Unfamiliar Ground

Last night, while walking Leo around 10:00, I realized (having stumbled onto it without realizing) that what is normally a field of tall grass on the way home had been cut flat. Instead of comfortable darkness, orange high-intensity lights, even far away, revealed heretofore unseen topography that made this familiar home stretch seem completely alien.

The options were to walk back the way we came, down by the river, and add another half-hour to our trip, or to press on. With little moonlight, and with the air cooling quickly, we continued. But the difference in the terrain, coupled with my tension, made the pup’s hackles rise.

Slowly, we explored the new terrain. Deep shadows made slight variations in grade and texture seem like cliffs and chasms in the dark. The path was swallowed in dark shadow as far-off light, unfiltered by the tall grasses and wildflowers, cast bottomless shadows across our way.

Better to not see at all and go on faith and moonlight than to see that you’ve lost your road.

The temperature dropped another degree. The cord on my headphones caught in the folds of my shirt and tugged. I spun, expecting to see somebody behind me, but the space was empty. I stood, stock-still, Leo on point beside me, a breeze ruffling his shaggy fur and turning the sweat on my brow to Freon.

Somehow, I knew that if I turned back around, continued on our path, something would shamble out behind us, come after us, and we would have to do something to the something to prevent it from following us to our home. Muscles tightened. Fingers clenched into fists. A low growl escaped from Leo’s throat, and then, betraying his youth, so did a whimpering yip as he pressed himself against my leg. Protecting me and asking for protection. I reached down to touch his head, to comfort him. He nibbled at my fingers. Look, Dad, I have teeth.

Slowly, I turned. Slowly, we began walking away. I resisted the urge to break into a run, resisted the urge to turn and look at the something that had to, had to, be behind us by now, following slowly. I continued, light gone now, into darkness.

A crab-apple crunched under my foot. Leo started. I froze.

The crab-apple tree was a landmark. Passing it meant passing through to civilization. I reached in front of me, instinctively, and felt the rough galvanized metal of the chain-link fence that lined the path back to my street.

Leo and I turned. Instead of something, there was nothing there. Just Leo and I, side by side in the night.

He yapped happily. Now that we’d taken a few good, long looks, the terrain didn’t feel so alien anymore.

We turned, and with the scent of fresh crab-apples following us, we passed through, back to familiar ground.

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