“It’s perfectly tender now,” said the mother. “Peeling off the bone. Just how you like it.”
“Not overcooked, I hope,” said the father. A dribbling tongue scraped across chapped lips.
Flames licked at the meat on the spit, turning black and glistening with fat. Splitting, cracking sounds from the fire echoed back from the silhouettes of the trees around the clearing. Stars winked down from the distant past.
“Crispy on the outside, tender inside.” Radiating pride, the mother patted her son’s back as he turned the charring flesh slowly.
“Where’d you catch it?” Asked the father, scratching at his tangled grey beard.
“Off in the woods near the road. Never saw it coming.” She laughed.
“Did it run?” Asked her boy, Jack.
“They always run, that’s part of the fun. Chasing them, the adrenaline coursing through your body. Knowing that it’s just a matter of time. Toying with them.”
“No one saw you?” Asked the father, hints of concern in his gravelly voice.
“Of course not. I never get caught. I always bring you the best.” She patted his pot belly lovingly. “My boys don’t go hungry do they. Nothing but the best for you.”
“Thanks mom. What was he carrying? Anything good?”
“Some new boots you might grow into soon. It’s all piled up in the cabin. First, we eat. When we’ve picked him clean, we can go and look at the spoils of the hunt.” Six foot eight if she was an inch, she picked off flesh with her fingers and bounced it on her hands. It flew up and into her mouth. “That’s the stuff.”
Esmerelda turned the focus on her sniper rifle. Wendigos were rare. She’d never heard of a family of them.
“Why don’t they have antlers?” Darren asked, lying by her side with his own rifle.
“Because the antlers thing was an invention of us white people who came to America long after the wendigos. Rule of cool thing I guess, shush. They’ll hear us.”
“I thought they hated fire,” he hissed. The grass on his head wiggled as he looked at her.
“Clearly that’s as much bullshit as the antlers thing. I’m sure a bullet from that Springfield will do just fine. You get the boy; I get the big two. Get ready. As soon as I have them both lined up, I’m going for the shot. When you hear my gun fire, you take your shot at him. Understand?”
“Yes boss.” Even through the leaves and branches covering his ghillie suit she could see his eyes rolling.
“Don’t make me regret bringing you along.”
“Heat vision scopes are awesome. This is just like COD.”
“Don’t say that,” she sighed.
“Damn, that was good, Delilah.” The father wiped a hairy arm across his bloody mouth. “But I’m already hungry again.”
“So am I,” said the boy, Jack
“That’s alright, you know there’s always someone else hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. We never go hungry here in summer.” She stood and stretched. Her head jerked around. “You hear that?” Red eyes stared into the darkness. Night was nothing but a cosy blanket to her. “What the fu-”
Momma wendigo fell with a dripping hole through her glabella. Pappa clutched his leaking chest. Their son heard a bang before he saw his parents fall. Red eyes looked at the red on the silver hair of his father. Life had fled the body of the old man.
He ran. Bangs echoed off the trees around him, reverberating from every direction. Trunks exploded. He hurtled into branches, over ditches, into darkness.
Hunger came second to anger for the first time in his short life. The cabin wasn’t far, an hour’s run at top speed.
“What was that?” Esmerelda asked, standing up. “Come on, he’s getting away.” She began to jog, rifle held out in front of her like a spear.
“It jammed, not my fault,” Darren protested.
“You are responsible for your weapon. No one else but you.” Her voice was a growl. They hunted real monsters. It wasn’t a game. People died.
“But,” he said automatically.
“YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR WEAPON. Never forget that.” Her voice echoed back to them. “If you can’t take responsibility for your mistakes then you’re not ready.”
Camouflage that had made them invisible on the hilltop held them back as they ran headlong into the thick trees of the forest. Esme caught the chest of her son and stared down her scope at the tracks left by the last wendigo of the family.
Residual heat was fading to nothing. She changed the setting to night vision, what had been shades of blue and orange turned all muted greens. The footprints in the forest mud were clear enough.
“Your eyes are better than mine,” Esme whispered to Darren. “Keep your head up and listen well.”
“Yes, mom.” Though he’d messed up, she liked the tone of respect which had replaced cavalier bravado and sarcasm.
Their feet crunched on dry twigs. Boots squelched in sludge. Unseen branches slapped them in the face every few seconds. Black night became blue twilight. Panicked tracks of running became evenly placed steps. Their prey was walking.
Jack wept all the way from the fireside to the cabin. Outside it was run down, deliberately neglected. His parents had nurtured the balance between external neglect and internal care. Unlocking a door which looked as though it had been nailed shut, he pushed inside.
No light broke through the boards put up by his father. Shelves hand carved by his parents held a treasure trove. Camping gear worth thousands had been sorted into categories. Clothing was arranged by size, anything that fit them was on their own hangers. He turned on a wind-up lamp that had a dozen clones alongside it on the shelves.
Ignoring it all, Jack walked to the photograph on the mantle of the fireplace. A polaroid of the trio smiling by a fire sat atop the grey photo of the park rangers who’d used the cabin decades before.
Grabbing the photo, he fell to his knees. Hugging the frame to his chest he roared.
