“Quickly now, but be careful! We don’t know what kind of injuries it may have!”
I hear one of them shouting as I try to catch my breath, spent. I thought I had more cores left...They’re coming down now, I see their strange forms darting towards me, marring the light. I’m too tired to watch them all, so I watch the one who shouted. Maybe he doesn’t want to hurt me after all...
And then I feel their hands on my body.
Stop, stop, let me go! I don’t want to fight anymore! All the Tall Ones ever want me to do is fight! I’m not a fighter, not at heart, but they’ve made me fight before, and I’ll fight them now. I can hear the creatures with the teeth outside, barking, almost like they did just before they got behind me, tried to tear me apart bite by scratch. I won’t let them do that to me anymore! If I have to fight, I’ll fight the monsters who force it to begin with.
But the barks, they don’t sound angry, they sound confused, too. If they wanted to fight, they’d wait in the dark and growl their threats, but now? And these Tall Ones, there’s many of them. All picking me up at once? Usually one or two come down to just drag me to the bloodbath.
I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m too tired…
But I have enough left to fight them!
I don’t know what they think, maybe they thought I was dead before. It had been a long time since the last fight. That fight with the White Devil. Red Eyes. The last fight I’d been thrown into before the darkness claimed me, and my memories. All my memories save that terrible fight.
Red Eyes had teeth. Very big ones. He bit me a lot. I couldn’t keep him in front of me, he was too fast. And when he was behind me, he tore me up. He was a silvery blur, moving around like a dust devil, wearing me into the ground. Oh, if I’d had my wings! But they were bound. I couldn’t breath. I was crying. I remember talking, begging, pleading. And then he had my throat.
Then, as I tasted blood, I felt anger.
It burned white hot, enough to haze the only memory I know for sure. The next thing I know, I had pulled him off. The one with the Red Eyes. He was surprised. I was shimmering, and they all were afraid. He seemed so slow right then, and my wounds so small. And almost lazily, I turned, and with all my strength, I kicked him.
I felt every rib in his side crack like a twig.
I didn’t want to hurt him like that, I’d just wanted him to stop, to teach him a lesson. But I nearly killed him. As he lay there, lying in the settling dust, I lay next to him. The fight was out of his eyes, and so it was out of mine. The Tall Ones were silent. Nothing moved as I tried to say something, anything, to make it better. But my mouth was full of blood.
The last thing I saw was a plank hurtling straight for me, and the snarling bearded face behind it.
That same face, the one that every night had come and teased me with half eaten apples, tossing them down after hours of grovelling. Those apples, the most food they ever fed me at once. Still, I saved the cores.
This one, the one with the dark hair and strange smile that first came down here, I hit him a good one, didn’t I? The wood and the apple cores. Now he’s holding my head up. He doesn’t look like the others who used to drag me out of here. He’s not coloured by the earth on his skin; he’s clean, all bare skin and beady eyes. He looks weird. They’re trying to hold me up, keeping me level. I squirm a little, unsure as they raise me. Towards the light. Oh no, they’re taking me out, to fight? To flee!
I kick the Tall One right behind me in the face, he’s down. Sorry about that. Another just catches me, holds me tighter. I’m trying to squirm away from the one holding my head, but he’s strong. I know if my wings were out, I could beat them off me, but they’re not. So I’ll squirm.
It’s never been this dark out in the sunlight before. It still hurts my eyes with glare, but all looks like shadows and shapes. Oh my, there’s a lot of Tall Ones looking at me. So many...I can’t run from this. I doubt I can even stand.
They’re saying things, some are muttering, some look angry at the sight of me. Don’t be angry, just let me go. I try to look somewhere else, but my one eye doesn’t move at all. Even my good eye isn’t working right. The one holding my head puts me down on something, and with a squeak I feel myself being pushed into a small space. Another hole they’re shoving me into. One of the Tall ones is coming at me with a needle. No! I don’t like needles! What are you doing?
As she comes to jab me with whatever it is, I see a hand stop her.
“Wait. We don’t know what effects drugs will have on an animal like this, even without the injuries. I’ll ride in the back with it, keep it calmed.”
