Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Howling Heart by April Bostic (Excerpt)

Chapter One
Last night, a wolf howled for me. The deep, haunting sound pierced through my dreams and pulled me from the infinite, black void of my subconscious. The howl took hold of my soul as I slept and forced me to relive a distant memory from my childhood. It was a memory I think the wolf didn’t want me to forget.

In a world of vivid color, I was suddenly ten years old, again. It was mid-summer in Black River, Colorado, and my family and I were vacationing in our cabin in the Rocky Mountains. I had hoped this vacation would be pleasant, but I had doubts when my parents’ bickering started in the car on our way to the cabin. While sitting quietly in the backseat with my nose buried in the hair of my favorite, old doll, I silently wished they would be nice to each other.

I was in my bedroom when I heard them arguing downstairs. I was used to my parents not getting along, but this time, I decided I didn’t want to be around them any longer. Escaping to the dark quiet of my bedroom closet wasn’t far enough. I needed to go further away. I needed to run away. While they argued, I grabbed some clothes, my doll, and an unopened juice box, and I smashed them all into my suitcase.

I tiptoed down the wooden staircase and stepped softly across the hardwood floor in the living room, until I was about to pass the kitchen. My parents’ voices gave me pause, and I pressed myself against the nearest wall.
As I peeked into the kitchen, I witnessed my mother slam pots and pans on the counter and stove. She did this to emphasize her points during the argument. They yelled at one another, but I guess the noise from the cookware irritated my father, because he grabbed one of the pots from her. His dark eyebrows knit tightly together, and his usually cool, blue eyes blazed as he glared at my mother.

My mother’s hazel eyes widened in shock, and she hit his arm. “Don’t you dare snatch that from me!”

Now was the perfect time to escape. They were so busy arguing and glaring that they were oblivious to the fact that their young daughter could hear every word. I started to cry when they mentioned my name. My father blamed my mother for being too strict with me, and she blamed him for being too lenient and allowing me to make a mess of the house. I didn’t think I was messy.

I watched them silently for another minute until I realized I had to get my sniffling under control or I’d give myself away. I felt wetness on my cheeks, and it dribbled down to my mouth. I licked my lips and tasted the salty tears. They’ll miss me when I’m gone, but I won’t come back.

I turned around slowly, and I crept through the living room and out the front door. I still heard them yelling as I ran down the front steps. I don’t know if the door made a loud sound when I closed it, but I heard my loud sobs and my sneakers pound against the grass as I ran toward the dense, surrounding forest.

Dirt, sticks, and leaves covered the forest floor. There were so many trees, I ran in zigzags to avoid running into one. For a moment, I stopped to look where I was going. I stood in the middle of the forest, surrounded by nothing but evergreens. Everything looked green and brown, and a misty fog swirled around me. I cast my gaze skyward and saw a dark canopy of leaves. Only slivers of sunlight and patches of indigo sky crept through the branches. The sun was setting, and I walked aimlessly in the shadowy light of dusk.

I was thirsty from running, so I sat against a tree to retrieve my juice box. As I popped the plastic straw through the foil opening, I looked around to see if I was alone. I knew animals lived in the woods and didn’t want any of them taking me by surprise. I looked down at my sneakers and noticed the bottoms caked with dirt. My mother would be so angry if I walked into the cabin wearing dirty shoes. I wondered if I should go home or keep to my plan of running away. Since I had already run away, I wondered what to do next.

The forest was surprisingly quiet. The only sounds were the birds in the trees above me and my own breathing intermittent with slurping juice. I was on alert, my eyes surveying my surroundings.

I wouldn’t sit in peace for too long, because I heard the crunching sound of someone or something coming toward me. At first, I thought it was one of my parents. I was prepared to run, because I didn’t want to go home. I gasped when the mysterious visitor came into my line of vision. It emerged from behind an enormous tree. With its coloring, it lacked natural camouflage. I dropped my juice box in my lap and stared with wide eyes at the small, white dog.

