Katie plugged in her headphones and felt the bus lurch forward as the trip to the lodge began.
Each winter break, her and a group of college friends would get together for a lodge trip. Their typical choice, the Fairweather Lodge, was decidedly not fair weather this year… the lake they usually used to swim and boat together had frozen over and caused the proprietors to shut it down for the season. Eric was chosen to pick an alternate lodge, and decidedly chose the Quardi Clifftop Escape. When asked why, he wouldn’t say. He exasperatedly claimed it was all a secret, at least until they got up to the mountain.
On her phone, she swiped to the video Nera had made to introduce the group to their trip. Katie pressed play.
Nera was in her dorm room, with a visible banner of Wallington University hanging on her wall.
“Hey, Flow Gang!” she waved excitedly. “Welcome to Flow Break 2017!”
She grabbed something from off her desk, revealing it to be an old brochure. “So, since Fairweather’s decided to shit itself this year, we’re going with alternate options. Eric has chosen this-” She shows the brochure, “- I honestly didn’t even know this place was available, but apparently Eric says it’s cool, so I suppose we’re going with that. Anyway, let’s go over the things you guys selected as highlights for the year…”
The video was enough to satiate Katie for the rest of the ride. When she finally made it up to the closest bus stop, she made her way up to the front and asked the driver:
“How much farther until I hit Quardi?”
“Yeah, the uh… the lodge overlooking the cliff, that one.”
The bus driver shrugged. “You can probably get to it if you cut through the woods. Should take you fifteen minutes or so.”
She got off the bus and sighed to herself. “I really hope Eric knows what he’s talking about.”
She was hesitant to cut through the woods, and instead followed the path for a little while until she hit a gas station. Around this time she got a call from Andrew.
There was laughter on the other end. “At least Eric chose a spot with some service, right?”
Katie smiled. “So, you guys already there?”
“Uhh, only Michelle and I so far. No word from the others. Hey, where are you right now?”
“At a gas station. Near the last bus stop.”
“Oh shit, so you’re already almost there. Hey, I think… I think I know where you are. I’ll go pick you up, okay?”
Katie looked around. Snow was falling. No one was in sight. There was a dim light coming from the gas station. “Yeah, sure. I’ll just hang out around here.”
When she entered the gas station, the first thing she noticed was how empty the whole thing was. Half the shelf space was empty, and the lights tinkered to create a dull atmosphere. At first, she thought she was alone, but then she heard a voice.
“Lookin’ for somethin’?”
Alerted, she jumped slightly then turned around. At the counter now was an older gentleman, rugged by the outdoors, with a large gray beard and a partially toothless smile. Katie was not comforted by his presence.
“Oh, no… I’m just, uh… waiting for a friend.”
The cashier’s smile turned into a frown. “Gotta buy something when you come in. Thems the rules.”
As much as she didn’t like admitting it, the presence of the man began to make her feel very uneasy. She gave a cautious smile and began going down the aisles.
The closer she looked at the station, the more things began to unravel. Some of the food on sale was months out of date. A strange dark stain painted its way through the floor of the aisle, ending at the entrance to the men’s bathroom. A strange smell — not rotten, or stale, but almost gaseous — filled the air.
At some point she noticed a bottled water in the refrigerated section. She opened the door and grabbed the bottle, when she noticed something even stranger.
“Huh?” The man called out.
“I think… your fridge is down. None of this is cold.”
The man got out from beyond the counter and began stomping in her direction. She quickly moved out of the way, but was fortunate enough to realize he was going for the fridge instead.
“Oh no, no no no…” He rubbed his face in his hands and shook his head before turning back to the girl. “When did this happen? Who did this? My god, no!”
Katie continued taking steps back. “I… I don’t know… it was like this when I opened it.”
The cashier, his face still in his hands, began stepping forward. “Please… if I screw this up… things will be real bad… don’t tell anyone… please… don’t tell…”
The girl began shivering now. “I-I won’t tell anyone… I swear… really, I-”
Just then, a peculiar sound to break the silence. The sound of the door opening, and a familiar voice.
“This guy bothering you?”
Katie turned. Her friend, Andrew, stood guarded at the entrance.
“Oh, no… I was… listen, I gotta go.”
The cashier slowly removed his hands from his face. He whispered. “Go where?”
“Come on, Kat. Let’s go.”
Katie dropped the bottle and hurried over to the familiar boy. They walked out the convenience store. The older man didn’t follow.
“Jeez, what the hell was that about?” Andrew asked as they got a bit farther from the station.
“Beats me, dude. Some major loony guy.”
Andrew shrugged. “Well, you know what they say about mountain people.”
Katie shook her head. Her breath fogged up in the snow. She grabbed tight to her leather jacket. “I mean… I don’t think he would’ve done anything. But I did get major creeps. I’m glad you came when you did.”
Eventually they stopped at a sign post. Andrew pointed into the woods. “Through here.”
“Really? There’s no pathway?”
“There is, but it’s a bit farther down. This is a shortcut.”
Katie looked out into the bramble. “A shortcut. Through wild, undeveloped forest.”
Andrew gave her a pat on the back. “Come on, we’ll be here for a week. Better start getting used to nature now.”
