When I awoke, Alaina was gone.
My bed was empty and cold, and on the chair, only my own winter clothes remained. I gathered them up and dressed myself, my heart feeling like an unbalanced washing machine in the middle of my chest. In my head, over and over, played Emily’s warning: Emma is lost to you, and so is your friend! What happened to her? Guilt twisted in my stomach. I must have caused this, somehow, getting close to her.
I stepped outside, shell shocked by blast of cold and suddenly glare blind. I saw, as my eyes adjusted, a pristine layer of fresh snow. It was broken by a single line of footprints leading from my front door and down the street. They lead toward The CALM Building.
An oppressive sense of foreboding settled over me, and I knew in my heart she found her doom out there beyond that pale blue building as I lay in bed dreaming of my own. I grimaced and followed the tracks in search of answers. The Black Dog was close enough for its barks to echo off the walls of the buildings. I fought a constant urge to look behind me, for fear I might see it in the distance, huge like the God of Wolves.
In the dim light of morning a freezing mist clung to everything, crawling between the layers of my clothing and digging its claws into my flesh. The world felt both hostile and alien. My mind was fried and I couldn’t seem to hold on to a thought for more than a moment.
On Industrial a snowplow trundled along, pushing the snow off the street and salting the ice beneath. Any moment the hard-working people of Breckenridge would be limping their way to work in their pickups and dented old hatchbacks. For now, save the plows, the town still belonged to me and my harbinger.
I saw by the first turn which way the tracks were leading, and my dread magnified. We were heading for that place of recent dreams. This road lead to The Lyndon. I followed it all the same. I had to know.
When at last that rotting old motel came into view, I thought I was hallucinating. Alone in the brilliant glimmer of crystalline snow, the Lyndon seemed to be enveloped in a living darkness. It writhed and surged and blotted out the land.
Oh Christ, I thought, What is this?
I quickened my pace, desperate for answers. As I drew closer I could see a thin, dark figure. It stood motionless before The Lyndon in the middle of the street, looking like grim death.
As I drew closer still, I could see to my surprise that it was Alaina, last night’s makeup in vivid streaks running down her face. She stared, transfixed, at the black mass congregated on the blanketed lawn of the place. She betrayed no sign of having noticed me, even as I bounded through the snow toward her.
“Lainy!” I called, ten steps to her right.
She spun around, hands flying into the air like startled birds and screamed. As if following the lead of her hands, hundreds of crows took flight. The harsh music of their outraged cries, the leathery beat of their countless wings, and the pungent wind their efforts kicked up, momentarily stifled the constant cacophony of The Black Dog. We screamed together in terror, though even that was drowned out until the congregated finally departed.
I embraced Alaina, half in relief and half for fear of collapsing. She held me so tightly I could feel her breath hitch in her chest.
“White boy,” She said, squeezing my shoulders tighter still, “If you ever scare me like that again…”
“Alaina.” I said, looking into her eyes. She looked strangely as though she had just awoken. “What are you doing out here?”
“I thought I was still dreaming,” she said, “I can’t believe this. I haven’t sleepwalked since I was eight. God, I’m glad you’re here.”
“You had a dream?” I asked.
“Yeah,” She said, remembering, “I dreamed I woke up in your bed and I could hear someone crying outside. Like, right outside. I peeked out your window and there was this woman outside wailing, holding her face in her hands, naked as the day she was born. I got dressed and ran out after her, only she was booking it down the sidewalk.”
“So you gave chase?” I said.
“Yeah, I ran after her, I don’t know. I didn’t want her to die out there, but really I just felt like I needed to follow her. Like I saw her for a reason. I don’t know. Dreams are funny like that, you know? They have their own rules, and you just know stuff.”
I nodded, remembering thinking the same thing at some point.
“Anyway,” she went on, “when I finally caught up with her it was here, but I touched her and she collapsed. When I looked down I saw she had become that doll of yours. Emma. She was all in pieces right over-”
For the second time that morning, Alaina and I screamed alone in the bleak Kansas morning. With the gore-crows gone, we could finally see what actually lay half buried in the fresh snowfall.
It was Lucas.
Lucas, my friend, lay dead in the snow with a rictus of terror contorting his eyeless face. His body was in pieces, frozen solid and bloodless. Something had butchered him, severing every joint from neck to ankle and carefully arranged him there for us to find.
I understood at once what I was seeing, and once the terror had faded a deeper horror filled the void. Lucas had become as a doll, unstrung.
The next few hours were spent with the police. I barely remember any of it. I’m sure I wasn’t coherent. I remember how hot it was in the interview room, how good it felt to be in a room heated above sixty degrees. Every moment I ever spent with my friend, Lucas, flashed through my head on an endless, agonizing loop.
