One minute, the old man was stacking wood. The next, he was frozen in fear, even though he was alone.
He stood in the middle of his yard with a log in his hands and turned up his nose to sniff the air. It had smelled of falling leaves and approaching cold, but now the air was sour, as if a dead animal were rotting nearby. His skin chilled and prickled, like it was shrinking over his skeleton. He tried to take a deep breath, but it stuck at the bottom of his throat, his lungs unfilled.
Then, just as suddenly, the feeling passed.
He placed the log on the wood pile and rubbed his chest. Never mind it, he told himself, and he went back to his task, taking more deep breaths, each one shallow and unsatisfying. But he couldn’t never mind. The vague feeling had been with him, off and on, for a few days. Undefinable, nagging, warning him. But of what? He was angry with its pestering hum, always in the back of his mind.
“What do you think, Davey?” He gazed at the black-and-white dog lying in the grass in front of him. “Do I have something to worry about?”
The dog didn’t understand worry or premonitions, but maybe he sensed a storm coming that the old man couldn’t yet see. Maybe that was causing fault lines to crack along his spine, the taste of metal on his tongue. Davey tilted its head, soft brown eyes sad and wise. He sure seemed content. Not a storm. Perhaps the foolishness of an aged mind, with only its own consciousness for company.
Or something else.
He cursed himself again. Expecting danger was an old habit of his. Life had been too quiet for too long. Balance had to be restored, which meant trouble was coming, though he’d been saying that for years.
He finished stacking the wood against his tiny cabin; this building, his barn and garden, and his animals were the only signs of life for miles of woods and mountains. He had a beautiful view of the secluded expanse, all the way to a pointed, snowy range on the western horizon. The sky above this ragged line was clear and pink with sunset, the clouds overhead wispy. As he walked back and forth across his yard, something shimmered in the corner of his eye, bluish-silver and brilliant. He turned to find a full moon had just risen above the pointed conifers.
He hated the full moon; its invisible force sloshed the blood and water in his body. Perhaps that was what had been unsettling him. That and Nature, telling him she was soon going to sleep for the winter. Her sun vanished earlier and earlier every night. Her summer birds fled south, leaving the chickadee and nuthatch behind. Her trees set fire to their leaves. Soon, snow would silence the landscape and tuck in around his cabin, and the mood would turn somber and quiet.
The sound of Davey’s tongue, smacking wetly against the roof of his mouth, yanked the old man’s attention out of his mind. The dog yawned and glanced over at the cabin. A soft whine whistled in his throat.
“You’re right. It’s quittin’ time,” the old man said.
Davey sprung to his feet and raced to the door, waiting restlessly with his nose on the doorknob for the old man to catch up. He opened it a crack, and the dog slipped into the darkness within. The old man followed, igniting the wick in an oil lamp to fill the small cabin with orange light and reveal Davey, sitting expectantly by his food dish. The old man chuckled.
He flicked on the stove and plunged a match flame to the burner. In minutes, he had warmed up two servings of macaroni beef soup. Two days before, his lady friend—a widow named Rebecca—had delivered a stock pot full of it, along with a can of gasoline, two blocks of ice, and a handful of books. He repaid her with affection. It was an unspoken arrangement; he had nothing else to give, and that was all she wanted. The old man didn’t understand loneliness.
He ladled a helping into Davey’s bowl first, then his own, then sat with a groan at the table. They slopped up the soup together. The old man couldn’t speak for Davey, but he thought it was delicious. Rebecca was a good woman.
A few minutes later, Davey sat back on his haunches, slapping his tongue over his furry, soup-sodden lips.
“You finished?” the old man asked, the dog answered with a flick of his eyebrow. “Me, too. Go to bed. It’s time for your story.”
Davey obeyed, curling up on a pile of old blankets in the corner. The old man cleaned their dishes, then plopped down into his rocking chair. The cabin was sparsely furnished, with only the one chair, the old man’s cot and Davey’s bed, the table and its chairs, a small trunk for his clothes and a bookcase for his books. It was enough.
He opened the book to the middle, and Davey rested his chin on his paws, brown eyes watching his master.
“Do you remember where we left off?”
The dog’s ears twitched, and he sighed. No.
A recap, then.
“Buck just killed Spitz and is now the leader of the sled team,” the old man said. The Call of the Wild was, understandably, Davey’s favorite book. “Let’s see what Buck gets up to next.”
The old man began to read. Davey didn’t really understand the story, of course, but he supposed the dog liked the sound of his master’s baritone voice. The old man liked the sound of it too, after so many hours of silence.
He read while the sky darkened to indigo and the ache in his bones ebbed. Hours and chapters passed. At some point, Davey fell asleep, but the old man kept reading aloud. The empty cabin was cozy, but he felt better with the sound of Davey’s soft snores bouncing against the walls, harmonized by his own husky whisper.
Perhaps he did understand loneliness.
He flipped a page, and something made a noise outside. One of his animals spooked by a creature passing in the dark. He set down the book and went to the window, peering out at a blue landscape. The full moon was high and peeking through a film of thin cloud, bright enough to reveal a dark shape walking across his yard.
Only two people had ever visited him here—his lady friend and the foolish man. The latter hadn’t been to his cabin in years, and the shape was too thin to be Rebecca. Who else knew where he lived? The thought frightened him. This was a messenger, perhaps, with bad news about her.
