Charlotte Hale hated that she had to gather wild berries.
It wasn’t that gathering wild berries was hard. It was that gathering them was not hard and at sixteen, she felt like it was demeaning. Her eight-year-old stepbrother, Albert, was perfectly capable of the task. So she could not, for the life of her, understand why she had to be the one to gather stupid frickin’ wild berries.
“I need them for the salad, Char,” her mother had said. “Please do not give me attitude, not today. Your father was adamant when he left to go fishing that he would be bringing back trout. You know how he gets if everything is not perfect.”
“He is your husband, that doesn’t make him my father.”
“I said not today, Char!”
“What about Albert? Why can’t he do it?”
“He’s too young. He still doesn’t know this area the way you do. Besides, I need Albert for other things.”
And that was all it took.
~ ~ ~ ~
Charlotte’s mother called her Char. Of all the people in her life, Char’s mother was the only one who called her that. For the first eight years of her life, Char had liked it. It bonded them. Something special that only they would share. That was before Albert was born.
Her stepfather called her Lottie, as did all of her friends. When she was a little girl, he would always tease her saying it was because she was a lot to handle. Maybe she was. Maybe she still is.
Gamma and Poppop called her Lettie. She never quite understood where that one came from, perhaps it was generational.
Albert called her Charlie.
~ ~ ~ ~
Char kicked her hiking boot into the ground like a petulant child, still stewing over the berry-picking chore. Tossing her backpack down into some thick grass, she sat on a hillside and looked out over the valley. She watched a little grey bird chase after a hawk ten times its size.
The smaller bird made a dip, then with a flutter, came back up to peck at the hawk’s underbelly. It dip-dove again and again, over and over like a dance, the hawk seemingly unphased. Suddenly, with a swift pump of its broad wings, the hawk put distance between itself and the vexing bird, gallantly disappearing into the thickly leaved canopy.
“It’s just not fair,” she said out loud to no one. “It’s never fucking fair.”
Char thought it felt good to swear. Somewhat cathartic. She’d like to say those words directly to her mother, but her mother in turn would tell her stepfather and she did not want to face that wrath.
So, she sat, and she stewed.
She pulled her earbuds from the front pocket of the backpack and plugged them into her phone.
Knowing there would be no signal once they got to the cabin, she had downloaded three playlists at home before they left.
Playlist number one was for the long ride. A mellow assortment of what Char called ‘cruising music’. It would most likely be her go-to list of songs once she shed the shackles of her driving permit for the independence of an official license. Then she’d have her freedom. Away from them. Away from Albert and his clinginess.
Playlist number two was comprised mostly of classical music. She usually played it through her Bluetooth speaker when she did homework, or sometimes to fall asleep when her anxiety was too gripping.
Playlist three was heavier; all rock tunes, no frilly top-forty pop. Just hardcore punk with screaming guitar licks and vocals to match. This mix suited her mood at the moment.
As she stood up, she fixed the buds into her ears, pressed play on the phone, scooped up her backpack, and set out.
~ ~ ~ ~
She was only a few hundred feet from the cabin’s wrap-around porch; still within earshot of her mother calling out about a storm coming in from the west.
If not for the hard-edged shouts of Dee Skusting singing Empty Streets, she would have heard the warning. She would not have ventured past the berry patch that grew along the outer edge of the cabin’s nearby three-acre pasture. But Char needed time alone. She needed to find peace, ironically hidden somewhere in the nihilistic rants of The Pretty Reckless.
With her head down, music blaring in her ears, thumbs hooked into her backpack straps, Char trudged in the opposite direction of her hand-waving mother. Way past that close-by patch of wild berries.
~ ~ ~ ~
She had been walking for close to an hour.
She’d found a trailhead in a far corner of the field. It was more like a path of downtrodden grass, probably a game trail.
Animals would make them for a reason. Repetitive treading to and from areas of importance; a den or perhaps food or water supply. Tracking along one was called spooring.
Robert, her stepfather, taught her about the area and outdoor life in general. He owned a chain of sportsman’s shops back home. This remote cabin was his research facility, according to him.
Every year he would pack up the family and they’d live off the grid for one month. It used to be fun.
