David J. Rank
Wyld FLASH – February 26th 2021
The kid saw the cop coming long before he reached her. She remembered what Angus always told her to do when a stranger approached, “Be careful what you say.”
“Hi,” the cop said, turning off his flashlight. He squatted beside her in the yellow bubble of light dripping from an antiquish lamppost. He looked young, like Angus. “I’m a policeman, Officer Cuttner. What’s your name?”
“Bethany.” She passed a looped chain leash and collar from hand to hand, the metal links clunking tonelessly. Her bluest of eyes shifted to Cuttner’s face from the darkness of the battalion of trees that marched along the path’s flank. “What can I do for you … officer?”
The cop carried a radio. He touched the mike clipped to the shoulder of his black shirt. “Talking to the girl, assessing the situation.”
Bethany watched him closely. She shivered—her clothes a thin windbreaker, stained, over worn sweatshirt a size too big, tattered jeans, and dirty sneakers with duct tape repairs.
She was but would not admit it. “No.” She wiped strings of sandy hair off her face.
“Bethany’s a lovely name.”
“I know.” Bethany sighed and returned her attention to the woods with its nervous shadows, deeply dark, sheltered from the moon glow above. A steady breeze fomented whispers in many tongues from the foliage.
“Bethany, may I ask how old you are? Eleven? Twelve?”
“The park’s closed.”
“I know. It’s quiet. I like that. Nobody around … ’cept you now.”
“Why are you in the park so late, alone?”
“I’m not alone.”
Cuttner stood and looked around. “Who’s here with you, Bethany?”
“I was walking dog.” Her voice was placid as a lobotomy.
“Where’s the dog now?”
Bethany noticed his hand rested on the black gun strapped to his belt. She pointed to the dark woods. “He needed to run now so I let him.”
Cuttner touched his shoulder mike and turned his head to it. “No. No backup needed. Juvenile female lost her dog. I’ve got it.”
“Dog’s not lost. Dad’s out there too.”
Cuttner glanced at the woods. “So you and your father were walking your dog.”
Bethany slowly nodded.
“What’s your father’s name?”
“How long have you been alone, since your father left?”
She shrugged. “Not long. ’Bout since you parked your car back there.” She waved a leash-free hand in the direction of the lot where Cuttner left his car.
He looked over his shoulder at the mostly dark path weaving through stout old oaks to the parking lot.
“I saw your headlights,” Bethany said.
“Pets aren’t supposed to run loose. You and your dad and your dog aren’t supposed to be here at all this time of night.”
Bethany shrugged. Her gaze never left the shadow-blotted woods. “Dog wanted to run. We like parks at night. They’re quiet. We don’t bother most folks.”
“You and your father live near here?”
“Where do you live? Can you tell me, Bethany?”
She focused on him again. “Our car, mostly.” She pointed in the direction of a not so near street. “Campgrounds sometimes, waysides. We move a lot. Dad don’t like to be in any one place too long. Staying put’s not good for you, he says. Gotta see the world.”
“You and your dad have a last name, Bethany?”
She stared into the shrouded woods. “Not really. Dad says it ain’t nobody’s business but ours. Angus and Bethany is enough.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“Dead. Long time now.”
Cuttner aimed his flashlight into the woods. “Your dad’s in those trees.”
“He left you here to chase after the dog.”
She hesitated, and nodded.
Cuttner peered into the woods, saw only vertical lines in patchy darkness, heard only the chatter of wind-motivated leaves. He didn’t speak for a long moment.
Thinking about things, Bethany decided. She watched as his hand hovered above the radio mike clipped to his blue shirt. She was relieved when he lowered his arm.
A branch snapped.
“Angus? This is the police, Officer Cuttner. I’m with your daughter. She’s okay but we need to talk, Angus.”
Movement rippled within the shadow-stained darkness. Something heavy loped through the underbrush. A growl—low and gurgly. The cop’s body tightened. Bethany did not react.
“What’s your dog’s name?” He popped open the strap securing his gun in its holster while he scanned the trees with the flashlight.
“Dog, just dog. Dad don’t want to give him no other name. Says he don’t deserve it.”
Another growl, this time deep-throated, primeval. Cuttner’s fingers curled around his gun’s grip.
“How big is your dog, Bethany?”
“Big enough it could hurt people?”
She shrugged. “Dad’s with him.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Cuttner stepped closer to the woods. “Angus? If you hear me, respond please. I just want to know you’re all right. Your daughter’s worried about you.” He glanced at Bethany.
“Angus, do you have control of your dog? Do you need assistance? Are you injured?”
Something shuffled in the leaf litter buried in the night a dozen or so yards ahead of him.
“Angus?” A heartbeat later Cuttner turned to Bethany. “You stay there, right there in the light. Understand? Don’t move.”
She nodded, the leash gripped in both hands.
“I’ll be back—with your father.”
Cuttner pointed the flashlight ahead of him and followed the beam through brush into the woods.
“Angus, I’m coming to help you subdue your dog. If you don’t need my help come out now where I can see you. Angus?”
Cuttner did not wait for an answer. Pulling out his gun, he stepped deeper into the woods away from the lamplight.
Humming softly, Bethany saw the glow of his flashlight here and there. The cop called out once … twice. She heard a grunt ended with a garbled cough and a gurgle cut short like a severed hose. In the dark a heavy thing crashed into the leaf litter. Dog growled. It would not be rabbits or deer or some stray pet that satiated him tonight. Things ripped, other things snapped. Dog was such a messy eater.
Bethany waited. She knew what she’d soon have to do. When he was done, dog would return to her and Bethany would slip the collar around his neck and lead him back to the car. She’d have to drive again tonight. Bethany didn’t care for that but they’d have to leave quickly. No waiting for daylight this time. She’d drive out of town while dog slept, and find a quiet place to stop miles from here, someplace where Bethany could get clean water to wash the blood off dog like she always did.
And come daybreak, when Angus returned, he’d toast bread for her over an open fire and she’d slather peanut butter on the toast with sliced banana and she’d eat while Angus would stare into the fire and weep. He’d feel bad for a day or so.
Bethany loved the smell of a campfire. She loved toasted peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the morning. The thought made her smile.
She loved her dad and he loved her back. Everything would be fine now for another month.
After breakfast, she’d sleep the rest of the day in the back seat as Angus drove them far, far from this park. To another pretty place … maybe Oregon this time.
Author Bio: David J. Rank is a published author, editor, recovering journalist, founder and director of the nonprofit Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp & Writing Retreat educational programs since 2014. His more than 30 dark fiction short stories have been published in regional literary publications, various online magazines, and three anthologies.
He is a supporting member of the Horror Writers Association, organizing the HWA-Wisconsin Chapter in 2018. A member of both Wisconsin Writers Association and Chicago Writers Association, he was president of the WWA from 2013 to 2016.
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