FREE READ: Feeding the Beast

Leo, JC OBrien

After scooping my last bite of Indian curry, I set the plate on the floor in the kitchen for the dog. He’s eleven, old in human years, so I spoil him and put up with pizza farts and having to share the tip of every ice cream cone.

But there was no ice cream on this January night. Instead, there was rain. Lots and lots of rain. Not the charming misty wet that used to happen when I moved to Seattle in the Eighties, one of the downpours we started having a few years ago. The kind of rain that loosens soil enough that Douglas fir trees are transformed from charming sentinels into possible instruments of death. The windstorms that follow the rains kill people in Western Washington when the trees start coming down like so many pick-up sticks.
So while my husband settled in under the covers with his book and the dog curled up in his bed, I lay lit by the light of my phone, ignoring Facebook while I listened to the rain pummel the roof.
The husband snored.
The dog snored.
And sometime after midnight, I drifted off to sleep.
Around two, my phone was right there, making it easy for me to check the time, the dog flipped over onto all fours. He whined and cried and stamped his feet until my husband climbed out of bed and took him outside in the rain.
While I lay there listening for wind and the creak of falling trees, I heard my husband cursing quietly as the dog came in. Without bothering to dry off either of them, he climbed back into bed. I kissed his wet hair and wrinkled my nose and pulled the covers tighter while the rain continued to fall.
An hour later, the dog was at it again. Only this time, he was bumping his nose against the bedroom door, demanding to be let into the kitchen. We like our Indian food spicy, so we let him out, but he refused to return.
Now here’s where I should tell you that my dog, even as a pup, could never see very well, but he has excellent hearing and we have wood floors. While listening as keenly as the dog, I was able to track him, moving from the far picture window in the living room to dart back to the dining room and over to the large window near the front door.
Outside of the rain, I heard nothing.
Or, that’s what I like to tell myself.
North Seattle isn’t like downtown. We have lots of Douglas fir trees and rhododendrons grow taller than garages. And we have animals. Neither raccoons nor rats have no problem sauntering about during the day, but while walking the dog on moonlit nights I’ve heard other things—sounds that make no sense in an environment surrounded by houses as well as trees. At the end of our street, just before the golf course, is a preserved bit of land: Llandover Woods. We walk the dog there and have seen only bees and woodpeckers, but there are places off the trail that appear dark, even during the day. And I tell myself that this is where something that didn’t sound right next to a house or a car would go at night when it was raining and it needed a place to sleep.
It would have no need to be around my house, driving my dog to distraction.
Leo’s nails clattered against the windowsill, squeezing a bark out of him. After another five barks, I got up and went into the living room to check on him.
He looked at me and snorted. No way I was getting the dog into the bedroom now.
I pulled the curtain aside and peered out into the wet, seeing nothing other than the dripping trees and phone lines, but I could sense something. When I was little, I read a book about a boy who went blind after playing with firecrackers. Nearly a whole chapter was devoted to the moment he learned to sense objects by feeling displaced air.
We live in an old house with cracks around the door and double-pane windows that no longer hold their seal. I closed my eyes and felt for the small sips of air that always find their way into the room.
I felt nothing.
I didn’t even hear the dog creep up beside me until I felt the shock of his fur against my bare knees. He wedged himself between me and the wall, pointed his nose at the door and began to bark.
He was close enough for me to feel the sides of his rib cage squeezing in and out. Between barks, I caught the slow scrape of claws against wood.
But Leo was on the carpet.
The front door shook on its hinges, bellowing in and out in response to each of the dog’s barks. My husband yelled for me to settle the dog down and come back to bed. I reached for the dog’s collar and he dashed to the other window, mounting the window sill and shoving the curtain out of the way as he barked, barked, barked.
His legs tangled with the curtain. As he dashed to the next window, the fabric was yanked back from the rod. I squinted out into the dark, but saw nothing. My nose twitched. Not the weird ozone smell that happens after some rain. Something vaguely rotten seemed to be coming in through the cracks in the walls.
I moved closer to the window and a tree branch cracked against it. I jumped and crashed into the piano and onto the floor.
The stench grew stronger as I lowered my nose. The dog dashed from door to window to door as a sound grew in my ears.
Not quite the growling sounds I’d heard while walking the dog. More like the soft sounds of everything that had ever scared me in the dark.
The dog came and stood in front of me. His barking grew more frantic as he bounced up and down on his front legs, his jaws snapping with sound.
My husband snapped on the living room light. “It’s four in the morning. Get the dog and get back to bed.”
The light seemed to chase away the smell, which didn’t make sense, but I didn’t feel fully awake. I tugged at the dog’s collar. This time he came with me, even if he did keep looking back over his shoulder into the empty room.
“I think we should leave the light on,” I said.
“Sure. Just sleep.”
The dog refused to stay in his bed. Instead, he stationed himself right in front of the bedroom door and curled up with his nose pressed into the space between the door and the floor.
By morning, he lay on his side.
The wet hadn’t stopped. I sent my husband out the back door into the rain with the dog while I tried to wake up with a cup of tea.
I sniffed as I walked around the house. Nothing.
My husband returned with the dog. I dried the dog while he dried himself. I had the towel in my hand when it occurred to me to check the front door.
Pulling it open proved harder than expected. Seattle rain can make it feel like night, but after telling myself that the street lamp was off, I turned the knob.
There on the front door was a set of twelve scratches. I ran my finger into a deep groove and brought it to my nose and nearly vomited. Whatever was under its claws was rotten.
“I don’t think we should feed the dog any more Indian food,” my husband called from the kitchen.
“I think you’re completely wrong. Have a look at this.”
The dog came along with my husband, he sat on his haunches while we examined the door, ears alert, face as perky as when he expected a treat.
“The dog eats whatever he wants,” I said and locked the door before going to find the dog something scrumptious.