It had been precisely three days since Snorpy had last seen Chandlo. Three days of desolate silence, broken only by the cold winds blowing down from the peak rattling the cabin’s windows, the shuffle of papers, and the hiss of radio static as he tried and tried and tried to find some signal, some evidence he was still out there, some suggestion of what had happened. Snorpy was a fool; he should have put a tracker on Chandlo, but he knew he would have found it – and asked questions he didn’t want to answer. Not yet.
Chandlo would not have left him without saying a word about it by choice. This much Snorpy knew and trusted, no matter how he felt. He’d tried his best to find him. His best wasn’t anywhere near good enough, but he really had tried. Whenever he’d stepped outside to bring in firewood from the slowly dwindling supply, he’d called Chandlo’s name, and even went as far as to venture a little way into the woods, but all he’d heard in response was the endless cries of the snax. He couldn’t bring himself to go further. The mountainside seemed so much bigger and more threatening without him.
If Chandlo had been gone this long, something had happened to him. Maybe he had been snatched away to be used as bait, or to be held to ransom. Or maybe – Snorpy’s breath hitched – he was dead. Snorpy was a coward, he thought to himself, and that cowardice might have cost the life of the only person he didn’t want to be afraid of.
He removed his glasses, carefully placed them on the table in front of him, buried his face in his paws and broke the silence with a wail.
Crumpling forward onto the desk and into his crossed arms, he huddled, sobbing, full of wordless fear and grief. Tears soaked his fur, and the ink of the chart he’d been fruitlessly studying, hoping to find some idea of what could have happened, swam in saltwater.
It felt like a long while before he simply didn’t have any tears left to cry, and his dry sobs softened and slowed. He felt sick, small, helpless, and terribly, terribly alone.
It was his fault. It was his fault for hiding the truth, and for not having the courage to go out there with Chandlo, or search the whole forest as soon as he thought something was wrong. He wanted so badly to curl up in bed, to be held, to feel safe huddled into Chandlo’s warm fur. Instead, the cabin was empty and cold. The hearth fire had long gone out.
Wearily, he raised his head and looked to the window. The night was clear and icy, and frost was creeping in at the edges of the pane – the coldest it had been since Chandlo left. If he was still at all nearby, and still alive, if nothing else the cold could get him. An awful way to go.
Snorpy pushed himself to his feet and put his glasses back on. He couldn’t stay inside any longer, waiting for a knock at the door that grew increasingly unlikely the longer he hid away. Maybe he’d meet the same fate if he went to find Chandlo, but he couldn’t bring himself to care, now. Without Chandlo, there was nothing for him here.
He pulled on a sweatshirt, then rummaged through a box under the table, finding a headlamp, a prototype of the grappler he’d been working on, and an attachment for it: a nasty mess of knives. No matter what was out there, if it could take down Chandlo – whether it was a grumpus, a snak, or something else – he did not want to face it unarmed. After putting on the lamp and arming the gun, he strode to the door, then paused, taking a slow, shaky breath, before stepping outside into the cold and dark.
Night-time on the mountainside seemed almost peaceful to him, not so long ago. Now it seemed unnervingly quiet – even more so than usual. With no animals besides grumpuses on the island, the only sounds were the bugsnax, and the occasional thin whine of some rare regular insect that was managing to eke out a life here. In that moment, there was no sound at all; there was complete silence. The snax intimidated him, normally, but right then he would have preferred to hear the chattering of a kwookie, or the bellow of a big bopsicle. Still, there was too much at stake to back down now, so he chose to take the absence of potentially aggressive snax as a blessing. He closed the door behind him and crept further out. He didn’t call Chandlo’s name as he made his way toward the cliff behind the cabin; it hadn’t worked before, and drawing attention to himself by making so much noise when everything else was so still felt unwise.
The bugwatch tower was his first port of call. If there was anything unusual in the area, he’d be able to see it from there, he thought. He decided taking the long way around would be best, in case there was something or someone waiting for him there.
This was an even better choice than he’d expected, as he discovered as he turned to make his way up the hill. Grumpus tracks. He froze. With how faded they were, the size, and the length of the stride, they suggested Chandlo, but he couldn’t be sure. Careful to avoid disturbing them or any other evidence he might find, he continued in the direction of the tracks – into the forest. He couldn’t be certain they were Chandlo’s, but it was the best lead he had.
He knew for certain when he spotted a tuft of lime green fur caught on a branch. His breath quickened. He was going the right way. Taking long strides, he alternated feverishly between keeping watch for threats, for whatever had gotten Chandlo, and keeping his eyes on the ground, following the pawprints like a trail of breadcrumbs deeper and deeper into the forest.
Finding Chandlo’s cap on the ground, now gathering a layer of snow, gave him pause. He stopped, staring.
Chandlo wouldn’t discard it carelessly – or Snorpy thought he wouldn’t, at least. Gramble had embroidered it for him as thanks for helping construct the barn. His… Friend, Snorpy corrected himself, didn’t care too much for material possessions on the whole, but he wouldn’t throw away that sort of gift in the middle of the forest. The situation was looking bleaker by the minute. He kept going, almost at a run even though he was panting from the exertion. He was almost certain that whatever he found would crush him, now, but he had to know the truth.
In a clearing, he found something close to it sooner than he would like. Chandlo’s shirt, laid on the ground – it was unmistakable. There was no blood, but there was no sign of him, either, and the tracks had stopped altogether. Snorpy dropped to his knees, paws over his mouth, ragged breaths escaping between his fingers in plumes of icy steam. He hadn’t a clue what to do next, and he caught himself beginning to panic. He tried to pull himself together. There wasn’t a body. Chandlo might be fine. Shirtless, somehow, but fine. He couldn’t give up -
Snorpy’s head whipped to his left. There was a charmallow on the ground nearby – the first snak he’d seen or heard since he’d left the cabin. It sat on the ground, unlit, staring at him.
