Wind come down the mountain/you won’t see me ’gain
Stars come down the mountain/you won’t see me ’gain
—Traditional folk song Bear Creek/Chillcoate Mountain Region ca. 1932, unattributed
It didn’t matter how many times Carter watched the footage—it didn’t change; it didn’t yield any further clues.
None of which mattered. He couldn’t stop.
In grainy black and white, he watched the camera struggled to focus, trying to choose between the wind-tossed trees beyond the open tent flap, the fabric itself, and the interior of the tent. Visible in the frame—a sleeping bag, a low fire crackling, smoke spiraling up through the hole in the tent’s roof, cookpot, gear-pack, and a small hand axe. Coming into the frame after fifteen seconds although there seemed to be no space left which he could have come from—Lane Harper speaking in a low, indistinct mumble.
It had taken Carter until this third or fourth viewing to make out the words, and he still wasn’t certain of them.
“The sky gets inside you. It’s so big, there’s so much of it, it fills up everything. The wind and trees get into your head. They make you hear things, see things, think things. All of it hollows you out until there’s nothing left and then you aren’t there anymore. You’re gone.”
In eerie night-vision silver, that close to the lens, his eyes looked inhuman. Harper wasn’t talking to the camera anymore, Carter understood that. He was talking to himself, or no one at all. The camera struggled to focus again, losing Harper’s edges as he stepped closer to the tent’s doorway. Gaunt cheeks under a rough beard—the body of a man slowly starving himself to death for the camera. And Carter had put him there.
As if to underline the point, Harper lifted his shirt, showing the ladder of his ribs, the concave of his stomach. When he turned his back to the camera, the knobs of his spine pressed painfully outward against his skin. He held the pose a moment, dropped his shirt back over the scaffolding of his body, then ducked outside.
Carter stopped the playback. There was an additional eight hours of footage, the camera filming the open tent doorway, the fire burning to cold ash. Trees, just barely visible in the dark, tossing restlessly until the sun came up, washing the scene with color. He’d watched the whole thing countless times before, all the way through until the camera shut itself off, a mercy for the low-battery icon flashing in the upper corner of the screen.
The only sound in those remaining eight hours that Carter could clearly define was the crackling of the tarp covering the tent fabric and the low hustle of the wind. He’d convinced himself on the seventh—or maybe it was the eighteenth—viewing that there were low words muttered just on the edge of hearing. Someone standing outside the tent, or farther off in the woods.
He’d made his production assistant and two of the sound guys listen, but no one had heard anything.
On the eighth—or the nineteenth—viewing, when he backed the recording up to listen again, the words vanished, unraveled into the snap of fabric in the hands of the wind.
Lane Harper never returned.
After seventy-three days of solo-filming his wilderness journey for a show Carter had tentatively titled Lone Wolf when he first pitched it to the studio, Lane had simply vanished.
Carter had scoured the footage from the cameras recovered by the rescue crew sent after Harper failed to check in via sat-phone to confirm his weekly physical, a required precaution starting after week three. Network executives weren’t in the business of paying for footage of actual deaths. That was for snuff peddlers. They wanted the illusion of death, its specter, so audiences could sit comfortably on their couches, never having known a moment of true hunger, and watch an individual walk right up to the edge of their mortality, but ultimately walk away again, whole.
Lane had been equipped with bear spray, a sat-phone. An emergency team was on stand-by at the basecamp five miles away. Releases had been signed; agreements had been made. It was up to Lane how long he wanted to stay. He was a trained survivalist, competing against no one but himself—filming himself out in the woods below Chillcoate Mountain for as long as he was willing to remain there alone.
There’d been an alarming number of willing applicants. Carter had hand-picked Harper because he seemed practical, stubborn, but also like a man who knew his limits and didn’t have an over-inflated opinion of ability to survive. He would pull the ripcord when it was time.
