Queen of the Animals

An Urban Fantasy Short Story by Amir Lane

Queen of the Animals

by Amir Lane

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It was Daniella’s own fault for driving home in this storm. But in her defence, and no offence to the Great White North, she really wanted to get back home for the weekend. The place had been hers for five years now, and she’d barely had the chance to live in it thanks to being relocated all over the province for work. So she braved the storm and took to the highway. The beaten two-door Honda she’d gotten for a few hundred bucks a couple years ago was another leaky break line away from becoming a death mobile — again — but it would at least get her home. If she was lucky, it would last until the end of the season, even with the bi-daily ice cream trips she and her seasonal roommate were prone to taking. Whether the bi part referred to twice per day, every other day mostly depended on the contractors.

Right now, the last thing Daniella was thinking about was ice cream or contractors. What she was thinking about was how glad she was that rumble strips existed. With the inch and a half of snow covering the road and the snow blowing into her windshield, it was the only indication of where the shoulder was. She couldn’t tell where the driving lane ended and the passing lane began. At least she was the only person stupid enough to be driving in this weather.

Really, she should have just stayed in town and spent the weekend watching movies. At the very least, she should have tried to wait the storm out. It might have passed in a few hours. Sure, she might have gotten to Ottawa past midnight, but at least she’d be able to see where she was going.

The wind howled through the trees as though screaming at her. Daniella shuddered and turned up the shiny radio she’d installed to drown it out.

There was something unsettling about this stretch of highway. Trees shadowed the left shoulder, towering over the pavement, while the ones to her right dipped below the highway. The 3-cable guide rail to her right seemed fine, but the steel guide rail some three metres away from the rumble strip she kept hitting looked like it had seen better days. In the dead of November, the highway was pitch black, and the snow kept her high beams from doing much. It was the sort of stretch that should have had some luminaires to guide her, but that would have made too much sense, wouldn’t it?

Daniella had been travelling this highway every other weekend all summer, and she knew it as well as any of the highways she’d worked on. Yes, she memorized highways. She was a contractor, what else was she supposed to do with her spare time? Enjoy it? Nope. Not during construction season, which, up north, was only lasted five or six months.

Was she imagining it or the weather actually getting worse? Her car rattled in a way that had nothing to do with the rumble strip or the snow that kept getting caught beneath it. A crack of thunder shook the whole highway.

If Daniella was the type of person to freak out, she might have been freaking out. But freaking out had never gotten anyone anywhere. Her mitten-clad hands tightened on the steering wheel to keep steady, the wool keeping her from seeing her knuckles turn white from the force of her grip. Maybe she should have bought a station wagon. Nothing could knock those things over.

She slowed her car, dropping to half the speed limit. It felt wrong to be doing city speed on the highway, but not even she was stupid enough to drive faster than that.

It probably saved her life.

There was another crack of thunder and a terrible groan that was somehow so much worse than the screaming wind. Daniella had always heard that it took two seconds for the human brain to see something, process it, and react to it. In those two seconds, Daniella saw the large tree to her left fall across the single-lane highway, realized she was going to slam right into it if she didn’t do something, and swerved. Brain function shut down. Instinct forgot which pedal she needed and her foot came down heavy on the gas.

Fuck!”

Daniella wasn’t sure if she actually screamed out loud or just in her head. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t hear anything over the crunch of metal as the front of her car fought against the steel guide rail. It might have kept her on the road if not for the rust. The joints gave way under the weight of her car. Her heart leapt into throat, choking off her scream. Or maybe she was screaming and she just couldn’t hear herself over the wind and the trees scratching against her car.

Her bumper hit the cold, snow-covered ground, and the crunch of metal was the last thing she heard.

II.

Don’t bears hibernate in winter?

It didn’t occur to Daniella at first how odd that thought was. She struggled to force her eyes open, but she didn’t quite manage it. Metal creaked as the driver’s side door was torn open. There was a low, groaning sort of whine that sounded something like a cross between a whale and a cat that did that nothing to alleviate the throbbing behind her skull.

Something tugged at her seatbelt until it snapped. Without it holding her upright, she slumped forward. Her hand met something warm and soft and damp from snow. It let out that whale sound again.

Bears hibernate in the winter.

Which meant this couldn’t be a bear. Bears were not dragging her from her car. Bears were not dragging her from her car. How could they have even gotten into it? They had no thumbs. But they did have claws and teeth, and that was probably enough to get through the door.

The next car she got, she was going to make sure it was bear-proof. Were station wagons bear proof? She was getting a station wagon.

***

The ground was hard and cold beneath Daniella’s body. Her mittened hand dug into the snow.

