R. E. HAGAN - TRIPLE DARK SCALE
R.E. Hagan is a writer, director, and artist. His other works include "A Collection of Bygone Poetry," "Drag-On, Draw Motor," and "Smelted Jaw," as well as the stage play scripts "Twin Figures" and "Teo." He is currently toughing through the pandemic by working on a novel, numerous short stories, and film scripts.
Triple Dark Scale
One by one, they replay in his mind. His past affairs dance around him like shadows under a revolving light. His first ex’s form steps forward. She elongates, tweezing at the top. Her face is a mess of levitating tree branches. She loved plants too much for his liking, so much so that she left this world. He claws at her angrily, but hits an invisible wall made of sounds — horrible, scratching sounds that burrow into his ear. Rolling out of her form, two glass Spheres klink at his feet. Within one is the crystal-blown shape of a Lion; within the other, two Dolphins. Then, the ex’s shadow melts away into the Lion Sphere. It hangs, suspended like the sun.
Two lovers stand, hands clasped, gleeful smiles parsing across their faces. The low sun beams onto them. The girl — an auburn-skinned eighteen-year-old with short black-died-green hair — shoves a playful fist into the boy’s shoulder. The boy — a nineteen-year-old of moderate stature with blonde-died-black hair — recoils in delight. His euphoria shines as bright as the glint off of his four piercings…
That was the evening of our first date: his prime time.
I know that picture of us is still his phone’s background. He finishes staring at it and stows the device. His pale face radiates desperation and madness. I hate to see him like this, but it can’t go on. Not since I’ve learned an even more unsettling truth about the creep than the one I’ve accepted about myself.
“How many times do I have to say it?” My breath hits the dancing candles between us.
“Until it makes sense, Darlene. Did I do something wrong?” He displays his typical charming spite. A younger me would’ve found it endearing, but now I find it disgusting.
“N—no, I just—”
“Then why aren't you feeling it anymore?”
I sink into the red booth. “Did you even listen to what I've been saying?”
He pokes at his cold meat, keeping his eyes on me for thirty seconds, unblinking.
The lamppost outside casts a sharp glare on my windshield. For a moment, I twitch at the boy in the reflection. Upon further examination, however, I’m put at ease.
Still getting used to the new look.
The boy with auburn skin and pure black hair fiddles with surprisingly feminine knick-knacks as he drives. He stares back at me through the windshield, illuminated by the soft morning sun. I smile at him.
I spin the steering wheel in my hands. My car rumbles along, giving my bald passenger and me a nice massage. Our ski gear bounces in the backseat.
“Not all snowboarders are dicks, Jeremy,” I say, keeping my eyes on the road. “Every one I've met is super kind to me.”
Jeremy, my passenger, laughs lightly. “Yeah because you're Dylan Ollison: top-ranked competitive skier-in-training for our age class.”
I wave him off. “Knock it off! You're embarrassing me.”
“It's true, though. People are extra nice to you all the time.”
My face gets hot. I can’t fight the flattery forever. “Just get on with the stupid story!”
Jeremy claps his hands together. “So then I said to him — the dick snowboarding guy — ‘Yeah, I actually am a better skier than you are a snowboarder.’ I asked if he was familiar with you.”
I almost protest at the fact that he mentioned me by name, but he keeps talking.
“He said ‘Yeah, that girl's fast.’ I said ‘He's the fastest and I'm the second-fastest.’ His jaw fell open so wide it hit the snow. He still challenged me to a race though. Guess who ate the ice?”
My best friend and I share a laugh. “You're too much, man.”
Jeremy sighs and holds his gloves up. “Another weekend, another practice.”
I glance at his dark gray ski jacket and then at my own black jacket with pink highlights. “Yep.”
“Sheer-Deer sure works us hard,” Jeremy says reluctantly, hiding a light sniffle for his departed weekend.
“We're in the top private ski team in Colorado. Of course it works us hard.”
“It’s probably a cinch for you,” he mumbles. I’m the only person he’d admit weakness to.
“Dude, I'm not that good,” I say, trying to divert the praise.
“Yes you are!”
My turn to admit something. “I'm still getting used to being on the guy's team, remember?” I level with him.
“Yes, I do…” He looks at me for a few seconds, debating whether or not to bring up an uncomfortable subject. I know exactly what he’ll ask, and he should know I truly don’t mind. “Hey, honest question: How's your new…you know. How do you feel about it?”
“My body? I've never felt better.” I motion to myself.
“Yeah. I'm right at home.”
“For the first time?”
I nod. “First time in my life.”
I turn the wheel. The melodic bumps in the road rub my back. My old knick-knacks bounce along with our ski gear. Jeremy reaches for the pink dangly hearts and fuzzy dice, holding them towards me.
“When are you getting rid of these?”
I smile. “When I find the time, and someone who gives me my money's worth.” I grab the dice and hearts and stuff them into my coat pocket, pulling the pink zipper shut. It’d better stay zipped; this old jacket has only one more run left in it. “Hell, if we're going to really adopt the new me, the true me, maybe I'll try to pawn them off today. Let's hope someone on the hill wants some car decor.”
“I doubt that.”
“Honestly, same. It's the thought that counts.”
We round one last corner. Now, it’s winding roads for five more miles; lots of weaving back and forth, under tunnels and over hills. I pretend I’m doing a slalom with the car the whole way there.
We drive under a gate woven out of logs and branches. Little red flags adorn the entrance, greeting us with a flutter of their silk as we pass them. Oversized ornaments hang from wires above, sparking my yearly holiday nostalgia.
“Well, well, well. Here we are,” I say. We pull into the Razor Tuft Mountain ski resort.
Jeremy smirks at the unspoken name. I can’t fault him for that. We skirt mounds of snow and ice, our tires rolling into a white-coated parking lot.
I scan the lot for our team, gazing around rows and rows of cars until my eyes hit the most obvious place: right at the resort’s on-foot entrance. The team’s signature red and black vests stand out like a wine stain on a white carpet — even though that carpet (the resort) is trampled by hundreds of other snow-sporters like us.
“And there’s the rest of Sheer-Deer.” Jeremy is already watching for the parking spot nearest to the team huddle.
“No shit,” I reply in a lighthearted tone.
A rusty old car catches my attention. Instinctually, sweat begins to build up between my skin and my layers. Flashes of intimacy pin my eyes open. ‘Fun’ times in his rusty truck after ski meets come back to me. My submissive past life wrenches my gut. I try to put it out of my mind, but I can’t ever truly let it go. My attention becomes fixated on locating one single person even though he’s not here anymore. I’m so cautious that I skip a bunch of spots, which no doubt gives Jeremy immense anxiety.
