Secret of Mount Haile
K.M. White 2017
mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn
When I was little, I
believed in monsters. This accounts for over ninety-nine percent of
all children, though, so I’m not special in that respect. What was
so weird was the intensity
which I believed in them.
I was a fragile
flower of a child if I’m going to be honest. Pooh’s
Heffalump Movie, arguably
one of the tamest, safest movies ever released to theaters, made
elementary school-me bawl like I was watching a family pet being put
down. I don’t care how nice the little purple one was, Pooh and Co.
talked a good game about the heffalumps being scary as hell. On top
of that sort of thing, sleeping in my bed the whole night was Dad’s
unreachable holy grail—my little sister Melissa had been doing it
her whole life, and I was still crawling underneath the covers beside
my father at eight years old. It got to the point where Carol broke
down and claimed she would give me a hundred dollars (one hundred
whole dollars! Eight-year-old me had never even seen
much money!) if I slept in my bed the whole night.
I never saw that one
hundred dollars, because there were monsters under the bed. I was
adamant about it: there were, indeed, massive slavering monsters
lurking underneath my bed, waiting for me to slip up and poke a foot
out from under the covers so they could tear my leg from its socket
and rip the flesh from the bone. No matter how much Dad or Carol
tried to dissuade me, I would not budge. The monsters existed, that
was final, and I didn’t sleep in my own bed the whole night until I
was ten. Carol fucking hated me for it, I’m sure.
And you know what?
Staring at the bloodshot yellow goat eyes peering in through Dad and
Carol’s bedroom window, I instantly believed every single one of
those nighttime monsters had existed all along.
It’s come full
circle. I’m back in the cabin, awake at midnight. I’m in my
sweatpants and t-shirt, staring out the window at something that
shouldn’t be there. The difference is, this time, I know what it
My shoulder throbs
again, the weak painkillers we had managed to scrounge up dying off
at the perfect time. I put a hand over my mouth, shaking, hoping the
darkness of the room conceals me from sight. The blanket I had pulled
around my shoulders drops to the floor without a sound. It can see
me, I’m sure. These things are made
darkness, there’s no way it can’t see right through it. My knees
are weak, and I bite down on the skin of my hand to distract myself
It’s not looking
at me. It’s looking at my parents. Jesus Christ. Okay. I duck
behind the edge of the bed, pressing myself up against the cold metal
frame barely obscured by the bed skirt. Waking them up isn’t an
option. It’ll notice for sure. Just—just get to the door, then
get downstairs and pick
up the fucking radio again. God,
the search-and-rescue has to have heard, they have to be coming,
there’s no way they’re not.
sound of the monster—the shoggoth, I remind myself, what the woman
in the gas mask had called them—blinking makes me grit my teeth.
Don’t vomit. It’ll hear. My shoulder isn’t
I press myself down
on the floor, my arm bent painfully underneath me, doing everything I
can to ignore the disgusting wet noises of blinking and writhing fat
tentacles falling against the side of the cabin. The radio is
downstairs, sitting on the living room table. I know where it is. I
press my face into the hardwood, breathing in the dust and grit
crammed between the planks. It’s disgusting down here. When was the
last time anybody cleaned?
Maybe it’s my
neurons misfiring out of fear, but the only thing I can think of as I
shuffle out to the second-floor hallway and balcony is some vague
feeling of thanks towards the bullshit public school system for
teaching us how to army crawl in middle school.
As soon as I’m in
the hall, out of the line of sight of the window, I stand and cradle
my arm to my chest. The cabin isn’t silent. The generator in the
basement hums, the light over the kitchen sink flickers and hisses,
the radiators rattle and clank. Something clicks like a branch
tapping against the window, and the fact I know what it is makes me
choke on my next breath. Fuck, goddammit, Ruthie, get it together.
Get the radio. You survived a shoggoth once, and you stabbed it with
Not that the
stalagmite did much of anything, but it’s the thought that counts.
There’s a small
walk between my room and the stairs. There’s the other bedroom and
the upstairs bathroom to worry about, and I spend the few steps
staring off the balcony to downstairs. A large column stretches from
the floor to the ceiling at the top of the stairs, large enough I
couldn’t put my arms around it if I tried to hug it. I put my free
hand on it to steady myself, leaning against it as I steal a peek
down the stairs.
There, down at the
very bottom, coming around the corner from the foyer, is a single
tendril of gelatinous muscle.
jerk back and press myself against the column, grabbing my hair with
my free hand to pull it around my shoulder in case the bright blonde
stands out against the shadows. My shoulder burns, an incessant
reminder like a toddler pulling at my pant leg. A fat and heavy sound
drags itself up the first few stairs, soft and wet and sloppy.
I start keeping
count. Two shoggoths. I want to close my eyes but I know if I do, the
shoggoth will be two inches away from me when I open them again.
Can I make a break
for the bedroom again? No, there’s no way I could make it. What
about the bathroom? The second floor isn’t that
of a drop, is it? And I can outrun a shoggoth, I proved that in the
mines, as long as I have enough of a head start. I clutch at my hair
and it crunches between my fingers as the wet sounds get closer and
closer. I could bolt. Just bolt. Do it. Your
mother was the toughest, strongest, and meanest bitch this side of
the Rocky Mountains. I
could do it, I could, and I could go
for it, I—
A mass of
pitch-black flesh sits, half-curled, on the top stair. Fuck. Don’t
move, don’t fucking move, don’t move and maybe it won’t see
you. You know that’s bullshit, goddamn right it’s going to see
you, but maybe it—just—won’t—
As the flesh starts
to creep up the wall, eyes opening on the wallpaper in the corner of
my vision, a sound like thunder rolls in from outside. The eyes snap
to the side and disappear again, skittering down the stairs and back
out to follow the echo. I stifle a wheezing breath and peer over the
balcony again. Gone. It’s gone, the front door hanging open a
I run down the
stairs, vaulting the last few with a hand on the banister, and land
painfully on the arch of my foot even though I bent my knees to
lessen the noise. The shoggoth isn’t visible out the front window.
