This story is by Eglė Rimšaitė and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Cooking wasn’t one of Jonathan’s strengths, Kate noticed that as soon as she had come here, but it was getting out of hand.
“You like the stew?” he asked as Kate examined raw pieces of fish in her spoon with hidden disgust. His eyes, intensely staring at her, used to intimidate her, but strangely, not anymore. She figured it was his usual look: squinting eyes, furrowed eyebrows and a scowl on his face. No wonder he was avoided by the majority of the town. Living with dogs in a cabin at the edge of the forest didn’t do much to help his reputation.
“It’s good.” She focused on the texture of the table, trying hard to keep down the food in her stomach, which was easier than expected. In her mind, she wondered about the tales that Romeo had been telling her the past few days; about the Dire wolves that terrified the Native Americans and their request to the Gods to help them protect each other by gaining an animal’s form. He had said he would tell her more today, and she couldn’t wait.
Soon, she heard the front door open with a loud, creaking sound, and, a young man with a hood covering his head appeared in the kitchen, holding a broken animal trap in his hands. Beside the dogs, the only people in town who kept Jonathan’s company were Romeo and his mother, Jane. She seemed to be pretty good at not listening to the man’s constant complains and hiding his whiskey.
Jonathan rose from his seat and approached Romeo with heavy footsteps.
“What did you do this time, boy?” he snatched the trap from his hands.
“You can’t keep putting out traps in the forest.” Romeo looked at the stocky man from above, showing no dread towards the man, even though, he was twice his size and far more angered. “Someone is going to sue you eventually, and we will have to get your old ass out of trouble again.”
“I can do whatever I want.” Jonathan’s voice sounded like a low growl. “People aren’t stupid enough to go near the house, and if they are, it’s not my problem.”
With those words, he stormed out of the house, leaving silence behind. Although the brief conversation left Kate puzzled, she knew better when to get into other people’s business.
“Seriously, Kate…” Romeo pushed his hood off his head and sighed. “How can you stand living with that man?”
She didn’t answer; only chuckled and went to the sink to wash the dishes while Romeo made himself a sandwich. There was no denying the fact that Jonathan was a stubborn, odd man, who barely talked, but he was kind enough to let Kate stay in his house, even if she was basically a stranger, so she didn’t complain. He was still her uncle, even though, a weird one.
When a letter from a distant relative first reached her, she felt nothing but relief and curiosity. She had been found wandering the streets of Denver when she was six years old, with only a piece of paper with her name and birthday written on it and no memories of where she had come from. The only personal thing she had was a silver pendant, which she held onto so tightly, as if her life depended on it. Finding Jonathan, felt like finally having a direction after walking in circles for thirteen years. Unfortunately, it turned out that Jonathan was like an old street sign that someone had forgotten to take down, because the only thing she found out was her parents’ names – Andrew and Camille.
Having grown up in the city, Kate was barely introduced to the nature and its traits, that’s why it was odd to see a person so at ease while walking in the forest, with the ground covered in dry, colorful leaves and fallen tree branches, which were easy to trip over. Romeo didn’t even glance at his feet, while Kate didn’t dare to divert her attention from the ground for longer than five seconds.
“How do you like Wallace so far?” Romeo asked.
To be completely honest, she couldn’t shake the feeling that whenever she would go out, people would stare at her. However, she was sure it was probably due to two things: one, she was a newcomer and everyone knew everyone there. Second, and the most believable one, they were just admiring the scar on her face. It always seemed to attract lots of attention anywhere she would go.
“It’s pretty nice, I’d say.” She said, and she wasn’t lying. Wallace for her was like a magical fairytale. “Where are we going by the way?”
“Wandering around, like always.” His words were simple, but Kate didn’t miss the fact that he was carefully looking around. On the whole, he was strangely relaxed no matter the situation, but whenever they went to the woods, he seemed to be on edge; like he expected something to happen any given moment.
And with that, rather than seeing or hearing it, she first felt it. The wind got stronger the higher they went, and Kate readjusted her scarf, but she was sure that the wind wasn’t the only thing which made shivers go down her back.
Someone was definitely around.
Romeo suddenly stopped in his tracks, holding out his arm in front of Kate. Confused, she looked at him with furrowed eyebrows before following his gaze that was fixed on some bushes further ahead. If Kate hadn’t looked so intensely, if she hadn’t been so sure that something was out there, she probably wouldn’t have noticed something red flashing in the corner. But before she could question out loud, a tall woman came from behind the bushes and stopped in front of them about thirty feet away. Her feet were bare. Next followed a bald middle aged man; his pale and hairy chest visible as he wasn’t wearing a shirt, only a jacket.
“You didn’t tell us you’d bring a friend with you,” he said and tilted his head, gazing at Kate with a disturbing smile.
“She’s the reason we’re here.” Romeo took Kate by her hand, as if knowing she was trembling before she could realize it herself. She clenched her palms, hoping that the calmness radiating from her friend would settle upon her. It was only people, seemingly unthreatening, too. But deep inside, Kate knew that it wasn’t quite true. They reeked of wildlife; not quite civilized to look normal in a busy city, but still invitingly appealing. Like the one place they belonged was the middle of the forest and it was completely and absolutely regular.
“And what’s the reason?” said a third voice. Soon after, a girl with bright red, frizzy hair came from behind a tree. Kate couldn’t take her eyes away from her. She looked so different than anyone else she had ever seen, but, at the same time, so familiar. Same pointy nose, same big emerald eyes, same freckles scattered on her face that looked back at Kate every time she would glance at herself in a mirror.
Although Kate was wearing a hat, she knew that it hid the red roots on top of her head. Being made fun for it almost all of her life, there wasn’t a day that she wouldn’t check how much it showed. That’s why she cut it and dyed it black, to look as ordinary as possible.
“She’s got to see it.”
See what? Kate felt like they were speaking a different language at the moment. Her body was shaking, and after she saw a silver necklace hanging out from underneath the red-head’s shirt, one so similar to the one around Kate’s neck, she could swear, she saw white for a moment. But there was too much going on for her to collapse yet.
The girl squatted down, knees apart and hands on the ground, like an animal ready to pounce. The woman put her hand on the back of the red-head’s neck and, although Kate couldn’t see it, she was sure she heard something ripping as the woman took her hand away, with something red dripping down from it.
Before Kate could take in the action, the girl’s hair shortened by seconds and covered her entire face, then also her torso and limbs. It all happened so rapidly; she didn’t realize that instead of a girl, now stood a red fox, its green eyes glued to her. Kate looked at Romeo for answers, but he stared at the fox, though not near as shocked as she was. Kate froze in her spot while the animal started to circle her, its teeth dangerously close to her legs.
“Alex, stop!” Romeo shouted. “Do you want to hurt your own sister?”
With that sentence Kate stopped breathing, and so did the fox.