Wolf at the Door by Peter Pendras

The guest-room wallpaper has a muted shine like expensive gift wrapping. The bed—which has been pushed to the back wall—is covered with bulging white pillows and a hand-hooked cotton coverlet. It is a feminine room, nicely appointed with dried flowers in pottery vases, vague and colorful prints on the wall, psychology books on a low shelf. Everything is as it should be except for the hospital bed, which dominates the limited floor space.

This is the room where my brother lives now; sixty-one-years-old and a guest in his own house. It is the hand-holding room and the whispering room, the story room and sometimes the laughing room. But it is always the waiting room.

Before my brother got sick, before the hospital bed took over, I used to sleep on the fancy bed with too many pillows. I was careful because the tucks and folds were so near perfect I was afraid I might trash the whole thing with a wild, unconscious kick.

But none of that mattered now. The guests in this room were subject to new laws of nature. Time as measured by a clock had no real meaning. One moment could not be divided from the next. Like Arctic twilight, the present seemed to go on and on and on. How long had this lasted? No one could remember. How much longer would it go on? No one could say.

It lasted a while. Days, not weeks. I spent those last few nights on the guest bed sharing a small wool blanket with my sister. To get inside the covers meant you were really sleeping, so we spread ourselves on top to doze and whisper. That was the night shift.

My brother often woke with hiccups that jerked his chest. We took turns going to his side and offering thick fruit juice. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t make any difference. Time was spent going to the refrigerator, straightening the sheets, turning him from one side to the other, and pulling socks on his cold and calloused feet.

We measured each other with bloodshot eyes and exercised our listless minds with rented movies and long talks on the phone. We would take turns going off alone to walk spellbound through the mall.

I came back from one of those outings, and my brother had his bed cranked up. His daughter had just finished giving him lunch. He looked over at me and raised his eyebrows when I came in. I sat down and held his hand. His thumb skated across my knuckles and I knew he was feeling pretty good.

“You want to watch some TV?” I said.

“Uhn Uhn,” he said, meaning no.

“Maybe I could read you the paper.”

He curled his lip and shook his head no.

“I can tell you a story,” I said, “a true story.” He looked over at me with cracked and tired eyes. I took it for a yes.

Remember that hike we took when you came home from medical school? Just the two of us. I can’t remember the year, but you had that red Falcon Futura, so I must have been about twelve.

It took us all morning to pack because we had no mountain food and no maps. We went down to Kitsap Sport, and you bought a trail book and a map, all the while talking to Orrie, the owner. He knew us because that’s where dad bought all his fishing gear. Then you got me that Wham-O slingshot that I packed all over the mountains and never used.

You picked Moose Lake because it was only five miles in from the car and it was high altitude. As usual you were in a hurry to hit the trail.

We drove all the way up Hurricane Ridge and then out a dirt road that twisted along a bare ledge to the trailhead. A place called Obstruction Point.

The packs were not that heavy. In those days you didn’t own a tent or a camp stove. We had those Army surplus mummy bags, two ponchos, a mess kit, some food, and a change of clothes. We had matches and a flashlight, soap, and a roll of toilet paper.

That was your style then. You hit the trail like you were running away from home. And maybe you were.

We followed the easy incline to a ridge that marked the brim of the Olympic mountains. To the north and west we could see all the way to Port Angeles and the Dungeness spit. Up towards Canada, the tip of Mount Baker stood out against the sky like a white pyramid in a blue desert.

To the south and west was the heart of the Olympic range—row after row of peaks—some ragged and sawtoothed, others round and muted with snow. From our place on the ridge, we looked down and through mountains, except for Mount Olympus, which was a white wall hogging a chunk of skyline.

The trail followed the flank of the ridge before heading down through old growth trees, where shade rules and white sunlight is dimmed by moss and meadow.

I felt it, too. The slight disappointment that we were already leaving the roof of heaven and going back down to a place a little lower, a little safer.

