Where Sleeping Dogs Lie

I know now, the black dog never left me.

The first time I saw it was at my mother’s funeral. I was six and she’d been in a car accident. We’d been in a car accident, only I’d survived. They said it was a miracle. I disagreed.

The dog sat in the shadow of a headstone, a respectful distance away, while they lowered my mother into the ground. It was easily the largest dog I’d ever seen. When my father’s back was turned, distracted by hollow sympathies, I went over to pet the dog. Its fur was long and a little tangled, coarse to the touch. Its tongue was cold and wet.

At least, I think it was. The whole thing passed in a fog, like I was remembering it instead of experiencing it, like the dog was always a fraction of a second in the past. I used to think that meant it wasn’t real.

After the funeral, I saw it all the time. Everywhere. I’d see it on the side of the road while I was riding the bus, waiting for me in the back yard when I got home, watching me outside my bedroom window while I slept. I know how it sounds, but I never felt afraid. It seemed like it was supposed to be there, no stranger than the moon.

One night, I opened my window and let it in. Sometimes, I think that was where I went wrong, but mostly I just think it’s just what I did. History only happens one way. I let it in and it slept at the foot of my bed.

After that, it started bringing me things. Dead things.

Squirrels and birds, at first. One of the neighbor girls had a cat that brought her dead things all the time, so I thought nothing of it. I accepted these gifts in the spirit they were given. Whenever Dad found them sitting at my tea party table, all stiff and ratty, he’d throw a fit and threaten to send me to a psychiatrist. As if that was a punishment.

Then, it brought me the neighbor girl’s cat. Its neck and limbs were broken, its fur thick with blood. I gave it a funeral; didn’t know what else to do. By Monday, the whole school was talking about how Jenny’s cat got run over by a car. I felt guilty.

The next thing the dog brought me was my father’s severed head.

I was playing in the sandbox and the black dog just appeared over my shoulder, dropped the head at my feet as if we’d been playing fetch. It was definitely my Dad; I could tell despite the pallid flesh and misshapen skull, like a leaky basketball.

I remember staring at it, more in disbelief than horror. Then this cold panic started welling up from the dead center of my chest. It expanded through my body, filled my lungs, and exploded out my mouth as an inchoate scream.

I burst into the house, the scream grown into a word: “Dad!” He wasn’t in the kitchen or the dining room. He wasn’t in the living room or the front yard or the bathroom. I tore around the corner toward the stairs and ran straight into him, slamming his shins with enough force to topple us both. He tumbled over me and into the entryway, banging his head.

“Daddy!” I howled, fear instantly transmuted into mania. I threw my arms around him and squeezed.

“What the hell’s gotten into you?” he asked.

“You’re alive!” is all I could say.

He looked at me and cried. Ragged, bitter sobs. They didn’t stop for the worst part of an hour.

Later that week, I went to live with my grandmother. They said it was an accident, that he lost control of the vehicle and swerved into a cement divider, but I know the truth. Dad just couldn’t live without her. Guess he thought I could.

Later, I’d wonder about all those dead animals. Had the dog brought them to me before they died? Was Jenny’s cat still alive when I buried its doppleganger in my yard?

I didn’t see the black dog again for many years, but maybe I chose not to look. Something tells me it was ever far away, waiting just beyond the treeline, waiting for the right moment.

Waiting for today.

This morning, I was sitting in my grandmother’s garden, painting my nails Citrus Yellow. It’s sandals season. I spotted it in the corner of my eye, sitting in the bushes by the back fence, watching me. The moment I looked, it trotted toward the house as if we’re still friends.

I froze. It was even bigger than I remembered; it towered over me as I sat. Its fur was mangy and matted, thick like a briar patch in the deep, dark woods. Red embers cooled in its eyes.

It opened its mouth and dropped something. I didn’t want to look, afraid I already knew what it was. It tilted its head to one side and I felt my eyes drawn down, dragged as if by gravity, sinking with excruciating slowness toward the bloody thing at my feet.

A human toe.

Citrus Yellow.

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