Just in time for Halloween, my funny/sweet ghost story “The Spirit of Pinetop Inn” is now up at Podcastle, as part of a ghost-themed episode with stories from two other authors:
You can listen to or download the podcast there, and of course they’re also on iTunes.
I was hoping to have something new to share here for Halloween, but since RainFurrest I’ve been busy with work, life, the FWG, and trying to get Wishing Season prepped to launch a print edition before Black Friday. So instead, here’s something many of my non-furry readers probably haven’t encountered yet: my short story “Hellhound,” which first appeared in the Rabbit Valley anthology Trick or Treat.
Rating this PG for mature themes but no explicit content.
by Renee Carter Hall
The cage was small, but being confined was nothing new for him.
The dog in pen #4 at the Braddock County Animal Shelter couldn’t remember why or under what circumstances he’d been caged before, only that the sense of restriction, of obedient waiting, was intensely familiar. With it came the sense—the certainty—that sooner or later, someone would come for him, and things would be all right.
He ached all over. There was food and water in metal bowls, but he didn’t want it. Mostly he slept, head on paws, dreaming of things he forgot the moment he woke.
The people here were not the same kind of people he was used to seeing, that was certain. These people were pale and fat, and their faces were open and trusting. If he hadn’t been able to imagine them twisted in agony, eyes dark with pain and suspicion, ribs casting shadows on sunken bellies, he would not have thought that these were people at all.
He knew that he, too, had changed somehow. His body felt softer, weaker than it had before. Somewhere—he was certain of it—he had been muscle and sinew and fangs, not the silly, tongue-lolling creature he seemed to be now.
He didn’t understand why this change had happened. But this was not where he belonged.
“Hey, Troy,” the voice came. “See if the one in four’s eaten anything.”
A moment later, footsteps scuffed on the concrete as the man came to his cage. Calling him a man was being too generous, though. He had a man’s height but a boy’s face, especially in the eyes.
He looked weak.
“Hasn’t touched it,” Troy reported back, sounding bored. That was wrong, too. There should have been fear in his voice, or at least despair—not this casual indifference.
My master would snap you in two, he thought suddenly, and the thought confused him even more.
Yes, he had one, but it felt so long ago and even more distant than the scattered fragments of his dreams. Even so, longing rose in him. He wanted to claw at the bars, at the floor, at the air, bite and scrape and dig, to get out, to get back to him.
Master, he thought dully, staring at nothing, why won’t you come?
* * *
“I’m looking for something big,” Laura said as the teenager led her down the shelter’s row of cages. It sounded like a stupid thing to say, like one of those people who turned pets into status symbols or accessories, as if she might also choose its color to complement her living room.
But as silly as it sounded, it was what she wanted. Right now she needed all the confidence she could get, and as cute as the little terriers and toys were, she wanted something at the end of the leash with more of a solid don’t-mess-with-me attitude.
And maybe then, she thought, I can learn more of that myself. She was tired of seeing fear in the mirror, tired of catching that scared-rabbit look in her eyes.
Still, she reminded herself, she’d had good reason to look that way. The fear in her life had a body and a name, a name she’d carried as part of her own until the papers finally came through two weeks ago. She’d told herself she wouldn’t live in fear, not anymore, but it still hung about her, clinging. She’d always wanted a dog, but he’d never liked animals—and really, that should have been her first clue—but now, as new and terrifying and wonderful as it was, she was doing something she wanted at last.
She hated places like this. It was clean enough, but nothing could hide the musty smell of concrete wet with disinfectant, or the scent of too many dogs in one large, tunnel-like room. And although she decided it was melodramatic to think that the place smelled, as well, of hopelessness and a kind of mute despair, she couldn’t deny that it felt true.
She passed a grey-muzzled golden retriever that made her heart ache; an animal that age would probably never make it out. The next cage held a gangly puppy with a good bit of border collie in its lineage, followed by a red hound whose deep, tolling bark thrummed in her chest. She paused before that last one—it looked solid but not overly threatening—then decided to survey all the cages before she looked at any of them more closely.
She saw him in the last cage.
He had been lying with his chin on his paws, staring at nothing, and when she passed, his eyes flicked to hers. Only an instant, but enough.
Such unusual eyes…
It wasn’t their size or color—he had the same soulful brown eyes as any other dog in the shelter—but a quality she couldn’t quite define. Intelligence, but more emotional. Longing, but not melancholy. He was waiting. Maybe he was waiting for her.
“Could I see this one?” she asked.
The teenager winced. “Um… Well, you can, but that one’s been here three days and won’t eat. We were gonna take him over to the vet this afternoon. We’ve got a lab mix you might like…”
Before, she would have politely gone to look at the lab. This time, she stopped, as her therapist had taught her, and asked herself what she truly wanted to do. “I’d really like to see this one.”
He looked at the dog, then back at her, shrugged slightly, and unlocked the cage.
The dog looked like he’d been put together by someone with only a vague patchwork idea of what a dog should be. He was tall and lean and almost gangly, big but not thick. His scruffy coat was mostly black with splatters of white, and the fur stuck up in odd places. One ear pricked up; the other flopped down. His long tail was feathered, though the rest of his coat was medium length at best. He left the cage cautiously, not edging out or cringing—he wasn’t afraid of her—but as if he were checking her out, testing her presence as much as she was testing his.
He sniffed her hand and let her pet him. She scratched behind his ears, and his tail swept in a slow arc, then faster, and his mouth came open in a dog’s smile. The air relaxed between them, and Laura smiled back.