The Boy fell.
Roots grabbed him as he went down, cutting his cheek on bark and wrenching his ankle real bad.
His dog whimpered, nosing him gently, running a few feet forward and back again.
“I know, I know. Dang it,” said the Boy, trying and failing to feel brave as his Father. He jerked his leg, hissed in pain, and somehow got back to his feet.
The dog made a good aid – just the right height for him to lean on as they hobbled across, the boy gripping his fur like a life preserver.
The woods kept making noises – sounds that didn’t seem like wind or animal or people or anything else and yet the Boy knew they were coming from throats, big throats, horrible wet red throats guarded by terrible teeth, and he clenched his own as he tried to stumble faster.
“How long’ve we been here, Red?” he asked the dog, rubbing his head where it still hurt faintly, like a memory of pain. “Fever’s gone, but… I don’t right recall.” He swallowed.
Red made a chuffing noise and pushed the Boy’s hand with his snout.
“Yeah, yeah. Gotta keep moving. I know.” The Boy knew he should probably stop talking, too, but he couldn’t help it. Saying something – anything – even to a dog who (maybe) understood helped keep the darkness away, just a little. “Think dad’s looking for me?” he whispered, throat tight.
Instead of answering, Red froze. The dog stared, stiff and unblinking, fur on his neck rising, and began to growl.
The tree up ahead wasn’t a tree. It moved, tearing up the soil like a crab rising from under a sand castle, and the Boy screamed and fell backwards, banging his head on something hard.
The Boy struggled, head spinning, unable to see straight, unable to stand, fighting back dizziness and drowning in fighting sounds and fear and dog snarls and yips and a creaking-groaning-moaning that nobody made of meat could possibly make. And then, a miracle: silence.
Red snuffled his face and licked, kept licking as the Boy clung to him and cried. Somehow, the Boy got up, and they staggered on.
It was darker now, sun hidden behind thick branches and greasy fog, and the Boy’s awareness shrunk to the uneven ground beneath his feet, to his gasping and the even panting of Red beside him. Behind them, something screeched; Red paused, shook his head as if to say that was annoying, and continued on.
Red would know if he were in trouble. The Boy was sure.
He almost didn’t see when the leaves came lower, when the branches began caressing him in weird, ticklish ways, so that he kept wiping them away from his cheeks like bugs. But they were soft, those leaves, somehow soothing.
His staggering steps slowed.
Red went crazy. Barking, leaping, jumping all around and making horrible panicked yelps. Branches pressed down on the Boy now, like his mother’s arms, like being pushed down to sleep, to go to bed like a good boy, to stop fighting and staying awake. Twigs snapped underneath him, poking through his skin and making him bleed, but they almost didn’t matter.
Red snarled. Bit the branches and worried them, but they would not break; and then sat back on his haunches and howled, howled, howled.
“Red… Stop. Red, stop!”
The howling pierced, hurt, made tears come to his eyes. The Boy raised his hand, waving at him from near-prone. “Red, quit it! Red! Shut up!”
Red shut up just long enough to lunge forward and catch the Boy’s overalls in his teeth and pull.
The twigs had done more than poke him. They’d dug into his flesh, maybe into his bones, so deep that when Red pulled, the Boy felt them all tearing and ripping him as though they’d sprouted roots.
The Boy screamed. Flailed. Fought Red, fought the branches, hit anything he could reached. Twice, he heard Red yelp, and some part of him knew, knew, that he was the reason for those cries, but he couldn’t think, it all hurt so much –
With a terrible, meaty sound, the Boy came free of the cluster of branches. His blood dripped from twigs and leaves, but he stood, he stood, dammit, in one piece. And Red…
Red licked his hand and whimpered, then pushed, pushed with his head, as if to say on, on, we have to go on, and the Boy rubbed his face and mixed dirt and blood so it dried tight on his cheeks. “I know. I know. Boy, I’m sorry.” He hugged his dog.
They stood like that for a moment, only his breathing and Red’s thumping tail interrupting the thick, fatty silence of the woods.
Red finally licked him again and ruffed.
“Yeah. Let’s do this.” The Boy didn’t know he was still crying. When he wiped his cheeks this time, some of the muck flaked away.
Now, he knew what this place held. Monsters, magic leaves, things all meant to stop him and eat him and stop him and hurt him, and he wouldn’t be fooled again. Red was limping now, too, but kept going, pulling the Boy along by the latter’s grip on the former’s fur, his nose pointed unerringly in one direction as though he smelled fresh air the Boy could not feel.
They ducked away from dark hollows and ran from every echoed screech, avoided clusters of soft-looking leaves and climbed carefully over gnarl-knuckled roots. And a whiff of fresh breeze told the Boy they were nearly free, nearly there. Nearly done.
The forest broke so suddenly it was as though God had come down and chopped it off with an axe.
The Boy stared out over the green field waving with the kind of grass that tickles but doesn’t scratch, at the blue sky with just enough clouds to be interesting, and the bright yellow sun that kissed his skin so gently and so soothingly his headache fell away forgotten. It smelled like early summer, before it got too hot, just warm enough to maybe go for a swim.
Red sat beside him, panting, covered with bracken and blood and pride. And the Boy knew he had to leave him behind.
Went to his knees, and hugged his dog. Cried… but not so much. These were good things, coming next.
Red leaned into him and wagged his tail, not the crazy-happy fast kind, but the comfort kind, like the beating of his heart. They stayed there, safe, able to rest, until finally, he nudged the Boy one more time, and the Boy left a messy kiss on the top of Red’s head before turning to go. The breeze rose, and the grass waved, and the field swallowed the Boy with a gentle, day-dream sigh.
Red went back home. Limping, flinching at the roughness of pavement on his torn-up paws. Past the houses, past the mailboxes, past the hedges that were not his, and finally to a door he knew well.
The door hung open, and weeping leaked through.
He nudged it wider, trotted in. Past the kitchen with adults clinging to one another and saying nonsense things through tears, up the stairs where he left a trail of mud and blood and bracken, and to the room the Boy had once owned.
There, on the floor, knelt the Boy’s Father.
The Father looked up. “Red… what happened to you? Did you get in a fight?” Red licked him, and the Father’s gaze changed, as though he no longer saw the filth but only the dog beneath it. “You’re too late, boy.” His breath quickened, and he rested one hand on the bald, blue-veined arm on the bed beside him. “Oh, my son, my son!” The Father flung his arms around Red’s neck, and his shoulders shook as he wept between clenched teeth.
And on the bed, the body of the Boy lay still, finally eaten by the monster inside, but the body was not the Boy and the Boy was not there. Red rested his chin on the Boy’s hand just for the sake of memories, for the scent he’d remember all his life, and he leaned into the Father and wagged his tail, not the crazy-happy fast kind, but the comfort kind, like the beating of his heart.