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Short story 46

Discussion in 'Off Topic' started by inayat, Apr 27, 2022.

  1. inayat

    inayat Head Game Master Moderator

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    "Are you sure, Mr. Roger?" Rachel asked me upon hearing my request.

    We were outside of her family home, a big but cozy looking house in a small town near the Appalachians. My pickup truck idled behind us, parked on the side of the road, as we sat there knee deep in snow. She'd invited me inside for warmth and a cup of tea when I arrived, but I was in a hurry so I turned her down. I wanted to get it over with as fast as possible and be on my way.

    "We don't rent out the cabin during winter, the area is too dangerous during this time of year," Rachel said, trying to dissuade me from my course of action.

    And she wasn't wrong. The thick snowfall turned the world into a white, shining, slippery mess. One wrong step, one daring turn of the steering wheel, and I'd be in big trouble. But I wasn't worried about the weather or the cold, they'd be the least of my issues.

    "Some friends told me you do, they said your family rented them the cabin for Christmas the past few years," I said, feigning ignorance.

    "They must've gotten us confused for someone else," Rachel said. "My parents haven't rented the cabin during winter for as long as I can remember."

    "How so?" I asked, curious to see what her answer would be. Did she already know? Did she have me figured out? Did she see through the fake name I provided her?

    "From what I understand, a group of people rented it from my grandparents some thirty years ago. The weather trapped them up there for a week, they ran out of supplies and firewood, and all of them died of hunger and hypothermia," Rachel answered in a worried whisper.

    So she didn't know. Not about the avalanche, not about me surviving, and most importantly, not about what we found up there. I couldn't fault her grandparents for hiding it from her, that week is better left forgotten. I know that. And yet I can't bring myself to do it, to uproot those memories and cast them aside. Their roots are too deep.

    "That sounds terrible," I said after a short pause, with a sad expression that was all too real. "But we'll be careful, I promise. Look, I have supplies for two weeks and an emergency GPS beacon." I jabbed a finger over my shoulder as I talked, pointing at my truck. Its bed was indeed filled with supplies and covered by a tarp that gathered snow. "It'll be me, my two sons, and their families. We just want a quiet place far away from the city to spend Christmas together, but it’s difficult to find one with this pandemic."

    "I understand, Mr. Roger," Rachel said sympathetically. "But I can't, my parents were clear on it. I'm sure you'll find someone else more than willing to rent you a cabin."

    "This close to Christmas?" I asked. "I doubt it. Look, what was your rate? 140 a night? I’ll pay triple, with a promise to leave the cabin spotless.”

    I hoped that this would convince her, since this stunt would blow through all of the savings I had left. Rachel gave me a surprised look, but seemed to be thinking the offer over.

    “Fine,” she said after a few tense moments. “No triple rate, I don’t want to rob you of your money. But I have a few conditions.”

    “Shoot away, miss,” I said, faking a dumb, old man smile.

    “Your security deposit will be triple, I know how wild Christmas parties can get,” she said with a half-smile. Her lips curled just enough to denote that she wasn’t malicious, but that she wouldn’t take crap from me either. “And I will come up there, unannounced, to check on you guys. Sounds fair?”

    “Sounds perfect,” I assured her, keeping up my facade.

    We shook hands, and Rachel invited me inside to take care of the transaction away from the prying eyes of her neighbors. I wanted to refuse her at first, seeing as the sun was racing towards the horizon and I was losing precious moments of its protective light, but I gave in. The last thing I needed was for one of her neighbors to call the cops and risk having them crash my little outing.

    So I followed her inside, shaking my boots of snow and taking off the layers of clothes that protected me from the biting cold. Rachel led me into the living room, and had me sit at a small, yet comfortable table next to a raging fireplace. She made herself unseen into the kitchen, with the promise that she’d be hasty and would return with warm tea.

    Left alone in the room, I looked at the countless family photos adorning the walls. There were a lot more of them than the last time I passed through here, but the centerpiece was the same. An old family portrait depicting a large group of people, hung in the same place above the fireplace. Although, the yellow sheen it had picked up over the years was new.

    A Christmas carol began singing gently from another room, and Rachel was humming along to it as she returned. In her hands, she carried two ceramic cups painted with winter scenes, with steam rising up and out of them and spreading a festive smell. She handed me one, depicting a snowman going down a steep hill atop a sleigh, while she kept the one showing a lumberjack swinging a heavy axe at a fir tree. I took a tentative sip, careful not to burn my tongue on the hot liquid.

    “Clove, cinnamon, orange,” I listed, and made a show of smacking my lips while taking another sip. “And it’s subtle, but I’d be willing to bet apple cider.”

    Rachel gave a short, courteous laugh. She blew air into her own mug a couple of times, and took a sip as well.

    “Good thing we weren’t betting then, Mr. Roger,” she said with a soft smile. “You’re bang on.”

    I shrugged my shoulders, returning her smile in kind.

    “Thirty years of making tea and cooking Christmas dinners for everyone will do that to a person,” I said.

    And oh, how much I wished for that to be the truth. For me to cook for a large family, toiling between stoves and pots only to see their smiles around the dinner table. How I wished for my reality to be different, for me to not cook dinner all by myself no matter the occasion. But reality is cold, bitter, and unapologetic, it never cared much for my wishes.

    “I bet,” Rachel said, her smile extending a little.

    “And you’d win that bet,” I said, burying the painful memories that threatened to surface under sweet lies.

    After all, in that moment I wasn’t Aiden. I wasn’t a fifty something year old man, and a widower with no family to speak of for the last thirty of those years. No, I was sweet old Mr. Roger, with a large family waiting for my word back at home, hoping to spend Christmas together at this particular cabin that claimed everything from Aiden. A sweet lie, a masquerade so convincing that I wanted to believe in it myself for as long as possible.

    “Say,” I spoke before Rachel got to talk. “Is that portrait over there of your grandparents?” I asked, pointing at the photo.

    “Yes,” Rachel said, and I could feel her love for them radiating from her words. “My grandparents, my young mother and father, and all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins on my father’s side.”

    She looked at it longingly for a moment, and it didn’t take me long to realize why. Her grandparents were about my current age when that photo was taken, they were probably no longer among the living. Regretting the scars I opened up in her, I steered the conversation into a more cheery direction.

    “So I take it that sweet little girl in a summer dress is you?” I asked.

    “Mr. Roger, do you have a sixth sense by any chance?” Rachel asked with amusement, and I took her jab with a proud smile. “Bang on again. That’s five year old me holding my mother’s hand, I was a clumsy kid and needed the support.”

    I wanted to tell her that she’d grown into a splendid woman since the last time I saw her. That the fire she carries in her eyes right now is something she’s always possessed, passed down from her mother who got it from her grandmother. But I abstained.

    “Oh, don’t worry about it,” I said. “Most young kids are like that, I should know.”

    We exchanged some more pleasant small talk after that. I was enjoying my time with Rachel so much, I was so engrossed in the Mr. Roger persona, that the passage of time escaped my notice. The grandfather clock in the room striking three in the afternoon was what opened my eyes, and I realized it was too late to make the drive and the trek up to the cabin today. Nightfall would catch even a young lad in his prime on that attempt, of which I was neither.

    “My, how time has passed,” I said. “I’m so sorry for taking so much of it from you, miss. Let’s conclude the payment and I’ll be on my way.”

    “Oh, it’s not a problem,” Rachel reassured me. “Your company is a pleasure, Mr. Roger. You’re not holding me back from anyone, don’t worry. I’m all alone in here.”

    I didn’t want to probe her on the matter. It wasn’t my place to, and I had no interest in it either. But the sad expression that flashed across her face for a split second told me everything I needed to know, she had no husband or children to speak of. With her parents away to spend Christmas somewhere else, she was left to spend it alone.

    With a knowledge of the craft that only comes with time and practice, Rachel calculated my security deposit and rates for four days up at the cabin in a heartbeat. She displayed the total for me and wanted to walk me through the process, to assure me that she wasn’t asking for a single extra penny, but I refused. Partly because math was never one of my fortes, and partly because I believed her. I pulled out my wallet, handed her the money down to the last dollar, and got up to leave.

    “Well, it’s been a pleasure, miss Rachel. But it’s getting late, I’m afraid I have to go.”

    She got up to see me to the door, following with delicate steps that pitter pattered on the hardwood floor. I reached the coathanger where I’d left my padded jacket and went to retrieve it, but Rachel stopped me.

    “Are you planning to go up to the cabin right away, Mr. Roger?” She asked, making no attempt to hide the worry in her voice.

    “Yes,” I lied. I wouldn’t try to, I reconciled with the idea that I would spend the night in my truck. But that was something that sweet little Rachel didn’t need to know.

    “Don’t you have a place to stay around here? It’s almost dark outside, it would be dangerous for you to attempt it.”

    “I don’t,” I admitted, knowing full well where this was going. The only thing I didn’t know for sure is if I was on board with it or not.

    “Then stay here until morning,” Rachel offered, beaming at the prospect of company.

    “No, no, I can’t,” I said, though at that point I would’ve regretted her taking me up on my words and retracting the offer. “I’ve been enough of a bother for one evening.”

    “Oh, don’t be silly, Mr. Roger,” Rachel said, reaching for my hand and cupping it with both of hers. Small, warm, soft things, so out of place around my burly, calloused palms. For a moment, I felt like a grandparent accosted by a loving grandchild. “There’s plenty room in the guest bedroom, free of charge.”

    “Well, how could I argue with that?” I said, smiling down at her. “I’ll just go to the truck quickly, I have to turn off the engine and call everyone.”

    “I’ll fix us up another batch of tea, then,” she said, and took off towards the kitchen with a newfound spring in her steps. “Oh, and pull the truck into the driveway. Wouldn’t want to risk a ticket.”

    ‘What a lovely woman,’ I caught myself thinking as I dressed up.

    Just like I said I’d do, I walked out to the truck. I pulled it into the driveway like Rachel asked me to, and faked a short phone call in case she watched me through a window. Though, thinking back on it, I did it more for myself than for her, to help the lie along in the vain hope its roots would dig deep enough tonight to uproot my reality.

    Back inside the house, I heard Rachel calling for me from the kitchen. Her words guided me towards the well furnished and equipped room, and I found a chair ready for me at the empty table. I sat down, picking up the sleighing snowman cup that she refilled with fresh, steaming tea.

    Rachel had put on an apron while I was gone, a frilly black thing that would’ve been right at home in a housewife cooking show. Not that I watch any of those. She did laps between cabinets and the double fridge, retrieving pots and pans and ingredients that she carefully gathered on the table. It didn’t take me long to guess the menu based on the items in front of me.

    “Let me help with that,” I offered. She stopped dead in her tracks, perched on her toes as she tried to reach a high cupboard. A quick swivel had her facing me, and I could see she hadn’t grasped the exact meaning of my words.

    “Sure thing,” she said, taking a step away as I walked over to her and retrieved the box that her fingers could barely touch.

