WOLFE AT THE DOOR
By Jared Sandman
I took my eyes off the road for a moment — a quick glance down, a couple seconds at most — long enough to alter my life forever. When I readjusted one of the dashboard air vents, my hand brushed the radio dial and accidentally turned stations. My attention was distracted an instant while I changed the tuner back to 100.3 FM (“The Rock of Bangor!”).
The road here took a gentle slope upward; at the hillcrest I glimpsed a shape in my peripheral vision. I jammed the brakes a second before the collision.
It didn’t help.
The blacktop was coated with fallen autumn leaves, and my sedan fishtailed on the rain-slicked macadam. The front fender nicked a guardrail, spitting sparks before it hit the form.
The seatbelt jerked tight across my chest, knocked the air from my lungs. My head flew forward, eyeglasses rocketing off my face, eyeballs bulging in their sockets from the added pressure of inertia.
The right corner of the hood clipped the figure and sent it tumbling through the air. It shattered the windshield as it rolled up and over the roof, then down the back window before vanishing from the rearview mirror. The image that flashed through my head was of a Hollywood stunt person, the movements so precise and effortless they appeared choreographed. Except this wasn’t a movie but a tragedy.
The car came to a sudden halt, the smell of burning rubber in the air.
Keep going. Don’t stop.
I was disgusted in myself for having the thought. A hit-and-run would only worsen the situation.
My glasses had somehow found a way into the backseat, the left lens cracked. I put them on, took two deep breaths to steady my frayed nerves and exited the car to survey the damage. It wasn’t the vehicle I was worried about; insurance would cover any necessary repairs. My concern was with the wounded.
As I peered around the trunk, the first thing I saw was a gray coat. The crash occurred so quickly, my brain hadn’t really registered the figure as it sailed overhead. Crouching beside the form, I saw now the victim was a timberwolf.
The animal was splayed on its side; one of its hind legs was broken, bone jutting obscenely through the fur. It tried to raise its head when it noticed me. I spoke to the creature, knowing that although it couldn’t understand me it may be able to detect the grief and regret in my tone. “No, no, don’t move. Try not to move.”
There was a fully charged cell phone in the car. With one call I could get the wolf to a veterinary clinic or animal shelter. The longer I looked at the injured creature, the less I thought that would be best. Somebody could be here to help within fifteen minutes, but that would be too late.
Staring into its glass eyes, I stroked its hirsute coat. My hand came away bloody, its fur matted with a dark pink stain.
So much blood, where was it all coming from?
A white clip on its ear caught my attention, just one, a plastic tag. Someone — a park ranger perhaps, or county game warden — had marked this specimen for scientific studies and released it back into the wild. That meant somebody would notice if it came up missing.
I told it supplicating lies like Everything’s gonna be all right and Help is on the way. The wolf mewled as its breaths grew shallower and more erratic. After unclipping the tag from its ear, I slipped the item into my coat pocket. Its dilated pupils darted back and forth; the fear in its eyes revealed that if they closed, they might never open again.
I hadn’t seen a wolf in the wild since my childhood, thought they’d migrated north to Canada for the most part. Why did the damn thing have to show up here of all places?
“I’m so sorry.” Although the sentiment couldn’t help the creature, it somehow soothed my conscience.
The wolf was too wounded to transport, too far gone to rescue.
Which left one final option.
The animal tried to drag itself across the roadway on its forepaws. I was lucky that thus far there’d been no traffic in either direction. It was a matter of time before some passerby spied this gruesome sight and reported it, so I needed to hurry.
Beside the berm I spotted a piece of granite the size of a mango. It fit the palm of my hand as I tested the heft. This needed to end quickly for both our sakes. It was the humane thing to do. The creature was fading fast; it was better to stop its suffering than let it linger.
The wolf moaned again, as though it knew what came next. I whispered “Please forgive me” as I lifted the stone overhead.
The rock arced downward to connect with the wolf’s skull. Hard.
Yet not hard enough.
The animal released a horrific howl that echoed off the hillside. Its cry almost sounded human, and the power of it took me off guard.
The cranium had been fractured, and blood pulsed from a massive gash above its temple. My heart skipped when the wolf didn’t die.
In a fear-fueled instant of clarity, my own animal instincts took hold. Before the wolf gathered the breath to bellow again, I struck a second time.
