Permeating the basement, the sour reek of unwashed flesh was enough to make anyone’s eyes water.

I waved my hand in front of my face.  ‘Jesus, Carl, don’t you ever wash?’

I glared at him, sprawled on the sofa in the flickering half- light of the muted telly in the corner.  He gave the question due consideration, his thousand- yard stare drifting off somewhere beyond the ceiling, before he grinned, shrugged and said, ‘Sometimes.  When I can be arsed.  It’s not like anyone else is going to mind, is it?  I mean,’ he went on, smirking now, ‘It’s not like anyone else can really tell, is it?’

With a very great deal of effort, I managed not to growl.  The litany in my head rumbling, ‘I will not conform to stereotypes.  I will not conform to stereotypes.’  Aloud I said, in what I thought was a remarkably measured manner given such provocation, ‘Actually, Carl, I think even a ninety-year old coke addict could smell you about now.  For the love of god, go have a shower and put some clean clothes on.’

‘God, you do like to nag, don’t you, little sister?  What is it, time of the month?’

I lost it.  ‘Fuck off, Carl!  That wasn’t even funny the first time you said it – let alone the…’ I made a quick mental calculation, ‘…one hundred and seventh.  Now just fuck off and have a shower and don’t make me breathe your stink.  Or I might just rip your fucking leg off tonight.’

‘All right, all right!  Jeesus!  Look at me go…here I go…’ he slowly levered himself off the couch and headed for the door in the corner of the room that led to the small en- suite.  When the door shut behind him, I went around opening the long, narrow, ceiling- level windows that let out directly on to the garden at earth level.  I breathed in the clean scent of grass and soil for a moment before I steeled myself to turn back around and face the basement again.

I slumped on the couch, elbows on knees and head I my hands.  God I hated how I got when it was this close.  I didn’t normally swear all that much, I was generally a placid and easygoing sort; quick to forgive and quicker to laugh.  But during my time of the month?  Not so much.   Carl knew it, too, and worse he knew every single button to push.  I steeled myself for the next twenty- four hours – they were always hell.  It was a special, personal kind of hell; one that actually saddled me with Carl during the very time I could stand to be around him the least.

Still, it was a punishment of sorts.  How very cosmic.   I often thought of the sick joke the universe played on me.  It’s not even like I’m vegetarian or anything, I just…  I don’t really like hurting stuff.  Well, not all the time.  Just that one night a month.  My ears twitched to a tapping sound and my head whipped around to follow the progress of a large beetle across the floor.  The clattering of its minute feet was no louder than it ought to be – I was just better able to hear it.  I tuned the beetle and Carl’s shower noises out as best I could and focussed on the noise of the breeze through the grass outside of the windows and beyond that, the pine trees on the edge of the property.  The wind was definitely getting up which could be both a blessing and a curse.  I loved the sound of the wind through the trees and, depending what mood I was in, it could either calm or energise me.  However, if it was in the wrong direction, it could bring scents of the farms to the south of the city, and that could in turn bring trouble.

But we’d deal with that when it happened.  If it happened.  To be fair, it was quite unlikely to, since despite his remarkably dubious personal hygiene and almost supernaturally irritating ways, Carl was very good at his job.  And his job was, in a nutshell, looking after me and making sure I didn’t kill anyone.

The abrupt cessation of the shower water alerted me to the fact that Carl would shortly emerge from the bathroom, so I went to the kitchenette and began making tea.  I filled the kettle and switched it on, then grabbed some cups, a teabag and some honey.  I dumped a good dollop in each cup, and then dropped my teabag into mine.  Next, I bent down and retrieved a plastic bag full of powdery brown stuff from the fridge, holding my breath as I unrolled it and spooned some of the contents into Carl’s mug with as much care as I could muster.  I really didn’t want any of this stuff to accidentally encounter my mucous membranes, especially not this close to full moon.  Carl needed it, though, if I was to have any chance of not killing him.  It was fun to watch his face as he drank it, though.  I always did my very best not to giggle.  I was pouring water on the powdered mushroom as Carl exited the bathroom, towelling himself dry.  Fortunately he had remembered to wrap a second towel around his waist this time; he didn’t always remember, and it wasn’t something I really wanted to see.

