THE ZODIAC PACK
Preview Episode: "Pack Hunters"
The hitchhiker wore a long sleeve tee with dirty sleeves and the star-spangled shield of a comic book character partially obscured by an unbuttoned and open Hawaiian shirt, once red with brilliant orange lotus designs, but was now a faded and tattered thing. His jeans were in need of a good wash while his red canvas shoes were in need of replacement.
The hitchhiker’s name was Max Tanaka. A former resident of San Francisco whose heavy laden backpack carried necessities needed for his survival: a selection of his favorite graphic novels, a tablet with WiFi connectivity, a handheld gaming system, and a bag of cheese puffs. Of course, there were also three changes of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a charger for the smartphone he carried in the pocket of his denim shorts.
Not the typical hitchhiker; Max was not homeless, destitute, or in dire straits. No. Max was desperate; desperate to escape his fate. Eager to avoid accepting the monotony his life was destined to become.
Max and his father had reached an agreement of sorts. Mr. Tanaka would sponsor his son’s roadside sojourn across the country, giving his son two hundred dollars every week indefinitely; but should Max ask for more money or get in trouble, his hitchhiking days would end and Max would return to San Francisco and enroll in business school like his three older siblings.
Having no interest in the family business—or any business for that matter—Max wanted something different with his life. His problem was that while he knew he wanted something different, but could not say what that was yet.
So, Max spent his days walking. A lot of walking. A lot of time for self-reflection. When his legs began to wear out, Max would exercise his thumb, looking for a free ride. He had met a lot of interesting people this way. Many Max would not care to meet again.
One such person was Buffalo; a heavyset trucker who let Max hitch a three hour ride before dropping him off at Thelma’s Diner in West Virginia. Along the way, Buffalo seemed a little too interested in having Max share his truck cab a little longer. The road can be a lonely place, and Max was not that lonely.
Shaking off his experiences with the trucker looking for love in all the wrong places, Max settled into a corner booth of Thelma’s Diner. A humble roadside café with the red cushioned bar stools and the slices of pie on display on the countertop. Just the type of place Max enjoyed finding a hot meal and getting information on the area.
When Max first arrived, there was the waitress and the cook in the back to keep him company. As the hitchhiker transformed his plate of dinnertime waffles to crumbs, a family of five took a booth across the diner and four nature-loving twenty-something women in hemp and tie-dye took up space at the bar.
A few glances from the mini-van trekking dad was all the interaction Max had with the family, but the girls were another matter. As Max checked his favorite social networking site on his smartphone, he’d catch whispers of the girls mentioning that he was kind of cute. There was also the time he caught one staring at him before she erupted into shy giggling when he replied with a kind smile.
Thinking that there could be some potential for an interesting life experience to be had here, Max finished his soft drink and checked his hair in the reflection of the window. As he made his way to join the four at the counter, Max had to admit he was not thinking with his brain.
There was the giggly brunette, the short-haired blonde, the long-haired blonde, and the redhead with a flower in her hair. Seeing as he had the most interaction with the brunette, Max sidled up onto the stool beside her. He gave pause to mentally prepare himself as she turned to her friends to quickly whisper out a plan in a sudden huddle. When she turned back to face Max, he gave her the same smile he had before, but followed it with a single word.
She suppressed a giggle and gave a slight smile with a firm nod. “Hey,” she replied.
“I dig your ride,” Max said, motioning his head to the old flat-faced van in the parking lot that obviously belonged to their sort.
“It gets us where we need to go,” replied the short-haired blonde. Her smile was welcoming, urging Max to continue his conversation.
“Yeah? Which way you headin’?” Max asked.
The brunette bit her lower lip, looking Max up and down. After she weighed her thoughts, she responded with “We’re heading for trouble. Wanna come?”
Max caught a glimpse of the two parents across the diner, shaking their head and shooting judgmental stares toward the hitchhiker and the hippies. With some regard for the children, Max leaned in close and whispered his reply.
Not long after, Max and the brunette were lip-locked in the back of the van as the redhead and the long haired blonde cheered them on. Normally, this was not the sort of thing Max did often, but this is was the reason for his journey, new experiences and self-discovery… or at least that’s how he justified his actions in the moment.
About the time that Max was wiggling out of his Hawaiian shirt, the van was pulling over. Max took a moment to pull himself away from Harmony’s lips and catch his breath. He raised an eyebrow to see that Strawberry, Freedom, and Meridian were all in the back of the van. More curiously, all four young women were in varying stages of disrobing.
