If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
“It's useless, having me carry this,” Lark said, tapping the Colt in her waistband. She was leaning on Kelly for support. “Even if I could lift it- and with my shoulder fucked that's far from a given- I doubt I could hit anything.”
“Then consider yourself carrying it for me,” Betsy said, “and praying we don't need it.”
Kelly stared at her. “We're in a forest- find some wood and knock on it before-” She stopped when she heard the sound of a heartbeat heavy in her ears. “No...”
“We need to move. Now!” Betsy took up Lark's other shoulder, and the three ran together. They climbed a hill, heaving from the exertion. As they crested it, Kelly froze.
“It's getting louder,” she said.
As if to echo the concern, the hatchetman rose over the curve of the hill.
Betsy drew fastest, but knew to wait for the others. He took his first lumbering step down the hill towards them.
His fingers tightened around the wooden hatchet's grip, his joints crackling like their campfire. “Steady your shots,” Betsy said. “Aim center. Squeeze the trigger, don't pull, and wait to align your follow-up shot before squeezing again- and don't stop until he's down and stays there.”
Betsy fired the first shot, striking him in the shoulder, causing his march to reverse half a step before he started coming again. Their shots hit him, again and again. After five he fell to one knee. After three more, he fell onto his chest. Lark pulled her trigger again. “You're empty,” Betsy said, “you can stop.”
He planted his hands in the mud, and started to push himself up. Kelly, jittering, put a bullet into a tree several feet away.
“Calm,” Betsy said. “Exhale as you fire- and only when you're sure he's sighted in. Wait for him to stand, if you need to.”
Betsy put a shot into his kneecap, pulling the leg out from under him, and smashing him face-first into the dirt.
Again, he flattened his palms in the mud, and pushed. Kelly and Betsy fired in a flurry, until both guns were empty.
This time he balled his fists, and pushed them into the soft, wet earth. “You two should go,” Lark said. Betsy frowned at her. “It's like running from a bear. You don't have to outrun the bear- just the slowest person with you. I'm not making it out. I've been practically blind for the last mile; I'm surprised Kelly could keep me moving, she was carrying so much of my weight. And you're wasting time when you should already be running. Bring back the Army and the National Guard to finally put this bastard in the dirt for good.”
“What will you-” Kelly started, but stopped when Betsy squeezed her arm.
“She's right. We've got to get out of here.” Betsy tugged her arm as she started running. Kelly ran with her for a few seconds, before looking back. She saw Lark make a dash for the river. Then she passed behind a tree, and she saw a splash in the water, but couldn't tell if she was still moving or just got grabbed up by the current. She disappeared an instant later.
“Hurry!” Betsy yelled from far ahead. “I don't need extra help getting free of this bear.”
Kelly and Betsy poured out of the tent. Betsy immediately spotted Denny, and ran towards him. The top of his head was hanging by a flap of scalp. She froze, as Kelly knelt by him to check for a pulse.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “Why did you do this?”
“Your dumb, dead friend had a theory,” the detective taunted from the treeline. “It didn't pan out. Get it? Like a brain pan? Heh. I crack me up.”
“Damnit,” Betsy whispered, hot tears pouring from her eyes.
“What?” Kelly asked.
“I, fuck, blamed him. I was pissed. But I didn't want-”
“Shh,” Kelly said, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman. “This isn't your fault.”
“We're all fragile. And I was pushing on him so hard.”
“Not as hard as that prick,” Kelly said, glaring at the trees where the detective's voice had last emanated from. “And we're all stressed, too. I think, under the circumstances, we all deserve a get out of shitty behavior card.”
“He's dead, Kel. There's no forgiveness for that.”
“We, we need to get out of here,” Lark said, balancing herself precariously against the entrance to the tent. “No use, waiting for a sunrise that isn't coming.”
Betsy pushed herself off of Kelly, and helped Lark sit on one of the rocks near the dying campfire. “She's right,” Betsy said putting her hand supportively on Lark's back. “There's nothing left for us here.” Her hand came back bloody, and she winced. “And she's bleeding through her bandage. She needs real help.”
“Right,” Kelly said. “Lark, you should rest, maybe eat something. We'll gather up whatever supplies we can carry.”
“And pack light, no more than a backpack each. Sure, we can jettison stuff we don't need along the way, but we can't get back the energy we burnt through carrying it.”
Betsy went to the tent she was supposed to share with Angel. It was his tent, and smelled like his body spray. They'd been together long enough they bought sleeping bags that they could zip together.
She upended his backpack. Power bars and energy drinks dropped out, along with various survival tools, knives, a compass. And something she didn't recognize, a small box, plain and black with hard edges. She opened it, without any idea what she'd find inside.
Despite the box's outward lack of ornate decoration, the interior was covered in a lush, velvety purple. But it wasn't her favorite color that caught her eye, but a small ring held in a circular groove. “You goddamned fucker,” she said, her eyes filling again with molten hot tears. They'd been together for years, but she never expected... not even when he took her to the jewelry store to get her sized for a chintzy heart-shaped ring for Valentine's Day.
She wished she'd never seen it. But she couldn't go back, just like she couldn't go back to the world, where Angel was still alive. So for a moment she pretended she was there, that his hand was holding hers, and slid the ring over her finger. It fit, better even than the Valentine's mislead ring had. “I would have,” she said.
She refilled the bag, making sure the knives and compass were easily accessible, and adding in painkillers, bug spray and sunscreen from her own effects. Angel's bag had a rack for a sleeping bag. She rolled up their twin bags into one bundle; if they needed to stop to rest, being able to share one bag and body heat meant they wouldn't have to pack as many layers of clothes. Then she put on her sweater and her coat, in case it rained.
Kelly and Lark were already waiting. Lark had cooked eggs and some bacon, and they ate quietly. “You were supposed to rest,” Betsy said, taking Lark's plate. Lark's eyes lingered on the ring.
“What she means,” Kelly said, “was thanks for breakfast.”
“Yes. Thanks,” Betsy said. Lark nodded from Kelly to the ring, and her eyes got wide, too. “It was in Angel's stuff.”
“Shit,” Kelly said, swallowing. “It's beautiful.”
“Did you, know?”
Kelly furrowed her brow. “Makes sense; he asked a few dumb questions, right before the trip. Like, what your favorite wine was, or trying to figure out which of your songs was really your song.”
“And why he asked me to bring my Bluetooth speakers,” Lark added. “He said it was to connect to his phone, I figured he wanted music for the drive.”
“I wish we could carry them out,” Betsy said.
“We'll come back for them,” Kelly said, trying to sound convincing.
“Yeah,” Betsy replied, not believing her. “We should head out.”
“We should,” Kelly agreed. “Which way?”
“I assumed the road.”
“But it's open,” Lark said, “so we'd be easy to track, and vulnerable to attack.”
“But we wouldn't get lost...” Perhaps it was the relative quiet, and the fact that the water lapping against the shore was the only sound they could hear, but Kelly and Betsy's eyes both became excited at the same time, and they said, “The river,” in unison.
“The lake was man-made,” Kelly said, “either a reservoir or back-up capacity for a dam.”
“And because rivers were the original highways in this country, most cities are on a waterway if one was available,” Betsy added. “So we'd get the cover of the trees, but without the likelihood of getting lost.”
