Some people can shout without raising the volume of their voice. Kathryn Thoms had that ability. The target of her Thursday afternoon ire was Ronald, who’d managed his local Kroger for going on 15 years—surviving recession and pandemic and shortages—and who consequently was well acquainted with the phenomenon.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Ronald said, standing behind the teenage boy working checkout line number 4, “but you’re not allowed to combine coupons like that.”
“Can you,” punctuated by a gesture with the woman’s left hand that let her bracelets clack together, “show me on these,” a finger jabbed at the disputed coupons, “where it says so?”
Ronald began to answer but pulled up a bit short when he noticed that he was now looking into the camera lens of Kathryn’s phone rather than her face. He chose the better part of valor and the path less likely to result in him losing his job or ending up on Twitter or Nextdoor: he gave Kathryn the discount.
After returning home, securing her groceries, and reminding her husband to remind their daughter Eleanor to do her math homework, Kathryn walked back to the front door and pulled Mr. Elsa’s leash off its hook with a jingle. Mr. Elsa—Eleanor had been given naming rights—trotted down the stairs and waited patiently to be hooked up. The nine-year-old terrier had little puppy left in him, but the promise of a walk to the dog park and a half-hour of leash-less play with his neighborhood compatriots was still cause for excitement.
Humboldt Dog Park was little more than a fenced area with a narrow dog run that had once been the northeast corner of a larger public park. Mr. Humboldt’s children had donated the funds for the park in his honor, which was appropriate in the narrow sense because he loved dogs, but inappropriate in a broader sense because he hated dog people.
The late Mr. Humboldt’s peccadilloes notwithstanding, this sunny, mild Thursday in April found the grass green and the park not too crowded. After the dinner hour, it would be swarmed with parents, children, and their canine companions, but Kathryn always came before dinner to unwind with Mr. Elsa.
The terrier darted off immediately at the unclipping of his leash, and Kathryn leaned back against the fence. She closed her eyes and started on a few minutes of mindfulness work. She’d started the informal meditation practice on the recommendation from her friend Macey who worked as a life care coach. Kathryn had bitten her tongue regarding her thoughts about that “career” over many glasses of chardonnay over the last few years (bitten her tongue when Macey was present, at least) but she had to admit to herself that she did feel better when she had a chance to…
“Katey!” Mrs. Gustafson’s throaty contralto called out. It was not a warm call of greeting; no, it was full of alarm and exasperation.
So much for her chance. Kathryn answered: “Yes, good afternoon, Mae. What’s going on?”
The older woman gestured—flailed, almost—toward the back side of the dog park. “Have you gone back there? There’s some sort of…detritus piled up against the back fence. I’m going to call Councilman Estevez. See if I don’t.”
“Yes, Mae, you should.” Kathryn said with a nod and a placating hand on Mae’s arm. “It’s the city’s job to keep this place cleaned up.”
“Well, you should go look,” Mae said. “That way I can tell him to expect a call from you, too.”
“I don’t think…” Kathryn started but didn’t finish. She’d already had her required post-work steam-blowing argument and didn’t feel like getting embroiled in another with Mae. Besides, she hadn’t gotten her steps in yet today. “You know what, just wait here a minute.”
Humboldt Dog Park backed onto a woodlot, and the fence on that side was shaded more often than it wasn’t. So, Kathryn strode into relative darkness as she made her way across the center of the ellipse that made up the park. The handful of four-legged park attendees were mostly too busy running around each other, circling and sniffing, to bother her, though a few did dart close and then streak away.
The pile of detritus, as Mae had called it, wasn’t strictly speaking in the dog park. It was at the woodline maybe ten feet from the fence. There were a few empty bottles of malt liquor, some hand towels—soiled with some sort of dark liquid—in a small pile, the remains of a small fire, and perhaps a dozen small wooden carvings that looked to have been made from blown down branches. The area around the fire was mostly just dirt, whoever set the fire appearing to have cleared out the vegetation and ground cover from the area. To Kathryn, it looked to be the remains of some sort of teenage escapade (the kind she alternately hoped and feared that her daughter would experience in a few years). The City obviously needed to get on cleaning it up—Mae was right about that—but it was not the end of the world.
