Felton’s hands cramped as he dug his shovel deep into the snow and heaved another good clump off to the side. He paused to catch his breath and checked his progress. He could just make out the top of his black SUV completely submerged, thick ice and snow swallowing it and everything else around. A mound next to it signified the top of Carol’s truck with Alex and Sam’s vehicles further down the line.
The minor cut he had created was just a few feet deep. Felton traced from his car to the road beyond and released a deep sigh. Even if they managed to dig out their vehicles, that didn’t even include the battle there was sure to be trying to clear a low enough incline to drive up on. Not to mention the snow was sure to freeze soon, making an already losing battle even worse.
“I don’t care!” a voice yelled from inside the lodge. “It’s your f*****g fault why we’re stuck here in the first place!”
It sounded like the suit was having another tantrum.
“I could be in the next state by now if it wasn’t for your a*s!”
“Back off ‘er now!”
Felton decided to call it quits for now and made his way back inside. The snow had managed to burst through the doors and into the lobby submerging all within sight. He had already cleared enough room for them to close again, but they didn’t seal completely. The furniture of the lobby lay swallowed by the snow, with few knickknacks clung to the crack embroiled walls. They were lucky the damage wasn’t too extensive. He reached the stairs and climbed up into the diner.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Sam sighed. “This damn fool’s gonna get his teeth emptied if keeps yellin’ at this nice lady, is what’s gonna happen’.”
“Let’s see you try it, gramps!”
Carol was sitting at one of the booths, hugging herself. Her eyes were glossy and she had a reddened face. “Look, I already said I was sorry, okay?”
“Sorry, huh?” Alex shot, “Sorry, ain’t gonna get us out a f****n’ avalanche.”
“I said cool it, punk!” Sam yelled.
“Alright, let’s all calm down,” Felton jumped in. It was clear the moment was getting to everyone. “We need to keep a sound mind if we wanna get through this, alright?”
“I am calm!” Alex spat. He turned his attention to Sam. “Why the hell isn’t your phone working? You should be prepared for this kind of s**t!”
Sam glared back. “Listen here, buddy, I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years, and I can tell you, Misty Pass don’t get no avalanches.”
Alex scoffed and pointed to the window. “Well newsflash, pops: it looks like the rules have f*****g changed!”
“Why ya—” Sam rolled up his sleeves.
“Alright, alright! Everybody jus’ relax!” Felton shouted.
He noticed Carol was excessively rubbing her arms.
She gave off a sheepish grin and nodded. “Yeah, I just… I don’t like knowing we’re trapped here, stuck in one place… with no help.”
He nodded. “I know how it looks now, but we’ll be fine. Can I have you check out the rooms and see what state they’re in”? Might be good to know if we can use any of ’em. There’s no tellin’ how long we’re due-in. Might as well get to preppin’.”
“Yeah, you look like you can use the motion and I think it’ll help get your mind off the whole ordeal.”
She bit her lip and reluctantly nodded.
“If none are salvageable, at least collect the sheets and pillows. Sam, can you give ‘er the keys for that?”
The old man detached a ring from his belt and handed it off to her.
“Darlin’?” he said to Ruth. She was sitting in the adjacent booth to Carol, head on the table. “Might be good for you too. Can you accompany Miss Carol?”
Ruth shrugged nonchalantly.
“And Sam,” Felton continued, “Can you man that phone and see if you can get through to the sheriff?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I can do that, Felton.”
Alex scoffed. “Alright, since you wanna play ‘King Big S**t’, what about you?”
For a second, the lights from the lamps quickly faded in-and-out drawing everyone’s attention.
“I’m gonna have a look at that generator to see what state it’s in.”
Alex smirked. “Knock yourself out then. I sure as hell ain’t going out there.”
Felton set his jaw. “Fine.” He tossed the shovel into Alex’s hands. “Since everybody’s pullin’ their weight around here, I’d hate to see you left out. You got next shift on the cars. Get to it.”
The suit glared at him. For a second, it looked like he’d object but he loosened his tie and grudgingly started to make his way to the stairs.
“Hold up, city-fellow,” Sam spoke-up; he halted him with an irritated look.
“Felton,” Sam said hobbling over to him, “that ol’ generator is stubborn, always has been. Let me look at ‘er. I know how to work ‘er.”
“Sam, I don’t think you should go out there.”
The old man sucked his teeth. “Listen here, sonny. I’ve been doin’ this way before ya knew what pant leg went where. I’ll be fine; I would’ve called it quits if I didn’t think otherwise after all these years.”
