The Love of a Woodsman
Gregory L. Norris © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The car accelerated.
From the corner of his eye, Teddy watched the speedometer’s numbers creep past seventy on a winding country road posted at thirty. Tires squealed across uneven pavement and frost heaves, but he barely felt the jolts. The drive was eerily smooth, as though the car was gliding just above the ground instead of traveling over tar. Then the man in the ski mask behind the wheel banked left and the illusion ended. Gravity tossed Teddy against the front passenger’s door. The car shook with a guttural ka-thunk, proof of the wheels striking a rut. Wind shrieked around the car. At first, Teddy thought the scream had come from him, but his lips, like most of his body, were paralyzed.
The car shot into a snow squall. The world went dark around him.
Frozen until the next second, when his cheek hit the cool glass, even Teddy’s thoughts came with difficulty. The man sitting directly behind him in the black sedan’s backseat, a well-dressed magician, had done something to him. A whammy, some kind of spell, screamed the voice in Teddy’s head. His thoughts unstuck from their disconnected state, sounding as intense to his inner ear as the December wind. He imagined the magician: pallid-faced, with short silver hair, dressed in a pinstriped gentleman’s suit and spats. What was it about those shoes that didn’t seem natural or right beyond their hopelessly outdated style? The man held a wooden walking stick, mahogany or… no, rosewood, like the walls in Clarke’s office. He remembered thinking the heel of the stick was scuffed, showing plenty of mileage, the crown capped by a large red jewel. And the magician wore a monocle.
The monocle! Right as he’d heard the tap-tap-tap of the walking stick on the ice-crusted pavement in the parking lot of Howard, Canley, and Associates, Teddy had turned, and the man with the monocle glided up behind him, perhaps one of Clarke Howard’s clients, a fat cat investor. Or worse, one of the many foreclosed upon former owners evicted from their homes.
The man with the monocle had turned out being neither, and he remembered two additional details, including what it was about the spats that so unnerved Teddy. As the car keys dropped from his hands, probably still sitting in the slush beside his car, he saw that the man’s spats were levitating several inches above the ground.
“Boo,” he’d said.
Teddy had gazed into the man’s monocle, thinking the eye behind it didn’t look right, didn’t look human, and then he’d lost the ability to command his own body beyond breathing and blinking.
The sedan broke through to the other side of the squall. The road beyond the windshield leveled off, taking a clear shot through a dense belt of conifers. The forest of sap pines and hemlocks smeared into a wash of greens and grays as the speedometer jumped another three miles. Teddy’s ears popped. The wind screamed.
“Do it, Smokey,” said the magician.
A shiver teased the nape of Teddy’s neck, delivered on an icy finger of breath from the sedan’s backseat. Unable to fight it, Teddy surrendered to the ghostly caress, which tumbled down his spine. Smokey. The Monocle was speaking to the driver, the man in the ski mask. Teddy didn’t know how he got the nickname but guessed the reason was bad. Really bad.
The man in the black ski mask tensed. Teddy imagined him applying the full weight of his foot on the gas pedal while his grip on the steering wheel tightened. In his terror, Teddy hadn’t realized how pale Smokey’s fingers were before now. Not simply white, but gray and tattooed in bruises. Smokey was dressed all in black. What Teddy could see of his face through the slits of the ski mask looked worse. Mottled and unhealthy, his was the flesh of a corpse.
“Hurry up and do it, Smokey!” the Monocle said, the crispness of his voice falling apart, with burbles and croaks filling the gaps between words. “Kill him if you want to live!”
He could almost see their faces, but the protective veil around the sacred realm wove a gauzy shroud over the man’s ability to peer beyond the wood line. Two of the ancient enemy, one general and one soldier. The general, he sensed despite the ability to fine tune, was a powerful one. They were close. Too close. Eyes half-closed, the woodsman drew in a deep breath of the brisk morning air, tasting the snow, the trees, and the stain of evil just beyond the outlying forest. The network of roots—oaks and maples, birch and pine—telegraphed an image to him. Leaning down, he listened. A car, traveling fast along the edge of the sacred realm.
The hemlocks and willows, beech and poplar, joined in. Gable Flanigan’s eyes widened.
The general and his grunt… they weren’t alone.
Gable straightened. Fresh energy crackled through his blood, the flight-or-fight lightning of adrenaline. He grabbed his ax by the handle and turned toward the line of ancient conifers, ready to fight.
