by Jeremy C. Schofield
My sales were done for the day and I was finally able to relax a little, when I saw her coming down Shoreline Drive. I was in my usual M.O., sticking to the shadows, so she wouldn’t have been able to see me until she was only a few feet away. The strange, refracted light from our damnable ever-present clouds gave her two shadows for a moment, and I wished I had a cell phone or a camera to capture it. She was looking back behind her and across the street when I decided to surprise her.
She spun back around to face me, one hand spread toward me as if to shield herself when she saw me and relaxed.
“Dylan. Still lurking, I see?”
“Yup, that is me. The lurkmeister. How has life been treating you?” I didn’t add “…since you vanished overnight all those years ago.” It didn’t seem diplomatic.
“I am fine. I know this seems awkward, but I really need to go.”
I was no longer looking at her face. The second shadow I had noticed before and dismissed as an optical illusion was crawling along the pavement toward me. It rotated around her body, reaching (consider revising) toward me like an accusing finger. I took a step backward involuntarily.
“What the hell is that?” I asked. I did my best to sound calm, but my voice still warbled like a karaoke singer at the tail end of happy hour. The shadow had finished stretching out towards me, and was now forming a line in front of me, looking like a capital “T” someone had written on the sidewalk in roiling black ink.
She looked somewhere between disgusted and amused. “It is trying to protect me. It responds to malice and anger. I didn’t know you were still that angry. Maybe you had better go.”
Supernatural line drawing notwithstanding, this was too much. “You didn’t know I would be angry? How the hell else was I supposed to feel? One more morning I wake up alone, and that is it? After three years, no more Dylan and Carolina?”
Her eyes grew wide when I used the Spanish pronunciation for her name. “Don’t say…” she began, but it was too late. The line vibrated, pulsing with energy, and suddenly vanished. In its place sat a bundle of eyeballs, fur, and teeth. It looked at me, looked back at her, looked at me again, clearly unsure what it was supposed to be doing.
I could feel the brick of the building behind me pushing into my back through the body of my pack, and thought stupidly for a moment that I was glad I had already taken care of my business–no merchandise left to damage. I pointed at the apparition in the street.
“Again, what the hell is that?”
She sighed, obviously put out with me. I was familiar with the body language. “Look, let’s step in here for a minute, and I will try to explain,” she said, gesturing toward the alley between the closest two buildings.
I took another look at the two-foot tall ball of furry death in front of me, noticing saliva gleaming on its fangs. “How about you step into the alley, and I will stay out here. I have no intention of getting into an enclosed space with that.” I noticed my hand was shaking while I pointed at her hyper-vigilant thing. I was never very good with stress.
She sighed as if I had asked her about texts on her phone from some guy I didn’t recognize, and walked around me into the alley. I noticed her mobile string mop stayed between her and I the whole time, turning around and backing into the alley to stay close to her, never taking its eyes off of me. Unable to help myself, I followed to the mouth of the alley, looking for answers.
She leaned up against an exhaust-darkened brick wall. “It is an Inugami – a dog spirit.” She said this matter-of-factually, as if she was describing a goldfish. “It is my spiritual protector. It normally stays in my shadow, but can be called out with a summoning phrase.” At last, she has the grace to look embarrassed. “I suppose I will have to change it now.”
“Dylan and…” I stop myself before uttering it again. “That was your summoning phrase? Not, ‘Inugami, I choose you?’”
“They are nothing like that, Dylan.” The exasperation returns to her voice. “There is no little red ball, no quests to fight other Inugami, I certainly don’t want to try to catch them all. As for the phrase – no one else has ever said my name the way you did. It made me feel safe.”
I am simultaneously honored and angry. Watching the narrowing eyes and shifting position of her dog-spirit, I decide to switch subjects quickly. “What is its name?” I ask.
“Jun.” she grimaces. “I was hoping it would make him more obedient.”
I step into the alley and kneel. “Come here, Jun.” I have been around dogs my whole life – until Caroline, in fact. I hold my hand out for him to approach and investigate. Being eaten is the least of my concerns right now as I try to make sense of my ex showing up with a spirit walking dog.
Again, her eyes grow wide with panic. “No, you can’t do…” Her voice trails off as Jun walks over to me, gives my hand a cursory sniff, then places his head below it – dog-speak for “you may pet me now.” I am startled by the almost ice-cold temperature radiating off of his body when I scratch his head for a minute. I look up at Caroline, and notice she is crying. Alarmed, I stop petting the spirit-dog and stand up.
“Caroline, what is wrong?”
Now it is her turn to shake, a trembling finger pointing at Jun. “You aren’t supposed to be able to do that.” Is all she can say.
“Why not?” I ask. “If he is a guardian angel dog, surely he knows I don’t mean you any harm.”
She shakes her head in angry denial. “That’s not how it works. He is only a weapon, a tool. He is never anything but angry. He knows I don’t love him.”
I am puzzled by this, but at least I know the answer. “Any dog will be what you expect it to be, Carol. If you want a pet, they will be a pet. If you want a guard, they will be a guard.”
