I heard it the moment I woke up that morning, shaking in my frigid apartment. It sounded blocks away, but I could still hear it clearly. Barking.
It was that constant, urgent, furious bark that aggressively territorial dogs have when an interloper wanders into their domain. It boomed and echoed in the still, crystalline air, and I knew at once that I was doomed.
My eyes had scarcely come into focus when I received my second shock. Emma sat on the edge of the bed, her casing of bubble wrap and tape in tatters on the floor at her feet. Her elbows rested on her knees, and her hands scrubbing at her face.
My stomach lurched and I dashed into the bathroom, heaving hot bile into the toilet bowl. My guts cramped and roiled inside me, a misery. Next, dry heaves. When my stomach finally stilled, I leaned over the faucet, turned on the water, and tried to rinse my mouth out. Somehow, the routine of the rinse transitioning to brushing my teeth soothed me, somewhat. It was normal.
My reality had begun to blend dangerously with my dreams. I wondered, not for the first time if I was cracking up. I regarded my haggard, gaunt reflection and hardly recognized myself. I thought, randomly, of the double Abraham Lincoln had famously claimed to see before his assassination. He said he knew it was no reflection since it was so much thinner and paler than he was himself. Now I wonder, maybe he didn’t know how pale and thin he had become.
Over tea and plain toast, I decided I must have unwrapped the doll myself. It was the lack of sleep, my brain was malfunctioning. Forgetting things. Cracking up. I needed to eat again, to sleep again. If I was going to keep living, I had to start committing to the idea. I wondered if it was another sign of healing to be considering such matters again, but I couldn’t believe it.
Because of the dog. I could try to distract myself and go through the motions, but it wasn’t going away. It wasn’t going to slow. That wretched animal, alive or phantasmal, had been barking constantly.
I finished my toast and found that it did little to put my hunger to bed, but it settled in my stomach well enough. I decided I would go and buy some food, something nourishing and something that would stretch. I needed real food, not just ramen noodles and canned pasta. I would have to go to a grocery store.
After my meager breakfast, I showered and shaved, put on fresh clothes. I regarded myself in the mirror again and found that I still looked haggard and gaunt, but presentable for the outside world. It would have to do.
Having no desire to excavate my car and harboring severe doubts as to its working order, I instead begged a ride from Lucas and Christina on our group chat. They both responded immediately, which surprised me, though in reflection I understood. I had not sent a message to either of them unprompted in weeks.
Christina had obviously been awakened by my text, and her response was muzzy and full of spelling errors, but she enthusiastically agreed to take me. Lucas, who was already at work, took up the thread. He promised to pick me up as soon as he got off and Christina was somewhat more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
In the silence that prevailed, my mind turned to the dog again. Despite its constancy, urgency, I found that I could almost convince myself that it was real. I thought of that miserable caged dog, freezing to death in the snow. Though I was filled with fresh sorrow for the animal, I could not fear it in its desperation. A dog barking endless entreaties into the sky was only acting against the neuroses brought on by its abuse. A dog that would bite is one who had been hurt, more than once.
That terror could be replaced by grief was cold comfort, indeed.
As I began to wonder if the dog sounded any closer, I realized I needed something to drown it out while I waited on my friends to arrive and deliver me. If I sat there all day, fraught with emotion and hunched against the chill, I would be in no state to go anywhere.
I needed sound, and I needed something to do with my hands. I looked about my apartment and found that its squalid state still disgusted me, despite the efforts Lucas had made in his blood horror. I connected my phone to the speaker and thumbed through my music catalog, looking for something energetic and upbeat to carry me through the activity. I shrugged and put on the classic rock playlist. Classic rock was always feel-good music for me.
As Emma was still perched on the edge of my mattress, I started my efforts by the bed. Rather than try to pack her away, which had begun to feel like a mistake somehow, I simply set her aside. I picked up the trash which had drifted up against my bed frame and collected the clutter in a pile so I could sort it away later, all at once.
I made the bed next, and laid the doll against the pillow as though it was a boudoir doll. I decided if I simply dressed it, it might not look so disturbing to me. I still had storage bins stuffed with doll clothes. I made a note of the idea and moved on with the cleaning. I had to keep myself focused while cleaning, I always found appealing side projects when I took the time to examine all my things again.
In no time at all, really, I found the floor and the surfaces of the living area again. It had begun to both look and smell like the home of a civilized person. This was a huge upgrade from the home of a wretched squatter. I moved on to the kitchen with aplomb, scrubbing the dishes, the countertops, and the floor all in turn. Meanwhile, Robert Plant, Jim Morrison, and John Fogerty sang about love, roadhouses, and the swamp to wailing guitars and a rhythm and blues beat.
With the state of the kitchen downgraded from critical health hazard to average Waffle Stop cleanliness level, I decided to move my attention to the bathroom, beginning with a careful inventory of my cleaning supplies. I couldn’t accurately remember the last time I had bought a bottle of toilet bowl cleaner or tile cleaner. Peter Frampton was coming alive and I found I had enough of both solutions to do the job.
Another hour passed and I stood up, dizzy from both the fumes and the exertions and found I was famished and fatigued, but feeling some measure of peace. Satisfied, I grabbed my guitar and sat at my chair, playing along with the music as best I could. Lucas and Christina would arrive soon and I smiled, knowing they would be pleased by my efforts.
As The Stones turned to Jefferson Airplane, and Airplane turned to The Animals, I began to sense a sort of strange energy in the room. My eyes darted to the bed where Emma lay, almost automatically. She was staring back at me and I wondered if her pose was quite as I left it that morning. I couldn’t decide and dismissed the notion. Though I missed a note or two, I kept on playing accompaniment to the spacey Moog synthesizer melody.
