Wolf’s Eyes

It has been eons since I shared one of my old short stories on The Eye-Dancers!  And so, for this post, blemishes and warts and all, I will share a story I wrote way back in 2007–just before I began writing The Eye-Dancers the novel.  The story is called “Wolf’s Eyes”–and, again, I am not going back in and updating it all.  What follows is the story, exactly as I wrote in fourteen years ago.

On the surface, this story is very different from The Eye-Dancers, but what they have in common, I hope, is an honest exploration into the human condition and a depiction of the struggles and challenges and loves and hurts and joys and wonders of life.

I hope you enjoy the story!

 

“Wolf’s Eyes”

Copyright 2021 by Michael S. Fedison

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Nick dodged the punch easily.  The guy had telegraphed it by a mile.  Off-balance, stumbling forward,  the puncher fell into a snow bank.  Nick could have pressed his advantage, pummeled the guy, but he didn’t.  Over the years, he had learned to keep his cool—essential in his line of work.  He would only use force as a last resort.  Even then, it was risky.  Breach of the peace lawsuits were common, and often went in favor of the debtor.

“Look, Mr. Hickman,” Nick said, speaking slowly, calmly.  The man who had tried to hit him—Hickman—regained his feet, brushing snow from his nightclothes.  Fresh flakes, swaying drunkenly in a light, cold breeze, salted the air.  The only light came from a nearby street lamp, which glowed in the dark like a beacon, and a small fluorescent light that hung above Hickman’s front door.  “I have to take it away tonight.  You know that.  Why make it any harder than it has to be?”

“You lied to me!” Hickman said, closing the distance by half between himself and Nick with one long step.  “You told me you’d give me more time.”

Nick took a deep breath.  This was a part of the job he hated.  It was why he’d come here tonight after eleven—hoping to avoid a confrontation.  But no such luck.  “I didn’t lie to you, Mr. Hickman,” he said.  “I said I’d give you more time, and I did.  But I can’t give you another day.  My boss wouldn’t like it.”

From behind, a door opened, then slammed shut.  Nick turned, but kept an eye on Hickman, just in case he tried something again.  Great, just what he needed.  Mrs. Hickman.

“We’ll get the money!” she yelled.  “Just give him one more week.  Can’t you do that?”  She was now face-to-face with Nick.

Nick shook his head.  “I extended the deadline last time,” he said.  “I wasn’t authorized to do that, either, and I got an earful for it.  Can’t do it again.  The car needs to come with me.”

Hickman tensed, and Nick readied himself for a second attack.  But the thin, balding man just stood his ground.  The fight had apparently gone out of him.  “I’m just a little down on my luck right now, that’s all,” he said.  “I need to get a job.  I will get a job.  It’s not my fault I got laid off.  But how can I get hired somewhere if you take my car away, huh?  It’s the only one we have.”

Nick shrugged.  “I’m sorry.  But if I don’t take this car tonight, I’ll be looking for a job myself come tomorrow morning.”  With that, he got on his hands and knees, ready to finish what he’d started before Hickman had interrupted him.

The Hickmans stared at him while he worked.  It was as if they were frozen into silence by a combination of the subzero temperatures and Nick’s unbendable resolve.  He had pulled his tow truck into the driveway, directly behind the Hickmans’ blue ’03 Stratus.  Now, with the aid of a flashlight strategically placed on the snow-dusted surface of the driveway, he secured the tow chains around the car’s rear axle.  That got Hickman moving again.

He placed his gloveless hands on the Stratus’s trunk, as if to proclaim ownership and a right of refusal for its being towed away, then quickly pulled his hands away, wincing, the metal too cold to touch.

“Stop!” he said.  “Stop it!  How will I get a job without a car?  There’s no good work to be had in this town, and the city’s twenty miles from here.”  It sounded like he was on the verge of tears.

“I know,” Nick said, as he operated the winch, lifting the car off of its back wheels.  “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”  It was Mrs. Hickman.  “You’re sorry?  How can you do this to us?  How can you just . . . steal our car like this?”

