The night was dark, with not even a sliver of a moon to illuminate the cloud-filled sky. Little Red Riding Hood crouched, huddled beneath the canopy of the giant oak. Clutching her knees to her, she struggled to control her ragged breathing, hoping to mask the sound of her location. She had always known it would end somehow and yet. . . No! She shook herself mentally. There was no time for that, no room for doubt or second guesses.
Drawing in a deep breath, she thought, Calm down, Red. She chuckled. Look what he’d done to her. It was almost as though her given name no longer existed. Closing her eyes, she attempted to go back to that day, the day they’d met. Instead she saw him, sitting comfortably on the floor, cross-legged in front of the fire, easily picking some chords on the strings of his guitar. The image blurred, interrupted by a violent crash, a flash of gray fur, and enormous jaws clamped around the throat of the man she loved. Her eyes sprang open and fear immobilized her once more. It was better to keep her eyes open.
Fixating on the bleakness ahead of her, her mind wandered back. Their meeting had been circumstantial, happenstance, mere chance, a twist of fate. It wasn’t that she - like every other female throughout the world - didn’t enjoy his music, she just didn’t have the obsession of some. When the local radio station advertised the contest for backstage passes and a pre-show reception, naturally she had called in. Even when she correctly answered the trivia questions and the passes were rightfully hers, she had traded them for the front row seats her best friend had spent a month’s wages to buy. Stella would appreciate the passes more and Ginger could experience it vicariously as each detail was conveyed to her afterward.
So the night of the concert, when Stella had unexpectedly been taken to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy, Ginger reluctantly allowed the limousine service to pick her up at her college dormitory and had taken her roommate Brittney as company instead.
Even so, it was unlikely their meeting should have been any more than a polite introduction, him autographing a t-shirt and then, flanked by his body guards, moving on to one of the other 49 people in the room. She could blame her parents - or rather thank them - for the meeting resulting in anything more. A leaf, unable to hold the droplets it carried any longer, released a short, icy stream over Ginger’s shoulders. She shuddered, drew her cloak more tightly around her and listened for any sounds of encroaching danger. There was nothing.
Her mind wandered back. As she had expected, doubtlessly fulfilling the publicity portion of his contract, the musician had dutifully approached her and introduced himself. “Ginger,” she had replied.
He stared, his eyes going from her eyes to her tresses; long, full and with the black shimmer of raven’s wings. He wasn’t the first to question her name, so she knew exactly what he was thinking. “It was what my mother craved all throughout her pregnancy while she carried me; ginger ale, ginger bread, certain dishes of Chinese food.” Stop talking, whispered the voice of reason, but her mouth couldn’t seem to comply. “My father spent so many nights out fetching her latest whim for her that he swore that ‘Ginger’ would be my name.” Smile, shake his hand, and walk away, the voice cautioned more loudly. “It seems ridiculous now, but he couldn’t have known I’d have ink-black hair, I was bald, you see. . . when I was a baby.” QUIT SPEAKING. Finally, the voice of logic pierced her consciousness, but as she always did when nervous and under scrutiny, she’d babbled on, unable to stop.
Mostly he’d just stared as she babbled on, a wicked grin slowly forming at the corners of his mouth. Finally, when she’d finished her empty headed comments, he’d responded. “It’s nice to meet you, Little Red.”
“Ginger,” she’d repeated.
Smiling, he’d walked away.
The memory warmed her as the night grew colder. She wasn’t one to live in the past, but old memories seemed to be the only thing to keep reality at bay, and reality was something she was ill prepared to face in her current state.
In her mind she heard him almost as if he’d been standing there beside her now. Her ears had burned. She’d hated him then, hated him more than any other being she’d ever met. So what if he was famous, rich, good looking and gifted, he was clearly arrogant and so full of himself he couldn’t even remember her name. She’d looked away, pretending not to hear him.
“I think he means you,” Brittney had prompted.
