The few glasses of wine Natalie had downed only twenty minutes prior buzzed beneath her skin as she tilted her face up to the sky and breathed the night air deep into her lungs. It filled her with summer warmth and comfort, but maybe that was just the wine making her feel that way. Her steps were light as she crossed the street and used a light post to swing herself onto the sidewalk.
In her mind, her best friend’s words of caution were still fresh but Natalie didn’t let the worry in her voice get to her tonight.
Be careful walking home. I wish you’d just get a car already.
Jenna was always hounding her about walking everywhere. Sure, the city had its bad parts, but they were on the outskirts, surrounding the more industrial areas of the city. Where Natalie was tonight was close to the hospital and university. Police patrolled the area all night and besides, she was equipped with the bottle of pepper spray she’d picked up several years ago in college.
Don’t worry, she had told Jenna with a roll of her eyes. I don’t live far.
Still, call me if you feel unsafe. I’ll pick you up.
Natalie had left her best friend outside their favorite weekend hangout spot with a promise that she would text as soon as she walked in her front door. It wouldn’t take long for her to make it back to her apartment anyway.
Maybe half an hour—less than that if she took the shortcut.
Natalie came to a stop at the corner a few blocks from the bar and adjusted the strap of her purse on her shoulder. She had two options.
She could either go several blocks out of the way but stick to the streets and well-lit areas…or she could cut through a small section of woods that sat between her current location and her apartment building. It took so much time off of her walk that it would almost be stupid not to take the shortcut.
Sure, it was dark and the woods were creepy, not to mention a small section of a national forest that sat up against the city limits, but she’d walked it a hundred times back when she attended university. Besides, the moon was full tonight and would provide enough light to keep her on the well-worn path through the trees.
With a nod, she spun on her heel and left the sidewalk. The dew clinging to the grass tickled the sides of her feet and she wrinkled her nose, wishing she had thought to bring some tennis shoes.
Oh well, she thought to herself, hurrying up the small bank of grass to duck into the trees. I’ll be home in fifteen minutes and besides, a little wet grass never killed anyone.
The path cut through the underbrush the same as it always had and Natalie found it easily with the help of the full moon. It cast a glow around her, giving her enough to see the thick, low-hanging branches of the trees and bushes that lined the path. A sweet scent hung in the air and again, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath of it, letting it caress her senses. There must have been lilac bushes nearby. With each gentle breeze that blew the strands of her hair across her face, the smell of it grew stronger and stronger.
How wonderful it would be to wake up to that smell in the morning.
Natalie’s eyes slowly opened and she sniffed the air again, turning her head as it grew stronger back to the right. She narrowed her eyes and scanned the bushes sitting beneath the trees. A few of them were thin and squat but one, right in a relatively clear spot in the woods, was a full, lush thicket of lilac flowers.
The soft petals were nearly white beneath the glow of the moon and Natalie’s mouth stretched into a grin. She stepped off the path and over a tree root jutting up from the mossy ground, her eyes never leaving the enormous lilac blooms.
In her head, she counted the steps she took away from the path. She wasn’t an idiot, after all. No matter how tipsy she was, she knew it was a monumentally dumb idea to leave the trail and could almost hear Jenna’s shrill voice scolding her for being so stupid. But the bush was only twenty-two steps away from the trail and she was confident in her ability to find her way back.
Greedily, her hands plunged into the leaves and she snapped the stalks, leaving enough length that she could submerge them in a glass of water. She pressed her nose into the bundle in her hands and breathed in deep, unable to contain the soft moan that vibrated her throat.
Something else pricked her ear at the same time.
It was another low sound, a strange mix between a growl and a sigh.
She froze, staring into the bush as she waited and listened as hard as she could. There was nothing beneath the distant sound of cars and trucks on the highway overpass or the occasional swish of leaves in the breeze. Maybe she was just imagining things.
Gripping the bundle of lilac in her left hand, she dug her right into her purse and let out a sigh as she brushed her knuckles against her key ring. The metal clinked as she pulled it free of her purse and she clutched it tight to her chest to keep it quiet.
The pink bottle of pepper spray hung from one of the rings and she clamped it between her ribs and her elbow. But she was just being cautious. There was no reason to worry, really. No one had followed her. Not from the bar and definitely not into the shortcut through the woods. She would have heard them long before that strange growl sound she had imagined.
Natalie plucked a final bunch of lilac from the bush and turned on her heel to face the path. Only twenty-one steps and she would be back on the trail and heading home.
For the second time, the growling sound caught her attention, and this time, it sent ice through her veins, freezing her feet to the mossy forest floor. She held her breath, too terrified to even remember how to breathe, and her eyes darted from left to right.
Even with the generous light from the moon, she could see nothing but the trees and underbrush.
It’s just a dog…A dog that doesn’t want you to bother it so it would be best to get back to the path and get the fuck home.
Natalie crept onward, counting to sixteen in her head while she quickly gripped the tube of pepper spray in her hand.
Her foot lifted from the leaf-strewn ground with the intent to step over a tree root and come down as number fifteen, but she never got the chance. To her left, behind a rather thick tree surrounded by a bush of thorns and prickly leaves, what she had previously decided was a dog, let out another growl that made her second guess herself. It was low and fierce, one that she could feel vibrate through her entire body. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she finally let out a breath that shuddered in her chest.
Not a dog.
Definitely not a dog.
Her eyes cut from one side of the bush to the other before darting ahead of her where the path was. Only fifteen steps away. Could she make it if she ran?
Movement caught her eye and she slowly turned her head to where the sound came from. Everything shifted into slow motion. What could have only been a single second, one beat of her heart, felt as if it passed by like hours.
It—because she had no other way to describe this thing aside from it—stood to its full height, towering above her even from several yards away. Black and silver fur, longer atop its head like a horse’s mane, glowed beneath the moonlight and as it passed through one of the moonbeams, its eyes briefly flashed green.
Minutes could have passed, possibly hours, as Natalie and this horrifying creature stared one another down. Terror seized her by the heart and clutched it so tightly, that her pulse thundered in its grip. She stumbled back on her heels, her gaze falling to the animal’s snout. Its lips curled and another deep rumble rolled through its chest.
Half of her wanted to succumb to the paralyzing fear.
The other half was screaming at her to run.
And it was that half that she listened to.
Natalie whirled around on her heels and took off as fast as she could go.