The gravel sounded like milked up Rice Krispies under the tires. The two in the car–a young man and his beautiful female companion–seemed to be the only living souls for a hundred miles.
“It looks like it’s made from Lincoln Logs,” she giggled as he cut the engine. They both leapt out to stretch their legs and breathe in the cooling September air.
“It’s amazing how the moonlight brings out the red in your hair,” he said.
She patted her braid self-consciously and only dared to smile when he looked away.
“Is it always this quiet?” she asked, searching the woods for signs of life. She shifted her gaze back to him: “Will we get reception out here?”
His laugh was superficially airy. He began to pull their bags from the trunk.
“We’ll be having too much fun to want to call anyone,” he said with a meaningful drop of his left eyelid. Her eyes reflected just enough mockery to make him lose the bravado. “There is a clearing about a mile west that usually gets service.”
He pulled open the cabin door. The air inside was heavy with neglect. The woman–Kit–reached for a light switch. The entryway was flooded with a soft orange light for a second before the bulb snapped back into darkness.
“When was the last time someone came here?”
James navigated toward the kitchen using the map of his memory. He quickly located some matches and a pie-sized candle. He lit all three wicks, giving the wood paneled room the sinister gleam of a campfire.
“We used to come every summer when my mother was alive. There’s a lake not too far away. She was this champion fly fisher.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kit squeezed his bicep in sympathy. “When did she pass?”
James started rummaging through the cabinets and drawers. He found plates, mugs, butter knives, steak knives, fishing knives and hunting knives, but no light bulbs or flashlights.
“I was in high school,” he shrugged.
Kit didn’t press him. He didn’t seem ready to share, and Kit needed the evening to go exactly to her plan.
“What’s in the cooler?” She tapped the red and white thing playfully. It had been too heavy for her to carry from the car. “Just because we’re in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean I expect anything less than a 5 star meal.” She gave him a sly showing of opaline teeth.
“Not just yet,” he snatched her hand, looking into her eyes as he kissed it. Then he was all business: “There’s a hall closet upstairs. Can you check that one for bulbs? I’ll check the basement.”
“No way!” She slipped her hand out of his. “I’ve seen this movie before–” she took two taper candles James had unearthed and lit them “–we are not splitting up. I am making it out of these woods alive.”
He kissed her again as she passed him a candle, then undid the latch on the basement door. The staircase was barely more than a wooden ladder: narrow steps with no backs. It creaked, of course, but more troubling was the way it swayed as the young couple descended. Their candles barely lit their faces and gave little definitions to the shadowy forms below. A mutted , frantic scraping came from the far corner.
“I was joking about the horror movie thing,” Kit whispered with little breath. “Please tell me that is the hot water tank or something.”
“There’s no way it’s on,” he scratched out his response. “It must be a mouse or something.”
“I think,” her eyes grew wider and the sound rose, “if mice were that loud they would be extinct.”
Kit stayed by the stairs and James ventured further toward the noise. He only took a few steps before Kit lost track of his shape. The scrapping quickened and was joined by a few low groans.
“James?” she tried.
“James, what is it?” Still no response. Silence filled the basement, more consuming than the darkness.
Then a low rumble, like the prelude to a thunderclap.
“James, I’m serious…”
“Kit, don’t be so dramatic,” James’s laugh broke through the dark. “It’s just a puppy. Poor thing, I don’t know how she got in.” The light of his candle approached. “Lets get you something to eat, hu girl? You must be starved.”
Kit knew he was referring to the canine, not her. She couldn’t see how a drooling, barking, shedding little monster would add to the romance.
James brought the it and some bulbs upstairs. He surveyed the ground floor, replacing lightbulbs with the puppy at his heels. Kit remained in the kitchen, drumming her fingers on the table, resisting the urge to peek into the cooler.
One setback isn’t enough to ruin the evening, she thought.
“All lit,” James finally announced. The flicker of the giant candle on the disappeared into the electric light. Kit blew on the wicks one by one, holding onto the same wish as each flame ceased.
Kit offered to help with the dinner prep, but James refused on conditions of romance.
“You just relax,” he insisted. He chopped, sliced, diced, sauteed and seared with his back to her. She occasionally glimpsed his profile when he offered a taste-test to the puppy. Maybe it was her own mounting urgency, but Kit felt like she and James had shifted off their track and she couldn’t realign them. The mutt’s eyes shone on her new master in pure adoration. It gave terrifyingly human looks of distain when Kit tried to join the conversation
“Did you fish with your mom?” Surely he could emotionally connect with her better than with a dog.
“No,” he shrugged. “My dad taught me to set traps–rabbits and squirrels–but I wasn’t so good at fishing or hunting. I like to get my meat in plastic-wrap.” He tossed a scrap of something from his pan and the canine beggar caught it mid-air. “What should we call her?”
“Maybe it’s a neighbor’s dog,” Kit suggested hopefully. “We could return it before it gets too dark.”
James filled three plates with his concoction. He set the largest helping on the floor, next to his chair.
“I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea–thinking I was an heir or something–but my family owns pretty much everything around here.” He filled his mouth and smiled at Kit with bulging cheeks.
“So, no neighbors?”
“Nope. Not for a few acres.”
