The Strength of the Pack
Part I: The Best Laid Schemes
He felt his hands slipping from the drainpipe but there was nothing he could do to prevent himself from falling. Bushes enveloped him as he fell, going over on his ankle and sprawling face down on the lawn. Laughter came from above. Connor looked up to see Jennifer half hidden behind the curtains, hand clamped to her mouth, eyes screwed up as she tried to stop herself laughing. God, but she was beautiful. Her auburn hair fell like a flame about her bare shoulders, skin so soft in the lamp light behind her. He could just make out the diamond ring on her slender finger and he smiled knowing that tomorrow he would be sliding a thin golden band onto that finger in its stead. That knowledge had kept him smiling for so long now he was surprised his cheeks didn’t ache. He rolled over, pulled some leaves from his hair, and laughed aloud.
“Shh!” Jennifer said from above, “or my parents will hear.”
Her parents. That had been the only snag really. Not that Jim and Wendy were not nice people. They were nice, but they were devoutly Christian and therefore very reserved. Even now, on the eve of the wedding of their daughter, he was not allowed to spend the night with her in their home. Hence the drainpipe and the fall. Jenny, she preferred Jenny to Jennifer, was not devoutly Christian, Connor was pleased to say, and she had insisted he stay till midnight. She wanted him gone by then because it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding. ‘Not that I believe in luck,’ she had insisted, ‘but I do want to do this properly.’ He didn’t mind. After tomorrow they’d be no more sneaking about, no more climbing drainpipes, and no more twisted ankles: just Jenny and him and three weeks in the Caribbean sun as newlyweds.
“Are you okay?” Jenny said, peering over the balcony to whisper down to him. She hadn’t bothered to dress, merely wrapped the white linen bed sheet around herself. He could feel the warmth of her skin on his as if she were still touching him. He drank in the sight of her and tried to commit it to memory.
“I’m more than okay,” he whispered back. She smiled; her eyes seemed to glow in the moonlight. “I’m in love.”
“Do I know her?” she joked, smile never fading an inch.
“Yes, you’d like her.”
“Is it serious?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m going to marry her tomorrow and I can’t wait.”
She tilted her head to one side and eyed him thoughtfully.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too.”
She looked over her shoulder, turning suddenly, and he watched her intently. She looked like she was listening for something. He imagined kissing her exposed neck, running his fingers through her hair. She turned back and gave him a smile.
“You beeter go. See you tomorrow. Don’t be late!”
She wagged an admonitory finger at him. As a teacher, she was very good at that.
“I won’t, Miss.”
“Tomorrow that will be ‘Mrs’. I love you. Goodnight!”
“Love you too. Sleep well.”
He picked himself up off the floor and brushed the dirt from his front, wincing as his weight pressed on his twisted ankle. Moving as quietly as he could he crossed the small lawn and climbed the garden gate to avoid waking the house with its squeaky hinges. He paused, hand on the gate, to look back at his bride-to-be. She stood, framed in the window, waving to him. He blew her a kiss, which she returned, and then, reluctantly, he pulled his eyes away from her and hobbled off towards the train station.
A bright moon hung in the sky surrounded by a cluster of stars. It was a nice, clear sky, which boded well for the weather tomorrow. The moon would not be full until then, not truly, according to the little round circle in his diary next to which he had written the words ‘marry Jenny’. His ankle throbbed as he walked the little country lane that lead to the station and he wondered if he had done more than twisted it. The pain was not going away as a twist did, and he had the horrible mental image of hobbling down the aisle with his new bride.
The station house was closed for the night, but the lights on the outside of the building still blazed in the darkness. He went through the gate to the side of building, and stepped out onto the platform. A small TV held on a rusted bracket on the side of the station building displayed that the next train at this platform would be at 06:52 and the nest train at platform 2, his train, would be arriving in twenty minutes. He crossed the tracks using the footbridge, and emerged once more into the cool breeze. There were no screens on platform 2, and the light here was minimal. An orange streetlight flickered on and off and a small overhead light lit the information board consisting of a faded poster announcing the café’s latest offer on muffins. Connor hobbled over to a bench and sat, taking the weight of his ankle. Rolling his trouser leg up and his sock down, he examined the injury. It was swollen quite badly. Damn! He would have to try to find a compression bandage before the ceremony. ‘Still, what was the Best Man for?’ he mused as he covered the injury.
The breeze rustled the bushes behind the broken chain-link fence behind him and ruffled his hair. A few streets away a solitary dog barked, masking the far off strains of badly sung karaoke. Connor looked down the track, wishing away the time that would see the headlights of his train appearing out of night. He pulled out his mobile and typed ‘I love you’ into a message to Jenny, added a mountain of kisses, and clicked send. As the message started on its way, he glanced down the track again. There was something moving there in the darkness, just a vague shape to Connor’s eyes. A fox? A cat? He could not make it out, but it was snuffling at the ground, graduallycoming closer. Risking the pain in his ankle out of curiosity, he got up and walked to the edge of the platform to get a better look.
It was too big to be a cat, and more heavily built than a fox. A stray dog then? It seemed to be snuffling happily to itself between the tracks. Connor checked his phone. There was no reply from Jenny, but his signal was low. The train would be here soon. The snuffling stopped and Connor looked back towards the dog. It sat on its haunches, fur wild about its long ears and snout. It was watching him. A chill went up his spine. Just a dog. It gave a low growl and started running towards him, taking massive strides, and then it bounded into the air, front paws connecting with his chest, sending him sprawling to the ground. It growled again, slobber hanging from exposed teeth, and advanced upon him. Its eyes were two flames in the darkness.
Connor kicked out at its snout, catching it on the tip of the nose. It drew back with a whimper, but then came on again, grabbing his outstretched leg in its jaws. Pain shot through his injured ankle as teeth pierced his flesh. He kicked it in the side of the head with his other leg and it relinquished its grasp. Connor shuffled backwards, feeling the dampness of the blood soaking into his trouser leg. The dog leapt forward, paws beating against Connor’s chest, claws ripping his shirt and drawing blood. Its breath was hot on his face, foul-smelling. He beat at it with his arms, kicked with his legs, but it was like hitting steel. It growled as its teeth came towards his throat.
Suddenly there was a rush of air and a low rumble. Light swept the platform, spilling from train windows, followed by the soft pips that indicated the opening of doors. The dog reared backwards and turned, bounding away from the train. Connor, shocked, watched it go, breathing heavily. There was a beep as the train doors began to close; Connor forced himself up and leapt aboard. The doors closed behind him with a mechanical click and the train’s engine changed from dull idling to the low rumble as the train began to move. Collapsed against the train door, Connor thought he could see two glowing eyes watching him from the bushes. The dog? The wolf? The train left the platform behind taking Connor, sweating and bleeding, speeding into the night.