By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R. Hunt
//Source. This is part one of a series. Part two coming tomorrow.
Yesterday I got a new dog.
Well, an old dog, really. I rescued him from a shelter. I’d like to pretend I’m one of those Jane Goodall ‘do anything for the animals’ types, but if I’m honest, I was looking to adopt more for my own benefit than for the dog’s.
The thing is, I’ve been ill. For quite a long time, actually. Physically I’m fine (maybe a tad on the weighty side), but in my head… well, my doctor called it ‘suffering acute psychological trauma’. Or in the words of the gentleman at the bus station last week, ‘being a full on nut-case’. I’ve always had a few issues, I think most people have, but it reached new depths when my dad died a few months ago.
It was suicide. I’d really rather not go into it.
Anyway, the doctor had me on a cocktail of pills (which I felt was ironic, considering the incident that had got me seeing her) and we were talking about other steps I might take to ‘improve my emotional regulation’ – or in other words, to start being happier. I mentioned I didn’t have any pets, and she said it could be a great step to adopt one, particularly since one of my big issues since losing Dad had been the loneliness. Apparently caring for another living creature doesn’t just provide companionship but also a sense of purpose and of fulfilment.
And who am I to disobey a doctor’s orders?
So there I was at the shelter, marching up and down row after row of bouncing puppies of every shape and colour you could expect, each of them adorable in their own way. I could easily have picked any one of them to come home with me.
But I didn’t.
Because when I got to the last kennel in the shelter, this scraggly little mutt looked me square in the eyes. I mean he really looked at me, like he was seeing parts of myself that even I didn’t know about. I stepped a little closer and held out my hand.
“Hey there, little buddy,” I said, “I’m Dan.”
A moment passed, and then this grey furred mongrel – I still couldn’t tell you what breed – pulled himself up and strode over to me. He licked my fingers once, and then sat by the gate, staring at me as if to say “My bags are packed, let’s go”.
The staff were amazed. Apparently this dog, Gus, hadn’t so much as sniffed a single other human – or dog, for that matter – since he had been picked up by the shelter months ago. They’d never seen him take interest in any potential owner before. I was rather flattered.
Unlike with the other dogs, no one could tell me how old Gus was. They took an educated guess, though, putting him easily in his mid-teens. He was the kind of dog you’d expect to walk with a limp in every leg. The kind of dog you’d think would have his fur fall out in patches if you scratched his ears. The kind of dog you could imagine went blind years ago, and was finding his way around based on his fading sense of smell alone.
In a way – and this is probably going to sound horrible – I think I settled on him as a sort of trial pet. I’ve never had a dog before, and I thought Gus would be good practice. After all, he was likely going to be dead in a year or two, and then I could start fresh with a puppy and know what to expect. A bit like when parents get their kids a goldfish or a hamster as a test before buying Fido next Christmas. Anyway, the staff were delighted to finally see the old dog get a home. If nothing else, I’d make sure his final years were comfortable.
Yet it wasn’t long before I decided he must be younger than he looked. His movements were very deliberate, his eyes always alert to his surroundings. He hadn’t got the bouncing energy of a puppy, but he kept up a decent trot on our walk home, stopping each time I did and then setting off again as soon as I continued.
Completely obedient, and I never had to say a word.
I expected him to investigate the house when he first got back. Sniff out his new territory, search for other dogs or humans. Instead he just walked straight up to the doggy bed I’d put out in the front room and lay himself down in it. From there, he watched me unblinkingly. I got him some food and water, brought out some toys and sat by his bed, scratching him behind the ears.
He didn’t do anything. He didn’t eat his food, didn’t wag his tail, didn’t make a single noise.
He just stared at me.
I was a little worried that he hadn’t touched his food, but I could hardly force him, so when it came time for me to go to sleep, I placed his bowl right next to his bed and went upstairs. He didn’t try to follow me, but each time I walked past the door I could see his eyes catching the light, staring at me.
That night, I dreamt of Gus.
In my dream, I woke up and went downstairs to check on him. He was sat waiting for me, watching my face with a keen interest. As soon as I got close enough to touch him, he turned and trotted away. I was disappointed at first; was he trying to say he didn’t like me? Had I done something wrong? But when he reached the doorway, after giving it a careful sniff, he peered back at me with a very clear expression. It said “follow me”. This was as clear to me as if it had been spoken aloud. So I did. I followed him.
Gus took me through every room of the house, sniffing at each open door before moving to the next, and before leaving each room he would turn to look at me again, like he was checking I was still there. This seemed to go on for hours, through room after room after room, through kitchens and bathrooms, bedrooms and basements, never passing through the same room twice, and never reusing the same doorway. I was so fascinated by Gus’ process – his methodical plodding and sniffing and looking back – that I didn’t realise for some time that we had left my current house entirely. I was pulled from my trance by a sudden burst of laughter, and my attention snapped to a small television against the far wall. On the screen, some sitcom family I vaguely recognised were having dinner. Canned laughter spilled from the speakers again.
