Late evening at Hollow Wind proved uneventful. I was lazily browsing a shelf of Aunt Helen’s romance novels in the sitting room when Grandmother happened by.
“Aubrey dear,” I turned to a flour-dusted Grandmother, who looked to be elbow deep in her baking. “I’m helping Libby make some cookies for her granddaughters bake sale, they say mine always sells best but I think they’re just pulling my leg. Anyway, would you mind to go call for Shadow? Here lately she’s not wanting to leave those woods.”
“Sure Grandmother,” I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, remembering those famous chocolate chip cookies of my childhood. “But only if you save me a few of those cookies!”
Several minutes later, donned in fur boots and my heavy winter coat, I set out to find Shadow. I shivered as I surveyed the edge of the dense woods, bare trees twisted grotesquely against the heavy snow. The air was chill enough that my breath came out in little puffs of steam. I thought about Vanessa, wondering if she’d fled to the south for warmer weather. I sincerely hoped she wasn’t outside anywhere, facing this bitter cold each night. I stopped suddenly, halted in my footsteps, at that last thought. Whatever would make me think Vanessa was outdoors? I knew no one could survive these brittle cold, winter nights with their freezing temperatures.
No, I smiled as I imagined Vanessa in some swanky motel. Probably a seedy place right offside the road somewhere leading south. Right this minute she was probably drinking cheap coffee, courtesy of the motel, and reading a romantic thriller. I was comforted by the thought as I stepped into the underbrush and called for Shadow. I paused for a moment, trying to figure out which way to branch out in my search for the dog. I remembered playing in these tree-lined hills as a child, but the blanket of snow was disorienting. I saw some paw prints nearby that looked to be rather fresh and decided they would work as good as any footpath.
I walked several yards, calling for the dog until I felt nearly breathless. I reasoned the old kanine had chased a lone rabbit or raccoon deep into the woods and was probably leisurely making her way back towards the house. I was far enough into the trees, now, that my calls echoed into the vast, white emptiness of the surrounding hills. Broken tree branches crackled beneath my footsteps. This far into the woods, the thick snow was undisturbed, swallowing the foot of each boot with every step I took. How long had I been out here now, five minutes? Ten? I was rubbing my hands together for warmth when I heard the first ominous crack behind me.
I turned around. Nothing but trees. A low breeze had begun to howl beneath the cave of dying, early winter shrubbery. Half naked trees swayed, throwing shadows that seemed to dance in the wake of an early moon. I glanced upward, noting that night had fallen quickly. Or maybe I’d been in the woods longer than I thought, for I’d worn no watch. Gray clouds shifted across the pale, waning moon. I was thinking about turning back when I heard it again, the shuffling of a footstep amidst bone-dry twigs and dead pine needles. Then again. The sound was unmistakable. Someone was walking briskly towards me. Someone who failed to answer my calls. Someone who was trying to catch up to me, unseen, anonymous beneath the veil of shadowed trees.
“Who’s there,” I called, my teeth chattering. “Grandma?”
Nothing but the quick, crackling call of snapping branches and crunching snow as the footsteps shuffled quickly towards me. Terrified, I began to run. The tall, gray skeletons of sycamores and half-naked pines flew past my peripheral vision in a blur. I had no sense of direction, my feet guided only by the primal psychological conditioning of fight or flight. The harder I ran, the louder the footsteps behind me echoed in pursuit. Sharp, bone dry edges of dead tree branches snagged my jacket like grasping arms as I ran. I felt one dig into my forehead as I sped past, searing the skin in a sickening thud that nearly knocked me backwards. Still, I kept running, the footsteps echoing close behind.
My lungs were burning when, at last, I came to a clearing. I stopped for a moment, collapsing against the sturdy trunk of an oak tree. I gasped for air, half-expecting some faceless phantom, maybe a murderer or a swamp monster, to emerge from the edge of the wooded area. No one came. I strained my ears against the howl of wind just enough to hear the faint crackling of descending footsteps. Whoever had been chasing me was now headed in the opposite direction. The sound of their footsteps was fading quickly.
I dropped to the ground, nearly sobbing in relief, as I took inventory of my surroundings. The clearing I’d stumbled upon seemed to be manmade. I thought I could barely discern a footpath leading north. It was a narrow, dirt footpath, paved sharply between trees on either side. But it was a footpath nonetheless, I was sure. I had no idea where I was now, nor which direction led back to the farmhouse.
Dusk was slowly descending and I was chilled to the bone. My fingers were numb from the cold, even with my mittens on. I wiggled them and made the decision to follow the footpath. Footpaths usually led somewhere, perhaps to a house? And I knew if I went back into the woods I could be lost for hours before I found my way to the highway or the farmhouse. Freezing to death from the elements was not unheard of in these parts. My body shook against the wind as I pulled my hood tighter. Rather from the cold or from the thought of dying out here in the dead of winter where hungry wolves roamed, I was not sure.