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One~Two~Three~Four~Five


Something is haunting the man with terrible eyes.

It started with a dead fox at his door. It had been a small fox, and its fur had been a rusty brown shade that made the scarlet blood soaking its front all the more noticeable. There was a ragged tear in its chest, and he could see the animal's viscera being eaten by fat white maggots.

He'd gagged and griped to nobody in particular, then had gotten a trash bag and, careful not to touch the body bare-handed, had bagged the fox and thrown it into the hole in the back yard.

And, to his complete astonishment, the hole refused to take it. The fox body had remained resolutely in existence. The hole didn't empty, and he was stuck throwing the fox away the old fashioned way: inside a trash bin.

Then the next morning, there was a dead crow on his porch. He'd looked around, wondering if this one was a prank. But there was no one around, just a dead bird laid out on the wood with its wings tucked close to its body and black pits where its eyes ought to have been.

Again, he tried disposing of it in the hole, but again, the hole refused to empty. It still made cans and papers and bottles and everything else disappear, but it refused the dead animals, so he'd had to toss the crow in the trash bin, too.

Now, at the end of the week, his trash bin is full of dead squirrels, raccoons, possums, two pigeons, a crow, a raven, two doves, a falcon, and a red-tailed hawk, and he's hoping desperately that whoever collects the trash doesn't report him for poaching endangered wildlife.

He carries the latest gift, a dead badger, out to the curb. It's wrapped in a plastic bag, and he has a half hour before the garbage truck comes. It's early enough that none of his neighbors are up, but he still feels as though something is watching him.

There's no people out, though. The only thing on the street is a dog. It sits next door, by the neighbor's mailbox, and watches.

For as long as he can remember, dogs have never liked the man with the terrible eyes. He's never been attacked by a dog. Dogs much prefer to watch him silently from a safe distance. But, even as a child, on the rare occasion where they were forced into close quarters, dogs would growl and snarl at him, which was pretty upsetting for a six year old.

This dog is pitch black, but has a odd green sheen in the weak light. It has long-ish fur, not very long, but enough to give it a scruffy, shaggy look. Its ears are pointed and perked, and its tail is still. But above all other things, the dog is big. He isn't familiar with dog physiology, but he is certain the dog is far larger than dogs should normally be.

He levels his gaze at it, expecting it to growl and run off like dogs normally do. Instead, it meets his eyes. It does nothing else.

The dogs eyes burn green, a brilliant, bright green that, for reasons he cannot understand, do not bring to mind the usual bright green images of budding plants and springtime, but bring to mind dripping, toxic ooze and shining beetles and flies burrowing through dead meat.

They stare at each other, he and the dog, for a minute, and then another, and with each passing minute he grows more and more uncomfortable; he is not used to anything keeping eye contact, much less a big black dog. But, at the same time, the thought of looking away is repellant.

The dog does not growl. The dog does not snarl. It simply watches. Slowly and uncertainly, the man holds out his hand, palm out.

"Hey, dog," he says.

The dog does not approach. It does not move at all. He closes his hand and lets it drop once more to his side. He manages to tear his eyes away from the dog and glances at his watch.

8:50.

He breathes in sharply, then lets it out slowly. He looks around the neighborhood again. The sun is higher than before. His neighbor's cars are gone; everyone has gone to work. The trash bin, the one he'd been standing right next to, is now empty.

He looks at the dog again. It wags its tail.

Oh no, he thinks. Not again! The hole in the yard was bad enough. He still had to be careful not to get too close to it when he threw out regular, still acceptable garbage or else an entire day would go by without him noticing.

He dumps the badger in the trash bin and runs inside to get ready for work. He doesn't want to be late.

* * * * *

At work, a man he does not recognize in a security uniform is standing by the door to his office. The guard smiles at him. "Hello, sir."

"Uh, hi."

