A. P. Miller
The February Featured Writer is A.P. Miller
Please feel free to email A.P. at firstname.lastname@example.org
ON THE TONAWANDA RESERVATION
Charles slid a knife under the wolf’s fur and began to cut away the pelt. He was outside of his reservation trailer home, where he had spent the last year living with his wife and her wizened native mother, whom he had adopted after her husband died of hepatitis. The front door opened—and a woman who was not his wife, nor his mother-in-law—stepped out.
“Charles,” she said. “Why don’t you visit me anymore?”
“Go home, Nadie. I’ve told you before. I was drunk. It was a mistake. It’s not going to happen again.”
“I missed my period, Charles.”
“I’m not. Maybe I should just tell Alawa what we did. Then she will leave you and we can be together.”
Charles pulled his red knife from the carcass.
“Don’t, Nadie. Please. It would ruin her. It would ruin me, too.”
Nadie’s wicked smile showed how much the remark pleased her. “I’ll see you soon, Charles,” she said and climbed into her car.
Alawa’s mother came out of the trailer, dressed in a traditional cloak that would have befitted a medicine woman of old. She walked to the four corners of her home in the dark, sprinkling white powder and chanting in the rhythms of a Seneca tongue.
Then Alawa’s lovely silhouette leaned against the doorframe.
“What is she doing?” Charles asked his wife.
“Mom says she saw Nadie taking some of your hair out of the trash. When a Seneca takes your hair, it means they are trying to bewitch you. Witches and skin-changers make effigies out of it. Like voodoo dolls. That’s why we always burn or bury ours.”
Charles laughed and kissed her on the mouth. “So why is she sprinkling the powder?”
“Don’t laugh, Charles, it’s not a joke. You are not a Native so you don’t understand. Black magic is bad, even if you don’t believe in the spiritual stuff. Sometimes Seneca murder people because they think it will give them power. My grandpa knew a man who killed his brother because the man thought he would be able to bring his wife back from the dead. It’s bad luck to talk about it.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t kill you,” Charles said. “Laura is crying.”
The two went inside and closed the door, leaving the aged woman to her work. Alawa picked up their fussing infant with a delicacy not yet lost to years of mothering. “How was the hunt?”
“Not bad,” Charles said. “The bullet went in one side of the wolf and out the other. The pelt is still fine. I should be able to get ten dollars for it.”
“That’ll help. We’re low on diapers.”
Alawa’s mother came inside and sat down. She looked at Charles as if he were a man on his deathbed. “I don’t want Nadie in this house again,” she said. “She’s keeping a secret. A dark one.”
Alawa looked down the back of the baby’s diaper and gave a resigned look. “I’ll change her,” Charles said.
Charles walked down the only hallway in the trailer toward his room, rubbing at his tired eyes. The baby was sleeping, but she would wake again in a few hours. Charles would lie in bed until she did, pretending to sleep, as he had every night since he was laid off last year. His mother-in-law opened her door as he passed by it.
“Here,” she said, handing him a totem on a string. “Take this. It’ll keep you safe.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “I don’t think any witches will bother us tonight. Alawa has known Nadie her whole life and she’s never bothered us before.”
“You’re not afraid because you’ve never seen a skin-walker. You don’t know what they can do.”
“I’m tired, Mom. I want to sleep. Will it make you feel better if I put it on?” Charles tucked the totem into his shirt.
“Don’t go outside after dark,” his mother-in-law said, and she shut the door.
When he entered the bedroom, Charles was surprised to find Alawa still awake, looking out the window at an unseen specter. “Anything out there?” he said.
Alawa started at his presence. “You should get to bed. What time is your interview again?”
“Don’t worry about getting up with Laura tonight. You need to rest. We really need this one to work out.”
Charles looked at the wall until the redness in his eyes faded. “I know. I can’t stand this. Living in this dumpy old place. Not having enough money for formula or for you to get your hair cut. I know your mom hoped you’d be marrying into better.”
Alawa set a loving hand on him. “Things will get better,” she said.
They climbed under the covers to share each other’s warmth. Alawa slept and Charles lay awake, listening to the east-facing winds blow in bad weather outside. Another sound was in the wind, below the familiar rush and whistle. It was his mother-in-law’s hypnotic voice, the same tone she had used while chanting outside the house, but this time calling Charles’ name.
Charles got up and went to the front door. He saw, through the haze of the age-frosted glass, movement near the tree-line at the edge the property. His mother-in-law called again, but her voice was cut off mid-syllable when he opened the door.
