Jericho Mathers rolled out the crick in his neck, before shifting his ladders from the side to the rear of the house. The work had begun in September, he’d worked to finish each elevation in turn, replacing sections of rotten boarding. It was now November 2nd, the latest he’d ever completed. Next time, he vowed, the maintenance cycle would start earlier.
The dark weatherboarding buttered by the setting sun, he squinted as he adjusted the rake of his ladder against the wall. Normally a job for two, he’d mastered the art of replacing the longer lengths single-handed. No other way when a man is on his own. One more board to go. He climbed to the top to measure it.
In the woods behind him, crows going to roost squabbled as they fought over the uppermost perches of a dead tree. He glanced at them over his shoulder. The waning sun had gilded the victor as if fitting it with a crown. The coal-black bird seemed to glare at him.
Something wet and cold dropped onto the back of his hand. Snow. A dream broke from his subconscious. Jericho froze at its unravelling.
His wife, Anita, played swingball in the garden with the children as he dug the vegetable patch. He smiled. Carefree laughter on Indian Summer days reminding him of a youth beyond this youth.
‘Come on, Jericho,’ his wife yelled. ‘Leave those. Jack has just beaten Emily and me. He wants to play you before it gets too dark.’
Jericho pulled old roots from the soil and threw them into a wheelbarrow. ‘A thirty-year-old and a nine-year-old beaten by him?’ He scrubbed his hands on the thighs of his overalls. ‘He’s only seven. How does he do it?’ A shadow lengthened on the grass at the periphery of his vision, and though Anita stood forty yards away, he registered the consternation in her expression. He turned swiftly.
A stranger dressed in a ragged kilt strode towards him. ‘Getting late to be outside,’ the man announced in a heavy Scots accent. He pointed to the western sky. ‘When the sun dips low like that, and the first snow of the year falls on All Souls Day, you don’t have long to get indoors.’
Bemused, Jericho rose slowly. ‘And you might be?’
‘My name isn’t important.’
Suspicion darkened Jericho’s features. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m here to warn you about a wolf who prowls these parts from time to time.’ The man scratched at his bearded cheek. ‘Oh, I know what you’re thinking. They're all supposed to be dead. But not this one. When snow falls on the Day of the Dead, He will come.’
Anita approached, her hand held out, keeping the children behind her.
Jericho raised an eyebrow. ‘What nonsense is this? Can’t you see I’ve got young kids?’
The stranger pushed a lock of grey hair over his ear. ‘That’s why I came. This is no snaw ghast. When dusk falls, get inside. Shut all doors and windows. Lock them. If you don't, He'll consider Himself invited in, and enter He will.’ The stranger grinned as Anita drew closer. ‘Mark my words,’ he said. ‘Time I was gone.’
Jericho watched the man march from his property until he reached the path skirting the woods.
‘Who was that?’ Anita asked.
‘I don’t know, but I can’t shake the feeling I’ve seen him before.’
The sky darkened. Fast-moving clouds raced across a sliver of moon. A flurry of snow whipped through the air driven by a cold breeze and with it, a mournful howl. Above them, the last leaves rattled like castanets.
Anita gripped Jericho’s arm. He scanned the dusky treeline. A shadowy creature emerged.
‘Quick. Run for the house!’
‘Whatever’s wrong?’ Anita cried.
‘Don’t ask questions,’ he shouted. ‘Run!’
Sleek and black, long fur rippling, a wolf hurtled towards them.
They ran, dragging the children along while stumbling over the uneven ground to their cottage. ‘Tell me,’ Jericho yelled at his wife, ‘you didn’t lock the front door!’
‘I can’t remember!’
He slowed, plunged a hand into his pocket feeling for his keys. Nothing. Cursing himself for leaving the spade, he searched for something else he could use as a weapon.
Panting vaporous clouds, the wolf closed in.
Anita raced up to the door and turned the handle. It opened. They hurried inside.
Emily screamed. ‘Daddy. Quick. The monster’s behind you!’
He swung the door closed. The side of the house shook as the wolf crashed into it. Fingers frantic, Jericho secured the lock. He propped his back against the ledged and braced construction while he caught his breath.
Wide-eyed, struck dumb by fear, Jack shivered, a pool of urine surrounding his shoes. ‘Was that the big bad wolf, mummy?’
‘We’re safe now, little boy.’ Emily wrapped her arms around him. Tears pooled in her eyes.
Jack began to cry.
‘Hey, hey,’ Anita pulled her children close. ‘It’s all right. Daddy’s going to call the police, and they’ll come and catch it.’ She frowned at her husband guarding the door. ‘Was it a wolf? How is it even possible?’