Every muscle in her body ached, and she was sure she had at least one broken bone. She rolled over onto her back and stared up at the trees. Snow fell on her face, the cold flakes soothing some of the pain in her face.

Where was she?

She pulled one of her mitts off with her teeth to touch her cheek. There might have been blood on her face, but her fingers had gone too numb to feel. Or, just as likely, her fingers had fallen off completely. Panic tightened her stomach, and it took her longer than she would ever admit to realize she could just check.

One, two, three, four, five fingers, white from lack of circulation, but relatively intact. She sat up, putting her mitt back on, and shoved her hands between her thighs for warmth. Now, where the hell was her car?

All Daniella could see was trees. Trees and bears and trees.

Bears?

Two very big, very brown bears, to be more accurate, sitting a few metres from her spot on the snow-covered ground.

Holy shit, holy shit,” she whispered.

Daniella had always been good in an emergency, but this was a new one. Yeah, she’d seen bears before. From a distance. From inside a building or car. Except her car was nowhere to be seen and there were definitely no buildings within running-from-bears distance. She lay back on the snow, struggling to keep her breathing even, and squeezed her eyes shut. Maybe when she opened them again, the bears would be gone and she could find her way back to the highway. Someone would drive by and she could flag them down for help, hopefully before she lost a finger. Or a toe. She had no idea what state her toes were in. Not that it would matter if she got eaten by bears.

The crunch of heavy feet on snow grew louder as the bears did the opposite of what she wanted them to. Daniella was as far from religious as she could get, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to wimp out on that now, but it would have been nice for some kind of higher power to save her ass right about now. Or, if not some higher power, then at least her seasonal roommate.

I can’t believe I’m going to die without getting to try all those ice cream flavours. We should have gone alphabetically.

The random strangeness of what was quite possibly going to be one of her last thoughts wasn’t lost on her. It was nowhere as randomly strange as what the bears did in comparison.

The bears sat down next to her.

One on either side, their warm fur doing the work that her jacket didn’t. She hadn’t realized how much of the tension in her body was from cold rather than paralysing fear.

Bears hibernate, she reminded herself. Bears hibernate. It’s winter. Why are there bears?

Maybe they had heard her car going through the guide rail. Maybe it was too early to hibernate despite there already being snow on the ground. Daniella didn’t know enough about the hibernation habits of bears to be able to say one way or another.

The heat radiating from their bodies was enough to offset some of the chill that had eaten its way into her bones. If she were having a concussion-induced hallucination, would she feel this warmth? The soft hairs tickled her face, and she didn’t think she could imagine that. That said, she had heard about people suddenly feeling very warm before freezing to death. Something about blood vessels dilating all at once and making the person feel like they were overheating. It was why so many people who froze to death were found undressed. Was it a good thing, then, that she didn’t feel the need to take all her clothes off? That was so not how she wanted to be found out here.

How long would it be before anybody found her? Somebody would find the broken guide rail, and probably the car. If she hadn’t actually imagined that the bears had dragged her off, how far from the highway was she? She really hoped it wasn’t too far for the search-and-rescue team that was surely going to show up at some point. Preferably before she became bear food.

She curled into one of the bears, forgetting for a moment she was supposed to be playing dead. The bears shifted slightly, one letting out something of a grunt, but they otherwise didn’t react to her.

She closed her eyes only for a moment. When she opened them again, she found the sun right above her, marking the early afternoon. The bears weren’t beside her anymore. So then they must have been hallucinations. A simple, easy to explain concussion-induced hallucination.

She should have been in Ottawa by now. Was anyone wondering where she was yet? Or had people assumed she’d decided to wait out the storm? She couldn’t remember telling anyone she was leaving. Why had she put her phone on the passenger’s seat instead of leaving it in her pocket?

Without the imaginary bears to hinder her, she pushed herself up to her feet, slowly in case she had broken anything. Her ribs ached, and her leg didn’t feel fantastic, but she could stand so it was probably okay.

The first step nearly brought her to her knees. Okay, her leg may have been broken. Wasn’t that just perfect? There was no way to tell which direction the highway was, or which way was out of these woods. Stupid Ministry of Environment, regulating how many trees were allowed to be cut down for new highways. Was this a situation they had not considered when deciding how far to cut?

Of course it wasn’t. This was an absolutely ridiculous situation to be in.

Daniella looked around the surrounding trees and picked the direction that seemed to be more spread out. Either she would go the right way, or she would end up deeper in the woods.

It was a win either way, right?

She let out a humourless laugh that edged on hysterical and started limping, half-dragging the leg she kept telling herself was probably just sprained. At least the crash hadn’t aggravated her old back injury. Actually, her back felt better than it had in a long time. That could have just been the comparison to the rest of her body, though.

