This is a story I wrote ages ago and read in front of an audience at the 2007 World Horror Convention in Toronto. Little did I know my future wife was in the room. Thankfully, she liked both it and me and we’ve been together ever since!
It has a lot of flaws and could stand a major edit but, instead, it’s going to remain here, as it is (errors and all) for sentimental reasons.
After all, it wasn’t a perfectly edited story about a dead dog that won her heart;
It was this one.
Emmet Webber knew Zeus was dead the moment he woke up. For fifteen years the great brown eyed beast had always been the first thing he saw in the morning. No matter what time he rose the dog somehow knew and was there before him. But not today. The old man didn’t move for a long time. He just kept in bed, eyes focused on the closet, peering through an empty space where his only companion should have been. When the moist beginnings of tears threatened he threw off the blanket and swung his feet to the hardwood. He didn’t call out; he knew for sure that it would do no good.
The body was lying on the kitchen floor, facing last night’s unwashed dishes, and looking more asleep than dead. Emmet stopped in the doorframe and leaned on it tiredly, boney shoulders slumped. “Aw hell, Zeusy. Why’d you have to go and do that?” He couldn’t see the dog’s face from where he was standing, and for that he was glad. Turning away he left the great hairy lump exactly where it was without going over to touch or pet it.
To say that Emmet was the only man to care about Zeus was an understatement. Most towns have a house with a known mean dog and Zeus had worn that badge proudly, to near legendary status. There wasn’t a person who lived on Carlson Way that didn’t know about the “rottweiler up the street”. For nearly a dozen years the dog had menaced passers with thunderous bellows and bared fangs. There was no fence in Emmet’s yard and no chain on Zeus, but the dog never so much as leaned out into the sidewalk. As if bound by an invisible leash held only by old man Emmet, the hulking dog would pace the edge of the property hungrily, kept at bay only by love for a master who had almost as much malice as he did. Zeus would sit at Emmet’s feet on the porch, quietly waiting, until someone came walking along the sidewalk and then Emmet would mutter.
“Spook em’ boy. Spook em good.” The dog would launch from his prone position, slathering fangs and terrifying barking, headed straight for the unlucky passer-by, only to stop inches from the sidewalk, growling and snarling. In the ten years they’d done this trick Emmet couldn’t recall a time when the victim hadn’t fled in terror. His favorite was mothers with strollers. He would stand on his porch laughing to himself and shout at their fleeing backsides.
“Aww, don’t mind him! He’s just a big puppy inside, wouldn’t hurt a fly!” It never consoled anyone because it was more than clear that he would hurt much more than a fly given the opportunity.
He showered, shaved, and dressed before he reentered the kitchen. Carefully stepping around Zeus he made a pot of coffee. Sitting at the table, sipping the hot beverage, he finally had a view of the dog’s face, glassy eyes open, tongue lolling onto linoleum. The drink steamed slowly.
“So what are we gonna do with you now?” His voice perked no ears as it once had. Emmet didn’t really expect an answer. He knew what had to be done; Zeus needed to be buried. He just wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. The rottweiler weighed almost two hundred pounds and needed to be put into a hole no less than three feet deep and almost five long. He looked at the liver spots on his hand as he raised his cup and, as he’d done a million times, cursed his age and the flesh it had trapped him in. He’d been strong, once, before the years had whittled him into a taught and bony skeleton, burdened with aches, arthritis, and anger. In his mind he wanted to simply go lift the dog and carry it to the back yard, dig a hole, and fill it in. Maybe even lug a big old rock over to mark the spot. Not today. Those robust days were long gone. Today he’d need the wheelbarrow and a hell of a lot of aspirin.
