Snow began to fall along the Pikeville Bypass. Lightly at first, just enough to keep the windshield wipers set on low intermittent, then progressing into heavy downfall with quarter-sized snowflakes. With the wipers now on high, they could barely keep a clear path of vision in front of her. The defroster wasn’t much help. The snow fell faster than the heat could melt it.
Accumulation alongside and on the roadway was building fast, and if the snow continued to fall as rapidly as it did at the moment, within minutes, she wouldn’t even be able to see where she was going.
She cursed herself silently for choosing to take the bypass. It wasn’t the road she’d initially planned, but since it provided a quicker route to her destination, and because the blizzard conditions weren’t supposed to have begun until well after she’d reached White Mountain, she’d opted at the last minute to take the road less traveled and get where she was going faster.
Hell, she shouldn’t be on the road traveling at all. Instead of cursing herself, she should be cursing her brother, Bill, for manipulating her into taking the trip by laying a guilt trip at her feet.
“It’s his eightieth birthday, Haley. You can’t alter your plans to come and visit your father?”
“Christmas is two months away, Bill.”
“But his birthday is next week. The party is a surprise and having you there would make the surprise even better. He’s been wanting to see you.”
Here it comes! She’d thought. The same old song and dance that Bill was notorious about delivering, reminding her she was the one who had moved away, that she wasn’t the one remaining close to home to ensure the safety and well-being of their aging father, blah blah blah.
“Bill, I was just there a few months ago. It’s not like I can make a four-hour drive every weekend to visit. I have a job, you know, and gas isn’t free.”
“You wouldn’t have to worry about making a four-hour drive and spending money on gas had you chosen to remain closer.”
Rich words coming from a man who made a seven-figure annual salary and was chauffeured around in a black limousine while wearing two-thousand-dollar suits! Through his eyes, he thought everyone should be able to afford the same things that he could all while forgetting that he didn’t come from a wealthy family and had gotten through college on scholarships and student loans.
“Why didn’t you let me know about this a month ago?”
“It wasn’t planned then. The party was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Dad’s not getting any younger, and I wanted to do something special for him this year. But if you’ve got more important things to do, then by all means, do them. I’ll explain to dad that you couldn’t spare the time, or money, to come and see him.”
“I won’t argue the point, Bill,” she’d told him angrily. “I’ll either come now for his birthday or in December for Christmas, but not both. You decide which one.”
Showing his frustration by exhaling heavily into the phone, they’d mutually agreed that she’d come for his birthday.
As she leaned forward in her seat, hands clutching tightly to the steering wheel as she squinted to see through the glass, Haley Fontana was regretting her choice of roadways, wishing instead that she’d listened to Bill the night before when he’d phoned her to make sure she hadn’t changed her mind.
“Just wanted to make sure you were still coming.”
“I asked to leave early tomorrow,” she’d told him. “I’ll be on the road within an hour afterward.”
“What time might that be? I’d like to know around what time to expect you.”
“I’ll leave here around two.”
“Sounds good. One more thing, Haley.”
“I know that you usually take the bypass, but please avoid it this trip.”
“Why? It’s a quicker route.”
“That’s true, but a blizzard is heading that way and the last place you want to be stuck is on that long, lonely stretch of highway.”
“Bill, the storm isn’t due to come through until way after I’m there.”
“Haley, you know as well as I do that these winter storms are unpredictable. The meteorologists might tell you it won’t hit until six, but then it rears its ugly head several hours earlier than expected. Don’t take any chances. Stick to the freeway. Promise me?”
“Alright, alright. I’ll stay off the bypass.”
Except that she hadn’t kept her word, and once she finally arrived at Bill’s and had to explain to him why she was so late, he’d rip her a new one, and with good reason.
She had driven the bypass many times, and because of that, she knew there wasn’t much there other than a house here or a farm there, but if she were forced to locate them in a snow covered landscape, she’d never find them. All she could do was take her time, drive slowly, and be extra careful. By her estimation, and under normal driving conditions, she had about an hour to go before the bypass would end and the roads would be clearer and more drivable. However, with heavy snowfall, it was anybody’s guess exactly how long the drive would take now.
Haley drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Stay calm and keep your eyes on the road,” she muttered, glancing down at the large cup in the console between the two front seats, recalling the eerie conversation she’d had with the men at the general store where she’d stopped to buy the coffee.
Two elderly gentlemen were sitting at the end of the counter playing checkers when she’d entered the store, the screen door banging closed behind her.
Without looking up from his game, a man wearing a black and red flannel shirt and suspenders asked, “What can I getcha?”
“Over yonder,” he said, pointing to the back of the store. “It’s self-serve.”
“Your move, Gordy,” the second man said. “We ain’t got all night.”
“King me,” Haley heard him say with a chuckle. “You’re such a dumbass, Earl. You ain’t never gonna learn how to play this game.”
“One more time,” Earl said.
Haley sat the coffee down on the counter, removing a five-dollar bill from the pocket of her jacket.
Gordy, who she assumed was the proprietor of that fine establishment, rose from his barrel chair and stood at the cash register.
“Where ya headed, miss?”
“You ain’t drivin’ the bypass, are ya?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.”
“You know a blizzard’s comin’, right?”
