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Catherine Woodward
District of Wolves

 

The lamps along the little promenade were only just yellow; haze rain had a way of washing out colour, of making ochre light turn grey. Now the glow was barely white, creeping feebly over the concrete walk way and leaking a stunted aura out onto Lake Windermere, where it cracked, floundering.
The hills across the water were little more startling; clouds, too iron heavy now, had rolled down over the skyline, piling onto the mountainsides. From eye to eye, each peak was greyed, drained, indistinguishable from the other. While somewhere evening was coming down, blue detailing from the grey; the lake, hills, lamp lights, dull dulling deeper.
Sam was following the walk way; long strides, quick, quiet. The almost-light from the promenade lamps made him shine oily bright. He’d never been so wet, shivering under a mac that had served its term of usefulness at least fifteen years ago. He made quick steps past closed up kiosks, dolled with Victorian charm and gloss. The paint was faded in the blueing light, ‘Lakeside ice cream’ ‘Fish ‘n’ Chips’ near illegible, dulled, made ancient in the space of hours.
Sam ignored this, more to the point were his rain-bloated shoes, purple knuckles and his breath that plumed out in short-lived little columns of steam. Somewhere had to be open, something, any…he stopped. The hills had begun to fade slowly to black and the surface of the grey lake was crawling restlessly, raising hackles. Sam felt a new wave of numb in his hands, he was worried for Jack. The rain was beginning to pour.
A sharp wind had shook up, rattling the trees before he found the last open, greasy café along the promenade. Empty of course, and dead but for the slight hum of microwaves and sound of quiet coffee percolating. Sam took a sweeping glance over the walk way, across the lake and along the dark piers at the other end where the water was lapping thinly – there were no other windows lit for miles. He shuffled his collar higher and pushed inside.
The light change made its dents on his eyes and Sam was seeing blue spots while he fumbled towards a seat, steadying himself on the Formica table tops – it had been a long walk here. He crumpled into a stall, it was almost laughable, all the bad classic monster movies started this way didn’t they? The guy on the moors, lost, alone – wet. Sam peeled off one his boots and decanted the drippings out over the slimy floor tiles. The splatter alerted no one, the heat lamps under the counter were buzzing quite contentedly on their own. He didn’t wonder where the waitress was, the less people around the better. He paused a moment; he was pretty sure that was another one of those monster movie lines too. His stomach lurched a little, a feeble attempt at a private chortle - the monsters in the movies were nothing like him and Jack.
He could see the lake beginning to bubble from the café windows, imagining all the ‘swamp things’ ‘crawling eyes’ and ‘blobs’ , stirring underneath, barely able to hold a candle to the pair of them. The doubled reflections of faded café chairs and tables were thrown up bright against the glass, screening the view of mountainsides, reducing the whole lake to the size of a smeary diner window. Sam stared out, mellowing into the orange, reheated light of the place. Between the table legs of the mirrored café scene strips of the hills were showing through, black, bristled…and something was flitting across them, silhouetted, thorny…Jack?
“Sir!” All of Sam’s organs leapt simultaneously to the right. The waitress had at last shown herself. “Sir, we’re closed.” He was gripping hard on the table top, shaking dumbly, the picture must have been slightly endearing – “Look, you can’t stay, I’m packin’ up the chairs now and you’re in the way love.” She was trying on a sagged look of sympathy, apparently that had been her way of addressing him kindly. Sam was trying to vomit up words, digging harder into the table. His knuckles were beginning to split. (stay calm, stay calm you stupid bastard)
“Look,” she pouted, evidently trying to be sweet “I know what it’s like, walkin’ about in the dark, on a night this shitty no less…”
(stop, you can’t change, they’ll kill you if you change)
“Especially with all those people, loose on the hills…” She was hammering at nerves now, Sam felt something crack inside him.
(those people? Me and Jack are those people?)
“But I simply can’t let you stay, I’m sorry, not even with all this Beast of Bodmin Moore kinda’ stuff goin’ on.”
