Men with Hearts

Men with Hearts

This is another story draft I’ve had on me for a few years. It’s the first horror type of writing I’d ever tried, though later I was playing around with weird fiction.


The wind outside Cabin 4 kicked up from the north, blowing snow at a sharp angle so that it piled up sideways against the primitive wooden structure, growing a few inches each hour as it had been since noon. Inside, stubble-cheeked Ryan Emerson stared out the window at the mess and threw on his pea coat. His lab partner Greer was still in the basement, poring over their day’s findings—which had been, well, quite interesting and a little scary if confirmed, but weather was the biggest story right now in Ryan’s mind. He had a few beers awaiting him in Cabin 8, and as long as the electricity held in this frozen wasteland in the far north woods of upper Wisconsin, he might not freeze to death while having a good time tonight. Like Scarlet O’Hara, he would think about disturbing things tomorrow.

“Greer, c’mon and let’s skedaddle!” he yelled down the stairs. She would still be down there dressed in her lab coat, peering into the microscope–theories crossing her beautiful mind, a few lines creasing her fair brow, her hazel eyes full of suggestion and charm. He had it on for her, had since they began working together seven years prior. But, like any sort of unrequited affair, the feelings were one-way, lonely, and thus tossed aside when possible. Like now. Sure, it would be nice if she would even come over and share a few brewkies tonight. It was always fodder for later fantasy. There was one thing for certain: Greer Bailey never got it on with her coworkers in that way. Rumor was that she didn’t like men in that way or perhaps anyone in that way. Her mystery only piqued the mostly male crew’s interest and curiosity.

Greer let out a defiant reply, but it was too soft for Ryan to hear and he yelled back, “Suit yourself, woman! I’m out of here.”

This time he heard an audible “Fuck off!” from below, and he grinned and slid out the door into the already dark evening full of snow that mercilessly stung his face and immediately began collecting on his growing beard. He walked north toward Cabin 8, which was also the general direction of Lake Superior some two miles away. This, he thought, was a perfect example of Lake Effect snow.

Eight cabins made up the research site, each about 30 yards apart. Between them rose fragrant, majestic pine, spruce, and cedar trees that huddled densely in this under-developed area of the state. Highway 13 circumvented the cabins, with the Brule River Boreal Forest State Park just to the west. His team, from the EPA, came here each year to study the effects of climate change on the US version of the Boreal; scientists up in Canada were doing the same.

Cabin 5 became visible shortly, and, though the snow, wind, and inky night were three ingredients to a blinding witch’s brew, Ryan could just make out a light emanating from the basement lab there too. His boss Sayid would be down there still working. Ryan thought about dropping in to let him know of his and Greer’s earlier findings but figured they could all talk about it over beers later, if these workaholics stopped working sometime soon.

Cabin 1, which one would first see upon entering the research site, was the administration building, hardly used this time of year due to the skeletal staff. Beyond it, each just off a rough gravel pathway, were four research cabins, two for flora and two for fauna. Further back, Cabins 6 and 7 had cots and small kitchenettes for the staff, with Cabin 8 being the Commons, where everyone congregated for meals or drinking. Each cabin was wooden, primitive, and just big enough to serve its purpose.

By the time Ryan reached the Commons, the outside door lantern flicked off. “Son of a bitch,” was his only exclamation. He pulled his frozen hand out of its glove and fumbled with the keychain on his belt where a small LED flashlight hung along with his walkie. Damn this frickin’ wind, he thought. The power lines had probably fallen or snapped. Good thing they had generators; science funding had been cut severely over the past few years, which would explain such a small team right now, but if they were going to send folks up here in the dead of winter, they had to provide the basics: food, shelter, heat. Updated computers and lab equipment were low priority, and the staff had often complained. Providing generators was essential, however.

It took Ryan a while to open the cabin door. The night was just that severe and bleak, with his hand so cold he could hardly maneuver the key, much less see anything. Once inside, he pointed his flashlight around the main room. Nothing seemed amiss. It was your typical power outage, though one could never rule out foul play.

