One bark from the black dog on the corner will bring the rest of the litter running. A howl will summon its masters, the men in red.
The most it ever does is growl.
There were always stories about escapees. The men in red threw anyone caught telling one to the black dogs, their hunting hounds, to show the rest of us how we’d end up if we chanced it. But they never stepped in ’til the story was told, and never called the teller a liar.
They’re cunning like that, the men in red. I should have guessed, but I didn’t, so now I’m a story too. To the damned I left behind I might be free or I might be dogmeat, and between those extremes they find fresh hope for the men in red to leech.
I can’t find hope where they do. Free; devoured; I can’t see the difference any more.
At every crossroads, the black dog’s waiting, growling. No point wondering what lives I’d find down the paths it guards. I know better than to cross it.
I thought once I was back in the world, I’d only remember that place like a nightmare. But whenever I catch that growl, those bloody eyes, that burnt fur smell, that place tears through me into this, sending me cowering down whatever dead-end road the dog’s left me.
I wish it would howl, but it never will. It’s not hunting me. I haven’t escaped.
M. J. Starling is a writer, and the host of the Schenectady Six-Pack podcast. He gave W. H. Hodgson’s paranormal detective, Carnacki, his stage début in Audience with the Ghost Finder, which premiered in 2013. His short stories have appeared in Reflection’s Edge and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Find him online at mjstarling.com.