A Broken World and NO PLACE TO HIDE

Peter M. Lewitin

The howl echoed off the distant mountains.

Reverberating in the thin mountain air, the sound was an unfamiliar eerie intrusion,bringing a momentary stunned silence to the dense wooded areas bordering the deserted mountain road.

The sun had set nearly an hour ago, and it was already pretty damn cold. The steady wind gusting along the river valley carried a fine spray of mist,coating the road, and turning it slippery, as it hit the freezing pavement.

Michael Strickland tried to hunch under the neckline of his hooded sweatshirt, pulling it tight around his neck and shoulders. The heat in the building that housed the Springdale Sentinel, had been, as usual, turned up too high and his body was coated by a thin layer of perspiration. His hair was damp and cooled rapidly as the icy wind swirled..

He glanced at his wrist watch,felt a pang of guilt, and picked up the pace. It was already past dinner time, and his mother was gonna be pissed.

One of her pet peeves was being on time for dinner.” If you think I’m running a restaurant, and that you can stroll in here any time you want, you are dead wrong.” She’d glare over the top of her glasses,which balanced daintily at the tip of her nose, daring you to protest or even to utter a sound.

Truth be told, she was worried about him, and felt guilty that he had to work to help pay the bills. When he was late on Thursdays, she would give him the guilt laden speech, mainly for the benefit of his siblings, but he would always find a covered dinner plate waiting for him in the pantry,

Life was difficult in rural Georgia, and the worsening Depression left them barely scratching out a living on their small rocky piece of land.

Dad caught the flu and had died the previous winter,leaving the family in dire straits.
Mom was forced to work four days a week as a domestic for families up on “The Hill” , and also took in laundry for several families in town. Her formerly robust cheery demeanor had become mechanical,her complexion sallow. She was constantly tired, and too often,Michael would catch her silently crying as she sat, in the dark, staring blankly out of a window.

Michael hated the thought of causing her additional distress.
He had tried to call her several times, but as usual, the phone service in the mountains was unreliable.

His stomach growled, as if in a conspiracy with his brain.

A gust of freezing wind swirled around him. He exhaled in a whoosh, the steam from his breath forming a spiraling wisp of vapor before dissipating into the night. He shook his head, frustration causing a momentary pang of angst.

Wednesdays , being galley day at the paper, was always bad, but this one had been especially difficult, and wasn’t getting any better.

Earlier, at school, a water pipe in the gym had burst, leaving the gymnasium floor wet and slippery. Mr. McGuire, ever the ball buster, insisted that they take class outside.

Early December in Northern Georgia could be chilly, but a hard frost like this, was ridiculous. The soccer ball felt like a frozen snowball. Being a lowly, awkward sophomore made him an easy target, and Michael had several bright, berry colored bruises, as proof. Getting hit was painful, and the game quickly deteriorated into a war of attrition,making for a long rather painful afternoon

Having to work four or five hours two days a week after school, and a full day on Saturday, sucked, but they were having trouble making ends meet, and the money he brought in helped to pay the family bills. The untimely drought had turned their farm into a giant dust bowl, and the insects had been especially voracious this past spring and summer, leaving barely enough food to feed the family.

Michael had been lucky to find a job at the local newspaper office. The Country was struggling to survive a deepening Depression, and jobs were hard to come by.

The Springdale Sentinel published two weekday editions, the Tuesday shopping special, and the Thursday news of the week. The weekend edition was filled with advertisements, the comics, and of course a full section dedicated to sports, most of which was lifted word for word from the Boston Globe.

Wednesday afternoons were always the longest, and usually turned into unpaid overtime.This is when most of the ad copy was set for the next weeks two daily editions, and a general layout was finalized for the Sunday edition, which was always printed on Saturday afternoon. The copy had to be set, and the galleys readied for the presses, before the staff could leave.

This evening had been especially protracted. Marvin, the gofer who usually did most of the heavy physical labor, and Mr. Healey, the copy editor, with his thick rimmed glasses and quick witted tongue, always helped with the Thursday roll out, but both had failed to show up for work today.

Worse yet, neither one of them had called in with an excuse, and Mr. McCoy, the editor in Chief pitched a fit.” Where the hell are they? Too scared to face me” He yelled as he paced the hallway.
When he was angry, his ears turned bright red. Tonight they looked the color of ripened plums.

It was a rhetorical question, and Michael tried to blend into the wall next to the filing cabinet, hoping to escape Mr. McCroy’s wrath.