The strange energy grew. I realized I could feel it, under my feet. It wasn’t just an energy, it was a vibration. From the speaker? I thought not. The feeling disturbed me, and my playing faltered, stopped dead in my fingers. Something was happening.
Then, a pregnant moment. Everything was still, but for the thrumming vibration. It built in intensity and pitch, much like the end of that Pink Floyd song, Welcome to the Machine
Then chaos! My bedroom and bathroom doors slammed shut and open, over and over again, growing in speed and urgency. I jumped to my feet and panic dumped chemicals into my bloodstream, telling me I should flee. To where? With one final slam, three books on three separate shelves flew from the bookcase and thumped against the opposite wall, mere feet from my head. A breaker blew and the speaker blinked out, silenced.
Another pregnant moment passed as I stood panting and shaking in the middle of the living room, waiting for whatever might come next. That thing was the wail of sirens. An ambulance, two police cruisers, and a firetruck all zoomed past my window, lights casting particolored light over the reflective snow.
Though that sick vibration and the energy it brought had faded with the sirens and soon the power kicked back on, I feared the portent it brought. I couldn’t help but wonder and dreaded to know whose emergency required their response. The sound of that damned dog’s incessant barking did little to assuage my fears.
I only found a measure of relief half an hour later, when Lucas and Christina arrived at my doorstep. I felt slightly foolish, to indulge myself in nebulous fears of imagined omens and portents.
“We’ll take you to a supermarket,” Lucas crooned after the greetings were made, “I don’t know why but I have to start it somewhere. So lets start it there!”
“Start what?” I said, baffled.
“Don’t listen to him,” Christina told me, “He’s been butchering that song the whole way here.”
“Butchering?” he protested, then belted off-key, “I’ll have you know I have peerrrrfeeect piiiiiitch!”
“God,” Christina sighed as I laughed, “Grab your arctic gear, Justin, let’s get going so I can drown him out with real music.”
“Just a minute,” I explained, heading for the closet. “I was just, uh, doing some light cleaning.”
“You’re not kidding,” Christina said, looking around. Lucas whistled, impressed.
“Yeah, you could just about live here,” he agreed, “If it wasn’t so goddamn cold. How do you live like this, Jussie?”
“One day at a time,” I replied, wrapping my scarf around my head and securing my beanie. As I slipped my gloves on we turned for the door.
Lucas took notice of Emma on the bed and muttered, “That doll gives me the creeps.”
“Me too,” I agreed, and pulled the door closed behind us. That time I was certain it had moved. It was sitting on the bed, facing us. The expression on the pristine right side of its face seemed to be one of bemusement. Of course, I said nothing to Lucas and Christine, nor did I mention the persistent barking of the dog. I was terrified by the idea that only I could hear it.
I worked at one of the three grocery stores in Breckenridge and most of my coworkers did their own shopping at the Dylan’s across town. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to risk running into them. This made my safest bet also the closest, although I didn’t normally deign to shop at the dirty little market.
Once the store’s rooftop marquee boasted the offer of a GROCERY-DELI-BAKERY all under one roof, but over the years the big letters kept falling down and never got replaced. Thus the market, which was actually called Hooper’s Thriftway, came to be known as the GROCE DELI-AKE. Not much of a joke, but it was close enough to Gross Belly Ache to stick. It may be a somewhat related fact that no one “in the know” would dare eat any of the deli’s dubious fried chicken.
Lucas never got the memo, I guess. As soon as we entered and the rank odor of chicken parts frying in scummy old oil hit his nose, he loudly announced “Walkin’ chicken!” and made a beeline for the counter. Christina made a face like she just smelled a fart, but did nothing in word or deed to stop him.
“He’s got to make his own mistakes in this life,” I declared.
“It’s the only way he’ll learn,” Christina agreed. “Let’s get you some oranges. I’m not joking when I say I’m worried you’re going to get scurvy.”
“Oranges?!” I protested, half-joking, “Slow down, Rockefeller!”
“Oh would you relax?” Christina said, “Me and Lucas have got this. You understand me, Cooley?”
“Yeah!” Lucas crowed, mouth full of popcorn chicken, “Your money is no good here! Listen, when my aunt, uh, died, everybody, she ever met came over with a casserole for my Uncle Herb. He wound up buying one of those little freezers to keep them all. Food for the grieving, that’s our way. Gopher, Everett?”
I pushed away his proffered cup of fried mystery meat and said, “I would believe that is gopher meat before I would hazard to guess chicken. Besides, the last time that grease was changed, it was by a young Joe Biden working his first summer job.”
“Really?” Lucas gasped.
“Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes, “and his supervisor grew up to be Mr. Burns. Fuck.”
Christina was ignoring the both of us and was grabbing produce seemingly at random. I opened my mouth to issue another foolish protest and she forbade me with a glance. How does she do that?
“Don’t give me that look, you’re going to eat this kale. You look like a prisoner of war. Then dry goods, frozen, dairy, meat. At least this crap is cheap. Have you ever heard of this brand? Eater’s Choice? That’s a terrible name.”
And so we moved up and down the aisles, filling the cart slowly but surely. I bantered along with my friends summoning an energy that seemed to come with simply crawling out of the hole of my grief and rejoining society. Rejoining in some small way, anyway.
It wasn’t easy though. Because of the barking.
Even over the muzak and the banter, I could hear it. I pushed it away, tried to ignore it, but it was always there. Constant. Urgent. Violent. Panic clawed at the back of my mind with thin sharp fingers. Was it closer?
