"The panic of the wilderness called to him in that far voice—the power of untamed distance, the desolation that destroys. He knew in that moment all the pains of someone hopelessly and irretrievably lost, suffering travail of a soul in the final loneliness. He had seen the Wendigo."
-Algernon Blackwood, "The Wendigo".
Four of us went up: Shawna, Eric, Karina, and me. You could almost say five if you counted Paul, because even though he wasn’t in the car and none of us mentioned his name, we all knew he was the only reason we were going. He’s also the reason most of us didn’t come back.
The trip was Shawna’s idea. She said, “It’s been years since we all went up to the old house like when we were kids, why don’t we make a weekend of it?”
“We” in this case should have been her, me, and Paul, but of course this time it would be just the two of us. I guess she brought Eric to make up the difference. I didn’t mind: I’d known Eric for years, ever since he’d been Paul’s roommate as an undergrad. He was engaged back then, and of course this was when Paul was still around, so I didn’t think much of Eric at the time, but lately…well, he’d been on my mind since his breakup with what‘s-her-name. I had to start living again sometime, after all.
I hadn’t known Karina would be coming until I got into the car that day. I barely knew her, though we knew all the same people. She was a sweet girl and she minded her own business, but I was surprised Shawna invited her. I didn’t find out until later that she’d had a history with Paul, very briefly, just before he and I got together. A terrible, petty part of me wants to try to blame all of this on her, but I know that’s not fair.
Shawna and Paul’s parents still owned the old house way out in the country, but no one had lived there for years. It’s the house Shawna and Paul grew up in, and for the most part it’s where I grew up too. Even my earliest memory is of that house: I was a little girl, no older than four, and it was snowing, and we were playing near the woods. I went to make a snow angel without realizing how deep it was and when I fell on my back I sank and couldn’t get back up. I remember how cold it was and how much I screamed, and how it was Paul who came to my rescue. He was six then, I think, but in my mind I see him as grown-up Paul, the Paul I remember, picking me up and brushing me off and taking me back to my parents.
I like to remember Paul that way, the way he was when he was young and cared. Not the way he was the last time I saw him; not the Paul I still have nightmares about.
There would be no snow this trip. It was May, and even this high up the spring thaw had set in. It was just as well. It was a long drive, almost six hours with the four of us in Shawna’s little car, she in the driver’s seat, talking and talking the whole way. That’s how she was now, she almost never shut up. Eric was in the back with Karina, and he seemed to have a lot on his mind, as he kept quiet. Karina was always quiet, of course, and she seemed enthralled by the view as we got deeper into the forest. So it was up to me to keep up with Shawna’s conversation, because I didn’t want her to run us off the road if she had one of her breakdowns while at the wheel. But she made it easy:
“Now he says he wants to do cross-country skiing,” she said. “I don‘t think he‘s even been on skis in his entire life.”
“Mm-hmm,” I said, staring out the window.
“But I guess it‘s better than the boxing thing.”
“I don‘t know what to do with him, really. Do you think he‘ll actually settle on something this time?”
I didn’t hear her at first, and the silence rode out a few seconds longer than was comfortable. Eric came to my rescue: “That‘s how Ian‘s always been: some new big plan every other week,” he said.
“I guess,” Shawna said, and sighed.
Eric kept Shawna talking the rest of the way, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I was watching the trees: It’s strange the way a forest will grow just up to a certain point and then stop at some invisible line. It looks like a stage curtain with gaps you can just barely see through, and it makes you wonder what you’ll find if you walk behind it. Once you do though, you just see another gap, and more trees with more gaps behind them, and it just keeps gong like that until eventually you turn around and see that there’s nothing behind you anymore that looks like anywhere you’ve been and now you don‘t know how to get out of wherever you are.
So now I just stay on the outside and look in. And when I looked in now, what I saw was Paul.
Not really, of course. But the person I saw reminded me so much of Paul that my heart jumped up into my throat. Really, the resemblance wasn’t much: same height and build, and the same red parka that Paul always wore out here. The man, whoever he was, was standing at the gap in the trees, watching the road, hands stuffed in his pockets just like Paul always did. He was too far away to really get a good look at his face, but something about that red parka made me want to scream to Shawna to stop the car so that I could run out to him.
Crazy, I know. I mean, how many red parkas are there in the world? Lucky for us, by the time I was able to speak we’d driven past and he was out of sight and I’d come to my senses. It couldn’t have been Paul, I told myself. It didn’t even look like him, or at least, I hadn’t seen enough to know if it really did look like him. I just had Paul on the brain, I guess. Yes, that was the explanation.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that whoever he was, he’d been waiting for us.
It was dark when we got to the house. The old place looked exactly as I remembered, except a bit gloomier for so many years of being empty. It was a box-shaped thing, half again as tall as it was wide, and for some reason it had only one story despite the high ceiling. More than half the space was just a single big, multi-purpose room, with two bathrooms and a pair of bedrooms built onto the back. It was big and dark and drafty and old, but it felt like home. It was where we all grew up, after all, Paul, Shawna, and me.
I always called them my cousins, but really they were no relation at all, just the children of my mom’s best friend. But they felt like family anyway. Maybe that’s why it took so long for Paul and me to get together: He’d been the cousin—or maybe even the brother—I never had for so long that at first it was difficult to get around. It was a strange feeling, right and wrong at the same time. Then one day Paul called us “kissing cousins” and I punched him in the shoulder, and he laughed and punched me back, but not hard. He was a brat. I loved him.
We’d brought food and enough booze for the weekend but we left most everything in the car for now, too lazy to unpack. Karina and Shawna wanted to go off for a walk on their own for some reason, and that suited me just fine, since it left me alone with Eric. I told him we would go get the old generator started and pray that the electric heating still worked. There was a big old stone fireplace, but it was better for setting the mood than heating the huge house. Even in May the nights got cold up there. I always remember the cold.
I was never much good with tools or machines but I knew the generator backwards and forwards. Eric wanted to help but was mostly stuck standing around looking out of place, shuffling his feet and not knowing what to do with his hands. I’ve never seen anyone who managed to look awkward in so many different ways and places as Eric. It was cute, in a way.
