“Miss… Riding Hood?” the animal said, saliva dripping from its maw. He paused ever so slightly between words, as if trying to find the perfect ones.
“Yes sir,” the girl replied, “though I don’t get why you should care.” Her hood fluttered slightly in the wind, revealing the blouse underneath.
“I don’t see… why you should be… leaving to the woods this late.” His voice rasped with age, like a frog’s croak would.
“Please, sir, it is getting late, and I had better be going.”
“Through these woods? Without some kind of… help?”
She stared at the forest, and each tree glared down at her like a giant. The branches, thick with greenery, blocked nearly every scrap of light, and those tenacious enough to make their way to the forest floor fizzled out on lichens and moss. The dankness alone was enough to drive most people off.
“And… don’t you forget… the monster,” the wolf whispered. Red shivered, her cloak gently swaying in the wind. The sky was exploding with orange light, as if someone had set fire to it.
“No, sir, that was just a myth.”
“Even myths… have some truth to them… do they not?” the wolf said. A tongue snaked past his lips, and began to slither around his maw.
“No, sir. Myths are simply stories that they tell to children. You won’t scare me with a silly little tale.”
“No… but… are you going to be scared… by fact?”
The wolf slinked around her, his teeth glistening in the setting sunlight. A drop of saliva slowly fell to the ground, sticking to his lips all the way.
“Night is coming, you know. You don’t want… to go alone.” His voice trailed off, and the shuffle of grass in the wind became the only noise being made for miles around.
He gazed at the red hood, his eyes wandering from fold to fold, almost reading the garment. He paced in circles around her, his eyes trained on her cloak, and began to whistle. The noise pierced the absolute silence of the forest, like a knife’s edge to flesh.
“I can… keep you safe… from the beast.”
“Sir, there is no beast. Just a false tale…” her voice wavered. She was lying to herself, and they both knew it. “…meant to scare children. Not an ounce of truth.”
“We both know there is a beast… and that you… need someone to… take you through…” he licked his lips. “Don’t you remember… the day you found them?”
They had heard screams like banshees shrieking on the moonless night, and howling. Red had sprinted through the woods, down to the town, with only a lamp as her only guide through the world of dark. By the time the town organized itself, the wailing had long subsided. Only three people were brave enough to go out to look for the source, and only one had returned, Red herself.
They had gotten split up, leaving Red alone to fend for herself, the lamp her only ally. There was nothing to do, but keep running, keep looking, so she did.
She eventually came across a clearing of overgrown grass, padded down by two animals: a hunter, and its prey. She followed the path of the hunter, until it had pounced onto its target.
Laid out like a doll was Red’s sister, mangled and shredded by some kind of animal. Ribbons of flesh and bone lay strewn around like clothes in a child’s room, and in the middle sat her favourite cloth garment, her little red riding hood. A perfect match to Red’s.
Noone went into the woods for a month.
“No, sir. Now, please, I must be going,” she said, barely able to manage a whisper. With that, she stepped into the forest. The wolf didn’t say anything, he only turned his head as she left, gazing, almost glaring through her.
The dry autumn leaves crackled in time to her steps. Other than the occasional owl waking up for the night, they were the only sound in the forest. Two feet stepping, an owl joining in, and silence. Shuff-shuff, crunch. Shuff-shuff, crunch.
The sounds simply melted into everything. The wind, the leaves, the owls and the bats, all a background beat, in the rhythm to the music of her thoughts.
She walked and walked, with the steady rhythm uninterrupted almost completely.
Crunch crunch crunch.
Red whirled around, squinting for the dark autumn light, to find nothing out of place. She could still hear the steps. Four of them, each cracking the quiet that hung over the forest like a fog.
“Damn it…” she mumbled. Then, “no. That must have simply been the wind.”
More steps. Four, eight, twelve, and yet… nothing to be found.
“You’re all alone out here… aren’t you?”
The voice came from behind her, slow and rasping.
“F**k! Jesus… leave me alone!”
