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.
* * *
She named him Chance. They went for long walks in the crisp autumn air, and he learned to chase squirrels and romp through piles of leaves, both because it felt good and because it made her laugh. This kind of laughter, with no darkness behind it, was new to him, and he reveled in it as much as in the leaves and the chase. He learned the sweetness of belly rubs and the glory of bacon, and in time, even his dreams of his old life faded. Something deep within him that had been clenched forever now relaxed. He was Chance, and he was Laura’s dog, and that was enough.
He loved the park. It was a whole blissful cacophony of scent all laid out just for him, and she never hurried him, no matter how long it took to investigate a certain tree or bench or patch of grass. This time he had his nose deep beneath some leaves—someone had dropped a hot dog here not long ago, though he wasn’t sure any of it was still there—when he felt the leash tighten. He looked up.
Laura had gone suddenly tense, like when he saw a squirrel, only this was like wanting to run instead of wanting to chase. Her lips had tightened into a thin line, and he felt her shaking.
She closed her eyes a moment, breathed in, breathed out. “It’s not him,” she said, though Chance wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or just to herself. “It’s not him. It’s just somebody that looked like him for a second. That’s all.”
She jerked on the leash, and they went to a nearby bench so she could sit down. He leaned against her and whined softly. The sour scent of her fear was sending wisps of memory back into his mind—a stench of rotting meat, a sharp tang beneath the heat of fire—and he tried to push them away.
“Ma’am? Are you okay?”
A jogger had stopped in front of them. Laura looked up. “Oh—I’m fine. Thank you. Just a little lightheaded for a second.”
“Are you sure? You’re pretty pale—”
“I’m fine,” she repeated firmly.
Chance tensed and stood, placing himself between her and the stranger. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but whatever it was, this man was making it worse, so he needed to go away. He growled softly.
The jogger backed off. “Okay. No problem.”
They sat there a minute after he’d left. Then Laura got up, knelt down on the ground, and hugged him. “Good boy.” She took a long, shaky breath, stood up, and smiled. The leash was loose again, and he relaxed too. “Come on, Chance. Let’s go home.”
* * *
Home was a townhouse in a quiet neighborhood, front lawns strewn with bicycles and toys, cars parked along the street. There were two bedrooms upstairs, though the second one was mostly empty except for a few boxes she hadn’t unpacked yet. The front and back doors each had three locks, and Laura checked them all twice every night.
Tonight, she checked them three times, and laughed when she saw Chance watching her. “I know, I know. I’m getting paranoid.”
Chance wasn’t sure what the word meant, but he felt the same restlessness she did. Something in the house felt wrong—not dangerous, necessarily, just off somehow. It was like a window had been left open and a cold draft was blowing inside. Laura went upstairs to bed, but the odd feeling was strongest downstairs, so Chance stayed. He followed it to the kitchen and sniffed around the cabinets, searching.
“Sweet puppy,” a mocking voice said from behind him, a voice like shards of glass ground under stone. “Good doggie.”
Chance turned, lips back in a snarl. The imp crouched on the kitchen counter like a gargoyle, its lidless eyes gleaming, its long claws curled around the edge of the formica.
“The Master sent me with a message,” the imp said. “He sent me to tell you he doesn’t want you back, not ever. He sent me to tell you that you are worth less to him than the worms in your gut.” The imp grinned, showing off a mouthful of yellow needle-thin teeth.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, but it does. It’s no small thing to please the Master. And no small thing to displease him.”
The imp leapt from the counter and scuttled over to him, pushing its rotten-apple face into Chance’s. “You don’t remember, do you?”
“I remember enough.”
The imp keened a high, harsh, gleeful laugh. “You don’t! You don’t remember! You think you can be this sack of fur and flesh. You think you can stay here.” It chortled again, then lifted Chance’s floppy ear with a claw and brought its mouth close.
The word the imp whispered was almost more of a sensation than a sound. It crept into Chance like a shadow falling slowly over him, and the memories that came with the incantation stole into his mind like a slow-seeping venom.
He remembered, at last, what he was. He remembered the fang and sinew that built his true, twisted form. He remembered fire, remembered the sweetness of pain and the intoxication of power.
“You always were stupid,” the imp said. “I don’t know why the Master kept you so long.”
“I tore flesh,” Chance said dully. “I cracked bones between my teeth. I drank blood and salt tears. And I…” The realization twisted his throat, his stomach, his heart. “I enjoyed it.”
“All true!” The imp grinned. “All true—until now.”
“I can’t go back.”
“Not now. Not ever.”
Chance shook himself. “I don’t want to, anyway. I’d rather stay here. It’s…” He couldn’t find the right words to describe it. “Go away,” he said at last. “You’ve given me the message, now go away!” He snarled and lunged at the imp, who leapt back up to the counter.