Felton chuckled. “Alright, but I’ll be nearby. Call-out if you need anything.”
“Oh, don’t ya worry, I aint goin’ out there yet. That shack to the generator is probably buried to all hell. Gonna have the suit help dig it up. Ya hear me?” Sam said, glancing over to him. Alex’s glare tightened at the news. “While he does that, maybe ya can see what we can use to cover these windows. Night’ll be here before ya know it, and ya know how evenin’s are around these parts.”
“Yeah, good thinkin’.”
Carol opened a door in the hallway and peeked inside. Immediately, she was met with an icy breeze. The room was small and painted with a god-awful blend of baby blue and peach. Yet, the queen-sized bed looked cozy enough, centered around a dresser and a desk. Glass covered the floor and the bed while the walls garnished deep cracks like gashes.
“Looks like the windows are shattered in this one as well,” she stated, shutting the door. “We’ll swing back around grab the sheets later.”
Ruth nodded silently.
“So, your dad tells me, you guys come up here often to hunt.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Ruth replied shrugging.
“Seems your used to these parts then,” Carol continued. “Can’t imagine how though. I still can’t stand the cold – prolly my fault for moving to a warmer state – but I do love a good cup of Joe and nothing beats having one in this kind of weather.”
Ruth simply shrugged again as they made their way to the next door. “It’s not so bad once you get used to it. Dad always told me things came natural to me. Especially, tracking. A lot of what he taught me, he only had to do once.”
“Really? Maybe I could have you track down some lip balm I lost in my car about week ago,” Carol joked.
“She finally smiles,” Carol noted with a smirk. “Didn’t think it would be possible.”
“I smile,” Ruth shot back.
“Uh-huh.” Carol checked another room. “So, how young were you when you started ‘tracking’?”
“Eight, I think… or nine. I was old enough to know what was going on, at least, and was real big on nature back then, a real tomboy. I’m lucky Dad didn’t force dolls down my throat.”
“I wish I had one like yours. He seems like a good man. Any reason you guys stop hunting until now?” She opened the next room to find it in a similar state as the last.
Ruth pulled a strand behind her ear. “We… just stopped for a while, is all,” she mumbled, heading to the next door. “I don’t really wanna talk about it.”
“The innkeeper, Sam, seems to be quite fond of you two as well,” Carol brought up.
“Yeah, we’ve known Sammy for quite some time,” Ruth replied with a smile. “Well, I’ve known him all my life.”
“I figured. He mentioned you resemble your mother a lot. You ever bring her up here too, or has this always just been daddy and daughter time?”
“Something wrong?” Carol asked, glancing back.
She didn’t answer though and briskly walked off, leaving Carol dumbfounded.
Felton had managed to find a staple-gun and started to pin the curtains to block the open windows. In the background, he could hear Sam tinkering with the phone.
“Hey… uh, Felton?” Sam said suddenly.
“I uh… wanted to ask… how ya’ve been holdin’ up?”
“Pretty well. Everything will be fine, Sam,” Felton replied, adding another layer of staples for his seal. “I’m sure we won’t be here for long.”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m talkin’ about after everything that’s happened, ya know… with Janice? I know it’s been six years and all…”
Felton paused from his sealing and sighed. “I…” He struggled to find the words for a second, “I wanna say it’s been gettin’ easier, Sam. Yet, I’d be lyin’ to you – to myself. Not a day goes by where I don’t think ‘bout ‘er. Hell, half the night, I wake up expectin’ to feel ‘er next to me, but…”
Sam nodded. “I understand it, Felton. Same happened with me when Joan passed. I got pretty desperate back then – even contemplated eatin’ bullet at one point in hopes of seein’ ‘er again. But I knew she’d never want that. All I can say is that it will get easier.”
“Will it though?”
“It does if ya believe it.”
“Yeah? The toll it’s taken on me is one thing, but everything with Ruthy… I know it’s affected ‘er more than… s**t, beyond words. I can’t even imagine what’s she goin’ through, Sam. Haven’t had the heart to ask ‘er either. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve failed ‘er as a father.”
“Felton, she knows ya’d do anything for ‘er. Hell, Ruthy, I think understands it more than ya think. She’s a strong gal, raised by the both of ya. There’s nothing I can think of that she can’t take.”
Felton smiled. “Yeah, she sure as hell is.”
“But I do gotta ask. Ya think it was wise to bring ‘er up here? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see both of ya and all, but really, why did ya come back?”
“Heh. Would you believe me if I told you it was ‘er idea?”
Sam chuckled. “Of course, it was. That’s Janice’s stubbornness showin’ itself in ‘er.”
