Horror & Dark Fantasy

DesertCreatures_LightspeedAds_1_5

Advertisement

Fiction

The Ghost Eaters

The Man had come and gone, other Someones too, and all the lessers, but Barley still guarded the House.

He still patrolled, passing right through the gate instead of getting caught under the slats, still lifted his nose and trotted the fence line every morning, though he could no longer smell the asphalt baking in the heat or rabbits in the hedges. At sundown he returned to his grave and lifted his leg even though he hadn’t urinated since the Man put his body in a cardboard box and dropped it into foot-deep earth.

Over the years, Barley liked seeing Someones in the House, even if they were not the Man. He liked strutting around the yard and barking in a futile attempt to keep the lessers penned. Barley approved very much when one of the lessers turned his grave into a vegetable garden. Although he couldn’t smell it, he recognized the black soil that had such an interesting stench in life.

The House stood empty now, and had for years.

This morning, he scratched the unresponsive dirt, his paw dipping transparently in and out of the ground, passed through the old fence line, and stopped at the front edge of the driveway, the memory of a leash keeping him there.

Dog.

The Moving Dog stood at the end of the driveway again.

The Moving Dog was not alive, like Barley was not alive, but he was made of different stuff than Barley, because Barley could smell him.

Dog. You go now? The Moving Dog cocked his head. We go play?

The Moving Dog smelled just like the little field where the Man took him to play as a puppy, full of crisscrossing rabbit and deer trails, under thick bristly grass gone to seed.

As always, he was tempted.

But no, Barley guarded the House.

He coughed a little No.

That was normally it for their interactions. The Moving Dog would let Barley take a big whiff of his rear, nod gravely, and vanish.

This time the Moving Dog growled, raised his hackles. Dog! You go now!

Dog, I do not! Barley’s own hackles raised, and he danced back and forth on his paws, growling.

You must go, Dog! The Moving Dog’s scent was no longer just open field and play; it was fear, slinking to the ground before coyotes. You stayed too long!

The House! I guard the House!

The Moving Dog danced around a minute longer, nipped at Barley, and then withdrew, giving one last yip. Eaters will come, Dog.

Go, Moving Dog! Out of the pen! Barley growled. My pen! My flock!

The smell vanished from Barley’s nostrils. His ears fell with the absence. It had been such a good smell.

The moment passed. Barley trotted to the other side of the front yard, and then along the old fence line.

He guarded the House.

• • • •

Barley didn’t sleep, but it felt good to go where his doghouse had been, by the now-fallen fence, and lie down with his eyes closed. He never went into the House since the Man left—he’d tried once, and found it too different, things in strange places and none of the same smells to follow under the table.

A faint yelp sounded. Barley’s ears perked up, and he raised his head.

There was a dog in the yard.

Barley jumped up and let off a torrent of barks, even though he knew a living dog wouldn’t hear a bit of it—it was his task to bark at intruders—but then he smelled something.

It smelled like every sour and mean thing, like vinegar and old oranges and angry badgers.

The dog in the yard turned its face to Barley. The weak moonlight caught the bloody wreck of its nose, strings of red flesh and fur hanging askew from bare, pebbled bone. One side of its skull had been caved in, a mishmash of fur and flesh and brains; from the other, a bare black eye glared. It opened its mouth and the lower jaw fell away, showing only a row of broken teeth and a limp, split tongue pulsing red.

Stop moving, dog, you are dead! At least, that was what Barley wanted to say. Instead, he whimpered and scraped his belly backward along the ground. The smell got all over him, a cloud that surrounded and choked, and Barley, despite his lack of a physical throat and lungs, had to breathe, breathe, breathe!

The Dog-That-Should-Be-Dead came toward him, stalking on legs half bone, half matted and bloodstained fur.

Barley whimpered and took off running, barreling up the driveway, whining and barking in turn, yelling to anyone who could hear Threat to the House! Threat to the House!