Nothing is visible out the front window, really. This much closer to
the basement, the generator is even louder, and I get the sudden urge
to turn on all the lights before realizing a shoggoth wouldn’t give
a single fuck about how bright it is.
Sitting on the side
table in the kitchen is the radio, like a beacon. I flip it on and
pick up the handheld walkie-talkie attachment.
Static. That means
I press the talk
Nothing. Just more
static, the tschhhhh
In the middle of the
static, there’s a small word. “In.” And then it’s swallowed
back up by the white noise, and I shake the radio like it’s going
to somehow make it work any better.
a family on the mountainside, in the rental cabin, you’ve gotten a
call from us already—where are you? There’s something—”
Another drumroll of
thunder. It’s closer this time. No lightning, but the sky is cloudy
and there’s nothing else it could be. I drop the walkie-talkie in
surprise and it hits the table with a loud enough sound to make me
jump halfway out of my skin. I try to grab the radio to take it
upstairs with me, away
any open space, but it’s connected to the wall. The walkie-talkie
is connected with a spiral cord.
shifts outside, and I don’t have any more time to debate. I can’t
grab it. What I need to do is get the shoggoth away from Dad and
Carol. It would be stupid to circle around to the back—they do
better in open spaces, while somebody as small as me would fare
better in more cramped quarters like the cabin itself.
ask the static one more time, and break for the stairs. I take them
two at a time despite the ache in my foot from landing wrong, holding
my arm to keep from jostling my shoulder. It’s not working very
well, and tears are welling up in my eyes again. At this point, I’m
surprised I have any left. I push the door to Dad and Carol’s
bedroom open and…
The bed is empty.
The covers are thrown onto the floor and the window is wide open,
with the curtains blowing in the frigid winter wind and my phone
having fallen from the nightstand to the floor. I didn’t hear it.
It landed on my pillow. I pick it up, because it’s the one thing I
can think of to do, and my hands are shaking so badly I almost drop
it again. It’s down to twenty percent battery. I don’t have
anywhere to put it, so I hold it, tucking it against my chest.
on the floor, the walls, soaked into the bedsheets and the mattress.
It smells like it, too, that terrible copper smell. I’m stepping in
it, tracking it across the floor, and it’s still warm. For some
reason, it doesn’t connect. There’s a mental gap. It’s what’s
keeping me walking.
There’s one other
thing: a scrap of bloody clothing torn off on a rough, unsanded
section of the windowsill. It’s Carol’s plaid fleece pajamas. I
pull it off the splinter and stick my head out the window, my hair
blowing in front of my face. There’s nothing below me. In the dark,
it’s hard to tell, but I think the snow underneath the window is
beaten down and mussed up. I have to squint to tell.
I almost yell for
I almost do. My
mouth is open and I’ve taken in a breath but a terrible heaviness
slams down on my lungs and I can’t do anything except lean out the
window and stare and press my phone against my collarbone.
The woman in the gas
mask was right, and this is…this is my fault.
sound comes from what has to be the next room over, and I jerk back
from the window and almost stumble back onto the bed. I can’t be
here. She said they could “sense” people like me, right? Whatever
that means? Fuck. I did this. I…
My brain shuts that
shit down as quickly as it can.
I circle back around
the bed and peer out into the hall again. Empty. Where even is there
for me to go? Could I even make it back to the cave? God, would the
woman in the gas mask even let me back in after the shit I pulled? I
bite my lip hard enough I feel my bottom teeth start to break through
and tears spring up in my eyes. No. She has to. I can’t start
thinking like that. Find a way to get to the front door, get my boots
(fuck my jacket; if I can’t get to it in time, I can goddamn deal),
and get out and to the cave.
That’s the plan.
It’ll have to work. I have no other option.
I duck out of the
room and down the stairs again—no vaulting this time, I learned my
lesson—and peer around the edge of the landing to check out the
foyer. It’s clear. My boots are sitting by the door and my coat is
hanging in the small closet like it should be. I jam my feet into the
boots and tug the laces as tight as I can, half-bent over with one
eye still staring out onto the raised front porch. It’s so goddamn
dark out there.
sound. It’s still upstairs. My heart pounds in my throat as I force
the second boot on and yank open the closet door to grab my coat. I
can manage. I can get it.
Something moves in
My head jerks up.
It’s getting harder and harder to breathe, and my chest aches and I
can feel my heart beating against the flesh of my chest. My coat is
almost in my good hand, and if I want to get it on I need to start
putting it on now,
no way I can get it on with my shoulder as fucked as it is—
It moves again.
Something big, a massive dark cut-out against the night outside. God,
it could breathe
me, it’s close, it’s too close. I can’t run. The two things
blocking me from it is the window and…the closet door.
The closet door. I
press myself into the cramped room, stepping over shoes and scarves
and gloves and wiggling my way between heavy winter coats, and shut
the door behind me. Everything is pitch black. Where I could make out
my hand in front of my face before, where the faint light of the moon
was reflected by the snow and trapped behind the clouds, there’s
nothing. I can’t even see the coat hanging in front of me. It’s
pure darkness. My mouth is right up against one of the coats, and my
breath is hot and blowing back onto my face. I turn my head further
back into the closet to get fresh air. I’m standing as still as I
can. I’m standing half-on, half-off a shoe and it’s making my
ankle ache but I absolutely, absolutely cannot
The front door
jiggles. The latch rattles. And then silence, and I let myself relax
for a second. It’s nothing. No big deal. I can—
The window opens. It
shuffles and then slides upward with paint scraping against paint,
slamming against the frame. A pause, and then the shuffle of…cloth?
