PROLOGUE: A Dialogue with Myself
DATE/TIME: March 3rd, 2015 / 12:47AM (CST)
LOCATION: My Head
WRITER JOEL: I was thinking I would do that story about the phone-sex operator next.
EDITOR JOEL: Are you sure that’s a good idea?
WJ: Yeah, why not?
EJ: Well, considering how smutty your last piece was, I’d say you’re already running the risk of being labeled the E.L. James of horror.
WJ: Who the fuck is E.L. James?
EJ: Author of the 50 Shades of Grey series.
WJ: Those books did make a fuck-ton of money. Pun intended.
EJ: But is that what you really want?
WJ: A fuck-ton of money? Yes.
EJ: It’s up to you but keep in mind that going down this road is setting a dangerous precedent.
TROLL JOEL: Plus, it’s not like anyone’s ever used sex as an analog for horror before. By the way, Clive Barker called and asked if you would mind NOT sweating every inch of his nuts…
WJ: Nobody was talking to you!
RATIONAL JOEL: Technically, that’s not true seeing as he IS you.
HORNY JOEL: Boobies.
HORNY JOEL: Where?!
WJ: Ugh! Okay then tell me, smart guy, what story SHOULD I write?
EJ: That one about your dog is kind of cool.
WJ: Yeah? It’s also kind of deep-end, off-your-meds crazy pants.
TJ: Have you read literally ANYTHING you’ve written? “Grounded in reality” is an exit you missed a ways back, buddy.
WJ: Alright, fine! You want me to tell the fucking dog story? I’ll tell the fucking dog story!
TJ: Actually, that was Editor Joel’s idea. I’m sure this one will suck just as hard. It simply won’t contain as many erect penises.
HJ: Oh, and like a hot girl’s ass for some reason!
ACT 1: Pre-Agro
I am a big fan of dogs (cats are cool too but if I HAD to pick a winner, it would be an easy decision). I had always wanted a Border Collie but despised the idea of paying for a specific breed of canine when there were already countless perfectly good shelter dogs out there who needed a home. At the time in which this story takes place (2007). I was already caring for one adopted dog — a beautiful Australian Shepherd by the name of Indy.
One night, I was driving home with my then-girlfriend, Trish, when we spotted what looked to be the distinctive black-and-white coat of a Border Collie as he started across the intersection just before our apartment complex. It was late, but the intersection was well-lit and I was able to slow down in time to avoid hitting him.
The dog looked young, maybe a year old; he was still in that awkward phase between puppy and adulthood where his paws and head were slightly too big for his body. He didn’t have a collar and his fur was matted with filth. As we got closer, I saw that the poor guy had a large open wound on his back.
Thankfully, it was late enough that we were the only car on the road and I was able to stop right there in the middle of the intersection. I popped open the driver’s side door and called out to him in my gentlest voice, “Hey, buddy… Are you okay?”
The dog had made it across to the median by this point and he glanced back at me with utter panic in his eyes before sprinting off into the night. After that, we spent an hour or so driving around looking for him, but to no avail.
The next morning, Trish contacted a local rescue shelter where she had volunteered the summer before and a week later they called to tell us they had found a year-old male Border Collie down the block from our apartment complex, sleeping in a dilapidated gas station that had been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina.
The shelter was ready for us to come and get him a few days later and the first thing the lady who ran the place said to us was, “There’s a one-to-ten scale for how potentially aggressive a mistreated dog can be and it’s important you know that this guy is a hard nine.”
Trish smiled and shrugged as she said, “Well, at least he’s not a ten.”
“Ten means a dog will physically lash out if they feel threatened and therefore wouldn’t be eligible for adoption.”
“Oh,” Trish responded, looking slightly embarrassed.
The lady took Trish’s expression as a cue to elaborate. “The only reason he’s not a ten is because, though he’ll growl to high hell when he’s cornered, he’s never once tried to bite me or any of my staff. It’s actually a bit bizarre. I’ve seen a lot of mistreated rescues who weren’t biters, but will still occasionally snap their jaws at you to pantomime biting as a threat… But he doesn’t even do that. This dog has been so deprived of exposure to other canines that he might not even know it’s an option.”
