It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to lose someone you love before it happens. Of course I’ve seen it a hundred times in the movies: dramatic affairs for the most part, with lots of screaming and crying and carrying on. The shock, the disbelief, the unconstrained rage; all lashing out at the world for the most ordinary and predictable thing in it.
It wasn’t like that after dad disappeared though. He was simply there one day and gone the next, leaving behind nothing but a penetrating dull ache. Weeks of police investigation turned up nothing. It wasn’t an act of cruelty which made the world steal him away; it was merely universal indifference. His life was short; his death random and meaningless; and there was nothing left but for the rest of us to carry on.
I got the phone call from mom late at night in my studio apartment. Dad was presumed dead, and the police had officially closed their investigation. I stayed quiet and listened to her all the way through, even though there was nothing left to say after the first line. I thanked her politely for letting me know, and then I hung up. After that I stared at the wall for about an hour, not really thinking anything, just observing idle thoughts as they passed in one side and out the other.
I live in a different state and hadn’t even seen him in a couple of months. Eventually I decided that waking up tomorrow wasn’t going to be any different than every other day when he was still puttering around the kitchen table a thousand miles away.
But I was wrong. I’d lived alone for years, but my apartment had never felt so empty. I had to keep the TV on all the time just so I wouldn’t have to hear the soft gurgle of blood in my veins or listen to the dull monotony of my own breath. I don’t know how I never noticed those sounds before, but they were starting to drive me crazy now. I guess I couldn’t stop thinking about how fragile my own mortality was, and how pointless my life would have been if it were all to end.
That’s why I got a dog. Half-husky, half-coyote, about six months old; I picked her up from the animal shelter where some cowboy was dropping her off. The dog was growling and snarling at him, but she calmed down the instant he left. I figured she must have been abused or something, but she seemed so sweet to everyone else that I decided to take her home with me.
A few days later I got the call that dad wasn’t dead. About a month after he’d disappeared, he’d just showed up again. Mom said he just walked in one day and sat down at the breakfast table like nothing had happened. She couldn’t get a word out of him about where he’d been, but she was so happy to have him back she didn’t even press. He wouldn’t tell me anything either, just grunted something about “needing to clear his head”. It seemed like a miracle to me too, but I guess I had already spent so much time fixating on death that nothing much changed for me.
I kept the dog anyway and named her Snoots, and from the very first time I called her that her ears pressed flat with excitement and she started wagging up storm. She was really skittish at first, but she hated being alone and would follow me from room to room, even sitting between my legs when I sat on the toilet.
Snoots was absolutely perfect for me. Her constant attention made me feel like I mattered again. Maybe my life didn’t matter in an existential sort of way, and maybe my death wouldn’t mean anything on a cosmic scale, but it would mean the world to her. I was warned it might be hard to train her because of the coyote blood, but she learned everything almost immediately. She was so shy that she’d try to walk between my legs when a stranger was nearby, but it felt so good knowing she trusted me.
She did have one bad habit though: unpredictably going off. The first time was a couple months after I got her. We were walking down the sidewalk toward the park when her fur started to bristle and her mouth flared to reveal powerful teeth. Before I knew what was happening, she was snarling and barking and howling at the lady on the other side of the street. The lady started running and Snoots actually lunged at the leash, almost dragging me into the street after her.
As soon as the lady was gone, Snoots was back to normal. I couldn’t figure out what happened. She had never even growled at another animal before. The lady didn’t have a dog with her, and she wan’t carrying food or anything. She hadn’t made the least threatening move. It was so random that I just forgot about it, but that wasn’t the only time.
Next it happened she jumped up from the couch and started snarling at the door. A few seconds later someone knocked and she howled in answer. I looked through the peak-hole, but it was only the pizza guy. I had to drag Snoots into the bathroom and lock her there until he left before she would calm down.
That behavior happened so rarely that I couldn’t figure out how to predict or prevent it. I couldn’t just keep her isolated, and it was pointless to take her to training when she was usually the sweetest thing in the world. I was terrified that she would randomly attack someone and would be taken away from me though. I kept her daytime walks short after that, only going out early in the morning or late at night when there weren’t so many people around.
Another few months went by and I thought her feral side had finally been tamed when it happened again. It was after 9 PM and we were doing a last walk through the park before it closed. I was talking to mom and dad on the phone and wasn’t really paying attention to Snoots snuffling along behind. My first warning was when the leash snapped violently taunt, ripping the phone from my hand.
I automatically dove to catch my phone. Snoots was dragging so hard she managed to break the leash free from my grasp. I couldn’t stop her from charging headlong into the darkness, a guttural snarl rising in her throat. I chased after her, shouting her name, screaming a warning for whoever was out there…
But by the time I caught up with her, Snoots was already on top of someone. She had his hand in her mouth, savagely thrashing back and forth like she was trying to rip it off. The guy was trying to push her back, but Snoots kept lunging in at him whenever she lost her grip. By the time I caught up with them she had had her teeth around his neck, ferociously shaking like wild animals do when they’re looking for a quick kill.
I got hold of the leash and pulled so hard Snoots practically did a back-flip. The guy was on his feet now, swaying unsteadily. I started to apologize, but the words died in my mouth. His hand was a bloody pulp, severed digits scattered on the ground. The wounds on his neck were even more brutal. A whole sheet of skin was peeled back, hanging in ragged tatters along his shoulder. Part of his spine had ruptured straight through the side where it had been unmistakably broken. Exposed sinew glistened with blood as he slowly worked his neck in a long circle like someone luxuriously stretching after a long nap.
