"For the panic of the wilderness called to him in that far voice—the power of untamed distance, the desolation that destroys. He knew in that moment all the pains of someone hopelessly and irretrievably lost, suffering travail of a soul in the final loneliness. He had seen the Wendigo."
-Algernon Blackwood, "The Wendigo".
Four of us went up: Shawna, Eric, Karina, and me. You could almost say five if you counted Paul, because even though he wasn't in the car and none of us mentioned his name, we all knew he was the only reason we were going. He's also the reason most of us didn't come back.
The trip was Shawna's idea. She said, "It's been years since we all went up to the old house like when we were kids, why don't we make a weekend of it?"
"We" in this case should have been her, me, and Paul, but of course this time it would be just the two of us. I guess she brought Eric to make up the difference. I didn't mind: I'd known Eric for years, ever since he'd been Paul's roommate as an undergrad. He was engaged back then, and of course this was when Paul was still around, so I didn't think much of Eric at the time, but lately...well, he'd been on my mind since his breakup with what's-her-name. I had to start living again sometime, after all.
I hadn't known Karina would be coming until I got into the car that day. I barely knew her, though we knew all the same people. She was a sweet girl and she minded her own business, but I was surprised Shawna invited her. I didn't find out until later that she'd had a history with Paul, very briefly, just before he and I got together. A terrible, petty part of me wants to try to blame all of this on her, but I know that's not fair.
Shawna and Paul's parents still owned the old house way out in the country, but no one had lived there for years. It's the house Shawna and Paul grew up in, and for the most part it's where I grew up too. Even my earliest memory is of that house: I was a little girl, no older than four, and it was snowing, and we were playing near the woods. I went to make a snow angel without realizing how deep it was and when I fell on my back I sank and couldn't get back up. I remember how cold it was and how much I screamed, and how it was Paul who came to my rescue. He was six then, I think, but in my mind I see him as grown-up Paul, the Paul I remember, picking me up and brushing me off and taking me back to my parents.
I like to remember Paul that way, the way he was when he was young and cared. Not the way he was the last time I saw him; not the Paul I still have nightmares about.
There would be no snow this trip. It was May, and even this high up the spring thaw had set in. It was just as well. It was a long drive, almost six hours with the four of us in Shawna's little car, she in the driver's seat, talking and talking the whole way. That's how she was now, she almost never shut up. Eric was in the back with Karina, and he seemed to have a lot on his mind, as he kept quiet. Karina was always quiet, of course, and she seemed enthralled by the view as we got deeper into the forest. So it was up to me to keep up with Shawna's conversation, because I didn't want her to run us off the road if she had one of her breakdowns while at the wheel. But she made it easy:
"Now he says he wants to do cross-country skiing," she said. "I don't think he's even been on skis in his entire life."
"Mm-hmm," I said, staring out the window.
"But I guess it's better than the boxing thing."
"I don't know what to do with him, really. Do you think he'll actually settle on something this time?"
I didn't hear her at first, and the silence rode out a few seconds longer than was comfortable. Eric came to my rescue: "That's how Ian's always been: some new big plan every other week," he said.
"I guess," Shawna said, and sighed.
Eric kept Shawna talking the rest of the way, but I wasn't paying attention anymore. I was watching the trees: It's strange the way a forest will grow just up to a certain point and then stop at some invisible line. It looks like a stage curtain with gaps you can just barely see through, and it makes you wonder what you'll find if you walk behind it. Once you do though, you just see another gap, and more trees with more gaps behind them, and it just keeps gong like that until eventually you turn around and see that there's nothing behind you anymore that looks like anywhere you've been and now you don't know how to get out of wherever you are.
So now I just stay on the outside and look in. And when I looked in now, what I saw was Paul.
Not really, of course. But the person I saw reminded me so much of Paul that my heart jumped up into my throat. Really, the resemblance wasn't much: same height and build, and the same red parka that Paul always wore out here. The man, whoever he was, was standing at the gap in the trees, watching the road, hands stuffed in his pockets just like Paul always did. He was too far away to really get a good look at his face, but something about that red parka made me want to scream to Shawna to stop the car so that I could run out to him.
