|A Wolf in the Fold
by Matthew Charles
© Matthew Charles -- all rights reserved
Mellow firelight flickers across the room. Rain patters gently upon the window. A strain of soulful music drifts softly through the air.
A solitary figure bends over. He is dressed completely in black. Where his clothes do not cover, his skin, too, has soft, black fur.
There is a clink of china as the figure pours tea into a cup. Careful not to spill any, he picks it up and sets it down on a solid, wooden desk.
He sits for a moment, thinking, remembering. Then, he picks up a fountain pen and begins to write.
A Wolf In The Fold
Rick Corby is thirteen. He is at school, an all-male public school and he is happy. Although his life is not perfect - whose is? - and he is perhaps a little too quiet, a little too clever to be truly accepted by the crowd, he has good friends. A comfortable life stretches out before him - school, college, university, a steady, professional job. Security. But right now, he is living for the moment, taking life as it comes with an easy innocence.
He is waiting patiently for two friends. They have arranged to meet here, in his room, before going into town. They are both late, but this is only natural for schoolboys. Rick just turns up the music and smiles.
His two friends, Chris and Mark, are starting to grow apart. They spend less and less time together, and much of what is left is taken up with sniping and arguments. This trip is a last-ditch attempt by Rick to bring them back together; he hopes that if they end the term on a happy note, their friendship will last a little while longer. Chris has precious few friends left; he can't afford to lose another.
Presently, Mark turns up. They fall into the usual pattern of jokes and banter while waiting for Chris.
Half an hour later, they are still waiting. Mark is no longer amused. Even Rick only makes half-hearted attempts to explain why Chris could be so late.
After an hour, they give up and leave. Both are irritated and angry. Most of the afternoon is gone, and the winter night is rapidly eating up the remainder. The prospect of Christmas shopping in the darkness and the cold rain has lost its appeal.
The following day, Chris is not present at the roll-call. He does not turn up to lessons. The consensus is that he was taken ill, suddenly and mysteriously, the previous day. Rick even hears rumours that he tried to commit suicide, but he disregards them. He is concerned about Chris, but his adolescent belief that he is immortal extends to others; nothing permanently bad can happen to Chris. He concentrates on his work and the day passes smoothly.
The next day is the last of term. When Rick arrives, there is a buzz of gossip running through the school. The details vary, but every tale reaches the same conclusion: Chris has SCABS.
The housemaster disrupts the normal pattern of the roll-call to make an announcement. He phrases it carefully, calling upon them to be sympathetic to Chris, explaining that he's too ill to come in now, but that he will be back after the holiday. He's not going to find it easy, the only SCAB in a house of seventy, a school of seven hundred. Please do what you can to help him.
Sixty-eight mental voices think: Yeah, right.
It is the first day of the new term. There is the usual relating of adventures, the usual frantic scrabble for lost belongings, the usual collective guilt at having failed to complete set work. But underneath all this, there is a tension. People deliberately avoid talking about Chris. Every one is waiting to see how their peers react. A small crowd hovers nonchalantly around his room.
Rick is at his desk, scribbling furiously. Greeting friends is greeting friends, but a missing Maths paper will get him killed. This was supposed to have been handed in a week before the end of last term.
In the corridor outside, a sudden hush falls. The only sound is the click of a pair of shoes on the tiled floor. The gaggle parts to allow the Golden Retriever, dressed in neatly-pressed black trousers, white shirt, dark blazer and school tie, to pass. It ignores them, heading directly for the door to Rick's room.
The three boys with whom Rick shares the study look up as it pokes its head around the corner. Then, along with everybody else, they turn to stare at Rick.
But Rick is still submerged in algebra. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and he is rushing to catch it.
There is a long moment of silence, punctuated by the whisper of Rick's pencil. Then, eyes down, holding back the tears, the Golden Retriever steps back into the corridor and walks off, feet dragging and tail drooping. The atmosphere has changed tangibly, a precedent has been set. As it moves away, a murmur of conversation begins again.
When the bell sounds a few minutes later, Rick has just finished the final question. He grabs his papers and strides off to the roll-call, smiling at a disaster narrowly averted and curious about why Chris didn't drop in to say hello.
Two weeks pass. The Golden Retriever becomes more and more dispirited. Rick can't understand what is happening.
