The Rambler and the Wolf
Travis Bards hefted the brown case up and onto the backseat of his Cutlass. The case had sat there so often that the seat began to form an imprint around it, securing it to the seat without any external aid. It was lighter, and shifted around a little. Travis managed to sell off half of the cheap pulp bibles and plastic trinkets to a group of Korean tourists just off the boat. One hell of a sale. Unfortunately, the widow just up the driveway Travis pulled out of did not share the generous spirit of her sisters and brothers from across the Pacific. Or maybe just not their gullibility.
Travis held the wheel in one hand as he pulled a small moleskine notebook from the breast pocket of his tan, threadbare jacket. A list of crossed-out names and addresses revealed that there were three homesteads which Travis hadn’t had the pleasure of soliciting yet, two down the same street Travis was cruising and one ten minutes outside of town, in a gated community memorable for the population of wealthy reborn and just-saved known as Evergreen Terrace. Coupled with the Koreans, a score up in that district would put the salesman at the top of the commission board for the next few months. Travis tossed the book onto the passenger seat and turned left onto an arterial, smiling at the thought of the monthly bonus to top salesman. A small vacation would be nice, or maybe, finally, a hand tailored suit. He glanced down at his attire and grimaced.
The drive was over quickly, the small northwestern town Travis was making his way through only held a few hundred souls—most of whom worked out of the neighboring city—turning the hamlet into a ghost town from nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday. Travis almost felt bold enough to run the town’s single stoplight, seeing no one as he rolled up, but pulled to a cautious stop anyway before cruising down the cracked and rugged asphalt. A large ranch house sat at the back of Evergreen Terrace’s largest hill, sprawled out over the forest that bordered the town on wooden stilts. The building’s rambling modules didn’t fit into the carefully planned aesthetic of the Terrace, having been built long before the homogenous subdivisions began to encroach upon its space.
The balding tires of Travis’s Cutlass flung detritus into the air as the road shifted from asphalt to gravel. As he sped up the approach, Travis could see that whoever lived there didn’t seem to mind the boarded-up window. Or the partially collapsed roof. Or the fact that there was more moss than siding. Travis eased his foot off of the gas and peered intently out the dirty windshield at what was now obviously an abandoned piece of property. The gravel path in front of him round up around the hill out of sight before, Travis assumed, approaching the backside of the house. A couple dozen feet ahead, Travis slowed his car to a stop in front of a rotted wood sign staked haphazardly a yard right of the road. Crudely painted white numbers counted off 5371. He pulled the notebook from the passenger seat, flipping to the dog-eared page that contained these local addresses. Sure enough, 5371 Parkway Drive N was one of the few destinations left on the page without a sharp red slash bisecting it. Travis looked back over at the house and decided to turn back to the peaceful organization of the suburbs and edit his directory for the area later. The gravel driveway was too narrow to turn around in, and the two-foot drainage ditches to either side of the road discouraged Travis from even thinking about attempting such a maneuver.
Travis shrugged and slid the book back into his breast pocket, shifting the car into drive and easing up the rough path to turn around at the house. The road curved back up towards the substantial rural manor, leading to a small roundabout in front of a standalone two-car garage. Both doors were lowered and moss and errant bunches of weeds grew up their faded white exteriors. Glancing towards the main building, the two story house seemed much more imposing and massive up close. Eight sets of windows set into the upper story were shuttered with filthy brown planks of plywood, with a few bars of black showing where a board had rotted away from its fastenings. Below, a wrap-around porch enclosed by a banister coated in flaking white paint opened to allow a set of stone steps to lead towards a large oak door.
Travis started to circle the roundabout, but a flash of yellow out of the corner of his eye brought his focus back to the front walk. A piece of bright yellow ribbon tied to the end of the banister fluttered and flapped in the slight breeze that flowed over the hill. As he looked closer, Travis could discern markings on the ribbon, blocky black shapes ran the length of the ribbon. Police tape? Travis’s curiosity piqued at the idea. Did something happen here? Could some fanatical, jealous wife armed with a crowbar have gone after her cheating husband and gotten hauled off? Plot lines from Columbo and The Brothers Brannagan began weaving in and out of Travis’s mind, constructing wildly vivid scenarios.
Against his better judgment, Travis eased his foot onto the break and brought the car to a stop just in front of the stone steps. He stared at the yellow tape for a few moments before hauling himself out of the deep captain’s chair and into the light of the afternoon sun. The case was already in his hand before Travis realized that the potential for a satisfactory sale here was limited. He failed to put it back on the passenger seat before locking his car and marching his way up to the entranceway.
Just as Travis had thought, police ribbon had once been tied across the gap in the banister. The main doors leading into the house were lined with broken red tape, signs of an early condemnation that the county must have forgotten about, and stood ajar. Travis used the side of his case to slowly push one door open, cringing as it creaked its way. A sliver of light pierced its way through the widening gap to expose a tattered and moldy carpet leading down into darkness. As the salesman made his way through the doorway, light fell upon more of the entry and the crude graffiti scrawled across the yellowed wallpaper. Misspellings of vulgar phrases and allusions to unknown kids’ adverse sexualities overlapped one another, occasionally obscured by patches of some dried substance that seemed to have been run through the esophagus twice.