Teddy willed his fingers toward the door handle, but they refused to cooperate and sat primly steepled in his lap. The monocle—he had gazed into it, only the eyeball staring back from the other side was a color not natural to people. And it was the wrong shape. Reptilian…
The driver grunted. Like hitting the ruts, the noise he made was guttural, jarring. The dense woods surrounding them broke. Anemic splinters of daylight rained into the car. Teddy darted his eyes to the windshield. Directly ahead, to the left of the road, rose a glassy stretch of gray and white. A pond or a river, he couldn’t tell which, loomed beyond a barrier of rocks and scrubby pines. Farther up, the road narrowed into a bridge over the water guarded by low rails.
Oh, my God, thought Teddy. As though reading his mind, the Monocle laughed.
The car sped up. The bridge came rushing closer. Sound exploded, followed by a thunderous screech like nails on a chalkboard, only magnified a thousand times. The guardrails clawed at the sedan. The car sailed away from the pavement and out over open water. The turgid, black surf was deeper than he’d thought until the car, still flying at nearly eighty miles an hour, shot through the air, rolled onto its passenger’s side, and slammed into the water.
White light exploded before Teddy’s eyes. The paralysis persisted a moment longer, leaving him a numb collection of limbs stuck in the front of the sedan, aware of the engine stalling, the acrid stink of circuits and mechanisms shorting out as they submerged, and a rush of coldness.
Then the palsy broke and he was pulling himself off the deployed front and side airbags. Those had likely saved him from being hurled through the windshield, but the relief at having regained control of his body was short-lived; the car bobbed awkwardly and began to sink. Water engulfed the windshield.
Teddy reached for his door handle, tugged and pulled, with no results. Every inch of his flesh tingled with pins and needles, that unpleasant sensation of limbs that have fallen asleep and are waking up. He banged at the door. The water’s pressure kept it fixed in place. The temperature around him plummeted. Having found entrance into the sedan, icy water slopped at his legs, driving out the last of his sluggishness. The car was filling up and going down like a rock.
I’m going to die, said the voice in Teddy’s head. The dark thought threatened to freeze him again. No, I refuse!
Teddy focused up at the driver’s side door and window. Most of the glass showed clearly up to the overcast sky. That would soon change. Teddy scrambled up, the water rushing over his waist, and pushed. The door gave several inches, only to have gravity slam it back down into place. As it sealed against the frame, the lock engaged. Teddy pushed again, to no avail. Murky water slithered over the window, and the car went fully under the surface.
Eyes wide, the freezing water now up to his chest, Teddy could only stare. The Monocle and the man in the ski mask—Smokey—were gone. They’d left him to die. A nightmare, that’s all this was, the only thing it could be. The numbness devouring his flesh wasn’t a spell or freezing water but those nagging pins and needles. He’d fallen asleep at an awkward angle and only needed to wake up to snap out of it.
Teddy tried, but the dark dream persisted. The malaise solidified in the next few seconds, because while he was in the grip of a nightmare, Teddy understood that he was experiencing it awake. The water reached his throat, and he wanted to scream, only no sounds emerged, just a curlicue of gray breath, one of his last.
The car sank.
The woodsman raced up the ridge in time to see the black sedan plunge beneath the surface of the pond. Through the interlocked fingers of the paper white birch trees at the edge of the wood line, he charged, gripped the handle of the ax with both hands, and tossed it. The ax circled and sailed through the air. In one fluid motion, Gable shed his coat and boots, dove, and grabbed the ax as gravity dropped it back into his own hands, and together, they drove into the water.
Right as he was about to succumb, Teddy caught a flash of light, the day’s glow reflecting off metal. Before his wide, terrified eyes, the blade of an ax materialized. An instant later, the driver’s window exploded. A hand reached in and grabbed hold of his collar. Teddy screamed out the last of the air in his lungs, convinced his would-be killers had returned to finish what they’d started before the frigid water could. But Teddy was too weak, and the man attached to that hand was strong, pulling Teddy against him and carrying them both up to the surface.
They broke the water. Teddy gasped for breath. It was cold and went down painfully, but it was air and his lungs welcomed it. He blinked rapidly in tune with his gasps for breath. Past the clicking shutters, he caught sight of the arm wrapped around his, a big hand whose back was covered in threads of dark hair, the skin a healthy, living pink, rough but without a single mottled blemish.
