We settled on the couch, and Adam ran his fingertips over the gauze.
I cupped his chin with my hand and turned his head to face me. “You have nothing to be sorry for, you know that.” I rubbed the dressings on my left arm and offered him a smile. “They don’t hurt that much, I promise.”
He bowed his head and I saw tears drip from his cheeks. “What if I’m too weak to control this? What if I hurt you?”
I tilted his head back up and wiped the tears away. “You’re not weak, and you won’t hurt me. I know I never have to worry about that.”
He took my wrists in his hands. “I am worried about it! Ellie, this is crazy! I don’t wanna drag you into this.”
“I told you that wasn’t your choice to make, and you’re not dragging me in.”
He hung his head low before he stood, pacing the floor. I watched him as he fought for control over his own mind, unsure what to do with his hands. He wrung his fingers, folded them, twisted them, and let them drop to his sides, shaking. I rose and took his hands in mine, lacing our fingers together.
“Listen, why don’t we get out of the house? We could take a walk, get some fresh air.”
He glanced at the bandages and squeezed my hands before meeting my eyes. “Okay, if you think it’ll help.”
I let go of his hands and pulled my black tennis shoes on without bothering to tie or untie them. He slipped into a worn pair of red sneakers, tying the fringed laces. I reached for his hand as we stepped out, shutting the door behind us.
I breathed in the smell of the fallen rain that’d washed the budding life clean of its cold sleep. Adam took in the sight of water-logged trees and their green bugs. We strolled down the street before we ducked down a footpath into the woods.
“It feels better to come out here like this, don’t you think? It’s so quiet and peaceful.”
Adam dodged puddles and sunk into softer mud with each step. “I suppose, if you don’t mind sloshing around in a mess.” He smiled as he splashed through a mud pit.
“Funny.” I hopped into the puddle, splashing muddy water onto his clothes. “I don’t mind.”
His jaw dropped as he gaped at his filthy jeans. His head popped back up with a grin, and he dropped to one knee, dipping his hand into softer mud. Before I could move, he plastered his muddy hand print on the leg of my pants.
“Now we’re even.”
I laced his fingers in mine and led him on. I watched him as we wandered down the path, catching his eyes brighten into the shallows of the ocean while his shoulders relaxed. I squeezed his muddied hand in mine, feeling the grit of dried dirt. An image of the pale, bony, prying fingers flashed in my mind, and I shuddered.
He paused and glanced down at me. “What’s wrong?”
“I was just thinking. If a creature from your paintings can drag me in, does that mean there’s a chance something could get out?”
His posture stiffened and his eyes widened. “I- I don’t know.”
His grip tightened, and he started to shake. The color drained from his face, and his legs gave out, forcing him to his knees. I dropped down in front of him and wrapped my arms around him.
“I’m sorry, it was a crazy idea. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
He trembled, and his voice shook when he spoke. “No, it’s not crazy. Oh God, Ellie, what if it’s possible?” He hooked his arms around my back, anchoring me to him.
“Then we’d find a way to deal with it. We know we can go in and out of those paintings, so there’s no reason another creature wouldn’t be able to.”
“But what’s the point?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like a natural habitat, wouldn’t it?”
His grip relented, and he slumped, bearing his weight on his heels. “Assuming whatever gets out doesn’t destroy everything.”
I cupped his face in my hands. “Don’t talk like that. They’re your creations. They’re not evil.”
I took his hands and stood, pulling him up from the mud.
I tried to take him further, but he refused to budge. I turned to urge him on, but his eyes darted around. I opened my mouth, but he grabbed my shoulder and bowed his head.
“We’re not alone.”
My mouth opened to respond, but he placed a finger to his lips and listened. My eyes wandered around, catching the walls of soaked trees and our sunken footprints. I strained to hear any strange noise, tuning into a few distant splashes. Adam’s head popped up, and he grabbed my hand and yanked me forward, stumbling in a mud sunken sprint.
“What’s going on?”
“You were right, now come on!”
We sloshed through puddles as we ran down the footpath. I gripped his hand and fought to keep my balance as each step slipped and sunk.
“What do you mean I was right?”
His grip tightened as he pulled me along. “Something got out.”
I froze. He tried to pull me forward, but I refused to move.
“How do you know?”
“I just… feel it.” He tried to find the right words. “In my head. Like how I heard you in my painting. We have to go. Now!”
