Taehyung stepped into the tiny hardware store and stomped his boots against the welcome mat, shedding snow and ice. He unzipped his heavy black parka and removed the red beanie from his blonde hair as welcome warmth hit his tall frame. He stepped deeper into the store and nodded in a friendly way to the grizzled old man behind the counter.
“Something I can help you with?” the man called out, polishing the lens of his glasses.
“Yeah, I need a flashlight, batteries, candles if you got them, kerosene, matches,” Tae rattled off, biting his glove and removing it with his teeth before digging a hand in his pocket for the list he had made.
“Ah, I see. You aren’t the only one who’s stopped in here to stock up for the storm.” The man nodded and began walking around, fetching the necessary supplies and putting them on the counter. “You must be Soomi’s grandson.”
The mention of his grandmother brought a sharp pang to Tae’s heart. He rubbed his chest as he browsed the small selection of novels stacked on a shelf in the corner, peering over the tops of the shelves at the proprietor and nodding his reply. “Yes, sir. Kim Taehyung.”
“Park Minwoo. So you’ll be staying at the cabin for the winter?”
The old man sounded skeptical, and rightly so. Taehyung wore an appropriate jacket, jeans layered on top of thermal underwear, and thick weatherproof boots, but anyone could tell just by looking that every item was brand new. His lips and skin, a perfect honey tone, shone healthy and free of imperfections courtesy of expensive lotions and balms, and his hands were free of calluses except for the forefinger and thumb of his right hand.
Not exactly a picture of rough country living.
“Yes, sir. I thought about just fixing it up and selling it, but,” Tae trailed off, piling the last of what he wanted on the counter as the man began to ring him up. “The place meant a lot to her. And I made a lot of memories there. I figured I’d at least take it on for the season, use it to get some work done. Then we’ll see.”
“This blizzard rolling through will shut this mountain down for at least a week, if not longer,” the man cautioned, stacking his purchases neatly in cardboard boxes. “Will you be all right?”
Taehyung couldn’t help but grin.
He had lived in Seoul all his life, most recently in a penthouse in Gangnam. He knew none of the neighbors in his building, and the streets were full of strangers who walked by one another with hardly a glance, let alone a kind comment. But this was a small town, with a tiny village square bordered in local businesses and pubs, with scattered houses that grew more and more isolated the further up the mountain. His grandmother’s cabin was one of the furthest from town, located on the banks of the river that roared down the mountain and supplied the lake that the town was built around.
It was the kind of place where neighbors knew one another, and offered a helping hand when needed. The complete opposite of what he knew. Taehyung loved it.
“I will be,” said Tae simply.
“What do you do for work?” came the curious question as Taehyung finished paying.
“I’m an artist.” He raised his hands and wiggled his fingers, decorated with noticeable paint splotches.
The man’s eyes widened. “You did all those murals that Soomi hung in the cabin.”
Another swift pang stole Taehyung’s breath. “Yes, sir.” He cleared his throat, afraid he’d begin to cry. “I appreciate your help,” he said as he hefted his boxes.
“You be safe now, okay? Soomi kept an old radio up there, should work just fine if you have an emergency.”
“Thank you. Enjoy the snow,” said Taehyung cheekily with a wink in parting.
The frigid wind outside shocked him, a few flurries dancing down out of the darkening evening sky. Tae made quick work of stashing his boxes with the other purchases he’d made in town in the bed of the brand new black pick-up truck he’d purchased in Seoul, and got in, powered it on, blasted the heater and turned the truck towards the dirt road climbing the mountain.
It took a solid hour of singing along to the scratchy radio stations before he reached the tiny hidden road that led to the cabin. He turned down the lane, turning down the radio now and focusing more as the flurries became flakes that fell harder and obscured the windshield.
