The setting sun first became a blurry, hazy spot of light behind a wall of dust-grey clouds that coated the sky like gauze. It seemed to ripple from time to time, as though the world was underwater and the real sky was somewhere far above. Below, along the horizon and in direct contradiction, lay a blazing strip of fiery orange, sizzling at the edge of a treeline like the flames James had once watched consume the old Lakeview stairwell.
It had been three days since they had picked up Angela from the side of the road, and they still hadn't made it to their destination.
But for once, it hadn't been because of traffic or bizarre brushes with the law.
For the duration of James's travels with Laura thus far, there hadn't been that many detours. The girl's creative trail-blazing aside, James was an unimaginative driver and the novelty of her new life on the road was apparently enough to keep Laura happy most of the time, despite her frequent claims of boredom. Motel to motel was how they had been living for weeks, and there had been little to no deviation.
But their unexpected addition had breathed new life into the routine and James had found, quite without his intention, the car frequently leaving its route and stopping itself in all kinds of unexpected places.
Like a zoo.
They hadn't gone in, but there had been peacocks strutting around the lot and Laura had chased them until she found a shiny emerald feather to bring back to Angela.
And a big, grassy park. The uncooperative weather hardly seemed to matter to the girls, who hadn't come back to the car until the sky had started to darken behind its cloud cover. Laura had regaled them for the rest of the night with tellings and retellings of how she'd found an abandoned hot dog bun with an earwig in it. Despite claims of revulsion, she seemed to relish sharing the gory details.
And a Goodwill. Angela's filthy clothing hadn't been doing her any favors and James had waited patiently outside while she reluctantly ducked inside to find some replacements. Laura had gone in with her (accompanied by a handful of money from James) and emerged with an oversized blue sweater covered in pink butterflies.
They ate less extravagantly, and Angela still insisted on sleeping in a separate hotel room, of course, but after the first day or so, she had started to accept the Tupperware bowls of macaroni that they offered her.
James had found his fingers tapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel as they drove, having finally gotten back on the main track. The sky was growing darker now and the lights of the town they'd just left were fading out behind the treeline.
Seated in the back, Angela had fallen silent from the bright, friendly chatter that had, against all odds, overtaken the three of them as they'd made their way down the winding roads in dusty sunset light. James glanced at her in the mirror from time to time, noticing that she had curled back in on herself, knees to her chest and shoulder pressed to the door as she stared out at the passing fenceposts and shrubs.
But for all that it looked withdrawn and antisocial, so much of the tension that had originally tightened Angela's entire body had flowed out of her in just the past days, and looking at her new, James could almost feel relaxed.
Because at this point, Angela's silent spells had become the quiet, thoughtful sort of broodings rather than the ones accompanied by hostile eyes in the mirror that had made him want to pull the car over, get out, and walk in tight, nervous circles for awhile until he felt less like yanking at his face and hollering incoherently.
So with spirits only slightly dampened by the sickly skies, James asked, "D'either of you wanna listen to some music?"
"Put it on the channel with the cowboy music!" Laura demanded instantly. Unlike her older companions, she had been getting increasingly impatient with the frequent silences during which neither her new friend nor James did anything interesting. She had been kicking her legs idly, making the greasy paper bag in her lap rustle. It contained the last of the french fries he'd gotten her at the park earlier and she'd almost thrown them away, but James had told her to hang onto them. They might not be too appetizing tomorrow, but they'd still be perfectly edible. And that meant breakfast for one of them. Or lunch. Or dinner. Maybe even all three.
"Country?" he promptly translated, reaching for the volume dial.
His wariness of the radio had persisted for some time since they had set out, but as the weeks passed and it failed to dissolve into squealing static or stuttering phantom voices, it had slowly returned to being a comfortable companion during long stretches of road.
The girl began to hum happily as the familiar strains of guitar plucked their way into the air. She had never been the sort of succumb to glumness and she had become more lively than ever since Angela had joined them. It was good for her, James reckoned... having a friend. As much as he was relatively certain that she no longer considered him an enemy, he was under no illusions. Laura did not consider James Sunderland her friend.
As fiddle and drums joined the guitar, James checked the map idly out of the corner of his eye from where it lay on the dashboard.
They were still an hour or so away— it would be dark by the time they arrived. Darker than James preferred when he was driving, to be honest. He didn't like to drive in the night, not these days. The late summer sunsets allowed him a generous window of time with which to locate their roost for the night while the skies were still lavender and the moon just a pale outline floating above the trees like a half-manifested specter. But tonight, he was anxious to get back on track. While Angela didn't seem resentful that her mark on the map had been unintentionally but consistently nudged backwards on their list of priorities, he'd made her an offer and he needed to stay true to it.
So they drove on as inky darkness seeped into the clouds, and as the accompanying headlights before and behind them began to disappear down various turn-offs and driveways one by one. The roads had grown narrower and begun to wind— they'd already been out in the country, but now they were heading even further. And even in the toasty bubble of security that they seemed to have blown up around themselves, the passing scenery— those hilly fields and dark masses of trees— sometimes made his heart do a sickly flutter.
So he focused his thoughts on the road ahead of them and the soft hotel beds at the end of it as they drove past farmhouses and the occasional pen containing scattered, muddy animals getting some last-minute grazing in before returning to the comfort of their hay-filled stalls for the night.
"So... Angela," he said. "Why'd you pick this town?"
"What?" She looked away from the window and gave him a blank, startled look as though he'd jolted her out of deep contemplation.
"You know... the one you circled on the map. Where we're going."
She shifted in her seat. Unlike her two companions, she actually wore the seatbelt. Part of him had wondered why at first, after the things he'd learned about her in Silent Hill. But then he'd felt bad for it and pushed it from his mind.
"I... I guess it was sort of random..."
"Heh, yeah, that's how it goes," James said with a half-grin, taking one arm off of the steering wheel. "Most of the time we just... go."
"But you're not going... anywhere?" Angela asked, brow furrowing. "I thought you were just trying to be nice when you let me pick..."
"Nope!" Laura chirped.
"Well... I guess it just doesn't really matter," James said, leaning back. "... Anywhere is fine. Just as long as it's away."
"... Oh," said Angela softly, and he knew she understood.
"Anyway... we'll make it tonight, but it's gonna be pretty late by the time we get there. That okay?"
She shrugged in response, looking back to the window with one slender but weathered hand propping up her chin.
"I don't really care," she said quietly, a hint of that horrendous weariness re-entering her voice. "I mean... it'd be nice if we got there eventually..."
"Well, we'll definitely do that, so don't worry," James said confidently. "We're in the right county already, pretty sure."
"All right," came the murmur from the backseat, and then there was silence again.
The fields began to disappear, replaced by trees as the terrain grew increasingly uphill. The mingled lights of farmhouses and other buildings had winked out in the distance behind them quite some time ago. Towns out here were little more than out-of-place patches of urban sprawl that disappeared into forest and farmland the moment you turned the wrong corner.
"... I'm bored," declared Laura after some time, inevitably. No matter how good she was at entertaining herself (and she was good at it), there was only so much she could do once the light left the landscape. This was yet another reason why James preferred to get his driving over and done with before the sun had fully set.
When he didn't answer straight away, she stood up in her seat, leaned forward, and began to prod his shoulder urgently.
"I'm bored!" she repeated, the unspoken demand of 'Do something about it!' tacked onto the end.
"You could play 'I Spy'," he replied a little wearily.
"No, I can't! 'Cuz I can't see anything!"
She was right. It was certainly a dilemma.
But in addition to being good at entertaining herself, she was also good at solving problems.
So without much further ado, the little light in the ceiling of the car was flicked on.
"... Laura, we can't have that on while we drive," James told her, but he didn't trust himself to take his hands off the wheel to reach up and turn it off himself, not on a windy road like this. "It's distracting to other drivers!"
"There aren't any other drivers," Laura huffed stubbornly, plonking back down. "I wanna draw."
James huffed out a quiet sigh, but it was around that point that the illumination made him aware of a much bigger, much more important problem. Because the light that the little bulb was offering was a great deal dimmer than it should be.
"... Uh oh..."
Laura ignored him, already determinedly coloring in the o's in the food stand's logo on the bag she had. Angela, though, looked over in concern.
"... What?" she asked apprehensively.
"We're... we're almost out of gas," James mumbled, frowning as he reached out to tap at the glass, under which quivered a needle that was hovering dangerously close to empty. He could recall glancing at it earlier, but he didn't remember it being that low...
"... Wh... how?" Angela's voice broke its usual quiet murmur in her astonishment. "Didn't we just stop at a station yesterday? You filled the tank. I remember."
"Yeah, the needle went all the way up! I saw it," Laura joined in, not sounding worried so much as excited at the prospect of something happening that she could add her input to.
James barely heard them.
His mind had rushed with uncanny speed back to his recurring dream about the endless highway and the gas needle creeping ever closer to rock bottom, and he found himself almost paralyzed in his seat, pulse thrumming under his chin as the girls' voices faded into a dimming, muffled chorus.
It wasn't until something jostled his seat that he snapped back to reality, looking up to find Angela's reflection staring out from the mirror at him in alarm as she waited for a response.
"... I... it's okay. There's gotta be a station around here somewhere," James said hastily. Because there had to be, right? Surely there was some turnoff they could take that would lead to some patch of civilization tucked between the trees. Even Silent Hill had gas stations, and Silent Hill was about as out-of-the-way as you could get without plunging into total wilderness.
He pulled around a tight bend, eyes rapidly glancing left and right, looking for a sign— any sign— that his nightmare wasn't about to come to fruition.
There had once been a time when injecting any emotion into his voice at all had been an exhausting battle. But now he found himself fighting just to keep it from sounding hysterical. "Just... just keep an eye out... W-we'll pull off this road at the first sign of one..."
"... I haven't seen any lights in awhile," Angela noted unsurely, her attention returning to the window. "Are you... sure?"
"I... I think I saw a station on the map at some point," James said falteringly when no lights appeared at any point along the new stretch of road. "... Laura, could you... could you look?"
There was a compliant rustle of paper, but Laura's obedience was likely nothing more than a means to an end. Namely, the opportunity to smugly respond, "NOPE!" when perusal of the map turned up no likely prospects.
Then again, James wasn't entirely sure Laura knew how to read maps. His brain decided to cling to that in the process of hoping they were still coming up on some turn that would yield what they needed.
All the same, he was already calculating whether or not they had enough to justify turning around and retracing their steps back to where they would definitely find a gas station. But... that needle was precariously low. Impossibly low. They probably didn't.
"... Laura?" he asked weakly.
"What?" came the reply, from where she had returned to her coloring activities.
"I... need you to turn out that light. Um. Please."
"What?!" she said again, the same word somehow encompassing a lot more anger than before. "I'm coloring!"`
"... We really need to, Laura," Angela said softly after a moment, reaching up to turn it off herself— although she watched Laura the whole time, as though worried she might be overstepping her bounds. Fortunately, and perhaps only because it was Angela who was doing it and not James, the girl just frowned deeply and slammed down her marker.
"Thanks," James mumbled to no one in particular, trying to ignore the dread pooling in his stomach like liquid lead. "And if you guys could... could keep an eye out for any signs that advertise rest stops? ... This map is pretty old, they might've... might've opened stuff in the interim..."
Angela let out a quiet snort to show what she thought of that possibility.
James chose to ignore it and reached out to grab the map, futilely hoping to see something that Laura hadn't, even though his hope of seeing anything by nothing but the headlight beams was pathetic at best.
And, as if on cue, said beams began to flicker.
"No! No, no, no. Damn it!" James found himself cursing emphatically as the yellow dashes on the road ahead of them seemed to blink on and off like warning lights. He usually did his best to avoid using adult language in front of Laura, but teaching her how to shock grandmas was barely a blip on the Things James Didn't Want to Do radar compared to getting stranded on some dark country road in the middle of the night.
"Son of a...!"
He smacked the steering wheel as if the car were a drowsy person he needed to try and keep awake. It didn't do a thing.
In fact, as if trying to get in on the action, the radio began to fuzz in and out, sending an extra burst of alarm off in his brain. Static had saved his life many times, but at the cost of at least a couple years off of his total lifespan, judging by the way his heart now did wild tapdances in his chest every time he heard a gush of white noise. He dropped the map entirely in favor of fumbling with the knobs until the sound disappeared.
The engine began to chug erratically.
"—wait, what's happening?!" exclaimed Laura, apparently having only tuned in long enough to tell James things he didn't want to know, not bothering to concern herself further with Grownup Car Talk until their troubles became impossible to ignore.
Before the words even finished leaving her mouth, the headlights went out entirely and plunged the road into darkness.
In a response that felt more rational than he was feeling, James pulled to the side of the road immediately. He'd driven this car long enough that he knew it wasn't particularly good at staying coordinated during its last dying moments when it was running out of fuel. There was a list a mile long of things he didn't need to be happening right now, but the very last one was definitely crashing the poor thing with three people inside it.
Gravel crunched and a few loud snaps rang out as the car rolled straight over unseen bushes and underbrush— then puttered to a halt.
For a moment, there was no sound but the three of them breathing raggedly in the darkness.
"... We... we probably won't be getting there tonight after all," James confessed feebly.
A small flashlight beam wavered wildly out the window at him as he came back around to the driver's side door, arms full of blankets and a much larger light; a cylindrical electric bulb topped with a handle, lantern-style. He'd handed the little one that he'd carried latched to his chest in Silent Hill to Laura for her to hang onto while he got the emergency kit out of the trunk.
Like the first-aid kit in the glove compartment, the emergency kit was something that was there solely due to Mary's urging in a bygone period of James's life, and he'd never been more grateful for it than he was now.
She had probably never in her wildest dreams thought that the first occasion in which the need for it arose would be her husband driving out in the middle of nowhere with a runaway eight-year-old and a skittish hitch-hiker. At this point, he wasn't sure if it would have amused or frightened her.
He caught a glimpse of the sky overhead— black and starless as the inside of a closet— as he slipped back into the car, and a shudder made its way through him. The night sky almost always did now, just as it had on that last night in his old house, when he'd turned to the lights for comfort.
It was just too reminiscent of that black hell he'd spent countless hours in, blindly navigating the streets in search of doors that opened in darkness, dodging abominations that staggered up to him out of the shadows, attracted by the puny light on his chest. Even if those streets had been lined with brick buildings and parked cars rather than the dark, prickly spires that these pines became after sunset, the difference helped little. These woods still felt like walls, and ironically he found himself feeling more claustrophobic outside the car than within it.
Shutting the door firmly behind him, he turned once more to the two girls.
Laura was holding the little light under her chin, painting her face with with shadows. They turned it into a ghoulish mockery fit to tell stories with, ideally from the shelter of a warm tent packed with puffy sleeping bags. This was a far cry from a camping trip, though, and she looked frightened.
"What're we gonna do?" she asked querulously, her eyes gleaming with unshed tears in the flashlight's beam.
Far from her lack of concern earlier, now the magnitude of the situation had apparently hit her. In all the time he'd known her, Laura had rarely displayed fear in front of him that didn't come in the form of going silent and stony-eyed. This wide-eyed terror was something he'd only seen caused by the surefire threat of wasps and drunken, bearded men. And, well, now this.
"Well... we've got a couple options," James said, doing his level best to stay calm and collected. To call on that dead, wooden feeling that had started to grow through his chest like roots when he had finally started to become numb to the horrors of the Otherworld. It wasn't really a good feeling... but it was more conducive to keeping a cool head than feeling mad with fear.
"What happened?" Angela interrupted, voice hushed.
"Well," James started again, rubbing the back of his neck. "I poked around a bit, and... there's a hole in the gas tank. I mean— not the gas tank gas tank, it's a hole in that little rubber grommet where the fuel g— anyway, it's leaking. And since we've been on the road awhile, it went... way lower than it ever should've gone... I... I don't know how I didn't notice it before... but that's what must have happened, we sprung a leak."
The discovery had struck a note of fear into him for more reasons than just their imminent predicament or how his breathing had grown shallow and heart pounded when he had to get down on the ground and peer under the car in the dark, forgetting for a moment that he was looking for dripping gasoline and not a twitching body waiting to dart out at him while he was on his knees and unable to get away fast enough. Something like this cost money to fix. With a paycheck, it was barely anything, but on the road, a twenty-buck rubber grommet was a couple meals at least.
He pushed the oncoming cloud of interlocked worries to the back of his head for the moment— there was nothing they could do about any of it when they were stranded in the middle of the night.
"... That's why I think it'd be best if we spent the night in here. And... and then once it's light out, we can go look for a phone or something that we can call a tow truck with. Or... or something like that. Once we can see where we're going."
It sounded reasonable enough to him. But Laura still looked like she was about to cry.
"I d-duh-don't wanna stay here! I wanna go f-find a house," she begged, pulling her knees to her chest. It was a strange sight, to be honest. He had watched her scamper in and out of dark, foreboding doorways and skip merrily down streets sagging with decay and water damage without a care in the world.
But then, it had all looked different to her.
"Laura, if we go out, we could... we could get lost, or hurt, or..." He swallowed a little at the thought. "... Run into wild animals..."
Not that animals of all things would be anything compared to what he'd already faced. No raccoon or coyote, no matter how rabid or mange-ridden, could ever live up to deformed women staggering out of the darkness in bloody clothing, dragging steel pipes behind them with which to smash bones and bludgeon skulls. And while he bore no animosity towards animals in general, he was fairly certain that he could dispatch one without the same paralyzing hesitation that frequently gripped him when faced with the frighteningly human elements of some of the monsters.
But that didn't mean he wanted to wander a woodland full of unfriendly wildlife in the middle of the night. Not when it was so dark that any of them could easily take a wrong step and snap their ankles on a root or incline.
Helplessly, he turned to Angela in hopes that she'd be his voice of reason.
"Angela, don't... don't you think we should stay here? Just till morning?"
Unlike Laura, the young woman had remained sitting in shadow after her initial question, silent as the grave he'd first met her standing in front of. And silent she stayed, at least for a few seconds.
"I... I don't..."
