I looked at the mountain of paperwork and groaned inwardly.
“I did not take this job on to sit in an office and fill out paperwork,” I snarled to no one in particular.
I turned and felt his gaze pierce the small of my back. The chair squeaked as he removed his frame from it, his joints faintly popping as he did. Despite my best effort, I smiled as I looked at the giant map of the park on the wall. I doubted if Gabriel could ever sneak up on anyone, let alone someone who was so aware of his presence.
He slid into position behind me, and I felt his gaze follow mine to the wall.
“So what’s the game plan?” he asked. “There is a lot of ground to cover, you know.”
I nodded slightly, my ponytail just barely missing his chest before I took that all important step forward.
“I know, and the powers that be didn’t really give us much time or money to get the job done. I should be able to update most everything through the aerial photographs that were taken last year, but I still need to go into the field and do some spot checks on the terrain.”
“How much do you need to look at?” he asked. “There’s over 5000 acres in the Birkhead Mountains area alone. It’s not like we can get through there by car either.”
“Well, ideally I would love to see about twenty-five percent, but considering time and cost restraints, I’d settle for a good ten.”
“Well, in that case,” he said, leaning forward so that he could reach over my shoulder and point at the map, “I’d suggest that you visit here, and here. Those two points should give you a decent view of the surrounding area.”
“Yeah, you might be right,” I said, involuntarily breathing in his scent. “Getting to the hill near Sedberry Cemetery shouldn’t be that much of an issue. Cedar Creek Road runs right near there. But what about the other one? That looks pretty much inaccessible to me.”
“We’ll have to use Robbins Branch to get up to the main ridgeline, here,” he said, following the line of the hiking trail. “Then it will be a fairly simple scramble to get to the other ridge over here.”
“Looks like a bit of a climb,” I said, glancing down at my worn boots.
“You’ll be fine,” said Gabriel, following my gaze with a smile. The trail is pretty well maintained, and the terrain isn’t all that rough. The biggest thing we’ll have to worry about is the hunters.”
“Oh right. What’s on the menu this time of year?”
“Well, you might hear a few people shooting guns at deers, or maybe a bear here or there, but most hunters end their day by the time your morning coffee rolls around. Just make sure you wear this fetching orange cap, and you should be fine.”
I frowned. The words “fetching” and “orange” didn’t exactly go together in my vocabulary.
“Don’t give me that look,” said Gabriel with a laugh. “It’s not a fashion statement. It’s so that the hunters can spot you easier.”
“I knew that,” I said easily, answering his smile with one of my own. “So when do we get started? Now?”
Gabriel looked out the window at the clouds starting to gather just over the western ridge in the distance. His jaw tightened a bit, and he shook his head.
“Normally I would say we need to get at least one of them done today, but I’m not liking the looks of those clouds out there. The last thing we need is to get caught in the woods in a storm.”
I nodded in agreement, shoving the image of Gabriel wearing a soaked shirt from my mind.
“Think the storm will be passed by tomorrow morning?” I asked, walking past him to the window and peering out.
“It should be,” he said. “The wind is moving fairly fast out there. But these mountains can hold a lot of surprises, so we probably should be careful just the same.”
“So meet back here, when? Five in the morning?”
Gabriel laughed, the sound of his voice lightly bouncing around the room.
“You’re welcome to come that early if you like,” he said with a smile, “but I won’t be conscious, let alone here and ready to work at that hour. Let’s try for seven instead.”
“All right, seven it is. I’m going to head out, then, and get some of the preliminary work done tonight.”
Gabriel nodded and walked toward the door.
“I have to check some of the nearby trails, so I’ll walk you out.”
He waited for me to open the door, and I passed in front of him, feeling his eyes trail over me as I did so. I wondered, not for the first time, what he saw when he did that.
The cabin that I stayed in was relatively close, and to be honest, it felt a little empty when I arrived after leaving Gabriel to maintain the trail. Still, there was a fair amount of work to be done, and I wanted to get something accomplished before dinner.
