Part One — Denial
“Is that why you cut out his heart?!” the cop screams at me. “Because he still loved his wife?!” I let my face fall onto the stainless steel table. The cold seeps into my skull, takes the edge off. My breath blows a round patch of fog beneath my lips and I give it a little kiss.
“I didn’t kill anyone,” I tell the table for the umpteenth time. “I was locked in my panic room, on the phone with your friends at 9–1–1, who I’m sure will tell you the same.” I finally look up; there’s probably a big, red spot on my forehead. “Their bedside manner is much better than yours, by the by. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you’re kind of an ass.”
He slams both hands down on the table and leans like a dog on a short chain. I guess he watches cop shows, too. He’s about to snarl something or other when the door knob wiggles and another copper comes in. “Why don’t you take a breather, Detective,” the new guy suggests while paging through a file folder. “I can take Ms. Gagnon’s statement.”
Bad Cop gives me the hairy eyeball all the way out the door. I roll mine back around to Good Cop, who’s pulling up a chair. “The 9–1–1 dispatcher has confirmed the time of your call, Ms. Gagnon, but since you live next door to the deceased, we can’t quite rule you out as a suspect. Plus, there’s the troubling fact that Mrs. Burgundy claims she saw you in her house when — ”
“That fucking bitch! Even other bitches think she’s a fucking bitch! She couldn’t have seen any such thing, because I was locked in my panic room when it happened!”
He just licks the end of his pencil and flips open a notepad. “Why don’t we take it from the top?”
“Do most people respond well to rhetorical questions?” I ask. “Ya know what, nevermind. I’m happy to cooperate with the authorities, because I’m just that goddamned innocent.” Deep breath in, long breath out. “I was at home, alone, burning all of Daryl’s apparently ironic love letters. I was happy in that bittersweet way, you know? Like the pleasure that comes from the absence of pain. Which is all to say I’m so very over the whole thing and not in any mood for a murderous rampage.”
“Bittersweet. Got it.”
“Yeah. I’d gotten up to freshen my drink. I make this special cocktail out of whiskey and ice. I call it a ‘whiskey and ice.’ Most girls like a pint of ice cream under these circumstance, but most girls are pussies, am I right?” Good Cop doesn’t know rapporte when it bites him on the face. “Anyway, I was in the kitchen and suddenly there’s this CRASH from somewhere in the house. I think I dropped the whiskey, because my feet were wet and sticky, later. I didn’t notice at the time, being paralyzed with fear. Then, there was another crash and the most terrible, anguished screaming I’ve ever heard. That finally unfroze my feet and I started to run for the gun I keep in the hallway closet, but IT stopped me at the bedroom door.”
“It?” his raised eyebrows inquire.
“I don’t know. It was all scraggly hair and broken, blackened skin. It reached out for me and I just fucking lost it, headed straight for the panic room and locked the door without a backwards glance. I could hear it howling through the door, through the two inch thick, steel door, but I couldn’t find it on any of the cameras.”
“Hey, do you want the facts or do you want to editorialize?”
“They’re not mutually exclusive.”
“Just make sure you get this next part, because it’s kind of important: I was locked in my panic room when Daryl was being murdered, probably by the same fucking lunatic. Hell, I probably woulda been murdered, too, if my house didn’t have a walk-in bank vault. Score one for surviving an abusive marriage. Guess it’s not a shut-out anymore.” I raise my arms in celebration, but Good Cop doesn’t even crack a smile. What a douche.
“It’s your contention, then, that Mrs. Burgundy is lying about what she saw?”
“Was that another rhetorical one?”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t contend a goddamn thing. I have no idea what that harpy saw or didn’t see or made up in her empty fucking head. All I know is that I was locked in my panic room — ”
“Thank you, Ms. Gagnon.” He pops up like a prairie dog, taking his papers and his pencil with him. “If we decide to charge you with a crime, you’ll be the first to know.”
So I stew in another metal box for a few more hours. I’m honestly glad they didn’t toss me in a holding cell. My pajamas aren’t exactly intimidating.
It feels like mid morning by the time Bad Cop blows back through the door. They say a guilty person relaxes when they’re caught, so I made sure not to sleep a wink. “Lucky you,” he sneers, still in character. “Mrs. Burgundy’s been murdered. Someone hung most of her from the oak trees in her backyard. They haven’t found the rest.” For a second, I think he’s going to show me pictures, but my stomach is spared the humiliation. Instead, he just holds the door open for me.
As I walk under his outstretched arm, he adds, “Lady, if you’re working with an accomplice or hired some street assassin to do your dirty work… I’d sleep with both eyes open.”
