Wolves

One of my perennial get-the-wheels-turning exercises.

-daK

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We heard on the radio that hunters in northern Canada kept finding dead deer. They thought maybe it was just a big year for grizzlies. Then they started finding dead grizzlies. Eaten.

Hunters started saying they’d seen what looked like huge wolves. Some people said polar bears. Most people said mass hysteria. Everyone made the same Bigfoot joke. Then hunters started disappearing. Then the news stories stopped. We lived in New Mexico so we forgot about it.

There were five of us. Six, my son, Daniel, but he was away at school. He was studying abroad in France. I tell myself he’s alive. He’s holed up in some bunker or some castle in the mountains and he’s found a nice French girl to marry and have kids of his own. I’ll never see him again because everything’s so fucked, I’ll never hear from him again, I’ll never know. So I tell myself he’s alive and well because if he’s dead I’ll never know it.

We lived in a house on a cul-de-sac, in a subdivision outside Los Alamos. Gerry, my husband, taught engineering at the college. I was an engineer for the city. Katie was in her senior year of high school, Jackie was a junior, and Jane was in the eighth grade. I really wanted my girls to not have names that ended in “a”.

We lived in New Mexico so we forgot about it.

The first videos came out of northern Finland. The government tried to pull the videos down. I don’t know which government. Doesn’t matter. The videos got shared, they couldn’t keep up with it. We saw.

They were huge. Are huge. They… tower over you. And that’s when they’re walking. They move hunched over, their back legs long and bent like monkeys, but they have grey fur like wolves, and long jaws lined with teeth. Teeth like shovels. And then they rear up, and spread their arms to swipe. They block out the sun.

We kind of knew something was going on but we went on with our lives. What else could we do? What should we have done? The government was silent. When that didn’t work they tried to say it was a new species in the far north, in the polar regions. They were telling people in Alaska to be careful. Within a few days Alaska was overrun. Then Montreal. Then Moscow.

The National Guard got called up. Planes started landing at the Los Alamos airstrip. People came, people left. The new dorm at the college got taken over and filled with soldiers, mostly middle-aged men who looked as much like soldiers as my husband did. The college announced they were sending the kids home. Then they announced that they were to stay in place. Then they said that everything was fine.

The wolves breed like rabbits. They swept down all across the country. City after city, town after town. They were huge and they multiplied and so they had to eat.

The government started saying that the problem was contained, that we were helping our Canadian allies north of the border. They kept saying that. It was propaganda. That was when we knew that things were really wrong. The news focused on cheery stories. Politics disappeared. Then they tried to bring back politics because people like focusing on that. Nobody cared.

Cars started coming south. Terrified people. Some with cars packed with everything they had. Some with nothing. One car I won’t forget had scratches on the side. It looked like it had sideswiped a pair of giant circular saws. When it drove by you could see into the car, see the driver’s legs. I thought it was a nightmare. Now I realize he must have been the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.

Everyone who’s still alive is lucky.

They have thick hide and hard bones and all they do is run and kill and eat. They can take hundreds of bullets and keep coming. They can flip over a car. They can leap right over it. They can track by smell like dogs. They run. They can cross a football field in seconds. It’s almost beautiful. It’s so overpowering, seeing them move, just seeing them, they’re so much bigger and stronger and hungrier than us. It’s almost beautiful. It’s the way I used to feel when I was a little girl in church.

The cars from the north stopped coming.

Planes flew in. Refueling. Flying south. They’d show up half-empty but they’d leave full. The base evacuated. I think everyone who could headed for the southern hemisphere, thought maybe they wouldn’t get that far. Maybe they went to islands. Or ships. Maybe they made a stand at that tiny bit of land that connects North and South America. Or maybe the wolves made it to Patagonia – and South Africa and Tasmania and every island. I don’t know how many people are left in the world. I don’t know if wolves can swim.

My husband came home at noon. He had the kids with him. He’d pulled them out of school. He had a smile on his face but it was fake. I could see that. So could the kids. Didn’t matter.

“The radio’s jammed,” he said. He meant his CB. “Every channel. Three guys have gone south to see if the road’s clear and promised they’d come back and tell us. None of them have. I don’t know, maybe they just kept going. But I don’t…”

He struggled. Jane started crying. We ignored her. She just stood there and listened and cried.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “I don’t think we have much longer. I think we go north, they won’t be expecting that.” He meant people. We were being wiped off the fucking map and he was afraid of people.

“We can’t go north!” Jackie said, her voice already almost hysterical.

“Just to get out of the mountains. Then we turn and go into the desert. We’ll head for Chaco Canyon.”

