CHAPTER FIVE: REALITY VERSUS LEGEND
That word ran through Flynn’s mind as he and Xavier Fall put their things into a separate vehicle from Corey, David, Isabel and Jaela almost as soon as the plane landed at a small airport in Wisconsin. Both vehicles were large, shiny black Cadillac Escalades with tinted windows. The spacious, plush interiors would carry all of them, their luggage, their equipment and the tinting would spare Xavier from most of the light. Not that there was much of it. The sky was a leaden gray, the sun completely obscured. Yet Flynn saw Xavier grimace as soon as he stepped out under the storm-colored sky. Flynn flinched with him and wished he could offer him some shade.
With his sunglasses pushed as far as they would go up on his face, Xavier said in that rich, beguiling voice, “You will hopefully find the accommodations not too dire at The River’s Edge Inn. I have booked the entire bed and breakfast. Mrs. McGill runs it. She is not a native, but a latecomer after the Incident. She came because she’s quite interested in ghosts and anything of the supernatural.”
“She sounds very sweet,” Isabel replied in her dreamy way.
“She sounds like she’s going to be very nosy,” Jaela corrected with a fond laugh.
“Oh, people want to believe, Jaela, because there is one certainty in life and that is death,” Isabel answered very nicely. “But what is uncertain is if there is anything after. Ghosts, spirits, all these things give us hope.”
“Surely, you know if there is something beyond death, Isabel. You who can speak to the dead,” Xavier said and there was this strange look on his face, almost longing, but disdain at the same time.
Isabel’s blonde head tilted to the side as she considered his question. All of them, Flynn included, had assumed she would say ‘yes’ without any qualification, but she didn’t. “That there is something I do know, but what it is … that is beyond me. And when I see so many spirits lingering here I wonder if it the beyond is such a good place why they stay.”
There was a half beat of silence and then Xavier said, “With that cheery thought, let us get going. You all to the inn and --”
“Where are you and Flynn going?” Corey asked with a bob of his head towards the fact that Flynn and Xavier were driving separately and alone.
A faint smile crossed Xavier’s lips. “To see a woman.”
“Already?” Jaela’s expressive mouth pursed.
“It’s not like that!” Flynn squawked.
Xavier put a possessive arm around Flynn’s shoulders. “As if I would share Flynn’s company so meanly.”
There were open mouths all around until Flynn laughed and slung an arm around Xavier’s waist. “You need not worry about me, Professor. I’m all yours.”
“Now that this pressing matter is all over the way, when will we see the two of you?” David asked as he slid some tripods into the back of the one Escalade.
“In a few hours. We will have intel for you, never fear,” Xavier said then tossed him the heavy key fob to Flynn before ensconcing himself in the passenger seat. “You drive, Flynn.”
“Where are you going?” Corey mouthed.
Flynn knew, but he shrugged his shoulders. Xavier wanted to keep it secret and he would not ruin the surprise, if it was a surprise, for the others. He moved around to the back of the Escalade to throw in the rest of his bags.
“Where are we going exactly?” Flynn asked.
“That’s right. You’ve never been to Hamilton before.” Xavier’s head was a dark shadow from where Flynn was standing in the back. The professor’s voice was unreadable yet Flynn kept thinking he heard meanings in it. But he knew it was likely his guilt causing him to think that there was a hint of censure in Xavier’s tone or perhaps dark amusement.
Flynn hunched his shoulders as he walked up to the driver’s side door and got in. The rich smell of leather rose up in front of him. “I’m sure I can find Hamilton with the GPS system, but what about the exact address of the place we’re headed?” He had gestured towards the Cadillac’s impressive navigation system that had silently turned on when he had pressed the ignition button.
Xavier rattled off the address and Flynn tapped it in. It would take them only forty minutes to get there, maybe less despite them being about fifty miles away. The roads up here were sparsely traveled and the speed limits generous until they actually got to Hamilton. Forty minutes. He was only forty minutes away from the town that had haunted him for years. Flynn’s palms sweated and his mouth was dry.
Xavier was already hunkered down in the passenger seat, a gray fedora covering his face. He had also drawn on black leather gloves and his collar was drawn up to his chin. Hardly any skin was showing.
“Are you all right, Professor?” Flynn asked.