The dark room became shadowy outside the focused beam of the flashlight, but here was the usual menagerie: two shabby mismatched sofas and equally old lazy chairs arranged around a faded oval native rug, floor-to-ceiling shelves with books ranging from Jack London’s Call of the Wild to a Stephen King library. Ryan eyed a Trivial Pursuit game just sticking out of the shelf. It was the gang’s favorite game outside poker. Ryan remembered just a week ago, last Friday night, how he and Greer had teamed up and beat the pants off the other two teams—Sayid and the administrative coordinator and cook Lacy, and the two flora lab guys, AJ and Richard, whom, due to his brawn, everyone just called Husky.

As Ryan stared at the game, he thought he saw a shadow move in the vicinity. It was annoying, like out of the corner of his eyes—like a shooting star that you knew you had seen but hadn’t observed straight-on. He quickly directed the flashlight around the room and moved closer to it. A rat? A spider? Trees blowing outside?

Ryan slowly beamed the light around the room. He could see his breath amongst the last-minute Christmas directions Lacy had hung when they’d arrived two weeks ago: sprigs of holly and dried pine cones from nearby trees sat on the mantle, while strings of lights and tinsel draped in doorways. With the crews’ luck, they would be home in time for the holidays, but Lacy had insisted on getting seasonal.

From outside the cabin he heard wolves howling coldly, the sound of it haunting. Ryan chose to linger on the positive, like the smell of last night’s chili and garlic bread. Bamboo blinds covered the windows in the cabin, but two of the south-facing window blinds were half open, to let in as much sunlight during the day as possible—if there was any sunlight at all. Ryan saw that behind the windows, a cavernous night bloomed, filled with thousands of diamonds swirling in the wind. He got to work building a fire in the hearth between two of the bookshelves and wondered if the others would arrive soon. He was already surprised that Lacy was not here before him, preparing some kind of dinner. After the fire, he would start the generator, he figured.

**

When Sayid found Greer, the power in Cabin 4 went out, and he could hear her downstairs in the generator room. Her and Ryan’s thing was studying the wildlife of the area: bears, wolves, lynx, rabbits, birds, fish; they’d tagged a sample of land mammals years prior and came back each season to check populations and habitat areas. They had a fish counter on part of the Brule River too. Meanwhile, AJ and Husky were looking at the flora: mosses, soil, lichens, tree growth, and other plants.

“Did you see Ryan yet?” Greer asked, beaming her flashlight up the stairs to the main floor above the lab.

“Nope, why?” Sayid bounded down the stairs to meet her. The generator had been set for minimal power only, making the lab still dim but ensuring climate-controlled temperatures in the lab and freezer areas.

“We found something interesting today,” she said. “You know the wolf we found last summer? The mother of the cubs that died? Number 22-C34. Ryan went into the freezer today for something else and noticed she’s missing.”

“Huh?”

“We just got here a couple weeks ago, and the wolf was there then and has been each day since. I’m assuming one of the other guys took her, but figured I’d check with you first.”

“I haven’t heard anything. There’s protocol for that. Nobody contacted you or filled out a form?”

“No.”

“Place has been locked down since earlier in the fall.”

“I’ll check with AJ and Husky, but I know in my deepest of hearts they would never just take a wolf out of the freezer. Unless Lacy’s run out of meat and has decided to make us a special stew. The freezer is locked with a deadbolt and padlock. Lord knows why anyone would even want the wolf or anything else in there.”

“I mean, who else has access? It’s got to be one of us.”

Greer shrugged.

Both Greer and Sayid knew that specimens were simply kept as a matter of samples, for data purposes. When the time came that the specimens were no longer needed, the crew would dispose of them properly.

“There’s something else,” she said, her normally olive-skinned face turning pale. “AJ sent over a scat sample this morning. I haven’t replied to him yet because Ryan and I didn’t know what to make of it. At first we figured it was wolf scat. AJ and Husky found it 10 miles east on the Brule; they were out on the riparian zone measuring the tree growth, near the fishway up there. We’re guessing the place is popular for wolves eating trout. Not unheard of. It’s like the marine wolves up on the coast of British Columbia. They actually swim to small islands and fish for salmon. Unreal. Anyway, they found quite a bit of scat at this spot. More so than usual. But after looking more closely, we think the scat is human. The contents? It took a few hours to figure it out, but we believe, sir, that the wolves or humans, or whatever it is, have been eating human hearts.”

