There were many things that Cleo had seen in her life, that would have ordinarily shocked people to their core. She'd seen surgeons and nurses break down after incredibly long surgeries where they couldn't save their patients. She'd seen hospital staff break down when they heard that those they sent into hospice care had finally passed. She'd seen parents and children weep with joy when their children got the news that they were in remission. Say the joy on the faces of everyone who got the chance to ring the bell that signified they had beaten cancer and were going home.
She'd seen the lowest of the lows—pleadings and dealings with some higher power to let someone live, the highest of the highs—children being able to act like children even though a sickness was plaguing their body, and everything in between.
Cleo had seen it all.
But she'd never seen a group of people turn on someone as quickly as they did Chris. It was a cacophony of voices that swirled around the empty bar like a tornado, taking up as much space as possible.
"That's not funny, dude."
"How can you joke like that?"
"That's the worst joke you've ever come up with, Chris."
"What are you thinking?"
"Oh my God, this is the best!"
The last one was Emily, who clapped her hands together and threw her head back, cackling loudly. Jess simply stood by her side, folding her arms together so tightly that it seemed that she was going to dig her nails directly into her skin. She chewed her lower lip so hard it started to bleed, a light whimper escaped her lips, blue eyes turned dull and sad.
The others all took a step forward at once, converging on Chris as they spoke rapidly, gesticulated wildly. "I'm not kidding!" Chris defended himself, face turning flinty, eyes flashing. His cheeks flushed in anger. "I wouldn't make a joke like this! I saw him!"
Cleo shook her head, working to keep herself from being so buffeted by the voices around her. By the loud, angry…confusing voices. The second the word 'wendigo' came out of Chris's mouth, she thought back to the homeless man that they'd just encountered. Matt had brushed him off as just being crazy, but it couldn't be a coincidence. Especially with the way everyone had reacted so vehemently.
To the point that it took Cleo a moment to realize that Matt had grabbed her hand and was pulling her toward the door. Her heels dragged over the wooden slats in the floor. She felt Matt's hand tighten against hers as the second passed, tighter and tighter.
Finally, Cleo planted her feet firmly on the floor and dragged her hand back through his. He turned back to her, grabbing both her hands in his. He looked into her face, so seriously, that Cleo wasn't sure what to think. Her heart dropped to her feet, seeing just how scared he was. She'd never seen him like that before. He'd never been anything other than her strong dance partner, her joking and loving best friend. Yes, he would stare off into space sometimes, lapse into silences, seem that he as preoccupied with something Cleo could never imagine she break through. (She'd tried many times).
But there was something about the situation that she needed to take control over. That was the problem with her life, she didn't have much control over it. Cancer—whether she had it again or not—controlled her life as long as she'd remembered. Dance was the choice she made to control her life and it helped to contort and move her body in ways she had to control.
But then putting that control into a partner, that trust, was harder.
And it was clear that Matt hadn't trusted her to tell her the truth about something.
"Baby, please, I need you to trust me," Matt said, voice turning soft with his urgency. "We need to leave—"
"—No!" Cleo's voice was so sharp, so firm that it made the others all stop talking at once. She took in a deep breath and turned to the group. "What's going on? What's a wendigo?" Silence. "What are you all talking about?"
Silence continued to stretch through the bar. Chris, who had brought his hands up in a defensive position, slowly dropped his hands from in front of him. One by one, all eyes turned toward Cleo. Even Emily, who was being bitchy before (for some reason) was staring at her with a look that seemed to convey sympathy for Cleo. For the poor, pathetic child who decided to ask the question that would unleash Pandora's box in a way that none of them, clearly, wanted to see again.
Matt's voice, almost a whisper.
"Matt," Sam said gently, turning toward her.
Matt kept his eyes on Cleo, but shoot his head, spoke to Sam. "Don't tell her."
"Matt, I understand you're scared." Sam started to step toward him, moving carefully. She stretched her hands out to reach him. Her shaking hands. Cleo's eyebrows furrowed, watching her move closer to her boyfriend. Noticed it was Sam's entire body that was shaking. A far cry from the confident, somewhat robotic girl she'd been only moments before, as if her batteries had failed and she was falling apart. "But, maybe it's a good thing if she knows."
Emily snorted. "Yeah, and how many people have you told about it?" She waved her hand before folding her arms. "Or do you and Mike just sit around in your love shack all day, acting as if the world doesn't exist?"
Mike shrugged. "Not all day," he said, tilting his head as if in thought.
With a roll of her eyes, Emily rubbed her head. "I can't believe I ever thought you were going to be what got me where I wanted in life." She ran a hand through her hair and gave a sickly-sweet smile to Sam, who kept her gaze on Matt, who kept her gaze on Cleo, who continued to look around the room. "It's not like all of this was going to stay a secret forever, right? What happens on the mountain isn't going to stay on the mountain. I mean, people knew about Hannah and Beth—"
"Em," Jess said quietly.
