He woke up that morning like every other morning. She was nestled against his chest. No matter where they were, she liked to sleep close. The feeling for him had changed a little over the years and now he just felt suffocated by her hot breath. The natural progression of life, he supposed, as things had been tougher for them lately. She was faithful, a good mother, and allowed him to make an ass out of himself when he drank too much, which was becoming more and more often. She was shopping in town today. Her last words were, "Good luck. Don't kill yourself."
He woke up that morning like every other morning. She was nestled against his chest. No matter where they were, she liked to sleep close. The feeling for him hadn't changed in four years. It was the best part of his day. Her warmth made his head heavy at this time of morning, but life here didn't allow for much rest. They'd been together for four years now, had six pups the year before, and had seen five of them grow to nearly adult size. She protected her pups fiercely, but unless something changed, there'd be no new pups this year. He'd vowed to himself not to let that happen.
It had been a bad year. Hell, the last two years he had been under- performing. F&I for a Lexus dealership, especially one in Beverly Hills, should be a breeze. For five years prior he'd made at worst fifteen thousand a month. Seventy-hour weeks were normal but the money was so good running credit apps or selling extended warranties that he'd put up with the obscene hours. It was killing him though, and his wife too. But he'd ignored this so his kids could go to a private elementary school at a price far greater than he'd paid for all four-and-a-half-years at the University of Arizona.
The land where he and his family could live had been getting smaller and smaller and food was becoming more scarce. It wasn't out of the question to go into the town and find something in a dumpster. When you have a family to feed, you'll take chances, like they did last fall, hunting near the houses for a cat or a small dog. Anything to feed his hungry family. Concerned, he looked up at the clouds in the daytime sky. Usually they moved at night when it was less dangerous to travel. But the sun poked out occasionally, and maybe it was warm enough to bring water up from the lake.
Arizona. He'd met his wife there when they were different people altogether. He wanted those people back. The crunch of snow beneath his feet reminded him he was a long way from there now, and with each step the stress melted away. He felt alive out here, and knew when he got back to his wife he'd be different. Out here, with his rifle and scope, he was a goddamn mountain man! In the coastal mountains, life was at its base. Man versus Beast. As he crunched through the snow, he was remiss he hadn't read more Jack London.
The Light. He could never forget it. Last fall near the houses he had first seen the flash but it was foreign and he ignored it, pushing his pack forward, driven by the need to see the bones on their flanks disappear. But as the leader of the pack he should have known better, right? His female had seen it too and stopped cold. All the pups but the sixth stopped with her. It was just a minute later he saw the light again and heard the sound of the gun. A crack like a tree branch falling. When he turned his head, his sixth pup was dead.
The annual fishing trip started five years ago. He and the dealership's G.M. decided five days off the coast of British Columbia pulling in salmon would be a good way to spend the early Fall. They'd flown to Vancouver, where they got a private shuttle to town called Sandspit in the Queen Charlottes. Their floating lodge had been stocked with great food, plenty of vodka, and a masseuse. The first morning, a Chinook salmon hit his spinning herring like a truck. After six minutes they had it in the boat, where his guide bashed it on the head to mercifully kill it, then cut its gills to bleed it out. It would cost him a few ounces at the scale at the end of the day, but the fish would freeze better with the blood drained. He could smell the gore as it ran through the bottom of the aluminum boat, past his rubber boots and out the drain in the back. Metallic and sweet. The problems of monthly numbers and a strained marriage drained away too.
His female hadn't gotten over the fact that they'd lost a pup. Over the winter, as they huddled against the cold wind, his advances were routinely ignored. Even now in the spring, as her scent announced her readiness to breed, she refused. She wouldn't be ready much longer. It was their job to have pups; it was in their nature! But she lost more than just a pup the day they saw that light. She lost something for him. Not that he didn't hurt too, but as the male he felt a responsibility to carry on no matter what. Life was harder out here than ever before, but to roll over and die? He'd taken a silent vow that if he ever saw a light like that again, this time the result would be different. He'd win her trust back and they'd have more pups. He'd never attacked anything he hadn't intended on eating. His nose kept him away from bears and their foul stench, and nothing else in the jagged mountains here presented him with danger. They were in charge here; this was their land.
