Wendig’s challenge this week was to ‘stick the landing’ — parts 1-3 of this story were written by other people. It was up to me to finish it. If you love this story, make sure to love the other writers, too. If you hate it? Blame me — I’m shit for endings.
I have all 4 parts here for ease of reading and for those of you who haven’t read the first three parts. Check the other blogs out, though. They’re fantastic! Pavowski’s part is part one, Lauren’s is two, Helen’s is three, and mine’s last!
Without further ado:
* * *1* * *
The weather reports had called for cold, but that was the first thing Lem could process, and the only thing, for that matter. Despite the sleeping bag her legs were snarled in, the stocking cap smushing down her short hair, and the two hoodies she had layered up the night before, the cold had seeped into her toes and her fingers in the night, and she could barely feel them.
She sat up, and a crack of thunder sounded in her skull. Too much whiskey the night before; yes, that had been a mistake. And not a drop of water around before bed, either. All the water in their flasks had frozen. Was still frozen, she discovered, turning a heavy flask over. It would have been funny, if her head hadn’t felt like it was tearing into two halves down the middle. She poked Mark to wake him up.
But Mark wasn’t there.
His sleeping bag had been right next to hers when she passed out, but now it was rolled up and neatly secured with paracord in the corner of the tent. Next to it sat Mark’s pack, which was also arranged and collected and ready to depart. But no Mark.
She peeked her head out of the tent — sucking in a sharp icy breath, because god help her, it was even colder outside — and looked around. There, the ring of stones around the pile of ash from last night’s fire. There, the funny little outcropping of trees that Mark had said looked like a bunch of aliens dancing around a maypole. There, the dusty trail leading off into the woods. In the distance, the burbling sounds of the river. But no Mark.
Lem cleared her throat, sending another shockwave through her pounding head, and stumbled out into the grey morning. She tried to call for Mark, but her voice was hoarse and tiny in the predawn mist. It wasn’t unlike him to go for a little explore before she was awake, but something felt off. The sleeping bag, his pack. He hadn’t lit a fire. And he’d had as much to drink as she had, if not more. By rights, he should be the one sprawling on the ground in the tent, unable to shake the fog out of his head. She called out once more, Mark’s name issuing out in a great cloud of vapor. Three crows exploded out of a nearby bush and went flapping off into the sky, cawing at one another and at her pitilessly as the grey swallowed them up.
An hour later, Lem had built a fire and thrown a few sausages in the pan, figuring that when Mark returned she could have a bit of breakfast ready. She’d thawed out a canteen and chugged a good quart of water, and that had helped, too. But the hour had come and gone: she had gathered kindling, listened to the thick sizzle of the gristly meat, and then devoured them herself, all without seeing or hearing any sign of Mark. It was only when she was cleaning up from the meager meal that she started to get uneasy.
Not at the thought of being alone in the wild; she carried a gun and was well-trained in its use. That had been her father’s insistence when she took up hiking, and she dutifully loaded it before every expedition, even though she had never had cause to use it. Nor was she uneasy at Mark’s absence; he liked the solitude of the woods even more than she did, and he would be back soon enough with some clumsy excuse about forgetting to leave a note, and they’d kiss and laugh over it and that would be the end. It was the cold, she realized. The sun was up now, casting long, skeletal shadows through the trees, but it was getting colder. Unseasonable was not the word. The chill was unnatural.
She chuckled at herself as she thought it, and went to pack away her mess kit back in her pack, and that was when she spotted it. It was frozen solid but unmistakable, dark crimson in the dust, glittering with the scattered sunshine; A tiny disk of blood that looked like it might have frozen before it hit the ground.
She bent to examine it, the vapor of her breath seeming to melt its surface just a little, tiny droplets condensing on the angry red ice. Now that she’d spotted this tiny pool, the next one seemed to catch light at the edge of her vision. She rose and walked toward the new spot, and then she saw the next patch of ice… and the next, leading toward that strange snarled copse of trees.
For a fleeting moment, she thought of her gun. Her tent was only thirty feet away, just as far from her now as the weird interwoven trees that had caught Mark’s fancy the night before. It would take only a moment to retrieve it. Then came a sound that made ice of the blood suddenly surging through her veins. The cracking of a twig underfoot, but not under her foot. Under another foot entirely, just beyond the edge of the trees encircling the clearing.