~ ~ ~ ~
Her biological father died when she was just a baby. She had always thought of Robert as her dad until her mother sat her down one day when she was old enough to understand.
Old enough to comprehend; Char still didn’t quite understand.
Her real father had been in a car accident. The details weren’t important, or maybe just too difficult for her mother to fully explain. Didn’t matter. Facts were facts and she had to accept them for what they were, what they still are.
Robert was a good man. He taught her things. Cared for the family. Cared for her. But again, facts were facts and once they were brought to light, Char never felt like she was his. A feeling that was exacerbated when Char’s mother gave Robert what he had always wanted, Albert.
~ ~ ~ ~
The trail led her down into a hard gully. Rocky and rugged. She spotted some shrubs lining the edge of what looked like a dried-up riverbed. Saskatoon berries. They would be perfect for the salad.
A low faint rumble of thunder grabbed her attention as she readied to cross. She felt it more than heard it. Like a far-off explosion that crept along with the earth until it reverberated in her bones.
Char looked up, still sunny. Must be a storm but a safe distance away.
She danced across the rocks of the wash and began harvesting her bounty.
‘Be careful of imposters,’ she thought. The poisonous nightshade berries looked very similar to saskatoons. The difference is in the woody stems of the shrub. Saskatoons were spindly and showed more berry clusters than leaves. The foliage of the nightshade bushes would be fuller.
Ages ago, Robert had given her a forager’s guide. She read it cover to cover, studied it, making notes of which plants grew near the cabin. These were the first saskatoons she’d come across. She made a mental note to add this location to her guidebook.
Another distant rumble of thunder and the air moved briskly around her. It was cooler, raising a chill across her sun-soaked arms.
~ ~ ~ ~
With her pack full, Char lay back against the pitch of the bank. She let her eyes close so she could just listen to the music.
Water began to ominously, silently, blindly weave its way through the boulders, quickly covering the step stones she cascaded across moments earlier.
Somewhere, miles away from Char, two thunderstorms were converging; like two loudmouthed friends meeting at the local pub, ready to hang out for a spell and cause some trouble.
Rain spilled down in dark bands, rolling off the dry hard ground to crawl here and there in search of low-lying areas. It flowed, collected, joined with other sheets being repelled by the rocky clay soil, eventually snaking through to find Char’s once-dry riverbed.
~ ~ ~ ~
By the time she opened her eyes, the water had already risen to touch the heel of her boot. It took her a second to gain her bearings. Where had the water come from? Char’s befuddled mind was telling her these surroundings didn’t look like the peaceful setting from twenty minutes ago.
She removed her earbuds so she could listen. Just the gentle gurgling of a rapidly growing creek. She dug her heel into a rock and pressed to slide her butt up a bit higher on the bank. The sudden change made her heart race.
‘It’s not raining, this doesn’t make sense.’
Stuffing her earbuds into her shorts pocket, she grabbed the strap of the pack and stood. The water had once again risen to touch her toes and was now too deep, and rushing too strongly, for her to cross back to her trail.
As she spun to climb higher, she heard a sound, a low howl, like a shushing sound that seemed to be getting louder. Probably another breeze rustling through the trees, being spun off by whatever storm was sending all the water.
The two-foot wave of murky, debris-laden wash clipped her footing before Char had time to react.
She tumbled backward into the rushing water. Her head smacked on something dull, causing a flash of light behind her eyelids and searing pain to match. Immediately, she felt the power of the newly made river like some massive bully bearing down on her and shoving her wherever it wanted her to go.
Her pack was ripped from her grip and she barely had time to gulp in a breath before the beast pulled her under.
~ ~ ~ ~
The sound in her ears was muffled but loud. Her sight was muddied. She was submerged and bouncing off of rocks and logs, twisting and thumping with no ability to gain control. The air in her lungs was no longer of use. Tiny shards of glass burning in her chest the longer she was held under by the current.
Finally a break. She was flipped to her back long enough for her to plant a boot down and propel her face upward. Sunlight. Blue sky. Air. Pain.