It stood a few yards away and stared at me. Then, it cocked its head and whimpered. I was more intrigued than afraid, and the feeling was mutual. I expected the puppy’s owner to be within a close distance, but I didn’t see or hear anyone else. The dog approached me cautiously with its head lowered. It jumped back every time I made a sudden movement, like touching my hair or scratching my cheek.

I always wanted a puppy, but my father never let me have one, because my mother was allergic. I remembered she wasn’t here, so I smiled. This moment would be my only chance to have a pet.

I decided it would be wise not to move and frighten it away. As the puppy walked closer to inspect me, I saw it was completely white except for its black nose and golden eyes. They stood out eerily in the dark forest and glowed softly. The animal stopped a few feet away from me, as if it was trying to keep its distance.

I encouraged it by rising to my knees and beckoning to it. “Come here, little one. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
The puppy whimpered again and took another step toward me. I knew dogs didn’t drink juice, but that didn’t stop me from offering my half-empty Capri Sun.

Another minute ticked by until the dog was close enough for me to touch. Once again, it hesitated. After a couple of seconds, we finally made physical contact, and I touched the tip of its muzzle. Its nose was a bit cold but not wet. Its body flinched, but it didn’t move away. I knew I had earned its trust when it allowed my hand to glide up its muzzle to the top of its head. Its white fur felt like sleek bristles. My hands ventured behind its ears and both cheeks. The puppy wagged its tail, and to my surprise, it jumped on me and rested its head on my shoulder.
Before the puppy arrived, I worried about being alone in the forest. I no longer had to worry, because I had a new friend.

“I ran away,” I said as I stroked its back to the tip of its tail. “I’m tired of my parents yelling all the time, so I thought it would be better if I left. I’m always making a mess, and my mom says she’s tired of cleaning up after me. I try not to spill things, but sometimes, I do it by mistake.”

I talked to the dog for at least an hour while it sat in my lap. I discovered it was actually a male. He let me know with a growl after I commented, “You’re a pretty girl.” Then, he rolled onto his back to prove his sex.
I apologized in laughter, and a few licks to my face let me know he had forgiven me. His playful licks lifted my spirits, but my happiness didn’t last long. Panic set in as darkness closed in around me, and I reconsidered my plan.

“Maybe, I should go home, now. It’s getting late. My parents are probably worried about me, and I’m hungry. I forgot to pack some food.”

I stood and took a few steps in the direction I thought would lead me home. My new friend wanted to be my guide. He grabbed my pant leg between his teeth and yanked.

“What is it?” I laughed. He growled softly as he pulled me along. “Oh, I see. You want me to follow you?”
He finally released me, looked into my eyes, and barked.

I grabbed my suitcase and followed the puppy as he led me through the forest. I hoped I would see the cabin, soon. In an attempt to ease my fears, I hummed an upbeat melody and pretended I was on an adventure. Every now and then, my friend would look back at me to make sure I was following.

“Do you know where you’re going?”

He stopped suddenly and turned to look at me. He let out another high-pitched bark, and I smiled. It was almost as if he answered me.

The puppy and I had established a bond of trust, so I didn’t expect him to lead me to danger. Unfortunately, in my naivety, that’s exactly what he did. We arrived at a clearing with a dark river running through it. Instantly, my panic increased threefold when I realized I was deeper into the forest.

“What’s going on? Where are we?”

He turned toward me, and I knelt in front of him. We snuggled again, and he licked my face.

“I need to go home, now.” He whimpered and licked my nose, causing me to giggle. “I’m sorry, but I—”

A menacing growl cut my sentence short. I looked toward the sound and saw a big animal baring its sharp teeth. As it stalked toward us, more animals emerged from behind the trees. I clutched my friend to my chest protectively. I watched National Geographic, and I knew these were not dogs…they were very large wolves. There was a hill on the other side of the river, and more wolves appeared as they materialized from the darkness.