As they made their way through the bramble, quietly at first, Andrew spoke up.
“So, how have things been? Haven’t seen you too much since the Halloween party.”
“Oh, they’ve been good. Organic chem is kicking my ass, as usual. But beyond that things are okay.”
“Heard you got an internship?”
“Yeah, yeah. At the Marci lab.”
“Oh, that’s great!” Andrew said the words emphatically, but after a bout of silence by Katie began to somewhat doubt his words. “That’s… great? Right?”
Katie suddenly sparked back up from her lull. “Oh, yeah, no, it is. It’s a really good lab. A lot of work, though.”
Andrew chuckled. “I’d imagine. A lot more work than psychology, that’s for sure.” As the boy turned to meet the girl, he noticed she was shaking. “Hey, you cold?”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“Here…” Andrew stopped and began to take off his hoodie, revealing only a sweater underneath. Katie shook her head and outstretched her hands.
“No, really, I’ll be okay. You’ll be freezing without that.”
“Kat, I was born in Minnesota. I think I’ll be fine.” Andrew pulled the hoodie over the girl, and seemingly defeated by the cold, the girl accepted. As he put the hoodie over her, their hands touched. They looked each other in the eye for a few moments. Katie backed softly away.
“Hey, I don’t think… Thank you, but…”
Andrew backed away as well. “No, yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.”
The two made it to the old clifftop lodge and found their remaining four friends. Michelle was the first to notice. “Katie! I haven’t seen you in forever!”
The one Asian of the bunch jumped up to hug her blonde friend. Andrew met with the others.
The guy without a hoodie tipped his head towards Connor, then turned to Nera. “Where’s Eric?”
“In the kitchen, getting his stuff in.”
As Andrew went through the porch door, Connor got up and made contact with Katie. He smiled.
Katie smiled. “Hey.”
A bit later, the group met in the living room. Eric was at the front, with Michelle sitting on the fireplace.
Andrew sat on the couch across from him. As Katie came in, she tossed the gray hoodie into Andrew’s lap. “Thanks for the jacket.”
Andrew gave her a salute. “No prob.”
Katie sat with Connor on the other end of the couch. Nera was the last to come in, sitting at the rocking chair on Andrew’s other side.
“Alright, alright.” Eric began to call order to the room. “I promise I’d tell you guys why I decided to pick this place when we got here. So, now we’re here.”
Nera tilted her head. “And the big reason is…?”
Eric squatted down in front of the coffee table in front of the group and began to make a series of hand gestures across it. “So, before the lodge was around, this place used to be a burial ground for the Nimera tribe.”
Michelle sighed. “Ah, cultural appropriation! We’re off to a good start.”
“That’s not just it, though! Back when the colonists began to settle the frontier, the Nimera used this location as their last stand. They say around two hundred people died in this very spot.”
Connor began to become physically uncomfortable. “Not really sure where you’re going here.”
“Just stay with me for now — we gotta get the bad stuff out of the way first. Anyway, about a hundred years after the last stand of the Nimera, this rich steel tycoon named Joseph Quardi comes in and builds a lodge. At this point, pretty much no one remembers what happened here, though one might imagine they dug up a lot of bones. Doesn’t matter though; they built the whole thing anyway. Well, two months into the Quardi Clifftop Escape’s service, and shit starts getting weird. Visitors report weird sounds, strange sightings, things moved to where they weren’t before. After some time, rumor starts to spread that the whole place is haunted.”
Nera began to shake her head. “Oh no. I know exactly where he’s going with this.”
“By the 60s, the whole thing was all over the news. The stories were getting wilder and wilder from guests, and the thing made waves over TV and radio. This popularity eventually died down, and Quardi sold the place. However, it was later picked up by some local group, who got rid of the access and kept a single large cabin up for any visitors who dared enter…”
“Yup, he’s going where I think he’s going.”
“…The number one most haunted location in Wallington!”
Eric was always really big into horror and the occult, so now that the truth was revealed it didn’t really seem to surprise anyone. Katie looked a bit uncomfortable, Nera exasperated, Michelle confused, and Andrew indifferent. But only Connor was the one who spoke up.
“So, how do we get rid of the noise?”
Eric looked at him sideways. “Huh?”
“The noise. You can hear it in the hallways, and sort of in the rooms. It’s like… an air leak, or something. Like a valve that’s just sorta turned, but not all the way.”
The African-American student shrugged. “We could probably figure out what’s causing it. Might be something to do with the heat, in the basement or something.”
With the group meeting adjourned, the party split up. Eric and Connor went down to the basement to see what was wrong, Andrew went to check out his room, and the three girls stayed in the kitchen area to unpack.
“Well Mich, let’s hope your hubby knows what he’s talking about.” Nera said with inflection as she checked to see what was in the kitchen cupboards.
“Oh please, we aren’t married. Not yet, anyway. To be fair, I did know he was going to choose this place. My one requirement for him was that the place had to have some kitchen supplies so we didn’t have to bring the whole set up on the SUV.”
“Wait, it does? Where?”
Michelle reached over the counter and patted one of the cupboard doors. Nera opened it and took out a few pans. While her other friend set up the supplies, the Asian turned towards Katie. “So, what do you and Connor plan on making?”
