quick breaths. Sam shuddered. “You wanna help, Sam.”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Like I said back then. I’m here for you. Joshua.”
“‘Nnn just go. Outta-outta here. Shouldn’t be here, just go, forget about it. Forget about it. ‘Bout me, just don’t – don’t think about any of this shit anymore. Don’t – don’t be mad at me anymore…”
“Holy hell, Josh, I am not mad at you.” In an absolute sense, it was a lie. “People could’ve died that night – scratch that, one person did, but it had nothing to do with you.”
That was also a lie. Josh had pulled his scheme. Josh had been put out in the shed. Flamethrower Guy had gone out with Chris to get him. Flamethrower Guy had died.
Boom. Butterfly Effect.
“You’re right. I wanna help you. And Josh – Josh, you wanna help me?”
“Fuck all I can do.”
“For the love of god, Josh. Let me work through this. I have not been able to because of everything that’s happened here. Josh – you still hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah. Loud and, and clear.”
“I have not been able to work through this because… because we left without finishing. Like… it’s like we broke things, freaked out, saved ourselves, and didn’t fix them. Not that we had a lot of options, at the time. Josh, are you following?”
“Dunno that I am, Sam.”
His head twitched her way. She flinched.
“Rhymes,” he said.
Long breath in.
“You asked me, Josh… you asked me who’s helping me get through the memory of what happened here. All of the wild crap that happened that night. Listen. I want it to be you.”
“Nahhh, you don’t.”
“Yes. Yes, I do. That is why I came all the way back out here. For you.”
“And what’re you gonna do, Sam? You gonna… you gonna drag me up with you, when you’re done here? Lookin’ like this? Take me back home and – we’ll all have a movie night? I think that’d make it worse than ever, you know.”
“Yeah. Yeah, Josh, I know.”
Her heart pounded slowly. Hammer on velvet. Silence in the nearby caves. She squinted into the dark, not that it’d help.
She tightened her grip on the torch and slowly reached for his shoulder. “Stop right there,” he said.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m just… I’ll just have to, ah, tell you, then. I don’t know how much, you know, words are gonna do at a time like this, but – you think you can believe me?”
“I wanna believe you, Sam. I wanna. I’ll – I’ll try. I’ll try.”
“Sweet,” she said, thinly, flicking up a smile. “Josh, if there’s one thing that’ll help me, it’s helping you.”
“Get on with it, Sam. What’s there you can do now?”
“I just – wanted to tell you, Josh. Believe me.”
“I want to.”
“I-I haven’t even told you what it is yet.”
“I wanna believe you, Sam. You’re – you’re my friend.”
“And you’re my friend. And that’s what I want to tell you. I love you, Josh.”
“Hey.” She moved again. Just an inch.
Enough to refresh his attention. Her smile relaxed and set.
“Josh, Joshua, you’re still my friend, and I still love you. Like I love all our friends – and you’ve still got me.” Quiet. “D’you get it?”
A breath from him broke itself up into pieces – dry, staccato single laughs. “Nnnh. But you def… you definitely do, don’t you?” A sigh. “Always thought that – except for Chris, I mean…”
“Like, that you always got me.”
One bitter, all-air chuckle. “Yeah, I always thought so, too.”
Neither of the two moved. She looked through the corner of her eyes into the fringes of the torchlight. She wasn’t sure she wanted him to notice. More wood. More barrels.
“Don’t leave,” he said.
“Not gonna,” she said. “Hey, Josh – I am not gonna leave you all alone like this.”
“Don’t. Don’t. I-I’m glad you… came back.” More laughter, just as joyless, faster now. “Though Ha… Hannah won’t like it. Except she will. She’ll take you apart… ‘f I don’t forget, and get to you first.”
“That’s not gonna happen, either.” She held out the torch. “Brought this, remember?”
“That’s… some fire.”
“I will say it again. I am not gonna abandon you.”
He stared into the spot where she stopped the torch, without changing expression.
“I am not gonna leave you like this.”
He said slowly, “Hannah won’t like that.”
“I’d – uh.” She licked her lips. “I’d like to – ss… set her free, too. If I – find her on the way out.”
“You abandoning her?”
She glanced over the ground. The torch flickered.
She tested the muscles in her legs – how fast she could stand, turn over the barrels, sweep the torch. Run.
Eyes back up. “I’m going… to stand up now,” she said. “And I don’t wanna end it this way. I swear.”
“Please,” said Josh. “Please, don’t go yet.”
“Again, I am not going anywhere. I’ll – ”
I may as well be right in this chamber with you, forever, for all you know. Damn, that sounded cold, and glib, and horrible, and much too incomplete…
“I am just going to make sure that you don’t have to be alone anymore. Up on these mountains, down in these mines.”
She’d gotten to her feet. A couple of seconds, and she had her hand on the stopper of a barrel.
“Don’t go yet. Please.”
“I won’t.” She swallowed. Pulled the stopper, filled her lungs with air, hurled the barrel onto its side, a sharp-as-a-knife feeling flaring in her shoulders.
The barrel rrrang when it hit the floor. Josh shuddered.
She started to roll it under her boot. Kicked it off. It rolled to the other side of the chamber, bumps and bangs, oil splattering and splashing like water out of a broken faucet.
“Don’t. God, Samantha, don’t…”
She couldn’t keep her voice out of the next swallow. “Finding you down here made me feel better, Josh,” she said.
“Don’t. God, don’t do this, please, don’t.”
“I swear to god. I missed you, and – you know what, in spite of everything, we all do.
“Samantha, don’t you go.”
She didn’t look up from the ground – looking diligently for the place where the oil spill started under the torchlight. She bit her lip, hard.
“I want you to know – that. Everything I said. Okay? You’re not a – you’re not alone, Joshua. You’ve still got friends. Seven of us. And I’m – really happy to see you.”
The spill stopped. Heart thumped.
“Everything, everything I’ve told you is true.”
Now she looked up. Back at Josh. He hadn’t gotten up – just watched her, eyes glassy.
Back down at the spill to pick a place to hit. She took a deep breath, and brought the torch down.
As the fire caught, she shut her eyes and turned away.
She listened in two directions. Behind her and ahead. She didn’t hear anyone behind her.
Another few slow breaths. In, out. Shaky. In, out. Shakier.
She opened her eyes. They prickled.
And she started to walk. Torch held far forward.
She’d be ready to respond to a scream, of any kind. And she’d be ready to fight her way – alone – back to the surface.