SABRINA RODRIGUEZ - THE CADEJO
My legs burn as I chase after our greyhound, Bowser. His lithe legs propel him across the vacant street and into oncoming traffic. By the time the light changes and traffic stops, I can't see him anywhere. His brindle coat hides him from view. Even as I scream until my throat is raw and a metallic taste coats my mouth, a heavy, dark smog consumes Bowser as he disappears through the trees.
# # #
I place a bowl of fresh dog food and clean water on the kitchen floor. Norbert, my older brother, enters the kitchen. His cellphone chimes again and again as he fires off texts. He sits at the dining table and notices the dog bowls. A heavy sigh explodes from his chest.
"When're you going to stop putting his food out? It's a waste, " he says.
I look to the living room and find Bowser's bed. It is pristine and fluffed. Not a single toy or hair mars its surface. Frustration seethes beneath my skin as I grab the dog bowls from the floor and toss them into the sink. The metal collides with the plastic bowls. Norbert jumps and freezes as he sees the fury disfigure my face. The back of my neck is tight as I stomp over to Bowser's bed and hoist it over my shoulder.
Norbert rubs his forehead. "We have to move on. A year is a long time to be missing."
"Easy for you to say. He wasn't your support dog."
I grip Bowser's bed. The lingering smell of dog treats and his muddy paws wash over me. Tear prickle my eyes and threaten to spill over. I take a deep breath, trying to calm my trembling, and open the front door. Bowser sits patiently on the doormat. His brindle coat is lackluster and matted. The skin around his stomach and neck is loose and hangs like drying laundry. A thin line of scarred skin wraps around his neck like a collar.
I spin around and toss the dog bed next to the TV. As I open the door wide, Norbert nearly falls off his seat. His phone clatters to the floor and silence filled the room. Norbert races from the kitchen and wraps Bowser in his arms. He leans back and holds Bowser's angular face in his hands. Norbert's body shakes as he wrestles with his sobs. Bowser tilts his head and pushes past Norbert. With his tail high in the air, Bowser scouts the house. He looms over his bed and sticks his snout underneath.
I help Norbert stand and we share a confused glance. Right as Bowser settles into his bed, the garage door opens. The metallic whine is muffled, but his pointed ears are alert. The garage door closes with a bang and like a whirlwind, in come my parents with Susanne, my baby sister. Their animated chatter dies when they spot Bowser posed like a statue in his bed. Susanne twitches in Mom’s arms. As quickly as their excitement died down, it reignites as they clamber towards Bowser. He whines as they nearly suffocate him.
Mom moves to bring Susanne closer to Bowser, but she crawls away. Her stubby arms and legs push her across the carpeted floor. I pick her up and hold her close. As Norbert closes the front door, Susanne buries her head in my shoulder. Her tiny body trembles. I tap Norbert’s shoulder.
“Does Bowser seem off to you,” I ask.
Norbert shrugs and says, “He’s been gone so long, who knows what happened?”
Norbert walks over to the kitchen and pulls out the dog bowls from the sink. He gingerly places them on the floor and picks up his phone. Without a word, Norbert walks back to his room, texting. I watch as Bowser walks out of my parents’ arms and sits in front of me. His deep brown eyes bore into me. I try to pet his head, but he evades my hand and sniffs Susanne. He lifts his lips and tries to catch her bottoms. I push him away and walk towards Susanne's room as I try to soothe her tears. Bowser follows closely behind. His nails click against the tile hallway. I close the bedroom door, and his soft scratching fills the room.
# # #
I'm convinced something's off about Bowser. Even when we offer his house food, he refuses to eat more than a few bites. I've only seen him take one sip of water since he came home. For a dog that's been on the streets, you'd expect him to be famished, thirsty.
As I clear the table, a soft cry from the living room shocks me. I wipe my wet hands against my pants and shuffle to the living room. Bowser is cornering Susanne on his bed. Every time she tries to crawl away, he steps in front of her. He licks her exposed feet and she lets out a blood-curdling wail. I race to pick her up and push Bowser away. If I wasn't watching him, I would never have believed it. His lips curl back, and a quiet growl rumbles out.
As quickly as the growling started, it stops as Norbert runs into the room with Mom and Dad behind him. They examine every roll on Susanne's body. When everything checks out, a collective sigh is released. Mom and Dad take Susanne out of my arms and take her back to her room, fussing over her while she drinks up the attention. I tug on Norbert's arm. He looks at me with a mixture of annoyance and exhaustion.
"Bowser growled at me," I say.
He quirks an eyebrow. "We trained him out of that a long time ago. Did he forget his support training?"
