Part 1: https://theakhtabweekly.com/?p=191
Part 2: https://theakhtabweekly.com/?p=194
Part 3: https://theakhtabweekly.com/?p=196
Part 4: https://theakhtabweekly.com/?p=198 Part 5: https://theakhtabweekly.com/?p=200
Joe gets up and walks toward the second tunnel and stands in front of it. He doesn’t bother to exchange words, it’d be pointless. He takes a deep, nervous breath but Cheryl is cooler than a winter breeze. In fact, she’s ice cold. They stand there for a long time when Cheryl takes the first step and Joe goes in shortly after.
The tunnels are dark, cold, and damp, and the moisture in the air produces a mildew smell. Cheryl walks along in silence–the pain and grief stewing inside her like a witch’s potion–thinking about what Joe told her, running the story through her mind, again and again, trying to put things in perspective but her emotions are too powerful–her anger too visceral.
Joe is weighed down with shame, his legs feel like cinder blocks as he drags them along, thinking about Ricky and how the wolves tore him apart, that look in his eyes as the life drained from them, and the blood. So much blood.
Cheryl’s mind begins to reminisce, going back to a time the four of them had just graduated college with their Masters degrees, Joe a double major in Biology and Mathematics, Mike a double Major in Biology and English, Ricky in Biology and Philosophy, and Cheryl in Biology and Psychology–she thinks about when they all met in Bio 101 and immediately clicked, all having in common a fascination with wolves–Timberwolves, in particular. How they would all go to the library after class and read every book they could find on the ancestry of the animal and absorb all the facts with an insatiable thirst, devouring hundreds of articles by L. David Mech, Luigi Boitani, and other long-standing members of the International Wolf Center. She remembers one fact about wolves that always seemed to stick around every time she and the guys went looking for them in the Tundra, a fact that changed her perspective on wolves–even more than the story of The Three Little Pigs. She remembers reading that the Grey Wolf (Timberwolf) has been feared and persecuted more than other animals, that people tried them and burned them at the stake. Cheryl weighs this with what Joe and Ricky said happened when they met at the intersection but for some reason doubts it–even though she feels she can never trust Joe again, she still has enough faith to believe he wouldn’t lie. Wolves aren’t savages; in fact, they’re more human than humans in most cases. They mate for life, have puppies, form close relationships and stick to the pack (lone wolves rarely howl and avoid contact with packs), and they only attack when they feel threatened–despite what’s in the movies. Cheryl grapples with this and something (a gut feeling, maybe) is telling her that Joe’s story isn’t true, not entirely.
Joe walks along in the deafening silence, the scene playing over and over in his mind. He doesn’t think back to college like Cheryl does nor does he reminisce. He just lets the thoughts in his mind run amok, trying to find the meditative state men are usually able to get to–that state where one can turn off his mind and reset it. The look in Ricky’s eyes continues to haunt him and the blood gushing out his throat pulls him back into a state of terror.
You killed him. . . you killed Ricky. . .
Joe looks around in panic, forgetting its pitch black and there’s nothing to see (the flashlights don’t work in the tunnels).
You killed him. . .
“I had no choice,” Joe replies, “it was either him or me, and he volunteered.”
You killed Ricky. . .
“No,” Joe says, “he sacrificed himself and I helped him, like a true friend.”
You killed him. . .
You killed Ricky. . .
Joe covers his ears, but he can still hear it, “No, I didn’t!”
You killed him. . .
Joe sprints down the tunnel and tries to outrun the voice, the cool, damp air washing over him and the mildew smell fading from his senses. Sweat runs down his neck and temples and gets in his eye, Joe wipes with the back of his hand and trips over a rock and falls to the ground, sliding a couple inches. Sussurant voices permeated throughout the tunnel saying the same two phrases; Joe gets up quickly and continues running, nothing but darkness in front of him. His breathing is laborious, the stomp of his boots produces a terrible harmony with the voices in his head–placing him under the illusion something’s after him. The hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention when he feels something behind him. His strides get wider and the adrenaline pumps harder, the force of self-preservation takes full control, the whisper of the voices grows louder and that feeling someone, something is behind him grows stronger. Up ahead, Joe sees a speck of emerald green light and sprints harder toward it, the light gets brighter and brighter and Joe feels the relief that comes when freedom is within your grasp, and dives for the exit, sliding a couple inches.
Joe gets up and looks back at the tunnel for a long time, his breathing still laborious and his adrenaline working overtime. He stares for a little more and begins to calm down and the wide, rabid, fearful look in his eyes subsides. He looks around the room and it’s much the same as the last, three tunnels on either side and two behind him, the only difference being instead of two tunnels only one is ahead. Only one of us can live, Joe thinks. He walks to the stairs that lead to the bottom and sits down, waiting for Cheryl and contemplating how the hell he is going to get out alive.
Cheryl emerged from the tunnel twenty minutes later and sees Joe sitting on the stairs in a contemplative posture, she walks in and sits five feet away from him–giving him a suspicious eye. Joe doesn’t notice her until he looks up and sees her from the corner of his eye then looks at her, their eyes meet. Her calm gaze and silent demeanor still scare the shit out of Joe, and he knows that she knows it does. Joe knows that Cheryl went over his story, that Cheryl cross-referenced it with everything she knows about wolves and their habits, that there were a few holes in his story, that he wasn’t telling the truth; well, at least, not the entire truth.
They look at each other for a long time.
Cheryl says, “I thought about your story, Joe. I thought about it a lot.”
Joe says nothing, couldn’t even if he wanted to.
“I even cross-referenced it with everything we know about wolves,”
Of course, you did, Joe thinks but says, “Those weren’t ordinary wolves.”
Cheryl ignores him and continues, “you and I both know they’re highly intelligent and social animals, that they aren’t generally rabid, that they only attack when threatened. . .”
“Yeah,” Joe holds her gaze despite not wanting to.
“So, how was it they attacked you again?” She asks. “If you two didn’t have intentions of harming them?”
“Like I said,” Joe replies, “those weren’t ordinary wolves.”
“What was so different about them?” Now the interrogation begins. “Details.”
“I told you, they came out raring to go. They had this look in their eyes like they didn’t care about anything. It was an icy look, a look you expect from a hardened soldier or criminal. Their eyes were snow white, gray even, which gave them this murderous look. . .”
“Go on,” Cheryl prompted.
Joe sighs, “Look, I get that you think I’m a coward for leaving Ricky, for not trying to save him, but that doesn’t make what happened any less true.” He pauses. “Ricky and Mike are dead, a pack of wolves tore them apart, or did you forget about Mike?”
Cheryl is just about to answer when a low, snarling sound resonates throughout the cave. Their heads snap to where the sound is coming from and one wolf emerges from one of the six tunnels, then another one, then another, and then another. Before they know it, they’re surrounded. Three wolves on either side.
“Now you’ll see what I’m talking about,” Joe makes a run down the stairs toward the tunnel, but the wolves block him off.
Cheryl looks on.
Joe tries to run back but three wolves beat him there and block the way. They pay no attention to Cheryl.
“A little help here, Cher?” Joe says, “You just gonna let a pack of wolves eat my ass alive?”
Cheryl doesn’t move, only looks a Joe.
“Seriously, you think this is what I did to Ricky?” Joe asks. “You think I left him to die, just like this, don’t you?!”
The wolves close in on him, growling and snarling. Joe tries to cover his front and back but to no avail. He looks into their icy light blue eyes and sees his death. His indifferent, indiscriminate death.
“Come on, Cher,” Joe says, “help me out a little! Throw a rock! For Christ’s sake, do something!”
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