A tropical retreat in Cozumel full of sun bathing or scuba diving? Kayaking with the whales, or sky diving in Nova Scotia? Or how about that eerie and highly illegal trip into the Paris catacombs where Holestead paid the fine eagerly without batting an eyelash almost as if he had the check ready to go beforehand. None of the above. This year the eccentric CEO of Global Gaming Conglomerate, Leon Holestead, chose the coldest, darkest, and most desolate landscape imaginable for his leadership conference and team building seminar. Besides the locale, it was the same old thing: two teams guided by Holestead with a series of lectures and dumb tasks. The only reason people came were to get in good with the boss and see the sights… sights that would be woefully lacking this year. As always, it was all expenses paid… but that didn’t make Gretchen Knight feel any better about it. Nor, it seemed, did that seem to matter to those others forced to go on the outing to Alaska’s Mount McKinley.
“McKinley was President just before Roosevelt… the good one,” Harlan Ross lectured to himself and those designated to “Red Team,” which consisted of Gretchen, Harlan and four other poor fools. Blue Team had it easy, as they didn’t have a know-it-all like Harlan to keep them company, “He got shot by an anarchist. Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have had ole Teddy. You know, they should have named that mountain after Teddy, or William Seward. After all, it was Seward that bought…”
“For the love of God!” Gretchen sighed as she laced her climbing boots, already longing for her high heels back in the hotel room. “Just stop already! No one cares. The less you talk, the quicker these three days will go.”
Harlan ceased and peered down at the new Global Gaming Conglomerate tablet in his hand, the GGC logo with a psychedelic colored palm tree next to it, “Do you all think we’ll have WiFi signals up there? I heard this thing reaches pretty far, but this seems a little extreme.”
“Aren’t you in the programming division?” Gretchen hoisted a large red pack onto her back. “That should be a question you’d be able to answer yourself.”
“I do games, not… whatever this is,” Harlan turned the tablet over several times.
“With any luck,” Leon Holestead interrupted them, “that will run out of juice before the end of the second day. Come on, Harlan. It’s all part of the team building experience! Put the technology away and embrace your natural instincts; put trust in your fellow man.”
Harlan and Gretchen sized each other up in silent disgust.
“Now hurry everyone,” Holestead urged both the Red and Blue teams. “Sunrise is only a few minutes away, and we will only have about five and half hours of it.
“Sounds like poor planning,” Gretchen mumbled a little too loudly than she intended for the benefit of a fellow female director from Milwaukee. After several years of these annual get togethers, Gretchen still couldn’t remember her name. To Gretchen it didn’t matter, Milwaukee probably didn’t remember her name either, and regardless, both of them got along fairly well.
“Nothing of the sort,” Holestead corrected. “Perfectly timed for the Winter Solstice. There is something to be said about a mountain in the nighttime. Beauty and intrigue that one can’t get from some yacht in Mexico.”
“But Mexico doesn’t have wolves, bears, and frostbite,” Gretchen added.
“Personally,” Harlan added his two cents, “either one is a hazard waiting to happen. Toes falling off out here, or skin cancer on the beach. Maybe next year we can go to Mayberg, the most haunted town in America. At least then we can stay inside…”
“Oh, listen to you two,” Holestead shook his head. “Sure, this isn’t going to be the same as past years, but let that be your team’s first lesson: It is all a matter of perspective. When we find ourselves rehashing the same issue, or coming by hard times, all one might need to do is flip their perspective around.”
And so the lectures began. In the emails sent two months before the date of departure, Holestead outlined his grandiose plan. Every so many miles into the mountains, he had designated GPS waypoints where they would stop and both teams would engage in a new team building exercise. Each one was accompanied by some all important seminar about an aspect of GGC’s expectations and goals. Usually Holestead got away with his unbearably cheesy rhetoric, but in the cold with snow past their shins, his employees were less than enthusiastic. Despite wearing gloves, Gretchen’s manicured fingertips were already beginning to dry out and crack. The long treks between waypoints proved that progressing up the mountain was strenuous and more difficult than even Holestead seemed to expect. Now at waypoint five, they had sloshed through the snow for four hours.
“Maybe we should take a three minute break before continuing,” Holestead sat down on a snow covered log as his breaths created white wisps in front of his face.
Gretchen moaned and sank against a tree trunk, happy to be off her feet again. She tried connecting to the internet through her phone, but found the bars to be too low.
“I’ve got a connection,” Harlan offered his tablet. “What are you trying to look up?”
“When is the snow going to melt?” she huffed facetiously.
“Oh, that’s not going to be for a while,” Harlan did not catch her sarcasm, “especially not until the blizzard has come and gone.”
“Blizzard!” Gretchen stood up and slapped the snow off herself. “What blizzard?”
Harlan stared back at her meekly, “I… told Holestead before we left. I thought that everyone knew…”
Before he could finish, Gretchen trudged through the snow as quickly as she could toward the eccentric CEO.
“You all have done a beautiful job so far. If only Red Team could garner so much enthusiasm for…” Holestead paused when he saw Gretchen approach. “Gretchen, what may I do for you?”
“A blizzard?” Gretchen crossed her arms and tucked her numbed fingers into her armpits. “And you knew!”
“Now, now,” Holestead gave a weak grin, “I know how it sounds, but it’s only a little storm, and won’t be coming around til about midnight. By then we’ll already be tucked in and…”
“A little storm?” a balding man on Blue Team groaned as others approached to listen in. “There’s no such thing as a ‘little’ storm.”
“It’s not that bad,” Holestead reassured. “I checked the weather reports beforehand and…”
“I vote we go back down the mountain now, while we still have daylight,” Gretchen raised a hand. “Who’s with me?”
“All right,” Holestead gave in after several persons on both teams nodded in agreement with the upstart. “How about this: I can’t force you all to stay given the conditions. But… if you do, then I’ll add to your Christmas bonus.”
“I can take the group back that doesn’t want to stay,” Harlan entered the conversation late, still wielding his tablet. “I’ve been setting up GPS waypoints every fifty feet or so, we could follow them back like a trail of bread crumbs.”
“Hey,” a short red head from corporate asked, “I want to hear more about the bonuses.”
Holestead stood up straight, “Let’s say, three thousand for everyone who stays. An extra five hundred if you try to have a little fun while you’re here too.”
Seeing that the tide turned against her, Gretchen threw up her hands, “Are you people seriously going to go along with this? Do you know how cold it will get?”
Some people shifted their weight, unwilling to give up the promised gifts. Holestead sensed this and added, “I guess we better get moving before the storm gets here then. Just a couple more checkpoints, and I promise that we can tent up for the night and get a fire started. How about it, teams?”
Everyone except for Harlan and Gretchen relented. As everyone prepared to get on the move again, Harlan whispered to Gretchen, “You know, we can still head back… He said we could go.”
Considering her options, Gretchen realized that grinning and bearing it through the cold she would be able to maintain sanity by sticking close to people she could get along with. However, if she departed, then it would be several hours of listening to Harlan drone on and on about topics of zero interest to her. Gretchen did not reply, but rather pushed past him and toward the front of their group.
As twilight peaked hours later, their group stopped for the final team exercise of the day. Like most of Leon Holestead’s group activities, this too was juvenile. Harlan and Gretchen had to participate as a duo in a trust exercise. Holestead tied a blindfold over her eyes and instructed Harlan to guide her around trees and drifts to grab a flag, then back again. The activity went more or less well for others, but Gretchen found following Harlan’s verbal commands to be as painful as pulling teeth.
“All right turn…,” Harlan attempted a third time.
“This way?” she said, placing an arm in front of her to keep from running into anything.
“Right… no I mean correct. No, turn back,” Harlan bit his upper lip. “Turn to your three o’clock.”
“Three o’clock?” Gretchen tripped on a buried rock and fell face first into the snow. “Goddamn it, Harlan!”
She tore the blindfold off and stumbled back onto her feet, snow leaking down her collar as she did so. For a moment Gretchen felt like crying with frustration and hatred of the mountain, “Give me real directions, idiot!”
“I did!” Harlan took a step back to avoid her wrath. “It’s like the hands on a clock… you know… twelve is straight ahead, six is straight back…”
“Shut up!” Gretchen threw the blindfold into the snow and returned to the group. “Just shut up! I’m done!”
“Okay…” Holestead looked to the others. “Point goes to the Blue Team. Better luck tomorrow Red. I think this is as good a place to set up camp as any other. Does everyone remember who their tent companion is?”
Harlan high fived a fellow programmer, as others less enthusiastically paired up. To Gretchen’s pleasure, she got the director from Milwaukee.
“So, Gretchen, have you ever set one of these up?”
The theory that Milwaukee might not remember her name got thrown out the window.
“Too long ago to matter,” Gretchen replied. “Tab A into Slot B?”
“Something like that,” Milwaukee shrugged and took her pack off with Gretchen. As her bunk mate took out the camping gear, Gretchen noticed a lace snowflake pinned just below Milwaukee’s collar.
“Is that standard issue now?” Gretchen gestured at the addition to Milwaukee’s garment.
“Ha ha, no,” Milwaukee tapped the snowflake. “My niece made that. Told me to wear it when I was ‘playing in the snow.’ Little kids and their innocence, right?”
“Yeah… right,” Gretchen let the conversation drop. Kids were not, and would never be, a subject matter she found worth pursuing in conversation.