I nod and try to find him. Bowser is nowhere in sight. I peek around the corner and don't see him, but Susanne's gentle struggles spark concern.
"Have you noticed how obsessed he is with Su?"
Norbert shrugs and says, "I guess? I don't know."
I tap my foot and nibble on my lips. Anxiety prickles underneath my scalp and skin. My stomach twists into giant knots.
"I'm going to keep an eye on him tonight."
Norbert sighs and says, "Just chill. I'm sure everything's fine."
I shake my head. The chill that runs through my body only intensifies. I rummage through the kitchen and grab a pile of snacks. With a hollow thump, I collapse into the couch and turn on the TV. The meaningless gossip and throng of advertisements play on the screen. Norbert rolls his eyes and walks away. On cue, Bowser walks into the living room and settles into his bed. His large eyes watch me. They stay on me like a telephoto lens as I reach for my first bag of chips. His ears twitch with every crunch as I chew. As I stare him down, Mom looks around the corner.
"Don't stay up too late," Mom says.
I look at my clock.
# # #
I tumble awake. Drool is slick on my cheek and empty bags of food litter the couch. The TV's harsh blue light burns my eyes. I check my phone and the bright screen displays the time. 3:30 A.M. I stretch and go to clean my mess when I notice Bowser's bed. It's empty. All that's left is a deep hole where his body laid. I tiptoe throughout the house but can't find him. My body feels like it's vibrating as I return to the living room and see the back door open. Curiosity piqued, I grab my sneakers and cellphone, turn on the flashlight, and head out.
With a wet thump, my shoes sink into the damp ground. The scent of wet cement and dirt sticks to my skin as I trudge through the backyard. Bowser's rabbit-like prints lead to the edge of the fence and disappear. I take a deep breath and climb the wooden fence. As I reach the top, I lose balance. My body collides with the damp ground on the other side. A shot of pain flies down my side. I stand and shake it off, but a dull ache persists. I push it to the back of my mind and find Bowser's footsteps again. They lead into the dense forest on the other side of the service road.
The wet branches scrap against my skin. With each step, it gets harder to find Bowser's footprints. Streams of moonlight become wider between the trees. I almost don't need the flashlight anymore. As I reach the edge of the forest and to a wide clearing, hefty rain pours. It stifles my sight but not enough to hide Bowser. Without issue, his feet propel tufts of dirt. His fur is no longer brindle, but a rich black that glistens as water drips down it. His feet look more like hooves. He sticks his snout into the hole and rips out something and chews. I search the ground and find a nearby rock. With a feeble throw, the rock bounces off several trees before tumbling into the clearing.
Disturbed, Bowser races off into the forest. His movements are swift and agile. I wait for a few seconds before I sneak towards the hole. The smell hits me from several feet away. Rotting flesh and metal. I walk closer. I regret it immediately. The disfigured corpse of a small child sits in the shallow grave. It's more like a damaged doll rather than human.
I run away.
With every labored breath, the edge of my fence comes into view. That's when the rhythmic sound of pounding hooves breaks through the rain. It's faint but gets louder every passing second. I pump my arms, begging that it'll give me speed. As I approach the fence, I catch sight of Bowser charging towards me. His eyes glow red in the moonlight and a red chain hangs from the scarred skin of his neck. I blink away the rain from my eyes and the glow disappears, but his sharp teeth are still snapping at my feet.
I toss myself over to the backyard, but my relief is short-lived. Not even half-way to the back door, and a shadow moves to my side. I catch the last seconds as Bowser lands in the backyard. He lands with such ease that I'm amazed before it clicks. I bolt for the back door and he comes for me. My feet slip across the soaked ground, but it helps me reach safety, but only for a second. As I try to slam the door shut, Bowser sticks his snout into the gap. With all my strength, I fight. My hands start to slip. I swallow my distress and kick. My feet slam into Bowser's snout until he relents. The door closes with a reassuring click. For good measure, I lock the door.
Still trembling and soaking wet, I wake my parents. Mom's face loses all color as she takes in my state.
"What happened? Why are you all wet?" she shouts.
Dad, still half-asleep, asks, "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, but something's wrong with Bowser. He..." I take a deep breath and continue, "I saw him eating someone."
Mom wraps her arms around me and holds me close. She rubs my back and smooths my hair. I could melt. That peace is broken when Bowser's bark breaks through the rain. Startled, Dad stumbles out of the bedroom. Dread drenches my bones as the door unlocks and Bowser's nails click against the tile.
When it stops, I turn and see him sitting in the door frame. All malice has disappeared, but the phantom image is still burned into my memory. Mom kisses my forehead and tells me to get changed.
"I know you've been having flashbacks of the mugging since Bowser left, but it was just a nightmare." She clicks her tongue. "Bowser will keep you safe."
