CHAPTER FIVE - HAUNTED BY WOLVES
Scott had pulled the Buick over to the shoulder of the road by the woods where Ethan should come out if he’d gone in a relatively straight line from where he’d disappeared on the other side. His best friend normally had an almost eerie sense of direction when he was out among the trees so Scott wasn’t worried that he would get lost.
But if he’d walked straight through, he SHOULD have come out like ten minutes ago.C’mon, E, don’t make me come in there looking for you.
Ethan would sometimes be gone for whole days in the woods, but he never did that when Scott was waiting.
But I pushed him. I pushed and pushed and pushed. Maybe he’s as much hiding from me as he is from Alric Koenig and life in general.
Scott slammed his right hand against the steering wheel. His hand hurt. The steel steering wheel wrapped with fake leather wasn’t damaged at all. Scott slumped down in the driver’s seat. He had thought he was doing the right thing by dragging Ethan to Alric’s party tonight. He had hoped that it would give Ethan a chance to meet the man and lose the Elven king that his mother had inserted into his subconscious. Scott had been thrilled when Ethan agreed to go. He’d convinced himself then that his fears about how crippled Ethan had become from his mother’s illness were overblown. But then when they had been detoured out of town, Ethan’s raw terror had shown something far different.
Just going to a party and meeting Alric won’t ‘cure’ a lifetime of her madness.
Ethan reminded him of a bird who had been convinced he had clipped wings when in fact they were just fine and able to launch him into the blue sky if only he tried. His beautiful, sensitive, smart best friend was a mess. And it wasn’t fair.
Life’s not fair, Scottie, his grandfather’s voice piped up.
But it can be a whole lot fairer! And Ethan deserves some good stuff in his life, Scott responded to the phantom voice.
He checked the clock on his phone. Another five minutes had gone by. Was Ethan going to come out? Was he hoping that Scott would just leave without him so they could avoid a talk about Ethan freaking out? Or did Ethan hope that Scott would come in after him? That last thought had him swallowing thickly.
The dark green of the pine trees and the white of snow on the ground gave the woods an almost picturesque beauty. But Scott was not deceived. He hated the woods with a red hot passion. He found them to be terrible and to be avoided at all costs. He thumped he head back against the car seat.
Here I give Ethan shit about his issues when mine are just as big and a mile wide. Brilliant plan of ‘do-what-I-say-and-not-as-I-do I’ve got going here.
Scott looked over at the woods again. He focused on the empty spaces between the trunks, searching for a flash of movement that would signal Ethan was coming out.
Or someone is … stop it. Just stop it!
He raked a hand through his hair. Things moving between trees held a special place of horror in his heart. And it all stemmed from a simple camping trip.
The summer of his parent’s death and Scott’s thirteenth birthday, Scott’s family had gone camping. His father had insisted on them all heading up into the mountains, finding an isolated spot, preferably by a stream or lake, and roughing it for a weekend. It would be just them and nature. Now they were a family that lived at the beach. His family knew all about surf and sand. But the proper way to store rations in a bear safe bag? Not a clue. But his father had these fond memories of camping with his own dad in Wisconsin and he wanted to try and recreate them with his own family. So the three of them had loaded up the SUV and taken off for this mystical camping spot.
They didn’t last one night. His father had managed to find a beautiful cleared area just by a lake off a rutted road that just miraculously dead-ended there.
“Are you sure that this is federal land, Trey?” Scott’s mother had asked Scott’s father. She gestured towards the track. “This looks more like a … I don’t know, private area.”
“I think so, Kate.” His father had shut the SUV’s driver’s door and walked up beside her. He slung one hand over her shoulders and stared at the cleared area and the glittering lake beyond. “The GPS cut out on the phone awhile back to be honest.”
Scott joined them to look at the lake. It was a dark blue almost black color not at all like the ocean he loved. “How deep do you think that lake is?”
