Stray

The wolf is lonely. Its mournful cries fill brittle night air, echoing through forests and mountains. It wanders, avoiding humans, catching its own prey, doing what it needs to do to survive. It has no territory, no mate, no pack. It leaves a trail of carcasses; sometimes it will leave them for the lucky magpies and ravens, other times for unsuspecting humans. The travelling life is weary, trudging through vast human city wastelands, searching, always searching. It could get lost in the maze of modern life. For a while, it decides to live. Just for a while.

***

She had met him in a bar, his chocolate eyes crinkling at the corners, his deep low laughter vibrating in her belly. The seduction began; twirling her dark hair around her fingers, eyes low and demure. She could tell he hadn’t been fooled by the performance, but he was intrigued anyway. He took her hand in his, trapped it like a fluttering bird. This date was special; she invited him to walk with her in the familiar woods of her childhood, culminating in a drink at the Moonshine, a pub near her Grandmother’s.

The wizened oak trees danced above them as the sunlight glittered through the branches. Scarlett chattered at the man as they walked through the ancient forest, his answers short and to the point. He smiled a hungry smile, his eyes reflecting the sheen of the light. Scarlett felt that victory was near.

‘I’ve been here before,’ he said, showing his teeth in a grin.

Scarlett raised her eyebrow, performing the vixen.

‘Oh really? Why didn’t you say?’ she asked, as she skipped ahead, backwards, still facing him. Her long black coat flapped in the wind, her red dress a warning flag.

The man laughed, teeth flashing. He winked at her, jesting.

Scarlett laughed the high tinkling sound of bells.

‘You know, my Grandma doesn’t live too far from here. She’s quite poorly at the moment, we’re all worried about her. In fact, I have something I need to drop off at her place, if you wouldn’t mind waiting a bit…is that alright?’ she asked, scanning the man’s face, testing. She had him on a fishing line and wanted to reel him in.

He nodded. ‘By the way, I know a short cut to that pub…maybe I can wait there whilst you see her? I don’t want to, er, intrude.’

‘It’s not exactly safe to take shortcuts around here. Animals have been mauled here recently…you know, deer carcasses turning up with slashes and claw marks all over them…’ She trailed off, the lie complete. She waited for the man to reach her so they were walking side by side again. The man’s expression irritated her. It wasn’t frightened nor impressed. On the contrary, he seemed calm and collected. He even managed a confident, self assured smile.

‘Don’t worry. I know this forest like the back of my hand,’ he said, taking control.

Scarlett felt heat creeping up her face. She frowned, wanting to prove something. The man hadn’t told her anything much about himself. She wondered what it would take. She stole a sideways glance at him. He was looking resolutely ahead, tension in his jaw. This close up, she could see the flecks of gold in his dark eyes. The man stopped, taking her by surprise. He touched her hand, looking her in the eye, drawing her in. Now something was happening. She smiled to herself.

‘The shortcut I know only takes about ten minutes…at least twenty minutes off this through-path we’re on,’ he reached up and touched her hair, and shivers raced down Scarlett’s spine. His pupils widened, looking out towards the trees.

‘Okay…if you’re sure. It’s not like its night, right?’ she breathed, the hairs dancing on her arms, underneath all her layers. She shivered to herself, anticipating.

‘Right,’ he said, flashing his teeth. He took her hand and led her through the dense underbrush, her skirt and coat scraping.

As they passed the closely packed trees, the branches rustled. No birdsong filled the air. Scarlett watched the back of the man, as he led her deeper. She caught her breath, scanning the dark patches of forest. They entered a clearing of shadows and yellow wildflowers. The man turned to face her, his eyebrows knitted together. She smiled with what she thought was a coy smile. The man crouched to the floor, unloading his backpack.

‘I could do with a drink,’ he said, rummaging in his bag.

‘Sure, same here,’ said Scarlett, looking around the clearing. The darkness at the edge of the space was absolute. Her eyes were drawn back to the man, watching her, his mouth crooked up in a grin. Scarlett moved closer and sat down next to him. The ground was slightly warm, as if someone had been sitting there before her. The man turned to look at her. Before she knew what she was doing, her hand was caressing the side of his face. He laughed, his low deep intimate laugh that reverberated in her chest. Drawing his hands round her back, he pulled her closer, his breath on her neck, landing gentle but insistent kisses. Sighing, Scarlett closed her eyes.  She flinched as she felt a searing pricking pain on her neck. Yelling, she pushed the man away.

