Forest Frightful (Part 6)

What’s that? You don’t remember this series? I don’t blame you, it’s been awhile since I updated it. You should go back to part 1 so you can understand what’s going on here!


 

As the-wolf-that-is-Eugene retreats, memories rush unbidden through his head, some of his experiences as a member of the pack and some from his carefree days as a layabout in his hometown. In the forefront of these memories are images of his younger siblings as they all made something of themselves, pretending that he couldn’t see the disapproving gaze of his father, and then the final moment when he was sent away, the entire reason I’m now being chased by an ax maniac, he thinks. Let us go together with him back to that fortuitous day and see what set poor Eugene upon this path.

The sound of the stamping machine can be heard from the paper mill, pressing the fibers repeatedly into flat sheaves for binding. Eugene sits outside, freshly printed book flat on his lap and head leaning back against a tree trunk, eyes closed and mouth parted. A careful observer could connect the sounds coming from within the mill with the rotating of the wheel on the side of the weathered wood building, and then they would become curious about the other noise coming from the mill, an unpredictable tapping that starts, stops, starts. And then a harsher noise, a cracking, and there comes shrieks of pain from the mill punctuated by quick silences as the screamer takes breaths. Eugene starts awake but does not get up immediately, first looking to either side with sleep-swollen eyes and then scrambling to his feet, the book falling from his lap to the grass below.
Within the mill, two of his brothers are pulling a young boy away from the still stamping machine, a thin trail of blood traced across the floor as they retreat. The boy is panting and crying. A fifth person enters behind the group as they struggle with the writhing boy.
“What in the world happened? Eugene? What’s going on here?”

Eugene turns back to face the man, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. His eyes flicker to the red line that now extends out through the doorway.

“You’d better come with me.”

Eugene and his father are seated in a room, windows covered, the afternoon light squeezing itself through the gaps around the blinds as if curious about what’s happening within. The only furniture is a table and two chairs, and few odds and ends lay scattered about the floor. Eugene’s father stares across the table at him, arms folded and mouth set in a grimace. He is the first to speak.
“So? How did this happen?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You were supposed to be watching him! My God, can you not do the simplest of tasks?”
“He was playing and I was reading and… I must have fallen asleep.”
“Your nephew is going to lose two fingers because you didn’t have the patience or care to watch over him. You need to get out of here – your sister truly may kill you.” He glares at Eugene and Eugene glares at the ground. His father looks away. “Perhaps leaving is a good idea. Take this delivery to Fencepost. That’ll give us some time for Layla’s anger to disperse.” Eugene finally looks up.
“What? That’s… that’s miles and miles away! Not to mention they have no use–”
“That’s the entire damn point. And I’ll have you know I have reliable word that there is a burgeoning interest in printing there. And it was not a request. You are going to take responsibility for something. Just because you don’t usually see the consequences of your inaction doesn’t mean they don’t exist, Eugene. This is not the first time you’ve created trouble by doing nothing. I’ve turned a blind eye to your laziness for long enough. I’ll put the delivery together for you… and if you can’t even do this simple thing, don’t expect a prodigal’s welcome upon your return.”

Eugene skids to a halt, his eyes closed and lips curled up in a snarl. He turns back to the scuffle, still visible in the distance as a blur of grey-blue shapes that swarm at the feet of the hooded man. I only seem to be able to run away, but perhaps my flight can at least be of use to someone, he thinks as he sprints toward the scuffle.
The wolves are not losing the battle, but neither are they winning. They jump and snap but the whirling axe keeps them at bay, its edge flashing through the night air, seemingly in all directions at once. Just as soon as one of them lunges for the man he strikes and they twist out of the way in midair. Nevertheless, the blood that drips upon the grass below is all lupine, and the hooded man shows no signs of tiring; instead, he stomps the ground with quick steps in a manic show of glee. And then a howling breaks the fighters’ concentration and they turn as one to look at Eugene, his head thrown back. Wolf eyes meet human and Eugene growls. The hooded man immediately moves toward Eugene, kicking one of the real wolves out of the way. They are all panting and wobble upon their feet, and the look they give to Eugene is clearly one of gratitude to be able to take a break from combat. He turns tail and starts running again, the hooded man in pursuit. This situation is becoming far too familiar, he thinks to himself. And it was a gamble that he would even respond to my taunt but… why is this maniac so fixated upon me?
As far as the chase is concerned, though, the tables have definitely turned. The hooded man can hardly keep up with the now four-legged Eugene, whose easy stride propels him between the trees as though he were a gust of wind rather than a physical being. In fact, it is so easy that Eugene can stop and look back at his pursuer, ears pricked and not even panting. Contrasting this, the hooded man’s bare chest is heaving and mouth wheezing, the fabric fluttering over the concealed maw. Each time the wolf looks back at him he waves the axe through the air, the strokes visibly slower than when he was fighting the pack. Just a bit further and I’ll leave this devil far behind. As Eugene thinks this, he notices that the light is changing in the forest, becoming brighter by small degrees, shining refraction through the early morning mist. Up ahead, through the obscurant water vapor loom grey shapes, and Eugene’s heart drops. What in the world are those? But as he comes nearer the shapes sharpen and become the low slopes of what appears to be a mountain range. Sun breaks over the peaks, the bright, focused rays shining into his eyes, and the leafless trees become more sparse the closer they get to the stony spires, the grassy ground slowing morphing to rubble. And then he is tumbling head over heels, papers flying from his pack. He sits up, dirt on his elbows and streaked across his legs. When he looks back this time, the hooded man has stopped, but only for a moment before dashing at him, the sight of the pack-laden human figure apparently invigorating. Eugene scrambles to his feet and runs, his lungs burning almost immediately. There is a dark spot at the base of the mountains, a tiny sliver that could just be shadow, but there is no other choice at this point, no turning back and no climbing the steep slopes, so he dashes for it, rewarded when he sees it is a narrow crevasse curving under the looming mass of stone. The sliver of darkness appears almost impassible but Eugene shrugs off his pack and dives for it, the brim of his hat bending as he passes through the gap, sucking in his stomach and turning his head sideways. Even so, the jagged rock drags at the fabric of his clothes. There is a rush of air that he feels on his ankles, and then the ringing sound of metal chipping rock, but the tall, skinny Eugene has safely wormed his way into the hole and under the mountain, crawling on his stomach and then on hands and knees as the space begins to gradually grow larger and more comfortable, but darker. He does not see the arm that reaches in after him, grasping hand grabbing at void and then smacking the ground before retracting back into the open air. Part 7 →

( ©2018 Sean Dorsey )

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