* * *2* * *
She shivered, frozen to the spot, and looked around at the stand of trees surrounding the camping site. She couldn’t see who it was, and she thought they must be hiding out there. Lem tiptoed back over to the fire and sat down on the rock, as the figure came out of the woods. Her heart pounded against her ribcage, trying to break free of its confines. She could see the outline of the backpack, and a wave of relief washed over her when she saw the dreads on his head—just a backpacker.
“You scared me,” she said.
“I was separated from my group about an hour ago.”
Lem looked up to the sky and realized the sun hadn’t even been up for an hour. Unease crept into her, but she plastered a smile on her face as she looked at him.
“Did you see a man on the trail? About six feet? Beard, probably unkempt hair?”
The backpacker shook his head. She sat on the rock warming her hands by the fire, and she motioned for him to take a seat.
“I’m Ian,” he said.
She grasped his hand, noticing his knuckles were split around the edges, like he’d been hitting something. He followed her eyes, and she stared up at him, darkness staring back at her. She shuddered and pulled her hand back too abruptly.
“I practice taekwondo. Split my knuckles on the punching bag. Your name?”
She nodded, but she didn’t believe him—the same feeling of unease from this morning creeping back to her as she wondered where Mark could be and whether the blood on the rock was his.
“Belonging to God.”
“It’s what the name means. It was my mother’s maiden name and was stuck onto me like a fungus. Imagine being a girl and growing up with a name like Lem.”
She didn’t know why she was telling him this, nervous talk, because when she looked at him the feeling of dread seeped under her skin. She wished Mark was here, or that she even knew where Mark was, but more than that she wished the gun in the tent was in her hands. She thought about breaking away from the campfire, going into the tent and pushing it into the space between the elasticity of her pants and her skin. But, she thought, if Ian was dangerous then she would be trapped. Coming out of the tent, he could easily accost her and she didn’t want that. She thought about the split skin on his hands, the blood seemed newly dried and this thought turned her stomach as she thought about the little pool of blood on the ice. It could only be Mark’s.
“Would you like some bacon?” she asked, pointing towards the pan she had left cooling by the fire.
Her breath was still coming out in vapor, but the world seemed to be warming up now that the sun was peeking up from behind the trees.
“Yeah, that’d be fucking great,” Ian said, and he leaned forward to help himself to two pieces.
“So how does one get lost from their group so early in the morning?”
He glared at her, and she felt an icy prickle, like a hand, trail through her body alerting her to the danger this man seemed to possess.
“Maybe you should be asking yourself that about—what’s his name?”
“Mark.” When the name came from her lips, she knew Mark was past tense. She wanted to crawl out into the woods and look for his body, but right now she had to protect herself from the monster sitting right next to her.
“This bacon’s great.” The words from his mouth dripped like acid, despite the benign nature of them.
She nodded, pulling her knees to her chest and rocking back and forth, trying to warm herself up in a childlike pose meant to protect her from things unknown.
“I think I’m just going to go to the tent, put another layer on. You’re welcome to another piece of bacon.”
She set her feet into the dirt, and as she started to push herself up from the rock his hand clamped on her wrist, a pair of handcuffs meaning to trap her to this place. His fingernails dug into her skin, a grip so tight she knew there was no escaping.
“I think you should stay here,” he said through clenched teeth.
Her heart was beating so fast, a thousand tons sitting on her chest, as the reality of the situation started sinking in. Sweat broke out on her forehead, despite the coldness that seemed to drag itself into every pore of her body. She wanted it to be a nightmare. She wanted to wake up and roll over, feel Mark’s warm skin next to hers and warm herself up with a morning coital.
The daydream faded as she realized Ian wasn’t going to let go. Her eyes moved from his hands, split knuckles, dirt under the fingernails, to his chest. When she saw it, she gasped.
He had the necklace hanging around his neck—a token from a kill? The Joshua Tree imprinted on the metal, the frayed edges of the shoelace material laying along Ian’s neck, instead of Mark’s where it belonged. She had bought it for Mark at Joshua Tree National Park about a month after they started dating. He hadn’t taken it off since.
And she knew what this man was here to do.
He maintained his grasp on her wrist. With his other hand he trailed his fingers against the exposed skin on her neck. She started screaming, and as expected he clamped his hand over her mouth, the smell of dirt and moisture filling her nostrils.
Lem tried to break away from his grasp, and was surprised when the searing pain clouded her field of vision, and suddenly her world went completely black. This is it for me, she thought.