“Not for several hours. I’ll be in White Mountain before it comes through.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that if’n I was you,” Gordy said, tucking his thumbs beneath the straps of his suspenders and pulling on the elastic. Now that he stood in front of her, she could better see the affixed buttons and nearly laughed aloud. On one strap was a large red, white, and blue “I Like Ike!” pin, and on the other, “Nixon For President!” with a photo of the disgraced man flashing his infamous peace sign.
“Storms are unpredictable.”
“You’d be better off not takin’ any chances and stickin’ to the Interstate. Take my advice and stay off the bypass,” he said in a serious tone. Noticing her puzzled expression, he said, “What I mean to say is that storms have a mind of their own and this one could hit when it wants to and not when the weatherman says it will. ‘Sposed to be a full moon tonight, too.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Full moon and blizzard?” Gordy asked, scratching his whiskered chin. “That’s never a good combination. Does somethin’ to a person’s head,” he said, tapping his temple with a finger. “Makes ‘em act weird and do crazy shit.”
Haley laughed. “Then I’ll keep my eye out for crazies. Even if the snow starts while I’m still on the bypass, I have snow chains. I’ll be fine.”
Gordy threw his head back and chuckled heartily. “Snow chains?” he guffawed. “Them thangs are about as worthless as tits on a boar hog, ‘specially when the snow is ten feet deep!” he exclaimed. “And unlessen you got skis on yer tires, ain’t likely to make it through. If’n it starts to snow heavily, I mean,” he finished. “Besides, the Interstate is routinely cleared by snowplows to keep the flow of traffic going. Won’t get that on the bypass. Once the snow comes down, it’ll stay there ‘til it melts or ‘til a bunch of locals go out there and plow it themselves.”
“Ma’am?” Haley turned around to see a uniformed sheriff’s deputy standing behind her, a bag of potato chips and apple juice in one hand, a wax paper wrapped pickle in the other. “I don’t normally make it my business to stick my nose into the affairs of others, but you really should listen to old Gordy here and stay off the bypass.”
“I appreciate your concern,” she told him, “but I think you’re all overreacting.”
“Perhaps,” the deputy said. “Perhaps not. We’ve received a few complaint calls recently from up and down the bypass.”
“About?” Haley prodded.
“Suspicious activity is the only way I know how to phrase it,” he answered, placing his items down on the counter. “Destroyed or disturbed crops, animals going missing, a few of them found dead, that sort of thing.”
Haley glanced back and forth between Gordy and the deputy. Earl remained bent over the checkerboard and hadn’t once looked up at her.
“Sounds like wildlife looking for food to me,” she said with a smile.
“Can’t be sure of that, ma’am, because so far, none of the complainants have seen anything.”
“There’s all types of wild animals around here, right?” Haley asked with a grin. “Wolves, coyotes, bears.”
“Among other things,” the deputy said, taking his wallet from a back pocket.
“I may not be an expert on the subject, but if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say one of those that I just mentioned is the culprit.”
The deputy shrugged. “There’s a stretch on the bypass that consists of fifty miles of nothing,” he explained. “No farms, houses, stores. Definitely no cell phone reception. You really should reconsider your choice.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Haley said. “How much for the coffee?”
“No charge,” Gordy told her. “You stay safe out there.”
Before the door closed behind her, she heard Gordy say, “You should have told her, Gary,” but she wasn’t interested in hearing the rest of what the old codger had to say. Probably more bullshit anyway.
Haley placed the coffee in the cup holder, then opened the trunk and removed her suitcase, placing it on the backseat. “Better safe than sorry,” she muttered before climbing behind the wheel.
As she thought about why she’d chosen to move her suitcase, she couldn’t really come up with a good answer, except to say that if something happened and she got stuck in the snow, there were plenty of winter clothes and socks packed inside that she could use to stay warm, and her heavy winter coat was laid out on the backseat. What she hadn’t brought were snow boots and the shoes she now wore would not prevent frostbite in case she ended up having to walk through the snow. From the moment she’d received her learner’s permit to drive, she’d been taught to always keep emergency winter supplies in her trunk in the unlikely event that she ever got stranded. Blankets. Food. Water. And normally, she did, but she’d removed them from the trunk before heading out for White Mountain because the blanket needed washing and the outdated food needed to be replaced, and since she was only traveling a couple of hundred miles on a major thoroughfare and not venturing deep into the woods for hiking or camping, didn’t think she’d need them for this trip. Another choice she now regretted.
“Paranoid much?” she whispered. “You really let those old farts get to you, didn’t you?” She wondered if old Gordy was sitting on his barrel stool, staring at the checkerboard while waiting on Earl to make a move, laughing while stroking his white beard as he said, “See? Toldja to stay off the bypass!”
The road was completely covered with snow, making it difficult for her to determine if she was still on asphalt or driving on the side of the road. The solid white of the surrounding landscape was blinding and disorienting. Not a single building or roof could be seen. And even though she’d traveled the bypass on multiple occasions and had seen farms and silos along the way, without having a point of reference, she couldn’t even begin to guess where they were located. Even with her dark sunglasses on, it was difficult to see, much less determine where the road ended, and the flat land began.
Keeping her eyes on the road ahead, she used a gloved hand to retrieve her coffee from the console, hoping its warmth would help to quell the nausea that the stretch of endless bright whiteness was causing her to feel. The radio station that she’d been listening to had lost reception, and she wasn’t brave enough to risk popping a CD into the player to end the disturbing silence inside the car. With the lone sound of snow crunching beneath her tires, she was suddenly struck with the thought that she was cruising along on a road leading to nowhere, forever lost inside a snow globe of endless snowfall and invisible structures, eventually melding with the snow, becoming as one in the marshmallow covered world that enveloped her.