The two laughed heartedly. A second later, Alex slid the curtains to the side and climbed through the window.
“Cold as reindeer’s balls out there,” he stated, blowing into his hands for warmth.
Sam scowled. “What the hell’re ya doin’ in here? Did ya finish clearin’ that damn generator?”
Alex shot a salty look. “Geez, old man. Can I even take a moment to warm my a*s?”
Sam set the phone down. “Looky here, sonny, if ya don’t clear that path, we’ll all be freezin’ our asses off.”
“Nice to know your worried about my well-being. And yes, I finished clearing the path.”
“And how did the generator look?”
“I don’t know,” Alex shot back. “You told me to just clear path, and that’s what I did.”
“Why ya… ya couldn’t take two seconds—” Sam started.
Without warning, a deafening screech filled the air. The pitch grew, stretching into a long-studded moan, accompanied by what sounded like a hammer banging against metal. Immediately after, a thunderous boom exploded that shook the room.
“Jesus Christ!” Sam yelled, holding his hands to his ears.
“Another avalanche?!” Alex cried out in a panic.
The lamps inside the diner surged with energy to a blinding light before quickly cutting to black. In the background, the humming of the ventilation released a sickening dry cough, and then dwindled down into silence. Instantly, the windows seemed to s**k out the lingering heat replacing it with a chilly wind.
Felton stuck his head out to see a thick cloud of smoke billowing from the back of the lodge.
“Son of a… Sam, the generator’s smokin’!”
He immediately hopped out the frame, feelin his boots sink slightly into the rigid snow. Sam and Alex followed suit, all trekking ahead. It was a difficult task to walk straight, each step forcing an exaggerated lift forward, and even harder with the wind mocking their efforts to maintain their balance.
As Felton approached, he recoiled at the singe of musty smoke which forced its way up his nose and to the back of his throat. The small shack ahead was connected to the rear of the lodge – the wide trench Alex carved could be seen leading up to its door. The black smoke continued to filter out the top like a chimney, adding a hint of ash to the snow around.
“What the hell did ya do?!” Sam yelled to Alex.
“I didn’t do s**t! You told me to dig a f*****g path to the door, and that’s what I did, that’s it!”
“Ya obviously did more than that!”
“F**k you, old man!”
“Alright, quiet, the both of you!” Felton bellowed. “Right now, we need to check out the problem instead of pointin’ the finger.”
“Don’t bother,” Sam interjected. “Best to let the smoke filter out a bit.” He took a moment to spit in the snow. “Godblabbit.”
“So, what does this mean?” Alex questioned. “The generator will be fine, eventually, right? You said it’s always been stubborn, right?”
Sam ran his hand through his hair. “Don’t know. Ain’t never had a flood of snow to deal with in the past. Could be somethin’ worse.”
“Sam, I gotta look at it,” Felton brought up again. “We need to assess the damage now, if there is any. Smoke may never clear up in time. Check the horizon, every second counts.”
The old man noted it and sighed. “Ya know what to look for?”
“Seen a few generators in my life. Once you seen one…”
Sam chuckled. “Here, then.” He handed Felton his scarf.
He nodded, wrapped it around his mouth, and entered the shack. Most of the smoke had cleared but the remaining smog immediately stung his eyes, the scarf doing little to block it for his mouth. He could feel the tickle at the back of his throat grow as he fought the urge to cough.
Inside, he noted the machine which stood tall, reaching his chest. Its outside casing was rusted in many areas with tubes and cables running amok like wild hair. No doubt it had been around for decades clearly past its expected lifespan. That was Sam for you: he’d hoard the corpse of a dog if it meant keeping it around.
Felton began his check, opting to look at the fuel first. He found the cap, which opted to be stubborn before conceding, and peeked inside. The levels looked fine: he could vaguely see the line where the liquid reached. Fuel wasn’t the issue. He decided to check the cables and followed one to the back. Immediately, he froze at its side. He found a large gaping hole.
“What the hell?” he whispered.
Pieces of its hull were torn in several directions like a deep gash on a prey. He also noticed that something was sticking out one of the edges. He reached over and attempted to grab it, but the blasted piece, whatever it was, was stubborn to get loose. It took several pulls until he could reel it free. He tried to make it out in the smoke, but couldn’t, ultimately shoving it into his pocket. Right when he did, a drop of oil hit the snow which drew his attention. He glanced down to see a puddle inside a small dip.
His eyes widened as he crouched to get a better look. It was a footprint: a trail of them to be exact, but they didn’t appear to be human; they almost resembled a deer’s hoof. Strangely, the pattern was off; instead of a set of four prints seen for a deer’s there was only two. He followed them and found that they led back to the entrance.
