Alabama ghost dog story (or is it?) written by Keith Gregory.
Toby’s farmhouse was just as beautiful as the rest of the “new rich” houses that had moved into the area in the past decade. His family had been handing the property down to generations of his kin since the 1800’s. There had been plenty of offers in recent years from the “new rich” to purchase his land, but Toby was a stubborn man, a proud man. This was his farm and he wasn’t giving it up to no one. He figured the reason they kept coming around was because he had no one, as of yet, to hand it down to.
Toby Matheson was still single and in his late forties. He was a simple man and this, combined with his stubbornness, had been a large, contributing factor to his bachelorhood. The Matheson farm, which had run fallow over time, was a place of sanctuary for him. He maintained the property enough to enjoy a somewhat solitary life with his best friend Lily, a Golden Labrador. In Toby’s mind Lilly was the only affection he needed. Her loyalty was his company. He didn’t have many friends and he liked it that way, and his “friends” were mostly acquaintances anyway. He was also grateful that the farm was a considerable distance away from the nearest neighbor. The property was large enough that he and Lilly could live their lives the way they wanted to without outsider distractions.
Summers in the valley region of northwest Alabama could get hot despite the idea that the cold season stubbornly hung on for as long as it could. In August it was downright hot and humid during the day and still and warm at night. Toby loved dusk in August on Matheson Farm. He would sit outside on his porch with Lilly and watch the sun go down, beer in hand, listening to the sound of the woods bordering the northern end of the front yard. Some nights the trees would sway in a gentle summer night’s breeze or just before a storm. The leaves would dance on their stems, flickering back and forth against the branches. It was a nightly ritual Toby held quite dear.
Tonight was one of the still nights, the woods ahead a silent fortress wall. Toby sat in his porch chair taking in the evening, sipping his lager. The farmer’s simplicity came to a peak during these moments as he stared out into the growing dark with just about nothing on his mind, watching, listening to his world. Them “new rich” folk would probably call this “Zen” or “meditation.” To Toby, it was just a nightcap. His eyes soon fell to his, almost, empty bottle and he let out a long, emotionally exhausted sigh. It sure was quiet tonight. Save for the crickets’ song, the stillness was impacting.
There was a small rustling in the woods and a scattering of forest floor. Toby watched as a fox ran along the edge of the border of trees and back into the folds of the woods. That’s when he heard the bark. He knew that bark. His head shot up and he strained his eyes. It had come form just outside his vision on the far northern end. That was Lilly. It had to be. It sounded just like her. He carefully put down his beer and leaned forward in his chair.
“Lilly?” He asked the night. “Lilly, is that you?”
He was about to get out of his chair and stopped in mid ascent. He sighed, again, and sat back in the seat feeling a little stupid. It was impossible, of course. Lilly was dead. His best friend had passed on last fall. She was old, and time had had its way with her. She was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, and the arthritis eventually had spread so bad he had had to put her to sleep. She was living in pain everyday and Toby had had enough of the grief, seeing her limp around. He had decided he was keeping her alive for his own benefit and it was time to let go. As he sat back in his chair, he looked down to where she used to sit during their nightly ritual, and felt a low tightening in his stomach, tears threatening to escape his eyes.
“Just stop it Toby.” He said to himself. “She’s gone and that’s that.”
He took the last slug of his beer and considered going and grabbing another, when he heard the bark again. It was clear in the still, night air. The sound was far off at the northern edge of the woods but close enough to make Toby wonder if a stray had wandered onto his property. But the bark was so familiar. He had heard it every day for the past thirteen years.
For a moment he didn’t really know what to do. It sounded like Lilly, so it must be a Lab and they weren’t much of a threat. Then again, they weren’t the kind to go off wandering on their own either. He heard another rustling in the woods. No bark. Toby leaned towards the yard in his chair, mouth slightly open, eyes, squinting into the, now dark, distance of the northern edge, concentrating. The night just hung there, silent save for the sounds of crickets. Continuing to stare at the trees and beyond, he slowly sat back in his chair and decided to dismiss the whole thing and wondered if he really needed another cold one. Then the barking came again, this time a little more frantic. Toby was up right, instantly. It wasn’t the barking of a dog in pain or danger. It was the sound of a Lab on the hunt. A dog alerting her master that she had found the fowl. Come over here, that barking said, it fell over here. Toby stood and walked to the edge of the porch.