This wasn’t my television. It hadn’t been for almost a decade.
I became intensely aware of my surroundings. The faded carpet beneath my feet. The wallpaper painted over in white. The sofa with a cushion carefully hiding a stain. Since the start of the dream, me and Gus had never been outside, and we had never travelled anywhere except from one room to the next, but somehow, we were now walking through the flat where I had spent my university years. Still Gus trotted ahead, sniffing at every door as he passed through. I followed, leaving the laughter of the television behind me. We passed through my grandmother’s house, where I had stayed for one summer. Through the hospital wing from when I had broken my leg. Through my parents’ holiday caravan. Through my first home.
He stood rigid, his nose pointing like an accusing finger at the final door that lay in our path. A door I recognised immediately, though I hadn’t seen it in years. A sign was fixed on the front in the pattern of a shining sun. It read DANIEL’S ROOM.
And it stood ajar.
Behind me, I knew, was every room we had walked through to get here. Every room from every house I had lived in since I was born. Each with their doors standing wide open, and none of them opened by us. I knew, somehow, that if I looked behind me at that moment, I would see them all in a great line, see right back to my current bedroom, back to where the dream began. But I couldn’t turn around. The very thought filled me with an unexplainable dread. My fingers shivered. My breath turned to mist.
Gus was watching me.
And he spoke.
It was not, in any sense of the term, human speech. There were no identifiable words, and the sounds that emerged from his throat were definitely dog sounds. But it was… every dog sound, all in one noise. It was a bark, a growl, a whine and a howl, mixed impossibly together into something almost painful to hear. Not loud, but somehow a sound that resonated through my entire body. A sound made with purpose. A sound I was supposed to understand. Gus made this sound once. Twice. Three times.
Then he fell silent. Whatever he had tried to communicate to me was finished. I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t understood, but I was scared – terrified – that he might leave me in this place, this corridor of a thousand rooms. As strange as it seems outside of the logic of the dream, I knew I wouldn’t be able to find my way home again without Gus. I couldn’t risk upsetting him. So I nodded. Seemingly satisfied, the dog turned and led me back the way we had come. I didn’t dare look ahead as we walked, so I locked my eyes on the ground instead.
That was a mistake. Beneath my feet were multiple sets of footprints, overlapping and melding in to one another. My first thought was that they were mine and Gus’ steps, but that couldn’t have been the case; these prints were all facing in our current direction, heading back through the rooms and, perhaps eventually, to my bed.
That thought really started to scare me when the footsteps stopped being human. I had narrowed the trails down to about three or four different people, at least one having the small prints of a child, when I started to notice something else among them. Some wider footprints. Twisted impressions from an offshoot of bone. Deep claw marks.
Whatever had made these marks… was it waiting for us ahead?
Gus led the way, which was fortunate, because otherwise I might have stopped right there, and lived the rest of my dream-life in my grandmother’s kitchen. I kept close to the little dog, and was relieved to see that the monstrous footsteps abruptly ended part way through our second family home. By this point, just two trails remained, the prints of human feet, one set larger and the other, while not those of a child, still very much smaller.
More rooms passed. More houses, more history. I closed every door behind me, finding the process somehow comforting, putting barriers between ourselves and the footprints of the unseen monster. But doors didn’t stop it. Before my eyes, with each step we took, the larger human footprints were transforming. With each new room, they became more twisted, until they were indistinguishable from those we had left behind. I sped up, urging Gus on so that we could escape this near-eternal corridor that was closing in on us from all sides.
Gus was galloping now, ensuring he passed through each door before I slammed it closed. The size of the monster’s prints grew and grew until they nearly engulfed the floor.
And then… they stopped.
We had made it back to my home. My real home.
I doubled over, catching my breath. The monster’s footprints didn’t seem to have made it past the backdoor. Across my kitchen tiles, only the final set of human steps remained, trailing through my home and up the stairs that lay ahead, back to my bedroom at the top.
I couldn’t see Gus anywhere.
Each step forward was a monumental effort, and the journey up to my bedroom door felt longer than the entire corridor I had left behind. At last, though, I managed to clasp my hand around the door handle. Pushing through, I practically leapt the final distance up to my bed. My hands rested on its soft, warm covers. I threw back the sheets. Then, just before I crawled inside, I looked down.
I don’t know what made me do it.
There were footsteps in my room. I had followed them up the stairs.
And now, my feet rested directly over two of them.
The sharp, gnarled footsteps of the monster.
I woke up drenched in sweat. It was early in the morning, earlier than I usually wake. I knew it had all been a dream, but the first thing I did was check my floor. There were no footsteps there. Relieved, I stepped out onto the landing and peered down into the front room. Gus was sat in his bed, and he was staring right back at me.
He hadn’t touched his food.