I heard another whimper, but this one came from me. I shivered in fright, and the puppy squirmed in my arms. I released him quickly and stood in surrender. I turned in a circle and realized the wolves surrounded me on all sides.

My voice wavered as I begged the predators to show mercy. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

I breathed rapidly and dropped my suitcase with a thump. My feet shuffled, and my eyes darted around as I tried to figure out my next move. I had nowhere to run and no escape.

The puppy ran away and stood between a snarling gray wolf and me. My lips trembled, and I scrambled backward. I didn’t care if I was moving closer to another wolf. I just wanted to get away from the scary, gray wolf stalking toward me.

The puppy barked at the wolf, and I silently prayed for him to return to my side. He was too small to save me from a dangerous wolf pack. The wolf stopped and turned its attention to the puppy, as if it was listening. Other wolves approached me, but their demeanor was non-threatening and curious. I stood frozen in fear and sought escape.
Luckily, I didn’t need a plan, because I was about to be rescued. In the distance, I heard my parents and other people calling my name.

I yelled in relief, “Mom, Dad. I’m here! Help me!”

The wolves started to retreat, but not the puppy. I grabbed my suitcase, and as I turned to run toward my parents, I felt another tug on my pant leg. I looked down and spoke soothingly.

“No, I have to leave.”

He released me and sat on his hind legs. Then, he scooted toward me and laid his head on my foot. His whimper actually broke my heart.

“I’m sorry. I can’t stay with you.” My eyes welled with tears.

My mother’s voice called out to me, desperate and anxious. “Paige, where are you?”

“I’m here, Mommy!”

My friend backed away but never took his gaze off me. I heard a deep bark from one of the wolves. I looked up and saw the gray one standing by a tree. The puppy quickly turned his head toward it before he looked back at me one last time. Sadness is an unmistakable expression in any animal, and I know that’s what I saw in his face. He ran toward the wolf, and a second later, the darkness swallowed them.

My father reached me first and pulled me into his arms. I looked at the spot where my friend had disappeared, shocked by the revelation he wasn’t a dog…he was a wolf.

My dream fast-forwarded to the following morning. I awoke in surprise and found a dead rabbit at the foot of my bed.

When my mother entered my room, she immediately noticed the rabbit and the blood. “Paige! What is that?” she shrieked.

My father heaved a loud, irritated sigh from the hallway. “What’s going on now, Maggie?”

“David, get in here!” My mother looked disgusted and clapped a hand over her mouth.

I sat on my bed and stared at the gray, lifeless body. Shiny, black eyes looked eerily back at me, and the ring of blood around its neck stained my quilt. I had no idea where the rabbit came from.

“Mom, I’m sorry.” I leaned over to pick it up, but my mother grabbed my arms.

“Don’t you dare! It could have diseases!”

My father finally entered the room as I scrambled off the bed. He looked confused for a moment before he set his gaze on the dead thing my mother was having a fit over.

“What is that, and where’d it come from?”

My mother sighed heavily. “What does it look like? It’s a rabbit. Get rid of it. I want it out of this house!”

He ignored her demand and approached me. His tall form bent down to my level, and I saw concern behind his eyes. “Did you bring the rabbit into your room? Tell me the truth, sweetheart.”

“No, I didn’t. I swear. I don’t know how it got here. I woke up, and it was there.”

My mother glanced at one of the windows. “Paige, why is your window wide open?”

I shrugged and cast my gaze toward the floor. “It was hot in here last night, so I opened it.”

She slammed the window shut and locked it. When she turned to me, suspicion filled her eyes. “Did you go out last night and bring that dead thing into the house?”

I shook my head vehemently. “No!”

My father started walking out the room. “I’ll get a trash bag and some rubber gloves.”

I looked after him, but once he was out of sight, I set my gaze back on my mother. She stood a few feet from my bed, hands planted firmly on her hips and lips pursed tight.

