Chapter 19

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I open my eyes, trying to peer through half-frozen lashes. It's all a dark blur. Nighttime. Good news is, there's a pain in my shoulder, my face is hot, and I can feel my ears, hands and toes. Not gonna die from exposure.

Dying from a bullet wound or infection might be the bad news.

I try to get up only to find that it's not the pain in my shoulder stopping me. My arms won't cooperate. I can feel them just fine, but something is holding me down. My heart rate rises and I blink rapidly, trying to shake off the fuzziness.

I'm moving. Lashed or strapped to something, possibly a sled. Were it not for the moonlight it'd be this weird sensation of drifting through the snow-capped trees like some kind of revenant. Someone is pulling the sled, though; a tall figure in furs trudges on, skis strapped to their back, rope around their waist, pulling me along like a two-legged Husky. I have a moment of heart-fluttering panic where I think it might be one of the creepy ski patrol dudes, but thankfully the clothes don't match, as far as I can tell. I have only the moonlight to go by.

"Father?" I manage before breaking into a fit of coughing. Just breathing hurts the wound in my shoulder enough; trying to speak on top of that is agony.

The figure stops and turns around. Their face is completely covered by ski goggles and a dark scarf. When they crane their neck to look at me, the mannerism is awkward, hesitant. Not Father. The man or woman stares at me for a moment, then trudges on.

"I'm Regan," I whisper. In the still of the winter forest, with only the crunch of boots on snow and my voice as noise, it is loud enough to be a holler. "Thanks for saving me."

No response. The person, woman, man, whoever they are, marches on in silence. From my lying-down, lashed-in position, I try to gauge which way we're headed. Kind of looks like it slopes upward, from what I can see. Makes me think this mystery skier might be the one behind the smoke and gunshots.

"You live up here?" I ask. "Me and my dad, we're just passing through. Popped a tire, had to do some scavenging. You know how it goes. He's down there at the base of the hill, so don't get any ideas about me sticking around long. Just long enough to heal up this nasty stray bullet wound and..." I trail off. Most people interrupt me at that point. My rescuer doesn't even seem like she or he is listening.

"What's your name?" I ask. Trudge, trudge. No response. I sigh, praying that I haven't stumbled across the only serial killer to survive the apocalypse. At least they'll have medical texts handy if they are...

"Okay, so...I'm probably good to walk. It's just a flesh wound. You don't need to keep me strapped in here." I squirm a little bit, just to test the ropes. Yep, serial killer. Those knots are tight. "Plus I should probably check the wound. I'm sure you have medical knowledge and all, living up here by yourself, but I have a lot of experience in getting shot, so..."

"Bulleh ow," a muffled voice grunts. Sounds like a grown woman or a teenage boy whose voice is still changing.

" the bullet out?" I try to glance down but the shot was right up near my neck.

"Bulleh ow. Bannage. You live."

Speech impediment or really tight scarf? I wonder. There is a smell of wood smoke and, when I turn my head, there is a log house in view. Somehow the sight puts me at ease. Surely a serial killer would perform their murders out in the snow instead of getting blood all over their nice cabin.

I am dragged inside, sled and all, while my mystery host lights an oil lamp and takes off hood, gloves, goggles and scarf.

Heck, she's like the same age as me. I was never into the dreadlocked look though.

"Nice place you've got here," I say, meaning every word. Father would be impressed. No decorations, no moose heads, not so much as a singing fish on the wall. Every inch of wall space is crammed with labelled containers. It makes the cabin seem much smaller, but it's a survivalist's dream. I mean, yes, everyone post-Doom is a survivalist after a fashion, but this girl is good.

Dreadlocks stares at me for a long, intense moment, as a number of horrific scenarios of my fate play themselves out in my mind. Serial killer chop suey experiment. Cabin dungeon sex slave. Forced manual labour. Some combination of the three.

She scrunches up her brow and opens her mouth like she's about to say something, then abruptly leaves the cabin.

"That's ok," I call out after her, "I'm pretty comfy lashed to this sled, here." She doesn't answer. Maybe she's got a chopping block out there. I silently hope it's for logs and not necks.

Alone for a moment, I turn my head back and forth to take in as many details as possible and try to get a sense of this girl.

Her bed must be in the adjoining room. The kitchen looks like it's been turned into more of a workshop, counter space being used for mechanical projects: taken-apart Winchester, pair of snowshoes being re-strung with gut...she's even got some big pieces of cured leather draped over the counter. A big iron kettle hangs over the soot-coated fireplace. So she cooks, I'm guessing, but keeps her meat and veggies preserved outside in the wintertime.

I check out the bin labels and just about guffaw. They're labelled, all right, but it looks like a five-year-old did it. The spelling is fine but the letters are blocky and sloppy, written in bright marker colours, like the kind with those fake chemical smells that are supposed to be licorice and blueberries and such.

I breathe in deeply through my nose to see if any further clues present themselves. The scent that greets me is musky, unmistakeable.

"Whoa," I whisper. "That brings me..."

The cabin door is shut, but through the window there is a heart-wrenching sound, starting out low but increasing in pitch and intensity, until it reaches a keening, feverish wail.

It is the sound of human grief.

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