Whatever I told them, the police were apparently satisfied that I didn’t kill him or know who might have had a grudge against him. A grudge? That was a sick joke. Lucas might not have been the most stable or responsible person, and he may have had the tendency to get on your nerves after a while, but he would do anything to make you laugh. Lucas did not have an enemy on the planet, so far as I was aware.
Just as he had so recently done for me, he had a way of making you feel better no matter how badly you hurt. He was always like that, as far back as I could remember. He made me laugh my way out of a serious funk the first time he met me. It was the first day of gym class in the seventh grade.
I had just been hit in the face with a basketball. The assailant was an overgrown fourteen-year-old bridge troll named Walter Woodrow. I was sitting on the bench afterward with an ice pack on my face, just absolutely seething over the event. Well, mostly the mockery that followed.
Walter, ever the piece of shit, loomed over me like a reject Easter Island head, said “Nice catch, Larry Turd!” Naturally, everyone apart from myself found that little bon mot to be absolutely hilarious.
I had just run the whole episode through my head for about the tenth time when Lucas sat next to me, playing casual in that easy way he had. We watched as Walter knocked another kid, Chris Wembley, flat on his ass with a body check.
“Have you ever noticed,” Lucas remarked nonchalantly, “that Walter Woodrow’s ass always smells like peanut butter? I heard he’s got this big dog named Lulu, and every night Walter lathers his crack with crunchy peanut butter and makes Lulu lick his asshole clean.”
Lucas paused, an expression of mock sympathy on his face.
“Turns out that’s the only way he can get a boner.”
I crowed laughter, falling back against the bleachers, laughed until my sides ached and my embarrassment was forgotten.
“That’s animal abuse,” I said when I could finally speak.
“That’s not the worst of it,” Lucas said, showing me that Lucas-gleam for the very first time, “His first pet was an anteater, but the poor bastard was allergic! In the end its tongue swelled up so bad, Walter had to get it surgically removed from his large intestine!”
“Oh weeping, creeping Jesus!” I said and collapsed in laughter yet again.
That was Lucas.
Hours after the fact, I relived the experience of finding Lucas when I called Christina and told her what happened, omitting the more supernatural elements of the story for her sake. Christina knew Lucas since they were both in diapers, and loved him as a brother. Unable to put her grief into words, Christina hung up and texted me thirty minutes later, wanting to meet as soon as possible.
Alaina and I had agreed before calling the cops that we would meet back up at Vital Fluids whenever we were released. Perhaps because I knew Lucas and Alaina did not, the police finished with her long before they did me. When I walked in through the jingling door, she was ready with a hot chai latte and a quiet place to sit. Another girl I had never met was sitting behind the counter now, a pleasantly baby-faced brunette girl with multicolored hair. I texted Christina to come over.
Alaina sat knee to knee with me on the couch and took my free hand. I noticed she also had time to wash her face and change clothes. She was wearing a black turtleneck and leggings and sat with the easy grace of a professional model. I noticed these things almost clinically, my mind too frazzled to infer anything about them.
She looked into my eyes and I could see that behind her exterior calm she was as close to breaking down as I was. Somewhere, closer than ever, the Black Dog continued his auditory assault. She winced slightly, almost imperceptibly, on every bark.
“How are you holding up?” Alaina asked me, though surely she could see the same haunted expression on my own face.
“Not well,” I admitted. I looked down at my tea. Steam rose from the foam in wispy plumes, warm and inviting. I still felt cold. “I was barely holding on before all this happened, and now my best friend and the love of my life are dead within a month of one another. My neighbor, too. I think I’m cracking up, but I’m starting to be more afraid that I’m not. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Alaina whispered, and winced. The dog. “I guess I know a bit of what you mean.”
“And now I’m pulling you into this thing,” I said, “Fuck.”
Alaina squeezed my hand, saying, “You didn’t pull me anywhere. I got here all on my own, and I’m not going anywhere. I won’t pretend I’m not terrified, and I won’t pretend I know what any of this means, but if you hold me up I’ll hold you.”
“Can I get in on that?” Christina asked, having just arrived. We nodded and she sat on the couch beside us.
For some time we said nothing, just held one another and thought of absent friends.
It was Christina who finally broke the silence. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, which was bright red and raw from crying. Under her breath and all unknowing, she muttered something terrible.
She said, “I wish someone would stop that goddamn dog from barking.”
As she stared into our shocked faces, bafflement withered into horror. She realized at once what she had said.
“It’s not like that!” She protested, weakly, “I just started hearing it…”
“How long ago, Chris?” I demanded, leaning forward. My skin felt like it was crawling all over my bones.
Christina’s hazel eyes were wide as dinner plates but her normally authoritative voice was very small indeed when she said, “It started when you called me. When you told me Lucas was killed.”
