“On A Quiet Road One Winter’s Night” Dark Fiction by L.P. Ring

"On A Quiet Road One Winter’s Night" Dark Fiction by L.P. Ring

Mam’s reminders that either yourself or your sister were always sick on Christmas nick sharply at your patience as you tuck in your eldest, assuring him that you won’t forget to put out Santa’s milk and cookies. “I’ve got to go, Mam. Need to finish tucking Padraig and Sheila in.” The Merry Christmas is rushed, you can feel in your chest it’s rushed, but you assuage the guilt with a promise to call again tomorrow. You hang up, repeat your promise to Padraig that the tree will remain lit overnight so Santa knows someone’s home. That the food and drink will be out to sustain the jolly old bastard for his trek to grant every childhood wish. You just need to get the milk, you think, a whispered goodnight heralding the inching shut of the door as Padraig whispers a goodnight to Misty shifting at his feet. “We shouldn’t let the dog sleep on the bed,” Jeff’s said often enough. Well, Jeff’s not the one expected to police such rules, be the bad guy or Christmas Grinch when a boy’s sick.

Jeff’s fitful snores rise and fall from behind your bedroom door, the paracetamol weaving its magic. He should have worn his mask at work, you chide, self-congratulation evident in that puffed-up surety of tone. To have one under the weather at this holiday season might be considered unfortunate, but a whole household – and you don’t feel so hot yourself – must surely somehow be considered careless. At least the chicken’s prepped, the veg and spuds already chopped, almost all the presents wrapped. 

Milk. That remembered conversation by the freezer cabinets with Pauline Wren, who’s had the dose and labels it’s ‘no big deal’ sets your teeth grinding. You shuffled off, eager to get the rest of the trolley filled and be home. And you didn’t return to pick up the extra milk needed for your Christmas Eve visitor. Hence the need to just pop over to the neighbours.

“Don’t bother with it,” Jeff would’ve said. Well, that Christmas magic drains away soon enough as kids age, leaving only chores, utilitarian or half-considered presents, and face-time chats with different time-zones. Your hands are already chafed with the cold as your coat stretches tight over the second sweater. You promise yourself an hour in front of the convection heater with a Bailey’s when you get back; it won’t take that long, those barely five hundred yards. No need for the car. It takes an age to heat up the engine anyways. Make sure you’ve got house keys. And some pies for Dawn’s kids. The phone snuggles against your left breast, imagined heat from a round of texts that should make you feel guilty but would Jeff really care? The door shuts with a morose thump as that first gust of wind catches you, its chill tingling at your fingertips despite last Christmas’ knitted gloves. The ‘Fuck’ that escapes your trembling lips is directed as much to Jeff’s wheedling for hot milk so he could sleep as it is the cold. Not even a hint of moonlight to guide you on your way.  

The crunch of feet on gravel gives way to the scrap of sole leather on tarmac as your flashlight bobs ahead. More gritting of teeth, your head bowed as you walk into the wind. Your eyes sting, tears trailing down and into your mask – at least it protects below your nose, keeps the chilled wind from chapping your lips and freezing your jaw. You have the lines with Dawn rehearsed; ‘Thanks so much. So silly of me to forget. I brought some mince pies for the kids. No, I insist.’ You catch a trinkle of something in the flashlight’s glare – a fox, maybe? A rabbit? Surely forest animals have somewhere better to be? The light catches a twitch of tail as something flees into the ditch. Of course you shouldn’t be out at night either. 

Deep murmurs of warning ride on the wind. Why won’t you go home? A howl wells up out of the dark. You tramp your feet harder to keep some circulation in them, grumbling at the pins and needles already at your toes. The thought of those texts keeps you warm. He lives back in Dublin, an accountant. Still not married. Looking for the right girl. Well, he’ll never know. You’ll never meet. A little flirtation before a ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Which will only hurt you. 

You tramp past the driveway of Michael McGurk who’s taken the whole family – even the in-laws – off to Tenerife for some winter sun. Prick. One class ahead of you at school, always trying to coax girls behind the bike sheds. No college, stuck on the land his father wanted him to farm like past generations of McGurks had before. And the smirk the first time he saw you back from the Big Smoke, with a husband and two kids in tow, with part-time work once the latest bubble burst.

Is that a spatter of rain? You’ll be damn lucky to be back indoors before that kicks in proper. Another howl tappers off into a series of barks. Screeching yaps answer it. You swing the light up and down the left ditch and wonder if you catch a glint of an eye watching you through the briars. “Piss off,” you shout, jerking the flash forward and back like you were tossing out chicken feed.  

