Chapter 1:- Prologue
Rio stiffened beneath my touch, striking a glossy hoof against the floor.
“What, girl?” I asked, still fighting the tangle that snarled her ebony mane. She snorted, nostrils turning the red of fresh blood. She shook, long neck yanking the brush out of my fingers. It bounced off the opposite stall wall with a thump.
“Rio!” Keeping a hand on her, I walked around to her other side and leaned down to search for the brush. For a moment everything was eerily still——-completely quiet. Then my dogs, Maggie and Hunter, leaped up from where they’d been dozing, snouts propped on a bag of feed. They rushed the barn door, exploding in a fit of barking.
The other horses whickered, voices filled with equal parts concern and frustration. Hooves stomped, crackling hay.
“What the——-?” My fingers danced down Rio’s velvety nose. “Shhh. It’s okay, girl.” Slipping out of her stall, the fine hairs on my arms stood as if lightning charged the autumn air. “Everything’s okay,” I insisted as I marched over to Maggie and Hunter.
They were not convinced. Wedging myself in the middle of the two of them, I snaked my hands around their collars and peered through the narrow opening separating the barn’s huge doors. The barnyard was strangely silent, as if everything simultaneously shut its mouth to stare with fearful wonder at whatever stalked the shadows. The dogs pulled, pawing and growling.
The unnaturally white expanse where the barnyard spotlight flooded the space between the first barn and the house stretched out like a broad scar before me. Never before had it seemed so ugly and bare—-or such a great distance. A cool night breeze pushed the faint noise of television to me. Dad was watching reruns of that crazy video show. Would he hear us over the blare of television if we needed help? The answer hit like a rock dropping into my stomach as Dad’s laugh punctuated the suddenly calm air and he cranked up the volume.
I glanced down at the dogs. Crap. I was on my own with only Dumb and Dumber to help.
My gaze scraped across the yard from the reassuring glow of my home’s windows to the tall spotlight. I whispered calming words to the dogs——vague promises of tasty snacks. Huh. Usually gobs of moths fluttered in the glare of the spotlight, bats darting in and out to catch dinner. Tonight there was nothing. The air had gone still, but my apprehension made it seem to buzz with electricity.
I swallowed. A shadow sliced across my field of vision, briefly blotting out the light and I stumbled back, fingers slipping free of the dogs’ collars. Maggie and Hunter’s voices blended into a single thin and wavering whine. I grabbed a pitchfork leaning against the wall and held it before me.
Something shoved at the other side of the door. Nudged the giant door so it wobbled. The creature whuffled the airlike a hound searching for a trail. Its nose, nearly broad as my palm and black as the shadow its body cast, thrust between the doors, nostrils stretching as it sucked down our scent. The dogs slinked back to me, tails tucked and bodies trembling as I brandished the pitchfork.
But far more frightening than the huge nose (at the height of my chest, I realized) was the line of teeth visible between dark rubbery lips. Long and jagged, they left no doubt they were designed to shred.
The beast snorted, a sound that rivaled Rio, and then——as suddenly as the thing had appeared—-it was gone. I gasped. Trembling like my dogs, I looked at the pitchfork in my hands and laughed. Add a torch and I’d be set to join the mob in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What did I think was out there? A monster?
I winked at Maggie and Hunter. “Probably just old Monroe’s dog Harold anointing everybody’s fence posts,” I assured. They wagged their tails, but knew better than to trust my words.
I set the pitchfork back in place and busied myself tidying the barn, too aware I hesitated to switch off the lights and cross the bare and bright white expanse between here and home. Too soon there was nothing left to clean or rearrange. And tomorrow was a school day.
I steeled myself for the walk back to the house. “Come on, Hunter. That’s a good girl, Maggie.” Dread clenching my heart, I remembered the strange stories that came out of the city of Farthington last year. Flanked by my dogs, I walked swiftly to the house.
I only relaxed when the door closed and the bolt slid into place. Hunter looked up at me expectantly, sitting like the gentleman he was far from being. And very happy to remind me with a solemn look from his soulful golden eyes of the snacks I’d recently promised.