“That’s not my name.”
“So go tell him that.”
And she had. In a stream of words she was embarrassed to recall, she’d very clearly laid out her name, her exact thoughts on him, and probably her soap-box philosophies of a half a dozen other topics, so it had surprised her when he’d followed her mad ranting with, “Will you stay? After the show, I mean. I never eat beforehand because I get nervous and no one pays to see a show where the main act vomits all over the stage.”
She’d been stunned into silence. Almost involuntarily, she’d nodded. The lonely howl of a wolf brought her out of her reverie and back to her sub-zero reality. It was over then. Deep inside, from that first night they’d shared a meal in his trailer, she had known it could never end well. She was ordinary and he. . . well, he was too, if you discounted the view the world held on him.
Forcing herself back into the past, she thought again of another dinner, this time in lowly-lit restaurant in a distant city to which he had paid her airfare.
“I’m Hunter,” he’d informed her.
“The name you keep calling me, well you and everyone else; it’s a stage name. My real name is Hunter. Hunter Kepling.”
“And yet, you can’t seem to call me Ginger. You can’t imagine what it is to get through airport security when the name on the ticket is ‘Little Red’.” Truthfully she had grown fond of the name, accustomed to the sound of it issuing from his lips.
“Does it really bother you?”
“No. But I want to be certain you know that isn’t truly my name.”
“Yes, Ginger. I am very well aware of your name. In fact it is one of the few names I’ve been unable to get out of my mind.”
“Hunter?” she’d practiced, blushing deeply.
“HUNTER!!!!” Calling out to him was foolish. Her position had just been given away, but if there were any hope, any last remaining chance that he had survived, she wanted to know it. Silence answered her.
Grandmother’s house; it had been their code, just in case a call or text were somehow intercepted. My grandmother is ill. Will you take her some soup? The message would come and she would conceal herself in a dark cloak, slip out into the night, and drive up the canyon to a trail head some distance off the road. From there, she would saddle a horse, who instinctively knew the way, and make her way deep into the forest to a remote dwelling.
They’d been together for over a year before he’d taken her there. It was only later that she’d learned he’d bought the home just to have a place near her where they could be alone together.
It was at her insistence that their relationship remain undisclosed. How would she ever earn her degree with a constant stream of cameras following her to the library while she tried to study? She could only imagine the crowds of reporters blocking her way as she attempted to make it to classes on time. What would the media have made of a private residence where the two of them went to avoid the public?
She knew what the media would make of it. They would call it a love shack, a lover’s retreat, and a myriad of other names that wrongfully labeled their secret location. Surely the portrayal would be of the romantic glow of firelight in each of the rooms, rose petal strewn carpets, soft, downy bed coverings. The thought sickened her. It was nothing like that. Firelight filled only the large fireplace in the living room, providing warmth for cold evenings such as this one. The only strewn rose petals were those that fell naturally from the roses that grew wildly in the grounds surrounding the property. There was indeed a bed, two of them to be precise, but they had never shared either of them.
It was a retreat, but not a lover’s retreat. It was a place where he could cook dinner as she studied for finals. It was a place where they could walk for several miles, talking as they went and never meeting another living being while he photographed wildlife. There, in their retreat, was a kitchen where she could bake bread and combine ingredients for hearty soups while he worked on his music; not the lyrics he performed on the stage, but the music that had to be written because it was his way of expression. One room housed his artwork. It was a skill he only pursued in the confines of the cottage. No party in the world was privy to that side of him. So, to protect its sanctity, it had been their secret.
Only now did she realize how foolish her decision had been. Surely she should have at least told her parents. It wasn’t as though they would make a big deal of it or that they would let the word slip; but she’d insisted that they tell no one and so now there was no one to come for them.
A second wail sounded, long and hollow and was met with a chorus of howling replies. It would come for her now, probably leading the pack. Her scent filled that house as much as his. Perhaps, if she ran now, she could reach the stables before the wolf reached her.
