Friday Fiction #3
(part one is here)
She stood for a long moment with her hands half-raised, palms toward him in what she hoped was a pacifying gesture as her heart hammered in her chest. Then he lowered the gun, pointing the barrel down and away, though he didn’t sling it back over his shoulder just yet. She didn’t smell any fear on him this time.
“Sorry,” he said. “You spooked me.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I was just trying to find my way back out of here.”
“Yeah...it’s embarrassing, really. I parked by the backcountry campsites and went for a hike, but I must’ve got turned around somewhere.”
His eyebrows drew together just a bit, not quite a frown. He knew as well as she did that the backcountry sites were ten miles away over rough terrain. She wasn’t sure if he believed her story, but it didn’t seem to matter much to him if it was true or not, because the next thing he said was, “I can give you a lift to your car if you like.”
She smiled at him, trying to appear earnest and friendly. “That would be great, if you’re sure you don’t mind.”
She followed him back down the path to the cabin, where he unloaded the rifle with quick, practiced fingers and locked it in the toolbox in the bed of his pickup. He offered her a hand up into the cab, his touch sparking a burst of heat that raced up her arm and made her heartbeat quicken again. She peered at him sideways through the curtain of her hair, trying to decide if he’d felt it, too. If he had, he showed no sign. He simply climbed in, put the truck into gear, and pulled it out onto the narrow gravel road that led up the hill. After about a hundred yards, he got out to unlock a low crossbar gate marked “NO ACCESS - STAFF ONLY,” letting in a burst of cooler air from the shadows under the tall trees behind the house. She smelled oak and pine, foxes and rabbits, songbirds, and a bit of the lingering winter’s particular bite. She also thought she smelled one of the others, but the scent was gone before she could pinpoint it for certain.
Something was off about the girl, he just couldn’t figure out what. She didn’t feel dangerous, just strange. She was easy enough on the eyes, tall and a bit on the skinny side, with long blonde hair worn loose around her face and odd amber-colored eyes. She smelled like some kind of girly soap and fresh air. He was pretty sure she hadn’t hiked across the ridge, even if she was dressed in jeans and a fleece jacket and a sturdy pair of boots. He didn’t know why anyone would lie about something like that, but people got into all kinds of weird business out in the woods and most of the time it was stuff that was embarrassing to discuss. Usually he figured he didn’t need to know, as long as they weren’t hurting anything. He'd been out here three full years and had opted not to ask a lot of questions. Most people just wanted a nice day out, and even the weird ones were generally harmless. The ones that weren't, he could usually spot those coming.
Most of the time things were quiet, and that's why he liked it. He'd never been much for talk or for crowds, and generally being around too many people made him nervous after a while. Four years at college in Ann Arbor had been enough city to last the rest of his life. People who ran into him on the trails or at the nature center were always asking how he could stand it, living in the middle of nowhere. They couldn't seem to see the fullness of the world that was all around them. He loved the feel of the land under his feet, the way the woods told its secrets in tracks and on the wind, watching for the first green shoots of Spring and the first yellow leaves of Fall. He had come to know this place like a friend, and these days it felt more like home than anywhere else ever had.
The drive to the lot where she’d left her car only took about fifteen minutes by the access road. She didn’t say much, just a few comments about how nice a day it had turned out to be and how she was grateful for the ride. It was an uncommonly pretty early Spring day, the still-bare branches of the trees outlined against a clear blue sky. He drove along the western edge of the reservoir and when they reached the high point where the trees thinned and the lake came into view below, he heard the girl gasp a bit. With the water sparkling in the sun, the far shore lost over the horizon, it really was beautiful.
“I’ve never seen it from up here,” she said.
“Most people don’t,” he replied, glancing over at her.
She was smiling at him, her face alight with the joy of the moment, and he found himself smiling back. She really was pretty, he realized, as the sun brought some color into her cheeks and set her light hair aglow. He dropped his eyes from hers, turning his attention back to the road. Something about her was still nagging at him. It was the strangest thing, but when he’d circled back on her out on the trail, he’d fully expected to find an animal following him, not a human girl. He was still sure there had been something else out there, something with teeth.
There were fifteen wolves she’d run with in these woods at one time or another over the past year, and most of them were just wolves. But there were at least a few others like her. She’d never seen them as humans and had no idea where they went when they weren’t in their fur or how long they’d been coming to the reservoir to hide. She’d found it by accident one day as she drove around aimlessly, crying over her shit luck and the stress of trying to keep her life together and having finally lost her job after months of making excuses for needing to take nearly a week off each month. It had felt like a revelation to step out of the car and be surrounded by hundreds of acres of woodlands, to hear no traffic sounds or barking dogs. Setting out on foot, she’d walked the trails for hours, rarely passing anyone else. The rich scents of the forest overwhelmed her senses, calling to the wildness inside. The place was quiet, big, and sparsely traveled -- everything she needed to make herself disappear.
She went back day after day, week after week, even when she had no need to hide. Right before her unemployment benefits ran out, she’d landed on a job waitressing at a little roadside place just outside of the closest town. The owner had a tiny apartment upstairs that he let her stay in as part of her pay, she was allowed to eat in the kitchen at the end of her shifts, and he didn’t ask questions when she told him she had to go home for a few days each month. As long as she made enough in tips to keep her car insured and full of gas, she thought things would work out. She sold off most of her stuff and left the city she’d lived in her whole life, moved to the kind of small town she’d always made fun of, worked a job she’d always looked down on, and found that she was about as happy as she’d ever been. Until the day she followed a bleeding doe out onto the lake and misjudged the ice, she’d never come close to trouble. Glancing over at the man in the driver’s seat, she reflected that she might’ve found herself some trouble at last.