The dogs were the first to sense it. Without them, who knows how it would have all turned out? Would it have all been over within a few hours?
Abby froze in place, shoulders hunched up. She growled. The deep noise rumbled. It made her sound like a much larger animal. If you couldn’t see her, you might’ve thought it was a bear or some other gigantic predator.
The noise startled Mark. His mind had wandered — as it often did when he walked Abby after work. These rambles relaxed him and he fell into a trance as he sauntered, dog lead in hand. And Abby enjoyed the strolls too, of course.
She was a golden retriever. Not a purebred, but you could see most of her genes came from that variety of canine. Mark was a firm believer in rescuing animals. When he looked into dog adoption, he’d been adamant he wouldn’t buy from a breeder. The moment the shelter called to let him know they’d found a box of puppies behind a dumpster, Mark knew he’d leave with one of them.
Mark would have liked to say he was the one who chose Abby, but in reality, it was she who chose him.
As he’d walked into the shelter, the potent whiff of animals and the cacophony of barks assaulted him. The volunteer on duty took him down the hall. Canines of all shapes, sizes, personalities and histories gazed out at him with large eyes. “…and these last five are the ones I called you about,” she gestured to the tiny fluffballs behind wire doors. All but one were asleep on their sides. Chubby bellies wobbled with each breath, tongues lolled out of mouths.
One pup wasn’t asleep. The dog sat there, no bigger than the boots on his feet, and stared at him through shiny brown eyes. The expression on that face was all too human; the animal measured Mark, sized him up.
After what felt like an hour — but was only a couple of heartbeats — the dog burst into a grin. Mark knew that was impossible. Dogs couldn’t smile. But even so, she did. Her tongue flopped out of her mouth and she trotted up to the wire door as far as she could. She shoved her snout through the gaps and sniffed. She then barked at him. It wasn’t aggressive — Mark recognised a command when he heard one, whether spoken in a human tongue or not: Pick me!
That had been three years ago.
It happened on an afternoon in mid-October.
Abby was a lovely puppy, and people often stopped him on his afternoon strolls to ask if they could stroke her. She was always happy to receive affection — from a friend or a stranger. Abby was an affable dog without a bad bone in her body.
Which made it all the more surprising when she started to growl, hackles raised. Abbey never growled. At anything. Not even at squirrels or birds. She was the most well-behaved dog Mark had ever met. He hadn’t trained her to be such a good dog; it seemed to be in her nature. Abby exuded love and kindness. He often thought the world would be a better place if more humans acted like dogs.
“Abby?” he asked, a trifle surprised. “What is it, girl? Are you okay?” Mark looked around for something that might have thrown his dog from her normal state. They hiked through the woods, trees on every side. He had followed a well-known trail, which was popular amongst dog-owners. Over the years, Mark had come to recognise his fellow pet walkers and was on a first-name basis with several.
Fallen leaves lay in a thick blanket across the floor of the forest, a bouquet of autumnal hues. Citrus yellows, burnt oranges, woody browns. Mark loved autumn, and so did Abby. They each enjoyed the crunch of the dry leaves. Their feet swished through the trees’ spent offerings.
As far as he had been aware, it was a day like any other. He’d come home from work and she’d been sat at the door as her bushy tail thump-thump-thumped against the floor. He’d dropped his bag, grabbed Ab’s lead and clipped it on, and off they’d gone.
The forest was a 40-minute walk from his home, but he didn’t mind. The weather forecast predicted no rain and he knew he could do with the exercise. More and more these days, he looked for excuses to not drive his car. Besides, Abby was always full of energy, and she relished the long walks.
They’d arrived at the car park at 5:50 p.m. It was — for the most part — empty, with only a couple of vehicles parked there. He didn’t recognise them. He cut through the car park and opened the gate to the familiar trail. Squeee! Mark held it open for Abby, who knew the place like the back of her paw. She raced on through with a happy pant, and he followed her. Mark made sure to shut the gate behind him.
They’d walked for 20 minutes. They crunched through the leaves, smelled the forest, listened to the love song of nature. Birds tweeted, small animals chirped, things rustled in the undergrowth. A gentle breeze sighed through the canopy of trees.
And then Abby started to growl. She froze in place, several steps ahead of Mark, head low, tail still, shoulders up above her ears. The rolling thunder of her snarl was deep, and Mark could somehow feel its vibration within his chest. The sound scared him.
“Abby? What is it, girl? Are you okay?”
Abby continued to growl; eyes fixed to the treeline. Mark tried to follow her line of sight, but could only make out trees, fallen leaves, and shrubbery. Nothing moved.