The only thing that everyone knew Zeus killed for sure was Mr.Pinkle, the schnauzer. Owned by Barb Fossey the peppery little purebred had pulled free of his leash and decided that Zeus looked like a fun playmate. It goes without saying that Mr.Pinkle wasn’t very smart. Barb screamed and screamed as Zeus messily decapitated the smaller dog and actually ate most of him in front of her. It didn’t help that Emmet was right there on the sidewalk the whole time, yelling and shouting at the hysterical woman for letting her mutt onto his property, doing nothing to stop the horrible feast, and blaming her for the whole incident even as the blood trickled in rivulets down his driveway to the rain gutter. Well, after that the police came back and no amount of good behavior on Zeus’ part could dissuade them. Mrs.Fossey sued and won and the judge passed that Zeus had to be put to sleep. When the day came Emmet was surprisingly complicit, handing over the dog without any struggle. That afternoon they injected the dog and it died. Not so coincidentally, across town Lupe Santos was hanging signs on telephone poles for his lost rottweiler, Mucha, and was offering a one hundred dollar reward to anyone who could return her to him. Two weeks later and Emmet had another full grown dog. When asked he claimed it wasn’t Zeus, he said that it was a new dog he’d picked it up from a pet rescue already house broken and trained. But the dog sat in the same spot Zeus always had and there was little doubt in everyone’s mind that the man had managed to keep his pet alive through some form of trickery. Lupe Santos eventually got a pit bull puppy.
It was almost noon by the time Emmet finally got Zeus to the spot in the back yard where he wanted to put him to rest. There was a crabapple tree in the back that he used to sit under, lazing with the strong smell of the fallen apples and the bee’s they attracted. Zeusy had loved snapping at the insects as they droned along two inches from the ground hunting out the rotten little fruits. If they ever stung his mouth he had never seemed to mind. It was too early in the year yet for bees and green apples though and Emmet was glad. Spring ground was mercifully wet and soft. Getting the wheelbarrow up the steps into the house, working the dog into it, and the trip down and across the damp lawn had left Emmet sweating and shaking. But the ordeal had just begun, now it was time for digging.
Stories abounded about the dog. Over poker night at Mike Palmisano’s house they wondered what Emmet Webber was hiding in his basement, and how much he was worth. They figured there had to be something mighty valuable considering he had such a ferocious guard dog. Terrel Jones thought the same thing, but he didn’t talk about it anymore. A half decade back, in high school he’d had a friend named Jake Gallow who devised a plan to feed the dog a drugged up steak and rob the place. Terrel had been too chicken-shit to go along and never really knew if Jake had seen it through or not. All he knew is that his friend disappeared the summer before senior year leaving Terrel with a great deal of doubt and years of speculative nightmares.
Jake wasn’t the only person the dog was rumored to have eaten. Katie Garrifo was an eleven year old tomboy who vanished from Carlson Way in the early nineties. The rumor in Clearmont Elementary School was that Katie was hanging out with the big kids; Jr.Highers. They’d dared her to run to the house, touch it, and come back, but the dog had caught her and dragged her inside to his deranged master. Of course, there were never any Jr.Highers who came foreword to confirm this, and by the time the police heard the kids’ rumor and came knocking on Mr.Webber’s door, weeks had passed. They searched the house and found nothing unusual. Zeus was well mannered and obedient letting the cops scratch behind his ears and giving them all a tongue filled dog smile. A couple of the boys in blue complimented Emmet on his new shed. Said it was excellent work for a guy his age to do himself, what with the concrete foundation and all. The police left, but the rumor hung around.
The ground gave easily and the first shovel strokes lifted the grass off the dark earth. Emmet set them aside because he knew he’d want to lay them back on the mound to keep the lawn green. Nobody liked a patchy lawn. Four shovel strokes in and he hit something tough. Figuring it to be a root he shifted his digging a little to the side. The scoops were small, all he could really manage. Again, there was some sort of obstacle. He got down on all fours and took a hand trowel to it, looking to loosen up the dirt and see where the root was. He’d counted on it, because of the tree, and had brought hedge trimmers for just this thing. The trowel scraped it clear and he jerked his hand back in surprise. It was no root, but grimy grey bone. He glanced at the shed and nervously wiped sweat from his brow. It couldn’t be. Looking intently into the fresh hole he saw grey fur mixed in with the dirt. Relieved, he scraped a little more with the trowel to reveal the twisted outline of an animal corpse. It was just a dead rabbit. He looked over to Zeus’ body.
