Howls in the Dark

Quentin Norris

 

The light for Low Fuel lit up on the dashboard and glowed silently, trying to get Anita and Peter’s attention, but the two of them were too deep into an animated argument to notice.  The couple continued arguing even as the tank ran dry and the ‘95 Jeep died right in the middle of the road.  They were halfway between Uvalde and Brackettville on U.S. West 90, on their way to Del Rio, so Peter could meet Anita’s father for the first time.  The car sputtered, slowed, and halted gracelessly, finally punctuating their heated debate, although it was far from over.  Anita quickly pulled the car over onto the side of the road and yanked the emergency brake lever up.  Unuttered words and unfinished thoughts hung over Anita and Peter as they took in their surroundings and situation.

Nothing but shrubs, dead trees, and hot dry desert earth surrounded them.  As far as they could see, the road stretched out ahead and behind them, into an endless horizon, whose blue sky had already begun to show shades of red as the sun lowered itself out of the sky.  Anita swore loudly and slammed her fist down on the dashboard of her old jeep while Peter said nothing and just stared out the window at the sun going down.  They were just two little dots stuck in the middle of a vast, uncaring, Texas desert.

They sat in silence a little while longer before Peter said to no one in particular, “What now?”  Anita shot Peter a “We’re not finished with this conversation, by the way” look and Peter responded with an “I’m perfectly aware of that” look.  Anita let out a deep sigh and stared, unblinking, out at the road ahead of them.  “I don’t know” she responded.

Peter went through their options in his head.  What they should have done was fill up with gas when they were in Uvalde.  Peter was thinking about saying something when they stopped to get a bite to eat, but he’d glanced at the gas meter and figured they had enough to make it to Del Rio.  Peter was notoriously bad at estimations.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have an emergency can of gas in the car.  They lived in San Antonio, where it was rare that they’d find themselves in the position they were now stuck in.

Peter turned to Anita and asked if there was anyone she knew in Del Rio who might be able to come to their rescue.  She shook her head.  Anita grew up in Del Rio but the only soul she knew there now was her father and he was in a nursing home with a worsening case of dementia.

The sky’s purples and reds were deepening and growing darker every minute.  The setting sun cast long shadows on Anita’s sharp, unflinching face.  Peter grew restless and drummed his fingers nervously on his stocky legs.  As their surroundings grew darker, their chances for rescue grew slimmer.  Anita had tried to call a tow service but her phone had no signal in their location.  Peter’s phone was also devoid of signal.  Peter’s restlessness got the best of him.  He stepped out of the car and began to pace in little circles, kicking dust up in the air around him.  Anita got out of the car as well and sat on the hood.  Peter glanced over at her and smiled.  She’d pulled her long skinny legs close to her chest and she was perfectly framed against the fiery sky behind her.  A desert breeze rolled in and blew her long black hair all over her bronze-skinned face.  Peter internally cursed himself for forgetting his camera at home.

Anita noticed Peter staring at her and smiled back at him.  He looked striking, standing there in the middle of an empty desert, the mountains in the distance just above his broad shoulders.  He was handsome, even if he never remembered to shave his patchy beard.  The two of them constantly wondered to themselves why someone so pretty would be attracted to the likes of them.  Neither of them said anything for a while, and for a beautiful moment, they both forgot why they were angry with each other.

The light was getting so low now that it was starting to get impossible for the two lovers to make out their features in the dark.  Peter shoved his fists deep in his pockets and sighed loudly.  He’d come to a decision but he didn’t like it.

“Listen,” he said, “I know this is crazy, but why don’t we turn on the emergency lights for the car, you stay here in case someone comes back, and I’ll start following the road and hopefully I’ll meet another car or find a ranch house or a gas station or something.  Maybe I’ll even find a good spot to make a call.”  Even in the increasing darkness, Peter could make out the disapproving look on Anita’s face.

“Are you kidding?  That’s just fucking stupid.  You won’t find anything” she snarled.  Peter threw his hands in the air, held them there long enough for her to see, and then returned to pacing.