“Why there,” asked Katie. She was trying to sound calm. It didn’t work, but I was proud of her for trying. I remember thinking how much she’d grown up. Jesus Christ that was a different world.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s just desert. There’s fifty miles of desert in every direction. A hundred to the north – almost, almost a hundred. It’s a buffer.”

“And there’s nobody there,” I said, I think just out of a desire to support him. “Maybe-”

Maybe they won’t think to go there.

Maybe it’ll take them longer. Maybe we’ll live a little longer.

Either way.

“You don’t know that!” Jane shouted. “You don’t know anything about that!”

My husband opened his mouth and closed it. I knew what he was going to say – nineteen years of marriage will do that. He was going to talk about imperfect knowledge and risk. He didn’t.

“If we stay here, we’re dead,” he said.

In the silence that followed, I said, “He’s right.” Not because I wanted to support him. Because I realized that he was.

All three of my girls were crying. Silently. I thought I probably was too. I forced myself not to think about it.

“Packing!” he said, clapping his hands. We jumped. It broke the tension just a little. Every little bit helped.

“Every piece of camping equipment,” he said. “Hot weather gear. Cold weather gear. Everything. Bring sensible clothing. Exercise clothing, anything wool. Pretend like we’re going on an airplane – everyone gets one big suitcase full of clothing, and one little carry-on where you can bring whatever you want. Don’t bring any electronics, I doubt there’ll be electricity there.”

His eyes started to glaze over. He was thinking of possibilities. The enormity of it was coming to him, but that was just causing him to think harder. I loved him very much then – in a way I hadn’t for a long time.

I took the girls upstairs to their rooms to pack. Then I locked myself in our bedroom and cried my eyes out into a pillow.

I packed. We packed. We did our very best. In half an hour I went to everyone and said, alright, ten minute warning. Twenty minutes later we were putting suitcases in the minivan.

We put in the two toolboxes from the garage, half the contents of the kitchen and everything from the medicine cabinets. We hooked up the trailer. We stopped at the market and bought water – that was about the only thing they had left – and at the gas station we filled up twenty gallon cans with gas. Nobody was driving so gas they had. My husband stopped by the university and came out with three big boxes, his knees wobbly underneath them. They were full of granola bars. I didn’t ask where they came from. He drove away very fast and didn’t look back.

We went up into the mountains. We passed some road cyclists, probably scientists from the labs. They flashed us a thumbs-up as we passed them. They always do that. We drove up switchbacks. My ears popped, Jackie dug around in her bags and came up with bubble gum for us. Gerry’s face said why did you bring bubble gum? But he took a piece and chewed.

We passed the Valles Caldera, the great grass field that used to be the mouth of a volcano. There was a tiny wooden hut in the center. I always wondered if it was a survivalist’s cabin or a weather station or the world’s smallest B&B. On the edge of the field were a dozen helicopters. I thought I saw men moving about them. It didn’t surprise me. Nothing would anymore.

The road turned sharply north. There was a dirt trail to the west. Gerry stopped, consulted his big folding atlas. He decided to take the dirt road. It wasn’t a pleasant drive. It took us hours, bumping along, all of us waiting for the trailer to come detached or tip us over. It never did. Then we were descending. Then we were on a paved road, and the mountains were behind us.

If we’d stayed on the main road, I expect we would have hit a roadblock. I expect some nice men would have shot us dead.

We were on the high plains. Yellow scrub to every side, setting off the blue of the endless sky. We passed a few farms, a few little houses. A small pueblo, some houses and a water-tower. We stopped once for a res dog to limp across the road. As soon as it was out of the way we kept going. Gerry shook his head at himself.

It was a desolate road through desolate country. That’s how it always was. Nothing moved. The map said we were coming up on Pueblo Pintado.

The sky made streaks.

Gerry leaned forward to look up. There were white streaks across the sky. Then more. Then another set, coming from another point in the sky. Lower down the sky. No, closer. They were-

Planes? Helicopters? Firing missing? Firing-

There was a great noise. The van shook. Jane screamed, but it got caught in her throat. Gerry swerved the van but kept it on the road. Were they shooting at us? Were they-

Another explosion. We saw it out the right window, blossoming, forming, rising. Then another. A mile away? A shadow passed over us. We held our breath. It was a helicopter, heading north.

Firing.

Another explosion.

There. There they were. Against the burst of fire, we saw their shapes.

Wolves.

Gerry saw them. He put the gas pedal down and gripped the wheels. The van jerked. It struggled to get to 80. The road was flat and straight and dry. He bore down on it. I held my breath. I prayed.