I realized Christina was saying something to me and I snapped back into reality.
“What?” I said, blankly.
“I said ‘what about toilet paper?’ You set on shit tickets?” Christina asked. Her tone was lighthearted but I could see the concern in her eyes.
“Yeah,” I said. “No. I think I’m on the last roll, actually. Good thinking.”
“Cool,” She said, back to business. “Let’s skedaddle then. I think this’ll hold you for a while. I have about enough time for us to cook up some dinner before I have to head to work.”
Following Christina’s lead, as ever, we paid and made our way back to my apartment. A harsh wind was kicking up powdery snow and the cold was a violent shock from the relative warmth of the Groce Deli Ake. We pulled up our scarves and dashed for Christina’s hatchback. Before I knew it, we were back at my apartment.
Christina, in her wisdom, boiled up a massive pot of spaghetti while I prepared a green salad. Lucas rifled through my bookshelf and played deejay. He was all thumbs in the kitchen, and my kitchen was far too small for three at any rate. He agreed to wash the dishes after we ate and before he left for other business.
Over dinner we laughed over old times and sung along with mouths full of red sauce to our favorite old jams. It was a good time, it really was. Over the loud music and with all the distractions, I was finally able to tune out that damned dog and forget my fears. For a little while.
Lucas scrubbed the dishes, as promised, and made his goodbyes. In the classic mid-west fashion, he lingered in the doorway with his coat half-on for nearly twenty minutes, talking of this and that and anything to keep the moment alive. A text message to his phone finally halted his dawdling and he said one final goodbye with a hand clapped to my shoulder. He turned and headed out the door, waving a mitten-clad hand behind him. Out on the curb a smiling girl with curly black hair waited for him in a blue 2-door coupe. The dog barked on and on.
I noticed, before shutting the door, that a large black bird had perched on the power lines across the street. Funny, I thought to myself before forgetting about it entirely, a crow at this time of year.
“What do you want to do now?” Christina asked, whisking the thought away. I turned back to her and closed the door.
“Just keep talking,” I shrugged, “Unless you have somewhere more important to be.
“Got about an hour before I should make my way to The Theatre,” She shrugged back, “My schedule’s open until then. Tea?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll get it. Chai okay?”
“It’ll do,” she allowed. “Need any help?”
“Nah,” I said, already in the kitchen rooting around for the kettle. I didn’t use it very often on my own, and it was always stored in the last cabinet I guessed. “Ah! Just got to put this kettle on. I can manage.”
While I filled the kettle with water and started the burner, Christina sat quietly on my bed, texting I assumed.
After a moment, just as I was turning back to the living room, she said, “Lucas was right.”
“Said no one ever,” I finished.
“About the doll, I mean,” she said, “There’s just something about it I don’t like.”
“Well that face-” I started.
“It’s awful, yeah,” She said, her eyes darting from the doll’s to mine. “But that’s not it. Not really. It’s like it… feels bad to look at it. Do you know what I mean?”
I nodded but said nothing. I had a lump in my throat. She reached out as if to take the doll from its place beside her on the bed, but pulled back at the last moment before she could touch it.
“It sounds crazy when I say it out loud,” she added, sheepishly, “I don’t even know what it is I’m trying to say. I just look at it and my head hurts. It’s like…”
“It’s like looking at a magic eye,” I croaked at last. She was on the verge of understanding something I was too close to. Like a magic eye, it clicked. “It’s like when you see the 3-D picture of the unicorn or the giraffes or whatever, and you can’t make it go away by blinking or glancing away.”
“Yes!” She said, pointing at me, her face alight. “That’s exactly it!”
“It’s not, though,” I said, “It’s real. I’ve touched it.”
I picked up the doll, carefully with both hands. My intent was to dispel the discomfort this line of conversation had generated. The idea that it might not be real was far too disturbing, considering the things I had seen since it arrived days ago. My intent did not negate the wave of repulsion that washed over me as I touched the wretched thing, but I was comforted to confirm its physical presence. I held the doll out to her to touch.
“Feel it,” I said, “it’s there.”
Tentatively she stretched her hand out to touch the doll’s disfigured face. There was a strange atmosphere in the room, a gravid moment. I could not credit the source. Seemingly an age later, her fingertips brushed the doll’s forehead.
An ear-splitting scream cut through the silence, and Christina jumped back as though she had touched a hot stove.
“The tea!” I cried, laughing with relief.
“Oh, you bastard,” Christina laughed, gasping for air at the edge of my bed. I set the doll back down on the comforter and turned back to the kitchen.
“I’ve never seen a human being jump that high,” I told her, still holding back laughter.
“Oh bullshit!” Christina protested, “You jumped out of your damned skin, Jus!”
The mood had brightened again, and while Christina and I chatted away the final few minutes before work, I forgot all about the strange times. Was it all really nothing more than weird dreams and a lot of paranoia? Things felt so normal when my friends were with me.
By the time we had finished our tea and found a break in the conversation, we found that it was time for Christina to leave. She sighed and I gathered the cups and saucers as she gathered her things. Before leaving she embraced me, tightly. She was nearly lost under protective layers of warm clothing, but it was a great comfort to have that human contact. I could feel my breath grow ragged in my throat. She held me tighter.
Finally, she released me, smiling. Her eyes were shining as she pulled away.
“Justin,” She said, turning back over her shoulder, “any time you need us, you better call, okay?”
I nodded, unable to speak, as she turned and left. The silence that prevailed in the apartment was unbearable. For perhaps an hour I paced back and forth with more comforting music playing but unable to settle upon an activity. Even my guitar could not banish the unsettling feeling of emptiness. And nothing could fully drown out the sound of the dog’s endless, hateful report.
