(reading time: 1 hour, 29 minutes)
Sharks of the Murder Dimension
They couldn’t think of anything to say for a while. Watermelon Peak was doing all the talking. It was red in the face all over the wall, all over the side of the building, all over the other sides too by the sounds the slump had made. They had to call it a slump; it certainly wasn’t an avalanche.
“Why didn’t it break the glass?” Toni asked, shocked along with Diamond and Percy that she was the first one to speak.
“I don’t know,” Diamond answered in a rasp. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed her clumped dying declaration.
“Charlie and Drew are still out there.”
“Maybe!? Do you think they’re dead!?” She was crying again, wrists quaking against each other. Diamond grabbed them to steady her and helped her to her feet, but she wasn’t the only one who needed help. Percy had been moments from collapsing off his bar stool for nearly a thousand moments now.
“Percy?” He didn’t respond. His wide open eyes were fixed on the wall of snow in front of them, only tracking how much redder it turned with each second if they were tracking anything at all. “Percy, we need to call somebody. We need help.”
“Fidelia’s dead,” he answered, pointing at the prop head drowning in his melt puddle beneath him. “Not that Fidelia. Our sister.”
“I know Percy. I don’t know what happened, but we don’t know how long that wall is going to hold.”
“Yeah, why’s it doing that?” Percy asked, almost annoyed. “We should be buried.”
“I don’t think it matters why. Focus for me. We need to call somebody.”
“Audio closet,” he said stiffly. “There’s a radio and a phone.” He stepped down. “Dad would’ve killed us if he knew we caused an avalanche.” Percy shook his head as he headed toward the back of the bar, into corridors for employees only. Diamond kept Toni wrapped up in her arms, marched her behind and alongside.
“I don’t think we caused this,” she told her brother. “How many people have been up here every winter? We’ve never had anything close to this big. The whole face of the mountain must have destabilized. Maybe the climate has finally caused some of the ice sheets to break away.”
“How would you know? You haven’t been here in years. Maybe we did have a few.”
“Is this the time Percy!?” she snapped at him. He didn’t answer, but he did drop the subject as he led them deeper into the rapidly-chilling bowels of the building. They wondered why it was getting colder, since all the lights were still on and the heat ran on the same system, but the answer came around the last corner, stared them in the face.
The audio closet was occupied by hundreds of pounds of snow and ice. All they could do was stare at first, for the sight conflicted directly with the wall of polite snow that didn’t even dare crack the glass out in the lobby. The snow here had pooled outside the filled doorway and into the hall.
The other side could be reached, but only by scaling the mound on all fours, and doing so meant you would bang your knee on the top of the closet door, which had been ripped from its hinges, swept out, and drowned. Somehow this had all happened quietly.
The slump had been loud, yes, but never more than a groan. If something had explosively given way anywhere within the resort they should’ve heard it as distinct from the general din. None of them had, which suggested the snow had pressed against the outer wall slowly, applying deliberate pressure to crack its way through over several minutes at least.
“We’ve… we’ve got to dig it out,” Percy said numbly. Among the items from the closet that had been deposited on the hallway floor was an empty clipboard. He dropped to his knees and grabbed it, looking for the way in which he could hold it most like a shovel before experimentally striking the white mass.
It chipped instead of scooping. He tried again. Another chip, bloody in color this time, but even smaller than the first. The man made a frustrated sound, somewhere between the bleat of a goat and the wail of a baby that immediately preceded a crying fit. It very effectively communicated that this was, absolutely, not working.
That didn’t stop him from intensifying his effort, going at the shapeless but solid mass with one corner of the clipboard as if it was an ice pick. He chipped, and he chipped, and he chipped, and all it seemed to do was make the snow bleed. While he went at it furiously, Toni bent down and picked up one of the larger chips, which wasn’t very large at all, perhaps the size of a pencil eraser.
She turned it over in her bare hand. It was cold, but not quite as cold as she expected. She shook her palm so it would slide to the center, where the creases all met, surely the warmest place on her hand. The pot was watched, and it never boiled, not for three whole minutes anyway.
“It’s not melting,” she said, but the adults didn’t hear her. Diamond had slipped away without her noticing, leaning her against a wall so she could join Percy. Instead of hacking away she was carefully scanning every inch of it, looking for an item she could perhaps pull on to destabilize the whole thing. “Guys, it’s not melting!” she repeated, louder.
“What do you mean?” Diamond asked, but Percy was still going at it. He didn’t want it melted; he wanted it obliterated. It’s state of matter didn’t matter, just its state of humiliation.
“I mean it’s not melting! I’ve been holding this little piece the whole time and it hasn’t melted. See?” She held out her hand. The older woman investigated, taking off her gloves and gripping Toni’s hand from the bottom to see if she was cold. Her temperature was close to normal, certainly far warmer than her own hands, but the girl was right. The red speck of ice in her palm was still completely solid.
“Impossible,” the eldest Bandle muttered. She picked up the speck with two fingers and compressed as much as she could, waiting for the sensation of moisture. Eventually it came, and a drop like blood poured out and down her hand, but it should never have taken so much. “There,” she told Toni, though she couldn’t manage a fake smile, “it’s just being stubborn.”
The speck’s attitude wasn’t a problem, but the flooded closet shared it. Try as they did they couldn’t access it or any of the communication equipment. Cell signal was usually nonexistent, and now there were walls of snow fifty feet high on all sides to further block it. Still they each tried their phones, and got the same nothing.
“We have to leave,” Diamond said as she pocketed hers. “Let’s go.” She took Toni by the hand and marched back to the lobby, the sound of her stomping forcing Percy to give up and follow, but not before throwing the clipboard with all his might. It stuck in the ice, which he hadn’t expected, but when he tried to scoop once more it was held fast, like it was the sword in the stone and he was a professional chamber pot emptier.
“What the…” His sister was still leaving him, so he turned and ran after her, all the way to the front door. It opened without a problem, but it opened to nothing: another wall of snow. It had a perfect indentation where the knob had been, and even held the molding of the wood in pink stripes.
“It buried our statues,” Percy said dumbly, limp sweaty mustache looking like it was about to suicide dive into his gawping mouth. Diamond wasn’t so sure anymore. The glass didn’t crack. The closet was quietly taken over, no helpful device pushed out. Something told her there was just enough icy snow piled in front of the door to block their way out, and that the statue of Dr. Morbisha still stood facing out, completely unaware of the nightmare flowing behind it.
“There are other doors,” was all she had to say about it for the time being.
“Practically a hundred,” Percy growled, clenching his fists once he was over the initial defeated shock. He finally started to help, for what good it did. Everywhere they went they found the same sort of thing.
There was an exit from the restaurant kitchen, except it was now watermelon snow. There were bay doors for equipment behind the studio. Snow. Windows in the upper suites. Snow. Ski rental exit, side door, side door number two… Snow, snow, snow. All of it harder than thick lake ice.
“Are we trapped?” Toni asked after what she assumed was the last exit, at least by the way the two Bandles were looking at each other.
“For the time being,” Diamond admitted. Toni carried the information admirably, crying quietly into the woolly sleeves she’d pulled up over her hands.
“Charlie and Drew probably went to get help,” Percy said, drawing the girl’s red eyes up. He smiled at her. Diamond looked at him coldly, their family bond making the entire conversation unnecessary.
She thought their nephew and his friend were dead, swallowed up in the slump.
He thought they were alive. They could have easily been on the chairlift at the time, and the chairlift could easily have survived itself.
She thought he needed to consider what was now obvious.
He refused to even think it until it was clear that she thought it.
She thought it, oh she thought it alright. The thought was absurd, and they were predisposed to such absurdity living as they did, growing up onscreen, but Toni was thinking it too, and she was more mild-mannered than a biodegradable napkin. There was a will behind what was happening. They had been locked inside on purpose. Fidelia was murdered.
He thought she should prove it.
She thought the proof was obvious. She also thought two more conclusions were almost as obvious.
He refused to think of what either of them could be.
She thought Charlie and Drew were murdered as well, and that no help would be coming until Micah tried to pick them up in a few days. The other conclusion was that they were also targets of whoever was out there, or whatever was in the snow making it misbehave so oddly.
He thought that was nonsense, until he didn’t.
“Can he get down the mountain okay?” Toni asked, pulling them both out of it so jarringly that it took them a moment to understand who she was talking about. Ah yes, Charlie. Dear sweet bumbling Charlie, who was still alive and breathing, looking at all the shifted snow with a flabbergasted expression, scratching his head as he hot-glued a rescue plan together in his sparsely decorated skull. That was who she was talking about.
“I left a snowmobile out front,” Diamond said, which was true. “He knows how to ride.”
“So those are fast right? He’ll be back with someone in a couple hours?” She looked at Percy stiffly, without questioning why she turned to the one who tended to hold loftier hopes. He nodded, but his eyes were cast to the floor.
“We can hope for that, but we can’t assume it,” Diamond said, willing to restore a little reality. “We should prepare to be here a while.”
“We’re already prepared,” Percy said, something like relief, but more like debris finally resting after being dropped by a tornado, in his voice. “We brought more than enough food for the weekend, and the kitchen is full of canned stuff. We’re safe in here.”
“So… what do we do?” the girl asked.
“We watch movies,” he said as if it were a revelation.
“What else are we supposed to do Dee!? We should check the Whitegold room anyway. Its wall is always snow, so it might be old snow, not like this new stuff. Maybe we can push through it. And if not… well then we can put on The Citadel on Mars and see Fidelia again. We can brainstorm other ideas about what to do while we watch.”
Dire as their situation was, Diamond had only one counterargument, and it was not one she was comfortable making in front of Antonia. If there was something out to get them, they might need to arm themselves with improvised weapons. Doing so would surely terrify the girl more than was necessary. It was just snow after all, even if it did have it in for them.