The Not-Dead Dog with the Bad Smell followed.

Barley reached the edge of the yard, where grass met the street. For a moment he considered running beyond the House.

The Not-Dead Dog was somehow beside him, shaking trails of rotten flesh along its jaw. Barley raised his hackles, going backward, till his tail touched the House, barking and growling a courage he did not feel. The Bad Smell was everywhere, it was inside him, it had a too-tight collar around his neck getting tighter all the time, and the Not-Dead Dog raised up on hind legs like some mockery of a human, revealing a belly glistening with maggots—

The Not-Dead Dog smelled something, head cocked and torn ears twitching.

There was a Someone standing in the street.

They spoke.

Barley understood.

“I’m not supposed to see you, am I, Ghost Eater? No one living’s supposed to know about you, but I do. Git!”

The Not-Dead Dog growled wetly and raised its hackles, but the Someone walked forward, as if They had nothing to fear.

The Not-Dead Dog vanished.

It was so sudden that Barley tumbled forward as if he still had a body, and plunged through the earth and then bounded back up, spinning around on the lawn and growling.

The Someone stood at the border of the front yard. “Hey there, boy.”

Barley, by instinct, barked, but he was too tired and dazed to follow it up.

“Won’t come inside your line ’less you let me,” the Someone said, and went down on Their knees. “Come on now. Have a sniff. You ought to smell something, if I reckon things correctly.”

The Someone was right. Barley could smell something: a rich smell, rank and full, of the Someone’s many days without bathing. (Barley approved. Bathing was a habit Barley had much despised in the Man.)

“Why can you smell me, you wonder, even though I’m flesh and blood and you ain’t?” The Someone chuckled. “Because I’m forgotten too, boy.”

• • • •

The Someone moved into the backyard. Barley growled a little bit, but the Someone pointed at the House and said, “Don’t you worry, I’m not going to tempt that falling in on me.” The Someone made a little fire in the dirt away from the grass, and Barley ran around barking at the fire, but more out of duty than worry, as it remained small. The Someone made some food on Their little fire, and then drew a pack of cards and spread some cards on the ground.

“Ooh, dear. Look at that.” The Someone held up a card, like those the Man used to take out over dinner. “Death. Funny thing, death. I been dead, same as you.” The Someone fished a crumpled cigarette from Their pocket and lit it on the coals. “Fell into the Gulf, down a good four hours from here. Drank as a skank, I was. Drowned and for-real died. They pulled me out and brought me back, but some things in here, they ain’t dried out.” The Someone pointed to Their head and cackled.

Barley gave an alarmed bark.

“You been here what, fifty, seventy-five years? People tearing down and building up there—” the Someone pointed, as if Barley could see that far “—and soon enough they’ll tear down and build here. Since the mills quit, people left this place. But people always come back, don’t they?”

Barley heard the words, but he didn’t care about other Someones. He protected the House, and the House stood.

The Someone took out another card, showed Barley, as though it would have any significance to a dog. “Devil,” the Someone said to explain. “That must be the Eaters. Come for your tasty soul.”

Barley began barking in earnest, shouting, Bad Smell! Protect the House! Bad Smell! And the Someone, to Their credit, just nodded and said, “Mm-hmm, yep, you sure are right.”

It wasn’t enough. Barley trotted around the yard, giving Stay out! barks to the Not-Dead-Should-Be-Dead dog.

“I got my own memory problems, since I drowned, little dog. Left my family ’cause I couldn’t remember a thing about them. I remember this, though: dogs got a memory of about three minutes. They work by association, smells, but they don’t have long-term remembrance.” They reached out and patted right through Barley’s ghostly head. “I’ll bet you remember most of the last century.”

Barley whimpered. It wasn’t a truth he liked to acknowledge. He knew things about the House, and the Man, that wouldn’t have stayed with him in life.

“Someone’s got to un-forget you, little fella. Someone who has people who care ’bout them, not like me. That’s how we’ll get the Eaters to leave you alone.”