I was positive it was closer than it was when I woke that morning. Throughout the day I could sometimes tune it out, with so much happening, but now it was utterly impossible. Even with headphones muting all unwanted sound, somehow beyond hearing, I could feel it continue.
Free from distractions, it was equally impossible to drown out thoughts of Emily, and her terrible ending. It was impossible not to consider the ramifications the barking dog represented. For Emily, The Black Dog was a terrible herald of a far worse doom. Too easily did I attribute the fear she gave a name with an illness to which she could not cope. With which I could not help her cope. She took her life when she realized she could not run or hide from her Black Dog.
What could I make of what was happening to me now? I could not catch her illness, but I caught her symptom. Could the barking just be a hallucination? Could this all have been hallucination? I must have been under some terrible strain, and it wasn’t it possible I was cracking beneath the weight?
I realized then that I was standing in the middle of the living room with my hands grasping my hair, spiraling with dark thoughts. To snap myself from this funk I stepped into the bathroom and splashed water in my face. I stared up at myself in the mirror. I felt like I was looking at a sane person. My eyes looked rational. I was strained but stable. I hoped.
Finally, I decided I just didn’t want to be alone. All I could think to do was to follow Christina’s footsteps to The Theatre and pass the endless evening there, where the people were animated and did not come to you in dreams with sinister warnings. If Christina was sick of being my crying shoulder, I’d take a booth and give her some space.
Before stepping out the door and into the frozen night, I glanced back into the apartment and spied Emma laying on the bed, her naked head bent backward to meet my eyes. At this angle, her expression seemed to be one of stark terror. I suppressed a shudder and ignored the dreadfully ominous atmosphere the night had suddenly taken.
At perhaps eight-thirty that night the streets of Breckenridge were all but deserted. Cocooned within their decaying homesteads, the good people of the city could only be observed through the amber glow of picture windows, seemingly further from me than the stars in the night sky. The moon, of which there was but one, thankfully, loomed impossibly huge just above the horizon. I walked briskly to build up body heat against the tremendous chill of late February.
No, not just the chill. It was the exposure that quickened my pace. Outside the apartment meant I was outside with it. The dog. Out here, with the strange and heavy blanket of silence that hangs over the snow, I could not discern whether it was closer or further than before. The only thing certain was its constancy and the clear malice I could only believe was directed at me.
I pushed myself forward and insisted on rational thoughts. Dogs were sometimes compelled to bark endlessly, seemingly day and night. Particularly dogs who were mistreated and left out in the subzero temperatures to suffer. That sort of thing tends to be traumatic. So it was just a dog, and it was by no means stalking me. Nightmares notwithstanding, I had no reasonable evidence of anything otherwise.
Unless you counted the doll. Unless you counted the slamming doors, malfunctioning lights, and flying hardcover books. Unless you counted dreaming of falling twice right before your neighbor fell to his death.
“Hey, Pea Coat!” a voice shouted in the night, shocking me from dark thoughts. By the laughter that followed, I realized I must have looked ridiculous. I thought of Christina screaming over the teapot as I turned and saw the girl from the coffee shop (Alaina? Yes). I crossed the street without troubling to look both ways. I watched the only car thus far crawl by at two miles per hour about five minutes beforehand.
“Lainy, right?” I said, waving. As I stepped below the awning of Vital Fluids, two massive Crows took flight from beneath, squawking furiously at the intrusion. Alaina’s hands flew up to her chest just like the frightened birds, but she smiled at me at the same time.
“Crazy, huh? Birds at this time of year?” Alaina said, her hands flying home to roost under her arms. She wasn’t wearing gloves.
“How do they not freeze to death?” I agreed, “I saw one earlier today, too.”
“Speaking of freezing to death…” Alaina began and finished her thought by pulling me into the coffee shop.
“Oh,” I said, “I was actually just on my way somewhere, but-”
“Where to?” Alaina asked, pouring me a cup of the house coffee. I went to pay but she waved me off. She was still smiling pleasantly but I thought I could detect something around her eyes. Fear?
“I was actually just heading to The Theatre,” I told her.
“Oh! The Theatre! My stars!” Alaina declared, loftily. I laughed and blew on my coffee, lying to myself that I would wait for it to cool.
“The bar, I mean,” I said, lamely.
“Oh, I know!” Alaina assured me, “You think someone like me is going to get her drink on at the Legion or that redneck ass bar, what’s it called? Huh-uh. It’s The Theatre or nothing. You ever been on a Tuesday night?”
I shook my head. The coffee blistered my lips but it tasted wonderful.
“They have this girl, DJ Blacklite, she does this techno goth EDM. That’s my shit, right there!”
“I’m not much of a dancer,” I admitted, “In fact, I’ve been more than once asked politely but firmly to just stop.”
“Aw, well I guess Tuesdays aren’t for you, but how about tonight? Looking for a drinking buddy?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her I was actually going to meet my friend there, but I saw that look again in her eyes. Instead, I told her, “I’d love some company, actually! But don’t you have to, you know, run the shop?”
“Yeah,” she admitted, eyes momentarily downcast. Meeting my gaze again she smiled and said, “But fuck ’em! No one’s coming in here tonight. I had to literally pull you in off the street, and you’re my friend.”
“Good point,” I told her, and I was deeply pleased to hear her call me friend, “Fuck them, indeed! The Theatre awaits!”
“Indubitably!” she concurred and hopped back behind the counter to wash the coffee pot and our mugs, which seemed to be all that was required. She then ran to the door and took a frantic glance around to ensure that no one was just then pulling up. Satisfied, she ran back to the wall to switch off all the lights. I stood there, not certain how best to help.