Cloth and boots coming in through the window. My stomach leaps into
my chest. Dad? Carol? Hell, is it Melissa? Or something else
Boots thump on the
hardwood floor, pausing outside the door. My ankle starts to move
from aching to hurting where I’m standing on the shoe and twisting
it, and I’m facing away from the door with my eyes squeezed shut
and waiting. Waiting for something
from upstairs, and the door to the closet flies open. I jerk back and
try to pull myself out of reach of whatever’s out there, but a
gloved hand closes around my good arm and yanks me out.
I find myself face
to face with a gas mask.
“There you are,”
the woman in the gas mask whispers. She slings her arm around my
shoulders to pull me against her and half-shuts the closet. “Come
on, come on, come on.” She yanks open the front door and a gust of
frigid air blows in. I duck my head against the wind. There’s snow
piled up on the front porch, with drifts almost reaching up to the
The thunder from
earlier must have been her shotgun. It’s slung across her back,
menacing even in the utter lack of light.
The world is empty.
Snow covers everything, uneven and ruined from the monsters that had
been surrounding us. The SUV is swallowed by the drifts and the tires
are covered. Trees loom over everything, and if there were eyes on
them I wouldn’t haven’t been surprised. There’s no moon
anymore. My face is pressed against the woman’s side with my bad
shoulder tucked beside her and her hand is on my arm and this—
This is the safest
I’ve felt in what feels like days.
She stops when her
boots touch the ground, her head perking up like a pointing dog.
says. I shiver and she holds me a little closer. “They’re close.”
“Should we run?”
“No.” Her voice
is so sure and calm. The pure lack of emotion is comforting now. “We
hide. Is there space under the porch?”
She lets go of me
and where she had been touching me feels so much colder as the wind
blows in to fill where her hand had been. I push away the drifts of
snow with my food and uncover a space under the porch where the snow
hasn’t filled. When I glance back, her shotgun is in her hand and
she’s staring off into the darkness.
“Found it,” I
say, and she half-turns to me before following. She waves me on, and
I clear a bigger hole before dropping to my knees and dragging myself
through. My teeth chatter, my hands bury themselves in the snow, and
I pull my legs in behind me as I sit against the foundation of the
house. The woman follows, army-crawling in and turning around so she
can pack in the hole she made with the smallest opening for the
barrel of her shotgun and her sights to peer out.
“Hey,” she says.
I pull my legs up to
my chest and warm my hands between my thighs. “I…” I say. “I
She nods and settles
against the slope of the snowdrift, the butt of the shotgun resting
against her shoulder. I grudgingly take one of my hands away from the
other and reach into my t-shirt to pull out the rainbow dog tag
resting against my chest. It’s getting frigid and I don’t want it
touching bare skin.
“Are you cold?”
After a second, she
sets the shotgun down and sits up a little bit. We have a good bit of
headroom under here—it’s a tall porch—and she straightens up to
unzip her parka and shrug it off.
says, handing it off to me. She’s wearing a hoodie underneath, a
grey thing patched with random scraps and a piece of string instead
of a proper zipper handle. The hood is pulled up, revealing the
straps of the gas mask and all the lumps and bumps of her scarf and
everything else. A strand of long, dark hair rests in a gentle curve
against the side of her face. What little I can see is streaked with
I reach out for the
parka, and when my hand brushes against it, I scramble into it to
keep the body heat from escaping into the air. She helps get one of
the sleeves onto my bad arm and tugs it around my collar as I fumble
to zip it up. It’s huge on me, and I have to push the sleeves up a
few inches to get my hands out to use, but it’s warm and if I could
bury myself in it like a turtle I would.
“Yeah. Thank you.”
Another nod from
her, and we’re back to silence again. Now that I can see the rest
of her, some proof there’s actually a human under the mask at all,
there’s one more thing I notice besides the grey streaks in her
hair. The golden-bronze skin of her neck is splotched with
discoloration, like some sort of reverse vitiligo. Instead of turning
lighter, the spots across her throat are darker—and not a darker
brown, but a sickly grey. It makes me think of a disease.
My own neck feels a
She settles back
down to cradle her shotgun and peer out the little porthole in the
snow. I lean against the foundation of the house, staring up at the
underside of the porch. It’s cramped under here, but warmer than I
had expected—not only do I have the parka, but the snowdrifts are
blocking the wind. I huddle into the fur lining of the coat, tucking
my hands into the sleeves.
When my eyes start
to feel heavy, I shake it off. The woman is still there, unmoving,
watching. Even without her coat, she’s a big woman. She’s nothing
but sheer power and muscle. She checks on me every few minutes,
mainly when I cough or sniffle, and behind the mask I can feel her
watching me. It’s not as ominous as it had been before.
The next time I want
to fall asleep, I let it happen.
through the small holes in the snowdrift insulation surrounding us,
and that’s what wakes me up. I stretch my good arm and lay my legs
out flat, wincing as my knees pop and ache. The woman rolls her
“Yeah,” I say.
“Ugh. Shit. What time is it?”
I rub at one of my
eyes. “Are they still out there?”
“They are.” She
sits up and stretches her neck and sets her shotgun in her lap. “They
won’t be gone until sunup. Still got a while to go.”
