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THE RUNT OF THE LITTER

BY GEMMA CHURCH


It’s cold. No. It’s balls-out freezing. And I mean that in the literal sense. Because when you’re naked, digging at frost-hard ground with bare hands, then that’s not cold, that’s balls-out freezing.


I paw at the ground, a tendril of panic unfurling in my stomach and growing into a butt-clenching fear that I’m digging in the wrong place. It’s a month since I was last here and I’m still recovering from the changing. But what’s even worse than my screaming muscles and encroaching hypothermia is that, if I don’t find my clothes soon, I’ll be late for Bert.


‘Halle-bloody-lujah,’ I mutter, my frost-bitten fingers glancing something solid. I tug the chest’s handle, falling back onto a hard crust of snow when it comes free.


Swearing, I shake myself down and pop open the rusty clasps, my fingers throbbing and, well, my other extremities disappearing to nothing.


I pull on my clothes and stand, wobbling about a bit on my two legs. It takes a few minutes to get used to bipedal motion again and I stagger from tree to tree, looking like some drunk in the woods. I’m not drunk. Not yet. That’ll come later and may also be why I keep forgetting where I put my bloody clothes.


The full moon cuts through the branches, tree shadows carving up the snowy landscape as I forge ahead, standing taller with each step, setting my sights on the distant, orange fuzzy ball of light.


When I get to The Laughing Lamb, I almost feel human again, pushing back my shoulders until they crack like gunfire.


In the car park, there are a few muddy landys, quad bikes and Wally’s tractor and trailer, which acts as the local taxi when everyone’s had a skinful.


The hearth’s heat smacks me in the face as I enter, stomping the snow off my boots. No sign of Bert yet as I approach Dave at the bar, flicking through a newspaper faster than anyone could read it.


‘Why isn’t the crossword on the same page, every time?’ He asks to no one in particular, removing a pen from behind his cauliflower ear.


When he sees me standing here, he breaks into a grin, exposing several missing teeth.


‘Has it been one month already? You and Bert having another date night?’


I resist rolling my eyes. You would have thought two blokes meeting up every month to have a bite to eat wouldn’t be a novelty. But it is. And Dave says the same thing every time I walk through that door in my current form.


‘Aye, Bert’ll be here soon. We’ll have the usual. Two pints and some whisky chasers, ta,’ I say, hoping there’s still some cash in my trouser pocket from last time. There is. Jackpot.


Dave shifts his bulk around the space behind the bar with surprising grace, glancing over at his crossword as he works the pump. ‘You up for steak tonight?’


‘Aye, can’t beat your steak nights.’


Dave drains the optics. I know I shouldn’t ask but I can’t resist.


‘No sign of Mac tonight? Can’t believe he’d give up his spot by the fire to go out in this weather.’


‘You wouldn’t credit it would you? But that daft dog went out when it started getting dark. But he always comes back. I’ve never met a more loyal dog.’ Dave takes the pen from behind his ear, returning to his paper. ‘Or an uglier dog, now I think on it.’


I can’t help but smile at the (almost) compliment and go to my usual spot, by the fire, nodding to the regulars stooped over their pints at the bar.


Bert walks in a few minutes later. He’s one of those wiry wee buggers, all arms and legs with as much meat on him as a filleted earwig. He moves with a slight shuffle now, I notice, the first signs his body is starting to fold in on itself like a fist.


‘Never look any older, do you?’ He says, removing the camera from his scrawny neck, placing it on the table. There’s a pained expression to his smile. His eyes are deeper set than usual.


‘Well, you’re doing the ageing for both of us, by the looks of it!’ I jest. ‘What’s up mate?’


His liver-spotted hands shake ever so slightly as he nurses his pint, before gulping it down and looking blankly at the fire.

‘You alright, mate?’


‘Nah. It’s Shirley. Says I’m not the man she fell in love with, whatever that means. Says she’s going to leave me.’


I resist the urge to reach out and touch Bert’s hand.


‘She’s been having it off with the butcher down the way. The one with the sportscar,’ Bert says, necking his whiskey. ‘Bitch.’


