It probably wasn’t normal that she wasn’t scared. Most people would be. But, for some reason, the fear just didn’t rise in Arden. As far as she could tell just one coyote had appeared. The coyote followed her down the crushed limestone trail, but every time she turned to look at it, it performed a kind of little dance. Shifty stutter steps on its hind legs. High pitched huffs and chortles that sounded like laughter came from its jaws. Its hide shimmied on its haunches as it skipped along.
Arden had hiked about four miles from her car, if her calculations were right. Clouds had rolled in shortly after lunchtime and had continued to build up throughout the afternoon. She guessed it was about 3:30, but it felt much later with the ceiling of dark cumulus above. Even if she turned around right now, it was probably already too late to get home in time. On Thursdays her son got back from his fourth grade STEAM club at 5:00 bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, toting crazy blueprints or a rubber band-powered robot.
Five o’clock seemed so far away. Five o’clock happened in the dark this late in November. Five o’clock was her getting the kitchen ready to make dinner. Five o’clock was a different her entirely.
The coyote seemed to be getting closer. Closing in on her. A couple minutes ago it’d been at least thirty paces behind her. Now just over fifteen.
A few leaves still clung to the trees along the trail, dull russet and burnt orange. Late in the year for leaves, she watched them quake on the branches and wondered how much longer they would last as she listened to the huffs and panting behind her.
She tossed a quick glance over her shoulder. She tried not to appear too aggressive. The animal’s tongue hung from its mouth, lips curled back in a grin or grimace. Arden couldn’t tell the difference. Did coyotes even make such distinctions? The rubber soles of her duck boots knocked out a shuffle rhythm on the gravel and she tried to focus on that instead. A four-legged back beat of claws clicked behind her, though.
She should want to run to her car, lock the doors, turn up the music and drive back through the windy country roads to her safe, suburban home. But she didn’t. Breaking whatever spell the stiff autumn breeze had cast on her and the coyote concerned Arden more. She didn’t want to change whatever odd equilibrium held them together on this abandoned trail deep in the woods.
Something inside Arden was different now. Broken, maybe. She wasn’t sure exactly when it had started, but the change had been underway for some time. Months, a year? Longer? Six months ago she’d stopped to pick up a girl walking, arms filled with grocery bags, in the rain. An innocent kindness. Then a few weeks later, a scruffy-looking older man hitchhiking along the interstate of all places. Then rubbing elbows with a drunk in a dive bar at three in the afternoon. Small risks of exposure. Engagement. But it had started sometime even before all of that. She couldn’t remember when she started thinking “good for you” every time she heard about a missing teenager. “I hope you make it out. Disappear and become someone new.” The appropriate sympathy for the parents and concern for a minor’s well-being never surfaced anymore.
Silent, another coyote slipped from the edge of the woods onto the trail in front of her. It pranced along, traveling the same direction—the three of them now a parade. The breeze picked up and threw a shower of brown leaves from the tops of trees on either side of the trail. The lead coyote huffed and cackled. The one behind made a rumble in its throat.
Arden made a sound too. She always made kissy noises to talk to her cat. It seemed like a universal language so she tried that with the coyotes. The lead animal’s ears swiveled toward the out of place sound and the one behind whined with a question mark, but they kept their jaunty strides on an even keel.
Arden kept pace in the coyote parade. She watched the leader’s tail bob a few feet above the ground, swaying gently from side to side with each step. Mesmerized by the movement, she started to wonder when it was she realized she would die out here. By the time she’d started taking the long walks in September, she’d already understood. She didn’t know how or when, but someday she’d drift off a mountain road where the guardrail was down, or she’d slip and crack her skull on a rock while wading in a river rushing just a little too swiftly. Maybe she’d finally run into one of those dangerous strangers the news told her loitered everywhere there weren’t strategically placed street lights and emergency call boxes. There were so many ways it could happen, it was only a matter of time.
The head coyote slinked off the trail and Arden covered down, followed the leader. Her first coyote friend brought up the rear. She wondered if she was their prisoner or guest of honor. Did coyotes make such distinctions?
Her duck boots kept her feet warm and dry as they plodded through wet leaves, mud, tiny forests of ground pine. Most of the footwear decisions she’d made this fall had been missteps—giant blisters pocked the bottoms of her feet from the cute ankle boots she’d worn back in October because she didn’t think she’d be going that far. Mistakenly, she’d only been ready for a short, easy jaunt on a sunny day. The kind of walks she used to take now and then just to breathe some fresh air and boost her vitamin D. Today she’d prepared well. She finally came to terms with the distance. The mud. The wild terrain.
The pitch of the vague animal path they followed increased. Up they climbed through a maze of large moss-covered boulders and shelves of compressed shale. The lead coyote made the ascent more quickly and gracefully than Arden but paused every so often to ensure she caught up. The one behind seemed patient with her human clumsiness, but kept close enough so that if she stumbled it might break her fall.
