There was a chill in the air and the scent of winter approaching, crisp and smoky.
I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck, warding off the cold as best as I could. Around me in the graying light, the last leaves were falling from the trees, marking the end of autumn.
I was on my way home from the bookstore where I worked, a twenty-minute walk from my apartment.
It had been a busy day. It was early November and people had already started to come in to buy Christmas gifts, and the bustle would last until January, when people came to exchange said gifts.
I rounded the corner and stepped onto the street where I lived, walked the short distance to my building, and gave a sigh of relief once I stepped out of the cold.
I lived in a five-story building, each floor with its own apartment. I walked up the first flight of stairs, which led to my door.
I straightened the little sign where my name—Hazel Porter—was written in my own neat handwriting, before I turned the key and let myself in. The familiar scent of vanilla from my diffuser welcomed me as I stepped inside.
My apartment consisted of a living room, a small kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. It wasn’t much, but it was mine, and it was home.
I’d bought the place a little over a year ago. I’d been saving up ever since I was eighteen and had first started working at the bookstore.
Ten years later and I still worked there, not because I couldn’t get another job, but because I loved it so much.
My parents had wanted me to go to college, but the thought of more school had been unfathomable to high-school me.
Besides, I’d had no idea what I’d even study, so it was better this way. I hadn’t thrown money out the window on a degree I didn’t care about.
My parents had come around in the end, and though we didn’t see each other that often, we were on good terms and I was glad to see them whenever they came back into town.
They’d moved south in search of warmer climates two years ago.
I dropped my keys on the side table next to the door in the small hallway, shrugged off my coat, and unwrapped my scarf before hanging it on a hook on the wall.
I stepped out of my boots and placed them neatly on the shoe rack below.
I walked toward the kitchen, turning on the lights as I went. I was starving, and I rummaged through the fridge and cupboards on the hunt for some food.
I decided to make a simple omelet, not bothered to make anything fancy. The fridge was looking a little bare, and I made a mental note to go grocery shopping later that week.
With a full plate in hand I walked back to the living room.
I had chosen all my furniture carefully, wanting to create a calming, comforting space where I could relax and feel at home.
Neutral tones with a splash of color here and there were consistent in the Scandinavian-style decor throughout every room.
I plopped down on the gray three-seat couch, preferring to sit here rather than by the kitchen table—seating four—which I pretty much only ever used on the rare occasions I had people—mainly my parents—over for dinner.
I grabbed one of my blankets, a white fuzzy one, and draped it over my crossed legs. I switched on the TV and began digging into my omelet with enthusiasm. I was ravenous and it tasted heavenly.
“Another animal killing has been reported here in Pinewood Valley.
“The animal in question has still not been identified, and city residents are advised to take caution when hiking until the animal has been identified and captured,” the male newscaster warned.
This was the third one this month, I noted. Pinewood Valley was a town surrounded by forest on three sides, mostly consisting of pine trees, as the name suggests, and many residents were avid hikers.
Animal attacks had always been a risk, but they had been few and far between and usually happened deep in the forest, far from the actual town.
It was different now. Over the past few months, the attacks had increased in frequency and gotten closer to town. People were worried, and rightfully so.
I wondered idly what it could be while I shoveled the last pieces of my omelet into my mouth.
Maybe a bear or a wolf? All I knew was that it had claws. The victims had all presented with deep gashes and claw marks, blood loss being the ultimate cause of death.
I was glad that hiking had never really been my thing.
The rest of the news didn’t really interest me so I flipped to a different channel where some kind of sitcom was airing, and when I felt ready for bed I padded toward the bathroom to prepare for the night, turning off the lights on my way.
Once I was all tucked into bed I burrowed into the pillows, and soon I slipped into a peaceful slumber.
I awoke the next morning ready for another normal day at work. I got up, made toast, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and twisted my chestnut locks into a braid down my back.
I gave myself a once-over in the mirror, and the female version of my dad stared back at me, with the red-toned hair, blue eyes, and the slightly upturned nose.
I’d always looked like him—people had been telling me that for years—but the resemblance had seemed to increase as I aged.
The only thing I’d gotten from my mom were slightly fuller lips and her petite build. Being short had been a frustration of mine for years. I’d always wished I was taller.
I grabbed my coat and scarf and readied myself to brave the cold autumn weather.
I got to the bookstore in plenty of time, and I took advantage of it by making myself a hot chocolate in the break room with Crystal, one of my coworkers and best friends.
A bubbly young woman with caramel skin and curls in a slightly darker shade than her skin.
I felt optimistic, and I was sure it was going to be a good day.
By the end of my workday I was tired, but content. I really did enjoy my job.
I began my regular walk home, and all was well until I rounded a corner and found myself face-to-face with a hooded figure.
I stepped to the side to walk past him, but he held out his arm, stopping me in my tracks. Startled, I turned around to walk back the way I’d come from, but he wasn’t alone anymore.
The days were short this time of year, and it had grown dark.
There wasn’t anyone else around as far as I could tell. People preferred staying indoors where it was warm.