My mind buzzed with (bees in the brain bees in the brain) countless tangled thoughts, all coalescing around a single terrible image: A titanic Black Dog, blacker than the depths of space. It glowered down upon us, upon Breckenridge, with two silver moons for eyes. Its endless, slavering mouth dripped with hideous anticipation. It would swallow us all.
Christina was saying something to me, shaking my shoulder. I returned to Earth and heard her say, “Justin! What is going on here?”
“I don’t know,” I said, weakly. I thought I could almost see the doom around us, like a black aura.
“Tell me what you do know,” Christina demanded, some semblance of her old self returned, “Leave nothing out. You too, Lainy.”
“Yeah, sure,” Alaina said, huskily. It was her first speech for over an hour. She looked to me and said, “You start, Justin. I came in somewhere around the middle, I suspect.”
I nodded and said, “I guess I’ll start from the beginning. I’ve been sort of… leaving things out. I’ve told you both a lot, but you’re right. You’re both in this with me all the way, like it or not. You should know the whole story.”
“Emily had plenty of bad times, and some times were worse than others, but I knew things had taken a dire turn when she started talking about The Black Dog…”
Once I began, something seemed to come over me, and I recounted nearly every moment of the past month with total recall. I told them every dream, every dark thought, every aimless wander, every mysterious incident, and even the details of the visits Christina and Lucas paid me. That segment was agonizing to relive, but I had to get it out all out.
Alaina cut in when I spoke of our first meeting.
“I saw Justin reading my book. It’s a collection of photos of green houses in Breckenridge.” She told Christina. Turning to me, she said, “You just seemed so lonely there. I don’t usually bother customers, but I couldn’t help it. No one else had taken more than a glance at my book before. Your apartment was in the book, remember?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling slightly at the memory, “Mr. Petrov was there, standing in front of the…”
“What?” Christina and Alaina asked in unison. I realized I had frozen mid-sentence.
“Basement. The basement door.” I finished. My mouth was dry and grabbed a glass of water.
(destroy what you find there)
“Oh shit, that’s it.” I said, half to myself. In all that had happened I had nearly forgotten Emily’s final warning, but I thought I understood it now.
To my friends’ inquisitive gaze, I answered, “The last time Emily spoke to me in my dreams she mentioned a basement. She said “Find his basement, destroy what you find there.” I thought she was talking about-”
“The Lyndon!” Alaina exclaimed. “Right?”
“Yeah, exactly,” I told her, “That’s where I found her in my dream. I slipped through the snow and wound up there. She told me something terrible was down there. No, Something Wrong. She said it like that, like it was a proper noun. I think it’s part of this, or maybe this is part of that. I don’t think she was talking about The Lyndon’s basement, though.
“When Alaina mentioned her photo book, I remembered seeing the basement door of my apartment, and thinking about old Mr. Petrov lying to us. He said there was no basement there, but we found the door. He had chained shut and padlocked, but it was there all right, behind the building. I think he’s hiding something down there, maybe whatever is causing this.”
“Let’s go, then,” Christina said, standing. Her eyes were blazing and I knew she was looking to bring the fight to whomever deserved it. “We’ll stop by my place. I’ve got a pair of bolt cutters that’ll chew right through those chains.”
“Right,” I said, rising to my feet. I was still terrified beyond belief, but it felt good to finally do something about it. Alaina rose up beside me and squeezed my shoulder.
“I’m always down for a little breaking and entering,” She agreed, and after that there was nothing left to do but leave the coffee shop and meet our destiny. It was almost five and the sun was already sinking low in the sky.
When night fell, Emily warned, The Black Dog would find me. Alaina had already seen the thing, and I worried more for her than anyone.
Back at my place I led Christina and Alaina inside. We rushed for the door, feeling too exposed in the yard with that damned dog’s booming sonic assault. Our eyes cut to every shadow and obstruction, expecting the beast to make his final lunge for our throats. With the sun still floating above the horizon, we might still be safe. For a few moments, anyway.
I shut and locked the door behind us, and in the ensuing quiet we could all hear the ceiling rat skitter above our heads. Funny, I thought to myself, when was the last time I heard that thing?
“So we get into the basement,” Alaina said, still shaking from our frantic flight for the door, “and then what? Do we have a plan beyond get inside the basement?”
“Sort of,” I admitted, “We’re supposed to destroy whatever we find down there.”
“What?!” Alaina cried, “So we go down there and bust up the hot water heater and that’s going to fix this thing?”
“That’s the idea.” I shrugged.
“But it’s not going to be a hot water heater, will it?” Christina asked, grimacing. She still held the bolt cutters in a white-knuckle grip.
“Probably not,” I admitted, “I didn’t get a lot of details. I think whatever it is, we’ll know it when we see it.”
“And Emily told you all this in a dream?” Alaina asked, dubiously.
“That’s right,” I said, gravely.
“Strange days, indeed.” Alaina said, softly.
