Soul Search

By Reyna Favis

Fantasy

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357
26 mins

 

Soul Search Copyright © Reyna Favis. All rights reserved.

CHAPTER 1

Every thought was a battle and every breath drawn was an act of will. I no longer thought about winning. At best, I might survive until the next time. The bell on the search dog’s harness clanged in the distance. Maybe he would get here before the dead boy found me. This was supposed to be an ordinary search and rescue training exercise. All I had to do was hide in the woods and let the canine handler teams find me, easy peasy. But thanks to earthbound spirits, dead sons of bitches who wanted me to join them, I was psyching myself up for my last fight.

The dead boy came over a crest and back into my line of sight. Choking back a sob, I cursed instead, my gut churning with acid as I pushed sweaty bangs under the bill of the baseball cap and out of my eyes. I bit back fear and schooled my thoughts so I could go down fighting. Craning my neck for a clear view of this spirit, I tried to get a handle on what I was in for. A dirty hat with a wide brim hid his face, but he was small and might have once been around six or seven. Years of fighting taught me not to underestimate him. A young spirit might be easier to fight off, but I was going into this already drained and exhausted. Focus. Go down fighting. His clothes were torn and mud spattered, but the suspenders and loose, mid-calf pants placed him squarely in the nineteenth century. My stomach took another shot of hot acid and the sob escaped between gritted teeth. He’d been dead a long time. The longer they’re dead, the stronger and more determined they became. Oh God. Go down fighting.

The spirit darted from tree to tree through the burgeoning April woods. And then it started. His panic rushed over me in waves and it was all I could do to stay where I was and not start running crazy through the woods like him. Digging my nails into my palms, I fought to control the stress and focused hard on my reality - the rough tree bark etching its pattern on the skin of my back and the sour sweet smell of decaying leaves in the soil around me. But despite knowing that afternoon sun shone through a sparse spring canopy, the quality of the light began to shift. I strained to keep the sun’s radiance on my face, but I lost my hold, and a weaker sun penetrated my awareness, filtering through fall foliage. I shivered with the autumn chill.

When K9 Merlin bounded out of the brush, panting and clanging, I let out a whooshing breath of relief as the dead boy’s reality receded and spring returned. But my breath caught in my throat as the spirit sought the next tree, running into the dog’s path. With canine grace, the Belgian Malinois adjusted and veered slightly, as he continued up the hill to find me. The dead boy kept up his running too, and I chewed on my cuticles as I tracked him and again felt the creeping influence of the spirit over me. Clamping down hard on the raw desire to flee, I fought to stay in my own head. Steve, Merlin’s handler, was close and if I was going to get him out of the line of fire, I had to follow his instructions to the letter and finish the exercise.

Merlin approached and gazed at me through the dark mask of his face. I held still with difficulty and ignored the dog, but I was sweating with the effort and still hyper-aware of the dead boy. Merlin turned from me and bounded down the hill to find Steve and after a moment, five short barks echoed through the woods. This was Merlin’s trained indication to tell Steve that he had found someone. A flash of high visibility orange worn by search and rescue personnel appeared through the brush and a few seconds later, the dog and a slightly built blond man raced up the hill to reach me. Forcing my voice to sound light and happy despite the urge I felt to scream at them to run, I stuck to the script and gave the dog praise, ruffling his ears and telling him he was a star.

Steve sucked in air after the uphill run. “He’s working really good today.”

I nodded absently as my eyes kept darting towards the dead boy. “Yeah, he found me pretty fast.” The thing was even closer now, crouched behind a scrubby bush. Anxious for us all to go, I stood up, shouldered my pack and started walking down the hill. Any minute now, my will would fail, the dead boy would break through and the real fight would start.

Steve shot me a sheepish look as I tried to leave. “Hold up, Fia. I know you’re in a hurry, but this dog needs a real paycheck.” He presented Merlin with the tug toy that was the dog’s reward. As Merlin pulled mightily on the toy nearly tearing Steve off his feet, he spoke to the dog in a high pitched voice, telling him what a good boy he was. I stood near them, rigid with fear and impatience, mentally urging them to get the hell out of here. The dog danced with the praise, shook Steve even harder and put his rump in the air with his elbows on the ground, ready to play for as long as Steve would allow it.

After a few long minutes of them playing and me shifting from foot to foot like I needed to pee, just as I thought I would vomit, Steve put the toy away and offered Merlin some water. “Ready to go back? Or do you need to hide again for someone else?”

My throat felt thick and I bit off an answer. “You and Merlin are the last ones.” I adjusted my pack and then led Steve and Merlin down the hill at double time, my body angled sideways to accommodate the steepness and speed. As I came to the level ground, something cold and clammy grabbed my hand and my face twisted with revulsion. I shook hard to make it let go and walked faster.

Steve missed nothing. “What’s wrong with your hand?”

“Ugh… tick!” I blurted out just as it grabbed my hand again. This time I could feel how spongy soft the flesh felt, like it was ready to slough off the fingers. I yanked my hand in front of me and picked up my pace.

Steve was grinning, clearly amused by my discomfort. “You ought to be used to that by now, girl.”

