The Strength of the Pack: Part 5

The Strength of the Pack
Part V: The Strength of the Wolf

Connor sat in the rear carriage of the train staring straight ahead trying to see the platform. He laughed at himself, thinking how much like a kid he must look, but hi stop was next and he was eager to set his feet on that platform. Fortunately, it still being the Christmas season, with just barely any of it left, there were few commuters on the train to witness a grown man craning his neck to see the next station come into view. The guard eyed him sideways, though, much as he had done since Connor had boarded. Connor knew how he looked so he couldn’t say he was surprised, but he suspected the man’s Christmas spirit had upped and left him years ago. The man had checked his ticket almost straight away and had spent a good minute looking over it as if he couldn’t believe it was genuine – that there must be a flaw somewhere.

It had been Libby’s mum who had given him the money, though he had protested until she all but forced it into his hands. ‘For some medicine,’ she had said, ‘if not for saving my little girl’. Libby had insisted on making him a friendship bracelet, which she had tied onto his wrist. The red, green, and white braids stood out against his pale skin, but every time he caught sight of it he smiled. That was the best of all the presents, except for the hot bath and warm bed Libby’s mum, Penelope, had provided. When she found out he had nowhere to stay, she insisted he remain in their home for the night, spurred on by Libby, who threatened to cry if he went. The bath had felt good, soaking the cold from his bones, and shaving the bristly beard from his chin with Penelope’s ex-husband’s razor. Then a long, deep sleep inside for a change, tucked up in a bed that was as soft as if he had never slept in a bed before. He’d awoken feeling more awake than he had since his wedding day.

Jenny drew him forwards now, just as she had always done. He’d decided as he laid in the bath that he would go to her, see if he could explain. The wolf was under control now, which meant he could keep her safe. A nest of worries lay in his head, but he was not acknowledging them. He could prove it if she didn’t believe him, he could show her if he had to, and he could keep her safe from the wolf. Would she hate him for the monster he could have become? He hoped not, felt she wouldn’t, his love for her driving him onwards, making him sit on the edge of his seat and strain his eyes for a glimpse of the station.

It was fast approaching night fall, though there was still some time before the light failed. Jenny would be at home, with her parents perhaps, and he would call for her like he had when they had first met. He wanted t hold her already, to fell her skin against his own, wanted her with him always and never to be parted again. The station came into view, and Connor leapt from his seat to get to the doors, watching the platform slide past as the train slowed. He hammered impatiently at the door release button until it finally engaged and the doors swung open. He stepped down onto the platform and breathed the crisp January air. Not long now.

A howl in the distance made him pause and turned back towards the train. He was sure that he had heard it earlier that morning too, but had dismissed it as imagination. Now, approaching night fall and in the station where the wolf had attacked him, he did not feel so confident in dismissing it. He tried to check the other platform through the train windows, but they were too high to allow him to see anything. He waited impatiently for the train to move off, staring at the platform opposite.

The chain link fence swayed in the wind, creaking as it had on that night. He could see where he had been standing and where the wolf had first appeared. There was nothing there now. The platform was empty. The track was empty too save for the departing train’s lights slowly moving away into the distance. He was imagining it. Just because I’m here. Just because it started here.

Shaking himself, he whistled a tine and walked through the station house and out into the street beyond. The distant strains of someone singing karaoke hit him as he emerged into the street, and he smiled as he made his way towards the pub, which stood on the road to Jenny’s home. Even the startlingly bad rendition of Hotel California couldn’t bring his spirits down. He sang along as he passed the pub, attracting the attention of a gaggle of smokers, all shivering in shirt sleeves as they huddled in the porch, as close to the warmth as they could get.

Once he had left the pub behind, he walking down the lane, wondering what he should say on his arrival. ‘I’m sorry’ seemed appropriate, but it didn’t explain much and didn’t appeal to him as much as an opening gambit. He was lost in these thoughts when a sudden sense of footsteps behind him made him turn. The lane was empty. He wondered if he was hearing footsteps from streets away – always a possibility with the wolf’s ears.

When he reached the house he hovered at the gate, scared to go in now he was actually here. Most of the lights were off; perhaps no one was home. He had the sinking feeling that Jenny’s parents might have driven her back so that she could go back to work. Spurred on by the injustice of this, if it were true, and determined to make sure it was not, he moved up the drive and rang the bell. A light flickered on in the hallway and he could hear someone moving in the hall. After the longest moment of his life, the door opened. Jenny stood there in pyjamas and a thick jumper. She looked amazing. She also looked amazed. Her eyes had gone wide and brimmed with tears, and her mouth dropped open.

“Hi,” he said, lamely, though it was all he could think of.

