Tucked up in the northeastern corner of Vermont is the Northeast Kingdom, a wooded fortress that neither encourages nor particularly welcomes strangers. One of the little hamlets within a village within a town is West Burville. There is one eatery, one place to get gas (if you don’t count the diner) and one strange flock of residents. This may take a while to explain…
The first time Monique Deschamps saw the black dog she was behind the wheel of her 1995 Ford F-150 and she was using her imagination to pass the time. The storyline involved her fleeing from a Great Peril. Monique was what the locals called “overly imaginative”. In West Burville, she was known as a woman given to reading fantasy stories peopled with shadowy figures of terrifying power.
Driving over the rise on the connector between East and West Burville that November night, Monique sensed the inky shape on the side of the road before she spotted it. There was a darkness about the feral body that made her stomach twist. She reached over to lock her door. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a native. But it was only a dog, right?
Something about the animal disturbed her. It certainly wasn’t the scruffy coat. Most of the West Burville dogs looked pretty scruffy by November. There was something reptilian in the slinky sidewinder motion of its gait. Fascinated, she didn’t register what else she was seeing. The dog’s eyes. With a jolt she realized they were the color of moonstones, pearly and glowing faintly. Alarmed, she stomped the brakes then hit the gas. Dogs eyes didn’t glow.
The black dog failed to noticed Monique. It slithered past the white church with its postcard steeple, past the dozen or so West Burville houses with their families sleeping soundly behind unlocked doors.
It was hunting.
Gladys Weston couldn’t sleep. After much effort expended counting sheep and channeling peaceful thoughts, she abandoned her bed for the comfort of the refrigerator. Gladys couldn’t account for it, she was always the soundest sleeper in the family.
Lately though, her dreams had an uneasiness that made her wake in the darkened room, her heart slapping against her sternum and her body coated with sweat. Was this “The Change” her friends had threatened her with?
Gladys remembered what Helen Morton had told her that afternoon at Sim’s Market, “You can’t expect to go on like this forever, Gladys.”
And Helen should know. She was one of the hamlet’s resident know-it-alls. She seemed to take Gladys’ rosy good looks as a personal affront. Helen prided herself on never missing an opportunity to sabotage a promising day.
But, lately, Gladys was beginning to wonder if maybe Helen was right. Maybe this was the long slide down to what? Gladys didn’t have the foggiest idea and she wasn’t looking forward to finding out. If getting old meant you stayed up all night, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go there.
Tonight was the worst.
Slipping into her fuzzy slippers and feeling her way out of the darkened bedroom, she padded down the dim hallway. Her inclination was to shake her husband, Norm, awake and tell him about the godawful recurring dream; but, she knew he wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t take kindly to being awakened. Whatever this was about, it was her battle.
In the middle of negotiating the darkened staircase, Gladys heard the screech of brakes up the hill.
“Odd”, she thought, “You’d think people wouldn’t be driving around the mountains this late at night”.
As Gladys reached the bottom of the stairs and turned into the kitchen, she sensed she was being watched. For a woman who had never had a reason to feel unsafe in her home before, she suddenly felt very afraid. A small jolt of adrenaline burned through her nerve endings as she spun in a circle trying to find the source. Slipping on the cool linoleum floor Gladys struggled to remember which wall had the light switch. Maybe she was still asleep. Was she still asleep?
But as she felt the hairs prick the back of her neck, Gladys knew she wasn’t asleep. And she knew something else: she couldn’t hide from whatever was staring at her from the darkness.
Her last thought was to half-heartedly wonder what would happen to her sleeping family.
Upstairs in the florid pink bed they shared, Norm began to thrash and sweat. In his distress he called out to Gladys. But there was no answer.
As Monique careened down the hill she wondered why the black dog was trotting toward the settlement. From what she could tell it seemed to know exactly where it was. And where it was going. But how could that be? Monique knew every animal in town, including the mixed assemblage of mutts that Hooter Gibson sheltered at his garage. This one was a newcomer.
