“We’re leaving,” I announce as I take the leash from the hook on the wall.
Marty, my hardworking husband, shouts from his second-floor office. “Okay, Joyce. Have fun.”
Have fun walking Spike, a behemoth German shepherd mix who pulls mightily on his lead? Hardly. But if someone, namely me, doesn’t walk said beast, then the resultant hyperactivity would prove nerve-wracking.
I remember when my beloved, now deceased grandmother gifted me her cherished monster in her will. Other family members received cash and antiques. Even my narcissistic mother received desirable assets, including a beachfront cottage, but I, her doting granddaughter – I might add—gained the big hound.
I roll my eyes as I snap the leash on his choke collar…I know, I know. I shouldn’t need the threat of pain to encourage obedience, but as a LaFonda, a longtime friend is known to recite constantly, “It is what it is.”
Spike jumps and twirls with acrobatic intensity while waiting for me to move toward the door knob. I raise an impatient eyebrow.
Most of Spike’s spoiled behaviors are due to my husband’s lack of enforcement. Marty’s blind love encourages rotten behavior. So, I’m always the designated bad guy when it comes to discipline.
Finally, Spike calms down or pretends to do so. I grip the doorknob and open the door. We emerge into a brisk morning. The sky threatens a downpour when I hope for sunshine.
I’m not going to lie. I’m anxious. The gloomy day is also the winter equinox, and I had a bad dream the night before. Though I can’t remember the specifics, I had shuddered so badly at three in the morning that Marty had to wake me up. He said that I had been screaming for help. My face was still moist from tears. While I smiled and reassured him there wasn’t anything wrong, I knew Marty felt more comfortable with my sleeping in his embrace.
Later, as I listened to his soft snore and felt his chest’s slight rhythmic rise and fall as he breathed, I sensed we weren’t alone in our bedroom. I curled around his form as I eyed a perpetually dark corner. There, the shadows seemed more profound. Even the moonlight failed to penetrate the darkness. Although the window was closed, the room turned cold, so cold that I knew I would assuredly see my breath if there had been more light. Then I thought I heard a voice, a raspy hissing sound that crawled in my ear and snaked through my gray matter.
My pretty, pretty Joyce. Young and smart. It’s time for a change.
Those words, time for a change, kept echoing in my mind and slammed my brain with pain as they resonated louder and more menacing.
Soon after, Spike pranced inside our bedroom from his comfortable place on Marty’s home office futon. He patrolled our bed before sitting in front of the dark corner that terrified me. His hesitant ruffs turned into menacing growls. Despite the darkness, I saw his fur bristling. And then, just like that, the voice disappeared–cut off in mid-sentence. And the blackness lifted. Spike climbed onto my side of the bed and made himself comfortable. I usually never let him on the bed. Last night, I was grateful to have him standing guard. As I drifted back to sleep, I stroked his fur and said, “Thank you, boy.”
I remember the traumatic night events this bleak morning with dawning clarity. As Spike and I stroll down the avenue of century-old restored homes in the center of a bustling city, I notice the absence of life. The restrictions of COVID-19 have long passed, yet the deserted streets make me feel alone. I get this weird sensation of being locked in a nowhere time, a void between the seconds on a clock. Or worse, I may have been transported to an alternate universe where some evil being sucked all lifeforms from the planet into oblivion through a wormhole.
I laugh. Of course, I had left Marty working diligently on spreadsheets in his office. So, I wasn’t alone. And yet, I wonder, would my workaholic husband be there if I turned around and ran for the safety of my trendy home?
As Spike and I continue our routine walk, my heart grows heavy. I anticipate cars, a city bus, a jogger, someone. When I look inside the cafes, they are empty. I don’t hear the students or teachers when I stroll past the elementary school.
Spike, who usually pulls as if my arm has elastic tendons, marches close to my side. His alert behavior creeps me out even more.
We don’t stop by a tree where he usually checks his pee-mail. He continues, ears right, tail straight, without pausing.
After a fearful thirty minutes, we circle the park and head home. By now, I’m terrified of what I don’t know–my mouth is dry, and my heart skips. I would give anything to hear a bird sing or see a squirrel flit among the naked tree branches.
