In Winter's Grasp
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
There was a war going on in the valley, and no one knew it.
No shots had been fired. No skirmishes had been fought. The combatants on either side were as silent as death and as intangible as dreams. And yet, every heart and mind in the Qu'Appelle could feel the tension against their skin, sharp as a knife.
This winter had been especially hard on the inhabitants of the Qu'Appelle valley. A freak cold front had settled over the lower half of Saskatchewan just before the Christmas holidays and showed no sign of letting up this side of April. Though the Winter Equinox had long since passed, this was still the darkest, most bitter part of the year. Winter could last another month or more on a good year, and this cold snap seemed like it had every intention of hanging around well into the spring months.
People's tempers, long since frayed by the long hours of dark and several months of imposed seclusion from the outside world, were near to the breaking point and nowhere was this more evident than at the local high school.
Mrs. Adams stared dismally out at the classroom. Only ten of her twenty-three students had come to class today. That had to be a new truancy record. She sighed and rubbed her hands, trying to will warmth back into them.
"Ok, class. I only received reports from three of you." She said. "I know the school was closed on Monday because of the blizzard, but that means you all had an extra day to work on them. So, where are they?"
The students stared back sullenly at her, or worse, avoided making eye contact. She frowned and decided to try singling someone out.
"Jenny. You're usually good about getting things in on time. What happened?"
The girl flinched as her name was called and looked at the floor. "Sorry Mrs. Adams." She muttered. "Things, um. Came up."
The teacher stared at her for a moment, and then ran her hands through her hair. "Ok, everyone. We're going straight to the library. If you haven't started writing yet, bring your books and I'll go over the questions with you. If you have, then you're going to find a quiet corner away from anyone else and finish your writing."
The class muttered mutinously. She put her hands on her hips and then forced herself to smile cheerfully. Her last professional development course had advised her to use incentives, rather than threats. "Anyone who's already finished or who finishes during this period gets a spare." She said a little too sweetly.
It seemed to do the trick. The three students who had turned in their reports leapt from their desks and headed for the door, and the class' animosity turned from her to them. The grumbling continued, but she was able to get the students up and moving towards the school's tiny library.
Another hour until break. Mrs. Adams though as she herded the students through the halls. She'd gone six years without smoking, but this winter had finally broken her will and she was anxious for a cigarette, even if it meant standing outside in the bitter cold.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, she didn't notice the two students straggling behind the rest of the group.
Jenny had remained behind in the classroom, hoping to get a few minutes alone with Kyle, and saw her chance when he paused to put his jacket in his locker.
"Hey, Kyle, wait up." Jenny called.
He glanced at her as she sidled up next to him and then looked away quickly. She frowned.
"What is up with you lately?" She said. "You haven't been returning my calls, and I've barely seen you this week."
He was silent for a moment. Jenny could see the muscles in his jaw tensing, as though he were chewing on something unpleasant.
"I… I just need some space." He said. He closed the locker and turned away from her, walking hurriedly towards the library.
Jenny felt like she'd been slapped. She fell back a pace, then hurried to catch up with him. "What?" She said, grabbing his arm and pulling him to a stop. "What does that mean?"
He pulled his arm away from her and stared at the floor, unable to meet her eyes. "I just have some things going on right now. I need time to figure them out."
"Things? What things?" Jenny asked. She lowered her voice. "Is it your mom again? Come on, Kyle. You can tell me."
"No, it's not my mom." He said. "And I can't tell you, so stop bugging me about it, okay?"
He turned and strode away. Jenny stared after him, stunned by his abrupt dismissal. He'd never treated her like that before. What was going on? Had she done something wrong?
"Jenny?" Mrs. Adams called, peeking around the door of the library. "Get in here. You've got a report to finish."
Jenny shot Mrs. Adams a dirty look and stalked past her into the library. Kyle had chosen a lone table in the far back corner of the library and when he saw her looking at him, he turned his back to her and pretended to be looking for something in his backpack. She sighed, taking the hint, and found herself a table as far away from him as possible. This put her uncomfortably near Jasmine, one of the "pretty girls" who took great pleasure in tormenting her, but Jenny was too distracted to care.
