Wyld FLASH February 4th 2022
When the wolf ambles down the hallway the first thing you think is how pale it is, almost translucent: a thick white outline shaded dove grey inside, fur sketched on in little white strokes. Like a cartoon ghost. Like something that shouldn’t frighten you.
And it’s thin, so thin it should be hungry, but there’s no sense of urgency to its soundless approach down the hall. It’s watching you, but with no particular interest.
Before the wolf came out—before you knew it was a wolf—you told your sister to stop looking down the dim hallway to your mother’s bedroom (it’s daytime, so you hadn’t bothered turning on the lights). She’s no longer there, your mother. The house has been mostly empty for a while, chilly and musty. You’d come to deal with the last few boxes, which you quickly forgot when you heard the breathing, rhythmic and low, of some large creature in the bedroom. You didn’t know what it was at first, but it sounded dangerous. You hoped the slow, even inhales and exhales meant it was asleep.
And you realize now it’s no wonder that this wolf is currently ambling down the hallway, because neither you nor your sister bothered to lower your voices; you were in fact a bit idiotic, acting as though something that seemed so impossible couldn’t be real.
Is it still waking up? Is that why the ghost wolf doesn’t seem aggressive, doesn’t raise its hackles or bare its teeth? It doesn’t seem stressed or threatened, wandering toward you and your sister (who is now behind you), eyeing you, as far as you can tell, without malicious intent.
Even so, it’s a wolf, so you grab the closest weapon: a long, spindly plant stake in the pot next to your feet. You pull it up from the dirt and point your green lance at the wolf, its tip flaking soil onto the carpet (your mother wouldn’t appreciate that).
The cartoon ghost wolf slows, then stands at the entrance to the room you’re standing in, glowing its unearthly glow, regarding you. You steel yourself against a growl that doesn’t happen, fasten your grip on the slim stick of plastic-coated steel to prepare for a lunge that doesn’t come. You wonder what’s wrong with this wolf, why it doesn’t attack you. It almost makes you mad.
You hold an arm out, as though you could save your sister from a wolf. You just want it do what it’s going to do so you know what it’s going to do.
But it doesn’t. So you raise your arm and shift your grip on the plant stake and think about where to stab. And you step forward.
The wolf crouches and the hint of a snarl ripples its lip. You’re getting a reaction. You wonder if the angle of your spear will work. You wonder if you’ve made a mistake.
And you step forward.
Don’t cry, you tell your sister. It was a wolf. I saved us from a wolf.
But you both remember its tepid growl as you raised your spike, how it curled into itself, shrinking before your slender spear as you approached. How it failed to attack.
When you stabbed the ghost wolf, it deflated like a spectral balloon, losing itself bit by bit to the earthly plane until it disappeared.
Don’t cry you say. It wasn’t real. And you ignore the viscous sheen on the stake when you jam it back into the pot, ripping a leaf in your haste.
I did what I had to do, you say.
The ghost wolf comes home with you. You don’t know this right away, but soon enough you dream of ghost wolves, of killing ghost wolves, of ever more dream yous going home to dream of killing ever more cartoon ghost wolves. You can’t sleep because there are so many yous killing so many wolves.
You decide the ghost wolf must have climbed up through the plant stake into your head. You decide to go back to your mother’s house and put the wolf back.
You pull up to your mother’s rust-red split-level house, then shake the correct key out of your keyring, and unlock the door. As you step inside, you wonder if the ghost wolf is why it never sold, why your agent finally suggested you take it off the market and wait for “a better time;” why you and your sister and brothers have to keep scraping together property taxes; why you and your sister, who live the closest, have to keep coming by to pick up junk mail and mow the lawn so it doesn’t look abandoned.
You wonder, if you kept the ghost wolf, didn’t put it back—could you finally sell the house? You don’t know the ghost wolf rules.
Could you live with the ghost wolf? With the dreams? With all the iterations of you killing wolves piling up inside your head?
No. There’s only so much room up there.
As you grab the plant stake and pull it up out of the dirt, you notice the snake plant has finally shriveled its last shrivel. Given up the ghost, so to speak.
You don’t know how this is supposed to go, but you’ve watched enough movies to think maybe you need to point the stake in the same place as you killed the wolf and probably close your eyes. Which means you won’t see the wolf if/when it slinks back to place in front of, rather than inside, you. Which means you have to hope it isn’t angry that you killed it in the first place. Can you trust the thing you killed to not want to kill you back? At this point, do you even have a choice?
When you close your eyes, you feel the wispy slink of the ghost wolf inside you, stalking tight circles in your head. You do what you should have done all along: you speak to the wolf. You tell it it’s safe, you won’t harm it. You tell it that it can come out, it’s home.
The circling inside your head slows, then stops. You feel the wolf pad down your neck. The oddly pleasant chill slinks across your chest, then down into the arm holding the stake. As the coolness travels down toward your hand, you picture your escape route, primed to run as soon as the wolf leaves your body and enters the plant stake—but it doesn’t.
The chill remains in your hand, even as you coo to the wolf about how much better things will be when it leaves you. The hand would feel good against your forehead, you think, or pressed against your cheek, which is of course ridiculous considering how badly you wanted the wolf out of your head.
You stand, stick pointed down toward the shag, whispering please go.
The house finally sells. Your sister calls this a miracle, but you know better: the wolf still stalks circles inside you. When you’re awake, its coolness slinks from limb to limb. When you sleep, you try to stop yourself from killing it. Most nights you can’t help but plunge the stake immediately, a kill that kickstarts a cycle of kills all night.
But some nights you hesitate. Some nights you stay your arm and watch to see what the wolf will do. You’re not good at waiting, but when you do, you notice that the wolf merely stands, watching you.
You and your sister have split up the family photos, each of you working through decades’ worth of snapshots. Your box has ones from when you were little, before anyone grew up and moved out. When you were all still together.
Here’s a photo from a picnic at the lake, your mother laughing while you tuck a clover into her hair, one of your brothers blowing bubbles in the background.
Here’s a photo of the swipe taken out of your other brother’s tenth birthday cake—and you with a fingerful of icing.
Here’s a picture of you at Christmas the year you wore way too much eyeliner. Your mother didn’t criticize, though; she just let you grow out of it.
And here’s a photo of a perfectly browned Thanksgiving turkey. Your mother would boil the neck, and when it was done you’d practically scald your fingertips picking out scraps of meat while the rest of the bird was still in the oven.
You’ve always been bad at waiting…
…but in your dreams, when you wait, the wolf eventually sits. Sometimes, when you’re exceptionally still, it even lies down. But it never goes to sleep.
When you wait, you know that this wolf had to come with you. And you understand it wasn’t about selling the house, and you know you didn’t save your sister, who still has her own kind of wolf inside.
This wolf came with you because you have to learn to sit with it.
Because this wolf will always sit with you.
Author Bio: Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University. Previous publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She’s the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her at www.taracampbell.com or on Twitter: @TaraCampbellCom
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