“It’s not stealing, Mrs. Hickman, and you know it.”  He checked his work, making sure everything was tight and properly secured.  Then he hopped into his truck.

As he backed slowly down the driveway, the Hickmans followed him.  Mrs. Hickman signaled for him to roll down his window.  He did, not sure why he was still such a glutton for punishment after all these years.

“You have no soul, do you know that?” she screamed at him.  Puffs of vapor escaped her lips, adding emphasis to her accusation.  “You are evil!”

Nick reclosed the window.  It served no purpose to argue with these people.  When he drove away a moment later, he looked in his rearview mirror.  Mrs. Hickman had her head on her husband’s shoulder, and he was holding tightly onto her, as if it were her support alone that prevented him from falling, face-first, onto the ground.

Two hours later, Nick thanked his father for staying over and watching Angel.  His father said to think nothing of it—Angel was a joy, as always—but Nick knew how fortunate he was.  Having his parents still living in the same community as he did helped him out immeasurably.  How many times had his father or mother babysat for Angel when Nick was out roaming the streets on one of his jobs?  Hundreds, easily.  And often at odd hours of the night.

When his father left, Nick felt bad.  He wished he could do something special for his parents, something more than the standard run-of-the-mill “thanks, Dad, thanks, Mom.”  He shuffled into the kitchen, ran some tap water into a tea kettle, then placed the kettle on the front left burner of the stovetop.  After turning the heat on high, he leaned against the counter.  Maybe he could put aside some money for them—little by little—and, once it amounted to enough, present it to them so they could take a cruise or visit Switzerland—a lifelong dream.  He shook his head.  He wouldn’t be able to save that much.  Not with Angel to look after.  Any money he could squirrel away went toward her college fund or the braces she might need in a few years.  Not for the first time, he thought back twelve years and wished he’d chosen a different line of work.

It had been one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions, made by an eighteen-year-old kid, fresh out of high school.  A friend of Nick’s at the time had an idea:  His uncle ran a repo agency, and was willing to hire the two of them on a trial basis—just to give them some real experience before they decided what to do with the rest of their lives.  “If nothin’ else, the job’ll show you how well you can work under pressure,” the friend’s uncle—a gray-bearded man who went by the name of “Buddy”—explained to Nick during their interview.  Nick found out quickly how true that was.  His friend, apparently unable to cope with that pressure, quit after a week.  But Nick stayed on.  He didn’t mind all the driving, worked the tow truck with ease, and wasn’t afraid of confrontations with angry debtors.  Nick was 6’3”, and, even at eighteen, was chiseled with muscle.  Most people didn’t want to tangle with him.

After a month on the job, Buddy told Nick he was hired, full-time, if he wanted it.  “Man, you’re already one of my top agents,” Buddy informed him.  Nick accepted.  The pay was decent—not great, but a lot better than flipping burgers.  The hours were long and irregular, but Nick didn’t mind.  He was a teenager.  Who cared if he sometimes spent entire nights driving around, searching for cars?

But, eventually, that all changed.  He met a girl, fell in love, and suddenly resented the crazy work schedule.  Sometimes, out on a date with Marie, he’d hear the whine of his cell phone, and he knew what it meant.  A job.  He’d need to cut the date short and perhaps drive as far as the county line—fifty miles one way.  Once he got married and they had Angel, it just got worse.  He wished he could work at an office, like a normal guy, and come home every night by six.

Additionally, after years on the job, he was tired of it.  Seventy-five percent of the time, he was able to avoid the debtors.  That’s why the late-night shifts often proved to be so effective.  There isn’t going to be a confrontation with someone who’s asleep.  But the other 25 percent of the time . . . He was burned out with it.  The ridiculous excuses.  The threats.  The name-calling.  It had just gotten old.

But the worst aspect of the job was what he’d experienced tonight.  Taking the car from the Hickmans wasn’t easy—it bothered Nick, and he suspected he might lie awake in bed for a while, replaying the image of the couple holding onto each other at the base of their driveway.  He wished he could be more hardhearted, but Marie had been glad that he wasn’t.  She used to say, “If it didn’t bother you, then you wouldn’t be you.”