The cloying smell of decay became stronger, flooding my nostrils and I clamped my mouth shut to keep from tasting it. I gave the dead boy a mental shove to get him to move away, but he came back more insistent. With my hands out of reach, he now grabbed at my braid and made my baseball cap tip backwards. I shoved him again with my mind, swearing out loud.

“C’mon, Fia, it’s only a tick. Suck it up.”

With the dead boy now holding the tail of my t-shirt and the rotting smell in my hair, I just glared at Steve. “They’re disgusting. I can’t help it.” At least that thing was not coming after him. I walked rapidly to increase my distance from Steve and Merlin.

“You know what? I’m going to run back and get some cardio in. I’ll see you later.” I tightened the straps on my pack and took off down the trail with the dead boy following, snatching and grabbing at me every time I slowed my pace. As I approached the parking area where the search teams organized the training runs for the canines, I pulled into a copse of trees and whirled to face the wraith. Seeing red in the corner of my vision, I bared my teeth as my hands clawed at the air between us. The energy focused into my hands and I shoved the spirit back with everything I had. The creature wailed and crumpled to the ground. “Good… good, you deserve that, you son of bitch!”

Fighting back tears, I gasped as my heart stuttered and my legs grew weak. I had to accept the futility of my situation. He would get up eventually and after that last shot, I was running on empty. Sweat beaded on my brow and I took shuddering breaths as I struggled to power up and strike the putrid revenant a second time. Go down fighting, damn it. Just as I thought it was over for me, a red hound with a short, glossy coat burst through the trees and began to nuzzle the dead boy. On the heels of the dog, a man in a bright orange shirt exploded into the copse of trees and then stopped short, breathing hard. He was tall with a mop of gray curly hair and the sagging features of late middle age. Like many tall people, he had poor posture and stooped slightly forward, as if trying to negate his height. The look on his face moved rapidly from shock to anger as he stared first at the whimpering dead boy and then at me. In the next second, he smoothed his expression and turned to look only at me, stepping between me and the wraith. “Oh, sorry,” he said with a clipped British accent. “Didn’t mean to disturb a call of nature. Zackie, come!” The hound came to the man’s side, its gaze never leaving the dead boy. “We’ll be off, then. Sorry again.”

I stood frozen and wide-eyed as the dead thing crawled and then limped after the retreating man and dog. Never in my life have the dead just up and left after finding me. I had been fighting for days to make the things that came out of the woods go away. My heart wasn’t beating right anymore and my arms and legs felt weak, trembling and cramping painfully whenever I moved now. The dizziness and vomiting would come eventually if I didn’t get some rest or something to eat.

Shaking myself out of my stupor, I staggered out after the man, desperate to know how he managed to make that dead thing leave me. A quick look up and down the trail revealed nothing of the man. I bit my lip and my gut cramped as I worried that something bad could happen to him because he had intervened. I should not have let that shade follow him. Even though I had been distracted, this was no excuse for being irresponsible. The fact that the man might be able to see what I see, every bit as well as I could, was an aberration to me. It appeared that the man looked right at the dead thing, not with the vague sense of unease of someone with limited sensing ability, but with a full recognition of what he perceived. However, sensing and purging these entities are not necessarily matching skill sets. I had to find the man quickly.

With no better options, I grabbed a protein bar out of my pack and crammed it into my mouth. Randomly choosing to follow the trail east, I began a quick Hasty Search, designed to rapidly cover areas with the highest probability of finding a missing person. The man was tall and could probably move a fair distance rapidly, but still, he could not have gone far. I limited the distance that I checked and looked carefully for signs of brush disturbance or fresh footprints along and on either side of the trail. Nothing. Frustrated, I turned around and started jogging west. As the trail turned, a deer path appeared, flattening the brush and heading downhill into the deeper woods. Squatting, I saw a partial footprint along the path. The step had crushed some vegetation, which was now in the process of springing back. Encouraged, I decided to take a chance on the deer path. Moving more slowly through the brambles and thicker growth, I sidled down the hill until I reached a more open area.

Fifty yards away near a crop of boulders, the dead boy knelt with his arms around the red dog, sobbing into its fur. The man, crouching behind with a hand on the dead boy’s shoulder, spotted me and gave me a hard stare. I could not make sense of what I was seeing and began walking forward over the rocky ground, but the man immediately put his hand up to signal me to stop where I was. Another shot of acid washed into my gut, but ignoring my misgivings, I held my ground at his gesture. The man disregarded me now and gently turned the dead boy around to face him. He got on his knees to be on eye level and said something that I could not catch. The dead boy appeared to nod once. As the wraith turned back to the dog, it grasped the harness and the dog began leading it towards the farthest edge of the clearing. After three steps, my eyes were suddenly blinded by a light so bright that it made me lose my equilibrium on the uneven ground. The weight of the pack pushed me forward and I came down hard on my knees as my hands flew up to shield my eyes.

“What’s happened?!” I shouted as I frantically rubbed my eyes. “I can’t see anything! Are you all right?” I had no idea a wraith could do this. I was blind and defenseless if this thing came after me now.

My breath caught as I heard footsteps approach me and I sensed someone was near. As I rubbed my tearing eyes, I began seeing shapes, albeit poorly. The man was standing above me, but he did not offer to help me up from the rocky ground. All he said was, “How could you? Are you a psychopath? He was just a child.” I then heard him stalk off before I could think of anything to say.

