A short story

I was out in the mountains driving my convertible one night on some back roads that I didn’t know very well. I had to put the top up because the weather had become strange. I would say it was a dark rainy night and it was – at times. But the clouds were misty and low to the ground. The rain was light. Here and there the upper clouds parted, and you’d see the full moon shining down through the silver mist. I was not driving that fast, but I was probably a little distracted by the bizarre weather conditions and their beautiful atmospheric effects.

I saw a flash in the car headlights, felt a thump and heard a small yelp. Oh no! I’d hit something! It wasn’t a deer. A mix of pity and curiosity came over me as I slowed the car and pulled over.

I turned off the engine and listened. My window was down. The rain had stopped momentarily, and I could hear nothing but the sound of the leaves dripping. Not even crickets. I got out and shut the door softly. The moon went behind some clouds and made it hard to see. I opened the door again and sat back in the driver’s seat reaching over and fishing around in the glove box until I found my little flashlight. I got out, shut the door and started walking back to the place where I’d hit something.

I kept scanning the tall grass beside the road. On one side the ground rose sharply up the mountainside. On the opposite side of the road was one of those short guardrails and then a steep embankment. A coyote yipped, and then another one answered it. I half smiled to myself. I’d always liked hearing coyotes. People said mean things about coyotes and complained about them moving into places they hadn’t been. But I liked hearing their lonely cries. But suddenly I heard a different sound. One I’d only heard in movies and Youtube videos. The distinct howl of a wolf! And way too close for comfort. It sounded like it was right up above me. Then another and another all in different places around me. I whipped my flashlight around half expecting to see yellow eyes looking back at me. I’d heard rumors and legends about wolves in these parts, but didn’t know whether to believe them. I kept wondering if I’d really heard a wolf. Could they really still be living here? It wasn’t a coyote. I knew the difference.

Part of me wanted to run back to the car, but part of me was determined to see what I had hit. It wouldn’t take long. I’d get a quick peek and then jump in my car and be on my way.

Then I saw something lying on the side of the road. I approached it carefully, straining to make out what it was.

Its little belly was going up and down slowly but it wasn’t moving. Chills came over me as I realized it was a wolf pup! Definitely not a coyote or a dog. Wow! Wolves alive and well here?

But this little one needed help. I wondered if there was a park ranger or veterinarian in these parts who could be reached this time of night.

My mind was a jumble of instructions. Get in the car before the wolves come. But wolves are endangered and I shouldn’t let this little one die. I took off my denim jacket and carefully laid it over the pup. It flinched a little but didn’t make a sound. I wrapped the jacket best I could around him, especially around his head. I didn’t want to get bitten. As gathered him up in my arms, he barked in pain, and his bark was immediately answered by one howl and then another. The wolves were on the move. I walked quickly back to the car, held the little pup balanced on my right arm as I fiddled with the car door. I got it open, kicked the seat forward so I could place the little guy on the small rear passenger seat. The compact bucket seats were ridiculously too small for an adult and just barely big enough for the little wolf. He whimpered as I lay him down and adjusted the jacket over him. I could see I had blood on my arms, but I couldn’t tell where it came from. His leg was gashed, probably there were other injuries. I got in my car and shut the door, mindful of the approaching wolves.

The little wolf in the back seat had a peculiar odor like blood and brake fluid mixed with something wild. How long was this poor thing was going to last? How long it was going to take to get this smell out of my car?

I started to look up a local veterinarian on my phone, but when I picked it up, I could see it was still out of service. My phone had had no service for most of this drive through the remote mountains. I would have to try again when I got down the mountain closer to civilization.

I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The engine made a couple of wimpy sputters and went silent. I tried again. Nothing. Great. No phone and no car. Middle of the night. Middle of nowhere. Dying baby wolf in the back seat and a bunch of howling adult wolves out in the woods. Nice.

Maybe there was something I could do if I looked under the hood. I popped the hood release, got out, walked around to the front of the car and lifted the hood.

I couldn’t see anything in the dark under the hood, but I felt around and found the battery cable. I checked to see if it was tight or something. I realized I didn’t know what I was checking. I was just trying stuff, because I didn’t like being stuck on this mountain.

I had this sense of something behind me.

I turned saw a full grown wild wolf for the first time in my life. The size of the animal left me spellbound. It was walking along slowly, nose down as if tracking something. The thought occurred to me, this was the mother, retracing her steps looking for her cub.

It wasn’t looking at me. I think that’s what unnerved me the most. It wasn’t looking at me because it didn’t need to. The pack was watching me. The others were watching me. Wolves work together. They were the first ones on earth to understand the division of labor, dividing and conquering, whatever you want to call it, they were executing it flawlessly in the shadows.

There must be five of them.

I jumped into the car and slammed the door just a split second before one wolf from out of nowhere leaped at me with a deep snarl that my mind couldn’t stop replaying. His big furry chest and neck hit the window next to my face. I heard his claws click against the glass. His growls sounded more like roars, as he lunged at the car over and over. I hunkered down trying to be less visible. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them moving around outside the car.

