A big black dog rearing on its hind-legs to stand like a human. One paw was conspiratorially placed in front of its lips as though swearing the viewer to uphold a shared secret. I hadn’t given the painting a second thought, except maybe to remind myself not to bump into it while stumbling down the hall at night to use the bathroom.
The painting had never been there growing up, but there had been a lot of changes around my parents’ house since I moved out to college. I had to throw a sleeping bag on the floor of my old room to visit now that they’d converted the space to a home gym. All the fantasy novels I used to read were in boxes in the garage, and any games I hadn’t brought with me were tossed.
It was understandable, I guess. I’ve moved on with my life, and it would be selfish not to expect them to do the same. It just felt weird sleeping in that room with the ghosts of my former life replaced by the looming silhouettes of exercise machines.
This is where I’d become who I am: filling journals with rambling thoughts, laying awake dreaming of my first crush, studying and stressing and fighting with private demons that my life once revolved around.
That’s probably why I couldn’t sleep. I feel like I’m too young to have that many memories, but here they all came rushing back. I lay awake wondering if that kid was still alive inside me somewhere, or whether he was already dead and replaced with a new person, a stranger that I hadn’t even properly met.
I used to imagine becoming someone that no-one could ever forget, but I’m already in college and still a nobody. Was I the person I dreamed about back then? Or had I betrayed myself somewhere along the way?
After tossing and turning on the floor for a few hours, I got up to use the bathroom. I had to stop and stare as I passed by the painting of the dog. Savage strokes of thick paint made the fur look like it was bristling. Barred teeth flashed in the moonlight behind its paw, and the playful personification of its stance now seemed like a sardonic mockery of human achievement. The longer I stared, the more sure I was: this wasn’t the same painting I had seen in the day.
I passed it again the next morning on my way to breakfast, but I couldn’t comprehend what I had found so unsettling during the night. The fur wasn’t bristling, it was just fluffy. And those teeth? I could still see them, but it was obviously a smile. I asked my parents about it, but they both just gave each other these confused little shrugs.
Somehow they’d both figured the other one had bought it. They’d been doing a lot of home improvement projects, and I guess neither of them had mentioned it to the other. Eventually they decided that they couldn’t even remember a time when it wasn’t there; they told me it had been hanging since I was growing up and that I must have been the one to forget.
The part of me that was worried about everything changing actually found that to be a relief. If I was already starting to forget, then maybe these superficial changes weren’t so important. Everything from my childhood that had meant something to me, that had defined me, well those I would have remembered and taken with me. Everything that had changed, everything I forgot, those were things that were okay to leave behind.
But somethings are impossible to leave, no matter how hard you try. I fell asleep easily enough that night, although I woke with a start at a scratching sound. A dark shape was standing over me – I strained against the confines of the sleeping bag, ripping it aside to leap to my feet. No, just the handlebars of the treadmill. I tried to settle back down, but there was that scratching again. It sounded like it was coming from inside the walls. Mice? Then a long, slow, tearing sound, like a knife running through thick cloth. Not mice. Definitely not mice. I turned on the light and walked along the length of the wall. It was uncomfortable to imagine something running around inside, but the scratching seemed too far away for that.
A heavy thump. This wasn’t from inside the wall. This was from the other side. Footsteps. I opened the door, flipping on the light in the hallway. A black flash of movement around the corner, just at the edge of my vision. I rubbed my eyes. The painting was face-down on the carpet. That must have been the sound I heard. The nail losing its grip on the wall probably made the scratching, and then the thump as it hit the floor. I convinced myself that the flash of movement was nothing more significant than the shadow of the treadmill until…
I set the painting upright against the wall. There was a long slash down the center of the canvas, but I couldn’t have cared less about the defacement of the art. The fact that the dog was missing from the painting – that’s what gripped me. I scrutinized the canvas, even looking under the folded flaps the rip had produced. Nothing. Just heavy brushstrokes of thick blue paint.
