I had been here before, a long time ago.
I’d been a child then, with a heart for adventure that made me keen to explore the interior of the forest. I was older now, and content to amble on the kempt paths that skirted the woods. Yet here I was, stomping through mud puddles, half a mile away from my usual route. The underbrush pulled at my pant legs and mosquitoes harassed me, leaving pink lumps on my exposed forearms. I dug at the swollen flesh, wishing for the hundredth time that I had remained on easier trails.
“Duke! DUKE!” My shouts were absorbed into the foliage. The woods were dark and tinged with the subtle smell of decay, an autumn odor of moldy leaves and soggy pine needles.
“Stupid dog. If I get poison ivy, I’ll sell him for a nickel.” I kicked at a rotting stump. My troubles were of my own making, and thus my aggravation was that much harder to bear. I’d let Duke off his lead for a romp in a clearing. Within moments, a rabbit hopped into view. Ears back, tails up, and then – whoosh! – that was the last I saw of Duke.
I’d bolted after him without noting my surroundings, or the direction I was taking. After ten minutes of panicked wandering, I caught the sound of gurgling water, and switched direction, happy to have my bearings returned to me. Heading for the creek was my best chance for finding my water-loving Golden Retriever. I continued to grouse as I picked my way over a rocky patch, less than thrilled at the thought of a muddy dog for a companion on the car ride home.
I passed a rudimentary shelter; it was nothing more than long branches braced together to form a cone shaped structure. A pattern of sneaker tracks littered the dirt around it. I deduced that kids from the nearby farms had built this simple fort, just as my friends and I had done decades earlier. A bower of branches arched overhead, providing a sheltering respite from never-ending chores and schoolwork.
A loud bark, directly behind me, pulled me from my reminiscing. I spun toward the noise, lunging for Duke’s collar and tripping over one of the lodge poles as I did so. The motion sent me sailing forward. I tipped to one side, causing my knee to crash into hard packed earth. I lost my balance entirely then and collapsed, landing on my hip as I fell. The tepee branches clattered to the ground about me.
Fear blossomed and took root in my mind. I prayed I had avoided injury, but the ache in my joints had me fearing the worst. Would I even be able to stand up on my own? I felt frail, and the combined fatigue of all seventy-seven of my years fell on me at once.
The fan of Duke’s tail brushed against my arm. I pulled my friend close, digging my gnarled fingers into dirty fur.
“Stay with me now, Duke, stay with me.”
I pulled oxygen from the air in ragged measures. At length, my fear subsided enough for me to focus on my dilemma. I tried to move my limbs and found myself unscathed, save for a small scrape on my forearm. I knew bruises would blush through my skin later, but for now I counted myself uninjured.
I struggled to my feet, using one of the sturdier branches to assist me. Duke sat obediently as I bent to clip the leash to his collar. It was then that I noticed the bright fabric he held in his teeth.
“What do you have there, boy?”
My hand shook as I reached to pull the knitted cap from Duke’s teeth. It was wet, but not with water. I stared at the crimson streak running across the palm of my hand.
I peered into the dark copse surrounding me, my eyes flicking back and forth as I searched for signs of another presence. Only the trees returned my stare.
I placed the hat on the ground, and then paused to wipe my hand on my jeans. My voice rang clear as I announced my intentions to the watching woods.
“Time to head home, Duke. Nothing interesting to see around here.”
(This story written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge: Build Your Own)