Don’t get me wrong – he’s not all that bad looking.  In fact, he’s pretty easy on the eye, most of the time.  He certainly has absolutely no trouble getting girls.  But he’s my brother.  Well – half- brother, really.  He was already a toddler when mum and dad met, but it’s never really made all that much of a difference.  He’s always looked after me, even while he’s always irritated the life out of me.  Usually on purpose.

‘Come on, hurry up,’ I chided as he slurped his foul- tasting and smelling concoction.

‘Ugh, I’m going as fast as I can!’ he protested between gulps and grimaces.

‘If you don’t go any faster, Millie’s going to think we’ve forgotten her.  You know what she’s like.’

This time he pulled a different face.  Poor Millie – she really didn’t deserve this.  Younger than any of us, bouncier than anyone I’ve ever met, and with a massive crush on Carl.  How he ended up looking after her too – she’s only a distant cousin, after all – I’m not entirely sure.  Family politics are a total bitch.  I winced inwardly at the unintended pun, and then glanced at my watch.

‘Jesus, Carl, will you look at the time.  Get a bloody move on!’

My teeth must have already been growing as he certainly shifted after that.

Soon enough, we were driving on to the forecourt of Millie’s place.  A charming example of neo-brutalism, the tower block soared up into the afternoon sky, gleaming orange in the long light.  Twenty stories of the antithesis of joy watched us as we waited, engine idling, for the inevitable whirlwind to emerge from the partially- boarded up main entrance.  She wasn’t long.  After all, she lives right up at the very top, and has a good view of the approach road.  She always watches when she knows were coming.  Sure enough, a minute or so after we pulled up, Millie came bounding out of the doors in a flurry of wild hair and wilder clothes.  God alone knows where she got her dress sense, but there was always a very personal tilt to Millie’s wardrobe.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who was set on becoming an artist (a very sensible career choice, all things considered) had such an idiosyncratic approach to apparel.  My musings were cut short as she yanked the back door open and practically threw herself and her overnight bag into the back seat.

‘Hiyaaaa!  How’s it going?  Where are we going tonight?  Oh, nice perfume, Em!  What is it?  No, wait, lemme guess…’ she leaned forward and sniffed a huge lungful of my neck, so hard it tickled.

I pushed her away, laughing.  ‘Well, Miss Supernose?’

She mulled it over for a moment or two. ‘Hmmm… grass… earth… concrete… fungus… wood… socks…  Carl’s basement, right?’  She was grinning like a loon.

‘Yep.’ said Carl in a smug tone.  ‘See, Emma?  It’s only you that doesn’t like it in there.  Millie likes it.  Ergo, you’re a freak.’

I gave him a Look.  He grinned wider.  ‘OK – even more of a freak than science first thought.’

This time, I couldn’t stop a quiet rumble.  Carl just laughed – he knew I had to control myself in front of Millie.  Set a good example or some such bullshit.  I think that was probably why she ended up stuck with me and Carl.  Me to give her a role model within reach of her, and Carl with the looks, charm and experience to keep her in line if the older female role model idea didn’t work.  Between us, we just about managed to contain her wilder urges.  She was actually getting much better at controlling herself without our intervention, but she still had a way to go yet.  Poor kid had only been at it less than a year, after all.  Some other branches of the family came along even sooner than hers – god alone knew how they handled some of their youngsters.

My thoughts were interrupted as Millie demanded the radio be turned on, and the car was filled with the sound of three people howling along to some catchy but ten- a- penny pop songs as it sped on through the long late afternoon light.

We were heading for somewhere outside the city.  Somewhere in the wooded hills where there would be as little chance to encounter people as possible, and as much chance for dinner as possible.  Millie was very hungry- I could see it in her fever- bright eyes.  The younger ones were always hungry.  Jesus, I remembered what it was like for me for the first year or so – I had a gnawing emptiness that seemed like it was destined never to be filled.  I ate every last scrap and still looked around for more.  Fortunately, my appetite had settled and refined a little.  It still makes me shudder with revulsion when I think of the things I used to eat.  Hey – even we are allowed to be snobs.  I prefer to call it discerning refinement, though.

