The dog had only walked a few paces into the sunlight when Justine saw something else too. There was something smeared around the dog’s mouth. Something that dripped across the grass as the dog moved.
When Scott spotted the dog, he didn't hesitate. He screamed with delight and slipped his hand out of hers. He went tearing across the park to greet it.
And Justine wasn't surprised; not one bit. He loved that dog.
It didn't matter how nervous he was—how close he was to making one of his funny, off-balance turns. All that dog had to do was walk into the room, and everything was okay again. Just two strokes along the back of the animal’s neck, and he was a different kid.
The dog had been missing in the woods for fifteen minutes. Scott had remained silent that whole time, just staring off into the shadows, while Justine had paced up and down, yelling the dog's name. All that time she had wondered how it was going to turn out: If it all went wrong, would she be able to find a new dog somewhere, sometime that afternoon?
Just as her voice had grown hoarse from yelling, just as Scott’s breathing was becoming rapid—maybe two or three minutes before an outright panic attack would ensue—the dog appeared.
So, no wonder he went running up to the animal. No wonder he threw his arms around it and buried his face into its fur. And Justine wasn’t complaining. She loved seeing him excited like that; she really did. It was good for the both of them.
But something was wrong.
The dog paid no attention to her as she approached. It looked off into the distance, watching a group of children playing somewhere over by where they had parked the car. Scott nuzzled his cheek into the dog’s neck, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of the fur.
“Be gentle, Scotty,” she said, and walked around to kneel down in front of the animal. Still, it didn’t look at her.
Justine started to feel uneasy. The dog had spooked her before—barking into an empty corner in the dark or creeping up behind her when she was in the basement alone—but that was usually after she had watched something scary a little too late at night. This was different though: She was in a park, and it was daytime.
She waved her hand in front of the dog’s face. Nothing.
Whatever was smeared around the animal’s jaws was starting to dry. Lumps were beginning to congeal in its black fur. She reached up to wipe some of it away with her hands—to take a closer look at what the dog might have been up to—and that’s when the dog’s mouth opened. Just slightly. Just enough for a line of thick red liquid to roll out from somewhere way back in its throat and drip to the ground between its paws.
“Doggy,” said Scott. He hadn’t seen what had now slipped down between the blades of grass and disappeared into the dirt beneath.
Justine looked towards the trees and saw the trail immediately. It ran from where they sat all the way back to where the dog had emerged from the trees. Bright red spots on the ground.
We can find our way back, she thought.
The dog whined and lowered itself to the grass. Scott folded himself between its legs, and it was just as it was every night when he crawled off the sofa and laid with the dog on the living room floor in front of the TV.
A gentle breeze set the leaves of the woodland chattering and drew Justine’s gaze back over to where the red trail disappeared into the darkness.
If the dog was sick—if there was a vet bill in her future—then she needed to know what it had eaten. Whatever was wrong with it, the animal seemed docile enough. Scott would be fine for two minutes. She wouldn’t go far. And besides, it was one of the things that they had been working on: Fostering a new sense of independence. Finding little moments when she could let him do his own thing and when she could do hers.
“Honey, I need to go check on something. You okay here for a while?”
She slipped her jumper up over her t-shirt and handed it to him. He smiled and drew it into the cuddle between himself and the dog. Then she stepped away, following the trail off into the woods.
The noises of the park dulled as the trees grew thicker. The spots of red liquid started to grow larger, pooled together. Justine looked away from them, her stomach starting to turn.
Just five minutes and then she would go back, take them all home, wash whatever it was off of the dog’s face, and forget all about it.
She found it just a few yards in, though. It sat at the base of one of the larger trees, settled in there between the roots. At first, she couldn’t think of the name. The word was missing, and she had to concentrate for a while before it came to her.
Nest. A small construction of broken twigs and leaves, woven together to form a sphere the size of a football, the sides not meeting all the way at the top. A hole, there—an entrance, small enough so that the inside was hidden from sight as Justine approached.
The nest and the ground around it were covered in blood.
She had known, hadn’t she, that the liquid dripping from the back of the dog’s mouth had been blood? So why did she find it so hard to step forward now? What had she been expecting to find here?
Over her shoulder, the blue of Scott’s t-shirt was just visible through the trees.
A few more minutes, and they would be on their way home.
The shadows made it hard to see inside of the nest, but even from a few feet away, Justine could tell something was moving. When she was right up next to it, she knelt down and leaned forward gingerly. She thought of the dog doing the same thing before thrusting its head into the small hole and tearing out something alive and screaming.