“Get a grip,” she scolded herself, bringing the lid of the cup to her mouth. “Shit!” she yelled, slamming on the brakes to avoid striking the figure that darted across the road directly in front of her. The cup of coffee fell into her lap, soaking the denim of her jeans and making it look like she’d pissed herself. Fortunately, the coffee wasn’t hot enough to burn her skin beneath, but the wetness of the liquid was extremely uncomfortable. The rear tires spun wildly, fishtailing back and forth along the slippery road. Haley fought to maintain control of the steering, but with no traction between asphalt and rubber, the steering wheel spun uncontrollably in her hands. The car slid backwards down the right side embankment, coming to rest several feet off the road, its tires buried deep in the snow.
“What in the hell was that?” Haley exclaimed aloud. The large brown figure came out of nowhere and sped by so rapidly that she hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but it was definitely too big to have been a dog. A wolf maybe? A coyote? “Neither,” she said, shaking her head. “Unless they’ve mastered the feat of walking and running on their hind legs.” Then again, maybe she only thought she’d seen something, her tired and weary eyes playing tricks on her, producing some sort of mirage from constantly staring into a whiteout.
“Shit, shit, shit!” she fumed, pounding her fists on the steering wheel.
In the few short moments she’d sat there cursing herself and questioning how in the hell she’d allowed herself to get in to such a predicament, the falling snow completely covered her car, preventing her from being able to see anything through any of the glass.
The engine died upon impact with the snowbank, enveloping the car in an eerie silence. Other than the steady sound of her own breathing, not a sound could be heard.
She had no idea whether the animal had run off into the woods or was, at the moment, encircling her car, sniffing her out while forestalling the most opportune time to plan its attack.
Regardless of which scenario was actually playing out in real time, one thing was certain.
She had to get out of there before she became an evening snack for ravenous wild animals.
Haley turned the key in the ignition.
“Come on, dammit!” she cursed, trying the key again.
It was no use. The battery was dead.
“What the hell did you think it was going to do if it cranked?” she huffed. “Sprout wings and fly out of here?”
Unless she called for help, she’d never get out of the ravine because there was no way in hell she’d ever be able to drive out, and since she hadn’t seen a single vehicle on the road in the hour that she’d been on it, she doubted anyone would come moseying along just in the nick of time to rescue her. And even if they did, they’d need to come with a tow truck because the only way it would ever be freed from the still falling snow was if it were hauled out.
Who was she supposed to call for an incident such as hers? She’d never been in such a mess and truly didn’t know. Should she phone emergency services, a towing company, an auto club response team? Would any of them even respond in such inclement weather, or tell her she needed to sit tight until the storm let up? By then she’d either be frozen stiff as a popsicle or shredded meat if that thing got to her.
Her hand trembled as she reached for her phone, unsettled by her near miss and by the dire situation she suddenly found herself in.
Overcome by the creepy feeling that she was being watched, Haley locked the doors. “You may know I’m in here,” she whispered. “But there’s no way in hell that you can see me.”
Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw something that she hadn’t noticed before.
What appeared to be the outline of a large handprint was pressed into the snow on the rear window, as if someone had leaned on it trying to see inside. But it wasn’t necessarily the handprint itself that rattled her. It was the size and shape of it. It didn’t look human. If it was, whoever had left it was a giant of a man, for the hand itself was twice the size of a normal hand, the slender fingers long and talon-like.
There was something out there in the snowy cold, but because of the lack of visibility through all the windows, she didn’t know what, or who, it was. Or if they were still close by. Watching and waiting for her to make a move.
She felt like a pawn on a chessboard, blocked by the bishop and unable to make a move forward, forever trapped inside of a square. Or in her case, inside of a car in a steadily deepening snow.
A call for help would not be happening. Like her car, her phone was also dead. She could tell by the fading interior light that the sun was setting. It would be dark soon, rendering her more vulnerable to the wandering hunter. If she didn’t get help before nightfall, she’d be forced to stay inside her car, inevitably freezing to death within hours. Of course, she could exit the car and start walking, except that she didn’t know where in the hell she was or exactly how far away the nearest house might be. She wasn’t even sure how far she’d traveled since stopping at the general store. The snow started falling shortly after she’d exited the parking lot, and the faster and thicker it came down, the slower she’d had to drive. Until she’d ran off the road to avoid hitting whatever had darted out in front of her. For all she knew, she could be five miles away from the store, or fifty. The coffee had still been hot when she’d taken a sip, but that didn’t mean anything, considering that it was in an insulated Styrofoam cup with a lid, so she couldn’t use the temperature of the coffee as a determining factor to estimate the distance. There truly was only one way to know for sure. It was a perilous risk, but one she’d have to take if she wanted any chance at survival.
Her current footwear wasn’t designed for trudging through ice, and with the current weather conditions and shoes that weren’t waterproof, frostbite would set in before she could walk a mile. The idea of attempting a walk back to the general store wouldn’t have been an appealing thought on a bright day. But on a dark and cold winter night, not knowing what was lurking around in the darkness, was downright horrifying. Yet, if she remained where she was, she’d be a sitting duck for sure, and who or whatever was out there would undoubtedly take advantage of her situation, knowing that she was easy prey.