“Just take whatever spot you want,” he says impatiently.
“I was doing that, man. Settle down.” I’ll only feel safe once I know where he is. I keep scanning for him. The tires keep going ‘round and ‘round. My gears spin. My brain overheats. I plan out what will happen if I see him. “We've got a handful of choices—”
“What's wrong? Take one!”
“Are you kidding me? You're actually being competitive about parking spots too?” I prepare to turn into the spot nearest to us. I decide to put it behind me for now, to let my guard down for once. “Fine, here’s your spot—”
“Wait a second!”
Out of the corner of my eye, a chunk of snow falls off the mound right next to our parking spot, landing in front of my tires. Something black is inside there — like someone’s bag. Too late. I run it over. A crunch sounds out.
I hiss. “Crap!”
I open the door and dash to Jeremy’s side of the car. The halfway-crushed bag lies beneath the vehicle’s frame. Something glints in the snow patches scattered about the pavement. A vaguely face-like lump pokes out of the bag’s rough surface. I reach down to investigate, but Jeremy grabs my hand.
“Come on, leave it alone. I don’t want whoever owns this thing to see us here.”
I pause, about to protest, until I consider that it’s not the worst idea. “Fine, sure.”
His second ex was a fluke. Every day she’d wear the same, restrictive clothing, play the same, boring music, and read the same, fluffy books. Her form flutters before him now, flecks of dry skin flipping like pages. He remembers when the book fell over her face, its pages wrinkling at her every breath. Tragic way to go… She cries out in agony. Her shadow retreats into the Dolphin Sphere, forcing it to roll away from him. An internal imbalance drives it. Story of his life… Third time’s a charm. Another girl could balance this feeling out for him:
Darlene leaves the restaurant, slamming the glass door behind her. The moonless sky is black, illuminated by orange street lights. Their glow creates a bubble between the ground and the sky. Isaiah runs after her, cutting through the orange air, his face consumed by its own wanting. He catches up to Darlene, clasps her abruptly.
“Don't do this to me. I can't lose you on top of everything else I've lost.” His two exs flash before him again — the constant regret overtaking his tongue and sewing it to the floor of his mouth.
She pushes his arm away, a nervous smile appearing. “Don't be so melodramatic. We're cool. I'm just…not happy with what I see in the mirror,” she over-simplifies.
This revelation comes to him again. “Darlene—”
“No, hear me out. If you can't accept me when this is through, that's ok. I get it. But don't hold it against me for too long.”
Isaiah pulls out his glass Spheres and fiddles with them. How, he wonders, am I to keep my psyche intact? A large part of him doesn’t care. He wants the pleasures waiting for him, lined up like kids at an ice cream stand. Nothing less.
Darlene puts her hand on his. “Don't go there. Not with me.”
Isaiah forces a nod. She lightly punches him in the shoulder.
“I'm still here for you if you need help. See you around.”
Isaiah looks at his phone background again — at the smiling couple that is no longer real. He feels a tingling sensation inside his abdomen. He leers at the thought of getting her — or him as he wants to be called — back against all odds. His excitement surges when he breaks rules, ignores polite requests like the badass he is. That’s why he liked Darlene initially: She ate that kind of boy up.
He tucks away his phone, inspired by the tingling.
A certain ‘weight’ comes over him, bouncing around inside his head like a rogue electrical signal. He clenches the Spheres. He yanks them out from his vest pocket again and swaps them between his hands. Blown into each of them is a 3-D symbol: A Lion with an eerily terrified expression inside one; a pair of Dolphins intertwining into a heart shape inside the other. Isaiah holds the orbs at different heights from the ground. Orange light refracts through them. One feels heavier than the other, corresponding to the rogue signal in his mind. He physically shifts the Spheres in his hands to balance himself, but he wavers like a spinning top.
Jeremy and I stroll up to the resort’s central plaza, rubbing shoulders with all sorts of people. All these skiers and snowboarders move about with pride. Masks and goggles — tints of orange, green, blue, and black — meld themselves to helmets blossoming in equal diversity. That’s one thing about us snow-sporters: We have a knack for showing our style.
A warm wind rushes by. Fake trees flank the pathway to the plaza. Giant red flags perched within their gnarled branches drape over more snow piles. Our boots thump across the cobblestone until they are lost amongst a hundred others.
We join the team huddle. Coach mingles with us, the cool guy he is shining through his ageless enthusiasm. His white hair peeks out from under his hat. His wrinkles fold with his smile. He talks to Cooper — an oddly-built boy with a paunch. Despite his belly, Cooper is in peak physical condition.
Coach scratches a check mark across a sheet of paper and hands Cooper a lift sticker. “Is food the only thing that gets you going, Coop?”
“No sir. But carb overload is a good kickstarter for kicking ass on the slope,” he retorts, folding his sticker over the metal wire attached to his zipper.
Coach shrugs, clearly having had this discussion before. “Fine. Whatever helps.” He pats him on the back, then turns to us.
Cooper ambles over as well. “Yo,” he says with a nod.
I nod back. “Hey, Coop. How goes it?”
“Not bad, not bad…”
Coach puts his hand on my shoulder. “How are you, Dylan?”
I stand tall and push my fist into the air. “Like Cooper, sir: I’m ready to kick this practice’s ass.”
“Good, good.” He pauses and monitors the rest of the team. He sighs. “Well, I’ve got to count heads. If I don’t see you later, good luck.”
I feel another warm wind hit me — an unpleasant and unnatural thing. It reminds me of Isaiah — of our final night together. He steers clear of everyone on the team now. He used to be a star skier before I left him; used to be. A shame, really: He has all the tools, but he doesn’t have his head on straight. A crowd of kids moves through us. Flags blow in the wind.
“Coach giving you a hard time about the diet again?” Jeremy asks Cooper out of Coach’s earshot.
“Yet again. Dude, I'm severely underweight.”
“…Maybe. By your standard.”
“Ok, yeah, maybe I’m overweight by your perfectionist standard.” Cooper gets frustrated at Jeremy’s ultra-competitive teasing. “If we weren't friends I swear to God I'd beat your ass.”
“How about both of you shut up with the ‘standard’ nonsense? We're all on Sheer-Deer. That alone means something.” This fact gives them pause.
Cooper smacks his belly. “Yeah, Jeremy. This thing gives me good momentum anyway since I naturally hug the slope closer.”
“I guess,” Jeremy finally concedes. “Your times ain't bad.”
Cooper nods confidently.
Two boys approach him from behind, placing fingers to their lips. Both Jeremy and I keep our mouths shut. The pair pokes Cooper in the sides so hard that he yelps.
“Assholes!” Cooper flails around to face them.