In a matter of minutes, she was dressed and ready to hit the door.
“Come on,” She said, pulling me to the back of the shop, “Let’s take my car. It’s a little nippy for a constitutional in my humble opinion.”
“Indubitably!” I concurred.
Though it was only a few blocks more to the Theatre and we could scarcely drive faster than we could walk, I was immensely grateful to continue my journey in a climate-controlled environment. Along the way, we didn’t say much. Short trip or not, the drive was treacherous and I didn’t want to distract her. I still enjoyed the company. Pulling into the parking lot, it was plain to see we would have the place more or less to ourselves. Christina’s was the only car in the lot.
We dashed inside as fast as our footing would allow and shut the door fast behind us. Soft, melancholy music played over the PA, just the sort of stuff Christina liked and would play when no one was around to complain. Two old barflies sat nursing their drinks side by side in companionable silence, sharing a pitcher. Christina was the only other person there, staring down at her phone without apparent interest.
“Hey Christina!” I called across the room, feeling oddly profane to break the quiet. The barflies took no notice, but Christina perked up immediately at the sound of my voice.
“Justin!” She said, “You came to save me! And you brought a friend!”
“A thirsty friend,” Alaina declared, “My name’s Lainy.”
“I’m Christina,” she answered, waving cheerfully.
“So what’s the vodka situation over there, Christina?” Alaina asked.
“Dire,” Christina said, pulling down a bottle. “We have way too much.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance,” Alaina said, “To the tune of a double with cranberry juice?”
“Comin’ up!” Christina said, dumping shots into a glass, “What about you, Jus?”
“Uh, same.” I said. I never knew what to order at the bar.
The next few hours were a blur, but a happy blur. I was pleased to find that Christina and Alaina had an easy rapport almost right away, and the three of us drank vodka crans and bantered on into the night about everything and nothing. The barflies paid their tab and departed somewhere along the way, all but forgotten.
The night took a turn somewhere between midnight and one in the morning. I had just returned from the dressing room, AKA the cramped single-stall restroom in the backstage area, to hear Christina say, “…and it’s the creepiest damn doll I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Alaina turned to me and said, “Chris says you’re a doll collector?”
“Not exactly…” I began, unsure of how to explain without souring the mood, “It’s more like I inherited some dolls.”
“Okay,” Christina said, pouring another vodka cran, “but I was talking about that weird doll in your living room.”
“Emma,” I said.
“Oh she has a name?” Alaina asked, her eyes dancing. She was several vodka crans deep at that point.
I shrugged, “They all do.”
“Yeah,” Christina agreed, “but it’s creepy, right?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I sighed.
“What does that mean?” Alaina asked, intrigued.
I didn’t say anything at first. I was just drunk enough to feel uninhibited enough to tell them, but still sober enough to think better of endangering a new friendship with a bunch of crazy talk.
“Come on, Jus,” Christina urged, “Why don’t’cha spill ya beans?”
After a moment, I found the courage to ask, “If I tell you guys something crazy, do you promise not to laugh at me?”
Alaina promised immediately, but Christina considered and said, “I promise I’ll try my best.”
“Maybe we should forget it,” I said, red faced.
“No, no, please,” Alaina begged. “I love creepy stuff. You’ve got to tell me.”
“I’ll be good,” Christina assured me.
“Okay, but I’ll have to explain something heavy to you first, Alaina,” I said.
“Yeah?” Alaina asked, restraining her eagerness with limited success.
I cleared my throat. It was still so difficult to talk about. “A little more than a month ago my girlfriend, Emily, committed suicide. Shot herself.”
“Oh my god,” Alaina gasped, “I’m so sorry!”
“Thanks,” I said, woolgathering, “She suffered from mental illness. Schizophrenia or Schizotypal Personality Disorder, the doctors never could quite settle on one or the other. In the end, she had become convinced that something was coming for her, and she found the idea that it might find her so unbearable that she took her own life. At least that was my understanding. I guess it’s hard to know someone’s mind at a time like that.”
I paused for a moment and drained my glass. Christina wordlessly offered another refill, but I declined with a wave. My head was swimming already. Alaina’s face was set in a mixture of sympathy and fascination.
“The doll came in the mail a month to the day after I found her,” I swallowed again, “Something about this doll, I don’t know. Right away I could see there was something strange about the doll. Its face was hideously scared, but that wasn’t it…”
I told them everything, from the poltergeist activity, to the dreams, to the mysterious death of my neighbor. By the time I told them everything, it was nearly last call. When I spoke of the Black Dog and hearing that incessant barking, Alaina’s eyes widened, in realization, I thought. When I finished, a silence fell over the empty room.
“You don’t have to believe me,” I said, quietly.
“I’m not sure what to think,” Christina admitted. She was always the most level-headed of us, and so I wasn’t surprised by this admission. “That poltergeist stuff is really freaky. I can explain a lot of stuff away, but the books flying across the room? I don’t know. But don’t they say that sort of thing can happen when there’s a lot of pent-up emotional energy in the room?”
“Yeah,” Alaina agreed, “I’ve read about that before. But what about the dreams?”
“Well nightmares are definitely to be expected, but I just don’t believe in death omens. Your neighbor dying, that’s just a coincidence, surely.”
“Maybe.” I allowed, uncertainly.
“What about the Black Dog?” Alaina said, suddenly urgent, “Do you hear it?”
“Not over the music,” I told her. Somewhere over the course of the night, Christina had shifted the mood of the music from somber and soft to vibrant and loud. “Let’s go to the entrance.”
