Every morning that winter, just as the black night began to melt into the first red fingers of day, I went running in the forest behind our house. Fred was still snoring and twitching in his light, carpal-tunnel-induced sleep, and his eyes would be red when he woke after too much dreaming about line after line of code. Me, I’d be refreshed and sharp and focused, thanks to my new routine of jogging with the hounds.
We’d never wanted kids, Fred and me, not back in the days when our love was still athletic and young. So we got dogs instead. Not a bad tradeoff, in hindsight, due to how hard Fred worked and the long hours I’d started to keep myself after fifteen years at the firm. We loved our nieces and nephews, and we ignored the awkward moments as the kids adjusted to having two uncles living together in one house.
We always got the dogs in pairs—first we had greyhounds (former racers, docile and loyal), then lap dogs (Fred’s choice, not mine), and even mutts (from the pound, always grateful and at our heels).
But these two, Boris and Cloris, were something else. They were beagles. Forget lethargic Snoopy lounging on top of his doghouse. When I took these two running through the frozen woods behind our house, it was all I could do to keep them from pulling my arms out of their sockets, one leashed, furry ball of energy per arm. They tore up and down the trails, baying louder than all of our previous dogs together could’ve mustered. God help me if they saw a squirrel or caught scent of a deer.
Boris was light brown and white, while Cloris was dark brown and spotted, and they were the ones who first saw the young boy standing next to the cave half a mile from the house I shared with Fred.
When they saw him, they didn’t bark like they usually did—all throaty yowl and frenetic gasping for air. They simply turned toward him the same time, hard, tripping me in mid-stride, and then they padded off the trail up to the pale, shirtless boy.
“You okay, son?” I asked as I clambered up the incline toward him. I was gasping for breath, sucking the frigid air into my aching lungs, and it wasn’t just from my previous ten minutes of running. The young man was beautiful: porcelain skin, jet-black hair falling over heavy-lidded, light-blue eyes. His perfection was marred only by what looked like dried blood on the tips of his slender fingers.
Don’t ask me why I kept calling him that. My voice felt raspy and hoarse, too loud in the chill, early-morning air, surrounded by the whispering of the branches above us.
The dogs kept staring at him, quivering and pawing at the cold ground. Usually they were all over people, nipping at their ankles and barking with maximum volume. But Boris and Cloris refused to get too close to the slim, silent boy. He appeared to be in his teens, not nearly as young as I’d thought at first.
Just like the dogs must have gotten earlier, I smelled his scent: wet dirt and something smoky, like aged tobacco tapped from a pipe. When he turned his scintillating blue gaze from the dogs onto me, Boris and Cloris immediately began to whimper for the return of his attention.
I wanted him to say something, but in the warm light of his gaze, I felt like any words would be meaningless. We just stood there, me hunched and huffing for air and shivering, him standing straight and patient and still as the trees all around us.
Then his gaze left me, and I knew how the dogs felt, as if a shadow had just been cast over the sun. He was peering at something deeper in the forest, close to where the trail veered off into the gray darkness still clinging to the trunks and branches like fog. Something crackled off in that direction, possibly a squirrel or a bird. Boris and Cloris never batted a canine eye.
I was about to ask the boy if he was lost, but the question stuck in my throat when I looked back at him. He was standing up now, thin arms raised to shoulder height like a crucifixion. I could see his veins through his pale skin, and they looked greenish-blue as they pulsed with life. His breath clouded the air around his head in a halo. He seemed to be waiting for me to break the silence.
What the hell, I figured. Why not?
I inhaled cold December air, felt it sting inside my lungs, and started to talk to him.
* * *
In spite of the coldness in our house, I had no problem waking up early the next morning, or the following week of mornings. Even as snow dotted the forest floor, the boy remained outside the cave, shirtless, and waiting to hear me talk.
With Fred so busy and stressed out with his work, I found talking to the boy—who refused to even answer me when I asked his name or tried to take him to our house for shelter—much easier. And addictive.
So addictive that I never thought to ask him about how he came to live there, or why he never seemed cold. I -- [End of Preview.]