Chapter 3 from JASPER LILLA and the WOLVES of BANNER ELK

8P9iCh4KOGhr591IL7zD0cJOU4J4i5rLI6puk8RNPG8Having similar school troubles brought Riley and I together, and being able to talk to each other about anything kept us together, but the thing that made us best friends was when I lost my big brother, Linus. Riley had lost her mom to leukemia when she was eight. I lost my dad before I was born, so I knew about only having one parent, but I never knew him so it didn’t really feel the same as Riley losing her mom or me losing Linus.

Linus was ten years older than me. He died two years ago when Riley and I were freshmen. He was flying a rescue mission in Afghanistan when his helicopter malfunctioned and crashed. His helicopter was sidelined for maintenance, but a distress call came in and he took it out anyway.

Riley was with me the Monday after Linus’s funeral. Mom, Aunt Maggie, and Carol were gone, so we had the house to ourselves. I sat on my bed while she looked at a picture of Linus in his uniform. When she rubbed my back and told me it was okay to cry, the floodgates opened up. When I was done I confessed that since Linus died I was too afraid to go into his room.

“I’m not superstitious,” she announced as she marched down the hall to Linus’s room, opened the door, and let herself in.

I followed her.

“After my mother died I went into her jewelry box and got her mother’s cross necklace. It was my mother’s favorite necklace, and I knew my Aunt Brenda was going to want it.” She reached inside her blouse and held the small gold cross up for me to see. “So I claimed it,” she bragged.

I knew right away what I wanted to claim for myself: a wolf’s-tooth necklace that had belonged to my father. Linus kept it in his desk in a small leather pouch.

“I don’t have to worry about someone taking what I want,” I told her.

She elbowed me on the chest. “But you’re going to want to claim it anyway. That will make it completely yours.”

“Let me see,” she said as I took the pouch from his desk.

I couldn’t help feeling strange as I took the necklace out. My hand shook as I held it out for her to look at. It was much larger than I remembered. One end was wrapped with a very thin leather cord that also served as the strap.

“It’s so cool,” she said as she took it from my hand. She held it open for me to dip my head through.

Our faces were closer than they had ever been. I forgot what else was happening. I could smell her strawberry lip gloss. I noticed that her eyes, which had always reminded of big brown puppy eyes, had flecks of green in them. Her attention was so focused on the necklace, though, that she didn’t catch me staring at her.

Once she had the necklace in place, she put both her hands on my chest and pushed me back upright. It was a different kind of strange I felt as she smoothed out my shirt with her palms and then leaned up against me while she fixed my collar. It took everything I had to keep from putting my arms around her.

As she tucked the wolf’s tooth under my shirt she said, “Now, don’t you take that off until you get comfortable wearing it.”

I’m glad Riley talked me into claiming it, but she was wrong. That didn’t make it mine. Making it mine would require something more. I decided to duplicate a ritual Linus had told me about when he was initiated into the Varsity Club, an exclusive service club. Linus was asked to join when he was a sophomore. The initiation ritual was a harmless gesture that was not supposed to be dangerous at all. It had to do with the Lion Pharmaceuticals building, although it wasn’t Lion Pharmaceuticals at the time.

Lion Pharmaceuticals is located a couple of miles outside of Boone, North Carolina, on the site of what was once the estate of Harley Makrus. When Harley died, the mansion was donated to the county as a meeting hall for weddings, banquets, and the Watauga High School prom. In the middle of the circular driveway in front of the mansion was a circular flowerbed, and in the middle of that was a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David. The initiation ritual was to sneak in, place a tuxedo T-shirt on the David statue, and get a selfie with the David in the background. The ritual had to be done just after dusk, but before security began to patrol at ten o’clock. The only thing that changed since Lion Pharmaceuticals bought the estate was that they used Dobermans for security, but that wasn’t supposed to be until ten, so I had plenty of time to earn the wolf’s-tooth necklace.

After dinner that night I rode my bike out to Lion Pharmaceuticals, climbed the oak tree, and waited until the traffic out of the parking lot stopped. The ritual had gone like clockwork right up to the point when I was looking at the selfie I had taken. It was a good picture of me, but unfortunately I completely blocked the tuxedoed David from view. It was as I tried for a second pic that I heard the sound of the Dobermans. The noise startled me, and I dropped my phone. As I bent over to pick it up I caught a glimpse of the Dobermans. They weren’t supposed to be there, but there they were and they were moving my way in a hurry. Forgetting the phone, I began to run. What I should have done was run into the building, but I didn’t think of that. What I did think of was that I’d never outrun them back to that old oak tree.