Nobody is actually bullying it. Not one other person has laid a hand upon it, in anger or otherwise. No names have been called, no practical jokes played. The school has simply closed ranks en masse. The wall of silence is utterly complete - not even the traditional, joking cries of "Did somebody hear a noise? Was that the wind?" are heard. People merely get up and leave, or carry on their conversation with the tiniest of withering glances at it.
There is precious little personal space in a school where seven hundred boys live, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but when Rick returns to his study one afternoon and finds the Retriever hunched over his desk, sobbing wildly, the house is strangely empty.
Operating purely on instinct, Rick brings a chair over and sits next to it. He hesitates for the barest fraction of a second, then pulls it into a hug. They stay like that for perhaps a minute, Rick rocking them gently to and fro, whispering soothing nonsense. After a while, the sniffles and sobs abate a little, and Rick disentangles himself sufficiently to pass over a handkerchief.
The dog blows its nose, sniffs, then speaks.
"I don't think I can take much more of this."
"Hey - it's okay. We'll get you through this. It'll just take a bit of time."
"Rick, I'm fucking scared I'm cracking up here. I don't think we've got much time."
"Don't worry. I know it's hard now, but you're still the same Chris underneath. It's just taking everybody a while to get to grips with it, yes?"
"Rick, you don't understand - I'm not the same any more. I keep having these... thoughts, these feelings - I'm turning into a fucking dog here, Rick. You've got to help me."
For the first time that afternoon, they make eye contact. After a moment, the dog looks down.
"What do you want me to do, Chris?" No implication, no complaint, just an earnest offer straight from the heart.
"I don't know - just help me. Be there for me. Stop me from doing anything stupid, okay? Help me, Rick. Please?"
Rick nods once. "Okay."
For a moment, they are as close as two best friends, as a boy and his dog can be. Then, they descend into a mad rush to gather books and pencils in time for the next lesson. They manage to arrive just as the bell sounds, panting and dishevelled. Although nobody else can tell, the dog is grinning in earnest for the first time in weeks.
The picnic is Rick's idea. Chris has come, as has - after much cajoling and persuasion - Mark. They have bread, cheese, ham, salad, crisps and three sorts of pickle, as well as lemonade.
They've arrived by bike and seated themselves on the hill top. The view is breathtaking. They unpack the food and the cloths, making small talk. The conversation drifts through school, TV, the world at large, and back to school again. Mark and Chris are laughing together like old friends for the first time in months. Rick is content.
And then Mark makes that single, fatal mistake.
The subject is the ages-old fraternisation of their school with its all-female twin. Mark has just mentioned that a friend of his has started going out with some girl called Rachael Baker.
Oh God. Tell me he didn't say that. I mean, Christ, Mark, I know affairs of the heart aren't your forte, but you must have known about them. Everybody was talking about it. She broke up with Chris a week before the end of last term. Three days before...
"Oh, really? What's she like?"
Shit, Chris, why'd you go and ask that? Are you trying to hurt yourself? Just please, Mark, don't say anything stupid. A harmless remark, a little joke, anything.
"From what I've heard, she's a real dog."
Oh God, no.
Mark's eyes go wide as soon as he realises what he's said. He starts to stammer an apology, but he's far, far too late.
Chris leaps at him. There is a blur of motion, faster than the eye can follow. No cry of pain, no gasp. Rick only realises what's happened when blood splashes across his legs.
He cries out in shock. Two eyes look up from the kill and glare at him. A warning growl rumbles from the feeding form.
Ricky is seventeen. His school reports have got steadily worse, and always seem to use phrases like "Could do better", "Not trying" or "His heart is not in his work". His social life has deteriorated also; there is not one person he could honestly call a friend.
Right now, though, this doesn't matter. He is in the park, rattling a collecting tin. Today, the charity is The Doctor Barnodo's Foundation. He isn't getting much money, but that doesn't matter - at least he's doing something.
He's been watching them out of the corner of his eye for about half an hour.
Four males, age 16-24, Caucasian, shaven heads, leather jackets. At first he thought they were going to come after him, but they seem content to wait around for the winter night to fall.
He's just thinking about packing it in for the afternoon when he sees the woman. She's dressed Muslim-style - head-to-toe cloths - and is walking along the path, head down, staring at her feet. She's going to walk right into them.
Perhaps nothing will happen. Lots of people wear black leather. Just because they're drinking doesn't mean they'll do anything stupid.
