An Undergraduate Literary Journal from UW-Milwaukee

A Night So Dark

Fiction by Juliana Wnuk

Their hike had been illuminated with the reflection of falling snow, but seemingly at once, the sun plunged beneath the unending expanse of heavy pines for the night. Evelyn’s eyes, so sharp in the daylight, strained to focus on the disappearing path under her feet. No longer was the forest a paradise, it had quickly become a frigid hell. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder, to check on Beau. They had been out here for too long, trying to find the cabin that Caleb had offered them for a week while Beau was on winter break. Caleb had promised it was only a thirty-minute hike into the woods, and that it was fully stocked with food and supplies for seven days.

The problem was, the map he gave Evelyn was completely useless in this wretched weather. Though she thought they had left with enough time to make it before dark, she hadn’t accounted for the blinding snowstorm. She’d lost the trail a while back, and instead of making the safe choice for her and her son by turning back, the stubborn streak she was cursed with overtook rationality, and she decided to delve deeper into the trees. Now, she noticed the tip of his nose was no longer bright red, but a terrifying pale blue. He looked up, for he noticed his mother had stopped, and his eyes, glazed over with numbing cold met hers. He was no longer questioning how much distance was left, for he was a smart twelve year old; he understood that she had lost their way.

She grabbed his hand, enveloped in a heavy mitten, and started dragging them through the snow once more. The darkness seemed to hum as the snow fell heavier, and she knew she had to find the cabin quickly, lest the bitterness completely overtake her son’s body.

Deftly, she pulled one arm from her shoulder backpack strap, letting the bag fall to her side on her other hooked arm. She unzipped the front pouch to grab her heavy-duty flashlight. As she swung the pack back over her shoulder, she flipped on the switch and spun carefully in a circle a couple times, trying to figure out which way the cabin was. She remembered Caleb mentioning that it was somewhere near a colossal pile of boulders, leftover from a rock fall that happened years prior. If only she could find even a sign of it now. She knew standing around debating which way to go would get her nowhere, so she marched off down the clearest course, tugging Beau by her side.

Although her fear was mounting, she wanted to seem calm for Beau. “Well it’s a little brisk out here, huh?” she asked with a feverish chuckle.

She saw him crack a smile, which was more than she’d gotten from him in months, ever since Laurie.

Taking it as a sign, she continued with haste, “I know you must hate me for taking you out in the middle of nowhere, and getting us lost in this damn forest. I just wanted you to have time away from,” she paused, “everything that happened. I thought being out here might help.” She cut herself off, knowing her babbling wasn’t doing anything for Beau. He was infinitely more composed, and she squeezed his hand gratefully.

The snowfall was lifting finally, and moonlight was peering softly through the cover of pines, casting a purple and blue glow reflected from the glinting ground. Their trudging grew slower as the temperature dropped.  Evelyn would have completely overlooked the boulder, dusted with snow, had it not been for Beau. Dear, observant Beau, who yanked his hand from his mother’s grip to plod over to it, pointing with a thrusting finger, as if saying “Look, we’ve found the rocks!”

A newfound resolve penetrated the haze of frost clouding her mind, and she hurried to Beau, “Thank God you saw it. Nice, Beau. We’re almost there now, I know it.”

They set off again, this time in an amble around the quickly growing formation of boulders. She took Beau’s pack so he would have an easier time keeping up, hearing his breathless panting as he struggled to keep pace. She thought how strong and athletic he used to be before everything that happened with Laurie; he’d hardly been outside since she died. Interrupting her thoughts, a little red fox bolted into their path. Thirty feet away, the creature stopped to stare with wide, sharp eyes.

“Look, Mom!” Beau whispered, transfixed, trying to lean in and get closer.

Almost regal, the fox blinked once, but turned tail and dashed from their sights.

Beau cried out in disappointment, and kicked the snow up in frustration. “I’ve never seen one brave enough to get that near before.”

“She was probably just scared of us, Beau. Maybe she was trying to get home to be safe and warm, too,” Evelyn said. She turned back to the cottage search, and cried, “Wait, look!”

For there, nestled between two pines on the left and a massive boulder on the right, a most welcoming log cabin stood at the ready. Fox forgotten, they sent up a slight cheer and crossed the clearing.