* * *3* * *
“How far do you suppose we walked today?” Mark was buried in his sleeping bag, his muffled question barely reaching her own sleeping bag cocoon.
“Not as far as you’d like, but that wasn’t my fault.” She was smiling as she remembered walking off the trail in order to pee and getting shit from him.
“You only stopped to pee like what? Ten times?”
“Oh, come off it! I didn’t pee any more than you did.”
If she could have seen his face, she would have seen his raised eyebrow, his lips quirked in a sarcastic, I-can’t-believe-you-believe-your-own-shit smile.
“Wanna come over here and end the night right?”
“I’m not getting out of this bag. But you’re more than welcome to venture on over here, sexy.”
“God, I wouldn’t even know how to find the zipper at this point. Did we finish the bottle?”
Their laughs echoed into the frozen night for a few seconds after they stopped, and it wasn’t long before Lem’s eyes closed and she found herself floating in a dark haze of whiskey, laughter and the knowledge that her lover was only a few inches away.
She started awake to a searing pain in her head that throbbed throughout her upper body. She took in a shaky breath, the cold air sliding down her throat making the pain even worse. She smelled frozen dirt and realized she was lying on the ground, and as soon as she thought it, the memory of Ian rushed through her head.
Oh God, Mark.
Tears welled in her eyes at the realization that not only was Mark dead, she was all alone in the frozen woods, miles from the road.
Why am I still alive?
She had no idea why Ian had left her; no idea how she had survived his attack. But she was awake and knew she had to get to the gun and get the hell out of here if she could.
She laid in the dirt for a few minutes longer listening for footsteps or any sound that would tell her there was someone else around, but the only sounds she heard were the trees rustling in the icy wind and the hissing of the dying fire. As she listened, she started to slowly move her body, trying to feel if the damage was as bad as the throbbing told her it probably was. The pain was centered in her neck and upper back. Had he stabbed her? She didn’t know, but decided it was best to go slowly.
She finally made it to her feet, the throbbing intensifying as she paused for a moment, swaying in the icy silence. She was dizzy and weak, but she fought past it, knowing her only chance was to get to the gun and get moving down the trail. If she could just stay conscious and stay on the trail, she might come across other hikers and possible rescue. She knew it was her only hope. To stay here was to die.
The tent flap was whipping in the wind, still open from when she had spotted the blood and followed it towards the copse of trees. Bending over was an agony that brought tears to her eyes once again, but she knew if she broke down now, there was no way she was getting back up again. She was grateful she had dressed for the cold the night before. Adding layers was another thing beyond her ability right now, even though she could have used her coat. She glanced at it longingly but left it to search in her pack.
As her hands closed around the gun that was still buried there, she closed her eyes, feeling slightly safer but no less scared. She knew she had to be hurt bad enough for Ian to leave. He must have assumed he’d killed her. Shivering, she shook her head slightly only to be rewarded with a stabbing pain in her head. She couldn’t think about it now; couldn’t think about the discs of blood she followed as she made her way out of the tent and away from the campsite toward the trail.
The only thing she had grabbed besides the gun was a canteen. She could barely keep herself upright. She knew she wouldn’t be able to carry a pack and herself down the mountain; didn’t even know if she would make it farther than the next step, but she had to try. Thank God the water hadn’t frozen yet.
She didn’t so much walk down the trail as she stumbled in a haphazard arc, the only thought in her head was placing one foot in front of the other. She held the gun frozen in her right hand, afraid that if she put it away, Ian would come crashing through the trees to finish what he’d started. She tried to keep stock of her surroundings, but things kept going in and out of focus. I’m not going to make it, she thought, as the cold settled in and she started to feel warm and sleepy. The only thing she wanted to do was lie down and close her eyes for a few moments; just a short rest, then she would continue.
* * *4* * *
She stopped walking, and moved to lean against a tree just off the path. She could rest, just a minute, and then–
“Put the gun in your mouth, why don’t you?”
Her eyes widened, and she looked up. “Well you’re dead, what do you want me to do?” she said, exasperated.
“I didn’t think you’d just give up!” Mark’s expression was sarcasm and love, and he snapped his fingers and said, “Get up, Lem. C’mon. You gotta keep moving, or you’re dead, and y’know what? It’s not really that sexy. So let’s go.” He reached for her, one hand moving to chuck her under her chin and–
–she bit her tongue. Hard.