“Unless the river splits,” Lark said. “You know, sometimes they shatter into a dozen little creeks, which might not be easy to ford in my condition.”
“Crap,” Kelly said. “It's never easy, is it?”
Lark shook her head. “Life's hard. Then you die.”
“That felt like a really crappy motivational poster,” Betsy said. “So we should vote. And I'll go first, because I suggested it, so I'll take the chance of being the odd woman out. I think Lark's right. River could be dicey. And as much as I'd rather have the ability for stealth- it cuts both ways, and those things would have cover, too. But mostly, I'd rather not get caught someplace where we'd have to risk Lark's health to keep going.”
“See, from where I'm standing going first was devious,” Kelly said. “You get to set the terms of the conversation, frame the opposite choice as disregarding Lark's health.”
“I'm pretty sure it's not okay to insinuate an Asian woman is sneaky,” Betsy said with a grin.
“Whatever. I vote river. If we're out in the open and vulnerable, Lark's more of a target, not less. And we can keep following the water wherever it leads; eventually it either meets up with another road or civilization- but one far enough away from here that we won't be easy to track anymore.”
“You both understand that I can express my own concerns, right?” Lark asked. “I'm not moving well. And that's the real problem with the road. If it becomes a sprint... but at least in the woods everybody is compromised, from the uneven terrain to branches and roots and obstructed view. And with even a little luck, we can sneak past our predators. River.”
“Crap. I was being devious,” Betsy said. “Trying to make it easier for either of you to take the 'weaker' path with me. It didn't work; might have even back-fired.”
“The world may never know,” Kelly said.
“Oh, I did find one more thing, chilling in the cooler.” She produced a bottle of wine from behind her bag. “My favorite. It's a chocolate dessert wine. It should help with some of the lesser pain from the night, all the fights. And might get us moving a little faster at first. It's heavy enough not to be worth carrying, so if you're going to drink it, you should drink some here.” She used Angel's pocket knife to open the bottle, then tipped it to Lark.
“No way, Bets,” she said. “First drink's yours.”
“Yeah,” Kelly agreed. Betsy upended the bottle, and as she drank a tear slid down her cheek.
Next she handed it to Lark. “To the three of us,” she said, “still fighting.”
“I'll take this watch,” Denny said. “The prick detective is still stalking the place. That's personal, now, but he only wants me. I couldn't risk one of you getting between us. And like you said, we'll need all our strength to make it out of here come the morning.”
“I... I don't think the morning's coming,” Kelly said.
“What do you mean?”
“She means it's been more than twelve hours,” Betsy said. “Probably more than twenty since we woke up in that auto yard. And the sun was beginning to set when we had our accident. I don't think the sun rises here- whatever here is. But we've also all been running on fumes for the better part of a day. We need rest, or we won't make it- especially not if we're being hunted.”
Kelly followed Betsy inside the tent, then zipped it from inside.
“I'll be here,” Denny said, sitting on the rock nearest their tent.
In the darkness, it was almost pleasant having the crackling of the fire. It deadened the otherwise dread silence permeating the campground.
The Colt was laid across Denny's lap, and he was starting to feel the beginning numbness of sleep when he heard the snap of a branch. He knew it was intentional. The detective didn't make noise unless he wanted to.
“No rest for the wicked, eh, boy? And you have been awfully naughty, haven't you. You're the reason they're all here. Seducing Alan away. They'd all be safe at home in their beds if you'd just let your bosom buddy keep it in his pants.
“But that wasn't enough, was it? You weren't happy being the passive reason why all your friends are dying- oh, and they will, trust me on that, they will. No, you stepped up your game and shot your other friend dead.
“Which could have been heroic, even noble. If you hadn't fucked that up, too. You were too late to stop him, but fired too much to save him. You killed two of your friends. You fucking disgrace.”
Denny cocked back the hammer on the Colt, spinning in the direction of scattered leaves. “But do you know the part that saddens me, Denny? The shame of that pales in comparison to your crippling dread over the polaroids in my pocket. If I snuck past you and gutted the other two, maybe even finished off the black chick for good measure, you wouldn't stumble out of here crying over how pathetically you failed your friends. You'd be blubbering still about your family finding out you suck dick. Which ironically is the most profound way in which you suck dick.”
Denny spun the opposite direction, to where the voice was now echoing from. The detective seemed to be able to be everywhere at once. He couldn't stop him. He'd seen that he couldn't protect his friends. But the kernel of an idea formed in his mind, and he stood tall for the first time in hours.
“You're my monster, a manifestation of my deepest, darkest insecurities, somehow pulled from my head into whatever this world is. But we're linked. You've been stalking me, not the others. You could humiliate me, even kill me, and we've seen that you could hurt them, too if my fear is still here to animate you, give you strength. I've only got one bullet, but it's the only one I ever needed.” Denny put the Colt under his jaw.
“You don't want to do that, son,” the detective began. “Well, you always have, haven't you? Better that than disappoint your parents, granny and grandad, everyone else. And better than confirm to yourself you're a freak, like they always whispered you were. But surely there's got to be a more fun way to do this. I could...” he said, stepping out of the shadows, holding a switchblade. “I could slice open your guts, let them pool unto your lap. You close your eyes hard enough, the warmth, the moisture, you could tell yourself it feels how it would have if your boyfriend ever reciprocated. You could have one last sad little sobbing jerk-off. Blood makes for a great lubricant. I was going to say I heard from a friend in the force- but would you really believe that?”
“Not a step closer,” Denny said, pulling back the hammer.
“If I'd thought for a second you had the stones, I probably wouldn't have bothered coming here. No. Though bold choice, not sticking it in our mouth; worried about being a cliché? Or just about the jokes coming from your relatives, about how you couldn't stop yourself from swallowing a hard load- even if this one's a hand load? Taking the coward's way out doesn't buy you peace. The photos still circulate. Maybe I make it a habit of sending them out every holiday, just to make sure even your memory is forever tarnished.”
Denny smiled. “You can't hurt me anymore. Or them.” Then he pulled the trigger.
The momentum of the bullet pulled him off his feet, and it felt like he floated through the air for the full length of a song, his favorite song, Blue, and when he finally touched down in the wet ground, it felt like he floated peacefully into the warm embrace of the mud.
The last thing he saw before the darkness overwhelmed him was the look of shock on the detective's face melt away, replaced by a smile.
“Found a beer, too,” Denny said, rattling around a small bottle of pills in one hand while brandishing a can in the other. “To wash it down.”
Betsy and Kelly shared a look, and started to peel back the shirts. Lark whimpered. “You're scabbing nicely,” Betsy reassured.
“Okay, Lark,” Kelly started, “we need to get you up. When we do, we'll give you some painkillers, then Denny will get the rest of the shirts and ropes, and we'll improvise something to keep pressure on your back.”
“I'm not ready,” she protested.
“You won't fall this time. We've got you. Denny, you take her shoulders, we'll get on either side. Lark, if you can help us, do a push-up onto your knees.” They got into position. “On the count of three, one, two, three.”
They lifted together, and Lark cried out, but they pushed until she was sitting on her legs. Betsy kept a hand on her shoulder to steady her, while Denny handed her the can and bottle. Her face remained contorted with pain, but she took them.
