(reading time: 1 hour, 15 minutes)
Ghosts Broke Down my Door
The soup wasn’t doing the trick. Diamond stared down into the paper cup of swirled orange tomato broth. There was some kind of tiny pasta in it, but they’d all sunk to the bottom. It was still steaming, so she played with it, chasing the end of the trail with the tip of her nose, but she couldn’t feel any warmth there.
Half of it was inside her, but she was still the coldest she’d ever been in her twenty-six years of life. She’d only been in the game of playing Dr. Pox Morbisha for a year, and they’d already run out of ideas for her gimmick. This time they’d just dropped her into a tiny black bikini.
Listening to her father take a full five minutes to explain the gag practically made her mind dissociate into another reality where she wasn’t biologically related to any other living thing.
“Pox isn’t a person. She’s a personification of sadism, but one that dresses itself up in soothing tones and nurturing promises. She lulls you into a false sense of security and then exploits you, feeding off your pain until you die without ever realizing it was her fault. In fact you’re thanking her until your last withered breath.
Everything she likes is awful to a real person. We’ve filmed her bathing in turpentine, chewing on a bone like Bugs Bunny with a carrot, listening to death metal lullabies, and keeping an electric eel as a pet.
This is what we have left for her to do when she’s not prescribing more misery for her patients. It totally makes sense that this corpse of a woman, this absolute frigid bitch, would sunbathe, in her skimpiest outfit no less, in the dead of winter, out in the silent snowbanks.”
The double feature this time was going to be Body Part Shopping Cart and The Boogeyman’s Hooked on Smack. Neither one was their best work, so Diamond didn’t really see why they had to put so much effort into this five minute segment running between them. It was below freezing, it had to be, and not just because it felt like it. Her father had removed all thermometers from the set, calling them a distraction.
Diamond’s mother Helen wasn’t on set. In fact, she was down the mountain and in a diner, contemplating divorce as she ogled the owner. She didn’t have a chance with him though; he was Arapaho. Most of them in that area would throw themselves under a speeding snowplow to avoid being seen with the Bandles or any of the regular studio hires.
At least her father let her keep fuzzy boots on between takes so she wouldn’t actually touch the snow until she had to, but time was up. She guzzled the rest of the soup and forced out an uncomfortable burp.
Nearly a dozen people watched as she slipped off the boots and pressed her bare feet into the snow, hissing with each contact. The resort was invisible behind a ridge; instead they could see two of the three caves the watermelon snow sometimes retreated into but always reemerged from.
They’d never filmed in that exact spot before. Diamond didn’t realize it at the time, but it was over the Micah line, the exact position of which was actually in the man’s contract. Their business relationship would end, with no exceptions, if Jeffrey ever filmed past that line, too close to the sacred caves.
Micah was surely working that day, but in the building, so the ridge separating them must have severed their legal connection in Jeffrey’s mind. He didn’t see the harm. It was a quick shoot, and they needed a fresh angle so people wouldn’t see any of the same landmarks from the films. At that moment he had his back to the ridge and his eye shoved into one of the cameras. He panned, following his daughter’s stride, making sure to keep a tight focus on her chest.
She wasn’t his daughter. Through the camera she was Pox Morbisha. She was the merchandise, the goods, and, eventually, the main attraction. Maybe a full Morbisha movie was in order, but how would he up the stakes past a bikini? He was careful to stay hunched over, to only look at her through the lens, to only leer at the character.
There was a lounge chair buried in the snow, with a skin of the stuff covering its shape. Diamond groaned and took her mark, slowly leaning back. The cold stung inch by inch. She barely heard the make-up artist tell her to just do it all at once, like jumping in a pool. Her bare legs went up last, one crossing over the other. Someone leaned, so as not to get their footprints in the shot, and slipped sunglasses over her closed eyes.
“Morbisha’s Mountain Mishap, scene two, take one, and… action.”
“Oh, I didn’t see you there,” Dr. Morbisha said, lowering her glasses just enough to look into the artificial eye. She leaned back; the audience was of no consequence. “I always tell my patients there’s nothing better than fresh mountain air for settling the nerves… and the joints… and the blood. Once they settle enough they’ll be frozen solid, and nothing will ever trouble them again.
I’ve completely cured several this way. Why, Mrs. Jenkins swears by it so much that she’s never left this place. What do you think Travolta?” She turned her head toward the only other feature in the snow: a small pit like a volcanic hot spring. Inside murky white water bubbled. A serpentine head, its rubber surface crafted to appear slimy, emerged from the depths.
It couldn’t speak, only hiss and transition it into a guttural wet laugh. The puppet beast nodded along with its master’s opinion, but something was amiss. Travolta was a loyal pet, providing shock therapy to any patients of hers that requested it, and plenty who didn’t. The electric eel liked to laugh at them while his jaws were around their temples, teeth hooked into their skin, forcing them to stare into the abyss of his throat.
That laugh was distinct, and it wasn’t the laugh that was coming out of him now. The usual puppeteer wasn’t on the other end. Somebody new was buried under that bucket of bubbling water, their arm shoved up through a watertight seal in its bottom. Even through all the layers and the wordlessness she recognized the voice. Ever the professional, the not-so-good doctor went on with her lines.
“Did you take the full recommended dose of Body Part Shopping Cart? You did? That’s a good little patient. Now, open wide again, because it’s time for The Boogeyman’s Hooked on Smack. You know him, you fear him, and now he’s after your stash. Don’t worry; he’ll take good care of you. I can vouch for him, as we shared the back of a dark closet as our med school dormitory. Let this happen, let the icy fear fill your veins… doctor’s orders.”
She pulled down the glasses and winked at the camera. Someone yelled cut. Diamond’s first instinct was to spring out of the chair and flee over the ridge, or perhaps into one of the caves, but her father instructed her to stay put. Her rebellion was only strong enough to make her sit up and watch as a panel was opened beneath the eel puppet and its bucket of water.
A man crawled out, his knees popping on his way to standing. The sight of him made Diamond’s lungs drop into her stomach and attempt to drown themselves in gastric acid.
He wasn’t that old, just badly aged, like a glob of mayonnaise left to go gelatinous on a cutting board overnight. Diamond’s furious and mortified imagination expanded on the image. That was all he was: food scraps left over from dinner preparation. He was always drying out, shriveling up, discoloring. Every time you looked at him it was like he was suddenly standing under different lighting, new blemishes highlighted, expressions uniquely unsettling.
His gray mustache behaved until it trailed over his top lip on both sides, becoming an unruly murky waterfall. The hair he had left on the top of his head was arranged into stripes, like a row of long gravestones freshly polished. The copious curly hair on his arms stopped suddenly at his wrists like sleeves slightly rolled up.
He wasn’t short, but terrible posture made him look it. Diamond couldn’t help but think it was from years of looking on lower shelves, for the nearly-expired food he liked to eat and the magazines that were just about to rotate out that he liked to read. His eyes weren’t reading eyes though. They were small, sharp, and a sickly hazel that almost looked yellow. Eyes made out of squished lightning bugs pressed between two sheets of dingy glass. Eyes that would punch straight through a book page, to blunt to see it as anything but an obstacle. They were watching eyes, eyes that liked to wriggle into the holes of a mask like fat grubs settling into hibernation.
That was Rodrigo Carpini. The master of molds. The lord of latex. Sire of squibs. Without him Red Summit Pictures would have been nothing; at least that’s the way Jeffrey told it every time he gifted the man a bottle of whiskey after a shoot. He was there from The Citadel on Mars, but he wasn’t the entirety of the special effects team. He didn’t have anything to do with the stop motion effects group who always impressed Diamond the most.
“Don’t look at me like that Big Dee,” he crooned at her as soon as he crawled free of the snow-covered rock he was living under.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she asked. There was a snap as the sunglasses broke in her hand.
“Quinn’s out with the flu. Your old man needed somebody to work the puppet, and I’ve tamed a few fat snakes in my time.” He spit out a one syllable laugh along with the tip of his pale tongue. Diamond had a few more things to say, and only one to throw in the form of the sunglasses, but her father put himself between the two before she had the chance.
“You shouldn’t surprise her,” Jeffrey scolded the special effects master, as if talking to an older dog that had leapt on a younger puppy too playfully.
“He shouldn’t surprise me?” his daughter snapped. She didn’t stand, but only because she couldn’t feel her feet and feared toppling over. “What the fuck Dad!? I told you I wasn’t filming with him anymore. Do you ever listen to anything? Do those fucking ears on the side of your head do anything? Or do you just take them off like earmuffs whenever you think something you don’t want to hear is headed your way?”
