The Wolf in the Room

gray timber wolf
Photo by Matej on Pexels.com

Doctor Barlow nodded to the attendant standing by the control panel for the “green” room. He stepped up to the metal door’s reinforced glass window and peered in at his patient: poor Lucian Thorpe. The small, nervous man was sitting on the edge of his cot in a daze, his eyes staring absently into thoughts only he could know. There came the loud click of the door’s mechanical lock releasing and Lucian snapped out of his reverie and locked eyes with Doctor Barlow.

“Doctor Barlow!” Lucian exclaimed with nervous relief as the man crossed the threshold into the small room. “I had been hoping to—” his voice trailed off at the sight of the armed guard entering in behind Doctor Barlow and standing at attention against the back wall.

Doctor Barlow followed Lucian’s gaze and gave an understanding laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” he said with a carefree wave of the hand. “You must remember that this is a unique facility, and so it comes with all manner of unique protocols. He’s just here because he has to be, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Lucian nodded, though his eyes lingered a moment longer on the assault rifle that the guard held in his stiff hands.

“Now Lucian, can you tell me if you have been experiencing any other symptoms?”

The shock on Lucian’s face bordered on incredulity.

“I mean aside from the obvious.” For there were obvious symptoms. The yellow coloring of the eyes, the long gray wisps of hair sprouting all along the body, the jumbling of the teeth. Indeed, the extreme nature of these changes were eclipsed only by the rapidity in which they had occurred. When Lucian had been admitted to the facility two weeks ago he had been a full three inches taller and hadn’t even begun to form his tail.

“You mean how I feel?” Lucian sneered, the timidity suddenly melting from his face.
“Like I’m being eaten from the inside out! Does that count as a symptom?!”

Doctor Barlow made a check on the clipboard he clasped before him. The minuteness of it only aggravated Lucian further and he simultaneously snapped his shoulders back and his maw forward in a sudden snarl. Doctor Barlow immediately recoiled and the guard swung his gun up level to Lucian’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Lucian whimpered, his apprehension rushing back as he covered his face and curled back onto the bed. “I’m just so mixed up,” he moaned. “Doctor, please, what’s going on?”

Doctor Barlow sighed and lifted thick glasses from his eyes, then massaged his face with his palm. “This is a complicated business, Lucian. To move things too quickly would only risk further injury. We don’t want to give you temporary relief, Lucian. You understand? We’re here to cure you.”

“Can you?” Fear mingled with skepticism.

Doctor Barlow smiled. “Of course we will. Why do you think you were brought here, Lucian? It was because we never fail at this facility. Already we’ve isolated your strain, duplicated it, and are hitting them with the full barrage of tests and treatments. One of them is going to stick.” Doctor Barlow reached out and firmly shook Lucian’s knee. “Doubt yourself if you must, son, but believe in me.”

Lucian’s eyes did not shine with hope. But he did believe that this was his only chance, and no matter how slim a chance that might be he wasn’t about to jeopardize it. So he simply nodded.

Doctor Barlow accepted the gesture and smiled as he rose to his feet. “I’m on my way to see the team now. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they’re already preparing the cure.”

Lucian started to raise his arms, clearly wanting to him to stay and give more details, but Doctor Barlow pretended not to notice and strode out of the room. The guard backed out after the doctor, then the door shut and the mechanical lock clicked back into place.

*

“Anything?” Doctor Barlow asked the other two specialists as he rubbed his tired eyes again.

“Of course not,” Doctor Hoeg scoffed. Over the past two weeks they had overseen dozens of tests and then reconvened dozens of times to discuss the complete nothingness that had been turned up by all of that work.

“Well that’s not quite true,” Doctor Gretzel scolded as she thumbed through her folder. “We have a new theory as to why we aren’t able to isolate the strain,” she offered, handing Doctor Barlow a sheet of distribution graphs. “Each of these was taken from the same blood sample at equal intervals of two hours. The extreme changes in the composition suggest that the thing is mutating rapidly. So much so that we can never track the same iteration from one test to the next.”

Hoeg actually laughed aloud at this. “Well that certainly seems like a promising path of inquiry then!”

“That is enough,” Barlow ordered calmly but firmly. “Act like the professional you’re supposed to be.”

“Fine.” Hoeg said shortly. “In my professional opinion we need to stop avoiding the obvious realities. We can’t identify anything about this strain, we can’t even identify if it is bacterial or viral. But what is clear is that what is happening to that boy is going to reach its culmination in a matter of weeks and we’ll be no closer to any answers than we are right now. Can we please have the discussion now of what we do when things take their course?”

Barlow inhaled long and audibly. Then exhaled still more forcefully. “Not yet,” he said evenly. “Not until we know where that course even goes.”

Hoeg shook his head in frustration, clearly wrestling with the thoughts he wanted to voice. The same ideas that all of them had thought but never dared say. “Have you been to see the canine today?” he finally asked. The fact that all of them consciously avoided calling the ‘canine’ by its common name was evidence enough that they were skirting around its myths.