“For the dinner? Burgers. He bought the stuff; not sure exactly what there was but I know there’s swiss cheese. I also forced him to get some vegetables; lettuce, tomato, onion, yadda yadda.”
“That’s fun! What about you, Nera?”
“Got some red curry. Will add in some chicken, potatoes, onion, et cetera. Top it off with basmati rice.”
“You sure the boys will be able to handle that?”
Nera shrugged. “If they can’t, that just leaves more for us.”
While the girls were enjoying themselves with gossip and catch-up, Andrew dropped his duffle bag on the single bed in his room. He took about three steps to the bathroom before he realized something.
“Oh, god damn it.”
He stepped again.
Sure enough, upon further inspection the wooden planks keeping the foundations of the floor together were now so weak that they creaked with every step. Andrew sighed.
After some time, Connor and Eric came out of the basement. The rest of the group was cooking in the kitchen area.
“So, you guys figure out how to turn off the noise?”
Eric shook his head. “No, but we did find this.”
Out from behind him he showed off an old wooden box, and placed it on the table.
Nera eyed it suspiciously. “Did you check what was in there?”
Eric continued by opening up the box. “Looks like some old trinkets back when the lodge was still popular… here, check these out.” He dropped a couple of photos on the counter, and the group gathered to eye them.
The photos were indeed appropriate to the timeframe that Eric previously described to them. Old worn polaroids of fancy get-togethers in suits, dresses, and other menagerie antique to the times. But, as the college kids eyed the history, there was one that drove close attention for Katie.
“Hey, Drew, you see this one?” She pointed it out. Andrew, who was the only one who didn’t scramble onto the photos, turned from his position at the stove to check.
“The guy, in this photo. On the right.”
There were a few moments of Andrew’s eyes tracking, before he finally saw it. He flung back slightly. “Oh, shit!”
Michelle butted in between the two. “Huh? What is it?”
“Remember when I told you about that creepy guy at the gas station? Well, this dude looks like a younger version of him.”
Eric seemed impressed by the spooky correlation. “Damn… wonder if it’s the same guy, and he’s just decided to stay up here all this time.”
Andrew, on the other hand, seemed concerned. “Did you tell him where we were at? That we were staying at Quardi?”
“No… no, I didn’t tell him anything.”
Eric shrugged. “Guess we’re on creep watch. Not like I didn’t expect to be on creep watch in a place like this.”
In the evening, the group gathered together for dinner. Eric was the first to speak after the bread had been broken.
“Well, I’m glad some rumors are finally starting to come true.” He looked over in the direction of Connor and Katie.
Katie passed over a suspicious glance. “What do you mean?”
“That you two are finally together! As like, a real thing at least. Last time we were together it was all just you two smiling in the corner of the party.”
Connor simply looked down and gave a nervous glance. Andrew also obfuscated his face. Katie hit back.
“We aren’t the only ones.”
“Come now, you think it wasn’t obvious you were goo-goo over Mich?”
Eric seemed taken aback. “Wh-what? It wasn’t that obvious! I didn’t even like her that much back in Halloween!”
Michelle, clearly enjoying the discussion, gave a wide smirk. “Oh, it was definitely obvious. You were practically panting every time I went into the room.”
Eric was fully red now. “That’s not right! That’s… not right, right?”
Michelle grabbed her boy and gave him a big hug as a truce. Katie did the same to hers. Everyone, in joyous manner, laughed the night away. Everyone except Andrew.
That night, Eric and Michelle were in their room. Eric scrolled through his phone, while Michelle began taking off her clothes.
“Man, this lack of a network connection is really gonna kill me, isn’t it?”
“I mean, it was your choice.” She shimmied off her jeans.
“Well… now that I’m thinking about it, it might be good for all of us to unplug. At least for a little bit.”
Michelle smiled as she undid her bra. “Had a real turn of opinion there, didn’t you?”
Eric shrugged. “Shouldn’t we promote people’s adaptability, rather than dissuade them against it?”
Michelle giggled as she pulled the blankets off of Eric, revealing him to be naked save for a pair of bright red underwear. “You get that from Professor Rashkin?”
He nodded towards her. “The very same.”
She pulled her boyfriend’s legs toward her, getting on her knees near the side of the bed. She grabbed hold of the sides of his underwear, only to look up one more time.
“You sure no one is gonna find out?” She whispered to him.
“Oh, come on. What do you think Connor and Katie are doing right now?”
Michelle smiled at him, then began kissing his stomach, kissing all the way downwards until she reached his bright red underwear. As she began to pull at them, however, Eric shook backwards.
“Oh, shit!” He said in an attempt to whisper but was clearly exasperated. Michelle spurried in confusion.
“What’s wrong, babe?”
“Outside! Look outside!”
The two scuffled to the slightly open blinds of the one window in the room. Outside, they saw Andrew — or at least, what looked like Andrew — standing out by a tree. Silent. Alone. Facing away.
“What’s he doing?” Michelle whispered. Her hands shook as she held Eric’s arm.
Eric quivered himself. “I… I don’t know. Is that even him man? I don’t know.”
