Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
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Autumn Wolves

by James Tatam

The amber trees were swaying in the wind, bleeding leaves when the pair prowled past; silver coated, fangs as white as the moon: two timber wolves.

They moved through the orange woods until the sound of gushing water filled their furry ears and they stopped at a bridge balanced over a rock stream. The bridge was old, rickety, and unsafe. Moss had begun to rot the ancient wood. Whining, the smaller wolf backed away. The largest wolf, thick and sinewy, placed its paws on the old wood and moved onto the bridge.

It groaned, and held.

Carefully, the wolf hesitated over the bridge. The wood groaned, joining the roar of flowing water below.

The wolf froze midway, sensing danger. The wood was beginning to crack. The younger wolf watched in terror and excitement. The bridge screamed and finally gave way, plummeting the wolf into the cold water. The younger wolf yelped and leapt to the bank, leaning over, hoping to catch sight of something, anything. There was nothing. The eldest wolf had vanished.

Sad and beady eyed, the younger moped back the way it had come and collapsed under a reddish tree. Moonstone eyes ablaze with tears, it howled through the forest. It was a wild sound. Untamed.

* * *

"You know how long it takes for the mosquito to get trapped like this?" Abe asked as he analyzed the insect entombed in amber.

"How long?" Conan asked as he lapped up the rest of his cereal like a starved dog.

"One hundred and thirty million years!" The large man stood up so quickly he almost flipped the table over. He brushed the toast crumbs off his greasy white shirt and passed into the kitchen. "Can you imagine that, kiddo?" he called back. "One hundred and thirty million years! What must that feel like, I wonder."

Water whistled into the sink in the kitchen. Conan remained at the table, eating at a ferocious speed. He was a young boy, pale-skinned with a wolfish face lost under shaggy ginger hair. Dressed in his superhero pajamas he looked smaller than the table. The very opposite of the fat man slaving over the sink.

Conan put down his spoon. "Prison," he said.

Abe turned around, hands lost under mountains of soap. "What?"

"The mosquito feels like it is in prison."

A smile slithered across Abe's face. He wiped his hands and returned to the table.

"I suppose you're right, son," he said. "But how does a young lad like you know what prison feels like? Not been watching too much television again, I hope."

Conan shrugged. "Television is boring. I learned from Grandpa."

Abe bellowed, his huge chest bouncing back and forth like a ball in a ping-pong game. "Grandpa never went to prison. He's making it up."

"He did!"

"Oh, yeah? What were the charges? Sleeping all day?"

"For stealing something."

Abe laughed. "It was a yard sale! The guy didn't even want that stereo, it was broken to bits. I bet he was glad Grandpa took it."

"But he called the police?" Conan replied.

"That's Grandpa's version. I was there, son, and nobody called the police."

"Grandpa said that he did time. What's time?"

"Exactly that. Just sitting there, doing nothing forever... for what feels like forever. Time is time."

"Like the mosquito then?"

"Yes... yes, you're right, but Grandpa never went to prison, and he never did time. The old fool gets muddled up in his old age. We need to stick him in a home."

"Is that like prison?"

Abe smiled. "Kinda. Maybe worse. It's a place for old people."

"I don't want to be old and muddled like Grandpa."

Abe ruffled his son's jungle of ginger hair. "Well," he said, "that is not something for you to be worried about now, little man. Right now, you should be worrying about this school project. You thought about it?" He whisked Conan's bowls from under his nose and plodded back into the kitchen.

"I don't want to go to school"

"Well you have to. It's part of life, bud."

"Like getting muddled up?"

Abe stopped washing again and turned around. There were streaks of seriousness on his face. "Conan, have you thought about this project or not?"

"I don't know."

"It's due tomorrow. Come on, it's not hard. It's your favorite animal. Surely you have a favorite animal?"

Conan shook his head. His hair danced like volts of electricity.

"What about a lion?" Abe offered. "All boys like lions."

"Lions are boring."

"What then?"

"I don't know."

"Well think about it. Go and get ready for school now, you have to be ready for eight."