And that was when Mark sensed something was in the trees. Something that watched.
He felt gooseflesh prickle up all over his body, from the backs of his arms to the nape of his neck. His stomach dropped as if he were on a rollercoaster.
Abby maintained her rumble; low and steady, like the motor of a car.
Mark became aware of something else, too; the noises had stopped. The melodic singsong of the forest silent. No birds called. Nothing chirped or tweeted. Nothing rustled the underbrush or skittered through the husky leaves. The wind itself seemed to have died in the air, mid-gust.
It felt as if the entire forest held its breath, afraid to make a noise. Hiding.
“Hello?” Mark called out in the silence. He cringed at the way his voice sounded in the stillness of the trees. “Is anyone there?”
Ssssshhhhhhhh. A wind began to snake its way through the trees, orange leaves scattered in its wake.
“Only…” Mark wet his lips; mouth dry. “Only you’re scaring my dog.”
Ssssshhhhhhhh, the wind picked up its pace, gaining speed.
“Is there anybody there? Please, I don’t like pranks. Neither does Abby — my dog.”
SSSSHHHHHH, it raced towards him now, and Abby had switched from a growl to a whine. The sound terrified him. He was cold all over and every hair on his body stood on end.
Then Abby turned to face him, and Mark saw she was petrified. Her eyes were wide, and the whites were oh so white. The look in those eyes was a look each of us knows; the look of pure fear.
The realisation that Abby saw something behind him froze him to the bone.
Mark sat in the basement and cuddled his dog. Above, he could hear their movements in the streets outside. Shadows passed through the window slits at the upper reaches of the basement walls.
He wondered how long it’d take for them to get into the house. Not very long, he guessed. He could tell when they were close because Abby would rumble her deep growl. The sound frightened and comforted him. That his loveable, goofy dog would get so aggressive meant there were some bad cookies up there. She would protect him, he knew. Abby would protect him to the very last, would put her life before his. Always. Always. This notion filled his simple human heart with love — broke it in two. There is no love as unconditional as a dog’s, he thought.
And so, Mark sat there in the darkness and held his dog. He stroked her fur and whispered to her in a calm voice. Abby sat between his crossed legs, glad to accept the affection. But she did not lie down. She did not sleep. Even as he patted her and told her she was a good dog, the best dog, yes she was, yes she was, he could sense she was on edge. She waited. Guarded.
On the cellar floor next to him was a notepad and a Biro. He scribbled on the page.
‘WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE THIS?’
The image of what he saw in the forest burned into his retinas. He continued to shake. What did we do? Mark asked himself. What did we do? What did we do? Still, the scene played before him, eyes open or closed, over and over and over—
And then he wrote some more.
‘WHAT DID WE DO TO DESERVE DOGS?’
Abby had saved him. Even though she was deathly scared, she had saved him. Hadn’t even hesitated. She leapt into action and threw her body in harm’s way. Where would he be without her? How would it have played out if he didn’t have Abby by his side? She was his best friend. His partner in crime. His sidekick. His shadow — always at his heel.
Mark squeezed her and pressed his face into her fur. He smelled her familiar scent. He buried his head into the softness of her side.
He began to cry as the vision of the forest played behind his closed eyelids.
Someone was behind him. Mark could now sense it; a dark silhouette at the periphery of his vision. Noticeable when looked out the corner of his eyes.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”
He recognised the voice, although it sounded off. Tinny, almost. As if recorded through one of those old all-in-one CD players and then played back.
His heart WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMPED within the confines of its cage. The blood throbbed in his head.
Mark turned around.
He couldn’t muster a breath; his lungs paralysed. The air in his mouth felt hot and stale.
It was Jacob.
He stood in the middle of the trail behind Mark. His head was down, chin against his chest… twitching. The rest of him was motionless — shoulders slumped. His arms dangled at his sides.
“Jesus, Jacob, you scared me!” Mark chuckled. Even to his ears, the laugh sounded flimsy and hollow.
Jacob snorted. Snorted like a child who pretends to snore. And then he repeated the same line. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!” His intonation was identical to the first time he’d said it.
Mark was aware that Abby’s whine had increased in volume and pitch. He knew something wasn’t right here. Somewhere, something dripped.
Mark couldn’t see Jacob’s dog — Hunter — anywhere. Hunter was a very enthusiastic German shepherd whom he and Abby got along well with.
“Jacob, where’s Hunter? Where’s your dog?”
