Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Fool’s Fire

The “going away together” part of the plan to save their marriage had gotten off to a bad start, and the probabilities of success continually ticked downward in Will’s mental calculations. Dori, who normally felt more comfortable in control, had gotten so tired of driving these tree-crowded country roads that she’d ceded the wheel to Will once night fell. Now she was navigating—“nag-ivating,” they used to jokingly call it, back when they’d joked—and displaying remarkably little patience with his requests for clarification. He tried again anyway. “But, look, I don’t even see a road coming up on the right, it’s all trees. Are you sure the map thingy on your phone is working?”

“It always has before. Looks like we’re only twenty minutes away from the cabin.” She had that tone she used more and more lately: ostensibly tolerant, but with a trivial shift in pitch, it could become nastily condescending. “No, wait, now it says twenty-two minutes. It’s adjusting to your slowness. I think I just saw a turtle on the side of the road pass us.”

Several spiteful retorts offered themselves for his use, but Will let them go, visualizing his reflexive anger away, just like his therapist had taught him: the bad feelings were water, flowing down from his head and out through his feet, disappearing into the sand, soaked up and gone. Dori had every right to snap at him, after what he’d done. The fact that she’d agreed to go on this long weekend, to try and remember what they’d once liked about each other, was already a concession worthy of beatification, if not sainthood. Being snippy on a long and confusing drive was totally understandable. Placate, don’t escalate, he thought. “Sorry, hon. It’s dark and I don’t want to drive into a tree or something. I’d rather annoy you by going slowly than annoy you by crashing into a pond.”

She made a noncommittal sound, but then said, “You heard about that woman who drove into Macon Lake last week because her GPS told her to turn there? Broad daylight, she just went into the water, like she thought there was an invisible bridge. That’s why I don’t trust this whole self-driving car idea. All these computer things work fine most of the time, but when they don’t . . .”

Will, who taught statistics for a living, wanted to point out that humans were far more error-prone than computers, but Dori was taking a conciliatory tone, and since kindness from her was a statistical anomaly lately, he decided to let it go. “Wait, is that the turn?” He’d glimpsed the shadow of an opening among the trees.

“Right where the map said it would be.” She tapped the screen of her phone.

Will thought she sounded pretty smug for someone who’d just been decrying the unreliability of such devices. He obediently turned the wheel, though, bumping along uneven asphalt that rapidly became uneven gravel. He almost said, “See, it’s good we rented the SUV instead of that convertible you wanted,” but it was never a good idea to pick scabs, especially triumphantly.

Their headlights did little to dispel the crowding dark. They were so far out, there was no light pollution from nearby towns, and the cloudy skies denied them even starshine. They’d aimed to arrive at the cabin before sundown, but they’d run into traffic, road construction, detours, and even a fallen tree, forcing the app on Dori’s phone to recalculate directions to the cabin every half hour or so, adding to their estimated time with every alteration.

Dori fiddled with the radio (in blatant contravention of their longstanding rule that the driver controlled the music, but this was a day for picking battles). Usually, even in the country there were ranting preacher or bluegrass stations, but she didn’t pick up anything but static.

“This really is a rural hideaway,” he said. “It’s amazing our phones even still work out here.”

“Oh, we lost our connection a while ago. The GPS doesn’t care, that’s satellite-based, but we won’t be making any calls. Try not to get lost again, though. We can’t get new directions without a connection, and we didn’t bring any roadmaps.”

He couldn’t stop himself: “I never got lost in the first place, Dori. We just had to take some detours—”

Stop!” she shouted, bracing both her hands against the dashboard, and he slammed on the brakes hard enough to make their baggage slam around in the back of the car.

“What?” His body was humming with adrenaline, but there wasn’t an animal in his path, or a giant pothole, or anything. He wanted to scream at her for terrifying him that way.

“Will, the road, it just drops off.” She got out of the car and walked into the beams of the headlights, and after a moment’s hesitation, he followed. The last thing he could do now, after everything, was let her venture into the dark alone. Beyond the climate-controlled confines of the car, the air had that thick, syrupy, humid summer quality. He joined Dori on the road, looked where she looked, and groaned.