Somehow, he'd gotten from there to here, back on mainland Canada with a gun over his back and snowshoes to keep him from falling through the top layer into the deep powder. His legs burned from the walking, as he was in no shape for this kind of trek. He scoffed to himself. Calling it a "trek" somehow made it sound more romantic. It's fucking walking, let's be honest. He'd been walking for an hour now without a sign of any living thing.
He led his female and five one-year-olds through the softening snow. The weather of Spring hadn't shown itself consistently yet, but the slightly rising temperatures made the snow heavy with moisture which made pushing through it all that much harder. His hind legs ached as he plowed a path his family could follow. His female stayed close behind, opening the path even more for their remaining young ones.
It all sounded so good last August sitting on that floating lodge, a few Molson Canadians softening his edge, talking with some locals about a hunting trip next March. Wolves are everywhere, they'd said. The B.C. Fish and Game had directed that a "culling" be done, and now anyone with a forty dollar license could shoot to kill. If a salmon could make him feel alive, imagine what a wolf could do! He'd never shot anything in his life. Hell, he'd only fired a gun for the first time at the range where they'd picked up their licenses, shooting unsuccessfully at a metal target behind the sporting goods store. The sun was out then, and the glint in the glass scope kept giving him problems. "Better hope the clouds come in," the Canuck who sold it to him laughed as he adjusted the scope. "Don't worry, wolves are nothing but big dumb squirrels."
His pack was small, as it was only himself, his female, and their own. He'd seen packs combining recently, the greater numbers providing more safety on the hunting trips closer to the houses. But while living in a large pack like that might be safer, it also brought out the worst in the Gray Wolf. One's rank in the pack is determined by strength and there's only one way to determine that. This, he believed, was no way for a wolf to live, and he'd not put his pups through that. They would stay as a family as long as they could, and his pups would grow and set off on their own as nature intended. He'd allow his pups to eat the grass the poked through the snow before he'd join up with another pack and risk losing control of his family. If he learned anything from the day he lost that pup, he was now ready to die for his others. And for her.
He checked his GPS which was electronically tied to his friend so they could keep track of each other. His buddy was quarter of a mile south, on the other side of the small frozen lake, moving at a parallel. Wolves, they were told, came to the lake looking for fresh water on the warmer days, lapping it up around the edges. "You'll get one today," the Canuck said. "You can hang its hide in your office." It would be a reminder at the end of each shitty fifteen hour day of what he was capable of.
As he lead his family toward the lake, he turned to make sure they were all close. The female sniffed the wind but there was nothing, he knew. The trees were sweet this time of year and this part of the forest was empty of food. Thankfully, his ears and nose were also filled with the indication of water. The patchy sun had melted enough of the edge of the lake that they could at least drink, taking in enough water to get them through a few days. They wouldn't eat today, but water would do.
There. Not more than forty yards away were a pair of wolves and some smaller ones. Ok, shit. Shoot the biggest one. That will look best on the wall, right? Jesus, is the wolf looking right at him? He lifted his gun slowly, remembering to release the safety. His friend had bet him he'd forget that part. He'd have to remember to tell him to pay up. The sun was still behind the clouds as he put the scope to his eye. Black? Oh shit, the cover on the other end. He flipped it off, revealing the glass, and raised the gun. Jesus, was the wolf charging?
Suddenly, things changed in the wolf's nose. A smell, just like near the houses where he'd lost the pup, overwhelmed him. He whipped his head around and scanned the trees. His first instinct was to turn and run, to take his pack and go. But he ignored the urge, and decided now was the time. If it was a man, a man with a gun, the wolf would take back what was taken from them. He'd show her he could do it. He'd kill the hunter and together they'd sleep tonight like they were intended to. Her scent was withering with the change of season and the time was now.
Just then the sun poked out from behind the clouds and hit the glass of the scope. The scope glared. The gun cracked.
Just then the sun poked out from behind the clouds and hit the glass of the scope. The Light. The gun cracked.