The cabin came into view behind the dancing snow, a tidy one-floor structure made of solid, impenetrable wood, with expansive glass windows dominating each wall that granted views of the forests and river behind it. A wide front porch courted all four sides, Adirondack chairs in a cheerful red decorating the scarred flooring. Tae had remembered to put on the exterior lights, casting a warm yellow buttery light over the outside of the house.
He put the truck in park then leaned on the wheel for a moment, sighing in both sadness and contentedness. He loved this cabin, always had, ranging back from his days as a chubby-cheeked toddler playing in the river with his grandmother keeping a watchful eye as she hung laundry on the line. He made many trips here, during his summer and holiday vacations from school, but the trips grew scarcer and scarcer as he grew up.
Then his parents died in a car crash when he turned eighteen. He found himself alone in university, truly alone. Facing the cabin was even harder without his mother singing along to the radio during the drive up, without his father chopping wood and letting loose his rolling belly laugh whenever Taehyung splashed him from the river. He isolated himself a bit, succumbing to his art and developing his talent, and his grief faded as he poured his emotions into the work.
His grandmother herself had insisted he remain in the city and not burden himself with making the trip to the cabin, especially once his career began to take off.
Taehyung hated himself for not realizing she was sick. She hadn’t told anyone, but he was her only grandchild, her only living relative.
He should have known.
She had died six months ago, and Taehyung had felt her loss, and the loss of his parents, every day since.
He sniffed and wiped away tears before getting out of the truck, the biting wind clearing his mind as he plucked the smallest of his packages and strode inside, unlocking the door left locked out of habit from city living despite the complete isolation. He moved quicker now, keeping a wary eye on the skies as he fetched all his purchases and piled them inside. Then he pulled the cover over the cab of the truck and hastened inside, tearing off his coat and hanging it on the hook along with his damp gloves and hat, leaving him in his jeans and thin blue sweater.
The cabin was quite modern for being so isolated. Soomi liked to say that she liked isolation but not at the cost of roughing it. There was typical heat, air conditioning and electricity, though the electricity and therefore the heat was notoriously spotty in inclement weather, so Taehyung walked through the small foyer into the living room to check the wood bin beside the monstrous brick hearth. It sat fully stocked, and an extensive pile lined the porch in the back of the house from his efforts the day before.
The cozy kitchen lay next to the living room, separated by a wide breakfast bar made of pretty oak. His grandmother’s copper bins full of herbs and ferns still dangled from the ceiling over the double sink. The ancient refrigerator buzzed comfortingly, covered in some of Taehyung’s earlier artwork, while some of his later works, landscapes of the forest and river Soomi loved, decorated the walls. The tiny kitchen table and four matching chairs sat in an alcove entirely bordered in windows that looked out on the water.
Taehyung walked through the living room, the kitchen, back to the bedroom with the big four poster bed, draped in the white quilt Soomi had hooked herself, and wide armoire already housing Taehyung’s clothes, and finally into the adjoining room which, while Taehyung had been growing up, had been a spare room where him and his parents slept.
For now, he had converted it into his studio. He had picked up a huge piece of plywood in town and a couple of sawhorses, constructing a work counter that housed the detritus of the artist—mason jars holding paintbrushes and others holding palette knives, tins and tubes of paints in every color of the rainbow and some that appeared to exist outside that spectrum, along with small bits of pottery or interesting catch-all’s that caught Taehyung’s eyes as he wandered. Blank canvases of all sizes leaned against all of the walls, one gracing the easel perched in front of the largest window that showed a view of both the river and trees.
Tae had lied to the proprietor. He hadn’t been able to paint since he set foot in the cabin five days prior.
Suddenly the wind all but screamed, waking him from his musings. Snow pelted the roof like fury, and the cabin went dark.
“Okay.” Taehyung blew out a long breath, and nodded decisively. “Okay. This is fine. You can handle this.”
