Way of the Wolf
S. Kay Elmore
If empathy was our only guide, could we so easily separate ourselves from the animals?
The screen door slammed as Dina ran out of the house, her back stinging with pain from her dad's slap. There had been no warning this time. He'd lashed out at her almost casually when she was too slow going out the door to do her chores.
Her mother had told her softly not to cry. "Bug, honey, just go take care of your animals, dinner will be ready soon." She wanted to cry. She stuffed the cry down into her stomach and promised to let it out soon.
Her family called her Bug, but her dad called her awful names. He wasn't her real dad -- she knew that because her real dad died in a war when she was a tiny baby. Her mother had a picture of him in the big photo album, and she liked to look at him. He wasn't tall like her new dad, Tom. He was short, with dark hair and dark skin. Her mom said he was an Indian, and Bug was part Indian too.
She stopped where she knew he could see her from the kitchen window. She reached for the long wooden hook she needed to close the tall chicken coop doors, and went around the building slowly, closing and latching each door for the night. When she was out of sight, she dashed to the low doghouse, built of straw bales and plywood, and crawled inside the narrow entrance.
Inside the doghouse, she could sense that Abi was there. The aged wolf-husky mix had been with her for as long as she could remember. The dog belonged to her real dad, and when he died, she had become Dina's. Dina called her Abi, because her mother said the dog's name was so long and complicated that only her father could pronounce it right. Abi would do. She was stout with age, and limped along on three legs. A coyote trap had taken off one of her front legs halfway down.
She found the wolf-dog asleep in the farthest corner. The girl crept into the corner and buried her head into her warm side, sniffling her tears into the thick fur. Abi sighed, rested her head on the dirt floor, and closed her eyes. Bug put her grubby arm around the body of the dog, holding her like a child grips a teddy bear in the panic of a nightmare, and rocked back and forth on the ground, crying.
In her mind, Bug made a picture of a small puppy, wounded and whining, curled between the paws of its mother. She sent the picture to Abi, so the dog would understand how she felt. Slowly, a picture came back to her: the puppy nestled against her side, safe and warm. As if to punctuate her point, the dog lifted her head and licked Dina's arm twice.
Dina remembered the first time he'd beaten her. She had dropped a jelly jar onto the kitchen floor. Her new father had taken off his belt and put four red welts across her back. Four. She remembered. She remembered standing in the bathroom with her mother, looking over her shoulder in the mirror and counting to four in a small voice. Her mother had put her in the bathtub and washed her back with a soft sponge. Dina remembered her mother crying.
Bug stroked the thick ruff on Abi's neck, and the old dog sighed. The dog's eyes flicked to look at her, then to look at the open end of the doghouse, then closed to nap under the welcome caresses.
Abi's head lifted suddenly when the screen door to the trailer slammed open. Mother's voice called out over the yard: "Dina! Dina-Bug? Come to dinner while it's hot!" Her voice sounded so normal, as if she were ignorant of Bug's misery.
Bug crawled out of the tiny opening to the doghouse, followed soon after by the old wolf-dog. Abi limped three-legged behind her, holding up her bad front leg so she wouldn't have to stand on it. Bug filled the water bucket for the other dogs, and set it carefully at the edge of the two half-circles made by their restraining chains. These were the sheepdogs, her dad's prized Border collies.
The wooden steps creaked as she stepped up to the trailer door. She let out her breath, opened the door and went inside. Abi scratched a little at the doormat, turned around three times, and plopped down on the steps with an audible grunt.
"What took you so long? We've been waiting dinner on you." Her dad's accusing voice greeted her at the door.
"I'm sorry. I had to give the dogs some water. Sandy knocked it over again," She kept her eyes down as she stood, hands shoved in her pockets, waiting for approval to sit at the table.
"I don't like you being late. Don't make me tell you twice." She winced inside, her face impassive. "Sit down."
Tom was a big man, taller than her mother. But he was heavy set, his stomach round and distended from drinking too much beer. He had an orange stain on his middle finger from the home-rolled cigarettes he smoked. He said it saved money that way.
She pulled out her chair carefully, so it wouldn't squeak on the floor, and made sure to pull it back up close, so she wouldn't drop any food on her lap. She'd been yelled at for being messy at the table. Mom dished out dinner, a stir fry of vegetables and scrambled eggs, with enough ham hock mixed in to make you remember the meat. She thought her mom was pretty. She had brown hair falling down behind her back nearly to her waist. She was small and thin, the lines of age just starting to show around her cornflower blue eyes.