“Is this some idea of a joke, Greer?” Sayid was the boss. He usually joked around but right now was stern. His black, curly hair glistened in the light of the snow falling outside. “I mean, c’mon. We’re scientists.” Sayid looked at her squarely and seemed quickly resigned to the fact this was not impossible. “Is the river up there frozen yet? Still kind of early in the season. I guess the wolves aren’t ice-fishing.”

“The river is damn cold, but not frozen yet. Too early in the year,” Greer said. “If the lights hadn’t gone out, I’d still be trying to figure out why there seemed to be a settlement of humans up on the river eating human hearts. The scat also was typical of the wolves there—with bones and hair, you know, the usual. Fish bones too. But the size of the scat is human. And the fact hearts are included implies ritual. Human ritual.”

*

Husky was the last one in the flora lab. AJ had said he needed a beer, and stat, so he’d left shortly after the sun set. Then the lights went out, and Husky had turned on the generator and stayed to write a few notes. The first of the winter season on site at the research lab was never fun. The team would miss pre-holiday celebrations with their families and friends, and northern Wisconsin was pretty damn cold this time of year. At the start of each term, Husky, and whatever lab partners he was assigned, would go out and check status from fall: plant growth, soil composition, erosion. That meant covering some territory, and when the ground was covered with snow, that meant using snowmobiles and snowshoes.

What bugged him the most about his adventure yesterday was that he should have searched around the Brule River fishway site where they found all that scat. He was still waiting to hear from Ryan and Greer about their findings, but nothing out of the ordinary seemed obvious at the time. It wasn’t until he thought about it later. Until he found the wolf in the lab. The dead wolf, that was. Someone must have been playing a joke because the wolf wasn’t there when AJ had left. Shortly afterward, he’d had gone to the bathroom and when he got back, a dead wolf was propped in the corner of the lab, its body still intact from being preserved in the freezer in Cabin 4. Husky called out, thinking one of his team was around, but nobody replied and a quick search showed that nobody was here at all.

What the fuck, was all Husky could think. Sayid would throw a fit if he found out, but no other reasonable thought crossed Husky’s mind for the first few moments except: Someone is playing a joke on me. I bet AJ. He was a prankster. He had never completely matured from Joe College days. It had to have been him.

The power went out with those thoughts. By the time Husky fired up the generator and came back out to the darkened lab, he then became frightened. If AJ had done this—if any one of his team had done this – they would have quickly stuck the thing back in the lab, because if Sayid caught them, Sayid would report it and someone could lose their job. But nobody was around.

Husky sat down again at his desk, his large frame making his chair squeak. He hunched over to write in his notebook: “Go back to the fishway and look for tracks, anything, to explain the unusual amount of scat.”

He stared back into the corner where the wolf had been before the power went out. The corner was empty, black. Was he losing his mind? The corner was lacking a wolf, but strange shadows flickered about—almost as if someone else was in the room moving around.

I’m going crazy, was Husky’s last thought before being knocked unconscious.

*

Sayid and Greer left Cabin 4 arguing about the Brule River fishway area potentially housing a cult that liked to pretend they were wolves and eat human hearts.

They were heading over to check on AJ and Husky, snow slapping their faces, Greer trotting ahead of Sayid, who was content to walk slowly and hunker forward against the wind. Because normal conversation wouldn’t be audible in the storm, Greer was yelling.

“It’s the perfect place for a cult. Nobody fucking lives up here!”

“If nobody lives up here, whose hearts are they eating?” Sayid yelled back.

“Maybe they go to the city and find victims.”

“What city? Port Wing? Yeah, I think I’ll just go down to Bark n’ Beavers Campground to scout out the population there in the winter. All none of them!”

Greer picked up her speed, just because she could. She was light and agile. Sayid was a fit man but walked more slowly.

“Whatever!” she called back.

Greer could tell by the dull lighting in Cabin 3 that AJ or Husky had started the generator. They’d probably already left and met Ryan at the Commons. But Sayid felt it his duty to check up on his crew in weather like this. The snow was heavy enough that white-out conditions seemed likely.

As Greer neared Cabin 3, she heard a scream, but it was muffled by the wind. A woman’s scream, thought Greer. Sayid passed Greer, climbed the short porch steps, and stopped beneath the low-wattage bulb lighting the cabin’s outer entry.

