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Antlers

It wasn’t until breakfast on the third day that Gerald gazed into the knotted black eyes of a birch tree and thought that he might have gotten in over his head. Snow fell in dense clusters, making a tiny racket: tap-tap-t-ta-tap. Hands wrapped around the red tin mug, he stewed over his hot instant coffee. The coffee was awful—notably because it was black—but they hadn’t brought creamer, and he didn’t want to complain. Gerald loved Eric and Kate and he knew that they loved him, but he couldn’t be the boy they remembered from high school. He’d insisted on navigating to prove that he had changed.

The decade apart looked so good on them. They almost seemed like different people. But then Eric would smile, and it would throw Gerald back to the lunchroom playing Euchre and Spoons. Kate would cock her eyebrow, and he would remember her passing a tallboy as the three of them sat on Kate’s Nissan at the park beneath the stars.

The memories came, lingered, and then passed, like snowflakes in the wind.

Gerald slurped the coffee. It broke his heart that he had let them down with such a big mistake. He’d forgotten what the hiking YouTube videos had said about reading the map, forgotten how to properly adjust his compass, and though they were supposed to be back at the lodge before sundown today, Gerald now had no clue where they were. It was one more brick on a long wall of failures.

Kate boiled water for the MREs. “How are you?”

Gerald twisted, but before seeing if she was talking to him, Eric replied. “I’m okay,” he adjusted the insulin injector and then shot it into his gut. He put on one of his best smiles and then placed the injector into a zipper case. “Just glad we’re getting back today. I’m almost out of insulin.”

“Is your leg okay?”

“Yeah. It doesn’t hurt at all anymore. It healed up real nice.” He looked around at the forest. “I guess it better have. If I’d known it was going to snow this bad, I would have just said we stick to doing this in the summer and made you guys carry me.”

Kate flexed and smiled. “I could do it. I don’t know about Gerald, though.”

Gerald said, “We may still get to see the caribou like you wanted.”

“I’m glad Sally was there to take care of you after the break.”

Eric nodded. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if she hadn’t been there.”

Gerald noticed a quiet space. The water in the kettle sighed as it heated up. Kate cleared her throat. “I’m excited to meet her at the wedding.”

“She’s even better in person than on Facebook.”

“Well,” Kate said with a quiet, downward lilt, “she seems pretty great on Facebook.”

Gerald twisted again to face Kate. “Whatever happened with that merger thing in September?” He slurped coffee. What could he say when they found out? He wondered if he could get his bearings again and make up time. The water in the pot prickled as the endless sigh intensified.

Kate sighed. “It happened, for starters. I’m just glad it’s over. I was up every night until three for almost the whole month getting things organized.”

“So it’s not that much different from high school, then.”

“What?”

“Remember how we’d stay up all night then?”

“Oh my God, playing Mario Kart, Gerald, not managing the holy matrimony of two telecom corporations.” She shook her head, hiding the crooked little smile with her coffee mug. “Not the same thing.”

Eric laughed. “Remember how shitty you drove?”

Kate grinned back at him. “No, I kicked your ass all the time.”

“Only because of the power-ups.”

Kate leaned forward and bobbed her head. “That’s how you drive in the Mushroom Kingdom.”

“I remember the stairs from the basement. Skipping the top step and stepping on the right of the next one so that we could steal your dad’s beer.”

The kettle rumbled louder, the very beginnings of a squeal. Shame burbled from deep down in Gerald’s guts. They would hate him when they found out. How had this happened?

Kate pulled a sour face and shook her head, but the expression melted, and she shot a smirk at Eric over Gerald’s head. “Yuck. I could never drink Heineken again.”

“I can’t believe he never noticed.”

“Fucking asshole thought he drank them and forgot.”

The kettle screamed, and Kate pulled it off the burner. Before she could say anything else, Gerald interrupted.

“We’re lost.”

Tap-tap-ta-ta-tap-tap-tap.

*

    After that, it felt like high school again. Eric opened the warm, perfect smile that Gerald had grown to hate and extended a hand. Teeth clenched, Gerald passed the map. When Eric put the compass against the rustling paper and turned around, Gerald’s stomach bottomed out. He was vanishing, vanishing, vanishing—

Eric pointed and said, “I think that way is best.”

Kate’s eyes gazed at him, wide and bright. She nodded and said okay.