Bug tasted her dinner and wondered what it would be like to eat with chopsticks. Did kids in China eat food like this at their dinner tables?
"Mom, do you think I could carve some chopsticks out of cedar wood?" She looked up.
"Yeah, I guess so. You're getting to be pretty good with a pocket knife. Just be careful, okay?"
"Okay mom, I will," She put another bite of dinner in her mouth, reached down to get another one, carefully, so the fork didn't scrape the plate and make a noise. She chewed carefully, so she didn't make a lot of noise with her mouth. She'd been slapped for that. She didn't think chopsticks would make any noise on her plate.
"Do you have homework?" Tom asked.
"Nah, I did it at recess today. Just some math worksheets. Nothing hard."
Her mother beamed "She's getting all A's in school, Babe. I'll bet she's the smartest girl in her class." Mom looked at Bug and smiled big, showing her teeth. Bug smiled back.
"Mom, there's a science project due pretty soon. They are going to have an alternative energy contest at school. We have to do a project about energy and there's a fifty dollar prize if you win. Can you help me with one?"
"Sure, honey, what do you want to do it on?" Mother put down her fork.
"Well, since we have the solar cells on the roof, and I helped to put them up, I wanted to do a project about that. Will you help me? I need some pictures of the stuff on the roof and the batteries, and that kind of stuff."
"Sure, I can get the camera out tomorrow." Her mother's voice held a note of finality.
"Mr. Beals says that the project is due at the end of the month, and I want to do a poster, and show what the solar cells do and how they make electricity. They're gonna have judges come around and look at all of them. Mr. Beals says that the President made the contest up and it's goin' on all over the place."
"It sounds fine, Bug." She heard the warning in her mother's voice again. Mother looked over at her husband across the table, hopeful.
"And the prize is fifty dollars!" Bug continued cheerfully. "And if you win, you get to go to Richfield for the next part of the contest, and if you win there, you get two hundred dollars! He said that the very best projects get to go to Washington D.C. and the President will give you lots of money and you get to be on TV and everything!" Bug chattered at her mother excitedly, trying to win her approval. "Think what I could get with two hun--"
Tom crashed his hand down on the table next to Bug's plate, "God! Shut up, willya?" Tom cut her off sharply, pointing his fork at her for emphasis, "I don't want to spend my dinner listening to your voice yap." The fork was inches from her face.
"Tom..." Mother's voice trailed off, disappointed. "She's only nine. Let her do a science project for school."
"Yeah," Bug added cautiously, watching the fork, "I have to do one to get a grade." She wondered, would she get away with it? Maybe mom was on her side. Maybe.
"Well, how much is it going to cost? I don't want to throw all my money away on you, ya know." He went back to eating his dinner, his threat made.
Silently, inside, Bug sang victory. She sent a picture of a puppy playing in the grass to Abi. She'd actually won this time.
"Um," Bug started, thought a bit, then continued, "I need a couple of pictures, and a piece of poster." Her voice picked up, pleading, "It won't cost more than a couple of dollars, really."
"Yeah, whatever. Go ahead." He reached over to turn up the wick on the oil lamp.
Nothing more was said over dinner.
"Okay!" Mr. Beals walked around his desk to stand in front of the class, "I gave you an assignment on Friday to come up with an idea for the science fair. Everybody have one?" He looked around at the faces of his students, "Mitch? You're first. What is your science project going to be, and how do you plan to research it?"
He went around the room in order, the third graders stood one by one and recited their projects. Dina couldn't help but snicker inside at some of them. They were stupid, she could tell that hers was good.
"Dina? You're next." He motioned with his hand for her to stand.
"Um, my science project is photovoltaic cells and how they work." She used the big word, knowing that most of her classmates didn't know what it was. She liked to show them up.
"Really?" He smiled at her. She could tell he was surprised. "Where are you going to get that information?"
"Well." She took a breath, "We have photovoltaic cells at our house, because we don't have power lines where we are, and I helped put them up, and, um, my dad has all the books about them."
"Gawd!" A hateful voice came from the back of the class. "You don't have electricity? No wonder you're so weird." The thin blonde girl rolled her eyes.