“Let’s pop this lock,” Christina said, brandishing the bolt cutters and taking charge once again.
“Yeah,” Alaina and I said together.
I led them out the back door, blasted simultaneously by the frigid wind and the Black Dog’s ominous bark. I scanned my dismal field of view, but thankfully saw no sign of it. The basement door was around the corner of the house in a narrow alley between the house and a neighbor’s fence. Under the weight of the snow it was nothing but a nondescript mound.
“Keep an eye out,” I said, and cleared away the snow with my gloved hands. The padlock, glazed with ice, looked formidable. Perhaps it was, but the chains it held were not. Christina made quick work of them with the bolt cutters, and it wasn’t long before we had the door open wide. We were dumbstruck by what we found below.
The doorway was bricked shut, sealed. Entry would be impossible.
“He sealed it up,” I muttered, “I don’t believe this.”
Christina swore, throwing the bolt cutters to the ground in disgust.
Alaina shrieked. Both of us looked up at her, startled. She was staring down the alleyway behind us.
“Run!” She cried, grabbing at the two of us intent on dragging us both inside, if need be.
I had a split second to glance back before running after her, full tilt.
And I saw it.
Even in the dim winter gloaming I could see The Black Dog was no true dog at all. It was a distorted avatar of the alpha predator. It was a symbol, a totem, an idea made flesh. It was The Harbinger, a colossal, red-eyed, slavering embodiment of the inevitable doom that comes for us all. Even if I couldn’t see it, couldn’t hear it, couldn’t smell its rank breath, The Black Dog was always coming.
I realized, as the terrible image of the thing faded from my brain, that I was collapsed with the others on my living room floor, gasping for air. Outside my curtained windows, the shadow of an omen paced a circuit around my drafty apartment. It howled and growled and snarled, throwing its weight against the walls of the house with thunderous results.
“It’s going to get in here,” Christina said, springing to her feet.
“We’ve got to do something!” Alaina said, “Block the doors!”
“Help me with the fridge,” I said, already heading for the kitchen. I unplugged the machine and together we pushed it against the back door. It was something, at least. The windows in the kitchen were too small for it to pass through, but the living room windows proved a bigger challenge. I flipped my mattress up against them and together we piled every shelf and piece of furniture we could find against it.
The Black Dog threw itself against the house yet again, and the vibration sent some of our fortifications tumbling to the floor. The situation was grim.
“There’s heavy boxes in the Harry Potter closet!” I said, dashing into the bedroom.
I threw the closet door open and began unloading the boxes from within, sliding them across the floor to Alaina and Christina. I could unload faster than they could bolster, and so soon I had the closet cleared out. I could see the back wall for the first time in ages.
Above my head I heard the skitter of the ceiling rat, closer than ever. It thumped against a floorboard and let out a thin squeal, then scampered off into the bowels of the house. I turned back to leave the closet and rejoin my friends, which was when I saw the loose wall panel. A steady draft blew in from behind it, despite the wall in question being an internal one.
“What the hell?” I muttered, and hunkered down to investigate.
A cursory examination revealed the loose panel to be, in fact, a door to an apparent crawlspace. If not for the chaotic warping of the decrepit old house, I might never had noticed it. If not for an apparent careless user, I might never have gotten it open. I could see that this hidden door was meant to be locked tight from the other side.
The draft from within carried upon it a distinct odor of damp and decay, which I immediately associated with basements.
“You guys!” I called, speaking over the cacophony of the snarling beast and of my friend’s efforts to block its ingress, “You better take a look at this!”
Alaina arrived first, leaning over my shoulder and examining my find.
“Oh shit, secret tunnel!” She declared.
“Or a rat run,” Christina added. “We’ve got to go down there, don’t we?”
I nodded, and said, “I’ve got a lantern under the sink.”
The house shook with another massive impact. More of the barricade fell to the floor with a resounding crash.
“Hurry!” Alaina said, already kneeling before the portal and peering into the darkness within. I dashed across the apartment for the kitchen. Panic made a frenetic jumble of my movements, and I stumbled hard into the doorway. My shoulder took the brunt of the damage and I fell to the floor, clutching my shoulder. I threw open the cabinet doors and searched for the lantern.
Outside, desperate to reach us, The Black Dog threw its terrible weight against the house again and again. I could hear wood cracking under the strain. God, where was that lantern?
“Justin!” Christina called from the bedroom, “Are you okay in there?”
“Just a second!” I called, plumbing the darkest depths of the cabinet, behind old paint cans and my meager toolbox. Shoved into the farthest, deepest corner, I found the lantern at last. Scrambling to my feet I spied the butcher knife which so recently had drawn my blood and snagged it. It was a good time to have a weapon.
A splintering crash came from the living room windows, and with it the pile of boxes came tumbling to the floor. It was getting inside! It was already forcing its head through the hole it had created. All around us the house groaned an ill portent. It would get in or tear the house asunder trying.
