Authors: Michael Sellars
Copyright © 2015 Michael Sellars
All rights reserved
For Ray, Reuben and Marcy with love.
Thanks to Jeff, Alex and Max for encouragement,
suggestions and pointing out inconsistencies, unlikelihoods and some howling
The hyena dragged a filthy finger across the spines of
Angelou, Arnold, Ashbury, Auden and Betjeman. It hesitated at the breach where
Blake would have been had Jason Garvey not liberated him five weeks before, and
then it moved onto Browning and Byron.
Jason Garvey, Jay to his friends — few and all dead or
worse — was crammed under a display table just four feet from the browsing
hyena, close enough to suffer its rank odour despite the thick woollen scarf
covering his mouth and nose, almost close enough to reach out and touch the
tattered hem of its grime-shiny, bloodstained jeans and the dead worm of lace
trailing from Reeboks on the verge of splitting, disintegrating.
The corner of a leather wallet peeked out of a torn
back pocket and, despite his clattering heartbeat, Jay couldn’t help but think
of all the things that might be in there, evidence of the hyena’s former
humanity: driver’s licence, credit cards, money he would never spend, passport
photos of a wife or girlfriend or children. Jay tried not to think about what
the thing might have been before the Jolt, tried not to think of it as human at
all. If he started thinking about the possibility that there might be some pale
but retrievable remnant of an actual person beneath that stinking crust, behind
those murderous eyes, he wouldn’t be able to use the kitchen knife gripped in
his trembling right hand, a hand greased with sweat despite the freezing cold.
In his left hand, gripped equally tightly though of considerably less use was a
copy of Northrop Frye’s
, the reason he’d left the
warmth and relative safety of his blanket- and foil-lined hidey-hole on the
third floor, a room that Jay assumed had functioned as some kind of break area
for the Waterstones staff. Moments after he’d slipped the book from its place
in Literary Criticism, he’d heard the hyena come bounding up the spiral
staircase. He’d had only a couple of seconds to get himself out of sight,
assuming he’d somehow given himself away and the thing had come for him.
Instead, it had shuffled up to the Poetry section and had started
The hyena snarled, snatched a volume of Byron and,
still facing the bookshelf, away from Jay, dropped into a cross-legged seated
position. There was still a little snow on its hunched shoulders but it was
melting fast. It turned the book over and over, this way and that, as if
looking for a point of entry, then prised the pages apart. Jay saw there was a
chunk of flesh missing from the back of its arm, just below a tattoo of the
Liverpool Football Club crest; the wound was livid with infection. The hyena
looked down at Byron’s words and let out a snort which sounded like
satisfaction, then sighed, its breath clouding around its matted head.
Jay could feel the onset of cramp in his right calf.
His lower back was beginning to protest, a sharp, persistent pain that insulted
his twenty-seven years. He knew he wouldn’t be able to last much longer but he
had no desire to confront the thing. He’d only found himself face-to-face with
a hyena once before and it had come very close to ending badly for him. A
well-aimed boot to the hyena’s balls had saved his life but he’d earned himself
a dislocated arm, the memory of
locating which still made him wince.
What’s it doing? he thought. I mean, what the
world ended five weeks ago. There shouldn’t
any more surprises.
The hyena ran its fingertips over the page, as if it
were reading Braille. Another snort of satisfaction, another sigh, another reeking
breath-cloud. Then, with surprising delicacy, it tore the page from the book,
pushed it into its mouth and began to chew, emitting little grunts of pleasure.
It swallowed with some difficulty then tore out
another page. This one it rammed into its mouth, chewing furiously.
The Byron looked to be at least four hundred pages.
Jay put all thoughts of ‘what the fuck?’ out of his mind and began to shuffle
backwards, an inch at a time, until he could no longer see the hyena but could
still hear its lips smacking together, its grunts. He was almost out, when the
hood of his parka hissed against the underside of the table.
The hyena stopped chewing. Jay froze, held his breath.
One, two, three, four seconds of silence. Five, six. The hyena started chewing
again. Jay dared to breathe only when he absolutely had to. He was surprised
the hyena couldn’t feel the vibrations from his juddering heartbeat through the
He was about to begin inching backwards again, when
the hyena spat the pulp from its mouth and let out a vicious snarl. Jay thought
it had heard him,
him even, but then, as it began tearing at pages and
scattering them about, it became clear that it was the volume of poetry that
was the source of its fury.
Jay eased his way out from under the table, stayed on
his knees for a few seconds, then peered over the display of Mind, Body and
The hyena was looking right at him.
right at him. Pages from Byron seemed to hang in the air. White flecks of
chewed paper peppered its sparse, knotted beard. It pulled back cold-sore
infested lips to bare yellow teeth. It was human in every respect — filthy,
ragged, diseased, but human — except for its eyes. Its eyes were just rage. Jay
noticed the remaining arm of a pair of spectacles tangled-up in its hair just
above its left ear, and then it leapt up onto the table, scattering books.
Jay lashed out with the knife, a backhanded arc,
warning the hyena off. The thing only grinned.
Jay turned and ran toward the spiral staircase.
If he could get back to his hidey-hole, lock the door,
maybe he could wait it out. He had water and food (okay, mostly crisps, muffins
and Kit Kats), blankets, a Calor gas heater. The hyena would starve, freeze or
just get bored and fuck off.
But it wasn’t fucking off now. He heard it launch
itself from the table, books thudding to the floor. Certain the thing was going
to land on his back — he could almost
it, suspended in the air above him — Jay made a
sudden left, away from the stairs.