But what if I'm wrong? What if they do grab her at, yes, four o' clock in a public park. What if I don't get involved, again, and they hurt her before any one can stop them?
Ricky sets off towards them at a brisk pace.
The woman, eyes still glued to the hem of her dress, doesn't see them until it's too late. She stumbles through the centre of the group, trips over a leg, but regains her balance.
"Hey, watch where you're going, okay?"
Ricky starts jogging.
She pushes ahead, shoving at the man in front of her, quite hard.
The man, who has been standing on that spot quite peacefully for twenty minutes, shoves back.
Ricky is running.
The woman jumps at the man, kicking and clawing. One of the others tries to pull her off. She backhands him across the face and he screams in pain.
Ricky arrives about five seconds later. The four men are bleeding profusely, lumps ripped out. One has four jagged slashes across his face, slitting his eye open. The woman is lying on the ground, twitching. A knife is buried in her chest. Her clothes are torn, and her veil has been ripped off. The skin underneath is fiery with red fur.
Ricky hesitates, unsure who he should help. Then, he moves over to the woman and pulls off his T-shirt.
(Staunch the bleeding with firm, even pressure around the edges of the wound. Do not attempt to remove any obstructions; they may be preventing collapse of internal organs.)
When the ambulance arrives, ten minutes later, Ricky is still clutching the shirt, squatting a foot away from the woman. There is no blood on him.
Ricky is twenty-three. He is working at the delicatessen counter of a supermarket, and he is alone.
Three days after his dismal A-level grades arrived, he left his parents' home and moved to a large town about thirty miles away. He still lives in the same, cramped bedsit. Nobody from his old life knows where he is.
The work is hard, but satisfying. He has to concentrate on details continuously: keep tongs for raw and cooked meat separate, serve customer, slice ham, serve customer, discount cream cakes at six o'clock, serve customer, wrap everything in cling-film before leaving. No time to dawdle, no time to dwell on the past.
Not again. It's Sarah, from Grocery & Produce.
"Listen, I'm not doing much tonight, do you want to go for a drink after work? I know a great little place just down the road."
She's only been working here for two weeks. The rest of them have taken the hint by now, but she just won't leave him alone.
"I'm busy tonight."
"Well, how about tomorrow?"
Why can't she just go away? And why is she chasing him, anyhow? He certainly isn't attractive, with his Norman Bates voice, his limp, damp handshake, his dull personality and soggy face. Some one like her deserves somebody much, much better than him.
"Busy then, too."
"Well, next time you're free, give me a yell and we'll go somewhere, okay?"
It isn't a lie, technically. He hasn't had a free evening for four years.
He doesn't speak again until he leaves, except to acknowledge instructions, to serve customers.
This is a typical day.
After work, he doesn't go home, but drives directly to the St. Catherine's soup kitchens and shelter. The other volunteers - a couple of students, a banker, a bus driver - greet him. He blinks at each of them, then pulls on his apron and sets to work in the kitchen.
This is his little secret, his guilty pleasure. Each time he pours a bowl of soup, each time some one mumbles a brief word of thanks, each time they flash him a smile, he has a pleasant, warm feeling inside. It worries him that he's doing this not to help others, but for selfish, personal reasons. To date, he has managed to convince himself otherwise.
Tonight, he is feeling weak and shaky, but he struggles on regardless. He must; to put himself first would be very easy, but terribly, terribly wrong. Probably, he is just hungry.
He will not eat until the last bowl has been poured, the last piece of bread used to mop up the last drop of soup. The others think that this is a wonderful gesture, showing the homeless that they are not merely being given cast-offs, but the meals served here really are proper, decent food. In truth, Ricky is the unworthy one; he doesn't deserve better than the slop he dishes out. Besides, the more money he saves like this, the more he can give away; selfish, but pragmatic.
He becomes more and more unsteady as the evening wears on, until he can barely lift the ladle. Shamed, he lets himself be led into the back room.
Somebody presses a cup of tea into his hand. He doesn't have the strength to protest. He is shivering and has trouble keeping his eyes open.
A few minutes later, he drifts into unconsciousness.
He's lying somewhere unfamiliar. A hard bed, starched sheets, smells of life and death and pain and disinfectant.
So, a hospital. He cracks open an eye; the light is blinding. Gradually, his vision adjusts.
A voice, close by: "Doctor, this one's coming round."
Something unfamiliar twitches; he can't place the sensation. A portly figure approaches, mercifully blocking out some of the light.