“So this is the fable old house,” he said.
“Yep. Old House: capital O, capital H,” I said. I was on my knees, using wrench on the generator’s gas cap. It always stuck. “It might not look like much, but…” I trailed off and furrowed my brow. “Actually, not sure what else to say about it.”
Eric laughed. He had the best laugh. I smiled, hoping it was at least equally as impressive. He helped me fill the tank.
“It gets so dark so early up here,” he said.
“Between the mountains and the trees it’s a miracle we get any sun at all,” I said. “Why the hell did Shawna take Karina off like that anyway? If they can’t find their way back we’ll have to go look for them.”
“Probably something to do with—” Eric said, and then stopped and looked away. I appreciated the view of him blushing but was curious about the cause. He tried to hedge, but it didn’t take much pressure before he caved. “Well, you know why Shawna brought Karina along, right?”
I had no idea. By now the generator was going and the lights were on in the house and we were sitting on the old couches in the part of the big room that always served as the living room. Eric made coffee and I broke into the liquor cabinet and added a little something to it. Eric was kind of a lightweight and he was already flushed around the cheeks, although some of that was embarrassment and I wondered if maybe another part of it was just the effect of us being alone together. I could hope, anyway.
“I guess you don’t know Karina that well?” he said.
“Never even met her before, just heard everyone talk about her.”
“Well,” said Eric, scratching his head, “she’s kind of…intense.”
“Karina? She’s a mouse. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard her say a word.”
“Not her personality. I just mean, she’s pretty religious these days. Devout. Shawna too.”
“I’ve never seen Shawna go to church. She’s always too hungover.”
“Not that kind of religion,” Eric said. “Some spiritual thing. I don’t really know the details. But that’s why Shawna and Karina are here, some kind of ritual observance to, you know, say goodbye. To Paul.”
I was a little surprised. Of course, it wasn’t a surprise that this trip was about Paul, that went without saying, but I hadn’t realized the rest. Eric wouldn’t meet my eyes now and I felt bad for making him snitch on Shawna when Shawna obviously hadn’t wanted me to know.
“I thought it was a little weird,” he added, almost sounding like he was apologizing. “But I don’t know, maybe it’ll be good for her. Closure. Maybe.”
I went to the window and looked out at the trees, thinking. It made sense, in a way. Although she never said it, I always guessed Shawna couldn’t give up on the idea that Paul might still be alive. They’d never found him, you see: He went up here with four friends on a hiking and camping trip, March of the previous year. They’d used the old house as a base camp and went further and further out a few days at a time, sometimes following the old trails and sometimes going off of them. Paul’s dad had always lectured him not to go too far into the mountains, but that was Paul for you: never happy staying close to home.
They called it a “freak storm,” although snow in March wasn’t that unusual for this part of California. Probably Paul and the others went off the trail not expecting the weather to turn and then got snowed into some place they couldn’t get out of, or maybe just lost their way in the whiteout. The search recovered remains for the other four; just bones, of course, some of them nothing but fragments gnawed by coyotes, but at least it was something for the families to bury. Nothing of Paul ever turned up though, not even his clothes or the ID tags on his bags. And because of that Shawna always held out hope, long past the point when there was even the smallest reason. How could she not?
So if whatever Shawna and Karina were doing could give her something, anything, to believe in about what happened to Paul, something final so that she could sleep at night and not keep wondering…well, like I said, it made a kind of sense. I said so, and Eric agreed, and as it got even darker out we went silent. I watched the trees some more. The moon was full, and there was just enough light to see by. I glimpsed movement outside, just at the place where the “curtain” opened, and I hoped it was the two of them coming bak, but when I looked what I saw instead was—
When we were kids, six or eight years old, I would have nightmares about the forest. It’s very quiet in the woods in the winter, with most of the animals hibernating and the ones that don’t hibernate hiding instead, and all the birds flown south and even the few human neighbors around mostly staying in. You can feel very alone and afraid out there. The snow settles on the big trees in strange ways, and sometimes I’d imagine that they were monsters, great big shaggy things like in “Where the Wild Things Are,” monsters who stayed very still and let themselves be covered by falling snow so that they would look like trees until you got too close. As a kid I would watch closely to see if the pines ever moved when the wind wasn’t blowing. One day I told Paul about this and later he hid in a snow bank and burst out, snow flying in every direction, roaring, and I screamed and ran away, and his mother yelled at him when she found me crying. He apologized, and cried almost as hard as I did when he saw how scared I was.
Ever since then, though, no matter how old I got, I thought of the forest as a place for monsters. Now, as I looked at that gap in the trees, I thought I saw something very tall, its head scraping the boughs of the trees. It was thing, and all out of proportion with itself. When it moved I saw its eyes, the way you see the eyes of a cat in the dark, and I thought that its eyes must be really enormous if I could make them out from this distance…
And then it was gone, just like that, faster than I could blink.
“Are they back?” said Eric.
“Huh?” I said. I started at the sound of his voice.
“Shawna and Karina, are they back?”
“Not yet,” I said. I looked at the empty space, expecting whatever it was to reappear, but it didn’t. I didn’t think to be scared, because I was sure that I was only seeing things, just like seeing “Paul“ on the road earlier, but for a second I considered going out there and standing in that spot and checking for tracks on the ground, or broken branches from where its head scraped the trees.
I thought about it, but I didn’t go.
Instead I turned back to Eric and sat next to him on the couch, putting my hand on his knee. Now he started, and blushed some more. Cute. I assumed I would have to be in the driver’s seat, because Eric just isn’t the kind of guy to make the first move, and maybe not even the second, but as I was working up my nerve for it he leaned in and kissed me all on his own. Not a small, sweet kiss like I always imagined he’d go for, but a deep and hard one; the kind that takes your breath away. I pulled back a little, mostly out of surprise, but he caught my hand and pulled me in again and I saw that he was getting that look; you know the one I’m talking about? It was a hungry look. I’ve seen that look before, but never from Eric, although I guess he might have seen it from me once or twice.
