The little Yorkie dog wandered onto Andy Rice’s property on the last day of post planning. Andy had arrived home, alone, fixed himself a bite to eat, then settled into a rocking chair on the back porch to watch the sun go down. Out from the woods wandered the smallest dog he had ever seen, so small he thought it might be a fat little chipmunk wearing a tiny red collar.
Andy climbed down the stairs of the porch and approached cautiously. He wasn’t afraid of it; had it bit him, he might have felt the little teeth like a person feels rice thrown on them at a wedding. No, Andy took care because he didn’t want to scare the little dog.
Andy held out a piece of the chicken he had grilled, and the little dog slunk up to him, tail between its tiny little legs, and ate the meat like a wolf taking to a fresh-killed rabbit. When it was finished, it looked sheepishly up at Andy as if to say, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” Andy was smitten.
There was no tag on the collar, so Andy gave her the name ‘Maya’, a name he and his wife had picked out for the daughter they were never able to have. Heather never said as much, but Andy figured it factored in to the hundreds of reasons she had never given him for leaving. Well, none of it mattered now; he finally had his Maya.
After digging around on Google, Andy found out the dog was what you called a teacup Yorkie. The vet he took her to said she was a full-grown dog, probably two years old, and not an ounce over three pounds. Andy took her picture and put up flyers in the vicinity of his house – at the Shop and Save, on the electric poles at the intersection of Highways 5 and 27. He posted her little mug on Facebook, a place he usually only stalked but rarely commented.
He expected to have inquiries from interested parties who had no connection to the dog whatever, and he was right. A breeder from Whitesburg called but didn’t come close to describing Maya’s particular markings. Another sent him a Facebook message claiming the dog outright. When Andy asked if Maya had been wearing a green or yellow collar, the fraud claimed green. Two or three called just to volunteer to take the dog off his hands to, you know, save him the hassle of dealing with a stray.
After about a week, Andy decided the dog was his to keep. Aside from a dog-sitting favor he had done for a colleague some years back, Andy had never been around dogs. Heather couldn’t stand them. As a result, he was ill-equipped for Maya, so he did what any self-respecting father would do; he took her shopping.
They were a comical sight: Andy, sitting in the cab of his 4X4 pickup truck, scruffy beard and baseball hat, and Maya, no bigger than a kitten and perched up on his shoulder like a parrot. He carried her into the Shop and Save, where pets were not allowed, and no one said a word to him. He bought her food, a sweater, a few toys, a leash, and some flea shampoo.
Andy put Maya in the downstairs bathroom the first few nights to sleep. For a little thing, she could raise the roof with her barking, and he couldn’t stand the noise. Plus, he thought it was pitiful. That was the only word he could find to describe her barks that turned into high-pitched yips when he closed the door and walked away. It tore his heart out to hear her. He was surprised at how soft-hearted he was toward his new little roommate.
When he officially decided that he was going to let her stay, Andy invested in a crate. His friend from work had sent one along for her dog, Ellie, the time Andy had dog-sat. That dog took to the crate like a duck to water. At night, Ellie would scratch at the little wire door to be let in, and, once inside, she’d sleep until morning. Dogs had the instincts of wolves, some said, and liked the feel of a crate – they thought of it as a den. He guessed that was about right, even if his wolf was in the guise of a tiny teacup Yorkie.
Maya, all three pounds of her and decidedly not wolf-like, hated the crate. Andy had put it in the spare room, the one Heather had used to store her exercise bike and sewing machine. The equipment was gone now, and the little crate seemed to get swallowed up in the emptiness. He knew Maya didn’t like it; she was lonely. Andy couldn’t stand that. He compromised and moved the crate into his bedroom, next to the foot of his bed.
The first night she cried, just for a few minutes. Once she understood that Andy wasn’t going to go away, Maya had turned a couple of circles in the crate and settled down for the night. She slept straight through.
It was the second night of Maya’s relocation to the upstairs that she woke Andy in the middle of the night. He heard her whine. It was just a small sound, and it wasn’t continuous. Her little cries were spaced out, maybe ten seconds apart, and lasted no more than a second or two each. But she was persistent and kept it up until Andy came to her.
“Come on, girl. Let’s take you out.”
Another bit of advice he learned was to take a dog’s food and water away around seven o’clock. He realized as he clipped on her leash that he had done no such thing for Maya. Live and learn, he thought as he turned on his porch light and stepped out into the hot summer night.
Andy’s property, all twelve acres of it, was hidden from the prying eyes of neighbors. There were woods on three sides, including out front where the driveway snaked in from Highway 5. No one could see the house from the road.
