The Strength of the Pack: Part 4
The Strength of the Pack
Part IV: Fear Itself
Connor’s eyes snapped open. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs as he emerged hazily from sleep; the icy ground beneath his side meant that he must have slept outside again. Snow fell, pure white, from the sky settling in his hair and biting like midges at his bare skin. He rolled onto his back, felt the shock of snow crushing under his back. The dizziness started to leave him, though his head ached. His mouth was dry, more than it had ever felt, as if it were coated on the inside with a foul tasting film. He scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth to try to clear the worst of it and felt something frozen there flake away. Panic seized him, rising as he saw the red stain on the back of his hand. Blood. That was the filmy sensation in his mouth; the foul taste of metal. Blood, and lots of it.
In one movement, he sat up and rolled into a crouch, snow forcing its way between his toes. It was still dark, though the glow of dawn rose above the houses in front of him, behind a shiplap fence with flaking pain and a garden that had begun to grow wild. He knew that fence and the garden – remembered long hours in the heart of summer painting and mowing. He had laid the slabs of the patio on which he had been sleeping. Blood.
He turned, spinning and rising, and moved towards the house. The back door stood open, conservatory curtains billowing through the patio door, whipped by a breeze that stung Connor’s face, making his cracked lips ache. The small conservatory was more or less as Connor remembered it; the odd knick knack was out of place and photos of Jenny and him were face down or gone entirely. A lamp lay broken on the floor, its thin stand snapped in the middle, and there were scratch marks in the mock wooden flooring.
It was a shout this time, but there was no more response than before. He pushed the door ahead open, hurrying into the kitchen, ignoring the bang of the door onto the counter that reverberated around the room. The wind grew in strength; colder, stinging his eyes, trying to drive him backwards. He forced himself forwards and into the long hallway. The front door was half torn from its hinges and large scratches in what remained of it made his heart pound against his ribcage. The pulse thudded in his ears. It felt as if someone had poured rancid oil into his stomach and he struggled to keep from throwing up as he bolted up the stairs.
Doors into rooms stood open and he gave them no more than a cursory glance, shouting Jenny’s name as he moved along the landing. One door was closed and he made for it as if he had already been this way. There were no marks on the door, but he turned the handle and opened it with a sense of dread. A chill wind joined that from downstairs coming from the open window and rushing through the door. The noise of it filled the room. Jenny lay on the bed, completely silent. Her slender fingers gripped the white bed sheets, her hands balled into fists, fingernails through the fabric as if she had clawed at it. Her hair fell over her face, the flame coloured ends stained red, lying in the blood that had poured from the wound in her neck. Blood had poured down her body, running like a torrent down towards her navel. Her eyes were open; lifeless, and yet accusing. He took her pale body in his arms and wept as the wind howled around them.
Connor’s eyes snapped open. He let out a breath in shock, pushing all the air from his lungs, and forcing him to suck in cold air in, burning his throat. He looked around: a carpet of snow lay on the narrow alleyway, covering discarded boxes, seeping into the cardboard and old newspapers. The alley stank of rotting food and the damp. Not blood, though. Relief surged through him, but he could not forget the image of Jenny, throat torn away, soaked in her own blood. It was just a dream. He lay back down and tried to recapture sleep – his limbs felt like lead. Jenny was safe. She was with her parents for the rest of the holidays and he had not followed her there. There were too many people there who might recognise him, too many reminders of what he could no longer have. Not whilst the beast was with him, anyway.
“I am the wolf and the wolf is me.”
This was the closest he came to the truth of it. He usually tried to keep the two separate, thought only of it as the beast inside, but he knew that they were one and the same. How else could he see so well in dimmest moonlight, smell things as if they were pictures in his head, or hear whispers as if they were shouts?
“I am the wolf and the wolf is me.”
He examined his watch, hearing the faint hum as he pressed the button to make the dial luminous. It was a little past seven at night; since the wolf he had been sleeping through the day more and more. It didn’t matter really. It was easier to pass unnoticed at night. Adjusting the Velcro strap of the watch, which he had stolen from a sleeping teenager on a railway platform, he looked up at the sky. It was no longer snowing but clouds hung in the sky, obscuring the stars and the moon. It was not full. He could feel the shape of it at night, feel the power of it. There was a week or more before it was full.
