by Madeline Leong
Colin watched as the hawk swooped down and sank its talons into the rabbit. The cottontail squealed and squirmed. A few wingbeats later, it was dead. Colin smiled grimly and ran on.
Not much had changed in Woodbine, Maryland. It was a time warp. There were horses and cows and rail fences. The air was crisp and chill, the ground sprinkled with snow. Thick white clouds softened the wide-open sky.
Colin paced himself up the hilly road. He was in better shape than he thought; long hours at the hospital hadn’t completely ruined him. A vacation was just what he needed: a chance to be himself, not Dr. Peters. Luckily, his grandparents were in Costa Rica, and they let him use the old house on Daisy Road. Fifteen acres of peace and quiet, what more could he want?
There was a tree farm around the bend. And then that mobile-home mess with the crazy dogs—all eight of them. Some of the neighbors were definitely eccentric. (To be fair, Colin’s grandparents were a little strange. Grandma bow-hunted, and Pops bred show fish. Betta splendens, to be exact.)
Colin’s chest tightened, and his legs ached. But he felt good; he felt alive. He spun around the corner expecting to see two black labs, a beagle, a dachshund, three terriers, and a German shorthaired pointer.
The dogs were gone.
He slowed to a walk and blinked. Instead of a dog-infested, muddy sinkhole, he saw a tidy, frosted-over lawn. The mobile home had a coat of fresh paint. And, Heaven help us, were those flowerbeds?
The pungent smell of manure reached his nose.
Colin conjured up a mental picture of the owner: a toothless, pipe-smoking, beer-swilling Ravens fanatic. And this guy fertilized?
The house door clanged open, and a girl stepped out. For a moment, Colin had trouble placing her age. She wore leggings and a tight-fitting runners’ jacket. Her choice of accessories—pink headband, pink iPod—branded her a teenager, but her face was too sharp, too serious. Mid-twenties, maybe.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hi.” Colin instantly hated the sound of his voice. “I used to run here a lot. I, uh—what happened to the dogs?”
“Yeah, there used to be eight of them.”
The girl shrugged.
“Oh.” Colin tried to think of something clever to say, but it wasn’t happening. In the end, he waved and mumbled, “See you!” As he leaped forward, his sneakers smacked against the pavement.
The girl sprinted toward him, and from the way she moved, it was clear that she was a whole different kind of runner. She caught up effortlessly. “Are you alone?” she asked.
“Uh . . . yes.”
“Do you live here?”
“I’m on vacation.” Colin couldn’t help himself. “I wanted to get away because work has been tough, and I broke up with my fiancée—” He winced.
The girl ignored this tidbit. “Where do you work?”
“So you’re a city boy?”
The girl’s eyes brightened. Up close, she was even more attractive in a scrawny, marathons-and-kickboxing way. Her lips parted to reveal perfect white teeth.
“I’m Tanis.” She reached for his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
* * *
The fire hissed and cackled. Tanis crouched beside her family and savored the heat. Chask worked on his iPad, Vulk strummed his guitar, and Blaise skewered a marshmallow. It was good to be home.
Her sister thrust a marshmallow into the flames, and it burnt quickly. Blaise pulled it out and examined the smoking ruin.
“You’re not going to eat that,” Tanis said.
Blaise popped it in her mouth. “Mmm . . .”
Blaise tapped her stick against the brick fireplace. “I like ’em crispy.”
“Pure sugar. You’ll get fat.”
“Have you ever seen a fat wolf?”
Chask grunted. “Yes, I have.”
“Shut up,” Blaise said.
Vulk played a minor chord. “Heaven for the lips, hell for the hips. Wow, Blaise, your butt looks bigger.”
Vulk plucked a few notes and launched into Rodney Atkins’ “Take a Back Road.” For a minute, they all listened to his smooth, deep voice.
Chask broke the spell. “Okay, that’s enough. There’s only so much country I can stand.”
“Then move to the city,” Vulk said.
“That reminds me . . .” Tanis said.
“What?” Blaise lolled on the carpet, her décolletage showing. She was the youngest, and the fiercest.
“A present,” Tanis said. “A winter solstice present.”
* * *
Colin admired the view from his kitchen: a dark forest lit by a full moon. The stars actually sparkled, miles and miles from streetlights and neon signs. He hummed a few bars of “Take a Back Road.”
A hiss startled him.
It was the stove-pot. Colin waited until water boiled and dumped in a box of pasta. He considered his options: pesto? garlic and olive oil? He was a vegetarian with occasional lapses for prime rib.
Eventually, he decided on pasta marinara. He checked the pantry for a can of tomato sauce.
They grabbed him from behind. They threw him on the floor and blindfolded him. At first, Colin was too dazed to talk, but the pain in his back quickly cleared his head.
“What do you want?” he said.
“You, darling,” said a soft, creamy voice.
