By Emma E. Murray
When the morning light crept through the blinds, casting soft stripes of gold across his face, Gustav smiled and reached over the quilt for Lauren’s hand only to find it inflexible and cold. His lips drooped at the pale face peeking from between her mop of silver curls and the blanket pulled up under her chin. Her eyes were closed and her face fully relaxed, smooth as a mask. The wrinkles she’d worried over with creams and serums were now barely visible. Her uncanny, lifeless appearance sent a chill down his spine. She looked more inanimate than dead, like a porcelain doll who’d never taken a single breath.
His heart didn’t race. The tears he’d expected when he’d imagined this possibility hundreds of times over the last three years didn’t come. Instead, there was only an emptiness overlaid with quiet sorrow. He felt himself wither, desiccated into a husk as dry and fragile as an old ear of corn.
Sitting up in bed, he stayed by her for a long time, listening to his own breathing. He watched the sun sift through the cracked blinds and dance along the edges of Lauren’s face. The long, slender shadow of the IV pole acted as a sundial across the floor.
Finally, he swung his legs off the bed, one at a time, and used his hands to steady himself. He slid his feet into slippers and walked out of the room. His knees protested each step with crackling pops and his right hip ached.
Light fell through the sheer curtains and dappled the kitchen floor with shadows of embroidered leaves. There was something so ordinary about the way the kitchen looked that turned his stomach. The world marches on, he thought for a moment, but when a painful knot formed in his stomach, he batted the words away and busied himself at the sink, filling the coffee pot with shaking hands.
Gustav sat at the kitchen table; the steaming mug cupped in his palms. Two pill boxes, one clear and the other a pearly pink, sat in the center of the table, each compartment filled with colorful capsules and marked with a letter for each day of the week. He carefully opened each lid and dumped their contents into the trash bin, onto the coffee grinds and vegetable peels from last night’s dinner. Back at the table, he traced the daisies on the tablecloth with his finger and tried not to think about anything.
In the bathroom, he splashed his face with water and brushed his teeth. The familiar face in the mirror seemed to have aged a thousand years overnight. Everything about him was ancient, like the soft, worn pages of an old book. He stood, looking at his reflection, his expression blank, and then he pulled open the medicine cabinet, removed an orange bottle, his name printed across the label, and poured the pills into the toilet. The white tablets sifted to the bottom, and he stared at them a few moments before flushing them away.
He fetched Lauren’s stationary set from her office and on the thick, textured paper, wrote a letter to Samantha and another identical one to Ben. The words flowed out easily yet felt foreign and absurd to see in his own handwriting. She passed away peacefully overnight… Know your mother loved you more than anything… I know I should’ve called, but I couldn’t. He hesitated, unsure how to word it in a way they’d understand. He settled on I’m sorry. You know I can’t stand to be alone. I love you.
When he finished, each envelope carefully sealed and addressed, he hobbled out the front door and down the gravel driveway to the mailbox. Depositing the letters had a strange finality. The air around him grew cold and thin.
As he turned back toward the house, something dark on the road caught his eye. Just a few yards away from the mailbox was a twist of brown fur, a hint of pink muscle along one edge and a smear of blood where the tire had dragged it. The carcass was destroyed beyond recognition, just some unlucky animal, yet something about the commonplace gore made his head swim. Something deeply buried in his mind tried to bubble to the surface, but he fought the memory, keeping it hazy and abstract. His vision narrowed to a pinpoint, and the world spun around him. Each breath became a gasp as he leaned heavily on the mailbox.
Then, the old feeling of being watched crept like an icy hand across his skin. The world steadied as adrenaline pumped through him. He looked from side to side, searching for the eyes. There was no one. It was just his mind playing tricks again. His lungs burned as he coughed and cleared his throat on the short walk around the house to the backyard. He sat on the green bench to calm down and catch his breath, watching dark clouds roll in.
His eyes wandered the manicured lawn, its boundaries clearly defined against the wild grass that grew over the hills and across the fields. In the distance, the mountains loomed dark and foreboding. A wind blew cold against his neck, with it a faint smell of ash and sulfur. It still felt like someone was watching him. He couldn’t help but pull his shoulders to his ears and glance over his shoulder, though he knew no one was there.
While the clouds grew heavy above him, Gustav staggered over to his garden patch and plucked two ripe heirloom tomatoes that hung heavily on the vine. He thought of Lauren and how wide she’d smiled when he’d brought in that first ripe one of the season, sliced up and paired with mozzarella and a dash of balsamic. She’d said it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. A perfect last meal, he thought to himself while he polished one with his sleeve.
As he walked across the lawn, there was once again the strange sensation of eyes on his back. He turned, but there was nothing except the chilly wind before a storm pulsing across the grass. Still, he bit his lip and hurried home, forcing his aching bones to move faster than he’d asked them in years.
