BIGGER THAN DEATH
(For kids of all ages, a spooky story about
a most peculiar dog.)
This story first appeared in the March 1998 issue of Cricket Magazine. It is the 1998 winner of the Bram Stoker Award in the Work for Young Readers category, presented by the Horror Writers Association.
Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.etchemendy.com/kids.htm
(C) Copyright 1998, by Nancy Etchemendy. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without the author's written permission.
Josie and I wanted a dog more than anything else on Earth. We wished for one every time we threw pennies in a fountain or watched the evening star drop behind the trees. At night after Mom and Dad had gone to bed, Josie'd sneak out her bedroom window, and I'd sneak out mine, and we'd sit together on the porch roof and talk about dogs.
"You're so dumb, Jake," Josie would say. "Bulldogs are creepy."
"Hah. Golden retrievers are creepy," I'd say.
We had this ongoing argument about what our ideal dog would be. But it didn't really matter--any dog would do, as long as it had a tail to wag and a friendly face.
Sure, Josie and I are twins, and we like each other and all that stuff. But we get sick of each other sometimes, too. If we had a dog there'd always be somebody to hang out with, even when we wished we'd never heard the word "sibling."
One summer night as we sat together on the roof, Josie saw something. "What's that?" She pointed down toward a dark shadow on our driveway. The moon was up and everything looked either black or milky. At first, all I saw was darkness. Then the shadow moved, and I thought I heard the jingle of metal.
"Did you see that? What is it?" Josie crouched at the edge of the porch with her nightgown hiked up around her knees. The shadow flowed out onto the silvery gravel of the drive and whined softly.
For one astonished second, Josie and I just stared at each other. Then we scrambled down onto the porch. There in our yard stood a dog. A big, black dog with long, shaggy hair--like a dream come true.
Josie made a little kissing noise and held out her hand. I said, "Here, boy." And the dog came to us slowly, taking a few steps forward, then a step back, not sure whether to trust us, I guess.
When he was close enough to pet, I put my arms around his neck and let him lick my face. He had that great doggy smell that always makes me think of dirt and grass and piles of leaves.
"Don't say, 'Here, boy,' you moron," said Josie. "She's a female."
"Oh," I said, pulling back and looking. "I wonder what her name is."
I felt for her collar while she sat patiently, whuffing hot breath on my cheek as Josie scratched her ears. I was almost glad when I found no tags, just a silver choke chain with a small, rusty bell on it.
"I bet she's hungry," said Josie, stroking the dog's flank. "I can feel her ribs."
I ran my hand through her fur. The dog was so skinny you could just about feel every bone, and her coat was tangled and full of dirt. If she belonged to someone, they weren't taking very good care of her.
"What can we give her?" I said. That was sort of a problem. Our mom's a vegetarian, which means we don't exactly eat the kind of stuff dogs dream of. I thought about the left overs from dinner--a moderately disgusting mixture of brown rice, tofu, and broccoli. I couldn't imagine any self respecting dog, even a starving one, eating that. Then I had a thought. "Milk! I'll get her a bowl of milk."
So Josie waited with the dog, and I sneaked into the kitchen to fill one of Mom's mixing bowls with milk and a couple of raw eggs.
The dog lapped it up, but as soon as she finished, she trotted into the shadows and disappeared.
"Don't go," Josie called after her as loudly as she dared. It was a warm night, and our parents' window was open. "Come back." But the dog was gone.
We sat on the porch steps awhile, hoping she'd return.
"I think she'll be back when she gets hungry again," I said. "Nobody else is feeding her."
"No duh," said Josie.
We smiled at each other in the moonlight, our insides full of scrabbly excitement, like just before Christmas or our birthday. We were both thinking the same thing.
"We're going to have a dog!" I whispered.
"What's a good name?" said Josie.
The perfect name wrote itself in my mind. "Shadow!"
+ + +
Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as planned. The next day, we piled together all the money we'd stashed from allowance and odd jobs. Eleven dollars and ninety-four cents. There would've been more, but we'd spent a lot on comics and candy and stuff. You know how it goes.
We had some trouble agreeing on how best to spend our limited funds. Dog food, of course. But what kind? The grocery store had lots, and we came home with two cans of Woof Buddies, a small bag of kibble, and a big package of beef tailbones the guy at the meat counter practically gave us.
We brought the stuff home and hid it in various places, I guess because we were afraid Mom and Dad wouldn't approve if they knew we were feeding a stray. The bones were hardest to hide, because they had to be kept cold. But we have a gargantuan freezer in the garage, and it's got so much stuff in it that Mom never noticed our paper-wrapped package from the butcher.
That night, after our parents were asleep, we sneaked downstairs. I got an old aluminum platter and we put an assortment of goodies on it: kibble with some Woof Buddies mixed in and a couple of bones. We set the platter in the driveway and sat back to watch.
Shadow must've been hiding in the bushes watching us, because as soon as we set the platter down, we heard the jingle of her chain, and she appeared almost as if from nowhere. We hugged her and petted her and showed her the food. She sniffed it, drooling and licking her chops, but for some reason she wouldn't eat it.
"What's the matter?" asked Josie. "It's good for you."
Shadow looked at the platter, looked at us, and whined.
"Maybe she's shy," I said. "Maybe she doesn't want us to watch her eat."
"Yeah, well, she wasn't shy last night." Josie looked hurt. I mean, we had spent all our hard-earned cash on food for Shadow, and now the dog wouldn't eat it. Maybe I was a little hurt, too.
"Come on," I said. "Let's leave her alone and see what happens."
So we pretended to say good-night, and went into the house. We tried to make it look like we were going to bed but stayed just inside the front door, opening it a crack so we could spy.
Shadow did something completely unexpected. She grabbed the platter in her mouth and dragged it away. By the time we ran back outside, she and the food were long gone. We couldn't find her anywhere.
+ + +
When we fixed Shadow's dinner the next night, we used a paper plate. It was the same scene all over again. The dog wouldn't eat until we hid. Then she dragged the food away paper plate and all.
This went on a long time--four or five nights, maybe. One of the weirdest parts of the whole thing was that even though Shadow kept taking the food, she didn't seem to be putting on any weight. You could still feel her bones. If anything, she was getting even skinnier. Sometimes she almost seemed transparent. She was still warm, though, and her breath was still doggy and hot.
When Shadow was gone, Josie and I would come back out and search the bushes with no luck. Then we'd sit on the porch steps and listen to the crickets and the breeze, which somehow didn't sound as friendly as they used to, and try to figure out what was going on. On the night when we put out the last of our dog food, we got such a bad case of the creeps that we ran inside and hid under our covers as soon as Shadow dragged her dinner away.
+ + +
The next night, I got one of Mom's pie plates and filled it with milk and eggs, the only thing we could think of, since we had no more money for dog food. We set it in the driveway as usual and sat down to wait. But Shadow didn't come.
The moon got higher and higher. We waited with nothing to do but jump every time we heard a leaf rustle or a twig snap. We thought we saw small, bright eyes peering at us from among the bushes.
Still the dog didn't come.
We must have fallen asleep there, because suddenly I felt as if I'd awakened from a dream. I sat up. The unmistakable jingle of Shadow's bell drifted through the night. The pie plate stood a few feet away, still full of milk and eggs, and Josie lay beside me, her breath soft and even.
I jiggled her shoulder. "Wake up, Josie. I hear Shadow!"
Josie raised her head, still mostly asleep. "Huh?"
"It's Shadow!" I pointed to a patch of moving moonlight an arm's length away.
You can say I was crazy or dreaming, but I know what I saw. It was Shadow--I could smell her warm breath. But when I tried to touch her, my hand passed right through, and all I felt was a strange prickling, as if I'd rubbed my arm with a party balloon.
The sound of her bell was clear and real, though. She barked at us, whined, and ran back and forth.
I staggered to my feet, pulling Josie after me. "What is it, Shadow? What do you want?" I said.
She barked again, ran toward the bushes, and turned to see if we were following. Then she plunged into the thicket, still barking. I chased her through a wall of scratchy branches and out into the open field beyond.
"Wait up!" cried Josie. I could hear her far behind me, but I was afraid if I slowed down, I might lose Shadow forever. Tears trickled from my eyes, and the wind blew them back along my face in chilly streaks. I cried partly because the running hurt. It made my lungs burn and my side ache. But I also cried because somewhere deep down I knew I wasn't going to be keeping Shadow. She'd never sleep beside my bed. She'd never bark and skitter around me in circles when I came home from school. Never swim in the creek with me. Because something terrible had happened, and part of me knew it.
She kept barking--sometimes that was the only way I could keep track of her. We ran across the field, darted between trees, threaded our way into another thicket. There Shadow stopped and stood perfectly still, panting and wagging her tail.
I was so out of breath that for a few seconds I had to bend over and just gasp. I knew where we were. Shadow had led me to the banks of the creek, a little upstream from the place where Josie and I swam on hot days. The bushes grew close together, and it was the best hiding place I knew of. I could hear Josie some distance behind, yelling at me to wait up.
Shadow looked around, whined and disappeared through a dark hole in the wall of leaves and branches.
"Shadow?" I called. "Where'd you go?"
I started to sweat. In a world where all the rules about what's real and what's not seemed broken, I knew that dark hole in the bushes was a place I didn't want to enter.
Something soft and creepy touched my shoulder. I just about jumped out of my pants.
"Ya-a-a-a-a-a!" I cried.
"Sheesh!" said Josie. "Lighten up. It's just me."
"Don't ever do that again!"
"What? Touch you? Don't be a dweeb!"
"I'm not a dweeb. I'm just..."
Josie hugged herself and shivered. "I see what you mean. This place feels weird. Where's Shadow?"
I pointed toward the dark hole.
"No way I'm going in there," Josie said softly.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. "We'll go in together. You and me through thick and thin."
We had this tradition, you see, of linking arms and saying that whenever we were scared of doing something. I don't know why, but it seemed to make us braver. It was always easier to face stuff when we did it together.
So we linked arms and walked into the dark undergrowth.
"Here, Shadow. Here, Shadow," I called, my voice shaky.
At first we heard nothing. Then a soft yipping came to our ears. We broke through into a little clearing and could hardly believe what we'd found.
At our feet lay a litter of four puppies, squeaking and climbing around on top of each other. Bones and paper plates littered their small nest. Mom's aluminum platter was there, and so was Shadow, cold and motionless. She'd been dead quite a while, much too long to have led us there. We think she must've starved. She'd saved all her food for her puppies.
+ + +
People ask us how we got our dog, Roofus. Well, that's the story. Roofus is one of Shadow's pups. We found homes for the other three, and they all live nearby.
So things ended well for everybody. Josie and I got our dog after all, and Shadow got help for her babies. It's true it's not a perfectly happy ending, but we did what we could. We buried Shadow under Mom's favorite rose bush and made a wooden marker, which Josie engraved. I like what it says:
"Here lies Shadow, whose love was bigger than death."
Last updated on December 1, 2014