Chapter 1: The stray dog that follows
Miranda walked quickly along a trail through the woods with a huge grin painted across her face and energy bubbling up through her body, her pink-dyed hair bouncing on her head all the way. She was on her way to see Bowman, the main squeeze of her life; while he had yet to be informed of their relationship status, it was already true in her own mind.
They’d always talked about – or at least she’d always talked about – the two of them keeping in touch after high school was over. It’d now been twenty-four hours since graduation and she already felt like the two of them were becoming strangers, so she had to make an appearance at his house before he completely forgot about her. The sad part was, in all reality, he may have forgotten about her in such a short time; he was far and away the most aloof man she’d ever known.
Bowman lived on the outskirts of Cattailville, the town she and all her friends had grown up around and went to school at. Cattailville High School, CHS, go Fightin’ Cattails! It was a miserable four years for most, but Miranda had always made the best of it, even if their principal was literally a secret Nazi plotting to murder all of the students. That’s using the literal definition of literally, not the figurative one. But that was the past, and it’s best not to dwell on it. Most of her friends had survived, and that was a win in her book.
A sign warning of swamp monsters let her know she was halfway there. The thickening leaves overhead blotted out the sun and finished obscuring even the tallest buildings of Cattailville behind her. She was entering the thickest part of the forest, where hikers were known to disappear. There was no need for local rumors over what may have happened to them, as the town knows full well how infested with monsters their outskirts are.
Getting hungry now, Miranda took out a half loaf of bread from the basket she’d brought. Given it was the end of the school year, Bowman’s birthday was coming up soon, so she’d thrown a picnic basket together for him. Sure, ultimately it was just an excuse to visit, but she also never wanted to miss an opportunity to give a present to a friend.
Eh, he won’t miss one tiny thing from the basket, she thought to herself as she began to stuff her face with sweet bread. Freshly baked this morning, too. It was her favorite.
A noise nearby made her twitch and slow her pace. Sure, it could have been an unearthly monstrosity ready to jump out and tear her limb from limb, but it could have also been a cute animal stirring in the underbrush – and who’d want to miss out on a chance to see that?
“Hello?” Miranda called out. “Who’s there?”
Another shuffle in a nearby bush, and she stopped walking completely. She didn’t stop eating though, gnawing steadily at the diminishing loaf of bread.
“Okay, fine then,” she said, this time muffled from a mouth full of bread, “I guess no cute woodland critters want a treat.”
When the shuffling stopped, she gave a disappointed sigh, and began to head on her way. But then, something emerged!
She took a quick, defensive step back from surprise, nearly choking on her bread after letting out a gasp. But the look of surprise on her face quickly melted into one of delight when she recognized the animal – a cute doggy had come out of the bush! It took a few cautious steps forward, then sat back on its hind legs and tilted its head to one side. And then the dog panicked and tried to run as Miranda rushed over to it, but it was too slow and she’d caught it around the neck!
“Yay, puppy!” Miranda cried out, hugging the dog. It let out a whimper of fright. “Who’s the best puppy in the whole, wide world? You are! You are!”
It was a very big dog, with brown hair and, strange for a dog, piercing blue eyes. Miranda dug through her basket and retrieved some sausage links, which she offered the dog. It gasped – a very human-like action – at the sight of food and immediately began to devour the sausage links as though it hadn’t eaten in weeks.
“Woah now, you’re a dog, not a duck! Chew, puppy, chew! If you choke on that I’m gonna feel awful!” Miranda scolded.
It finished the sausages and then snipped the rest of the bread out of her hand, quickly eating it, too. “Hey!” Miranda shouted, “No, bad dog, that’s mine!” It immediately stopped chewing and looked up with her with its big eyes and a sorrowful expression. She felt a twinge of guilt for yelling at it. “I-I’m sorry! It’s okay, boy, you were just super hungry. It’s fine, you can have all you want.”
She offered him the basket, and he devoured everything that was left in it.
I have nothing to bring to Bowman, now… Miranda thought, worried for a moment. Oh well. I’ll make another basket and then have an excuse to see him again tomorrow!
Once the dog had finished stuffing himself, she continued on to Bowman’s, and of course the dog followed her. She expected as much, and didn’t pay much heed. It’d probably be good to have a companion around in case anything vile or monstrous did jump out at her.
