It wasn’t like Scrunchy to disappear like that, but it wasn’t like any of the other dogs either. Maura watched out the rain-speckled window and clung to her stuffed elephant, Flopsy, while scrutinizing every set of headlights, every tree branch shaking in the wind, and every sporadic whistle and grunt from along the quiet street.
“Bedtime soon, Maura,” her father said, placing the newspaper down on the coffee table.
“But Scrunchy is out there, and it’ll be dark soon.” Maura glanced out at the grim sky. Further along, the road narrowed into a lane that descended through a stable and onto the meadows where anything could lurk. At least, that’s how it seemed to Maura.
“Not this again… dogs aren’t afraid of the dark, only little girls. We’ll go out looking again tomorrow, okay?” Her father used his firm, ‘this is final’, tone. Maura nodded quietly.
“Do you think Scrunchy is with mummy?” she asked.
Her father hesitated before rising from his armchair and sighing. Outside, the wind howled like the call of the wolf. “Time for bed, Maura.”
Maura rolled back and forth before finally kicking the duvet off. She was fully bathed in yellowish light, having insisted her curtains remain open. Outside her window, a streetlight glowed like a beacon. Between that and the pearlescent full moon, Maura’s room hid no secrets.
She flung her legs over the side of the bed and rose. On her tiptoes, she leaned against the window and pressed her face to the glass.
She gasped and fell back onto the bed.
“Scrunchy,” she whispered.
Maura jumped back up against the window and stared down into the street. By the foot of the streetlight, a ruffled Labrador had its leg cocked, and steam billowed around it. Maura giggled, but she stopped as Scrunchy finished his wee and trotted off up the road.
“Come back, boy,” Maura said, still quiet, unwilling to wake her father.
She grabbed her dressing gown and tiptoed down the stairs. If she could bring Scrunchy home, it would be a lovely surprise for her daddy and maybe he’d be happy again.
Slipping her Wellingtons on, she eased the front door open and gently shut it behind her. The front garden was disheveled and the rose bush out of hand. Mummy used to prune the bush and tend the flowers. They’d been left alone for months.
The rain had subsided, but Maura pulled her dressing gown tight around her and suppressed a shiver. Puddles splashed beneath her feet as she hurried out of the garden. A Missing Dog flyer blew into the gutter. Up ahead, she saw a golden tail disappear down the hill.
Scrunchy was headed for the meadows.
Maura scurried after him. Bushes and branches hung over fences flanking the lane. The houses ended and, in their place, an open yard expanded, with stables surrounding it. A horse neighed and whinnied as if sensing Maura’s presence. She loved the horses, but they’d have to wait; she couldn’t say hello now she was on Scrunchy’s trail.
Up ahead was an old gate. Through that gate the path narrowed beneath a canopy of trees that blocked out all light.
That golden tail was swallowed by the darkness.
Maura reached the gate and stared into the abyss.
She took a step backwards and glanced over her shoulder. Daddy wouldn’t come out at this time, and he’d tell her off for leaving the house. Maura pulled the dressing gown tight around her again. She wished she’d brought Flopsy along to protect her.
Maura gritted her teeth and strode through the gate.
Water splashed with her every step, but Maura persisted onward. Scrunchy was nowhere to be seen. Shapes formed in the darkness. The outline of crippled hands stretching across the path. Smiling mouths of jagged teeth. The darkness whispered to her. But still, onward she marched.
The canopy broke up ahead and a flash of gold dashed out of sight. Maura ran, escaping the darkness as quickly as she could. Tears filled her eyes, but she held them back.
She rounded the corner.
Sat in the center of a small grassy clearing was her Labrador, Scrunchy. A thick clutch of trees and robust undergrowth behind him.
Among those trees, pairs of yellow eyes beamed like headlights.
Maura hesitated. Scrunchy whimpered and barked at her. From the trees emerged another dog, an enormous dog. A German Shepherd. She recognized her; it was Tilly, who belonged to their neighbor. She’d gone missing a few weeks ago. Tilly barked a warning and glared at Maura, daring her forward. Another dog, a little spaniel, stepped out into the clearing, followed by another dog, and another one, until the clearing was alive with gentle yapping and deep guttural breathing. An army of dogs. Familiar dogs.
“Is this… where you’re meant to be?” Maura whispered.
The German Shepherd howled, and silence fell. The leader turned and faced the other dogs, her pack, and nodded at them. As one, they turned and slipped back into the undergrowth, fading from sight like shadows under a dying sun.
The German Shepherd waited by the edge of their realm, for this was their domain, their territory.
Scrunchy bounded up to Maura, who dropped to one knee and stroked and nuzzled her faithful pet, recognizing this for what it was: goodbye.
A low growl disturbed them and Scrunchy stepped away, yelping one last time at Maura, before racing off into the undergrowth. The German Shepherd retreated last and disappeared like a mirage might disperse into fragments of imagination.
Maura let the tears fall. She’d been holding them back for too long.
Walking along the path, the darkness didn’t seem so scary, and her eyes adjusted to see those crippled hands were slender tree branches and those wicked smiles were the curvature of thorn bushes. Soon, she reached the end of the path, and passed back out through the gate and into the safety of the light.
This story previously appeared in Our Town Magazine.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Stephen Howard (he/him) is an English novelist and short story writer from Manchester, now living in Cheshire with his fiancée, Rachel, and their daughter, Flo. An English Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the Open University, his work has been published by Lost Boys Press, The No Sleep Podcast, and Dark Recesses Press, among others. He's also published one novel, a comic fantasy titled Beyond Misty Mountain, and one multi-genre short story collection titled Condemned To Be. Find Stephen on Twitter @SteJHoward and on his website Stephen Howard.