This is a three-parter. Click here to read Part One or here to read Part Three.

Sunlight filtered through the trees, giving the woods a warm glow. Nevertheless, a chill ran down Bree’s spine as she stepped into the woods and toward the danger she knew dwelt within. At first, her steps felt leaden, as if her legs wanted to turn her in the other direction. The familiar feelings of wonder and quietness returned, however, and by 3:00 she walked on with a steady gait that allowed her to take in and appreciate her surroundings yet maintain a pace that less experienced backpackers often found more than slightly uncomfortable.

She breathed deeply of the forest. The spruce trees with their acrid sap, the smell of chlorophyll, the soft wafting of flowers, and even the moldy scent of the soil all felt like old friends welcoming her back to where she belonged. Where she walked, the ground pressed back against her boots, but a faint trickle to her left cautioned her not to venture too close, lest her boots squish into the soft mud and slow her progress. Occasionally, a bird sang or a moose called.

On her usual hikes she brought along bells to alert the wildlife of her presence. The noise announced “there is a human in the vicinity” to any animal distracted or up wind enough not to smell her coming. Here, in the barely touched wilderness, animals did not become habituated. Even the bears still knew to fear humans. The simple caution of a bell staved off many an attack from startled creatures. But Bree didn’t come as a hiker today. Today, she came as a hunter. Not with gun or bow, but with hope and love. She carried no bells. Once, she heard the sad cry of a baby bear whose mother moved out of sight. The sound simultaneously touched the mother-nerve in Bree’s heart and sent chills up her spine. She climbed a tree and waited until the sow and her cub moved away.

By the time Bree descended the tree, the sun’s rays slanted in sideways between the tree trunks. Bree set a fast pace as her mind wrestled with itself, flailing among the desires to press on, to flee, or to get ready to fight. In the thick of the trees, the fading light of day vanished quickly, leaving Bree in shadowy twilight long before the world outside the forest expected sundown. The descending darkness only fueled Bree’s desperation. She gathered every ounce of will she found among the crowding emotions that now urged her to go back and broke into a full run, hoping to reach the spot where she lost Paul before the darkness descended completely.

Something howled behind her. Bree pressed her run into a sprint, her flight instinct now fully in control of her muscles and spurring her on too quickly for her to process her surroundings. The fear-spawned speed only lasted for a few minutes before her body needed relief. She spotted a tree wide enough to cover her back and ran toward it. As soon as she pressed her back against it, her knees buckled and her legs crumpled underneath her.

She looked around desperately to see if they still followed her. She saw nothing in the moonless black of the wood, but she felt them. Her mind raced unhelpfully. She inhaled and exhaled a shaky yoga breath while her ribs muscles and diaphragm fought against her control. The action brought only the tiniest bit of calm, but it was all she needed to steady her mind. She reached behind herself into a pocket of her backpack to grab a glow stick, quickly activating it and holding it out in front of her, immediately regretting the decision.

WolfA pack of wolves more than double their natural size surrounded her in a mere five foot radius. Lips curled back over the sharp pointed teeth of the wolf closest to her, it’s breath coming in hot puffs of steam, its eyes boring into hers. Bree tried to look away in case the creature took the eye contact as a sign of challenge, but her fear-gripped mind kept them locked in place. The creature held its ground and stared Bree down, its rib cage expanding and contracting with rapid, heavy breaths. A low growl brought her mind back from its panic-stricken state and she looked hastily down at the beast’s paws. One swipe of those powerful claws could disembowel her.

Bree’s heart pounded against her chest as she tried to breathe the fear away and keep calm. She needed to do what she came to do. She took her pack off, slowly, and fumbled in her bag until she caught hold of a soft piece of fabric. She laid it down on the ground in front of her. The low growl continued to rumble from the chest of the animal in front of her, but to her right, one of the creatures made a quick jump forward and gave a short bark. Bree lifted her arm to her face, bracing for the attack, but the creature did not strike. It pounced just short of the baby blanket and sniffed before sitting on its haunches and letting out a mournful howl. The hound directly in front of Bree laid down, seemingly satisfied that she posed no threat and looking… is it amusement in his eyes? Bree wondered.

Most of the pack fell away, in pursuit of some scent Bree lacked the ability to detect. Only the now relaxed Alpha and two others remained. The one that sniffed the baby blanket ceased its cry and stepped cautiously toward Bree. It took every ounce of courage she could muster to stay put as the muzzle filled with inch long teeth approached her. The creature moved awkwardly closer to her. It seemed afraid of frightening her beyond her ability to control herself rather than of being suddenly confronted with a weapon. Bree stared at its eyes. The brow crinkled in just the way Conner’s brow crinkled whenever Jess’s adventurous spirit extended itself beyond even his taste.

Conner lowered his muzzle and gently nudged the pack. Bree understood at once. She took off the pack and started digging in it. She glanced nervously at the leader, who watched with a cool confidence that made her spine tingle. She dug out a picture of Jess and her baby. “Here,” she said, and laid it next to the baby blanket. The wolf stared down at the picture until Bree felt some explanation must be in order. “Her family made her take pills, you see, after the baby was born. They made her gain a lot of weight.” It felt strange explaining a woman’s sudden weight gain to a wolf, but he looked at her with such comprehension that her words began to tumble out. “And, the counselor they sent her too, he said it was no good for her to be out in the woods anymore, so she stays home all the time now. She blogs. She’s really famous, in a way, for being such a great mom after the tragedy. Everyone else thinks you’re dead. She had to make them think she thought the same thing, or they would have taken the baby away and sent her to a home. She doesn’t, though. She gave me the blanket and the picture. She told me to bring you back if I could.”

At this, the Alpha emitted another low growl and pulled his front feet under him to lift his head a bit higher. Bree glanced nervously at him and continued. “She said that if I couldn’t bring you back, to tell you she misses you.” She pointed at the picture, “She named him Conner, after you.”

Conner put a paw on Bree’s shoulder and gave her a quick lick on the cheek before gently picking up the baby blanket in his teeth and walking sadly into the darkness of the forest. The Alpha watched him go with eyes that spoke both comfort and approval. Bree watched him slip slowly out of the small circle of light, then turned her attention to the wolf that remained. It was Paul. She would have known his eyes no matter what form he took. They reproached her. He never wanted her to come. He never hoped to see her again. He needed to move on. He accepted his fate, but now she went and made it harder.

Bree quickly brushed away the tear she knew would both sting and annoy Paul. She turned to the Alpha to avoid Paul’s silent disappointment. “Jess also told me that if I could not bring you back, that I should stay.” The Alpha lifted his brows in a perfect expression of surprise. Bree kept her eyes on the Alpha, ignoring Paul, in case he disagreed with Jess. “She told me not to take the pills. She told me not to let them take my husband from me.”

The Alpha stood and approached Bree. Paul jumped between them, baring his teeth. The Alpha only lifted one brow a little higher, and looked behind Paul at Bree, clearly not intimidated by Paul’s aggressively protective stance over Bree. Paul turned back toward Bree and locked her eyes with the same gaze that never failed to hypnotize her when was a human man wooing his wife, not quite seductive, but brimming with love and affection that needed to find its way into her arms. The look lasted only a second before Paul bounded away after Conner, into the darkness, leaving Bree under the quizzical gaze of the Alpha. Paul wanted her to go back, to live out her life and forget him.

At first, the Alpha turned, seemingly content with Paul’s decision, but a moment later he turned back to Bree and looked her over. She met his gaze, not with panic this time, but with the resignation born of deep sorrow. The Alpha’s lips twitched into something like a warm smile before curling wickedly into a snarl just before he jumped at her throat.

Advertisements