The stairway was dark, and Dale took each step carefully. Around the corner, at the base of the stairs, he could see a dim glow of yellow light that came from the kitchen. Without realizing, he fixed his eyes on that light, not wanting to look at the darkness of the rooms around him. The wood creaked beneath his weight, and he made his way into the kitchen with the shotgun pressed to his chest. When he got to the sink, he bent down and took a draw of water from the faucet. His brown hair hung down and was wetted. Water dribbled from his chin, and when he wiped it away from his face, he could feel coarse stubble scrape across his hand.
Dale peered through the window for Cinder. The dog had moved yet again. Whatever was out there, it kept changing position. Cinder snarled and gave deep barks. Dale could see him just on the edge of the white light shining down from the power pole. The dog-shaped shadow was facing out toward the black, still night, toward the corn field.
Dale leaned closer to the window and squinted. “What is that?” he said to himself in a whisper. The tall corn made a black horizon against the few stars that hung in the night. A shadow, thick and tall, skimmed along the top of that horizon. Cinder’s head chased the movement perfectly. Dale leaned in closer and craned his head, nearly pressing his face against the glass. Inexplicably, he felt watched. His skin began to crawl, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever he was looking for was now looking back at him.
Dale snapped his head back and flipped off the light. He saw me, he thought. Whoever that is, he’s a big summabitch and he saw me through the window. Cinder’s barking continued. Dale stepped out of the kitchen, through the laundry room, and through the back door into the dead air of the night. As he did, he patted the shells in his pockets to make sure they were actually there, not forgotten and still sitting on a distant closet shelf.
The gravel crunched beneath his feet. He worked his way toward Cinder, who had stopped barking for a brief moment. Dale moved a dozen paces out, halfway between the dog and the house, and called out. “Cinder. Cinder, heel.” The dog turned and showed a haggard face. Drool flowed from his jaw and he was breathing heavily. Dale nodded. “Come, Cinder. Heel.” Cinder glanced at the black surroundings and then trotted to his master. Dale gave Cinder a good scratch at the neck and knelt down beside him. Cinder’s tongue hung from his mouth as they stared at the horizon. “Good boy,” Dale said, patting the dog. “Good boy.”
Dale squinted into the shadows. “What’s out there, boy?”
Cinder, as if understanding the question perfectly, let out a long, low growl and anxiously shifted his feet. Dale gave him a light pat on the back and stood up. He addressed the shadows in front of them. “Listen here, ya summabitch. I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doin’, but you’re on the private property of a well-armed family. I ain’t got no quarrel with you, but I will shoot you dead as shit if you try something funny.”
The still night hung in silence around him. No crickets chirped their songs. No breeze passed through the corn, stirring their leaves. No critters crawled and no frogs croaked. Dale turned and looked up at the house. He saw the white of Peggy’s nightgown lurking in the shadow of his bedroom window. She remained silent as well.
Cinder tensed, as if startled, and began growling again. Dale turned back just in time to see a shadow within the shadows shift. It was big. Wide, he thought to himself. Not just big, but wide. “Where is he, Cinder,” Dale coaxed in a quick whisper. “Where-is-he?”
Cinder gave a single bark straight in front of them. His muscles tensed and he let out another long growl. Dale aimed his shotgun toward the field. “Last chance, mister,” he said. “I ain’t fuckin’ around.” The stillness resumed. The seconds seemed to suspend. “I will bury you,” Dale said. “I’ll use your body as fertilizer and you won’t—“
A mass of black darted to the right and shook the corn. Dale fired his gun, more out of surprise than intent, and Cinder charged. It was moving again, around the house. Dale tore after Cinder, pumping the shotgun while he ran. The empty shell cartwheeled to the gravel below.
They rounded the property, Cinder charging toward the corn in front of Dale, and fell into the shadow of the house. Dale stopped at the edge of the road, his feet sliding in the gravel. “Cinder!” he shouted. “Cinder, heel!” The shadow of the bulky dog stopped at the edge of the corn. Cinder unleashed a fresh torrent of barks and growls. “Cinder!” Dale shouted again. “Cinder! Heel! Now!” The barking ceased, and the dog hurried back to Dale’s side, quickly turning back to face the corn. Dale let out a shaky sigh, happy to have his dog beside him again. He patted the rottweiler with a trembling hand. “Good dog,” he said. “Good dog.”
Even though they had only sprinted a few yards, Dale was winded. His heart was pounding and his lungs seemed to thunder with air. His ears rang from the fresh shotgun blast. He knelt again, feeling both concealed and exposed in the shadow of the house, and did his best to listen. He placed a hand on Cinder’s side and felt the animal trembling as well.
A snicker came from the corn. Dales’ skin turned to ice in the warm air. Was that a laugh, he thought to himself, but he never got to consider an answer. Cinder roared to life and charged again, flinging small pieces of gravel into Dale’s pant-leg. Dale called out, but his shout fell out as a whimper as his voice cracked with fear. Cinder had engaged whatever was out there and the fight was on. Corn stalks tossed and snapped in the night. Cinder snarled and thrashed, and Something… Dale thought, Something is growling back. A crisp yelp rang out, followed by an interlude of silence. The corn stirred again and there was another sound, a sickly squeal that was followed by a triumphant Cinder growl. Dale’s eyes went wide trying to see the battle that raged in the dark. More stalks broke and something big fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Then another snap, thicker and with overtones of a crunch, split the air. Cinder yelped in pain. Dale aimed his shotgun toward the sounds of the brawl and fired. He shot and pumped, each pump making its signature click, until the shotgun ran dry. When the bombardment was over, Dale waited, listening.