Such A Quiet Place
Written & Illustrated by Andy Paciorek
With Special Thanks to Andreea V. Balcan.
I gazed through the misty haze below the orange glow of the electric streetlights that cast long deep shadows on the chaste white snow. I listened to the low guttural growl that issued from the end of that long terrace and squinted my eyes to discern the source of this noise. Silhouetted in the shimmering golden light were a pack of dogs. There seemed to be quite a few and the sight of them filled me with trepidation. Though the clarity of my view was obscure, I sensed instinctively that there was something not right about these hounds but even so their very presence seemed wrong. On holidays abroad in Europe and Asia I had viewed upon packs of feral dogs roaming the towns at night but never more than a couple of strays at a time had I witnessed in Britain. Especially here it would be assumed that their occurrence would not be tolerated, for Cumbrian sheep farmers are extremely protective of their flocks and the salt-marsh mutton and lamb of this area commanded a very good price at market.
There was something so unnerving about the gathering of dogs, that although it was a slightly longer walk and would mean being exposed to this wintry onslaught longer still, I decided to turn and take an alternative route down Lumley Lane. Here the walking was more hazardous even without the gathering inches of snow, for this street was still cobbled. The terraces of Derleth were mainly Victorian and though there were a couple of 20th Century builds, the rest of the buildings were older, mainly 18th Century cottages. I remember Aunt Isobel had said that all new building in Derleth had always followed the same labyrinthine pattern of what came before. She supposed that the mixture of hiding points and escape routes were of great use in the bygone days of sea smuggling (which she hinted were perhaps not quite as bygone as some may assume). She also said that there ran a greater maze of caverns and tunnels that led from sea-cove mouths to deep below the streets of Derleth, meandering out and upwards from the cellars of certain houses.
Though I slipped a couple of times and gathering myself up, dusting myself down and cursing, I made good headway to Aunt Isobel’s house and was soon at the wrought iron gates of Ambrose Cottage. I unfastened the latch and with a little difficulty as I moved away the gathering of snow behind it I proceeded up the path to the door. I found the door locked and gave it a gentle rap of gloved knuckles. No answer. I tried again a little harder and still no response. I moved around the house and could see the comforting luminance of lamplight radiating gently from out of the windows. I gazed into one and saw nothing except for the old leather chair in which Isobel would often sit and read her way through the copious collection of books that stretched along the walls. Isobel was a voracious reader of many diverse subjects, though the shelves were notably absent of the Mills & Boon type books that are a favourite amongst many women of Isobel’s age. I moved further along and gazed through another frosty pane into the sitting room. There I saw a small table, upon it a game of chess in mid-play.
My mind ran over the pieces and I could see that a white knight was about to be claimed by a black bishop but beyond that I could not foresee any potential developments; the mind of Isobel would however already have been many moves ahead and the word ‘Checkmate’ would already be tickling behind her thin, tight lips. For some unfathomable reason the sight of the abandoned chess match disturbed me and a shiver ran down my already cold spine. In the hearth, only the bare embers of flame remained in the dry pool of grey ash.
I speculated on what the situation may be. If my wife and Aunt Isobel had just gone out somewhere for a little while (and would they in this weather?) then Isobel would have ensured that only one lamp at most would have remained lit and that the fire would be safely stoked to burn until their return. My wife had mentioned Isobel’s condition in her text and I wondered whether the situation had worsened and she had been taken into hospital. I was uncertain where the nearest hospital actually was, Whitehaven perhaps.
And still the snow fell. I huddled onto the small porch, looking under flowerpots in search of a door key to no avail. I popped another of the sweet and nasty clumps of candy into my mouth and contemplated my next action. Standing there in the freezing cold and waiting for who knows how long for their return home, did not seem to me the most enticing prospect. Otherwise I could walk further and try a neighbour’s house, though Derleth people were defiantly private and parochial by nature, surely they weren’t devoid of all compassion particularly on such a frigid night or alternatively I could try to break into Isobel’s house, causing of course the minimum of damage possible, and to get warm and to use the land line to ring Caroline’s mobile phone. Isobel, if well enough, would be most displeased at this, but rather her wrath than hypothermia. And perhaps if my prospects as a ‘burglar’ were not great surely a police cell would be warmer than here. I chuckled at this imagining, but my reverie of pondering was very soon to be shattered with an alarming ferocity.