I looked straight ahead. We all looked straight ahead. Then we were tumbling. Jane screamed. I think I screamed. The van was on its side and skidding. The sound of metal scraping. Falling. Falling inside, falling while moving. Flying. Shuddering and scraping. Screaming.

Something hits us. Spinning around. A dark shape. Spinning. There it is again. Giant. Towering over us. Blocking out the sun. Darkness.

We skid to a stop. The trailer bounces and rolls passed us, keeps going. We’ve stopped. I’m hanging from my seatbelt. I look around wildly. The girls are there. Gerry’s there. Everyone’s looking. Moving. Breathing. We’re fine. We’re all fine.

Darkness above us. The van rights itself. A claw through the broken window. A great arm. All we can see is empty road ahead. Then light. The van’s roof is ripped off. We look back and it’s… towering above us. And it is the clearest memory I have of my whole life.

We hear a noise. Half a roaring, half a sound like sleet. It’s body looks dusty, like blurred video. Black blood starts bursting from it, from a hundred places. It roars. It rears back and kicks us and we shoot ahead. The roof falls back with a thud. I look back and the creature’s running, almost out of sight. There’s an explosion. We’re picked up. The roof flops up and down like the lid of a tin can. The creature roars. I see its legs engulfed in flame. It grows larger. It’s moving towards us. Then another noise and I’m deaf and I’m blind, then half-blind, everything is blurring. The van’s on its side, the roof is open. I think I black out for a moment. I don’t know.

I look at my husband. All I remember is that I saw blood. I don’t remember what I saw. I thank God for that. I remember I saw blood, and I felt nauseous, and I had to get away. I unbuckled my seatbelt and fell, and pulled myself out through a hole in the roof. Then I was outside.

There was a fire on the desert road. A thing was burning. The pavement around it was broken and black. A helicopter flew overhead, then another. They were heading north.

I remembered my daughters. I am ashamed to think there was a moment in my life when I didn’t. I turned and ran to them, only a few feet but I was filled with madness. Jackie was pushing open a door straight up into the sky.

I screamed her name. I tried to climb up the exposed bottom of the van, I couldn’t, I got my feet into a wheel-well and climbed up, fought to keep my balance on the smooth metal. Jackie held the door out and Jane pulled herself up, her face covered in vomit and the black of smoke. She pulled herself out and got free and then fell from the van, landing on her arm. I scrambled down and went to her. I thought she was dead. She was just dazed. I don’t even think she’d hit her head. Then Katie was above me and helping Jackie through. They were on the ground beside me.

Jackie ran around the van, then a few moments later walked back around. Her eyes were dead.

Her father was dead.

I bolted up and looked all around. I saw no movement. I saw movement, my life ended, it was just the helicopters moving north. Nothing else. I stared and stared. I half tried to will something, to make more of them, to end it. Nothing.

I stumbled to the trailer. It was smashed. I ripped the door open, put my shoulders into it until it got jammed into the side of the trailer and stuck in the broken metal. I reached in with both hands and pulled things out like a dog digging. I wasn’t thinking very much.

My girls were next to me. “Pack up,” I said, or screamed, or think I screamed. There were six backpacks. Someone had brought my son’s. We filled four of them. Just took what we had. Then I started walking up the road. The girls followed me.

The sun was blistering overhead. It didn’t matter. Nothing would have stopped me from walking – nothing that would have left me alive. I don’t remember hearing anything. Not my girls, not our footfalls. The empty desert has a loud silence. Maybe it was the explosions. I don’t remember hearing anything.

We walked for hours. My mouth felt dry. I looked back and the girls were just walking. Jane had a limp. We weren’t walking very fast. They were wearing hats. I realized that I was wearing a hat. Someone must have put it on my head.

I stopped in the middle of the road and broke down and sobbed.

The pavement was so hot. It burned me. I looked around but there was no shade. I went to the side of the road but the sand was so hot. I threw myself into a creosote bush. I cut myself all over. I didn’t care. I didn’t notice.

My throat hurt too much to keep crying. The girls were huddled around me. I said “Do we have water?” and the words were so loud in my ears. That was the first thing I remember hearing.

We had a bunch of bottles of water. Little Poland Spring bottles. Four for each of us. We each had one. It barely cut the thirst. I wouldn’t let us drink any more.

We were all sunburned already. Our skin would be shredded tomorrow. If we survived until tomorrow. And if we did, who cared.

“We have to keep moving,” I said. The girls didn’t argue. Katie wiped Jane’s face of vomit, her shirt was still covered in it. Jackie’s hands were covered in dried blood like gloves. I forced myself not to throw up the water.

