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A Frozen Hunger
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
The man shoveled soup into his mouth, hardly tasting it. Jenny watched in horrified fascination as droplets of the broth ran down his cheek and fell, unnoticed, into his greasy, tangled hair.
"You poor man." Mrs. Pawluk said, patting him on the shoulder. "I can't imagine the things you've been through."
The man's ice-blue eyes flicked up to look at the woman, but he did not pause as he continued to spoon soup into his mouth. Jenny shuddered, wanting to scream at Mrs. Pawluk to get her hand off of the man. The thought of touching him made her feel ill. Instead, she continued spreading mayo onto the stack of bread before her, trying not to look at the man across from her.
He should have looked pitiful. The man's chin bore the patchy stubble of a man who did not grow facial hair easily, but who was none-the-less in need of a shave. His nails were black and chipped, ragged claws at the end of digits well-gnawed by frostbite, and his dark skin was still a deathly grey despite the warmth of the S?pis family's kitchen. His thin clothing, hardly more than rags, only served to make him look even more emaciated. If she looked closely, Jenny could make out the sharp points of the man's clavicle poking out from his shoulder.
However, pity was the furthest thing from her mind. She felt his eyes fall upon her and she flinched away, shifting so that the stack of bologna sandwiches was between them. His gaze was deeply, profoundly dirty, and yet there was no hint of sexuality in the hunger that blazed in his eyes.
To his eyes, she was little more than meat that spoke.
"Paula, could you come help me?" Noreen called, and Mrs. Pawluk gave the man's bony shoulder one last pat before bustling over to the stove.
Jenny let out a sigh of relief. Her knife clattered against the empty sides of the mayonnaise jar as she struggled to get the last of the spread.
"Mom?" She called, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. "I'm out of mayo..."
Her mother continued to chop up vegetables, adding them into another pot of soup. "Use butter instead."
"Will... Will that do?" Jenny said.
Noreen paused, and Jenny could see the tension in her mother's shoulders. "Yes. It will have to." She replied.
"Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine." Mrs. Pawluk said. She seemed completely oblivious to the tension in the kitchen. She flashed a pearly smile at the homeless man. "Heaven knows if I was half-starved, anything would taste good. Isn't that right, Mister??"
The man ignored her and dropped his spoon with a clatter into the empty bowl. He turned slowly to look at Noreen.
"More." He said.
His voice was hoarse and low, more an animal grunt than a true word, and yet the noise held all the weight and malice of a death threat.
"More." He said again, reaching for the stack of sandwiches.
Jenny pushed them across the table to him and then snatched her hand away as quickly as possible. He fell upon the sandwiches, grabbing one in each hand and stuffing the first into his mouth whole. As he chewed, chunks of bread fell from his mouth. Jenny looked away, unable to stand the grotesque sight. Silently, she continued assembling butter and bologna sandwiches until all of the bread was gone.
Behind her, the wind rattled at the patio doors, coating the glass with a thick layer of frost. Jenny didn't like turning her back to the storm, but sitting at another chair would have put her even closer to him, and her mother had said that one of them needed to be at the table with him at all times.
"You can go home now, Paula." Noreen said, and it was not a suggestion.
"In this storm? Hah. You must be joking. Besides, you need help here. I mean, look at all this!" Paula gestured to the stacks of food and cooking devices on the countertop. Four crock-pots simmered gently, and container upon container of frozen meals sat thawing in the sink.
"What is this all for, anyway?" Paula said, searching for the potato peeler amongst the massive pile of dirty dishes. "You said there was a feast or something tonight?"
Noreen's lips tightened. "Something like that."
"Well, it's lucky our friend turned up when he did. There's enough food here to last for days!" Paula said. She hummed to herself as she began peeling potatoes.
Jenny and her mother exchanged looks across the room, but were interrupted by the sound of someone pounding on the back door. Noreen shook the tomato juice off her fingers and grabbed a towel to wipe her hands, then joined Jenny at the table.
"Why don't you go let them in?" Noreen said, but her eyes said, "Run while you can."
Jenny got up from the table, finding it exceedingly hard to move while the stranger's eyes were upon her. "I will." She promised her mother, giving her shoulder a squeeze. As she crossed the room, she saw that the man had eaten almost all of the sandwiches and was starting in on the crackers and cheese?the last of the food until the chilli was ready.
Jenny hurried to the door and opened it, stumbling as the force of the wind nearly tore the handle from her grasp. Fox stepped back quickly to avoid being hit and nearly lost hold of the stack of boxes he was carrying.