He goes into the office and, for most of the day, does nothing. At about the halfway point, he gets up and starts pacing the room. He hears a mechanical whirring and looks up. There's a new security camera in the corner. While the other one had been a stationary black glass bulb-looking thing, this one is a full-on camera, and it is pointed at him. He walks across the room, and the camera follows. He climbs on top of the desk, and the camera moves up to see him better.

He scowls and goes to the door. The security guy is still standing there, reading a magazine about dog breeding.

"Hello sir," the guard says with a smile.

"Hi." he says. He walks away, and the guard amiably keeps pace with him.

"May I ask where you're going, sir?"

"Uh." He points towards the restroom and offers the guard an awkward smile.

"Right then."

The guard accompanies him to the bathroom door, but doesn't go in with him. When his business is finished, the guard is waiting for him outside.

"Why are you following me?" he says finally.

"Orders, sir. Nothing personal, but I got a feeling the up and ups wanna keep an eye on you."

He glowers and they walk back to his office. On the way, he glances out the lobby window and thinks he sees a familiar black shape, sitting on the sidewalk, watching him, but when he stops to look, it's gone.

"Problem, sir?" says the guard.

"Ah. No."

The go back to the office. The guard resumes his place at the door, and he returns to his cube.

Nothing else of interest happens for the rest of the day except that his watch, a digital one he’s bought only a week ago, finally explodes in a fizz of tiny circuitry and small amounts of smoke. He sighs. This is the third one this month.

* * * * *

That night, back at home, he's having a nightmare.

This isn't an altogether unusual occurrence, and when he wakes, it will just be one more blurred, sleepless night. But for now, he is afraid. There is darkness and there is him and there is nothing else. Some of the darkness is like liquid and it oozes over his bare feet. He's sinking into it, and when he tries to step out of it, there's nothing to step on and it's pulling him in like quick sand and there are things in the darkness that are not smiling, because smiling would mean they had mouths, but they are pleased, so very pleased, and they reach out for him-

He wakes up with a sharp gasp, still in his house, still in bed. On his skin, there is the light sensation of crawling, as though thousands of q-tips are dabbing along his arms and legs. He sits up and sends a few of the black beetles that has been crawling on his chest flying further down the bed. He tosses the blanket aside. Black beetles are covering him, crawling along his legs and clothes and up his arms.

He sighs in relief.

"Jeez, guys," he says, gently picking beetles off his shoulders and placing them on the mattress. "You nearly gave me a heart attack."

The beetles click apologetically and scurry around his feet. A few fall out of his hair, some landing on their backs. He rights them and they go running over to the others.

"Guys," he says. "What have I told you about personal space?"

They don't listen and instead make a game of crawling up his arms, seeing how far they can get before he picks them off.

"Okay," he says. "Everybody off. I gotta get up."

The beetles aren't happy, but they retreat and when he steps out of bed, they're all off him. The clock on the bedside table reads 1:47. He sighs; he's not tired anymore, and there's no use trying to sleep again anyways. By the time he gets to the kitchen, he's forgotten the details of the nightmare completely.

He spends a half hour aimlessly puttering around the house. He makes oatmeal, and shares some with the beetles, who follow him around like a shadow. He goes outside and waters the tree. He considers intentionally stepping too close to the hole, just to make the time go by faster, but stops himself in disgust. Is his life so dull that he'll intentionally erase time just to make it go by faster?

Well, sort of, he admits to himself. It's either that, or go inside and read manuals about pool filter repair or something from the bookshelf of boring books.

Okay then, he thinks resolutely. I'll go to a book shop. Today, after work. He looks at the hole. It's one AM, he thinks, doing some quick calculations. Then maybe-

It's different now, he convinces himself. Now he isn't killing time for nothing. Now he's got something to look forward to. He steps close to the hole, then backs away quickly. The light tells him it's about an hour later. He does it again and again, until it looks like it's seven or eight. The microwave clock in the kitchen verifies it: 7:45. He grins and puts on a jacket. There's a book shop sort of near work. If he hurries, he can actually pick up a couple books before and have something to do instead of just sleeping today-

He opens the front door, steps outside the house, and stops. The hairs on the back of his neck rise. Someone is watching him. He swallows and tries to push the thought away.