Or that’s what was supposed to happen. Carter still wasn’t sure what exactly had gone wrong. If there’d been one big thing the camera hadn’t seen, or if it had been the dozens of smaller ones—near-brushes with bears, the encroaching cold, Harper losing his gill net to a storm. He’d watched the man cry, break down on camera, stripped raw to his basest self, but he’d seemed to bounce back every time.
Still, he could have encountered a bear. He could have become disoriented in the woods, low-calorie brain fog leading to death by hypothermia. His heart might have given out. One of the trail cams had caught a blot of shadow crossing briefly through the corner of the frame, but that was it, nothing concrete. No answers to be found.
Lane Harper was simply gone.
The rescue team combing the area in an ever-widening radius hadn’t found a scrap of clothing or a useful footprint. How far could a starving man travel? Would he have the strength to go farther up the mountain? It seemed more likely that he’d walked, or fallen, into the lake and drowned. It was the only reasonable explanation. Carter had already reached out to a team willing to dredge it now rather than waiting through the coming freeze and the spring thaw, and he planned to personally eat the expense.
He’d also decided he would go up the mountain himself. He would establish a basecamp—warmer and equipped with far more luxuries than even the standby rescue team—but he would be there. He would bear witness and offer his apologies to Lane Harper’s corpse when it was finally pulled from the lake. It was the least he could do.
“What can you tell me about the region?” Despite the headset, Carter found himself shouting to be heard in the plane’s tiny cabin.
Walker, the expert guide he’d hired to accompany him, cast him a sideways look. Pity, exasperation, or both, barely suppressed.
He’d done his own research, had location scouts and a team to gather background before settling on Chillcoate for the show. But he wanted to hear what Walker had to say; more than that, he wanted something to take the edge off the silence. Something that wasn’t wind and engine noise.
“One of the largest populations of Black bears and Grizzlies in North America. Nearest town is thirty miles out. Logging operation shut down in the forties. You can see some of the remains there.” Walker pointed.
Carter couldn’t shake the feeling that moving too much would upset the plane. He shifted just enough to see out the window, to the jutting spit of land piercing the lake. A long, low structure sat upon it that he guessed had once been used for processing timber.
“Coming up on the landing.” Everything Walker said sounded curt, like he resented having to use words at all.
His beard, brownish-red, threaded with gray, reminded Carter of Lane Harper. Before he’d starved. Before he’d lost his mind. Before he disappeared.
He focused on the landscape, the tops of pine and birch trees as the plane banked away from the lake whose margins were already crusted with ice and toward the clear-cut strip on the shore. They bumped to a landing. The trees, suddenly dizzying in his peripheral vision, viciously sliced up the blurred landscape.
A sudden image came to mind of trees swaying just beyond Lane Harper’s open tent door. Except the angle was wrong. The trees viewed not from inside, but outside, as if the camera had moved of its own accord. The motion created by the wind gave the sickening illusion of the trees marching liquidly across the camera’s frame.
“Wind come down the mountain . . . ”
“What?” Carter jerked his head around.
The engine cut out. Walker looked back at him with a crimped expression.
“We’re here.” Walker unbuckled, shouldered his pack, and climbed out.
Carter’s hands shook. It took too many tries to get his own seatbelt undone and retrieve his pack, but his legs mercifully held him when descended.
Carter had paid to have everything set up in advance. Unlike Lane Harper, he wouldn’t have to dig out his shelter, forage or hunt for food. Guilt left him feeling cheap and slimy. He reminded himself Lane had volunteered, but it didn’t help. What could he even do here except get in the way? His presence was pathetic, a transparent attempt to soothe his conscience.
He hurried to catch up with Walker, a thread of sound drawing him. Breath-filled, somewhere between speaking and singing.
“What is that? You were singing it in the plane too.”
Wind come down the mountain . . .
“Old folk song?” Walker shrugged. “Gran used to sign it while she canned for winter.”