My heart hammered in my chest as I felt panic build within me.
The two men were large and muscular, and they were both wearing hooded coats, leaving their faces shadowed.
They pushed me toward an alley, making sure they were close enough so that I couldn’t escape.
One of them leaned in closer, and I could have sworn he sniffed me. I shuddered and my thoughts raced, playing out different scenarios of what could happen next in my head.
I wanted to scream for help, but I couldn’t seem to find my voice, and the scream was stuck somewhere in my throat.
“Well, well. All alone are we?” one of the men asked in a gravelly voice, his fingers grabbing hold of my chin, forcing my gaze to his. I couldn’t see it in the dark, but I could feel it.
The other one chuckled menacingly as he grabbed my arms and pushed me against the wall.
I squeezed my eyes shut, bracing myself for whatever they were going to do to me, because I knew that I didn’t stand a chance against them. My heart threatened to beat out of my chest.
All of a sudden there was a snarling sound and the arms that had been pinning me to the wall were ripped away.
A third man, impossibly bigger than the other two, was now standing in front of me, facing away from me. He was wearing nothing but jeans and a T-shirt.
In my daze from the situation, all I could think about was how he wasn’t shivering from the cold. It was a stupid thing to focus on, but I think I was in shock.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked the two men, who were squirming under the gaze of my rescuer.
His voice was rough, the fury in it almost tangible.
They didn’t respond.
“You are not welcome here. This is my territory.” His words confused me, but I was too relieved to pay much attention to them.
“Now leave,” he growled.
The two hooded men scrambled away in a hurry. As they began running, their dark shapes melted into the shadows and disappeared.
My rescuer stood in front of me, his posture rigid, slightly crouching, his arms raised at his sides like the wings of a bird protecting its young.
He didn’t move for several minutes after the two other men had left. Then he seemed to relax a little and he slowly turned to face me.
I couldn’t see him very well here in the shadowed alley. His large body was blocking most of the faint light coming from the street behind him.
“Are you all right?” His voice was still rough, but a tinge of concern softened it just a little.
“I think so,” I breathed.
“Do you live close by?” he asked me.
I was confused, and I was pretty sure my body was half in shock still, so it took me awhile to comprehend what he was saying and to be able to form words of my own again.
“A five-minute walk from here,” I was finally able to get out.
“I’ll walk you then. Make sure those bastards aren’t still hanging around.”
“Okay,” I said faintly.
I stepped back out onto the sidewalk. I didn’t hear the stranger follow me, so I turned to see if he was still standing in the alley and I ended up bumping into his chest.
He had walked so quietly—his boot-clad feet not making a sound—that I hadn’t realized he’d followed me.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, trying to hide my slight embarrassment.
He had a light grip on my upper arms to prevent me from falling from the impact.
I looked up at him. He towered over me, but here in the glow of the streetlights I could see his face and I almost gasped.
He had scars, the shape of a claw mark across his face from his forehead, over his left eye, and all the way down to the base of his throat.
He had a handsome face, but the scars were so distracting it was hard to notice much else at first glance.
Combined with his massive size and dark coloring, it made him look dangerous.
Framing his face was a mess of dark curls, his green eyes almost startlingly bright. He met my eyes briefly before averting his gaze.
I drew my eyes away from his face, turned, and began walking toward my apartment again. There was a faint sound of steps as he walked behind me, much too quiet for a man his size.
My rescuer followed me all the way to my building, where I mumbled a thank-you, and he waited until the door was closed safely behind me before he left.
Once inside my own apartment, I leaned back against the door, my knees gave in, and I sank to the floor as sobs racked my body, the events of the night finally catching up with me.
Just the thought of what could have happened made me nauseous. After a while the crying stopped, and I got shakily to my feet and went to the kitchen to down a glass of water.
All the crying had left me feeling parched. I made my way to my bedroom as I had no appetite or energy to do much other than getting into my pajamas and falling exhaustedly into bed.
It didn’t take long for sleep to take me, but I kept waking up, plagued by nightmares the entire night.
When morning finally came I called in sick to work, something I rarely ever did.
I lay in bed most of the morning before getting up to take a shower, urged by a need to wash the memories of the previous night away.
At lunchtime I sat curled up in one of my armchairs, a towel wrapped around my wet hair. I called my mom, needing to talk to her about what had happened, in need of comfort.
She picked up on the third ring—it was fast for her—and I proceeded to tell her everything while fresh tears rolled down my cheeks, though not as furiously as last night.
I had cried more in the last twenty-four hours than I had done in the past six months.
In the afternoon I was finally able to eat something, and I found myself feeling more relaxed as I put on a familiar movie and snuggled up on the couch.
The next day I was back at work again. I was still a little shaken up, but I was determined to get back to normal. I wouldn’t let myself come unraveled by this one experience.
On the way home, however, my nerves almost got the best of me and I crossed the street before getting to that corner by that alley and walked on the opposite side until I had passed safely by.
I felt like someone was watching me from the shadows between streetlights, and I picked up my pace, wanting to get home as quickly as possible.