A shiver raced along my spine at the eerie-calm atmosphere of the chilled October night, every sound amplified by the trickle of irrational caution sharpening my senses. Portstown a small country town on the rise, a safe cozy place where folklore and ghost stories ran rampant, creating chilling mysteries at every turn. Tales of the drunkard who fell down the town well and now haunted the square, or the Old Cliff Manor on the forest hill didn’t rattle me. They were nothing more than fiction. Manifestations of overactive imaginations, but that didn’t stop my body from reacting. I still raced past the well with quickened steps, and avoided the hidden drive that lead to the manor. Now faced with a subtle, faint noise just feet behind me, my body responded.
I froze at sound of loose bits of gravel tumbling down from the incline the iron train tracks sat on at my back. The old decayed rails, no longer in use expect for ghoulish local history, cut Portstown into north and south. Countless paranormal investigators visited this area with hand-held cameras and other strange equipment, stating the tracks were a perfect place to catch a ghost on film. Then, there was the bridge a quarter of a mile up the tracks with a gruesome history of suicides.
It was the influence of those tall tales and the memory of Marty’s creepy voice as she told them that made my spine tingle, because I wasn’t a true believer. My fear was a phantom response.
Shaking off the sound of shifting stone, I dared another step farther with my back still to the old iron rails, laughing at myself for the ridiculous reaction to such typical night sounds. Stones fell. They moved on their own or under a light breeze. That was normal, but the crisp, sharp crunch of autumn leaves breaking under foot wasn’t.
“Hello?” I asked into the darkness as I turned to look over my shoulder.
My heart jumped a little with a fight or flight reaction, but my mind whispered that the fear was irrational.
This was silly. Other people were about, making their way home from the Friday night football game. The whole town had been there and a lot of people traveled these tracks as a quick way to and from the field, but it was also late—later than most would be lingering around this part of town. The reason for my lingering was due to my unfortunate luck of dating a clueless jock, which is how I found myself in the current situation… Alone and isolated with the memory of a boy dismembered by a train. Damn Marty and her stories.
There was no response and, despite the itchy fear pestering my senses, I played off the crunching as a passing critter. Lifting my foot to take a step, I was spooked by a sound I couldn’t reason out as something innocent. A low growl in the otherwise-silent night sent a lump into my throat and shocked me into numb disbelief.
What is that?
I placed my foot back, no longer willing to risk a step forward. The growl disappeared. It cut off the second my foot touched the ground.
It was quiet once again but deeper this time. No chatter from crickets or small critters sounded, not even the wind whistled as it swept through my hair. I should have felt relief at such peace, but instead it brought alarm. An anxious energy of the unknown at my back spurred a flurry of wild possibilities.
The first thought was of some mother animal I disrupted while trying to cross the tracks, maybe even tripping over their nest in the dark without realizing it.
Could I be sure what I heard was a growl?
It was low and quick, paired with my fear response, this could easily be a trick of the mind. A bit of teenage imagination amplified by the spine-tingling setting of October.
Yes, that’s all it was.
How silly to get caught up in the atmosphere of the season. Later I would laugh about this foolish moment, and how Marty finally got to me with those stories of hers. Breathing deep through the jittery feeling, I lifted my foot with a newfound confidence.
The growl came again, followed by a snarl, but it was much louder—much closer. There was no mistaking it for anything else, a rumble of warning that echoed off dead air. Low and wavering in pitch, like an animal signaling a coming attack. This time fear smothered me. It tensed my shoulders and made me cringe.
I shrank like cowering prey.
It’s right behind me, I panicked, drawing my foot back. The noise stopped.
Frantically my thoughts turned to solutions, an explanation of what was lingering at my back. Trying to reason the most terrifying moment of my life, even if my mind refused to admit it. In the moment of stilling terror my head insisted the events were being taken out of proportion, that I would turn and find a small dog. A Chihuahua that acted too tough for its size. Some fluffy small dog.
No, it had to be something bigger, but definitely canine.
Perhaps Molly, Farmer Tucker’s old dog, she was the right size and also had a history of wandering off the farm. That old dog never cared much for me, but she was harmless. Worn out bloodhound with a mouth full of gums, “more bark than bite,” Farmer Tucker often joked.