I was in a nightmare, alone in the woods and all but blind. I grabbed the radio out of my pants cargo pocket and tried to call for help. No use. The radio transmission was blocked because I had gone downhill into a bowl. My heart was thudding rapidly and a fear-sweat was starting to pool under my arms. Close to losing all sense of direction, I forced myself to bite back the panic and think. Stumbling blindly through wilderness could get me killed. Either the dead boy would find me or I would take a bad fall and break every bone in my body. Fumbling in the breast pocket of my 5.11 tactical shirt, I found my sunglasses and put them on to ease my eyes. At least I was visible in this shirt. The color was so brightly orange, you could see me from space. With several search and rescue teams training in the area, someone would find me if I could not walk out on my own. The SAR teams would probably be delighted to put their skills to use. But what if that thing came back for me? That would be the greater danger compared to anything the wilderness had to offer. I sat back on my haunches and began rubbing my bruised knees to get the feeling back. The sunglasses were helping and I was able to see a little more of my surroundings. I kept alert for the return of the dead boy.

After a short while, I could see enough of my surroundings that I was confident of finding my way out. As I staggered to my feet, I cursed the man. Why had that bastard left me like this? And what difference did it make if that dead thing was once a child? It only looked vaguely like a child now. It was just a freakish imitation of life. I was bone tired of dealing with these things, but it was not like I could just decide to avoid them. God knows I tried to do that by coming here. Feeling trapped, I ground my teeth and forced myself to move.

I struggled up the hill, my pace slowing with every step as I sunk deeper into despair. To distract myself, I thought about the man who I now called The Bastard. Little by little, my thoughts turned towards revenge. I had a fixed blade knife in my pack. I could slash his tires if I could figure out which car belonged to him. Maybe this makes me a bad person, but I justified it as psychological self-defense. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s better to feel anger than weakness. When I reached the trail, I used all my senses to probe the woods for The Bastard and I realized that the dead thing was really and truly gone. It had not come back for me and it was not waiting in the woods. The Bastard made it follow him and, more importantly, made it disappear. While a part of my brain argued that I was just being a masochist, I allowed myself to feel a sliver of hope. I did not have to face endless days of fighting it off or brace myself for another dangerous bout of fatigue. Maybe, just maybe, The Bastard had a solution. I started running towards the parking lot to find him and nearly collided with Steve.

Steve staggered, but regained his balance. “I was trying to find you. We have a call out! There’s a missing autistic boy.”

CHAPTER 2

We arrived at the scene in a neighborhood of neat little houses, all built in the same style. The only thing that varied was the colors. The lawns were still blanched from the winter, but areas of green were beginning to show. There was the usual suburban landscaping, but nothing too thick or prickly that would be hard to force my way into. This area was not going to be physically difficult to search, but there were a lot of nooks and crannies where a small boy could hide. I wiped the sweat from my face with a trembling hand and concentrated on mustering my energy for the search ahead.

Police directed us to go to a post office parking lot. It had been selected as the staging area because of the parking capacity and the proximity to the family home. After squeezing our vehicles into the lot, Steve and I went to sign in. While Steve checked the box indicating he handled an air scent dog, I identified myself as a land searcher on the sheet. We returned to wait near our cars for Incident Command to call the searchers for a briefing. Steve took the opportunity to check the weather forecast on his phone and I just sat hunched on my car bumper, trying to conserve my strength. The evening was already cool and with the overcast sky, it was no surprise that the forecast predicted light rain with temperatures dipping into the forties overnight. The kid would be hypothermic if we found him. Forcing myself to get up, I reorganized my pack with shaking hands and put the space blanket in a quick access outer pocket and then dug out my rain gear and chest harness from the pile of equipment in my trunk. As I put the gear on, Steve handed me one of his protein bars and I took it gratefully. Under normal circumstances after a full day of training, I would be low on calories and a little hungry. After dealing with the dead boy and the others before him, I devoured the protein bar like my life depended on it. After a few minutes, the sugar kicked in. My heart still beat a little irregularly, but at least the cramping in my limbs was receding. My bruised knees were starting to swell and sang with discomfort when I walked, but I would have to suck it up. It was going to be a long night.

“Come on over to the trailer for the briefing,” a woman called out. I grabbed my rock helmet, figuring I’d need the attached headlamp as the night deepened. Groaning, I heaved the pack to my shoulder for the umpteenth time that day and headed with Steve towards the trailer. When a crowd of people dressed in high visibility orange crowded forward with us, I did a quick check of the searchers, but saw no sign of The Bastard. We waited for the briefing to begin and I pulled out a small pad and pen from my chest harness, watching as the pile of photocopies made its way to me through the crowd. Grabbing two sheets from the stack, the first page was a map of the neighborhood and the second showed a picture of the missing boy, along with a short description.

A burly older man with gray hair came out of the trailer and quickly assessed the headcount of searchers. “Listen up!” he barked. “My name is Fiske. Our subject is a four-year-old Caucasian male. His name is Denny, and he is autistic and non-verbal. He has brown hair and blue eyes and is wearing a red and white striped shirt, jeans and sneakers.”