Now Barley barked again, snapping at the Someone, repeating the same important thing he’d told the Moving Dog, that this is the House and I guard the House and I guard the House for the Man!

“Of course, buddy. Of course.” The Someone lay down and slept, heedless.

• • • •

In the morning, the Someone took a piece of the House.

Barley started his morning routine with the Someone asleep, and then when he trotted back to the backyard, satisfied there was no Moving Dog or Bad Smell, there was the Someone, digging with a knife into the House!

Barley barked and barked but the Someone ignored him, and finally Barley, with no choice, bit the Someone’s leg.

His jaws passed right through, of course.

“Whoa now,” the Someone said. “I felt that, I did.” They pointed at Their head. “Come here, dog. See, I’m lifting up this bit of siding here, getting a look at what’s underneath.” They kept working with the knife, ripping up the piece of wood that was part of the House and had been part of the House since the days of the Man and—“Look how rotted that is. Phew.”

It didn’t look promising under the piece of wood. The bones of the House were an ugly gray, not like good wood at all, cracked and splintered like a stick that’d been fetched too many times. The Someone reached in and easily yanked out a piece.

“No more biting. We got an Eater who’s all too eager to bite.” Barley watched as the Someone took the little chip from the House, walked to the edge of the yard, and stepped into the street. “Come on.”

Barley walked to the edge of the yard, and stopped at the line that had been a fence, long ago.

“I know you’re tethered to this place” the Someone said, “which is why I filched a piece of it.” They held up the chip of wood They’d taken from the House. “Best of all worlds.”

Barley stopped, went down on his haunches and whined. He guarded the House. Why couldn’t They understand that?

“You know that Eater’s coming back,” the Someone said. “And I could use some company.”

Barley barked harder I guard the House!

“All right then,” the Someone said, and walked back down the street. “I did try. Enjoy what time you have.”

• • • •

That night, Barley hid from the Not-Dead-Should-Be-Dead-Dog under the House.

It took a while to coax himself through the rickety cellar door. In life, the Man had never let Barley into the cellar. But the Bad Smell would be lost in there. No doubt this place smelled as old and wet and full of mice as it had when Barley got in years ago, as a puppy.

But Barley noticed, as he looked around, that things were indeed very different down here. The pilings of the House were rotted and cracked. The ceiling above Barley—and thus the floor of the House—sagged.

Barley let out a pitiful little bark, as much as he could manage. Fix the House!

No one heard.

He began to wonder about time, and then wonder why he wondered about time. A dog’s memory is something like three minutes. That didn’t make sense—Barley guarded the House, had always guarded the House. Long enough to see many People come and go.

Dogs didn’t think about time, Barley realized. Humans did.

Something was wrong in him. Something Not-A-Dog-Anymore, not quite. He really had stayed too long.

He lay his head on his paws and whimpered. If only someone had taken care of the House, not let it fall apart, maybe he wouldn’t have had to change into Something Not-A-Dog.

He rolled over sadly—and right next to him, in the cellar, the Not-Dead Dog leered a maggoty smile.

Barley roared, barking and barking, even as he ran across the cellar, and the Not-Dead Dog streaked after him. No, no, not in the House! Before he knew what he was doing, he had bolted up the cellar stairs and into the kitchen of the House.

Barley ran through the moldy walls of the hallways and past dust-covered furniture left there to rot, and shot through the front door.

The Not-Dead Dog stood at the bottom of the front steps.

Barley backed up, barking furiously. I protect the House! I protect the House!—and another Not-Dead Dog oozed from the doorway behind him and snapped at Barley’s haunches with jaws of yellowed bone. A third slid from the wall on his other side, a blackened head crawling with ants.

The harder Barley barked, the more Eaters came. Dead, all dead, their skulls crushed and their guts trailing on the ground, their bleached bones moving herky-jerky, more like spiders than dogs, up and down the walls of the House, out of the ground like floodwaters.