Crazy, I know. I mean, how many red parkas are there in the world? Lucky for us, by the time I was able to speak we'd driven past and he was out of sight and I'd come to my senses. It couldn't have been Paul, I told myself. It didn't even look like him, or at least, I hadn't seen enough to know if it really did look like him. I just had Paul on the brain, I guess. Yes, that was the explanation.
But I couldn't shake the feeling that whoever he was, he'd been waiting for us.
It was dark when we got to the house. The old place looked exactly as I remembered, except a bit gloomier for so many years of being empty. It was a box-shaped thing, half again as tall as it was wide, and for some reason it had only one story despite the high ceiling. More than half the space was just a single big, multi-purpose room, with two bathrooms and a pair of bedrooms built onto the back. It was big and dark and drafty and old, but it felt like home. It was where we all grew up, after all, Paul, Shawna, and me.
I always called them my cousins, but really they were no relation at all, just the children of my mom's best friend. But they felt like family anyway. Maybe that's why it took so long for Paul and me to get together: He'd been the cousin—or maybe even the brother—I never had for so long that at first it was difficult to get around. It was a strange feeling, right and wrong at the same time. Then one day Paul called us "kissing cousins" and I punched him in the shoulder, and he laughed and punched me back, but not hard. He was a brat. I loved him.
We'd brought food and enough booze for the weekend but we left most everything in the car for now, too lazy to unpack. Karina and Shawna wanted to go off for a walk on their own for some reason, and that suited me just fine, since it left me alone with Eric. I told him we would go get the old generator started and pray that the electric heating still worked. There was a big old stone fireplace, but it was better for setting the mood than heating the huge house. Even in May the nights got cold up there. I always remember the cold.
I was never much good with tools or machines but I knew the generator backwards and forwards. Eric wanted to help but was mostly stuck standing around looking out of place, shuffling his feet and not knowing what to do with his hands. I've never seen anyone who managed to look awkward in so many different ways and places as Eric. It was cute, in a way.
"So this is the fable old house," he said.
"Yep. Old House: capital O, capital H," I said. I was on my knees, using wrench on the generator's gas cap. It always stuck. "It might not look like much, but..." I trailed off and furrowed my brow. "Actually, not sure what else to say about it."
Eric laughed. He had the best laugh. I smiled, hoping it was at least equally as impressive. He helped me fill the tank.
"It gets so dark so early up here," he said.
"Between the mountains and the trees it's a miracle we get any sun at all," I said. "Why the hell did Shawna take Karina off like that anyway? If they can't find their way back we'll have to go look for them."
"Probably something to do with—" Eric said, and then stopped and looked away. I appreciated the view of him blushing but was curious about the cause. He tried to hedge, but it didn't take much pressure before he caved. "Well, you know why Shawna brought Karina along, right?"
I had no idea. By now the generator was going and the lights were on in the house and we were sitting on the old couches in the part of the big room that always served as the living room. Eric made coffee and I broke into the liquor cabinet and added a little something to it. Eric was kind of a lightweight and he was already flushed around the cheeks, although some of that was embarrassment and I wondered if maybe another part of it was just the effect of us being alone together. I could hope, anyway.
"I guess you don't know Karina that well?" he said.
"Never even met her before, just heard everyone talk about her."
"Well," said Eric, scratching his head, "she's kind of...intense."
"Karina? She's a mouse. I don't think I've ever even heard her say a word."
"Not her personality. I just mean, she's pretty religious these days. Devout. Shawna too."
"I've never seen Shawna go to church. She's always too hungover."
"Not that kind of religion," Eric said. "Some spiritual thing. I don't really know the details. But that's why Shawna and Karina are here, some kind of ritual observance to, you know, say goodbye. To Paul."
I was a little surprised. Of course, it wasn't a surprise that this trip was about Paul, that went without saying, but I hadn't realized the rest. Eric wouldn't meet my eyes now and I felt bad for making him snitch on Shawna when Shawna obviously hadn't wanted me to know.