“What the hell else am I supposed to do?” he said.  Anita scoffed at him and jumped off the hood, getting back into the car and slamming the door, and Peter was reminded of why he’d been angry at her in the first place.  Sure, they could sit around here all night and hope that someone helpful might drive by, or Peter could actually try his hardest to find a solution, but Anita was too negative — or practical, as she put it — to see that his idea was their best and only option.  Frustration building in his chest, Peter went to the passenger side door and tried to open it, to find that it was locked.  Anita was sitting in the front seat, hands gripping the steering wheel, her eyes staring intensely into nothing.

“You’ve got to be kidding me” he thought.

Without hesitating he slapped his palm against the side of the door, swung around and stormed off down the road and into the growing darkness.  He was determined to find some kind of help now, partially for their well being, but now also for spite.

Peter let his mind wander as he traversed down the unending blacktop.  He loved Anita, he knew he did, but at times he could grow so frustrated with her unending pessimism.  His relationship with Anita was the longest one he had been a part of, going on three years now.  He’d only lived in Texas for four years; Anita had spent her whole life there.  When they’d met in San Antonio, he was hopelessly lost and in over his head, a helpless dope from a small town in Alabama, drowning in Texas culture.  She’d showed him the ropes of living in Texas, she got him a job working at the San Antonio Express-News where she worked as well.  His job was mostly low-level assistant stuff.  He could easily move up and make a career out of it, as Anita had pointed out many times before, but he was comfortable where he was.  He had plenty of time to focus on other hobbies he was more excited about, like take nature photographs he could have easily sold to some kind of publication like National Geographic.  He never did, though.  Before Anita, he always thought he was better off alone, but waking up and seeing her lay next to him in their cramped one-room apartment had become a meaningful treasure.

Thinking about Anita in the morning had lifted his spirits while he became encircled by pitch black night.  He pulled out his phone and turned on the flashlight, although it hardly made a difference, just barely illuminating whatever was a foot and a half ahead of him.  Now that the sun was gone, the air around him was quickly turning frigid and the cool desert breezes now had an unfriendly bite to them.  Peter’s only source of warmth was a thin jean jacket that he’d found at the back of a thrift store rack the week before.  Anita had playfully poked fun at him for purchasing it.  It was obviously designed for a woman to wear, and the sleeves were too short for his long, hairy arms, but he didn’t care.  He just liked the way it looked.  Men’s jackets looked awful on him.  They were always too bulky and loose.  After the thrift store, they’d tried to go to the park but they were rained out, so they ran home, threw off their wet clothes and jumped in bed together, where they stayed for the rest of the day.  A little grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.  That was a good day.

Suddenly, a piercing howl cut through the dark all around Peter and made him nearly jump out of his skin.  He stopped in his tracks and looked all around him, but saw nothing.  Loud, painful, and bone-chilling, the sound echoed throughout the empty desert, making it impossible to tell where it was coming from.  The sound was inhuman, but it didn’t sound like any other kind of animal Peter could think of, either.  Holding completely still, Peter could not tell if he should keep moving or stay in place.  What if whatever made that noise was waiting for him down the road, or perhaps it was right behind him?

His ears perked up at the sound of rustling brush behind him.  A chill ran down his spine.  He couldn’t tell if it was because of the weather or the noise.  Silence returned and he let out a cautious sigh of relief.  He was in the middle of convincing himself it was only the wind making the noise when the rustling returned.  This time, the sound was undeniable.  It was something moving through the dead grass and bushes.  Soft, padding steps were growing closer.  Was it a coyote?  How the hell would he know?  He may have been a Texas resident for a few years now, but this was the first time he’d ventured outside city limits.