“I think we’ll have to find out,” his father answered with a bright smile. He mussed Scott’s long surfer locks.
But Scott, though he lived in the water back home, felt the skin between his shoulder blades twitch at the thought of going into that water. “I think it’s too cold to swim up here.”
“Says the boy who goes into freezing water at home and says it feels ‘just fine’,” his mother had teased, but there was something in her eyes that said she was uneasy, too, but he could tell that she was trying to shake it off for his father.
His father stretched his arms over his head, showing a swath of tanned abs covered with a golden fuzz of hair. His father had kept himself lean and athletic so that he could surf every day with Scott. His mother, too, jogged on the beach and could beat both of them in a race in the water.
“Let’s get the tents set up and the fire pit dug,” his father said. “It took us longer to get here than I thought it would.”
“Considering here isn’t where we were planning to get to, I’m surprised you could judge that,” his mother had said with a teasing poke to her husband in the ribs.
“Oh, ye of little faith! I shall prove to you that this camping trip was a brilliant plan!” His father waggled his eyebrows at her.
She just shook her head and laughed. Scott though was still drawn towards the lake. Its black surface had almost a sick fascination for him. The ground as he moved towards the lake didn’t change to sand, but the dirt was softer. There had been a rain shower earlier in the day and though the sky was clear now, Scott could smell rain on the air. He stopped as he neared the water’s edge and frowned. There were tracks. He assumed they had to be animal tracks yet they were larger than any he’d ever seen. He sank down on his haunches and put his hand out over the track. His hand was dwarfed by the impression of a foot with claws at the end.
“Hey, kiddo, are you going to help us get the stuff out of the car?” his mother asked. Her voice came from over his right shoulder and it nearly had him jumping in the air. He hadn't heard her approach.
“Sorry, Mom. Yeah, I was just looking at the water and this.” He pointed out the tracks to her. “What kind of animal made it do you think?”
His mother was an artist who taught at the local community college and not at all an animal person, but he had always trusted her judgment about things. She seemed to know when things were off instinctually. “I don’t know. It’s big though. Let’s hope it doesn’t come back while we’re here.”
“It won’t when it smells Dad’s cooking,” Scott said with a grimace. “You will supervise the cooking, right? I don’t know how he manages to mess up hot dogs and hamburgers, but he can.”
“Yes, your father is a man of many talents, but cooking is not one of them.” She kissed the side of his head which he proceeded to pretend to scrub off. That just made her laugh and kiss him again. “Come on, let’s set up camp.”
Finding the spot by the lake was the last thing that went right that night. His parents’ attempts to set up the tents had failed miserably.
“Does it honestly say we’re supposed to put Point ABC into Slot XYZ?” His father’s voice rose up. “There is no Slot XYZ!”
The tents looks rather lopsided and ended up collapsing the first time Scott tried to place their sleeping bags inside.
“The tents are thin. It won’t make much difference if we just sleep in the sleeping bags around a large fire,” his mother had suggested helpfully.
His father kicked the fallen tents and muttered, “Now the fire will go right!”
Except it hadn’t. His father had them all gather firewood from around the area, but all the rain had soaked most of it. The fireplace lighter didn’t work. The matches and newspaper they’d used as kindling burned, but the wood smoked heavily and there was only the feeblest flame that kept dying.
“I can’t believe this. It’s like the gods are against me. My father made this look so easy!” Scott’s father said.
“It’s okay, Dad. Maybe the wood will dry out a bit when it gets closer to being dark.” Scott thumped his father’s back.
It was then that Scott noticed that his mother kept looking into the woods every once and a while as if she heard something. Scott thought he heard some branches snapping, but the sound was quickly cut off and full silence fell. He went over to her.
“Do you think its whatever made the tracks by the lake?” he asked her, guessing that her mind was going to the same place his was.
“I hope not. No, I’m sure it’s nothing. I just wish …” Her gaze went to the sky. The sun was sinking rapidly behind the mountains. “I just wish your father could get that fire going. But until he does, I think I’m going to grab the Coleman lantern.”