They nodded their agreement and followed me to the door, which I threw open without hesitation. The sound of the dog was immediately audible. Louder, even, than it seemed before. I grimaced.
“Justin.” Christina said, softly, “I can’t hear anything.”
My heart sank into my stomach. It was just as I feared. Except…
“I do,” Alaina said, her voice strained. Her eyes were wide and frantic. “I’ve been hearing it for days. I could hear it over the music. Shut the door, please. I feel like it’s right around the corner.”
“Yeah,” I said, and shut the door as she asked.
“A barking dog only some people can hear,” Christina mused, disturbed. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” I told her, “Hopefully nothing.”
“But you don’t believe so, do you?” Christina asked.
“No,” I answered.
“Neither do I,” Alaina added.
Nobody said anything for a while. Nobody knew what to say. We followed Christina back to the bar, to let her close up.
With Christina off scrubbing dishes, Alaina and I were left alone to continue the conversation.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” Alaina began.
“Just one thing?” I asked, half-joking.
“Well no,” She said, “but there’s one major thing. How does the doll fit into all of this? It’s not coming after you with a butcher knife like Chucky, but is it trying to do you harm? Your story makes it seem like the doll and your Emily were connected somehow, but your dreams suggest she’s trying to warn you about something. The dog and something else?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “Now that you mention it, that makes sense. I guess while it was happening I was too freaked out to think objectively, but it kind of seems like… I don’t know.”
“What?” She urged.
“Well, I don’t know how to describe it, exactly. I get the idea that the doll is more than just a doll, like it’s some kind of-”
“Talisman!” Alaina finished, “Or a totem, maybe. Like any good goth girl, I’ve dabbled in witchcraft a bit. Mostly in an academic sense, really. I never really believed in any of it, but some people think certain items can be imbued with the power to protect the user from harm. Maybe your Emma was sent to you to protect you.”
“Sent by whom?” I asked, perplexed, “Emily? I don’t think she knew a talisman from a tennis racket.”
Alaina only shrugged. There was no answer, it was all speculation.
“Whatever the case,” I said, grimly, “I’m beginning to worry it’s not enough.”
Shortly thereafter, Christina emerged, ready to leave. We said our goodbyes and left The Theatre, emerging into the frozen waste of Breckenridge. Alaina offered me a ride home, assuring me that all this spooky talk has sobered her enough for the short drive to my apartment. As I was certain we would be the only people on the road and traveling to slowly to die in a wreck, I took her up on her offer.
We drove in silence once again, music playing softly on the radio. When we reached my apartment she leaned over and kissed me, then asked, “Can I come in?”
“Maybe it’s not such a good idea,” I said, despite wanting in my heart to say yes, “This whole Emily thing is still pretty raw for me.”
“Please,” She said, her eyes shining in the dim light, “I can’t be alone anymore! Not with that…”
She cut her eyes to something down the street and her mouth twisted into a grimace. Her eyes danced with barely-restrained panic. I couldn’t leave her out here, no matter how raw I felt.
“Come on inside,” I told her, holding the door open. She nodded and dashed inside, daring no second glance. Before fleeing the frozen night I stared down the street, seeking any sign of whatever distressed her so badly. In the flickering arc sodium, I saw nothing but ice-choked streets and darkened houses. I could still hear the black dog barking, though, blocks away. We were thinking about him too much. Emily warned me about that in my dreams.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and I yelped. Alaina was there, almond eyes rimmed with gold liner. She smiled, contrite for having startled me, but pulled me with some urgency into my strange and haunted apartment. I was glad to have her there.
We shed our winter clothes together, piling them on the chair by my door and hissing at the shock of cold air on our exposed skin. I could hear the labored breath of the furnace, but the room felt scarcely more habitable than the outside world. Alaina looked thunderstruck, more likely by her mysterious sighting than the chill in the room.
“You’ll want to bury yourself under the blankets as soon as possible,” I told her. “Frostbite is a very real possibility in here. Hot tea?”
“Bathroom first,” She answered, already seeming in better spirits. “Once I get under those blankets, I’m not coming out until spring!”
I pointed her to the facilities and set off to put the kettle on the stove. My kitchen was laughably small. When the house was divided into quarters and made into apartments, the only space available for a kitchen was originally a mudroom. It was draftier in there than in the rest of the apartment, so I considered it nearly miraculous that the pilot was lit.
The gas bill be damned, I lit the other three burners and enjoyed the luxury of open flame. Alaina soon emerged from my freshly cleaned restroom and, seeing me warming my hands in the spectral blue light of gas flame, promptly joined me in my indulgence. She shivered and threw her arm around me.
She felt me stiffen reflexively and tried to pull away, abashed. I pulled her back to me instead and wrapped my arm around her waist. She shivered, and once again it did not seem to be from the cold. The kitchen had warmed significantly.
A surge of emotion welled up inside of me. Just to hold someone again, to feel a comforting touch, was overwhelming. I missed it more than I ever imagined. Even the persistent barking of that infernal hound seemed distant and unimportant in that moment.
I knew I wasn’t over Emily, not by a long shot. It occurred to me that I might never get over her. Some people stay with you no matter how long they’ve been gone. I also realized that was okay. It was possible to love more than one person at a time. I had no idea if I loved Alaina, or if I ever would, but I was profoundly happy to be there with her in my strange and haunted home.
“I saw it.” Alaina said in a small voice. It was her first speech since returning from the bathroom.
“What?” I asked, lost in my own train of thought.
She clutched me tighter, her black stiletto nails threatening to break the skin of my left bicep. Drawing a ragged breath, she said, “The Black Dog.”
