The tall figure in the drab olive parka grimaced as another gust of freezing drizzle slapped into his face. Five hundred miles from the Scottish Highlands and the weather had followed him like an old friend. Ben gave the whistle he’d borrowed from the P.E. department a blast mildly surprised it still worked with all the water in it.
“You, Jaxon, isn’t it?” he scraped wet hair out of his eyes. “Play by the rules, or I’ll send you off.”
The youth who’d just thrown a punch at his opponent gave the teacher a surly look and went back to chasing the ball.
Ben felt a tug on his arm.
“Wait son. Not everyone can be on at the same time. You’ll get your turn.”
“No, sir. That’s not what I meant. Whose dog is that? Is it one of those fighting breeds?”
“What dog? Where?”
Ben peered through the rain. Sat at the edge of the sodden playing fields was a dog, a very big black dog, staring at the pitch and Ben got the feeling it wasn’t the ball it was interested in. He strode toward the mutt making flapping motions as he tried to imitate something large and dangerous.
The stray didn’t budge.
“Go on shoo. Get out of it.” For a moment Ben’s feet slowed. “I said shoo. Go find your owner.”
A growl began deep in the animal’s chest and Ben glanced back. The teams on the pitch had come to a halt. He supposed even footie paled in comparison to watching the new teacher get ripped to shreds.
“Right,” muttered Ben under his breath. “Think a wee jessie like you’se going to scare me? Where I come from, you’re nothing but a poodle.”
He was close enough by then to make a grab for the hound’s neck and he was just debating his next move when it made it for him.
“Agh, gerroff,” screamed Ben as what felt like a beartrap closed around his knee. “Help! Call the police!”
The dog was really getting stuck into its work now worrying at his leg like it was trying to snap it in half.
“Teacher, teacher, you Ok?”
The sound of stampeding feet reached Ben’s ears and with a last snarl the dog let go. As Ben finally toppled over, he saw his attacker’s eyes. They were the green of jade in an emperor’s tomb, and they did not belong in a dog like that’s face.
Sprawled on the sodden grass Ben gingerly peeled up his trousers.
‘You little . . ..’
Ben finished with a few choice words that weren’t intended for underage ears and was surprised to hear no answering giggles. For a rare moment, his group of inner-city hoodlums had been struck dumb. As his fingers traced the ragged edges of the wound the dog had left, Ben realized he was clutching something. He flung the broken collar to one side. There was going to be hell to pay when he caught up with the hound’s owner.
Something electronic was being tortured next to Ben’s ear. He groaned as the sound resolved into the rattle of his telephone and flung out an arm.
Memories of yesterday’s events began to crowd through Ben’s mind – the hospital, the concerned face of the principal telling him to go home and rest. He groaned louder, there’d been a policeman too, and last but not least, the bloody wound he’d hidden under a blanket when he’d collapsed on the couch.
“It’s me laddie, you Ok? You don’t sound very good.”
Ben snapped back to the present. It was Gran, ever the early riser she’d phoned to check up on his big move to live with the sassenach’s.
“Gran . . .? I’m fine.”
Ben blinked the last of the sleep away momentarily surprised. He really was fine; he even felt quite good as he realized a glorious day was beaming in through the flat’s windows.
“That’s a relief. How are you settling in? Been mugged yet?”
Ben grinned. As far as Gran was concerned anyone from the city was a dangerous criminal, or worse.
“Not yet Gran.”
“Well don’t you go doing anything stupid. You’re my favourite grandson.”
“I’m your only grandson.”
The sound of laughter echoed down the line.
“Ah, but I’d liked to have had more. Much more.”
When Ben had finished placating the woman who’d raised him from infancy, he replaced the phone. He’d carefully avoided telling her anything about the attack. The last thing he wanted was the old dear bouncing around her cottage pulling her hair out over tetanus and rabies.
Ben stared at the end of the couch and the lump where his leg was hidden under the blanket.
“One, two, three.”
He whipped it back half expecting to see a stump, but after all the fuss and bother the bandage looked embarrassingly small. There wasn’t even a hint of blood.
“Plenty yesterday though.”
Ben reached gingerly for the gauze. A stern looking nurse had told him to leave well alone, but Ben was an inveterate fiddler. He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the damage.
Ben stared at the spot where the dog had dug its teeth in in a neat row of nearly identical puncture marks.
“That was quick.”
Where there should have been scabs, or puss, or anything that showed evidence of how much it had hurt, there was just a row of silver scars. Carefully Ben put his foot on the floor and raised himself off the couch. He had a bit of a limp, but that was all. He hobbled to the window. Below him the city’s rooftops spread into the distance. The principal had said a week off, and there was a whole city to explore.
