THE stench of wet still clung to earthly bound things the morning Fall made the discovery. The storm the night before had raged like an angered spirit until all that remained was sodden earth and a drizzle like a dying whisper.
The small sack of cloth positioned on her doorstep was damp to the touch. She would have mistaken it for something dead, a prank by local kids, if she had not waited and watched it. Three times it grew in a sort of asthmatic gasp, only to recede until she was sure whatever was inside was not dead but alive and breathing. She said nothing, only turned on her heels and went into the house, emerging less than a minute later with two rubber gloves and an old blanket.
No bigger than a baby, Fall was surprised at how heavy it was as she worked it into the blanket and carried it inside. In the middle of her living room floor she peeled away the folds of the fabric like a surgeon at the operating table.
The body she found inside was the colour of a moonless night and covered in coarse piggish hair that betrayed only spidery ribs under taut skin. From its canine face protruded long jagged teeth along a snout that was both crooked and scarred. Its four legs were scrawny twigs and a tail like an overgrown lab rat curled down and around behind it. Two eyes sockets were shut, though she did not need to see them open to know what colour await underneath.
A silent moment passed between them. Then it raised its small, angular head and sniffed the air. The pointed nose moved faster than Fall’s eyes could follow. Then shakily, with her guiding hand under its tiny belly, the small creature stood. She followed it slowly through the kitchen, dining room, halls, bathroom, and bedroom, until finally arriving behind it at the door of the basement, which sat ajar. Fall pushed it open wider, exposing the dark depths of the house’s unfinished foundations. The same rain that had brought the thing had found its way there, seeping through the earth and the cracks in the walls so that the smell of mildew rose up like a terrestrial perfume. The creature descended the first step, and then the next, until it was lost in the darkness. Fall was forced to retrieve a flashlight, for there remained a broken lightbulb in the basement she had day after day refused to fix.
Torch in hand and pulse rising, she made her way down the stairs. She saw nothing but dirt, concrete, and spiderwebs filled with corpses and then, she heard the scratching sound of claws excavating soil. The hairs from her forearms to the nape of her neck stood tall as she swung the light around to the far side of the space. Like a demonic mole, the creature burrowed into the far corner, flinging out pieces of debris until it stopped abruptly, curled and lay down in a ball. Fall waited; light pointed in a steady quiver at the spot. It occurred to her a moment later that the small black thing was asleep, and so she turned, walked slowly up the stairs, and closed the basement door just enough that a sliver of light from one side and a sliver of darkness from the other was visible.
It should be said that Fall, up to this junction in her life, was by all accounts a normal person. She was hardly ever late for her job at a small advertising agency in town and was never late to her monthly cooking class. As a woman in her early thirties she preferred to live alone. Perhaps one day there would be a man in her life, though for now, she was content to remain free.
And though she did not consider many people friends, the ones she did, she called. She told them about what she had found, about the strangeness of it all. Most told her to toss it, leave it along the interstate somewhere and forget she ever saw it. She tried, only to find herself angry at the thought of parting with him. Him. She had known since the moment she opened the door. He did not eat, only drank water occasionally. This worried Fall who had not taken care of an animal since the morning of her eighth birthday, when she discovered the family rabbit, skillfully dismembered by the neighbour’s cat, strewn across the garden in pieces of white and red. She had not trusted herself with so much as a goldfish since and was now determined for reasons she neither understood nor explored, to make this creature a habitant in her home.
Three days passed. Fall decided he needed a name. Something she could call out which would feel more special between them. She ran through a list of potentials finding nothing appropriate or fitting. She looked around wondering if inspiration really could come from mundane things. Two magazines and one book sat on her coffee table. Vanity won’t do, she thought, and neither will People. The book had been given to her by a man she was seeing, well, from her perspective was being nice enough to see. Apparently, the trend for a high school literary arts teacher was to bring the woman something to read instead of flowers. “It’s Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.”
The man named Jeremy had told her. “You know him, right? The author Ray Bradbury? We are reading it in class right now. Thought you might like following along. You haven’t read it have you?” Jeremey had a nervous energy and asked too many questions too fast, like the kid who was bullied too much and now, after acquiring half-decent looks later in life, was trying to make up for it with doubled enthusiasm. She wondered if his students picked on him. Nevertheless, she thought, nothing wrong with two adults, however strange in their own ways, looking for the fastest socially acceptable way to the bedroom. She told him she had not read it, but she would try. He joked about quizzing her on their next date. “Dates are exhausting,” was her reply. “We’re not in high school. We can skip to the good stuff.”
But to her own surprise Fall did read the book, in one afternoon. Upon further reflection she decided that the book was far better than the sex had been and looking at its creased spine now, discovered in her mind a single word, Hound. The mechanical creature-character featured prominently in the dystopian tale. “Hound,” she said aloud, and her small treasure picked up his head, ears like satanic horns at the ready. She smiled. There would be no need to search for other names.
It was the end of their first week together and Hound had yet to eat. Fall could tell by his whimpers turned guttural growls that his hunger was growing, but no matter what she tried from conventional dog food to fully cooked chicken breasts her pet refused.
“What then?” she asked out loud. “There must be something you want?” She heard the rap of a hand at the door. “Jeremy,” she said, surprised.
“Hi, I, uh, was around the neighbourhood,” Jeremy said. “Did you like the book? Is this a bad time?”
