The Wendigo’s Credit Card: A Story

The following story is a preview of my upcoming collection of short stories, “The Wendigo’s Credit Card and Other Stories.” Please: enjoy! And if you do, in fact, enjoy, consider backing this project on Kickstarter so it can become a thing you can read in real life, printed on paper.

THE WENDIGO’S CREDIT CARD

As the beater pulled off of the Trans-Canada highway, it oozed anguish. The car’s left headlight wasn’t so much shattered as it was sadly crumpled. The back seat was filled with fast food bags and wrappers, a paper flood that crested just short of blocking the rear view.

The windshield was cracked. At one point, clearly, the crack had been a single irritating chip, but with the passage of time, the chip had produced a multitude of enterprising children, each of whom had gone on to lead long, successful glass-cracking careers.

An interior designer would struggle to name the car’s color, which hovered somewhere between “fading beige” and “ennui.”

Enhanced by the surrounding snow, wholesome dirt, ice, slush, sleet, rank filth, and other random detritus that was the visual hallmark of early March in the great white north, the car presented a spectacle of disrepair. It could, if presented in a gallery in New York or Toronto, pass as modern art.

“Mazda 323 / Decrepitude

In this bold work, the artist has both explicated and transcended mechanized production and the very concept of time itself. The visitor is faced by an accumulation of entropy comprised in equal parts of rust, dirt, and natural weathering, the cumulative effect of which is nothing less than harrowing, forcing the spectator to confront questions of mortality and inverted assumptions about aesthetics. Mazda 323 / Decrepitude forces onlookers cast their gazes toward themselves and see the rust … within.”

Both employees of Tim Horton’s store #417-K found themselves riveted by the car as it limped its way pitifully toward the drive-through window.

Lanky college dropout Mike McIntosh gawked, unashamed, pressing his Roman nose and enthusiastic but threadbare goatee against the signage-choked front window. His splayed fingers were leaving prints on the glass that he would later be tasked with cleaning. Behind Mike were five clean but personality free sets of tables and chairs and a waist-height counter with two registers, a soda machine, and an LED sign depicting Santa Claus and his sleigh being towed through the sky by a team of extremely disciplined long johns.

To the left of the registers was the store’s drive-through window, currently manned by Mike’s manager, the compact-yet-streamlined apple orchard heiress Christa Cheng. She hung back a bit from the window, but also stared intently at the beater as it made its way toward the store.

The car presented a sense of drama as it moved, every shake of its frame suggesting the looming possibility of the automotive equivalent of a heart attack.

It passed behind the restaurant and pulled up to the parking lot’s menu.

As the voice of the driver crackled over the intercom system, Mike nearly sprinted across the restaurant to join Christa at the window. The driver came in over the intercom, and it left Christa oddly chilled.

“Uh, yeah,” said a voice that didn’t so much speak the words as it expectorated them, with gravel. “A large coffee. And… an assortment of TimBits. Whatever the largest size is?” There was a pause. “Oh, here we go. 40 Timbits, please.”

Mike nudged Christa in the ribs to remind her that this was the point in the transaction when she was supposed to talk. She nudged him back, hard enough to make him yelp. “That’ll be $8.87, sir,” she said.

The car pulled up to the window. The store’s employees were expecting something between a colorful hobo and a dangerous hobo. What they got was a mask of death: a pale, gaunt leathery hide with sunken eyeholes inhabited by steely blue lights, dressed in a hooded Boston Bruins sweatshirt. The mouth was an ebony rictus, frozen between a grin and a scream.

“I think it’s a YouTube thing,” said Mike, his voice optimistic and bright. “You know … pull up to a Tim Horton’s in a mask…”

Christa was silent. Between a couple of ambitious and failed applications to elite colleges and a crisis of conscience about her desire to move far, far away from the apple farm, she was already having a hard winter, and now this: death himself rolling up to the drive-through in a poorly maintained automobile.

Mike’s words floated past her. She was riveted by the thing in the front seat.

“I bet those eyes are LEDs,” he said. “Remember I told you I was working on that horror film, ‘SnowBlood’? So, the monster, you know, was loosely inspired by Leatherface, and we put its mask together by …”

And he trailed off into something like a squeak. Both of them were staring at the thing now. The thing cleared its throat, a noise halfway between a growl and a metal shovel being scraped across a sidewalk.

