An aberrant thing began to grow in Nicole’s mind, blinking and twisted, shapeless as yet but still forming, coalescing, rolling softly until its fingers scratched the delicate peaks of her mind.
Meanwhile there was the problem of the cat.
The cat had begun building something. Not often. But occasionally it would place a small piece of torn paper atop a chair or drag one of her slippers over into the next room. Next to an empty glass. Then it would spend the day idly finding reasons to slink into the room and tap the glass until it rang. And by the end of the day the little slice of paper was joined by curiously similar scraps leading under the chair’s legs. It was weird and not indicative of any constructive plan on the cat’s part but it still struck Nicole as highly suspicious.
The thing in her mind continued to plague her with its ambiguous dread.
Now and then she went out with Ryan, a friend she’d met in college and who may or may not have been interested in pursuing something more serious. She decided to leave it up to him. She was more worried about the cat. And the nefarious urge to howl at the moon.
One morning the cat was sitting at the foot of her bed. It was semi-curled into a ball and watching her with its drowsy green eyes. It hopped off the quilt when she sat up and she followed it into the living room. There, sparkling under the dusty sunlight of the front window, was a city of sorts, built entirely from bottle caps, wine glasses and candlesticks. The cat looked pleased with itself.
The wild thing in her mind escaped then into her ear canal and whispered that, well, there were worse things than being mad. She sighed and nodded to herself and the cat, deciding to hell with the diet, tonight they were eating Ryan.
The Algonquian people lived on the prairies, spread out across the northern and central United States and southern Canada for one hundred generations and more. Charlie Runner was descended from that people, poor, living on the High Plains of southeastern Wyoming with his wife and newborn son. They lived alone on land that wouldn’t yield. Not to pleading. Not to prayers. So Charlie took his family up into the mountains where he was able to scrape a living cutting lumber for the tiny town in the foothills a thousand feet below.
Charlie was the only Algonquian who dared to live on that mountain. Old stories from a very dead century haunted its wind scarred peaks. Tales of the wendigo. A cannibal spirit, something that took men, or that men could become, something that as it ate grew bigger, and hungrier. In the old stories, men who camped under the screaming wind begged to be murdered rather than face the long, cold winter. But Charlie was poor.
That January a blizzard covered the northern valley. It roared in with a fury men had not felt in generations. Completely unprepared, many houses collapsed under the feet of snow. Others starved trapped inside buildings with no means of digging through the frozen drifts. Charlie and his family were stranded. Isolated atop the mountain, they couldn’t reach the town.
It was two months before the first search party made it to his door. They used a sledgehammer to shatter the hinges. Charlie was inside, alive. He was naked, emaciated, his skin the color of frozen slate and drawn back tightly against his bones. His eyes were black pools sunk deep inside his skull. He was alone, but his cracked lips were red, wet, searching, seemingly not a part of his face but desperate to escape it. Abashed, the men looked away for mercy’s sake, certain they’d find only bodies and not the wreck of a solitary man.
But then they realized. In the fetid blackness of the cabin, one man asked Charlie where were his wife and son.
Charlie opened his mouth.