A little bit of darkness to brighten your day
Emily slid the key from the lock and turned the handle, bracing herself for the overjoyed battering…
But it didn’t come.
She nudged the door shut with her foot and set the keys in the dish, calling as she flicked through the mail, “Jax? I’m home boy!”
When several seconds passed with no answering bark, no scrabbling of paws on linoleum, she paused and looked up.
“Jax?” She added a whistle this time.
At first, nothing. Then, from upstairs, muffled thuds followed by what sounded like a pained whimper. A sour-acid wave of worry flooded her stomach. Dropping the junk mail and bills to scatter the front hall floor, she rushed up the carpeted steps. She flung back the half-open bedroom door on the right, expecting to find Jax on his pillow in the corner.
But the room was empty.
Her uncertain voice hovered in the still room. She forced a lighter tone so the dog wouldn’t pick up on her stress and called for him again, eyes darting, searching, knowing all the while it was pointless; the room did not have many places large enough to conceal a 90-pound German Shepherd, besides the fact that the ever-exuberant Jax wasn’t typically a hider. Concern twisted her stomach again, warring with pre-emptive irritation: He was either dreadfully sick or he had done something so disobedient, so heinous...
A flicker of movement caught her eye, the curtain’s flutter revealing a gaping hole where a screen should have been. She crossed to the window, left half-open that morning to air out the scent of wet dog after his bath yesterday. Sure enough, the screen was askew, shoved out of frame and so badly bent, she’d probably have to replace it. No wonder that jerk dog was lying low.
Jaw clenched, she slammed the glass window pane down with more force than necessary, then paused. Those noises she’d heard earlier… they hadn’t been coming from the roof, had they? A little crease furrowed the skin between her eyebrows as she scanned the porch roof, looking for evidence that Jax had squeezed out the window and gotten trapped out there.
Or worse… could he have fallen? It was only an 8-foot drop, max, but…
From behind her, a smash and the tinkle of showering glass.
She whirled, hurrying to the bedroom’s open door just as Jax’s low groan died away in her office across the hall.
She hurried down the hall and stepped into the darkened room, groping for the desk lamp. Nothing. The windowless room stayed dark. She squinted into the dimness for the light she knew was there, the lamp she’d turned on and off a hundred, a thousand times, but her hand found nothing but air. The small amount of light seeping around her figure in the doorway only deepened the shadows beneath the tables lining the walls.
From the back of the room came the sound of Jax’s heavy panting interspersed with an occasional soft, keeling whine. Even bending low to peer beneath the desk, though, all she could make out was his hunched silhouette. Clucking, she attempted to coax the huddled dog out but he whimpered and refused to budge.
Arm still outstretched, she straightened and took another step into the gloom. Her eyes had begun adjusting but it was still difficult to make out much of anything and she started toward the computer monitor, wondering whether turning it on would improve visibility. When her foot came down, something crunched. Recoiling, she stepped back to examine the jagged shards beneath her shoe.
How on earth had the dumb dog managed to break the lamp? And how badly had he cut himself? Was he going to need stitches?
She heard him shift position and his heavy breathing intensified. Her frustration gave way to pity.
“Oh, Jax, buddy. Poor boy. Are you hurt?” she crooned. She’d have to go call and see whether the veterinary office was still open. Clicking her tongue, she stretched out her hand again. “C’mere, baby dog. C’mere and let m—”
She was interrupted by the sound of her front door opening, followed by barking.
Brow furrowed, she turned to listen. Jax whimpered behind her and the soft thud of his movement was almost drowned out by the sound of her mother’s voice from downstairs, “Emily, honey? What’s all this – QUIET!—why’s this mail all over the floor?”
“I’m upstairs, Mom,” she called. “Hold on!” In the darkness, the rough, warm wetness of Jax’s tongue rasped over the back of her hand, his teeth grazing against her skin.
She spun, but it was already too late. The dog had retreated back to his hiding place in the far reaches beneath the desk.
Uncertain whether she should leave him when he was clearly wounded and uneasy, she hesitated at the office door, but the barking downstairs had intensified. The snarls of her mother’s cocker spaniel competed with the woman’s scolding, making it hard for Emily to think straight.
“Mom, can you shut Sophie up?!”
“It’s not Sophie who’s making all this fuss, it’s Jax! He’s acting crazy!”
Trickles of ice crawled down Emily’s spine. “… W-what? Jax?”
“He won’t come inside.” Her mother’s impatient voice was distant, hard to make out over the blood pounding in her ears. “Just keeps standing on the porch, growling and… Emily, would you please just come down here and get your dog to –”
But Emily was already running, feet barely skimming the stairs as she took them three at a time. She arrived at the bottom with a sob-like gasp, lurching to a stop in front of her harried-looking mother. Emily’s brain struggled to piece together the scene before her: her mother, bent over in a pink tracksuit as she gathered the envelopes carpeting the floor, her other hand struggling with the leash, trying to tug an uncooperative Sophie through the wide open front door.
The angry spaniel refused to cooperate. Feet planted, she hunched next to Jax, the pair of them snarling through bared fangs into the house, refusing to cross the threshold. The fur along their spines stood on end, a look that would have been almost comical on Sophie with her pink rhinestone collar had it not been for the vicious expressions they wore.
“Bad puppies!” Her mother scolded. “See? They’re being insane, I don’t know…” She trailed off as her eyes took in Emily’s face. “Honey? Are you okay?”
Emily opened her mouth but only a dry rasp emerged. The back of her hand burned. She looked down to discover she’d been unconsciously scrubbing it against her jeans, and forced herself to stop and drop it to her side.
Fighting the urge to scurry to the kitchen and scour her hands with steel wool, she tried again, “Y-you had Jax?”
“Honey, I left you a note on the counter by the back door. I swung by on the way to the dog park to take him with us… why? What’s –”
“I got off early. I came in through the front, to bring in the mail,” Emily explained weakly. “I… Mom, I think we need to call animal control, there’s –”
From overhead, then, came the sudden sounds of scampering across the length of the upstairs, followed by more shattering glass directly overhead, startlingly loud this time even from the floor below. Emily’s mother shrieked and dug her fingernails into her daughter’s arm.
The dogs’ barking intensified to a fever pitch and took on an edge of desperation, drowning out her mother’s fevered questions as she struggled to make herself heard over the cacophony. Without warning, Jax bolted through the door, yelping and snarling, to hurtle up the stairs toward the source of the disturbance. Emily lunged but his collar slipped through her fingers.
Wrenching her arm loose from her babbling mother’s panicked death-grip, she dashed after her dog. “Call 911!”
“Jax?!” Rather than the firm, commanding tones to which he’d been trained to respond, her voice came out desperate, quavering. He couldn’t have heard her anyway over the sound of his own furious guttural howls, their harsh lupine quality echoed even in tiny Sophie’s belligerent yips from the floor below.
Terrified that his roars would morph into cries of pain, she yelled for him again, following the sounds of his barks into her bedroom. She rounded the corner to find him standing at the window, hind legs splayed on a carpet blanketed in glass shards. Through the jagged hole in the window she had shut less than an hour ago, he growled his ferocious warning to fleeing things unseen.
The relief that washed over her when she saw the dog was safe almost drowned her remaining alarm. Almost. Her mother’s voice drifted up the stairs and she stepped backwards out of the room to better hear the shaky pleas for assistance, presumably to an emergency dispatcher.
Only then did Emily turn her head toward the office, where now, a striking dark rust against the beige carpeting just outside the door, was the smudged, bloody print of a human hand.