There were two of them left in the nest. And it was obvious to Justine, just from the positions they occupied, that there should have been three.
The little things were naked. Their skin was loose and wrinkled in places, pulled taught over jagged bone in others. They were not birds—that much was obvious. No wings, no beaks. But nothing else about them was obvious at all. Justine looked for any distinguishing features, but the nest was dark and the creatures, just like everything else, were covered in blood.
One of them was agitated. It shifted its head back and forth; its eyes were a milky white. It seemed to be searching for something.
When she leaned in closer, the little thing looked at her. Those eyes, swimming with cataracts, locked right onto hers. Justine looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered across the top of the nest, then turned to leave.
On her way back through the trees, she thought of Scott as a newborn. It didn’t seem right, and she tried to think of something else, anything else, but she kept coming back to it. She was holding him naked against her chest for the very first time, five years ago now, and the doctor was asking about a name, but she was so tired—so very tired—and she could not respond.
Justine set the fish fingers out on a tray and slid them into the oven; it wasn’t the meal that she had planned for. In the fridge, she had all the ingredients for fajitas, but Scott hadn’t been himself in the car, and so she had decided to scrap the original plan and make something simple. Fish fingers were his favorite, and he would always eat the salad that she served alongside them, so what was the big deal? They could have fajitas tomorrow.
When they made it back to the car earlier after she had found the nest, the dog had needed help jumping up into the backseat. Scott looked on as she picked the animal up as if it were nothing unusual and placed it inside.
He stayed quiet on the drive home too, just staring out of the window without responding to anything she’d said. She was making casual conversation, nothing heavy. Nothing that deserved the silent treatment. Even when she started to count up the yellow cars they drove passed, he didn’t join in.
They were already almost home before he’d said anything at all.
“What was in the woods?”
He didn’t look at her, just kept his eyes fixed straight out the window as the street whipped by. He was rubbing his left forearm, making small circular motions with the flat of his other palm. It was one of his signals, and she had decided right there and then that it would be fish fingers for dinner.
She called out to him when the oven timer showed just a few minutes left.
“Scotty! Dinner in five.”
No response. She moved to the bottom of the stairs and knocked on the wooden bannister. His door opened.
On her way back to the kitchen, she listened to make sure Scott was coming down the stairs. She looked into the living room; the dog was there. It was pacing in circles, right in the center of the carpet. Sometimes, when it was trying to find a comfy spot, it would do that—just spin around a few times, testing the ground. But now it didn’t settle into a ball and lay down as it normally did. It just kept going, spinning in circles in the middle of the room.
Scott didn’t eat anything. He moved the breaded fish around the plate with his fork and poked at the salad.
It wasn’t right to push him. Justine knew that. It had been a stressful day, and if he didn’t feel like eating, then maybe that was okay. She wasn’t going to force him. How would that turn out? More stress.
“Scott...are you alright, honey?”
He didn’t reply. She asked again.
“Not hungry,” was all he managed.
She cleared the table and left his plate of fish fingers on the counter. When they were cooled, she would put them in the fridge. They would seem a treat tomorrow.
He remained at the table while she washed the dishes. At some point, the dog walked into the room and Justine heard Scott’s legs start to thump against the wooden chair in excitement. The dog didn’t look at him, though—didn’t even check his hands for leftover scraps of dinner. It just walked on, exactly as it had earlier: head down, tail down, slow, deliberate, in circles around the table.
Hours later, after she had put Scott to bed, she found herself on the back patio with a cigarette and a glass of wine; this had been happening more and more lately. One single pack of terribly stale cigarettes had lasted her almost the entire five years that Scott had been around, but just recently, out of absolutely nowhere, she was back up to a pack a week.
Bedtime had been relatively stress-free. No hint of the usual panic when she tried to leave the room. He had asked her to leave the bedside lamp on, but that was hardly the end of the world, was it?
If anything, she was the one who had panicked. As she tucked him in and kissed his forehead, she couldn’t help but think of the two tiny bodies, wriggling in the darkness.
She took a mouthful of wine.
The dog was somewhere at the end of the garden; she could hear it moving about. At least it was walking properly again. Perhaps she could avoid that trip to the vet after all.
The cigarette was finished, and she bent down to stub it out in the plant pot. The light from the window behind her shifted and something became visible in the garden that had previously just been darkness.