Your strides aren’t bringing Dawn’s place any closer. The rain’s closer to sleet now, stinging your eyes. Lean into it, stride onwards. Nobody’s out at this time. No need to worry about a car flashing round the corner, a kid on a bicycle smashing into you. Another three hundred yards or so to the driveway, then careful across the cattle grid and up the drive. The paper bag with the pies for Dawn’s kids is already sodden. Ho, Ho, Ho! Kids. Santa’s not here yet but look what this second-rate, rain-battered elf’s brought you. A gust flings the bag upwards and one of the pies rolls out, splatting onto the trail of grass running up the center of the road. “Ah…” 

You consider removing the few strands of grass and returning it to the bag. Then toss it into the ditch. Let the foxes, rabbits or whatever else eat it. Here’s really that final chance to pay attention to yourself saying ‘hang it, just go home’. 

It’s probably about half-way between houses now. Your boot soles scrap against the road’s surface, giving your brewing anger some modicum of release. The bobbing flashlight the only guide along the road, no moon or stars above, no sight of pinprick of light from a kitchen or sitting room window ahead here. Your mask’s a sagging rag by now, useless against this wind that numbs your jaw. You want to fling it to the same place you threw that pie, but can imagine Dawn’s reticence once you show up at her door from a Covid-struck household without even the most basic modicum of thought for others. You should have just said to leave the carton on the front step. You could phone ahead yet and tell her that if you weren’t so cautious about dropping your phone. A half-dozen or so more steps and there’s that howl again. It’s closer, you’re sure of it, though the flashlight’s glare spots nothing. Faster, Maggie, faster. Get there and get home. Set out Santa’s snack, screw the fire and the Bailey’s. Turn off the phone and snuggle under the covers with a hot water bottle for at least a few hours rest before Santa’s 3am visit. Something else Jeff won’t feel up to doing. 

If you think of the hot water bottle hard enough, maybe it’ll help stem some of the chill shivering your bones. The rain’s coming like sheets, slashing across your face, soaking your legs. A Nobel Prize should be given to the inventor of the wax jacket. Blackthorn and hazel thrash against the brambles and briars, like an old biddy shaking the dust from stored blankets before the coming winter chills. Something flies across your path, wings slashing at your face, and you jerk backwards momentarily, gripping the flashlight, a yelp rising from your cold-chapped lips. Enough now; turn back, say Santa loved the milk, lie to the child. 

Its eyes glint unblinking in the shine of the torch. Back haunches set to spring, jagged vertebrae rising out of tautly pulled skin along the curve of its back. Each backward foot slide of yours is matched by its forward treads: snarling, teeth bared, saliva dripping too. It came out too on this Christmas Eve night, certainly not to cadge a pint of milk, but what has serendipity set before it. You take another step back and it, more emboldened before your growing fear, moves closer. It is hungry.  

Keep your eyes on it. At what point does a hungry animal decide to strike? A car crawling homewards would be so welcome now. Will Dawn wonder why you haven’t arrived yet? Will she think you’ve given up and stayed home? Will she phone, the landline ringing on and on with no one shifting to answer it. 

‘Maggie, Phone!’ 

‘Mom, the phone’s ringing!’ 

They won’t come out to see what’s keeping you yet. You’re at the bend, Dawn’s porchlight like a lighthouse beacon if you could risk a glance. The wind and rain are jostling against your backwards progress. 

The pie. Fling it over the animal’s head and run? You can already imagine the thing slamming into your back, your face shoved into the ground. And then? It’ll find the wax jacket something of a negotiation unless it goes straight for your face. Tear at your ears. Burrow into your neck. What will it care? It’s only hungry after all. And you are only food. 

“Here boy.” You raise the bag, shake it slightly. Taking your time with removing the pie, you can’t even be wholly sure the food’s taken the slightest scrap of its attention. Would it be satisfied with a smaller offering for little to no effort? Would some natural inclination to hunt see it chase the bigger prize? It takes a step closer. Be sure to put the right strength into your throw, make sure it passes over the creature’s head. And hide your fear. That’ll get you killed.

It tenses as you wind into the underarm throw, ready to react. “Go fetch,” you yell, flinging the food upwards and away. Its trajectory is lost in the dark and you’re back-pedalling as its eyes search out what you’ve thrown. It actually takes a few steps back. Can it see in the dark? Those two pin-pricks like search-lights scanning the dark for prey?

And you’re running, arms pumping, the flashlight’s beam jerking up and down. And there’s that same howl. You let out a scream as your feet pound the asphalt; a slip and you’re fucked, some inner demon snipes. But then, aren’t you fucked anyway? You could burrow inside your coat for the phone but who’d answer your call and save you in the next thirty seconds? Surely a hundred yards from the driveway. Will they have opened the gate for you? Surely they aren’t expecting you to use the intercom. And then there’s the cattle grid that you’ll somehow tip-toe across with fucking Cerberus barrelling after you.