A dozen yards beyond the car, the road abruptly ended, without warning sign or barrier. The ground dropped off jaggedly into nothingness, into a depth of unknown vastness, hidden by shadow. “Holy shit,” he breathed. “I . . . I didn’t see that at all.”

“Your night vision’s always been bad.” There was no criticism in her voice, just a statement of fact, but he nettled anyway. “I didn’t really see the hole, either, I just noticed there were suddenly no more trees ahead, and it felt wrong.” She looked down at her phone, then gave it a little shake, like that would help. “Ha. This map says the cabin is right ahead of us, maybe half a mile.” She turned on her phone’s flashlight and shone it down into the chasm, but the beam just illuminated a short stretch of steep, rocky slope. “How deep do you think that is?”

“Too deep to drive through, anyway. Maybe there was a flash flood, and the road washed away or something. We did get a lot of rain last week.” He shook his head. “We should turn around.”

“Ha. Drive in reverse, you mean. This is barely a one-lane road, and the trees grow so close on both sides you won’t be able to make a three-point turn.”

He shrugged. “If that’s what it takes. We’ll drive until the phones work again, then find a hotel or something until we sort this out.”

She sighed. “Near-death experiences are supposed to bring people closer together, right?”

“I don’t know that we were all that near death—”

The headlights winked out, plunging them into a darkness so complete, they might as well have had black bags pulled over their heads.

Dori turned her flashlight back on and started toward the car. “Great. What now?”

“Maybe there’s some kind of timed shut-off on the lights, to keep the battery from dying.”

She turned her face toward him, and though he couldn’t see her expression, he could imagine it: narrow-eyed contempt. The experts on marital problems said that when the predominant emotional response to a partner was contempt, things were very bad indeed.

“Stranded in the woods in the dark, with no phones, and we don’t even have camping gear. I guess a sufficiently disastrous trip could make our marriage seem better by comparison. Maybe that’s the idea? All we need is a couple of black bears trying to eat us.”

“Dori, don’t be dramatic. Let me see if I can get the car started. Worst case, we sleep in the SUV—the back seat is at least as comfortable as our couch, and I’ve spent enough nights on that lately. We’ll survive. We can hike out in the morning, get back to the road, get a cell signal.” He started back toward the dark hulk of their vehicle.

The clouds moved, and the nearly full moon came out, its silvery light uncannily bright in the darkness. “See, there’s even moonlight, it’s practically romantic,” Will said. “It’s an adventure. You can tell all your girlfriends about it.”

“Will.” Her voice was distant, a croak. “Will, come look at this.”

He turned around, and she was still standing near the drop-off, looking down. He had the sudden, insane thought: What if I pushed her? A greasy upwelling of guilt at the idea filled him, even though he knew it wasn’t a serious thought, just a flash of madness; what Poe had called the imp of the perverse.

He walked toward her slowly, trying to pretend that wasn’t fear he’d heard in her voice, imagining a pit full of corpses, or bones, or monsters, or rats. He stood beside her and looked down. The moon wasn’t bright enough to illuminate the full depths of the chasm below, but there was broken glass down there, and bare metal, gleaming and glinting. Fifty feet down he saw the broken remains of station wagons, sedans, vans, and SUVs, at least a dozen wrecked vehicles, and possibly more. “It’s got to be some kind of junkyard,” he said.

“Will, look at them. They’re all facing the same way. Some of them landed on top of each other. These cars all drove into this hole, just like we nearly did.”

“That’s ridiculous. Someone would have put up caution tape, or a guard rail, if this kind of accident happened that often.”

“Jesus, Will, start thinking straight. This wasn’t an accident. This is a trap.”

He stared at her, noting her narrowed eyes, her set jaw. He knew Dori had developed a grim view of human nature—understandable, after everything that had happened—but it was hard to believe she was serious about this. “What, like the people who rented us the cabin like to cause car wrecks? You’d think one of the reviews would have mentioned that.”

“You can stand here calculating the likelihood of human evil if you want. I’m getting out of here.” She turned, and then screamed, and Will whirled.

A figure had emerged from the trees near the car, holding up his hands as if to show he meant no harm. “Listen. You’re in danger, you’ll be dead in a minute, you have to get rid of your phones and follow me.” The man’s voice was nervous, his cadence strange and too fast.