Her hand extended towards him, trembling slightly, and prodded him in the shoulder. She was making sure he was real. He reached up and took her hand, kissing it softly. Then, in a whirl of wool and flame hair, she threw her arms around him, practically knocking him to the floor. She planted kisses all over his face and he returned them with interest.

“I thought you were dead,” she said, disbelieving, as she lead him into the hall.

“Without you, I was.”

She slapped him with the full force of her arm across the face, making him stumble sideways and lights dance in his head.

“You could have called or written or anything! Why didn’t you let me know you were…you know?!”

“Alive?”

She nodded and he frowned.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t. I’d have put you in danger.”

“What are you talking about?”

There was a knock at the door. Jenny turned towards it and tutted.

“That’ll be my parents. They’re out on a shoot today at a friend’s farm. Go into the sitting room; you need to explain.”

She gave him a stern look before moving down the hall, but she turned back towards him when she reached the door as though she was checking he was really there. He smiled at her and she turned the key in the lock. The door had barely opened a crack when he smelt it; something earthy and dank, like autumn leaves in the forest after days of heavy rain, turning to mulch, with a heavy stench of rotten meat.

“Don’t-!” he shouted, but the door was already being flung open, knocking Jenny backwards. She sprawled to the floor, head hitting the tiled hallway with a sickening crack. Through the open door bounded the wolf that had bitten Connor, its eyes yellow in the encroaching darkness, blood around its muzzle as it bore down on Jenny. Rage filled Connor and he felt the explosion of pain that marked his transformation engulf him. Ignoring the pain, he moved forward, claws slipping on the tiles, struggling to gain purchase, and flung himself at the wolf. It reared to its hind legs, beating him aside. He felt its claws rips into his flesh, the sting of blood rushing from the wound, and he struggled to keep himself in control of the wolf within. Must save Jenny. He turned, snapping his jaws at the wolf’s leg, driving the beast away from Jenny’s unmoving form and down the corridor. In retaliation, it bit at his muzzle, leaving gaping wounds with its sharp teeth, but it gave ground as he kept coming onwards.

Once he had driven the beast into the kitchen, he relented, blocking the doorway but no longer risking the sharp teeth and strong jaws in open attack. He beast growled, its eyes fixed on Connor, but it did not attack. Instead it circled the room, never ceding the advantage by turning away, but circling predatorily, waiting for the opportunity to attack. It was huge; its back reached above the kitchen counters and its head was larger than a decent sized dog. Connor wondered if it too was human really, but the yellow eyes betrayed no spark of a person trapped inside.

A scrabbling and a thud made Connor turn. Jenny had got to her feet, stumbling against the banister and feeling the back of her head. A small pool of blood marked where she had been lying and her fingers came away from her head crimson. He fought for control of the wolf within; the desire to give in to the smell of her blood in his nostrils was great. The beast had its opportunity, charging forward, using its great head to push Connor aside and the momentum to lunge for Jenny. The beast knocked her flat once more, paws pressed onto her shoulders, jaws closing on her mouth. Connor leapt forward, seizing the beast’s hind leg in his mouth and pulling it backwards as hard as he could. The beast turned, pouncing on him, pushing him back until they were trading blows like bears on their hind legs. The beast was too strong, forcing Connor to his back. The beast’s jaws came towards his throat and he could do nothing to stop it.

Jenny’s foot crashed down on the beast’s head, forcing its snout onto the ground. It let out a howl of pain and turned to kick Jenny away; her balance already compromised, she fell into the banister and slid to the floor. Connor howled in rage, tossing the beast over himself and back into the kitchen. Charging forward, Connor caught the beast by the throat and crushed his jaws together. Blood flowed into his mouth, ran down his muzzle; the beast quivered, scrabbling at his shoulders, and then went still.

The taste of blood in his mouth made his own blood course in his veins. The wolf part of him was rejoicing in the kill, and he couldn’t wrestle control back to regain his proper form. He padded over to Jenny and nuzzled her; he could hear her breathing, shallow but regular, and with his head close to her chest he could hear her heart beating. She would but fine, if he could turn back.

There was a loud explosion from the front door and something ripped into his chest, sending him sprawling away from Jenny. In the doorway stood Jenny’s father, shotgun raised to his shoulder, smoke furling from the end of both barrels. He came forward, keeping Connor covered with the weapon, shouting something over his shoulder that Connor could not make out. He seemed deaf and his eyes were hazy, as if he were in a dense fog. Jenny’s father pushed open the kitchen door and there was another shout as he saw the body of the beast. Connor looked at Jenny. Her mother was knelt by her side and she was shaking Jenny gently. Jenny’s eyes flickered open, looking towards him. He felt the pain of the transformation come, felt the wolf slipping away, felt blood trickle from his mouth. He closed his eyes and the pain was gone.

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