I have a love/hate relationship with busy hours at the diner. Decent tips but high aggravation; not to mention my boss’ complete lack of ability to deal with stress without trying to out scream it.
‘At least Todd stayed out of sight.’ I think to myself, giving my back and neck a stretch before hefting the next tray of tuna melts and stacks of pancakes. The last thing I need is that pesky genie needling Brian even further.
The rest of my shift whirls by me so fast, I don’t even see Todd saunter in ready to ride home with me. When he glides into a booth across from where I’m flexing my aching feet while the reason why Todd has insisted on escorting me home plays on the news.
“The remains of a third victim were found by police dumped in a trash can at the park have yet to be identified. Police are once again advising citizens to be on their guard.”
“Ahh, poor thing.” Todd shook his head and crossed his legs with a flourish. “I read online what’s left of the body was mangled.”
“I hope you used your own computer.” I don’t need viruses from those shady sites he plays around on. Again. I made him conjure up his own after that incident. Lucky for me I don’t have much of an identity to steal.
“Your gadget is as safe as houses, my dear.” Todd picked at his nails and admired his rings in the bright diner lights. “Has Brian finally ended your archaic torture he poorly reimburses you for?”
“Yeah, I’m done here.” I give one last stretch to give my back a chance to pop, then tug off my apron. “Brian can clean up tonight.” I say loud enough for him to hear and getting a hearty “Fuck off” as a response.
“He’s such a delight.” Todd blew him a kiss. His olive skin flushes with delight and Brian’s discomfort as he waves, making his bracelets sing as they hit each other. He even picked turquoise hair today, like sprinkles on a sundae.
I know Brian must be tired. He didn’t even flip Todd the bird.
I huddle into my jacket against the chilly night air as I make my way to my truck with Todd close by me.
“You think whatever’s killing those people is a threat to me?” I squint as the wind blows my bangs into my eyes, making a fun game out of finding my keys.
“I like to keep my pretty things safe.” Todd magics open the doors. He makes sure I’m seated before climbing in the passenger side.
“Alright, this is dumb.” I start the engine to warm up and look my genie in the eyes. “You’re hovering and it’s driving me nuts. What is it?”
I don’t like to threaten him like this but clearly, something is up. I fish the little green stone from around my neck out of my coat and pinch it between my fingers. “Spill it. Why all the attention?”
Todd frowns, checking my windows. “Those mangled people were partially eaten. I can tell something is hunting around here.”
I let the stone go. “And you think this is a threat to me?”
“It’s a threat to everyone but you have my gem.” Todd’s overly white teeth flashed in the orange glow of the street lights.
“Gosh, I’m touched.” I put my seatbelt on and back out of my space before Brian can come out and tell me to open early in the morning. Todd is not a serious being and these murders are disturbing but what makes me anxious is watching him checking all the windows as I drive. His concern is worryingly genuine.
By the time I get home, I’m exhausted inside and out. All I want is my shower and my bed.
“Wait.” Todd stops me on my walkway and I notice my front door light is out. “Who’s there?”
Straining my eyes to the limit, I see a shadow near the door. Broken glass glitters on my front step. A black hoodie and long legs in tattered jeans come into focus. The figure looks up and milky yellow eyes. “Need. Help.”
That voice. “Thatcher?”
“Did anyone see you come here?” Todd kept a lot of distance between him and Thatcher, who curled up on a corner of my couch with his hood over his face. He’s barely recognizable; the normal reddish brown of his skin fading to chalk-white around his warped and twisted mouth. Long teeth arched up against his lip on one side and the disfigurement spread up to his eye, ruby red and bulbous.
“Who this?” Thatcher ignored Todd and watched me try and get a glass of water without letting on my hands are shaking.
“I think there’s some more important questions right now.” I give myself credit for only flinching a little when a white, jagged, twisted, clawed excuse for a hand reached for the glass of water I offer. “What the hell happened to you and how did you find me?”
“And how long has it been since you showered?”
“Todd, shut up.”
