Six years ago
Ruth poked her head out the bedroom door, carefully glancing down the hallway. After a quick scan, she checked back into the room to see her mother who was sleeping on the bed. A smirk creeped over her lips – she was out like a light. Satisfied, she eased out the door, shutting it softly behind her, and tiptoed down the hall. She reached the end and peeked around the corner. Sammy could be heard in the kitchen, singing to himself as he moved about – the sound of pots clanking as he did.
Perfect, she thought with a devious smile. Cleaning right on a time, as usual.
She crept over to the stairs, careful to not make a sound until she reached the first step. She paused to listen if Sammy had noticed or not. His singing hadn’t missed a note – well if you call it singing. It was too easy. Then again, sneaking past him wasn’t a challenge. The old man wouldn’t notice a moose if was walking right by him. The real challenge was getting past her father.
She eased down the stairs, ensuring to walk heel-to-toe just as he had taught her. She could hear his voice talking among a group of others, breaking into laughter occasionally. When she reached the bottom, she could see a gathering of men in a corner. He was distracted – another perfect opportunity. On top of it all, the lobby had the best cover, filled to the brim with furniture. She crouched to her knees and crawled to the first comforter, ensuring to take advantage of the laughter to mask her movements.
“So, how old is the little tike turning?” one of the voices asked out loud.
“Believe it or not, she’s jumpin’ into the double-digits,” her father’s voice answered.
“Oh buddy,” another voice chimed-in. “I know ya already got that shotgun polished, don’t ya, Felton?”
Her dad laughed. “Hell, why do you think I’ve been takin’ ‘er up here every year on ‘er birthday? Gal can damn well handle herself. She’s been molded tough; I ain’t gotta do s**t. I actually feel sorry for any future sumbitch.”
Everybody broke out in laughter.
Ruth made it to the door, using the uproar to crack it open just enough to slide through. The air outside was cool – the night sky lit by the moon accompanied by the span of thick clouds. All around was the soft blanket of snow undisturbed for miles, tempting her to jump-in to make snow angels, but she resisted the urge. Ruth was on a mission. She pulled out her keychain light along with a map, tracing over its designs, noting the marked-out route into the heart of the forest.
It was two years ago, she could still recall the day.
She and her parents were out exploring the forest when they came across a glow emanating from within a knot of a tree. On closer inspection, they discovered it was from a strange flower – the entire thing lit up like a chem light stick from stem to peddles. There wasn’t a plant her parents couldn’t identify but this one had them completely clueless. It was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. Her mother was mesmerized by it and asked her father to pluck it. Yet, the flower was too far back in the knot, and the mouth too tight. He joked that Ruth could probably reach it with her size, but her mother wouldn’t have it.
He did promise to try in the future and marked it on their map, so they would be able to find it again. Yet, since then, he wasn’t never able to retrieve it and soon forgot about it, more than likely deeming it unobtainable – until today. Ruth smiled to herself; she was going to do the impossible and nab it. Her mother’s birthday followed her own, several days from now, and there was no better gift she could think of than the majestic flower. She already could picture her face in awe at the gift when she handled it off to her. It would be perfect.
Ruth pocketed the map – with the route in mind, slid up her hood, and began to head off towards the trees.
The wind started to pick-up as she trudged her way through the snow. Even with her thick coat, its bitter kiss was cruel across her face. It must’ve taken at least thirty minutes to reach the tree line. She was sure her mother had noticed her absence. If she was lucky, she would think she was with her dad. Even if she was caught, she was confident the flower would overshadow any potential chastisement.
Ruth halted when she reached the trees. She took a second to check her map again then gazed ahead. The looming bodies seemed to swallow the moonlight, presenting what appeared as an endless void beyond. She took a deep breath – she had come this far; there was no way she could go back empty-handed now– and took her first step in.
The warmth of the moonlight quickly faded as she crossed the tree line’s threshold. Once several feet in, she allowed her eyes to adjust, soaking up the darkness until the void revealed the obscured bodies of the trees around. Satisfied, Ruth continued forward, ensuring to walk carefully. There was no telling what lay hidden beneath the snow.
Another thirty minutes bled into the night until she pulled out her map out again. The flower was set to be another 200 meters, give or take, if she had been consistent with her pace count. Yet, she started to get worried.
“Where is it?” she said softly.
The flower was quite bright when they had found it during the day; at night, the blasted thing should’ve been a beacon regardless of distance, especially in this darkness. Yet, she saw now sign of it from any angle. Had she gotten side-tracked along the way?
No, she thought. Dad, always said to trust your pace count.