    “I meant with the cooking in general,” I clarified. Her fingers paused briefly around mine, her attempt at getting the box from me cut short. “Consider it payment for the room and the plate I assume I’ll be getting.”

    “Correct assumption again, Mr. Roger,” she said, her deer in the headlights look vanishing in favor of her smile. “You’re on a roll tonight. And fine, but just know that I’ll feel bad about accepting your help the entire time.”

    Another playful jab, this one a bit more daring but not any less obvious. I took it with a grin, and helped her pick out the final few bits and bobs. We stood side by side, taking in the chaotic assortment of ingredients laid out haphazardly in front of us.

    “Whatever we make, it has to be both fast and flavorful,” I decided, taking the lead from her. Which felt disrespectful, yes, I was in her kitchen after all. But it didn’t look like she was making any progress on pinpointing any particular recipe.

    “True,” she admitted. “Any suggestions?”

    We went back and forth for a few minutes, bouncing ideas off of each other until we settled on a menu that we were both satisfied with. Buttery mashed potatoes, an assortment of roasted veggies, roasted turkey breast, a spiced cranberry sauce, a gingerbread trifle for dessert, and a quick and dirty eggnog to get tipsy. For the more culinary literate ones among you, yes, all of those are anything but fast, especially the turkey. But here’s a quick tip while I’m at it, butterfly your turkey breasts. It’ll cut down on the cooking time considerably, without sacrificing any of the flavor.

    At any rate, I’m not here to host a cooking show. After spending a few more minutes discussing the details of the recipes, which is a crucial detail if you cook along with someone else, we sprang into action. Rachel tackled the mashed potatoes and roasted veg, I took on the turkey, the cranberry sauce, and the trifle, and we decided to meet in the middle for the eggnog while helping each other out here or there when an extra pair of hands was needed.

    Dashing between the pots by her side was a lovely time, to the point I didn’t mind how long it took for everything to cook. And, by her smile and dancy demeanor, I figured she didn’t mind it either. We were both having a blast, one that we didn’t know we desperately needed until we received it. Taking a short breather after I deposited the well seasoned turkey breast in the oven next to Rachel’s veggies, I couldn’t help but watch her for a while. The smile on her lips, the way her hips swayed as she kept on her toes, her warm presence that brightened the atmosphere, she reminded me so much of...of my Jennifer.

    My sweet, lovely Jennifer. The fun times we had as young, reckless kids. The parties we went to that rocked entire blocks as teens. All of the hikes and traveling we did as young adults. She’d been the soul of the party wherever we went, and more than that she’d been my soul. The integral part that made me, me. She was my one and only, the person I wanted by my side through thick and thin, the woman I wanted to age next to. My mind threatened to sink like a cannonball, down into the murky waters of what ifs and could’ve beens, and I was entirely unprepared to stop it, just as always.

    I was about to go on a stroll down memory lane. To watch my being slowly splinter into a million pieces, while I peered uselessly at the resulting shards that I didn’t know how to pick up and put back together into the whole they’d once been.

    I guess Rachel noticed my thousand yard stare, the way my eyes fixated on a point millions of miles away. She froze, looking at me with worry from the other side of the kitchen.

    “Mr. Roger?” She asked, taking a tentative step towards me. “Are you okay? Do you need to sit down? I’ll fetch you a glass of water.”

    As I came to my senses, my mind easing back into the present, I caught my reflection in the smooth surface of the refrigerator. Blurry as it was, I could still make out just how pale my skin went.

    “I’m…” I said, the words leaving my throat weak and frail. “I’m fine, Jen. No need to worry. A glass of water would do me plenty good.”

    I went around the table, sitting down in my chair as I tried to regain my composure. Rachel got a clean glass from a cabinet, and filled it with ice cold water from the fridge. She rushed over to me, putting the glass in my hands and leaning over me as she checked my forehead with the back of her hand. A sweet gesture, but completely misguided, since panic attacks don’t bring about fever.

    “Thanks,” I said, taking the glass from her and taking a hearty swig. “And please stop calling me mister. Just Roger is fine.”

    “Okay, Roger,” Rachel said. “Are you okay? Do you have any medication you need to take?” She knelt in front of me as she talked, staring into my eyes and cupping my hand with both of hers. The amusement in her eyes was gone, its place taken by an urgency and worry for my well being that I didn’t like nearly as much.

    “No,no, I’m fine,” I reassured her. “I’m not that old. It was just a...a harmless panic attack, that’s all. I’ll be right as rain in a few.”

    She didn’t seem convinced by my words, but she got up. The food didn’t care about my panic attack, it kept boiling and threatened to burn regardless of my mental state. She did another lap of the kitchen, stirring what needed to be stirred, tasting and adding salt to what needed more of it, but it was clear that she got scared by my episode.

    “Hey, look,” I said when I could take it no longer, and got to my feet. “I’m fine, promise. I’ll help you finish up, it’s too much for a single person.”

    “I...it’s just that…” she stuttered.

    “If I’ll feel bad, I’ll sit back down,” I said, getting back to my cooking duties.

    “Pinky swear?” Rachel asked out of the blue. I turned to find her next to me, with her hand extended and her pinky finger wiggling around.

    “Pinky swear,” I said, twisting my own pinky finger around hers. “I’ll be fine.”

    “Okay,” she accepted, and her smile made a shy but welcomed comeback. “I promise I’ll watch you more carefully, to make sure you’re fine.”

    With the strain of my episode hanging in the air, we continued cooking. Rachel warmed back up after a while, and by the time dinner was ready she was cracking jokes again. We met up in the middle for the eggnog like we initially planned, poured ourselves a healthy glass of it, and plated up. Dinner was tasty, but I didn’t expect any less from the two of us at that point. She proved she could hold her own in the kitchen next to a veteran cook like myself.

    “You’re an amazing chef,” she said as she tasted my contributions to the menu. “Mrs. Jen is one lucky lady, getting to eat like this every night. That’s if you do all the cooking, of course, I didn’t mean to…”

    “No, no,” I said, but did a double take as her words finally hit me. “Where…” I stammered, feeling myself go white again. “Where do you know that name from?”

    Rachel looked taken aback. She fumbled her utensils, dropping her spoon into her bowl as she tried to form words.

    “It’s...that’s what you called me when you...when I came to help you earlier,” she stuttered. “And I figured...I assumed...I mean…”

    “Did I?” I said, waving a hand through the air to diffuse the situation. “Don’t mind that, I just tend to get a bit...confused at times. Mixing up times and places, you know.”

    I returned to eating, hoping Rachel would drop it. To my dismay, she didn’t. Her curiosity was mounting to levels beyond her ability to hold in. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame her or anything, I would’ve just preferred if she didn’t try to dig deeper.

    “I’m...uhh...I’m sorry for prying,” she said timidly. “I hope I didn’t cause you discomfort by assuming there’s a Mrs. Jen.”

    I sighed, finished what was already scooped up in my spoon, and placed it down next to the plate.

    “There was a Mrs. Jen,” I corrected, and felt the mood sour right away. “A long, long time ago.”

    “Sorry for bringing it up. Thank you for the delicious meal.”

    Rachel instantly went as cold as the snow outside, but I couldn’t fault her for it. The turns this evening took were probably as confusing for her as they were numerous, not knowing how to feel about me anymore was only natural for her. I reminded myself that I was still a stranger in her house, no matter how well we clicked up to that point, and I was a seemingly mentally unstable stranger to top it off.

    She cleared the table, gathered the leftovers into airtight plastic containers she placed into the refrigerator for later, and began washing the dishes. All of the wind in her sails was gone, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Both for blowing said wind, and for leading her on like I did. I didn’t want to admit it, I intentionally misread her signals in my deluded attempt to find out what having a child or grandchild would feel like. And to top it all off, to my complete and utter disgust for myself as a person, near the end I did start seeing her for the beautiful, flirtatious woman that she was, and I liked what I saw.

    I excused myself from the table, asked for the bathroom and the guest room, and followed the directions Rachel provided. By the time I was done splashing cold water into my face in order to help me sober up, she was done in the kitchen and was heading up to her own room. She only briefly paused by the half-open door, handing me the keys to the cabin.

    “I might sleep in a bit late,” she told me. “Help yourself to the leftovers in the fridge, you’ll need the strength for the trek. I’ll come to check on you and your family like I promised.”

    “Good night!” I wished her as she left, but my words went unanswered. The only thing I heard was her locking the door to her room from the inside.

    I made it to the guest room a few minutes later, finding a tidy bed with a nightstand and a drawer next to it. The space was cramped, but homely, and most importantly it was warm. I dressed down to my shirt and boxers, seeing as I had no pajamas at hand, and walked over to the large window after folding my clothes neatly and placing them on the nightstand. Free of my soft boots, my prosthetic left foot clicked against the floor at every step.

    I said that this was a small town, but I’m partly wrong in that assessment. It’s just two lines of houses, one on each side of a central road, populated entirely by people with land up in the mountains and cabins for rent all year round. The window of my temporary abode faced the backyard, which ended with a sturdy fence that kept out the countless miles of untainted forest that sprawled behind it. I had a nice view of the breathtaking wilderness, and I put it to good use for a while, standing by the window and peering out.

    I had one question that desperately needed answering, so I reached for the window’s handle and opened it wide. The cold winter winds invaded the room right away, sapping it of warmth and sending chills down my exposed body. But I didn’t pull away. I pushed into the frigid air, allowing it to freeze me further as I sharpened my hearing. The minute background noises of the pine forest grew more apparent, until I could make out the distant sounds of critters going about their nightly business.

    A few minutes later, on the verge of hypothermia, I heard what I was waiting for. The forest went quiet for miles and miles across, and a howl descending from the highest mountain tops claimed that silence for itself. It was such an ugly, soul rending call, that it managed to chill me in a manner that the coldest air couldn’t hope to match. A warped, unnatural mix, somewhere between man and the lowest form of beast to walk this earth. The scream of endless hunger and agony, aimed solely at me.

    I jumped back from the window, having gotten all the confirmation I needed. After closing it, I turned the radiator up all the way and all but nearly hugged it to warm myself faster. The stunt I pulled was risky, so long as I was cold the beast could find me, but it was the only way I knew to drag it out of hiding and have it make its presence known. When sensation returned to my toes and fingers, and I was sure I was warm enough to not be found anymore, I went to sleep. I covered myself with the thick blanket, and succumbed to a fitful sleep.

    Morning came fast, leaving me surprised when the sun’s first rays reflected off of the spotless snow and into my room. It had been a long time since I last slept without an eye open, three decades now to the day. Feeling well rested, I got dressed and left Rachel’s house. As tempted as I was, I didn’t take any of the leftovers.

    By 8 AM, I was already driving. The furthest point up the mountain I could reach with my truck was about half an hour away, and I had a three hour brutal trek through knee deep snow to look forward to after that. I wasn’t exactly enthused about it, but I was hasty regardless.