Part Two — Anger
“You might think me mad for going back to that house, but I was used to living in fear.” The holy man sits across from me with his eyes closed. He was already seated when his… followers, I guess, ushered me through that arrow slit of a door. He hasn’t moved since, hasn’t twitched an eyebrow, hasn’t barely drawn a breath through the whole first part of my story.
Maybe he’s heard stranger. Maybe he’s asleep.
“So, there was a killer in the neighborhood. So what? What’s one more psychopath in my life, right?” My questions are rendered rhetorical, so I go on. “I’d convinced myself it had nothing to do with me. The thing I saw could’ve been benign. It gave me two alibis, after all. Dopplegangers appear to warn people away from danger. Maybe it was a ghost or a fetch or a goddamned hallucination. It was dark, after all, and I’d been drinking. People have found more bliss in less ignorance.”
The Winnebago rocks spasmodically. The storm was hot on our heels when the holy man’s people drove me up here. They looked like trouble; tattoos covered their arms and scabs covered their tattoos. I bet their gums itched.
It was a four hour drive to their camp or reservation or whatever. I felt like a worm on a hook, sinking into hungry darkness. We rolled up to a fire pit with five trailers huddled around it. The pine forest kept its distance and I should’ve done the same, but the internet swore up and down that this guy was the real deal and I need help like a junkie needs a needle.
“Things were fine for about a month,” I tell him, “then I came home from work and found my ex-husband’s SUV in the driveway. My day was already a steaming tea kettle: wall-to-wall meetings, not a glimpse of sunlight. They brought in this consultant to tell them the same damn things I’ve been telling them for six months, but he’s got business cards and a penis, so…”
I think he rolls his eyes under his lids. At least he’s alive. “The point is, I was furious. You’d think my ex had never heard of a restraining order, which would be a trick, since he’s been served several of them, most recently mine. In no mood for the panic room, I got my gun and swept the place.” I take a breath, press on.
“I found IT in the kitchen. I think it was crying. Its chest heaved between bites of something gray and spongy. It crouched in the hallway like a buzzard, one bone-thin claw raised to its lips while the other rummaged around in his ribcage.” Now he’s paying attention. “I didn’t wait to see tears fall from those glowing eyes — ”
“You must leave. Now.” He’s wobbling up onto his cane and sucking in a creaky breath. I move to block the door; I’m owed answers.
“What’s happening to me?!”
“You endanger us all, every moment you are here!” The door bucks behind me.
“If you want this bucket of chum off your mutherfucking boat,” I tell him, pointing two thumbs at myself, “you’d better start answering me!”
“You’ve been marked by the WENDIGO,” he croaks, “a cannibal spirit whose hunger cannot be sated. It will follow your scent forever, track you through both space and time. It cannot be killed or bargained with. It could strike anywhere, at any moment. You must leave at once!”
The wolf pack finally forces the door open. They haul me out and drag me over to the truck, but drop me like a hot stereo when they catch sight of it. The hood’s missing and automotive debris are strewn everywhere. It’s been gutted like an antelope on the Savannah.
They tie me to the front of the truck like it’s hunting season, string me up and leave me out there to die. They retreat to their trailers and pray. The storm and the horizon race to swallow the sun.
It comes for them after dark, one by one. Not a door is knocked down nor a window broken. It just appears inside each trailer and slaughters the quaking cultists inside. What I do hear are gunshots, gurgled screaming, wet snapping, sudden silence.
In the morning, when I finally pry my eyes open, the holy man’s corpse has joined me. It’s laid out in front of the fire pit, face down and partially entombed in the snow.
Part Three — Bargaining
This far north, the snow never really melts. Even in summer, it clings to everything like coral on a sunken ship. In another hour or two, it’ll be above freezing and the holy man’s corpse will begin to rot.
It took more than a day to work my hands free. Bloody and raw, almost broken, but free. I crawled to the nearest trailer, had to smash a window to get inside. The food was gone, the water disconnected, but there was heat. Blessed, life-giving heat. I let it seep into my bones. It revived my hunger, too, and that soon gnawed me hollow. I’ve survived on snowmelt and stubbornness for weeks, waiting for winter to release its death grip.
Now, I’m too weak to walk back to the highway, regardless.
I haven’t had a phone for weeks, not since I ran from a crime scene. I didn’t call the cops or the paramedics for my ex-husband, just got in my car and didn’t stop driving until the engine gurgled, then gasped. I hitchhiked the rest of the way to Hudson Bay. Figuring myself a fugitive, I ditched my phone and credit cards. I hocked most of my possessions in Churchill and sweet talked some guy into letting me use his laptop. That’s how I found the holy man and ended up here, beneath the Aurora Borealis, starving to death in a Winnebago.