It began with a noise rippling along the hedgerow at speed, shaking snow from its well-pruned leaves, a sound like the snapping of twigs. Then a hulking shape bounded over the hedge. I took it to be one of the stray dogs that I had seen looming before at the end of the street but it was of considerable size. In the glow that issued from the cottage windows I could make out strange and disquieting features of this beast. It appeared devoid of hair, its skin smooth and sleek with a silvery hue. Its head was oddly elongated and pointed ears clung closely to the domed cranium and its grimacing face held a drooling snarl. The teeth were long and pointed, its expression the epitome of the wild yet its eyes bore indication of a sharp human-like intelligence. I absorbed these features deeply in an instance for rearing up a little, the creature then leaped again directly at me. Instinct of self-preservation came upon me and I warded the advance of this freak hound or whatever it was, with a sound kick to the animal’s chest. This sent the monster sprawling into a drift of snow and I then made good of the moment and ran as fast as I could down the garden path. The creature caught up with me as I struggled with the gate and I felt a moment of pure agony as it sunk its long sharp teeth into the calf of my leg. But again I kicked out and delivered a heavy boot directly into the face of my weird assailant. It backed up again and prepared another assault. As it coursed through the air, I responded by slamming the iron gate hard into its body. Still it advanced, so again and again I slammed and as it bit at me, slavering and snarling, I finally managed to lodge its head tightly between post and gate, kicked it again and made my escape down the lane. Never in my life had I treated an animal with violence or cruelty, but what could I do? It was without doubt that this thing had my slaughter firmly upon its mind.
As I passed by the other cottages, I banged on doors and called for help, but to no avail. Some houses were lit up whilst others nestled in darkness but all were either empty or remained ignorant to my actions of distress. It became apparent that my pleas were to go unattended so I fell silent, so as not to attract the attention of the creatures, should any more be lingering close by. As I proceeded further, I noticed that no smoke flowed from any of the chimneys, which seemed exceedingly peculiar for such a cruel, cold night. Sweat formed on my body but chilled almost as soon as it ran from pore. Gazing upwards I noticed long icicles forming on guttering, the long slivers too reminiscent in my mind of long white fangs.
Then as if a delayed echo of my earlier actions, I heard shouting and a banging coming from Glannoventa Street. I moved with caution but some haste to the intersection of Lumley and Glannoventa and gazed down the snow-covered street. I could make out the silhouette of a man to the middle of the road, and though walking was not steady in such conditions anyhow, I perceived by his stumbling gait that this person was drunk. He was banging on the door of the only pub in Derleth and shouting in a slurring accent that I took to be American, “Hey! What does a guy have to do to get a drink in this godforsaken backwater? C’mon open up!!” Again he banged on the door, but even from my distance and vantage point I could see that the interior of the bar was cast in darkness, yet still a lamp illuminated its hanging pub sign. In faded lettering it bore its name, ‘The Cuttlefish Inn’; and in need of a fresh lick of paint was the strange image of a malignant giant squid attacking a tall ship.
The man then caught sight of me and as if unsure whether I was really there or not started hollering, “Hey buddy!” I motioned a finger to my lips for him to remain quiet, but he either did not see or ignored this, as he plodded on in my direction, still shouting, “Hey there, hey buddy!”
He did not travel far for as he passed the arch of the covert that lay between The Cuttlefish Inn and Verne’s Butchery & Fishmonger’s shop, in a flash something launched out and grabbing him between formidable jaws, dragged the man into the gully. I froze for an instant, then I moved as if to go down to help though my legs it is true to say wanted to carry me in the opposite direction. But it was too late; his pained screams lasted only a few seconds only to be replaced by the repugnant sounds of wet tearing and then the crushing of bones. He was beyond my help, if indeed I had any to offer him, my own plight seeming increasingly dire itself.
Four or five more of these dog-like animals were gathered at the end of the lane and hearing the commotion were now sniffing the air and gazing in my direction. Clinging to the shadows as best I could, I navigated myself along the path. Though the cold and adrenaline had worked as an anaesthetic to some degree, my leg ached and I looked down and noticed that blood was dribbling from the wound on my leg, forming ribbons of blotched scarlet on the virginal white snow. I removed the scarf from about my neck and wrapped it tightly around my leg. I shuddered to think of those fiendish critters getting the scent of my spilled blood and for the first time thought favourably upon the falling snow, hoping it would bury all traces of my injury.
And so I meandered frantically, yet as silently and as hidden as possible, down the lane, looking frequently behind me. It was at this point my mind turned to my precious wife, Caroline and of Aunt Isobel. Tears welled in my eyes and quickly froze, as I hoped with every cell of my being, that they had not fallen prey to those bizarre creatures and were now somewhere warm and safe.
At the end of Lumley Lane, I came to a large converted barn. This edifice served now as a maintenance garage, though how it stayed in trade with Derleth’s paltry vehicle numbers and with the village’s isolation and attitude to outsiders, was a mystery to me. Whatever, the fact that its lights were on and one of the great doors stood a little ajar filled me with some hope. I laboured toward it and then something caught my eye. Lying in the snow, half-buried I could see the sheen of something metallic and digging in with gloved fingers, I retrieved a large adjustable wrench. Grateful of a potential weapon, I clung tightly to this heavy spanner and I pushed the door a little further ajar and cautiously entered the garage.
