Kevin Vogt knew it was coming, but the knowing didn’t help. He sucked in great gulps of air, his sweat soaking into the memory foam mattress. The dread came slow, crawling up like pipe organ music in minor key. He felt pressure, like hands or snakes.
He saw the shadow.
It swam in the corner of his eye. Vogt could never look directly at it, but he felt its gaze on him. It loomed beside the bed, the moonlight showing the hard edges of a mouth full of flat, grinding peg-teeth. The mouth opened, and Vogt whimpered.
The shadow’s mouth widened beyond the limits of reason and the borders of its face. It leaned over, planting an arm on the bed by his love handle. Vogt’s whimper rose to an ochone wail. He waited for the words, and they came, low and awful -
- Vogt was on his feet, every muscle racehorse-taut. He slapped at the touch-activated lamp one time too many, flicking the light through its brightness presets and then back off. Another slap, back on again, and he was alone in his bedroom. He felt tears and snot on his face. He felt a fist tighten around his heart.
“Not again,” he said, pulling a bottle of nitroglycerin tablets from his nightstand. He choked one down and scrambled for his Blackberry. There it was, in the concave outline of his body pressed into the foam mattress. He’d fallen asleep on it. He jabbed four buttons on his phone and waited. The fist around his heart squeezed, dug in its nails.
“911, where is your emergency?” said the phone, a woman’s voice with a Midwestern drawl.
“77 Monument Drive in Jefferson,” Vogt said. “I’m having chest pains, and Ive taken one nitro already-”
“The village or Jefferson Town?” the dispatcher said.
“The village!” Vogt said.
“Do you have any trouble breathing?” she said.
“Some,” he said. “I’ve got a positive history,” he added. At age 41 and clocking in at 380 pounds, this wasn’t Vogt’s first time to the heart attack rodeo.
“Is this Kevin Vogt?” she said. He answered.
“All right, Mr. Vogt, stay calm, we’re going to send you help,” she said.
“Thank you,” Vogt said, and hung up.
Last time, the Jefferson Rescue Squad’s ambulance took five minutes to get to his house, and that was in the heart of Wisconsin winter. Vogt took the time to wrestle on a pair of pants, not looking back at the wide crater his fat ass had dug into the memory foam after only a few hours. He wasn’t going to get any more sleep tonight, he knew.
“Fuck it all,” he rasped, “I’m going to miss the board meeting.” He could already hear the sirens.
Several days and a trip to the hospital later, Vogt sat on an exam table, mostly naked. The disposable paper crinkled underneath him. He was glad he couldn’t see his reflection right now.
“Christ, Kevin, you look like a melted candle,” his doctor said. “This is your second cardiac event. What’s going to wake you up?”
Dr. Michael Kinderknecht lifted his chin, one of his many little special ways to get people to rise to his bait. He had about 10 years on Vogt and looked like he’d spent each of them inside a kiln. Bald, dried out and brusque, Kinderknecht kept his clientele because it was too expensive to drive 40 miles south to Milwaukee for a friendlier GP.
Vogt stayed quiet, not that it helped him. “You’re here because of choices you made, Kevin. There’s no genetic predisposition here, no blaming your upbringing. You’re old enough to know what you’re doing to yourself, and you keep doing it. For God’s sake, why?”
Kinderknecht paused again. “I didn’t vote for you, you know.”
Vogt snorted. “As long as I’ve known you, I’ve never heard of you saying a kind word about anyone, Mike. Why start now?”
Kinderknecht smiled, pulling one cheek tight to show an uneven slash of bleached teeth. “Show me someone worth endorsing. This whole area’s full of contemptible people, Kevin. ugly people and their cornfed children in ugly little condos.”
“You’re happy enough taking their money,” Vogt said.
“Someone has to,” the doctor said. “They’ve got more of it than they have sense.” Kinderknecht turned around to scribble in Vogt’s patient file. “Listen, I’m going to refer you to a physical therapist in Menomonee Falls. I’ve seen her trim down land whales bigger than you. She’ll get the job done if you work with her. It’ll be unpleasant, but so’s dying before your boy goes to college. Can you make it down there in your oh-so-busy schedule?”
Vogt didn’t answer. Kinderknecht turned around. The doctor’s nasty smile fell away when he saw his patient was white from fear.