She folded up the map again, fighting off a shiver, and stuffed it back into her pocket. She counted onward until she reached 200 meters. However, no glow could be seen from the flower. Ruth felt tears form in her eyes. She was nowhere near it. Where had she messed up?
“Where is it?!” she screamed out into the darkness, kicking at the snow. Her voice echoed for a few seconds before fading. “It has to be here!”
Annoyed, Ruth sat down next to a tree, placing her head into her knees. The cold had already begun to eat its way through her gloves to her fingertips, and she found that she couldn’t stop shivering now. How long had she been out here, going in the wrong direction? It had to at least been an hour, possibly more. She was going to hear an earful from her parents, her mother especially. Ruth sighed, and prepared to take the walk-of-shame back when something caught her eye: a glow.
Her eyes widened and her heart started pounding. Was it the flower? She started to run towards it. The glow was pulsating in the distance. How had she missed it earlier? Maybe, it only glowed at certain times. It didn’t matter though she had found it. When she reached the area, she immediately halted. Her joy was short-lived as she stared in awe at what was before her. The glow was not coming from the flower, but a deer – a large one, standing tall with massive antlers. It stood just a few meters away, its body glowing exactly like the flower, as if the creature itself was comprised of light.
It stood silently, casting its bright, white glow around the forest like the sun. Finally, it perched its neck towards her, locking its blue-encrusted eyes with hers. They were gorgeous like staring into the stars, radiating endless colors of blue. Ruth suddenly felt a chill swiftly grow within her as if ice had been packed inside her body. The cold instilled on her face grew with it to a painful sting, settling into a numbness. Yet, she ignored the feeling, still locked in a staring contest. What was this thing?
The deer finally broke the trance and walked towards a tree. As it crossed behind it, its body disappeared. From the other side emerged a tall, pale figure: a young girl.
Ruth was still speechless. A white aura engulfed the girl, accenting her pale skin that seemed to rival the snow. Was she the deer? Her head was fitted with a set of similar yet smaller antlers. Half of her body appeared to be human but her legs were like the bark of a tree.
Ruth didn’t know what to do or what she was looking at. Somehow, she had managed to find her voice, but all she could say was, “W-wha—who…”
The girl smiled. It wasn’t a creepy one, but seeing it come from something like her didn’t ease the nerves on Ruth.
“Hello,” she said with a layered voice that seemed to echo.
It could talk? “H-hi,” Ruth stammered.
The girl cocked her head to the side. “What’s wrong, child? Are you afraid?”
“Please, don’t be. There’s nothing to be afraid of?”
“W-who… are you?”
The smile widened on her. “My name’s Chione. What’s yours?”
“R-Ruth.” Why was she telling her name to this stranger, this thing?
“What a beautiful name. I have wonderful news, Ruth. You’ve been chosen. By Mother.”
Ruth gave her a confused look. “Whose mother? Y-yours?”
Chione’s lips finally parted to reveal a set of jagged teeth. “Yes, my mother, but she’s also yours too.”
“I-I already have a mother,” Ruth replied.
“She’s also her mother too. She’s everyone’s,” the pale figure explained, her eyes radiating like blue embers. “All are her children, but not all are chosen. Only the daughters may be given the honor. Come.” She held out a hand, revealing it too was made entirely of jagged wood.
“N-no,” Ruth answered softly. Her legs felt so numb; she could barely feel them. She took a step back. “I have a m-mom, and she’s w-waiting for me.”
The air felt even colder. There was no wind, and yet, it felt like the very presence of the girl was draining whatever heat lingered around.
“None may reject the call when chosen. Now, come,” she said firmer.
“No!” Ruth yelled and took off in the opposite direction.
Without warning, the wind suddenly picked up, streaming heavily against her face, forcing her eyes to water. Snow began falling in heavy clumps, obscuring her view ahead. Ruth felt her balance teeter but she pressed onward. Where did this storm come from suddenly? Was she being chased? She was too afraid to look back though. All the while, her legs felt like Jell-O, each one threatening to give-out under her weight. Her heart was crashing against her chest, fueling her with adrenaline while her lungs were begging for her to stop, at the mercy of the icy wind singeing them.
On the verge of collapsing, Ruth finally halted. She needed to find her bearings. She pulled out the map, struggling to open it with numbed fingers. However, the wind abruptly tore the paper from them, flinging it up into the darkness.
“No!” she yelled out, unable to grab it.
“Ruth!” Chione’s voice carried in the wind. It was like it fueled it, increasing its pressure. “None may reject the call when chosen!”
“Leave me alone!” Ruth screamed out.