The two boys are Will and Fin. The former has a long face and a blue coat; the latter has a round face and a red coat. The trio of goofballs starts teasing each other about physical features and other petty things. Though I’m always a bit distant from the day-to-day banter, I enjoy their company. I’ll always count on Fin to tell me stories about his cute dog. The boy’s team is a great fit for me so far, largely because these assholes, foodies, and competitors have been so welcoming.
“Ok, bring it in!” Coach calls out through cupped hands. We listen to him and obey. I can’t locate Isaiah, which scares me. But then, I tell myself the truth: He isn’t here. “As usual, fifteen minutes to suit up and settle in. Don’t be late. We’ll go through our drills at the top of the mountain.” Coach looks to me. “Dylan, break us down.”
I get in the middle of the crowd and raise my fist. “Sheer-Deer on three! One, two, three—”
The team finishes the chant for me. I feel the euphoria surge up. My bright red vest fits me perfectly as I lock the velcro down.
In that moment, I couldn’t be happier.
We start towards the lodge, bags in hand. As more people brush around us, my blood rushes. I feel my coat pocket. It’s unzipped. My hand plunges in and pulls nothing except crumpled stickers out. I lost my knick-knacks. I panic, scanning the ground around me. Nothing is on the cobblestones except salt and snow. Without saying a word, I leave the group. I double-back the way I came, trying my best to replicate my path against the crowd’s shoves. I find myself next to the one of the giant red flags on the plaza’s edge. I get down on my knees. Still nothing. I dig in the snow, my hands numb from the cold. Suddenly I feel something soft. I pull it out and gasp. It’s a red hunk of…something living. I throw it back and rub my hands through the snow to get the blood off. A fresh trail leads behind the statue, so I follow it. Back there, a single, lone paw sits atop a thin layer of leaves.
Someone walks by slowly. For some reason, I’m inclined to keep quiet. A pause. Labored breathing echoes: in, out, in, out; a small clinking noise tapping away.
Nothing but endless chatter remains.
I emerge from behind the red flag. Both of my knick-knacks rest on the cobblestone walkway. I stuff them into my pocket and jam the zipper closed, breaking it.
Yanking the lodge door open, I run downstairs to the locker room. The second I enter, the team greets me with open arms. Surprisingly — or perhaps not so surprisingly — the boys are already gleaming with sweat. Gus — quite possibly the best-built of us all — takes his coat off, revealing his wife-beater and big muscles. He has too high a metabolism for his own good… A part of me wishes I’d dated him once upon a time.
“There he is!” Gus shouts joyously.
I retreat into myself. “Here I am.”
Jeremy — who is flanked by Will and Fin on his left and Coop on his right — looks up from his ski boots. He clamps the locks down. “Where’d you go off to, man?”
“Nothing. Nowhere,” I stammer. I awkwardly bury the truth down.
Will, bless him, speaks up. “Oh, it’s the one who's going to save us an hour of dry training with his sick times. Thank God he came back.”
I feign confusion. “Who? Not me.”
Fin clicks his tongue. “B.S. We're going to atrophy because of how often you keep the Coach happy.”
Gus holds out his hands. “Here's to Dylan: our best and newest skier! Pump it up.” He gestures to Coop, who pulls out his wireless speaker and blasts music.
The team shouts ‘hey' in unison. Coach peaks out of the bathroom, bopping his head.
The boy smiles at the sharp casings and the black metal. He zips his old bag closed, using a pencil to etch his plans onto his skin. He enjoys searing the symbols onto himself. It’s the only satisfaction he has left to bring his aching, purposeless body before this final escapade. A day-owl coyote howls into the yellow sky.
He stands, mouth agape at the loss that has overtaken him. The world is like a bountiful treasure trapped in an abyss. Everything is ripe for the taking, and yet nothing lets him take hold. He pushes, but nothing gives. He has to force things to give — pluck the apple from the bleeding tree as it begs him to save the fruit for some other creature. Father taught him how to force things, and Mother hated it. House after beat-up house over his head showed him the truth: Fixating on the things you hold most dear and using your imagination to bring them to new heights is the way you survive. This has kept him alive through all the mold and roaches.
He marvels at the red and gray gashes on his arms. He is higher than kings in this moment.
Cooper, Jeremy, Gus, Fin, and I exit the lodge. The smoke from the indoor fire wafts into my nose. I take it in, the cold air nipping at my nasal cavity. The late morning sun bounces off the snow, making everything below my main sight line a literal eye sore. I slap my goggles over my eyes. I hobble behind the boys, my shorter legs giving me a hard time. My skis clack in my hands. “Slow down, guys. We’ve got plenty of time left before practice officially starts.”
Jeremy stops to let me catch up. “How much time?”
I read my sleek sports-designed wristwatch. “Nine minutes.”
“Then I'm sure you can guess my next move.” Cooper taps Fin, who elbows Will.
Cooper gives Jeremy a thumbs-up. “Be right back, dude.”
Will and Fin change course, joining Cooper. “We’re coming too,” Fin says.
They turn back to the lodge. That leaves only Gus, Jeremy, and me.
“Let’s wait up for them,” I say. “I feel bad about rushing ahead of the foodies. I want to see what that other lodge across the way has anyway.” I point to the place. It is styled like an old German house, which contrasts with the main lodge’s log cabin aesthetic. Like the rest of the resort, mistletoe and ornaments are strung along its roof.
Gus nods. “That’s cool.”
Jeremy is silent.
“No protest, mister competitive?”
Jeremy sighs. He holds his feet down to prevent spontaneous flight. “Not as long as Dylan keeps watch on the time.”
Will and Fin follow Cooper back to the lodge. They’re all as interested in food as anything else. Each one fantasizes about a nice, fatty appetizer or a gooey snack. Fin in particular thinks about a corn dog. His mouth waters.
A coyote calls out. Suddenly, his trance crashes down. The sound is enough to give him pause. It shouts for affection and help.
“You hear that?” He halts in his tracks.
Will tilts his head. “Hear what?”
“The dog! It’s hurt.”
“That’s got to be a coyote, Fin.”
“They’re the same to me.”
Cooper motions for Will and Fin to keep up. “What’s wrong back there?”
“Fin’s being an animal lover again.”
“Do neither of you hear the poor thing?”
Will folds his arms. “Nature’s cruel. Be thankful it’s not your dog.”
Cooper backtracks a few steps. “I get you, Fin. But we don’t have all the time in the world.”
Fin clenches his fist. “Then go on without me.”
Will throws up his hands. Cooper looks at Fin and shrugs; he thinks Will is being heartless too. Fin pivots away, his curly hair getting in his eyes. The howling is desperate, though none of them can hear the desperation like he can.