The kettle on the stovetop began to whistle.  He shut off the burner, poured the steaming water into a teacup, then mixed in the hot chocolate packet.  It was a good night for hot chocolate.  The thermometer out on the front porch had read seven below when he’d gotten home.  Spring didn’t want to arrive this year.  Tomorrow was the first of April, and still there was no melting of the snow pack, no relief from the record-setting cold, no signs of the earth’s renewal.  Normally, crocus flowers would be pushing their way through the last patches of snow, and the daffodils, eager to upstage them, would be ready to bloom in a matter of days.  But now, there was only the deep snow and the whipping, howling northwesterly winds, and the endless days of leaden-gray clouds sealing off the sky.

He sat down at the table, took a sip of the chocolate.  Good and hot, and sweet, just the way he liked it.  He thought again of Marie.  He tried to push her away—thinking of her was too painful, but in his mind’s eye he could see her so clearly, as though she were sitting across from him, smiling, waiting to listen to how his job went.  If only it could be.  She would never smile at him again.  Never talk to him again.  Five years ago, she was driving along Pebble Creek Road, south of town.  Suddenly, a deer darted in front of her.  Swerving to avoid it, she lost control, and slammed into a tree.  The impact broke her neck, killing her instantly.  And Nick never could come to grips with that.  The power of an instant.  One moment, driving home, looking forward to seeing your husband and baby daughter, the next—in the blink of an eye, two final beats of the heart—slumped dead and motionless over the steering wheel.  He shuddered to think what might have happened to him if it weren’t for Angel.  She was the reason he’d managed to hold on—she still was.

He put his cup of hot chocolate down, rubbed his eyes.  It was no good brooding this way.  “Quit it,” he told himself.  “Why don’t you just quit it?”  As if in response, the wind grew louder outside, screeching, rattling the eaves and seeking entry into the warm house.

“Quit what?” a high-pitched little girl’s voice said from behind him.

He turned.  “Angel!  What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I thought I heard the wolf, and . . .”  She tilted her head.  “But, Daddy, quit what?  What are you gonna quit?”  Her eyes were bright and alert.  Here it was, after one o’clock in the morning, and his seven-year-old was wide awake.  Like father, like daughter, he thought.  She walked up to the table, and looked into his cup.  “Can I have some?” she asked.

He handed her the cup.  “Careful, Angel.  It’s hot.  Just take a sip.”

She did—a loud, slurping sip.  He laughed, and it felt good.  Angel usually had that effect on him.  They had named her Angela, but he had never called her that, and was sure he never would, not even after she grew up, settled down, and had children of her own.  She would always be his Angel.

“So what are you gonna quit?” she said again, once she had sampled enough hot chocolate to her satisfaction.

He placed the cup back onto the tabletop.  “Nothing, Angel.  I was just thinking about my job, that’s all.”  He didn’t want to mention Marie.  No reason to go down that path.

She sat on his lap.  “You don’t like your job, do you, Daddy?”

He smiled.  “I just don’t like taking stuff away from people, that’s all.  I remember how, right after I started, a couple of the other guys told me not to worry.  It would get easier, the more I got used to it.  But it hasn’t.”

She looked up at him.  “Well, if you don’t like it, then why do you do it?”

It was a fair question.  He asked it himself from time to time.  But the answer was obvious, as clear as the blue in his daughter’s eyes.  There weren’t many good jobs in the area—Hickman had been right about that.  Besides, what could Nick do?  He had no degree, no special skills.  His entire working life had been spent repossessing automobiles from people who couldn’t—or, at times, wouldn’t—pay their bills.

He put his arms around Angel.  “To take care of you,” he said.  “And so when you get to be, oh, seventeen or so, you’ll be able to go to the mall with your friends and pick out all the jewelry you want, and they’ll say, ‘How can you buy all that stuff?’ And you’ll say, ‘Cause my dad’s a repo man, and he takes of me.’”