“Oh. They don’t
like the sun?”
I yawn and tuck my
face into the fur of the parka to excuse not putting a hand over my
mouth. It’s cramped here, underneath the porch, and the drifts
block off all light. Every now and then, the wind blows or we hear
some other noise that makes us tense and go quiet, but it’s
impossible to pretend we’re not terrified. At least, to pretend
terrified. I don’t think she has to pretend.
“You know a lot
about all this,” I say as some fumbling attempt at conversation.
“How long have you
been doing this?”
That could either
mean a year, or it could mean ten years. With the grey streaking her
hair, “a while” could mean a whole lot of things.
“Do you have your
phone with you?” she asks.
“Check the sunrise
“Um…” I go to
pat my pockets before realizing I don’t have any. I thought I had
my phone, though. I had it when I was in my parents’ room, didn’t
I? Shit, I must have dropped it when I ran into the bed. I shake my
head. “I don’t. Sorry. It’s probably dead anyway.”
She turns to peek
through a small hole in the snow. Her gas mask is heavy and dark and
every now and then, I can catch a glimpse of a reflection in it.
Somehow, it suits her.
“Can I ask what
your name is?” I say.
“Your name.” I
shrug with my good shoulder. “You…you saved my life. I want to be
able to thank you properly.”
“You can thank me
without knowing my name.”
“Right,” I say,
averting my eyes. “Thank you, then. You were right. I should’ve
“What’s done is
done,” she says. “There’s no use worrying about it now.”
“But that doesn’t
mean I didn’t fuck up,” I say. She turns the slightest bit to
meet my eyes—I can tell despite the mask. My voice breaks, although
it’s hidden by the shiver. “All of this happened because of me.”
Those two words are
the first time she’s said anything comforting at all. It hits my
chest like a punch.
The woman shakes her
head. “Nothing’s anybody’s fault,” she says. “It’s always
everybody’s fault.” She mulls over her shotgun for a second,
humming at it, before pulling a shell from one of the pockets of her
jeans and pushing it into some hole in the middle of the gun I can’t
see from this angle. “Your mother for existing. Your father for
existing. Them both for meeting. The developer for building the
cabin. The agency for renting it out. Me for not stopping you. You
for doing it anyway. Everybody for anything.”
I blink at her. Her
voice is rough and strained and I can tell it’s been forever since
she’s said so much.
it doesn’t feel like it.”
There’s a long
silence, and then she nods.
says. “I know.”
I bury my face in
the parka again. Parts of the fur lining are starting to go cold.
Slowly, ever so
slowly, the sunlight creeps in. It comes in a little bit at a time.
The places where the snow is thinner lights up with bits of bright
white and yellow, and the grey in the woman’s hair is a little more
visible than it had been before. She runs a hand over her hooded head
and peers out the hole.
She nods and starts
clearing out a space to crawl through. I huddle deeper into the
parka—I’m warm where I am, and moving is going to let the cold
air in—but when she shoos me out first, I don’t want to be
stubborn for the sake of a little warmth. I shiver at my knees and
hands in the snow and stand up as fast as I can, my sweatpants soaked
all over again and snow dusting the woman’s long parka. It’s
knee-length on me, at least.
The butt of the
shotgun sticks out. “Hold this.”
“Um.” I take it,
holding the stock like one wrong move could set it off. I’ve been
to a shooting range once or twice, but that was years ago and I can’t
remember the proper way to hold anything other than a pistol. At
least that sort of thing is giving me a solid and healthy respect for
the weapon I’m holding.
I hand it back as
fast as I can anyway. The woman snorts.
she says. “If anything comes by, we don’t want to be here.”
A part of me wants
to ask what would come by in the daylight, but the rest of me doesn’t
want to know. We stand there for a second, and when she cradles the
shotgun against her chest like she knows what’s she’s doing, I
realize I want her to put her hand on my arm again. It had made me
feel so safe and right now, I need
I glance over my bad
shoulder towards the cabin. The front door is still open.
And then I break
away from the woman and start up the stairs.
says behind me, and I break into a sprint. “Hey!”
I fling open the
front door of the cabin and take two steps inside before my eyes
start to prickle and burn. Fuck. My breath catches in my chest and
when I try to exhale slow, it stutters. My lip quivers.
I don’t care what
the woman in the gas mask said.
This is all my
When the first tear
comes, there’s no stopping it. I stumble forward another step or
two, out of the foyer and into the living room. The woman is stomping
up the porch stairs behind me as I walk in a daze between the coffee
table and the couch and side tables.
“Hey!” the woman
snaps. “What are you doing?”
I pick up the radio
resting outside of the kitchen. It’s splotchy and old in the early
morning light. I turn it over in my hands, feeling the weight, and
notice the severed cord.
“We have to leave.
The cord dangles
from my fingers. Bits of copper poke out from the wire like split
ends of a hair. How long had it been like this? It’s hard to see
and I have to brush tears from my eyes to make out what’s in front
A hand grabs my good
shoulder. “Girl, if you don’t—” the woman snaps. It’s not
in the gentle way her hand had been on me before. It’s a harsh come
of grab, and my first reaction is to push the hand away and turn
around and shove the person it’s attached to.
The shove doesn’t
do much of anything. I don’t have any upper arm strength
nugget arms, Dad
used to call them with a stupid half-grin. Thinking about it makes my
lip quiver again. The woman in the gas mask stumbles back a half-step
but that’s it. She’s so cold. We’re both so cold.
And for a few
seconds, we’re both silent.
Just staring at each
I’m the first one
to move. I back away and circle around her like some sort of prey
animal avoiding a rabid wolf, and she watches. There’s the shotgun.