A reasonable conclusion, but my instinct wasn’t buying it. I couldn’t pull myself back from the edge of unease, my remaining courage going toward proving my Molly theory and willing myself to turn. Glancing over my shoulder, I expected to find toothless Molly flapping her gums in a soggy mouth, but it wasn’t the old bloodhound.
What I came face to face with stripped away rational thought, and replaced it with a crazed impulse of flight. My mind was empty, too paralyzed by a creature in the tree-line. I wanted to look away but couldn’t, my body wanting to run but unable to move. My breath choked in my throat, leaving me lightheaded while the small portion of me that remained functioning fought to accept reality.
There, down the incline of stone, was a mass. A large...thing hiding between two maple trees, eerie eyes glowing. The ominous shine was not reflected light from somewhere else, because there was no other light and the glow was too intense for a reflection. It pierced through the darkness, targeting me.
A dog, or wolf—maybe both, easily the size of a fawn or calf. With a misty black body I swear I could see through, and faded out of the shadowed tree-line. White fangs extended from a slightly parted mouth to intimidate. It was working.
Unexplainable. Otherworldly or whatever...this isn’t Molly.
My body trembled as the dog—wolf—thing started to snap and snarl in my direction, causing thick white foam to form around its mouth. It looked rabid, wild, and out of control. I was going to be bitten, or worse.
I was going to die.
Clenching my eyes shut, I hoped to cause the thing to disappear as if it was something conjured up by my thoughts. An illusion of my imagination thanks to the over-dramatization of local stories, but it wasn’t. The sharp snap of teeth gnashing made me jump, startled by the crisp ring they produced.
This can’t be happening.
I could see the headline in the morning paper already, ‘Local Girl Mauled On Tracks’. That would be my legacy. The article vague, with little detail, to save the town from the awful bloody truth. Those who witnessed my body ripped to pieces would talk in interviews about how it changed them. Local cops would recall the awful scene and the tragedy of such a loss. Then, in a few years, the story would fade into another town legend told around campfires, or at parties in the old cemeteries. Shortly after, the paranormal investigators would come…hoping to catch my disembodied voice from beyond the grave. My death was going to end up as a joke.
“Are you alright?”
I thought I heard someone say, but it wasn’t possible. My mind playing tricks no doubt, but I wasn’t falling for it anymore.
When, I was a kid I saw things—heard things. Disturbing things. It would take the comforting embrace of my father to ease me back from hysterics and make the monsters go away, but he wasn’t here. Not this time. There was nobody here, just me and the animal.
I couldn’t open my eyes, not now. It was going to kill me and I didn’t want to see it coming.
My mind tortured me with how the next few moments would play out, calling up images of animal attacks from the boring documentaries they made us watch in class. The dog-wolf-thing would charge me from the shadows and topple us both over, pinning me down, my body frail and tiny compared to it, and easily overpowered. Those sharp, snapping jaws clamping around my face and ripping it off in one clean motion, or maybe it would go for the throat. A quick kill. Making death instant instead of painfully long.
I have a sick imagination.
A pressure against my arms slapped me back to the moment. This is it!
My body jumped into action without my brain processing a thought I thrashed with my hands, beating and clawing at the thing that had a hold of me. I wasn’t going without a fight.
“Hey,” a soft voice said. “Settle yourself.”
A male voice—a soothing male voice that somehow eased my terror.
I looked, praying the person wasn’t another cruel mental joke, and as I did I met the most amazing pair of deep azure eyes. All worry and fear vanished in those blue pools. My breath caught in my throat, my knees went weak, and I felt my palms start to sweat.
Please don’t be a dream.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Every single word in the English language, and the few I knew in French, left me. All of it gone. I nodded in response because it was all I could do, a small part of me still functioning.
A brilliant smile appeared on his full, thick lips that stretched across pearl-white teeth, his eyes brightening with that smile, and I felt my knees buckle. They gave way under me but I didn’t fall. Strong arms wrapped around my waist, holding me in place like I weighed nothing despite the two double bacon cheeseburgers I had at the football game. I’m such a pig.
Embarrassment crept across my cheeks as I placed my hands on his toned arms to steady myself. The stranger tensed under my touch and his eyes flashed from the warm color of sun-kissed waters to an intense sky blue. His smile fell with a gasp of shock. It was a startling reaction but I didn’t pay too much attention. Not with him so close and the heavenly scent rolling off his firm body. I could die now, that wolf-thing could rip me apart, and I wouldn’t protest.