It continued to snow, although the flakes had thinned. The pile was deep. It went on and on, vast and white, consuming the entire forest. Gerald glared ahead, dragged by his feet while he sulked in his head, and when he paid attention to the sounds outside of it, he heard only three things: the brittle crunch of footsteps, the patter of fresh-falling flakes, and his old friends laughing ahead of him. All of it was deadened by the immense field of snow. Eric’s voice rumbled too low for Gerald to hear, but often Kate threw her head back and sent laughter—sharp and startling, elated, like the call of a cardinal—into the bleak sky.

Eric cast a glance back at him once but didn’t say anything. Gerald tried to push the starving green thoughts out of his head.

Eric occasionally stopped to check the map, looking for a trail that was swallowed by snow. When he did, his jaw became sharper and his eyes developed a hard, skeptical squint. The left side of the map twitched while he thumbed his naked ring finger. Gerald couldn’t remember if he’d seen Eric wearing a band on Facebook yet.

Each map check ended with a straightening of the spine, a nod, and a point. “That way,” Eric said.

About midday, his easygoing stride halted. He peered past Kate, who took a few more steps before stopping, too.

“What is it?” Gerald asked. “What’s wrong?”

Eric rubbed his eyes, seemed to look again, and then shook his head. His face was pale. “Nothing,” he said.

Kate looked into the forest, too, and then gave Gerald a concerned look. He gave her a small shrug and shook his head. Kate shifted and asked, “Are you okay?”

Eric nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s keep moving.” The three continued hiking through the silent, empty forest. Gerald lagged behind as the others played their game of Remember When.

But Gerald noticed how Eric stiffened again and stared into the woods. He didn’t stop walking, but his expression darkened. His eyes widened—he was searching for something. Gerald saw it twice but suspected it happened more.

He couldn’t help but feel pleased with the sign of weakness.

*

    Of the three friends, Eric was the one most bothered by the dead caribou. When Gerald first laid eyes on it, it was a rock, a log, a pile of rotting leaves; it was as indistinguishable as anything else in the wasteland: just a dark mass in this endless, blank purgatory.

As they approached, they could make out the wide, bright shock of red, and then the creature’s dark brown showed more clearly as fur. Finally, the massive black antlers gained definition against the snow beneath them.

The caribou’s stomach had been mutilated as if torn by hand with a single, furious stroke. A broad fan of bloody fireworks spread red splatters and streaks around the wound. Except for where the ribs should be, its torso had the sagging appearance of a deflated balloon. Gerald imagined that if he opened the wound and peeked within, it would look like the inside of a jack-o-lantern. The large eye socket was vacant, and black, frozen blood stiffened the fur. The meat was consumed so wholly around the cheek and lower jaw that white bone—all the way to its full teeth—was exposed.

Eric knelt, reached out a shaky hand, and hovered it over the creature’s disfigured face. When they planned the trip, he’d told them his dream of encountering a herd of caribou. Gerald did not see grief here, however. This was fear.

When they resumed, the three of them walked together, side-by-side, and in silence. Kate squeezed Eric’s shoulder. “I’m sorry we gave you the shittiest bachelor’s party ever.”

Gerald nodded. “Yeah, we should’ve stuck with strippers.”

Eric’s typically brilliant grin was weary and forced. “Strippers would’ve been nice.”

Gerald shot a sidelong glance at Eric, who walked with his eyes trained on the snow. At least you got to see the caribou, he thought.

*

     They were shivering by the next map check. Early night encroached upon the fading day, and what little light remained peeked between the skeletal trees around them. “I hate how fucking quick it gets dark here,” Kate spat.

“It’s time to set up camp, Eric,” said Gerald. “This is as good a spot as any.”

They’d stayed close to rivers as much as possible. Still, aside from a single small lake, the hike had been mostly trees towering around and above, glaring down. Hands on hips, Eric seemed to survey the land around. With a disgruntled sigh, he conceded. “Alright. We can camp here. Gerald, go get some firewood.” He slipped off his pack and unzipped the top pouch where Gerald had seen him put his insulin. Eric glared at him. “Go, Gerald, please get some firewood.”

Kate glanced at Gerald. “I’ll go with him,” she said.

“Fine.”

Gerald had already begun walking, and Kate called on him to wait. She came with a beam of light in her hand and met him with a smile. “Hey,” she asked. “How’re you doing?”

