by Jamie Lackey
Charlotte scooped up a handful of soil and squeezed. It was just dirt, with no magic in it at all. She shuddered and wiped her hand on her jeans.
The soil probably had all of the scientific things it needed to bear crops, but without magic nothing would grow. Something had consumed the magic that belonged in this field, and it happened recently—the soy bean sprouts peeking up through the ground were withered, but not dead yet.
Charlotte grimaced. Convincing her father to let her fix it wouldn’t be a pleasant task. He’d shunned her for years after she turned away from his religion, and she still hadn’t told him that she was working as a paranormal investigator.
Her coworker Tanya was a devout Christian. Maybe Dad would let her come out and bless the land. That sort of thing had good results for Tanya. Charlotte used a combination of intuition, meditation, and willpower. She was no good at communing with spirits or performing ceremonies.
Standing on the ground here made her feet ache, and touching it with her bare skin had been worse. Her hand still felt chilled even as the May sunshine burned the sensitive skin on her nose.
She trudged back across the field toward the ruins of the old barn that stood behind her father’s farmhouse. It’d finally gotten so rickety that he’d knocked it down. Charlotte had been sad to see it go—some of her best memories were of playing in that barn.
A wave of emotion hit her as she walked past the crumbling foundation stones. She fell to her knees as the feeling pummeled her like ocean waves.
When Charlotte was in sixth grade, she’d locked herself in her bedroom to listen to the Simon and Garfunkel song “I am a Rock” over and over again. She’d been lonely and isolated, but righteous with it. Her isolation protected her—made her powerful.
The waves of emotion felt just like that.
Charlotte shuddered. Her whole body ached with cold and the sunlight felt weak and far away. Her vision went black at the edges. Her breath fogged in front of her face. She had to get away from the barn. She fell onto her side and pulled herself through the dirt, wincing as waves of cold shot up her arms. Tears leaked from her eyes and froze on her cheeks. She wasn’t going to make it.
“Charlotte, are you okay?” Her father’s words shattered the spell, and she could feel the sun again. “Did you hurt yourself? Twist your ankle?” He knelt by her side and gently touched her cheek. “You’re freezing. What the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know, Daddy.” Charlotte’s tears of terror changed to tears of relief. She threw herself into her father’s arms. She’d never been so happy to see him.
He patted her back awkwardly. They hadn’t hugged for almost a decade. “Well, let’s get you inside and make you some tea.”
“Hey, sweetie. What’s up?” Charlotte’s boyfriend’s voice, even through her cell phone, calmed her more than the tea had.
“Chogan, I think I’ve stumbled into something big.”
“You’re working? I thought you were up at your dad’s for the weekend.”
“I am. There’s something strange going on here.” She summarized her experience out by the barn. “I’d like help dealing with whatever is out there.”
“I can’t get out of Toronto today. I’m watching Tanya’s back while she does her exorcism thing, but I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning. Stay in the house tonight.”
“I promise,” Charlotte said.
“Be careful. And call if anything happens. I love you.”
“I love you too.” Charlotte smiled as she hung up the phone. Chogan always made her feel better.
“Who was that?” Charlotte’s father asked from the kitchen doorway. He didn’t look pleased.
“Your boyfriend into the same witchy mumbo jumbo crap that you do?”
Old anger and defiance simmered in Charlotte’s chest. “He works with me.”
“Doing what, exactly? You still haven’t really explained to me what you’re doing these days.” Her father’s voice was calm and flat, but Charlotte could tell that he was fighting to keep it that way.
He might as well find out now. It would be easier to explain her job now so that she could focus breaking the news that her boyfriend was Algonquian tomorrow morning. “I’m a paranormal investigator.”
Charlotte waited for the explosion. Instead, her father let out a low whistle. “People actually pay you for that shit?”
“Yeah. I make a pretty good living.”
Her father started to walk past her into the living room.
“Daddy, wait. Today—what happened out by the barn—I sensed something. Something cold and . . . evil. Chogan is coming up tomorrow morning to help me check it out.”
“You think there’s something ‘paranormal’ in my barn?”
“Yes. Yes, Daddy, I do. Do you mind if we do some investigating?”
“You gonna charge me?”
“Of course not!”
“Then what’s it to me?”
“I wasn’t sure you’d appreciate me using my ‘devilry’ on your property.”
Charlotte’s father sighed. “I know you don’t worship the devil. Those things I said—it was years ago. I was angry. Not only with you, either. It was right after I found out about your mom’s cancer, and I overreacted. I’m sorry.”
Her father never apologized for anything.
“What are you staring at?” Her father shifted uncomfortably.
“Nothing, Daddy. I’m sorry too. You weren’t the only one who said terrible things.” Charlotte stood on her tiptoes and kissed her father’s cheek. She’d accused him of not loving her, and worse, of not loving her mother. That was worse than his accusations of devil-worship.
“Charlotte, do you want to go for a walk?” her father asked.
“Now?” Charlotte looked up from her book. She was curled up on the couch by the fireplace with a cup of tea.
“It’s a beautiful night. Your mother used to love going for walks on nights like this.”