“We’re all worried sick about you.” It’s my mother’s voice, whispering to me through the door. Last night, it was Daryl’s voice. Dead Daryl, telling me he deserved what he got for the way he treated me. Telling me not to grieve for him. The night before that, it was my ex-husband, apologizing for everything he’d ever done to me. In the end, they both asked for the same thing.
“We love you. Even your father, even if he can’t say it. He’s sorry, too, deep down. I can see the regret around his eyes. I see it whenever you’re on the news and when we pray for you in church. We just want you back, Button. My little Button. Remember when we used to call you that? Couldn’t fasten your own buttons until you were ten years old.”
She laughs like a dry weeze.
For a moment, I forget what I know and reach for the doorknob. I want to collapse into her arms like I am ten years old. It’s been as many years since I saw her last. I doubt she even knows I’m missing.
Then, I remember what’s really waiting on other side of that door.
“Don’t throw your life away, Button. It’s God’s gift. He wants you to live, just like we do. He wants you to do whatever you must to survive. Survive and return to us.”
This is weakness: reaching for my mother’s comfort, longing for forgiveness from those who’ve wronged me. I never needed a word of encouragement from my parents or God’s permission to do what I knew was right. I always followed my heart wherever it lead, no matter who it pissed off.
I make my own choices and I live with the consequences.
And now I’m using the last of my strength to drag a holy man’s corpse into my kitchen.
Part Three — Depression
“Cannibal,” it whispers to me, over and over. I want to vomit, but my stomach won’t let go of its horrid contents. My senses are sharper, now. I can… feel it sitting on the roof, not three feet above my head. Its breathing is slow and shallow. Last night, I swore I heard it prowling around in two place at once, up on the roof and off in the woods on the other side of the Winnebago. It comes and goes without warning, just appears like it had been there all along.
The… meals have gotten easier and not just because my strength is returning. I don’t even bother to cook it anymore. The smell of cooked meat just makes me nauseous. I should be concerned about that, but I’m not. Anything’s better than what I was before.
I even have a plan. I rigged up the last propane tank with a hose and a lighter. It’s not a proper flamethrower, but I’ve built worse. The holy man said it couldn’t be killed, but a weapon like this isn’t about killing a guy. It’s about giving him something to think about.
I just need to make it to the highway.
The sun is about to peak over the horizon, but I can see every tree branch, every discarded beer can and spent condom. It’s gone, now, but it’s never far. I’ll know when IT approaches.
I take one, silent step away from the door, then another, then another. Adrenaline climbs into the saddle, is about to spur my legs into a sprint, when the THING blinks into existence right in front of me! Empty space one moment, grizzled monstrosity the next.
It has something in its claws. A propane tank. My propane tank, complete with jerry-rigged hose and Joe Camel lighter. It opens the valve and my whole world collapses down to the surface of my skin. I drop the tank, don’t even know where it goes. It’s outside of the known universe, now. Gone. In the claws of the creature, traveling back in…
… to my bedroom. I’m standing in my bedroom and the only flames here burn calmly in a coffee can, sipping slowly at a stack of ironic love letters. My skin is broken and raw, but no longer aflame. There’s no pain, anymore, just relief. I escaped. I’m safe.
The last place and time I felt safe.
Then, I see myself in the mirror. Or rather, I see the THING in the mirror, a hulking mass of blackened flesh and filthy hair. My eyes shine with hellfire.
I put my fist through the mirror and it explodes. I pick up the desk, light as a feather, and hurl it across the room. I hear footsteps in the hall and reflexively step forward, a hunter’s instinct. I stifle a scream. Or rather, the other me stifles a scream. She’s barefoot, dressed in pajamas. She smells of alcohol and lighter fluid.
She runs to the panic room and I howl after her! I howl in mourning, because I know now that she is dead. She starved to death in the wilderness. I fled to my last moment of happiness and destroyed it. This is what the wendigo must have wanted all along.
It’s what I must have wanted all along.
I step sideways again, back into the wilderness, forward in time. I watch my other selves, one perched atop the Winnebago and the other inside with a half-eaten corpse. We listen to each other listening to each other. Two of us comprehend. Only one accepts.
I don’t feel anything, anymore, just this needful gnawing in my stomach, this abyss that stares back.
I wonder what it sees.
Written for Lauren DeSteno by Daniel Bayn