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Fiction by Rhys

Canine

canine
/ˈkeɪnʌɪn,ˈkanʌɪn/
adjective
adjective: canine
relating to or resembling a dog or dogs.
“canine behavioural problems”
ZOOLOGY
relating to animals of the dog family.
“related canine species”
noun
noun: canine; plural noun: canines; noun: canine tooth; plural noun: canine teeth; plural noun: canines tooth
 1. a dog.
“the majority agreed with neutering stray canines”
ZOOLOGY
an animal of the dog family.
 2. a pointed tooth between the incisors and premolars of a mammal, often greatly enlarged in carnivores.
“most primates use their canine teeth for fighting”

-and don’t bother coming back unless that basket is full,” Mum says, craning her head out of the cottage window. Her voice lost in the wind. Don’t get distracted this time. Just get what you can and come right back, okay?”

I won’t.” rolling eyes, I know a different route.”

The forest borders our cottage, I can probably make the trip in the time it takes Mum to collect the eggs from the hens. It’s strange because I grew up with it being there, keeping a watch. It’s seen every birthday I’ve ever had, it’s listened to me have a meltdown when it was time to get a haircut or forced to have a bath. Who looks after it? I just know I have to go most days. It watches us sleep, it provides food and shelter, why should I be afraid? It’s just trees.

Fine drizzle seeps through old dungarees turning my t-shirt soggy, clinging to skin the same way as a stamp to an envelope. Toes and fingers are numb. I just need to find enough food for a basket, then I can go home.

The forest has receded in bald spots, where daylight tries to wake it. It’s the perfect entrance, without having to use the main path and be spotted by nosey people. I’ve rubbed out the grass to the bare floor below.

Are you coming in?” whispers a voice. Brittle. Hollow.

Francis?”

Before I can ask another question, a pair of hands poke through the curtain of bracken. Calloused. Cold. Fingers dance in the chill air. Index finger curling me to come forward, to join the undergrowth. They are old, worn in, not like my friend Billy’s hands. They unfurl and stretch in the breeze. Each digit creaking. Retreating back into the hedge without a trace. Why are you hiding in the bushes?

#

If a random man is acting weird, he’s probably fucking weird so keep walking,” says Mum on the school drop-off. Bags weighing the pram down.

What if he’s just awkward like me?”

Sam. I don’t have the bandwidth for this right now. You know what I mean, just ignore them and keep walking, okay?”

#

The hands reappear further down. Clapping to my attention. I know I should walk away and tell mum, but I can’t tear my eyes away.

Fingers interlacing with his, engulfing mine. First a steeple then a pinecone. I can taste the regret, the shame but before I can untangle them, I’m ripped through the mouth of bushes. Red hair waving goodbye in the wind, as my body is slowly eaten up by the arms of the oaks.

I’m gone.

Damp air greets my nose as I lift my head inside the belly of the forest. A familiar scent that usually makes me feel safe, and at ease but not this time. It’s diseased. Sick. There’s no one on the other side waiting for me but I can still feel the rough patches of his hands, the scent of piss and soft decay. We’ve unknowingly cultivated this septic forest, fed it, sustained it. Watched it grow.

There’s no one here. Empty. I clap back three claps expecting a reply, a face. Nothing. It’s unnaturally quiet. Unnerving. Blood whooshing inside the motorway of my head, chest thumping loudly audible past my own ears. Sometimes I’ll come in here and just sit, and read a book, but this time I find no peace in its silence. I’m not welcome. Not a single bird sings from the canopy. Strange. The forest collectively holds its breath.

Wasting no time, I weave through the stencil trees like a bat on the hunt for gnats. It’s muscle memory. It’s easy when you know what you’re looking for. It’s easier to run barefoot.

Eyes don’t leave on me. Wandering hands scratch my skin from afar. Who is he? Where are you? Where are you hiding?

Paranoia works overtime. A hunched figure waving for attention, a face staring back at me from inside the bushes. I stick to the path, the same as I always do but the sticky sense I’m being followed doesn’t wear off.