She spun around, attempting to locate any recognizable landmark, but everything looked the same: trees, darkness, and snow. The flakes started to fall in thicker clumps. Ruth hugged her arms as the bitter cold continued to sink its cruel fangs into her.
“Mom!” she called out. “Mommy!”
Maybe if she yelled out loud enough her mother would hear her. She had been gone long enough for them to notice. Surely, they had to be looking for her.
That’s when her heart dropped. She heard it.
It wasn’t that creature’s voice. It was her mother’s. She wanted to cry tears of joy, but nothing came out and the ones she had already shed had frozen to her cheeks.
“Mom, over here!” she yelled out still unable to pinpoint a direction. Her eyes lit up when she remembered her flashlight keychain. She pulled it out, struggling to turn the switch on in her frozen fingers. When she did, she waved it around crazily, hoping it could be seen from any direction. Finally, she saw a small light in the distance.
“Ruth, I see you. I’m coming!”
Ruth could hear her boots crunching against the snow rapidly as she approached.
“Don’t move, baby!”
Just hearing her voice seemed to warm her up. She shined the flashlight ahead, catching sight of the familiar red coat of her mother. Ruth couldn’t contain herself anymore and tried to run in towards her but lost her balance and fell in the snow. Her legs were done. At this point, her mother would have to carry her back, but she didn’t care.
“Ruth!” Her mother ran up from behind a tree and immediately came to a dead stop.
“Mom!” Ruth exclaimed but her smile faded when she noticed her mother’s wide eyes looking beyond her. Oddly, her face began to grow brighter from something behind Ruth. Her heart skipped a beat as she slowly turned around. Standing a few feet away was the pale girl, only she wasn’t smiling anymore.
“What the hell…” Ruth heard her mother whisper. “Ruthy, slowly come to me. Slowly, now.”
However, Ruth couldn’t peel her eyes from the creature. Its mesmerizing form was glowing brighter with each second.
“Ruth!” her mother snapped.
“I-I can’t, Mom,” Ruth replied. “I-I can’t feel my legs.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I-I’ll come to you.”
She could hear her mother slowly edging her way over. All the while, Chione stood quietly, eyes following her as she did.
“What the hell are you?” her mother whispered as she drew closer.
The girl didn’t respond. When her mother was at an arm’s length away from Ruth, Chione swiftly grabbed her wrist, yanking Ruth over to her side.
“No!” her mother screamed as she halted. Ruth could see the anxiety boiling within her.
“None may reject the call when chosen,” the girl finally said. “Rejoice, your daughter has been selected for the highest of honors.”
“I don’t give a f**k what she’s been selected for,” she shot back. “She’s my f****n’ daughter, now give her back.”
“She is Mother’s daughter, as are I, as are you. None may reject the call when chosen.”
Her mother scowled. “You are not taking my daughter.”
The pale girl smirked and started to turn with Ruth still in her clutches.
“No, wait!” her mother yelled out. “Take me instead.”
Chione halted, giving her a blank stare.
“You said we are all, ‘Mother’s’ children, then I can go in her stead. Just leave her be. This ‘Mother’ of all people should know the feeling of losing her children, right? I’ll do anything for mine, please.”
“You do not decide.”
“Please!” Tears were streaming down her face. “Don’t take my baby-girl.”
“You do not decide, only Mo—” The girl paused in mid-sentence as a deep howl of the wind drew her attention further back into the trees. Without hesitation, her fingers uncoiled from Ruth’s wrist.
Ruth fell to the ground, and instantly crawled over to her mother’s arms. She hugged her tight, feeling a small hint of heat from her body.
“It appears Mother has decided to accept your offer,” Chione stated. “Know this though: it only postpones the inevitable. Ruth’s time will come again.”
Her mother glared at her before looking down at her shivering little girl. “Listen here, Ruthy,” she whispered into her ear. On three, we’re gonna run for it, okay?”
“B-but, I can’t—”
“It’s okay, I’ll carry you if I have to,” her mother interrupted. “And if at any time we get separated…” she pulled out a whistle from around her neck and placed it over Ruth’s, “you blow this as loud as you can. Your father will hear it, understand?”
She simply nodded. “Okay.”
“Come,” Chione stated.
Her mother gave her one last hug and whispered, “One…”
They stood up.
Ruth felt her mother’s grip tighten on her hand. Her heart was pounding erratically at this point. What happened if she tripped up? Would her mother notice and come back for her? What if she accidentally pulled them both down? She swallowed as she anticipated the last count.