Both continued their banter as they took out the tent and camping materials, each woman longing to be wrapped up in a warm blanket again far away from here. After several minutes of struggling with a red nose and chilled fingers to boot, Gretchen was no closer to achieving her dream of warmth. She looked over her shoulder at the others and found Harlan and his companion already zipping up their completed tent and jabbering about a new virtual reality game design.
“Can you believe those two?” Gretchen grumbled to Milwaukee. “How can they pretend that this isn’t one of the most miserable things they’ve ever done?”
“It helps when you have ADD,” Milwaukee stomped a stake into the snow, nearly knocking herself off balance.
“Is everyone done yet?” Holestead called out from where he’d started a campfire. “If you are, come gather round for a quick presentation, then we’ll delve into another part of good ole fashioned Americana.”
Milwaukee and Gretchen eyed their haphazardly constructed tent and shrugged. Fire meant warmth… the tent could wait til later.
“…and that is why the mountain is so important. It is a metaphor for our journey as a company and the road to expansion and progression,” Holestead concluded, sensing some of the team already closing their eyes out of boredom. “Okay then! This is a campsite, and this is a campfire! So how about we swap some spooooky stories?”
“I’ve got one,” a corporate exec stated. “Thirteen people were stranded on a mountain, freezing their buns off, and became human icicles. The end.”
“Yes… well,” Holestead said glumly. “Seriously though, does anyone have a story to share? Anyone? Don’t be shy.”
Several of them looked from one to the other, but no one stepped up to participate.
“Fine then,” Holestead rubbed his hands together and placed his face closer to the fire. “I’ve got one.”
“Great…” Gretchen mumbled to Milwaukee. “Thirty bucks says it’s about ‘team building.’”
“You’re on,” Milwaukee nudged her.
“It’s about the Windego!” Holestead’s face appeared sinister in the flames.
“The what?” someone asked.
Holestead tried again, this time accidentally burning himself in his proximity to the flame, “The Windego! A ravenous beast that scours the Alaskan wilderness!”
“No,” Harlan interrupted as he pressed a few buttons on his tablet and scrolled down, “I’m pretty sure it’s only in Eastern Canada and New England.”
“Well this one’s in Alaska,” Holestead tried ignoring him, “and has been seen right here on Mt. McKinley!”
“When?” Harlan raised an eyebrow. “I can’t find anything on that.”
“It doesn’t matter when,” Holestead did his best not to break character, but now he began to crack. “It only matters that it happened… right here of all places!”
“It doesn’t matter?” Harlan repeated. “Of course it matters. How am I supposed to verify the story if I don’t have the details?”
“You’re not supposed to verify it, Harlan,” Holestead sighed and tossed a stick into the fire. The twig crackled and popped as his voice took on a more exacerbated tone, “Spooky stories aren’t supposed to be true. They are supposed to be fun.”
“Oh…” Harlan put his tablet down, then whispered to the person on his right. “How is something supposed to be fun if it isn’t true?”
“Moving on,” Holestead ignored Harlan and proceeded uninterrupted. “The Windego was once a man, a gold prospector, who got lost with his team up in the mountains. For weeks they tried shooting game or trying to find their way back to civilization, but to no avail. The storms were too thick, and the temperature was so cold that the triggers of their guns froze in place. All the men grew weak and weary with no food to comfort them. After a month, their skin pulled against their bones, causing them to look like haggard skeletons.”
Gretchen leaned against the trunk of a tree and closed her eyes, less than amused at Holestead’s attempts to frighten them.
“An idea stirred in the prospector’s mind,” Holestead tried his best to look menacing in the flames, but for the most part, failed. “Not all of them were going to survive, he surmised, so it was only a matter of luring one away to fill his belly. So, when the sun went down, the prospector led one of the men away from the others and down a ridge. He throttled the poor man and ate to his fill. A few days later, of still no game, the prospector led another away… again, killing him in the night and eating him. It did not take long for the last two to see what was going on, but by then it was too late.”
“Idiots,” Harlan whispered. “You know this story is contrived when the characters in it act like buffoons.”
Holestead continued, “One by one the prospector picked all their bones clean. Shortly thereafter the snow began to thaw and the streams started to trickle. Birds and small animals returned, but the prospector could not stomach the taste of any of them. One day, he looked into a newly melting stream and saw his reflection for the first time. What once was a man, was now a misshapen creature with glowing yellow eyes, razor-like fingernails, and skin so taut that it looked like dried leather! Native Americans gave him a name… the Windego!”
“You mean, ‘a’ windego,” Harlan prodded the campfire’s flames with a stick. “I mean, there isn’t just one. Like I said before, it’s an old legend from out east. Some dumb pioneer tale to warn against cannibalizing.”
“And there goes the punch line, thanks again, Harlan,” Holestead shook his head, then recomposed himself for the real conclusion to his story. “And the windego has eaten lost campers ever since!”
“I don’t get it,” Harlan interjected. “He was just a mortal, right? Why is he still living?”
“I don’t know… magic?” Holestead shrugged. “It’s just a story, Harlan. I made it up. It was just a campfire story… you know, for fun. Oh forget it… all right everybody. I guess you all want to get some sleep.”
Holestead hung his head and flicked some snow into the fire, “Though, I strongly suggest better attitudes in the morning. This trip could be a lot of fun if you just give it a chance.”
Later that night, curled up in her sleeping bag, Gretchen dreamt of a continental breakfast in a hotel whose heater was turned all the way up. It comforted her to know that the trip was almost half over, and then it was back home again. A part of her wanted to feel sorry for Holestead, but at the same time, it was him who made these bad plans to begin with.
Wind whipped through the pine trees as the blizzard picked up in speed. More than a few times, Gretchen heard a branch snap and come tumbling to the ground far off. In their tent, she and Milwaukee were shielded from most of the wind’s icy cold blasts. Despite the howling of wind, sleep wasn’t impossible to attain.
Milwaukee and Gretchen sat bolt upright at the sound, like an explosion. Through the howls of the wind, a rumbling sound approached. The closer the rumbles got, the more their tent shook violently from side to side.
“What is that?” Milwaukee’s face drained of all color.
“I don’t know,” Gretchen listened intently as campers unzipped their tents and walked out. Tree limbs snapped near them. A pained shout rang out after a branch plummeted downward.
“Oh God,” someone said. “It landed on their tent.”
“Quick,” Holestead’s voice commanded through the storm, “someone help me get this off of them.”
“Should we go and help them?” Milwaukee asked, crawling over to their own zipped door.
Gretchen latched onto Milwaukee’s wrist to keep her in place, “No… it’s too dangerous.”
The rumbling grew louder, and now came with the distinctive sound of cracking timber.
A scream uncleared their minds fully, “AVALANCHE!”
Milwaukee’s eyes widened and looked to Gretchen, but before any words could be said, their tent’s roof caved inward. Everything happened so quickly that it was all a blur to Gretchen. One minute Milwaukee returned the clutch Gretchen had on her wrist, and the next both of them were crushed by several hundred pounds of snow. Before the avalanche struck them, several screams had begun, but were all abruptly cut off in one fell swoop. In a confusing blur, Gretchen and Milwaukee were swept up and tumbled head over foot in the ripping vinyl of their tent. Their bodies twisted and rolled, but yet their hands remained latched tightly together. Cracks and snaps, both near and far, joined in the rumbling of the avalanche, and Gretchen felt a spike of pain jam through her left arm. Though the pain ripped through Gretchen’s body, their hands remained locked.
In one of the violent rolls, the tent ripped apart completely. A heavy mass of snow and ice swarmed around them, cutting off their screams. Their descent down the slope slowed, but not until one more quick jerk that caused that put Milwaukee just below Gretchen. Finally the movement of the avalanche ceased and the two women were left in iced over silence.
Snow covered Gretchen completely, compacting tightly about her body. She tried moving her legs or arms, but found that she was so deeply buried that movement was impossible. Only her fingers were able to move, and then only the tiniest bit. Elsewhere, Milwaukee must have come to the same realization as a deepening fear set into both of them: they were buried alive. In a claustrophobic ridden panic, Gretchen inhaled snow through her mouth and nostrils… trying desperately to get a breath. The sheer cold against her face and body added to the pained desperation. She tried screaming, but more ice and snow fell into her mouth with the effort. Milwaukee flexed her fingers around Gretchen’s hand multiple times, no doubt out of the same miserable hysteria that overtook her companion. No matter how desperately they tried, the snow would not allow them to budge from its freezing cold prison.
Somewhere over top of her, something scratched and crunched through the snow. Was someone coming to get her? Gretchen tried crying out again, but whoever tore into the frozen ground seemed not to notice. As suddenly as it came, the sound disappeared. Tears streamed from Gretchen’s eyes as her struggle to breath came to an end. Her breath grew shorter and shorter until her lungs realized there was no more oxygen to take in. Gretchen’s heart raced as her throat and air passages locked up. Wide-eyed, Gretchen felt her body give in to suffocation. Things grew calm as the panic subsided along with her will to fight. Gretchen’s body grew weak… this was it… this was how the story ended. Milwaukee’s grip loosened for the first time until her quivering fingers became perfectly still. The weight of the snow crushed in on Gretchen’s body, so she closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. As she faded out of consciousness, a faint crunching came from above, followed by a relief of weight and pressure over her head.