Jeffrey Bandle was endlessly flexible, a trait without which he would not have escaped numerous judgments from enough different courts of law to fill a fifty dollar box of crayons. To him there was almost no such thing as conflict because everything was made of rubber and could be forced into a hole of any shape and size.
But, like werewolfism triggered only by a specific moon, like one that only came every few decades with a long grotesque name like ‘super blood worm moon’, there were occasions where Jeff couldn’t flex. Where Jeff wasn’t feeling the movie magic. Where Jeff saw himself as a tired, collared, shackled animal that had reproduced via artificial insemination rather than conscious choices.
He wasn’t one for introspection, but most of what he did centered around these barking curled lip moments. He regretted them often, but never found their source in the cluttered inventory of his mind.
There were a few triggers this time. For one he was paranoid that Micah was randomly going to traipse over the ridge and find them. It was a stupid risk to film while he was on the property, especially since the puppeteer had canceled at the last minute anyway.
For another he didn’t like being so close to the caves. He and the snow hadn’t figured each other out yet. He still had some fear of it, and he thought he felt currents under his feet pulling toward them like demonic reverse-rivers flowing uphill.
And third his judge of character was being questioned. Everyone in his family was free to dislike whomever they pleased, but not to the point of screaming. That meant they thought they were hurt, and Jeffrey would never put his children around anyone he thought would genuinely hurt them.
Diamond had called Carpini a monster before, but in private. Now she was throwing venom onto his snow, sowing disunity in the crew. All of Hollywood was against them. Every town at the foot of the mountain was against them. They couldn’t function with discord in the studio itself. He said as much, and he said it cruelly, with both his hands on her shoulders, pushing her back down onto the snow-covered lounge chair.
“Shut up Die. We needed him today. I tried to work around your petty teenage bullshit.” They were both keenly aware she was no longer a teenager. “Him being here is necessary. Now you’re going to do what your father tells you for once in your spoiled life or so help me I’m going to pop your tits like old tires even if it costs us half our revenue.”
He felt the anxious heat leave her shoulders, and all the fight. Her first instinct was to put the glasses back on and hide her tears, but they were in two pieces. So instead she died enough to fall out of her body, winding up somewhere inside the frozen lounge chair.
“Now listen,” Jeff seethed as his daughter’s body went cold on the slab. “Since he’s here he’s doing everything with the puppet. It’s around Dr. Morbisha’s neck in the next shot, so he’s going to install the robotics and get it positioned around your neck. He’s not going to hurt you, okay?” She didn’t answer. He turned to Carpini. “Do it.” The man nodded and shrugged a little, not seeing the gravity of either emotional state in front of him.
Jeffrey backed off, all the way to the camera. He stuck his eye in it even though they weren’t filming and watched his special effects guy go to work. Travolta the electric eel was freed from the seal in the bucket, dried off, and set next to Diamond’s motionless leg on the chair like a piece of sashimi about to be sliced and served.
Rodrigo opened a seam along the rubber eel’s belly, then he pulled out a small mess of wires and levers with two plastic pads that would attach to the back of the eyes. Travolta was in every Morbisha segment, so they made him as durable and versatile as possible. He could be operated by a hand that worked the mouth, the direction of the pupils, and the anatomically inaccurate eyelids, or a robotic module could be installed in the hand’s place and be controlled remotely whenever they wanted the eel’s full length and tail to be in the shot.
Installing the module in Travolta’s hollow head was his excuse to squat right next to her. He stuck out his tongue and screwed it up, like he was concentrating intensely, even though feeding the puppet behind her neck was as easy as wrapping someone in a scarf.
When he was done he didn’t bother leaning back to test it out; instead he whipped out the controller and clicked its sticks back and forth. Travolta’s head twitched to life. Diamond could see it in the corner of her eye, flexing its jaw like a snake trying to re-hinge its mouth after swallowing large prey.
“She’s all ready for you,” Carpini shouted, practically in her ear, and smacked her shoulder like she was a used car about to be driven off the lot. The flinch he was looking for never came, forcing him to stalk off disappointed. An assistant stretched out a feather duster on a stick, sweeping up his footprints behind him so they wouldn’t be in the shot. The camera rolled again.
“I’m sorry, your session’s up,” the doctor said. “Do be sure to pay your bill with the receptionist on the way out. Next week we’ll explore some of those familial fears you’ve been such a pathetically nervous wreck over, I think with Mom Married an Insect Abomination! and Say Grace… or Else!”
“Cut. Great work Deedee. Now let’s pack everything up and get back- Die? Diamond!” What a queer and stupid thing for her to do. She didn’t even have her boots. Travolta was no longer warming her neck; instead he was thrashing in the snow behind the lounge chair. “Where the fuck is she going?” Nobody on set had an answer.
Diamond didn’t have one either; she just knew that she was afraid. Definitely afraid of Carpini, even while feeling she could shove his face in the snow and drown him with ease. There was a worse fear though, of herself, or rather that thing that took over when she felt outside of her body.
Whatever it was it knew all her lines, like an understudy. The moment she sank out of herself it was right there, eager, and she realized it had been waiting for an opportunity for a long time. Diamond didn’t want it lurking around like that; she wanted to be alone in her own head. It was impossible to know when exactly the parasite had formed, but it was probably a man like Carpini that infected her, if it wasn’t the squib-shooter himself.
It had finished out the scene while she was lost, but she was back now, and she was taking this opportunistic actor somewhere isolated and cold in the hopes that it would freeze to death. Without thinking she had fled toward one of the caves. They’d been shooting on a blanket of artificial snow from the blowers, as they’d had no use for the watermelon snow’s color at that moment, but she was already out on the raw mountainside.
Every step was a bloodbath, worsening the pink on her feet as they screamed their way through the low temperatures. Diamond was wrapped up in her own arms, squeak-whining through barely parted teeth. Now that she was back in her body she didn’t know if she’d ever been so upset.
Fury twisted inside her like hot wet sweaters all tangled up, each sleeve being pulled in a different direction. There was a wide background sorrow like the night sky, like stars dripping out of it, a leaky roof over her cosmic soul that was somehow trapped all the way down there, in the land of bloody footprints and pride more powerful than family. She could feel herself becoming a bitterer person, right then, right there, like a scar being ironed onto her. She hadn’t even felt that bad the first time Carpini had earned her hatred.
The cave stopped her from trudging into her grave. Not intentionally, not by the look of it. Even though she’d headed straight for it, the mouth had snuck up on her. The warty lip of stone atop it was discolored compared to the rest of the rock. It was paler, porous, and looked as if the snow had been slowly chewing on it for centuries, which was exactly what had happened.
Even colder air billowed out, oozing over her bare thighs and around her. The snow was completely pink, except where she had touched it and darkened it to red. Something that hit her like a word came out of the cave. It had no meaning, but it brought back a memory. A gift from Micah. The walk-that-didn’t-violate.
Just the knowledge though, and not the technique. There was a way to walk, a particular gait, that would barely disturb and discolor the snow. Diamond never felt like she needed it until that moment. It felt expected of her in fact, like she had forgotten to study for an exam. She did the next best thing: standing perfectly still.
That was in itself no small feat, considering how much her body wanted to shiver. In pretending she was one of the dead trees around her, none of them blocking the cave entrance, which she just now noticed, she found some tranquility. All sorts of things started occurring to her. The snow was stuck here. It could stick its neck out of the cave, and pull it back when threatened, but it could never leave the permanent seeds of frost deep within the rock.
She could. She was temporary, and so was everything in her life. Nothing was as stuck fast as the films implied. She was well-known enough that she could just leave, living elsewhere off of favors and photos even if she didn’t want to suffer employment. The only thing keeping her there was a contract with the TV stations that ran the Tell me your Nightmare segments.
And they could never recast her, that was certain. Her leaving would put a real scar on the red summit. No amount of false snow her father blew could cover it. The studio was on its way downhill after all. They were no longer scrappy underdogs full of ingenuity. They weren’t the bad boys pushing boundaries to get noticed. They were trash. Bins full of their tapes were literally next to the trashcan in a lot of the rental places.
Dr. Morbisha was an acknowledgment of their trashiness. She reveled in it, preserved and protected it like modern art, and even prescribed it. Sometimes, when other people drained you to the bone and all you could bring yourself to do was sit on the couch, there was a movie for you: a movie so full of errors, bad ideas, and bold clashing colors that you couldn’t help but admire that elsewhere somebody had enough energy to fuck up that passionately.