Involuntarily, I shudder at that word. ‘What are you going to do this time?’


Bert shrugs. We both know what he’ll do. Nothing. Shirley’s run rings around him since they swapped rings. All hoity-toity, speaking to Bert like he’s her pet. She made him abandon his photography to get a ‘proper job’ in the city too. Then, refused to give him a family because she didn’t want to ruin her figure.


Yes, she’s a looker, if you like that sort of thing. People often laugh behind Bert’s back, saying he’s punching above his weight, saying she’s a trophy wife. But she’s the booby prize if ever I saw one.


I sup my beer. ‘Why don’t you get a room here for a few nights? Give yourself some time to think.’


Bert looks up and, for a moment, he’s like a wide-eyed kid again. ‘Maybe we could find somewhere together?’


Feck. I can feel my heart stinging at the thought. ‘Nah, I’m off again tonight. Just passing through.’


Bert nods, trying not to look disappointed. ‘You’re always just passing through, every month, regular as clockwork. Couldn’t you take one day off? We could go hiking tomorrow. There’s a nest of white-tailed eagles on Ben Sgritheall. I’d love to go photograph them. With you.’


He whispers the last two words as I swallow the rising ball in my throat. ‘You don’t need me; ; I’d scare those birds off before you got your camera out.’


Bert looks down.


‘Sorry, mate, it’s just my job...’ but my words peter out. Bert’s heard my excuses before. ‘Maybe we could pop out now, see what we can see?’


‘Nah, it’s too late.’


We sit in silence for a few minutes, Bert turning his whisky glass. The last drops of amber liquid catch the firelight, glowing like liquid gold.


I clear my throat. ‘Did you manage to get some decent shots when you walked over?’


‘Aye, saw a lovely robin singing her little heart out. Sort of photo that’d make the perfect Christmas card. That’s a point, I’ll need your address to post you one.’


I smile. ‘Another round?’


‘Is it not mine?’


‘Nah, you stay and take some report photos.’


Reportage, mate.’


I walk to the bar as Bert takes some snaps of the pub’s punters when they’re not looking. Reportage. That’s not what I’d call what he does with a camera. Raw talent is what I call it, each shot framed in love whether of man or beast or something in-between, like me.


I return to the table, balancing the drinks in my hands as Bert clicks his camera at me.


‘You never get any older, what’s your secret?’


‘Good food and better drink,’ I joke.


But as the night goes on, Bert keeps asking me why I look so young. As I get drunker, I nearly blurt it out.


‘Because I’m a fecking were-human, mate.’


I don’t though. Instead, I get another round. Then, another.


But when I turn around, Bert’s gone.


I stagger outside and watch Wally’s trailer pull out, skidding a bit on the ice and causing the drunken mob sitting in there to fall onto their backs. They all cheer, legs flailing and pointing skywards like a herd of riggwelted sheep. Not that I can criticise. My head’s spinning like a whirligig.


I stagger back into the pub and sit down, alone. I then proceed to neck those drinks, trying to drown out a horrible thought. The thought that I’m going to have to leave Bert again.


 

When I wake, I’m behind the bar. There’s an upturned glass by my paw, the last dregs of whisky pooling in its side. I consider sticking my tongue in the glass and licking up those last drops. Hair of the dog, right? Ha.


But it’s not just my hangover that’s killing me. Every inch of my body feels like it’s been walloped around. I roll over onto my back, letting out a low howl. This never gets any easier. My clothes lie crumpled around me and I hear Dave thumping around upstairs, ready to come down for this morning’s delivery. Oh feck.


I push myself to all fours, using my mouth to pull my clothes together, shoving them under a wingback. Jeez, my mouth is as dry as a badger’s nadge sack.


I just manage to push my boots under the chair when Dave walks in.


‘Mac, you’re back!’ He tickles me under my chin and I jump up to lick his face. He tastes of carbonic soap with a hint of bacon sandwich. I’d kill for a bacon sandwich right now. Although killing ain’t in my nature. Never has been.


