I sit at the kitchen table on my laptop as Corey bathes the stray in the bathroom. I look up Alex Smith on Facebook after discovering Brad’s last name. I found it by looking in Corey’s chequebook. My husband is old school in that way, preferring paper transactions over e-transfer. I discover a lot of useless details about Alex, but one interesting thing about him is that he is a foster kid. He is living at a group home. Out of curiosity, I research everything I can about it. It doesn’t look like the nicest place to live. He must be a pretty depressed kid living in that shitty arrangement. I wonder for a moment if Brad was from a similar background – being passed around to different foster parents until he aged out of the system. I find Brad’s profile on Alex’s friends list. His profile picture is smiley. I should have known he was compensating for depression and a bad upbringing. No one in life is ever really that happy. He looks like one of those portrait models on the sheets of paper they put in picture frames. I check out his wall and there are a few people asking what happened to him.
“I happened,” I say.
“You okay, Marie?” asks Corey.
The sound of claws on smooth hardwood flooring draw my attention to the dog. He is clean and his fur is damp. He doesn’t look so bad without mud and matted fur taking away from the corn silk colour of his coat. He sits next to Corey with a wide smile on his face as he pants. He looks like he’s part golden retriever.
“He smells better,” I remark.
“It took me half an hour just to brush out the mats in his fur, but he took the bathing with dignity. His paw looks like it’s strained. Nothing is broken.”
“Lucky him. At least he won’t stink up the place now.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“About what? If I am okay?”
I just want him to go away, but he’s standing there staring at me like a brute.
“I don’t know. Life is weird sometimes.”
“You can say that again.”
He finally breaks out of his trance and goes to the fridge to take out some boxed leftovers from our various nights out at restaurants.
“You like chicken and rice, buddy?” he asks the dog.
He carefully strips the chicken bones of meat and then puts the box on the floor. The dog devours the food.
“Well, I’ll see you later then,” says Corey, looking from the mutt to me. “I’ll be off early tomorrow. I won’t be back for a few days. My flights will take me to Seattle.”
“Oh, you’re taking the dog with you in the morning, right?”
He runs a hand through his dark hair. “Yeah I’ll take him. Unless you’re okay to keep him here for a few days.”
“What? Why would I want a stray dog in our house?”
He rolls his eyes. “I thought so.”
He goes upstairs shaking his head. I glare at him thinking he is lucky he hasn’t been murdered by me yet.
I turn my attention back to Brad’s Facebook profile. He doesn’t have much on there. Just a few pictures and the high school he graduated from. He didn’t even put in the university he was attending.
I close the window and start to do some online shopping. I need some new outfits and I feel like browsing for some inspiration. As I look at clothes on Neiman Marcus’s website, the mongrel inches closer to me.
“Oh, you want to get close to a psychopath, do you?” I coo sarcastically.
He doesn’t seem unnerved by my cold tone. What a strange animal. He must have come from a pretty horrible life if he wants to please me. Usually animals, especially dogs and cats, stay well away from me. I have no desire to pet him or engage in any activity with him. I continue scrolling through different fashion sites while he sits quietly watching me. I realize it is almost two in the morning by the time I get bored with shopping.
I stand up to stretch then suddenly the dog’s ears perk up. He trots past me and stares out the window, growling. I am slightly intrigued to see what he finds so interesting. I turn off the kitchen light so I can peer outside. Movement catches my attention and the dog’s. He starts barking. I try to follow the moving body with my eyes, but it’s so dark that it distorts my view of who or what it is. I grab a sharpened kitchen knife off the kitchen counter and open the door to get a better look at who I need to call the police on.
The dog rushes out the door and into the inky darkness barking like a rabid beast. I realize the futility in telling the idiot to stop barking, so I walk outside. A slim figure in a hoodie and track pants does a run jump at the fence and climbs over it.
“Hey!” I call.
I bolt for the gate and see it’s already open. I run out and the dog follows me before racing ahead. The sound of running footsteps and the maniacal barking shake up the night’s stillness. This is working out to my advantage; the dog could easily catch up to my unwelcome guest and make him stumble. The shadowy figure flees to the woods and the dog chases him, but it’s an awkward run because of his sprained foot. Still holding my knife, I jog after them into the dark forest. The moon is not out tonight. I will have to rely on my eyes adjusting to the dim. Despite my strange dreams, the dark does not bother me. Terrible things happen at all times of the day. Whoever I am pursuing is afraid of being caught. He is in the wrong and I am in the right. I have the upper hand and I am not afraid.
I listen for the sound of the hooded trespasser or the dog. It has gone quiet. I hope the dog takes him down. My mouth waters as I imagine toying with him. My grip tightens on the weapon in my hand.
A chorus of wolf howls shatter the momentary silence. I freeze. They are too close. I start back home walking as lightly as possible. I know that I am being paranoid, but I would rather not tempt fate. I walk a little faster. Home isn’t far away, though it seems to take a lot longer getting back there than it did to reach the woods.
Growling sounds close by. I look back expecting to see the mutt with a piece of the coward’s clothing in his mouth. Instead, I see nothing but darkness.