On the left side of the building the terrain dropped steeply down into a rocky forest, and that’s where I headed. I was going to find a tree to climb. It was a good plan, but it almost got me killed.

I just barely reached a tree I could climb before the Dobermans caught up to me. For half an hour I stood there watching five snarling Doberman pinchers jump and snap their teeth at me.

When all that fervor tired them out, they formed a semicircle around and settled for just staring at me. Their shift allowed me to shift as well. Confident that they couldn’t reach me, I lowered myself to a sitting position.

Sitting there surrounded by five really ticked-off Doberman Pinchers, I had nothing but time to think. Sooner or later someone would come to see what the dogs were barking at and I could go home. At least that was what I kept telling myself.

I’ve heard about people being so scared they couldn’t feel it anymore, but I never understood it until that point. Aunt Maggie called it terror. “When an animal is being pursued by a predator and it can no longer escape, it freezes. That’s what terror is,” she explained. I had asked her what the expression “like a deer in the headlights” meant. “The creator made them that way so they would not suffer.”

As I sat on that ledge I knew I was afraid, but I couldn’t actually feel it. What I felt was numb. Then this thought hit me: Numb isn’t the absence of feeling; it’s a feeling all by itself. I was feeling a large dose of it right then. I found myself wondering if the numbness would keep me from suffering if I fell out of that tree. That thought was followed by a surge of fear that the numbness quickly swallowed up again. I promised myself that, if I survived this ordeal, I’d tell the world what I had discovered about numbness being a feeling.

It felt good right then to think about what I’d do in the future. It felt good right then to think I’d have a future. In the glimmer of satisfaction about my insights, I tried to reposition myself, which made my right leg swing out just low enough for one of the Dobermans to get a hold of my shoe. He tore it off easily and began shaking it back and forth violently.

Instinctively I scrambled back up to a standing position.

Tearing apart my shoe gave them renewed energy, and the barking and jumping started all over again. I hid my face behind my hands as if looking was what made it real. I remember pleading with them to “just stop” and “go away,” and then their barking took on a different tone. It was higher pitched and more feverish.

It didn’t make any sense to me, but their barking sounded more fearful than ferocious. My curiosity got me to open my eyes, and sure enough, they looked afraid. When I was their focus their bark was different. They paced back and forth a step or two and only crouched to jump at me. Now as they barked they stayed in a constant crouch. It was as if they were preparing a counterattack.

They weren’t looking at me anymore but at something behind me. In an attempt to see what it was, I leaned forward just a bit and lost my balance. What I remember next is the briefest of moments when the branch beneath me was gone, but I was not yet falling. The moment lasted only long enough for me to notice, and then I dropped.

I didn’t bounce when I hit the ground. I crumbled. I crumbled into a ball, with my face buried in my left arm. I was a goner. I knew it. There is no possible way I was going to survive whatever would happen next. I remember thinking, I’ll never see my mother again.

I didn’t look but could hear the dogs getting closer. I felt the hot breath of one of them on the back of my neck. I was about to find out if terror really reduced suffering. I pleaded again, “Please stop.”

The next sound I heard was a yelp. It sounded farther away than I had expected. When I peeked from behind my arm, all five dogs had retreated to a spot about ten yards away. They were huddled together and still barking, but the bark was void of the menacing quality from before. I stood up. I was still trapped where I was, but there was some distance between them and me, so I chanced a glance to see what they were staring at. I’m still not really sure I saw what I saw.

It was wolves. They were staring at the Dobermans. The wolves weren’t looking at me, but I still recognized the intensity in their eyes.

I was so relieved that the Dobermans had backed off that it didn’t dawn on me that the wolves might be even more dangerous. It didn’t seem like the wolves even noticed me. They were, in effect, protecting me, but that seemed unlikely, so I reasoned it must be that they had a taste for dog.

The wolves were as still as statues starring at the Dobermans. There was no growling, no gnashing of teeth. The largest wolf, an all-white one, held center position. I watched them in awe but nearly jumped out of my skin when suddenly the white one turned its head and looked directly into my eyes. One wolf then jumped over me, then two and three at a time jumped over me. I was holding my breath as they were springing over my body.

What was left of the dogs’ bravado disappeared as they turned and sprinted back toward the mansion. I lost sight of them, but I lay there listening to the sound of the chase for a while longer. Then I noticed that I was still holding that tooth.

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