The Wolves

Shifting streaks of icy sand snaked between the burned-out car frames and across the cracked asphalt of the abandoned road. The high moon, cold and distant, lit little save the twisting ribbons of sand that whistled through the night air. The skeletonized vehicles of an army convoy littered the old road. Somewhere in the shadow of an overturned Humvee, in the crater where the vehicle had passed through a guard rail and fetched in a ditch, the prostrate figure of a man lay motionless in the dust.

***

The high Afghani sun glared fitfully into the window of the Humvee and glinted off the faded, creased polaroid in Corbin’s hand. A younger, more innocent version of himself stared up from the photo, his face grinning from over the shoulder of the girl in his arms. Corbin’s sergeant, Anders, was sitting opposite him, talking; Corbin was pretty sure Anders was telling him a story. It had been a while since Corbin pretended to listen, so he raised his gaze from the picture to pay Anders his attention.

“Anyways, she told me to leave,” Anders said. “It’s not like it wasn’t-”

A bullet passed through the vehicle, punching through the windows on either side. A single shaft of white light filtered through the hole in the bullet’s wake. The beam travelled straight towards Anders’ head, where it should have stopped. It shined right through.

Corbin started and fell sideways in his seat as the sound of the gunshot finally struck the car. Anders, lips still speaking, keeled over dead.

A chorus of yelling filled the vehicle and sounded over the radios. More gunshots rang out and bullets drummed against the Humvees like hail on a steel roof. The convoy skidded to a stop, and as soon as Corbin’s driver stopped the car, Corbin squirmed toward the safe side of the car and kicked the door open. He fell heavily on the ground, his armor both jostling and cushioning him. As he rose, a steady stream of curses poured from his mouth; they hadn’t been expecting anything like this in friendly territory. His gun was in the trunk.

Corbin dashed around the corner of the car and slammed the trunk release. The hatch popped open, and Corbin reached for something– anything– the first gun he could find. Just as his fingers were closing around a grip, a low whistle screamed out over the desert ground. Corbin turned toward the noise in time to see the blooming vapor trail of a rocket as it arced through the air and slammed into the vehicle just behind him. A sphere of light exploded outward, striking Corbin with a shockwave like the world was splitting apart.

His unconscious body was flung against his Humvee as the car was sent skidding by the explosion. It careened into a ditch– Corbin tumbling after it– where it overturned and ground itself into the earth, pinning Corbin’s body beneath five thousand pounds of metal.

Insurgents poured into the mess of the convoy, stripping the bodies of anything useful and killing the survivors. A boy wrapped in rags and strapped down with ammunition and a rifle taller than he was meandered into the ditch and rummaged around in the smoldering wreckage of Corbin’s Humvee. He reached inside the car and pulled the body of the driver partway out. He scoured the deceased soldier, then Corbin, and, convinced they were dead, wandered off. He never noticed the small distress beacon that slid onto the ground from the driver’s dead grasp, strobing gently, before it was smashed into the dust as the body toppled over.

***

The stinging sensation of sand whipping against Corbin’s taut skin found its way into his troubled dreams and pulled him awake. Groaning, he raised his head. In front of him, the body of his driver slumped out of the car, half in the dirt, the other half suspended upside down by his seatbelt. All along the road to Corbin’s left stretched a line of destroyed vehicles. Alarmed, he tried to rise, but felt a constricting numbness in his right arm that held him down. He looked to find it lodged under a car frame, in a little crevice where the vehicle’s cargo rack met the roof. Breathing sharply, Corbin tried to pull himself free, but the frame refused to budge. Panic and confusion set in at once, and he tried again to dislodge his arm, pulling until his ulna felt ready to snap. Then a sound not his own shattered the night’s calm. Corbin immediately stopped struggling and pressed himself tightly to the ground. Within the walls of his base it was always a chilling but distant sound, something that lost a sense of realism when heard from the safe side of a steel fence. Now though, it was near and very real.

The wolves were out tonight.

The sound seemed right in front of his face. Two huge creatures, lithe and muscular, crept out from behind a pair of car frames. Anders’ blood cracked on Corbin’s face as he grimaced. He tried to sit up but the tension against his ulna awkwardly pulled him back down. The first one rushed for Corbin, and without another conscious thought, he threw the entirety of his weight against his arm. A crack instantly shot through the entire bone, which held for an instant before splitting in two with a revolting crack, snapping one end like a spring out of Corbin’s forearm. His wrist was wrenched unnaturally to the side as the buckled bone sent waves of anguish throughout his crooked limb.

The pain was so profound that it passed from recognition as pain. With eyes bloodshot and utterly blind, and ears ringing out protests so loud Corbin couldn’t even hear his own screaming, he slid his twitching arm free of the car and raised it at the animal just as it crashed into him. A sickening squelch rose into the air as the spur of dagger-like bone caught the animal in the breast, skewering its heart. The beast collapsed onto Corbin– twisting his ravaged limb further out of place– and its dead jowls clacked together over harmless teeth as a slap of putrid warmth from within the animal’s unclenching throat cloyed at Corbin’s increasingly crazed eyes.

