The bear trap around his neck hurt so much and the blood was dripping onto the forest floor as he walked, painting a crimson trail with every footstep he took. It was a cold autumn day with the sun gradually sinking lower in the sky, and Wolf was all alone in his troubles, fatigued and lost. The chain dragging across the rocks as he plodded along was heavy and dragged him down, causing him to have to keep his head lowered for fear of gravity forcing the trap’s metal teeth to dig further into his flesh. He was covered in red liquid and shame, and the sadness he was carrying in his heart hung heavy around him like clouds of rain. He was finally free if you didn’t count the steel jaws tearing into his skin, but already he questioned whether or not being free was as worth what had happened last night. Wolf had been named for the strong, proud animal his father had been, but he’d only ever been just a mutt at his owner’s bedside. A dog who kept watch over the little cabin in which his master lived by night and helped her hunt and trap animals so she could afford to feed them every night by day. A creature that had only ever truly known being domestic. Now he was free from all that. Free, cripplingly afraid, and earth-shatteringly lonely.

She’d been sick for a month and a half by the time she’d passed away the night before. It had started out at a simple little cough, but it had only gotten worse from there. Soon enough she was bedridden, slowly getting paler and paler as the two did their best to share the dried meat stash she always kept for cases like this. She and Wolf had become thin and frail with the rationing and eventual loss of their food, the small taxidermy and locally sourced meat business she’d been running crumbling and no other human able to look after her, and last night she had finally succumbed to the starvation and sickness ravaging her body as the two slept. Wolf had woken up when the moon hung high in the sky and streamed in through the cabin windows, and he’d howled his voice away in mourning of the loss of his one companion. For so long he’d dreamed of being free and running through the wild, no longer just another dog. He’d convinced himself he didn’t need her. Last night, he’d realized just how wrong he had been. Even when his voice couldn’t cry for her anymore, he had nudged her hands with his cold, wet nose and whimpered for her to wake up and reassure him, though the scent of death hanging in the air and her unresponsiveness told him she never would. He hadn’t slept a wink for the rest of the night, and it had taken him hours to finally come to terms with the fact that he needed to leave if he wanted to survive.

It was getting late now, and the cold was really setting in. Wolf dragged himself along, legs weak and trembling under his own weight. He didn’t know where he was going anymore. He just knew he had to get there. He needed her now more than ever, but she wasn’t there, and she never would be again. She was like that light in the distance, so close but so… wait a minute… light in the distance! There was light! Real, warm light like from inside a building, not some illusion or the light of the stars and the moon that were beginning to emerge in the sky. New hope lit up in his heart, even if it wasn’t much. He didn’t have to be alone anymore. He could find a place to rest, where he wouldn’t have to fend for himself anymore. Someone would surely be where that light was! They had to be!

Part of Wolf didn’t want to go to the source of that light. He knew it might mean loss of the freedom he’d been waiting so long to have. Then again, he was bleeding profusely and it was better to have help and sacrifice his freedom than to die out here in the cold night. Begrudgingly, he stepped forward and began dragging his weary, battered body towards the warm flicker of hope shining in the distance. His vision was getting a little blurry, likely from bloodloss, but he was determined to make it nonetheless. Wolf was not going to die out here. He refused to die out here. He refused to die when safety was so tantalizingly close again. He only had a little further to go, and then he could get help and rest. He’d be okay.

Wolf continued to stumble forward, only to realize after just a few steps that he would not, in fact, be okay. In front of him stood to black bear cubs, only mere pawsteps away. He’d been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed them, nor had he noticed how dangerously close he’d been getting. On top of that, they hadn’t seemed to notice him, either. At least not until he’d stopped dead in his tracks and stepped on a twig. At that moment, one turned to face him and let out a cry he’d never forget upon seeing him. It was a cry for its mother. A roar that came out as more of a bleat like that of a goat, given the small size of the thing, but a roar that sounded his doom nonetheless. Wolf broke into a sprint. Bears were notoriously protective mothers, and he could already here the mama black bear crashing through the bushes to her child’s aid. Her dark fur blended in with the falling night, and the only way Wolf could truly know where she was in his blind sprint was the sound of her heavy breathing as she gave chase and the hot breath on his tail as he tried desperately to escape. The cabin was only 40 or so feet away from him. He could make it. He had to make it!