Then Denny ran back to his tent, the tent he was going to share with Alan, the place he last kissed him.
“What do you think your mom will say, Denny?” the detective called from the trees. “You don't have to think, do you? She told you. She said she'd rather your bloated, mutilated corpse wash up on the shore than you come home with a boyfriend. Hell of a thing to tell a ten year old.”
Denny pulled the Colt from his waistband. It was lighter than before, and he remembered it was empty. The detective laughed.“I'm shaking- no, wait, you're the chihuahua here. I bet those snapshots kill your aunt, literally. I know, she meant it hyperbolicly, but she ain't a spring chicken any more; I mean, I'd pluck her, but any chick this side of fried, I've always said.”
Denny slid the gun back in his pants, and opened the tent. The ropes were hanging from the top, and he gathered them, mostly dry, and the remaining clean clothes.
“Took your sweet time,” Kelly said, when he got back to Lark. Something in her eyes told him she wasn't just talking about the clothes.
“You're right,” he said. “I should have fired faster.”
“You shouldn't have fired at all-” Betsy snapped, “at least not in the head.”
“I think maybe I should interject,” Kelly started, “to point out that this isn't something any of us could possibly be prepared for. People freeze. Even professionals. Cops and soldiers train relentlessly to get over that natural reaction- and none of us have. I mean, maybe, Bets, you have, a little, since martial arts do kind of the same thing- training so defense becomes second-nature.”
“I couldn't save him,” Denny whispered bitterly. “I don't know if any of us can be saved.”
“The fuck did you expect from a fucking pansy?” the detective said from the shadows.
“Son of a bitch,” Betsy said, drawing her own Colt.
“Don't,” Denny said. “He's smart, smart enough to keep moving around, always in the shadows, always just out reach. He's toying with me, at least for now. Which is why... could I have another bullet?”
“I fired all of mine.”
“Into my boyfriend.”
“Yeah. To save Lark. I don't need more than one. We have his gun... and he had ample opportunity to use that on me before we took it from him. No. He wants me to suffer. He wants to see the look on my face when I die. He'll be close when he tries. Probably with a hold-out knife we missed. But I'll only need one. So you can either give me a bullet- one lousy, measly fucking bullet- or the next monster that comes to our camp I'll just have to fling the gun at him.”
Kelly sighed. “There's a gun for each of us. Just give him the bullet. You want, I'll give you Angel's. You're the better shot, anyway; might make sense for you to have more than six shots.”
“Okay,” Betsy said, opening the gun and tilting it so a single bullet slid out. “Choose your next shot wisely.”
“I will,” Denny said. He loaded it into the Colt, then rotated the cylinder so it was ready to fire.
“You ready to move?” Kelly asked Lark. The other woman frowned. “We want to get you some place to lay down where you can let the scabs reinforce, and where we won't be subject to the elements, if those pissy looking clouds decide to soak us.”
Kelly and Betsy each got a hand under one of Lark's arms, and helped her to her feet. She gasped, and Denny ran ahead to unzip the tent. He rolled out her sleeping bag, and helped them lower her onto it.
Half of Angel's lupine face was gone, and the only thing keeping him upright were the two women holding his arms.
Lark sobbed in the dirt, his claws still stuck in her flesh. Kelly and Betsy lowered him to the ground. Then Betsy charged Denny, and slapped him so hard he dropped the antique Colt.
“Why the fuck did you do that?” she screamed.
“We couldn't save him,” he said limply.
“No, nothing can save you,” Betsy said, leaping at him with her hands clawed.
“No!” Kelly yelled, pulling Betsy off Denny. “Our friend is hurt. And I need help with her. Come on,” she said, yanking her back in the direction where Lark lay groaning.
Lark's back was covered in a lake of blood, pooling and trickling down her sides in waterfalls. It was dotted with islands of mud from Angel's hind paws, making it harder still to see how severe the damage was.
“I'll look away,” Denny offered, and started walking towards the fire.
“Now really isn't the time for modesty,” Kelly said, grabbing his hand and pulling him back. “These cuts are deep. We need water- all the drinking water we brought with us- to wash them out. And get the cleanest clothes you can find; we ran through the rest of Alan's bandages already. Betsy, take a few feet of rope and wash it off in the lake.” Betsy didn't budge from where she stood, glaring at Denny. Kelly shook her by the shoulder. “Now.”
Kelly collapsed to her knees when they left. It was taking all her strength that remained just to keep them from tearing out each other's throats. She felt more alone than seemed possible.
“It hurts,” Lark whimpered.
“I thought you were passed out.” Kelly said. “Hoped it, really.”
“No such luck,” she replied softly. “How bad?”
“Don't know,” Kelly said, grabbing handfuls of dirt and shoving them off her back. Her finger grazed a slash beneath one of the mud balls. “God.” The wound was as wide as two of her fingers, and she traced it gently up her spine.
“How bad?” Lark asked again.
“Not sure how deep,” Kelly said, “but you've got cuts down your back.”
“Never wanted to be a back model, anyway,” Lark said, laughing hollowly, then started to push herself out of the mud. “So long as I can-”
“Don't,” Kelly said too late, and Lark collapsed back into the dirt.
“Fuck. That was stupid. Why would you let me try that?”
“I learned years ago that I couldn't stop you from being stupid,” Kelly said with a smile.
“Ask,” Denny said, carrying water past her, “and ye shall receive.” He balanced a small stack of shirts and poured until the gallon was gone. For an instant they could see Lark's back clearly, and the series of slashes across it. The one Kelly had found seemed to be the shallowest of the bunch. After a few seconds the water was so thickly red that they couldn't see again.
“What's the thickest thing you found?” Kelly asked.
“Angel packed a sweater.”
“Keep that separate, for the bandage.” She took two shirts. She used the first to wipe the blood and water away from her back. A small gasp escaped Lark's lips, before she relaxed. Then Kelly layered the second over the cuts, and put pressure on them.
“Got your rope,” Betsy said.
“Give it to Denny, then help me hold pressure, here, and here. This is at least a two woman job.”
“And Denny's going to...” he started.
“Put those someplace to keep them clean and dry. We need to stop the bleeding before we try to bandage her. Shit.” She'd already bled through the first shirt. “Give us a couple more shirts, before you go.”
Denny handed them over, and they layered them over the first.
“You're doing great, Lark,” Kelly said.
“I know,” Lark said, stammering. “I bleed at a semi-pro level.”
“You're in shock,” Kelly said. “But you're doing really well. You've got to be in a lot of pain. When Denny gets back-”
“Speaking of the devil,” Betsy said, with an edge betraying her still-roiling anger.
“Would you see if there's any more painkillers? Maybe in somebody's backpack.”
“I've got tension headache meds, in my satchel.”
“Sure,” Denny said.
Kelly eyed Betsy, who shrugged. “It's not always easy being type A,” Betsy said. “Back in high school I'd have panic attacks anytime I didn't ace a test. But my parents taught me well; I waited until I got home to show it. Of course, I meant 'taught' euphemistically, since it was a combination of abusive parenting and inadvertently passing along unhealthy coping mechanisms. But 'taught' seemed more concise. And maybe a little kinder. I mean, I've mellowed, since then. But that's the other thing my parents taught me. It wasn't enough to be great. I needed to be exceptional, in everything, and any time I'm not...”