So they made their way down, below the ground floor, past the studio exhibit, and to the Whitegold room, which was marked, fittingly enough, with a white gold plaque. Walking past all the monsters again felt more treacherous than Toni’s first tour, so she cringed the whole way, head cradled in her shoulders, refusing to look any of the beasts in their lack of eyes, eyes, or far too many eyes.
“Who are the Whitegolds?” she asked when she looked up with one eye open and was relieved to see the shining plaque instead of a giant gelatin filled with suspended human organs.
“There are no Whitegolds,” Percy said. “It’s a joke. Everybody who looks at it thinks it was some big donor getting their own suite, but it’s referring to our family’s white gold, which is snow, since it’s the source of all our money.”
“So… what’s in there?”
“See for yourself.” He smiled and pushed the door open, hoping she would go through first, but Diamond squeezed past her. He realized too late that he wasn’t taking this seriously enough. It was in fact not the best idea for the pregnant teenager to explore a room first when part of the building had already been breached by an enigmatic natural disaster.
She was impressed though, once she got inside and the door slowly closed itself behind them. They were in a home theater of sorts, with three rows of three seats at descending heights. There was a bar in the back, along with a popcorn machine. In the other back corner there was a wall of VHS tapes and DVDs, each medium flanking some kind of multimedia machine that looked like a computer tower and seemed to have a slot for every conceivable device from a VCR on down to a telegraph.
All of this she barely noticed compared to the room’s main feature, between two decorative gold curtains bundled on either side of it: the screen. It glistened. Toni helped herself to one of the back seats and stared at it. Though there was only the tiniest hint of pink in its white color, she was able to recognize it as snow.
The room didn’t feel particularly cold, so she glanced down and saw a line of vents at the foot of the screen. They were making sounds, so they were powered on in some capacity, blasting cold air up onto the screen and nowhere else, presumably to keep it solid. Her eyes followed the edges. This wasn’t a screen at all. It was more of a door.
“This corner of the building is always under a snowbank,” Diamond explained. “So our father had the wall opened up.” She walked over to the bar and picked up a tool that looked like a clothing iron. “You can smooth out the snow with this, turn it into a perfect screen for the projector, which is mounted over the door.”
“Don’t you guys already have a screening room?” Toni asked. “There was a sign in the lobby.”
“That’s the regular screening room,” Percy nearly whispered, as if letting her in on a secret. “This one is supposed to be a rumor, spreading as rarely and gravely as a gas leak. If somebody hears about it, maybe, just maybe, they can arrange a screening in here in exchange for a hefty fee. Mostly it was for the family’s own personal use. Watching movies on snow is really something special. Now whi-”
“First we try and destroy it,” Diamond reminded. She took the iron down the steps and reared back, ready to drive it deep into what she hoped was soft powder.
“Wait! Percy hooted. She stalled. “Do it in the corner. You’ll just ruin the movie if it doesn’t work.” She rolled her eyes without admitting that he technically had a point. Once properly crouched she hammered the iron’s sharpest point into the corner of the screen, and came away with only the tiniest chip of ice. Lines of darker red spread from the point of impact, like a blood vessel bursting in the corner of an eye.
“Fuck,” she muttered, trying a few more times and getting the same result. They wouldn’t be getting out through there either.
“Yeah that sucks, but we figured, right?” Percy said dismissively, already halfway to the wall of film choices. “Now which ones did Charlie make you watch Toni?”
“We watched a bunch, but the last ones were The Night it Snowed Blood, Demon Rave, and Soviet Sub Cyborg.”
“All classics,” he said, nodding along, “but did he show you our first masterpiece? No? I suppose that’s good, because we can watch it now. You can see Fidelia when she was… really who she was… before her bastard ex-husband got to her. Now where are you The Citadel on Mars? Umm… Did Micah rearrange these or something? Ah! There it is, with… That can’t be right.”
“What?” Diamond asked.
“There are two cases here for Citadel. One says director’s cut.”
“Dad directed that one. The release was the director’s cut.”
“I know that Dee, but I’m looking right at it.” He grabbed the case, was immediately surprised by something, and then pulled it out. “It’s too heavy.” He popped open the DVD case and turned towards the others, who saw him lift out a sleek black notebook with a red bookmark ribbon.
“What is that?” Percy opened to a random page.
“This is Dad’s handwriting. I’ve never seen this before… Micah must have moved some stuff from storage and thought this got misplaced. But Dad was hiding it. It’s some kind of log. Listen to this.” Percy started pacing around the square of seats, head buried in the notebook despite its small size. “She didn’t respond well today; I don’t know if she understood me properly. She has stopped talking, but I think she just needs some time to cool off again.”
Diamond asked if the entry was dated, which it was, to when she was twenty-seven. Morbisha years. The years they worked most closely together and also shared the fewest words. Naturally she assumed he was writing about her, so she wanted Percy to stop reading before Toni had to hear the list of private appointments that were arranged with the ill-behaved doctor.
“This… oh my god,” he went on. There were things Diamond didn’t want him knowing either, so she moved to take it from his hands, but stopped when his face darted toward the snow screen with an expression she couldn’t even guess at.
“Dee… This says the watermelon snow is alive.”
“It has algae in it. So technically yes, it’s part alive.”
“No! Alive alive. It can move. It can communicate.”
“You’re reading a script,” she guessed. “Maybe he wanted to do something autobiographical, but with a Red Summit twist.”
“It’s not written like that!” he snapped. He’d autographed a hundred scripts and tried to pen a filing cabinet of his own; he knew what a screenplay looked like. “Dad was… He was talking to it, and running experiments.” Percy flipped from the front to the back. “This took years. This is it! This is what happened to Dad! He’s still here, out there in the snow somewhere, under it. He connected with it!”
“Percy, listen to yourself. That’s insane.” Diamond felt a jolt of ice lightning in her memory. Then a few more. That chimpanzee that seemed so frightened of the winter landscape. The incident with Carpini. The times she whipped around, feeling watched, only to see a pile of snow suddenly shift or its color pale when it was only ever supposed to intensify with movement. Still, she couldn’t believe it, and she turned toward Toni to tell her that everything was fine, that they were not trapped inside a snow globe with a mind of its own, but she wasn’t in the seat anymore.
She had retreated to back behind the bar, and was now watching the snow screen with headlight eyes through both glass layers of the tall popcorn machine. She was breathing like a lapdog that had just been gingerly placed in the middle of a quicksand mire.
“Don’t worry Toni,” Diamond tried to soothe her, “the snow is not alive.”
“It kind of makes sense though doesn’t it?” the girl asked, chewing on a sleeve with her other arm over her bump. “I mean why didn’t it break the glass? And why is it just in the room with the radio? If it can control how it moves it could do those things, couldn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but none of that is possible. Watermelon snow is just algae that grows in snow. Algae is nothing but microscopic plants. They’re not even animals; they don’t move under their own power. it’s like saying we’re being trapped and corralled by a potted fern.”
“Dad has a theory about that,” Percy interjected unhelpfully, oblivious to Toni’s terror. He sat down in the front row, looking back and forth between the notebook and the screen. “He lays it all out right here. Algae can’t move, but there are chemical and biological processes that can generate heat, so if the algae generates some it can melt the snow around it.
This makes sense, yeah. It melts the snow on one side a little, it rolls, the snow refreezes from the ambient temperature. The algae has moved. Now imagine a hundred algae cells doing it at once, coordinated somehow. Then a thousand. Then a million. Then however many of the things are on Watermelon Peak.”
“They could go anywhere,” Toni whimpered.
“The snow has never left the mountain,” Diamond reminded.
“Yeah because it gets too warm below a certain elevation,” Percy countered. “The snow is its natural habitat, and the moving trick wouldn’t work if the water around them couldn’t resolidify. That’s it. That’s what’s happening to us! The snow has… decided to trap us in here for some reason.”
“You think our sister was murdered by snow!?” Diamond screamed, getting him to twist around in his chair and drop the excitement on his face. He hadn’t heard her that loud in decades, if ever. “Go ahead Percy. Tell me that our sister had her goddamn head cut off by a pile of snow. Did you even look at her? Did you see how clean that cut was? It was a blade! Did the snow pull a fucking knife on her Percy? Or are you reading a script for I got Mugged by a Snowman!?”
“A blade?” he repeated after several seconds. “So it wasn’t an accident, right?”
“Somebody could’ve left something on the trail, something sharp, that she fell on,” Diamond tried to reason. “That still makes a lot more sense than what you’re talking about.”
“Well there’s an easy way to find out,” he said, standing. “Dad communicated with the snow using our movies. It says right here. If we put on a movie it will move in response.”
“Please don’t!” Toni squeaked. “I already believe you Mr. Bandle. We shouldn’t do that. W-we should just go to another room and stay there u-until Charlie gets back with help.”
“He might not come back,” Percy said coldly, to which the girl started crying. He looked at his own feet, but then back at his remaining sister. “Dad did this for years, and it never hurt him. Maybe if we do it we can convince it to let us go.”
“You’re nuts, so there’s no harm in it,” Diamond answered, but rather than have him set it up she went to the shelves herself and grabbed the standard copy of The Citadel on Mars. Percy sat back down as she freed the disc and placed it in one of the trays on the multimedia machine. With a finger so angry it almost broke the tray, she pushed it in. There was an entire rigmarole programmed into it: the lights dimmed, the surround sound system tested itself with the sound of a convertible’s top mechanically retracting and exaggerated sunbeams pouring in, and the curtains pulled back even further.
“We watched hundreds of movies with Dad in here; the snow never so much as sagged,” she reminded him.
“It speaks when it wants to, when it feels safe. Now sit down.” Diamond rolled her eyes, but went ahead and took a seat in the middle row. She turned and told Toni it was safe to sit down. The girl shuffled forward, but took a seat in the back row. She tried wiping the tears off her red face, but they were refreshed faster than she could get rid of them.
The opening credits rolled. This film was the first they’d ever made, so it was under the Rainbow Summit banner. The logo reflected that. The contrast had Diamond wincing. Her mind filled with the wall of dark red snow out in the lobby. Not a single other color to be found.