There's nobody he tells himself, scanning the neighborhood. But he immediately knows it's a lie. There's a van across the street. The logo on the side declares it to belong to a plumber, Fix It Felix! Sinks! Drains! Tubs and Toilets! and there is a picture of a smiling cartoon wrench holding another, more realistic wrench with a white gloved hand. But the windows are tinted black, and on the top there is what looks to be a camera. A camera that is pointed at his house.

He looks left, then right, and then, as casually as he can, goes to inspect the van. The windows are too dark to see through. There are probably laws against that- it was a safety hazard, wasn't it? So whoever owned the van not only wanted to keep whatever was inside it and whoever was driving it secret, they also aren't afraid of casual law-breaking.

The image of his Supervisor flashes briefly through his mind.

Well? he thinks. What now?

The camera is definitely a camera, and it is definitely pointed at his house. Did he call the police? Say, 'that plumbing van is spying on me?' The van could drive away by then. They'd charge him for wasting public resources. Or if it didn't, but they thought he was being paranoid- which he might be, he admits to himself.

What if the cops are in on it?

That would be why no one had cited the van for window tint violation-

Something barks behind him. He turns around. It’s the black dog again.

"Oh, you." he says. "Go away."

The dog whines and moves towards him, and he hastily backs up.

"No, really. Go. leave." the dog continues towards him, and he keeps backing away, keeping the space between them. "Bad dog!" he yells. "Go away!"

The dog barks, and he breaks. He turns and runs to his car, and hears the dog running behind him.

He makes it into the car and laughs as the dog tries to get in.

"Not today!" he says, peeling out of the driveway.

The dog is left behind. It doesn't chase after him. All it does is sit forlornly in the driveway.

* * * * *

He's in a foul mood when he gets to work.

He'd gone to the bookshop, but it hadn't been until he was inside that he realized he'd forgotten his glasses. He didn't notice until he'd been at the counter and the kid working the reg had glanced up at him. The boy, who couldn't have been older than fifteen or sixteen, had gasped, clutched his throat, and fallen over. An ambulance was called. The boy was alive- the man with terrible eyes had stayed around long enough to make sure- but apparently he'd been born with a weak heart, and something must have set it off.

So now he squints his way to his office, back hunched, books held protected and protectively in front of him.

"Mornin'," says the security guard. It's the same one as yesterday. For the first time, the man with the terrible eyes notices an odd looking holster at the guard’s belt. It's like a gun holster, but the handle sticking out is different, and it's too large.

The guard sees him looking and says, "Don't you worry about that, sir. You just go on in and do your thing."

"Uh. Yeah, right."

The man with terrible eyes ducks into the office, into his cubical, and spends the rest of the day reading books whose contents match their covers.

* * * * *

The dog is still waiting for him when he gets back. It sits on his porch, looking soulful and sad.

"What?" he says. "What do you want, huh? Go away." He picks up a small stone and throws it at the dog. He misses intentionally, but hopes the dog doesn't know that. "Go away!"

The dog gets up and stands aside, and he hurries into the house. As soon as the door is shut, the dog returns to its spot in front of the door. He pretends not to notice.

Before bed, he peeks out the window and sees that the dog is still there. He grumbles and goes into the kitchen. A few minutes later, he opens the front door and places a bowl of water and a bowl of milkless cereal on the porch beside the dog.

"Not a word," he tells it. He goes back inside.

* * * * *

The next morning, after getting ready, he opens the front door and nearly falls over a huge, black, fur-covered lump. When he throws his hands forward to catch himself, he feels how coarse and damp the fur is. He yelps and falls back against the door frame. His hands are covered with the sticky black-red shade of stale blood.

Seconds creep by. The thing, the bloody, furry lump, is not moving. The blood on his hands is cool. Whatever it was is dead now. Slowly, he rises to his feet. He takes a shaky breath and maneuvers around the beast until he can reach the porch-fence and hop into the yard proper.