Inside and breathless, he locked the door behind him, though as he set the bolt, his face grew hot, and he was glad no one was there to see. He looked at his hand and saw the tomatoes again. He smiled and thought of Lauren as he took them to the kitchen.
The sky outside darkened as both time and storm overtook it. Gustav played a few games of solitaire, organized his belongings, retrieved some items from the closet, then made his dinner. The low lamp spotlighted Lauren’s empty seat at the dining table. His eyes would wander to the darkened doorway of the bedroom, the faint outline of the bed just visible in the shadows through the open door. The ripe tomatoes and cheese turned rubbery and tasteless against his tongue. Even the glass of his favorite wine was sour to his palate.
After dinner, he searched the many bookshelves, combing through Lauren’s collection to find his own favorites nestled among them. After gathering a small pile, he made himself comfortable and glanced out the window, sighing at the dark clouds that had ruined his chance at a final sunset, but it was still early in the evening, so he opened a worn copy of an adolescent favorite and read to the sound of raindrops pattering across the roof and the occasional faraway rumble.
Two books and several hours later, the storm had passed, and the rain had died down to a drizzle misting its way over the hills. Moonlight peeked through holes in the clouds, marbling the fields in patches of silver and grey. As he turned the page, a bolt of pain shot down his spine, his stomach leapt into his mouth and his eyes darted up only to catch their own reflection staring back from the glass back door.
Still, it felt like eyes were on him, though he knew there were none but his own in the distorted ghost of a reflection. He clicked off the reading lamp and the depth of the night unfurled across the fields in front of him. There was nothing there. He turned the lamp back on.
His skin prickled, a hot blush growing from his ears down his neck and over his cheeks. He looked at the box on the side table. The peeling brown leather of the corners was strangely comforting, and he thought of how it had seemed almost warm when he’d retrieved it from the back of the coat closet earlier. The box being out in the open gave him an inexplicable peace of mind, though when he tried to imagine opening it and the contents inside, his intestines squirmed and loosened sickeningly as if dropped through a trapdoor.
He tried to start a third book, but his eyes wouldn’t cooperate, so he set it down and rested his hands on his knees for a while, thinking of Lauren and the kids. Slowly, he stood and walked the two steps to the side table. With heavy hands, his fingers weighed down like sandbags, Gustav opened the box. The black gun rested inside. He picked it up and breathed deeply, trying to soften the fear.
Eyes burned into him, the feeling even stronger than before. He looked to the glass door and jumped back, stumbling and knocking over the side table. The gun dropped to the floor. He shook his head furiously, wheezing breaths pleading their way over his lips.
The creature stared at him with molten eyes, their contents bubbling up and over the sockets, running down its face like burning tears before falling in heavy drops to the ground. Each drop sizzled before dulling from bright orange to a rapidly cooling black. Most of its face was skeletal, the yellowed bones forming a canine muzzle. Tufts of fur and skin clung to the skull like moss. Gustav’s gaze followed the ridged spine down, and through its rib cage were exposed purple-grey, pumping lungs alongside a charcoal heart, its beating surface cracked and weeping fiery orange magma. Larger than any dog or wolf, the hound’s rotting black shoulders and flank twitched, and it idled on massive paws, staring and waiting.
“Let me in, old friend.” The voice hissed and gurgled in a dozen voices at once.
Gustav shuddered and bent over to retrieve the gun, but his hands shook so violently he could barely keep hold. “Go away!”
“Gustav, let me in. I am unstoppable. After all these years of waiting, the time has come.”
“You’re not real,” Gustav said to himself, forcing his eyes away from the door, but when the figure remained in his peripheral, his pulse quickened, and he broke into a cold sweat. “You’ve never been real.”
“It’s been a long time, but I’m just as real as ever. Now, you must let me in.”
“What do you want?”
The hound just stared with his eyeless skull, the quiet bubbling the only sound in the still night air.
“You can’t stop me,” Gustav whispered. His finger on the trigger despite his tremors, he put the barrel of the gun against his temple, closed his eyes, and held his breath. One. Two.
“If you try to evade me, it’ll be she who suffers in your place.” The multitude of voices of the hound clawed through his thoughts, making it impossible to concentrate. He opened his eyes, gun still pressed to his head, but when he saw the morose figure of shimmering silver behind the monster, his arm dropped limply to his side. His knees buckled beneath him, and he fell to the floor, tremors gone, the gun only loosely held in his hand.
Lauren wavered in and out of the darkness, her face fresh and young again, like when they’d first met, but now expressionless and unseeing. Her arms swayed at her sides, in and out of shadow.
