The sound of snow crunching beneath his feet was deafening. When he paused to collect himself, all he could hear was his labored breathing and the blood pounding in his ears. The longer he rested with his back against the tree trunk, the more pain he felt radiating from his twisted ankle. Up to this point, fear and adrenaline had blocked any sensation that would have hindered his escape.
He had never run so fast for so long without stopping. He was exhausted, and his ankle was swelling. The sun was just beginning to dip below the treetops. There was no sign of pursuit, and he wanted so badly to believe he was free. But there was a commanding voice somewhere in the back of his mind—instinct perhaps—that told him to stay hidden.
The sun continued to set while he waited with baited breath. He couldn’t be sure how long he waited when he suddenly heard the crunch of snow once again. He clapped a hand over his mouth and closed his eyes. Maybe she would just keep walking. Maybe she would not detect his presence.
The footsteps came to a halt. His heart thumped rapidly. What would he do if she found him? He couldn’t run anymore, his ankle hurt too badly. He heard her take two more hesitant steps. She was panting and gasping.
“Stephen?” she called desperately. “That’s your name, right?”
Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes freezing on his skin. Still, he was careful not to give himself away. He had only needed to jumpstart his car, and instead his evening turned into a nightmare. She and the three others in her truck had seemed so nice at first when they pulled over to help him.
“Come on, Stephen,” she implored him. “It’s cold and I’m tired.” It was so quiet that he could hear her inhale shallowly. “I’m trying to help you!”
He finally opened his eyes. She sounded panicked. Why would she be afraid? He was the one being chased. She had nothing to fear.
“I just want to talk,” she pleaded. He took his hand away from his mouth. It was a dangerous thought, but he almost believed her. Slowly, painfully slowly, he moved to look around the tree trunk. She stood with her back to him. Her fists were clenched at her sides, caked in dry blood. “Don’t be afraid,” she entreated and turned around. He jerked back behind the tree. It was close, but he didn’t think she saw him.
“You escaped me once,” she reasoned. “If I betray you now, then I bet you can do it again.”
She couldn’t believe she let him escape! Frantically, she looked around the small clearing. He couldn’t have run much farther than this. She was right behind him the whole time. If only she hadn’t slipped on a translucent patch ice. The torn skin of her palms stung in the frigid air. Where was Stephen? She wished she could go back in time and make sure he never saw what was in the truck bed. Then none of this would have happened.
“Stephen?” she called to him again. She hated how her voice cracked, but she had to conceal her desperation. If she didn’t find him, then there was no going back to the group. However, he didn’t have to know that. She needed all the leverage she could get.
Did she even want to go back to the group? Yes, said the dominant part of her brain. No! screamed the part of her that was still a scared little girl.
“I know what you saw back there.” No use in trying to deny the horrific scene that scared him away in the first place. “But it’s not what you think. I want you to be safe. I want you to get away, but you’re going to need my help.”
There was no reply. She didn’t want to cry, but she didn’t know how much longer she could hold the tears at bay. At present, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to happen. Half of her would do anything—say anything—to lure him out into the open just so she could pounce. The other half wanted him to escape her clutches; that part of her wanted to give him a blanket and a compass and yell at him to run.
“It’s cold out here,” she said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear wherever he had taken refuge. “If you come out, I can give you a blanket and a thermos of hot coffee.” A branch snapped, and she heard something fall in the snow. She turned around in a circle carefully.
He was close. Very close.
“I know what you saw,” she said. “But it’s not what you think.” He was almost insulted. Was she really attempting to make what he saw sound benign? He wasn’t even certain what he saw, but no one could have innocent intentions with that much blood and gore in the back of a truck. He was sure he saw a severed hand beneath the tarp. Then he took off running.
“It’s cold out here,” she said, and he had to agree. The air was so cold it felt like his exposed skin was being stabbed with hundreds of needles. “If you come out, I can give you a blanket and a thermos of hot coffee.” He didn’t think a blanket would do him much good at this point, but coffee sounded heavenly.
It was a tempting offer, and she sounded sincere. He braced himself on a low-hanging branch, peering around the trunk. Thankfully her back was to him once more. All of a sudden, the branch he was holding broke. He tumbled to the ground and scrambled behind a different tree. An evergreen this time. Pine needles rained down into his hair.
She stopped speaking and pivoted in a circle. He covered his mouth again, breathing harshly against his palm. This was it. It was all over.
“It’s just me, you know.” Her voice was soft, but there was an undertone of excitement. “My friends, they’re all back by the highway. They can’t hurt you.” He looked over his shoulder from behind his new hiding place. She was facing the right direction, but her eyes were gliding all around the clearing. She hadn’t spotted him yet.
She took a small step forward. “I know you don’t believe me, but I’m not like the others.” She was right, he didn’t, but it also made sense. The first time he saw her, he thought she had kind eyes and a nice smile. She reminded him of his sister, not someone capable of violence and destruction.
“It makes me sick,” her voice wavered, “to think about the things I’ve done.” Even from a distance, he saw tear tracks shining against her flushed cheeks.
She was losing herself. It felt as though she was being torn in two. She did feel sick. She did want to believe she was different.
She wasn’t different though, was she?
“Stephen.” She was, and always would be, a bloodthirsty wolf. “Please don’t run from me.” The cool metal of a knife was pressed to the skin of her thigh. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt. Poor rabbit.
Why else would she sound scared, unless she was different from her friends? Why else would she be horrified by the contents of the truck bed? Even if she was lying to him, it was impossible for him to outrun her again with his injured ankle. Whether she truly wished to help him or not, this was the end of the line.
“Please don’t run from me.” She was crying. He snuck a glance at her once more. She had fallen to her knees, half buried in the snow. Her eyes were watery and red. He didn’t back down the next time she scanned the clearing. Their eyes met.
He stood shakily and limped into view, favoring his right foot. When she sighed, he wondered if it was caused by relief or some other emotion lurking just beneath the surface.
“You’ll be safe with me, I promise,” she whispered. She gazed up at him as he drew nearer. “Do you trust me?”
His heart galloped a mile a minute beneath his ribcage. What he was about to do would either be a life-saving decision or a grave mistake. He did not come to a halt until he towered over her huddled form. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
He offered her his hand.
There was a moment in which nothing happened—a moment of liminality. She stared at his hand, shaking and sweating. The air was electrically charged. A choice had to be made soon. They could not forever exist in this calm eye of the storm.
She accepted his hand.
Behind her back, she held the knife in an iron grip.