‘Oh, god, sorry…I didn’t mean it…,’ said the man, scuffling backwards. Blood painted his mouth; he wiped it with the back of his hand, searching for something in his pockets. Scarlett panted.

‘What the hell did you do?’ she shrieked, putting a hand to her neck and feeling the slippery wetness, seeing the crimson smear on her hand. Eyes wide and panicked, the man held out a bunch of tissues. Grabbing them, Scarlett dabbed an ineffective tissue at her neck. The man held a hand over his mouth.

‘I’m so sorry. I just got carried away…,’ the man pleaded, his voice thick and muffled. His hands shook. Scarlett giggled, shock descending. Shivering, she glared at the man. He rummaged in his pockets again, thrusting a chocolate bar at her.

‘Take it,’ he said. ‘It will help. I promise you, it’s not as bad as it looks…’ he said, his face taut. His eyes flicked away towards the trees.

‘Are you stupid? Phone an ambulance or something!’

‘Sorry, can’t do that,’ he said. He shrugged. ‘I’ll carry you home, okay?’ he said, holding out a hand to her. Scarlett huffed, declining his hand and getting up by herself. It was the last thing she remembered; she fell forward, hitting something soft and warm.

***

The room was cool and dark. Scarlett felt as though a weight was holding her down; she imagined she was swimming through water with heavy limbs. The red dress pooled around her, torn at the hem, stained maroon on the collar. She saw tiny pinpoints of white light on her vision, as if she had stared into an unbearable brightness. She blinked. Something rustled. Shooting upright, her heart thudding dully in her chest, she stared at the wall. Nothing there. Glancing around the room, Scarlett took in the familiar surroundings. White cotton, black oak, black ironwork; austere minimalism. Scoffing, she sat back on the bed, the tension melting from her shoulders. Home. She reached over to her bed stand, where her mobile flashed.  A piece of paper dropped to the floor. Stretching down, she picked it up. Unfolding it, she snorted, the sound a shock to her ears. She frowned. It read, simply,

‘Sorry. Call me if you need help. Alexander. xxx’ The man had abandoned her, apparently.

‘Well, that’s crap,’ she muttered to herself. So much for having fun. He was far too courteous. Checking her phone, she screwed up her eyes at how bright the letters on it were. Twenty missed messages…all from her mother. Scoffing again, Scarlett speed-dialled the number. Two rings, and she was through.

‘Hi Mum…what’s the problem?’ she asked. The voice on the other end was muffled. ‘Oh..what happened?…I see. Hmm…do you want me to come round?’ the voice on the other end murmured assent. Something was said. Scarlett examined her fingernails. She frowned, rolling her eyes. She stared out of the window, through the swaying trees, crouching and tangling together. Stumbling, she walked over and sat on the window seat, watching the darkening sky, grey and threatening rain. ‘Okay. You better phone the doc for her. It sounds like she’s going…I know, but you can’t say I’m not telling the truth. Bye. I’ll be there in an hour.’

Scarlett clicked through her contacts and rung another number. Outside, it had begun to rain fat drops, splattering onto the window. The tapping of rain on the roof sounded like rocks being thrown. Scarlett glanced upwards, rubbing her temples, sharp pain stabbing her forehead.

‘Hi Sam, its Scarlett. You know, that delightful woman you met at the publicity party last week,’ she giggled. ‘You want a date? You’ve got one,’ she said, her lips quirking up into a self satisfied smile.

‘How about tomorrow for lunch?’ she asked, standing up and strolling over to the floor length mirror, scrutinising her face.

‘Cool, I’ll be there!’ she chirped, grinning at herself. She switched off the phone and cocked an eyebrow at herself. Remembering, she checked her neck. There was nothing there; save for a tiny mark that looked to her as if it was an old scar. She rubbed her fingers over it.

She shrugged at herself. ‘No harm done. Another war wound!’ She switched on the light. Gasping and doing a double take, she peered into the glass. On her face were two long lines of fine dark hair, stretching from the tops of her cheekbones down to her neck and disappearing beneath the collar of her dress. ‘What the f….’ she trailed off, fumbling at her clothes, peeling off the dress and staring down at herself.

