“Andy!” Caleb’s voice was sharp, bordering on panic. “Andy, I’m going to get your mom!”
Tallgrass and debris broke through his tangled vision. Andy glanced to his right and the stone pillars under the depot came into view, followed by streaks of yellow sunlight slicing through the wood planks above. He blinked several times, waiting for his head to clear. “Oh crap, what happened?” he managed to slur.
Caleb laughed and clapped several times in relief. “Man, that was cool!” He knelt beside his friend. “I scared the crap out of you; you hauled ass, tripped, and fell through the floor!” Caleb became more serious. “I called to see if you were okay, but you didn’t answer. I got kinda worried and jumped down here. You were flat on your back holding that dog collar.” He took it from Andy and studied it. “Where did you get it?”
Andy staggered to his feet, brushing dust off his pants. “It was hanging between the boards. How long have I been down here?”
“I dunno, maybe five minutes?” Caleb shrugged.
Andy took the collar from his friend. It held two tags: one was for rabies, one said ‘Howie’.
“That’s weird. Think someone’s dog got loose and his collar fell off?” Caleb asked.
Andy led Caleb out from under the loading dock and stared at the building, slowly shaking his head. “I think he was chained up under here by someone who likes killing dogs.”
“What?” Caleb’s eyes went wide as he barked a quick laugh. “That’s crazy! Why would you think that?”
Instead of answering, Andy walked around the abandoned depot, kicking at the debris and leaves. “That stick you had, it was used to beat the dogs. The tip is covered with dry blood.”
“Haha not very funny, Andy.”
Andy shrugged and continued to circle the building. “Nope, I’m serious.”
“You ain’t got no proof! You’re just trying to get back at me for scaring you.” Caleb stuffed his hands in his pockets. He reluctantly followed, keeping the taller boy in sight.
Andy stopped and turned to face him. “You don’t think so?
“Heck no, you’re just making this crap up!”
“Really? What about this…” Andy picked up the corner of a mud-stained canvas tarp and threw it back. Beneath it was the carcasses of several dogs.
The boys gasped and bolted through the brush to their bikes. Caleb mounted his and pedaled hard, not waiting for his friend, and disappeared down the trail toward the park. Andy started to ride his bike, then dropped it. Despite the hair standing up on the nape of his neck, he fought through his fear and walked around the front of the abandoned building, giving it a wide berth. As he moved parallel to the tracks and deeper into the woods, the brush became increasingly dense.
“Howie! Here boy!” he called in a hushed tone. “C’mon boy, let’s go home!” Andy paused to listen. The only answer was the sound of the wind through the leaves. “Howie!” Andy shouted, this time cupping his hands. “You’re safe, buddy! That boy’s not going to hurt you!”
Andy forced his way through the briars until he reached the tracks. The walking became easier, but rogue thorns tore at his clothing. The rails crossed a small creek, the foliage encroached closer to the tracks, the trees grew taller, heavier. The sun struggled to pierce the canopy; shadows filled the space between shafts of light. “Howie!” Andy shouted again; this time hard enough to hurt. He wanted to turn, run back to his bike, and ride as fast as he could toward the safety of the park. Trickles of fear brought goosebumps to his arms.
’Howie! C’mon boy! I’m starting to freak out and really don’t want to walk any further!”
Caleb would surely be back now, waiting for him at the park, or worse, waiting for him with his mom.
“Oh crap, I’m going to be grounded forever.” Andy reversed his path and jogged back along the tracks, the feeling of being watched intensifying. He ran harder. The sun seemed to be setting faster, the light dimming. Sensing movement to his left Andy picked up the pace and began to cry with the realization of how far he had walked into the woods. The old depot was at least a quarter-mile away and the sun dropping faster.
The brush ahead of him wavered.
Andy’s breath came in ragged gulps as the movement in the tall grass became heavier. An undercurrent in the weeds pushed the bramble toward the tracks.
“Mom!” Andy screamed as his pursuer broke free of the undergrowth and knocked him flat on his back. He rolled off the slight rail line incline and into a tangle of briars. Something pounced on his back. Andy rolled into a ball to protect his face.
The pursuer whined and barked, then nuzzled his hair.
The whine turned to a whimper, then silence. Andy uncovered his eyes and stared into the softest brown eyes he’d ever seen. An expression of pain and gratefulness gleamed from the animal.
Carefully pulling himself from the sticker bushes, Andy climbed to his feet. “Howie?”