"Hello there, Richard. I'm -"
Ricky. Why can't he make his mouth work?
" - Doctor Field. You're doing very well; you'll be fully recovered and out and about in no time."
The doctor picks up a handful of objects from a dresser, just out of sight. He shows them to Ricky, fanning them out. A handful of Get-Well-Soon cards.
"Some friends of yours -"
" - have been asking to see you. They'll be visiting some time soon. They want you to know they're right behind you."
Ricky searches for a motive whilst the doctor pauses, but can't find one. He can't seem to think straight at the moment.
"We're all here to help you with this, Richard. Your life doesn't have to be any different just because you have SCABS."
Ah. SCABS. That would explain a few things.
Ricky isn't particularly shocked. In fact, he probably should have seen it coming. After all, it's no more than he deserves. There's even a certain poetry in it: the ugliness of the soul reflected in the body.
The doctor's saying something about equal opportunities, and how he's no different from how he was before, but they both know that's rubbish. Ricky tunes him out, then, with a perverse sense of satisfaction, drifts back to sleep.
Some people might consider the form of a humanoid wolf to be a noble one: strong, graceful, deadly. Dressed in deliberately casual clothes and equipped with a James Bond accent, it might even be called dashing.
Ricky, however, is under no such illusions. His colleagues from work have visited him often, the workers from the shelter have helped him with new clothes tailored to fit properly, and the supermarket manager has gone so far as to offer him a job for life. But behind each friendly smile, each generous gesture, he can see the thought: "Dear God, don't let it get angry with me."
That's the real reason for all the cards; they were afraid that if they hadn't kept him appeased, he would have hunted them down. And perhaps he would have, too.
"Hi, welcome back. You look great."
Sarah again. Christ, he's only been back at work for five minutes and she's getting on his nerves already. Doesn't she realise it's dangerous to provoke him?
"Is everything going okay? Is your landlord helping you?"
"Well, if you need anything, just give me a call."
She reaches up and ruffles the fur on his head, then walks away.
Damn, that was close. He always feels so nervous around her. One of these days, he's going to let himself slip. And then she'll get hurt, and she'll never speak to him again, and he doesn't think he could face that.
He throws himself into the routine. Wipe, slice, tidy, wash. If anything, it seems easier than usual. The morning rushes by.
He's on his lunch break when his manager, Alan, pops into the staff room.
"Ricky, could I have a word with you in a minute, please? In my office? Thanks."
Ricky bolts down the rest of his food, then makes his way over. He knocks, tentatively.
Alan opens the door for him, wearing a sympathetic face. Ricky takes the proffered chair.
"Ricky, look. I meant what I said to you before - there's a job here for you as long as you want it. I really meant it. But you can't go on like this. I run a business here."
Alan pauses, as if expecting him to say something, then continues.
"You didn't serve one customer this morning, Ricky. Not one."
Oh, so that's why is went so smoothly. Funny how much more efficient the counter is when there are no shoppers to distract you.
"I'm going to put you in the warehouse, -"
- where nobody has to look at you -
" - just for the time being, until, well, until they get used to having you around."
Ricky does what he always does in uncomfortable situations like this - stays quiet, eyes down, meekly accepting the bad news. He can live with it. It's only what he deserves.
But the worst blow comes quite by chance. From Alan's point of view, it appears that Ricky is staring at his throat, absolutely silent and still. Alan swallows nervously.
And the acrid smell of fear, thick and strong, fills Ricky's nose.
"Uh, Ricky, of course, you won't have to take a cut in pay or anything. Like I said, it's just a temporary thing. Say, um, why don't you take the afternoon off? Have some time to yourself. Um, so if there's anything I can do for you -"
Hurt and ashamed, Ricky stumbles from the room, leaving Alan mid-sentence, desperate to get away before anything else can go wrong.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
Collecting for charity is much more of an art than people realise. If you're too brash, people will get scared away. Too shy, on the other hand, and you won't prick their conscience enough to make them stop.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
But the most important thing is inertia. Once passers-by start to give, the rest will follow. Seeing the person in front stop to drop in some money shames you into doing the same. The whole thing acquires a critical mass, and the coins keep rolling in.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
This is why it is important to put in a handful of coins yourself, first. Nothing drives people away like the sound of an empty tin.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
Ricky's tin contains two pounds and forty-three pence. Two pounds and thirty-nine pence of this is his own money.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
The rest of it belonged to a small child who, very gravely, dropped it in a penny at a time. He had three more coins to go when his mother spotted what he was doing.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
The empty space around him is impressive. He doubts that more than a dozen people have entered the sports shop behind him all afternoon.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Pause.