She got out her binder and book and pretended to be writing while she ran through a list of everything she might have done wrong in her head. They hadn't seen each other much since her great-aunt's feast a few weeks ago, but she had assumed that was because he'd been busy studying. Had she said something to offend him?
Or, worse, had he seen under her family's disguises?
She shuddered to think of that possibility. Her mother hadn't been particularly clear on what happened to humans who saw their true forms, but she had gleaned enough to know that it wasn't good. The family had been careful when they'd sung Coyote away from their gathering, fogging the minds of the spouses who had married into the family, but what if they'd forgotten about Kyle?
She chewed at her lip, trying to remember the details of that night.
The voice made her jump, and she turned to see Jasmine leaning across the aisle between their tables.
"Why aren't you sitting with your boyfriend?" Jasmine asked.
Jenny snorted. "We're supposed to be working on our own. I don't want to distract him."
Jasmine's fake smile now turned predatory. "Oh, really?" She said, arching a eyebrow. "So it's not because he's dumped you?"
"Shut up, Jasmine." Jenny hissed. "You're such a bitch."
Jasmine ignored her insult and wound a lock of hair around her finger. "Oh. I guess you hadn't heard yet."
Jenny knew she was being baited, but there was something about Jasmine's deep, self-satisfied grin that made her want to hear more.
"Heard what?" She asked cautiously.
"Oh, nothing." Jasmine said, waving a hand. "It's just, I heard that he was seeing a girl from Regina now."
"What?" Jenny said.
"Oh yeah. You know that blonde girl who worked at his uncle's boat launch last summer? Well, she's made a few trips to the reserve lately. I heard all the guys are interested in her, but she's already dating someone." Jasmine shrugged, all innocence. "But that's just what I heard. I mean, it's probably just gossip, right?"
Jenny said nothing, too busy remembering Kyle's excuses for cancelling their last two dates. The first time, he'd said he wasn't feeling well. Later, he'd said his mom was dragging him into Regina for the weekend to get new winter clothes…
A slow, sick kind of rage bubbled up inside her. Part of her wanted to immediately discount anything Jasmine said, but the other, more insidious part whispered how stupid she'd been not to figure things out for herself.
She got up from the table, leaving her things behind, and went to the washroom. She remembered saying something to Jasmine before the left, but she couldn't remember if she'd thanked the girl or cursed her. She splashed water on her face and took deep breaths, trying to hold back the tears. She didn’t want to believe Jasmine, but it was almost kinder to believe that he was cheating on her than to think of what might happen if he'd seen behind her mask.
She spent the rest of the period in the bathroom.
"Hey, where do you think you're going?"
Jenny cursed softly to herself. She'd been counting on making it home before her mother.
"To my room. Need to study." She said hurriedly and ducked into her room, closing the door firmly behind her.
A few seconds later, her mother knocked on the door. Jenny could hear the mix of concern and annoyance in her voice. "Jenny. You come out. I need to talk to you. Your teacher said you skipped out on third period. That's not like you. What's going on?"
Jenny threw her backpack on the bed and rubbed at her forehead. She really didn't want to deal with anyone at the moment, especially not her mother.
"Nothing." She said. "I just wasn't feeling well. Cramps and stuff. I'm going to lie down."
The floor creaked as her mother shifted positions. Jenny could imagine her crossing her arms and giving the door an extremely skeptical look.
"Okay." Noreen said after a moment. "But we're going to talk about this later, okay?"
"Fine. Whatever." Jenny said, and threw herself gratefully down on her bed. "Just let me rest for a bit, okay?"
She lay still for a time, trying to sort through her thoughts. Then, on the verge of tears again, she fished out her headphones and turned the music up as loud as she could stand, letting the relentlessly cheerful pop music drown out her thoughts.