As he spoke, Jacob’s twitching head paused, ear cocked to the side. It looked like the man grinned. And then he made several clicks with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Clock! Clock-clock-clock-clock-clock! Jacob rotated his head as he did so, and ended with his opposite ear cocked. The noises he made sounded like someone knocking on wood.
And then he twitched again.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark! Mark! Mark! MARK! MARK! MARK!” His voice increased in volume, the tone altered.
Abby’s whine had now reached fever pitch and the dog shuffled in the leaves. Her head jerked around, eyes stretched wide and white.
“MARK! MARK! MARK! MARK!” Jacob now screamed.
Jacob still held Hunter’s blue leash. The end of the material was a deep crimson. Mark finally glanced at Jacob’s hands. Blood, fresh and bright, painted his pale complexion. And now they clenched and unclenched. Droplets of crimson fell from his fingers.
“MARK! MARK! MARK! MARK!” Mark didn’t know how he hadn’t blown his voice box at this volume, and—
Dear God thought Mark as Jacob raised his head. The man grinned madly.
He had ripped his own eyes out.
Deep claw marks scratched from his forehead down to his cheeks.
Shredded jelly filled his eye sockets.
He returned to his previous line but at a volume ten times what it had been: “HEY, HEY, HEY, HEY, MARK, MARK, MARK, MARK!” Jacob’s grin was wide, and now Mark could see that his teeth were bloody too, and—
Jacob broke into a run, headed straight for Mark. He was too stunned to do anything. It happened too fast for him to react. One second Jacob stood there, twitching, the next second he was in a full-blown sprint.
“I—” said Mark.
And then Abby’s whine turned into a bark. A rough, ferocious volley that bellowed from the dog.
She flung herself at the man and leapt from the ground. The dog lead tore from his hands — he hadn’t anticipated it, and his grip had been loose.
“Abby, no!” he shouted, out of reflex more than anything.
Abby collided with Jacob and a snarl ripped from her mouth. Later on, Mark would realise she moved before Jacob began his charge.
The pair fell to the floor, dog on top of the man. There was a flurry of movement, leaves scattered in every direction. Abby roared — it was vicious. Jacob chuckled; the sound distant.
Mark scrambled to the floor and grasped for Abby’s leash. He didn’t care about Jacob anymore — he didn’t know what was wrong but it frightened him and he didn’t care. Mark only feared for his dog. What would a man who’d scratch his own eyes out do to an animal? And where was Hunter?
He found it on the ground. It rattled and snaked through the leaves and dirt as Abby fought the madman. Mark reached for it and missed. He grasped again and it slithered away as Abby twisted around and pinned the man’s torso to the ground. Mark threw himself at it and caught it. He dropped his entire weight onto the leash.
He began to pull. Abby resisted — with everything she had. She barked and growled, teeth bared and bloody. But Mark was stronger. Like the tug of war they used to play when she was a puppy, he pulled her across the ground. She whimpered, gasped, and struggled for air against her tightened collar. But still, Mark pulled.
“Come on, Ab! Let’s go!”
At the sound of his voice, the golden retriever turned. She looked him in the eye and whined, and threw a glance back at Jacob. He’d begun to move again.
“Quickly,” Mark hissed at his dog. He scrambled to his feet and wrapped the lead several times around his hand so Abby was closer.
Jacob chuckled. The noise was a liquid gurgle.
Mark gauged the distance between Jacob and the edge of the path and decided there was enough space. He ran for it and tugged at Abby’s lead.
Jacob sat bolt upright. The movement was unnatural. Mark wouldn’t put his finger on what was off until much later; Jacob didn’t use his hands to push up against the ground. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!” He grinned blindly. Jacob reached for them as they ran — fingers brushed Mark’s trouser leg — but then they were gone.
Mark ran with his dog in an all-out sprint. He hadn’t run that way since he was a kid — his arms flailed, his feet stumbled over the ground, his lungs burned for air.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey,” said a voice in the distance behind him, “Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark!”
It was dark now, and Mark had grown cold on the concrete floor of the basement.
Abby with him, he snuck upstairs to grab a blanket. He avoided the windows.
In his bedroom, his mobile phone showed he had hundreds of missed calls and unread messages. The most recent one was from his mum.
Mark R U OK
Lucky went CRAZY in the park. Dragged me home. Now all these ppl banging on the door.
Hope UR safe, love Mum x
As Mark and Abby crept back downstairs, the letterbox rattled.
Someone pried it open with their fingers.
A whispered voice snaked through.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey, Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark.”