“You grew up around here?” Carter nearly stepped on Walker’s heels, forced himself back, as if he wasn’t afraid.
“Bear Creek.” The guide gestured toward the trees, to an invisible road somewhere far distant, winding down the mountain to actual civilization. “Born and raised.”
Walker set about unpacking, back turned, pointedly ending the conversation. He was being paid to keep Carter alive, not set his mind at ease. Carter flashed back to something Lane Harper had said in one of his filmed segments, about knowing when the land doesn’t want you, when it’s had enough.
It lets you know in no uncertain terms that you aren’t welcome, and you have to decide how far you’re willing to go to force the issue, to make it accept you regardless.
He kept his eyes on Walker’s broad back. Solidly-built, like he’d been hewn from the mountain itself. After a moment, Carter turned away, making himself useful the only way he could, checking the trail cams set-up around camp. Useful only to himself, because no one else cared about the footage he might capture. No one else believed those cameras might catch a glimpse of Lane Harper wandering back out of the trees, starved, but alive. Cold. Disoriented. Transformed.
On top of their two-person tent rated for cold weather, they were equipped with a portable heater, camp stove, and top-of-the-line sleeping bags. All the luxuries Lane Harper hadn’t had. It was as comfortable as camping in sub-zero temperatures could get. Carter had eaten a good meal before settling in to review footage from the trail cams, which mostly showed himself and Walker moving around the camp until the sun began to set just after 4 p.m.
He was tired, and he couldn’t sleep. The wind was restless. It gnawed at the edges of his attention, changing timbre every time he even got close to drifting off to sleep. It sounded hungry.
Carter knew he was projecting. Tomorrow, they would dredge the lake. The boat’s progress would be slowed by the encroaching ice. They could have waited for spring. It wasn’t a rescue effort anymore, but a recovery operation. He’d spent enough time picturing Lane Harper’s body lifted dripping from the frigid waters, eyes frozen open—as if they wouldn’t have been eaten away by fish. Pale, frosted marbles, chunks of ice set in his too-prominent, too-visible skull. Accusing.
He’d crawled into his sleeping bag wearing too many clothes, despite the heater. Now, he felt sweaty, clammy, the fabric twisted around him, restricting and tight. He wormed his way free.
He could just make out Walker’s sleeping form. He’d seen the guide put in ear-plugs before going to bed and privately questioned the wisdom. Didn’t he need to be alert to possible danger? But it wasn’t his place to tell an expert his business. Maybe he should take comfort that Walker seemed secure in the knowledge that they were perfectly safe.
Carter pulled on his jacket, another layer of pants, mitts, boots, and shoved a hat down over his head. Walker didn’t stir as he unzipped the tent flap and stepped outside.
Cold squeezed his lungs. He let out a startled breath and it hung on the air. For all the wind had sounded like the endless hush of the tide, the night was surprisingly still. The sentinel trees around the camp didn’t move. Carter tilted his head back in the perfect dark to look at their tops against the sky. The clarity took his breath away all over again; there was almost a violence to the stars, the lack of clouds left nowhere to hide. He was exposed between the trees, flayed.
He dug out his headlamp, switched it on and followed the cone of light to the shore. The cold persisted, but even beyond the wind break of trees, the relentless rush he’d experienced from inside the tent wasn’t present. His boots crunched on stone.
His arm trembled—cold or nerves—as switched off the headlamp again. Mountains ringed the lake, which itself was an unreasonable mirror. A perfect bowl of night enclosed everything, stars like teeth piercing the dark, chewing through.
Was this the last sight Lane Harper had seen? A sudden ache made Carter want to clutch his chest, the momentary fear he might be having a heart attack. He forced himself to breathe. It almost seemed reasonable that Lane Harper had killed himself out of an excess of beauty. No accident befell him. He hadn’t grown disoriented, or starved. This place had simply called him. He’d chosen his moment and walked out into infinity.