I know something is there. I step backward to see if it creates a reaction. That is when I see movement in the distance. Wolves. Their paws patter on the ground as they move toward me.
I move in the direction of the river as my heart beats so hard I wonder if it will explode out of my body. I have my knife. I can slit the throats of the ones that get too close. They don’t run at me. Instead, they inch forward and hover for a few moments. They must sense my aggression.
My gaze rests on the largest member of the pack as I keep moving toward the tributary. He seems to be the leader as the others follow him. He is weighing his options like I am. The water is close. The singing rapids fill my ears. I relax. I am so close that I can sprint for the water and jump in if I need to.
A sharp yelp breaks the silence and the wolves break into a run toward me. I look away from the shadowy four-legged figures and pump my legs as I move faster than I ever have in my life. Once I am at the riverbank, I jump into the icy water. The shock of being submerged in cold, rushing water makes me lose my breath. I let go of the knife in my hands and swim with all my might to reach the water’s surface. My head breaks the watery barrier and I cough into the air. I suck in a deep breath and try in vain to fight against the strong current.
The water carries me so fast and my skin feels so numb from the icy temperature. I take a big breath of air before the water pulls on my long legs, forcing me under. I fight to keep my head above the surface, but the force of nature wins. My muscles burn as I struggle. The water is dark, chilling. It runs so fast that it doesn’t seem real. My lungs are on fire and I can no longer hold my breath. My shoes graze the muddy bottom of the river; I can’t move my limbs. I am being dragged like a piece of heavy driftwood.
Something bright breaks through the pitch black. All I can do is watch as the glowing form of the boy I killed floats toward me. He shakes his head at me with a smirk.
“Tsk tsk,” he says.
I will die if I let out my breath. I can’t talk; I can only listen.
“A cold death for a cold bitch,” he says. “Maybe karma does exist.”
He stops a few feet away from me.
My body feels like it is on fire with ice blue flames. He reaches for me with both arms and draws me close to him until our chests touch. He wraps his arms around me, tightening the hug, and brings his lips to my ear. “I just wanted to protect you, Marie. You have robbed me of my life. How am I supposed to be at peace with this?”
I can feel the pain in his garbled voice. He was needlessly murdered because he wanted to help me. Now I will drown just like he did.
“Give it one more try and see,” he says, fading away.
I am surrounded again by the black void.
“Wait!” I cry, reaching out for him.
I breathe in water and it burns my nose and lungs like liquid nitrogen on bare skin. I choke and scream as the frigid fluid fills my airways. My feet are touching the bottom of the river. I focus beyond the suffocating agony and squat. With all my might, I push my feet off the floor and swim upward. White stars fill my vision and I suddenly feel very warm. When I am sure that my mind will fall into oblivion forever, my face rises above the water. I take in a desperate breath of air and swim weakly for the shore as I choke and puke.
The water is calmer downstream so it is easier to swim, but I can’t see anything around me. For all I know, the wolves are waiting on land. Maybe the trespasser I chased is standing ashore with plans to kill me. I don’t care so long as I get out of the water.
When my hands touch the mud in shallower waters, I cry out in relief. I feel like I am barely alive as my body shivers like a dry leaf in the wind. I force myself to stand on trembling legs and take clumsy steps until my feet leave the water. Exposed to the night air, a terrible wave of cold hits me. I walk on sand and grass then drop to my knees, shivering. I wrap my arms around myself. I have never been so frigid in all my life. A whimpering, four-legged creature approaches me from the ebony abyss. It is the stray.
He walks up to me wagging his tail. His wet tongue warms a small part of my face as he licks it.
“You came for me?” I ask raggedly.
The mutt nudges me with his head and I wrap my arms around his body. He feels like a toasty blanket. He doesn’t move away as I shiver in the wretched darkness. I marvel at his loyalty. He lets me hold him, still licking my face and neck. I hug him tighter as an uncontrollable tidal wave of sadness hits me. It is so painful that a wretched sob escapes from the pit of my stomach.
“What is happening to me?” I cry.
I never feel sad and I definitely never cry. I am an empty shell of a woman, barely human, a cold-hearted killer, but right now I feel something so disturbing that I wonder if I am dying. For the first time in my life, I feel like someone is squeezing the life out of my heart. It seems like my chest will cave in as I think of Brad. Was his sickening kindness so genuine that it still lives on to torment me?
He is dead because of me. No matter how many times my mind resurrects his memory, he is never coming back to life. Only the ghost of him remains in my twisted mind. I lean against the dog. He sits up tall and strong as I bury my face into his soft fur. The thought of walking back home in the darkness with hungry wolves in the woods makes me shudder, but I stand on shaking legs. My limbs feel like jelly, but I force myself to walk. I don’t want to lie shivering by the water until dawn or death. I need to move in order to stay warm. The dog is at my side and he is alert. I can’t recall anyone ever sticking by me after a difficult situation. An animal that I would have kicked and left to die in the darkness is being loyal to me. I marvel at this as we journey through the forest. This night is close to the worst one I have ever had, but I am not alone. I have a friend with me this time.