Mr. McCroy stopped short, and looked in Michael’s direction.” You, in the corner, stop cowering.” He gestured with his hand,” You might as well get started. The galley proofs are on Sally’s desk. ”

Michael stood silently in front of the desk, waiting for further directions. He was a novice at the job, and the stack of freshly printed copy was intimidating to him.

Mr. McCroy picked up the telephone receiver and began dialing Healey’s number for the hundredth time. The fast busy signal indicated that the phone lines were still down, and he slammed the phone back onto the receiver,looking up towards the heavens in frustration and anger.

The work was exacting and somewhat tedious. Accuracy was important, after all, they were printing a newspaper, and this sparsely populated, rural community depended upon the Sentinel for local news and filtered gossip.

Sally Strumpkins returned from a protracted sojourn to the ladies room, gave Michael a quick look of disdain, before settling her ample girth into the worn leather arm chair. Looking first at Mr. McCroy, and then in Michael’s direction, she shrugged.

“Don’t give me that pathetic look,” he growled. “We’re short handed, those butt jumpers didn’t bother to show up for work today, and we still have a paper to get out. “A vein on his right temple began to pulsate.
Sally opened her mouth to argue, noticed the twitch, and quickly lowered her eyes, shuffling the papers on her desk in a gesture of capitulation.” Come on, let’s get started.” She handed Michael a stack of the galley proofs, and gestured towards the long narrow counters along the rear wall, that served as the layout tables.

She glanced in Mr. McCroy’s direction, giving him a look of sweet innocence,” Boss,,” she smiled,” would you please call down to the circulation department and have Marcus from advertising come up here to help with the galleys. At least he has a clue how to lay out a paper.“

The Editor shook his head in frustration.” Sally. You’re my sister’s kid, but you can be one gigantic pain in the ass. Just get up out of that chair and help the kid with the layouts. I’ll get you some help from downstairs, but let’s not waste any more time. I’d like to get out of here before the ‘second coming’ ”.

With all available staff members pitching in, the Sunday paper was put to bed and the layouts for the next weeks Tuesday and Thursday editions were framed out.

A telex news report of a massive explosion in Germany sat unnoticed in the wire room.

A twig snapped in the woods to Michael’s right, followed by the faint sound of rapid breathing. The noise focused his attention back on the dark heavily wooded path that paralleled the road.
“Who is it? Who’s there? “He intended to sound calm and composed, but his verbal bravado was betrayed by a slight quiver.

Truth be told, this stretch of road was always intimidating after dark. Picking up his pace, he glanced over his shoulder, ears straining for a repeat of the sounds. After all, this was an overcast ,moonless night in the North Georgia woods, and there had been several recent reports of large wild animals being seen foraging, unusually close to town.

The gurgle and splash of Jasper Creek played a persistent symphonic harmony to his right.

Off to his left,The sound of dogs barking echoed from a cabin at the top of the ridge.” Must be   old man Johnson’s dogs, sound angry.” He shivered involuntarily.

A yelp and a wail of agony was followed by a scream and a shotgun blast.

Michael froze, shocked by the sudden sound. “Oh my god! No!”A woman’s voice screamed in terror. 

The bedlam of the dogs barking ended in a wine, then momentary silence.

Two more shotgun blasts followed in rapid succession.

Glass shattered.

Wood splintered.

“Help us!! HELP US ! They’re busting in our door!” Her voice was obscured by the angry growl of an animal, possibly a wolf, or a large dog.

Abrupt silence, deafening in its contrast, sent shivers down his spine. He started to call out, and then thought better of it. 

A snarl followed by a howl shattered the breathless silence.

A second and then a third howl pierced the night. In response, dozens of additional snarls and roars created a crescendo, the sounds echoing against the distant mountains. 

Michael gasped for air, the fear wrapping a tightening band around his chest . “ Must be a pack of wolves, “ His mind raced.” Sounds like they attacked the Johnson cabin. Wolves don’t act like that. Hunger must be making them so aggressive. “

A fierce growl emanating from the ridge, became a haunting howl, and then a a blood curdling chorus.

The chilling noise seemed to move in his direction, shaking Michael out of his terror induced paralysis.

“It’s sounds like they are communicating with each other.” He  thought.” I think they’ve picked up my scent.” Michael began walking faster, the rustling noises coming from the surrounding woods seemed to keep pace with his movements, throwing his imagination into hyper drive.

He broke into an easy trot, his breath coming in short puffs of cloudy white vapor. “What the hell are they?” He felt the panic building in the pit of his stomach.” Wolves are pack animals, but this is different. They sound too big, and too well organized.”

A deep throat-ed snarl sounded off to his right. 

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