He watched as she went to the SUV. Halfway there, her head had jerked to the right. She stared between the trees. Scott did the same, but there was nothing.
The fire never did get going. They ended up snugged into each of their sleeping bags with the Coleman lantern between them, handing around bags of Cheetos and Ritz Bitz. His father had suggested that they tell ghost stories to pass the time.
“The last thing we need right now is to get frightened,” his mother responded dryly.
There was a loud snap of a branch from somewhere deep in the woods. All of them jerked upright.
“I don’t like this place,” Scott suddenly said. It was sort of a rule in their family that you didn’t complain about things, that you toughed it out, because in the end they could make anything fun. But he just couldn’t keep it in.
Surprisingly, his mother agreed, “I’m with Scott on this, Trey.”
His father looked slightly hurt. Scott hated that he wanted this so badly to be fun for them but just nothing had gone right so far.
“I’m sorry, you guys, I know this hasn’t exactly gone smoothly, but tomorrow when we can hike and swim, it’ll be much better,” he said.
“Can’t we just go home? Like now?” Scott pressed.
“The path is really narrow and rutted. It wouldn’t be safe to drive at night,” his father said. “Kate, what do you think?”
Before his mother could answer, the pattering sound of rain hitting leaves began and then wetness hit the tops of their heads and sleeping bags. Lightning flashed above their heads and there was a thunderous boom.
His father’s cursing had Scott and his mother giggling as they performed the equivalent of a sack race in their sleeping bags to the SUV. All three of them piled inside just as it appeared God had decided to flood the Earth again. The rain was falling so hard that the windows soon showed only a dark blur of the woods on all sides and the lake ahead of them.
His father turned around in the driver’s side so he could see Scott in the back seat and his wife in the passenger side. “Well, it looks like Nature’s wrath is putting the kibosh on the camping.”
His mother, her bright blue eyes filled with warmth and amusement, said, “You so owe us, honey.”
Scott nodded vigorously. “It’s totally okay, Dad, but Mom’s right. We own you. You have to do whatever we want to repay us for this.”
His father shook his handsome head, his short blond hair falling across his tanned forehead, a smile playing at the edges of his lips. “I’m game. I don’t think anything could go quite as bad as this did.”
“Maybe another time, Trey. At a camp ground. With a trailer. Some dreams have to be spruced up a bit to make them work.” Scott’s mother reached over and cupped her husband’s cheek.
His father kissed her palm and his eyes had glowed with happiness. “Damn straight. So how about we try and get some sleep. Soon as this rain lets up and the sun rises, I’ll drive us home.”
“Sounds like a plan, Dad.”
Scott had stretched out across the back seat. The outside of his sleeping bag had gotten damp from the rain, but the inside was still toasty warm and his pillow was already dry. He tucked his pillow between his head and arm and closed his eyes while his parents’ murmured voices in the background acted as a lullaby. He immediately started drifting off, thinking despite all the bad stuff that had happened that day, his parents were actually cool to hang out with.
“Did you see that?” his mother’s voice, which had been soft and comforting became sharp and loud.
“See what?” his father asked.
“Something is moving out there,” she whispered.
Scott’s eyes shot open and he rocketed up. His mother had one hand on his father’s shoulder and was staring out the driver side door with an intentness she only used when working on a particular hard project. He looked out his own window. His window was still a blur of water. He inched his way over to the window and pressed his nose to the glass. His breath fogged the window, but he could now make out the line of trees that was about ten feet from their car. He thought he saw a dark, hulking shape pass from behind one tree to the next. But it was gone in just a blink of an eye. He could have been mistaken. Maybe it was just one of the wildly swaying branches casting a shadow on the ground.
“Is that a person?” Scott asked. Lightning had flashed across the sky and he had thought he saw something or something lope through the trees and then disappear behind one of the large trunks.