The figure continued standing still.
“Should… should we open the door, and call out to him?”
“No, no, no. Wait. I have a better idea.” Eric quickly grabbed his phone off the bed, touched a bit, then brought it to his ear. There was a speaker dial tone. The figure stayed still.
A few dreary, lingering moments passed. Suddenly, the tone stopped. A familiar voice picked up.
“Yo, Eric? What’s up?”
The figure didn’t move.
Eric, shivering, looked at his girlfriend. A shock of terror was molded to her face.
“Uh, hey, Andrew… are you outside right now, man?”
“Uh… no. Why would I be?”
They both stared at the figure outside. It still faced away, looking at the single crooked, snowy tree on the outset of the lodge.
“Are… are you sure?” Eric tried to hide the quivering in his voice. The sound of the vents murmured in the room.
“Uhh, yeah. I’m sure. Hey, wait, are you in your room right now?”
“Okay, hold on.”
The voice on the other end stopped. A silence cut through the thick of the room. Suddenly, a new noise rang out; directly above them, the creaking of an old wooden floor.
“You hear that? That’s me.”
Michelle and Eric creeped their heads slowly to the ceiling, then back again to the window. The figure did not move.
“Andrew. Look out your window. Right now.”
“What? Why man? God, it’s like, midnight and I’m trying to… oh. Oh. What in the god-damned hell.”
In the moments following that line by the friend above them, another action spiked through the hearts of all three of the students. The figure, who they were all now witnessing, gently, without turning, moved their feet and began walking into the underbrush of the boundary of the lodge, until no other parts of it could be seen.
Connor and Katie were both in their bed. The boy flipped through his phone while his girlfriend softly caressed his bare chest.
“You excited for Flow this year?” Katie whispered to him gently.
“I… yeah. I guess.”
“Well, I mean, I… It’s always good, seeing everyone again, right? I mean, we met there, and that’s pretty cool and all… but I don’t know. I just don’t really vibe with that type of music anymore, I guess. Plus, it’s been getting more expensive each year, and I-”
Connor’s objections were cut off by a shriek coming from the other side of the cabin. In frantic emergency, both of the college students got out of the bed and — without bothering to get dressed — dumped themselves into the creaky hallway.
Katie could hear her heart thumping within her chest. “Michelle? What’s wrong, honey?”
The two zoomed down the stairs. Around the corner they could hear Eric shouting. “God, no, that is some fucked up shit. That’s some real fucked up shit.”
The group had all found themselves back in the kitchen area. The three who witnessed the figure were by the fireplace, shaking.
“What the hell happened?” Nera called out, in her cotton robe, rubbing at one of her eyes.
“There was a… figure outside. We all saw it! All three of us!” Eric was still holding on to Michelle, who had put a towel over herself.
Connor seemed unamused. “Oh, come on. Now’s not the time for some high school tier prank.”
But Andrew got up from the loveseat to answer for the two jokesters. “No, it was out there, man. Some weird dude, right outside our window. Looking at the tree.”
“H-he looked like Andrew! Just like Andrew!” Michelle cried out, still in a daze.
Katie showed her concern. “Maybe you just… saw something?”
“No, trust me. It was plain as day.” Andrew took his eyes and glanced over at the front door. “Regardless of who it was, someone is on the property. And we don’t know who it is.”
There was a distinct scratching sound. The entire group heard it. It came from the basement.
The silence within those moments could wield a physical presence. Eric was the first one to break it, muttering to himself.
“Oh, no… no, no, no, no, no.”
Connor, Nera, and (reluctantly) Eric agreed to march down the stairs. Michelle, Katie, and Andrew kept watch on the ground floor.
Eric, equipping an old broom in his hand, shook vigorously. “Oh man, this is wack. Some fuckin’… Native American Voodoo shit.”
Nera spoke up from behind, flashlight in hand. “Would you shut it?”
At the foot of the stairs her flashlight slowly surveyed the room. It was a tiny, dusty, cement filled space with a small water heater, a generator, and some stacks of electronics and other utilities worn with time. At a point where Nera hit, Eric frantically whispered.
“Wait, wait! Stop there!”
“What is it?”
Eric turned to Connor. “Do you remember seeing that?” He pointed to where the light lay.
“No, I… I don’t think so, at least.”
“Well, I can tell you for sure that wasn’t there. That’s right where we found the wooden box!”
Where was a box was now a rough stone tablet. There were some markings carved into its outside, but it was too far to spell out.
“Well, should we get closer?” Nera asked, herself now a bit anxious.
“What if it’s a trap?”
“I mean… I don’t see anything.”
“Alright! Alright. Fine.”
The group crowded around the stone. Unfortunately, it didn’t help; the entire thing was written in a series of glyphs and letters that none of them could understand.
“Do you think…” Eric still whispered. “Do you think the Nimera cursed this place?”
“Eric, shut up.” The girl turned toward the other boy. “Connor, could you take a picture of this?”
When the three got back to the first floor, things seemed unchanged. Michelle and Andrew seemed glued to the outside window. Katie was sitting at the kitchen.
“What did you guys find?” She asked as they came up.