The fourth boundary of Andy’s place was a ditch, about six feet at its deepest and four feet at its widest. It started at the road and wound its way behind his land. Andy had never followed it to its end, which he guessed was somewhere lost in the woods behind the house. Much of the ditch was covered in privet hedge, and it served as a barrier between his property and a large open field on the other side. Andy didn’t know who owned the field and whatever lay beyond, and he frankly didn’t care. As long as he was left alone, he was happy.
Night sounds greeted Andy: tree frogs and crickets called out, and katydids rounded out the chorus. Something howled a great distance away, probably a coyote. The little dog pranced along in the dark of the yard, just out of reach of the flood light on the porch, as if she had a goal in mind. The longer she led Andy around, the more certain he was that peeing had nothing to do with her plans.
“Come on, Maya. Come on, girl. Daddy wants to go back to bed.” He looked at his watch. 12:08 a.m.
Maya stopped and turned her head as Andy spoke, and he could have sworn that her eyes glowed red back at him. A trick of the light, he thought. Geez, it’s too late for this. Or is it early? “Whatever,” he said aloud. “Come on, Maya! Let’s go!”
Andy wasn’t normally a jumpy man, but standing in the midnight dark back yard of his isolated property was beginning to give him the willies. He looked side to side, forward and back, like a criminal trying to get away with stealing the Mona Lisa. Was there something moving in the woods? He couldn’t see that far. From the direction of the ditch came something else; scraping sounds, as if something was trying to climb out. He froze and listened. Maya squatted to pee. She finished and stood by his foot, looking up at him as if to say, “I’m done. You may take me inside now.”
He took one more look at the ditch, saw nothing, scooped Maya up, and ran up the stairs and into his house. He locked the door behind him, deadbolt and all, and stared out the window, not sure what he expected to see. But there was nothing, only the empty yard and quiet woods. And darkness. He left the porch light on and went to bed. It was a long time before he fell asleep. When sleep finally came, he had a restless, dream-filled night. Monsters howled from the ditch and walked in his woods. He woke a few hours later to Maya growling from inside her crate; it was morning, and she was ready to go out again.
The following evening, Andy took Maya’s food and water away precisely at seven, walked her one last time, and had her crated by nine. She turned her circles and was out like a light a few minutes later. That gave Andy some time to finish up the dishes and read a couple chapters of his book. At ten, the book fell to the floor with a bang. He looked at Maya. She was curled up in a tiny ball, nose tucked under her thigh, and didn’t stir. He turned out the light, rolled over, and was himself soon asleep.
Sometime later Andy heard Maya’s mournful whines again from the crate. At first he tried to ignore it, hoping she would go back to sleep. No luck. Like the night before, her cries were spaced a few seconds apart and insistent. He raised up and looked at her. Her eyes, little pin pricks of red light, peered at him through the wires of the crate.
Andy swung his feet to the floor and shuffled to her. Maya jumped happily at the door, imploring him to take a nighttime stroll with her. He glanced at the clock. 12:04 a.m. He looked at Maya, her eyes brown as a couple of Christmas chestnuts.
He must have been seeing things again. Andy always slept with the tv on; her eyes probably caught some of that light and reflected it back at him, blood red and shiny. He grabbed her, attached her leash, and took his little buddy to the yard.
This is ridiculous, these midnight potty parties, Andy thought. He had taken her food and water away like he was supposed to. But this was only her second night; maybe she just wasn’t as into the routine as he was. She needed to get the hang of it and quick; he didn’t like being out this late, especially after the spook he had gotten the previous night from the ditch and the woods.
Maya dragged Andy further from the house, never once pretending to ask for his permission. She seemed intent on her destination and was going to take Andy with her come hell or high water.
He pulled a little on the leash, not enough to choke the little pup, but enough to get her attention. And when she turned around, her glowing red eyes stopped him dead in his tracks. The porch light was on, as usual, but Maya had taken Andy so far from the house there was no way it could shine in her eyes. The glow was from inside her little head.
Maya let out a tiny little growl, her chest rumbling a deep, sustained sound that made Andy take a step or two backward. Certain that Andy would give her no more trouble, Maya resumed her sniffing until she found just the right spot. She squatted, peed, and looked up at Andy with big brown eyes of satisfaction. They said, “All done. Let’s go.”
Andy stared at his new best friend. He searched for the demon-like eyes he had seen but came up empty. “You’re freaking me out, you know,” he told her. Maya wagged her tail and started the long trot to the house, passing Andy without so much as a glance. He followed. And so did something in the woods. He and Maya stopped short at the same time, their heads turning in unison toward the sound.
