Not all encounters are what they seem.
| “They say that seeing is believing, Mr. Williams… but what if you’re blind?” As Ryker sat alone in the backseat of the patrol car, he slowly began to slide a quarter over each of the knuckles of his right hand while he waited patiently for an answer, fanning each finger in a feverish pace of liquid motion. Oblivious to this dance, he stared curiously out of the window at the dark swirling highway as it ate itself out of existence.
Trooper Rick Williams snuck a look at his rear view mirror and laughed. The hitchhiker was definitely an odd duck, but at least he was entertaining. It had been one hell of a long day, and Rick was ever grateful for the distraction. His patrol route, which led north along the pacific coast of Oregon, offered views that could be both picturesque and bitterly lonesome. Today they had tended more towards the latter. Typically he would have simply taken the hitchhiker to the next town, but had chosen to offer him a ride to the state border mainly out of boredom.
“I’ll bite. What do you mean?” Rick wasn’t sure if Ryker had even heard him but then the hitchhiker winked at him, smiling serenely at his own reflection in the mirror.
“Focus… the forest, the trees… that sort of thing. The strength of belief lies in the focus of the flock, Mr. Williams. Perhaps it is simply the will of the willing that allows for all of existence.”
Rick couldn’t help but feeling that his new acquaintance was entirely too focused. Where that focus was actually centered was another matter, for over the last hour Ryker had touched on everything from the proper etiquette of square dancing to this latest foray into existentialism. One thing was for certain; he seemed obsessively philosophical for a man hitchhiking alone through Oregon.
“You got relatives in Canada then?” Ryker had mentioned something about a family reunion up north when he’d picked him up earlier in the afternoon. Rick wondered if there were any more like him up there and stifled a laugh.
“In a manner...It’s more of a clan thing, but not in a southern way of course. Nevertheless, you would not favor their company any more than I have over the years. There’s a bit more than bad blood between me and my kin as of now. I’ve been, shall we say, a little distant. We simply see things differently, and as with all families, there are disagreements, but while I do not share in their desires, we are indeed bound by our blood. I deeply regret though that our differences have defined our destiny, and I feel a reluctant reunion is now more imminent than one filled with familial harmony.” There was that flaccid smile again. It reminded Rick a little of Kevin Nickerson from the fourth grade. He had been quite the loner at their school, but he had always seemed good-natured about it. He used to ride the bus home with Rick and his friends and had always sat alone, smiling. Smiling and playing with his backpack. They hadn’t thought much of it back then. Fifteen years and five dead prostitutes later, they’d finally found out what he’d kept in that backpack.
“The paragon of animals; what secrets they keep. Pawns in the mighty game of Homo Erectus, and some I fear have witnessed far more than a gracious hand.”
Rick tried not to appear agitated by the insightful timing of Ryker’s poetic injection, but he couldn’t help staring suspiciously at him in the mirror in any case. The cop in him sensed that somehow there was more than one pair of eyes staring out of that rigid forehead. Eyes that had seen far more than Rick ever would.
“Seen any interesting wildlife on your travels Mr. Ryker?” Rick was beginning to wonder if he was actually one of those Bigfoot nuts he ran into occasionally. Nowadays they were seeing them everywhere.
“What should life be but wild?” Ryker laughed. “Lions and tigers and bears oh my! Mr. Williams! Minus the tigers, of course. Unless you count the San Diego Zoo, which in that case you may count all of the above, and more. No, I’m afraid I’ve seen merely a few of your natural predators along the way. I have a feeling though that may change.” With this final word he smiled yet again and made direct eye contact with Rick in the mirror, and at once the trooper felt isolated and vulnerable. It was an irrational feeling, but Rick felt that somehow it wasn’t all that unintentional. How a single stare could mark him so chilled him to the core.
Ryker laughed at Rick’s candid reaction, and casually waved his hand in front of his face, as if swiping at a bothersome fly. With his other hand he held up the quarter for Rick to see in the mirror. “Shall we flip on it, Mr. Williams? I imagine there’s still a chance we’ll see a few wolves along the way at least. That’s if we’re lucky of course. Unless your a meal in their eyes, then... Well, I understand they’re extremely focused predators, and once they have chosen their prey... well then they are nearly impossible to elude. But then again, who knows? Like a predator, chance can come in many forms and follow many paths. One can only wish upon its favor. A flip then, for your consideration, Mr. Williams? Heads for your safe passage in this haven of majesty and shadows, or tails...?”
“I’ll pass if you don’t mind, not much for gambling with nature’s ways. Whatever happens, happens; I got no war with God’s creatures out here. As far as the wolves go, there aren’t as many of them out here nowadays anyway, but we got ‘em, that’s for sure.” Rick relaxed almost as quickly as he had begun to panic. It was a strange conversation to be having with anyone, much less someone in the back seat of his cruiser. “I doubt that we’ll be seeing any of them anytime soon. Still, sticking to the highway’s a smart thing around here. That zoo in San Diego is something else though, ain’t it? Got just about every kind of animal down there I reckon.” Rick noticed that Ryker had continued with his quarter’s hypnotic dance back and forth across the knuckles of his right hand. It was a trick that he’d never been able to figure out.