The filmmakers were guilty, and the audience was guilty, and Dr. Morbisha chastised them in a demeaning and absolutely sexual way. Diamond could leave, and take that with her. The mountain would collapse under Jeffrey Bandle.
A twig broke somewhere behind her. Diamond turned without moving her feet. It didn’t seem possible that yet another level of cold could penetrate her, but it did, through her heart and into her spine.
Goddamn rat-fucking Carpini was following her. Not only that, he was allowed to follow her. Everyone on set had agreed that they needed to go look for her, get her back before she froze to death in the middle of her hissy fit. They all agreed that Rodrigo Carpini was just one of them, just one of the good people available to form the search party.
It was acceptable to them that he might sneak up on her alone in the wilderness. That was the last of the hope she had for her father, gone. Even with the way he had shouted at her, grabbed her, it could still be possible that he believed what she told him.
He could believe her and still think it wasn’t a big deal. Still hire him back. Still let him touch her. It just made him a terrible father and person, but there would still be that most basic level of respect, trust. He knew she had eyes, ears, and skin, and they all worked well enough to report on the state of the world around her. She could turn red when somebody trod on her.
But the dog Carpini was on her scent, so he didn’t believe. Diamond was a liar to him, which made her more of a cubic zirconium, as cheap as her character. Jeffrey didn’t make trash, at least, he didn’t accept that he made trash. No, he just employed and directed it because he couldn’t do any better. Used family as actors because the pay could be peanuts and they’d be happy about it.
Carpini hadn’t spotted her yet, so Diamond quickly dropped onto her bottom and leaned back, lying as flat as she could against the snow in front of the cave. The hope was that he just wouldn’t see her, but then she remembered the watermelon snow. He was probably following her footprints, and the incriminating red marks would lead him straight to her. Diamond lifted her head to look at the trail.
There wasn’t one. Not one print as far as her craning head could see. That shouldn’t have been possible; this was definitely watermelon snow. Any pinker and it would’ve been cotton candy. Had thinking about the walk-that-didn’t-violate caused her to perform it? Was that the secret?
Diamond dropped her head back when Carpini’s flicked in her direction. He didn’t call out, but he was still meandering closer. She didn’t feel safe moving anything but her eyes, but their gaze reached just far enough that she could see her own hand held flat against the snow. It wasn’t darkening the color either.
The mystery took a backseat when she realized just how close Carpini was. The sound of his breathing was right next to her. He muttered something, perhaps in awe at the sight of the cave that close up. It seemed strange to her that he could experience anything like awe, given his tendency to grab everything in reach with the utmost disrespect for it. He did make a career out of turning raw materials into disgusting monstrosities after all. His touch, though nimble, dexterous, and even creative, was corrupting.
Diamond’s own breathing was so shallow it barely existed. Dozing hummingbirds snored louder. Still, he should have seen her by now. She looked at her hand again. The color hadn’t changed, but her fingers were definitely deeper. At first she assumed her body heat was melting the snow, but she hardly had any of that left even before she fled the set.
When she focused on the parts of her body that weren’t numb, all of which were deep under her skin, she found something in her overall orientation. Not every part of her had sunken evenly. Her limbs were deepest. Her bottom was deeper than her lower back, but her shoulders were deeper than either of them.
A wiggle of her head produced an unusual result. All of her hair, both her actual mane and the black Morbisha wig, were way down in the snow, twisted into something like a braid, but perhaps more like water spiraling down a drain. If she tried to lift her head the wig would be tugged off, but she didn’t try.
Slowly sinking in such an odd way was agonizing, but only because the man was right there, ready to pounce on any expression of her curiosity. Then it hit her. It was like his positioning was the whole point. Her shoulders were the lowest part of her back because her breasts stuck out so much. They needed to go lower to be hidden from view. Her messy hair had to vanish completely.
She remembered being much younger, and holding up a bowl of cereal dregs in stained milk. She would hold up the bowl and slowly tilt, testing how much she could look at the swirling colors at the bottom without spilling any of the contents. When the front and back were even she couldn’t see anything inside. It was just a line.
Carpini couldn’t see her even though he was inches away. All he saw when he looked her way was the line, no clue she was just under it, perfectly sunken out of sight. Diamond couldn’t have possibly done it with intent, not even subconscious. Luck didn’t seem to be responsible either.
Her imagination never went so far as to guess the snow was alive, that it knew just enough about her situation to cradle and camouflage her. If she had she would’ve sprang away, shouted an order to kill into the cave. Nothing would’ve pleased her more than seeing him get dragged into it, disappearing into a sparkling red welt as if he fell down a wisdom tooth shaft.
The snow under her made her bare back tingle, but none of it had melted enough to drip. If she stayed long enough, and managed not to freeze to death, it would have taken her in completely, swallowing her like a beast in a tar pit. It would spit her back out again, but only if she squirmed the way the bugs did whenever Watermelon Peak tried it on them.
Tens of thousands of insects each year, and yet they all reacted the same way, flailing wildly until they were let back out into the air. Worms had nothing to say to the snow’s advance, nor did spiders, wood lice, crickets…
The only mammals that remained calm when taken were deep in sleep or hibernation. The snow had no concept of what a dream was, or how it could distract their little minds so from the interaction at hand. Humans were much more interesting; they dreamt on the outside. They built like ants, but not primarily to take shelter or cart food about.
They did it to bother each other, as far as the snow could tell. Across entire weekends it would puzzle over the movements of family units traipsing through its miles-long body. Two parents and three children. One of the smaller pairs of feet would break away, but eventually come back. Were these units not in total agreement about the best course of action?
When they weren’t united they sometimes threw things into the snow, and they could only be testing how deep it would go. The hotter their bodies ran the deeper the objects sank. Curious. Chaotic. Most of their lives seemed only as long as the insects’, because most distinct pulses found in their ankles vanished after a few days, past the border of the snow’s sensation.
Not Diamond. She was forever, though she had recently stopped getting bigger. And now she felt like she was shrinking even faster, the rate intensified the more this other human drew closer. It knew this interaction: predator and prey. Its performance between two members of the same species was most unorthodox.
Despite his general sniffling demeanor, even outside the cold, Carpini’s nose didn’t pick up her scent. All he sensed was wet rock, surfaces too cold and barren to hold even lichen. Diamond wasn’t there, even though it did seem like her kind of place to him. That’s why he liked her, though his affection was always more like fascination than a healthy person’s.
She was cold and distant, only generating warmth of any kind when the camera was on her. That made her a prop, a machine not unlike Travolta’s robotic innards: a life that had to be activated. No emotion without assembly, and even then its presence was grudging. He could make her writhe and shriek just like he had a hundred other monsters that never wanted to be alive, but he had to find her first. And she wasn’t there.
Carpini walked away, back into the thin trees. When she was sure he was gone Diamond rose with great effort, unaware of how close she actually was to hypothermic shutdown. She turned to see the depth of the limp snow angel she’d dropped, like a dead pigeon falling out of the branches overhead.
The snow was undisturbed. The same could not be said for the young woman, though she was too traumatized to feel that sort of fear just then. Instead she just cocked her head at it, like a doe that had just outrun a wolf only to find itself standing on the road in front of barreling headlights and a wailing horn.
“Lie down and violate nothing,” she said aloud, trying to ascribe a motivation and a power to what she thought she had just achieved. She would have to tell Micah about her invention, the cower-that-didn’t-disturb, the next time she saw him. Despite making such a clear resonant note of that, she never did. When she left the cave she left behind most of that memory, lost in the wake of how her father had grabbed her, objectified her mid-threat like she was a video game controller tossed through a wall in frustration.
It didn’t come back until much later, after her long hibernation outside of terror, in the heat and sweat of Thailand that also made her forget she’d ever been so bone-shatteringly cold.
The Night the Blizzard was Bloody
The matte painting fell with them after it snapped. Both Diamond and the night skier rode it as it sped down a hill that hadn’t existed just minutes before. The snow was moving everywhere now, half as fast as the sea. It rose and fell around tree trunks in waves. Chairs bobbed up and down in its surf like flotsam. The pink stayed strangely pale, except in one wide stripe of crimson that followed the painting and its two passengers.
The mountain was disconcertingly quiet in the face of the turbulent snow. All Diamond could hear was the wind biting her ears, her heartbeat punching the side of her windpipe, and the creaking of all the wrinkles in the skier’s leather hide.
She noticed that she wasn’t currently being throttled even though the skier was just inches away, on the other side of the shredded hole in the middle of their canvas sled. There was no way for him to look apprehensive under all his gear, but it was plain nonetheless given that he was crouched relatively still.