There was another sound… someone spoke to her… but with snow in her ears, Gretchen couldn’t make anything out. Still with her eyes shut, Gretchen felt like sleeping. Once upon a time, Gretchen thought she would fear death… but in the calm that followed her pain, she welcomed the peace. Her cheeks stung, but it didn’t faze her. Then, there was an extreme sharp pain shooting through Gretchen’s left arm. She screamed and came to.
“Oh shit… I’m sorry… I…” it was Harlan laying over her, his face a cut up mess of blood and scrapes. “I’ve got to get you out… okay?”
“Harlan? Harlan? What happened?” Gretchen’s frozen eyes streamed ice cold tears. “WHAT HAPPENED?”
Her frantic screams made him cringe, but Harlan fought through his own pain to free her body from the snow. When he freed Gretchen up to her belly, Harlan bid her to take hold of his arm with her good hand. Once they gripped each other tight, Harlan crawled backward, pulling her out the rest of the way. When her legs came out of the snow drift, Gretchen only had a few seconds to see the unmoving hand of Milwaukee before loose snow filled in the gap. Gretchen flipped onto her belly and dry heaved saliva and swallowed snow onto the ground, then laid onto her side sobbing uncontrollably.
Grimacing and panting through his own physical torture, Harlan crawled backward to half buried timber and rested against it. The stars above them continued to shine as if nothing had happened. Elsewhere in the universe, things continued on in peace. Gretchen observed him lean back as if dazed and half asleep, not fully comprehending his distress.
“Harlan…” Gretchen still shook with fear and despair, but was beginning to regain herself. “Where is everyone else?”
“I don’t know… The avalanche knocked me out… But I assume somebody else made it,” Harlan pointed behind her to a human-sized depression in the snow field where someone appeared to have dug themselves out. A shallow set of footprints led away from the hole and into the forest.
“I hope they’re going to get help…” Gretchen considered the footprints. “How… how did you know where I was?”
“Pieces of a tent shown through… I just dug in hoping to find someone,” he admitted.
Gretchen cast her eyes to the ground, “Thank you… You saved me.”
Harlan ignored the sentiment, “I… I almost didn’t have enough energy to do that. Working under adrenaline, I guess…”
The snow inside her sleeves and clothes caused Gretchen to tremble, but she fought through it, “Harlan… we need to get the others out…”
She attempted to rip into the snow like Harlan had done, but stopped as she shrieked from the pain in her arm, “You’re going to have to do it… My arm, I think it’s… broken. Harlan, they need us…”
Harlan wiped his cheek and gestured to his right leg, “I told you… I’m done…
At first Gretchen didn’t see what he was getting at. More careful observation, though, brought to her attention a jagged, white protrusion sticking through his poofy blue pants. She was horrified by the sickly white bone covered in smatterings of red blood. A piece of her mind denied the sight entirely.
“We have to try!” Gretchen cried out of frustration, regardless of the protests, her arm allowed her no leverage. “They’re dying! Maybe they’re trying to crawl out like you did. We have to help them…”
“I tried climbing a tree when I saw the avalanche coming… I never got fully covered, only beaten up pretty bad,” Harlan hung his head in silence for a few seconds, “You were almost gone when I found you… there isn’t anyone else. We’re it… along with whoever was able to dig out and walk away.”
When he finished, Gretchen pounded the snow under her feet as a new wave of desperate screams and crying took over, “No! She was under here with me! I felt her! We have to try!”
Gretchen flung snow in every direction until she collapsed onto her belly, no longer able to fight through the pain.
“Who?” Harlan’s eyelids drooped. “Who was there?”
“I…” Gretchen paused and trembled with a new wave of grief. “She… her name was… Harlan! God damn you! Why would you ask me that?”
“Just… asking,” Harlan remained on his back, gazing up at the night sky and letting his breath slow. As quickly as it had come, the blizzard had blown out of sight, leaving the forest quite still. A thought occurred to him, and he quickly sifted through his pant’s pocket for the tablet. After taking a look at it, Harlan let it fall to the snow. The tablet’s screen was fractured in several spiderweb patterns, and its frame was cracked so severely that internal damage was a certainty.
“What do we do?” Gretchen tried to recompose herself. “Do we just wait here?”
“No,” Harlan shook his head from side to side. “We have to find some sort of shelter, or get to civilization or we’re going to freeze to death.”
“Wuh… what?” she choked through sobs and shivers. “How are we going to do that when you have only one leg?”
“Do you think that you can support me if I leaned on you?” Harlan slowly hoisted himself up, using the tree behind him for support. “It’ll still be hard… but it’s the best way.”
“Shouldn’t we make a splint for your leg first?” Gretchen watched as pained tears slid down his own cheeks for the first time.
“What are you going to make it out of?” Harlan clenched his teeth as he waved her over to help him stand. “We don’t have any straps… none of us are in a condition to dig… and the more time we waste, the more likely we are to not make it through the night.”
Gretchen nodded and stood, “We follow the footprints then? How do we know whether the person who made them knew where to go?”
For a moment he said nothing, then Harlan rose his head to lock eyes with her, “We don’t.”
The first few steps made both of them question whether this plan would work at all. Any weight that Harlan allowed on his bad leg, jarred the bone protruding through his pants. After those first barely successful attempts at progression, the two worked out a system of timing and balance so that they moved along at a slow, but consistent pace. Adding to the difficulty was that every now and then the snow would collapse under their weight, causing both Gretchen and Harlan to stumble.
“How far could they have gotten?” Gretchen gazed between the pines at the seemingly endless and straightforward set of footprints. “No one could have come out of this going that quickly.”
“Shock and adrenaline can have odd effects,” Harlan offered. “Either way, the trail is leading us down hill. Maybe we can catch up to him before all three of us freeze.”
“Harlan…” Gretchen paused, her cracked lips parted in an expression of confusion and muddled contemplation. “Have you taken a look at these tracks?”
They ceased their trek to observe the print in front of them more closely. The size of a normal human foot, the only odd thing about it at first glance were dug in points where each toe should be. Also, each print seemed to only skirt the surface of the snow, whereas the body weight of Gretchen and Harlan made them struggle through almost a foot of snow with each step.
“Cleats?” Harlan suggested.
“I… I guess…” Gretchen wasn’t convinced, but couldn’t devise her own alternate theory.
Over an hour passed as the two struggled along their way. The blistering cold stabbed their faces and numbed every portion of their bodies. Will alone kept the two survivors continuing onward, along with the knowledge that whoever’s trail they followed was created by someone who seemed to know what they were doing. After so long, Gretchen surmised that their invisible leader couldn’t be continuing on their quick pace for much longer. Every now and then, Gretchen mistook the shadows of looming pines up ahead as being their elusive trailblazer. However, after a couple blinks or approaching closer, none panned out to be humanoid.
“Wait…” Harlan put his hand to her chest. “Look…”
Gretchen followed his gaze to the trail ahead of them. The footprints continued ahead into a snowy plain surrounded by ice capped pines. Once reaching the center of the plain, the trail of prints ceased. Searching the trees and looming branches above, Gretchen sought any sign of the maker of the prints, but found nothing.
“What’s going on?” Gretchen’s shivering turned to violent trembling as the freezing cold over her limbs was supplanted by intense terror and despair. “Where is he? Where did he go?”
Harlan looked over his shoulder and tried to size up the situation, “Maybe the snow blew over the trail?”
“There hasn’t been any wind since the blizzard ended just a little after you pulled me out, and none of the other tracks were covered…” Gretchen almost let go of him as panic took over. “Hello! Are you out there? Hello! We need help! Please!”
“Stop it!” Harlan cupped a hand over her mouth. “There’s already been one avalanche today, don’t cause another. There’s no one here.”
“But the prints!” she stammered.
“Where do you think their maker went?” Harlan asked. “Into the trees? Maybe he flew away? Either way, Gretchen, we need to consider the possibility that this was just some sort of animal…”
Her eyes bulged, “But you said!”
“I was wrong…” it took a lot for him to admit to such, but at this point he had run out of options. “We should turn back… there’s no shelter here, and maybe we can dig up something useful in the morning.”
“Along with the dead bodies of our friends!” Gretchen protested. “Someone crawled out of the snow! I heard it! And we saw the evidence! He’s here! He has to be!”
Despite his pain, Harlan remained patient with her, “Then point him out… Gretchen… face it… there’s no one…”
He stopped in mid-sentence. The causation of his hesitance did not go unnoticed by Gretchen either. A sweet, peppery smell wafted into their nostrils; the scent of a meal in preparation.
“No one?” Gretchen repeated. “Come on! They have to be close!”
Taking him by the arm again for support, Gretchen led them over the top of a hill, away from the strange footprints. She followed the scent and felt a surge of energy pass through her; such that Harlan had to squeeze her arm to slow Gretchen down. Standing atop the hill, a small cabin built against the hillside came into view. A faint yellow glow came through the slats in the door frame, letting the two know that they were not alone.
“I told you!” Gretchen could barely control her excitement. “Someone was out there!”
Harlan’s ice crusted eyelids blinked twice, “It takes an adult to admit when they are wrong… and for once I am glad to acquiesce.”
Their descent down the hill caused them more distress than any other element of their journey. More than once their feet slipped on the embankment, causing Gretchen or Harlan to rely on the other to keep from tumbling down. It proved nigh impossible for Harlan to not bear some weight on his bad leg, and with every instance writhed with pain. Gretchen’s good arm grew tender with the amount of pained squeezes Harlan laid on.