She could taste copper, and it gave her a jumpstart. She got up and stood straighter, panting, looking around the frigid forest. She looked down at the gun in her right hand and then up at Mark and blinked at him a few times, as if to resolve the focus of her hallucination. “Okay, then. What next?”
“Monster’s up there. So you go down. Put the canteen in your jacket. Keep it warm, remember?”
She nodded, stowing the water away, then looked back up toward where she’d come from, hesitating. “You’re still up there, too,” she said, remembering his face, his smile, his warm hands on her skin the last time they’d touched.
“No, I’m not. I’m with you,” he said, and he reached out and tapped over her heart, with two fingers. “Right here,” he said, and then he tapped her temple, saying, “And right here.”
She nodded, and the pain she’d hallucinated away came back with a vengeance, and everything swam in front of her. Only Mark stayed clear, his expression urgent. “Lem. Let’s go.”
She didn’t bother nodding this time, but hurried instead. She made noise enough, but didn’t care, so long as she could keep moving. The gun felt heavy; she welcomed the way it made her hand sore gripping it. All pain (that wasn’t the stabbing throb at the back of her head) was good pain — it meant she was alive. She made progress, saw a few landmarks, and her heart that had been thundering from adrenaline gave a little skip from giddiness. She slowed, moving to pull out her canteen and take a few swallows, savoring the feel of the liquid in her throat.
“Water,” she rasped, “It’s what’s for dinner.”
“My Lem,” Mark said, fond. “Half a cock-up from dead, and cracking jokes.”
She snorted in laughter, and put the canteen back against her ribs, but before she took a step, she heard another twig snap. She thumbed the safety off the gun and turned–
–Ian was already running. She couldn’t get the gun up far enough in time, and he crashed into her, bowling her over. She hit the ground, rolled in frozen dirt and needles, and was still dizzy as Ian pinned her, leaning over her, his face in hers, teeth bared, eyes full of mad fury.
Lem screamed again, and this time, when Ian reached up to clamp a hand over her mouth, she pulled the trigger — once-twice, three-four-five times, and she would’ve kept going and emptied the whole damned clip but his jacket got caught in the slide, and the gun jammed.
Ian stared down at her, his mouth working, eyes wide, and his hands fell away from her lips. He slumped off to the side, and she shoved him away, the front of her covered in his blood. She watched it steam for a moment, baffled.
Was that it?
Was it done?
She staggered up, double-vision making it hard to concentrate. She almost sat down again.
“Stay with me, sexy. We’re almost outta this.” Mark’s voice was encouraging.
Lem laughed aloud, and it drove the ice pick at the back of her neck further into her spine. She groaned, and crouched low to fumble at Ian’s throat.
“What’re you doing? Lem, baby, you gotta move.”
“He’s dead, Mark. Super-dead. Probably as dead as you,” she said.
“Right, but not half as helpful. Frostbite and hypothermia are worse boogeymen than he is now, Lem. Let’s get going.”
“Just a sec–“
“Stop arguing with me, I’m dead, and you have to listen!”
“Well I belong to God, so I think you have to listen–Got it!” she crowed, triumphant, and stood up, holding up a ragged shoelace, rubbing her bloodied thumb over the medallion. She clutched it in her left fist, while she kept the gun in her right, and turned back to the trail, to head down it, away from the monster, toward safety. Now and then, Mark reminded her of the landmarks she passed, and how long it would be until she got to where they’d parked the truck, where they’d left another first aid kit, water, and the goddamned cell phones.
When she saw the familiar shape of the truck, she started to cry, and managed to trip over her own feet in her haste. She hit the ground and bit her tongue again, and her head swam.
“Ladies and Gentlemen–” She could hear Mark, teasing. “She belongs to God.”
“Fuck you,” Lem rasped goodnaturedly, rolling her eyes as she shoved herself back up to her feet, her whole body protesting now. She looked back to him, her smile bloodstained, but true.
He was already gone.
She clenched her fist tighter around the medallion and felt tears in her eyes as she whispered, “I love you.” She waited, letting the chill resettle on her bones, but it seemed he was truly gone, now that she was safe. Once she got into the truck, she locked the door and sat behind the wheel for a while, wondering how to drive while holding her gun in one hand, his medallion in the other. Finally, she decided she could set the gun down, and while headed for the ranger’s station, the medallion stayed in her hand, the Joshua Tree against her skin.