Prose Header


by Sally Quilford

The beast stirred and sniffed the changing wind. His hibernation period was nearly over. It would soon be time to feed again. Thinking about food sent a message to his stomach, and it grumbled in protest. Was it really six months since his last food? He began to move around his cave, wondering if any scraps had survived the winter, frozen in the ice. Apart from a few fibia and tibia, which held dried meat, there was nothing. He gnawed on the bones, then tossed them aside.

He knew exactly where he would go. It was springtime and the children would be playing outside again. He made his way to the park, keeping to the bushes and shrubs. His hibernation had decreased his size considerably. Anyone seeing him would have assumed he was a large brown dog. By the end of summer, he would look more like a bear. He was neither.

The result of a secret experiment involving soldiers presumed dead, he was part man, part beast. The idea had been to create a soldier who would hunt the enemy like prey, and then remove any traces the enemy ever existed. When the money had been pulled out of the project, he had escaped the sure death of his comrades and disappeared.

The need for human flesh was strong in him. It was something he had learned to accept. He tried only to eat those whose lives were without hope. Vagrants, prostitutes, drug addicts. He laughed quietly to himself, remembering the drug addict. He had finished his meal as high as the junkie on whom he had feasted, giggling to himself, then defecating when the crack rushed through his system. The prostitute had pleaded for her life, offering her body. He had taken her up on the offer, but the hunger was too great in him. Plump and dirty, she had been his last meal before the winter set in.

As he moved through the early morning streets, he caught sight of himself in a shop window. He was even thinner this year than last. Though his face was covered in hair, he could see dark lines around his eyes, and the bones jutting from his hips. The hunger gripped him again. The sooner he ate, the better.

He had decided on a different park this year, as he had almost been captured the year before.

He reached the park, on the other side of town, and found a hiding place in the bushes. From there he watched. And remembered. He knew this park. It was where he’d brought Jenny the day he proposed to her. He’d packed a picnic, with sparkling wine. They couldn’t afford champagne on his wages as a private. He remembered the taste of wine on her lips as they’d kissed. The hunger gripped him again.

She probably thought he was dead. That was the official line. His injuries in battle had been such that he felt he couldn’t face her again. So he’d let them tell her that he was dead.

The people from the project had put him back together again and then some. His body grew bigger, his body hair grew thick, covering the wounds that shamed him, and the hunger began. He and the others never questioned what food was put on their plate. It was always raw meat. The stuff of body builders. By the time they realised, they didn’t care. They had the hunger, and were willing to overlook the source of their food.

The park was coming to life now. A few office workers walked through it on their way to work. They were in pairs though, so he dare not strike. The park warden was clearing up litter. The beast thought of grabbing him, but he was a thin, old man. Perhaps later, if the hunger was too strong.

Then he saw her. She was barely a mouthful. It was a small blonde girl, about eight years of age. She was alone. He made sure of that. Her only companion was a small doll, which surprisingly was an Action Man, to which she talked incessantly.

‘One day’, he heard her say, ‘my daddy will come home and we’ll go out somewhere else. Shall we go on the swings now?’

She asks the doll’s opinion on everything, from whether they should go on the swings, to whether they had enough money for an ice cream or lollipop. Go for the ice cream, he thought, it would taste better. He meant for him of course.

He had plenty of opportunities to strike, but for some reason he didn’t. He found himself following her around the park, listening to her chatter, and the stories that she told her doll. She appeared to have been abandoned by her parents. The part of him that remembered being human worried about what the world had come to.

She had been there about an hour, when the hunger gripped him. He must feed now. He began moving from the bushes, as soon as he saw that the coast was clear. The child had her back to him. She smelled of strawberries and cream. Fresh and sweet. His mouth began to water. She wouldn’t fill him for long, and there was always the park warden, but she was what he needed at this moment. Suddenly, he heard a shout, and whipped back to his place in the bushes:

‘Charlotte! Lunch is nearly ready!’ A woman was coming out of a gate on the edge of the park. The gate led to a big white house, which overlooked the park. So the child had never really been alone. ‘Come on darling’,

He knew the voice. He watched, his throat tightening, and the bile threatening to rise in his stomach. Jenny, nine years older than when he last saw her, was walking towards the child, holding out her hand. He watched as they walked back to their home. Charlotte was asking if she could come out again. Jenny stopped and looked around. She appeared to be looking directly at the bushes where he lay hidden.

‘Er... no, darling. Not today. It’s a bit cold.’ She pulled her cardigan around her shoulders, and appeared to shiver. ‘Come on, I’ve done chicken dippers and chips for you’.

‘And for Charlie’, Charlotte asked, pointing to her Action Man.

‘Yes, and for Charlie’, her mother sighed sadly. She took Charlotte inside and, he imagined, locked the door.

He waited until the sky began to darken, just in case they came out again. They didn’t. The nights were still drawing in early, despite the spring, so when the park warden came on his final rounds as dusk fell, the beast, frustrated and angry, was able to pounce and drag him into the bushes. There was a muffled scream, and the sound of flesh tearing and bones cracking.

The beast, who had once been a young man called Charlie, slumped away, back to his lair, dragging the remains of the warden with him. He ate without hunger now. All that was left was the primal need. The meal did not sustain him, and the part of him that was once human felt sickened by his behaviour, seeing the horror that would surely rise in Jenny and Charlotte’s eyes if they knew who he was, what he was.

Despite his supper, he felt weak and ill, yet he couldn’t feed any more. He didn’t have the energy to leave his lair. His body began to shrink, and his lungs filled up with water. Coughing and hacking, he let the life seep out of him, rather than go out and seek help. The prostitute he had eaten the winter before had unwittingly doled out her own punishment, leaving his blood diseased and his body wasted. His remorse did the rest.

Copyright © 2005 by Sally Quilford

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