It was her voice, her tiny, almost angelic voice that made the silence stretch through once more. Emily even looked ashamed. She dropped her gaze to her feet and walked over to Jess, wrapping her arms around the blonde as tightly as she could. Jess dropped her head onto Emily's shoulder. Sam curled her hand toward her chest, cradling it against herself. Chris continued to watch the group, hands halfway between his defensive movement and lowering back down.
Cleo noticed Matt wince at the mention of Hannah's and Beth's names. Not just hi, she realized after a second, but Sam, and Chris, and Mike had as well.
"What?" Cleo asked again.
She snapped then eyes flashing. "Don't 'Cleo' me, Matt! I want answers and I want them now!" She pointed directly at him, jabbing her finger toward him. He flinched and backed away, lowering his head.
"Okay…" Sam said quietly. "Okay." She moved in between Cleo and Matt, holding her hands up, looking back and forth between them. Then, finally, focused her gaze on Cleo. "You're right. You deserve to know what's going on. But you need to understand that we never wanted people to know about this because we wanted to keep them safe. Matt just wanted to keep you safe, to protect you from all this, okay?"
Emily opened her mouth, as if she wanted to say something, thought better of it then closed it again. Instead, she simply shook her head, wrapping her arms tighter around Jess, who rested her head on her friend's shoulder.
She didn't know Sam, had only run into her a few times before. Had known nothing more about her than that she was a bit peculiar, as if a part of her had been broken ages ago. However, Cleo could see there was nothing but sincerity in Sam's eyes and voice as she took control of the situation.
So Cleo felt that she could do nothing but listen. And be horrified at what she heard. About the friendship they all had. About Hannah's huge crush on Mike. How they decided to play a prank on her about her crush on Mike, making him think he felt the same way. How Hannah and her twin sister Beth had run out into the snow and never returned. How they had returned to the same place a year later to try and forget what happened and become friends again. How Josh had become…disillusioned (that was the word Sam used, Cleo knew she meant crazy or mentally ill) as they day went on, pranking them abck before they realized they weren't alone on the mountain.
How they had been attacked by the Wendigo—a creature that came about once someone succumbed to cannibalism while on the mountain—and how one of the Wendigo was Hannah, how they'd all been attacked, how Josh was, supposedly, never seen again…and now he was back. Now, apparently, the Wendigo were coming off the mountain—as the homeless man said—how their lives were in danger.
Cleo listened to all of it, didn't quite believe it, but knew with a sinking horror, that it was true the longer she looked at everyone around her. Realized it was true from how much Matt didn't want to talk about his past, how much he didn't talk about his home, how much he stared off into space at strange times, how the others looked more than guilty when Sam was explaining their part of the prank.
And, all at once, Cleo felt a plethora of emotions. Primarily, hurt that her boyfriend had lied to her for so long, had kept so much from her. Confusion as to figuring out what happened to who when and where, with the timeline of events that Sam had given her through the story. And…fear…not sure of what everything meant if Josh was, in fact, back as Chris said.
The thought seemed to have crossed Sam's mind for she turned her attention away from Cleo and toward the blond man, who pushed his glasses up his nose, now free of any bodily harm anyone else was going to inflict up on him.
"Did you really see him?" She asked, breathless. "Did you really see Josh?"
Once more, Chris appeared annoyed. "Yes, I saw him. I'm not making it up. He was staring at me from across the bar, we talked, he…" his eyebrows rose. "He got away really fast…"
"How…how'd he look?" Jess asked. She reached up a hand, gently brushing her fingers over her cheek. Over the scars that stretched over her skin. "Did he look alright?"
Chris took in a deep breath and shook his head. "No, he…he looks bad." He waved a hand over his face. "Half of his face is grotesque…as if he's…" he paused. "His teeth were sharpened and out to here and…"
"…He's turning into a Wendigo," Sam murmured, rubbing her chin. "He must've…" She swallowed hard, not able to face it. Then her eyes grew wide and she turned to the others, suddenly appearing afraid. Her tough exterior cracked. "Detective Calhoun contacted us recently."
"Yeah, he really wanted to talk to us," Mike agreed. "He's been trying a lot since we came down from the mountain. We hadn't heard from him for months and now he decides to call again?" He looked at the others. "Did he call you, too?"
"Yeah, he's called us," Emily murmured.
"Us, too," Chris agreed. "But he did a in person call. Ash and I were closing down the bar one night and he came in and started asking questions." He folded his arms. "We didn't tell him much, but I knew he was trying to figure things out."
"Chris, where is Ashley?" Sam asked. "Did something happen to her?"
"Ash is okay. She'll be back soon. I just thought it was really important to get you guys here so we can figure out what we're going to do. If the wendigo really did come off the mountain, then things are going to get worse before anything is going to get better."
An eerie silence stretched through the bar.
Cleo nodded silently, then lifted her gaze to reach her boyfriend's. He stared back at her as he had since arriving. But it was the first time she didn't recognize the man looking back at her.