It was getting dark by the time Ben returned from browsing the record shops and second-hand stalls and the lights on the tower block’s walkways had just clicked on when he stepped inside.
“Lift’s out again bud,” said a Rasta with grey dreadlocks jammed underneath his woolly hat. “Third time this week.”
Ben finished stabbing at the lift’s buttons and looked around despairingly.
“Stairs are that way. Hope you haven’t got far to go.”
The man disappeared outside as Ben hobbled toward a fire door marked “stairs” pushing it open to find a nearly lightless shaft decorated in industrial grey paint. He waved his hand in front of the motion sensor and cursed when nothing happened.
Halfway up his wound finally decided it had had enough.
“Damnit,” Ben wiped his brow as he struggled past another landing. Maybe he should sit down for a moment? He hadn’t seen anyone during the whole climb although occasionally voices reached him from below. He’d just let his eyelids close as he tried to ignore the dull thud of pain when he was stepped on.
“Oh my God!” said a woman’s voice before Ben’s hand shot out and grabbed the figure about to continue her journey downwards at a much faster pace.
“Get off me. What the hell are you doing sitting there in the dark? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
“I’m really really sorry,” said Ben clambering to his feet. “I had an accident yesterday and I’m having a bit of trouble climbing these stairs.”
There was a pause and the sound of panicked breathing calmed.
“I nearly went down the lot, all at once.”
“I know, like I say I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“Trainers,” said the woman absently. “I’m going for a jog. You’re the new guy, aren’t you? The teacher that’s just moved in?”
“Do all people from Scotland like lurking around in unlit stairwells then?”
“Only the troglodytes like me.”
There was a small chuckle that quickly stopped.
“Well . . . no harm no foul, I suppose. Hope you get better quick.”
She was already moving off, but before Ben could stop himself his mouth had opened, and words were coming out.
“Let me make it up to you. Come round for a brew. I don’t know anyone yet in town.”
He still couldn’t see her face, but her back had stopped a few steps down.
“How do I know you’re not a weirdo? There’s plenty of them round here.”
“Ermmm, we could leave the front door open?”
There was another chuckle, longer this time.
“Ok new boy.”
“I’m in flat . . ..”
“Don’t worry. I already know.”
“Great,” Ben’s mouth flapped as he tried to think of something to say. “Give me a shout this evening?”
He felt his cheeks grow hot.
“Bye . . . wait. What’s your name?”
It had been a success Ben decided as he finished clearing away the last of the plates. Ok, they hadn’t fallen into bed, although that had been exactly what was on his mind when he’d opened the door and seen the woman standing outside. Eden was beautiful, from the tips of her fingers to her clear blue eyes. She was everything her name implied. She was also nobody’s fool, and it looked like she wanted to know what she was dealing with before she decided where she wanted it to go. Besides, decided Ben, it was nice just to know someone on the block.
He flicked out the kitchen light, drying his hands on his jeans as he crossed the front room and stopped. It was nearly midnight and the place should have been in darkness, but outside the moon sailed fat and silent and so huge it seemed to fill the window from side to side. Even the walls were painted silver. Ben felt a vein in his temple begin to throb. What was up with him? He could barely tear his eyes away from the sight.
He looked at his foot. It had begun to throb too.
A second later he was doubled over as pain seared up his back. A second after that and Ben began to scream.
Ben was starting to get used to waking up confused, but it soon became obvious something was badly amiss this time. He was lying curled up in the middle of the room, and there was no sign of his clothes. His eyes travelled round his devastated flat as he stood up trying to avoid broken glass. It looked like every stick of furniture had been smashed and there were gouges in the walls big enough to lose your finger in.
A knocking began to fill the air that quickly turned into pounding. Ben grabbed his dressing gown before his front door could fly off its hinges half expecting armed police to come bursting in.
“What was it then? A party?”
He squinted blearily at the short gray-haired man vibrating with rage in the hall.
“Kept me up half the night you did. Howling and moaning and carrying on. Who’d you think you are?”
“I . . . I . . .,” stammered Ben.
The man stuck his finger under Ben’s nose and leaned in.
“One more night like that and I’m coming down here mob handed.”
Before Ben could say anything else his neighbour was striding down the corridor leaving him to retreat into what had been the safety of his flat. It felt like returning to a war zone.
By the time Ben had managed to deal with the worst of the mess he needed to talk. He eyed the phone and sat on the one unshattered stick of furniture he still possessed.
“Ben, I was wondering if you’d call.”
“Do you fancy going for a drink? I could do with a friend right now.”