But then the other one was on him, trying to reach him around the body of the first, its claws tearing away at its companion, its jaws close enough that Corbin felt the volumes of air against his face that were displaced whenever they snapped together. With teeth that likely killed dozens just inches from his face, eyes blazing like an inferno with a hunger for his living body, pinned under the corpse of the monster he had just murdered with nothing but his sundered arm, which was sending shrieks like tearing metal into his brainstem, the madness finally set in.

Corbin released an insane roar and lunged forward. The snapping teeth caught the corner of Corbin’s mouth, slicing sideways as he moved forward and tearing a gash through his cheek. But then Corbin’s face was past the maw and his own teeth punched deep into a bundle of writhing muscle and artery. A taste like the smell of coins rushed between Corbin’s teeth and down his throat. He gagged but bit down harder. The ringing had died down enough now for Corbin to hear the monster release a gurgled, agonized yelp that sounded far too human. It thrashed violently, tearing itself off of Corbin’s teeth and leaving a hunk of its own flesh in Corbin’s mouth. But then there was nothing to keep the animal’s life from flowing out of its body, and it collapsed almost instantly, releasing horrifying keens and twitching its muscular limbs over the swirling dust.

His head slammed backward onto the dust, as he spat out fur and gore. The wolf wouldn’t die. Its keens burrowed into Corbin’s eardrums and filled the world with pain. Corbin writhed under the heavy body, his back so arched that his spine didn’t touch the ground, hating the animal struggling next to him for refusing to give him quiet. Just as the cries seemed about to die out, they bloomed louder than ever. There seemed to be the faintest echo of words now. Corbin wearily twisted his head to look. Glassed-over eyes stared back at him from the lifeless animal, yet there were clearly words being spoken. Now Corbin was sure he was losing his mind. Then he heard his name.

Confused, he struggled halfway out from under the first wolf and sat up. Flashlight beams assaulted Corbin’s eyes and lit the wreck. Exclamations of disgust at the sight of three bodies and Corbin’s living corpse floated out from the desert. Americans. “Found the beacon,” one of them said, turning over the body of the driver.

Corbin let out a sigh of profoundest relief as strong arms lifted the animal’s body off him, allowing him to take a deep breath again.

After a handful of heartbeats, Lori lands heavily, stumbling, sending a flurry of decaying twigs and leaves in every direction. The impact knocks her breath from her chest but she doesn’t stop. She careens forward, half blind, gasping. Eventually she sucks in a decent breath, and she starts sprinting again. Behind her, hesitant to follow her over the stone bluff, the thing squats on the peak of the rock face, splitting the stones on the ground as it howls its rage over the miles of winding foothills.

***

Lori handled the divorce even worse than most children. Mostly because she hated being dropped off at her father’s workplace. She spent every Friday waiting in the break room of Daddy’s work, doing homework as she eyed the clock, watching men and women come and go. It was always the same routine for those people: they would remove their gloves, slide their masks down onto their necks, and grab another cup of coffee or an energy shot before leaving her alone again.

She had recently decided they weren’t doctors.

She came to this conclusion the day she saw a woman doctor with blood on her arm strapped to a gurney and being wheeled madly down the hallway outside the door to the break room. Lori had snuck to the door and cracked it open, watching the group of people around the woman as they frantically yelled at the cameras in the hallway to open the triple-set of doors to the lobby. Lori had crept slowly out of the break room and peered down the hallway and past the lobby in time to see the woman doctor disappear inside an ambulance.

Lori had never liked the sight of blood, but she knew doctors weren’t supposed to be bothered by it. She wondered why the woman in bloody scrubs had been taken away by an ambulance. If everybody in the building was a doctor, why couldn’t they have just helped her there? She and her father got home extra late that night because he took three showers at work before he came to get her.

***

Lori knows that if she keeps moving downhill she will at some point strike the road that winds up the mountain to her father’s facility. Her legs and head are splitting with pain from the fall, and even in her pitiable state of confused shock, she knows that those injuries are the least of her worries. Her passage is painfully loud in the muted silence of the woods; the snapping crunch of her footfalls echoes off every rock and tree. Already she has been running for an eternity, and she searches constantly through the trees for the first glint of asphalt or perhaps even the lights of a police cruiser. Heaven knows they’ll be coming. Finally, Lori spots a break in the trees. Chest heaving, legs bulging from knotted muscles, eyes cloudy and throbbing from the shock to her head, she bursts from the treeline….

And onto an outcrop of rock that projects from the roots of the forest and out into the air before falling off in a sheer cliff-face.

