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“Undog” © 2023 by Kring Demetrio

 

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There’s a dog in this house. A not-quite-a-dog. An undog. I heard its whimpering the first week I slept here, the thump, thump, thump of its bulky legs on the old tiles. I found long brown hair mixed with dust bunnies where the walls met. When there’s a loud noise outside, the undog barks, a wounded kind of bark, and each day I discover a new couch pillow chewed to shreds. It used to keep me up at night, at first, this weird haunting. But I got used to it because it’s better than the alternative, which is moving back home.

My parents never let me have a dog, but now I might not be alone in the house after all. Except I can’t find it anywhere. It is hiding from me. The creature that growls in my ear when I sleep and leaves muddy paw prints on my bedsheets in the morning. Or maybe I am hiding from it. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The undog scratches at my door every morning, begging for food. When I don’t open, the undog drags its body to the kitchen one clawed paw at a time and chews at the legs of the wooden table. The sound of teeth gnashing and wood splintering drives me up the wall, so I finally get up and stalk into the kitchen. I find it empty but for the smears of slobber on the tiles and the hand-size bite marks on the wood, like a gigantic termite raid. But it’s no termite. It’s the dog I don’t have.

Mom, if I still lived with her in that mausoleum, would make me clean it all up. She’d tell me she’s tired of my make-believe nonsense. To quit wasting time and go run some errands. But that’s what’s great when you live alone, isn’t it? You don’t have to sit and listen anymore.

 


 

I know where undog comes from. The neighbor tells me this story when I catch him stealing glances at my backyard. He asks me if I hear a howling coming from the drain. The neighbor’s great-uncle took in a mutt from the streets once upon a time. Trained it to watch the house. But he didn’t really like the creature. Forgot to feed it and leave water out for it. Until one day the mutt snatched a chicken from the henhouse and the neighbor’s uncle took his shotgun and chased the dog away. That was fifty years ago. I know dogs don’t live that long. But I am sure this one did. It must have run away from that house and crawled in here to lick its wounds, and now it lives between the walls, or in the basement, or some secret room that I haven’t found yet. It lives just to spite its ex-family.

 


 

My phone screen lights up and my mother’s name pops up.

Mom video chats with me about her average day, the garden, the neighbor, the neighbor’s garden, all the while petting Cookie who is sitting on her lap. A string of drool forms on the side of her mouth and she pants under my mom’s warm touch. Underneath it all, there is the muffled whimpering of the undog as it moves around the house, around me, searching for food. You are the new master of the house, I imagine it saying. It’s your job to feed me.

My mother did get a dog after my father died, when I finally built up the courage to move out of her house and live two towns away. Hypocrite. She got a Bichon Frise because, in her own words, she didn’t want to be alone in her old age. Cookie, the dog, is all white fuzz with two button black eyes in the middle of her round face. She sleeps on the bed that used to be mine, and she even has a small staircase so she can reach the cushions without leaping up and down for hours until my mom comes and helps her up.

What if I could give Cookie to the undog? Kill two birds with one stone. I shiver the thought away.

“This dog needs a haircut,” I say to Mom, trying to follow her blabbering.

“Oh, Anna,” Mom says as she pets the fuzzy whiteness. “Dogs need patience and love, and you, my dear, don’t seem to have either.”

A growling emptiness opens inside me like a second stomach. Like a hungry dog.

She enjoys telling me casual cruelties like that. It’s her little revenge because I no longer live with her. But maybe she forgets that this is how it always was for me back home. Only double the dose when Dad was around. Cruelty is my family’s natural language. At least now it comes diffused through the phone screen and at a certain time of day.

 


 

After I finish my shift at the post office, I stop at the grocery store and buy the juiciest piece of meat I can find. When I get home, I take it out of the plastic wrap, glistening and blood-smeared, and leave it outside my door. I disappear under the covers and listen as the undog trudges along corridors only it knows. I imagine the wooden walls separating enough for it to pass its misshapen body through holes I cannot see so it can reach me. Soon it nuzzles at my gift with its damp snout. If that’s really what it has.

