I lace up my gray boots, zip my worn leather jacket and tie up my auburn hair. The rain from last night has left the forest floor damp, making my steps soundless above the leaves. I hesitate at the edge of the worn path and think of all the good memories tainted by one bad. With a deep breath I take step after step into my happy place.
The path winds around the old fence that keeps the two old horses in and opens up for a few hundred feet. I use a hay bale for target practice. The gentle thump of the string at each release soothes my mind. Thanks to my five two stature the bow is still the perfect length.
The first few rounds are scattered but I fall into a groove and am able to group the arrows in the middle of the bale every time. When my fingers are numb from the cool, damp air I decide to venture into the trees and explore the woods.
Some turkeys cross the path ahead of me and I silently grab an arrow and pull the string back. When one looks at me unafraid I tilt my head in confusion. Shouldn’t it sense the danger here? I slowly lower the bow and decide against killing it. It seems unfair to kill it with it being so secure here. I’m sure there’s plenty more anyway.
Suddenly the turkeys scatter and click their tongues, on high alert as if realizing I’m a predator. In the chaos I don’t notice a very large wolf until it’s within six feet of me. I could almost reach out and touch it. The turkeys have disappeared and it dawns on me that they aren’t afraid of me because the bigger problem here is the wolf or maybe even a pack of them.
I slowly draw back the bowstring ready to defend myself from this gigantic, beautiful creature. I take a shaky step back and it tilts its head curiously. Wait, are there wolves in Indiana? I know we have coyotes but none this large...this thing is at eye level with me as it sits on its hind legs.
The animal cautiously lowers its body to the ground and rolls over happily. Is this giant wolf really expecting me to give it a belly rub? Okay, maybe it’s a lost dog? In all my jumbled thoughts I lower the bow and stare at it. It jumps back up, wagging its tail. The red brown fur has leaves stuck in it. Those whiskey brown eyes are haunting.
I do the only thing that comes to mind. I tell it to shoo. It lets out a raspy cackle. Is this beast laughing at me?! I plant a hand on my hip.
“Go on. Are you lost or something?” Why am I talking to this thing? Maybe dad was right. I’m not right in the head. The red brown wolf shakes its head and approaches me with its head down. It sits in front of me waiting for me to...pet it? I tentatively reach out a hand and it nuzzles into the touch with a sigh.
“Well, you aren’t very wild.” He looks up at me and those brown eyes seem so familiar. He suddenly turns his head to the woods and tilts his head as of listening to something. One ear flops down and I giggle. He looks sad as he runs back to where he was looking. Before he disappears he looks back at me and I realize I’m sad that the wolf is gone.
I try to find it but the deeper I get into the woods the more I worry I’ll become lost. I trudge back to the cabin confused as to what just happened. Grams is waiting for me with a steaming bowl of vegetable soup.
“Run into anything interesting?” She inquires with a sip of coffee. I stare at her wondering if she is aware of the wolf in her backyard. She just studies her newspaper never sparing a glance at me.
“No...” I lie. We finish lunch in silence. When I grab the dishes and walk toward the sink I hear her mumble.
“You never were a good liar dear.” She grins and I laugh.
“There was a...wolf. It was...”
“Friendly?” I nod.
“So you’ve seen it?”
“Only a time or two. Best not to mention it to gramps though. He may do something about it if he knows.” I silently agree and head to my room to work on another idea for a book.
The next few weeks are all the same. Every morning I venture into the woods and the wolf is there waiting for me. It follows me as I explore. Somehow I’m braver with the wolf there. Other times it leads me. It’s always to the same spot. A meadow that overlooks a small lake. He rests his head on my leg and we just enjoy the silence.
By early November snow has moved in. I bundle up and continue my trek into the woods every day. One morning the wolf doesn’t show up and I begin to worry for it. Stupid of me to care so much but I’ve grown used to it’s presence.
The snow is beautiful but blinding. It’s been hours and I’m not sure where I am. I’ve ended up in new territory. The trail opened up to the meadow and I ventured onto a new path but lost it in all the snow. All around me is white. The snow crunches under my feet as the dusting begins to build up.
The sky is not darkening so I’m assuming I have a few hours left but it’s very cold and I know I need to retrace my steps but that’s no use because the snow has covered them. A branch breaks and my bow automatically comes up like I’m freaking Katniss Everdeen. My eyes meet whiskey brown ones and I am relieved.
“There you are! I’ve been looking for you.” I say to the wolf and it comes to me excitedly. I run up to him and hug his large frame. It’s wet nose meets my cold cheek.
“I’m sort of lost. I don’t suppose you can lead the way home?” The wolf backs up and lays down. He begins to whine and I hear his bones cracking. I cry out and reach out to him but he is becoming something bigger. I step back, mouth agape, legs shaking as a very tall, naked man is standing in the wolf’s place.
He has tan skin and jet black hair cropped close to his scalp. The front of it is a little longer and sticks up wildly. His eyes, they are the same eyes as the wolf. My cheeks burn as I take in his figure. Oh, this is not appropriate. I look up at the trees and he chuckles.
“I think we should talk, Ellie.” I jolt at the realization he knows my name. Not just my name but my family nickname.
“Who are you? Why are you here? How do you know my name?!”
“Breathe, Ellie!” He moves closer and I back up. He grimaces at my move to create space.
“Elliana, it’s me. Don’t you remember all those hours we spent together in these woods as kids?” He asks gently.
“No, no. I’m crazy. I’m going crazy. Dad was right....” I begin whispering frantically and he scoops me into a tight hug.
“Ellie, you are not crazy. Is that what they made you believe? It’s me, Ellie. It’s Nik. I’m as real as you are.”
“W-why are you here?”
“I live here. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you today. I had an unexpected guest show up. Would you like to see my home? Let’s get you warm and I’ll explain all this. Okay?” I look into his eyes and I feel so secure.
I nod before my mind catches up. He scoops me up like a baby and despite the fact he’s very naked in this snow he is so warm.
My arms grip his neck lazily and he nuzzles into my touch just like the wolf did all those times. He sighs contentedly and we make our way back toward the meadow. I repeat the mantra over and over in my mind to keep from going insane.
I am not crazy. Nik is real. Nik was my best friend. Nik is a wolf. I am in trouble.