“Lacy?” Sayid called. He fumbled to the door. It was unlocked. He would have fallen in with the force he pushed the door open with if it hadn’t been for Lacy, screaming, falling out the door at the same time.

Greer rushed to grab Lacy, whose mouth stood agape with white fear. No noise escaped. The dark-haired woman fell into Greer’s arms, and Sayid told Greer to get her to Cabin 8.

“Are you crazy? And leave you alone? Not a chance, Mister,” Greer replied.

She set Lacy on a cold bench on the porch and went into the cabin to retrieve a blanket that she knew would be in the front closet. She wrapped Lacy up with it and said, “Just be still. I’ll be right back, promise.”

Greer felt that Lacy was in shock and should get somewhere warm fast, but she had to weigh the possibility of an intruder killing her boss versus Lacy suffering a few more frightened, cold moments. The boss won out, and Greer wished she had a weapon of some sort.

Sayid had a solid build, like a bear, thought Greer. Intimidating, rough, growly. His bite wasn’t always as strong as his bark, but it could be, and Greer felt safe following him down to the lab after he quickly searched the small main floor of the cabin. Greer could feel her heart beating more rapidly, almost in rhythm with Sayid’s flashlight jerking about the stairwell and then lab. Outside, Greer was sure she could hear wolves moaning through the wild wind.

Sayid quickly focused his light on the big man slumped over at the desk. Like a soft wind rushing over a brook, Greer came to her friend’s side quickly.

“Husky, are you okay?”

There was no blood of any kind. No upturned desks or chairs. Just a note that Husky had been writing.

The big man lifted his head slowly, eyes unfocused and with a drop of drool sliding out the corner of his mouth.

“Greer,” he said simply.

She cupped his chin in her hand and said, “Look at me, Husky.”

Husky suddenly seemed to snap to, but he did not look at Greer.

His eyes jerked toward the corner of the lab. “It has escaped!” he called, his voice raw and frightened.

*

Lacy wasn’t quite with it. She sat closest to the fire Ryan had built earlier and slumped in an easy chair. Saggy socks bundled her feet, and she wrapped an old beer-stained afghan about her shoulders, staring sadly into the fire. AJ sat closest to her, his fingers nervously tapping the end of one of the sofas.

Ryan had made peanut butter sandwiches and brought out a bag of chips, which the team munched on in intervals. They were all hungry but too distracted to eat much. Not only were they in a remote area in the middle of nowhere, but something or someone was out there and the crew had no way to reach anyone else. The generators could not fix the network or phone lines, which had also gone down with the power.

Sayid was good at taking control. He paced around the room, going over and over the day’s happenings. “Repeat it to me,” he told Husky, who now was feeling better even though a large bump throbbed at the back of his head.

“I saw a dead wolf in the corner of Cabin 3’s lab. Then it was gone.”

“No, before that. Yesterday. I want you and AJ to think hard about everything you might have seen up on the river.”

AJ broke in. He was a tall, skinny black man with a goofy smile, and he wore a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. That was his team. “We went over to the river around nine in the morning and took some sample measurements of the trees behind the river. Dug into the snow, which was only an inch or so then, to take soil samples. We did all the usual measurements. River width, bank width, depth. That kind of thing. Husky stepped in some shit on the river bank, and he called me over to show me the piles of scat on the rocky beach. Ten piles in a radius of twenty feet. We figured wolves had done it, but we checked around and there were no other signs of wolves. No matted vegetation, nothing. I guess that was weird, but not impossible. The wolves might have just made it one of their food stops. The river has great Steelhead, you know. It was just weird, but hey, we’re not the ones studying the fauna, so we took some scat samples to Ryan and Greer.”

Husky said, “It’s too late to go back to that morning. I honestly thought someone moved the scat there. I mean, who does that though? We didn’t see any footprints leading in or out of the area, but we weren’t really looking.”

Sayid continued. He was the only one standing. “Greer, remind me again of your theories? And why haven’t you communicated this stuff back to anyone before tonight?”

“Jesus, Sayid, I only just found out. Ryan and I went into the lab this morning and found the scat sample. We checked, figured it was wolves, and put it aside to catch up on our other work. Ryan wanted to get some other samples out of the freezer later and noticed our mother wolf was gone. We didn’t know what the fuck so figured we’d ask everyone tonight. I got back to looking more at the scat later and found that it contained human heart. Ryan and I were both a little disturbed, with that and the missing wolf. By that time, the storm had broken out, we figured we’d lose power, and had already lost communications. We planned to talk tonight with everyone. We had to finish our work before everything went down, you know.”