They frog-marched him out of the house. The texture under his feet changed, from the porch steps to asphalt to dead grass to the forest floor. Scents of pine, mud, and snow swirled around him. Briars snagged his sweatpants, and he shivered in his thin shirt. At least, he was wearing sneakers.
They stopped and ripped off the blindfold.
Colin blinked in the moonlight. He stared at his captors: two men and two women. They were unmistakably related; they had the same black hair, black eyes, and stubborn chins. One of the men was taller and bulkier; he stood apart with obvious authority. The other man growled. The smallest and prettiest—madonna in a low-cut silver dress—smacked her lips.
The last one was a sharp, serious woman.
“Here are the rules,” Tanis said. “You run, we chase. We don’t want the game to be easy so we’ll give you a head start.”
“And if I get caught?”
She smiled, and Colin’s heart flip-flopped in his chest.
Tanis coolly ripped off her jacket. She kicked off her shoes and yanked off her shirt. Underneath, she was all lean muscle. Colin had never seen pecs that size on a woman. He couldn’t believe he was ogling her cleavage.
“You have a count of six hundred,” Tanis said. “One, two—”
“Hold on,” Colin said. “That’s not fair—”
“Crunchy, crunchy,” purred Tanis’ sister. She looked at him as if he were a tender, juicy prime rib fresh out of the oven.
He fled into the forest. Only luck kept him from twisting an ankle in those first few seconds. Then he forced himself to stop. Ten minutes, I have ten minutes. He took a deep breath and spun around.
Clearly, his kidnappers knew the woods, but Colin had an advantage. He knew the woods too.
It wasn’t safe for him to backtrack and head home. He had to make it all the way to the nearest neighbors, four or five miles away. Colin squared his shoulders. I can do that on a clear night.
His shoes scuffed the frostbitten mud. He dived over a fallen log and ducked a low-hanging branch. Careful, he told himself. Take it slow.
He ran a little faster.
Twigs crackled, and an owl hooted. Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled. Colin gasped; the low, mournful cry reverberated through him: everything he didn’t want to believe.
Another howl. Another wolf yipped and moaned. And Colin knew without a doubt, they were coming for him.
Tanis let her brothers and sister go first. The three of them bounded off like pups. Blaise took the lead, and no one challenged her. That’s why Tanis preferred to wait and hunt alone.
Blaise whined when she caught the scent. She tracked at a genial lope, stopping to yap at her brothers: Hurry up, dolts! She swerved past a spiky bush, leaped forward—and stopped.
The trail ran cold.
Blaise squealed. What the hell?
Panting, Chask and Vulk arrived. They snarled as their sister sniffed frantically. Where did the bastard go?
Chask snorted. Dumbass! He bit his sister’s ruff and dragged her to a rocky ledge. Beneath them was a silent stream, mostly frozen.
Blaise growled. Down or up?
Chask pawed the ground. Down. Of course.
Splinters sliced Colin’s hands, and sap stained his clothes. But that was a small price to pay. Safe in the branches of a giant pine, he watched as the three wolves charged downstream. He inhaled the bitter, evergreen scent and smiled. Bingo.
After a few minutes, he climbed down and ran.
The moonlight gave the forest a gentle glow. If he wasn’t fleeing for his life, it would be almost magical. Colin tripped on a root and went sprawling. But he jumped up, barely breaking his stride.
His lungs burned; his chest ached. Bruises covered his calves. His mouth was dry, his throat sore, but he was almost there. So close . . .
Behind him came a howl of joy.
He glanced back.
A white wolf raced toward him. He knew who it was.
The wolf’s shoulders bunched, and she sprang, a blur of sharp-toothed madness. Colin lurched and felt iron jaws clamp around his ankle.
“NO!” He wrenched away and somehow, stumbled on.
But his ankle gushed blood. And Tanis nipped at his heels, playing with him.
Why did I think this was a good idea? A relaxing vacation surrounded by the Great Outdoors—God, how could I be so dumb? His legs trembled, and his vision blurred; with the blood loss and flat-out exhaustion, he wouldn’t last much longer.
Don’t . . . stop . . .
Ahead of him, the pines thinned, and he glimpsed a far-off flash of headlights. Civilization!
One more step. A little further.
Everything hurt. Blood soaked through his sock. He wasn’t going to make it.
His feet made a rhythmic crunch, but the wolf’s paws were quiet. The underbrush snapped and crackled like a hot fire. The wind murmured in the trees, and a passing truck roared. And four angry wolves howled.
Slow down, here it comes, wait for it—now!
Colin reached the road and dived onto the pavement. The gritty surface ripped open his hands and knees. He landed badly, and his wrist snapped. Colin choked in agony.
The car slammed into the wolf.
A moment later, the driver stopped and rolled down the window: “You okay, son?”
“Yes sir, I’m fine.” Colin slowly staggered to his feet. In the shadows, he could see Tanis’ body, which twitched as hot blood soaked her fur.
So much for city boys.