"See?" James turned back to Laura, assuming that this would be followed up with 'think that wandering here at night is a good idea', only to hear:
"... want to stay here."
"You don't?" repeated James dumbly, listening to the desolate whoosh of his comfortable, low-risk plan falling away like a box of loose papers dumped out of the bottom of a plane.
Too late, he noticed that Angela was quaking slightly in the darkness.
Her voice was a feather-soft mumble that nonetheless held an urgency he had never heard from her before.
"I don't— I— I can't stay in this car," she breathed, voice fluttering. "W— ... I have to go, I c-can't..."
The tremor in her voice was more alarming than Laura's predictable, childish fear.
Surely... surely it wasn't because she still thought he'd try something? He couldn't even touch her from the driver's seat, and even if he was the sort to TRY, like he could even think of doing something like that in front of Laura!
"Angela?" he asked slowly. "Are you... are you okay?"
Laura didn't say anything, but she had turned to Angela as well, eyes wide. The older girl's fear was apparently not helping her own barely-under-control panic. Angela flinched under the expectant twin gazes, wringing her hands.
"I— I-I— ... yes, I'm fine, I just— I can't, I c-can't stay here in this car, we have to— we have to go somewhere else. P-please..."
"Angela... where are we supposed to go?" James asked weakly, raking his fingers through his hair. "There's... I have no idea where we are, or where anything is, or..."
"I d-don't— I don't KNOW, I just have to— I c-can't stay in here," Angela said miserably, and to James's horror, she reached for the door. "I need to...!"
What she needed to do, he never found out, because before he or Laura could so much as make a sound, she had slipped out into the darkness.
"ANGELA!" Hissing a curse under his breath, James popped the lock on his own door and hurried out after her. "ANGELA!"
"JAMES!" Laura cried after him. "DON'T GO I DON'T WANNA BE 'LONE!!"
It was a claim she'd almost surely go back on once she had the daylight to back her up, but for now there was nothing but blind, hysterical terror in her voice. An amped-up version of the fear a child feels when they're being put to bed and left behind in a room full of dark corners and cracked-open closet doors.
"I'll be RIGHT BACK!" he shot over his shoulder. "Stay in the car, it's gonna be okay!"
He didn't shut the door behind him. There was no time to. He just rushed after the shadow that was Angela.
She wasn't running— just walking fast, her tennis shoes slapping wetly on the damp road. It had been raining for part of the day. She was hugging herself tightly, head hung and shoulders hunched. Her breath was coming out in sharp, pouty puffs, and she let out a yelp as she stumbled on her shoelaces but kept going, doggedly.
James jogged to catch up, boots skidding on the wet leaves under his feet. It was so dark he could barely see where he was stepping. The road was just a paler shade of black stretching in front of him, and the trees loomed above like hooded specters. His heart began to pound harder.
Fully aware that doing so was the last thing either of them wanted, James finally reached out to try and catch her elbow as he drew in range.
Predictably, she whirled around, arm flying out of his grip. "DON'T TOUCH ME!" she screamed.
"I know! I know, I'm sorry! I'm sorry," he blurted, backing up and lifting his hands in the air. But she had stopped power-walking away from him and that was what was important. "But Angela, we gotta— we gotta stick together, okay? Please!"
She threw her arms out and started to turn in place, moving in tight, agitated circles like a trapped tiger. Her hair flapped as she shook her head wildly, sniffing hard and fighting back what had to be tears.
"I can't stay in that car. I won't. I WON'T."
"Okay! We won't stay in the car!" James relented at last. When it came right down to it, he knew he'd rather take his chances in the woods with all two of his companions in tow than stay in the car with a hysterical Laura while leaving Angela to wander off to god knew where. There was no way he could do that. "We'll— we'll think of something, all right? Just... don't leave. It's too dark. We don't know what's— it's too dark."
And the doors that only wake in darkness should be yawning and rubbing the crust from their eyes right about now...
"Just... come back to the car with me— to get Laura, a-and the other flashlight," he pleaded. She stopped pacing, but glared at him with wet, fear-filled eyes. James lifted his hands, palms towards the sky. "I... I shouldn't have left you behind in Silent Hill, Angela. I did, and I'm sorry. ...But I'm not gonna leave you behind now."
She stared a moment longer... then took a shuddering breath and nodded.
It took some coaxing, but eventually he was able to get her to trail after him long enough to walk back to the Oldsmobile. Unlike the road ahead, the car's location was perfectly visible thanks to the waving light flickering out through the windows as Laura cast it about. She had remained in the backseat, scooting firmly into the middle as though afraid that either door might have a hand outside of it, ready to snatch her if she got any closer.
Angela stood and hugged herself unhappily as James leaned into the vehicle.
"Laura... come on, we're gonna walk down the road a bit... see if we can find any houses."
"No! I wanna stay here!" she exclaimed, shaking her head furiously, apparently having made an abrupt about-face in the five minutes or so that the two of them were gone. It was hard to blame her, after having presumably watched his back disappear into shadows down the road. But that didn't make his job any easier...
"So do I, but we have to go. Come on."
"No! It's scary!"
She yanked her feet up onto the seat with her, pressing her back into the upholstery and clutching the flashlight to her chest like she feared he might try and take it away from her.
"I wanna stay here!"
"Well, we can't," he finally said, trying his best not to snap (he already knew where that path would lead) and not entirely succeeding. "We have to go. You don't wanna upset Angela, do you?"
Laura's breath hitched. The light flickered out the window and across Angela's features. She had turned away slightly, embarrassed that James had brought her name into it. But with her back turned, it was all the more obvious that her shoulders were quaking.
Looking back to James, Laura's bottom lip quivered for a few seconds before she mumbled a wobbly "... No..."
Holding back a sigh of relief, James reached out to open the door and Laura scooted out of the car, scrubbing her eyes with the back of one hand and snuffling. He locked the door behind her carefully once she was out, reminding himself to check, double-check, and triple-check that they were all shut. This was not a time he could afford to carelessly leave a door open like he so often seemed to now.
He'd just have to hope that it would be safe parked here until dawn. If they left and came back to it only to find it had been towed in their absence, then they'd really be stuck.
Looking over his shoulder down the road, James hoped against hope that he'd see some headlights approaching right this moment— anything to spare them from the surely-difficult night ahead— but none came.
With one last sigh, he patted the window of the car and turned to the girls, who were standing behind him. Laura was still holding the flashlight like a lifeline, sending its beam straight up into the spiky clouds of evergreen branches above. Her teeth were chattering despite the temperate summer night.
Angela was holding one of the duffel bags over one arm and an empty gas can in the other. Finding a station this far into the middle of nowhere seemed foolishly optimistic, but they'd feel even stupider if they actually did stumble across one and didn't have any way of actually taking the fuel back to the car.
"Okay... so, here's what were gonna do..." James said, after taking a deep breath. "We're gonna walk down the road and look for a house. Somewhere with a phone that we can use. If we're lucky, we can get a tow truck out here."
"We're not lookin' for a hotel?" Laura sniffled.
"I don't think there are any hotels out here, Laura," Angela murmured, somewhat more composed, although she still had that gargoyle-hunch in her shoulders, and her ankles were bent out as though trying to prevent her knees from knocking together too much. James wondered if the dark stirred those flutterings of instinctive terror in her like it did for him.
He couldn't see her eyes when she looked up to him, but where her tone was serious but soft when she'd been talking to Laura, it took on an edge now.
"James... it's... it's been awhile since we saw... any lights, at all. Are you certain we'll be able to find...?"
James had been doing his best to stay level-headed, but he could feel a surge of his old temper, the one that had once made him snippy and sullen with the terminally-ill love of his life, rising.
"Well, I'm not the one who couldn't stand to stay in the car, so if you've got any better ideas, let me know," he said sourly, before he could stop himself. Regret slipped in as soon as the words slipped out and he slapped a hand to his forehead, heaving a sigh. "... Look, I'm sorry. Let's just... get going, okay?"
Angela had gone still and silent when he snapped, but she slowly nodded.
Then she held a hand out to Laura.
"Come on, Laura."
The little girl sniffed again, swiping a hand noisily across her nose and then taking Angela's offered one with it. Angela didn't seem to mind.
Progress was slow for the first half-hour.
It seemed like every five minutes that Laura would get a pebble in her shoe or hear something shuffling in the forest. Knowing that there weren't any monsters— or that there shouldn't be any monsters, rather— did nothing for James. Every time Laura whimpered about something following behind them, his heart began to race and he found himself automatically reaching to his pocket where the handgun had once lain, waiting to be cocked and fired upon the shadowy denizens of that misty town. And every time he himself heard a twig snap or the night cry of some animal, he regretted having thrown away his weapons back there on the overlook. How could he have thought that was a good idea, after everything he'd been through?
The night made him feel helpless and naked. The weapons of the body were good against nothing but other human beings, and it wasn't human beings he feared.
Fists and flat, useless human teeth were nothing more than nuisances to a monster.
Eventually, Laura whimpered that she didn't want to walk anymore at all. James felt he was on the verge of tearing his hair out, but to his surprise, Angela wordlessly bent down to let the girl climb onto her back, then straightened up and continued on, her slight frame standing tall despite the weight. James nodded wearily to her to show his appreciation as they continued to slog up the road with no end in sight.
James found himself trying not to look at the trees on either side of them— to just keep his eyes on the road. It activated his imagination a little bit less when all his eyes had to stare at was his light glimmering off the pavement.
One foot ahead of the other. Step by step. No monsters here, no sir, it's just us tired, miserable road trippers without wheels...
Angela's voice, along with a slight tug at his sleeve, brought him to a halt. When he looked over his shoulder questioningly, she nodded towards the side of the road.
To their right was a wide dirt path that stretched off the main street and twisted downwards through the trees. Flicking the light towards it, James turned around to stand dubiously in its mouth. The beam didn't stretch very far, only glittering off a few trunks' worth of shiny sap dribbles before fading into impenetrable darkness. It could be a long driveway. Or it could just lead to more nowhere.
Beside him, Angela shifted her weight to support Laura better. The little girl had seemingly dozed off, although whether she was asleep or just burying her face in the back of Angela's turtleneck and trying to tune everything out as much as possible was debatable.
"It looks like it could lead to a neighborhood. Do you think there'd be a house somewhere down there?" Angela asked quietly.
"... I don't know," he admitted. Dragging a hand across his chin tiredly, he looked over to her, brows peaked. "Are you tired? ... I could, um... take her, if you need a break..."
"I'd rather you didn't," came Angela's somewhat-short reply, but when he hung his head apologetically, she hastily added, "Sorry. I know you're not... it's just. You know."
"Yeah," he said, knowing there wasn't anything else he needed to say. He jerked his head at the road. "T-there's no guarantee we'll find anything if we go down there. It could just lead to... I dunno, a lumberyard or something. Or wind up being a nature trail. We... we might have better luck if we keep going on the main road."
"Yes, but... look." She leaned down as far as Laura's weight would allow her without sending the both of them toppling over. "See all those grooves? They're tire tracks... s-so people must drive on this road, and often, too! Maybe we will find something."
James took one last look up the main road, reluctantly. "... Well..."
"... If it gets too nature traily, we can always come back," Angela offered. She sounded out of breath, and a pang of guilt hit him in the chest. The paved road was mostly uphill. The dirt one trailed downward. It was easier terrain for someone lugging a child on their back.
He gave in.
His boots crunched on the dirt and scrubble as he started down the new road, and he could hear Angela's footsteps behind him as she followed, carefully picking her way over the grooves to avoid tripping. Her light— she had taken possession of the flashlight he'd given to Laura, once the girl had gone piggy-back— flickered ahead of him, something he was grateful for.
The path was bleak— even bleaker than the paved one, where at least the roadside rails would occasionally shimmer in the light of the beam and make him briefly hopeful for the sight of headlights around the bend. The forest closed in overhead like a set of fingers folding over a captured bug, and all he could think of was the winding trail he'd walked down from the Overlook, down into that little town by the lake what seemed like so long ago.
It had been daylight then, but the misty wood had felt largely the same... and the entire time, he'd been able to hear things around them. Rustles and breathing, like something had been following him unseen through the underbrush.
A cold perspiration had started to form on his skin, and he wasn't sure if it was from the dampness or his growing awareness of the thud-thudding of his own heart.
The bizarre episode from the hotel room had crept back into his mind's eye, as well as all the horrible visions that had been plaguing him through his sleeping and waking hours alike over the past few months. Even more than the possibility of actual physical danger, the worry that his fears would lapse into another one of those here and now chilled him beyond belief.
What would he do if a staggering, twitching figure loomed up out of the darkness ahead of them? Panic? Scream for the girls to run and try to take it down himself? What if it turned out to be nothing, like in the hotel?
What if he turned around only to find his companions staring at him in hollow silence, the cold realization dawning on them that what little he had left of his mind was quickly gurgling away down the drain?
No, these thoughts were just the fear getting the better of him.
Anyone who'd been through all he had would have these worries, these lurking terrors in a situation like this.
He just had to remember that, and stay calm.
"See anything yet?" Angela piped up from behind him.
"Not yet," he said over his shoulder. "Just a lot of trees... and some potholes... I didn't even think you could get potholes in a dirt roa— WHOA!"
As though Satan himself had overheard him and decided to throw a little more irony into their night, his foot promptly went straight into one of said potholes and sent him staggering forward, his light waving wildly as he flailed for balance.
"Y— James! Are... are you..."
She didn't finish. Just trailed off, as though in surprise at herself for asking after his wellbeing. It surprised him a little too, so they could be even on that front.
Once he'd righted himself and made sure that his ankle hadn't turned into a right angle, he let out a soft exhale and a shaky "Y-yeah... better start watching my step... I'll crack my skull open if I'm not careful..."
"Well, we wouldn't want that," Angela said, and if he listened hard, he thought he could detect a faint sense of humor in there. Or maybe she was perfectly serious. It was hard to tell, with her. "You're the only one who knows how to drive."
"Yeah, it's about the only thing I'm good for at this point," James mumbled, not entirely bitterly, starting to pick his way along again.
Suddenly, a hideous shriek rent the still night air— a hoarse, raspy sound that sounded like the vocal equivalent of a set of nails raked down a chalkboard. A scream like a dying old woman.
James froze like a rabbit in the headlights of a minivan, eyes popping like ping-pong balls.
"Stop! SH!" he hissed frantically, throwing his arms out to stop Angela from moving forward. "What was that??"
His mind was already spinning with possibilities— a new type of monster? One with a broken, hanging jaw and withered, bony hands? One with eyes that shone like light bulbs and a spine that stuck out like a root from a riverbank? One that hung from a metal frame and spat out fluttering moths as it thrashed in its death throes?— when he heard a second sound. A quiet, breathy noise coming from directly behind him.
It was Angela, and this time she was definitely laughing.
"Oh, James... haven't you ever heard an owl before?"
James stood there dumbly for a moment, trying to reconcile the two things in his head: the deep hoo-hooing cartoon owls he'd watched on his dusty TV set as a child and the awful tortured-grandma scream he'd just heard.
"What? That wasn't an owl... was it?"
The cry sounded again, and Angela pointed upwards at the trees. "Yes, it is. I used to hear them all the time. I'm from a lumber town, my house was on the edge of a forest. ... You must be from the city."
He wasn't sure his hometown counted as a city, but it was true... there hadn't exactly been any big forests in the area.
"I grew up in Ashfield," he mumbled, starting to walk again, although he couldn't help but start shining the flashlight into the trees in search of the elusive avian creature that was apparently responsible for those noises.
"Ashfield?" Angela said thoughtfully. "I don't think I've heard of it..."
"It's in Massachusetts," he said, stepping over a particularly deep rut that must have formed in the spring from runnels of melting snow. "About a six-hour drive from... um... you know..."
"Oh... that explains it... the last time I was outside of Maine besides... well, now was when I was very small..."
"Yeah... I didn't see much of the rest of the world, either."
"But you could have, couldn't you? If you'd wanted."
James had to think about that for a moment.
"... Yeah, I guess I could have..."
He was about to elaborate on that, when Angela softly interrupted.
She was staring up into the branches. He followed her eyes with his flashlight and spotted it— a big tawny bird with a pale face and dark, round eyes. It blinked owlishly— no pun intended— in the light. For a moment they just stared up at it, and it back at them.
Then James let out a chuff of a laugh.
"Wow... you were right. I guess it was an owl..."
"And I guess you are a city boy," Angela remarked quietly behind him. "Maybe that's why you always looked so lost back there in that town..."
It was something that, a few days ago, would probably have been full of venom when it came out of her mouth. But to his surprise... there wasn't any.
She continued down the road and he did as well, leaving the owl behind them to continue screaming into the night.
"Hey, I wasn't the only one who looked lost all the time back there, you know," he replied to her a little dryly.
"I guess not... but you always managed to look loster." That one came with another one of those very small, satisfied smiles that he only ever caught on her face briefly, often so briefly he wasn't sure if it had been there at all or just been a trick of the light.
"Sounds like something Laura would say," he replied, a tiny smile of his own starting to curl the corners of his mouth.
"Maybe she's been rubbing off on me a little."
"That wouldn't surprise me... she has a way of doing that."
There had been two or three times he had almost caught himself using words that hadn't escaped his mouth since elementary school in retort to her teasing. Sooner or later he wouldn't be able to catch it in time and then he would truly have descended to her level.
"She didn't even move when that owl screeched," Angela noted after a moment, fondness in her voice.
"Yeah... she's pretty fearless... back in that town, she barely had a care in the world..."
"Yes, well... I suppose it looked different to her." She said this sedately, and he found himself nodding even though he was ahead of her and she couldn't see. It was obvious they had both reached the same conclusion about the nature of Silent Hill, and what they'd seen there.
It was the sort of statement that usually seemed to lead to a period of thoughtful silence between them, but Angela spoke up again, a sly note in her voice... "When that owl screeched... you thought it was a monster, didn't you?"
James froze, then swallowed... then admitted, with a shaky laugh, "... Y-yeah.... yeah, I did. ... That obvious, huh?"