The axe. The pistol. And…and then there’s me.
My legs dump me on
the kitchen floor and I let them. The refrigerator is frigid against
my back and I lean there and stare up at rafters I can’t even see.
I did this. I did
The day I got into
my first real fight with one of my friends, I had been in ninth
grade. I’m an avoidant motherfucker, and everything I did was
either shutting down an argument or getting the hell away from it.
But I hadn’t been able to get away from this one. The girl, I can’t
even remember her name
had wanted me to go to her parent’s vow renewal. She said she
wouldn’t know anyone there, and apparently, when I didn’t want to
go, I was being a bad friend. A small thing to say, yes, but it felt
like a punch to the chest. I came home crying. And Melissa, barely in
middle school, had come upstairs and hugged me and given me a Capri
Sun because they always cheered her up and thought one would cheer me
up, too. Who cares about the fucking horse figurines.
If Carol was good at
one thing, it was knowing when there needed to be a good meal in the
house. The first and only time Dad ever snapped at me, we were both
teary and awkward and shut ourselves away on different floors of the
house. Carol put her fist down and made the best macaroni bake we had
ever tasted, just to get us both at the dining room table. We were
two bites in when he sprung up from the table to give me the biggest
hug he could, and the whole time Carol was smiling like she was
watching her firstborn walk all over again. Who gives a fuck about
And Dad? Dad was the
best thing that had ever happened to me. He taught me how to ride a
bike, how to drive, and how to do long division when I realized I had
forgotten halfway through my senior year of high school. He taught me
how to get my shit together and that you can get anywhere in life as
long as you look like you know your shit. He was the best dad he
could ever be, explaining everything he could and never telling me
“I’ll explain when you’re older” and even if he did muck up
once or twice I would give anything
him to be here.
Now they’re dead.
They’re all fucking dead. The woman was right—I shouldn’t have
come back. I was a coward, I was scared and went back for only a
handful of hours of comfort just to have them gone. Because of me.
The floor creaks
under her heavy footsteps and I have no idea how long I’ve been
sitting here. My knees are tucked up my chest and my eye socket is
pressed against the bone of them so uncomfortably that I want so
badly to move but I know the moment I do, I’ll shatter.
So fucking sue me if
I wanted to see Dad again.
“This is my
fault,” I say. My voice is a broken croak. “I don’t care what
woman says. Her voice is coming from somewhere above me, and her
shadow and the tip of her boot are in the very corner of my vision. I
sniffle and pick up my head. “Okay.” Her shotgun is back at its
place hanging at her back, the axe set in her belt, the pistol tucked
into the straps across her thigh. With the next words she speaks, it
sounds like she’s coming to a sort of realization. “So maybe it’s
your fault. That’s okay.”
“No, it’s not!”
“Yes, it is.”
I cough. It’s a
way of distracting myself from the tears streaming down my face. I’ve
always been an ugly crier.
“I don’t know
your name,” she says. “But I know what you are.”
She shakes her head.
“S’ghna. There’s a difference. Some of us are. Most of us
aren’t.” She kneels in front of me. “And the fuckers that did
this deserve to die.”
one of us. And if anybody can kill a shoggoth, it’s us.”
She holds out a
hand. It’s large and covered in a thick work glove that’s burst
at one of the seams and white woolen filling pokes out like it’s
sniffing the air.
took somebody that I loved more than life itself,” she says. “I
decided that I wasn’t going to sit around and let them get away
with it. The world needs a few less monsters, and that’s why s’ghna
I start to reach for
her hand, then stop.
Her smile is almost
audible in her voice. “We are. You’re gonna take a fuckton of
work but I can tell you’ve got something in there.”
And that? That
almost gets me to laugh.
I put my hand in
she calls us, and the word floods me all at once. It could mean so
many things. The
lone Corruption is
literal but isn’t it. What it means, what it should
is powerful and swells my chest with pride.
children of monsters.
“We,” the woman
in the gas mask says and clasps my hand, “are going to make those
fuckers pay for what they’ve done.”
“So,” I say.
“This is going to sound like a stupid question, but can I ask it
We’re walking back
to the cave, now. The woman has a hand on my shoulder, the good one,
and it takes all of my willpower not to lean against it for support.
I’m still sniffling, still shaking—there’s a numb little spot
in my chest that feels heavier than ever. Neither of us stayed at the
house any longer than we had to. I changed my clothes and put on my
own coat so she could have hers back, and then we were off. Moving
and talking and keeping on is what’s keeping me from breaking down
again, and the woman seems to be humoring it.
“Of course,” she
“What exactly is
s’ghna? How…how accurate is it?”
The woman sighs. “I
would say that it’s a lot for you to take in,” she says. “But
you already have. I have no excuse not to tell you.” And then she
shrugs. “But I’m not going to, yet. Not here.”
“Any reason why?”
“Again. No good
“Can I ask what
your name is, instead?”
Maria. I mull over
it for a second.
“Is that it?”
“I want to know. I
need something to call you.” Maria slides down the small slope I
had tripped over when searching for Melissa, and I jump down instead.
I don’t want to risk a fall. I’m not the most coordinated of
people. “I’m Ruthie Sivan. Well, my actual name is Ruth, but I
“How are you
I wish she hadn’t
asked. “Like shit, I guess,” I say. “I mean, I’m holding up
pretty well considering, but don’t ask me again unless you want me
to cry?” Maria turns to me, and I swallow. “Sorry.”
“I won’t ask
again,” she says.
I’m tearing up
anyway. I wipe my eyes and brush off the moisture onto my coat.