The rains started up again, and suddenly it seemed like the wolves had vanished.

But how could I be sure? I decided against going back out and closing the hood.

I got back up into my seat, and carefully tried to look around through the raindrops streaming down the windows. I strained to see what was out there in the shadows. Nothing. Nothing that I could see anyway. I tried to start the car again. Nothing. I checked on the pup. It was either dead or sleeping. What do I do now? I tilted my seat back as far as it would recline without getting too close to the little wolf in the back. I tried to make myself comfortable. I may as well get some rest. Someone was bound to come along this road in the morning.

I dozed off. Not sure how long I slept, but I awoke to the sounds of growling above my head. Had the little wolf recuperated? It was still dark. I had no idea what time it was, but there was this growling right over my head. I shook myself awake, looking around in the dark car. Nothing was moving inside the car, but something was growling and tearing at something.

Then I saw something out of the rear window. Some canine legs. Panic gripped me. They were on the roof of my convertible, tearing at the fabric! How intelligent was that? They found the weakest material in my vehicle. I tried to start the car again. Nothing. I tried honking the horn. They stopped briefly and then resumed their chewing.

Then I had an idea. Maybe I could punch or kick them off the roof. I tried to locate where they must be. I’m playing battleship with wolves. I could see where the fabric was being tugged and pulled by one of them. I laid on my back and put my foot up above me, and kicked as hard as I could. I connected with something, but not in a very effective way. I heard a louder growl and it seemed to be that the tearing resumed with renewed intensity. I tried again, but then realized that if I kicked too hard I was going to tear the fabric myself.

So this was it. These wolves were going to tear the top off my speedster and eat me, all because I ran over their youngster. Because I was so softhearted I stopped and tried to take the mangy stinky thing to the vet. What karma.

When your death comes slowly and you have time to think about your fate, your mind becomes this leaky cellar that all kinds of things seep and creep into. Strange notions of guilt. Why had I done this or that.

I couldn’t help remembering all the times my Dad said he hated convertibles. They were so impractical and dangerous he said. I never was one to listen.

A vision of my headstone flashed into my mind. “He died in his convertible”

I could hear them tearing at the fabric. The headstone would say “ragtop.” Literally.

I watched for teeth. When I see teeth through the black fabric, then I’ll know they’re getting close.

Close my eyes or keep them open? That question kept running through my mind. I stared at the fist sized hole in the roof. I could see brief flickers of fur and glinting eyes. The dappled moonlight didn’t let me see much, but I could see more than I wanted.

A snout with sharp teeth grabbed the tattered fabric at the side of the opening and tore it some more. The breeze parted the trees and a long interval of moonlight shone full on the face of not one but two…

I almost laughed. Coyotes? I’d been held hostage for two hours by a bunch of coyotes? I could drop kick them one by one if I had to. I felt courage and hope for the first time since the car died. Maybe I’d get some nasty bites – and some rabies shots to go with em – but I was going to survive this one!

I sat up, careful not to stick my head too close to the hole. “HEY” I yelled, “YAHHH! GET OUT OF HERE!” My voice sounded so alone in the dark forest, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I kept yelling and rocking the car back and forth. One of the coyotes slipped off the roof, his toenails clicking and scratching the sides of my car as he fell into the grassy ditch.

In a rush of bravery, I threw open the car door and yelled some more, kicking gravel into the darkness and waving my arms. One coyote went slinking off into the bushes, while another just stood one top of the ripped up roof of my car. I slammed the hood shut – trying to make the loudest sound possible – put one foot up on the front bumper of my car, and jumped onto the hood, facing the coyote. I was crazy. I was ready for anything. I screamed at the coyote with all my lungs could muster. It backed down off of the roof. I yelled some more. It was gone. I turned around to jump off the hood – and when I did my heart stopped and sank.

Three very large wolves – definitely not coyotes – were approaching the front of my car, baring their teeth, their ears flattened back on their heads.

So this is how they work. Let the coyotes exhaust the prey, while the wolves conserve their energy. Then when the fates are sealed, move in for the kill. The horrific logic unfolded so clearly in my mind. Of course. They were the most intelligent creatures of the forest. Maybe the planet. No one realizes what they’re up to until it’s too late.

I had this overwhelming impulse to beg for my life but these predators aren’t wired for empathy.

I saw the mother wolf going into my car through the open driver side door. Through the windshield I watched as she wriggled into the back seat to be with her little one. Forgetting for the moment that I was surrounded by other adult wolves, I crouched on the hood of my car, leaning close to the windshield so I could see what she was doing. It looked like she was licking the pup. It looked like she was trying to get out but couldn’t. I carefully leaned over the top of the tattered roof and reached as far as I could toward the drivers side door. I slowly put myself on the roof trying not to put too much weigh on it, but trying to get to where I could reach down and pull the drivers seat forward so the wolf could get out. As soon as I did I quickly pulled my hand back up, and saw the mother wolf jump out of the car carrying the pup by the scruff of its neck. With the pup in her mouth, she bounded across the road, over the guard rail and down the mountainside.