We blasted through the afternoon feeling strong and got to the lake in no time. From a distance I could see the patchwork of other tents camped in the bushes. I never counted how many; it didn’t matter, because I knew we wouldn’t stay. It was too early in the day to stop and much too crowded.

“Looks full up,” you said as we rested by the side of the trail.

We shared an inch of greasy sausage washed down by cherry Kool-Aid. My eye saw all kinds of places we could camp, but I knew we would go on. “How do you feel?” you said. “Tired?”

No, I wasn’t tired. If I was, I wouldn’t say. You pulled the map from your pack and traced a dotted line with your finger to a place with a black triangle. “There’s a shelter just up over this pass.” I craned my neck to follow your gaze up the trail, but I didn’t see a pass, only white patches of snow hanging to the side of some blue peaks. “That’s Grand Pass,” you said, turning back to the map. “Cameron Basin’s just over the other side and down. Looks like about four, maybe five miles.”

I can say with certainty that the map was wrong. Whether you really believed it or not, I’ll never know.

Soon we were climbing up out of the valley. In an hour Moose Lake was a mud puddle reflecting afternoon sun. It looked pretty good to me from that distance, better and better as the day wore on.

Just then his daughter came back in the room with three cups of tea on a tray and a box of cookies.

“You want some tea? It’s too hot for Dad, but he can have some when it cools.”

I put the tea on the nightstand as she curled up with People magazine on the big bed. It was impossible to stay out of that room when my brother was awake. Marking time was a hard job, so we kept each other company. I went back to the story.

We ran into some fog near the top of the pass and that made the sketchy trail even harder to find. There were a few cairns here and there and we tracked those from dot to dot as best we could.

I remember we stopped to put on more clothes when it got dark, long pants and wool ski sweaters. We ate some M&M’s and split an orange, standing up, resting with our packs on. I was more spooked than hungry.

The slant of the mountain had been steady and steep, but it was impossible to tell how far we had climbed and what might lie ahead. We had been swallowed by night and fog and cold. Though nothing moved, the floating mist made it feel like we were falling.

Without really knowing how, we got to the top of the pass and started downhill. The slope on the backside was not quite so steep but the fog was thicker. Distant rock outcroppings became lopsided cabins. Dwarf trees turned into hand-holding boy scouts standing mute by the side of the trail. Our eyes were hungry for detail, but everything was stonewashed, faded and erasing. Then we started to hear things. Twice we stopped to listen for voices coming from somewhere on the trail below, muted laughing and the ring of a tin cup against a rock. Breathing vapor, we waited. No voices, no footfalls, no nothing. Too quiet.

By that time, I had permanent goosebumps. Voices, no voices; trail, no trail; shelter, no shelter.

And then we were below the fog. In one step our heads ducked under the roof of clouds and we could see trees with jagged branches and a flat meadow carved into the side of the mountain. We heard water somewhere close by and then we saw some light and it was the moon.

“Maybe we better stop for the night and pick up the trail in the morning,” you said.

And that is what we did. Not far from there we found a spot in the grass, backed by short trees. It was on a slight angle with no rocks and the best place for sleeping I’d seen since leaving Moose Lake.

The packs came off and we rolled out the sleeping bags. With the fog breaking up and a slice of moonlight overhead, you grabbed a roll of toilet paper and went off to take a crap, leaving me alone. I had no trouble coming to the conclusion that you would never come back. Maybe you walked through a gap in the trees and got lost, swallowed whole. I could start my search now, or wait till daylight. But by then it might be too late. I sat there in my sleeping bag, the mountain at my back, counting: one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand.

But you came back and made fun of the fact that I was too scared to move. I remember eating the cookies mom had made us, but they weren’t cookies anymore, just a bag of crumbs. We ate them by the handful and I started to relax.