He tracks the sounds like a bloodhound, veers towards the resort’s edge and goes around the back of a medical shed and into the woods. The howling turns to yelping. He picks up the pace, reminded of his own dog’s cries. A wet crunching sound echoes off the trees. The coyote ceases its call. Fin runs after the wet chumble. The snow churns at his feet.
The coyote is splayed across a tree, a stake driven into each leg at angles placing metal between bones. Its underside has been lashed raw with tree branches which rest in a pile at the stump. Fin gags, spinning around to leave. He can’t tell the exact way he came, but he rushes away as fast as he can in his restrictive boots. He breathes heavily. His footsteps seem to double. He thinks he is hearing things until a man in a dark coat steps around a tree, catching him in the jaw. Fin touches his mouth. It snaps at his finger’s tap. He shouts, but his shout is garbled. The man with no identity wears a featureless mask. He pins Fin into the snow and pulls out a sharp tree branch. Fin feels a prick at his neck, then air slipping away.
I evaluate the new lodge’s German aesthetic. Jeremy and Gus sit across from me. Gus patiently twiddles his thumbs while Jeremy bounces his leg. I place my hand on his knee, meeting his nervous gaze.
“You about done?” he asks.
The clock ticks above us.
“Almost. We’ve got a few minutes.” I continue scanning the place, watching the staff walk about in their lederhosen and leather boots. Part of the lodge’s allure lies with the consistent role these people must play. It reminds me of my past life…
Gus hits the table in front of Jeremy. “You’re acting like a kid. Shut up.”
Jeremy rolls his eyes.
I open my mouth to deliver my verdict. “I’d give this place a seven out of ten.”
“And why is that?” Gus asks out of genuine curiosity. “Because you dated a German and you’re a culture expert?”
I grit my teeth at the reference to Isaiah, but I respect that Gus isn’t being malicious. “I suppose you could say that.” I acknowledge Jeremy. “It’s about time… Where’s Coop and the other foodies?”
Jeremy shrugs. “That's what I'm wondering. He'd better be almost done stuffing his face or he won't make it.”
I respond with a simple “Hmm.”
Cooper scarfs down some mozzarella sticks dipped in marinara sauce. Will is on the lookout, his pizza slice getting cold. He places his palm against the polished wood.
“Fin still isn’t back.”
Cooper stops eating for a second. “It has been a while, huh… We should probably look for him. I’d hate for Coach to forget. You know how he is once practice starts.”
“I’ll do it.” Will stands up. “I was a bit of a dick to him.”
Cooper nods. “That’s nice of you.”
Will pushes the styrofoam plate across the table. “And take my pizza.”
He exits the lodge, leaving the log benches and greasy food behind. Cooper keeps on eating. Come on Fin, Will thinks. Where’d you go? He follows the path he and the foodies took away from Dylan, Gus, and Jeremy. He re-traces their parallel steps to the point where Fin stopped in his tracks; a cluster of prints makes a small circle there. Will parses Fin’s tangent from the rest. He paces down the lone line of indentations, which leads him to the Razor Tuft resort’s edge. The wind kicks up snow. Passing right by a chair lift, he overhears its operators talking.
“Power’s being weird today,” says one of the pair.
“Yeah, I keep finding screwed-up cables. Some rat is chewing on them.”
Will does a double-take. A figure sits perched on a tree stump, staring at the operators like a bird. It wears a white mask with vaguely feminine features. Red mascara streams from its eyes; a motionless wing ordains its left eye-hole.
Will advances into the woods. He looks back once more. The figure is gone. The sun blinks through gnarled tree branches. He hears a soft hiss.
Something scurries. He calls out Fin’s name.
The hissing gets louder, morphing into popping punctuated by hissing. It is mechanical. Will proceeds under a few more ancient trees. The sound stops. When it starts again, Will sees a spurt of red liquid sprinkle up from behind a fallen log. He gets closer. The spurts keep flying. As he approaches, damp, curly hair appears at the base of the red plumes. Will’s mouth hangs open. The Masked Man fires another silent bullet into an unknown body. A branch cracks at Will’s feet. He flinches. The Masked Man stands over the corpse. He points his gun at Will. Will mumbles in fear, his trembling hands held high. The Masked Man cocks his neck.
“S—sorry,” Will stammers. “I’ll leave you alone.”
The Masked Man pulls the trigger, catching Will in the thigh. Will shouts in pain. He limps away as fast as he can. The Masked Man pursues him at a steady pace.
Will tries to call out for help, but the Man shoots him in the calf. Will tumbles to the ground, reeling from the bullet lodging itself in his flesh. The Man fires another shot into his other calf. He gets on top of Will, turning him on his back and sitting in his lap. He places the gun to his forehead and puts a casing through it.
The Masked Man slices long gashes into Will’s body, grunting between each thrust.
Strips of gooey cheese plop to the styrofoam plate. Cooper finishes up his mozzarella sticks and Will’s pizza. He takes a moment to digest the food, wondering how much longer his friends will take to get back. His stomach churns at the idea that they’d both go missing. He eyes the clock. It’s two minutes to practice time. Coach will be far too involved in the drills to worry about Fin and Will. Crap, he thinks. For all I know, they’re dicking around, but… Cooper stands up, crumples the wrappers, and tosses them in the trash where countless food stains cover the wooden wall.
Jeremy catches sight of my rumination. There is only so much I can do to put the past behind me, and Jeremy is familiar with how quiet I get when my ex becomes the topic of conversation. “Is Isaiah still bothering you?”
I rub my eyes, half-expecting eyeliner to appear on my fingertips. “No offense, but stop asking me. I can't worry about Isaiah anymore.”
Jeremy, like a kind, accepting friend, leans back. “None taken.”
There is a tap at the window. Cooper waves at us… Something about his raised eyebrows concerns me.
“A-ha, there he is!” Jeremy leaps to his feet.
I lift my watch. A little under two minutes remain until call time. “Perfect timing. Coach is expecting us.”
We go to meet Cooper outside. The air nips at us again.
“Where are Will and Fin?” Gus beats me to the question.
Cooper shakes his head. “I don’t know. Fin heard a coyote and went to look for it. Will went to look for Fin since he didn’t come back… I’m a little worried about them.”
Jeremy throws his skis onto the snow. “C’mon, they’re jokers just like you. Would you not put ducking out of practice past them?”
“They love the sport, though,” I say.
Cooper agrees with me silently.
“I’m not about to be late because of them, sorry.” Jeremy peers at Gus, who also places his skis down.
“I’ve known them for a while. So has Cooper,” says Gus. Cooper holds his tongue. “They’ll turn up, Dylan. I promise.”