Dori shone her light in his face, and the man winced, turning his head away. He was young, with a scraggly half-grown beard, wearing ragged jeans and a dirty shirt. “Lady, for real, toss the phone, they can track you.”

“Will, let’s go.” Dori’s voice was calm. She was always calm in a crisis. That was one of the many ways the two of them were different.

“Yes, good,” the man said. “Follow me, I know a safe place. But we have to hurry, they’ll be here soon. It’s good you didn’t crash, but that only bought you a few minutes.”

Dori lied, her voice level. “I have a gun, and if you don’t get away from us, I will shoot you.”

The man took a step back. “Guns . . . I don’t know if they’ll be much help, but it’s worth a try. But you have to—oh, no.” He pointed, and Will turned his head to look, realizing as he did so that it might be a trick to distract them. Dori certainly didn’t take her eyes off the stranger.

Will did see something, though. Lights, floating over the chasm. Fireflies? But, no, these was larger, and greenish-yellow. Swamp gas? There were no swamps here. St. Elmo’s Fire? Didn’t you only get that on ships at sea?

“Get rid of your phones!” The man charged forward and slapped the phone out of Dori’s hand. He tried to grab her arm, but she reared back, kicking him and shouting profanity, and the man gave up. He ran toward Will, and grabbed him instead. “Come on, man, they’ll kill you!”

“Will, are you going to just let him—”

Three orbs of greenish floated toward her. How had they crossed the chasm so quickly? Dori still hadn’t seen them, Will realized. The lights winked out, one after another, and then shadows unspooled from the air where they’d been, tendrils of darkness emanating in an undulating, organic way: the motion reminded him of kelp forests, swaying under the sea.

“Dori!” he shouted, “look out!”

She turned her head, and the tendrils of darkness lashed out and wrapped around her body, her throat, her face. She gave a muffled shriek, struggling against the tendrils . . . and then the moon vanished behind a cloud, and all was darkness.

“She’s dead.” The stranger’s voice was flat. “Come with me, or you’ll die, too.”

Will took a step toward the place where Dori had been. She wasn’t making a sound anymore, and though he could faintly discern motion on the ground, it didn’t seem like a person struggling, but more like the random agitation of flies mobbing a dead animal. “Dori?” he whispered.

There was a sound then: a sort of slurping, like a toothless old man with poor motor control drinking a bowl of soup. Will shuddered, took a step forward . . . and then the panic flipped a switch in his body and mind, and turned and ran for the woods.

He’d only blundered a few feet into the trees when someone grabbed his arm. The stranger’s voice said, “It’s me, come on, stay close.” By then, Will’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough that he could make out the man’s shape in front of him. Will followed, unthinking, his brain transformed into a numb and useless thing: a wad of clay, a lump of fat. Suddenly the man stopped, turned, and groped at Will’s pockets. He drew out Will’s phone. “Stupid, man, I told you, they can track you.” He hurled the phone as hard as he could into the forest, in the opposite direction from where they were going. Then the man set off again, weaving through the trees deftly, and Will followed.

Not long after, he heard distant ringing. His phone: he recognized Dori’s ringtone. “I—that’s—she’s calling me.”

“Somebody’s calling you, anyway.” The stranger’s voice was grim. “It’s not your girl, though. Come on, my hidey-hole is just down here.” They’d reached a rocky place, a dry creek bed running down the hillside, and the man clambered down among the boulders, descending. The moon returned, though the trees blocked some of its illumination here. Will picked his way down the rocks, and at the bottom, found the stranger sitting under a shelf of rock, in something that was more than a crevasse but not quite a cave.

“We’re safe here. At least, I have been so far. They fly overhead sometimes, but they can’t see us under here.” The man offered Will a dented metal bottle, and Will took a sip and handed it back. He didn’t really taste the water. He felt untethered from his body, like all this was happening to someone else, far away.

“What are they?” he asked. Even his own voice seemed distant. “The lights?”

