With a swinging dismount, I rolled my bicycle to a stop and looked at the vague trail before me. To my eyes, the path was clear; to a tourist, not so much. Footfalls had scraped and cleared a distinct runnel through the late summer flowers and weeds, which were the same thing if you thought about it. Sometimes being pretty made people find pests less offensive, I guess. That was a common theme in my line of work. Or, to clarify, my other line of work.
I live one block from my paying job, which isn’t just convenient, it’s a necessity; and possibly lifesaving, given my hometown location. Here are a couple things to know about the Adirondack Mountains. They’re beautiful to look at, and magical in every way. Except in the heart of winter, which is actually all of winter, and at least a third of the year. It gets cold, stays cold, and then it gets colder. That’s why living a block from the diner I work at isn’t just a time-saver, it keeps my toes and ears from turning purple.
Scratch that, it keeps them from falling off.
My family would say I live in town because I have a slight problem with cars. To clarify, I don’t have a problem with cars, they have a problem with me. I can kill exactly two things in the world: magical critters and cars. Pick a car, any kind, even brand spanking new and filled with that beautiful smell of carpet and leather, and I can turn it into scrap metal inside of a day. It might be a breakaway truck wheel, a pothole, or a rogue moose, but trust me, I’ll find a way to smash that shiny new beauty, and that’s why I cadge rides with my neighbor’s kids. Tristan, the seventeen-year-old boy, hustles me for gas money, and his sixteen-year old sister, Julia, shakes me down for clothes. They’re both criminals who I happen to live near, but, until I can afford a tank or a hovercraft with no moving parts, I’m stuck with them and their mafia tactics.
I leaned my bike against an alder that curled out over the creek like it was an elephant sniffing for a drink. After loosening my Doc Martens, I placed them next to the front tire and let my feet get to know the sun-warmed grass. No one would be here, and theft wasn’t an issue, so I walked on without another thought, enjoying the scenery and merry burbling of the creek. It was quiet, but busy, just like the woods always were when humans moved through. We never see all of the commotion that nature has to offer, just glimpses. Maybe we can’t be trusted with the whole story. For me, that’s good enough.
The smell hit my nose before I ever saw anything; an odor of cloying roasted meat made my stomach flip with indignation. I stopped instantly and took in my surroundings with great detail. Under my bare feet, I felt a variety of smooth stones worn to oblong perfection by the cool water of the river. The trees rustled with the protests of late September, their colors flaring into glory as the days grew short and light grew more precious. The river was low, due to the dry weeks of August piling on without mercy. Soon, it would rain, but for now, my ankles were barely covered with the waning shallows that would ordinarily be under several feet of water. It was late afternoon, and silence closed in around me. I drew a long, deep breath, and let it trickle from my lungs as I centered my thoughts. Details. Consideration. Meaning. These were the words that I shaped into emotion within the quiet harbor of my mind. The words gained weight, and then outlines. I nudged them like soap bubbles; my touch practiced but firm.
Under my small right foot, I detected an unusually round pebble. I knelt quietly and plucked it from the water, then held it up to my face in the warm golden light that was spilling through the boughs of the trees lining the creek. The stone was two inches across, nearly round, and beautiful in a workmanlike way. Flecks of glittering quartz, polished by time, winked at me, and I smiled back at the cheerful little rock. This one, then, I thought, placing the stone carefully on a dry section of the bank that was just at arm’s reach. The poisoned scent of cooking intensified as the breeze shifted, and I began to move with more purpose.
I lifted my shoulder-length black hair and looked intently at the odd lock that sprang from a scar hidden behind my right ear. There were red, white, gray, and blonde hairs sprouting wildly from the rugged band of flesh. I plucked a white hair and began wrapping it around the pebble—three loops to the left, a pinch, then three loops to the right. With the tip of one finger, I drew a glyph, compact with power and meaning. Where my skin touched, the stone warmed and then shimmered with a delicate light. My will, gently insistent, negotiated with the rock, and the two reached an accord in seconds. The stone became lighter, started glowing softly with the light of a sunflower at dawn, and shrank to fit perfectly in my small palm. My spell complete, I lifted a foot and began to step upstream, silent and focused.
The fire was small and bright, and a thick, green pine limb hung over the flames. A sizzling piece of meat crowned the pointed end of the stick, and the combined stench of meat and pine sap made my eyes water. Anger flared within me, hot as the fire I approached. I held the stone as a talisman against the truth of the scene and waited. A grunt rattled from a pile of stones that were cleft deeply enough to be a small cave near the outer edge of the riverbank.
And on that note, the object of my intentions stepped out into the light.
With a shambling gait, the creature slid down the detritus of its lair and reached for the pine bough. It was tall, emaciated, and colored like the underside of a wet stone. Flaps of skin hung from under its ropy arms, its eyes flashed with the red of lust and hunger, and greasy talons twitched in anticipation of its meal. I thought it was more corpselike than alive, but its fangs were real enough. I knew why I’d come here.
