Copper Sun Rising
By M. Fritz Wunderli
The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. Everything was distorted by the thick glass, like looking through the bottom of a Coke bottle. She had to stand on the top of a wood crate, making herself taller by rising up on the tips of her toes. Her breath fogged up the pane. Little brown eyes gazed eagerly through the window as the blurred penny-colored sun set beneath the jagged molars of a distant cordillera. She loved watching it lazily sink like a slowly deflating balloon. From above, the haze blanketing the valley turned copper from the setting sun.
“Cora? I’ve told you not to come up here.”
The old man’s voice startled the girl, which caused her to lose her balance. The crate tipped sideways, and she toppled to the ground. Her elbow scraped against the grainy floorboards, and she sucked in through her teeth. The old man hurried over to her, squatting down and helping the girl sit upright. He surveyed the scrape, wiping the little droplets of blood with his thumb.
“Are you okay?”
The old man stood up and set Cora on her feet. He was tall, at least from her vantage, with snowy white hair that never laid flat and leathery, bronzed skin. Although his hands were calloused, he always gently held her or delicately tickled her back to help her fall asleep at night. An aroma of creosote and oak always followed him, stained into his clothes and the tips of his fingers. He wore a ratty white tank top over his thin, lanky frame, and a pair of boxer shorts.
“What are you doing?”
Cora shrugged her shoulders. “I wanted to watch the sun.”
The old man’s eyes darted to the window, where he noticed the top of the sun about to sink below the horizon. “I see. Well, next time, ask me and we’ll watch the sunset together.”
Cora’s face lit up. “Really?”
Marge pulled on her knee-high galoshes and donned a respirator mask before stepping outside. The valley was swathed in a thick gray haze hovering just a few feet from the ground. It didn’t matter if it was day or night, the world was always shrouded in darkness. Light couldn’t penetrate the fog. Nothing taller than twelve inches grew in the valley, and even then, only hardy grasses and tough shrubs could survive the harsh conditions. The ground was hard, save for the small clusters of mud pots and little geysers spewing scalding hot water and sulfuric odors into the air. A thin outline of the mountain range surrounding the valley was barely visible through the smog. Silhouettes of dozens of rows of thin poles planted in the ground spread out in a meadow the size of a football field.
A hundred feet from her small cabin was a crude greenhouse, made with recycled plastic sheets and PVC pipes. The bottoms of the plastic sheets were buried six inches deep in the ground, forming a sealed environment inside. Marge quickly stepped into the makeshift structure and shut the door before too much haze could follow her in. Once inside, she removed the mask. Several rows of a variety of plants filled the greenhouse. Cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, herbs and spices, carrots, and onions. She grabbed a small tankard of water rigged to a pump and sprayer, then began walking between the rows and spritzing the plants.
She knelt beside a stalk of a tomato plant and looked at the few tomatoes growing from the branches, still too green to pluck. Outside, a howl echoed over the valley, followed by several loud barks. Marge froze, the hair on the back of her neck sticking upright. A prickling sensation coursed up her arms. A few seconds went by of complete silence. And then the barking resumed, this time closer than before. Without hesitating, she bolted towards the door, scooping up her mask and pulling it over her face before rushing to the cabin. Just inside the door she kept a loaded twelve-gauge shotgun. She gave it a pump and scanned the area, keeping the barrel pointed forward.
The barking resounded again, but this time it sounded further away to her left. She heaved a sigh and lowered the shotgun. There wasn’t any way to see where they were or how many were out there in the dense smog. She had to rely entirely on what she could hear. The barking continued, even further now. She went to set the shotgun down again but suddenly paused. A terrifying thought shot into her head like a bolt of lightning. Her entire body stiffened as she imagined what was about to happen. Snatching a ring of keys from the hook on the wall near the door, she ran to the old pickup truck parked near the greenhouse.
The first few turns of the key failed to rev the dusty engine to life. She cussed loudly before trying desperately to get the rust bucket to turn over. Finally, the motor blasted to life, shooting out a dark brume of smoke from the tail pipe. Shifting into gear, Marge sped away from her cabin, trying to drive as fast as possible through the haze. She could only see ten feet ahead of her, and the road she was driving on took several winding curves. The truck hummed and rumbled, the rusty suspension groaning after every pothole and bump. She rolled the window down to see if she could hear anymore barking. She was so focused on listening over the roar of the truck, she took a turn too quickly, and the truck swerved off the road.