“I don’t know for sure. Aliens? But why would aliens do this? I get it, they’re alien, that’s the whole point, but . . .” He shook his head. “My friend Miguel used to joke about the dark gods of the GPS. You know how people drive off bridges or into walls sometimes because their phones tell them to? Or follow wrong directions that take them to a bad part of town, and they get killed? Miguel said that was the price we pay for having all this technology, for never being able to get lost anymore. Like there are these dark forces that feed on lost people, and they make sure they still get to eat, messing with our maps, sometimes even messing with our paths. Maybe he was right. I think about those old stories, too, you know, about will-o-the-wisps?”

Will. My name’s Will. He shook himself and tried to focus. Shadows with Dori at the center kept filling his mind. “I . . . yeah. Marsh lights. There’s a Latin name for them, I learned it in college, ignus . . . something. It means ‘fool’s fire.’”

“Yeah, sure, marsh lights, swamp gas, right. But in the stories, the lights lead people astray. Like you get lost in the woods, and you follow the lights because you don’t know what else to do, and they lead you into a bog, and you die. These things, maybe they’re like that, only they’ve got better technology now.” He giggled, and it was such an unhinged, mad sound that it shocked Will back into something like self-awareness.

“Hey. Thanks for helping me back there. I’m Will. What’s your name?”

“Carlos.”

Will squinted into the darkness, at a litter of aluminum cans and junk food wrappers near the back of the crevasse. He smelled urine, and something fouler, too. “How long have you been out here?”

Carlos drummed his fingers on his knee, then said, “This is the sixth night. During the days, I don’t see the lights, or the shadows that come after the lights. At first I tried to get away from here, to find my way out, but now I just use the days to forage for supplies. Usually I hide here at night, but I heard your car, and thought I could help.”

Will frowned. “We can’t be more than a mile from a paved road, Carlos. Just follow the gravel path back.”

“Oh, yeah. I walked that path. I walked it lots of times. But it doesn’t go where you think it will, and before long, you’re back where you started. These lights . . . they can do things to space. I don’t just mean they mess with your sense of direction, though maybe they do that, too. I mean, they actually change things. They even change themselves. Sometimes, they seem like fireflies. Other times, they’re bigger than a house. It’s hard to tell if they’re very small, and right in front of your face, or really huge, and far away, or both at the same time . . .” He trailed off, and then giggled again.

Will stood up. “This is . . . I’m sorry, Carlos. I have to go find Dori. I can’t believe I just left her back there. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking, I just freaked out and overreacted.”

Carlos put out a hand, then let it fall into his lap. “I’m sorry for what happened to her, man. But in a way, it was lucky. The lights were so busy with her, they didn’t chase after us.” Something crinkled, and then crunched. When Carlos spoke again, it sounded like his mouth was full. “You don’t want to see what they did to her. I saw what they did to Miguel. I can’t stop seeing it, now.” Another crunch. “You want some potato chips? A lot of the people who crash were going on road trips, so when I forage in the wrecks, I find plenty of snacks.”

“No, I’m not hungry. Thanks for . . . whatever . . . but I need to find my wife.”

“You’ll die. But it’s your life. Before you go, though—do you know a lot about constellations?”

“I . . . not really. The big dipper, Orion’s belt, that kind of thing.”

Carlos grunted. “Too bad. When it’s not cloudy, you can see the stars really well, and somebody who knew the constellations, they might be able to look at the stars and figure out where we are.”

Will knew he needed to go after Dori—the last thing he could do was abandon her again, and Carlos was clearly crazy—but he hesitated. “We’re in Georgia, Carlos. Did you hit your head or something when you crashed?”

“Ha.” That wasn’t a giggle, or even a laugh: just a dry, disbelieving syllable. “Me and Miguel were going to a house party in Marin when we got led here, man.”

“Marin? Do you mean Macon?”

“I mean Marin. North of San Francisco. About three thousand miles from where you were headed, huh? I told you, the lights, they can do things to space. I looked at some of the license plates in the pit, and there are cars from Alaska, South Carolina, Idaho, and some weird ones with just numbers that I think must be from Europe or something. It’s cars all the way down in there, too. I don’t know how deep the pit was to start with, but it’s getting full. That’s why me and Miguel didn’t die. We landed on top of a pile of other cars, we didn’t fall too far down, so we climbed out of the wreck and got away. There are a couple of places where the sides aren’t too steep, so you can get in and out of the pit.” He was silent for a moment. “We’re gonna die out here. I think about finding a sharp piece of metal and cutting my own throat, you know? It could be better that way. Will-o-the-wisps, dark gods of the GPS, aliens, whatever they are . . . they like to play with their food.”