Establishing shots of a supposedly Martian wasteland. All of it just more snow. There was a tool, probably in the storage sheds with the artificial snow cannons somewhere, they had used to make the moguls look like sand dunes. It was an altered snow groomer, with long blunt blades that left striations that looked at least a little like the lines wind might leave in sand.
Twenty minutes of the movie went by. The lizard people, invaders from Neptune, had come to destroy the ivory citadel from which the princess ruled all of Mars with kindness and dignity. The lizards had already killed countless citizens with their disintegrating vapo-rays, but they didn’t understand that as long as the citadel stood none of her people could be killed completely.
Instead the dust that remained from their destruction acted as pollen, eventually transforming their souls into lush jungle plant life, which on set was achieved by the liberal bulk purchasing of plastic vines. Even as they massacred the Martian people, the lizards worsened their own prospects, transforming the barren desert they liked and sought to rule into a muggy hellscape of dense living foliage.
The lizards were bringing in a new weapon of mass destruction to clear the jungle, set to arrive on a crashing meteor-ship in just three days. The Martian royal council met to discuss tactics with their mightiest warriors on a balcony of the citadel as soaring pterojet beasts cried out in the backdrop skies.
“There she is!” Percy interrupted the dialogue for the first time, pointing wildly at a teenage Fidelia Bandle walking into frame in a layered nacreous gown and fake pearl earrings the size of Christmas ornaments. He twisted in his seat to see Toni’s reaction. She faked a smile and nodded.
Diamond perked up. The snow screen really did enhance this sort of film. Everything sparkled. The pink hint was like a rose-colored lens on the camera. The glimmer of the ice crystals was uniform, rewarding you when you leaned one way or the other to make part of the frame shine more. At least, it was supposed to be uniform.
Princess Fidelia was sparkling more than usual, outlined in twinkling gossamer. She came to the center of the framing snow, turned toward them. She addressed her generals, but the words felt different. Diamond heard them, not like a recording, but a conversation. She couldn’t put her finger on it, and touching it felt like the last thing she wanted to do now. Her skin prickled into gooseflesh quills when she saw the first pulse.
“Eeeeeeenh!” Toni squealed, covering most of her eyes with her sleeves, forcing her legs up onto her seat despite them pushing on her abdomen. She saw it too, and so did Percy. The screen was moving, bulging outward, the snow very closely mimicking the movement of the figure projected onto it, slowly becoming the immersive 3D cinema to die for. Princess Fidelia took a step forward, and this time it wasn’t just an elbow or her chin. The whole of her lurched forward, stretched out of the screen, took something like a step onto the chilling vents.
Percy and Diamond took measures much less like steps, scrambling backward over the tops of their seats until all three of them were in the back row, holding each other. He couldn’t articulate why, but Percy was covering Toni’s eyes, and she let it happen.
“The snow’s alive,” Diamond admitted. “Holy shit. The snow’s alive.” To her that meant it always had been. The mountain had witnessed her life, from her young teenage years onward. It knew her before Morbisha, during, and briefly after. It already knew the contents of her book, the contents of her.
“O great snow of the mountain,” Percy addressed it, “what is it that you want from us?” It didn’t have any way of answering that they could interpret. It just kept mimicking the princess’s motion, freezing in place whenever the camera cut away to other characters. “We want to leave, unharmed. Will you help us leave?”
There was no obvious response. Whatever methods Jeffrey used to communicate with the entity were not clearly spelled out on the random pages Percy flipped through in that moment. Toni’s eyes were freed by his efforts, and the sight of the bulging frozen thing paralyzed her. She asked it where Charlie was, what it had done with him, but the words were the quietest rasp in her throat that not even the Bandles could hear.
“Did you kill Fidelia?” Diamond asked. It glanced at them. No, just a coincidence. The princess happened to be looking that way.
“Why isn’t it moving with the other characters?” Percy wondered aloud. “It’s trying to tell us something about Fidelia.”
“It’s taking responsibility… or it’s trying to take her place.”
“No, I don’t think so Dee. It’s this scene. The princess is imploring her generals for help. She’s begging them. The suffering of her people is tearing her apart. We’re the snow’s people. It… it wants to help us.”
“That doesn’t make any sense Percy; it’s the thing that trapped us in here!”
“Yeah well five minutes ago you didn’t believe it was alive, did you!? Maybe it’s not trapping us. It could be… protecting us… from what really killed her.”
“Oh what, there’s something else out there now!?”
“I don’t know, but we don’t have a lot of time. The scene’s almost over and we don’t see the princess onscreen for another forty minutes.”
“We can just hit fast forward.”
“It’ll give up trying to talk to us. Dad wrote that a bunch of times. It doesn’t stick around for whole movies. We have to do something now… convince it-”
“-of what? Percy, of what? Where the fuck do you think you’re going!?” Closer to the screen, that was where. Percy crept forward, short legs doing their best to arc over the seats. He held one hand out, open, as peacefully as possible. Red Summit had made a couple of these movies too, where a boy with a golden heart befriends an alien, or a monster, or the sour but lovable face of an English bulldog werewolf.
He made it down to the vents without the snow retreating. The cold air blasted up his pant legs, all the way to his waist. He adjusted himself uncomfortably with one hand, but kept the other reaching out. He knew what was coming. Princess Zua’knok’knok was about to reach out as well, toward the Martian horizon, toward the great untouchable spirit of her people.
The snow extended with her projected arm. Percy saw the lights and colors of the film dancing on one face, but the rest of it was just an expanse of pinkish-white. Fidelia was the tip of the cinematic iceberg.
He intuited exactly how far the arm would reach, which he could do because he had been there, standing behind the cameraman, when Fidelia reached out toward them all those years ago, trying to touch what they would eventually violently embrace.
He knew how close, how far. He stopped his own hand an inch from what would be the final spot of frigid air his sister’s borrowed finger would caress. If the snow really wanted to work with them it would make the effort, stretch more than the footage implied, connect with them. Percy’s breath became so loud to him, so mixed with the outpour from the vents, that he didn’t register anything Dee and Toni said from behind him, if they said anything at all.
This was how you did it, how you founded a business of dreams when everybody told you you couldn’t and shouldn’t. Sometimes you just reached out and touched the screen to be with the story, even if patrons weren’t allowed to touch the equipment.
“Come on,” he said, finger joint popping as he stretched just the littlest bit further. It was about time for the emotional music to kick in like a cloudburst. He felt a little teased, and a little ashamed, as if he had misjudged the exact moment of the climax.
The princess’s hand lowered, and the snow did the same in sync. “No.” Percy lurched forward, made it fulfill its cue by poking it in the top of its pseudo-hand. The snow reacted immediately, by retreating into the screen. In less than a second it had returned to perfect smoothness, but there was a scar of red on the spot that had been a hand, as if he’d wounded it.
“Where’s our father!?” he shouted at it. “Where’s the place I know he built down under you somewhere, where he’s still living all this!? Where!?”
“Percy he’s not… Percy!” There was another spot of color on the snow, at eye level, but this time it was black. Snow crystals, by the millions, went transparent as they melted and then reformed slightly back, allowing the spot to grow, to enter the resort without any sort of reservation or call ahead, and without even knowing the owners.
“What?” Percy staggered back, hitting a seat and falling into it. A step was taken, one much more confident than the one the snow pretended at. This was the very real and very wet whump of a boot that barely ever breached the surface of the snow for a gasp of air. This was one step on top of ten million taken before, each one adding to the idea that its forward momentum could not be stopped.
An entire man came out of the snow screen, and it closed behind him as if nothing had disturbed it. He was dressed entirely in black, from his ankle-choking boots to his zipped-up motorcycle jacket to his driving gloves to his helmet visor that revealed nothing about the intent underneath. There was one ski strapped across his back and another held in his hands the way a Catholic schoolteacher might threateningly tap a yardstick against her own palm.
“Who are you?” Diamond asked while she helped Toni stand up. She’d never felt that stupid in all the times she’d been afraid, sidling through the seats as they got closer to the exit, almost instinctively excusing herself for blocking the audience’s view person by person.
“We don’t know him,” was all Toni had to say, somehow knowing she could speak for everybody.
“How did you get through?” Percy asked the silent figure. The black helmet moved, but not in communication. It was just mimicking the way Percy’s head moved, maintaining eye-visor contact. The youngest Bandle was too busy trying to penetrate that visor with squinting to notice what his sister noticed. The projector was still running, the crisis on Mars stopping for no one, but the light seemed to mostly splash off him like something hydrophobic rejecting a spill. Still, some of that light caught on the razor’s edge of the ski on his back, and it revealed a luminous stripe of red.
Diamond just knew. That particular red was too syrupy to be the watermelon snow. That particular red only came from one place, one person. That red was what this person, this thing, had come for, and it would ignore the absolute bounty of the color they were already drowning in.
“He killed her! Percy, run!” It was not an order he could obey, not floundering on the seats, but he did his best, especially since the skier had already raised his weapon. When it came down it sliced through more than a foot of the front row seat, more than a foot of the wood backing it. Diamond and Toni were already out of the Whitegold room, streaking through the monster statues. The objects looked almost confused, as if they wondered which one of them had broken free from their pedestal to devour a sequel’s worth of Bandles once more.
Once Percy fell off the back of the seats he followed them, and so did the skier. He didn’t run, but his pace could hardly be called leisurely. He walked like someone fuming, their rage barely overpowered by a calculating personality, one that refused to go so fast that it might fail to observe something it passed by. Even so, none of the strange creatures surrounding him made him lose a step. That was not a thing he could lose. Others lost their heads before he would lose even a single step, every bit as resilient as the mountain itself.
Percy caught up with the others at the start of the exhibit. He grabbed Diamond’s arm like he was out of breath, but she just needed to know what the plan was, and that he had one in the first place.
“Wait! You two go hide somewhere; there are tons of places! I’ll draw him off.”
“What the fuck are you talking about!?” his sister asked. “Draw him off? He’ll kill you!”
