29 - The Desert

262 38 10

At the end of the block, Nat stopped at a stop sign, and though there was no cross-traffic, she did not ease off the brake. She thought she had heard something in the back seat; some quiet noise, like the rustling of papers. Or heavy breathing. The panting of a dog.

Breath catching in her throat, she glanced into the rear view mirror. The hound, nestled as it was behind the back seat, was outside of her view.

But she could feel it back there, the way a living thing can be felt in space.

Once, when she was a child — 11 or 12 — she had played Bloody Mary at a sleepover. In the cloistered darkness of the bathroom, a pine-scented candle flickering on the dusty medicine cabinet, she had leaned in close to the mirror and spoken the incantation. On the other side of the door, girls were giggling, leaning in close to listen; but inside the room, there had been only a quiet hush, the echo of her own heavy breathing between whispered words, and the weight of anticipation.

And then there had been something else. Only for a moment, but powerful enough that the memory stayed with her. A feeling of weight, of presence; as though someone had entered the room. She had screamed, then, and scrambled for the door knob, falling over herself in her attempts to escape the room, and the feeling had dissipated immediately when she got the door open and light spilled over into the darkened bathroom. 

But she had felt it; it had been real, or as realistic as anything in her imagination could conjure, and no matter how many times she stayed over at that house again she would never enter that bathroom. She'd never messed with occult games after that, not even in the height of her goth phase; no ouija boards, no summoning rituals, no Charlie Charlie. Whatever she'd done in the bathroom that night had brought something into the room that had not been there before, and though she could not explain it, she was convinced that such powers should not be messed with. 

Now, with the mid-morning sun streaming in through the windows of a sensible minivan, she felt the same sensation. The feeling of a presence, of something unseen and inexplicable pushing its way into the bounds of her reality. 

She swallowed, hard, forcing back the rising acid and bile that teased at the back of her tongue, and turned the wheel to the right with a hard jerk, accelerating abruptly onto the road that would lead out into the desert behind the subdivision. Houses fell away on either side as she drove, empty lots taking their place. Her heart beat in her throat, and her eyes kept darting upwards to look into the rear-view mirror. She listened for the sounds of breathing, again, the subtle shift of weight in the back, but could hear nothing over the quiet hum of air leaking through the vents into the van's cabin.

The road reached a dead end, widening into a cul de sac. Bare desert, unsold lots and unincorporated county land mingled beyond. 

Putting the van in park, Nat climbed out and circled to the rear. It was barely 10 am, but it was already desperately hot out; heat waves radiated up from the pavement, shimmering. Nat's hand hesitated, hovering over the latch to the hatchback. She rationalized that she was afraid of getting burned, but knew that wasn't it at all. There was something there, a feeling of pressure, as if pushing her away; like the push of a magnet against its matching pole.

She gritted her teeth and opened the hatch anyway.

The dog stood in the back, as still and lifeless as ever. Though, she could have sworn that the eye had shifted position. Hadn't it been staring upward, previously? The globe of its marble eye was turned now toward her, the pupil pointed at her as if fixing her in its stare. Perhaps the marble had come loose in its socket during transport. That was, surely, the rational explanation.

She swallowed her revulsion and reached for the dog. It felt warm. Probably warmed by the heat radiating in through the window, soaking into its dark fur. But she could not resist the sensation of touching something fleshy as her fingers curled into the soft pelt.

Nat stood, hands on the dog, stomach churning with revulsion. She wanted very much to remove the dog from the back, to drop it in the dirt by the curb like a piece of neglected furniture. She wanted to leave it here and forget about it forever. 

But, however much she wanted it, she could not get her body to cooperate. 

Liz would ask her what had happened. Liz would be angry. 

Nat would try to lie, but she had never been good at it. Liz would see right through her, and her anger would amplify. The coldness and the snappishness would only be the beginning. Liz could get scary when she was mad. Scary in a way that would transform her features, like a mask was pulled over her face -- a mask carved in harsh angles and small, cold eyes. 

Frozen in place, hands buried in the dog's fur, Nat felt a shudder roll through her that had nothing to do with the cold. 

She gritted her teeth and pulled the hound closer, holding her breath. She expected it to move, to struggle against her grasp or to come alive, turning its dark head, snap at her ear with its exposed pearl-white teeth.

But of course it did not. It was a stuffed dog, long dead, nothing more than a pelt filled with wires and sawdust. 

She yanked the dog free of the van and dropped it in the dust by the road side, then climbed into the driver's seat. Her brakes squealed as she pulled too eagerly away, the van swerving on the uneven cul-de-sac. 

The dog, standing now on the side of the road, stared patiently after her in the rear view mirror. 

The Hound {WATTY WINNER}Read this story for FREE!