    I parked the truck in the clearing where the road ended, locked it up, and took to its bed. The first thing to come out from under the tarp was a sleigh, followed closely behind by the harness I’d use to pull it. More items came, and I strapped them all firmly to the sleigh. A dane axe with a silver-coated blade, a chainsaw, a shotgun with both normal and silver pellets, a couple canisters of gasoline, a few jars and vials of my own blood that I gathered and kept refrigerated over the last month or so, and some other miscellaneous items like changes of clothes and a first aid kit.

    Starting through the snow, I soon hit the incline that would only grow steeper as I advanced. The path I took was one I knew, and I used familiar landmarks to guide my way. A weird shaped tree here, a large boulder that hasn’t moved in millenia there. They jolted memories in me, and before I knew it, I found myself reminiscing of better times as I trudged ahead. Laughter and banter among friends spawned between the trees, echoing through my mind as if they were real and not merely echoes from a different era. Snow crunching beneath our boots, as we merrily made our way towards a much expected vacation. Jennifer by my side, me inhaling her intoxicating perfume with each labored breath. The sensation of her warm skin against mine.

    It...it was enough to bring me to tears. In the middle of the forest, hours away from anyone, I cried. The salty drops running down my cheeks froze in the frigid air, threatening my skin with streaks of frostbite. After a while, seeing that the cabin was about 2 miles away, I wiped the tears and refocused on the task at hand.

    “It’s a good place to start,” I mumbled to no one in particular.

    I pulled out the first vial of blood, and bit down on its cap to remove it. With an arching motion, I spilled it over the pine needles and fresh snow behind me, careful to not get any on the sleigh. My speed faltered as the incline grew beneath me, but I kept going, marking the forest behind me with blood every five hundred feet or so. After twenty vials and the realization that I miscalculated the distance, I opened one of the jars as well and dipped my gloved fingers in it. Three more markings later, I reached the clearing that the cabin was built in.

    I expected another flood of painful memories when I laid eyes on it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out it wasn’t the case. The cabin itself looked nothing like I remembered it, but then again why did I think it would? After that week we spent in it, of course it needed to be rebuilt. And rebuilt it was, bigger and better than its former incarnation.

    I pulled up to its porch, releasing myself from the sleigh’s harness and leaving it behind as I entered. The inside had a slight frowsty smell to it, which along with the fine layer of dust that settled on everything was a dead giveaway that the cabin hadn’t been used since the first snowfall this season. After a hasty check of all of the rooms, I looked at my wrist watch. It read 1 PM, which meant that the trek took me much longer than expected.

    Now, if I may be allowed to toot my own horn for just a bit, I’m in great shape for my age. I’m my own cook, so I eat well. I’m my own personal trainer, and God knows I’ve not gone easy on myself. Most nights I can’t feel my limbs after strenuous bouts of workout. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, in fact the last thirty years of my life have been spent solely on preparing for tonight. Time used to better my mind, body, and arsenal, all so I could see this one night through. But even with all of that, I can’t compare to a man half my age. Despite my best efforts, the passage of the years robbed me of my vigor little by little.

    The only aspect of me that hasn’t faltered in the slightest is my determination. If anything, it only grew stronger, and I put it to good use. After lighting the fireplace in the cabin to warm it up, I went outside, checked and fueled the chainsaw, and took to the forest. It had a wide selection of trees just ripe for felling, so I got to work.

    The hours passed, flying me by like summer birds as I cut and cleaned a dozen trees of their branches. With great effort that my back was more than unthankful for, I dragged their trunks through the snow and piled them up in the clearing around the cabin. As the sun kissed the horizon, and the night threatened to engulf me with its all consuming darkness, I finished constructing the enormous pyre that I would need. I doused the wood with the gasoline from one container, allowing it time to soak up the fuel, and had the other container ready next to the pile.

    The last thing I did before going inside the cabin to warm myself up and catch my breath was to open the two jars of blood, leaving one at the edge of the forest and the other one next to the pyre on a log. The sun slowly disappeared and, from my vantage point next to the fireplace, I could see the shroud of night time settling across the forest. I waited, biding my time for as long as possible, until every last ray of light was gone. My mind was eager to spring into action, but after a grueling day of manual labor, my body had other plans. I soon fell asleep on the chair, lulled into it by the heat of the fire.

    To my displeasure, my sleep wasn’t as restful as it had been back at Rachel’s house. The night terrors I’d grown accustomed to returned to haunt me again, offering me a sweet release from the present only to tear it away from me.

    I was back down the mountain, trekking through the December snow with my friends and my soon to be wife. The date was the 24th of December 1991, and I was a strapping young lad of only twenty five years of age. With my future looking bright, and my fiance next to me, I felt invincible. King of the world as far as I was concerned.

    Seeing as we were planning our wedding, and our years were slowly advancing beyond parties and travel and into settling down, finding good paying jobs, and starting a family, me and Jennifer decided to throw one last party. Like the good old times. We saved up money all year round, and got four more of our closest friends to join us in what might have been our final outing as a group. We found a cheap cabin, far away from civilization so we wouldn’t disturb anyone’s Christmas night with our loud music and drinking.

    The hike took hours but, with Jen by my side to keep me going, I felt no cold or exhaustion to speak of. Michael, David, and myself, the three men in the group, pulled the sleighs with supplies. Jennifer, Kelly, and Lori followed us closely, talking between themselves about anything and everything that they talked about when they weren’t pestering us. David and Lori were fiances getting ready for marriage, just like me and Jen, and Michael and Kelly were already married with a kid back home, just wanting to break free from their busy lives for a few nights.

    By the time we reached the cabin, evening was only hours away. Me, Michael, and David were hasty in setting up the battery powered cassette player, and before long, music was blasting out of it. The girls warmed up the prepackaged food, drinks were being passed around from the portable cooler, and by nightfall we had a proper party raging on. One we planned to extend into the early hours of the next morning.

    I’m tempted to say that it was the best party of my life, but I know I’d be lying. I only see it that way now because it was the last party where I actually felt good. The fun reached a crescendo around midnight. We were all properly drunk by then, dancing and bumping into each other in the small cabin. Michael needed to relieve himself of surplus liquids, so he went to the outhouse. He was barely gone for half a minute before he barged back inside, his eyes wild and fear plastered across his face.

    “Guys, come outside right now!”

    By the urgency in his voice and his out of character attitude, we knew he wasn’t messing with us. We dropped whatever we were doing and followed him into the clear winter night, flashlights at the ready. Hushed murmurs rippled through the group, we were all worried and wondering what had happened to scare Michael so bad.

    “There!” He said, and pointed towards one of the mountain tops. “What the fuck is that?”

    Our collective sights followed his finger, settling on the peak looming above us. But none of us could make anything out.

    “Turn off the lights! And the music!” Michael ordered.

    David complied. He was in and out of the cabin in a heartbeat, leaving us stranded in soul crushing darkness and silence. With nothing left to pollute my senses, my eyesight and hearing sharpened. Against the spotless white snow and ice that engulfed the cliff faces, I saw a shadow emerge. The longer I stared at it, the more I could feel my mind fracture, as if it wasn’t something that my mortal eyes were meant to witness. Still, from this far away, I couldn’t make out much of it, save for its eyes that seemed to glow in the night like a pair of bloody stars.

    “Why is it so quiet?” Jen asked.

    I hadn’t even noticed her get next to me and wrap her arms around mine, pushing herself into me in her startled state. But as soon as she brought it up, I could hear it as well. A complete and utter lack of sound, except for our own breathing and shuffling through the snow.

    “Do you guys see it now?” Michael asked.

    We didn’t get to answer him. The thing, the creature, let out a howl unlike anything I’ve heard before or since. The call of endless winter, of bone shattering cold and gut wrenching hunger. Its voice reverberated down the mountain, echoing through the valleys and piercing our ears with its volume. It lasted for what felt like a lifetime, forcing images of fates worse than death into my mind. I saw all of us, huddled around a dying fire deep in the forest. Cupping our palms around the dying embers in a last futile attempt to warm up. The days and nights passing, with no hope of salvation. Growing ever more hungry and thirsty, until we turned feral and set our sights on each other.

    I...I saw the bloodshed. The bodies. Flesh rendered from bone and shoved between greedy, clacking teeth. But it wasn’t real, none of it was real. We wouldn’t do that, we couldn’t do that.

    Lost in the visions, I didn’t see the creature wave an arm towards us. I didn’t see the sheer force of its action tear through the layers of snow, freeing it in slabs that slid down the slope. The others told me of all of that later.

    “Avalanche!” One of them yelled, though I can’t for the life of me remember which one.

    Their cry, and Jen pulling at my arm with desperation, was what finally broke the creature’s spell over me. With the avalanche picking up speed and mass as it plowed down the mountainside towards us, we took shelter in the only safe place around for miles. We huddled in the center of the cabin, hoping that the structure was sound enough to withstand the assault.

    When it finally hit, the avalanche sounded like a thunderstorm mixed in with an earthquake. The world around us shook from its very core, sending us flying every which way as we tried to hold steady against it. And then, as soon as it had started, the calamity ended, leaving us gasping in terror.

    A scream reverberating from outside the cabin woke me up before the nightmare got to the worst part. I jolted in the seat, strangely thankful for being spared of the horror that would’ve followed. With the axe and loaded shotgun in hand, I got outside into the quiet night. My hairs stood on their ends right away, as a feeling of deep anxiety welled within me. This was it, the moment I’d been preparing for for the past thirty years. My life’s goal was within reach, and yet I feared I was woefully unprepared to face it.

    I walked around the pyre, checking the clearing for signs of the beast. The jar of blood left on the log had been thrown into the snow, licked clean of every last trace of the crimson fluid. Even the snow around where it had landed was gone. The beast was hungry.

    Leaving the axe next to the one remaining fuel canister, I raised the shotgun in front of myself and marched towards the forest slowly. The beast ran around between the evergreen trees, using them for cover, but I could tell that each one of its steps brought it closer to me. My heart pounded away wildly in anticipation, preparing my body for the fight that would shortly ensue.

    “Come out!” I yelled into the night, stopping half way to the tree line.

    The skittering stopped, sending me on edge. Bouts of laughter emanated from the forest, its echoes making it hard for me to pinpoint the source.

    “Come out!” The beast repeated my words back to me. Only they were twisted and slurred, uttered by lips that had grown unaccustomed to human speech.

    “I’m not fucking around!” I pressed. “Come out! Now!”

    “Me neither!” The beast yelled, sending an icy chill clean through my soul.

    In one final leap, it flew through the air from the branch where it had been squatting. With a heavy thud, it landed a few feet from the edge of the clearing. My body froze when I laid eyes on it. The skeletal frame that betrayed its decades of malnutrition. The sunken eyes, the retracted lips that exposed diseased gums and teeth charred by decay. The skin turned to a blue and black mess from constant hypothermia and countless frostbites. Clothes torn to rags and a once beautiful head of dirty blonde hair reduced to sick strands barely hanging onto its scalp.

