by Ian Richardson

august 2015 story of the month
Artwork: Wild Hunt by Valin Mattheis

The clatter of passing trains shook the walls of the earth den. Before the track there had been the line of the canal, with its barges and clop of horseshoe on the towpath, which itself had replaced a stream lined with pussy willow when the only disturbance had been fish breaching the water. Things change.

Some things.

The police had called: flashing a photo, asking if the child had been seen or a vehicle driving too slowly. We looked at the photo held at arm’s length in front of us, the boy with fine golden hair and milk-toothed smile, happy in his blue school sweatshirt, still bright in its first week of reception class wear.

"Could we search? If there's a search, then, if I can, I'd like..."

It had waited in the dark. As all children knew it did, it hid motionless in the long pools of darkness that collected in corners and behind doors. Returning night after night, patient in the hunt.

The mother hardly spoke now. In the beginning she hadn't been able to stop talking. Asking how long it would be, telling the policewoman who sat uncomfortably on her sofa that she knew he would be back soon. She knew he would, she would know if anything had happened. She would never let him out after dark, she would never do that, but he'd been playing football and the coach watched over them and he was supposed to wait and his dad would be there to pick him up, but he hadn't been there and his dad had shouted and looked and then called the police on his mobile, screaming at the operator in his fear and now...

And now it should be bedtime and she had his book. His new favourite. She held it to her chest as she rocked in her armchair. On the front, a fox, dressed in children's clothes of primary colours, walked hand in hand with a rabbit.

"He'll want to know what Mr Fox did next. I promised him. I told him we'd find out tonight what Mr Fox did."

As it glided along through the park, the dark thing saw its quarry. The last dimmed light pointing at the boy on the football pitch as if he alone existed. He stood apart, still in his shorts and chunky boots, looking lost now that the game was finished and the other children were leaving.

It listened and watched, heard the prey named and saw him isolated. Slipping out from the trees it ghosted at the edge of the light. It raised a hand and beckoned. What child could tell a friendly smile from the bared teeth of a hunter?

"He loves all the fairy stories," she said. "Stupid when you think of it, living here. What does a London kid know about fairy stories? But that's all he wanted... wants to hear about, stories with talking animals and ogres. He'll be alright? There are gangs and allsorts. I've seen them in the park selling drugs. They wouldn't hurt him would they? He's only little, no one would hurt him." In her arms Mr Fox and his rabbit friend waited.

It had been so quick. The grown-up in the hoody had waved him over and then there was a hand on his mouth, bruising his lip, and his arm twisted up high behind his back, so hard he thought his shoulder ripped. He'd squealed but a huge meaty slap knocked his head back and the rusty taste of blood was in his mouth. Then he was dangling, half-lifted in the air and the toes of his boots scraped along the soil as he was dragged from the path.

It had struck. Out of the dark it had taken the boy. Now it dragged him through the gap where the torn links of the fence opened onto the tracks. Down embankments into the deep dark, down under the brick bridge that was its real home, down where it was quiet and it could play the games it liked to play.

"Just be quiet," it lied, "just you do what I tell you and you'll be alright."

The boy saw its face. Sweat ran down from its hairless head. It panted fast, as if it had run a long way. He knew it.

"Mr Peters?"

Mr Peters from the newsagents, who always said, "Hallo, young man. Are you courting yet? I bet the girls all think you're a little prince!" and laughed for no reason.

From the dark bushes came a snap. Mr Peters pushed him against a tree and pressed a hand over his mouth again. Please, please let someone be there.

From the dark, eyes stared out, unblinking.

"Effing vermin! Go on, get out!" hissed Peters, but to the boy the eyes seemed to grow larger, until they were as big as saucers. His head buzzed from the blow.

Peters swung an arm at empty air, "Get on out! Get away!"

From the dark the fox emerged. Even in the night its thick fur shone deep red and glistened. Peters broke a switch from the nearest bush and advanced, dragging the boy behind him. The boy stared into the yellow eyes.

"Please, "he whispered, "Please."

The fox bared its sharp white teeth and watched Peters.

His mother couldn't say anything. Not since the police had come to tell her had she spoken. Every time words came acid rose in her throat and displaced them. Instead she just kneeled on the ground and held her boy in her arms as if she could fuse him to her.

"It's alright, mum," he said, "Mr Fox came."

In his den Fox listened to the sound of trains. He remembered it all, when the land was green and the great deer ran through the woods and they all chased with Herne—Fox and Wolf and Hound side by side and matching stride—and they hunted down the dark things. Fox didn't forget. He licked his lips and bit down on a flesh-hung bone, gnawing with pleasure.

BIO: Ian Richardson is a London based writer who resumed writing around four years ago after a near death incident. There were no bright lights or tunnels involved. His work has received professional rehearsed readings in literary festivals and events and two of his traditional British Pantos have been performed in Community Theatre runs. He has an older YA short story due to be published in an anthology Hex Support late in 2015. He can be contacted at Writerista@outlook.com.