He'd be quite willing to move along. All they have to do is come out and ask him politely.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Oh, fuck it. What's he doing here, anyway?
He crushes the tin with one hand and hurls it to the ground. It bursts open in a shower of coins. People throw him frightened looks. The space around him is growing rapidly.
For a moment, he teeters in the balance. Madness looks very inviting.
But then he remembers that there is one place, one place where he has always been welcomed, accepted. He's early, but what the hell. He needs a little happiness right now.
The shelter is cold and dark. Without its constant stream of faces, it seems a much less cheery place.
Ricky flips on the lights and starts work in the kitchen.
Making chicken soup for a hundred requires organisation, but not much culinary skill. Making decent soup for, say, five, is a good deal trickier. Doing the same for the hundred takes absolute dedication.
Ricky grins to himself and unearths another guilty secret, hidden in a remote drawer. His grandmother's recipe for converting Heinz Cream Of Chicken into a delicious broth, plus most of the ingredients needed to do it a hundred times over. The rest are sitting in his car. He's been planning this for months, but never had the courage to do it before.
When the other volunteers arrive, the smell is already mouth-watering. Amazed and delighted, they leave him to cook, busying themselves with setting up the hall.
As they start to serve the soup, Ricky's stomach growls eagerly. But the hunger is nothing compared to the pleasure he gets at the delighted buzz in the hall. Still wearing his apron proudly, he takes his place behind the counter, grins fiercely and prepares himself for the first wave.
Ten minutes later, he tears off his apron and stalks away. He has managed to give away one bowl of soup. One fucking bowl of soup.
It's as if he didn't even fucking exist.
Ricky takes care to enunciate clearly.
"I want 'nother beer. Please."
"Same again, sir?"
"That'll be one-ninety, sir."
"Here go. Keepa change, m'good man."
He totters unsteadily back to his table, where a collection of empty glasses is building up. He doesn't know much about alcohol - hell, he had to pick this beer at random, tastes like dog piss, and he should know. Suits him, really.
Aaanyway, he doesn't know much about alcohol, but he does know that you have to start slowly, build up your tolerance, not drink yourself under the table the first night. And drinking on an empty stomach is bad.
Screw that. Besides, his stomach isn't empty, it's got five pints in it.
Somebody clears their throat. He looks up, after a couple of false starts. The man is eyeing the pile of ashes on the table and the sopping tray.
"Sir, we do have bowls, if you'd like one."
Ricky pulls the ashtray closer and laps up another mouthful from it.
The man shrugs to himself and moves to clear up the empty glasses. Ricky puts an arm round them protectively, stares at the man and gives a low, rumbling growl.
After that, he is left alone.
Eventually, he runs out of money and, after trying out several different methods of urination in the men's room, stumbles out of the pub door. The barman is left shaking his head and smiling. This one will be good for a few retellings, if he's any judge. Bloody great werewolf comes in the door, tries to drown his sorrows, and gets absolutely smashed on twelve pints of alcohol-free lager.
Ricky keeps walking. It doesn't matter where, he just keeps putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, he'll have to go home - wherever that is - but for now, he's just walking. People avoid him, crossing the street if necessary. He grins to himself. They're fucking terrified of him. And that feels good.
"Hey! Hey, wolfman! Shouldn't you be on a fucking leash?"
It's coming from behind him. Young male, slurring his words slightly. Four or five others judging by the footsteps, his mind tells him.
"Hey, Lassie! I'm talkin' to you!"
He sneaks a look behind him. They're smartly dressed, suits and flashy ties. Early twenties. They smell of money, success. The pinnacle of human evolution.
"What's the fucking matter with you? You deaf or something? Hey, I'm fuckin' talking to you!"
Ricky keeps walking. Alcohol plus stress equals violence.
One of the men slaps him on the shoulder. Instinct makes him turn around, even though he knows he should keep walking.
Ricky reels from the blow, sensitive nose streaming blood. But the pain is nothing. He is afraid.
The follow-up catches him in the stomach, winding him.