The rock came down again. And again. And again.
A fine spray of crimson droplets misted my face and cracked glasses.
The creature convulsed once, its back arching to such a misshapen degree I thought its spine might snap. Its face twisted into a grimace of pain, lips peeled back to expose pointed incisors. Then its features softened as every tense muscle in its body went slack. The wolf fell limp with a final wet wheeze.
It was another several seconds before I exhaled a burst of air that was pent up in my chest, trapped there by anxiety. That’s when I realized the evidence needed to be disposed. I tossed the bloody rock over the guardrail, where it tumbled down a steep embankment and came to rest in a thicket of tall grass.
I checked again for oncoming traffic. There was none. Everything had transpired in a condensed timeframe, no more than two minutes from the point of impact to the animal’s death.
It had rained for three days straight and the same poor weather was forecast through the weekend. Any precipitation later today would wash away the widening pool of blood at my feet, one less thing to worry about.
However, that still left the carcass. It would be wrong to leave the wolf here. The dead animal deserved a proper burial. Rushing, I popped open the trunk and spread out an old, plastic shower curtain I kept there for when I brought home potted plants from the local nursery.
The body was heavier than expected. And warm, which proved unnerving. It wasn’t too large either, most likely a female juvenile, another added layer to the tragedy. Its sagging weight was unwieldy in my arms, yet I managed to maneuver it into the back.
I slammed the trunk closed, got behind the wheel and called the workplace from my mobile phone to ask for a sick day. There was no way I could make it to the office today. There were more important things on my mind.
It was a five-minute drive from the scene of the (crime) accident to the house. I parked in the garage and went in to change outfits. My ruined shirt went into a plastic grocery bag that I decided to bury with the wolf. No telling what the trash collectors would think if they came across the bloody clothes.
In the garage I retrieved a shovel and wrangled the dead weight out of the trunk. The body wouldn’t be nearly as heavy to drag on the plastic sheet than carry, and the rain on the grass helped matters that way. Shovel slung over one shoulder and with wolf in tow, I headed into the woods behind the house.
My destination was a quarter-mile off, not more than a fifteen-minute walk. I staked out a fine place underneath an aged magnolia tree and went to work cutting a rectangle in the grass. The topsoil was removed in two sections of sod that I pulled away like old carpet, and the hole I dug was three feet deep.
Half an hour later I finished. Covered in sweat and grime, I scrambled out of the grave and swaddled the wolf in its plastic winding sheet. The blood on its snout had dried in brown tangles of knotted fur. Some creamy substance seeped from the open wound on it skull. I tried not to look closely.
“Hopefully you’re in a better place now,” I said for some reason. I didn’t believe people went on to an afterlife, let alone animals.
Cradling the creature in my arms, I reverently returned the wolf to the ground. Then, one shovelful at a time, I began to fill in the hole. Afterward I replaced the sod pieces. Even at a distance of ten feet, it was hard to perceive the earth here had been disturbed at all. The sole clue was an area of trampled grass, which itself would be erased by this time tomorrow.
The car was the next thing that needed tending, the front of which had been wrecked in the collision. The vehicle itself ran fine but was an eyesore. The azure paint job was ruined, the right headlight busted, the windscreen splintered into a cobweb of cracks.
If I cleaned it up a bit, I could at least make it presentable for when the insurance adjustor came to file a claim.
With an old dishrag and bleach water, I scrubbed the hood and grille until my arms ached. Surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of blood, but I did locate a tuft of gray hair that had snagged a wiperblade as the wolf hit the windshield.
Later I vacuumed the interior to suck up tiny slivers of Plexiglas that sprinkled the front seats and dashboard. By the time everything was cleaned and cleared away, it was lunchtime — but I didn’t have an appetite.
The same held true when it came time for dinner. I forced down a turkey sandwich for something to eat. Just for fuel, nothing to enjoy. The coiled constrictor of guilt in my gut made that impossible. I’d taken a life, something against my nature. I wasn’t a hunter, didn’t like to fish. Hell, I felt bad whenever I killed one of those jumping spiders I sometimes found in the attic. To murder something as majestic as a wolf was almost too much to bear.
If only my brain could block out the trauma, give myself peace of mind. In the morning I’d be able to put the whole horrible ordeal behind me. What I needed was a good night’s sleep.