Greyish white smoke billowed from the cabin’s chimney, mixing with the starry night above. At the bottom of the hill, both Gretchen and Harlan nearly forgot their pain. All around the outside of the cabin were the same footprints that had led them here; still bearing the unique cleat pattern in the toes. A pile of chopped wood laid off to the side with a double bladed ax embedded into the top most log. Nicks along the blade’s side showed its age and abuse. The nearer the duo got to the door, the more prominent the sweet smell of burning pinewood became.
“Harlan… what’s that?” Gretchen hesitated and pointed to a crude wooden spit between two trees. A pair of sheers, straight edged clippers, and a bone saw laid near the spit amidst a mass of red tinted snow.
“It’s where he cleans out the game,” Harlan shrugged.“Someone who lives all the way out here has got to do his own hunting and preparing.”
Gretchen eyed the blood stained area suspiciously, but her need for warmth and shelter overrode that of fear. They mounted a low wood porch, and Gretchen knocked on the door, “Hello. Is anyone in there? We need help… please… we’ve been out here for…”
“Shhh…” Harlan placed a finger to her lips. “Hear that?”
She waited, but could hear nothing other than that of a boiling kettle, “Hear what?”
“Exactly,” Harlan twisted the door handle. “There’s no one inside.”
With the door swung open, a breeze of warm air wafted over them. For the first time, it seemed, feeling returned to Gretchen’s fingers. Throwing caution and courtesy to the wind, both Harlan and Gretchen staggered in and closed the door behind them. Snow dripped from their stiff pants and boots onto a beaver skin doormat. Skins and animal hides hung around the room as functional appliance and decoration. Near a cracked stone fireplace was a seven foot tall coat rack with several thick coats of bear and moose skin draped over it. Before Gretchen could observe anymore, the coats bent over toward a kettle over the fire. It was then to her embarrassment and horror that she realized the rack and apparel were not inanimate objects, but a man.
Gretchen gripped Harlan’s shoulder with white knuckles as her fellow survivor spoke in a voice broken by shivers, “Sorry mister… we wouldn’t have barged in… but… it didn’t look like anyone was here…”
The hides covered every inch of the man before them to such a level that they could not even see his skin or features. Still without speaking or seemingly acknowledging that two intruders had arrived, the colossal-sized man scooped two bone white bowls into the kettle and filled them with steaming stew. Keeping his head low so that neither Gretchen nor Harlan could see his eyes, the giant set the bowls down at a table made for two, and pointed with a bear claw gloved hand at two carved spoons at either end.
“Eat,” he commanded in a raspy tone that echoed around the room.
“We can’t,” Gretchen removed her gloves and allowed her fingers freedom from their cold and damp confines. “We’re hurt bad. We need rest, bandages, a doctor…”
“Eat,” the man lifted his cloaked head and stared her to silence with yellow eyes, the rest of his visage being obscured by the skins covering him. “Eat. Then rest.”
Before Gretchen could protest anymore, the fur covered giant stepped through the doorway and disappeared into the bitter cold. As he departed the cabin, their host slammed the door behind him, causing the dishes on the table to shake.
“He’s right,” Harlan staggered to one of the wooden chairs, itself covered in deer hide. He kept his bad leg straight and winced as he lowered himself. “That meal will warm us up.”
“How did he know we were coming?” Gretchen cautiously took her own seat opposite of him.
“Maybe he heard you shouting and saw us staggering down the hill,” Harlan shrugged and examined the crudely carved spoon in his hand.
“Okay…” Gretchen hesitated to touch her spoon, bowl, or its contents. “But what about those prints, Harlan? They led us from the accident site to here… then disappeared. None of that sounds odd to you? And why didn’t he come out to help us?”
“There’s a rational explanation for everything. Besides, I already explained the footprints to you before we found the cabin,” he said with mouthfuls of the stew. “Come on now and eat up. This stuff hits the spot.”
Gretchen took the spoon in her good hand and swirled her bowl’s contents. Strips of tender white meat climbed to the surface of the steaming pasty brown water. Though chicken noodles and broth were old childhood favorites, Gretchen couldn’t stomach the thought of consuming anything. For the first time since they embarked on their journey through the forest, she had the ability to take in all that had occurred. Harlan stopped eating as she began to cry. It surprised Gretchen that Harlan seemed to take this so well. Maybe the key to his success was the constant look in his eyes that he might pass out at any moment. She held a whole new respect for the little man, as if it were her with the compound fracture… Gretchen may have just lay in the snow and allow herself to freeze to death. Yet, somehow Harlan persevered. It was a testament to human endurance… if only she could be as tough as he appeared to be.
Harlan reached across the table and clasped her hand, “Maybe you’re right, this food tastes a little stale anyway.”
“Harlan,” she sobbed, “what are we going to do? You’re… you’re leg. And I think my arm is broke too.”
“Only one way to know that for certain,” Harlan pivoted his bad leg outward. “Help me over to the fire and we’ll have a look.”
She nodded and, much as they had before, walked him to a grizzly bear rug in front of the blazing fireplace. Harlan unbuttoned his coat and tossed it onto a stool not too far away. Drenched all the way through, the heat from the fire helped offset the hypothermia and frost bite he knew were all too real concerns.
“Ow!” Gretchen cried out as she tried to remove her coat too.
“Here,” Harlan offered, and assisted in taking the garment from each arm. At this juncture, he paused before continuing. “Okay, so in order for me to take a look you need to roll the sleeve up or… take the shirt off.”
Gretchen nodded and gestured for help to take the shirt over her head. When it came to curling the shirt off her left arm, she grit her teeth and let a few more tears fall. The damage was worse than Harlan expected to see, creating a hesitated awe that did not go unnoticed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her chest beginning to heave with up coming panic. “Is it like yours?”
“No…” Harlan shook his head. “You’ve got massive bruising… from just a little left of your upper spine to your elbow.”
“Only bruising…” she sighed. “That’s not bad…”
Though he could have given a wordy description of the mass of black and purple on her backside, Harlan thought better of it, “No… it’s broke… And probably more than one bone too.”
“Shit,” Gretchen buried her head in the nook of her good arm. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“Well…” Harlan tried not looking at the jagged bone protruding from his own garment. “It’s only logical that we have to do our best to sleep until the master of the house returns. There’s nothing more we can do other than make sure our bodies get warm and nothing falls off.”
“That can happen?” she shot bolt upright.
“Take your boots and socks off,” Harlan suggested, “so you don’t have to find out.”
After helping to remove Harlan’s boots and socks, Gretchen took two musty smelling blankets from a bed that didn’t seem to have been slept in for decades. When placing the blanket on him, she noticed Harlan wince and move his broken leg out of the way.
“We need to do something about that…” she said, diverting her gaze from the exposed bone.
“Not right now,” Harlan waved her off. “We’ll wait for our friend to return, then get our bearings first.”
Gretchen nodded and took a place on the opposite end of him. Laying down again, she felt the bruising on her backside that Harlan had said was there. Unlike her arm, this was a dull throbbing that lessened once she was laying down on her side. In normal circumstances, using a wood floor as a pillow would have been less than ideal, but after all she’d been through, Gretchen didn’t notice. She found sleep nearly impossible to achieve. When pain wasn’t keeping her awake, thoughts of nearly dying under the snow did. After a while Gretchen heard Harlan begin to snore. With nothing but the firelight and the stillness of the cabin to keep her company, Gretchen made closer observations of her surroundings.
There was something not quite right about their present situation. What were the odds of some loner living all the way out here? Then there were the tracks which led from their demolished campsite to here. What had the owner of the cabin been digging up? And if he knew that they were coming, then why didn’t he help them to the cabin in the first place? Then there was the question of where he’d gone just after they arrived. None of it made any sense. Adding to her sense of discomfort was the dawning realization that almost everything in the house was made out of some sort of animal part. It was like lying in a one room house of horrors from another century. Or was it a house at all? With no windows, the cabin seemed more to be a wooden prison. The cabin, itself, looked barely lived in with cobwebs and dust covering nearly every surface. Straining her head around just a little, Gretchen caught sight of a door they hadn’t seen before. Even though it faced the hill from whence they came, she did not recall having seen an entrance to the building from that side. Before she could examine it further, Gretchen heard the front door creak open.
Panic stricken, Gretchen closed her eyes and pretended to sleep as the owner of the property entered. Even with her ear pressed to the floor, she could not hear the heavy footfalls that must have been there. It wasn’t until she felt hot breath on her hairline that she realized the fur covered entity had bent over just beside her. With every exertion of effort, Gretchen kept her breathing normal and continued to pretend. The straining worked, and she felt the breath disappear. Unable to tell where their host was now, Gretchen continued to keep her eyelids shut. Minutes later, pretending became reality and she joined Harlan in sleep.
“Gretchen, wake up,” a familiar voice prodded her foot.
She bolted upright so quickly that Harlan thought something terrible were happening. Gretchen’s lightening-like jolt jammed her broken arm into the brick of the fireplace, causing her to wince and tear up. Sunlight shown under the thin slat below the front door. She blinked several times and rubbed her eyes to see more clearly.
“What was that all about?” Harlan gaped at her, owl-eyed.
The fire burned bright with new logs added to it; a sign that their host must have come back in the wee hours of the morning. The unmistakable aroma of evergreen from the burning pinewood logs mixed with that of bacon still sizzling on a skillet while Gretchen considered how to answer. She thought back to the strange occurrence a few hours before, “Nothing… still riled up from yesterday I guess.”