He can feel it getting out of hand, the adrenaline flowing, primitive savagery reasserting itself. Blood is going to be spilled tonight.
The others are joining in now. Two blows land at once, spinning him around.
He is afraid. Not for himself, but for the men. It is roaring towards him like a runaway train. Bloodlust. Five good men are going to die tonight.
His legs are kicked out from under him. He falls to all fours.
He is fighting it, but only half-heartedly. Deep down, he knows, he is weak. He is willing to trade the lives of these men for a night free from pain. The battle is lost before it is even begun.
Somebody kicks his head, snapping it to one side.
This is it, he can feel it. His vision is starting to dim, the animal taking over. Five men, five beautiful, perfect men, are going to die at the teeth and claws of a SCAB.
A hail of blows roll him over onto his back. A man kicks him in the testicles, flooding him with a brief flare of pain.
Oh God, this is it. I'm fading out. I'm going to kill them when it's me that deserves to die, because I'm so weak.
Ricky waits for the inevitable.
It never happens.
The blows have stopped. He cringes in anticipation but no more come. The sound of drunken laughter fades gradually into the distance.
Ricky doesn't understand. The darkness is still closing in. How can he be in bloodlust now?
After a few long moments, he realises the answer: he isn't enraged, he's dying.
He feels almost peaceful, lying here, bleeding to death. Because he knows he is, finally, going to be allowed to rest. He settles down to wait.
But then panic sets in, as he realises his error. Ricky is very, very far from a state of grace. If he dies now, he'll be damned for all eternity.
He stirs and moans, trying to attract the attention of the passers-by. But, for some reason, nobody is looking at him. They walk resolutely past, eyes fixed straight ahead. Normally, people can't stop staring at him, but right now, when he needs their help, the fuckers won't even glance at him.
A chill runs through him as he realises what he's just thought. Full of hatred and curses even on his death bed. He's damned himself for sure now.
Please God, give me another chance, don't let me die. I promise I won't let you down again. I don't want to go to Hell.
Just as his vision fades to blackness, he catches a glimpse of a beautiful, pale figure, her head haloed in golden hair. There must have been some mistake, he thinks, I'm meant to go to the Other Place.
But then darkness finally catches up with him.
When he comes to, he is lying on something soft. Everything around him is white, apart from the angel, who for some peculiar reason is wearing a green-striped jacket.
And then the perspective in his mind flips, and he realises that he is, once more, lying in a hospital bed. And that is no angel, but Sarah.
He wonders idly why he didn't recognise her before. Then it occurs to him that he has never actually looked at her face until now. To think of all those lost opportunities...
She must have noticed that he's awake, because she steps over and ruffles the fur around his ears.
"Good evening, sleepy-head. How are you feeling?"
She's treating him like a child, like a dog. Probably some maternal thing. Best play along with it; he doesn't want to hurt her feelings.
"Um, fine. Thanks."
Somebody else is here. A nurse or doctor, maybe.
"You're a very lucky man,-"
"- Mr Corby. You were missing quite a lot of blood, but apart from that, nothing too serious. We patched you up in no time."
A brief pause. Does something pass between them? Ricky can't quite see.
"In fact, we're ready to discharge you. You'll need to be looked after for a few days, just to make sure you're okay."
So much for that; who'd-
"Oh, that is good news. I'd be happy to take him off your hands."
Still in something of a state of shock, he allows himself to be taken to her car.
She fills the drive with light, pleasant conversation. Ricky can still scarcely believe what's happening when they arrive at her house.
She helps him to the front door, then, unexpectedly, knocks. A few moments later, a young man opens it.
"Ricky, this is Jamie."
Jamie smiles and stretches out his hand.
His clothes are an unusual mix of the old and the brand new. His face is oddly weathered for his age. His smile is sincere, but in his eyes and his bearing, there is pain, an impression, of being trodden upon once too often, just like Ricky has seen so many times before at-
Jesus, he knows him. Jamie was a regular at the shelter. Why doesn't he recogn-
Being very careful not to hurt him, Ricky takes his hand and shakes it. Jamie's grip is surprisingly gentle.
"I see she's picked up another stray. Well, come right in."
There is humour there, but no malice. Ricky lets himself be ushered in. Jamie turns to Sarah.
"I was only cooking for two, but I can easily stretch it to three. It'll be ready in a few minutes."
If it's soup, Ricky's heart will break right down the middle.
