Paul first saw the dark thing one night when he let Duke outside. It was there in the light that spilled from the kitchen, staring at him. Paul went stiff, every instinct telling him to turn and run, but the thing was gone. It loped into the darkness, and Paul might have written it off to booze and imagination if Duke hadn’t given chase, snarling in a way Paul never imagined his companion capable.
The glimpse had been so brief, so charged with terror, Paul wasn’t even sure what he’d seen. He could not conjure a clear image, but what he remembered had been wrong, too tall and upright to be an animal but too bent and lanky for a man. Only the thought that Duke would chase the thing beyond the property line and be lost sent Paul out into the night.
The fresh snow reflected the cold light of the gravid moon, casting the farm in cheerless indigo like the ghost of its living self. Paul drew his arms tight, his breath coming in short foggy bursts. The tracks beside Duke’s were larger than any boot, and bifurcated into two thick toes. Tempted to take a closer look, Paul instead forced his attention away. He shouted for Duke, but his call died in the still silence of the snowy landscape.
The property was still unfamiliar. It had been theirs only two months. The house had seen several renovations, but its foundations were older than the nation. Mice burrowed warrens into the fieldstone walls, and creeping vines and strange waxy fungi rooted in the crumbling mortar. Paul had no yen to leave their city apartment for a fixer-upper farmhouse miles from the nearest neighbor and twenty minutes further from work, but it was Amy’s dream, and the settlement from her mother’s death that paid for it.
The tracks turned around the house, and Paul felt a sinking dread about their destination. No renovation had ever touched the root cellar. Buried beneath the original house, it was accessible only by the stone staircase beneath a hill in the back yard. The broker never mentioned it, leaving Paul and Amy to find the entrance, hidden behind a cluster of brambles, on their first tour around the property. Amy was terrified of snakes and wouldn’t go near it, so Paul descended alone, stale air rising up to meet him. Halfway down the strangely deep stairs, the absolute darkness turned him around.
Standing now at the ancient threshold of the root cellar, Paul fought his flight instinct. Neither snow nor moonlight penetrated very deep, and he could just make out the tracks on the top stair before inky blackness swallowed the rest. Paul’s clenched vocal chords emitted a tiny croak, but he cleared his throat and called for Duke, once and then again. No echo escaped the cellar. Paul looked up at the house, at the warm glow from the baby’s room where Amy was working. Deep below, in a chamber buried in the frozen earth, some shadowy cryptid was either eating or being eaten by their dog.
The speech that came then from those depths resembled none Paul ever heard. It seemed impossible that those foul syllables could originate with a human tongue. The voice, however, was too familiar. That voice once offered blessings at Christmas dinner and suggested lineament for stretch marks. It was the voice of Amy’s mother.
Paul felt immobilized. He shivered, less from the cold than from primal shock. It would not stop, that sweet familiar voice belching syllables offensive even to the ears of one who could not comprehend their meaning. He was drawn into the cellar by some force of suggestion in that chanting, but at his first step, the chanting was interrupted by a pained yelp and something charged up the stairs.
Paul ran, slipping and scrambling in the snow, absent of direction or intention but possessed by the deepest region of his animal brain. He was too slow by far, but the thing that tackled him and pushed past his raised arms lapped his face with a warm tongue. Duke.
The dog was unharmed but desperate, tail tucked tight as he pressed into Paul’s legs. Paul took his collar and hurried back to the house. In the kitchen he locked the sliding door and shouted for Amy, and felt a wave of relief when she answered with her usual tone of irritation. Paul drew every curtain, then cracked a beer and swallowed half to soothe his nerves, one hand playing through the long fur on Duke’s shoulders.
From that day the dark things were always with him, watching from their hiding places just out of sight, never seen directly but lurking at the edge of sight. Long evening shadows withdrew behind trees and rocks. Each time Paul’s headlights swung down the half-mile of pitted gravel driveway, lined on both sides by sycamore trunks, he knew he was surrounded. Never did he discern a shape or substance, but he was haunted by the dim memory of that first glimpse, the coiled thing he had taken by surprise. How long had it been watching him?
Duke refused to go outside, consenting only when Paul leashed him and after much protest, and only when they went out through the front door. Never would he circle to the rear of the house, but cowered at the first such suggestion. The dog confined himself to the kitchen, refusing even to join Paul in bed. Amy was in the habit of sleeping in the baby’s room, leaving Paul to sleep alone. Their single large bedroom window overlooked the pool, but in the distance, beyond a scraggly line of brush, lurked the root cellar. Paul never looked toward the window at night. He slept with his back to it, blankets drawn over his face.
Paul put in long days at work. He often stopped at a nearby bar until he was drowsy, and drove the last bleary miles through half-lidded eyes. He saw Amy at breakfast, sometimes. On weekends he ran errands to the hardware store, and occasionally he offered to help with the baby’s room. Amy was much too pregnant to be doing such hard work, swollen like an enormous jellied insect egg ready to burst into a billion larvae, but they could tolerate only minutes together before some petty argument or sullen silence drove him back to the kitchen.