AJ broke in. “It’s called anthropophagy, and it’s not unheard of, just really abnormal, but hey, anthropologist Marvin Harris had some theories that the reason the Aztecs ate hearts was because it was stock full of protein, and protein in the diet ensured successful civilizations.”

“Wrong,” Ryan said. “They didn’t eat hearts, at least usually. They extracted them. The heart had a more spiritual and symbolic meaning. Aztecs thought that hearts were not just central to the physical body but also to their sun, something they worshipped. By freeing the heart, they could reunite the sun’s heart and soul.”

“They still sometimes practiced cannibalism,” AJ argued. “Even though Harris’s theories never became popular, he was probably right to some degree. I’m just trying to figure out why these things ate human hearts. For a practical reason? Because they have some strange beliefs?”

Greer said, “I vote a little of both. But, anyway, Sayid, we have our protocol too, and everything that happened today was on par with procedure.”

By the look on his face, it was clear that Sayid agreed. He just wasn’t satisfied. “Tell me again, Husky, you are sure you saw that wolf from the freezer in your lab? Then it was just gone?”

Husky nodded. He was adamant on that fact.

“And it wasn’t all thawed?” Sayid asked.

“Was still frozen-like and stiff, and it wasn’t rotting.”

Sayid went on. “So between last season and this, even as recently as sometime before Ryan and Greer reached the lab this morning, someone stole the wolf out of the freezer in Cabin 4, without breaking the lock. Someone then put the wolf in the corner of the lab in Cabin 3—just between the time the lights went out and Husky went to start the generator. We can assume whoever did this was the one to knock out Husky?”

Ryan was munching on chips and said, “I checked earlier, and the key to the freezer was still on hanging on the hook in the lab closet. The closet is only locked when we’re not in the lab.”

“What about when you come to lunch? Do you leave the closet unlocked?”

“No, siree,” Ryan added. “If both of us are out of the lab, that door is locked. The cabin door is locked. We set the alarm when we leave for the night.”

Sayid knew the modus operandi, knew his team would follow it properly, but only one thought kept going through his head: It’s one of us, or it’s one of them, whoever them is.

Sayid then made everyone go through their last hour’s whereabouts, and the stories hadn’t changed from the first time he asked. Ryan left Cabin 4 and arrived at the Commons just as the lights went out. AJ was the next to leave his lab and was walking over when he saw the light on Cabin 4 go out. He arrived at the Commons after Ryan. Greer and Husky remained in their labs to work a little later. Lacy had been in Cabin 7, the women’s barracks, when the power went out. She started the generator, bundled up, and walked over to Cabin 3 to see AJ.

Everyone’s stories seemed to be reasonable. Lacy and AJ were romantically interested in each other, so she often stopped by to see how he was toward the end of the work day. Not knowing he had already left the fauna lab, she found Husky down in the lab instead, knocked out. Screaming, she ran upstairs and nearly had a heart attack when Sayid just about busted the door in. Lacy had not seen anyone else around. She said the phones were dead, she’d forgotten her walkie, and she couldn’t rouse Husky. She wanted to run to find help.

“Never forget your walkies,” Sayid reminded everyone. “That’s how we communicate when phones and internet go down.”

AJ laughed. “Dude, the internet is spotty around here the way it is.”

“I think we need to get on the ham radio to contact someone,” Lacy said. “Something out there knocked out our Husky. We need to report this and get some backup here, don’t you think?”

“Good thinking, Lacy,” said Sayid.

They didn’t use the ham radio much, but Lacy was the pro at that as her ex-husband-who-had-died-of-lung-cancer had been into radios.

“I’ll help ya,” AJ offered, and together they went to a back room in Cabin 8.

Greer refreshed the ice pack on Husky’s head and wrapped another blanket around him. “You shouldn’t sleep yet, okay? Nobody let him sleep. He might have a concussion.”

Ryan arose to refresh the fire, and Sayid said, “Ryan and Greer, we’re going to do another sweep around the cabins. I know it’s a blizzard out there, but we need to look for footprints, anything. Wolf-people be damned!”