“Thanks.” Thatcher maneuvered his lips to take a tiny sip but some water escaped to drip down his chin and onto the stained hoodie. “I came. Followed blood.”
“Oh, I can’t take this.” Todd snapped his fingers in Thatcher’s direction and the deformed lips painfully retreated into some semblance of a human mouth. The teeth and skin remained sharp and white, clearly inhuman. “Speak.”
Thatcher reached up in awe, his more human hand touching his smooth skin.
“Can’t you fix the rest?” My eyes tear up as I watch my old friend relish the feeling of his old face.
“No.” Thatcher’s voice came though much clearer, like plucking a memory right from my past. “This already a miracle. No cure for me.”
I hate myself for thinking it but only now do I feel safe enough to sit next to my old friend. “What happened to you?”
When he looked at me, I felt thankful a human heart doesn’t audibly crack. “We wanted out so bad. Remember? Didn’t wanna be reservation brats sellin’ ciggs to whites.”
I feel my face heat up. “That’s not why I left.”
“Know that now.” He leans back and his mangled hand fell into his lap. “We thought we were smarter than the elders. Didn’t listen. Fell into the same trap. Booze. Drugs. Hurt the wrong person.”
“We? Who came with you?”
“Olivia. But she was so mad.” Both the swollen yellow eye and deep brown eye swelled with tears. “We were desperate. Hungry.”
Fucking Olivia. Took all the worst vices and ran with them. “She forced you to…”
Thatcher made this sound that could have been a laugh but his throat caught the sound and choked on it. “Not innocent. Wanted. Wanted so much. Got so hungry, cold.” He slumped down, hugging his long legs to make himself as small as possible. “Tired…”
“You cannot leave him there.” Todd followed my every step as I got an old blanket to cover Thatcher as he snored on my couch.
“Oh, want me to call him a cab or an Uber to take him to a hotel? That would be a fun conversation.”
“He’s transforming. And he stinks of blood.” Todd snatched the blanket out of my hands. “Human blood.”
“I know.” I give him a sour look and take back the blanket. “He won’t hurt me.”
“What a dumb way to bet your life.” He mumbled but I ignore him and go back to Thatcher trembling on my couch.
“The thing. Killer leaving parts. Not me.” He growled, his mouth not human enough to talk normally. “Came to warn you.”
“You better rest now. We can talk in the morning.” I lay him down and I swear he’s asleep before I can stand up again.
“Not him this time, maybe.” Todd scowls down at my disfigured old friend. “But he will. That’s what wendigos do. And you wanna keep one on your ratty excuse for a couch.”
“He’s not all the way gone.”
“There is no cure for this. He will eat you if you don’t kill him.”
“Then we’ll just have to make sure I don’t get eaten then.” To make it clear this conversation is over, I walk into the bathroom and lock the door.
As I wait for the shower to warm up, I try not to let my childhood memories overwhelm me. Olvia and Thatcher were my best friends on the reservation and the three of us itched to go out into the world; get away from the heavy responsibility of tradition and what seemed like a small place when compared to off the land. We thought we were gonna go places.
‘Now, none of us can ever go back.’ Tears I never thought I had in me to shed prickle my eyes but I wash them away.
Todd was right on Thatcher when he woke screaming from a nightmare, ready with God knows what to subdue him if he got out of hand. I don’t even flinch at my station at the coffee machine. Caffeine first. Shocked at magic stuff later.
“What are you?” Thatcher glowers at Todd and there’s only so much attitude I can take before breakfast.
“You. That corner.” I point to Todd and shoo him into the corner of my living room that he’s turned into some tacky harem stereotype. “You. Eat this.” I dump some raw breakfast sausage from the back of the fridge with a questionable expiration date into a bowl and drop it into Thatcher’s shaking hands. I try to keep my coffee down and not stare when he devours the meat with vicious relief; catching any stray clumps in his lap and picking them up in his claws.
“Napkin?” Todd looked about ready to puke and I feel bad for feeling the same.
Thatcher growls and licks the bowl clean. I don’t dare reach for it until he leaves it on my coffee table. “Go on, tell me more.” I sigh.