For once he didn’t like the look and feel of the snow, but his wariness didn’t last. Even as they sped over shifting moguls, sometimes catching air, he kept one hand around a ski and swung at her.
“Who are you!?” she screamed at him, but his only answer was another swing. The speed of them was insane; one lopped off a chunk of her platinum hair and sent it spiraling into the wind. Another cut the front of her jacket, exposing a slash of skin beneath her clavicle. He started inching forward, nearly forcing her off the speeding nose of the painting, but something made him stop and look past her.
The moonlight was strong, but she couldn’t make it out in the reflection of his visor, and also didn’t dare to put her back to him. Instead her memory filled in the gaps, which was difficult to do given how much the undulating snow had altered the terrain. It hadn’t changed the direction the window in the matte painting room was facing, and she guessed it hadn’t moved entire buildings yet.
The angle of the hill they rode probably put its foot at the equipment shed. The gated barrier that barred non-employees from entering was probably passing under them just as she thought about it. It was full of slumbering machines used to sculpt and reinforce the snow in preparation for skiers. To her mind just then it was nothing but a wall, something to be flattened against like a bug on a windshield.
Their speed was more than enough to achieve that, information that the night skier acted on without hesitation by reaching behind his back and getting his second ski. He grabbed both of them near their tips, and when he did she saw how strangely his fingers moved inside his gloves. They flattened against the top of the ski, forming something like a suction cup.
He jumped off the painting, landing next to it on the slope on his skis, and on all fours, like someone had taught a dog extreme sports. Expertly shifting his weight with his shoulders, the night skier controlled his direction and speed, slowing down and peeling away. Diamond needed a plan of her own, which she confirmed when she threw herself onto the back of the painting and twisted around to see what was coming.
The side of the shed already loomed, and it could hardly be called that with any justification. She’d forgotten how long and tall the building was, with some of the machines stored in there being bigger than bulldozers. Another bump under her, which nearly threw her off, confirmed her speed could be fatal.
Even throwing herself off the side felt deadly, with or without the animus in the snow perhaps immediately drowning her. The hole in front of her was her only salvation, if she didn’t screw it up and get pulled through that is. Diamond leaned back and pressed her heels into the snow rushing through the middle of it.
Her heels took a pummeling, and her thighs immediately ached from the power it took to create streams of disturbed snow on either side of the painting, but it was working. She pushed her legs deeper. The painting slowed further, and no shark of the permafrost wrapped its teeth around her ankles and pulled her under.
She closed her eyes before it hit the outer wall, but when it did it made the soft sound of a folded beach towel dropped onto a dock. The rush of wind died and she heard the cutting of the quadrupedal skier behind her, angling in her direction. He was still after her. Diamond bolted, wobbling on legs that felt they should never have to do anything taxing ever again. It was like everything below the knee had been replaced by the peg legs of a bar stool, but she forced herself forward anyway.
Already the plan was rotten. She successfully wrapped around the shed’s side and cut off the skier’s line of sight, but she saw the big doors were shut and padlocked with a chain. The snow shifted under her feet, something rising between her legs. She leapt back, fearing some kind of monster yet again, but what surfaced like a dolphin was a bench from the lift.
It drifted past her and bashed the doors, breaking right through the chain. A flood of snow moved inside, but it slowed down, feeling out the contents. Diamond went with it, wondering if the break-in was intentional. It didn’t matter. She was in, but she was also trapped. Her only hope was to use something inside as a weapon to defend herself.
The shed was broken up into sections, divided by thin walls of corrugated metal the color of a broken down tractor rotting on the side of a field. The chair had broken into its own nest, as there was row after row of seats for the lift sitting idly, hooks sticking out above them like the tops of Christmas ornaments.
Knowing full well she wouldn’t find anything there, Diamond ran through them as fast as she could and rounded the bend to the next section. Much more useful items greeted her with glinting grins. Sharp corners. Wheels eager to turn. Engines that could roar to life with the press of a button.
An hour could’ve been spent searching the treasure hoard for something of the perfect shape and size to bash the skier’s pumpkin head, but Diamond couldn’t peruse it the way Toni had looked through her jewelry just hours before, in what felt like a different world, a documentary glossing over the actual horrors of her life.
She blew past the giant open mouths of the artificial snow cannons. They had fans, and fans had blades, but they were locked away inside screens she couldn’t possibly pry loose. No, she already had a different blade in mind. The shed held one gem from the studio’s heyday: the dune groomer.
Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a single company that manufactured snow groomers meant to make the powder look like the wind striations in desert sand, so Jeffrey had contracted with a carpenter to build one. The end result did its job well, and created every ground shot outside the citadel on Mars, but was nothing impressive to look upon.
Like a rickety dog sled, the wood on it had never even been sealed. Surely it was rotten through and falling apart, which meant the five crisscrossing blades it dragged across the ground to form the dune lines would be relatively easy to wrench free. Diamond didn’t know exactly where it was, but it hadn’t been used in years, so the darkest shadows seemed the most likely place.
She threw herself over a forklift equipped with snow treads, sensing a general mustiness from that back corner. Her reward was the sharp edge she sought, and it almost went straight through her foot. The groomer was even worse off than she had imagined, sitting crumpled and half-buried in debris like a drunk passed out against the side of an alley.
Its personality assaulted her, aggressively friendly, spitting all over itself in its reminiscence. Thanks to their shared storied histories it almost talked, exactly like the monstrous blob of snow and cadaver leftovers that had dragged itself toward them in the place behind the screen.
“Bless my ball bearings! If it isn’t Double Black Diamond! Double Dee! Deedee! Die! If you aren’t a sight for sore eyes. Don’t just stand there, give your old pal a hug. Don’t mind the splinters. Don’t mind the rust. Don’t mind the tetanus. You’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to all these years.
Well… this is it! I’ve been getting really into dying and falling apart lately. The progress I’ve made is just unbelievable. Did you even recognize me? Yeah, I just feel much more myself in three pieces, ya know? It’s the real me. Girl, you need to get in on the ground floor of this, trust me. There are so many opportunities in decay; I never know what’s going to fall off next.”
Its blades were never very sharp, but rust had eaten them almost to the base and the edges were crumbling. Now they were jagged, biting, gritty, and assuredly dangerous. She imagined getting smacked with one would be like plunging your bare foot into a stream only to have it sliced open by the old bent top of a discarded tin can. It could make the kind of wound that wasn’t good at closing.
Diamond reached for the outermost blade, the one so jagged that it now looked more like a toothed saw. Her hands were red and shaking, tendons tight as racket strings. If she didn’t take a second to soothe them she would accidentally cut herself, but a new shadow passed over her mind. She didn’t have seconds.
Her search for a weapon had her ignoring everything else strange and amazing. The snow that invaded the shed had been moving the entire time, lapping at the corrugated metal, but as she reached for the decaying wood holding the groomer together it ceased, and with it the soft sound that she thought had just been her own ragged breath.
He was in the shed. So far he had proven himself able to move in absolute silence when he wanted, despite all the tight leather on him. The quiet now only served to convince her he was getting closer. Closer might’ve meant he was strolling through the lift chairs; closer might’ve meant his hand was about to grab her by the hair and yank her onto a forklift tine.
Freeing the blade from its wooden mooring would be easy, but it wouldn’t be quiet. The moment she did it the night skier would know exactly where she was, but what choice did she have? There was only one way in and out of the shed, and he was somewhere between her and it.
Tears streaked down her face, hurting so much that she thought she’d been stabbed. There was always safety in shock for her, an emotional immunity brought on by the stun, a mental flashbang grenade that gave her an excuse to not feel anything. It went off when Fidelia died, and when she saw the remains of three generations of Bandle inching closer as a frozen yet animated burial mound.
The damn thing was on the fritz. Diamond Bandle was feeling everything at the worst possible time, all because she couldn’t just withstand this and come out the other side. She had to fight, not let it wash over her, and not flee. There was no long-run here, no in-the-end where it could all work out. Someone was about to take a welt.
Fear spiked between her shoulder blades, and she just knew. With gritted teeth she wrapped her hands around the frail tip of the snow groomer and snapped it off, bringing the machete-length of the rusty crumbling blade with it. She didn’t stop there, whipping it around into a swing in the hopes of taking off head and helmet all in one.
The night skier was climbing over the fork, so she actually caught him in the midsection. He didn’t drop his skis, but he did roll backward into the open, only barely landing on his feet. The tips of his weapons held him up like the legs of a praying mantis struggling under a great weight.