We duck under the
low-hanging rock serving as the entrance to the cave. It’s the one
I had gone in at the start of all this, and Maria waves me through
first. She pauses inside to cover up the entrance with piles of snow
and a few sticks piled off to the side. I frown. Those hadn’t been
there when I found the place. Maria stands up with a huff—her grey
hairs are hidden by her hood again, but I’m reminded of them as one
of her knees pops.
“Ow,” I say with
a quick wince.
“They do that,”
It’s warmer in the
cave than it is outside. It’s a perfect shelter from the harsh
“So you live
here?” I ask. Maria nods.
that.” She starts walking, and I manage to fall in line beside her.
After a second, she pulls a flashlight from one of the massive
pockets of her parka and turns it on. What A bat squeaks in annoyance
and flutters further down the mine shaft. “Found it, decided it
would be a good place to stay.”
“Did you make all
the marks on the walls?”
We approach one of
the branching parts of the mine, and I reach out to touch the two
straight lines carved into the wall. She nods.
“It’s a good
“You used them to
get out, didn’t you?”
Oh, good. Something
else to talk about except all the shit that’s going on here. I grab
onto the opportunity. “Well,” I chuckle the best I can, “I was
straight-A student in high school, after all.”
says. “How old are you?”
That actually gets
her to pause. Her head is tilted like a confused dog—the best way
to show confusion with her entire face concealed.
“Do you not
“I believe you,”
she says. We’ve taken the path to the right instead of to the left,
the marks on the wall become threes and not twos. I wonder what the
difference is. “You just don’t look it.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“I get that a lot. How old are you?”
question. Never ask a lady how old she is, right?”
And that? That gets
her to laugh.
Maria slides my coat
off my shoulders and sets it off to the side, tossing it onto the
mattress. There’s a fire crackling in the pit, and the smell of
burning wood and charcoal has never been so good. I huddle a little
closer to it, trying to keep my mind on anything else as Maria grabs
her backpack full of medical supplies again.
“How’s it feel?”
“Hurts like a
bitch,” I say.
“It usually does.”
She unzips the bag and then sits back a little to size me up.
“Choice: cut off the sleeve of your shirt, or take it off.”
Maria gestures at my
shoulder. I had put on a different shirt with long sleeves—a simple
red thing with a scooping v-neck because it was the first thing I
grabbed—and she’s now pointing at me with surgical scissors.
“Cut off the
sleeve,” she says, “or take the whole thing off.”
I open my mouth to
protest that I can roll up the sleeve, but…
Jesus Christ. The
last time I took off my shirt in front of anybody,
was KC. It had been winter break, almost a whole year ago at this
point, and it was us and nobody else. She had been staying the
weekend for no reason in particular. The heater was on full-blast in
my room and I was in the middle of taking off my sweater (nothing
else but my bra underneath) when KC said she quite liked the view she
was getting. I threw the sweater at her and told her there was
nothing to ogle anyway, my bra was nothing more than a pair of cloth
triangles taken from the kid’s section of Target, but that didn’t
mean I was roaring to put anything back on.
It was nothing like
this now. Still, I have just the one shirt and I couldn’t risk it
being torn up by those surgical scissors, so I nod and take it off as
carefully as I can. There’s a faint moment of some distant humor
when I realize I’m wearing the same exact bra as I had been that
The shirt catches on
my bad shoulder and I hiss in pain. Maria sets down the surgical
scissors to help me out of the tangle. She’s not wearing her old
gloves anymore, but the splotches on her neck smother her hands as
well. I’m glad to get out of the shirt even if I am hyper-aware of
the cold and the thick smoke of the fire and how damn large her hands
are. Goosebumps run up and down my arms and the cold makes my
shoulder feel so much worse.
When she starts
unwinding the bandage, I turn away and stare at the fire. It crackles
and embers float up towards the stalactites scattered across the cave
ceiling before cooling and disappearing into nothing.
she says as she sets the gauze off to the side in a ball. It’s
sitting on top of one of her gloves so it doesn’t touch the dirty
cave ground. “They’re called shoggoths. You know that.”
She takes another
roll of gauze and moves my arm away from my side. I bite my tongue.
It feels like all the different little shreds of skin left are being
torn in two all over again. Her free hand presses against the flat
expanse of skin above my breasts, right beside my heart, as if trying
to calm me. Her hands are frigid.
she says. “The thing is, shoggoths live in caves, in the swamps, in
the grottos. Places they know humans hate. Places where humans
usually go in groups, but places where humans will always go alone.”
“Like up in the
mountains,” I say. She lays a clean cloth over my shoulder and it
hurts more than it should. “Like here.”
“Exactly,” she says. “And what they did to your family is what
they do with everybody they can get their hands on.” She shrugs
almost amusedly. “Or tentacles.”
“So this has
“It happens all
the time.” She reaches for another roll of gauze and starts
wrapping it around my chest, of all places. Her hands duck under the
straps of my bra, and I shuffle awkwardly. Even KC hadn’t touched
me all that much. “Your family isn’t an isolated incident. The
shoggoths weren’t accounting for you.”
I wish I knew what
the hell was under the gas mask of hers.
the only ones,” Maria says. She pulls the gauze around my back and
then to my shoulder. “There are other things like them, things
related to them. But in the way sharks are related to minnows.”
“Like what?” I
ask, even though I know I’m going to regret asking for sure.
Maria sets the gauze
down for a second to pick up a pair of tweezers and pull something
from one of the dozens of wounds. I tear up.
Nyarlatothep,” she says. “Like Yog-Sothoth and Hastur and
Azathoth and all the rest of them.” She shakes her head. “Most of
them don’t give a single fuck about us. Most of them have forgotten
we even exist. We don’t intend to remind them.”