"I don't want to go to school."

"You have to. Go on now, before mummy comes down."

"Will mummy be angry again?"

"What do you mean?" Abe asked.

"Mummy is always angry. Mummy said she has to take medicine."

Abe sighed. "Some people are angrier than others, Conan. Some people need help to control their emotions and say things they don't mean. You know how mummy is, it isn't her fault. The best you can do is go up and get dressed now. I'm sure you have a big school day today."

"I don't want to be like mummy. Why does everyone always have different problems?"

"I don't know son."

"You don't have any problems, daddy. You don't even have to go and work like mummy. You get to stay here all day."

A wave of silence washed over the room. Abe looked pained. When he spoke, the words were slow and slurred. "Conan, I spend my life looking after you. How many times do I have to say this? Mummy works, and I look after you. You don't want to be like me, boy, which is why you need to do well at school."

Conan shrugged. "I don't care. If I sit here long enough I will turn into the mosquito."

Abe grabbed his son's shoulder and eased him out of the chair like pulling gum off a shoe. "Conan, go and get changed for school now. Last chance. Mummy won't wait."

Reluctantly, Conan left the table and mounted the stairs. He stopped half way and looked up. Standing on the stair above him was a tall woman, smartly dressed in a jacket and pencil dress. Her hair was a waterfall of ribbon-like curls. Her eyes, green and venomous gave her the impression of a bird of prey--an image ruined by thick scarlet lips that seemed to take up a majority of her face, making her look rubbery. A human eraser. She looked at Conan and a smile was rubbed from her lips.

"Why aren't you dressed yet?" Pulling back her sleeve, she checked her imaginary watch. "For god's sake, Conan! It was time to go ten minutes ago."

Conan stammered for a reply. The tall woman strode past him, whipping him against the stairwell like a forceful wave. Conan heard her stomp into the kitchen. He waited on the stairs and listened.

"Abe, why isn't he ready yet?" She asked. "I told you to have him dressed by the time I came down. Now what am I going to do?" Even from the stairs, Conan could hear the spite in her words.

"Nancy, have you taken your medication this morning?" His father's tone was light, comforting.

"Why is that any of your business?" Conan guessed that was a no. "What am I going to do now, Abe? You tell me.

"Oh, what's the big deal, Nancy? You've still got half an hour. It won't take him half an hour to get dressed."

Nancy snorted. "But it will take more than thirty minutes to drive to work, especially at this time. He should have been in school half an hour ago." Nancy left the kitchen, followed by Abe. They walked toward the front door, ignoring Conan perched on the stairs. To them, he was a ghost.

"Nancy, you're overreacting a bit, don't you think? Just let the boy get up and get dressed."

"Overreacting, Abe? How dare you say that to me. Now I know where the boy gets his temper from."

"He hasn't got a temper. Conan is barely nine."

"Still old enough to grow a temper, Abe."

"He's doing nothing wrong."

"But you are. He's your responsibility when I'm not home and you're not raising him to be right and proper. Look, I can't have this conversation now. I have to go. Just phone Conan in as ill. He can get that blasted project done then. Okay, bye." Her slender fingers opened the door, and in the blink of an eye, closed it.

Abe turned back to his son and offered a faint smile. Conan has the odd feeling that his father was only being strong for him.

"Guess you're having another sick day then. Why don't you go and get dressed into something casual. I have a plan."

"What is it?" Conan blurted out.

"Go and get dressed, you'll see. Quickly though, because we have to go and catch the bus."

* * *

The zoo was a hive of activity. Humans crawled around like ants under the sun's spyglass, sweating and swearing. As Conan dodged around anthills of litter, he found it difficult to tell which things were the animals.

"What do you want to go and see first?" Abe asked as he mopped his balding head for the billionth time. They had only been at the zoo for a quarter of an hour, but the large man was already drenched.

"I don't know," Conan replied. He looked around, and through the patchwork of people there were vistas of real animals, enclosures and domes. "Not lions."

