Author: Ron Ripley
Editor: Emma Salam

The Dog TrackerAdam stood outside of the hen house and looked at the carnage.

Feathers and blood littered the yard around the long wooden structure.  Dozens of shell-shocked hens stood around Adam. The rooster, his strut stolen by the chaos of the early morning, wandered around, mute.  A few pecked at Adam’s feet, impatient for the feed he carried.

Adam walked off to one side, scattered the chicken food about, and once the birds had flocked to it, he went back to the scene of destruction.  He dropped down to his haunches and looked close at a single, large paw print stamped in blood churned earth.

A Dog, Adam thought.  He straightened up.  Damned big one too.

He checked the birds’ water and then he went back to the house.

Michelle was in the kitchen by the stove.  She was holding a polishing cloth in her hand, and she paused and smiled at him.  The smile quickly dropped away.  “What’s wrong?”

“A dog got into the hen house this morning,” he said, putting the feed bucket down by the back door.  “Must have happened when we went out for our walk.”

“Not coyotes?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “There’s a single track out there, and it’s huge.  Too big for a coyote.”

“No one around here has a big dog,” Michelle said, brushing a lock of black hair back behind her ear.

“Must be feral,” Adam said.  “Maybe living in Mason.”

“You going to call animal control over in Rye?” she asked.

“No,” he said.  “They won’t do anything.  People don’t care if a few chickens get taken.  I’ll track it as far as I can, see if I can take care of the damned thing myself.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Just bring your phone.  I can drive in and pick you up rather than having you walk all the way back.”

“Thanks, Sweetheart,” Adam said.  He stepped close, gave her a quick kiss on the mouth and then left for the family room.  From the gun cabinet, he took out his pump action shotgun, a box of shells, and he grabbed his phone off of the charger.  He quietly loaded the weapon, and tucked the box into a pocket of his jacket along with his phone.

Adam cradled the shotgun in the crook of his arm and left the room.  Michelle was back at the stove, and he couldn’t see what she was so focused on.  The appliance positively glowed as the warm morning light streamed in through the window over the sink.

“Be safe,” she said as Adam went to the back door.  “And call when you can.”

“I will,” he replied, and he left the house.

Quick steps brought him to the back of the hen house, and he saw a hole in the chicken wire.  On the other side, he found another paw print on a small game trail opposite of the break.  Adam focused on the path before him, and he started to track the dog.

Broken branches.  Disturbed leaves.  The occasional mark of a paw.  A bit of fur.

And as he had thought, the trail continued on northwest, toward Mason.

Soon, he caught sight of a brick chimney.  It stood alone, without a house around it.  The remains of a foundation protruded from the earth.

In less than five minutes, he found himself on an asphalt road, much of it hidden by fallen leaves and broken branches.  The remnants of houses appeared on either side, and occasional side roads branched off.

But the tracks of the dog continued on.

The trail was easy to follow, leaves kicked up as the dog had made its way straight down the center of the road.

Finally, Adam came to Main Street, and he paused.

The stretch of road frightened him.

Only a dozen or so buildings populated the street, and none of them looked as though they belonged in a horror movie, but there was something off about the structures.  Some of the windows were broken.  Some were boarded up.  All of them were faded, the signs difficult to read.

It was the total abandonment.

The emptiness of the town.

People had left.  No one really knew why, and former residents were hard-pressed to admit they had ever lived in Mason.  Like any town or city, it had its morbid spots.  The old Crowe Bed and Breakfast.  The Mason Cemetery.  Hell, someone had even told him once the library was haunted.

Adam scoffed at the memory of the story, and he shook his head.

The dog suddenly trotted out between the old gas station and the hardware store.

A great big Dobermann.  Lean and dark, the ears clipped, and the tail cropped.  The dog swung its long muzzle towards him, and Adam could see the dried blood on the animal’s snout.

“I see you,” Adam murmured.  He swung the shotgun up to his shoulder, pumped a round into the chamber, and fired even as the dog broke into a sprint.

The shot missed, but not by much.  The solid round hammered into a telephone pole and bit out a chunk of treated wood.

He followed the dog and got ready to pull the trigger, but it leaped through the empty window of a building.

“Damn it,” Adam spat.  He lowered the shotgun slightly and walked forward.  He angled towards the building and caught a glimpse of an old sign over the door.

Mason Montessori School for Gifted Children.

Adam sneered at the idea of gifted children, kept a wary eye on the window the dog had jumped through, and tried the handle.

The door was unlocked.

He let himself in and stood in a room with small chairs and small desks.  Empty shelves, built at the perfect height for young children, lined the walls.  Faded letters and numbers clung everywhere, and spider webs filled the corners of the ceiling.  Leaves lay scattered about the tiled floor, and a few bones of various ages were intermingled.

It was the dog’s den.

But where’s the dog? Adam thought.

