Updated: 3 days ago
We buried Boomer on Friday morning. On Saturday night, he came back.
I was in bed when I heard the pawing at the back door, just like Boomer always did when he was cold and wanted in. I thought at first it could be one of the neighbors’ dogs, or maybe even a raccoon. Two years ago, Hilly Morton caught one rifling through his kitchen cabinets in the middle of the night, and with the winters as bad as they get, it wasn’t impossible that such a critter would brave the presence of humans in search of a warmer place to sleep. But there was no way I was getting up to check. Around here, bad things happen after dark.
A few minutes later, I heard it again. The scratching, more insistent this time, like the hoarse whisper of an angry ghost trying to be heard, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t catch myself wondering in those moments before the strangeness found its way into my home if the whole ordeal of Boomer’s death was only a bad dream.
The sickness had come on suddenly. Twelve hours before we put him in the ground, Boomer was a healthy four-year-old lab with a sheen so bright on his jet black coat that when the sun caught it right, it looked like a blue dye job. By the end of the day, his coat had turned flat and dull as an old rug.
I'd always given Boomer the run of the property. In turn he never strayed too far and came when called without fail. On this occasion, however, we hadn’t seen him all day, and I had to shout long and hard from the edge of the yard where the woods begin. When he finally did come, he emerged from the woods at a slow, labored walk.
Although he had suffered no apparent injuries, I knew right away there was something seriously wrong. It wasn’t poisoning. Boomer wasn’t the kind of animal to eat something he shouldn’t have. He had better sense than that; better sense than most humans.
So I nursed him as best I could and let him sleep at the foot of my bed and watched him all night. When the sun rose in the morning, he was still.
Dirt-caked nails against the back door again. Dead fingers on a schoolhouse chalkboard.
Harland, my youngest, came and stood in my bedroom doorway. “Boomer’s on the back porch,” he said. “He’s covered in mud and smells funny.”
I grunted a reply. Not from lack of concern. More from lack of knowing what to say. Dead dogs don’t come back to life, but ever since the events out by the Sanchez ranch last month, strange things have been happening in these parts.
It started with the lights. Inexplicable flashes in the autumn sky that weren’t exactly lightning and certainly weren’t of man-made origin.
Many in the town saw them, some two hundred people in all, most of them from a good enough range of reputation to assure they weren’t making things up.
Bud Mapleton, a retired pilot and the next best thing to a weatherman we have, put it off as natural phenomena. Like the Northern Lights, he said. Or swamp gas. He attached that final touch as if it would help his theory hold water, even though there aren’t any swamps around here and the only gas worth worrying about is his own.
Regardless, people bought into the explanation. Even Dak Sanchez wasn’t convinced anything supernatural was going on. But the night he called the sheriff to report strange people walking around his cow pasture in the middle of the night, I think old Dak might have become a believer.
The mystery people, which Dak claimed he never got a close look at, were all gone by the time the sheriff arrived. Vanished, like a puff of smoke -- a fact that might have placed Dak’s claim in the territory of straight trickery if not for the countless footprints left tramped in the muddy field. Prints that bloomed outward in a spiral from the center of the pasture and abruptly stopped, as if their creators had vanished ... or flown up and away.
For about a week afterward, it was all anyone in town seemed capable of talking about. Then eventually, as they often do, things settled down. And people, as they always do, began focusing again on things they felt more worthy of their attention: bills, gossip, and TV.
Then came the reawakening smack: scattered reports of odd rumblings from the north, out past where the flatlands meet the hills, coupled with complaints of a resonating hum so deep in pitch that most people swore they could feel it vibrating their guts.
Not everyone heard or felt it. But by then, the presence of something other (for lack of a better word) had settled over our small town. Like a dark shroud drifting down from a great height that finally breaches your crown and drapes over you with the surety of sickness, the town became engulfed.
And tonight, that darkness had reached my home.
More scratches now, followed by a grunt that sounded like it came from a bull with bronchitis.
Harland was still standing in the doorway, watching me expectantly, waiting for me to say something.
“You’re sure it’s not a raccoon? You’re sure it’s ..."
I stopped, because saying it out loud would only serve to make it more real than I was brave enough to entertain at such a late hour.
“Leave him out a bowl of food,” I said. “He’ll be okay ’til tomorrow.”
Until it’s light and I’m not afraid to go outside, I almost added but kept my mouth shut. The last thing I needed was a twelve-year-old boy too scared to sleep in his own bed, even if he was taking the return of the deceased family pet in all too good a stride.
