The axe swings hard, flashing silver through the thin wintry air before making contact with the tree trunk. The impact sends a violent shudder up Leya’s arms, rippling like dark wings along her shoulder blades and meeting at the base of her spine.

Her flushed lips part in an exhale of light air, doodles of faint clouds escaping into the afternoon air and she steps back to squint up at the tall tree. Precariously, it leans on one tenuous end before tilting backwards with a final groan of submission.

It creaks whilst falling, the crashing sound thundering through the forest as birds squawk and soar from their nests in fright - but Leya doesn’t hear them. In such moments, she would have yelled a theatrical ‘Timber!’ as most lumberjacks do, but the silence she finds herself in is comforting and her body feels achy like a whipped dog, throat parched from the day's work.

She releases the axe handle and treads towards the felled tree. The heavy chains wrapped around her waist only slow her movements to that of a sluggish walk coupled with the ankle-deep snow.

Her thighs burn from the effort, perspiration beading her dark brows like fine drops of water on gossamer threads.

“Timber,” she mumbles while looping the chain through the thick branches and treading back to her parked truck.

Key slotting into the engine, she bites the tip of her glove and slips out one numb, stinging hand, then repeats the process for the other. Leya cranks up the heating, pausing to cup her palms over the small dusty vent before pressing on the gas pedal, guiding the truck through the woods once more.

The uneven, bumpy terrain makes the effort of driving tedious as Leya patiently manoeuvres through thick snow and slate trees with their branches twisted like elongated, arthritic fingers. The journey to her cabin would have taken her ten minutes had it been summer, not a speck of snow in sight and clumped, drying grass all around, but time stretches her thinly and by the time she glimpses the familiar chimney of her cabin, forty minutes have passed.

Her foot slowly releases the gas as the trees part and a sleek black car appears parked at the side of her cabin. She knows who it is without searching for the owner, and the mere thought of him starts a thin, creeping flush from his collar.

Holland rounds her cabin with an armful of planks, his police uniform faintly powdered with sawdust. Mustard, her ginger tabby cat, paces by his boots whilst meowing conversationally, looping around his ankles like a slippery fish, the golden, tinkling bell on her collar reflecting light from the setting sun.

The pair glance up at the coughing sound of her truck and Holland raises a hand in greeting. Despite the distance between them, Leya notes the slight quirk of his mouth as a grin appears on his face like the sun from behind a cloud. She waves at him awkwardly from the driver’s seat, then glances at the rearview mirror, keenly scrutinizing her reflection.

Pale, slate blue eyes gaze back at her, along with a small but determined chin and the line that formed between her eyes - one that Holland had often pointed out as cute - indexing her every emotion. Leya wipes at the smudge of dirt on her chin with her sleeve, wishing she had dabbed on perfume of some kind, then inhales a breath of courage.

Snatching her backpack from the passenger seat, she leaps out of the truck and makes her way towards the cabin, snow and ice crunching beneath her boots, cheeks flexing with the urge to smile overly wide.

Holland lowers the planks to the snow and claps dirt from his gloved hands, his lips spreading in a familiar fluidity that has Leya gazing at it in wonder despite hearing him; “I started at the back and sides.”

Leya blinks and trails off, “Thanks.” She peers down the side of the cabin, admiring his meticulous work, much like everything he does. “You know you didn’t have to.”

Holland lifts a wooden panel, the defined muscles on his forearms flexing. “You say that but who else is going to help you?” he says, sparing her an exasperated, pointed look. “I don’t understand why you make it difficult for yourself, Ley. You wouldn’t have to go to such great lengths every full moon if you lived closer to town.”

Leya closely watches his mouth movement, the particular dappling pressing at the corner of his lip, then shrugs and starts nailing the panel he holds over her windows. “I like the quiet,” she explains, pausing to cast him a sheepish grin, “And it’s cheap.”

“Not if I asked you to pay me for this. By the looks of it, this is free labour.”

Leya’s jaw slackens and she waves her hammer slightly. “But I told you that you didn’t have to help!”

He registers the hammer, then her, a sly smile growing. “But I’m helping, aren’t I?”

“Well… don’t expect me to pay your hospital bills if I hit one of your fingers by accident.”

Holland arches a politely curious eyebrow. “You mean like last time?”

She watches him, cheeks warming in embarrassment. “It-It was an accident!” Flustered by the open manner in which he regards her, she averts her gaze to the plank and begins hammering whilst muttering to herself, finding more coherence in her thoughts when not looking at him.

“I vividly remember you trying to hammer my finger off,” he says plainly and her eyes flash in his direction.

“An accident,” she repeats.

Holland’s chuckle warms her cheeks and she admires the crinkling corners of his dark eyes, the flash of pearly teeth. “You’ve always enjoyed being alone.”

She snorts, “Is that so wrong?”

