Friday Fiction #4
A few days later, she drove back to the reservoir and this time she parked near the main trail that circled the lake. She set out at a comfortable pace, letting the morning sun and the movement of her limbs warm her body. As she’d hoped, a mile or so into her hike she spotted a familiar figure ahead of her, walking with his hands in his jacket pockets and his face tipped toward the sky. She quickened her steps to catch up, calling out, “Hello!” He half-turned as he walked, his expression registering mild surprise when he recognized her.
”I’m not lost this time, I promise,” she said, falling into step beside him. “I’m Abby, by the way.”
His name was Dominic and he wasn’t a big talker. They walked the four mile loop together, mostly in silence, and the quiet was surprisingly comfortable. She still wasn't sure what it was about him that had hooked her. She had always dated pretty city boys, not that it had ever worked out very well. This one, he was big and solid and steady, the kind of guy who probably always had mud on his boots and dirt under his fingernails. And for Christ’s sake, he had literally pulled a gun on her already, though she could admit she had kind of deserved it. Her life was complicated enough without trying to fit a guy into it all, but she just couldn’t bring herself to walk away.
As they neared the patch of gravel where she’d left her car, she bumped her arm against his. “I realize we just met, and for all I know you’re actually a serial killer, but I’d really like to see you again.” Her cheeks warmed as he looked down at her with a smile curling at one corner of his mouth.
”All right,” he said.
”I have to work the rest of the week, but maybe I could come back up on Sunday afternoon?”
”Sunday’s good. What do you like to do other than sneak up on people in the woods?”
”I’m pretty easy,” she told him with a wink as she turned to go. “Surprise me.”
This girl, Abby, she was different than any woman he’d ever known. At first he felt awkward around her, never knowing what to say or when to speak up. Through the Spring, though, they fell into a comfortable rhythm. She’d come up to visit most Sundays and he’d take her to one of his favorite places in the backcountry. It had started as a test, sort of, that first weekend when he’d taken her to the small cave he’d found high on the ridgeline. She kept pace with him up the steep trail and slogged happily through a muddy creek bed up to the exposed rock face with its low, half-hidden entrance. When he handed her a flashlight she’d given him a quizzical look but had laughed and said, “All right, I’m game.” Once they were inside the small cavern, she’d exclaimed with delight over the delicate formations and the translucent blind fish darting through the frigid stream.
He hadn’t had a girlfriend since college, when he’d lived with a brassy, pushy poli sci major named Sabrina for three semesters in a little apartment near campus. They’d had a good time, but neither of them had ever claimed to be in love. She’d gone off to grad school in New York after graduation and he’d come up here. Every once in a while he’d meet someone in town, but those usually didn’t last and he was getting too old to hook up with the college girls who came to the woods to hike on the weekends, even though they sometimes didn’t seem to think so. No matter what his few married friends told him, he felt like dating was just generally too much work.
Until Abby had dropped into his life, he’d thought he was pretty happy, but he couldn’t deny that it was nice to have someone around again. It didn’t hurt that she was pretty and smart and could make him laugh until his side stitched. She didn’t seem to want anything more than company and some fun, and even though she never said it, it was pretty clear she had business of her own that she wanted to keep to herself. Sometimes she arrived at his door smelling of soap and clean laundry, well-rested and content. Other times she turned up disheveled and distracted, the scent of fresh earth and fallen leaves clinging to her hair and skin, as if she'd been sleeping outdoors. The slightly wild look in her eyes on those days warned him not to push, so he didn’t ask and she didn’t talk about it, but she started spending more and more time with him and he started to realize that he was falling for her.
As a human, Abby knew that the backcountry side of the lake was the safe choice. There were just too many people moving through on the cabin side, too many chances for someone to stumble across one of her little caches of clothes and take them or to report a wolf hanging around the well-traveled paths. But as she grew closer to Dominic, it seemed like her instincts were resetting, both as a girl and as a wolf. Increasingly through the Summer, she found herself near the cabin when she came back out of her fur. She spent less and less time hiding in the deep woods and more time within range of the man whom she'd learned to associate with safety and contentment.
She'd never had a relationship like this one, easygoing and exciting all at once. She tried to keep a bit of emotional distance at first, knowing that eventually her secret and her unpredictable behavior would probably drive him away, but she soon gave up the fight. Nights alone at her apartment, once a happy little piece of solitude, became restless hours of wishing she'd gone to Dominic's instead. When they were together, she found that she forgot to worry. What began as a little bit of casual fun became a comforting routine -- afternoons spent walking in the woods; evenings tucked up against him on the couch, his arm across her shoulders as they drank beer and watched football; nights burrowed under the blankets in his bed, his long limbs tangled with hers. He was kind and laid back and appreciative of life's small wonders, and she felt like after years of mistakes, she'd finally gotten something right.
And so in early November, she prowled the grove of pines and oaks near the house, kept in close by something her wolf brain didn't fully understand. It was rut season for the deer, meaning they were to be avoided, especially the males. It was a chilly afternoon near the end of her time as a wolf, when she was most restless. She was tracking a rabbit through the underbrush when she came upon him. A man, not the one she knew the smell of, one stinking of adrenaline and deer scent. He'd been downwind, out of sight, and now she froze for a moment, her instincts at war. She wanted to flee but she needed to stand her ground, and as she hesitated, he lifted something in his hands. There was an explosion of sound and then a high yelp escaped her throat as a slash of pain tore down her side. She turned to run, the scent of blood heavy in the air.