Copyright is held by the author.
ARIA HOVERED in a low squat with her face nearly pressed against the window, her fingers hooked on the wood of the sill, trembling as she held herself steady. She released a slow breath, dewing the glass, “What’s it like to play God?”
Emma sputtered, her laugh forced, “What are you getting at?” Aria was suspicious of everything, and it had driven Emma crazy since they’d been children. Every friend, boyfriend, hobby, every piece of clothing she’d ever bought at the mall, Aria had always scrutinized.
Her sister’s eyes slid to look up at her as she scoffed, “I know your neighbour’s dog didn’t just decide to walk up to your front door and woo your little discovery into motherhood.” She stood, eyes fixed on the other side of the glass.
Emma stepped up beside her to peer into the sunroom at the wiggling lumps of fur that huddled against the exposed belly of their mother, suckling as the sun shone in on them. In the light, the blackness of their fur burned a deep reddish brown, while their mother’s coat appeared to swallow all light completely, the blackest black Emma had ever seen, beautiful and thick. Through the fur that shrouded the dog’s face, the mother dog’s eyes stung like frostbite, cool and unflinching as she stared back at her.
Emma crossed her arms and drew them close as a chill snaked over her shoulders, and she drew her gaze away. “All right, so maybe I paid the guy a couple hundred bucks . . .” she murmured.
Aria slapped her arm hard enough to make it ache. “You’re not a fucking dog breeder, Em!” She studied the animals again, eyes narrowed, “I mean, are you even sure she’s a dog?”
“Don’t be paranoid.”
The anatomy was the same, even if it was a bit odd, misshapen even. The dog was incredibly large, her limbs long and paws massive. Her maw was longer and wider than those of most dogs, and her back arched high over her shoulders, almost like a hunchback. Emma hadn’t been able to get close enough to her to find out if her bones made it that shape, or if it was the fur. During the six months the animal had been living in her house, Emma had never been able to touch her because the dog never allowed her to get close enough. She probably hadn’t been around too many humans before being taken in, so that wasn’t totally unexpected. There could’ve been some intermingling with wolves in her lineage at some point, especially this far into the mountains. It wasn’t unheard of.
With a shrug, Aria went quiet and goosebumps raised on her arms. “Dogs don’t . . . look at people like that, Em.”
“It’s only because you’re a face she doesn’t recognize,” Emma replied.
“But she’s not looking at me,” Aria retorted.
She wasn’t. The dog hadn’t moved the entire time they’d been standing at the window. The intensity of her white irises and pinpointed pupils bore into Emma until her body began to squirm, and she made herself step out of the animal’s line of sight.
“She’s a new mother,” Emma said, “she’s allowed to be protective.”
Aria rolled her eyes. “What did the vet say about her?”
“Nothing really.” That wasn’t entirely true. He’d also never seen an animal like her. Not one so big, and muscled, and hunched. Emma swallowed. “I haven’t heard back from him since the delivery. I left him a voicemail this morning though. She hasn’t eaten since the puppies were born.”
“What?! But it’s been two weeks!” Aria exclaimed, her eyes going wide. She nearly leapt back from the window, her hands flying up in exasperation. “I can’t, Em, I —” She stepped past her, reaching for her coat. “I know you’re excited your little breeding idea bore fruit, but that animal isn’t some normal dog, no matter what you think.” Emma followed Aria as she sped her way through the house to the front door. “Until the vet gets back to you, don’t go into that sunroom,” she said as she tugged on her boots, “I know you don’t care if you get mauled, but I do.”
Emma sighed, “If she wanted to maul me, she would have d —”
“You know what this feels like?” Aria interrupted, her grip so tight on the door knob that her knuckles were white. “It feels like the start of one of those insane situations where someone realizes they shouldn’t have wild animals running free in their house . . . like before they’re eaten by the cougar they kept in their basement-”
“Or before they lose an arm to the tigers they had locked in the backyard.” Her brows shot up, and she tugged the door open. “Do not go into that room. Please, don’t.”
The muscles in Emma’s jaw ached. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“Good.” Aria said, “Because it takes me over an hour to drive up here, and I don’t want to get a wake-up call that you’re dead before either of us reach 80, okay?”
“All right!” Emma asserted, and she kissed her sister’s cheek. “I’ll be careful. I’ll call you when I hear back from the vet.”
Aria sighed and gave her a quick hug, her voice a growl in her ear, “You’d better.”
“Bye,” Emma said when they separated, and Aria shut the door with a heavy clack.
Emma stood at the sunroom door, fighting the tremor in her hands as she gripped a metal bowl packed to the brim with slices of raw chicken and veal liver.
It’s just a dog. It’s always been just a dog.
She drew in a sharp breath and reached for the door knob.
Just a dog. A dog with new babies, who needs to eat.
Carefully she pushed the door open, the warmth of the sunroom almost overbearing even with the windows open to the autumn air blowing in off the lake.
The mother dog was watching Emma before she cleared the doorway, her pupils narrowing further with every tentative step taken toward her. Emma did her best not to get too close and settled herself into a crouch. slowly extending the bowl forward and placing it on the floor just in front of the dog’s nose.
“You need to eat something, momma,” Emma crooned. “You can’t care for your babies if you don’t eat.”