    I couldn’t take it anymore, I could feel the beginning of another panic attack writhing beneath my skin. My heart rate reached a maximum, my body trembled from its core, and cold sweat poured out of my pores, chilling me to the bone. The mix of impending doom and all consuming fear sent adrenaline surging through my veins, and I tried to latch onto it, to let it help me through the ordeal soon to follow.

    Letting go of the shotgun with one hand that I reached towards the beast, with my voice catching in my throat and coming out a hoarse whisper as my rapid breathing cut it short, I uttered a single word.

    “Jen.”

    The first thing we did after the avalanche ended was to take stock of our situation. We were all accounted for and, besides bruises from stumbling and falling, we weren’t injured. All of the cabin’s windows, as well as both doors, had caved in from the weight of the snow pressing down on them. The puffy white death invaded the already small space, reducing it further and making us feel claustrophobic.

    “We have to dig our way out,” I told the others after we regained our bearings. Seeing as everyone ran around like headless chicken and no one was taking charge of the situation, I decided to do it myself.

    We got our hands on anything we could use as improvised shovels, which mostly meant plates and cups, and shoveled snow from the front door. But where we took away one cup or plate's worth, two flooded in to take their place. We kept at it, fear and desperation pushing us from behind and stoking the fires of our efforts. When my hands felt like they'd freeze right through and shatter, someone else took my place.

    We tried for hours upon hours, until the snow pile that gathered behind us threatened to reach the ceiling, but we made no progress. The avalanche appeared supernatural in scale and intensity, leaving us trapped under a puffy white sea in our little bubble of air.

    "Stop," I said. "We're wasting our strength, we have to wait this one out."

    "But we'll freeze to death," Michael interjected. Still, his voice lacked the determination and rebelliousness to drive his point home. He was just as tired and defeated as the rest of us.

    "The owners will notice we're missing," I said. "They'll send help when we won't come back down the mountain."

    "They won’t," Kelly said from behind me.

    "They said they’ll be out of town until after New Year’s, and asked us to leave the key under the cabin’s porch,” Lori added. “Do you guys ever listen to the people around you?”

    "No," David said. "No, no, no! That's a week away! We can't stay in here for an entire week!"

    He devolved into panic, dragging everyone else down with him. Worried whispers grew in intensity, soon turning into an incoherent shouting match. We’ll freeze, we’ll starve, we’ll suffocate, those were just a few of the worries made vocal.

    “Calm down,” I said, but my voice was drowned out by theirs. “Calm down!” Hearing me shout in anger and frustration, everyone fell silent. Their gazes turned on me, expectant and oddly accusatory. “We have some drinks left, and we won’t starve to death in a week. If we hunker together for warmth, no one will freeze either. We’ll see this through, okay?”

    “What about oxygen?” David asked. “This place is small and really high up, there’s not enough of it for a week!”

    “Yeah,” I answered. “But physical effort and panicking will burn through it faster. Look, we don’t have to make it an entire week, okay? Just a day or two before help comes.” I could see they weren’t satisfied with my plan. They huddled together, away from me, in a silent statement of opposition. “And if we start running out of oxygen, we can give digging another try, as a last resort. Besides, we’ll stand a better chance later, when the snow settles and freezes.”

    “Fine,” David gave in.

    “I’m so cold,” Jen said, echoing everyone’s sentiments. “My toes will fall off.”

    “Here,” Kelly offered. “Let’s do like Aiden said, let’s huddle together.”

    “I’m coming with, my ass is freezing off,” Lori said, following them.

    The three of them did just that, going over to one of the cabin’s corners and hunkering down. When I say the place was small, I’m not kidding. It was very small. An all in one kitchen, dining, and living room, with a small pantry and a bedroom connected to one side of it.

    “Let’s fetch all the pillows and covers we can find,” I told the other men.

    They agreed, so we wordlessly started searching. Which didn’t take that long. In half an hour, we had a fake bear rug in the corner to isolate the floor, and all of the pillows and blankets in the cabin to keep us warm. We used the bedroom as a changing room, doubling the layers on our skins. And yes, that meant double boxers, pants, blouses, jackets, double everything. We put on all of the spare clothes we brought along.

    And yet, as insulated as we were, holding each other tight in a collective bear hug, we were still cold. Jess and Lori fell asleep fast, the mix of fatigue and alcohol in their veins doing them in, and I could see the others weren’t far behind.

    “Let’s sleep in shifts,” I whispered to David and Michael. “The girls need their rest, but someone needs to be awake at all times in case something else goes wrong.”

    “Yeah,” Michael said, though by his voice alone I could tell he wouldn’t be the first on guard duty.

    “Sounds good,” David agreed.

    “I’ll take the first shift,” I offered, seeing as it had been my idea.

    I wiggled my way free from the arms holding me tight, and got to my feet. Taking a single blanket to wrap myself in, I went and sat down in the chair next to the fireplace. It was one of those boxy things, made of steel and suspended off the ground by lanky feet, and we’d kept the fire burning in it for a while last night. Yet, as I reached my hands towards it to rob it of the last residual traces of warmth it should’ve held, I found it was completely cold.

    Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The cabin had been warm and cozy just before we saw the creature on the peak and the avalanche blocked us in. No way in hell could it have been so cold already, but it was. Even our own bodies, under all of the layers of clothes and blankets, couldn’t keep as warm as they should’ve been able to.

    I pushed those thoughts aside in favor of thinking of our immediate survival. The others fell asleep, leaving me alone, so I needed to keep my senses sharp and my wits about me in case help arrived. Checking my wristwatch, I saw it was nearing sunrise outside. I’d been awake for nearly twenty four hours by that point, but I didn’t feel tired. No doubt the result of the shock, but I was thankful regardless.

    By noon, I’d kept busy by climbing up in the attic and turning off the generator. Damn thing consumed more oxygen, so we couldn’t afford to keep it on. It only powered the lights in the cabin anyway, there were no outlets for us to make use of it in any meaningful way. With the shoelaces of my spare pair of boots tied into a hangman’s knot, I hung one of the flashlights set on low power from the now dead lightbulb, and I decided I’d done enough for the day. The cold robbed me of my will, making every move feel strenuous. Even thinking about anything in particular left me short of breath. So I simply existed, listening to the others breathe and shift in their sleep.

    Michael roused from his rest at about one in the afternoon. Shivering from his core, he got free from beneath the sea of blankets and got to his feet. He wanted to unwind, to stretch his body and joints that were sore from the uncomfortable sleeping position on the floor, but he abandoned that course of action when his blouses and jackets threatened to expose his skin.

    He dragged another chair next to me and sat down in it, rubbing his gloved hands together.

    “How the fuck is it so cold already?” He asked as the water vapor in his breath condensed on his wool gloves.

    “I don’t know, man,” I admitted with half a mouth.

    “Tired yet?” He asked me. His teeth chattered, slurring his speech.

    “Out of my mind, yeah.”

    “I’m hungry as all hell,” he said. “I’ll grab a bite to eat and take over. Go catch some shuteye too,” he said in a demanding voice. One I couldn’t argue with.

    “Thanks,” I said, and pried myself free from the seat.

    His mention of food made me notice my own peckishness, but I was in no mood to eat. In a matter of moments, I was wrapped in Jen’s arms, drifting off to sleep. It felt like a short nap, a blip in my stream of consciousness, before I was awoken by screaming. Jolting to my senses, pushing blankets and pillows aside to get to my feet, I saw the source of the commotion. Michael was on his back, down on the floor, with David on top of him, hurling firsts at his face.

    “What the fuck?!” I yelled, jumping on David’s back to pull him away. He was crazed, outputting more force than I’d ever seen him to.

    “Motherfucker ate all the food!” David yelled at me, elbowing me in the face to get me off of him.

    I stumbled back and crashed to the floor, bringing my hands around my nose. The hit felt like a lightning strike to the face, the cold amplifying the pain of the fresh wound. My gloves came back bloodied, warm liquid soaking through them and reaching the skin beneath.

    "David! Stop!" Lori yelled.

    The sound of her voice broke David's violent spell. His eyes went wide, darting between his bloodied fists and Michael's disfigured face.

    "I'm...he…" David stuttered. "I woke up and found him eating all our food! He didn't leave anything for us, not a crumb!"

    I got up and placed my hands on David's shoulders. Having calmed down, he nearly melted under my touch. I guided him to his feet and slowly pulled him aside, and in the ensuing silence, I heard Michael muttering something between broken teeth. Kelly got on her knees next to him, tears streaming down her face, but she kept quiet trying to hear him.

    "Hungry...so...so hungry…" Michael chanted.

    "Why'd you beat him up so badly?" I asked David a bit further away, where the others wouldn't hear us talk. Jen got down next to Michael as well, helping Kelly in her efforts to clean and treat him. Lori just hung out away from everyone, with a thousand yard stare in her eyes and shock plastered on her face. "He ate all the food, okay, but that's not…"

    "I'm sorry," David said, cutting over me. His voice quivered, and I knew he was on the verge of crying. "I have...I don't know. I don't know what got into me. I didn't mean to, but...but I snapped, I couldn't control myself."

    "It's that thing, that...creature," I said. "It's messing with us somehow, with our minds."

    I didn't know if I should bring up the visions I had, but seeing as the situation was quickly devolving and suspecting outside interference, I decided to do it. I turned David around, signaled for the girls to pay attention as well, and spoke up.

    "Outside, before the avalanche started, when I looked up at that...that thing," I said, deliberately making my words slow. "When it screamed, it showed me things."

    Everyone's eyes went wide when they heard that, which was all of the proof I needed.

    "Us huddled around a dying fire?" David asked.

    "Freezing and going hungry?" Lori added.

    "Eating...eating each other?" Jen completed with hesitation.

    I nodded my head at all of their questions. We'd seen the same thing, the same fate in store for us, and that was all of the confirmation I needed that we were dealing with something beyond the natural and logical. That we needed to be extremely careful if we hoped to make it out alive.

    The girls finished treating Michael, and we talked some more, swapping theories and comparing notes. We came to the consensus that, given our circumstances, we were much colder and hungrier than we should've been. But beyond that, all seemed normal still. Or as normal as things could be right then.

    Michael remained catatonic after the beating, not answering us or reacting to our presence in any way. Probing and prodding him had no effect, so we decided to leave him be. Not because we didn't care about him, we did care, but we'd done our best with what we had. He needed to rest, to heal, and to let the shock clear from his system.

    Consumed by guilt, David decided to move to the opposite corner of ours, and naturally, Lori followed him. Afraid for Michael's life and plagued by paranoia, Kelly moved him and herself to another corner of the room as well. Just like that, our group was splintered, bringing down our chances of survival considerably. Despite our better judgement, distrust had been sown, and it managed to take roots in our minds.

    “I’m so hungry too,” Jen whispered to me after a while, her stomach growling every so often. “And so fucking cold.”

    “Me too, babe,” I admitted.