Gerald’s answer wavered on the fulcrum of a moment. He decided to say, “I’m alright.”

Kate turned her face to eye him sidelong. “Yeah?”

He nodded. “I’m alright.”

They walked in silence for a little. Gerald picked up some larger pieces of wood and tucked them under his arm. Kate hadn’t picked up any yet. “How have you been?” he asked.

She chuckled. “I’ve definitely been better.”

“I mean beyond the being lost thing.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I knew what you meant.”

The silence interrupted them. It spoke through the crackling of brittle branches, the thinning sound of birds going to bed, and that perpetual crunch of snow beneath their feet.

“I picked up kickboxing,” Kate offered.

“Really?” He cast a glance at her. “That’s interesting.” Kickboxing was a very Kate thing to do.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

“Eric is scared,” Kate said. She looked at Gerald like he was supposed to say something, and when he didn’t, she added, “He’s worried that he’s going to run out of insulin.”

Gerald wasn’t sure what he was expected to feel or do, so he picked up kindling since Kate wasn’t getting any.

The explanation continued. “That’s why he’s been so distant. He doesn’t like you any less.”

“Well, that’s good,” he oozed.

She stopped in her tracks. “What do you mean?”

Gerald shook his head. This wasn’t the time.

“Eric likes you, Gerald.”

“I think we have enough wood.”

“He’s pissed that you said you knew what you were doing and didn’t.”

“We should get back to camp before it gets any darker.”

“I’m pissed that you said you knew what you were doing and lied.”

“I did know what I was doing.”

Kate didn’t respond. Strained logograms creased her face, and she seemed to hold her tongue in the back of her mouth as far away from speaking as she could.

Gerald softened. “So other than work stress, how are things? You don’t post much on Facebook.

Kate searched for words carefully, sustaining a long uhh as she did. At last, she seemed to settle on, “I prefer to watch what other people are up to.”

“Do you still sing?”

Kate looked up at the fading sky. “In the shower.” Her tone changed position, like a boxer shifting from taking punches to throwing them. “What happened with you and Emma?”

Now it was Gerald’s turn to search for a response. “Well,” he began, “you know. I’m sure you saw.”

“I saw that you guys divorced.”

“Yeah.”

“So?”

Gerald didn’t say anything.

Kate pressed. “What happened?”

“I lost my job. Things just went downhill from there.” He said it as plainly as he could to get it over with. She left it at that. They continued through the darkening forest, and Gerald picked up more wood.

Her gaze shifted, her expression changed, and at the same time, he felt it; a knowing of motion, like seeing with the skin, and it raised his ears to attention. The thing was cold, a different kind than the snow’s temperature, and reminiscent of the jagged maw torn across the caribou’s gut. The most primal part of his brain urged him not to look—to not even entertain possibilities of what the thing behind him could be.

Kate took two steps backward and tripped on a rock. She cried out as she tumbled into the ditch and winced in pain as her ankle twisted unnaturally. Her face went pale, and her mouth hung open as she seemed less concerned about the fall than about whatever was behind Gerald.

“What was that?” she stammered. “Did you see it?”

With a shiver, Gerald shook off the feeling. He must be going crazy. “Can you walk? Can you get up?”

Kate shifted in the snow, but she winced and shook her head. The ground around her leg was red. “Gerald, what the fuck was that thing?”

He kept to himself. They must be hysterical from the hike. Carefully, Gerald helped her hobble to camp.

At first, Eric seemed irritated that there was no wood, but concern bloomed across his face when he saw Kate. She’d slung her arm around Gerald’s shoulders and hopped beside him. Both of the men helped her down onto a rock to sit, where she extended her leg.

“What happened?” Eric growled at Gerald.

“She fell.”

“It’s not his fault,” Kate said.

“Go back out and grab firewood, Gerald. I’ll fix this. It’s already dark, and we don’t have a fire yet.” Eric rummaged in his pack and took out the first aid kit.

As Gerald reentered the forest, he heard Kate tell Eric, “Don’t be so hard on him. It’s really not his fault.”

Eric snarled, “This whole situation is his fault. He’s an even bigger loser now than he was in high school.”