His blood ran cold. It crawled towards him, its wide, blank eyes meeting his.
Did it know why he was here? Was it taunting him with Chandlo’s name? It kept advancing. He could swear it seemed curious.
“Low...” It tilted its little head.
Did it know something about what had happened here? Had it seen something? Was it trying to communicate, even? It didn’t seem dazed, as he’d expect from a grounded charmallow. It just looked at him, expectantly. Snorpy reached out to touch it, gingerly. He knew they could be hot, but this time he only found it pleasantly warm.
“Chaaa-lowwww...” It pressed a little into his touch.
He found himself picking it up and looking into its eyes. It didn’t squirm, or cry out, or make any move to escape. It simply looked right back at him, seeming almost knowing, as he held its sticky, spongy body in his paws. Despite himself, Snorpy couldn’t help but lick his lips as the scent of chocolate, vanilla and caramelised sugar met his nose.
It couldn’t talk. Not really. Even if it could manage something close to Chandlo’s name, it wouldn’t be able to manage much else. But given its strange behaviour, it had to know something. It was merely a matter of figuring out how to get that knowledge out of it.
A thought flickered across his mind.
He licked his lips again.
This was his best bet. This was the only way he could possibly glean anything from it. He was certain.
He took a bite.
Charred crust split and gooey marshmallow and perfectly melted chocolate and sweet cracker filled his mouth. Perfect, as always. His mind was filled with warm memories of Chandlo, of all the times he’d brought him Charmallows as he’d worked, of times on the mainland where Chandlo had lured him outside with the promise of s’mores – was it communicating with him, somehow, through his memories? This was it, Snorpy thought. He’d get his answers. He was euphoric – for a moment.
Nothing else came. He stared at his empty paws; one of them was chocolate now, glossy and glinting in the light of his headlamp. He barely remembered eating the rest of it. It hadn’t done a thing, other than make him miss Chandlo even more. He felt numb. He wanted to lay down in the gathering snow and let the cold take him.
Sorrow was quickly replaced with rage as he heard another voice nearby, soft and cheery.
This was a ruse. This was mockery. This was sick! He stumbled to his feet, all his teeth bared. Had these creatures been reprogrammed specifically to goad him, to make him lose his nerve? He looked about him, searching for the source, gripping his gun tightly.
Another unlit charmallow, a few metres away, staring at him and calling Chandlo’s name. He levelled the gun at it. “I’m onto you, you awful automaton!” He hissed.
It looked at him quizzically. “Chaaa?”
Snorpy hesitated. It might be a trick, certainly, but if these snax were somehow altered for this purpose, then maybe his initial hypothesis still held water…
He shook his head vigorously, trying to clear his mind. The first Charmallow didn’t even fight him. It approached him, even. Whatever was controlling these creatures wanted him to eat them. He was playing right into their paws. He should walk away. This wasn’t right.
The charmallow hadn’t moved as he’d deliberated. It gazed up at him, all innocence, and fluttered its graham cracker wings. All at once, he no longer cared. Even if he wouldn’t learn anything, even if this was some sort of trap, reprogramming the snax had to take some kind of effort and all he wanted to do was cause as much damage as possible. Even if it killed him. What was the point in caution, anyway, with no one to worry about him?
He threw the gun aside and fell on the charmallow like a wild animal, snarling and tearing it apart with his teeth and paws as he ate – despite its distressed cries, which were quickly muffled in his mouth. Were he in a better state of mind he might have wondered if Gramble had had a point, but in the moment, in this fury, nothing else mattered. More memories of Chandlo. Soft, comforting. Taunting. Things he’d never have again. Maybe he’d still find answers, somehow, but all he wanted to do was hurt.
Another cry, so close by that he simply hurled himself at it on his hands and knees. It still didn’t fight or squirm or try to burn him. He barely tasted it as he crammed the thing in his mouth, hardly even chewing. His sculpted-chocolate paws were a sticky mess. His face likely was as well. He didn’t care.
Two more, right in front of him. They didn’t even get to finish mocking him with their voices before he tore into them, he noted, briefly, with a little satisfaction. This wouldn’t bring Chandlo back. He didn’t understand anything he didn’t already a few minutes ago. This was just pointless destruction, he knew that, but god, did it feel good.
A swarm, surrounding him. Maybe this would worry him if he had any inclination to care about his own safety right now, but unfortunately for them, he didn’t. He lashed out indiscriminately, grabbing some and stuffing them into his face just to free his paws to simply smash others like a grumpling with furious, spiteful glee. His head swam as he licked melted marshmallow from one paw while reaching out with the other. He felt so full, but what was the point of restraint now? Stopping would only mean he’d have space to think. To mourn. Chandlo wouldn’t want him to mourn. He felt tears well up in his eyes as gulped down snak after snak. Chandlo would want him to enjoy himself. Chandlo would want to see himself avenged, wouldn’t he? His tears felt thick and sticky and warm as they ran down his face. He’d show them. They’d regret taking the man he’d loved so much. Sobs of rage were muffled by mouthful after mouthful. He’d never even gotten to tell him. He didn’t know what they’d done with him, but they’d have to give up their secrets after he’d done so much damage, he was sure. He seized one with intent, gripping it tightly – until his grip gave out, suddenly.
It took Snorpy a moment to process what he was seeing as his snakified forearm fell lifelessly to the ground with the dull thud of solid chocolate. He reached out to grab it. He couldn’t. There was no other hand to grab with. He collapsed to the ground before he fully realised that he could no longer feel his feet. He saw Chandlo’s empty shirt in front of him.
As his vision faded, Snorpy understood.