    I saw her shoot daggers at Michael and Kelly whenever they weren’t looking our way, but I lacked the energy and mental fortitude to say anything of substance that might dissuade her and quench her mounting hatred for the two. The mere act of thinking became harder by the second, and I was so out of it that I didn’t even think of blaming it on the dwindling concentration of oxygen in the air.

    More time passed like that, with us growing more and more quiet. Our shuffling stopped and, as our minds suffered under the intense hunger and the slow, but agonizing suffocation, moments began melting into each other. After a while, I found myself unable to tell minutes apart, as longer and longer portions of time slipped between my fingers. For how long had we been in there? A day? A week? A lifetime? How long ago had David’s attack been, hours or days? My brain could barely bring itself to ask these questions, and it couldn’t answer them when it did.

    Sleep came in bursts that were hard to measure or distinguish. I found myself slipping in and out of consciousness more and more often, with Jen’s cold arms wrapped around me. Over the eternities I spent awake between bouts of darkness, I felt her chest heave slower as her breathing grew labored. I tried to check up on her, but my body’s reserves were so low that it refused to even let me speak.

    In an uncharacteristic moment of awareness, I heard Kelly whisper to Michael. In the all consuming silence, her words reached me loud and clear, but their meaning eluded me. I urged my mind to focus, to make out letters and syllables and words, to remember enough of the english language for me to understand her. It eventually did, but not without plenty of protesting.

    “Mike? Michael?” Kelly asked, shoving her palms against his chest. I saw air puff out of his nostrils each time she did, turning into fluffy clouds that dispersed as they rose to the ceiling. “Please,” she urged him, “stay with me, babe, don’t leave me alone.”

    Seeing their state broke my heart. My mind cobbled itself back together enough to spit out misshapen memories of our past together, which only served to deepen my distress. I’d known Michael ever since we were children, having grown on the same quiet street in our small town. He’d always been a great guy and we made fast friends, spending our summers playing outside way past the bedtimes that our parents failed to enforce. We stuck together through thick and thin, the roots of our friendship extending all the way back into preschool and kindergarten. When it came time to enroll into elementary, we fought our parents tooth and nail to make sure we’d go to the same school.

    Bratty as we were, our parents caved in. Michael’s folks were more than happy to enroll him into the local school, but my parents wanted better for me, they wanted to find me a nice school in the nearest big city. But I’d have none of it and, after countless tantrums and threats that only a six year old can come up with, they relented. Elementary came and went, filled with its own misadventures. Michael’s parents did much better for themselves, and we were both able to afford going to the city for middle school. That’s where I first met Jen, and from the first moment I laid eyes on her, she was my ray of sunshine. Not thinking much of it, viewing relationships as nothing more than games, we soon declared ours official. As young love always tends to do, no one expected ours to last, thinking we’d grow bored of each other and of the concept in general.

    But we didn’t. Jen and I were joined at the hip from that day forward, even as our small group steadily grew and we advanced in age. By highschool, Michael had found Kelly. And let me tell you, courting her was a nightmare. Me and Jen were his wingmates through all of it, though, and our help paid off when Kelly finally agreed to go out on a date with him. We, of course, made it a double date, and we all had a blast. After that day, Kelly joined our group as Michael’s girlfriend.

    More friends came and went, but none stuck around for too long. I don’t think I could list them all, for the simple fact that I can’t remember them all anymore. David and Lori are the clear exception to that rule, however. Transfer students from the far away land of I can’t remember the names of their towns, they arrived in separate boxes that were soon a bundle deal. Desperate as they were to fit in with any group, they ended up in ours, and we welcomed them with open arms.

    In all of our time together as a group, we had our fair share of arguments and drama. It’s human nature, it’s unavoidable, but it was never anything serious, just petty squabbles that got resolved and helped strengthen our bonds. Which is all a very long and convoluted way of saying that we’d never been as divided as we were during our time up in that cabin.

    I watched Kelly try her best to comfort Michael for a while longer, but my mental acuity soon faltered again. More time passed without my notice, and when I came back to my senses once more, I checked my wrist watch. It was one of those fancy ones, the ones that also display what day of the week it is and the current date. I was taken aback to find out that it was Thursday, the 26th of December. Had two days really passed me by like that?

    Feeling parched, I decided to get up and grab a drink. We still had some beers, a bottle of wine, and half a bottle of whisky left in the cooler, but I wasn’t dumb. Even in my impaired state, I knew that too much alcohol would only dehydrate me faster, so I went for the beer and left the stronger stuff alone. I got one of the bottles out, undid the cap with much effort, and pressed my cracked lips against it. The liquid inside was on the verge of freezing as I tipped the bottle up, and it felt like thousands of sharp razor blades down my dry throat, but I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a drink more in my life. As soon as it started flowing, it was over and gone, so I discarded the bottle.

    Feeling a tiny bit better, I checked up on the others. They’d gone just as motionless as Michael, and I was worried that not all of them were alive anymore.

    “Guys?” I asked, my voice barely audible. “You all still here?”

    Kelly cracked her bloodshot eyes open, and shot me a look of pure exhaustion. She probed Michael with her elbow, and he produced a few puffs of air out his nose. Lori snuggled tighter against David, and he simply stated where the fuck else would we be? That only left Jen.

    “Jen? Babe?” I called out, the words coming out as mere whispers.

    She tossed in her sleep, so I decided to let her be. But I wanted to get a closer look at Michael, who I knew was pretty banged up, and who’s wounds would only get exacerbated by the cold. I shuffled over to him and Kelly, seeing her eyes dilate with fear as I approached. She nearly hissed at me, scared like a cornered animal faced with a mighty predator, so I stopped a little distance away.

    Michael looked...horrible. His face was purple and bulging, lips split open and the bridge of his nose broken. The worst areas were covered in bandages and band aids from the first aid kit, and the places where David’s fist ruptured his flesh open were caked in dried blood and long since evaporated iodine that left a yellow tinge on his skin. His eyes were swollen shut, his hair fell out in clumps, and the remnants of his teeth that I could gleam between his parted lips were jagged and sharp. He wouldn’t last much longer, I was aware of that, and by the looks of her, neither would Kelly.

    I fetched four of the five remaining beers, tossing Kelly two of them and handing David the other two.

    “Make Michael drink one as well,” I told her, and went to lie back down next to Jen.

    She shuffled away from me when I got under the blanket, balling up against the wall. I wrapped myself around her as best as I could, but it felt like I was hugging a block of solid ice. Despite my stupor and the alcohol now racing through my veins, I had enough mental clarity to be surprised that we were all still alive. By all accounts, we should’ve all died by then, either to the cold or to suffocation as our oxygen slowly depleted. But we were still hanging on, even if only by a thread.

    By now, you might be wondering how no one had found us yet. The answer is simple: cell phones weren’t as prolific back then, so it was normal to be out of touch with family and friends when you traveled. With one day’s worth of driving to get here, a two day stay at the cabin, and another day to drive back home, no one would notice that something was amiss until Friday evening at the earliest. Factoring in things such as delays because of potential traffic and possible detours, our families were unlikely to sound the alarm earlier than Saturday morning. Until word reached here from all the way back home, until a rescue unit would be scrambled together and sent to check on us, until they’d find the cabin buried under metric tons of snow, we could expect evac to happen around Saturday night at best.

    Somewhat rehydrated and with the alcohol in the beer squeezing a bit more heat out of my muscles, I was lulled back to sleep. It was another fitful bout of rest, my mind half-awake at any point throughout. I heard the others move around, pulling their covers, and I felt Jen squirm in my arms every so often. But by the time she got up, by the time she began moving around, I was too out of it to notice it.

    I woke up to the heavy smell of smoke burning my eyes and nostrils. When I got up, I found Jen knelt in front of the fireplace, struggling to ignite the wood inside of it by using a torn book and some matches. With the chimney blocked and nowhere for the fire to draw breath from, it bellowed waves of smoke back inside the cabin, cutting our already short oxygen supply even shorter.

    I bounded to my feet, my mind sent into overdrive as I fully realized what was happening. Without thinking, I went to the pile of snow and grabbed handfuls of it. I rushed to the fireplace, shoving Jen aside, and smothered the flames with the snow.

    “No!” She yelled in protest, springing to her feet and clawing at the back of my neck. “I’ll freeze, it’s too cold! Fucking asshole!”

    I ignored her, focusing my efforts on the embers. When I was sure that none of them survived my assault, I turned around to face her.

    “What the hell were you doing?!” I yelled back at her. She stopped her assault and pulled back a step, fearful of my justified outburst. “Were you trying to kill us all?!”

    “I’m too cold,” she repeated, and I could see the madness in her eyes. She wasn’t thinking straight anymore, the stress of the hunger and the low temperatures pummeled her mind for too long and drove her into a delusional state. “Too cold, too...hungry,” she murmured, and collapsed into a heap on the floor. “We’ll die, we’ll fucking die,” she said, gripping the sides of her head in desperation.

    Hearing her blabbering, new life was breathed into Michael as well. Though just barely, he began chanting in sync with her, proclaiming his hunger and our impending doom with slurred words.

    “Everyone okay?” I asked, leaving Jen behind for a moment. I planned to get her back between the blankets, but I wanted to make sure that we weren’t in danger of suffocating from the smoke before that.

    “I’m fine,” David told me when I got closer. “We’re both fine.”

    “Kelly? What about you and Michael?” I asked her, but I was hesitant to approach her.

    She didn’t say anything. Her eyes opened wide, big and shiny, peering right through me. One of her hands left the blanket, pointing finger jutted out, and she motioned for me to look behind. I didn’t get to turn around in time. Something hit the back of my head, sending waves of pain up my scalp and down my spine. I fell to my hands and knees, disoriented, and heard David scream. Kelly and Lori joined him, their combined forces birthing a cacophony of yells that only exacerbated my headache.

    Before I got the chance to make sense of the situation, Michael kicked me in the ribs and sent me sprawling. I rolled on the floor from the force, stopping on my back, and managed to catch a glimpse of the room. Jen was on her feet, axe in one hand and a log of wood in the other. Michael had gotten up as well, scaring Kelly in the process, and he was now looming over me.

    “This whole shitshow was your idea,” Jen accused, lobbing the wood at me and hitting my left shin. It exploded with more pain, but when I tried to reach for it and grab it, Michael kicked my hands away. For someone that was half dead, he all of a sudden had a lot more strength than he should’ve had. “Your idea! Your fault!” Jen yelled. She grabbed the axe tight with both hands, and slowly walked over to me, stopping at my feet.

    “Jen, babe,” I hissed between clamped teeth.

    “Don’t!” She yelled in answer. “You...you think that I...that I don’t know? That you...youyouyou...you’re waiting for us to die?!” She trembled as she spoke, her head jolting from side to side, and her words sounded like those of a madman. “The beast?! It...it didn’t show us the...the future! It...it showed us a...a a a...a way out! Taught us how to survive!”

    “Survive…” Michael echoed her words.

