Stan looked out from his bedroom window at the scattered mound of wet earth in the center of his backyard that was rapidly disintegrating into runnels of muddy runoff in the rain.
This was not what he had expected.
He thought that the hole might sink in a bit and that he would have to get some extra dirt to even it back out, but this was something else entirely. He couldn’t be sure that it was empty. From what he could see in the moonlight it certainly appeared to be, but there was only one way to really know. Confirmation would require him to venture outside to inspect things for himself, but he didn’t really feel up to it at the moment. Best-case scenario he would wind up soaking wet and shivering and worst-case…well he didn’t want to think about that.
There was an ordinance against burying pets in your yard and it occurred to Stan that maybe his neighbor Ms. Seaverson had spied him digging the hole that afternoon. It was a definite possibility, but if she had seen him she would’ve taped a note to his door voicing her displeasure and perhaps threatening to call the city on him. She was a renowned busybody who had done similar irritating things to Stan and others in the neighborhood, but even at her most intrusive and irksome Stan couldn’t imagine her sneaking into his backyard and absconding with the body of his dead dog.
He supposed it could’ve been an animal. He had seen the stories on the news about packs of coyotes prowling suburban neighborhoods at night looking for an easy, unprotected meal. They could have smelled Rufus under the dirt and dug him up. Stan wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It certainly wouldn’t have been his first choice, but there was a kind of cycle-of-life vibe to it that seemed sort of poetic, like Rufus was returning back to his feral roots or something.
Stan pictured Rufus standing atop some desert mesa or mountain bluff looking out over the vast wilderness in all its majesty. Then he thought about the coyotes gnawing on Rufus’s bones and he suddenly felt like he was going to throw up.
‘Oh God, what if there were pieces of him scattered around town? What if some little kid came across his remains?’
This idea seemed so awful that Stan was instantly convinced that it had to be true.
He glanced back out the window. The rain had let up a little, but it was still coming down pretty hard. He would wait until morning and then go out and try to ascertain what had happened to Rufus. He used to be good at that. As a kid his favorite game had been pretending he was Sherlock Holmes and that their family’s golden retriever Barney was Doctor Watson.
Stan grabbed a beer from the fridge and tried not to think about the coyotes chewing on Rufus.
He would find him and when he did he would cremate him and put the ashes up on the mantel where nothing could disturb them. He should’ve done that in the first place, but he had liked the idea of being able to visit with Rufus whenever he went out into the yard. By the third beer he had managed to get the coyotes out of his head and had started to nod off. He was afraid that the coyotes might return in his dreams, but he wasn’t sure what he could do about that. The last thought he had before he fell asleep was Ms. Seaverson taping a note to his door telling him that he couldn’t cremate a pet on his property.
When he went out to investigate early the next day, it was as he had feared. The grave had been dug up and there was no Rufus inside. There were signs indicating what had happened, a patch of flattened grass near the edge of the hole, a disheveled flowerbed in the back with a set of paw prints in the dirt leading underneath the fence.
Stan studied the tracks. From what he could tell they belonged to a lone animal and appeared too small to be a coyote, though he supposed it could have been a young one; more than likely it was probably just a random stray made bold by hunger and desperation.
Traces of the tracks continued into the alleyway becoming lighter and lighter and finally fading out altogether just before they reached the street. He glanced in both directions, but could find nothing indicating where the animal might have gone.
Stan shook his head. ‘Who the hell was he kidding?’ He was no detective, not even an imaginary one.
What he really needed was a Find-My-Dead-Pet app for his phone. He chuckled at this and then felt awful about it. The image of Rufus’s body strewn out along some random stretch of road flashed in his head again and he winced. Stan suddenly remembered that the animal shelter he’d adopted Rufus from had implanted him with a microchip. He’d long since lost any pamphlets or paperwork they’d given him, but he was sure they could look it up for him and see if it was getting a signal.
He searched for the shelter on his phone and plugged the address into the maps program as he headed for his car.
Rufus felt great. It had been so long since he’d felt good or even just okay that feeling great seemed like a kind of miracle. His back legs didn’t shake when he stood up and he no longer felt that weight on his chest that had become a near permanent resident in recent days. He could hear crickets chirping in the grass and bees humming as they whizzed by heading from flower to flower. He could see the park three blocks away, could even see children running and swinging and spinning around on the playground like he was standing right in front of them.
He hadn’t felt like this since he was a puppy. Back then he had boundless energy and he had gone to the park almost every day to run in the endless grassy fields and chase squirrels while his owner jogged along after him or waited for him on a bench while he spoke with the other owners about things that didn’t interest Rufus.
Rufus could remember doing these things, but he couldn’t picture his owner’s face. It was as if someone had gone into his head and scrubbed the features from his memories.