Eventually, her mother knocked on the door and told her that dinner was ready. She said she'd be down in a moment, then rolled onto her stomach and felt around on the bedside stand for the phone. It rang several times before Mrs. Pawluk's cheerful voice answered.
"Hello? Pawluk residence."
"Hi Mrs. Pawluk. Is Kyle there?"
"Oh, hi Jenny. So good to hear your voice again. I haven't seen you in a while. Have you been away?'
Jenny smiled bitterly. "No, I haven't. Look. Is Kyle around?"
"Sorry, dear. He's out with a friend right now."
"A… A female friend?" Jenny asked, and then wished she hadn't.
Mrs. Pawluk chuckled, which only made Jenny blush more furiously. "What a funny question, Jenny. Is something up between you two?"
Jenny sighed. "I wish I knew, Mrs. Pawluk. Anyway, thanks. Can you let Kyle know that I called?"
"Sure, sure." Mrs. Pawluk said, and then something that was not Mrs. Pawluk spoke.
"You must leave him. He is not for you, water child."
Jenny felt a chill of fear seep deep into her bones. Her hands trembled, and she was forced to grip the phone two-handed to keep hold of it.
"What… Who's there?" She said.
The sound of the wind hissing over the ice on her window was the only answer.
Kyle was not at school the next day. Or the day after that.
Jenny thought at first that he was playing sick to avoid her, but as the days went by, she knew it was more serious than that.
She asked around, but she did not dare try calling the Pawluk residence again. That voice, deep and monotone and strangely familiar, still haunted her. Finally, she was able to piece together enough gossip to know that Kyle had gone to Regina.
This bit of knowledge gnawed at her. It made no sense for him to run away from school just to be with some girl, but if he'd gone back to live with his estranged father, then there was nothing to say that he wasn't still seeing her on the side. The thought made Jenny's stomach churn.
Finally, after a week and a half of going over possibilities in her head, the phone rang.
"Hello?" She said, not daring to hope it was him.
"Hi." His voice, even sounding as weak and tired as it did, still made her feel good.
She let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank god. You had me so worried, Kyle. You just disappeared! Where have you been?"
"In town. I… I had to see a doctor."
Jenny gasped. "What's wrong? Did you get hurt?"
There was a rustling as he shook his head. "No. Different kind of doctor."
"Oh?" Jenny said, not understanding, and then she remembered his struggle with depression since his parent's divorce. "Oh."
Silence. She didn't know what to say, and from the tension on the other end of the line, she could tell that he was trying to find the right words.
"Jenny. Look. I, um…" He stopped, and now the quality of silence on the other end of the line told her everything she needed to know.
"Nice. You're gonna do this on the phone?" She said. "You couldn't even come tell me in person?"
"What? No. I—" He began, but she cut him off.
"So you're not dumping me?" She said. "Uh huh. You're just going to keep seeing that other girl on the side, then? Real nice."
"What are you talking about?" Kyle said, exasperated. "What other girl?"
Jenny bit back an angry laugh. "Come on. I know why you've been making all those trips into Regina. You haven't been answering my phone calls, and every time I want to see you, you're always 'busy.' I'm not stupid."
He took a deep breath. "No." He said through gritted teeth. "Jenny, look. I have no idea who you've been talking to, but I'm not seeing anyone else. I just… I can't do this anymore."
"Do what?" She shot back. "God, Kyle, just tell me already. Quit being so frickin' mysterious."
"Hah!" He said. "You, telling me not be mysterious. That's hilarious. I'm not the one with all the secrets."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, don't give me that. How many times have we been together and you've suddenly had to sneak away? I thought the whole 'mystery girl' thing was cool at first, but now it's just annoying."
"Wait. Is this all about me now? You know I don't mean to—" She began, but now his anger was rising.
"I know! You think I don't know that? But it's not just that. You lie to me, all the time. Pretty much constantly, actually, and it's really easy to tell because you're a terrible liar! You lie about where you were, you lie about your family, and you even lie about really stupid things, like why we can't walk too close to the river anymore. It's super annoying, and I'm sick of it!"