The pleasant dreamy moment shattered back into alarming reality, the animal nowhere to be found. The feeling of safety vanished as my stomach dropped to the ground. Where’d it go?
Frantic, my eyes darted past the stranger to the line of trees where I witnessed the murderous red glow, but there was nothing. Not a single piece of evidence to suggest anything of its size or brutality had been there hiding among the trees’ shadows. A little ease settled over the adrenaline coursing through my system. Did it really happen?
Everything began to feel heavy, the whole world pressing down on me with the relief of the animal’s absence. The terror slowly seeped out of my body as I leaned my head against the stranger’s chest, his delightful smell lulling me into splendid calm. I felt his arm tense around me and I pulled away, feeling foolish. The look of shock in his eyes shifted to something far colder and serious as his jaw fixed into a tight line.
At first I thought I had gone too far, he was after all a stranger, but the low threatening rumble coming from behind him rushed the awkwardness away.
His hold on me eased as the stranger turned to face the animal. Leaving one hand at my side he pushed me behind him, careful not to move too fast. There was a defensive and cautious nature to his subtle movements, but now fear as he stared down the wolf-thing. I couldn’t see exactly where it was or how close, but it sounded close—maybe a foot or two away.
“Run,” he ordered, his soft tone gone. Physically he didn’t appear affected by the creature, but his voice held a shaky edge.
The command didn’t register, every part of me frazzled by the last few minutes. Overwhelmed by the swift change in the situation. I jumped from frightened to comforted then back to terrified.
“I said run,” he demanded, glancing back to me. Those brilliant piercing blue eyes frosted over with a dangerous primitive darkness.
I still didn’t move…I couldn’t. My body was back to clenching in a protective huddle, trying to defend from an imminent attack.
“Get the hell out of here!”
The harshness in the stranger’s voice knocked the hesitation from my body, and I ran. My feet sparked into action, darting off toward the opposite tree-line. If made it to the other side of this small wooded area, then home was within reach. Dashing blindly into the pitch-deep shadows of foliage I fought the urge to look back, the idea of seeing red eyes coming from the darkness behind me too terrifying.
My feet stumbled over large tree roots that stuck up from the ground, trampling the dry autumn leaves littering the forest floor. Managing, somehow, to snag every low-hanging or fallen branch in my path, the small hang-ups caused my heart to pound into my throat.
With each snag or jagged branch that caught my foot, panic screamed it was that wolf-thing. That it had caught me. The sharp prick of branches at my skin were claws or deadly fangs in a foaming mouth. An image of a powerful jaw clamping down on my ankle, the pain too intense to register, tormented me.
Twisted thoughts fueled by terror caused a wail of protest to spill from my lips each time I felt slight resistance, driving me faster. Harder. Not caring that I couldn’t see where I was going, or if I was still heading in the right direction.
I had to get away—far away.
My feet hit air instead of ground as I came to the edge of the woods, and I fell. My body tumbled down a slope, kicking up dirt and stones in my wake before landing on pavement. The varied hard ground scrapped at my hands and knees, the sting a minor annoyance compared to the wind that was knocked out of me. Stunned and dazed from the fall, my movements were sluggish as I took in frantic gulps of air, nearly chocking when I heard the animal behind me.
I clawed at the road beneath me, ready to fight for every last inch of freedom.
The steady tap of razor claws sounded against the hard road. It was coming. The icy October breeze at my back was a wicked taunt as the animal approached.
“Don’t just lie there,” the stranger snapped.
I looked up to find him towering over me, a gun extended in his hand toward the looming beast. His eyes were fixed in deadly warning toward his opponent.
I saw him pull the trigger but I still jumped at the sharp, ear-splitting bang that followed. It shattered through the still night. He fired three more shots and I flinched each time, my nerves frazzled.
Smoke rose from the barrel and I followed the direction of the gun, allowing relief to take away a bit of fear. The last thing I expected to see was the wolf-thing, untouched and pissed.
“Damn,” I heard the stranger curse.
He’s a terrible shot.
The stranger’s iron grip clenched my arm and pulled me to a stand, and before I could gain my footing I was being tugged forward. The stranger pulled me along like some rag doll, and it wasn’t long before I stumbled back down on sore knees.