"I have an idea," Abe wheezed. "But first we need to go and buy water before I faint. Look at me, it's like I have been swimming."

Conan sat on a bench as his father purchased two bottles of water. The water was too small and cost too much, but water is water, regardless of price. They gulped it down and then Abe led his son through the desert of people, toward a log cabin.

It turned out to be the home for all things forest. Conan sopped at the owls, but thought that they were worse than lions. They didn't move, just watched him with big eyes; it felt like being in school again. There was a large open enclosure for the kinder things of the forest, the deer, and the elk, and people were lining up to pet the fawns.

"Do you want to pet one?" Abe asked as he took out his phone.

Conan shook his head. "Is there anything else?"

"You can't just jump around like this, or we will be going in ten minutes. Look how nice the deer are."

"Boring. What's over there?" he pointed to a relatively small audience standing around a thick glass window.

They managed to get there just as another couple was leaving, meaning that they could get closest to the window. The enclosure was set out like a fur forest, the kind you would find in Russian taiga. At first, there was nothing there. Nothing that could be seen, anyway, and then movement. Conan saw them emerge and was glued to the window.

"What are they?" Conan enthused. He watched the creatures though the window as they padded around the artificial forest. They were like dogs, only bigger, hairier. Long fangs stabbed out of their mouths. When they moved, the forest moved with them, like an orchestra to the command of the composer.

"Wolves," Abe answered. "Nasty things they are." He put his phone away.

Nasty was far from what Conan was thinking as he watched the wild beasts. The longer he stood there, the more that emerged from behind the fake trees. Two, three, four, five, six. They seemed to grow off the trees.

Abe scanned for the nearest exit. "Come on, Conan. These really are boring." Abe turned back to the window and took a sudden step back. "Here comes one toward you. Let's hope that glass don't break."

Conan didn't hear what his father was saying. He was too focused on the creature padding toward him, a big, shaggy, ginger thing with long, vampire-like teeth. Conan met its glare. He fell into its deep blue eyes like he was sinking into arctic snow. He felt himself slipping away from reality... so much that he almost jumped when he realized the wolf was standing upright, leaning against the window, looking down at him. Its paws were stretched out across the glass, as if in embrace, or in crucifixion.

Abe ceased talking and backed away. He laid a protective hand on his son's shoulder. Conan didn't budge. He moved toward it and stretched out his own arms in reflection of the wolf, until the only thing separating hand from paw was glass. They stood there like mirrored butterflies. Symmetrical.

"Conan..." Abe's words were soft, as if he were trying to soothe the wolf as well. A crowd had formed around him and he felt the gel of sweat on his face. "Conan."

The boy wasn't listening. He was absorbed in the wolf's blue eyes. Staring into them was like staring into two icy planets where there was nothing. Nothing. Just freedom. The wolf raised its paw and bought it down on the window. The glass bounced. The crowd recoiled. Conan stood motionless.

The paw came down again and a hair split showed in the glass.

Screams erupted from the crowd, and Conan heard the thunder of feet as they dispersed to find help. The wolf thudded the window again and the crack became a snowflake, a shape as cold and free as the blue eyes on the other side.

The flurry of feet again. More this time.

A hand grasped Conan's shoulder--forcefully, this time--and the boy spun round. His father lifted him into meaty arms and took the boy away as men with rifles stormed the enclosure. Conan watched them as they went into the fir forest, aimed their guns at the wolf. He heard a whine as the creature collapsed, and felt a deep pain crawl over his chest.

* * *

When they got back, the sun looked like a copper coin in the noon sky, blurry and rust colored. It peeked through the windows of the house and stretched across the kitchen table, illuminating the mess of paper.

"So you want to do a wolf, then? Now that you've had a scary close encounter with one."

Conan nodded. "It wasn't scary. It was nice. It was like a big doggie."

"A rabid one at that. Okay, tell you what, I'll work on your speech, and you can get cracking on some pictures of wolves. If we do well, I may even order us a pizza.

"Sounds good to me," Conan said as he sharpened a pencil and put it to paper.

