The Boy fell.
Woods grabbed and scratched him until he felt flayed, until his whole skin burned, and then he slammed into the ground.
The scratching had stopped, but he could not breathe. For a moment, he lay unable, and then his dog, Red, nosed his cheek.
Red whimpered – an urgent sound – and pranced a few feet away, then back again, as if to say, this way, this way, we need to go this way!
“I know,” said the Boy, though he couldn’t remember how he knew. Blood tickled his skin, crimson on dark brown, and he took three deep breaths and finally stood.
He’d wrenched his ankle real bad. This was gonna hurt.
As if he’d heard the thought, Red pressed up against him.
By instinct, the Boy gripped his fur. “Let’s go, pup.”
The dog made a good aid – pulling him along, directing his steps – and that was good because the woods were making noises, sounds that didn’t seem like wind or animals or people, deep red wet howling sounds that spurred him to stumble faster. “How’d we get here, Red?” he asked the dog, rubbing his head where it still hurt faintly, like a memory of pain. “I don’t remember.”
Red made a chuffing noise.
“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 – to the dog who’d always understood helped keep the darkness away. A memory resurfaced. “Think dad’s looking for me?” the Boy whispered, throat tight.
Instead of answering, Red froze, stiff and unblinking, and began to growl.
The tree up ahead wasn’t a tree. It moved, tearing up the soil like a crab rising from sand, and the Boy screamed and fell backwards.
The Boy couldn’t see the fight. It swirled, impossible in soil and leaves and snarls and blood, and the Boy staggered toward it because he thought his dog was dying. “Red!” he cried, and then branches got him from behind.
They pierced him, entered his skin with white-hot finality. Cool numbness too fast, and time for bed, bud, his mother’s memory said, tucking him in, kissing his forehead, turning off the lights –
Distantly, unimportantly, Red went crazy. Barking, leaping, jumping all around and making horrible panicked yelps.
The Boy wanted to sleep. “Red… Stop. Red, stop!”
Red sat back on his haunches and howled, howled, howled.
The howling continued, pierced, hurt, and 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.
Now there was real pain.
The twigs had gone deep. When Red pulled, they tore and ripped as though they’d sprouted roots in the Boy’s skeleton, and 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 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 spattered from twigs and leaves, but he stood, he stood, in one piece.
Red licked his hand and then pushed as if to say on, on, we have to go on, and the Boy clung to him, rubbing his face and mixing dirt and blood so it dried tight on his cheeks and knowing that Red forgave him. 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 from his dark skin.
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 though he didn’t know where he was going or why he had to run, anywhere had to be better than here. Red was limping now, too, but kept going, pulling the Boy like he knew the way.
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 somebody had come from the sky and chopped it off with an axe.
Here was a green field waving with the kind of grass that tickled but never scratched, here was blue sky with just enough clouds to be beautiful, here was bright yellow sun so gentle and sweet that the Boy’s headache fell away.
It smelled like early summer, before it got too hot, just warm enough to maybe go for a swim. The Boy’s wounds were gone, but the dog’s were not. Red sat beside him, panting, covered with bracken and blood and pride.
The Boy knew he had to leave him behind.
Knew, and 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 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 the door he knew well.
The door hung open, and weeping spilled outside.
He nudged it wider, trotted in. Past the kitchen with adults clinging to one another 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 thin arm on the bed beside him, on the body eaten by disease and wrong, on the flesh that now was empty.
“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.