“If you don’t let me in, she’ll take your punishment for you. And I’ll make sure you witness every moment.” The hound’s many voices screeched through his mind like a kettle whistle.
Lauren brightened in the doorway, now a luminous and steady silver, and her eyes drew up in a wince of pain. The hound’s head turned slowly toward Gustav’s wife; the grumbling boil of its molten tears was the only sound even though Lauren’s face now twisted into a scream. Her fingers clawed her cheeks, teeth bared, every muscle taut with agony.
“Lauren! No, make it stop. This can’t be real. They told me it wasn’t real,” Gustav shouted as his wife’s ghostly figure bent into painful, inhuman contortions. “Okay, just make it stop! I’ll let you in! I’ll let you in!”
As the hound’s blind gaze turned back, Lauren relaxed, returning to the emotionless figure wafting in and out of the earthly plane.
“You promise to let her go if I do?” he asked as he inched forward, the butt of the pistol still warm in his palm. The hound nodded.
A few feet from the glass door, he stopped a moment to admire the beams of moonlight passing through Lauren’s gossamer form and the face he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. A lump formed in the back of his throat and tears spilled down his face.
“Will it hurt?”
“Yes,” the shrill demonic chorus rattled in his skull. “It will be like it was for the girl.”
“Forever?” The question eked out from his tight throat, high-pitched and trembling.
“Only for a moment. But it will feel like eons.”
An uncontrollable whimper escaped him as he dragged his feet across the kitchen floor. The images he’d spent decades repressing flooded his mind. The young girl’s body thrown into the air like a rag doll. The wet thud against pavement as her torso burst and spilled open. The jagged road ripping through cloth, tearing flesh from bone as she tumbled. Blood had seeped out around her, collecting in a puddle, but there had been no blood on his car. No witnesses.
Fear and liquor fueled his flight. Shame and self-preservation had kept the secret, but the hell hound had found him all those years ago, walking out from complete darkness into the light from the campfire to sit beside him while his friends were snugly curled up in sleeping bags.
He had trembled and known the beast for what it was immediately. When the molten eyes locked with his own, his bladder had released, and mortal fear had clutched his heart. The memory flooded back, vivid and stinking of brimstone.
“Are you—are you going to kill me?”
Gustav couldn’t tear his eyes away from the hound, paralyzed with fear.
“What do you mean?” he had asked, his voice cracking.
“You will live with the guilt. I’ll visit you in dreams, replaying her agony to you over and over, until you wake drenched in sweat. Every time you see the grey pavement of a road, you’ll remember, and though you’ll try to swallow it away, it’ll rot inside you. Every joy in your life will be diminished when you think of how you stole it from her. Then, one day, when you are truly alone and broken, I will visit you once more.”
“But… it was just an accident.”
The hound just turned his gaze to the fire and said, “The judgment is not mine. She sent me with her dying breath.”
“There’s nothing I can do? It was just a mistake.”
The monster said nothing. It merely stood up and disappeared back into the night.
The recovered memory brought with it a relief from the shadow that had hung over him most of his life. He’d nearly convinced himself it was a nightmare as decade after decade had passed, but now he knew and understood.
Gustav swallowed. His hand shook as he reached out for the doorknob. Lauren’s form dissipated, flitting away into the night. Her face faded last, and he thought he saw a hint of that tender smile he’d loved so dearly. Tears ran down his cheeks. It was better that it was him. She’d never hurt anyone and had loved him when he was undeserving.
The hound waited patiently as ever while the cold chrome turned in his palm, but the moment the door opened a fraction of an inch, it leapt and charged him.
He fell onto his back, tried to aim as he pulled the trigger, but the hound collided with his chest, as heavy and unceasing as a train. Claws and teeth tore through muscle, sinew, and tendon while vertigo and nausea took hold of his vision and stomach. Indescribable physical pain was joined by the combined mental anguish of everyone who had mourned the girl. Her mother’s wails pierced his soul and her father’s grief transformed every attempt at thought into a fog of despair.
As the hound’s attack continued, both physical and emotional tumult crescendoing in unspeakable torture, a glimmer of hope peeked over the darkness, like a sun threatening to burst into the dark of night. The girl, whose name he’d never learned, was moving on and something inside him snapped like a rubber band. Forgiveness. Through the fog of pain and confusion, the corners of his mouth twitched in a small smile as the secret he’d kept all those years was finally laid to rest.
Emma E. Murray (she/her) writes horror and dark speculative fiction. Her stories have appeared in anthologies like What One Wouldn’t Do, Obsolescence, and Ooze: Small Bursts of Body Horror, as well as magazines such as Pyre and If There’s Anyone Left. To read more, you can visit her website EmmaEMurray.com or follow her on Twitter @EmurrayAuthor.