I don’t even know how he was still conscious. I wanted to go back for my phone to call for help, but it took all my strength just to keep Snoots from diving back in to finish her prey. The man started fumbling at the ruined tatters of his neck, not taking his eyes off me. I braced myself, half expecting him to attack us right back in retaliation.
He was too focused on his own injuries though. I was trapped in place holding Snoots back, helpless to turn away from what happened next. He grabbed the hanging folds of his skin with his good hand and started to peel it down the remainder of his neck. Then he reached around to his back and started to peel it there too, the whole mess of flesh flopping away like a diver getting out of a wet suit. I watched, transfixed but mortified as he slid out of the rest of his skin and clothing to leave them both in a soggy pile at his feet.
It wasn’t exactly muscle underneath. It was more like a second skin, pale-grey and slick with blood, but it was fitted so closely to the structures underneath that it mirrored the muscle’s striations and fibers. I didn’t have long to stare though. He was running as soon as he was free, leaving behind the whole wet mess he’d shed on the ground.
I ran home with Snoots as fast as I could. I didn’t even go back for discarded phone. I kept telling myself it wasn’t real until I got back into my apartment, but it was harder to lie to myself while washing the blood off Snoots’s face and fur. She was wagging again, looking like her old self until she opened her mouth to let the last severed finger drop onto the floor.
I couldn’t be alone after that. Even Snoots wasn’t enough company. I talked with mom for a long time to help calm down, although I didn’t breathe a word about what happened. She sensed that I was rattled though, and she convinced me to come back home and visit home for awhile.
I kept Snoot with me, more afraid of the thing that discarded its skin than how she reacted to it. I have her locked in the car with me where I’m writing this now though. I want to run in and hug mom and tell her how good it is to see her again. I want to ask dad about what happened – why he left, and why he decided to come back.
I can’t get out of the car though. I can’t let snoots out. Not with her snarling since the moment I pulled into mom’s driveway. There was only one thing that worked Snoots up like that, and I couldn’t lie to myself and say it was something else. The only conclusion I could draw was that dad may have really disappeared, but whatever came back was only pretending to be him.
I left Snoots in the car and knocked on the door. I let out a long breath of relief when mom opened the door. Then a hand fell on her shoulder, and the thing that looked like my dad popped up into view. It made me sick to imagine the bloody-slick grey skin underneath that intimate mask. It was one thing to lose my father, but having to look at him again like this was unbearable.
They invited me in and I sat down, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The disguise was seamless. His affection genuine. Both of them avoided any mention of his disappearance, and I didn’t bring it up either. I had to find some way of breaking the illusion though. I couldn’t very well just sic Snoots on him and mangle him in the living room. I had to bide my time and wait until I could get him alone.
I got my chance later that evening. Snoots was out back in the yard, still agitated and restless from his proximity to the creature. Mom was out at the store picking up some things for dinner. I invited “dad” out to the yard to toss a football around like we used to. I figured we could take him by surprise and get rid of him before mom got back. She’d just think he disappeared again, and if she could accept it once, then hopefully she could accept it again. It was better than letting that thing live inside the house, watching her sleep, just waiting to make its move.
I had one of his hunting knives gripped in my hand. I waited just outside the door. I couldn’t wait until Snoots started snarling or he might realize he was caught and get away. I had to strike hard, and fast, and then Snoots could join me and help finish the job. I tried not to think of that thing wearing my father’s sweater as anything but a monster. I tried to tell myself it was the thing that had killed and replaced my real father. Anything to make it easier to do the deed before the opportunity was lost.
And then the door opened. He stepped outside, not noticing me pressed against the side of the house. I grabbed him from behind, not wanting to see his face. I plunged the knife into his side, not wanting to let him speak. He pitched forward and I let go of the knife. I still couldn’t look at him, so I ran to the yard and opened the gate. Now’s the chance! I shouted at Snoots, but she wasn’t moving. Her fur was calm. She ran up to lick me and started wagging. I had to drag her out of the yard, thrusting her toward the creature crawling on the ground. Snoots looked back at me, unsure of what to do.
I almost thought I really had gone crazy until at last the fur started to bristle down her back. She bared her fangs, hunching down in preparation to pounce. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the sound of tires on the gravel driveway on the other side of the house. Snoots wasn’t paying my father any attention. It was my mother she sensed.
Snoots was sprinting around the side of the house and I ran to keep up with her. Mom was just starting to get out of the car with an armful of groceries when the dog sprang. She managed to get the door closed in time, but Snoots wasn’t giving up. She beat herself against the window, snarling and slamming herself over and over into the car. Mom was in reverse now, tearing back out of the driveway, out into the street to disappear around the block.
I called the ambulance, but dad didn’t look like he was going to last. Snoots came to lick his face, but the blood wouldn’t stop and I didn’t know what to do. He said he didn’t blame me, but every word was getting weaker than the last. I asked him why he left, but I could have already guessed the answer. He’d run when he found out mom had been replaced by one of the skinwalkers.
“Then why’d you come back?” I had to ask. I needed some closure before he was gone for good this time.
“Because I still loved her,” he told me. “And that thing is the closest there is to having her back again.”