They reached the front door, and with deadened fingers, Evelyn dug through her pack for the key and quickly turned it in the lock to finally escape the bitter hell. The heavy door slid easily over the wood floor, and once inside, she pushed it shut from the winds’ claws. With a satisfying click of the bolt, she locked them away from the chill.

Evelyn’s frozen body still ached for heat, and she knew Beau was numb as well. She hurried to the fireplace and tossed in several logs that were piled near with newspaper scraps and kindling, and slung a match over them. The quiet flames consumed and overtook the dried wood swiftly, and its light shone on their faces. Illuminated with a soft glow, the cozy one room interior looked much larger than it had from outside.

“Come here, Beau, let’s get you warmed up,” Evelyn said. She helped him remove all his layers, as his arms were still too stiff to work fully. Once down to his wool sweater and insulated pants, he sat against a velvet cushion next to the crackling blaze.

Evelyn didn’t bother unpacking their things and instead grabbed the folded sheets on a shelf to make their beds up.

Beau’s eyes followed his mother as she flung the quilts over the beds. “I’m really sorry it took so long to find the cabin, I should’ve planned it out better. But now we have a story for Caleb when we get back, right?” Evelyn said cheerily.

She heard Beau snort and mumble something under his breath. “What? I didn’t hear you,” said Evelyn.

He crossed his arms and looked away, but answered, “I said Caleb probably doesn’t want to hear anything that has to do with me. He doesn’t want me around anymore.”

“That’s not true. I know he hasn’t been around much in the last few months, but it has nothing to do with you.” Evelyn stated. “He’s trying to work through what happened. I don’t think he can do that at the house, it just has too many memories for him.”

“Then why didn’t he come with us?” Beau asked.

With her back turned to Beau so he couldn’t see her expression, she said, “He was busy, you know that. He had to finish up some stuff for work. He wanted to come with us, he just didn’t have time.”

She finished with the beds and plopped next to Beau, pulling him into her arms. God, how she wished what she said was true. Evelyn had begged Caleb to come with them this week. He hadn’t even needed to say that he didn’t want to, she could see in his eyes the aversion that shone every time he looked at Beau. Whenever she approached him about it though, he shut down. How could she stay with him when he so clearly blamed Beau? But then, how could she leave him like this, alone? She shook her head to rid thoughts of Caleb and what should be done. Satisfied that Beau was reassured, she stroked Beau’s hair, spellbound by the dancing tongues of radiant flames. A comfortable drowsiness washed over her, threatening to shut her eyes.

“Mom,” Beau said suddenly, “How come no one saved Laurie? Why did she do it?”

Stiffening, the wave of lethargy disappeared and Evelyn sat up. Beau hadn’t brought her up since the day it happened; he hadn’t said much of anything actually in the four months since then.  She thought for a second, she wanted to be sure she said the right thing.

“Well, you know that Laurie was sad, sweetie. She just couldn’t get past that unhappiness. It stayed with her, almost haunting her.”

Beau didn’t look up, but nodded slowly to acknowledge he was listening.

Evelyn continued, “I mean, imagine never being happy. Never being able to escape from shadows. It hurt her, and no one could have saved her from herself.”

“But, why wasn’t she happy? She should’ve been happy! Then she wouldn’t have done it,” Beau said.

“It wasn’t that easy. She was having a hard time with a lot of things, life probably felt too heavy for her,” Evelyn said. She didn’t know how to explain this decision to him, how to let him know why she had done it, when Evelyn herself didn’t even truly know. “Did you know that Caleb and I tried to help? We tried everything to pull her into the world again, but she was tired. I need you to know that this wasn’t anyone’s fault. She just–”

“I don’t think she liked me being her new little brother. Is that why?” Beau asked.

Evelyn hugged him harder, “Sweetie no, she loved that her father and I got married, and that she got you for a brother. Don’t you remember how often she’d sit and read with you? She loved being around you.”

Beau sat silently for a minute. “I thought I was helping when I brought her those pills. You always told me that one was enough to make the pain leave, but she said she needed all of them to make hers go away.”

