It was an early morning in late October when Mix stepped into the woods with a rifle slung across his back. The yellow leaves under his boots didn’t make crunchy sounds thanks to the light rain last night. The soil was moist, serving as a perfect mould for footprints. Mix turned to his right to see Luke smiling at him.
“Ready?”, Luke asked. “When ever was I not ready, Luke?”, Mix answered with a smirk on his face. Luke always liked that confident look on the younger one’s face. It gives him that mischievous look and also looks cute somehow.
“Alright. If you say so. But stay close to me, Mix. I don’t want you to wander off too far”, Luke told him. Mix pulled his feet together and saluted Luke as if saying ‘aye aye captain’ and Luke couldn’t resist ruffling the boy’s soft messy hair. Mix just shook his head and they started walking deeper into the woods.
Not many people come hunting during late October. Hunting season is almost over and there weren’t many prey left in the permitted areas. And normal hunters definitely wouldn’t dare approach the ‘Howling’ part of the forest. It wasn’t really an area banned by authorities but the torn bodies of curious minds who wandered into those forest grounds served as a warning for future wanderers. No hunters would risk their lives for whatever howling creatures existing there. No normal hunter would dare, except the sacred silvers.
After they walked a few miles into the forest, Mix noticed some hoof prints in the moist soil. ‘Hoof prints this size probably belong to a big moose’, Mix muttered under his breath. He followed the hoof tracks deeper and deeper into the woods that he didn’t even realise which part of the forest he was in. When he eventually spotted distinct antlers protruding from bushes in the distance, he smiled in satisfaction.
Mix quietly approached the bushes and stood from some distance good enough to take his aim. It wasn’t his first hunting trip. And Mix has been practicing at the shooting range with Luke so he doubts he’d miss this shot. He licked his lips as he narrowed one eye to focus through the magnifier. Grip tight and a finger wrapped around the trigger. ‘Oh this is gonna be a good one’, he thought.
Before his finger could bend, the animal shot its head up in alert. It wandered from right to left and looked towards where Mix was hiding. ‘Shit, it didn’t notice. Did it?’, Mix thought. His prey had already galloped away when Mix realised the ground began to rumble and a grizzly bear charged in his direction at full speed.
‘Shit shit shit shit’. He kept cursing in his head as he ran away from the huge bear chasing him. Funny how the tables have turned and the hunter is now the one being hunted. When Mix thought running wouldn’t do to escape this huge creature, he threw himself onto a tree and climbed it without looking back. He climbed and climbed until there was no branch strong enough to hold his weight and sat on one of the branches, his hands wrapped tight around the trunk.
He looked down to where the big bear was trying to claw the base of the three and shuddered. Imagine those claws scratching his skin… ‘No no no no let’s not even think about that’, Mix thought and reached for his rifle to shoot the bear. And that when he realised, he accidentally yeeted his rifle away somewhere in a rush while he was running for his life.
Fuck, he cursed again. What kind of hunter is stupid enough to throw away their guns while on a hunt?! Mix smacked his fist against the tree in anger. Now he can’t even signal Luke to come help let alone kill the bear. He would pray to ask his brother in heaven to send some guardian angels to come save him but Tay’s spirit is probably wandering in the Howling forest, where he was killed.
I’m such a failure for the family, aren’t I, Tay?, Mix whispered quietly into thin air.
A while later, Mix heard a loud gun shot and he turned his head to the source of the sound in hopes that Luke had finally found him. But no. The man holding Mix’s rifle wasn’t Luke. Yes, his rifle because Luke bought him that for his 23rd birthday, which was three days ago. The shiny new rifle, he can’t be wrong. The man was almost the same height as Luke, tanned skin with toned abs and thighs that are-
It took Mix a good few seconds to realise that the stranger with his rifle is in his naked glory! Who the fuck is naked at 6 am in the morning, he thought, looking at his wrist watch then glancing down again at the stranger. The rising morning sun has made its way through the leaves and the rays that landed on the tanned man’s skin gives out a golden hue.
“You ok up there?”, the strange man asked. Mix tried not to look directly at him. “Yup all good”.
“Do you need help getting down?”, the man asked again. “No no no I can come down by myself. Don’t bother”, he answered as he started to make his way down the tree. He’d made a lot of mistakes today since stepping into the forest. First, he wandered off despite Luke warning him to stay close; two, he threw away his rifle while on a hunt; and three, he took a wrong step down the tree.
If he was asked whether he regretted these mistakes, the cocky Mix would have answered no for the first two and a definite ’No’ for the third question because…
Mix let out a yelp and closed his eyes as he felt himself falling, waiting for his back to hit the ground but the ground never came. Instead he felt a pair of strong arms cradling him with the warmth of their skin. Mix shot his eyes open to see the stranger who had just caught him perfectly in his embrace.
Mix stared at the beautiful face and those sharp jawlines highlighted by the sunlight and felt the urge to just run his fingers along that jaw. But he snapped himself back to reality and jumped out of the man’s arms. “Th- thank you”, Mix stuttered. His eyes fixed on the other’s face and face only.
They both stood in silence for a while before Mix walked over to the dead bear to speculate. “Wow nice shot by the way. Right through the heart”, Mix complimented the naked stranger as he found a hole through the bear just above its forelimbs where blood was seeping out. No wonder the giant creature was dead in one shot.