A branch cracked behind him. A sound like the snap of bone, echoing flat across the lake. Carter spun, fumbling at his headlamp. The light made him a target, ruining his night vision. Stupid. Yet panic demanded it. He swung his head around and around, as if he could get the light everywhere at once, but there was nothing. He was alone, and the sound didn’t come again.
Mining camps were replete with ghost stories. Logging operations were the same. Any small population, forced into closeness, into the pressure-cooker of a high-stress situation, fighting to survive, developed them. Terrible legends to explain simple human error, frailty, desperation.
Croatoan carved into the palisade and a whole colony vanished. A party traveling west through a mountain pass, reduced to cannibalism. Chillcoate Mountain, Carter suspected, was just haunted as anywhere else. Which either meant extremely, or not at all.
People went missing all the time in the wilderness. Unmarked graves might choke the spaces between the trees. There was nothing worse here than anywhere else, but it felt different. More personal. It ate at Carter as he hunched in the tent drinking coffee, watching footage he’d watched a thousand times, picturing the boat chugging its way across the slushy lake, dredging for Harper’s corpse.
“Last night, I heard the wind come walking down the mountain. I heard it stand outside my tent, waiting for me.”
He startled, sloshing coffee over his knuckles. The words were new. He could swear it. Carter set his cup down, backed up, and focused on the screen.
An interior shot. The tent flap sealed this time. Lane Harper seated facing the camera. The fire beside him stole occasional focus.
If possible, Harper looked even gaunter than he had in the last video, the one right before he disappeared. The angles of his cheekbones cut sharp, his ragged beard doing nothing to hide his sunken face. Looking at him hurt. Carter’s stomach growled, hollow despite the fact he’d just eaten.
“Last night, I heard the wind come walking down the mountain.” He paused the video, and some trick of the focus smudged Lane Harper’s starved visage, turning him into a ghost.
What the hell did he mean by hearing the wind walking down the mountain? Was that poetry? A metaphor? Or did Lane Harper literally believe in the wind standing outside his tent, waiting for him?
Carter gulped the rest of his coffee, regardless of the way it scalded, and hurried to the shore. The boat churn slowly across the water. There were scant few hours of daylight at this time of year. Who knew how long it would take to search the entire lake under. A waste. Useless. Carter tried to push the thoughts away, but the harder he pushed, the more they persisted, churning back and forth across his mind the way the boat crossed the lake.
Stars, chewing in the dark.
The sound woke him. A sound that wasn’t a sound. Carter thrashed free of his sleeping bag. Sweating. Shivering. The heater was off, its angry-comforting glow absent.
He squinted after the humped shape of Walker, but couldn’t make out whether the mound across from him was a person, or merely twisted blankets. He thrilled to the prospect of shuffling across the small space, putting his hand down on the mass to either feel the solidity of another human body or find nothing there.
He was too much of a coward.
Something snuffled persistently just outside the tent. The thin skin of weather-proof fabric stretched over the tent’s bones scant protection against something hunting him. How far could a starving man walk? Five miles from a lonely campsite he’d built himself to the place where the man who’d put him in there nested in comfort?
But that was the whole point, wasn’t it? Lane Harper wasn’t walking anywhere through the dark. Wasn’t standing outside the tent now, listening and breathing, waiting. No matter how clearly Carter could picture his face, bones jutting against his skin, skull yearning outward, cheeks sallow, mouth and eyes ragged holes in the dark. Lane Harper was gone.
Carter fumbled the zipper, peeked out. Nothing.
He eased his way outside, afraid to switch on his headlamp and make himself a target. Expecting at any moment a skeletal hand would grab him. The best and most mundane scenario he could imagine was twisting his ankle on a rock in the dark.
Only the faint path told him he was moving toward the water, not blundering farther into the woods. He kept a hand out in front of it, sweeping it against air that felt static-crackling and alive.