“Very good,” the imp said. “Very, very good. You do remember now. And you can’t forget again, you know. No matter how much you try to be this meat-thing’s silly pet. One day you’ll do what you’re meant to do. You’ll tear her flesh and crack her bones and drink her blood. Oh, yes, you will. It’s what the Master made you to do, and you will.”
The imp crawled down into the shadows, its body darkening, dissolving into murk, then nothingness. Chance sniffed the spot and pawed at it as if to dig, but even the imp’s scent was gone.
A soft rustling came from the living room. Chance jerked to attention and ran to check it out, but it was only Laura, sitting in the chair by the window. The room was dark, and the light from the streetlamp edged her cheek in blue. As quietly as he could, Chance went in and lay down by her feet.
“Can’t sleep, huh? Me neither.” She sighed softly. “I still keep looking out there, looking for him. Afraid I might see him.”
She leaned forward and scratched lightly behind his ears. His tail swept over the floor in a hushed rhythm.
“I miss him,” she said finally. “God, how stupid is that? Everything he did—every horrible, cruel thing he did—and I miss him.”
It was a feeling like being lost, he knew. Not knowing where you were or even where you were supposed to be. Anything familiar would be comforting, even if it were cruel.
“I miss who I thought he was, I guess.”
The chair was small, but Chance managed to clamber up into it, draping himself awkwardly over her lap.
She laughed shakily. “You’re not exactly a lap dog, you know.” But she didn’t tell him to get down, and she sat with her arms around him until she fell asleep.
Chance stayed awake, watching out the window just in case. He didn’t know if the man she talked about could appear out of shadows—he thought only imps could do that—but he watched anyway. He thought about what the imp had said. He thought about how good it felt when Laura scratched behind his ears, how it seemed to make both of them feel better to be together. He hadn’t known that sharing fear with someone else could ease it. He supposed that was why the Master had so often kept people alone.
* * *
As the days passed, he tried to forget what the imp had said. He was a dog now, Laura’s dog, and he would never hurt her, could never hurt her. And that was that—until the night of the storm.
The wind came first, rattling the last leaves on the trees. Chance felt the strangeness in the air. Something was coming, but he had no idea what. Then came a blue-white spike of light and a sound like the sky tearing open. Like the Master’s work. Chance yelped and ran.
He barely fit underneath the bed. In the back of his mind, he remembered Laura. She’d been cooking dinner in the kitchen—and he’d left her. What if the Master were there now and he’d left her all alone? Then the thunder crashed again, and all thought was gone.
“Poor Chance.” Laura’s voice from the bedroom. “It’s okay, silly boy. It’s just a storm.”
She reached a hand toward him. The thunder cracked again, and Chance struck out blind, terrified. The sound, the feeling of it in his chest—the way it felt like the word the imp had spoken—and his teeth snapped, then sank into flesh.
Laura jerked away, her breath hissing in, and then cursed softly through her teeth.
No. No, no, no.
Chance heard a low whine and realized it came from him. And then he heard the imp’s voice again. He couldn’t tell if it came from the shadows under the bed or from his own mind, but just like the thunder, just like the memories, he could not block it out.
You’ll taste her blood.
Metallic on his tongue, and yet almost sweet—
You’ll crack her bones.
He was strong enough to do it; he knew he was—
You’ll tear her flesh.
No. He wouldn’t hurt her.
Not again. Not ever.
You belong to the Master. Always. He does not give up what is his.
He belonged to Laura.
Just wait. You’ll do his bidding again.
If he wants a meat-thing, you’ll give it to him. Just wait. Wait until the night when the space between worlds is thin. Then you’ll see.
The voice grew fainter, tickling like a fly in his mind.
Chance retreated further under the bed, up against the wall, shivering until his teeth rattled. The storm above him passed, but the one inside him raged all night.
* * *
Laura poured candy into one big bowl and popcorn into another. The candy went on a little table by the front door; the popcorn she brought over to the couch. Usually she “dropped” a few pieces or even tossed a couple for Chance to catch, but tonight she bounced two off his nose without any reaction. His attention was outside: the door, the wind, the coming twilight. The streetlights hadn’t come on yet, but he could feel shadows growing just the same.
“You’re edgy tonight. Hope there’s not a storm coming. I always hated it when it rained on Halloween, and then you were all dressed up and had to carry a stupid umbrella around.”
He remembered the night of the other storm. When he’d finally emerged from under the bed, cringing, ears low, waiting for anger, waiting for pain, she’d just hugged him and rumpled his ears. “It’s okay, boy. You were just scared.”
Her forgiveness, so simple and sweet, had warmed him like sunlight. She was right. He’d been scared, and it was an accident. Nothing more.
But now the clouds were gathering again, and something else came with them.
