Wolfgang and wolves vanish as quickly as they manifested into thin air when Joe shoots out of the tunnel and trips over a rock, falling to the floor in comical fashion.
Cheryl can’t help but laugh as Joe gets up–fear riddled on his face–and witnesses Cheryl bent over. Joe looks around the cave then looks at the underwater cavern and the two tunnels ahead. Cheryl’s laughter subsides then stops completely as the seriousness of the situation starts to reassert itself in her mind. She takes a final breath, signifying the end of happy hour, and walks over to Joe.
“So, Ricky didn’t make it, huh?” She asks.
“Didn’t make it?” Joe laughs derisively, “try ‘got his ass ate to pieces by a pack of Timberwolves!’”
Cheryl is taken aback at first then realizes she must stay strong and says, “What happened to Ricky, Joe?”
“I just told you!” Joe says, “He got ripped to fucking pieces!”
His voice echoes violently throughout the cave as he ruffles his hair in frustration saying Oh God over and over then switching to fuck! Cheryl’s never seen Joe this unraveled before and has no idea how to respond so she just watches him go through it.
After a good two minutes, Joe cools off and returns to his normal self. Cheryl stands a couple feet from him with a concerned look on her face and her hands cupping her elbows. Joe breathes heavily with wide and rabid eyes when Cheryl walks over and places a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Joe,” Cheryl says with the softest voice, “what happened to Ricky?”
Joe turns his head slowly and the look in his eyes says it all.
Cheryl releases Joe and backs away slowly, shaking her head imperceptibly; his eyes are bloodshot, and his pupils have dilated to a point far surpassing fear, his irises becoming hazel rings. Joe’s once smooth, rich, chocolate brown skin is the color of tree bark in the winter as all the life seemed to be drained from it. He produces a thick smoke with each breath and has entered a state like Cheryl’s when she found out Mike had died. She looks at him with worry, bewilderment, and fear.
“Joe?” she asks hesitantly.
He says nothing, looking into a plane of existence unbeknownst to her.
She takes a nervous step forward and Joe doesn’t move a molecule, let alone a muscle. She raises her hand to reach for him, his eyes still dilated and his irises hazel rings, and cups his face gently. It’s cold to the touch, deathly cold. She runs her hands along his face and down to his neck–by the jugular–and checks for a pulse. It’s faint but it’s there. A wave of relief washes over her and she takes Joe’s hand and pulls him toward the boulder, walking him like an emotionally defeated child. She sits him on a boulder and takes her place beside him and begin contemplating what to do next, or, at least, how to bring Joe back to reality.
In Joe’s mind, Ricky’s death plays on an endless loop. The look in his steel blue eyes as the life faded and disappeared into the ether is one Joe will never forget. The way the wolves piled on him and ripped and tore his flesh like slabs of meat, the blood that gushed out of him like a water sprout, surely surpassing the four pints all humans supposedly have; the way his intestines and testicles were strung out like a slinky and consumed like pasta, making Joe throw up to the point of fainting, the only thing keeping him conscious being adrenaline and the force of self-preservation. Last, and maybe worst of all, was the way Ricky’s throat had been chomped and ripped out, like a savage taking a large bite out of a steak or a kid biting into ice cream instead of licking it. Joe’s legs developed a will of their own at that point and he was running through the tunnel like that time when a group of kids chased him through the schoolyard when he was nine, planning to take him to the toilet and give him a swirly. The memory was the furthest thing from his mind but that’s how he felt, like a scared and helpless little boy chased through the schoolyard, kids in wolf’s clothing raring to take a nice, juicy chomp out of his ass and feast on his humiliation.
Cheryl punches Joe in the face and he falls off the boulder, his head going into the cavern. She holds her hand in pain then tries to shake it out to no avail. Despite Joe’s babyface, his jaw is like a cinder block, hard and hollow. Joe’s head stays submerged for a minute when his hands come to life and he pushes himself out, shivering and gobbling up air. Joe gets to one knee and takes deep, quick breaths–his shoulders rising and falling in rhythm–then stands up. He looks back and sees Cheryl, her right hand trembling behind her back.