I’m not quite sure how we suddenly ended up sprawled out on the couch like that; I blinked and it just happened. He leaned on me a bit too hard so I put my hands up, easing him off, and as long as my hands were there I took the opportunity to feel up and down his chest and back. Eric’s kisses were firm, his mouth open against mine, his teeth glancing against my lips now and then as his tongue flickered in my mouth. I felt his hands on my hips as he leaned into me again, and for a moment I couldn’t breathe. He didn’t let up. I realized he wasn’t just hungry; he was ravenous. I guess he’d had his eye on me after all.
This was moving faster than I’d expected. How soon would the others be back? What would happen if they walked in on us like this? Shawna seemed to live in a strange dread of my finding anyone new, I think because she felt that if I was holding out for Paul in some impossible way that that was one more irrational reason for her to hope too. But at the same time she wasn’t blind, and she must have seen how I was around Eric lately, and it must have at least crossed her mind when she left us here alone? Before I got with Paul Shawna always used to tease me about how often I got a new boyfriend. She called me “man-eater.”
Eric interrupted my train of thought by biting my ear, drawing a gasp out of me. For a second he broke off, startled by my cry, or maybe by how tense I was, and he asked if I was all right, and he looked like the same sweet, timid Eric that I always knew. I grabbed him and pulled him in again. He nipped my ear a second time, and then continued down the side of my neck; he was eating me up one bite at a time. I squirmed against him, sliding my hands down the waistband of his jeans, running them across the topmost rise of his cute behind. The evening chill was setting in all through the house, but all of a sudden it felt inhumanly hot, like I was being cooked by the shared heat of our two bodies.
Eric was undoing the buttons of my shirt. He was so quick that I barely noticed, but then he was kissing my bare shoulder and biting me again. I pushed my hands under his shirt and drew my nails across his back, getting a gasp out of him in return. He threw my shirt away, and out the corner of my eye I saw it splayed across the floor like an animal hide. He was touching my bare body all over now and he was rough, although he would stop if I ever seemed like I was surprised or hurt. He soon learned not to, that I wanted him to keep going. Truth is, part of me wanted to be treated like a piece of meat.
Eric was sliding my pants off as I tugged at his shirt. His hands were all over me, squeezing me, pinching me,. I was undoing his buttons as carefully as I could given our positions, but by the end I just pulled, not caring if I ripped them. The glimpses of his bare chest were pretty appetizing. I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled, and when his head went back I used the space to lean in and bite him just above the heart and lick the sweat off of his bare flesh.
His hands were even lower now, touching the inside of my thighs while the flesh there quivered. I had a decision to make and I would have to hurry, because the matter was rapidly being taken out of my hands: Exactly how much was on the menu? I had assumed we wouldn’t make it anywhere past second base, and that even that would take a lot of incitement, but he seemed eager for the main course. The question was, was I? It had been a long while, since the last night with Paul and the strange, almost angry sex we’d had on the floor of his apartment. The memory of that delicious tension hung over me for months after. Even now I couldn’t fully get away from it.
“Wait,” I said. Eric stopped immediately, the fabric of my panties bunched in his hand. I pushed them aside and guided his hand in. “Like this,” I said, directing his touch, rubbing his fingers on me. At the same time I undid his zipper and slipped my own hand inside, rubbing his cock, encircling it and squeezing. He throbbed in my hand. I felt a little bad for getting him worked up and then stopping short, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that going any further would be wrong. Doing it here, in the house Paul and I grew up in together, a few miles away from the spot where he’d probably died…it almost felt like doing it on his grave or something. It was better this way.
Besides, I figured it might help to hold something back the first time, leave Eric to anticipate more. It couldn’t hurt to let him stew a bit.
He slid a finger into me and I moaned into his mouth. That damp, wet smell was all around us. He was still on top and still grinding into me, and my back was pushed up against the couch’s upholstery so hard that I just knew it was going to leave marks. His thumb rubbed over my clit and I stopped caring, and to be honest it was a complete accident when I bit his lip again. I tasted blood. He thumbed against me again and I ached all over. It’s funny how it is, that feeling of wanting more of what you’re already getting, as if you were eating and eating but getting hungrier with every bite. I signaled that I wanted it harder, the fabric of the couch rubbing me raw with the short, repetitive motions.
He was building up and almost ready to leg go, and I squeezed as hard as I could, jerking him off, swallowing his moans when we kissed. I felt the wave welling up, building, pushing down and out, radiating hotness through my limbs. Eric lost control, gushing cream over my hand, and the feeling of the wet, dripping, sticky mess was enough to make me boil over. I think I soaked him, and I may even have left a spot on that couch.
What can I say? I’m the excitable type.
It was nearly ten o’clock when Shawna came back. I say just Shawna because Karina was still outside. She’d decided to camp out in the spare tent. Shawna played this off as Karina wanting to sleep outdoors because she’d never been camping in her life, but I thought it might have something to do with their goodbye observance. Eric and I were dressed again and acting as casual as possible, but I was aware that the house smelled like sex and that Eric would never be able to keep a straight face, so I excused myself and went out to check on Karina.
She was standing next to the tent when I caught up with her, and although I didn’t realize it at the time she was staring at that spot in the trees where I saw —or thought I saw— whatever it was, earlier. She had an expression that I’ve thought about a lot lately: I guess you could call it awe. She’d seemed pretty amazed by the scenery on the way up, so I didn’t think anything of it. I asked if there was anything she needed, and she smiled at me in the sweetest way and said, “Nope. I’ve got everything in the world.”
I think about that a lot now, too.
When I got back inside Shawna had broken into her the house liquor along with us (ours was all still in the car), and I could tell by Eric’s expression what they’d just been talking about; that man could never keep a straight face to save his life. I made another Irish coffee and Shawna sent Eric out to the shed to get wood for the fire. I expected her to let me have it once we were alone, but instead she just gave me a little nod and patted me once on the knee, and that was it. It’s funny how much better I felt then, and I started to wonder if maybe this trip was good for everyone after all.