The night when the space between worlds is thin…
This was it. He could feel the boundaries thinning, softening, like cobwebs to be pulled aside. Something from his old world was taking advantage of that, pushing into the new, and he had to be ready for whatever it was. He ate the popcorn because he didn’t want to worry Laura, didn’t want her picking up on his fear. She felt safe, and he wanted her to stay that way.
The doorbell rang, and she handed out candy. Chance went with her every time, hanging back a bit, but still alert. Some of the children’s costumes reminded him of the imp, but he sensed no darkness among them. Laura had tied an orange bandanna around his neck, patterned with jack-o’-lanterns and candy corn, and some of the kids wanted to pet him. He let them, and smiled so they weren’t afraid. Still, he watched, and waited.
The batches of trick-or-treaters thinned out. Laura turned on a black-and-white Dracula movie and settled down on the couch.
The doorbell rang again. Chance jerked awake, not knowing he’d been asleep. Laura was already off the couch, taking the last pieces of candy out of the bowl. Chance rushed to the door.
She gave miniature Snickers to the neighbor’s two girls—one a princess, the other dressed in surgical scrubs—and said hi to their older sister, who was taking them around.
When the girls left the front step, he was there.
Laura’s voice was tight, though it didn’t waver. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Just wanted to talk.”
That wasn’t true, and Chance knew it. Laura couldn’t see it; maybe no one else could. But Chance saw the shadows pooled at the man’s feet, saw the tendrils of darkness twining around him like black vines. This was not just the man Laura had known. It was the Master, using this man’s shape to hurt them both.
“Oh, hey, you got a dog. Hi, puppy.”
Laura tried to close the door, but he was stronger, and then he was inside. Fear rolled off Laura like smoke, and Chase snarled, showing his teeth. Thanks to the imp’s word, he knew what he was. He could crack bones; he could tear flesh. And he would, to keep her safe.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I’ll do whatever I damn well please.”
A glint of metal at the man’s hand. The blade of a knife.
At first the man tried to shake him off. For a moment, he did, but Chance leapt again, clamping his jaws tight on whatever he could reach. He heard a frantic thumping behind him—Laura running upstairs.
“Stupid mutt.” But below the man’s voice was the dark whisper of the Master’s.
A slicing pain at Chance’s belly almost made him let go. With the flash of pain, the anger in him became rage, blossoming like a dark flower inside him. Chance felt his old strength again, his own power roaring in his blood. The man was working under the Master’s bidding, but his form and strength were still human. A lunge at the throat was all it would take. This man had hurt Laura, after all, and now he would be hurt. He would know agony like nothing a pale, soft human could imagine.
The space between worlds was gone now. He was no silly dog, no animal, no pet. He was a hound of hell, the Master’s own, and he would drink this man’s blood and crack red marrow from his bones.
His fangs touched the man’s throat.
Just a strangled cry from the top of the stairs. Just a voice he had known once, long ago, from the days of bacon and belly rubs and walks in the park. It should have meant nothing, but it shuddered through his body like thunder.
He remembered the imp’s words.
If he wants a meat-thing, you’ll give it to him.
Just as he was about to, now.
Just as his Master wanted.
And just as the imp’s word had unlocked his memories of what he was, now hearing his name from Laura spooled out a new memory. He had been exiled; he knew that. But he had not remembered, until now, what he had been exiled for. It had been only a moment’s hesitation between one of the Master’s commands and his execution of it, but that had been enough. In that moment, he had looked into his victim’s eyes, and something had happened. The Master had had to give his command twice, and that was fire and fury and the end of it all. Because even a moment of mercy was too much. Even a moment of it was dangerous.
The memory burned through him. He knew, now, what he was, and what he could be. He knew, now, he could choose. And he chose to be Laura’s dog, and nothing else. He chose mercy, even for this man who had hurt her. And as he did, he felt the fang and sinew fall away, leaving only the scruffy coat, the floppy ear.
Chance loosened his jaw, and felt the knife go deep.
Blue lights flashed at the edges of his vision. The man was gone. The shadows were gone. Laura was saying something, but she was too far away to hear. She was safe, though, so that was enough. Then a red wave washed over everything, and he knew nothing more.
* * *
He woke to white. A cage. Two bowls. Strange smells. And then a face he knew.
“Hey, buddy.” Laura, smiling. “Ready to go home?”
His belly hurt. He didn’t know why. They’d put a stupid thing around his neck so he couldn’t turn his head, and he turned around and around trying to tear it off, and that frustrated him to the point of growling, and Laura laughed. But that was okay. She was here, and there was the car, and they were going home. Maybe there would be bacon when they got there. Bacon was for good dogs. And though there was a lot he couldn’t remember, he knew what was important. His name was Chance. He was Laura’s dog. And he was a good dog.