“Felton, ya alright in there?!” Sam called out. “Come on out, ya shouldn’t be in the smoke that long!”
He nodded to himself and exited. Once out, he couldn’t hold back the cough anymore as he took in the clean air.
“How bad is it?” Sam inquired.
It took several more seconds before his coughing started to subside. As it did, Felton’s eyes returned to the ground, noticing the tracks as they curved around the shack.
“Felton, ya alright?” Sam asked. “I asked how bad it was in there?”
Felton remained quiet, noting the tracks lead to the distant tree line where some of the forest managed to survive.
“Real bad,” he finally answered. “It’s a lost cause, Sam. Generator’s toast.” He paused to cough for a few more seconds.
Sam cursed under his breath.
“Something… got in there,” Felton continued, “and gutted the damn thing to hell.”
“Something? What do ya mean something?”
“Don’t know, Sam… something… it went to town on that generator.”
“What was it? A c**n? Possum?”
Sam noted Felton’s eyes still gazing at the ground.
“What the hell’re ya lookin’ at?” he asked.
“That trail of prints,” Felton brought up pointing to them, “they were inside. They led to the generator and back out here.”
“And? So?” Sam shrugged. “I’m not following ya, Felton.”
“I think whatever made them, might’ve…”
Alex crouched near the tracks. “I’m no expert in wildlife, but these like look like deer prints. You’re not suggesting it was that, are you? How hell does a deer tear up a generator?”
Sam scoffed. “Ain’t no way.”
He hobbled over to look. As they both studied them, Felton’s eyes suddenly flashed, remembering the piece he found wedged in the side. He fished the object out his pocket and held it up to the light. He had to blink several times before taking another look. His mind couldn’t comprehend what he was gazing at. The object resembled a talon, but it felt and looked like a piece torn from a tree. It was like the wood had been carved into a talon.
“What’s that?” Sam asked, noting it.
“It’s… don’t know. Found in it in the generator where it was gutted. What do you make of it?”
He handed it to Sam. Felton didn’t know what to think. Maybe he was just seeing things in the object, adding paranoia where it didn’t need to be. He found that he was holding his breath as the old man held it up to inspect it.
Sam sucked his teeth again. “Possum talon,” he concluded. “Like I thought. Damn things.”
“Sam, I don’t think…”
“Trust me, Felton, it’s a possum. Damn critters are around here. It was only a matter of time ‘til they find their way in. Can’t complain too much though. I’d say I did pretty good for fifteen years, wouldn’t ya say?”
“You ever see a wooden talon though?” Felton brought up.
“It ain’t wooden, Felton. It’s dirty is what it is. That’s how animals are. Ya see, this is what happens when yer outta the game for too long.”
“Let me see that,” Alex said.
However, Sam quickly tossed it away before either of the two could object anymore.
“What the hell?” Alex shot.
“You don’t think it looked wooden…?” Felton pressed, “Like it was carved outta a branch?”
“Eh?” The old man’s face was twisted into a puzzled look.
Seeing this, Felton sighed. “Forget it. You’re probably right: a possum.”
Sam nodded and started to make his way back. Alex did a quick scan for the item before he gave up and started to follow. Felton was about to do so too until something caught his ear. In the distance, he heard what sounded like faint whispers. They were soft, hiding just under the wind. His stomach tightened. He could feel that familiar sensation growing in the pit of it, that cold emptiness. He was hesitant to check, but his body seemed to turn on its own. He cautiously scanned the area into the horizon. All the while, the whispers continued.
His eyes drifted in the direction where the footprints led to the trees in the distance. The emptiness seemed to grow stronger from it. The whispers too, sounding as if each was fighting to speak over the other. They were endlessly repeating that word again. Yet, he still couldn’t tell what it was. As they grew in volume, the surrounding sounds were swallowed greedily. Felton felt paralyzed again; he couldn’t move no matter how hard he tried, too drawn-in by the voices.
As they continued, he thought he caught the word; it was very brief: “Ma-ga!”
What did that mean?
“Hey Felton, ya coming?!” Sam’s voice called out. “It’s gonna get dark soon, we should make final preps!”
Instantly, the whispers ceased along with the feeling in his stomach. Felton shivered from the cold, feeling as if the blood in his very veins had thawed. He blinked several times, finally able to move his limbs again. It felt as he’d been frozen alive, yet, not at the same time. It was hard for him to describe. After another quick scan of the tree line, he nodded to Sam, and turned to follow the others.