Angel giggled and rested her head on Nick’s shoulder.  “You’re silly, Daddy.”

“I’ll show you who’s silly,” he said, and reached for her underarm.  Even through her pajama top, he knew how ticklish she was.

She squirmed and laughed.  “Stop, stop!” she said.  When he did, she kept on laughing.  Then she looked into his eyes.  “I love you, Daddy.”

He almost cried then.  The trust in her.  The confidence she had in him.  He hoped he would prove worthy of it.  “I love you, too, Angel.”  He hugged her tight.  “Now, why don’t you go back to bed, honey?  It’s way too late for little girls to be up.  You have school tomorrow.”

She pulled back, sitting on his knees now.  “But, Daddy, I can’t sleep!  I heard the wolf howling!  I hoped maybe he wasn’t really there, but I kept on hearing him!  Didn’t you hear him?”

“No,” he said.  “And I don’t hear him now, either.  Do you?”

She turned her head sideways, listening.  “No,” she said.  “But I heard him before!  I know I did.  What if he’s here now?  Right next to my window?  Right—”

“Ssh,” Nick said.  “I’m sure he’s not here.”  Well, he was fairly sure.  Wolves were rare in these parts, but periodically some hunter or hiker might come across some paw prints deep in the woods, or even catch a glimpse of a wolf pack, especially at dusk or dawn.  Even then, the wolves were generally of no concern.  They almost never ventured into the town, and, though he lived a few miles out—in the boonies, as his parents liked to say—Nick hadn’t ever seen one on his land.  But he knew this year might be different.

Over the past two weeks, there had been an abnormally high frequency of wolf sightings
. . . though Nick wondered if they were genuine.  Maybe the folks who claimed to have seen a wolf were just trying to cause a stir.  If that was their intent, they succeeded.  Some of the town’s residents had joined together on what they called a “wolf watch.”  They thought some of their livestock might be in danger of attack, and, besides, wolves shouldn’t feel free to roam this far south.  “Keep ‘em up in Canada,” one old man had told Nick last week while waiting in line at the post office.  “They got no business comin’ down here.  Where’s the Border Patrol when you need ‘em?”

Still, Nick didn’t think he’d see a wolf on his property any time soon.  And he certainly didn’t want his daughter losing sleep on account of such an unlikely scenario.

“I’m sure it’ll be safe in your room, Angel,” he said.  “Go to sleep.”

This seemed to reassure her—a little.  “What about Michelle and Tammy and Carrie and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

Nick let out a chuckle.  He kept a dozen chickens in the barn (he had always loved the taste of fresh eggs), and Angel had named each one of them.  Some of them were hard to distinguish, but Angel always seemed to know who was who.  “I’m sure they’ll be fine, too,” he said.  “The barn door is shut and latched.”

“I hope so,” Angel said.  “’Cause Jane Ferguson told me in school today that the wolf musta come to her house last night, ‘cause this morning, when her dad went outside, he saw wolf tracks goin’ straight to the barn.  And if the wolf went there . . .”

“Don’t worry about that, honey,” Nick said, but he understood Angel’s alarm.  The Fergusons lived only a half mile up the road from them.  That was too close for comfort.  “Nothing bad will happen.”

She got off his lap.  Her eyes were finally starting to look sleepy.  “Promise?”

“I promise,” he said.  “No wolf will break into our barn tonight.  Okay?”  He smiled at her.  “Here.  One for the road.”  He held the cup out to her, and she took one last loud sip of the hot chocolate.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she said.  “But it’s not so hot anymore.  G’night.”

“Good night, Angel.”

She left the kitchen, and he heard her climbing the stairs to her bedroom.

Ryersons’ General Store was one of those relics from America’s past—a small-town shop with dusty hardwood floors, a proprietor who knew you by name, and cramped shelves filled to overflowing with items you could buy much cheaper at the super chain stores in the city.  But Nick had always liked this place.  He’d shopped here since he was a kid.