“I think the trail is right over there past those trees,” you said, pointing with half a sandwich. I didn’t see it and didn’t trust your word anymore. I crawled down inside my bag, and with boots as a pillow, fell asleep to the sound of chewing.

I took a sip of tea and I was going to offer some to my brother but his eyes were closed and his breathing quiet and slow. I got up and left the room still remembering that cold night and the smell of wild grass and boot leather.

I’ll never forget the call that set the whole thing in motion. A Tuesday. Anxiety shrank my mother’s voice down to a whine. “I don’t know if I can get through this without becoming emotional,” she said. “But it’s you brother. I think he has some kind of depression. He walked off his job yesterday and just went home.”

My face burned as I listened. White sparks danced in front of my eyes and I sat down to hear the rest of the story. The word my mother used, depression, didn’t sound right. Not right at all.

But of course, it wasn’t depression. When the tests came in later that day it was determined that he had a brain tumor—glioblastoma multiforme, class 4—in a bad location, frontal left lobe. A tumor the size of a tangerine was causing headaches. He couldn’t speak well or dial the phone.

The next night I called him at the hospital, where he was getting a big dose of cortical steroids to control the swelling. He answered the phone and I didn’t know his voice. Slow words fell through space like bricks.

“Yeah, it’s a crummy deal,” he said. “At least I know why my head hurts…why I can…I’m having trouble with…a… talking. My words.”

Surgery was scheduled for a week later. 

I went back in the guest room later that evening. My niece had gone off to meet some friends at a bar. My brother’s wife, Erica, was on the guest bed staring at a nursing journal.

“He seems pretty good tonight, “ I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “No hiccups.” She looked up from her reading. “The priest came the day before you got here. That was rough.”

Extreme Unction, the Catholic last rites. Holy oils and water, the goodbye kiss. I was glad I missed it.

Then we heard the familiar chirp of hiccups and the soft jerking of the bed. “Goddamn it,” she said. “I’ll get some juice.”

I went over to the bed and he was awake. He rolled his eyes in my direction and arched an eyebrow. He was looking at something far away, something turning. He knew he was going to die and every time he opened his eyes again it was a surprise.

I rubbed the place on his head where the hair was growing back in short gray patches. Erica returned with the juice and he sucked some through a straw. Sometimes he forgot to swallow. This time, after some coaching, he got it down. The hiccups continued.

“Maybe I can finish the story,” I said. “The one about the hike. I didn’t even get to the good part yet.”

More eye rolling and a groan. “Okay,” he said, clear as a radio announcer. That made us laugh because his voice was filled with false excitement, like some parent being nice to a spoiled kid. I sat in the bedside chair and picked up where I left off.

I popped one eye open when you shook my shoulder.

“Don”t move too quick,” you said. “Don’t want to scare ’em.”

Thirty feet above us in the meadow, three white mountain goats were chomping grass and yellow summer flowers. They saw us and didn’t care. We could smell them, they were that close. Their coats were matted on the belly with small sticks and moss, and when they blinked, we could see eyelashes open and close like screen doors. Their hooves clicked on rocks as they shuffled and chewed across the mountainside.

Slowly the rest of the world came into focus. We had slept in a green cradle. Higher up, jagged arms of rock and shale formed a gray-faced wall covered with patches of dirty snow. Beyond that, a clear pulsing sky. In the fog and blind night, we had found the best possible nest. Even the goats knew it.

A bottomless valley was at our feet. You could see how the trees thickened at lower altitude. All morning long we would be staring down at these giants until we were gobbled up in their shadow.

Directly across—dead level with us—was another steep row of mountains. The river we heard the night before was over there. A waterfall miles away filled the air with a distant roar as it jumped down into oblivion. Fog and the night had made me forget about distance. Daylight brought it back.

The goats disappeared over the rise, chewing and waving stubby tails. After a trail breakfast, which meant no fire, we rolled up our bags and started the long, slow descent.