“Lilly,” he said out loud and caught himself. The name had escaped his lips without him even thinking. Lilly was dead, he knew that, but it had just come out. The dog barked a few more times and sounded as if it was running back and forth trying to get someone’s attention. Whoever would listen, it seemed. Well, Toby was listening and the rustling he had heard in the woods was not coming from the north end of the woods where he heard the barking, it was more towards his position but deeper in the trees. The barking stopped again.
Toby resolved to go and take a look. Since he couldn’t hear the dog rustling when it barked maybe it was in some sort of trap. No, Toby thought, that’s just ridiculous. He had no traps laid out on his property. He heard the rustling deep in the woods again and it sounded like the scrambling of not one, but a couple of, what he assumed to be, foxes. He had just seen one not five minutes ago.
He walked across the porch and went into the house. Toby realized how fast he was walking and his heartbeat quickened, slight mists of fear matching his pace.
“Gotta calm down there a bit, Toby. Just a wandering Lab, is all,” he told himself as he walked through the kitchen and into the washroom. He didn’t turn the light on, just stared at the gun cabinet. He didn’t need the rifle, did he? He stepped closer and felt for the keys in his pocket: house key, truck key, gun key. He rubbed the gun key between his thumb and forefinger in a momentary state of indecision. It was probably just a lost Lab, he thought. No more a threat than Lilly ever was. He rubbed the key once more, looked to the right of the cabinet and saw his walking stick. He had whittled it himself years ago out of a branch ripped from its trunk by lightening. The tip was charred black and he had lacquered it to preserve nature’s quiet remnant of fury. The stick would do. If he startled the dog he would be able to use it to calm him, or her, down or defend himself if he had too. A gun would just be too much. He grabbed the walking stick and stood there in the darkness for a moment. He thought of Lilly and a pang of loss washed over him. He got himself together and headed back towards to porch.
As he crossed the living room he heard the barking again. It was coming from the same place, muffled by the walls of the house, but still as frantic as before. What was it doing out there? And damn if it didn’t sound exactly like Lilly. He paused in front of his couch, listening. There was an excited tone in the dog’s rant now, almost a yelp. He couldn’t take it anymore and just about stormed out the front door onto the porch.
“Lilly, settle down! I’m coming!” Toby caught himself again, in a jolt of confusion. What was he saying? He actually didn’t even know he was going to call for his best friend, since passed, and hadn’t realized what he had said until it was out of his mouth. Maybe he would have a couple more beers after he figured this whole thing out.
As he stepped out onto the porch, the rustle in the woods happened again. It was louder than the last, and this time it wasn’t on the ground. The tops of the trees were swaying just outside his vision in the still August night. Despite the growing weirdness of this situation Toby tried to keep a level head. “Must’ve been a night owl,” he said out loud – fully aware, in that pool of reason, deep down in the bowels of his mind, that the way the branches were scrapping, it would have to be three or more of the night hunters.
Lilly the Lab, the dog, or whatever, was barking at a steady pace now and the nostalgia of that sound was slowly forming a swell of tears on the corner of his conscious. But, mixed with that was a dash of fear and not a small amount of annoyance. Whatever was going on over there it must be taken care of if he was going to get any sleep tonight. Toby took slow steps off the porch and began to creep north past the barn into the once silent darkness. The trees swayed again just to the south of the commotion. It was a lumbering rasp with a considerable amount of weight scraping and cracking sticks along the way. How the branches would hold something as heavy as this animal (animal?) sounded was beyond Toby. Whatever it was, it was riding the treetops, creeping towards his Lilly.
He crossed the yard and was approaching the right side of the barn when the yelping ceased once more and something jumped into the woods from just outside the border, behind the barn. Something was messing around in the woods and he wanted it to stop. What worried him was, he wasn’t sure what it might be. He had lived here all his life and Lilly had never acted up like this.