The sound grew closer, and with it, Peter could feel an overwhelming presence creeping up and staring holes into his back.  Raspy, wheezing breath crept its way into Peter’s ears.  He wasn’t so sure it was a coyote anymore.  Finally working up the courage, Peter slowly began to turn around, still holding onto a sliver of hope that the sounds were all in his head.  He didn’t dare point the flashlight in the direction of the sounds, he hadn’t worked up that much courage yet.  It turned out that he didn’t need to.  Hovering a short distance away from him in the middle of the dark were two golden yellow eyes, illuminating the black around it.  The panting quickened in pace and Peter could smell something foul and rotten floating in the air.

Without thinking, Peter swiveled back around and began bolting down the road, running as fast as he possibly could.  His blood pounded in his ears and his flat feet slapped against the hard earth as he ran, but he could still hear whatever it was that was behind him take up the chase.  The thing ran on all fours and its panting had become more of a snarl.  It almost sounded like a child imitating a wild animal.  Peter’s lungs were on fire when his foot got caught in the root of an old dead tree.  He tripped and flew face first into the dirt, his body hitting the ground with a sharp and ugly thud.

Dazed and out of breath, Peter gritted his teeth in pain, tasting blood rush through his mouth.  He’d bitten his tongue on the way down.  He remained motionless and closed his eyes, bracing himself for the thing chasing him to take advantage of his defenseless form, yet nothing happened.  He realized he could no longer hear his pursuer anymore; silence had returned to his ears once again.  He opened his eyes and with great difficulty sat back up.  There was a little beam of light shooting up from the ground where his phone had fallen.  He crawled over to the device and picked it up, scanning his surroundings.  From what he could tell, he was alone again.  Whether or not he’d simply imagined the creature or it had given up on him, he was mostly thankful he was still alive.  He stood up and spat a glob of red blood onto the pale dirt.  He readjusted his loose glasses and began to run again.

He should have run back toward Anita’s Jeep, but he was too afraid to do so, worried the monster was simply hiding in the dark, lulling him into false security.  So he continued to run down the empty road, blindly hoping to meet another car, or find a spot with decent enough cell signal to call someone.  His phone battery was running dangerously low.  He tried to push this thought out of his brain, the percentage meter slowly ticking down to zero.

He lost track of how long he had been running.  He couldn’t even feel his muscles crying out for mercy.  He hadn’t heard any return from the beast again.  Whatever it was, he believed he was free of it.  After a while, Peter’s eyes began to make out pulsating yellow lights in the distance.  At this point he had slowed down to a steady trot, and the sign of the lights in the distance gave him the inspiration to pick up his pace again.

The lights started as tiny glimmers and as he grew closer, their brightness intensified.  Eventually, the sounds of a running car engine cut through the silence of the desert, and Peter recognized that the lights were an emergency signal.  His hopes lifted a little at the prospect of finding fellow stranded travelers, even if it did not offer much of a solution to he and Anita’s predicament.

He slowed down and ambled over to the vehicle, breathing heavily, with a cold sweat soaking through his clothes.  The car was an old silver minivan, maybe from 2000 or earlier.  Peter was no good with cars.  He stood next to the car and bent over, putting his hands on his knees, catching his breath while the emergency lights illuminated the dry grass underneath his feet.  After he regained some of his composure he stood and called out to the unseen passengers:

“Hello?  You guys alright?”

No answer.  Just the lonely whistle of the wind through nearby trees.

Peter glanced over at the side panel of the van again and noticed long scrape marks damaging the silver paint, as if some spiteful asshole had run their keys along the van multiple times over.  He called out to the passengers again.  Still no answer.  As his eyes continued to adjust to the scenario, he noticed that the right side windows were shattered and a large knot began to develop in the pit of his stomach.  He stepped closer and felt glass crunch under his shoes.  He nervously glanced inside the broken windows and held his phone light up, shining it inside the car.  The knot tightened as the light revealed a dark red stain all over the backseat.  A ripped up teddy bear was lying face down on the floor.