Christa screamed a tiny little scream, most of the decibels smashing uselessly inside of her throat. She dropped a spatula.

Mike had, without consciously realizing it, stepped several paces back from the window. Without warning, he found himself crouching behind a cooler of iced coffee drinks, hyperventilating.

Christa, like a robot, packaged up 40 Timbits and handed them to the thing. She poured much of the coffee onto the floor of the restaurant, and, shaking, delivered a half-full cup to the thing in the front seat.

“That’s … that’s $8.87,” said Christa.

“Great,” said the thing. “Oh, crud,” it said, not finding that much money in its ancient, tattered wallet, which looked as though it had been stitched together from a withered human face. An ear was clearly visible. “Ah, heck, we’ll just charge it.” He handed over his Visa card which was, atypically, blood red.

Christa took it. The name read “Wendigo.” She ran it through the machine, and there was an audible distant howling noise that evoked the faint but unmistakeable sound of a tornado striking a nursery school.

The lights in the store flickered. A jelly-filled Timbit exploded spontaneously, spraying a delicate line of corn-syrup assisted raspberry flavoring on the point of sale system.

She handed the card back.

Wendigo took the bag of Timbits and angled it into his yawning mouth, tipping the doughnuts into his gullet like a glazed-and-powdered avalanche. He choked a couple of times as the spheres descended. He then shuddered and stretched, appearing to grow larger in the process. He was definitely larger, Christa thought. She was paralyzed.

“You know,” rasped Wendigo, “I guess I could go for a little bit more. Let’s say 80 Timbits? Whatever kind of mix you want, but heavy on the Sour Cream Glazed.”

Christa stared. Mike, looking over the top of the cooler and shivering with what he hoped was awe at the high tech wizardry he was witnessing, lurched over to the Timbits chamber and began scooping big handfuls into an extra large sack, which he took over to Wendigo. “On the house,” he heard himself saying. He was crushed by the sudden awareness of how much he wanted the thing gone, and if he had to get docked a paycheck to make it happen, that seemed like a fair exchange.

“Oh, thanks,” said Wendigo. He tipped the massive bag back and angled the food into his gullet, swallowing cold air as he choked down an accordion-like mass of fried dough and sugar. Again, he seemed to grow in size, the cowled top of his head bumping against the interior of the car’s roof. He crumpled up the bag and threw it into the back of the beater with the rest of the refuse.

“Damn,” said Wendigo. “Still starving. Have a good day.”

The car scudded away.

###

“Wow,” said Mike. “That… that was quite a costume!” He was regaining some of his trademark bonhomie, but had also returned to a half-crouched posture behind the iced coffee cooler.

“I gotta think that, yeah, he had LEDs going on, but to get that facial texture – what do you think? Distressed fabric? Maybe distressed fabric, right? The only thing that bothering me a little bit – not a lot, you know, just a little bit – is that I couldn’t really spot a camera or mic. I mean, it’s easy enough to conceal those things, you can get some really good ones right on Amazon for not so much money that a medium-sized production house would balk at the price, I’m guessing that’s what they did. It’s funny they went for such an old car, but I guess that’s part of the look and feel. Really weird, I wonder when the video’s going to post, right?”

Christa said nothing. She was staring out at the highway, figuring out what she would do if the car came back. She was split between two plans: Plan A, sneak out the back, and hope the thing stopped to eat Mike. Plan B, stick around and offer Mike up as a sacrifice, and then slip out the back while it was actually eating.

“…wonder about the usage rights on something like this don’t you? Like, can Tim Horton’s sue for a percentage of ad revenue since one of their stores was featured? And at what point does the ad revenue even rise to a level worth…”

Christa didn’t hate Mike, or even dislike him. He was ambitious, in a pointless, hopeless kind of way: dedicated to his art, clearly headed toward a mid-thirties meltdown of some sort, but likely to be happy enough until then.

Feeding him to a monster at age 22 might even be something of a gift: a way to avoid the disappointments of middle age, the responsibilities of aging and dying parents, the loneliness of a childless, solitary existence or worse, the loneliness of being trapped in a loveless marriage with small, screeching, dependent children in the mix and oh so many bills to pay.

The timbre of Mike’s voice shifted from Knowing Monologue to Practical Observation. “Hey, what’s going on with that TimBit?”