"Kim, that's enough." Mr. Beals warned. The tone of his voice was just like Tom's. "Well, Dina, it sounds like you wont have any problem with the project. Sam? How about you?"
She sat, grateful that he'd moved on to the next person. She put her eyes down to her notebook and continued drawing the unicorn in the margin of the page. She tried not to think about Kim Whittaker. She hated her, with her blonde hair and blue eyes, her snooty voice. Kim always had nice clothes, bought at Christiansen's and ZCMI. She had a little gold chain around her neck. She lived in a real house and had a phone, and she was the most popular girl in the class.
Bug pictured herself as a big growling wolf, and Kim as a scared rabbit. Her wolf-self pounced on the Kim-rabbit and tore its head off. Bug smiled to herself.
Since her family had the only farm up in the hills, there weren't any other kids around for her to play with. After school, she fed the dogs, and took care of the chores for the night. She wondered why she had to work so much. She knew that the other kids in school went to each other's houses, watched TV, or played video games after school. She almost never had time for that sort of thing, even if she had neighbors.
The sun was still shining when she finished her chores, so she slipped off to the green shade of trees down by the creek, across the ewe's field, with her fishing pole and her dog. She hardly ever had time left after chores to go play by the creek.
She stopped in the ewe's field to call her very own goat, Dancer. After Dancer's mama abandoned her in the field, Bug kept her from dying and nursed her with a coke bottle and a rubber nipple. The little doe was convinced that Bug was her mother. Once she was across the field, Bug threw her head back and brayed like a goat. A few seconds later, she was answered by Dancer, running across the field and maaaa-ing for all she was worth.
The little doe slid to a stop in front of her, legs going in all directions. She jumped up on her hind feet and pawed the air, then pranced a little. Goats didn't understand pictures like the dogs did. They talked to each other by dancing, by the way they held their ears and tails. Her greeting dance was just that -- it said how happy she was to see her and how much she missed her. Bug set off across the field with her dancing goat and limping dog, to see if Lost Creek would give up a rainbow trout for her dinner.
Her favorite place was a small grove of gnarled scrub oak trees. Some of their branches bent so low to the ground they made a fine place to sit. They sat on the creekbank for the rest of the evening, pretending to fish. Bug had been fishing that creek for as long as she could hold a pole, but had only caught two trout so far. She sent pictures of squirrels and rabbits hiding in the brush to Abi, who wandered off on her own small adventure to find them.
As the shadows of the trees lengthened across the grove, Bug heard the rustling sounds of deer in the wild rose bushes. She froze, and stilled the little goat beside her. In her mind, she pictured herself as a goat, standing quietly by the creek. Deer were easy to fool. If she thought very hard about being a goat, they wouldn't be scared of her at all. It was almost as if she were a goat to them. One by one, the big white-tail deer filtered into the grove.
The deer sensed them, and saw two goats lazing by the creek. They stepped near the water to drink, unafraid of the two creatures that shared the grove. They had seen goats before, and these two were no threat to them. They picked their heads up suddenly, alerted, and moved away from the open water.
Crashing through the underbrush, Abi returned, barking wildly at the deer. They bounded quickly across the grove, back into the brush at the edge of the field. Bug, no longer a goat, called out to her dog, but it was no use. Abi leaped into the brush after them, her gait slowed by her bad leg. "Abi! Abi come back!" She jumped from the bank, and followed the trail into the brush as far as she could fit. "A-beeee!"
A few minutes later, the wolf-dog returned, sending happy pictures of a wolf pack chasing deer, the smell of hunting prey, herself running at the head, running with four good legs. She sent pleased feelings of full tummies and lazy dogs.
Abi was right -- it was dinner time. The trio wandered back across the field. This time they were fishless, but had two handfuls of dried rose hips from the wild rosebushes by the creek. They were old, hard and wrinkled from the winter, but they would still make good tea.
Two weeks went by, and her poster project was almost done. The pictures her mom took were put away carefully in a kitchen drawer, and she even bought a marker for her when she got the poster paper. Bug had spent a long time carefully copying down the information from the big book of her dad's. What words she didn't understand, she looked up in the dictionary at school. She used lots of words she didn't understand, to make it look better.
On the morning of the science fair, she got up at five, as usual, and went about her chores with a sense of urgency. There were eggs to get, and chickens to feed and water, endless chores done every morning, rain or shine. Abi trailed behind her, her placid eyes watching everything her favorite child did, her limping gait steady, if slow. Abi followed her into every pen and pasture, the sheep not giving her a second glance. They knew, somehow, that the wolf-dog was no threat to them. She was too old, and lame.