“Stop messing around,” he yelled, like I fell on purpose. “Get up!”
Something about the way he yelled at me pissed me off. I didn’t mean to fall or slow him down. With anger rising above the fear and panic, I went to respond but the earth-shattering howl that blared behind us halted me mid-word.
The stranger’s grip tightened for a moment and he jerked me back up into a run, my shorter legs having trouble keeping up with his long strides.
Another howl followed by a snap and snarl pumped adrenaline through my body, a flutter of utter terror tickling at my nerve-endings as my speed increased. Within a second I was out of the stranger’s hold and rushing ahead of him. I turned the corner with him close behind, and I saw it. The stone wall that encircled my house. Our salvation feet away.
The rusted iron gate slammed against the stone as I dashed through and up the long path to the porch. The whole time I was trying to reach into my skintight jeans to grab the front door key, regretting the cheeseburgers more than ever.
I gave up reaching the key until I was standing still at the front door. I tried again to fit my hand into my tight pocket.
“What are you doing? Open the door!” the stranger yelled, barreling up the path.
I was getting really tired of being yelled at for things that were out of my control.
Fighting with the restricting fabric, I tried to grasp my keys that had fallen to the bottom of my pocket. Howling and snarls cut through the wild beats of my heart, reminding me of how close death was looming. Nervous energy coursed through my body, making it hard to stand still as I dug for the key, the sharp sound of more gunfire not helping.
The warm metal of my keys fluttered against my fingers, just out of reach.
Why is this so difficult?!
A strong force wrapped around my waist and tossed me to the side, and I hit the wall hard. The bastard threw me. A protest bubbled up from within but I didn’t say a word. I was too awestruck by what I was witnessing.
With one solid kick the stranger knocked in my front door, something I thought only possible in movies…especially since it was my door. The three-inch-thick hardwood slab could be a chore to open on muggy summer days.
“Impossible,” I gasped.
Pieces of wood splintered and flew from the powerful display along with portions of the newer brass lock that was now destroyed. I couldn’t believe it. Still stunned, the stranger grabbed my waist again and tossed me in through the busted door.
The cool hard wood of the hallway greeted me as I fell into the house, the wrecked door slamming hardly registering. I was still picturing the sight of shattered and splintered wood flying with metal.
“We’re safe,” he breathed with a hint of relief as I looked back to the door.
There was now a large gap where the brass lock had been and a red glow peered through, settling on me. Chills did laps up and down my spine. That thing had been close in our foot chase, within inches of getting both of us…an unsettling thought.
Worse yet, only three inches stood between us—three inches of busted door keeping it from ripping me apart. A wrecked, useless door.
“Safe? Are you insane,” I yelled after him as he passed by. “How is a busted door going to stop that thing?”
I got no reply as he thundered through the house with heavy footfalls. My eyes were unwilling to look away from the beast lurking outside.
“It’s going to get in.”
“It won’t,” the stranger assured.
I wanted to believe him and my instincts said he was right, but the hairs standing on my arms said otherwise. No matter how well built this house was, that red glare still prickled fright up the back of my neck, coating my body in an anxious energy I couldn’t shake.
All other sounds muted, even the stranger’s footsteps, muffled by the heavy rumbling breath of the thing outside. Huffs of air slammed against the large door, making it rattle, the massive slab of wood seeming flimsy and weak considering the creature on the other side. The more the door rattled the more I tensed, the world stalling as we locked gazes. Mine with fear and the creature’s with blood-lust. I knew it wanted to kill me. No, it wanted to slaughter me.
A moment flashed between the two of us, predator and prey. I felt trapped and I could swear in the silent moment I could hear a throaty cackle, but I didn’t know where it was coming from. Then the red stare vanished.
“I think it’s going to try another way,” I yelled to the stranger.
There was no response and suddenly a sense of loneliness set in. Looking away from the door I tried to find the man who had saved me. I had to know I wasn’t alone. If he wasn’t here, who would save me from that beast?
Racing down the hall I glanced in the living room but there was no one. Moving down to the next doorway I found the stranger staring out one of the windows in the dining room. He pulled back the tacky white lace curtains my mom refused to replace, and glanced into the side yard.
“Is it still out there? What if it gets in?” My questions coming out as ramblings.
“You’re safe,” he replied. His short answers that made no sense were getting on my frayed nerves.