‘Shit! The French doors.’ Jericho sprang into action. ‘They’re still open! Get the kids upstairs now!’ The footfalls of his family thundering up the steps, he dashed the length of the hall, skidding on the polished floor as he sped around the corner and through the opening into the back room. He slid to a halt.
White teeth bared, mucus dripping from its maw, the beast slunk through the opening. Head down, death gleaming from its cold eyes, a low growl emitted from its throat. The creature paused and sniffed. Hind legs gathered beneath it, the wolf sprang.
Jericho side-stepped. He slipped. One hand down, he went into a roll. The wolf, snapped at empty air as he barrelled under its trajectory. Rolling clear, Jericho scrambled on all fours. Finding his feet, he shot through the door.
Claws gouging the floorboards, the wolf snarled and gave chase.
Sprinting back the way he’d come, Jericho kept tight to the wall. The speeding animal, paws scrabbling, went wide.
The front door. Lure it outside. Jericho bolted along the hallway. In the straight, teeth gnashing, the wolf closed in. It’s too fast. I won’t make it. The stairs! His right hand gripping the newel post, he whipped around the corner in a tight arc his pursuer could not match. A furious flurry of paws seeking purchase, the creature overshot the stairway.
Already halfway up, Jericho sensed something about to happen. Feet pounding up the stairs, he glanced back.
At the base of the stairs, the wolf crouched, ready to leap.
Oh, Christ! Thighs burning,Jericho sped on. He’d almost made it to the landing when, three steps from it, sharp claws raking his back, the wolf slammed into him. He fell.
The wolf’s breath, rancid and reeking of dried blood and decaying flesh, blew on his neck. Jericho tensed. Death beckoned him. Not without a fight.Play possum! What other choice do you have? He flopped, forcing his muscles to relax and immediately changed his mind. Right elbow crooked, he stabbed it into the animal’s belly and twisted onto his back. Slavering teeth snapped at his face. Heart racing, Jericho drove his hands up, grabbing onto the thick fur beneath the animal’s jaws. Frenzied, it shook its head.
I can’t hold on! Bucking at the hips, he fought unsuccessfully to free his legs.He prayed Anita had called the police. That she and the kids would be saved. Icy, grey-blue eyes fixed him, looming ever closer. Jericho’s arms trembled with effort, his strength failing. The creature opened its mouth. The defeated man turned his head, instinctively offering his throat. He closed his eyes.
Shards of glass rained over his face.
‘Get off him!’ Again and again, Anita smashed the brass stem of a table lamp over the wolf’s head.
Jericho felt instant relief. The weight holding him down lifted. Stunned, he reacted, grabbing at its tail as it leapt for his wife. Too late. The wolf seized her windpipe and snapping its head left and right, ripped out her throat.
His head swam as he gripped the stiles at the top of the ladder. It all came together. Emerging from the fog of suppressed memory, he recalled, how, ten years earlier, he’d woken in bed from a nightmare to Anita screaming, ‘Get off him!’ Startled, Jericho had frozen.
Hands clutching her chest, she lay stretched out, rigid, eyes bulging, lips parted. ‘No,’ she whispered. It was the last word she ever spoke.
The sun dipped onto the horizon. A light bending trick. In reality, it had already gone. Cold rushed into him as if through an open door. Snow fell like white feather down. Jericho snapped his attention back to the present, hastily descending the ladder.
He sensed the wolf would come for him, too.
Jericho checked he’d locked all the doors and windows with more diligence than he had in all the years since his wife had died. A low moan piped down the chimney. Wind whistled through gaps in the window frames, chilling him. His face pressed to the window, he squinted through the driving snow, dismissing a myriad of shape-shifting forms as no threat. Focused on the deeper darkness in the direction of the woods, he listened attentively. Nothing. A match struck, he held it to the kindling in the log fire he’d prepared earlier, dropping it only when it burned the tips of his fingers. Striking another, he felt relief when the flame took and watched it grow. Satisfied it wouldn’t go out, he placed an iron guard on the hearth to catch any sparks spat from the crackling wood. He poured himself a whisky, and raising the glass to each of the four compass points toasted, ‘absent friends.’ The amber liquid taken in a single gulp, he made his way upstairs to bathe and change his clothes.
In the beginnings of an alcoholic daze, he eased himself into the warm bath he couldn’t recall running and turned off the taps. Engulfed in steam, he laid back and drifted.
