Tina’s shoes sunk into the mud and she swore, pulling her foot from the mire with a wet pop. “Sonofa…” She heaved a sigh, already bracing for the assault of her mother’s scolding when she saw the ruined sneakers. The shoes had been hand-me-downs from her sister and money was tight these days. But then, when wasn’t it? McArthur had never been known for its wealth and all that remained of the coal towns that had sprung up around the tiny hamlet were the crumbling remnants of steel smelting furnaces-turned-tourist attractions. Not that tourists came here. The woods in this part of Ohio were as thick as the superstition the locals clung to and even the hardest cut hunters wouldn’t venture beyond the first hundred yards or so. The dense crop of rambling oaks and fog-shadowed pines obscured the sun until only pinpoint rays broke heroically through the woven foliage to fall on the leaf-strewn floor below. Stupid jock asshole… Anger fueled her tromp through the wet tangles that pulled at the hem of her skirt. Ray was handsy at the best of times but two joints in and he was a horny octopus that she’d wanted no part of. Her mother’s voice echoed in her head. “Watch yourself runnin’ round with those boys in the holler, girl. Ya’ don’t know what’s out there. You could end up knocked up or worse.. much worse.” Knocked up. Ha! Not that anyone would believe her but, despite Ray’s best efforts, she was still a virgin and had no immediate plans to remedy that. Tripping over a fallen elm branch, Tina yelped and threw her arms out to catch herself on the thick carpet of moss. Blowing a lock of hair from her eyes and heaving a sigh, she took the fall as a chance to look around, her crash through the brush answered only by the cackle of crows above her. Stupid birds. If Ole’ Ms. Wilkes were alive she’d cook them up for one of her crazy potions. Where the hell am I, anyway? There was nothing but trees and the path she’d followed, if there had ever been one, had narrowed until it was lost to the net of overgrowth. She hadn’t really been paying attention when she’d jumped out of Ray’s old Chevy on Shea Road and darted for the treeline. Her intention had been to cut through this corner of the forest to cross the trestle at Moonville Tunnel and follow the creek home. She got to her feet and brushed off her skirt, scrunching her nose at the damp wrinkles and glancing around for something familiar. A rustle of branches in her peripheral vision caught her attention and she wheeled around, her shriek sending the crows winging for cover. Goddamned deer. Hysterical laughter bubbled up as the animal bounded back into the trees in a blur of dappled fur. Heart pumping wildly, Tina took a calming breath and looked up in a vain attempt at seeing sunlight through the canopy of foliage, the reddening rays growing darker with the coming of night. Praying she was right, she turned to follow the setting sun to the west and listening for the telltale babble of Raccoon Creek as it wound through what was left of the town of Moonville. The deer had spooked her but, she was no idjit from the city, bumping her way through Vinton County on the heels of one of the local boys that charged too much to do little more than lead the city folk on a snipe hunt. She knew these woods; had been raised here with every expectation of becoming the son her father had never had. Her gaze snapped around at the sharp crack of a branch. “Who’s there? I kin’ hear ya’, ya’ know!” Her voice was ringed with a fear that had iced its way into her stomach while she listened, ears straining to pinpoint the sound. “Whooo?” The word called back to her and she peered up into the trees to follow the answering voice and finding the glowing amber eyes of a horned owl, watching her from its perch on a withered elm. What is it with these birds? Its stare unnerved her. Then again, the owls always did, even the dead ones her father nailed to the doors when the horses started acting up. Shaking it off she turned back toward the west with anxiety-quickened steps, muddy sneakers crunching through the carpet of twigs and overgrown bottlebrush grass. Tina was losing nerve as fast as she was losing the light. The grass was getting thicker, thorns tearing at her shins and sweat stinging her eyes, she was started to feel less like Tina Davis and more like Allan Quatermain hacking through the South African jungle. But then her mother had always told her she had a wild imagination. She drew a heavy breath, the air thick with mid-summer humidity and smiled a little at the swirling glow of fireflies in the distance, hoping their presence meant she was near the creek bed. She hummed a little, the sound of her own voice breaking up the encroaching creepiness of the forest around her. Hearing a thump above, she narrowed her eyes to the branches over her head to once more meet the honeyed eyes of the owl. “Whoooo?” Her fear crested in anger and she flailed her arms at the giant bird, brows cranked in rising annoyance at the faint cackle of the crows heading back to their nests for the night. “Get the hell out of here, bird! Who are you, the night watchman? Shoo!” The owl looked uninterested, feathers ruffling in the muggy air. Tina’s hands balled into fists against her thighs as a blast of air rocketed over her shoulder, carrying a deep voice with it. ‘Pi ke fa ne, miathe!’ Fully terrified, she nearly fell back, eyes scanning the darkness fruitlessly. “Where are you? Come out!” She was getting hysterical, shaking violently and circling to find whoever or whatever had spoken. ‘Nkatemën! Nkatemën!” Something off to her right crashed, trampling branches under stomping feet and closing in on her. Fast. Catching the hulking form of a man, his wild amber eyes boring into her, his booming voice drowning out the sounds of the forest as he launched himself at her. Tina screamed and plowed into the forest. Her breath was cut when something curled around her ankle and snatched her to the ground, her fingers clawing into the earth for purchase as a growl filled the air. She screamed again when the weight on her leg scrambled up her back to pin her to the leaf-littered floor, its stench nearly gagging her as it sank its teeth into her shoulder. “Tcho!” The massive man reached for her but it was too late, whatever held her began to drag her back into the brush, biting off chunks of flesh while it pulled. “Tcho!” Tina’s last thought was for her mother… you were right mama… much, much worse… The owl watched until the woods went silent again, casting a dismissive glance to the man now left alone in the clearing and disappearing into the night.