Remember H.P. Lovecraft’s stories?” She chuckled a little bit,
but the chuckle didn’t sound very genuine. “He was the first one
to write down their names.”
was s’ghna?” I ask.
Somehow I’m not
too surprised. She wraps up my arm the rest of the way and pins it
into places with a little golden clamp.
Maria said, “He
knew too much to be human. There’s a reason we had to alter
everything he wrote.”
When she lets my arm
go, I very slowly lower it back to my side. It hurts like a
motherfucker. I want to cry.
“So we’re not
human,” I say. I am taking all of this shit surprisingly well, to
be quite honest. Not that I intend to put the cart before the
horse—give me a few hours and I’ll be freaking out about
everything like expected.
Maria shakes her
head and stands. “We’re not,” she says. “Well, it depends.
Would you call a mule half-horse or half-donkey? Then we’re
half-human, half-syha’ya. If you’d call a mule a mule, we’re
Outer Gods. The Great Old Ones. The word itself fills me with dread.
“I’m related to
a shoggoth?” I ask. “To the syha’ya?”
“We both are. In
the most distant of ways.” Maria packs her bag and sets it off to
the side, and I just watch. She stands to put another log on the
flame. “We’re the ones who can survive looking at a shoggoth at
all. And…” The fire springs to life once more as she sets down
the dried chunk of wood, and more embers shoot up into the air.
“That’s why we’re here. To stop what happened to your family
from happening to as many people as possible.”
I stare at the flame
until my eyes hurt and when I turn my gaze elsewhere I can still see
the colors flashing, burned into my retinas. My good arm is hugging
my knees. Strands of hair, flecked with my blood and matted with
fear-sweat, fall in front of my face and I don’t have the willpower
to move and brush them away. Maria tugs at the filter of her gas
mask, like she’s trying to get a breeze in past the seal. I can’t
blame her. God knows how long she’s been wearing that thing.
possible?” I ask. “To…keep it from happening?”
“There are a lot
of us out there,” Maria says. “Not enough, I’d say, but a lot.
The thing is, they fear us.”
I swear I can hear
her grin, and she says:
“As they fucking
Maria tells me to
get some sleep while she keeps up repairs on her scrap-metal rooms.
The place isn’t built to last and seems to fall apart every few
I don’t sleep very
Panic attacks tend
to do that.
When I wake up, I
have no idea what time it is anymore. It doesn’t matter what time
it is. Maria makes breakfast—something with meat this time, and it
tastes gamey like the deer my grandfather used to hunt. She’s not
as imposing today. Watching her sit in front of the fire, her coat
resting around her shoulders and her bare hands stretching out
towards the fire, she’s more…human than she had been before.
may not be the right word considering what she had told me yesterday,
but the statement still stands.
half-expecting you to run away when my back was turned,” she says.
“I thought about
it,” I admit.
died out there,” Maria says.
“Well, I figured
that.” I stretch out my legs and my sneakers are a little too close
to the fire but I don’t mind it much. “And it’s not like I have
anywhere else to go.”
Maria straightens up
a little bit.
“How about I show
you something,” she says. Her voice sounds raspy and tired. Maybe
it’s the voice coming through the gas mask but I don’t think
that’s quite it. Her voice is like a piece of machinery that hasn’t
been used in ages and is still creaking and fumbling as it tries to
dust itself off and get used to working again. “You finished with
I had kind of been
hoping she would say what meal it was, but day and night and time
itself doesn’t matter when there’s no sun to track it by.
“Yeah,” I say,
and then knock back the rest of the broth. It’s a picky eater
forcing herself to down whatever she can—a little trait that’s
never endeared me to anybody. I have a feeling it’s going to be the
part of this I like the least, besides the shoggoths and the
throbbing pain in my shoulder and my dead family.
My brain has a
fucking morbid sense of humor, because for some reason that’s funny
to me. At least having gotten the panic attack out of the way is
letting me think a little clearer now.
She puts the dirty
dishes in their little basin again before putting on her parka and
picking up her bag again. And her shotgun. And her axe. And her
“…what is it
that you’re showing me?” I ask, watching her strap the holster to
her thigh. It takes me a little bit to realize I should unfold my
coat and put it on again.
really,” Maria says. “One of them is something to help your
I shrug with my good
one. “Alright, I like the sound of that. And the other?”
“That’s not very
Maria looks at me,
and I look back. There’s not much to say about it. She snorts after
a second and waves me on behind her as she starts walking further
into the cavern, away from the blue tarp and the markings carved into
the stone walls. She picks up a lantern from the back of her scrap
metal rooms and turns it on with a click.
It’s a cave.
Nothing too interesting. Dad took Melissa and Carol and me to all
sorts of cavern tours during our family vacations, and I remember a
few of the formations from the tour guides’ chipper voices.
Stalagmite and stalactite, of course—stalactites hanging tightly
to the ceiling, the way I remember it. The guide would always chide
us about touching the stalagmites, so I run my fingers over one as I
pass it. It’s cold and a little slimy. I don’t know what I was
expecting instead. There were things like soda straws and cave
popcorn and a bunch of other silly little names, too.
“Watch your step,”
The lantern sways as
she moves and the shadows rock from side to side. It’s almost
comforting as we make our way further and further back, stepping over
ancient puddles of water undisturbed for what must be hundreds of
years and odd rises in the stone. The ceiling begins to slope down,
and the stalagmites and stalactites meld into massive stone columns.
going to help with my shoulder is down here?” I ask.
“I’ll admit it’s
probably disgusting,” Maria says. “Scratch that: it is. But it’ll
help, I promise.”