Hyrum reclined in his chair, still in his white tank top and boxer shorts, feet wearing a pair of ugly brown socks with holes in the heels. A thick, hand-rolled cigar lay over a crystal ashtray on the side table next to him, thin gray trail of smoke wafting into the air. He scratched his grizzled chin while staring absentmindedly at the wall. Cora was sound asleep upstairs. For the third night in a row, she’d gone to bed without dinner. She wouldn’t complain, but Hyrum knew she was hungry. There wasn’t much food. Winter was coming and most of the animals would be sheltering further into the mountains, which made it harder to hunt. Especially for Hyrum in his old age. The thought of hiking deep into the mountains made his knee ache. But if they were going to survive the cold season, he’d have to figure out a way to eat.
Nighttime brought with it a deep chill. It left behind frost in the corners of the windows. He thought about starting a fire in the hearth but decided to save the wood for when it starts snowing. Instead, he got to his feet and shuffled over to a wicker basket where a few blankets were stuffed. He grabbed one and climbed the stairs, gritting his teeth against the pain in his knees and leaning heavily on the banister. He gently pushed open the door to Cora’s room, peeking inside. She was rolled up in her blanket, no longer on the pillow, which had been pushed to the floor. Strands of brown hair had fallen over her face.
Hyrum carefully laid the blanket over the girl, softly tucking in the sides to keep her warm. As he straightened up, he heard a sound in the distance. A piercing howl broke the silence of the night. A shudder ran down Hyrum’s body. With shaking breath, he turned and walked out of the room, closing the door tight behind him. The howl was still some distance away, but he knew it was only a matter of time before they were on his doorstep. His old body could only move so fast as he hurried to his bedroom. Most of what he owned could be kept in a chest at the foot of his bed. He slipped on a pair of rugged jeans and threw on a button-up plaid shirt. He laced up a pair of thick work boots then hobbled back downstairs, where he grabbed a belt with a holster strapped to it.
With a young child in the house, Hyrum never kept his gun where she could get it. The .45 revolver was stashed on the top of some cabinets in the kitchen. He checked the cylinder to make sure it was loaded. All six shots were ready. Just to be safe, he grabbed a half-empty box of ammo from a drawer, along with a hunting knife, which he hooked to his belt opposite the holster. Then he went to fireplace, where he hung his Winchester Model 70. It was his hunting rifle. A bolt-action, 25-inch barrel, mounted with a scope. It could only hold four rounds at a time, but Hyrum would make each one count.
The cabin was built on the shoulder of one of the smaller mountains, with a 270-degree view. It conveniently sat above the haze. Regardless, Hyrum always wore his respirator before going outside. He slipped on the mask and stepped out onto his wrap-around porch. The barking and howling were closer now. There was only one trail up the shoulder, an old and unused logging road, but there was no guarantee they’d approach using the road. It was possible to climb the slope, although it was slower, and you’d have to fight against the tangles of vegetation growing on the mountain. There weren’t many places to hide. Once the haze stopped, all cover disappeared, giving Hyrum perfect view of intruders.
He paced the porch, keeping a watchful eye on the hillside. The night fell quiet once again. He could hear the blood pumping in his ears, the thunderous hammering of his heart inside his chest. And then he saw it. The first glow of golden eyes staring up at the cabin. Hungry, leering eyes. And they weren’t alone. More pairs of eyes glowed in the dark. Hyrum watched as the pack grew in number, larger than any other pack he’d ever seen before. There were at least two dozen pairs of eyes staring up at him, gleaming like gold coins.
Hyrum breathed out slowly and lifted the rifle to his shoulder. He didn’t have enough ammo, but sure as hell was going to take as many of those devil dogs with him.
Cora heard the first gunshot and sat upright. The shot echoed off the side of the mountain, magnifying the sound. It was still dark outside. Papa wouldn’t be hunting this late at night. She slid off her bed and put on her slippers. Another gunshot. Each shot made her flinch. She ambled down the stairs and into the sitting room. Papa’s rifle was no longer hanging over the fireplace. The windows were boarded up, but she could peek through the gap between the planks to see Papa running back and forth on the porch, stopping just long enough to get a shot off or load the gun with more ammunition.
She couldn’t see what he was firing at. In between the loud gunshots, she could hear guttural growls, high-pitched whimpers, and aggressive barks. Immediately she understood what was happening. The wolves were on the mountain. She’d never seen a wolf before. Their howls sent chills through her body and she shivered. Papa was scrambling to reload the rifle, fumbling with the brass rounds. His arthritic fingers were stiff and wouldn’t move like they used to. He slid the bolt and cocked one of the rounds into the barrel. His eye looked down the scope and once his target was in the crosshairs, he squeezed the trigger. The kick of the gun caused him to take a step backwards. He was getting tired. Sweat was pouring down the sides of his face.
Papa fired two more shots, pulled the bolt to load the next round but it came up empty. He desperately searched his pockets for more ammo but came up empty. He threw the rifle to the ground and drew his revolver. Cora could sense the wolves were getting nearer. Papa was now leaning over the rail to fire at the intruders. He fired off a rapid succession of three or four bullets, pulled back and popped the cylinder out, inserted more rounds, and then kept shooting. He was so immersed in firing at the wolves down below, he hadn’t checked his backside.