“He’ll kill all of us!” the man shot back. “I know where there’s a weapon. I’ll try my best, but you need to hide Toni!” They didn’t hear his boots, but somehow they felt his presence, all turning to see the night skier powering toward them, only six statues left before the distance would close. “There’s no time! Go! Dee go!”
She went, only because of Toni. If she wasn’t there both remaining Bandles might have died in the same spot trying to bring the skier down, somewhere between likenesses of their hunting trophies, like the giant bouncing sea urchin and the cockroach-headed grizzly.
“Over here! Yeah, that’s right! Fuck you and the skis you rode in on!” Percy taunted the figure, though it didn’t affect him in the slightest. Once the space between them shrunk almost to nothing it was clear he was willing to accept Percy’s sacrifice. He swung the ski back a second time, but Percy dived out of the way when it sliced. The sound of it cutting the air brought all the man’s body hair to attention; he scrambled up off the floor and ran like a startled chipmunk.
Looking back was only necessary once, to make sure he was still following. The night skier did not disappoint. As long as it was according to the plan, everything that was happening was good. That was what Percy had to keep telling himself, on a loop, to keep from collapsing in fear. He could do it; he’d done this sort of thing before. The whole world had seen him do it, and asked for his autograph after.
There was a props section not far from the monster replicas. Nothing they had just passed through was original, as the rubber, paint, and foam they used on the puppets and animatronics often rotted away mere months after filming.
The items they were supposed to handle were different, built tougher to withstand human fumbling. Almost everything in MacGuffin Hall was the original prop. When Percy sprinted in he almost stopped to admire them on muscle memory, as he had done a thousand times before. There went the wooden flute used to control the vengeful lung dragon in Secrets of the Fortune Cookie. It sat between the top half of a robot’s head converted into a bike helmet and the pod of a carnivorous plant, its leaves wrapped around a knife and fork.
They weren’t what Percy needed to reach. He needed the one he knew how to wield, the one meant to be wielded, not just bandied about in desperation like a rock from the riverside. He loved them all, every last block of painted garbage, even the ones that had aged poorly and were now considered vaguely racist, like almost everything from Secrets of the Fortune Cookie, even its title.
Even so, it would have been a help to hear the skier smashing their glass cases as he pursued. Then Percy would know exactly how much time he had, but the skier was single-minded. Even in flight Percy’s mind bent toward the conspiratorial. It was all about their father. He had done something the powers that be couldn’t stand for.
He had befriended a powerful organism, something living in the snow, or the snow itself. They could be best friends. They could change the world together, but the government found out, or maybe a giant company. They wanted the snow for themselves, to weaponize or sell, and Jeffrey Bandle was in the way.
So they brought out their biggest gun: the guy with the skis. He was a hit man or a mercenary. The unusual weapon was his calling card, the wounds they left a detail that always had to be left out of the police reports so the public never knew all his slayings were connected. Yeah, that was the long and short of it. Just a hired gun after the real family fortune, but there was one thing he obviously didn’t know:
Don’t fuck with Percy Bandle, star of Arcade Ninja Beatdown!
Clearly this guy, this nobody, this joker, didn’t know that Percy had received a grand total of six weapon and hand-to-hand combat lessons from a stunt coordinator whose black belt qualifications were only slightly exaggerated. He didn’t know he was walking right into a trap, one that would spring as soon as Percy got his hands on Lady Kurosawa.
Think of the devil, there she was now, sitting elegantly under her long glass box. The prop katana had never been sharpened, but it was made out of very real steel, and could surely deflect a blow from a ski. He knew he couldn’t cut with it, but anything long and metal had to be at least as good as a stick, so he could beat the skier to death after artfully disarming him.
The has-been actor felt transformed the moment he threw off the glass covering and snatched the blade. He turned just in time for the box to shatter behind him, the first victim of his awesome power. Holding it took him straight back to his teenage years, steeled his middle-aged knees, gritted his teeth in resolve.
The green diamond pattern on the weapon’s hilt was meant to match his green ninja cloak, an outfit that came with the powers his character had borrowed from an arcade cabinet that was coming to life. You see, there was a demon in the game, as well as the souls of an entire Japanese village, and they were doomed to relive the fateful day their home was invaded and destroyed over and over again every time an unsuspecting child put in a token.
Until Percy’s character Jackie Quaters showed up that is. He was the one who noticed, the one who cared. He interpreted the messages the pixels left for him and did as they asked, stealing a coin from their era and country from a museum so he could put it in the slot in the place of a token. Thus they were freed. So too was the dread demon Oni Croni, and the only thing that could finally stop him was the green ninja. With one hand thrust into the arcade cabinet’s empty screen, Jackie drew out the blade Percy nicknamed Lady Kurosawa.
As he drew it magical green cloth manifested, snaked up his wrist and down his body until he was entirely clad in the garb of the ninja. What followed was one of the most epic battles that Red Summit Pictures ever produced, so awing that it was going to echo decades later, right then and there, as Percy Bandle slayed the night skier.
Their weapons clashed. Percy’s was nearly wrenched from his hand, and his hand from his arm, and his arm from its socket. His boots skidded and squealed as the force of the skier’s swing pushed him several feet away. Suddenly he was remembering how far the ski had cut down the theater seat. The skier was strong, stronger than any man Percy had ever known.
There was no time out for him to reconsider; the man closed in and swung his ski again. This time Percy dodged, but the nearby display couldn’t. Its glass shattered, specks of it flying across the entire room with the arc of the fiend’s swing. Percy tried to attack with a charging thrust while his foe was recovering from the move, but the skier’s free hand grabbed Percy’s blade.
He knew it wasn’t sharp, which Percy supposed was easy enough to guess from their surroundings. The skier pulled him closer, but he smacked the helmet’s visor, finally forcing the killer to recoil from something. The katana was released as well, so Percy mad a run for it, back toward the monster statuary and the Whitegold room.
Plan A, which involved kicking the skier’s ass and stringing him up once dead like a man-eating shark, had already failed, so it was on to plan B. His father had at least a cordial relationship with the snow entity surrounding them. It hopefully had some love for the family. After all, every time they had sat down and watched their movies in the screening room it had been watching them right back, studying them in turn. It had to know that he meant well.
It was too trusting. That was why it let the skier through, but once it saw how violent the man was it would rise to Percy’s defense, and together they would vanquish him. He had a feeling it would work, because if there was ever a moment where all hope was lost it was now. That meant they were in the third act, and through luck, fate, determination, or cleverness, it would turn in his favor. It always did.
Getting there was no problem; he was faster than the skier. Not faster than the skis, as it turned out. Percy barely ducked in time, hearing it streak through the air and flinching on instinct alone. One of the skis just missed his left ear as it shot past him like a javelin and planted itself in the chest of a failed clone of the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis.
“Missed me!” he taunted the skier, trying to have some fun. That was part of the formula after all. If they weren’t having any fun then what was the point? The words barely made it out of his ragged throat however. His pulse was racing, faster than it ever had, and he couldn’t tell if that meant there was some biological fun in there even if it didn’t feel present.
The skier took the straightest path possible, which sometimes meant climbing over the backs of other monsters or crawling under their bellies. The only time he stopped was to reclaim his thrown ski. By the time he had his quarry was inside the Whitegold room, the doors flapping behind him.
Percy used all his strength to topple one of the sets of movie shelves in front of the doors. If he could move it then the skier could move it easily, but it might buy him a few seconds with the snow. He shuffled down the steps beside the seats as fast as he could and then dropped to his knees in front of the pale glittering screen. The Citadel on Mars was still playing. It was at the part where young Percy was standing in the background as an extra. He was part of a grove of trees slowly transforming back into people with the blessing of their princess.
“That’s me,” he told the snow. “Right there on you, where I’ve always been. Please, help me. Together we can defeat him!” The snow didn’t budge, but the DVD shelf did. “Please!” Screaming it made no difference. The banging stopped; he was inside. There were plenty of open seats, but the bastard wanted Percy’s.
He spun around to do battle once more, lunging forward with lady Kurosawa leading the charge. Their weapons met, but the skier had one ski in each hand. The other one pushed through Percy’s sweater, Percy’s undershirt, Percy’s skin, Percy’s muscle, Percy’s organs, and then all of those again in the reverse order. Into the snow that definitely wasn’t Percy’s.
Too strong. Too strong to be an ordinary man. The katana clattered to the floor, the chilling vents blasting the heat of battle off it. Blood spilled out of Percy’s mouth and joined the residue of Fidelia’s. He must not have paid close enough attention. This wasn’t the climax. He wasn’t even the protagonist. Just a middle kill in the body count.
His hand grabbed weakly at the night skier’s shoulders, but he was unmoved. He could do the reveal then. It wasn’t as good as the climax, but people remembered the reveal. Once the identity of the villain was known he could be figured out, dissected for weaknesses. Everything was going numb, but he still had his arms. Percy leaned forward, into his sacrifice, and grabbed both sides of the skier’s helmet. In one sticky slow pull, like a cylindrical lump of wet dog food slurping out of its can, it came off.
He wanted to recognize the face. He was in the middle of the dunnit, blood testifying to that all over the floor and inside the vents where it rapidly congealed, so he deserved the who. Anybody would’ve made enough sense for one of their own productions.
Micah had gone insane, finally slaying them all for the sake of his culture. Once they were all dead his relatives would show up and they would perform some ancient Native American ceremony and the snow would recede, taking the evidence of his rampage with it back to the caves where it would stay forever buried. That would’ve worked.
It could have been Charlie, finally desensitized to violence by his many years of compounding accidents. Bodies were just meat to him now, and he needed to carve them up to feel anything at all. Murderous ghosts, egged into reappearing by the boy’s first taste of bloodshed, possessed the snow to help him corral his victims, to encourage, to watch. That could’ve been a blockbuster.
