The sky was starless and lonely over the sleepy rooftops of central London. The full moon, like a delicious pancake, stood brightly against the dark-blue canvas.
Fuck, I’d kill for a pancake, James thought as he was walking down the hallway of the student accommodation. The hallway had a special stink to it — pot sprinkled all over with cheap perfume. Through the window, you could see the dark sky outside, but that was about the last thing on James’s mind.
His hood, pulled way down over his nose, gave him just enough air to smell his way to the stairs. Up, up, up he went, past drunk strangers and easy girls and their silent amused stares. His hands were buried deep in his pockets, clenched into fists, sharp nails cutting into the soft tissue of his palms.
James suppressed an impatient sigh. He wondered what it was going to be like in a new country, in a new city. It was always different everywhere — cold and cut-through in snowy Moscow, sweaty and burning in sunny Rio. Would it be feverish, unpredictable, in this strange city of broken weather?
On the top floor James brushed his shoulder lightly against that of another student. The guy shook all over like a dying leaf on the wind.
“Excuse me,” the guy mumbled in confusion, his pace suddenly increasing.
“You’re all right, mate,” James growled back, hating the sound of his own voice, the animalistic roll of it.
Right on top of the stairs there was a staff-only door leading to the rooftop. James gave the door a knowing push; it opened with a squeak. All those doors were the same — breakable, made of cardboard-like wood.
James stepped bravely onto the dusty floor of the roof and instantly felt the soft stinging of the moonlight against his tanned skin. It felt almost ticklish, if a little too harsh. A tiny bit too violent. Slowly, he took the hood off and embraced it — the sting, the burn. Like acid, it dug into his skin, and through it — to his bones.
James unzipped his hoody and shook it off his strong arms. His T-shirt fell on the floor right next to it, and then went the trousers. He hadn’t any shoes to begin with. An unnecessary luxury for a night like this. No wonder people had been staring.
It felt almost intoxicating standing like that — just in his boxers with the whole city spread at his feet. The lights went on and off in the houses every second. London was blinking like a vulnerable human being. James, he was not. He stared at the life down there without moving a muscle on his gloomy face.
The wait was the worst part of it. For some annoying reason he never knew how long it would take, and it always took him by surprise. Ever since the first time, he hated bloody surprises.
James closed his eyes, ignoring the winks of the flirtatious city. He gave in to the sting then, to the odd feeling of the moonlight wrapping around him like a burning blanket. Even though every beat of his heart was bound to every shift of the moon, taking it all in felt absurdly liberating.
This time, the wait was over sooner than he would’ve preferred. The pain came crushing down his bones, grinding them to dust and then shaping them into something utterly unhuman. James roared angrily through his teeth, sounding distant and deadly like thunder during the storm. The moonlight tore through his skin like how heavy raindrops tear though the thickness of London fog on a lazy Sunday morning.
The wind was foreign and chilly, coming all the way from the Thames. It went right through his skin and stuck in his veins, cooling his blood to a disturbing zero. James gave in to a single shudder. A lapse in self-control that he hated himself for. He slowly went down on all fours, bracing himself for more pain that was yet to come. His back was rising and falling steadily as he breathed. Inside he was freezing, outside he was burning, and it was a new kind of sensation; the dark magic of London working, damning him with those contradicting, excruciating feelings.
Finally, he felt an explosion start in his heart and pulsate quickly through his whole body. All of his ice-cold organs shattered like glass inside of him, and new ones — bigger and stronger — were replacing them, showing up in flames and smoke. His skin, soft and human, was peeling off, cell by cell, leaving him raw. Then, as it all came off, a new layer appeared — thick and tight. He was being reborn, and it bloody hurt. Now he knew why newborns cry.
James kept his eyes shut as he felt his body stretch and grow, his limbs shorten, his hands with thin pianist fingers turn into claws. He could no longer feel the sting of the moonlight on his skin, for it was now hidden underneath the smooth spotted fur. As the agonising pain subsided, he opened his eyes, and a roar of satisfaction came through his set of big sharp teeth. It was all over. For now, anyway.
Suddenly, a scream electrified the silence of the evening. James turned his head to the sound, his movements swift and cautious. With his eyes of a predator, he saw her instantly. A young girl of about nineteen, she was standing on a small balcony, staring up at him. He could see her clearly: the pores on her cheeks and nose, the tiny beads of sweat on her forehead, the horror in her eyes. She wore a knee-length shirt that could’ve been orange, or yellow, or purple. He wasn’t sure. He was now color-blind.
James wondered how much she’d seen. Was she merely frightened to see a wild animal on the rooftop of a neighbouring building or did she actually see him turn?
I bet she wouldn’t be screaming if I was a freaking koala bear, he thought, annoyed.
She shouldn’t have screamed. She should’ve hidden somewhere and persuaded herself that she’d imagined the whole thing. But now that he’d seen her, he couldn’t let her ruin his life. He couldn’t let her tell his secret to the world.
The girl started backing away slowly, as if sensing the danger. The human part of James considered letting her leave, but now the leopard was in charge. It was craving for the girl’s flesh. With a snarl, James jumped.
Lada Redley is an aspiring writer, living in London. Her main focus in writing is fantasy, although she’s not a stranger to a bit of realism. Lada has recently finished a full-length novel, and one of her short stories was shortlisted for Solstice Shorts competition.