I looked at the picture of Denny on the photocopy. He was a skinny kid with big blue eyes that slanted upward like a cat. In the picture, he was grinning big time at the camera, showing off his dimples. He looked like a kid who thought fun was priority one.

“Denny was last seen playing in his room around 16:00. The mother thinks he left the house and may be wandering around the neighborhood. He’s snuck out before. Police have searched the house and the surrounding neighborhood. A reverse 911 has gone out to the community, so folks here know to check their properties for the boy. Denny loves dogs, so I want all the canine handlers out on task first. Trailing dogs will work the scene and establish direction of travel. Air scent dogs should go on lead with their handlers to the perimeter set up by the police to see if we can draw him out. Make your dogs bark if you can. Any questions?”

Someone asked if the boy was on any medications. Another person asked what he did previously when he went missing from the home. Fiske answered that, according to the mother, Denny was taking Risperdal, and the times when he disappeared previously, he was found hiding in the neighbors’ yards. The family and the police had already searched all the usual places, but did not find him.

“If there are no more questions, Kate here will start assigning your tasks.” With that, Fiske returned to the trailer and a woman carrying a clipboard came forward and began calling names. Steve and I stayed near the trailer and waited with the rest. Eventually, another man appeared with a clipboard and also began calling names. Teams of three and four were being sent out in rapid fire.

“Cam Ramsay, Bill Fry and Fia Saunders!” At the mention of my name, I grabbed my gear, told Steve that I’d see him later and moved forward to find out about my task. A middle aged man with a balding pate also stepped forward.

“I’m Fia,” I told the woman with the clipboard.

“Bill Fry.” The balding man identified himself for Kate and then extended his hand to me.

Kate scanned the crowd. “Okay, good. Now, if we can just find Cam.” Raising her voice, she called out for him. “Cam! Cam Ramsay! Would you please come to the front?”

A voice responded from the edge of the crowd. “Coming! I’m coming.” I turned to look and got a clear view of The Bastard making his way forward. He carried a dog harness, a pack and something that looked like a small toolbox. In tow was the red dog, attached to a long, coiled lead that kept her close to her handler.

“I’m Bill. Glad to meet you,” the balding man said as he offered his hand to The Bastard.

“A pleasure. I’m Cam and this is Zackie,” he said, indicating the dog. Turning to me, he asked, “And you are?” He raised his hand half way for the handshake and then looked into my face. His lip curled back in a look of disgust and he lowered his hand. “Nevermind. I believe we’ve met.”

Before I could respond in kind, Kate called us to attention. “Thank you all for coming to help. You are Task 7. We need you to go to Denny’s house where Cam and Zackie should try to establish direction of travel. Bill and Fia, you need to flank Cam. Officer Reynolds is over there on the sidewalk. He will be the police escort in case you need to enter the yards of any residents.”

She handed us the paper with the task assignment and began calling names for the next task. As we approached Officer Reynolds, I spoke in a low voice to Cam. “When this is over, I need you to tell me how you make them go away. You and I need to talk.”

His lip curled again and he responded in a voice just above a whisper. “No, go away.”

“Asshole!” I whispered back. “You left me blinded and off-trail in the middle of the woods. The least you could do is provide an explanation!” I tried to look him in the eye, but he was steadfastly looking forward and ignoring me as he walked. “You can get rid of those things,” I hissed. “I need to know how you do that!” That stopped him in his tracks, and he turned to look at me. His face was flushed and his eyes were wide with fury.

“Those ‘things’ are --” he began with a low, shaking voice just as Officer Reynolds spoke up. Clamping his lips into a white line, he held his peace as the officer greeted us.

“Thanks for coming out to help. I’m Officer Reynolds.” He shook our hands and we introduced ourselves. “The house is over this way.” Taking the lead, he guided us down the block to a small ranch style house with white siding. Cam’s mouth was a grim, angry line and he took several deep breaths, struggling to master his anger as we walked. A police cruiser with the emergency lights flashing was parked outside of the house and other officers stood in the front yard.

Taking another deep, calming breath, Cam approached Officer Reynolds. “I’m afraid I’ll need to go into the house to collect a scent article for Zackie.” He held up the small toolbox labeled with the words ‘Scent Kit’ as if in explanation. After placing his pack and the dog harness on the ground, he handed Zackie’s lead to Bill, deliberately ignoring me. Officer Reynolds then led him to the house and knocked on the door. A short while later, both men emerged. Cam carried a clear ziplock bag containing something made of blue fabric.

“Here’s how this is going to work.” Cam looked each of us in the eye and began his instructions. “I’m going to take Zackie to meet everyone standing in front of the house. I want her to take their scent, so she can rule them out. She’ll also take a whiff of each of you. I’m then going to walk her in an acclimation circle to let her take in all the scents in the immediate area. She’ll then get the bagged t-shirt and the command to take scent. The next command will tell her to get on trail.” He paused to give us a chance for questions and then continued. “Zackie will be point. All of you stay behind the dog and to either side. Keep your eyes out for any clues the subject may have dropped or any signs that the subject has been through the area. I will have my entire attention focused on Zackie, so you will need to warn me if a car is coming or if there is a loose dog. Are we ready?”