Anita walked the bright galleries of his mind, her beauty ageless, preserved as she was in her prime. Slipping deeper into the water, he choked and woke with a start as Anita turned and walked away. Jericho pulled himself upright. Emptiness swallowed him. The whisky had thickened his tongue, ‘I can’t think of you,’ he whispered. ‘But you’re always with me.’ Coldness leached into his skin, alongside the chill he’d felt when they’d lowered her coffin into the ground. He wriggled into a seated position and placed his head between his knees.
The telephone rang. Ignore it. The incessant jangling wouldn’t stop until the person on the other end realised he was either not in or not going to answer. Unless it was one of his kids. Jericho hauled himself out of the water, snatched a towel and wrapping it around him, padded barefoot to pick it up in the upstairs hall.
‘Jack! How are you, boy?’
‘I’m fine. You took your time answering.’
‘I was in the bath. Truth is, I almost didn’t bother.’
‘It’s snowing. I had a whisky.’
‘You’re not...I hope you mean just the one? You promised.’
‘I know. Had a rough day.’
‘Want to talk about it?’
Jericho sucked in a breath. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘You finish repairing the house?’
Jack’s tone brightened. ‘That’s great. Although next year, you should get someone else to do it.’
‘No, I enjoy it. Gives me something to do, keeps my mind off things.’
‘Look. Umm, Dad, I phoned to invite you out for Christmas.’
‘That’s good of you, boy, but Canada at Christmas time? No thanks. No offence.’
‘You could go to Emily.’
‘Australia? No. I winter here; you know that.’
‘Is something wrong, Dad?’
Jericho hesitated. He’d never spoken about the night Anita died. All thought of it suppressed for years; he wondered if the nightmare truly had killed her. If either of the kids had shared it. It was crazy. Yet, he wanted to talk about his premonition.
‘Dad? You still there?’
‘I’ve been thinking about your mum.’
‘She wouldn’t want you drinking.’
‘That isn’t it. Not even close,’ Jericho said with too much venom. ‘What do you know anyway?’
Jack kept his voice even. ‘When mum died, you isolated yourself.’
‘You don’t understand. There were too many things in our old house to remind me of her and what happened. In order to live, I had to get away.’
‘But so far from anywhere? You made it hard for me and Emily to visit you.’
Jericho picked at his memory. Had he made a conscious decision to keep them away? He could no longer think. He needed another whisky to straighten himself out. ‘I needed solitude. I’m not sure I ever should have settled down. I’m a loner, son. Always have been.’
Jack thought of the times his father had opted out of family activities, preferring his own company. His mother had once told him; It’s because he doesn’t mix well with other people. He wondered if he’d been a drinker even then. ‘I know, Dad. I know.’
‘Wait a second, while I get some clothes on.’ Moments came and went. Jericho wandered into his bedroom, the cordless phone to his ear. From the top drawer of his bedside cabinet, he took out a hip flask. A chasm opened. The distance between them stretched taut as he opened the lid and took a sip. Finally, Jericho spoke. ‘The night your mother died...’
Inwardly cursing at the lash-up he’d made trying to explain to Jack how things were, Jericho returned downstairs and poured another drink. The boy probably thinks I’m crazier than he did before. He placed his glass on the small table by his favourite armchair and approached the fire, removing the guard. His cheeks already flushed from whisky, grew hotter as he stoked half-charred logs with a poker. Flames, freed to roam over newly turned unburnt surfaces, licked the soot-stained back of the fireplace. He replaced the iron guard and backed into his chair. His glass, half-filled with golden liquid, conjured dancing images from the firelight.
Jericho stared, mesmerised. A thought lodged in his brain. Although tempted by the alcohol before him, he abstained. He’d seen himself in the future, viewed it from the past. After all, that was what the dream portrayed. He was living in the house he’d moved to after his wife’s demise, and she was here, so were the kids. They were all so much younger than when she’d died.
Jack didn’t get it. Jericho knew what he was trying to explain, but he couldn’t articulate it. The problem, he reasoned, is I haven’t quite figured it out myself. There’s a piece missing from the puzzle. What is it? He closed his eyes and drifted.
The wind howled. Jericho snatched himself from the brink of slumber. Snow blew into the windows, sticking to the glass. An uneasy feeling crept up on him.He went to the gun cabinet. Unlocking it, he lifted out his shotgun and a box of ammunition. He opened the box and scooped a handful of cartridges into his cardigan pocket. Running his fingers over the cold metal, he checked the breach was loaded and carried it with him to the lounge. At the window facing onto the woods, he paused and leaning forward, craned his head left and then right, before moving to the French doors where the wolf had gained entry in his nightmare. He stared at his reflection. The weapon felt good in his hands as he swung the barrel of the gun up, and took aim.
If the dream truly had been a kind of premonition, he hoped it would come true.
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