Dave’s phone chimes and he pokes the screen with his fat finger. When he answers, his face drops. ‘Nah, thought he’d left in Wally’s trailerÖ Yeah, could barely standÖ I’ll look outside. That’s not like Bert.’


My hangover dissolves when I hear Bert’s name and I paw at Dave’s side. He ruffles my ears. ‘Come on, might as well walk you while I’m out looking. Bert never came home last night.’


He opens the door and I sprint outside, ignoring my screaming muscles and crunching joints, trying to get Bert’s scent.


But all I can smell is syrupy pine resin, animal droppings and the rot of leaves under melting snow. I go deeper into the woods, past where my suitcase lies, still open on the ground like a gaping wound. I feel sick.


Then, I catch the smell of fresh blood. I run for what feels like miles, before finding Bert’s lying on the ground as blue as the sky and barely breathing.


He opens his eyes. ‘Is that you, old pal? Feck. Are you a dog angel? Am I dead?’


His eyes roll back as I howl, again and again, lying my body over the bleeding, silver-rimmed wounds in Bert’s chest to stop him losing any more blood.


Dave comes running over and throws his coat over Bert’s crumpled body, picking him up like he’s nowt heavier than a rugby ball.


Back at the pub, he lies Bert on a table. I graze my wet nose against Bert’s knuckles as his hand flops over the side, licking His skin pinkens but without his usual liver spots. Dave rings 999.


‘Ambulance. My mate’s been in the woods all night and I think he’s been attacked by dogs or something, there’s blood everywhere and—’


But Dave stops as he peeps under the coat and then removes it entirely. I jump up and look too as he pokes at Bert’s torn shirt. Every silver-rimmed wound has disappeared.


‘Sorry, still here,’ Dave continues on the phone. ‘Must have made a mistake. He’s not cutÖ Yeah, he’s regaining consciousness...’


Dave’s voice trails off as he goes behind the bar and fills two whiskey glasses. When he gets back and hangs up the phone, Bert is sitting up, swinging his legs over the table’s side like a child.


‘Bert, what happened?’ Dave asks, passing him a glass.


Bert necks the drink and laughs. ‘No idea. I remember needing a piss, God I was drunk. So, I popped into the woods. Must have gotten lost.’


Dave eyeballs Bert suspiciously. It’s not just the colour that’s returning to Bert, the years are dropping off him before our eyes.


‘Well, you’re lucky, it was balls-out freezing. Although you’d never believe you were out all night. You’re looking well, mate. Better than ever.’


Dave’s not wrong. Bert stands up straight, his body looking young and lithe. His hair, thicker. Muscles, stronger. The changing in him is quite something.


When Bert faces Dave, he stumbles backwards at Bert’s smooth face and proud jawline. Bert’s just as a I remember him, all those years ago. The first time I left.


Bert looks down at me, patting my head. His eyes look different, amber and almond-shaped. The eyes of a wolf.


I think it’s the first time Bert’s actually seen me. He bends down and whispers in my ear.


‘Alright Ernie, good to see you again.’


 

Bert decided to call me Ernie. He was three years old and very insistent. I was only a couple of months old myself when we first met.


I don’t recall my first changing very well. I just remember tremendous pain and thinking that the dog pen was getting smaller when, in fact, I was getting bigger, transforming into a one-month-old bairn until I was lying on my hairless back as helpless as, well, a one-month-old bairn.


I couldn’t walk or crawl, couldn’t do anything. I was so much weaker in my human form. My eyesight was worse too, so the moon was just a blurred silvery mess. But I could still smell the sea coming in through the window, albeit to a lesser extent, as I just lay there, taking in big lungfuls of salty air to stop myself from crying.


 

When Bert toddled in, I was still getting over my second changing, paws over my face, trying to get some sleep.


He waddled past my sisters, all jumping up for his attention and sat next to me, pulling me into a big hug. There was porridge encrusted in his neck and when I licked it off, he laughed and laughed.


‘Mammy, want this one!’


His mother looked down with only kindness in her eyes. ‘Would you not like a fluffy puppy? He looks very different to the others.’