“Me. Olivia with me. Left right after you. Drugs. No home. We got desperate. Hadda keep high. Hadda eat.” His mouth filled with saliva and he wiped it away with his dirty sleeve.
“Then you started to change.” I shake my head. It must have been one hell of a time.
“We lived in cabin. Woods hid us. Animals were ok at first. Olivia… We wanted more. We changed.”
“And that made it worse?”
“We got mad. Blamed you. Came to hunt you.”
Todd went to stand in front of me but I stop him.
“Olivia likes this. How we are.” Thatcher’s more human eye waters and sheds tears as he looks at me with fear. “I try. To stop. Warn you. Before I gone.”
Is this a message? Does she want revenge for leaving and letting her turn into a demon? The coffee churns in my belly.
Thatcher looks away from me and curls up tight into the corner of my couch as far as he can away from me. “I try to stop her.” He jumps towards me, painfully grabbing both my hands. “I try! I try not to-!”
Before I can react, Todd smacks Thatcher across the room into a whimpering heap by my front door. I am fully aware I could never get my deposit back on this house, but the body-sized dent in my wall split with a painful crack. Once things calm down, I’m making Todd fix up this place. I’d love an upgraded kitchen.
Thatcher doesn’t retaliate. He flops pathetically on his side like a smacked bug twitching his limbs to regain balance.
“Watch yourself there, darling.” Todd steps in front of me, ignoring my protests.
“Sorry.” Thatcher whimpers. “I sorry. Came to help. Olivia coming.” The ratty hood nods and shrinks away from me. “We hide. House. Abandoned. In forest. I eat animals. Only.” The s’s catch on the jagged teeth-like nails on a chalkboard. “She sleep day. Hunt night. Came in secret.”
“She’ll have Missy’s scent the second you go near her.” Todd rolled his eyes. “Some warning.”
“I lie. Say we fight and you hurt me.” Thatcher looks at Todd. “And true, I hurt.”
“Can you get back to her without being seen?” I check my watch. Plenty of time to call out of work and get some supplies. Brian will have to live without me for a bit.
“You can’t be serious.” Todd throws his hands in the air and stomps off in frustration.
“Yes. I sneak.”
“Good. Meet me at the park where the last remains were dumped. Sunset. Take me to this house.”
Thatcher shudders in a terrible impression of agreement and slinks out my front door without another word.
“I lack the words to properly convey what a terrible idea this is.” With a flick of his bangled wrist, Todd makes the cracks in the wall vanish. “What chance do you think you have against a wendigo?”
“Should I just let them keep killing people?” I head for my phone to make the call to my boss.
“When they kill you, they’ll kill others.”
I bristle. “I won’t die. I’m not done annoying you yet.” When I start dialing the diner, Todd takes the phone from my hand.
“I don’t like this.” His green eyes flash with some conflicting emotions. “Your old flame shows up half turned into a demonic cannibal around the time of some murders while your ex BFF wants to kill you? And you want to follow him into the woods.”
“Not an old flame and stop snatching things out of my hands.” I reach for the phone but Todd keeps it out of my reach.
“Why are you playing softie? Why are these guys so special?”
“We grew up together. That’s all you get.” I feel my face twist into a scowl and after a moment’s hesitation, Todd drops the phone into my palm and shrugs.
“Don’t come to me when you’re being digested.” He doesn’t storm off, Todd drifts away; giving up the pretense of needing to obey gravity.
I decide my energy is better spent on enduring Brian’s inevitable tirade against calling out and leave Todd alone.
Despite his misgivings and shitty attitude, Todd busies himself by enjoying the vacant swings and performing feats no mortal child could ever manage that are bound to attract the wrong kind of attention with all the noise and flipping. In other circumstances, the neon butterflies would be fun as they dance in the air with some more pastel hummingbirds but all I can think of is some curious person coming upon the light show to end up an unwilling snack.
Is there ever a willing snack? There was some guy I saw on the internet once. Can’t remember his name.
Before I can try and recall the name of a human cannibal, a non-human one slinks from the darkness.