“Come on, little girl… it’s not that big a deal…”
“No! You-you can’t do this! You can’t follow me!”
“I can do… just whatever I please…”
She broke off into a run, dodging trees, weaving in and out. The wolf didn’t seem to want to follow her. He simply stood there, staring, before slinking back into the forest. He was unseen again, obscured by Red’s panic instead.
Red bent over, panting, her breaths gasping and faint. The top of her hood was wet with sweat, and another river was spilling down her nose. The wolf had left, vanished into the trees, obscured by a cloak of darkness and flora.
Red breathed out a long, deep sigh. She was free of the wolf, for now.
Behind her, a pair of silvery eyes blinked.
Red looked up, her eyes scanning the trees for anything familiar.
She was only a mile from her cabin. It couldn’t take more than twenty minutes to get there.
And so she walked, step by step, through the forest, to home.
Her cabin sat in the middle of the forest, in a circle of moonlight to the contrast of the shadow of the forest. In the afternoon sun, it looked as if it were chosen to be shone upon by some grace, but now, in the pale moon’s glow, it looked cold and uninviting. Now, it almost looked like a coven’s hut, glowing with the evil light. A smile wandered across her face. Maybe that wasn’t so far from the truth.
“Mmm… I see we’ve… made it home.”
Red jumped back, stumbling, before falling back onto her a*s. The leaves flew up around her, before showering backdown. Little bits covered her hood, like lint would a shirt.
“A bit… clumsy, today… aren’t we?”
He slunk towards her, his tongue slithering about his lips.
“You – you stay back, you hear me?”
“I own these woods… I can do whatever I damn please.”
Red tore herself up off the ground. Her hood flew off her shoulders, exposing her blouse to the wind.
“You don’t know… you don’t know what I’ll do!” she shouted, her eyes darting from place to place. Tears began to run down her face.
“I knew it…”
“I have… had problems in the months… since the beast attacked. I am getting… blamed for it. They are trying… to kill me. I thought if… I could find the true monster and… tell the others… they would finally let me alone.”
“You know I didn’t”
“I used to know you didn’t… but every day… the lines between knowing and thinking got blurrier.”
“Stop it! Stop! I’m not the monster!”
“I thought not, too… Why would… you, of all people, do that? But then… it just all fit together…”
“No! It can’t have! You know I wouldn’t! You know! You know you know youknowyouknowyouknow!”
“You always hated each other.”
“You had been leaving to town… more in the month before her death.”
“So you were stalking me? I-… I bet you’re just waiting to pounce! To tear me apart like you did to my sister!”
“We both know… it was you…”
“No! It can’t have been!”
“Come here… we can get through this.”
Red glanced to her left, before diving inside her open door. She slammed it behind her, the hinges shrieking out in protest, but never giving way. The wolf hammered at the door with his rock-like paws, creating a thunder-like crash each time they struck.
“Come out! You’re the beast… we all know it!”
A single glint pierced the pitch-darkness of the hut.
She pulled the knife off the table, and slid over to the door.
“Come in here, b*****d! Kill me! I f*****g dare you!”
His head turned, his grey coat shivering in reaction. He slowly stepped over, the grass shuffling underneath his feet.
The metal slashed across his face, sending a wave of glistening blood flying across the grass. Pain shot through him, and he stumbled. The fresh scarlet liquid shone on the knife, dripping down the handle, onto her wrists, and down her cold, pale, arm.
Miles away, he heard her shouting “I f*****g didn’t! I f*****g didn’t!”
And then she was gone.
Red stared down at the mutilated carcass. Tendrils of gore spiralled out from each part, and she had maimed it so badly it was barely even recognizable. His eyes still stared at her, but were milky and glazed over, almost unseeing. She could bring the corpse into town, and be hailed as a hero for killing the beast, but for now, the night was aging. She turned around, beating down the grass beneath her feet, before hearing a whimper, followed by a voice no stronger than a whisper.
“I may be the beast of these woods… but you are the real monster here.”