I could only wonder what Jake thought. There was nothing between us and so many bigger issues to worry about, but I felt an odd pang of fear in my chest, this hollowness carved out, when I thought about saying goodbye to him. To get out of these mountains alive was all we could wish for.
And yet, for some reason, I lay on the floor of that cabin and watched Jake sleep—wishing for more.
At first I wasn’t quite sure how it happened. When I opened my eyes in the grey light of dawn, I found myself inches from Jake’s chest. I sucked in my breath and slowly raised my head to see him peering down at me through his long lashes.
“Morning,” he whispered gruffly as he watched my eyes widen, a trace of a smile on his lips.
What the dickens was I doing, lying next to him like this?
Then it all came back to me. Visions of sleep and snow and the grainy reality of dreams.
In it, I had been walking through the woods hand in hand with my father, snow falling softly around us. Unlike my other dreams, I wasn’t a younger girl but as old as I was now, and we were in these very mountains, not the safe world he’d been a part of. My father was ageless, with kind eyes that twinkled in the fading blue light. The world around us was silent and he kept repeating a word over and over again. I had no idea what it meant, until finally he stopped and held me close to him.
“It means strength, Evangeline,” he said softly. “You must draw strength from fear or fear will make you weak.”
“I don’t need strength,” I whispered back to him, holding onto his hand. “I have you.”
He pulled away and looked me up and down, his eyes flitting through a range of different colors—brown to hazel to red to grey. “There is no me. There are only monsters inside of angels and angels inside of monsters. Choose wisely.”
He stepped away from me and his face contorted with pain.
“Papa,” I cried out as his skin turned ashen and pale, his eyes glowing blue. A horrible, beautiful blue. I reached for him but immediately took my hand back when the smell of rotting meat took over.
He grinned at me like a savage wolf. “Which one am I?” he asked in a snarling voice, his words dripping with an animalistic quality, steaming saliva that came from his mouth and hit the snow with a hiss.
He was a monster inside of an angel.
I turned and ran, and like in all dreams, I ran fast enough to fly, and then slow, like I was slogging through oatmeal. Suddenly the cabin appeared in the woods, the hanging lamp by the door wide open and waiting.
I ran into the cabin, still smelling the monster that was my father, knowing he was right on my trail.
I yelled for help from Jake and Tim and stopped dead when I saw Avery lying motionless on the table. I ran for him, trying to speak his name, but the words wouldn’t come and his eyes wouldn’t open.
Then the door behind me slammed shut. Everything went black.
Except for two blue glowing eyes, right where Avery should have been.
Claws dug into my back, ripping me apart like my spine was a seam.
I woke up with a start, covered in sweat and breathing hard. My back ached as if the claws had been real. I couldn’t figure out if I’d been screaming or not, but Tim was sitting by the door, asleep with his head against it. I remembered getting up and looking at Jake as he lay there, deep in sleep. Fear was motivating me and this was how I was drawing strength from it. I lay down beside him, feeling more afraid than proud, and promptly fell asleep.
Now that it was morning and I was right up against him, the fear was gone and the embarrassment came flooding in. I had behaved like a little girl who had a bad dream.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered quickly. I knew my face was growing red despite the chill in the air.
As I made the move to get up he said, “No.” He licked his lips. “Stay. It’s still early.”
I paused, wondering why he’d want me to stay by his side. Could he have actually liked the fact that I slept beside him as a wife would do with her husband? I suddenly felt very young.
I got up anyway and looked around the cabin. Dawn was just breaking somewhere beyond the trees, ushering in just enough pastel light. Tim was stoking the fire, and from what I could tell, Isaac was still asleep.
“Did you have a bad scare?” Jake asked.
I turned to see him trying to sit up. I went to him and grabbed his arm. “Lie back down,” I said.
“I’m fine.” He grunted and eyed my hand on his arm. “But I don’t mind you holding onto me.”