Bug let the sheep out to pasture and filled their water tank, making sure to turn the pump off. She once forgot to turn the pump off, and she still had a scar on her thigh where Tom had whipped her with a metal fly swatter.
Her favorite part of the morning was milking the goats. Sunflower and Terra were the only ones with milk to speak of. Their kids had died at birth, so they were inside the barn with the pregnant does, and needed milking.
She liked the warm smells of the mama goats, she liked their big keyhole eyes and floppy ears. They crowded around her as she opened the gate, crying for attention. She got a cup of oats, walked inside the milking stall and let Sunflower get in. Bug pulled up the stool and got the milking pan from the wall. She leaned her head against the warm side of the goat as she milked. The clean swish-swish of the milk was calming, rhythmic.
As she milked she sang to herself, following the rhythm of the milk in the pan, "Gonna win, Gonna Win. I'm the best, I'm the best." Abi sat to her side, tongue lolling, tail hopefully thumping on the ground, sending images of a full milk pail, herself drinking from it. The goats, too, did not fear the old dog. She was as accepted as the child, a regular part of a regular morning.
Bug poured part of the milk into two beat-up pie pans on the ground. The dog lapped happily from one, and she lifted up the other to the hayloft. Barn cats materialized from the rafters and meowed pitifully, then growled to each other as they crouched together at the pan enjoying their breakfast.
The long drive to school was silent. Tom did his best to navigate the old truck down the muddy, rutted roads, ruined by too much rain and too little care from the county. Her project poster sat on her lap, wrapped in a black plastic bag to protect it. She clutched her arms around it, protecting it from Tom. He would ruin it and blame it on her if she gave him half a chance.
She took the poster to the gym on time, and set it up with two yardsticks her mom lent her so it wouldn't fall down. There were other projects in the gym, so she looked at them. They were all stupid. Hers was the best, she knew it.
During third period, Mr. Beals came into Mrs. Conners' class and called her name.
Her heart raced. It was the judges! They had come to talk to her about her project. She felt light-headed when she walked to the gym with Mr. Beals. She talked to the judges, two men and a very pretty lady in a suit. They asked her questions about her big words, and smiled at her when she told them about the process that turns light into electricity. She showed them the pictures, and pointed out the different parts of the electric relay system, the battery storage, the power gauges.
They thanked her, shook her hand, and sent her back to class.
At seventh period, the Principal got on the intercom and called everyone to assemble in the gym. The whole school was there, all four grades, sitting on the bleachers, teachers herding students like Border collies. Bug sat alone at the bottom of the bleachers, bouncing her knee nervously, her arms wrapped around herself.
Mr. Beals got up and talked about the science project, how the President had made it up, and "the importance of alternative energy resources for America."
She ignored him. She watched the judges, especially the pretty lady in the suit. Mr. Beals finished talking, and the lady got up to the podium to speak.
"The runners up for the Alternative Energy contest are..." She called out name after name and Bug sat up straight.
"Our winners for the Nadir Valley contest are," Bug heard every word echo in the gum, "Samuel Johnson for his report on garbage energy, Third place!"
Bug swallowed. She had a lump in her throat, and she needed to pee. She watched Sam walk up to the line of kids on the gym floor, with his white ribbon in hand.
"Second place goes to Amy Thorsen for her report on Nuclear energy!" Amy got up, laughing, and bounced the step that Bug was sitting on. She ran to get her red ribbon and stand in line next to Sam. Bug couldn't breathe.
"Our first place winner from the third grade, with a remarkable report..." Bug trembled. She couldn't hear. "Photovoltaic Energy, by Dina Cooper!"
Someone was shaking her. Mrs. Conners laid her hand on her shoulder, "Go on, Dina. Walk up there, hon!" Mrs. Conners gave her a proud smile, showing her teeth.
She didn't feel the floor of the gym. She floated over to the pretty lady, who handed her a blue ribbon. She drifted over to stand next to Amy and Sam. Cameras flashed. The runners up were told to sit down, and the photographer from the paper took a picture of her holding up her blue ribbon, Sam and Amy next to her.