Abe started working on the speech for his son, writing it in the most laymen terms possible--which for him wasn't hard--so that Conan could easily recite it in class; and Conan busied himself drawing wolves. They came to him so easily it felt like they were leaping off the pen.

"Bloody hell, Conan," Abe said as he looked over to his son's drawings. "You're really good at those drawings."

"Look, it's the wolf I saw today."

"Hand that here a second." Conan passed the picture over to his father, and sure enough, it was the wolf at the zoo. A spitting image. A mirror reflection replica. Abe was astounded. "How did you do it this well?" he asked as he traced the wolf with a chubby finger.

Conan shrugged, began a new drawing.

"Well, you certainly have a gift, son. How come you have never showed me this before? I was never this good at art."

"I could never do it before."

"Best you keep that up then. You'll go far with art like that. I can't believe you never knew how to do that! Hell, you could be a real artist soon." He slid the paper back over the table.

A rattle sounded from the front door and the pair stopped working. Abe checked his watch. "Mum must be home early," he said. "I wonder why." The front door opened and the jangle of keys was lost under the sound of boots hitting the ground. Nancy appeared at the table a moment later.

Conan dissolved into his chair. His mother looked as though someone had raked through her face with a fork. Her cheeks and forehead were twisted and bursting with anger.

She sat down at the third chair and said nothing. She pressed a shaky hand to her scalp, as if she were afraid it might fall off. Conan pushed the wolf drawings toward her. She pushed them back.

"Nancy?" Abe probed.

"You fired me today. Both of you." It wasn't a voice. It was a hiss. Her eyes were glowing.

"What happened?" Abe asked. He tried to touch her hand but she swatted him away.

She sniffed. "You happened. You made me late for work, and... and then they fired me." Her hand moved over the table and grabbed hold of the drawings and papers. Her eyes scanned over them. "You and your useless son!" She screamed and threw the papers across the room. They fell like limp butterflies.

Abe stood up immediately and tried to push his hysteric wife back into the seat, with much resistance. He turned to his son.

"Go and wait in the lounge, Conan. Mummy and Daddy need to talk. Go on, go and wait."

Conan wasted no time. He knew what was coming. He bolted into the lounge, dived onto the sofa, and buried his face in a pillow.

"I told you, Abe! I told you that I would lose my job if you kept making me late. Is this what you wanted? Did you want me to end up like you?"

Abe was struggling to keep calm. "Nancy, this is what happens when you refuse to take your medication. You can't blame anyone like this."

"It's always medication with you, Abe. You just want me so drugged up that I can't do anything. You're just like the doctors. Did it ever occur to you that you make me like this? You make me stressed because you expect me to always be the man here. When will you get a job and share the load? Never, that's when. You're going to lose us everything, Abe. When will you see it, you fat ape!"

"It's my fault?" there was no calmness in Abe's voice now. He'd had enough. "What do you think they fired you? For being late? That's rubbish. I bet they fired you because they just can't stand having you around."

There was a thump, followed by a crack, a groan. Abe's groan. He swore.

"Don't ever talk to me like that, you fat asshole! Don't ever talk to me about keeping a job. You deserve that!"

There were things thrown around. Conan could hear them, plates and glasses, pictures, smashing against the walls with the force of grenades. He couldn't bear it anymore. Some things had to be seen to be stopped. He hurried into the kitchen.

He stopped dead in his tracks.

Abe was rolling on the floor, clutching his bloody nose. Thick dribbles of blood oozed down his shirt. In the kitchen, standing amongst broken things, Nancy like a witch. She eyed Conan with contempt.

He ran. Something urged inside him, some deep inner spirit animal kicked into gear, and he galloped upstairs. He locked his bedroom door and sat on the bed, head in hand. Tears rolled down his cheeks in long, slug-like trails. Downstairs, he heard his father swear again. The front door opened and then slammed shut. Conan slid into his bed. He blocked out everything else and thought back to the wolf and its snowy eyes, and eventually fell asleep.