The dog – the biggest he’d ever seen – glanced up at him.
“This yours?” Andy took the collar from his pocket and slid it over the head of the big mutt. The dog climbed to its feet, whimpering. The right-rear leg was cocked at an unnatural angle, his back and hindquarters lacerated with welts and cuts, fur matted with blood. One of his ears was split up the middle as if it had been cut with scissors.
Andy crouched down, careful to avoid pressing against any of the dog’s wounds, and gently stroked Howie’s jawline and head. “Who did this to you?”
Howie stared straight at him as if to say you know who did this.
“C’mon buddy, let’s go home.” Andy gave the collar a light touch and the big mongrel gingerly followed him along the tracks to his bike.
They traveled slowly, the dog having to stop several times to rest. Each time Andy would massage the beaten dog’s neck and shoulders, the only places not injured. When they reached the depot, the sun appeared to be in a full-fledged retreat, long shadows pushed past the trees and darkened the structure. Tendrils of shadows snaked toward his bike. Andy kept a soothing hand on Howie’s head as they approached.
Andrew retrieved his bike and pushed it along the trail as he coaxed the dog to follow with gentle words. The light brightened as they exited the woods, once more becoming noon time brilliance. Andrew could see his mother frantically pacing back and forth, her phone pressed hard to her ear. When she saw him, her face flexed between a mixture of intense relief and hard anger.
Mary Beth Alewine stormed over to him. Her sandals slapping hard on the walk-path. Sweat dribbled down her face. “Do you have any idea what you have put me through?”
The boy stopped walking and backed up a few steps. His mother was furious, the sleeves of her shirt pushed up, hair in disarray, mascara smeared from crying.
“There’s a dozen people stomping through the woods looking for you!”
He could see Caleb nervously leaning against his bike, but also visibly relieved to see him.
“Where have you…” she trailed off when she noticed the beaten animal standing with him. “Where did the dog come from?”
Andy let go of Howie and ran to his mom, wrapping his arms around her tightly. He burst into sobs. “I found the dog’s mom, I found them.” Andy blurted through gasps and tears.
Mary Beth pulled back from her son and dropped down to a knee. She brushed tear-smudged dirt from his face. “What dogs, Andy?”
“From my dreams, I found them.” He wiped his eyes with his arm, reestablishing a touch of composure. “I found their bodies, mom. They’ve behind the depot under a tarp. I think Howie was there too but escaped.”
“Who’s Howie?” Andy’s mother asked brushing hair out of her son’s eyes.
At the mention of his name, the dog crawled forward, his elbows and belly dragging the ground. He dropped his head at Andy’s feet and whimpered.
“He’s hurt bad, mom. We need to take him to a vet.”
Mary Beth glanced down at the mixed breed. The animal had welts and scars crisscrossing his body. His fur was matted with blood. One eye struggled to open. The other stared up hopefully. The dog managed to lift his head high enough to lick the back of her hand.
“I think he was tied up under the platform. There’s a stick with dried blood all over it. That’s what the boy used to beat him with.”
“Andy, I don’t know if that’s blood,” Caleb said walking up. “It’s just a dirty old stick.”
Andrew flashed his eyes toward his friend, the expression bitter enough to make Caleb stop and withdraw.
“What boy, Andy? Who are you talking about?”
“The boy.” He said in a whisper. “The one killing the dogs. I think he does other bad things.”
Mary Beth pulled her son in tight. “It’s just a dream, sweetie. Just a coincidence. The dog probably got hit by a car and ran off into the woods where you found him.”
“Yeah, that’s what happened,” Caleb said quickly. “What your mom said.” The boy tried to laugh but quit when he caught Andy glaring at him.
“Mom, we need to get him back to his owner, she’s…” Andy’s words trailed off.
“Honey, what are you talking about? You couldn’t possibly know who the owner is.”
But he did – sort of. He could see a winding trail of flickering smoke coasting through the park and into town. He could sense its travels past the city to a small trailer home. The owner was a young girl. A very sick girl. A girl that was…dying. He tried to follow the contrail-like mist. It vanished when he focused on it. But if he let his mind pinwheel, the iridescent path revealed itself.
“Mom, there’s a vet on the way home. Let’s take him there. Then we need to let the girl know we found him.”
Mary Beth stared down at the dog now lying on its side, eyes closed, barely breathing. “Son, it’s just an old stray no one wants, probably doesn’t even have a home. I’ll call the park office and they’ll take care of him.”