Lark groaned. “She's right,” Betsy said. “You're doing really well. Very brave, braver even than tackling the embodiment of your greatest fear off me.”
“In retrospect, seems like a silly choice,” Lark moaned.
“Don't be a pain, because I'm trying to thank you. You saved my life. And that... it makes me feel even crappier. When I proposed this weekend, I wanted it to go well, for everyone but you. I thought it was you, that Alan was cheating with. I know he was the first boy you kissed, back in high school, even if you kept it kind of quiet. And I half-expected that when push came to shove, you were going to end up on the outs with everybody, maybe completely out.
“And I thought that, at least in part, because you've always made me insecure. You can't out-petite me, but you were everything I couldn't be, physical, one of the guys. I got super jealous when Angel and I first started dating, when I was watching one of your scrimmages. He tackled you, and you ended up rolling around on the ground with your legs wrapped around him.”
“It wasn't like that.”
“I know. But it could have been, you know? If he wanted me, I'm pretty confident I'm the best me there is. But if he wanted something else, someone like you, for example, taller and more athletic, I couldn't be you. And even though I got pretty good at suppressing it, I realize I didn't ever get over it. I've been a shitty friend this entire time, and you-” her voice broke as she tried to choke back a sob.
“Don't girl out on me, now,” Lark said, turning her head to try to look at her. “We'll get out of this, together. But that means I need you strong, now. I may not have much fight left. So you'll have to fight for me.”
“She's resting, ish,” Kelly said, glancing toward Lark. “I gave her a couple of beers. It cut through the skin, muscles, and I think it hit stuff beneath. She was having trouble moving it, and I'm not sure that's just because of pain.”
“God... she'll be devastated.” Betsy sighed.
“Let's hope,” Kelly said.
“Yeah. The way things have been going... we all might be so lucky to walk away only maimed.” Without intending to, she looked at Angel, still tied to the tree. “You should try to rest with her. Denny and I can stay up on watch. And we are going to need as much of our strength to get out of here as we can muster, come the morning.”
“Yeah. We'll switch off soon. Don't let me sleep too long.”
“Sure.” Betsy waited until Kelly had zipped the tent she was sharing with Lark up, to start towards Angel. She knew it was a bad idea, but it had been so hard doing this without him. They'd been together since high school, and there wasn't a single adult problem she hadn't been able to work through with him.
“Angel?” she whispered softly. He didn't stir, save for his breathing. She squatted down next to him, halfway leaned against the same tree.
“Babe,” she said, shaking Angel's shoulder. Sleeping peacefully, he looked like the man she'd been in love with since she first laid eyes on him. She wanted to nibble on the taut muscles in his neck, feel his chest rise and fall against her cheek. The thought usually filled her with warmth, but it was bittersweet, because she knew she may not get to do either ever again.
She stroked her fingers down his cheek as a tear slid down her own. “I don't know what to do,” she whispered. “But they're right. We can't stay. And I don't know if we can carry you out of here.”
“Betsy-” Her name came low, and soft, perhaps a trick played by the breeze through the trees. “Bets.” Her heart beat faster, as she was reminded of the way Angel would whisper her name. Though she knew better, she hoped for a moment that it could him. “Betsy,” it came again, and this time she knew it came from behind her. “The hatchet.”
She looked back to Denny, who was gesturing at the tree. She followed his pointing up, at the place where the hatchet stuck after cutting through Lark's shoulder. It looked like it had just missed the ropes, but it had severed the length securing Angel to the tree.
She heard Angel's breathing deepen. She'd spent enough time napping with him to recognize the sound of him waking up. But it was already becoming more rapid, like a dog's breathing. Then his eyes shot open, only they weren't his eyes; the pupils were wrong, and the color.
Angel snapped at her with teeth that were still human, but by the time they clamped shut, they were already lengthening and sharpening. Betsy pushed off the tree, sending herself rolling backwards.
Denny aimed his Colt at Angel's chest. There was a wet snap, and Angel's right shoulder dropped several inches, and the ropes around his torso dropped. Spiny hairs sprouted all over his body, and a snout was growing from the center of his face. He swung the arm limply at Denny, knocking the Colt from his grip.
“Help!” Betsy yelled from the ground, before Angel stomped her in the midsection, his hind claws tearing through her shirt and scraping across her stomach.
Lark tackled Angel into the tree, knocking him snout-first into the bark. He yelped as he landed beneath her. He dug his hind claws into the tree, and used them to lever her over. She landed with her chest against the clawed roots of the tree, with Angel perched on top of her.
Kelly grabbed his left arm, and Betsy his right. His clawed feet dug into Lark's back, tearing through to the meat. She cried out.
“Denny!” Kelly yelled.
He'd retrieved the Colt, but his attention was on the treeline.
“I didn't even show you the good pictures,” the detective yelled from the shadows. “The real juicy ones- and I do mean juicy.”
“Denny, goddamn it, help us!” Betsy screamed.
Denny leveled the Colt at Angel, and fired until the hammer fell on an empty cylinder.
“Did you hear that?” Denny asked, cocking his head to the side.
“No,” Kelly said, shivering. The campfire was shrinking as their available wood dwindled. They didn't dare venture out for more, until daylight. “But that's the reason I'm not even trying to sleep.”
“If we're leaving in the morning, it might be good for some of us, at least, to sleep.”
“Like I could,” Betsy said bitterly, glancing at Angel, tied and propped up against that same tree.
“And I've got just too much nervous energy,” Lark said.
“That might be the energy drinks,” Denny said.
“If I'm up anyway, I want to be alert.”
“Plus, you enjoy having to go off into the darkness to pee more than once an hour,” Kelly added.
“Okay, admittedly, there are trade-offs to shotgunning caffeine,” Lark said. “But they're tasty.”
“But none of you hear a heartbeat?” Denny asked. “I've been hearing it, at varied volumes since the giant with the hatchet attacked Alan.” He stopped, and his face contorted as he fought off another bought of sobbing. “It seems so quaint, now, a maniac putting an ax in his guts.”
“I have heard it,” Kelly said. “But I thought I was crazy, or hearing the blood in my own ears rushing.”
“I don't know that I have,” Lark said, “but I think I'm hearing it now.”
“We're missing someone,” Betsy said.
“We all miss Alan,” Denny said.
“No- I mean, we do- but that's not what I meant. If each one of those... monsters was designed for us, we've only seen five of them, for six of us. The cowboy was clearly here to unman Angel. The wolf was here for Lark; she said it herself, he's basically designed to disable her. The detective is Denny's; the polaroids and revelation meant to destroy him. And the big lizard came to make Alan insignificant, to the point of not even registering when it killed him. Then there was the hatchetman. He could be here for either of us,” she pointed from herself to Kelly.
“I think he's mine,” Kelly said. “He attacked Alan, first. And I've... I always dreaded being alone, but, the worst nightmares I've ever had, it wasn't just being alone, but being alone forever, and dying without anyone there to even care when I have that last breath.”
“Which means mine is missing,” Betsy said.