"Woah, careful." He yelled over the din of the wind. "Help me get these inside, and then we need to talk."
Jenny eyed the storm warily as she took hold of the topmost box and helped him into the entryway. "Inside, or outside?"
Fox snorted, stamping his feet. Only his eyes were visible from underneath the layers of winter clothing he wore, but his eyelashes were so crusted in ice that he could barely see. He set the boxes down, and Jenny heard the 'clink' of preserve jars.
"Inside, obviously." He said. "You don't want to be out in that."
"Where's Uncle Kevin going?" She peered out the window and saw the vaguest hint of taillights through the snow.
Fox pulled the scarf from his face and rubbed at his numb cheeks. "He went back for more. We cleaned out Auntie Sparrow's house, but we might be able to get more from Doug or Alex."
Jenny took a mental inventory of the boxes and came up short. "This will only last for an hour, maybe two." She said, opening one of the boxes and peering inside. "We're going to need more than this to get us through the night."
Fox shrugged, but Jenny could see that even he looked rattled. "We'll figure something out." He said. "Maybe the storm will blow itself out before dawn."
He didn't sound convinced, but Jenny appreciated his attempt to cheer her up, futile though it was. She helped him haul the boxes of food into the kitchen and then set about unpacking them, taking careful note of what food could be used immediately and what would need to be cooked.
At the table, Noreen beckoned Mrs. Pawluk over and poured her a cup of tea. "Come and keep our guest company, Paula. I'll tend to the soup."
"Are you sure?" Paula said, glancing at the stove. "I don't mind helping."
Noreen shook her head. "I'm sure. There's not much to do right now, and I've got to go dig the extra Tupperware out of the basement."
"Well, okay then." Paula said, and began chatting amiably with the man, who showed no interest in anything other than the food before him.
Noreen sighed, feeling cruel for having left the unsuspecting woman with such a dangerous houseguest, but knew that it was necessary. She got up and joined her children in unloading the boxes of food.
"You kids go down into the basement." She whispered. "Once the chilli's served, I'll join you and we can figure out what we're going to do."
"Way ahead of you." Fox said, grabbing Jenny's wrist and heading for the basement.
Fox led her past the comfortable rec room and back into the musty depths of the store room. He flicked on the bare, hanging bulb and then seated himself on the dryer, staring intently at Jenny.
"Okay. I think we're safe back here. You want to go ahead and tell me how a Wendigo ended up in our house?"
Jenny laughed bitterly. "It's... It's kind of my fault."
She leaned back against the beam and told him what had happened earlier that day.
Cold air clawed at Jenny, stinging her face and chilling her body even through her winter clothing. Her mother's car had barely managed to make it through the snow drifts covering the driveway, and it seemed unlikely that they'd be able to leave again. However, digging out the car would have to wait until tomorrow. The two women waded through the calf-deep snow, heading for the warmth and safety of the house.
Noreen stopped suddenly as she reached the porch.
"Jenny." She said. "You locked the door this morning, right?"
Jenny peered around her mother's side. At the top of the steps, the door was jammed wide open. The snowdrift that had piled up around the door spilled into the house, covering their summer shoes and the welcome mat in the entry hall. She stared into the dark hall and felt gooseflesh rise on her arms that had nothing to do with the bitter cold around her.
Noreen turned around and motioned for Jenny to do the same. "Come on. We're going to the neighbour's."
Before Jenny could move, the wind slammed into them both with surprising strength, throwing her into the railing. Hideous laughter, woven out of the howling of the storm, rang around them.
"You may go nowhere." A voice said, and Jenny felt the command in the words.
The Ice Spirits she had defied at the beginning of the winter had returned.
"River Daughter." They said, cold mockery in their singsong voices. "Bad manners. You refused our gift, so kindly offered. Refused the chance to be a forever-guest in the Cold Realms. Not a gift offered lightly, Water Child."
Thin faces, with eyes like cracks in a glacier, appeared out of the whiteout, flashing humorless smiles at her. She had a brief impression of needle teeth and long, bony claws before the snow swirled around them again, hiding them from view.
"We must teach you manners. Yes." They hissed. "Sent him. Sent you the hungry one. He will teach you, yesss... Learn quickly, pretty one, or he will sate his hunger with your pretty flesh."