“The book was…actually good,” she told him, choosing to leave out the fact that she had named her new pet after one of its characters. “But I’m a little busy right now and don’t really have time for, you know.”
“Oh my,” said Jeremy, peering around her and into the house. “What is that?”
Hound was standing at his full puppy height. His eyes had opened the day before to reveal two bottomless pits.
“I didn’t know you got a,” Jeremy hesitated, searching somewhere for a word, “dog?”
Fall started to say something and stopped. “It’s kind of been an accident.”
“Looks like it’s just come in off the street. A really rough street.” Jeremy stepped inside and around Fall, making his way over to Hound who regarded him by titling his small head. Squatting down low, Jeremy stopped inches from the strange face. “My god,” he said, “it almost looks…nether worldly.”
Fall struggled to grasp what happened next. It was more of an experience, a change in time and place, than an occurrence. The air in the room grew foul and heavy. Hound no longer looked like the malnourished puppy creature but something far more sinister. It was as if all the light that existed in Jeremy left, replaced by deep seeded darkness that festered up from within. Hound was doing something, though she was unable to articulate what that was.
“Goodbye Jeremy,” she said some minutes later to the empty face of the man she barely knew. Jeremy, wide-eyed and looking light as a feather, walked speechless through the door. No further words had been exchanged and she knew she would not be seeing him again. There was no need. Hound was also different. His raggedness, while still ragged, looked invigorated, nourished by a fuel she imagined coursed through him now, as if he had been injected with a mercurial juice delivered express from hell. They stared at each other. “You’ve eaten then,” she said. Hound responded with the swaying of his tail, side to side like a viper, as he walked away down the hall. Fall listened. She had grown fond of the way his claws click-clacked along the hardwood floors. She heard him, one thud after another, descend the basement stairs. She noticed then that there was something in the place where he had stood moments before.
An orb, no bigger than the snow globe, glowed in pulsing shades of blue. It was not a living thing like normal living things, but it was, in its way, alive. It beckoned her, twisting her limbs and willing them toward it, towards its energetic light. Fall was not someone who rushed into things, preferring to take her time. This was different and required no hesitation or second thoughts.
She was on her hands and knees, her face close enough that she could see the interwoven rings of sky, cerulean, navy and a dozen other shades like years of life on the stump of a tree. It was all contained within the orb which she realised smelled like Jeremy. In the quiet she heard it hum and saw the tiny ripples vibrating across its surface. It was in her hands then, warm and trembling, soft membrane like newborn skin. She put it to her lips, the girl who was normally so careful. Sweet saltiness crawled into her, laying itself down on her tongue like a secret lover taking her for the first time. She pressed her face gently forward until the orb and its contents gave way, filling her mouth with a sensation beyond flavour, beyond tasting. It was life. Memories, wishes, feelings, a collection so vast it could only be the pieces of a person, and yet, pieces are all they were. For no matter how many mouthfuls slid down her throat she needed one more.
Two nights later she lay in bed, eyes open to the ceiling, craving. She had been addicted before. There was a guy she swore she was addicted to in college, then there were the cigarettes and caffeine, different addictions but glorious in their own way. But all those addictions had not really been addictions, she saw now. They were things of the time, fashionable in fulfilling some need on some level but ultimately, nothing of note, nothing of permanence. Yet this, this thing that had filled her with a nectar like none other she’d ever tasted had given her something, if only a fleeting glimpse of something more. Part of her was dying, and another, being born. She hurried to her computer, stopping only for a second to coo softly at the glowing eyes of Hound, who on this night watched her from the foot of her bed. Thirty minutes later she had posted on three different sites.
‘Therapy Dog,’ her ad read, ‘New study shows that fifteen minutes with a dog will…’
The list included stress relief, heightened awareness, increased sexual performance and a string of other nonspecific benefits she believed people these days would want, or need, to hear. Excited beyond sleep, she dressed and gathered her things. There was work to do.
It took less than a day for the first client to book. Fall could feel the Pavlovian impulse in her mouth as she led the young woman whose name she had already forgotten down, stair by stair, to the basement.
“Wait here, please,” she said, motioning to the empty chair which sat in front of the partition marked “therapy room.”
The woman obeyed with a smile. Fall had been pleasantly surprised with how a few minor additions could put her basement into presentable shape. A partition here, three pictures she had taken from the upstairs, a rug, floor lamp, and two chairs. She had even gone so far as to put out candles, scented ones with names like vanilla twilight and deep woods.
She walked around the partition to the place where Hound waited. Quiet as always, he watched her in the low light, eyes wide and deep. He had grown. Muscles had formed in places where there was previously nothing and his features, the snaggle teeth, hooked claws, and pointed ears were crystallizing in their definition. She stroked his neck slowly, allowing her fingers to sift in between the fibres of coarse hair. Moments later, to the sound of soft piano music playing from a tiny stereo she had hidden out of sight, Fall guided the young woman to the chair.
That young woman was to be the first of many clients. With each successive intake, Fall began to taste the subtle differences that existed between people. Confidence was sour like a fruit left out to go bad. Lust was salty like the brine off a clam shell. Shyness was caramel mixed with the smell of grass after rainfall. Kindness was a savory juice, humour a spectrum of bitter to sweet, and sadness a syrupy ooze that brought slugs to mind. Dozens upon dozens of flavours all coalescing together to form the pieces of the people who left them behind. It was all there. All except their fears. Those, she knew, belonged to Hound.