“Shit!” she spat. “Dammit!”
Haley climbed quietly into the back seat and gently opened her suitcase, careful not to make any noise. She was in dire straits, so any choice that she made would be unwise, but she had to do something. She couldn’t simply sit there for an indeterminate amount of time twiddling her thumbs while waiting for a good Samaritan to come along and help. In a blizzard, the chances of that happening had about the same odds as winning the lottery. After all, who in their right minds would intentionally be out driving in a heavy snowfall on a dangerous highway?
Slipping out of her wet pants, she pulled on a pair of thermal underwear and jeans, donned two extra pairs of socks, and exchanged her ankle boots with sneakers after removing the shoestrings. Dumping her toiletries into the suitcase, she covered her shoes with the Ziploc baggies, using the shoestrings to tie them in place and prevent them from slipping off of her feet. They wouldn’t provide the complete protection she’d need, but they were better than slogging through knee-high deep snow while wearing only a pair of tennis shoes.
She envisioned old Gordy and Earl sitting at the counter still staring at that damn checkerboard, having a merry laugh at her expense. And when they saw her walk into the store huffing and puffing from walking, she’d hear the biggest “I toldja so” she’d ever heard. Which was fine by her as long as she could sit down, grab a cup of hot coffee, and thaw out. Hell, she might even laugh with them for being stupid enough to ignore their warnings.
Haley stiffened when she heard the unmistakable howling of a wolf. Though not right next to the car, it was certainly nearby, and sounded like it came from somewhere behind the car.
Was the baying that of a lone wolf, or was the animal calling out to its pack, summoning them to the dinner table? If it was only one creature that attacked, she might get lucky enough to avert it, but if she was up against multiple wolves, then she didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of warding them off. Wolves were excellent hunters and more than adept at trapping their prey by first encircling it, then closing in for the kill. On a good day with excellent weather, she’d be outnumbered, unable to run away. In the snow, she would be nothing more than a lamb being led to slaughter.
She had no weapons to defend herself, unless the tennis racquet in the trunk counted as one. And what the hell could she possibly do with that other than swing it at them, which would only make them angrier and more determined to rip her to pieces. Wolves had a keen sense of smell, and if they got a whiff of her at the moment, they’d know that she was ripe with fear, but she couldn’t let that deter her.
Haley chewed nervously on her bottom lip as she reconsidered exiting the safety of her car. Her wild imagination conjured up images of her torn and bloody body being scattered in pieces along the roadside, or in a different scenario, her stiff and frozen body sitting upright and rigid, hands clasping the steering wheel in a death grip as her dead, glazed over eyes remained fixated on the white nothingness before her. If she remained inside the car, at least it would provide her with shelter until the snow stopped or a rescue vehicle came along. Unless the wolves had figured out how to open up car doors with their paws, which was highly unlikely. Or was it? She thought, recalling the size and shape of the handprint on the back window. If she went outside, she would immediately become vulnerable to the elements and to the wolves. In a wide open space, intruding on their predatorial grounds, she wouldn’t be near as safe. Carefully assessing the situation and not seeing any careful way out of her predicament, Haley climbed back into the front seat and turned the key, hoping for different results than the first two times.
Her hope quickly faded when the turning of the key produced no sound at all.
The way she saw it, she had one of two choices. She could either remain inside the car and undoubtedly succumb to hypothermia within a matter of hours, or she could take her chances on walking back to the store with a pack of wolves hot on her ass, stealthily evaluating every move she made, patiently awaiting the perfect moment to attack. No matter what she did, it was a lose-lose situation. But at least she had to try.
“You can’t get back to the store if you keep sitting here second guessing everything,” she whispered to herself, reaching for the door handle, and swiftly recoiling when she heard a deep growl just outside the door. Haley sat silently as she waited to see if the snarl came again, or if the wolf was going to claw and chew its way inside.
She could hear the creature huffing and panting at the window, fully expecting to see the snow melt away, wondering if she’d be too horrified to scream when the wolf’s large, woolly face appeared through the glass.
The car shifted slightly from the weight of the wolf as it leaped onto the roof of her car. Determined claws dug and pawed at the metal as the animal grunted in anticipation.
From a distance, howling could be heard.
Outside her car door, an angry, throaty growl.
There was more than just one wolf stalking her. It was virtually impossible for the same one to be tugging at the car door while simultaneously attempting to tear the roof off.
She envisioned her car completely encircled by the canines, each one positioned at a different angle, with every inch of the car under watchful observation.
She was trapped.
There was no way out.
No walking back to the general store for help, warmth, and coffee.
No Gordy and Earl staring at a checkerboard.
No one was coming to her rescue.
“Damn you, Bill,” she muttered. “Damn you to hell.”
The car began to wobble. The wolves were trying to flip the car over, the pack strong enough to lift and pull it easily from the deep snow, desperate to find a way inside.
A massive, fur covered hand with elongated fingers pressed on the window, leaving an imprint in the snow. Haley stared at it with puzzled amazement. Since when did wolves have hands? Another unpleasant thought crossed her mind. Maybe she wasn’t dealing with canines after all, but was being pursued by lunatics, escapees from the nearest insane asylum who had set her in their sights, hellbent on destroying her for the pure hell and pleasure of it.
