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Before I wake
The mutt pulled at its frayed red nylon leash, eager to delve into the forest once again. It had been awhile since he’d been allowed to explore the outside of his pen, so he pulled hard against the choker collar, seemingly unaware at the pronged teeth digging into the skin of his neck. Looking down at the dog, Lane could only scowl, the thought of that collar on his neck enough motivation for him to reprimand the animal for being so overeager.
“Hardy! Cut it out!” he commanded, yanking back on the leash and sending the dog backwards a bit, wheezing dramatically.
This didn’t deter him from trying again, pulling the leash taught and arching his neck so that the tips of his front feet barely touched the ground. Lane rolled his eyes. The dog had never been completely right in the head, he was sure of this. A gift from his father from the Christmas before last, the dog was just one in a litter of six born to his uncle’s redbone coonhound. An accidental litter however. No one was at all certain where the rogue male came from or even what breed it had been. Hardy and the other pups carried all the characteristics of the average redbone, but he was still referred to as a “mutt.” He was trouble from the first moment Lane tore the wrapping paper off of the crate. Being fifteen at the time, a dog wasn’t really what he had in mind as far as Christmas presents. The fact that his father hadn’t paid a dime for the thing almost made him angry. His uncle was all too eager to get rid of the little mutts and wouldn’t think to charge for them. Lane got nothing he asked for that year. The Xbox was simply out of the question, the car was irrational because everyone knew he would be driving the old Ford pickup that had been in the family for ages, and anything else he asked for was just “too expensive.” So they’d taken the cheaper route and hadn’t spent anything on him for Christmas. Even though he would’ve never let on, it wounded him deeply because he took this on a more personal level, not able to see that money was hard to come by for his parents.
Tearing back the paper he couldn’t mask the surprised look on his face. Of course, he had no idea what it was from the size of the package, but the last thing he would’ve thought it to be was a puppy. It was the last thing he wanted. Sure, his two younger sisters would’ve wanted it in a heartbeat, but not him. He was past that stage. There was no need to fake a reaction. His parents obviously mistook his surprise for the happy surprise instead of the you’ve got to be kidding me surprised look. Fine by him. If it would make them feel better about giving their oldest child the shaft, then so be it. It had been hard for him to control himself at that moment because he felt the urge to grimace, almost scowl at the dog staring at him through the wire mesh crate. It was silent then, from the time he opened it for about thirty seconds, before it realized, of course, that there was an audience and that attention could be gained from bad behavior. Howling and whining pathetically and obnoxiously too, it gnawed uselessly at the cage, turning the heads of the rest of the family. His two sisters, previously preoccupied with their new dolls and clothes and other toys, squealed as they turned to verify that the sound they heard was, indeed, coming from a live, squirming puppy. And their excitement went far beyond Lane’s. The girls, Teresa who was ten, and Sophie, six, scooted across the paper-strewn carpet on their knees, risking rug burn, all the while squealing, “Pup-eeeeeeee!!” They were at the cage in a second, fiddling with the door and prying it open carelessly so as to grab at the little creature which had pressed itself against the door, making it difficult to open.
It was at this time that Lane, for whatever reason, felt the need to get possessive. He didn’t even want the dumb thing, but at least he knew it was his and they could go play with their store bought presents.
“Hey, hey! He’s my present, back off!” he warned, stiff-arming them so as to keep them from getting any further with the door. Even as the words escaped his mouth he knew how childish they sounded. Like a two year old after they first learn to word ‘mine’. They sat back, pouting.
True, it was his dog. But he didn’t even get to name it. If he had been able to, he definitely wouldn’t have picked the name “Hardy,” although the name fit the neurotic personality of the mutt anyway. He was interested more in a classic dog name, like Duke or Rusty. He, along with the other four members of his family, was allowed to put his names in for consideration. Into a hat that is. Luck named the poor creature. It had been a fight from the start. As soon as he suggested Duke, it was shot down by one of his sisters who preferred a tamer name. Their suggestions included Pumpkin, Penny, Copper, and Daphne, like off of the cartoon show Scooby Doo that they faithfully watched. Never mind that the dog was a boy. Being favored like they were over Lane, they were allowed to put whatever names they wanted in the hat. His mother suggested Hardy, attaching some kind of made up reasoning that, like the Hardy Boys, the dog would be sniffing out clues and such. Whatever made her think that was a good name for a coonhound was beyond him, but it beat the girly names his sisters wanted. His father chose a name that Lane would’ve actually liked for the dog. He thought that Brutus was a good name. It sounded good at the time, but now looking at the wiry, hyper dog, he knew that he was in no way a brute and couldn’t live up to such a name. The name was drawn and, much to the disappointment of his sisters, it was Hardy. He didn’t argue the name choice, although it seemed clear enough to him that, being his present he should’ve been the one to pick the name. It was just a relief that it wasn’t a more ridiculous name than that.