I pulled out the previous topographic maps of the area, the more current aerial photographs and began to compare them. I marked on the topographic maps various landmarks that would be useful for orientation, and which should be included when the maps were finally done. I marked off the main ranger cabin, a nearby farmhouse that doubled as a grocery store and school classroom as needed. A closer comparison indicated that the ridge closest to my cabin might not be as steep as the topographic map would indicate. I could see evidence of mass wasting and landslides in the photograph. Considering the amount of heavy storms that hit this area over the last few years, it wasn’t surprising. It would just mean taking a few extra elevation measurements to make sure the map was accurate.
The wind howled faintly against my windows in protest, and I smiled slightly. The storm was moving through, but not without a fight. Sure enough, the rain came soon after, pelting my windows and the pressure changed ever so slightly. I got up from my work and stretched. I still had about six more maps and photographs to compare, but I couldn’t quite remember whether or not all the windows had been closed. Using that as an excuse, I walked around to the various windows, making sure each one was shut tight.
I glanced out the window; the rain was really coming down now. The landscape was being punched by the lightening and thunder. I shook my head and wondered if we would have hail as well. Winter hadn’t officially started here, and sometimes the late autumn storms could be real monsters. A flash of lightning lit up my view, and for a moment, I swear Gabriel was standing there, water dripping from his clothes, just on the edge of the woods.
There was no way he would be still out in this mess. And even if he was, the trail he was maintaining was in the opposite direction from my cabin.
The lightening flashed again, and the image of the soaked Gabriel was gone.
I shook my head. The storm was really doing a number on me.
I headed into the kitchen and pulled out the teapot. I wasn’t exactly hungry yet, but a nice warm cup of tea certainly sounded good. By the time the kettle began to sing,, I had my cup all prepared. A bit of honey, some loose leaf green tea, and a small squeeze of lemon- just a touch. I watched the water cascade into the cup, wondering why I found it so fascinating to watch. The hot water plummeted into the cup hitting the bottom and rose again, twisting and turning the tea leaves around, dancing with them with abandonment, and then just as suddenly twirling them into a calmer, more serene existence as they floated to the top of the cup.
I shook my head as I returned to the living room, and to the work at hand. I knew that sleep would not come easy because of the storm, but when it did, it would welcome me with open arms. I needed to get this done before that happened.
I finished comparing the various aerial photographs and maps, and marked off a few places and landmarks to spot check the next morning while Gabriel and I were out in the field.
Gabriel and I. We. An image, perhaps a memory, broke into my mind’s eye. The two of us hiking through the woods, laughing, comfortable with each other. The trees seemed different somehow, more brilliant, younger. I seemed different too, somehow. I couldn’t quite place it, but somehow, Gabriel seemed to be just a little bit taller, a little bit larger than he was now. His smile was more expansive, his chest more…
I shook my head violently, and the image was gone, almost hurt by my insistence. Gabriel was just someone that I worked with, and not even that closely. I met him only a few months before when I came to the Birkhead Mountains to complete the mapping project that my predecessor had allowed to falter. It had only been two months.
And yet Gabriel, or someone very much like him was there in my thoughts, my memories.
Would he be in my dreams?
The question came, uninvited into my mind. I frowned, knowing that the answer was yes, and that there was nothing I could do about it. I sighed in frustration. Gabriel’s face, his eyes, his lips were the last thing I wanted to see when I dreamed. Especially if I had those dreams.
I sat down to a simple meal of chilli con carne, loaded with cheese and onions, and a tall glass of milk. It certainly wasn’t anything exciting, but it was satisfying. I thought about having a little bit of wine afterwords, but decided against it. Tomorrow was going to be a long day, and the last thing I needed was to be hiking through the woods with a hangover headache.
So I finished up my meal, and read for a little bit. I left the television off- never really liked that thing, especially at night. I crawled into bed just as the rain came softer now, and I saw the flashes of light against my windows. The rolling thunder seemed distant now, an after thought as the storm passed overhead.
I dreamed that night.
I was in those woods, once again, the one where Gabriel and I laughed, and I was running, stumbling, sometimes galloping on all fours, frantic to get away. I could feel the hot breath of the monster behind me, always just a shade away, relentlessly pursuing me through the trees.
