The first time I saw the dogs we were what I estimated to be about three miles from the house. We were preparing for my departure by stockpiling as much as possible in the bunker. It wasn’t much, but hopefully enough to keep them alive until I returned.
I wasn’t sure of the shape at first. It was a distant spot on the horizon. Or it seemed distant; it looked like a dog, but small. First one, then two. They hadn’t seen us yet. But I lifted Hope onto my back anyway, her arms around my shoulders and legs around my waist. I hushed her humming. “Papa?” she whispered. I heard the fear in her voice.
“It’s okay, honey. Let’s just be quiet a while.”
Her arms hugged me and affection put a smile on my face. She needed me, my little girl.
We drew closer more quickly than I anticipated, and I realized they weren’t far at all. They were just very small. Lap-dog size. A chill chased the momentary relief. Here I was picturing Kujo, or snarling packs of powerful wolf-like animals. These were a ragged bunch of ankle-biters. I had the vague hope as I skirted them, that they were too domesticated to be organized. Bred to sit on cushions and eat out of cans, surely their pack behavior was long gone.
One lifted its tiny head and pinned us with bulging, tearing eyes. I kept my own forward and walked on. The dog went back to its sniffing and yipping, and we passed otherwise unnoticed. I counted half a dozen that time.
Once out of sight of them and certain they weren’t trailing us, I set Hope down. She walked slightly ahead of me, studying the smooth stone that was ever-present in her small hand. She’d been clutching it when I found her, and to my knowledge, she never put it down.
We’d walked almost an hour before I saw them again. Seemed to be slightly more of them, but I thought they were the same ones. Another chill ran up my backbone and lifted the hairs under my collar. Were they tracking us? Anticipating? Traveling parellel before drawing back into our sight? I called to Hope. She was too far ahead.
As I got a closer look I realized this was a different pack. The alpha was a King Charles, I guessed. Probably once silken waves of white and chestnut with large eyes and a pushed in snout to give an endearing look… now, lips drawn back to reveal broken and bloodied teeth, missing patches of fur and the rest a hopelessly tangled matt of dingy gray.
I called Hope again. She was still studying the stone, still walking ahead. I lengthened my stride, keeping one eye on the spaniel. The rest seemed uninterested, but this one trotted parallel fifty yards off our left, and I watched it’s swimming eyes move between me and Hope. I forced myself not to run. Not to shout.
A distant, high pitched howl. Another chill. The dogs all stopped and looked in its direction, as did Hope. She looked back at me, fear registering on her face. I thought she was going to run for me, and I held up my hand. The Spaniel was still stalking her, now closer to her than I. I slowly raised my hand to her, caught her eyes. Why did it not acknowledge the howl? Hope stopped as I instructed, stood very still and fixed the spaniel with a stare. Her face was set, and she suddenly looked far older than those years I’d attributed her.
Before I could register what she was doing, she drew back her arm, the one holding the stone. Her aim was true, her pitch deceptively strong. The dog was maybe twenty feet from her, and I heard the stone thunk off its skull. A small, hollow sound, like an acorn off a whiskey barrel. It was shortly followed by a yelp, but time was moving slowly. I was running now. For Hope.
But there was no need.