The mother dog only studied her, not so much as glancing at the bowl of meat as the hair along her back slowly raised, and the muscles on her haunches rippled.
Emma lowered her voice, trying to remain as still as possible. “Just a mouthful?”
The puppies’ noses began to twitch. One by one, the four of them pulled away from their mother’s teats to sniff at the air and started to squeal. The sound made Emma recoil, the pitch rattling her ear drums as they cried louder and louder, their bodies violently shaking as they dragged themselves over one another to reach the meat. They pounced, jaws smacking as they ripped chunks of chicken apart, bits of liver spraying across the floor.
Emma scrambled to snatch the bowl back with both hands. Pain burst along her fingers and she almost screamed as she pulled away, blood running down her wrist from the bite that had torn through her thumb.
Puppies this young shouldn’t have teeth. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she knew it was true.
Their alarming squeals were undiminished as they gnawed and tore, flashes of pointed teeth visible with each gulp.
The mother dog was unmoving, fur raised, and her eyes so white that there was no pupil at all.
Emma pressed her hands to the floor and pushed herself to her feet, nearly falling as she fled back to the door. The puppies baying was growing unbearable as the meat ran out, and they scuttled forward to lap up the bloody handprint Emma had left behind.
The glass rattled as Emma slammed the door shut and snapped the deadbolt closed.
The shrill twitter of her cell’s ringtone startled Emma awake, her neck twinging as she jolted upright on the couch. She didn’t remember having fallen asleep, but the room around her was dark, the TV flickering. Her phone blinked up at her from where it had fallen on the floor, the vet’s number flashing across the caller ID.
“Hello,” Emma yawned as she pressed the phone to her ear, her voice warbled.
She cleared her throat, “Yes, sorry, I was . . . I’m just up from a nap, sorry.”
The vet laughed gently, his voice deep and pleasant, “I’m so sorry to have woken you, but I wanted to let you know I got your message from this morning.”
This morning . . . she barely remembered having called him. “Right, yes, thank you.”
“So our new momma hasn’t been eating?”
“Yeah, not a thing.” She glanced over toward the sunroom, only to do a double take when she saw the door to the room ajar, the cool blue of the moonlight stretching across the floor.
She had locked that door. The key was still in the deadbolt, but turned, unlocked. Silence emanated from the sunroom, permeated the whole house until her ears began to ring and her skin went cold.
She didn’t wait for the vet to finish talking, “I’m going to have to call you back.”
Call ended. She stood, the phone falling away from her face to bounce onto the couch.
She had definitely locked that door.
Her bare feet made little noise as she stepped across the floor, a trickle of cool air ghosting from the sunroom to chill her toes as she reached the open door. She leaned forward to peer inside, the floor groaning loudly under her weight, making her jump. Inside, the puppies were huddled sleeping on the floor, their mother nowhere to be seen.
“Shit!” Emma stopped herself from snapping the door shut. If the dog was in the main part of the house, there was no way she’d be able to wrangle an animal that size through a shut door. And making a barrier between a mom and her young probably would only make things worse.
She pushed the door open completely, flooding the living room behind her with moonlight and night air.
“Momma?” she whispered into the dim, only to have nothing but silence respond.
The house was just a single level, so there were very few places the dog could have wandered off. Even if she’d misremembered locking the sunroom door, Emma never left the front door unlocked, despite the house being so far back from the main road.
The living room lamps hummed to life as she flicked a light switch, illuminating the room in a sepia hue that never quite reached the darkest bits of the corners.
She took a quick peek behind the couch before stepping into the kitchen.
Nails clicked across the floor somewhere on the far side of the room, and Emma spun, unable to see any movement in the dark. Of course the dog had come to the kitchen, considering this was the only place Emma ever kept food. The last thing she wanted was mice in her bed.
She hadn’t reached the light switch before the sheen of two eyes snapped to fix on her from the dark.
Emma jumped, her heart bursting through her chest. She didn’t look away, her arm patting along the wall, failing to find the light switch. She cleared her throat and released a nervous laugh. “You scared me, momma.” Her laugh was shrill, her ears stuffy.
The eyes didn’t move, didn’t falter.
“Are you hungry?” Emma asked, inching her way toward the fridge. She couldn’t look away, didn’t dare to. “I’ve got lots of food I can give you.”
When Emma popped the fridge open, the eyes moved, and the dark mass in the room shifted along with them and began to expand. The eyes drew closer as the dark intensified, nails dragging across the laminate, the sound making Emma weak at the knees. Closer and closer, until the pressure in the room bore down on her, and the shadows swarmed in making it hard to breathe. In the flickering light of the refrigerator, the creature that approached her grew, its muscles twitching and expanding until it rose up on bulging hind legs in front of her.
It was nearly on top of her. Emma could barely catch her breath as the darkness swirled and stung against her skin. Its eyes had her, glowing a hot white, as its long jaw, brimmed with fanged teeth, inched closer to her face. More and more teeth were revealed as the animal’s lips pulled back into an unsettling grin. A gasping breath hissed out of its jaws, and it went still, its grotesque form hovered over her, trembling.
“Just a mouthful?” it said. “Just a mouthful?”