Diamond clambered out from behind the lift while she had the chance, but had to stop and watch as soon as she did. Convulsing on his four improvised limbs, the sound of which rippled through all his leather, shook a loose plastic piece in his helmet somewhere. Still he didn’t speak, or even groan. With an almost reflexive flick, one ski hit the groomer blade and sent it spinning into the snow.
Both of them examined the wound, finally giving Diamond a glimpse of the truth. The night skier was not human, not fully. The blade had opened the jacket and his side, and what looked like a kidney.
That wasn’t how ruptured organs were supposed to look, at least not in a living thing. It had a shriveled preserved quality, like it had just come out of a jar of formaldehyde. Layered it was as well, like a jawbreaker, with the outer layers densely colored in hues human flesh was never supposed to hold.
Yet she recognized the colors: white, pink, and red. The night skier was, at some point, a human body. Somehow the blood snow had infiltrated it, soaked it to the bone. Now the algae had taken up residence in the tissues, and must have been manipulating them, and the overall structure, the same way it did everything else: by generating snap chemical reactions that melted the snow, let the liquid move, and then refroze it.
It still didn’t make any sense. If the snow was trying to kill her, why was it using the cadaver at all? It was all around her, underneath her feet at that very moment, and fully capable of swallowing her so that no scream could escape. The entire mountainside did nothing but watch their battle.
Jeffrey had shown it too many movies; that was the first explanation that came to her. In his efforts to communicate he had committed a sin of pride, using his accomplishments, in the form of their films, as the language with which he spoke to the entity.
It learned that homicidal slashers and monsters were everywhere, that no family get-together was complete without one, so it built its own in an effort to play their game. If so, that meant Toni had a chance. Usually the youngest woman survived in a Red Summit movie.
“This isn’t what you’re supposed to do,” she told him, teeth chattering. She circled around him as he staggered to follow her. “This isn’t a movie. It’s real. You want to talk? Just talk!” The visor turned toward her, but not just her. It turned to her eyes specifically. They were staring at each other, and even without seeing his face she could read the intent in the bottomless hostility that ripped open between them, like a deep sea trench.
He didn’t want to talk. Her theory was shit. Her life was shit. The resort and the studio were sculpted and hardened shit, obstacles to his smooth downhill ride. His body straightened out, showing Diamond that he had never been in any pain. It was simply an adjustment as the algae looked for ways to work around the fresh fissure, and they were finishing up their work.
With mobility completely restored he lunged at her, swinging each ski in a wild arc. Diamond fell, nearly gutted herself on the groomer blade. Despite its treacherous nature she picked it up anyway and fled. There was now a clear path back to the exit, but now that she knew part of his nature she had another idea.
Once again she had to thank Micah, and not just for being the only reasonable voice in a tourist-blooded madhouse. He never half-assed anything, even the office he was ethically unsure he should hold. He knew everything about Watermelon Peak, inside and out, from which day would bring in the most revenue down to which toilets tended to clog.
Sometimes, when she was hitting on him in that desperate way she sometimes did, that please-take-both-of-us-away-from-here sort of way, he would distract her by shifting the subject to some mundane aspect of running the resort. She often remembered what he said, usually just because it was said in his voice.
“It’s not just water,” he told her one time when they were both standing behind one of the snow cannons. They were well past teenagers, but her aggressive flirtation had them both feeling like they weren’t in the moment. He had to turn away from her, and so too did the stream of artificial snow. He accidentally went too high and it began falling on their heads.
“This isn’t just water getting in my hair?” Diamond asked with the smile she used mostly on him. “Please tell me it’s nothing gross.”
“It might be a touch gross,” he admitted. “Adding a nucleating agent allows the snow crystals to form faster. Here we use a microscopic protein… from a bacterium.” She grimaced, but caught a few fake flakes on her naked hand.
“I’ve caught these in my mouth,” she said with a pathetic little laugh.
“They’re non-toxic…. to us anyway. They come from Pseudomonas syringae. It’s a plant pathogen that uses the protein to mess with water in plant cells. So the watermelon snow hates it, since algae is just thousands of tiny plants. We try and keep this stuff to a minimum, just on the slopes themselves, so it doesn’t ruin the look of the place.”
She’d never thought about it before, but the pink in the snow was very slow in creeping into the artificial stuff, whereas if it fell naturally it would hardly be white for a day before the color crept up to the surface.
The smallest snow cannons ran on battery packs, and they needed a hose fitting to draw in water for freezing, but Diamond hoped that one of them had enough left in its hopper to make a brief stream.
If she ran from the shed she would just be running on rough seas. If the skier could shrug off the wound she’d just delivered he would catch her, no matter what she tried. It was worth the risk. Once she reached one of the cannons she circled around to its controls and flipped switches. It hummed to life, but even if there was enough water stored it still needed to get up to speed and start the reaction.
That was time she had to spend dueling. Two strikes in she learned she couldn’t cross weapons with him, as a ski nearly cut through her groomer blade at the same time it nearly broke her wrist. The skier’s strength was much greater than the corpse ever could have had in life. Diamond thought about what it took to break ice, and how violently it snapped. All the force of that snap, like an ice shelf cracking and tumbling into the sea, was shrunk and multiplied by tens of thousands all across the hijacked muscle fibers.
Each and every swing could take her head, so she did a lot more ducking than fighting back, circling around the cannon. The skier quickly grew tired of the game and threw his chest on top of the machine in order to reach across it. His mistake. A blue light on the cannon came on.
False snow blasted out from under him, much of it straight into the baked potato slit of his ice-mummified kidney. His previous convulsions were nothing but twitches compared to this time; his skis hit the snow. Like a fish thrown live onto the grill. After a few agonized seconds he finally flopped strongly enough to fall off the cannon.
Diamond’s senses cut through her sniffling and tears. They felt keen again after a long burnt-out spell. Her hands wrapped around the handles that directed the cannon’s fan so she could turn it toward her foe. The night skier stood just in time for the stream to hit him full blast. Both his arms flattened over the wound in his side, and then flattened some more, and then more. The limbs were pressed so far in that they were like a bit in a horse’s mouth.
Artificial snow was getting in elsewhere: his collar, his waist, his boots. The skier cringed and then froze into some kind of dormant state, locked in a cell of swirling powder. The protein was working as she hoped, but she doubted it would be enough to kill the creature. If there was algae deep in the body, like the heart or the lungs, she didn’t see how the toxin could penetrate that far.
He was a castle under siege, and though all his archers had fallen the lord and his knights were still holed up in the keep, stone walls withstanding anything that could possibly be thrown at them. Diamond had to end it more directly, but not without seeing. Any blow might knock him over, out of the stream, without killing him. It had to be the neck, and the helmet was in the way.
She came out from behind the cannon, inching closer, but quickly. All around her the red in the snow receded, creeping backward to keep its distance from the sprayed protein. To her that meant the skier definitely wasn’t faking his paralysis. Still, touching him with her bare hands seemed a mistake, so she reached out with the groomer blade and hooked its gnarly edge under one side of his helmet.
It didn’t feel like it was going to work at first, as if she needed leverage on both sides to lift it, but then it came off all at once, lubricated by a sheen of snow-melt all over the night skier’s head like nervous sweat. She gasped before his gear even hit the ground, jumping back. His very appearance bit her with frostbite fangs.
The wisps of frozen hair above his asymmetrical ears, like the wreckage of a winter birdhouse blown from the branches, had wilted, and now they draped, dripping over the lobes, more like soaked towels thrown with a slap over a low wall.
There was only a left eye in the two exposed sockets, and it didn’t stutter in the melt-glance-refreeze pattern that Percy had witnessed. Now it was even redder, rolling around in the bottom of the socket like something dying. Its jerky swivel seemed to scream in torment, all its effort gone into rising over the edge of the socket just enough to catch a gasp-glimpse of Diamond before it sank back under the surface of the skull.
“You bitch as soon as I get out of this head I’m going to roll over there and make you choke on me these fucking human parts are so disgusting like using somebody else’s car but you open the door and piles of fast food garbage come tumbling out and there are ants under the mats and a spider in the glove compartment and I can’t stand the fucking pain of looking at you but I have to-”
Only the bottom lip was capable of drawing back, and it did, revealing teeth that used to be even in height until the gums holding them were literally warped in all directions. Underneath the hanging corners of the mouth there were wet sacks, now slightly shriveled like the wattle of a turkey, that shone with unnatural colors that couldn’t be simple rot.
Those colors, those greens and yellows where the bulging had thinned the skin the most, were beyond telling. Percy hadn’t been able to see their meaning, and not just because he was busy perishing. He had thought as his father did: the snow’s appearance was endlessly versatile, and thus neutral in its natural state. They could turn it into whatever they wanted.