A precarious mountain of empty beer cans sitting in the hallway suddenly tumbled apart; an avalanche of aluminum cascaded across the floor as Travis grabbed frantically at the latches of his case until he glanced at the culprits. A pair of rats, startled by the salesman’s intrusion, scurried off into the back of the house. Travis lowered his arms and shook out his body as the rush of adrenaline subsided and his heart rate returned to a more reasonable, albeit slightly quickened, rhythm. He called out softly into the darkness and wasn’t surprised when no one answered.
Startling, though, was the silhouette that crossed Travis’s path not five feet in front of him. Silent and low, the figure moved swiftly from doorway to doorway, not visible for more than a second before disappearing again into the darkness. Travis felt its presence more than witnessed it.
Not trusting of decades-old unmaintained circuitry, which would have been dodgy upon installation judging by the slapdash application of outlets and switches, the faith salesman pulled a worn lighter from his jacket and sparked the flint a couple of times before the wick caught and the hallway was softly illuminated. The lighter, Travis had said, had been given to him and blessed by the chaplain of the 2nd Airborne Division of the British Army, and had actually deflected a bullet directed towards his heart by a German sniper in the thick of Operation Overlord. He had even pounded a nail through the back of the case to add credence to his claim. What had helped Travis as a conversation starter with potential clients was lighting his path now as he strafed down the corridor, keeping one eye on the dark rooms he passed and one on the hallway that stretched before him.
The corridor gradually expanded into what was once a dining room and lounge. Beams of light cut through dust and the errant mosquito from holes torn through tarps duct-taped over floor-to-ceiling windows. Whether it was a storm or a vandal that had come through was unknowable, but either one of them could have left the hundreds of glass shards that glistened from the floor. Travis crept across the room, failing to moderate the crunching underfoot, and ripped one of the less well-fastened tarps from a window, staggering back as a barrage of light smashed into his eyes. The west-facing rooms gave their occupant a glorious view of the sunset over the forests and mountains that stretched off into the distance.
Travis puzzled as to where the slight breeze was coming from before realizing the window he was staring out of had also been smashed, granting access to the porch that wrapped around from the front and expanded out into a large seating area. A few rusty deck chairs circled a pile of ash on the burnt timber, but the area was largely empty. He stepped out gingerly before accepting that the deck felt sturdy enough to support a man of his slight stature, and walked over to the banister that overlooked the vast pine forest that stretched out behind Evergreen Terrace.
The salesman stared off at the sunset and, for a moment, wondered if he could find the owner of the property and buy it for cheap. With the bonus upcoming, Travis could afford to fix it up and enjoy that sunset for the rest of his life rather than stuck in his one-bedroom apartment below a noisy Ukrainian family. The idea became more and more appealing as Travis went over it in his head.
A sharp crack brought Travis back to reality. The sound echoed out from behind him, almost as loud as a cannon blast in the stillness of the evening. Travis spun around and faced the window, the room behind barely visible in the receding light. From the shadows, a snout covered in matted and dirty silver fur baring a row of jagged and stained teeth jutted out in front of gunmetal green eyes. The wolf emerged fully, slinking down and curling its lips back to reveal even more teeth. Travis stood paralyzed for an eternity before he slowly slid his hands across the top of his case and unlatched the clasps. He took a deep breath before throwing the case open and ripping out the service issue semiautomatic stashed beneath the gospels in one quick, rehearsed motion. The wolf startled and growled at the sudden movement and jumped back part way into the window, coiled and tense.
Travis leveled the gun’s sights at the wood just in front of the wolf’s front paws and squeezed the trigger twice. The beast whimpered and squealed as it was pelted with razor sharp splinters from the bullets smashing through the deck. It turned tail and sprinted back into the darkness of the house out of sight, but Travis could hear the receding thud of paws against wood as the wolf ran out the front entrance. Travis almost had the urge to yell after the dumb creature to watch its back, but he was alone, and the wolf was unlikely to understand such a taunt.
He bent down to gather his case when the deck broke free. A large crack spread from the bullet holes and spread quickly along the side of the house, widening as it moved. The entire deck shifted and heaved as support beams snapped from the strain, sending Travis flying back against the banister. He clung to it desperately as the porch separated entirely from the house and swayed erratically for a moment as it balanced on its support stilts alone. One stilt snapped, followed by two, and suddenly Travis was falling. The world seemed to rush up past him and the deck to which he clung, until everything exploded into a cloud of timber and dirt. Travis was flung several feet in the air and careened wildly until he impacted the side of the hill and bounced down through the trees. A second explosion erupted from Travis’s right, shattering his hand and sending a white-hot pain into his thigh, until he was forced to retreat from consciousness.