*

    The next morning, Gerald didn’t speak until after breakfast, which seemed to suit the others just fine. In fact, no one said anything. They sipped instant coffee in their red mugs and stared into the tiny campfire. Eric had helped Kate out of her tent and onto the rock. Her leg looked terrible, even with the dressing he’d put on it. His hand lingered longer than it needed to as he checked the wound.

Gerald made them more coffee, and they drank it in silence. There were no more MREs left.

Eric grumbled, “It looks like there’s a storm coming in.”

“How do you know?” asked Gerald.

Eric pointed to the sky in the distance, tracing a bowl of darkness lining the gloomy gray clouds. “The wind is coming in our direction, and those clouds look ugly.”

“Can you walk?” Gerald asked Kate.

She looked at her leg and seemed to chew the prospect. She asked, “How far are we?”

Tightening his jaw, Eric growled, “Probably eight hours off. At least.”

“I’m okay, but I’m not that okay.”

Gerald massaged his temples and sighed. “Would we even beat the storm if we have that long to go?” Eric shrugged.

“We have to. We’ll just go until Kate has to stop.”

“I have a better idea. Give me the map.”

Eric scowled as if Gerald had asked to kiss his fiancee, but Gerald was tired of the show. “Come on,” he beckoned. “Go take your insulin and give it to me.”

Bristling, Eric transferred the map to Gerald’s open palm. Gerald ignored his glare. “Where are we?” he asked as he scanned the map. Eric indicated with a quick point.

“What’re you looking for?” Kate asked. Gerald waved her off into silence. Eric crossed his arms, looked at his shoes, and then gazed at the branches above.

At last, Gerald tapped the map. “Here. There’s a cave here.”

“How do you know?” snarled Eric.

“I can read a topo map. I told you that I could.”

“Then how did you—”

The two locked eyes like competing wolves and Gerald jabbed at the map again. “There’s a cave here.”

“Great. So what?”

“I have a PLB. We can get to the cave, activate the PLB, send out a distress signal, and wait for Search and Rescue.”

Eric’s face turned red. “You have a PLB, and we’re just now hearing about it?”

Kate looked between them. “What’s a PLB?”

“A personal locator beacon,” Gerald said. “It’s like a satellite SOS.”

The two men stood, eyes locked, in silence. Kate shivered. “How far away is the cave?”

“An hour or two away, depending.”

“That sounds better than eight or more in the middle of a blizzard.” She raised her hand. “I vote cave.” Eric glared at her, but Kate seemed unaffected. “What about you? It sounds like Gerald and I are going to the cave. Are you coming with?”

Around them, the snow began to fall. The flakes were small and light, like dust.

Eric growled, “Yeah. Let’s go.”

They insisted that Kate should lean on them, but she refused. She found a sturdy stick instead. They hiked for just under an hour until Eric had to stop. As he slipped off his pack, they could see his hands shake. “It’s too heavy. I just need a minute.” Panting, he sank to the ground and wiped his pale face with both hands, panting.

“Did you take your insulin?” Kate asked. Eric shook his head.

“I’m rationing it,” he said. “Who the hell knows when we’ll be…” He closed his eyes and swallowed. Kate knelt beside him and stroked his cheek. “Have you guys seen that thing with the antlers?” Eric shook his head again. “Nevermind.”

Kate’s eyes lit up. “Antlers?”

“I don’t want to push anyone,” Gerald interrupted, “but the snow is coming down harder, and I think we should shelter before we call for Search and Rescue.”

“God damn it, Gerald—” Eric barked.

“No, he’s right, Eric.” Kate stroked Eric’s cheek again. “We need to keep moving.”

They redistributed most of the weight into Gerald’s pack. Even though he was the leader now, he still wasn’t part of the group. He wondered how they would recount the story—Gerald: the only one coming out of the entire trip unscathed; Gerald: who got them lost. They wouldn’t talk about how he rescued them. He was still a loser, after all.

He sometimes felt that cold sensation from the night before. It shifted around the forest, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left, sometimes behind him. It was so distinct that he could almost detect how far away it was. He thought the others sensed it, too, as they cast furtive glances into the forest, where he felt it linger.

Kate was the most disturbed. She clutched the stick with both hands like she was wringing a chicken. Underlying the calm, controlled pain on her grimace, there quivered the frantic terror of a trapped finch. Eric, however, seemed resigned. The thing would catch his eye, then he would gulp and look away, shaking his head as if to dispel its image.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.