Just keep going,” she whispered to herself. “Keep going, you’re doing great. You’re probably going to die out here, but in the meantime, you’re doing great.”

Nobody gave pep-talks like Daniella.

A dark shadow fell over her and for a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was seeing.

Did you know that moose are the only megafauna left in North America?

Daniella couldn’t remember who had told her that, probably one of her hoard of brothers. In that moment, she was glad there was nothing around bigger than the thing in front of her. She was not a short person. At 5’10”, she towered over most people she knew and earned herself the nickname of Sasquatch. Even most of the guys she saw on construction sites were shorter than her. Her distinctly un-feminine height was something of a point of pride for her. It had been years since anything made her feel small.

This moose made her feel small.

As with the bears, this wasn’t the first time she’d seen one. Also as with the bears, this was the first time she’d seen one so close.

Holy crap…”

Was she supposed to play dead with moose, too? Moose were herbivores — right? — and a less obvious threat than bears. The thing people forgot was that moose charged. Hitting one in anything short of a transport was a guaranteed way to total a car, and the moose would almost always walk away. Drivers were rarely so lucky. Daniella was so not going to be that lucky.

Sure, the bears had scared the ever-loving shit out of her, but bears had much higher standards for what constituted a threat than most herbivores. Hopefully the fact that she was so, so, so much smaller than the moose in front of her made him decide she wasn’t a threat.

Hopefully.

She inched back, holding her hands up.

Not a threat, not a threat.

As if it could read her thoughts, something about the moose’s posture seemed to relax.

I know you’re not, his eyes seemed to say.

She waited for him to turn away and go back to whatever it was moose did in their spare time, but he continued to watch her with those open eyes that waited for her to speak.

How hard had she hit her head?

The moose could decide to charge at any moment, but he hadn’t so far. That was a good sign, right? Maybe he wasn’t planning to.

I, uh… Lost my car.” It came out as almost more of a question, her voice lifting a little at the end. “I drove off the highway. I think you’re standing in my way.”

Was she crazy? She was crazy. She was definitely at least a little crazy.

The moose snorted and turned away in the direction a little to the left of where she’d been heading.

Uhm— Am I supposed to follow you?” she called.

Moose let out another snort, and she took that as an affirmative. He moved too fast for her to keep up, the leg that was definitely not broken forcing her to move slowly. Every time he got too far ahead, he would stop and wait for her to catch up.

Let me ask you something. Am I dead? Is that what this all is, my brain coming up with some random scenario where I survive before it goes out? Grunt once for yes, two for no.”

She didn’t expect Moose to give any indication it so much as processed what she was saying, and she sure as hell didn’t expect him to grunt twice.

So I’m still alive?”

One grunt.

And I’m hallucinating.”

Two grunts.

That seems like something a hallucinated moose would say.”

Could a moose look annoyed? Because the look he gave her was pretty close to what she imagined annoyed would look like in a moose.

Daniella rested her weight on her good leg and rubbed her thigh, though it was her calf that screamed at her to stop. Humans were pretty much the only big-ish animal that could handle having a broken leg without going into shock and dying from it. It was one of the things that made them such bad-ass predators. There was also the fact that they could keep walking for hours. She had, in fact, walked for hours on end without getting tired. Her record was six hours of non-stop walking from one end of Ottawa to the other. But there were limits to what even she could manage.

I don’t think I can keep going.”

The annoyance in Moose’s eyes turned to sympathy. Daniella leaned back against a tree, struggling to keep her breath. So much for human endurance. It was half-tempting to check the state of her feet. Did she really want to know how many toes she was close to losing? Assuming she hadn’t lost any yet. It was only November, why the hell was it so fucking cold out? Her steel-toes weren’t exactly standard winter wear, but they were usually warm enough, especially with two pairs of socks. These weren’t her usual conditions, though.

Moose approached, and Daniella held her breath, waiting for him to charge. He didn’t. Instead, he watched with big moose eyes that didn’t seem to mind when she lowered herself to the ground and stretched her broken leg out.

Yup, it was broken. She was willing to admit that now. How could she keep denying it when she couldn’t even walk? Pretending it was fine wouldn’t help. All the walking might have made it worse. If that was the case, she needed to mitigate the damage as much as she could.

I need to make a splint,” she told Moose. Why not? He’d listened to everything else she’d said so far. “I need a big stick. Preferably something big and straight. And something to tie it to my leg with.”

Moose gave a slow, heavy sort of nod and wandered off. She bit back her hesitation and cried out.

Wait, don’t leave me alone out here!”