A loud crack made her jump. A section of the snow and ice piled onto the roof had broken loose and was beginning to pour down on them, buffeting at their heads. Cursing, Noreen wrapped an arm around her daughter and pulled her inside seconds before a torrent of snow fell past the door.
As they stood in the entry hall, trying to close the door, Jenny had become aware of a man standing in the shadows of the kitchen, waiting for them...
This was a cruel game that the Ice Spirits had inflicted upon them, and after some dangerous trial and error, the S?sis women had learned the rules of it.
As long as they treated the Wendigo like a guest in their house?tending to his needs and giving him the best food that they had to offer?he was honor-bound by the compacts of the old magic to spare them from his hunger. But the moment they offended him, either by action or by serving him unsatisfactory food, he wouldn't waste a moment in devouring them all.
Jenny was just finished explaining all of this to Fox when her mother joined them in the storage room.
"Okay. What are our options?" Noreen asked.
"Our best bet would be to head for the lake." Fox said. "The tunnel in the yard is frozen over, so we can't take that. But if we take the truck, we might be able to outrun the Wendigo. We leave him a stockpile of food, and he'll eat that before he comes for us. It'll buy us a little time."
"No." Said Noreen, shaking her head. "No, Paula can't hide in the lake with us, and if we leave her out here, it'll eat her first. Hell, it might eat anyone between here at the lake before coming after us. It runs faster than the storm, remember? I don't think a truck will make a difference."
"Can't we just command it to leave?" Jenny asked.
Her mother shook her head. "No. It's a spirit creature too, and a more powerful one. Besides, the Ice people will probably block anything we do try, just out of spite."
Jenny wanted to cry. She couldn't see any way out of the situation, and their supplies of food were getting low. Noreen twisted her ring around and around her finger, lost in thought. Fox chewed at his lip, then noticed Jenny watching him. He forced a smile and punched her lightly in the shoulder.
"Hey, none of that." He whispered. "We'll get out of this."
"Okay, first thing's first." Said Noreen. She stood up and began to pace, ticking off a list of things on her fingers. "We need to get Paula out of here. Fox, when Kevin gets back with the next load of food, you take her away from here. Carry her, if you have to. In the meantime, keep him company. Distract him in you can."
"Jenny, you buy us some time while we're waiting for Kevin. We need to make those preserves last. Cut the pickles into little pieces so they're harder to eat, and say it's 'fancier' if he asks why."
She ran her hands through her hair. "I'll stretch what we have left with the soup and chilli, and hopefully buy us another hour. That should be long enough for Kevin to get back. Then, once Paula's gone, we can figure out how to get all of us out of here."
The room was silent for a moment as everyone thought that over. A crash from upstairs made them jump, and before they could agree on the plan, they were all racing back upstairs to see what had become of Mrs. Pawluk.
They found her hovering over a broken teacup. "Oh, oh my." She said, bending to pick up the largest pieces of china. "I'm so sorry, Noreen. It slipped as he was trying to drink."
More like he threw it on the ground, Jenny thought. She remembered how the creature had recoiled from the tea she'd offered him originally. Apparently the Wendigo's ability to eat the hottest foods without pain did not extend to beverages. She wondered if it's aversion to heat could help them somehow, but didn't have time to voice her thoughts.
Her mother shoved a cloth into her hand and sat down at the table. Jenny noticed that the Wendigo had half-risen from his seat, ignoring his meal in hopes that they'd broken their courtesy.
"Sit down and keep eating." Noreen said soothingly. "My children will clean up the mess. Your food is getting cold."
The Wendigo towered over them all, searching the room with dead eyes, but seemed to find no fault. Unwillingly, his body lurched back down into the chair and he bent to continue eating the food that was, to him, far less appetizing that the alternative.
Jenny frantically soaked up the spilled tea, not wanting to spend long this near to the creature. Waves of cold air flowed off of his skin, and she was not surprised to find a skin of ice on the just-spilled tea.
The next hour was spent in a tense stalemate. The S?sis family did their best to make polite small talk with each other as they continued to play their part as hosts. Paula helped with keeping the conversation light and welcoming, and she seemed to take no notice of the ludicrous amounts of food the man was putting away. Jenny spent as much time as she could at the stove, 'tending' to the soup and cutting the dainties into ever-smaller pieces.
They were down to the last few bowls of soup and a handful of pickles when the blare of a car horn came from outside.
"Come on, Mrs. Pawluk." Fox said, jumping up from the table. "We'll drive you home now."
"Oh, I guess." She glanced nervously out the window at the white-out beyond. "But the roads are so bad..."
