An old, beat up green car bounced and bumped its way along a gravel road through the trees. Each clank of the bumpers hitting the sides of the potholes put the woman driving on edge as she desperately tried to navigate her way safely over the path. Her jaw had started hurting from the amount she had been gritting her teeth as she bounced along into the forest. Each time the old car skipped on a bump, she could hear the metal shaking all along the frame of the old vehicle. The car had seen better days and even those were a memory from decades ago.
The woman had been driving for well over thirty minutes through the forest but finally, had found the place. A small house appeared around a bend in the road. The woman begged the poor car to keep sputtering for just a bit longer as she rounded the bend and pulled into the yard out front.
The woman stepped out of the car. She was a young woman, only just now getting into her mid-twenties. Her auburn hair matched well with the worn out red of her hoodie. She had on an old pair of jeans that, along with the rest of her attire, had small rips and stains from long hours of physical labor and showed that she clearly wasn’t keen on dressing up.
She stuffed her hands into the front pocket of her hoodie as she looked over the building. It was a shabby cottage that hadn’t been taken care of for a while now. Moss covered the stonework on the outside and the red painted wood for the trims was old and starting to rot. Where there was once a path leading up to the place, a tidal wave of kudzu had taken over the whole yard, falling down from the sides of the mountains around them and covering the entire hollow in a sea of green vines. The only way through was to brave the waters of the sea of plants and hope there weren’t any holes from where she stood to the door.
The woman turned and reached back into the vehicle. She pulled out a covered basket and hooked it on the inner crook of her right elbow as she turned back and faced the pathway to the house. Finding the path to be stable for the most part, the woman crossed the distance and arrived at the solid wood door. With a deep breath, she knocked on the door.
As the thuds rang out, there was a silence from the house. The only sounds were of distant cicadas vying for an audience against the chirping of the birds. After several seconds of listening to only sounds of nature, the woman raised her fist to rap on the door again. However, she was stopped suddenly by a hoarse voice coughing from through the door.
It’s… Ack!” the voice cleared their throat, “It’s open for ya!”
The woman slowly put her fist down but did not unclinch it. After a few seconds, she finally let go and used the same hand to turn the knob.
The inside of the cottage smelled of must and mothballs. Hair had gathered in all the corners of the entryway and the sudden change of pressure from the door opening had caused a few tumbleweeds of hair and dust to move around on the floor, as if skittering away from the light of the doorway. The door shut with a thud and the woman turned to take a better look around. The house was mostly wood on the inside, with large pieces forming the columns along the walls and the beams of the ceiling. Stucco filled the gaps in-between with a pleasant pink color and texturing along the walls. There were very few things hung on the walls, making everything seem much colder than it should have been.
The woman found herself in both an entryway and living room, as the small cottage didn’t have much space to it, with mismatched furniture that seemed to have been hand me downs from a much earlier time, sagging heavily. She could see past this room and down a hallway in front of her that stretched back to a few doorways, with a bathroom at the very end. The tenant’s voice called out again ahead down the hall and to the left, through an open wooden doorway.
“Over here, stanger! I’d like to see who’s come to visit before you rob me!” The voice, as hoarse as it was, had a soft laugh in it.
The woman cautiously walked towards the room, her heartbeat quickening with each step. She could hear the sound of a crackling fireplace from inside the room as she got closer. Her heart skipped a beat as she turned the corner and saw the house’s tenant sitting up in the bed. He was reading and hadn’t looked up yet.
“Don’t get many visitors anymore so I just figured-”
He looked up from his book. His eyes were sunken in and tired, however they still kept a sense of wit and predatory nature in them. They began to widen as he saw her.
He was different but it was him. His mouth hung open, then, revealing large jaws with sharp teeth. The movement rippled across his face as his brow wrinkled in surprise with multiple ridges of age. The facial muscles tightened around his mouth, showing how gaunt he had become. His gruff whiskers and hairs were missing in some places. Spots of the original dark black hair shown through but the vast majority had all turned a sickly grey.
“By the Blood Moon… Is that really you, Red?”
“It’s me, Wolf. I got your letter.”
“I… I didn’t think-”
The Wolf began to cough, the hacking hunched his large frame drastically, making what would normally be a giant of a beast seem thin and frail. Red, worried, took a step forward, but The Wolf held out his paw to stop her. He cleared his throat for a few seconds and caught his breath before he spoke again. He smiled.
“I tried to send you one of those emails but, uh, well I’ve never been one for that technology stuff. I think I’m just set in the old ways of forest and fae.”
Red regained her composure with his joke and a neutral face returned to her. She turned from him and finally set down the basket on an open rocking chair by the doorway.
“You certainly look it. What big wrinkles you have.”