“Ahem. If you could turn this way, please?” I asked in my most polite tone.
The Wendigo—it could be nothing else, it was too gross to be a mummy—whipped its diseased head to me and hissed. I saw its eyes widen upon measuring me. I have that effect on critters that need killing, and this guy, wherever he’d sprung from, was no different. What the beast saw walking calmly toward it was a petite woman in her twenties, with black hair, a broad smile, and a small round rock in one hand. What it should have noticed was my eyes; they’re iron gray with flecks of blue and, when I draw upon my power, they light from within. They would also happen to be the very last thing it saw on this earth. Seeing that I was rather small and barefoot, it opened a mouth full of diseased teeth and cackled, sounding something like a dying car horn plugged with chicken feathers.
“No time like the present,” I said, drawing my arm back and throwing the rock unerringly to strike the Wendigo midway across its leathery, putrid chest. My spell unwound like a hyperactive spring as the magic punched down and through the wide ribcage, blasting outward in a shower of intense golden light and what I sincerely hoped were fragments of the leather rags it had worn. Some things are simply too disgusting to consider for more than a moment. The lanky monster, now sheared nearly in half, wheezed once, folded like a forgotten accordion, and slumped sideways into the cool creek with a modest splash.
I smiled because the spell was perfect, and I do enjoy a well-thrown rock. There was something satisfying about building a nice, simple plan and putting it to work. I may have even let a small laugh bubble up, which wasn’t the smartest thing I could have done, because that was when the Wendigo’s girlfriend hit me from behind. Trust me, I was more offended that the Wendigo had a date while I was single, but as I rolled to the grass with a surprised oof, I heard my grandmother’s voice saying that old chestnut about every pot having a cover. Fortunately, the lady Wendigo—who was even more disgusting than her erstwhile lover, somehow—chose not to bite me at first, proving that a swift kill was always best. Not tearing me apart with her mouth full of fangs was a mistake. Her last one, in fact, but she didn’t know that just then.
I considered all these things while rolling over the sweet grass with the sun flicking across my vision, felt a pain in my lower back, and decided that maybe the newly single Wendigo had bitten me after all. One of the benefits of being small was that I didn’t take long to stop moving once I started, so when I trundled to an inglorious halt, only a few seconds had passed.
The Wendigo got right to work. Her disgusting arms were thrown wide as she crabbed after me in a bizarrely hunched shuffle, and I noticed that there was a necklace strung tightly around the gray column of her neck. Something glittered at the end, but I saved that for later because I got suddenly busy when she darted forward and closed her hands on my ribcage to begin shaking me like a martini with feet.
I was not pleased. In fact, I was so disturbed by this new development that I kicked one tiny, hard foot into what would have been a navel on anything human. Since Wendigo aren’t technically born, my calloused sole drove into the soft flesh of her stomach as she uttered a squawk of protest that gave me a front-row view of her truly grotesque dental situation. Wherever Wendigo live when they aren’t eating people, they don’t have dental floss. I can tell you that for sure.
She wrapped her vise-like arms around me and began to methodically squeeze the wind out of my lungs. I decided that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to let her continue that line of activity, so I took both thumbs, jabbed her in the eyes, and brought the point of my elbow down on her nose with a resounding crack.
“That’s the stuff,” I said mostly to myself as her arms faltered. I whipped one hand up and under her sloping jaw, while the other grabbed a hank of her greasy hair—I swore it would take a week of baths to get rid of that feeling—and twisted her noggin with everything I had. What would kill a human tended to kill a Wendigo, and there was a distant pop in the region of her neck. She sagged to the ground with her eyelids fluttering wildly, and the sweetest rush of Wendigo-scented air you can imagine flooded my lungs as I was deposited roughly to the ground. Okay, I bounced ass first, if you must know, and I swore that little birds were circling my head for a minute. But the fog cleared, and I seemed to be in one piece, if a little covered in whatever it was Wendigo gave off. I surmised I was bruised, but alive, and more than a little stinky. After pushing the long form of the second beastie into the creek, I limped over to the fire where the creatures had been hosting their nasty barbecue. Cold water can solve all manner of problems.
“And . . . we’re done here.” I swiped my hands together in celebration, while kicking the bough into the river. I didn’t want to know more about what the beasts had been cooking, nor did I want to have any more interrogation than was necessary when I got home. It was a long bicycle ride, the light was fading, and I realized that I was intensely hungry, despite the scene before me. As the bodies of the Wendigo broke apart in the cool water, I gave my shirt an experimental sniff. Crap. Extra gross. I reeked of . . . whatever was going on there, and that meant that I was going home to endure the Dais of Judgment. Until I learn to crawl in through my windows, there’s no getting around it. It occurred to me that it was Tuesday, one of my regular days off, and nothing good ever happens on a Tuesday. With the trudge of the weary, I turned back downstream as the claws of the Wendigo tumbled over the smooth rocks that had helped to kill it and, in seconds, they too were gone, and the creek ran clear under the afternoon light.