This story is by Mark Casper and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
It was a pitch black winter morning when I first noticed the tracks.
I’d seen them before, in a book as a little girl. Curled up in a forgotten corner of the library like a beaten dog, I remember rifling through page after page of dusty hardbacks, searching for something to give me wings so I could fly away.
Maybe that’s why the books about animals drew me the most. They gave me wings and claws, talons and tails. At night I’d lay awake and imagine myself changing into one—bear, tiger, horse, hawk—and running, galloping, flying away, away from the screams of my parents, away from the strange man who gave me gumdrops for kisses, away from the kids who threw rocks at me and called me “smidge.”
But there was one animal above all others that captivated and terrified me. It haunted me, moving in and out of the shadows and trees of my mind like a ghost. As a child I read every book there was on the subject. I’d even repeat its Latin name day after day, like some Cherokee shaman summoning a pagan spirit from another world.
So when I saw the tracks in the snow that black winter morning, the name rose up in my mind like it used to.
Canis lupis. Canis lupis. Canis lupis.
I shoved it aside. Don’t be ridiculous. You live in a big city.
Despite the heavy snowfall, I’d been running my usual running loop. The morning was dry and cold, and a two-inch layer of snow blanketed everything in sight. As I was finishing the back half of my loop, I’d noticed them on the sidewalk: large paw prints in the snow.
But there was something else about the tracks, something strange. They were perfectly placed in the middle of the sidewalk, and as far as I could see they never deviated. Wouldn’t a dog criss-cross over streets and lawns?
As if bound by a spell, I followed the tracks back through the neighborhood. They never left the sidewalk, until they angled left into a lawn. I stopped where they turned and followed the tracks until they disappeared in the center of the lawn. Snow must have covered them, I thought.
Then I looked up. My hair stood on end and a shiver crept up my spine like a spider. I was standing in front of my bedroom window. Whatever it was, it sat right outside my house. I scrambled inside and slammed the door, nearly slipping on a patch of ice on the front steps.
I did my makeup in a hurry, trying my best to put the mysterious tracks out of my mind. But in between dabs of eyeliner around my dark brown eyes, I shot nervous glances out my bathroom window. Nothing moved in the blackness.
By the time I finished getting ready and hopped in the car it was still dark. The snow-plowed roads were nearly abandoned that time of day, as they were most mornings. Giant poplar oaks stretched up on either side of the road, forming a dark green canopy that always reminded me of an Elven dwelling from The Lord of the Rings. I drove in silence and let my mind wander. Outside, a light snow began to fall.
And that’s when I saw it. As I came around a curve, I realized something was in the road. A shot of adrenaline surged within me as I slammed on the brakes and shut my eyes, bracing for the impact. It never came.
I opened my eyes and nearly screamed. There, in the middle of the road, sat a large wolf on its haunches, white as the snow it sat on. It stared at me with glacier blue eyes that seemed to glow.
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look away. Something about its gaze shook me to my core. Like it was staring into my soul. My body started to shake and sweat began to form on my brow and the small of my back.
The car horn blared behind me, launching me off my seat. I hadn’t noticed that another car had pulled up behind mine.
“GO!” I heard someone shout.
“I CAN’T!” I yelled.
A car door slammed and before long a balding man in his 40s was staring at me through my driver window. The snow was falling heavily now. He motioned for me to roll it down. I cracked it just barely.
“Lady, you’re blocking the road. What’s the problem?”
“Can’t you see? There’s a WOLF in the road!” I said, none too calmly.
“Where?” he asked, looking up into the beams of my headlights.
“Right in front of me, you asshole.”
His ruddy face was almost flush against the glass. “Lady, did you hit your head? There ain’t nothing there.”
My stomach dropped. I was about to say something when the wolf turned and trotted away into the darkness.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine. It was a dog. Ran in front of my car. Almost killed it. Just need to make a phone call.”
“If you say so, miss.”
I pulled off to the shoulder and let him pass. After he drove away, I opened the door and walked around to the edge of the road. I stood peering into the darkness amidst the swirling snow, petrified but searching. Something moved, and between the trees I thought I could barely make out a pair of blue eyes.
Suddenly, out of the darkness the wolf came bounding, teeth bared, eyes blazing with blue fire. With a roar it leaped up at me.
I screamed, until I realized I was sitting up in bed, heart pounding, chest heaving, covered in sweat. I scrambled out of bed towards the bathroom. I splashed my face with water, then looked at myself in the mirror. A cold shiver slid down my back.
A pair of glacier blue eyes stared back at me.