"A little," said Angela, clearly amused. "I might have too... if I hadn't heard owls all the time." She was quiet a second or two, then added in a smug whisper, "City boy."
"Now come on, don't rub it in," James scolded indignantly, but the fear and relief had mingled into a weird giddiness and he found himself grinning. "...'Sides, you can hardly blame me..."
"I guess not..." Angela admitted, still sounding rather pleased with herself. Then, lowering her voice conspiratorially; "... But don't worry. I'm pretty sure if there were any monsters following us, they'd have gotten us by now with how slow we're going."
"Unless they wanted to scare us first. To.... to... make us taste better. You know. The fear. It's like... like..." he faltered there, what had started as a morbid joke sputtering out halfway through. "Like..."
"Tenderizer?" Angela supplied.
"... Yes. Like tenderizer."
"Well, if fear is tenderizer, I guess I have nothing to worry about... after that owl thing, you're much tastier than me."
"Hey, what did I say about rubbing it in?"
"Fine, fine... men are so touchy someti— oh!" She let out a little gasp and froze as a branch snapped somewhere in the trees to their right. James stopped with her, turning his flashlight in the direction of the sound and casting it about for a few seconds. When nothing in particular jumped out as the source, he looked back to her with a commiserating smile.
"P-probably just an animal... at this rate if there were any monsters around, Laura would be the only one left. With all this fear, we gotta be gourmet by now."
At first Angela looked to him with wide, still-startled eyes... but when she caught sight of his sheepish grin and seemed to realize that he'd jumped at the sound just as hard as she had, her little smile reappeared and both of them burst into hushed, semi-hysterical laughter for a few seconds.
Then the crunch of gritty mud and pebbles resumed as they carried on.
"So..." Angela said after awhile, between the short panting breaths she was now taking as she tried to keep her living cargo from sliding too far down on her back, "... she was your wife's daughter?"
"... Sort of... in everything but blood and legality, I guess..."
She paused behind him and it was a second or two before her plodding footsteps started up again.
“So she isn't...?”
"No..." James let out a sigh, voice growing heavy as the giddiness from before faded. "Mary... my wife died before anything like adoption could happen." If there was one thing (beside the weight of his own crime, of course) that he would probably never get over... it was that he hadn't known about Laura before Mary had passed away.
Like she'd been living a secret life, one that he hadn't cared or deserved to know about.
"... So... so where was she before she came with you, then?"
"But... she's not adopted? You didn't adopt her?"
He knew he didn't need to clarify further that no orphanage would adopt to someone like him on such short notice.
Angela's footsteps stopped behind him again and this time they didn't start back up. He looked over his shoulder and saw her standing in the road with her arms still looped around Laura's legs, watching him uncertainly.
"So... why is she with you?"
James considered his reply for a moment. He didn't want to break Laura's confidence, what little of it he had, by telling her secrets... so he settled on saying, shortly but meaningfully, "It was a bad place."
Then he turned and continued to walk.
A quiet "Oh..." sounded behind him and he could hear Angela's steps in the dirt again, hurrying to catch up with him.
After that they walked in silence for quite some time. At some point, a slow, steady drizzle began to sprinkle down from the dense clouds overhead.
As the length of nothing-but-forest they'd traveled grew, James's already-limited hopes of finding any form of civilization began to dwindle. His feet were sore— he hadn't walked this far in some time. For all the ground they had covered since leaving home, most of it had been on wheels.
He was on the very verge of suggesting they turn back and continue their slogging journey along the main road, when a glimpse of something pale through the trees caught his eye.
"... Angela! Look!"
He jogged forward, sore feet forgotten as he hurried down the road until he could see around the grove of trees blocking his view.
And there it was.
A barn, nestled on the other end of a small, overgrown thicket. It sat in the burry brambles and thistle like an abandoned milk carton, its windows dark.
"It's a barn!" James blurted out unnecessarily.
Angela drew up alongside him, hucking the sleeping (or perhaps just petulantly sulking) Laura up a little higher on her shoulders.
"A barn? All the way out here? That must mean there's people nearby," she said breathlessly. "Do you... do you see any other buildings?"
He took a step into the thicket and felt the ground sink slightly beneath his boots. It was soggy, unkempt meadow-earth. Perhaps at one point it had been a pasture, but now it seemed fit for little but the grazing of wildlife.
"... I don't see anything... maybe if we go further, but..."
As though he was stepping into a field of poppies instead of weeds and loosestrife, James felt tiredness seep up his legs and into the rest of his body at the thought of delving into the woodlands in search of buildings that may or may not be there. And chances were, they probably weren't. This barn looked like it hadn't been touched in years and a house with lit windows would surely be visible in darkness like this, even if there were trees in the way.
"Did we find a house?"
Laura had spoken up at last, lifting her head. She was rubbing one eye with a fist, her face scrunched and squinty.
"I don't think so..." He peered dubiously at the ramshackle building.
It was an ugly thing, partly white and partly plain, undecorated planking. The paint was flecked and the visible wood looked weathered and worn. Tiny windows sat at the top, just under the shingled roof, and they were black and empty like little eye sockets set in a skull too big for them. The more James looked at it, the more certain he felt that no one but them had set eye on it in a long time.
"... I'm not sure we'll find anything here. It looks empty. But... there might be more buildings further on, so..."
"I don't wanna keep going," moaned Laura. "It's dark and raining. I hate it."
James looked to Angela for her input. He'd brought them this far, but he didn't want to keep going any more than Laura did and he didn't quite have the heart to keep arguing with grownup logic when all he wanted to do was lie down somewhere.
"... Let's take a look at the barn," Angela finally said. "It can't hurt anything, can it? We've already come this far in the dark."
"I don't wanna go in there either. It looks spooky," Laura groused, sounding more disgruntled than actually frightened. "What if there's monsters."
"If there's any monsters, we'll protect you." At that, Angela looked up and met James's eyes, the same light that he'd seen back in the car when they'd spoken of the creature in the piston room kindling in her own. "Right, James?"
"Fine," Laura mumbled grumpily as they set off across the meadow.
Tiny thorns and stickers tugged at his jeans as he walked, picking his legs up awkwardly high to avoid them, barely able to see in the dark even with the help of the flashlight. Behind him, he heard Angela murmur to the girl that she needed to put her down now. Then rustles and an extra set of footsteps as Laura was set on the ground and then took to scampering carelessly forward through the overgrown brush, daring the thorns to have a go at her.
Reaching the side of the barn, James started to tramp along its edge, searching for a doorway and locating one without too much hassle. There were several abandoned rabbit hutches on either side of it; their latches hanging open lonesomely, tufts of hay and gathered dust poking from their chickenwire siding. It was a sign that didn't bode particularly well for chances of the place being occupied, but at this point James found all he wanted was a place to bunker down for the night. Everything would just seem so much easier in the light of the morning...
The sheet-metal of the door groaned and rattled as it shifted under his pull, then scraped to a halt, leaving a crooked two-foot crack to squeeze through. It would go no further.
James leaned into the gap, poking the flashlight in. It illuminated an unsurprising scene: empty stalls and rafters littered with cobwebs and bundles of straw and twine where mice and birds had nested for what was probably several generations. The air inside was still, sweet, and musty.
He looked back to Angela and Laura.
"... Yeah... it doesn't look like anybody's been here in a long time... but it's dry. You guys wait here though, I'll go in first just in ca—"
"Lemme through, I wanna get dry," Laura demanded pompously, shoving straight past him.
He made a noise like a dying balloon and reached after her, before looking helplessly to Angela, whose face was solemn in the flashlight's beam.
"Some things have stayed the same, but I haven't seen any actual monsters since I was in Silent Hill," she said, all traces of the joking from earlier gone. "I think... it should be okay."
"... Yeah. Of course..." And no matter what things his imagination had conjured up during the long walk through the night, he knew she was right— but a sour curl of guilt started up in his stomach.
There was no easy way to bring up the fact that he had been seeing monsters.
Instead he squeezed into the barn after Laura, the scent of old hay tickling his nostrils as he dusted himself off and took a more thorough look around.
The place had probably been used for horses once. Now it was clearly home to nothing more than the forest's inhabitants and an old ridable lawn mower that had been parked in one of the stalls, under several layers of dust by now. Shining the flashlight into the rafters returned a small trio of eerie reflective eyebeams that turned out to be some more owls, nestled away in a corner.
Rustles and squeaks coming from the loft above told him that there were probably some rodents skittering around, too.
A few buckets and rusty pitchforks lay strewn around and there was a pile of stained old horse blankets laying crumpled next to a set of grain bins that had long since been chewed into.
But the important thing was that it was dry.
A drumming had started up above their heads as the rain began to thicken from a sprinkling to a steady pour. James shivered and gave his damp hair a shake. The rain hadn't been hard enough to soak them— just to coat them in cool moisture and put a chill in their bones. But if they decided to carry on, they'd end up soaked in seconds.
"I guess this is better than noth— ghhkkk."
Laura had popped out of one of the vacant stalls with a "BOO!" that seemed deafening in the silence. James staggered backwards a step or two, placing a hand over his chest.
"Jeez," he said under his breath reproachfully, but didn't bother trying to scold her. Angela let out a soft giggle by the pile of blankets, one of which she'd picked up and was turning forwards and backwards, critically.
"Who d'you think this place belongs to?" Laura asked, as though she hadn't just nearly given him a heart attack.
"Dunno. Nobody, maybe."
"Abandoned places are pretty common the further out you get... there were lots of old empty farmhouses around where I lived when I was little," Angela supplied, smoothing out the fabric with the characteristic shuff shuff of skin on nylon.
"I guess that's probably what this place is... it doesn't look like anyone but animals've been here in ages."
"Do you think we should keep going down the road?" Angela asked, folding the blanket over her arms and looking at him. He could tell from her expression that she was about as fond of the idea as he was.
"Honestly, I... I doubt we'd find much. Not in the dark like this. I think... I think maybe it'd be best if we just stayed here. Maybe in the morning we'll actually be able to go back out on the real road and flag someone down. ... Or walk back to the last town, if we have to."
With a heavy sigh, he nudged an overturned bucket upright with the toe of one boot and then sat down on it, elbows on his knees. It felt good to sit. He didn't know how long they'd been out there, but it seemed like forever. Forever was not a fun amount of time to be stumbling down spooky country roads in the middle of the night.
"You mean we're gonna sleep in here?" Seemingly forgetting her initial displeasure at the thought of going inside, Laura seemed excited. She looked around, pulling her arms back into her sweatshirt so that the sleeves hung limply at her sides. "Here in this moldy ol' barn? Are we really gonna? It's probably haunted."
"I hope not," James said wearily, starting to reach down and pull his boots off. Then he thought about all the potential rusty nails lying around under the scattered leaves and sawdust and rethought it. It was already a miracle he hadn't somehow contracted Tetanus in Silent Hill, and he wasn't about to push his luck. "This night is lousy enough without ghosts."
"But what if they're PONY ghosts," Laura insisted, running to peer into the stalls again. "Cuz ponies used to live here, you know. These are pony stalls."
"I guess pony ghosts wouldn't be too bad." He peeled off his coat and draped it over one of the grain bins, hoping that it would dry out during the night. Nothing was worse than a damp coat. "As long as they're quiet."
"Give me the flashlight! I wanna go look for the pony ghosts."
James handed it over without a fight. He didn't want to look around too thoroughly. He was already fighting hard to shut out the instincts that were clamoring from their cages in the back of his brain, urging him to hunt through the stalls for useful odds and ends, to fortify the entrances and board up the holes. To ferret out any hiding threats and eliminate them before they could cash in their element of surprise. Even though there weren't any.
The girl scampered off again, the light bouncing ahead of her.
James dragged a hand down his face and heaved another exhausted sigh before turning his attention to the piles of hay. Most of it seemed to have fallen down from a rotten section of the loft that had given way at some point. He reached out a hand and tested it.
If felt dry enough despite the damp night outside, and it was soft and springy (if a little scratchy).
He rose from the feed-bucket he'd been using as a seat and lowered himself into the hay experimentally, letting the heels of his boots slide out across the floor. Not the most luxurious bed around, but it was better than trying to sleep in the dirt. And he knew he had to sleep.
He could try staying up all night, sure, but the certain knowledge that they would have to take a long uphill trek back up that dirt road to the car, if not all the way back to a different town, loomed overhead like the oppressive clouds that had been dripping on them for the past hour. He'd already been getting too little sleep as it was. No need to make that journey any harder than necessary.
There was a low rasp from somewhere overhead— either from the owls or some other animal that was taking refuge up there.
His brain knew that was all it was, but his body still tensed up, suddenly aware of every raindrop on the tin roof above, every itchy stalk of hay prickling against his skin.
... God, it was going to be hell to sleep in here, wasn't it.
As he ruminated morosely on the ordeal he was in for, Angela, who still had the other flashlight, stepped over and set it down in the middle of the floor, creating a soft little area of illumination. She'd been gazing out the gap in the door, back at the rain-lashed meadow. Perhaps she was hoping to see a car slowly trundling down the dirt road.
"... I hope the light doesn't run out of batteries..." she sighed after a moment, looking down at the light and holding her hands out to it as if it were a campfire.
James shook his head a little. "It shouldn't. I haven't used used it more than... well, ever. So... the batteries should still be brand new."
... Brand new.
A horrible thought struck him.
Actually, not a thought.
He shuddered, the dampness that had accumulated on his clothes and skin suddenly seeming to sink in, and drew his knees to his chest. The chill of the early New England spring in which he had explored Silent Hill had departed long ago, traded for the wet, heavy warmth of a New England summer— so he'd taken to wearing just a wifebeater under his coat.
Right now he was regretting it.
Not only did he feel chilled to the bone, but the prickling of the hay was even worse. In fact, it felt just like
Scratchy insect legs of fear crawling up his back, he felt his breath catch in his throat and froze in place. When he could finally unlock his limbs enough to move, it was only to slowly reach up and smack the flashlight on his chest. Because it had just, after gleaming brightly with no falter or fade for hours and with no apparent reason, gone out.
The strike yielded no light, not even a dim sputter.
James breathed sharply through his nose, feeling his collar grow uncomfortably hot and his heart-rate slowly begin to accelerate into a steadily-rising pound.
He had to stay calm.
He couldn't panic.
It was dark, that was all.
He'd find his way back out and then look for another light source. That was all there was to it.
Reaching out, he met the wall with his fingertips and started to explore the room with touch. Not that there was a lot to explore... He had come into this tiny padded cell sniffing for useful odds and ends, shutting the door behind him on principal— a precaution against getting ambushed by anything that might happen down the hall at the wrong time. He hadn't thought anything of the fact that he'd effectively shut himself into a space barely bigger than the length of two men lying head to toe... until he'd lost his light.
His own breath was deafening in here, and it was driving him mad.
Finally, his fingers found the tiny gap where the door met the wall. Yes! There it was. Now, to open it... but... where was the damn knob? He felt downwards impatiently. He had to get out of here—it was absolutely all in his head, but imagination or not, it was getting hard to breathe in here. How on earth could a patient stand being in a place like this?! Maybe with a light it would be livable, but in the dark like this, it was positively inhumane. And he had a feeling that asylum inmates didn't get graciously equipped with a flashlight before getting shoved into one of these things.
At last, once he'd moved a step to the right, his hand bumped into a panel next to the door. Further experimental prodding determined that there were buttons.
Buttons? REALLY? They put a number pad in a cell?
He cursed, squinting his eyes to make out its faint outline. The buttons themselves were barely visible as slightly-paler blots on a dark shape. Trying to make out the writing on them was just flat-out impossible. Nonetheless, he started punching them at random, trying to fight back his frustration to manageable levels.
The claustrophobia was already taking a toll on him and he didn't want it to get worse. Already he could feel an awful skittering on his skin, like there were things crawling on hi—
His own yelp was startlingly loud in the silence, as was the slap of his hand meeting the back of his neck.
What the hell was that?!
A bite. Something had bitten him, right where his collar ended, just below the hair on the nape of his neck.
Another sting lit up on his arm— fainter this time, like something was pinching through the cloth of his coat, but still noticeable.
And that was when his hand— the one that he clapped to his neck— encountered something that was not supposed to be there.
Hissing in surprise, he closed his fingers around it with a terrible crunch and ripped it away. He could barely see in the dark, but he could see well enough to tell what it was.
A giant, bloated bug with long, whiplike antennae and six awful spindly legs. It had burst under the force of his panicked grab, a little wet balloon of glistening guts oozing out of a crack in its exoskeleton before deflating and dribbling away to wet his fingers. But its legs continued to wave feebly at him.
He threw it down with a noise of disgust and snuffed out the rest of its life with his heel.
But that was when he felt a skittering up his ankle.
And another, this time from inside his sleeve.
Uttering a close-lipped howl, James started to slap frantically at his clothes. There were more joining in— he could hear them now, scuttling down the walls and across the floor, their tiny chirps and squeaks, the weird cicada-like whirring of their wings, the occasional crunch and squirt of innards as they occasionally got underfoot.
He could feel welts rising on his torso as the bites accumulated— short of tearing off all his clothing, the only way he could get rid of them was to crush them against his own skin.
"ARRRGH! Get OFF!"
He thrashed an arm against the wall, trying to knock off the creatures that clung to it— only to realize with horror that the walls were coated in them.
They... they were everywhere!
Where were they even coming from?!
He'd seem them before— they were the same disgusting, cockroach-like things he'd occasionally caught a glimpse of outside, except there, they'd usually been scurrying out of view at the sight of him, and he'd never seen this many of them at one time. They scuttled from shadow to shadow in ones and twos, never staying in the light for long. Now that he was trapped in a tiny, dark place just like the ones they seeked out for refuge, they were doing the opposite, en masse.
... That was it!
They hated the light!
He beat the flashlight again, hoping against hope, but it remained nothing but a useless lump of metal hanging off of his chest. The batteries were dead, as though the room itself had somehow sucked the life right out of them.