“Alone?” Thatcher comes towards us on all fours; same tattered hoodie shadowing his misshapen face.
“He’s worse off.” Todd does a stupidly over-the-top flip off the swing to land by my side. Ah, my gallant, annoyed knight.
He didn’t need to tell me. The jagged teeth have warped his mouth past where Todd had previously healed, piercing the human part of his mouth to paint the dripping saliva a sickening pink. The one human hand Thatcher had now had three stretched, chalk-white digits with uneven claws. The torn jeans were now shreds at both feet, the worn-through sneakers he managed to keep in my apartment were now gone. Only a mess of cold flesh and sharp bones.
“Yes. We’re alone.” I tighten the straps on my tactical backpack – that I will admit I already owned but the super prepper contents are new. I’m a little insulted I wasn’t even given a side-long scowl given the number of sharp objects and any survival gear that didn’t require a permit I purchased all at once. Or should I feel empowered? Concerned? Vindicated? Oh, fuck it. My money is green and that’s all that matters.
“Good. She still sleeping. Follow.” Thatcher lumbers along, alternating between walking on two or three limbs. I notice his back is more curved today and he’s more agile on all fours than upright. He’s transforming faster than I thought.
“Stop daydreaming and pay attention.” Todd, who wisely toned down his outfit, pokes me in the ribs and ducks before my hand can connect with his head. “I can’t bring back the dead.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Famous last words.”
After a tense ride to closed campgrounds, I have trouble keeping up with Thatcher’s pace and I wish I had my car. Not that my truck could get through the thickening woods but I don’t like the thought of being exhausted from this hike when I need to defend myself against Olivia. Or possibly two wendigos.
Thatcher paces around the tree I lean on for a quick water break and a protein bar. Out here in the woods, he lets the hood fall back. A lot of his hair is gone and all the bald patches looks like cracking white out spilled on his brown skin. The teeth in his mouth spread so wide, the part of his mouth that was still human couldn’t close. I look away before he wipes the drool from his chin with his sleeve.
“We close.” The sky darkened and stars blink to life, the light of the crescent moon the only thing keeping me from tripping. A dilapidated cabin finally came into view and clearly, nature was doing good work taking it back. A tree branch grew right through the roof and several windows, vines crawled all over the outside walls and any path to the door had long grown over. The only reason I know there was a fence is my toe slams into a broken post and Todd has to save me from a face full of ground.
“Thanks.” I sigh in relief and Todd is uncharacteristically quiet. Not even a raised eyebrow to say ‘I told you so.’ Up until now, I felt resolved, determined to help my old friend and stop the killings. Only now fear slithers into my chest. I don’t like this quiet Todd.
“Quiet.” Thatcher hisses and crawls down lower, heading for the hole in the wall made by the tree instead of the broken front door. The smell of rot and old blood makes me gag and I fight back bile as I crawl in behind Thatcher. It’s pitch black inside and while I’m fumbling around my pockets for my flashlight, Todd’s jewel lights up. I pull the green stone free of my shirt and the glow, unfortunately, lights up the room. Piles of chewed bones littered each corner, mostly non-human but that’s cold comfort. Brown blood and maggots are spattered across the floor where bits of meat were left behind. Flies scuttle in over the rotted meat and make the air hum.
“Not here?” I could swear Thatcher whimpers, skittering around the room. “No! I check! Made sure. Was sleeping!”
When I set up a small lantern to see better, I hear what is left of the roof creaking and I pull the hunting knife from the sheath at my hip. Todd is at my back, watching the ceiling and Thatcher as he panics. His claws leave deep scratches in the decaying wood, disturbing the feasting maggots and drying bones.
A thin, long-limbed form crashed through the hole made by the tree. Unlike Thatcher’s jerky movements, this creature landed with precision and reared back on its hind legs. This thing lacked all hair, bald head with skin stretched tight caught the green glow of my gem. With a horrible high-pitched screech, it came at me claws first. Todd knocked the jagged appendages aside and I follow up with a slash to the emaciated abdomen. Thatcher barreled into the creature and the pair of them slammed into the wall in a clatter of bones and an irate buzz of a cloud of flies disturbed from their meal.