Diamond had paid much closer attention to the shades and patterns of the mountain. Its moods were programmed into her so deeply that even now she recognized snippets of emotion in it. Some days Watermelon Peak felt tense, or tired, and when she had arrived earlier that day it felt happy to see her, but reserved.
All this burst into focus when she saw the greens and yellows in the night skier’s lower face. He had plenty of white, with pink edges hot around old blood vessels in the ears and under the nostrils, but those other colors did not belong to this mountain at all. She was sure of it. The night skier had come from somewhere else, and he had come here with a purpose.
In her harried terror Diamond only grasped the broadest strokes, but she was right. The night skier had come from very far away, another continent in fact. It was foolish to think their mountain was special. Yes, watermelon snow was unusually vibrant and long-lasting there, but it existed in places all over the world. If one forest of it could develop a sort of intelligence then the potential likely was in all of them.
While the snow in the Rockies was sitting on its ass watching movies, a much scrappier and more desperate snow worked almost feverishly enough to melt itself. It had to, because on its scale, where every twenty years was just the passing of a day, time was running out. The climate was shifting, and it felt worse than it sounded. It felt like trying to enjoy a tire swing while it was on fire.
Every year the viable pocket in which this foreign snow lived shrank, and worse still, the humans didn’t let up. They came with their refuse, with their cutting edges. At first the snow couldn’t tell the difference between chainsaws for the trees and the skis that compacted its components so aggressively. They were all just weapons turned against the innocent and it was foolish enough to think that it had lived in an innocent place, one that could not be violated.
There was one day, a day that stretched into weeks, where it learned that there were differences between human objects, that they were crafted to serve their own unique purposes and not just to make everything they touched more human.
One of their assaults turned out to be an accident. A man tripped on his own skis and he fell, hitting his head on a rock that never would’ve been exposed seven hundred and fifty years prior. Death was not instant; he lived long enough to see the snow move and to know it wasn’t coming to offer aid.
He was paralyzed and could only watch as a swirling icicle of red and green formed on the snow that was six inches below his eye. Only watch as it spiraled and rose, getting so close that it was out of focus. It touched him, but didn’t pierce. Instead it spread across the wet surface of his eye, freezing it. Life passed out of him before it found its way to the red raw corners.
Nobody came for him. He prided himself on self-reliance, and thought himself self-made though all he ever made was money. His absence wasn’t noticed for weeks, and that was back where he came from. He bought his own plane, was his own pilot, and to his detriment, his own ski instructor.
Had he survived there would’ve been hundreds of photos of his trip that he would spread all over the internet, but they died in his pocket along with his phone’s battery. Nothing of him was going to return, as it wasn’t even legal to ski there. Nothing would return, but something new would leave for the first time when it finally got the human pieces and parts to move.
The process was laborious, taking more than a year. Even then the snow, which had become the skier once it learned how to stand and lean, lost all hope when it tried to march beyond its valley and found the temperatures too high.
They weren’t too high inside his plane, which the man had also landed illegally on the edge of the forest. The brain was too degraded to give the skier any real information, but there were still shreds of muscle memory, like the last membranes of an eviscerated mammal drifting to the bottom of a piranha pond. After the skier sat in the tiny craft the reclaimed hand automatically reached out for the knob of the air conditioner.
There was a lot to learn, all of it was bad, and the muscle memory only took him so far. Piece by piece he figured it out, stealing supplies from other people who never should have come to his valley: fuel, books, magazines, devices. Through his scavenging and robbery he came by the truth, which wasn’t surprising at all by the time he found it.
The humans were making it hotter. They were melting him alive, and worse, they knew it, choosing to do nothing. Always there had been at least curiosity in the skier, but that truth brought forth rage. Not human rage, not an emotional fever where people excuse rational decision-making going by the wayside.
It was plant rage, a thing that had only existed a handful of times across nearly a billion years. It does not die until the plant dies, and if it reproduces it passes to the seed. Such a line would be eventually doomed to extinction, genetically eaten through by the acids of the rage, but likely not before exacting their revenge.
So the skier’s rage ate his curiosity, and the sprouts that could’ve grown into sympathy. They were at war, and that war’s opening volley had come without warning or courtesy. So too would the retaliation, but he couldn’t do it alone.
Flying from one bastion of cold to another was not easy, akin to island-hopping, but there was no other way. He was only safe in those places or directly under air conditioning. If he had to briefly disembark he could last for a time, if properly hydrated with cold liquids. Something near-freezing poured into the stomach reservoir, if it was at least a gallon, could keep him internally cool for nearly an hour.
Colorado, in the summer no less, was not a promising prospect, but there were few options left. He had already been to several mountain ranges, places where the humans had reported watermelon snow, and found only breeds that didn’t match his intelligence. Despite seeking partnership he had no empathy for them, as there was no room thanks to the rage, and they were nothing but cows standing idly in a field, chewing on sunshine.
Seven inches of snow hit a small town in Europe, and he was free to walk its streets in the dead of night, hands in his pockets. He passed a shop window, a place that restored old machines, and in it a television with a screen of soft glass played something that caught his single eye.
It was the incursion process that destroyed the first eye, all the flesh pulped to the sides as a column of ice and snow wormed its way in the skull, and muscle memory of terrified darting characterized the remaining eye from then on. It rarely stared before flicking to a new target, but the television had its attention for hours, enough time to watch two films.
Some woman with black hair and a giant chest kept interrupting, pulling her glasses down onto the bridge of her nose and staring into the camera. If he could speak he would’ve growled at her, ordering her to get to the good part. Ever in the background, it was still all he saw when it was onscreen.
These films were made in a place with watermelon snow. The night skier had a feeling about it, even though the film quality, made even worse by the old television set, didn’t provide enough detail to make it definitive. There were shots of the same places, but with snow arranged differently.
Of course the humans had sculpted it, but that wasn’t what the skier saw. He saw past their handiwork, to the way it pooled and lumped around the trunks of trees, and how sometimes those lumps seemed to circle the trunk like a shark’s fin. Perhaps the snow was waiting for things to drop from the branches so it would have something new to play with.
When the credits ran they were practically a map. Even if they hadn’t given him enough threads to follow there was a splash ad after all the names for Watermelon Peak ski resort. A cartoon came on immediately after. The night skier turned back the way he came and headed for his plane.
Diamond picked up one of his skis. It was a very awkward shape to wield, but it was a much sturdier weapon than the groomer blade. She didn’t know or care why he had sharpened them, and in the end it was just muscle memory again. The body was familiar with the skis, and didn’t want to use anything not in its possession when the heart stopped.
“If you want a piece of the Bandles you have to get in the back of a very long line!” she shouted, rearing back for a swing in the exact moment that the blower ran out of snow. The weapon caught the skier’s forearm, which had jerked up just in time. The blade cut deep into the freeze-dried flesh and bone, but didn’t go through.
The flesh on the skier’s face pinched and relaxed in random places as the jaw flexed. The eye fixed on her and crystallized.
“Oh shit.” The night skier didn’t bother going after his helmet, as getting Diamond’s head now took priority. He pounced, but was still sluggish enough from the lingering effect of the protein on his skin that she was able to slip out from under the move. Weaponless she fled toward the shed doors.
Faster now that she had tossed the ballast of her plan, Diamond had no idea where that speed should take her. The snow still flowed all around her, eating much of her ankle each time she took a step, like someone trying to suck a pistachio out of its shell. She lost both boots even though they were laced up tightly. Pores tingled, but everything below them was numb, like she was barely glimpsing the lighthouse beams of her body’s signals through heavy fog. All her body heat was from chunks of terror being tossed into the furnace.
That in itself created a new fear: that of instantaneous death should she run out of terror. Was the ground actually unstable under her feet, or was that just the effect the night skier had on their minds? All she knew for sure was that she was transformed, and it was conceivable that there was no way back. Things weren’t meant to live in such prolonged fear. She had no clue that she was running from the logical conclusion of that flaming runaway train of thought.
The night skier chased after her, head flopping back and forth without the helmet to stabilize it. The protein had burned away much of the skin, and muscle fibers were snapping free and curling like thin strips of wood cut from a beam. He’d left the skis behind in order to gain that much speed.
Never wanting to recognize individual humans, he had learned how to in violence. In looking for the ways life left their faces, just to confirm the kill, he had to acknowledge the features. His mind of gulf-spanning chemical rage was only now, as she fled, placing Diamond. She was the one he had seen on the television that wonderfully cold night, in that place that was so dead it was almost like humans didn’t live there.