Christa snapped back to attention. She’d just gotten to the point where the creature had torn out one of Mike’s ribs and was so lovingly fixated on the meat and distracted by his paralyzing screams of fear and grief that she was able to walk out the back door like it was the end of a workday, all cool and calm, strolling toward her car without a care in the world.

The Timbit in question had fallen to the floor, somehow, and was leaking a red gooey substance that resembled none of the miniature doughnuts’ approved filings.

“Christ,” said Christa, “is that blood?”

It looked as though the Timbit was filled with blood.

“It can’t be blood,” said Mike. “It’s months from Halloween. And even then, I doubt they’d do bloody Timbits. But it could be part of the video. Or maybe we’re a test market…”

“Mike,” said Christa. “Please, please.” She put her hands on his shoulders, and he looked at her with soft, longing eyes in case this was the moment when they were meant to kiss. Recognizing the warning signs, she immediately disengaged her hands. “Please, please shut up. Just shut up for a minute.”

“OK,” said Mike. He generally ran on indefinitely until he hit some sort of hard barrier, but at that point he was usually fairly pliable.

Christa broke open another filled Timbit. Also filled with blood. She squeaked in horror and threw it to the ground and ran to the sink, turning the tap as quickly as she could. Blood came out.

“Oh COME ON,” she said. “SERIOUSLY.”

“Whoa,” said Mike, his voice dropping an octave to convey the extent to which this impressed him.

“If you say another thing about this being a special effect, I swear I’m going to kick your balls up into your midsection,” said Christa, meaning it.

“Right,” said Mike, picking up on the implications.

“Like your lungs,” she added. “Past the intestines.”

“Right,” said Mike, grave and serious. “Also: should I be filming all this? I mean, awesome, right?” He had his phone out, and was getting up close on the Timbit.

“Film whatever you want. I think we need to call Ricardo.”

Ricardo was the manager. He also ran a mobile locksmith service and at least two other slightly less legal sidelines. Mike and Christa tried to deal with him as rarely as possible, an arrangement that was mutually agreeable.

“He said never to call unless the place was on fire or had been robbed,” said Mike, turning the tap on again to film the blood. “Maybe the Timbits will burst into some kind of unholy flame or something.”

“Is this a joke to you?” said Christa. “Because this is seriously messed up. Something is seriously wrong.”

The bell above the front door jangled. Christa and Mike looked up, the same series of thoughts going through their heads:

“We should warn the customer away / and say what, exactly / too late, he’s looking at the menu / uh oh, why is his face doing that?”

The customer – an older gentleman bundled up in a brown parka and heavy knit wool cap – scowled over the counter at Christa and Mike. “Holy bananas, guys, why is your menu board doing that?”

“Doing… what, sir?” asked Christa brightly. This being the north country, the man didn’t want to make a scene or seem rude. He merely pointed mutely at the sign, and left the store. The bell over the door rang again.

Christa and Mike came around from behind the counter and looked up at the computer menu board. Instead of the usual computerized listing of doughnuts, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches flanked by dancing Timbits, the menu was now a loop of animated graphics displaying, in this order:

- a human arm

- the same arm, being lifted up by two hands to reveal that it has been severed from its body

- teeth biting into the arm and blood dripping from the teeth

- a discarded skeletal arm, retaining but a few remaining scraps of flesh, being thrown onto a pile of bones in various states of decay

“Well,” said Mike, “that won’t be good for business.”

“No,” said Christa, “it won’t.” She walked up to the front of the shop and flipped the sign from “Open” to “Closed,” adding a taped note saying “out of doughnuts.”

###

“I’m gonna have some coffee,” said Christa. “I need some damn coffee at this point.”

Mike opened his mouth to say something, but Christa had downed most of the cup before he could do so.

Christa looked at Mike, and suddenly had a feeling about that was less an emotion than it was a wave of knowledge. Knowledge about how to roast a human thigh to yield a meat tender and forkable, like pulled pork. How to dice a grilled tongue to make the perfect filling for an egg and mushroom quesadilla the likes of which has never been tasted. How to take a skeleton apart, roast the bones with various aromatics, and make a broth that could infuse homemade udon noodles with a rich, pungent umami that would make them a feast by themselves – or the perfect base for saga-in-soup-form created with the simple trick of sprinkling slow-cooked knuckles and tidbits of cheek meat among the noodles.

