Length: Super long
TRIGGER WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY AND DEATH
No one noticed when the strays
started to go missing. It was just a cat here, another there, nothing too
unusual for feral animals. Even as a kid, I was used to them coming and going
of their own accord and sometimes wouldn’t see them for months. It was just how
things worked in a small country town.
then Sassafrass disappeared. She was the Binders’ beloved Siamese cat, an
elderly girl with only one good eye and less teeth. She would sunbathe in a
basket filled with blankets from dawn until dusk and then go in to sleep
between them on the couch while they watched their evening programs. She rarely
left her basket and never left her yard.
a coyote,” Dad said after Mr. Binder had come by to ask if we’d seen Sass.
girl,” Mom shook her head with a sad sigh.
felt sorry for the Binders, but no one thought much of it. There were plenty of
wild animals who would have loved to make an easy meal out of old Sassafrass.
While we agreed that it was a terrible end for such a sweet cat, it wasn’t
Brutus, the Guerra’s miniature pinscher, vanished from their fenced in yard in
the five minutes he’d been let out, the tune changed a bit and people were a
little more concerned. If it was a coyote, it was being very bold and that made
Brutus, two more cats and another dog were reported to be missing in the
spread to keep a close eye on pets and to call animal control if there were any
sightings of predators in the area. Everyone was quick to adhere to the
warnings, except for my next door neighbor, Mrs. Berg. Her little black
chihuahua, aptly titled The Queen, continued to have the same freedom she’d
always had, running in and out of her dog door without concern.
was very fond of the small dog, who would jump at the gate every time I passed,
barking and carrying on until I leaned over to give her a scratch behind the
ears. Only after I’d paid appropriate homage would I be allowed to move on.
when I saw her sniffing about the yard as usual after the disappearances, I let
myself in through the gate and marched up to the front door, The Queen bouncing
at my heels.
Mrs. Berg looked surprised to see me on her front porch so early.
Mrs. Berg. Do you know The Queen is outside?” I asked, trying my best not
to sound too accusing.
tried to withhold a sigh. If I, a fifth grader, could understand why it was a
Bad Idea to let her small dog wander the yard, why couldn’t she?
you worried about the coyote that’s been taking all the pets?”
at all, dear,” she replied with a smile. “A coyote wouldn’t make it
very long in my yard.”
dunno, Mrs. Berg…”
Barbarian is keeping an eye on things, don’t you worry.”
Barbarian?” I had forgotten about her second dog, a large, scarred mutt
who sat quietly in the shadows. He never approached the gate like The Queen,
never seemed happy to see anyone, he just watched.
yes, he’s around. Thanks for your concern, dear, but if anything were to set
foot in this yard, he’d know.”
did,” I grumbled.
dear, and he knows.”
nodded over my shoulder and I turned to find The Queen sitting between the
front paws of the much larger Barbarian. While she was wriggling impatiently
and whining for attention, he was completely still and staring, his dark eyes
fixed on me. She’d told me once that his previous owners had choked him as a
puppy, permanently damaging his vocal chords and rendering him almost mute. His
silence only made him more intimidating.
stiffened and pressed back against Mrs. Berg, who chuckled and gave my shoulder
a pat. “Nothing to be afraid of; he knows you’re not here to cause
trouble. He won’t bother you.”
nodded uncertainly, mumbled an excuse about having to get to school, and
skirted around The Barbarian, who made no move to follow. The Queen leapt up
and shot off after me, barking all the way to the gate.
didn’t start to breathe again until I was safely on the bus and away from The
Barbarian. At least I felt better about The Queen, though; nothing was going to
happen to her with him watching over her.
my way home that afternoon, I noticed someone was stopped at Mrs. Berg’s gate.
I recognized him from church, one of the teenagers from the newest family in
town. He was watching The Queen run laps along the fence, barking her head off,
a small smile on his face.
I warned him as I walked by, “the other one doesn’t like people.”
worries,” he said casually, “I just like looking. He’s cute,
right. What’s her name?”
not a name, that’s a title.”
her name,” I argued. “Says so on her tags.”
I live next door.”
nodded and straightened. “Well, I’m gonna get going. Nice meeting you and
huh,” I said.
sauntered on down the road, his hands tucked in his pockets, and I hung around
a moment longer to give The Queen a pat on her round little head before going
didn’t think anything of it when I heard The Queen yapping away as I got ready
for bed a few hours later. It wasn’t unusual for her to have a final run around
the yard to assert her domain before going in for the night. I said goodnight
to my parents, shut off my light, and crawled in to bed with the expectation of
listening to The Queen until I fell asleep.
now, there was only silence.
she went in early tonight, I told myself. Maybe Mrs. Berg got tired of her
barking. There were a hundred reasons for a dog to suddenly go quiet, but all
of the others seemed to crumble before my greatest fear: she’d been gobbled up
by a coyote.
I slipped back out from under the covers and tiptoed to my window. I could see
down into Mrs. Berg’s yard, where The Barbarian was pacing beside the gate. His
head was lowered and his hackles raised and he was staring after a man walking
quickly down the sidewalk. Something was wrong.
ran from my room to tell my parents, but they were already in bed and Dad hated
when I woke them if it wasn’t an emergency. I didn’t think this would count. I
hurried back to my window; the man was more distant now and The Barbarian more
anxious. He was pawing and biting at the gate, which I’d never seen him do
before. Dad may not have considered it an emergency, but I did.
worry for The Queen clouding all other thoughts, I shoved my feet into my
sneakers and crept as quickly and quietly outside as I could.