It could even have been their father, Jeffrey Bandle himself. The snow was the reason he had everything he had. Without it, no gimmick for his resort, no sets for his movies. It was his truest friend, a bond so frozen to him that it superseded even the love of his family. The snow was a jealous creature, demanding more and more of his time.
Eventually he was forced to abandon his life, move under its blanket to appease it. It didn’t want anybody else to even see him. The time came, after years, where even another human foot anywhere on the mountain was seen as a violation. So it sent out a depraved, isolated, and brainwashed Jeffrey puppet to finally destroy the last threads keeping him and his snow apart. What a controversial ending that would’ve been, but it would have kept people talking for months. A cult classic, definitely.
But Percy wasn’t granted any of these reveals. All he got was the face-like abomination of the night skier. There was probably a skull under there somewhere, because he could make out eye sockets, a nose lump, and a mouth that sagged below the chin on both sides. Strands of frozen white hair strangled each other above the shredded asymmetrical ears and nowhere else. Jaw blended with neck as a series of whitish bulges, the fluid-filled parts stretching at the bottom in tones of green and yellow.
There was only one eye, the left one, and it was so thoroughly bloodshot that its surface looked more like Bolognese. It couldn’t blink, and only moved in spurts. Percy’s vision blurred too much for him to focus, but if he had he would’ve seen the eye’s surface periodically freezing and unfreezing in order to swivel the pupil about.
Altogether the swollen sagging face, white as snow except where splashes of color made it much worse, was without expression. It might’ve had one at some point, but the emotion had melted out of it, like a wax statue left next to a heater.
The skier’s only reaction to being unmasked was to push Percy up against the snow screen, lifting him off his feet. The snow accepted the ski and held it, allowing the skier to step back and admire his mounted trophy. One last sob escaped Percy Bandle before his head and limbs went limp.
The reveal hadn’t been worth it, so with his last thoughts Percy had moved his eyes up, looking directly into the bright projector. Beautiful rays, each one belonging to The Citadel on Mars, danced, assuring him that his good deeds made up the foundation of where he was going. He couldn’t sign any more autographs, but the ones that were out there were already getting more valuable. He was going to live on as what he was: an underutilized star. Survived by Dr. Morbisha, who spoke of him often.
Red spread outward, across the snow screen, losing the shape of Percy’s silhouette. The algae never concentrated that much, so it had to be the man’s blood, and it had to be all of it. The snow slowly swallowed him, so the skier grabbed his weapon to prevent it from being taken too. He stood there, perfectly still, as the man’s corpse was sucked off the unusual blade and vanished into the mountain’s depths.
The night skier wiped the blood off on an armrest before retrieving his helmet. There were still two more. There would be no summit until every last human had stopped their bloody screaming.
The Thirty-Minded Man
The matte painting room was the safest place Diamond could think of holing up in the resort and studio. It locked from the inside, a lock her father had specially installed so the artist they worked with could have the privacy she demanded.
Diamond couldn’t remember her name, as she’d always insisted on going uncredited in the films, and never told them why. It was odd, considering what a diligent worker she was when left to her own devices. She had done matte paintings used for backgrounds and establishing shots in almost every Red Summit film.
It was a dying technique by the 90s, revived by the ski resort mostly for budgetary reasons. Maybe that was why she never went credited. Anybody who picked up an appreciation for it might go looking for her name, and in not finding it develop an obsession. Any spark of inspiration could give it a future if given the tinder of mystery.
Right now Diamond hoped nobody was looking for the originals, and that they could give her a future instead. The only surviving Bandle and Toni were hunkered down, holding each other in silence, hiding in a tent of two wall-sized matte paintings leaning up against each other. There were more than thirty paintings stored there, each depicting a vibrant outlandish setting.
Every time Diamond looked up she saw either an abandoned urban street filled with the debris of a parade interrupted or a cave deep inside the Earth that just didn’t look right without the foam boulders falling in front of it and her father shaking the camera to simulate an earthquake.
The movie had to be over by now. They’d heard nothing after some glass shattering. Diamond had a feeling that by then the average teenager would’ve been panicking much more energetically, but Toni was still wrapped up in her arms. The girl hadn’t lifted her head since putting it down. She could live the rest of her life with that crick in her neck and a view of nothing but sidewalk and litter if it meant she didn’t have to see any more of the night skier.
It would’ve helped if she spoke up; then at least Diamond could bounce her strategies off someone to hear exactly how foolish they sounded. One of them had already failed. The matte painting room was one of the highest in the building, and she was hoping the snow couldn’t maintain its flooding forever.
The tides had to recede, so why not this red tide? Sadly the thinking was folly. The massive window that gave the artist her inspiring view was still totally blocked, and just like the lobby there wasn’t even a hairline fracture in the glass anywhere. They were still locked in their reverse snow globe.
It hit her. There was a way out though. They’d seen it used, plain as day. It was just a little too distracting at the time because of who had used it.
“Toni?” she said as softly as she could, not realizing several frogs would be escaping her throat at once. The girl didn’t look up, but she quaked less. “We have to leave this room.”
“The door’s locked.”
“I know, but a locked door won’t stop that man. We need to get you out of here.”
“But your brother-”
“Is probably hiding too if he got away. If we just hide we’re doomed, but there’s something we can try. We have to go back to the Whitegold room.” Her quaking started up again.
“No.” There wasn’t any intent in the word; it was merely a defense mechanism.
“I know, believe me kid. But it’s the only path forward that I can see. The guy with the skis came through the snow screen, which means the snow can let you through if it wants to.”
“But it let him in and he wants to kill us!”
“I don’t understand either, but the snow doesn’t want to kill us, at least not directly. It could have done that at any time. It could do that right now. I thought…” She didn’t even need to bounce the idea off someone. It sounded stupid in her head and imbecilic coming out. “I thought maybe our father had convinced the snow it wasn’t allowed to actually enter the building, but that can’t be it. It broke through to the room with the radio.”
“You already tried to get through the screen; it was frozen solid.”
“Yeah, but maybe we can get it to change its mind. We might only need a few minutes alone with it. I can be diplomatic… when I need to be.”
“I don’t think I can move,” the girl squeaked.
“Sorry, but I’m not leaving you here alone.” Diamond pushed the painting of the cave with a resolute palm. The tent collapsed around them, the flimsy painting sliding to the floor with the quiet sound of a dropped pillow. It still made Toni flinch, but Diamond pulled her to her feet. “You’ve got to be tough when the situation calls for it.”
“Charlie says you’re tough all the time.”
“That’s because he’s family, and I’ve always had to be tough around them. It’s exhausting. Why do you think I live an ocean away, in a jungle that has more mosquitoes than leaves?” They started shuffling toward the door.
“I thought it was because you were tired of being famous.”
“No, that’s one of the reasons I married Woraphop. He had no idea who I was… and he’s still never seen one of the movies or my show. It’s not the reason I practically begged him to take me to another continent.”
“What’s he like?” Toni changed the subject because she heard the straining anger in Diamond’s voice. The girl couldn’t bear an ounce more hostility at that moment, from any source.
“He’s a very utilitarian man, hardly has any use for all the money he’s got. I’m certain he needed a wife just so someone could live in his family home while he was away on business. Which isn’t to say he’s without passion or joy. He likes setting people up for success, winding them like toys and watching them go.”
Diamond knew she should’ve kept talking. It was distracting Toni as they slowly made their way downstairs. Their heads were so close that whispers would’ve done just fine, but things occurred to the eldest Bandle that she couldn’t say out loud.
Woraphop had wound her up as well, and she was ashamed of the results when she was released. Years of trying and failing to find a new direction in life. Even with all the resources she could ever want everything felt like a dead end: painting, jewelry, volunteer work… Only last year had something stuck.
The book. The book about Watermelon Peak and all the bloody snow melt running down her legs. Writing it didn’t feel good, but completing. It was a purge of horror from her bloodstream, eviction of the poison that had her living like a has-been trophy wife. Once it was out there, once she heard the praise and acknowledged the presence of criticism without listening to it, she would know it was finally somewhere outside of her. It would be in the air, reacting with other people, and she could escape it like an octopus jetting away from its expelled ink cloud.
None of that mattered if she couldn’t escape the mountain one more time. They made it to the Whitegold room, with no sign of Percy or the night skier, and slipped inside. Aside from the chair the ski had destroyed there was little sign anything was amiss. The projector had shut off on its own once the film was over and Mars was saved.
She set Toni down in the back row so she could investigate the screen closely. On her way toward it she stepped on something flimsy; it was the little black notebook Percy had found. Diamond picked it up, and was about to flip through it looking for clues, when she noticed the cover was moist to the touch.
It wasn’t greasy like sweat, so it wasn’t from her brother’s hands. Just water. Diamond’s hand shook as her body seemed to follow the clues much faster than her brain. The brain didn’t even want to get there, but it was dragged kicking and screaming through the motions.
Percy had taken the thing from inside a case on the movie shelf. There was no reason for there to be any moisture in there. So it had been recently handled. There was only one entity, of which she had recently learned, that would likely have a watery grip. The snow itself. Percy had been perplexed by the presence of the ‘director’s cut’, even with his frequent visits home, even with him dragging people into the Whitegold room for viewings.
Even with him doing it alone when nobody would join him, laughing and shouting at the screen as if he was a packed house all by his lonesome.
The only possibility that made sense was that it hadn’t been there before. The snow had deliberately produced the notebook in its case… and then placed it neatly on the shelf between two others.
They were meant to find it. But why now? The snow had their entire lives to open up a dialogue. Even if their father had been some kind of gatekeeper he had been missing for years and years. And if it wanted to talk why would it unleash the man with the skis upon them?
Diamond opened the notebook. Her father’s notes filled the pages top to bottom, barely reined in by bullet points. He’d filled the margins, writing in them sideways. Here and there were notes unrelated to the snow, stupid movie and scene ideas he didn’t want to forget.
Fly traps can move, why not algae? (Fly Traps can Move – good title)
Micah probably knows. Make an appointment and confront.
It hates the fake snow; keep it just in guest areas.