“That sounds like a positive thing to me,” I said and the lady gave me a look that made me immediately regret it.
“From the extent of his wounds, it’s safe to assume that this dog has seen a tremendous amount of abuse. Someone has been using him as an ashtray. I’ve counted over two dozen individual cigarette burns on his back alone. When we found him, he was malnourished almost to the point of starvation…”
Trish began to cry silently and I was tearing up myself by this point, but it was totally because of my allergies. Even if it wasn’t, you’re pretty much a monster if you didn’t feel like crying after reading that last part, so suck it.
“The point is…it’s very rare that I come across a nine who I feel completely comfortable about adopting out. You’re both young, though. You don’t have kids and you already have one dog, which will help. He hates people, but seems to adore other animals. Still, I feel I need to stress to you that he…”
“Agro,” I said, almost without even thinking about it. “We’re naming him Agro.”
The lady suddenly laughed, but there wasn’t an ounce of humor in her voice as she repeated it. “You’re naming THIS dog Agro… Why?”
Trish and I exchanged a quick glance before I replied, “It’s the name of the hero’s horse in a I like.”
It was actually from my all-time favorite video game, Shadow of the Colossus, but Trish had stressed to me the importance of not giving this lady any reason to judge us. I’m of the opinion that video games are just as important of an artistic medium as literature or film, but I’m also painfully aware of the social stigma that comes along with a grown man playing them.
The lady slowly shook her head as she finally responded, “That’s what the aggression scale for animals is called.”
“The scale is called Agro?”
“The Agro scale, yes. It’s short for aggression.”
Being a huge video game nerd, I was already familiar with the term “agro” in this context and so it shouldn’t have been such a shock. Nevertheless, I was suddenly overcome by an ominous sense of foreboding. Trish though, being the eternal optimist that she was, simply smiled and said, “It’s like it was meant to be.”
The lady was still staring at me as she let out a dry scoff. “If you say so…”
ACT 2: Grace Period
We dealt with a lot of the typical new-dog problems at first, like trying to get Agro to eat out of his bowl and not pee inside the house. But by far, the worst part was trying to take him out for a walk. To say that Agro was easily startled would be an insult to the term “understatement.” Anytime he heard so much as a car-door shutting, BOOM, just like that Agro would go from zero to scared shitless.
I started out using the traditional leash-and-collar set-up and whenever Agro went into one of his flip-outs, he would immediately start yanking at the leash and trying to pull free of his collar. All I could do was try my best to keep Agro from choking himself unconscious while also maintaining a tone that was soothing enough to talk him down. Needless to say, this process quickly became exhausting.
Trish suggested we try using a harness to walk him and after a bit of shopping around, I eventually found one which was secure enough that Agro couldn’t pull out of it… or so I thought. The harness seemed to work perfectly for about a week or so. Then, one evening a car alarm started to go off while I was walking Agro and in one violent jerk, he suddenly yanked free of his harness and darted off down the street.
This was the big fear; that he would get loose while one of us was alone and walking the dogs at night. Trish was at work at the time or else I would’ve called her to hop in the car and come help me track him down. With that option off the table, Indy and I were left with no other choice but to chase after Agro on foot.
Border Collies are by no means slow dogs and I only managed to keep up with him long enough to see Agro hook a left at the next corner. I reached the end of the block just in time to spot the white tip of Agro’s tail as it disappeared inside the derelict gas station where the rescue shelter had first found him.
I began to approach the station’s open doorway when Indy, who was one of the sweetest dogs I have ever known, suddenly let out a growl so guttural that it actually startled me. Her eyes fixed on the doorway as she spotted something inside the building, something there in the darkness that I couldn’t see, and refused to take another step closer.
From inside the station, Agro began to bark. By this point Indy was yanking on her own leash, trying to lead me back towards the complex, and for a moment I had no idea what to do. Agro’s barking was getting louder and he sounded terrified, but I couldn’t let go of Indy and risk losing both dogs in one night.