I felt a branch, whip-like snap against my back as it sprung back into position, its thorn failing to pierce my hide. I was lower, closer to the ground now, the smells of the earth, feces and blood assailing my nose with reckless abandonment as I ran on and on. My hands and feet seemed to work together somehow, and I felt my stride beginning to lengthen, my pace quickening, and the distance between my pursuers and I growing just a little bit. I took a breath and dove into my actions, my arms, legs and body moving instinctively together, galloping forward, bounding through the underbrush, traveling a trail that I both at once did not know, but had never forgotten.
The shot rang out behind me, piercing the sky, and my ears. I cowered from the sound, but only for an instant before my body compelled me to go forward, to run from the sound, and the pain that it meant. I ran again, dodging behind trees, bounding against a piece of exposed rock, until at last I saw my chance to sprint to further into the dark woods. There would be places to hide there. I would be safe in the woods.
I could hear them, smell them behind me. I was still downwind, and I thanked my lucky stars as I panted and crawled into a nearby thicket to hide.
Still they came, a mixture of guttural shouts and high pitched calls ambushed my ears. I pressed them against my head, my lips forming into a snarl, silent and fierce. I was hidden well, I knew that. Their loud, thrashing steps told me as much. They didn’t know where I was, for now.
And then he came. A new scent came on the breeze, a bit softer than the others. His step was softer as well, more assured. I breathed in slowly, praying that the winds would not shift as I saw him step forward, inches from my hiding space. I crouched further down, willing my legs and arms to get ready for the attack. If I was to die here, I would die fighting.
Slowly the man turned, his dark hair fluttering in the slight breeze, a simple rifle strapped to his back. His clothes were simple; a wide brimmed hat to shield his eyes from the sun, a long sleeved shirt, jeans, and some practical, really uncomfortable looking shoes. His gazed passed over me, rested for a moment, and then traveled on.
I froze, not understanding what it meant. He was clearly one of them, why… would he…..?
“Don’t think it’s here anymore,” he said to the men nearby. “Thinking the poor thing is long gone by now. Probably won’t be back to bother us anytime soon.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” called out another, as he turned and started to walk back the way he came. “Would’ve sworn that I saw it coming this way, though.”
“Yeah, but I’m thinking that it made a beeline to the deeper woods after that shot. Most animals are afraid of gunfire.”
Animals? What exactly did he think I was?
“That’s true. But they’re aren’t the only ones that should be afraid of a gunshot, especially out in these woods. Isn’t that right, Sid?”
The man with the rifle began to speak, but the sound was drowned out by a shot shattering the air. The man fell forward, the iron scent of blood cascading towards my nose. He crumpled to the ground, and blood, thick and red bubbled from his mouth. His eyes looked into mine, and I watched the light fade from within.
“Well you know, accidents do happen, old man,” said another man as he walked up to stand beside the body. “You really should be more careful on where you’re walking, especially in these woods.”
“Right you are, Sid,” said the other. “Now help me strip him down. No sense in leaving identification, right?”
“Why don’t we leave him as is?” asked the other. “When he’s found naked, won’t that raise a few red-flags?”
“Nah, he’s supposed to be going on a solo trip to Lake Tahoe, remember? By the time anyone looks for him here, the animals will have already taken care of most of the remains. Most will just figure that the animals made off with the clothes.”
“Well…. okay, if you say so,” answered the other. I could taste the sweat pouring from him as he lifted the body up and began pulling off the shirt.
Grunting and pulling, they removed the clothes on the stranger, and sat down with a huff next to the body. They were so close to me. How did they not know that I was there? Why were they not using those guns to end my life?
These fools were simply not paying attention to their surroundings. However, their laziness had managed to block my most efficient means of escape. I had two basic choices. The first choice was to wait it out.
The second was to attack, and hope to escape in the confusion.
I’m not a very patient person.
With a snap, I broke free of the underbrush and raced toward the back of the closest one. He saw me out of the corner of his eye, and with a cowardly yelp, brought his arm up for protection. My mouth opened wide, and I felt the hot blood fill my mouth as my teeth punctured his skin. He yelped some more, and I flicked my head to the side, tearing his flesh, the blood from the wound now cascading over my jaw and onto the ground.
“Goddammit! Sid! That damn thing was here the whole time!!”
