This story is by Rock Martin and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The wolves will tear you apart piece by piece, and they won’t wait for you to die first. His grandfather’s old tale haunted Roger as he leaned against the straight trunk of a Ponderosa Pine, its pale reddish-brown bark matching the dried scabs on his knees. He wiped the sweat from his brow and squinted through teary, bloodshot eyes at the surrounding forest.
The shadows grew long, and the midsummer heat began to dissipate. He fetched his handheld GPS unit and stared at the blank screen before tilting his head back and resting it against the tree, eyes tightly closed.
His mind wandered back to his home, where his wife Susan and their children would be preparing for dinner. They’d sit around the table and talk about the weekend, his sons Tommy and Mike picking at each other, Susan repeatedly correcting them. Mike sneaking small pieces of roast beef into his grimy hands and offering them to their Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Melvin. This transaction taking place under the table to avoid detection.
The images swirled through Roger’s head, briefly allowing his lips to curl into the slightest of smiles, even as the hunger pangs returned. A howl in the distance instantly snapped him back to his current predicament.
Roger’s backpacking adventure had turned into a nightmare. His shaky knees strained and his aching back tightened. Gathering as much composure as he could, Roger scanned the immediate vicinity.
The surroundings included a collection of Lodgewood and Ponderosa Pine, White and Engelman Spruce and Western Larch, blanketing a rolling landscape with undergrowth sprinkled from place to place, dense enough to restrict visibility to 100 yards or so. In other words, it looked exactly like the last place Roger stopped, and exactly like the place before that. He quit trying to convince himself that this or that looked familiar hours ago.
How could this happen? He thought. This isn’t supposed to happen to an experienced hiker. This fate was reserved for fools and flatlanders, a piteous group from which he graduated long ago, or so he believed. What would the wolves eat first? His liver? His heart? Would they tear him apart while he was still alive like his grandfather had described, a fate worse than death? Would he be nothing more than a pile of mangled remains? Or would his end come with a whimper? Would the forest itself quietly take him, be it by hunger or thirst, or hypothermia?
Roger gingerly hunched over and rested his hands on his knees. His face wrinkled as he closed his eyes tightly, chasing the demons from in his mind. North, he thought. Walk north. He’ll eventually run into the road. It was all he could remember from the trail map. The one he left sitting at home next to his compass.
Roger quickly shot up straight, clenching his hands into white-knuckled fists. For a moment he was able to keep it all in, the tidal wave of emotion building inside him, equal parts shame, fear and anger. The cracking, leaking dam holding it back, finally gave way. Roger let out a blood curdling scream. “How could I be so stupid?” He screamed again, as loud and hard as he could, “Just kill me,” leaving his echo to cascade through the valley. Great, he thought. Now the bears and wolves all know exactly where I am!
“Come on Roger,” he whispered. “You can do this. You have to, you have to keep moving.” He opened his eyes, roughly identified his chosen direction using the setting sun, took a few deep breaths, and set off again.
The trail disintegrated into open forest floor days ago, with no sign of where to pick it back up again. He snaked his way around boulders and fallen trees, trying to maintain a northerly direction.
The chill of the mountain evening began to grab hold, his breath now clearly visible. He stopped for a moment, leaned over and dropped his pack, shuffling through it to retrieve a knit hat, while taking stock of his supplies in the process. No food left, the last of it eaten the previous day, there remained a wrinkled ball of clothes, a first aid kit, three matches, a book, and a knife.
He’d been looking forward to this hike, his first on his own in years. He wouldn’t need to carry a tent, or sleeping bag, or much else really. He planned to spend his nights in shelters along the trail, the one he started out on and hadn’t seen for two days.
The howls echoed again through the forest, startling Roger. He hoisted the half-zipped pack over one arm and took off, making his way through the trees as briskly as possible, the haphazard gallop creating an orchestra of crashing feet and snapping twigs.
The forest was dimly lit by the near horizontal rays of sunlight beaming through the tall stands, the sun itself nestled along a distant mountain side, bidding adieu to the jagged landscape for another long night.
Roger tried to place his steps as carefully as possible. His toe nipped a root, causing him to stumble before regaining his balance. Soon he tripped on a rock, again managing to stay on his feet.
Suddenly he felt a shiver, the sensation of being followed, race up his spine, sending him into an uncontrollable frenzy.
The pounding of his heart increased, as did his pace. Thoughts of all kinds terrible filled his head. Would these be my last moments? He thought.
Any intention of maintaining a steady course had been lost. He moved as fast as possible in all directions at once and at the same time in none at all, trying to get anywhere but here. To get back to the warm comforts of home. Where he could laugh with his family, fill his empty belly, and enjoy a good night’s rest.
Hearing the rustling of brush and the snapping of twigs behind him, Roger desperately stretched his neck around to spot his followers. Before he could determine how close his assailants were, he tripped.
Roger crashed onto the forest floor and barreled down a slope, the green and brown twilight world spinning around and around. He tumbled in a cloud of forest litter, losing his pack along the way, before coming to an abrupt, violent halt.
Roger awoke to a world of darkness closing in around him. Instinctively, he took inventory of his condition. A matted, viscous mixture of blood, pine needles and dirt covered his face, his knees were bleeding again, and he felt the dull throb of bruising along his hip and back.
As he sat up, leaning against the stump that broke his fall, a shadowy figure came into view. Roger shook the cobwebs from his head, as if the image was a mirage, and focused his eyes as much as he could.
There it was, standing about 3 feet high, the light gray coat silhouetted against the darkness.
Roger’s spine straightened, jerking him up, his heart pounding uncontrollably. Every hair on his body stood at attention, his skin roiling with goosebumps.
His lungs churned out puffs of breath, creating a fog in the chilly air. The wolf matched Roger’s breaths with those of its own, producing its own fog, the only indication that either motionless being was alive.
The wolf’s ears were erect and pointed directly at Roger, its two devilish eyes shined within the darkness of its figure.
As the creature measured him from a distance, Roger conceded. Unarmed, exhausted, and hopeless, tears borne of gentle resignation began streaming down his bloody cheeks.
Visions of Susan and the boys filled his head, at first smiling and playing in the back yard, then devastated when they learn of his death.
The irresistible weight of responsibility smothered him. He should have brought his map, he should have checked the batteries in his GPS, he should have just stayed home.
Roger remained frozen as the wolf peered deep into his soul, its piercing glare splitting Roger’s outer shell, revealing his contents. Then, abruptly and without warning the wolf turned and left, curiously stopping once to look back at Roger before continuing on its way. Roger gasped in disbelief, the wolf’s appraisal had found more in him than he knew existed.
He rose off the stump, a jolt of adrenaline pushing him to his feet. Gathering his scattered pieces and reconstructing what remained, he emerged greater than when he began.
There among the trees and darkness, during the infant moments of the rest of his life, he caught a glimpse of his salvation. In the distance a light, illuminated by the darkness, too bright and angular to be anything other than a window.
Roger’s aimless trek through the wilderness of his life was almost over. Frayed and tattered, he took the first steps on his way home.