One of the man judges came to talk to them. He said that he was taking their projects to Richfield with him, and that the contest for the county was going to be there. The contest was going to be held on Tuesday, and they would be driven to Richfield by the Principal. Amy and Sam were dismissed to go home, but the Judge told Bug to wait, and that he had to talk to her.
He smiled down at her, "Dina, you are going to receive your prize of fifty dollars at the county contest, along with the winners from the other regions." He looked at her faded blue jeans and T-shirt. "There will be people there from all the papers, so can you dress nice?"
She looked at the floor. "I'm sorry, Mister, Um," She looked up at him, tried to look him in the eye. "these are the only pants I have that don't have a hole in them."
He looked at the floor. "Well." He put his hand to his glasses. "I'm sure you'll find something," and turned to walk away.
Bug felt suddenly stupid. She was ashamed of her clothes, ugly, old and bought from the Goodwill. Her Gramma used to make her pretty dresses, sewing them on the old Singer which stood now in her mother's bedroom. She had a whole closet full of clothes then, but she had grown out of all of them. Her mother put the dresses in a big box, saying that she'd save them if Bug ever had a little sister who could wear them.
Mom was there to pick her up after school. The rattling old truck looked out of place with the other cars at the curb, but Bug didn't care. Mom hardly ever came to pick her up. She ran out to the truck, grinning and yelling.
"I won! I won fifty dollars!" She didn't care if the other kids heard her. "Mom! I won! I get to go to Richfield on Tuesday! I'm gonna win the two hundred dollars, I know it!"
"Oh Honey! That's great! I'm very proud of you." Her mom reached over the gearshift and hugged her daughter tightly. She laughed with her, "Lets go get ice cream to celebrate." Mom put the truck in gear, and they rattled off down the street. The little burger stand on main street had the best ice cream in the world, and the mini cones were a quarter each. Bug got two.
"Richfield?" Tom yelled at dinner. "I don't give a damn what she won, I don't want some bastard I don't know driving her to Richfield!" Bug could almost see the chimney on the oil lamp shake with the force of his words.
"Tom! Dammit, she won the science fair! Can't you let her have a little fun? Jesus Christ!" Her mother yelled back, pleading in her voice.
"But, Tom," Bug started. "They're going to give me fifty dollars and I have to be there to get it." She looked at her dinner plate.
"Listen, I'm glad you won the science thing." He said it so full of hate she winced openly, "but damnit, you have to go that far? Richfield is an hour away! I don't want to throw my schedule to shit to come get you in Richfield after this thing is over."
"But... the principal is going to drive us back too. That's what they said." She could feel the tears behind her eyes, making her throat hurt.
"Dammit, Tom," Her mother added "If it's that much trouble, I'll go get her."
There was no more said over dinner.
Richfield was big, bigger than Nadir Valley. It had stoplights. The school car pulled into the Richfield high school parking lot and the three anxious students got out. Bug had done her best with her clothes. Her mom unpacked an old dress that Gramma had made, and discovered that if they took out a tuck here, and put elastic there, the dress fit. It was a little short, above her knees, but that didn't matter.
The day passed nervously for Bug. She walked around, looking at the other entries from all over the county. She was in the junior division, and the projects from the high school students looked so much better than hers. About noon, somebody's experiment on chemical energy blew up, creating a bad smell in the gym. Bug informed Mr. Beals that it was a noxious smell, hoping that he would notice her vocabulary. He laughed.
At two o'clock, the award ceremony began. She didn't win the big prize, but was a runner up this time around. It didn't matter, she had won at her school, where it counted. She was called up with the other Junior division winners, and got her fifty dollar check. It had her name printed right there on the line. It was hers.
At three, the ceremony was still going on, the high school kids lined up on the gym floor. Bug was worried. She needed to get home.
"Mr. Beals, when can we leave? My mom is supposed to pick me up at school, and if I'm not there, she's gonna get worried."
"Oh, dear." He looked genuinely concerned. "We can't leave until this is over, because they still have to take pictures of you for the Richfield paper. Can you call your mom and tell her you're still here?"
"Mr. Beals, we don't have a telephone. They don't make telephone lines that go out as far as we are." She said it apologetically, then quietly, "Besides, my dad says we cant afford one anyway."
He looked at her and bit his top lip. "I'm sorry, Dina."
She stood for her picture in line, trying to smile. She was late. It was 3:30, and her mom would be waiting for her. The cameras flashed in her face, making red spots on her eyes. She hoped that her knees wouldn't show in the picture.