As much as he had despised the dog at first, he now found great enjoyment in taking the dog out. Always a lone wolf, having a silent companion, or mostly silent that is, was good for him. There was some sort of bond there, certainly not one of those weird bonds that the “young boy has between his four-legged companion” or anything like you would find in Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows, but the dog obeyed him better than anyone else and he had gotten over the bitterness of the present he never wanted. It was, after all, bitterness towards his parents, and not at all towards Hardy.
Hardy led the way down the trail, no wider than a sidewalk. The dog knew it well from the many times Lane had taken him down it. Their property stretched far back into the Indiana countryside, untouched for miles by any real civilization. Of course Bloomington wasn’t that far off, but between the city and where he called home there was a sort of vast openness that tricked a person into believing that they weren’t, actually, in Indiana at all. It was beautiful scenery, especially during fall. The November air was cold and crisp, burning Lane’s lungs as he inhaled it sharply, picking up the little seasonal smells. It had been raining the past few days, like it always did in November. It was still early though, much too early for snow, and so the only white that could be seen were the small patches of frost that hung drearily on the matted grass that hid under the shadows of the mighty trees. It seemed out of place despite the season. The rest of the world was painted in earthy colors, the leaves turning and dying, but giving off a brilliant display before their final days. All the trees were dyed in warm yellows, oranges, and reds. Some of the leaves on the ground had held their color, but most were dried and brown, crunching underfoot and rustling as Hardy’s long legs pushed through them. They had gathered, in certain places, chest high to the dog, who stood with his belly a good two feet off the ground. He practically had to wade through the leaves in order to move at all. But it was obvious that he was having a good time, his pink tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, stretched long as he breathed heavily, contented to exercise like he was.
The trees had not only dropped their leaves, but also their seeds. Acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts were scattered all over the ground, making walking a pain. Something peculiar occurred to Lane. The weather was nice, a bit cold, but still the sun was shining and it seemed like the perfect November day. He had donned his coat as he went out of the house and had buttoned it up before he left, but now, after a good mile or so of hiking, he felt the need to unbutton it, exposing the sweater he wore underneath the red plaid flannel coat. As he did he noted the silence in the woods. There was nothing making a sound other than the crunch underfoot and the rustle of the few leaves ahead as the trees swayed ominously back and forth. Hardy was the only thing making noise. His deep breathing was more of a gasp for air. He still hadn’t cut back on the pulling, and it was choking him again. Lane, once again, righted the dog, making him sit at his side as he stood surveying the forest. As he looked, he also noticed that there weren’t even signs of life around. Odd, he thought. This time of year was usually busy with activity.
Lane contemplated moving on or staying put. For the first time ever, the woods gave him the creeps. He wanted to go back but the dog urged him forward, no doubt sniffing something. So, reluctantly, he followed Hardy down the trail.
They went on for roughly another mile, weaving in and out of the trees, climbing up hills and taking giant steps over logs that hadn’t been there the last time they walked. As they came into a clearing at the top of a smaller hill, Lane decided that they had gone far enough. Hardy didn’t get the memo. He pulled harder on the leash, in a direction the path didn’t take, the collar digging sharply into his neck.
“Hey stupid, we’re going home,” Lane muttered, trying to pull the dog back down the hill. He wouldn’t mind, and instead began to growl, his floppy ears moving in a blur as he shook his head, attempting to move away. He closed his eyes in the typical coon dog way and let out a deep howl. Lane opened his mouth to yell at the dog but he was spooked as an explosion of leaves and feathers went upward into the air. He cringed, moving back a step and shielding his eyes from the sun as he watched two buzzards flap their long, mangy wings, swooping to land on a low hanging branch less than a hundred feet from where they were at.
He was angry now, half because of Hardy’s incessant howling and pulling on the leash, and half because he had been frightened by vultures. Scowling, he pulled on the leash, but the dog dug his nails into the dirt of the trail, making it hard to move.
“Come on, Hardy!” he almost screamed. It made the buzzards rustle uneasily from where they sat in the tree nearby. Working his jaw, Lane grabbed the dog by the collar, intent on dragging him home by the nape of his neck. Something made him stop suddenly though, his grip on Hardy’s collar going slack as he peered into the trees.
