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Fox ambled through the forest at dusk leaving soft prints in the light snow beneath the trees. It wasn’t far, he kept reminding himself, though the path seemed longer to his reckoning than the last time he had passed this way. No path was straight through this land, and they changed from year to year, even season to season. But Fox was born and raised in this country, and knew it as well as any. The paddock beyond the line of cedars came into view, jogging his memory. There were few others that knew the lay of this land as well as Fox, and he certainly knew this spot, although it was long since he had been here.
It was empty, but tracks from an earlier traveler could be made out in the deepening snow. Fox was wary of the open space, not expecting to see anything but perhaps pony tracks.
This particular way led to good food, warmth, and companionship, and all he needed now was to leave the safety of the trees. He stopped in the dry expanse below the great giants. They were ancient, a grove of sweeping behemoths smothering all undergrowth that was common in the forest, denying their smaller cousins light and moisture. Fox sniffed about the base of one giant, the odors of the needles thick, a carpet of them spread beneath his feet. He moved aside a thin layer of the needles, finding the golden tops of autumn mushrooms, a delicacy that thrived in the dark, dry grove.
He gathered some of the fungus, wrapping them lightly in a large clean handkerchief, tucking them smoothly between his sweater and flannel shirt beneath. He was expecting his host to prepare one of her famous dinners, and he knew she could do justice to these chanterelles. Fox could almost smell them frying in the cast iron pan, sizzling in bacon fat with garlic and wine. After all, she was the one that taught him how to find the fungus.
“Well,” he decided, “Can’t stay out here till I freeze to death.” The snow was early, but the cold was more unexpected than the blanket of white. Well below freezing, and dropping fast, his breath was an unearthly eruption each time he exhaled.
He should have known this wouldn’t be easy. The oddly early snow, a summons spelled out in bird tracks and everyone for miles about gone, or disappeared, or hiding. Fox gave up pondering the Abbott family many years before, ignoring the mystery, unable to reach any conclusions from his association with them.
Fox was their closest neighbor, but was still an outsider. Some curse, or destiny, haunted the Abbots, and Fox had always been on the fringe. Penn had hinted at things, but only vaguely.
Cold stars peaked between the clearing skies as he stepped into the meadow. He followed the tracks, counting as he went, remembering how far it was to the threshold, and the fire that was sure to be burning.
The footprints were larger than his, but carried the same stride, and were fresh.
He stopped counting at forty-two, when he heard the howls. Fox hated coyotes; they ate his chickens, and pulled the occasional lamb into the tall grass, leaving only fly ridden bones. He knew they harassed the ponies pastured here. Tonight’s howl was different. They were packed, when they should be separate, hunting in the dark and snow.
“Hunting me!” he thought, standing still in the middle of the white. A chill unrelated to the cold ran up his spine. Fear unknown ran through him. Fox started again, and saw shadows flitting in the darkness.
It was only five hundred and fifty eight steps. That was the number now. Five hundred and fifty eight steps to the door, crossing two streams, then up a small rise. Safety.
It would be less, he figured, if he ran.
Fox ran, the count of the steps ticking off like heartbeats. It focused him, the ticking off of steps, steps that at one hundred turned to long strides. The fear grew in him with the howls. The tick hit one-fifty and Fox ran harder.
He loped along in the snow, the fall of his feet a muffled pounding. The tick hit two hundred even, and he knew he was being followed. He didn’t look behind him. They weren’t coyotes either.
Fox was breathing hard and ragged, he was in no shape to be running like this.
At three hundred running strides he was more than halfway there, but the streams lay ahead. Spring saw the first stream full and wide, but by this time of year it should be barely a trickle, merely a dip in the meadow. He would probably pass over it without noticing. The second stream, which flowed from the old trout ponds on the property, ran narrow and deep, but not narrow enough to jump over.
If he was true to his memory and followed the six hundred-step path, he would cross stream number two on a pair of ancient boulders placed for just that purpose. If he missed, he was in cold water.
He saw it seconds before he reached the first stream. He leaped in stride and cleared the gap with little effort, slipping only slightly as he continued his run. Behind him he heard the howls of the closing pack.
Something screamed with strength behind him, and it was no coyote. Fox ran harder until he thought his heart would burst, more screams followed, closer now and increased in number. On his left passed a group of snow-covered ponies, in his flight he still noticed the terror in their black eyes, and the shaking.
Suddenly he was at the second stream, running for his life with no idea why. He saw the porch light just up the low hill, and a thin whisper of smoke coming from the chimney. He could make it now; he was close. Behind him he heard the frightened whinnies of the ponies, then the beat of hoofs as they scattered to escape the pack. Fox stopped and turned just as he reached the edge of the second stream. He froze, unable to tear his eyes away. He knew he should turn and run, cross the stream and sprint to the safety of the house, but seeing what he saw made him realize that probably wasn’t possible.
It wasn’t coyotes. He decided they were wolves, but unlike any he had seen in magazines or television. These were almost as tall as the ponies they were ripping apart before his eyes. One of the beasts had the neck of a pinto in its huge jaws, while another grabbed the ponies rear legs, and dragged it down into the snow. The pack smothered the kill, ripping it apart until the snow turned red. The two remaining ponies fled in opposite directions and Fox regained his running legs.
In front of him as he turned stood one of the creatures, its maw gaping razor teeth, hair bristling like wet rat, and a low screaming coming from down deep. Its eyes almost stopped Fox dead, but he was already moving too fast to avoid a collision.
