Old Orchard Street by Matthew Bennett

#horror #fiction

Sometimes, lying in bed trying to find the strength to get up and get moving in the morning, I’m not thinking clearly. Residue from dreams, some almost remembered and some almost lost, remains sticky and foggy in my mind. I often find some odd little amusement – then later, as I finally drag myself out of the dreamy muck, I wonder what was so funny – even if I can remember the thought, I am confused about why I saw any humor. I would like to believe that everyone’s mind works like this in the morning: I would like to think that everyone stares into the bathroom mirror with mind repeating some left-over mantra from a nighttime venture into Faery. I don’t ask these questions, so I’ll never know.

But I hope other dreamers never face anything like the dregs of my nightmares – the things that clutch onto me after I’ve left the less happy regions of that night-time Faery where I’m often to be found. Because this is residue from my nightmares, and it poisons my days. ot only does it stick, but it becomes a living entity – escaping the mind’s confines and entering waking life. The mantras from these dreams often find themselves in the headlines of the local paper.

Faery can be a wonderful land. It can also be cold, dark and unforgiving.

“That’s why—” No …

“That’s what—” Yes.

“That’s what took me—” …

“That’s what took me so long—” …That’s it. That is the phrase I repeated over and over as I woke.

The Mantra. I remember

I dreamed of a woman – very black, long straight hair. And the darkest eyes – beautiful. And a good looking guy – athletic. And I dreamed that—

———-

Zhenya was jogging faster than usual – a few blocks ahead of Nicholas, usually the faster runner. Despite the cold and the snow she felt as if she could run all day; but they had work to do. The current phase of their project was not quite complete, which meant there wasn’t enough time for recreation but enough to at least get outside briefly and enjoy the day.

She halted on Village Street, next to the stop sign at Old Orchard, taking her gloves off and setting them on a small black SUV that had seen better days. Shaking the circulation back into her fingers, she waited for Nicholas to catch up.

They had been working together for only a few months, and they started dating shortly after she hired him. He was handsome, and they got along well. So far she just had him doing useless paperwork – busywork – so that he would be around when she needed him. She wasn’t sure what her motive was, but she wanted to be with someone kind – someone who would make her feel human again.

Looking back to see where he was, she started to prepare a first-time taunt: Nicholas usually had some smart-ass comment to make when she was lagging behind. Before she could come up with something, she saw him pointing frantically and shouting: “WATCH OUT!”, he was yelling. Before Zhenya knew what was happening, there was a large creature tearing into the shoulder of her coat: powerful jaws had control of a large amount of material and powerful neck muscles were jerking her back and forth. The coat began to tear.

Frozen in fear, all she could think of was that if the material ripped any more the dog would have easy access to her arm. Too scared to move, too fearful of getting her free hand involved, she turned her head away to protect her face and screamed. Nicholas arrived then and grabbed at the animal, trying to pull it away from his partner, but was met with fierce snapping and a twisting muscular torso that almost knocked him off his feet. The dog’s instantly turning its attention back to Zhenya happened with such force that she was slammed down into the slush-covered road in front of the Jeep. Nicholas picked up the first weapon he could find, a fallen branch.

He raised it, but before he could swing he heard a distant voice: “Petra, STOP! Petra, that’s ENOUGH!” and, turning, he saw the voice’s owner running down Old Orchard towards them. The animal was instantly obedient, and ran to greet his master. “I’m sorry, folks – I’m so sorry! I don’t know why he did that. He’s not like that, ever!” The danger not quite out of the way, Nicholas felt, holding tightly to his makeshift bludgeon with one hand as he assisted Zhenya to her feet with the other. What do you do in a situation like this?: do you yell? – do you threaten to sue?

Zhenya knew exactly what to do.

“Petra?” she said. The canine’s response at hearing his name squarely challenged his earlier demeanor: with tail wagging, four paws gently walked over and stopped at her feet. She looked down and studied the golden retriever. Petra looked up and studied her.

“What was that all about?” she asked the dog. Wearing the ‘smile’ humans think they see in the species, Petra sat down at her feet and carefully sniffed at her knees, glancing upwards at her eyes every now and then as if making sure that it was still OK: “we’re friends now, right?”

The owner answered the question put to the dog. “I’m … he got outside, I’m not sure how. He can … I mean, he’s … I’m sorry. I’d know his bark anywhere. I looked outside, saw you fall … I’m so sorry. Please believe me: he’s never done anything like that before.” There was a noticeable Italian accent, although probably less so than thirty or forty years ago.

“As if that matters.” Nicholas said. “He did it now.”