“It’s just exercise, Kevin,” Kinderknecht said, too surprised to throw much venom into the barb.
“No, it... I don’t know. I had a bad dream, right before the heart attack. I thought I saw someone by my bed. I had to turn on my light,” Vogt said.
“That’s very interesting. Anything else to it?” Kinderknecht said.
“It was like I was awake. But everything felt so strange. It was the worst feeling. I just... I had to get the light on. Once I did, my chest started hurting,” Vogt said.
The doctor frowned. “That sounds a lot like night terrors. Not good, Kevin. I sent you to a sleep specialist for your apnea this spring. Were you at least wearing your CPAP mask?”
Vogt shook his head. “That’s for old people, Mike. I just need to lose this weight, and I’ll be fine.”
Kinderknecht tutted and slashed more scribbles into Vogt’s file. “I’m going to insist. I’m sending you back to the specialist. If your sleep’s so bad that it’s triggering night terrors, and those night terrors are triggering cardiac events... you do the math, Kevin.”
Vogt never imagined he’d enjoy walking to work. It was midsummer, the cruelest time of the year to be a fat man, but it was also six in the morning - well before doorknobs and blacktop radiated searing heat and the air got too hot and thick to breathe. The flat land, just south of Wisconsin’s moraines, made for easy walking, and it only took fifteen minutes to get from home to Captain Kevin’s Boating Essentials.
He served on the Jefferson Village Board. The public voted for him but he hated it when they looked at him. He hated his shuffling, penguin walk. He hated the strained, wet noise of his breathing, even at rest. He hadn’t seen his own penis in at least two decades.
But this early, no one else was up to see, except early-bird health nuts out for the morning jog. They smiled and waved to him with the enthusiasm people usually reserve for babies who clear developmental hurdles.
They were about the only people happy to see him. The village board had voted to gouge holes in a 30-foot-high berm that ran the length of Highway H. The property owner, James Kelly, put it up for privacy and to flex the muscles of his landscaping business. The residents at Cantobre Court, a condo development across the street, hated it because the berm deflected rainwater over to their side of the road, where it flooded their basements during the wet season.
Vogt wanted to hold off, for a host of reasons but mainly because he wasn’t sure about the legality of the village digging around on private property. He could have deadlocked the vote, but he had spent that evening in the hospital, wired to a heart monitor and an O₂ tank.
So now Kelly was furious. The Cantobre Court developers were furious at the drubbing they’d taken from the newspaper. The residents were furious that it took two years for them to get resolution.
Whatever, Vogt thought. The village would probably eat a lawsuit, but the sun kept rising in the morning and the condo’s sump pumps would stop begging for mercy. The developers were stupid for digging basements into marsh land, anyway.
The walking gave Vogt time to order his thoughts, to stop getting lost “in the thick of thin things,” as he’d read once in a Stephen Covey book. If given the choice, he’d vastly prefer to take his little yacht out onto Lake Michigan, but the morning walks were giving him a reason to appreciate the terrestrial outdoors, too. His sleep had even improved. He’d had no waking nightmares since his trip to the emergency room.
He rounded the corner of Monument Drive onto the sidewalk of Main Street. Vogt smiled. He could get used to this.
Then he saw the cat, lying on its side at the base of the street sign. It was a red ruin, skinned and nearly bloodless, already glutted with flies and ants. Its exposed teeth grinned up at Scott. Crawling things swarmed its eyes.
Animal cruelty is a felony in Wisconsin, but it took weeks for police to catch Kelly. Regional news seized right away on the string of gruesome discoveries, but the people of Jefferson didn’t much care about stray cats. When pets started to die, the villagers took notice. When the village mayor found his Labrador’s flayed corpse, he drove to the police chief’s home and shrieked at the man for two hours. The investigation picked up after that.
Jefferson’s police department canvassed the village while deputies checked the outlying areas. But they didn’t catch Kelly in time to save Bill Van Der Meer’s life. Police found him done to death like the strays, flayed and drained. Twenty-two years old, Van Der Meer was the son of Walton Van Der Meer, who sat on the village board.
Bill Van Der Meer had lived in Cantobre Court.