“Professor?” A violet eye peaked out at him from beneath the cap.
“Xavier. Are you all right? Is the sun bothering you very badly? Perhaps there’s a blanket I can --”
“I am fine, Flynn. Thank you.” Xavier reached and touched his hand gently. “I can bear the sun, but I don’t like it.”
“If there’s anything I can do though,” Flynn said, his forehead still furrowed.
Xavier actually touched his forehead, smoothing out those wrinkles. “I so appreciate your feelings on the matter. More than I can say.”
“I -- I -- I’m glad. I respect you very much, Pro … Xavier,” Flynn said and pulled out of the airport and onto the road. He felt Xavier’s eyes on him for long, quiet moments and he wondered what the professor was thinking.
“Thank you, Flynn,” Xavier’s voice was soft, warm. “Will you forgive me for sleeping awhile?”
“Of course. Sleep. Rest.” The professor was looking rather pale and frail. Flynn reduced speed to give Xavier time to recover before their meeting.
Flynn merged onto a two-lane highway that carved through the tall trees on either side of them. The asphalt was like a ribbon of blue-gray in a green vastness. As the trees rose up around them, Flynn, surprisingly, felt more at ease than he had in a long time.
It’s because I’m finally doing something to find out what happened to my parents, he realized and with a rueful smile that had him shaking his head. And it has nothing to do with Wendigo. Glad I said what I did. Don’t want us going down a wrong path from the get go. Xavier is so fanciful!
Still, Flynn was slightly concerned that Xavier had mentioned it in the first place. Xavier Fall didn’t seem the type that would throw something out there and not have it mean anything.
He never did tell us why he thought Wendigos were involved in the Incident, Flynn realized and thought back on what had happened in the plane after Xavier had suggested that most unlikely of explanations for the disappearance of a thousand people.
“Wendigo?” Corey had repeated. His brown eyes were huge in his round face as he actually sat up on the couch.
“That’s what he said,” David sighed and threw one hand up in the air as if he were giving up any fight about Wendigos being involved.
An image appeared behind Xavier’s left shoulder on the television screen. It showed an artistic representation of a Wendigo. A slavering, gaunt, hideous creature. A definition from Wikipedia came up beside it that read:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody. Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
Xavier’s rich voice rose up, “A Wendigo represents hunger in its most ghoulish form yet it is also associated with gluttony, greed and excess. A Wendigo is never satisfied after feeding. It is always searching for new victims.”
The skin twitched between Flynn’s shoulder blades at those last words though they were said with little intonation. Flynn asked, “Why do you think it’s a Wendigo, Xavier?”
“The earlier disappearances were attributed to the Wendigo by some of the native peoples,” David answered instead of Xavier. “The rumors of the creatures existing in this particular area are of a longstanding duration.”
“So there’s no real proof that such a creature exists, right?” Flynn caught Xavier’s gaze and held it.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Isabel stir. She said, “Many things that are not supported by proof as you would have it are real. We all know that from being in the Occult Studies program at Miskatonic.”
“It’s a relief not to be thought a fraud, isn’t it, Isabel?” Jaela turned her head to half look at the French teenager.
“Oui, Jaela, you must feel the same. In my house, my gift was accepted, but not encouraged,” Isabel said.
“You really can see ghosts then?” Corey asked, all agog.
“Yes, yes, I can, and more. I can communicate with spirits,” Isabel explained, fanning her hands out on her thighs.
“That’s really cool!” Corey enthused.
She colored. “You make it sound quite wonderful, but --”
“It’s a burden.” It was Jaela who spoke. Her expression was shrouded.
Corey’s usual sweet expression. “Oh, I didn’t mean, oh, I --”
She waved a hand, a smile crossing her face. “No worries, Corey. Among friends, it is much easier to bear.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Corey’s chubby face broke out into one of his wide smiles in relief.
During this time, Flynn had not stopped staring at Xavier, nor Xavier at him. He knew why Isabel and Jaela had said what they had. They had gifts that most people would scoff at, but they would be wrong to scoff. Yet Wendigos felt like a step too far to him. So Flynn pressed, “Does Miskatonic have any secret information about the existence of Wendigos? Or a connection between Wendigos and the Incident?”