It was five o'clock when they got back to Nadir Valley. She looked around for her mom, but she was nowhere to be found. She sat on the step and put her chin in her hands.
The principal looked at her. "Do you need to use the phone?"
She thought. Her mom's friend, Sara, lived near town and maybe she would be nice enough to drive her home. "Yeah."
He unlocked the school and was opening up the door when she heard the truck's engine at the curb.
"Oh!" she said, "There she is. Thanks, Mr. Carter." She ran down the steps.
She stopped. It wasn't her mom. It was Tom. She slowed and walked up to the truck.
"Where the hell have you been?" He demanded as she got in. She could feel his anger. He was furious, and she could hear the buzzing cloud of pain starting in her head. She was going to get it this time.
"I'm sorry, they had to take pictures and we couldn't leave until they were done" She talked quietly, carefully, trying not to make too much noise. She looked at the floorboard, she wrapped her arms around her bookbag.
"Look at me." He demanded. She looked at the floorboard. "Look at me!" He screamed at her, picking her head up roughly by the chin. "I have been all over town looking for you, and I don't appreciate it, goddammit." He spat out every word, every word clear and ringing in the cab of the truck. Spit hit her on the face.
"I'm sorry..." she squeaked. She couldn't breathe. She wanted to pull away, to run out of the truck back into the schoolyard, but if she did, he'd kill her. She wanted to wrench her face out of his hand, but she couldn't move.
"Right. You'll be sorry." He tossed her head to the side with his hand, hurting her neck and bruising her chin. He put the truck in gear and drove. Bug looked out the window, thinking about the fifty dollar check she had in her bookbag. Would it be enough for her to live on if she ran away?
He drove in silence as she looked out the window at the passing roadside. In her head she made pictures of a wolf pack surrounding a bear. She made the wolves attack the bear, tearing gashes in his sides and arms. Her face hurt, and her throat was full and sore from choking down tears. She put the cry back down into her stomach, trying to save it for later, but the cry made her stomach hurt, too. She sent the pictures in her head away. She sent a picture to Abi, a pup running fast, tail between its legs.
Home loomed in the headlights, the soft glow of the oil lamp coming from the kitchen. Mom opened the door as they drove up. Abi lurched up from her place on the porch and stood next to her, tail up, ears forward. Guarding. Abi sent Bug a picture. Wolf on a rock, looking over the valley.
"Well? How did it go, Bug?" Mom smiled at her, calling from the porch. Her voice was cheerful.
Bug climbed out of the truck and walked up to the porch, dejected. "I didn't win the big prize mom. I was a runner-up." Her voice was restrained, quiet, meek.
"Aw, honey, that's too bad." Her mom made a sad face. She reached down to caress Bug's face. Bug winced as her hand touched the bruised spot on her cheek where Tom had grabbed her. "What's the matter, Bug?" Her mom turned her cheek to look.
"I'm okay." Bug whispered. "Please, I'm okay." She thought, Please, please mom, don't make him mad... he'll hurt you too.
Her mother's eyes, her beautiful cornflower blue eyes, turned the color of ash. "He hit you, didn't he." Her mothers voice held a tone that scared her. Please don't make him mad, Mom.
"No, mom... I'm okay!" Her voice rose, pitched in fear.
"You son of a..." Her mother cursed, stepping around bug to confront her husband, "How dare you!" Her voice was cold, frightening.
Abi's picture was of a wolf pack surrounding a bear. Bug threw her arms around the wolf-dog, trying to keep her back. All she thought to send to her was no, but she didn't know how to say it.
"That ungrateful bitch of a daughter made me wait two hours for her to get home." Tom pointed his accusatory finger at the cowering child, "She took her sweet goddamned time getting there. I don't want to hear any shit from you!" He shook his finger in his wife's face, "This is my house, by god, and you'll do whatever the hell I tell you to do!" He yelled so loudly, so full of violence that the words were nearly tangible in the twilight air.
Her mother's words came out quietly, she stood with her hands on her hips, facing him down. "If you ever lay another hand on my daughter, I'll kill you." She stood in front of him. She looked him in the eye. Dina was suddenly very scared of her mother. Her face was cold, her eyes narrowed in rage. She started to walk toward him. He backed up a step, his face caught in disbelief that his wife would dare threaten his sovereignty.