Scanning the woodland floor just like I do in Mum’s pantry. There is nothing worth eating, unripe raspberries. Green. Hard. My stomach rumbles. Folding. Kneading itself like bread dough. I haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon and I’m sick with hunger.

I move from one bush to the next, just like the little cabbage whites in our garden. Without wasting any time checking for spiders or grubs, I swallow them whole. Blackberry juice stains my hands pink, but it makes no difference to corpse-purple skin.

Fiery hair sticks out from behind a tree. Francis? Stop following me. I don’t need a chaperone to get food.”

They all think I’m incapable of doing things on my own, I’m not an infant, I can manage.

Are you lost little boy?” says a voice from the nettles, not quite human, not quite animal.

Fuck off. You’re not funny and the stupid little accent you’re doing is tacky.”

A long way from home aren’t we?”

Go away.”

#

I live in the hedges. In the trees where you can’t see.”

Tilting back, they’re all empty, and scrawny. What are you talking about?”

I grab the nearest thick stick, ready to whack him where it hurts as payback for breaking my books and eating my crisps.

Why are you panting like a dog? Did you run over to spy on me? To report back to Mum that I ate the last pork pie?”

No answer.

A breeze serves up a strange, sour smell that fills every nook of my sinuses. Tasting it on the back of my throat. It’s a wet dog, open rubbish that’s been left out in the sun. Rotten meat. Spoiled milk. Turning my T-shirt over my nose as a makeshift gas mask to blot out the stench.

Don’t be shy. I won’t bite.” The voice said. Punctuating each word with canines.

I know it’s you, Francis, and when I catch you I’ll wring your fucking neck!”

Foul mouth cretin.”

Twigs snap. Leaves rustle. Strands of greying lank hair from behind the end of the table give away his hiding spot. He jumps up and lands on the placemat. I’m so hungry. Very hungry.” He groans, clutching his stomach.

It’s just a fox. Timid and curious. Do foxes behave the same way stray cats do? Will it respond to my calls of attention or will it scratch me if I try?

Are you lost?” says the voice.

I ignore the whispers. I’m not lost, because I know that even if I find myself in an area that feels unfamiliar, I can just keep walking in one direction and I’ll never make it out, it’s not a very big forest. A couple of acres.

Purple. Something purple and flowy dances to my right. Someone’s lost scarf or ripped tarp caught in a tug-of-war with the breeze. I turn, expecting to see torn clothing, anything, but a person inside, moving to music I can’t hear. Muttering, kicking up dead leaves.

Can he hear me? Does he know I’m watching him?

He’s a scarecrow, hunched over a mattress. It’s tea-stained and pockmarked. Replying to the questions that no one asked him. The bottom of his dressing gown is blackened.

Turn back. Turn back. Turn back.

He looks up, grinding his teeth. You filthy rat.” dropping the bone and running towards me at a pace quicker than I can match.

What’s the matter?” He asks, inches from my face. Soil and decay on his breath. Don’t be scared, you wanted this.”

I wanted this?”

A grin unfurled just like the fallen leaves that lay beside us, exposing a set of teeth, ear to ear. To play with me, I know you’re lonely in that house. Francis won’t play with you. He hides your toys and steals your food.”

Blood drains from my body, into the dirt. How did the weird man know this,

You’ve been spying on us.”

I know what it’s like, I’m very lonely too.”

You’re not a friend. You’re just pretending.”

You can’t go back empty-handed? You’ll be shouted at, locked away.” How does he know about being sent out to the woods? Can he see the inside of our pantry?

I push him back, Go away.” keeping him at arm’s length, I don’t need help from a fucking creep like you, I can find my own food.”

A knot of tension bulges at the corners of his jaw. That’s not a nice way to talk to people. Not nice.”

What do you want from me? You’re too old to be talking to someone my age.”

I’m hungry, just like you.” He takes an apple from my basket. Digging canines into the skin, juice flowing over hairy knuckles.

There could be worms inside that?”