“Jake,” Tim said as he came toward us with a steaming cup of water. He held it out for him, his eyes passing briefly over me. “I scrounged up the last of the coffee kernels. You think you’ll be all right enough to make it back home today?”
Jake nodded and took the cup. Before he had a sip he gestured to it as if to offer me some. I shook my head politely.
“I reckon I should be okay. I also reckon we wouldn’t have a choice even if I wasn’t. Hank is apt to come back at any time.” He looked to sleeping Isaac as he said that. “We’re just lucky nothing happened to us last night. We can’t trust a madman.”
“I was up and ready for it if that were the case,” Tim said.
I nearly smiled, knowing Tim had been asleep when I woke up from my dream. His eyes darted to me for a moment but I kept my mouth shut. He may have held a gun to my head the other day, but I wasn’t about to rat him out. Not now. It seemed like everything was so unimportant when we were surrounded by death and snow. Angels and monsters.
And yet I still held onto Jake’s arm, my fingers burning into his bare skin. Somehow that seemed important.
I let go and pressed my hands together. I looked expectantly at Tim. “Should I start packing our stuff up?”
He shook his head. “Not with your shoulder. You did enough for us yesterday. Thank you.” He cleared his throat and ran his hand through his thin hair. “You both just take care of yourselves. Isaac, when the crazy bastard gets up, he and I will pack everything up. Then we’re out of here.”
“I can’t let you do everything,” Jake said with annoyance, his dark brows knit together. “I’m not crippled. It’s just a damn bullet wound.”
Tim shot him a placating smile. “You can go out and get us dinner. We’re fresh out of food anyway.”
Having slept in my clothes, I made my way over to the pot of water that had been warmed by the fire and quickly washed my face and ran a twig brush over my teeth, all while keeping my eyes focused on Isaac. Though he himself hadn’t acquired a taste for flesh, he had been the Dr. Frankenstein to Hank’s monster, a story I had read a few years ago. But while that monster seemed to be misunderstood, Hank had been a monster to begin with, and Isaac had seemed hellbent on making him worse. From what we’d all seen, he’d succeeded.
When Isaac began to stir, I quickly turned and left the area, not sure if I could even look into his eyes after what he’d done to Donna. An immoral part of me wished Hank had eaten him.
I caught Jake just as he came back into the cabin from the outhouse.
“Grab your shawl,” he said.
“Because I said so,” was his answer. He picked up his rifle and headed back out into the snow.
I sighed though I was happy to leave the cabin. I quickly wrapped my heavy shawl around me and slipped on my boots, heading out into the frozen air.
It was a fair morning—the sun was just starting to slice through the trees like golden glass and the sky was a cool blue peppered by dark clouds. It was the kind of weather I knew would change, that any moment a storm could come rolling down the white peaks and across the frozen lake. I had to hope we’d already be on our way.
“Where are we going?” I asked Jake, trotting after him, the air sticking needles in my lungs.
“You heard the man,” Jake yelled back. “We’re getting dinner. We’ll need something to eat when we leave this place.”
I gripped my shawl tighter beneath my chin. “This isn’t exactly safe,” I said as we disappeared further into the trees following what looked like a deer path. I kept expecting to see Hank at every turn.
Or my father.
I had to shake my head and steady my heart which started to skip over those last thoughts. It had been a dream, that’s all. There was no reason to think that Avery had turned into them. There was no reason to think my father had either.
Except for the fact that they both disappeared. One a few years ago, one a few days ago. But knowing what I knew now, what I’d seen, I couldn’t help but fear for their fates. For fates worse than death.
Suddenly I bumped into Jake’s hard back and gasped from the impact.
He turned around, one hand on my good shoulder and peered at me intently. “Ease up, Pine Nut. Did you hear what I said?”
I shook my head. “Sorry,” I managed to say.
“You have that look in your eyes again.” He leaned in closer, as if he was really examining me. With him so close, it was hard to meet his gaze. I looked down at his scuffed boots. My goodness he had large feet.