We all nodded and he began walking Zackie from person to person. The dog quickly passed each person as they offered their hands for the dog to sniff. I stood still with my hands extended as the dog took my scent. Rather than move on to the next person, she paused and stared directly into my face. Her eyes were the color of whiskey and surrounded by dark fur, as if someone had outlined them with kohl to emphasize their distinct color. While I thought her gaze would be gentle like all the other dogs I have encountered, I instead saw a disturbing intelligence that I was not prepared for. Without thinking, I took an immediate step back and away from her. Cold shocked me and I shivered involuntarily. The acid rushed to my anxious stomach and my shoulders rose defensively around my neck. She gave a quick snort and dismissed me, walking on. Taking a shaky breath and trying to relax, I felt a crazy mix of emotions. Most of all, I felt shame. Tears welled up in my eyes and I ducked my head, trying to control myself before anyone noticed.

By the time I looked back up, Cam had thrown down the scent article with harness on top. He caught my eye and looked at me grimly for a moment, but then focused his attention back to Zackie, talking to her in an excited voice. Cam led her in a large circle around the house and allowed the dog to sniff at whatever enticed her. Once back to the harness, he oriented her head towards the front steps of the house and, grasping her hind end between his knees, he quickly slipped the harness over her head. Cam momentarily opened the bag and passed it near the dog’s face, all while talking to her. She began squirming and whimpering, eager to be off. I could not reconcile the dog I saw before me now with what I had just experienced. With a final click of the snap buckle, he secured the harness and shifted the anchor of the lead from her choke collar to a ring on the back of the harness. Lifting the bag again, he let her stick her nose into the bag to inspect the T-shirt. “Track,” he told her. She lifted her head and pointed her nose behind them. As he loosened his knees from the hold on her flanks, he told her, “Find ‘em.”

The dog lunged towards the sidewalk, placed her nose to the ground and began walking rapidly away from the house. Bill reported our status by radio to command. “Task 7 has departed, heading east on Locust Avenue,”

I grabbed the GPS from my chest harness and cleared the old tracks as I stepped off. Following the others, I hung back as far as I could and nursed the extreme discomfort I now had from being near this dog. It’s not like I thought she was going to do something as mundane as bite me. She was not a large dog after all, maybe fifty or sixty pounds at best. The team dogs I had worked with were mostly around hundred pounds or more, incredibly strong and really driven. Zackie, by contrast, appeared to have a calm demeanor. I do not know what I feared, but I felt unsafe, as if the earth could suddenly open up and swallow me whole. I frequently feel uneasy in my life, but stark fear is something I left behind in childhood. I hated feeling this weak and defenseless. Had it not been for the missing kid, I would have turned around and put a lot of miles between me and that dog.

While Cam methodically let the long lead play out and then reeled it back in to match the dog’s pace as she worked the scent, Bill, Officer Reynolds and I checked bushes and shrubs along the route. Calling Denny’s name every few minutes, we strained our ears and eyes for any sign of a little boy. All we heard was the occasional faint bark of the air scent dogs in the distance. Providing occasional words of explanation to concerned homeowners, Officer Reynolds smoothed the way as Zackie weaved in and out of neighborhood yards following the scent. With the ambient light dimming, one by one, each of us turned on either a flashlight or a headlamp. The chill in the air became more pronounced and a light drizzle danced on my face. After about a half mile, my knees were starting to feel a little swollen and stiff and I wished I had taken some ibuprofen before we started the task. Just as I was about to abuse my knees some more by getting down to check yet another clump of bushes in front of yet another house, I saw the dog’s head suddenly snap towards the house. Zackie stopped walking and stared intently into the darkness surrounding the house. We all followed suit and studied the house and front yard for any movement. No lights were on either outside or inside. It was unlikely anyone was home. Zackie began moving into the yard at a brisk trot. As if we were all attached to the same lead, we fell into step behind her and began calling Denny’s name more urgently. As we entered the backyard of the house, my headlamp shone on a children’s playground set. It had swings and one of those slides that had a little fort built around the top of it. Zackie scrambled to the playground set and pounded on the ladder leading up to the fort with her front paws.

Cam looked up at the fort. “He’s up there, I’m sure of it.” Being the lightest and smallest of the searchers, I immediately started climbing up the ladder, calling Denny’s name. Squeezing myself through the opening of the small fort, I could see a little boy in a red and white striped shirt sitting in a corner and shivering. He paid no attention to me as I clambered forward, slipping my pack off to grab the space blanket.

“Denny’s here!” I cried. “He looks okay, just really cold.” I could hear Bill repeating this information into his radio and Cam praising Zackie. I flipped my headlamp to the red setting, so as not to blind Denny and crept forward. “Hi, Denny. How are you doing, little guy? I’m going to get you out of here, okay?” Wrapping the boy in the space blanket, I tried to gently pull him towards me and the opening. He was cold to the touch and damp from the rain, and as I tried to move him, he began crying and kicking. “C’mon, dude. You’ll be warm and dry real soon if you just let me move you.” Backing off, I called to the searchers outside. “He is not happy about being moved. You’re going to have to give us a minute.” As long I didn’t try to move Denny towards the opening to the fort, he was all right with me coming closer to him. Eventually, I was able to sit next to him and put my arm around him. There was still no kicking and screaming, so I moved in closer and removed the wet shirt. He was freezing. I opened up my jacket and wrapped my arms around him, trying to give him some of my body heat. We sat that way for a little while and he seemed to settle in, generally ignoring me now. I lifted him and made a move towards the opening while he held this mood.