“What?!” I repeated, alarmed, “Where?”
She looked me in the eyes, eldritch light flickering in jewel-tones against her skin, glistening off the runnels of eyeliner-gilded tears on her cheeks. I realized then she was beautiful, but my heart hammered with fear, not love.
“Just down the street at the crest of the hill.” She said, her voice strained, “It was staring at us, like it was waiting, like it knew we were coming. It was maybe a block away from us, staring and doing that awful, low rumble growl. The growl they growl right before they tear your throat out. I can still hear it.
The kettle whistled and belched a plume of steam.
“FUCK!” We both screamed at once. I jumped back far enough to bump my ass against the counter. We looked to each other, laughing weakly. I turned off the burners and poured the tea. I chose the packets with the sleepy bear on the front. The last thing either of us needed was caffeine.
Alaina set her cup and saucer on the bedside table and immediately set to cocooning herself within my bedspread. She left only her face and a single cup-hoisting hand exposed. Emily used to do that, I thought to myself. A wave of guilt washed over me, but I wouldn’t allow it to linger.
To banish the tension I broke the silence which prevailed following my second tea kettle scare of the day. On my small stereo I played relaxing music at a volume nearly sufficient to drown out the source of our mutual fear.
“What did it look like?” I said, wishing I hadn’t asked but unable to think of anything else.
Alaina stared down at her coffee cup, perhaps feeling the steam rise up to her face. Finally, she said, “It was…”
She fell silent and I urged her on silently.
“It was huge.” She said at last, “Massive, really. Like a wolf in a fairy tale. Like the God of Wolves.”
She sipped her tea and went on, “I could tell it was real by the steam rising from its fur. A hallucination wouldn’t do that, would it?”
I shrugged. If it was real I would have seen it as well. If it was real, Christina would have heard it too when we were outside.
Apropos to nothing I thought of the black birds which flew out from the awning of the coffee shop.
“Its fur was so dark I could barely make out its features. Like Vantablack, you know? That material so black it makes an object look two-dimensional? Its mouth was a set of slavering, dagger toothed jaws floating in the middle of deep space. Its eyes shone silver in the light. Like two coins.”
Or two moons, I thought to myself and suppressed a shudder. How will either of us ever sleep again?
“We should stop talking about it for now,” I suggested.
She nodded and set her cup back upon the bedside table, eyelids heavy. I joined her under the covers and she pulled up against me. I reveled in her warmth but still I thought of Emily.
In time I fell asleep without giving another thought to the doll, Emma. It did not even occur to me that she was not on the bed any more.
In my bed I slept in newfound warmth, gladly given by another person for the first time in ages, but in my dreams I walked the streets in a swirling vortex of falling snow. I looked back and saw the blizzard bury my tracks behind me. I looked to my left and saw that I walked alone.
I could not feel the brutal cold, but I was aware of it as is sometimes the way in dreams. The storm raged and swallowed the sky, swallowed everything. But for the white noise of the howling wind, Breckenridge was devoid of sound. But for myself, Breckenridge was devoid of life. Devoid of warmth. I was truly alone.
This is what it will be like, I thought, when the world ends.
What makes you think, came an answering thought, that it has not already ended?
I trudged on. Something was calling to me, out there in the abandoned world. I felt it tugging at my mind like a fishhook, ever forward. I could not see more than a few scant yards in front of me, but by the pull I knew the way.
Perhaps it was loneliness that pulled at me. If only two people remained on the Earth, would they be pulled inexorably to one another? Would they find each other? I hoped so. I hoped I was being pulled to another life. The alternative was unbearable.
The snow was piled up to my knees and rising, progress growing ever more difficult, but I sensed I was nearing my destination. If I kept moving I would reach it before the snow could swallow me up. If I hesitated, I would be lost. I trudged faster.
I was not alone, after all. In the boughs of the skeleton trees sat watchful crows, carrion fat and horribly patient. Three of them. No! A fourth. Number Four grinned down at me from the leg of the L on the CALM building. The connected stone archway stretched into endless darkness, and perhaps there were watchers there, too. I thought I heard a furtive shuffling over the howling wind, the dance of shadow upon shadow.
In the void I lost all sense of the passage of time. I might have been walking for mere minutes, or endless hours. Perhaps time had ended with the world, and all of my remaining existence would become this frozen moment in the swirling chaos, watched over by greedy gore crows. Already I was forgetting my life before, ethereal as the final memories of a dream. But I was dreaming now. I knew that, but it did not seem to matter. The end of the world and of time would be just like a dream. This dream.
Amid my bleak rumination, I realized I had stepped through the storm into a sudden calm. I was not at peace, however. Above me, the newly revealed night sky was an empty black expanse of dead stars and malicious twin moons. They were its eyes, but it was not the Black Dog.
The Black Dog was behind me.
The silence was shattered by a vicious battery of barking, and the howling wind was replaced by a shrieking black wind as dozens, hundreds of crows took flight at once. The sky was momentarily alive, writhing with them.
I saw little of this phenomenon, for fear of The Black Dog. It was so close my ears rang with the sound of his rage, and I bolted from the sound, my mind free of thought. If I had a thought I would have turned back. If I turned back to look I would have seen it, and if I saw it then I knew everything would truly be over. The Black Dog was doom. The Portent. The Omen.
The crows, were perhaps the psychopomps, charged to ferry my transient spirit to the other side. I had read of such things
So I ran. It gave chase with a low and guttural growl, its massive feet pounding the snow flat beneath its tread. That snow now piled up near to my waist and I found forward movement nearly impossible. It would overtake me in moments. I had to bound through the snow like a clumsy jackrabbit. The kind the dog would catch.