“So much sadness in so many cages… Life’s not meant to be led by any other master than the one who commands it, Mr. Williams. Have you ever noticed what a child’s first question is when visiting one of these atrocities for the first time? ‘Why are they in a cage?’ Why indeed...” His smile slipped away, as if brushed aside by the damp breeze that fell through his open window. Seeming to notice his own slip into melancholy, Ryker perked up in his seat and laughed heartily. “But what of it? A place full of natural wonders? Perhaps Mr. Williams, perhaps... But do these wonders really know what they’re missing? Do some of them miss the hunt?” His smile had returned and Rick noticed that there was a calm about him that was more reflective than before.
“Yes, I imagine some of them do, at least those who can remember, and those who were the hunters. It may not seem fair Mr. Ryker, but many of those animals have a far safer home in a zoo than they ever would have had in the wild.”
“Would you live well in a cage Mr. Williams? Oh, let’s say within the confines of what you’d call a ‘desk job’. Knowing all that you know now, would that suit your tastes? These are just rhetorical questions, of course, but still… Would you know your true nature? Wouldn’t you miss the thrill of your patrolman’s hunt?”
“Sure would, but I’d have hobbies.” Ryker laughed at this and then leaned back in his seat, his focus returning to the road.
Rick rounded the last bend that led to one of the unofficial patrol supply stations just off of the highway. “Speaking of being a patrolman, I need to pick up some supplies and call my wife. Funny thing, I get to do this every Sunday night like clockwork now. Our pay ain’t much, so some things disappear around here occasionally. All that really means is I’ll be checking my inventory real quick before we leave. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes and then we’ll be back on our way. I gather we should be able to hit Warrenton in about an hour.”
Rick slowly pulled the patrol car off of the deserted highway and on to the dirt road that led to the supply station. It really wasn’t much more than a shack housing toilet paper and cleaning supplies now, but it filled its need. The state had just enough funds for three patrolmen to work this route lately so they had to make the best of what they had. He just wished that trooper Dale Anders was a bit more honest. Pride is a sin that feeds on the marrow of a man’s soul, but everyone needed a hand once in a while, no matter how much it hurt to ask. Especially when kids were involved. A home should be safe and comfortable in these times, and that’s where he wished he was.
His stomach grumbled, and he sighed. His wife Sally would be reheating her tofu meatloaf again tonight. He hated leftovers, especially anything with that damn tofu his wife loved so much. How she was able to put up with him was way beyond his understanding, but she knew how to keep him in check. He’d never gone hungry in over twenty years.
As he pulled to a stop in front of the small shack, he gazed back at his new companion and wondered when had been the last time he’d had a home cooked meal. Years, he figured. Ryker’s curly ash stained beard and long black hair fit more of a biker look than the English teacher he had professed to be earlier. Ryker appeared to be dozing off now, still exhibiting a somewhat peculiar calmness. Rick shook his head, a little more of that crazy talk would at least keep him awake before he had to drop Ryker off at Warrenton.
Dusk was descending across the lonely valley. The smell of rain-soaked pine trees permeated the air as Rick got out of his patrol car and approached the small brown wooden shed. Before he unlocked the front door, he took a peek through the front window and noticed that the floor appeared to be wet inside. Strange, he’d never noticed any leaks before and there hadn’t been that much rain this afternoon, just a mist so far. As he unlocked the door and quietly opened it, a horrid smell immediately assaulted him. Rick hastily withdrew his sidearm and simultaneously fell to his knees, carefully peering inside of the doorway and into the blackened void inside.
When he looked down and saw it for the first time, something inside of him, something vital, began to fall apart and he had to fight to remain steady and calm. A small brown teddy bear, obviously well loved but now so terribly alone, lay shredded and floating upside down in a crimson pool just beyond the foot of the door. He thought he recognized it, but he was far too scared to focus on it. As he began to tune in to his surroundings, listening for anything out of the ordinary, his mind began to race with questions.
It was the blood though that truly demanded his immediate attention. There was so much of it, and It appeared to cover the entire floor beyond the child’s toy. Combined with the overwhelming smell of decomposition Rick found that for the first time, in a very long time, he wasn’t just scared, he was terrified.