He smiles, -and if there is? They can meet the worms inside me.” Rummaging in the front pockets, I have a sandwich?” hoping that if I offer him something more substantial, he’ll leave me alone, or show me where the best fruit is.

No. Alive. Breathing. Wriggling.” He stuck his head inside the basket to check as though I were gatekeeping the good stuff from him.

Whining like a cat in heat, It’s been tampered with. Your hands have mauled it.”

Fine. I’ll eat it then.”

The strange man takes the sandwich, undressing it from its cellophane jacket, gliding soil-ridden fingertips over the bread, giddy like a junkie on the verge of their next hit. Preparing for the rush of adrenaline. The iron twang of blood.

More?”

I don’t have any more meat?”

I’ll make a deal? Yes, yes a deal?”

Hmm.”

If you play a game with me and you win, I’ll leave you alone, we’ll be even.” he steps back licking his dirty mouth, You can have these.” in his hands were a pile of coins, enough to get food from the market, no more foraging for a while. But if I win, If I win I get what I want?” Eyes wide open as he tried to convince me, his voice sharp and direct like cut silver.

We’re desperate for a break.

And you’ll go away for good? No more stalking me for food?”

He grins, wide enough to swallow me whole. Basket and unwashed hair barely touching the sides.

Everyone loves hide and seek, no?”

I hesitate on a reply, unsure of how to answer him. He’s not aggressive, but there’s an uncanniness to him, he can’t be trusted, but I’m desperate and this money could help us more than any stolen eggs. Do we have a deal?”

I nod.

Hide. I’ll count. But be warned, I’m very good.”

Where can I hide? The tree? I’m not a nimble climber and there are not enough low branches for me to get a decent footing. I need to find a better hiding spot. Quickly.

Are you ready?” his voice breaking with giddy excitement. Swallowing the excess saliva.

Ready.”

Hands clasped over his eyes, back facing me. I take my chance and run. Chucking my basket and hat in the opposite directions, hopefully, it’ll buy me more time.

Three. Four. Five.”

I don’t have long. A minute if I’m lucky.

Six. Seven. Eight.”

There’s a tuft of reeds, a pond? It’s stagnant and soupy. crouching down for better coverage. If I’m quiet and hold my breath I should win. Sludge extrudes through each digit.

Branches creak. Nine. Ten.”

Water bites into my thighs. Bown like the mugs of cold tea Mum forgets to move off the table. With a hand over my mouth to stop the laboured breathing. I can hear him. He’s close. Closer. I shut my eyes. Ready or not, here I come.”

Parting reeds the same way mum checks us for lice. I hold my breath. Please go away. Go away.

Grabbing a fistful of hair from my crown, he yanks me up to the surface. Wait. Stop. Can we-’’

Leaning close, noses touching, I win. You’re not very good at this game.”

I thought I could distract him, keep him away from the house, away from me and mum but you can’t make a bargain with death and expect to win. I feel sick. The vomit rises, rising faster than I can swallow it back down, burning a hole in my oesophagus.

Again? You cheated.”

One game. I won. That’s fair.”

Kicking his shin. Harder, catching the bone under the surface. Licking drool from his jowls, Just a nibble. Just a taste.”

The first bite stings, hotter than a bee’s kiss. I kick his stomach. Hard. Aiming for a vital organ, the liver, the stomach.

Feisty. Alive. Tender.” he says with a smile so wide it’s painful to replicate. Unnatural. Over animated. We love that.”

The second bite paints the trees crimson.

Every inch of the forest lags around me like the low-resolution pixels of a cheap video game. Staggering. Crawling. Writhing to safety. I clutch the base of the nearest tree, digging my nail beds into the soft bark of the elm. He’s faster than me. It’s pointless. He grabs my waist. Do not make a bargain with death and expect to win.”

My chest shrinks tighter. Tighter. Tighter, a python slowly strangling its prey to the brink of suffocation. The third bite stops the crying.

Foxes need to eat too.”

Rhys

Twitter: @rhys_evanss

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