We kept walking.

I saw something in the distance. After a while Jackie said, “It’s a water-tower.” I was filled with hope. My feet were killing me. The sun was still far from set. I kept jumping and scanning the horizon. Then going back to ignoring it. Just watching the road, and waiting to see what would come.

The water-tower grew bigger. I realized I wasn’t getting sunburned, it was just sweat and heat. I smelled like sun screen. I stopped and we sat on our packs in the middle of the road. I asked who had the sunscreen and we all did. We put more on. I said nothing.

We came to the water-tower. It was in the middle of a little pueblo, a few houses, a dozen trailers. They were destroyed. The trailers were ripped apart and scattered on the ground. The houses were caved in. They had been through here and destroyed it and moved on. Would they be back? It didn’t matter. They would or they wouldn’t. We couldn’t protect ourselves from them. We couldn’t protect ourselves from the desert.

I broke down and wept.

I think I fell asleep, there on the ground. I woke up and Jane and Jackie were with me. Katie stood a few feet away, holding a knife in her hand. I think she meant to go down fighting. Or slit her wrists if she saw one coming.

I told her to stay, but my voice woke the girls. It was dark out but the stars were bright and clear. We walked to the water-tower but there wasn’t a spigot. Suddenly there was a light on us. It blinded me. I froze. We all did.

“Hey there,” a man’s voice called.

And waited.

“Hello?” I tried. Then louder, when I realized I’d barely whispered.

“Who are you?” it asked. Then: “Are you alright?”

I opened my mouth but couldn’t find words to the first question. So “We’re okay,” I said. “There’s four of us.”

I realized the voice was coming through a speaker. A little portable laptop speaker, lying on the ground, next to a little solar panel. The light was welded to the water-tower, looked like it had been there a long time.

“Is there anyone else around?” the voice asked.

I looked around. It was a ghost town in an endless dark.

“No,” I said.

“I’m about three miles north,” he said. “Stay there about ten minutes, I’ll send you a guide.”

The speaker went dead.

We stared at it. We stared at each other. “Go and hide,” I said to them. “Somewhere where you can see me.”

“You said there’s four of us,” Katie said.

I cursed myself.

“Go and hide,” I said.

They did.

I waited for ten minutes. Drank another bottle of water. Went behind the tower and peed a little. Then I saw a light in the sky. Another helicopter? No, it was small, and very close. It hovered just in front of me, maybe thirty feet up. A little whirring drone, with a light on it.

The speaker on the ground came up again. “Follow the drone,” it said. “I’m only a few miles away.” Then: “If it starts to run out of batteries, it’ll zip home. Just follow it. I’ll send another one out to grab you.”

I motioned the girls out of hiding. We put on our packs and walked.

We walked through the night. Heard nothing. Saw nothing. Three miles? Seems about right. There was hill, with sheer rock walls maybe forty feet tall. The drone followed the wall to the left. There was a set of stairs, sitting on stilts, starting a hundred feet out into the desert and going right up the wall. It looked like a modern art project. The drone went straight up and then disappeared over the lip of the cliffs.

We went up the stairs. I went first. It wasn’t much wider than one of us but it was stirdy, with rails on either side. I didn’t look down. I walked with purpose so my girls wouldn’t be nervous. I wasn’t nervous. I tried not to be giddy with hope.

At the top was a gate. It was open. We went inside. I closed it after us, and it locked with a heavy shudder.

There were no lights. It was hard to see by starlight. We were high off the desert floor. High enough? What was this place? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I saw structures and I walked towards them.

The drone came over us, hovered. It turned on bright lights that lit the night We all winced and shaded our eyes.

The drone just hung there. Was it watching us? I was suddenly filled with fear, at bringing three young girls-

I missed my husband.

I couldn’t let my mind go there. Not anywhere near there. No. I set my jaw so hard I thought I’d break it.

“Sorry,” a voice called. “This thing only has two settings, Bright and Too Bright.” I had no idea how to respond to the joke in his voice.

I heard footsteps. A guy entered the light. He was clean-shaven but his hair was rough and getting long. He looked alright.

“I’m Vera,” I said. “These are my daughters, Katie, Jackie, and Jane.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “You’re welcome to stay here long as you want. There’s room for plenty and it’s not getting used. It’s all yours.”

He pulled something out and we froze. It was a tablet. He moved his hands over it and the drone came over, then landed next to us, then went dark and turned off its rotors. He went over and picked it up.

“I’m sure you’re tired – probably can’t imagine – so, right, we can talk more tomorrow. Let me show you a place to sleep. This place has three carriage houses, I figured you’d probably want to stay together so I only made up the one. There’s water from the faucet and you can shower, but don’t waste it too much. And there’s food out on the table. Help yourself.”

