Our village is a place not so much wrought with peril as it is a place of continually altered social boundaries. They liked to test the water, and when They're given an inch, They'll take it.
Consider this—a village on the side of a mountain. The area surrounding this village is old-growth forest, and at some times of the year, it's utterly inaccessible to outsiders. In fact, outsiders don't come often, and when they do, they don't stay long. The secret gem of a place remains just that—and the flowerboxes and ivy-covered cottages remain mostly undisturbed by camera flashes and the painter's eye.
Everyone knows everyone, and it makes it all the more achingly clear when They have taken one of us.
That night was as still and as balmy as it would get for the rest of the year, but the rain from the afternoon sents ribbons of fog curving around the dark shadows of the trees and into the gaping mouth of the path that would swallow me whole on my walk back home. The archetype is tiresome, but chilling none the less.
As I stared into the eerie blackness of the forest, I was shaken awake by a joking prod in the shoulder. Jaimie smirked at me, and I realized she just made a joke at my expense, but I was too preoccupied to hear it.
"Oh, I was just remarking on your dedication to curfew. You really should just wait until Hugo gets off work, and then he can walk you home."
"Probably not," Hugo was only half-done his cigarette, still in his waiting attire. His left cuff was dotted with the remains of a spill of wine, and the black of his vest shone more in one area near the left lapel, where the beverage must have been dumped on him, "I'm here until two. Your parents don't like me either. If I take you back, you'll be grounded for the century." He passed the cigarette to Jaimie, who took a few pulls and passed it to me.
There we were, huddled together against the nonexistent chill that we all felt. There was no moon in the sky, and the stars stood out like bright pinpoints of light, resembling holes in an old velvet drape. I took a drag and exhaled the smoke, and it drifted right back at me, getting into the fabric of my father's old peacoat. He wouldn't notice the difference between Hugo's brand and his own. I let the smoke settle and passed the smouldering white cylinder back to him.
"'Should get going, though." I remarked, grabbing my schoolbag from at our feet, "If I'm out any later than ten, my dad'll have my head. I have homework to do anyway."
"Glad to see that one of us still cares about the scholarly part of life." Jaimie smiled at me and gave me a quick hug, "Call me when you get home, okay? There are wolves out tonight, and I want to know that you got in safe."
I noded once, patting the knife in my pocket. I had no idea how to use it, but the security of it there was enough for Jaimie to say no more. I started out away from the café alley, and the feeling of loneliness was almost bruising. The forest was too big for me. The fog, too thick. The light of my tiny flashlight was eaten up by the ghostly whiteness of it, and I couldn't see much more than a few feet in front of me.
Luckily, the path was familiar, and I used my knowledge to walk mechanically, instead focusing on watching my feet, dodging exposed roots and uneven terrain as I moved deeper into the valley, down the long, sloping path.
It wasn't long before I heard voices. My stomach started to ache with worry, and silhouettes appeared in the blue gloom before me. It had gotten colder, and I could see my breath coming out in a cloud in front of me. The chilly fingers of the damp fog scraped down my spine.
"I'm so damned tired of old farmers. My jaws are just aching for some young meat. A little girl from the schoolyard, Boss, that's all I want!"
My blood turned to ice. My feet stopped before my brain told them to. It's Them.
The conversation before me stopped, and I felt all of them looking at me. I swallowed, even though my mouth was dry, and the movement scraped the inside of my throat. I was breathing in small gasps, and as quickly as I stopped, I turned, and began my way hastily back towards the town.
"Yeehaw!" One of the Them snarled triumphantly, mimicking the accent of an American cowboy, "This is my lucky day!"
The mockery scared me, and I picked up my pace into a jog. I saw the first streetlamp of town up the hill, and I passed the chapel to my right, the thin skeleton of the whitewashed building spooking me more than bringing me any sort of celestial comfort.
I glanced behind me, catching sight of four men in hide coats. When they noticed me look, they moved faster.
"Where are you going?" The voices were much closer behind me than I would have liked them to be, and this one carried a cruel edge, "We just want to talk to you!"
I broke out into a run, and my booted feet soon hit the hard cobblestone. I glanced over to a group of people in front of the café, noticing first their odd wardrobe and then their shining, animal eyes reflecting the light of my flashlight back at me.
More wolves. They're easy to notice when you look for them, but most outsiders can't tell the difference. They don't know how to dress, for instance, to match humans, so their choice of wardrobe always comes out looking theatrical. Those two were dressed as Victorian gentlemen, down to the grey frock coats, and I gave them a quick scoff before I pushed open the café door.
Warm, coffee-scented air washed over me, calming my nerves and making my teeth chatter for a moment. My eyes darted from table to table until I caught sight of Jaimie, who simultaneously noticed me. She waited as I crossed the room and sat heavily across from her, taking several gulps of her coffee.
"Not going home yet, are we?"
I shook my head quickly, swallowing my last mouthful, noticing that I spilled some on my skirt, "Wolves were on the path. I'll wait for them to leave. I'll just let my parents know when I get home." I was already pulling out my homework, ready for a long hour or two of thesis-constructing.