As we got to the top of the ladder, Officer Reynolds positioned himself below and reached up to take the boy. I handed Denny off, wrapped in the space blanket and then grabbed my pack before descending the ladder myself. I felt almost giddy with relief that we found him, but I was now close to shivering myself.

“Are you sure he’s okay? He’s not really responsive. Is that the autism?” Bill asked quietly as he took my pack to ease my climb down.

“It might be autism or it might be a side effect from taking the Risperdal.” I grimaced, betraying the unease I felt at the mention of the drug. This reaction was not lost on Cam, who now studied me through narrowed eyes as I stood there and shivered. Determined to distract him from my real source of discomfort, I deliberately rubbed my arms. “I’ll warm up now that I don’t have to sit still.” Zipping up my jacket, I began walking in small circles.

“Bring the dog here.” Officer Reynolds motioned for the dog as he checked the boy over. “Maybe Denny could use some distraction while we wait for the ambulance.” Zackie was now naked of harness with the lead clipped to her choke collar. With a word from Cam, she ambled over to the sitting child. I took a step forward to stop this, but Cam grabbed my arm and shook his head. As I was about to yank my arm back and run to the boy, the dog snuffled Denny’s face, causing the boy to erupt in giggles. The men smiled to see Denny’s reaction, but I could feel the blood drain from my face and I kept my guard up, still not trusting the situation. In a little while, with another word from Cam, the dog was lying next to the boy, keeping him warm as Denny ruffled her fur. Zackie’s face unexpectedly reflected both stoicism and tolerance of the situation. This was definitely not the look of ecstasy that some dogs display when kids pet them. We offered Denny food and water, but he was uninterested in anything but the dog. While everyone else was focused on the dog and boy, I could sense Cam was dissecting me in some way. Just as I thought I would start squirming from this scrutiny, a police car carrying Denny’s parents and an ambulance pulled up in front of the house. The EMTs checked Denny over again and then wrapped him in an additional blanket. After reassuring the parents, they then loaded the family into the back of the ambulance for the short trip to the hospital.

“Good job, folks!” Officer Reynolds was all smiles. “Can we give you a lift back to the post office?” It would have been a tight squeeze for all of us and a dog in the back of the police cruiser, so we declined and began the walk back. On the way, Bill ran into some of his teammates as they returned from their assigned tasks. Chatting amiably, the group inched in front of us as they congratulated Bill on helping to make the find. I trudged along next to Cam and Zackie.

Cam caught my eye and then tilted his head toward Zackie. “I don’t think my dog much likes you.”

I pursed my lips and replied, “I think the feeling is mutual.”

“You are not inherently cruel to children.” He zipped up his coat as he walked. “You did all right with that young lad just now.”

I stopped walking and glared at him. “I’ve always been kind to children. What in the hell are you talking about? I wouldn’t be in SAR if I didn’t care about other people.”

“Who taught you? I can only conclude that there is either something lacking in your training or something lacking in your morality and ethics. So, which is it?”

“Taught me? I learned from my team and I read a lot of SAR manuals. Is that what you’re talking about? And by the way, I don’t appreciate you denigrating the work my team put into me. I do okay.” I stopped walking, warming to the fight and jabbing my finger into his chest. “As for my morality and ethics, at least I don’t have a dangerous dog that could go after someone at any time.”

Cam cocked an eyebrow at me. “Has she ever growled at you? Bared her teeth?” As I shook my head no, he continued. “Then what has she done to you to make you feel so unsafe?”

“She--- she looked at me.” I was stuttering and instantly realized how lame that sounded. “What I mean is… I don’t know what I mean. I can’t explain it, but there’s something really wrong with that dog.”

“More likely, something wrong with you. I think she looked at you and found you wanting. You were judged unfit.”

At that, my mouth opened and closed uselessly as I struggled to find a way to defend myself. I finally just asked the obvious question. “Why am I unfit?”

“You were very unkind to that other boy. I was shocked by your behavior. I think if Zackie were going to bite you, it would have happened then. So, back to the paradox. Why did you behave so distastefully to the first boy, yet act the very picture of a saint with the second?”

“What first boy? That thing in the woods? Is that what you’re talking about?” I stopped walking and threw my hands up in disgust and frustration. Turning his head, Cam pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, trying to maintain calm. Eventually, he took a deep breath and looked back at me.

“I really hate that you refer to them as things. He is not a thing, he was a living boy once.” Cam looked steadily into my eyes, gauging my comprehension as he went on. “He was frightened and alone….” As I stared back at him with incredulity, Cam dropped his eyes and sighed. Finally, looking up again and he met my eyes. “You were never taught, were you?” He nodded his head as if he finally understood. “Look, I’m starving. After the debrief for the search, we should get something to eat and talk a bit. Things cannot go on as they have.”