"I don't want to lie to you." Jenny pleaded. "But there's things I can’t tell you about me."
The was a sullen silence from the other end of the line. Jenny could hear him breathing deep, slow breaths as he tried to control his temper.
"Tell me where you were last week, Jenny." He said. "That's it. Tell me where you went, when you ran out in the middle of our movie, and I'll think about it."
Jenny gritted her teeth. She remembered the thin, high voices tormenting her during the picture, whispering what they were going to do to her and anyone around her. She remembered the hours of singing with her family the previous weekend to hold back the ice and darkness that surrounded them. She remembered the insidious way it had found every chink in their armor and spread bitter, killing cold through the house until their pipes had burst.
She considered lying to him again and telling him that it had been a 'family thing'. (That wasn't even a lie, really… Every time she had to lie to him or leave him behind, it was because of a 'family thing'.) But she knew he would know it was a lie.
"I… I can't." She said.
"Yeah. I know that." He said, and there was a note of finality in his voice. Jenny knew that whatever he'd been thinking of in the silence, he'd made up his mind. "I'm done, okay? I'm just done. I can’t stand this valley anymore, and I want to go home. Back to the city, where things are at least normal. "
"You're leaving?' She said.
"Yeah. I can't be there anymore. I just came back tonight to get my stuff, but tomorrow, Mom and I are going back to the city for good. I won't see you again. I can't."
Jenny's words caught in her throat. She wanted to beg him not to go, to tell him that she still loved him, even if there were so many things she couldn't tell him.
She said nothing.
He breathed out heavily, making the line crackle. Then, she heard his shirt rasp against the upholstery of his couch. (She knew that upholstery well, the musty-sweet scent of it rubbing against her face as they made out furtively, knowing his mother was in the next room.)
"Good bye, Jenny."
She held the phone long after the line had gone dead.
"So. Is it done?" The old woman asked.
"It isss done." The stick thin creature agreed.
"Good. You will not come after my family again."
"We ssshall release the valley, yesss. But your family was not part of our deal."
"You have what you want." Agnes insisted. "Leave us alone now."
"It wass not part of our deal." The Ice Spirit insisted. Then, it smiled, needle sharp shark teeth flickering in the florescent light of the care home. "But, we sshall leave you for now. We have what we wisshed. Or will, soon enough."
"Good." Anges said, crossing her arms over her bosom and glaring at the creature. "Now, you go back where you came from. This place is too cold and drafty, even without you here. And if your people come back again and try your tricks on us, we won't be so quick to make deals. We Mishipizhiw aren't war-makers, but your kind will push even us to anger."
The creature stood in an unfolding wave of spider-thin limbs and stared down at her. "Brave wordss, water cousin. But your kind has alwayss been weak and cowardly. My kind would have fought for the girl, had she been one of ourss."
Agnes waved a hand dismissively. "And your kind never did understand how emotions worked. You go now, back to your lands, and let this valley get back to normal."
The chill in the room deepened until it burned the lungs with each breath and a deep, creaking roar like the voice of a mountain filled the air. Then, abruptly, the cold and the noise were gone.
Kohkum Agnes pulled her blankets tighter around her and prayed.
Kyle stared hard at the ceiling, trying hard to ignore the voices. He could feel their eyes on him, watching him through the haze of frost that covered the window, through the curtains he'd shut tight hours before. If he unfocused his eyes, the shadows moving across the walls looked enough like branches swaying in the moonlight that he could ignore them, but he hadn't yet been able to block out the voices.
They whispered, calling his name.
He remembered a book his teacher had made him read in Grade Eight, "I Heard the Owl Call my Name". The Native legend in the book had said that to hear an owl call your name was an omen of death. He wondered what it meant when these creatures called your name…
Jenny would know, he thought. Jenny knew all about strange Native legends. Hell, he suspected that she was part of some strange Native legend… He remembered the strange face he'd seen in the lake last summer. It was a deeply inhuman face, all teeth and scales and a long, long jaw… He'd seen a different face when they'd been trapped in the winter storm, but it had been no more human than the previous one. This one had been cruel and sharp, a face made all of angles with no softness in it. He'd seen that face again tonight, peering in at him from the storm.