I was just beginning to turn and run Indy inside when Agro’s barking finally stopped. I paused to look back and watched Agro saunter out of the gas-station with the biggest, goofiest grin on his face. He started towards me and, not wanting to scare him off by trying to reattach his harness, I simply turned and continued towards the entrance to the complex. Agro followed me and Indy back inside without any further hesitation.
After that, I decided to try taking Agro out without a leash on and even though it had been my idea, I was still more than a little surprised when it actually worked. Agro stayed at my side the entire time, the two of us walking almost in unison as we made our way down to the empty lot where the dogs liked to do their business. As we neared the lot, I nodded toward it and said, “Go on.”
With that simple instruction, Agro wandered over to a small patch of trees that bordered the rear end of the field and crouched down. Once he was finished, he promptly returned to me and we headed home. On our way back from this initial test run, a girl on a bike suddenly rounded the corner and started toward us.
I immediately tensed up, sure that Agro was going to try and book it, but all he did was positioned himself between me and the girl as she whizzed past us and that was it. There was no panicked shivering. He didn’t let out a single whimper and when we started on our way again, Agro’s tail was wagging.
ACT 3: A Few Months Later…
It was about 3:00AM when Agro nudged me awake. We were in the dead of winter by this point and it was almost unbearably cold out that night (at least by the standards of someone who was raised in a tropical climate like New Orleans). I let out a reflexive groan as I saw the earnest look on Agro’s face. “Seriously, dude? It can’t wait until morning?”
He replied with a short whimper, followed by a deep sigh. By now, we had bonded to the point where I could read Agro’s idiosyncrasies like a book and this was a definite no. I slowly sat up as Agro jumped down off of the bed and started toward the door with his tail wagging.
Indy was still curled up at the foot of our bed and I placed a hand on her back as I said, “Indy, you wanna go outside?”
Australian Shepherds are notoriously high-energy dogs and under normal circumstances, this would’ve had her darting for the front door before I was even done asking the question, but that night Indy’s only response was to slowly open one eye and give me a look that said, “Are you kidding me? It’s fucking FREEZING outside!”
Agro let out another urgent whimper as I tossed the covers off of me and climbed out of bed. “Chill, pimpin’. I’m going as fast as I can.”
I pulled on several layers of clothing and then led Agro outside, hoping all he had to do was take a quick piss in the garden (which meant that I could stay just inside the building’s front entrance and out of the frigid night air) but as soon as I pushed open the door, he began to sprint across the street. “Shit! ‘Gro, WAIT!”
This was the first time Agro had taken off on me since I started walking him without a leash and my half-conscious stupor immediately dissolved, giving way to blind panic. I hurried after him, bracing against the freezing wind that seemed be blowing from every direction. Agro glanced back at me as I called out his name again, but he refused to slow his pace and I lost sight of him when he started down a nearby side street.
I was digging out my cell to call Trish and praying that her phone wasn’t on vibrate when headlights began to approach me from behind. I moved to the sidewalk as I glanced back to see a girl in a red hatchback coming my way. We locked eyes as the girl drove passed and the hatchback then slowed to a stop in front of a house halfway down the block.
The girl exited her car and turned to gesture at the leash dangling from my hand (I still brought one with me whenever I took Agro out, just in case.) “Lost your dog?”
I absently scanned the road beyond her as I pointed a thumb back over my shoulder and rambled off a flustered reply, “Yeah. I live in the apartments on the other side of Robert E. Lee and my dumb ass didn’t have him on his leash because it’s so cold and I thought he just had to pee, but then he took off this way.”
She gave me a nervous smile and pointed back towards the corner. “Thought so. I saw him when I was coming down the street. That’s why I…”
The girl was suddenly yanked down onto her back and then dragged beneath the car, her face smacking against the driver’s side door with a loud THUNK as she disappeared into the darkness beneath her little red hatchback.
