There was snow on the ground, but there usually was in November in Maine. It was freezing against the pads of my feet, but it also quieted my steps, creating a cushion beneath my paws. I glanced down at the thought, extending my claws so they scratched over the cold ground, getting a feel for the terrain so I was prepared and fully in harmony with the environment.
The blanket of snow only helped me to creep silently through the forest if I didn’t fall straight on my ass with the first step.
I huffed, the breath hanging like a stark, white cloud for a few seconds, before dissolving away into the atmosphere. Lowering my muzzle to the ground, I took in a long, deep breath. The icy cold filled my lungs and froze everything else out. It lasted only a moment before my senses recovered, and his scent flooded my nose. I latched onto it, mentally mapping out the route he would have taken.
The trail veered to the left, through a thicket. I was smaller and more agile than the wolf that had passed through before me, which was proven by the clump of black fur that clung to the branch extending outwards of the thorny bush, swaying lightly in the breeze. I shook my head as I passed, snorting with amusement. This was going to be too easy.
I pushed through the thicket, huffing, and trying to quiet a sneeze as drops of snow fell onto my nose. Once my head emerged in the small clearing on the other side, I paused. I hunkered down low to the ground and looked around.
The clearing was empty, save for the trees that stood like bare skeletons with branches like grotesque, reaching arms, completely devoid of leaves. It would be eerie, I thought, to anybody else. But not to me. This was my home, my place, where I was most comfortable.
Still, I waited, listening for any sign of him. Anything to give away that he was close by.
There was nothing.
I heard twigs snapping underfoot as other inhabitants of the forest retreated from the threat, the predator, in their midst. A cluster of birds, who had settled on one of the highest branches, took off suddenly. I lifted my head to watch as they frantically flew away, never breaking formation.
Satisfied that nobody was waiting for me, I heaved the rest of my body through into the clearing. As I straightened, a breeze blew through the space, lifting dead leaves off the ground. They swirled under my snout before settling again atop my paws and, as I shook them off, I caught a fresh wave of the scent that I had been tracking.
I hesitated rather than immediately chasing after it, lowering my head again to the ground and sniffing. Assessing.
He had at least tried to make it a challenge. The trail went this way and that, zigzagging in and around the small clearing. But the breeze had changed direction, and I now found myself down-wind. That meant that his scent floated strongly on every gust that swept through the forest. It was impossible to miss.
With a grin, I lowered my forelegs to the ground, my rump in the air. Then I pushed off with a leap, landing heavily with my paws thumping against the ground. It was only marginally quieted by the blanket of snow. He would hear me coming. I didn’t care. The hunt was over; now it was about the chase.
I was more nimble, lither, and way smarter. In a sprint, he would be faster than me. But this wasn’t a sprint. We weren’t on a track with a smooth, tarmacked surface and no obstacles to manoeuvre. This was a forest. A forest filled with wildlife, with huge tree trunks and bushes and uneven terrain. He would run felt pelt to try to evade me, but his size was another obstacle for him to contend with. It would be too easy for him to crash into something… especially if I made enough noise to make him think I was closing in. It would panic him, and he would soon tire.
As the thought crossed my mind, I spotted him. I caught the swish of a black bushy tail as it whipped round a thick baron tree trunk with its roots jutting at the base. He was only about a hundred feet ahead of me.
He was growing tired, having hit the ground at full speed at the first hint that I was catching him up. He was slowing down, and I paused, letting him think that I too was waning… but only for a few seconds. Then my paws slammed against the ground, and I flew across the forest floor, dodging tree stumps, roots, and low-hanging branches until he was only a few feet away.
He risked a quick glance over his shoulder, and I saw his eyes flash with emotion. Anger? Nervousness? Denial? I couldn’t tell, but that moment of hesitation was his last mistake: it was all I needed to take him down.
I lunged, smacking into the space between his stomach and his hind. It knocked him to the ground with a thump, and I towered over him, pinning him to the ground with my paws on his shoulders.
He growled beneath me, and I bared my teeth in a final victorious grin. His eyes, so dark that they looked black, stared straight into mine with a startling intensity. I didn’t waver. Finally, he huffed, grudgingly accepting his defeat. Then he nudged me with his snout, giving a snort of annoyance. I fell back, allowing him to clamber to his feet.
With one last glower at me, he turned and loped away into the forest.
He spent around thirty minutes licking his emotional wounds after the crushing defeat. I sat on an overturned log in the middle of a clearing, waiting, adrenaline still rushing through my veins even though I was back in my human form.
We had made this clearing our spot. Our hideaway; the same way other kids might build a treehouse or a fort. It was our special little place, deep in the forest. At least, as deep as my Dad allowed it, which was about a mile from the forest’s edge.
We had been coming here since well before either of our first changes. Back when we were normal kids hanging out. The campfire in the middle of the clearing, that we had added a couple of years ago, sat untouched now. Ray, the pack Alpha, forbade us to light it when we were out on a run in case it attracted attention. There had been a party somewhere nearby a year ago, and it caught the attention of the police and fire department. It was just kids messing around, but we couldn’t take the chance of the authorities turning up over a campfire when we were in our wolf forms. The pack tried to fly under the radar as much as possible.
Runs were the only time he would come out with me anyway these days, so the old, charred logs lay damp and unused. Just a reminder of the friendship that we once had. The friendship that I still craved so much.