I quickly turned around, remembering the other wolves.

They were backing away. Dawn was approaching. So was an old pickup truck, coming slowly down the pass in the same direction I’d been traveling. The wolves – four not counting the mother, disappeared one by one with a leap over the guardrail.

The truck slowed and stopped in the middle of the road. The driver rolled down his passenger side window and called out. “What on earth happened to you pardner?”

I realized what I must have looked like, standing on the hood of my car like that. I didn’t answer, but just stepped down and walked over to the truck, leaned on the door and looked in. “Ah thanks for stopping…” I was out of breath, “My car won’t start and my phone doesn’t work up here…”

“I don’t even know why people buy those things!” He laughed, “Get In! There’s a service station couple miles down the road.”

I got in and shut the door, looking back at my convertible. The top was in tatters. The side door was dented, presumably where the wolf had lunged at it. Or maybe I’d done something, who knows.

“Name’s Al – You look like you had a rough night!” He commented as he put the truck in gear and let out the clutch.

“Thanks Al, yeah…You ever seen any wolves in these parts?” I asked him.

“You think you seen a wolf last night?”

“Uh, I think I saw like five…”

“Oh you must have been hammered!”

“What! No I wasn’t actually.”

“Oh is that so?” His laugh made me think he didn’t believe me. “WELL, let me tell you THIS!”

For the next two miles of winding road, Al rattled off an abbreviated history of all the sightings of wolves, bears, panthers, pythons and all sorts of things.

We rolled into the service station and a couple of boys said they’d take their tow truck up and get my car.

The service station had a little cafe next to it, which was lucky because I was now feeling the kind of starvation that comes over a person who has just come back from the wilderness with a new lease on life. The waitress knew Al by name and so did everyone else. When the coffee came, Al’s stories were getting wilder but staying within the approximate realm of possibility. But by the time the biscuits and gravy came, the stories were straining credibility.

“We’ve got…a mammoth!” He whispered, wide eyed and nodding.

“A mammoth?!” I stifled a laugh, “I mean – are you sure?”

“Yep, serious as a hard attack!”

“Isn’t that like an ice age creature?”

“Comes out every winter on the snowy mount…” he burst out laughing before he could finish.

“What? What’s so funny?” I was getting full now and feeling fine.

“Sorry I couldn’t keep this going!” He laughed some more. “I was just trying to see what you’ll believe. After all yer baloney about seeing a wolf I figured you pull my leg and I’ll pull yers!”

The waitress brought the check.

“Uh I better pay…” he grabbed the check, smiling at the waitress and nodding my way. “Cause this feller here is heading for the looney bin – he’s seein’ things.”

“Oh is that so?” cooed the waitress with a smile, obviously used to playing along with Al’s shenanigans.

“Oooh yeah!” Al replied with mock seriousness, “Why, he’s liable to try to pay with his library card!”

I just grinned and shook my head.

A big commotion in the parking lot got everyone’s attention. People pulled back the curtains to get a better look. The tow truck was back. But where was my car???

The two boys were out waving their arms and saying something about the game warden. I took one last swig of coffee, put down my napkin and ran outside.

“When we got there,” the oldest boy began, “There was this big wolf, gotta be a wolf, standin’ next to the car, with a little baby wolf in its mouth. It was hurt real bad!”

“We didn’t go near it” the other boy said. “We came back for the Game Warden.”

“Call Doc whatzisname, the vet!” some bossy voice shouted. “And yeah, the Game Warden too.”

“Game Warden’s in the cafe, I’ll get him,” someone else offered and went off hollering for ‘Mr. Tommy’.

It made me happy to think that the wolf pup might get some badly needed help, but I had no desire to go back up that mountain. I went back into the cafe and told Al what just transpired. This made him laugh even more. It seemed he didn’t need to be anywhere anytime soon, so he stayed in the booth. I ordered a round of pancakes and we sat there drinking coffee, reading the paper, and speculating about what must be happening up on the mountain. Until another ruckus erupted in the parking lot.

The two boys had towed my car down and were starting to take a look at it.

Mr. Tommy and Doc whatzisname were back too. They came into the cafe, ordered breakfast and sat at the counter telling everyone their strange adventure with the mamma wolf and the pup. They’d managed to get the wolf pup tied down to a little board, clean up its wounds reasonably well and put in a few stitches. They got him to drink some water and then the little fellow hobbled back to his mamma, who had been watching nearby the whole time. Doc said he thought the little pup was going to be A Ok. Throughout their story Mr. Tommy and Doc both kept saying they were amazed that the mamma wolf did not try to stop them. Never even growled at them.

I was amazed by the fact that she decided to bring her pup back to my car.