It's a bear. It is half a bear, to be specific. Its hind quarters had been messily and unevenly removed, and the remains were facing (ha) the corner of the yard, away from the door. He silently thanks whatever gods may be listening for that small mercy; if it had been facing the door gut's-side-out, he is certain his heart wouldn't have been able to take it. The gratitude, however, is swamped by a wave of confusion and unease.

Why was there a dead bear on his porch? He looks around, halfheartedly hoping an answer would present itself. None do. He rubs his forehead and grimaces when he feels the blood smear on his face.

"Damn," he says, for lack of anything else to say. "Damn!"

He sees the dog sitting across the yard. Its tail wags when it sees him looking.

"No," he says aloud. "No fucking way. No way." There's no way the dog could have taken down a bear. Where would the dog even get a bear? There were no woods around here! What happened to the rest of the bear?

Who was going to clean this up?

He looks around.

There's a new car on his street. It's a pale blue van with the yellow and black words Hermanos Air Conditioning Installation and Repair. There's a cartoon air conditioning unit smiling and giving a thumbs up with noodle-arms he's certain air conditioners do not have.

He walks to the edge of his yard and looks at it, unamused. Then he puts his hands up around his mouth like a makeshift megaphone and shouts,

"Air conditioning repair guys don't have cameras on top of their vans!"

The camera, which had been pointing at his house, remains pointed at his house. He has no idea if they heard him- probably not. Not from over there, at least. They'd have to have a bug somewhere close by to get any decent audio.

He sighs, agitated, and walks over to the dog. From the corner of his eyes, he sees the camera slowly swiveling on its base, following him.

"Okay, dog," he says. "Are you the one leaving presents?"

I'm talking to a dog, he thinks.

So what? he responds. You talk to beetles.

Touché.

The dog opens its mouth in a doggy grin and lets its tongue loll out.

"Well you can stop it now, okay?"

The doggy grin goes away. Its tail wags once, uncertainly.

"I mean it. Nice gesture and all, but I don't want them. And get rid of the bear, will you? I'm going to get into trouble if it stays here."

The dog tucks its tail between its legs and whines.

"Thanks," he says, turning to go. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees that the camera on top of the car has been watching the entire exchange, and now is following him back to his yard.

He was going to have a talk with someone about this.

* * * * *

His building at work is surrounded by yellow tape, security guards, and confused office employees.

"What's going on?" he asks.

"Stand aside, sir," says a security guard. "Nobody's allowed in."

"But I work here! What's happened?"

"Everyone gets the day off. They'll send you an email."

And the guard turns his attention away, talking instead to some other people and repeating what he'd just said. Some people leave, muttering to themselves or making calls on their cell phones.

The man with the terrible eyes does not leave. He searches the crowd until he finds his Supervisor standing in the middle of a cluster of people. His Supervisor sees him and tells the others,

"Sorry, everyone. Excuse me a moment."

And he expertly sidles away, over to the man with the terrible eyes, and wraps an arm companionably around his shoulder.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing to worry yourself over," his Supervisor says jovially. "Just a bit of trouble with another department."

Several guard's walkie-talkies crackle to life. Shouting comes from them, and half a dozen guards run towards the building, unslinging odd-looking guns from their holsters.

"Just a little security breach," his Supervisor says. "No need to worry. Why don't you just go home for the day? I don't think we'll need you."

"Did you send someone to my house?" he blurts out.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, did you send a van to my house to watch me?"

"Don't be ridiculous, I've done no such thing." His Supervisor looks at him, concerned. "Have you been taking your pills?"

"Yes," he says.

"Well, good. Keep taking them."

And before anything else can be said, his Supervisor is snatched up by a crowd of people demanding answers and he's led off.

With nothing better to do, the man with terrible eyes goes home.

* * * * *

The bear is gone when he returns, though blood still stains the porch, and there's now a trail of blood-slicked grass and occasional bit of viscera leading away from the house, as though the corpse had been dragged away. The dog is there, sitting patiently on the porch.