The man approached Mix and with his hands folded against his chest he leaned against the tree that Mix just fell down from. “Your heart?”, he said, raising an eyebrow.
Flustered, Mix punched his arm and yelled, “The bear’s heart! You dumbass”. The stranger had a good belly laugh at Mix’s reaction with his whole body shaking. Mix tried not to investigate which parts of the man’s body shook and glared only at his face. “And by the way if you don’t mind me asking, why are you- well, naked at this early in the morning? And not to mention this cold weather? I’ve heard some crazy makeout stories in the forest but-“
“Do I look like I have accompany?”, the man said. Mix looked around and indeed there wasn't anyone else in that area other than them. Maybe Mix was overthinking or maybe he was just protecting himself but when he felt that he was in danger, Mix picked up his rifle that the man had just placed against the bear and pushed the strangely naked man with the stock of the rifle.
“Don’t- come close to me”, Mix stuttered even though he tried not to sound scared. “Woah that’s a dangerous way to hold a gun, young man”, the man said. He swiftly retrieved the gun with full strength but carefully not to touch the trigger and directed the aim upwards to the sky. Only then, Mix realised that he was holding the rifle from the front part of it with the trigger being on the other side. ‘Stupid!’, Mix mentally cursed himself.
Maybe Mix’s grip was too strong on the barrel when the man tried to remove the weapon from him because Mix himself was pulled towards the stranger along with the rifle. His hands landed on the strong shoulders, their faces almost touching and their lower bodies only a few inches a part. Mix felt blood rushing up to his face and quickly pushed the stranger away.
He snatched his rifle back from the man and stomped past him. “You shot the animal so it’s yours to keep”, he said as he walked away. Then he stopped in his tracks as though he had a second thought and removed his red flannel shirt that he wore over a white t-shirt. “Here. Wear this or at least cover your private part. We ain’t living in the Stone Age anymore”, he said, throwing his shirt at the naked stranger before walking away.
Mix walked back the way he came, or at least the way he thought he came, and saw a silhouette approaching him. Thankfully, this man was fully clothed and also had a familiar face. “Luke?”, he called out and the man ran to him. Luke hugged him first and foremost before bombarding him with questions.
“Where did you go off to? I told you to stay close. I heard a shot so I tried to follow the sound. Are you hurt? And-”
“Luke, I’m fine. And don't be worried like this all the time. I’m not a baby anymore, ok?”, he said, pushing Luke back a bit. Luke’s hands were still firm on Mix’s arm and he felt the coldness on the younger’s bare arms under his grip. “Mix, weren’t you wearing a shirt when we came? A red shirt”, Luke asked.
“Ahh yes that”, Mix muttered, awkwardly scratching his head. “I umm saw a lost dog- yes a lost dog who looked like he might freeze to death so I gave him my shirt”, he explained.
“You ‘give’ your shirt to the dog?”, Luke said, not really buying his story. “Yes, I gave it to him, Luke. Now let’s go back. Or else I might be the one who freeze to death here”.
Mix pushed him in the opposite direction from where he encountered the ‘lost dog’, hoping Luke doesn’t have to go through the terror he had to witness this morning. A golden hue kind of terror.
After they left the forest, Luke suggested they had breakfast at the diner nearby as usual. They ordered their food and Mix started munching on his pancakes as soon as they arrived. “Umm this is so good”, he moaned. “You always have the same dish and never get bored of it, do you?”, Luke said, amused. “Never”, Mix answered and shoved another chunk of pancake into his mouth.
“Alright, eat up. I’ll take you to uni later”, Luke offered. Mix looked up from his plate and shook his head. “No no it’s alright. I’ll go with Khao”, he replied. Khao, his best friend since birth. The two families were close allies and also Khao is the kind of quiet kid who stays out of trouble so his family trusts him with Khao.
“I’ll drive you both then”, Luke insisted. Mix swallowed his food and placed the utensils down on his plate. “Luke, I know what you’re worried about but isn’t this too much? It’s been five years since Tay passed. I know he’d entrusted me to you but you’re being too protective, Luke. As much as I appreciate you, I’d prefer it if you aren’t being too pushy you know?”.
Mix reached out to hold Luke’s hand in his and smiled. “You’re a good brother and a friend, Luke. And I don't want you to feel burdened to look after me because of Tay. Didn’t you say the silvers have already executed most of the wolves that night?”, Mix said.
Luke sighed and smiled weakly at Mix while still holding his hands. “You’re the only few of us left, Mix, and the most precious one to me. And I can’t help but worry. Yes, we did wipe them off in that fight. Well at least, most of them. Some escaped and I’m worried those ones would come back for revenge.”
Mix patted Luke’s hand gently. “Because of you, I don’t feel too sad or scared even though Tay is gone. Thanks for loving me like your own brother, Luke. I’m really glad to have you”, Mix said. Luke gave him another small smile and told him he’d let Mix go to uni with Khao.
Mix thanked him and continued eating his food. He’s got to fill up his stomach for later. It’s gonna be his first day of final year in undergrad and Mix can’t wait to graduate already. But he’d have to go through hell first for that. That is, thesis.