Miranda stopped abruptly and turned back quickly, her expression now stern. There was nothing there, so she squinted slowly, as though this could possibly bring something in the distance into view. But there was nothing. She exhaled, and cold air escaped her lungs. She could see her breath in the air.
The dog sat nearby and looked back as well, whimpering slightly to itself.
“You can sense it too, huh puppy?” Miranda asked slowly. “Something’s following us.” An idea struck her, and she looked down at the dog, “No, it’s following you, isn’t it?” She spoke to it like she was expecting a reply. “You poor thing. Come on, Bowman’s isn’t too far from here.”
It wouldn’t stop following her, and at one point she felt an icy hand brush the back of her neck. She swatted at it as though it were only a fly, yelling, “Piss off!”
The terrible shadow kept its distance after that, but it never let up pursuit.
Not too long after, Miranda and the dog arrived at the rundown, falling apart trailer park. It had been set up just outside of town so that the locals could do all the drugs they wanted without the local police being able to stop them. That, of course, didn’t work at all, but it was a bunch of addicts that thought it’d be a good idea after all. Fortunately for the locals, the trailer park is impossible to safely access from where it’s nested in the center of the forest outside of town, so the local law enforcement is hard pressed to ever do anything about it.
Miranda carefully weaved through the mobile homes so as not to step onto anyone property, as all of Bowman’s neighbors were the shoot first types when it came to trespassers. She’d been through here enough times by now to know the secret combination of paths to take to avoid stepping foot on anyone’s front yard, though she did worry about the dog potentially wandering away from her.
“Follow close behind me, okay, puppy?” Miranda advised.
It seemed to understand her. Smart dog.
Arriving at Bowman’s trailer, she rushed up to the front door and banged excitedly on it, and then took several quick steps back as she knew what was coming next.
The front door swung open suddenly, banging on the side of the trailer, and a massive fog of cigarette smoke bellowed out the front door like the smoke stack of a nuclear power plant for a long moment before clearing out enough that Bowman became visible. He was a rotund, jolly fellow that wore immeasurably high-tech goggles on his face which gave him thought-powered access to every databank on the planet, and he also wore a Hungry Like the Wolf shirt.
“Ya goddamn Jehovah Witnesses! I done told ya to GET!” Bowman declared, and then he looked down. His goggles focused in on Miranda, and his expression quickly switched over to his usual pleasant expression. A big smile with yellow nicotine stained teeth that made Miranda’s heart flutter and her legs feel weak. “Oh, hello! What brings ya around here, Miranda?”
Oh, my little Bow-Bow, my love muffin, my super sweet special guy… Miranda thought to herself, but she didn’t have nearly the nerve to say any of that out loud.
“Oh, ya know, I, uh…” Miranda was so lost for words now. She had to look down at the ground to gather her thoughts enough to speak normally. “We said we’d keep in touch after high school, right? I just thought… oh, and it’s your birthday soon, right? What day was it?”
She knew exactly when his birthday was.
“Oh, it’s uh, in a couple days. On Monday,” Bowman considered.
She knew that was exactly incorrect. The guy didn’t even know what his own birthday was?
And then Bowman looked down and saw the dog, “Oh! A stray followed you! Hold on and let me get a rolled up newspaper to swat him away with.”
“Wait, no, he’s a good d –”
“Get outta here, ya varmint!” Bowman yelled, rushing outside with a newspaper swinging above his head.
The dog yelped in a panic and rushed underneath the trailer.
“Goddamn it!” Bowman yelled, “you and yours! Get back out here so I can whoop your ass!”
Bowman put his hands on the trailer and began to rock it, and from inside a voice could be heard yelling about this – his dad, most likely.
“Wait, Bowman!” Miranda insisted, grabbing one of his arms – but upon touching him, her body felt like jelly, and suddenly she couldn’t find the strength to protest.
“I know! I’ll sic the other dogs on that one!” Bowman said, turning to the dogs sleeping around the several cars that didn’t work in the front yard, “Dog army, assemble!” They did not obey. “Ya lazy bastards!”
“Hold on, hold on!” Miranda insisted.
“What?” Bowman asked.
“He’s a good dog! I found him on the way here! He –” she stopped herself from saying he ate Bowman’s entire picnic basket, as that would certainly not help the hound’s case. “Um… tried to save your basket from a, um, monster?”
“My basket?” Bowman suddenly noticed the picnic basket, “Oh, goodie!” he got excited. “You know just what I love, food!”
“Wait, it’s empty!”
