Fiction Indigenous Thriller

The call came in just after 11 p.m.; Grandpa wouldn’t make it through the night. The brothers took the news like a hammer blow to the chest; they grabbed their jackets and sprang for the car. The twenty-year-old Corolla’s springs creaked as the boys climbed in and rolled out of the dorm parking lot.

Mort looked at his brother’s face, framed by his long, straight black hair, with the streetlights casting shadows under his high cheekbones. He imagined their Ho-Chunk ancestors must have looked like that. It was funny to see the difference between them; sometimes, he wished that his own features were more like his brother’s.

“You know we are going to be driving past Tee Wakacak just after midnight; doesn’t that bother you?” Jolon asked as his brother Mort rolled through the red light before turning. His accent always came through heavily when he was stressed. Couldn’t Jolon learn to fit in better?

Mort flattened his own accent and answered, “Bro, can’t you just call it Devil’s Lake like everyone else? And no, that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that we might not get back in time to say goodbye to Grandpa. This heap had better hold together. Just a few hours is all we need. Come on, baby!” Mort patted the cracked dashboard gently.

Driving north on US-12 is going to be pretty boring. After so many late nights studying, he knew they would both be sleepy. Talking, even if it were arguing, would keep him awake. “What are you afraid of, Jolon? You need to let go of those old stories. People already think you’re backward, which doesn’t help me fit in either. I love you, man, but we need to blend in a little better.”

Jolon ignored the personal jibes; he was used to them. “Mort, the stories about Tee Wakcak are serious; you can’t pretend that the Great Serpent isn’t real! Grandpa told me about people who died around the lake because they didn’t take it seriously.”

“Those legends are just that—legends. It’s time for our people to step into the world. We had our time, and it’s past.”

They kept at it, and after about twenty minutes, the brothers’ argument petered out. It was old ground to cover, and both were so tired that they couldn’t muster much energy for the argument. Jolon settled his seat back and closed his eyes, and Mort leaned forward to make himself a little uncomfortable, hoping it would keep him awake. The full moon lit the countryside and would help by giving him scenery to think about.

The broken radio was no help, and he kept feeling his eyelids being pulled down and then popping open. The musty, familiar smell of the worn-out cloth seats, the heater that wouldn’t turn down, and the monotonous hum of the road sang a strong lullaby.

The steering wheel jumping in his loose grip and the loud chatter of the tire in the shoulder groves snapped him awake! He squeezed the wheel, yanked it left, and glanced at his brother to see whether he had woken him. Jolon was out cold.

That scare and the adrenaline rush kept Mort alert for a few more miles before his head started to nod again. He kept telling himself he had this under control and forced himself to focus. His brother needed sleep, and he wouldn’t wimp out and wake him up for help.

His eyes closed; he didn’t see the ramp to the right or notice as the car gently slid off the main road and down the slope, taking the exit. Signs warning that the road was closed passed by unread. Miraculously, the car made it between the barriers and drifted slowly to the right. His foot came off the accelerator, and his tires gradually edged into the gravel on the shoulder, waking him up again.

Jolon sat up, “You ok?”

“I’m fine, just hit a rough patch in the road.”

“This looks odd; I don’t remember the highway being this overgrown.” Jolon sat up straighter and craned his neck to look up into the sky through the windshield. “Where’s the moon?” The night outside the beam of their headlights was inky black.

“What the heck?” Mort called out, pointing to the shoulder of the road where the dark bulk of a car rested upside down. It was close enough to the lane that the headlights showed tall weeds and grass growing around the roof where it met the gravel. “You would think that they would have cleared that. It looks like it has been there a while.”

Jolon stared at the dark bulk of the car as it passed out of the headlight beam and disappeared behind them. “The road feels a lot rougher than I remember Mort.”

“It’s been a few years since we made the drive; you know how hard the winters are on the pavement up here. I don’t know how they keep it in as good shape as they do.” Even as he pushed back on his brother’s concern, Mort felt something in the pit of his stomach. Something wasn’t right.

As their drive continued Jolon started to get fidgety and kept looking at the roadside, trying to make out landmarks. “Mort, this doesn’t look right. Are you sure we are on the highway? US 12 is pretty big, and this is a two-lane road. I am sure this is wrong. Let’s turn around.”

“Look, Jolon, if we turn around, we are going to lose time. How would you feel if Grandpa passed away before we got there? I am sure we just forgot what the road was like”. Mort wasn’t sure why he was so irritated by his brother. They had to be on the highway, he knew he hadn’t taken any turns. “The next turn is on the interstate, we can’t miss it. Don’t worry.”

Mort patted his pocket and grimaced, “Hey, I think I left my phone in the dorm, do you have yours?”

Jolon cursed under his breath and held his unlit cell phone up for his brother to see. “Great! The battery’s dead. We can’t even check GPS.”

Suddenly, the headlights lit up a car ahead in their lane. Mort slammed on the brakes, and their tiny sedan squealed to a stop just short of the rear bumper.

“Whoah! What the heck?” the Corolla’s horn beeped an angry, high-pitched note. How can anyone take that seriously, thought Mort.