Downhill all morning, ankles aching, knees flexing, following a trail that seemed legitimate if overgrown, down down down until trees blotted out the sky and we were in the jungle.

The lower we climbed, the tougher it got. Head-high brush and windfall branches closed over the trail, tangling with packs and boots. We held our arms up over our faces, defense against the whip-slap of bent limbs. Everything was wet from last night’s fog. Soon we were soaked and scratched and sweating.

The thing I liked the least about this kind of bushwhacking was you couldn’t see the ground or the sky. No telling what might be lurking around the next snag. But we kept going, breaking trail, thrashing and stumbling until midmorning when we hit ground zero, the bottom of the valley.

A crease in the underbrush, maybe an animal trail, pulled us off to the left. We stepped into a clearing and the lush green forest turned sickly pale. Something had made a mess of nature. Here the forest was not made of wood but of warped and blistered plastic. Some disease had taken root in this corner of the valley floor and turned trees into slouching hunchbacks.

Nothing grew straight. Everywhere, bulbs and tumors popped through tree skin and twisted limbs into knots.

I didn’t want to stop, but you wanted a souvenir. Broken knobs and whorls lay half-buried in the soft earth. You picked up a bleached white branch that looked like a string of garlic cloves. I found my own stick, two small heads held together by a slender neck of wood. One of the heads had a sharp point like a beak, so it looked like a featherless cartoon bird.

We tied the sticks to our packs and turned around. Not fifty feet away we picked up a decent trail. All morning we crawled up from that jungle, our boots striking low notes in the hollow earth. 

I remember breaking from the valley floor and into the sun—the white-hot, mud-cooking, mountain sun—where the moss was warm and melting snow dripped into streams. We took off our packs and cupped clear, sweet water into our mouths.

The air was spiced with wildflowers and musty wet grass. We stood for a while letting the sun boil away the sweat in our clothes.

I looked back at the miles we made: the chain of switchbacks, a notch in the forest floor, and finally a single, straight line of footprints cutting a field of snow.

He had fallen asleep again and his breathing took on the hollow sound of whispering through a tube. He seemed to be slipping deeper and deeper.

“He’s basically in a coma,” my mother announced the next morning. And it was true. There was no more waking or sleeping, just the constant vigil of counting breaths.

Everyone was there now: my sisters, the kids, his wife, my mother. We took turns watching and waiting.

My sister and I gave him a bath and he was so heavy. Each limb was nailed down, rooted to the bed. We had to get his teenage son to help us turn him over so we could change the sheets. It took us an hour.

The bed finally made, the bath over and done, we sat back looking at each other through red-rimmed eyes. His daughter said, “Aren’t you going to finish the hike?” So I shifted over to the bedside chair and went on.

It got to be afternoon. We greased ourselves up with sunscreen since we were up above the trees again, and traced the path of a creek that wound through the basin.

We had our heads down picking through some marshy turf and we almost hiked right by the shelter. There was a log across the stream, with blunt hatchet marks flattening the top. We looked up and saw the three-sided room nested into some scrubby alpine spruce. Cubes of granite made a wind break on one side. A circle of smaller stones formed a perfect fire pit out front.

The shelter itself was made of small-diameter poles chopped to length and nailed into walls. Two bunks, made of the same poles, were built into either side of the shed. The roof, a combination of poles and smaller limbs, pitched back at a low angle.

We took our packs off, spread the bags out on the bunks and then split up looking for firewood.

Scrounging for wood was a small, end-of-the-day ritual I loved. I felt weightless without my pack. We had reached our destination, the end of our journey. The next day would be tough—twelve miles back to the car, and none of it level. But for the moment, I was happy.

The valley was in blue and purple shadow. Up where we started the day, high peaks shined orange and pink with dying daylight.

You got back to camp first and had a weak flame going. Smoke curled around your head. You squinted and breathed in the sweet smell of pitch burning.