"You bastard." She hissed, almost whispering. "You." She backed him up another step, "How dare you call yourself a man when the best you can do is beat up on a nine-year old girl." Dina had never heard her mother talk like that. Mean. She sounded like she was growling. She stood petrified on the steps as Abi wriggled out of her grip.
His face reddened with rage. "I'll do whatever I want in my house. I pay the bills, I put clothes on her back and food on the table!" He screamed into his wife's face, but for the first time in her life, Bug heard the sound of fear in his voice.
He shoved his wife aside, knocking her into the gravel. In quick steps that took hours he crossed the driveway. Bug couldn't move fast enough and he grabbed her by the hair.
"Stupid!" He pulled her up from the ground, dangling her in the air with her hair in his fist. "Don't you appreciate what I do for you?" He shook her. She put her hands to her head and tried to pry loose his fingers, tried to get away.
She tried to nod, or say something -- anything -- to make him let her go. Her head was filled with the pictures of the bear, the bear killing her, killing all of the pack. Somewhere in the back of her mind, behind the cloud of pain, she heard a low sound.
Tom dropped her onto the gravel and kicked her where she lay. "Are you grateful? Huh?"
Her mother was screaming. Bug realized that out here, there were no neighbors, nobody would hear her. Nobody would come to help them and he would kill both of them. She struggled to rise, to run away into the hills to hide.
"When did you ever thank me? Huh?" He knocked her down with the back of his hand as she tried to crawl away. He kicked her in the ribs, rolling her over on the driveway. She tried to breathe, tried to make her mouth form words. He kicked her in the stomach, and she collapsed, choking and vomiting. Her mother had stopped screaming but the air was full of bees.
The low sound in the back of her mind got louder. Vicious. It was a terrible sound, like a horror movie she wasn't allowed to watch. She didn't have time to think about it because the sun was setting, and she could hear the darkness as it rolled over her.
The old wolf on the doorstep abandoned that part of her which was still a dog. Inside, there was a heart there that knew nothing of humans. She let it come rushing out into her teeth, a snarling growl. The smell of blood in her head and the screaming infuriated her. Her precious child, her pup, lay whimpering in pain on the ground, and the enemy stood in front of her.
The wolf launched herself from the ground on three bad legs and ripped all of her good teeth into the enemy's thigh. She tasted blood, and bit down again. She tore through jean and flesh, maddened with instinct. She smelled the terror in him and it made her bolder. She attacked him again, throwing all her weight into his legs. She heard the sound of metal, and could tell the man had been hit from behind, good strategy to her wolf-sense. She lunged for his throat, for the kill. The smell of blood was good.
The woman stood in mute horror, the shovel in her hand forgotten. She tried not to register the image of her daughter's old, lame dog, and what she had done to the man on the ground.
Abi limped to stand growling over the body of her child. She licked at her face, then lay down beside her, nudging her. Her pup wouldn't wake up. She flicked her eyes to look at the woman, trembling and stinking with fear. The woman dropped the long metal thing in her hand and fell to her knees.
Abi heard her name, spoken softly. She understood her name. The woman crept forward, hand outstretched, the fear-smell fading.
The old wolf-dog licked her chops, her hackles lowered, and she lurched painfully to stand protectively beside the girl. That part of her which was wolf went quietly back down into her old heart, and she wagged her tail a little, to let the woman know she should not be afraid.
Dina's mother came slowly toward her and reached out for her child. She didn't want to think about what she had just done. She didn't want to look at the bloody man on the ground. Abi whined, her eyes flicking between the child and the man. Her mother knelt beside the barely conscious girl, and picked her up gingerly.
The old dog followed them with her limping, if steady, gait. They climbed into the cab of the beat-up truck, and the woman helped the dog up into the cab. She scratched at the floorboard once or twice, and plopped down with an audible sigh. The woman put the engine into gear and screeched away.
"Your name?" Deputy Hank Olsen asked kindly, trying to catch the woman's eyes. She was shaken and crying, and he didn't blame her. Her daughter was in ICU a few rooms away, with eight broken ribs and severe internal injuries. The local doctors weren't sure if they could handle the job alone, and a pediatric specialist had been 'coptered in from Richfield. Last word, she was in critical condition.
"Catherine Coop..." She let out a little breath, "Cooper."