Dreams offered no reprieve from remorse. I tossed and turned throughout the night, straddled the hypnagogic state between wakefulness and sleep. When I managed to doze off, it came in forty-five-minute spurts where I imagined running with a pack of wild dogs. At first it was an exhilarating experience, bounding about the forest and indulging my bestial instincts. Soon the dogs transformed into rabid wolves, and I wasn’t running with them so much as being chased by them. Hunted.
The leader of the pack pounced on me, foamy fangs bared as it targeted my jugular. My hands went up to protect my face —
— and I awoke with a myoclonic jerk.
A sheen of sweat covered my chest and legs, heart racing from a shot of adrenaline to my system. The vivid scene from my dreamscape instantly began to dissipate like the last snowfall of winter. Clearly my subconscious mind hadn’t moved on from the accident.
Across the room I spotted a pair of glowing yellow eyes. I’d seen them before, reflected in the frozen gaze of cats and deer (and wolves) caught in a car’s headlights. They glowered from the darkness, judging me. Condemning me. I knew to which creature they belonged, the same one wrapped in a shower curtain and interred under three feet of dirt.
“Get out,” I said. My hand slowly reached for the lamp on the nightstand. The light flicked on, and I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I was alone.
As my labored breathing returned to normal, a sense of embarrassment washed over me. How foolish did I look? A grown man scared of the dark, in need of a nightlight to keep the shadows at bay.
Unable to get back to sleep, I eventually crawled out of bed and headed into the kitchen to brew a strong pot of coffee. When I switched on the hallway light, I saw the tracks for the first time.
They led from my bedroom door, matching tracks that appeared to have been created by muddy paws. I knelt down to examine them closer. A precursory touch revealed they weren’t mud after all, seemed to be seared into the hardwood floor itself and were oddly warm.
I followed them into the kitchen, where a much grimmer scene waited. Here the tracks were everywhere, as if some animal had paced here through the night. More than that, I realized with dismay, they were found elsewhere. Impossible places. Some of them traveled up the walls and onto the ceiling.
This couldn’t be right. It had to be my mind playing tricks. Work was instantly forgotten, breakfast ignored. With a bucket of suds and scrub pad in hand, I attacked the prints. Dishwashing liquid didn’t work, nor did bleach water or vigorous elbow grease.
An hour passed before my thoughts turned to other alternatives. What if I tore up the floorboards and laid down tile? I’d been meaning to refurbish the kitchen, and this presented the perfect opportunity to do so. As for the ceiling and walls, the house’s interior needed a new coat of paint anyway. If I couldn’t wipe down the prints, I’d have to cover them up. It was the only way to —
The doorbell rang.
I almost tripped over the water bucket as I ran to answer the front door. The daylight of morning and a uniformed police officer greeted me on the other side.
“Excuse me, are you the owner of this residence?”
“Uh-huh,” was the best I could manage. My stomach had suddenly jumped in my windpipe, pressed against my larynx and made it hard to speak. I cleared my throat and tried again. “That — that’s right. Can I help you?”
I wiped my hands dry and stepped onto the porch. It was better to meet the officer here than invite him inside.
“Yes, we received a tip regarding a traffic accident out on Traphagen Road. This would’ve been some time within the last twenty-four hours. Do you know anything about that?”
My gaze stayed trained on the cop’s forehead to make it appear as though I was making eye contact. “Accident, what kind? Like a hit-and-run?”
“That’s what I hope to figure out.”
“Well, I have an hour commute to work each morning, so I’m usually on the road by now. In fact” — I cracked open the door and grabbed my coat hanging on a peg in the foyer — “I’m running late already.”
“I understand. Just a couple quick questions.”
“Sure, sure. Thing is, I have nothing to report. I didn’t witness or hear anything out of the ordinary.” I put on the coat; in the right pocket were my car keys. It suddenly occurred that I couldn’t leave with the cop present. He’d see the damage to the car, which would spark another round of queries. I’d have to wait him out.
“One of your neighbors spotted a blue sedan heading from the area around the time of the incident.”
“Who mentioned that?”
“Missus McCabe. She said the only person nearby who drives a car that color — ”
“Is me.” My knees weakened. “She thinks I — ”
“We don’t think anything,” the officer assured. “But I do need to follow up. That’s why I’m here. Can I see the vehicle in question?”