Silence, then, except for crunching.

Will made his way back up the boulders. Carlos wasn’t rational. He’d been in a car accident, maybe seen his friend die or hit his head or both, and it had messed up his mind, made him get lost in the woods.

Something strange was happening here, though. Will could admit that. Wasn’t there a horror movie about cannibal hillbillies who put up fake road signs to trick and trap tourists? Maybe it was even something as terrible as that. But it wasn’t dark gods of the GPS.

He hiked back through the woods, worried about his sense of direction, but the way was easier, now, with the moonlight. He’d had some hope of recovering his phone, but even with the moon the woods were too dark, and that little oblong of metal and glass and plastic that contained his whole life was far too small. After a while he hit the gravel road, and turned left. He considered calling Dori’s name, but he was reluctant to call attention to himself, just in case.

Will considered himself a rational man. His life’s work was teaching students how to calculate risk and probabilities, and how to understand the way numbers could be used to trick, mislead, and deceive them. His approach to life involved the careful assessment of risks and rewards. (He’d even done a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether or not to ask Dori to marry him, eight years ago. The results had overwhelmingly favored marriage . . . which was enough to shake his faith a bit in the ability to quantify the qualitative.) Given time to ponder and weigh his options, Will had great faith in his own judgment. But in times of confusion, chaos, and the sudden eruption of the unexpected . . . he had a tendency to bolt in exactly the wrong direction, instincts overwhelming intellect. That’s what he’d done tonight . . . and what he’d done a few months ago, too, for different reasons. God, he’d left her again. Dori was going to kill him.

A small voice in the back of his head reminded him of the tendrils of shadow, and that horrible slurping sound, and suggested Dori wouldn’t be in a position to kill him, or even tell him off . . . but he shoved those notions away. He’d been confused, disoriented, filled with fight-or-flight chemicals. His own perceptions couldn’t be trusted.

The moonlight shone on the dark bulk of the SUV, right where they’d left it. He ran toward the car, and as he approached, the passenger door opened, and someone stepped out, shining a light in his direction. Dori’s voice said, “Will, is that you? Where the hell did you go?”

He rushed toward her, wrapping her up in his arms, burying his face in her hair. “Dori? Dori, you’re okay?”

She suffered his hug for a moment, then pulled away. “Of course I’m okay. Why did you run off? Were you chasing that guy? Did he chase you? I tried to call you, I even thought I heard your phone ringing in the woods, but you never picked up. I was so worried!”

Will couldn’t stop touching her: stroking her hair, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I saw you fall, and I thought . . .”

She cocked her head. “Sure I fell. That guy knocked my phone out of my hand and grabbed me, and I tripped trying to get away from him. When I got up you were both gone. I was worried he’d hurt you.”

Will produce a brittle laugh. “I’m so stupid, Dori. That guy, Carlos, he said someone was trying to kill us.”

“I thought he was trying to kill us.”

“No, he wanted to help us, he’s just . . . He was in a car wreck, like we almost were. I think his friend died. He might have hit his head or something. He seemed really confused. He’s been lost out here for a while, I think.”

“So . . . you weren’t chasing him away. You went with him. On purpose. You thought someone was attacking us, and you just left me?” Her voice was cold as interstellar voids. She stepped away from his touch.

“I’m so sorry. I panicked, Dori. I didn’t understand what was happening. Carlos said you were dead, it was too late, that we had to run or we’d die, too.”

“I see.” She turned her back on him stiffly and walked to the rear of the SUV. He trailed after her, making pleading noises, but she just ignored him, opened the back of the car, and drew out a tire iron.

Will took a step back, thinking she meant to hit him, but of course she didn’t do anything like that. Maybe the thought crossed her mind—just like he’d thought of shoving her into the abyss—but she would never hurt him. Dori wouldn’t even kill spiders; she made Will do it.