The radio programme had changed to jazz, which none of us really knew but was still a pleasant accompaniment to the balmy evening air coming through the open car windows, so we’d turned it down and Millie was making a determined effort to talk Carl’s ear off.  Looking at the state of her teeth, I thought she might chew his ear off if we didn’t get where we were going soon.  Mind you, I could smell the mushroom tea permeating Carl and oozing from his pores, so I didn’t think there would be any actual chewing going on.  Just metaphorical chewing.  Still, it was getting later, and we still hadn’t cleared the city.  Traffic wasn’t normally a problem, but there’d been a big accident somewhere strategic and it had slowed us to a crawl for a while.  We were on our way out now though, and looked likely to make it. The worried glances between me and Carl had abated, and were just beginning to turn to relief when Carl said, ‘Oh, shit.’

‘Oh, shit what, Carl?  Why are we pulling over?  Now is not the time.’

Carl’s voice was very calm, very even, and all the more worrying for that.  ‘I agree wholeheartedly with that Em, but unfortunately, we don’t have much choice in the matter.  There’s something wrong with the car.  I think the throttle cable has gone.’

‘Oh, shit.’

‘That’s bad, isn’t it?’ said a small voice from the back seat.

‘Yes, Millie.  Yes it is.’  He parked the car at the side of the road.  I looked around us.  We were in a run down part of the city – lots of boarded- up shops and dilapidated looking buildings.  Surprisingly clean – none of the piles of rubbish bags and crap you might expect – it just looked completely knackered.  ‘Oh, shit.’  I said again.

Carl checked his watch.  ‘Right.  We’ve got a bit less than two hours.  So we can either sit here “Oh shit”ing, or we can come up with a few ideas.  Breakdown service is out, obviously – that will take far too long, and I certainly can’t fix it.’

‘Well we can’t make it on foot – it’s bloody miles away still.  What else?  Taxi?’

‘In this part of the city?  All the way out there?  Besides, I haven’t got any money on me.’

‘Me neither.’

We subsided in feverish thought as to what we could do to alleviate the imminent disaster.

‘Er…’  Millie’s voice was uncharacteristically timid.  We turned to look at her.  ‘Er, well… my cousin Reynard lives not far from here.  And he’s a butcher.’

My ears pricked up at this.  I felt them.  I also noticed myself not asking the most important question.  The one I should have asked but was almost unable to as inexorable tide of hunger rose in me.  The one Carl asked.

‘Is it safe?’

Millie frowned at the column of the gearstick.  It looked like thinking was getting more difficult for her, which meant that our situation was getting more desperate.

‘I think…  I think he’s got a cellar…?’

Carl took a gentle hold of Millie’s chin and raised it so that she was looking into his eyes as he said, ‘Millie, love, stay with me, now – I need you to think carefully. Can you do that?’

She nodded, squinting a little.

‘Millie, this cellar of your cousin Reynard – does it have a sturdy door that locks?’

‘I think… yes it does.  We had to put Uncle Mike in there once.  He had a broken leg.  He made ever such a noise…’

Carl looked at me.  ‘Right.  Grab Millie, I’ll grab the bags.  Let’s go.’

Oh, god – I’d always hated a furtive run through the streets – it made me feel like a criminal.  However, at this stage of the evening, avoiding our fellow earth- dwellers became absolutely necessary.  Not least for the way we looked.  I glanced over at Millie as we scurried.  And there was no other word for what we were doing.  Scurrying.  She was already beginning to look like she could do with a good session with the Epilady.  A glance down at my own arms confirmed that I was not much better.  I wished I’d remembered to wear long sleeves, but then I had not been planning on a mad dash through unfamiliar city streets as the sunset light turned the dusty air around us to blood.

It took us ten minutes of increasingly desperate scurrying to reach cousin Reynard’s shop.

The shop occupied the front of the building and, so I gathered from Millie’s increasingly incoherent ramblings, Reynard lived above and behind the shop in the rest of the building.  Right then, I wouldn’t have cared if he’d have lived in a tree house, as long as he had somewhere safe for us to spend the night.

When the door opened in response to Millie’s frantic knockings, Reynard proved to be as foxy as his name.  Clearly, he hadn’t inherited the full gamut of freakish genes, but there was still definitely a whiff of the canidae about him.  A shock of russet curls above a densely- freckled face with slanted eyes and a turned- up nose regarded us first with suspicion, and then with recognition.

‘Mini Millie!  Long time no see!  What brings you and your,’ here he gave us a sharp once- over, ‘friends to my door?’