Cora saw only a shadow at first moving along the porch. The massive creature was prowling slowly, approaching the old man from behind. Its fur was midnight black, paws as big as Cora’s head. None of the stories Cora had heard about the wolves prepared her for the sight of the beast. It stole the breath right out from her lungs. The creature was snarling, flashing sharp and pointed teeth, drool pooling as it hungrily stalked its prey.
The head turned the corner, yellow eyes fixated on Papa, who was too focused on firing at the other wolves to notice the threat from behind. Cora was trembling, trying to build enough courage to do something. The creature was nearly as tall as Papa, its claws digging easily into the wood. It stopped, crouched low as it prepared to lunge.
“PAPA!” Cora shouted before the wolf could pounce. Her yell caught the old man’s attention, and he spun around. His eyes widened as he saw the wolf ten feet from him. But the wolf was also surprised by the sudden shout, and it looked for the source before turning back to Papa.
The old man pointed the revolver and pulled the trigger. Instead of a gunshot, the gun simply clicked. The cylinder was empty. There was no time to reload. The wolf lunged forward with its powerful hind legs, flying through the air with paws outstretched and claws ready to dig into its meal. It collided with the old man and they fell to the floor. The massive creature seemed to swallow Papa whole, its body settling on top. Cora screamed again, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her tiny fists pounded against the window.
At first, the wolf was still. And then, it started to move awkwardly, the body rocking and heaving until it slumped to the side. Papa sat upright, rubbing the back of his head. He clambered wearily to his feet and yanked the knife out from the wolf’s jaw, where Papa had thrust it deep up into the brain. He quickly regained composure, grabbing the revolver and hurrying inside, slamming the door shut and locking it.
He leaned against the door for a moment, trying to catch his breath. There were more out there. Cora could now hear them walking along the porch. Papa grabbed a chair from the kitchen table and stuffed it under the handle of the door, barricading it. He limped over to Cora, grabbed her hand and tugged her up the stairs. He knelt down in front of her and held both of her hands in his own. They felt so small compared to his. She always loved tracing the lines in his palms with her finger as she sat in his lap while he read her a story.
“I need you to stay in your room. You hear me? Go into your bedroom, shut the door, and lock it. Do not come out no matter what you hear.”
Cora nodded and did as she was told. She took one last look at Papa before shutting the door.
Marge cussed wildly as she hit the gas, the truck’s wheels spinning madly in the mud. It was no use. There was no way she was going to reach Hyrum in time. The crazy old man could hold his own for a while, but Marge had a bad feeling. She reversed the truck, and then put it gear. She floored the pedal and the truck lurched forward, hitting the small berm before its front wheels popped over and back onto the road. Now that the front wheels had traction, the truck managed to peel away from the mud pot and orient itself back onto the dirt road.
It took too long to get the truck unstuck. Several minutes had passed. Even so, Marge didn’t want to risk slipping off the road again, and so drove a little slower this time. She saw the shoulder of the mountain rise up to her left. The old logging road would be on the opposite side. The road curled around the base of the shoulder, with the right suddenly dropping off into a ravine. If she ran off the road at that point, there’d be no getting out.
The entrance to the logging road appeared on her left, which she almost missed because of the fog. She veered onto it, revving the engine and spurring her old truck up the hill. The logging road was unkept, with large stones and frost heaves. A few times the truck hit a large stump and it nearly threw Marge off the side of the mountain. She suddenly emerged from the fog, the night sky appearing as if a blindfold was pulled from her eyes.
As the logging road curled up towards the top, Marge saw the wreckage of the battle. She counted at least seventeen dead wolves. She’d never seen a pack this big before. The cabin was perched at the top, its porch supported by stilts as it jutted out from the main frame. All of the windows had been boarded up, save for one circular pane at the very top just beneath the V of the roof, looking westward. There was no sign of Hyrum or Cora anywhere. Her truck came to a stuttering halt behind the cabin. Everything was quiet.
Hyrum waited for the wolves. He took a moment to breathe. The stairway provided the perfect place to bottleneck the wolves and prevented them from getting behind the old man. He could hear them assaulting the door, splintering the wood with their powerful legs. It wouldn’t hold much longer, and he didn’t know how many more there were. He placed the box of ammo on the ground next to him. Only eight more bullets. He could use a cigar right about now.
The door broke open, its hinges ripping out from the wall. The wolves were inside. He could hear them sniffing and searching first the kitchen and then the sitting room. And then the first one appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Hyrum fired, the bullet hitting the wolf between the eyes. It dropped. He waited for the next. These wolves were feral, more than any other Hyrum had fought. Many times, after a few of the pack had dropped off, the rest would scatter. But this time, they were persistent, and just kept coming.