I didn’t linger to see if it was successful, but dashed back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind me. Knowing nothing would slow the black beast for long, I snapped on the lantern and urged the others into the rat run, for better or worse. That the lantern still worked was a small but welcome relief in the midst of the terror. By the time we closed the latch which held closed the secret door, it was clear that The Black Dog was inside the apartment. By the sound of it, the thing was venting its rage on everything around it. The house groaned again, and shuddered.
“I’ll take that,” Christina said, glancing down at the butcher knife. Perhaps she remembered what happened the last time I wielded it.
I gave Alaina the lantern, mostly so she would take the front of the line. I wanted the both of them in front of me in case that thing caught up.
She said, “Thanks,” and crawled inside. Christina came willingly after her.
Within the rat run, the only way to go was forward, crawling. We had just enough room inside to turn around or wriggle past one another, but not to stand or even sit up straight. Even through the walls the sound of The Black Dog was thunderous. The damned thing meant to find us even if he would so so in the rubble of the destroyed building.
A dreadful image came to me in the midst of my general terror: Tomorrow’s newspaper reporting our death in a freak house collapse, in thirty-six point font. The photo showed wreckage half-buried in snow, with two moons looking down in malevolent glee from the abyssal sky.
CRUNCH! Another wall collapsed.
“That one was close,” Alaina said from the front of the line, pushing the lantern forward as we made our agonizing progress.
“It’s not going to stop, is it?” Christina said in front of me. I could see the blade of the butcher knife flash in the lamplight every time she moved her right arm forward.
“No,” I said, fighting to keep up. Thin as I had gotten, I was still bigger than either of my companions, and couldn’t crawl on my hands without banging my spine on the ceiling of unfinished, splintery wood. “What do you see ahead, Lainy? Is there a way down?”
“No,” She called back, “but I think I see a way up! The ceiling opens up and I think… yeah, there’s a kind of ladder!”
“Keep moving,” I said, “Shout if you see a way-”
We screamed in unison as The Black Dog slammed itself against the wall opposite the tunnel. It snarled and issued another volley of barks, so loud my ears rang.
“Go! GO!” Alaina screamed, scrambling forward.
Christina followed, frantic, and cursed as she dropped the butcher knife, unwilling to slow down to collect it. Just as well, I would have crashed into her. As it was, I snagged the knife and gripped it in my teeth like a commando in a comic book. I needed my hands free to scramble after them.
I was losing ground, quickly. My knees, forearms, and lungs all burned like a coal fire. I barely noticed the splinters I caught, for fear of losing my friends and the light in this claustrophobic nightmare.
“I think…” Alaina said, panting, “I think I see an opening! Few… More…”
A few scant feet ahead of me and just behind Christina’s feet, the tunnel collapsed in a blinding spray of splinters, dust, and daddy long-legs. A massive obsidian muzzle thrust itself into the hole sniffing out its prey. Saliva dripped from its grisly maw, and the stench of its breath was unspeakable.
I began, quite involuntarily, to shimmy back the way I came. Someone was screaming “RUN!” and I realized it was me.
Unable to turn myself around and afforded only the light created by the beast’s destruction, all I could do was wriggle backwards until I found the ladder upstairs. I knew I had no other option for progress.
In the fading light I could still see The Black Dog trying to force itself into the tunnel. As a small mercy, it was far too small but still determined. I knew it would soon tire of this, and renew its path of destruction.
Somehow I managed to reach the ladder, relieved that I didn’t miss it in the darkness. It felt wonderful even in the midst of all the chaos to be standing on my feet. Nevertheless, I was quick to ascend. I thought I heard the dog on the move again.
Directly below me came another shock, one that nearly sent me hurtling to the floor. I heard a snap and the entire house groaned. Distantly, I heard sirens. Blindly, I redoubled my speed up the ladder and soon found myself in the second floor of the rat run.
Sprawled on the wood, I remembered my phone and fished it out of my pocket. With shaking fingers I managed to type in my password with only two failed attempts and turned on the flashlight function.
Inches from my face my old friend the ceiling rat screeched and reared back before fleeing into its own, smaller rat run. I swore through the knife in my teeth, knowing the real threat was still coming for me, and began to shuffle down the narrow crawl space.
The space I bought between myself and my doom brought me small comfort. I felt the absence of my friends keenly, realizing all too late just how heavily I relied on their support. I was alone up there but for vermin and the constant companionship of my terror.
Along the way I found a couple of branching paths in the run ending in similar doors to those I found in my closet. It seemed that Petrov had a way into all our apartments, but why? He must have known about it, as the house was divided into apartments under his stewardship.