“We’re washing everything on your bed.” She gagged when she looked at the rabbit, again. “Ugh! That’s disgusting! I can’t believe—”

“It wasn’t me,” I said in a small, quiet voice.

She sighed, again. “Then, who did it? Who came into your room and put a dead rabbit on your bed?”

I shrugged.

My father returned minutes later and removed the rabbit. My mother kept to her promise and gave my bed linens a thorough wash. She flipped my mattress over after she sprayed it with Lysol.

The scene in my bedroom dissolved until I was playing in the backyard of the cabin. Since I was an only child and hadn’t met any children on the mountain, I had to entertain myself. That afternoon, I decided to play a soccer game with a giant, evergreen tree as the goalie. I kicked my rainbow glittered ball toward the tree, but I missed my mark, and it rolled a few yards toward the forest. I was about to run after it, but someone grabbed it first. I gasped in astonishment.

I’d never seen a naked boy before, and he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. He was taller than me, but he looked around my age. He had a suntan and sandy blonde hair, longer than my mother preferred. He was in serious need of a bath, because his hands and feet were filthy. He held the ball against his stomach as he slowly walked toward me.

This young, naked stranger entranced me, and I couldn’t move. He slowly closed the distance between us, until I could see every feature of his face. The bright, clear color of his eyes reminded me of green apples. When he cocked his head and grinned, I noticed a brown mole on the upper left corner of his mouth.

I still couldn’t move and struggled to speak. He frowned, and his eyes darted around us.

“Who are you?” I said breathlessly with wide eyes. “Where are your clothes?”

He grinned again and held out my ball. I took it from him, and our fingers touched. “Thanks,” I said, smiling nervously.

He took another step forward and reached out his hand. This time, I flinched when he made contact with my skin. His hand softly caressed my cheek, and a wide smile broke free on my face. The boy smiled back, and I thought it was beautiful. In that moment, I was happy to see another kid. It didn’t matter anymore that he was naked. We could still play together, as long as my parents didn’t see him.

“What’s your name?” I asked quietly.

His expression was calm, and his eyes casually scanned my face.

I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t answer my questions. I felt my brow furrow. “Can you talk?”

Finally, his lips parted. I thought he would speak, but he glanced at the cabin and then back at me with a pained expression. He yanked my hand, and I slid across the grass.

Everything happened so fast. I cried out, “Hey! What are you doing?”

He released me and stepped away, but he hesitated before he turned around and ran toward the forest.

I reached out for him. “Wait!” Unfortunately, he quickly disappeared among the trees.

“Paige! What did I tell you about washing your glass after you have a drink?”

I turned toward the cabin and saw my mother standing behind the screen door, hands on her hips, again.

“Get in here right now!”

A loud, beeping sound snatched me out of my dream and tossed me into reality. My eyes snapped open, and I stared at the ceiling. I was back in my Manhattan apartment, lying in bed while the grating noise from my alarm clock blared in my ears. I reached over and slammed my palm on the snooze button. The beeping ceased, giving way to the bustling sounds of the noisy city outside. The morning sun barely peeked through the blinds. In my dimly lit bedroom, I exhaled a wistful breath and recalled my childhood memory for one brief moment.

I didn’t see the dirty naked boy again, but the next morning, I found a dead squirrel on my bed. My mother was in mid-conniption, and she wouldn’t let me sleep in my room after that. She also cut our vacation short.

The following summer, I asked my father to take me back to our cabin. I wanted to see the wolf pup or the strange boy, again. To my disappointment, something came up at the last minute, and he couldn’t. I never asked my mother, because she wasn’t fond of the place. The mountain was too remote, and our last experience turned her off to wildlife. My family never returned to the cabin.

Before the year was over, my parents went through a nasty divorce with me in the middle. The judge awarded them joint custody of me, but I stayed with my dad most of the time, because we got along better. In my heart, I missed the wolf pup the most. Maybe, he missed me as well, because I could’ve sworn I heard a howl the day we left Black River.

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Genre – Paranormal Romance
Rating – Adult
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