Barley whimpered.

The Eaters cackled and shrieked. Empty black beneath hollow bloody eyes stared him down.

There was one gap remaining. The Someone was out there with a piece of the House. So he wouldn’t really be leaving the House, would he?

It was enough. It had to be enough.

Barley bolted. For the first time in seventy years, he darted through the neighbors’ yard and under the fence line into the next yard. The Eaters rushed from the houses along this row, maggot-crawling mouths multiplying with each broken window. Wet bloody howls screamed in his ears.

Barley darted into the scrubby woods at the end of the street—and then catapulted out the other side of the trees into more houses.

There had been miles of woods that way when he was alive.

Barley kept running. It was hard to run, as if he were being eaten away, piece by piece, the farther he got from the House. There is a piece of the House with the Someone! Find the piece of the House with the Someone!

A stripped-to-bone head caught his back leg and yanked. Another, wet with rot, bit through his tail.

His flesh ripped away. He went down on his face.

It is not real it is not you have no flesh to eat—

The thoughts didn’t matter. Teeth scored his back, closed over the ruff of his neck. The stink was like drowning. He pulled, pulled, till he broke away, leaving shreds of fur and skin, most of his back paw, and now he ran three-legged, limping.

Pain. He remembered pain now. It was worse than it had ever been when he was alive.

Pain means focus! He lifted his nose and barked. Focus on the piece of the House! Focus on—

There.

He rocketed through another scrubby line of trees—and the Someone sat inside a weedy patch of woods behind another house. Barley spun around and there were the Eaters, a whole wall of bloody crushed heads and bleached skulls snapping, bloody-bone paws with broken claws.

The Someone stood up and stepped between Barley and the Eaters.

The Eaters fell on the Someone and Barley whimpered, shrinking, barking, No, no, no, the Someone—

The whole of the Bad Smell changed, spiked through with confusion and fear.

The Eaters parted, revealing the Someone whole within the midst of their pack.

“Broke a rule, Ghost Eaters?” the Someone said. “I’m alive. You done tried to eat me up.” Guts, sinew, dried blood and matted fur swirled together, made one great black maw rimmed with rot, maggots and ants crawling along the edges.

“You want me, but you got rules—” The Someone went down on Their knees, as the maw tried to close over Them.

Barley barked a rapid pattern. It did nothing.

“You can’t,” the Someone said through gritted teeth. “Not yet.” They slowly got to their feet, shaking Their head. “You can’t. I’m only halfway to you, still.”

The struggle ended. Empty eyes and rotting jaws, maggoty bellies and bloody fur over bone, all dissipated into the darkness of the night—but their eyes, the empty pits, remained, out in the streets of these new houses, glittering cold.

Barley barked and barked and barked, yelling Go away! Bad Smell! And out of habit, Protect the House!

But he was not protecting the House. He had to get back—but no, he needed the Someone to keep the Eaters away—what was he to do?

“I got something for you,” the Someone said. They dug into Their bag and pulled out the little wood chip that They had taken from the House, laid it down on the ground.

Barley lay down on the wood chip. This was the House, for now. He yipped sadly.

“You’re okay, buddy,” the Someone said, and They turned in a circle, looking at the empty bloody eyes glowing from the darkness. “Bought you one last day.”

• • • •

All the night, the eyes of the Eaters watched. And into the morning.

The Someone seemed unbothered, packing Their things to put over Their shoulder. “Long as you’re forgotten, those Eaters will come. I only saved you by confusing ’em.”

Barley cocked his head to appear to be listening, though he was still thinking about the House. The Eaters only seemed worse at night, so perhaps he could guard the House during the day and go with the Someone at night—

“You stop that right now. Can’t go back to that house no more.”

Barley barked his loudest. The Someone was not the Man. They could not order Barley. Barley trotted away, feeling the House’s pull—and waiting for the Someone to call him to heel.

The Someone did not.