‘We need help, Ren.’  The lack of niceties was not lost on any of us older ones.  ‘Can we use your cellar?’

Ren’s expression immediately morphed to one of solicitous concern as he ushered us inside without a word.  As he led us through the house, Carl made the introductions, explanations and requests.

‘We broke down not far from here.  Should have been out of the city ages ago but traffic was snarled…’  He trailed off whilst Ren made sympathetic noises.  ‘Anyway – I’m sure you know how close they are – and how hungry – so we need somewhere…’

‘No problem at all!’ said Ren.  ‘You’ve come to the right place.  Lucky you were in the area really.  I haven’t really seen Mini for years – just the odd family gathering.  I’m surprised she remembered…  Anyway – she did, and that’s all that matters.  Here we are.’

We had gone down a couple of passageways, past and through several doors, down a flight of stairs and along a short corridor to arrive here, and now we were faced with the door. It almost deserved q capital letter it was so very… unforgiving.  Everything was riveted, the hinges seemed to be hidden in the frame, and there was a small observation port at eye level.  Millie and I were going to spend the night behind it.

It was almost comedic, but mostly a bit uncomfortable, how Ren opened the door with such a chivalrous flourish and bowed us inside.  The cellar wasn’t much.  A bare room with no windows or vents, merely a small drain at the lowest point of a dipped floor.  Even in my semi coherent state, I was [pleasantly surprised by the fact that there was no unpleasant smell – and that the air was surprisingly fresh – though I noticed that there was almost an inch of clearance under the door, so I guessed this must provide the ventilation.  Not much ventilation but then, beggars can rarely be choosers.

Millie and I had a good look around and fully familiarised ourselves with the place we would be spending the next however many hours (I could rarely be bothered to work out how long it was.  After all, I’d know for sure when it was over, even if Millie would still be a bit spaced out.  It takes time and practice to regain one’s faculties as swiftly as I could.   Meanwhile, the boys disappeared, and returned not long after, each carrying half a pig.  Millie’s head snapped around so fast I was afraid she’d do herself a mischief.  However, I admired the restraint she showed in not immediately going for the meat.  Even I self- consciously wiped the corners of my mouth to make sure that I wasn’t drooling.  With a negligent air, the two halves of carcass were heaved over the threshold, each landing with a dull thud on the bare concrete floor.  As the boys bade us a good evening and closed the door, even en as Millie and I each made our way toward a separate carcass, I wondered how Ren kept the floor so clean.

###

It was hours later.  I was judging not only by the feeling of time’s passage, but by how full my belly was.  I remembered tearing into the easily available meat; utterly ravenous as I always was.  I remembered pacing the walls with Millie for quite some time and then, finally deciding that not only was there no way to escape this strange cave in which we found ourselves.  The sudden weariness I felt helped make it a very easy decision to lie down and sleep, if only in order to digest this enormous meal I had eaten…

I’m not sure what woke me.  It might have been the hiss of the observation port opening; it might have been the low murmur of Ren’s voice.  I couldn’t really see him from the angle I lay at, and was still feeling a little woozy, so I lay still, eyes half open, and drifted a little.  Through the half-sleep, I heard Ren’s voice.   the sounds didn’t really mean a huge amount to me in the state that I was in, but a couple of phrases he used nagged at me enough that I dragged myself further toward consciousness than I had been and certainly closer than I wanted to be.  Until I heard, ‘…drugged.  Yeah – sleeping like puppies, they are.’  His voice dripped with contempt, and even in my semi conscious, semi coherent state, it chilled me. ‘No, no – he’s no problem.  Absolute pushover.  Dropped some rohypnol into his drink… no… no I didn’t.’  He chuckled.  ‘Yeah, yeah whatever – maybe later, you know?  Probably stinks like wet dog, anyway.  I’ll think about it.  Meantime, how about you get your arse down here and we sort this shit out?  …No I can’t.  You know I don’t keep that stuff around… yeah… sensitive… yeah.  Ok.  See you in twenty.’

Motherfucker had turned supergrass and sold us out to the hunters.  In a brief moment of white- hot rage I realised that this was why we had been assigned to care for Millie.  There weren’t enough of her own family left who were suitable for the job.  They had all disappeared, one by one, and it was generally assumed that the disappearances were due to individuals going feral and running off to the northern woods.  Apparently, the general consensus was wrong.