At the end of the path, he crouched, giving in to the irresistible urge to make himself smaller, harder to see. The stars were mercilessly bright, and he didn’t want them looking at him. Nor did he want the attention of the figure silhouetted at the edge of the water. Too bulky to be starved Lane Harper. It had to be Walker, which made no sense either.
Carter was fairly certain, but not positive, that the figure faced away from him, gazing out over the water. He was fairly certain, not positive, that the figure also sang, haunting-soft, and incongruously beautiful. A voice that did not belong to the bulk of the body. The figure paused in their melody, tilting their head as if expecting a response. Carter did not wait to see if one arrived.
Carter’s head ached as if with a hangover. Sunlight beat against the tent’s fabric; the heater blazed. It was barely above freezing outside, but he felt feverish, burning up.
The sound of a motor, chugging. The boat at its grim work. He forced himself up, out, his stomach too tight and sour for food. He went to check the trail cams.
He spent the daylight hours going from one to the next, reviewing the footage from last night. There was no evidence of Walker leaving the tent and going to stand at the lakeshore. There were no skips in the footage, no missing time or footage erased. Only hours of the empty trail leading from the tent and down toward the water. Hours of trees tossing against the dark, though the night had been painfully still when Carter had crept down the trail. No sound of chewing. Or breathing. Nothing at all.
If Carter himself had left the tent, the cameras would have caught that as well. But they hadn’t, recording all there was to see—wind and trees, stars and dark.
Seventy-three days alone in the wilderness. That’s how long Lane Harper had lasted. Carter had barely made it four. He didn’t have to worry about food, shelter, knew he wouldn’t freeze or starve.
A storm had blown in fast on the heels of the sun, swallowing the light again with a mix of sleet and snow, whipping the lake’s surface to a frenzy and bringing dredging operations to a halt. Nothing to do but hunker in the tent and wait. He’d watched Lane Harper do the same thing, voyeuristically consuming his struggle, feeding off his time fighting to stay alive.
Time went strange in the wilderness. That’s what Lane Harper had said. It moved through him; he became too sharply aware of it, existing inside one long unwinding skein of it that went on and on and on.
Carter dozed. He jolted upright with the screen in his hand, bleary eyes coming into focus. Something pale, so pale it almost burned white, moved toward the camera. A human figure, but subtly wrong in a way he couldn’t understand. The camera refused to focus, refused to give him more than the impression of a bony frame, a mouth full of teeth that reminded him of nothing so much as a shark when it lunged suddenly toward the camera.
He dropped the screen, scrambling and kicking backward in his nest of blankets.
“All right?” Walker lifted the cup of his earphones, sounding more annoyed than concerned.
Faint, tinny music leaked into the tent. Cut through with the sound of wind, the sound of trees cracking in the cold.
Carter shook his head, jaw clenched. He reached for the dropped screen and Walker lowered his earphones again.
Eyes like slick, black glass, a mouthful of teeth when the creature stutter-jumped toward the camera. Even braced for it this time, Carter’s pulse slammed. Not shark’s teeth, but icicles, jammed into abused and swollen gums. He played the clip a third time. A date stamp burned steady in the lower right-hand corner of the frame. November 1st. Seventy-five days after Lane Harper had been dropped off in the Chillcoate Mountains. Three days after Lane had disappeared.
It was impossible. There was no footage beyond the eight hours immediately following Lane stepping through the tent door. The med team had called for their check-in shortly after sunrise, and the boat had been dispatched immediately after they’d failed to receive a response.
There couldn’t be any footage from November 1st, and yet the date stamp was there, incontrovertible. Could he have the timeline wrong? No, Carter remembered a specific, grim joke about Halloween approaching, how the world grew thin as the season turned.
Lane’s gaunt face, staring down the barrel of the camera, had whispered ghost stories in a rasping voice. Carter kept losing the thread, lulled by Harper’s voice. He couldn’t remember the details, whether it was one long ghost story, or a series of shorter ones. Something had come down out of the mountains, something that had been hungry for a very long time.