Barbarian tensed as I approached and I suddenly had second thoughts about what
I was doing. While I’d pet and played with The Queen hundreds of times, I’d
never so much as touched The Barbarian and I had no idea how he’d react to me.
I paused just on the other side of the gate, my hand halfway to the latch, and
I froze with uncertainty.
then he tried to whine, a strangled, pained sound, and he pawed at the gate
my fear, I unlatched it. The Barbarian charged passed me, fast and focused and
heading in the same direction the man had gone. With no sign of The Queen in
the yard, I set off after him. We went down our street, over three, up another.
The houses were getting further apart and the street lights were becoming fewer
and my feet were starting to drag, but The Barbarian kept going.
hesitated when he veered off the road into the dark woods, but he was getting
more excited, more anxious, and I knew we had to be close. If The Queen had
been taken, I had to help get her back however I could! My parents probably
would have disagreed, but they weren’t around to argue my child logic, so I
darted into the shadows after The Barbarian.
Queen was whining. I heard her before I saw the faint glow of the fire ahead.
Even from a distance, I thought she sounded distressed, not at all like her
usual self, and my heartbeat started to quicken. I could just see The Barbarian
ahead of me, weaving quickly around trees, his footfall as quiet as a shadow.
was less stealthy and ended up stumbling over an upturned root, which sent me
sprawling to the ground. I cried out and grasped at my scraped knee, trying to
see how badly I’d cut it in the dim light.
didn’t even realize I’d been spotted until a hand closed on the back of my
nightgown and I was yanked upright.
teen I’d run into outside of Mrs. Berg’s earlier kept a tight hold on me while
he stared me down. Any smile or warmth I’d seen earlier had vanished, replaced
by a chilling coldness. I tried to say something, to ask why he had The Queen,
but he just started walking me wordlessly towards the clearing and his fire.
Queen was tied to a tree trunk by an old rope and, when she saw me, she
strained against it, yelping sharply. I tried to wiggle out of the teen’s grasp
to go to her, but he forced me to sit on the ground.
you take her?” I demanded, trying to stand again.
knocked me back on my bottom and turned away from from me, back to whatever
he’d been doing before I arrived. I started to push myself up again when I saw
so old she’d never have even been able to put up a fight, nailed through her
one good eye to a tree. Brutus, now missing all of his legs and his ears, was
below her, a line of long nails running down his spine into the trunk. Around
them, on other trees, more cats and dogs in varying stages of destruction and
decay were displayed.
mouth hung open, but I couldn’t make any sound come out. It was like all of the
air had been forced from my lungs and I could just clap my hands over my eyes
and shake. Across from me, The Queen continued to struggle to get to me.
shouldn’t have followed me,” The boy said. He sounded disappointed.
“Why can’t people just leave me alone and mind their own business?”
he turned to face me, he had a nail gun in his hand. A wet warmth puddled
beneath me and I couldn’t keep the tears from falling down my cheeks as he
walked towards me.
promise not to tell, but you will. They always do,” he said. “I’m not
going to let that happen again. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you, but I
can’t let you tell.”
knelt in front of me and took my hand in one of his and gave it a gentle
squeeze while he pressed the end of the nail gun to my temple.
sorry,” he said softly, “I’ll make it quick for you. You won’t even
feel it, ok?”
was no screaming or yelling or begging. I had forgotten how to move or speak, I
had forgotten how to close my eyes and just gazed up at his eerily calm face
through burning tears, and I had forgotten that I hadn’t come alone.
Barbarian gave no warning. He struck hard and fast and from behind, his large
jaws closing on the teen’s shoulder. He ripped him backwards and the nail gun
went flying off into the darkness. The teen’s frightened screaming wrenched me
out of my panicked state and I crawled on all fours to The Queen, who leapt at
me and licked my face while I tried to untie her with shaking hands.
tried not to look towards The Barbarian and the teen, who was still screeching
and thrashing and crying.
I had The Queen untied, I scooped her up and started to run back in the direction
I’d thought I’d come from. I paused only once, to give a short, hysterical call
over my shoulder.
didn’t think it would work and was off without waiting. Fear drove me onward,
blindly, and I sobbed while I hugged The Queen to my chest. The woods were a
confusing tangle and I had no idea if I was going in the right direction.
until The Barbarian appeared in front of me and took the lead.
followed him all the way back to the street, where my frantic crying woke up
half the neighborhood, and I didn’t stop until I was in front of my house. I
collapsed in my yard, The Queen still in my arms, and I screamed.
Barbarian and The Queen remained with me until my parents and neighbors and the
cops were swarming around me. It was only after I was safely tucked in between
my parents, a heavy blanket wrapped around my shoulders, that they got up and
trotted back to the gate, where a confused and concerned Mrs. Berg let them
into the yard.
continued to watch me through the fence, though, that night and for many more
after. I was plagued by nightmares of the teen with his nail gun coming after
me and of images of those poor animals he’d murdered in the woods. Whenever it
became too overwhelming, too frightening, I’d run to my window and pull back
the curtains and I’d look down into Mrs. Berg’s yard.
And every night, I’d see The Queen
and The Barbarian staring back up at me, letting me know that as long as they
were there, I was safe.