*

    It took longer than Gerald had thought. Eric trembled, and each step seemed to require more and more effort. Kate was moving slower, too. By the time they got to the vast, black maw of the cave, the storm was upon them. If it hadn’t already been visible in the near distance, it would have been a wasted effort to continue through the blank white veil.

Eric leaned against the wall as he entered, and then he took a seat on the floor. His face was shiny with sweat. His eyes fought to stay open. Kate sat next to him and lay her head against his shoulder. Gerald slipped the heavy pack off his back and sat on it. Outside, the wind howled.

Teeth chattering, Eric reached out a hand and groaned, “Get my insulin out of the bag.” He spoke in gasps, struggling the way fish do as they hang from the hook. He’d taken off his beanie, exposing dark hair soaked with sweat. His eyes faded, his arm went limp, and Kate sat upright.

“Eric?” She grabbed his chest and shoulder. She repeated his name, louder, and shook him, but Eric’s head slumped like a rag doll’s. This time she screamed and shook him hard, shook him over and over again. When she let go, he crumpled to the floor. Kate snapped at Gerald, “What the fuck are you doing? Get his insulin pen!”

Gerald sprang off of the pack. The zippers hissed as he ripped them open and tore through the bag, but the injector wasn’t at the top—he was sure it was at the top—so he gutted the bag, tossing everything out until at last, he found it down at the bottom.

Kate snatched it from him and adjusted the dial with quaking hands. She hesitated, staring aghast at the pen.

Gerald stammered, “What’s wrong?”

Eric thrashed on the floor, wheezing, convulsing, hands locked into claws that slashed at the air with the slow, clunky rhythm of a funeral dirge. Kate placed a hand on his stomach to steady him while whimpering a quiet prayer. She stabbed him with the injector, but he didn’t stop seizing. Her expression balled up like crumpled paper, and she sobbed.

“Kate, what’s wrong?”

“There’s not enough.”

“What?”

“There’s not enough insulin.”

Gerald blinked. Kate’s sentence swooped down and struck him like a hawk grabbing a rabbit. He shook his head. “No. He must have packed more just in case.” He scrambled over the cave floor on his hands and knees, searching the scattered contents.

No injectors.

No insulin.

Kate stabbed Eric in the gut with the injector, then again, and then again, and Eric did not respond.

Gerald moved to the other packs. “Why wouldn’t he pack more just in case?”

Kate stroked Eric’s head, burying her face in his hair.

While looking for the insulin, Gerald had set aside the PLB. He took it now to the mouth of the cave. The wind roared in his ears and lashed him with snow. He raised the PLB above his head, pressed the button, and then he waited. He stood there for a long time.

In the distance, he thought he saw long antlers move through the haze, but they were swallowed by the storm.

*

    Kate stopped holding Eric’s head only after she had fallen asleep. Even in her dreams, she appeared to be in pain. She’d done a better job of hiding it when she was awake. Gerald had always admired her strength. It was disheartening to see her like this. She was supposed to start a band and become a rock star, change the world with her voice, and she was supposed to survive this trip. Gerald shook his head, disappointed in himself because none of those things would happen. He fought to stay awake, listening for the low thum-thum-thum of the Search and Rescue chopper or for voices calling out through the storm. Kate deserved that much.

He was not optimistic, though.

The blizzard was now a virtually impenetrable wall. To navigate the snow would be suicide. It was so cold, and there was no way to see through that swarm of white locusts. There would be no rescue until it died down.

And he was so hungry.

In the quiet of the cave, he had a chance to reflect. No food, no job, no wife, no self-respect. What did he have left? More than food, Gerald needed sustenance. He was empty and needed something to keep him alive.

The dark world outside was illuminated by faint, wan light reflected in the dense white snow. Gerald still could see into the woods, if only a few feet or so beyond. He shivered. Hungry creatures must be watching him. Maybe even the thing that had killed the caribou. Gerald felt glowing, watchful eyes, and he did not want to meet them.

He gazed instead into the weak coals of the minuscule fire he’d scrounged together. Red and yellow pulsed around the embers like a living thing. It would be gone soon, and there would be nothing but gray ash and a black stain on the stone.

Gerald gazed into the throbbing colors as they squirmed like caterpillars. His sight fluttered with his eyelids, and in that hypnogogic estuary of truth, dream, and nightmare, the musk of wet animal overwhelmed the cave. Maybe it had always been there, and he simply hadn’t noticed it before.