From where the vultures had exploded, he could see the leaves had settled back down and they were higher now than the ground. Something was over there. It was obvious because the coloring was different. He could see red from underneath the brown of the leaves. Poison ivy? He knew that the plant turned such a color during this season and it wasn’t unheard of for it to grow on the ground like that. But it didn’t look like leaves at all. His sight wasn’t the greatest, but it was good enough to know that there was more than foliage there. Cautiously he took a step closer, and another, and another. There was white there too. Frost? This was even more unlikely than his last guess. He was holding back, unsure if going over was the best idea. The woods seemed even more ominous now than it had before. The trees, almost bare in some areas, stood over him like skeletal reminders of the death that was coming with the change of the season. He worked his jaw, unable to decide what to do with himself. That small bit of curiosity was already spiked, making him sick to his stomach as he thought of the possibilities of what lain before him. But also he felt the need to flee. To run home and pretend like nothing was even there at all. Pretend like it really was just poison ivy, like it was just a patch of frost.
The decision, like so many others, wasn’t his to make in the end. In his moment of contemplation, Hardy had leapt towards whatever was in the distance, painfully ripping the leash that had been wrapped around his hand out of his grip. The distraction was enough to catch Lane off guard and he stood for a split second before lurching forward, trying to grab hold of the leash that trailed like a dead snake through the leaves. He did catch it, yanking it hard backwards and sending Hardy sprawling on his back on the ground, leaves sticking to his coat. The result of Hardy’s little outburst had led Lane right to the foot of the object and he was awestruck in horror.
Before him, haphazardly covered in leaves, he could see the shiny plastic of a garbage bag. The black kinds that would be used in larger garbage cans. It was hardly noticeable under the leaves, except that the end of it was no longer tied like it looked to have been in the first place. Something, or someone, had ripped the bag open at its side, spilling out what was hidden in the bag’s stomach. Protruding from the bag was the mangled corpse of a woman, naked, her pale skin standing out among the leaves. It might as well have been frost for how cold and lifeless it was. Her head was cocked to the side in a manner that was unnatural, almost crooked. Matted brown hair, now visible but also covered in leaves. Her face shocked Lane, sending a cold shiver down his spine. Her eyes, wide open, blue and milky, staring at him from under the dark bruises on her face. There was also a bruised mark around her neck, hinting that she was strangled. Her arm was pointed right at him, the fingers stiff and bluish with death. And her mouth was open in a ghoulish scream, blood covering her pale lips and dried down her chin. There was so much blood, dried on her porcelain skin, smeared up her neck, down her chest and it had pooled in the bottom of the garbage bag. Her stomach was torn open, cut it looked like. He took all this in in a split second and then Hardy wrapped the leash around his legs and sent him into the leaves on his side, much too close for Lane’s own comfort. His hand, as he fell, touched the edge of the girl’s fingers and he pulled away immediately, crawling backwards, tripping, falling, and getting up to run.
The image was seared in his mind, however, and he couldn’t stop thinking of it. He ran pell-mell down the trail, this time dragging Hardy along. The dog didn’t question it, only went along with the game. Lane had seen death before. He hunted, for Christ’s sake. It wasn’t like blood and gore got to him. But he’d never seen death like this. He’d never witness such brutality and the image haunting him now was enough to make him sick. He had to stop to vomit, but fear urged him on immediately despite his unsettled stomach. The ridiculous thoughts that entered his mind were that of a child’s. He wondered about the killer, watching him now, waiting to do that to him too. He thought of the girl’s screams as she died. Of her face, the horrible look on her face. It made him shudder. He was running too fast now, his muscles objecting with every stride, his upper body throbbing as the heat from his coat engulfed him. He felt he could barely breathe, and yet he still managed to go on. He squeezed his eyes closed for a split second, trying to catch his breath.
Lane sat up in bed, shoving the blankets from off of his hot, sweat covered body. His hands shook as he raised them to his face, trying to wipe the sweat from his forehead. His fingers clumsily pulled through his hair. It was just a dream, he thought, sighing to himself. Only a dream. That feeling of relief washed over him and he slid out of bed, planting his feet on the cool wood floor. The air around him was cold, too cold for his liking. His parents liked to leave the windows open for some reason. Crossing the room, he pulled the drapes out of the way and struggled to pull the window down. Something caught his eye. Peering into the night he watched the shadow of a man emerge from the entrance of the woods. His breath caught in his lungs. As the man passed under the light of the full moon he could tell by his jacket that it was his father. He let out a sigh of relief. It was just his father and it was just a dream. He could hear the door open and close and he waited for his father’s footsteps on the stairs. They never came, so quietly he crept out into the hall and down the stairs. In the dim light of the kitchen he could see his father standing over the sink, the faucet running quietly. He was washing something. Lane’s brow furrowed for a second and he dismissed any thoughts that entered his mind. Trying to be stealthy, he backed back up the stairs slowly. They creaked despite his efforts to be quiet.
His father turned quickly, a knife in his hand, and his shirt splattered with blood. There were no words and Lane found himself, once again, back in that dream. Except this time, the nightmare wasn’t a dream at all. He froze, staring, and waited for his fears to meet reality.