My chest burned and my heart pounded as I plowed a futile path through the snow. My legs tried to buckle and I fought the urge to allow them, to fall to my knees and accept my fate. I could feel the dog’s rancid breath against my neck. Soon, now.
The beast barked again, the sound ringing in my ears, snarled, and lunged forward. Its jaws snapped shut so close to the back of my head that it nearly snatched me bald. I tried to scream but only a tortured wheeze passed my lips. In moments I would stumble, fall, and be taken. It was only toying with me.
The snow was now up to my ribs and I was as much swimming through it as walking. With each stride I cut through the crust with my swinging arms. I was aware of the fact that I was soaked to the skin and frozen near to death. If I could not escape The Black Dog, then the cold would take me. There was no hope.
Why did it persist? It had me dead to rights, no hope of escape. Surely as I struggled through the snowfall I made for poor sport indeed.
It wants you to see it, came an answering thought that was not my own. It was hers. Don’t look back, don’t think about it. Thinking about it gives it power, but looking upon it will open the door. It is the HARBINGER.
So I tried not to think about it. Perhaps this was an impossible task on a long enough timeline, but for the moment I set all my concentration on reaching that which beckoned me forward. I was so close, I just knew it.
The snow was up to my neck, a silent flood. With a sort of clinical detachment I observed the symptoms of frostbite in my bare arms when they emerged briefly from the drifts. I was dressed in nothing more meaningful than my bed clothes. The only heat I detected was from the burning in my chest.
Forward movement had become nearly impossible and I realized, finally understood, I was going to die there in my dream. The Black Dog ran the rabbit straight to the doom it promised. Even the fire in my chest was beginning to fade.
At last the snow covered my head and my limbs gave up their efforts. All was still and beneath the surface the dark was total. By degrees, the last life in Breckenridge faded to a spark. For a moment I was happy. I was hidden from the Gore Crows, The Black Dog, and (The Varcolac) that hateful thing in the sky.
I was aware of nothing for a time, and then I was aware I was falling. Plunging into a greater darkness. In the darkness I became aware that I was still alive. Finally, I was aware that I was not alone.
There was a spark in the void so bright it blinded me. It came with a rasp and a pop and as my dilated pupils adjusted I realized it was a match. It illuminated her ravaged face, perforated with clusters of bleeding holes and ragged flesh. Her mouth sagged on the right side, but the pristine left side (backwards, that’s backwards!) of her face expressed a terrible sort of joy. I wondered how close I came to dying in this dream before I could reach her, and decided it was worth it. I missed her.
She lit a candle.
By the meager candle light I found myself asprawl on the damp cement floor of what must have been a basement. There were stairs behind me half-buried in a drift of snow, which I had somehow fallen through. All around me piles of soggy boxes and rotting furniture turned the room into a shadow play of looming specters and watchful eyes. I hated this place.
“This is a bad place.” She told me, remorsefully, “There is Something Wrong here. This is The Lyndon.”
I stared all around us, though I could see nothing more than damp, decaying junk heaps and velvet black shadow. Plenty of space for evil things to hide.
“Are we safe here?” I asked, suppressing a shiver.
“No.” She admitted, “Not really. You really shouldn’t be here at all, but I think we’ll be okay for now. It’s still sleeping. The Black Dog can’t find you, and its master can’t see you while you’re under ground. Not in here.
“The Varcolac,” I whispered, staring up at the ceiling. The watchful shadows seemed to loom closer.
“That’s just a name,” she said, “and thankfully for you, it’s the wrong one. I told you it’s dangerous to think of it. Speaking its name is worse. You’ll know the name if The Black Dog finds you. You cannot let it find you. Too much is at stake.”
“Emma,” I said, slipping and using the pet name, “What is going on here? What does all this have to do with the doll? What does this have to do with us?”
Emily began to sob, bleeding tears from a dozen holes until her face became half-masked in crimson. Despite my horror, I took her into my arms and held her one last time, like I used to.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
She sobbed again, raggedly. I could feel the blood dripping on my shoulder, but I didn’t care.
“No!” She cried, “I’m sorry. I thought I could just ignore it, because I was sure it was just in my head. I was sure it was because I was si- sick! I think… I think that’s why it was able to get to me. It used my illness to sneak in. By the time I knew I was in real trouble, it was too late. The Black Dog was at the door, and I… well you know what happened next.”
“Yeah,” I said, softly.
“I thought that would stop what was coming,” she said, ashamed, “I thought if I could keep the dog from reaching me it would end. Instead, I’m trapped here and that thing is running loose, taking whoever it can get, but it needs you the most. The thing latched onto you when it was denied me. That’s why it’s my fault, you see.”
“It’s not your fault,” I whispered, holding her tight. She was shaking, shuddering.
“It is, but that doesn’t matter.” She said, pulling back to look into my eyes, “We’re out of time and I can’t protect you any more. Emma is lost to you, and so is your friend! It took them here and left you- IT KNOWS I’M HERE!”
Emily shrieked as an unseen force pushed her away from me and against the wall. The ruin of her face spread and ripped through her flesh as she writhed, agonized. Still she struggled to speak.
“Find his basement!” She screamed as eldritch light poured out from her empty eye socket. “Destroy what you find there, or The Black Dog will have you by nightfall!”
The light blinded me, imprinted itself on my retinas. Her final screams lingered under the earth, echoing endlessly off the damp walls. I was alone again, and the only hint to her presence was a guttering candle and a black mark on the wall in the shape of her body. I could hear the dog again, and knew this dream was ending.