The dogs were the first to sense it. Without them, who knows how it would have all turned out? Maybe it would have all been over within a few hours.
Abby froze in place, shoulders hunched up. She started growling. The noise was deep and rumbling. It made her sound like a much larger animal. If you couldn’t see her, you might’ve thought that it was a bear, or some other gigantic and aggressive predator.
Nonetheless, the noise startled Mark. His mind had been wandering, as it often did when he walked Abby after work. He found these walks relaxing – almost meditative – and he frequently found himself falling into a soothing trance as he strolled, dog lead in his hand. And Abby enjoyed the strolls too, of course.
She was a golden retriever. Not a purebred, of course, but you could definitely see that most of her genes came from that variety of dog. Mark was a firm believer in rescuing animals. When he’d looked into getting a puppy, he’d been adamant that he wouldn’t buy one from a breeder. When the local shelter called to let him know that they’d found a box of puppies thoughtlessly discarded behind a dumpster, he knew he’d be leaving the building with one of them.
Mark would have liked to say that he was the one who chose Abby, but in reality, it was her who chose him. He’d walked into the shelter, the potent whiff of animals striking him, the cacophony of barks, cries and calls assaulting him. The volunteer on duty at the time walked him down the halls, canines of all shapes, sizes, personalities and histories looking out at him, eyes large and staring.
“…and these last five are the ones I called you about,” she finished, gesturing to the tiny fluffballs behind criss-crossing wire doors. All but one of them were asleep, lying on their sides, chubby bellies wobbling with each breath, tongues lolling out of mouths. One pup wasn’t asleep, however. The dog sat there, no bigger than the boots on his feet, staring at him through shiny brown eyes. The expression on that face was all too human; the animal was measuring him, sizing him up.
After what felt like an hour, but in reality, was probably only a couple of heartbeats, the dog burst into a grin. Mark knew that was impossible. Dogs couldn’t smile. But nevertheless, she did. Her tongue flopped out of her mouth, and she trotted up to the wire door, as far as she could, shoving her sniffing snout through the gaps. She barked at him once. It wasn’t an aggressive bark by any means, but Mark recognised a command when he heard one, whether spoken by a human tongue or not: Pick me!
That had been three years ago.
It happened on an afternoon in mid-October.
Abby was a lovely puppy, and strangers often stopped him during his afternoon strolls, to ask if they could stroke her. She was always happy to receive affection – from a friend or a stranger. Abby was a truly affable dog, without a bad bone in her body.
Which made it all the more surprising when she started growling, hackles raised. Abbey never growled. At anything. Not even squirrels or birds. She was the most well-behaved dog Mark had ever had the pleasure of meeting. He hadn’t trained her to be such a good dog; it simply seemed to be in her nature. Abby exuded love and kindness. He often thought that the world would be a better place if more humans acted like dogs.
“Abby?” he asked, a trifle surprised. “What is it, girl? Are you okay?” Mark looked around, searching for something that might have thrown his dog from her normal state. They were hiking through the woods, trees on every side. He was following a well-known trail that was popular amongst dog-owners. Over the years, Mark had come to recognise his fellow pet walkers, and was on a first name basis with several.
Fallen leaves lay in a thick blanket across the floor of the forest, a bouquet of autumnal hues. The colours ranged from bright, citrusy yellows, through several shades of burnt orange, into dark, woody browns. Mark loved autumn, and so did Abby. They each enjoyed crunching through the dry leaves, feet swishing through the trees’ spent offerings.
As far as he had been aware, it was a day like any other. He’d come home from work, and she’d been sat at the front door patiently, bushy tail thump-thump-thumping against the floor. He’d dropped his bag inside, grabbed Ab’s lead, clipped it on her, and off they’d gone.
The forest was a forty-minute walk from his home, but he didn’t mind. The weather forecast predicted no rain, and he knew he could do with the exercise. More and more often these days, he found himself looking for excuses to not drive his car. Besides, Abby was always full of energy, and he knew she relished the long walks.
They’d arrived at the carpark at 5:50 p.m. It was mostly empty, with only a couple of vehicles parked there. He didn’t recognise them. He cut diagonally through the carpark and opened the gate to the familiar trail. Squeee! Mark held it open for Abby, who now knew the place like the back of her paw. She raced on through, panting happily, and he followed her – making sure to shut the gate behind him.
They’d walked for twenty or so minutes, crunching through the leaves, smelling the smells of the forest, listening to the love song of nature; birds tweeting, small animals chirping, things rustling in the undergrowth, a gentle breeze softly sighing through the rapidly-thinning canopy of trees.
And then Abby started growling. She froze in place, several steps ahead of Mark, head low, tail perfectly still, shoulders up above her ears. The rolling thunder of her snarl was deep, and Mark could somehow feel its vibration within his chest. The sound scared him.
“Abby? What is it, girl? Are you okay?”