It was unmistakable: something was stalking them, crashing through leaves, breaking branches, sounding like a dragon in the woods. Andy’s heart raced; Maya wagged her tail. She took a step toward the tree line, but Andy snatched her up and ran the rest of the way to the house, jumping up the steps in one leap. He slammed the door shut behind him and let his heart rate slow a little before taking a look outside.
In the arc of the porch light, Andy could see most of his yard. Fog had started to roll in, only ankle deep if he had been standing in it. He swallowed hard. He forgot he was holding Maya until her little tail, pressed between his arm and his ribs, began to race a hundred miles an hour. She barked, and it was a happy sound, the kind of yip he thought was reserved for owners just returned home from a long time away from their pets. He put her down and continued to stare at the fog rolling in his yard. When he went to his room, Maya was already in her crate, curled up and sound asleep.
Andy thought he heard sounds outside throughout the night, but he was too afraid to investigate; he lay awake until sunrise. Maya never moved. He believed, however, that if she had turned her little eyes in his direction, they would have glowed, deep, dangerous, red.
On the third night, Andy rose from his bed. He went to Maya’s crate to let her out before he realized she hadn’t stirred. The little dog was fast asleep, her paws sticking straight up in the air and her tongue poking ever-so-slightly from the corner of her mouth. Except for the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, she appeared dead. He looked at his watch. 12:01. I guess I’m a minute or two early he thought. What in the world is wrong with me?
Maya jerked awake, as if hearing Andy’s thoughts. Her eyes weren’t red this night, and she seemed happy to see her pal. She stretched her little body and stood on hind legs, front paws pressed against the top hinge of the crate. “I’m ready if you are,” she seemed to be saying.
“Then let’s go,” Andy answered.
The heat was stifling, but Maya didn’t seem to notice. She pranced to the edge of the yard, peed her little pee, then kicked her back legs at the puddle as if to either cover it up or kick it to the moon, which was as full and close to Earth as Andy could remember.
Fog again crept in from the trees. Andy looked down at it, sudden fear taking hold of him. He couldn’t see his shoes. Maya tugged at the leash, her petite body facing the woods. Andy resisted, and she turned her red little eyes on him as if to say, “We’re going.” Indeed they were; he had no choice.
Together they moved through the trees. No insects were singing tonight, and the fog, which was now knee-deep on Andy, seemed to muffle the sounds of his footsteps. He could no longer see the dog at the end of the leash, which had extended its full twenty-five feet.
Maya led him deeper into the woods. He was certain he had never been this far. He had explored a little before, but always in the daylight. Of course in the daylight. What fool would walk this deep into the woods at night?
Soon, Andy became aware that he and Maya were not alone. The sounds he had heard on other nights, the howling, the footfalls, the crunching of leaves, he could now ascribe to their origins. To his left and his right Andy made out the fleeting shapes of dogs. Big ones. And there were many of them. They zig-zagged among the trees and kept pace with him and Maya. Every now and then one would look his way, red eyes flashing, saying to him, “The end is near; we are almost there.”
Maya suddenly lunged ahead, and the leash was ripped from Andy’s hand. He stopped, uncertain what to do. A thought came to him and said, in Maya’s voice, “Keep going. Not much further now. Follow me.”
Ahead of him, Andy could see Maya, the fog separating around her as she ran forward, parting like the Red Sea, closing behind when she was through. Andy ran with the dogs around him to keep up, their red eyes watching to make certain his intentions were true.
At last they emerged into a clearing and stood at the edge of the ditch Andy had always assumed passed through his woods. He was momentarily pleased with himself that he had been correct.
The ditch lay before him and glowed with an unearthly light from deep inside. Maya turned her red eyes to him and he heard her voice, “We are here. It is time.”
All around him, dogs had gathered, the hounds of Hell come to take him away. There were hundreds of them. They were restless; some pawed at the earth, some whined.
One at a time the dogs turned toward the ditch. One at a time, they ran and leapt, at the last second, over the edge, and down into its depths.
Andy stood for a moment more, his last one on Earth. Maya looked at him, her red eyes patient as she allowed his soul to gather its courage. Her little tail wagged, he noticed, but she was no longer the cute little pup he had taken in just days ago. She was wise, he knew, and she was there to help him cross over to the next world. He was no longer afraid.
Andy unclipped the leash from Maya’s collar and tossed it aside. With one last look back, Maya sprinted to the ditch and leaped like a deer over its edge. He heard her voice floating up to him from the void, saying, “Follow me. I will show you the way,” and Andy Rice passed the threshold, with his little friend, from this life to the next.