Rather: it wasn’t the end of the world until. Kathryn’s relative equanimity about the situation was destroyed when she heard the familiar sound of Mr. Elsa’s growl and looked over to see him and one of Tamir Bennett’s Corgis having a tug of war over one of the soiled handcloths that had blown in over the fence-line. She hustled over to the play-fighting dogs and picked Mr. Elsa bodily up off of the ground, wrenching the dirty fabric from the Corgi’s mouth as she did so. Tamir wasn’t far behind her, picking up Monty and immediately setting on scolding the furball.
With a closer look at the cloth, it was immediately apparent that it was some sort of cheap shop towel stained with what might have been blood. Kathryn was horrified: this had been in Mr. Elsa’s mouth! Who knew what the dog could have caught? And what if one of the younger neighborhood kids had wandered back here?
Kathryn turned to catch Mae’s eye and unfurled the soiled cloth so that the other woman could see its condition. Mae’s eyes narrowed and she reached into her Coach purse to pull out her cell phone. By the time Kathryn had covered the distance to her, Mae was already on the phone with the Councilman.
“That’s right! There are bloodstained cloths in the dog park! So what I want to know is are you going to do something about it or are we going to be donating to your opponent next fall?” Mae was almost hissing by the end.
While Mae was speaking, Kathryn was pulling out her own phone. If this was blood, it meant that the mess was a crime scene. She dialed 911. The first words out of her mouth were: “I’m at Humboldt Dog Park and I think there may have been a murder.”
Five minutes later the first cruisers arrived. Seven minutes later neighbors started surrounding the scene. Twenty minutes later the “crime scene” had been taped off with promises to Kathryn and Mae that the crime scene investigators would be out soon to check on things. Half-an-hour later, the only remnant of the police presence was the crime scene tape.
The tape and detritus were still there the next afternoon.
And the next.
On the third day, the tape drooping and the items disappearing thanks to the effects of weather and efforts of small animals, Kathryn called the police again. After waiting on hold for over 20 minutes—no fool her, to take the offered opportunity to leave a call back number—she was assured by a detective that they would be out soon to investigate.
With Robert taking their daughter to volleyball practice and Mr. Elsa certainly in no hurry to go home, Kathryn decided to make a late afternoon of it at the park and watch the police at their business. She watched closely but kept her distance a half hour later when the patrol car pulled up. The two uniformed officers, working at a “last thing before I can go home” pace, rolled up the police tape and tossed both it and the few handfuls of items left on the ground into a small garbage bag, taped it closed, and tossed it into the trunk of the cruiser. Kathryn said nothing, but did manage to surreptitiously record the two officers disposing of the items. It would make a good attachment to her email to the councilman and editor of the town paper later that night.
Nothing came of those missives either, of course. At least nothing beyond a three-line reassurance email from Councilman Estevez that things were being looked into and taken seriously.
Which is why, two weeks later, Kathryn was dressed in black leggings, a dark gray jacket, her black flats, and a dark blue baseball cap. She was also hiding behind a tree. It was the second pile of detritus—a little farther into the woods but still just visible from the back fence line of the dog park—that had spurred her into action. If the City and the police didn’t care, then she’d have to let these children know that their misuse of the park was unacceptable herself. And maybe get some good video of the confrontation while she was at it.
The night was lit only by a thin sliver of moon and the teenagers’ campfire. They’d started their small fire in the same place that Kathryn had discovered a few days before, just back of the tree line and not particularly visible from the road.
There were six of them—four boys and two girls—all in their late teens or maybe early twenties. Each was dressed casually but warmly against the spring night’s chill in jeans, jackets, and hoodies. Thanks to the firelight, she could see that one was wearing a Moncy Raiders letterman jacket, meaning he was a local kid. And also meaning that these miscreants originated from the very high school where her daughter would soon be enrolled.