“He failed?” Bowman gasped, “Then he’s a loser dog! Couldn’t even protect one lousy basket! Say, what monster was it?”
“A, um… plant monster?”
“Not Mr. Petunia!” Bowman recoiled in shock, “I thought we had an understanding! Soon as dad gets his lazy ass up and fixes the ridin’ mower, I’m going to have a serious heart-to-heart with that picnic basket stealin’ bastard!”
Bowman shook in rage as vengeance filled his mind.
Miranda was just glad his anger had been redirected elsewhere. She wasn’t too worried about whoever Mr. Petunia was, either, as there was no chance the riding lawnmower would ever be fixed. All crises averted.
Well, almost all. The dog still hasn’t come back out – the poor thing was probably curled up under the trailer scared to death right now. But one thing at a time; she’d coax the dog back out before she left, after he’d had time to calm down.
“Actually,” Miranda thought, “I don’t have any place back home to keep a dog. Mr. and Mrs. Bun have both been very nice to me, giving me a place to stay, so I don’t want to test their good nature by trying to keep a pet. So do you think…?”
“Are you trying to pawn that mutt off on me?” Bowman was shocked. Then continued, surprisingly complacent, “Yeah, sure. I don’t care. I already have like twenty dogs, how could one more hurt?”
Miranda was thrilled, “then, happy birthday!”
“That doesn’t count as my birthday gift!” Bowman retorted quickly.
“I should also let you know that this dog is terribly cursed,” she said quickly. Fair warning.
“Let’s go inside!”
“Uh, oh, okay.”
Entering Bowman’s trailer was a feat of willpower unto itself, as immediately one is assaulted with a thick fog of nicotine which will distract one from the uneven floor, making it an even worse tripping hazard. The floor was completely covered with beer cans filled with cigarette butts. While Bowman contributed to the cigarette butts, he’d never drank a beer in his life, so those all came courtesy of his dad.
Tripping and falling into the cans was biggest danger, as if one were to lose their footing and fall over, they would never get back up again.
The ground shifted beneath their feet, pulsing as it did so. The pulse was the heartbeat of a creature that lived beneath the cans. It was believed to use tentacles to pull people under who fell down, but no tentacles had ever been seen. It was very fast, and always avoided eyesight. Bowman had lost his older brother to the cans covering the living room floor, and his younger brother always stayed in his room to avoid it.
“Watch your step,” Bowman said casually as he walked across the cans to the kitchen.
Bowman’s dad was lying on the couch in the living room, his natural habitat. Static-filled porn was on the TV, the static being a symptom of the warn-out VHS tape in the player. Like always his dad had one hand on a beer and the other hand down his drawers, which was all he was wearing. It was fortunate he kept a hand over his junk most of the time, as the tighty-whities he wore were worn so thin that they were transparent.
Also, his dad was Sasquatch, the legendary bigfoot. That made Bowman half-bigfoot, but luckily he took after his mom in the looks department, so he didn’t at all look like a man-ape. Speaking of his mom, which everyone just called Ma, she was currently sitting at the table in the kitchen, her head and arms laid across it as though she were sleeping.
“Hey Ma!” Bowman said, “We got company! Make us some food!”
She didn’t stir.
“Oh hey, ya brought me some titties over!” Sasquatch said from the couch. “Good boy, I may not disown you, yet!”
“Shut up, ya old dirty bastard!” Bowman shot back.
The cans beneath Miranda’s feet lurched, and she stepped lively to get across them and into the kitchen. The floor there was only covered in filth and roaches; way more sanitary.
“Hey, Bowman! My game console is broken! Come fix it!” his younger brother Dylan called from his room.
“Shut up ya little bastard! I’ll get to it when I get to it!” Bowman yelled back. Then he noticed Ma hadn’t moved. “Hey Ma, you gonna get up or what?”
“I’m not really that hungry,” Miranda said, “So, no need to worry.”
“More for me, then!” Bowman declared.
“Well, wait, I didn’t say I couldn’t eat!” Miranda corrected quickly.
“Fat ass! Come fix my console!” Dylan yelled again.
“I said shut up, ya dill-hole!”
“Make me, fat ass!”
Bowman frowned, “One sec, Miranda, I gotta go beat his ass.”
She grabbed his arm before he could leave the kitchen, “forget about it. He’s always like this, right?”