When he woke, his mother was standing over him, smiling. Smiling. The look haunting her the previous day had been exorcised. Conan wondered if she had taken her pills.

"Get up now, Conan. Your breakfast is on the table. You need to go to school today, okay." Her smile fell when she poked and returned when she was still like a mask.

"Is daddy home?" Conan asked as he wiped his eyes. He hoped that she would tell him that he was; that last night had been a dream. That the last nine years of his life had been a dream.

"Daddy is staying at Steve's house for a few days. Don't worry about him. Come on, get up."

"I don't want to go to school. You ruined my presentation."

The smile dropped, the mask unfastened. "Well, you'll have to make it up on the spot then." She ripped the covers off him. "Get up, Conan. I'm not your father. I'm going to make sure you go to school."

There was no point arguing, he'd lose anyway. He fell out of bed, landing on the floor like a pile of loose limbs. A broken doll.

* * *

The way his mother dropped him off was abrupt and brusque; no goodbyes. She left him out on the playground, amongst the scattered tribes of students. Lonely.

When the bell rang and the playgrounds filtered into the school like water through a funnel, Conan tailed behind. He was the last one in. He shuddered, knowing what was coming. The presentation. His heart was jamming along with the bell.

He arrived at his class and took his seat at the front. Students around him were pulling their projects and presentations out of their bags, while others had it neatly knitted into a memory stick. Conan looked into his bag. It was empty.

Miss Adam skipped into the classroom and the students all sat upright. Her outfit matched her face well--strawberry red with polka-dot-like-acne. She smiled. She was always smiling. Setting her books on her desk at the front, she thumbed her greasy red hair into a bun. "Morning class. As you know, until break we will be doing our presentations on our favorite animals. I hope that you have all got your presentations with you. If there is one thing I don't like, it's slackers." She beamed a hypnotic smile. "So, hands up, who wants to go first?"

Conan felt that she was going to pick him. She always picked him for everything. He pushed his hands into his bag, to make it look like he was preoccupied with something, and hoped that she would not pick him.

"Okay, Stewart, if you're that keen, why don't you come and show us what you have done."

Conan breathed a sigh of relief.

Stewart, a studious student with silky brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses, stood at the front of the class. He handed the teacher a memory stick and waited for her to boot it up. In an instant, a picture of a lion was projected onto the interactive screen. Conan sighed.

"My favorite animal is a lion, not just because of its beauty, but because of its fierceness and sense of family..." He had one of those whiny alto voices that made him sound like he was constantly in pain. Conan hated it.

After what seemed like an eternity of Stewart wittering on about lions, Conan, half dazed, looked around the class. Nobody was interested. Everyone was either drawing on the desk, picking their nails or on their phones. The only one interested was Miss Adam.

"Lions are boring," Conan called out. His words marshaled the class, bringing the students to attention. Everyone was now watching him.

Miss Adam was also watching him. "Excuse me, Conan," she said, still smiling, "but you wouldn't like it if Stewart talked through your presentation, which I see you haven't got. There is a surprise. You're not building a very good resume."

"I'm just saying," he replied. Gasps of disbelief echoed around the classroom.

"Very well," if you feel so strongly, Conan, why don't you come up and do yours." She turned to Stewart. "Thank you, Stewart. You get full marks. Stewart nodded and sat down.

"Conan, please come up and do your presentation."

"I don't have it with me."

"I know that. I'm sure you will think of something."

Conan stood up and stumbled to the front of the class.

"Well, go on then Mr. know-it-all," Miss Adam toyed. The whole class was now eying Conan. He had their attention.

"Lions are boring because everyone picks them, because nobody wants to be different. People only like lions because they are the first animals everyone thinks of. How come some animals are more popular than others?"

"Conan," the teacher interrupted, "this is a presentation on your favorite animals, not a critique on Stewart's."

"Okay, miss," he said with a nod. "I chose a wolf because not many people think of them. We all think of dogs, but dogs live in homes, while wolves live out in the woods. I like wolves because they are crazy and wild and because whenever they try to do something, someone else always shoots them down. Wolves understand life. Have you ever looked at a wolf?"