How could they have lost their strength so quickly? They'd been brand NEW when he found them, just like the flashlight itself. But whether or not it made sense, they were dead, and without them he didn't have a hope of—
He'd found a spare set earlier!
His hands flew to his pockets immediately.
Ammo? NO. If he was stupid enough to actually try SHOOTING at these things, he'd wind up blowing off his own foot. And then the blood would probably attract even more of them.
He didn't even realize his fingers had actually encountered the spare battery pack until it had slipped out of them and clattered to the floor.
He wanted to cry.
Flinging himself to the floor, he scrabbled about frantically, batting away the insects and occasionally biting his lip in revulsion when he felt the crunch of chitin and splatter of goo under his hands. Stinging bites and welts were still bubbling up on his skin even as he found the box and shredded the cardboard apart.
With clumsy fingers, he grappled the chunky batteries from their stiff plastic packaging...
The inside of his eyelids lit up in molten red, as Angela moved back out of the path of the light.
He blinked and looked up at her. She'd apparently come over to stand between him and the light, looking down at him in concern. He swallowed guiltily. It happened again, didn't it?
"... Are you all right?" she prompted again, brows furrowed. "You looked kind of... faraway, for a moment. ... A few moments, actually..."
"Oh... I was just... um, thinking." A particularly sharp stalk of hay poked at his back as he shifted, and he felt what he'd eaten for dinner turn over in his stomach as the phantom sensations of dozens of squashed insects trapped between his clothes and his skin flared up all over him. Uncomfortably aware that Angela's gaze was still on him, he lifted his hands to rub sheepishly at the goosebumps that had sprung up on his bare arms. "I-it's nothing... where's Laura?"
"I think," Angela said, doing him the courtesy of not prying further, "she's in one of the stalls, pretending to brush a ghost pony."
"... Yeah, that sounds like something she'd do."
At least she was entertaining herself. Hopefully there wasn't anything in there that she could injure herself on.
Trying to banish the creepy-crawly memories, James sighed and leaned back. He could hear dripping somewhere, between the pattering of the rain on the roof and the leaves. There were probably leaks in this building, as old as it was. But they weren't over the hay, so that was good enough for him. Still, it was a lonely reminder of where they were, and how far away it was from where they wanted to be.
"... I'm sorry... For getting us into this mess."
Angela paused before replying, seeming to select her words carefully.
"... No, it's... things happen."
After everything— after all he'd been through, with Angela and without, with Laura and without, something about that struck James as the most apt description of it all that he'd ever heard. A soft chuff of laughter worked up from his lungs, and he couldn't help but let his mouth form a slightly reluctant smirk.
Angela tilted her head.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, it's... it's not that funny. Not really. Just... well. Anyway." He ran his fingers through his hair. "We'll go back up the road once it's light. ... If we're lucky, maybe someone will pass who can give us a ride back to town so we can pick up some gas. Even with the leak, if I can get some in there... we should be able to make it back to the last town."
Angela didn't reply, but when he looked up at her, she was nodding. Straw crackled under her tennis shoes as she stepped onto the pile to reach the wall of the barn and lean on it, sighing. James swallowed, feeling like he should say something... but didn't.
The silence stretched from seconds to minutes, watching the rain pattering down through the gap in the door, visible only as a series of flashes as the drops caught the light cast by their little electric campfire. Outside of the rainfall and the sounds of Laura puttering around over in the empty stall she was playing in, all was quiet.
After what seemed like an hour, Angela lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn, her eyes fluttering. Her gentle swaying had started to take on a distinctly tired, unsteady rhythm. It was late, after all. It had been close to nine when the car had sputtered to a halt. God, who even knew what time it was now.
James swallowed as he watched, then cleared his throat. He wasn't sure what to expect— or even whether or not it would be a good idea— but after a little bit of waffling, he spoke up.
When she turned her head to look at him, he reached out to pat the hay, somewhat nervously.
"It's... kinda scratchy, but it's not bad. If you're tired... m-maybe you should try and get some sleep before morning." Then, before she could object, he raised both hands. "I'm dog tired myself and there's plenty of hay to go around, we don't even have to be close to each other. I'll... I'll probably sleep on my side, so I'll... you know, face the other way..."
Angela let out a chuff through her nostrils and gave him a look that was somewhere between dubious and resigned, one brow raised.
He stared back, glibly, then shrugged. "Beats standing..."
He was prepared to go back to gazing at the flashlight with half-shut eyes, but a rustling of hay reached his ears. Angela was slowly picking her way through the pile towards him, and when she reached his side, she lowered herself down into the hay next to him. Crossing her legs, she tucked her elbows in close to her sides, as though afraid of breaching some sort of electric wall between them.
Self-consciously, James folded his own hands in his lap. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally touch and frighten her, destroying what little trust they'd built up between them so far.
Once she was seated, the silence resumed with them looking awkwardly off in different directions, Angela idly toying with a stalk of hay and James just staring rather hard at a bundle of wire fencing in the corner that looked like it had seen better days. After awhile the prickling of the only available bedding started getting to him and he reached out to reclaim his coat even though it wasn't dry yet. At this point he'd take being damp over having memories of those bugs skittering through his brain all night long.
Angela had looked over when she heard him reach out, and he could feel her eyes on him as he awkwardly pulled it back on, then sat back with a satisfied shiver. There... no more itching. Thank god.
He had gone back to looking at the ruined fencing and wondering if it had ever even gotten to be used (or if it was just left to gather rust and dust, never to secure a single chicken) when he felt a light touch on his arm and looked over, surprised.
"... Those red squares..." Angela murmured, fingers shyly tracing the crooked, haphazard stitching. "... I don't remember those being there back in Silent Hill. Are they new?"
"Oh, those? Uh... yeah... I put them on just a day or so after I got back fr— left Silent Hill."
Because really, had he ever really gotten back to anywhere from that horrible place?
She continued to touch the squares gently, and he found himself holding his arm out obligingly.
"You used to have a different patch there, right?"
He was surprised she'd noticed. But then, seemingly-insignificant details had frequently leaped out at him back there in Silent Hill. Maybe it was the same for her.
"What are they for?"
"... To remember." He looked away, casting his eyes once again to the flashlight and its comforting glow. "... Before I came to Silent Hill, I... I forgot a lot of things. Important things. When it was over and done with, I... I put the squares on my coat to make sure I never forgot again."
"... Oh..." Angela nodded, but her mouth had tugged into a troubled frown. Slowly, she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, staring glassily forward. "... I... I wish I knew what it was like to forget. ... Some things I'd do anything to forget."
He looked over at her, feeling a tightness in his chest. It was the ache of sympathy.
"... I wish I could forget, too. ... But forgetting was what landed me in Silent Hill in the first place." His damp hair stood on end as he ran his fingers through it again. "... It's... it's my duty to remember, now."
"Your cross to bear?" Angela said dryly, looking straight ahead— but her expression was more weary than jeering.
"Well... yes, I... I guess that's one way you could put it..."
There was a brief silence, then Angela pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, letting her chin sit between the kneecaps and staring, glossy-eyed, at the flashlight.
"I suppose being forced to remember the things we don't want to is just part of being in Hell," she murmured, the dry tone gone and replaced with tired resignation.
James looked at her for a time, watching the light play on her face and glimmer off of the liquid pooling in the crescent of her lower eyelid, waiting to fall.
She didn't quite turn her head to look at him, but she inclined it slightly. "... Yes, James?"
He cleared his throat before speaking in a voice that was small but firm in the quiet of their ramshackle shelter.
"The fire you see... you don't deserve it. I'll bet... I'll bet that you never did. You probably don't think so... but I do. ... I... I know my opinion probably doesn't count for a whole lot, but..."
She didn't say anything at first, so James looked away, picking idly at some loose threads on his sleeve.
"... I... just thought I'd let you know..."
"No, it's... thank you."
She sounded puzzled, but as she lifted an arm to swipe at her eyes, there was a faint curl to the corners of her mouth. Inhaling deeply, she looked out at the dark meadow again.
"... I don't see it right now, you know." Although she didn't turn around, she seemed to sense his questioning look, because she added, almost dreamily, "The fire, I mean. Listen."
She pointed up at the roof over their heads, and James leaned back to let his eyes follow suit. The rain drummed there softly but persistently. After a moment or two, James shook his head a little.
"... I don't hear anything but the rain..."
"Exactly." Eyes still moist, she smiled tightly and rolled her shoulders, nodding around at their surroundings. "I can still smell the smoke, like it's just around the corner... but out there, I can see steam rising from the meadow, where the rain is hitting. I can hear it hissing as the earth cools. ... And more than the smoke... I smell the rain."
The smile grew.
"... I haven't smelled rain since..."
She trailed off there, shutting her eyes, and at last the waiting tear rolled down her cheek and into the crinkle at the corner of her mouth.
James watched her with an indescribable feeling in his chest.
The constant dreary weather this summer had been dull at best and depressing at worst. He couldn't ever remember being so disenchanted with rain and cloudy skies. ... But here Angela was, weeping softly at the sound of it— the fresh, cool smell of it as the parched earth of her nightmares drank it in.
To someone whose Hell was filled with fire, rain was beautiful.
Over in the empty stall, Laura had begun to hum a little tune. The light from her flashlight was flickering, but not from a dying battery. Little shadows with stubby legs and pointed ears danced and cavorted across the far wall— she was making puppets with her fingers.
Before long the whimsical parade of creatures became a drama unfolding between two characters, bunny created by the index and middle finger of one of Laura's hands and a toothsome monster represented by the other. Her humming dissolved into a murmured, imaginary conversation alternating between a deep voice and a squeaky one.
"'GURRRR, I'LL EAT YOU RIGHT UP!' .... 'Oh no you won't!'... 'OH YES I WILL!'"
The shadows began to snap at each other, the rabbit successfully avoiding the monster's jaws at every turn.
"... You said you were sorry for getting us into this mess, James," Angela said after awhile, her gaze once again drifting over to their light. "... But really, I... I should apologize too. If I hadn't refused to stay in the car, we wouldn't be here."
"I'm sure you had your reasons, Angela," said James, gently. He wasn't mad anymore. He'd honestly stopped being mad after they'd been walking for a little while. His frustration had been as much a product of his own anxiety as it was of his annoyance at Angela's lack of cooperation. "Anyway, there's... not much point in dwelling on what we coulda done differently. It won't change anything."
"I know, but I probably could have just... shut up and handled it. It's not like... it's not like anything would have happened..."
She trailed off there, mouth pulling into a tiny frown before the lower half of her face disappeared into the sheltered of her arms, leaving just her squinting eyes and furrowed brows visible as she stared into the light.
Something about the way she said it caught James's attention. He glanced at her sidelong, feeling a frown of his own start to come on. Happened?
Once again, as though sensing his thoughts, Angela lifted her chin from the confines of her sweater sleeves and spoke. "... I've been to that town before. That one I circled on the map. It was a couple of months before I graduated from high school. I had... I had just turned eighteen. I was running away from home. I thought... I thought maybe since I was a legal adult, I could finally leave. Even that took months of slowly building up to as I waited for my birthday, but I convinced myself... stupid, stupid. I was so stupid to think.... a-anyway, I was... trying to get to Canada. ... I don't really know what I thought I'd do when I got there, but... I tried."
"... Is that... how you learned to hitch-hike?" James couldn't help but ask, even though he didn't want to interrupt. It surprised him to hear that she'd tried to run away. Not because she didn't have plenty to run away from, but just because she didn't seem a lot like Laura.
Angela shrugged, a sad smile crossing her face.
"If doing it for the first time counts as learning... I was desperate. I went with the first people who pulled over, told them something about going to see family across the border..."
"... Did... did ya make it?" James asked hesitantly, although he had a sinking feeling that he already knew the answer to that.
It was confirmed when she shook her head morosely.
"No. I'd already been gone for about four days... It was late when I got into the car, and I fell asleep in the backseat sometime during the night. ... When I woke up in the morning, I was being dragged out of the car by him."
James's heart sank. Oh, no...
The shadows seemed starker than ever on Angela's face as she continued, eyes shut tightly— the same way he shut his when a vivid, unwanted image from his past, whether it was Silent Hill or before, thrust itself into his brain.
"I knew he'd already have been looking for me, which was why I was scared to keep trying the buses... that I'd get off at a station somewhere and he'd already be there, waiting for me. I thought getting in a car with someone would be safer. ... I still don't know how he found me. The people driving... they must have... have made a phonecall while I was asleep.... They just stayed in the car and watched. ...Oh, God, he was so angry..."
She slumped then, head hanging, her hair hiding her face— James swallowed hard and sat in uncomfortable silence. He could see it so perfectly in his mind's eye. The tranquility of an early roadside morning shattered as the very creature she'd been trying to escape yanked her kicking and screaming out onto the asphalt, while the couple unknowingly enlisted to aid in her getaway stood by uncomfortably, realizing their good intentions had gone terribly wrong.
But if they realized it, they sure didn't stick their necks out for her afterwards, did they, uttered a murky voice in the back of James's head— the same voice that had given its two cents several times during his heated skirmish with Todd, the sicklight man. Maybe if one or both of them had gotten out and confronted Angela's father before he had a chance to leave with his recovered property in tow, she never would have been driven to do what she did. Maybe she'd never have ended up in Silent Hill, watching the world around her burn.
Bile rose in his throat and that was when realization dawned over him.
"... That's why you didn't want to sleep in the car... isn't it?"
Once more, she brought her arms up to wrap them around herself, clutching at her sleeves with knuckles like little white stones.
"... I'm sorry..."
"No, no, please d— you don't have to apologize. It's... I get it. I do!" he insisted, trying to resist the urge to clasp her shoulder. Hearing the story behind her behavior earlier was horrible, but it made everything seem clearer. So clear that it resonated with him in ways he could barely articulate. "There's things I can't do anymore, either. Sometimes they're stupid things, but... but they bring it right back. You know?"
She nodded, but when she spoke, her voice was dull.
"Because of what happened to you in that town?"
"... Well... mostly, yes, I guess." After a moment's thought, he bit his lip and rubbed the back of his neck. "I-I'm sorry... I shouldn't compare our situations. ... I... I guess you must've had a lot of things like that before Silent Hill even entered the picture, huh?"
She nodded again, but sighed and leaned back into the hay, crumbling a stalk of hay between her fingers and watching the pieces fall to the floor in a tiny golden pile that disappeared into her shadow. She may not have been happy, but at least she seemed to be relaxed. That was something.
"It doesn't really matter. If you know, you know, I suppose... anyway, I never tried to run away again after that. Even if I could have, I didn't... didn't really have the chance. After that, I couldn't even leave the house without permission. Even if it was just to take a walk. They only let me out to go to school... and once that was over, work. If I was home even twenty minutes late, I'd... well. It wasn't good. It wasn't good at all. If I... if I wanted to keep going out at all, I had to be careful..."
For all that he could relate, the specifics she was describing felt so foreign to James. Recalling his own high school days, he'd been mostly free to do as he wished. He could linger all he wanted before coming home— in fact, he was fairly certain that his father wouldn't have cared if he didn't show up at all, unless he got in at 3 AM and made a bunch of noise. Half the time he had nothing better to be doing than heading back to the apartment after school let out, but a trip to the drugstore for a soda or a half-hour spent pretending to do homework on the bleachers while the cheerleaders conveniently practiced nearby had been regular events.
No one had cared where he was at any given time.
What an existence Angela had lived... where the only people who did care only did for their own sick reasons.
The thought of rushing, every day, back to the hell she described— under threat of it getting even worse— was mind-boggling.
"... And no one knew? No one noticed?"
"No. Maybe... maybe some of them had suspicions. My father was always careful to keep me out of school until the bruises were gone, but there must have been days when he slipped up. But that was all they were, if they existed at all. Suspicions. ... It didn't matter either way." Eyes downcast, her voice went deep and sour. "If anyone knew, no one did anything about it. Not that that stopped him from assuming things every time I was the slightest bit late, even before I ran away... as if I would ever want anything to do with boys!"
Cheeks flushed, she gestured at the air with a clenched fist, injecting a gruff tone into her voice as she imitated her father.
"'I know what you're doing out there with all those little gringos, you're letting them have you. You dirty, dirty girl! Puta sucia, you must hate this family! Tú odias a su padre!'"
She finished her rant by spitting viciously at the hay-strewn floor, at approximately the spot where she herself would have been standing in this bygone interaction she was reenacting.
James swallowed hard. He hadn't understood half of that, but by the venom in her voice he was sure some of it had been profane and silently thanked whoever was listening up there that she hadn't said it in English, considering Laura's close proximity. All the same, listening to it made his gut twist.
"'Family comes first,' he'd say. 'Family comes first!' And he'd say it right in front of Mama, like he wasn't talking about the things we— ... h-he did!" Her voice cracked there and she lifted a hand to wipe at her eyes. The tears leaking out of them now had nothing to do with the beauty of rain. "She knew anyway. She always knew. But in those conversations, she would look away and pretend. Pretend that he was just talking about the priorities any daughter should have."
James scooted backwards in the hay until he could lean against a more solid lump of it, trying not to think too hard about the things Angela was referring to. He also tried not to look at her as she spoke; it felt too invasive, somehow, for a subject like this. Instead he just faced the light and listened.
"When I was a little girl..." she continued hollowly. "Our family was so normal. Or felt that way. Now, when I look back, I can see little things. Little signs that it was going the way it would go. But mostly... mostly it felt normal. Felt happy. Even when it started... I thought maybe it was just going to happen once. Since he said... he said it was to help me become a woman."
There was a pause... then her voice tightened again.
"I was only ten, and it was the biggest secret I'd ever had to keep... but I was wrong. It kept happening. Eventually it was happening every night. And after a few years..." A bitter, frightening noise that had the sound of a laugh but none of the substance escaped her. "... It was no secret in that house."
"... And your mother..." James murmured, feeling sick to his stomach.
"You know what my mother said." Hugging her knees, Angela stared forward flatly, her eyes practically burning a hole in the hay-strewn floors. For a second, he could almost swear he saw smoke rising from the spot— but it was only steam, wafting through the flashlight's glow. "Anyway... a few years later, she left. And when she left, it was just me and them. And both of them were... they..."