With a great force, her mother yanked her forward as she took off. Ruth’s legs were still numb, but somehow, they found strength in the moment. They could do this! They could get away and put all of this behind them. Yet, as they got just a few feet away, Ruth felt a harsh reel that tore her to a standstill. She turned to see her mother had stopped in mid-run.
“Mom, what are doing? Let’s go. Come on!”
Yet, her mother remained fixed, staring at the ground. She slowly lifted her head to reveal a set of blue glowing eyes, matching Chione’s. Ruth flinched at the sight. Her mother’s grip loosened and she turned back to the pale girl.
“None may reject the call when chosen,” her mother said in a monotone voice.
“Mom?” Ruth pleaded.
Her mother simply repeated the phrase as she started to walk towards Chione.
However, her pleads fell upon deaf ears. Ruth tried to pull her arm, but to no avail; it was like she was trying to yank a boulder. With a flick of Chione’s wrist, ice formed from the ground, wrapping around Ruth’s ankle reeling her down, forcing her grip to slip from her mother’s.
“Mom!” she screamed, repeatedly, trying to break away from the ice. Her tears were dry, too frozen, her nose, running and freezing over her lip. Yet, her mother continued to walk in a daze over to the Chione, taking her hand.
The pale girl glanced back, lips extending into another wide grin. “Fear not, child. Mother will call for you again.”
Ruth put the whistle in her mouth and blew with all her might. She prayed her father was nearby. If there was one person who could tear that thing apart, and return her mother to her arms, it was him. She blew into the whistle long and hard. Her mother and Chione slowly grew distant, the light radiating from them fading back into the darkness. All the while, Ruth kept blowing the whistle. She blew, ignoring the pain growing in her head from the strain or the urge from her lungs to take a breath.
She kept blowing until she blacked-out.
“I later woke up to the sight of my father and a search party,” Ruth finished, “Apparently, they were looking for me the whole time. I thought only an hour passed; turned out it was five. My mother had broken away on her own. Dad told me she was probably following her instincts like she normally did. After several hours, they had to call the search off for the night, due to a unexpected storm. By then, Mom hadn’t returned either. It took four men to restrain my father all night, to keep him from going out to find us.
“The next morning, the team was sent out there again. They searched the hills up and down, not leaving a patch of snow unturned. Right when all hope was about to be lost, they found me. They told me I was balled up in the snow, whistle still in mouth, asleep. They don’t know how I could’ve survived – claiming I should’ve been a popsicle the way the temperatures were, but I was fine – save for some minor frostbite.”
“What about your mother?” Carol inquired.
“She… was no where to be found. I was the last one to see her. They tried searching for her for the next few days, but gave up on the third. I don’t think Dad’s forgiven me since then, and I don’t blame him. I haven’t forgiven myself.” Ruth wiped her eyes. “He doesn’t even mention Mom anymore, which doesn’t help because I practically forgot what she looked like, or how she sounded.”
“Ruth…” Carol started, “I’m so sorry.”
“My mother protected me. It was supposed to be me but she took my place. Since then, I’ve been having those dreams, each one ending with an ‘episode’. Because of her – she’s in my head. Every time I dream about her, I can’t control my actions – it’s like she trying to get me to come back, to heed the ‘call’. I’m fed up with it. I feel like she’ll keep tormenting me until I do.”
“Ruth, you’re not trying to… You can’t be serious?”
“It wants me, Carol,” Ruth stated. “I dragged you all into this and I’m sorry. The avalanche, the generator, the rescue team – I’m the only way it can all stop. Don’t you want to go home?”
Carol shook her head. “There has to be another way.”
“There isn’t. It’s plain and simple: this thing’s powerful and it’ll do anything until it gets what it wants. The fact that she let you see her in the dream might mean you’re next.”
“Do you really want to wait around until then?” Ruth asked. “Or until it tries something else? Something worse?”
Felton struggled to maintain his grasp on the makeshift “scarecrow” of twigs as he tilted the head piece out the diner room window. He pushed until the whole thing fell over with a heavy thud. Relieved, he climbed out and began to drag it through the snow. He didn’t want it anywhere near them. He stopped when he reached the side of the shack. Satisfied, he started to head back when he heard voices in the air. Instantly, his spirits felt lifted.
“The rescue team?” he said under his breath.
He paused and listened closer. The voices continued, but as they got louder, they sounded less and less like their salvation. The hairs stood up on his neck at the realization. He glanced over at the tree line once again, and on cue, that familiar chill within his stomach grew like a weed. However, this time, Felton caught sight of something that made his blood freeze. Amid the trees, he saw a pair of blue, gleaming eyes, staring back at him.