Sayid found the weapons that they kept locked up in the Commons, and they were off.

*

Morning promised warmer weather and the beginning of snow melt. Greer awoke to foggy sunlight piercing the sooty windows of Cabin 8. When she, Sayid, and Ryan had set off to do a final sweep of the cabins last night, they hadn’t been able to see four inches in front of them and gave up. The crew all slept in various cots and sofas in the Commons. Safety in numbers and all that.

She was the first up, noticed the power was still out—of course, this remote section of the country was practically wilderness area and nobody would be fixing the power lines here until spring, if then.

Greer started coffee and made herself a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Sayid slouched into the kitchen like a ghost, poured himself a coffee, and finished waking up before saying anything. Throughout the next few minutes, everyone else ventured into the kitchen, in various stages of tiredness, and when everyone was settled, Lacy reported that she and AJ had finally reached someone in Duluth, just over the border, who would relay the message to local police as well as the government, specifically EPA’s Research and Development office, which Sayid’s team worked for.

“They said backup could take a while due to the snow from last night. Winds are still a little strong,” Lacy said. “But they hoped to make it out this morning.”

Sayid nodded and set about a plan for the day. He and Lacy would check all the cabins again, look for footprints, that sort of thing. They’d stick around for when help would arrive. Ryan and Greer were to go to the fish ladder site and check things out. Husky’s head still hurt, so Sayid ordered him to stay in the Commons, take some Tylenol, and write a report about the events from yesterday. What’s more, everyone got a handgun today.

*

It didn’t take long to fire up the snowmobiles and get up to the fish ladder site. Greer carried photography equipment and Ryan the lab supplies for taking more samples if needed.

It was amazing how the snow was melting today. Drifts as high as five feet were still piled against the shaded cabins back at the research site, but down in the valley near the Brule, the snow had diminished to just a few inches in places, green grass appearing at the lowest elevations.

Engineers had built a weir on the river in the 1970s to ensure greater navigability. Only, the weir had also become a fish obstruction, so the EPA had made a fishway to help. An isolated but favored canoeing and fishing river, the Brule had a steady flow, though at this time of year before freezing, the waters were usually choppier, thanks to the wind in part.

Greer and Ryan parked their snowmobiles a good ways from the weir and walked along the riverbank upstream. They’d be able to cross to the other side thanks to a bridge a quarter mile down. At first, nothing unusual stood out, but as they neared the bridge and weir, and realized they would need to cross to other side of the river to reach the exact coordinates AJ and Husky had been, Greer noticed some people, or something, up by the fishway. She grabbed Ryan and ran over to behind the treeline.

There, she pulled binoculars out of her satchel. Ryan did the same. What the ever-living fuck, was all Greer could think. The movement proved to be people, but they weren’t your normal people and they weren’t moving. Wind swiped Greer’s hair into all directions, stinging her face. The rocks of the river bank seemed dry and dusty. She felt that she had been transported to an ancient time.

A party of five adults sat in a circle on the beach. They each were in varying stages of being naked with animal skins draped around them. Three males and two females.

Ryan said, “Huh?”

Greer zoomed in. All wore wolf skins, and one of the males wore a wolf head. Their ages seemed to be around 30 or so, all Caucasian. The weird thing about it was nobody was talking or even looking at each other. They sat there, heads bent, almost as if sleeping, or maybe praying?, with arms splayed out and palms pointed upward.

“Your cult idea is sounding more plausible right about now,” Ryan whispered to Greer.

The group of people was at least 50 yards away, but the man with the wolf head suddenly shot up as if he had heard Ryan and looked directly into their direction.

Greer had the faint idea that the man had possibly smelled them before hearing them, however, that a gust of wind had blown their scent upstream. After all, the snowmobiles hadn’t drawn the group out of their trance, though the noise might not have been audible above the wind, considering how far away they had parked.

The others in the group raised their heads too, slowly, all jerking toward where Ryan and Greer stood. Hand guns weren’t comforting suddenly. Greer always felt that the most evil things on earth were corrupt people, and while she couldn’t tell for sure if this group was truly an evil cult, the crazy looks in their eyes—as she continued to gaze through the binoculars—was out of this world. Beyond the look of normal humans who had compassion of any kind.

“Ryan, let’s go.”