He didn’t make it. The chain attached to the bear trap around his neck was dragging him down and slowing his gait. Before he knew it, she’d slammed him onto his stomach, rocks and sticks digging into his belly as the bear pressed him into the floor. He was going to die. He was too weak from bloodloss and he was going to die any moment now. She was going to kill him.

At least I’ll be up in heaven with you, he thought, finding himself silently addressing the human who had always taken such good care of him. I’ve been ungrateful and apathetic and difficult, yes, and I’ve been the worst canine companion you could’ve ever had, but I know more now and I swear I’ll do better if I see you again. I’m sorry.

The bear raised her paw, claws gleaming slightly in the starlight and the light from the cabin. This was it. He’d be dead in a second. Wolf was sure of it.

Please forgive me.

The claws never hit him. He never felt anything aside from the weight of something on his back being lifted. He blinked his eyes open from their shut-tight and braced-for-impact state, only to shut them again when a blinding light hit them. Was this the afterlife? Was this the angel of death come to take him? If so, why was the angel of death so loud? There was shouting and the sounds of feet shuffling away. Hands, gentle human hands, reached to stroke the top of his head and all the way down to his back as a soothing male voice spoke to him. “It’s alright. It’s alright. She’s gone now.”

Wolf cautiously opened one eye. In front of him was a man with dark skin and a bushy beard kneeling down and petting him with large, kind, slightly calloused hands. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt and khaki pants and had a lantern set by his side that Wolf quickly realized must’ve been the blinding light he’d seen earlier. He was… alive. He was alive and too weak to celebrate, but still alive. He could feel the cold air of the night and hear the rustling of the wind in the leaves. He could smell something delicious cooking from inside the cabin. He was safe and alive and mostly unscathed aside from several bruises and his previous bear trap wound. He didn’t know this man, but Wolf knew his salvation had arrived, and that in of itself was enough.

“How did you get out here?” the man asked softly. Wolf couldn’t answer, and the man knew that, so it was really more of a musing aloud, but the man did seem genuinely confused as to how Wolf had gotten there. He continued mumbling softly, something about wolves and fur trappers and who dared hurt him like that. Wolf wished he could answer in a language that the man would understand and explain that the bear trap around his neck had been an accident and originally intended to help snare rabbits for his owner’s business, but he couldn’t, so he just sat there instead and let the man gently pry the trap off his neck. He was led inside where a bed was made for him in the living room of the cabin and his wounds were bandaged up, and after that he was given a warm bowl of roasted chicken, which he gladly gobbled up withing seconds. The man was with him the whole time, petting and talking to and reassuring him.

“Would you like to stay with me?” the man asked, clearly not expecting him to answer at all. Wolf had other plans.

He barked and laid his head in the man’s lap, a simple, clear ‘yes’ that seemed to surprise his newfound companion for a heartbeat. The man stroked his back and smiled. “That’s good. I could use a dog.”

With that, Wolf let drowsiness take over and let sleep wrap him up in its welcoming darkness. He was safe now. Warm and safe with a belly full of food and a roof above his head. He was finally free, and not in the sense he’d originally freedom meant. He was happy, and that meant freedom. Real freedom, not some phony belief that the lack of being domestic somehow made him free. Real, actual freedom that didn’t come from his location or how he was living, but from his heart and how he felt. Wolf was free, and as he dozed off in that warm, safe, happy building, he had one last thought before sliding into unconsciousness.

Thank you for forgiving me.

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