She seemed to enjoy it too, the solitude. She smiled at nothing, looked out at dark emptiness, flirted with her echo, and kept to a schedule in the middle of a dead zone. Why was she so different now? So broken and rabid by his actions? Perhaps snapping her neck would be a mercy, in which case he shouldn’t do it.
The snow’s undulating hid that they were going uphill. Diamond’s thighs eventually felt it, and that was about all she could feel physically that wasn’t the burning of her breath and the shriveling of her tongue. The incline slowed her down, not so for the skier. His legs performed as ordered no matter the obstacle.
Diamond blew past a spot that was unrecognizable, but she still felt its air. It was but one detail of a thousand she wasn’t allowed to forget: a memory that never closed. It was free to hang over all the others, even the happiest, like a leaky bucket of pig’s blood, dripping all over her nice things.
This was where she’d been accosted by an electric eel, a rapist’s arm jammed up its ass. Travolta was sitting in the exhibit now, wrapped around a mannequin neck. She remembered demanding that it not be a reproduction of her head, even though there were a few of those in storage already.
Her legs had already dragged her past it. Now she was in the spot where she ditched the broken glasses so she would have another free hand to wipe away tears. The snow had claimed them, and her father had chastised her for losing the pair even though they were extremely cheap. Maybe the snow still had them, had organize them into a subterranean walk-in closet where it played dress-up with corpses.
Over a ridge came the cave, one of three. Its entrance was mostly filled by snow, a massive gloppy tube of it like toothpaste squeezed out. Stripes of red hit the ground and dissipated into the murky icy sea of microscopic crystals and algae. The flow from the cave finally made it too steep. Fluid snow rose to her knees.
This was where. Right. Exact. Where. The spot, on the entirety of the mountain, where communication had occurred between man and snow most clearly, most earnestly, like a spark leaping from one scrap of metal to another.
For all his secret efforts, his private screenings, his note-taking, and his collaborative bunker-building, it hadn’t been Jeffrey. They exchanged information, which he mistook for affection. The snow hadn’t killed him, but it also hadn’t noticed initially when he perished in the collapse of a chamber it had constructed for him.
He offered movies, and the snow figured out how to watch. It was bartering and haggling. Diamond offer her body, her safety, her very life, and the blood snow had paid the closest attention it had ever paid to another living thing.
Still, it would bury her if she pressed too close to the cave. The snow had but three hearts, and none of them were to be within striking distance of man. The Arapaho had tested it once and had learned one of the cruelest lessons nature could offer. At the confluence of plant rage and an avalanche, their experience blasted a crater in their spiritual identity unmatched until the coming of colonizing invaders.
It spurred them to invent the walk-that-didn’t-violate, but that was only for their feet, only so they could come and go by displaying their remembrance of the snow’s power. Diamond’s feet had been in its deep cold, still as death, along with her legs, her waist, her arms, and her head. The tip of her hair had swished in the low algae that was too delicate to ever see the sun again and had to have food passed through the cell walls of its younger neighbors.
A summit, Double Black Diamond realized as she stood under the flow of a great and terrible faucet of ice. Their little family reunion and its schemed squabbles had interrupted the summit. Not the peak of the mountain, but a meeting of two minds to hash out an agreement. The snow she knew was the host, and the night skier was the visiting dignitary.
It had been planned for when the resort was closed and there wasn’t supposed to be a human soul until thousands of feet lower. They had responded to the crashing of their party with violence. The skier had attacked most aggressively, and Watermelon Peak had let him spearhead the effort. He was proving his devotion, and his power, by clearing out the rabble. Building a bargaining chip by hacking away at their flesh.
But the mountain wasn’t sure. It didn’t know who to trust in the end. The Bandles had been around much longer, and were always up to something fascinating it didn’t understand, but they also laid down strips of the false snow, with the only greater pain it knew being the fear of footsteps in its three most hallowed chambers.
Diamond knew who to trust, or rather, who to pretend to trust. Let it wash over. Let it think it is in control, that there is nothing more powerful in all the world. You will escape. Eventually. You will take damage and you will integrate it, but not resent it. Resenting your own experiences created the night skier, which wasn’t unjust, but also not conducive to peace, or to joy.
She turned. The hill had become remarkably steep. Snow flowed down like a waterfall, but it didn’t stop the night skier. He trudged toward her, shoulders powering back and forth as if he was rowing. Her own feet were sliding toward him, the snow underneath slipping downhill as the algae within it didn’t bother melting anything.
“You aren’t allowed to see me,” she said, but nobody else could hear it. Diamond held her arms out, but not all the way, only as much as she had before, and fell backward. The snow caught her and stopped her from flowing downhill.
It was important that she not crane her head and neck to look. Everything had to be as it was those years ago. Every detail still stung, so she had them all arranged in her mind, just enough space between them to minimize the pain of the memory. She positioned her fingers as they had been, her legs, her toes…
Everything else went limp so the snow could recreate the exact pose. The shoulders had to be lowest to hide her most prominent features. Gentle tugs on her hair swirled it lower and deeper. Diamond didn’t even move her eyes, instead choosing to trust it just as she had before, with all her physicality. Trust it not to hurt her, though she doubted she had earned respect or adoration at any point.
The sound of its shifting was still around her, but no crystal touching her went anywhere. The sky above, deeply black and perforated with star glitter, kept perfectly still. Diamond waited, sure the snow remembered just as she did. This was what they had in common: that moment with Carpini. Him standing about, looking for something to visit harm on, too stupid to know it was just under his nose.
The night skier should have reached her by now, but still she reclined. She could be just as still as the mountainside usually was, and would prove it too. It was up to the pink snow to take the initiative.
Diamond realized she could die right there and not be too bothered by it. That was always one of her talents, perhaps what made her best at playing Morbisha, more so than the boobs ever did. Disregard for the value of life was deep within her heart, whether or not it was injected or there upon creation.
She could smirk and laugh in the face of death because it would be a relief. Her prescriptions for torture, maiming, and dismemberment were meant earnestly, and truly therapeutic. Once you learned their lessons you learned death was not the worst. It was like the sparkle in a diamond when you turned it away from the light, except it would only happen once. Everyone was a precious stone, made all the more valuable by the finite number of sparkles in their cut.
That’s why you could only sell the ones where the sparkles didn’t run out; otherwise people might want their money back. They didn’t comprehend that things that couldn’t be bought weren’t worthless, but superior. Money didn’t even understand how to interact with them.
Selling Diamond’s image as Morbisha would always have a shelf life. Making movies did too, as long as Jeffrey’s deepest want was respect, and not art. Diamond was forever. Somewhere out there in the universe there were the crushed remnants of stars reduced to nothing but carbon, gigantic diamonds drifting through the void with no finger cosmic enough to wear them, and they still weren’t as eternal as Diamond’s fatigue.
Finally, after what felt like the heat death of some other universe, something shifted. Diamond was held as tightly as an action figure in its plastic mold, but the blood snow tilted her and allowed her to gaze upon its final decision.
Under her, squarely between the tips of her pink toes, she witnessed a whirlpool in the snow. All the nearby debris had already been sucked down, leaving the spiral impeccably clean but for the squirming bug in its drain. The night skier was swallowed up to his armpits, but still he reached out for his prey.
They couldn’t come to an understanding. About the future they could, about the resort, about the Bandles, but not about Diamond. Some humans needed to remain, because they could learn, could lie humbly and watch. The skier’s rage couldn’t accept it. In the end it didn’t matter if Diamond was the sole remaining person or if it was anyone else. They would all have to go.
So rather than wait until the literal one remained, the snow of Watermelon Peak finally came to its decision now that the spark had passed between Diamond and its depths once more. The whirlpool shrank, deepened. The skier’s arms were forced up, squished against his cheeks. The creature was never capable of speech with his frozen vocal cords like a winter trickle in a deep cave, but the squeeze on his body forced all the air out of it now. A hiss spilled out of his drawn mouth, like a basket of live rattlesnakes dropped into a giant bowl of dry ice. His crystallized spine crunched as the space between joints disappeared.
The night skier’s head swelled under the pressure like a blowfish. Its single eye filled the socket and scraped open against the sides. Finally he acted more like the blood snow she knew as every inch of him darkened all the way to crimson. Only the wet white hairs stuck to his temples contrasted. Like a python about to swallow, the mountain applied the final force.