“What’s that for?” he said. “Did we get a flat?”

“If this Carlos guy is hurt, we should help him, and give him a ride to a hospital. But in case he does anything crazy, I want to have a weapon.”

“That’s . . . really practical. But the car doesn’t work—”

“The car is fine, Will. I don’t know why the headlights went out, but I started it up a while ago, and it works fine. I would have driven away, but I wanted to see if you’d come back before I went looking for help.” She thumped him on the arm with the tire iron, very gently. “I thought that guy murdered you or something, you jerk. Don’t make me worry like that. I know we’ve been through some rocky times lately, but you’re my husband.”

“I love you, Dori. I’m so sorry. I’ll never leave you again.”

She was silent for a moment, and he thought she’d say, Yeah, I’ve heard that before—because she had, hadn’t she?—but instead she said, “You’d better not. Do you know where Carlos is?”

“I can find him again. It’s not far.”

Dori gestured with the tire iron. “You take point.”

The trip was easier with Dori shining her flashlight around and revealing obstacles in the underbrush. Before long they reached the creek bed of boulders, and she switched off the light. “Don’t want to startle him,” she said, tucking her phone away.

Will made his way down the rocks, Dori following. “Remember when we went to the mountains of North Carolina for that anniversary trip, to see the leaves change, and we went rock-hopping?”

She laughed. “You saw something on the rock beside me and yelled ‘snake!’ and startled me so bad I nearly fell in the creek.”

He chuckled. “And then the snake turned out to be a stick. Sorry about that, again.”

“Hey, at least you were worried about me.”

They continued the rest of the way in silence. When they reached the bottom, Carlos emerged from the crack under the rock. “What—you’re alive? How did you get away from them?”

“I didn’t get away from anything,” Dori said. “We’re here to help you. Carlos, right? Let us give you a ride out of here.”

“I don’t understand.” Carlos shook his head, less like he was disagreeing with her, and more like an animal troubled by a swarm of insects. “How are you still alive?”

“The same way you are, I guess. Good luck, or the grace of God.” Dori tilted her head. “Hey, Carlos. While you and my husband were cowering in a hole in the ground, did he tell you why we took this trip in the first place?”

Will slumped his shoulders. “Dori, come on. We should get out of here.”

“No, I want Carlos to know about the man he was trying to save.” Her voice was bright, but it was a false brightness, as misleading as fool’s fire itself. “A few months back, Will and I were shopping at one of those big warehouse stores, the kind of place where you can buy a ten-pound jar of peanut butter or a hundred rolls of toilet paper at a time. Then we heard this noise. Will said something stupid like, ‘Are they setting off firecrackers in here?’ And then we realized it was gunfire.” She laughed, still bright and false. “We never had guns in my family. I don’t think I’d ever heard a gun fired outside of a movie before.”

“Dori, don’t.” Will’s voice had no force behind it, though, and she ignored him.

“We just froze,” Dori went on. “We couldn’t figure out where to go, or what to do, so we just stood there and listened. People were screaming, some of them hurt, some of them dying. No one ever knew why the shooter went off that day. He’d posted a bunch of stuff online about black people, and women, and the federal government, and he wasn’t a big fan of any of them, but what made him pick a random Saturday to shoot up a Costco . . .” She shrugged. “Will and I were in the aisle with all the oatmeal and cereal when the shooter turned a corner, right there in front of us. He was a potbellied middle-aged guy. I know his name, but I refuse to say it. I remember one of his shirttails was untucked, and one of his shoes was untied, and his hair was sticking up like he’d just gotten out of bed. Are you married, Carlos?”

Carlos didn’t seem thrown by the sudden shift in direction. “No ma’am.”