The man staggered to his feet, giving me the opening that I needed to escape. Fueled by the scent of blood and instinct, I darted to the left and ran past their angered and bewildered faces. I kept running, and running until another shot sizzled through the air above me. Then I ran even harder.
I awoke from the dream, confused and panting. I still tasted the blood, still smelled their sweat mixed with the earth. My eyes still saw the stranger falling.
I shook my head, trying desperately to clear my mind of the strange images that seemed to haunt my dreams. I closed my eyes once again, breathing slowly, willing myself to calm down. There was a lot to do tomorrow, and I needed rest.
The next morning came without too much fanfare. The sky was overcast, but the clouds were no longer threatening rain. If I kept my wits about me, I should be able to get some of the work done.
I approached the cabin, and saw Gabriel sitting on the porch steps. He unwound his lanky figure from the sitting position, and greeted me with a smile.
“Just the lady I want to see,” he said with a grin.
“Forgot your keys again, didn’t you?” I asked, as I pulled out my own.
“Something like that,” he said as he walked behind me. “So are you ready to start the day?”
“Yeah, something like that,” I retorted as I took a final look at the map. “So, you’ve got my orange cap, right?”
“Yep, sitting there right on the table.”
I went over and placed it on my head, and glanced over at his warm smile.
“So? Where’s yours?”
“Ah, I won’t be needing one. You’ll protect me, right?”
“Yep. I’ll just activate the hat’s force field, and no bullets will penetrate the armor. Although the range isn’t very good, so you’ll have to stay relatively close…”
His voice tickled my cheek as he bent down, his mouth a whisper away from my temple. My mind skipped a thought or two as a mild electric shock pulsated through my body.
“Ah, well, being that close could cause some interference, actually,” I said, taking a step to the side. Gabriel laughed softly.
“Understood, Madame Bodyguard. Shall we begin?”
The day was relatively warm despite the overcast skies, so we drove down to the Robbins Branch Trail head with the windows down on the truck. Surprisingly, I got to drive for the mile and a half, Gabriel seemingly more than content to do his part to promote equal rights and responsibilities for women. We past a few hunters on the way, coming back empty handed for their efforts, but each gave us a polite wave just the same.
The hike was a pleasant one, and Gabriel was patient enough to allow me to go off trail every once in a while to verify some elevations with my GPS equipment. He was even willing to stand up straight and use his 6’6” frame as a measuring stick when the cloud cover caused the satellite coverage to dwindle. It was certainly old-school, using a Brunton Compass and a tall ranger as mapping tools, but it did well in a pinch.
The day wore on, and as we traveled, we talked. Gabriel seemed much more relaxed in the woods here, as did I, and our banter became more easy going.
I stopped and looked around for a moment, trying to take in exactly what I was seeing.
To understand what I was feeling. This place, this scene, this moment felt all too familiar.
“What is it?” ask Gabriel, a puzzled expression passing over his face.
“I’m not sure,” I said uneasily. “I just feel like I’ve been here before. But I know I haven’t”
“Well, the forest tends to look the same to a lot of different people,” said Gabriel with a smile. “Maybe you’re just mixing something up. One tree looks very much like another, you know.”
“I know,” I said looking around, “but this is different.” I looked to my left, and slowly looked to my right. An old tree, and just beyond that hidden among the leaves would be a bare rock, jutting up proudly from the earth.
At least there should be. I walked toward the old tree, Gabriel close on my heels.
“Hey!” he shouted after me. “Don’t go wandering off like that! There’s work to do!”
“Don’t worry!” I called back. “This won’t take but a minute!”
“Yeah, likely story,” he huffed.
I crouched down when I reached the tree. Sure enough, just beyond the edge of the root was that bare stone, worn and gray against the soft earth. I breathed in the scents around me, desperately wanting the faint odors to grow stronger, more familiar. If this was here, than that meant that maybe, just maybe….
There would be a thicket nearby, a good one for hiding in. I scanned the horizon, searching for the place that invaded my dreams. The tree was here. The rock was there. That meant that the thicket should be.
“There!” I whispered triumphantly as I bounded forward toward the thicket in question. I stood next to it, somehow proud of my accomplishment, finding a particular thorny bush in the middle of the forest.
