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Black Dog - Chapter 28

Olivia woke face down in the slush of dead brown leaves. The slats of grey light filtering through the bare trunks of the trees suggested mid-morning at that time of year. As she sat up, shivering, every muscle in her body stiff and aching, she realised with a sinking horror that she was naked but for a patchy covering of black mud. She had no memory of the night before beyond a few broken fragments: the dark in the woods. She had to get home, but she had no idea how much ground she might have covered during the night; how far she might have strayed from civilisation and a warm bed to crawl into.

She looked around her at the thick undergrowth of the woods, the bracken and brambles, the sprawls of ivy. She would have had difficulty making her way through even fully dressed with sensible shoes. And then she had to consider the trouble she'd get into if she turned herself in at the nearest hospital or police station, naked and confused. Of course, that would involve first finding a hospital or police station…

She wasn't going to find anything remotely useful huddled in a ditch in the woods. She got to her feet, hoping that once she got moving her toes would regain some feeling, and turned around a couple of times. There was nothing she could do about her lack of clothes, so she settled for wrapping her arms around her chest and creeping quietly through the woods, praying she could find her way home without running into anybody. She was just turning over the unpleasant idea that her aimless wandering might only serve to take her further from home, when she glimpsed a dark figure through the trees, sitting on the ground with its back to her. Olivia froze: hemmed in by a bank of brambles, she had no choice but to pass close to the stranger, not unless she wanted to turn and sneak back the way she'd come. She crouched low and inched forward, placing her bare feet as softly as she could so as not to crunch a single fallen leaf or browning fern. At a closer look, the stranger's gaunt form became familiar. She relaxed a little. Eli, unpleasant as he might be, was not dangerous as such.

Still trying in vain to cover her nakedness, Olivia cleared her throat. "This is very embarrassing," she admitted, seeing no point in pretending otherwise, "but I seem to have..." she stopped when she saw the bloody mess spread out on the ground in front of where Eli sat. He ignored Olivia, hacking busily with a pocketknife at the ragged strips of meat, grey-brown fur and stringy entrails. For a moment, Olivia had a brief horror that the animal had once been a cat, but she quickly realised it had much more likely been a rabbit.

Eli looked up, using his coat sleeve to wipe the blood dribbling down his chin. "Hullo," he said with his mouth full. He seemed to find Olivia's nudity completely unremarkable, and turned back to his meal. Another dead rabbit lay beside the remnants of the first, and Olivia stared at the limp broken-necked creature, its black eyes staring glassily at nothing. Eli probably didn't even set traps, he probably just crept up behind them on those big noiseless feet and snapped their necks by hand.

A fly crawled over the brown fur of the rabbit's face, and Olivia gulped back a wave of sickness, clenching her jaw and her stomach. It was no use - she curled over and vomited into the undergrowth. When she looked up, Eli was watching her in a manner she might have mistaken for concern.

"You got lost, " he said. "You should be more careful."

Olivia nodded. She remembered stepping out for a walk, but not much after that. Grace had warned her to stay indoors; that she might get confused and disoriented. She turned to scan the surrounding trees and let Eli finish his meal. She supposed she ought to be grateful that Eli was ignoring the matter of her missing clothes, but somehow his obvious disinterest only added fuel to the fire of her humiliation. "I don't know what happened to my clothes," she said, an awkward effort to break an awkward silence. She didn't want anybody thinking she was in the habit of throwing off her clothes and running naked through the woods. "I must have lost them when I... changed. Grace never said..." Grace hadn't said anything about this sort of thing, but then maybe that was another reason to stay indoors. "I mean, I'd like them back, at some point," she rambled, trying to put the image of the dead rabbits out of her mind. "They were only my decorating clothes, but still. Where am I, anyway? How am I going to get home?"

Eli stood up. "Follow your nose," he said, watching for Olivia's reaction. Follow her nose? Like she had before, tracking Jim to the Crow and Grapes? Easier said than done. On top of the burning taste of vomit lingering in her mouth, all the scents that had been bold and bright by moonlight had dulled and faded in the light of morning. Pine tree scent, bitingly sharp, layered over everything. Fresh blood, iron, heavy. Closing her eyes and concentrating hard, Olivia could just about tell the path Eli had taken through the trees, saturated in smoke. Her own trail was fading faster, and could tell she wouldn't be able to follow it far back, certainly not as far as the house. The smell of the road and perhaps even the town, faint and far distant. Olivia opened her eyes to find Eli much closer than before, watching her patiently.

"It's that way," she said, fighting the impulse to add 'I think'. She couldn't keep from shivering. During the night, a thick coat of her own fur had kept her warmer than the best winter coat money could buy, but morning had left her with nothing.

Eli shrugged off his own coat and pushed it into her numb hands. "Don't run off on your own again," he advised her.

She nodded again. The coat was shabby with age and who knew how old, but it was warm and it came down to her knees. It smelled of Eli and that made her skin crawl, but she was in no position to refuse. She struck off at a brisk pace in what she could only pray was the right direction. Not quite trusting her sense of smell, she scoured the unremarkable woodland for any landmarks that might appear familiar from the night before. She noticed numbers painted on a few of the trees, but nothing she'd paid any attention to before. That smoky trail crossed her path more than once, and padded along silently behind her.