When he opened the door, a bell announced his presence.  Jim Ryerson, who had owned the store since before Nick was born, stood behind the cash register, chatting with a red-haired woman Nick couldn’t identify.  He glanced up at him and waved.  Nick waved back, then proceeded to the refrigerator case.  He slid open the glass door, which squeaked, and retrieved a gallon of whole milk, along with a package of sharp cheddar cheese.  Then he approached the checkout counter.  Close up, the redhead looked familiar, but Nick still couldn’t place her.

“You should put a signup sheet outside, or right up front,” the woman was telling Ryerson.  “And get the men to band up.”

Ryerson looked over at Nick.  “All set, Nick?”

Nick nodded, placed his items onto the counter.  The woman eyed him, unfriendly.

“Impound many cars lately?” Ryerson said.

“A few,” Nick said, and suddenly it occurred to him why the woman looked familiar.  A couple of years ago, Nick seized a minivan from her.  She’d been four months behind on her payments.  At the mention of impounding cars, the redhead’s expression darkened.  Nick worked the entire county, and many of his jobs sent him down to the city.  He didn’t usually need to repo cars from his own town.  But he’d gone after enough that awkward, chance encounters like this one were bound to happen once in a while.  “Awful cold lately,” he said, wanting to change the subject.

“Tell me about it,” Ryerson said.  “Worst spell I’ve ever seen this time of year.  Makes me want to pack up an’ move to Florida.”

“Nah, too crowded,” Nick said.  “And too flat.”

“Well, at least they don’t have wolves there,” the woman said.  She was still scowling at him.

“Has there been another sighting?” Nick asked.

Ryerson nodded.  “They saw ‘im up by the Baker place at dawn.  Tried to shoot ‘im, but Kenny Baker never did win any prizes for marksmanship.”

“Man, what’s going on?” Nick said.  “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

“It’s probably this crazy weather,” Ryerson said.  “With the cold we’ve been gettin’, and with the snow still so deep, pickin’s must be slim out in the woods.  So what’s a wolf do?  He comes raidin’ our barns, lookin’ for meat.”

Nick thought about that.  It was as good an explanation as any.  He was relieved he had a shotgun at home—an old Remington his father had given him.  He didn’t think he’d need to use it, but he was beginning to wonder . . . .

“Raiding barns would be bad enough,” the woman said.  “But he’s goin’ after pets, too.  My neighbor said the wolf got to chasin’ some cat right out in the road.  And my kids are havin’ nightmares, worryin’ about ‘im!  You got to put that signup sheet out, Mr. Ryerson.  Get a bunch of men to go out together and not come home till they gut that monster.”

Ryerson told her he would consider the suggestion.

“Do more than consider it,” she shot back.  “Everyone in this town will rest easier once that wolf is dead.”

Another late-night job, but this time there was no confrontation.  It went smoothly, and he was home just after midnight.  As he went upstairs, to check on Angel (his dad said she’d been asleep for hours), he felt that familiar sense of relief mixed with regret that he always did after completing a repo job.  He was relieved that the job was over, but he regretted having to take someone’s car.  He didn’t know the person he had targeted tonight.  A woman, apparently living by herself.  He didn’t know if she was delinquent on her payments because she was stupid with money, irresponsible, or whether she had been dealt one of those cruel, random blows life sometimes liked to dish out.  Maybe she was a good person, who tried hard to balance her checkbook.  Maybe she was kind and generous, lending money she didn’t have.  He didn’t know, and didn’t particularly want to.  Knowing always made the work harder.

He tiptoed to Angel’s door, gently pushed it open.  Her nightlight was on, and she was breathing gently, in a deep, sound sleep.  Any doubts and misgivings about his profession left him.  Everything he did, he did for Angel.  That was the only thing that mattered.

All through the next week, it snowed.  Still no sign of winter’s retreat.  Easter was approaching, but it seemed more like Christmastime.  And the temperatures remained well below freezing.  The townspeople openly wondered whether spring would ever come this year.