Lori shrieks and slides to a stop, pushing several pieces of loose shale clear off the cliff. Looking out over the distant forest, Lori is struck by the realization that in her hurried flight, she must have wound downhill in the wrong direction. The road is on the other side of the mountain. Before her stretches miles of wilderness.

Somewhere in the woods behind her, she can hear the thing getting closer.

***

Something had gotten out. Lori knew it the second the alarm started blaring. She figured out what this place was a moment too late. The masks, the doors, the woman with bloody scrubs. It wasn’t her blood, was it? Lori had tried to run before the alarms even went off. It was a good thing too, because once the security system took over, every door in the facility was sealed tight. Lori had made it to the lobby before the building locked down.

The screams coming from down the corridor filled Lori’s ears. The receptionist in the lobby was hysterical, screaming into a dead phone line and shaking like an epileptic. She had pulled a small revolver from a drawer in her desk, but even young Lori could see that she didn’t know how to use it. Lori tried the front doors and found them locked. The screams were getting louder. Lori searched desperately for a way out, trying to see in the poor illumination of the glaring emergency lighting. Her eyes locked on a fire kit.

“Grab the extinguisher!” Lori screamed, rising to her feet. The receptionist obeyed, running to the kit and smashing the glass window with the butt of her revolver. Lori snatched the extinguisher from her and shoved it behind the push-bar of the lobby doors. Then she took the receptionist by the hand and they moved to a safe distance.

“Shoot it.” Lori instructed. The woman took aim as well as she could despite her shaking hands. She pulled the trigger just as the hallway doors behind them burst open.

The extinguisher exploded, fracturing the glass and blowing off the push bar. But the two girls weren’t looking at those doors. Lori watched as the thing slammed into the receptionist and bore her into the ground, knocking Lori over and sending her skidding over the floor and into the fractured glass.

Lori shattered through the doorway as a single, choked cry sounded from the building. There was nothing she could do for the dying woman inside. Lori turned and fled for her life.

***

She closes her eyes as the thing barrels out of the treeline. This is the end for her. Then, of all the things she expects to hear or feel, she hears her name, called by a familiar voice. She cracks one eye open in time to see her father exit the woods after the thing. He slams into it just before it reaches Lori, pushing it off course and sending it plummeting swiftly over the edge. It releases one last keel of rage and then is lost in the trees below. Lori’s foot slips and she almost tumbles after the creature, but her father grabs her hand and pulls her into a protective hug.

“Gotcha,” he whispers.

“This was your fault to begin with!” Lori screams, spinning them both around and pushing him off the ledge.

Marginally Creative Writing

In his persuasive LA Times essay “Let There be Dark,” editorialist Paul Bogard shines a little light on our human need for darkness. He argues that ubiquitous light pollution throughout the country is not only reducing our quality of life by depriving the sky of its natural beauty, but also by creating a host of pollution-related health problems.

Bogard employs his own personal experiences to connect with his audience, fondly recalling the profound darkness and starry skies of his childhood home in Minnesota. He talks on how 8 in 10 American children will never know a night sky dark enough for the milky way galaxy. Bogard also quotes the World Health Organization in stating that sleep deprivation caused by light pollution is now known to be a probable carcinogen, and links other disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and depression. He maintains that in a world growing 6% brighter every year, even the world’s ecology is becoming increasingly unstable as the nocturnal creatures that pollinate fields and protect against disease are growing increasingly disoriented. He offers some hope though, in addressing the steps being taken to reduce light emission the world over, such as LED replacements and automatic shut-off switches in large, bright cities such as Paris.

Bogard points out that without darkness, we are losing a natural treasure along the same lines as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. He warns of the part the every-day consumer plays in the reduction of darkness. Every night, people reach for their devices, light their homes, and turn on their headlights. Bogard concedes that recent changes for good are a result more of a desire to reduce energy consumption, although their side effects are beneficial to the environment. He argues that we will never truly address the problem of light pollution until we become aware of the irreplaceable value and beauty of the darkness we are losing.

Bogard uses powerful and often melodic language when trying to communicate to his readers the country’s dire situation. He recalls days spent under “sugary spreads of stars,” and laments the probability that modern youth will grow up in a world without that sky that inspired works like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” He states that “every religious tradition has considered darkness invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began.”

Paul Bogard, despite obviously holding the subject near his heart, still gives objective and excellent points regarding the invaluableness of darkness. He gives stark predictions on the future of a country enshrouded in light, supported by existing data supporting his thesis that darkness is a necessary part of life. He gives startling links to light pollution and health and ecological problems, and illustrates all the religious and cultural significance of darkness in human history. He ends his essay by positing that the problem of vanishing darkness will never be solved until there is a wide acknowledging of said problem. Ultimately, Bogard hopes for a coordinated effort to stem the rise of light pollution and return to the nation the beauty and calm of the nights our grandfathers knew.