I tried to remember our few interactions over the past year. We paid our rent by mail and he usually sent an underling on the rare occasions the lawn was mowed or maintenance was performed. The day he showed us the apartment was the longest time either of us spent in his company. To our knowledge, at least.
I remembered he was late for the showing and appeared distracted. It was snowing then too, a light January flurry. For want of a welcome mat we tracked snow through the entire apartment. He didn’t seem to care either way, only pointed to the various features of the shabby little apartment with unguarded disinterest. That was my impression. I would have turned him down if the rent wasn’t so cheap and we weren’t so desperate to find a place.
Emily’s impression of Petrov was much different, though I didn’t think much of it at the time. Like the asshole I was, I just assumed she was being paranoid and dismissed her claims. She said he made her very uncomfortable. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, and claimed that shaking his hand was like reaching into a pond and shaking hands with a fistful of leeches. She wanted to leave, but I convinced her to sign the papers. Eventually she relented, starting a chain reaction which lead, somehow, to her death.
Another enormous impact rocked the house, followed by another tortured shriek of splintering wood. The floor below me sunk perceptibly, preempting my thoughts with renewed panic. Any moment now the floor could collapse beneath me, sending me into the jaws of the thing. I could hear the constant pound of footfalls and the furious snarling of a predator only temporarily denied its prey.
I hoped Alaina and Christina were okay.
The floor shuddered again, this time without the help of The Black Dog. I pushed forward frantically, my phone’s case cracking under my vice grip. Beams of white light bounced off the walls in front of me, until it suddenly stopped.
I stabbed at the home button, only to find the screen illuminated briefly with an empty battery symbol. Dead. In its absence, however, I found a small hope: A familiar blue glow, just ahead. The lantern?
The sirens were louder now.
At the end of the endless rat run, I found what I was searching for: A ladder, downward. The blue light was coming from below. I descended.
“Chris! Lainy!” I called downward, expecting only silence in return. Such was the weight of doom, leaving little room for hope. In this, however, I was wrong.
“Justin!” They called back in unison.
“Get down here!” Christina added.
At the bottom of the ladder I found my friends in a tiny chamber, no bigger than the Harry Potter closet.
“Justin,” Alaina said, as I reached the floor, “look at this place.”
I did. In the ample light the lantern provided, I found myself in a tiny squatter’s apartment. The furnishings consisted of a bedroll, a milk crate stuffed with moldy books, and an empty cooler. The place reeked of stale smoke, rotting food, body odor, and something faint but thoroughly foul beneath it all.
The walls were papered with photos of Emily. She was nude in several of them, particularly the series taken from inside the shower. Many more were taken with her asleep in bed. He must have crept in and taken them, both of us unaware. He could have killed her or raped her at any time. I felt sick.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” Alaina asked, sympathetically, “Emily.”
“This is his journal,” Christina told me, handing me a slim volume. I leafed through, trying to decipher his wretched handwriting. I saw Emily’s name many times. “We got here just after that fucking thing burst through the wall. Thank Christ it couldn’t reach us, went after you instead.”
“We wanted to wait for you,” Alaina added, “so we stayed here and snooped. Check the last entry.”
I did. What he said, I thought, was the ravings of a lunatic, and a dangerous one as well.
For months I wait and watch and take my photographs.
I want her. She knows this, but she has her foolish boy. For now, she is satisfied to play her game.
For these months she keeps the power. Keeps me to my shadows while she lives in the light. With her boy.
Tonight She loses her power. Tonight it will be mine.
I have found what I needed in grandfather’s books.
The Forbidden Books. They did not find them all in their raids.
The book has the key to the power. I will take it.
Tonight is the night.
Tomorrow I shall have her.
Scrawled below, almost childishly,
“I think he means these books,” Alaina said, gesturing to the milk carton. “They look ancient. I couldn’t bear to touch them.”
“Me either,” Christina admitted, “The covers look greasy, foul. Rotting leather, maybe.”
Another splintering crash reminded us we had no time for such discussions. The Black Dog must have found us again.
“We have to go.” I said.
“Oh! That’s the other thing. Look!” Alaina said, shifting to the side. No one wanted to touch the rancid bedroll, and so we were all huddled in the limited space around it. Alaina’s space concealed a square of wood with a knotted rope handle.
“I think we found the basement,” Christina said, grimly.
I nodded and took the lantern from Alaina. Lifting the trap door, I said, “I’d suggest you stay up here, but-”
Another splintering crash.
“But it’s no safer up here,” Christina finished. “Come on.”
Down we went, into another abyss.
The foulness I detected in the Squatter’s apartment clearly emanated from the ghastly soup standing in the floor of the basement. Floating in the brackish water were dozens of rotting carcasses. I saw the decaying bodies rabbits, cats, mice, and the ceiling rat’s bloated brethren. If I had anything in my stomach I would have heaved it up at once. My empty stomach tossed and turned.