A broken door, which hung haphazardly from the top hinge, was the only other way out of the room.

Adam smiled to himself and approached it cautiously.

He heard a soft whine, followed by several scratches, and he knew he had the dog.

With a deep breath, he kept the shotgun steady and pushed the door open.

The room beyond was dimly lit.  The light from the front of the building barely breached the darkness.  At the edge of his vision, Adam saw the dog.  It slipped into a darker shadow to the right and whined again.

“I’ve got you,” he whispered, pumping a round into the chamber.

“What are you doing?” a small voice asked

Adam paused, shocked.  The dog’s not alone?

The words had issued from the same place the dog had disappeared into.

“What are you doing?” the voice asked again.

It was a little boy.  Maybe even a girl.

Adam couldn’t be sure.

He lowered the shotgun, glad he hadn’t just fired into the shadow.

“I’m chasing a dog,” Adam said, squinting and trying to see.

All he could make out was the dog.  It sat quietly.

“He’s my dog,” the child said.

“Your dog ate my chickens, son,” Adam said.

“I’m a girl,” the child said angrily.  “My name’s Becca.”

“Well, Becca, your dog,” Adam began.

“Achilles,” she said.

“What?” Adam asked.

“His name is Achilles.”

“Well,” Adam said, trying not to be frustrated.  “Achilles ate my chickens.”

“He was hungry.”

Adam rolled his eyes.  “Doesn’t matter, Becca.  Can’t be eating my chickens.  And besides.  You two can’t be out here.  Do your parents know where you are?  Did you run away?”

“He was hungry,” she said again.

Jesus help me, Adam thought, sighing.  “Becca, did you run away from home?”

“I am home,” she said.

“Becca,” Adam said.

“Achilles is my dog.  We’re home.  He was hungry,” she said.  Then, in an angry voice, she asked, “Were you going to shoot my dog?”

“He killed my chickens,” Adam said defensively.  “Now listen, I’m going to call the police.  They’ll come and get you.”

“What about Achilles?” she asked.

“They’ll take him to the shelter,” he answered.

“What’s the shelter?  Is it like the pound?” she asked.

“Yes,” Adam said.

“No.”

“You can’t say ‘no,’ Becca,” Adam said angrily.  He took his phone out of his pocket, hit the flashlight app and held it up to look at her.

Achilles sat perfectly still, his ears up and his eyes trained on Adam.

There was no girl.

“Put the flashlight away,” Becca said, her voice coming from beside the dog.

Adam swallowed nervously and looked around.  Then, down by the dog’s right paw, he saw a small, stuffed bear.  The toy was dressed in a faded pink tutu, and it wore a tiara.  Its fur was matted, and one of its glass eyes was gone.

“I said put it away!” she screamed.

The phone went dead in his hand.  Adam blinked, tried to focus and attempted to turn the flashlight app back on.

It didn’t work.

The dog whined.

“You tried to hurt Achilles,” Becca said, and her voice was closer.

Adam dropped his phone and held onto his shotgun with both hands.

“And you want to have him put in the pound,” she hissed.

She was behind him.

Adam spun around and something hit him in the small of his back.  He stumbled, hit the wall and fell.

But he didn’t let go of the shotgun.

He scrambled into a seated position and kept the weapon in front of him.

Small hands closed over his.

The feeling was terrible, ice-penetrating his flesh, digging deep into his bones.  It seemed as though his fingernails were going to be ripped out at their roots.  He tried to shake the hands away, but he couldn’t even let go of the shotgun.

And then the dog was there.

Adam could feel Achilles’ breath on his face and smell the rot of old flesh caught between the dog’s teeth.  A low, primal growl settled in the dog’s throat and raised goosebumps along Adam’s arms.

“You wanted to kill my dog,” Becca whispered.  “You’re not nice.  I bet you’d try and steal my Princess Bear too.  You’re mean.  Mean.

The shotgun moved in his hands.  The barrel rose up, and he fought it, tried to push back.

He couldn’t.

Becca was too strong.

A scream erupted from his throat as she continued to bring the weapon up and his trigger finger broke.  His wrist was twisted out of its socket, and so was his elbow, and then his shoulder.

He gagged on the pain and writhed against the wall.

She wouldn’t let him go.

The cold steel barrel of the shotgun slammed into his right eye and then he shrieked as she continued to push it back.  The orb was forced out of the socket.  His arm twisted beyond any semblance of normalcy.

“You were going to hurt my dog,” Becca whispered.  “My dog.”

Adam felt her small, dead hand push down on his mangled finger.  He looked over and saw a young girl, perhaps seven or eight.  She was deathly pale, her eyes empty and black.  Her blue lips were pressed tightly together and she was thin.  Painfully so.

“My dog,” she hissed.

She started to tighten his finger on the trigger, and Adam realized, with the way she had twisted his arm, it would look as though he had committed suicide.

And then the shotgun fired.

*  *  *

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