Still wary of the situation, I put my own skis on the snow, which flies onto my snowpants in small, wet specks.
We pop our boots into our skis, locking them tight. I stab my poles through the snow and shove my weight forward. Gus and Cooper tail me down a slight slope. We skid across patches of ice and waddle up a few mounds. Bright red vests identical to mine clump at the end of the lift’s line. I push my way over to them. For mobility reasons, Coach does not have his skis on; he carries them on his shoulder.
“Let’s go. We’ve waited long enough. No excuses!” Coach marches ahead like a drill sergeant. The kind old man buries himself inside a ruthless, angry personality.
The team organizes itself into red lines interspersed amongst groups of casual snow-sporters. I place myself in the ranks. My friends do the same. A tree branch cracks in the woods. It echoes in contrast to the chair lift’s soft hum. I turn my head to the sound. A shape is there, standing between two evergreens… He is a figure in a dark coat wearing an ominous, androgynous mask. It is a curious thing: a white piece of rubber with no nose or mouth. Two red dots rest below its eye slits and a wing folds out of its left eye. It stands still, studying me. I leave the shape behind as it looks on.
The lift creaks up the ski hill. Jeremy, Cooper, and I sit together and chat about the same stuff we usually do. The lift sways softly in the wind. We keep ourselves glued to the seat, which hovers over a deadly-looking gauntlet of natural hazards. It takes me a moment to process that I’m looking at the toughest run in the resort.
“Y'all should be thankful I don't make you go down that thing,” Coach shouts from ahead. “Triple-blacks are a bit much for practice.”
Cooper leans over the edge. “God, look at the rocks.”
Subconsciously, I find myself analyzing the route. “The path is pretty clear though.” I point to several plain snow patches. “There, there, and there… Run done!”
“Easy for you to say.” Jeremy is clearly upset at me for showcasing my skills.
“Is Dylan bragging again?” Gus calls up from behind us.
“Maybe,” I admit.
“He is!” Jeremy confirms.
Coach looks back at us. “Ok, settle down with the chit-chat. Don't get too comfy up here.”
Cooper fidgets. “How can we? My ass is freezing on—”
The chairlift comes to a sudden halt. The cables above us teeter.
Jeremy slaps the seat next to me. “Come on! I got all hyped and now look!”
Coach examines the cold wheels and the metal wires resting upon them. “Oh, calm down. We'll be back up and running in like thirty seconds.”
“Yep. Right.” I watch the woods, holding my breath. Nothing is there. A long silence lingers as the wind whistles between my helmet’s holes.
Jeremy moans. “So boring!”
I think of a way to pass the time. “You never told me about your Friday, Coop.”
“Well, I had a big test yesterday in chemistry. I think I did well. I hope I did.”
Jeremy’s legs are bouncing the whole chair. “Oh now you're all conversational?”
Cooper clicks his tongue. “There's nothing else to do.”
“What happened to ‘don't get too comfy,’ eh Coach?” Jeremy replies.
“Chill out.” I shake my head.
Cooper chuckles. “Nice pun.”
“Wow.” Jeremy rolls his eyes.
I zone out as Jeremy starts talking. Something is gnawing at me. I grit my teeth; the rattling and creaking of the lift penetrates the enamel. I feel cold. A breeze hits me, and yet the sun keeps laughing at me, vanishing behind a tall tree. Rustling and thumping vibrate in my ears. Thumping and rustling and rattling and gasping — they whisper in the depths of the shadows. Then, the sound is isolated, alone. “Be quiet… You hear that?” I hold up my hand.
“Hear what?” Cooper focuses on my open palm.
The sound is gone, replaced by a hollow hum.
“Nothing… I guess.” I let out a laugh.
Cooper copies my chortle. “I can't believe we're still up here.”
“Me neither.” I smile.
Suddenly a soft, concentrated gust whisks by. Coach flies back, his body convulsing as crimson liquid sprays up into the cold air. His head is gone. A popping pulses out, then a decompression. The cable buckles. Some people nearly fall off. Screams fill my ears. A gunshot sounds out. Something clips Gus in the arm. He spins around and plummets out of his chair. I don’t see him, but I hear a crack and a thud. More shots, more people dropping, more cracks and thuds sounding off like a rhythm. Heat rubs my face. I almost get shot three times. I snap my skis off and kick them onto the triple black diamond.
Jeremy is wailing in terror. “Jesus Christ! Oh God, oh God.”
Another shot wooshes by. Another twangs off the steel right next to my fingers.
“Dammit!” I shout through locked teeth.
The lift drops a foot lower. The cable above us groans. I look down at my skis and brace myself.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jeremy cries.
“Follow me!” I jump out of the lift. Jeremy shouts after me. I land on the ground fifteen feet below. My knee pops as I hit the snow and rock. My friends kling to the broken lift. “Get off there!”
Cooper follows, but he doesn't take off his skis. One gets caught in the snow at a diagonal angle, jolting his leg forward. Something white pokes out of his skin. He cries out, lifts his limp leg onto his intact ski and sits down, riding it like a sled. Jeremy drops next. I have no time to check up on either of my friends. Bullets are in the air. The snow flies up around us, heat glazing past us. The sun glints off the shooter’s scope. I catch a glimpse of him. It is the Masked Man — the shape watching me from before. The Man stops to reload. He throws the rifle away, reaches for his pocket — has to be for a handgun.
“Move!” I yell.
I slam my boots into my skis and dash down the hill at breakneck speeds. I weave around stones and trees. I scrape over trunks and across ice. My balance shifts faster than I can keep track of. I check ahead of me for Cooper. Since he is sitting down, he is making it through fine; slow, but fine. I check behind me for Jeremy. He is on his skis, following my path’s every curve. I turn my head and almost hit a jump. I holler. A few bullets wing me. The shooter is on the move. I locate him, but he vanishes behind a rock. He’s fast, probably on skis as well. I catch up to Cooper, whose slow sliding is losing momentum.
I notice a lodge at the hill’s halfway point. “Coop! The lodge there! Go!”
I hope Cooper can hear me. Thankfully, he does. He forces himself in that direction, leaning back to maximize his speed. I follow closely.
Cooper comes to a stop. He falls on his side, the half-broken ski sticking up. I leap out of my own and run over to my friend. “Coop? Coop!”
He rolls over and screams in pain. His horribly contorted leg is jammed into his ski.
“You're gonna be ok. You're gonna be ok.”
Jeremy skids right up to us. “W—well how is he?”
“Great, just great,” Cooper forces out. He grunts and grits his teeth on his helmet strap. He tries to laugh, but tears roll down his cheeks. His eyes flutter.
I slap his cheek. “Come on, stay with me, Coop!”