Footsteps crunched across over the snow, and Gerald staggered to his feet, elated, expecting and hoping that help had found them despite the storm, but at the mouth of the cave, there were no orange jumpsuits. Instead, he saw a caribou, massive and emaciated, pushing through the forest just beyond. Its intestines dragged behind it like the train of a dress, and it groaned a low, dreadful cry that made Gerald think of Eric.

The embers snickered and popped, jerking Gerald out of his vision. From the fire rose a handful of sparks, blocking his view of Kate. When they cleared, all the fat and meat of her body vanished. Around her closed, sunken eyes, black skin hung like turkey wattles from her cheekbones and around her throat. Her knobby, gnarled fingers—attached to blotchy hands throttled by the wormlike veins of an old woman—held Eric’s perspiring head in her lap. Kate smacked her lips as she stroked his forehead. Eric seized again, flopping out of Kate’s lap, his head knocking hard against the stone floor.

The stink of rotten bodies blew past Gerald’s cheek on a stream of icy breath. Gerald heard lungs suck air through thick mucus inside nasal passages. The creature sniffed him out.

It was the thing he had sensed in the forest, the thing that Kate and Eric had seen.

His guts clenched. His pulse quickened. From his heart to his bowels, Gerald knew that he should not turn around. He squeezed his eyes shut. He tightened his jaw until his ears rang.

It wrapped its long fingers, like the spindly branches of dead trees, around his shoulders. Gerald’s knees gave out, and he collapsed onto the floor, out of the creature’s grasp.

As it invaded the cave, its joints snapped and crackled. Gerald’s hunger grew more and more profound, begging for attention like ugly, patchy newborn birds screaming at the sight of their mother. He’d never known that such emptiness could even exist. He was so hollow that he felt like he was crumbling into himself, a rotten structure giving way.

And then he was no longer on his belly. The cave ceiling glowed red with the faint light of the embers. He no longer heard the monster’s exhalations.

Gerald’s head rested on his pack, damp with sweat. He shot upright and held his face in his hands, panting and shaking until Kate came and held him and whispered his name.

“You saw it,” she said. “You saw it, didn’t you?”

Quivering, quaking, Gerald shook his head. He pulled his knees up to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

The cave wasn’t deep, so their flashlights and the tiny orange ring of light around the fire illuminated it. He could see no creature. But it was so close that its cold, rank breath made Gerald gag. He wanted to curl up into a ball with his hands over his eyes. Part of him wanted to die to end the terror of waiting.

“When will the Search and Rescue team come?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Kate. When they can.”

“Can you press the button again?”

“They probably can’t get through that snowstorm.”

“Please press the button.”

“It’s like pressing the button at the crosswalk again and again,” he explained. “It’s not going to make them come any faster.”

“Please, Gerald, go do it again.”

“I’ve already done it twice.”

“Gerald!”

He wiped his face and took the PLB outside. The snow and the wind bit into him as he pressed the button. He took a deep breath, afraid to turn around. He was scared of what he might see.

Kate seemed to mistake his hesitation at the mouth of the cave as a weighing of options. “Go find help. If you go, it’s more likely that—”

“Listen to yourself, Kate,” Gerald interrupted. “That doesn’t make any sense. If I leave and look for them while they’re looking for us, that’s like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. The book says that you’re supposed to—”

Startled, Gerald looked out into the forest, into the snow. Had that been a snort—pleased but impatient like a horse at the sight of the feed bag? No. It was just the wind and the storm.

Kate let loose a roar. “Who gives a fuck about what the book says? Eric is going to die, and it’s all your fault! We’re trapped in a cave in a snowstorm in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, and it’s all your fault!”

He sucked in air and gritted his teeth. “All my fault?” He turned and repeated: “All my fault?”

The movement was almost invisible, but Kate shrunk back against the cave wall, clutching the comatose Eric a little tighter.

“I did my best. You two were completely distracted, too busy looking for a place to finish the love story you started fourteen years ago.”

“We were catching up, Gerald!”

