He turned around, shook his gun at the reddening sky, and cupped his other hand to his mouth. “I know you’re out there! This is private property! I don’t wanna use this, but you’ll leave me no choice if I catch you hanging around here!”
A soft rustle from somewhere deep enough that the trees obscured his vision. He waited until he felt he was alone again, then trudged through the snow to see what he could learn about the intruder. There were prints made by boots similar to his, though smaller. The thought that he outweighed whoever it was offered little comfort.
He cast one last disgusted look in the direction the tracks took as they moved away, then returned to the trap line path and retraced his own trail.
The gold wedding bands would have to be moved. Lily held them cupped in one palm while the other hand gripped the water filtration device, eyes roaming the packs strewn out before her. She chose one with a larger pocket and removed the items held within to accommodate the filter. There. They could be together now.
It felt wrong and exhilarating at the same time. Part of her balked at the changes to the routine. If she started with just one…
No. It couldn’t be wrong. She was trying something new and that required a new set of rules. So what if he didn’t have a ring. The way the filters were placed in his house, they had to have some kind of special meaning.
She tended to the fire one last time and unrolled her sleeping bag. The pack lay half buried beneath her pillow, as if the treasures could send prophetic dreams to prepare her for the task ahead.
Bill slumped against the wall and focused on his breathing. He tried to keep his eyes on the opposite wall, to study the patterns that swirled in the rough hewn wood that made up the sides of the cabin. They kept returning to the empty spot on the nightstand beside his bed.
Deep breaths quieted the shakiness in his limbs. Small feet. Had to be a kid. Why a water filter though? Surely some young punk would be more interested in the guns. He took the key from his pocket, unlocked the cabinets, and checked them. All accounted for. Nothing else missing or out of place, aside from the small prints of melted snow left by the door.
He thought about the filter again and the quickness returned to his breath. The chain had been broken. Isolation- that was the first link in keeping them at bay. Maybe someone would stumble onto his property and drink like an animal directly from his stream or pollute it with their waste. Unlikely, but it could happen. Iodine tablets and boiling- links two and three. The last links- run the water through each of the filters in case one of them developed some malfunction. What if the stolen filter was the only one still working? What if the thief touched the others before leaving?
Bill rose and scanned the small space of the cabin again. It now seemed more cramped than cozy. His memory called up images of microscopic organisms. Dyed vibrant shades of pink and purple, they danced like cheerful little monsters across their cover slips. How many had fallen off this person’s body to wait patiently for him to brush his hand over the surface they now called home?
He retrieved his gun from the spot where he had propped it against the wall, pulled on an extra coat, and went outside to keep watch.
Lily left camp and retraced her steps to the cabin. She catnapped behind the cover of trees and watched him pace for two days. He ate sparingly from a pack left by the door and warmed himself by a fire, but she did not think he was allowing himself any sleep. Sometimes she moved closer and made some noise to draw his attention. He would expand the circle of his pacing and search the woods with his eyes, but never followed far. Once he fired a shot in her direction, sending a thrill of adrenaline. She savored it while she could, knowing all too well how fleeting such sensations were.
On the third night after she took her trophy he finally gave in to sleep, propped against the wall with a gun in his lap on a stool made from a tree stump. Her boots were cat-paw silent on the snow, and he did not rouse when her fingers dipped gently into his pockets. They closed around spare bullets in one, and in another a key.
After she took what she wanted from the cabin she left a gift of her own on the snow between his feet.
He awoke with a stiffness in his back that told him it didn’t appreciate his leeriness of sleeping on the bed. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, debating how to best use the new day. If the intruder was finally scared off he could devote a portion of it to cleaning, reclaim his sanctuary, and get some real sleep tonight.
He pushed himself up with a grunt, but froze while still in a half crouch when his eyes caught the gleam of something silver in the snow. It was a knife, much like the ones he used to skin the animals he trapped to remain self-sufficient in his isolated haven. Small boot prints marred the snow. His breath quickened and he followed them into the cabin.
The cabinet doors hung wide open. Every gun, every box of ammunition- gone. He gripped his only remaining gun tighter and ground his teeth.
He dashed back outside and swung around, scanning the forest. He ignored the tracks leading away from the cabin, relying instead on his gut to tell him where the thief was. He could still feel those eyes. Whoever it was remained close, as if waiting for a confrontation.
He fired. The blast momentarily deafened him and then he strained his ears, listening for any cries of pain or surprise. After a few moments a noise did reach him, but it hardly sounded distressed. A delicate laugh drifted from the thief’s hiding place, like that of a young woman. Anger was dampened by confusion, but only slightly. Why would a woman have come all the way out here to harass him?