Jeremy pops out of his skis. “We've got to get inside. He could be anywhere…”
I crane my neck rapidly. There is no sign of the Masked Man “R—right.” I try to pick up Cooper. When his legs give me trouble, I force my weight onto his skis and get them off.
Jeremy is still in shock. “Who the fuck was that?” he says with a quivering voice. “Who’d do this?”
“Give me a hand here!”
Jeremy scrambles, gets under Cooper’s arm and helps us inside the lodge. my eyes dart around for the attacker, but he is nowhere to be seen amidst the broad daylight and blinding white snow. The only thing that stands out is a large pool of blood from Cooper’s leg.
We burst into the lodge carrying Cooper. His feet drag along a wet, worn carpet. Candles dance and a fireplace crackles. Everyone inside is shocked and confused by the sight of his leg, though us bringing an injured man in here is likely what’s really throwing them off. The clock on the wall ticks as a hush comes over them. They all move closer, away from the rocks fused to the walls; morbid curiosity, I guess.
“Give him some room, come on!” I say, waving them off.
A young snowboarder steps forward. He is a lanky guy in his late 20s. “What happened to him?”
“G—gun—” Cooper sputters through a spit-filled mouth.
“Don't speak!” I hold his head and lay him across a table. He kicks the salt and pepper shakers away.
A worker approaches. She’s a facility girl a few years older than us decked out in lederhosen; some poor college student trying to get by. “What’s going on? Did he say ‘gun’?”
The snowboarder pushes even closer. “What? Was there an attack?”
I get in his way. “Yes, but you all need to stay calm.”
The facility girl grimaces at Cooper’s leg. A slight weight shift reveals the fractured bone. She loses all her color. “Where is the guy now?”
“What's he want?” the snowboarder blurts out.
Jeremy plants his feet beside mine. “What did Dylan just say about staying calm?”
“Someone's gonna kill us man.” The snowboarder is losing his cool.
The facility girl grabs his shoulders. “Hold on, we don't even know if these two jokers are telling the truth.”
“We are. We've got to call the cops and the EMTs.” I detect her hesitation. “At least call the EMTs.”
She nods slowly, her fear of gore loosening. “On it.”
The girl turns away but pauses just a moment later. A sound similar to a massive fan whirs steadily up to a blare. We all stand still. I look to the lodge’s huge window. The noise emanates from out there. It buzzes at a consistent ‘g’ note, vibrating the glass like an instrument. The decorative candles around the stone fireplace quiver. Flecks of snow begin to clump onto the window. “Is that a snowmaker?”
The girl folds her arms, as if cold. “Why’s there a snowmaker here?”
The snowboarder chews a toothpick. “It’s him.”
“We don’t know that yet.” She still won’t move. Cooper writhes on the table. The seconds feel like minutes.
“Well, go call the EMTs!” I bark at her.
She finally grasps the urgency. Her lederhosen skirt flips around a corner, presumably trailing its owner to a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The clock on the wall stops ticking. Ceiling lights turn off.
“Why is the power out?” someone asks timidly.
“No clue,” I reply.
The natural light outside gets dimmer by the second. Snow cakes on, layering itself thicker and thicker. I keep my cool despite the horrifying atmosphere. But then, I hear a thump at the window. Something left a red splotch behind. A second thump. This time I can see it. A shiny crimson clump clings to the glass. A third thump. Was that a human scalp?
A wave of red streaks coat the snow like a tomato squashed against a dress. The fans scream under the pressure of something thicker and harder than the cold water they are meant to spew. I am too scared to question what is happening, and so are most of us. Several women hope and pray that it’s not what they think it is. It becomes dark inside here. The candles and fire cast shadows everywhere. I can’t see the facility girl.
I swallow down my terror. “How's that call going?”
“The Wi-Fi is out.” The facility girl peeks around the corner. She sees the red window. I try to calm her down. Too late. She panics, her eyes getting droopy.
I run up to her and shake her shoulders violently. “Stay with me! How are we getting out of this?”
She rubs her back on the stone wall, her skin so pale that she becomes one with the brighter parts of the rough mosaic. “Th—is that? On the window?”
“Answer the question!”
“F—fine! We have an emergency landline.” She looks at the window again.
I force her to stare straight into my eyes for ten seconds. “You gonna make that call? Or are you gonna show me where the phone is?”
“I can handle it.” She walks as fast as her sickly body can, her boot-heels clocking up the stairs. My guess is she’s going to the executive office to dial the number.
The window is black now. Only decorative candles light the place with an ethereal orange hue. Every snow-sporter is quiet, mumbling prayers as the snowmakers’ unnatural squeals wrinkle the air. A rotten smell accompanies their song, like animals celebrating a successful hunt. We are inside a meat locker.
The snowboarder jumps at every sudden sound emerging from the machines’ din.
Jeremy scoffs. Sweat collects at his nose’s tip. “You snowboarders are something else.” He spits on the carpet.
I smack him in the back of the head. “Seriously Jeremy?”
“Sorry,” he whimpers.
One moment seeing his face — a face as pale as a partly-sunburned, hairless face can be — tells me his thoughts: Jeremy is more afraid than he has ever been in his life. He’s coping the only way he knows how.
“God, so many of them are dead. Fin, Gus, Will, Coach. They were my friends, man. Who could do that?” Jeremy tears up. He trembles with unspent rage and fear.
I place a hand on his shoulder. “We're getting out of this alive. Cooper is too.”
Cooper laughs, exhausted. “God, this is the worst.” His eyes are red and wet. His bad leg dangles over the table’s edge.
I rush over to him and, using my nonexistent experience, I tend to his wounds. I start by grabbing a first-aid kit on the wall. I disinfect the gash, placing a towel over the white bone. He writhes, so I pin him down. I tie together a ring of napkins and wrap it around his leg to hold the makeshift splint in place. It is literally only a band-aid, but it is the best I can do.
A thump. Yelps bounce along like dominos falling. Another thump. The people nearest to the door press against it. They desperately force all their weight into their hands. The black steel joints rattle with each impact. I grab a mop from the room’s corner closet, fumbling to get the tool out of the cramped space.
“Crap, brace the door!” Jeremy and I rush over. I prop it closed with the mop. The wet tip swishes against the decorative rocks. I don’t trust its grip enough to let go.
The snowboarder extends his hand. “What if it's police? EMTs?”
“You call them up, girl?” I shout over my shoulder.
The facility girl peeks down the stairwell. “No, I can't get through. Someone cut the landline. I've only got static.”
“Great.” I run through the options in my head. Things are pretty grim.
“Wait, the banging stopped.” Jeremy lets his hands fall to his sides.