I flinched at a feral howl behind us. Adam’s head whipped around, and he stepped in front of me. I turned and saw the escaped creature.
A blood-soaked jaw set in a snarl with crimson eyes to match. Mud matted in black and silver fur, covering his paws as he stepped forward. Adam put himself between us, shielding me from the demonic wolf.
“Run. Just turn and run. Don’t look back.” He kept his voice low and steady.
I shook my head as the creature growled and bared his fangs. “I’m not running.” I fought to keep my voice steady as pushed past him. “He’s not evil.”
He grabbed my arm, gripping my bandaged wounds, and I cried out. The wolf snarled and sprinted toward us.
I pulled away from Adam and dropped to one knee putting my hands up. “Wait!”
The creature slid to a stop in the mud, halting a few feet from us. His eyes never left Adam, but his mouth closed.
“What are you doing? Are you-”
“Adam, I need you to trust me.” I held my arms out in front of me with the bandages facing up. “He won’t hurt you, it’s okay.” I gestured for the animal to come closer.
The wolf’s eyes flashed before they settled on me. He stepped forward, and Adam’s hand gripped my shoulder. It bristled and growled at him, and I brushed him away.
I ignored him as the wolf took one step at a time, staring at me. The crimson in his eyes lightened and his ears wilted. I shifted my weight and edged closer. The wolf closed the gap and sniffed at the bandages on my wounds.
“They don’t hurt now, don’t worry.” I peeled one bandage away for the creature to see.
He sniffed at the wound and nuzzled my hand.
“There you go. Adam, give me your hand.”
The wolf stiffened at his name, but I kept my hand on top of its head, focusing it on me.
“Ellie, there’s no way I-”
“Adam, now. Just trust me.”
Adam took a step forward and sunk down on one knee. The wolf bristled and bared his fangs with a growl rumbling in his throat. I took Adam’s right hand and turned the palm outward. I gripped his wrist and lead his hand toward the wolf.
He tried to pull his hand back, but I kept ahold of it.
“He is not the evil one.” I lead his hand closer to the wolf. “Adam won’t hurt you.”
Only receding crimson flecks remained in the silver eyes that glanced back up at me. The wolf took one last step and sniffed at Adam’s hand. I led it to the top its head where his fingers laced in the black fur. I let go of his hand and Adam took over, kneeling at the creature’s height. He scratched its head, moving to his ears when they perked. The wolf tackled Adam back into the mud, nipping at his hands.
“Hey! Okay, okay, I got it!” Adam smiled and rolled the wolf off of him.
He stood and took my hand, pulling me back up. The wolf circled the two of us and stopped at my side.
“Come on, we should go back.”
We started toward home, and it followed pacing ahead of us as we dodged mud pits to avoid dirtying ourselves further. The wolf splashed through them and made a point to knock some of the muddy water our way.
“Oh, now you’re asking for it.” Adam let go of me and grabbed a handful of the softened dirt before plastering some in the wolf’s fur.
He howled and bounded ahead of us as we neared the end of the path leading out to the street. We wandered back to the house and slipped out of our mud covered shoes, leaving them just inside the door. We stepped in and the wolf bolted in after us, leaving a trail of mud prints as he raced down the hall.
We ran after him, stopping at the doorway to Adam’s room as the wolf howled. He stood at the doorway and stayed when he entered. Adam crouched down to an empty black canvas and stood it back up.
“Come on now.”
The creature glanced up at him and snarled at the empty canvas.
“Maybe he could go into a landscape painting.” I wandered over the wall of the painted scenery and lifted one away.
I presented a wooded winter scene where the snow-covered birch wood lined a frozen lake. The moon shone on the cold glass and the stars gleamed in the painted coal sky.
“Not a bad idea.” He turned to the wolf, kneeling in front of him. “What do you think?”
The wolf closed the gap between him and the painting, sniffing at the colorful canvas. He touched his nose to the scene, letting himself meld with the painting. His body followed, merging until he’d become a part of the painting instead of the living world. His black fur stuck out in the silver light, and he turned in the painting. His eyes caught the light of the mood, and his head froze in a howl.
I let my fingers graze the canvas before Adam hung it back on the wall. “We did it.”
He glanced back at me, but his eyes wandered past mine. “Almost.”
I looked down, and my eyes followed the muddy paw prints out the door before looking back at him. “I cleaned the puddle you left. It’s your turn.”