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

A warning to my squeamish friends: Blood. 

Morning dawned. Bree lay on the forest floor, her eyes fluttering as she watched her blood pool in the leaves around her. Her heart pumped in vain as each pulse only pushed more blood out the long gash extending from her right ear to her left breast. The pain no longer bothered to her. She watched her blood pool with idle interest rather than panic. Since she must die someday anyway, what did it matter that she die now, in the forest, near the love of her life, or if she die slowly, mind addled by pills, or locked away in some home for the mentally ill. The fascinating swirl where each drop landed, the smell of iron mingling with the mulchy smell of the forest floor, the darkening toward the edge of the pool, all served as entertainment now as she watched her life ebb slowly out of her.

Somewhere, faintly, she heard human voices. She thought of calling, but the lovely red pond fascinated her and she preferred not to share it. Her mind felt quiet and empty, as if her thoughts were washed into the pool of blood and now floated there like vacationing, middle-class yuppies balancing on their inflatable pool toys. Hands touched her arm. Something lifted her. She watched while the pool of blood moved slowly away, partly regretting leaving it behind, partly wondering if she should bother hoping she might survive.

It took two transfusions to save her. Her wound required dozens of stitches. Jess visited her daily, pretending to be the mommy-blogging diva while anyone lingered nearby, then whispering her true self into Bree’s ear when they were alone. When the time came for Bree to go home, she went to Jess’s house, where nothing reminded her of Paul. During the day, she stared at the kitchen wall, wondering why she never felt so exhausted at night anymore. At night, she lay in Jess’s guest bed and stared at the ceiling, pondering what the Alpha whispered in her ear just before he left her to bleed to death.

The scene replayed itself in her mind a dozen times each night. Each time, she winced a little at the remembered pain. His teeth wrapped around her neck, she waited for the fatal snap, but instead he let go of her. “They are loyal to me now,” his hot breath stung against her wound. “If you want them back, you’ll have to win them.” He turned to walk away, leaving Bree slumped against the tree, her eyes blurring as she began to faint. Just before consciousness slipped away, she heard, “If you live, that is.”

She didn’t understand. How could she win Paul back? He wanted to move on, to forget her. Perhaps he meant she needed to kill him, but she doubted the pack would give her a chance. She traced pictures on the ceiling, trying to let her mind go blank to give herself some chance of getting some sleep.

Little Conner fussed in the nursery. Bree heard Jess’ bed creak and called out, “I’ll get him.” Jess bed creaked with the weight of the woman falling back into bed. In Conner’s room, Bree lifted the baby and gently bounced him until his crying hushed. A little head draped itself over her shoulder and little hands wrapped themselves around her neck. Bree gently rubbed her cheek against the soft hair and breathed in the clean-baby scent. Suddenly, she knew what to do. She waited a little longer to be sure Conner fell asleep completely before laying him down and rushing to Jess’s room. The tired woman groaned and tried to wave Bree away, but Bree flipped the lights on and yanked off the covers. By the time she finished explaining her plan, Jess was fully awake and eager to get started.

Noon found the two women standing next to the tree where the Alpha attacked Bree. A number of predatory animal tracks surrounded the tree, no doubt attracted by the scent of blood, but not the giant wolf tracks Bree hoped to find. It didn’t matter. They probably knew how to hide their tracks. She tied the outgrown baby booties and one of Paul’s favorite T-shirts to a branch of the tree. “I don’t understand why you didn’t bring something that would remind him of you, Bree.” Jess half-scolded.

Bree shrugged, “I never keep much of anything. All I have to bring are his things or the things I don’t want to lose.”

“Even for this?” She gently untangled Little Conner’s fingers from her hair. “Those baby booties are more precious than you think. First pair of shoes. A lot of people bronze those, you know, and I’m leaving them out in the middle of a forest.”

“Even for this.”

Jess shook her head, “I’ll never understand you, Bree.”

Bree shrugged again. She hated to tell Jess about the disappointed look in Paul’s eyes. In her heart, she doubted her ability to win him back. “I’m trying to remind him of what he used to be.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I’m trying to remind my husband of what he is: a father.”

“Just don’t leave any diapers.”

“Ha. Ha.”

The women left as soon as Bree managed to get the T-shirt and booties secured well enough that she felt sure they would stay there until the wolf pack arrived. She wanted to stay and see what happened, but she knew better. She drove down the hill slowly, appreciating the view of the city and wondering what she was missing in the woods behind her.

The women took tokens of their homes every weekend. At first, they found the items in the same place they left them with little indication of whether the wolf pack visited or not. After two months, the items began to disappear. Bree thought it must be other hikers or possibly the ranger service, but after about three months, she noticed something different about the site. She kept quiet about it, on the off chance Jess missed the signs. Bree knew the former outdoorswoman once out-tracked many men, but a full year of pills surely drove some of the finer points from her mind.

From that week on, every time they visited, Bree noticed more evidence of the pack visiting the tree. She didn’t like what she saw. Jess grew more nervous as well. She took to leaving the baby with her parents for their weekend trips, which spurred nagging questions about her medication levels and frequency of her psychologist visits. The two women stopped trying to tie the mementos out of reach of the normal wildlife and started throwing them at the base of the tree before running back to the car.

Five months after they started leaving their reminders for their husbands, the women returned to the tree to find unmistakable signs of wolf activity along the way. The large wolves as well as a pack of smaller wolves both left their marks all over the area. The women froze as soon as they saw the tree clearly. It bore claw scratches and bite marks deep enough to expose the tender core.

“What do we do?” Jess mouthed.