He felt his way back to the living room and used his new matches and the glow of his dying—and all but useless, since there was no signal—cell phone to start a fire, crinkling up the newspaper like his grandmother had taught him so many years before, stacking a tower of kindling on top of it. He lit it, watched the comforting glow and heat come to life, then stacked larger and larger pieces until he had a nice fire going.
Sitting back on his haunches, he watched it happily for a while.
Until something scratched at the back door.
Taehyung startled so badly he knocked over the iron fire poker, sending it clattering on the brick floor of the hearth and making him jump again. He froze, panting now with surprise and a tinge of fear. What the hell could be outside his door in this weather?
The scratching came again, but fainter now, weaker.
Concerned now, Taehyung padded for the door. But he hesitated and turned back to grab the fire poker and his new flashlight. He turned on the beam then swept the door open with little fanfare, hoping at least the element of surprise would grant him an advantage over a serial killer if one happened to be out there.
But nothing stood there. Just an empty porch. The beam of the flashlight caught the flurry of snowflakes but little else.
Taehyung felt beyond foolish as he lowered the poker and blew out a long breath, ruffling his silver hair that had fallen over his forehead. “It was just the wind,” he muttered, turning on a heel to stride back inside.
As he turned, he saw it, his flashlight beam catching a flash of white out the corner of his eye. Tae yelped in surprise, dropping the poker again—his strengths didn't lie in hand-eye coordination—and an equally surprised yelp echoed his.
“Oh my god,” blurted Taehyung as he redirected the flashlight. “Oh my god.”
He knelt down despite the snow beginning to coat the wood planks, and held out a shaky hand towards the muzzle of the black dog that cowered there.
The dog watched him, trembling desperately, eyes half closed and body listing with exhaustion. It was quite big, probably coming up to Taehyung’s hip if it stood up. Its dark fur was shaggy and rough, and it was definitely an adult, judging by the size of the paws and the teeth as it panted. It seemed to barely have the energy to hold its head up. But it did sniff tentatively at Taehyung’s outstretched hand, and slowly, ever so slowly, it bumped Taehyung’s fingers with its nose.
Tae loosed a quiet breath. “Okay, little one. Okay. You’re cold, huh? Why don’t you come inside, warm up by the fire?” He looked around as if hoping to see people nearby. “Where did you come from? Where’s your family?”
The dog whined, a high distressed sound, and Taehyung’s heart was lost. “Okay. Okay, come on inside, all right?” Taehyung reached for it but it scrambled back with a halfhearted snarl.
Tae eased back again, heart racing. “Don’t want to be touched, got it. Can you stand?”
As if the dog understood, it put its legs beneath him and strained upwards. But its strength gave out and it collapsed again, panting harshly now. It whined again, a sound of pain and frustration.
“Okay, okay, I’m going to carry you inside to warm you up and in exchange you won’t eat me, okay? Please?” babbled Taehyung as he set the poker and flashlight inside the doorway, then squatted to ease the dog into his arms. He went slowly, achingly slowly, but still the dog tensed like a plank of wood as Tae eased his arms under the belly and hind legs, and lifted.
Taehyung nearly staggered, amazed at the weight of the muscly creature, but bared down and carried him inside. He realized the dog was soaking wet, far more than if he had just been lying in the snow for a couple hours, and icy and freezing with it. With some creative maneuvering, the dog in his arms whining and panting intermittently, Taehyung was able to spread a few thick blankets on the floor in front of the toasty fire, and he knelt down to place the dog in the middle.
The dog rolled onto one side and Taehyung could see clearly that the dog was a male, but Taehyung became more concerned with the rapid panting and extremely widened eyes.
“What’s the matter, why are you…” Taehyung’s voice trailed off, gaze catching on the matted fur of the dog’s right front leg. He reached out, the dog instantly crying when he put a hand to the paw, and Tae shushed him as best he could before directing the leg to the glow of the fire.
A fairly sized wound marred the skin, three deep gashes that Taehyung couldn’t fathom the origin of, bleeding sluggishly. “Okay, okay, buddy. Got a few nice wounds here but I’m going to fix you up, all right, bear with me.”