Monique’s hands were busy trying to control the pick-up while her mind was clenching down in panic. Why had she taken this road when the Cross Road would take her to safety? Why had she worked so late? She hated working late. A hundred “whys” and none of them mattered. Monique knew her inability to get the F-150 under control would cost her more than the truck. And she knew something else, the dog had something to do with the current state of affairs. Where was the dog? In her round and round spin she’d lost sight of it. Monique slid past the Weston place. But Gladys and Norm didn’t notice.
By noon Hooter was steamed. Where was that damned Norm? Here it was halfway to the end of the day and Norm hadn’t shown yet. Who did he think he was? Unemployed, that’s what he was going to be if he didn’t get his butt into the body shop pronto.
“Hooter” was Hooter Gibson, owner-operator of Burville Texaco and Wilson Auto Repair. Twenty years ago when Hooter still dreamed of the city lights, his father’s closest friend and business partner, Web Wilson, dropped over in a pile of oily rags and left Hooter a career. Now, three kids and a mortgage later, Hooter was not known for either his sense of humor or his patience.
It was bad enough he had to put up with old Ed Barnes stealing candy bars and rifling the petty cash when he was supposed to be pushing the dirt around, but this was too much. Norm had opened up one can o’ wupass too many. Hooter knew when he was defeated. Turning the key in the lock he headed for the Double Axle Diner and a slice of Velma’s finest squash pie.
First thing in the morning Mabel Buck and her whiny nasally voice made for the Auto Repair. No sooner had Hooter wrestled his grapefruit sized key ring from its belt loop then Mabel accosted him.
“Mornin’, Hooter, I want to talk to you.”
Seven by jesus in the morning and bitchy Mabel. The day was off to a flying start.
“Listen, Hooter, I’ve been giving you my trade for years and for years I’ve had to chase you around. I wouldn’t have to trouble myself like this if you’d just do it right the first time,” scolded Mabel.
Hooter’s jaw muscles were getting a workout.
“Last night I nearly drove right through the back wall of my garage because you and that Norm didn’t do your job,” Mabel stormed. “Now I want those brakes fixed this time or I’m going to take my trade somewhere else.”
Hooter thought this over.
“Now, Mrs. Buck, I checked those brakes myself. I know Norm doesn’t pay attention once in a while; but, when it comes to a brake job, we don’t fool around.” Hooter did a decent imitation of acting like he cared. “If you want to leave it again, I’ll have Norm check them first thing when he gets in.”
“You tell him I said this is the last time I’m dealing with you two if you don’t adjust them proper this time. Do you understand?”
“Ok, Ok, Mrs. Buck. Now I’ve got to open up. You run along and I’ll call you when it’s done, ” soothed Hooter.
As Mabel flounced down the dirt driveway, Hooter entertained a fleeting vision of a large truck with many axles careening out of control in Mabel Buck’s general direction. Hooter allowed himself a small, malicious smile before turning the key in the lock.
“And where the hell is that damned Norm,” Hooter yelled to the empty shop.
At first light Monique was startled awake. She ached all over. Blinking against the growing brightness, she tried to remember what had happened on the road into West Burville the night before. But it was no use. Sore muscles cramping in protest assured her the wild ride down the steep Burville Road wasn’t a dream.
All she could remember was spinning in the truck like a Tilt-A-Whirl at the county fair all the way to the bottom of the hill. Out of the brain fog, Monique remembered the strange black dog.
“It’s a wonder I didn’t plow right into it.”
Now that Monique was focused on the black dog, she couldn’t move. What a creepy animal. And the eyes. No dog had glowing eyes. She gave herself a shake.
“None of that, girl. If it keeps hanging around outside, it’s bound to get squashed sooner or later.”
Still, she was having trouble with those eyes. A soft unwelcome touch probed her subconscious. What was it old Father Emile had told her? It didn’t matter. Father Emile and his stories were long gone and so, she hoped, was the dog.
But somewhere in the ancient part of her brain, a primordial memory stirred the hairs along Monique’s neck.
…to be continued