Greg never knew what caused the house fire. They spent hours putting it out, and saved no more than the stone fireplace and the herd of goats they managed to release from the attached barn. Three piglets and the sow they’d raised from the get of a wild one they’d killed all cooked in the flames, too far back in the smoke-filled barn for rescue. The scent of burning pork had mixed with that of seared oak and singed chicken feathers. That was likely the smell that drew the Wendigo. Pork smells a long way off, and it had been a windy day, fanning the flames as well as advertising the presence of humanity.
The incursion came in the night. Dixie had a chance to voice a volley of warning barks before being silenced forever. That one volley had been enough to awaken the adults. There were now four adults in Greg’s home, since uncle Bernie and aunt Martha needed a place to stay until they could rebuild. Greg did as he’d been taught and grabbed little Sam. They scurried up the creaky stairs to the attic. Greg wrapped the rope as best he could.
He pulled Sam to the back of the loft, covering his mouth and biting his lip hard enough to bleed. He wouldn’t discover until days later that he’d chewed a chunk from his bottom lip.
They heard shots and screaming. Finally, there was just one gun firing, and Greg could hear his father shouting and swearing, making threats until he too was silent. Then other noises began. Sam was crying.
Greg couldn’t allow it. Four-year-old Sam couldn’t help it, but it could not continue. If Sam got a good breath and really bawled, they’d be heard and have no chance of leaving alive. He squeezed, tighter and tighter, until Sam finally quieted. Greg continued squeezing, listening to the crunching sounds below. His father had snapped a forearm once when a boulder rolled unexpectedly, and the sound had been the same. Greg knew without a doubt that bones were being broken down below. The ones doing the breaking screeched in fury, still on the high from gunshot wounds. He also knew none of his family could feel the pain. He held tight to Sam for comfort as much as to keep him quiet.
Greg managed to let go of Sam when he fell asleep from exhaustion and emotional distress. When he woke, hazy daylight shined through the dust-clotted pane of the only window. He rubbed eyes clotted with sleep and looked around. Sam lay across his lap, legs slightly apart, one arm flung out. Greg decided to let him sleep a little longer while he rubbed at the window, sweat mixing with years of loft dust to streak the window.
It was full light out, and quiet save for the cawing of a single crow. He shielded his eyes from the sun, trying to see the ground beneath his perch. By squinting and holding his hand at just the right angle, he made a visor. He saw their old dog, Dixie, now just patches of brown and white fur sticking up through mats of blood. Her pups lay scattered around her, no more than small chunks of an unfinished meal.
They’d eat anything.
He knew where he and Sam had to go.
“Sam, get up.” Sam didn’t move.
A sinking feeling hit Greg’s gut and turned into a ball of ice. He shook Sam hard and wasn’t surprised when the small boy rolled bonelessly. He looked out the window, unable to look at Sam’s face. He stared at Dixie, breathing hard. The sun had shifted. Greg had been shaking Sam for much longer than it seemed. Flies were lighting on Dixie and her pups, clouds of them. He watched as they buzzed and lit. He wondered when the possums and buzzards would arrive and imagined them coming through the open door, nature’s cleanup crew, cleaning up the mess of his family.
Greg stared out the window until his joints screamed. Finally, he shifted to his knees. Pins and needles hit, a painful reminder of the time he’d spent sitting and watching the flies. Prickly pain made it seem tiny wasps had gotten under his skin.
When that was over, he turned to look at Sam, and cried.
He managed the trek through his house and family by covering his eyes and high stepping. It was a game he’d played with Sam when the soil was freshly turned and the mounds high enough to trip the unwary. They’d covered their eyes with their hands and walked with deliberate and exaggerated steps, competing to see who could get farthest without falling. Greg always won. Then, falling meant no more than landing in a soft natural bed laden with the scent of good earth, old rotted leaves and goat manure, though the occasional rock might cause some bruising. Bruises served as a badge of courage.
There was no fun in walking through the corpses of his family. He fell down twice, the first time landing on a bare spot on the floor, the second over his mother’s body. He never opened his eyes to confirm this. The scent of lilacs told him it was so. He cried again, tears streaming down dirt-streaked cheeks, hands out before him, reaching for some unknown but fervently wished for support – perhaps a warm and living hand to take from him the burden of guilt at his own survival.
When fresh breezes touched his cheeks, he opened his eyes and ran. The pines, hickories, and oaks blurred as the scent of honeysuckle blended with the beginning scent of spoilage. He ran until his lungs caught fire and the flames licked at his throat, making his breath a burning pain. He ran until his uncle Ted and Aunt Marie’s house came into view. He staggered to the door, knocked, and fell in an exhausted heap on the front steps. Safe. Maybe.