“Well first off, Red, I think you’re being a bit judgy. I’m an old one now, and I’ve unfortunately gone through the changes for the worse.”
“Really?” Red mocked surprise as she looked at him, “I thought you were always this hideous.”
The Wolf laughed then but it quickly turned into another episode. Red came over and sat down at the foot of the bed next to him. He grinned at her to let her know he was okay as he attempted to speak through the coughs.
“Oh blessed- Go easy on a old fella, would you? Otherwise, I’m bound to kick early!”
He finally got his breath back and sighed.
“Haaaaa…. I’ve gotten all frail…” He paused for a bit before softly chuckling a little, “I bet I could finally pull off looking like your grandma this time.”
Red got off his bed, then, and turned towards the basket. He couldn’t see her face but he could easily hear the restraint in her tone. “I’d prefer if you didn’t bring that up.”
“It’s been fifteen years, Red. I’ve gone gray in that time.”
She stopped what she was doing and faced him again.
“Yeah? Well, they don’t pass as quickly for humans, Wolf. Things tend to stay fresh when you can hold onto them longer.”
“…I was much younger then-”
“And I was a child, Wolf! Remember?!”
The room deafened in the vacuum her words left. They both held it that way until a spark from the fireplace brought an end to the quiet.
”Not more than ten years old when I suddenly find my best friend tried to kill my family.”
The Wolf looked down, then. There was an agony written on his face. She had opened up a wound that had taken a decade and a half to scar. He couldn’t look at her. His voice betrayed the pain he felt, coming out only just above a whisper.
“Why did you come, Red?”
She looked at him, then, as he was now. He wasn’t the proud and playful pup she had known. This was a broken beast. He no longer felt sly and domineering. He no longer grinned at her with a grin that said he always had a plan for his plans. He was just an old tree, long fallen and waiting for the compost. Her anger was still there. Whether he was old or not, this was still The Wolf. However, the edge had been worn off. She realized then her fists had been turning white with pressure. She finally released them.
She shook her head and walked over to the bed again. She slumped down as she held her head in her hands.
“I don’t know why I’m here…” She sighed as she spoke, mostly to herself. “What am I doing…?”
It was his turn to look at her, now. His face softened as he ignored his own pain and saw the burden on her. He couldn’t imagine what his actions had done to her. And just like all these past years, he still had no way of knowing how to help her through it.
They sat in silence for a while, both lost in their own thoughts. The crackle of the fire kept the room from being too quiet and both of their attentions slowly drifted off to it’s glowing licks of flame. The occasional spark held their attention as they both sat there, not knowing what to do. Finally, The Wolf spoke up first.
“Do you remember the little village boy?”
She turned and looked at him. She nodded.
“The little shepherd?”
“We had been so bored that afternoon and then you came up with the idea to prank him. You kept scaring him, playing up the fear about the ‘‘big bad wolf’ and he kept running down the hill screaming for help. The poor soul finally had freaked out so many times, the town stopped coming. No one to believe him, he fainted when I finally did show up.”
She smiled remembering.
“We had lamb for days after that.”
The wolf grinned.
“Your mother gave you such a beating.”
Red couldn’t help it. She let out a small laugh as she remembered it.
“Gosh, I deserved that so much. You were a terrible influence on me.”
“Me? I seem to remember most of those schemes were your idea to begin with.”
She grinned at him.
“I was just an innocent little child.”
He frowned at her.
“Cute, coming from the person who built a house strong enough to give me asthma.”
“Hey, they may have made fun of you but The Pigs were also my friends. I was just paying you back for getting me lost that one time.”
He scowled at her. She kept holding her grin until she finally cracked as a laugh slowly built up and exploded out of her mouth. The Wolf burst into a smile. Unable to hold back, he began hacking his way through another fit as they both felt the tension wash away in the cacophony.
Red wiped a tear from her eye as she began to quiet down but The Wolf couldn’t stop. His breathing became worse and his coughing was violent. Red immediately went over to him. She tried to rub his back and support him as she looked around the room. Next to the bed was a glass of water. Red sat him up a bit and grabbed it, holding it out to him. He nodded his head and took it from her, slowly fighting back the fit as he managed to get down the drink. After a couple of minutes, the coughing finally quieted down and he laid back against the headboard as his breathing came back to him. Red slowly sat back down on the bed, keeping closer to him just in case it happened again.
The Wolf smiled weakly at her before closing his eyes and refocusing on his breathing. After a few seconds, he finally spoke up again but it was like listening to friction between gravel.
“Cancer’s a hell of a thing, Red. You live most of the time positively positive that you’re fine until they find it. Then things tend to move fast… Tests, chemo, anxiety…”
The Wolf opened his eyes but they were far away and unfocused.