We talked more about school, and then about the trip to Brazil Shawna was planning, and when Eric came back we got the fire going and we drank more, and things finally started to feel kind of okay. I sat next to Eric on the couch and he held my hand, keeping it between us so Shawna couldn’t see it; not because he wanted to hide but just because it was a modest, Eric kind of thing to do. My heart melted. We all seemed happier than we’d been in longer than I could remember. It wasn’t just like old times, but that was what made it good.
Shawna noticed it first: “Jesus,” she said, looking at the back deck, “it’s snowing!”
Sure enough, flurries of May snow were slowly carpeting the ground outside. We gathered at the sliding glass door, watching. It must have been going for almost an hour judging from how deep it was already. Eric looked surprised but amused, and I imagine I looked much the same, but Shawna seemed horrified for some reason. “But it can’t,” she kept saying, “it can’t snow now. It just can’t.”
“Well, it’s not that strange,” I said. “Remember when we were kids and it snowed on your birthday?” Shawna’s birthday was the last week of April.
“But that was barely anything,” she said. “This is a real storm.” She gestured to the drifts piling higher outside. The wind hit the side of the house then, hard, and the rafters creaked with the force of it.
“Oh my God, Karina is still out there,” said Eric, and I started. I was embarrassed that I had forgotten all about her, and judging from the look on Shawna’s face so had she. Eric went out to find her, leaving Shawna and I alone for a minute. She laid her head on my shoulder and hugged me. She seemed frightened for some reason, and I had to admit that I was too. The wind blasted the roof and the snow piled high in the trees, turning them into the vague, monster-haunted shapes of my childhood.
It was a while before Eric came back. He stumbled through the door looking dazed. Snow was in his hair, but he didn’t bother to brush it off. He seemed out of sorts but I really thought he’d just had too much to drink until Shawna asked how Karina was and he looked at us with a blank face and said:
I opened my mouth to say, “What do you mean?” but his expression already told me perfectly well what he meant.
Shawna asked anyway and all Eric would say was, “She’s dead, she’s dead,” again and again. He refused to go back outside no matter how many times Shawna told him to go get Karina. I think he really was in shock and Shawna finally gave up and, angry and scared, decided to go check on Karina herself. I imagine she thought Eric must have made some kind of insane mistake (no one would ever suspect Eric of pulling a prank, especially not one like this), but I think I already knew, deep down, that he was telling the truth.
Hesitating for just a moment, I pulled on my boots and followed Shawna out. The cold hit us full-on when we opened the door. I always remember how cold it was that night.
Karina’s tent was pitched about fifty yards away, already half-buried by the storm. Shawna trained a flashlight on it and we saw that the flap was open and that Karina was lying half in and half out, unmoving. Eric had said only that she was dead, refusing to tell us anything about how it happened, and I’d gone out with the idea that a spring branch had broken under the weight of the snow and fallen on her, but I saw nothing like that now. I began to speculate about some way she might have frozen to death this fast but when we came close enough to really see her then there was no need to guess anymore.
The snow all around her body was red. So much red…
I remember her face was placid, as if she’d died in her sleep. But that was impossible given her condition. Most of the body was intact, but her arms and legs were…gone. They were just gone. At first we couldn‘t figure it out, but then we saw the bones scattered around the bloody snow; I thought of the leftovers of a chicken dinner. As Shawna’s flashlight revealed each one I started naming them, dredging up everything I could remember about skeletal structure from my anatomy classes: ulna, radius, humerus, tibia, fibula, femur, patella; the bones of the carpus are the scaphoi, lunate, triquetrum, pisiform—
I threw up.
I’m not sure how long it was before Shawna was shaking me, telling me I had to get up, that we had to move Karina inside. I nodded and obeyed without question. Shawna did most of the work; she wrapped the body in a sleeping bag and then, after a moment‘s hesitation, she dumped out the contents of Karina‘s overnight bag and began collecting the stray bones in it. I helped. Neither of us had gloves, so we just tried not to think about what we were touching. As I gingerly picked up the remains of Karina’s foot (tarsal bones: calcaneus, talus, cuboid, navicular, and medial, intermediate and lateral cuneiform bones), I saw marks on the bone. I thought of the coyotes that picked apart the bodies of Paul’s friends, but of course, animals don’t just stop at the arms and legs…
We took her in and put her in what used to be Paul and Shawna’s bedroom, Shawna looking grim as she placing the wrapped body on the bed and I set the bag next to it in what I hoped was a respectful way. Eric seemed like he’d recovered a bit from the shock, and he answered Shawna’s questions about what he’d seen and how he’d found her, but he didn‘t know anything more than we did; she was dead, dead and in pieces, somehow, and that’s all anyone knew. The wind whipped the sides of the house harder and harder.
Shawna called the sheriff’s department and they promised to send help as fast as they could, though the storm would hold them up. Eric took me by the shoulders, talking very slowly, and for a minute I thought he was trying to tell me everything would be all right, but then I realized no, he was asking me whether everything would be all right. I told him I didn’t know. Soon he and Shawna were arguing. I stood apart, looking out the window again, looking at the trees again, looking at the little tent and the red snow. What happened out there? I was shaking all over. Shawna and Eric did not notice me. I put my head against the cold glass and mouthed a prayer to no one and nothing. When I opened my eyes again I almost screamed. Someone was outside, standing next to the tent. Someone in a red parka. Someone who looked like…
I looked at the others, lost in their argument. I slipped out as quietly as I could. They didn’t notice. I didn’t even bother to put on my coat. I didn’t’ care.
Paul was there, with the hood of his parka down. Paul, looking at me, hands stuck in his pockets just like always. His hair had grown long and a beard hid his face, but I still recognized him. He didn’t react as I approached but just kept looking at me, expression strangely troubled. It wasn’t until I reached out to touch him that he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. He was freezing.
“Hey baby,” he said.
