47 - A Voice that Calls

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Friday night, long past closing, Nat crept into the store. 

She still had the keys, and Liz hadn't gone so far as to change the locks. Nat wasn't sure why she'd gone there to seek shelter. She could have gotten another night at the motel. She could have crept home. 

But it was the store that called to her, and she moved through the darkened rows of antiques and oddities to find her way into the back room. She booted up the computer and cleared a space for herself at the desk. She doubted Liz would even notice, considering all of the paperwork that had piled up in Nat's absence: great stacks of invoices and receipts and earnings; taxes to report, expenses to apply. She almost itched to start filing them, the impulse of muscle memory, but it wasn't why she had come here. 

The computer's hopeful, brightly lit face was the only light in the room. The screen glowed in the semi-darkness, casting a sharp relief of shadows over the small office. 

She didn't really believe Celia Rivera's story, did she?

The woman was clearly insane. The way her eyes darted, the way she spoke -- she could be schizophrenic, or have dementia, or one of a host of other problems that could have explained her strange beliefs and behavior both. Maybe her son had inherited the same disorder of the mind. Maybe she'd been driven crazy by grief.

She couldn't possibly believe that a taxidermied dog was a hell hound, could she?

Nat shifted her position and pulled up the search engine, only a vague hint of what she was looking for nagging at the back of her mind. A list of disparate stories, all of them linked by one shared truth. 

The Fairfax hound. The Barghest. El Cadejo. Hellhounds. 

Black dogs, the embodiment of evil, spread across cultures and continents and centuries. The stories were all different, but at their heart they were all the same. It was starting to feel impossible that they could all be untrue. There had to have been some grain of truth in them somewhere. 

She remembered Miriam's proclamation: The dog was old. Unfathomably ancient, older than living memory. Maybe older than memory itself. 

But could Nat truly believe that? Was that the answer she wanted to commit to? 

That was what she was doing here in the dark, surrounded by the unnatural light of a computer monitor and the distant presence of antiques. It was a trial with a jury of one, all of the evidence gathered and assembled, and the verdict would decide once and for all what she was willing to believe. 

Explain it, then. What is your rational explanation?

Her mind demanded an answer, and each time it looped to this question, she found it harder and harder to answer in a way that felt satisfying. 

What's wrong with Liz, Natasha?

Tiredness, nothing more. Short-temperedness. She's always been a little aloof. She's just having a bad month.

What happened to Fluff, Natasha?  

She shoved the keyboard away and looked around the room, agitated.

Something killed him in your house. You know he didn't come in through a window, not like that.

She remembered Liam, with his stuffed toys, and Liz's dead-eyed nonchalance. She knew, deep down, that someone -- or something -- had murdered that cat in her house.

You want to blame the dog, don't you? You want it to be the dog, because at least that's no one's fault. At least that would mean you're not living with someone capable of...

Say it.

Say it.

Say that you are afraid that a five-year-old killed your cat. Admit that's why you haven't wanted to go home. Admit that you would rather pretend that a taxidermied dog could come to life and kill an animal. Admit that you're hiding from the truth because you don't want to accept that you've trapped yourself with a child you're afraid of.

Is that what you think? 

Is that what you fear?

But what if you've got it all wrong?

A dozen browser tabs all opened to terrible stories, and she read over each of them looking for solace. There were a limited number of options. 

If it wasn't Liam -- it could have been Liz. 

Liz could have been so angry about what she'd accused Nat of doing to Liam -- so jealous of the cat, and Nat's worry about him -- that she'd done something monstrous. 

But then, what had really happened to Liam's arm? Had it really gotten stuck somehow in the dog's mouth on accident? 

Had she really manufactured a memory of leaving the dog in the desert? 

Were Matt and Miriam and the Riveras all dead because of coincidence, accidents and misfortune and unrelated events strung together in some kind of insane conspiracy theory? 

It was all so unlikely, so incredibly difficult to explain away. But the only other explanation was impossible. So which was she ready to believe? 

And, most important of all...what would she do once she decided? 

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