Despite the small arsenal he knew she now possessed, his fear subsided. He had never been shot at or otherwise threatened by a woman. If anything, he was more uneasy about the thought of her carrying germs than weapons. Still, he dug his hand into his pocket to reload while he approached the direction of the laughter and addressed her in what he hoped was a stern yet not overly threatening voice. “Miss? Hello? Sorry about that, but I did warn you earlier. If you would please get off of my property we can go back to what we were doing and forget this whole thing.”
He froze. His hand dug into another pocket, with no more encouraging results. He searched them all, twice, three times.
Movement again, and this time it wasn’t darting behind cover like a wild animal fleeing a hunter. She walked out into the open with a slow confidence that reminded him of a cat. She looked native, with her copper skin and dark eyes, though he had never bothered to learn what tribes lived around these parts.
He scowled and lifted his gun. “Go on! Get out of here!”
She tilted her head and smiled. “You are a wolf without teeth. I gave you one. Would you like to go back for it? Ordinarily I don’t like the idea, but somehow it seems fitting in this case.”
Something about the calmness of her voice sent a chill down his spine. He licked dry lips and shook the gun, despite knowing how pathetic the gesture must look. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Lady or not, I’m only giving you one more chance before I kick your ass off my property.”
She withdrew a knife from a small pack on her back, a twin to the one lying in the snow. “Forgive me if this comes across a little melodramatic. I wanted it to be like a hunt, you know? Feels like I’ve botched it already, but who is perfect on their first time?”
He didn’t have a chance to respond before she launched herself at him. The mounting insanity of the situation left him frozen for several precious seconds, as he stared wide eyed at her approaching figure. He snapped out of it at the last moment and swung at her, using the gun as a club. She dodged easily and thrust her knife through his coat into his side.
He clutched one hand to the wound and grabbed for her with the other. The gun dropped to his feet, and in his rage he didn’t think to retrieve it. She grinned and danced around him, making jabs that didn’t connect. The stain of red in his coat widened and his movements grew more erratic with it.
Finally he stopped, breath billowing in white clouds from his mouth like smoke from a dying dragon. “What do you want from me?”
She stopped in a slight crouch, muscles tensed to spring, and grinned. “It is not something that you give. It is something that needs to be taken. Call it a hunch, an experiment. A path to power.”
Dizziness washed over him. He chanced a quick look away from the madwoman to the wound and cringed at the amount of blood he saw. He gritted his teeth and sank to his knees. “Please, stop this. I don’t know how to give you power.”
She came forward again with that easy stride, stopping just out of reach. “No worries. Papa told me all about it when I was a girl. Are you familiar with the tale of the wendigo?”
He winced at a new wave of pain and shook his head. “No. You’re going to kill me because of some story?”
She squatted to meet him at eye level. “Not just any story. The path to true strength and, some even say, immortality. All I have to do is taste the flesh of another human being, and the spirits will grant me these gifts. I could have tried with the others, but it didn’t feel right. They were in the city. I think you have to do it out here to make it work.”
He shivered. “Others?”
Her face lit with another smile. It was different, almost childlike in its eagerness. “I did it with poison. This is much more exciting though, using what Papa taught me about wilderness survival.”
He stumbled to his feet. She darted behind him and leapt onto his back, wrapping one arm around his throat. He reached for her, but the knife pressed into his neck and the last bit of strength drained from him.
Lily cut a chunk of meat from his leg, put it in plastic wrap, and placed it in her pack. The body could be taken care of later.
She smirked to herself at the irony of preparing the meal on his stove. Perhaps the spirits responded better if it was taken raw, but she was not prepared to go that far yet. She had read in a book that cannibal tribes in some far away country referred to human as “long pork,” so she took a packet of spices from the pack and added them to the sizzling meat in the pan. Pork chops, just like Mama used to make them.
She sat at the tidy little table in the tidy little cabin and ate in silence. After the first bite she had to wait several minutes, stomach fluttering more from nervous anticipation than nausea. She finished the meal, then leaned back in her chair and stared at her plate. Nothing changed.
Disappointment crept over her. She felt like a superstitious fool. Of course they had just been stories, used to try to frighten her into good behavior. She should have stuck with the routine.
Weariness finally caught up with her and she turned to the comfort of the man’s bed, glad for a change of pace after so many nights of sleeping under the stars.
The young man was gorgeous and Lily had him all to herself. The other people in the bar moved as though behind frosted glass, distant and out of focus. He smiled and laughed and didn’t look at any of them.
She ordered him a drink and slipped a bit of powder into it before handing it over. He drank slowly, giving her time to enjoy her own. When she was finished his eyes bugged out and his hand flew to his throat. He gasped and foamy spittle spilled from his mouth.
The frosted glass lifted and it felt as if a million eyes were on her. She took his hand, making soothing sounds to convince him nothing was wrong. He gurgled, and the people closed around them.
She looked up while patting him on the back. “He’s fine! Just took something down the wrong tube, I think!”