It was a wise decision: the hyena crashed to the floor
where Jay would have been had he continued moving forward. But now the thing,
rolling onto all fours, was between him and the stairs, between him and his
Jay swiped back and forth with the knife.
The hyena laughed: high, harsh, barking. It was a
sound with which he was all-too familiar; usually it was faint, distant. The
last time he’d heard it at such close proximity, his arm was being wrenched out
of its socket and it had taken all his will just to remain conscious.
Still laughing, the hyena leapt.
Jay knew that if he simply stood his ground, held the
knife out, the thing would impale itself. But his belly was hot and oily with
fear, his heartbeat a series of painful detonations. He lurched to the right, lashing
out with the knife as he did so
The hyena’s body struck his outstretched arm. Jay spun
like a turnstile, so fast he couldn’t keep his balance. He fell onto his back,
hard enough to knock the wind out of him. The knife flew from his hand.
He lifted his head in time to see the hyena scuttling
toward him on all fours. A string of saliva hung from its lips, lashing about.
Jay rolled onto his side, his front, got to his feet.
He started away from the hyena, toward the stairs.
A moment later, the hyena slammed into his back, its
hands gripping his shoulders, its feet pushing into the backs of his knees.
Jay went down again. His forehead struck the floor.
There was concrete beneath the thin carpet tiles, and the impact was so hard
sheet lightning filled his vision for a second, leaving behind a sickly
green-yellow afterimage. He kept his head tucked in, and for the moment the
hyena contented itself with raking at his back and shoulders, shredding the
thin outer material of his parka, but Jay knew it would soon tire of that.
Hyenas liked to tear at flesh, to break bone, to kill for the sake of killing.
Fighting nausea from the blow to his head, Jay pulled
his legs under him, pushed his feet flat against the ground and with a
weightlifter’s grunt of exertion, stood and threw himself backwards. He managed
to turn himself slightly on the descent, so his shoulder slammed into the
hyena’s chest at the same moment its back hit the floor. He saw and smelled the
breath forced from its lungs, a noxious fog. The hyena released its grip.
Jay jerked up and stumbled forward. Regaining his
balance, he sprinted toward the stairs.
He thought the hyena might take a few seconds to
recover. He thought wrong. He could hear it already, coming at him, laughing,
closing the distance. He’d only climbed three steps when his hood was yanked
back and the collar of his parka cut into his throat.
Jay spun round, lashed out. He hadn’t even realised he
was still gripping Northrop Frye’s
until the corner of its
thick spine struck the hyena’s temple. The rage left its eyes for a moment,
replaced by a crazed bewilderment, and then it was tumbling backwards, head
over heels, down the stairs. The book followed after, Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days’
becoming a blur of orange and yellow as it cart-wheeled. And then both of them
— book and hyena — were gone, out of sight, round the curve of the spiral
staircase, and there was silence.
Jay waited, his eyes trained on the spot where the
hyena had flopped and twisted from view. His heart punched at his chest; his
lungs felt shredded. He gave it a full minute then sat down on the steps and
He probed the rapidly forming egg in the middle of his
forehead and grimaced. A small price to pay. He flexed the arm which had been
dislocated during his only other encounter with a hyena, as if to remind
himself how lucky he’d been this time. Looking over each shoulder, he could see
wads of grey stuffing erupting here and there from his shredded parka. He was
going to need a new coat. Which meant going out. Out there. With the hyenas.
“Shit.” He flexed his arm again, allowed himself a
faint smile. “Still. Could be worse. A lot worse.”
A wave of exhilaration washed over and through him. He
was grinning now.
There was a bullish snort from the floor below. The
smile dissolved. The hyena, its face glossed with blood, lurched into view. It
was the hyena’s turn to grin. Most of its front teeth were missing; one was
embedded in its lower lip. It barked laughter, dropped onto all fours and
galloped up the stairs.
A part of Jay, a small part, knew it would be better
to stand his ground, to opt for fight rather than flight, to deliver a
well-aimed boot-tip to the hyena’s face once it was within range. The hyena was
too fast, too relentless, to be outpaced; if he turned his back on the thing,
it would run him down long before he reached his hidey-hole, probably before he
reached the third floor, and he would die here on these stairs with no knife or
Northrop Frye with which to defend himself.
For a second he almost dug in and stole himself for
battle, but then the hyena spat out what could only have been its own severed
tongue and Jay turned and fled, his bladder suddenly shrieking to be emptied, a
weight manifesting in his bowels that wanted out
The stairs shook with the hyena’s violent footfalls.
Its ragged panting became louder, closer. Jay threw himself up the stairs,
following the hyena’s example and using his arms as much as his legs.
He was almost at the top step; he could see the door
to his hidey-hole beyond the shelves of Military History, Politics, Religion,
Geography and Transport. For a second he allowed himself to entertain the possibility
that he might make it, but then he felt the hyena’s febrile heat, saw the
roiling clouds of its insufferable breath unfolding all around him. He gasped,
inhaling its stink. The hyena laughed.
Jay somehow managed to keep moving
himself for the inevitable impact.
From somewhere further down the stairs, there was a
, then a hiss like a sudden puncture.
The hyena’s laugh halted abruptly, replaced by a
gargling cough. The inevitable impact didn’t come.
Jay turned in time to see the hyena swoon to one side,
attempt to steady itself on the banister, fail and crumple forward. A metal rod
about half a metre long and no thicker than a pencil protruded from its lower
back, a bloodstain blooming from the entry point.
Further down the stairs a white-bearded old man in a
black Crombie and a black woollen hat, both of which glittered with a
sprinkling of snowflakes, was pointing a harpoon gun in the general direction
of Jay’s torso.