Barlow shook his head. “I’m on my way there next.”

*

In another wing exactly like the one where Lucian was being held, Doctor Barlow peered through the window of another door into the “pink” room. He made no movement to enter this room, though, he only watched its occupant at a distance. When the canine had first been brought it was a creature of fits and spasms, constantly snapping at unseen afflictions and lunging viciously at anything that came too near. Now, though, the changes to its body had crippled it, subjecting it to a wakeful paralysis of twitches and shivers. The creature was obviously suffering, and even its breathing seemed to be a terrible labor.

Barlow watched it lying there on the floor, its chest rising and falling to unnatural extremes. Each exhale came out in long, guttural sighs, and was then followed by a rush of rasping inhales in quick succession. If things continued as they were, the creature would not be surviving much longer.

ONE WEEK LATER

Doctor Barlow paused a few feet back from the “green” room. Far enough back that he wouldn’t be within view of the window in the door. He glanced nervously to the guard at his side, but he just stared stoically ahead. Doctor Barlow took a deep breath, nodded to the attendant, and then took purposeful strides into Lucian’s quarters. Well, at least the quarters of the thing that had been Lucian anyway. The being that occupied these walls now barely resembled a human at all. Its back was deeply hunched and its limbs were unnaturally long and thin, with hands hanging so low they were nearly scraping along the floor. The lower face had extruded itself forward and the mouth and nose in particular were pulled out to a peak in front. What had at first seemed like an excess of hair was now clearly thick gray fur, and it covered nearly every inch of the body.

Doctor Barlow couldn’t repress a grimace and slight shake of the head. “Lucian?” he asked tentatively. “Can you hear me?”

The creature did not appear to understand, it just kept revolving awkwardly on the same spot in the corner of the room. It refused to meet eyes with Doctor Barlow, but there came a growl from its throat that finally formed into recognizable—though strained—words.

“I hear you,” Lucian croaked.

“Lucian, do you know who I am?”

A series of sniffs and pantings, then finally “Doctor.”

“Very good, Lucian,” Doctor Barlow praised. It wasn’t very good, though. Yesterday Lucian had still remembered his actual name. “You’re doing very well.”

“No more games!” Lucian snarled, his fur starting to bristle as he slowed his pacing to face Doctor Barlow directly..

“Lucian I am taking your case very seriously.”

“Then be serious!” Lucian started to raise himself as tall as possible, coming within a few inches of a regular man’s height.

Barlow sighed. “Obviously you are worried, Lucian, I understand that. But no matter what depths this reaches you must believe me that there is still hope. If you can be changed you one way you can be changed back the other.”

“Stop. Playing. Me!” Lucian took a step forward and the guard raised his rifle an inch.

Barlow removed his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. “What is it you want to hear, Lucian? That I don’t know what’s going to happen. That I don’t know anything anymore? Very well. I don’t.”

Lucian sneered. Then fell back to his pacing. “Did you find it?”

“Find what?”

“That wolf.”

“Oh. Yes, we found it.”

“How has it changed?”

“Changed? I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s just a simple canine. It’s had some blood work done, of course, but nothing else of note.”

Lucian bared his teeth in a long, sinister inhale that puffed him up larger. “Don’t lie to me!” he struggled to voice each word. “Every memory I lose I gain another. But not my memories. Hunting rabbits and drinking from streams and biting flesh… Biting Lucian.”

“Well I don’t think you should dwell on those thoughts, Lucian, that’s clearly just some fever dream, totally understandable.”

With a snap Lucian flung himself at Doctor Barlow, digging at him with his claw-like hands and snapping at his arm with sharp teeth. The guard swung his gun up to fire but the two men were too entwined for a clean shot, so he instead rushed forward and thrust the barrel of the gun into Lucian’s chest, hurling him back to the ground. Lucian landed on all fours, circled round, then leaped up again only to be caught by the butt of the rifle slamming between his eyes and crumpling him to the floor.

“Open the door!” the guard roared, seizing Barlow under the arms and half-supporting-half-dragging him out of the room. Once they cleared the door and it slammed shut Barlow struggled back to his feet and pushed the guard away.

“Sir, I—” the guard began.

“NO!” Doctor Barlow shrieked, his eyes manic. “No!” he threw his clipboard to the floor and continued to stare hatefully at the guard until he shifted his eyes to the ground. Barlow swung his penetrating gaze over to the attendant who also shifted her eyes down. Doctor Barlow gave them each a final scowl, then turned and strode out of the room.

*

An hour later a somewhat more composed Barlow stood outside of the “pink” room, staring at his other patient within. The canine had not died, in fact it had improved quite remarkably. Once the internal organs had shifted to support the new form it had started to thrive, growing more energetic each day. Enthusiastic even. It still moved about on four paws, but when it reached the walls it placed its hands against them and raised to a standing position. It even spoke with the attendants through the protective screen. English words, about the vocabulary of a three-year-old, but improving each day.