I heard the screen door clatter and the rustle of the dog food sack, then my son’s muted voice, speaking softly and tenderly in the way only the young can do.
I pulled the covers up to my neck, determined to ignore the specter of impending doom long enough to get some sleep. It never came. I wound up staring at my bedroom window all night.
I called the sheriff in the morning, even though I knew better than to bug the guy so early on a Sunday. Wally Cash was as mean an S.O.B. as they come. He was also one of the fairest men I knew, and the bravest man I ever had the privilege of standing beside when the horrors came to call.
Six-foot-five and barrel-chested as a Boxer dog, he had deep-set eyes that bore into you like spikes. People called him Grendel behind his back, but to his face they called him sir. I just called him Wally, on account of us being old friends.
I thought at first to lead him gracefully into it. How else do you spring it on someone that your dead dog is alive when he shouldn’t be and you’re not sure if you should shoot him or give him a bath?
But Wally looked tired and agitated to be up so early, so I figured I’d save him precious time and hit him with it square. Naturally, he didn’t believe me.
“Horsepucky,” he said, or something resembling it.
I repeated my claim. Boomer was dead. But not anymore.
Wally put his hands on his hips and spread his feet like a gunslinger readying for battle (or an aging cowboy losing his patience with the mentally infirm) and fired off a colorfully worded tirade about how he didn't appreciate practical jokes so early in the morning.
When he was done, I held up my hands and urged him to follow me into the back yard so he could see for himself.
He came, grudgingly, but as we approached Boomer, it occurred to me that there was no way I could prove he had, in fact, died. Aside from his dirt-caked fur and the unmistakable smell of decay floating up from where he lay, he appeared perfectly normal, if not seriously ill.
Boomer didn’t look like a zombie dog from a movie or a video game. He wasn’t foaming at the mouth. His eyes weren’t glowing red. He wasn’t coming after us for flesh or brains. He was just lying on his side in a sliver of morning sun, breathing slowly.
Wally studied Boomer for a long minute. "Assuming you're not pulling my leg," he said, "are you absolutely certain it’s him?”
It was a question that hadn’t occurred to me. But the more I thought of it, the easier it was to reject. The odds that a lookalike dog had come wandering onto my property the day after I’d buried Boomer were astronomical.
It was not only improbable. It was impossible.
I knelt by Boomer’s half-sleeping form and examined his collar. “Unless Boomer’s twin got ahold of his ID tags,” I said, “it’s him.”
Wally chewed his lip as if the answer to the mystery might be found lodged somewhere between last night’s crackers and this morning’s coffee. When he didn't find it, he let out a motorboat sigh.
"Maybe he wasn't dead?" he offered weakly.
The question brought a chill to my spine.
"Maybe you buried him alive and he dug himself out."
For the first time since I beheld the sight of my returned dog, covered in mud and smelling of the grave, I considered the possibility that I had done something unforgivably stupid.
Boomer was behaving sluggishly. Could it be that oxygen deprivation was to blame? If that proved to be the case, I vowed to throw myself at the mercy of the ASPCA.
My shoulders sank, and a smile began to light across Wally’s face. It was the same smile he always gave whenever he beat me at poker, or checkers. He loved to win. More than that, he loved to be right. I wanted desperately to prove him wrong. Yet if I did, where would that leave me? The owner of an undead dog?
“We need to get this pooch to the vet,” Wally said. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
I reminded him that it was Sunday and the vet was probably closed, but Wally wouldn’t hear of it.
He pulled out his beat but trusty flip hone. “Leave it to me. Doc Fisher owes me a favor.”
Carl Fisher was the only vet within a hundred miles. This pretty much made him the only vet in the world as far anyone in town was concerned. It also meant he was an extremely busy man who prized his days off, but Wally Cash was a persuasive fellow. The doc agreed to meet us in his office.
When we arrived, he ushered us inside, locked the door, and brought us into an examination room. I carried Boomer the whole way, my head corkscrewed away to avoid the funk that issued from his fur like skunk stink.
Doc Fisher caught a whiff, fanned the air in front of his face, coughed, threw open a window, and shot me an accusatory scowl. When he opened his mouth to speak, no doubt to lecture me about the importance of bathing my animal on a regular basis, Wally cut him off.
“It’s not like that, Doc. Evidently, Earl buried his dog alive. We think he might have come out of it a little ... touched in the head. The dog, that is. Earl’s always been slow.”
I ignored it; I was used to Wally’s ways. Doc Fisher wasn't. He shook his head disapprovingly and turned his attention to Boomer. He checked his gums for signs of dehydration. He checked his eyes; he checked every orifice. He checked his pulse and temperature. Both were there, but only faintly.
