She wasn’t afraid at all. The wolf met her gaze with penetrating amber eyes and slowly slinked her way, sniffing the ground. She leaned back on a log next to a tiny shade creek. The water shhhh-ed over its pebbly bed and the insects buzzed. Even with the large animal in front of her, she felt complete peace.
Sunshine danced all over like it was reflecting off a disco ball, glimmering through a light morning forest mist. The wolf blinked, turned and disappeared into the mist and trees, leaving her with a longing to jump up and follow him.
Avery’s eyes jolted open. It’d just been a dream, a very real dream.
7: 08 am. There wasn’t much point in trying to go back to sleep. Sighing, she crawled out of bed, made a stop in the bathroom and padded into the kitchen to tell her dad about the wolf dream.
Then she remembered. It always hit her hard to see that empty spot at the kitchen table. Dad wouldn’t be there reading his paper ever again. The stupid tears came, the fluttering of her heart. It was so unfair how this tore her apart over and over. Like losing her dad once wasn’t enough.
The emptiness of the house overcame her, new again every day. Eighteen and on her own. Alone. She went back to her room, cranked up the radio and slid back into the still warm covers.
Four hours later, she tried restarting her day with a quick shower and a bowl of granola before heading out to her favorite hiking trail, the one place where she could feel her dad and remember without it hurting…quite as much.
Inside her car, she found a note that said, “That orange light means to add gas. I put in five gallons.” She could hear Ke’s always laughing voice in her head. He’d even drawn a smiley face on the note. She looked down the hill at his driveway, thinking she’d invite him on her hike, but his car was gone. He was quiet and kept to himself but he did keep an eye on her, even checking that her car had gas. Five gallons was plenty to drive to her hiking spot and back into town.
Once she arrived and parked at the trail head, she got out and took a minute to soak in the sun, the smell of pine and moist grass, and listen to the faint breeze up in the trees.
The air felt about mid-eighties in the sunshine but she’d be in the cool forest soon. She pulled on a sweater and then her backpack filled with food, water, her camera, sketching paper and pencils. She often wondered if the tiny places and nuances of the forest would simply fade away, unmarked by mankind, if no one found and enjoyed them.
Once she entered the sun-spotted world of ferns, moths and tiny creeks crossing her path, she forgot about life that involved houses, roads and other people. In that world, she felt lonely. But out here, physically alone, she didn’t.
She found delicate wild strawberries growing in a small patch of sun and clicked a picture of the tiny berries just starting to change to pink. Higher up, a trickle of water ran across the path. Right where it entered, she photographed a fern arching over the water and a waterskipper skimming underneath. The pictures would help her draw later.
Something snapped right behind her, then something bumped against her hard. Instantaneously she felt something grab her, trapping her arms down.
Just as she screamed, a stinky hand clamped down on her mouth, pushing her top lip into her teeth. Still, with her mouth forced shut, she yelled, straining her throat and making her eyes water.
“Hush! Or I’ll hurt you even worse.”
Despite the threat, she yelled into his hand, even as he kicked her feet out from under her and dragged her backwards roughly, right into the brush on the other side of the trail. Avery fought back. Like hell she was going to listen to him. She thrashed, kicked and made as much noise as possible. The man cursed and pulled her through more branches.
“I’ll make you sorry, stupid little-”
A growl and streak of dark silenced him. He stopped pulling and she pushed her chin down to see a large, dark gray wolf snarling at them, its face close to the ground like it planned to lunge. She flinched, trying to throw her hands up over her face, but her arms were trapped. Helpless, she could only look right back into the wolf’s amber eyes, glowing like fire because they were so bright against his dark fur.
The crappy excuse of a man shoved her toward the animal.
Avery screamed in terror, flailing. The wolf jumped the out of the way as she fell onto the ground. Just as she scampered away, the wolf jumped at the man and knocked him over onto his back. Scampering, gasping, she had no idea what to do but run.
She didn’t see a path or even look for one, but instead pushed and clawed through branches and thorns, trying to get away. It took a long time to break free from the briars and bushes into an opening. It was dark forest with a pine needle floor arching up a hill under the tall evergreens. There wasn’t anything that looked like a trail, not even a deer trail. Now what?
Another, different kind of panic slammed into her. She turned around, scared but knowing she might need to backtrack.
She ran right into someone. “Ke!”
“What’s the matter? Are you lost out here?” His voice calmed her. His strong arms held her up.
Without a second thought, she slipped her arms around him and held on tightly, searching for words. She needed to explain, maybe warn him. “There’s a man… why are you way out here?”
She looked up and noticed, for the first time, that his brown eyes were more of an amber with flecks of red and gold.
“It’s okay, I promise. I told your dad I’d watch out for you, remember?”
Her legs had gone to putty minutes before. She hardly cared she was hanging in his arms like a rag doll, gazing up at his handsome reddish brown face, at his eyes that told stories and kept secrets at the same time.
He pulled her closer and cradled her head into his neck, supporting her. “Shh, it’s okay now. We’ll head down to the back road and circle back to your car. I’ll get your stuff later, after we call the police.”
The police. That man. “What will we tell them?”
“The truth. You’re not sure what happened to that guy, just that something seemed to grab him and you got away. There’s bear and cougars out here. Maybe someone’s half wild dog. You never know. But you’re safe, and that’s all that matters.”
Her mind couldn’t fit the pieces together, but she did remember one thing. Ke had promised her dad he would look after her.
Trust him, Avery. It came in the breeze weaving through the ancient trees, in the light whispering high above.
Trust him, Avery.
She looked up to the amber fire eyes again. Protective and fierce. Soft and yet strong.
“Thank you,” she whispered. His eyes acknowledged her before he buried his face into her hair, a wild and messy mass of red curls she was sure, and held her tighter. Only then did she wonder if he had been scared for her.
Her heartbeat slowed and she felt at peace, just like in her dream. Somewhere above the wind moved branches and sunlight suddenly danced all around them.