“No, Flynn, no secret information,” Xavier confirmed. His expression was opaque. Flynn wanted to ask again. He wanted to grab Xavier by the collar and shake him. He didn’t believe Xavier’s claim. There was information, he was sure of it. But at the same time, he thought it absurd. He had lived through the Incident. He surely would remember one or more of them eating his parents or trying to eat him.
“So this is nothing other than –”
“A theory. I could be wrong,” Xavier answered happily. Again, though his eyes were shaded. Meaning, hidden meaning, was there.
“It can’t be a Wendigo,” Flynn found himself saying. All eyes turned towards him. His cheeks flushed hotly at being the center of attention and the lone dissenter other than David, who had given up the argument evidently, but he had to speak. He couldn’t let the group be swept up in the excitement of searching for a Wendigo and ignore the more mundane reasons for the disappearances, even though he wasn’t sure what those might be.
“Tell us why it can’t be, Flynn,” Xavier said. He did not seem angry at being questioned at all. He looked intrigued and eager.
“Even if I were willing to posit the existence of this creature.” Flynn gestured towards the screen. “It doesn’t make sense that such a being would be involved based on the facts we know about the Incident. No Wendigo, no matter how hungry, could eat 1000 people in a night, let alone do so and leave no traces. There was no blood, no torn or ripped clothing found, no tracks, nothing.”
“What about an army of them?” Isabel asked with a shrug of her narrow shoulders.
“An army of Wendigos that leaves no trace of them devouring half a town? I don’t think so,” Flynn could not keep the disbelief out of his voice.
“Thank you!” David cried with an outstretched hand. “I’m not the only one who thinks these things.”
“And where would an army of Wendigos hide?” Flynn continued on. “There are vast forests in Wisconsin, but not that vast. And if they are always hungry, how come only five large disappearances over thousands of years?”
“Good points, Flynn. It’s a theory. We’ll have many. Yet you seem particularly disturbed by this one, why?” Xavier probed gently.
“Not this one in particular. I would have been as upset if you said a pack of wolves did this or a hundred wolves or a thousand,” Flynn said with a flap of his hands.
“But why?” Jaela asked. She leaned forward, one elbow resting on a shapely knee.
“Because this really happened. This isn’t a classroom problem like we’re all used to.” Flynn stood in front of Xavier then, almost as if he were beseeching the beautiful professor not to go down this road any further. Xavier’s face was so close and so perfect even a few inches away. No flaws. It would have been distracting if Flynn hadn’t been as upset as he was. “A thousand people disappeared. A thousand people with friends and family just up and gone and no one knows what happened. What’s worse? No one did anything to look for them.”
Someone behind him said, “The police –”
“No.” One of Flynn’s hands cut through the air even as he continued to stare into Xavier’s violet eyes. “The police were there to stand in the way of any real solution being found. Their searches were pathetic. The media was stonewalled then and now. No matter what other weird things continue to happen in the Ghost Half no one does anything about it. I’m shocked that we’ve been allowed to come in to investigate at all. And that brings me to my biggest problem with this Wendigo theory. Why would a town protect a Wendigo or an army of Wendigos? Itwouldn’t. They would be calling in the army to destroy those things.”
“You think that the people in the East Half are hiding something then?” Xavier’s voice was low.
“I know they are and I don’t think they’re doing it to keep legendary monsters a secret. Real monsters are bad enough. And the kicker about real ones is that they look like you and like me so they can hide in plain sight.” Flynn’s arms crossed over his chest. His heart was beating too hard. He knew he was flushed and there was likely perspiration dotting his upper lip. He had to keep it together.
“I think Flynn has some valid points. Some very valid points actually,” Jaela said dryly after a long silence. She shifted in her chair and looked thoughtful. “However, it is too easy to overlook the truth when one confines oneself to real versus legendary. We all know that there are things in this world that most people believe are myth, at best, and won’t even contemplate the existence of, at worst, even if that thing is perched on their chests, are real. Reality is a far more elastic thing than most people give it credit for being.”
Corey was nodding, too. “While we shouldn’t assume Wendigos are behind this, we can’t rule them or anything else out either. In fact.” He gave Flynn a rueful smile. “It’s said that people who become overpowered by greed supposedly turn into Wendigos, too. People like us.”