Yet, that couldn’t be possible. No human being could survive exposure to freezing weather for an extended period, and by her calculations, she had been tracked ever since her accident, which must have happened at least two hours before.
And the hand she’d seen didn’t appear to be human, or at least not like any she’d ever seen. It could be better described as a paw, but not that of a bear or a mountain lion. And it wasn’t the hooves of a moose or deer, or any other wild animal that walked through snow on four legs. So, what in the hell was after her?
The one on the roof was forcefully pounding the metal. If it continued its assault, it would either cause the roof to cave in on her or would simplify tearing the roof off as easily as removing a pull-tab lid from a tin can. The one outside the door yanked and scraped on the door as it tried to rip it from its hinges.
Haley stared at the door, her eyes wide with fear as she anticipated the creature’s next move–which turned out to be something she had not expected and one that horrified and chilled her to the bone. Haley released a blood-curdling scream when a bright red eye appeared through the handprint, unblinking as it glared at her through the glass.
Haley covered her ears and closed her eyes, not wanting to see or hear the inevitable, brutal attack she was about to suffer.
Had the men back at the general store known more than they’d told her about the complaint calls that the Sheriff’s Office had been receiving? Was that the real reason they’d warned her to stay off the bypass, and not because of the weather? Whatever the reason, it was too late now because she would never survive the teeth and claws of the creatures that awaited her outside her safe haven.
A shotgun blast echoed through the night air.
An animal yelped in pain, the sound of an injured dog, wounded by whoever had fired the weapon.
The wolves brayed in unison and took off running when the second shot rang out.
“Anybody in there?” she heard a man’s muffled voice call out.
Haley screamed as loud as she could while banging forcefully on the window glass with both fists. “Yes! Please, help me!”
“Hello?” the man shouted; his voice closer now. “Is there anyone there?”
“YES!” Haley screamed.
“How many of you are there?”
“I’ll have to break the window,” he warned. “There’s too much snow on the ground. I won’t be able to open the door.”
“Cover your eyes!” he instructed, vigorously striking the window with the butt of his shotgun. A spiderweb crack appeared in the glass, but it didn’t break. “I have to give it another try,” he yelled, delivering a blow that finally shattered the glass. Shards flew into the car, landing in Haley’s hair and lap, jagged pieces scattering across the dashboard.
“Oh, thank God!” Haley sighed. “I thought for sure I was going to die out here.”
“You’ll have to crawl through,” he told her, extending a gloved hand. “I’ll help pull you out.”
Haley sunk thigh-deep into the snow, shivering from the freezing temperature. Her rescuer wore rubber fishing waders over his uniform, but she recognized him immediately.
“Well, well,” he said. “You didn’t get very far, did you?” It was Dave, the Deputy Sheriff she’d encountered earlier at the general store. “Warned you to stay off the bypass, didn’t I?”
Ignoring his comment, Haley briskly asked, “What the hell was trying to get into my car?”
“Wolves,” Dave answered. “Four of them.”
“Just regular wolves?” Haley asked doubtfully.
“I wouldn’t exactly call them regular, but definitely wolves. Take my arm,” he told her. “Let’s get you out of this snow.”
“How did you know I was out here?”
“Then why are you here?”
“This road’s part of my patrol route,” he answered. “Dust yourself off before you get in my vehicle. Don’t want you getting the seats wet. The heater’s on, and it’s nice and warm inside. You go thaw out while I change out of this gear,” he told her, slamming her door as he walked towards the back of his vehicle. Haley watched him through the side-view mirror as he removed his heavy boots and waders and tossed them into the bed of the pickup. He’d swapped his cruiser for a mammoth truck with oversized tires and a removable plow specifically designed for patrolling in winter weather. And while he might be telling her the truth about the bypass being in his assigned zone, she didn’t quite believe his story about why he patrolled it at that moment.
“I’ll get you back to town. You can rent a room for the night,” Dave told her as he climbed inside the truck. “You can make towing arrangements in the morning for your vehicle.”
“How did you know I was in the car?”
“I didn’t,” he said, turning to look at her. “But when I saw all those wolves digging around in the snow, I knew something must’ve been there. Wolves only act like that when they’re hunting prey. They knew you were in there because they could smell you,” he said, turning his attention away from her. “Hell, even I can smell you,” he added.
“What, exactly, do you smell?” she asked curiously. She hadn’t soiled herself and even though spilled coffee could be mistaken for the smell of urine, she’d changed out of those pants and they remained inside her car. Had the stench followed her? Did he think she’d pissed herself?
“Fear,” he answered, turning slowly to glance at her, then quickly turning away.
Haley opened her mouth to respond but fell silent when an odd and disturbing incident occurred.
“Hey!” A man of about thirty waved his arms frantically in the air, trying to get Dave’s attention.
“Who in the world?”
The man pulled up to the side of the truck on his snowmobile, letting the engine idle.
“Eddie,” Dave said, rolling down his window. “What in the hell are you doing out in this weather?”
“Checking to see what all the commotion was about.”
“What commotion?” Dave asked in an irritated tone.
“I heard the gunshots. Came to see what was going on.”
“Where do you live?” Haley asked, leaning forward in her seat, looking past Dave.
“Back yonder,” he said, pointing towards an open, snow-covered field.