Bree pursed her lips and shook her head. They each took one very quiet step backwards, then another. After backing several yards, Bree realized she still held the bag of things they meant to leave for their husbands. She signaled to Jess to keep moving back. Jess frowned but obeyed. Bree moved forward as silently as a hunter stalking its prey until she reached the tree again. She forced her lungs to breathe as if she were sleeping, suppressing her fear to keep its scent from attracting the beasts. She bent slowly, placing the bag at the base of the tree. Around her the woods resounded with over-quietness. She knew what that meant. She kept in the crouched position and glanced around, trying to determine which direction the wolves planned to attack from. No shade of fur or glint of eye met her gaze. She stood again and turned silently toward Jess.

Jess stood still as a statue, her eyes wide. Bree’s heart sank. They lost the chance to escape the moment she remembered the bag. She let out a heavy sigh, relaxed her body, and walked casually toward Jess. Jess gaped at her in horrified disbelief, but remained still and silent. The creatures stayed out of sight, but Bree felt their studious eyes on her. She felt their sudden confusion as well. They knew she knew. Why didn’t she cower like Jess? Or run? Bree told her survival instinct to hush. No point now, she reminded it.

When she reached Bree, she pulled a pen from her pocket. She scrawled words on her arm for Jess to read. “You have to get back to the baby. We won’t both make it. You need to leave me.”

Jess’s eyes hardened. For a moment, Bree feared Jess might try to stay with her. The moment passed, however, with a barely detectable tilt of Jess’s head.

Bree mouthed “one.” Jess followed with “two.” As Bree formed “three” both women pulled cans of bear spray from their pockets. Jess bolted deeper into the woods, away from the waiting ambush. Bree ran headlong toward the car. She tried to listen for some indication of whether the beasts tried to follow Jess instead of herself, but her boots pounding the undergrowth and the sound of howling drowned out any sound more than a few yards away. The predatory song of the beasts gained volume until Bree’s ears rang with it. She felt their breath on her back and pressed her feet harder into the ground, trying to gain as much time as possible for Jess.

After a minute of sprinting Bree dared a glance over her shoulder. The wolves loomed dangerously close. She considered giving up, knowing full well the wolves could have killed her already. Instead, she put on another burst of speed. Before long her legs burned and her lungs huffed under the insupportable pace, forcing her to slow. She tried to suck in air slowly enough to calm her heart while keeping up the run. Behind her the death howl rang again, chilling her blood and draining her energy. She thought of Jess and the baby and kept running. She needed to give Jess some time. She didn’t know why the wolves let her keep running, but as long as they allowed her to live, she needed to use the time.

The sky grew dark. Bree thanked God for all the marathons Jess talked her into. Behind her, jaws not yet exhausted by the twenty mile chase snapped too close for comfort. The wounded came into sight again. The howls grew triumphant and she understood why they never attacked before. They wanted to end it where it began. Bree put on a final burst of speed to reach the tree. She whirled and squatted, holding out her cans of bear spray and warding off attackers as they came in. Teeth and claws scratched at her, but retreated quickly, their owners whimpering and pawing at their eyes. When Bree heard the spitting hiss of her cans running out, she tossed them aside and curled into the smallest ball possible, sobbing and waiting for the teeth to rip her apart.

Instead, the woods grew silent. Not the dangerous silence that warned of impending danger, but peaceful stillness, like a child sleeping in his father’s arms. Bree looked up, her quiet sobs and ragged breath the only noise disturbing the warm quietness, to see the wolves surrounding her once again. This time, all but three lay on the ground, some in little family heaps, others on their own. She looked questioningly at the large Alpha wolf. He only looked back. Finally, she dared ask, “Why am I still alive?”

Her whisper barely resonated in her own ears, but the Alpha nodded his head in the direction of the two other standing wolves. “You win.”

With that, he walked over to a female wolf and settled down next to her, resting his muzzle on her head. She snuggled a little closer to him and both closed their eyes.

 

Wolf prints

Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Conner and Paul approached her slowly. Gradually, the wolf shapes exchanged themselves for man shapes. Bree wanted to throw her arms around Paul, but held back, unsure of whether he welcomed his old form. Conner stood awkwardly by, looking around for something to cover himself. Bree led the men back toward the car, not really expecting it to be there. She assumed that Conner’s presence indicated Jess’s survival, but whether she circled back to the car or just ran the quickest way down the hill to Mr. Delszeki’s house, Bree couldn’t know.

The car still sat in its lonely spot. No one talked on the way down the hill. Bree didn’t know what to say. She guessed the men didn’t either. Bree stopped at Mr. Delszeki’s to inquire after Jess. He said he gave her a ride home and that she seemed unusually upset. Bree thanked Mr. Delszeki and drove Conner to his house. . She waited in the driveway just long enough to see the front door open before she drove off, smiling over Jess’s delighted squeals.

Back in their own home, Paul looked around. He seemed to feel out of place. Bree didn’t say anything. She just watched him take everything in. After a few minutes, he looked her in the eye for the first time since returning to his human form. “Jess brought things to remind Conner about her and the baby, but you only brought things to remind me of… me. I don’t understand.”

Bree looked at the floor for a while. She shrugged slightly. “I could tell you were happy as a wolf. I wasn’t sure I’d be enough for you.”

Paul hung his head. After a minute he looked up. Bree saw his eyes fighting back tears. He never cried. Never. He wouldn’t now, but it was somehow comforting to see his struggle against it. He approached her slowly, a little like a cautious wolf, she thought, and held her lightly. “I’m so sorry.”

Bree drank in the words, not greedily, but thirstily, as water to a long parched heart.  “I forgive you.” She whispered back.

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