Fidelia hates baby Charlie’s agent – replace her.
After such an onslaught of her father’s unfiltered speculating, it was a relief to find a page with no words. Just a scribble hiding a failed drawing. That in itself was odd; the man didn’t draw. Not even stick figures in party games. Not even smiley faces in the snow with a gloved finger. She remembered him always being embarrassed by his lack of skill in that department. He would hire artists they’d worked with in the studio just to draft sketches of his most inane ideas.
The next page had another aborted attempt. As did the next. After that he had succeeded: a drawing of a door that spanned the crease at the notebook’s center. The edges of the page were feathered, slightly snipped with scissors. She ran a finger down the side, producing a soft sound.
She felt something. There was a little more air in the room, and it had entered on a cold breath from the snow, somehow entirely separate from the blasting of the vents. Diamond looked up at the screen. It wasn’t really a screen anymore, not with the new addition. The snow had receded in a patch the size of her hand, creating a shape of crimson lines: a V inside a circle.
“It’s a lock,” Toni said, reminding Diamond that she was there. If it was a lock then she was holding the key, and the screen was a door. She still had the notebook opened to the door page, and the feathered edge now looked more like the teeth on a house key. She got close, felt the vents blowing up into her clothing, drying out her eyes. The snow didn’t react.
Slowly, like she was trying to push something into gelatin without ruining its shape, she inserted the open notebook into the V. There was no resistance, but also no room for it to wiggle. Keys had to be turned, so she twisted her wrist clockwise. The red circle rotated. All at once the notebook was sucked out of her hand, into the depths. Diamond jumped back.
She did so just in time for the screen to swing outward. A wall of snow, anchored on the left, ten inches thick, opened. The shapes and motion were so mechanical compared to the avalanche, to its mimicry of the images projected onto it. This was something it had been taught to do, by Jeffrey Bandle no doubt. He was always opening doors where there shouldn’t have been any.
Behind the snow door was a throat: a ribbed tunnel of packed wet red and white. It extended back a ways and then turned down sharply. Its ceiling, walls, and floor were randomly studded with objects trapped, reaching out like drowning sailors: a typewriter, a patio umbrella, a pair of snow goggles…
“This… this isn’t right,” Diamond rasped. There was always a mound of snow on the other side of the screen, but just that. It was never big enough to hold such a passage. The snow had moved it. It kept the tunnel, and whatever was on the end of it, hidden under the surface, somewhere on the mountain, just waiting for the key to slide it back into position, like a vacuole inside a living cell.
“Maybe Dad had a second mansion… just split up under all this… rooms rearranging and looking for a better view of the other mountains.”
“You’re not going in there are you?”
“Not alone.” Toni looked at her like she had transformed into the night skier before her very eyes. “I know kid, but we can’t split up and we’ve got to figure this out. We’re nowhere near ‘wait and see’ as an option. That’s a luxury. We’re on the lifeboat and that…” She pointed down the throat, wishing she had a flashlight. “…is the deserted island.”
Toni was no less afraid, but she understood that sitting there alone when the skier kicked the door open was the worse option. Silently she stood, head down, arms stiff, fingers clutching the tips of her sleeves against her palm, and walked to Diamond’s side. They held hands. Diamond assumed the first step would be the hardest, but each one was a test.
If the icy floor of the tunnel had just been curved and slippery she could’ve handled it better, but it accommodated them in the most unsettling way. Every time their feet came down the curve seemed to vanish, but when they lifted them again there was no footprint. The algae was in every inch, anticipating them, turning only the parts of the path that their feet would touch into a runway.
“It’s moving,” Toni whispered, and she wasn’t talking about their preordained footsteps. The walls were like the tide, red coloration pulsing in waves, fading rather than receding, urging them deeper. No sound accompanied it, prompting Diamond to wonder how many organisms on Earth were capable of total silence.
There were some in the animal kingdom. Sponges. Anemones. Jellyfish. But jellyfish were brainless. They were nothing but stupid water, having forgotten how to move with the rest of it and developed a pulsating swim to catch back up. They were evolutionary daydreams, things that fell where they did just because there was empty space they could mold themselves to.
The watermelon snow was different. It couldn’t have a brain either, not if it was algae, but it still had intelligence. It could learn tricks like a dog. It could make its own decisions. It could trap them and keep them alive. If jellyfish could do that no boat would ever leave the shore again.
She knew that a human brain technically utilized electrical activity. A brain was lightning in a bottle. Try as she did, she couldn’t picture little bolts of lightning jumping between plant cells. Something else then. Sugar in a bottle. Carbohydrates in a bottle. DNA in a bottle. Something slower than lightning.
Not slower in the literal sense. She couldn’t claim that after it sucked the notebook out of her hand faster than she could squeeze it. Its race down the mountain, and the speed with which it precisely encapsulated the resort, further testified to its reflexes.
But the actual thoughts. The learning. Without the lightning it had to be like sludge. Emotion was so slow as to be something else. When she tried to slow down any positive emotion in her head all she found was that it had weathered into comfort. All negative emotions became broad distress.
Yet it didn’t seem to be acting like it was just slowly flipping light switches between bad/good and on/off. It felt uncertain. The snow was playing both angles: the angle of the Bandles and the angle of the skier. Maybe it was pitting them against each other to see who was the stronger ally.
A person she never regretted forgetting barged in as a long dormant memory. He was a teenager she went to high school with; Gerry was the name if recollection insulted her truthfully. Gerry wasn’t a cruel person, but he spent time with the cruel, too dull to understand any functional difference between right and wrong. To him there was just the group and those isolated from it.
She’d been to his house once for a party, with them being just young enough for it to be a pizza and cake affair rather than a boozy one. Diamond had wandered away from the festivities, into the hallway outside Gerry’s bedroom, which was where he kept his aquarium.
Some of the fish had scars. Up until then she had never thought about fish scarring. They were too small. Fun-size to their predators, like trick-or-treating candy. They got swallowed whole. The little creatures were fully part of the rule that children intuitively believe, that the smaller something is the less likely it has ever or will ever suffer.
Gerry had disproved it right there, yet couldn’t see it. Diamond counted six live fish, some snails, and some cleaner shrimp, which was a perfectly ordinary amount for a large tank like that, but it held the stories of so many more lives. The bright gravel at the bottom was full of shallow graves. She saw bits of fin, shell, loose antennae, scales, and other rotting relics of life.
He liked to shop at the pet store, liked to pick them out more than care for them. Creatures were dumped into the tank haphazardly with no regard for their ability to coexist with what was already present. Sometimes the tank was hostile enemy territory. Sometimes it was invaded. They ate each other. Got sick from foreign meat. Fell in even battle.
Gerry never stopped buying, never cared that the population of the tank always stayed roughly the same. The convenience of the single tank took priority over the cursory research needed to keep all his little charges safe. Diamond left the party. The closest thing she had to a pet after that was the few moments, several years later, that she held a frightened chimpanzee that didn’t like the snow.
She and Toni were just the wrong fish dumped into the skier’s tank. He was battle worn: a gladiator of the snow’s idle curiosity. As far as the mountain was concerned, they had all the tools they needed to survive and it was their fault if they didn’t. A fucking giant Gerry, watching, barely feeling, thinking having traumatized pets made him a more interesting person.
Diamond managed to keep walking despite the return of his blank face. They still needed to investigate. Chances of beating the skier hand to hand were small, but if they had enough information they could perhaps outwit him. How smart could a man using a pair of skis as a weapon be anyway?
“Shit!” The snow shifted under them, ribbing of the hall smoothing out into a slide. Unable to keep their footing, they both fell onto their backs and were whisked down into a new chamber like the interior of a large igloo. They slid to a stop at the center of it and scrambled to their feet.
No doubt Jeffrey Bandle had decorated the place. Only one section of wall was snow, and the rest was covered with movie posters. Each was frozen stiff with a skin of ice. God Bungled it Bad! The Beast from 2,000 Light-years. Say Grace… or else! Several of them were her father’s favorites, though he had a harder time picking between them than he did his children.
The place was furnished, and not like the dotting of sinking objects in the tunnel. A writing desk sat perfectly level, the papers and utensils on it frozen in place with a skin of ice so thin a single breath could melt it. A portable spotlight hung upside down from the center of the ceiling. The snow switched it on, giving them both a fright.
“So this is where Dad went whenever he disappeared. I always thought he was out getting drunk or cheating on our mother.”
“What is this place?”
“A screenwriting nook I think.” She tried to open a desk drawer in search of manuscripts, but the ice wouldn’t allow them to budge. “Whenever he wasn’t writing I imagine he was interacting with this stuff, trying to figure out how it worked, how he could use it.
I guarantee he had some kind of plan, probably wanted to turn Watermelon Peak into a full-on amusement park. Use the snow as trams, rides, photo opportunities. Use it for special effects in our movies, even more than he already did.”
“But what are we doing here?”
“I don’t know,” Diamond sighed, flapping her arms defeatedly. “The snow wanted to show us this, right?” There was no answer from the walls. “It didn’t put his notebook out there for nothing.” She raised her voice. “So what is it? What do you want us to see?” The words were hardly out of her mouth before something caught her eye.
She didn’t recognize one of the posters, so she approached it slowly. There was more ice over it than the others, the details beyond blurred. The face on it was only recognizable as such when her own was six inches away. It was a man, probably, with his mouth wide open, frozen in a terrified scream, just like his eyes.
He was reaching out, like the camera was aimed down the well he was falling into. Such imagery wouldn’t have been a surprise on one of their posters, but Diamond couldn’t recall it. She’d seen them all because she’d signed them all, even prototypes and concept art. Neither Rainbow nor Red summit had ever made a poster like that.
Examining the top, she saw that there was no title. The top edge looked uneven as well, so much so that the poster couldn’t have been flat under the ice’s surface. A cold wave moved over her skin, goosebumps rising like the hair on a disturbed cat’s haunches.