After the meal, Jamie goes straight upstairs, explaining that he has a long day ahead of him. Sarah and Ricky wash up, then settle down on the sofa with coffee.
Sarah takes a sip, then turns to him.
"So, how are you feeling?"
"Um, fine, really. A little sore, but that's it."
Oddly, this is true. He really does feel pretty good.
"I'm glad." She smiles for a moment, then it fades. "You know, I'm really sorry for the way you were treated yesterday. I'm sure Alan could have found another way. And as for what happened last night - I just can't understand how people can do that to you."
There is a pause. Then, Ricky, to his surprise, finds himself responding.
"Look, um, don't feel bad about it. It wasn't your fault."
She looks straight into his eyes.
"I know. But that doesn't make it hurt any less."
Suddenly self-conscious, Ricky drops his gaze. It lingers for a moment near her throat, then he panics and forces it further down. His eye is caught by something around her neck - a chain. Automatically, he follows it down further until it passes under her blouse, and he is left staring at her-
He squeezes his eyes tight shut, then swallows nervously.
"Ricky? Are you okay?"
He babbles something, anything to get away.
"Um, I've got to go- uh, call of- that is, I need to use the bathroom, please?"
She grins. "Top of the stairs, on the right."
He bolts from the room and dashes up the stairs as quickly as he can.
When he emerges, Sarah is waiting for him on the landing with a pile of bedclothes.
"Would you mind giving me a hand with these? Jamie's still taking up the spare room, so you'll have to sleep on the sofa, I'm afraid."
He nods. She tosses him a bundle, then takes her half downstairs. Still slightly hesitant, he follows.
The next five minutes are spent wrestling with the sheets and duvet. Neither says much, but they work together closely. Ricky feels almost disappointed when the bed is finally made.
"Your landlord gave me a bag of things from your flat - toothbrush, change of clothes, your shampoo and brushes and so on. They're over there, in the corner. Now, is there anything else you'd like?"
Ricky blinks several times, trying to squash the images. Desperately, he searches for something to say.
"Um, a glass of water, please. For tonight."
"Sure, I'll go and fetch that in a minute. Whilst I think of it, I'll just open the window for you; it gets quite hot in here. If you feel cold, you can always shut it again."
Sarah undoes the latch and pushes it open. A cool breeze blows in, carrying her scent over to Ricky. It is a beautiful night out, clear and crisp, and the moon is full. A hunter's moon.
He grins and takes a step towards her. She smiles. His grin widens. Hers doesn't.
"Um, I'll just go and get your water-"
As she turns, he puts his hand on her arm. She pulls slightly towards the door. He increases the pressure.
"Ricky." Alarmed, but not panicking yet.
Something in his mind has gone click. An under-used set of hormones starts pumping into his bloodstream with a vengeance. His heart races. He pulls her closer, roughly.
"Ricky!" Genuine fear. She knows what's about to happen.
He claws five jagged lines through her dress, then pushes her to the floor.
She screams, loud and shrill, but he ignores it.
Mine. Alpha. Bitch.
He starts tearing her clothes off. He's nearly there, but her blouse is caught on something. Something small, around her neck. He growls and tugs at it. It won't come off. What the hell is it, anyway?
Around her neck.
-please god, give me another chance, don't let me die. i promise i won't let you down again. i don't want to go to hell.-
All the energy drains out of him. He falls to his knees and howls a howl of anger and shame and pain and frustration at what he came so close to doing. Then, trembling, Sarah takes his head in her arms and they cry each other to sleep.
Much later, he wonders why Jamie didn't intervene.
The next three weeks pass in a beautiful blur. For the first time in nearly ten years, Richard has found a friend who enjoys his company. They cook, they dine out, they watch a film, they go for walks. Sometimes they just sit together and read, comfortable in each other's silence. Often they talk late into the night.
After a few days, Jamie's first paycheque arrives and he moves out. Richard no longer has to sleep on the sofa. One night, when they are both cold and lonesome, he spends curled at the foot of her bed. They never get closer than that.
Richard doesn't leave her because of a single incident, but rather because of many small ones. The irritated look in a waiter's eye when he sees just what has entered his restaurant. The way customers will unconsciously take a detour around the supermarket rather than walk past him. The little sniff which says: Kindly keep your distance, mutt; I have a very delicate nose. The joker who thinks that whistling How much is that doggy in the window? is amusing.