“Oh, my god,” Alaina said, as she joined me there, “That stench!”
“Ugh!” Christina added, “It smells like rancid assholes down here.”
“Come on,” I said, sloshing through the frigid muck.
From above us, another thunderous assault. If it found its way down here, I doubted we could escape it.
The basement walls were slime covered brick and mortar, a winding hallway leading to the opposite end of the house, underneath my own apartment. Though we encountered no shrieking wraiths or shambling horrors, an oppressive and electric atmosphere pervaded the place. I could feel some awful sort of vibration beneath my feet like ancient machinery suddenly springing to life again.
“What are we looking for?” Alaina asked, breaking the silence.
“We’ll know it when we see it,” I answered.
“I hope you’re right,” Christina said, “I keep remembering we’re down here following a dream and I wonder if we’re all crazy for doing this.”
“Didn’t get much of a choice,” Alaina said, sneering at something that floated past her.
“Look,” Christina said, pointing to the next corner, “Dry land.”
She was right. The floor sloped upward ahead as we reached our apparent destination.
“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?” Alaina asked.
From above us The Black Dog continued his assault. I swallowed hard, knowing it would find a way down here soon.
We reached the corner and turned it. There, we indeed found our destination at the end of a final hallway, a door emitting a faint but definite glow around the edges.
Over the fetor I thought I could smell smoke.
“Come on,” I urged, and rushed for the room, afraid that the damned dog managed to start a fire somehow. I suddenly remembered the ancient gas heater in my apartment. It would be a wonder if the dog hadn’t knocked the damn thing over in its fury. It could be spewing flames even now, as we approached the door at the end of the hall.
I tried the handle, and was not surprised to find it locked. From above our heads, a tremendous blast rocked the foundation. Dust rained down around us, stinging our eyes and throats. There was no time to wonder what caused it or how close was the apartment to total destruction. Time was short.
“Stand back, I told them, “I’m going to kick it down.”
Remembering a technique I read somewhere, I delivered a standing kick that caused the door to shudder in its frame. It held.
“Try it again,” Alaina suggested.
I did. And again. And again. The door finally gave on the fifth attempt, for which I was momentarily grateful. It swung open violently, swinging around and slamming on the wall in the next room and affording us a view inside. Collectively our breaths caught in our throats.
Covering the walls, the ceiling, and the floors of the tiny room were countless glowing symbols I could not identify. They all seemed to radiate in concentric circles from a single point in the far corner of the room. There, illuminated by the eldritch glow, was a kneeling corpse. Taking care not to step on any of those strange runes, I approached the body. Somewhere, distantly, another resounding crash. I barely registered the sound.
Energy fairly crackled from the walls, making my hair stand on end. I felt as though I were perilously close to touching a live wire, like a kid in a PSA. The room was small and it took little time to reach the corpse. Unlike the sodden corpses of the doomed wildlife, the human corpse seemed dried and leathery, yet strangely greasy. Just like the books in the squat.
“Who is it?” Asked Alaina from somewhere behind me. I turned back and saw her standing by the entrance with Christina, whose attention was turned the way we came.
I told her, “I think it’s Petrov.”
“Petrovvv, Yesssss…” whispered the corpse.
I turned back, dumbstruck. Petrov’s eyes were open, alive. He looked into my eyes and saw me.
“That goddamn thing is talking!” Alaina said, sounding somehow far away. Christina said something in response I didn’t catch. I felt a hot sensation in the back of my head I could not quite identify.
“You are the boy, yesss?” Petrov asked, with an awful sort of wonder, “My Emily’sss boy”
“She’s not yours,” I whispered, huskily. The hot feeling grew. I realized my fingernails were digging into my palm.
“Nooo…” he said, mournfully, “She is not. Heh, heh, but she is not yoursss either, I think. I thought I could make her mine for always, with my grandfather’s runes but…”
“But you tapped into something big, didn’t you?” Alaina said, standing beside me now. “Something you couldn’t control.”
“The Varcolac.” I whispered.
Petrov did a terrible thing then: He smiled. His skin, drawn tight and desiccated, split from the effort in several places. The wounds bled, but he did not seem to notice. I thought of Emily, of her destroyed face.
“Vârcolac, yes!” Petrov agreed, “That is what I thought when first I dreamed of him, when he taught me how to use Grandfather’s runes. The demon who eats the moon and the sun. But this is not the true name of The Thing that is Coming, the Thing that even now holds me here and saps my spirit.”
I leaned in closer, unable to stop myself. Petrov met my gaze and grinned his ghastly smile.
From behind me, Christina called back to me, saying, “If you’re going to destroy that thing, do it now! I hear something big coming!”
“You’ll know his name when his harbinger takes you, fool!” Petrov cackled, “It’s too late now, I think. He comes!”