    “Jen,” David spoke up. He got to his feet while she stammered her nonsense, and approached us with his hands in front of himself. “Calm down, please. Aiden didn’t…”

    “He knew!” She yelled. “He knew and he didn’t tell us!”

    Without warning, she lifted the axe up in the air. Its blade came down, so fast and vicious that it splintered the ceiling above when its tip connected. In a heartbeat, Michael dropped to his hunches and got a hold of my left leg with both hands. I tried to jerk it free, do dodge the blow, but his strength was super human.

    And then, in a fraction of a second, the axe made contact. It passed cleanly through flesh and bone and sinew, stopping in the floor below. I let out guttural screams, so loud and frightened that they threatened to tear my vocal cords to shreds. Blood shot out of my amputated leg, squirting and staining the floor as it spread a coppery smell in the air.

    “Another one!” Michael yelled.

    But Jen ignored him. She grabbed my severed foot, quickly taking off the boot and sock as she scampered away. Even through the pain and suffering, I heard the crunch of her teeth as she bit down into it, pulling flesh and veins and bones away, greedily swallowing without even chewing.

    “Bitch!” Michael yelled, infuriated.

    David tackled him from behind, sending him flying face first onto the floor.

    “Fuck!” He yelled as he knelt next to me. “Fuckfuckfuck! Fuck!”

    Through all of that, I was still screaming out, holding onto my severed leg with all my might. David undid his belt with shaking hands and wide eyes, looping it around the stump as many times as he could. He wanted to make a tourniquet, which was smart, but he didn’t get to finish. Michael jumped him, and the two of them flew away in a flurry of blind punches and kicks.

    I grabbed a hold of the belt, feeling my conscience slowly melting under the shock and blood loss. With my last ounces of strength, I completed the tourniquet and tightened it as much as possible. The blood flow slowed, but it was far from stopping, and I knew I needed to act fast. David and Michael were still duking it out, their attention focused on each other. But Jen was nearly half-way through my foot, and I feared she’d be coming for seconds at any moment.

    ‘Cauterize,’ I thought. ‘Only chance.’

    I turned on my belly and crawled towards the fireplace, one agonizing pull after another. The blood trail extended behind me, slicking my pants and robbing me of what little warmth I had left. When I reached the torn book and the matches, I quickly bundled it around the wound. Striking a match with how wild I was shaking was a nightmare, and my bloodied hands dampening the wood only made it harder. The first match broke, the second as well, but the third time was the charm. It ignited, and I pressed it against the paper.

    It burst into flames and singed my flesh, spreading the disgusting smell of burning skin and hair in the air. I nearly gagged, gritting my teeth so hard that I feared they would splinter. I wanted to scream out, to curse and fight and just drop dead, anything would’ve been better. But I got through it, ripping pages in bulk from the other books and adding more paper to the fire as it burned away. When the deed was finally done, when I ran out of paper and strength to keep going, I propped myself against the fireplace.

    David and Michael were still going at it, with no clear victor to their brawl. Jen finished eating my foot, tossing away the head of the tibia and rubbing the blood from her lips. By the look in her eyes as she gazed back at me, I knew she wasn’t yet satisfied. She dropped down on all fours like a wild predator and bounded towards me. To my surprise, Kelly and Lori came to my defence, intercepting Jen and standing between her and me.

    “Jen, please,” Lori said, raising her arms in defense. “Stop.”

    “Come on, Jen, what’s gotten into you?” Kelly asked.

    But Jen didn’t answer them. Her manic eyes darted between the two, and she let out a growl. With moves so fast that I could barely see them, she lunged at Lori and pushed her aside. Lori crashed to the floor, hitting her head hard against the wood, and she began convulsing. Kelly tried to dash away, but Jen jabbed her hand into her throat, gutting her windpipe with her bare fingers. To this day, the sounds that Kelly made as she choked on her own blood are the worst sounds I’ve ever heard coming from a human. She tried to suck air in and, when her gushing blood invaded her lungs, she tried to heave it back out.

    Her death wasn’t fast, and it was anything but painless. Jen simply watched her drop to the floor, reaching for her own windpipe in a last desperate attempt to cling onto life. She didn’t even wait for Kelly to die, just grabbed her foot and pulled her away into the bedroom. I got one last look at Kelly before the door swung shut, and the terror in her eyes pierced my soul. She was still conscious through all of it, and to this day I shudder at the thought that she was also mostly conscious through what followed.

    With the door closed behind them, Jen feasted on Kelly. I heard the sound of skin and flesh being ripped apart, of bones dislocating and breaking, and the gnashing of her hungry teeth as she took bite after bite.

    My attention was dragged back onto David and Michael when they landed only feet in front of me. I saw them struggle against each other, tossing and turning as they both tried to get the upper hand. Michael got his feet beneath himself and pushed, throwing David off and jumping him again. He pinned David’s hands to the floor and headbutted him once, then twice, then a third time, and I saw his forehead coming away stained with blood. David’s nose was crooked and leaking, so badly broken that it rested on his cheek.

    Michael tried to bite down on David’s face, but he dodged the attempt. Another one came, this one connecting with David’s chin, and Michael pulled away a chunk of skin and flesh that he chewed on. Barely able to move, I realized that David wouldn’t survive without help. Whatever possessed Jen and Michael imbued them with superhuman strength, and they became too much to handle. I forced my way on all fours, or, well, all threes, and limped over to the axe. Behind me, I heard Michael taking another successful bite out of David’s face, which spurred me on to move faster.

    Grabbing the axe and pushing to my feet, I used it as a crutch to walk over. Preoccupied with David, Michael failed to notice me. I raised the axe high up, steadying myself on one leg, and brought it down with all my might. I swung it so hard that it whisked me off my foot, but it hit Michael right in the crown of his head.

    He jumped as if struck by lightning, spazzing out with the axe still impaled into his skull. He stopped after a few moments, wheezing as he drew his final breath. I toppled next to David, feeling my muscles burning from the effort, wanting nothing more than to pass out from the pain. But hearing Jen ravage Kelly's hopefully now hopefully corpse in the bedroom, I knew I couldn't do that just yet.

    "David?" I asked quietly.

    "Yeah," he answered. "Still here."

    "Can you move?"

    "More or less," he said, slowly getting to his feet.

    "Barricade the bedroom door before Jen comes back," I asked of him. Which I knew was inconsiderate of me, but short one foot I couldn't do it myself.

    "Why?" David asked. He got next to Lori and knelt in front of her, gently checking her pulse. "What's the point anymore?"

    "Come on," I urged. "Don't go suicidal on me, please. We can still make it out alive."

    David turned to look at me, and as his face came into view, I couldn't help but gasp. Three chunks were missing from his face where Michael managed to bite him. One from his chin, the skin and flesh gone to reveal the bone beneath. Another one from his cheek, leaving a hole big enough to expose his molars. And the final one from above his left eye, making him unable to close it anymore. He was probably in quite a bit of pain, but if he was, he didn’t show it.

    “If you say so,” he said, though I could tell he didn’t believe me. His spirit was crushed, he was already defeated.

    Still, he got to work moving the few pieces of furniture in the room to block the bedroom door. He limped and struggled against them, in an effort that was nothing short of titanic in his condition. In a few minutes, even the fireplace had been dragged along the floor, aided by the slick blood that pooled pretty much everywhere. After he made sure that the pieces were stacked properly and wouldn’t fall, he hoisted Lori in his arms and got back in their own corner, holding her tight against his chest.

    I too crawled back to my own corner, though I didn’t feel the need to hide under the blankets. Either because of the shock, or the effort, or the beast relinquishing its influence over us, I didn’t feel as cold anymore. I watched David close his eyes, whispering reassuring words into Lori’s ear, and lost myself to the fatigue and blood loss.

    In my near unconscious state, I heard Jen try to open the door, giving up when she couldn’t. I heard her scratch and heave and yelp for a while, until even those sounds faded away. Before I succumbed entirely, I heard one final scream, a pale imitation of the beast’s call that wasn’t any less frightening.

    When I came to again after an untold amount of time, I couldn’t even open my eyes anymore. It felt as if every last ounce of strength in my body was being used up on the simple act of breathing. Voices resounded from the bedroom, four in number and easy to distinguish from one another.

    “Hello?” One of them called out. “Anyone alive in there?”

    They attempted to open the door, but failed against the barricade. I heard shuffling and groaning, but they soon gave up.

    “Out of the way,” another voice said, before loud bangs claimed the relative silence.

    I managed to crack open one eye, barely enough to see in the dark. Part of the door splintered and broke as the men on the other side assaulted it with axes. Hands reached in through the resulting holes, pushing away the furniture that toppled to the floor. Between the gaps, light shined into the room from the other side, bright and blinding to my eye. The door opened after a few minutes, and I saw a figure enter the room.

    “My God,” the man uttered. “It’s a bloodbath.”

    “He...help,” I croaked out.

    “Someone’s still alive!” He yelled to the others, and they rushed into the room.

    Two of them knelt by my side, and the other two went straight to David and Lori. They checked up on me, gave my leg a proper tourniquet, and then they hoisted me out of the room. I got one final look at David, seeing that he’d slit his own throat and died while I was unconscious, his arms still wrapped around Lori. The mountain rescuers brought me into the bedroom, where I also saw the state of Kelly’s body. She’d been so thoroughly mutilated that she was completely unrecognizable. Her face was a bloody mess of bare bone, her clothes had been torn to shreds, and her chest and abdomen were picked clean of flesh, ribs protruding from the carcass.

    But I was too drained to cry, too drained to even care. The rescuers tied me to a stretcher and got me out through a tunnel that’d been dug out, leading from the window to the surface. A tunnel of blood stained snow, one dug by Jen as she escaped, for she was the only one of us missing from the buried cabin.

    I was officially out by Friday evening, and after a helicopter ride to the nearest hospital, I got medical care that same night. The next few months were a tough battle, my days riddled with sessions of physical therapy and countless court hearings. Given that I was the sole survivor, everyone’s families came at me one after the other, trying to pin all of the murders on me in their misguided attempts to bring justice to the departed.

    David’s case was the first to get thrown out, since they found a suicide note in one of his pockets and the wound was self-inflicted. Lori’s death was declared an accident, caused by acute brain hemorrhaging that resulted from her falling and hitting her head. Kelly’s murder was pinned on Jen, who was still missing. The only murder to which I admitted was Michael’s but, after the autopsy revealed David’s flesh in his stomach, I was acquitted on grounds of self-defense and defending another. The disaster was deemed as a tragic case of cabin fever and it quickly got swept under the rug, an effort helped by the fact that none of us wanted media attention.

    I couldn't even attend any of their funerals, their families wouldn't let me. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I contemplated suicide on an almost daily basis, desperate to be free of the guilt and nightmares. But I could never go through with it.