“She probably caught me going to work or the store or somewhere. I do a lot of driving.”
“I examined the crash site myself, found some blue paint scraped along the guardrail at the scene.”
“What’s this all about?” The keys in my pocket stabbed into my palm as my fingers clamped around them.
“Sir, the car. May I see it?”
Glancing over the officer’s shoulder, I spied a gray timberwolf staring at me from the tree line. I pointed and said, “Do you see that?”
The cop craned his neck around. “See what?”
The animal stood not fifteen yards from us. “That wolf.”
The officer shook his head. “Haven’t seen a wolf ’round these parts in at least ten years.”
“My mistake,” I said. “Must’ve been a dog. It ran off.”
Except it hadn’t. Still it glared at me from afar.
“I can come back with a search warrant if you’re unwilling to cooperate.”
“No, no, I’m happy to assist your investigation.” Walking to the garage, I was ready to pass out. I felt so lightheaded, my skull seemed apt to float away like dandelion fluff on the wind.
Really, what did I have to fear?
Come clean, tell the officer everything.
The worst that could happen was community service or a hefty fine. Jail time was unlikely, even for the death of a protected animal from an endangered species.
I pulled open the garage door and stepped aside as the cop inspected the vehicle. “There looks to be some extensive damage to your front end,” he said, scribbling in a notepad. “D’you mind explaining that?”
“Okay, I did it.” There, out in the open. Time to accept the consequences. “Last morning I ran over a dog with my car.” I failed to mention it had been a wolf.
“That so? We didn’t find a body at the scene. What happened to it?”
“Buried out back. I really love dogs, and it makes me sick to know I hurt one even by accident.” The confession felt better than anticipated. Guilt rushed out of my body to be replaced with relief.
“Is that the whole story?”
“I — I didn’t think it was a police matter. If any laws were broken, I sincerely apologize.”
I jangled the keys in my coat pocket out of nervous energy, kept my hands out of sight so the officer wouldn’t see them tremble. When I shoved my left hand in the other pocket, I discovered a plastic keepsake.
“The only thing I kept was a clip from its ear, figured it was ID or something. Do you need it back?” I proffered the tag to the cop.
He inspected the item, pulled a plastic bag out of his jacket and handed it over. “We recovered this at the scene.” The bag was marked EVIDENCE. Inside was a similar clip. No, more than that. It was —
“A matching pair,” the officer said.
I gaped at the twin tags. For the first time, I didn’t just look at them — I saw them for what they really were. And it fractured my sanity.
The color drained from my face as my body went numb. Hot bile rose in the back of my throat, burned at my tonsils and tickled my nose. “No.” I couldn’t stop shaking my head. “No, no, no.”
The two earrings dropped from my hand. They were shaped like ivory butterflies made of plastic, not the jewelry of a discerning woman.
Rather the clip-on earrings of a child.
Tears streaked my cheeks as the officer reached for his handcuffs. “Sir, turn around and place your hands on the car.”
The words sounded distant, as if they came through a muffled speaker. I followed instructions.
“We were initially called about a truancy. Your neighbor down the street reported her daughter hadn’t shown up to school yesterday.”
“What — what’s her name?”
“The girl’s Julie,” the officer said. “Julie Wolfe.”
“I didn’t,” I said between gasps. “I couldn’t — ”
“I think you did,” the cop confided. He encountered no resistance as he secured my wrists in shackles.
He placed me in the back of his squad car before radioing for backup units. While he took pictures of my car, I gazed out the side window.
The wolf watched from a distance. I knew it was the same one I had hit with my car, the same one whose head I had caved in with a rock as an act of mercy, the same one I had wrapped in a shower curtain and buried in the ground, the same one soon to be exhumed by the local authorities.
“You hear what I said?” the officer asked. He finally situated himself behind the steering wheel and started the engine.
I stared at the thinning spot of hair at the back of his head. “What?” I said absentmindedly, my thoughts elsewhere.
“I asked if you’re ready to go downtown.”
“Nooo.” It came out as a sob that sounded eerily lupine. When I looked out the window again, the wolf was gone.
If it had ever been there at all.
Copyright 2010, Jared Sandman. All rights reserved.