Frostbite-Chapter 4

The big wolf didn’t come back.

Chey spent hours waiting for it to return, praying that it wouldn’t, trying to imagine what she would do if it did. Her adrenaline kept her hyperventilating and trembling for a long time. Eventually it wore off and her body started hurting and her brain started going in circles. Every little sound startled her. Every time she thought she saw something move she jumped and nearly fell. The moon was down, below the horizon, and eventually the aurora flickered out as well, and the only light came from cold and tiny stars, and still she sat vigil, still she studied the ground around her, over and over until she had memorized every little detail, the placement of every twig and dead leaf. Exhaustion and cold seeped through her, freezing her in place.

At dawn she decided to climb down out of the tree.

It was harder than she thought it was going to be. Her body was stiff and grumpy, her nerves and muscles rebelling, disobeying her commands. Her ankle, where the wolf had snagged her, had swollen alarmingly. A crust of dried blood glued her Timberland hiking sock to her skin. Every time she moved the ankle her entire leg started to shake uncontrollably.

Going up the tree had taken mere seconds—driven by panic and the survival instinct, she had reverted to her monkey ancestry and just done it. Getting back down took some thought and planning. First she had to get her hands to let go of the branch. Then she realized there was no good way to get down—no easy footholds, and the thin branches she’d used to climb up looked far less appealing when she reached out to put her weight on them. Finally, after long minutes of adjusting and readjusting her position, moving from one branch to another, teetering on the edge of a bad drop, she hung down by her arms and let herself fall onto her good foot. The touch of solid ground ran through her like an electric shock. It felt so good, though—to have something firm and reliable underneath her. To not be constantly terrified of falling. Tiredness surged up through her bones then. She dropped to her knees, wishing she could drop farther, that she could fall down entirely, lay down and go to sleep.

Not when the wolf might still be out there, though. She had no idea why it had left her, nor did she know when it might return. She would not sleep again until she knew she was safe.

With filthy weak hands she went through her pockets and checked the small collection of items she still possessed. Absurdly enough, she had thought often in the darkness that her things might have fallen out of her pockets as she raced up the tree. But no, she still had them. She had one last quarter of an energy bar, which she shoved in her mouth. The foil wrapper went back in her pocket—as bad as things were, Chey didn’t litter. She had her phone, the battery almost dead. When the keys lit up blue for her she almost cried in gratitude. At least something still did what it was supposed to.

She didn’t think she could say the same for the tiny compass attached to the zipper pull of her parka.

It pointed north for her, as it always had. She had followed it like a lifeline, held it carefully in her fingers like a jewel. It had been the thing that was going to save her, a connection to the civilized world of maps and coordinates and everything in its proper place. She had believed in it with much more faith than she’d ever placed in God. Now she had to admit that her faith might have been misplaced. Either the compass or her map were completely wrong. She should have reached the town of Echo Bay by now—it was almost perfectly due north of where she’d started—but she had seen nothing so far except the endless crazily tilted forest.

Maybe the town didn’t exist. Maybe when they printed the map they’d made a mistake.

Maybe she was going to walk for weeks more, heading north like a good little Girl Guide until she ran right into the Arctic Ocean. Or maybe, long before that—yes, almost certainly before that happened— the wolf would find her again when there were no tall trees around, and it would kill her.

She closed her eyes and bit her lower lip. She was so scared her back hurt. Fear tried to bend her in two, to make her fall down and curl up and wish herself into nonexistence.

“Okay,” she sighed to herself. “Okay.” The sound of human words broke the spell. Hearing a voice, even her own, made her feel less alone and defenseless. She brushed off her parka as best she could—it was covered in tiny shreds of birch bark and less pleasant materials—and stood up. Her knee buckled the first time she stepped forward with her hurt ankle, and she had to stop for a second and wait for the roaring in her ears to die down. The next step hurt slightly less.

“Okay,” she said. Louder. More confidently. The hard k sound was the part that helped. “Okay, you little idiot. You’re going to be okay.”

The trees swallowed her up without comment. Her slow pace made it easier, actually, to cross the rough ground. She had plenty of time to look and see where each foot should go, to avoid the potholes and the knobby tree roots. She had time to listen to the sound of pine needles squishing and crunching under her feet, to the squeak of old snow as her boots sank down through it. She could smell the forest, too, smell its pitch and its rotting wood and its musty perfume.

She walked for an hour, according to the clock display of her cell phone. Then she stopped to rest. Sitting down on a dry rock, she pulled her knees close to her chest and looked back the way she’d come. There was no trail or path there—she felt really proud for how she’d covered so much unbroken ground. Then she looked up and saw the paper birch she’d sheltered in the previous night.

It stood no more than a hundred meters behind her. In an hour that was all the distance she’d covered.

Tears exploded in her throat. Chey bit them back, sucking breath into her body. “No,” she said, though she didn’t know what she was rejecting, exactly. “No!”

She was lost.

She was alone.

She was wounded.

She knew how to add up those figures. She knew what the sum would be. Those three variables were what separated happy, healthy young women from corpses no one would ever find. Her body would fail her, the life drained out of it by the cold or the rain or by loss of blood or—or—or by the big wolf. It would come back and finish the job, and maybe eat part of her. As soon as it was gone smaller animals would pick at her flesh, and leave what they, in turn, didn’t want. In time her bones would bleach white and then even they would decay, and no one, not her family, not her friends, not the ex- lovers she’d left behind her, would ever know where she’d gone. Maybe a million years from now, she thought, she would be a fossil, and some future paleontologist would dig her up, and wonder what she was doing there, so far from any human habitation.

“Goddamn it, no!” she shrieked. “I won’t stop here! Not when I’ve come so far. Not right here!”

Her shout echoed around the trees. A few needles fell from a spruce that stuck up at a thirty- degree angle to the forest floor.

“I won’t,” she said, as if saying it aloud could make it so.

In the distance a bird called back to her with a high bell- like note she didn’t recognize. It sounded almost mechanical, actually, less like an animal sound than something man- made. Maybe it hadn’t been a bird at all. It sounded almost like a fork clinking on a metal plate.

She looked down at her compass. North was straight ahead, which meant the sound had come from the southwest. She closed her eyes and concentrated, and heard the clinking sound again. If she concentrated, really concentrated, she was pretty sure she could hear something else, too—the sizzle and pop of frying food.

Check out the previous chapters of Frostbite right here.

Excerpted from Frostbite: A Werewolf Tale by David Wellington. Copyright © 2009 by David Wellington. Published in the Unites States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Published in the UK as Cursed by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.

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