The image she had fought all night forced itself upon her. Neither she nor Hunter had expected the attack when the wolf came crashing in through the large glass doors that led to the back patio, but when it threw itself on Hunter, impulsively, she had reacted. Her attempt to open the jaws clenched around his throat were futile as its carnivorous teeth had been sunk deeply into the jugular vein. Even now, beneath the mud and now constant drizzle of rain, his blood was bright on her hands.
“Run!” he had managed to gasp before his airway had completely been obstructed with the blood gurgling in his throat. Obediently she had run, fleeing for her safety. It was only now as she sat in the darkness, concealed by the mask of night that she regretted her decision. Foolish as it would have been to meet the certain death that would surely have come to her if she had stayed, how could she live with herself now, knowing she had abandoned him in his darkest hour? What volumes did it speak of her as a person that at the greatest challenge of her life she had turned away and fled in self-preservation? Even so, what use was it if both of them were to die? Her life would go on. She would never love again, of that she was certain, but she could move forward and find new meaning in her solitary existence.
How much time had passed; minutes, hours, there was no way to measure with any certainty. She could go back, but . . .the image of what awaited her was not a memory she wanted forever housed in her mind. Eventually, the authorities would come; questions would follow. . . and with his blood on her hands. . . no one would ever believe that a wolf had forcibly entered the premises and attacked him. Besides, she would be found soon enough and this time she would turn and face the challenge, not cower in fear and run away. As if in response to her thoughts, a twig snapped behind her. Drawing on all of her strength, all of her will, she stood and turned, ready for the wolf or for the authorities or for whatever had come for her.
“Hunter?” It was impossible.
“Red.” He stumbled forward, grabbing the tree for support, nearly dropping the propane lantern he carried.
“But. . . I heard the wolf howling.”
“Wolves run in packs.” Her confusion must have shown in her expression. “When their leader was killed, they mourned his loss.”
“Killed? You mean –“
“It’s not just my name, Red, it’s a title, a means of survival. I AM HUNTER!” He paused, posing as though in the stance of an archer. His expression softened. “Don’t worry. My manager has it all worked out. No one will buy a wolf attack. I’m supposed to meet him at the main road as soon as I can so we can stage a tragic car accident wherein I am critically injured, but triumphantly manage to survive.”
“Do you want to be the driver of the other vehicle? Maybe that could be our chance meeting that led to our quick engagement and long, beautiful romance; that is if you are ready to be introduced to the world.”
There were too many emotions for a single night and Ginger felt herself weakened. “You’re awfully confident for one so nearly dead.”
His chuckle, one of the sounds she favored most in the world, answered her. He stepped forward, using one arm to draw her in, the other to keep pressure against the vein in his neck. His words were low, whispered into her dark tresses. “Gunther, my manager, wanted me to come right away, but I had to find you to make sure you were okay. I’ve been trying to find a way to ask you, but . . . nothing ever came to me, nothing except this certainty; I want you in my life, Red. . .permanently.”
“You don’t have to decide right now, but if you could drive me back to the road, I’d appreciate it. I think I’m about to pass out.”
Draping his arm across her shoulders, they stumbled through the trees, back toward “grandma’s house” where she could load him on the off road vehicle and drive him carefully out to the main road. Perhaps she would be the driver of the other car, or maybe an innocent bystander. . . creepily standing alone at the side of the road. . . in the dead of night. . . on a two lane road. No. She would have the rest of their married life to meet his public. Tonight she would leave him with Gunther, who would see to his needs, see to the press, and conceal what had really happened this evening.
She would go back to the cottage, haul the carcass out to bury it, sweep up the glass, install bars on all the windows, and wash the blood out of the carpet. In a few days she would purchase a dress and go to him for an intimate ceremony. Then, when he had recovered and was ready to come home, she would be there waiting for him.