“Are you…?” I touched his face. His beard scratched my fingers. I brushed snowflakes off his eyebrows. He smiled.
“Paul,” I said, “we all thought you were dead. Everyone. Everyone thought you were dead. Even Shawna!” I was babbling.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry I was away.”
“Away?” I shook my head. “Paul, it’s been more than a year. Paul, what happened to you? Where have you been? Why—?”
He put his arms around me and pulled me in. I hugged him as hard as I could. My tears were hot but they chilled and almost froze by the time they reached the bottom of my face. He stroked my hair just like he used to.
“Paul,” I said, “something terrible happened to Karina.”
“No one even saw it.”
“Don’t worry about that now.” He leaned in to kiss me. I hesitated.
“What about the others?”
“They can wait.”
“But Eric is…” I trailed off. Paul frowned a little.
“What about Eric?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Never mind. It can wait. They can wait.”
I kissed him back. It felt strange with the beard, but it was still Paul. He scooped me up in his arms like he used to, so that my feet actually left the ground for a second, and it took my breath away just like it always did. When Paul held me I felt —not safe, because no one should ever feel safe around Paul no matter what he was doing. Rather, I felt like nothing mattered. Eric, Karina, the last year, even the snowflakes accumulating on us as we stood there, it all might as well have been happening on the moon.
I say this because I want you to understand something: Paul always got his way. No matter what it was or what was going on, it was just part of the nature of being him. So when he started carrying me to the tent, even though I should have stopped him for any number of reasons (not least of which being the streaks of Karina’s blood still painting the ground around it…), there was never any real chance of that happening.
It was hot inside the little tent for some reason; steamy hot. I hadn’t realized before that Karina had left a flashlight on inside, and our two shapes blotted out the light with strange shadows on the canvas, looking like the silhouette of some huge animal with too many arms and legs. I wasn’t dressed for the cold, so it didn’t take long for Paul to get my pants down and around my knees. The ground under us was frigid even through the protection of the sleeping bag, but when Paul kissed me that was warmth enough. He stripped himself in a hurry then leaned onto me, pulling my head back by the hair and turning my face to the side (he knows I love that). His hand was pushing down there, seeking, feeling me out. He knew every curve on me. When two of his fingers slid into my pussy he stopped, brow furrowed, and I caught my breath long enough to ask what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said, in a tone that meant it was more than nothing.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to make him stop, or even pause for very long. He was unzipped now and I felt him between my legs, pushing up against me, and I ached inside. I was about to say something about protection but somehow it seemed absurd to think about now, with him back from the dead and in my arms all within the last ten minutes. So instead I just let him go, and when the length of him filled me I cried out, and he put his hand over my mouth and pushed my head back again, and that made me whimper.
At the time I just thought he was doing that because he knew I’d always liked it, but now I wonder if he wasn’t trying to stop the others from hearing. Because I noticed that all the while we were in the tent the wind stopped, and I think the snow even stopped for a bit. But at the time I had more important things on my mind.
Paul had stripped off his parka and shirt as well. I kept mine on, fearing the cold, but his hands were all over me anyway, pawing my breasts even through several layers. That was Paul; nothing stopped him from getting what he wanted. He slammed up into me again and again, the kind of hard, rough, needy fucking that we used to do after a fight or when one of us had had a bad day. My voice was stuck in my throat and I was making a noise halfway between a moan and a sob every time he went in. My back hurt from grinding against the ground (already bruised from the couch an hour ago…) and he was being too rough with me again, his fingers almost bruising my neck and jaw, but I didn’t say anything and really didn’t mind. I was burning up. He was rigid. His face showed grim determination, and he was panting hard already.
I put my hands on him and his body felt strange. The light inside the tent was flickering and inconstant as the movement of our tangled bodies continually blocked the one tiny lantern so it was hard for me to see him except as a dark shape, but my fingers felt him out. Although he looked just as he always had, with an outdoorsman‘s hard, toned body, when I touched him he felt like skin and bones. I wondered what happened, but I decided that questions (so many questions) could wait, distracted as we both were now by hard, insistent, animalistic rutting.
Paul was bending me so hard I thought I would break. He seemed ready to shudder in half, too, and I actually heard the tent’s canvas rip as he dug his fingers into it. He pulled out at the last second and I felt him splash hot and sticky against the inside of my thigh, dribbling down my bare skin.
I tried to kiss him but he pulled away, leaving me jilted for a moment but too spent to care. He dressed in silence while I lay, quaking, used up, head spinning. He always did that to me. It took me twice as long to dress as he had, fingers trembling. He was waiting for me outside the tent, and he caught me when my weak knees gave way. I smothered myself against his chest. The snow was falling around us again, and the wind had picked up. It sounded shrill and unpleasant.
“Paul,” I said, “we should go in. The others will want to see you. And I want to know —I have to know—where you’ve been?”
“Sure,” Paul said. He was looking at me strangely. He caught my hands in his and took them up, kissing the backs of my knuckles. I smiled. The wind screeched louder.
“Paul?” I said. “Are you all right?”
“Never better,” he said. He was squeezing my hands very hard. It hurt a little. I wasn’t wearing gloves. He would not let go. He was still cradling me against him. My ears began to hurt from the whine of the wind. What was that sound? I closed my eyes and strained to hear, and realized that I was actually hearing a voice. The whining noise in my ears wasn’t the wind: it was Shawna. She was screaming and screaming, and I realized she was screaming my name.
“Paul?” I said, “What’s that?”
“It’s nothing. Keep your eyes closed.”
“Because I asked you to.”
My fingers went numb. “Shawna is calling me.”
“We’re almost finished.”
“My hands hurt a little. Can you let go?”
“In a minute.”
Shawna’s screams got louder. “But Paul—”
I opened my eyes. I saw that my hands were covered in blood. I tried to move them and I couldn’t. I looked back and saw Shawna standing in the door of the house with Eric, and they were both screaming for me, and I saw Eric’s face, horrified. I saw the tracks in the snow too, tracks like an animal might leave, but bigger and deeper. Paul put a hand over my eyes. “What are they scared of?” I said.