Who..? A Tall One follows the hand, all dressed in glaring white. He looks older than the one with the needle. Cleaner than the ones who made me fight. He climbs up into the small space the others put me in and casts about grumpily. He looks victorious, like he’s won something. The doors behind us swing shut. And I get a better look at his face as he leans down. There’s grey in his hair and lines in his brow. But now he’s looking at me, all over me, and he looks sad.
“Just what are you, little one?”
I wish I knew. I wish I could remember. I try to say something, but my throat hurts too much. I just cough, and I taste copper. No more talking. No more hellos. The last time I tried I lost everything. No pain, not the bites, the breaks or the horrible, burning thirst and hunger, could ever compare to the agony of not knowing who I am. A pain he’ll never know.
I don’t think he can answer my questions any better than the others anyway. He looks lost there, hovering to and fro, until he makes his decision. He gets up next me and puts a blanket over my head. Oh no, I’ve had enough Darkness! Get it off me! I want to see!
You aren’t going to hurt me like the others did!
Charles didn’t even know where to start.
Tory and the other interns lifted the creature up out of the cellar as gently as possible, but it wasn’t making it easy for them. The professor watched as it somehow managed to thrust both of its bound hind legs into the face of Eddy the orderly, flooring the man. He couldn’t help but question the strength it had mustered in its shocking state, to knock over a man as large as that so easily.
He still flinched when the man hit the floor.
Tory was holding the creature’s head, locking his arms around its neck as it wriggled with all its flagging strength. But by the time they reached the top of the steps, there was nothing left. Tory looked to his superior. “What now, Doc?”
Charles waved a hand at the truck and stood out of their way, still observing the animal they had stumbled across. Fifteen years Charles had studied various animal forms and still he couldn’t fathom what manner of animal this was. No curiosity is as strong as that of a stumped researcher.
Surprised, Charles looked across the yard after the authoritative call. There, striding about with purpose, seeking, was Sergeant Ned Caraway. His parole officer. Charles ducked and scurried nearer the truck, a decade-old Chevrolet C/K, out of the officer’s line of sight. Tory had pulled a loading tray out of the modified truck’s bed, and was gently resting the creature upon it. One of the duty vets came around with a medical kit around her shoulder, holding up a syringe and tapping the glass. The creature started bucking wildly again.
Charles reached out and grabbed her wrist, locking eyes with her, “Wait. We don’t know what effects drugs will have on an animal like this, even without the injuries. I’ll ride in the back with it, keep it calmed.”
She gave the older man an irritated look, but lowered the syringe and stepped back. With a whispered ‘thank-you’, Charles got up into the truck’s bleached interior and sat beside the creature. Looking over the vet’s shoulder, Charles locked eyes with Ned, just feet away. The Officer’s scowl was matched by his charge’s grin as the doors shut. A moment later, and vehicle lurched to life for the long drive back through the countryside, back to the Humane Society Office, and away from the police.
Returning his attention to the creature just below, Charles tried to once again figure out how to go about caring for it. Its body was still hidden under the black plastic binding its entire body, but one look at the wire twisted amongst the rope and he knew he’d have to leave it until they reached the veterinary clinic. Its legs Charles could untie, but after the kick this creature gave Eddy only minutes ago, he decided against it. His attention was drawn to the least obscured part of the intriguing creature: its head and neck. Long and lean, its neck supported a head of truly bizarre proportions. Even under all the bandages, it was clearly far too large. Swelling surely accounted for some of it, but still, it was very nearly ridiculous compared to the rest of its body, no bigger than that of a child.
Charles shook his head in wonder. “Just what are you, little one?”
Running along the top of its head and down its neck was a ragged shock of bleached-looking hair made thin and sparse by ill-treatment. Its thin coat of fur was similarly affected ,no more colour in it than soaked newspaper. And on one shoulder, just under the plastic, Charles saw the unmistakable beginnings of mange.
All in all, there was very little the man could do. The rags that passed as bandages were stuck fast with built up grime and blood, and the smartest thing to do seemed to be just to calm the creature down. With little to go on, he fumbled for a few seconds before grabbing a blanket and lowering it over the creature’s head. Darkness always calmed critters.