A deer stood opposite him, standing upright on two legs like a grotesque human caricature. It hobbled into the woods where Charles could not see. Charles did not believe in the supernatural as did his wife and her mother, but the feeling in his stomach was something akin to fear. Then he decided that only weak men and cowards fall prey to their fears and Charles went out to wood’s edge to meet his.
He peered through the pine boughs, but saw nothing and instead followed the tracks the deer had laid in the snow, winding through the drifts and bracken. There was a meadow ahead and Charles made as if to turn back before he reached it, but continued with the determination of a man hypnotized.
Nadie stood in the center of the clearing where the tracks ended, naked despite the cold, and beckoning Charles with a dark, intangible seduction. She held in her hands a small doll, formed of blonde hair the same shade as Charles’s.
Nadie tore at Charles’s shirt with demonic lust, baring the totem he wore around his neck. She stopped when she saw it, terrified of its juxtaposing power. Nadie dropped the doll in the snow and pointed a clawed finger at Charles, screaming an occult curse that rung his ears.
Then she retreated into the darkness where she belonged. Charles picked up the doll and went home.
Charles woke in the morning with the highest fever of his life. The disease that wracked his body made it difficult to stand.
Alawa was at the bathroom door. “Are you all right?” she said as he retched a second time.
“I think I have the flu,” he said through the door.
“I’ll put some soup on for you. Listen, I’m going to Nadie’s while you’re out on your job interview.”
He opened the door to see Alawa’s face. “Why? You seemed so upset with her last night.”
“That’s exactly why. And you being sick makes me want to go more. If she’s doing something to you, I need to know for sure.”
“Come on, Alawa. I’m fine.” Charles smiled, but he knew his wife saw through it.
“I’m going,” she said. “Mom will take care of you when you. Wait—you are still going to the interview, right? You look awful.”
“I have to go. I’ll be okay. Are you really going to Nadie’s?”
No good could come of Alawa visiting Nadie. Alawa would not leave Charles even if she found out about the affair, but it would cut a hole in their relationship that would not easily heal. And the night before had forced him to become a believer. There was some evil in Nadie worse than anything he had ever known.
“Come on,” Charles said. “Don’t go.”
“You don’t believe in it anyway. Why do you care?”
There was nothing he could say. He climbed into his pickup with a plastic bucket to catch the vomit and drove off the reservation and into town.
A bald man led Charles into the active chemical plant where he was to work if they hired him. Both men were saturated in a sickening coat of sweat. The morning’s nausea had returned and Charles would not last long near the steam jackets where the two sat.
“So!”the interviewer shouted over the sound of lithium pouring into an empty vat. “My name is Frank! I understand you have experience working in a factory?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Charles shouted back, smiling at the man with the same false expression he gave Alawa an hour prior.
“First things first. Are you feeling okay? You look kind of sick. We need someone in good health. This is a physically demanding job. Do you think you’re up to it?”’
“Sure. Touch of a cold today, but nothing major.”
The interview could not have gone better, but something bad was happening behind Charles’ facade. He was sick and getting worse. He could not stand at the end to shake Frank’s hand.
Charles fell to the floor in a fit of seizure and almost bit off his tongue. Frank called for an ambulance while Charles convulsed.
Charles refused the EMT’s care when they arrived and he walked backed to his truck, head hung with shame. He had lost the job and his chance at a better life. Alawa and Laura would stay in poverty with no haircuts or diapers or formula.
The roads were salty and slick and Charles took the long way home to delay giving the bad news. He passed abandoned cornfields and cars by the back roads where the snow plows did not reach. He was in the Allegheny Swamps when he saw Nadie. She was standing in the high branches of an old oak tree, fifty feet above him. Her bare toes were gripping for purchase on the black bark. He saw nothing else as he came to a bridge.
Suddenly he hit a patch of black ice and lost control of the truck. A shower of sparks fell into the icy water below as he plowed into the guardrail. He got out of the truck and looked at the tree where Nadie had been, but it was empty. He would have died if the guardrail had given way, drowned in the Tonawanda River like many before him.
The old truck cranked for an eternity before it started again. Charles drove home.
Charles had hit his head on the steering wheel when he crashed the truck and Alawa cared for his battered face. “What happened?” Alawa said.
He might have done better to lie and let the situation resolve of its own momentum. If he told the truth about Nadie, too much of it might come rushing out and leave him in a bad way. But Alawa’s worried expression teased it out. Charles told Alawa about hearing her mother’s voice calling in the night and everything that had transpired since.
“I saw something when I was at her house this morning,” Alawa said. “I snuck into her bedroom and found some strange-looking needles on her dresser. Skin-walkers make needles out of the bones of skeletons. They stab people with the shards to make them sick. You might have a piece of old bone inside you right now.”