“The people aren’t moving; we should check them out.” Jolon opened his door and lept out of the car before Mort could react. He parked the car and stuck his head out the window, “Jolon, come back here. We’ve got to go!”

His brother stopped a few feet from the car’s passenger side and froze. Mort had never seen his brother stop mid-stride like that so he lept out of the car to see what had startled Jolon. As he approached the car, he stopped short, staring. “Ummmm, skeletons? This car is sitting in the middle of the road!”

“They’ve been here for months, maybe years,” Jolon said, his eyes fixed on the skeleton in the passenger seat. The two of them stared at the bodies in the car.

“This is definitely weird.” He looked up, searching for the moon, and he gingerly stepped backward, away from the gruesome scene. “We better go.” Spinning on his heel, he sprinted back to their car.

“Mort! Mort! Come on!” The yells broke Mort free, and he turned and ran.

Mort threw the car in reverse to give himself room, then gunned the engine and drove past the other car. As they passed it, Jolon called out, “There’s something wrong with the front. It looks like they hit a post or a tree.”

“In the middle of the road? How? How did they die? The car wasn’t that banged up, was it?”

“Mort, we need to turn around. These two wrecks were omens...” His voice faltered, and his hands shot out and gripped the dashboard. He yelled, “STOP!” Mort turned to face forward and slammed on the brakes, barely stopping short of another car.

They looked at each other and, without a word, got out of the car, leaving the doors open and the engine running. As they came up to the front doors, Mort sucked in his breath. The driver was sitting with his hands on the wheel, head leaned back, mouth open eyes staring. The flesh of his face was pulled tight over the cheekbones and the eyes had sunk in their sockets.

“This one looks like it may only be a week or two old Jolon.”

Jolon walked toward the front fender, “This one hit something, too.” Mort walked forward and saw the center of the hood pushed in nearly two feet toward the windshield where it had obviously hit something at speed.

Jolon said, “Mort, three wrecks, each one looks like it was a little more recent. I’ll bet that if we had looked at the first one we would have seen the hood smashed in like the other two. “ The sing-song accent was thicker than Mort could ever remember.

“What do we do, Jolon? I don’t think we should go back. I’m not even sure how far we have gone down this road. I must have taken us off the highway somehow.” Jolon raised his eyebrows when he heard his brother speaking with their Ho-Chunk accent.

“Let’s get away from here; we can’t be far from Baraboo.” Said Jolon. Mort wanted to believe him, so he eagerly agreed, and they climbed back into the car. As Mort steered around the wreck, Jolon stared with his mouth hanging open.

Mort’s mouth was dry as he asked, “Jolon, does this sound like any of the stories Grandpa used to tell? Man, I wish that I had sat with you when he used to tell them. We are probably really close to Devil’s Lake here. I would have expected to be past it.”

Jolon didn’t answer at first, then reluctantly said, “Grandpa described a great horned snake that lived in Tee Wakacak and battled with the Thunderers. Some say that the Thunderers killed all of the Great Serpent’s army; others, like Grandpa, say that the Great Serpent escaped and hid in the depths of the lake. It hates people and wants to destroy them.”

“There are stories of it being able to leave the natural waterways and using things in nature to kill people.

With no phones and no real idea where they were, they had no idea what to do. After a few minutes of arguing about the legends and whether they should turn around, Mort said, “Look, we have to be getting close to Baraboo by now. This road seems pretty straight, and it has to cross some other road sooner or later.”

Jolon cried out, “Mort, look out!” A pale, translucent, glowing figure stood in the middle of the road. Mort slammed on the brakes and stopped just short of the figure. Tall, shirtless, and wearing buckskin pants, the figure’s back was toward them, a single long braid hanging between its shoulder blades. His muscular arms were spread wide as if to bar the way for whatever it was facing.

Just at the limits of the headlights, they could see something approaching. The night around them seemed to swallow the lights. As they watched, the figure’s arms raised above its head, and they heard a loud voice ring out what sounded like commands. Mort wished he had listened when the elders were teaching the kids their language. He was sure that this was Ho-Chunk.

Jolon spoke quietly. “He is telling it to go back to the lake. I can’t understand everything he is saying.”

Whatever was at the edge of the lights disappeared, and the figure turned around. Both brothers gaped at what they knew was their grandfather’s young face. He smiled at them, struck his chest with his arm in salute, and evaporated like a mist after sunrise. His voice rang out and echoed as he disappeared.

“He said that he loved us and would see us when our journeys were at an end,” Jolon said as he choked back tears.

Mort knew there was no need to rush now. “Jolon, I am sorry that I doubted. Thank you for being patient with me. I have been a fool, will you teach me the lessons that I never took seriously?”

Jolon smiled through his tears, “You... are my brother.”

May 10, 2024 14:02

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Torvi Skarsgaard
22:22 May 16, 2024

I really liked the story arc, and the pace was good. The only thing I think that could use some work is the final two paragraphs. They felt out of place. Good work, though. Very nice.


Glen Wiley
09:27 May 18, 2024

Thanks, I think I see what you mean.


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