(beasts? We’re beasts?!)
Pain broke across Sam’s skull; he was clutching his eye socket, pushing the blood back while the waitress was screaming, “Shit! Sir! Sir what is it?” His chest was heaving, breath carving out in guttural cracks.
(Calm down! You can’t change, not here...Stop!)
The pain abated, he could feel his bones resettling, shrinking back to their right places as the blood left his head. He was face down on the table, the waitress was panting mousy breaths somewhere to his right, she was the first one to speak. “Sh-should I call you an a-am-ambulance Sir?” Sam was still catching his breath, face still down, he spoke into the table.
“No, it’s fine, I’m fine…I’ll, I’ll go then.”
Surprisingly she took some convincing before she would allow him back out into the rain (“It might aggravate your condition Sir”…”It’s dangerous for a man in your state.”) He had honed his lying skills well over the years, and it hadn’t taken much to fake having a heart condition and chronic migraine to cover up his little episode. Still though, he had nearly lost it, she had nearly seen…Sam stood quietly in the rain outside the café, thinking again of Jack, across the lake and out on the hills somewhere. He’d changed about two hours ago; he’d be seen, seen for sure this time. It was as much as Sam could do not to change and be caught himself, but he couldn’t keep from staring out across Windermere. Somewhere on the black hills Jack was darting between the rocks, with half his blood lost, dangerous and unpredictable as hell.
Sam slouched out into the open again, hastening along the promenade. ‘Dangerous and unpredictable’, that was the whole point of it. What was it that café witch had said? ‘Beast of Bodmin Moore kinda’ stuff’? He stopped, breathed deep, let his blood cool. Beasts, that’s precisely what they had been made into, not just him and Jack but the rest of them too…werebeings, that’s what they were being termed as now. “Bullshit.” Sam hissed. The wind was beginning to thump against the quaint little village walls.
He strode off up the walkway again, kicking up sprays, the short pause had done little to calm him down, it was still that word, that word burned on his brain – werebeings. Like something not quite human, like something only just animal. But he had to admit, there was little difference between the two for people like him.
People like him, according to the sensible population, were hardly people at all. People like him could change, could turn any moment into vicious monsters, animals…just get them angry, just get them scared, nervous, hurting and they snap! Suddenly their bones are rearranging, their teeth are turning savage and before you know it they’ll have mauled you and your children and be clamoring for more. No they can’t be trusted, they’re animals, wild beasts, hunt them down and kill them all before you’re the next thing on the menu.
Sam stamped to a halt again, it hadn’t occurred to him how hard he was balling his fists; unknotting his fingers he saw his palms in the blue light, pricked with half moons, pink nail marks turning slowly red. If anything proved you were an animal, it was the hunt, and that was exactly what had brought him and Jack to this spot, creeping along the ridges of the Cumbrian hills. They had been running from that sensible population, hiding between the rocks and trees like rats…and now Jack was gone, turned monster somewhere on the mountainside. He’d bolted, vanished and Sam knew better than to try and find him again…beasts kill indiscriminately after all.
He sank down to the curb, settling with a loud squish near the gutter. Looking towards the mountains again he recalled it, the images of Jack, projected like a slide show on the inside of his skull. And there he was again…trudging up some beaten track with thick, wet evening coming in fast, Jack in front while he, Sam, lagged behind, calling after his friend, shouting for him to ‘slow down, slow down, I can’t…

…go any further than this, come on, please.”
Jack’s dull outline swiveled on the crest of a mud-slicked hill, his thin, grey shape regarded him solemnly - he seemed to be thinking.
“We’re getting over to those trees first.” Even through the coming dark Sam could see a stony expression on his face. “It’s getting dark, it’s getting wet. We’re camping there and it can’t wait – come on.” The Jack-shaped shadow disappeared down the other side of the hill; Sam listened quietly to the sound of his worn boots, squelching in the mud on the other side. Pressing a palm over the pain in his chest, he eventually followed.