Once, pressed by his sleepless dread and lubricated by one too many Sunday morning beers, Paul suggested selling the house. Amy’s face went red, and Paul did not escape before she exploded into tears. Those same tears reappeared each time they held eye contact, even after he replaced the rug onto which she kicked a can of white paint.
Paul noticed odd lumps beneath Duke’s fur, which grew rapidly into fleshy lesions, dozens of them, all over the dog’s body. The vet was at a loss to identify them, but said they were vascular and could not be removed without considerable pain and risk. They even grew on Duke’s face, one bulging like the head of a maggot from a nostril, another swelling an eyelid closed. Lesions between the pads of his paws made the dog limp and cry, and those on the roof of his mouth made eating painful. Lesions protruded even from his rear, and Duke defecated only when Paul dragged him, crying and cowering, into the yard. The time was well past when Paul should have made the difficult decision, but it was not something he was ready to face.
In early February came a week of unseasonable warm weather, and Amy sent Paul out to mow the suddenly-lush lawn. A riding mower had been included with the house, and once he found the gas can Paul patrolled first the front lawn, carefully and precisely, before forcing himself out back.
Starting near the house he swept back and forth, each pass bringing him closer to that yawning black mouth. He felt a surge of fear each time he turned his back to it, and each time he swung to face it he expected some inhuman thing to burst forth. Finally, Paul stopped the mower. He searched through moving boxes until he found a flashlight, then stood for a long time at the top of those cold steps, staring into the darkness with heightened senses, waiting for sound or movement. He considered going back for a rake or sturdier implement, but chided himself for his cowardice.
The beam shined on the wet stone of the steps and walls, but it did not reach the bottom, even as Paul began his descent. Stale air caressed him like a clammy hand, as if winter itself lay in wait. Soon the daylight was but a beacon, and the little flashlight became Paul’s only illumination. The stairs continued down, Paul guessed, more than two stories before the soil floor came into view.
Runoff from the melting snow had turned the floor to mud. With each sinking step, black water stained Paul’s white sneakers. The earthy odor of decaying peat hung thick as the light revealed ghostly mushrooms in the corners where soil met stone. Silvery spider webs of niter crept from cracks in the walls, seeming almost luminescent. Paul did not linger in the chamber, with its sucking floor and strange fungi, nor did he dwell on the pervasive sense that something unseen lurked in the room. He focused on the observable fact that the room was empty. His dread was nothing more than a silly childhood fear of the dark. Nevertheless, as he climbed the stairs he felt that familiar electricity in his legs, and by the time he emerged into the sunlight he was running.
The dark things did not depart him. If anything they seemed reinvigorated, and with the frigid temperatures that swept over the farm that evening came the sense that something watched from the next room, just beyond the edge of vision.
Monday morning Amy joined him for breakfast and announced her intention to find a midwife and give birth in the baby’s room. Paul didn’t say anything. Arguing was pointless.
“Also,” Amy added as she cleared her dishes, “why don’t you be a man and have your damn dog put down already?”
“Your” dog, Paul thought. Not “ours.” What he did put down was a second beer, and a third, before he drove to work.
The days grew hazy, one bleeding into another. When Paul brought a case of empties out to the bin, he was surprised to find two others already awaiting the weekly pickup. Duke’s food and water bowls found a permanent place beneath the kitchen table, as did Duke, and each evening Paul poured a beer into Duke’s water bowl and played with the matted fur on the dog’s shoulder, pretending not to notice the rubbery lesions.
The dog suffered most in the deepest hours of the night, and things went so far that Paul once fetched the axe, bringing it and Duke into the mudroom to do what must be done. Even as the dog whimpered, Paul looked into his eyes and knew that they shared the same torment. Duke was the only one who saw what Paul saw, who sensed what Paul did about the house, the cellar, the baby’s room. The axe stayed in the mudroom, and Duke returned to his spot beneath the kitchen table.
One night, driving home with heavy eyes, Paul hit something. He hadn’t seen it, and neither swerved nor braked, and he sat in the stopped car for long minutes, head in hand, trying to think through the booze and the panic. He could already tell that the damage to the car was considerable, at least one headlight knocked out completely. He prayed it was a deer and not a person.
He knew he had to look, but he couldn’t make himself move. If it was a man, he could still be alive, could need an ambulance. But what if it was something else? Something laid out dead and immobile and horribly visible?
He forced himself out, and in the red wash of the taillights found the folded furry hump of a dead deer. He was less than a mile from the house and in his drunken logic terrified of what Amy or the neighbors might say, so he hoisted it into the trunk, its bony legs protruding from the half-open gate. At the house he dragged it across the frozen ground, shivering and breathing in bursts of beer-scented fog, to the one place he knew it wouldn’t be found. For a moment he met the empty dead gaze of the deer, purple tongue bulging beneath its wet velvet nose, and then he gave it a shove and let it tumble down the flagstone steps and out of sight.