“It’s not Lilly,” he told himself, teeth clenched. His brain kept allowing him to say things like that, and it was starting to really piss him off. He knew better. He had mourned and tried to move on. The old girl was gone and all he had was his farm. And whatever it was back there, in the pitch black of nature, he was going to make sure it didn’t threaten all he had left.
Night was fully upon the farm and the August moon crept along, half-hidden by the trees as Toby moved slowly along the border of his yard. Something rolled along the tree line in the darkness, just up ahead, cracking the stillness of the night. The snap and slap of the high branches echoed in the air, the sound quickly ricocheting and disappearing into the forest beyond. The sound was crisp and amplified, hypnotic. He thought about the gun in the washroom. What about the gun? Had something just occurred to him? Maybe he needed the rifle and not the stick. He felt the night wrap itself around him, comforting him. He couldn’t move. He needed to get the gun.
Toby forced himself to widen his eyes, blink and focus as if trying to stay awake. Something was gripping his conscious and squeezing the rational thought right out of it. He had only had one beer, but he felt the same as if he was on his sixth and the glaze of inebriation was forming over his eyes. It was the thing in the trees. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, staring at the ground trying to concentrate, stick held in white knuckled fists, but he did. He also came to realize, in this momentary lapse of reason, that this, something, was luring him against his will. He felt unhinged from himself, like a door not quite centered on its frame, askew, allowing slivers of light in odd angles. That was not Lilly’s bark. It was something else, and if he did not concentrate and try to mentally break free it was going to get him. How, he wasn’t sure yet, but his fight or flight alarms were sounding on the flight side and he could not move. He was in some sort of mind trance yet lucid as ever.
He really needed his gun. And then the barking came again. As hard as Toby tried to fight it, his eyes widened with concern for his best friend and he yelled, “Lilly!” He ran north toward her. Somewhere back in his mind he was screaming to himself that it wasn’t her. Somewhere, back there, he was also telling himself to run. Run and get the rifle, goddamn it. But the Lilly barking was a siren, pulling him in, using his affection for his lost companion. He lumbered, walking stick in a baseball bat grip, like a drunken pursuer towards the sound of his beloved girl. He felt a crash of anxiety and fear from somewhere deep inside him, slamming down from above. He looked up and saw a large black form riding the top of the tree line. Lilly was a good girl but, like any dog, she was stubborn. If this thing got too close to her before he could save her it might hurt her. Hell, it might even kill her.
“I’m coming girl! I’ve got a weapon!” Toby was too far back in his own mind now; too far to communicate with reason. He was a man trapped behind a mirror watching the event unfold and having no control over it. Despite this, he screamed. There was no Lilly, just as there was no breeze. Something was hungry. Something needed strength. Toby was the fuel. He was closer now, “Lilly!” he stopped, panting, stick still in hand. This is where he had heard her. Lilly barked. She was off in the distance. She was running away, away from him. Him? No, that couldn’t be. Toby just, stood there. He was on the verge of tears. She would never run away from his voice. Deep inside, far back in the corner of his mind, looking from the other side of that mental mirror, the real Toby cried. He was going to die.
As the last in the line of the Matheson farm caretakers looked further north into the woods, as tears ran down a face twisted with sadness and confusion, the tops of the trees rustled once more. In the distance the sound of barking faded. The dark mass from above emitted a clicking, crunching sound, like insects being crushed under foot. From this mass something squirmed out of nothing, the delicate, wet sound of birth. A trunk-like tentacle lowered from the branches with a glistening film, fluid like fresh okra juice. The crushing, clicking sound came again, along with a slight moan not unlike a baby calf just out of the womb. Three claws emerged from the tip of the tentacle all the while lowering and lowering towards its prey.
Toby stood in a trance, still staring off into the distance. His lips moved slightly trying to form words as the creature slowly, gently clamped its three claws around the front and sides of his neck. There was a moment of quiet. A moment of peace, as the farmer opened and closed his mouth, just so, to form the last word of his life.
He exhaled in the stillness, “Li…Lil…Lilly”, and with ferocious speed, the thing snatched the human up, and into its grip. With a crunch, blood spilled through the branches of the trees catching, on the leaves, one by one and running down the trunks like the seasons first sap.