She can’t take her eyes off of Jun, as if seeing him for the first time. “But you don’t understand…the horrible things I had to do to create him…” she breaks down completely now. Jun moves back toward her and sticks his not-really-a-nose against her leg. She crumples to the ground and embraces him fiercely, weeping like I have never seen her cry. It is a very odd sort of heartwarming moment–the Lifetime Channel meets a late-night horror movie.
Which is, of course, when the spirits find us.
The skies have been growing darker this whole time, and now a frozen wind picks up, blowing straight down the alley. Suddenly the voice of the wind becomes louder- an unearthly shriek, with gibbering and moaning human voices captured inside it. I turn my head, and a disembodied figure rushes by me, headed for Caroline. As I look back at her and Jun, I see two more heading down the alley behind her.
“Dylan!” she cries out, then rushes towards me. For a moment I have the crazy idea that she is running to hide behind me, hoping I will protect her from these things.
This idea goes the way of all illusions as she turns in front of me and uses her body to force me into a corner between a wall and a dumpster, keeping herself between me and the spirits. She places her hands together, whispers something I can’t quite hear, and suddenly there is a blinding blade of light between her hands held across her body like a samurai sword. The three glowing figures turn to follow her, and I briefly notice that it is now somehow darker than night in this alley.
There is a pulse- an explosion of light from behind the spirits, and where there was once two feet of mop fur and fangs, Jun has suddenly become an ice-shrouded avatar of dog-spirit, bigger than an Akita. A pair of wings unfolds from somewhere under that coat of ice and fur, and he bays like a prairie wolf beneath a full moon as he launches himself at the spirits.
Caroline, I notice, is doing nothing to attack the spirits, merely fending them off each time they come near her. The fight is left to Jun- he grabs an incorporeal body between his fangs and flies muzzle first into the alley wall. The spirit falls, limp, and then Caroline’s guardian plants his feet on the body, pinning it against the wall and pulling with his head. There is another bright explosion of energy, and where the spirit was there is now a pile of ashes.
The other figures have not been idle, though. While one keeps Caroline busy, the other is rending its claws down Jun’s flanks, causing gaping wounds to appear. As I watch, the wounds are immediately frozen over by the radiation of the dog’s body, and he turns to grasp his attacker between his teeth. When the second explosion of not-light fills the alley, the last spirit abandons its attack on Caroline and flees, keening, down the alley.
The radiance disappears from between Caroline’s hands, and we are left with only two piles of ash and a panting Jun to show that the fight ever occurred. The ammoniac stench of urine fills the air.
“Thank you,” is all I can manage over the thundering of my heart. I look at Jun. “Will he be OK?”
She nods. “Another ritual to heal him after I return home.” She looks suddenly troubled. “I am going to have to re-think this whole thing.”
I walk over to Jun, now reduced back to his fanged mop form, and wonder where the wings went. I place my hand on his head. His rear end moves back and forth as if he was trying to wag his non-existent tail. “Thank you, Jun. I hope you get better very soon.”
He vanishes from beneath my hand, being sucked back into Caroline’s shadow. I look at her as if I have never seen her before. Maybe I never have.
“Are you going to explain any of this?” I ask plaintively.
She shakes her head. “Not right now. These-” she nods her head towards the ash piles, “were what we were looking for in the first place. Now we need to get home and fort up while Jun recovers.”
A silver flask appears from somewhere, and she begins using it to gather up the glistening remains of the two spirits. I notice she is careful to never touch the gleaming ashes with her hands. “Ash Falls is a battleground, Dylan. The walls between the worlds are especially thin here. Every kind of monster, spirit and demon you’ve ever heard of finds their way here eventually. Even fighting back against them turns you into a kind of a monster, like I am.”
I want to comfort her, to tell her she is not a monster. Remembering what she said about Jun, I can’t get the words to come out. She finishes her spiritual housekeeping, and the flask vanishes again. She turns to look at me.
“Are you still dealing?” she asks, looking over my shoulder at my pack.
I nod, embarrassed that I was judging her behavior just a moment ago.
She smiles and shakes her head. “Then you’re part of the problem. Knock it off and get out of this town.”
I shake my head. “I’ve tried to leave before, Carolina. I just can’t make it stick for some reason.”
She nods, sadly. “Yeah, that is part of the effect. Somehow we all have our anchors set at the corner of 1st Street and Rosedale Drive. I don’t know what causes that either.”
She straightens her back and takes a deep breath. “Look, if you really want to know, I will call you and we can talk about it some time later, somewhere safer. OK? Has your number changed?”
I shake my head, wondering if she means it, or if this is the last time I will see her. “I would like that,” is all I say.
She walks forward and embraces me- not like a lover, but not quite like a friend either. “I will call you soon. Maybe Jun would like to see you again, anyway,” she adds, cryptically. Then she is gone.
“Adios, amor.” I whisper. I pull my spare sweats out of my backpack, then take off my soaking jeans and underwear and stuff them in. I will have to go commando on the way home, but you see worse on our streets every day. I take another look at my pack, then throw the whole thing into the dumpster. I don’t know what I am going to do now, but there is no escaping that the world just got a whole lot bigger than I ever thought it was.
Halfway home, I start to wonder if maybe I should get a dog.