At first the repair-shop seemed to be deserted, but then I heard a faint shuffle, a murmur close to the maintenance pit and I proceeded guardedly in that direction.
What I beheld there filled me with terror and revulsion in equal measure. Lying on the floor, head down and preoccupied so as not to notice my presence was another of these brutes, a bitch… or a vixen; for looking upon the form I could not say whether it was in its characteristics canine, vulpine or even lupine. I assumed this individual to be female however by the presence of teats; yet obscenely I saw not the flabby dugs common to dog-mothers but a full and ripe human breast. At its other, this vile dam suckled a pup … but No! My stomach turned as I realised that sucking on that nipple was not a cub of any description but in fact a perfectly human baby! The female beast appeared to be licking affectionately at its head, which it cradled in an appendage which was neither quite paw nor hand but anomalous conglomeration of both. I must have emitted an involuntary gasp of disgust, as suddenly the creature looked up at me. Staring at me with her pale-blue eyes, her smooth brow furrowed and with nostrils flared and lips retracted to reveal gums and evil teeth, emanated a deep, guttural growl. I retreated slowly backwards and moved out of the door, pushing it shut behind me. I felt startled and sickened and became once more aware of the tool within my grasp. In my mix of emotion I also felt ashamed at myself, if I were more of a man I would have cracked open that she-dog’s skull and rescued that infant. I thought about going back to do just that, but I dared not and to add to my fear was confusion. The creature reacted not as a starving cur guarding a meal, but with the inherent maternal instinct to protect one’s own progeny. I considered now my next move, never in all my life had I ever felt so cold, so alone, so bewildered and terrified.
Looking towards the hills beyond Glannoventa Street, I could vaguely make out the forms of more of these creatures moving about. What were they? My mind raced with possibilities, were they diseased dogs or foxes? Sellafield Nuclear Power Station was not far away; perhaps they were the consequence of radioactive fallout of some hidden contamination accident? Was that possible? Yet they did not look mangy, their bodies were bald, perhaps covered in a silky down at most, their bodies were not clumped with patches of matted hair. They were ugly and weird certainly, but they did not look sickly. Perhaps then they were a species that were unknown to science; creatures that lived hidden in the woods or perhaps in caves, creatures like Dragin’s wolves that were now drawn to the areas of human habitation by extreme weather and hunger? Perhaps the answers would never be revealed to me, but of this I was sure – these animals were very strange and very dangerous.
Again though I was not allowed the time or luxury for either problem solving or self-pity. Behind me I heard a noise not unlike the clearing of a throat and I turned.
Behind me was another of the beasts, a male and a formidably large one at that. It gazed at me and as it slowly advanced upon me, the muscles upon its great shoulders and flanks rippled. Its eyes shone with a yellowish luminosity in the dim light and the snow seemed to melt as soon as it fell upon its hide. It leered at me with its broad mouth and then it pounced.
I swung the spanner with all the might I could muster and landed a perfect blow on the side of its skull. I saw a spatter of blood fly and heard a sickening yet satisfying crunch as the cold metal connected with skin and bone. The creature fell, but within seconds it was sat upright upon the carpet of snow. It drew one of its paws across the wound on its temple and wiped away a stream of gore that trickled into one of its eyes. I shuddered as I saw how arm-like its front legs were. It stared at me as it licked the blood from its sharp-clawed pads and then to my absolute horror, from its mouth, in a West Lakes’ accent issued the words, “Y’ll pay for that! Yer Bastard!”
This impossible turn of events naturally caught me off guard and seizing the element of surprise the fiend launched a second attack. Hitting me square in the chest with its broad head, it knocked me onto my back. Perhaps a little too easily than it expected for the force of its trajectory carried the beast into a forward roll. Slipping on the wintry ground as it tried to regain its footing, though a little winded, I was back on my feet and ready.
As it turned its head, again I brought the implement strongly across the animal’s head, hearing the grim sounds of its jaw smashing. Again and again I beat this brutish man-thing with the monkey wrench. With all my might, like a man possessed I brought down the metal tool over and over upon its head and neck and shoulders, and when it had collapsed on the floor in a fit of dull whimpering I still proceeded to batter its body for some minutes more. In a cold sweat, I looked upon it lying there on the white ground, blood seeping and bubbling from its crushed muzzle. Its chest still heaved slowly; it was not dead, but severely injured.
I could not relish in triumph for I felt wretched, I could not tell whether the blood that festooned my face and clothing was that of this travesty of nature’s, or mine or a brew of both. Furthermore I felt the trauma of finding myself in this surreal nightmare and I was sick with worry about the fate of my wife.