CHAPTER 3

Cam fed Zackie in the parking lot of the fast food restaurant and then left her to doze in the car while we ate. The restaurant was largely empty at this hour, most customers preferring to satisfy late night cravings using the drive through. We chose a booth at the back and while my stomach was nervous, I was still able to easily devour my food. I am not a picky eater and because of one thing or another in my life interfering with regular meals, I am almost always starving. The two conditions in combination create the potential for awkward moments during meals, so I prefer to eat alone rather than risk displaying what must be appalling table manners. As I caught myself in the mirrors surrounding the booth, I saw a pale young woman with deeply shadowed eyes and dark russet hair messily pulled into what remained of a braid. My cheeks were stuffed with food like a hamster. I looked away and tried to swallow. In deference to what I thought might be British sensibilities, I refrained from speaking with my mouth full, leaving Cam an opening to start the conversation.

“Right then.” He concentrated on wiping the grease from his hands with a napkin, avoiding looking at my distended face. “I was taught by my maternal grandmother and she was taught by hers. This has been the way of it in my family for every generation where I have been able to trace back. I was the first male in three hundred years to be provided this education.” There was no trace of either pride or shame in this statement. He was merely presenting it as fact. “Was there no one in your family who was willing to teach you?” He looked steadily at my eyes as he asked this.

I was loath to reveal anything about myself, but this felt like a transaction and the only way that I was going to get any information was to provide it. After some hesitation, I responded. “I was adopted.” At this, he began nodding again, as if he could possibly understand my situation.

He pointed to his right cheek. “You have a little ketchup.” As I scrubbed my face with the napkin, he sat forward and continued. “Do you know anything about your biological parents?”

“Nothing. All I know is that I was adopted as an infant.”

“And how did your adoptive family take to your abilities?”

“They sent me to psychiatrists.” I shrugged and feigned indifference. “Made me take drugs.”

“Risperdal?”

I nodded numbly and slipped in my first lie. “They did everything just short of actually having me committed.”

“If they believed you were insane, why didn’t they commit you?”

“They were going to. I left before they could do it.” By omitting the word ‘again’ from my answer, I committed my second lie.

“Ahhh…” Sitting back, he continued the inquisition. “And how have you avoided the same fate now that you are a free range human?”

I shrugged again and tried to assume a poker face. “I lie. A lot.”

“And are you so certain of your own sanity?”

We stared at each other for a moment and then I finally broke. “Not always. But today’s events seem to support my view of reality. You saw it too, after all. More importantly, Zackie saw it.”

“Again, not an it.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded to me to make sure I got it. “In my book, harboring doubts about one’s sanity are points in your favor. But, while Zackie and I did see him, this proves nothing. Did you know there was a case of a shared psychotic disorder involving a dog? The dog’s owner was an elderly woman with psychosis. She most definitely saw things that weren’t there and her dog displayed behavioral responses conditioned by her delusional beliefs.”

I quirked an eyebrow at Cam. “Shared psychotic disorder involves closely related individuals, like a parent and child, husband and wife, siblings… It’s also extremely rare. Since you’re a canine handler team, it’s possible that you and Zackie might be sharing a delusion.” I put the eyebrow down and leaned forward. “But we’ve never met before and I know for a fact that we both saw something that looked like a boy. I’ll bet if we each independently wrote down a description of what we saw, they’d be identical.” I sat back and folded my arms across my chest. “I’ll also bet that people like us spend a lot of time trying to self-diagnose by reading books on psychiatry.”

The corner of his mouth lifted in a wry smile and he spoke softly. “You understand that I need to be careful here. By agreeing with you about what we saw and not trying to convince you to return to your family and take your meds, I could be doing you harm. There are far more people in this world who see things and need the meds than there are people like you and me.”

Sighing, I pushed the hair out of my eyes and looked askance. “How can you be sure that we don’t both need the meds?”

Cam responded with a grin. “To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a banana is just a banana… and sometimes a ghost is just a ghost.” That made me smile and for the first time in a long time, I began to relax a little.

I finally asked him again the question that was burning in my mind since the encounter in the woods. “How do you make them go away?”

“I don’t.” He jutted his chin towards the parking lot. “That’s all Zackie’s doing.”

“What, is she like a guard dog that protects you from these things?”

He sighed dramatically and slouched down tiredly in the seat. “I can see we have a lot of work ahead of us. You persist in thinking of them as objects. You need to think of them as people if you’re to do any good. And no, Zackie does not guard me from them.” Cam was back to studying me now. Tilting his head, he said, “You’ve had some experience with her now. What do you really think Zackie is?”

“She’s not a dog.” I sat quietly for a moment and examined what my senses told me. “Other than being able to say what she’s not, I can’t say what she is. Really, all I can say for sure is that she scares the crap out of me.”

“You’ve had a bad start with her, but I think we can remedy that. She’s nothing if not patient. You made the mistake of doing harm to one of her charges and this is something you must never, never do again. I can’t protect you from her if you decide to be foolish.” He gave me a penetrating look to see if his words had any impact. I felt my brow wrinkle with worry and I swallowed reflexively. I did not want to find out what would happen if I did something ‘foolish.’ Seeing that I was taking his warning seriously, he nodded and asked, “Do you know what a psychopomp is?”