“But then they slow down. They keep slowing down. Until you realize that with each day, you’re not getting any better.”
He coughed a bit, which Red thought sounded like an attempt at a chuckle.
“You’d think being given a time limit would make each day feel a lot shorter but… It actually slows down. You get to savor each moment of your last. Every lonely hour or quiet moment. Every fickle fit and cursed cough.”
Red’s face was pained as she looked at her old friend.
“Wolf… I-I didn’t…”
The Wolf shook his head, waving a hand dismissively as his other set down the glass.
“I’ve lived with this for years, Red. Doctor’s said I should have keeled over multiple times by now. Hell, it’s not like it’d make much difference. I’ve lived over twenty-five years. Do you know how long that is in wolf years? We all reach our time.”
Red looked down, then. She felt so conflicted and it showed on her face. The Wolf smiled at her.
“I didn’t write that letter so you would come here and pity me. Heck, I didn’t even expect you to come.”
He reached out and grabbed her by the chin, lifting it up so that they looked each other in the eyes.
“I wrote you because I wanted to say goodbye… and… and that I’m sorry.”
Red pushed his hand away. Her face was a mask of sadness and anger.
“You really expect me to just accept an apology fifteen years later?”
The Wolf’s face fell but he shook his head.
“No, Red. I knew you wouldn’t. But I wanted to say it all the same. I could ramble on about how our actions had finally caught up with me and I was banished. I could talk about how hungry I was, not being able to come back or eat for almost a month. I could try to talk away how I took advantage of your grandmother’s kindness to let me in and feed me but it’s nothing but excuses. I know that. Red…”
His voice wavered. She looked at him, then. She saw that the fur around his eyes was wet with tears as he looked at her. He could barely speak.”
“I-If I had been a better friend, Red… I never would have done that. Not to her. Not to you.”
He broke, then. His howls and sobs echoed throughout the house. Red watched him deep in his sorrow until it finally hit her and she began to cry as well. She was still just so mad. But she couldn’t help crying just the same. Out of anger. Out of sadness. Out of a lost life between them.
They stayed like that for a while. The sobbing audibly started to lessen over time until they finally just sat there, quietly. Red eventually got up and took the towel she had placed to cover the basket. She brought it to her face and cleaned up as best as she could before sitting down again. The Wolf looked over at the basket and began sniveling.
“Oh! Fruit cake. My favorite.” He sniffed, “The same kind you had in the basket to give to your grandmother…”
Red removed the towel from her face but her eyes were just as red and watering.
“She hates the stuff. I didn’t make it for her, that day.”
His eyes got wider as he realized what she was about to say.
“I made it for you.”
He couldn’t breathe as he began sobbing again. This time, though, Red put a hand on his head. She petted his fur while he cried. All dignity left him as he fell forward and howled his sorrow out into the comforter atop the bed. His muffled cries still pierced easily. Red just continued to stroke his fur as they stayed there.
The years of separation were gone. Time had fallen backwards and they were back to what they were. A little girl and her furry companion.
It was several minutes before The Wolf finally quieted down. Every so often, Red would quietly cry herself but kept petting him throughout it. Every so often The Wolf’s sobs would cause him to cough. They kept going until they were both almost completely dry.
Red stopped petting him and held her hand there, lost in thought. She was the first to speak.
The Wolf gasped a few times as he tried to quiet down. He slowly lifted his head to look at her.
“I won’t forgive you. I can’t…”
He sat up again. The Wolf’s face portrayed the anguish he felt. However, he nodded his head as he kept trying to calm down from the sobbing. However, Red leaned forward and held his face in both her hands, then.
“…but I can still love you.”
The Wolf began to cry again. He quickly leaned forward and embraced her, sobbing violently over her shoulder. Red’s own tears were quieter but still came down all the same. She shushed and cooed him as she rubbed his back. They held their embrace for a long time even after finally calming down.
The Wolf smiled, tears running off his face as he hugged her.
“My, Red… What a big heart you have.”
She smiled through her own tears.
“The better to love you with.”
The inspiration for this came from when I was taking care of Freckles, the 14-year-old dog. She was old and while she still had some energy and personality, you could tell she was definitely a lot slower, more tired. She still seemed to enjoy her life but (and this may just be because her family wasn’t there and she was stuck with me but) there was a sadness there.
Driving back from taking care of her I was playing MC Frontalot in the car, which I had been on a kick of for a couple of days. The song “Starting Over” came on, which is a triple retelling of Red Riding Hood from three separate perspectives. The ones where it’s either The Wolf or someone defending The Wolf’s actions mixed with my absent-minded thinking about Freckles and gave me this idea.