Short Sotry – Life Among the Dead

I wrote this originally for a Halloween creative writing competition.


I wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my face and fumbled, fingertips stinging from the late-autumn air, with the keys in my hand. The cold metal made my hand stiff as I wrestled to lock the doors. It was a particularly chilly Halloween night and I was locking up the vets for the night. Before I could get the key to turn properly, a small hand pulled on my sleeve.

“Excuse me?”

I turned and looked down, hand mid-lock.

Two small boys, probably brothers, smiled up at me in their costumes. The older held up a pumpkin-shaped tub. “Trick-or-treat!” He cried.

I smiled at them gently. “Sorry kids, the only treats I have are dog treats.”

“We want dog treats!” The younger said.

I squinted a little, confused.

“They’re for our dog,” the older elaborated, “we want our doggy to have treats too.”

I felt a warmth bloom in my chest. “Of course you can have them, hold on a moment.” I unlocked the door – easier to do than locking it – and stepped in. As the two boys waited patiently outside I darted across the empty lobby and dug around behind the counter until I found a packet of treats, then made my way back to them and handed it over. “If you want nicer ones, the pet shop down the road might still be open and if you ask politely they might give you some.”

The boys beamed. “Thank you!” They cried in unison and waved before quickly dashing off in the direction of the shop.

I smiled to myself, amused and warmed by the thought of the two boys lavishing a pet dog with treats as their parents watched on in dismay. This in mind, I found the locking process much easier and stowed the keys carefully in my bag, then began my march home.

Normally I might have been worried about an evening walk home in the dark, but today there were plenty of children and parents sweeping about in costumes with buckets full of sweets and laughter on everyone’s faces. I stopped by the shop on my way home and bought a nice bottle of something for the evening, hoping to surprise my partner. As I stepped out of the shop I spotted the two boys from earlier, and would have brushed the coincidence off if I hadn’t noticed something a little unusual.

The younger boy had been put in charge of holding the pumpkin tub, keeping it raised up from the ground with both hands. In its place, the older was now carrying a battered old blanket that was spilling out of his small arms. There was a water bottle jammed between his chin and the blanket, its contents sloshing with every step. I watched them march their way slowly down the street with a determined look on their faces. It wasn’t until they were nearly at the end of the road that I realised instead of heading towards any of the houses, they were making their way to the industrial estate. I tucked the wine in my bag and followed after them at a careful pace.

They stopped once or twice, struggling with their load, but continued on their mission firmly. Whatever it was they were up to, they were serious about it. Even as they headed between the dark shadows of the warehouses they showed no hesitation.

I paused, eyeing the darkness, fumbling with my fingers. The tiny silhouettes of the boys getting fainter the further away they got. I swallowed, clutched the keys in my pockets and began to tentatively follow them.

Something scuffled in the darkness and I flinched, clutching my bag close to my hip. I turned slowly, heart beating, and willed my breath to be quieter. The dark alley between the warehouses seemed colder than before, the chill seeping into my bones. I tried not to shiver too much in case it gave me away. My eyes slowly fell on the gap between the buildings where I had come from.

Something scuffled in the darkness and I flinched, clutching my bag close to my hip. I turned slowly, heart beating, and willed my breath to be quieter. The dark alley between the warehouses seemed colder than before, the chill seeping into my bones. I tried not to shiver too much in case it gave me away. My eyes slowly fell on the gap between the buildings where I had come from.

The shape of a large dog blocked the path back, scruffy thick fur raised along its hackles. Its huge, white eyes stared at me. I stood, stiff with terror, as it’s lips parted to reveal large teeth. Then, like a switch had flicked, it bolted at me.

I spun on foot and stumbled into a sprint, nearly deafened by the sound of my own breath and my footsteps echoing between the metal walls. My bag knocked against my leg, bruising me and slowing me down as it caught on my clothes. Just ahead I could see an opening in a warehouse and jerked sideways into it, hoping it would throw the beast off.

I leaned against a wall, closed my eyes and fought to stay quiet as I caught my breath, chest heaving and heartbeat pumping in my ears. Slowly my pulse calmed and I listened hard to the silence outside. I expected to hear a snuffling or the quiet click of claws on concrete, but instead there was only the quiet whistle of wind passing through the warehouses. I waited, sure eventually hear the heavy breath of a dog, but instead caught the sound of hushed voices.

I opened my eyes. The dark shapes started to take shape a my eyes adjusted to the low light. The large warehouse was in bad condition and only a few boxes of its previous stock were still sitting around. Somewhere down the open space, tucked between some of the large boxes, was a small light.