Wringing her hands, Evelyn said, “You didn’t know, it wasn’t your fault, she shouldn’t have–”

Beau intervened again, “It was my fault. I gave them to her and I tried to wake her up when she fell asleep. But she wouldn’t wake up. And I didn’t go to get you or Caleb, but I should’ve. I shouldn’t have taken her the pills. It’s my fault.” Evelyn could feel Beau’s body shaking with the effort to hide his tears.

Evelyn let go of Beau and moved to kneel in front of his hunched body, his  downcast face. The world seemed empty but for the two of them, lolling in front of the fire. Deliberately, she grabbed his face to make him look at her.

“I need to make this very clear, Beau. You did nothing. Nothing. You couldn’t have stopped Laurie. She was done, too weary to keep going. Almost like how we were exhausted, walking all that way here through the snow.” She could see that this wasn’t getting through as she stared into his blank, darkening eyes. “Please, Beau. Know that no one blames you for her choice.” She hoped with all her heart that he couldn’t hear that lie in her voice.

He held her gaze a moment longer before harshly wiping the remaining tears from his ruddy cheeks. With a shake of his head, Beau jerked away and stood. “Okay,” he said suddenly. “I’m tired, can I go to bed please?”

It was so abrupt; his interest in discussing Laurie had vanished instantly.

With more aching than her heart had ever known, she watched her tormented son climb under the covers, knowing what she said wouldn’t make a difference. He believed he was responsible. By now her joints and bones had thawed, and with effort, she pulled herself up, despite everything in her heavy soul threatening to sink her back to the ground. She shuffled over to his side and tucked him in.

“We can talk more in the morning. Or go exploring around the cabin. Whatever you want, it’s up to you this week,” she said. With no response, he rolled over to face the wall.

She glanced at the casually disregarded packs by the door and decided she could worry about them in the morning. Tonight had been long, and she needed sleep. She climbed into the other bed and tugged the thick covers up to her chin. Turning to lie on her side, she curled her knees up and hugged them. With great force, she shoved her mind blank to fall asleep.

***

Her eyes opened in sickening dread to a scream that was echoing through the dimly lit cabin. In a cold sweat, Evelyn flung the covers off to fly to Beau’s bedside. Her feet slapped the wooden floor, and she slid the last few inches to him, reaching as far as her arm stretched. Only, he wasn’t writhing or even the one making that heart-stopping wail. In fact, he too was awakened by whatever was making that desolate sound.

“What was that, Mom?” Beau asked, uneasy.

“I- I have no idea, I thought it was you,” Evelyn said, leaning over to hug him in relief. “Maybe it was the wind?”

“But it’s quiet outside now, the storm is over. It sounded like a woman screaming,” Beau said and shrugged out of his mother’s embrace. He padded over to the window in woolen socks.

She watched him for a second before turning to stoke the dying embers in the fire. The ghostly shriek pierced the air once more, and with a little jump, she dropped the metal poker. Shivering tremors wracked her body, it really did sound like a woman.

Except what would someone be doing out in these woods, at this time of night? And what, even worse to think, could be causing her to make such an unearthly wail? Silence once again overtook the howl, leaving Beau and Evelyn in its wake.

“We need to go out there! We need to find her, she needs our help, Mom!” Beau flung himself around the room, throwing his winter clothes back on.

She knew he was right, they couldn’t just leave her out there. But what if it was something serious? She didn’t want to risk Beau.

“I’ll go check it out, you need to stay here. I promise I’ll be right back, but you need to wait inside for me. Here, make some tea while you wait if you can’t go back to sleep,” she said. She set a cast iron kettle over the fire to warm.

“But-”

“No but’s. I will be right back,” Evelyn said. She pulled on her wool socks and heavy boots, shrugging into her coat as well.

She reached the doorknob, only to turn back and grab a flashlight and a small metal shovel as an afterthought. Armed and ready to inspect the perimeter of the cabin, she strode back out, with Beau watching wide-eyed and on edge.

The temperature seemed to have dropped even further. Thankfully, the snow and blustering wind had ceased completely, leaving the world in an arctic globe of frost. She pulled the coat’s zipper up to her nose, leaving only her eyes vulnerable.

