Rhys rolled himself up as tightly as he could in the threadbare covering that was more rag than blanket. The alley was cold and damp, but at least the tall buildings on either side shielded him from the worst of the driving rain and gusty wind. Again and yet again he cursed himself for trading in his sleeping bag for a cheap fix that afternoon. He might have known it. Cheap meant cut with something else than totally robbed the drug of its usual euphoric warmth, leaving only a splitting headache and a queasy stomach.

In his late teens Rhys had run from the North, from the harsh hands of a drunkard father and the harsh rejection of a school system that had failed him. London had seemed like his glowing beacon on the horizon. Yet slowly he had slipped through the cracks of the social system that was meant to catch the likes of him. He sank to the very bottom, to the dregs of life that inhabited alleys like these. Alleys so grimy that even the graffiti couldn’t survive a season, where piles of rubble and rubbish co-existed with heaps of humanity, almost indistinguishable from each other. The alleys formed bizarrely stable mini-communities, each with its regulars of drunks and junkies, each with its own breed of dark backgrounds, gritty humour and grittier language and each with its own collection of urban legends. In this alley, it was The Tale of the Ice Dog, a dog-like creature, with semi-transparent jagged fur that looked like ice, that emerged in the dark of night and left a tingling cold in everyone whom it passed.

“Don’t look at, it, stay down, stay still. It’s out looking for flesh, human flesh. That cold is what comes from the other side of hell, where even the fire can’t reach you.”

Those were the murmurs Rhys had heard when he had first come to the alley. The dreams of drink and drugs, he had told himself. But the biting cold of the night made Rhys think of that dog. He felt as though he, too, was certainly beyond the reaches of hell itself.

Sometime in the darkest hour of the night, with only the slightest shaft of light from the streetlamp at the entrance of the alley, he awoke out of one of those lurid nightmares that a bad trip left in its wake. The light in the alley grew a little brighter and Rhys squinted in its direction. Odd, he thought. The light came from the deepest, darkest end of the alley. It had a kind of cold whiteness to it, and from it flowed an even deeper cold that bit through to his bones. Slowly he turned to see what it was. A dog. And yet no normal dog. The Ice Dog. Curiousity drove the dire warnings out of Rhys’s head and he lifted himself up on one elbow. The glowing figure drew back, its icy tail tucked between even icier legs.

“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.” Rhys had no idea why those absurd words seeped quietly from his lips. Yet the effect fascinated him. This creature of rumoured horror lowered its body onto its haunches and crept a hesitant yard or two in his direction.

“Come on then.” Again the words came seemingly without volition. Rhys was torn between wonder and witless fear.

He stretched out a shaky hand towards the dog. It crept close enough to lick the outstretched hand. The dog’s breath formed  small icicles on it. Rhys looked at them with an other-worldly detachment. At their first contact the small stabs of ice bit deep into his hand. Yet Rhys did not flinch, his ability to move frozen within him. As he watched, the tips of the icicles slowly lit with a yellow glow and the melting liquid from them flowed around his hand like a glove. As it did, his hand grew slowly warmer.

The dog crept closer and closer, until it was almost beside Rhys, just within his reach. He stretched out his hand a little further and ran it slowly down the dog’s back. Up close there was nothing frightening about this creature. Its eyes lost their icy glaze and turned a deep dark blue. Rhys saw himself mirrored in those eyes. They reflected back at him a deep hunger for the smallest touch of recognition of him as something more … something more than the nothingness inside him. In those eyes he saw his own longing for the tiniest sense of connection with another living being.

“Come here,” he whispered. “You’re so cold. Come lie by me.” What a stupid damn thing to say to an ice dog, rang the response in his mind.

But the dog did come. It slunk right up to Rhys, lowered its head onto Rhys’s shoulder and stretched out its body against his own. Everywhere the creature made contact with Rhys that same golden glow suffused the iciness of its fur and the same warm liquid flowed from it, over and though Rhys. With the physical warmth came, also, a different kind of warmth. It was … it was… Rhys’s minds scrabbled for words. The closest he could come to describing it to himself was the warmth of companionship. For the first time in … ever … Rhys felt the touch of another heart, reaching from that of the dog to his own. To the shrivelled heart in whose existence Rhys had long since stopped believing. The touch of that glowing dog heart transformed something in him. He felt his chest warm and expand, and watched transfixed as a hazy golden cloud filled the narrow gap between him and the dog. It was the haze of a reciprocal warmth from him to the dog, from his heart to the dog’s, and back again.

So they lay for the rest of night, the thawed heart of the ice dog and the newly awakened heart of what had become a near-ice man, wrapped in each other as though they had become one being.

In the grey pre-dawn light, the dog stood and stretched. The golden haze faded and the icy jagged fur re-formed. Yet the warmth in Rhys’s heart did not freeze and as he stared at the dog, he saw the tiniest hint of a yellow glow remain in that icy breast. The dog bent down and licked Rhys’s forehead. With the touch of its tongue, a sense of words not spoken and yet exchanged formed in Rhys’s head.

“I’ll be back. Be here and I will come to you. We are no longer alone.”

With that, the dog turned and disappeared into the dank fog of the pre-dawn alley. In that grimy forgotten slice in the fabric of humanity, with a being that defied the description of mere humanity, Rhys knew he had finally found home.

(Image from Pixabay)