When the doc finished his inspection, he folded his arms and asked me to tell him what happened.
As I did, his eyes grew wide with disbelief. When I finished, he looked at Wally for confirmation, who simply shrugged as if to say I’m sticking with the buried alive theory.
“I can’t see anything obviously wrong with Boomer,” Doc Fisher said, “but I’m giving him an antibiotic booster, and I’d like to run some blood work.”
He rattled off a list of maladies he would have Boomer checked for, none of which I could spell if I tried, and none that included having been recently deceased and inexplicably reanimated.
I decided to take what I could get. It was the guy’s day off, after all.
Boomer sat slumped and statue-still as the doc gave him a shot, drew a vial of blood, and dressed him with adhesive. The old Boomer would have had to be held down for such a procedure, but the wrung-out wretch before us didn’t even lift his head.
It was an observation that only served to increase my worry. In the space of a few hours, Boomer had gone from slow to stop, and I feared the next stage could be death. But was it possible for a once dead dog to die ... again?
Doc Fisher told us to wait while he went into the next room to have a cursory look at the blood under his microscope. Within seconds, he returned. His face was pale, and his eyes swam in a state of confusion.
He said something about Boomer’s blood not looking normal. I took that to mean he’d found the presence of cancer cells or some sort of parasite, but when I asked for specifics, he only directed us to take a look for ourselves.
I’m no doctor. Hell, I haven’t even seen many people play them on TV. Still, I could tell something was very wrong. The blood on the slide looked black and congealed, and had what I can only describe as an oily appearance.
This wasn’t the blood of a healthy animal. It didn’t even look like blood at all.
“You still think it’s brain damage?” I said to Wally, but he didn’t reply.
I asked the doc what the hell could cause something like what we were looking at, and he said he had no clue.
“I’m not a blood expert,” he said, “but I think the folks in the lab upstate will definitely have more to say. I’ll send it in the morning and let you know as soon as I hear back.”
Doc Fisher cast a glance over his shoulder in the direction of the examination room, where my formerly dead dog waited in unearthly patience, a (sort of) living, (barely) breathing riddle with no promise of solution. “In the meantime, keep an eye on him.”
“And call you if he gets worse?” Wally said. A drop of sarcasm danced on his tongue, but his tone was all dread and foreboding. I thought he was finally starting to believe.
That night, I had Boomer sleep on the back porch again. He smelled so bad that sharing a roof with him was unthinkable. It was freezing out, so I set the patio space heater to bake and had my boys build him a comfortable nest with old pillows and bedding.
When he laid down, he immediately went to sleep. I tossed and turned for hours in my own bed, wondering if it was possible for a dog to conceive of its own mortality. I hoped not.
Somewhere between morbid contemplations of death and what lay beyond, I must have dozed off. I was awakened at half past three in the morning. The tail end of a bone-chilling howl hung in the air.
I jumped up and threw my legs onto the floor. I could hear Elvis, my oldest son, shouting outside. And then another howl, rising this time from somewhere much closer, somewhere uncomfortably near, extending up and out over the dense woods beyond our property.
It was Boomer, a fact I never would have guessed if not for my son’s voice -- “Calm down, Boomer! Be quiet!” -- trying in vain to make the screaming stop.
I had never heard such an ungodly sound come from my dog, and for the briefest moment I wished I’d been able to latch onto Wally’s suggestion that the animal that returned was not Boomer but something other. Believing so would have made things much less complicated.
When I came outside, Elvis and Harland were standing at the edge of the porch, watching Boomer. He had moved out across the lawn, his tail low, his neck extended, staring into the woods.
Every few seconds, he let loose with a bloodcurdling wail. He seemed to be trying to keep something away. Something big. Something beyond his ability to defend against.
Sick as he was, he was a braver being than I, and the realization shamed me. I went back into the house, got my rifle, and sent the boys inside. Then I took my place beside Boomer.
I shouted into the darkness with as deep and mean a voice as I could fake. Startled, Boomer snapped his head in my direction. The look within his wild and frenzied eyes caused my heart to skip. He was terrified.
When he turned his attention back to the trees, his feet began to dance urgently, and I knew he sensed something drawing closer. I aimed the rifle at the treetops and fired once.
The crack of the shot unfurled like a bullwhip; the sonic equivalent of a bright light cast into pitch black. When the roar receded, Boomer fell silent.