Barley looked back at the Someone.

“You want to get eaten, go on back,” the Someone said. “I ain’t your master, just a fellow traveler.”

Barley looked back in the direction of the House.

It was not like a dog to feel this much at once. The anger that the Someone wanted him not to go to the house, and sadness because They were right, and fear of the Eaters.

In life, Barley remembered, he’d only held one feeling in his head at a time.

Whatever he was now, he wasn’t the Man’s dog, not truly.

Slowly, the weight of the years hanging down his haunches, Barley trotted back to the Someone.

“Good boy,” the Someone said.

They sat at the bus stop for a good two hours, Barley patrolling around the piece of the House where the Someone left it on the sidewalk.

The Eaters’ eyes glittered under the cars in the parking lot behind them.

The Someone tried to engage passing folk. “Howdy do. Got a minute?” They passed on, looking resolutely ahead like the Someone wasn’t there.

Finally, a couple of lessers, girls about the age of the Man’s lesser when Barley died, stopped to wait for the bus. Though it was sunny, they wore black, and Barley liked the smell of their sweat from underneath those clothes.

“Hey there,” the Someone said. “Could I tell you about my dog here?”

One of the lessers replied. “You have a dog?”

“You can’t see him,” the Someone said. “He’s a ghost dog. I found him just up that way, guarding an old house.”

The two lessers exchanged looks.

“I have pepper spray,” the second girl said. “Don’t try anything.”

“Wait, Hanni, wait,” said the first girl, the more talkative of the lessers. “I tried, um, to talk to ghosts once. With like, candles and herbs and stuff. No one answered.”

“Oh my God, Clara, there is such a thing as too goth,” said the other girl.

“I just need to tell people about my dog, y’see,” the Someone said. “You asked how I can see him. Well, hopefully you don’t ever have to find this out, but we forgotten things, we call to each other. He’s been guarding that house for a long old time. I’m trying to convince him there ain’t nothing left in this world, he ought to move on to the next one, or he’ll get torn up, same as that house one day.”

Barley sat up straighter, waited attentively, just like he would have waited at the door for the Man to start their walk.

“We’re getting on the bus now,” said the second lesser.

“How do you get to where you can talk to ghosts?” the first lesser said.

The Someone gave a sad smile. “You don’t want that. You got to become forgotten by all who love you, as much a memory as my dog’s old family here.”

The bus pulled up and squealed, and Barley watched as the two girls got on, and the Someone said, “Just waiting for the other bus,” to the driver.

The friendly girl stopped just as she was about to scan her bus pass. She looked back, and Barley thought, for a minute, the girl saw him.

Saw him how he had been, with dew sticking to his coat as he ran through the morning grass, standing at the edge of the front yard of the House, waiting for the Man while he finished his cigarette, like a good dog waits.

The bus driver barked at the girl. She waved, even as the bus doors slid closed, and yelled, “Your dog is a good boy!”

As the bus pulled away the Someone said, “How ’bout that? Not so forgotten.”

Barley smelled a field full of rabbits. The Moving Dog waited up the street, tail wagging.

“You go now, ’fore you lose your last chance,” the Someone said. “We just got someone to remember you.” They made the motion of scratching at Barley’s head. “It’s been a pleasure, bud.”

But Barley waited, still looking down at the piece of the House, whimpering.

“It’s all right,” the Someone said. “You done your job.”

He had. He had guarded the House, like a good dog. The part of Barley that was Not-A-Dog-Anymore said that the job was, at last, done.

And then that part slipped away. Barley ran and ran, tongue out and ears flapping like a puppy, ran and ran and forgot about everything else.

Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. He is the author of four novels, including the space opera A Red Peace and the socialist steampunk The Great Faerie Strike. His short work has appeared in Lightspeed, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many other places. He lives in Bellingham, Washington, with his wife fantasy artist Chrissy Ellsworth and three children, and he would really like to ride a war mammoth, if anyone reading can help with that.