There was a pause and then Eden’s voice returned.
They’d walked into the city centre at dusk, or in Ben’s case limped, with him growing increasingly worried he was losing it. He’d never been a paranoid person but every time he looked over his shoulder, he got the feeling something had ducked out of sight, and beyond the street lights the shadows were full of movement.
“What’s wrong Ben? You seem jumpy.”
For a moment he was at a loss for words.
“You’ve lived round here a long time, haven’t you?”
“Since I was a kid, yeah.’
“So, you’d know if anything bad had happened locally?”
Ben had kept the TV on all day, but there’d been nothing he could find on the news.
Eden gave him a look.
“An attack? A mugging maybe?”
“Well, all sorts of things go down round here. It used to be much worse, but it’s still a rough neighbourhood. Not everything gets reported. What’s happened Ben? I like you, but I need to know. I don’t want to have to point out we’ve only just met . . . but . . . well . . . we’ve only just met. You know?”
She looked away and Ben felt a twinge of guilt. He’d no right to get her mixed up in whatever was happening to him, but he was far away from home in a strange city, and he had nowhere else to turn.
“The dog bite?”
“Yeah, I think it might be infected.”
“Then go to the hospital.”
“I’ve been. This . . . this . . . is something different.”
Now it was him having trouble looking Eden in the eye and for a moment he was distracted by movement on the street’s far side. A dog was sitting on the kerb watching him. Soon it was joined by another.
“We have to go.”
“But we’re nearly there. What’s wrong Ben?”
“I don’t know. Something’s up.”
For a moment Eden didn’t move, and then she shook her head and raised her eyes to heaven.
“Why is it always the loonies? Why?”
Ben might have laughed, but where there’d been two dogs now there were three.
“Come on I’ll tell you what I mean back at the flat.”
He talked a mile a minute on the return journey. Ben couldn’t help himself as the words poured out. He’d covered everything from politics to religion before even coming within sight of home. Anything to avoid the thought that was growing at the back of his mind. When they reached the underpass, he paused. The lights were out.
“What’s the matter Ben? Scared of the dark?”
Eden’s eyes flashed in the streetlights before they stuttered and died, a minute later and they were back.
“No,” he shuffled in the tunnel’s direction with a feeling like something had walked over his grave and glanced at the sky. But there were only clouds overhead, no moon, and the sight made him feel happier than he wanted to admit.
They were halfway down when the first silhouette appeared.
“Eden. . .”
“It’s just a stray. There’s loads of them round here these days.”
The dog growled and filled the air with frantic yapping.
“Don’t go near it,” Ben sounded like he was looking at an unexploded bomb. “It might have something nasty.”
But Eden was already bending down with her hand outstretched.
“Hush now,” said his neighbour. “Who’s a good boy?”
They were still waiting to see what Eden’s new friend would do when more dogs began to stream down the grass. Before long there were so many they’d blocked the footpath completely.
“I see them. Let’s go a different way.”
The pack began to run, but as Ben pushed Eden behind him the lead dog’s ears flattened.
There was a pop, and the underpass lights flickered on.
“What the hell’s it doing?” said Eden peering over his shoulder.
“It’s submitting,” answered Ben watching the dog lying on its back with its paws in the air. It was looking at him and whining. The others had stopped too, and at the pack’s edges the first were slipping into the night.
“That was because of you, wasn’t it? They were going to attack. You stopped them.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about.”
The next day Ben was looking at a squat concrete building on the edge of an industrial estate. A river curled round its side and across the black water stood the sort of forest whose trees looked like they’d be better suited for hangings than the tiresome business of growing and putting forth leaves. Ben checked the ID tag on the collar again as litter swirled past his feet.
Next to the title was a number and a barcode. If the dog had had a name, they hadn’t known it. Ben let himself through the security door as distant howling reached his ears. Inside cheerful pictures of puppies and smiling children were everywhere. There was even a poster made from multicoloured handprints intermixed with paws. Only the security glass in front of reception let you in on the lie. Ben supposed some dog owners must get pretty upset when they learned their pet’s fate.
“Hallo?” said Ben leaning toward the grill.
There was silence and then the sound of muffled barking grew louder for a moment. A woman with the pale skin of a Russian princess and jet-black hair framing a face with barely any wrinkles had appeared from the murky interior. She gave Ben the sort of predatory smile that made him think of crocodiles.
“Can I help you?”
“Well, yes. Is this one of yours?”
Ben deposited the torn collar in the security draw and watched her slide it over.
“That’s right hen, ah. That dog took a chunk out of me the other day. What’s it doing loose?”