“Christa?” asked Mike. “Is something wrong?”

“Very, very wrong,” said Christa. “I think we’ve got to get out of here, Ricardo be damned. And maybe go in separate directions. And maybe never work a shift together ever again.”

“Are you having sexy thoughts about me?” asked Mike, hopefully.

“Only if you think it’s sexy to be spatchcocked and roasted over a massive wood fire, taken apart at the joints, and served with an espresso / chipotle reduction sauce.

“That SOUNDS sexy,” said Mike.

“It’s not,” said Christa.

###

Mike’s brain kicked into gear. He had a thought. “I’m texting my friend’s uncle Armstrong,” said Mike. “He’s an elder. Maybe he’ll have some insight into our options.”

Mike fired off a text, doing his best not to seem too freaked out, while still conveying the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile a haunted bottle of acai berry iced tea was unscrewing its own cap, wailing dramatically, and then rolling around on the counter.

A moaning refrigerator slammed its door open and shut with a diabolic rhythm that Mike suspected might be Bohemian Rhapsody, or at least loosely inspired by it.

###

Uncle Armstrong showed up, young and spry despite his 60 years and dressed in a leather jacket and adeptly cut jeans.

“Uncle Armstrong,” said Dave, “This is Christa and Mike.”

“So,” said Armstrong. “A man pulled up in a car…”

“A THING,” said Christa. “A gaunt, horrible thing.”

“Not much of a car either,” added Mike.

“And ordered some Timbits and a coffee. And paid with a credit card that said ‘Wendigo,’ and drove off.”

“Yes,” Christa said.

“You two know of the wendigo?” asked Armstrong.

“Only that he drives a beater and doesn’t carry around much cash,” said Mike, helpfully.

“The wendigo is an old, evil spirit of the north country,” he said, his voice low. “He is the spirit of greed and hunger, of desperation and the winter madness that leads to cannibalism. Why he is now eating doughnuts I do not know, but I suppose we should be grateful.”

The refrigerator let out another teeth-rattling moan, and by now several of the blood-filled Timbits were floating through the room in slow lazy circles, like fat vampiric bumblebees.

“So,” concluded Armstrong. “Have you tried reversing the charges.”

“Like, the magical charges?” asked Christa. “Undoing the curse somehow?”

“Credit card charges,” said Armstrong.

“Uh,” said Mike. “Well, no. You know we’d be liable for covering the cost, right?”

“What are we talking about here? Ten bucks?” said Armstrong.

“$8.87,” said Christa.

“Right,” said Armstrong. “Here’s $10. Reverse the charges. Keep the change.”

Christa logged into the client side of the credit card company’s site and requested that the charge be reversed. There was an audible groan; the very foundation of the building turned to jello and the room shook; the lights turned cobalt blue, then carnelian red, then some color between black and ultra-violet, and then flickered back on again. All the Timbits fell to the floor with a series of audible splats. And then all was quiet.

“Right,” said Armstrong. “See you later.”

He walked out the door and drove off in his late-model Honda Accord.

“Crap,” said Mike. “We should have given him a few free doughnuts.”

“You think?” said Christa. “Grab a mop and help me out with this random puddle of blood.”

“My God,” said Mike, drawing close to Christa, and putting one hand casually yet warmly around her shoulders. “We’ve been through so much together…” He looked into her eyes, searching for the kindling flames of love, or at least the dim embers of amiable resignation.

“No,” said Christa. “Mop.”

 

What I’m Up To: Winter, 2013

Hello! For the past few years, I’ve been contributing thrice weekly video columns to CHOW.com. That gig ended this August, so I’m now looking for the next big thing (or stable collection of interesting little things.) One of the peculiarities of my career path thus far is that I’ve worn so many hats (author, editor, writer, reporter, critic, video personality, radio booker) that figuring out which one to don next is a bit of a complicated process.

In the meantime, I’m contributing to CSMonitor.com’s book review section and Modern Parenthood blog, and editing the Heavy Table, an online food magazine for the Upper Midwest. I’m also appearing frequently on Minnesota Public Radio and the Current, and writing and editing books including two (The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food and Lake Superior Flavors) that will be hitting the streets soon.