“Catching up, huh?” He shook his head. “Even before we got lost, three was a crowd. Since the beginning, it’s always been that way. You remember playing Mario Kart with Eric, but you both forget that it was my game and that you two almost never let me play it. You two remember getting drunk with your dad’s beer, but you forget that I’m the one you two always sent up for it. I remember coming back with some once, and I caught you making out like you’d sent me away so you could finally have time alone.” Gerald’s nostrils flared. Pressure built behind his eyes, and his throat tightened. “You remember all sorts of good times with Eric, where I was a background character. This trip was going to be my chance to shine, and it wasn’t. Even now, when Eric was the one who couldn’t get us out—when Eric was the one who didn’t pack enough insulin—he’s the one you treasure, and I’m just the beard, the cover, to make sure Sally doesn’t know that there’s anything between you two.” He stared at her, shaking his head as he considered a truth that depleted him more than anything else ever could.

“I hate you,” he said. “I hate you both.”

“Listen to you,” Kate spat. “Your chance to shine. This trip was supposed to be about Eric from the beginning.”

“Yeah, well, Eric didn’t pack enough insulin. Eric’s a dumbass, and if we’d gotten back to the lodge in time, he would’ve been a cheater, too.”

Kate threw a right hook that cracked against Gerald’s cheekbone like thunder. She sent an uppercut into his jaw, and as he stumbled back, his ears rang. He thought he heard the snort again, this time with a low, satisfied growl. Stars danced around the cave, he tried to steady himself against the wall, but there wasn’t enough time. Kate had already picked up a rock.

He’d never been hit on the head before. Though it hurt, there was so much shock that he didn’t live in it; it was present but distant, like looking out across the ocean and barely making out white sails on the horizon. Gerald fell to the cave floor.

This time, he was sure of the sound: hruff, huff, hruff. At the mouth of the cave, snow crunched beneath pacing hooves. Gerald’s brain swirled around in his skull like a chunk of beef in boiling stew, and his vision spun, but when he looked in the direction of the noise, he was sure that there was a silhouette. It was tall—almost to the top of the cave—darker than the darkness behind and around it; thin, thin like famine, maybe even more. Long, spindly arms hung down to knobby knees that stuck out from bowed legs. At the top of the dark figure was an impossible head: white bone with empty sockets, exposed teeth and jaw, and a massive spread of blanched antlers.

Kate sent another blow to his head, and Gerald heard the crack as if it were an echo, not as if he were its object. Warmth flowed down the sides of his head and onto his ears. Kate was not crying. Gerald wondered what the fluid might be.

Thick ropes of condensation rose from the nostrils of the thing at the cave mouth, and he’d never been so cold before.

*

    The SAR team found Kate with two dead men. Gerald lay on his stomach at the cave entrance. The bloody rock was only a few feet from his bashed skull. She clutched Eric to her chest as if he were a baby. A slit ran from his sternum to his pelvis. It had been pulled open as wide as possible and exposed his entrails, black with frozen blood. When the medical examiner took inventory later, he reported that the man’s heart was missing, in addition to both of his kidneys and pieces of his liver.

Kate rocked back and forth, alternately babbling, weeping, and screeching. Her whole body—hands, shirt, hair, mouth—was covered with dried flakes of black blood. She had two streaks from her chin to her eyes where the skin was clean. It reminded one of the women on the SAR team of Maori facial tattoos.

When they tried to pull Kate apart from Eric, she screamed at them, eyes wild, teeth bared. They backed away, and she returned to stroking his hair.

“There’s still so much of him left, but he’s gone,” she murmured.

She thrashed in the team’s grip as they tried prying her hands open. When one of them attempted to pull the dead man away, she pounced and clawed at his face. The others grabbed her then and pulled her out of the cave.

In the stark white wasteland, the weight of weariness overwhelmed her at last. She collapsed to her knees, and her head fell backward, mouth wide to the sky in a scream too high-pitched to be heard by those not grieving. When she went limp, they let her go and gave her space.

“He’s with me now,” she whimpered. “He’s inside me, but I can’t feel him.” She grabbed the shirt of the closest rescuer. She looked into the cave and then gazed up. “Can I take some more?”

Startled, the rescuer stepped away from her grip. “No.”

“Maybe I’ll feel him—”

“You won’t,” the rescuer said, swallowing the lump of horror in her throat. “He’s gone, ma’am.” Kate dropped her gaze again and sank into the snow. She took off her beanie and ran her fingers through short, black hair. The sweat made it stand up like antlers.

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in All Stories, Fiction, Horror

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