“Don’t worry,” a man’s voice growled in his ear. “I’ve got you!”
“Who—?” Teddy chattered.
“My name is Gable Flanigan, and I’m going to get you to safety. You just need to hold on a little longer.”
Teddy attempted to say his name, but his trembling lips were unable to form the sounds. The trees on the nearest jut of shoreline fell away, seemingly farther from reach.
“Promise me you’ll try,” Gable said, and Teddy’s next sensation was one of the barest warmth, delivered by his touch. It was enough.
Gable scooped him into his arms and carried Teddy out of the water. He set Teddy down but held onto him tightly when his legs threatened to give out. Teddy turned into his rescuer’s embrace and saw him. Suddenly, the cold pulled back.
He was tall, somewhere past the six-foot mark, his hair an intentional mess of dark cowlicks that actors and athletes would pay a fortune to attain but which came to him, Teddy guessed, naturally. A day or so’s worth of scruff coated Gable’s chin, cheeks, and throat, instantly conjuring the image of a pirate. His eyes were the greenest green, the color of emerald gemstones.
He was, without compare, the handsomest man Teddy had ever met.
The man grabbed his discarded coat off the ground and draped it around Teddy. The warmth offered was glorious, life-saving. Teddy’s next breath came easier and was infused with a clean, masculine scent, that of Gable Flanigan.
“Where are we?” he managed, his voice returned from its rigor. “Where—?”
And then he realized Gable was studying him similarly, as though the other man’s eyes were seeing the most attractive person ever witnessed. Their glances crossed. In that bottled gaze, the very real horror, the thought that Teddy might be freezing to death because he barely registered the cold, drifted into the background.
“We’re not far from Shilling’s Arch,” Gable said.
Somehow, he managed to get his feet into his boots. Crossing his arms, he fell into the pull of the younger man’s eyes. Beautiful blue ones verging on gray, their color only the first of many places he wanted to record because the young man was, dripping wet and looking half the size of the body normally inhabiting Gable’s coat, adorable.
The cold, which had conjured snow out of the sky and the first thin crust of ice on the pond, was only one more danger out here, in the open at the wood line. The general and his soldier… he couldn’t sense them, but here, beyond the protections, that was to be expected. The chill biting at his skin didn’t help.
“Teddy,” the young man said. “My name is Teddy Saunders.”
Gable repeated his name and earned a crooked, happy snarl on one corner of his mouth. Teddy. Adorable. Gable didn’t know if it was against the rules, but he knew it would be a crime to save Teddy once only to let him die of exposure out here in the frigid morning beyond the barrier.
“Teddy, I have a place deep in those woods,” he said. “Beyond Shilling’s Arch and the geothermal hot springs. It’s a hike, and I don’t know that you’ll make it there before hypothermia sets in. But I know someplace warm, if you’ll put your trust in me again.”
Teddy nodded. Gable wrapped an arm around him and motioned him toward the patch of hemlocks, sumac, and white birch. Though their plan to spill innocent blood had failed, the enemy’s actions had done moderate damage to the protections. Gable sensed the barrier weakest at its outer mark. He walked easily into the woods, one step ahead of Teddy, testing the way ahead. But when Gable turned back, Teddy was gone.
The cracking of a branch sounded directly behind Teddy, the intensity striking his ear like a thunderclap. He spun around and came face-to-face with the Monocle.
“Take him,” the magician ordered.
The thing in the ski mask lumbered out of the trees. Fresh terror surged through Teddy’s blood, impossibly cold. He was so cold. Gable was gone.
Teddy turned and ran. The monsters at his back gave chase. Branches scrabbled at his legs, arms, and face like hands trying to keep him out, to stall him in place at the forest’s edge. A shadow loomed directly behind him; he caught its fetid odor among the pitch pine and scent of decayed leaves and needles from the centuries-thick carpet. Smokey.
“Gable,” Teddy called as he pushed at the branches.
The branches drew back, allowing him entrance. He hurried forward into the shadows beneath the trees. A menacing growl greeted him. Directly ahead, perched on a hillock of time-smoothed rock flecked with black mica, stood a third monster, this one covered in silver-black fur. Muscular in form, as elegant as it was terrifying, the timber wolf narrowed its glowing green eyes.
Teddy froze. The wolf’s growls deepened into a howl that rose up through the trees, higher yet to echo through the overcast sky. Hackles raised, the wolf dug in its claws and leaped.
Straight at Teddy.