She wasn’t wrong. I looked completely different to my sisters. The breeder said we were half King Charles spaniel and half poodle. Cavapoos, they called us. The name still makes me laugh. Cavapoos. Have you ever heard such nonsense? We were mongrels but stamp a ‘breed’ on a dog and you can sell it for hundreds.


But while my sisters looked like wee teddy bears with soft curls and chocolate-button eyes, I came out the wrong way around with a poodle-sized body, Mammy’s messy tan and white coat and an unusually small head with massive, goggly eyes. Like a stretched-out King Charles spaniel. Gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Yes, I was (and still am) quite ugly.


But Bert didn’t care. He’s always seen beauty where there’s none to be found.


His mother didn’t mind either. She got me half price.


 

We lived in a suburban semi with a small, lavender-trimmed lawn. When the wind passed over the hills, I could smell the sea, settling my soul.


Bert went through a sullen streak at secondary school, pretending he didn’t need his mum or me anymore.


Well, he pretended that in front of his new-found friends who were sneaky little gits, coming round the house when his mum was out and ‘borrowing’ his video games, bike, even his most prized possession, his camera.


When he asked for his things back, they laughed and flat-out told him to ‘feck off’.


‘What should I do?’ He asked me one evening as I stared dumbly back. ‘Can’t you pretend to be some big mean dog and scare them?’


No, sunshine, because then animal control will be around quicker than a wink. That’s what I wanted to say. But I just placed a paw on his hand.


The problem was that Bert had more potential than the other kids and they could smell that ambition on him. He dreamt about working for some big-shot newspaper, being flown to far-off lands to photograph the world’s tragedies and triumphs. He said we’d travel together. It was a lovely dream.


I didn’t see Bert the next morning. But I heard him in the bathroom, talking to himself in front of the mirror, practicing what to tell those kids to give him back his stuff. I admired him but I couldn’t see him muttering one word to them. But I knew someone who would.


 

When my next changing came, no one was home. I crawled into Bert’s room and nicked some of his clothes, a hoodie and ripped jeans. It still baffles me why anyone would pay good money for ripped clothes, but there we go.


It was a Friday and that meant two things. One, Bert was at his Photography Club. Two, his so-called friends were at the park, drinking.


Even with my puny human sight, I saw them under the sodium streetlight, hollering like monkeys, swinging from play equipment meant for the kiddies.


I clenched my fists and strode forward, pulling my ‘I’m a scary bastard’ face that I’d practiced in the bathroom mirror.


To be fair, I do look like a bit of a mean bugger after a changing. Back then, I was sixteen in human years but I’d aged at an accelerated pace, rushing through puberty (thank God) and coming out at six-foot-six with a full-on beard like a man of thirty. And I’ve been the same ever since.


The group’s ringleader, Gary, nudged his mate when he saw me. ‘Oi! Aren’t you a bit old to play at the park?’ He shouted, spitting on the ground. ‘Or are you some kind of paedo?’


‘Nah, I’m Bert’s brother,’ I shouted back, taking a deep breath. ‘And I’ve come to ask about his stuff you’ve nicked.’ I hopped over the park’s metal fence with one bound, hoping the gesture made me look tough.


‘What? Bert lent us that stuff, we’ll give it back when we’re ready.’ Gary sucked through his crooked teeth as one of his gang whispered in his ear. ‘Yeah, good point. Bert doesn’t have a brother. Just lives with that ugly dog and saddo mum.’


My blood broiled then. Not about being called ugly. I’m used to that. But I won’t hear a word against Bert or his mum. ‘Is that right? Well, Bert may not have mentioned me as I’ve only just got out of jail. For GBH.’


I pulled down my hood and snarled.


Gary took a step back. His friends started to leave, one mate patting his shoulder. ‘Come on, this guy’s tapped. Let’s go.’


But Gary was woozy and slow thanks to the cheap cider I smelt coming off him. I grabbed his collar, pulling him close so that he saw the whites of my eyeteeth, long and sharp. Ready to bite.


‘When I get home from my evening stroll, I’ll be expecting all Bert’s stuff to be by the backdoor, you ken? If it’s not then I’m prepared to spend another five to ten for GBH. Or worse.’


