Friday Fiction #5
Though he enjoyed hunting on his own, Dominic hated the first week of firearm season for deer. The woods were always crowded with men and teenaged boys, many of them with more enthusiasm than experience. Getting shot by a jackass with jumpy nerves was no way to die, so he ended up staying off the trails for most of opening weekend, restless and worried. A couple of local conservation officers checked licenses on the way in and tags on the way out, so unless he wanted to take his chances hunting in an already-packed field, there wasn't much to do. This year, though, his luck was good. Two days before the season opened, he got a call from his old college roommate with an invitation to spend a long weekend bowhunting on private land in the Upper Peninsula.
Abby was in the wind, having given no word on when she'd be back. The past few months had taught him she might be gone for a few days or nearly a week. She rarely called before skipping town; usually he just didn't hear from her and that's how he knew she'd taken off again. Since she also tended to show up again without calling first, he sent her a text message to let her know he'd be gone for a few days and left the spare key under the loose board at the bottom of the porch steps. It turned out to be a nearly perfect weekend, the weather chilly but clear, the hunting good. He and four other guys spent three nights under a limitless sky, drinking beer and playing cards by campfire light, miles from the nearest road. Even though she maintained she had no interest in hunting, he couldn't help but think that Abby would love this place and its acres and acres of quiet. He was looking forward to telling her about the wolves he'd heard singing every night. He'd seen increasing signs of wolf activity around the cabin all through the summer and into the fall, but he'd never heard a pack howling.
He drove back on Tuesday, arriving home in the late afternoon. Abby hadn't replied to his text message and her car wasn't parked out front, so he drove around to the small outbuilding behind the cabin to unload his share of the weekend's deer meat into the freezer. Once that was done and the truck bed was hosed out, he got his pack and bow from the cab and let himself in through the back door. After stowing the bow, he built up a fire in the wood stove to warm the chilly air inside the cabin and headed out to retrieve the spare key. His steps slowed as he noticed drops of blood on the boards of the porch, a trail leading from the steps to the front door and then doubling back to the steps. He followed the trail, fingered a tuft of fur caught in a rough spot on the boards at the porch edge. Something had crawled underneath to hide, maybe to die. A dog, he thought, or a coyote. He moved cautiously to crouch beside the porch steps and peer into the dim space behind them. As his eyes adjusted to the poor light, he swore in surprise. A woman lay curled in the crawl space, naked and streaked with dirt.
"Hey," he called out, stripping off his bulky jacket. "Hey, are you all right?" He knew it would be a tight squeeze, but he dropped to his belly and wriggled through the gap between the steps and the foundation. His body was blocking most of the light from the entrance, but he suddenly recognized the tangle of blonde hair in front of him. "Abby?" He scrambled forward, ignoring the scrapes and bruises the porch floor was laying along his back as he moved too quickly to be careful. "Jesus…Abby!" She was breathing but unconscious, cold to the touch. It took a painful eternity to move her out into the daylight, trying not to drag her too roughly across the ground but lacking the clearance needed to lift her. He felt like he was back on the ice again, inching toward the wolf, his pulse a steady drumbeat of fear.
He finally made it into the yard and pulled her carefully out, his heart lurching in his chest as he saw blood smeared along her thighs and belly from a ragged wound across the meat of her right hip. Scooping her into his arms, he rushed into the house. He hurried to the bathroom and laid her as gently as he could in the tub, then opened the taps to fill the bath with hot water. Abby had never been shy about her body, but it felt wrong to see her naked this way, without her knowing. He spread a towel across her and did his best to only look where it was needed to clean her skin and check her for injuries. With the blood washed away, he was left with only the shallow gash across her hip, ugly but not severe. The bleeding had mostly stopped already, so he drained the water from the bath, wrapped her in towels, and carried her to the couch. He bandaged her wound as best he could, then stoked the fire in the wood stove to burn high and hot, hoping to drive the last of the chill from her.
Once he was sure she was resting comfortably, he slipped back outside. His thoughts were a tangle, anger threatening to choke him. Someone, something had hurt Abby and left her to bleed in the cold. He paced the dirt of the yard in widening arcs, but no matter how far he circled out from the house, he found only the tracks of a solitary wolf interspersed with traces of blood. There was no sign of the girl's passing, no prints from her bare feet or snagged strands of hair. It was as if the wolf had chased a phantom out of the forest. As the daylight started to fail, he retreated to the house and brewed a strong pot of coffee, then sat down at the table and drank it, staring out the kitchen window as he turned everything over in his head. Abby’s injury didn't look like a bite. It seemed crazy to admit it, but the thing looked like a bullet graze. How had she made it to the cabin with no clothes, no shoes, no car? He sipped more coffee, his gaze miles away. His thoughts drifted again to the wolf he'd pulled from the lake, the way he'd felt on the trail the day he'd met Abby, her odd disappearances. The problem wasn't so much that things weren't adding up, it was more that they were but the sum made absolutely no sense.
She came to slowly, surrounded by Dominic's familiar smell. It was as strong as if she lay in his arms, but she could tell she was alone. She opened her eyes and found she was tucked snugly into his bed in the cabin's sleeping loft, three quilts piled on top of her and soft pillows beneath her head. Lifting the covers a little to peer below, she saw that she was dressed in too-large plaid flannel pajama pants and a University of Michigan sweatshirt. As she moved to push the blankets aside and sit up, pain knifed across her right hip and wrenched a cry from her throat. She fell back against the pillows, whimpering a bit as footfalls rushed up the staircase toward her. Dominic appeared at the top of the steps, his face lined with worry.
"Are you all right?" he asked, stopping and gripping the footboard with both hands, his knuckles whitening.
"I'm fine, I just moved too fast."
"What happened to you, Abby?"
"I don't…" she faltered and closed her eyes, trying to call up anything she could remember. Wolf thoughts were different from human thoughts, wolf senses sharper and stranger. She'd gotten better at translating wolf memories into human ones, but it took effort. She recalled fear, noise, pain. Limping toward what her instincts told her was a safe place, then panicking when she found herself not in a den but at a house that smelled of men and guns. She'd crawled into the darkness to hide. Then the change had come and she'd been left helpless against the cold and weakened by her wound. Later, there had been vague awareness of someone pulling her out into the sunlight, of warm water and a gentle touch. She opened her eyes and reached out toward Dominic. He hesitated only a moment and then came to sit beside her on the bed, his weight solid and comforting.
"Dominic, I need to tell you…" she trailed off, tears welling up in her eyes as she saw the concern in his face. "I should've said something before, but I didn't know how to say it." He picked up her hand and laced his fingers through hers, and she forged ahead. "I'm not what I seem to be, not really. Not at all, actually."
He studied her face for a long moment, his eyes thoughtful, biting at his lower lip. She was ready to swear he looked a bit relieved, but that made no sense at all. Finally he smiled a little and said, "Well...nobody's perfect."