“Provided that hypothesis holds,” Denny said. “I'm not sure these... creatures line up one to one with us. And in particular I'm not sure I can commit to assuming the world- or whatever this is- revolves around me. I'm comfortable being narcissistic or paranoid, but the mix seems-” he heard leaves rustling behind them, where they left the detective nailed to the ground. He rolled off his rock, facing the noise, preparing to scold their prisoner. “Fuck,” he whispered, as he brought up the Colt.
The hatchetman was standing over the detective, with his hatchet raised overhead. Denny wondered if maybe they weren't friends after all, and wondered if shooting the hatchetman would make him more cooperative. He pulled the trigger, and the only recognition the giant had of the shot was taking one step backward, before bringing the hatchet down.
It severed the detective's bonds, and in an instant he was rolling away, and running on his feet.
“Guns, now!” Denny yelped. Then he thought better. “But take your time. Kneel. Line up shots.”
The hatchetman drew back his weapon, and several shots peppered his body, but none could stop him from loosing it. The hatchet flew threw the air, over Denny, slicing its way through the meat of Lark's shoulder. She screamed, falling to her knees, as the hatchet buried itself in a tree.
“Are you all right?” Denny asked, taking his eyes off the giant lumbering towards them.
“My throwing arm,” she whimpered.
“I've got her,” Kelly yelled, helping her sit back down on one of the rocks.
Denny turned to fire again at the hatchetman, but he was gone.
Kelly sat beside Denny on the fallen log. He couldn't explain it, but it was comforting for him, reminding him of earlier, his terror, being in chains. Maybe he felt like he deserved that, and sitting there helped him remember that.
“That was shitty of me,” Kelly said.
“No,” he said, and shrugged. “It was heartily deserved, and really was a while coming. What I did... it was so much worse because I did it to you. You're one of my best friends, definitely one of my oldest.”
“Age before quality, I always say.”
“I'm sure it's no secret that I'm a font of self-loathing, but... I didn't want to hurt you. I'm still mortified about everyone else finding out. But now, how can't they? I'm the reason we're on this stupid trip- the reason Alan's dead, and Angel...”
“This isn't your fault.”
“Maybe not all my fault? I didn't create the monsters, or sic them on us. But we're here because of me. And... if that was torturing me right now, I'd feel a hell of a lot better, like I had my priorities straight and wasn't...” He sighed, and as the air went out of him his spine bent until his elbows rested on his knees. “-What I am.”
“A person without straight priorities?”
“Kind of. But I can't even think straight, the thought's been rattling around in my head so long. What did you two talk about, on the beach?” Denny asked.
“He loved you. Very much. Wanted me to know it wasn't personal, but that... he wanted to be with you.”
“Fuck,” he said. “That's worse.”
“I thought... I thought he was going to end things, try and patch things up with you. And I know what I did... it was fucked up. I betrayed you- and him, really, by making him a party to my betrayal. But that would have been okay, if he'd gone back to you, where I think I always knew he belonged. Sometimes love means fucked up people making mistakes because they need to, knowing how much damage it could do. But I never thought... I didn't think I could do any lasting damage. I never even, I didn't think he could want me, not the way I wanted him. When I touched him, I expected to get slapped down. And when I didn't... I knew I was trespassing, like I was stealing the apple in the garden. And I knew it ended in tears, but it just made me so happy in that moment...
“Christ, I'm such an unmitigated dick. You lost Alan, too, and before that I hurt you, and made him hurt you, too. And I'm blubbering to you like-” He stopped, and took a deep breath. “You deserved better. You were a good friend and a good girlfriend to him, and we both suck for hurting you. And I'm sorry. If I could have done anything else... but it felt like I couldn't. Like I was trapped, between him and...” He unconsciously touched the scars at his wrists.
Kelly had never asked him about them, not directly. But they had classes together in high school, when he disappeared for a few weeks. He came back with bandages on his wrists, and when those came off, scars. She didn't ask because she could tell he didn't want to talk about them then, though she tried to leave herself open to it if he did.
“Love can make you a real dick,” Kelly said. “I started out this trip full of wrath and self-pity. But after what we've been through these last few hours... it's hard to really hold a grudge against someone helped you fight off a man-eating monster.”
“So it's a temporary stay of execution, then?”
“I'm not sure how temporary, exactly, but yeah, probably better to think of it that way. I'm not saying I won't hold shit against you if we make it back into the world-”
“When,” he insisted.
“But I don't think I want to, for whatever that's worth.”
Kelly heard the others running up behind her, heard their exclamations of disbelief, the beginning of murmured condolences. They crashed against her like waves on the rocks, all paling in comparison to the conviction that had been growing in her for some time.
“We need to get out of here,” she said.
“Right,” Betsy said. “It isn't safe on the shore.”
“No,” Kelly said. “Out of this place.”
“How?” Lark asked. “The truck is totaled, and without the sun we don't even know which way out is.”
“And I'm pretty sure out is away from this lake and that goddamned monster,” Kelly said.
“Okay,” Betsy said, stepping between them. “Step one is we head back to the campfire.” She put an arm around each of their shoulders and started to push. Reluctantly, they started moving together.
“And step two?” Denny asked.
“We figure that out together,” Betsy said. “Because whatever we do, we have the best possible chance of making it out if we do it while watching each others' backs. Comprende?”
“Sure,” Lark said.
They took up their seats around the campfire, taking up the same spots they had at the beginning of the night. Seeing that their circle was missing two hammered home the urgency of the situation.
“What should we do about Angel?” Lark asked.
“I don't think we should try to guess at what he'd want,” Kelly offered.
“He doesn't get a vote,” Betsy agreed. “Unless he wakes up and starts talking sense.”
“That wasn't what she was asking,” Denny said.
“He's hurt,” Betsy said. “But he's tied up. I think I can march him out of here.”
“And if you can't?”
“We tie him to a tree, and come back for him with help.”
“With those other things still rambling around?” Lark asked.
“Maybe I'd stay with him.”
“You just said we needed to stay together.”
“And we do,” Betsy said. “But if we decide to go and he can't... let him be my responsibility, okay? If we're making a break for it, it doesn't make sense to all stay behind because one of us can't make the trip.”
“I'll stay,” Denny said.
“Or we can draw straws,” Lark said.
“Or we can stop prancing around the actual decision,” Kelly said. “We have a choice to make, first. Stay and try to strengthen our defenses to wait for the sunrise. Or trek out of here. The road gives us structure, but it also leaves us defenseless; we're easier to track and have the same exposure to threats using the trees for cover, but without the added bonus of having them work as a partial wall.”
“So it's a vote, then?” Denny asked. “Because it seems simple, to me. I'm not leaving Betsy. I'm not leaving Angel. It seems like we probably don't think they can make it out. And the sun's coming up, likely soon. And like Kelly just said, the road leaves us vulnerable. If we can figure out where we're going, we've got a better chance of making our way there through the forest.”
“Really?” Kelly asked. “You pick now to trot out your do-or-die loyalty to your friends?” she yelled across the fire, her voice cracking. He sighed, threw up his hands and left the circle. “Fuck, I'm...”
“Talk to him after you cast your vote,” Lark said.
“There's a goddamned lake-monster that could decide it wants to eat all of us- or worse.”
“And I'm assuming you'd rather err on the side of caution,” Lark said, “since we may have a hard time even waking Angel to march him out right now.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I guess so.”