I threw Gary to the ground, not taking satisfaction in it. I don’t like scaring people. But I did take satisfaction in getting home to see a stack of video games, a bike and a camera by the back door.


 

I’ve met a few other were-humans. None seem to be like me, before or after the changing.


Before, they’re docile and obedient. Those dogs that whip around agility courses, following their humans’ every command for a pat on the head or some meaty treat.


I think that’s why, after the changing, they’re all so angry and irrational, trying to show mankind who’s boss.


I can spot them a mile off, making the most of their night of being human. You’ll mostly find them drunk on big city streets or the football terraces. Anywhere that they can ride a wave of violence.


You’ve probably come across a few too. Those men (they’re always men) with something behind their eyes that tell you run away without turning your neck to them. And I’m not just talking about the big, hairy-knuckled fellas. It’s the little ones you have to watch out for. The ones who pick on the biggest lad in the room to prove some point. Or those cowards stalking the streets for drunken women, pulling them into alleyways and doing what no human should do to another.


I tried speaking to other were-humans, seeing if they knew where they came from. None did. But I have a theory that my daddy was a werewolf and when I was born on a night under the full moon, I was born a were-human.


Those are real too, were-wolves. But they’re canny, sticking to the woods, not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Instead, they feast on bunnies and badgers, leaving their mangled bodies covered in silver slashes, just like the one’s on Bert’s chest.


I lived with a werewolf once. Well, we were homeless, but he always did his best to keep me warm and fed. On our changing nights, we went our separate ways. I tried to pay back his kindness, leaving any food or money I could pilfer under his newspaper pillow. Eventually, he got into some sheltered accommodation but they had a strict ‘no pets’ policy. He flat-out refused to leave me. So, I left him instead.


I was picked up and re-homed a few weeks later with a seemingly nice family with a little girl. But then I saw what the dad did to that little girl, I made sure he could never do it again and, well, I had to hide in the woods to avoid animal control.


Eventually, Dave took me in and one glorious night when I was lying by the fire, Bert walked back into my life with the same hop in his step, camera swinging from his neck.


‘I used to have a dog just like that,’ Bert said to Dave, nodding at me. ‘Had him for years. He must have been at least 17 years old.’


‘Nah, no dog lives that long. Especially not a dog that big.’


‘That’s what I thought. I was going to take him to the vets to find out why he never aged. But he disappeared.’


Dave plonked a pint in front of Bert. ‘Did you ever find him? Your dog?’


‘Nope. Probably got knocked over by a car or something. Me and mum put up flyers everywhere, but nothing came of it. Broke my heart, truth be told.’


It broke my heart too. That’s what I wanted to shout.


Instead, I hatched a plan, deciding that I would be part of Bert’s life again, just wearing my more human face.


 

A rejuvenated Bert finishes his whisky and we leave the pub for good. I’ll miss Dave but he’ll have too many questions and I know he can’t leave any puzzle unsolved.


We walk to Bert’s house first. He signs his divorce papers, handing them to his open-mouthed wife. All he takes with him is his camera.


We carry on walking, down to the pebble-strewn coast where the Isle of Islay shimmers on the horizon. I breathe in the salty air and we go along the craggy coastline.


We walk for years, looping the entire country. From John O’Groats to Land’s End and each seaside resort in between. Bert documents every place, taking photograph after photograph of our happy life, together.


We never settle, changing our home every few years to stop people getting suspicious about a man and his dog, neither of which seem to age nor want for anything apart from each other, the odd steak and dram of whisky.


It’s only when the moon is full that Bert doesn’t take photographs. You won’t find Bert then.


Instead, you’ll find a man called Ernie, walking his dog on the beach before going home and falling asleep, warm in his bed, pyjamas on and with his best friend by his side.


© The Runt of the Litter, 2023, Gemma Church

 

Gemma Church is a speculative fiction writer and her stories have appeared in The Writer's Forum, Bag of Bones Press and Indie Bites. She lives and works in Cambridgeshire and recently received a Diploma in Creative Writing from Cambridge University. When she's not writing fiction, Gemma works as a freelance science writer and has a degree in physics.