“It’s as tall as a man,” his mother said and here voice cracked slightly.
His father twisted around to look outside. “I don’t see -- what the hell? Are there people out here?”
“There’s another one! There are two of them out there!” Scott cried. His heart began to beat harder. He wasn’t easily frightened, but the situation seemed to warrant it. What would huge men be doing running around in the woods at night? There were no towns nearby. There were no other campsites either.
And it’s raining and dark. Why don’t they have flashlights? Why don’t they make any sound? Like call out to us or something?
The figures loped nearer. The way they were behaving reminded Scott of something from a nature show he’d seen where a pack of lions moved through the tall grass surrounding their prey.
His mother’s hand shot out and slammed down on the driver’s door lock. She did the same on her own. She turned towards Scott and her face was a mixture of fear and determination. “Scott, lock the back doors. Now.”
“I think we need to leave. I don’t know what these people think they’re doing, but we’re not staying to find out.” His father shoved the key into the ignition.
Scott pushed the lock down on the door he was at. He tried to turn around and do the same to the far door, but the sleeping bag hampered his movements. With a frustrated whine, Scott lunged for the door and smacked the lock down. That was when he saw it. Another figure in the woods behind them. They were surrounded.
“They’re on the other side, Mom!” he cried.
The figure stepped out of the tree line at the same moment that Scott’s father turned the key and slid the SUV into reverse. His father’s head was facing backward as he completed a three point turn to get pointed in the right direction down the track so only Scott and his mother were looking forward, towards the figure. The light from the SUV’s headlamps jumped wildly as the SUV battled the rutted terrain. But they illuminated the figure for one moment.
“Oh, my God! That’s – that’s not possible,” his mother whispered.
The windshield wipers were zipping forth frantically. Their breath had fogged the glass. And the figure had melted back into the forest in seconds, but Scott had seen and his mother had seen it. It was as tall as a man. But it had fur all over its body. And a snout.
Not possible. Not possible. Way not possible.
Both of his mother’s hands were pressed against the glass and her eyes were wide with shock and fear. She had gotten a better look at the figure than he had. Even after his father had somehow gotten them back on the road and was racing them home, having left all of their equipment and garbage strewn back at the site, she still stared out of the window at the tree line flashing by.
Afterward, his parents wouldn’t speak to him about what had happened. But he knew they were talking to one another about it. He’d walked in on too many whispered conversations which would abruptly stop as soon as they saw him. One time, his mother had been showing his father a book that she’d picked up at the library and pointed at something. His father had been shaking his head. She’d accidentally left the book on the kitchen island and been distracted by a phone call. Scott had grabbed the book and frantically began reading through it. It was about lycanthropy. He wasn’t able to get far when his mother snatched the book from his hands.
“That’s private, Scott!” she’d cried.
“It’s a library book!” he’d snapped back. He was so sick of the weirdness between all of them. Of not speaking. “I saw it, too, Mom!”
He didn’t have to explain what “it” was, because he knew that it was the figure they’d seen camping that was causing this silence to fall between all three of them.
“We didn’t see anything, honey. It was dark. It was raining. It was likely a bear. Or maybe some other campers. Maybe the owners of the site.” His mother had looked away from him. He could always tell when she was lying. She wouldn’t look at him. “That’s what your father says.”
“So did we see nothing or a bear or a man, Mom? It can’t be nothing and something!”
They’d had a stare down in the kitchen then. “Scott, I know you’re upset.”
“Mom, just tell me I’m not crazy. That you saw it, too. That it looked like--”
“Scott, no, your father says--”
“Dad didn’t see it! He was too busy trying to get us out of there! He didn’t see.” Scott’s hands fisted on top of the kitchen island.
But she shut down the conversation with a warning movement of her hand when his father came into the kitchen.
Scott hadn’t known what the word lycanthropy meant, but he went to look it up online that night.