The old man rose, waking Davey, and opened his door. He stood on his front steps to await the visitor; the shadow cast by the cabin shrouded the visitor's face, even as he drew close to the door and the meager light inside.
“I understand you’ve named yourself Orin.” The voice was monotone and nasal, aloof but not impolite.
“And you are?”
In answer, the visitor passed swiftly by the old man and walked into his cabin without invitation. That bad feeling returned—the ache, the tightness, the sour smell—only worse now. This was the danger instinct had warned him about.
The visitor sat at Orin’s table. In the corner, Davey moved from lying to sitting, a warning growl rumbling in his chest. Orin put up a hand, and the dog settled.
“Sit with me,” the visitor said, gesturing to Orin’s other chair.
The visitor was short for a man, with sloped shoulders and spindly bones. His hair was dark and short, receding, and he had a dopey face, with dimples and heavy, expressive eyebrows.
Orin had an idea of who he really was, but the notion was absurd. And yet, there was a familiarity to the visitor that he couldn’t shake.
“Don’t hurt Davey,” he said.
A dark brow arched. The dopey face turned menacing. “Who’s Davey?”
The visitor nodded. He didn’t care about the dog. He hadn’t traveled all this way for the dog. No. The distance made it impossible. How would he have managed it?
“Can you guess who I am?”
“I’m not playing your game. If you’re here to rob me, you’ll find nothing of value here.”
The visitor smiled. “You don’t have anything I want, Orin.” He rested his arm on the table, looking around at the cabin. “You’ve fallen far, my friend. I remember what you used to be.”
Orin scowled. It was all he could do, because words evaded him. His gut instinct was proving more accurate than he liked. The visitor stood and went to the window, staring out, sighing deeply.
“The moon is full tonight,” he said. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
The blood drained from Orin’s body, leaving him cold and hollow.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“It’s amazing what you can achieve when you’re determined,” the visitor answered. He continued to gaze out the window. “What goes around comes around, Orin. You’ve heard the saying?”
“I have. You’ve found the others, haven’t you?”
The visitor turned from the window and smiled again. He was pleased with himself.
“What did they ever do to you?”
“They ran from their destiny.”
“You’re depraved,” Orin hissed.
The smile vanished, and a patch of muscle in his face twitched. “Enough talking. Let’s go.”
The visitor walked to the door and opened it, indicating Orin should precede him outside. He stood, pushed in his chair, and turned to the dog.
“Stay, Davey.” The dog’s brown eyes were anxious, his eyebrows twitching, ears flat. Rebecca would visit in the next couple of days. Orin didn’t intend to let himself be killed, but if he was, perhaps she’d take care of the dog.
Orin went out into the frigid, still night.
“That way,” the visitor said, pointing toward the mountains. “Walk until I say stop.”
Of course. The ritual required an open space where the moon was in full view. Orin walked westward across his yard, which in a few feet plummeted to a bluff. He was told to stop, with his toes a couple feet from the edge. He knew what would happen next.
He had a trench knife in a sheath clasped to his belt. Orin’s only hope for survival was reaching it in time. If he could just stick him in the right spot…
“Turn around,” the visitor said. He’d shed his aloofness, his voice edged and quivering. He was excited.
Orin turned around and saw another face—the real one that hid beneath the disguise. Here was the enemy who had pursued Orin for twenty years. And before that, the child he had disappointed.
“I always knew what you were,” Orin said, stalling for time. His hand crept up his thigh to his belt. “I saw it, when you were a little boy. If only I’d sent you to the institution where you belonged, I could’ve prevented so much bloodshed.”
Orin took a step closer to witness the effect of his words: the visitor’s eyes darkened, his complexion flushed. That was the chord to strike. Anger would unbalance him.
“I wasn’t like this then. You made me.”
Orin chuckled. His fingers laced through the knuckle-duster grip of his knife. “I’m sure you’ve told yourself that many times. But you’re wrong. It was always there, even if I didn’t know what it was. You were never one of us.”
The visitor was quiet awhile. Something else passed behind his eyes, something more pitiful, which Orin couldn’t define.
“I’m not so different, you know. Not here. There are others like me. And they’ll help me understand.” He took in a deep breath, eyes rolling to the back of his skull. “Now turn around. Face the moon.”
Orin obeyed. He slipped the knife from its sheath and held it in front of him. He waited for his attacker to move, watching his shadow on the grass. Waiting for the sound of a blade whispering against leather.
The sound came. The shadow moved.
Orin turned around, his own knife raised. He drew it back, ready to stab.
The moon reflected off the other man’s pupils, bluish-silver in a void of black. He sneered, unafraid. Orin’s move had only made the game more exciting.
Orin slashed the knife downward. The blade bit through his attacker’s shoulder.
A split second later, pain split across his own skin. Hot blood coursed from the wound and down his arm.
Orin slashed again, striking his abdomen with a long, shallow cut. Both men cried out from the pain.
Another slice, this one across the thigh. Orin stumbled. He was old, and the wounds drained him quickly. It had been a stupid plan. There was no way he could save himself.
His attacker laughed.
This was it. Twenty years and how many miles? Orin thought of his friends, and his heart dropped into his stomach. He tightened the grip on his knife. Even if he couldn’t save himself, he could stop a killer.
What goes around comes around, after all.
Orin dug his heels into the earth. His attacker raised his own knife and lunged.