The carriage-house was just a small adobe building. He went inside and hit the light-switch. The room filled with warm light. It was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen, that light. The room was like some simple hunting lodge, a big fireplace, big windows. He’d drawn the curtains tight. I knew not to open them, to let out the light.

I fought down the knot in my throat again. They were out there. Killing. Running free. Ravaging. I fought-

I ran to a door, threw it open. It was a closet. I saw another. Ran to it and barely made it to the toilet before I threw up.

“You guys get settled,” I heard him say. “Shout if you need me.”

He was gone.

I don’t remember going to bed. I woke up on a pull-out couch. Jane and Jackie were in it too. Katie was on the other couch, curled up under blankets. The curtains were thick and black but I could tell it was light outside. My feet hurt and my legs hurt and my back was sore. I went to the faucet and drank three glasses of water. There were bags of granola and pouches of milk. There were cabinets. There were bowls. I set the table for the girls, then went outside and ate cereal under the morning sky.

The main house was two stories with a cabana on top. There were three little carriage houses. In the middle was a courtyard of blue and white tiles. Off and behind were glass hothouses, maybe a dozen of them, too foggy from condensation for me to see inside. The roofs were all made of solar panels.

The whole top of the mesa must have been four or five acres. It felt like an island in a drowning sea.

I went to the door of the main house and knocked.

It opened pretty quickly. The guy was standing there. “Morning,” he said.

“Can we stay here?”

“Sure,” he said. “You live here now, as far as I’m concerned. I’m guessing that out there isn’t a healthy atmosphere.”

I just stared at him.

“That bad, huh?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s…”

“We’re safe up here,” he said. “This little mesa’s got sheer walls that are 48 feet at their lowest, 60 at the highest. Fuckers can’t get up here. I know, they tried. Tried for three days. Didn’t get anywhere close. They gave up and ran away. Fuck of a long couple of days, but… well, anyway. We’re safe out here.”

“We don’t have anything,” I said. “We didn’t bring almost anything-”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I think we’re okay here. There are twelve hothouses, the idea was to grow a big part of the food – eat local and all that – this was going to be a getaway spot, private parties, very exclusive – I was an investor – guess I’m only kind of trespassing – anyway. Two wells, both run sweet. Greenhouses are all planted, and there’s a lot of food in the store-rooms too – but hose greenhouses will feed five adults no sweat at all. Nobody else is coming, are they?”

“No,” I said. “We were going to Chaco Canyon.”

“Not that far from here. Though I guess it might as well be a million miles away.  It’s really fucked out there, isn’t it.”

I nodded.

“Alright. Well. There’s no cell service and the radio’s just bad jazz and talk about how everything’s fine. But I figure this is as good a place to be as any, and probably better than just about anywhere. So there are three hundred and twelve books in the library – I counted – and my thoughts are, we should probably read ’em nice and slow.”

I went back and woke the girls for breakfast. We ate and we cried and we cried our eyes out. I had us get dressed, best as we could, and I walked us to the edge of the cliff. Nothing but endless desert, nothing moving, nothing. I said a prayer for their father, my husband, and that was that.

A few hours later we joined the guy for lunch. I didn’t tell him we were in mourning and so he cracked jokes and that was what we needed. He was a real estate developer – had been – down in Phoenix. Now we might as well be the only people in the world.

We split up chores. Every day we checked the bacteria levels in the wells. Every day we rinsed clothing and dried it in the sun, then beat it until it wasn’t stiff and baked-feeling. Every day we checked the plants, picked potatoes and arugula, bell peppers and eight kinds of beans. We did yoga to the sunrise and the sunset. We lifted weights in the building’s little basement gym – Jane didn’t, the rest of us did. We read books. We talked, even when we didn’t have anything to talk about. We cooked together. We ate together. We cleaned up together. We listened to the radio until it went silent.

He never tried to touch us. Not me, not the girls. He’d thought about it – he’d told me later – he said only a eunuch wouldn’t have thought about it. But he wasn’t about to ask us. Maybe we weren’t guests in his house. But we couldn’t go anywhere. Could we have said no? Maybe? It would have been dangerous, and he understood that. And he didn’t even try.

At length, we tried.

The radio never came back on. We never saw wolves but we never saw people neither. Never saw planes or helicopters. Nothing. When the kids got old enough we had no choice. We started roaming out into the world. First to the water-tower. Then to the road. Then beyond, out into the world.

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~ by davekov on 19 January 2018.

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