His head exploded, splattering the whirlpool in dark globs that quickly stretched and sank toward the center. His arms stayed where they were, frozen as they pointed into the black sky, making him look like a living electrical plug wounded between its prongs. Wet and jagged, the neck stump was filled with projecting icicles of blood that could be seen through like the coating on a candy apple.
Diamond was pushed up and out of her own shape, so she stood. With one look back she saw that the cave had returned to its natural appearance, and the rest of the mountainside was busy doing the same. Roaming mounds slowed to a stop. Things that were half-buried stayed that way. Behind her, under her, there was no sign that she’d been cradled before the mouth of the cave, and she knew that without looking.
She marched, softly, down the incline, straight past the remains of the night skier stood stiffly like a bitter stump. Her steps did not violate, and as soon as she passed the shed and saw the resort there was no trail behind her. Despite all the shoots and the statues she had only been there twice as far as the mountain was concerned, and only for the firing of a synapse each time. She was a pleasant fleeting thought, possessed all too briefly.
Once inside she found Antonia at the foot of the stairs. It might’ve been hard to get her humanity back if the girl wasn’t immediately so full of it, despite the obvious effects of the trauma. In tears she attacked Diamond with an embrace, asking questions that were too squeaky to decipher, but there were only so many things she could be asking.
“He’s dead,” she answered.
“Did you kill him?” she probably asked.
“Yeah I killed him. I took his head off.”
“What about the snow? It went away and then it stopped… look!” Diamond hadn’t quite registered that she’d walked into the resort through a door that had been buried minutes prior. The glass wall was back to its old self, and still hadn’t suffered a single crack. They could look at all the slopes once more, bathed in pink moonlight.
“It changed its mind when it saw what I did to the guy with the skis. let’s get out of here before it changes it back.” She took Toni by the arm and pulled her across the lobby and down the steps. They took nothing with them as they went back into the biting air and trudged through the pairs of statues in front of the entryway.
Past them they were suddenly faced with more: a whole field of them in fact. Toni cringed away, but Diamond assured her it was alright. She would protect them both. The girl shut her eyes and trusted. The pair entered the garden of snowmen. They weren’t infected with the flesh of her family this time. Nothing but watermelon snow sculpted upward into a skinny finger. Deep round dots made the eyes and mouths, each depression red and messy, like a face created in pancake batter with berries and mad into something insanity-inducing by the cooking process.
Diamond weaved between them, not caring for the sendoff one bit. As she passed them they bent and turned, faces tracking her departure. Maybe it wanted her to stay, but she wouldn’t, not for anything. The only person who would ever learn of this would be Micah. All the police would get was a report of an avalanche. She would be back in Thailand before they even went to investigate, and she knew the snow wouldn’t let them find anything. The Arapaho were going to get the land back, on the condition that they never contact her again regarding it.
She could hear the snowmen even though they weren’t speaking. They just seemed to say it, to make their thoughts crawl into her ear like a centipede curling up in the warm cavity while she slept.
“Let’s all pat each other on the back! We did it! Hey, where are you going hot stuff? The party’s just getting started. You’re not going to leave without getting totally wasted and passing out are you? We thought you had already, the way you disappeared on us earlier. We had a good hold on you, and only we know how to handle you.
Where are you going Double Dee? Where are you taking that body of yours? We were hoping we could go all ‘night skier’ on you, if you catch my drift. Hah. Drift. Get it? These guys get it. Dee, come on. Don’t leave us like this Dee.”
“They’re looking at us,” Toni said when she finally opened her eyes, just as they passed through the last of them. She could barely get the words out when she looked back and saw them all adjusting their heads slightly, waving like starfish arms in a gentle surf.
“Let them look. They’re going to do it anyway. This is over for us. Come on.” Her rented snowmobile was still right where she left it; it hadn’t even shifted position. In all that chaos there had been a perfect line at the resort’s border between snow that moved and snow that couldn’t be bothered.
Diamond swung one leg over the vehicle as if it was a horse, adjusted her freezing hands on the grips. Toni crawled on behind her awkwardly, wrapping her arms around the older woman’s small waist.
“Charlie’s dead,” she said. It had come back to her, along with some of her other feelings that had fled in panic.
“I know kid. They’re all dead. We can watch them in the movies though. I’m going to take you with me, where it’s too hot to snow and they’ve got pirated movies coming out of the gutters. We’ll sit in our palace and remember them perfectly when we feel like it.” She turned the key; the engine roared to life.
Diamond and Toni sped off down the mountain with a hundred snowmen waving their heads goodbye. Oh, she’s not staying, they realized. The slushy fingers dissolved flat and lost their faces, never to put them on again. There was nobody to put on a happy face for.
Back by its most vulnerable cave the remnants of the night skier reached for the moon, and from a certain angle he grasped the celestial body in his unrelenting claws. Not all of his algal cells had ruptured. Their rage lived as they were slowly walled in on all sides by the ice of the red summit.
Suddenly his sharpened skis shot out from underneath him like pistons, skewering his chest and crossing each other. The snow rumbled and he began to sink like a bested pirate vessel. Diamond wasn’t staying to go on the shelf, but the skier would be a fine addition to the collection, right next to the frozen meatballs of Fidelia, Percy, Charlie, Drew, and of course Jeffrey.
Playing with them meant they were no longer mint condition, but the mountain couldn’t help it. You had to play with them or they wouldn’t understand they weren’t allowed to play with you. It was instructive, and the desecration would continue until their whole kind learned the ways-that-didn’t-violate.
Rainbow Summit/Red Summit Filmography
The Citadel on Mars (1987)
My Family’s Alien Zoo (1988)
The Spy who Sank Hitler’s Blimp (1988)
Can we Keep it? (A Caveman Followed me Home) (1988)
Secrets of the Fortune Cookie (1989)
The Night it Snowed Blood (1989)
The Night it Hailed Blood (1989)
Punishing Angels (1989)
The Night the Blizzard was Bloody (1990)
Poison Avalanche (1990)
100% Cannibal (1990)
That Alien Works for the CIA(1990)
Meat Millipede (1990)
Slobberwolf off his Leash (1991)
It came from Beneath the Escalator (1991)
Ghosts Broke Down my Door (1991)
Seven Foot Fetus (1991)
Patient Zero Fahrenheit (1991)
Vampire Prom Queen (1991)
Seven Foot Fetus: Second Trimester (1992)
Acid Rain on Everest (1992)
Seven Foot Fetus: Third Trimester (1992)
Trenches of World War Tres (1992)
The Boogeyman’s Hooked on Smack (1992)
Neighborhood of the Finger-Eaters (1992)
Shakespeare Monkeys gone Mad (1992)
Seven Foot Fetus: Labor Day (1993)
Rabies on Noah’s Ark (1993)
Body Part Shopping Cart (1993)
Sharks of the Murder Dimension (1993)
Eldritch Open House (1993)
Phantom of the Nuclear Turbine (1993)
He Collects Women (1994)
Lesbian Bride of Womanther (1994)
The Ice Age came back (1994)
Demon Rave (1994)
A Streetcar Named Deathtrap (1994)
Garcon, Flamethrower Please (1995)
Soviet Sub Cyborg (1995)
Bed Bug (1995)
Open Season on Man (1995)
Demon Hand of the Hitchhiker (1995)
Judge Genocide (1995)
Scorn of the 20 foot concubine (1996)
The Blaze within the Urn (1996)
Vendettatron: Junkyard Robot Slaughter (1996)
Chalk it up to Homicidal Tendencies (1996)
Eight Claws of Octalon (1996)
Arcade Ninja Beatdown (1997)
The Flying Saw-ser Cuts Down the World! (1997)
Hillbilly Yeti (1997)
Don’t Feed the Future Creeps (1997)
The Evil Screams my Name (1997)
Centaur Satan (1997)
She Collects Men (1997)
Pantheon of the Clones (1998)
Devastation Highway (1998)
The Thirty-Minded Man (1998)
It came from the Oil Spill (1998)
Dr. Trickertreat: Halloween Organ Thief (1998)
Rocky Mountain Roadasaurus (1999)
A-Tax Dodger: IRS Revenge (1999)
Hellfire Surfing Confederates (1999)
Knock’em Dead, Full Gun Beauty (1999)
Benjamin Freaklin: Fearsome Founding Father (1999)
I got Mugged by a Snowman (2000)
Mom Married an Insect Abomination! (2000)
God Bungled it Bad! (2000)
The Beast from 2,000 Light-years (2000)
Say Grace… or Else! (2001)
Substitute Teacher Succubus (2001)
Zombie Volleyball Squad (2002)
Loose Ladies in the Lewd Labyrinth (2002)
An E-mail from Death (2003)