The woman behind the glass had taken a step back to examine the evidence and when she looked up her eyes stayed in the shadows.
“I’m sorry you were troubled. That particular dog managed to escape. But it’s recently returned. I’m afraid she has a mind of her own.”
“Are you in charge here?”
“I run this place now, yes. My name’s Lykania Holyhead.”
“Well Miss Holyhead I want her put down. She’s dangerous.”
“Of course, it’s natural you should feel that way.”
The woman must have taken another step back, thought Ben although he hadn’t seen her do it, and for a moment he felt like he was talking to something in an aquarium. Only her face floated in the darkness lapping at the window’s far side.
“If you’d wait there a moment. I’d like you to identify the miscreant. We wouldn’t want to destroy the wrong animal, would we?”
Ben nodded and propped himself against the counter as he surveyed the room. Before long, a frown grew on his face. The tracks he could see must have been there weeks, and as he looked other things began to leap out at him. Why was the date on the calendar from the month before? Even the plants were in the last stages of their death throes. Ben took a step forward. The marks on the floor . . . he peered closer. At first, he’d taken them for mud but there was something else he knew of that dried to that colour. He followed them round a corner where they ended at an office marked: “Manager”.
The hairs on the back of Ben’s neck rose, and when he pushed the door wide, he knew why as the smell hit him like he’d been punched in the gut. A corpse was examining a spot on the ceiling from its position tied to a chair.
“No Ben. Not here.”
Slowly Ben turned around. Lykania Holyhead had appeared behind him and up close he could see what he hadn’t noticed before. It hadn’t been the feeble lighting that had meant he couldn’t see her eyes. They were black, not a shred of colour existed in those sockets. By her side was the dog from the sports fields.
“Who are you? I mean who are you really?” said Ben searching the room for a weapon and finding none.
“An agent of change. A catalyst for a return to the natural order. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it, Ben. What was it like for you when you saw the moon was full?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Denial’s not good for you. You should know that. How about I help you remember?”
The woman had brought the darkness with her and it began to leak through the doorway like mist with Lykania Holyhead following after. When her fingers brushed his it was like an explosion had gone off in his head and in its wake came images. Images Ben knew had been lurking at the bottom of his mind since that night at the flat, only now they’d been stirred up.
The first was of the moon, big, and fat, and somehow nearer than it had ever been before. The next was a confused welter of views from the high rise, stairs, and concrete, badly lit corridors, and doors that only yielded to his paws when he jumped up. Ben frowned . . . paws? But then he was outside and the homeless tramp clutching his bottle of cheap rot gut in a shop doorway took any conscious thought away. Ben knew what he’d been trying so hard to forget then: blood, so much blood he thought he could swim in it and never be clean again.
A lightbulb popped showering him with glass and Ben was back in the room with Lykania Holyhead’s eyes an inch from his own.
“I’ve got a friend who wants to talk to you.”
She clamped a phone to his ear and although Ben’s mind was screaming, he knew the wolves he could hear were real.
It was his grandma and Ben thought of the lochs beneath the louring Scottish hills, how dark it got up there in winter, and how the pine forests looked like they could swallow you alive.
Howling surged in the background.
“I haven’t got long sweetheart. This time I’m not coming back. My job’s done. You’re a grown man now. You don’t need me.”
“Gran . . ..”
“Hush bairn. You should listen to her.” Ben watched his face swim in Lykania’s black marble stare. “She wants what you want. What we want. Listen to your heart Ben. You were always happiest running free.”
Then the rest of the memories burst through Ben’s head like a tsunami, and he could see it all. The moon riding high amongst the clouds as he and the pack called to it and down below the huddled yellow light of towns glimmering in the night.
“You’re . . . you’re not my real Gran, are you?”
“No lad. But you are my blood.”
For a moment, the howling grew louder and the wet snap of bones breaking reached his ears. Then the phone went dead.
“Well Ben?” said Lykania Holyhead and as more of the bulbs fused the air rippled like the surface of a pond and he was left looking at not one woman, but three, with a beautiful green eyed brunette crouched panting at their feet.
It was a week before Eden went looking for her neighbour. Not that she hadn’t been worried. Her days at work had been spent with her only half in the room and when Friday had finally drawn to a close, she’d nearly run out the door. Eden stared at the dog pound. There was a sign tacked over its entrance.
“Closed for necessary repairs.”
“Must be pretty serious with you loose,” said Eden taking in the dogs watching from their spots amongst the parked cars and empty warehouses. It felt like they were waiting for something, and Eden had a feeling she knew what as she pushed the door open half wishing it didn’t swing back so easily through the dust.