We didn’t hang out like we used to; he preferred the company of his friends at school, namely the guys on the basketball team. Plus, he was a senior, and I was a junior, so we ran in different circles.
Honestly, that was a hell of an exaggeration. Mine wasn’t much of a circle. Not much of anything, really, since I spent most of my time on my own. I had people that I chatted to in class, but I preferred my own company. It was difficult to maintain meaningful relationships with humans when you couldn’t be honest with them about who you really were. It wasn’t like it was as simple as saying ’Hey, I’m Madison and I’m your friendly, local werewolf.’
Yeah… I’d be burned at the stake or something if that information ever made it around the halls of Naples High School.
Despite the distance that had grown between us over the last few years, we still shared this one thing, Henry and me. And I loved that it was something that he could never share with any of the girls at school.
The soft, almost inaudible, sound of snow crunching under feet pulled me from my wistful thoughts. I glanced up to see him ducking under a bare branch that was hanging low, reaching like a claw towards the ground.
He didn’t quite duck low enough, and the top of his head grazed the branch. It disturbed it enough to make it judder slightly, and a small pile of snow slid off to land on his crown. He swept it away with a glower, as if the branch had appeared from nowhere to slap him in the face, rather than him being the trespasser in the forest. Then he combed his fingers through his mop of jet-black hair to straighten it out.
Just the sight of him still made my heartbeat a little faster, and I had to work hard to steady my breathing. Even from the opposite side of the clearing, he would be able to hear the pounding of it, and I couldn’t handle him asking questions about that. I had been hiding my feelings for Henry for a very long time, and today wasn’t the day for that secret to blow.
“Hey loser.” I smirked, ignoring the rush of heat pulsing through my body. “Enjoy your run?”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes before he stooped to the ground. When he straightened, he had a snowball clutched in his fist. It left his hand barely a second later, hurtling straight to my head before I had a chance to react.
I gasped as it collided with me. It slid down the back of my hair, dripping beneath my shirt and sliding down my back, leaving an icy trail in its wake as it made its way down my spine
“Jerk!” I yelled, shivers running through me at the contrast of the freezing cold of the snow against the flush of my body heat.
He laughed at that, “That was to get you back for cheating... again.”
“Hey, if you fall for it every single time, then that’s your problem, my friend. Not mine.” I argued as I bounced on my feet, wiggling and lifting the back of my shirt to allow the snow to drop out onto the ground. I smirked once more as I straightened myself out again. “First rule of wolf school – conserve your energy, or you become dinner for a bigger and stronger predator.”
He rolled his eyes, “And that’s you, is it? All 5′2" of you?”
I glared at him, making him chuckle lightly as he sat down beside me on the log. “Well, all 5′2" of me tackled your ass to the ground, didn’t it? Perhaps being freakishly tall is not a good indicator of a scary werewolf, Barton.” I pushed every ounce of sass that I could muster into my voice. It probably didn’t sound like much, and it got a genuine laugh from him. A laugh so loud it startled the wildlife, who took off scurrying away from our clearing. It was almost musical, and I couldn’t stop a grin spreading across my lips at the sound; I heard it so rarely nowadays.
“Why are you laughing? I beat you!” I huffed, trying to force a frown back onto my face.
He smirked and nudged me, and my arm tingled at his touch, my body automatically leaning, wanting to be closer to him. He stood up then, still with that stupid smirk on his face that made my insides go to mush. I was acting like I was one of the stupid cheerleaders at school who fawned over him. The idea drove me crazy, but I couldn’t help it. He’d always had that effect on me.
“Yes, Maddie, you beat me. And I in no way let you win.” He held his hand out towards me, offering it to me to help me up. “Nope, definitely not. You are the bigger and stronger predator,” he paused, peering straight into my eyes, “the big scary werewolf.” He added with a wink.
I glared up at him. “You did not let me win! I beat you fair and square.” He was still smirking, and the twinkle in his eye told me he knew it was winding me up. He had an uncanny ability to push every single one of my buttons all at the same time, and he loved it.
But that was Henry Barton for you, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this little back and forth between us. It reminded me of old times. Times when he was still my best friend. Before he decided that the pack wasn’t enough for him anymore.
That I wasn’t enough for him anymore.
I pushed back the unwelcome thought, halting the heavy feeling before it settled in the pit of my stomach. Then I swatted his hand away, my lip jutting out in a pout.
“Jerk.” I grumbled.
He let out another laugh. “Yeah, you already mentioned that.” He said, before he turned on his heels and began to walk towards home.
I waited a few moments, just watching him walk. He was wearing those slim fit grey sweatpants that hugged his muscular legs perfectly, and a tight black shirt that showed the ripple of every muscle on his stomach. He didn’t bring shoes, preferring instead to walk barefoot in the snow, allowing it to cool down the raging heat that always pulsed through us after a run.
I drew my tongue slowly over my bottom lip as I fixated on his retreating form.
“Madison, are you coming or what?” He called, turning back to look at me, and I jumped, almost tumbling backwards off the log. I caught myself before I slipped, and he raised his eyebrow when he saw that I was still sitting in the same place.
I sighed, shaking my head to clear the mess of thoughts running through my mind. Who was I kidding? I was one of those girls fawning over Henry Barton, and I had been for as long as I could remember. But this year, I decided, I was going to tell him. I was going to tell him exactly how I felt…
I just wasn’t ready today.
“Coming!” I called before jogging to catch him up.