When Taehyung moved back, the dog whined again, wiggling restlessly on the blankets. Tae reflexively put a hand on the dog’s head and crooned to him in a soothing way, the animal freezing at first, before slowly relaxing beneath his touch.
“I’ll be right back,” Taehyung promised, and eased away. He ran to the closet in the corner of the kitchen and grabbed a stack of towels and a bin that contained hydrogen peroxide and bandage material. Then he filled the biggest mixing bowl he could find from his jug of fresh water.
He rushed back to the dog, who hadn’t moved, but his eyes followed every last one of Taehyung’s movements with an intelligence the boy found uncanny. Relaxed by his own babble, Taehyung continued to talk as he set the bowl of water directly in front of the dog’s muzzle. “You need to drink a little bit, okay, you’re probably beyond dehydrated. So just drink a bit for me and I’ll patch you up, we’ll get you feeling better in no time.”
The dog rolled up a bit, enough to prop his good leg beneath him, and bent his muzzle towards the bowl. He drank long and greedily, lapping at the water with a long pink tongue, eyes closing in relief. But his eyes flew open and his head darted towards Taehyung as he touched the injured leg.
The dog growled. Very, very quietly.
Taehyung inhaled shakily, but didn’t remove his grasp on the dog’s elbow. “Please don’t bite me,” he whispered, voice trembling. “I know you’re in pain and I can’t stand to see animals in pain, not if I can help, and I can help, I can, I promise, you just need to let me? Please?”
Taehyung swore the dog actually considered his words, as he cocked his head and stopped growling. Then he wondered if the isolation of the cabin had driven him crazy.
But the dog didn’t react when Taehyung, slowly again, resumed his movements. He eased the injured leg towards him and began lightly dabbing the wounds with peroxide-soaked gauze, cleaning the mud and debris from the wound. The dog whined a little as Taehyung worked, subsiding when Taehyung began to hum an old lullaby beneath his breath. Tae thought his voice was somewhat decent but he felt all too self-conscious as the dog pricked his ears up as if to listen.
When the wound was clean and the bleeding had stopped, Taehyung wrapped the limb in a cotton bandage to keep it dry and protected, letting out another slow breath as he finished up. The dog hadn’t once looked away from him as he worked, big yellow eyes staring almost challengingly into his. Despite the distrust, Taehyung leaned down and pressed a swift kiss to the bandage.
“And a kiss to make it better,” he said, forcedly cheerful. “My grandmother always used to do that for me. I got hurt a lot as a kid, I’m dead clumsy. But each and every time, no matter how little the hurt, she would drop everything she was doing and clean me up and kiss it better. My parents thought she was coddling me but she would always say, ‘Life is hard enough without making people suffer through injuries without a little love and care.’”
Taehyung sniffled a little, and the dog whined. Tae patted it almost carelessly on the flank and missed the way the dog’s eyes flared wide at the touch as he reached behind him for the stack of towels.
Without quite noticing what he was doing, Taehyung knelt over the animal and began to gently towel his fur dry. “Sorry if I seem a bit emotional.” He continued to talk, feeling better for it, and hoping the low words soothed his guest. “Grandmother died a few months ago. Alone, right here in this cabin.” He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I should have been here, you know? She died in her sleep, which sounds peaceful, but she was alone and sick for a couple years before she died. She had friends but she should have had me. But she didn’t tell me.”
Taehyung sniffed again and released the towel to wipe a knuckle under his eye, so tired of the tears that never seemed to dry up. He opened his eyes, and despite himself, giggled in shock.
The towel he had dropped fell over the dog’s head, who lay there grumbling, then snapped playfully at the cloth, pawing at it until it lay draped over one of his ears. He stared at Taehyung, panting, then his tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth as he wrinkled his nose.