“Oh, man. You guys are not gonna believe this.” Eric was still on his high. “Connor, show them!”
They all gathered around to gain a peek at the markings. Andrew looked up something on his phone, and muttered to himself. “Uh oh.”
Nera gave him a glare. “What is it this time?”
He showed the phone screen to her. “This is Nimera, alright. But it looks like it’s a dead language, so there’s no translation to what it says.”
“So you’re saying it might be a curse?”
“Eric, shut up! Drew, are you sure there’s nothing?”
“Nothing that I can find, at least.”
The group decided it might be a better idea to huddle together for the night in the living room. This caused significant problems for Michelle and Eric… but it also caused issues for Andrew, who every once in a while would peek to witness Connor and Katie cuddling each other on the couch.
The morning passed, without anything else of note. Nera and Michelle cooked eggs for the group. They all got around the dinner table to discuss plans.
“So, where are we headed now?” Connor asked, wiping the food from his lips.
“Well… we could go down to the ski park.” This was Eric.
“Are you serious?” Nera.
“I’m pretty sure what Connor is talking about is leaving this place. It clearly isn’t safe, at least according to you. Am I right, Connor?”
“Are you kidding? It cost us, what, $80 per person to be here for the week? No way am I letting money like that just fall out of my pocket!”
“Sunk costs, Eric.” Andrew chimed in. Katie smiled at this.
“Well, I mean, look.” Connor put his fork down and brought his hands up defensively. “I think we need to be careful not to blow this thing out of proportion. Like, let’s say you did see a person. Perhaps it was just a laborer? You know, someone working on the grounds? Checking on something? And, I mean, the tablet is simple enough… maybe we just didn’t see it the first time.”
“If it was a laborer, it was one weird fuckin’ laborer.” Michelle muttered to herself.
“Well, what do you suggest we do?” Nera leaned back in her seat.
“I can head down to their office. It’s only a little ways away. They can tell me whether or not there was a person working around that time. If there was, mystery solved. If there wasn’t, I’ll report what you guys saw and we’ll pack up. Sounds good?”
Everyone seemed to be fine with the plan. Everyone, that is, except Katie.
“Are you just… going alone?”
“Well, I mean… it’s not that far. I’ll be fine.”
“I just… I don’t think that’s a good idea, is all. Just in case something really is wrong with this place.”
Connor laughed at the comment. The brush-off made Katie uneasy and agitated. “Listen, Kat, I think it’s better if everyone stays together if they can. I can handle myself, okay?”
“Well, I think it would be better if we all stay in groups. So I don’t agree with that.”
Before things got out of hand, a familiar if peculiar voice strung up among the intensifying discussion.
“I can go with him.”
The two turned. It was Andrew.
With the eyes on him, he suddenly doubled back. “Well, I mean, if like… if people think it’s a good idea. For me to do it. Or nobody else wants to go. I just… I just think Katie is right. That we should stay in groups.”
Katie seemed relieved. Connor, surprisingly, seemed relieved too; that due to Andrew’s sudden intervention, things would begin to once again die down. “No, that’s fine. You can come with me.”
The door shut and Katie, Michelle, Eric, and Nera stayed alone in the cabin together. Michelle began playing with her fingers.
“God, this is awful.” She spouted after a few moments of silence. “I don’t even want to do anything. I’m just nervous.”
Eric took offense. “Listen, I didn’t know the place was gonna be actually fuckin’ haunted! I thought all this shit was fake! I thought it… I just wanted to mess with all of you, to make you think something would happen. I did not anticipate this.”
“Honey, I know… I know. It’s… I don’t blame you. This just sucks… generally, is all.”
Nera seemed peeved at the leniency the girl was giving her boyfriend. Katie just watched out the window, waiting for the two to return.
The next few minutes were bathed in silence. Silence, except for the peculiar squeaking caused by whatever was letting out the air.
Katie fixated upon the noise. Then, she fixated upon Connor. Then Andrew. The trinity cycled through each other in those moments. She thought about Connor; was she being fair to him, as a girlfriend, paying attention to Andrew so much? Then she thought about Andrew; was she being fair to him, dating a man she no longer knew if she loved?
Suddenly, she shot up. Her mind was back to the noise.
The sudden movement caught Nera’s attention. “What’s up, Kat?”
“I think I know what that noise is.”
She slowly walked, her ears peeling out for any increase in the noise’s volume. It led her, not to the basement but farther, down the hall. To a locked door.
“You still have the keys?”
“Yeah, I do. Do you need them?”
She peeked around back to the living room, to meet his face. “Could you help me with this?”
Surprisingly, the door unlocked just fine with the one set of keys Eric had on him. They opened the door, only to have a flush of smoke go into their faces. Both coughed aggressively.
“Oh, cough, god, that ain’t… cough good.” Eric struggled to speak, trying to wipe away the smoke with his hands.
“Yeah… but… cough that does explain our problem.” Shielding her eyes from the gas, she pointed to a container at the end of the room in which the gas was coming from. It read:
WARNING: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE
Eric gave a few more viscous coughs. “Well, thank fucking christ we didn’t set anything on fire.”
Eric stayed back while Katie braved into the room, twisting the valve back to be fully closed.
