“Alright, city-fellow, lay ‘em over there,” Sam instructed, making a note on a clipboard.
“You know,” Alex stated, placing the bin of canned beans on a table, “I have a name, old man.”
Sam grunted, while he counted them. “Yeah? Funny thing is, I do too.”
“Heh, fair enough. Is that everything?”
“Hold on, gimme a sec,” Sam retorted, glancing down at his paper. “Let’s see… We got 24 canned beans, 18 bottles of water, 15 cans of tomato soup, corn, and mixed fruit… hmm non-perishables looks pretty good. Over here, two med kits, five lanterns, one flare gun with uh, four shots—”
“So… are we good then?”
Sam glared at him. “Ya know if ya ain’t the most impatient… what’s the rush anyhow? Ya got somewhere ya need to be?”
Carol and Ruth emerged from the stairs into the diner. Alex caught sight and rolled his eyes.
“Great, you back for round two, blondie?” he remarked as they approached.
“Looky here, missy,” Sam chimed-in, “we don’t wanna start anymore trouble ‘round here.”
“I don’t either,” Carol replied. She noted the bandage on Alex’s face. “Yeah about that… I’m—how’s your nose?”
Alex gibed. “Is that your version of an apology?”
“Look, it was the heat of the moment, I was scared as s**t and… I’m sorry, okay?”
He sucked his teeth distastefully.
“Alright now,” Sam jumped-in, “She said her words. Let’s drop everything and let by-gones be that.”
“Whatever,” Alex retorted.
“So, what are you two doing? What is all this?”
“Exactly, what it looks like: we’re inventorying for the long haul like we all originally agreed on, remember that?”
“We figured we be able to monitor the rations better,” Sam added. “Ya did bring up a valid point earlier.” His eyes fell on Ruth. “How ya feelin’, darlin’?”
She hovered around the table, noting the layout. “I’m fine. Nothing to really say.”
“What your dad said back there… ya know he didn’t mean it now.”
“It’s fine, Sammy. I’m over it.”
“So, you two finally ready to get with the program?” Alex inquired.
“Guess we have no choice,” Carol said, shrugging. “What do you need from us?”
“Hmmm let’s see,” Sam said looking down his board again. He blew into his hands. “Damn chill. Those seals are startin’ to lose their effect.”
“Are we outta staples?”
“Eh? Yeah. Been tryin’ to think what we could do ‘bout ‘em. Was thinkin’ maybe we could siphon up that fuel from the generator to get some heat goin’. Problem is, we need someone to go out there and do it.”
“I’ll do it,” Ruth volunteered.
“What? No, Felton would kill me if I sent ya out there.”
She sneered. “I need to do something. I can’t stand all this sitting around anymore.”
Sam rubbed his neck. “Ruth, I… can’t Ruthy…”
“Sammy, we need the fuel and no one else is willin’ to do it. Let me.”
“Hey, kid,” Alex spoke-up, “I’ll do it.”
Everyone gave him a surprised look.
“What?” he shot. “The hell are y’all looking at?” His cheeks were turning red. “Look, I’m an a*****e, not a heartless prick. Besides, she shouldn’t be going out there, especially after earlier.”
Carol gave him awestruck look and shrugged at Ruth, “Sorry, kiddo, he’s got a point.”
She folded her arms.
“Hey Sam, where’s that shovel?” Carol inquired.
“What ya need that for?”
“Wanted to take a crack at my truck.”
“You still bent on leaving?” Alex brought up, “I thought you were onboard?”
“I am. Just wanted to dig up my baby first though. I love my truck and if I leave ‘er out there as is it’s only gonna be harder later.”
He eyed her for a second, then, pointed to the shovel laying at the side of the table. She thanked him, grabbed it, and started to make her way to the stairs. “By the way,” she said halfway, “where’s Felton? Wanted to apologize to him too.”
Sam shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen since… well, ya know. Think he might need a lil more time then we figured. He should come around soon enough.”
She nodded. “Oh, one more thing, Sam… could you keep an eye on Ruth?”
Betrayal etched across Ruth’s face, forming into a mean glare. Sam exchanged a confused look between the two.
“Ugh… sure. Why exactly?”
“Just… make she doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Alex shivered, blowing into his hands as he waited for the last few drops of fuel to drain through the tube leading from the generator into a container.
“God, this is taking forever,” he whispered to himself.
He was already regretting coming out here in the first place. The damn place was like a beacon for chill. With the sun setting, that chill had been enhanced. Nature sure knew how to kick a guy in the nuts when he was already down. Alex zoned out on the lantern in the snow – the dancing fire inside provided a small circle of light against the consuming darkness around. How anyone could see being out here as peaceful was beyond him – the thought of being exposed to vast emptiness, even in the shack, didn’t hold the slightest comfort.