Fox dropped his shoulder. He screamed in terror, the beast screamed back. He felt flesh and flannel tear as he brushed by the animal. Suddenly spinning from the impact, he came to the edge, missed his step as he tried to jump to the first boulder, cracked his head, and went under the cold water.
The creature screamed and the countryside quailed. The pack regrouped and watched for their prey to resurface.
The shock of the frigid waters and the concussion left Fox paralyzed for long moments, bumping along the bottom, speeding quickly downstream. Slow motion death, he thought. The events unfolding were unreal and bright with surprising clarity. When he came up spluttering he saw the blood and fur dripping from the fangs of the pack of creatures as they followed his progress. Fox knew he should be remembering something important right about now, but couldn’t, and he didn’t care; blood ran down his face from the impact with the boulder, and his right shoulder hung limp at his side. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t come in after him. He was easy meat now and he knew it.
From both sides of the stream he heard the pack now. A couple must have crossed where he had fallen, he thought madly, trying to ambush him. Fox saw ahead a tree laying low over the rushing water, thinking to grab it until he saw another of the black beasts creeping out between the branches. It snapped at him as he passed under it, spitting its foul saliva at him and piercing suddenly his lethargy with its dreadful shriek. He remembered then what lay ahead if he continued in the water; the stream narrowed to a thin cascade through a sheer wall at the far end of the far field, dropping into the gorge below Old Cherry Farm. The walls were steep and he knew the pack couldn’t follow, though Fox knew little of what lay between the cut and the river many miles distant the stream fed into, only that it was more of the old growth forest that surrounded most of the Mid-Hills.
If the damned beasts weren’t going to follow him into the water he would be safe for a while. With his good hand he gave the shrieking pack the finger and screamed back at them, and was pulled into the darkness and cold of the cut. He turned, caught in the current, to see where he was going. Darkness only lay before him as he plunged through the gorge. Behind him he heard screams, distant now but no less terrifying. He bobbed along for several minutes until he dropped into some calmer waters as the passage widened. Trees and a shoreline appeared on his right while on the left the cliff continued darkly. He tried to swim one armed in the dark, rolled onto his back in weakness, and suddenly watched the stars through cold river water.
Upon the top of a nameless bald hill in the middle of forest of ancient fir and maple, eyes looked out on the World. The eyes saw further than mere sight, pulling in like horizontal tornadoes views from far off, and sometimes, the eyes owner thought, perhaps from different times. The eyes were greenish-gray, like the winter water in a rushing stream, and focused right now on the doings of a certain little brother. The distance was far, though not incomprehensible, over miles of country bursting with river and farm, then city and smog, and finally the Sea. He sniffed the air, and caught the scent of ancient Volvo, faint. Listening he heard the steady thrum of the engine, noticing the knock that came from cheap gas.
That car would always be with him, it had been a part of the family as long as he could remember, and he knew every nuance of its patterns. Now it had passed on to the younger Abbott. He only hoped the little wagon would be of help in the coming months. Her mettle was tested on the back roads of the Mid-Hills for decades, driven by green teenagers and a nearsighted aunt, through bottomless potholes and run out washboard.
“Come on you old bitch,” Aunt Ruth would mutter at the steering wheel, urging it up the last long hill on the road home from shopping. The wagons rear would be packed with the things they could only get in town, the culmination of a month or more worth of I-want-lists. Patrick would sit shotgun, cussing right along with his aunt. They exchanged maniacal grins, and burst out laughing when the old girl finally pulled them over the top, and eased herself down the other side into the Mid-Hills.
Patrick missed his Aunt Ruth, and the rest of the family, and was fairly worried about his little brother. His sisters had chosen others paths, and he knew he had no influence with them. His parents were lost to all of them.
There was always the chance, Patrick hoped, that Penn could set things right. It kind of pointed at that. He shook his head at the absolute lunacy of it all, and smiled to himself at the wonder.
He had come to this hill daily for over a decade, climbing from the dense forest of the valley. The way was not difficult, and Patrick anticipated every visit. From the hilltop he could see a lot of the things that could not be seen from any other hilltop, or by anyone else’s eyes. He could see in the sun or the rain, in the light or the dark. Like now, he could see his little brother being swallowed by the living mass of the City. Patrick had been there before, the City, and cringed at the memory. It was not for him to do battle there, and he accepted it, so he watched to see, not knowing what he was looking for, but knowing he must look until he saw something that would help.
A battle was coming, that much he did know, and that his little brother was going to be a part of it. Patrick could only watch, hidden from others, impotent, stuck in a forest frozen, not in ice as much as time, though the land was colder than the lands beyond. He could travel to the edge of the Forest, yet no further, blocked by unseen forces from leaving. Ten years of watching and waiting for something that may never happen left him tired of the fight that never came.
He turned from the view, feeling his little brother would find his place in the city, or perish. The Forest below him was quiet in the midday. He looked for the future in all he did these days, living always for tomorrow, and the hope of a thaw. Beneath his booted feet the ground was crunchy and he could see the myriad tracks left by the Forest creatures. He could smell on the wind one of his Aunt Ruth’s apple pies, heaven in a crust.
Patrick’s meal this night was trout from the stream with wild mushrooms and onions. A wonderful dinner, of course, he thought, but Ruthy –Ru’s pie would top it off nicely. His stomach grumbled in hunger.