Knowing exactly what he would find, yet still reluctantly checking, he approached the front passenger door, whose window was also smashed and shined his light inside.  A loud yelp escaped his mouth and he turned away in disgust as he made eye contact with a dead woman with frizzy brown hair and a long face, her head hanging limply from whatever had been left of her neck, her mouth slightly agape, and her dead eyes frozen in a state of horror.  It looked like her neck had been mercilessly ripped open.  Her white blouse had been stained a shade of crimson.  Peter brought himself to look into the car again, where he saw the driver, a balding man with a similar wound slouched over in his seat, the same look of fear stuck in his lifeless eyes.

The wind blew across Peter’s face and brought with it the disgusting rotten aroma he’d smelled earlier when the eyes were staring him down.  His gaze was drawn to the front of the car where the headlights bathed the desert before it.  Crouched in the middle of the headlights’ range was the form of a small child with very long hair, rocking back and forth, softly crying to herself.  Peter immediately suspected it was the child whose teddy bear was still lying on the floor of the silver minivan.

Peter crept forward, terrified of frightening the poor girl more than she already was.  The flashing emergency lights added a strange yellow hue to the image before him.  The ugly smell intensified the closer he got to the child.  As he approached, Peter also began to notice smaller details that weren’t as apparent from far away.  The little girl’s hair wasn’t just long, it was abnormally long.  The long, wild, unkempt, knotty hair spread all the way down the child’s back and bunched up in a messy heap around her ankles.  From a distance, Peter had mistaken this hair as a dress, but it was all too clear to him now that the child had no clothes on at all.  The child was still rocking back and forth on its haunches, but she was not whimpering or crying.  Instead, ugly, animalistic grunts and snorts were coming from the small thing.  Peter also heard the squishing and squelching of something juicy and ripe being gnawed upon by tiny teeth.

An uneasy feeling grew in Peter, and he slowly began to step back from the little girl.  As he did so, his foot hit a rock and he stumbled for a moment before regaining his balance.  The child’s head whipped around, her stringy brown hair flying all around her, and her face was awash in the glow of the headlights, the sight of which made Peter gasp and drop his phone to the ground.

Peter decided that whatever was staring at him was, without a doubt, not a little girl in need of rescue.  She may have been humanoid, but Peter seriously doubted that she was human at all.  The girl’s eyes were a golden yellow.  Her face was smeared with dirt and her forehead and cheeks had patches of thick hair growing from them.  She was on all fours, her long, lean arms — also covered in hair — stretched out in front of her, her spidery fingers with long, claw-like nails, dug deep into the ground.   Hanging from the girl’s mouth was unmistakably a dismembered human hand, small enough to be a child’s.  Most of the skin and meat of the hand was ripped away to reveal bone and sinew.  Blood covered the girl’s mouth and caked the fur on her face.  Her eyes, unblinking, never broke contact with Peter.

Peter was frozen in place, unable to move, unable to run away, unable to even cry out for help.  When Peter finally worked up the courage to take another step back, the wolf girl opened her mouth and let the ragged hand fall gracelessly to the ground.  Without the hand stuffed in her jaw, the wolf girl revealed long fangs, gleaming with blood, shining in the nighttime.  She threw up her head to the sky and let out a bloodcurdling, deafening howl.  The noise was that of a painful human scream, wrapped up in the majesty of a canine howling to the moon.  The sound shook Peter to his core.  Even after the girl lowered her head to return to staring into Peter’s terrified eyes, the sounds of her shriek echoed all across the desert, reverberating into the night.  After a brief moment of silence, another howl — much like the girl’s — answered from the distance, and then another, and another, until finally Peter was surrounded by a chorus of unearthly, inhuman cries soaring all around him, coming from all directions, and the sounds were growing closer.