He'd seen a multitude of those faces.
He shivered and pulled the covers over his head. It didn’t help. He could still feel them watching. He considered calling Jenny, asking her if there was some kind of Native magic he could work to make them go away. Sing a song. Beat a drum. Anything, anything to make them stop watching him.
But he'd already pushed her away, and all he had to do was survive the night. Tomorrow, he and his mother were going to return to the city and he could leave all this madness behind him.
The shrill raps of something scratching against the window made him jump.
"Go away!" He said, pulling his pillow over his head. "Just go away!"
The scraping noises continued.
He had the sudden urge to go find his mother, but he roughly pushed that urge aside. He wasn't five, to go running to his mother with stories of bad dreams. Besides, she hadn’t been able to hear them when they'd attacked the house last week, and his sudden scream of terror had only upset her. She'd suggested that he start up counselling session again, and had asked him very gently if he was still feeling upset about the divorce.
He was, but that wasn't what was keeping him awake at night.
At least it had given him an excuse to go to the city for a week. There, in the comfortless cot of the psychiatric wing, he'd been able to sleep more soundly than he had in months. He'd hoped to spend this week there, trying to work through the things he'd thought he'd seen, but his mother had insisted he check himself out and come back to the reserve with her to 'get his things, dear, and say goodbye'.
He wished he'd fought harder to stay in the city. He wished he'd ignored the strange girl out in the middle of the lake when he'd gotten lost in the fog. He wished he'd never come to the whispering valley in the first place.
A noise from the kitchen made him cry out. Had they gotten inside the house?
"Kyle?" His mother's voice, worried. "Kyle, is that you?"
He decided to risk it. He slipped out of bed, put on his robe and practially ran from his room, hearing the harsh laughter of the voices go still behind him. Beyond the confines of his bedroom, all was silent.
He padded into the kitchen, eager for some company.
His mother stood in the warm light of the refrigerator bulb, hair dishevelled, coffee-stained robe drawn around her against the cold. He drank in the sight of her, reassured that even in the midst of all of this, she could do something as normal as make herself a midnight snack.
"Hey mom." He said.
"Hi sweetie. Couldn't sleep?"
"No." He said. "I don't think I should have come along. I miss the city."
His mother made a 'tutting' noise as she opened the meat drawer and began to rummage in it. "Oh, come now. It's nice here, don't you think?"
Kyle's eyes flicked towards the kitchen window, where the creatures had gathered to watch him. Their dark eyes were no longer filled with glee, but with a look of deep solemnity, as though they were witnessing some foreign ritual. He shuddered and looked away.
"No. Not really. I want to go home."
A sucking sound came from the fridge. His mother mumbled something, but her mouth was full. He smiled.
"Come again? I didn't hear that." He said.
She turned, and now he could see the things he'd missed before. Her hair was not dishevelled from sleep, but deeply tangled with twigs and dirt and something that looked like a bone. The stains on her robe were not coffee stains, but something darker and more viscous. She swallowed the handful of raw beef she'd been chewing on and wiped the blood from her mouth with the back of a hand.
"I said, it's lovely here." She said, but her voice was now flat and monotone, as lifeless as her eyes.
Kyle stumbled backwards, looking for something, anything to defend himself with. He grabbed one of his aunt's ceramic poodles and then discarded it in favor of a long-handled mop. He was distantly aware that the creatures in the window had started to sway back and forth, uttering a slow, whispering chant. He swore, knowing that even if he escaped that.. that thing coming towards him, he had nowhere to run.
They were outside.
His mother lurched towards him, and he saw her torn and bloody lips spread in a dazed smile.
"I think we should stay." She said.
Around him, the whispering grew louder.
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011