“Monsters,” said Paul.
“I’m safe with you, aren’t I?”
I was warm inside, even though I felt cold all over. I thought about what he said: “Monsters.” I remembered Paul bursting out of the snow bank when we were kids, roaring while I ran and screamed. I’d been so scared, but it was all right: The monster was just Paul.
The monster was Paul…
I looked up. Paul was gone. Instead I saw—
It was tall, very tall, so tall that its head scraped the trees, and it was so thin that there was hardly any flesh on its body at all; just a bag of bones. I remember its big, luminous eyes, like moons. And it had so many teeth, and its mouth was full of blood, and so were its great paws with their long, bony fingers.
I looked at my own hands. There wasn’t much left of them.
And now I screamed too.
The wind took my screams away, so I ran. I ran, feet churning the snow, and when I fell I got back up and ran again. Eric caught me halfway and pulled me with him into the house. Shawna was still staring at the thing by the tent, but then we passed her and she ran too. The wind picked up stronger than ever and for the first time I heard the words in it:
The wind was calling my name.
Eric slammed the door and locked it, and then locked the back door too. Shawna checked to make sure all the windows were locked. All the while they were shouting and screaming: What was that thing, what was it, where did it go?
I sat on the rug, looking at my hands; I didn’t feel any pain. I felt tranquil. I thought about what I’d heard about hypothermia victims, how at some point they just give up and accept it, lying down and dying peacefully, as if they were taking a nap. Shawna got the first aid kit and tried to help, but there wasn’t much she could do. She used up all the gauze, and I ended up with two bloody, immobile mittens. I looked at them as if they belonged to someone else. Everything seemed like it was happening behind thick glass. I’d learned about the symptoms of clinical shock (Acute Stress Reaction) in class, and my lecture notes tumbled through my head, rattling around in the empty space where my thoughts should be.
Shawna was talking to me. She asked me, what was that thing? I said, “It was Paul.” Shawna’s eyes went wide, and her lower lip trembled. “It was Paul,” I said again, and she actually slapped me, though I barely felt it. She was about to do it again when Eric jumped in.
“It was,” he said.
Shawna blinked at him and then she stood up, face all in a rage, but Eric didn’t back down. “
I saw it,” he said. “It looked like Paul when we first went out, and then it changed. You saw it too. You know you did.”
Shawna was shaking and ashen, but she sat down. It was hard to argue with Eric, because it was hard to think of him ever lying about anything. If Eric said it, you knew it was true.
Before anyone could say more there was a knock at the door. It was very light and very soft, but everyone jumped. And then there came a noise at the back door, a thumping and a crashing; it was the wind, of course, but not normal wind. Rather, it was like all the wind of the storm was aimed at that door all at once, and the house rattled.
And then we heard it, plain as day: Paul’s voice at the front door.
“Hi guys. Can you open up?”
No one moved. The wind hit the house again and Paul knocked some more, like a tiny echo to the enormous sound. “Come on and open the door,” he said. Still no one moved.
Paul kind of sighed. “Okay,” he said, and then the wind picked up, and this time it was on every side, and it pushed the walls and ceiling in, like a giant fist around the whole house. The rafters creaked until they sounded like they would splinter and we heard the glass crack in the windows, and chunks of rock fell down inside the chimney and the sound was like being inside the mouth of a big, roaring animal.
I covered my ears, and Eric lost his footing and fell when the house shook, and finally Shawna ran forward and opened the door. When she did the wind stopped, and Paul was standing there on the porch, hands in his pockets, his normal self, smiling.
“Hey, sis,” he said.
Shawna didn’t move. She didn’t react. I realized I’d never seen her scared before. I thought I should tell her to close the door, that it would be better to take our chances with the storm, that if he could come in on his own or knock the house down that he would have already, but everything was still happening from the other side of the thick pane of glass that separated me from the world, so I couldn’t.
“Is Eric in there?” Paul said.
“Paul…” said Shawna. Her voice was very small.
“I really need to talk to him. Just take a second. Not a big thing. Eric?”
Eric stood on wobbly legs. He went halfway to the door and stopped.
“’sup bro?” said Paul. He smiled wider and I saw flecks of red between his teeth.
“What do you want?” said Eric. His voice was quiet, but steady.
“Eric; you stole my girl, didn’t you?”
Eric shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
“Sure it is,” said Paul, still smiling. “I understand, though. I was gone a while. That doesn’t make it okay, but I should have expected something like this.”
“Paul, leave him alone,” said Shawna.
“Shut up, sis.” Paul took a step forward, so that he was just at the threshold. “Thing is, I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t want anyone else to get hurt,” he said. “I’m…I’m sorry about what happened out there already. I don’t want any more of that. I figure, let’s just settle this, you and me. You know: man to man. And the girls can go home. Sound okay?”
Eric said nothing, but he edged a little closer to the door. Shawna tried to push him back. “Eric, no, just stay here,” she said. “He can’t hurt us if we’re in here, I mean look at him, he can’t even come in.”
“Sure I can,” said Paul. “I’m just staying out here because it’s safer for you. If I come in, people will get hurt.”
“People are already hurt,” said Shawna.
“All the more reason I don’t want any more.” Paul shrugged, like he always did. “Come on Eric, what do you say? You want to see everyone else go home, right?”
“Yeah,” said Eric. He took another step, and now Shawna wrapped her arms around his waist to try and hold him in place.
“It’ll be all right, man,” said Paul. He put his hand out. “I promise, it’ll be all right.”
“Eric!” said Shawna, but as she pushed him she slipped on some of the melted snow on the floor. I watched it all happen in slow motion: Shawna falling and Eric going to grab her and then slipping too, and then Paul reaching in, his arm becoming very long and his hand becoming huge, and the whites of Eric‘s eyes growing large as that great claw dragged him away. I think I tried to stand and help, to grab his arm and pull him in and maybe save him. But I just couldn’t.
With a howl of wind the door slammed shut, and they were both gone. Everything was quiet. Even the wind and the snow stopped.
