It was the smell that woke me. It was musky…earthy. Primal. It slid into my dreams as I slept, sticking its red scents into my brain like a leech, fattening itself of the blood of my fear as I began to slowly regain consciousness. I became slowly aware of my surroundings.
It was cold. An icy breeze blew through the house making me shiver. I was uncovered and in a ball to keep myself warm. I groped behind me.
“Suze,” I said, my voice sounding thick to my own ears. “Suze, quit hogging the covers.”
My groping hand found only empty space and I came fully awake. I rolled over to look at the space where my wife should have been. The blankets were down at the foot of the bed. Susan’s pillow was where it should be. Susan was nowhere in sight.
I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. The door was closed. No light filtered from around the frame, but I knocked anyway, my heart pounding in my ears.
It was complete silence. With a trembling hand, I slowly reached down and turned the knob. The door swung open to reveal the empty bathroom. I stood in the doorway, pulse quickening. I did not know why I was so scared, but Susan’s absence was unnerving me.
I wondered if she had gone to get something to drink. It was not her habit, but I was hoping that she had just been thirsty. Trying to convince myself, I began walking toward the kitchen. As I passed Danny’s door, I stopped cold.
Danny had been with us. He had been sleeping between Susan and me.
I pushed Danny’s door open and found the room empty. Adrenaline was rushing through my body and I forced myself to calm down.
They’re both in the kitchen, I told myself. Danny woke up thirsty and Susan didn’t want to wake me. So they got out of bed and quietly went into the kitchen.
The kitchen was dark and icy cold. I felt as though I were standing in a meat locker. Moonlight was filtering malevolently through the window over the sink. Nobody was in the room but me.
I walked through the kitchen, hoping that Susan and Danny were just in the living room. I knew they weren’t before I even got there. The light was out. There was no sign of them.
The front door stood open.
I stood like a statue as the icy wind from the late autumn blew around me. Susan’s and Danny’s coats were still hanging up. Their shoes still sat beside the door. There was no reason for me to think that they had left the house.
Except for the fact that I knew they had.
I walked to the door and peered out. A wolf barked a laugh at me somewhere in the night as I scanned the trees that surrounded the house. My heart was pounding so hard now that I thought my ribs were going to break. I was desperately trying to control my breathing, which was coming in ragged, fearful gasps.
Movement caught my eye and I turned. Two figures, one taller than the other, were slowly moving towards the darkest part of the wood. One was wearing a gown that seemed to shimmer in the moonlight.
“Susan!” I cried. I left the house, running barefoot across the frozen ground. Neither figure turned as I ran, calling out their names. The land seemed to distort and no matter how fast I pumped my legs, they seemed to stay the same distance away.
They disappeared into the forest. Moments later I ran in after them. I could not have been more than a few seconds behind them, but when I entered the wood, they were nowhere to be seen. I began trying to find their tracks, but to no avail. I had given up that way so many years ago I might have well been trying to track the wind.
I stopped and held my breath, listening. I could hear nothing over the blood rushing through my ears. I let go in a raspy gasp. I had no idea which way to turn.
A flash of white caught my eye to the right. I darted in that direction. My feet were bleeding from running bare over the detritus that littered the forest floor. I did not care. I wanted my family back.
I rounded a large tree and saw Susan and Danny disappear into a hole in a giant tree. I had never seen this tree before, but I did not care. I knew where they were. I ran harder. A large shape suddenly blocked my way. I skidded to a stop before it. I could smell the earthy wrongness that had woken me as it coated me like oil. Glowing green eyes flashed out of the darkness and the moonlight shone off of white fangs.
Instinct took over as I back-peddled as this thing swiped a massive limb at me. I could hear the air split as claws ripped through the space between us. I forgot momentarily about Susan and Danny. This thing was out to kill me.
The only coherent thought I could muster was, Winchester. My lever-action rifle was back at the house. I turned around and ran with all my might back the direction I came. The beast was chasing me, its foul breath sucking in the night air as it loped behind me. I could smell dead things, damned things.
I made the clearing and ran flat out to the house, the creature on my heels. I reached the door in seconds and dove through. I hit the floor, rolling and standing clumsily. The Winchester was in the gun cabinet in the hallway. Locked.
I broke the glass with my bare hands.
I pulled the rifle out and swung it around, expecting the creature to be on me, descending to rend my flesh from my bones.
The hallway was empty.
The house was empty.
I walked slowly back through the living room to the front door, my hands and feet leaving droplets of blood on the wooded floor. No creature lunged. Nothing stirred.
There was a single wolf howl in the distance.
Without a shot fired, my family was gone.
And I was alone.