He bellowed out a moose-y sort of bellow, though he didn’t stop. Daniella struggled to push herself back up. Sure, she couldn’t keep walking on a broken leg, but she didn’t want to be alone in the wilderness without even a moose for company. He bellowed again— ‘Stay put!’ — and she shrank back against the tree.

She was not going to cry, and she was not going to freak out. Freaking out had made her hit the gas instead of the breaks. Freaking out had gotten her into this. She was not going to freak out.

A bit of movement caught her eye. Daniella tried to find the source and failed. Great, now her eyes were going. This was exactly what she needed. There was a shift of something to her left, and she tried to focus on it only to have that something disappear right in front of her eyes. She strained to keep her eyes on that same spot. This time, when the something moved, she saw exactly what it was.

Bunny!”

Daniella loved bunnies, the bigger the better. She realized too late that her shout would scare it away. Oh well.

Only, Bunny didn’t seem to mind. As it hopped forward, she made out the brown tufts of fur where the white hadn’t come in yet. She held her hands out and made kissy noises to encourage it to come closer. Maybe not the smartest thing to do with a wild rabbit, but neither was sleeping next to bears or following a moose through the woods. At this point, she’d lost any pretense of making smart decisions.

She had always been good with animals, anything but cats. Dogs were her favourite, with their fluffy tails and happy faces. Her ex-girlfriend had always joked about how every animal would run to her when they saw her, except cats. Cats were a special brand of evil that was not in tune with her own.

But bunnies were pure fluff, and she loved them.

Bunny hopped right up to her hand and sniffed at her mitten. It was all she could do not to scream at the cuteness of it.

Hi, Bunny,” she said in a pitchy baby voice.

When it didn’t hop away, she lifted a tentative hand and pat its fluffy little head. An absent thought filtered through her mind that maybe Moose told Bunny to sit with her until he came back, and she had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. It was almost as ridiculous as everything else that had happened since she’d driven off the highway. Contemplating taking Bunny back with her wasn’t nearly ridiculous enough. Maybe she would bring Moose back with her. If she couldn’t flag down a car, she would need to get to Ottawa somehow.

And if Moose wasn’t up for it, she could bring Bear One or Bear Two.

She laughed at herself, definitely hysterical this time. The concussion and the cold were getting to her.

The rustle of trees caught Daniella’s attention. Moose’s antlers scraped against the lowest branches. She wished she were that tall and had antlers. Could she keep her head upright if she had antlers? Maybe mountain goat horns would be more practical.

Moose dropped several large branches in front of her, sending Bunny running back into the throng of trees.

Daniella shifted through the branches until she found one sufficient. How to tie it, now? She swallowed and pulled her mitts off. As fast as physically possible, she yanked her coat and sweater off, then pulled her coat back on, doing the zipper up to her chin. The fabric felt cold against her skin, though nowhere near as cold as the wind had felt for those brief seconds. With the mitts making her hands feel clumsy, she used her sweater to tie the branch to her leg in a makeshift splint. It would have to do, even if it wasn’t the prettiest splint out there. Using another branch as a cane, she managed to push herself back up.

Human resilience aside, she was surprised she could still keep going. She couldn’t have been resting for more than ten, twenty minutes, but she felt ready to go again. if her leg wasn’t broken, she could have started bounding through the woods.

Daniella followed Moose’s lead. He moved more slowly than before, especially as the sun began to set again. They took several breaks, none more than a few minutes long at a time. By early sunset — around 5PM this time of year — the steel guide rail came into view. There was no sign of the damage her car had done, suggesting this wasn’t the exact stretch she’d come through. It didn’t matter.

That’s going to be tough to climb with a broken leg.”

She looked down at her makeshift splint. She’d had to stop and retie her sweater several times throughout the walk. No matter how hard she strained her ears, she couldn’t hear any traffic, and she didn’t see any headlights passing.

Think I can manage another night out here?”

Moose looked back past her head in the direction they came with a grunt. A whale-cat whine made her twist around. Bears One and Two were poking their heads out through the trees.

Holy—”

Had the bears been following her this entire time? They made no motion to approach, did nothing to suggest they were here to do anything other than offer warmth again.

Daniella looked back at the highway.

Work, mortgage, long drives. Buying a new car. All things that made her stomach knot up when she thought of going back to them.

Living in the wild, scrounging for food. Somehow, that was the more appealing option.

She craned her neck up to Moose’s massive head. The way they had listened to her was uncanny, and a hell of a lot more interesting than another day of babysitting contractors. There would be more traffic coming by Sunday anyway, with people heading either to or from work. She could manage another night out here. If not, let someone else sort out the paving schedule.

Daniella limped toward the bears and back into the woods. Moose followed behind her. If she couldn’t grow antlers, maybe she could make herself a crown.

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