The boy high-fived her as she walked back into the hallway. “Well, that solves the noise problems at least.”
“It might have solved a lot more than our noise problems.”
“Huh, what do you mean?”
“I learned about that stuff, in class. It’s supposed to be used to help with heating, but… if you smell enough of it, you can start getting some pretty bad visual hallucinations.”
“Holy shit, really? You mean…”
“…it’s likely all the weird shit we saw was just in our heads.”
The pre-med student went and told the rest of the group her realizations. Although it helped in relieving them, there were still some problems.
“But… how could we three have all hallucinated the same thing? The figure out by the trees.” Michelle asked aloud.
“It’s not impossible. That would be a suggestory hallucination; people who are both hallucinating can suggest to each other to see something.”
“But…” Michelle shook her head. “But we didn’t suggest anything. We all just… saw Andrew, out there.”
“Did you? Or was it just a figure, until Eric pointed it out?”
Her memory hazy, Michelle deferred to her boyfriend. “Did you tell us you saw Drew, specifically?”
“Uh, yeah… yeah, I did. I saw it as Andrew. I don’t know what the rest of you saw.”
The asian girl cracked a smile. “Well, shit Kat! You might have solved the case.”
“Yeah… well, hopefully. Let’s see what news Connor and Andrew come up with.”
A few minutes later, Connor and Andrew did indeed come up. Nera greeted them with a level of exasperated relief.
“Took you guys long enough.”
Andrew took off his coat and put it on the rack. “Sorry about that. The front desk was empty so we had to wait for someone to come. They did say they had a guy outside to check the trees, after all. Still doesn’t explain how creepy the guy looked.”
Eric turned toward the girl who found the gas leak. “Well, don’t worry; our crack scientist figured that one out!”
“So… I guess that explains the figure. But what about the picture and the stone?” Andrew inquired.
“Well, I mean, we could check out the picture right now.” She went back to the table in front of the fireplace to retrieve the antique photograph. When she got to it, it was faced down. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and flipped the photo over.
“Well?” Andrew looked at her from the kitchen bar.
She smiled. “He’s not in here. It’s just some old guy.”
Andrew gave a sigh of relief. “That solves that, then.”
Connor looked toward the basement door. “I guess that leaves one more thing to check.”
“Well, didn’t you take a picture of it on your phone?” Eric said, beginning to finally relax on the living room armchair.
He took a second to scroll through his photographs. When he finally got to it, he didn’t smile.
“Guys.” He showed them the phone screen. “It’s still there. It’s real.”
An unsteady air washed over the group. A piercing silence then followed for a time, until Michelle nervously spoke up.
“Sh-should we… go back in? Just to check, and make sure?”
“Oh, no no no.” Eric vigorously shook his head. “If someone’s going down there, it’s not me! I’ve been down there twice already!”
“I’ll do it, then.” Andrew stood up from the bar seat and made eye contact with the one blond girl across from him.
“I can go, too.” The girl spoke back, before looking at her middle-eastern friend. “Nera, if you don’t mind.”
“‘Mind’? Please, be my guest. That basement gives me the fucking creeps.”
And so, the three made one last deluge into the bottom of the lodge. Connor led in front, using his phone as the flashlight.
“Where was it?” Andrew peeped.
“Right along the side. Corner in the far left.”
The boyfriend shined the light into the corner. While looking for it, Katie gave out a few loud coughs.
Connor turned for a moment. “Hey, you alright?”
“I’m… cough fine. Yeah, I’m fine.”
They made their way into the room when Connor was finally able to spot it. As they got close, it became clear something was wrong. Andrew was the first to point it out.
“Hey… were all those ants there, already?”
“No… at least, I don’t think so.”
An indescribable number of ants marched to and fro from the bottom, top, and center of the mound. But most seemed to crawl underneath.
“I think…” Katie coughed again. “I think it’s… under the rock.”
Connor got in close. “Andrew, you want to help me with this?”
“What, and get my hands stung with by a bunch of ants?”
“Just use your shoe. It doesn’t seem like it’d be that heavy — I just don’t know if I can do it myself.”
And so the two worked together to move the sacred tablet. At first, the rock seemed jammed in and the task nearly impossible — but at some point there was a thudding noise and the block jiggled loose.
While the two were still moving the rock fully out of the way, Katie coughed again, harder this time, as tears began to pour out of her eyes. “Oh, God.”
“What? Kat, what’s wrong?” Connor emphatically asked, concerned about his lover.
“God, look at what’s under there! Look inside the hole!”
The two looked at where the rock once was.
While Michelle was carrying for Eric’s strong coughs, they all stopped once they heard Katie’s screams.
The three who stayed above were hovered around when Connor rushed up, the girl in his arms.
“We’ve gotta get out of here. Now!”
Nera stood up from her chair. “What, why? What’s going on?”
Andrew trailed the two. “Katie… saw a head.”
The girl looked at him in confusion. “Wh… what? What do you mean she ‘saw a head’?”
“There was a head down there, damn it!” Connor seemed agitated now, still gripping hold of a panicking Katie. “Some, some… decaying head. It looked fresh. I don’t know… I don’t know what happened but… we’ve gotta get out of here.”