Taehyung had the strangest thought that the dog was purposely trying to cheer him up. But that wasn’t possible.
He also had the thought that the dog seemed quite a bit bigger than he had originally thought, now that his shaggy black coat had dried and fluffed up.
He also thought that this was no breed of dog that he had ever seen before.
“Are you part wolf?” mused Tae out loud, giggling a little when the dog cocked his head at him again. “You certainly look it. Anyway, you’re warm and dry and bandaged up.” Taehyung took the towel back, then snapped his fingers. “You’re probably starving. It’s not like I stocked dog food but let’s see what I got. You stay there, okay? Stay by the fire, you need to keep warm.”
Tae walked backwards away from the dog, who lay watching him with his head cocked again, then went around the corner into the kitchen. The only thing he had in the way of meat was a pack of bacon in the fridge that would go bad if the power didn’t kick back on soon, so he grabbed it, as well as his grandmother’s thick cast iron frying pan, plus a bag of cookies he’d bought in a moment of weakness. He brought them back to the fireplace and settled down to sit beside his guest, legs crossed neatly as he used a stick to poke and stir at the embers until he formed a nice bed of coals to place the pan over.
Thank god for the wilderness training his grandmother had given him as a kid.
“You know, I’ve never had a dog before,” he said idly, patting the dog’s head again when he grumbled low in his throat. “I always wanted one but my parents weren’t big fans of animals. Their loss, right? My grandmother always had a bunch of cats running around this place, but the last one died years ago.”
When the pan had heated sufficiently, Taehyung sliced into the plastic with a knife and started peeling away strips of bacon and laying them in the pan, amused when the dog inched closer and sniffed interestedly at the package. Then the canine froze, and stared with unwavering, unblinking eyes as the meat began to sizzle and grease began to pop.
“You’d think you’d never seen bacon before.” Tae giggled when the dog didn’t move an inch. “I definitely need to have a chat with your owners. Oh, I’m Taehyung by the way.” He bowed from his sitting position as the dog stared at him. “Nice to meet you. Wish I knew your name, buddy.”
At that comment, the dog leaned over and poked him in the neck with his cold nose, surprising another chuckle from Taehyung. They fell into contented silence as the bacon sizzled, the dog staring at the meat and intermittently licking his chops. When the first few strips were finished it was a struggle to place them on a plate and keep it away from the hungry dog so he wouldn’t burn his mouth. Once the strips had sufficiently cooled, he placed the food down in front of him.
To Taehyung’s immense surprise, he didn’t dig right in. The dog sniffed and seemed to absorb the scent, then stared at Taehyung with an unreadable expression. Only then did he bend down and decorously lick and nip up the pieces, eating slowly and steadily until the plate was empty.
Happy, Taehyung relaxed and continued to cook, intermittently digging into the bag and nibbling on cookies. He only realized he had unknowingly leaned his weight against the warm animal at his side when he leaned over and nipped the cookie from Tae’s fingers, gobbling it up quick as Taehyung stared.
“Oy! That is no way to show appreciation for my cooking skills,” said Taehyung, miffed as he served him the last of the bacon. “Ungrateful dog.” He cast him an appraising look. “I should call you Cookie.”
The dog blinked at him. Then Taehyung found himself tackled to the floor, the dog pinning him, licking his cheeks and neck and yipping happily, tail wagging so madly it was like a drumbeat against the blankets. Taehyung roared with surprised laughter, wiggling beneath the heavy weight.
His heart hadn’t felt so light in a very long time.
When they had calmed, Cookie lay curled around Taehyung, the boy nuzzling into his flank, comforted by the calm thudding of the heart beneath his cheek and the warmth of the soft fur. Tae had let the fire die down a bit but it still emit a comforting glow, casting them in a warm bubble amidst the bed of blankets, the blizzard continuing to rage outside.
Taehyung fell asleep there, warm and comforted, and not alone. Not anymore.