I keep thinking if that’s my dog in the walls—the dog I was meant to have—maybe there’s also another family. A broken, misshapen family full of open wounds stumbling around in the gaps, looking for me. I keep dead silent; pretend I listen to their keening. Like a whole other species communicating. I twist my lips, trying to make sounds that could call to them, but nothing comes out.

I fall asleep to the sound of chewing.

 


 

When Mom calls, I can barely hear her under the cries of the undog. Mom’s small, inquiring eyes stare through the screen and for a moment I can swear that she hears it too. I am waiting for the question. Anna, did you get a dog? What makes you think you deserve a dog? Girls who abandon their mother deserve nothing. I want her to say something so I can ignore her. But she settles back in her favorite armchair with the yellow-turned-brown upholstery and Cookie runs up to her like she hasn’t seen Mom in years, and the moment is gone. I suddenly get the feeling that Cookie is more real than me. When I try to speak it’s like another sound is about to come out. Like keening from behind walls.

Mom puts her phone on the coffee table as she picks up the dog, but her voice still comes through clear when she says, “Cookie, dear, you are like the child I wish I had.”

 


 

I head for the pet store and buy a bag of top-brand dog food. I don’t even know if the undog eats dog food. But I do know that fine cuts of meat don’t come cheap.

The clerk is a small woman with a big smile.

“Haven’t seen you before.” She pushes a box of dental chews in my direction. “This brand of dog food is not for puppies.”

“It’s not for a puppy.” I grab a bunch of dental chews. I am pretty sure they didn’t have those fifty years ago, but it’s worth a try.

“What breed?” she asks as she scans my stuff.

“It’s a mutt.” I grin. “My mutt.”

It’s my day off, so I go straight home. Before I walk through the door, I can feel the low, ragged breath of the undog. When I go inside, the house falls silent again. Like someone is waiting. The drapes are pulled shut, but I leave them. I don’t turn on the lights either. I know by now that the undog is a shy creature. It is bolder during the night, when it breathes down my face. Or hidden in the shadows of the secret spaces. You would be too if you were an undog, sliding through narrow passages for decades, asking to be fed.

“I brought you food,” I yell at the emptiness in front of me, certain that the undog gets me as much as I get it. “I’ll be in the living room.”

A pair of eyes open in the darkness of the corridor. Maybe it’s three eyes. I try not to stare. I slowly make my way to the couch and rip open the bag of dog food. I take a fistful of kibble in my hand and reach out in the darkness, willing my arm to stop shaking.

“Come on, you little monster.”

The undog hobbles into the room and turns to face me, its tail wagging like a dog’s. Its body’s a rotting mess. I can’t tell where its right leg ends and its left one begins. Thump, thump, thump, it comes closer. I hear the breathing, the low rumble of its internal organs. The undog has no mouth, just a ragged, ravenous hole filled with hair and teeth and bad breath.

The phone starts buzzing in my pocket, and the kibble flies out of my hand and scatters on the tiles.

“Shit!”

The undog takes a few more steps. The endless hole of its mouth growls once and then gets to work, sucking and crunching at the kibble on the floor. I see my chance and stretch my hand a little bit more. I stroke fur that feels like rubber.

“Good little monster.”

It doesn’t protest. It recognizes a friend. I take my phone out and hang up on Mom. Undog’s split tongue licks my cheek like I’ve always imagined, and I giggle like the kid I could have been, if I were someone else.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Eugenia Triantafyllou is a Greek author and artist with a flair for dark things. Her work has been nominated for the Ignyte, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and she is a graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find her stories in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and other venues. She currently lives in Athens with a boy and a dog. Find her on Twitter @foxesandroses or her website https://eugeniatriantafyllou.com.
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