I froze, standing there in the middle of the street with my mouth hanging open. It all happened so fast that it took me a beat to process what I had just seen. There was movement beneath the car and a moment later the girl slinked out into view. She slowly stood and started to shuffle toward me.
My brain was screaming to turn and run but my body refused to cooperate and so I just stood there like an idiot as the girl grew closer. When she passed beneath the street light positioned between us, I finally caught a glimpse of her face.
The girl’s crumpled nose was leaking blood from both nostrils and her left eye was bulging so far out of its socket that I expected it to pop loose at any moment. This sight was enough to get my legs working again and I turned to start running, but it was already too late. The girl began to moan as she pounced onto my back and drove me to the ground.
My head smacked against the pavement hard enough to blur my vision and a shiver of pain tore through my body as the girl’s nails pierced my thick jacket and dug into the flesh beneath, pinning me against the road with what felt like inhuman strength. Her moan became a wet gagging sound.
I craned my neck to look back and watched in horror as she opened her mouth wide enough to dislocate her jaw. That’s when I heard the familiar pitch of Agro’s growl and the girl’s body went stiff as she looked up to see my dog diving towards her.
The girl’s nails tore a set of twin gashes down my back as Agro knocked her off of me and I was rocked by another torrent of pain. I rolled onto my side just in time to see Agro clamp his mouth around the girl’s shoulder. She let out a blood-chilling scream as he bit her and a bright light began to emanate from her open mouth.
The light enveloped the girl and her flesh started to bubble. Agro removed his mouth from her shoulder and the girl’s body quickly dissolved as the light faded, leaving behind a steaming person-shaped stain in the pavement. The world around me began to spin as the shock of what I had just witnessed overtook me and I promptly passed out.
In my dream, Agro and I were hiking across a vast sunlit field bordered by a thick patch of woods to our left. The forest was so densely packed that the sunlight could barely penetrate it. A black shape was moving just inside the darkened tree-line, following alongside us as we made our way across the field.
I threw a worried glance down at Agro, who was positioned between me and the woods, and I was overcome by an immense feeling of comfort as his eyes locked with mine. A disembodied voice began to speak to me then. The voice sounded completely alien and yet somehow strangely familiar and I realized that it was Agro talking to me telepathically.
“Between this reality and the next, there are doorways that cannot be closed. When the world was new, these doorways were necessary but they have since become a refuge of darkness. A bridge from which unspeakable things occasionally emerge… My purpose is to prevent this. Do you understand?”
I glanced at the dark shape that was still stalking us from the other side of the tree-line and then nodded at Agro. “I think so.”
“Your mortal mind is unequipped to perceive me in my true form, which is why you see me as the creature you call Agro. The darkness can take many forms, so forgive me if I ever seem uncomfortable around strangers. And know that when I run away, it is not because I do not love you.”
“I know,” I said as Agro stopped and I crouched down beside him.
“I only wish to keep you safe.” Agro started licking my cheek and in that moment, I was suddenly able to see everything through his eyes:
The night I first spotted him crossing the street, he had been on the trail of something truly horrible and when we stopped in the middle of the intersection, it started to draw this thing toward us. When Agro had darted off, it was because he was chasing it away…
I awoke to find myself lying in my bed with Agro perched beside me and licking my face. At first, I assumed that the entire night had been one long weird-ass dream. Then I sat up and immediately winced. My back was on fire. I hurried over to the mirror above my dresser and lifted my shirt to reveal a set of twin scratch marks running down the length of my back.
A lot has changed since that night more than seven years ago and yet Agro doesn’t look much older than when I first brought him home. He still hides under my bed whenever I have company over and to this day, most of my friends have only glimpsed him once or twice. I suppose that eventually people might start asking questions, but I’ll worry about crossing that bridge when I come to it.
Currently, he’s pretty much the most awesome dog ever. He never gets sick and I don’t need a leash to walk him. The one big difference these days is that, on the rare occasion when Agro wakes me in the middle of the night and then takes off as soon as I let him out, I know better than to chase after him.
Oh, and then a hot girl’s ass for some reason.