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It wasn’t hers. Sue hadn’t wanted it, but there it was, on the seat beside her. “For your protection,” they said. “Just in case.”
She was driving I-90, Seattle to Chicago, beat-up Honda, catching coffee when she could, haunting rest stops for cramped leg sleep. Running a package out for a guy she knew. Said he couldn’t trust UPS. “Something delicate,”he said. Sue didn’t understand, it seemed solid, nothing rattling or shaking. But the pay was good, and she was between gigs.
“Lots of empty country,” they said. True. And it was fairly dull till Lookout Pass on the Montana border.
The Honda wheezed its way up to the Dena Mora Rest Area at 4700 feet. A little wooden shack of a place with vending machines and a couple of friendly truckers. “And what’s a little lady doing up here by herself?”
“Hauling freight,”Sue said, trying to fit in. She explained about the package, an instrument of some kind, guy who was the friend of the lead guitar. They warned her to be careful, pointed to a tattered poster on the wall. Fuzzy picture of a boy and girl in their mid-20s. MISSING, last seen December 1, 2015. Their car was found in the lot, but they’ve never been. The older trucker heard they’d walked into the woods to get away from people, to do, you know, something private, never came back. Searched the whole area, and have done for the last three years, no people, no bones.
“You’re not going to find me in the woods,” Sue said.
“I’d say that’s good thinking. Couple of years back, man shot what he thought was a wolf, but wasn’t, brown matted fur and big, six feet nose to tail, big canine teeth. Denton is a ways from here, but never know, wolves roam.” The trucker went on to explain that any number of people thought it was a dire wolf, a prehistoric hypercarnivore, competed with the saber tooth tiger for meat, supposedly extinct for 10,000 years, but things reincarnate, climate change, all that. The more he talked, the creepier she felt.
“Just now remembered,” the trucker said, “the Grateful Dead, before your time I reckon, had a song called ‘Dire Wolf’. Went something like, in a black and bloody Fennario, a dire wolf collects what’s due.”
Sue shook and a dribble of sweat ran down her back. “I’m out of here, guys.” She bought three cups of coffee, black, from the machine, an assortment of high-energy bars, jumped in the Accord and raced down the Bitterroot Range, kept moving through the canyons shadowing the winding road, panicked about staying on the road, outrunning the dire wolf, and keeping her car in one piece. It was breathing badly. Finally, Missoula. A cheap motel, Mountain Valley Inn at $55 a night. Fell into bed, nodded off. Not long. Woke, at the foot of the bed, a dire wolf, tongue lolling over its teeth, brown bristly hair raised on its neck, a low growl, a clack of its teeth, closer, a high-pitched rumble, a scream, hers.
Coffee in the morning. Her goal was Little Big Horn, 400 miles away. Grandfather, a couple of greats back, had been there. Before she set out, waitress in the café warned her to be real careful in the Bozeman-Billings stretch. “By far the worst stretch of highway in the U.S. of A. More people get killed, day and night, than anywhere else.”
“Alcohol and drugs. You’ll see, all the little white crosses with flowers round them. Honoring idiots, I’d say.”
After that, she hugged the right lane all the way down to Little Big Horn, spooking only when big horn sheep appeared on the mountain side. Now she was into flatland, and flat it was. Checked into a motel in Hardin, then off to the battleground. Found her ancestor’s name on the list of the dead, George Moonie, Trumpeter, so that’s where the family musical gene comes from. Park guide talked about the Ghost Dance. Native Americans and their animals, back to prehistoric time, rise, join the living to oust the white man.
That night, so tired, she fell asleep instantly. Woke. She smelled foul fur, heard scratching at the door, clawing, crinkling wood, deep growl, light on, low mewing, paws padding away. All lights on, rigid, sitting up in bed, gun in hand. Dawn. She showered, dressed, turned the doorknob. The outside of the hollow core door was shredded.
Coffee, energy bars, gas and the road. Some 40 miles past the town of Lodge Grass, a rock hit the windshield. Shattered it. She jerked at the wheel, nearly drove off the road. Where the hell did that come from? She slowed the car to a stop and sat till her breathing got down to near normal. The sun caught hold of the edges of exploded glass, turning her windshield into a web of rainbow colors.
She couldn’t see driving far with a slivered windshield and had no clue where she would find a new one in this wasteland. Certainly no cell signal. The uncovered two percent.
In the rearview, Sue saw something move – back alongside the road, by the loose rocks. Her stomach lurched. She grabbed the gun, found the safety, clicked it off, willed her legs out of the car, onto the pavement. She’d face it. Caffeine-alert, she walked down the road, scanned the horizon, hair whipped around her eyes.
But it wasn’t there anymore. It was behind her.
Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A collection of short stories, "3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies & other stories," 2018. Winner of a Book Excellence Award, an Eyelands Award, and a Silver Feathered Quill Award. A novella, "La Ronde," 2015. Over 100 short stories and poems have been published in literary journals and included in 15 anthologies. Short Story Awards: two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award, first place in the SLO NightWriters contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He reviews for the "New York Journal of Books." During a career in banking, he wrote three books on finance: "A Guide for Using the Foreign Exchange Market," "Managing Risk with Derivatives," and "Managing Lease Portfolios."