"I thought it was a little weird," he added, almost sounding like he was apologizing. "But I don't know, maybe it'll be good for her. Closure. Maybe."
I went to the window and looked out at the trees, thinking. It made sense, in a way. Although she never said it, I always guessed Shawna couldn't give up on the idea that Paul might still be alive. They'd never found him, you see: He went up here with four friends on a hiking and camping trip, March of the previous year. They'd used the old house as a base camp and went further and further out a few days at a time, sometimes following the old trails and sometimes going off of them. Paul's dad had always lectured him not to go too far into the mountains, but that was Paul for you: never happy staying close to home.
They called it a "freak storm," although snow in March wasn't that unusual for this part of California. Probably Paul and the others went off the trail not expecting the weather to turn and then got snowed into some place they couldn't get out of, or maybe just lost their way in the whiteout. The search recovered remains for the other four; just bones, of course, some of them nothing but fragments gnawed by coyotes, but at least it was something for the families to bury. Nothing of Paul ever turned up though, not even his clothes or the ID tags on his bags. And because of that Shawna always held out hope, long past the point when there was even the smallest reason. How could she not?
So if whatever Shawna and Karina were doing could give her something, anything, to believe in about what happened to Paul, something final so that she could sleep at night and not keep wondering...well, like I said, it made a kind of sense. I said so, and Eric agreed, and as it got even darker out we went silent. I watched the trees some more. The moon was full, and there was just enough light to see by. I glimpsed movement outside, just at the place where the "curtain" opened, and I hoped it was the two of them coming bak, but when I looked what I saw instead was—
When we were kids, six or eight years old, I would have nightmares about the forest. It's very quiet in the woods in the winter, with most of the animals hibernating and the ones that don't hibernate hiding instead, and all the birds flown south and even the few human neighbors around mostly staying in. You can feel very alone and afraid out there. The snow settles on the big trees in strange ways, and sometimes I'd imagine that they were monsters, great big shaggy things like in "Where the Wild Things Are," monsters who stayed very still and let themselves be covered by falling snow so that they would look like trees until you got too close. As a kid I would watch closely to see if the pines ever moved when the wind wasn't blowing. One day I told Paul about this and later he hid in a snow bank and burst out, snow flying in every direction, roaring, and I screamed and ran away, and his mother yelled at him when she found me crying. He apologized, and cried almost as hard as I did when he saw how scared I was.
Ever since then, though, no matter how old I got, I thought of the forest as a place for monsters. Now, as I looked at that gap in the trees, I thought I saw something very tall, its head scraping the boughs of the trees. It was thing, and all out of proportion with itself. When it moved I saw its eyes, the way you see the eyes of a cat in the dark, and I thought that its eyes must be really enormous if I could make them out from this distance...
And then it was gone, just like that, faster than I could blink.
"Are they back?" said Eric.
"Huh?" I said. I started at the sound of his voice.
"Shawna and Karina, are they back?"
"Not yet," I said. I looked at the empty space, expecting whatever it was to reappear, but it didn't. I didn't think to be scared, because I was sure that I was only seeing things, just like seeing "Paul" on the road earlier, but for a second I considered going out there and standing in that spot and checking for tracks on the ground, or broken branches from where its head scraped the trees.
I thought about it, but I didn't go.
Instead I turned back to Eric and sat next to him on the couch, putting my hand on his knee. Now he started, and blushed some more. Cute. I assumed I would have to be in the driver's seat, because Eric just isn't the kind of guy to make the first move, and maybe not even the second, but as I was working up my nerve for it he leaned in and kissed me all on his own. Not a small, sweet kiss like I always imagined he'd go for, but a deep and hard one; the kind that takes your breath away. I pulled back a little, mostly out of surprise, but he caught my hand and pulled me in again and I saw that he was getting that look; you know the one I'm talking about? It was a hungry look. I've seen that look before, but never from Eric, although I guess he might have seen it from me once or twice.