“And I never made it a secret how I felt. So ladies, pitch your tents for tonight. We move out at dawn.”
Kelly wanted to hate Alan, and maybe some small part of her did. It had been easier, when she was able to tell herself he was just following his libido, taking her for granted and maybe even putting her health at risk.
But now she saw the truth. He was lost, a stranger as much to himself as he'd ever been to her. She wasn't sure she could swallow the idea that he cheated to preserve a friendship; that was shitty, even if she'd had the grace not to hit him on it- at least not yet.
She glanced back at him, standing on the edge of the water, lost in contemplation. She still loved some part of him, and found herself wondering whether, if that part won out over the rest, some day in the future, she would consider taking him back. Then she noticed the ripples in the water, not gentle swirls from the river depositing water in the lake, or the eddying as it left. This was something big, like the wake of a great ship, cutting a growing slice out of the water, heading right for Alan at the shore. But there wasn't a ship, and she realized as a fin protruded from the water that the disturbance was beneath it.
“Alan!” she screamed, as the creature's head rose from the water. It was a lizard, or a dinosaur, or amphibious or at least something wet and scaly. The fin atop its head was bigger than Alan, its head two of him.
Alan was standing still. She'd seen him freeze before, and started running.
The monster continued to rise from the lake, the water still waist-high on it. It was a multi-story office building, now, with more of its girth still lurking below. It was faster than her, faster than something that big should have been.
It was all but out of the water, now, and raised its hind leg. She was still too far away, and she knew what was about to happen, but was just as unable to stop herself from running towards it as she was to stop the inevitable. The clawed foot came down on Alan like the force of a falling tree, and he disappeared beneath it, his body disappearing into a fine pink mist and gore that mercifully splashed down in the water.
Kelly finally stopped, her urgent mission a failure. She could feel the warm spray, and for an instant she was at the beach that summer with Alan and their friends, all intact, before he cheated on her. But the warm mist was Alan. Her skin and close were painted red with what was left of him.
But she wasn't concerned over that. She was frozen, like Alan, staring up at the ridiculous lizard, standing on two legs like a squat tyrannosaur, but with long, powerful arms that ended in claws nearly as big as its teeth. Those were easily as big as her legs, maybe as big as Betsy.
The lizard turned, dragging its tail across the shoreline. Kelly ducked beneath it, trying not to move more than necessary lest she get its attention next. She stood there, as it walked back into the water, watching it disappear.
Alan had been insignificant. In the face of this kind of monstrosity, everyone was. But there was almost a kind of security in insignificance. It didn't need their destruction like the other monsters had. It just did what it needed to, and was gone.
Alan felt good for the first time in weeks. There were unanswered questions, sure, but just having asked them, having pondered them, he felt like finally he had a chance to disentangle himself from the weight he'd been struggling beneath.
Some of that feeling was Kelly. She was a great girl- great enough that he knew he didn't deserve her. And that had always been the problem. She was smart, pretty, sweet, destined to finish school and go do something with herself. And he tapped out with just enough school to be an EMT. Not a doctor, not even a nurse.
He closed his eyes, and forced that train of thought from his mind. He was making progress, and he would be damned if he was going to start undermining it the second he was alone with his own thoughts.
He glanced back towards Kelly. She was looking his direction. That felt hopeful, and he tried to bury that hope inside, where he might need it later.
Then he heard the rush of water. The lake had a gentle current, from the tributary pouring into it, and the outlet where it emptied. But the water was mostly still, and he could sometimes go minutes without hearing the waves lap against the shore.
This was different, bigger, and building, and he could see the slipstream getting nearer to him. A blade sliced out of the water, and he told himself it couldn't be what it looked like. This was fresh water, so it couldn't be any kind of shark or similar animal. And besides, he was standing ankle deep in the shallows, before a steep drop-off. There was no way anything could get to him there.
But the fin kept rising, until he wondered if it was a sail atop some strange kind of ghost ship. A thin smile crossed his lips as he thought about swashbuckling with skeletal pirates.
Then a boulder attached to what he thought was a fin broke through the waters. What was happening? Was someone draining the lake, revealing things that had been buried? No, a quick glance told him the waterline was right where it had been, so the thing was rising.
The rock had a strange shape, craggy but almost roundly aerodynamic; that sort of thing happened in rivers, where the blunted edges were rounded off by erosion and collision with other rocks. And in the rock he almost felt like he could make out the features of a face.
The 'rock' opened its eyes, and he saw finally that it was no boulder at all. It blew a stream of water from a blowhole in its neck, as more of its enormous body rose above the water. He could barely see its shoulders, but forty feet of it towered over him already.
He heard Kelly yell for him, but the thing was too huge- not just the lizard rising from the water, but the totality of the situation. What could he do against something like that? How would he even resist?
He saw its chest rush above him. His face was soaked, but he couldn't be sure if it was splash from the monster or if he was blubbering. He had never been so terrified, and in the same instant, he had never felt so completely divorced from his own dread, because it was so insignificant, a single grain in a sandstorm.
The lizard raised one of its stocky hind legs, the precipitation falling off the creature's body a waterfall. Alan had been crushed by fear for most of his adolescence, but now, faced with having a building-sized foot dropped on him, he couldn't muster a single thought for himself, other than, “Wow.”
“I get the feeling that could have gone better,” Kelly said.
“Yeah,” Alan admitted. “I think most of us always had an inkling, or at least a suspicion. But he's never really understood it, and even these last couple of weeks, when he couldn't hide it from himself anymore, he's not to a place he can accept it, let alone accept the idea that anyone else could.”
“Not really what I meant. I never thought I'd see your cock in anyone else's mouth, let alone one of our male friends.”
“I'm sorry for that, too,” he said.
“Don't. Be sorry for the cheating, and that it was with someone I've known most of my life. But those photos? We're a hundred miles from home. Do you think he really stalked us all this way? Do you think that anything that's happened since we woke up was normal and natural? I”m not giving you any kind of a pass- but there's something fucked up happening here, and I'm not going to feed into it by blaming you for it.
“And it sucks. Because I'd like to be able to be there for Denny right now. But I'd also like to kick his ass. Because I know you. You didn't even initiate with me, because you were afraid of the way I'd look at you if I rejected you. He made the move. I'd know better how to react to the whole thing if he had a weave I could tear out.
“But I'd like to be there for you, too. I don't know how well I could be, right now. I think if we hadn't spent most of our night fighting off monsters I'd probably slap the living shit out of you. But this drama feels like something I can handle, something normal enough that I don't have to worry about figuring out firing a gun on the fly or trying to figure out how to treat a gunshot wound. But you just got pretty forcefully outed in front of your closest friends.”
“I'm not sure I did,” Alan said. “God,” he said, his voice breaking, “I'm so fucking weak. I froze. He kissed me, and touched me, and I froze. Like, I knew what was happening, and what to say to stop it if I wanted. And I told myself I would, that the moment I needed to actively participate, then I'd shut it down, but that moment never came, and before I even realized it was happening he was going down on me.
“And I thought of every moment of our friendship; I met him in Kindergarten, and we've been best friends ever since. And I could count the times I've disappointed him on one hand; and rejecting him, then... it would have devastated him. And I told myself... it felt okay. And guys give each other bro-jobs nowadays. It only had to be a thing if we made it one.