Within the hour, everyone had their bags packed. Connor helped Katie fill her suitcase, as she lied down in the chair.
“You gonna be okay?” Andrew asked, noticing how pale the girl was.
“Yeah… I think so. I’m just a bit flustered, is all.”
“Of course!” Michelle was zipping up her own backpack, putting it back on her shoulders. “I couldn’t imagine… I would freak out. And… and you’re sure it was the same guy as in the gas station?”
Katie gave a soft nod.
“So, someone must be…” Eric began but trailed off into another coughing fit. Michelle held him by the shoulders to stop him from falling.
“God, are you guys okay?”
“When we… cough got to fix the gas leak… There was a lot of cough a lot of gas stuck in the room. We inhaled a lot of it.”
“Oh, god. You mean… you might have been poisoned by it, or something?”
Andrew shook his head. “We gotta take’em both to the ER. ASAP.”
“There’s a hospital in town, fortunately.” Seeing that the group was ready, Nera opened the door to the outside. “Let’s stop and bring them there.”
Katie, Connor, and Andrew sat together in the town’s near abandoned hospital. Eric and Michelle had gone in first, and they were waiting for some of the limited capacity to be relieved. Nera was outside, having a smoke.
“Well, some trip this has been, hasn’t it?” Katie faintly smiled at the two.
Andrew, still in a state of agitation, did his best to feign a smile for the girl. “Yeah, it… it has.”
The blond student turned her pale face up towards the antique fan that spun above them. “It’s just… really scary, you know? That someone… could have done that. And we were there the entire time, we didn’t… we didn’t know about anything.”
Connor, who faced the back of his chair looking towards the others, shook his head. “I’m just glad we’re out of that mess. I was getting the creeps out of it from the very beginning.”
“We should really…” Katie began to speak in a normal tone, but suddenly headed down to a whisper and put her head between the two boys. “We should call the police about this. I can’t believe we haven’t done it already.”
Andrew nearly spoke, his frustration mounting, but was cut off by the girl’s boyfriend. “I’ve got a better option. The police station is right across the way; while you’re over here recovering I’ll put a report in, alright?”
Katie nodded. “Sounds like a plan.” She gave a few weak coughs, before falling back down into her seat. “Thank you. Both of you. For, you know… taking care of me.”
Connor smiled. “I’ll always be there for you, Kat.”
Within those moments, the bell rang. A nurse came out.
“Katie? They’re ready for you.”
The girl sluggishly got out from the hospital chair. Andrew tried to lean in to help, but was cut off by Connor; he helped her cross the rest of the way.
“We’ll get her set up, then you’ll be allowed to see her, okay?”
Connor nodded. “That’s fine with me.”
When the nurse had left with the girl, and Connor was just about to leave himself, Andrew caught him by the arm and looked into his eyes. “What the hell was that?”
“What the hell was what?”
“What do you mean, ‘what’? You know exactly what I mean!” Andrew looked around, trying to make sure he didn’t speak too loudly as to call attention. “We both know there wasn’t any head. So why keep up the lie?”
“Listen, I know Kat. She wouldn’t have gone along with taking her to the ER unless she thought something was really wrong.”
Andrew was taken aback. “Really? She wouldn’t have gone along with it? You sure about that?”
Connor was beginning to get irritated. “I know her a lot better than you do.”
“I just fail to see why scaring her about some hallucinated head is justified in this case. And what about the others? What’s stopping Nera from going out and filing an actual police report, over some delusion brought up from gas poisoning?”
At this point, Connor was beginning to lose his patience. He brought Andrew right up upon the hospital’s wall. The two were the same height, and faced each other right in the eyes; only inches apart.
“Listen. Last I checked, I was Katie’s boyfriend. It is my job to take care of her, alright? I don’t know what the hell she sees in you, but it isn’t my problem. If I need to help her, I’ll help her. And I’ll help her using my own method, not from some armchair psychiatrist like you.”
Before things could escalate any further, Nera entered through the hospital doors to witness the two stancing men.
“The hell is going on here?”
The two looked at the girl, then backed off from each other. Connor went back to his chair. Andrew turned back towards Nera. “Nothing. It’s… nothing.”
The three all stayed silent until the nurse came in. “Connor… Katie would like to see you.”
Connor got up and followed the nurse. When the two had left, Andrew finally turned toward the other student.
“Listen, Nera… there’s something I’ve got to tell you. There wasn’t actually a head laying there; it was just something Katie saw. There wasn’t any actual dang-”
“Yeah. I figured.”
The girl leaned back, and a sulkened expression transformed her face. “Drew, how long do you think this is all gonna last?”
“I mean, I plan on telling Katie about it as soon as I get a chance to see her, assuming she doesn’t learn about it before that.”
“No, I’m not talking about the head.”
Andrew was quizzical. “What are you talking about, then?”
“I’m talking about Flow.”
Andrew turned towards the speaker. “What, like… us?”
Nera nodded, turning a solemn gaze up to the same ceiling fan her friend had looked at some time before. “I just feel like… we’re growing up, you know? We don’t see each other as much. Everyone else is caught in their own lives. Kat’s going to be going to medical school, Eric and Michelle are already making long term plans… and once everything goes in motion I don’t see how much longer this could all go on for.”
