A few months had passed as the flowers of spring bloomed in the front yard. Hank remembered how Theresa loved the red roses every summer. The dandelions would litter the backyard, little Francis blowing them into oblivion with the idol hopes of granted wishes. Those wishes never came true. Francis and Theresa both left Hank last fall. It was not their fault, Theresa did not see the black ice in the road. She tried her best. The car was discovered off the side of a cliff. Francis was in a ball futilely sheltered from the elements by her mother, frozen together in one big statue of innocence. Hank had been seeing weird things the week before. Strange shadows and bizarre instances like ladders falling and a fire in the neighbors apartment, it was like he was being stalked. The day of the crash, Hank should have been with them, but with the visions and a sudden head cold, he stayed at home. Hanks regret and guilt buried him in darkness, forgetting all about the shadows that had been encroaching.

Hank strived to move forward, but there seemed no escape. He tried therapy, going out with friends, tried new drugs, but the months rolled on and he found himself in the same place. Days that went well would end with shadows dancing in his peripherals and a flood of flashbacks to his family would devour his mind. Wherever he gained morality, darkness would follow. Kirk, his best friend, one day came up with a new idea. He needed a new companion, and Hank had promised his daughter a puppy a few months before she passed. Hank looked around the shelters but none of the little fluffy pups connected with him. They were either too scared of him, too menacing themselves, or did not have that spark when you find the right companion. Kirk did not want to give up, so he asked around. A friend of a friend knew someone looking for owners for a new litter of puppies.

Hank and Kirk drove up a dirt driveway to the side of a broken down home. Yelps and barks brought their attention to the back of the home where an older man stood watching the puppies play. The dogs were jumping around all over each other inside the protection of a 4 foot chain fence. “Hey there! Are you Arnold?” asked Kirk, approaching the man with a hand out politely. “Yea, I be Arnold” said the man, grabbing the outstretched hand. Arnold had a rundown face, scarred and dirty. His smile showed off 5 teeth, 3 on top 2 on bottom, with his bottom jaw protruding a good bit more than the upper. Average height and dressed in torn overalls and a once white t-shirt, he seemed more a farmer than a backyard breeder. His eyes sank in leaving them looking almost hollow and every other moment he would snort and wipe his face with his arm. The pups all jumped up at the fence, squealing for attention. Hank walked over as a few of the pups lapped their tongues at his outstretched hands. He looked down at the dogs, 3 of them enjoying what sweat laid on his palms. Each stared back as he glanced over them, locking eyes with the one on the far left. The rest of the world faded and Hank and the dog were alone for a moment of pure connection. Hank sensed something looking back at him, more than a dog, he could feel its spirit.

“Found one eh”, like lightning, Hank snapped back to Earth. “What?! Sorry… what was that?” Hank calmed down. “Looks like you found a match there” the man pointed to the little pooch who started back in Hanks direction. Hank looked back, and could not hold back smiling. “Yea, looks like we got a winner” said Hank, smiling. The man grinned from ear to ear as Kirk and Hank picked up the pup and played around with him after putting on a collar and leash. Hank thought he had seen a black silhouette behind the man, but after such a great day, he refocused on his new love and companion. Kirk and the man talked to the side, he was giving the dog to Hank as a gift. In the car, the pup rode on Hanks lap. “That guy was so bizarre” said Kirk suddenly. “What you mean, Kirk? Seemed like a normal guy to me”. “He kept bringing up some repentance and chuckling to himself. Besides that you’re right, not much but a basic guy. Screw it, everyone’s got their ticks” and they drove back to Hanks.

2 months and the dog was already twice its size. Hank loved that dog. They would play in the backyard, go on hikes, and almost never be apart. He named him Elway after his favorite football player. Elway did everything Hank asked and was such a great dog. Elway looked like a general Golden Retriever. Dirty gold colored his whole coat from head to toe with a slight shine in the right lighting. His black nose flared with excitement as his big jaw gaped open panting. Paws the size of avocados made him look disproportionate, but he had a few more months to grow into them. Elway would run to Hank whenever he returned from work, barreling down the hall like the player he was named for. Hank and Elway had a great bond as Elway grew into the rest of his body.  Then Hank found the growth.

A yellow scab on the front right armpit, no bigger than a penny. Hank to him into the vet right away, leaving with a dose of antibiotics and a topical ointment. The meds did not do much. A month passed and the scab had taken over a good portion of the dogs front right leg. Puss leaked from under the arm and Hank hoped the vet would have some advice. Multiple tests found nothing wrong, but it kept spreading. He brought Elway home and sat with him, petting him in comfort. He could not lose his family again, but what could he do?