    A few years later, when home computers and the internet began spreading to everyday consumers, I found a small forum built around accounts of the paranormal. I told my story there, asking if anyone knew what the beast could've been. Most users either called me a larper, with comments such as "nice story, bro", or gave me the same answer that the court provided, blaming cabin fever. I was ready to give up my search for a resolution and accept their verdict, until I received a PM from an anonymous user that only said four words: it was a witigo.

    Those four words spurred me into months of research. I read all of the online resources I could find and, when they became insufficient and repetitive, I took to searching for books on the beast. When even the books failed me, I began traveling, seeking native american shamans for their legends and first hand experience. All of my guilt and hate and fear morphed, turning into determination, with my sole goal in life being that of slaying the beast that took everything from me.

    Armed with knowledge about what I had faced, I began to prepare, decades spent on this single-minded objective. Which brings me to the Christmas Eve of 2020. The moment when all of my training and prepping culminated into my one and only attempt at fulfilling my life’s goal. And yet, standing face to face with Jen’s disfigured visage in that clearing, I began doubting my ability to finish what I had so eagerly started.

    Wendigos. Mythical beasts originating in the Algonquin people’s folklore. Described by them as monsters and evil spirits, drawn to hunger, greed, and the cold, they can push people to acts of murder and cannibalism. As humanity’s knowledge and experience with these beasts increased, we came to understand that they possess many more abilities than that. Weather manipulation, possession, and metamorphosis, just to name a few. But through all of that, through all of the variants and permutations of these spirits that humanity has conjured up, one fact has remained constant: their hunger.

    The same hunger that radiated from Jen’s eyes as she faced me after three decades apart. She began circling me at a distance, observing me, plotting out her next move with care. I held my hand extended in her direction, my hope dying with every call of her name that went unanswered.

    “Jen, please,” I pleaded, feeling the panic attack reach its peak. “It’s me, babe! It’s Aiden!”

    Her beedy eyes narrowed at the mention of my name, and she stopped pacing.

    “I...I recognized that sweet…sweet taste,” she garbled, extending a blackened tongue out of her mouth and licking her lips. “My sweet…sweet Aiden.”

    Her mellow, angelic voice was but a shell, emptied of its warmth and filled back up with hatred. It sounded raspy and gruff, a far cry from the voice that used to soothe my aching heart. If Jen’s essence was still trapped in the monster she had become, I couldn’t see any portion of it rising to the surface. Putting my free hand back around the shotgun, I doubled down on my goal of ending the existence of this miserable creature and freeing Jen’s soul. She deserved no less, and my biggest regret was that it had taken me so long to bring myself to face her.

    In a flash of realization, she dropped down to all fours and bounded towards me through the snow. Fighting back the panic attack, my labored breath hitching in my throat, I aimed the shotgun. Bang. The echoing shot claimed the silence of the night, pushing the stock into my shoulder. The smell of burnt gunpowder mixed in with the shock of the recoil helped set my mind back on track.

    The flurry of buckshot connected, hitting Jen’s ribs as she tried to dodge it. Animalistic screams of pain left her throat, but she was undeterred. With renewed anger, she kept running towards me. I let out two more shots before she jumped me, but the bullets wouldn’t pierce her tough skin. With a final leap, she landed on top of me, and I toppled to the ground. My world reduced itself down to the smell of death and decay emanating from her, and to her claws and teeth desperately trying to dig into me.

    She viciously tore through my clothes, drawing blood that welled from my wounds and stained the both of us in our struggle. I tried to roll away, to break free and gain the upper hand, but her strength eclipsed mine. She kept me pinned down in the snow, and latched her jaws around my left shoulder. I felt the muscles and tendons get crushed under immense force, but her jaded teeth couldn’t pierce the jacket.

    Letting go of her center mass that I failed to push away, I gripped and maneuvered the shotgun until its barrel rested against her exposed abdomen. I pulled the trigger, and the force of the shot made her let go. She jumped away, off of me and on her feet, growling as she held her bleeding stomach. The point blank shot managed to pierce and wound her, but I could see her flesh bubbling and weaving back together. In a matter of moments, the damage was as good as gone.

    My only chance was to ignite the fire and use the flames to my advantage, but I couldn’t be hasty. The light and warmth of the blaze would’ve scared her away, forcing me to hunt her down or abandon the attempt, neither of which I wanted. She needed to be on the pyre. I backpaddled towards it, keeping the shotgun trained on her, letting out more shots whenever she got too close for comfort. When I finally got close enough, and one of my feet snagged on the logs, I feigned surprise and pretended to topple backwards onto it.

    She took the bait, jumping me without hesitation. Her hands tore the zipper of my jacket, exposing the shirt beneath. Before she got a chance to dig into me, I struck the side of her head with the shotgun’s butt, and let out another shot in the small window of time when she was disoriented. The buckshot cleaved through the left side of her neck, almost disconnecting her shoulder.

    I grabbed her torso, hoisting her up. She screamed and struggled in my grasp, her rapid healing kicking in and giving me only moments to act. I tossed her onto the pyre, as far up as I could manage, and pulled a lighter out of my breast pocket. Her eyes widened as I struck it, but she didn’t manage to run away. The lighter landed on the gasoline soaked wood, igniting it as the flames spread rapidly upwards.

    It wasn’t like in the movies, let me make that clear. It was wood soaked in gasoline, not high yield explosives going up in a blaze of glory, but the spread of the flames was still fast. All I needed to do was to make sure that Jen wouldn’t escape before the fire consumed her. The shotgun was a mossberg 500, with an internal magazine holding seven shells, and a magazine extender holding three more, for a total of ten. Quickly running the math, I realized I had three shells left before I’d need to reload.

    The flames reached Jen’s feet, setting her off at a supernatural rate. The fire clung to her skin like napalm, engulfing her in a matter of moments. She tried to jump away, to save herself, but I shot her back down. Weakened by the heat, her skin couldn’t stop the buck shots anymore, and her left leg was blown away at the knee. She screamed and convulsed, cursing my name as the flames ate her little by little.

    You see, there’s a reason why Wendigos prefer winter and the cold it brings. Warmth weakens or outright negates the natural armor that is their skin, and fire has the potential to kill them. I never needed to reload. By the time I shot the second shell, she could barely bring herself to stand. By the time I shot the third and final one, she was more bone than flesh. Her skin fell away in large chunks, exposing the muscles and organs beneath to be charred into ashes that dispersed in the breeze. After a few minutes, as the fire reached its peak, Jen was nothing more than a blackened skeleton. Her form was dead, and I hoped that her spirit would finally go to rest.

    With my job done, I took a deep breath and let my muscles relax. I would need to stay awake throughout the rest of the night, to make sure that the fire wouldn’t spiral out of control, but the worst of it was over. Or so I thought, until I heard countless screams just like Jen’s resounding from all around the mountainside. I hastily reloaded the shotgun as I turned to face the forest, and found dozens of pairs of eyes peering at me from the cover of darkness. I was a fool to believe that Jen would be the only Wendigo in these mountains.

    But none dared approach the clearing, afraid of the fire raging in its center. Having seen me dispatch Jen only drove home the point that they shouldn’t be messing with me, so they kept to the shadow of the night. A few of them tried taunting me into action, repeating Jen’s words in her voice and thrusting themselves into the light before quickly retreating, but I didn’t budge. With midnight having just passed and seven more hours until sunrise, I hoped I could prolong the fire’s life enough to see the night’s end.

    That hope was dashed the moment all of the Wendigos fell silent, looking up at the peak that loomed above us. My sight followed theirs, slow and afraid, because I knew what I would find. The real beast, the Wendigo spirit in the flesh, was in the same spot I’d seen it all of those years ago. It let out a howl that put those of its underlings to shame, and jumped with so much power that it turned into a black dot flashing across the moon’s image in the sky. Above the cabin, above our heads, over miles of forest, landing in the valley below with such force that it sounded like a stick of dynamite going off.

    I heard it let out another howl, before barreling up the slope towards me. It sounded like a thousand horses galloping at once, and it moved just as fast. Knowing that the normal buckshot wouldn’t leave a dent in it, I reloaded the shotgun with silver slugs in the little time I had. As the last one slipped in, and I pumped the shotgun, I saw a tree flying towards me through the air.

    I ran away, dodging the slam of branches and the rain of pinecones. The tree fell on top of the pyre, scattering the burning logs into the snow around and killing the flames almost instantly. As they melted the flakes into water that quickly evaporated, filling my surroundings with steam that condensed into a thin fog, the light died down to almost nothing. I turned to face the forest, and saw the immense shadow of the true Wendigo loom above the canopy of evergreens, dwarfing them in size.

    It stopped at the edge of the clearing, slowing down but still advancing towards me. A show of its confidence, of its abilities, and of its certainty that I posed no threat to it. It towered over me and the cabin, two stories tall without measuring the antlers on its head. Its center mass resembled a desecrated deer, its hind legs were like that of a goat, and its forelimbs were wolf-like in nature, ending in paws with enormous claws. Its head was a deer skull devoid of flesh, with leathery skin hanging off its sides and a mane of thick hair running down its spine. That was, until it stood upright and began to morph.

    Its back straightened with sickening pops of dislocating bones, the hind legs shortened, and the paws slowly turned to hands before my eyes. It took on a smaller appearance, but not any less threatening or terrifying, as it approached me. Seeing it in action, I finally understood what I was up against, and the severity of my predicament left me paralyzed in terror.

    Over years of research into the Wendigo’s myth, I came across many variants of this creature, each with their own descriptions of its appearance and abilities. In my pursuit of the truth, I mostly ignored the accounts of the settlers which were much more outlandish, and focused on those of the native people. The people I believed had the most experience with the Wendigo, the people I believed didn’t blow the beast out of proportion. And I’d been wrong, as every story tends to have a seed of truth to it.

    This beast I was now facing? This force of nature? It was the real Wendigo, a spirit of the land, and the humans imbued with its power and twisted by its madness were nothing more than pale imitations. Possessed puppets for it to commandeer as it pleased. The most outlandish claim about it came to mind, the fact that the Wendigo grows bigger and stronger the more people it consumes. And seeing its true size for myself, seeing all of the possessed that surrounded us, I now knew that to be true.

    I trained the shotgun on it, ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, and began walking sideways back towards the pyre. Not to reignite it, but to get the axe so that I might stand a chance. From the look in its eyes, I knew that it had me figured out, and yet it allowed me to retrieve the axe. Another show of confidence, I realized, as if it wanted to say that the silver coated toothpick would do nothing to help me. It let out a huff of air through its nose and began moving again, closing in for the kill.

    With the axe at hand, I struck the other gasoline canister, piercing it and sending it flying. It landed on the dying embers as I dashed away, and this time there was a bang. Still not a hollywood style bang, but a bang strong enough to reignite the fire and send flaming shards of the canister flying. The Wendigo took a step back, giving me enough time to put my plan into action.

    I ran for the sleigh, picking it up and holding it against my chest. Turning back around towards the slope, I ran by the beast, shooting two shells at it as I passed. The slugs impacted its body, creating fist sized holes in its flesh and making it burn from the contact with the holy metal. It let out angry howls, but I didn't stop or turn around. I jumped to my belly, landing on the sleigh and pushing myself downhill.