“No,” he muses and positions another panel against her window pane. They fall silent for a moment, listening to the rhythmic pounding of the hammer on wood. “I’ve never understood why you prefer being out here alone, hiding like a fugitive.”

Her lips tilt upwards in a smile that does not reach her eyes. “Who says I’m not?”

“Who are you hiding from?”

The sober tone of his voice has her hand stilling mid-air, hammer lingering over the half dented nail. Her eyes meet his for a scant moment, the intensity of his gaze prickling her guts like thorns, and her lips part to speak when suddenly his grin reappears and all seriousness dissolves into a mirthful expression.

“I’m joking.”

Leya’s face brightens, swallowing. “I knew that.”

With a flourish of a romantic hand, the setting sun blossoms red and gold, peering from the curving horizon when both individuals step back to admire their work.

“Not bad,” Holland comments and she nods. Gaze slanting, the slightest frown pulls at his mouth and he abruptly reaches for her face, teasing a twig from one of her loose braids. Leya does not realize that she had been holding her breath, not until his eyes slip past her shoulders and pierce through the woods for a grave moment. “The storm will be rough tonight.”

Glancing at the warmth bleeding through the sky like spilt watercolours, she notes the horde of lumbering clouds rolling in the distance. “It looks like it’s already settling in.”

His eyes connect with hers. “Remember to lock your doors and don’t leave until the signal goes.” Leya nods. “Do you have enough food?”

She smiles with a tilt of her head. “It’s just one night, Holland.”

“Mmh,” he replies, though he seems thoroughly lost in thought, seemingly drawn inwards by a monologue only he can hear. His face smooths over a moment later and his grin reappears like the sun from behind a cloud. “I might have to take a raincheck on tonight’s dinner, but maybe we can have one later this week?”

Leya pauses, then recovers swiftly and nods, stepping back to watch him make for his car. He stops then turns.

“Make sure to stay inside, Ley. No leaving the house, I mean it.”

Her hands clasp behind her back while rocking back and forth on her heels. “Stop worrying already and go!” she grins.

But on the inside, she didn’t want him to go.

Shaking his head lightly, he waves and slips into the car, the engine revving to life moments later.

Leya watches Holland’s vehicle grow smaller as its distance from her lengthens until only the faint red glow of its tail lights remain — brighter for a moment as he slows to take a far-off curve, then disappears as if swallowed by the surrounding forest.

She feels something soft bump her ankle, momentarily drawing her attention to the ground where Mustard purrs affectionately whilst winding nimbly between her legs, rubbing the crown of his head against her calves.

She stands a moment longer as daylight ebbs away above, staring at the empty roadway and the grey trees ascending towards aphotic clouds of the looming storm. A northerly wind brushes her cheeks, causing her to shiver as the temperature precipitously drops.

Mustard voices his hunger once more, and when that does not garner his owner’s attention, the cat proceeds to paw at her calf, demanding it.

“Alright, alright. ” Leya’s lips twist in a scowl as his claws snag the material of her pants and she detaches his paw, then turns, letting the proud feline guide her into the comfort of their home. “Spoiled brat.”

Isolated within the barren woods of late autumn, under a cold, dark, starless sky, Leya's cabin sits. The wind whisks away puffs of smoke from the chimney and howls of an approaching storm.

Inside the house, the girl walks barefoot in an oversized band t-shirt, a yellow towel wrapped loosely around her head in a turban. Tucked under one arm is a laptop she bought from a refurbished tech shop, while in her other hand is a wad of cotton.

Flopping onto the small couch with a sigh of relief and exhaustion, Leya stretches out her legs and wriggles her toes a moment, gazing at the chipped black nail polish. Snow and sleet begin pelting the windows, drumming on the roof incessantly but all she senses are the slightest vibrations.

Just as she begins to reboot her laptop and continue her sign language class, the lights flicker and go dark. Blackness falls upon her like a landslide. A crashing sound echoes from beyond the wooden barriers of her home and she recognises the distant, muffled rumble in her ears to know that a distant power line had been struck.

“Nothing new about that,” she says to herself and proceeds to shuffle off the sofa. “Let’s light the fireplace.” Although no one hears her, and her words fall upon no ears but hers, she somehow finds comfort in the soft narration of her actions, finding company in the muted voice that leaves her lips. Upon lighting the hearth, the flames dance in a radiant yellow and orange brilliance, spilling tall, wavering shadows into the lonely room.

Curling languorously on the sofa, she begins to gently dry her ears of water from the shower with the piece of cotton, enjoying the lack of stiffness from her hearing aids which now sit on the nightstand charging.

Without them, the world is reduced to a hum of sorts--like water rushing in the background, blending words to that of whispers with no distinct edge and noises melting to puddles.

The door had been barricaded from the inside, a circle of wolfsbane poured all around the cabin. Leya sinks into the couch and glances sideways at the clock sitting above the fireplace.