His eyes returned to the bucket when he began to hear the steady flow of fuel dwindle to droplets.
“Finally,” he exclaimed.
As he crouched to collect the container, he started to hear a sound in the distance. He paused to listen – it sounded like the crunching of snow just outside the shack. They were heavy footsteps. Who the hell would be moving around out here? Instantly, his thoughts flashed on Ruth. Had she come outside after all? She did seem like the rebellious type. He sighed, grabbing the lantern on his way out, ready to scold her.
God, I’m acting like the damn kid’s mine, he thought.
He poked his head out the shack, ready to chide her. Everything outside was cloaked in darkness – he couldn’t even make out the trees in the horizon. He could hear the heavy footsteps continued up ahead. Alex held up his lantern and was able to vaguely make out a figure.
“Who’s there?!” he called out. “Kid, that better not be you?!”
Whoever it was halted, but didn’t respond.
“Hey, is that you? Look, it’s too cold for games.”
The figure remained silent. Alex felt his patience starting to wane as he approached them. As he did, whispers started to fill the air. Startled, he looked around, attempting to find their owner, but all he could see was darkness.
“You hear that?” he asked. “Somebody else out here with you?”
The voices grew louder in response. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. He turned his attention back to the figure and proceeded closer.
“Why aren’t you saying anything?”
He closed the distance to them, his light slowly casting over them, revealing the back of Felton.
“You…?” Alex said softly. “What the hell are you—”
Yet, his words fell flat when Felton turned around. Alex couldn’t believe what he was seeing: his eyes were a bright blue – glowing like embers. He took a few step backs in shock. The glare Felton gave was intense, filled with malice.
“Y-you alright, man? What’s going on with your eyes?”
Without hesitation, Felton swiftly walked up to him. He grabbed Alex’s collar and threw him up against the wall, and started choking him.
“Wha… are…” Alex could barely talk as he felt the air being squeezed out of him.
He tried to free himself, but failed to against the giant’s vice grip. All the while, Felton’s unblinking blue gaze burned into his own – like he was peering directly into his soul. He could feel his vision fading quick. His eyes began scanning his surroundings hoping to find anything that could prove useful before it was too late. Finally, he noticed the lantern still in his hands.
He lowered it to the best of his ability and with all his might, slammed it against the brute’s head. Felton was barely fazed; in fact, the blow seemed to enrage him, tightening his grip around Alex’s neck, forcing out a gag from him. With options limited, Alex repeated the action. His pounding heart started to slow down – with it, Alex could feel each blow growing weaker. He was running out of time; yet, he threw in another blow, and then another, until eventually, the glass broke, releasing the flames over Felton’s coat.
Finally, Felton let go, screaming out in pain. His screams didn’t sound like his own though; it was layered as if several others cried out in agony alongside him. Alex fell to the ground, feeling air once again rush into his burning lungs. He struggled to find his feet as Felton or whatever the hell he was attended to the flames consuming his jacket.
Alex eyed the window back to the inside. Once he found the strength to stand, he made a break for it, but instantly, he felt a harsh grip snag his shoulder. He glanced back to see Felton, the flames now reduced to smoke, but half his face was left charred. The gleam in his eyes seem to grow brighter – the burns seemingly providing little pain.
With insane strength, he reeled Alex back and lifted him in the air like nothing, and heaved him straight into the wall of the shack, splitting the wood in the process. Alex felt an ungodly pain bite into his back, the wind torn from his lungs, and his head smack as he collapsed to the ground. The world around slowly faded to black as the snow from the roof of the shack fell onto him, burying his body.
Carol dug her shovel into the snow. Just as she had feared it had hardened over the previous night. It was more ice than anything. She lifted a large clump with the weight of a boulder and tossed it to the side.
She felt guilty outing Ruth as she had, but the kid had her whole life to still live. Carol couldn’t let her throw it all away. Ruth was right that the creature –whatever it was—had to be stopped, but there was a better way, one that didn’t involve giving-in to it. She only hoped her hunch didn’t fail her.
She paused to check on her progress.
Carol had managed to uncover more of Felton’s truck to reveal its windshield. He said they were hunters, right? And one couldn’t hunt without a weapon of some kind. Hopefully, they hadn’t left it behind for this trip. She wiped away some of the frost from the windshield and peered inside. It was hard to see. She grabbed her lantern and held it up to get a better view.
In the backseat, she could make out what appeared to be a long case. Bingo, that had to be it. Carol noted the rest of the SUV: it was still mainly submerged. The job to get to the windshield was a pain in its own right; the fight to clear the backdoor would be an all-nighter if she didn’t stop. There was no time for that though. Carol glanced at the shovel and back at the windshield.