“What happened?” Joe asks.
Your jaw, Cheryl thinks but says, “that’s what I want to ask you.”
Joe looks around and realizes it’s just the two of them when a flashback of what happened with him and Ricky enters his mind. He looks at the tunnel, then Cheryl, then at the tunnel again, his awareness of the situation coming back with a visceral and unforgiving vengeance.
Cheryl walks up to him and half-cups his face with her trembling right hand, “Stay with me, Joe.” His eyes meet hers, “What happened to Ricky?” Sadness consumes him and he averts his eyes, Cheryl grabs his face with her other hand and centers it, forcing him to look at her, “No, you look at me, Joe.” They hold eye contact, “What. Happened. To. Ricky?”
Joe lets out a sigh of resignation and tells her everything.
Cheryl punches Joe in the face with the same hand and almost breaks it; Joe hits the ground and doesn’t bother to hold his jaw, knowing he deserves it. She shakes her hand out and clenches and unclenches it to relieve the pain to no avail; besides, that pain pales in comparison to what Cheryl just heard Joe say to her. She looks at him with a contempt that’d make Satan close hell for a week and take a vacation. Joe stays on the ground with his elbows rested on his knees and his head down in shame and neither of them speak for a long time. It’s a good thing Cheryl doesn’t have super strength because if she did. . . God help Joe.
“You think I wanted this to happen?” Joe asks, at last, his head still down, “You think I wanted Ricky to die like that?”
Cheryl says nothing.
“You think you feel outraged,” Joe says, “imagined how I felt when Ricky proposed it.”
Cheryl looks up and at Joe with a raised eyebrow, anger still her dominant expression.
“Yeah,” Joe says, “we knew one of us was next, so when we got to the intersection, we had to make a choice. Both of us were ready to die to save the other, but Ricky had a point in saying he could hold them off longer than I could, that if it were me against the wolves, they’d tear through me in three seconds then neither of us would get away.”
Cheryl simply looks at him, listening.
“I wanted to go back and save him. I swear to God, I did.” he continues, “I looked back when I got to the entrance and the life was already draining from his eyes, the wolves tore through him like he was a lost pig. That’s when I realized it made no difference who made the sacrifice. The wolves turned in my direction with Ricky’s blood on their noses and fur, looking at me with cold and unforgiving snow-white eyes.
“Then that guy,” Joe swallows, “that guy with the beard and long hair, receded at the top, appeared and looked at me the same way. He pointed to the tunnel then pointed to the wolves, basically saying I only had two options. One was in front of me, and the second was still hungry for more blood, so I ran.”
The atmosphere resembled that of a thick fog, the tension in the air rigid and suffocating to the point Joe starts sweating. Cheryl’s face goes from anger and contempt to expressionless, a sort of calm before a massive storm bent on demolishing an entire city faster than the blink of an eye. She looks upon Joe with the omnipotent gaze of a God passing judgment, debating whether to accept his explanation or drown him in the cavern for his cowardice.
She gets up and walks toward one of the tunnels and stands in front of it. Joe looks up and sees her there, her back turned and arms folded across her chest like a general preparing for the final battle. She doesn’t look back, just stands there and waits with patience that transcends all the anger, grief, and sorrow inside her. This calmness radiates throughout the cave, the underwater cavern is still, the air takes on humidity, and the silence isn’t so deafening anymore. The only one shaken to the core is Joe, he’s seen Cheryl in this state. That calm before shit goes to hell, that calm before she bites someone’s head off, that calm that instills a primal fear in the hearts of those who cause her pain, a silent vow that she’ll get you back if it’s the last thing she does on earth. And that calm scares Joe almost as much as seeing Ricky die.
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