“You burying stuff out here boy?” he smiled wide. “I guess that’s what dogs do.” He stood and moved over a couple feet, starting a new hole. Couldn’t very well bury ol’ Zeus in the same spot he’d put his prize now could he? It wouldn’t do to bury the hunter with the quarry. Zeus deserved his own resting place.
The next thing he found was the body of a cat. Some long haired once white cat, possibly Persian, smeared with mud and rot, looking out of the second fresh hole from an eyeless face that still had whiskers. He pushed the dirt back in and looked to his dog. “You sure been busy…” He frowned now, upset at not only having to start a third grave, but at the strange surprise that he hadn’t known about this. He knew Zeus killed thing when he could, hell, he encouraged it. But in all the years he’d had him he’d never seen him do any digging. He wasn’t sure what bothered him more, the animals or the idea that his dog had somehow been doing something behind his back. It was getting into the afternoon and, while he’d expected this would take all day he hadn’t counted on having to dig hole after hole because his lawn was already too full of dead critters to lay his own to rest. Sighing, he started again.
The third hole turned over a wing and feathers. The fourth might have been another cat or maybe a fox, he didn’t bother digging far enough to see. The very first scoop of the fifth try contained a squirrel’s head. Emmet winced as the small decapitated thing rolled out of the dirt clod onto the new spring grass. “What the hell!?” he shouted, throwing the shovel to the ground. It didn’t take much to get Emmet’s temper going, and this did the trick. He put his hands on his hips and glared at the dog. He stood there, fuming in annoyance surrounded by nearly a half dozen tears in his lawn. The unavoidable sensation that he was standing on a field of the dead crept up his legs and settled in the base of his neck. No part of him wanted to pick up the shovel and continue for fear of what he might find. On the surface it looked normal enough, but he’d scratched through that and knew better. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind; wherever he dug, something would be waiting for him. He couldn’t bury Zeus here. He’d have to find another way, another place. His friend deserved that. His hands absently twitched at the memory that assaulted his fingertips as he scratched the dog’s head in his mind. A sad gaze went to his departed pet.
Zeus’ body twitched.
Emmet was looking straight into his milky eyes, and knew there was no way Zeusy should be able to move. But he had. He’d shifted a little, despite the impossibility of it. In fact, he did it again. His flank lifted and fell. It looked very much like someone has prodded him with an invisible stick. Emmet furrowed his brow and gently stepped over to pick up the shovel again. Approaching cautiously he did his own poking. As the metal lip of the shovel touched the dog a shudder went through the fur and followed through into the grass around him, trembling. Bugs! he thought. The dog had been laying on the ground for near two hours now, of course dirty bugs would be getting to it. He probably should have left him in the wheelbarrow until the hole was dug. Well, he could fix that. He wheeled it over and angled the cart onto its side next to the dog. Leaning over the metal contraption he took two legs and pulled as hard as his skinny frame could trying to roll the beefy dog across its back and in. Zeus moved and Emmet strained. After a struggle the canine flipped and Emmet gasped at what he saw.
The body had dozens of scratches, cuts, and bite marks on the side that had been lying on the lawn. Dead thick blood trickled from these into chocolate fur. Horrified he looked to the earth and saw shapes in the grass. Tiny bits of bone and small hollow skulls, rising up like foul mushrooms. The grass rustled beneath the wheelbarrow and he felt strange vibrations beneath his feet.
“Leave my dog alone you bastards!” he shouted, picking up the shovel and whomping the earth with the flat of it. Tiny yellow claws blossomed up and scratched the rubber wheels, the sides of his shoes. Shaking with fury he dropped his weapon and grabbed the two wooden handles, rolling his pet back to the house. “You can’t have him! You can’t!” Emmet didn’t know what was going on, but he’d be damned if anyone, or anything, was going to desecrate Zeus. The rustle and scraping of tiny bones followed him toward the house.