We cross into a neighborhood, and as we approach a long alley, Spike begins a low growl.
A timid voice asks, “Hey? Do you have some spare change?”
I don’t want to, but against my will, I stop and stare at a person on the other side of a long block-wide alley. I’m stunned because the voice seemed close by.
The speaker is an old woman with leathery black skin. She wears a thin white frock despite the cold weather. Her wild black and grey hair moves in the stillness, reminding me of Medusa’s snakes. She’s also barefoot. She has deformed toes and thick, long toenails. She sits in a leaning plastic white chair, and despite our distance, I feel the intensity of her stare.
“Do you, Hon? Can you help out an old woman?”
I recognize her hissing voice from the night before. I am not ashamed of my fear. It feels familiar. Then suddenly, old memories inundate me. I remember my mother hosting parties where I witnessed the impossible as guests sang horrible sing-song chants. Later, I found out how much my grandmother hated that her cherished daughter had willingly stepped away from Christianity and embraced a darker religion.
“Leave me alone,” my plea is said under my breath.
Spike pulls, reverses, and yanks forward.
My legs refuse to move. I feel sweat rolling down my face. Spike only weighs eighty-five pounds and can’t budge me, although God knows I want him to, and then I blink.
In the space of a half second, she had moved closer while still sitting in her rickety chair. Her wild hair waves frantically.
My heart smacks my ribcage. Spike continues to yank, but I’ve lost sensation in my feet and legs.
Up close, the hideous woman looks even more grotesque, except now I can see naked hunger reflected in her eyes. She flicks her tongue over the remnants of her jagged yellow teeth.
I keep my eyes wide open, I refuse to blink, but the movement is involuntary, and I blink.
She’s only a few feet from me now. I smell a sulfurous stench wafting from her form. And I think, “What do you want? I don’t have any money on me.”
She cackles, and while she does so, I hear, “When you were a little girl, your mother promised me your body, Joyce. Don’t remember the ceremony? No matter. I’m here to make the trade. This old thing won’t last long. Our switch might fool the Master. I will live young and beautiful while you take my place in Hell.
I believe her.
Because my mother never loved me. And I’d seen enough strangeness at her parties to fear for my soul.
Finally, the rank and grinning biddy rises from the crooked chair and shuffles toward me on the heels of her dirty feet.
Spike jumps in front of me and bares his teeth.
Then he leaps just as the old crone makes desperate hand signs as if conjuring dark magic. Spike clamps his fangs on her wrist and rips open flesh. Black fluid oozes from her injury. She howls like a banshee.
I don’t call him off.
I feel sensations in my legs.
The witch stumbles back onto the chair and then crashes onto the ground. She stares at my incredible, fantastic, fearless dog with weeping horror.
I drop his lead, and with absolute satisfaction, I watch as he tears into her thin chest. The attack lasts for brief minutes, and then she is still. Her wide eyes stare at Heaven, a place she would never see.
Spike steps back with a growl, licks the goo from his mouth, and then dutifully sits at my feet. A word to describe him comes to mind: familiar.
I smile down at the spoiled doggie and pick up the lead. When I dared look again, the witch had disappeared. Only splotches of black blood and a mangled white chair remain where she had once sat. Suddenly, I see pedestrians, a runner strides by, cars zoom faster than the twenty-five miles an hour speed limit, and a roaring bus rumbles past us.
“C’mon, let’s go home.” In unison, we stroll home.
I take Spike to the bathroom and clean his fur. I stare into his eyes, and he unabashedly stares back. My love is pure, and I’m eternally grateful to my grandmother.
“How was he?” Marty calls from his office.
“He behaved perfectly,” I say. Then I hear as Marty jumps on another conference call.
My cellphone buzzes. I see her number, and hatred roils in my heart. “Hello, Mother.”
“Yeah, how are you doing?”
Another bloated pause. “I’m doing well. I thought I’d check up on you.”
“Oh, thank you, Mother. I’m not doing anything now. Do you mind if I visit you? I need to get out of this house.”
“Great! I’ll be over in a few.” I look down at Spike and wink. “I’m bringing the dog.” Then I hang up and grab my car keys.