He nodded his understanding, “It could have been worse. There’s this true story about a rugby team that were in a plane crash on a mountain… they had to eat their dead friends to stay alive until they were rescued.”
Gretchen covered her mouth and held back another wretch, “Why would you mention that right now? What’s wrong with you!”
“Sorry…” Harlan shrugged. “I just hope that our friend will make a reappearance so that we can get our bearings.”
“About that…” Gretchen began, but then noticed the food cooking in the fireplace in front of them. “Did you do that?”
Harlan shook his head, “Our mystery host has cooked and disappeared again. Best not let it get too burned though, right? If this is going to be anything like last night, he won’t be here in time to stop it from burning.”
“Have at it then,” Gretchen crawled out from under her blanket and retrieved both of their coats. “I couldn’t stomach anything yet even if I wanted to.”
She placed the coats near the fireplace to dry them, then took the skillet out of the fire and laid it next to Harlan. The savory scent of the bacon didn’t seem quite right to her. Like the cabin, there was something that just didn’t sit well with her about the whole thing.
“Did you stop to consider where a hillbilly gets his bacon from when there are no farms or grocery stores around here?” Gretchen asked as Harlan peeled a strip off the skillet and tore into it. “You could be ingesting squirrel.”
“Then it’s the best squirrel I’ve ever had,” he winked. “Seriously, you’re missing out. Tastes kinda like the normal thing.”
Briefly reconsidering, Gretchen leaned over and almost lifted a piece off. The red and white lines of the strip waved in between her fingers, with a tail of fat at its bottom. Grease and the slimy texture made her recoil, and drop the strip down as she dry retched.
“Not a big carnivore, I take it?” Harlan asked as she staggered away wiping her hand off on her pants.
“No, it’s not that…” Gretchen struggled to find the words to describe her feelings, but couldn’t. “It must be the situation.”
She reclined in a wicker chair near the fire. As Harlan ate, Gretchen reconsidered the door she noticed the night before. Next to it at eye level was a grizzly bear’s head, mouth agape in a snarl. What Gretchen was drawn to the most were the beast’s red eyes. The more she looked at it, the more the feeling of being watched crept over her.
“He was breathing over top of me last night,” the words blurted out of Gretchen’s mouth before she could stop herself.
Harlan licked his fingers and furrowed his brow, “What do you mean?”
“After you went to sleep,” Gretchen began, wary that those noiseless footsteps may be standing on the other side of either door listening in, “he came in and… knelt over me. It was so creepy… I could feel his breath… it was hot, too hot.”
“That’s insane. You were by the fire, that’s all,” though the reasoning made sense, he could tell that Gretchen wasn’t moved by it, “probably heard him come over and warm himself up. It’s his right. You know, his house and all.”
“But that’s just it,” Gretchen caught herself going into hysterics, “I didn’t hear him. He just appeared next to me after coming inside.”
“Okay,” Harlan acquiesced just a little. “Let’s say that’s what happened. Listen to his speech. He’s got to be a little slow, combine that isolation and you have the perfect storm of social awkwardness.”
“That’s not it!” she protested.
“What do you want me to say about your illogical deductions?” Harlan threw his arms up in the air. “He’s a ghost, so let’s go aimlessly gallivanting around the woods? Not to mention that neither of us are in the shape to do that. If we hadn’t found this house, then we’d both be dead right now.”
She paced in front of him, “Who’s to say we won’t be still?”
“Now that’s a tad extreme,” Harlan crossed his arms and leaned back. “The man opened his home up to us. If he’d wanted to kill us, why not do it right as we walked in or while we slept? You need to get a hold of yourself.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a thwack from outside, followed by several more in rhythmic succession. Gretchen peered outside to get a glimpse of their fur clad host. Working by the gore covered spit, the owner of the house used a hatchet to cut away slabs of meat around the rib cage of a skinned animal. The creature’s head and limbs were no where to be seen, but guts and entrails spilled on the ground told that the cleaning had happened recently. Another thwack from the hatchet flecked blood onto their host’s fur covered arm. Though Gretchen was sure that she hadn’t made much noise coming outside, nevertheless, the yellow-eyed giant swung around after his latest thrust and stared at her.
An awkward silence followed in which Gretchen and their host stared each other down. His yellow eyes scanned every inch of her, looking for something that Gretchen couldn’t understand.
“Friend. Hurt,” he grunted.
“Yes… friend is hurt,” at first Gretchen had thought he was growling at her, but she understood enough of the noise coming from his mouth to answer. “Friend is hurt bad.”
“Inside. Fix later,” the response came in a guttural drawl.
“Well, we’ve been in there for a while and were hoping to find out…”
“Inside,” he repeated with another thwack to the carcass, this time cracking through a rib.
Once behind the closed door again, Harlan noticed all the color drained from Gretchen’s face, “What’s going on out there?”
“It looks like he’s cutting up some sort of creature on that spit,” she shook her head, “I don’t like it… he’s so strange. I don’t feel safe here, Harlan. We need to go.”
Harlan raised an eyebrow, “We need to go, because you don’t like him serving Bambi for dinner? Maybe it’s like Holestead said, you just need to change your perspec…”
“Don’t!” Gretchen held out a hand to stop him. “Just don’t. It’s too soon.”
He down cast his eyes, “He’s probably a hermit. Yeah, maybe he’s not quite right in the head, but at least he’s providing for us until we can get back on our feet.”
“You’re too trusting,” she added.
“At this juncture we don’t have a choice,” Harlan shrugged. “It’s kinda like the Kobyashi Maru. Either choice you make isn’t a good one, so you just need to go along for the ride and roll with the punches.”
“I’m not even going to pretend to know what you just said,” Gretchen rolled her eyes, then pointed at the door next to the snarling bear head. “We should find out what he has behind that.”
“Why?” Harlan cautioned. “Haven’t you heard what happened to the cat? Besides, isn’t there a fairy tale about that? Bluebeard or something?”
“Yeah,” Gretchen affirmed, “and Bluebeard was killing people too!”
“You’re being irrational,” Harlan laid his bad leg on a chair. “If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you open it?
“I suppose I will,” she looked quickly at the light coming from under the front door, but didn’t see any shadows present.
“Don’t let the brooms fall out on top of you, though if they do, take out the Nimbus 2000 for me,” Harlan chuckled. “Seriously though, I’m sure a recluse like him wouldn’t want a stranger snooping around his personal things, so make it quick.”
She had already begun her approach before Harlan completed his sentence. Silent warning signals flashed through her mind as Gretchen neared the door. Were they set off by the red marble eyes of the mounted bear head, or the memory of the two beady pupils of the cabin’s owner? Whatever the reason, an icy chill crawled down her spine as Gretchen’s hand touched the handle.
Forget it. Just turn around and let Harlan laugh at you…
“Go on then,” Harlan supplemented the voice in her head. “Show us all the terrible, horrible things the man keeps in his closet.”
Gretchen gulped and decided to ignore the warning sensations. Her fingers tightened around the doorknob and twisted…
“All that build up for a locked door,” Harlan shook his head. “You could always ask him for the key next.”
“No… I can’t…” Gretchen prodded the center of the knob with her fingers. “There isn’t anywhere to put a key.”
“Put your back into it then,” Harlan continued to jeer.
Clutching the handle, Gretchen thrust the full force of her body weight against the door. Still nothing happened. She slammed against it several more times, but to no avail.
“It’s locked, Harlan!” Gretchen ceased her work as her left arm and shoulder began to ache with the effort. “It’s locked from the other side!”
“Or he hasn’t used WD-40 in a while,” Harlan shrugged. “Admit it, you aren’t exactly in your peak amount of strength. Besides, how could it be locked from the other side, if that is the only way in?”
“I… I don’t know…” she began to say, but stopped in mid-thought. A smoky, burning smell overcame the both of them.
“Oh my. Cooking again already? I can’t wait. If he keeps it up, I’ll never want to leave… well that is if it weren’t for the lack of technology and civilization,” Harlan clutched his stomach as it rumbled. He reached out a hand to stop Gretchen as she passed by toward the front door, “Come on. Quit bothering the guy, Gretchen…”
She pulled out of his grasp and flung open the front door, immediately spotting the large fire begun under the spit. What Gretchen saw put panic into her. On the top of the pile of wood, being used for kindling, was a blue winter coat. Barely visible through the flames were the letters, “GGC,” with her corporation’s multicolored palm tree logo emblazoned on the coat’s breast pocket. Even more eye catching was the lace snowflake pinned below the collar. Stumbling down the porch, Gretchen plowed into the snow, forgetting that she wore nothing to cover her bare feet. She waded through the foot high drifts toward the bloody spit, the large blaze underneath cooking the skinned ribs over top. Gretchen fell onto her belly as her heel slipped over a buried log. A sharp pain shot through her left side, but she fought forward, reaching a hand out into the flames for the coat.
A heavy hand gripped her wrist, and dragged Gretchen backward, away from the flames.
“No!” she cried out. “No! Let go of me!”
Gretchen kicked at the leather boots of the yellow-eyed stranger as she writhed like a fish on a hook. Finally her wrist slipped free of his grasp, but cut against something sharp as it pulled away. Ignoring the short burst of pain, Gretchen lunged out again for Milwaukee’s coat, this time to be held back by her collar.
“Why are you doing this?” she screamed. “Why are you burning her things?”
“Gretchen!” Harlan had painfully hobbled to the front door. “What’s going on?”