The class was silent.

"I have. They have eyes this big." He demonstrated their width with his arms. "And they don't care what people think about them; I saw that in their eyes. I would rather be a wolf and be crazy than be a lion and be boring."

"You sound very passionate, Conan." He could sense the sarcasm in Miss Adam's voice, under that smile.

"I am. I wish I was a wolf. We are all like dogs because we go to school and look up to teachers, but why? Why do we always look up to people? Wolves don't look up to anyone, only to themselves."

"You should go and live in the forest then, Conan. Be raised by wolves like the children in fairy tales."

"They are not real, miss, they are fairy tales. I don't want to be a boy or a child; I want to be a wolf because then I wouldn't have to come to school. Wolves never go to school."

"So you're saying that you like wolves because they hate structure?" Stewart asked.

"Yes, the wolves go anywhere they want, not because they have to. If you are wild, you can live forever. You don't have to go to school or get a job or get old and do time like my Grandpa. You can be yourself forever, and that means you can live forever."

His eyes fell back to the floor. A clap erupted from the class, much to the teacher's surprise. She was quick to silence them with a flick of her hands.

"Yes, interesting theory, Conan. Go and sit down now. You will not get any marks because you made that up on the spot. I will see you at the end."

He sat down and waited for the next student to face the challenge. He felt relieved that he had done his. The teacher was about to pick someone else when the head-teacher walked in.

"Morning, Miss," he said. His deep voice boomed around the room. "Could I see Conan for a moment in my office?"

Miss Adam contemplated it. She looked at Conan and snarled. "Okay, but bring him back."

"Get your bag, Conan," the head-teacher commanded. The boy did as he was told.

"Remember to bring him back!" the teacher called.

"We will see about that," the head teacher scoffed. With Conan behind, they walked out of the class and down the corridor, towards a small door at the end.

"What is wrong? Have I done something?"

"Nothing at all, son. It is something that we should discuss in my office. It is best for the both of us if we do it in privacy."

They came to the door. The head-teacher opened it and walked in. Conan followed him, into a small room with a desk and two puffy lavender chairs. He sat on one of the chairs and let the man close the door.

He was a tall man with a fresh face and thorns of gelled hair.

"Okay, are you okay, Conan?" He said as he sat down on the opposite side of the desk.

Conan nodded. He eyed the head-teacher. He was a tall man with a fresh face and gelled thorns of hair. Conan wondered why he was a head-teacher and not something else.

"What has happened? I'm only here because something has happened. Is my daddy home?"

The head teacher reeled in his breath and let it out in one brutal sentence: "Conan, your father is dead."

It didn't hit him at first. At least, he didn't feel like it had hit him, but he found himself slipping into the fabric of the chair. He felt his pale skin curdle to a milky color. His head began to beat as if brain and heart had traded place. He muttered, "How?" There were no tears in his words. Not yet.

"He was mugged, he died in the mugging. I don't know the specific details."

It hit him then. Bashed his skull in with the force of a falling star, and the tears began to flow. His thoughts burned up into mountains of ash. His speech slurred like it was flooded. "W-w-why?"

"I don't know why, Conan. You're mother is on her way to collect you now. She is awfully upset. I think you should take a few days off school. We will do everything we can for you. Here, take a tissue."

Conan swatted the tissue away. He spoke slowly, so his words weren't so watery. "Why is he d-d-d"

The head teacher passed him the tissue anyway. "This is a matter that you should speak with your mother about. The school has a policy of letting the student know, but I will let your mother fill in the blanks. I am sorry for your loss, Conan."

Conan groaned, no, Howled. He howled a medley of pain and anger and beat his fists against the arms of the chair. He turned back to the head teacher, squinting through teary eyes. "I hate the world."

"Don't we all, Conan." He patted Conan's hand. "It is a nasty place --"

"It's a horrible place," Conan interrupted. He wiped his eyes and licked the tears from his fingers. "I'm glad he is dead."

