Dusk was upon him. The sun dipped lower and lower, and the full moon climbed higher and higher into the darkening sky as James walked.
He missed his house. He missed his uncle Bert and the pipe he had always smoked. He missed his friends. He missed pancakes in the morning, and water that didn't have bits of plant fiber in it. He missed clean clothes, and soap, and hot showers! He missed life! How long had he been out here? A month? It certainly felt like a month. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen or spoken to another person. Where was he even going? Why was he even going? The days had begun blending together with only the phases of the moon to keep track of time. His supplies were nearly gone, and he was hungry, thirsty, and exhausted every waking minute of every waking hour. What was the limit? Three days without water and three months without food? Or was it weeks? He got water by sucking the morning dewdrops off the lush plants and ferns surrounding him, and when it rained, he refilled his bottles of water as best he could. Food was another story. He was so, so hungry! When was the last time he had eaten anything? Just thinking about it made his stomach twist into knots. He didn't know what was safe to eat out here and he knew he was starving! Not an over exaggeration, either; he was genuinely, truly, utterly starving!
All he did was walk endlessly through brush, bramble, and ferns, over fallen logs, and across streams. All he knew was the forest and the walking. He knew that he probably stunk to high heaven, too. Probably looked even worse. What few clothes remained intact were filthy, torn, and smelled terrible. The soles of his shoes had worn away to the point where he had torn them off and just walked barefoot. The bugs were the worst. Every hour of the day he spent fighting off clouds of mosquitoes, flies, and other biting insects. The bites healed quickly, but the incessant buzzing and stinging were a constant annoyance. Everything else left him alone, however. Coyotes, raccoons, possums, and squirrels all ran at the sight of him, and James did not think it was because they feared a lone, weak human out in the woods. He had a feeling that maybe they could smell the Animal under his skin and wanted to get as far away from it as possible.
As much as he hated to admit it, the Animal was the reason he had survived this long.
James couldn't remember precisely when he decided to take off the necklace, but he remembered feeling the aches and pains of another long day's exhausting walk, coupled with being covered by scratches, cuts, bruises, and bug bites, all while knowing the answer to make it go away was around his neck. The silver necklace now stayed in his pocket, but James vowed to put it back on tonight before he transformed. With the necklace's inhibitions gone, his stamina was endless, his senses sharpened, and any injury he received instantly healed, but the most useful boon in his opinion was how cold no longer bothered him. When the night fell, he would find somewhere to curl up and sleep, unbothered by chilly night winds.
Still, even the Animal had its limits, and he was running out of steam. God, he was so tired! Or maybe he was dying. Or maybe he had died, and his body was laying miles behind him, and he was just a ghost who had gotten up and kept walking. Maybe this was hell.
All he knew aside from the forest, the walking, the hunger, the thirst, the bugs, and the exhaustion was that he just wanted to sleep! Just lay down in the leaves, the dirt, the dew, and the bugs, close his eyes, and wait for it all to go away. Maybe if he was lucky, he wouldn't wake up.
Sam opened her eyes as the light of dawn illuminated her face. For a moment she just laid there and stared at the cracks and specks on the ceiling before rolling over and checking her phone.
Nothing from Josh, or any of the others, or her mom, or even her brother.
Sam threw her phone onto the covers with a sigh, got up out of bed, and walked across her room to lean against her window and stare out at the trees swaying in the wind. The faint noise of pine needles brushing together in the breeze failed to calm her as they usually did, and she stayed there another minute before going to take her morning bath.
She was seriously starting to regret taking a gap year before college. She had been so ready, so looking forward to the next step in her life, but the events and aftermath of February had thrown her life into chaos. Her drive and purpose had been sucked away with each reporter banging on her door, each of the others breaking apart and cutting ties, each sleepless night, each article proclaiming Hannah and Beth still presumed missing…it had all been too much. The thought of college, of being around new people and away from home, had suddenly seemed too much. Her own desires and dreams had seemed too much.
An hour later, Sam padded into the kitchen and started on breakfast. She didn't feel hungry in the slightest, but she knew that if she didn't eat now, she wouldn't eat at all for the rest of the day. One slice of toast did her good, and her coffee was poured a second later. That done, she went out onto the front porch to sit and bask in nature before she eventually caught sight of Hannah in her phone and…and…
…Something was different.
The fir trees still swayed in the wind, the faint scent of morning dew and pine was still present, but the birds…the morning calls of robins and finches tweeting were absent, just the sound of wind in the trees and the creaking of her chair. The silence was so unusual that Sam actually looked up from Hannah's face and around in momentary confusion…
Nope, still there.
Sam's porch was a story off the ground and looked out over her house's expansive lawn. Said lawn had not been mowed in months, growing tall and dense, but the height of the porch let her see down into the grass where pale skin stood out among the green in stark contrast. There was a body, a naked body, lying in her front lawn. The guy, at least she assumed it was a guy by the shoulders, was not wearing a stitch of clothing.
The guy's head suddenly shot up and he let out a loud gasp of air. Bits of grass stuck to the one side of his face and there was a pebble indented in his cheek that fell away when he glanced about wildly. Oh, good, he's not dead. When dark green eyes swung to regard her through long, brown bangs, Sam raised her coffee mug in salute.
"Morning!" She greeted with all the sarcasm in her body. Of all the things Sam thought would interrupt her ritualistic morning routine of depression, it certainly did not involve a naked guy sprawled spread-eagle on her front lawn.
Sam took another sip of coffee, "So, should I call the cops now or later? Just want to give you a heads-up since, you know, you're trespassing?"
Sarcasm had to have been a coping mechanism of some kind she picked up, god knows from where. In the back of her mind, Sam knew that she should probably be freaking six-ways-the-FUCK-out right now and calling the police or an ambulance, but instead, all Sam felt was a sort of numbness at the situation as she stared at the possibly drunk/high/psychopath staring back at her.
Those green eyes blinked rapidly before they squinted. His eyebrows furrowed, his mouth parted slightly, and his voice called out in a confused rasp.
Samantha? Nobody called her Samantha! Sam, Sammy, Sam-Sam; the list went on and on. No one ever called her by her full name, not unless they wanted to die, no one except…
Those green eyes and tawny locks tickled a memory in her brain of younger days before she had moved, of a boy that lived up the road from which she had loved to tease and call-
"Balls of Steel?" She blurted out.
Complete and utter silence.
Hazel eyes stared into wide slate green orbs before he let out a shaky bark of disbelieving laughter.