The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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4th Prize – David E. Needham with:

The Wolves Of Life


We stand by a low wall. There’s a ten-foot drop to a pasture.

In the distance is a snow-capped mountain. We could have seen it from the hotel, but I wanted to get closer. Everything must be perfect for my daughter, unlike before. This is a rare precious time, a parental visit. I see her only once a month, by court order.

I was stupid to bring Fay here in winter. Icy winds howl through the valley. Snowflakes race each other along the frozen river. The wolves steal goats, sheep, chickens and deer. Wolves should be eradicated; they add nothing to human life.

Fay climbs the stone wall.

“Don’t,” I say. “You’ll fall. Your club foot –”

“It’s not a club foot. You crushed it.”


“Too late to say that.”

“I know.”

“And quit worrying about me. I’m nine. I can look after myself.”

“Dads do worry, love.”

“You’re not my dad, not anymore. Mom hates you. So do I.”

I freeze. “See that bend in the river?”

“Yes, so what?”

“The river flows straight for miles, then bends. Dads do that too; they go the wrong way for a while. I did – but only once.”


“Oh, yes. Can’t you forgive me?”

“No. You ruined my life. Remember . . .?”


It was a Friday. I got promotion at work. The guys said, “Let’s celebrate.”

Driving home, I missed the house. Backed into the drive. Ran over Fay, waiting to show me her drawing of a river.

After that, she limped – physically, emotionally.


She leans forward to photograph the mountain with a Kodak I bought her.


Cascades down, turning to me with gaping mouth, frightened eyes, outstretched arms.

Crashes on a jagged rock.

I cry out, “Fay!” But too late. I should have protected her better. Now she’s fallen and I won’t be able to live with it. I’ll take pills like before and go into a coma; I’ll lose brain cells and end up in psych hospital with crazies – I, who was a top investment manager.

Fay yelps like a broken dog – a lonely unhappy girl lying on hot gorse, with a rock in her back.

I jump down, spry as in my Air Force days. Bend over my whimpering daughter.

She says. “Get the ambulance.”

“Hotel’s a mile back.”

“Use your iPhone.”

“I forgot it.”

“God, you’re useless. Go away. I hate you.”

When your child says that, there’s no way back. You might crawl up an inch of the mountain, back to her love and respect, but the rest is too steep.

I can’t leave her. Her leg’s horribly twisted. Blood trickles from her mouth. The rock’s pierced her abdomen. They say: ‘Don’t move wounded people.’ But Fay could freeze to death. Die of shock.

I try to clamber up the wall, but it’s too high.

I was stupid to jump. Up there I could have sprinted to the hotel, called the paramedics. Now I must run beside the wall till I can climb it.

I turn.

And see the wolf.


It’s ten yards away. With the eager inquisitive look wolves have. It’s wide mouth is ajar; its teeth glisten as though it’s laughing – as if this is a game. It lowers its head and prowls forward softly, slowly, padding the turf with its paws, left/right, left/right – eyes on Fay, its target.

I pray for a ranger to shoot it.

Or the white-coated psychiatrist with a needle: ‘Everything’s fine, Mr Slack.’

Everything’s not fine.

I must face this wolf, as I once faced regret for hurting Fay.

I want Fay to see me brave, grappling with the wolf. But I can’t move. I’m paralysed with fear, doomed to fail.
This wolf must be the alpha male. He’s searching for prey. Soon he’ll summon the rest of the pack.

He stands erect: teeth bared, ears pricked, back arched, tail high and curled back. He raises his hind leg and urinates to establish dominance over me and mark a kill. Then he gives a deep bass roar, which the pack by the river echo in haunting howls or low barks.

They sweep towards us – a tide of wolves, their grey pelts edged with white, like foam on angry waves. They hurry up the grassy slope like a crowd rushing to the scene of a fatal accident – they must see the dead body. How hateful and unreasoning wolves are, with those keen avaricious eyes, like misers without compassion. Their sharp teeth are programmed to kill; their jaws can snap shut on a child, bringing darkness and terrible, unbearable fear.

Now, in winter, they’re hungry: they want my daughter. They’re the wolves of life that haunted my nightmares when my wife took Fay away. I picture them tearing Fay to bits. Will she be conscious? Will she see me, through the corner of her eye – the dad who failed to carry out his lifetime vow to protect her?

I burn with regret that we came here.

It started so innocently, like drinking . . .


On Fay’s last visit I played Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. That gave me the idea to read to her, at bedtime, Angela Carter’s story Peter and the Wolf. It enthralled her.

“Can wolves really kill a woman, Dad?”

“I guess. I’m no expert.”

“Mom says you compare wolves to regret.”

“Not just regret, love. Any bad thing I’ve done.”

“Like drinking?”

“Yes, like drinking.”

She nodded. “I’d like to know about wolves. Can you download stuff off the web and read it to me?”


Next night I read to her:

‘Wolves are carnivorous mammals. Their black snouts pick up the scent of a kill. They fix their small greedy malevolent dark eyes on their prey, curl back their lips, flap out their blood-red tongues –’

“Dad! That’s gory!”

“You need to be prepared, kid – if you ever see a wolf.”

“I hope I won’t!”

I read on:

‘The wolf crouches. Like a fox or coyote it springs on its prey – rat, elk or – in mythology – child. It pins its prey to the ground with strong claws, clamps its jaw like a vice on the victim’s head, and tears skin off its face with pointed teeth – like a scraper peeling off damp wallpaper.’


‘The whole pack joins in, ripping off hunks of flesh, chewing relentlessly, showing no mercy, leaving only a white skeleton.‘

“Can’t you escape, Dad?”

“No. If you run, they’ll spring at you. Best to stay still and show no fear.”