I'm not quite sure how we suddenly ended up sprawled out on the couch like that; I blinked and it just happened. He leaned on me a bit too hard so I put my hands up, easing him off, and as long as my hands were there I took the opportunity to feel up and down his chest and back. Eric's kisses were firm, his mouth open against mine, his teeth glancing against my lips now and then as his tongue flickered in my mouth. I felt his hands on my hips as he leaned into me again, and for a moment I couldn't breathe. He didn't let up. I realized he wasn't just hungry; he was ravenous. I guess he'd had his eye on me after all.
This was moving faster than I'd expected. How soon would the others be back? What would happen if they walked in on us like this? Shawna seemed to live in a strange dread of my finding anyone new, I think because she felt that if I was holding out for Paul in some impossible way that that was one more irrational reason for her to hope too. But at the same time she wasn't blind, and she must have seen how I was around Eric lately, and it must have at least crossed her mind when she left us here alone? Before I got with Paul Shawna always used to tease me about how often I got a new boyfriend. She called me "man-eater."
Eric interrupted my train of thought by biting my ear, drawing a gasp out of me. For a second he broke off, startled by my cry, or maybe by how tense I was, and he asked if I was all right, and he looked like the same sweet, timid Eric that I always knew. I grabbed him and pulled him in again. He nipped my ear a second time, and then continued down the side of my neck; he was eating me up one bite at a time. I squirmed against him, sliding my hands down the waistband of his jeans, running them across the topmost rise of his cute behind. The evening chill was setting in all through the house, but all of a sudden it felt inhumanly hot, like I was being cooked by the shared heat of our two bodies.
Eric was undoing the buttons of my shirt. He was so quick that I barely noticed, but then he was kissing my bare shoulder and biting me again. I pushed my hands under his shirt and drew my nails across his back, getting a gasp out of him in return. He threw my shirt away, and out the corner of my eye I saw it splayed across the floor like an animal hide. He was touching my bare body all over now and he was rough, although he would stop if I ever seemed like I was surprised or hurt. He soon learned not to, that I wanted him to keep going. Truth is, part of me wanted to be treated like a piece of meat.
Eric was sliding my pants off as I tugged at his shirt. His hands were all over me, squeezing me, pinching me,. I was undoing his buttons as carefully as I could given our positions, but by the end I just pulled, not caring if I ripped them. The glimpses of his bare chest were pretty appetizing. I grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled, and when his head went back I used the space to lean in and bite him just above the heart and lick the sweat off of his bare flesh.
His hands were even lower now, touching the inside of my thighs while the flesh there quivered. I had a decision to make and I would have to hurry, because the matter was rapidly being taken out of my hands: Exactly how much was on the menu? I had assumed we wouldn't make it anywhere past second base, and that even that would take a lot of incitement, but he seemed eager for the main course. The question was, was I? It had been a long while, since the last night with Paul and the strange, almost angry sex we'd had on the floor of his apartment. The memory of that delicious tension hung over me for months after. Even now I couldn't fully get away from it.
"Wait," I said. Eric stopped immediately, the fabric of my panties bunched in his hand. I pushed them aside and guided his hand in. "Like this," I said, directing his touch, rubbing his fingers on me. At the same time I undid his zipper and slipped my own hand inside, rubbing his cock, encircling it and squeezing. He throbbed in my hand. I felt a little bad for getting him worked up and then stopping short, but I couldn't shake the feeling that going any further would be wrong. Doing it here, in the house Paul and I grew up in together, a few miles away from the spot where he'd probably died...it almost felt like doing it on his grave or something. It was better this way.
Besides, I figured it might help to hold something back the first time, leave Eric to anticipate more. It couldn't hurt to let him stew a bit.
He slid a finger into me and I moaned into his mouth. That damp, wet smell was all around us. He was still on top and still grinding into me, and my back was pushed up against the couch's upholstery so hard that I just knew it was going to leave marks. His thumb rubbed over my clit and I stopped caring, and to be honest it was a complete accident when I bit his lip again. I tasted blood. He thumbed against me again and I ached all over. It's funny how it is, that feeling of wanting more of what you're already getting, as if you were eating and eating but getting hungrier with every bite. I signaled that I wanted it harder, the fabric of the couch rubbing me raw with the short, repetitive motions.