“Back yonder where?” Haley asked.
“Close enough to hear gunshots but not to hear wolves howling as they tried to rip my car apart to kill me?”
Eddie didn’t answer. Instead, he gave Dave an inquisitive look, as if to say, “Are you going to help me out here or not?”
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Dave told her. “Half the time, he don’t know whether he’s coming or going.” To Eddie, he said, “Get back to your house and don’t come out again tonight. Understand?”
Eddie nodded and took off on his snowmobile toward the open field. As he sped away, Haley noticed he was wearing only a tee-shirt and shorts and was bare-footed. Strange apparel to be wearing in sub-zero temperatures, even for those accustomed and acclimated to that type of weather. On his right shoulder, fresh blood was visible on his white shirt.
Eddie stopped momentarily as he reached the snowy field, looking back at the truck. When the glow of the headlights reflected in his eyes, Haley was certain that they glowed the same shade of red as the eye that had peeked in at her through the car window.
“Eddie’s wounded,” Haley said absently.
“You didn’t see the blood on the back of his shirt?”
“Nope. Wasn’t really paying that much attention to him.”
“Wonder if he knows he’s bleeding.”
“With Eddie, who knows. That man ain’t got the sense God gave a flea.”
“Did you notice how he was dressed?”
“If you’re talking about the shorts, that’s not unusual for him. I told you, Eddie’s not too bright.”
Haley watched through the side-view mirror as Dave drove back toward the general store, her car once again covered in a blanket of snow, leaving not a shred of evidence that only moments before, wolves had dug mounds of it away trying to clear a path to get to her.
“Did you flag my car?” she asked, wondering how the tow truck driver would ever find it buried under a thick blanket of snow.
“No need,” he told her. “I know where it is.”
“Even though you can’t see anything out here?”
“I have an excellent memory,” he replied.
Although thankful to have been rescued, she still wondered exactly what had stalked her on Pikeville Bypass on a snowy night. Dave told her it was wolves, but not regular ones. What did he mean by that? What other kinds were there if not regular ones?
And speaking of Dave, why had he mysteriously appeared when he did, and in the nick of time to save her from what was surely to be an imminent and brutal attack?
What she wanted more than anything else was a hot shower and a warm bed. But she also wanted answers, and the only way to get them was to ask the questions.
“Strange,” she muttered.
“Thinking aloud, that’s all,” Haley answered, recalling that Dave had told her she could rent a room for the night, but she couldn’t recall seeing a hotel, motel, or inn anywhere near Pikeville Junction. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything in that tiny hick town other than the general store, a gas station, and a liquor store, and she doubted that any of those places rented out rooms. Unless he was considering taking her to the next town over, which was at least twenty miles away and out of his jurisdiction.
“It is strange, though, don’t you think?”
“All of it,” Haley said with a shrug. “You showing up at the exact moment that I was about to be annihilated. Eddie riding around in the freezing weather wearing summer clothes. The wolves with strange behavior.”
“What’s so strange about any of that? I told you Eddie is about half a dozen cans short of a six-pack. Knowing him, he probably didn’t even realize he came out of the house improperly dressed. Wolves are common in this area, so that’s not unusual. And it’s nothing more than a coincidence that I came along when I did. Sounds to me like you’re trying to make a mountain out of a molehill when there’s nothing strange about any of it.”
“You said yourself that the wolves weren’t regular ones. Explain to me what you mean by that.”
“Wolves are wolves,” Dave said. “They’re predatory animals and can be quite vicious if provoked. They hunt solely as a means of survival, not as a sport. Unfortunately, sometimes the prey is human. That’s all I meant.”
“If that’s true, can you explain to me why the ones trying to get into my car had hands instead of paws? And don’t tell me they didn’t because I saw it, up close and personal. And the ones stalking me had red eyes. How many wolves have you ever seen like that?”
Dave kept his eyes on the road ahead. After several moments of thought, he said, “I think you may have been hallucinating at some point, either from fatigue or weather-induced. Anyone with a functioning brain cell knows wolves don’t have hands, and I’ve never seen one with red eyes. Probably just a reflection from the light.”
“What light? My car was dead, the sun was down, and I didn’t have a flashlight, yet the eye that I saw glowed like a burning ember.”
“From the moon then,” he stated with irritation. “How the hell am I supposed to explain what you saw? I wasn’t there. Besides,” he said, lowering the speed of the wipers. “We all tried to tell you to stay off this road because it wasn’t safe. But did you listen? No, you did not. Do you know how loony you sound right now?” he chuckled with a shake of his head. “Wolves with hands. Red eyes glowing like fire.”
Haley remembered something Gordy had said to her that afternoon about the crazies coming out when there was a combination of snowstorm and full moon. He had known then exactly what lurked in the darkness along Pikeville Bypass. But for whatever reason, he’d chosen not to share that information with her. Then again, why would he? He probably hadn’t expected her to get stranded any more than she’d expected to herself. However, in retrospect, knowing about the wolves could have at least prepared her for the possibility of an attack instead of surprising her with one.
“You’re right,” she said dismissively. “It sounded less crazy inside my head than it did verbalizing it.” Instinct warned her to drop the subject and not mention it again, unsure why she was suddenly overcome with a feeling of dread. Dave’s demeanor, perhaps? Or the obvious irritation he displayed towards her at the moment? Some might call it intuition or possessing a keen sense to one’s inner knowing. She called it being smart and knowing when to shut the hell up and let it go before finding herself in a cauldron of boiling water with no way out.