"Thanks," he tells it. "Do I even want to know what you did with it?"

The dog closes its mouth, then opens it again. It probably doesn't mean anything. He mentally shrugs it off. So long as the bear is gone, he doesn't care what happens to it.

On the way to get the mail, the man with the terrible eyes notices his shadow for the first time. He's standing against the garage, so the shadow is standing upright with him, if a tad shorter than he is. And it is not alone.

There are two shadows. Both are the same size and same shape. When he moves his arm, both shadows move their arms. When he jumps, both shadows jump.

He thinks about this for a moment, then shrugs. The shadow isn't hurting anything. And it's not like he knows how to get rid of it. He retrieves the mail.

When he opens the door to go inside, the dog tries to go in.

"No," he says, trying to block it with his leg. "I know you can understand me-" and suddenly he realizes that he is completely and utterly certain the dog can understand him. "Go away."

The dog presses itself against his leg and tries to nose through the space between it and the door.

"No, no don't-"

The dog is big and determined and probably weighs more than he does. The dog wins. It goes into the living room and jumps onto the sofa. He half expects a swarm of ravenous beetles to crawl out and devour it, but they do not.

“You guys are supposed to keep things I want out, out,” he says. A few beetles crawl out from beneath the cushions, just a few, and start crawling on the dog. The dog sniffs them, then licks them. Then it looks up at him, beetles on top of its head and on its back. Its tail thumps against the cushions, and its ears are perked.

“Oh you’re all friends now, I see how it is. Well too bad. I don’t want a dog.”

He didn’t want to admit it, but he was still nervous. The animal was bigger than anything he was used to dealing with-

Bear! he internally shrieks. It ate a bear!

He goes into the kitchen. “I’m picking up the phone,” he calls. “I’m contacting animal control. Well, first the operator, but after that, animal control. They’re going to come and take you to the pound. How’d you like that?”

There’s no response from the living room. He stretches the cord as far as it will go until he is in the living room.

"I'm calling," he says, phone to his ear. "Look, I'm calling them right now."

The dog looks, but seems unconcerned.

Someone on the other side picks up. "Hello," he tells them "I've got a stray dog that just wandered into my house. Uhuh. Yeah. No, he hasn't bit anyone or anything. He's just not my dog. Okay. Right."

He hangs up.

"There," he says. "They're on their way right now."

The dog yawns.

"I'm not lying!" he says. He opens the front door. "Last chance."

The dog stays put, and it’s still sitting there when animal control shows up. Two people with sticks that have nooses on the end come inside.

"That the dog?" they ask.

"Yes," he says. They slip the nooses around the dog's neck and lead it to the truck. The dog walks out without any trouble. They drive away.

He closes the door after they’re out of sight and finds about a hundred beetles sitting on top of the sofa, standing completely still.

“Oh what?” he says. “Don’t look at me like that. I gave it a chance!”

The beetles say nothing.

“Forget you guys, I’m going to bed.”

Their accusatory silence follows him down the hall.

* * * * *

That night, like every night, he has nightmares. But unlike the usual ones, which have dark, dead worlds and creatures grabbing him in the dark, or shadowed figures cutting him open and pouring electricity down his throat, in this one he is asleep in his bed. He is asleep, and something watches him. it is big and dark, but distinct from the murkier darkness around it. It does nothing. it does not move, or try to hurt him. It just watches as he twists under the blankets.

At one point in the dream, he says to it, "What do you want?"

But the figure doesn't respond.

He forgets the dream immediately upon waking.

* * * * *

The dog is back the next day, sitting on the porch. He doesn’t question it, but he does curse a lot.

“You’re not coming in,” he says locking the door behind him.

The dog says nothing, and he leaves. There’s no work today; his supervisor called and told him to take the day off. There weren’t any layoffs or anything like that, his Supervisor assured him, but they still hadn’t cleared up a security breach and they wanted all nonessential staff out of harm's way.

