Madeline crossed over the property line that separated her home from the Mine Hill Preserve. She wasn’t worried about finding her way back. When she and Colin had first married, the two of them had crossed over into the preserve many times and she felt like she knew the terrain of the area that led to the hiking trail. She remembered those days well.
The two lovers had married when she was 38 and Colin was a decade younger. She had been married before that, a period of her life she didn’t like to talk about. With anyone. Not that she gave herself much of a choice in that matter. After she married Colin, the two had settled on a house that was only 90 minutes from New York but for her, it was half a world away from the chaos of the life she left there. The little town of less than 2,000 people was exactly the size Madeline was looking for and Colin was the type of husband she had always wanted. Proper, refined and most importantly, distant. She would never have to worry about Colin having one (or three) too many dirty martinis and making a scene at an art opening, something her first husband excelled at. When he wasn’t drunk, Stephen was a perfectly affable man and a friend to everyone. When he was drunk, he was a buffoon, embarrassing himself and his wife whenever they went out. Right up until the day he died from a massive heart attack, Stephen exemplified the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde behavior common among alcoholics.
Not so Colin. Madeline’s second husband was a work horse. And yet in those early days when they were very much in love, he would still make time for the two to go walking around the preserve, hand in hand, and savor the embrace of the forest in silence for hours. Occasionally they would talk, but often no more than about what either knew about the native foliage or a farmer’s market one had heard about and thought they should try. Walking up to the deck afterwards, both would take off their hiking boots at the back door and Colin would sit in the living room reading the Wall Street Journal or the Times as Madeline made an elaborate dinner she would serve at the dining room table. Things were neat, orderly and simple.
As time went on, Colin became more and more absorbed in the business of making more and more money. This also was a trait Madeline saw coming and had no issue with at all. When she had gotten pregnant a year after the two were married, she began to nurture a domestic side that had been completely foreign to her and that she very much liked. She would peruse interior design magazines and, dutifully, show Colin her ideas for the new nursery or the kitchen she had always wanted. Pleased that he had a wife that embraced what he believed to be her appropriately feminine nature, Colin was happy to approve this idea or veto that one.
Yet more money meant more time away from her husband and Madeline took to walking in the woods by herself. That’s when Madeline had gotten the latent idea of purchasing a dog she could share her walks with. It was serendipitous when one day there was a copy of Dog Fancy (it belonged to a neighbor) in with the design magazines. Colin took note as his wife cooed over the photos and a month after that, surprised her with a card with a picture of a puppy and a directory of breeders he had printed out for her. Madeline believed she had the most romantic husband in the world.
Walking in the preserve with the new puppy brought back to Madeline the rush of getting lost in the woods all over again. And watching Sassy sprint back and forth absorbing all the sights and scents of the forest filled her with the wonderment she had first felt in those days walking with Colin. It was almost like she was smelling the mist of the forest again for the first time. Every so often, Sassy would reach the end of the leash and turn to look squarely back at Madeline.
“Come on Sassy, come to mommy,” she said as she crouched down and Sassy came sprinting back to her. Madeline could hardly believe it was her who was saying these sappy maternal things and she felt good doing it. Sassy would plunge face first between her legs, then raise up his head and nuzzle Madeline with complete abandon. Sometimes he would immediately run back into the forest and sometimes he would linger there and let Madeline scratch his neck and his belly. After only a week of having the puppy, Madeline added an afternoon walk to their routine and after three weeks, an evening walk. It was on the first night when Madeline took Sassy out right before dusk that something happened that wasn’t unique to first-time puppy owners. But to Madeline, it was just short of terrifying.
After dinner with Cain and Tanny, Madeline rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Cain took to the table in his room and worked on a model airplane he had been absorbed with for a week and Tanny made camp on the floor of her room to work on one of her jigsaw puzzles. Madeline wiped off the kitchen table where she and her children ate when Colin was in the city. It was September when they had acquired the dog, which meant that she had another hour before darkness fell. Zipping up her fleece jacket, she leashed up Sassy and walked outside and into the forest. The leaves on the trees were in their full autumn brilliance and Madeline embraced the peaceful calm her walks with Sassy always brought. She walked to the hiking trail and followed that for what she estimated to be no more than a quarter mile or so. In fact, it was much longer.
When the sunlight reflecting off the trees began to dim, she turned and walked back to where she thought she had started on the trail. As she turned off to walk back to the property, Sassy had begun running to the edge of the leash again. Madeline decided to let him off the leash as she figured they were no more than 100 yards from the back yard. She bent over to unhook the leash just as Sassy had focused on something in the brush nearby. He bolted. Whatever he had trained his gaze on gave chase and within 10 seconds, Sassy was gone.
Madeline’s stomach immediately cinched up like she had eaten bad calamari and for a moment, she couldn’t move. She started to run into the brush after the dog but she had no idea where the beast had gone in seeking his prey. She walked quickly in one direction for 30 paces, shouting his name all the while. As her panic grew, she second-guessed herself and turned 90 degrees and walked in that direction.
“Sassy!” she shouted as she walked. “Come to mommy!” Panic grew with each step and Madeline changed directions again, this time in no particular direction. She had become more concerned about the dog than her location. She could hear the voice of her husband chastising her for thinking the dog could handle being off leash. That made her cries grow louder.
“Sas-ssy! Come on baby!” Her voice cracked and her eyes burned with the coming tears. “Come on girl! Let’s go home!” She stopped and listened. Silence. And apart from the light cast by the harvest moon, it was now dark.