"Don't worry about it." Fox jerked a thumb in the direction of his truck. "Doug's got a plow on his truck. We're about the only vehicle that can get anywhere in this mess."
"Go, Paula." Noreen said, and Jenny could clearly hear the edge of command in her voice now. Paula flinched, stiffening as the compulsion hit her, and then relaxed as her eyes lost their focus and her smile took on a dazed quality.
"Yes. I will go." She said. Mechanically, she turned and strode stiffly into the front hall. Fox went after her, flashing his mother a smile. She rarely used her voice in that manner, but when she did, there was great power in it. He helped Paula tie her boots and put on her scarf, making sure she was properly attired before the compulsion drove her out into the storm.
Noreen sagged onto the counter, rubbing at the bridge of her nose as she took a moment to compose herself. Jenny wished she could go to her mother's side and comfort her, but she dared not leave the table while the Wendigo still dined. Instead, she busied herself clearing the counters to make space for the next round of food preparation and hoped that Uncle Kevin had managed to bring some instant food.
Things were better now. She reminded herself. Kyle's mom is leaving, so we can finally get out of here ourselves.
She heard the door handle creak as Paula turned it to go outside.
One moment, the Wendigo was chewing the last of the roast beef, tendons and meat crunching between his teeth. Then, in a cold slap of wind that rushed through the kitchen, he was on his feet. His dull eyes now blazed with a bright, sickening malevolence.
"No." He said quietly. "No. She will not leave."
Paula stopped in the doorway, her back rigid. Fox turned back to the kitchen to protest, and then screamed as her teeth sank into his arm. She shook her head, tearing at his arm and raked at him with her exquisitely manicured fingernails. He cuffed her hard in the side of the head with his free hand, but if she felt the pain she didn't show it. They stumbled backwards, Fox trying desperately to push her away, but Paula was filled with a dark, desperate strength and pushed him to the floor.
"Her flesh is the sweetest." The Wendigo droned. "She must stay."
Jenny heard a guttural growl from nearby and ducked instinctively behind the counter, fearing that some other monster had crept into the house. However, the growl had not come from the fight (though she could still hear Fox screaming, oh god, she'd never heard a scream like that before...), but from Noreen, who was charging across the room, a frying pan clutched in her hand.
She kicked Paula hard in the shoulder, but the frenzied woman didn't react to the blow. The same could not be said for when the frying pan smacked into the side of her head with a dull, meaty sound. She let out a muffled grunt and then slumped limply atop Fox. Whimpering and cursing, he managed to extract his arm from her mouth and, with Noreen's help, wriggled out from underneath Mrs. Pawluk.
"Jenny, get the first aid kit." Noreen said as she took Fox's bleeding arm and examined the wound.
Jenny froze, glancing from her brother's arm to the man who still stood in the middle of the kitchen, watching the blood pooling on the floor with entirely too much interest. He was in between her and the bathroom, where the first aid kit lay. And, she realized as he took a step forward, no one was at the table with him.
For a moment, the illusion of the dirty homeless man dropped away. He licked at raw, red gums clearly visible through the holes that had been chewed in his own cheeks and lips. Limbs frozen from within lurched forward, and she could hear the rasp of bone on the floor from the stumps where his feet had been. Then the wind blew through the kitchen again and he was across the room, crouched over Paula. Noreen screamed and threw herself across Fox, pushing him to the floor, but for the moment, the Wendigo ignored them both, salivating over the blood that dripped from Paula's mouth.
"Please." Jenny yelled over the screaming. Then, quieter, "Please come finish your meal."
The Wendigo's head snapped towards her. "No." He said. "You left. This is over now."
"You haven't had desert." Jenny insisted, pushing a half-full bag of cookies towards the creature's plate.
He stared blankly at her for a moment, and then threw back his head and howled. It took Jenny a moment to realize that the ugly noise was his laughter. The sound dissolved into the rushing of the wind through the kitchen, and a heartbeat later the Wendigo was inches from her, still laughing through his torn face. His breath reeked of rotting things and was cold, not hot, against her cheeks.
"Fool." He said. "Your food is like dirt and ashes to me. I played your game long enough. Now, I take."
His long, bony fingers clamped around her neck and squeezed. Distantly, Jenny could hear her mother screaming, but her ears were filled with the sound of her own heartbeat. Too fast. Far too fast, but slowing as the grey closed in on the edges of her vision.