Bowman’s frown deepened, “Yes. He is always like this.” Then Bowman glanced back over at his Ma, who remained utterly still. “Never mind, then. I’ll just make the food myself. What would you like?”
“Oh, let me think –” Miranda began, but Bowman quickly said:
“We probably don’t have it, but I can make us some pizza bread!”
“Hey, Bowman!” Sasquatch yelled, “This VHS is worn out! I’m sick of technology fuckin’ up on me. Go to the store and pick me up some new girlie magazines!”
Neither Miranda nor Bowman was in any mood to deal with him, so they both opted to ignore him.
“What’s that?” Miranda asked.
“Pizza bread!” Bowman repeated, “I put ketchup on bread, stick it in the oven for a few minutes, and wha-la! It’s very good.”
Even as exotic of foods as Miranda had tried, that still sounded awful. But, if her darling Bow-Bow was to make it for her, she was certain that love would prove to be the greatest seasoning of all, and it would be the best thing she’d ever tasted.
“Okay, sure,” Miranda agreed.
“And get me another beer!” Sasquatch yelled from the living room. “One without cigarettes in it this time!”
Bowman had a habit of picking up a discarded beer can and filling it with water from the hose outside, as the tap inside didn’t work, and then handing his dad that. Sometimes they would be filled with cigarette butts. He was quite the prankster, that Bowman. However, right now he was working his magic in the kitchen making food, and had no time for this, and so he again opted to ignore his dad.
He opened the refrigerator door, which was more a box to keep most bugs away from the food than a source of refrigeration these days as it had no power. Bowman reaches between two giant mold spores and fetched the ketchup bottle. Next, he took a solid loaf of bread off the top of the microwave, the microwave having a Danger: Do not open, fire hazard sign on it, and then beat the loaf of bread hard against the counter until a couple chunks broke off.
“Oh, you use the same type of bread the high school used for biscuits,” Miranda realized.
“I stole a loaf on the last day when Beverly, the lunch lady, wasn’t looking,” Bowman confirmed.
He blew the dust off the ketchup lid before opening it and poured it over the solid bread before placing them in the oven.
“Bowman, there’s a man under the house that keeps looking up at me!” Dylan cried from his room.
“Well shoot him!” Bowman yelled.
“Dad took my gun away from me after I shot him! He’s a buttmunch!” Dylan yelled back.
“I heard that, ya little shit!” Sasquatch yelled from the couch. “And where’s that beer and titty mag I asked for, Bowman?”
“Shut up, the both of yas!” Bowman yelled back.
“What man under the house?” of all the things Miranda could be questioning, that’s the one she chose.
“Oh, Dylan’s floor has holes in it, so sometimes he sees things under the house,” Bowman said, though it didn’t really answer her question.
Miranda shrugged it off. Besides, the pizza bread was done, and that meant this was her chance to – gasp – go into Bowman’s room! Such romantic thoughts of what might occur in there flooded her mind. The dream bubble of imagination burst when she was handed a slice of pizza bread, and it burnt her hand, forcing her to toss it back and forth like a solo game of hot potato.
She could have grabbed a plate to put it on, but knew by the time she’d shooed all the flies away from the cabinet the pizza bread would be cool enough to hold anyway.
“We can eat at the kitchen table,” Bowman said. “Ma, move over!”
“She looks tired,” Miranda said. “Let’s just go to your room.”
“I guess so,” Bowman frowned disapprovingly at his Ma.
Success! Miranda thought.
They navigated briefly through the living room to get to the hallway leading to Bowman’s room. His bedroom door lacked a doorknob as long ago his dad had taken it off so he could place his Willy through the hole in the morning to trick a half-asleep Bowman into trying to use it as a doorknob. Bowman just hoped Miranda wouldn’t be around to witness such horrors.
Bowman forced the door closed behind them, shoving several dead monitors against it to seal it closed. He knows his family likes to barge into his room, and now that his door can’t lock they were free to do that all they wanted if he didn’t do something to wedge it closed.
His room was small; there was only barely enough space for his computer desk and chair, and a mattress on the floor behind it which was sunken in in the center. After a moment of hesitation, Miranda took a seat on the edge of the mattress, dreamy visions re-entering her mind, knowing that she was here now, right on the edge of Bowman’s bed.
Bowman sat heavily down on the chair at his computer, and then chomped down on the slice of pizza bread. Then he turned towards Miranda expectantly, waiting for her to try her slice.