Felton wasn’t going to like this, but she was already neck deep in s**t from her previous accident, what was another few inches? She raised the shovel high and brought it down hard against the windshield. It produced a large crack across it, sending a strong wave through the shovel’s handle into her hands. Carol recoiled; admittedly, she was expecting it to break on the first swing. She lifted the shovel again and repeated the action but harder. The web of cracks expanded.
She continued until the windshield start to cave-in. Using the shovel, she wedged the glass out the frame and off to the side, and paused again to catch her breath. All the motion managed to warm her up a bit. Carol was about to climb in when she felt a sensation that made the hairs on her neck stand up. It felt like she was being watched. She turned around and to her horror she saw a pair of blue glowing eyes gazing at her from the shadows.
Carol froze. It was her. She was back. She exchanged a look from it to the case. Could she grab it in time? The figure slowly walked forward until the light from her lantern casted over it. She stared back in awe: it was Felton. As he approached, she noticed his face was partially burnt.
“Felton?” she began, “What happened to your face? And why are your eyes…”
Something was off. He continued to walk towards her. He had a daze look in his eyes; she’d seen it before – on Ruth. Carol started to back away.
“Felton, are you alright?” she asked, a squeak in her voice. She didn’t want to believe it. Not him. “Felton, is that… are you, you?”
He stopped halfway, the gleam still shining bright in his eyes. A smirk formed on his lips.
“She calls, Carol,” he stated affirmatively. “Mother Gaia awaits her daughters.”
Carol’s heart dropped. “No…” She shook her head. “Not you, Felton…”
The smile grew on his face. “None may reject the call when chosen.”
Carol grimaced. Those damn words again. She exchanged a glance between the backseat and him. Could she make it in time? She had to try. She swallowed, her heart pounding erratically. Whatever had its hold on Felton made him smiled wider as if baiting her to make a move.
It was now or never.
Carol made move towards the windshield. Felton instantly booked it towards her. She picked up the shovel and flung it at him, forcing him to fall over as he dodged. She started to climb inside the frame, yet, he managed to reach her and grab onto her leg. Carol clung tightly to the SUV as he tried to reel her from it. His strength was incredible. She pulled harder against him, feeling pieces of leftover glass start to bite into her hands, but she held on.
“You can’t fight it, Carol. Mother’s will is absolute. None may reject her.”
Carol could feel her grip weakening. “No! Let me the f**k go!” The glass bit deeper into her flesh. She winced in pain. “Felton,” she pleaded, “you have to fight it! Fight, goddammit!”
Yet, she felt a strong yank finally separate her. Carol screamed out, trying to kick herself free as he dragged her away from the SUV. She tried to claw at anything, but she only managed to pull at snow.
It was over, she thought, feeling the hopelessness wash over her. What can I do?
Suddenly, there was a loud bang from behind. Instantly, Carol was dropped. She crawled away and checked back to find Sam standing over Felton with the shovel.
“The hell’s gotten in yer head, Felton? What’re ya doing?”
However, Felton wasn’t down for the count. He growled slowly standing, immediately looming over the old man. Carol could see the fear in Sam’s eyes when he saw Felton’s.
“M-my God…” he whispered.
“Sam…” Carol muttered. She didn’t know what to do.
Her voiced drew his attention. He looked surprised as if he had forgotten she was there. “C-Carol, when ya see an opening,” he stated, holding his ground while tightly gripping the shovel, “I want ya to book it. Ruthy and ya can barricade yerselves inside, understand?”
“Listen now, don’t argue with me and do it!”
Before she could object further, Sam swung at Felton with the shovel, narrowly missing him. Carol bit her lip and glanced back at the SUV. She had to try again. She ran for it, climbing through the front. The tight confinement made it hard to pull herself through to the back seat. Behind, she could hear the grunts grow louder in-between Sam’s missing swings.
“What the hell’re ya doing?!” Sam yelled out. “Get outta here!”
She reached out for the case and managed to pull the edge of it towards her. Sam’s breathing sounded labored. Immediately, something was slammed hard into the snow behind her. With a full grip on the case, Carol yanked it into her arms and exited.
She was shocked to find Felton now on top of Sam, choking him with the handle. Sam’s bruised and bloodied face leaned back to glance at her. Carol could see him struggling to stay conscious. She was ready to race to his aid until he yelled out:
“S-stop! R-run… run, g-goddammit!”
He gritted his teeth in pain, tears running down his eyes.
“R-run!” he gagged.
Carol glanced back at the entrance and then at Sam, and closed her eyes. “Forgive me, Sam,” she whispered and took off.
Felton noticed and started to get up, but Sam grabbed onto his leg, forcing him to fall. In response, Felton launched a hard kick back into the old man’s face. Annoyed, he began releasing a barrage of heavy blows down on it. Carol continued onward. Behind her, she could hear the sickening cracks grow louder until she reached the lobby. She struggled to maintain her balance while running with the heavy case.