“Yes, and those who resort to -- to cannibalism supposed do so as well,” David said quietly and he looked down quickly for some reason. “Wendigo psychosis is actually a recognized disorder where the sufferer develops an insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food is readily available.”
“Are we saying that the Wendigos are – are people in town?” Isabel asked, her thin hands clutching the front of her cardigan.
“What we’re saying, I think, and Corey and David, if I’m speaking too broadly, please let me know,” Jaela spoke authoritatively, a borne professor. “Is that a Wendigo, if it exists at all, might not look like that.” She pointed to the screen where the monster with huge jaws surrounded by desiccated lips growled threateningly at them. “They could look like you and me. In which case both Xavier and Flynn would be correct.”
Isabel shivered. “That would be a truly terrible thing.”
“It is an interesting juxtaposition though, isn’t it?” Xavier asked, his expression seemingly opaque. “On the one hand the legend of the Wendigo was to discourage cannibalism, but on the other it seems to promise that once one tastes human flesh and blood one will never be satisfied with anything else.”
There was a momentary silence that fell between all of them.
“Flynn’s statement about the townspeople though is very apt,” Xavier continued. His breath skittered across Flynn’s face again.
Flynn’s arms loosened from the tight embrace they had around his own chest. He found himself leaning in, too. His lips parted and his eyelids fell almost half-shut. What did Xavier’s breath smell like? It was clean and cool and inviting. It seemed to blot out any of the upset he was feeling. It both cleared his mind and fogged it at the same time.
“We cannot trust them, can we?” Jaela asked.
“No, we cannot trust them, because if Flynn is right, they are hiding the truth of the Incident from the world,” Xavier said.
Flynn found himself answering, “They have to be.”
“Yes, I think they are, too. But is it fear that keeps them silent and protective or is it malice?” Xavier’s violet eyes seemed to glow red for a moment behind his tinted sunglasses, but that had to be a trick of the light. “That is the real question.”
“What would they have to be afraid of?” Flynn asked.
“So many things.” Xavier smiled. Then the professor turned from him and whatever had held Flynn in thrall faded and he shook his head. “For those of you who don’t know me well – which would be all of you actually – I want to make something absolutely clear: nothing, nothing at all is verboten. You can disagree with me, violently if you like. I only ask that you keep an open mind.”
“Do you really think it’s a Wendigo though, Xavier?” Corey asked from his spot on the couch.
Xavier’s smile grew larger. “When you hear hoof beats if you only think of horses, you will be greatly surprised if it zebras or maybe even unicorns appear and trample you. Nothing about what happened in Hamilton is clear. Let’s not have our minds as clouded.”
“So trust no one other than each other?” Jaela’s lips curled with amusement.
“And maybe not even then,” Xavier grinned, which took the sting from his words though there were some worried looks at his statement.
The others then started discussing theories and Flynn realized he was still standing near Xavier. He should take his seat, but he felt so strange and disconnected. Suddenly though, Xavier touched his shoulder. His breath again skated over Flynn’s left ear this time as he whispered, “Flynn, I’m so glad you said what you did.”
“Why?” More of that cold, clean scent of Xavier rushed over him. It was dizzying and edifying at the same time. Not to mention the strength of Xavier’s grip, that strength that seemed to want to overwhelm him.
“Because it confirms what I thought about you and the role you need to play in our little expedition,” Xavier said.
“What role is that?” Flynn asked.
Another gust of cool air skated along his ear and throat then down below the collar of his shirt. “Skeptic.” Xavier paused and then said, “You and I are going to meet up with Mary Parker as soon as we land while the others go set up camp.”
“Mary Parker?” She was one of the survivors, one of those left behind just like him. His stomach tightened and he swallowed hard. He knew nothing about her. They hadn’t been friends as far as he knew anyways.
“Yes, it seems that she and at least one other survivor have returned to Hamilton. She’s agreed to speak to us,” Xavier said.
And that was where they were headed to now in the Escalade apart from the others. Though the others were likely close behind them, Flynn felt like he and the professor were alone on the winding, closely hemmed in road. Now unease gripped him again. There was only about fifteen minutes of travel time left. Ten before they were at the outskirts of Hamilton itself. Would he recognize the town? The pictures of it had never really jogged any memories. But would experiencing it in all three-dimensions change that? What if he had some kind of breakdown in front of Xavier? That wouldn’t be good. He had to be cool, calm and collected. Ironically, despite his words to the contrary on the plane, he had to treat this expedition as if it was a scholarly exercise.