She cut herself off there, shaking her head furiously. Even now, she couldn't bring herself to say it, and James didn't blame her.
She carried on, forging ahead despite the tightness in her throat. Like she was trying to get it all out while she still had the cool, damp air for comfort. Before the fire returned.
"After high school, I got a job. A waitressing position, at a steakhouse in town. I thought maybe respectable work would make me feel better. ... Redeem me, after trying to run away. And I was so desperate. Anything to get me out of that house. Anything for a respite. ... But it wasn't. It was... it was horrible! The men there... I was nothing but meat to them. A juicy piece of meat being dangled in front of their noses, hung out for them to snap at like hungry dogs. And I felt like meat. Every day, coming home smelling like broiling steak, with pink handprints on my apron from where they put their juice-smeared hands every time I passed the table... The only ones who didn't were my father's friends and coworkers... and with them, it was only because they knew I was his, even if they didn't know the half of it. I hated it. I hated it! Pigs, they were all pigs!"
There was an extended silence while Angela fumed quietly for a moment and James squirmed uncomfortably in his seat. He'd never been the sort of man that Angela was describing, not even at his loneliest— but he'd seen the same behavior plenty of times, and never spoken up about it. It made him feel guilty by association.
"... And the boss was no better. He told me I should be flattered by it all. As if catching the eye of a bunch of slavering animals who'd grab at anything with a pair of breasts was some kind of achievement."
She shook her head slowly, a visible shudder of disgust running through her.
"He fired me, anyway. Took me aside one day and said that I made the customers uncomfortable when I didn't smile or laugh for them. Imagine that. Uncomfortable. I told him, I said, good, I'm glad they're uncomfortable! It took them physically putting their hands on me to make me uncomfortable, so if I could do the same thing just by not simpering like a bimbo for their idiot pleasure? Good! If that was all it took, they deserved it! That's what I told him. He fired me on the spot. Told me to hang up my apron and go home. So I did."
She let out a sharp huff, clearly fired up from recalling the incident. Once the vinegar went back out of her veins, her tone went dark and calm— but her eyes were still blazing.
"But on my way out, I took a knife with me. One from the kitchen. They had so many, I doubted they would miss one. ... And then that night... when Papa came into my room... there was nothing he could say when he saw the knife. He just laughed. Because he thought I didn't have the nerve to do it. Thought I was just bluffing."
Unfurling her fingers, she held her hands— hands that had undoubtedly once been covered in blood— up to the light. And then clenched her fists.
"But I wasn't. When he came at me... He looked so stupid and confused when the red started pouring out of him, dripping down onto his chest. Like he couldn't believe it. And he looked even more confused when I kept going. I kept going until he stopped moving. That was what he always did to ME, so I went and did it right back to him."
Her hands were shaking hard as she spoke, still holding them in front of her as though the knife she'd taken her father's life with— the knife James had thrown off the Overlook— were still in them.
"... And then I cried. I cried over his body. Is that strange? He was a monster and I hated him. But I still cried. Even though I was the one who killed him, and even though he was hurting me. It's not supposed to happen like that, is it?"
"I don't think it's so strange," murmured James despite himself, his thoughts drifting back to dark, cold places that he wanted to leave behind. Places where his breath turned to steam in front of him and the air smelled like salt licks.
"Hm," was her only reply to that, as though she had only half heard it. She stared into the light for awhile again. "... Afterwards, I went and took care of my brother. He was asleep and didn't see it coming. That was more wrong than killing Papa, I think. That one is why I'm in Hell. But... he was even crueler, sometimes. And... and sometimes... more and more... I would catch him looking at the little girl down the street. ... I... I couldn't let him..."
She trailed off into silence.
It stretched on between the pair of them, until James said quietly, "... I think you did the right thing."
They both knew that didn't mean a lot coming from a man like him, but Angela sniffed and whispered, "Thanks."
A low rumble of thunder rolled across the sky overhead, making its way east towards the far-off sea.
After a time, Angela shuddered slightly.
"... I'm a little cold, actually," she admitted. "... I'm... I'm happy the fire's gone, but... it's cold."
Sitting up straight, James started to roll the coat off of his shoulders. "You want my coat?"
"N-no... it's fine, I just... maybe..."
She ran her tongue across her lips, suddenly looking very nervous. Slowly— very slowly— she began to inch towards him. Then, once her shoulder was brushing his, she leaned into him with a feather-light touch, then incrementally more, like she was testing her weight on thin ice that could break at any moment.
Slightly stunned, James lifted an arm, preparing to put it around her, but she cut him off.
"No— don't. Don't touch me."
Instead of accepting an embrace, Angela proceeded to slip one arm around his, holding it first as though one might a slumbering snake— then more tightly when nothing unpleasant happened.
Shutting her eyes, she let out the breath she'd been holding in a long, shuddering sigh.
"... Better?" James asked after a moment, holding his arm as still as possible.
She considered, then nodded.
"Yes. A little."
James let his head loll back to rest on the straw, letting his eyes drift shut. With the way she was holding it, he could tell that his arm was going to fall asleep within moments— but maybe if he was lucky, he could beat it to the punch.
"Okay. I'm... m'gonna try and sleep. ... I-if I snore, just give me a poke, okay?"
The summer storm continued to thicken outside, the trio's presence announced only by a thin golden line of light where the door was still cracked. With Laura's humming in their ears, they settled back into the hay and waited for morning.
The air was a soft wash of fuzzy sports commentary seeping out of the radio, nestled on a folded dishcloth on the windowsill just like it always was. A book was wedged under the window to keep it open, allowing the steam a place to escape although it still breathed puffs of cloudy fog onto the glass as it slipped out.
Warm, comforting aromas caressed every surface in the room— newly-laundered linen, dish soap, fresh bread.
The floor smelled of lemons and still squeaked under her feet when she moved them.
Everything was clean, and lovely.
Just like it had always been.
Angela scooped a handful of suds from the mound of them that sat atop the dishwater and cradled it in her palms like an egg. The bubbles were almost as white as the loose baby tooth that still wiggled in the corner of her mouth, too stubborn to come out.
She turned to her mother, whose hands were still occupied wiping down the dishes and setting them in the rack to dry, and presented it to her.
Her mother looked down at her and smiled, drying her hands off on her apron before allowing Angela to deposit the suds into them. Then, still smiling, she lifted her hands up to her face and blew upon them, sending a portion of them floating freely into the air and drawing a peal of laughter from her daughter.
Gleefully, Angela reached out to collect more, only vaguely hearing the screen door slam out in the hallway behind them. Turning back to her mother, she raised her soapy hands to puff on them herself, only to freeze when she caught sight of the face now looking down on her.
The gentle affection upon it was gone, replaced by wide, livid eyes and a mouth twisted in disgust.
Baffled and heartbroken, Angela looked down at her hands.
There were no bubbles.
Instead, coating her fingers was a wet, foul-smelling tangle of coarse dark hair and half-clotted blood.
Her eyes filled with tears as they continued to travel downwards, seeing that the pristine floor below her feet was now covered in mud, a trampled splatter of smudged footprints and smears of red. Her legs were coated in filth, and she could feel a sharp pain throbbing between them.
Angela reached for her mother again, but the woman backed away, repulsed— lifting her apron clear of the mess.
Mama, what's happening? I don't understand.
She sensed more than saw the shadow that fell across her as a presence loomed behind, so close that she could feel the heat radiating from it, a heat very different from the clean, sweet-smelling steam wafting out the window.
A hand laid itself upon her hip.
Angela sat bolt upright with a sound somewhere between a wheeze and a whimper, blinking wildly through the tears that had started to spill from her eyes before they'd even opened. The pressure across her front tumbled down into her lap limply when she dropped her arms from around it, and she flung it away from herself with a strangled whine before the hand she'd felt brushing her waist could explore any new possibilities presented by being so close to where her legs parted.
It wasn't until she saw the flash of bright red on muted green on the flopping arm that the present rushed back to her, and the solid weight at her side registered as something other than the shadow from her dream.
The muffled scream that had been fighting to escape her throat promptly died there, and she grew still as the rest of her surroundings came trickling in, the afterwash of her nightmare slowly popping away like foam left in the wake of a wave.
Pale pre-dawn light crept downwards through the holes in the ceiling. It was too dim to pepper the floor with visible spots, but still light enough to glint softly off of the tousled golden hair of the man whose back was facing her, shoulders rising and falling in the slow, steady rhythm of deep sleep.
James Sunderland slept on, his face half-submerged in green timothy hay. A tuft of it fluttered by the corner of his mouth with each breath. He hadn't stirred even when his arm had been flung off of her like a venomous snake. It landed awkwardly on his other side, still twisted at a slightly odd angle that couldn't possibly been comfortable. But then, allowing her to squeeze it directly behind him as though it had first been wrestled behind his back in a stick-up couldn't have been comfortable, either. Still, he slept.
The expression on his face was peaceful. The sort of peace that could only be found in deep, dreamless sleep. The sort of peace that, if she'd been asked mere days ago, he didn't and would never deserve.
But things had changed, hadn't they.
Taking in deep breaths to encourage her stuttering heartbeat to slow, Angela sat there in the hay, slowly letting the sensations of the waking world reclaim her from the grip of the nightmare. The hay poking through her turtleneck was not a pleasant feeling, but it was still a welcome one. Coughing low in her throat, she wiped at the corners of her eyes until she felt her composure had fully returned.
Angela's nightmares were not and had never been a byproduct of Silent Hill-- they had been a permanent fixture in her life ever since the first night her father had told her she was old enough for him to teach her something very special.
For several long moments, Angela sat, keenly aware of the sound of her own ragged breathing in the silence of the barn, the quiver of her shoulders, and the puffs of steam in front of her. Summer still had a firm hold on the land, but here in the uninsulated shamble of the barn, they might as well not have been inside any walls at all. It wasn't until the paralyzation left in the wake of her dream finally trickled out of her that she felt safe to move at all, and she drew in a shaky breath, lifting a trembling hand to pull the strands of hair that had rearranged themselves over her face back behind her ear. And once that was done, she let the hand drop to her pocket, pressing the reassuringly-hard weight there against her thigh until it hurt, until she knew for sure it had not been removed during the night.
She was safe.
Throughout it all, James remained dead to the world, and now that the phantom humming from her nightmare world had finally departed, she could hear the rattling buzz of a small snore from the very back of his throat.
A week ago, bile would have filled her throat at the thought of having voluntarily slept alongside a man. Any man, actually-- but James in particular. He had been drawn to that town just as she had, and although she hadn't known him, not really , she had learned what he'd done and been completely unsurprised by it. Every man in her eyes was capable of the unthinkable, their scruples little more than something they wore to hide behind and fit in. Whether or not they were aware they were in a crowd of countless other wolves all dolled up as sheep too, her opinion fluctuated on. Sometimes society was so convincing that it genuinely did condemn it all, only to look the other way bashfully and hold its silence. Other times the world seemed to take outrageous pleasure in open cruelty; her already meager reserves of faith in humanity dwindled further and further every time a rough hand on her ass was met with clapping and cheers from the other tables who had been waiting with bated breath for her to walk past.
Her father had been a respected and well-liked man within the community. A true role model, raising two teenagers by himself when his good-for-nothing, probably-cheating wife left.
Angela wouldn't go so far as to say that nobody had known what he did in private.
But certainly, no one had ever gotten the urge to accuse him of anything worse than a sharp tongue when angered.
Her stomach tightened, bile threatening to flow up after all.
The hay crinkled around her sneakers as she slowly got to her feet, rubbing her arms for warmth against the chill last night's rain had brought with it. It wouldn't leave until the sun was well and truly up, and after a night spent curled in on herself, Angela's limbs were crying out to be stretched. The hay had all poked in through the wool of her sweater while she slept, too much for her to hope to get out in one go. But she hardly noticed the itching, instead making her way gingerly to the door and squeezing out into the open morning air, where she stood to the side with her hands on her knees, eyes shut and breathing heavily.
If she was going to throw up, she didn't want to do it inside where it might wake up the other two. At least out here it wouldn't stink.
But after a few moments and a wet cough or two, the nausea passed. Sucking in a long lungful of the cool morning air, she straightened up and opened her eyes again.
In the soft morning light, the little field was far more obviously unkempt than it had looked even the previous night. A haze of mist floated low to the ground, coating the clumpy weeds and long grass like a shroud of gossamer spiderwebs. That, too, was enough to make her inner organs lurch again, but she could tell this was the sort of fog that would burn off when the sun rose properly. Not like the thick, smokelike white walls that had billowed through the town, obscuring her vision and filling her nostrils with the smell of charred flesh. It was too low, too light, to be the same thing.
She could see clear across the field now, to the trees beyond. A broken fence lined the far side of the field, little clouds of insects starting to dance over the space in between, rejuvenated from the rain that had moistened the earth all night long.
Angela looked over her shoulder, at the dark little crack that led back inside, where her companions slept. Then back out across the field, uncertainty gnawing at her insides.
Back before her damnation, she had occasionally gone on early- morning walks-- early morning, sometimes even before the sun was even close to coming up, because that was the only time she could get away with it. Slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the stairs, ignoring the throbbing bruises from whatever had happened before her father had retired to his own bed, and then slipped outside to let the fresh air and complete solitude make her forget her life for just a few minutes.
But as the years passed, it became harder and harder to without watchful eyes seeing.
More and more her brother would be up at all odd hours, plastered to his computer screen where he watched grainy videos that took hours to download (the inconvenience of it meant that he would watch the same one for weeks sometimes, often enough that the slow bassline and exact order of the moans and obscene dialogue were burned into Angela's memory even though she did her best to ignore the sounds through the walls), usually not willing to stop her from leaving but fully prepared to tell their father that she had been out.
By the end, she honestly could not remember the last time she had left the house that wasn't to go to work or run extremely specific errands, so specific that her father had the exact cost of each grocery, the exact travel time from house to store, mechanically memorized and should the money she brought back be even one penny off, the time on the clock be even five minutes later from what it should have been, hell was to be paid. One way or another, he would collect what he believed was due.
She shifted from foot to foot, swallowing.
Her limbs still ached from walking the previous night, and she wondered how far they had actually gone. Their trek had seemed endless, and there had been no way to judge time whilst blundering around in the pitch darkness. But if they were to find a house like James had wanted to, the earlier they got started, the better. It couldn't hurt, could it, to look around.
If she thought very, very hard about it, it lightened her heart just a little, to remember that she could .
That she would not face some kind of horrible punishment for simply walking , as she had always been in danger of before. Even now, the guilt that always hovered at the edges of her mind threatened to close back in-- that sense, even without an active arbiter watching and judging her every action, that whatever she was doing, she shouldn't be doing it.
James had brought her this far, and had stayed good . He had not demanded any payment, anything in return for his expenditures, even though he had surely been taking a loss by caring for her in addition to the little Laura. She had waited, tensed and ready to run, to hear it for days before actually beginning to believe that he wouldn't. HAD he demanded recompense, she would have refused-- of course she would have. Her body had so little worth at this point, but she would clutch what tiny amount there was with all the ferocity of a starving dog with a scrap of bone, and if James or anybody else wanted to take it from her, she would either rip them to pieces or they could take it from her cold dead hands.
She was prepared to do that much, in more ways than one.
But the demand never came.
He had wanted her to come with him, and she hadn't had to. But even so, his seeming lack demand so far was... a pleasant and reassuring surprise.
Such a thing was barely worthy of reward, and the thought that it should be made Angela mask a mirthless laugh to herself and curl her lip in disgust. But even so...
She wanted to do something in return.
This, too, surprised her.
But it was what it was.
Was there any point in questioning it?
She looked out across the field again, fingers plucking at the hem of her sweater.
She took a step.
Then laughed, a sudden and startling, high-pitched sound in the meadow's silence, and turned around to carefully and apologetically squeeze back through the gap and into the barn.
She went in and out of the building a total of three times before finally deciding for sure that she would do it.
In the end, it took several deep lungfuls of air. Air to prove to herself that the smell of last night's rain-- James's rain-- was still real, that it hadn't been replaced during the night by the dry, smokey haze that she had seen nothing else but for almost longer than she could remember.
The first proper step away from the barn drew another laugh out of her, this one relieved.
Her foot had sunk down into the earth when she pressed it there, and she could feel a cold wetness seeping upwards into her sock, through the sole of her tennis shoe. Instead of yanking her foot back up like she was sure the 'normal' response would probably be, she ground it in deeper, sighing happily. Yes, it was still here. Still wet. No scorched earth and heavy, gravelly ashes.
... But another step, just to be sure.
When she was finally sure, Angela shook herself, and started off across the field, lifting her feet high to avoid trudging through the thickest of the undergrowth. It was tick season, after all. Growing up one step away from the woods had taught her all that a New England child should know about Lyme Disease.
A soft chuff of laughter escaped her at the memory of the previous night, the instinctive worry that had risen in her as Laura had boldly tromped through the miniature, knee-high jungle of plant life. She'd held her tongue-- it wasn't her place to scold the girl, and after all, she was wearing white tights that would be easy to spot ticks on. But it had been an interesting feeling. Those protective urges.
The last time she'd felt those had been...
No, she didn't want to think about that little girl down the street.
She was safe now, and Angela would never see her again.
Slowing down, Angela shielded her eyes and looked out across at the road. She was almost to the road, and now that it was light out, she could see that there were tire tracks in the dirt-- just enough for one vehicle, but they were there , and the rain hadn't washed them away, so they couldn't have been that old.
It was definitely too early to go knocking on any doors-- out in old country like this, the kind Angela was intimately familiar with, people got up early, but not this early. And sleep was sleep-- the world wasn't awake at all hours like in the cities. But if she could find a house, she could at least report back with the full knowledge and satisfaction that they would know the right direction to go in, once James and Laura awoke.
The shout came from directly behind her.
A wild inhaling gasp almost seemed to burn her throat as she sucked it in, whirling around. Only to find no one . Breathing raggedly, she stared out at the empty field for a second, until a second exclamation made her look down.