    I quickly picked up speed through the fresh snow, but it wasn't exactly a well used skiing track. I'd only go so fast, and it wasn't fast enough. Behind me, the Wendigo dropped back down on all fours and gave chase, with its puppets following closely behind. I maneuvered into a thicker part of the forest, weaving the sleigh between trees in an attempt to make it slow down. But it was agile for its size, easily copying my moves and gaining on me fast. The few trees it couldn't dodge it simply headbutted, uprooting them and sending them flying down the slope.

    Half-way down, with the incline beginning to falter, it caught up to me. I raised the shotgun with one hand and fired again, but it braved the slug without slowing down. Its antlers pointed my way, and it tried to shove them beneath the sleigh to upend me, but I switched to the axe. The moment it got close enough, I struck the blade in its neck with all of the strength I could muster.

    It embedded in the Wendigo's flesh, but I couldn't push it deep enough. As it trashed about and retreated, the handle got torn out of my grip. A new sound appeared in the distance, barely audible at first but growing in intensity until I could make it out over the gusts of wind and the Wendigo's loud steps. The sound of an engine of some kind.

    Turning my head around for a split second, I saw headlights some three hundred feet away and gaining on us fast. In a matter of moments, a snowmobile driving recklessly was on the Wendigo's heels, and I got a look at the driver. Rachel. My heart rate skyrocketed seeing her there, but I didn't have time for anything beyond my immediate survival. She pulled out a gun of her own as she neared the Wendigo, a small pistol that I couldn't make out, and she let a few shots fly at the beast.

    The bullets bounced off, only angering the monster. It swatted a paw at her, catching the snowmobile's front and sending it flying. I saw Rachel land safely in the deep snow and rolling to a stop, so I refocused my attention on getting away.

    We sped down the slope in pretty much the same manner. The Wendigo caught up to me, I shot it when it got too close, it retreated, rinse and repeat. Until I ran out of slugs and repeats, and without time to reload as I maneuvered the sleigh, I was in deep trouble.

    The Wendigo approached me one final time and, seeing that I didn't shoot it, it charged me. Its antlers caught the sleigh and my right side, sending me crashing into the first tree in my wake. The muscles along my back got crushed from the force, sending pain up and down my body. The beast slowed down, one of its paws morphing into a hand again, and it used the hand to pull the axe out of its own neck and cast it aside.

    Black, putrid blood flowed from the wound, unable to heal the damage done by the silver. It stained the beast's mane and chest, and it approached me slowly as I turned on my back. I knew I was done for, but surprisingly enough, I didn't feel scared.

    “Do your worst,” I told it, in what I was sure would be a final show of defiance on my part. “I already got what I wanted, I don’t care.”

    The Wendigo slowed. Its eyes like burning embers made contact with mine, and it narrowed them. The possessed caught up to us, forming a rough circle around me, their attention completely focused on what would follow. Peering deep into my soul, the Wendigo showed me the fate it had in store for me. I saw myself, in a state similar to Jen’s, haunting the mountains during the countless eons to come. Never sated, never warm, never at rest, my soul slowly getting corrupted as it fueled the Wendigo’s magic. Damned for all of eternity, with no one to come and set me free like I’d done for Jen.

    “Fuck you!” I yelled, closing my eyes tight and stopping the inflow of visions.

    That finally angered the Wendigo. It dashed towards me, teeth snapping with immense force, and tried to grab a hold of me. I kicked at its face with my left leg, but it bit down on my foot and trashed about, jerking me around through the snow. The possessed hollered at the spectacle, spurring their master on. The Wendigo bit down harder and pulled back, ready to take off into the woods with me, but my prosthetic foot came loose.

    It stumbled backwards under its own force, surprise thick in its eyes as it held a mere piece of plastic and metal in its mouth, not the flesh it was expecting. I was in such a state of shock, my mind so strained by the stress and fear, that I couldn’t help but laugh at it. Loud, crazed laughter, echoing through the forest as the Wendigo simply watched, not knowing what to make of the situation.

    As my laughter picked up, it abandoned the attempt to make heads or tails of what happened. Its jaws opened, letting the prosthetic fall into the snow, and I saw all of its muscles tense up as it pounced me again. I retreated away from it on my elbows, and it lifted its head high up, ready to bite down on my midsection.

    Another yell, one I’d never heard before, freezed time in place. A shining streak of metal swung from behind the Wendigo, hitting it in the neck and stopping in its flesh. The beast let out an ear piercing scream of pain, but I didn’t allow it a moment of reprieve. I kicked at the axe’s head from below it, driving it deeper into its neck as I felt the bone of my leg crack. I kicked again, and again, and again, the Wendigo jolting from each hit, unable to run away.

    It tried to skitter away, but tripped and fell on its side, bleeding profusely onto the clean snow. The shadow of my savior moved, looming over the Wendigo, and she grabbed a hold of the axe’s handle. With all of her might, she pulled it free before swinging again. I saw the Wendigo’s body convulse with each chop, until the blade made it all the way through its throat and separated its head from its body. And all throughout it, my savior kept screaming, scared out of her mind.

    “What the fuck?!” She asked, collapsing to her knees.

    I got on all fours, quickly crawling my way next to her under the attentive gazes of the possessed. With their master weakened, they didn’t dare approach.

    “Here,” I told Rachel, who was drenched in blood from head to toe and trembled with fear and adrenaline. “Give me the axe, I’ll finish it off.”

    Her hands relinquished the handle, and I took it from her. Even decapitated as it was, the Wendigo wasn’t dead yet, and only the axe’s silver coated blade could pierce it. I swung at its chest, hearing its ribs crunch and break as I pulled the pelt and flesh away. The whole ordeal felt liberating and cathartic, consuming the decades of pent up hate, anger, and regret in me. By the time the Wendigo’s chest was spread open, revealing its icy heart, I couldn’t even bring myself to despise it anymore. I was spent.

    I brought the axe’s blade down on it one final time, cleaving its heart in two. Darkness rushed out of it, spreading through the forest like a shockwave. As it reached the possessed, it set their souls free of the beast’s influence. Their bodies crumpled to dust in an instant as decades or centuries of decay came rushing back, no longer held at bay by the Wendigo’s magic. I couldn’t hold to my feet anymore, so I crashed into the snow, breathing heavily but thoroughly satisfied with myself.

    “Roger?” Rachel asked, jumping next to me and shaking my chest. “Please no, please please please!”

    “I’m...fine,” I stuttered. “Give me a few, I’ll be right as rain.”

    Her eyes went wide seeing my pained grin, and she punched my chest weakly.

    “Old fucking bastard!” She cried, not in the least amused. With tears streaming down her face, she continued her assault, both verbally and physically. “I saw the fire from all the way back home, and I got worried! I jumped on my snowmobile to come check up on you, and found the cabin empty! And I look down the slope, and I see a fucking tree flying, and I hear that...that...damned thing scream! I thought you’d die!”

    “To my defense, I nearly did,” I said, feeling my chest get bruised as she put more force behind her hits.

    “Where’s your family? Are they safe? What the hell was that thing?!”

    “There’s no family,” I answered. “Never was, I don't have any. No sons, no grandkids, nothing. I came here all alone just to kill that thing, sorry I lied to you."

    She grabbed my hand and helped me into a sitting position, our faces inches from each other. She draped one of her arms around my neck, closing her eyes and leaning in, but I stopped her.

    "I'm not done yet," I said, and pushed past her.

    Her face reddened as her cheeks puffed up, and she mumbled way to fucking ruin the moment. I ignored her, crawling towards my discarded prosthetic and shaking it of snow. The plastic was cracked, the metal beneath was bent, and there were clear teeth marks on its surface, but it didn't matter. I put it back on and got up, helping Rachel to her feet as well.

    "Will you at least explain what the fuck happened?" She asked, propping her hands on her hips. "You know, since you ruined the kiss and all that?"

    "What's up is that we have to burn the body and get the heart into the silver box I left back at the cabin before the Wendigo reforms," I explained, walking over to my sleigh. I picked it up out of the snow, finding it had survived the assault unscathed, so I took it next to the body. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to fight that thing again. Explanations can wait."

    "Fine," Rachel accepted. "How can I help?"

    "Go check on the snowmobile, see if it still works. If not, we'll have to make another fire here."

    She did as I asked without complaints, trudging through the snow towards her wrecked vehicle. A few minutes later, I was done hoisting the Wendigo onto the sleigh and tying it down. The sound of the snowmobile's engine starting up reached me all the way down, making me let out a sigh of relief.

    Rachel returned, we tied the sleigh behind the snowmobile, and we carried the Wendigo's corpse back up to the cabin. The fire still raged on, and I pushed the body into it, sleigh and all. Just like Jen had done earlier, it erupted into flames, turning into ash in mere moments and scattering in the wind. I locked the heart into a silver box which I planned to deliver to a shaman who could properly kill the beast, and I sat Rachel down in front of the fire.

    I told her the entire story of my life up to that point, just as I have told it to all of you now. She listened with bated breath, inching closer to me, and tried to stop me when she noticed the memories caused me distress. But I kept going, digging them out and laying them bare. For the first time in my life, someone was not only willing to listen to my story, but they also believed it. I needed the release, I needed to vent, and I felt all of the pent up emotions leave me bit by bit with each word I spoke.

    When I was done, we stood in silence for a long while, neither of us knowing what to say anymore. Sunrise came, and we rode off into it on Rachel's snowmobile. She dropped me off at my truck, but we couldn't bring ourselves to part ways.

    "I...uhh...I guess I should be going," I said, unusually fidgety. "I have to deliver this to the shaman."

    "Yeah, I...I guess you should," Rachel said.

    She had her arms around herself, rubbing her own shoulders for warmth. With a defeated look, she turned on the spot and began walking towards the snowmobile. I had my own hand on the truck's handle, but my heart fought my mind and won out. Hoping I wouldn't regret this decision, I took off after her, catching her arm and turning her around.

    Her eyes went wide as I pulled her in, and she melted in my arms as I pressed my lips on hers. We stood like that for a bit, enjoying the moment, but I felt my face go red like a beet. When I pulled away, I saw she was in no better condition, although she was grinning in an attempt to hide it.

    "Old bastard," she said. "You call that a kiss?"

    "Hey, I haven't had practice in three decades."

    But she didn't care. She grabbed the sides of my head and pulled me in again, showing me how it's done. And it was my turn to melt in her arms, as embarrassing as it might've been.

    Now, I know you probably expect something awesome. That we went on to become a bombastic duo of monster hunters or something of that sort. But we didn't. I left to deliver the Wendigo's heart, and hung my rhetorical cape away, ready to close that chapter of my life. Me and Rachel did end up dating, and I can confidently say that she's the new light of my life.

    In fact, she's in my lap right now, diligently reading every word that I write. She says hi to you all, and I bid you farewell....
     
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