A savage growl echoed down the hallway, and an impossible blackness stalked the lesser darkness toward us. The Black Dog was coming.
“Justin you have to do it now!” Alaina screamed.
I realized I still had the butcher knife in my hand. I stared down at it and tried to make sense of things.
This wretched thing, Petrov, brought this trouble on us. His vile, misguided obsession cost Emily her life. Dabbling in things he did not understand, he brought down a doom on all of us. He killed Lucas, he killed my neighbor.
And he was a human being. I would have to take a human life to end this. If I killed him to take my vengeance, what would that make me? Would I be a monster, too?
I looked to my friends, who stood by me through the worst, even when I pulled them into this terrible thing. I looked to them and realized there really was no choice.
With my knife I cut Petrov’s throat, spilling his life’s blood onto the rune scrawled cement floor. There was gratitude in his eyes when he fell, as though a terrible pain finally released him. As he died, the runes faded and disappeared.
“He’s dead now,” I declared, staring down at his filthy, ragged form. “It’s over.”
“No.” Christina said in a tiny voice, “Nothing is over.”
Standing in the hall outside was The Black Dog, growling deep in its throat and tensing to charge.
“Get behind me,” I said, knowing there would be no hope for any of us.
They stood beside me instead, and linked their arms with mine. We would meet our doom together. I felt hot tears streaming down my face as I prepared for the end.
Just then, I perceived a strange and furtive movement from just outside the door. I strained and thought I could see a human form, no more than two feet tall, walking a strange, shambling gait down the darkened hallway toward The Black Dog. It reached the beam of the lantern and turned back to us.
It was Emma, the doll. She tilted her head and waved, just like Emily used to do. The dog padded forward, and she turned back to meet it. They met face to face and regarded one another for a long moment. I held my breath.
Then Emma reached up with one tiny doll hand and touched the great beast’s snout gently, like a caress.
And they both disappeared.
The three of us let out our breath at once and fell to our knees. The spectre of doom which hung over my head since that strange doll appeared mysteriously on my doorstep was gone, lifted away all at once like a heavy blanket whipped off the bed.
“Look!” Alaina said, and I did. Where the corpse of Petrov once lay, nothing remained but dust. The Varcolac took everything from him. I could almost feel sorry for him.
“Let’s find a way out of here,” I said.
We found our exit by following The Black Dog’s trail of destruction. That part, at least, was surprisingly easy. Above ground, the house had suffered a nearly complete collapse. Our dramatic emergence from the underworld, filthy, scarred, and badly used, was met with thunderous applause by the hordes of onlookers. Lights from dozens of emergency vehicles made a discotheque of the neighborhood.
We made the local news. The official story blamed the collapse on a combination of structural weakness, the weight of snow, and the strength of the winter wind. Our other neighbor, unseen in all of this, escaped the collapse before it grew too serious, and he himself called 911. No mention of a dog, black or otherwise, was made by anyone.
Lucas’ death was never fully explained, but my understanding is that the police blamed it on the classic small town scapegoat, an unidentified drifter. Whatever killed him had apparently done so in The Lyndon’s basement, where police found a sizable pool of his blood, before moving his remains to display in the hotel’s meager yard. How the killer did so was another mystery.
All points of entry into the Lyndon were found to be securely locked, no windows sufficiently large enough to admit a full-grown man were found to be broken, and to this day the police have yet to identify a single person of interest in connection to his death. They could not even agree on the path to the exit the killer might have taken. They could find no tracks or blood trail leading from the killing room to the outside.
I still miss him, terribly. He was a true friend, and I’ll never forget how he stood by me during my worst moments. He didn’t deserve to get caught in this web of death and horror, and the fear that I was in some way culpable for his grisly fate weighed heavily on my mind in the days that followed.
I spent a lot of time in therapy after everything that had happened, and I even had myself briefly committed to a mental hospital. I can honestly say, it helped a great deal with the trauma of his and Emily’s death, not to mention that of my neighbor, George. I spoke at great length of my pain, my grief, my guilt and the depression that had for years eaten away at my life. I learned to cope and little by little I got better. I left that strange, haunted town of Breckenridge as soon as I was able, and I hope to never return.
I still keep in touch with Christina and Alaina through video chat. Christina packed up her things and moved back to Texas to stay with family. She says she’s happier there, and I believe her. Alaina went back to school at Breckenridge State, but tells me she’s “keeping an eye on things.”
I still have bad days, usually following the bad nights. On those nights when the moon is full and shining bright I have nightmares of a darkness flowing from below that strange old hotel, The Lyndon. The darkness meets the sky and spreads over everything. Every time, before I wake gasping in my bed, I realize the darkness is comprised of millions of black crows. To my recollection, I have never had another dream of Emily, The Black Dog, or Emma.
A few weeks ago Alaina told me a renovation crew had set up shop in The Lyndon, but I try not to think about it.