Highly Commended Story - Howl
“Howl” by Dia Bhojwani, JBCN International School Oshiwara, Mumbai, Indai, is the Highly Commended story in the senior category of the second biannual Short Story Contest 2020.
Dia Bhojwani is 15 years old who is passionate about writing, mental health, and memes. Her work has been featured in Beetle Literary Magazine and the Robin Age Wall of Fame, and she's won awards from the WingWord Poetry Prize and Lune Spark. An aspiring journalist, poet and fiction writer, she currently holds the position of Chief Editor at her school and focuses on producing relatable, quality content for a teenage audience.
My heart tattooed a rhythm against my ribcage. It hammered so fiercely I was convinced that if I slipped off my chemise, I’d find a blue-black bruise blooming along my sternum. The cold night air raised goosebumps along my bare calves. The grass tickled my ankles where they peered out of my boots. I desperately tried to slow the shallow pant of my breath, praying that they wouldn’t hear me.
I knew all too well the consequences if they did.
Fingers trembling, I parted the branches of the tree behind which I stood. They stood, ringed in a circle, as argent moonlight washed them in a silver, dreamlike haze. Tousled hair and laughing eyes, they chatted casually, greeting friends as more emerged from the path leading back to the village If not for the chitons, done in imitation of the Ancient Greek style, falling to the knee, they’d seem like any of the boys from our village.
But I knew what they were. What they were capable of. Hadn’t I seen them with my very own eyes, that night three years ago?
Suddenly, they stopped their motions, frozen still. Turned, as though with a single mind, to the thicket of trees opposite me. He melted out of the shadows, gliding soundless and graceful. Bronze curls fell over his brow, aquiline nose cast into sharp relief by the guttering flames of the torch he held aloft. Long and lean, perfectly shaped. The picture of Apollonian perfection. That slight tilt of the head, almost childish. As though to say, What fun shall we have today?
He had looked at her the same way, that night. We thought he was harmless. Now, I knew enough to recognize what glittered beneath the thin veneer of his amusement. Something feral. Not quite human.
Hector spread his arms. “Friends!”, he said, smile widening. Sly, conspiratorial. The same expression mirrored on the faces of the seven boys before him, intermingled with awe. Rats ready to dance to the tune of their depraved Pied Piper, no matter how warped the command. With a sudden, violent motion, he slammed the sharp point of the torch into the ground.
“Let the ritual commence!”
The boys yelled and caterwauled, gleeful, as he stalked to the center of the altar. My heart twinged painfully. It should have been her there. My Vanessa. It should have been her if they had played fair. She passed every initiation ritual. She swam the length and breadth of the Larkspur River in winter, stayed in the woods for a fortnight, killed a deer with her bare hands. My best friend, fearless and bright and wonderful. The first girl to get into the Order of Orion.
The first to be turned.
I should have known. I should have warned her. But who would reproach a friend when they’d gotten all that they could have ever dreamed of? The prospect of wealth, power, magic. It was that last one that undid her, my Vanessa. Turns out the wealthiest boys in town didn’t take well to a girl from the wrong side of the tracks getting into their cabal.
Inevitably, it was Hector that whispered in their ears, inflamed their ire. It was Aster who found the ritual, in an ancient tome. Adam and Will procured the supplies. Malcolm invited her to the ceremony. The others were silent, and in their silence, complicit.
It was a full moon, like tonight. Nine slabs of meat on the altar, one for each member. Raw, still dripping with gore from the kill. Eight were venison, and with the enchantment done, would give superhuman power and strength to those that consumed it. All at the price of the ninth.
Traditionally, you picked at random. There was no way to know who’d pick the ninth piece of meat. It was a demonstration of brotherhood, trust. Sacrificing three years of your life to benefit your brothers – what truer expression of loyalty?
But in their hands, they rigged it. Rigged it so the girl would stay out. Learn her place. Unknowingly, Vanessa sank her teeth into human flesh. The ninth piece of meat.
And she was transformed.
I kneeled, dew dampening my arms. Crouching behind a bush, I waited. My stomach churned, uneasy. I knew the risk. I knew what they’d do to me if they caught me watching. But she would transform back tonight, and god knows what they would do.
I had to do it for Ness. Make sure she came home safe. Make sure they didn’t hurt her. Make sure her mother wouldn’t spend any more nights sobbing into the crook of my shoulder, that I wouldn’t toss and turn in my bed imagining her cold, hungry, hurt. I tried to cling to her image in my mind – her laughing brown eyes, her wild auburn curls, the single dimple in her cheek.
But the world seemed to slow when the white wolf stole out of the woods.
Pearly fur that seemed to glow in the moonlight. A tail like a plume of smoke. I didn’t recognize the wolf but I recognized her eyes. Wide and brown and wary, there was so much emotion in them it hurt to look.
A sob escaped my lips before I could hold it back, and they jerked, looking away from the she-wolf and to the tree behind which I crouched. The blood roaring in my ears, I turned to flee, but something grabbed my elbow.
Hector’s eyes were maniacal in the dark.
“Thought we wouldn’t notice that you came for your little friend?”, he purred.
His dagger glinted in the dark.
And before my vision blurred at the edges, I saw a flash of white fur.
They found them there in the morning. Seven corpses, mangled and bloody, scarlet matting the grass. Bald patches of hair where teeth had torn into them, claw marks shredding their chitons to ribbons.
And a girl, asleep. Naked as the day she was born, wild curls spilling into my lap as I stroked her head.