Eden’s lip curled with distaste. The place smelt foul. Dog food and excrement were all mixed together in the stale air, and the spot behind reception was empty. She headed for a corridor where the light was marginally brighter, and a draught stirred the dead leaves of a plant.
Soon Eden found herself in a large room lit by grimy skylights that shone on rows of cages. As the animals inside caught sight of her, baying erupted from every direction and they began to thrash against their prisons – one was by far the loudest. Metal sang as it slammed against the wire mesh.
“A temporary measure, trust me,” said a woman’s voice from the shadows of a doorway. “I want to make sure when I release them there’ll be no going back.”
The barking was so loud it was making Eden’s headache, but the stranger didn’t sound even slightly bothered.
“Where is he? I know he came here.”
Eden threw the note Ben had slid under her door in the woman’s face. After the incident in the underpass, he’d left her on her doorstep with hardly a word. The next morning she’d noticed the message.
“You’re looking at him Eden. Looking at him in all his glory.”
The huge dog . . . Eden stared. The beast slamming against the cage was no dog, she’d seen enough nature programs to know the difference between a wolf and man’s best friend. Eden’s eyes narrowed, but somewhere deep inside an unfamiliar voice was starting up.
“What are you saying?”
“He warned you, Eden, or he tried to, at least.”
“Ben? BENNNNN? Where are you?”
Eden’s attention was on the building’s depths, and with the dogs going wild, at first, she missed what was happening to the woman. But when she looked again, determined to get the real truth out of her, she was having some sort of fit. Her head was between her knees with her arms twisted up behind her spine like someone was trying to hang her from a meat hook and as she jerked and thrashed Eden heard the pop of dislocating joints and tearing gristle. At last, she tumbled out of sight still caught in the seizure’s throws and Eden stared at the space she’d left behind with her ears full of howls and barking. The wolf was watching her. It scraped one paw against the cage’s lock and whined softly in the back of its throat.
From somewhere far above Eden watched herself slide the cage’s deadbolt back before a roar that silenced every animal in the room split the air.
Slowly, Eden turned to the spot where she’d last seen the woman. A shadow was unfolding on the wall back there, an impossible inky stain stretching jaws so wide they looked like they could swallow worlds. She was still watching it when the wolf flew past at shoulder height. As it disappeared from view Eden snapped into movement and her fingers tore at its companions latches until the floor was awash with snarling canine backs. Not one of them headed toward the sound of the battle painting the smooth enamel tiles with contorted snarling demons.
Eden risked one more glance as the noise of a woman’s agony filled the room. The wolf had something by the throat that snapped and slid between forms like oil. Then she was running, and it was only when she was outside that she dared look behind.
The sweet fresh air she gulped down helped but it still didn’t stop the sight of the pound beginning to collapse like an origami trick seen in reverse. It was still shedding dogs as its walls came down and when she eventually saw the hulking shape of the wolf appear amongst the collapsing brick, she took a half step forward.
Eden felt ridiculous although she knew she shouldn’t after what she’d seen, and the animal had fought to protect her, hadn’t it?
As the last masonry sucked into the void that had opened like a hole punched through the night the wolf’s eyes travelled over her. But although she could see the traces of blood round its mouth Eden felt no fear. When it turned to watch the shapes swimming in the river before disappearing among the gnarled trees, Eden felt a shudder run through her. What was climbing the bank on the other side were its twins, ragged, and starved, but wolves nonetheless. Eden turned to her protector, but he’d gone. A moment later a splash reached her ears as another black shadow followed the pack.
Eden raised her middle finger at the taxi that had just sent a wall of water sluicing over her legs and ducked into a short cut. It was night-time and winter had turned the city into an assault course of snow and freezing ice that matched her mood ever since the night on the industrial estate. She’d picked up a local newspaper the next day to find the words “Gas Explosion Levels City Pound – Dogs Freed” plastered across the front page and when the cops had inevitably appeared at her door, she’d kept her mouth firmly shut.
“Must think I’m stupid,” muttered Eden as a rent in the clouds revealed a fleeting glimpse of the moon riding full in the sky. She hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
The shape waiting for her at the alley’s end far end stayed invisible until far too late.
“What do you want?” said Eden as she finally caught sight of the huge dog with startling green eyes. “If you’re looking for him, I’d imagine you have a much better idea of where he’s gone than me.”
The dog got up, stretched, and yawned, for all the world like it had been taking a nap in the sun not on a freezing British street. As Eden watched the creature pad toward her, she knew there was nowhere to go. She couldn’t run fast enough to escape what it intended and as it opened its jaws wide, she realized she didn’t care.
“You win, take me to him then.”
Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled ‘Closest’.