“Then you found out. And I went to his place to commiserate... and he comforted me.”
“It's okay,” Kelly said. “You know your friends, and me, we love the both of you whatever you or whoever you love, asterisk, I may not be able to be personally okay with it after this momentary calm inside what feels like right now is the shitstorm of a lifetime.”
“That's... I think the other thing that's made me feel trapped. Denny is needy, but he was also terrified about anyone finding out. Even the little judgment that would come from a rejection seemed like more than he would be able to bear. But I'm not sure I'm like that- even a little. It felt good, but I don't think I'm actually attracted to Denny.”
Kelly glanced behind her, and Alan gave her a strange look. “Oh, it's just usually when someone says something like that, you turn around and the person they said it about is there, and you can watch their heart break, almost in slow motion.”
“Please don't tell him.”
“I wouldn't for all the tea in China. But you are going to have to make a decision. If you're not into Denny, you can't just fake it. He's your best friend, and eventually he's going to demand more from your relationship than you can give. And if you drag that out long enough, not only will you kill any budding romance, but you'll lose your best friend, too.”
“I don't know what I want to do.”
“Are you sure? Because Denny loves you. And he'd love you even if you didn't want to keep mashing squishy parts together.”
“Not fishing for details.”
“But if you have any reservations, you have to be honest with him, now. Because otherwise it'll be worse than if you told him in the cruelest way possible.” Kelly turned to go.
“Wait,” he said, and when she turned around he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed. “I wanted to thank you. For being this cool about everything. I deserved... actually, I deserved this night. I don't think the rest of you have done anything anywhere near so monumentally crappy to each other, but... thank you for being kind to me, even though I know I haven't deserved it.”
She smiled. “I do reserve the right to treat you like the jackass you've been once we're not being hunted, though.”
“That's only fair.”
“You coming back?” she asked.
“I think... I think I want to stand by the shore a little longer. Usually, I'm so wrapped up in feeling insignificant, that I lose parts of myself- trade them away, just to feel relevant. I think more than anything, that's what happened with Denny. Maybe you're right. I don't feel like I know who I am, when I'm not bending myself to fit what I think will make other people happy. But I think even that's answer, isn't it? If I can't know what I want or what I need, maybe for now I just need to be alone. But for right now... it's good to feel small. To feel like there's so much more out there than just me- even if it is just a man-made lake.”
“You want to what?” Betsy asked.
“Nothing to do with want,” Alan said. “But I don't think he's a detective. I think he's one of those things. And if he is, then I'm not sure we should be taking the chance he'll get loose again.”
“And is Angel one of those things now?”
“What? No,” he said. “He's maybe been infected or something, but he's still our friend. This prick?” He nudged the detective with his foot, “for all we know he bought the trenchcoat to better flash children, and is a monster both in his day job and as part of his night life.”
“You idiot children are ranging closer and closer to conspiracy to commit murder,” the detective snarled.
“We're not killers,” Kelly said. “Why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because that big bastard with the hatchet is still out there, and we're running low on medical supplies. I'm saying what sounds cold-blooded now, may be life or death before the sun rises. We don't have to kill him. He's going to bleed to death unless we help him- and I'm asking if we're sure it's the right thing to do.”
“That is fucking spectacular,” the detective said from the ground. “No, seriously, I would applaud if my hands weren't nailed to the fucking ground. Little insignificant Alan, holding life and death in the palm of his hands. Not unlike God herself, or like effeminate little Denny cradling your sack.”
“What's he talking about?” Kelly asked.
“I've got all kinds of answers for you, if lover boy is willing to patch me up.”
“Angel,” Betsy said, kneeling by his head. “Can we fix him?”
“With a pair of pliers and a basic understanding of anatomy.” She rabbit-punched him in the chin. “Not a sense of humor in the bunch,” he grumbled.
“Can we save him?” she asked, her voice breaking. “And to be clear, you make a crack about religion and I will send you to whatever shit-puddle you cower before.”
“I like you, Betsy. And seeing as you're currently single, unless you're into interspecies action, maybe you want me to hump one into you.”
“Pliers,” Betsy said, putting out her hand. Alan handed them over without hesitation. She opened them, and pressed the pliers against his slacks. “Straight answer, or I unman you.”
“I wouldn't,” he said, “because without my help, Angel's name's going to be a hell of a lot more literal.”
“Goddamnit!” Betsy yelled, jamming the pliers into the dirt between his legs. “Fix him up,” she said, glaring at Alan.
“But just so you see I can give tit for tat- and notice what a class act I am, not demanding anyone show me a tit to cooperate- I'll answer Kelly's question, too. Breast pocket. I don't think you ever knew- that you could even fathom who Alan was cheating on you with. But since we're all friends now, I think it's right that we clear the air, so we can move forward. It just guts me, us keeping secrets from each other.”
She bent at the waist to open his pocket. “Kelly,” Alan said. “Don't.”
“You don't need to see that,” Denny said. She hesitated.
“Sort of lets the cat out of the bag,” the detective said. “But a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. And we both know, Kel, that you need to know.”
She removed several polaroids, and dropped them almost immediately.
“Is that,” Lark frowned, “Denny?”
“No,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “Of course not. They're fakes. Lies. I...”
“Stop it,” Alan said.
“It's not me,” Denny whimpered.
“It is,” Alan said. “I'm sorry, Den. But lying about it... it doesn't change things. It just makes everything worse.”
“Strange night,” Kelly said, staring out at the ripples in the lake's water.
Alan dipped the edge of his shirt into the water and ran it over Angel's pistol. “I didn't wake up this morning thinking I'd cut my friend's gun out of a werewolf,” he said.
“Thought it would be a toothbrush and a unicorn?”
“Croquet mallet out of a leprechaun.”
“How would you...”
“It wouldn't be pretty,” he said with a smile.
“I've missed you,” she admitted.
“Missed you, too,” he said. “And I'm... I'm sorry. The absolute last thing I ever would have wanted was to hurt you.”
“I don't want to lose you.”
“I'm not sure you've got a choice anymore.”
“Guys!” Lark said, running at them like she was being chased by a tsunami. “The detective came back.”
“He what?” Alan asked.
“Says he was bleeding too much, couldn't even walk straight. He was either going to bleed out or come back.”
“I'll be right there,” he said. “Get my kit.” He waited until Lark was out of earshot. “We'll talk later, I guess.” He spun on his heels, and jogged back towards the campfire.
Denny had the detective on his knees, with one of the Colts pointed at him. Lark was kneeling in front of him, spreading out supplies for him in their little zippered case.
“He still in the cuffs?” Alan asked.
“He broke one of his thumbs, to get loose,” Betsy said.
“Get rope, bind his hands. Use one of the tent spikes to pin the rope to the ground above his head. I'm going to need him laying flat.”
Betsy ran for supplies. Denny knelt beside the detective, and he and Alan lowered him onto his back. “He moves,” Alan said.
“Yeah,” Denny nodded, keeping the big old Colt aimed at the man on the ground. Betsy returned with the rest of the rope, and a mallet. She knelt down beside the detective's hands, and wrapped them tightly. Then she threaded a tent spike through the rope, and pounded it into the ground.