“What do you mean I’m safe?” I growled, more angry than fearful. “This place isn’t exactly a bunker, or some type of fortress. Plus, you broke the lock on the front door, so what the hell is that going to keep out now?”
He didn’t respond. This guy was clearly the silent type, which could have been attractive if my terrified mind didn’t need some reassurance. Comforting and reassuring this guy was not, and it annoyed me to a boiling point. At least being angry was better than being scared out of my mind.
“How is this place safe?” I demanded. “That thing is big enough to bust through a window if it wanted and, in case you didn’t notice, this house is full of windows.”
“It can’t enter here.”
A short, to the point, answer that did nothing to satisfy my anxious curiosity. What did he mean it couldn’t enter here?
This was a house. A normal, nothing special about it house that had been passed down in my mother’s family for generations. There was no hidden bunker in the basement or reinforced walls, no panic room. Nothing that could stop a wild animal from breaking in.
The blue-eyed stranger stood glancing between the brushes outside, his gaze holding intense darkness like he was on the hunt, too. He wasn’t much different than the beast outside.
Holding ever so still, he watched shadows dance back and forth along the yard, darting from end to end. Then, without warning, the stranger turned with one swift motion and headed off into the kitchen. I followed behind, eager to keep him close for the small amount of comfort it brought.
When he made a line to the back door my panic returned.
“Stay inside,” he commanded, opening the door.
A whoosh of chilly autumn air filled the kitchen, making goosebumps appear on my arms. It built fear in my throat, knowing he was about to leave.
“Wait, don’t leave.”
I hated how pathetic I sounded, like I was begging him to stay. To my surprise the stranger paused as if considering my request. To which I added a concerned, “It’s not safe out there.”
“It doesn’t matter, I have a job to do. Stay in this house.”
Pressure was bearing down on me, a heavy weight that made it hard to take the smallest of breaths. I couldn’t let him leave…he couldn’t walk out that door. I didn’t want to be alone.
“Let’s call the police,” I belted out without any thought.
I didn’t see him move or even hear him cover the distance from the back door to in front of me, his swift movement causing me to gasp. His death stare held my attention.
“No cops,” he hissed, ice in his voice.
His face was close to mine, hardly an inch between us, but I could still see the gun in his hand. The gun that was now pointed at my heaving chest.
My mind started playing through death scenarios again. A new violent reality set in…this time the papers would be reporting on my murder instead of a tragic encounter with a savage animal. Something that would end up a cold case and passed off as a failed home invasion. I didn’t know if that was worse than being ripped apart by that wolf-thing or not.
I tensed, waiting for the loud bang of the gun…it was coming. His eyes were far too serious for it to be a bluff. I had accepted my end once already tonight, and it gave me courage to do it again.
“You saved me back there to shot me now?” I challenged.
The corners of his wonderful mouth twitched upward as he pressed the gun against my chest, daring more challenge. My body was trembling, but my gaze remained firm on the deep cold azure of his stare. Such raw brutality in his eyes, long hard years reflecting back at me with a cynical gleam. The muzzle of the gun pushed harder into my chest as he took a step back, putting distance between us, but still keeping the gun in place. I refused to back down.
Fresh adrenaline drove my reckless actions as I leaned into the muzzle of his weapon, daring him to do it. The corners of his mouth inched upward even more, creating a wicked smile. A flash of hunger in his dangerous eyes, and I could feel my heart jump into a bounding speed of excitement.
As quickly as the moment became heated and complicated, it was gone. His lips fell into a straight line, and he dropped the gun. The stranger appearing hardened and neutral as he backed away.
“Stay inside,” he ordered in a dark tone before rushing outside.
The sound of the door slamming echoed in my mind and the empty house—my dark, empty house mirroring what I felt inside.
The adrenaline-suppressed emotions returned in a clash of reality, their intensity causing my body to shudder. The light shudder turned into a violent shaking I had no control over. Chaos took me, rushing right to my knees and sending me to the floor. Wrapping my arms around my body I sat there on my knees, body shaking and tears falling without restraint or reason.
A howl crashed through the empty house and caused a scream to flee my lips before I clenched tighter into a ball, letting the sobs come freely. I shut down right there on the kitchen floor, purging everything that I had contained in the frightening race home. I cried alone in the dark house.