"You weren't in the barn! I said good morning but you just walked off!"
It was Laura.
Her silver-blond hair was full of hay and her little dress was rumpled, but her eyes were bright and alert.
Angela clutched a hand at her heart, trying to calm it. If the nightmare hadn't jolted all her nerves awake, that sure would have in its place. Now she felt doubly awake.
"Laura... I... I didn't hear you... y- you..."
"Did I scare you?" She seemed delighted at the prospect, clapping her hands together and giggling. Angela found herself trying to respond in kind, but managed only a feeble smile in return.
"Y... yes, you did. I wasn't expecting you to... follow me."
"I wanted t' see where you were goin'! Where are you going?"
"Oh, I..." Angela swallowed, shifting uneasily and trying to quash the guilt creeping back in. Laura seemed to be healthily curious, almost conspiriatory. Not angry. Not interrogating. But it was so hard not to think about it like that. Like she'd been caught doing something she wasn't supposed to.
Like she was mounting the front door steps to her house and opening the door to find her father waiting at the foot of the stairs, eyes full of fire, and her brother peering smugly out from his room upstairs, eager to witness whatever was going to happen.
A little girl in a sweater big enough on her to be a dress shouldn't be able to evoke those memories.
But god, they came on anyway.
"I was just... I thought I would walk down the road a little bit. To... to see if I could find a house, now that it's light out. I... I thought I would get back before you and James woke up... since you always, um... seem to like sleeping in."
"Oh, only JAMES does THAT! I hate sleeping in, it's so boring. Don't you think it's boring?"
"I suppose so..."
Angela also hated sleeping in. Mostly because staying in bed only reminded her of what the bed was used for. It saw more of something else than it saw of sleep.
She looked over her shoulder at the little barn, hating that she couldn't command her guilty conscience to leave her be, to go back over there and curl up next to
James if it wanted to stay in one spot so badly, to let her make herself useful of her own volition for once.
But her willpower had been knocked off-kilter by Laura suddenly joining the equation. She had encouraged herself to take that first step across the meadow by thinking of being alone with the quiet of the morning. Now it was Different. Not even different in a bad way, just different , which translated to bad whether she liked it or not.
Laura was sweet, and her sometimes-constant chatter was a welcome reprieve from the hateful choir in her own head.
But quiet wasn't always oppressive, and this morning, Angela found herself in dire need of some of it.
James had made it abundantly clear that as much as he wanted her around, he did not like the idea of the two of them alone. It had made her angry at the time, which it had first come to the surface. But his worry was contagious, the more she thought about it.
She wasn't all right, after all.
Neither was he, but he seemed more all-right than she was.
He could be right.
Her arms moved up to hug themselves without her even realizing it.
"W- well... now that we're both up, we could... go back, and I could... keep you company. Th- ... then we can all leave together. How does that sound?"
"What? I don't wanna stay in there , I wanna walk out here with you! "
Laura beamed up at Angela, looking for all the world like one of the children in the stock potraits you see in yearbook photography advertisements; blond, blue-eyed, and rosy-cheeked. Angela's second reserve of resolve wilted in the face of it.
"I... I suppose we could..."
The words had barely left her mouth before Laura had already sprung into a skip, bouncing happily off through the undergrowth, the fog spinning into nothingness.
She was without a care in the world. Like Bambi charging into the meadow without waiting for his mother to ascertain whether or not there was danger.
Accordingly, Angela's heart jolted in her chest just like Bambi's mother must have.
But they were not deer, they were girls, and there was not a soul to be found out and about with them, friendly or otherwise.
"H-hey, just wait now..." Trying to hasten her pace, Angela moved to catch up.
"I couldn't sleep last night, so I just sat and made up stories," Laura told her proudly once they were side by side again. "I made one up about a bunny and a monster. Then I made one up about a dog who was from space, so none of the other dogs liked him. But it was okay, because he had a spaceship and a ray gun, and the other dogs didn't."
"Oh, that's... that's nice..." Angela commented feebly, trying to find comfort in the continuing squelch of the wet earth below her feet.
"Yup! I think maybe I should be a writer when I grow up. I'm very good at stories. Everyone at the orphanage said so. Especially the Sisters, when I was trying to tell them why I shouldn't be in trouble. That's when they said I came up with my best stories."
It quickly became clear that Laura was more than happy to carry a conversation by herself, which was fine, because just as quickly, Angela was realizing she didn't want to talk at all.
The brief fire of determination that had flickered in her earlier had burned down to ashes again, and with its departure came the sickly twinge of guilt from earlier. Listening to Laura's chatter usually helped to drive it away, but it wasn't working as well this morning.
Her hands found their way downwards from where they'd clutched her elbows, down to wrap around her stomach.
She found herself wishing they had gone back to the barn, and was simultaneously ashamed of both having the thought and also of not obeying it. Laura's words, which she usually paid attention to, had faded almost to an incomprehensible buzzing in the background, and by the time she finally said something that actually caught Angela's attention, Angela had very nearly sunken into a dark whirlpool of guilty thoughts.
Snapped out of it, Angela looked up.
"What?" she said, almost breathlessly.
Laura was pointing.
"Look!" she said again.
This time, Angela looked up.
The darkened windows peeked out of the trees like wary owls' eyes from a sheltered knothole, set in white siding. They looked old, but not abandoned like the barn back across the field.
Laura remained pointing, still wearing her smile. She was clearly very pleased with her find, and the fact that she had spotted it first.
"A house!" she beamed, proudly. "I told you we'd find one! We didn't even have to leave the meadow! Wait'll we tell James! He might even smile. He never does that. "
Finally lowering her pointing finger, she plopped her hands onto her waist and puffed out a satisfied breath. She watched it steam in front of her before looking back over to Angela at last.
"I said , wait'll we tell James! ... Angela? ... Angel-ah!"
Angela had frozen in place, her skin as ashen as her insides.
It wasn't so uncommon, her brain told her. It had been repeating those words on loop, playing almost eight times in the past five seconds, like a recording. The layout and structure of the house was all over the woody northeastern countryside, sometimes so much so that her mother had jokingly referred to them as "country condos", back when her mother had still made jokes. Even the siding was was not the same, white instead of unpainted rustic wood.
That did not change the fact that she was looking up at her own house.
The Orosco home, occupied by Thomas Orosco (previously Tomas, before immigration and a name change to better assimilate) and his wife and children since [date].
The very same windows had looked down on her as her father had led her by the hand across the backyard the day after her tenth birthday, towards the garden shed. He would shut the door behind them, and when they came back out fifteen minutes later, the windows had turned from simply windows into dark, disappointed eyes.
That was the last day her house had been home rather than a prison.
"Angel-ah? What's wrong?"
She could not tear her eyes from the windows in order to look at Laura. They were trapped in that gaze as inescapably as if she was eye to eye with a basilisk.
"Nothing," she said, but her voice came out as a whisper, faint and barely audible even to her own ears.
The sights, sounds, and smells were all coming back. Tormentation by her endless gallery of painful and unwanted memories was nothing new, but none had visited her this vividly since leaving Silent Hill and escaping the constant threat of meeting her demons in the flesh. But this particular one was not one that she'd remembered any time recently.
Now she could.
She could remember the leaves crunching underfoot on her way to the shed.
It had been autumn.
After he had finished, her father had gone back to his yardwork almost as if nothing had happened, raking up the leaves with a vigorous energy, as though refreshed and rejuvenated. He'd told her to go help Mama with the dishes, and she had obeyed without a second thought.
She watched him through the window as she lathered the plates and mugs up with dish-soap; watched as he collected every last fallen leaf into a pile and tossed a match into it, sending a dark pillar into the sky and filling the yard with the smell of smoke, which crept in and up into Angela's nostrils through the gap in the sill. It was as he was lighting up a cigarette that he looked up and caught her eye.
He had smiled and nodded, reaffirming the secret that they were now keeping.
Beside her, her mother had gathered up a handful of bubbles and nudged her attention back, before blowing them into the air and laughing. Normally this would have made her laugh, too.
But that day, she had only forced a smile and then gone back to work, discreetly pulling down the hem of her shirt to hide the thumb-shaped bruises on her tiny hips, still bony with youth and not yet showing the soft broadness of the womanhood her father had described for her. Wondering all the while why, if what Papa had done with her in the shed had been normal, did she feel so sick and filthy?
Beside her, Laura's smile had disappeared. The little girl had been speaking, her head cocked to the side with a furrow in her brow that never spent much time there under normal circumstances.
Something about how they should go knock on the door of the house.
But it all sounded very far away, and even though the words crept into her ears like little caterpillars, their insistence was lost. Her senses were too occupied to pay any attention.
In her mind's eye, she watched the smoke from the leafpile billow and expand. It rose in pale curls from the leaves, like little spirits making the migration up towards heaven, then darkened , turning blacker and blacker the higher it got, spreading like a bruise across the blue sky. She could see it filling the entire yard. It hadn't, in reality-- burning leaves never did, unless the person burning them really had no idea what they were doing, and Papa knew his way around yard maintenence. His leaf- burnings were always tidy and responsibly extinguished if they burned too out- of -control. But still it spilled outwards, gushing into the windows and right out of the realm of memory, thickening the air all around her. The trees fell out of focus as it rose-- but it never rose higher than the windows, which continued to stare down at her.
And they judged.
They had seen it all.
They knew she had earned her place in Hell.
James floated up from sleep slowly, and first without opening his eyes.
The only thing he was immediately conscious of-- before touch, before smell, before even the soft gray light that crept in between his cracked eyelids-- was birdsong. It was different from the canned tweets and chirps that occasionally played on loop in hotel lobbies run by people who James didn't know who they thought they were fooling. The real stuff was louder and honestly made an even better alarm.
The chatters and rustling of a flock of sparrows darting in and out of some bush that had the bad luck to be touching the side of the barn was what drew James's brain back into the world of the wakeful, and only once it was there did the other sensations begin to drip back in.
He was lying on his side, deeply nestled in scratchy hay that crackled against his cheek and into the sensitive spots of his neck. One arm was crushed tightly to his chest while the other laid awkwardly at his hip. Both were soundly asleep, unlike the brain connected to them, and felt as alien as if someone had stolen them away and replaced them with a pair of fat, useless sausages.
For quite some time, he simply laid there, gazing with lazy, out of focus eyes at the grain bins on the other side of his barely- even- makeshift bed. The parts of him that weren't numb were stiff and sore, and the chilly morning air nipped at the skin on his face. But it was warm inside his coat. And, even more remarkably, he realized that for the first time in weeks... he had woken up normally. Not been torn from a nightmare and left flailing in the sudden light of day when only minutes before he had been navigating an eternal night filled with hungry streets and even hungrier mouths.
In fact, he barely remembered falling asleep at all. He hadn't once woken up in an electric jolt of terror in the middle of the night, something that he always managed to do these days.
How ironic that the first good night of sleep he'd gotten in months was in this moldy old barn rather than a proper bed in a proper building in a proper patch of civilization.
He let his eyes slip shut again, just for a moment, relishing the prickle of feeling returning to his fingertips as well as the tiny haven of warmth that the coat provided... then finally sat up, reaching up to rub the gunk from their corners and pick hay from his hair. His head felt like his Oldsmobile, held together mostly on hope and running on a leaky tank of gas. But better than it had been the night before.
“Mmmh... Laura? A- .. aahngela?”
He looked around, not bothering to fight the yawn that snuck in halfway through his inquiry, sleepy brain sputtering like the aforementioned old car to get itself up to speed.
The barn was no longer a dark cave of spiderwebs and splinters, but a shrine to older days, lit by a cloudy gray light filtering in from outside.
He was, however, alone.
There was no sign of his two companions anywhere besides two shallow depressions in the hay on either side of them, one larger than the other. Laura must have wandered back to sleep beside them at some point in the night.
The residents of the rafters above had vacated, and sparrow activity aside, there were no more rodentine rustles from the corners. Wisps of cobweb wafted gently from the ceiling, and a gentle breeze was making wet foliage swish against the tin roof.
The flashlight was still on, its little bulb which had been so radiant and comforting the previous night now just a dull yellow spot against the ground where it lay alongside the few things they'd brought with them from the car.
James reached out to pick it up and turn it off (batteries were expensive), rolling his shoulders with a grimace. They cracked as loud as if they were breaking, and the brief and powerful longing for a hot shower to drive the chill from his bones washed over him. But that would have to wait, possibly for awhile. Even so, the prospect of even the worst- case scenario-- the long walk back to the last town they'd been in-- seemed less daunting than it had the night before.
“Guys?” he called out again, getting to his feet with a hand propped on his knee. He dusted off the rear of his jeans for hay and began to totter over to the three- quarters- of- the- way- shut door. Scraping it open any further would take more effort than he felt like putting into it after the night they'd all had, so he squeezed through with a grunt but otherwise surprisingly- little difficulty. Apparently living on breakfasts and very little else was great for the waistline, if not for the canker- sores perpetually setting up shop in his mouth.
Squinting in the light of the open meadow, James shaded his eyes for a moment, waiting for his eyes to catch up with the times. The sun was not yet all the way up-- but the sky had lightened to a moist, pale gray and the wet greens of the field were frosted seafoam by the wash of mist covering them.
The sight should have set alarm bells off in his head, no matter how tired he was. Silent Hill's behavioral conditioning was brutally effective to a degree that would have made [that one scientist who programmed his own son to be terrified of rats what a fucking asshole] faint in euphoria, so strong a reaction now produced by the sight of fog.
But they did not.
He stepped out into the meadow, turning his head this way and that to look for any sign of the girls. Surely they hadn't left without him-- the gas can and flashlight had been left behind, and while he had seriously entertained such a possibility right after Angela had joined them, he didn't think she'd do it now . Not after the talk they'd had last night.
And then he heard it-- voices from around the corner. Or a voice, anyway. Indistinct, but definitely Laura's enthusiastic morning babble. For the life of him, James's sad leaky brain couldn't retain even a fraction of the many subjects Laura could cover in the space of one morning conversation, but by now he'd recognize the sound of it anywhere.
Damp earth squelching under his boots (still wet from last night... boy would that be fun to deal with on the long walk ahead), he started to head in the direction the sound was coming from, picking his way around clumps of overgrown weeds and small bushes. As he got closer, the sounds sharpened and became words.
“--gel-ah, are we gonna go knock on the door? Huh? … Are we? … If you're afraid, I can always go knock. I'm not afraid of a house. The barn was scarier than that. … I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna knock!”
James rounded the corner, and saw Angela's stock-still outline immediately.
She was standing with her back facing the barn, at the far end of the field, mere feet away from where the open ground ended and became forest. Her head was not turning, not even inclining towards Laura's voice. She was staring straight ahead; as though transfixed.
And that was set off the alarm bells.
Because while Angela was honestly not much of a mover, seemingly content to stay still and melt into the background for long periods of time, James could tell immediately that she was not standing at ease and admiring the lush summer foliage.
She was frozen like a rabbit who had just been passed over by the shadow of a hawk.
“I said I was gonna knock!” Laura's voice had taken on an insistent pout, and she stepped forward to tug at Angela's sleeve, to no reaction or avail.
James was too far away to hear her indignant puff, but he could see it, as Laura tossed her head resolutely, her bright ponytail flashing in the mist like the fleeing end of a whitetail fawn.
“Well, here I go!”
Without further chatter, she stepped into the trees, making to tromp towards-- was that a house? Yes, a house nestled there in the trees that they must have passed in the night without even realizing, so well- hidden it was.
Relief briefly lifted James's heart from the gnawing worry that Angela's frozen profile in the fog had awakened, and he started forward to join them, clearing the accumulated gunk of sleep out of his throat so that he could tell Laura to wait.
That was when it happened.
A branch on the ground caught the toe of one of Laura's shoes, making her bring her foot down on it hard enough to snap, the sound ringing out and breaking the morning quiet. She stumbled, rattling a bush as she grabbed at it for balance.
Then the air exploded with sound-- a harsh chorus of CHWEE CHWEE CHWEE and a mass fluttering of tiny wings as the bush exploded in a flurry of feathers. She had disturbed a flock previously taking shelter in the underbrush and out it came, whirring upwards in a chattering mass and perhaps seeking a more undisturbed spot on the other side of the meadow.
Laura gasped sharply, overbalancing and landing on her rear in brush that almost came up to her nose when sitting, eyes so wide that they almost reflected the birds, even to James, half the meadow away.
It was a magnificent sight to see, the tornado of tiny dark bodies spiraling up into the air.
Or it would have been, if Angela had not been directly in their path.
A high, vibrating scream tore out of her, taking the pieces of silence left by Laura's stumble and shattering them even further. When the stream of birds didn't stop, the scream turned gibbering and terrified and she started to thrash, flailing against the onslaught and staggering backwards. A fall was inevitable, and she landed hard on the cold, soggy ground-- her arms were too busy swatting and flailing at the birds to catch herself. Too frantic to stay down, even though the birds had mostly streamed past and dispersed into the sky, Angela quickly scrambled upright, still swatting and turning in circles as though the flurry was still darting around her head.
Dark blots of mud colored her previously-clean sweater, streaked across her elbows and rear. James was too far away to see the tears, but he could hear the sobs leaking out of her throat in a high whine.
He started forward again, hoping it wouldn't be too hard to calm her down, wishing that this morning could have started with something other than a crisis.
Laura, too, was approaching; having gotten back to her own feet, she was wearing a broad, incredulous grin. She'd always been one to bounce back quickly from a fright, and she seemed almost fascinated by Angela's continued hysterics.
“WOW! That was a LOT of birds!” she exclaimed, oblivious to her friend's genuine distress. “You shoulda seen the look on your face!”
Angela didn't seem to hear her. She was still swiping at the now-empty air, eyes shut tight and face screwed up, teeth clenched, cringing away from her nonexistent assailants.
The sight was heartbreaking-- but as James hurried towards them, he saw something that made his heart stop.
His throat grew tight and he broke into a jog.