“NO!” Andy shouted and shook his coppery hair. “He’s dying and so is his owner!” He sat beside the dog and lifted its head. “Don’t worry Howie, I’m getting you home,” he whispered then started crying. “Caleb, help me carry him to the van.”
“Uh, Andy, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Caleb said dropping to a knee and petting the dog. “I think your mom’s right. He’s just an old dog, bet he got hit by a car. Let’s just go home.”
“Fine, I’ll do it myself.” Andy grabbed the dog in a bear-hug and tried to lift. Howie cried in pain but managed to get to his feet. “C’mon, boy.” With a finger looped inside the dog’s collar, Andy led him down the sidewalk toward their van.
“Sweetheart, wait,” his mom said getting to her feet and following. “I’ll pull the van into the park and we’ll take him to the vet. But don’t be too upset if they put him to sleep.”
Andy nodded, settled to his knees, and gently hugged Howie. The dog sagged against him as they waited for Andy’s mom to return.
“What did you tell my mom?” Andrew asked Caleb without making eye contact.
“Man, I was scared. I didn’t know what happened to you. I waited for you, even rode back down the trail, but you were gone.” Caleb turned and watched Andy’s mom hurry through the park. “I called yelled for you, but you never answered. That’s when I rode as fast as I could to find your mom. I told her you were missing.”
“I guess she was pretty mad?” Andy asked as he placed his head against Howie’s.
“Oh yeah, really pissed. When we couldn’t find you, she got real scared, started screaming for help. We must have had a dozen people looking for you. Didn’t you hear us calling your name?”
Andy shook his head.
“That place is really creepy,” Caleb said quietly. “I’m never going back there again.”
Mary Beth Alwine returned with the van and together they placed Howie on an old blanket they kept for impromptu trips to the park or lake. Despite the law requiring seatbelts, Andy lay on the floor, curled up with Howie, eyes to eyes, nose to nose. When they arrived at the animal hospital, a tech helped carry the dog inside. Caleb, Andy, and his mom waited in the lobby for the doctor’s report, Mary Beth was already considering how many credit cards she was going to have to max-out to pay for this fool’s errand. Forty minutes after they arrived, the vet stepped through a side door and approached.
Mary Beth stood and met him halfway across the room. “How is he?”
The doctor smiled. “He’s going to be fine, lucky your son found him. He’s not out of the woods yet but should make a full recovery.”
“Was he hit by a car?”
The doctor shook his head, took off his glasses, clenched his jaws, and his eyes hardened. “No. I would have to say he was tortured. My guess is someone purposely beat him almost to death. Poor guy has cracked ribs, numerous lacerations, and a broken leg.” The doctor pinched the bridge of his nose and wiped his eyes. “The pain would have been excruciating.”
“How long does he need to be here?” Mary Beth asked, figuring that besides her credit cards, she would be taking out a small loan on her house.
“We set the leg, stitched up the lacerations, but nothing we can do on the ribs. He’ll just have to heal on his own. I figure he’ll be with us a few days, just depends on how well he does.”
Mary Beth put her face in her hands, then glanced up. “I don’t mean to sound callous, but how much is this going to cost?”
The doctor shook his head and laughed lightly, more from the tension-release than humor. He put an arm on her shoulder. “Nothing. Howie was chipped. We’ve already talked to the owner. They are on their way over now.”
“Oh, thank God!” Mary Beth let out a long, heavy breath she had been holding. “Money is tight, and I didn’t know how in the world we were going to pay.” She turned to the boys. “Okay kiddos, Mr. Howie’s going to be fine and his owners are on their way over to see him. Grab your stuff and let’s go home.”
“Ms. Alewine, if you’ll wait just a few minutes more. The owners want to thank you. Howie is more than a pet, he is a service animal, a seizure dog for their daughter. Since he’s been missing her condition has worsened. Her parents were worried they were going to lose her. Just word of Howie being found has lifted her spirits.”
“I told you, mom. Didn’t I tell you so?”
“Andy, how did you know?”
The boy shrugged. “Don’t know, mom. When I touched his collar I just knew. I felt something deep inside, knew he was nearby and that I had to find and help him. It was like when you’re watching a movie and you know something bad is going to happen and you get all knotted up and tense inside.”
“You mean like a twinge of fear?”
“A twinge! Exactly!”