None of it was flat. Not any feature on the face. Not the hands. They were all locked in three cruel dimensions: a mammoth overtaken by a glacier and preserved for all time. It was the roughly rectangular shape that had confused her, but with a step back she could see it properly. The top corners were just the end of a dark coat pulled up over the man’s head, as if by a strong wind. The bottom corners were his shirt, torn away and stretched.
The snow had arranged the poster shape so he could join them, what the mountain creature likely perceived as more of his children. Here was Jeffrey Bandle, frozen dead in excellent mimicry of his works.
“Did it get you?” she whispered, all sorts of feelings collapsing against each other awkwardly like a lazily constructed tent falling in a heap. “Did you tell it to do this? Is all this part of some idea of yours?”
It could’ve been, she realized. It really could have been. This looked too much like a film already. They were trapped with all means of communication cut off. It was dark. A masked killer stalked the halls, picking them off one by one. Supernatural forces conspired against them. This was already good enough for a handful of sequels.
Diamond actually checked if there were any cameras sticking out of the walls, or perhaps a boom microphone. She didn’t spot any, but maybe the snow itself was the camera. It was making its own movie, copying Jeffrey, desperate, like most people, to feel the kind of confidence that was always so obvious on the man’s face.
If he trained the snow to do such a thing, and then accidentally got himself killed, it might’ve been following on his instructions, only now there were none of the safeguards he would’ve implemented.
“Is that Mr. Bandle?” Toni asked. Diamond nodded. “I’m sorry. Did the snow kill him?”
“I have no idea. It looks like he’s in one piece. Whatever happened I think he died here… but this room moves around. There was never enough snow behind the screen for this to be here. Maybe it moved somewhere it shouldn’t have. Like… if a tree fell and splintered somewhere, and the room moved across that spot, he could’ve been skewered from behind. Just sitting at that desk, writing, and then…”
“He didn’t leave you guys.”
“He checked out any time we weren’t right for the screen. When we were little we were perfect. When Percy was a teenage boy, the kind of person who is allowed to do everything, he was perfect. When Delia and I got tits we were perfect. When I had an adult’s face I got shunted into television, piped into that black outfit like expiring pastry cream.
Then it all started over again with baby Charlie. It would’ve been better if he’d just disowned us and then tried to hire us back for whatever projects he wanted discount actors for. When he had a new movie to make he would just disappear, even though his car was never gone. It was like he could walk into a poster, or one of the matte paintings, and just hide himself in two dimensions for as long as he wanted… like he was keeping quiet between two pieces of mail piled on his desk while we looked around the room, calling for him.”
Diamond whirled back and saw. Jeffrey was still falling down his well, and he was speeding up. The remains of his clothing lost their rectangular shape. His arms stretched as if he was being towed behind a speeding boat. The snow pulled him away from the wall until he was just a blur, and then a spot in the ice that might have been a blur.
Veins of red spread around the area where he’d rested and moved across the walls. Ripples of the color took up a rhythm, big and small, light and dark, like the color changing on an octopus’s skin.
“What’s happening!?” Diamond didn’t have an answer other than to shuffle back and wrap her arms around the girl. If it was going to stab them to death with icicle lances it would at least have to go through her body first.
One by one the other posters disappeared, sucked into the recesses of the snowbank. Everything was red and white now, like they were inside an eyeball as it darted back and forth, searching for the sounds they made.
The one spot that hadn’t had any posters at the start moved, and then collapsed like a plastic bag sucked into an asphyxiating mouth, refusing to rip. A knob formed at the bottom of the divot. It stretched up and out, toward them, teeming with tiny, red, chemical fireworks.
A face formed on the end, but not the perfect reproduction of the princess of Mars. This was crude, like a melted ice pop from an ill-reputed ice cream truck. Like a clown’s makeup running in the sun. Two holes for eyes and a single smiling line of a mouth. It was easy to imagine it saying all sorts of things, and none of them sounded friendly as it stretched toward them, almost desperately, like it might tear itself loose looking for companionship.
“Hey ladies! Oh my mistake, girls. You’re so young, skin as soft as snow, not like little old me. This face isn’t fooling anybody is it? I move and I bleed, pretty sure the young people aren’t doing that. They wouldn’t want me in any of those movies. The camera would zoom in and everybody would lose their lunch!
You don’t believe me. Here come closer, look at my surface. It’s like the craters of the moon are all having heavy flow. It’ll make you right sick. Here, come closer. Okay, I’ll come to you. Here I come girls! I’m getting close enough to touch! You can’t stop me!”
They took a step back, which made it falter but not retract. The eyes couldn’t blink, but they had a living quality that disturbed them, implanted the knowledge that they would have nightmares about that face if they lived long enough to sleep again. It was like looking at the holes in a bowling ball and seeing them dilate slightly.
“What do you want?” Diamond asked. The snow had no answer, not one of words anyway. Dark spots began appearing under the ice behind it, but it wasn’t the posters returning. These new ones had a variety of shapes and sizes, with the biggest catching their attention the most.
The shapes rotated slowly like they were tumbling through still water as they sank; it allowed Diamond and Toni to make out limbs. Four of the five had heads as well. Bodies. Which made the smaller shapes body parts. Salvage.
“No!” Toni screamed, collapsing to the ground on knees of gelatin. She repeated the word until she had to stop or risk vomiting. It took Diamond a little longer to see what she saw. One of the bodies’ torsos was a uniform color, and it matched the coat Charlie had been wearing. There he was alongside Drew, and the help they’d brought back with them didn’t seem like much help at all.
“Percy,” the only remaining Bandle muttered as she placed another color. “Dad.” The body next to Jeffrey’s lacked a head. “Delia.” It was a family reunion in the darkest corner of the freezer, where the ice had burned everything black, where she wasn’t even sure how to dispose of the things lost there.
“Charlie!” Toni cried to call him out, but he was going nowhere fast. Around and around the bodies went behind the icy wall, faster and faster, until pieces started to come off of them. Toni tried to follow the biggest piece of Charlie, like a shooting star, with her hands but it was lost in a spiral of others.
The shreds were fed under the ground and into the base of the disgustingly primitive snowman. It twitched, bulging in places. The face deformed as something pushed outward between the eyes and mouth. Its old features closed as new ones emerged, but they were not new to Diamond. They had taunted her just hours ago, telling her come on, be serious, there was no way you were actually raped in our perfect movie star life.
Delia’s frosted face stretched over the snowman’s head. Frozen hair poked out in twisted spears like porcupine quills. There were no teeth left under her lips, just red snow, like she was choking on a slushy cherry drink. Her eyelids puckered as the snow tugged on them, trying to mimic something of human motion, and failing at it more than any living thing had ever failed at anything else.
The Bandles had to all be together for the reunion special, the twentieth anniversary of giving up on the whole ‘being a family’ affair. Patches of skin from different bodies rose to the snowman’s surface, bobbing up like crates from a shipwreck.
Fingers, male and female, nails packed with a slurry of dermis and dirt, emerged from the base like the legs of a centipede. They twitched, and then they tapped. They curled, and then they pulled. The scraping nails all worked independently, but in being attached to the same mass managed to pull the entire thing forward.
It reached out with a leg just as the limb pushed through the snow. The pale thigh hung, jiggled each time it twitch-kicked. That was right around where an arm would be if the snowman was comparable to a human at all.
Toni couldn’t take it, not after seeing a scar that could only belong to Charlie surface on its flank. This thing had even stolen his accidents. To rob Charlie of his wounds was to rob him of his identity. She even remembered that one, because she was there for it.
They were just taking a walk, that was all. She didn’t even like him that much yet. He was nice enough, and she knew he was a little famous, but that seemed to have turned him into an airhead. She walked with him to and from bus stops because he asked, and because he was much milder company than some of the guys who wanted her time but didn’t really ask for it.
Nobody could get hurt on such a pleasant little stroll unless they veered into the street… or if they were Charlie Bandle. He tripped and fell on a tree. Not out of a tree. Not by a tree. On it, as if he hadn’t seen it coming. He’d scraped his underarm on its bark. There was plenty of blood, but it all clung to him, so the wound looked more superficial than it was.
He insisted he didn’t need a nurse, but Antonia wasn’t in an asking mood over it herself. She took him inside, cleaned it out, bandaged it up. It still left three whitish lines in his flesh after it healed. While she was wrapping the gauze around his bicep she had learned who he was. He had to be in pain, but the smile never left his face. He stared at her all the while, as if he didn’t even have a body. He was in love with her and he didn’t have the capacity to hide it.
“You murderer,” Toni sobbed. It had to be murder. Accidents felt bad for Charlie; he left a bad taste in their mouth. So they always chewed on him once or twice and then spit him back out. The mountain, or the skier, had thrown him into a blender.
Something struck the girl. All that was left of Charlie was his child. She put a hand over her stomach. His danger-magnetism might be heritable, which meant she could be projecting a field of it at that very moment. Risks converged on her, conspired to rip her open and finish throwing Charlie off the peak.
She turned and fled back the way they’d come.
“Toni!” Diamond couldn’t grab her to stop her in time. She didn’t dare look away from the snowy burial mound as it skittered closer on tens of frozen fingers, all the joints popping every time they flexed open and curled. “What do you want!?”
It still didn’t answer, still came closer. She accused it of stealing her entire family, which also had no effect. It sought some kind of understanding from her, but that might have been nothing more than a strange prerequisite for her death. The snow was used to thousands of tourists after all. It might be deprived of affection, and when it had gotten it from her it would get rid of her in the hopes it would make a new human appear.
None of the pieces and parts it had costumed itself with counted as family anymore. Toni did, and she could be running right into the scissor grip of the night skier. Diamond backed up, only turning at the mouth of the tunnel before running after her, leaving that thing to its isolation.
The tunnel collapsed behind her like a throat swelling shut. When she jumped into a front row seat in the Whitegold room she heard it crash and crystallize. If she hadn’t crawled over several seats before turning to look she would’ve gotten a bloody ice spear directly in the eye. It wasn’t a screen anymore; it looked like a giant red sea urchin. The snow had effectively communicated one thing: this was not an exit.