The last few weeks he had been so tired. Even getting up to eat had been a struggle, and the only time he wanted to go outside was to relieve himself. He remembered that his owner had seemed different during those days, though he couldn’t recall exactly how. His owner wasn’t like him. When his owner smiled it was never just a smile, there was always something else underneath, something submerged and unspoken. It made Rufus sad to think of his owner that way, but he always appeared a bit better after they had spent time together.
Behind him Rufus heard a hiss and he turned to see a gray and white alley cat looking down at him from the top of a fence post.
This would be a good chase and Rufus was sure that he could catch the cat, but it didn’t seem important to him the way it once had. The cat hissed again and Rufus barked once and watched as the cat retreated back along the fence.
It was strange to him that he no longer wanted to chase cats or rabbits or squirrels, considering it had once been his favorite thing in the world. Even when he was no longer able to do it, the desire had still been there, like an itch that lingered just out of reach. That had been the hardest part of growing old, the wanting of familiar pleasures and knowing that they were no longer his to have.
Fortunately he had also always loved a good nap and in his autumn years he had become an expert at it. When he slept he often dreamt of his younger days chasing critters for hours on end with swift and steady legs and a body that never seemed to need rest.
It occurred to him that maybe this new feeling was also a dream. When he walked he could hear the click of his claws on the asphalt and feel the heat on the pads of his paws. The breeze was sweet and smelled of cut grass and flowers. There was a residual static charge in the air left over from the storm and it made the fur along his spine stand up in a pleasant tingle.
If this was a dream, he hoped that no one ever woke him.
The girl sitting behind the front desk at the animal shelter couldn’t have been more than fifteen, which surprised Stan. Every job he’d had at that age had been menial and mind- numbing and he had assumed that all teenage jobs were. Granted, he didn’t know anything about what the girl did there, but it seemed like it had to be a lot better than mopping floors or washing cars.
“Good morning.” the girl said. “Were you looking for a dog or a cat today?”
“I’m actually not here for a pet. I adopted a dog from you guys about eight years ago.”
“That’s great. How is your dog doing?”
“Oh, he um…he passed away recently.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank you,” Stan said, not quite meeting the girl’s gaze. He suddenly felt awkward being there like he had walked into the middle of someone’s wedding and announced he had just gotten divorced.
“Is there something I can help you with?” the girl said tentatively.
“Those microchips that you put in the animals, do you have a way to track them?”
“We have scanners that can read the chip if someone comes in with a stray. It gives us the owner info and we contact them.”
“So it’s not like a GPS then?”
“No, it’s just a form of digital identification in case the animal doesn’t have a collar and tags.”
“Right, that makes sense.”
“I hope I’m not being too forward, but can I ask what you’re looking for?”
“I buried my dog in my backyard. I know you’re not supposed to.”
“Lots of people do it.”
“The problem is that after I buried him something came and dug him up and now he…I mean his body…it’s missing….”
“I’m so sorry, that’s terrible.”
“I can check our system to see if any other shelter or veterinary clinic posted anything about it. Usually remains are handled by animal control, but it’s possible that someone could have found him and brought him in.”
“No problem.” the girl said and began typing into the keyboard in front of her. “You can have a seat if you want. This might take a few minutes.”
Stan sat down in one of the brightly colored plastic chairs and grabbed a copy of Cat Fancy off the coffee table. He had never been a cat person. Something about them had always seemed vaguely sinister to him. His girlfriend in college had a pair of cats and they always looked at Stan as if they were planning to do something to him. Often he caught them casting meaningful glances at one another and then turning in his direction as if to confirm that he had been the subject of their exchange.
The girl looked up from her monitor. “It doesn’t look like anyone has reported finding anything in the last few days.”
“Thanks anyway, I really appreciate your help.”
“If you want you could leave your number and I could call you if I hear anything?”
The girl handed him a small pad of paper and a pen and Stan jotted down his cell number.
“Thanks again,” Stan said and gave a small smile as he exited the shelter and climbed back into his car.
He wasn’t sure what to do now. This had been his only real lead and even it had been a long shot. All he could think of was searching the area near his house and hoping he got lucky. That seemed like a needle and haystack situation, but he didn’t have any other ideas.
He pulled out of the parking lot and pointed his car towards home, rolling down the windows for a clearer view and driving slow so that he wouldn’t miss anything.
As Rufus approached the park he began to hear the telltale noises of children at play. Shouts and shrieks and squeals of pure joy erupting from them as effortlessly as water flowing downstream. It was a wonderful sound and one that he had missed more than he realized, his trips to the park having abruptly ended when his hind legs gave out on him. At the time he had grudgingly accepted this and reconciled himself to the fresh air and sunshine of the backyard, but he had thought often about the feel of woodchips scattering beneath his paws as he scampered with the children around the playground, and of his heart pounding in his chest as he sprinted through the open field behind the baseball diamond.