“Like you did in the Air Force? When you bombed Iraq in Desert Shield?”

“Oh, sure. In my CF-18 Hornet – sleek and grey like a wolf – I stayed real calm.”

“Mom says you didn’t. You funked out. Flew back to base – left your squadron to die.”

“Fay, I didn’t want to bomb Iraqi children. Can’t you understand?”

“Mom says you have nightmares about it. You see enemy planes coming at you. You cry out, ‘The wolves will get me!’”

“Yes, you’re right. But she’d no business telling you that.” It’s terrible when your children know your secret – see you as a flawed human being, not a heroic dad.

For once I got angry with Fay. “Conscience makes cowards of us – Shakespeare.”

“Fear makes cowards of us, Dad.”

“Yes, I was scared. Anything wrong in that?”

“Do you regret leaving your pals?”

“I regret everything.”

“Like hurting me? And I don’t mean my foot?”

“Yes.” I clutched her soft warm shoulders in her innocent pink nightie and pressed my agony into her. “Fay, I don’t want you to live with regret like me. Regret’s the biggest enemy. It comes at you like a wolf: tears your mind out. You must kill it. Never let it get inside your head. Keep the door locked.”

“Do you?”

“No. I try.”

“Trying’s not enough, Dad. If you have to try, it means you’re not succeeding. The wolves are in your house, tearing you to bits.”

God! How do children get so wise, so knowledgeable?

I picked Fay up and held her close. “I want you to be safe, love. Not suffer.”

“Dad – I suffer plenty.”


Now I pick her up again, to save her from this wolf. It’s my job: I’m her dad; I’m responsible for her – but I’m too weak. I feel Fay as a great weight. I know I’ll fail in my duty. Yet again.


With a ferocious bound (learned over billions of years) the wolf leaps at me.

Snatches Fay from my grasp.

As I try to hold onto her, the animal’s snarling, slobbering mouth wrenches her clean out of the red boots I bought her – I’m left holding them.

The beast pins Fay down and the pack tear at her like hyenas, getting their snouts bloody.

I run.

Yes – to my shame I run.

But what can I do? Why must two of us die? My daughter’s gone. Nothing can save her. Certainly not her cowardly, inept father.


At the hotel, I call the Mounties.

And here I am, Inspector Cornwell, sitting in the hotel’s pinewood lounge with a brandy, telling you the tale.


Cornwell fingers her pistol. She’s cocky in her crimson military jacket with gold buttons, high collar and wide brown belt – beige cowboy hat tipped back on her grey crew cut.

“Wolves? I think not, Mr Slack.” Cornwell’s a smart-ass: knows everything. “Come – show me where you danced with wolves.” Oh, she’s clever. Film quotes, and all. Cornwell’s a hero: she came to my house one night, dragged me off in a straitjacket. That was the night I was alleged . . .

She carries a flashlight, portable radio and handcuffs (for me or the wolves?)

We comb the valley in her Jeep Cherokee.

“I know where it happened, Inspector. We must have passed it.”

No sign of life or death.

Nothing. No bones. No blood.

No wolves.
Everything quiet and peaceful, like when I brought Fay here.

The pasture’s dark now, with that damned snow-capped mountain glistening in the moonlight. That’s what killed Fay – her desire to photo it. It wasn’t my fault.

“No wolves, Mr Slack. Been none here since we stole this land off the Cree, centuries ago.”

“But I saw – ”

“Wild dogs.”

“My daughter – ”

“Died. Ten years ago, Mr Slack. Dived from this wall onto a jagged rock – went through her brain. She was nineteen. Drunk, high on LSD. Disillusioned in you. How does that make you feel?”

“Like death.”

“Yes, Mr Slack. A brave man would shoot himself – do less harm, dead. But you’re not brave, are you, Mr Slack? Your RCAF record shows that.”

“Don’t remind me.”

I flail my arms, fending off the wolves of self-hate.

Cornwell takes my arm. “This afternoon, Mr Slack, you fell asleep in the pasture. The wolves were in your LSD nightmare.”

“No, I saw them. They tore my daughter’s heart out.”

“You did that, Mr Slack.”

“Inspector, I loved Fay.”

“But inappropriately.”

“You never charged me.”

“Only because your wife Stella begged.”

“Really?” I absorb that like methadone. “She’d no right to remove Fay.”

“She’d every right. Women do. She called me to your home, Mr Slack. Shall I remind you why?”


I hang my head.

Dark grey clouds, like packs of wolves, swarm across the mountain. They’ll bring snow to my life. And now, in the nightmare of my mind, the wolves are back. “See them, Inspector – there and there and there?”
But Inspector Cornwell is marching to her jeep. She doesn’t believe my wolves. She’ll go home tonight to her partner, Sergeant Jill Makepeace. And leave me to suffer.

I look down over the dark pasture. And cover my face as they leap at me – the wolves of the past – the wolves that torture me, night and day – the wolves of guilt – the wolves of regret.

The wolves of life.

Critique by Competition Adjudicator,
Iain Pattison

This deeply unsettling tale keeps the reader guessing all the way through, with more twists and surprises than many novels. What is real? What is imagined? Is the pain the narrator suffers real or delusional? Is he victim or villain?

There are many dark secrets hidden within this story of a man torn apart by guilt and regret, by revulsion at his own cowardice and more sickening compulsions. And as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing in the barren, bleak, snow-swept landscape of countryside and tormented sub-conscious is quite what it seems.
It’s not an easy read, but an incredibly powerful one – with the slavering, merciless wolf a powerful metaphor throughout. The writing is short, sparse, almost staccato in places, giving the work an edgy, pent-up, nervy feel that fits the tone of the subject matter perfectly.

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