I did look up long enough to catch Jaimie's amused look.
After an indiscernible amount of time, I was roused by a new waiter I didn't recognize, "Mademoiselle? Your plate has arrived."
I gave him a frown as he placed a large dish of meat in front of me. Slices of venison steak gleam with blood, a turkey thigh, roast beef, duck, rabbit. I was taken aback, and shook my head quickly, "I…I didn't order this. This…"
"Compliments of the gentlemen over there, mademoiselle." He gestured to a round table across the room, and I instantly locked eyes with a scruffy young man, while three more of his comrades watched me. I recognized their suede coats, and linked them back to the stalkers in the woods. I felt my face blanch.
I suppose, in some form of defiance, I had to hide my fear. I picked up the turkey thigh with my hands and tore into it. A giggle rippled through the table, but what I assumed to be the leader, the one who I stared at, only grinned. His lean jaw flexed, dark eyes glittering like shards of blue ice.
The smile was eerie, one that was too wide, and didn't reach his eyes, which still bore into me, cutting up my insides.
They left after half an hour of watching me eat, and I waited another hour before deciding it safe enough to leave myself. This time, I took out my knife before leaving the café, and waved to Jaimie before I did.
"Nighty night, Mimi! Remember to call me!" She was always so cheerful. Even when it was grossly inappropriate.
The strangely dressed Victorian pair had since gone, and the street was deserted except for the drunk form of Monsieur Brioux, the accountant, who was loudly singing an off-key ballad to which he knew little of the words, and instead was subbing in, "'ça s'arrose!" As if this made any sense to a sad war song. He paused to take a drink out of the bottle of wine he was holding, noticing me.
"Hey! Milou! Milou Barras! Tell your mother I say hello, yes? Elle est vachement bandante! Whoo!" As if I wanted to hear about his interest in my mother. I ignored him—he probably wouldn't even remember our meeting anyway.
Within only a few minutes, I was already out of sight of the main road, starting back down the hill. Luckily, I saw no one ahead of me, and slowly, my nerves stopped thrumming.
The path split ahead of me, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was halfway home, without a single issue.
And as if God himself decided to spite me, I felt two arms settle on the ridge of my shoulders, and my heart leaped into my throat. I glanced both ways to see the tall forms of two of the wolves from earlier on either side of me. Their suede coats were soft on the back of my neck, but I could almost feel the ropes of muscles beneath them.
"Why did you just leave us back there?" The one on my right purred, and I felt them forcibly steering me down the wrong path. I gripped my knife, waiting for a chance in silence.
"We really just want to be friends, honest. Come have a drink with us."
"I haven't seen a girl as pretty as you in a long time," The wolf on my right drawled in my ear, making me want to shriek or bolt. My trail at struggling failed, and they continued to drag me away with ease, "Do you have a sister, mon petit chou? Should we meet her too?"
"No." I wheezed, my nerves made me chatter.
The two just laughed but soon froze when a booming voice cut through the fog like a gunshot.
"You two. Get. Now." The strength of the voice made me nearly jump out of my skin, and I saw the large, hulking figure of a man carrying an axe. Too many horror movies made me gasp, and I brandished my knife, my knees feeling like gelatine. I didn't even notice at first that the two had fled.
My flashlight settled on the axe-man's face, a quivering puddle of light due to my hand shaking so fiercely. I recognized the face of the arbourist from down the road, Monsieur Arceneaux. My legs gave out, and I fell, letting out the breath I didn't realize I was holding into a cloud before me.
"Milou! You should be inside at this time of night!" He strode the last few feet, yanking me to my feet and dusting off my coat, "If you were my child, I would have locked you up hours ago. Come on," Expecting me to follow, he walked toward the main path and then headed down the right side of the fork, toward my house. I quickly ran to catch up, shamelessly clinging to his arm until the small, sloping roof of my house came into view. The lights were out, but this late at night, I wasn't surprised. He led me up to the front porch.
"Thank you; I really have no idea what I would have done if you hadn't come along." It took me a few tries to stop my hand from shaking long enough to put my key in the lock, and but soon, the door swung open under my prying fingers.
"You just make sure to let me know if you have even a bit of an issue again. The wolves these days have just gotten too cocky. Attacking cattle in broad daylight. Trying to snatch up girls on their way home. I can't believe it."
I stepped inside and flicked on the foyer light, giving him a brief, if nervous smile from my place beside the door, "Have a good night, Monsieur Arceneaux. Thank you again."
He smiled politely in return and went to go, and in the glow of the yellow light from above me, I saw a strange, bleeding gash on the side of his jaw. I frowned, and caught his eyes again.
Then I realized that there was something…wrong…with his face. It…it somehow… it didn't… lay right.
He noticed my look, and turned back to face me, and in a slow, deliberate movement, dug his fingers into the seam. I flinched, covering my mouth with my hands.
For a long, horrific moment, I watch him pull back the flesh of his face from that seam, and soon I was looking at the wolf from the café, his blue eyes burning into mine. He smiled that eerie grin, face covered in a dead man's blood, clutching the skinned face of the arbourist.
"Have a good night now, Milou."