Abby kept on growling; eyes fixed to the treeline. Mark tried to follow her line of sight, but could only make out trees, fallen leaves, and shrubbery. Nothing moved.
And that was when Mark felt the unsettling sensation that there was something in the trees. Something watching him.
He felt gooseflesh prickle up all over his body, from the backs of his arms to the nape of his neck, and his stomach dropped, as if he were on a rollercoaster.
Abby maintained her rumble; low and steady, like the motor of a car.
Mark slowly became aware of something else, too; the noises had stopped. The melodic singsong of the forest had been silenced. There were no birds calling. Nothing chirped or tweeting. Nothing rustled the underbrush or skittered through the husky leaves. The wind itself seemed to have died in the air, mid-gust.
It felt as if the entire forest was holding its breath, afraid to make a noise. Hiding.
“Hello?” Mark called out, in the silence. He cringed at the way his voice sounded, in the stillness of the trees. “Is anyone there?”
Ssssshhhhhhhh, a wind began snaking its way through the trees, scattering the orange leaves in its wake.
“Only…” Mark wet his lips; mouth suddenly dry. “Only you’re scaring my dog.”
Ssssshhhhhhhh, the wind was picking up its pace, gaining speed.
“Is there anybody there? Please, I don’t like pranks. Neither does Abby – my dog.”
SSSSHHHHHH, it was racing towards him now, and Abby had switched from a growl to a whine. The sound terrified him. He suddenly felt cold all over, every hair on his body standing on end.
Then Abby turned to face him, and Mark saw she was petrified. Her eyes were wide, and the whites were oh so white. The look in those eyes was a look that each and every one of us knows; the look of pure fear.
The realisation that Abby was seeing something behind him froze him to the bone.
Mark sat in the basement, cuddling his dog. Above his head, he could hear their movements in the streets outside. Intermittently, shadows passed through the translucent slits of windows at the far reaches of the basement walls.
He wondered how long it’d take for them to get into the house. Not very long, he guessed. He could tell whenever they were getting close, because Abby would start that deep, rumbling growl. The sound frightened him and comforted him. The fact that his loveable, goofy golden retriever would get so aggressive meant that there were some bad cookies up there. She would protect him, he knew. Abby would protect him to the very last, putting her life before his. Always. Always. This understanding simultaneously filled his simple human heart with love and broke it in two. There is no love as unconditional as a dog’s, he thought.
And so, Mark sat there in the darkness, holding his dog. Stroking her fur, whispering to her gently, in a calming voice. Abby sat in between his crossed legs, gladly accepting the affection – but she did not lie down. She did not sleep. Even as he patted her and told her she was a good dog, the best dog, yes she was, yes she was, he could sense that she was on edge. Waiting. Guarding.
On the cellar floor next to him was a notepad and a Biro. He scribbled on the page.
WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE THIS?
The image of what he saw in the forest was burned into his retinas. He couldn’t stop shaking. What did we do? Mark asked himself. What did we do? What did we do? Still the scene played before him, eyes open or closed, over and over and over—
And then he wrote some more.
WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE DOGS?
Abby had saved him. Even though she was deathly scared, she had saved him. Hadn’t even hesitated. She just leapt into action, throwing her body in harm’s way. Where would he be without her? How would it have played out, if he didn’t have Abby by his side? She was his best friend. His partner in crime. His sidekick. His shadow – always at his heel.
Mark squeezed her gently, and pressed his face into her fur, smelling her familiar scent. He buried his head into the softness of her side. Quietly, he began to cry, the vision of the forest playing behind his closed eyelids.
Someone was standing behind him. Mark could just now sense it; a dark silhouette at the periphery of his vision, noticeable when looked out the corner of his eyes.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”
He recognised the voice, although it sounded off. Tinny, almost. As if it had been recorded through one of those old all-in-one CD players and was being played back.
Slowly, heart WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMPING within the confines of its cage, blood throbbing loudly in his head, Mark turned around. He could barely muster a breath; his lungs felt paralysed. The air in his mouth felt hot and stale.
It was Jacob.
He was stood in the middle of the trail behind Mark. His head was down, chin resting against his chest… twitching. The rest of him was perfectly still – shoulders slumped, arms dangling at his sides.
“Jesus, Jacob, you scared me!” Mark said, and then chuckled. Even to his own ears, the laugh sounded flimsy and hollow.
Jacob snorted. Snorted like a child pretending to snore. And then he repeated the same line. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!” His intonation and phrasing were exactly the same as the first time he’d said it.
Mark was distantly aware that Abby’s whine was slowly increasing in volume and pitch. He knew that something wasn’t right here. Somewhere, something was dripping.
Mark couldn’t see Jacob’s dog – Hunter – anywhere. Hunter was a very enthusiastic German shepherd, whom he and Abby got along well with.
“Jacob, where’s Hunter? Where’s your dog?”