They regarded her with unflinching stares. Some were wearing police officer’s uniforms. She began to tremble. Why on earth had she done that? That wasn’t part of the routine. There was a reason she never used poisons that worked that way. Everything was spinning out of control.
The gurgle deepened to a raspy growl. She returned her gaze to the young man and found him giving her the same intense stare as the others. Had his eyes always been blue?
He drew back his lips and snarled. Foam dripped from pointed teeth. She screamed and pushed away, but hands gripped her from all sides and pulled her to the floor.
He leapt from the bar stool and landed on her chest, knocking the wind out of her. Hands swarmed over her face and pried her mouth open. He reached down with fingers that now sported claws. She thrashed against her captors, but could not prevent him from grasping a tooth and pulling it out with a sharp yank. He pulled three more, then sat back on her chest to give her a drool-splattered grin.
She was too worn out to keep fighting, but she tensed when he next grasped one of his fangs and wrenched it out. A rivulet of blood joined the drool and dribbled on her shirt. He smiled, steadied her head with his free hand, and jammed the tooth into one of her empty sockets. Each one hurt more, but she didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of hearing her scream. She held out until the fourth fang was stabbed into place, and then despite all the weight holding her down she sat up and shrieked.
She woke up still laying in bed with the covers wrapped snugly around her, but she felt as if she were exposing herself to the wind outside. The fire must have died while she was sleeping. The lingering taste of blood rose to her attention. Had the nightmare made her thrash and bite her cheek in her sleep? Her tongue searched for such an injury, and then…
She threw the covers away and ran, shivering, to dig the mirror out of her pack. She parted her lips in a vampire-sharp grin.
Her heart raced. She lifted a finger to her new teeth and bit down, slowly, until pinpricks of blood welled up in the mirror image. No nightmare, no matter how painful, had ever been this vivid. It was real. She wasn’t dreaming or crazy or hopelessly superstitious. She had done it.
The freezing deepened in her core, and with it came a pang of hunger sharper than any she had ever known. She remained calm. The fangs were a bit of a surprise, true, but she knew the cold and hunger would be waiting. Power waited too, when she ate more and grew stronger. The stories said so.
She made faces in the mirror and tried to summon a growl from her throat. “I am a wendigo!”
She screamed and jerked back, dropping the mirror. A quick scan revealed she was alone. After waiting a few moments she addressed the air, feeling foolish but curious enough to pursue the new development. “Oh yeah? What am I then?”
You are human. I am wendigo.
It was little more than a whisper, not identifiable as male or female, and when it spoke she felt like someone had stabbed a hole in her head to let the wind in. Her teeth chattered. “I did it right, then? Summoned you? What will you do for me?”
Yes, you called me. I thank you. The wait was hungry. I give you gifts. Teeth to tear prey. Body that heals. Live forever. I do this for you.
“Forever? Like, if I keep eating them, I’ll never die?”
A pause. We try. Has never happened yet. Could. You are mine now. I will protect you.
She grinned and fumbled with some matches, unable to steady the shaking in her hands long enough to light the logs in the fireplace. “Sounds like a deal. I can look after myself, though.”
The pain that ripped through her stomach caught her off guard. She dropped the matches and sank to the floor, curling in on herself. “Stop it!”
The hole widened and let the wind penetrate deep into her consciousness. She got her first taste of the spirit’s will as it wriggled into place. The hunger maddened it, and it sought to use her flesh to translate the sensation into something bearable. She clenched her eyes shut and whimpered. “Wait wait wait. You’re not doing it right! I eat and you make me strong. That’s how it works. Get out of my head!”
You take, then I take. It works that way. Always worked that way. Not my fault humans forgot.
Another push. Pressure on her fingers and toes. Blood when she looked. Nails peeled back over claws.
Deeper. Her body’s signals drown under the demands of hunger. It wanted everything.
Deep enough. She went to sleep with eyes wide open.
Always-Angry rose on shaky legs. She leaned against the wall to steady herself.
She? The spirit paused to think about this. It had never been a “she” before. What difference did this make? Claws traced unfamiliar curves. Curiosity remained unsatisfied. If only the host’s consciousness were not buried beyond reach. She wanted to ask the human to explain.
Smell of meat. She turned her head to the door. Nostrils flared. She could see the image in the host’s memory. The offering that brought them together.
Must go to it. Get used to walking again. Get used to muscles pulling on bones pushing against the ground. How many winters since the last one? Surely hundreds.
She lurched forward on the balls of her feet. Claws dug into the smooth wood better that way. The snow outside felt good. Stuffy inside the human shelter. No prey there.
Prey outside. Always-Angry followed her nose. Cold, stiff. No warm blood to drink. Nothing wrong with being a scavenger though. She would eat and then go hunting for more.
And more. And more.