Scott leaned back in his room’s desk chair. “According to Wikipedia, ‘Lycanthropy is the professed ability or power of a human being to transform into a wolf, or to gain wolf-like characteristics.’” Scott stared ahead. “Werewolves. Holy shit.”
He never had a chance to talk to his parents about it. That night they had gone out to a play, leaving him at home, and had gotten into a terrible car accident. Their loss had shoved werewolves out of his head. Until last year.
He’d requested and gotten a copy of the police report regarding their accident. The officer stated that the likely cause of the crash was that an animal had darted across the road in front of them, causing his father to lose control of the car and steer off the cliff. For one long moment, Scott had thought of werewolves. Had they tracked him and his parents down because his mother had seen them and was researching into them? But Scott had rejected that line of thought as he watched how Ethan’s life was being crushed by delusions of the supernatural.
Both of us can’t be crazy and believing in stuff that doesn’t exist.
But he still didn’t like the woods and worried every single time that Ethan disappeared into them even though there were no wolves in Winter Haven.
There was a thump on his door and Scott nearly launched himself into orbit. His head jerked around and saw that it was just Ethan tapping on his window.
It’s Ethan and not the big bad wolf coming to eat me up.
“You bastard! Don’t sneak up on me like that?” Scott growled at Ethan as his best friend rounded the front of the car.
“Didn’t you see me coming towards you? I was waving my hands and calling your name.” Ethan slipped into the passenger seat.
“Ah, no. Didn’t my reaction key you into that? Shit! You scared the bejeesus out of me!” Scott groused. His hands were still slightly trembling as he turned the key in the ignition.
“You did look pretty deep in thought.” Ethan drew the ancient seatbelt across him and locked it in place. “What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking about you and – and wolves and why I hate the goddamned forest!” Scott nearly yelled.
“Wolves?” Ethan’s voice went strange for a moment then. Scott had never told his best friend about the werewolves. He’d kept it to himself because he thought it would just make Ethan’s life harder somehow.
“Yeah, whatever. We’re lucky that Grandpa Joe’s pee bottle wasn’t filled. I think I crushed it when you gave me that near heart attack.” Scott kicked the now crumpled plastic bottle across the car to Ethan.
Ethan looked down at the forlorn bottle and then grinned at Scott. “Yeah, old man pee would have just geysered out of it and all on you!”
“Ha, ha. You’re such a comedian, E.” Scott studied his friend’s face before pulling out into the road. Ethan’s cheeks were filled with color. His eyes were a bright, brilliant green. He was smiling so wide that Scott worried he might break something. Why was Ethan suddenly so happy? It was more than his normal communing with nature that normally made his best friend calm. He couldn’t help the wash of happiness that flowed through him. Ethan looked none the worse for wear after nearly leaving Winter Haven. “You also look like a very happy comedian. What happened in the woods?”
“Oh, nothing much.” The grin turned to a delighted smile and Ethan’s cheeks pinked. His best friend looked down shyly at his lap and then up at Scott.
“Nothing much? That’s the most loaded ‘nothing much’ I have ever heard in my entire life, which hasn’t been that long – but trust me, it’s still pretty big,” Scott said.
“Shouldn’t you be driving us to school? We’re going to be late.” Ethan gestured for Scott to pull onto the open road.
“We’re already late, E. We’re definitely not making first period,” Scott said. “Seems pointless to go in now. Besides I’m not moving until you tell me what’s up with you?”
Ethan let out a musical laugh that Scott had never heard before. His friend faced him and was glowing with happiness. “Where should I start? With meeting Alric Koenig? Or saving a girl from wolves?”
“Wolves?” Scott repeated the last part first, not registering the comment about Alric Koenig.
“I know, right! Did you see them? Is that why you were thinking about them?”
Scott’s mouth went dry. “There are no wolves in Winter Haven.”
Ethan shook his head. His smile dimmed. “I thought that, too, but I was wrong. You’re not going to believe what just happened.”