The police obtained a warrant for Kelly’s arrest immediately after forensics investigators found his fingerprints in the gore. Fifteen minutes later, they surrounded Kelly’s property, tracked him to his storage shed, tasered him and drove him off to the regional jail. They found traces of Van Der Meer’s blood gummed in tanner’s tools and a sewing machine in his basement.
They couldn’t find the skins.
Vogt got a call a few days after the arrest. It wasn’t his weekend to spend with his boy, so he spent it resting his bulk in a recliner and watching recorded episodes of “Deadliest Catch.” Vogt wiped popcorn butter off his hands and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” he said.
“Kevin, I think you should head out of Jefferson for a while.” It was Kinderknecht. The phone lent the doctor’s already-flinty voice a jagged edge.
“The.... what happened to Walt’s boy,” Vogt said. “We’re all stunned, but I’ve still got to do my job.”
“Listen, Kevin, I, uh.” Vogt heard the doctor make an inarticulate noise. The dried out old bastard sounded shaken, and that made Vogt sit up as much as his gut would allow.
“You remember back in June when you had your heart attack and the night terrors? Listen. Uh. There were other people in the village who’d had night terrors, too. It’s been an ongoing thing,” Kinderknecht said. “It started about two years ago, and I’d been getting more and more cases. But your attack was the last one. If my patients have been having night terrors since, they haven’t been telling me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Vogt said.
“Patient confidentiality, dummkopf,” Kinderknecht said.
“You don’t have any problem breaking that confidentiality now,” Vogt said.
The doctor huffed over the phone. “Just take the warning, Kevin. Get out of Jefferson. I’m taking an extended vacation. Something’s not right.”
“You think? Did the murder give it away, or the mutilated animals?” Vogt said.
“I had the dream too,” Kinderknecht blurted. “Just last night.”
There was no sound but Vogt’s breathing and the drone of the television.
“What did you say?” he said.
“I had all the classic symptoms, Kevin. My wife said I was wide awake and gasping. I didn’t recognize her. And there was the... it looked like a shadow man.”
Vogt went quiet. The doctor’s voice rasped out of the phone like a necromancer’s spell. “I don’t remember much but its mouth. It was red all around like Ronald McDonald, but its teeth were huge. Like cow teeth. And it said to me...”
Michael Kinderknecht said the words. Vogt hung up and threw the phone across the living room with a shriek.
The fat man got one more call at midnight.
“You’ve got no clue what you’ve set in motion, you stupid, fat fuck,” said the voice on the other end.
Vogt cringed in his bed. It was James Kelly, the murderer. The last he’d heard Kelly, the man was an old buffoon, airy and incapable to come to a point. Now his voice dripped with acid and fear.
“The Cantobre development disturbed its barrow. The swamp water kept its belly full in the summer, and the cold keeps it frozen in the winter. The berm was the only thing I could do, until you idiots tore it apart,” Kelly said.
“Where do you get off calling me, Jim? You’re sick in the head!” Vogt said. He heaved his way to a sitting position, grunting over the phone.
“I get my phone call. I saved it just for you. If you had just delayed the vote, I wouldn’t have had to kill Walt’s boy. It would still be asleep,” Kelly said.
“What would still be asleep?” Vogt said.
“The cannibal corpse. The wendigo!” Kelly screamed the last word and Vogt’s blood turned to ice water. “The skins kept it happy for a little while and Bill’s blood even put it to sleep for a while, but now-”
Vogt heard the sound of a struggle, a prison guard wrestling with Kelly, who wailed something the phone didn’t catch. The line clicked dead.
Vogt tugged on a Badgers jacket, puffing for breath. He had stuffed his CPAP device under one arm. He didn’t know where he was going, but his animal hindbrain screamed at him to get out of the house. He paced around the living room in the dark, cursing to himself, looking for the car keys. He saw them glint in moonlight. He’d knocked them onto the floor.
The fat man bent down onto his hands and knees, feeling his pre-arthritic joints pop and grind in protest. With a grunt, he seized the keys. He braced his hands on the table to pull himself back up.
The wendigo was there.
The darkness mercifully obscured the details of its ragged cloak. It was chalk-pale, wizened. Red gore surrounded its mouth like circus paint. It opened its mouth. The teeth were worse in person. Vogt’s heart lurched as he heard the words, the words
CAN YOU MAKE IT TO THE LIGHT BEFORE I EAT YOU?