6.30 PM

Taking out a magazine and pen from beneath her couch, she flips to the game section and her stare grows calculative while gazing at the sudoku boxes. She chews thoughtfully on the pen lid and starts to fill in the empty spaces.

Time falls by steadily.

The drumming on the windows and roof grows in strength, pounding hard like mighty fists with the violent downpour beyond the four walls ensnaring her- shielding her; the fierce howling of sleet causes it to swirl sinisterly in the woods as absolute darkness falls and the night begins.

The juddering rumble of her belly is what draws Leya’s attention back from the half-completed sudoku to the clock.

8.30 PM

Already, she thinks while rising and stretching her arms to the ceiling, pulling taut muscles back and forth. The kitchen is a small space area with a sink, humming fridge, round table (which she carved from a tree half a mile away) along with two seats. Far too exhausted from the day’s activities to prepare a meal from scratch, Leya settles on a can of heated tomato soup and toasted garlic buttered bread.

Despite the boarded kitchen windows, she manages to catch glimpses of the forest beyond: thunderheads had built up in the dark sky, the storm riding on a gauzy caul of rain. Leya could hear the booming thunderclaps, ricocheting through her ear canals in muffled growls, but the forks of lightning stabbing down from the clouds were more telling than ever. They were bright enough to dazzle the eyes with bluish-purple images.

Reaching into the pantry for the pack of kibbles, Leya pours a generous amount into the plastic, mustard yellow bowl and begins to shake it - using the rattling sound as an indication that it was her cat’s meal time.

When the feline does not appear, Leya starts to walk into the living room and continues shaking the bowl. She adds vigour to it, rattling the kibbles back and forth when Mustard’s absence prolongs. Scowling, she picks up her phone and turns on the flashlight while beelining for the bedroom. She sways the light over the dark silhouetted furniture, searching, shaking the bowl.


Leya stills by the doorway.

She crouches low and flashes the light under her bed.


The peace that had pervaded her insides now stiffens, hardening into ice that floods her intestines. A flash of lightning brightens the room for a heartbeat, startling her, and some of the kibbles drop onto the ground.

No, Leya thinks, growing colder by the moment. No, no, no, no, no-

Reaching her nightstand, she clumsily drops the cat bowl and struggles to put on her hearing aids, her trembling hands placing them at odd angles that only cause discomfort but Leya does not feel it.

“Mustard?” she calls, her voice strained with hollow fear while searching the bedroom and bathroom. “Mustard!” The living room is desolate, her kitchen echoing the same.

Beyond the safe harbouring walls of her cabin, Leya hears the deafening blows of the storm threatening to crumble the tiny home. Her face blanches to that of the snow battering her windows as the discovery of her cat’s disappearance rushes into her airways, crushing her lungs.

Without a second thought, she grabs her heavy camo jacket and draws on a pair of pants and boots. The sudden surge of adrenaline temporarily numbs all rational thought as she makes for the boarded-up door with a hammer and hunting rifle slung over her shoulder.

Stupid, stupid, stupid- she chants over and over, reaching for the door handle, only to halt.

As though an invisible barrier had suddenly sprung between the door and her, Leya stands, gazing at the protective wood. Slowly, her hand retracts and she steps back, eyes wide and focused.

The Night of the Beast.

The flesh on her arms marbles out into goosebumps.

The Beast would be out by now.

But Mustard-

Leya rubs at her face vigorously, jaw hinging shut as she chews feverishly at the inside of her cheek. She tastes blood. Caught between a crossroads, she knows there are only two glaring options: stay within the safe confines of her home or leave in search of Mustard, her companion of four years.

“Think,” she whispers, thrumming all over like a live wire. “Think, think, think-” Her mind is a stinging web of hurt as it leaps from one conclusion to another like an all-hungry spider attending to each victim, yet never resting to properly process the predicament and consequences.

If she was to go out now, she could find Mustard. She knew the terrain like the back of her hand, even in darkness.

But what if you cross the Beast?

Leya blinks and stares at the door long and hard. Each second that passes is a breath borrowed by the feline, should he be alive.

“You’re crazy,” she whispers while working out the nails boarded on the planks with the end of her hammer. “Out of your mind, Leya.” The nails tinkle to the floor. Wood loosens beneath her trembling fingers. “It’s just a cat… they’re replaceable… you’re not.” She pries the first plank from its placement, then the next. “Don’t do it…” The even mahogany of her door comes to view. “Don’t do it.” Her fingers work the latches open, the bolt, the key.

Finally, her hand reaches for the doorknob.

Leya shuts her eyes and inhales a long, trembling breath before turning it.

An immediate, savage gust of rain and sleet collides with her front and forces her a step back. Icy rain and snow melt on her face like tears and within seconds, she is drenched and freezing, but the fierce pumping of blood within warms her.

Picking up her torch, Leya steps out into the night.

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