"Conan! You don't mean that. Think about what you are saying, son. You have to be strong for your mother."

"I do. He doesn't have to be here anymore."

"Conan, you're upset but you mustn't say these things." The black phone on the desk rang and the teacher picked it up, listened for a second, and put it down. "Your mother is waiting outside for you. I will walk you outside."

They left the room and walked in silence down the never-ending corridors, past the never-ending classrooms that looked more like prison cells than learning environments. The exit at the end of the corridor seemed to move further away with every step. Conan imagined that this is what doing time felt like. This is what the mosquito felt. This is what his father now felt.

Coming to the door at end was like coming to the light at the end of the tunnel--a lifetime's journey, opening to a view of a car park. The head teacher patted Conan on the head and let him go. He watched the boy prowl towards his car, offered a morose wave and then vanished back inside the prison-like edifice.

"Get in!" Nancy spat through the window.

Conan opened the car door but did not get in. He stood there, dumbfounded. His mother looked like she had been the one mugged and killed. She looked dead. "I said get in!"

"Why are you so angry?"

"Because Abe is dead, you idiot! You killed him. You made him leave us."

"No I didn't. You beat him up, like you always do."

"Because you forced me to, you brat. I'll beat you up when we get home. Now get in the car!"

"No!" He slammed the car door shut.

"You're going to get in the car, Conan, or I'm going to throw you in it. You're only making this worse for yourself."

Conan took a step away from the car. "I don't like you."

"Good. I don't like you either. You just ruin everything! Get in the car!" She beat her fist against the wheel and the horn went off. Conan ran.

He didn't know where he was going but he ran anyway. Out of the car park and down the street. His mother shrieked out behind him. "Conan, come back here! Come back!"

He heard the pounding of her boots; she was following him, but she wouldn't catch him. He was running faster than he'd ever run before, as if filled with a new energy. He was running like he had two pairs of legs.

Ahead of him, honey-colored trees glistening in the sun, the coppice of an autumn forest. The trees were tall like spires and they were crying leaves in the breeze. He headed for it.

"Conan! Wait!" His mother called up behind him but her voice was lost in the wind. He didn't hear her; the forest was calling him now.

He reached the coppice and surged into the heart of the forest. His speeding feet felt different, physically changed.

"Conan, you come back here right now." Nancy no longer sounded angry. She sounded concerned.

Conan stopped at a dead end. A broken bridge and a rushing stream. He looked at his mother, now several feet away from him. He saw the tears on her cheeks.

"Conan, come to me." There was fear in her voice.

"No, I don't ever want to go back to you. I don't want to be like you. I don't want to be like any of you."

He took a step back.

Nancy saw it. "Conan, come on." She dashed forward to try and grab her son, but he stepped back and toppled into the stream.

Time stood still and the trees stopped crying their leaves. Nancy fell to her knees.

"Conan?" she leaned over the bank. Nothing there. "Conan?"

Something caught her eyes, emerging on the other side of the stream. Her mouth dropped when she saw it. It was the color of iron and shaggy, pawing its way up the other side of the stream, trying not to fall back into the water. Putting one paw ahead, it pulled itself onto stable ground.

Nancy stretched her hand out, grasping into nothingness. The thing on the other side looked at her and she saw into its eyes, into two distant icy planets where everything was free, and everything was limitless. Untamed. She saw Conan on those planets.

The thing opposite growled and flicked its tail frantically. Its head turned away from her and it began to move, bouncing from one paw to the other.

The trees began to weep again. A blizzard of red and orange.

"Conan?" she called out again. Her own tears streamed with the leaves.

The thing on the other side didn't hear her. The wolf-thing padded off through the forest on the other side, under the trees, into the autumn fire.


2016 James Tatam

Bio: Mr. Tatam has previously been published in the "Young Writers Literary Journal." His last Aphelion appearance, Gumballs, from our August 2015 issue, was picked as a Best Short Story of 2015.

E-mail: James Tatam