Kelsie tapped the eraser of her pencil, having completed her assignment in record time for fear of homework. She glanced from the clock to the window. Across the soccer field, woods sprung up. A well-worn dirt path disappeared between the trees–the path she would take in just a few minutes. But the clock never moved so slowly as it did on the days she would see her father. She made a mental note to beg just one more time to be excused for the days he was able to come home.
Kelsie glanced back out the window, then did a double-take. A large brown dog padded down the path to the edge of the woods. It looked around, then laid down. Kelsie leaned closer to the window. It didn’t look like any of the neighborhood dogs; It was certainly much larger than any of the dogs on her street. Squinting, she guessed it would come up to about her hips.
The bell rang, making Kelsie jump. The dog jumped up too, and ran into the woods. Forgetting it as soon as it disappeared out of sight, Kelsie, threw her pencil, binder, and books into her bag. She ran out and down the hall. She paused by her locker only long enough to toss her bag in and yank out her jacket. She pulled it on as she shot toward the door.
“Kel, wait up!” a friend called.
Kelsie spun without stopping. “I can’t–My dad’s coming!” With that, she hit the doors and ran outside.
Two boys stood outside the doors. They watched the younger girl bounce down the front stairs and run around the side of the school. Chet Gardner nudged Axel Downey and nodded toward her.
“Hey, you ever had a freshman before?”
Axel scoffed. “You’re sick, man.”
Kelsie slowed as she crossed the soccer field. She approached the woods with caution, scanning the tree line for signs of the dog. It hadn’t looked or acted dangerous–just like a dog waiting for its human at a bus stop–but it was big. She paused at the trail head, clicked her tongue and whistled, but no dog appeared.
The walk from the school to the Noels’ house was a little over two miles. In the winter, Kelsie would run to beat the sunset. Today, she had about an hour of light left, but still took the path at a healthy clip. She hummed as she walked.
Kelsie jumped. Two boys wearing letterman jacked trailed a few yards behind her. She recognized them vaguely as seniors.
“It’s Kelsie,” she said when she caught her breath. Her heart continued to race from the start.
“Kelsie,” Chet repeated.
“Whatever,” Axel muttered.
“Where’re you going in such a hurry?” Chet asked.
“Home.” She didn’t dare turn her back on them, but continued to walk backward and sideways down the trail. “My dad is coming home… He’s meeting me, actually.”
“Sure he is,” Chet said.
“Army dad?” Axel asked.
“No, he’s an ecologist. He goes away to study pollution and stuff.”
“That’s cool,” Chet said. “You know, you shouldn’t walk alone. Bad things happen to little girls who walk in these woods alone.”
“Thanks, but I’m not a little girl,” she huffed. “I’ve been walking this way for years.” Irritated, she turned and quickened her pace.
“Yeah, I know.”
Something hit her back, throwing her to the ground. Kelsie shrieked as Chet rolled her onto her back and sat on her legs. She flailed at his face, but Axel grabbed her arms and held them over her head.
“Let me go!” she screamed. “Help!”
Taking her scarf, Chet shoved it into her mouth. She shrieked around it. She did her best to buck and kick as he tore her jacket open.
“Very nice,” he said. “They’re bigger than I thought they’d be.” He began to knead her breasts through her sweater. “You like that, don’t you?”
Kelsie squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“That’s OK!” Axel laughed. “Give us a minute, and we’ll give you some–”
A low growl made him jerk his head up. Slowly, he released Kelsie’s arms and backed away. She jerked her arms down, beating at Chet’s shoulders.
“Hey!” Chet grabbed her wrists and scowled at Axel. He froze when he saw how pale he was. He heard the growl, too, and turned toward it.
The dog–it looked so much bigger than Kelsie remembered–stood a few feet behind them. Its hair bristled down its back and its lips were curled up, exposing sharp white teeth. Axel scuttled back, shot to his feet, then ran.
“Wait!” Chet screamed, running after him.
Sobbing, Kelsie curled into a ball. With a furious bark, the dog jumped over her and chased the boys. Only a few seconds passed before high-pitched screams of pain and terror echoed off the trees. Kelsie pulled her jacket tightly around her, trying to cover her tear-stained face.
The screams faded. Kelsie froze. After a moment of silence, she could feel snuffing and hot breath on her face. She tried her best not to whimper, to keep absolutely still. Then the warm wetness of a tongue ran over her cheek. She squealed in fear, but no teeth ever sank into her skin. The dog was licking her face. It nudged her with its snout. Sobs broke from her throat. Wrapping her arms around its neck, she clung to its thick fur and cried.
The woods darkened and the air grew cold. Kelsie gasped as she felt her body lifted into the air. Her fingers still clung to fur, but it felt more like the shoulders of a man than a dog. She could feel strong arms under her, carrying her down the path. She held her breath. The dog was carrying her?
Kelsie dared to open her eyes. Her face was pressed against a chest covered in brown fur. Not as thick as the dog’s, but the same brown. The snout above her was not as long as it had been. The lips quivered and flinched as if with pain. Its eyes were both focused and intelligent. The sound coming from its throat was almost a purr. It gradually became clearer:
Kelsie started crying again, but tried to hide it by holding her breath.
“Kelsie?” Amber Noel ran toward her, a bundle in her arms. She ran toward her daughter, tossing the bundle aside.
“Mom!” Forgetting all danger, she twisted out of its arms. She was surprised by the distance to the ground. Her mother’s relieved face and warm embrace renewed her sobs.
“It’s OK,” Amber whispered, kissing her hand. “It’s OK–You’re safe.”
Kelsie turned back toward the beast. Her breath caught in her throat. It wasn’t a dog by any stretch of imagination; It didn’t even resemble that animal that she had seen from her desk. This beast had long fingers, sinewy arms, and long legs. Short fur covered its body, but it seemed to be disappearing. The thing was obviously male now. Clothes were scattered around them from the bundle Amber had been carrying. He crouched and reached out to a t-shirt on the ground. Kelsie recognized it as one of her father’s. He pressed it between his legs. A groan of pain rose from his throat as his snout shortened.
He nodded breathlessly. He winced as the fur disappeared and no trace of the animal remained. As he reached toward a pair of jeans, Kelsie turned away. She buried her face in her mother’s neck.
“Mom, what’s going on?” she sobbed.
“It’s OK,” Amber whispered. “Everything’s OK. We’ll explain on the way home.”