Friday Fiction #1
The wolf was swimming, but just barely, only her face and front paws visible as she sluggishly paddled. There was no telling how long she’d been in the water, but it was clear she didn’t have much time left. The edges of the hole were ragged where she’d scrabbled at the ice, trying to find enough grip to pull herself out. As he crept toward her, sprawled on his belly to distribute his weight, he realized she might not be strong enough to pull herself out even with help. Too late now, he thought, and squirmed closer. Her amber eyes were wide, showing the whites. She growled at him as he neared the the hole, lips peeling back from impossibly long fangs, and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising as the primitive part of his brain registered predator! predator! predator! He fought back the low rumble of panic that was telling him to scramble and run, pushing the rough sacking in front of him to drop over the lip into the hole. The wolf was panicking, too, and began scrabbling at the ice again. For a moment it seemed like she would throw herself at the far edge until she wore out and went under, but she began working her way around in her desperate bid for escape. As her paws met the burlap they found purchase, and he held on tight as she clawed and hauled, slowly dragging herself up. She wasn’t a particularly large animal, but the water added weight to her fur and he felt himself slipping closer as she pulled. He dug the toes of his boots against the slick surface and braced against her weight with his arms, his shoulders screaming under the burden. Finally, her rear paws found the sacking and she clambered up onto the ice.
As she bunched her body and then pressed downward with her hind legs to leap away, he realized his error. There was a crack like a shot as the wolf bolted into the woods, then the ice groaned and shifted beneath him. He pushed backward with his hands, forcing himself to stay flat and move slowly. There was another crack, then another, and just as he decided to take his chances and run, the ice gave out and dropped him into the frigid lake. The cold hit him like a fist and he gasped involuntarily, sucking in water, then fought to the surface in a blind panic, battling the drag of his coat and Carharrt overalls and heavy boots. He made it to the surface three times, but each time was pulled down again by the weight of his clothes. On the fourth attempt, he just barely got a breath before he lost the fight. He slipped under again, breathed in more water, and started to black out. A thought came to him, bizarrely clear -- So this is how I die -- and then strong hands were pulling at his coat, lifting him out into the biting air, dragging him across the ice. His wet eyelashes froze instantly, sticking his eyes shut. He vomited water, coughed and hacked until he thought his chest would crack open, while someone pounded his shoulder encouragingly and said, “Get it out, son, get it out.” There were shouts, radio distress calls, hands stripping his sodden clothes away and wrapping him in rough wool blankets. He couldn’t feel his hands or feet and everything else hurt.
Later the doctors would tell him they thought he’d been in the water for ten minutes. A pair of moose hunters on ATVs had seen his truck idling on the road and realized something was wrong, had followed his tracks down to the lake and found him just in time. One of the hunters had crawled out onto the ice with a rope around his waist, and then they’d driven him to the highway in his own truck and met a county ambulance there. The hypothermia almost killed him, but the doctors managed to bring him back from that. Then the pneumonia set in and he spent two weeks in the hospital while they pumped him full of antibiotics and kept looking at him like he might die at any moment. He’d truly never felt worse in his life and wondered for a few days if they were right, but in the end they pronounced him cured enough and sent him home with a prescription for pills the size of a knuckle that he was to take for another three weeks. The hospital had been horrible -- too closed-up, too many artificial lights, not enough windows. He’d felt caged by the end, itchy and restless, embarrassed by the short gowns and the constant nurse checks.
Back home, he felt mostly the same as before, though at first he was prone to wheezing after doing work that normally wouldn’t bother him and sometimes there was a rasping in his chest that made him cough if he took a deep breath. Colors seemed sharper, the sounds of the woods a little clearer, but he thought maybe it was all in his head. He never saw the wolf again, though he scoured the woods around the lake for her body. Probably wolves didn’t get pneumonia, he thought to himself as he split wood outside one afternoon, stripped down to a T-shirt under the sun on a surprisingly mild day. He knew his doctor would have a fit if she found out he was outside without his coat. She’d warned him to take it easy, to not get too cold, to avoid breathing in too much smoke or falling into any icy lakes. He had assured her that the last instruction, at least, he could promise to follow.
He’d been sick, she thought, as she heard the tiny catch in his chest whenever he took a deep breath. She inhaled his scent, which was rich and earthy, definitely male, and found just a shade of something off, something sour nearly buried beneath the smell of his skin, the aroma of woodsmoke and gunpowder in his clothes, shampoo, soap and shaving lotion, and the toothpaste and coffee on his breath. He’d been very sick, but he was almost recovered now, only the barest scent of hospital and medicine and infection lingering deep where he couldn’t scrub it clean. She knew him, of course -- they all did. He lived in the old caretaker’s cabin and watched over the woods around the reservoir. In the warm months he put on a brown state park polo shirt and drove down to the little nature center, where he taught kids about trees or snakes or bugs. In the fall he hunted deer and always left the guts for the wolves.
She inhaled again, his particular blend of smells tickling at the edges of her memory for a moment before suddenly locking into place. That scent, mixed with fear, at the edge of the ice. The reek of his sweat as he hauled her out of the lake and fought against the instincts that were telling him to run. He was the one. She realized now she should’ve known -- who else would’ve been out in the woods that day and come toward her with anything but a gun? Who else would’ve nearly killed himself to save a ragged wolf? She slipped into the underbrush to trail a few hundred feet behind him as he set out to walk the loop around the lake, his rifle propped lazily against his shoulder with the barrel pointing skyward. Looking at him now, she could assess him through different senses. He was no longer just a collection of movements and scents, now he was a man. Not a bad-looking one, she noted, maybe a bit taller than average, well-muscled but not heavily built. He moved like a hunter, she thought, agile and quiet. Today he wore boots and jeans and a heavy jacket, but no hat or gloves. His brown hair was clipped short, what little skin she could see still bearing some of his summer tan. She could imagine the muscles moving under his skin, the way he’d smell if she stripped away his gun and coat and clothes. There was something about him that her body responded to unconsciously. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, trying to isolate his scent from the smells of the woods around him.
When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. She quickened her pace a bit and rounded the curve in the path, her step faltering when she saw only open trail in front of her. Then she heard a tiny click behind her and felt the hairs on her arms spring up. She turned slowly and found him standing in the middle of the trail, rifle butt set against his shoulder and barrel trained on her chest. His blue eyes locked with her amber ones. He didn’t seem scared, but there was no recognition or sympathy in his face either.
“Who are you?” he asked, his voice low and calm. “And why are you following me?”
She cleared her throat, preparing to speak for the first time in nearly a week. “Please...let me explain.”