I approached, one foot placed carefully in front of the other. My keys shifted in my grip. As I got closer the voices became louder, high pitched. Two of them. I rounded the boxes with my breath held.

I gasped, surprised at what I saw. The young boys from earlier jumped a the sound and stood, turning their backs on whatever they had been doing to block my view.

“What’s going on here?” I asked, trying to lean to the side to get a view,.

“Nothing-”

“We’re helping the babies!”

The older gave the younger a punch. “Don’t tell her,” he hissed.

“But she can help, she’s a vet,” the younger whined.

I was actually just on the desk, but I didn’t bother to tell them that. “Come on, boys, what are you talking about? What babies?”

The two looked at each other before gesturing me closer, stepping aside to give me a view.

I crouched down and felt another small gasp escape me. Crushed under the corner of a tipped-over stock box was the body of a large, dead dog. I stared at the horrifying sight before movement caught my eyes and I looked down. In the curve of the corpse, snuggled into it’s filthy stomach fur with the blanket awkwardly pushed around them, were several tiny puppies. They were old enough to have open eyes and to chew awkwardly on the lumps of pet food that the boys had been trying to feed them, but so small they could’ve sat comfortably in my palm. I turned back and looked at the boys.

“When did you find them?”

“Today after school. We came here to look for ghosts. But we found the puppies instead,” the older boy said nervously. “Please don’t tell on us.”

I smiled, letting out a quiet laugh. “I won’t. Don’t worry. But I can help.”

“Told you!”

The older gave his brother another, lighter punch.

“But if I do,you have to promise you won’t come wandering around places like this again. It’s not safe here.”

The two boys nodded. “We promise,” they mumbled, unhappy with this.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and sent my partner a quick text explaining the situation and asked for some things to be brought up in the car. By the time I pocketed the phone the boys were looking at me nervously.

“Are they gonna be okay?” The younger asked.

“Yes, I’m sure they will. We’ll take them back to the vets and get them warm and fed, and take you two home before your parents start worrying. It’s getting late.”

The boys nodded and sat, and we waited. I kept my eye on them, worried about what might be lurking just outside.

“You haven’t seen the puppies father by any chance, have you?” I asked the boys.

They shook their heads.

“Only the mummy is here,” the younger said.

“I think she tried to protect her puppies when the place got all wobbly,” the older added.

I looked at the poor, cold body of the mother and felt a great sympathy for the animal that had sacrificed herself to keep her young safe. But with that in mind, I was still unsure of the large dog I had seen in the alley. If there was a father dog about, why would it just abandon its puppies in the cold and let two children go near them?

I mulled the thoughts over as the older boy poured some water into his palm and let the puppies lap at it. For two children, they had really worked hard to keep the puppies alive. I tried not to think of how long it would have lasted if I hadn’t found them.

My partner arrived in short time, holding a large cardboard box and looking unsurely into the warehouse until I made our presence more obvious.

“Did you see anything?” I asked.

“Like what?” My partner asked in reply, setting the box down.

“Nevermind.” I shook my head and turned my thoughts away from the dog that appeared from nowhere.

The box had been filled with blankets and warmed with my furry water bottle. One by one we carefully moved the puppies into it and made sure they were all comfortable. As my partner lifted the box to carry it back to the car, the boys looked at me in concern.

“What about the mummy dog?” The younger asked.

I looked over at her once more, . “We can’t take her, it’s probably best to leave her here.”

“Can we cover her?” The older asked.

“Sure.”

The two boys and I carefully took the battered blanket they had brought and draped it over her, keeping her body protected from anything that might come along in the night. In some way it felt like putting a pet to bed.

We stepped out of the dark warehouse into what seemed to be an unusually bright night. I clutched my partner’s arm and looked up and down the alley way. As I glanced back into the warehouse, I saw the dog once more. It was sat in the entry way, relaxed and gazing at me with soft eyes.

“Look!” I whispered, turning to the others and pointing at the dog.

“What are we looking at?” My partner asked, looking over.

I turned, confused. “That…” My voice trailed off. The dog was gone. “Oh. Nothing. It must’ve been a trick of the light.”

My partner shrugged and slowly lead us all out of the alley way. As we walked I glanced back once last time and saw, or perhaps I imagined I saw, the flick of a tail in the darkness.

I thought of the poor dead mother dog lying under all those boxes and knew, somehow, that she was grateful.

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