Paul jolted awake in the middle of the night, compelled to the window by some sense he could not resist. A light snow fell gently in the blue light of the full moon as Amy lumbered in her pink robe and fuzzy slippers toward the root cellar. Paul’s heart thrummed like the crank of a steam engine while she descended, while she was out of sight, and when she emerged cradling the deer like a fireman rescuing a child. Her face was possessed by a singular stare, never meeting Paul’s gaze or acknowledging him in any way. Beneath her nose was the stain like a beard, tar black in the moonlight.
Paul awoke at dawn not knowing whether he’d been dreaming. If there had been snow, it had melted before he awoke. Amy was asleep in the baby’s room, face clean, arms hugging her distended belly. Paul drank his breakfast, gave Duke a pat on the head, and headed to work without pause to consider the smashed car.
The midwife called that afternoon. Hurry, she said. There was a problem.
Paul sped the whole way, clear-minded with adrenaline. The sun was just setting, the sky dimming behind the skeletal hands of the trees, and Paul did not need the light of the surviving headlight. No dark thing lurked just out of sight. Instead, as he turned into the driveway, he saw it clearly for the first time.
It was on the roof of the farmhouse, its bent, tar-black body silhouetted against the pink sky. The shape of it was offensive, arms too long and legs too thick. It paid no attention to Paul. As he watched, it cocked its elbows back and kicked its knees up queerly high, dancing back and forth like a horse on its hind legs.
Paul skidded the car to a stop and ran into the house. The thing, unaffected, continued its jig. The mudroom door stood open, and Paul found the midwife on the stairs. She leaned against the wall, babbling in a language Paul recognized but which no one on Earth could decipher. Her right hand was at her face, and as he passed Paul realized she had chewed off her thumb. He felt his mind slipping as he bolted up the stairs.
The doctor was beside Amy. His pallor and vacant stare revealed that he, too, had passed beyond sanity. The thing Amy cradled and cooed at was stillborn, and nothing in the mass of suckered tentacles nor the single chitinous claw was remotely human. Paul would happily have joined Amy and the others in the sweet bliss of madness, but there was something else he had to do.
He descended the cellar stairs in a tumble, knowing he wouldn’t need the flashlight. The green-blue glow from the fungi and the luminescent niter was enough to see by. The thing that filled the chamber had been there longer than the house, longer perhaps than the Earth had known men. Paul could not conceive of the full shape of it. He saw only a writhing slippery mass half-formed from the shadow itself. He was not even certain it was physically present in the chamber. Perhaps those who originally excavated this cellar had exposed but a single cell or appendage. Perhaps it was imprisoned miles beneath this floor, but close enough to project into this reality.
Through some unknowable perception, Paul recognized this thing. Ancient, intelligent, and malevolent, it was the architect of all his torment, the master of the things that had haunted his vision. Here was a god older than any of mankind’s gods, its nature as unknowable to him as its form. At long last, his mind broken, Paul fell to the floor, pressing his face to the mud and offering praise and worship in the language it gave him.
A cry. Paul awoke facedown on the gravel driveway, drawn from a black void of lost time. He touched a hand to his face and it came away wet and red. The roof of the farmhouse was vacant. Had he hallucinated? The car idled behind him, chiming to remind him that door was open. His palms burned, from the gravel embedded in them. He must have fallen.
Paul slumped through the door and up the empty stairs, ignoring the flare of fire from his skinned knees. The sound of laughter met him as he reached the second floor and stopped, stunned, in the doorway. The doctor and the midwife stood beside Amy.
Amy raised the newborn toward him — tiny, pink, and wet. Eerily silent, but healthy. Paul’s relief was palpable. Had it all been a hallucination? He and Amy shared a smile, their first in months, and the distance between them seemed to close. They had a daughter.
Paul stepped forward, and stumbled over something soft and heavy. The doctor and the midwife turned ashen at the sight of Duke. The dog had dragged himself from the kitchen, all matted fur and labored breath, to block Paul from the baby’s room. Duke’s black lips turned up in a snarl as he met the baby’s eyes.
Those eyes. Those black eyes. They did not stray in infant wonder, but fixed upon the dog, then heavily on Paul. In them Paul saw the wisdom and the knowledge of a hundred thousand millennia. This was not his child, Paul realized. Amy was not even his wife. She had spent too much time in this house.
“Paul,” Amy shouted, “get your goddamn dog out — ”
She stopped when she saw the axe. None of them had noticed it, not even Paul, though it had accompanied him from the mudroom in his right hand. That same white-knuckled hand raised it high as Paul stepped past Duke, toward the insipid thing pretending to be his daughter. The baby’s ancient eyes watched with cold indifference.
CHRISTOPHER KEELTY is a writer and non-profit fundraiser by day. His fiction has previously appeared in Collective Fallout. Chris studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and grew up in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. As a fundraiser, he has worked to support equality and free artistic expression, to advance strong science education, and to end hunger and increase access to healthy food. Chris enjoys cooking, ice hockey, and microbrewed beer, and has no tentacles he is aware of. He lives in Harlem with his girlfriend and triumvirate of cats, and invites readers to comment at ChristopherKeelty.com.