“Yeah, I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

They turned to head back to the snowmobiles, staying out of the clearing, using the forest to cover them as best as possible. But Greer saw, even as they were walking away that the group of wolf-people had arisen and begun marching into their direction, pointing at Ryan and Greer. Then the group began the chase.

Greer began running behind Ryan, and every now and then glanced back to see the five running toward them. Very fast. Inhumanly fast. They were gaining on the scientists with incredible power. Greer picked up her speed.

“What is with these people?” she exclaimed.

“Skinwalkers.”

“What?”

“Skinwalkers,” Ryan repeated.

Greer’s heart wanted to leave her chest. The snowmobiles were within sight now, but the noise of the five was also within earshot. They were growling, actually growling, and shouting out in grunts.

Greer, not wanting her heart to show up in someone’s poop for future researchers to theorize about, yelled “Ryan, run faster!” She passed him, feeling the heat of the five on their trail. She could almost hear the ground vibrate. The sinking feeling that these things might even run faster than snowmobiles frightened Greer more than anything.

Howling pierced the brisk air all around them.

Oh, god, thought Greer. It isn’t just them. It’s…it’s…they are everywhere out here.

She could feel Ryan pick her up like a doll and set her in the back of his snowmobile, their cameras and equipment tossed aside.

Ryan started the thing, and they were off, great loud howls circling the woods, behind them, in front of them, to all sides. They could not see more than the five on their trail, but they knew it to be true—could see the human-heart-eating faces with dripping blood and monstrous souls, the yellow inhuman eyes—all out here in the wilderness just out of sight.

Greer might have passed out if not for the mighty roar of something in the skies. The apocalyptic sound toppled the howls and cries of the wolf-people, and rocketed closer to the ground, parting saplings and furiously blowing snow and dead, wet leaves. Please let it be one of those successful rescues, she thought desperately.

But the one of the five had caught up and reached in to grab Greer out of the snowmobile. It was remarkable, the swift and easy movement of the hairy arm reaching in—an arm covered partly by the drape of a wolf skin, but a hairy arm just the same. Unnaturally hairy, as if it was morphing to become something else.

Greer screamed and grabbed the gun from her lap, but could not aim or shoot in all the motion as she found herself being torn from the vehicle. She waved her gun-hand and swung her arm toward whatever it was, hitting the thing in the head. But that just made it angry. It moaned and howled, and dug its fingernails into her right cheek. She swung over and over, could feel the wind generated by a landing helicopter, and did not stop swinging. Whatever the thing was, it not only ran fast but was strong and undeterred by the loud helicopters surrounding it. Greer felt like a rag doll and gave up trying to knock out the wolf-man. Closer to it she could smell its rottenness, a smell that could only be described as the smell of death. The rotting of flesh, surely the skins—she thought. But it wasn’t only flesh; she was sure the soul of this thing had also decomposed, to what she wasn’t sure.

*

The Duluth Tribune

Headline: The Nightmare before Christmas

December 24, 2010

It was a night that no American will forget. On December 21, the Environmental Protection Agency responded to a call from researchers studying climate change effects in the Boreal forest, near Wisconsin’s Brule River area, 100 miles east of Duluth, Minn. The distress call came from the team’s administrative assistant, Lacy Mackey, who contacted police on a service ham radio during a winter storm after the power went out. The call indicated strange events at the site, including a lab researcher being knocked out by an intruder, a wolf specimen being stolen and placed into one of the labs, and findings of human hearts found in scat studies near the Brule River weir and fishway.

The following morning, two police helicopters were dispatched and attempted to rescue two researchers, Greer Bailey and Ryan Emerson, who, according to journals found in the cabin commons, had traveled by snowmobile to investigate the fishway. Their rescue was unsuccessful, and efforts for continued search and rescue are underway.

The other four scientists, Andrew Jackson (AJ) Brent and Richard “Husky” Shaw, along with their crew captain Sayid Jarvis, and the administrator are also still missing. The police reported that the eight cabins at the Brule River Research Site were in complete disarray, with signs of struggle, though no victims have yet been found.

U.S. President Jed King called in the Army Reserve, and later the 75th Ranger Regiment, during the capture of five adults who may have been collaborating with others and allegedly kidnapped the scientists. The Regiment is scouring the Brule River area for the victims and possible other kidnappers. The crime is seen as a terrorist action according to the president, involving non-agent, biological weapons.