I notice the sudden quiet as well. The snowmakers have hushed themselves. All that remains is the wind beating against the lodge. Apart from the darkness, it’s like things are back to normal. “Yeah…” I loosen my grip on the door handle. The broom clatters to the floor. Then, rustling and stretching scurry through the air like rubber snapping at the seams. The door breaks open. Jeremy and I stagger back into the snowboarder’s and facility girl’s arms.
Something the size of a child dangles in the frame.
The snowboarder lets me go. “It’s an animal.”
A dead coyote gapes at us, strung up by a steel wire that wraps around its whole body. The wire’s sharp tips claw the mutt’s face into a smile. The poor creature floats above the door upside down. Hunks of its fur are missing. What little remains is loosely held to red skin flayed from its gaunt body in patches. The sun hides behind it, casting a human-like shadow into the lodge. Its front legs are stretched to the side in an unnatural position. I slam the door closed.
Jeremy staggers backwards. “What the hell.”
Boots crunch outside, interspersed within the wind’s howl. The facility girl comes down the stairwell.
“He's playing with us.” I address the girl next, keeping an ear trained on the boots. “What other entrances are there into this building?”
“There's a few, but since it’s dark and the candles blow out so often, you'd know when the doors open.”
The unlit candles by the door with the coyote behind it affirm that theory. “So, we’re good as long as we keep our eyes on the main doors?”
She nods slowly. “There's one from this place's old days as a barn that I'm worried about though…”
Above us, boots smash onto the shingles. A metallic tapping resounds after each panel shatters. Wooden flecks fall from the ceiling onto my cheeks. My eyes trace their way to a rectangle frame. The hatch swings in. Ice rains down. The Masked Man drops on top of Cooper. Candles blow out. He quickly assesses the scene and grasps the maimed boy. People run. He shoots into the fray, mowing a handful of them down with his pistol. He holds the gun to Cooper’s temple.
“Shit, shit.” I knock over a table to use as cover.
Jeremy is out in the open, staring the attacker down.
“Don't shoot!” I stand up and put my hands over my head. “What do you want?”
The uncanny mask and I glare at each other. Suddenly, Cooper fights back with his good leg. He wrestles with the attacker, blowing him in the knee. The Man recovers. He kicks Cooper in the stomach. Cooper flies into a chair, causing it to fall. The Masked Man gently places a foot on Cooper's bloody paunch. I yelp and get back under cover. One gunshot after another, each one accompanied by my friend’s exhausted wailing. Jeremy dashes beside me.
Three shots sound off.
“He’s shooting every joint.”
I hush him. “We have to get out of here.”
Four shots. Cooper gasps like an animal.
I peek through a hole in the wood. The Masked Man presses the gun against Cooper’s neck. I turn my head.
On the fifth shot, Cooper is quiet.
A zipper comes loose. The Man kneels… Squishing, sloshing, and sighing… Why is it so wet? Jeremy and I fix our gazes on the darkness. A few candles still glimmer. I motion to them, pointing out the path they illuminate. Bodies twist back as we wait for a window. Bullets hit screaming people. I raise my fingers, silently counting down from three.
We leap out of cover, running by the sad, empty bodies of the snowboarder and the facility girl. I pick out her face. Its sightless eyes burn into me. Shots splinter wood.
We bolt out of the lodge. The white ground blinds my tired eyes. Our feet embed themselves into the snow, my muscles aching and my head weighing a hundred pounds. The skis rest a few feet away. I look over my shoulder. The lodge window has melted just enough to be transparent again. The Masked Man delivers a final shot into Cooper’s head. He returns to his feet, his attention rocketing over to us like a predator. He shoots through the window. The glass wobbles, small particles shrieking out. Jeremy swears. Bullets hit the snow again.
We move as fast as we can. The Man smashes Cooper's body into the window. After a few crunches against cold, brittle glass, it shatters and the Masked Man leaps out. Jeremy and I get to our skis and plunge down the second half of the triple black diamond.
We weave around rocks and trees. Gunshots sound off one after the other. At this point, I’ve grown numb to them. The Man’s aim is chaotic, sowing dents ahead of us and behind us. A stray shot nicks my ski. I tumble into the snow. My ski pole soars downhill. The Masked Man also takes a fall. He must’ve put all his focus into that shot, sacrificing his balance. Jeremy slows down. His skis slash a rock. He wipes out. I try to get up, managing to release one ski, but the Man punts his skis off and drop-kicks me. I protect my stomach. He lifts me by my vest, then my collar. I smack his arm with my remaining ski. I cascade away from him. He tilts his head. His foot’s full weight slams onto my leg. I groan in pain. The Masked Man strikes me in the face. I twist onto my back only to be met by his gun. He cocks the pistol, the hollow barrel gleaming in the sun. The chamber mocks me with its black emptiness. He pulls the trigger. No death follows. His gun clicks; it’s jammed. I use my ski leg to sweep the Man to the ground. The ski pops off, so I take it in my hands. I pummel the mask repeatedly, exposing small parts of his face. He rolls away and uses his loose, old-fashioned ski boots to vault to his feet. He paces around me. I do the same. He adjusts the mask… Then he speaks.
“Ah, the Scale is almost even.” The Masked Man’s gleeful, all-too familiar voice confirms my worst fears. “Enough of these games.”
“What?” I freeze.
He uses the opportunity to lunge at me. I dash to the side. He stands tall. “Isn't this funny — heads turning upside-down and sweet red passion flowing out uninhibited?” He starts laughing, walking his fingers through the air and flipping them into a peace sign. “It reminds me of how you used to be head-over-heels for me.”
Isaiah removes the mask. He has an innocent smile. “Nothing but, Darlene.”
He wraps an arm around me, pushes my helmet off. His right hand clutches my hair. His left hand presses into my lower back.
“Something’s funny to you?” I bury my shaky voice as far beneath a layer of tact as I can. He pokes his nose into my hair, inhaling deeply.
He sighs. His pupils vanish behind his upper eyelids. “You smell the same.”
“You sick creep! You think any of this is funny?”
He shrugs. “Humor contains the most truth, and truth contains the most humor. How can you not see it?” He nibbles at his chapped lips. His once-healthy face is now a mess of sores and deformities, each one telling a tortured story. He forces me down against the cold ice and sharp pebbles. “I love the pink stripes on your coat. I never told you how appealing I find them.” He sits atop my lap, grabs my shoulders, and whispers in my ear. “Please, honey. Let me settle down with you here.”
“Why?” I am trembling, but there’s not much I can do to hide it.
Isaiah chuckles coldly. “It's only fair that you do something to calm me down. After all, you opened me up to this sickness.” He pulls the Spheres that he holds so dear out of his pocket. He lifts the Lion above the Dolphin. “I have an idea! A fun romp together, that'll balance the Scales.”