"What happened, Catherine?" He put his pen to the paper quietly. He needed her calm, but he also needed the report. A fat woman, a friend of Mrs. Cooper's, stood behind her, her hands resting on her shoulders.
"Um." She wiped her eyes. "My dog... she killed my husband." She wiped her eyes again. "He was... he was trying to hurt my daughter. He beat her up all the time." She broke into sobs, leaning against her friend for comfort.
"Uh, Missus..." He looked at the friend, searching for her name.
"Rasmussen. Sara Rasmussen. My husband is taking the sheriff out to the farm."
"Sure, Jay and I are the volunteer firefighters together." He tried to smile at the women. "Mrs. Rasmussen, was Mr. Cooper often violent? Would you say he beat the child?" He made notes in his book.
"Officer, go look at that little girl in there and have the doctor tell you how much of that damage was done tonight, and how much was there to begin with. He had no business hitting that child." She looked disgusted. Her voice, however, spoke of more than disgust.
"Where's the dog?" His brow furrowed. The dog could be rabid. The family lived pretty far out in the boondocks, after all.
"She's out in the truck." Catherine looked up at him. The woman understood his concern. "No, mister, she's not a bad dog. She was protecting us." Mrs. Cooper spoke haltingly through tears. "She saved Dina's life."
He got what statement he could out of the badly shaken woman. It looked fairly clear to him. Rabid dog. No charges. He doubted if the local court would even want touch it. He said as much to Mrs. Cooper and her friend.
"Do you have a place to stay?" Hank asked Mrs. Cooper.
"She's staying with us. Jay's going to bring some of her things from the house when he comes back with the Sheriff." Sara offered.
"And the dog?" He raised his eyebrows and looked dubious. "We might have to run some tests on her to confirm the rabies. You all being out in the country and all, that might be a possibility."
"The dog will stay with us," Mrs. Cooper spoke up defiantly. "I'll take her to our vet, Officer. He can run the rabies test. We'll pay for it."
Deputy Olsen sat with them for another two hours, keeping the curious out of the waiting room. In such a small town, this news was going to be all over by morning. Doctors came and went with reports on the child's improvement. She was going to be all right, but she faced a difficult recovery.
Jay Rasmussen came in with a small suitcase of things for Catherine. He spoke in low tones to the Deputy, relating the scene at the Cooper's farm, nodding his bearded head slowly. They found the body of Tom Cooper in the driveway, his throat torn out, apparently by the dog.
"I've never seen anything like it. I've seen dog bites, but this one, well, that dog's got some wolf blood." He shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing like it I've seen."
"Jay, could you show me this dog? My god, he must be huge. Part wolf? Jesus."
"She." Jay corrected him.
The men shouldered through the swinging glass doors of the ER into the parking lot. Jay walked up to the truck, and a large, grizzled head poked up out of the open window.
"Hey Abi." Jay stuck his hand through the window of the truck to scratch her around the neck. "C'mon out, girl." He opened the door, and the wolf-dog struggled to rise from the car seat where she had been sitting. She looked dubiously at the ground beneath her, then looked up at Jay and whined. He understood, and reached carefully around her body to lift her to the ground.
"This dog?" the Deputy looked at the old, three-legged dog. Even through the blood dried on her muzzle and chest, he could see the gray of her fur. She was stocky, overweight and moved painfully with age. "Damn, are you sure, man?"
"Had to be, Hank. The other two were chained up out by the shed." Abi sat on the asphalt drive, and tilted her head up to look at Jay.
"She's no more rabid than I am. She was just protecting her own, I guess."
They stood looking at her for a few long minutes. Jay patted his thigh and called her over to the back of his own pickup. He lifted her into the back and closed the tailgate.
"Jay," Hank began. "You know the department is going to want this dog put down."
Jay said nothing. Abi rested her head on the tailgate and nudged Jay's hand for attention. He absently put his hand on her head, brushing the dried blood from her fur.
"I gotta get her cleaned up." His voice choked out of a closed throat. "Can't have her this way when we take her to the vet."
Hank waved to his friend and tapped his hand on the side of the tailgate as he stepped out of the way. He watched the dog in the back of the truck as Jay backed up and stopped to turn out of the parking lot.
Hank nodded his head toward the pickup truck, "Good dog."
He heard the thumping of her tail on the truck bed.
S. Kay Elmore (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graphic artist and writer from Fort Worth, Texas.
This is her first published short story.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 S. Kay Elmore.