“Hmm. I wonder if you’d be a good husband. What you would do, if something like that happened, and you and your wife were in danger. Remember what you did, Will?” He didn’t answer, and she prodded him in the chest with the hard, cold tip. “What, you can’t say it? Will ran away, Carlos. You know how those warehouse stores are, they have those huge metal shelves, and sometimes there’s overstock stored underneath the bottom shelf, but sometimes it’s just empty space. Will saw the man with a gun and he just dove, he scurried underneath the shelf, hid himself away like a mouse in a hole. He didn’t call out to me. Didn’t take my hand and pull me after him. Didn’t try to help me at all.” She thumped the tire iron against her open palm. “Now, I’m a modern woman, Carlos. I don’t believe men should necessarily sacrifice themselves for women. But I think it would have been nice if my husband had remembered I existed, instead of just saving himself. For whatever reason, the killer just turned and walked away, and shot two other women after that instead of me, before shooting himself. Will didn’t come crawling out of his hole for a while. He was embarrassed, you see, because he’d wet—”

“Stop!” Will shouted. “I’ve said I’m sorry a thousand times, Dori. I just panicked. I wasn’t thinking at all. Pure animal instinct took over. You know our therapist says—”

“Our therapist said we should take a trip together to renew our bonds of love and trust, Will. How well is that working out?”

“Damn.” Carlos looked at Will. “And then tonight he ran away and left you again.”

Dori’s laughter seemed genuine this time. “That’s exactly right, Carlos.”

Will turned on Carlos, clenching his fists. “You told me she was dead!”

Carlos shrugged. “Yeah, but, I don’t know, man. After you ran out on her before? Had to go to therapy about it? Maybe you should’ve checked.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway.” Dori switched the tire iron to her left hand. “I don’t have trust issues anymore. They are all totally resolved.”

“What do you mean?” Will said.

Dori took her phone from her pocket with her free hand. Carlos took a step back and gasped, like she’d pointed a gun at him. “You have your phone? You got away from them last time, I don’t know how, but you can’t keep that thing, that’s how they find you, that’s how they found Miguel!” Carlos started toward her, reaching out for the phone, and she swung the tire iron down across his wrist hard enough to make Carlos fall to his knees, clutching his arm and howling.

Will said, “Dori, what the hell?”

She pressed a button on the phone, held it to her ear, and said, calmly, “They’re here. Both of them.” Then she put the phone away and regarded him. “Oh, Will. You cowardly piece of shit. There was a time when I would have been stupid enough to die for you, do you know that?”

“What did you do, Dori?” Will stepped toward her, but she raised the tire iron, expression calm and untroubled.

“Dead,” Carlos sobbed from the ground. “We’re dead, man.” He got to his feet and started trying to clamber up the boulders, but with just one good arm, he couldn’t make much progress.

“They were going to kill me.” Dori’s voice was far away and dreamy. “But then one of them had a better idea. It whispered in my ear. It said, ‘Let’s play a game.’ So we did. I led you astray. This way, they get Carlos, who’s been hiding from them for days, and they get you. While I get to live.” She shrugged. “You can’t blame me, Will. You’d do the same thing to me. You’ve thrown me to the wolves twice now. You just aren’t very good at it.”

Will thought of that moment, when he’d wanted to shove her into the pit. He should have given in. He rushed her, but she was too fast, and the tire iron struck him on the side of the head with enough force that his vision filled with whiteness, and his ears rang and roared.

When his senses returned, slowly, like syrup flowing downhill, he was on the ground, on his back, the moon shining down on him. But then there were two moons, and three, and four, but some of the moons were greenish-yellow, and changing in size, getting larger, and smaller. Then they went away, and Carlos started to scream somewhere off to the side.

Dori’s face appeared, looking down at him. Her face hung beside the moon, and both objects seemed exactly the same size. For a moment, he was disoriented: was Dori’s face normal-sized, and close to him, or very large, and far away?

“I loved you.” Dori’s face changed, becoming sickly, infected, but then he understood: that greeny-yellow light was shining on her, the orbs coming to float around his fallen body, illuminating her features.

“I love you too,” he tried to say.

She put a finger to his lips. “And then I didn’t.”

Her face moved away, and the orbs of fool’s fire moved closer. Everything was light after that, and then—long past the time he gave up any hope of an ending—it finally became darkness.

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Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt’s short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short StoriesThe Year’s Best Fantasy, and other nice places. His most recent collection is Hart and Boot and Other Stories, and his work has won a Hugo Award and been nominated for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards. He blogs intermittently at timpratt.org, where you can also find links to many of his stories. Pratt is also a senior editor at Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife, writer Heather Shaw, and their son River.