“Now, I'm going to need space,” Alan said. “If I'm probing around in a bullet wound the last thing I need is to introduce more germs. The rest of you can wait by the fire. But Denny stays; I can't keep an eye on him myself while I work.”
Alan squirted disinfectant on his hands, then into the wound. “I'm not going to touch the bullet. I'd probably do more harm digging around in you. Long-term, you might want it taken out, because bullets can lead to lead poisoning or problems with nearby joints.” He picked out some gauze and a pressure bandage.
“But before I do a goddamned thing, I want to know what the fuck you are. You aren't a cop. I think you're the same kind of thing as that wolf, or the freak with the hatchet. But I want to hear it from you. Or I won't just let you bleed out, I'll make sure it hurts while you do.”
“I feel sorry for Denny. Least he was born a homo. You had a choice. And you chose to cheat on that sweet little thing by the lake. With him. Even if he lost fifteen pounds, combed his hair so it looked less like it was receding, he's still a step-down. Maybe a six, on his best days. The girl's a seven hung-over and sick with pneumonia.”
Alan's grip tightened around his pliers. Kelly was sick, on New Years Day, and hung over. How long had he been following them?
“The two of you make a hell of a pair. Him afraid of anyone knowing what he really is, and you afraid of how unimportant you are, petrified of the prospect of disappointing anyone- that's what folks in my biz refer to as a two-fer.”
“And what business is that?”
“I'm a detective. I always get my man. Sometimes, when I'm real good, I get my man and his man.”
“You aren't a cop,” Alan said, “and I'm really not seeing a reason we shouldn't shoot you and make it look like you did it to yourself.”
“The gutshot, for one,” he said. “If I were pristine, maybe that story would hold. But you can't really argue that I gutshot myself; no one kills themselves on purpose like that.”
“Then I cut your tendons and open your veins and we toss you in the lake.”
“I'll pretend these are hypotheticals, and float one of my own. You could just hang the queer out to dry. Tell your friends the truth- that you pitied him, so you let him suck you off, that it was as far as you ever meant to let it go. Hell, he looks pitiful enough just standing there I'd take a pity hummer right now.”
“I'm going to examine you,” Alan said, and hunched over his body. He used pliers and a pair of tweezers to pry apart the wound enough to look inside. “You're fortunate. Missed the vital organs, so unless you stupidly got mud inside it, you won't die of sepsis- one of the nastier ways to go. But that's academic, because without help, you're going to bleed out. Excuse us.” He nodded for Denny to follow a few feet away.
Denny walked cautiously, watching both where he was stepping and the detective for movement, keeping the gun trained on him. “Well?” Denny asked.
“He looks human- inside as well as out.”
“But you don't believe it?”
“Do you? I've never seen anyone unhinge so quickly. Usually it's a process, tell-tales that maybe weren't obvious at first but in retrospect should have been flags. But he was sane until he stopped, and now he's pathological.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I don't know. Maybe it's not the kind of decision we should make alone.”
“And what if he tells?” Denny asked, shunting his gaze away from Alan.
“And what if we're wrong? He's definitely not innocent, but I can't rule out that he's human. And it's not like our friends are in another zip code. They're right there,” he pointed to the fire not a hundred yards away. “We're going to have to have this conversation sooner or later- I just think we should do it before we've got blood on our hands.”
Betsy was wheezing. The wolf seemed preoccupied with Lark, which gave her an advantage, but it was faster, stronger, with claws and fangs and little that would qualify as self-preservation. It lunged again, trying to run around her, get to the opposite side of the tree where Lark was. All it needed to do was get her to loosen her grips on the rope and suddenly it would be two on two, and they would be screwed.
She punched it, hitting it in the jaw. It skid in the mud, striking the tree and nearly landing on Angel. He was close enough to her that he snapped at her, nearly catching her in his teeth. “Lark!” she screamed, and the other women pulled the ropes tight, smacking Angel's head against the tree with a wet thud.
The other wolf kicked off the tree. She managed to roll, causing its teeth to miss her by inches. But its claws raked down her shoulder, making her wonder if the bite had been a feint all along. It hurt raising her hand to defend; he must have cut deeper than she realized. It was definitely a he, though, that much was certain, this close to the campfire.
Betsy heard footsteps, and strained her ears. Just on the edge of sound, past the breeze and the light crackle from the wood in the fire, she could hear ticking. The hatchetman. She tried to remember her instructor talking about fighting multiple assailants. But none of her lessons involved a werewolf or a giant ax-wielding monstrosity. She remembered the day she lost her first match- the last time she fought competitively. She was going to lose again, and this time it was going to be permanent.
A hand smaller than the one she anticipated lit on her shoulder and pulled her out of the wolf's way. Familiar light brown hair flew past her, and she recognized the Colt raised at the approaching wolf. It fired. The bullet smashed through the wolf's eye, through the socket, sending a jet of liquid brain spurting through the hole before an even larger ejection of skull fragments, jelly and viscous fluids splattered through the exit wound. The wolf dropped, first to its knees, then flat.
“I can't,” Lark yelled, as the ropes fell loose around Angel. Kelly turned to fire, but her shot hit the empty spot where he'd been a moment before. He ran to the rear of the tree, and pounced on Lark. “Help!” she yelled.
Kelly and Betsy ran for them. She had managed to lift a felled branch, and had that stuck in Angel's jaws. He snapped at it, probing for a weak spot to be able to break it in half and get to the girl just beyond it.
“Angel,” Kelly said, pulling the hammer back on the Colt. “Stop, or I stop you.” He didn't seem to even register the noise. “Goddamnit, Angel,” she whimpered.
“Don't!” Betsy said, pushing the gun to the side. She had a rock raised over her head, and brought it down on Angel's skull. After the first blow he rolled over on the ground, and tried to bite at her while kicking. A second smashed in his eye, and after a third, he went limp.
Denny and Alan came running. Denny had the Colt, now. “Keep that aimed at his head,” Kelly said.
Betsy was already shaking Lark, who was staring straight ahead, nearly catatonic. “Did he bite you?” she asked firmly.
“I-” She was jittering uncontrollably. “I, I don't think...” She frowned, having difficulty finding the words.
Kelly got a hand underneath her arm and helped her to her feet. They walked back to the circle lit by the campfire, then turned her hands over. “No bite marks. The blood on her hands comes from rope burn.”
“Jeez,” Betsy said.
“Sure it's tight enough?” she heard Alan ask. With the ropes cut, there wasn't enough to wrap him back around the tree, so they had looped it around Angel's torso, instead.
“Nearly broke my wrist in those cuffs, but it's as tight as I can get.”
“The cuffs,” Kelly said, and snapped her finger. “Where's the detective?”
“That was actually why we ran over here,” Alan said, wincing. “We got the cuffs on him, right? Then you started shooting, and- I jumped, and he got away from us.”
“There is a silver lining, though,” Denny said. “Aside from the fact that he's unarmed and gut-shot. We still have the handcuff keys.”
“We're in an insane world,” Kelly said. “But by the fucked up way things seem to be working out for us, I think we can chalk that up as a win, anyway.”
“And,” Alan said, “I think I've got one more win for us.” He was looking at the dead wolf on the ground. “But I'm going to need a knife.”