“I – I’ve never heard the term before.” I was stuttering again, unsure of myself and almost hoping that he wouldn’t tell me.

“Zackie is a psychopomp.” Folding his forearms on the table, he leaned forward to explain. “She conveys the dead to the afterlife. Every culture has sacred stories that speak about these beings. Most relate to animals. In religious texts from around the world, these guides have been described as everything from dolphins, to birds, bees and foxes. The stories from the Aztecs and the Greeks have dogs who serve as the escort. Think Cerberus guarding the gates of Hades, with a singular appetite for living flesh, only allowing the spirits of the dead to freely enter the underworld.” I swallowed and nodded for him to go on. “Sometimes, there are human representations, like the Norse Valkyries or the Roman Charon, ferrying the dead across the river Styx. The Grim Reaper with his scythe is all over headstones from the Victorian era. These beings can take on any form they choose.”

I sat there in stunned silence. Even after all that I have gone through with the unseen world, I would not have believed him if I had not had firsthand experience with her disapproval.

He looked at me and gave me a second before he continued. “Do you understand the nature of your offense?”

“I interfered with what is rightfully hers.”

“More than that. She protects and shepherds these souls. She saw you take out your anger on one of her flock. What did that dead child do to elicit such a response from you?”

“It – he kept grabbing my hands and pulling on my clothing. I was afraid Steve, the guy I was training with, would notice. Things can go downhill fast if that happens. I’d have to move. It’s happened to me before.” Gritting my teeth to keep my emotions in check, I tried to explain. “The dead see me and they’re all over me. If I don’t push them away, if I don’t punch, kick and scream to get them off of me, I stop seeing my world. What they see and feel takes over and it’s always a horror show of their last minutes before dying.” I roughly yanked the bangs back and out my eyes and forced myself to keep my voice low. “If someone sees me when any of this is going on, the best thing that happens is that they want to medicate the hell out of me. My own family tried to put me away, for shit’s sake.” I took a deep breath to try to regain some calm. “Look, I don’t want to have to move again, and I can’t risk being sent back to the psychiatrists.”

Cam looked steadily at me until I was calm enough to listen. “This child died because he ran into the woods to escape a bear. He was panicked and he lost his way. After days of wandering, he could not find his way back and eventually succumbed to exposure. He died cold and frightened and crying for his mother. He kept grabbing your hands because he was trying to slip his hand into yours. He grabbed your clothing because it was like hanging on to his mother’s skirt. He wanted you to take him home.”

Cam paused to give me time to process what he was saying and then continued. “If you found a little boy lost in the mall and he tried to take your hand, would you push him to the ground and strike him? This is what Zackie saw.”

My gut churned and the meal threatened to come back up. I whispered my question, afraid of the answer. “Will she kill me for what I’ve done?” I felt deserving of death, but frightened nonetheless.

“No. If she wanted your life, you’d right now be a pile of cooling meat in the woods.”

He let me chew on that a bit and I thought back to other encounters, reinterpreting them in light of what I had just been told. I remembered the teenager in the subway, pushing me closer and closer to the edge of the platform as the train came rushing through. Was he trying to show me what happened to him? Did he need me to tell someone that he had been pushed, that it wasn’t suicide? I thought about the charred and blackened remains of a young girl that crawled towards me along the floor of my dorm room. I freaked out and my roommate immediately made the request to move to another room. I learned later that someone had died in a dorm fire on that campus. Did she want me to know that she tried to do all the right things to escape the blaze, staying low to avoid the smoke and desperately trying to make it to an exit? Did she just want someone to help her to finally make it out of the burning building?

My face crumpled with remorse and the tears were about to flow. Relaxing his posture, Cam stretched his long legs under the table and kicked me lightly in the shins to get my attention. He looked at me with a faint smile. “You haven’t asked the obvious question.”

“Huh?” I was startled out of my downward spiral and took a moment to focus on him.

Having my attention now, Cam posed the question. “Is Zackie her real name? Seems a bit informal, don’t you think?” I had to agree and nodded my head slightly. He began fiddling with a straw, occasionally glancing at me as he spoke. “It’s something of an inside joke between her and me. I had no idea what to call her when she first came into my life. I was traveling in the hills of North Carolina at the time and ran across a backwoods hunter. Most humans are too insensible to understand her power and, sure enough, he offered to buy her from me.” Slipping into an Appalachian twang, Cam continued. “Said she was a fine looking Plott hound and would be great to hunt bear with. He’d name her Zackie if I’d sell her to him. He promised me that he would never use Zackie as a coon hound. ‘Damned waste of the breed,’ he said.” In his normal voice, Cam finished the story. “From that day on, she was Zackie to me. I think this proves she has a sense of humor, since I still walk among the living.” He winked at me and smiled more openly.

Just then, a restaurant worker came to mop the floor near our feet. “Are you folks about done? We’d like to close up.” Stretching tired limbs and marshalling our trash, we left the restaurant and walked into the night.

I stopped Cam before we reached the parked cars. “What’s next?”

“What’s next, indeed?” Yawning and stretching, he drawled out the instructions for my future. “You will start your apprenticeship tomorrow.”



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