Her assailant’s hands held her firm as the coat blackened and turned to ash. Despite the freezing cold, Gretchen felt trickles of warmth slide down the sleeve that initially broke free of him. Red drips painted the snow from claw-like wounds on her wrist.
“He’s burning her coat!” Gretchen fell limp in his arms, no longer struggling. “He’s been back to our site and is burning our things!”
“What’s the meaning of this?” Harlan hopped out, squinting against the blinding white of the snow drifts. The remnants of the coat could just barely be seen, “Where’d you get that?”
The big man rolled Gretchen out of his lap and waded to the pile of cut logs. With his beady yellow eyes glaring at Harlan, he twisted the two-sided ax out of a log and pointed a finger at Harlan’s jutting out bone, “Hurt. Need help.”
“No,” Harlan took a stand. “Where did you get that coat?”
In just a few quick strides, the yellow-eyed giant was within inches of Harlan. Gretchen watched Harlan twist his head away from the man’s scorching hot breath that she felt the night before. She also recalled the putrid smell that followed that warmth.
“We fix. Now.”
Before Harlan could protest, one fur covered arm lifted him up and over the giant’s shoulder. Gretchen gaped in horror as both Harlan and the stranger disappeared into the house, followed by a thud and a pained shriek. She staggered to her feet and waded through the snow toward the cabin. With her feet numb from the cold, Gretchen tripped upon entering, but caught herself on the door frame.
The giant had thrown Harlan against the wall, causing the thud she heard from outside. Now he knelt down beside Harlan, as the wounded man came out of his daze. At first the assailant prodded the jagged bone.
“Ah! Stop!” Harlan cried out and squirmed.
Instead of letting up, two brown fingers lifted the fold of skin under the loose bone. Gretchen watched in horror as she realized that the hands of their host were deformed. Each curved finger was two inches longer than her own and ended in pointed, triangular, claw-like nails. One of the claws pulled at the meat and muscle of the wound, but Harlan’s attempts at struggling were weak and futile.
“Stop it!” Gretchen rushed the man and tore at the furs covering his head and neck. “You’re hurting him, you son of a…”
Just as she grappled onto his clothing, the giant gave her a backhanded swing. The force of his smack sent her reeling onto the cabin’s one table, and rolled her over top of it to the floor. She landed on her broken arm, forcing an involuntary scream. The furs she gripped had come with her, now leaving him exposed. Yellow eyes bore into her as the beast stood up. His head was bald with dry skin clutching at his skull. Each ear tapered upward to a curved point following the roundness of his head. But most striking were the sunken eyes and two gaping slits where a nose used to be. Gretchen’s eyes grew wide and she let out an ear piercing scream.
“Leave her alone…” Harlan wheezed. “You ugly piece of…”
The beast turned from Gretchen in a quick, fluid-like gesture as something whizzed through the air over its head. A loud, squishy thwack cut through the room. For a moment, Harlan’s lips curled and tried to form words as his jaw quivered; both bulging eyes were still glued to the beast in the fur clothes. Slowly, Harlan’s gaze traced down the shoulders of the beast, to its arms, to its hands, and then to a wooden handle clutched between them. From her position on the opposite side of the room, Gretchen couldn’t see what had happened, only Harlan’s reaction as his eyes widened in silent terror, “I… can’t feel my…”
Harlan ceased speaking and emitted a horrified series of prolonged shrieks. Wincing against the sound, Gretchen covered her ears helplessly. The beast reached down to where the ax blade was embedded and lifted up Harlan’s boot. When the rest of his detached leg came with the boot, Gretchen’s eyes rolled back into her head and she passed out.
When Gretchen came to, she couldn’t tell how much time had elapsed. No more sunlight came from under the door, but in this part of the country that could have meant as much as two hours or six had come and gone. Harlan still laid against the same wall as before, but now with his head slumped to the side, apparently also having collapsed into unconsciousness. Gretchen tried moving her arms, but found that her wrists were tied behind her backside. A throbbing ache from her broken arm caused the onset of a migraine, compounded by the fact that she could do nothing to stop it. Oddly though, her legs were unbound allowing Gretchen some mobility. Set on the table was a plate stacked with cooked ribs, a light brown gel, probably honey, was lathered over them. Gretchen’s stomach rumbled at the thought of food, but with the pain from her arm and shoulder, she couldn’t will herself to an appetite. Gazing about the room, Gretchen came by a sight that almost made her faint again: a bare severed leg roasting over the fire.
Gretchen pulled and twisted at her restraints, but couldn’t remove them, “Harlan. Harlan, wake up… please wake up…”
Slowly Harlan stirred. His face was deathly pale, and it was clear he was still in a state of shock.
“Thank God…” Gretchen sighed upon realizing he was alive. “I thought you were dead…”
“I don’t think… you’re far off,” Harlan mumbled and looked down at the floor.
Gretchen bent down to look underneath the table and nearly cried out. Blood from his wound pooled over the floor and underneath Harlan’s resting body.
“How much blood have you lost?” Gretchen turned away to regain herself.
“Too much…” Harlan breathed deeply and leaned back against the wall. “I’m so tired…”
“No!” she chastised, keeping her voice low in case the creature was around. “Don’t you dare, damn it! Keep talking to me, Harlan! Don’t you dare leave me here alone!”
He opened his mouth to reply when the front door swung open. The beast still hadn’t recovered its head covering, leaving visible those features the scared and repulsed Gretchen. Its yellow eyes scanned the both of them, then he proceeded to the table and took one of the honeyed ribs from the plate. When the creature opened its mouth to take a bite, Gretchen spotted its malformed, broken, and jagged teeth. Instead of ripping the meat from the ribs, the creature crunched through and chewed both the meat and bone. Gretchen turned her face away from the sight. She closed her eyes and tried willing the entire situation to disappear.
Hot breath tickled the hair on her forehead, and Gretchen quickly reopened her eyes. The creature’s face was barely an inch away from her own. She opened her mouth to scream, but closed it again when the beast raised one of the honey coated ribs to her lips.
“Eat,” the noseless creature pinched Gretchen’s arm. “Grow big.”
Gretchen twisted away from its horrid face. The beast cackled in a raspy, crackling bellow, then skitted across the floor toward Harlan. For the first time, Gretchen paid attention to its light, tiger-like footfalls. The silence and fluidity of its movement was astonishing for a creature of its size. Still crouched over, the beast held the meat to Harlan too. Harlan pursed his lips and struggled as the pointed-eared creature tried forcing the rib into his mouth. Again, the monster howled with laughter and departed.
As the creature turned its back toward them on its way to the fireplace, Gretchen twisted her wrists, still stuck in their bindings. Her broken arm sent sharp pain signals throughout that side of her body, but Gretchen had no choice but to persevere. Rubbing her wrists along the splintery sides of the log wall behind her, Gretchen felt the bonds begin to release. All the while, she kept an eye on the beast at the fire. Using its claws, the creature checked the condition of the roasting leg. With a quick swipe, the giant took the limb from fire and sunk its teeth into the big toe. Bones crunched and snapped as the beast chewed and swallowed. When the creature’s eyes fell onto her again, Gretchen paused in her work; half afraid that it had heard her.
For a moment, the entity gave her a suspicious look and wrinkled its face. Moving its jaws and tongue around in circular motions, the creature finally opened its mouth and pried out a piece of toe nail stuck in between its teeth. The beast approached Gretchen one last time and lifted her chin with one jagged claw. It turned her head from side to side as if checking for something, then stormed out the front door. Gretchen waited for a few seconds before attempting to dislodge her restraints again.
“Harlan, are you still there?” she asked, a tear fell with each time her bad arm rubbed against the wall.
“Yeah… I’m here,” he replied, still as if in a daze.
“If I came over there,” Gretchen began, “do you think that you can undo my bonds?”
“I can try,” Harlan nodded. “No promises.”
Gretchen waited to make sure that their host wasn’t returning, before standing up and making her way to Harlan. His hands reached for her restraints, then froze.
“Do you know what these…” Harlan stopped. “Never mind… just don’t freak out when you see.”
Every time Harlan tugged on the binding, Gretchen cringed. This whole thing was a nightmare. She cursed Holestead for ever bringing them up here, and cursed the snow for not having killed her outright.
“What is he?” Gretchen asked, trying to take her mind off of the pain.
Harlan paused, then continued working as if she hadn’t said anything.
“If he’s not human… then what in the Hell is he?” she tried again.
“I don’t want to speculate on something like that…” Harlan kept to his work. “I’m not capable of…”
“Naming the impossible?” Gretchen completed his sentence. “Do you think that he could be what Holestead was talking about?”
“Windegos don’t exist,” Harlan sighed.
“How can you say that?” Gretchen sniffed back tears. “How can you say that when he… when he did this to you?”
“Because I don’t live in fantasies,” he mumbled.
“This isn’t a fantasy! This is a goddamn nightmare!” tears fell, but with her hands behind her back, Gretchen couldn’t wipe them away. “Do you think I want this to be real? Do you think I want to… to…”
“Die,” Harlan interjected.
“Be served up on a plate,” Gretchen felt the bindings loosen, and sighed. “He was eating one of us… you were eating one of…”
“You don’t know that!” Harlan snapped. “You don’t fracking know that!”
Gretchen placed her hands in front of herself and saw a purplish red mark around both wrists where she’d been bound. She turned around to thank Harlan when she saw the bindings by his side.