To his surprise, none of these things disturbs him. In fact, he often finds himself grinning at them, playing along with them in counterpoint, turning prejudice into humour. If anything, he feels a peculiar sorrow towards the people who can act this way.
Sarah, though, takes them a good deal worse. Sometimes, she lets off fiery bursts of indignation. More often, she breaks into tears and has to be comforted.
The final straw comes at work one afternoon. A message comes for him that the manager, Alan, would like to see him in his office as soon as possible.
Two firm knocks.
"Come in, Richard. Please, take a seat."
"Richard, I'm afraid I have some bad news. I've had instructions from Head Office that SCABS are not to be employed in the preparation or distribution of food, as recommended by the Department of Health. I'm sorry. I know it's an overreaction, but the thing is that nobody's proved it can't be transmitted that way. You remember what happened with BSE. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, there was nothing I could do."
Richard meets his gaze.
"That's quite all right. I'm sure it wasn't your fault."
"Look, I'm sorry, but I've got to let you go. If there's anything I can do - anything..."
"I'm sure I shall be fine. It's been a pleasure working with you."
Richard extends his hand. Alan hesitates, then shakes it.
"Goodbye, Richard. Good luck."
The rest of the staff are extremely sympathetic. He receives many offers of help and good wishes. But nobody can tell him where Sarah is.
Eventually she is found, locked inside the staff toilet, physically sick at his treatment. There is no permanent harm done, but he has to take her home and comfort her for a long time before she can stop crying.
This is killing her. It has to stop.
She looks up at him. He takes in a deep breath.
"Sarah, in some ways, this came at the right time. There are some... things I ought to do, things I've been ignoring for too long."
She's still looking up at him with wide, puppy-dog eyes. This is going to be hard.
"I love you, Sarah. You're more than just a friend to me. That's why I can't bear to see you hurt. And that's why I have to leave."
There. It's out. He draws another breath.
"I want to stay in touch. I promise I'll visit often. But I can't stand by and watch you suffer like this because of me."
He looks into her eyes for forgiveness. It is there, along with pain and... resignation. Almost as if-
Almost as if she's been here many times before.
For the rest of the night, they simply hold each other.
The next morning, Richard cooks breakfast for them, packs his things and then leaves. His first destination is his parents' house.
Five years later.
A man with the body of a small boy is lying in a hospital bed, deep in a coma. Slowly but surely, he is dying.
A humanoid wolf sits by the bedside, head bowed, hands clasped together.
After a few moments, he looks up. A nurse is waiting at the foot of the bed.
"Reverend, there's a 'phone call for you. From somewhere called the St. Catherine's Shelter. They said it's important."
Richard closes his eyes once more, briefly, then stands up. The nurse leads him to a small office adjoining the ward and hands him the telephone.
"Hello? Yes, hello, Jamie. Sarah?"
There is a long pause.
"Yes, certainly, I'll take the service. I know. I'll be there as soon as I can. Thanks for calling me. Goodbye."
Gently, he replaces the handset.
Sarah died last night. She had taken a mentally ill man into her home after he was discharged from a local institution. That evening, he raped and killed her before taking his own life.
Somehow, Richard had always believed that because it had never happened before, it never would. That she was under special protection. The realisation that she wasn't gives him even more respect for her.
He could have stopped this from happening. He could have kept her from taking in strangers. He could have saved her life.
But if he had, it would not have been her life any more.
There are people waiting out there, he knows, people in need of comfort and love. The child on the bed needs his prayers more than most. But before he can help them, he has to grieve himself.
He spends perhaps ten minutes on his knees, then climbs to his feet.
He has to go back out there, now. He will never truly put her loss behind him, but, for her sake, he will do his best. He must keep dancing the dance, whirling halfway between light and darkness, halfway between the angels and the beasts.
He smiles slightly at that. An angel and a beast.
He is not dancing alone.
There. It is done. The figure in black sets down his pen and relaxes for a moment. Then, he walks over to a dresser and picks up a stiff band of white cloth. A wry smile plays upon his lips for a moment as he fastens the collar at his neck, as it always does.
He collects Sarah's eulogy, painstakingly written, from his desk and leaves the room. At the front door to the vicarage, he starts to pull an umbrella from the stand, and then hesitates, his head cocked. Then, he puts the umbrella back and smiles slightly. Perfect weather for a funeral.
The rain has stopped. He opens the door and steps out into the sunshine.
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