Shawna stood up and ran after them, but when she opened the door again there was nothing but the storm and those huge, animal-like tracks in the snow. She called Eric’s name over and over. The wind called it back. If it weren’t for me, I’m sure Shawna would have tried to chase them and probably never would have come back. Instead she locked the door again and we huddled together on the living room floor, crying quietly. Falling chimney debris had smothered the fire, but the embers still glowed, like dozens of tiny, winking red eyes, watching us.
Shawna was saying that Eric might come back. She obviously didn’t believe it, but you had to hope. I watched the seconds tick off the clock one by one. An hour passed. There was no sign of Eric, or of Paul. Then, at a quarter after the hour, we heard the wind again. The house shuddered. The beast was hungry.
After thinking for a while, Shawna said it was time for us to make a break for it. She said that even if the sheriff’s deputies got out here that there wouldn’t be anything they could do. Only in town would be safe, she said, though her tone sounded doubtful about even that. She told me to wait here while she warmed up the car, that I’d be safer inside. In my right mind I would probably have objected to being left alone, but as it was I just nodded.
I didn’t have long to wait anyway, as Shawna came back within minutes, telling me that the car was gone. She gave no further explanation, just “The car is gone,” and I nodded and accepted this, thinking that if Paul could bring the house down on us and carry Eric off right in front of us there was no reason he couldn’t spirit the car away too.
“Why is he doing this?” Shawna said. “That’s not Paul. Paul wouldn’t do this.”
“Yes he would,” I said. It was the first thing I’d said in a while and it startled us both. I looked at my hands (not hands anymore, really) as I talked. “You know how Paul was: selfish, hot-tempered, and a showoff. I loved him more than anyone, but you know how he was. We all knew.”
Shawna shook her head. “Paul wouldn’t hurt people.”
“You don’t know what he’d do if he had to. No one knows what they might do.”
Shawna was quiet for a while. The wind grew louder. She seemed to be making a decision, and finally she said, “We still have to run for it. If the car is gone so is most of our food, and if this storm lasts the snow could trap us in here. There’s a ranger station on the map, a few miles away. We might be able to make it.” She hesitated. “You can stay if you want to. I mean, I’m not going to make you go out there. It‘s dangerous either way.”
“Is it more dangerous in or out?” I said.
Shawna shook her head. “I don’t know.”
I nodded. “All right. Let’s go then.”
We raided the hall closet, piling on as many layers of old winter clothes as we could. Shawna had to help me with every little button and zipper, since I couldn’t grab onto anything. We found one pair of gloves big enough to fit over my bandages; I looked like I was wearing oven mitts. I was finally starting to feel the pain. The bandages had almost bled through now, and I wondered how much more blood I could afford to lose. Then I decided it probably didn’t matter.
Shawna went to the kitchen and came back with a carving knife, one that looked like it was probably older than the house. It was ridiculous to think we could protect ourselves with something that looked like it wouldn’t make a dent in a Thanksgiving turkey, but it was that or go out empty-handed. In my mind, I made a decision: If something happened, I wouldn’t try to run away. I probably couldn’t make it on my own; Shawna had a better chance. So if it came down to it, I’d do whatever I could to make sure she got away instead of me. This decision I made still from behind the glass, still with my mind not wholly conscious, still not fully grasping or believing what was happening to us, and what was about to happen.
Shawna went ahead of me, holding the best flashlight in one hand and the knife in the other. The map was in her back pocket, though she’d shown me where the ranger station was and roughly how I could get there, in case we were separated. I could hold a flashlight, albeit unsteadily, if I used both hands, so she gave me the second-best one and told me to keep behind her. God, it was so cold that night. I’ve never really felt warm again. That cold is down in my bones and it’s never coming out.
No matter which way we went the wind blew in our faces, the ice and the snow stinging our eyes. The drifts were almost three feet high and every step took the effort of five. Shawna had tied an old coat around her waist and another around mine, tying the sleeves together. It was a smart move, since visibility was so bad that I lost sight of the house a hundred yards out. The entire world was a cold, wet, windy void, blank white in every direction. I tried not to think about where we were going. Forward was whichever way Shawna said it was. I knew we were doing to die. Shawna must have known too, but she would never sit down and wait for it to happen. She would die on her feet. I would die following her.
At first I couldn’t figure out why we’d stopped, and then I followed the beam of her flashlight and saw the bones half-buried in the snow. There wasn’t really anything left to tell by, but it must have been Eric. The skeleton was almost spotless, hardly even a stain on it, as though even every drop of blood had been licked away after the rest was gone. For some reason this made me stop, and even when Shawna was urging me on, even when she was begging and then screaming at me to keep moving, I couldn’t stop staring at those bones.
There was so little blood, you see; not like with Karina’s body at all. I wondered how that was possible. Shawna sounded like she was a million miles away. I thought about those huge hands splitting the carcass open, and those teeth stripping the flesh, and that big, rough, sandpaper tongue (I had forgotten about its tongue until just that moment) licking everything clean, but what about what had spilled? The snow here should be a mess of spilled blood. If the bones hadn’t been buried yet then neither should the blood, so where was it all?
Shawna slapped me again, and I was beginning to get annoyed at her. And then I saw something else, and I started to laugh, hysterical. “Don’t you see?” I said. “It really is Paul, it has to be, just look at that!”
I pointed to some furrows nearby, furrows that looked as if long, thin fingers had dug out handfuls of snow. “Remember when we were kids, and we used to throw hot caramel onto the snow and watch it freeze, and then scoop it up and eat it, like your grandmother showed us?” I went on. “You see, that’s what he did with the blood, so that he didn’t waste a drop. He scooped up the bloody snow and he ate it, just like we did with the caramel when we were kids. It’s really him, it‘s really Paul. He’s here. He’s out there. He’s…”
I trailed off. I started to cry. My hands hurt so much. The glass broke, and the world came back into focus, and God, I wish it hadn’t.