“Well, maybe the dog is from the next town. Or it could have wandered in from the highway. It might have fleas.”
James promptly scratched the mutt behind the ears. “Look at this beautiful coat. Fleas? Not on my Victoria.”
“Who is ‘Victoria’? Some ex?”
“I just like it. Vicky is a good girl… isn’t she? Isn’t she?”
His intelligence seemed to dwindle as the dog got more comfortable. Kit might have found it charming, the way he cared for everything with a heartbeat, if she didn’t have such urgent needs of her own.
She was in the middle of nowhere, trying to get a man to fall in for her and losing to a dog. She chewed her romantic dinner. Everything had worked miraculously well up until the dog. She needed to get rid of it. She needed James, and time was running out.
“Why don’t you tie the dog outside? It could probably use some fresh air.” She needed him to pick up the hint before she got desperate.
“Look how happy she is,” James scratched and patted the thing some more. “And she is a girl. Why do you keep saying ‘it’?”
“I’m not a dog person.” She scrunched her nose at the thought. “I’m kind of allergic… Achoo.”
“You look great to me,” he patted her shoulder.
His insisted on doing the dishes–more scraps to Vicky–as Kit tried to plot and scheme. This was only her first attempt, but she had made it this far, she wouldn’t lose to a stray mutt.
Kit slipped upstairs, where James had left their bags. A small hall closet held towels and toothpaste. A cliche claw-footed tub occupied the tiny washroom. As long as the cabin had been empty, Kit could still feel the essence of home in the cabin that brought a lump to her throat.
Kit slipped into the bedroom and into her last-ditch effort: A snug and silky teddy. She stalked back down the stairs, the cold floor shocking her bare feet. James was sitting on the couch playing tug of war with Vicky and a knotted sock.
James’s head snapped up, as if he forgot there was another person in the cabin.
“Oh, honey, are you tired already? I’m going to stay up just a little longer, if you don’t mind.”
Kit’s confidence had been slowly leaking for the last hour, James’ words drained her entirely. She still had her desperation:
“Babe, why don’t you come up with me?” She slid an arm around his shoulder. “You said you wanted to get to know each other better on this trip.”
James tucked some of her hair behind her ear and made the first eye contact since the dog showed up.
“Its not that I don’t want to,” he drank in the sight of her. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe we should slow down.”
His words hit her like an icy gale.
“We could have something really special, Kit. Why don’t we enjoy the journey?” He was saying words most women would die to hear a man speak. It was killing Kit to hear them.
She swallowed–her throat was suddenly rough. She needed to make him understand, but she knew the truth wasn’t an option.
“I just thought… We came all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere…”
He pressed his lips sympathetically against her temple.
“I’m sorry for being a letdown. A tease. I think you’ll forgive me in the long run.”
“That’s just it,” the backs of her eyes strained to keep the waters contained. “I can’t wait.”
The dog whined. James stroked it’s side and knotted his forehead at the beautiful woman next to him.
“Before I met you, I was different.” She didn’t know where to start, how much to reveal. “You changed everything for me. You made me a person.”
She remembered the first night she spotted him, in the glow of a street lamp. He stared at her, too. He was amazed at a thing so beautiful. A fox. In the middle of the city. How could such a creature survive in the metropolitan chaos?
Kit was paralyzed by him: fear, awe, hope, desire. She knew he was her chance out of her cursed form. She didn’t get very many chances, but there he was, promising her freedom. With a flick of her red and white tail, she vanished. She met him again the next day. As a human.
She told him everything: Her life in Japan… falling in love with the conjuror’s husband… the curse that did worse than kill her.
First he laughed. Then he stared. He didn’t know if she was insane, or he was.
“So if we don’t… get together… Tonight?” He continued as she tearily nodded. “You turn back into a fox.”
She knew telling him the truth might ruin her chances. He was just an ordinary man, it would be extraordinary if he could digest her story. If only the night had happened the way she planned. He would have never needed to now. She only had a few hours left to convince him.
The mangy beast at his feet barked and whined.
“I’m going for a walk,” he couldn’t look at the beautiful woman crying on his couch. “I think I need some air.”
He took the mutt with him.
She paced the cabin. There were probably things she should indulge in–her last hours as a human for a hundred more years–but the only thing she wanted was him. She had spent a few lifetimes as a sly, conniving creature, but she could not take his love so easily as the egg from the hen house. He had to want to give it.
She saw the knob turning from her side of the door. The dog was at his feet, barring it’s teeth. He wouldn’t come any closer.
“I can’t believe you,” he said, “or I wont. I don’t know.” He looked back at the dog.
“Please,” she said, but she knew it was hopeless.
“One of us is crazy. Time to find out which.”
The earth completed one more rotation. Where a woman once stood, a fox cowered.
Victoria, faithful companion of this broken man, chased what James couldn’t deny. The dog ridded the cabin of the pest. James sunk into his couch, dazed.
Victoria didn’t return to the cabin. Not as a dog. The next day she would begin what the fox failed.
Bio: When Catherine Roth is not writing she is desperately trying to knit two consecutive socks that can be called a pair, or singing a coloratura aria. She is working on several unfinished novels, even more short stories, but no poetry.