Ten minutes later the black clutch of trees was no closer, and Jack was growing smaller, darker, further and further away down the dip of the hill. Sam stopped. The pins in his knees seemed to slip loose and he crumpled down to the ground, shaking. Evidently Jack had heard the watery thump; his footsteps came drumming back, those boots squelching again, squelching faster. Sam had curled into a muddy ball, and soon Jack was shaking him by the shoulders. “Sam! Sam, for fuck’s sake you gotta’ keep moving!” Jack tried dragging him down the greasy slope, he moved two feet at most. Jack resumed the shaking “Sam come on! If someone sees you they’ll…they’ll…” there was a quivering note in his voice now, to be nervous was so unlike him “They’ll know what you are and they’ll cut you up, cut you up into little pieces Sam!” Sam didn’t move “If they find out you change they’ll take you away, they’ll take me too…Sam!”
Sam labored an eyelid open, the slit of white looked dumbly up at Jack who was knelt, gaunt and soaking by Sam’s head. “You’re really scared of them, aren’t you?” He’d hardly whispered it, but those words had frozen Jack, who seemed to be choosing his next sentence carefully.
“’Course the normals scare me,” he was shivering now “we’re monsters Sam, we’re fucking monsters.” Jack smiled grimly “They’re after our blood, all of them, we’re dangerous remember?” He was laughing, actually laughing. “They’ll have me and they’ll have you, they’ll have us all, right up ‘till the last.” That smile had spread sickly across his face, Sam sat up.
“Jack?” Jack scrambled away from him, trying to stand again in the thick mud – he was still laughing.
“Monsters! That’s what we are mate – Monsters, ha ha!” His breath caught, spluttering through spasms of laughter. Suddenly Sam didn’t feel so exhausted. Jack was back on his knees, choking, laughing, choking, laughing. The curled shape of his back was juddering, oscillating under his mac, the shoulder blades sliding across one another…Sam scrambled to him through the dirt water.
“Run!” Jack was twisting on the ground now “Fucking run!” Sam held him down, pushing his face in the mud.
“You’ve gotta’ calm down! You’re not a fucking monster Jack, you’re not!” The mud around Jack’s face was turning red, the bones in his skull cracking and sliding under the skin.
“We’re monsters Sam! We kill people and I’ll…ah!...I’ll kill you!” Sam was shouldering him to the ground, ignoring the shouts. Thorny bones we’re worming slowly out of Jack’s head, long black antlers, red pouring. Sam could feel the ribcage heaving under his arm, cracking, spreading. The blood was coming thick now, stirred in with the mud. “Let go of me…and run.” He was hissing it through gritted, bloody teeth; so hands shaking, Sam took his weight off him.
A black silhouette bulleted from underneath him, no longer Jack-shaped. This was something barbed, bristled, more like a bloody, twisted stag…’a beast’ Sam thought. It cantered down the hillside, skittering on the red mud before finally vanishing between the distant trees and bracken. The haze rain came rolling over and Sam sat…

…shivering on the curb. The last shop lights had been extinguished and the rain was beating against him in the dark – the streets were empty. The hills across the lake were little more than shadows now, dulled to one long swathe of dark over the water, and Jack…well that was it, where was Jack? A monster probably, ravaging villages and carving up livestock like the old folk tales would say…the old monster movies. “Monsters.” Sam breathed, just testing out the weight of the word in his mouth. He could hear the wind rushing in across the water, echoing around the hillsides, and faint…maybe…thundering hooves over rocks at the shore, clashing antlers, beasts.
Something in him was moving again, bones grinding like tectonic shift, familiar, unreal pain. He threw his head down on the pavement, blood pounding out between his eyes, the whole of him creaking, seething…sharpening…
Sam staggered up, red rain was already washing away in the gutter where he’d been, the promenade lights were brighter now. He was raising hackles, straining new muscles, watching the mists move above the hills. He heard louder, sharper, the clatter of distant hooves on rock…the baying of other beasts in the wood. He was coming, tearing through the blue-dark…towards the sound of Jack.