You’ll hear the stars chewing their way out of the dark. If you look up, you’ll see the great bowl of sky above the lake standing empty. They’re all down here already, between the trees, trying to eat their fill.
Something about fingers like twisted branches, gilded in ice, touching a man’s chest and slitting him open. Hollowing him out and climbing inside his skin to get warm.
If he scoured the footage again, would he find Lane Harper wrapped in his sleeping bag like a shroud, eyes half closed, lips compulsively moving and bleeding out ghost stories? Had that ever happened, or had Carter imagined it? He could just as easily imagine he’d woken in the night, looking across the darkened tent, and seen Lane Harper, pale and starved, sitting cross-legged on Walker’s bed. Mouth opening and closing. Telling stories or maybe just chewing and chewing and chewing in the dark.
Carter slept like the dead, didn’t wake until sunlight pried open his eyelids with bright, sharp fingernails. The tent door flapped, letting in the cold while the heater groaned and struggled to keep up. The storm had gone, leaving the air smelling fresh.
Walker was gone too.
Not just gone and leaving his sleeping bag neatly folded atop the metal frame with its stretched canvas that provided elevation off the cold ground. Gone and taking all traces of his existence with him—sleeping bag, gear, everything. The tent had shrunk too, not wide enough to accommodate two people, only one.
Carter managed to catch up with the dredging team, hailing them before the engine drowned him out.
“Walker? The guide?” Even though the boat only idled low, Carter shouted, rising panic driving his voice higher.
The recovery team exchanged glances, shrugged, shook their heads. They had a job to do. He’d arrived in the plane alone, as far as they were concerned. No one else with him.
For all Carter knew, they were right. He couldn’t trust his memory. Seventy-three days, Lane Harper had survived in the wilderness, and he was unravelling in less than a week. He slunk back into the tent, which closed in around him. He’d left the dredging crew with the unnecessary instruction to call immediately if they found anything.
Carter lapsed in and out of something between dreams and wishes as he listened to the ice crack in the branches and the wind pace around outside. It was old and infinitely patient; it belonged and he did not.
Lane Harper, draped like pale seaweed from a hook, rose ragdoll limp from the water as the boat winched him up from the bottom of the lake. Lane crept into his tent, sitting opposite him in the space that had never been occupied by Walker the guide. Carter tried to babble an apology, his tongue frozen, thick and numb with sleep paralysis. Lane Harper unzipped him stem to stern and crawled inside his skin to get warm.
It was time.
The sun hadn’t risen yet, so Carter fumbled through the camera set-up in the dark. These things required a witness; that was the way the cycle went. Tell a ghost story. Pass it on. Intrigue the next person to delve into the mystery, compel them to see for themselves what happened, why the person before them disappeared. And from that, another haunting is born.
He’d borrowed one of the trail cams, propped it up and pinned back the tent door to the night beyond. The sound quality wouldn’t be great, but hopefully it would be enough to catch the rush and mutter of the wind. The sound of too many voices talking all at once, overlapping nonsense so he couldn’t pick out any single thread. Footsteps, light, but with just enough weight to crack the thin crust of ice atop the snow. Coming closer, ever closer.
Carter stared down the barrel of the camera, held its gaze for long enough for anyone watching to grow uncomfortable. Then he stepped into the dark.
Sure-footed, he followed the trail down to the water’s edge. He hadn’t bothered with the headlamp. Stone crunched underfoot. Carter stopped with his toes just at the water’s edge. He breathed out, not the shocked breath of his first night standing here looking up at the terrible, blazing stars, but an exhalation of relief.
He looked at the water, reflecting the dark. It looked peaceful. Inviting. Slowly, slowly, he tipped his head back to the bowl of the sky sealed against the jagged teeth of the mountain.
All the stars were gone. They were already down among the trees. Hungry and waiting.