Aine steps off the train with a sigh. It’s only Wednesday, but she already feels so weary. She shuffles along the platform with the other commuters, then turns down the main street, setting out for the short walk to her flat. The people around her disperse quickly, and there is only another woman going in her same direction, walking briskly a few steps ahead of her.
It was a long day at the office, so much so that even the long light of early summer is fading behind the tall buildings on either side of the road. Shop fronts are already darkened, with the exception of a few restaurants, and Aine can hear the twin sets of their footfalls echo softly on the pavement. The sound gives her pause, and the rhythm of her own steps falters, as she realises the music playing in her ears has stopped. A quick glance at her phone screen confirms her headphones are out of battery.
It’s nothing more than a mild inconvenience, but she cannot help but feel slightly unnerved by it. Usually the music distracts her from her tiredness, while simultaneously keeping her focus on the road ahead of her, making the ten minute voyage to her apartment pass quickly. Without it, she feels weirdly exposed. It’s harder to ignore the few people still around, too. There’s a man smoking outside his front door, on the other side of the street, and he watches her pass by.
She only glances in his direction for a second, but it’s enough for him to notice, for a wicked smile to spread across his face, a flash of white in the glow of his cigarette. Aine walks a little bit faster.
The sky is clear, a slice of moon just starting to rise and, as they both turn away from the main street, sparse lampposts take the place of neon signs and shop lights. Even in the perfect quiet, Aine is alert.
She notices the group of young men emerging from a side street immediately. They’re quite a distance behind her, but they are loud, and their laughs and shouts make her stiffen and speed up again. She risks a quick glance back towards them, letting her gaze sweep around with her head to try and hide she is paying attention to the group. There’s four, maybe five of them, huddled figures of varying height but similar build and fashion, some faces lit up by cigarette glow, others hidden by pulled up hoods.
They notice her.
They shout at her, and she is grateful she has left her headphones in, because she can more easily pretend she did not hear them.
She closes her fingers tightly against the keys in her left pocket, trying to find comfort in the solid bite of metal against her skin.
There’s a few more whistles, a few more howling laughs, a few more Come on, girl. Aine speeds up, feeling her breathing starting to quicken and her heartbeat echoing in her ears. She is now walking fast enough to catch up with the other woman who, luckily, still seems to be going in the same direction as her. Maybe the men will think they’re together. Maybe they’ll turn into another street. Maybe, hopefully, they’ll leave her alone. No such luck.
Oh, is that your friend? Nice ass. Laughter.
There’s enough of us for the both of you. Whistles and sneers.
Slow down, girls. Aine looks up at the other woman, trying to catch her gaze, guilty and scared. She’s taller than Aine, with long red hair, and she looks back at her with staggeringly blue eyes.
Come on, don’t be a bitch.
Aine expects to see some of her own fear reflected in the woman’s eyes. Or maybe anger, because deep down she is feeling that too, but she knows it will only boil up to the surface once she’s safe behind the locked door of her flat. Instead, what she finds on the woman’s angular face is delight.
Her blue irises shine as if they’ve somehow captured and reflected all of the light left in the day.
Her smile is a long slash across a sharp jaw, all gleaming teeth beneath red lips. The woman starts laughing, and the world fractures at the sound.
The men are still yelling, loud and booming in the empty echo of the early night, and as their voices raise so does the woman’s laugh, ululating and venomous, joyous. Aine feels her breath becoming shorter and her legs start moving faster. She breaks into a run.
The cries from behind her start to change, and so does the pavement beneath her feet. Suddenly the concrete is cracking and splintering, but instead of stumbling she finds herself speeding up again, and soon she is sprinting over mossy cobblestones and patches of wet grass. When she lifts her eyes from her frantic feet, the city around her is a mutated landscape too.
She watches with wide eyes as buildings crash and fall into emerging mounds of green. Windows implode with a sound of shattered glass under the sudden pressure of thick vines. Lampposts and benches unceremoniously collapse, trees growing in their place from tiny sapling to thick-rooted oaks in a matter of seconds.
Aine runs madly, aimlessly, yet somehow she gets the sense it is the right direction, the same path she would take in her familiar neighbourhood, even transformed in this glorious primeval forest.
The thump of her feet is loud in Aine’s ears, rhythmic, or maybe it is the blood pumping in her heart. She is not sure anymore.
But the laughter still fills the air, and as she listens, Aine finds in it the call of hounds, the snarl of wolves, the snicker of a fox, the screech of a falcon.
Suddenly the men’s voices are back, but they too are changed, no longer behind her, pressing like snapping jaws at her heels, but in front of her now, deep into the green. And they are full of fear. Shrill with panic, sharp and short with confusion, panting because the men are running too, fleeing as mad bucks, stumbling in the underbrush.
Aine turns to the woman again, both of them still running, Aine fearing she will forget how to stop soon.
The woman is transformed too, and Aine is struck by the thought that maybe it was never a woman to begin with. Her wicked smile is fox-like, lips pulled back over gleaming fangs. Her pace has the loping, long strides of wolves, her feet ticking like talons against gravel as they hit the ground. When Aine looks at her, she sees the woman, but the hound is there too, an image both over-imposed and distinct in a way that is hard for her brain to reconcile.
The hound-in-the-woman howls as it speeds up its run. To Aine, it sounds bone chilling, but her body responds to it too, a weird tension spreading through her. The figure darts ahead of Aine and into the green, disappearing with a quick leap over mossy roots. Aine can just about gleam the blur of stag legs and white tails fleeing.
The howl echoes in Aine’s ears, beckoning her to join the hunt. She had not realised it before, but her run is purposeful, her stride sure-footed in pursuit. She can smell the stag men’s fear on the wind. The euphoria of the chase is knocking at her ribs, maddening, begging her to give in to the instinct, to gorge herself on the powerful rush of it all. She almost leaps forward with the intoxicating energy of it. No more the hunted, all fear is gone. She is the predator, now.
Her feet, now still, rest quietly on the unbroken pavement. Around her is the usual neighbourhood, grey buildings, sparse lighted windows. The moon has fully risen and the shops are quiet and dark. She is standing in front of her own flat, the front door just across the street. The lamp post light flickers as it always does, a few moths circling it. The forest is gone. There are no men, no women, no hounds. She walks towards the door. Her heart still hammers in her chest, a faint wild call at the back of her head. She does not turn back. Her keys are still clutched tightly between her fingers. She puts them in the door and walks in.