“What has gotten into you?” asked Gabriel as he stood behind me, his chest heaving slightly. “You’re acting like a damn dog on a trail, or something.”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I said with a frown. “It’s hard to explain, but I think I have been here before. The dreams I’ve been having lately, they all point me toward something here.”
Something I’m not sure I want to find….
“So? What do you have to find? It must be something important, right? Let’s look for it together.”
I glanced back at Gabriel, and saw a certain warmth in his brown eyes that I had seen before, but never really noticed.
“Yeah, thanks. Maybe we should. I think it’s just on the other side of this thicket.”
“All right, then, let’s take a look, shall we?”
Together we rounded the thicket, and the remains of a man there, an entry wound in his back. The soil was dark with blood, and wolf prints could still be seen faintly in the mud. Other footprints, those of man circle the body, as well as fresher tracks of animals that had begun to feast on the free meal.
“Oh god,” I said, bending down. The taste of blood came unsolicited into my mouth. It was real. Oh god, it was real.
“Don’t touch anything,” said Gabriel softly. Think you can find your way back to the ranger station? Call for help? I think this is pretty much out of the scope of your mapping project.”
“Yeah, but what about you? Won’t you come with me?”
“I should stay here,” Gabriel said looking at the body. “Keep an eye on things until help arrives.”
I nodded my head. He was right, of course, but still something felt off. Impulsively I bent down and took a closer look at the body.
“Hey!” he shouted in warning. “I told you not to touch anything!”
“I’m not. I just, I just needed to take another look. I’m going now.”
As I ran down the trail, my heat and mind were racing. The dream was real, it had to be. But how? The footprints around the body corresponded to the two men that were with the stranger. No other footprints were unaccounted for. No evidence of humans were seen. All that were left were the signs of animals.
If there are no signs of me being there, then how in the heck did I know what would be there? Was I psychic? And why did the memory of blood trailing over my tongue and down my jaw keep assailing my senses?
I made it back to the ranger station in record time, and called in for reinforcements. The local wildlife ranger put in a call to the state police for help with the preservation of the murder scene. Once everyone arrived, I led them to the location.
“So how did you know this was here?” asked one of the detectives. “This is a pretty remote place.”
“I didn’t really,” I lied. “I was doing some spot checks for a new mapping project in the area. Stumbled across it while getting lost in the woods.”
“I see. Seems a pretty out of the way place to do a mapping project, don’t you think?”
“That’s why we update these maps,” I answered lightly. “So that those out of the way places don’t seem so remote.”
“Sounds like more government waste to me,” said the detective as he trudged forward. Soon we came to the edge of the patch of land where the body laid. I took a breath, and leaned against a nearby tree.
“There he is,” I said, nodding in the direction of the body.
“Right. O.K. I want a perimeter set up, fifty yards in all directions. Madam, we’re going to need your shoes for processing.”
“Now?” I asked incredulously.
The detective laughed.
“No, I’m not going to make you walk home barefoot. We’ll take your statement and an impression of your shoes when we get back to the police station. Mind putting your mapping project on hold?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
I watched the scene unfold in front of me, searching for Gabriel as I did so. I found him standing over the body, looking directly at me, the same warmth, and a tiny bit of longing shining in his eyes. Snippets of conversations floated to me through the thick mountain air as our gazes met.
“….who is the stiff?….”
“….hard to say. Could be anyone, really….”
“…yeah maybe a hunter…”
“…what about that guy that Sid and his partner killed?”
“…oh you mean that old park ranger? Yeah, they never did find the body. Maybe.”
“… certainly looks old enough. Tall too. Looks over six feet at least.”
“… can believe old Sid confessed to so many. He was a character.”
“yeah, remember the time he talked about his partner being attack by some demon wolf?”
“… that was one for the storybooks. “
“… yeah no wonder he was locked up.”
“…but now, if it is Gabe, maybe we can put this thing to rest.”
“Yeah. That will be a good thing, huh?”
I watched Gabriel look around at the people working near or around his body, gathering evidence, a slow, satisfied smile and a relaxed look washing over his face.
“…claimed that he was attacked by an actual werewolf. Can you believe that?….”
© 2015 – 2017, Laura Seeber. All rights reserved.