He hits the breaks and we’re thrown forward in our seats – I fling my hands onto the dash, saving myself, but I hear Silvija screech in the back as she slams against Juris’ chair. The dog slips from his perch on her lap, yelping as he topples to the floor. The headlights blink, the breaks tick, tick, as we stop on the forest path.
Juris’ shoulders slump and falls back in his chair, his hands gripping the wheel, gnawed nails digging into black leather. The colour has drained from his face; his cheekbones, long, protuberant, seem like they stick out even further without red to flush them. I follow his gaze out the windshield, expecting something to be on the track, but there’s nothing to be seen but old tyre marks imprinted in the dirt and fallen, cracked brown leaves strewn over them. Glancing back to Juris, I reach out to comfort him, but he inches away.
“What’s wrong? Why did you stop?”
He doesn’t reply. Instead, he opens his door, swings his muddy boots outside and jumps into the night. He slams the door behind him, rocking the whole car.
Silvija sits up, recomposing herself. She flicks her golden hair back behind her ears, revealing the face like that of leering fox. ‘Christ, that hurt. What’s he tryna’ do – kill us?’
She rubs her arm up and down soothingly, then picks up the dog, holds him in her lap. As he whines at us, Silvija and I share a confused look. We try listen out for Juris, but the dog’s whimpering is deafening.
I open my mouth to speak, but then something changes in Silvija’s pose. She seems to seize up, her face dropping. Before I can say anything she’s snatched her hunting rifle from beside her and, like Juris, leapt out the car, the dog going with her. As the door closes a chill falls over me, as if I’ve been plunged in an ice bath.
Juris must’ve seen it.
I open the door, bitten instantly by a cruel wind. Zipping up my jacket, I close the door, and fumble in my pockets for a torch. It takes me a while to find it and, when I have, takes me even longer to switch it on. My hands won’t stop shaking. My breathing is just as erratic, the pale air from my lungs clouding my face in short, infrequent bursts. I see Silvija ahead of me, storming off the track and into the darkness. The dog is at her heels. Swallowing hard, I follow.
Silvija’s calling for Juris, her rifle poised to shoot. Her voice trembles. She takes uneasy steps through the undergrowth. I approach quickly, moving round the car and through its noxious exhaust fumes, holding the torch to light our path. She glances at me briefly, her eyes flashing bronze in the light.
Snap! The torch almost slips from my fingers as, somewhere ahead of us, something breaks. The sound is a knife in the chest. Silvija lifts the gun and the dog’s lips pull back, revealing his growling, frothing jaws.
“W—who’s there?’ I call out. ‘Come out. I promise, w—we won’t hurt you.” Silvija looks over to me, nods towards the trees. “C’mon.”
She starts creeping forwards – I wince, reluctantly joining her. Whilst the wind whistles through the branches above us, and the full moon casts silver over the ivy crawling up the trees, we clamber across the forest floor. We find ourselves on a slope, descending into a clearing blessed with white wild flowers, a sweet, vanilla-like aroma filling our noses. There’s a tugging sensation on my bones, drawing me towards the centre – Silvija must feel it too, and the dog, who now calmly trots through the dirt, unconcerned.
I look to the middle, and see Juris standing in a pool of scarlet blood. He turns towards us as we enter the clearing, wiping his dagger on his thigh. He stands as if wires pull him up by his limbs. His expression is perfectly blank.
Between his feet lies a body, shifting to another form as it dies. It’s maw turns to a pair of pouted lips. It’s paws turn to soft hands, small feet, claws to delicate fingernails. Its scruffy hair thins out, sinks to the scalp, becomes silky, until it’s a wave of brunette curls. Silvija lowers the gun, mesmerised. I similarly can’t tear my eyes away, as the corpse of the beast shifts from wolf, to girl.