Zhenya looked at the man, and saw genuine confusion in his face. She placed him at around 80: a short, solid-looking man, in very good physical condition for his age. She deduced this quite easily from the muscle in his legs, as he wore a button-down red flannel shirt and an old pair of boxer shorts that had the misfortune to be stitched together showing Pac-man chasing three ghosts, the fourth one presumably already eaten (or, worse – hiding on his derriere).

She allowed compassion for him when she saw that he was standing ankle deep in chunky ice water, wearing only socks on his feet. She shot a sidewise glance at Nicholas, and held her hands up slightly as if to tell her partner, ‘Easy, easy now. Don’t get mad.’

She gave the man a little half circle wave in front of her chest. “Hi, I’m Zhenya.”

“Luigi,” he said.

Trying her damndest not to giggle at his situation, she said, “Luigi, can we go somewhere warm and talk about this? I’m freezing.”

“Most assuredly …” he said, almost questioningly, somewhat taken aback. “I live only three houses down.” Petra ran showing before them, showing the way as if he had understood.

As the trio of two-legged creatures headed down the road, Nicholas demanded, “What are you doing? We have to—”

“Shush,” she said. “This is what we need to do.”

———-

“I’ve had Petra for a long time. A long time,” Luigi said thoughtfully as he gave each of them a cup of tea. “He outlived my wife and my oldest son.”

“How old is he?” asked Nicholas. “I mean, if he’s acting like this, perhaps it time you had him put down? He could’ve hurt us.”

“I am glad he didn’t hurt you, and I will happily compensate you for the coat. But I don’t think that I could ever do that. Put him down, I mean. I think he’ll outlive me, too.”

“Don’t think that,” said Zhenya, setting down her teacup. “You’ve got years left.”

Luigi chuckled softly. “I’m old enough to know better than that. I know some things that you young folks don’t know. And old enough to feel some things that you don’t feel yet. As for Petra …” He paused. “This dog is at least 26 years old.”

“Oh, come on now! That’s absurd! And what do you mean ‘at least’?” Nicholas challenged.

“That is hard to swallow, Luigi.” Zhenya added.

“Well, you may think that I’m possibly getting a little bit senile. And at my age, there are some things that begin to slip. Phone numbers, which medications to take, the little things. But with the big things, I’m still alright. I was a structural engineer back when we were still trying to work out what Newton meant. I can repeat formulas about statistical determinacy for hours. I can do this, because those were the big things. Those were the things that kept people alive when we were building bridges and museums. And the biggest big thing is love. And I love that dog. So when I say he’s at least 26, I mean he’s at least 26.”

“At least?” Zhenya prompted.

Ignoring the question, Luigi said, “The dog seems to have taken a liking to you, signorina.” Petra was lying on the couch with his head in Zhenya’s lap, acting as if they had been friends forever: she was unable to resist his charms, and stroked his head and ears as they spoke. “That is as uncommon as his rough and tumble act with you outside. Usually when I have visitors, he sits over by the TV as shy as a deer …”

“So why do you think he did it?” Nicholas interrupted.

“I can’t say for sure. Maybe it was the excitement of breaking out of the house. Maybe it was his way of playing. Sometimes he seems more … ahh … intentional than other animals. He’s never hurt anyone; but I think if he wanted to he could. He went for your lady’s coat, so although he gave you a fright, I honestly believe he thought he was playing. I mean, look at them …” The two men regarded at the scene on the couch.

Smiling, Nicholas said “She does seem to be falling in love.”

“She does,” Luigi responded. The old man seemed to have relaxed quite a bit after Nicholas had calmed down from the attack.

The three stayed talking for a couple of hours, over several cups of tea. They laughed, disagreed about politics, talked about the neighborhood and tried to find people they knew in common. This pleasant conversation continued until it started to get dark outside; and for the entire time Petra would not leave Zhenya’s side, even when she needed to use the old man’s bathroom.

While they were out of the room, Luigi said to Nicholas, “I honestly have never seen him act like that. Not even to me, or my wife. and he really is a special dog. Extra special. While we’ve been talking, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I have to ask you something.”

“Ummm … OK,” Nicholas said.

“This may seem strange, but I’m too old to be very embarrassed about it. The last few weeks, I have had this feeling – hard to describe, but it has been there. I feel like I am not going to be around much longer. I can’t explain why. I got my regular checkup, and my doctor said everything seems to be running good for my age. My son’s doing good, too. But I haven’t been able to shake the thought. I keep wondering what will happen to Petra. I feel so bad for him, you know? He’s so loving, and gentle, and I keep picturing him lost and alone after I’m gone.”

“Where are you going?” Zhenya asked, walking back into the room with her new pal close behind.

“Luigi thinks his time is … ahhh … almost up,” said Nicholas, wondering if that wording was rude. Should he have found a gentler way to say it? Dying? Headed for the Big Sleep? Was there a gentler way to say it? “And I think that he’s just about to ask us—”

“If you would at least consider caring for Petra when the time comes,” Luigi finished.