The next day, Elway woke Hank up with a slobber. “Hey boy! How are ya…” he looked at his hands after wiping his face. Crimson covered them both and in a panic he turned to Elway to see his mouth dripping blood. “No no no! Oh god bud are you okay?” he freaked out, checking Elway all over. His scab had grown in exponential size, but was still only a scab, hairless and dried out. As Hank rushed from the kitchen and back to the room, he noticed out in the back yard a figure in the grass. He stopped and peered towards it, gasping as her realized it to be the corpse of a rather large cat. He bent down next to the body, at least the torso. Poor thing had been torn limb to limb with pieces scattered throughout the yard. Bone and cartilage lay as the foundation for the tiny pieces of flesh that remained untouched by his companion.

With an ironic sigh of relief, Hank ran out to get Elway a cage. Hank was relieved his best friend was not getting sicker and just being a dog, but felt worried about what happened to the cat. Was his dog now animal aggressive? Wa he just being a dog and hating cats? Did Hank have to watch out for him? The viciousness of the attack is what made him uneasy. Hank found the biggest crate he could find and set it up back home in the corner of his bedroom. He could not watch him as he slept, but did not want to wake up to something like that again. Elway took right to the crate once Hank had filled it with his bedding and a few toys. In the backyard, after cleaning up the remains, they played some fetch and messed around. Hank watched as little pieces of scab and hair fell off, the scab now being almost half the dogs body, but Hank was doing all he could. Hank would not give up, he wanted to give this dog the best life he could. As he pet Elway, he noticed that every paw was now nail-less. Whatever this disease was, was slowly killing the dog’s whole body. He hoped Elway would sleep through the night and the medications would kick in finally.

A deep growl alerted Hank early the next morning. “Huh, what is it boy?” he asked. Rubbing his eyes, he threw the sheets off his body, trying to awaken quickly. Snarling and growling increased as Hank got closer to the crate. He bent down to peer into the crate but Elway lunged at the door, startling Hank backwards off his feet. Staring back at the crate and breathing heavily after such a scare, Hank was not sure what to do. The inside of the crate was an unnatural darkness except for 2 glowing orbs he assumed to now be his dogs eyes peering back. Elway started up the snarling again and Hank got to his feet. Should he call animal control or his best friend? Was he strong enough to handle this himself? Maybe Elway was hungry from the infection and was becoming angry. Hank tried reasoning with himself why this would be happening from a dog who, just yesterday, was loving all over him. Hank could not leave him, so he approached the crate. This time Elway lowered his growl but let Hank get to the door. Hank undid the latch, slowly opened the create, and stood back to let him out.

A black scaly leg outstretched from the crate with a strange, thick, black smoke swirling around it. As the head and body appeared, black smoke began flowing out. Elway’s face was now a skull with what appeared to be burnt flesh clinging to bone, red fire floating inside the sockets where eyes would be. His body and legs were rotten, burnt flesh and smoke all over almost like a wisp. Hanks throat nearly tore as he screamed at the sight. Elway took this moment to lunge across the room in a streak of darkness and bit down on Hanks left shoulder, tackling him to the floor. The bite seared Hanks skin, and he screamed as he felt his flesh burn. Elway let go, postured over Hanks face, a let out a guttural, bellowing combination of a growl and a scream. Hank lost all hope. Visions of his family appeared in the front of his mind. Little Francis playing in the grass as Theresa smiled from the corner.

The smoke overtook the room, and the darkness encroached on Hanks visibility. Elway sniffed him, smelling his tears and tried to lick Hanks face. His saliva acted as acid as Hank screamed again and his cheeks flesh melted away. Elway cowered away from the sounds, the dogs soul taking back over. Hank was in such pain, but he saw the fear in the animal. He hunched over, breathing heavily still, and tried crawling towards Elway. He could hear Elway whimpering, he assumed the pain of that skin was unbearable. Hank slouched against the wall next to Elway. “I’m so sorry” Hank tried to say through gurgled words, blood in his mouth from his cheek. Elway placed his unnatural skull in Hanks lap, burning his clothing but showing a security in Hank. Hank wanted to pet him but continued to only stare. He wanted to save his companion and had but one option. He reached over Elway to his bedside dresser where he hid a revolver and made sure there was a bullet in the chamber. So much pain, yet Hanks face ran with tears of relief. Again, he saw the scene of his perfect family, everything how it should have been. He wanted to be there so bad, but knew he had to help Elway first. He cupped Elway’s chin, brought it up, and stared into the flames as they danced in the skull. “I will see you soon friend” and the bullet shattered the skull next to the right eye socket, through the center, and out the left. The momentum knocked his skull out of Hanks grasp and he watched the flames dim to darkness. Hank stared at the corpse, at what had become of his companion. The corruption was no more, the evil had not won. He looked up, no longer confused. This world was hunting him for unknown reasons, but something was giving him a glimpse of what awaited on the other side. He pulled the gun up to his temple and smiled as he was reunited with his family.


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