Exclusive Story: The Wolf is Loose
This short story takes place at an English boarding school, specifically the one where I myself attended. You could even say that the young boy at the heart of it bears a striking resemblance to your author, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Footsteps falling as light as possible on two-hundred-year-old floorboards, Ed crept past the door to Mr Hunt’s office. Careful not to tread even in the sepia light creeping out from under the doorframe, lest his movement catch the eye and raise the ire of the teacher who’d been his nemesis for five long years. A shiver went down his spine, an involuntary spasm which passed as he moved into the dark corridor beyond.
This was his last term at the boarding school that had been home since a tender seven years of age. After this term he’d go home for a few months and head straight to another one, where he’d stay until his A-levels. Then university. Job. Wife. Tax avoidance. Death. A route as old as time.
As usual, he couldn’t sleep. Never could. This victorian building was too full of shadows and sounds to let someone like Ed find rest on a hard mattress and a thin pillow. One creak and he was up for the night. One half-heard whisper in the dark as he fell to sleep and he’d snap back to fearful wakefulness.
Lights out was hours earlier, and he’d spent those hours listening to the seven other boys in his dorm wrestle, belch, and fart their way towards unconsciousness. He’d put one headphone in and listened to mindless talk radio for an hour but found himself getting more confused and angry than tired. So, he took himself for a walk.
The stakes were pretty high. If caught, the potential punishments ranged from being forced to spend the night with his nose and toes pressed against a crumbling wall to being introduced to the back of Hunt’s slipper.
Tonight his legs took him toward the first year dorms. Some nights they took him to the chapel. One one occasion they’d taken him past the matron’s station toward the girl’s dorms before he’d come to his senses.
The school lay out like a cross, with dorms ascending in year groups from the foot to the head, staff rooms spreading out across the arms. That was the first floor, then below them the school itself. Neither particularly happy places for Ed, who’d been in trouble as much during daylight hours as insomnia had gotten him into in the dark.
Like every building of its age, the school brimmed with ghost stories, and no matter how much Ed told himself he didn’t believe them, they had a way of seeping into his thoughts as he lay down and saw shadows pass overhead, or heard floorboards creak in rooms where nobody moved. The only thing to do, Ed found, was to walk.
Except now, moving past the first dorm he’d ever laid his head down in, a sound brought him to a stop.
He froze, breath catching in his throat.
Voices. Hushed. Urgent. Whispered.
The sound of terrified children.
Every sense heightened, as he strained for the source. For one terrifying moment, it seemed they were behind him, that if he turned round a corridor full of blank-eyed children would greet him. Heart sinking like a stone into his stomach, he steeled himself to turn.
The dorm. The voices came from inside the dorm.
Taking a step back along the corridor, he pressed an ear against the door, feeling the relief flood over his skin at the realisation it was first year boys, no doubt sitting in a circle in the centre of the room, thin duvets wrapped around them, talking to ward away the fears creeping in as they realised what their life now was.
Could he have ever been that young? Babies, almost, crying when they fell to the ground, screaming with unrestrained joy when allowed to play. Not yet dimmed by the reality of life in these grounds.
Adjusting his feet, he placed his palms on the door and leaned in, trying to hear what the boys were saying.
‘Eyes like burning coals,’ the voice said, to murmurs and gasps from the others. ‘Its fangs dripping with saliva, foaming and speckled with red. Blood from its last victim.’
Ed smiled. Ghost stories. Little kids telling ghost stories. Ed loved a good ghost story. Strange, for one so easily scared.
‘Where was it?’ another voice asked, full of wonder and horror.
‘At the top of the steps leading down to the gym.’
‘You saw him?’
‘I saw his eyes. It was enough. One of the sixers told me the rest.’
‘Am not. You go and look for yourself. You’ll see.’
Ed stepped back from the door, the strongest memory taking hold.
Five years ago, he’d been in the same dorm, young and scared. They’d sat around all night talking then, too. One night he’d gone to the toilet just along the corridor. Those bathrooms had a wide open window. As he went, he’d sworn he’d seen two red eyes staring back at him from across the path at the top of the stairs. Gave him enough of a shock he’d splashed his slippers with piss.
More scared than he’d ever been before, he’d looked out at the steps, mind already filling the blanks in — a monster, its slavering jaws able to reach across the void to take Ed’s throat — and saw… an old grey box, two red lights set into it above a sign marking it as an electrical risk. A grey box he walked past every day on the way to PE without ever noticing the blinking red lights.
Half terrified, half relieved, he’d let out a little bark of laughter right there in the empty bathroom, the sound of it reverberating off the cold tiles and startling him all over again.
He’d felt silly, especially with slippers half soaked with urine. How the hell could he explain that to his dorm mates?
A germ of an idea blossomed in his mind. He had the start of a scary story right there. He would go back in, and tell it. And he did, embellishing those two little points of red light into a tale of beastly horror.
Five years later, he was listening to the same story, told by kids he’d likely never spoken to.
‘The groundskeeper was out by the bike track, used to have a shed out there.’
Never mind that the bike track came the story itself, Ed thought.
‘So, he’s in the shed, putting his tools away, when his faithful dog turns round and starts snarling at him, his mouth all foaming up.’
Great, now they’re stealing from Stephen King.