Her eyes took a second to adjust.
There, sitting right in the middle of the lawn, was a nest.
Justine stepped forward quickly, down from the patio and onto the grass. The dog appeared beside her.
“Stay away from it,” she said, and the dog stopped its approach. It started to growl, eyes fixed on the nest before them.
Justine stepped closer, her fingers tightening around the stem of the wine glass.
She knew that Scott would be tucked up in bed, but she imagined him behind her, watching from the backdoor, and she carried on walking forward, showing this imaginary Scott that she wasn’t going to get scared—that she would protect them both.
The nest was a perfect recreation of the one from earlier, but it was empty. There were no milky-white eyes staring out at her from inside.
Justine stood right next to the thing and studied the dark edges of the garden. Nothing moved.
Then, still thinking of her Scotty standing there, looking out from the backdoor, she raised one of her feet and stepped on the nest. It put up a little resistance, so she did it again, stomping and grinding her foot into it until the broken branches came undone.
The dog stopped growling and started to whine.
When the nest was nothing more than a pile of twisted twigs and leaves, Justine turned and went back to the house. She drank the rest of the bottle, but she stayed inside after that, no more cigarettes.
On her way to bed, she leaned into Scott’s room. She nearly lost her balance and had to grip the doorframe, a little tipsy from the wine.
The bedside light was still on, and she could see that he was sitting upright in the middle of the bed with the covers pulled over him. She smiled, picturing him with a book underneath, and listened for the gentle murmurs of him reading aloud.
From under the covers came a different sound, though. Something wet and hurried.
She didn’t recognize it at first because it’d sounded so strangely urgent. But then, it became obvious: He was eating. No table manners required in the middle of the night. She hadn’t heard him come down to the kitchen but sometimes, he could be so quiet that she’d hardly know he was there. He must have grabbed the fish.
The next morning, Justine found the dog collapsed against the side of the shed. Its tongue was hanging from the side of its mouth, and its eyes were milky-white. It was dead.
Scott had already been in the bathroom when she had woken up. The sound of running water came from behind the door.
“Everything okay in there, honey?”
Her calmest voice. Her Mommy voice.
The water’s sound changed slightly. Like it had been running over something and now splashed directly into the plughole. She knocked twice with the knuckle of one finger.
“Fine, Mum.” He was quiet, barely audible through the door.
“Breakfast in ten minutes,” she said.
Justine grabbed her dressing gown and went straight outside, looking to get rid of any traces of what she had destroyed out there the night before. It was then that she had found it.
The dog had lost a lot of weight; overnight, it seemed. So much so that the body felt hollow in her arms as she shuffled around the side of the house. How hadn't she noticed? Had she been that distracted lately that she hadn't seen the thing wasting away?
The dog’s mouth hung open, and Justine kept looking there—not expecting it to move exactly, but maybe expecting something.
When she reached the front of the house, she leaned against the wall and dug into her pocket, found the car keys inside, and pressed the button. Then she folded the dog into the boot, bending each of its legs—already stiff—to make it fit inside.
She rubbed at something dark and wet on the sleeve of her dressing gown, but it wouldn’t come off, and so she went back inside to make breakfast.
In the kitchen, she cracked two eggs into a pan and watched as tendrils of opacity formed in the whites. She would have to tell him, and then she would have to find him a new dog. But that could wait. First things first: Fried eggs on toast were his favorite, and he deserved that. And so what if they had fried eggs every morning? These would be special.
She made her way to the bathroom door again and knocked.
“Two more minutes, honey.”
How long had he been in there? Ten? Fifteen, at least.
She set plates at the table and poured two large glasses of orange juice, then called for him a third time.
The sound of water stopped, and the bathroom door opened. The boy stepped into the room; he was not looking at her. His head was hanging forward on his neck, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him. One hand rubbed small circles on the back of the other forearm.
“Mummy,” he said, his voice a low rumble. “My tummy hurts.”
Justine wanted to say something. She knew that she should tell the boy that it would be alright, but the words stuck in her throat. What was it that she was unable to say?
His name. It was gone. Vanished. Just like yesterday when she had come across the thing in the woods and had been unable to find the word for it. Gone from her, like it had never existed at all: that small construction of broken twigs and leaves.
NATHAN GOOD writes stories about families and monsters from his home in London. You can find his work in places including Storgy, Five on the Fifth, and The Hollow Vol 2.
Artwork by the Novel Noctule team.