The group of five adults, held temporarily at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, exhibited extra-ordinary strength and speed. They were dressed in wolf skins and were described by historian Caroline James as the mythological skinwalkers of Navajo lore. None of the native tribes in Wisconsin affiliated their own rituals and beliefs with skinwalkers, nor were any of the captured five native in appearance. EPA official Dr. Anna Kelley theorized that the kidnappers may have gained access to the lab during off-seasons, though, to date, none of the five speaks a language, communicating only by grunts and gestures. Each of the arrested members of this feral group is undergoing DNA and other testing. Conspiracy theorists have already deemed that skinwalkers train during their lives for speed, strength, and endurance, and that some figures in history manifested such changes at the cellular level.

*

The idea of Christmas crossed Greer’s mind as she squatted with the others deep in the foggy woods of northern Wisconsin. The idea was fading fast, a distant reality, though somewhere within she knew that Christmas had come and gone. She knew also that her cheek was deeply scratched, and that in the turmoil of her capture she had been bitten, which is when the changes began: fading memory, increased hunger, an extra growth of hair on her arms and legs, the desire for fresh meat, the innate ability to understand what others were thinking, the decreased need for language.

On the first day of capture, she and Ryan huddled in the woods, wrapped in each other for warmth as their clothes had been stolen by the Others–the friends of the group of five who had been snarling and watching the attempted rescue from the forest.

The man with the wolf-head had dragged them into a cozy of spruce trees north of the river. Then he never came back, and the Others with wolf-skins crept in. Greer felt at the time that they would be rescued. The helicopters were right there. When the man with the wolf-head didn’t come back, she reasoned that he had been arrested with the others. And then nobody found her and Ryan, and they had been guarded heavily, not able to call out to the rescue men.

Not only were the days and nights since her capture foggy, but so was her mind. She had gone from hopeful about rescue to apathetic to desirous of Ryan’s body, warm-blooded flesh, and other raw needs. Get what you want and get it now.

Years of science and study and wit ceased to matter, though did not cease to actually be, as more primitive desires and needs took over, humbling language, encouraging guttural basics. Greer felt the changes day to day and no longer was frightened of them. Fear only lay in the possibility that Ryan or the Others would leave, that she would, in fact, be rescued after all and join a world that no longer made sense on a biological level.

Greer knew by instinct that her new kind were intelligent. They had figured out how to steal from the lab and frighten her crew, making them vulnerable to an attack. They might not have heart and soul, she thought at one point, but did it matter?

Her name ceased being Greer. Hair sprouted to keep her warm in the foggy nights and cold wintry mornings. One day she awoke, pushed Ryan away so she could pee, and then noticed others were arriving. She faintly recognized the faces, but did not put names to them, only “Those of the Before Life,” and even then she cared not to articulate the words, nor the concise thoughts—the people just were and had been from before. Old friends–a woman and three men. They all looked delicious. But they did not eat their own.

Greer crouched, finding intense desire for one of the men who had black, curly hair. His name was Sayid, and he said his name to Ryan and Greer—with expectation in his eyes—though neither Ryan nor Greer cared about his name. She licked her lips and stared hungrily at Sayid with pale eyes while he looked down at her with disgust. Soon, he would feel as she did. She would have him too.

The Others tied up the newcomers–the ones Greer would have called family a week ago but now who were none other than new bodies to help with the hunt. Greer could still hear the noise from the skies, and her instincts told her that the machines would go away soon enough—that she and her skin-sisters and skin-brothers would not be found if they stayed hidden in the trees. Greer sniffed the air along with the others. A human was in the midst. She crawled over to the edge of their small group of thick trees and looked out, could see to the far side a clearing with oaks and deep fog. In it, a man with a light walked toward them.

They did not eat their own. That was an unspoken rule. They must eat the fish. They must eat the rabbits. They must eat the squirrel, the deer, the fox. They must eat the unsuspecting humans. And the latter was, by far, the rarest treat of them all, the highest protein meal, the final reward wrought from intense craving to be and to be fulfilled with what was missing in themselves.


The featured image is copyright by Aurélien Adoue, and is part of Flickr’s Creative Commons (attribution licensed image).