Terror lent new strength to Emmet’s tired muscles as he crashed the wheelbarrow into the back steps. Gripping the studded collar with both hands he pulled ferociously against the dogs head and it begrudgingly slid up a step. He pulled again and again, watching the grass of the lawn shake and roil like a pond in a thunderstorm. He didn’t look at the things that nibbled and clawed at the bottom half of his dog, he just tugged and tried his best to get him up the steps, into the house. They would be safe in the house. Eventually the great carcass was entirely on the stairs and out of reach from the vengeful dead. By the time he managed to get him fully inside and back onto the kitchen floor, where he’d found him in the morning, shadows were beginning to stretch long across the lawn reaching horizontal across his kitchen painting the room in warm orange bands. Panting he sat leaning against the refrigerator gazing wide eyed at the screen door. Trembling he got to his feet and moved to the sink. Water, water and pills were what he needed. His body was on fire from the effort, spasming uncontrollably. Grabbing a glass and holding it under the faucet he turned on the tap. Thick red liquid sprayed forth in a fluid hiss. With a startled yell he dropped the glass to shatter in the sink, splashed by tap-water blood. Cursing loudly he hit the lever and turned it off.
“God damn it! Damn it!” he shouted. A louder scratching sound had begun. Sticks on the windows, the door, the roof. It was too much. He needed help. Staggering across the kitchen, almost tripping on Zeus, he picked up the phone. He didn’t get two numbers in before realizing it was dead. Slamming the phone back into the cradle he turned, peering around the room like a trapped animal.
“You’re not gonna get him you bastards! I won’t let you!” The scraping noises surrounded him as he moved as quickly as possible to his bedroom. Turning on the light switch did nothing and the only illumination in the house came from the windows, small shapes outlined against the dying amber light. He opened up his nightstand drawer and removed his gun, checked it, rolling the chambers, and turned back to the kitchen. There was a pounding on the front door and a crash from the back. Coming around the corner he raised the weapon and halted.
The screen door had given away and Zeus was buried in a mass of squirming and feeding bodies. Skin stretched pelts over thin bone frames, a pile of tight rigid muscles and yellowing teeth covered in slick grime and mud. They’d half devoured their quarry and they pushed and shoved one another, jockeying for position to get in on it, sliding in the ever extending puddle of dark dog blood. Emmet raised his gun and prepared to fire into the mass of un-living coons and cats, mice and squirrels, and then he saw her.
Framed by the last rays of golden daylight was the petite eviscerated body of Katie Garrifo, her throat torn out and her flesh smeared with dirt. Her features were mummified tight, but there was no mistaking the child’s dirty blonde hair, the black Converse shoes, and the shredded remains of a green windbreaker. He’d found bits of that windbreaker in the dog shit he cleaned up for days, tiny green flecks to remind him over and over. It had seemed endless. With shame his eyes were drawn to her spindle legs, lacking muscle where it had been eaten away, and the gaping hollow of her stomach. He remembered her well, etched forever in his memory as he’d shoveled the dirt over her, poured the concrete, built a lie above her tiny bones. They’d never thought to look there. Screaming he raised the weapon and pulled the trigger, backing out of the kitchen. Round after round thumped uselessly into her corpse, she fell, knocked back, but did not cease to move.
Emmet was firing his empty gun into the rising girl when his backing away connected him with something. Strong arms reached around him as collided with body of Jake Gallow, the would-be thief. He thrashed and shouted desperately, trying to pull free of the bony hands as the girl and the horde of rotting critters approached.
They worked their way from the feet up. The screaming didn’t last long.
Full weeks passed before anyone knew that Emmet Webber was gone. When the police finally entered his house they found no remains, but enough blood soaked into the living room carpet to confirm that the man could not possibly have survived. Nobody but Emmet had known that Zeus died and there was no trace of the dog to be found. Being a nearly legendary canine, almost akin to his divine namesake, nobody really believed the thing was dead. Most assumed that he’d finally turned on his master, killing him, and then somehow escaped the house. Many of the windows had been smashed in. No great fortune was ever found in the basement and the bodies of Jack and Katie went undiscovered, if they even remained where they lie to be found. Barb Fossey was glad for it but refused to walk her new poodle past the house, afraid of memories or perhaps even the ghost of Zeus.
In the soil of the back yard what remained of Emmet clung to his loyal pet. Claws and fangs of the justified dead pulled on them, dragging and sinking further and further into the earth in a nightmare descent that would carry them forever into a well deserved hell.