For certain, he knew more about what had happened to her on the bypass than he was telling her, but it was best that she didn’t pursue it.
As she watched the plow shovel snow out of the roadway, an insane thought crossed her mind, one so inanely ridiculous and unthinkable that she nearly burst out in delirious laughter.
Although she knew they didn’t exist outside the realm of theatrics, she was still amused by the thought and at the possibility that her stalkers had actually been he-wolves!
Or perhaps it wasn’t animals at all. It could have been Eddie and a couple of his friends playing tricks on her, trying to scare the shit out of her. That was certainly possible, and if that had been their intentions, they’d succeeded. Hell, all they would have had to do was howl like wolves, pounce on her car, and make it seem as if canines were after her. They could have even worn gloves, or an old Halloween costume to simulate the hairy hand.
It all sounded feasible until she questioned how they would have known she was there in the first place. The snow had been falling so hard that it hadn’t taken long to cover her car, unless they saw the accident happen and knew exactly where her car came to rest. Had it been Eddie, or one of his friends, that had run across the road in front of her, intentionally causing her to run off the road? Was that their idea of fun? Maybe Dave was right about him when he said he didn’t have the sense God gave a goose. Nothing like playing chicken in a blizzard on a snow-covered and slippery roadway, consequences be damned.
“At the store earlier today, as I walked out the door, I heard Gordy say to you that you should have told me, but I didn’t stay to hear the rest. What didn’t you tell me you should have?”
Dave shook his head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I told you everything you needed to know. It’s not like I could force you into changing your mind. Maybe next time, you’ll listen.”
He was hiding something. She could sense it. He knew those wolves weren’t typical, everyday hounds. Regardless of whether he denied it, there was definitely something different and extremely odd about them. Whatever he was aware of, he kept it to himself.
Changing the subject, Haley asked, “Where am I supposed to rent a room? I don’t recall seeing any hotels nearby.”
“There aren’t any, unless you drive twenty miles out of town, and I sure as hell don’t intend to do that. I’m sure Gordy will be happy to lend you one of his. You’ll be fine there.”
“Inside a general store?”
“He lives upstairs. He has plenty of room.”
“Does he know I’m coming?”
“I can guarantee you he does.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? The only way Gordy could know that Dave was bringing her there was if Dave had called him ahead of time and told him, and she hadn’t seen him make a phone call since pulling her from the car. Unless he had mental telepathy and had beamed a signal to Gordy using the powers of his mind, there was no way he could know.
Haley suddenly felt uneasy, like a fly tempting its fate by flitting back and forth, teasing a hungry spider until its showy antics got the best of it and it found itself trapped in the spider’s sticky web. Is that what was happening to her? She was the fly, and Dave the spider, leading her towards her own viscous web of death. And the trap was inside Gordy’s store.
“You know what, Dave?” Haley said. “Instead of taking me to the general store, why don’t you just drop me off at the gas station? I’ll call my brother and ask him to come and get me.”
“Wouldn’t hear of it,” Dave replied. “Besides, the station’s closed.”
“Isn’t there a convenience store around here somewhere?”
“Then I’ll call a cab and have the driver take me to a hotel.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said, turning to her and smiling. “No cab driver would take fares in this weather.”
“Won’t know unless I try.”
“You seem worried,” Dave said as he turned into the parking lot of the general store. “Are you?”
Her stomach was tied in knots. She didn’t feel so good about the situation she suddenly found herself in, and it was one that she wouldn’t be able to talk herself out of. “I’ll just stay out here,” she said. “I’ll be alright in the truck.”
“Get out,” Dave demanded.
“No, really, I’m okay right where I am.”
“You’ll either get out willingly or by force. Your choice.”
Haley swallowed back the lump that rose in her throat. Her heart was pounding so hard that she was certain Dave could hear it. Trying to remain calm, she said, “Alright, alright. Geesh.”
For a split second, she considered running, but where could she possibly go? She was in the middle of nowhere with a dead phone in her purse.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Dave told her, taking her by the arm and leading her to the store entrance. “It’s me!” he shouted, banging on the screen door.
Within seconds, Gordy opened the door, quickly shutting and locking it behind them. “What have we got here?” he asked, following Dave and Haley to the counter.
“A guest,” Dave answered.
“What the hell, man?” Haley glanced over her shoulder to see Eddie rushing towards Dave. “You shot me, you jackass!”
“You didn’t give me much of a choice, did you?” Dave replied. “Stop being such a cry baby. It’s barely more than a flesh wound.”
Shot him? Haley wondered. Eddie hadn’t even been there when Dave had shot at the wolves, so how could he have possibly been a victim?
“Aww, hell, Dave, we weren’t going to hurt her,” Eddie said. “We was just having some fun with her. Kind of like a cat playing with its food before eating it,” he laughed. “I can’t believe you actually shot me. It hurts like hell,” he said, rubbing his shoulder.
“You’ll get over it. Thanks to you and your stupid brothers, she knows,” Dave barked. “Sit!” he said, pushing Haley down onto a barstool at the counter.
Earl remained in his normal place, still staring at that damn checkerboard. Haley wondered if he’d even bothered to get up to go take a piss, or if he’d stay glued to his stool in all the hours that had lapsed since she’d last been inside the store.
