Wolf’s Ward by Envy Augustine

CHAPTER ONE

            Snow crunched under Isabelle’s boots as she trekked to Keene Lodge. The main building had been renovated. Fresh, red timbers paneled the rustic cabin and wood sap gave the air a pleasant tang. A plank and wire pen to the building’s right housed an enormous white Samoyed. The dog barked and yipped at her approach, its black eyes sparkling in the gray morning haze.

            Isabelle froze. The Samoyed’s shrill vocalizations set off an uncomfortable itch beneath her skin.

            Come on Izzy. One foot in front of the other.

            Despite the private pep talk, Isabelle stayed put. The shaking started in her knees and traveled up through her shoulders and into her hands. She squeezed her purse strap, tucked her chin to her chest and ground her teeth behind closed lips, willing away the icy burn of adrenaline spreading through her breast.

            “Hey! Hey, there!” The lodge’s screen door banged shut and a man bounded down the front steps. He trotted to Isabelle as he rubbed his hands together and squinted when he got closer. “Do I know you?” He sniffed and pinched his nose.

            Isabelle hadn’t seen this man the last time she’d been to the lodge, but that had been four years ago and her memories of that time were foggy.

            “You coming inside?” He was huge; tall and bulky with muscle his loose flannel shirt and baggy jeans couldn’t conceal. His girth blocked Izzy’s view of the dog pen and dampened that awful barking.

            “Hello?” He waved a hand in front of her face and smiled. One of his bottom teeth edged out in front of its crowding neighbors.

            “Yeah. Yes, I’m coming in.” Isabelle shook herself and took a bold step forward. As soon as the dog sighted her again it went wild, spinning in circles, jumping at the gate and swooshing its tail. She stumbled back and would have fallen if the gentleman at her back hadn’t caught her.

            “Woah now, careful,” he said, bracing her against his wide chest and grasping her shoulders. Lifting her chin, Izzy gazed into the man’s face. His brown eyes were touched with warmth and…something else, but he broke their staring contest before she could determine what it was.

            “You alright?” He stood her up and ushered her towards the lodge.

            “Fine,” Izzy said, forcing cheer into her voice. The Samoyed yipped and launched itself halfway over the gate when they passed. She stopped short and the man stepped on her heel.

            “Oops, Sorry. Can it, Petey,” he said and the dog obediently sat. Its tail thumped the well-tracked ground and its mouth spread in a wide doggy grin. “Don’t like animals?”

            “It’s not that.” Izzy studiously avoided eye contact with man and beast. “I had a bad experience a few years back.”

            “Well, no worries. Petey’s friendly as they come. I’ll introduce you.”

            Izzy was about to refuse when she remembered her therapist’s assignment.

            Challenge yourself, Isabelle. Confront your fears.

            She doubted Dr. Turner meant returning to Keene Lodge and coming nose to snout with a wolf sized dog, but Izzy never did anything halfway.

            “Alright,” she said, hoping her smile seemed genuine.

            “Great. Wait right there. I’m Curtis Keene, by the way.” He offered his hand and Izzy shook it with her left, keeping her right arm tight to her side.

            Snow piled in front of the pen’s gate and Curtis had to wiggle it open and kick a trough through the powder. Izzy gave a nervous laugh as the white hound sped forward and jumped up, planting his paws on Curtis’s chest. A pink tongue washed his master’s nose.

            “Down, Petey. Sit.”

            The command in Curtis’s voice was so strong Izzy almost popped a squat. Petey did as ordered and his master crouched at his side.

            “Come on. I’ve got him.”

            The dog didn’t look like it was going anywhere, but Izzy didn’t budge. She squeezed her eyes shut, urging her feet onward.

            This is a domesticated dog, Izz. Domesticated.

            “Hey.”

            Izzy cracked one eye to see Curtis waving her over. His large hand secured Petey’s ruff.

            “I’ve got him. I promise.”

            With one deep, winter-cold breath, Izzy launched herself towards the open pen. She tucked her stiff right arm over her belly as she approached the pair.

            “Pretty lady, come on down,” Curtis said in a pitch perfect Price Is Right imitation when she stood staring down at them, fiddling with her purse strap.

            “Izzy,” she said. “My name’s Isabelle.”

            Curtis’s eyes crinkled with his smile. “Izzy, this is Petey. Petey, Izzy.” He mussed the fur between the Samoyed’s ears. Petey gave an appreciative wuff and she flinched. Two sets of eyes, one black, the other brown, focused on her with the same predatory sheen.

            “Sudden movements provoke a hunter’s instinct,” Curtis warned. Though he still smiled, the alien intensity of his gaze was unnerving. Izzy made to retreat, but the expression vanished as quickly as it came. He tugged on her navy pea-coat and reached for the hand wound tight around her purse strap. She gave him what he wanted, shocked at the heat reaching through her glove. If her hands had been naked as his, they’d have been blue with cold. The hand he squeezed was numb despite her thick glove. Relishing his warmth through the leather, she sank to her knees, frigid damp bleeding through her denim.

            Curtis guided Izzy’s hand between Petey’s ears. She curled her black clad fingers into his white fur and offered a tentative pat. The dog stretched its muzzle to her face and sniffed while she tried to keep still.

            “You been up here before?” Curtis asked. His nostrils flared. “You seem awful familiar.”

            “I used to hike the trails here with my brother. We’d get a cabin for a long weekend once a year.” A wet nose nuzzled Izzy’s cheek. Instinctively, she pushed at the dog’s chest. Petey lowered his head and she patted his side. “We haven’t been back for years. You either have an excellent memory or you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

            “No mistake,” Curtis said as he moved behind Petey. “My memory’s pretty good.” His body loomed over the animal. Petey wriggled nervously for a moment then settled down. Even if he lunged at her Izzy was sure Curtis could hold him back. She was so wrapped up with the dog, Curtis startled her when he caught her right arm, circling his fingers around the wrist she never let anyone touch.

            “His fur’s real soft,” Curtis said, coaxing the glove from her hand.

            “No.” Izzy went rigid. If she struggled who knew what the dog would do?

            “He won’t bite you, trust me. God, what are you, frozen solid? I can barely move your fingers.” He laughed as he tugged off the glove.

            The warmth in Curtis’s face disappeared when he stared down at her bared hand. Izzy’s doll-like prosthetic rested lifeless in his palm, its jointed fingers bent in what she considered a “natural” position. Natural as long as no one looked close. She yanked her right arm to her chest and cradled it with her left as she abruptly stood, driving Petey into a barking frenzy.

            “Wait, I’m sorry. I-I didn’t know.”

            Izzy could tell Curtis wanted to rise, but he had his hands full with the dog she’d excited. Petey’s white teeth flashed as he strained against his master’s hold. Her heart leapt with every piercing bark.

            Without another word, Izzy took off across the lawn, sprinting for her car while Curtis called after her.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: