“There’s something in the woods,” was the first thing Caroline said to her brother that day. It was accompanied by flopping the local newspaper onto his sleeping face.
“There’s always something in the woods,” Daniel grumbled.
She grabbed the papers and held them up. “No, no, an actual something.”
He squinted up at them. “What am I looking at?”
It was a blurry, black and white photo of—nothing? In retrospect, the distant black blob concealed by bushes looked like nothing.
“Dunno yet.” She tucked the newspaper under her arm. “I was hoping we could find out.”
“Yeah, like when we were kids.”
Fond memories of the pair trying to find mysterious creatures popped into her head. They used to spend hours outside pretending they were monster hunters.
“We didn’t find anything back then. Just deer and raccoons.” And with that, her brother popped those memories right back out. “Lots of raccoons.”
“This—” she pointed at the photograph, “—is not a raccoon. It’s big enough to eat a raccoon. Don’t you wanna catch it and y’know, save the day, win the guy, all that stuff?”
Her brother rolled back over and closed his eyes. “There are no days to save and no guys to win.”
“Alright, I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “I think it took Sadie.”
She caught one of his eyes peek open. She got him.
“You really think so?” he asked.
“I think there’s a chance. People have been reporting sightings of stuff like this lately along with missing animals,” she said. “So, you in?”
He hesitated, then conceded with a sigh. “…Yeah.”
She grinned. “Hell yeah.”
Sadie is the name of Caroline’s dog.
She got the bright-eyed golden retriever when she was eight years old, when she had just lost one of her front teeth and stopped smiling for photos. Her mom decided it was time to get a family dog, and so Caroline picked out the little runt from the shelter who also had a missing tooth. She smiled so wide in the picture her mom took, wrapping her little arms around the pup. It’s been framed on her nightstand for the ten years since.
She was, quite frankly, her best—and sometimes only—friend. That dog was there for her through everything; Caroline’s first failure of a date, multiple driving test failures, her graduation just a couple of months ago, even the dark nights in the woods where she saw things that she couldn’t explain.
But last month, the furry angel disappeared from her life at random. No signs that she was itching to leave, just there one day and gone the next. Her collar was missing, but her dog tags had been found on the ground, surrounded by tiny bits of black gunk that Daniel and their mother said was probably congealed blood. They assumed she had died at random.
She’s so old now, it was her time, her mom tried to comfort her. But Caroline didn’t buy it. Sadie was doing just fine. The only show of her age was recently losing an adult tooth from her upper gums. It reminded Caroline of first meeting her. She certainly wasn’t gonna spend all these years growing up with Sadie and not figure out what happened now.
Hence why she was stumbling through another dark night in the woods.
“Remind me, why are we doing this at night?” Daniel asked. He’d been asking a lot of questions with varying levels of annoyance.
“Mom never would’ve let you get this far into the woods,” she answered simply. “She’s afraid of bears eating your face off or something.”
“First off, there are no bears around here,” he said, tripping slightly over a branch. “Second, I don’t need her permission to take a walk.”
She threw him a look over her shoulder.
“Okay, fine, she’d be pissed,” he said. “But there’s nothing out here.”
“Caroline, I mean it. We’ve been at this for a while. I don’t think anything is out here.”
She noticed his footsteps stop behind her. She followed suit to turn around and face him.
“Dan, please don’t do this. I know that something took her.”
“Listen, I get that this is important to you and I really did come out to help,” he said. “But I thought it would be some bonding activity where you come to terms with Sadie dying and then we go home and watch TV. You just gotta let it go. There’s nothing we could have done.”
“We don’t even know what happened to her,” she mumbled. She started gripping her arms tightly.
“Freak accidents happen all the time to animals,” he said. “You can’t keep acting like monsters are real, Caroline.”
“I’m not acting. You and Mom have never believed m—”
“Seriously? Please listen, Dan.”
“Oh my god, what?” she asked, exasperated. He gently pointed a finger behind her, which she followed up, up, up, into the darkness and onto a pair of slitted eyes.
“S—Sadie?” she called out. It turned its head slightly.
“Sadie wasn’t seven-foot fucking tall,” Daniel said, voice tensing.
“Shh, shut up.” She swatted at his arm. “Are you… Are you out there, girl?”
She stepped forward, further into the darkness. The creature followed, leaning a bit more of its head and elongated neck out into the moonlight. It reached out a long, gangly arm that ended in a stubby hand outfitted with stained claws.
The light reflected off of its black form. It had quills of some sort all around its body, even two on the top of its head. They seemed to be made out of the same gunk that got left behind with Sadie’s tags.
Congealed blood my ass, Caroline thought.