Then, the roaring in her ears rose in pitch until it seemed to shake the whole house. Cutlery clattered off of the table, and the lamp hanging in the corner pitched and shook, casting crazy shadows across the room. The Wendigo's grip loosened just enough for Jenny to gasp in a short, painful breath before the room exploded into flame.
Release my child. A voice boomed, more pressure and vibration that true words.
Sparks of flame exploded into life outside the patio window, hissing loudly in the cold and the wind. Light, too bright to look at, lanced through the windows and lit the dining room with new brilliance. Out of the corner of her eye, Jenny saw globes of flame dancing in the yard, whirling and weaving in hypnotic patterns.
Release her. The voice growled again. Or I will burn you to ash.
Several of the dancing flames drew together, and in the midst of their gathering a ring of flickering fire blazed into life. The Mishipizhiw had escaped it's prison in the lake, and somehow, been drawn here to rescue them all.
The Wendigo shrieked and dropped his captives, throwing his hands before his head to protect himself from the fire. Jenny scuttled under the table and cowered there as a creature even more deadly than that she'd just escaped from hovered outside her window.
Now, go. Never return here, growled the god-cat.
The Wendigo hesitated a moment, looking down at Paula and then to Fox. A rumbling growl from outside shook the windows, and in a rush of wind the man who had held them captive for the past several hours was gone.
Jenny shook all over, not sure if this current situation was any better. This was the being that had created her people?ancient and powerful, but capricious. Her grandmother had promised it her life in order to spare Jenny's, and that was a debt that it had yet to collect. She began to cry, too hurt and shocked to do anything else.
Then, without warning, the light blazing outside flickered and went out.
The family stirred warily in the sudden darkness. Jenny could hear Fox still cursing quietly to himself, could hear her the creaking of a floorboard as her mother got to her feet, her own quiet sniffles as she tried to hide.
Then came the sound of her uncle's voice, hideously loud. "You guys alive in there?"
"Is anyone hurt?" This time, it was her cousin Alex speaking.
As her eyes adjusted to the comparative darkness of the patio area, she made out the outline of her uncle's truck parked by the deck. It took her stunned mind a moment to realize that the dancing flames had been the torches that her family members were still holding in their hands, and that the ring of fire was a tire, still sending clouds of dark, acrid smoke into the air. The hellfire glow had probably been those damned halogen lights that Kevin had been so proud of. Jenny laughed through her tears, remembering how she'd teased him about them.
Eight of her family members stood in the yard, a motley army to be sure, but the best sight that Jenny could imagine. From behind her, she heard her mother sob with relief.
"Yes." Noreen called out. "Yes, we're alive."
"We're coming in." Kevin yelled back, his voice rattling the windows. Sheepishly, he remembered the megaphone in his hand and set it back in the cab of the truck.
The next hour was a blur to Jenny. She remembered clutching her mother tightly as the two sobbed, grateful to be alive. She remembered Fox's long, colourful, and extremely perverse string of curses as his arm was cleaned out and stitched, and Auntie Sparrows pinch-lipped, shocked expression throughout. But the rest was just a blur of relieved laughter, loud questions and her mother's soft voice as she recounted the tale to the rest of the S?sis clan.
Finally, clean and feeling a little more steady on their feet, they sat down around the table to eat what little was left of the Wendigo's feast. Kevin poured a large shot of rye into everyone's cup of cola, excluding Jenny, and the last of the terror of the day gave way to a festive sort of triumph.
Halfway through the fourth retelling of how Kevin had raised his little army, a groan from the living room announced that Mrs. Pawluk had finally regained consciousness.
"Wha... what happened?" She asked as the family hovered over her, gratefully accepting the ice pack and painkillers that Noreen offered her.
Jenny and Fox exchanged a knowing glance, and Jenny wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry. She patted Mrs. Pawluk on the arm, not sure what to say.
"Come on." Fox said, helping her to her feet. "Let's get you home before Kyle comes looking for you."
"Oh, alright." Paula said, groaning as a wave of dizziness hit her. She submitted calmly as Fox and Kevin helped her into her winter gear and out into the truck, glad to be away from the noise and heat of the household. The winter air felt good on her exposed face?cold and searing, numbing the pain that throbbed in her head and belly. She lingered outside until they helped her into the cab, insisting she ride in the front. As the truck scraped and plodded its way towards her house, she ran her tongue over her teeth and caught the faintest taste of copper.
The taste made her unexpectedly hungry.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011