They went at each other like the demons they were turning into; snarling, hissing, and scratching and biting. Todd pushes me back and blows on his hand. Sparkling pastel green mist covers them and they both lie still.
When all my adrenaline leaves me and my legs won’t hold me up anymore. “You couldn’t have done that sooner?” My voice is a mess. If I wasn’t the one talking, I wouldn’t have understood me.
Todd has his back to me. His shoulders are set in place, eyes trained on the tangle of wendigo in the corner. There’s something in his stance; primal, ancient, horrifically timeless. A puff of sparkles slithered through his bright white teeth as he looks over his shoulder to smile at me. “And let you waste all your money on those fancy tools?”
This is the first time I feel afraid of him.
With Todd’s help, I tie up Olivia and Thatcher; using much more rope and tighter knots on Olivia since she tried to eat my face.
“I would leave them unconscious and burn the damn house down with them inside it.” Todd picked a clean-ish spot on a wall to lean on, poofing any flies that came near him out of existence.
“No. I want to try and talk to them.” Todd snorts and I agree. I’m asking for trouble. “Besides, that would attract attention and possibly burn the whole damn forest down.”
“What is your deal with these people? You know this rope won’t hold and you’re risking your life for closure you won’t like.”
I tug on the last knot to make it secure and walk out to the porch where the air was cleaner. I don’t need to look back to know Todd is following me.
Able to breathe better, the past freely overtakes me. Instead of death, I smell fresh bread and a lightly scented lotion that matches the soap in the bathroom. Rock music I’ll get scolded for listening to overpowers the neighbors as they practice traditional drums for the upcoming festival. I sneak out the window with my radio with fresh batteries and tear down the winding streets as fast as my little legs will carry me. I fail fantastically at singing while I run and don’t stop until I reach our favorite spot at the lake. Olivia and Thatcher are there waiting for me. I can’t remember what they said or even what we did that day. It was so important then; why don’t I remember? In my mind, all I can recall is this was the last time we were at the lake together before the first time I bled and I was told I couldn’t be with the rest of my tribe anymore.
“They were my best friends and never knew why I had to leave. I owe them a chance to be heard.” I pull the little lantern close to me as if the LED had any warmth to give.
“Sentimental bullshit.” Todd mutters and looks over his shoulder into the darkness of the old house. “Don’t let it get you killed. Sounds like Thatchy is awake.”
I take a deep breath to not only brace myself but to indulge in cleaner air before the rot assaults my senses again. In the light of my little lantern, I see Thatcher scooting towards me.
“Ropes? Understand. Release me?” His voice is so weak and raspy I can barely hear him.
“It was just in case.” I pull at his bonds knowing full well he could break out of them if he wanted to. “You and Olivia really went at it.”
“Yes. She strong. Angry.” When he flexes his hands, I notice the white flesh is spreading and all his nails are now talons.
Before I can say anything, I hear flopping nearby and Todd is soundlessly by my side. Olivia snarls at me, her hollow eyes glaring in rage and spittle flying from in between her jagged teeth. The blood-stained and cracked protrusions at the top of her skull leave scratch marks on the floor as she struggles against the ropes.
“Stop.” Thatcher pleads with her but I’m less nice about things.
“Knock it off.” I walk over and give the ropes a hard pull. I doubt it hurts her but it gets the message across. “What the hell happened to you and why are you hunting me?”
“Missy…” Todd warns but I keep my eyes on Olivia.
“You heard me.” I bend down but don’t kneel, ready to jump back from those nasty teeth. “Olivia, why?”
She struggles more but the milky white of her eyes finally focuses on me. “You.” Oh, God, her voice is metal on metal with a side of broken garbage disposal. It hurts, raking across my ears like acid. “Left. Without. Us.”
“I didn’t have a choice. The elders told me to leave. I had a bag of cash and the clothes on my back.” I keep my blade in my hand.