Millie let out a grunting sigh.  There was a silence from behind the door, and then a click and slide.  The door swung inward slowly.  I lay still and kept my breathing deep and even as Reynard slowly entered the room.  I felt him glance my way, and then back toward Millie.

I should note here that legends about us are largely incorrect.  We remain pretty much humanoid – we don’t grow snouts or paws or any of that desperate old crap.  But our musculo- skeletal structure does undergo subtle shifts – improving the functional strength and efficiency of our bodies – and our teeth lengthen and somehow seem to sharpen.  None of the family has yet to work out how this happens, but we are understandably reticent about consulting medical professionals.  We also experience accelerated hair growth and moulting.  The sheer energy it takes for our bodies to go through all of these changes in such a short time goes a long way to explaining the ravenous hunger that affects us.  On a completely facile side note, I find it’s a great way to burn excess calories each month, even if only for one night.

Reynard walked very quietly over to where Millie lay, toward the back of the cellar.  Crouching down, he stared at her, muttering to himself.  ‘Well well well, Mini Millie look at you.  Who’d have thought you’d turn out so well?  Damn shame you also turned out to be a fucking bitch like the rest of them.  Such a pathetically common fate for someone so… fine…’  He reached out a hand and stroked down her flank.  ‘I think I must have put more of that stuff in there than I meant to.  Oh, well – since you’re going to be out for a good long while, I might as well enjoy it.  Wanted to do this for years, you prick- teasing little bitch…’  To my absolute horror, the hand that was stroking Millie’s side ceased stroking and began to grope, whilst he tugged at his belt buckle with the other.  A moment later, he growled in frustration and began to yank at his belt with both hands.

I barely heard the snarl gather in my throat as my body moved like a spring and I launched myself at his back, fastening my teeth on his neck.  Unfortunately, the snarl forewarned him that I wasn’t as out as he thought, so he half- turned as I leapt, and I didn’t get quite where I was aiming for.  Still, I tore a chunk out of the junction between his shoulder and neck as he pushed me away.  Having so recently fed, I didn’t stop to chew but spat as I rolled away so my mouth was empty for the next attack.  As soon as I had my feet under me, I leapt again.  This time, however, he was expecting me, and he had a long metal spike which I hadn’t seen him bring in.  He was waving it with one hand whilst clamping his hand over the fresh wound in his neck with the other.  As he lashed out wildly, it got caught in my upper arm.  My aim, however, was truer.  This time, I got him exactly where I wanted to.  Gouts of crimson painted the walls in pretty arcs, and his screams died fairly quickly.  Not him, though.  I hamstrung him and let him bleed out on his own cellar floor, whilst I gritted my teeth and yanked the metal spike from my arm.  Hauling Millie’s still- unconscious but mercifully inviolate body over my shoulder, I headed up the stairs.

I found Carl passed out upstairs, tied to a chair. The smell of whiskey and some sort of sedative lay heavy on him, mixing with the still- potent mushroom residue.  I laid Millie on the floor as comfortably as I could and then I untied Carl, touching his bare skin as little as possible, and laying him nearby.  And then I went downstairs and waited.

I’m not proud of what I did to that silver- bullet- toting shitbag that came calling, but by the time I’d finished with him, I’d used up every last one of those vicious little nerve- bombs, and he’d told me everything I needed to know about the local Hunter coterie.  I left him pretty much as I’d left darling cousin Reynard.  It was a good job tomorrow was Sunday, I reflected, as I retrieved my mobile phone and gave my dad a call.  The clean- up crew would have nearly twenty- four hours to do their sterling work.  As I stared toward the pinkening dawn, I reflected I’d done them a favour, really.  We were getting so good at managing our condition that they’d barely had anything to do for absolutely ages.  Definitely time for them to stretch their talents.  The physical cleanup crew, anyway.  The IT bods were always on high alert, even if it was only scouring the ether for references to us, detecting possible threats, and engaging in their subtle games of misdirection.  Well – who am I to argue?  It keeps them entertained, bless them.

There’s a lot of the family out there.  Far more of us than you would think or could ever guess.  We’re around, but we’re much more discreet these days than we ever were in the past.  We’re smart, you see.  Whatever clueless idiot said that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks had clearly never met my dad.

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