I was walking alone in the woods one day. Unconcerned about why I was there or what I was doing. Merely taking a walk.
It was calm enough. Nearly dusk, making the shadows of the trees stretch out unnaturally across the tamped-down path that I wandered. Sometimes a stray bird would chirp, or a branch would fall, and in those moments I felt brief flickers of fear, jerking my head all about in an attempt at an Exorcist impersonation, my heart thudding and my lungs painfully constricted for the space of seconds-as-hours it took for my brain to identify the noise and tell my body “All clear, nothing to worry about.”
Unless there was something to worry about, of course. Some unknown thing creeping behind me, masking the nosies of its movement with bad bird imitations. The branches falling and creaking were the sounds of its passage, brushing low-hanging obstructions out of its way, or failing to watch its step and placing one hairy, clawed foot atop the almost calcified relic of a forest fire in ages past.
I rounded a gentle curve, wondering to myself why I insisted on even thinking about such things. Either I was safe or I wasn’t. If I wasn’t, I’d soon know. Further, if I wasn’t, it wasn’t the Wendigo, the Mokole-Mbebe or some other chthonian horror that was liable to catch and eat me. It would be a bear, a tree that someone had half sawed through that fell on me, a nest of wasps that decided I smelled too much like bananas for their liking.
As I made that turn, I saw something huge and gray streak across my path, twenty feet or so ahead. Again, my heart stopped, my lungs wandered away from their oxygen-giving post, and my mind flooded with images of horrors culled from a dozen Stephen King novels and a hundred awful movies watched from the safety of under the covers at midnight.
The idea was so strong that for just a moment, as the shape froze and turned its attention to me, that I actually saw it as something from those places. Standing seven feet tall, shaggy with gray fur streaked with the maroon of old blood, twisted claws tipped with six-inch talons, a mouth filled with jagged fangs and a lolling serpentine tongue.
Then I blinked and saw what had really run across the path before stopping to stare at me. A wolf. A large member of his species, to be sure, but still just a wild canine. A thick coat of silver with a white bib that somehow gave him a regal presence. Solidly built legs, splayed slightly for balance. Long, bushy tail twitching lazily in a half-wag, silver with what I took as a white racing stripe and tipped in black. There were fangs, to be certain, but they were hidden beneath the lips of a muzzle that almost seemed to be laughing at my fear, and above them were no red hell-lamps prepared to burn the soul, but soulful yellow orbs that regarded me with little more than curiosity.
I released the pent-up breath that my lungs had tried to lock away and laughed at myself. I raised one trembling hand in greeting.
“Hey, boy,” I said. The wolf cocked his head, staring at me for a moment, then disappeared into the darkness of the pine trees. I almost swore I could see his shoulders roll in a bemused shrug before he disappeared.
Shrugging myself, I continued onward, feeling better. Wolves were fine by me. Unless they were rabid or starving – and judging from my watcher’s closed mouth and thick coat, they were neither in this area – wolves were unlikely to take much interest in me unless I did something stupid, which I had no plan to.
As I came out of the curve, I saw my destination ahead. A small cabin, weather beaten but still quite livable, was set just off the path in a natural clearing to my left. Someone had been by recently, tending the yard so it was an even layer of pine needles. The windows were clean, and a warm light was seeping out of the windows, casting light into the steadily deepening night. A rudimentary fence of trunks with chicken wire strung between them surrounded it, with a single gap to mark the entrance.
I walked up to that gap, and passed through. I moved to the door, laying my hand on the knob and taking a deep breath before I turned it. The door was unlocked, as I knew it would be, and swung open on a living room with minimal ornamentation.
The light was coming from a candelabra situated in the middle of a dusty oak table. Around the table a set of mismatched kitchen chairs held conference, all of them turned slightly away from the centerpiece.
The oddest thing was the dust. While someone had taken time to light the candles and tend the yard, no one had cleaned up on the inside. From the musty smell and the inch-thick layer of gray that coated everything. Despite feeling a sense of ownership, knowing somehow that the place was mine, I felt no ill will to whatever shoddy housekeeper had done this; after all, it was just a room. A place to weather the storm that my bones knew was coming. The dust wouldn’t interfere with that.
I heard a sound coming from outside, the other side of the house. A thirsty sound, like a dog burying its tongue in the back of an upturned cup trying to get the last few drops of moisture out of it. I walked through the room and out the back door, my curiosity driving me forward.
The back yard was less well kept than the front. Almost waist-high weeds were trying to choke the life out of it, and I could hear the scurrying sounds of mice or other vermin running rampant, occasionally knocking into the brambles and giving them a shudder.
A single plastic cup was caught in the thorny fingers of the weeds; I arched a brow, turning my head to study it as I passed. It was nothing special; one of those disposable red plastic jobs, the rim cracked, half full of some unappetizing yellow liquid. Could have been beer, could have been piss. In either case I was disinterested. I could remove it later, if I decided to stay and it bothered me. The sound ahead was more interesting.
I stepped through the weeds, my feet crunching on the carpet of dead twigs, cigarette butts and squirrel turds. I hopped over one of the tree-trunk fence posts marking the edge of the property, and kept onward. A few feet farther, and I saw the source of the noise.
The forest floor cave way to a steep cliffside, jagged and angling downward with dozens of sharp, rocky teeth eager to taste anyone foolish enough to try to climb down. Lashing at those teeth like a liquid tongue, ocean foam and storm-whipped waves sloshed below.
As I stood, looking down, I felt a sudden chill, and thick droplets of water began to beat against my neck and head. Rain.
Below I could see a boat, tethered to a dock extending from a small, glassy beach at the base of the cliffs. Part of me wanted to try the climb, somehow knowing that the cliff, this place would never actually hurt me, but it seemed like too much effort. I stared upwards, looking at the gathering clouds and the moon looming behind them, letting the rain beat me about the face, and sighed.
I was home.