“That look,” he said, “that you had last night.” I froze. His hand on my shoulder tightened. “I wasn’t all that asleep. I saw your face. You had a scare.”
I think I’m having a scare right now. I looked up at him. “Aren’t we all having a scare?” I squinted at him. “Or are you too bad and brave to be scared?”
“Oh darlin’,” he said, grinning, “I get scared. Perhaps about different things than you, but I do get scared. I ain’t too brave,” he leaned in closer, his breath freezing between us, “or too big to admit that.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. I gestured helplessly to the gun. “At least you have that.”
“You’re right about that, though we both know an axe does a better job. But if you can shoot these apes in the face and at a close enough range, you can take their head off all the same.”
He took the gun and placed it in my hands. “And that’s why I’m teaching you how to shoot one.”
“Avery already taught me,” I said with a frown.
“The boy had the right intentions,” Jake conceded, “but he did not teach you properly.”
He pressed the rifle harder into my hands so that my fingers had to curl around the cold, heavy weight. “This is life or death out here. I want you to be able to catch our food just as I want you to be able to blow the head off Hank. You hearing me?”
I nodded. I had to say, “I thought you said women shouldn’t handle guns.”
He straightened up and I let out a small breath of relief. “Actually, I reckon I said you shouldn’t handle a gun. Guess now I’m less inclined to believe that you’ll shoot me. Call it a hunch, but I’m starting to think you might even like me.”
I gave him a wry smile, trying to ignore my increasing heartbeat. “I’m not sure how accurate your hunches are.”
He tipped the brim of his hat up at me. “Probably more accurate than your aim will be.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I haven’t even tried yet.”
“Just keeping you on your toes. You do better when you’re feisty. Like most women, of course under different circumstances.” There was a salacious spark in his eyes that made me wonder what he was talking about. Then, as soon as I figured it out moments later, I turned away so he wouldn’t see my blushing face.
“All right, we better get started,” I said quickly. “It may take me some time to prove you wrong.”
“Pine Nut, you’ve already proved me wrong,” he said. “I have no doubt about this.” He took my elbow and led me further along the path, the rifle in my hands, until we came to a large clearing.
“Where are we?” I asked. The tops of marsh grass poked up through the snowdrifts like a shorn porcupine, while a few ponderosa dotted the area before it gave way to dense forest again.
“How should I know?” he said with a one-shouldered shrug. “But it gives us room for target practice. First you shoot the tree, then you shoot the rabbit, then you shoot the zombie.”
“Zombie?” I repeated.
He shrugged again. “I met a fella in Mexico who told me about some story from the West Indies. They believe in the walking dead down there. Witchcraft and what have you.”
I swallowed uneasily, thinking back to Frankenstein’s monster. “These aren’t the undead. These are monsters, horrible, terrible creatures far worse than that.”
“Hence why we have to shoot them. Now straighten up.”
He came over to me and gently positioned my upper body so that my posture was ramrod straight. Then he went around me so that his arms covered mine and his chest was pressed against my back.
“Relax,” he whispered in my ear, “you can’t shoot when you’re tense. I should know.”
“I thought you’d get relief once you shoot.”
He paused, his mouth at the back of my head. “I’m going to assume I’m taking that the wrong way.” His breath tickled.
What way was that? I tried to figure it out but he put more pressure on my arms, moving them to his liking. “That’s better,” he continued. “Just relax. I’m not hurting you am I?”
“No,” I said in a small voice. My shoulder twinged a little but it wasn’t bad. “Is this hurting you?”
“I’m a hard man to hurt,” he answered. He made me lift up the rifle and place it on my good shoulder. “You’re lucky it’s the other shoulder that’s wounded, otherwise I think this would sting.” He instructed me how to hold it properly and how to line up targets through the line of sight, the pointy triangle on the end of the barrel.