‘So the dog goes for him, kills him. Rips his throat out. There’s blood spraying everywhere, and the dog is just going mad, ripping at his throat again and again, until the groundskeeper is dead.’
Blimey, Ed thought. Kid’s either got a great imagination or he’s a shoe in for government in twenty years time.
‘But the dog’s trapped,’ the kid continued, to audible gasps of horror and concern from the other boys. A dog might savage a groundskeeper, but it’s still a doggie. ‘So it starts to dig, under the door. Half mad with blood and rage, it keeps going. Digging and digging and digging.’
By this point, Ed is leaning in, ear pressed so close to the door he can hear the hushed tones the teller is using, can practically hear the rest of the audience leaning in, too.
‘Finally, paws not much more than stumps, eyes bloodshot, mouth full of dirt and groundskeeper’s flesh, it breaks free, coming up from the earth, panting, at the bottom of the steps.’
The teller stops for a moment, and Ed thinks there’s a good chance he’s going to fall through the door and terrify the living shit out of a bunch of first years.
‘There, coming out of the gym, is a first year boy. Sleepwalking. The dog lunges for him, desperate for more flesh. It digs his teeth into his arm, but the boy pulls away, awake now, the teeth not breaking the skin. The boy runs up the stairs, terrified to look back, thinking at any moment the hound’ll catch him. Makes it back into the main hall and slams the door behind him.’
The sighs and groans of the other boys make it clear they very much want this scary story to be over so they can go to sleep and have terrifying nightmares about it.
The teller pauses.
‘They found the groundskeeper the next morning. The boy spent the rest of his school years in the hospital wing, afraid to leave, always hearing the sound of padding paws behind him.’
‘What about the dog?’ another boy asks, voice so small and fragile it might as well be a bird’s.
‘Never found. They say if you go to our bathroom at night, you can see it, eyes like burning coals, sat at the top of the stairs, waiting for the boy to return so he can finish what he started.’
A hell of a story.
He pulled away from the door, fighting the instinct to burst in and scare the boys half to death. Their screams would definitely bring old Hunt running.
He moved away, the creak of rusting springs signalling the boys climbing back into bed. Safe to say, none of them would be attempting to use that bathroom tonight, no matter how desperate they were.
The corridor was eerily silent, and the taste of the story left Ed’s skin bristling and bumped. It wasn’t the same story, but it’d been so long ago he could barely remember it.
Walking on, he found himself back in the bathroom, where one night he’d looked out of a window and seen two red lights. Moving to the window, he looked down.
Weird. He was sure they were usually there.
His breath fogged the glass. He reached up with a moth-eaten sleeve of grey pyjama, clearing the glass.
He looked again at the top of the stairs.
Two red lights on an old grey box. They didn’t even look like eyes.
Letting out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding, he felt an urgent press on his bladder.
Wow, he thought. Kid got to me.
He managed not to splash his slippers this time, but as he finished up, movement caught his eye. The red lights twinkled out, and returned.
Something moved. Out there.
A hint of shadow though the gloom, casting long and indistinct dark on the driveway.
He looked at the red again. It bore into him.
If you’d have asked him, five minutes later, how he got out there from the bathroom, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you. The first he knew about it was when the chill cut through over-washed pyjama linen, biting against skin as it whistled through the holes.
Walking toward the top of the steps, gingerly, the school loomed through the darkness behind him, towering over and cutting out the sparse light eeking through cloud cover.
‘Hello?’ he said, idiotically, cursing himself the moment he said it.
Whatever moved back there stopped.
A low sound, like stones rattling around in an old can. The two red lights were there, still, static red bulbs blinking so fast as to be barely perceptible. They weren’t the problem. The problem was yellow eyes glinting in the moonlight atop a mouth dripping not with blood, but with saliva running from lips pulled back over bared teeth.
At once, it came back.
The real reason he’d ran back that night with urine soaked slippers, screaming and howling that a wolf had chased him.
There had been no casual saunter, five years earlier.
Only a boy, running for his life.
He couldn’t tell you why he’d gone out there that night, drawn by two red dots on a wall, but the memories, long since repressed, came flooding back. How could they not, as he stared once more into the face of pure, feral evil.
None of the teachers had believed him, of course. Why would they? Crazed boy sleepwalks through his nightmare. Over the years it had seemed the most sensible explanation, and his mind, his young, fragile mind, had squared it away as a half-remembered dream, a tale whispered to friends. Only at night had it truly affected him, kept him awake for reasons barely remembered, left him restless, wandering the halls.
The realisation of which didn’t help him as he fell back onto cold concrete, watching the eyes come closer, the slaver dripping onto his slippers as paws wet with mud advanced toward him, and the teeth closed around his neck before he could find a scream.
Pretty spooky, huh? I love that story, mostly because it’s wrapped up in the genesis of the first story I can ever remember creating, a nighttime tale of rabid dogs to entertain a bunch of kids every bit as homesick as I was.
Which is why I was absolutely delighted when the good folks at Hawk and Cleaver selected The Wolf is Loose for their multi-award-winning and gargantuan-download-inspiring The Other Stories podcast. It’s a huge honour to have had this story selected, and I love what they’ve done with my little shocker. Check it out at Acast, iTunes, Spotify, or whatever podcatcher you prefer. While you’re at it, give it a subscribe, and check out the work of this terrific collective at www.hawkandcleaver.com.