Darkness greeted Travis when he finally awoke. As he regained sensation in his extremities, his right hand cried out in anguish above the strains and tears that were registering in the rest of his body. Wincing, Travis raised his right arm over his head, trying to evaluate the damage in the dim moonlight filtering through the evergreens that stretched above him. His thumb dangled from a thin strand of fibrous tendon and skin, sending arcs of pain cascading through his arm each time it pendulously swayed with the momentum of his movement. The stench of copper overcame Travis as he felt warm liquid run down and pool in his armpit.
He lightly grasped his thumb with his left hand, stopping the painful movement, and swiftly yanked down. The remaining tendon snapped. Travis screamed and thrust his hand into his gut, curling around it as his body seized in pain. He rocked and sobbed as he clutched his detached digit in his left hand, until the anguish had receded to a dull roar. He tried to stand, but immediately met the ground again when his right leg collapsed from under him. Travis cried out again and pulled his knee close to him. With his good hand, he ripped a hole in his slacks and amongst the numerous scrapes and cuts to be found was a neat round bullet hole in the meat just above his knee. The pain from his hand was masking most from the gunshot wound, and the relatively small amount of blood leaking from it told Travis that the bullet had missed any serious artery and he wasn’t in any immediate danger of blood loss. Still, he ripped the rest of his pant leg off and awkwardly tried to form a tourniquet with one hand.
Travis’s eyes had adjusted to the night well enough for him to attempt to reorient himself with his surroundings. He found himself sitting at the bottom of a gully between two softly rising slopes. Travis was unable to determine which one he had fallen down, each was scattered with debris when the deck folded. Shards of wooden beams lay interspersed with plastic crucifixes and torn bibles, the remnants of his case strewn across the forest floor. He reached over, grasped one of the less-soiled bibles and tore a few pages from them to wrap his thumb in. Doctors back in the city were probably more than capable of reattaching it; Travis had heard such things numerous times.
Looking around for a second time, Travis realized that not all of the junk spread out on the forest floor had come from the deck’s collapse. Next to one of the deck chairs that had smashed to pieces, a tarp was hung along a cord stretched from one large cedar to another, fashioning a crude tent. As he looked closer, Travis could see a pack, sleeping roll, and numerous empty tins in and around the tent, no doubt the work of a transient seeking shelter between the hills.
Travis slowly crawled across the forest floor towards the tent for closer inspection. A tin of beans still held some sauce, and what remained of a small campfire smoldered. He couldn’t see any sign of the owner himself, so Travis deduced that the man had gone off for more supplies and would be back to retrieve the rest of his equipment when he was finished rummaging through trash. Travis felt a glimmer of hope as he awaited his savior’s return.
Footfalls sounded from the dark woods ahead of Travis not a few minutes later. Travis sat up with joy, breathlessly anticipating his safe passage home. He called out towards the approaching figure, hoping to lessen the surprise to the vagrant when he finds his home in tatters. Who knows what sort of mental illness or disability had forced him to remove himself from society.
The smile vanished from Travis’s face when the wolf with gunmetal green eyes came into focus. The wolf’s snout was dotted and pockmarked by blood where splinters from Travis’s gunshots had cut it. It approached the campsite slowly, never breaking eye contact with Travis. The bible salesman yelled and waved his good arm over his head to try and startle the beast again, but the wolf merely paused and cocked its head in curiosity before continuing its approach. Travis grabbed everything he could, rocks, bibles, sticks, and hurled them at the wolf, but most of his shots went wild and those that did connect, the wolf shrugged off without so much as a flinch. As it got closer, Travis unwrapped his thumb from the blood-soaked pages and waved in front of him, as he would a ball with a dog. The wolf looked away from Travis and at the thumb, watching intently as he moved it back and forth. He threw it as hard as he could back into the wilderness, and the wolf bounded off after it, following the blood scent.
The wolf emerged from the woods moments later, dropped the thumb on the ground in the dirt between it and Travis, and stared at him. The wolf continued to stare for a few minutes before bending back down and snapping up the thumb, consuming it whole. Travis closed his eyes and waited for the wolf to come and start tearing at the flesh still attached to his body, but it never came. He opened his eyes again and saw the tail of the wolf receding into the undergrowth. Surprise and relief were replaced with dread, as the wolf reemerged from the brush.
It came out slowly, backwards, and under great strain. As it came farther into Travis’s line of sight, he could see that it was hauling a very heavy load through the forest, though he couldn’t see what behind the wolf’s hulking form. The wolf pulled the load closer before releasing it and backing away, turning around to eye Travis.
An elderly man wrapped in innumerable shoddy overcoats lay sprawled on the ground; tattered gloves and shoes adorned his hands and feet, and a large chunk of shattered two-by-four rose from a gaping wound in his chest. Travis whimpered softly as he took in the sight of the camp’s previous occupant.
The wolf cocked its head again and then let out a short howl. In an instant, four more wolves resolved from the darkness and formed a semi-circle around the broken bible salesman. He closed his eyes once more, and this time felt a wolf’s wet nose against the unprotected skin of his leg before its jaws opened.
Will Pearson is currently a fourth year university student studying the history of science. This is the third piece of fiction to be produced, and the hope is that more will shortly follow. Following in the wake of authors such as Dean Koontz, Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King, and many more, the author plans to create a world of great intrigue.