“What is it I’m supposed to know?” she asked innocently.
“Don’t be coy,” Dave said. “The question now is, what are we going to do about it? We can’t have her going back home and running her mouth about us. Before you know it, all kinds of city folks will be coming around here to see for themselves and find out if it’s true.”
“Find out if what’s true? I swear, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You sure asked a lot of questions on the way here for someone who claims to know nothing,” Dave replied.
“Darlin,” Gordy said, crossing his arms and leaning across the counter. “You really should have heeded our advice and stuck to the interstate. It’s my understandin’ that you’ve done gone and got yerself a good eye full of somethin’ you shouldn’t have seen. Is that right, Dave?”
“’Course, she wouldn’t have seen nothin’ if three dumb asses had stayed inside like they was ‘sposed to, ain’t that right, boys?” he said, casting an angry glance at Eddie and the two other men standing next to him.
None of them answered, hanging their heads instead.
“I want the three of you to remember that however we choose to deal with this, it’s all your fault. Her blood is on your hands.”
“My blood?” Haley shouted, jumping from the stool. Dave forcefully shoved her back down. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Relax,” Gordy told her. “And sit tight while I decide what to do.”
“Why don’tcha just ask her what she saw?” Earl said without looking up. “Seems to me that’d be a good place to start.”
“You and yer logic,” Gordy said sarcastically. Turning back to Haley, he said, “You heard the man. Tell us what you saw.”
“What was I supposed to have seen?”
“When you were out there,” Gordy said, thumbing towards the door. “Trapped in your car in the snow. What did you see?”
“Whiteness,” Haley stated.
“No, smartass. I mean when the wolves attacked your car.”
“Nothing,” Haley answered, shrugging. “My car was covered in snow. I couldn’t see a damn thing through it.”
Gordy studied her carefully, unsure of whether she was being completely honest with him.
“Did you tell Dave that you saw a hairy hand and red eyes?”
“Yes,” she admitted, wondering how in the hell he knew that without being there to hear the conversation. Mental telepathy was beginning to sound a lot less insane than it had when she’d thought about it on the way there. Things were getting weirder and weirder by the second with this group of peculiar misfits. “The wolves were trying to get inside the car. The one outside the door must have stood on its hind legs and pressed a paw into the snow. It wiped away a swath of the snow on the window, and when it peeked inside, I saw its red eyes.”
“That’s it?” Gordy asked. “That’s all you saw?”
“Wasn’t that enough?”
“I imagine you was scared, huh?”
“You could say that.”
“I just did.”
Who the hell were these people, and what were they intending on doing to her? And why all the ridiculous questions about her experiencing a near attack by wolves? She felt like she was inside an interrogation room being grilled by the police for a crime she knew nothing about.
“What do you think, Dave?” Gordy asked.
“That we shouldn’t take any chances. She saw enough to cause a nasty stink around here. We can’t have that.”
“Can I do it?” Eddie asked enthusiastically.
“Don’t you think you’ve done enough?” Dave snapped. “You’re the reason we’re in this mess.”
“Honestly, I have no idea what’s going on here,” Haley said. “Exactly what is it you think I saw?”
“The question is, what do you think you saw?” Earl asked. For the first time, he raised his head and stared coldly at Haley, his topaz-colored irises glistening beneath the glow of the overhead fluorescent light.
Regrettably meeting his stare, she was abruptly overcome by a feverish chill. Odd as they were, it wasn’t the color of his eyes that disturbed her so deeply, but his pupils. They weren’t round and black like they should be, but were bright red, horizontal slits. She felt as though she were peering deep into the dark soul of pure evil and lunatic madness.
“I told you, I didn’t see anything,” Haley replied, a slight tremor in her voice. Her heart pounded, her adrenaline rushing like a flowing river.
Dave ran a hand across his face as he sighed heavily. “Let’s get this over with. I’d like to get home and get some sleep.”
This can’t be happening, she thought. I have to get out of here! They’re going to kill me!
“Let me!” Eddie eagerly requested. “I deserve to be the one. You shot me, remember?”
Perhaps staring into Earl’s eyes had made her go mad. Otherwise, the thought swimming around in her head wouldn’t be there.
Haley started putting the fragments of the day’s events together in her head, one piece at a time, from the moment that the figure ran out in front of her until she was rescued by Dave. Upon the completion of the puzzle, the conclusive theory that she came up with was even more bat shit crazy than the brief consideration she’d given it earlier in the truck. Going against everything she believed in, she realized why they were so curious about what she’d seen.
The furry hand. The red eyes. A gunshot wound on a person who hadn’t even been at the scene. Not in human form, anyway.
“You figured it out, didn’t you?” Gordy asked as he stroked his beard, staring menacingly at her with the same eyes as Earl.
“Figured out what?” Haley replied, her voice catching in her throat.
“No need to try to hide it,” he smiled, revealing a set of sharp and discolored canines. “I can smell it.”
Haley felt hot breath on her ear, turning to see Eddie standing right beside her. “You smell delicious,” he whispered, running a long claw down her cheek. “I can’t wait to devour your heart. With all that fear running through it, it’ll taste sweeter than sugar.”
She was surrounded. Even if she bolted from the stool, she’d be mauled to death before reaching the door.
Directly behind her came the husky, guttural growls of wolves.