The force of the water bent her ankle in a way ankles were not meant to bend. She wanted to scream, but the oxygen was too precious and the water once again sealed her lips closed. Inside her head, she heard the cry loud and clear. Adrenaline numbed her momentarily.
~ ~ ~ ~
Char continued to tumble. Her body ripped and tossed through the rapids. She played its game of grappling for air when it would let her.
She wasn’t sure how long it had been and she wasn’t sure how much longer it would last. How long does it take for someone to drown? Eventually, the banks widened and she could feel a slowing in the washout.
She lifted her head, deeply replenished her air supply, and tried to arm-swim into the current at an angle to the muddy shore.
‘Just get there.’
Her hands touched muck. The strength of the water weakened, the claws of the beast retracting. She took a few seconds to rest. She’d earned it. Then using her elbows and her one good foot, Char army-crawled up the side of the bank until she was certain she was safe. Certain that she was out of the reach of any more sudden deluges this shitty place had in store for her.
~ ~ ~ ~
Her ankle throbbed. Her pack was gone. She was disoriented and had no idea of what distance she’d traveled. It felt fast but at the same time, long. In her mind, it was all surreal, like this was not actually happening. Her ankle let her know it was.
She reached down and gingerly pulled at her toes. Pain, but her foot was able to move slightly. It didn’t seem to be broken. Definitely too tender and bruised to hold weight.
Never take your boot off. She had learned that from soccer camp. Tanya Renquist had twisted her ankle sliding in for a tackle. The camp trainer had rushed over and said not to remove her cleat until they got back to the locker room where her leg could be wrapped.
Char didn’t have any wrap. She didn’t have anything.
She scanned the edges of the water for her pack, not that it would have aid for her ankle, but she still wanted it. It’d at least have made her feel like she had something. The pack was nowhere to be seen.
~ ~ ~ ~
It had been a few hours, maybe more. Time seemed to pass slowly since she had dragged herself from the torrent. Her clothes were now almost dry.
Char managed to get to a nearby tree. She didn’t recognize this section of the woods. It was sparse but offered enough shade to keep her protected from the heat of the sun. She wouldn’t need the protection for much longer. The sun was slipping closer to the horizon.
The swelling in her boot was now beginning to press against the sides. It ached, as did her ribs, arms, and back. In fact, more of her body hurt than didn’t. She could feel a number of scrapes along with one sizable cut that had now clotted over. She was thirsty. So thirsty.
The thunder had stopped, or at least it had moved far enough away that Char couldn’t hear it anymore. She was beginning to feel alone. Scared.
Her anger from earlier was now transforming itself into despair. She had no shelter, and no real ability to move above a crawl. The cabin seemed so distant it felt as if it were gone, washed away from her mind like the sticks and rubble that were carried out by the flood.
Tears welled in Char’s eyes, she needed shelter.
~ ~ ~ ~
The first time Robert brought them all to the cabin, Char was just nine and Albert just a newborn. Those initial few years were fun. Albert was still too tiny to venture out on the long hikes or canoe trips she took with Robert.
She remembered one time he sat with her on the back porch as they watched a storm roll over the hills just after dusk. Mom was inside soothing Albert as the rumbles shook the walls.
Lightning scraped through the grey sky like white-hot veins, occasionally sending a bolt down to scorch the earth. Loud cracks would follow, but she was never scared. She never felt threatened. He held her tightly.
Why hadn’t he warned her about the flash flooding? The dried riverbed would have spelled out danger if he had.
‘They don’t even care. They probably haven’t even noticed that I’m missing. Fuck this place. Fuck him. Fuck them all!’
The tears opened up into loud, frantic, and uncontrollable sobs.
~ ~ ~ ~
It took a bit but Char finally regained her composure. She needed to think. Needed to clear her head if she was going to make it through this.
She had settled herself and started plotting how to make a crutch. She could crawl until she found a large enough stick, just something to support some weight. It would need to be soon though, any remaining light was fading fast. But she also needed to rest, just for a moment, regain her energy.
Teetering on the edge of sleep, a sudden rustling jolted her eyes open. It sounded like footsteps on dried leaves.
“Hello?” she called out. “Mom? Robert? Is that you? I’m over here...I can’t move. Please, come. Help me!”