His mind sped through all of the possibilities he could think of. He noticed that animal tracks were by the entryway leading upward towards the door. A deer’s maybe? But this was obviously not the result of some deer. Besides, the closer he looked, the bigger they appeared. Much bigger. A bear then? He couldn’t be sure. Anyway, that couldn’t explain the door being closed and locked tight, with no signs of being ravaged or broken into. So what the hell happened? Exasperated, he looked down at the teddy bear’s glassy eyes staring up at him. Unable to speak, it’s blackened gaze was the last witness to the horror now surrounding them, it’s secrets forever lost in the falling rain.
Cautiously Rick rose to his feet and slowly worked his way over to the side of the shed, his heart slamming in his ears. A flash of gray crossed his field of vision, and before he could react he was knocked viciously to the ground. He turned over quickly, but the breath was knocked out of him, and he lost sight of his attacker. Whatever had hit him was gone anyway. Slowly he got up and tried to regain his focus, raising his service revolver in front of him. He caught his breath, inhaling slowly. A putrid stench now filled his nostrils, far more potent than the scent of decay he’d first encountered. Breathing through his mouth, he tried to regain his composure. He stared worriedly at the trees all around him, their shadows dancing in the wind as his arm shook while he fought to steady his aim.
What the hell was going on? He continued staring out at the silent woods around him for anything that moved. Nothing… except…it was silent, wasn’t it? Now there were no natural sounds filtering through the trees; no animals, insects, even the wind had died down, nothing was left but the whisper of rain. It was as if he had suddenly woke up inside a vacuum.
A blue sedan was parked near the back. Trooper Dale Anders’s Ford Taurus if he wasn’t mistaken. He certainly hoped that he was. Dale had a four year old daughter. That was just the right age to be friends with a teddy bear. There were long deep scratches along the side of the sedan and the rear window appeared to have been shot through multiple times, having finally caved in. A thick red trail ran through the broken glass, out on to the trunk, and then off towards the back of the shed where what looked like a pile of wood and glass lay on the ground. Whoever had done this must have broke through the window of the office in the back of the building. That explained how they had got inside at least but nothing else.
“Dale?” Rick yelled, hoping for any response. An all encompassing silence answered him as a cool drizzle fell.
The light was beginning to fade and he knew that he had to call for help before something happened and he would be left all alone in the impending darkness. He still hadn’t seen any signs of whoever had knocked him down, but he knew that he was in over his head. This was bigger than a robbery, this was a slaughter. He finally decided that he’d call for backup as soon as he could get back out on to the highway; it was too dangerous to stay here any longer.
He nervously climbed to his feet again and began to make his way back over to his patrol car, his eyes scanning warily into the damp foliage for any movements, his gun pointing wherever he looked. As he began to get nearer to the driver’s side he suddenly stopped, crashing to his knees again.
Ryker was gone, as was the passenger back door.
He’d heard nothing. Nothing at all. His eyes span back and forth between the empty cruiser and the forest while his mind raced.
Could Ryker have been the one who had knocked him down? Could he have been the one he’d seen? Why was the door missing? For Christ’s sake, how was it missing?
As much as he wanted to look for Ryker and needed answers, he knew that he had to get help first. He simply had no time to think about the hitchhiker right now.
Rick quickly opened the driver’s door and got in, slamming the door shut as he began to fumble for his keys. He had just entered the right key into the ignition when he first felt it; a deep rumbling that seemed to pulse and grow with intensity all around him. A desperate sweat began to soak through his uniform, and combined with the sound of his heart’s rapid pace, his mind strained to keep focused on acting instead of reacting. Ignoring the bone penetrating vibration that enveloped him, he turned the key in the ignition and sighed with relief as the cruiser started. He shifted into gear, and put his foot on the brake as he turned around to check for Ryker one last time.
He was nearly paralyzed with shock as he saw a pair of glowing gold-speckled eyes staring back at him from through the missing back door. What they appeared to belong to, his mind simply could not handle. Ultimately it was the remains of a bear’s head in its massive jaws that forced him back out of the rabbit’s hole. As he turned back around he saw that his cruiser had been surrounded by a pack of giant beasts, all with a shared golden gaze that would forever haunt him. The eerie vibration that continued to feed through his skin became suddenly familiar.
No. Not just wolves
Behind him a mind numbing howl shrieked through the woods, as the massive creatures in front of him stared intently behind his cruiser, their focus on him now forgotten.
No longer able to risk what remained of his sanity, Rick slammed on the gas pedal, just missing one of the beasts as it slammed its muscular arms against the roof of the cruiser and the screeching of claws raked against its surface. With fear as his guide, he swung the steering wheel hard to the left of the abomination, causing the cruiser to skid all the way out on to the highway. The momentum of the vehicle, twisting on to the asphalt veering dangerously near the edge of a ravine.
Reluctantly, Rick slowly looked behind his shoulder at the backseat as he tore down the moon swept highway.
It had been shredded to pieces. A single quarter sat in silence amongst the serrated foam and vinyl, bent in half and slightly chipped, a shard of moonlight framing President Washington’s timeless gaze.