“Ruth!” She yelled out, tiredly. “Ruth, where are you?!”
She bolted up the stairs, skipping some, until she reached the diner. Ruth was nowhere to be seen in it.
“Ruth?!” Carol called out. “We need to hide, now! Something’s—your dad isn’t in his right mind. I think she’s got a hold of him! Ruth?!”
She raced over to the kitchen and peeked inside. It was empty.
“We don’t’ have time for this? We need to—”
Her words trailed when she could hear heavy footsteps racing from downstairs. S**t! she thought, taking off towards the lodging rooms. She ran down the hall skipping the first few doors, finally, turning to one on the left. She kicked the door open, threw the case to the floor, and slammed the door behind her. With adrenaline coursing her veins, Carol quickly scanned the room for something to block the door, settling on the bed.
Immediately, she grabbed a corner and pulled with all her might. The queen-sized bed obnoxiously scrapped against the floor as it moved. With it cleared from the wall, she got behind it and pushed it until it was pressed tight up against the door. Once that was complete, she froze, listening, fighting to slow down her breathing. Was he near? Beyond the door, she could hear the heavy footsteps moving slowly – it was clear he had reached the diner.
“I don’t understand, Carol!” she heard Felton speak out-loud. “Why are you running away?!”
She listened as his footsteps slowly edged their way down the hallway.
“Don’t you understand: it’s the highest of honors to be chosen by Mother Gaia! It’s a chance for her daughters to be recognized; to note their worthiness!”
Carol flinched as she heard a loud slam from a door being shattered open in the distance.
“Sons like myself can never be worthy! We can only be her tools, but at least we can still serve!”
There was another loud crash from a door, but much closer. Carol glanced around the room, looking for an exit. She noted the window and peeked out. The drop was much higher than the diner’s angle, leaving a chance to injure herself. Yet, staying put wasn’t a plausible option either; she was a sitting duck here. Did she want to risk it though? As she pondered this, she noticed something in the distance: it was figure moving in the snow. She squinted and immediately her eyes lit up: it was Ruth. What the hell was she doing out there?
Carol traced ahead and saw that she was heading to the forest beyond. That idiot! she thought. She was going through with it. How could she give-in so easily? Carol was ready to call out to her when there was another aloud slam, this time from her door. Fortunately, the bed prevented Felton full access in, but he immediately began to slide it. Carol ran up to bed and leaned against it.
“Carol, stop fighting it! None may resist the call!”
She could see his half-burnt face peeking through the cracks of the door as he gave it another strong slam. She struggled to hold her weight up against his. If he kept this up, it was over. Once again, she scanned the room, hoping to find something that could assist. Her eyes lit up when they fell upon the large case sitting a few feet away.
She leaned her back up against the bed and attempted to use her foot to scoot it closer. She could feel the bed falter even more from another strong slam. Tears welled up as she extended the edge of her foot further out. Time was running out. She took a risk and let go of the bed to grab the case, and quickly slammed back up against it. Carol quickly unfastened its snaps. She paused for a second to exhale. This was it, if there anything but a weapon on the inside, she was screwed. she opened the lid.
Her heart dropped when she looked in: it was long rifle with a scope. Joy filled her. She didn’t know what kind it was, but it didn’t matter. She quickly scooped up the gun, and pulled back its bolt to reveal its empty chamber. A box of ammo sat on the side in the case. The door started to splinter against Felton’s force, allowing him an arm inside. He began to pull himself through.
“She calls for you, Carol!” he yelled with a voice now layered – she could hear his and that girl’s mixed together. “Stop resisting and come!”
Carol struggled to load one of the long rounds into the chamber, between her shaking hands and the plowing giant. The bed started to push outward even more, allowing his entire torso to enter. She finally slid the round in and loaded it. Carol spun around, still pushing against the bed with her knee as she aimed the rifle at the door.
By now, it was barely in place with large holes in its frame. The blue in Felton’s eyes gleamed with madness as he clawed to pull the rest of his body through.
“Don’t make me do this, Felton!” Carol screamed, with a tear-stricken face as her finger slowly tightened on the trigger. “Fight it! Don’t let her control you!”
Immediately, Felton paused. His face dropped into a calm expression. Carol’s heart skipped a beat. Had she gotten through to him? She started to lower the gun.
“Felton?” she called out softly. “Are you…?”
The smile returned to his face, wider than before. “You’ve come. The wait is finally over,” he stated, pulling himself back out into the hallway. He gave one final smirk at Carol through the cracks and walked off. She listened as his footsteps led down the hall, fading into silence.
The confusion grew on her. What had just happened? Why did he leave? She listened closely to hear if he was really gone: the air was silent. Was it a trick? Carol sat there pondering the sudden departure until it finally dawned upon here: Ruth!