“It’s sinew,” Harlan explained, “from some animal he killed.”
“How do you know it was an animal?” Gretchen shuddered. “You don’t know that…”
He glared at her, “And you don’t know that it wasn’t.”
“How is it that you can still be a skeptic?” she knelt by him and motioned to the leg that was no more. “You saw him COOKING you!”
“Don’t you understand!” Harlan screamed himself to tears. “If this is a… a cannibal like you say, then I did it too! Damn it, Gretchen! Stop talking about it!”
It was then she realized that Harlan wasn’t meaning to imply that she was in the fantasy world, but that he was. The little man was pleading with her not to break his delusion. A self protecting mechanism? Perhaps it was the only way for Harlan to maintain his sanity as he followed the white rabbit even deeper into Hell. After his outburst, Harlan laid his head back and closed his eyes, seemingly to shut out the whole world around him.
“I’ll get us out of here…” Gretchen whispered. “I promise.”
Against her better judgment, Gretchen let him sleep. There were no weapons in the room, or anything that she could break apart to make a worthy offense. Whatever weapon she came up with would need to deal a quick and strong first blow, or else the strength and ferocity the beast used on her before would turn on her again. A beast? Gretchen considered the description and found it wanting. The more she thought about their captor, the more one word kept flashing through her mind: Windego. Irrational? Maybe. But where Harlan couldn’t fathom it, the belief kept Gretchen going. It gave her a foundation to stand on… something that made the situation less confusing.
The only area not searched was the cabin’s mystery door. Gretchen tried its handle, only to find it still locked from the other side. She turned to Harlan again, who remained still with his eyes closed. For the first time another thought crossed her mind: she could run. Yes, that meant leaving Harlan behind, but maybe she might make it to civilization before freezing to death. It was a shot in the dark, but might work.
What about the Windego?
Snow left trails, and the windego already proved that it could traverse the frozen fields with ease. Leaving would only hasten her demise. No… if she and Harlan were to survive, the windego had to be defeated. That meant getting through the damned door.
As Gretchen slipped on her socks and boots, she considered the deteriorating condition of the cabin’s features: the musty blankets, the dusty interior, and cobwebs in the corners. If the house was as old and decrepit as it looked, then there was a chance to get through the door after all. Standing back, Gretchen kicked it as hard as she could. The frame shook, but other than that, nothing happened. With even more force, she laid into it again. This time she heard a whining creak in the wood.
“Come on…” she murmured and slammed her foot into it several more times. The creaking grew louder and more pronounced, until finally the wood frame splintered and the door gave way. Gretchen’s heart pounded as she gazed at the dark void beyond the door. Even Harlan looked up to observe the new development. Cold air rushed through the space, causing Gretchen to reach for her coat before entering.
“Wait,” Harlan wheezed. “Gretchen, you may not want to see what it has in there.”
“It’s the only way,” she crouched next to him, “and I have to know…”
Harlan nodded, “If you hear it come in… don’t turn back. It’ll know now… there’s no telling what it might do.”
“You’re calling him an it now?” she clasped his hand.
“Just hurry,” he ignored her, “and be prepared for the worst.”
Stepping through the doorway was like walking into a demented Narnia. The closet opened into a craggy, cavernous void. Rusty tools that looked weathered with age and disuse rested on shelves or bent hooks. A hollowed out section of the wall to her immediate left tapered to two red points: the marble eyes of the bear trophy. She peered into the space and saw the fireplace and table clearly, though through a red tint.
“He’s been watching us…” Gretchen whispered to herself. “But this wasn’t put here for us… my God… how long has he been…”
She backed into a cabinet with loose doors. Gretchen jumped away as a dusty glass jar fell through one of the swaying shutters, and smashed to pieces on the floor. Bending low, Gretchen took a handful of its contents and held it up. Teeth… twenty human molars in her hand alone, with over a hundred others strewn amongst her mess. Gretchen chucked them away and listened to them clink along the floor and walls. Gazing back to the swaying doors of the cabinets, she spotted at least twenty other jars, each full of the same macabre trophies.
Gretchen clasped onto a rusted hammer which seemed to not have moved from its place on a shelf top for decades. Making her way through, her boots no longer thudded onto wood, but dirt and rock. The secret to the inner locked door was now revealed. No one was supposed to access this space from the inside of the cabin, but the outside as it opened into a cavern that went under the hill beside the dwelling. A few more steps further and her boots stepped onto a surface that cracked and popped. Even though her mind did not want to let her do it, Gretchen knelt down and grabbed at the new floor covering. It did not take her long to recognize the object in her hand… a human femur. She shuffled her feet and found that from here on out the entire bottom of the cavern was littered with human bones haphazardly strewn about.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as other things came into focus. A crude stone table with bloodstains and white scars appeared straight ahead. Beside it was what appeared to be an old trough for livestock filled with all sorts of odds and ends from throughout the ages. She sifted through the collection objects which included a ranger badge, driver’s licenses, credit cards, wedding rings, glasses, coins, and anything that couldn’t be burnt like zippers and buttons. Gretchen claimed every usable cigarette lighter she could find to keep warm, and a switchblade for herself… leaving the hammer behind.
It took four attempts to get one of the lighter’s flame to catch, but once it did, a whole new field of vision came to her. Gretchen almost dropped the lighter again as she made to scream. She clasped a hand to her mouth to stifle the little bit that did come out. Human skin hung stretched out like drying garments clipped to a clothesline on both sides of the cavern for as far as she could see. The likenesses of the persons to whom they used to belong were no longer recognizable as the heads were all missing. One of a male, still bore a tattoo along its right arm. The skins of women gave Gretchen the most pause, as even the skin of the breasts was left behind although the muscle and insides were no more. If she failed in her escape, or to destroy the creature… this would be her fate… to exist as a wall decoration in the lair of an inhuman monster.
Shaking violently, Gretchen proceeded still further as the tunnel rose at an incline. She tried her best to ignore what covered the walls, and kept her gaze straight ahead. A sinking feeling told her to turn back toward the cabin, but her legs kept walking forward. Her boot lost its footing on a vertebrae, sending Gretchen tumbling down. She caught herself on another table, and immediately backed away from it after her hand felt its wet stickiness. Gretchen rubbed her fingers together, realizing that the substance was now stuck to her. Flicking the lighter back on, she gaped in horror as tears streamed down her cheeks. Her palm and fingers were covered in blood from the crimson soaked table. A variety of severed heads rested on it with their eyes and teeth removed… one of them she recognized. Matted with blood, Milwaukee’s brunette hair clung to the sides of her face; just another head among many in various states of decay.
The shriek was unmistakably Harlan’s; Gretchen’s warning that the beast… the windego had returned. Her heart raced and panic flooded her body. Upon entering, the creature would realize that she had departed down its lair of the macabre. What would happen then? Would the beast immediately rip her open and feast then and there? Or would it sever off one of her legs to keep her awhile, like Harlan? She had to think fast, or the alternatives would certainly end here… hanging in the cave.
Despite the light footed steps of the windego, the scattered teeth and broken glass at the entrance to the tunnel betrayed its approach. Gretchen only had a few seconds now before it would see her. She looked around for a place to hide, but the only area immediately around her was the gore covered table of severed heads. Gretchen got down on her hands and knees and scoot herself under the fixture, keeping a lookout through a small crack on the poorly constructed table’s paneled left side.
Approaching from the darkness, two small yellow orbs appeared. Seemingly unattached to anything, the orbs floated in mid-air until the black outline of a body came into view. Gretchen pulled away from the crack, fearing that the windego’s glowing yellow eyes had seen her. Instead, the windego appeared to be following the sound of Gretchen’s rapid thumping heart pounding inside her chest. Gretchen covered her nose to hush her breathing and tried to take calm and collected breaths to still the panic setting in.
“He hasn’t found me yet,” Gretchen said within the confines of her mind. “Just remember… he hasn’t found me yet.”
The windego approached within inches of her hiding place and halted. From under the table, Gretchen could see that the beast no longer wore its leather boots, and instead walked upon its bare feet. What Harlan and Gretchen once foolishly mistook for cleats, were curved daggers on each malformed and twisted toe. Even the rest of the beast’s feet were mutated, with the foot being a slim sliver in the minutest form of its human equivalent, and a thin heel just above a pronounced ball for an ankle. The beast turned toward the table and sniffed the air in snorting noises. Gretchen heard one clawed hand remove one of the heads from the table, followed by another snorted sniff.
“Oh my God!” the voice in Gretchen’s mind quivered. “He smells me!”
As the windego lifted yet another head, Gretchen frantically sought an alternative method of escape. Clutching the switchblade in her hand, she clicked out the blade and stabbed at the windego’s heel before it could react. The blade sunk deep into the tendon, causing a gaping wound that made the creature utter a horrific, echoing howl unlike anything else heard on this planet. Taking her opportunity, Gretchen shrieked and sank her blade into the tendon of the second heel, spilling even more blood over the white bones covering the ground.
Gretchen clambered out from under the table as the windego fell backwards, shrieking angrily in a series of snarls and gnashing of teeth that made a cacophony of sound in the narrow cave. With the beast blocking her retreat back to the cabin, Gretchen had nothing to do, but run forward blindly. The cigarette lighters jingled together in her pockets as she sprinted with her hands out to keep from running head first into a wall. Finally, with the windego’s pained howls behind her, Gretchen came around a bend leading to a scene of sparkling snow and ice. Without looking back, Gretchen dashed toward the cave opening and halted to catch her breath.