The rustling stopped.
“Mom!!” she rasped out. No reply.
The sun had now set and the air was cooling but comfortable. The sky still held a bit of light, enough for Char to see relatively well.
Its tail caught her eye first.
~ ~ ~ ~
It was grey and bushy with flecks of dark fur along the edges. It moved swiftly from left to right in front of her, thirty feet away, maybe less.
A dog? Too big and graceful. His paws kissed the ground with silence as he moved in the dim light.
As if feeling her gaze, he spun and their eyes connected. His glare froze her chest, took with it her breath, just like the water had earlier.
A wolf. The stare and confident stature were unmistakable.
She had only ever seen them in the zoo, safely behind an enclosure. But even then, even when she knew she was protected, they gave her a deep-seated chill.
Now, in the wild, exposed, alone, hurt and hobbled, she was frozen in fear.
~ ~ ~ ~
She slowly turned her head, searching for a weapon: a stick, a rock, anything she could use to put up a fight. Nothing within reach.
The stare lasted for what felt like an eternity. She willed with all of her soul that he would just spin and saunter away. Rejoin his pack.
‘Shit...what if there's a pack?'
Fear notched to terror and Char’s fingertips were beginning to numb. She took a breath and accepted whatever outcome fate had in mind for her.
But this wolf was not like the monsters of lore. He was not snarling his teeth nor raising his hackles in aggression. He seemed momentarily contented just to watch her. Observingly.
He stepped closer, cutting the distance between them by half. Char could now see him more clearly. His muzzle bore scars. A patterned storybook depicting a life of harsh reality, of survival.
Char opened her palm and held it out for him, a peace offering. His wild eyes never wavered from hers, and she suddenly had second thoughts about coaxing this beast any closer. She lowered her hand, took another breath, and watched as he circled into a lying position.
“Guess you’re not going to leave me alone, are you, boy?” she said softly.
~ ~ ~ ~
Any remaining sunlight that had been blanched into the sky was now gone. Only a half-moon hung above their heads but it gave off enough light for Char to keep an eye on her sleeping friend.
She let her body slump back against the tree and thought about what stories he must have. She wondered if he was alone by his own doing, or had he been separated from his kin, like her.
Her stomach grumbled.
As her anxiety lowered, her body began to remember how long it had been since she had anything to eat, or drink. She brought a hand to her face. Her lips felt like they’d been coated in wax paper, the outer skin peeling away in flakes. She needed water, but even if her foot would have allowed her to move, she still feared the unpredictability of her furry guardian.
Pulling her arms into her shirt for warmth, Char closed her eyes, just for a moment.
~ ~ ~ ~
She let her mind drift away. Run with the pack of wolves, a company of ballerinas flowing over the earth. They would follow no path, just prancing where instinct took them, cresting a hill in the open and howling loudly to the sky.
But it wasn’t a howl. It was a call.
A wild call floating on the early morning breezes, just before the sunrise. It got louder. Another call, her name. A voice this time, a human voice and not a wolf.
“Here,” she croaked, barely conscious and scarcely above a whisper.
Leaves crunched in the distance, and there was a shaking light like the veined bolts that thrilled her youthful spirit.
“I’m here,” she sobbed, “I’m over—”
~ ~ ~ ~
“Lottie? LOTTIE!” His hand touched her shoulder, gently rousing her awake. “Oh, thank God!”
“Yes, sweetheart, I’m here,” he said soothingly, shining the flashlight to scan over her battered body. “Where are you hurt, baby?”
He scooped her up like she barely weighed a pound and cradled her limp body as she slumped her head to his shoulder.
“The wolf…” she whispered.
“The wolf,” she repeated hoarsely. “Where is the wolf?”
“Rest your head, Lottie, you’re dehydrated and probably a bit delusional. I’ll have you back home soon.”
“There was a wolf, I know what I saw.”
“Okay, okay. But, there aren’t any wolves in these woods. Actually, nowhere near this area, not for a few hundred miles, sweetheart. I made sure of that.”
“Shhh, you’re safe now.”
“He was there for me. I know what I saw…”