"Reckon I can get Verity to have a go at rabbit stew?" Eli asked, in what sounded suspiciously like an attempt at making conversation.

Olivia's stomach churned. "No. Eat it yourself," she said brusquely. Somewhere I can't see.

The undergrowth gave way to a path winding through the trees, and Olivia paused to sniff the air carefully before turning left.

"I can get her to make a stew," said Eli, almost cheerfully. "And you can have some."

"No thank you. I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I don't like rabbit very much."

"Bet you weren't so fussy last night," Eli muttered, just loud enough to be sure Olivia heard.

She glanced over her shoulder to see him grinning at her, and her gaze slipped accidentally to the dead rabbit dangling from his right hand. She couldn't stop herself from thinking of warm blood and mouthfuls of fur and little bones splintering and... She had to stop and be sick again. Eli waited while she retched and cursed him.

Down the path, no more than a quarter of a mile from where Olivia had woken, the steep slate peak of a roof came into view above the trees. She'd been wandering within minutes of it all along, but who knew how long she might have wandered in circles; how long before it would have occurred to her to search for a familiar scent. Her conscience nagged at her to thank Eli, but she couldn't quite bring herself to do it.

They came to a barbed wire fence stretching out of sight in both directions. Olivia could have easily missed the gate: old but sturdy, closed with a rusty chain and padlock.

"Key's in the pocket," said Eli, after the failure of Olivia's first stumbling effort to climb over. "Imogen told me to take it and fetch you." He followed Olivia into what she belatedly recognised as the far end of the back garden. "Said not to dare come back without you."

"Well. Erm. Thank you," she said at last. He'd warned her not to get lost again. How much area did the woods cover? She vaguely remembered seeing something about land in the will, but the numbers on the page had been meaningless to her in terms of real space, and she'd had other things to worry about since then. She'd have to have a word with Auntie Imogen and find out if there was anything more she ought to know about. She didn't want any more surprises.


Thrilled with Eli's gift of the rabbit, Auntie Imogen commandeered the kitchen to practice her poltergeistry in an alarming manner, and Olivia decided their conversation could wait. She'd had enough unpleasantness in the past twelve hours without having to dodge flying skinning knives. Eli and Verity disappeared out to the churchyard, and the ghost Nick had fallen asleep on the sofa. Last night's newspaper lay strewn across the floor, and with the kind of quietly despairing sigh she'd learned from her mother, Olivia picked up the scattered pages. She paused over the puzzle pages, seeing that Verity had made some effort at the cryptic crossword.

Verity was not the kind of girl to be hemmed in by a mere black and white grid, though. Most, if not all, of her answers were wrong. The clue for Seven Across read 'This is it?' and Olivia immediately guessed 'question mark', but Verity had determined the answer was 'crossword clue' and had spelled 'crossword' with one 's' in order to make it fit. She'd squashed wrong answers and wrong letters in all over the place, her logic growing ever more obscure and sideways as her initial mistakes begat more wrong answers.

The phone rang, loud and insistent, and Olivia forgot the crossword. She'd been putting off phoning her mum, not sure what she ought say to the inevitable questions about how she was getting on at the house.

She picked it up, forcing her face into a smile to sound cheerier. "Hello."

"Hi, Olivia, it's Grace." The line crackled terribly. "Hope you don't mind. Imogen gave me this number a while back, when we were still worried about whether you'd pull through. Anyway, I just wanted to check you were okay after last night."

"Well. I nearly froze to death in the middle of nowhere this morning, but no fear, they sent Eli out to rescue me." Olivia could have kicked herself. There was no need to take it out on Grace, who had only called out of friendly concern for her wellbeing. She'd been spending too much time around Verity.

"What? Can't hear you. Did you wake up in the middle of nowhere with no clothes on? How was it apart from that?"

Olivia felt her ears begin to burn, certain now that Grace was stifling giggles on the other end of the line. "Horrible. I was sick twice. God only knows what I ate."

"Oh, you poor thing. You should have had a big meal in the afternoon, a nice big roast dinner. I did say." She said something else, but it was lost in the crackle.

"What?"

"I said, you stayed away from people, didn't you? And Eli?"

"Last night? I think so. I spent most of the night in the woods, so I don't imagine I ran into anyone until morning."

"You what?"

"I was out in the woods. You know, up past the back of the house. It's private land, so..." She knelt to pick up more scattered pages of newspaper, and a headline caught her eye, a suicide at a train station in a nearby town.

"Oh, Olivia! You idiot! I told you..." The rest dissipated into the ether as the connection gave in, replacing Grace's voice with a long, shrill tone. Olivia had forgotten her promise to stay away from the woods. She hung up, staring at the phone for a few minutes. It was preferable to giving the newspaper article her full attention.

Grace either couldn't or didn't want to call back. Olivia read the grim headline again, reluctantly skimmed the columns below. Nowhere did it explicitly state the identity of the suicide, but it had been Giles, she knew it. She thought again of what Grace had said, how she'd failed to save him. Aware that her safe return to the house that morning had more to do with blind luck than anything else, Olivia followed Grace's instructions to the letter and spent the next two nights locked in her bedroom.

 

 

 

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