“Whoa,” said Max, both startled and excited by what was happening. “What’s happening?”
“You said you wanted trouble,” said Freedom, the long haired blonde.
That seemed to be a command to attack as Harmony caught Max by one wrist while Meridian took the other and Meridian pounced on Max’s legs. The strength and speed of each woman was uncanny, catching Max off-guard and pinning him to the floor of the van. He struggled but to no avail. Their might was such that he felt he would doubt his ability to overpower eve one of them. The notion of freeing himself from three remarkably strong women seemed impossible.
"What are you doing?!" Max cried out, first to Harmony. When her response was a sinister smile, Max turned to Freedom. He found her straddling his waist. He thought to defuse this with a joke and a smile, as Max was prone to do. "No offense, girls… but this really isn't my kind of thing," he managed to get out before trailing off in a nervous laugh.
Freedom joined in the laughter, as did the others, as she leaned in close to Max's face. "Relax, Max… We're going to let you go soon enough. We just wanted to get your scent first," she said before she took a deep whiff of Max, starting at his belt and moving up to his chin.
Max fell silent as the three others took long drags of his odor through their nostrils at various locales of his body. He began to wonder if this was some new kink he hadn't heard of while on the road, but was too afraid to ask. He lay still until they concluded and was surprised to see them in turn releasing him from their grip.
"You're free," said Freedom, motioning him to the door of the van.
Max stared back at the women as they returned to the removal of their clothing. Not one to usually turn his back on naked women, Max felt oddly unlike himself as he made a break for the door.
As his feet hit the moist dirt, crackling leaves underfoot with each step, Max did not look back as he jogged deeper into the woods that surrounded the van. Thoughts flickered through his head. Was he making the right decision? Is this something he would later regret? What was he thinking? Which way to the road? He did not know the answer to any of these questions.
Uncertain which way to continue, Max kept his pace. Though his hormones told him to go back to the van, his brain told him to get as far away as possible.
As it turns out, fifty yards was as far as he thought he could get without his backpack. "Shit!" Max exclaimed when he realized he had left his backpack with the weird quartet in the van. He weighed his options for a moment. As much as he wanted to leave the pack, Max knew he would not be able to bring himself to do it.
With a long sigh, he turned about and began his return to the van. Rounding a bush, Max saw the door of the van was still wide open as Max had left it. "Great," said Max, wondering what weird antic he might spy the female foursome up to now.
His creepy thoughts turned sour when the van began to rock and a series of shrieks in four different voices filled the night. Terror filled Max, weighing his feet down until they were too heavy to lift to in any direction. Instead, he stood there, his eyes catching a glimpse of Freedom writhing in the back of the van.
Then she was gone, seemingly dragged back into the van, out of sight. Max took one step forward and then a loud howl split the night. The moment was all too brief, but it was all Max needed to forget about his backpack and lift his feet as a massive white wolf leapt from the back of the van snapping its jaws.
Somewhere a wolf howled at the moon, but Max could not say from which direction as he leapt onto a log and kicked off with both legs to give him clearance to mount a mossy boulder which allowed him to scamper up a steep embankment without slowing down to climb it.
Back home, Max was a parkour artist and an urban explorer. He knew how to navigate obstacles with minimal impact to his momentum. If there was one thing Max was good at, it was running away.
Another howl caught Max's ear, forcing him to glance to his right. In his mad dash, his eyes could be deceiving, but between the trees and the shrubbery, Max swore he saw the shadowy form of a wolf flitting from tree to tree, keeping perfect pace with Max.
Putting the pursuing canine from his mind, Max turned his attention back to his getaway. He was barely able to evade a low hanging branch before he kicked off two separate trees to turn him around in mid-air and perch atop the same branch he had just missed.
Now poised to look behind him, Max saw nothing following him. Still, not one to take chances, Max leapt higher into the tree. He grabbed and pulled, also kicking and swinging until he managed to ascend to a height he felt safe from almost any form of wildlife.
As his heart began to cease pounding in his chest, Max began to breathe again. The full moon above him did little to calm his nerves, but at least it gave him a fair amount of lighting in the unfamiliar forest.
Seconds quickly became minutes. Max would not move. His eyes scanned the forest and though he could see no signs of whatever wolves were howling in the distance, he dared not to move. "Sunrise," he told himself over and over again, "Just wait for sunrise, Max."
Then a howl tore through the silence of the night, causing Max to turn frantically to find its source, forgetting his surroundings for that one instant proved to be an error. The sudden movement jarred the branch he was standing on, causing it to snap under his foot. A second later, Max regained his senses just in time to feel the sting of earth's kiss.