Charlotte didn’t want to rebuff her father’s invitation—she wanted him to know that she appreciated his apology, but the thought of going out in the dark made her shiver. “I’d love to, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Her father’s face darkened. “Why not?”
“I’d feel better if we stayed inside till I can do something about the barn in the morning.”
He sighed. “And you want me to stay inside too? Out of respect for your nut-bar beliefs?”
He shrugged, then left the room. He came back in a moment later with a book of crossword puzzles. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Of course not.”
He dropped onto the other end of the couch. “What’s a six letter word for ‘baby’s first step?'”
“That fits.” After a minute, he started humming. Charlotte didn’t recognize the song, but she loved her father’s voice. He used to sing to her mother. She had pestered him for lullabies until she was thirteen. Charlotte sipped her tea an enjoyed the moment.
A dark figure crashed through the window, scattering shards of glass across the floor. It landed in the middle of the room, crouched on emaciated limbs. Its eyes glowed with a light colder than the snow-reflected sunshine, and its emaciated, gaunt face twisted into a hungry grin. Charlotte recognized it as a wendigo—a man pushed to madness by cannibalism and driven by an overpowering craving for human flesh.
Her father jumped to his feet. “What the hell?”
The wendigo screeched and lunged toward Charlotte. It plunged long-nailed fingers into her belly and grabbed her wrist with its other frigid hand.
She struggled, adrenaline fighting against the pain in her abdomen and the numbing chill of the monster’s touch. It pulled her toward its jagged teeth.
A gunshot ripped through the room, and the monster rocked back as a bullet buried itself in its shoulder. Its grip loosened, and Charlotte wrenched free.
“Run, Charlotte!” her father shouted as he chambered another round. His voice sounded far away.
Charlotte ran. She barely heard another gunshot behind her. Tears of terror and shame and pain filled her eyes. The world around her grew fuzzy and she stumbled. Pain shot through her knees and hands when she slammed into the ground. Her fingers trembled as she fumbled her cell phone out of her pocket and hit send twice. She interrupted Chogan’s sleepy greeting. “Help. Wendigo.”
She heard the wendigo scream again, and felt the vibration of running footsteps coming toward her. She dropped the phone and scrambled to her feet.
She stumbled over a rock and fell against the ruined barn. One of the foundation stones had been pushed away. The air outside the opening smelled of evil and rot.
Maybe there was something inside that she could use against the wendigo. She took a deep breath and crept inside.
An icy long-fingered hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her back out into the moonlight. Cold air seared her lungs as Charlotte screamed. The wendigo’s eyes shone and its teeth gleamed. Black blood oozed from wounds in its shoulder and chest.
Another gunshot rang out, and the monster stumbled. Charlotte wrenched out of its grip as it fell to the ground.
“What was that thing?” her father asked as he walked toward it.
The wendigo lunged up at her father, knocking him off balance. The rifle spiraled through the air and clattered to the ground at Charlotte’s feet. The monster wrapped its long fingers around her father’s legs and pulled him toward its gaping mouth.
Charlotte picked the rifle, aimed at the monster’s head, and pulled the trigger. It clicked on an empty chamber. She screamed and charged, swinging the gun like a baseball bat. She hit right across the wendigo’s skeletal wrist. Carpal bones scattered like autumn leaves, and Charlotte slammed the butt of the rifle into its face. She felt bone crack, and pulled back to hit it again. She pounded until its skull cracked open like a melon. Her father grabbed her shoulders. The rifle fell from her shaking fingers, and Charlotte passed out.
“Hey, there you are.” Gentle hands stroked Charlotte’s hair.
“Daddy?” Charlotte struggled to sit up.
“I’m here, it’s all right. Everything’s okay.”
“Is it dead?”
“Your boyfriend assures me that the weird chanting dance thing he did will keep it from rising again.”
“Chogan? He’s here?”
“He’s outside, tidying up. He must have driven like a madman to get here as fast as he did.” Her father took a deep, slow breath. “I like him.”
“He came sprinting up to the house and started banging on the door forty-five minutes after I carried you back down here. The look on his face when he saw you—I know that look. He loves you.”
“I love you, too.”
“I love you, Daddy. I was so scared, when it had you—I . . .”
“You were amazing, Charlotte. You saved me.”
“You saved me first. You were great, Daddy.”
“Okay, I think I’ve eradicated all traces of your wendigo—Charlotte, you’re awake.” Chogan ran the rest of the way into the room and threw his arms around her. “You gave me a scare.”
Charlotte’s father stepped out into the hallway. “I’ll let you two be alone.”
“Your father’s holding up well,” Chogan said, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her to his chest.
“Dad likes you.”
“I like him too.”
“So do I.” Charlotte couldn’t believe that she’d forgotten that.
“Do you two want any breakfast?” Charlotte’s dad shouted up the stairs. “I’m making pancakes.”
“My dad makes the best pancakes.”
Chogan helped her to her feet and they joined Charlotte’s father in the kitchen.
Outside, the magic began creeping back into the fields around the barn.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death... She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.