Summary: A WHN/WHIB for the episode My Brother’s Keeper. Joe finds himself lost and alone in a forest, but is he really as alone as he thinks he is?
Written for Bonanza Boomer’s Ponderosa Nightmares IV Challenge for Halloween 2017.
Rating: T – (1,300 words)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
A Howl in the Night
When I opened my eyes the first thing I saw in the faint light of the moon was a big poderosa pine. It towered over me, reaching out as if to grasp me with its huge, gnarly branches. Beside it stood another pine just as large and bent as the other. All it took was a quick glace around to realize that I was lying smack dab in the middle of a forest, but it wasn’t what you’d call a normal forest. No wind stirred amid the branches, no pine cone dropped; there wasn’t even a squirrel chittering irritably in the brush, or an owl inquiring of the night. In fact, there were no animals to be seen or heard anywhere. There was nothing; nothing but trees, trees, and more trees.
I didn’t believe in ghouls, ghosts and all of that, but there was something about this forest…something eerie and not altogether friendly—if a bunch of trees could be called friendly or otherwise—that made me stop and rethink that disbelief. Of course, the instant I allowed a sliver of doubt to enter my thoughts, all the scary stories I had heard as a boy came crowding to the forefront of my mind. And that just wouldn’t do.
With a quick shake of my head I banished those thoughts and scrambled to my feet.
“Stupid, it’s only a forest. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” I muttered into the darkness.
Whirling around, I searched for the speaker, but there was no one there.
Joe. The name sifted through the pine needles, causing a tremor to trip up my spine and gooseflesh to pimple the bare skin of my forearms.
Joe, Joe, Joe…
“Little Joe?” A figure stepped out of a large shadow cast by a half-dead lodgepole pine to my left and I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming in terror.
“Don’t…” fear tightened my throat, preventing the rest of my sentence from being spoken aloud.
A tinkling laugh filled the forbidding silence. “Oh, Little Joe, don’t you remember me?” Another step closer and she emerged into a patch of moonlight.
She? Yes. Yes, it was a she, and what was more, I knew her. Those eyes…I’d know those witchy eyes anywhere. They were big, blacker than sin, and full of mystery just as they had always been. And they were boring into me, deep down as if trying to penetrate my very soul. A pair of silver, hoop earrings peeked out from a mass of dark brown hair; her pink blouse was neatly tucked into the top of her ankle-length orange skirt. Her feet were bare. She was just as I remembered her: that wild, strange gypsy girl.
“Little Joe, I knew I would find you here.”
“What?” my brows drew downward.
“Don’t you remember? We live in two worlds.” She came no nearer, but slowly began to circle me. “In my world there are demons and spirits who eat up living souls like grain.” I turned, keeping her in sight as a creeping sense of dread pooled in my stomach. “I am one of them. You are in my world now. Don’t you remember?”
A different voice called, but I paid it no mind. Something else far more horrible held my attention.
Tirza’s dark eyes flashed with a yellow light and her body began to jerk and twist like a marionette performing some weird dance at the behest of its puppeteer. Gray fur began to sprout along her arms, legs, and neck. The sound of tearing cloth filled the air as her clothing—too constricting for her new form—began to burst at the seams.
“Don’t you remember?” she asked once more, but there was no trace of the beautiful gypsy girl. Instead, a huge timber wolf stood before me, larger than any I had ever seen before. Her lips curled back, revealing sharp fangs. “You said you would help me, Little Joe,” she growled, low and menacing, “but you lied!”
Without warning, the beast sprang at me, sinking her teeth deep into my throat.
“N-no! No!” I cried as a sharp pain burned its way up my arm and into the tender flesh of my shoulder.
Wait…what? Arm? Shoulder?
“Joe, stop it! It’s only a nightmare!”
A nightmare? My eyes fluttered open and, for a moment, panic once more clawed at me with angry talons.
I saw nothing but black.
Am I blind?
“Calm down or you’ll tear out your stitches.” A familiar, baritone voice soothed. The panic eased, and I realized that I wasn’t sightless at all; instead, I was staring into the dark fabric of my brother’s shirt.
Once he was convinced that I was no longer in the grips of my night terror, Adam released his hold on my shoulders and leaned back. He looked older than his thirty-four years. Dark circles rimmed his brown eyes and there was a new set of worry lines between his brows. Surprisingly, the shadow of a beard clung to his jaws. Adam had never been one to let himself go like this; even when out on cattle drives, my eldest brother was always well groomed and immaculately shaved.
I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “You look terrible.”
Adam chuckled. “If you think I look bad, you should take a look in the mirror.” He pressed a hand against my forehead. “Hmm…I think your fever’s just about gone.”
I tried to bat his hand away only to discover that one of my arms was tied up somehow and the other felt as if I had lead flowing through my veins instead of blood, making it far too heavy for me to lift. “What happened?”
All traces of humor evaporated from his features, and my older brother sank heavily into a nearby chair.
“I shot you.” The words hung in the air between us for a moment.
“Y-you shot me.” I repeated, unsure that I had heard him correctly.
He nodded. “Yes. It was up at Montpelier Gorge. We were hunting that big timber wolf that’s been killing our cattle; you popped out from behind a boulder. I didn’t see you in time.”
“Oh. Did you get him?”
“Yes. The first thing you said after I killed it was, “You got him, Adam.”…don’t you remember?”
Don’t you remember?
A pair of yellow eyes flashed to the forefront of my memory, and I flinched.
“Joe? Are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah I remember.” I glanced around the room and frowned. “Where’s Pa?”
“Joe? Joseph?” A familiar voice laced with worry floated up from somewhere downstairs, as if in answer to my question.
Adam grinned and patted me on my good shoulder. “I’d say he just got home. You settle back against those pillows now and I’ll go get him.”
My eyelids were feeling rather heavy so for once in my life I obeyed my older brother’s command without putting up a fuss. A murmur of voices and the echo of footsteps reached my ears, filling me with a sense of peace I hadn’t felt for a long while.
I settled deeper into my mattress. The balmy night was suddenly pierced by the questioning “who” of a Great Horned Owl; a puff of wind rattled the branches of the spruce tree that stood just beyond my bedroom window. Somewhere out in the darkness a lone wolf howled at the waning moon, but I didn’t hear it.
The insistent fingers of sleep had plucked at me until I had finally released my tenuous hold on consciousness and nodded off. I didn’t have to stay awake. Pa would wait for me. I would see him in the morning.
~ Finis ~
Author Note: For an eerier experience, read this while listening to The Cure’s A Forest. I had that song in mind while I wrote this, although the story is only loosely based off of it.