"It wasn't a nightmare and he can't protect me anymore!"
Mom sighs. Her disbelief is written all over her face. I don't know what bothers me more, her disbelief or how Bowser looks smug as he trots into the living room.
# # #
After hours of searching, everything points to one thing, a Cadejo. I faintly remember Mom and Dad telling the story when I was a kid, but I never believed. Now, I doubt everything.
The afternoon light streams into the hallway as I reach Norbert's room. I bang on his door but no answer. I try again. Nothing. I peak at my phone and groan. Three hours left till date night. I furiously bang on the door until Norbert flings it open. His eyes are lined with deep dark circles. The beginnings of a beard tease his cheeks and chin.
"I need your help," I say.
"I was sleeping."
"This is urgent."
Norbert rolls his eyes and goes to close his door.
"Please, I think I know what's wrong with Bowser."
Norbert sighs and walks away but leaves the door open. Satisfied, I waltz in and close the door. I plop down on his bed and show him the articles I found about the Cadejo. Each details stories of violent dogs that feed on people. Almost always they have hooved feet, red eyes, and black fur. He reads in silence before scoffing.
"That's a legend to scare kids into behaving. Nothing more."
"I saw it."
Norbert rubs his face, exasperated, and says, "Maybe you were delirious. Yeah, he's been weird since he came back but who knows what happened to him."
"I don't think that's our dog anymore."
"So, an evil dog spirit makes more sense?"
"I saw him eating a child!"
Norbert goes still for a moment before responding. "If it makes you feel better, I'll keep an eye on him while Mom and Dad are out."
Let's just hope nothing happens, I think.
# # #
My wish is ignored. One hour after Mom and Dad leave, Norbert and I hold a stakeout in his bedroom. The baby monitor sits between us. In what feels like seconds, a clattering and shrieking break through the quiet night. We turn to the monitor. Susanne is gone, and the crib is toppled over. We burst through his bedroom door and catch a glimpse of Bowser disappear through the back door. Susanne's pleas fade as Bowser puts more distance between us and him.
Norbert runs to the kitchen and grabs two butcher knives. He hands one to me. It feels foreign and heavy in my hands. I steel myself and hide my fear under rage. With ease, Norbert hoists me over the fence and lands next to me as I climb down the other side. He falls into step behind me as I lead him to the clearing. The tree branches dig harder into my skin as I whiz through the forest.
By the time we reach the clearing, my head is dizzy. Bowser stops digging his pit and spins to face us. His fur is pitch black again and his eyes take on a red glow. It matches the materializing chain on his neck. The stench of sulfur fills the air.
"You get Su," I say.
Norbert inches closer to Susanne as she tries to crawl out of her hole, but she slides back in. Bowser blocks Norbert's path and growls. I click my tongue to grab Bowser's attention. For a second, I capture his eyes. It freezes my blood. Despite the fear, I move. I charge forward and slide as Bowser jumps to get me. His hoofed feet glide over my face, grazing my nose and forehead.
I brandish my knife as Norbert grabs Susanne and runs to the forest. Bowser changes gears. He races to Norbert, but Norbert is faster. He slashes his knife down and catches the tip of Bowser's snout. With a yowl, Bowser stumbles backward.
With my teeth clenched, I plunge my knife into Bowser's back. The glow of his eyes and chain flicker before stabilizing. I place myself between Norbert and Bowser. Norbert slips his knife into my hand and runs home. Bowser tries to follow but I step between. His movements are sluggish.
"Sorry about this, boy."
I taunt him. He takes the bait. I slip out of his way and lead him back to the pit. Once again, I tease him and prepare my knife. One final time, Bowser bulldozes toward me. He doesn't notice the hole as I race away, and he slips into it. I run to him and slam my knife into his throat. The skin resists for a moment but the knife sinks to the hilt into his throat.
The glow evaporates. As does the chain. All that's left is a motionless body. Bile rises through my throat. I push it down, but the bitter taste doesn't leave my mouth even as I get home. Norbert hugs me close and apologizes, but it doesn't register. I just want to sleep. Without a word, walk to my room.
The plush mattress feels like heaven as it swallows me into its embrace.
# # #
I wake the next morning feeling refreshed. The stress of the last day has turned my limbs to mush. As I go to open my door, Norbert opens it. Any relief I felt washes away.
"You need to see this."
He drags me into the living room. Laying in his bed like nothing is Bowser. Any sign of a struggle has disappeared.
"You...you took care of it, right," Norbert asks.
"Yeah. I'm sure I did."
Bowser raises his head. I go rigid.
What looks like a smirk plays on his lips.
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