We sat, huddled together, in the corner. The sound of bodies hurling themselves at the walls and trees that surrounded us. Persistent scraping and screaming tore through the frozen air outside. Heavy, uneven footfalls circled around and around. Puffs of frost blew from my mouth. She was shivering, tiny, by my side – her small hands white and ghostly. I reached down to warm them with what little warmth I had in mine. The fire had gone out long ago. Its cold, lifeless soul sat like a blackened heart on the hearth. She looked up at me with darkened eyes. I offered a small smile; it was small enough that I couldn’t be sure if she’d seen it in the darkness. She squinted and blinked as a thump threw splinters and dust at us from the ceiling. I held my breath, waiting for a bigger one to cave in the wall behind us. A sigh escaped me when it didn’t.
Occasionally they’d stop. I could hear them behind me; nothing but old splintering wooden panels separated us. Scratching, like a rat. A rat that will do anything to break through, perhaps even dig until its claws were nothing but nubs. But still, we would stay, unmoving, trying not to make a sound.
Two days we’d sat like statues. I’d got up once on the first day, to prod the fire in the slim hope that there might be something left. I shifted the ash around with a stick before thrusting my hands into its heart. Nothing.
My parents left behind a lunchbox of food and stern instructions to stay inside. Don’t open the door. Don’t go near the windows. Stay quiet. We’ll be back.
When I was younger, we’d come to this shack in the summer — when Dad still hunted. Then he got a busy job in the city. He was always too busy to take us on trips. As much as its dusty smell tickled my nose and irritated my eyes, I enjoyed coming here. It was peaceful and the draughtiness of the ragged boards and ill-fitting windows allowed waves of fresh forest air to roll over me on a hot day.
I’d spend the summers diving into the depths of the lake that skimmed the perimeter of our property. The black, muddy water would shimmer with flecks of metallic flakes that’d get stuck to my skin. I was convinced that it was gold and one day I’d make it rich.
Dad would go out and spend a few nights roughing it in the woods with his friends before returning as a champion with a deer slung over his shoulders for my Mama to stew-up and serve to us all.
I stared at the suspended amputated head and plastic eyes that watched us from above the fireplace. The warm safety that I felt on those nights drifted away from me, sucked through the slits between the floorboard and wall panels.
The deer must be laughing at us now. It’s not the only thing being hunted.
She’d groaned and pouted when I said we’d eaten the last muesli bar, and slammed her hand on the floor when there was no more water. My gut had twisted into an acidic knot, waiting for the door to be bashed in. They didn’t come.
I had a plan, for the water at least. There was a small gap in one of the windows where melted snow slowly dripped to the floor. I’d been able to collect maybe a tablespoon or so from it so far in a cup made of crumpled foil. It’s not enough, I moaned to myself before letting her take a sip; I licked the foil clean. The food though – no plan for that.
We played whispered games: ‘I-spy’, which didn’t last very long as all we could see was the inside of a rough wooden cabin and snowed-in windows; ‘thumb-wars’, up until we couldn’t feel our thumbs; and ‘would you rather’. She asked me if I’d rather kiss a hippo or go outside to get more wood. Then I chucked all the socks, jackets and blankets I could find at her, pulled the blankets over us, and slept.
The howling rang clearer at night, the fleshy thuds were more terrifying. I encouraged her to sleep, to lay down on my lap and close her eyes, but they stayed open for hours, staring at the barricade. I felt her flinch when a thud rocked the rickety old chair I’d pushed up against the doorknob. I shushed her and stroked her matted hair; it had turned a dusty silver from the debris that had floated down onto us while we waited. When we first arrived, I’d hummed at night in the hope it would calm her, but my voice was now a split violin that no amount of swallowing could soothe.
She woke me with her gasp and stiffened body. ‘A face,’ she whispered.
I shifted my head slowly to peer out the corner of my eye. A face. Contorted. Smashed. An eye pressed against the glass. I inhaled through my mouth slowly.
She whimpered and scrunched a fistful of my shirt into her hand. We remained still, waiting for dawn.
Under the thin skin of my eyelids, I could see the room brightening. I hoped today’s sun would offer us just a little warmth. I also hoped the snow wouldn’t melt away. Carefully, I lifted my head and raised an eyelid to check the window. The face was gone. A long red streak stretched from corner to corner. Melting ice mixed with its sticky ooze and dripped down the glass.
I pushed the blanket away from us gently and lay her down on the wooden boards. I tiptoed across the room. My breaths quickened as I closed in on the window, my parent’s words haunting me.
Keep away from the windows.
I crept up to the wall and pressed my back flat against it, eyeing the thin slit of outside I could see. Searching. The sun’s pale cold light reflected off the snow and pierced my eyes. I couldn’t hear anything other than my own breath that fogged the glass; no footfalls, screeching or banging. Had they finally left?
The ground outside was a mess of disturbed snow, stained pink.
She staggered into my view, arms flailing at her thighs. Her hair had been ripped off on one side, leaving behind a balding mess of mud and blood that covered her mangled ear and eye. I gasped and quickly covered my mouth. It was the first time I’d seen her since she left. Her blue backpack was still securely strapped against her back. It was ripped open; the front hanging like a tongue, flicking in the snowy air.
I stared at her hands; a finger was missing, the one that she’d use to stroke the side of my head and loop my hair behind my ears. It would shine in the light. Like polishing a precious stone, she’d sit on the sofa at night and buff her nail — then paint on a gloss that dazzled me. It was now a bloody pulp that she swung in front of her, whipping at branches and snow.
‘Mama.’ I reached for the glass.
Her head cracked towards me. Her mouth stretched open in a wide growl that showed me her blackened teeth. Her pulpy finger flung out at me as she stumbled into an uneven scramble. The scream that tore from her throat gurgled and spat on the snow around her. I pulled back from the window and ran to our corner, the one as far away from the window as possible. I pulled the blanket up over my head and splayed it out to cover our legs. Don’t wake up. Don’t breathe. Don’t move. I begged.
A wet squelch and dragging whine accompanied the loud thud of bone and flesh pressed against glass. Ragged, clotting breaths puffed through chattering teeth. I held my hand above her mouth, ready to clamp down on the inevitable surprise that would burst through her lips if she woke. Another thud against the window brought with it a distinct crack. A cavern of danger split beneath me, widening, threatening to engulf me. I looked at her, still asleep, somehow. We couldn’t stay there; they’d eventually break through the flimsy barricade of old furniture. How long could we run for? How far would they follow us?
The lake. Surely, they’d follow us to the lake. I had a plan.