Kicking away the sodden cardboard, he stood, digging in his pockets to find money and food. He had little of either. There was some stale shortbread given to him more than a week ago by an elderly lady who had wished him a better new year as he sat slumped outside the gym. There was always the possibility of obtaining new clothes from people careless of their possessions at the gym after a change night and they tended to be heated throughout the night, which was welcome when he wanted to feel human again. Cold kept the wolf at bay, but warmth gave him the strength to keep fighting.
He let the jangling coppers that made up his wealth slip through his fingers and back into the pocket. One crumpled note was amongst them, enough perhaps to buy a few supplies for the rest of the week, but not for much longer than that. He did not like stealing – only doing so when it was unavoidable – but being hungry allowed the beast an edge when the full moon came. Begging was slightly more honest, but not as reliable as a source of income and it brought him closer to the attention of the police. Had Jenny put ought a Missing Persons bulletin or given him up for dead?
The shortbread only made his mouth dry, making him remember his dream, and he shoved it into his pocket again. Stooping, he scooped a handful of snow from the ground and used it to rinse his mouth. It was not as effective as he had hoped and the cold water caused his nerves to scream in pain, but it did help. He wandered down the alleyway aiming to find a shop and get something more substantial. He crossed the road and passed down by the school, which he normally would have avoided, except the children were away for the holiday and even the teachers preferred to spend the end of the year with their families rather than at their desks.
He soon found an open shop, strip bulbs throwing a stark white light onto the pavement, causing the settled snow to glow in an ugly fashion. Connor moved inside and examined the sandwiches; supposedly fresh that day, but looking sorry for themselves and more than a little unappetising in their plastic wrappings. He looked up to see the shopkeeper watching him in a mirror hung on the wall. He gave the man a placating smile; he knew he must look rough. Moving over to the shelves, he selected a few cans of cheap beans. They were good for sleeping rough since they kept free from damp if the cans were unopened.
“Hello, I’d like two pints of semi-skimmed milk, please.”
Connor looked up on hearing the voice. A young girl, maybe nine or ten at the most, stood in front of the counter. She wore a large coat with a fur trim around the hood and mittens on strings dangled from her sleeves. Her cheeks were pink with the cold and her ears were tinged red.
“Where’s your mum today?” the shopkeeper asked her with a smile. Clearly she was a regular customer.
“She’s not feeling well and we need milk.”
The shopkeeper nodded and moved to the fridge to get the milk for her. Connor took his beans and some water and waited behind the girl, the shopkeeper eyeing him warily. The girl gave him a polite smile.
“You don’t look well either,” she said, looking at his clothes and his bloodshot eyes, “you should go home and rest. Plenty of fluids; that’s what my mummy says.”
“Libby,” the shopkeeper said, shaking his head to accompany the warning.
“It’s alright,” Connor said, his voice a hollow croak. He was trying to reassure them both at the same time, but wasn’t sure he succeeded in either. The girl did not seem to mind, taking the milk from the shopkeeper and paying him with money from her mother’s purse. She thanked him politely and then made to leave.
At the door she turned back and looked at Connor once again.
“I hope you feel better,” she said, “and happy new year.”
“Happy new year,” he replied, and she was gone, heading down the street, tucking her mother’s purse away as she did so.
Connor paid for the beans and the water, the shopkeeper eyeing him with disdain as he thrust the crumpled note and a load of coppers into the man’s outstretched hand. Pockets laden with supplies, Connor left the shop, wandering back towards the school, wondering if he could break into the boiler rooms there and sleep away the rest of the holiday. He could not stay watching Jenny – he had to do something about this condition of his. Fumbling in his coat pocket, he dug out the penknife so that he could use it to open the beans, working away with the sub-par tool and wandering without much regard to his destination.
