by Bev Vincent
The wind howling outside his room at the North Star Inn reminds Earl of the desert, but it’s an Arctic blast over a hundred degrees colder than what he experienced in Iraq. He’s heard of the land of the midnight sun, of course, but to be in a place where the sun won’t set for months seems as unlikely as driving a tanker across the desert in the cradle of civilization.
Their stopover at Thule Air Base, Greenland, far above the Arctic Circle, was unscheduled, just like the stop at Ramstein. The next destination on this clandestine tour is probably Gitmo. Earl heard the beaches are nice there, not that he’ll be allowed to get off.
They’re only supposed to be refueling, but the military transport developed engine trouble. The men shackled in the back of their plane were offloaded to a shed near the runway under guard, but there isn’t anywhere for them to go. The nearest settlement of any significance is a hundred miles away.
The cold is a shock to Earl’s system. The Inn’s bed is comfortable enough, though, nicer than any he’s had for the past year. However, sleep eludes him. It’s too quiet. Four days ago, he was in the desert and he still feels like a potential target. Plus, there’s Mariel’s “Dear John” letter, which he received six months ago. He knows every word by heart but hasn’t found a way to respond.
He’s nearly asleep when a mysterious glow fills the room, expanding into a blinding white orb. From the center steps a short, stocky man wearing a caribou parka. His hood is pushed back to reveal long, scraggly hair and a drooping mustache. His complexion is dark, his features flat.
“What? Who?” Earl stammers.
The man reaches into his parka and brings out a long object. Earl is instantly back in Fallujah, where strangers are dangerous and surprises often lethal. He scrambles away from the intruder, pressing his back against the wall.
The man holds the object toward Earl. It’s about eight inches long, covered in ornate carvings. The man seems to want Earl to accept his gift, but Earl has no desire to approach an entity who materialized from a halo of light in the middle of the night.
Eventually, the man places the object at the foot of the bed and disappears into the glowing orb, which closes like a collapsing star. Earl blinks as he gropes for the light switch beside the bed. He cautiously approaches the foot of the bed. After convincing himself the object won’t explode, he picks it up and examines it under the light.
It’s a grotesque totem pole carved from a solid piece of wood. A leering bug-eyed creature is perched on top, sitting lotus style, its mouth agape to reveal enormous fangs. The figure in the middle is positively demonic. At the bottom, an exaggerated porcine mask nestles between a pair of skeletal legs. The object seems like something that should be in a museum.
The way it appeared makes Earl question his sanity. He tries to convince himself it was a dream, but the object defeats his argument. Who bequeathed it to him and why? Rather than confront the questions, he tucks it into his duffel bag. Then he collapses on his bed and stares into the darkness, trying to ignore what just happened. Eventually, he sleeps.
Instead of going down to breakfast the next morning, he uses the Inn’s WiFi to search for information. When he limits his search to Greenland relics, he discovers the object is something called a tupilaq. Inuit shamans once created them out of animal parts and supposedly chanted them to life. Because they were made from perishable materials, no original tupilaqs survive. For tourists, the Inuit now carve representations of them out of wood, bone or antlers. This one looks like the real deal to Earl, though.
If someone casts a tupilaq into the water, it will seek out and destroy their enemy. However, if the other person has stronger magic, he can turn the tupilaq back on the person who sent it. The only defence against a returned tupilaq is a public confession, and even that could be neutralized in some cases. It seems like the shaman was trying to do Earl a favor by giving him a weapon to use against an enemy.
He only has one—the author of the tattered letter in his wallet. This talisman supposedly gives him the power to defeat her. However, there isn’t any open water into which he can cast the tupliaq. He’ll have to wait until he’s Stateside.
* * *
The hurricane seems like an omen. Earl can feel it in his bones. He was in New Orleans during the lead-up to Katrina and knows it’s time to get out of Dodge.
Making sure no one is watching, he walks to the river’s edge, withdraws the tupilaq from his pocket and looks at it one last time. The evil, leering faces have haunted his dreams ever since that night in Greenland. It’s time to put it to work.
He draws it back over his shoulder and launches it into the air. It sails across the dark, turbulent waters before plunging into the river far from shore, disappearing with barely a splash. The current will carry it into the gulf and, he hopes, back in again when the tidal surge arrives. Will the tupilaq penetrate Mariel’s cold heart? Or will the demonic imps come to life and drag her down to hell with them? He didn’t much care.
He zips up his jacket and heads for the Greyhound terminal, where a bus will carry him west to Galveston.
* * *
Earl perches on one of the jetties jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. The constant roar of the tide drowns out the cars on the other side of the seawall but can’t quiet the storm raging inside his head. His thoughts form a canvas of red so loud it blinds him whenever he turns his mind’s eye inward.
Not long ago, he was in another Gulf, on the other side of the world. The oil platforms dotting the horizon remind him of what the fighting over there was really about. He drove truckloads of the stuff across hostile territory to fuel the machines of war.
Earl sees something bobbing in the water near the base of the jetty. At first, he thinks it’s a piece of driftwood. Then it rolls over, revealing a trio of grinning demonic faces. He scrambles to his feet and takes a step back. “It can’t be,” he mutters.
But here it is, hundreds of miles from where he cast it into the Mississippi. The tupilaq sought him out. Mariel’s power had overcome his.
He eases his way down the jagged rocks. Salty water spray drenches him. The tupilaq approaches and recedes, approaches and recedes. He grips the edge of a stone and reaches out, waiting for the next wave to bring the object closer. It caresses his hand then slips away. When he finally grabs it, a powerful wave tries to steal it from his grasp, but he pulls his hand back and the tupilaq comes with it.
He sits on the jetty to catch his breath, cradling the evil charm in his lap. His hand is bleeding and there’s a daub of red on one of the creatures’ fangs. Was a gash from its teeth sufficient to do him in, or are there worse torments in his future? He thinks about all the times he eluded death while shepherding his precious cargo across the desert. He remembers the letter in his wallet and can’t think of anything worse that could happen to him.
He stands on the sloping surface of the wet rocks and stares into the dark waters. He extends both arms. The wind billows around him. Leaning into the gale, he throws back his head and shouts, “I confess.”
The gale stops as quickly as it arose. Caught off balance, Earl windmills his arms and tries to solidify his footing on the slippery rocks. He regains momentary equilibrium and then slips once more. The tupilaq flies from his hand onto the jetty, where it disappears into a crevice between two rocks. Earl falls, cracking his head against a boulder.
His last sensations are of pain. He tumbles into the water, where the tide draws him away from the jetty and pulls him beneath the surface and he knows no more.
Bev Vincent is the author of The Road to the Dark Tower and the co-editor (with Stephen King) of the anthology Flight or Fright. He has published a hundred short stories and is a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine. For more, see bevvincent.com.