Toni was nowhere to be found, so Diamond figured she had headed back to the relative safety of the painting room. Shouting could’ve drawn the skier’s attention, so she exited as quietly as she could, navigating around the monster statues, all looking like they were about to spring to life.
She caught up to the girl in the lobby. Toni was already halfway up the stairs, but she had stumbled. Lost in despair, she had assumed it was because of all the Charlie in her system, that every five steps would have at least one stumble in it from then on.
The two noticed each other and shared a look. They were in agreement. They didn’t know quite how they got there. They didn’t think it was fair that they had to look at that thing, that monster. Such things were only ever supposed to be flat, on the screen rather than lurking behind it. Red Summit was only ever a bad idea, and Jeffrey Bandle only ever a bad man, because monsters were real. Pretending was in poor taste.
The stairs creaked, but Toni hadn’t moved; her arms were still wrapped around the balusters. Her head was still sticking out between them like someone seasick about to vomit over the side of the deck.
The creak came from the top. From the figure standing there. From the weight on his black skis.
“Go away!” Toni screamed at him. He leaned forward. Diamond rushed for the bar, foot splashing in the sad puddle Percy had left behind when cradling his sister’s prop head. She jumped on it and reached under, for something, anything heavier than a straw.
Klak. Klak. Klak. Klak klak klak! He was skiing down the stairs, both blades aimed right at the miserable crumpled ball that was Antonia. He didn’t need anything but his ankles, and even they only turned the littlest bit to aim. His arms were straight at his sides, his fists holding a clench that hadn’t opened in minutes. It was like someone had pushed a mannequin down the steps on skis as some sort of practical joke.
Diamond’s hand wrapped around the neck of a bottle. Without checking the contents she twisted onto her side on the bar and chucked it with all her might. The booze spun through the air and shattered on the side of the skier’s helmet. The impact made him swerve into the wall, away from Toni.
She cowered as the razor edge of one ski missed her cheek by a hair. He crossed his skis and pitched forward, tumbling the rest of the way unnaturally. A normal human body was always reacting reflexively, trying to stop the fall while it was happening, recalculating as it bounced on every step.
Not the skier. Somehow he knew the fall wasn’t of significant consequence. He let it have him, limbs slack, neck eventually bending against the floor and slowing him. Once he’d stalled he moved again, rolling over to see Diamond had already skirted past him and started climbing. She grabbed Toni by the wrist and pulled her up the rest of the way.
He was out of sight, but they could hear him behind as he pulled his boots off his skis and picked them up. He must have been holding each improvised sword out to the side, as one was ticking along the railing and the other was scraping across the wallpaper.
“Where do we go!?” Toni cried, but the adult didn’t have any good answers. All she had was the childish one. Hide. Lock the door. Pretend nobody’s home. They turned a corner before he’d appeared at the top of the stairs, so he didn’t know exactly where they were headed. That would have to be good enough.
They made it back to the matte painting room and hurried inside. Diamond closed the door as swiftly and gently as possible, twisting the lock slowly to muffle the click. There were plenty of landscapes to hide behind, but all were too flimsy to resist a single good strike from the skier’s weapons.
In the end they chose the endless corridor of a multi-tiered cloning facility. Diamond distracted herself as they crawled behind it with the details of its production. It was for the film Pantheon of the Clones. In it a coalition of corporate scientists sought to clone the gods of various mythologies and religions using samples of their DNA gathered in archaeological digs all over the world.
As a movie it amounted to a group of fools getting chased down the same three gray corridors for an hour and a half by deformed puppets of Anubis, the devil in his serpent form, and Kali.
What a terrible moment to remember, but she couldn’t stop herself. Her father and the special effects man Carpini knew they were playing with fire on that one. They could’ve used solely gods from extinct religions, but they insisted on including a few modern ones for controversy’s sake.
There was a bloated Jesus in a tube in one scene, bleeding from his palms, eyes, and navel. The prop was made so he could be put on the cover, even though Anubis saw the bulk of the action thanks to his jackal jaws being excellent weapons for generating gore effects.
Initially they had wanted to upset the Hindus, so they picked Shiva to join the roster, but they also wanted some sex appeal, which resulted in them swapping the character’s sex so they could throw on a pair of latex breasts. It was Diamond who pointed out that they should just pick Kali, who was already female. The two men had looked at her like she was cruel for pointing it out when they had already started work on the puppet.
The insult was the most important thing, not weaving the art into it. She knew why Carpini had to do it. He didn’t have good in him. He had laughter, which most of his fellow men mistook for goodness, but his soul was a ball of spines. He was created mid-lurk, waiting for prey, like a burr or a tick that would latch on the moment contact was made.
But why did Jeffrey Bandle have to say and do the things he did? What made him write down the names of Diamond’s potential sexual conquests like it was an office memo? It must have been the same force that convinced him to not reveal what he had learned about the blood snow. It was the sort of thing only to be revealed when its explosive potential was maximized, like finding the right parking spot for a car packed with nail bombs.
It was why they were about to die. The night skier tested the door handle. Not a second passed between its rattle and it exploding out of the frame and bouncing across the floor. A ski was sucked back through the jagged hole it had just created.
The skier kicked it in and entered the room, his jacket crinkling as he looked left and right. Diamond and Toni crouched behind the leaned painting of the cloning facility, holding their breath. With even the slightest curiosity he would find them, so Diamond searched for a way out.
He was blocking the door. That left only the window. It was quite large and went all the way to the floor, but behind the glass it was just a wall of packed pink snow. The only light came from the hallway, and even then it had to tiptoe around the cutout of shadow that was the night skier.
Past him was the only way, so they needed a plan of attack. Diamond started gesturing to communicate that to Toni. They needed to keep the painting between them, use it as a shield. She tapped the back of it with her finger, and something sharp tapped back.
Punkt! Punkt! Ski points pierced it, one to the left of Diamond’s head and one to the right of Toni’s. They started cutting toward each other, pulled through the thick canvas by incredible strength. The scissors were closing just as they had around Fidelia’s neck at fifty miles per hour.
The women ducked. With no time to finish planning Diamond shouted, putting her shoulder against the painting and pushing forward. Toni joined in, and together they managed to catch him by surprise and push him all the way back to the door. With the painting so wide it was forced to stop, leaving one of them on each side of the exit. The slit left by the skis ripped wider as the skier forced his arms through. He grabbed at Diamond, squeezing her shoulder with bone-crushing force.
The actual crushing was only avoided by her strategic cringing and retracting, moving with the squeeze as much as she could. Toni saw what was happening and countered to the best of her ability by forcing her arms through the slit as well and slapping the skier’s visor back and forth. It must have twisted his helmet and blocked his sight, as he relinquished his grip long enough to pull it straight.
Was that hope? Could they actually win? No, Diamond realized. She mistook the increasing light level in the room as hope, but that thought just created another mystery. She looked away even though every fiber of her being told her not to and saw. The waters were receding.
The wall of snow pressed against the window was dropping. It was only moonlight reflecting off the snow, but it still filled the room, turned them each into pink-hued marble statues. Antonia, the goddess of courage. Diamond, the goddess of being fed up to here with this shit.
“Look!” she shouted. Toni did. “We have to go through when the snow’s just under it or we’ll fall!”
“Okay,” was all the girl could say in response. The night skier had a response of his own; he struck the top of the painting with both fists, sending the whole thing bending back into the room. It smacked Diamond in the face and dazed her. She couldn’t be sure, but it felt like the painting fell around her and she was now standing in the middle of its ragged hole, sharing the space with the skier.
He wasn’t good with sharing. Once she reoriented enough to remember she had a neck she felt his hands around it. The pressure was too fast. This wasn’t building rage, wasn’t a proper strangling. She was being cinched, like she was on an assembly line and a robotic arm was making sure to vacuum seal her lungs so not a particle of air would get in.
Toni bent down and grabbed the edge of the painting, lifting as high as she could on one side. Then she pushed. Diamond felt it as the edges of the hole rising behind her, up to her calves. That meant the other side was against the skier’s lower back. She leaned away from him, which had no effect against his strength.
If he wanted to be such a pillar then she would treat him as one. Diamond jumped and braced her legs against the front of his thighs. Finally he moved, forced to step forward with Toni’s pushing. He sped up too, until the scraping bottom of the painting hit the edge of the window.
The glass shattered outward, but the snow was only two thirds of the way down, so several of the shards tipped onto their sides and sledded down the fresh slope, leaving tear streaks of red. Diamond felt the pressure let up, not around her neck, but on the painting. Toni was having second thoughts about pushing the only other non-murderer on the mountain out of the window.
“No, don’t stop! Do it!” That’s what Diamond tried to say, but not even gurgles could escape her. Toni had to see her face, and see it before her eyeballs popped out of her skull. All she had to use were her dangling legs, but they could reach a little further than the skier’s thighs. The skis were crossed on his back, and in his haste he’d put one away upside down. The blade was close to his leg, so Diamond hooked her heel around it and pulled down, pushing it into his flesh.
Finally he released her neck. The rush of oxygen hit her like a wall of salty water. Her vision was just black hole implosions, so she had to guess where everything was. As she fell and rolled to the tip of the painting cold air confirmed her position. Toni was supposed to be on the other side, so she looked that way, gestured with her hand, nodded. Push, her body language screamed.
The message was received, with the skier not giving a shit about their passing of notes. He crawled after Diamond even as the whole platform under them inched out the window. The snow had dropped enough to create a steep slope, and with each shove the painting was more like a plank hanging off the deck of a pirate ship.
Except it couldn’t handle the weight of two tussling adults, even when Toni crouched on the other end to keep it balanced. The cloning facility snapped down the middle, the crack loud enough to convince the girl to roll back off it. All at once Diamond and the skier fell and started sliding down the hill.
The cold night air tore at them as the snow shifted, choosing their path.