“LAURA! Laura, stay away, she's not playing!!”
The girl blinked over her shoulder at him in surprise, apparently noticing his presence for the very first time. But she had already raised her arm to touch, to tug on Angela's soiled sweater, and she carried through with it nonetheless, even though Angela was already whirling around to face her.
A flash of sharp silver glinted in the pre-sun light.
Repeated squelches of soggy grass and ragged breathing. Twin points of tight pain on his shoulders were two small hands were gripping for dear life.
James had Laura bundled in his arms, and he was sprinting faster than he had ever gone since leaving Silent Hill, adrenaline temporarily erasing his body's weeks worth of muscle memory of pain and exhaustion.
It was the first time he had ever carried her anywhere without a struggle-- physical touch was just something that didn't happen between them, unless it involved her hitting or kicking him for whatever reason she'd decided on that day.
But he was barely thinking about that, and he could tell she wasn't either.
Her arms were around his neck, and she was staring over his shoulder in a horror that she had not worn since that night in the bar.
“W- what's wrong with A—ang—why-- why did she--?!”
Her eyes were on the shrinking figure of Angela behind them. His were on the barn.
“No time to explain-- just--”
The strike had whistled about an inch over Laura's head, the displaced air making the bright, messy strands of hair that always escaped from her ponytail flutter like long grass in a gale.
James had watched it as though in slow motion, feeling as though a trapdoor to nothingness had opened at the bottom of his body and allowed all his insides to plummet straight down into the void. But by some miracle, he had spurred himself into motion instead of freezing, and just as Angela had angled back her arm for another swing, he had ducked in to scoop Laura up and throw her over his shoulder. And then he had run like he never had before, making for the opposite side of the meadow.
It was as he ran that his brain jerkily processed what he had seen, and those lost insides came back, filled with lead.
He knew exactly where the knife now in Angela's hand had come from, with its little wooden handle and slightly- serrated edge.
He had watched her help cut a little piece off of her chicken for Laura to try with it.
Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised him.
Perhaps he should have expected her to take that little bit of insurance with her, just in case her growing trust turned out to be misplaced.
Perhaps she'd thought she might need it sometime in the night, if James Sunderland turned out to be a liar.
Perhaps he had no right to feel the cruel ripping sensation in his chest brought on by the realization.
But he did anyway.
Lightheaded, he stumbled to a halt finally, after crashing between a pair of bushes. They had reached the forest's edge, and James took a quick look around, breathing sharply with his jaw slack like a dog. The sprint from one side of the meadow to the other had taken less than a minute, but his lungs were still burning up. Less than ten minutes ago, he had been sound asleep. But any remnants of the deep, dark waters he had been floating comfortably in had been purged from his system by the sharp spikes of nerves shooting through his every inch.
Chest heaving, he set Laura down behind one of the bushes; the bigger of the two. The best one to hide behind.
“Just stay! I'll be right back!”
He had already turned, was already squeezing back out onto open ground and breaking into a run again. There was no time to stop and think about it. Only time to act.
The scarecrow-like figure of the young woman was still swaying where they had left it-- for all that his old flight drive instincts from fleeing monsters had kicked right back in, she had not been pursuing them. She had wrapped an arm around herself and was still choking out sobs, turning in place and slashing at the air around her. Not even a feather remained of the flock that had startled her-- she was fighting something else. Something only she could see.
The blade flashed in her fingers.
James could already feel his knees starting to buckle as he reached her, and he didn't think it was just his body failing him. He staggered to a stop at a small distance, out of striking radius. He hoped.
“ Angela! It's okay... it's okay, it's okay, there's-- there's nothing there.”
A humming whine like an out of tune violin rose in her throat and she slashed in a sharp, decisive swing that made his skin prickle and his already- taxed heart jitter. He sucked in a breath through his teeth, which he realized too late were already bared in a grin of alarm. Hiding them quickly, he tried to steel himself. Tried to slow that manic heart. He couldn't let the panic show-- that could only make this worse than it already was. Which, there was no way to deny it, was catastrophically bad.
And god, it had gotten that way in a matter of seconds.
“Angela, it was only birds... just some birds... it's going to be okay. It's going to be okay.”
If he had been just a fraction slower...
“It's going to be okay.”
The words were absolutely as much to convince him as to convince her. And they weren't working, on either front.
She shook her head furiously, not looking at him. Even as she turned to face him, she whipped her head away , sharply to the left, to the right, even down.
“No. No, no, no,” she mumbled, breathlessly. Her lungs were working in sharp, huffing gasps and making her shoulders twitch and convulse. She was hyperventilating. “No, no, it's NOT OKAY! It's not!”
James could feel the rims of his eyes starting to sting.
“Okay! O-okay, it's NOT okay, but... but Angela, you... you gotta calm down!”
“NO!” She whirled, brandishing the knife-- and yes, it was a knife , despite his hopes that he had somehow been seeing things this whole time-- at him, and the sick wave of hurt and betrayal washed over him again.
He'd thought they were doing so well.
And yet she'd had that the entire time.
Part of him felt like he couldn't fathom how she'd managed to take it with her without being noticed. But realistically, how much attention had he actually been paying? She had taken the knife she'd carried in Silent Hill from a restaurant, too. The one she'd killed her father and brother with.
They had deserved to die.
But its use had never been going to stop there, had it.
She had sounded so disappointed when he told her he didn't have it anymore.
“Angela...” he said slowly, unable to extinguish the shake in his voice. “Angela, put the knife down.”
Her knuckles whitened on its handle in response. Her teeth were gritted hard enough to bring out the tendons in her neck like ropes. She was looking at him now, and he could see her face was wet with tears. Her eyes held a desperation he hadn't seen in them since the piston room, when the lumbering, monstrous form of her father had been looming over her.
Her lip was quivering.
“ Yes, you can,” James breathed, trying with every fiber in his body to sound encouraging instead of desperate, himself. “It's gonna be okay. H-- … the monsters are gone , remember? They c- can't hurt you now. So... please... just put it down. Please...”
“No ,” she choked out in a hushed hiss, backing away with the knife still held out in front of her. The hand bearing it was shaking, too. “Don't... don't you see it? Can't you?”
When all he did was stare at her in blank, helpless worry, brows folded like bent forks, she shook her head at him again. More tears were coursing down her cheeks now, thick and pearly in the morning light.
“James,” she whispered tearfully, shaking like a leaf, “can't you smell the smoke? ”
He had been breathing so hard the entire time, too distracted to focus on anything but getting the air in and out of him. Certainly not on what was carried on each breath, which up until this point had only been the ripe, marshy smell of the meadow earth.
He opened his mouth to say no.
But then he did.
A deep, wooden scent curled up into his nostrils-- like someone was burning leaves and twigs nearby. But there were no fires in this damp summer- soaked field.
“... No,” he finally stammered.
But too late-- she had already seen the answer in his eyes.
“ See! ” she hissed through her teeth, the knife shaking. She was holding it with both hands now, knuckles clamped down around the handle like white teeth. “You were wrong! We were all wrong-- there's no escape. Not for us. It always comes back! It always comes back!”
The stinging in his eyes had turned to watering. Had it been tears before? Or had the smoke been getting into them before he even knew it was there? Was that why his lungs had been burning?
No-- no, there was NO fire nearby.
So why could he smell it?
Why could he smell it?
No, this had to stop. He had to stop.
The bed in the hotel room hadn't grown legs and an appetite for flesh.
The screaming voice in the woods had not been a monster.
And there was no god damn fire in this field.
James took his voice in both proverbial hands and forced it to steady.
“Angela... I'm telling the truth. I... I don't know how to fix everything... b- but I know you gotta... you gotta put the knife down. Just... put it down. You handed it to me once before... remember? Back there, in the town. H- … how hard was that?”
To his immense relief, he saw Angela's quaking shoulders begin to still. Her arms lowered, ever so slightly.
“ Yeah! Yes, you can-- you can do it. Just... hand it to me, nice and slow...”
Lip still trembling, Angela looked down at the knife, then extended her arm forward.
James forgot himself, and reached out to take it.
A blinding, searing pain opened up across his brow.
James found himself staggering backwards in shock. Something hot trickled down into his eye. It stung even harder than the smoke. Slowly, he brought a trembling hand to his forehead.
It came away painted a deep red that he hadn't seen in months.
He stared at it in dumb disbelief.
“... You... you cut me...”
She had screamed at him and hurled epithets, she had shaken aggressive fists and smacked his hands away, but she had never attacked him. Not even with the knife she took the lives of her father and brother with.
Folding in on herself, she shrank away, but even the apologies that normally would come bubbling out of her mouth like water from a leaking faucet were long gone. Her eyes gleamed in directionless terror and the knife, its stainless steel now reddened with the vital fluids of a human being just like her last one had been, was clutched in fingers as pale and tight as ever.
“No... no... no podemos escapar ...” she moaned, a low and agonized sound. “It's too late for us.”
“You cut me,” repeated James dumbly. He could feel the blood dribbling down his cheek. The green of the field had begun to blot over in crimson, where it flowed into that one eye.
“Can't you see?! ” cried Angela despairingly. She had paused from her swaying and turning, that wild- tiger pacing and circling, and was now standing in front of him with her shaking arms spread almost beseechingly, the bloodied knife pointing up at the sky. “There's no ESCAPE! James, can't you see it? CAN'T YOU UNDERSTAND? Estamos en el INFIERNO! ”
And she looked past him, staring straight over his shoulder, with the color draining from her face even as the light-- a hot, sanguine light-- washed over it. Her eyes went wide, her face contorted in sheer terror at whatever it was she beheld. She brought the knife up again, this time to point. And then she screamed.
No soothing, grounding words came springing to his tongue.
For all that he'd tried, he wasn't sure there was one.
Because at that very moment, with his eyes clouded by blood and palm painted by the same, the first rays of sunlight crept through the trees behind him, casting a dazzling, blazing reflection on the windows of a house that he hadn't even noticed poking out of the woods he was facing.
They were red.
“... Ah... ah... a- ah...” James croaked, feeling his knees buckle for real.
Tendrils of smoke crept upwards from the earth all around them, the morning dew hissing as it sizzled out of existence. The lush tangles of brush and weeds browned and withered, sinking to the ground in silence, their death eerily fast and without any fanfare except for the pounding of his own heart.
“Do you see it? You see it, don't you?! YOU SEE IT! YOU SEE IT, ” wailed Angela.
The fiery light framed her like an infernal halo, and its glow through the trees seemed to flicker. The sun had been rising behind him seconds ago, but it somehow crept along the horizon in every direction until it surrounded them in a ring. Leaves snapped and crackled. They had to be burning.
James's weakened legs carried him backwards a few steps. He had lifted his hand in front of him, to shield his reddened and watering eyes from the light-- but the thick scarlet coating on his fingers seemed to blare even harder than the horrible light, which was stretching out across the field now, in creeping red tendrils through the dead grass.
The thumping of his heart grew louder and louder, until each beat seemed to thunder through the ground, vibrating the scorched earth under his feet. His brain knew it was just in his chest, that it was just the fist- sized muscle that fed blood to the rest of him and was currently pushing it out of him in heavy trickles that dripped off his chin and into his mouth like coppery rivers extending on the wrong side of his skin , that its pounding was nothing more than his body trying to stay alive... but his head, as suddenly and surely as a siren wailing, knew something different.
The thumping belonged to a pair of boots.
They were miles away, but they were turned in his direction.
And they were coming.
“Aaaah... ahaa-aahh... haah... haaaAAAAAH! AAAAAAAAAUH!! ”
A second scream had joined Angela's, and it was coming from him.
Because now he saw it through the back of his own skull like the veins in your eyes after seeing a bright flash of light head-on, impossibly far away but still close enough to touch: a helmet of strange and eldritch construction-- triangular, enormous, and red as the blood that was pouring from his head. And silhouetted against the light-- a line that tapered into a wickedly sharp point, held in a hand that was as mighty and unmovable as a padlock.
The wail of sirens exploded into his ears, and the creeping streaks of red flowed out of the trees and into his eyes until it was all that he could see.
James hit the ground before he even knew he was falling.
He had landed at Angela's feet-- she was screaming and thrashing at the air again, knife flashing vermilion as she slashed it wildly in every direction. Pain exploded through his senses as she trampled straight over him, not purposefully but hardly even seeing him there. She was busy fighting something. Something he could no longer tell if it was real or imagined.
For a few seconds, all he could do was writhe there in the dead brush, entire body convulsing with every deafening step of those far- off boots.
The red came in again, so thickly that it went black.
Then it was gone again.
Green grass and wet soil came up under his fingers as he clawed at it.
It was only when his vision cleared that he even realized he was moving-- that he had somehow made it to his hands and knees and was now crawling desperately across the field-- a field returned somehow to life.
The smoke and bloody red sunlight had faded-- but he could still feel the blood come pattering off of his face and painting the grass below, still hear the sirens and Angela's hoarse shrieks behind him. The sound struck a note of frantic terror-- not as delirious as what the terrible deafening marching had elicited, but primal, instinctive -- into him and he tried to rise several times, only to nearly faceplant straight into the earth every time.
He couldn't do it.
The entire field swam around him as he dragged himself on shaking arms, breath so shallow that he wasn't even sure he was getting air at all.
The whoop of a siren blatted out what felt like inches from his ear, and flashing lights dancing in the corners of his vision made him wheeze and scramble harder, clambering on all fours like an animal until he had finally reached the edge of the woods, the trees and their blessedly dark shelter.
And that was where he collapsed, tears in his eyes and a sob in his throat.
But his head had no sooner hit the cool, moist earth than Laura was already hunkered over him, blotting out the morning light, which was once more pale, like it had been when he'd walked unknowingly out of the barn ten minutes ago.
“James? JAMES?! What's happening? What's happening?! James, GET UP!”
Her voice was high and shrill, but also hushed. For the first tie he'd ever seen her in this much distressed, she was too afraid to raise her voice.
Shaking, his eyes rolled in his head to look up at her. He tried to say something in reply, but all that came out was a croak.
Her shadow then left him as abruptly as it had appeared-- she had scooted away to peer out of the bushes.
“What's wrong with Angela? What's WRONG with her?! ” she hissed, horrified. “What is she doing?! Why are there police?! ”
Police? James thought weakly.
Still feeling the stinging pinch of the cut on his forehead, he slowly lifted his neck-- then his torso, pulling a sore and stomped- on arm underneath him and pushing himself up far enough to peer out through the leaves of the bush.
Cold reality came rushing back as he realized where the flashing in his vision had come from.
Rolling down the dirt road they had stumbled down in the dark the previous night were three police cruisers, sirens whooping in brief blurts. The lights on their backs rolled their eyes around in glowing circles, alternating blue and red-- a cooler shade of red than the hot, hellish one that had overtaken the field moments earlier.
Back across the meadow, Angela's sob- wracked form was still gesticulating and slixing at the air around her. The rest of the field was still and soggy, just as it had been before. The light peeking over the tops of the trees was silvery and pale, as it was supposed to be.
“H... how...” James found himself breathing miserably, staring around at the scene he had just fled, almost in disbelief that it could possibly have been the same one he'd watched die all around him, the life baked right out of it by those horrible threads of scarlet spreading through the world like an infection.
It was too late to go back out there now. Every molecule in his body knew that as certainly as he had known that his heartbeat matched, pound for pound, the march of an executioner's feet across a stony forest floor.
There were people getting out of the cars-- uniformed policemen, weapons not yet drawn but still moving with grim intent.
Their presence sent his mind reeling in confusion at first. How had they known they were here? What were they doing here?
Painfully, he turned back to look at Angela for answers, and through the trees, he saw it again and understood. That house-- nestled into the woods so cozily that they'd completely missed it in the dark.
He knew what must have happened now.
Someone in that house had heard them-- or maybe just noticed the girls in the field-- and called the cops. Perhaps it was some crotchety old farmer. Perhaps there were private property signs that they'd walked past in the dark just like they had the house.
Or maybe he'd just heard two people screaming like they were being murdered, alone in his backyard at the crack of dawn, and done what any sane person would do.
It didn't matter now.
“ Angela... ” he murmured, feeling as though his ribs were being crushed, bringing his trembling hands up to clench around the bush's branches as if they were iron bars. They might as well have been.
The officers were already crossing the field towards her. When they'd first exited the vehicles, they had seemed to be bristling, ready to break up a fight or worse. But when they saw the lone young woman pacing back and forth by the trees' edge, several of them had relaxed. Their approaching gait went from businesslike to easy. Switching gears.
She barely seemed to notice them at first.
When she did, she too exhibited a shift-- the screaming stopped, as did the thrashing. But she still paced, the knife held up to her temple as though its coolness was calming a fever. Her shrieks had turned to frantic, harried Spanish raving.
She did not brandish the knife at them, even as they fanned out around her, several speaking what were probably calming words-- James couldn't hear them. Instead, she just shook her head wildly, pushing away from them and walking in agitated circles until finally, one was able to snap out like a striking snake and knock the knife from her hands, allowing two others to grab hold of her by the arms.
She went down, her cries of NO! NO! VETE! DÉJAME EN PAZ! cutting off when her head hit the earth.
Then the wordless screaming came back; anguished wails pierced by heart- rending sobs.
James could only watch, helplessly.
“... James...” Laura asked quaveringly, on her knees beside him. She had watched it all unfold from the thicket, and now her voice was a whisper. “What are they gonna do to her?”
He didn't answer.
He could barely tear his eyes away.
The heat rolled over him in deep, rumbling waves as he stood at the bottom of the staircase. His ears filled with roaring pressing in on all sides, and the dying crackle of wood being consumed by flames. The thick stench of rot and mildew that had filled Lakeview Hotel's soggy, flooded rooms had been replaced by air full of hot ash.
He had stepped from his own world of dripping water and swirling mist and into Angela's inferno.
In the middle of it all, she stood; halfway up the stairs, arms loosely wrapped around herself as she regarded a pair of hanging canvasses that bulged grotesquely at the bottom, dripping red. Even the blinding brightness of the flames all around her couldn't burn away the dark shroud of melancholy hanging over her.