Gazing about her, Gretchen recognized the clearing that had led she and Harlan to the windego’s dwelling. Sure enough, the staggered trail of their own footprints still existed, undisturbed in the snow leading down the embankment. Smoke billowed from the chimney, still out of sight.
“Harlan…” Gretchen thought aloud, then gazed into the tunnel. With the windego wounded, it may take it awhile to catch up to her. Maybe… just maybe there was enough time to retrieve the cripple and make a run for it.
Ignoring the pain in her left arm, Gretchen almost fell several times as she slid down the hill toward the cabin. Upon her approach, she spotted a new body strung up on the spit; it’s head and limbs still attached with its skin. Though in a frozen posture of death, Gretchen recognized the body of Leon Holestead almost immediately. She batted the image from her mind, and thrust open the cabin door.
The interior looked as if some large animal had barreled through. Both chairs and the table were shattered and splintered along with several other articles strewn about the house. Harlan laid in the middle, atop the remains of a chair, crumpled in a bloody heap. Serrated incisions on his arms and torso exuded blood in slow spilling, but concerning amounts.
Taking Harlan by the shoulders, Gretchen lifted him out of the mess and crouched with him on the floor. His bloody hand gripped hers as he struggled to find words, “Put up a fight… didn’t I?”
“Tore him a new one,” Gretchen batted a tear away. “Come on, we have to go.”
He shook his head, “I think my luck’s run out… I’ve got, what… a few minutes?”
“Harlan,” she placed both hands on either side of his cheeks and forced him to look at her, “you have to try. The things I saw… you don’t want to end up like that.”
“Where is he now?” Harlan blinked his eyes in his delirium.
“In the…” Gretchen began to respond when they heard a shuffling enter onto the wood floor of the closet. Four curved claws grappled the shattered door frame, causing Gretchen’s heart to skip a beat. Barely able to stand, the windego rounded the corner, its glowing yellow eyes narrowed in an angry and predatory glare.
“You…” Gretchen laid Harlan’s head on the floor and stood up, switchblade in hand. “You monster!”
The windego grinned and cackled, baring its jagged and broken teeth. As the beast took another two steps out of the shadows, Gretchen saw the double bladed ax it used for support. The pale expression that passed over her must have showed, as the beast’s laughter grew in volume. Seeing Harlan struggling on the floor, and knowing the imminent certainty of her own demise, Gretchen felt fear and despair leave her. Something else took their place: determined survival.
Gretchen removed one of the lighters from her pocket and jammed the switchblade into the underside of its base. Twisting the knife, she created a small opening as the windego came forward, mouth open in a savage display of ferocity. Before the beast could wrap its claws around her, Gretchen took a step backward and flung the lighter’s fluid onto the creature’s chin and fur coat. Smelling the substance on itself, the windego flinched, then renewed its attack. Dropping the ax by its bleeding feet, the windego wrapped its claws around Gretchen in time for her to have opened up the body of another lighter. The hands of the creature felt like dried leather against her neck and shoulder. Unable to raise the lighter while the windego had her arm pinned, Gretchen felt herself get lifted off the ground. She twisted and struggled to no avail. The beast opened its mouth, exposing its rancid breath, and lunged for her neck.
The windego dropped her abruptly, howling as it sank to its knees. Dazed, Gretchen squirmed away from the monster’s claws, then saw what had happened. Harlan, in a last burst of energy drove the ax blade clean through the windego’s already gashed open left heel, severing most of the foot from the leg. Crying out in an ear splitting set of shrieks, the beast clutched at its appendage, cursing in a language that neither human could understand.
Taking her opportunity, Gretchen struggled to her feet and closed the distance between she and the creature. Ruined lighter in hand, she turned it upside down and spilled the little bit of lighter fluid into its mouth. The creature spat and swung its arms savagely, raking Gretchen across the belly, sending droplets of blood onto the floor. Clutching the fresh wound, she removed a zippo lighter and flicked on an orange flame.
The windego grabbed her ankle and forced Gretchen to the ground, where it pounced onto her chest. Taking her by the neck, the windego applied pressure, drawing blood and letting the red goo seep between its claws.
“How about…” Gretchen gagged and choked. “A light…”
She rose the open flame to the windego’s chest. In a sudden torrent, the spilled lighter fluid ignited, sending flames up the beast’s chest and up toward its mouth. Gretchen felt her hair singe as the flame sparked an inferno along the windego’s lips and inside of its mouth. With its grip on her released, Gretchen rolled away. Quickly, she took the musty blanket once used to cover herself by the fireplace, and threw it on top of the writhing creature. Almost on cue, the covering combusted into flame, engulfing the creature entirely. The windego somehow managed to stand, grabbing at its burning garments, but unable to tear the thick fur off. In blind fury, Gretchen grabbed a broken table leg and slammed it into the windego’s side, sending it tumbling into the fireplace. Taking the switchblade, Gretchen released the fluid in the remaining lighters and splashed their contents upon the cabin’s floor and walls.
“Harlan!” she shouted above the horrid cries of the beast. “Wake up! We have to go!”
Still not stirring, Gretchen took him by the arms and dragged him away from the thrashing flames. A sickly smell of charring flesh came with black smoke that issued from the windego’s frantically convulsing body. Dragging Harlan’s body quickly away before a stray flame licked his leg, Gretchen looked up and saw the eyes of the windego glaring back at her. No longer yellow, the pupils were an uncanny black. Along with the blackening long ears pasted to the creatures scalp, the beast looked like a demon climbing its way out of Hell.
Flames traced the paths of the lighter fluid up the walls to the ceiling, creating a yellow-orange canopy. Harlan’s weight made Gretchen’s progress to the front door frustratingly slow. Hairs on the bear trophy twisted and curled with the encroaching flame as the dwelling became an inferno. Nearing the door, Gretchen watched in horror as the black-eyed demon waddled toward them. The creature was so engulfed in flame, that one could not see any distinct or recognizable features whatsoever. With arms outstretched toward them like a zombie, the windego took three more steps before a groaning sound came from above. Weakened by the fire, the stone chimney tilted toward the roof of the cabin, then tumbled down in a cascade of granite and cinders crushing the windego underneath.
Gretchen kicked open the front door and took Harlan out the rest of the way. The cold winter air was a blessed reprieve from the furnace from which she had just come. Taking him under the armpits, Gretchen carried Harlan off the porch and several feet away into the snow. Sweat from her forehead dripped down the bridge of her nose as she laid Harlan against logs from the wood pile. Harlan’s eyes were closed in the calmness of sleep. She placed a finger on his wrist to check for his pulse, but realized that through her gloves she wouldn’t be able to feel it anyway. Wrapping her arms around him, Gretchen gave the unconscious man a hug.
“We made it, Harlan,” she wept onto his matted hair. “We got him…”
Two hours later the towering flames died down. The roof and one wall of the cabin caved in completely leaving only an outer shell still burning like the wick of a candle. Gretchen gazed at the hypnotically flickering orange light, not even realizing the passing time. In one hand she clutched Harlan, who still hadn’t awoken, while in the other she gripped the switchblade. Ice started to form along her cheeks where the tracts of her tears had not been wiped away. After everything she had seen… everything that had happened… it was hard to fathom a path from here.
“How much longer until they send someone out looking for us?” Gretchen asked Harlan. “You’re the one that knows everything.”
She cast her eyes up to the starlit night sky. In the endless sea of celestial orbs bordered by the tops of tall pines still outlined in snow, it was difficult to believe that such horrors could have taken place directly below it. Who would believe her story? Would that even matter?
Gretchen flicked the switchblade open and closed in rhythmic manner, just so its clicking could add something else to the mundane atmosphere. Where should she go from here? Maybe when Harlan woke up, he might be able to provide some insight. For the first time in her life, Gretchen was deciding she didn’t much like being alone without someone else to help make the decisions. She chuckled to herself, “Maybe I shouldn’t have burned the cabin down.”
She gazed back up to the night sky and considered the stars again. Some of those pointed in certain directions, right? Perhaps that could help. Was one supposed to look for the Big Dipper or the brightest star in the sky? Maybe she should just find one of them and follow it. First she should rest. Harlan was already way ahead of her on that. He really was pretty smart the more Gretchen thought about it. Ultimately, she closed her eyes to follow his example… but reopened them when images of the cave appeared out of her mind’s shadows. Without sleep, how long could she last? In the cold, how long did she have? Harlan would know, if only he’d wake up…
The cry of a wolf startled her. Of course there were other predators in the forest…
“Oow! Oowooo!” Another called out from somewhere else. The beasts were communicating with each other. Someone had found prey; a deer, rabbit, whatever else didn’t hibernate this time of year.
Gretchen heard sniffing to her left. She slowly turned her head and saw one of the wolves at Holestead’s strung up body. The gray canine prodded the carcass with its nose. Out of necessity, Gretchen allowed her eyes to close. She controlled her breathing as to not draw attention. Another animal approached…. she could hear its paws hit the snow as it came down the hill. She waited a while longer, then heard the squishy sounds of fangs tearing into flesh. In silence, Gretchen’s bottom lip trembled as more tears flowed from her closed eyelids. The sounds of tearing meat filled the night air. Unable to stand it anymore, Gretchen opened her mouth.
A scream rattled the mountain’s landscape for almost a mile. But no one was around to hear it…
Credit: Benjamin Krause