There were more wolf sightings, too.  A high school boy, out snowshoeing in his backyard, saw paw prints that led straight up to the porch.  An old married couple said the wolf had raided their storage shed, rummaging for scraps of thrown-out meat.  Another couple said the wolf had scratched at the side of their barn, apparently sniffing the sheep within, until its paws must have bled.  Dried red streaks littered the siding like a crazed, haphazard display of graffiti.  Even Jim Ryerson claimed he thought he saw the wolf out behind the general store, right in town, one night, in the moonshine.  And several people said they heard the wolf howling, deep into the night.

That whole week, whenever Nick came home from a repo job, he always thought of his Remington, secured and locked away in its gun case, but ready to use if necessary.

 

“Daddy!  Daddy!  The barn’s open!  Daddy!”

Angel was shaking him, rousing him, but he didn’t want to be roused.  This had been a rare night with no jobs.  He’d tucked himself in early.  “Wha?” he said.  “Angel, what are you doing?”  He shook his head, trying to clear it, rubbed some of the sleep from his eyes.  Checking the digital clock on his nightstand, he saw that it was 2:33 a.m.

“Daddy, the barn!” she shouted.  “I can hear the door!  It got loose!”

He sat up.  “That’s impossible, Angel.  That door’s latched.  It—”  But then he heard it.  A dull, rhythmic thud, thud coming from beyond his window.  The wind had been fierce earlier—fifty miles per hour.  There had been an advisory to stay off the roads.  Somehow, it must have jarred the door loose.  He slid back down, plopping his head onto the pillow.

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Angel said.  “The barn!  The chickens—”

“I’ll check on the chickens in the morning, honey.  If the latch broke, there’s not much I can do till it gets light anyway.”

“But, Daddy, the wolf!  He’ll get Jillian and Henrietta and Rosetta and—”

He sat up again.  “Angel . . .”  But then he stopped himself.  She was breathing so fast, nearly hyperventilating.  He knew she would never be able to get to sleep until he checked outside.  “Okay,” he said.  “Okay, honey.  I’ll go take a look.”

“Hurry, Daddy!”

He hurried.  And, once downstairs, he actually felt alert and awake.  He put on his overcoat—it was in the teens outside, and with the wind chill, it surely felt a lot worse—then considered the Remington.  He doubted the wolf would be out there, but if he was going to wander outside in the middle of the night, he wanted to be prepared for anything.  He unlocked the case, and pulled out the gun.

“Daddy?”  Angel looked scared.  She stared at the Remington.

“Go upstairs, Angel,” he said.  “I won’t be long.  I’m sure everything will be just fine.”  He offered her a reassuring smile, then opened the front door.  The wind sliced into him, freezing his exposed cheeks and hands.  Stupid, no gloves, he thought, but he didn’t want to go back and get them.  He went outside.

The barn door was clearly visible, bathed in the glow of two lamps that hung directly above it.  It had gotten loose, all right.  It banged repeatedly against the side of the barn, wood smiting wood, the sound echoing along the cold current of the wind.  A few bundles of straw whirled about the open entranceway, some of it spilling out into the snow-strewn path.  Looking more closely, Nick thought he saw something else, too. . . .

Tracks.

He walked over to the barn.  There were several sets of tracks, both going and coming.  He knelt down to examine them.  Wolf tracks, without a doubt.  And fresh.  Interspersed with the tracks, trickles of blood marred the path, freckling the snow with reddish-brown blotches.

“Great,” Nick said.  “Just great.”  From behind him, deep inside the barn, he heard the chickens clucking and moving about.  How many of them had the wolf gotten?  He was about to go check, when, from the corner of his eye, he saw movement.

He wheeled around, quickly, and saw, in the distance, a large shape heading for the woods.  It had to be the wolf, the same wolf that had raided his barn and killed who knew how many of his chickens.

“That’s the last time you’re gonna kill anything,” Nick said.  As if speaking for the wolf, in response, the loose door slammed into the barn’s side, causing Nick to jump.  “Get a grip,” he told himself, and set off after the wolf.

