Breed by Charlie Jones

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Breed by Charlie Jones
Illustration by Sue Babcock

The wall clock was big and round, like a full moon. It was a little after midnight.

Early to be back from a night out, Jack thought. Not that he was complaining. Better here, in Callum’s kitchen, than some overcrowded bar in town.

To his left, Miles and Patrick joked noisily. They’d barely spoken to him all evening, besides berating him for not drinking enough. Jack watched them drain the rest of their beers, glad to be ignored.

To his right, sitting on top of the countertop, Callum scrolled through his phone intently. Callum hadn’t said a word to him either, though Jack hadn’t expected him to; in the two years Callum had been a part of their friendship group, they’d never really hit it off. Truth be told, Jack disliked Callum—he was temperamental, unnervingly so, withdrawn one minute, starting fights the next, ready to turn at any moment.

Jack was certain the dislike was mutual, and that Callum would rather he wasn’t in his house right now. Jack would rather he wasn’t, too. He’d never been to Callum’s before, but something about it was making him uncomfortable. He’d come only to avoid confrontation. How many nights out had he tried to say his goodbyes, only to be told he was a right cunt for leaving?

Opposite Jack, where kitchen met living room, Ross lay passed out on the sofa. His arm dangled onto the floor, a half-finished beer beside his crumpled hand. He snored loudly.

Jack leaned back against the countertop and began picking at the label on his bottle of beer. He’d make up a reason to leave soon. Home was only a fifteen-minute walk from here; he’d be in bed before one.

“Pass us another beer there, Jack,” Miles said.

Jack handed him the one he was holding. He hadn’t wanted to come out in the first place. Nights out with the lads were rowdy, expensive, and generally ended in some pathetic drunken argument. He’d stopped going out with them for the most part, saw them only on birthdays and at Christmas. The last time he’d seen them was Patrick’s twenty-first, almost four months ago.

Tonight, however, was neither a birthday nor Christmas; rather, Jack had been guilted into seeing the lads. He cringed thinking back to this afternoon, how Ross, on the phone, had asked, insisted, demanded, ended up begging him to come out. Eventually, Jack had relented; it was easier to deal with an unenjoyable night out than with the fallout that would come with admitting their friendship had run its course.

The kitchen door creaked open. Jack shuffled, backed into the countertop, as a huge German Shepherd entered the kitchen. It was the size of a small bear, and despite its collar, looked more like a wolf than like a dog. Jack watched it cautiously as it padded over to Ross and began sniffing his hand.

“Chief!” Callum called. “Stop bothering him, you big softie.”

Immediately, the dog moved away from Ross. It looked about the kitchen and spotted Jack. Jack looked away, backed further into the countertop.

Don’t come over here, he thought.

When he finally looked back, the dog was sitting in front of him, staring at him curiously.

“He’s big,” Jack said, hoping Callum would shoo it.

“Pet him,” Callum said. “He doesn’t bite.”

Jack chuckled nervously. “Right.”

Slowly, he reached out a hand. Chief growled. Jack yanked his hand away.

Miles and Patrick, who had been watching eagerly, burst into laughter. Jack felt heat lick up his cheeks.

Callum smirked. “He doesn’t like you.”

As soon as he moves, I’m gone, Jack thought, one eye on Chief.

The kitchen door opened again. A woman dressed in pale pink pyjamas strode into the kitchen.

“He better not be sick on my sofa,” she said, seeing Ross. Miles and Patrick snickered. “Hear me, Callum?”

“Hm,” Callum muttered, scrolling his phone again.

“What did you give him to drink?” the woman asked, fetching herself a glass of water. She leaned against the countertop between Jack and Miles.

“I think it was the Zombie that done him, Jane,” Miles said.

“Jesus,” Jane said. “No wonder he’s gone. “ She sipped her water, eyeing up Jack.

Jack, noticing, felt a small explosion in his chest. He could sense what was coming. He always could. Not that this sort of thing happened a lot, just enough that he recognised whenever it was about to happen.