Not this one. To his surprise, it started kicking manically, one stroke grazing his shin. Charles swore at the overly powerful strike, grasping his leg and scrambling away. He heard a pained hissing, and a torrent of coughs.
The driver’s hatchway opened, “You okay back there?”
“Yeah,” he lied. Charles slammed the hatch back shut and darted in to yank the blanket back. Instantly, the creature stopped struggling, its one open eye fixed on him unsteadily, the white clearly showing. Its breathing came fast and ragged, and he could see a droplet of ruby blood in the corner of its mouth, rolling down to the obscured side of its face.
It struck him that it might be beyond him to save it.
Charles reached out to lift its head, to clean off the blood. It shied back as much as it could, but it wasn’t far in the enclosed loading bed. He frowned.
“Come on, little one, I just want to help.”
The creature stopped moving, from exhaustion more than his voice he guessed. He decided against moving its head, and simply laid a hand against its cheek, feeling its shaky breath. Above his hand, an ear slowly came up and swivelled towards him. Its edge was ragged, bitten to red shreds and mangled. Charles looked at the forelegs again, noticing dozens of punctures and scratches. The back legs were even worse. They’d made this creature fight the pitbulls. Why...who would even do that? The thought of such cruelty was beyond his imagining. But sometimes, people do anything for a gimmick.
Charles remembered the tip-off call the Humane Society Office had received; something about the dog-fighting ring, something about them making the dogs fight goats and horses other animals. Well, this wasn’t a goat, that was for sure. Charles held no sympathy for those dog fighters now that he could see the results of their efforts.
And he’d seen enough. He kept his hand on its warm cheek, feeling it’s breathing slow to a bare tremor, and reached for his phone. He flicked through all of the four numbers saved on it and called the clinic. “Hello? Yes, this is Charles – yes the crazy doctor – listen, please, can you prep the operating theatre, we have an emergency case here. Yes...yes, I’m with it...no, it’s not a dog...Listen, just get two sets of kit ready, I’ll wait for Tory to come and help, leave it to me.”
When Charles looked down again, the creature’s eye had closed, and its breathing was regular, if shallow. It looked so vulnerable, so weak. He felt his heart weaken at the sight, but his resolve harden. Charles was no newcomer to this sort of cruelty; He’d worked at many places aside from Pennsylvania University before he...well, he had experience. More than anything, he could not stand to see such needless pain. He sighed and rubbed it’s cheek slightly, then slid himself behind it. The least he could do was try to warm it up.
The truck bucked. The jolt pulled Charles back to the world, as the creature now fully in his arms awoke. It did not like what it felt. In an instant, it was bucking and scrabbling against him, but he held on tightly, stubbornly bearing the force. He cooed through gritted teeth: “Hey now, calm down, it’s alright, nothing’s gonna hurt you.”
The creature collapsed in his arms as the truck pulled over. Charles wriggled around, surprised that the creature had calmed so suddenly. Until he saw its eye. Rolled up and almost closed, its faint golden iris surrounded by scarlet veins, unmoving: the creature had passed out. Charles felt a lump in his throat, but at least its breathing was steady, after a fashion.
Charles tried to remain positive by grouching at somebody else. He thumped on the cab partition and shouted for the driver. The opaque piece of plastic slid aside, and the admonishments dried on his tongue. The driver looked back at the professor with wide eyes as Charles stared at the almost shattered windscreen, traces of something on fire flickering still in the cracks.
“Sir,” The scared driver started stuttering, “I d-don’t know what happened, it just came out of-“
Charles didn’t hear the rest. He scrambled to the back of the vehicle and cast the door open, careful to avoid the creature in his care. There was little he could do for it now, either way.
Instead, he jumped out into the shade of the trees leaning over the country lane and looked at the side of the old Chevrolet, and at the ashen splash etched into the metal of the cab, where a flaming bottle had struck. Pieces of glass clung to the residue of mixed fuels, and behind him, Charles heard a twig crack. Without a word, Charles climbed back into the truck.
“Drive.” Charles muttered.
The driver did not argue. The vehicle ground back off down the old road, leaving Charles absently stroking his charge’s ragged neck as he thought;
What have we gotten ourselves into?