“This is a rather strange day,” Nicholas said to no-one in particular. Then, to Luigi he said, “A strange day, and a strange request. This is very unexpected. Please forgive me, but we’ve only known you a couple of hours and you are asking us to take care of your dog when you die. There are just too many questions. Why do you think you’re going to die? Why would you pick us instead of someone you know?”

“Look at them. They’ve barely stopped touching each other since we came into the house. As I’ve said, Petra doesn’t act like that around anyone. This dog is special, and I can’t take the chance that he’ll be taken to a shelter and eventually put to sleep. My son is a rather cold man: I wouldn’t even ask him because I don’t want to hear him say no. My friends are all around my age and it wouldn’t be long before they were looking for someone to take over the responsibility. Besides, I’m not sure who I trust.”

“Why trust us?”

“Two reasons,” Luigi said. “First, like I said, look at the two of them – I trust you because Petra does. Second, you are very good people to sit and talk with me for so long right after my dog attacked you. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Petra knew that I wasn’t long for this world, and he broke out to find someone like you.”

“I’ll ignore that,” Nicholas said, “and ask you this: I know you love the dog, but it’s not that difficult to care for and love a dog. Why would you have to put so strong a degree of trust in someone to care for him? Please don’t take that the wrong way, but you seem to be placing quite a bit of emphasis on trust.”

“Because Petra is more than just a dog. But I can’t just tell you – I’m going to have to show you. If I told you, you’d just think I was senile … crazy. I am going to show you, so we can all sit here and think we’re crazy together.”

“What—”

“We’re going to need a drink. Whisky?”

After pouring each a generous amount, Luigi sat back in his chair. “I have said that Petra is a special dog—”

“Extra special,” Nicholas interrupted.

“Extra special,” Luigi agreed. “I found him 26 years ago, and he was fully grown. I know that it seems like an exaggeration, but just wait … I had him for a year before I knew that there was anything different about him. Sure, he was obedient from the beginning…I guessed that he had been trained well. My wife and I put his picture in The Times, hoping the owners would come and get him, I was sure they must miss him. Such a beautiful dog! Well, by the time we were sure nobody was coming to get him, we also knew we wanted to keep him. He felt very safe.

“Then one day … well, Nicholas, Zhenya … first, let me show you, and then I’ll finish the story.”

Luigi rose to his feet and wiped sweat off his hands, as if preparing to do a magic trick. Clapping his hands together twice, he said, “Petra! Go fetch me something. Anything.”

The dog raised his head off Zhenya’s lap when Luigi clapped. At the command to fetch, he lept of the couch and ran out of the room. He came back a few seconds later gripping a DVD between his teeth. It was the movie Gladiator, with Russell Crowe. “That was just a warm-up,” Luigi said to the couple. “Now watch, every second.” He turned his attention back to the dog. “Good, Petra. Good boy. Go and fetch me some money.”

The canine turned to leave the room again. But this time, before he made it to the hallway, he disappeared. He didn’t wink out sight, but glimmered, then and faded entirely and disappeared. Zhenya put her hand on Nicholas’ knee and gripped tightly.

“Just wait,” Luigi instructed.

A few seconds later, Petra came glimmering back into the room, appearing on nearly the same spot from which he had vanished. Between his powerful jaws, he was sporting a see-through mesh bag containing what looked like two large stacks of hundred dollar bills: Nicholas guessed the dog was carrying something like twenty thousand dollars. Petra walked over and dropped the bills into Luigi’s lap.

“Wha– what just happened?!” Nicholas stammered. “Is this … what is this? Where did he go? Where did the money come from?”

“After all these years, I’m still not exactly sure. But you must watch. We’re not done yet. Can’t be. This is important.” To his dog, he said, “Petra! Take this money back where it came from. And bring me a Roman sword from the first century after Christ.” Petra reclaimed the stacks of money from his master’s hand, ran toward the hallway, and glimmered out once more. After a few minutes of tense silence, Petra came back, this time gripping a sword. The young couple knew nothing of Roman swords, but they believed this would be one; and there was blood, or what looked like blood, dripping off the end of the sword and pooling on the floor.

“What is going here?!” Nicholas demanded. “What we’re seeing—”

“One day, about 25 years ago, my wife and I were arguing about money. We just didn’t have enough to go around. We were both trying to make ends meet, but in different ways. She stormed off to bed. I sat down in my easy chair and lit a cigarette. Petra came walking into the room, and just sat and stared at me for a long while. He was starting to irritate me so I said, ‘Don’t just sit there and look at me. Why don’t you fetch me some money, dog?’ Well, as you can guess, he did just that. Just what you saw. That was the beginning.