Hoeg and Gretzel stood on either side of Doctor Barlow.

“There’s no denying the eventualities now,” Gretzel mused as they watched the creature give a toddler-like smile as a cookie was deployed through a chute to its tray.

“No,” Barlow agreed. “And there’s no need debating the proper course of action to follow.”

“Of course there’s need!” Hoeg spat. “But evidently you two would rather not face your own consciences.” He shook his head. “Thinking you deserve to play god!”

Before this morning Barlow would likely have ignored the disrespect, but now he turned and puffed out his chest as he stared straight down Hoeg’s bitter eyes. “Do you not understand you little fool? Any action here is to play god. There is no right answer!” He sneered, then turned back to face the creature. “All that remains is the reputation of this facility…and you’re outranked.”

“And outvoted,” Gretzel added.

TWO WEEKS LATER

Lucian was finishing getting dressed in the “pink” room, smiling at Doctors Barlow and Gretzel as they went through his final questionnaire.

“Yes, that’s right,” Lucian answered. “I remember the bite, but nothing after that until I came to a week ago.”

They nodded satisfactorily and made simultaneous checks on their clipboards.

“We know it wasn’t easy for you to stay an extra week with us, but I’m sure you understand it was necessary for us to be thorough?” Barlow asked, pausing a moment to scratch at his arm.

“Oh, of course.”

Barlow grinned. “Well I think I’m satisfied.” He looked sideways to Doctor Gretzel. “How about you?”

“Me too,” she grinned back. “What about you, Lucian? Ready to get out of here?”

He laughed as he rose to his feet. “Definitely!”

“Let’s get you to that family of yours,” Doctor Barlow nodded as the three of them left the room and made their way towards the waiting room. As they went, Doctor Gretzel explained the package they’d be sending him home with and the instructions for self-monitoring his conditions for the next two months. She also assured him that all of his questions would be addressed in the medical brief that was included as well. Doctor Barlow alternated between nodding in agreement and persisting at that itch under his long shirtsleeve.

Meanwhile, over in the “green” room the guard waited behind the half-closed door while the tranquilizer took effect. The large wolf’s bared teeth relaxed their growl, its lids slowly drooped, and finally its head rolled back onto the floor unconscious. The guard entered the room and quickly attached a muzzle to the sleeping dog, then slid it into a metal carrier which he padlocked shut.

It was the one concession they had allowed Doctor Hoeg, something to help ease his conscience. The specimen wasn’t to be dissected for future research, rather it would be flown to the wilds of Canada, somewhere a thousand miles from the nearest human civilization. Somewhere it could be forgotten back to the myths and legends where it properly belonged.

***

On Monday I spent some time advocating for a kinder and more productive form of critical analysis on an author’s work. My main points in this pattern of feedback was that the reviewer should first identify the accomplishments of what has been written, suggest improvements that could lift the story still higher, and close with a vision of what the story could then become in its most ideal form.

So to start off, in this week’s story I do think I’ve developed a unique and interesting interpretation on a classic myth, that of the werewolf. I also like how this story reaches natural conclusion, but one that ends with questions that could be picked up on later. Is Doctor Barlow being changed now? Is the new Lucian truly the same as before?

Areas that I feel could be enhanced are both general and specific. Generally I feel the work could use a little more breathing room. Taking some more time and space to allow for a richer atmosphere would do a lot for improving the sense of intrigue. Also the characters could use a little more time in the oven as right now they are flatter than I wanted them to be.

To get more specific, one scene that I felt breezed by particularly quickly was the first conversation between Lucian and Doctor Barlow. This is our introduction to the strange situation, and I don’t feel the moment has allowed dread and understanding to slowly creep through the reader like it should. Later when Lucian attacks Doctor Barlow it would also carry more punch if there was more buildup leading to that moment. All of the communication between the doctors could be refactored, too. Quite frankly I knew I wanted conversations and conflict there, so I put in some placeholder text and then there wasn’t time to find something else that had a better fit.

In conclusion, I would say that the foundation is there, but that the story needs iteration, experimentation, and growth. With that sort of time and care then I think this short could become the prologue to a rich and suspenseful novel. This could be the introduction of how the legend of the werewolf was introduced into modern suburbia through an eccentric doctor that got a little too close to his subjects.

 

Taking that time to analyze my story and focus on its potential has increased both my appreciation for what it is now and my desire to work it into something better. I didn’t feel that I had to hold back in expressing my honest criticisms, but I also didn’t feel insulted by them.

Obviously there is another type of critique which I have not had time to illustrate here: the in-process editing where an author reads over their draft and corrects small errors as they go. Grammatical flubs, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing are inevitable in a rough draft, and every work is greatly improved by many read-throughs and quick-fixes. That’s a process that deserves a closer examination and I hope to see you on Monday when we’ll do just that. Have a wonderful weekend!

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