As he spoke, Mark noticed how Jacob’s twitching head paused, ear cocked to the side, as if listening intently. It looked like the man was grinning. And then he made several clicks with his tongue, against the roof of his mouth. Clock! Clock-clock-clock-clock-clock! Jacob rotated his head as he did so – ending with his opposite ear cocked. The ticking sounds he made with his mouth sounded like someone knocking on wood. And then he started twitching again.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark! Mark! Mark! MARK! MARK! MARK!” His voice began increasing in volume, the tone slowly altering.
Abby’s whine had now reached fever pitch, and the dog was shuffling uncomfortably in the leaves, head jerking around, eyes stretched wide and white.
“MARK! MARK! MARK! MARK!” Jacob was almost screaming now.
Mark noticed that Jacob was still holding Hunter’s blue leash. The end of the material was stained a deep crimson. And now Mark finally glanced at Jacob’s hands. They were painted with blood, fresh and bright against his pale complexion. And now they were clenching and unclenching steadily. Droplets of crimson fell from his fingers.
“MARK! MARK! MARK! MARK!” Mark didn’t know how he wasn’t blowing his voice box at this volume, and—
Dear God, thought Mark, stupidly. Jacob was slowly raising his head. The man was grinning madly. He had ripped his own eyes out. Deep claw marks stretched from his forehead down to his cheeks, his eye sockets filled with little more than shredded jelly.
He returned to his previous line, but a volume ten times that of what it had been: “HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY, MARK, MARK, MARK, MARK!” Jacob’s grin was impossibly wide, and now Mark see that his teeth were bloody too, and—
Jacob broke into a run, heading straight for Mark. He was too stunned to do anything. Even if he hadn’t been, it all happened too quickly for him too react. One second Jacob was stood there, twitching and chanting, the next second he was in a full-blown sprint.
“I—” said Mark.
And then Abby’s whine turned into a bark. A rough, ferocious volley that bellowed from the dog.
She flung herself at the approaching man, leaping from the ground. The dog lead was ripped from his hands – he hadn’t anticipated it, and his grip had been loose.
“Abby, no!” he shouted, out of reflex more than anything.
Abby collided with Jacob, a sawing snarl ripping from her mouth. Looking back on it, Mark realised that she had started moving before Jacob had begun his charge.
The pair fell to the floor, dog on top of man. There was a flurry of movement, leaves being scattered in every direction. Abby was almost roaring, the noise emitted by her was utterly vicious. Jacob was chuckling; the sound was tinny, and almost distant.
Mark scrambled to the floor, grasping for Abby’s leash. He didn’t care about Jacob anymore – he didn’t know what was wrong with him, but it frightened him, and he didn’t care. Mark only feared for his dog. What would a man that would scratch his own eyes out do to an attacking animal? And where was Hunter?
He found it on the ground, rattling and snaking through the leaves and dirt as Abby fought the madman. Mark reached for it and missed. He grasped again and it slithered away as Abby twisted around, front paws pinning the man’s torso to the ground. Mark threw himself at it, catching it and dropping his entire weight onto the leash.
Slowly, he began to pull. Abby resisted – with everything she had. She was barking and growling, teeth bared and bloody. But Mark was stronger, slowly, like the tug of war they used to play when she was a puppy, he pulled her across the ground. She made a whimpering, gasping noise along with her snarls, as she struggled for air against her tightened collar, but still Mark pulled.
“Come on, Ab! Let’s go!”
At the sound of his voice, the golden retriever turned. She looked him in the eye and whined, and threw a glance back at Jacob, who was moving again.
“Quickly,” Mark hissed at his dog. He scrambled to his feet and wrapped the lead several times around his hand, so that Abby was closer.
Jacob was still chuckling, although the noise had a liquid gurgling texture to it.
Mark gauged the distance between Jacob and the edge of the path and decided there was just enough space. He ran for it, tugging at Abby’s lead.
Jacob sat bolt upright. The movement was unnatural. Mark wouldn’t be able to put his finger on what was so off until much later; he didn’t use his hands to push up against the ground. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!” he said, grinning blindly. He reached for them as they ran past and almost caught them – fingers brushing the side of Mark’s trouser leg – but then they were gone, out of grabbing distance.
Mark ran with his dog, completely and utterly sprinting. He hadn’t run that way since he was a kid – arms flailing, feet stumbling over the ground, lungs burning for air.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey,” said a voice in the distance behind him, “Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”
It was getting dark, now, and Mark was growing cold, sat on the concrete floor of the basement.
Taking Abby with him, he snuck upstairs, avoiding the windows, to grab a blanket.
In his bedroom, his mobile phone showed he had hundreds missed calls and unread messages. The most recent one was from his mum.
Mark R U OK
Lucky went CRAZY in the park. Dragged me home. Now all these ppl banging on the door.
Hope UR safe, love Mum x
As Mark and Abby crept back downstairs, the letterbox rattled as someone pried it open with their fingers.
A whispering voice snaked through: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark.”
18th October 2019
Shortlisted for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest #161 — Armchair Detectives