Fever of the Wendigo by J. Motoki
Adam scratches his sternum where the thick branch pins him to the driver’s seat.
I am a tree now.
The windshield is cobweb-cracked in an abstract of greens and browns, the pine tree blown up in ugly proportions. The protruding branch, which seems to hold him at arms-length from the tree, had saved them all from plunging to the bottom of the ravine. It doesn’t hurt too much, although it itches around the edges—it’s the smell in the car that’s concerning. A violent smell. It rises above the stench of sap and burning metal, blood and shit.
Amazing how the windshield had stayed intact, with just the hole where the branch juts through and the ripples of glass around it. The car’s airbag, for whatever reason, had failed to detonate.
Adam opens his mouth to speak, but his bloated tongue sinks into his mouth. His mouth is completely devoid of spit. He tries again.
“Miguel’s been gone a long time.”
His girlfriend stirs, a tangle of hair masking her face. Once she complained of ragdoll limbs, the pinpricks of glass shards; now her head rests in the remnants of window. When she speaks, her voice is so flat and dead that it causes his heartrate to increase—a budding panic that he forces down like an acidic belch.
“He’ll be lucky if he sees anyone,” Josie says. “We passed two cars the whole way here.”
Her voice stirs a memory. There’s something nagging him, something he’s forgotten. He tries to retrieve whatever it was, embedded in the tar-pit depths of his mind.
“There’s glass in your hair.” Adam reaches over slowly and brushes hair from her face. He touches something sticky. “I can’t get your other side.”
Josie’s cracked lips curve back, a side grimace, exposing teeth full of blood. Her head remains against the doorframe at a 90-degree angle, but one eye rolls wildly to survey him.
“Hey Joe,” Adam says. “Pass me a water? It’s hot in here.” When he doesn’t hear anything, he cranes his neck to the side as far as it can go. It isn’t far.
“Josie, what’s he doing?”
Joe, the inconvenient twin of his girlfriend, who for the first leg of the road trip lectured about staying vigilant in nature, had spent the hour through the mountains asleep. He had acted strange since the last rest-stop with the filthy toilets, at the base of the mountains, when he surprised them all with an uncomplaining silence. Adam was relieved to have a break from Joe’s juvenile wisdoms, the wisdoms of a churlish and oily twenty-something who never left his room. Somewhere in the narrows, Joe collapsed into sleep and Josie told them to shut up after they joked about nature vigilance (there was something he was forgetting, something important) and Miguel complained that he took up all the backseat, sprawled like starfish over him.
Josie, with excruciating slowness, lifts her head a millimeter from the window.
“Where’s Miguel? We’ve been here forever.”
“There’s a lot of hill between us and the road.”
“I knew I should’ve gone,” Josie says. Her head flops back to the side with a sickening sound, the mechanical rasp of bones. It sounded accusatory. “He’s always been like this—unreliable.”
“Joe, buddy, how’re you doing back there?” Adam twitches, pinioned to his seat by branch and seatbelt. Beads of sweat bleed from his forehead.
A breeze agitates the pine trees; an animal screams in the distance.
Josie blows her lips, a horse snort that lifts her hair, a bored sound. Earlier, she had argued with Miguel about who would go get help. Cars stop for breasts, she said. That’s sexist, protested Adam and she shoved him. Miguel countered that he could get to the road quicker. But when Miguel started up the hill—they watched him through the rearview mirrors—he staggered. There was something wrong with his back. It looked off, disjointed, spine bending into an S.
They heard his grunts long after he disappeared from the mirrors.
How long was that now?
A shadow rises from the base of the mountain and swallows the umber of light. The trees made cathedral shadows in the growing gloom. Didn’t Joe talk wilderness awareness (that’s not it, that’s not it, there’s something else), how the trees were full of eyes and rustling things, and how you were never alone?
Joe had never been camping before. Adam didn’t even want to bring him, but Josie insisted. Her brother holed up in his room all day, only coming out for food and shits. She told them it would be a good bonding experience.
“Joe!” He can feel him moving around back there, feel the tremors through the seat.
“Let him sleep,” Josie says.
When he opens his eyes again, the trees around them are gone. A spew of fog obscures everything, and the gray mist and ensuing darkness makes him feel as if they were being erased. The smell from before hits him all at once, a furious assault that has the gorge rising in his throat.