“It hurts like a
motherfucker, so I’ll pretty much take whatever you give me,” I
say. “Unless I have to, like…eat it. I’m not going to eat
anything gross. Sorry.”
Maria snorts as we
start down a sloping path. I have to lean back to keep my footing.
“Think of it more
like a salve,” she says.
“Oh thank god.”
The thing is, I hear
at the bottom of the slope far before I can see it. The sound makes
my stomach churn and I regret having eaten at all.
boot-pulling-out-of-the-mud sound of a shoggoth blinking.
I freeze, taking a
half-step back. Maria falters, holding up the lantern. It’s bright
enough I have to squint against it.
“You don’t hear
that?” I hiss.
“I do hear that,”
Maria deadpans. “That’s what we’re here for.”
I have no reason not
to. Even though I’m shivering underneath my coat and I really,
really want to vomit again, I keep going and stick a little closer to
her now than I had been.
At the bottom of the
slope, she holds up a hand to stop me. “Hold up,” she says, and
then points at a collection of several lines drawn across the
entrance. When I lean a little closer, I realize it’s a collection
of powders carefully laid across the moist stone.
happens,” Maria says, “never touch these.”
“Okay,” I say.
“I guess I can do that.”
says. “It’s a matter of life and death. Don’t. Touch. These.”
This time, I nod. “I
won’t touch them.”
straightens up and steps over them. The mud-boot sound comes again,
and I stretch out my stride to clear all of the lines of powder. “If
anything happens to them, you come tell me as soon as possible. It
doesn’t matter what I’m doing. It’s hell to replace, but it’s
better than having the seal broken for too long.”
There’s a small
feeling when I realize I don’t know whether or not the seal is to
keep something out or to keep something in instead.
The passageway evens
out, and the sounds get louder. I don’t want to cling onto Maria’s
arm, but I also kind of do. There are cracks snaking across the
ceiling now. They start off small and get wider and more jagged the
further we go.
When we turn the
corner, I see why. There’s a massive spot in the ceiling that
should have held a stalactite, but the rock formation—almost twenty
feet tall and six feet across at the widest point—had fallen and
was jammed point-down into the ground. Instead of shattering against
the stone floor like it should have, it had just…impaled it.
And impaled along
with it is a shoggoth.
I stop in the
doorway, my feet stumbling against each other like my brain’s
desperate attempt to keep me from going any further. Maria waits for
me, putting a hand on my back to steady me. My lungs are having a
hard time drawing in a breath. The shoggoth’s eyes all turn to us,
each blazing with a dumb, animalistic fury.
“It hates us,” I
“As it should,”
She starts to move a
little closer and sets the lantern on the ground. The shoggoth
shrinks away from the light, its body transforming into darkness
again and flattening itself against the stalactite. Pieces of it
flicker away like shadows but it’s not losing any mass. Maria
watches it writhe, what’s still visible of it glaring at her. A
leech-like mouth opens up from the amorphous fat of its body and
shrieks. It’s that universe-rending sound that makes me think of
all the atoms of the world splitting at once. Maria doesn’t even
“You can come
closer,” Maria says to me. “Just not too close.”
I don’t want to,
but I do anyway. My boots squeak a little bit.
“Is it stuck?” I
ask. Maria nods.
went through one of its eyes,” she says. “Lucky break. Ugly
fucker can’t close it now.”
“Seems a little
convenient,” I admit.
“I had it rigged
to fall,” Maria says. “I have a lot of things in this cave rigged
I remember the
massive noise that had echoed through the chamber when Maria saved me
from the shoggoth that had bitten my shoulder. She isn’t wrong. She
certainly does have a lot of things rigged to fall. I hope she knows
what she was doing.
And then Maria pulls
the axe out of her belt. “Let’s get that shoulder of yours fixed
first,” she says. She points at a spot on the floor with the
handle. “Stand there. Don’t move.”
The spot is far
closer to the shoggoth than I would be okay with in a hundred years.
I stare at it.
“Are you serious?”
“I won’t let it
hurt you again,” Maria says. “I promise. Now stand there.”
I take a deep breath
and take the few steps. The shoggoth begins to solidify again, even
against the bright light of the lantern. There’s a sort of
childlike curiosity to it, eyes opening up across its flesh as
tendrils snake forward and prod at my boot. I start to move away, but
Maria shakes her head. She’s holding the axe with both hands now.
I say, voice a little higher-pitched than I mean it to.
The tendril grabs my
A single goat eye
opens up on the tentacle that’s halfway up my leg.
And Maria swings.
The axe tears through the fatty flesh of the shoggoth and the damn
thing shrieks again, rearing back and hissing black blood splattering
across the rock. A drop gets on my boot and sizzles through a layer
of rubber before dying out, and I yelp and shake the snake of muscle
off my leg.
“Holy fuck! Warn
me next time!”
Maria puts the axe
back in her belt, picks up the tendril, and holds it out to me. More
blood drips to the limestone floor, carving pits in the soft rock.
“The blood can’t
hurt you,” Maria says. “We’re immune to it.”
“I mean,” Maria
says, settling one hand under the shoggoth’s half-open eyeball. The
shoggoth itself is hissing and thrashing, but we’re out of its
reach again. It’s still making me uneasy. “It burns a little bit,
but it won’t eat through to the bone.”
With that, she jams
her hand around the shoggoth’s eye and tears it out of the tendril.
It’s the size of a tennis ball and bulges between her fingers where
she squeezes like a stress toy. There’s no optic nerve connecting
it, just a thick slurry of translucent liquid keeping it in place. It
stretches between the eyeball and the tentacle as Maria pulls it