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