“We need to get out of here,” Adam says, suddenly desperate. He claws at the tangle of seatbelt, at the branch inside him.
Josie’s head slumps off the door, and she startles awake. She rocks in jerky movements from side to side until she straightens again. Adam thinks of the time he killed a snake with a shovel and it spasmed in the dirt, flashing its white belly then dark brown scales in an endless death tumble.
“Stay awake,” Adam tells her and nudges her arm. Josie moans.
“You need to stay awake,” he says, suddenly furious. He shakes her harder. That smell is overwhelming, filling his head and turning his stomach. He feels, for the first time, a distant agony in his legs.
“What the fuck is that? Josie do you smell it?” It was rancid, whatever it was. Josie says nothing. In the backseat, Joe says nothing. Adam (the tree!) is alone, in the growing dark, with stink settling in his flesh and fire growing up his legs.
“Josie!” His voice is unrecognizable, piercing and too loud. His nails dig into the slack skin of her arm and her arm is cold, too cold. Stiff. He tears into her skin and the flesh came apart, but refused to bleed. Josie cries out.
“Adam, what the fuck—”
“I hear something. I think Miguel’s coming.”
“Thank God!” In her excitement, Josie’s head raises several inches. They listen to the sounds of approaching nightfall, the strange calls and insect hums. A single distorted scream in the distance—loons maybe. They listen a long time.
Josie makes a sobbing sound deep in her throat, guttural and full of glass.
“I swear I heard something.”
Josie’s head falls to the side with a meaty thunk. She doesn’t speak again.
A scream breaks the night, and it’s directionless, it comes from everywhere. It curls the hairs on his arm and he fights against his branch. Everything urges him to get out of there, to run into the night.
“Joe,” Adam pleads. “Wake up now.”
It’s too dark and the wood sounds that were unsettling earlier are horrifying and unwelcome now, in this new blindness. His limbs burn. And there’s pressure in his chest—he realizes dimly that the branch skewering him is moving up and down. He can feel it inside him below the sternum, widening the hole, reopening skin. Violating him.
Another scream, deafening and hideous, and now he knows it’s in the car.
“Stop it,” he whispers. “Stop—”
Movement in the dark, loud breathing in his ear. And it reeks of death—how did he not notice it before?—rancid nubs of garbage pork, sweating corpses forgotten in humid autopsy rooms. Adam thrashes his head from side to side.
The branch jumps up and down.
“Joe?” It ceases to be a name, a recognizable sound, now it’s just a maniacal spurt of syllables crowding in his throat. “JoeJoeJoeJoe—”
Adam pictures Joe’s limp marionette body affixed to the other side of his branch and here they are, end to end, a human shish-kabob, his face blank and vapid the way it looked when he came back from the bathroom and they yelled at him for taking so long; the way it looked when he collapsed into sleep.
But he woke up eventually, yes he did, he woke up and grabbed the wheel from him—
Screech of tires burning out. Screams. An eternity of a drop, through brush and close calls with trees, until—
Adam laughs, high-pitched and hysterical and climbing. An answering hyena shriek sounds behind him.
The smells turn from rot to roast, from maggot-cheese to charred haunch and campfire smoke. It taunts the desiccation of his mouth; a wash of saliva flows down his chin. The branch in his chest bounces again, giddy giggles rising in the small space, and hunger explodes in his stomach, turns his clenched fists to claws, turns his howl inward until it breaks, until it shatters him. Distantly, he hears something howl along with him and he grins, lips wet and spittle dripping onto the branch. He’s no longer alone.
“Joe. There you are,” Adam rasps over his shoulder. “Where’ve you been all this time?”
He gropes blindly, tugs Josie’s arm toward him, raises her hand to his lips like a gentleman in those historical dramas she loves so much.
Her skin smells like tenderloin.
Behind him, Joe laughs and laughs.
J. Motoki is the Short Story Editor of Coffin Bell Journal and the Strange Editor of Rune Bear. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in Blood Song Books,The Other Stories Podcast (Hawk & Cleaver), Black Hare Press, Coffin Bell Journal, and others. You can read more of her at www.jumotki.com.