She’d always wanted Bowman to cook for her, and now not only had he done so, but she was sitting here in his room. It was everything she could have ever hoped for in life! With much energy and determination, she took a chomp out of that pizza bread slice!
Turns out, love is a shitty seasoning.
She could feel her face turn green. The flavors… it was like someone had distilled the essence of vileness down into its base elements and then injected it into this bread. Not only was it crunchy, but it was slimy. She could swear she felt it kicking in her mouth.
She held it in her mouth, wishing Bowman would turn away for just a moment. But he watched for a reaction. And so she mustered up all of her willpower to give a smile and approving nod. She couldn’t find a trashcan in here no matter where she looked, and then she felt the tiniest amount of juice making its way to her throat – at which point she gagged and involuntarily spat the entire piece of pizza bread out of her mouth. The wad of partially chewed pizza bread hit the floor, and she was terror-stricken at how heartbroken Bowman would be when he saw this.
Luckily, several roaches quickly swarmed the piece of chewed food and ran off with it before Bowman could turn back.
Not wanting to go through that again, she offered the rest of the pizza bread up to Bowman, saying she suddenly felt full. He didn’t question this and quickly took it from her and devoured it, asking “are you sure?” between bites.
Soon as Bowman finished eating, he busted out a pack of smokes and lit one up.
“Ah, there it ’tis!”
It wasn’t like one more lit cig would make the condition of the air any worse in here, but Miranda still reflexively asked if they could step outside. Come to think of it, she needed to be going soon, anyway. As they made their way back through the living room, she glanced around for where she’d put her basket until the thing beneath the cans grew hostile, and she quickly had to rush on outside. There’s no telling where that basket had gotten off to – and then she realized she was still carrying it on her arm.
“You’re welcome to come back and look at me again any time!” Sasquatch called out from the couch.
Bowman slammed the door behind him before his dad could say anything else that might embarrass him.
Miranda fidgeted for how to say goodbye. The trailer park sat in a large opening in the woods, so the sky was visible, but the sun was already starting to reach the treetops. It’d be dark by the time she got home if she didn’t hurry.
Before she could say anything, a gunshot rang out across the trailer park –
“Get off-a meh property!” someone could be heard yelling.
A moment later, a friend of theirs came running up, panic etched across his sweaty face. Despite summer being right around the corner, he was wearing a wooly red hoodie. He also carried a large duffle bag in one hand with anime pins stuck all over it. Miranda might have recognized a few of the characters if she looked it over, but she really wasn’t all that into anime, so she’d only know the most popular ones.
“Bowman!” he gasped, out of breath.
“Oh, hi Ratix!” Bowman replied. “My, I’m popular today. Everyone’s coming to see me!”
“We have a crisis on our hands!” Ratix declared, looking so incredibly dead serious. “This is something we can’t ignore any longer – we’ve procrastinated to the point of critical mass!”
Miranda ended up ignoring his overly dramatic declarations as she noticed the doggy from earlier was coming back out from under the trailer.
“Say what now?” Bowman asked Ratix, not really following what he was saying.
“Don’t you realize? Time is up for us!” Ratix bellowed.
Bowman just frowned, “That sounds like hard work. I’m not up for whatever you’re planning at all. Say, do you want to meet my new dog?”
Ratix gritted his teeth, frustrated, “It’s a dog! A dog’s a dog, it’ll look just like all the rest! What I have to say is important!”
“Hey there, Mr. Doggy, how are you? Did Bow-Bow scare you earlier?” Miranda soothed the dog, encouraging him to stay brave.
Then Ratix noticed the dog, and his brow went cocked, “Wait, is that what you meant?”
“Yeah! He’s my new dog,” Bowman said, pointing over at the brown haired mutt.
But it wasn’t a brown haired mutt; Bowman and Miranda were both far too aloof of individuals to have noticed the brown hair was only on top of his head, though it was quite unkempt and poofy. And walking on all fours does not a dog make.
“That’s not a dog,” Ratix felt silly pointing this out, and baffled that such a thing would even need pointing out to anyone. “That’s a guy.”
“Say what now?” Miranda asked, amused at his statement.
“It’s a guy, it’s a person, a human,” Ratix insisted.
Bemused, Miranda turned to the dog and asked, “You’re not a human, are you?”
The dog stood up on his hind legs, brushed himself off from being under the trailer, and replied, “Yeah. Any of that picnic left? I’m still hungry.”