“Isaiah, remember what I told you after we broke up?” In his moment of weakness, I softly push him out of my lap. “This wasn’t a personal thing. We just didn’t belong together. I didn’t even belong in my body.”
Isaiah slinks onto the snow, crossing his legs. “That shouldn’t matter.” He tilts his head again, raising both Spheres to his eye sockets. “You’re a joy no matter what.”
“You should have gotten help… Professional help, not another girl.”
“They wouldn’t understand. I turned them down.” He sways back and forth to a silent rhythm. His arms extend like a teeter-totter. The Spheres rest gently between his long dirty-black nails. He wavers to his feet, unbalanced. Jeremy limps out from behind the rocks he wiped out on. Confused, he watches. “It seems the Scale's been leading me elsewhere, Darlene. I had a fun little escapade today without you, but the writing on the wall tells me you’ll come back and we can have some fun together.”
“No way in hell.”
He laughs in an exasperated way. “You must still be the one person who's there for me. No one else has fit the bill yet.” He reaches for my zipper, touching the pocket with my knick-knacks. “The one to bring me joy…” He snaps the zipper off, holding my things up. The fuzzy dice dangle in my face. My main coat zipper unzips. The cold air nips at my thin, long-sleeve undershirt. “How familiar are you, I wonder? Is the same Darlene I knew so well buried down here?”
I grab Isaiah's hands. His Spheres fall into the snow along with my knick-knacks. They roll down the slope. “Enough!” My voice cracks. I swipe my stuff from the snow and zip up my coat. Jeremy marches forward.
Isaiah is speechless, serene. He softly punches my shoulder, letting his hand fall like a delicate flower petal.
“If you touch him one more time…” Jeremy gets a foot away from Isaiah before Isaiah fires a round at him. He stumbles down onto the hill, a small red pool forming beside him.
Isaiah grows a warm smile. “I love you, Darlene.” His coat blows to the side. He stares at me, his piercings worn down from picking at them. Beneath them, sores creep out onto his pale skin. His once jet-black hair is ragged from neglect, its natural blonde hue showing close to his scalp. His dead eyes don’t leave mine. They widen, so giddy that they are twitching. He trembles. “Here it comes, bitch!”
He grabs his groin area and violently heaves. His whole body shakes as he walks towards me. He runs up and clutches me, hugging me close. I scream.
“Oh, it feels good to hug you again, Darlene. I smell your perfume.”
“Get off!” I throw my weight into Isaiah, loosening his grip.
Isaiah lets out a ‘tisk-tisk-tisk’. “Honey, if you aren't happy now, you should have kept me together earlier. Love is far better under stable conditions. The rogue Scale in my head needs satisfaction one way or another though.”
I spit at him in hateful fear. “Piss. Off.”
He becomes even more elated at the words.
Jeremy runs at Isaiah and tackles him. They struggle, thrashing in the snow like a maimed animal — predator and prey. Jeremy wraps his thin scarf around Isaiah’s neck. Isaiah smacks Jeremy with his jammed gun’s brown handle over and over. Red covers the white sheet of snow that has turned into a bed of nightmares. Jeremy knees Isaiah in the gut, but the slamming keeps coming. His head sustains impacts that accumulate into swelling cysts topped off with black.
Jeremy moans. His eyes roll into the back of his head. Isaiah stands. He flips the gun over, shaking the barrel and fiddling with the firing mechanism. “You really are a stupid kid, aren’t you?”
The weapon snaps into position. He pulls the trigger, executing Jeremy like a worn-out dog. My friend’s body goes limp.
Anger surges through me. I lunge at Isaiah, shouting while grasping for his neck.
“How cute.” He takes my wrists and presses against me. I push back against him, my arms locking to their full length. The snow croaks under our feet. His clammy, wet fingers crack loudly. His full-toothed grin has holes out of which his tongue bulges. His eyes get redder and redder. Blood seeps out of his nose in a clean river to his mouth. He loses his footing and falls backwards.
I tumble onto him. The snow sprays us, alternating from him to me. We hurtle down the remainder of the hill, locked in a deadly embrace. Everything is spinning. One moment I have his head in my hands, the next I have ice. Then I have him again, then blank white specs, then the sun, then rocks. We grunt in a chorus of rage. I time out our near-random oscillation, waiting to hit him. His face changes position like it is under a strobe light. The sun leaves purple splotches on my eyes, punctuated by the warm spatter from Isaiah’s nose. I throw a punch, stabbing my hand against ice. More warm fluids bounce between us. We keep flipping. I keep watching his face change position. Finally it appears in the same place twice. I hit him hard. Ice bubbles up behind him. His piercings catch on my fingers. They rip his skin open. His hair tangles with mine. He holds his weapon out. The gun slowly reaches for me. Out of the corner of my eye, my ski pole makes itself known. It sits lodged between two rocks. I take up the loose pole just as the gun levels out. I wack him with it. The gun trails off. A bullet fires into my side. The flash precedes the pain. Everything is bright. The only thing between his pistol and me is the pole. My cry is like a warrior’s. My blood covers Isaiah; his blood covers me. The world is still spinning. We are clothes in a washing drum. I need to stay awake. I don’t want to go… I clutch the ski pole. On the next rotation, I jam it into Isaiah's ribs. An awful wet pop sounds out as we roll over one last time.
Our spiral finally halts at the hill’s base. We flop onto opposite sides of each other. Clouds dance in the blue sky. The black pole is lodged between his ribs, pointing up at a ten-degree angle. Searing pain ripples across my body. My eyes water. The realization of what happened washes over me. I crawl to the still shape beside me, hoping to God I didn’t kill another human being. Medics rush to us. The uniformed bodies hover above. My world flickers black. I run my fingers over his face. Not another death today. No one deserves to die.
Our mementos — the Spheres, the heart, and the fuzzy dice — rest near us.
His Spheres float atop a soft bed of white crystals equidistant to his third ex’s knick-knacks. His third — she was a curious case… She was perfect for him. Too perfect. He found the girl who would satisfy him best, who would let him take the lead and ask no questions: a doll of warped love. But then she grew up. She accepted the truth about himself, started asking questions. He broke him, tore down the mad facade. All that was left was aimless, false joy — confusion, misunderstanding, and a need for dominance.
A final moment of pleasure flourishes inside Isaiah as Dylan claws at him. Isaiah melts into the crystal web, a smile relaxing his gnarled, tortured nerves.
My attempts to save him fail. The deaths weigh down on me, everything becoming blurry as the medics say words I can’t understand.
I just want to live… I want everyone to just live. Is that so hard?
I pass out beside him, drained.
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