Without warning, the howling stopped, but this did not bring Peter any comfort.  That same feeling of being watched returned to him with a vengeance.  He swiveled around, finally taking his eyes off the girl in the headlights, to see a line of similar yellow eyes appearing out of the darkness and growing closer.  The sounds of hungry growls and snarls were everywhere.  There was nowhere to run.  He was hemmed in.  Peter grunted as something unexpectedly hit him square in the middle of his back and knocked the breath out of his lungs.  He crashed to the ground again, crying out in pain.  Whatever had knocked him over had him pinned down to the desert.  He tried to suck air into his lungs but only got a mouthful of dirt, mixing in with the leftover blood from biting his tongue.  He felt claws tear his jacket and sink into the flesh of his shoulder blades.  Further down along his lower back, the same sensation of sharp claws breaking the skin could be felt.  As Peter let out an agonizing cry, that foul smell of death became stronger than ever, as the Wolf Girl lowered her head next to Peter’s ear, her hot, grunting breath pumping all over the side of his face.  He could not turn around to see her, but he could see her long ratty hair hang down onto the dirt where his blood had begun to slowly pool.

Anita had watched the world outside her jeep grow dark and disappear in shadow for the last two hours and still there was no sign of Peter.  She hugged her legs to herself and felt her stomach queasily gurgle while she thought about all the horrible worst-case scenarios that may have befallen him.  She should have stopped him from leaving earlier, but she held herself back, knowing he’d eventually give up and return to her.  That’s what always happened.  At least, that’s what usually always happened.  An ugly thought kept worming its way into Anita’s mind that perhaps this was what she wanted all along.  Eventually she’d find a way out of this situation, but they’d never be able to find Peter and although she would be initially heartbroken, she would finally be alone again.  The potential excitement she felt by that fantasy made her even queasier.  She hugged her legs tighter and shook her head, hoping the thought would be shaken loose.

That was when she had heard those howling sounds all around her, loud, echoing, and hollow.  She’d frozen, the hairs on her neck raised while she stared out into inky black night, only slightly illuminated by the headlights of the running jeep.  It sounded like there were hundreds of mouths making those sounds, but she could see nothing at all.  The howling, or screaming, or whatever it was, kept on going for what felt like forever, until each voice slowly died out and one cold, lonely howl shrieking into the night before dying away as well, leaving the desert to return to its silence, while Anita’s ears continued to ring.  Anita’s eyes remained fixed on the edge of the headlights, terrified to shift her gaze in any other direction and possibly see what was making those sounds.

Something moved in the darkness ahead of her.  Her mouth went dry and she bit her lip.  The motion was consistent.  Something was walking out of the dark, into the light.  It was small, lean, and dirty, covered in patches of matted fur, and walking on all fours.  It looked like a little girl with impossibly long hair, the dry strands hanging all over her face.  Her eyes were bright yellow and shone through the ugly hair in front of them.  Her dirty face was covered in dark, dried blood, as well as her lean, bony arms and haunches.  With each step the girl took, Anita could make out the long, thick claws sprouting from the fingers that dug into the earth.  Something else, also covered in blood, was hanging from the strange girl’s mouth, but Anita couldn’t quite make out what it was.  She squinted her eyes and leaned forward.  As the little girl reached the center of the headlights’ range, she sat like a dog and dropped what was in her mouth unceremoniously onto the ground, revealing the shiny fangs behind her lips, the sides of her mouth curled up in a wicked, feral snarl.  Anita gasped and pushed herself away from the dashboard as she finally recognized what was in the girl’s mouth.  Lying at the girl’s feet, torn and bloodied, was a thin jean jacket, the kind that was obviously too small for someone like Peter, even though he’d wear it anyway.

The wolf girl stared down Anita with a cold and unblinking bloodlust in its eyes.  It lifted its shaggy head and howled to the shadowy heavens, that ungodly, inhuman, painful howl that Anita had heard earlier.  Instantly following its cry, the chorus of other monstrous howls filled the night air, and Anita closed her eyes and wished for the sunrise.

 

***

Quentin Norris is a horror and fantasy writer currently living in Austin, TX.  He studied screenwriting and film direction at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in 2012.  He has been writing freelance short fiction for five years and has been included in various publications including Devolution Z Horror Magazine, Scrutiny Journal, and Breath & Shadow.