I should just wear a name tag, he thought. JACK KHANNA in big black letters. Then these white people wouldn’t get so confused. Actually, he decided, that would only confuse them more. “Why aren’t you as dark as your name sounds?” they’d ask.

Jane turned to Miles and Patrick. “Have you seen his cheekbones?” she said. The lads nodded, stifling laughter.

That’s a new one, Jack thought to himself. Jane looked at him. “They’re very, you know…” She gestured with her hands. “High.” She looked back at Miles and Patrick. “Not like you lads, all puffy.”

Jack smiled politely. Time to go.

He stepped away from the countertop. Chief growled. Jack backed up.

Jane eyed him again. “What’s your…you know,” she said, hesitating. “What’s your breed?”

Miles and Patrick bayed with laughter. Callum looked up from his phone, sneering.

“What?” Jane said, grinning stupidly. “You know what I mean.”

Jack felt a tingling in his fingers. His hands closed to fists. “Breed?” he said, lowering his eyes. “I’m not a––”

His hands.

They were no longer hands. They were paws. Brown, furry paws.

Jack held them up in front of his face. How much had he had to drink tonight? Two beers? Three?

He turned his paws over. They were short, rounded, four fingers—no—four toes on each. Further up the paw, where his wrist had been, was a smaller fifth toe. His pink palms were now grainy, black pads. Short, sharp claws, black like the pads, peeked from the toes, where his fingernails had been.

Jack gaped at them.

“…dog,” he said.

Jane seemed not to see his paws. “Are you, like, cross-breed?” she asked.

“Cross-breed!” Jack heard someone cry, as blood began to pound his eardrums. Something in his stomach dropped. He doubled over.

His body suddenly burned. His face blistered. He began to sweat. His head throbbed.

(Where are you from? Miles. Years ago. Disappointed. But where originally?)

Jack whined. He could feel his ribs shifting, his chest expanding. His clothes split, slipped from his body. He fell forward onto all fours.

(Staring. Callum. Late. Somewhere in town. Eyes hard. Won’t look away.)

Coarse hair needled from his skin, thousands of tiny cuts all over his body. Something down near his buttocks broke. Jack yelped. He turned his head. A bushy tail stuck out behind him, straight and stiff.

(Hey, Jack. Patrick. Sniggering. At school. Before they were friends. Where was your rucksack made? Pakistan?)

His shoulder blades crunched. His neck compressed. The discs in his spine clacked and popped.

(Your house has a smell. Ross. Fourteen. First time at Jack’s. Kind of spicy.)

His jaw cracked, as if he’d been struck. His gums erupted bloodily. His tongue lolled from his mouth, dribbling red.

The burning stopped. The throbbing, too. Jack felt pointed fangs poking the underside of his tongue. He gulped air.

“Cross-breed! That’s class!”

Jack’s ears pricked. His muzzle twitched. He lifted his head.

White faces laughed down at him. His muscles tensed with new strength. A rumbling grew deep within him.

He threw back his head and roared. The white people flinched.

“Jesus, calm down,” Jane said, nose wrinkled. “It’s not like I’m attacking you.”

Jack’s tail raised. He lunged at Jane, snapping his jaws and knocking her to the floor. Miles and Patrick jumped back, screaming. Callum dropped his phone and froze. Chief barked once, then bolted from the kitchen.

Jack spat a shred of pink fabric from his mouth. He pounced on Miles, biting, clawing; Patrick too, ripping flesh. He pulled Callum from the countertop with his jaws, found thick neck through flailing arms.

The wall clock ticked, big and round.

Jack dropped the body, relaxed his jaws. He panted hard. His eyes found Ross, still passed out on the sofa. He prowled over to him, tracking bloody pawprints through the kitchen. He stood over him and cocked a leg.

When he’d finished, he trotted out of the kitchen, the house, and ran howling into the night.

BIO: Charlie Jones is a writer from Merseyside, England. His work has appeared with Dark Tales and Hypnopomp. ‘Breed’ is his first paid publication.