He found himself in an alley he didn’t recognise, the tin still stubbornly refusing to allow him access, and he considered stabbing into the top of it with the blade, when he heard a small scream. It was muffled by buildings, almost on the edge of even his hearing, but he knew the direction of it instantly. Pocketing the beans, he broke into a cautious run, rounding the corner of an old Victorian building now converted into flats. At the end of an alley, two men were holding something up against the wall, obscured by their backs. He stepped cautiously forward. One of them moved and Connor froze until he saw a mitten dangling from a sleeve between the man’s legs. Anger flooded into Connor’s veins.
The men turned from the wall, one of them pulling Libby into a headlock, both of them squinting into the dark alley. He had forgotten that his vision was much better than most people’s. Libby seemed not to be moving; scared stiff by what was happening to her. Connor walked forwards quickly, but trying to appear unhurried. The blade of the penknife was open in his hand; a meagre weapon and of no real use, but perhaps it might scare them away.
“Stop,” he repeated, close enough now that they could see him. His blood felt like fire inside of him, bursting to get out. It crept through his veins and his head throbbed dangerously.
“He’s got a blade,” said the one holding Libby.
“That’s not a blade. This is a blade,” his companion said, smiling.
Reaching into his own coat pocket, the man produced a long chef’s knife with a matte black handle. The blade was notched towards the tip, but Connor could see that it was keen along most of its length.
“Walk away,” said the man holding Libby, “walk away and pretend you never saw a thing.”
Connor stood resolute. His legs were shaking, but he tried to conceal it by planting them shoulder width apart. It was not fear, but anger. It was giving him courage, but he still eyed the blade warily. He took a step closer to the man with the knife.
“No. Let her go.”
The man with the knife whipped the blade across, catching Connor’s cheek. There was a flash of pain and then the sting of blood rushing to the surface. His face itched as the blood began to trickle down to his jaw. Libby squealed.
“Don’t hurt him, he’s ill.”
The man with the knife drew it back again, gesturing as if to swing it across again.
“He’s about to get a lot more ill if he doesn’t leave right now,” he said.
The man took a step forward and pressed the blade to Connor’s throat. Anger filled Connor with fire, ready to be unleashed. He stuck his tongue out and licked the blood from his cheek.
“I can’t get anymore ill.”
His skin exploded with pain and the man with the knife reeled back in shock as Connor let out a roar, loud and primal. He swung a large paw towards the man with the knife, felt the claws lacerate the flesh beneath his clothes as the man was lifted bodily in the air and thrown with a sickening crunch against the wall of the alley. Connor’s body was not his own now; he was the wolf. He felt as if he was sitting inside his own head, watching through the wolf’s eyes, directing the savage fury that the beast embodied.
“Forwards now. Save Libby.”
The beast roared, four legs pounding the concrete and pushing him forward, impossibly fast. His jaws widened, rows of razor sharp teeth exposed, snapping at the remaining man’s face. He dropped his hold on Libby, who fell to the floor, before the wolf’s paws hit him square in the chest, bowling him over onto his back. Claws tore at his face and chest, pools of blood issuing from the wounds. Connor roared, but restrained the beast from taking the man’s throat out.
The beast sat back on its haunches and howled its defiance to the sky, but Connor could already feel his skin shifting, the muzzle shortening back into a nose, the slavering maw becoming a dry mouth. His hair receded, became close to his skin again, and the feeling of power ebbed away. In the distance he thought an answering howl, but he ignored it. He ached all over, pulling the coat over his body and wrapping himself in it. He stooped to retrieve the watch, its Velcro strap still intact despite the transformation.
“Are you okay?” he asked, Libby, picking her up from the ground.
She smiled up at him.
“You’re not scared of me.”
It was a statement rather than a question. She shook her head and placed her hand in his. He smiled back at her and breathed with relief. The wolf had done as he had commanded. It hadn’t wanted to but he had bested it. His heart seemed lighter and his aches and pains seemed less than they had been. They began walking out of the alleyway, Connor letting Libby lead him.
“It’s clever how you become that animal. How do you do it?” Libby asked as they crossed a road in the orange glow of street lamps.
“I am the wolf and the wolf is me,” he said, simply.