Scratching. Scratching. A CRASH. From the other side of the house where my parents slept. I started running toward the noise, but the next sound had me frozen. A wolf’s howl – close – somewhere inside the house. Then shouting from my parents, and I was running again. Tearing, growling, another howl – I flung open their door. Blood was everywhere. On the walls, the floor – even the ceiling fan was dripping. Neither of them had been able to get out of bed before their throats were torn out. One brutal bite each, by the looks of it. As quick and painless as could be expected from whatever –
Another howl. Sounded like it coming from outside, through the broken window. Howling, but more distant now, seemingly moving away. It must have known I was there. My room was closer to it than anything. If this is what it came here to do, then why didn’t it touch me? I ran to the window where I saw a dark shape looking back at the house. Nothing more than a shadow really, standing on its hind-legs like a human. It was looking right at me, almost like it was waiting for me to see it. Then it was gone, falling onto all fours to bound into the trees behind the house.
I don’t know what gave me the courage to follow it that night. It didn’t seem like who I was up to this point, but I guess it’s up to us to decide who we are from here. My dad had a handgun that he kept in his desk, and he taught me how to use it. I didn’t know where I was going or whether I could even find it. I just knew that I wanted to kill something. As long as I kept thinking about the kill, I wouldn’t have to think about the dead. Staying here and facing their bodies, or even just the inescapable thoughts in my head – that’s what I wasn’t brave enough to do.
Either it didn’t expect me to follow or didn’t care if I did. The creature made no attempt to cover its tracks. At points the way seemed deliberately marked with streaks of blood, trampled underbrush, and even the occasional gash torn straight into a tree. I wasn’t too far into the woods when the tracks abruptly stopped though. The deep footprints vanished like it had taken flight. The wilderness was pristine. I turned in slow circles, encompassed with the impossibility of the peaceful night.
And with the stillness came the desperate, unbidden thoughts. The confusion, the disbelief, the helpless rage. Blood pounding in my veins, breath like a dagger of cold air, I fired the gun randomly into the trees. Again and again, just to drown out the chaos in my mind. Then the rustling of something farther in, reacting to my shot. It was running now, and I was right behind. I didn’t care what it was, I was going to shoot it. Even killing a helpless animal would help: I just needed an outlet, any outlet for this turmoil inside.
I reached a vantage point over a sudden indenture in the ground and caught a glimpse. Black, shaggy, running on two feet. The dog – the monster – whatever it was. I took another wild shot, but then it was gone again. I fired several more rounds randomly into the woods, but nothing else moved after-that. It was gone for good this time. It wasn’t a complete loss though, because the last chase had led me to something like a campsite.
The remains of a small fire, a few cans of food, a rolled mat on the ground. This wasn’t an animal lair. Stranger still, I found drying brushes and a small stack of framed paintings on the ground. They were all original, all depicting standing dogs with a paw raised to their mouth. Beside these were an equal number of identical frames, each containing nothing but plain background which matched that of the dogs.
There’s only one conclusion I was able to draw from this: there’s a killer who is deliberately trying to trick people. First comes the dog painting, either given or sold or installed – I don’t know. Then he sneaks in to replace the painting with the torn background, looking as if the dog has disappeared. He must have to leave someone alive to spread the tale of the supernatural painting, although I still haven’t figured out a reasonable motive behind this. Maybe there is no reason to killing, maybe killing is the reason, I don’t know.
I can only imagine how terrifying this must be for someone who wasn’t able to track the painting’s origin… and how powerful the killer must feel reducing someone to that point. To take someone’s family and destroy their conception of reality in a single blow. There was almost something elegant about the senseless savagery. Even if they never told another soul about what they’d seen, that kind of experience would haunt someone for the rest of their life. To have that strong an impact on someone, or multiple someones, to be the most important person in their life without them even knowing who you are …
but you’d know, wouldn’t you?. Do something like that and you’d really know who you are. And no-one could ever take that away from you. All these paintings left, and the killer won’t be back now that his secret has been had. Almost seems like a waste. But at the same time maybe he’s relieved. A secret like that burning inside of you can eat you up inside. I couldn’t have blamed him even if he led me to his camp on purpose. People like us, sometimes we just want our work to be appreciated.