“Abandoned us.” Olivia hissed, a sickening blue liquid impersonating tears dripped down her gaunt face. “Went after you. You hid. Hid from us.”
“I thought you were still home!”
“Liar!” Olivia rears back and the ropes snap. Her mad swipe only catches air as I fall back and Todd steps in front of me.
The smile that split Olivia’s face makes the whole room freezing cold. “I kill you. Feed you to her. Make her like us.” She throws herself at Todd who dodges her with the ease of a fully choreographed movie fight.
Thatcher tugs at my arm. “Come! We run!”
I pull away but I can’t stop watching Todd and Olivia trade blows but unable to damage the other. “I can’t leave him.”
A blast of fire shoots out of Todd’s fingers and Olivia hisses as it sizzles her bleached flesh. The force of the hit slams her into the wall next to me and Todd pulls me away. “Now!” He yells as exactly what I thought would happen happened. The dry rotted wood sparks to life and spreads through the room. I’m not strong enough to stop Thatcher from throwing me over his shoulder and breaking through the wall to get me out of the building. I feel the wind knocked out of me when he drops me on my ass and to my absolute shock, dives back in through the hole he created. A few unfamiliar sounds ring out before the very familiar string of colorful curses as Todd flies out the same hole but lands like a cartoon badass on his feet and skidding to my side.
“How the hell are you alive?” He gasps. Shit, he’s tired!?
“How do you have my pack in your hand?!” Not the time to bring it up but, seriously how?
Todd slings it over one shoulder. “You can’t run with it. Let’s go.”
Shrieking howls meld with the sound of growing flame devouring the wood.
“We can’t leave it like this!” I get up off my sore ass and grip the hunting knife in my hand. “We can’t leave them like this!”
“Don’t be a fucking idiot and get the hell out of-” The growls change tone, a high-pitched death wail makes me cover my ears in agony before only the burning cabin made any noise. I squint up at the fire, watching the ceiling fall in, and a shadow jerks away from the cabin. Something rolls into my foot and a scream dies in my throat. The creamy, vacant eyes in Olivia’s severed head look vacantly up at me.
I almost throw up but Thatcher follows the head lumbering towards me. Anything in his face that was human is gone now. A set of horns has punctured through his scalp and rises like the flames behind him. Blood coats his chin and chest, drips off his claws and down onto his distended belly.
“He ate her.” I don’t try to hide the sob in my throat.
“Missy, run!” Todd tries to burn Thatcher with fire but his focus on me is absolute. The fire blinds Todd to the incoming swat and Thatcher leaps at me. My arm comes up and my hunting knife goes right through his heart. He knocks me to the ground and I feel the bones in my forearm snap.
We both scream in agony but only one of us falls limp and lifeless. Only one of us sheds tears.
I don’t hear Todd calling me. Not clearly. The weight of Thatcher’s body on mine usurps all my senses except the pain in my arm. Then it all goes numb. I close my eyes.
Now I know Todd is coddling me. He doesn’t say a word while I fumble around getting my uniform on around my cast. I feel guilty leaving Brian and the precious few other women he can trick into working for him in the lurch. If I walk fast and carry a smaller tray with my good hand, I should be fast enough not to cost me tips. Hell, I may get pity tips for working with a broken arm.
“I can’t believe you’re bothering.” Todd finally says.
“Girl’s gotta make money.” I sigh, hooking the pre-tied apron over my head. I fish around the drawer in my work locker for my name tag, thankfully a magnet I can manage with one hand. “And Brian will flip his shit if he sees you back here.” He doesn’t move from his leaned posture against the doorframe when I try to leave. “Look, thank you for putting out the fire and making sure the bodies were destroyed. I know you didn’t have to-”
“I mean with the cast.” He flicks where he signed it at the hospital. Green glitter pen, of course. “Why keep up the facade?”
I wiggle my fingers and shrug. The bone healed within hours after the doctor was done with me. Figures he’d notice. “At least until the doctor removes the cast after the final checkup. Can’t raise any red flags, right?”
“Right.” He huffs as I push past him so I can get to work.
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