Another howl filled the night, drowning out Max's cries of pain as he lay on the ground, agony seething through his shoulder. His arm was numb and every attempt to move it caused his shoulder to cry out.
Wincing and gritting his teeth, Max quickly scanned the dark forest surrounding him. Heavy breaths were in the night air. He could see the warm breath misting in the cold air before he saw the things breathing. A large rust colored wolf stepped out from behind a tree, another with chocolate fur leapt through foliage with a snarl, and two with a snowy coat came dashing out into the open from the shadows.
Max crawled backward until a tree prevented him from escaping. Pressed against the bark, Max closed his eyes and wished for this to all be a dream. When he looked again, a white wolf's maw snapped inches from his face.
The dire scream Max let out was masked by ear-shattering thunder. Max's face suddenly felt warm as the wolf dropped to its side, twitching spastically among the fallen leaves and mud.
The rusty wolf whined and took off immediately while the brown beast dashed about in circles, sniffing the air, and scanning the area.
It was the second white wolf who rushed to the side of its packmate and whimpered. Only when the wolf pressed its nose into the wound of the fallen beast did Max realize it was blood that was warming his face.
Another clap of thunder sounded somewhere in the distance followed by a canine's whine. The still breathing white wolf lifted its head and looked back at the brown wolf. Both were unharmed but seemed to reach the conclusion at the same time as Max, the rust colored wolf had been shot.
Now recognizing the thunder for what it truly was, Max climbed to his feet and made a dash into the woods. "Help! Help!" he shouted, upsetting the wolves behind him who immediately gave chase.
In the distance, Max saw a two-legged figure moving toward him, waving.
"Please! Help me!" Max shouted, knowing the wolves would be on him in seconds. "Help me!" he shouted back, waving both his arms frantically.
It was then that Max was close enough to hear the figure shouting back at him. "Get down! You're in the way!"
Max dropped to his feet just in time as the white wolf, mid-pounce, soared over him and into the stranger's sights. The loud boom caused Max's hands to clasp his ears just as the dead wolf collapsed to the ground in front of him. The eyes of the wolf looked familiar to Max. They were surprisingly human in their appearance.
The wolf snapped its jaws back at Max amidst its death roll but seemed to be crippled from its wound.
Not taking chances, the gunman stepped from the shadows, pressed their boot on the beast's neck and put a bullet into the wolf's skull.
Max jumped back as more droplets of wolf blood sprayed his already gore-soaked person. He was staggering to his feet with the use of one arm, when a helping hand lifted him to his feet.
The stranger was a tall white man with dark brown hair, a stubbly beard on his chin, and deep brown eyes. Dressed in a long brown duster and armed with a revolver, the man looked as though he had stepped off the screen of a western, even down to his well-worn cowboy hat and authentic boots.
"Did you see where it went?"
Max raised his eyebrows, speechless. "I… I…"
Useless, Max was pushed aside as the cowboy quickly scanned the area with his revolver at the ready. When he secured the area, he turned his attention back to Max. "How many were in the van?"
"How many… How many what?" asked Max.
"Wolves!" the cowboy barked.
"No wolves…" said Max, shaking his head, "I came with four girls… no wolves."
Pressing a finger to his ear, the cowboy stepped away from Max and mumbled something using the words "one more", "van", and "survivor."
When the cowboy returned to Max, he looked the hitchhiker over for a moment before asking "Were you bit? Did the wolves bite you? Are you wounded?"
"No," Max said. "Just a jacked up arm… and some scratches."
"From the branches and the bushes," said Max. "The wolves didn't touch me… thanks to you."
Satisfied, the hero in the wide-brimmed hat holstered his weapon. "You got off lucky then, friend."
Max took a deep breath and gave the man a nod. "The name's Max."
"Why did you come up here, Max?" asked the cowboy. "You don't seem to be dressed for a hiker."
"I'm a hitchhiker," said Max, still trying to catch his breath. "Some girls picked me up and… they pulled in here so we could…" Max abandoned the sentence and realized he was not the only one at risk in the woods. "The girls! We need to check on them. The wolves could get~"
"Tell me," said the cowboy, not the least bit concerned about what Max was saying, "is that one of those girls?" he asked, turning Max around to where they had left the wolf carcass.
Instead, Max could not find the carcass. In its place was the naked and bloodied body of Meridian.
"Oh," said Max as the blood drained from his face. The last thing he remembered was his body falling limply to the forest floor.