There was a young boy hanging from the monkey bars and Rufus looked at him waiting patiently for the moment when the boy would notice him and smile and maybe call him over for pets.
After a few moments the boy did notice him, but he did not smile. The expression on his face was one that Rufus had never seen before. The boy’s features were completely slack and his face had turned pale. Rufus thought the boy was going to fall, but he held tight to the bars and hung there motionless like a sheet from a close-line on a cloudless day.
The child seemed utterly petrified of him, which confused Rufus. He had always gotten along with the neighborhood children. They had stroked his fur and given him treats and the girls had even picked him up and cradled him in their arms like a baby.
‘Maybe this boy had been bitten by a dog or frightened in some other way that had caused an aversion to his kind?’
This seemed likely to Rufus and he was about to turn and leave the boy when he heard the scream.
It did not come from the boy, who was still suspended there like a human tapestry. The scream had come from behind Rufus and he turned to see a mother and her son running toward the parking lot. There was another startled yelp and Rufus wheeled back around to see a pair of young girls leap from the swing set each crying and clutching each other as they fled.
Rufus didn’t understand what was happening. He looked around the park searching for the source of the calamity, but the only thing he saw were people running in the opposite direction.
Running away from him.
Stan had gotten most of the way home and the only thing he’d found was a carcass on the side of the road that turned out to be a flattened racoon. He had been frustrated at first when he realized what it was, but then felt relieved. He wanted to find Rufus and bring him home, but not like that, not some deformed thing that was barely recognizable.
He turned the corner onto Claremont Street, only a few blocks from his house, when he suddenly slammed on the brakes. A station wagon came barreling out in front of him completely blowing through the stop sign. He laid on his horn, but the woman driving didn’t even glance back in his direction.
‘What the hell was that about?!’
As Stan reached the end of the block he saw two other cars tearing down the road doing at least fifty on a residential street that had a speed limit of twenty-five. He turned in the direction they had come from and drove down two blocks to Sunshine Park, which looked as if it had been the scene of a full-scale riot.
Tire tracks crisscrossed the grass in every direction leaving deep furrows in the dirt. The fence surrounding the tennis court had been completely torn away on one side and the support poles for two of the basketball hoops now lay toppled over in the middle of the asphalt.
“Jesus,” Stan said.
There was no one left in the park from what he could see. He looked around the grounds for some remnant of the event, bullet casings, signs of an explosion, indications of some kind of industrial accident, but all he saw was the aftermath without any hint of what had transpired there. It occurred to Stan that he probably shouldn’t stick around either in case there was something toxic still lingering in the air. He was just about to leave when he saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye.
Stan turned and clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle the scream that tried to escape.
Rufus thought the man would run as soon as he noticed him, but he remained still, though not frozen to the spot the way the boy had been. There was something familiar about the man that Rufus couldn’t quite place, like the fading memory of a dream upon waking. He slowly made his way over to the man, unsure if it was the wise thing to do, but curious all the same.
Stan’s nightmares about what some wild animal might have done to Rufus seemed like a pleasant daydream compared to how he looked now. It pained Stan to look at him; his skin and fur had sunken in, clinging to his protruding bones like a damp shirt; even more horrifying were the places where the first traces of decay had begun to take hold, scattered patches where you could see straight through like staring into some kind of terrible window display.
Worst of all though were his eyes. The glow that had once been there, that ineffable spark that signified life, had faded to a dull, milky gray.
And yet there were still things, the slight shuffle in his gate, the tilt of his head, that reminded Stan of the old Rufus.
Stan crouched down and held out a hand. “C’mere boy.”
Rufus sniffed the air, and though he still couldn’t identify the scent, he continued forward.
He knew it was a gamble, but the proffered hand brought with it the promise of pets, and that was a risk he was willing to take.
Peter first fell into fiction penning stories to amuse his grammar-school classmates, which helped him overcome his shyness, but resulted in very few completed homework assignments.
He is an avid fan of horror movies, especially those with a sense of humor, food served from carts and roadside shacks, and the music of The Ramones, The Replacements, and other bands of like-minded misfits who found a way to connect with the world through their music and their words. He was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs with his wife and cats and his writing has appeared in The Delinquent, Candlelight, Black Words On White Paper, Spook City, Apiary, Crack The Spine, Chicago Literati, Cemetery Moon, Pavor Nocturnus, Sanitarium, 1000words, 1:1000, Cacti Fur, The Literary Hatchet, Graze, Ink Stains, Whatever Our Souls, and the Dark Lane Anthology.