Andrew, realizing the weight of truth the words held, slowly turned his stare to the ground. Nera continued.
“And what about us, huh? The two of us. I hate thinking in transactional terms, but… I don’t think we’ve really gotten anything out of this whole thing. We’ve always been a bit of outcasts, y’know? The four of them, I know they’re our friends… but they can get on without us. Meanwhile, we’re wanderers, outcasts, just trying to look for something that isn’t even there.”
“You’re thinking about leaving Flow Gang, then?”
“No, not like that. I’ll be there until the very end. I just think the end will come sooner than we all expect.” A few silent moments passed, before she finally looked down from the light and gave a scoff. “God, even the name makes me cringe now. It all used to be so fun.”
Around a half an hour passed until Connor finally came back into the room with the nurse. The practitioner now looked in Andrew’s direction, and gave him a beckoned call.
When he saw Katie, she was attached to an IV tube and a heart rate monitor. Her light face smiled at him as he closed the door.
“God, you gonna be okay?”
“Yeah… I’m actually feeling a lot better now. But they say I’ll have to stay overnight, which is longer than Eric.”
Andrew sighed. “Well, I’m glad you’re at least feeling good.”
The boy pulled up a seat next to her. “Did he tell you?”
Katie looked off. “No, the doctor did. Eventually got him to confess to it, though. Now that I have my bearings I realize how ridiculous it was… got real upset with him over that.”
Andrew looked down and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier.”
“No, I get it. It’s all alright.” She gave a brief chuckle, succeeded by a cough. “At least you knew it was wrong.”
A minute passed before Andrew spoke up again.
“Your parents know yet?”
“No, not yet. I’ll tell them first thing tomorrow morning, though. No point in worrying them about it.”
Another minute passed.
“Do you need me to get you anything?”
“No, I’ll be… well, actually. Could you get out my phone? It’s still in my jacket.” She pointed to the chair on the other side of her from Andrew.
He got up to the chair, kneeled down, and motioned to grab it before pausing. “What pocket is it in?”
“The one that would be…” She looked up towards the ceiling, patting herself on the sides of her stomach, ‘til she had her revelation. “That would be the one on my right. The inside pocket.”
He leaned down, reaching into the pocket, feeling the cold plastic exterior of the phone. But he stopped, reluctantly. His nose could smell her fading perfume on its exterior. A rose scent that was the same she always used. Eventually he snapped back out of it, and tossed her the phone.
Katie caught it with ease. “Thanks”
Another minute passed.
“Kat, I… I need to tell you something.”
“Then tell me.”
He looked into his hands, rubbing them together with a certain friction. “I mean, it’s not that simple. But I don’t know if I’ll have another chance to say it… with things, they go so fast, and…” He stopped rubbing. “I just want to make sure I go out and say it. Just once.”
The girl stayed silent.
“Katie, I love you.”
The girl turned toward him. Their eyes locked in on one another. “I know. I love you too.”
The boy seemed somewhat surprised by this. “Wait… really?”
Her gaze stayed, but eventually her expression changed and she looked away. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot… and I think I do.”
Andrew leaned in. “Then why stay with Connor?”
Katie was flustered by this comment, and spoke up a bit in volume. “Because I love him too, damn it! Listen, I know Connor made a mistake — a really stupid mistake — but he’s still a wonderful guy. I know he cares about me, and I know he loves me, and I’d just… I don’t want to hurt that. I don’t want to hurt our relationship. I want to stay with him. But at the same time, I can just feel my heart attracting you, and… and… God! It’s all so complicated. And messy. But I guess that’s what life is, isn’t it? Complicated and messy.” She sighed to herself, putting her face in her hands. “I know that’s not the answer you wanted to hear. I’m sorry. I think… I think I just have to get used to the fact that I love two different people. That’s hard, and I’m still trying to figure it out. But that’s how it is, I think.”
Andrew was silent. They both were. At some point, he let out a murmur.
“Do you want me to stay with you? Over the night?”
“No, no… don’t worry your parents. Go with the others. It’s… better for both of us.”
Andrew nodded. “Okay.”
The boy got up from the chair and was just about out the door before Katie made one last frantic try to stop him. “Wait!”
It worked. He turned to her and waited.
“One last thing.”
She outstretched an open hand to him. Curious, he walked over, and gently took hold. But he hadn’t expected what came next; a sharp tug pulled him on top of the bed. And, with one swift movement, Katie kissed him on the cheek and whispered into his ear.
“I’ll see you back in Wallington, alright?”
Andrew was flustered, his heart thumping and his cheeks flushed. But he still managed to stammer out a whisper back. “Alright, I’ll… I’ll see you.”
She let go of him. He moved, slowly, carefully, till he reached the door, closing it tight behind him.
It was near midnight when Andrew got to the bus station. As it turned out, the other three — Nera, Michelle, and Eric — had already caught the previous bus, in assumption that Andrew was going to stay behind. And so, there he was. Tired, a bit cold, and waiting for the last bus of the night.
But he couldn’t stop thinking. Thinking of Katie. Seeing her smile.
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