“Hear that?” Darren asked.
“That loud, ominous screaming? No. Completely missed it,” Esme said.
“Remind me, which one of us is the adult?”
“The one who cleaned and tested her rifle before using it.”
“Are you going to throw that back at me forever?” He asked.
“No. Just until I die,” she said. She didn’t need the night vision scope to see the tracks as the sun rose. What she really needed was a hot meal and a shower.
“What if I die first?”
“Don’t even joke about that.” She stopped and glared at him. “You’re my only son. I’m already feeling guilty about bringing you along. You know part of me always thinks I should have put you up for adoption. Not because I don’t love you, Darren. Because I’m scared that you’re going to die the way every one of us dies. It’s addictive, this life. There’s no retirement plan. You get old, you get slow-”
“You get killed,” Darren finished. “I know, Mom. I know the saying.”
“Remember it. If anything ever happens to me, don’t try for revenge. Just go and find yourself a normal life. Will you do that for me?”
“Of course not. Would you?”
She shrugged. She wouldn’t. No hunter would.
Jack’s keen ears twitched at the sound of breaking twigs outside the cabin.
“You aren’t the only one with guns,” he growled below his breath. There were plenty of rifles on the shelves. Hunters walked the woods in the winter when hikers had given up on the trail. Bears took the blame for the people they killed. There was a cave miles away where they left the bones.
“I’ll do it like you taught me, Dad.” He grabbed a rifle, loaded a magazine into the handle and lay down on the floor, aiming at the doorway.
Esmerelda and Darren skirted the derelict shack.
“Only one door,” said the son.
“Which means?” She asked.
“Or he’s laying a trap. One way in means he only has to guard one spot. Reminds me of a vampire den a few years ago. They had a tripwire in the doorway, killed two of us. The rest of them had sub-machine guns. That got three more of us.”
“We could smoke him out? Burn the place down?” Darren’s blue eyes scanned the cabin. “The whole thing is wood. It would burn easy.”
“And it would set the whole forest on fire before we were far enough away. Good idea, but impractical right now.” Her brown eyes scanned the debris sitting in moss and mud around the cabin.
Jack yawned. Hours lying prone on the spongy green floorboards of the cabin were putting him to sleep. Shaking his head and pinching himself only worked for so long.
He woke, drooling over his rifle. It rose, fingers on the trigger. Jack aimed at the door.
It wasn’t the door, or a gunshot. Something was ramming the wall of the shack.
Everything rattled. Items rolled off the shelves. Dust fell from the rafters above.
Jack aimed where he thought they were hitting his home and fired.
The log slipped through Darren’s fingers as he swung it back. A splinter jumped into his palm. His mother’s exhalation meant it was time to ram the wall again. The cut log dented the rotten panel of the cabin and shook it better than an earthquake.
A bullet whizzed across the top of the log, missing Darren’s fingers by a hair.
“Shit.” Blood from a flesh wound highlighted Esmerelda’s camouflage in red.
“Get down!” He yelled.
The log hit the ground with a wet thud. They both dived away as other shots zipped through the cabin wall and raced towards them.
“That’s for mom and dad,” Jack said. He pulled the spent magazine and replaced it without looking away from the wall. He stood, aiming.
Head tilted, he listened.
Little bangs hit the cabin here and there. Not gunshots. Stones.
Jack’s rifle wavered in the air, picking an average between where the rocks were hitting the wall. Picturing the best place to throw them outside, he fired.
“Damn it,” said a killer outside.
Jack smiled and fanned the trigger.
Something struck his arm, throwing him off his feet. A beam of light shone through a single hole in the back wall. Aiming for it, keeping the weight of the rifle on the other arm, he fired back.
While his mother distracted the wendigo at the other wall, Darren snuck towards the hole they had bashed through the side. Putting his rifle to the break, he aimed at the young monster’s head. He exhaled. Jack turned to look the hunter in the eyes. Darren fired.
A spray of blood exited the far side of the wendigo’s head as he fell. Just to be safe, the hunter’s son put a few more rounds in it.
“Good work,” Esme held her arm as she came to look at the body. “Let’s see inside.”
The treasure trove of weapons and clothing was beyond their wildest imagination.
“They must have been doing this for years,” said the son.
“How they got away with it beats me. They won’t be hurting anyone else. Well done, kid. Want some junk food? I’m starving for something greasy. A nice milkshake would be great as well.”
“If you’re paying.” Darren smiled. The smile died when his mother winced and lifted a hand covered in blood away from the wound.
“Definitely. We’re going to have to patch up my ouchy before we go. Looks like they stole a few first aid kits as well. I can show you how it’s done.”
“Sit down in Leatherface’s chair there. I’ll show you how much better I am than you are,” he said. “This place looks Chainsaw Massacre and smells like Chewbacca’s ball sack.”
“I’m not even going to ask how you know what a Wookie’s testicles smell like. Some things are best left unsaid.” She sat, wincing as her son stitched and sterilised her wound.
When he was done, Darren picked up the family portrait. “A mom, dad, and son. That must have been nice.”
Guilt dropped Esmerelda’s head to the floor. She walked out of the cabin. Her son wasn’t meant to be envious of the monsters.