Not wanting to wander too far from the cabin, she decided to go as far as the edge of the rock formation. Things were eerily quiet, it was far too cold for anything to be out. No sound but the snow rustling beneath her feet was made, and her fear slowly dissipated. As she neared the crook in the rocks, a frenzied laugh bubbled out of her. Why in the world would a woman be out here? The scream had probably been the wind passing through one last time for the night. She shook her head scornfully and began the short hike back to the cabin.

Still laughing at how worked up they had gotten themselves, she didn’t notice the bright ball of fur quivering until another earsplitting yowl cut the air.

With a scream of her own, and adrenaline kicking in, Evelyn raised the metal shovel and flung around to the source of the noise, ready for whatever it may be.

Shovel high in the air, and feet braced for the worst, she breathed heavily, staring at the tiny creature below her. This was what had been making the noise? A fox? The animal’s gleaming eyes shone with fear, but also an undisguised intelligence. It was almost frightening, being near such a cunning beast, filled with wildness. A solid minute passed before Evelyn realized that the fox was the one she and Beau stumbled upon earlier. Why wasn’t it running this time, wasn’t she scared? She moved closer, to see if it would turn and run, but all the fox seemed to be able to manage was shifting to a new position.

From the new stance, Evelyn looked down and saw why it had not yet fled. One of its legs was caught gruesomely in a steel trap. The bone was clearly cracked, and had been splintered in several places, thanks to the horrific trap teeth. Blood was slowly flowing from the punctures, and snow melted underneath from its heat.

The fox, never breaking eye contact, turned to lick its wound, whimpering as she did. It took everything in Evelyn not to retch at the pitiful sight; she knew she had to act. Slowly, slowly she bent to her knees and leaned in, hands outstretched. With another human scream, the fox twisted and snapped at the approaching hands, pulling her leg into a hideously unnatural position.

“No sweetie, you’re hurting yourself worse,” Evelyn murmured, but she recoiled her grasping fingers. She’d never seen a trap before, she had no idea how to open it up to free the poor thing. Once more, she tried reaching to perhaps fiddle with the metal teeth gripping her leg, and again the fox scrambled to lunge at her.

A gasp echoed behind her, and both the fox and Evelyn whipped round to see who was there.

Beau rushed forward, dropping next to his mother. “It’s the fox from before, Mom! The one who ran away from me,” He grabbed at the trap, prodding the creature further into terror.

She pulled him away, he was scaring the already petrified fox. “Hon, I’ve been trying to free it, but she won’t let me near. I don’t know what we’d do even if we got her loose, she can’t walk on that leg, it’s destroyed. I don’t know what to do!” she cried and put her head in her hands.

They sat in the blood-dyed snow and stared in silence until Beau spoke, “You have to kill it. I saw it in Old Yeller. If the animal is hurting and you can’t help it, that’s what you have to do, I saw it.”

Evelyn looked up in slight alarm, she knew he was right but she hadn’t really thought it could be an option. How could she kill a living thing? How could Beau suggest it? He was such a quiet kid, how was he the one to think of this?

“She’s suffering. You brought the shovel, just do it,” Beau said callously.

“I- I can’t- I can’t think. Just give me a second, maybe I can come up with something else,” Evelyn said, standing unsteadily and walking a few feet away. She pushed on her temples. If only Caleb was here, he could take care of everything. She couldn’t believe how cold Beau was acting. Why did he want to put down this little fox so much? Why didn’t he want to save it? He was a child, for crying out loud! He shouldn’t want this end for a helpless animal.

It didn’t matter anyway, she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it. She couldn’t kill the fox. Instead, she could walk back to town and find someone to help. An animal shelter, maybe. Surely she could find someone to aid an injured fox. Satisfied in her decision, she turned around to get Beau.

Evelyn’s mouth fell open when she turned. Standing as she had been only fifteen minutes ago, Beau towered over the crouching fox, shovel raised high. No words came from her lips, although she could feel them rising in her throat. Evelyn’s eyes met the fox’s once more and her arm lifted, as if to stroke the soft fur. One last, pealing scream resounded in the darkness before Beau swung.

 

Juliana Wnuk is an undergraduate at UW-Milwaukee studying Creative Writing and desperately hoping her fiction writing will always bring her as much happiness as it has the last five years. Currently her favorite authors are Nabokov, Murakami, and Eugenides. She enjoys the movie Moulin Rouge and quotes it endlessly.