Satisfied, he returned to the porch and fell promptly back to sleep. Whatever had been out there was apparently gone. It did not return that night.
It wasn’t until a day later that I noticed Boomer wasn’t eating. The bowl of food we’d set out on his return from the grave remained untouched, and I figured that at this rate, it was only a matter of time before he starved. He was still breathing, and he was still keeping a watchful eye on the woods around the house, but aside from that, he did nothing. He didn’t even go to the bathroom.
There had been no further howling episodes, but I didn’t know if that was the result of us having frightened something off or Boomer being too weak to raise his voice.
By the time Doc Fisher called to tell me the blood work had yielded “inconclusive results,” Boomer had dropped so much weight that I no longer cared about the cause of the affliction as much as I did about getting him to eat.
When I asked Doc Fisher what I could do, he had no recommendation other than to bring him back in. I said I’d call him back, mostly because the doc didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea and I felt he was only saying it out of a sense of duty. I also had a gut feeling that if I took Boomer to the vet in the condition he was in, he probably wouldn’t be coming home with me.
That night, I came outside to check on Boomer and found him snout deep in the belly of a dead cat.
Strays were always in abundance, especially in the woods around my home, and frequently Boomer would give chase. Never had I seen him harm any of them. And never had I seen him do what he was doing now.
I must have gasped, or cried out, or said something under my breath, because Boomer jerked his head up guiltily.
His face and paws were covered in blood, and torn bits of flesh and fur hung from his teeth and jaws, but the eyes he regarded me with were so human, so simultaneously shameful and defiant, that I couldn’t admonish him.
It was as if he were saying I’m sorry, but I’ll die if I don’t. Either that or Hey, pal, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.
Whatever it was he was trying to communicate, I only knew one thing. I didn’t want Boomer to die. Not again.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You go ahead. Eat.”
By dawn, the cat carcass was gone. Not a shred of unconsumed meat remained, and there was not a splinter of bone in sight. Even the bloodstains on the lawn had disappeared, and I choked back the urge to vomit when I envisioned Boomer lapping up the gore, licking the grass clean.
I looked to his nest on the porch and found it empty. I called out. Nothing. Then, just as the dreadful thought arose to check under the porch for his body, I heard a crashing from within the woods and Boomer bounded into the daylight.
He trotted to my side. With disbelieving eyes, I observed the bounce in his gait. The vibrancy in his eyes. Even the foul odor, which had hung above him like a cloud of rot and decay, was gone.
Overnight, Boomer was completely transformed.
I wanted to thank god, but I’m not much of a believer. I thought about pumping my fist and shouting. Instead, I stroked Boomer's head and spoke his name.
That was two weeks ago. Boomer is growing stronger every day. The presence in the woods, or whatever it was, hasn’t been back. Still, Boomer spends his nights standing guard at his now-permanent post on the back porch.
I’ve decided to keep Wally in the dark about the cats ... and anything else Boomer may have developed a taste for.
There are some things Wally doesn’t need to be made aware of, and I get the feeling that bringing him into the loop might put him between a rock and a hard place: torn between his loyalty to an old friend and his sworn duty to uphold the law by putting a stop to any unwarranted killings, feline or otherwise.
I have no way of knowing how many animals Boomer has fed from. And I probably wouldn’t want to know. One a day? Five? Twenty? Is there a numerical threshold that has to be reached before killing for survival becomes gratuitous slaughter? Is this a case of nature running its course, or something wholly unnatural running rampant?
I don’t know.
Next time Wally asks about Boomer, I will tell him what I've said from the start: “He’s much better now, thanks.” But I wonder how long I can keep the truth a secret, just as I wonder how long the supply of stray cats, squirrels, and raccoons will last before Boomer starts seeking out new forms of nourishment.
A few minutes ago, I caught Boomer staring at me. He’s been doing that a lot lately, and I can’t deny it’s starting to make me uneasy.
Sometimes it's the faint hint of awareness I see in his eyes, like he’s trying somehow to understand me, that puts me off ease. Other times, it’s the barely perceptible parting of his jaws that makes me wonder if he’s fantasizing about eating me.
But then I say his name and remind him he’s a good boy, and he wags his tail and goes about his business.
You’re probably wondering what the purpose is of having a dog I’m not sure I can trust. An animal that has to kill to stay alive, whose very existence is an aberration of the natural order.
To that, I can only say this: The natural order has not existed in these parts for quite some time, and it probably won't again anytime soon. I don’t know why. Nobody does.
There is only one thing I do know with any certainty. It is far better to be the owner of a once dead dog than the owner of no dog at all.