We cooked our dinner—three kinds of powdered soup poured into a pot and boiled to gumbo. The cookies were gone, but we had oranges and raisins for dessert, washed down with smokey campfire tea.

After dinner a lonely bird started a two-noted evening song—high then low, high then low—a sad song, because no other bird seemed to answer.

In the last light we walked up the trail looking for animal tracks. We passed a circle of black mud left behind by a retreating pond. A deer, spooked by some sound or scent, shot past us, kicking up small clumps of earth with its pointed feet. You said there was probably a bear somewhere close by because it ran towards us, not the other way.

“That’s the pass,” you said, pointing to a shifting narrow trail. “On the other side is a high meadow. Goes for miles and miles to the Hoh River and all the way out to the ocean. We should take it sometime.” My eyes followed the bleached and polished rocks to the purple sky beyond.

We had just turned around to go back to camp when you found the bone. It was the same off-white color as the dirty snow, and when you turned it over with the toe of your boot, I felt an electric twinge of nerves. You picked it up and held it next to your own leg for comparison.

“Looks like a human tibia,” you said.

And I had no reason to doubt it. You handed it to me and I tested the weight trying to be aloof, scientific. But I didn’t like the bone. I wished we had never seen it.

“Maybe we should leave it,” I said.

“Naw. I wanna show it to the ranger.”

That night we built up the fire with our last scraps of wood, and crawled into our bags.

I was tired and needed sleep, but even the constant lapping of the stream couldn’t clear my head. My nighttime mind was full of lost hikers and bones sticking out of the snow. With eyes closed I saw endless narrow switchbacks climbing up through the fog like a stone fire escape. I thought of my bed at home, the sheets. I thought of Mom and Dad sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Then I remembered the slingshot you bought me and fished it out of my pack just in case. Not that I would really shoot anything.

You had no trouble sleeping and shut down like a dead battery. The dying campfire threw a weak glow on the back wall and I could see your shoulders rise and fall in oversized shadow.

I was thinking, half-drifting when a noise startled me—a voice, a call from somewhere. Somewhere close. It sounded like a coyote, maybe a wolf. You must have heard it.

My skin was a million pinpricks and my hair itched. There it was again, closer. Too close. And I saw the silhouette of your head bounce in time with the animal cry. It came again. From inside the shelter, a whining howl from your side. It happened again and I saw with my own eyes that you had become something else. With your back to me, you were crying, calling out in a dog voice that was loud and high and very far away.

Then you growled low in your throat, a rattling sound I had never heard before. I wanted to run. I twisted the slingshot handle in my hand. Then I was up out of my sleeping bag leaning over your bunk. I looked at your face. It was still your face, but the mouth was stretched into a tight circle and the jaw set in a point. You yipped again, moving your neck to make the high warble sound.

“Hey,” I shouted. “Wake up.” I snapped my empty slingshot against your shoulder. You stirred as the last yowl rang in the night air.

“Goddamned wolves,” you said. “They were circling the camp and I had to scare ’em off.”

By that time, I was moving my bag over to your side because five feet away was too far. 

Still, I couldn’t sleep. The bone kept me awake, and the wolves you dreamed kept me awake. The echo of your voice kept me awake. I can still hear it out there on the wind, riding over the silent snow, calling. Always calling.

We passed the night rammed into that narrow wood bunk, tangled side by side, my eyes straining in the blind night and you sleeping. But there was no more howling, only the soft rise and fall of your breathing.

Just like right now. Only then you didn’t need all this. These tubes and machines and these rails to keep you from falling. I’ve had time to think and I’ve got it figured. There really was something out there that night, yapping and growling and circling our camp. Now we know what it was.

Peter Pendras has worked as a teacher in public and private schools in California and Washington State and as a freelance musician, journalist and handyman from New York to California.

His fiction has appeared in Waxing and Waning and Creative Colloquy. He currently resides in Washington State.

Instagram: @toolboxmuse