“I don’t think she stuck me with anything,” Charles said. He lowered himself on the couch with the last of his strength.
“We need to take you to the hospital,” his wife told him.
“The hospital can’t help,” Alawa’s mother said. “This isn’t the flu. Nadie cursed Charles. He’ll die if we don’t break it.”
The pallor of Charles skin agreed. He fainted into coma so deep Alawa’s panicked shakes could not rouse him. By evening, his breath came in terrifying rasps so thick and wet that he could not sustain them for long.
“Oh god, what do we do, Mom?” Alawa begged for an answer.
The old Seneca lit a cigarette to delay her response. “There is only one thing we can do. The evil spirit in him needs to be forced out by someone who can command evil spirits.”
“Well great, let’s just go into town and ask around.”
“Be quiet and listen,” Alawa’s mother said. “This is beyond me. Only a skin-walker can save him.”
“Don’t say that, Mom. There must be something we can do.”
“There is. Skin-walkers get their power from killing family members and drinking their blood. Eating their flesh.”
Alawa looked at Charles with the love that is borne only among the poor and the destitute who have nothing else. “What are you saying?” she said. But the answer was already clear.
“Living a sad life can be worse than living a dark one,” her mother said. “I’ve been ready since your dad passed.”
Alawa’s dark eyes met her mother’s. They told what she would do for her husband, who was the father of her child.
Charles woke healthy and bright to the sound of Laura crying in the bedroom. He rubbed his eyes and stretched away the sleep.
Then he sat straight up in bed, horrified at what he saw. He jumped onto the carpeted floor and cried out as though in pain.
The far side of the room was covered in drying blood and he almost stepped on a small white needle embedded in the carpet when he stumbled backwards from it. His skinning knife was red to the handle, lying in the middle of the black scene.
“Alawa!”Charles called to the empty trailer.
He ran to the bedroom for Laura. He changed her diaper with shaking hands and bundled her in a coat. The pickup should not have been in the drive with Alawa gone, but it was. Charles put Laura inside it and turned onto the road toward the witch’s house in the bleak morning light.
He would find Alawa at Nadie’s house. She could be nowhere else.
Someone moved in Nadie’s front window when he pulled up her driveway. He left the truck running and ran to her door.
“Nadie!”he screamed, and pounded upon the door until the hinges groaned. “I know you’re in there! Open the door or I’ll break it down! I swear, if you’ve hurt Alawa I’ll—”
“Stop, Charles! You’re going to pay for that if you break it. What are you talking about?” Nadie said as she opened the door. “Why would I hurt Alawa?”
“Move aside!” Charles shouted and he charged into her house. But Alawa was not there. “Where is she?”
Nadie put a hand on his arm. “Alawa? I haven’t seen her since yesterday. Why are you here, Charles? Is this just an excuse to come see me?” Charles shrugged it off in disgust. “Alawa and her mother are gone. The inside of the trailer looks like a slaughterhouse.”
“And you think it was me?” Her smile was laced with amusement. “You think I would kill someone?”
“I think you tried to kill me.”
“I would never.”
His wife was not here. Charles looked over his shoulder. “I need to go. Laura is in the car.” He walked across the snow to the pickup truck with Nadie behind him. She stopped to look at Laura through the window.
“She’s a beautiful baby.” Nadie’s voice was dark and edged with malice.
He looked at Nadie over the truck’s hood. Her face had contorted into a foul shape from the depths of hell, sharp teeth to tear flesh and eyes yellow as sin. She pulled the truck’s door from its hinges and threw it to the earth.
A flash of gray fur tackled Nadie to the snow before she could lower her claws on the baby.
He scrambled behind the truck’s steering wheel and turned the key while the wolf tore at Nadie’s throat. Bright red blood gushed from her body with such force that he knew she could not last long. The wolf tore at her body again and again with a fury Charles had never witnessed in the natural wild.
There would be no help for Nadie now. He put the old truck in gear.
He drove around the reservation, searching for signs of Alawa or her mother, but gave up when Laura began to cry. Charles had put off calling the police for too long already. It was time to go home and face whatever reality lie in wait.
He opened the trailer door. Alawa lay on the couch where he had almost died. She was naked, covered only by the blood-soaked wolf pelt he had taken the night before. The phone woke her and she smiled at Charles with eyes unlike any known to man.
The answering machine took the call. “This is Frank from DuPont Chemical calling for Mr. Charles Darlington. We want to let you know that we still plan on offering you the position. Please give us a call.”
A.P. Miller is an American writer who has spent the last seven years exploring the world. He finished business school while abroad and now spends his time crafting speculative short fiction in Japan, where he lives with his wife and children. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.