I knew I was being hunted before I heard the growl. First there had been flashes of gray and black in the trees around me, too fast for me to make out. Then crackling of dried leaves and twigs as those forms came nearer. And that primal, icy feeling on the back of my neck that told me I'd just moved from top of the food chain to prey.
No one was around to help me, either. This was Yellowstone National Park, one of the last great American wildernesses. I hadn't seen another soul since my friends Brandy and Tom abandoned the hike three days ago, and I'd been lost for two days now. A wave of fear rolled over me, making my stomach clench in a nauseating way. Whatever had growled, it wasn't alone.
New growls emerged from behind the trees—low, guttural, and more menacing than a mugger in a dark alley. I flicked my gaze around, trying to hone in on the source, while I drew my backpack off my shoulders. I had a gun in there which I'd brought along in what I'd thought was over-the-top paranoia. Now I wished I'd brought an Uzi and some grenades, too.
I had the backpack on the ground and was pulling the gun out when the animal struck. It came at me with incredible speed, plowing right into me and knocking me over. Instinctively, I scrambled back, holding my hands out in defense and convinced I'd feel teeth tearing into me at any moment. The wolf – God, it was a huge wolf! – didn't lunge for my throat, though. It stood a few feet away, mouth open in what seemed to me to be a sick caricature of a grin, with my gun on the ground between its paws.
I'd dropped the gun. How could I have been so stupid as to drop the gun?
That thought raced through my mind, followed by a slew of if onlys. If only I hadn't gone on this camping trip. If only Brandy hadn't twisted her ankle, forcing her and Tom to leave early. If only I hadn't been so determined to continue the hike alone. If only the map hadn't gotten ruined. If only I'd had a satellite phone, instead of my useless, out-of-area cellular.
And if only I hadn't dropped the goddamn gun when an enormous wolf charged me. That would probably be the last regret I ever had.
Twigs snapped behind me. My head jerked back while I still tried to keep an eye on the wolf in front of me. Five more wolves cleared the trees, running around me with an easy, deadly grace. I started to scoot back more, but there was nowhere to go. My heart was pounding while my breath came in strange, jagged gasps.
You're lost out in the middle of nowhere, and these wolves are going to eat you. Oh God, no, please. I don't want to die…
Only four days ago, I'd been laughing with my friends about how great it was to be outdoors, instead of trapped inside our stuffy offices. This was the vacation I'd been waiting years to take. How could this be happening?
One of the circling wolves broke from the ranks and charged me. I flung up my hands in useless defense when the huge gray wolf let out a growl that sounded like a word.
I gasped. That wolf did not just speak! But its yellow eyes gleamed with a savage intelligence and another rumbling, coherent growl came out of its throat.
I abandoned all logic to scramble to my feet, running as fast as I could even while knowing it was futile. Scalding pain in my ankle had me stumbling, but I didn't stop. I lurched on, heart hammering and tears blurring my vision. Around me, the wolves gleefully yipped as they kept pace.
More pain seared my leg. I fell, panic urging me to get up even though both my legs felt like they were on fire. I tried to run again, but my left ankle buckled. The wolves' cries became more excited. They darted in, nipping me and drawing blood before bounding back and ducking out of the way of my wild punches. I couldn't run anymore, but I staggered forward, looking for anything that would help me. Maybe I could climb a tree. Maybe I could find a heavy branch to use as a weapon.
It's too late for that, Marlee, said an insidious voice in my head. Just give up. It'll be over soon.
The enormous gray wolf suddenly jumped in front of me. Its mouth was open, fangs gleaming in the late afternoon light. It let out a howl that stopped the other wolves in their tracks. Then they joined in, filling the air with their victorious cries. The gray wolf became silent, coming closer while its companions continued their howls. I braced myself, images of my family and friends flashing in my mind. They'll never know what happened to you. You'll just be another vanished hiker in the woods…
Despite my overwhelming fear, anger also reared up in me. I looked at the gray wolf, only a foot away now. You might kill me, but I'm going to hurt you before you do.
When it lunged, I was ready. Its fangs sank into my right arm, which I'd thrown up to protect my throat. But even as I almost fainted at the agony of its teeth tearing my flesh, I didn't hesitate. My left thumb jammed into its eye, as deep as it could go.
Something like a scream came out of the wolf. Or maybe I was screaming. Either way, it took a second for the next, new sound to register, but when it did, I felt a surge of hope. It was the loud, unmistakable boom of a gunshot.
The gray wolf let go of me. I sagged back, clutching my torn arm to my chest. The wolf's right eye was bleeding and it was panting, but it didn't run. Neither did the other wolves. They crouched, staring over my shoulder, snarls coming from their throats.
"Leave," the gray wolf said, garbled but intelligible.
I'm hallucinating again, I thought. Maybe I've passed out. Maybe I'm being ripped to pieces right now.
Something brushed by me. I recoiled when I saw it was several more wolves. With my good arm, I began flailing at them in a pathetic attempt to keep them away, but they ignored me. Their attention seemed fixed on the other, snarling wolves.