She paused for a moment to catch her breath and peered over her shoulder down through the mostly bare trees to the abandoned-rail-bed-converted-recreational-trail. It seemed so far away. Foreign, even though she’d walked along it only a short time ago. It hugged the gentle curve of the Ninahomack Creek. It looked flat and reasonable. She turned back toward the coyote ahead of her. It yipped gently. She followed.
Arden had taken care of all her errands on her way out of town this morning. Stopped at the post office, picked up the dry cleaning. She’d even unearthed the delinquent choose-your-own-adventure book from the detritus on her son’s night stand and took it back to the library. She paid up all her overdue fines. Something had felt particularly final about getting square with the library.
All but the tail of the lead coyote disappeared among a pile of rocks and fallen logs. When Arden caught up to it, she found a sunken space beneath a lichen-covered ledge nested with dried leaves and tufts of fur. A whimpering litter of blind coyote pups squirmed in the den. The lead coyote nudged Arden with his snout, herding her in even though she wasn’t sure she’d fit. Somehow she folded herself up into the little cave, tucked in with the pups. The coyote that had first started following her what seemed like hours ago now, entered the den and presented her soft underside to the pups. They squeaked and struggled against each other to find a teat. The other coyote settled in at the mouth of the den.
Resigned as claimed by a pack of coyotes, Arden let the warmth of their bodies and breath filter through her layers of cotton and wool. The slurping and sucking sounds soothed and Arden melted into the pile of fur and wagging tails.
As she nestled in, Arden discovered a soft lump beneath her right shoulder. She fished it out from the lining of fur and leaves. She turned it over in her hand. Smaller than her palm, hairless, eyelids still fused shut, the stillborn coyote had the heft of an egg-sized water balloon. It felt cool to the touch. She held it to her nose. Rich and meaty scents punctuated with tangy undernotes tempted Arden. The skin appeared gray and translucent, but the thing smelled red. She found she couldn’t help it and bit into the tiny body.
A burst of fluid exploded in her mouth like one of those Gushers fruit snacks, but tasted like fat and organs rather than high fructose corn syrup. The bones hadn’t grown hard yet, and gave her no more trouble than a softshell crab as she chewed. Arden never ate breakfast and had forgotten she’d skipped lunch too until she swallowed the first bite and discovered how hungry she’d become. She polished off the rest of it in two more bites then licked the blood and other fluids from her chin.
Some of the pups started to doze off, bellies bulging with milk. The mother coyote, eyelids at half mast, appeared in a trance, oblivious to Arden’s snack. Arden felt overwhelmingly drowsy too. She tried to refocus her vision on the leader of the pack, his chin resting on his paws, but eyes alertly scanning the forest for signs of threats. But it was impossible. Her sight grew hazy and her lids snapped shut. The darkness was red and warm and she fell sound asleep.
Very far away at first, the sound of dripping infiltrated her sleep. Just one drip close to her head to begin with. Then more, at scattered intervals, and at varying distances. Arden became of aware of her waking, but didn’t bother with opening her eyes just yet. She listened to the dripping and searched for the scents of fur and coyote breath and blood. All she could detect was cold rain. Wet oak leaves. Moss. Rock.
The flutter of her heart in her chest grew to pounding. She concentrated on feeling her blood rush to her finger tips and toes. Tingles feathered out along her limbs. It felt like waking up from being dead.
She opened her eyes to the gray sky laced with bare branches. Cool mist clouded against her face. She was alone among an outcropping of rocks a few yards from the edge of the trail.
Her knees and hips complained about the cold dampness as she picked herself up off the ground. She stretched out her legs as her feet hit the trail. She felt propelled toward the car and found herself clicking the unlock button on her key fob in only minutes. She had a fleeting suspicion she was a ghost until she turned over the ignition and the music she’d been blaring when she pulled into the parking lot blasted to life and scared her. If she was a ghost, she was the lamest ghost ever.
She drained her water bottle in four big gulps, set her GPS for home, and threw gravel in her wake as she peeled out. The double yellow line slid beneath her effortlessly as if she floated home on a river instead of a road. She pulled into the driveway and parked by the back door. She tracked mud into the dim kitchen and piled her things on the table. The blue digital numbers on the stove flicked to the next minute: 4:57.
Her favorite frying pan stood propped up shiny and ready to go in the drying rack, the dishwasher light indicated the contents were clean. She’d taken care of everything this morning. Got everything in order, just in case.
Arden turned on the lights, some music and set to work on dinner. First the son came home. Then the husband. The house was bright and lively, filled with chatter. It smelled of onions and garlic. Also of meat.
The husband set the table as Arden put the hot food on trivets. He served the son and then himself. She thought of all the runaway teens sitting down to her dinner.
“Honey, you want me to scoop you some too?” The husband held the serving spoon a few inches over the steaming pot as he waited instruction.
“No, thanks. I’m full.”
Marsha Timblin = cats>dogs, beer>wine, cake>pie, coffee>tea. She is obviously bad at math, so she earned an MFA from Chatham University. She writes fiction from her home in Pittsburgh, PA, where she also spends her time as a part-time bookseller, an assistant home brewer, leisure cyclist, wife, and mom.