“For the first few years, every time I needed money, I would just send Petra to get it. I told my wife I got a raise at work, and she never questioned me. But after doing this for a couple of years, well, … I guess think my father just raised me right, because I felt as if sooner or later, you gotta pay the piper, you know? I slowed down, stopped using Petra’s ‘talent’ so often. I won’t say I didn’t slip up, and that I didn’t take more than I should have.: I just slowed down a lot.”

“That’s quite a temptation,” Zhenya said.

“Yes,” Luigi agreed. “After the question of paying the piper came into my head, I did my best to learn where the dog was from and where he was going. I did a lot of my own research, and I asked colleagues at schools around the country to help. Of course, I had an excuse…I told them I was writing a book about animals with special powers, and wanted it to seem more real by joining it with real-life news stories. I ended up with a lot of information. No-one guessed this was my reality; and even if they thought something weird was going on, or if they suspected I was lying, it didn’t matter, nobody would ever figure out what was going on.” He walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out a black binder.

“Most of what I found is in here. Research has gotten easier since I ’ve been online, but most of what I have found there was already here, in the binder. You should keep that,” he said, handing it to Nicholas. “It makes very interesting reading, and should temper what you know about Petra’s abilities. It will help you use common sense.”

“Common sense …” Nicholas repeated.

“In 1859, there was a traveling carnival called the Carpman Brothers. Back then, carnivals proposed ghastly creatures that people would pay to see, and their clients would be sadly disappointed when it turned out they were paying to see a hoax. They’d pay a nickel to see a genuine alligator man – ‘see what happens when a man has a baby with an alligator!’ and after paying twenty cents to get himself and his three boys inside, they would see a man in a cage sitting on a pile of straw, growling at you, too obviously painted green, and the father would be upset at being misled, at being the butt of a joke … you see what I mean. So carnivals didn’t have the greatest reputation because they boasted great things and didn’t follow through. Many were run out of town as charlatans.

“But the Carpman Brothers had a following. They promised to deliver, and they did. They always knew that they could come back into a town safely and make money from repeat customers. They understood that they didn’t need to boast as much, as long as they could always come up with the goods. When a man paid the Carpmans good money to see a woman take her clothes off, she always did. People paid to see malformed and mutilated people, human anomalies, and that is what they got to see. There was no trickery.

“I found a story about the Carpman Brothers in an 1859 copy of the the Charleston, South Carolina Daily Courier – a story about one of the carnival’s feature acts … A story about a disappearing dog. It was just a small note in a big article about many of the carnival’s wonders. But it’s there.

“And what happened to the Carpmans – well, I believe it happened because of that one small note in the article. Close to two months after the Courier published the story, two of the Carpmans were found murdered, horribly mutilated inside one of their animal cages. The Courier ran that story as well. Apparently the mutilations took place while they were alive, though I don’t know how they knew that at the time. Both of the brothers had their legs sliced open from the back, and the bones were broken off at the hip and removed. The bones were placed in a circle around a pile of the rest of the bloody remains. Nobody knows what happened to the third brother, but the police saw him as a person of interest in the crime. It was never solved.

“In 1911, there was a similar murder of a small family – husband, wife, and young daughter – in Chicago. Rich family, plenty of valuables and antiques lying around in the house, quite the collection, the paper said. The only thing missing was the family dog, a golden retriever. I found this story because of the similarity of the mutilation – the bodies placed inside a circle of their own bones. In 1923, another carnival – same circumstance, but only one owner this time so one murder. My list goes on, it’s all in there the binder. 1930s, 1952, and 1962. All murders with no reason and no compassion. And they all were owners of a golden retriever. ‘62 was the last one I found. It has to be Petra. It has to be the same dog.

“So that’s why I don’t use Petra’s abilities, that’s why I stay under the radar. I was never, well … after finding all this out, I was never going to use his talent again. These people, the victims … all made me suspect that they were using Petra for personal gain. They were all rich, or had certain advantages in life. And they were killed. So I decided to keep quiet. For the last 26 years …”

“I know,” said Zhenya as she slowly rose to her feet and carefully removed her eyeballs, revealing a glowing gray light shining from the sockets. “That’s what took me so long to find you.”

———-

The Mantra.

“That’s what took me so long to find you …”

I live just a few blocks from Old Orchard, I thought. I could go talk to Luigi. As a kid, growing up in the neighborhood, I used to play with Petra as I’d ride my bike by the house. Pet the dog and wave to the old man.

I could go talk to him, let him know what I dreamt, but he would just think I was crazy. He wouldn’t see there was a storm coming.

I have thoughts like this, but they are useless. Once again, I recalled my place in life. I remembered why I dreamed this evil thing.

I headed to my front door to check the morning newspaper.

I knew what I would find.