“What do you know about Mary?” Flynn asked the professor. He hoped that Xavier was awake. He ached at waking him, but he had to speak out loud. He couldn’t bear the silence.
Xavier did not move the hat from his face, but his voice was quite crisp. He might have been asleep for a time, but Xavier was clearly awake and fully functioning, now as he said, “Mary Parker is twenty-eight. She was thirteen at the time of the Incident. She went to live with an aunt and uncle in Colorado through high school then for college she went to Berkeley. For the last five years, she has worked as a graphic designer in San Francisco and lived with her girlfriend Nia Long. Six months ago, she left her girlfriend and her burgeoning career and came back here.”
“Why – why would she do that?” Flynn asked, licking suddenly dry lips. This past year, Flynn had, too, begun to feel incredibly restless. The urge to return to Hamilton had grown on him, subtly at first and then far more insistent. It was only upon hearing about the expedition that his nerves had both calmed and shredded more. But if there hadn’t been any expedition or if he hadn’t gotten in, would he have stayed away? Or like this Mary Parker would he had ditched his entire life and shown up in the tiny Midwestern town? He already knew the answer.
“That’s what we want to find out,” Xavier responded from under the hat.
“And she’s agreed to tell us?” Flynn asked, trying to imagine how that conversation would have gone between Xavier and this unknown young woman. But Xavier was so charming maybe it could have gone smoothly.
“Not exactly,” Xavier answered.
Flynn’s eyes narrowed. Or not so smoothly. “She does know we’re coming though, right? You said we have an appointment with her?”
“She thinks we’re there about her art,” Xavier confessed.
“What?” Flynn’s hands tightened on the steering wheel.
“It’s not a complete lie. Her latest work is quite illuminating in some ways,” Xavier said. The hat moved when he spoke and Flynn was half-tempted to snatch it off but reminded himself that the light really bothered his professor.
“So we’re what? Art critics? Art buyers?” Flynn asked. “She’s going to guess we’re not any of those things when she sees us around town afterwards, you know. Hamilton is incredibly small. I’m surprised she doesn’t know who we are already.”
“News travels fast?”
“Gossip even faster. There’s nothing in Hamilton that can be kept secret. That’s why I think that the townspeople have to be in on whatever happened during the Incident. Flynn abruptly bit his lower lip to stop the words from spilling out. He was showing more knowledge of Hamilton than he should. “I mean that’s what a typical small town is like.”
“She likely does know that we’re related to the Miskatonic Expedition,” Xavier said and yawned. “But she needed to believe we weren’t right now so I gave her a lie she could believe.”
“She needed a lie?”
“Oh, yes, she did. She wants to talk, Flynn. For all her wariness, for all her secrecy about her past – you know she never told her girlfriend about Hamilton –”
“You talked to her girlfriend?” Flynn sounded both horrified and impressed.
“Of course. I’ve talked to everyone in her life,” Xavier said airily.
If he’s gone to such extremes with her do I really think he doesn’t know I’m a survivor?
“In any event, as I was saying, Flynn, she wants to talk,” Xavier said. “I just needed to give her a reason to us.”
“You gave her a reason to talk about her art. How are we going to slip Hamilton and the Incident into that?” Flynn asked incredulous as he took the final curve of the road and saw the beginnings of the town rise up before them. His heart clenched and his stomach fell into his feet.
Xavier removed the hat from his face and put it on his head at a jaunty angle. “Surely you’ve guessed, Flynn, or maybe you haven’t as you aren’t terribly artistic yourself.”
“What? Tell me.”
“Nia told me that a year ago Mary started painting terribly foreboding landscapes where dark figures flitted between trees and other things,” Xavier explained with a slight smile.
“She’s painting Hamilton and the Incident, isn’t she?” Flynn guessed. A trickle of alarm and excitement passed through him.
“Exactly,” Xavier said as he straightened in the seat. “So you see, we just need to ask her about the inspiration for her art and we’ll learn everything Mary Parker knows about what happened here.”