Its barks sound far too close. Your wheezing breaths flame your lungs and scald your throat as your heart thumps against your sternum. Or are those heart beats the sound of your pursuer gaining on you? You feel its heft upon you three, two, one second before that happens, you hitting the rain-soaked road with a thump before you roll, the nails of the dog’s front paws scratching across your face. Its breath is hot, rank with an underlying putridity borne of scavenging and vermin. Those teeth will be sharp. You manage an arm between you and it; bawl out another shriek as its teeth clamp down, as its mouth shakes your arm back and forth, shredding through the wax sleeve and layers of winter sweaters, sinking into your flesh. The flashlight crunches and dies. No light now bar that ravenous glint in its eye. You drag the glove from your left hand with your teeth, snake it upwards and gouge into that glint, kneading at the pulp of its eyeball. You hear the pop, the yelp as it jerks backwards, briefly surrendering its grip. 

The soles of your feet pedal you backwards, pebbles shove like pins into your palms. There’s no pain from the bites yet. It’ll be back, just as determined and probably even angrier. You roll and stumble as you gain your feet, manage a half-dozen strides. Here it comes again, hitting you full pelt. Your arms fly outwards to cushion your landing and you’re grasping at metal bars. Dawn’s driveway, somehow. You feel its breath below your left ear and squirm right. Its jaws catch on the coat’s neck, tearing at the fabric, and you grasp at the bars, pulling yourself away. More growls. Vented frustrations. Half your coat’s ripped away, all protection against its teeth and the elements almost gone. You roll as it lets out a volley of barks; a dart of hope hits you as you wonder whether it will stumble on the cattle grill. You drag yourself along, pulling your feet upwards as you feel a snapping at your ankles. “Go fuck yourself!” you shout back, kicking outwards. 

More barking, more growls. How can Dawn have an intercom on the gate but not motion sensored lighting? Your roars won’t make it near the house in this wind and rain. You try anyway. The scrambling sound of claws scrabbling on the edge of the garden wall shows it’s far from giving up. You grit your teeth, your arm’s aching, a damp patch you fear is not from the rain forming just above the knee. It’ll circle you, waiting you out, hoping you’ll lie here bleeding, marooned on the iron grill, as the rain chucks down, the freezing wind slaps, as the light above’s switched off. Dawn will have decided that unanswered phone calls are a sign you’ve gone to bed. ‘But I’d take the phone off the hook, wouldn’t I, Dawn?!’  

You unzip the top of your coat and fumble inside. A growl undulates in its throat. It’s on the wall now, getting ready to leap. “Call Dawn!” You listen to the ring’s trill and it’s now the only sound in the world. Answer. Answer. Answer! The rest of your life stretches out, soundtracked by that ring: you’ll ‘fess up to the accountant about the marriage and the kids; you’ll tell Jeff what you really think of the Pandora bracelet he’s got you, ask how he knew you were building a collection year on yea…


It lands on you and you scream, the phone tumbling from your grasp and clanging against one of the grid’s bars and down into the bed of gravel beneath. You can still hear Dawn’s voice and you bawl for her, hands flailing in front of you as the dog sinks its teeth into your left hand. You twist, shrieking as the flesh around your ring finger rips within its teeth, its mouth shakes your hand left and right. It splutters, wool, fingernail, skin, and ligaments swallowed, but at least one of the wedding and engagement rings has been swallowed too, the other making a hollow pinging sound as it drops from its jaws. Its paws scrabble as its pads, no comparison to the soles of your sturdy Timberlands, slip on the steel. You grasp at two bars, a lone shipwreck survivor scrambling over jagged rocks towards that lighthouse beacon. Is there someone at the door peering out? Lights switch on from two points either side of the front gate and the thing above you pauses, transfixed by the glare, caught between fight and flight. You yell Dawn’s name. Are there returning shouts coming from the house?

It emits another growl, weighing up this new layer of risk. One isolated creature is not like facing an entire rival pack. It scrambles backwards, lets out a yelp as it slips, its leg sliding between two bars. Dawn’s husband Tom’s yelling for her to grab his shotgun, summoning a long-forgotten memory of your own Dad hefting his while pointing out possible fox trails. Off the grid at last, it turns and barks twice, one eye glinting in the halogen lights. Not so big after all; what blocked your path on the road – a black beast reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s Hound – in these halogens actually looks half-starved from the ribs jutting through its emaciated shanks. Blood and saliva drips from its mouth, pus dribbles from its popped left eye, and in this light you see how pathetic something creeping out of the dark might be. A final cursed warning from Tom and it turns tail, bounding off into the dark. 

Tom darts through the gap in the whining gates and lifts you up. You let out a gasp of pain, hear Dawn warn him to carry you carefully. Instead, you find your feet and limp between them as they half-cradle you up the driveway. Adrenaline still resonates through you, your thoughts, desires, and dreams in tumult as you greet light, warmth, and safety. Shorn of monotony and fatigue, but also of pain and terror, everything about life appears suddenly so crystal clear.    

L.P. Ring is an Irish-born writer and teacher based in Ibaraki, Japan. He writes crime, horror, and weird and has been published with Bag of BonesKaidankai, and The Bombay Literary Magazine. He has upcoming fiction with Mythaxis, Black Beacon, FOTD, and Shotgun Honey. He tweets at @L_P_Ring . 

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