Two appeared at the foot of the stairs. He fired, dropping one, and then aimed at the second. It had nearly leapt the entire staircase before Hyrum managed to hit it. It slumped and rolled down the stairs. Still more appeared, and Hyrum unloaded the gun on them, then turned to fire at the next. But he was too slow. His age caught up with him. He was too tired. Too sore. His body became sluggish. The shot went wide as the wolf pounced on him. Immediately, the beast sunk its teeth into Hyrum’s shoulder, and he cried out. Agony swept through his body, and for a moment, he started to lose consciousness. The wolf ripped and tore at his right arm, shredding the flesh and muscle like a dog tearing through a stuffed animal.
Hyrum reached for his knife. It was getting hard to focus, even harder to control his body. He was drenched in blood. The wolf released him for a second to readjust its bite. Hyrum withdrew the knife as the wolf came back down, aiming for his neck. The knife plunged deep into the wolf’s chest, but not before its jaws had clamped around Hyrum’s neck. It whimpered for a moment before dropping over. Slick blood pumped out from Hyrum’s throat. He tried to staunch the flow with his one good hand, but it was useless. In less than a minute he’d bleed out and die. He waited the next wolf to finish him off quickly.
But it never came. His eyes blurrily glanced down the stairs. There were no other wolves waiting at the bottom. A wave of relief swept over him, and he rested his head back on the floor. Cora was safe. That’s all that mattered. Marge would care for the girl. She’d be safe.
But just before Hyrum fainted, he heard a low rumble from downstairs.
Cora listened as Papa fired rounds from the top of the stairs. He continued to fire multiple rounds, pausing only to reload. Cora wondered when it would end. She had crawled into her bed and curled up in her blankets, hands pressed over her ears to drown out the sounds. She squeezed her eyes shut. A few minutes passed, and then she heard nothing. Everything went silent. No more gunshots. No more howling or barking or growling. She cautiously approached the door and pressed her ear to it. Something was out there, but she couldn’t tell what. It sounded like someone rifling through clothes, panting heavily.
For a moment, Cora thought about getting back into bed. Papa would come and get her when it was all over. But if Papa was hurt, she’d need to help him. She couldn’t hear anymore wolves. So, she unlocked the door and poked her head out into the hallway. At the top of the stairs she noticed the biggest animal she’d ever seen. It was larger than a bear, silver fur with a ridge of hair standing upright as it stood over a figure lying on the floor. It had to be the alpha. Cora looked closer at what it was standing over. She gasped, then covered her mouth hoping the wolf didn’t hear her. But it was too late.
The wolf’s cold and black eyes snapped around and saw her standing at the door. She quickly slammed the door closed, locked it, and then hid behind her bed. The wolf’s claws punctured through the wood and tore long streaks through it. Nothing would stop it from getting in. Cora clambered under the bed and stayed as still as possible, listening to the wolf tearing through the door like it was cardboard. The snapping and breaking of the wood resounded in Cora’s ears. She could smell it, the awful decay hanging on its breath.
And then a shot rang out. Louder than any other gunshot Cora had heard. It blasted like a cannon and made Cora jump. At first, she thought it was the final thrust against the door from the wolf as it made its way into her room, but then it blasted again. Everything went quiet in the aftermath. Cora wasn’t about to make the same mistake and stayed under the bed. But then she saw something unexpected. A pair of boots stepped in through the wrecked door.
The little girl wiggled her way out from under the bed and found herself face to face with Marge. She didn’t know what to do at first. The woman’s appearance felt bizarre, unreal, but after a moment of blank staring, Cora flung herself into Marge’s arms and began sobbing uncontrollably. Marge held her tightly, trying to console her.
Marge packed up what little possessions Cora had into the truck and then headed back inside. The carcasses of wolves still littered the hillside and the staircase. She picked her way through the wreckage and up the stairs. Cora wasn’t in her bedroom. Marge moved on to Hyrum’s room, where she found the girl standing on her tiptoes, balancing on a wooden crate while peering out the circular window. A copper-colored sun was setting, casting the top layer of haze in a bronze glow. Sitting in the windowsill was a small porcelain jar. When the sun vanished beneath the distant mountain range, Cora hopped off the crate, leaving the jar in the window.
“Ready?” Marge asked.
Cora nodded without saying anything and shut the door behind her as she left.
About the Creator
M. Fritz Wunderli
I love storytelling and the transformative process it brings for both readers and writers. I hope my stories have that same effect.
Check out my Instagram page- @vunderwrites.
Well damn… that is a great story for this challenge. Good luck!