***

The deluge of rain hindered her as she ran out to her car. The sky was black and impenetrable. She bit down on her lip and groaned; the blood welled up. She yanked the car door open, slamming it shut after her. Well, that had been fun. Two hours in the bathroom with various hair removal implements. She grabbed her phone out of her bag and tapped in a text, sending it to her mother. Oh well, they could wait a little longer, surely. It was bound to happen sooner or later. She dabbed at her lip, which was already scabbing, and checked herself in the car mirror. The keys jingled as she put them into the ignition and she groaned as the sound split through her head. She bellowed and punched the dashboard. Redness clouded her vision, her surroundings becoming shades of arterial blood, the moon a slice of crimson. The phone rang, urgent trilling. Grabbing the phone, she flung it, giggling. She grasped the door handle and kicked the door open, running out through the darkness, rain drenching her, sliding through the ruby mud.

***

‘It’s easy when you get used to it,’ he said. Scarlett shuddered at the mass of fur being dangled in front of her face.

‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ she said, turning away. Laughing, she twirled around.

‘This is incredible. Everything’s so…new,’ she said, zeroing in on Alexander.

‘Yes. But you need to remember to control yourself,’ he said, frowning. He watched her as her eyes tracked a squirrel foraging for nuts. They glowed with inner fire, fevered.

‘Look, you have to know what to do. I won’t always be around to hold your hand,’ he said, shaking the congealed mass of fur at her again. Her eyes snapped back to the carcass. Grinning, he bowed. ‘Your dinner, milady,’ he said, winking. Scarlett stepped forward, rolling her eyes. Close up, the stench was more enticing, and her mouth watered. Her teeth extended, elongating her face, and nicked her lip. She took the carcass in her hand. The blood dripped onto the ground.

***

Blood spread and pooled. The silver haired head was frozen in a scream. The ripped flesh stuck under her claws. Her paw slashed again, again, black wetness suffusing the room. She slipped and slid on the pungent metallic ooze, claws clacking on the wood as she scrabbled towards the door. Her ears cocked forwards. Sniffing the air delicately, she found her way down the stairs, one paw in front of the other. Padding up to the front door, the air shimmered, followed by the sound of crunching and cracking. A human hand turned the door handle. A blast of cold air hit the hall as the door opened, the moonlight illuminating the red paw prints.

***

‘What did you do?’ he said, his voice a low threat, eyeing the red stained clothes, the ripped bedsheets. Scarlett lay glaring up at him.

‘It wasn’t as if she had much longer,’ she said, examining her fingernails and flicking a piece of debris out of one of them. Silence descended as Alexander gazed at Scarlett, his eyes a storm-cloud, a deep snarl escaping. The phone rang. He grabbed the receiver and picked it up.

‘Sorry, she’s not at home right now. Can I take a message? Sure…Wednesday? She’s busy then…It doesn’t matter what she told you. She won’t be available for dates on Wednesday nor the week after. Or the week after that. Goodbye.’ He slammed the receiver down. Scarlett’s face had gone a fetching shade of purple, screwed up into an ugly grimace.

‘Asshole. Why did you do that? He was really cute,’ said Scarlett in a low flat voice.

‘I would have thought it was obvious,’ growled Alexander. He cocked an eyebrow, forgetting his fury.

‘Are you serious? We’re just dating. I’ve only met you a couple of times,’ laughed Scarlett. ‘It’s not like we’re engaged or anything.’

She didn’t notice the panic in his eyes, welling up as if with a sudden pain; nor did she notice the blood drain from his face. As quick as it had come, the expression was gone, replaced by the fierce savage grimace.

‘You need to fix this. This thing you have done,’ he said. He walked over to her and seized her by the arm, but she twisted out of his grasp, dancing around to the other side of the bed.

‘I think you should go,’ she said. ‘You’ve taught me enough,’ she smirked. She scratched behind her ear, absentminded.

‘Not nearly enough, I see…but I’ll go, if that’s what you want,’ he said, the fury vanishing. His pupils expanded. He turned his head towards the window, gazing out towards the woods.

***

The forest looms and sways in the night. Humans shiver as the sound of a lone wolf singing reaches their warm, cosy lives. No other wolf answers its cry. Sobbing can be heard if you listen close enough. It sounds almost human.