James breathed in deeply, ignoring the hot hair scorching his throat on the way down, and stepped forward. His boots thunked dully on the wooden stairs as he climbed towards her.
The sound made her turn-- somehow she'd picked it up even through the deafening blaze.
For once, it was delight that lit up her face at the sight of him.
“... Mama! ” she exclaimed. Turning away from her vigil, she clattered down the steps towards him, making him step back despite himself, some inner instinct begging him to pull away even as the rest of him longed to meet her approach with a comforting hand. “Mama, I've been looking for you! You're the only one left. Maybe then
... maybe then I can rest. </>”
When he continued to back away, her expression turned distressed, brows peaking upwards.
“ Mama... why are you running away?”
She reached out, too quickly for him to sink back out of reach, and clasped his face in her hands. The tender, elated smile had returned... but only for a second. As she felt his cold, wet cheeks and ran a hand over his shoulders, her expression turned confused. Then crestfallen.
She gasped and pulled away, one hand to her chest.
“Y... you're not my mama!”
A male officer had been holding her down as she struggled and pleaded, but when the rough hands patting her down for other, hidden weapons elicited a scream in partial English,
“ POR FAVOR! DON'T HURT ME!”, a brown-haired female cop with a ponytail had ordered him away.
She had bent to console the brokenly-sobbing Angela, who upon being released had immediately curled into a ball, clutching her head. After a moment, she had said something else
to the male officers, one of whom returned to the squad cars. James could see him pulling what looked like a blanket from the backseat.
It was only then that James let himself sag back down, the breath he'd been holding escaping him in a shaky sob of his own.
Guilt swelling up inside him, washing up in his throat like bile, James shook his head and lifted a hand, forcing his legs to climb the stairs again. But he couldn't bring himself to speak. He wasn't who she was looking for.
She backed further up the stairs, turning away and bringing her hands to her eyes. Her voice broke as it came out, too feeble to hold the emotion behind her words. “I... I'm sorry...”
In the brief time they had known each other, that one phrase had comprised most of the interactions they'd shared. It always tugged his heartstrings, but now it sent a veritable javelin of sorrow through his chest.
Unable to help himself, he reached out, his fingers barely brushing the woolen fabric of her sleeve.
She didn't deserve to be so sorry all the time.
They wouldn't hurt her. At least not right here, not right now.
But the thought was no relief-- there was no relief to be had at all. The crushing tightness in his chest remained, even as the policewoman helped Angela up. She tottered to her feet like a newborn fawn, her skin paper- white. She looked so fragile. Like a strong gust of wind wouldn't just knock her over, it would tear her in half.
She bowed her head and did not struggle as the handcuffs went on, mouth screwing up and charcoal hair falling across her red-rimmed eyes.
For once, she didn't shriek or cringe away at the touch-- but instead she didn't respond at all, simply turning to stare into the fire. It danced across her dark eyes, but somehow failed to penetrate the darkness behind them. James reluctantly let his arm fall to his side once more. For a moment, they merely faced each other, him staring up and her gazing down.
Then, a sniff rising in her throat, she waved a hand and brought the other to her eyes once more.
“... Thank you... for saving me...” she said at last. Her voice was heavy. “... But I wish you hadn't.”
With tears glittering in her eyes, she spread her arms, shaking her head and gesturing helplessly to herself.
“Even Mama said it. I deserved what happened.”
“ No , Angela, that's wrong ,” James insisted.
The policewoman was saying something to her that did not carry across the field well enough to hear-- pointing to the trail of blood-dotted, disturbed underbrush that James had left behind during his flight, and then to the knife, which had been collected from where it had fallen and was now being slipped into a plastic bag by one of the other officers.
Angela's only reply was silence and a shake of the head-- even when the policewoman pointed out at the treeline, to roughly where James and Laura were crouched, watching. All she did was stare ahead, eyes dull in defeat.
For a second, she stared down at him, at his earnestly-creased brow-- her expression unfathomably sad. Perhaps puzzling over how, why he was trying so hard. Then she closed her eyes and turned away again, lifting her hands in a conciliatory way ironically reminiscent of the manner he so often tried to placate her when she panicked or burst out in anger.
“ No... don't pity me.” The arms returned to wrap around her and she pressed her knuckles to her cheek, watching the fire spread above them. “... I'm not worth it.”
The fire breathed in and out around them restlessly, like an animal-- as alive as the town they had both walked into that day, not knowing what awaited them. It was hungry, impatient, and yet it didn't touch either of them; just blew , its hot breath washing over them in waves.
… Then, her head turned back to face him.
And instead of the pain that had been there moments before, her eyes had turned bright and sharp as flint, her mouth a tight, knowing frown.
“... Or maybe ,” she breathed, a cruel sneer now in her voice. “... you think you can save me.”
She pressed a hand to her breast again and this time it was delicate, mocking.
“Will you love me? Take care of me?”
She rolled her eyes up as she spread her arms, gesturing to the tunnel of fire all around them. Her words were sharpened to hooks on the ends, tailored to tear at the tenderest flesh left on his soul. And they both knew it.
“Heal all my pain?”
She stared down at him then, her eyes burning almost as hard as the ancient wood all around them, unblinking. His throat tightened, and he looked down.
He hadn't been able to heal or take care of Mary .
There were times he hadn't even been able to love her.
Cold waters rising through his chest despite the flames, he backed a step down, head hanging.
“Hmm” she said bitterly. Then, eyes lidded, she turned away from him to look back at the canvases-- the bulge of the hanging body, the arms and legs splayed like a skin. Brown old blood pooled where the legs split. “That's what I thought. ”
James's eyes stung-- he could not bring them back up to Angela's, no matter how hard he tried. So he let them hang along with his head as shame welled up within them and began to drip down to the charred wood at his feet. But the droplets did nothing in the face of the inferno.
Only then did he lift his eyes, finding her stare piercing them again, so hard that the heat of it dried the tears in his eyes in an instant.
Slowly, she held out her hand. The words she parted with next were cold and sure.
“Give me back that knife.”
The police were spreading across the field, picking through the grass. But not towards where he and Laura hid. Some had gone up to the house. A couple had gone into the barn and come back out, shaking their heads. No sign of any other party, they were saying. A few days ago, James would barely have been able to believe that they hadn't seen the gas can, the too- big- for- one- person flattened spot in the hay.
But after what had just happened, he barely had room in his brain to question it at all. He didn't even want to. Half of him wanted to be shot dead on the spot.
He blinked, staring back up at her haplessly, struck numb by the request. Then he shook his head. Barely a jiggle at first... but then more firmly.
“... No.” The word almost surprised him-- it felt dusty and stiff leaving his jaws. Refusing a direct request for something-- anything -- wasn't something James did. But how could he say 'yes' to that? “I... I won't.”
She looked surprised at first.
Her eyes flashed like knives-- then she brought her hands to her hips and asked, darkly, “Saving it for yourself?”
She'd spoken calmly and quietly, like there was nothing remarkable about it... but the words hit him like a load of bricks and he brought his own hand to his chest, astonished.
“M... me? … N... no. I'd never kill myself... ”
But she had already started to turn away, a crumpled sneer tugging on her mouth. Disgusted. Not wasting any more time on him. The lying, dishonest James Sunderland.
The brown-haired cop was speaking heatedly with several of her fellow officers, and had been doing so for a number of minutes. But the one returning from the house with shrugging shoulders and a shaking head seemed to bring an end to whatever discussion they were having.
So she turned instead to Angela, who'd been standing numbly with her hands behind her back and the blanket draped across her shoulders like a sorry coat, and laid a hand on her shoulders.
At the very least, it was calmly that she seemed to murmur into the young woman's ear, and gently that she steered her around and began to lead her across the field to the trio of cars waiting along the dirt road.
With a slowness and deliberation that filled her every step like molten iron, Angela began to climb the staircase. The verbal hooks she'd left embedded in his chest pulled and tore, but as the flames grew to fill the space between them, he knew he couldn't follow her.
So he watched helplessly, the sweat rolling down his brow. He wiped at it with a leaden hand, and then said, mournfully, “... It's hot as hell in here.”
Her gaze had been on her shoes from the moment she'd stood back up, and stayed down in the grass all the way to the car.
It wasn't until she made it there, the female officer's hand still on her arm and coaxing her into the open backseat, that she finally turned her head and looked back at him-- at them both-- over her shoulder.
She couldn't possibly had seen them through the bushes, or even known for sure that they were still there, that they hadn't fled into the woods.
But somehow her eyes met James's, for just a second.
Her silhouette in the flames cocked its head, with a sort of sad curiosity.
“You see it, too?”
When he nodded, a tiny and timid motion, she sighed.
“... For me... it's always like this.”
When her lips moved, he couldn't even remotely hear what she was saying. But he knew anyway, because he'd seen her say the same words countless times.
The door of the car closed with a clunk, and Angela disappeared from view entirely.
Just as she had resumed her ascent up the stairs and vanished into the fire before his very eyes, back in that burnt staircase on the lake.
“... I'm sorry,” James said. It was a whisper at first. But as the squad cars slowly pulled off the shoulder of the road and circled in a broad 'U' shape, his voice rose to a honk-- a broken, squawky yell. “ I'm sorry! Angela, I'm so sorry!”
His apologies, too soft and too late and too far away, did nothing to slow the tail- lights as they grew smaller and smaller.
The cars had been gone for nearly half an hour.
Silence had kept its hold on the meadow for only a few minutes since the hum of the cruisers' engines had faded off into the distance-- then the woodlands had broken back into birdsong and the rustle of wind through the leaves. The sun was up proper now, albeit behind a stifling layer of clouds, and the forest brightened and dimmed as said clouds thickened or thinned above.
James ignored it all.
Even the sound of footsteps in the weeds that joined the choir after a time, despite their getting closer and closer a dirty, familiar pair of sneakers came into view, their owner standing expectantly in the grass in front of him.
But he didn't raise his eyes to meet the rest of her, even when she put her hands on her hips and said, emphatically, “James.”
He hadn't moved an inch since the last of the flashing lights disappeared up the road and between the trees. Still nestled in the shelter of the bushes, he had slumped back against a trunk and simply sat there, staring at the ground between his fingers in total silence.
“... James, ” Laura repeated, and reached out a foot to give his leg a kick. She didn't normally know the meaning of holding back, but the gesture, however annoyed it was supposed to be, wound up being more of a tap than a real kick. It was the way you touched something to check and see if it was dead.
Finally, reluctantly, he let his hands fall from his face and let out a deep, shivering sigh, sagging even harder against his tree. But his chin was still pressed to his chest, his gaze still down on the earth, where drops of his own blood had decorated the grass.
“... James, the police people are gone. We can come out,” Laura pointed out after an impatient, exasperated pause, but the strange softness was in her voice, too.
It wasn't kindness.
It wasn't even really gentle.
But whatever it was, James knew she wouldn't be content to take his continuing silence for an answer. So...
“... She's gone,” he mumbled at last.
Lifting his hand, he unfurled his fingers and regarded the rusty patch on his palm with sore, unfocused eyes.
The cut on his forehead had finally stopped bleeding-- he'd staunched the flow with a handful of dry grass, not caring about the dirt still clumped at the roots or the fact that he pressed hard enough to bruise. Overkill, but it had been an excuse to bleed some of that anguish out into something physical. Still, he could feel the stickiness coating that side of his face.
Some of it still clung to his lips, letting him smell and taste little but copper, copper, and more copper. But he'd bitten those lips so hard, both during the red spell in the field as well as when he'd watched Angela be led away, that the drops oozing there were still fresh and open.
“... Yeah,” Laura said, that note of impatience still in her voice. Like she couldn't believe the events they'd just gone through hadn't yet sunk into his skull. “The police people took her away. Because she was goin' crazy. Hitting the air like there was somethin' there, but there wasn't. And screaming. ”
She took a breath-- as though about to continue-- but then, tellingly, shut her mouth. Even though he was barely looking at her, he could tell that they were thinking the same thing: that he had been going crazy right alongside her.
The thought should have frightened him-- and it did , don't get him wrong. It frightened him straight down to his core.
But instead of all the stormy realities looming overhead, the troubling truths he'd learned, the things he'd known all along but been refusing to acknowledge, all that was getting through right now was an immense heaviness. The weight of failure.
What must it have looked like to her, watching as both adults who'd previously looked after her seemingly lost their minds? What must she have thought, watching James claw, crawl and scrape his way across the meadow floor like a wounded animal, desperately trying to escape the same person they had opened their car doors to a week ago, the same person that he had charged out there to help.
And what must be going through Angela's head, in the back of that squad car and growing further away with every second?
He could have prevented this.
He could have stopped it, if only he had been just a little better.
A little stronger.
They had been doing so well.
“... I couldn't help her,” he muttered. “I couldn't... I should have... I should have been able to stop that... stop them from...”
“... Well, you tried , didn't you?” Laura snapped, impatiently. “You tried. You coulda just stayed here with me and watched until the police people came.”
Even if it was all drawled in her normal snotty tone, the fact that she was, of all things, reassuring him, was almost too out of reach for his perception to even register. That just didn't happen , ever. And he couldn't drag his mind away from the memory-- the sight of Angela crying out and flailing in jerky, erratic circles, doing battle with foes only she could see. Trying to was like slogging to the shore of a lake of molasses. It was all he could think about.
“That's not enough,” he croaked, voice tight. His mouth started to stretch into a taut grin of pain, and he could feel the dried blood crackling at its corners. “It wasn't enough. She was scared and I sh-...s-should have helped her. I should've stopped it from happening. This was my fault. This was... all my fault...”
“She cut you on your face ,” Laura said snippily, hands still on her hips. “And then when you were bleeding everywhere she stepped on your head and then the police people came. If I was bleeding everywhere and got stepped on, I would run away too. You tried. So what's the problem?”
He shook his head back and forth slowly, rolling it from shoulder to shoulder. Even her little confession, as remarkable as it was for her to confess something to him , couldn't dispell the memory of Angela's terror from his mind. Nor could it stop the flood of thoughts, of all the things he could have done. That he should have grabbed the knife. That he should have told her more, told her how much she had ahead of her. That they were free of that town no matter how much smoke rose from the grass or how much he could now hear marching in his ears whenever his heart started to thud.
It would have been lying.
But maybe... if he had just lied hard enough, it could have been real.
“No... I... I should have tried h- harder .”
His shoulders jerked, wracked with a brief, shuddering gasp, and then he clutched his hands to his face again.
There was a long silence from Laura. Then she turned without a word and padded off through the bushes again, out into the field.
After a short time, they returned.
“James, we gotta go. Get up,” she commanded. When he looked up to peer out at her through his fingers, she was standing before him again. In her arms were the two flashlights and the little gas canister they had brought with them from the car. All business, she stepped over and began to stuff the smaller flashlight into one of the pockets on his coat. “Stop crying.”
Stunned but compliant, James got slowly to his feet despite his throbbing joints and the unpleasant sting of the cut on his forehead.
“Now gimme your hand,” Laura demanded. When he dopily raised his left hand, the one covered in dried blood, she wrinkled her nose and gave him a dirty look. “No, that one's gross. . The other hand.”
He lifted the right one and she snatched it immediately. Without another word, she turned and marched straight out of the bushes, through the field, and back in the direction of the barn, leading him confidently by the hand like an elephant by the trunk. And he found himself following in an automatic, obedient shamble, without resistance.
As they passed the barn, which now looked somehow emptier than it ever had before, she paused before saying, thoughtfully, “You should wash your face. You look like Roadkill Panda again.”
The old insult brought-- in spite of everything-- a low, wheezy laugh rising from his throat.
“... Y- … yeah... I guess...”
Among the hutches and other abandoned debris clustered at the walls of the barn, he spotted an old rain barrel, rusted right through with age. It was long past its prime and had about as much of a chance of actually collecting water as a sieve, but there was a lid on top where a small pool of last night's rain remained.
For a moment, he regarded his reflection in the still, dark surface. Even without the blood, his face was stained further red by the rust underneath.
Heart heavy, he knew he would never, ever forget this little meadow and what had happened in it.
As he splashed the water in his face and over his hands, scrubbing away a little of the redness, Laura had let go of him and scurried over to the road, where she turned around and spread her arms impatiently.
“ Come on! ”
He plodded after her, the ground under his boots turning from spongey, green earth to the hard, wet mud of their path.
Upon reaching her, she shoved the gas can at him unceremoniously.
“I don't wanna carry it! You take it.”
He tucked it under one arm and took a deep breath before beginning to walk.
For the first few meters, she watched him dubiously. But then, apparently confident that he didn't need to bed led, she skipped ahead and scrambled onto a rock wall at the side of the road, where she began to walk with her arms stretched out on either side of her for balance.
“Will Angela be okay?” she asked loudly, watching where she was stepping rather than looking over her shoulder at him.
“I don't know. … I... I hope so...”
“Well, maybe we'll see her again someday. Maybe she won't be so crazy then, and we can be friends again.”
Her voice was forcibly chipper-- aggressively casual. She seemed to be taking the sudden and dramatic departure of their companion in stride, with her usual dose of rudeness on the side. James was reminded, sharply and painfully, of the way she spoke of Mary. Of Eddie.
To anyone else, it would seem callous.
Perhaps even bordering on sociopathic.
They both had their ways of coping with loss, didn't they.
He couldn't really say that his were any healthier than hers.
“Come on , slowpoke! We'll never get back to the car at this rate.”
She began to hum as she walked, and his throat grew thick at the sound as he watched her totter ahead of him along the lumpy, mismatched stones... thinking about Angela, alone with a blanket in the back of that police car and hurtling towards an unknown destination that he couldn't hope to reach her at. Envying how Laura could throw down the weights on her shoulders and move on, how that much determination to survive could be packed into that one little body. Dreading the long walk ahead of them both.
But his pulse thudded distantly in his ears, a grim reminder. His feet may have been sore, sad, and leaden. But they still had to outwalk that distant march.
James swallowed, and picked up his pace.
“Wait up, I'm coming.”