He wondered what harm something from a boring office building could cause, but let it drop.

He spends the day at the park. He walks around the running track a few dozen times, and when actual runners show up, he goes down the small hiking trail that circles the area. His second shadow follows him obediently, until he can no longer tell which shadow was his original one and which is the second.

Before he knows it, it's time to go home.

It's winter, now, and the sun sets quickly. By the time he's hit the halfway point, it's completely dark out. Around him, streetlights flicker on and as he walks, shoulders hunched and head down, shadows follow behind.

The dog meets him on the sidewalk in front of his house. It doesn't wag its tail when it sees him. It stares intently, eyes gleaming green.

"What now, dog?" he says.

The dog growls. He puts up his hands in mock-surrender.

"Easy there, boy. C'mon. . ."

The dog continues to growl. Its ears are back, its hackles are up, and its lips curl back in a snarl, revealing very bright, very sharp teeth. It takes a step forward.

He takes a step back. "Bad dog," he says, trying to keep his voice firm. "Go on, get out of here."

The dog moves forward slowly.

Don't run, he thinks. Running will make it think you're prey. If you run, it will run after you. He backs away slowly, hoping the dog will stay put and that he will be able to walk away.

Instead, the dog starts to run. It launches itself at him. He turns and crouches and throws his arm up in an effort to shield himself from teeth he knows are coming.

But there is no pain. The dog leaps straight past him and into the shadowed figure he hadn't seen there the moment before. The dog and the figure tumble into the street while he stares. It lasts only for a moment, and the dog untangles itself from the creature's limbs and runs back to him, standing in front of him defensively and facing the creature.

The man with the terrible eyes watches as the creature lifts itself up from the pavement. It is big, much taller than he is, and is vaguely humanoid. But it's disproportionate, with overly long arms and a snake-like neck and a head that's too long. It is completely and utterly black. Not the mere black of something happening to be colored black, but it is the blackness of absence. It is void, it is nothingness given shape, and it stands in the middle of the road.

He has no idea what the creature is, but it seems familiar. It is completely unlike anything he's ever seen before, but he is certain he knows it. It certainly knows him. Its head-- just its head, it has no eyes-- follows him.

"What are you?" he says, his voice stronger, harsher than he'd intended. Instead of answering, the creature lunges forward. The dog leaps up and bites its arm. The creature howls in pain and tries to shake the dog off.

Black blood spurts onto the ground. He hears the dog snarling, and the creature shrieking, and pain flares behind his eyes. Images. Foggy flashes of. . . of the creature. It attacked him, and- and- and-

Light.

He turns and runs to the house. He flicks on the porchlight and grabs the flashlight from the kitchen. The dog is still fighting when he gets back. He shines the light on the creature and it screams, but the scream is not in his ears, it's in his head, and it hurts. The creature lumbers toward him and slashes at him with long claws. He dodges them, barely, but falls over in the doing. But still, he holds up the flashlight and while the creature is distracted, the dog leaps up and tears through its thin, ropey throat.

Blood. Hot, black blood everywhere. But, no. It's not hot, it's cold, so cold, and it burns. It soaks his pants and dots his skin and he watches, in awe, as the creature kicks on the ground, arching its back and flailing wildly. Then, slowly, it stills.

Then it starts to melt. The creature's body disintegrates, turning into something like ash, but ash that is melting into a puddle, and the puddle itself is sinking into the road, into nothing.

After a few seconds, there is no sign that the creature had ever existed. Even the blood on his clothes is gone, though the cold feeling and the burn marks on his skin remain. The dog sits, silent as ever, watching him. He gets up, but the dog doesn't react. He turns and goes to the house. On the way in, he notices that there is only one shadow left at his feet.

He tries not to think about this and goes inside. The porch light flickers off. There is a thirty second silence.

The door opens again.

"Get in here, dog!" he hollers without stepping outside. "Come on unless you want to sleep outside."

The dog gets up and, after a thoughtful moment, trots inside.

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