Shawna was hugging me, and then shaking me, then telling me we had to keep moving or we’d die, and I knew she was right. But I also knew it didn’t matter, because I heard it again:
The wind was calling my name.
The storm suddenly grew calm, and when we looked up there was Paul, right in front of us, like he’d been waiting for us. Shawna tried to push me behind her but I was rooted to the spot. Paul smiled a little and gestured, and then I was walking forward. Shawna stood in front of me but I pushed past her. I was at peace inside again, like the hypothermia victims lying down to sleep. The pain in my hands was gone and I couldn’t feel the cold anymore. All I could think about was Paul. He was putting his arms out, waiting to hold me, and I wanted to be held, to make up for all the late nights I’d spent alone, crying, thinking about him, praying (to no one at all; I never prayed in my life until Paul disappeared) that he was still alive but knowing that it was impossible. Shawna was telling me to stop, and then she was screaming at Paul. He told her, “Go on, Shawna; leave. You’re still my sister. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Paul, no!” said Shawna. “Paul, come on, stop, just stop!” I took a few more steps. Paul smiled. I wanted to tell Shawna to forget it, that I never would have made it anyway. Maybe I even did and she just wasn’t listening. “Take me instead,” Shawna said.
“I can’t,” said Paul. His expression faltered for a second. “You’re family. Family is different.”
“She’s family too,” said Shawna.
“Not really,” said Paul. “Not anymore. Not since we…”
He looked pained then, and I stopped walking, and I felt a little stab just under my heart. My tears froze.
I knew that Paul planned that trip with his friends so that he could get away from me for a week, and at the time I resented him for it, but even back then I recognized how much pain he was in. It hurt him not knowing how we were anymore or what we were to each other, and he was confused by trying to be friends and family and lovers all at once; because when you try to be everything to someone you end up as nothing.
Paul, or whatever was left of Paul now, wanted to be with me, just like he used to; but, just like he used to, he also couldn’t bear the thought. And now he finally had a solution: to make me part of him, so that we could be both together and separate, finally, at last. It was a beautiful idea; in a horrible way.
Shawna ran straight into me and finally succeeded in pushing me down. I fell on my back and sank in the snow, just like with the ill-fated snow angel of our childhood, and then Shawna cut the knot tying us together and screamed “Run!” and threw herself at Paul.
She barreled right into him and they fell in a heap, and I saw her raising the knife and bringing it down, and then I saw that huge shape rise up, grappling her, pushing her down, disarming her, and then Shawna was screaming, and I ran.
I ran and ran, feet churning the snow. I ran blindly through forest, and the trees rose up around me, and all of them were monsters, and they shuddered and shook in the wind, and the wind no longer called my name. Instead the wind just screamed. It screamed and screamed, and I screamed with it.
And, in a way, I’ve never stopped screaming.
I should have died.
Between being lost, having no real protection from the storm, and all the blood I’d lost, they say there’s no way I should have survived. Somehow I got to the main road, and the deputies who fought the storm to answer Shawna’s call about Karina found me. I was raving and hysterical, and I spent four days in intensive care before I even fully regained consciousness.
I should have died. They call it a miracle.
There wasn’t anything they could do to save my hands, of course. It’s all right. I have a nurse now who helps with the little things I can’t do, like typing this. They tell me that the pain will fade eventually. Phantom pain, they call it. They don’t know how right they are.
I told the police everything. There was no lie I could imagine that would account for it all, so I told the truth instead. They humored me, of course. Everyone humors the crazy woman.
Two days after I was found, a rancher shot a bear on his porch, the same bear they believed attacked a hiker the night Shawna and Eric and Karina died, and all the deaths were blamed on the animal. A man-eating bear was a story everyone could be comfortable with; not like my crazy story about how my ex boyfriend came back from the dead and killed everyone. True or not, no one was ever going to rest easy with that story. So they believed what they wanted
I have a psychiatrist who tells me that it’s perfectly normal to invent delusions as a defense mechanism. The trauma of losing so many people close to me in such a short period of time leads the mind to cope through fantasies, she says.
She also explained about the wendigo: Certain Algonquin-speaking tribes had stories about people who became monsters after resorting to cannibalism in the winter. The wendigo was half-man, half-spirit, and it moved with the wind. It was all skin and bones because it was cursed with a hunger that could never be satisfied, a man and a monster at war with itself for all eternity.
It was a story to enforce the taboo against cannibalism, she explained, so that no one got any crazy ideas during bad winters. She said that I might have heard wendigo stories before (even if I don’t remember them) and that my subconscious mind probably adapted them to the trauma I experienced, as a way to reconcile my grief over Paul with the pain of losing my other friends. It almost makes sense when she says it. But I don’t buy it.
The wendigo story gets me to thinking about Paul sometimes, though, and about how four other people went up the mountain with him, and how they found everyone’s bones but his.
Bones that had been gnawed on.
I think about how he must have been trapped out there for weeks and weeks while the search parties combed every part of the mountain except where he was. I remember how it felt when I was lost in the cold, and how dying in the cold seemed like the most awful thing in the world, and how I felt like I might do anything to keep from dying that way. And Paul, well, he might have done anything too, while he was trapped with no food and no way to get help.
Maybe the others were already dead by the time he got to that point. Then again, maybe they weren’t.
And who could blame him? After all, he’d never heard of the wendigo. He couldn’t have known what would happen.
Not much has changed for me. I’ve gotten older. I’m cold all the time, no matter what the weather is like, but I’m used to it now. I still have nightmares, but they’re not so bad. The phantom pain isn’t so bad either. Mostly it’s the wind that gets to me.
There are still nights—usually winter nights, when I know that it’s snowing way up in the mountains—when I think I hear the wind call my name. No matter where I am or what I’m doing or how hard I try to hide from it, the wind calls my name.
And some nights, when I stay up late and watch the trees sway back and forth and try to remember if all of those shapes had been there when the sun went down, when the pain in my wrists is the worst, and when I think about Paul, and Shawna, and Eric, and poor Karina…
On nights like that, when the wind calls my name, I call back. And it comforts me.