In his haste, Nick had forgotten to grab his flashlight, but the night was clear, and a cluster of distant stars along with a waning gibbous moon provided just enough illumination for him to see.  Snow crunched beneath his feet as he trudged into the woods.  He had lost sight of the wolf, but the tracks served as a guide.

He picked up his pace, nearly running, not wanting the animal to escape.  The tracks led around a bare maple tree, its limbs casting black shadows, like twisted fingers, onto the ground.  Nick sped past the tree, ready to continue the pursuit.  He was in a clearing now, but the tracks no longer forged ahead.  Rather, they veered sharply off course, they—

To his right, not ten feet away, he spotted two yellow eyes, reflected in the moonlight, staring at him.  He swallowed, but it felt scratchy.  His throat had gone dry.  The yellow in the wolf’s eyes was wild, feral.  Nick realized one wrong move might prove deadly.

At the wolf’s feet, three dead chickens lay in the snow.  They appeared remarkably unharmed—but they were dead, just the same.  Nick felt a rage come over him.  Angel would be heartbroken over this.  “Just stay right where you are,” he said, and slowly raised his Remington.  He tried to remain calm, but his heart was beating like a trip-hammer.  He was sure the wolf could hear it, sense it.  Just like it could probably smell the fear on his skin, the way it seeped through his pores and spread over his body like sweat.  He took aim.  Still, the wolf stood its ground.  Nick had it now.  All he had to do was fire his gun.

But then the wolf staggered.  It nearly fell over, but it was able to balance itself with an effort.  Nick couldn’t help but notice how ragged the animal was, how thin.  Its ribs stuck out through a mangy coat of fur, its left ear was gashed at the base, and blood leaked from its forepaws.

Looking into those wild yellow eyes, Nick pulled back the trigger, and . . . hesitated.  The wolf continued to stare at him.  It was almost as if the animal were attempting to communicate with him, connect with him.  That was a ridiculous notion, absurdly impossible.  And yet . . . why didn’t the wolf attack?  Or run away?  Or move at all?  Why did it just stand there like that?

Again the wolf staggered.  Clearly it was exhausted.  Finally, it looked away, at the multiple sets of tracks it had made.  Then it glanced at the chickens, before locking its gaze back onto Nick again.

Nick returned the gaze, peering deeply into the yellow depths of the wolf’s eyes, as if they were the gateway to a strange new world and he was an explorer intent on discovering its secrets.  He blinked, wanting to look away, wanting to fire his Remington and rid the community of this menace.  But he was unable to.  He was getting lost in the animal’s eyes, searching, searching. . . . until, like a cog fitting perfectly into place, he felt something click inside his head.  And he was able to see . . . really and truly see.  He saw the wolf for what it was . . . for what she was.  He saw a den tucked away deeper within the woods, where pups huddled together for warmth.  The wolf’s brood.  Somehow, he had no idea how, he knew those pups desperately needed to eat something, or they might not live to greet the morning.  He considered the wolf’s protruding ribcage again, her state of exhaustion.  How many nights had she hunted for food?  How many nights had she gone back to her children with nothing to share but hunger?  She must have been ravenous, on the verge of starvation herself—but she hadn’t taken a single bite out of the chickens.  She was saving them for her pups.

The wolf sat down, too tired to remain standing.  She wouldn’t take her eyes off of Nick.  In them, he thought he saw a recognition.  A species of kinship.

He lowered the gun.  “Go ahead, then,” he said.  “Take those birds back to your pups.”

The wolf, still, silent, looked at him.  Looked in him.  It even seemed to Nick that she nodded her head, ever so slightly.

He turned around, headed back through the woods, following the wolf’s tracks and his own, in reverse.  As he walked, he thought about what to tell Angel.  He knew she would ask him why he hadn’t shot the wolf, why he had let the wolf get away after killing the chickens.  He wished he might be able to invent a story for her, one that would lessen her hurt and outrage.  But all he could do was tell her the truth.  Tell her how shooting the wolf was something he just couldn’t bring himself to do.

And maybe someday, after she had grown older and this night had become merely a momentary blip on the radar screen of her memory, she would come to understand.

**************************************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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