The teens had arranged themselves in a rough circle around their small fire. Each had a small knife and a piece of wood taken from blown down branches from the surrounding woods. Once they were settled, nods went around the circle and then the six teens began to sing quietly. It didn’t sound like English to Kathryn, but she couldn’t quite be sure given the distance and the dampening effects of the intervening plant life. She hoped that her phone’s microphone was picking it up. This carving and singing went on for perhaps fifteen minutes.
Meanwhile, Kathryn crouched nearby, phone out. She was getting bored, but she didn’t want to break up the gathering until the alcohol or drugs that she was certain must be involved made their appearance.
The teens eventually finished their carvings, having turned fallen branches into small, rough humanoid figurines. Once the last—the kid in the letterman’s jacket—was done, each of the kids passed their carving to the person to their left. The singing changed in both intensity and rhythm and Kathryn was sure now that it wasn’t English. She was in the process of wondering exactly what they were being taught at that high school when, as their singing stopped, each made a small incision on their palm and began to smear the blood on the figurine.
It was at this point that Kathryn decided that she had to act. While she was angry and aghast, she had enough composure left to know that if it was later discovered that she had stood by and filmed while a bunch of young people committed self-harm, it would compromise her otherwise-righteous mission of preventing further vandalism and littering at the park.
She stepped around the live oak that had shielded her from the teens’ view and let out a “Hey!”
“Oh, shit,” the young man with the best view of her said. He jumped to his feet while pressing one of the shop towels to the wound on his hand. The blood-smeared figurine he had been holding thumped to the forest floor. Kathryn couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw the leaves and twigs around the figurine slide and wriggle away from it on their own volition, as if desperate to avoid touching the thing.
The confusion then became general while Kathryn was momentarily transfixed by the sight of the litter on the forest floor becoming animate. In accord with certain universal instincts, four of the six teenagers took off running deeper into the forest, fleeing from the sudden appearance of the intruding adult.
“Hey! Stop! You stop right there!” Kathryn shouted while closing in. Her words were not well-heeded.
Indeed, in the process of crossing the circle to get to the deeper woods, the largest of the boys knocked into one of the girls, sending her reeling. She collided with one of the live oaks and lost her footing. She was young and athletic, so she regained her balance quickly, but in the process her Chuck Taylor collided with the figure dropped by the first boy, which still sat lonely on the forest floor. The carving was propelled into the small fire.
“No!” the remaining boy shouted as he dove for the carving.
The other girl rounded on Kathryn and began to respond to the older woman’s shouts with shouts of her own: “Whoa! Who the fuck are…”
She was cut off by an “Aaah!” from the diving boy, who was not quick enough to save the carving from the flames but was clumsy enough to badly burn his hand on a smoldering log in the attempt. He rolled away from the fire, clutching his hand to his chest.
“Oh, no!” shouted the girl, as she scrambled over toward her injured friend.
“Crap!” Kathryn shouted simultaneously, following after the younger woman.
Before either could get to the writhing young man, however, the flames of the teens’ small fire turned from the typical white, yellow, and red to deep black. Blacker than the surrounding moonless night and seeming to pull what little ambient light there was from stars and streetlights into itself. Kathryn had never so much as considered the possibility of a black, light-devouring flame, and seeing one pulled her up short.
The trees themselves bent away from the fire now, creating a circular gap in the forest canopy. Leaves and twigs and small branches crawled away from the black fire, writhing and undulating on the ground, animated by what appeared to be revulsion.
Kathryn had revulsion enough of her own, of course, at the moving trees and leaves and the greasy smoke billowing off the dark fire. She could smell it, and worse, feel it leaving deposits on her clothes and in her hair. Kathryn retched and the Lean Cuisine she’d had a few hours ago came up and joined the writhing plant life on the forest floor. In a feverish moment she could see the bits of broccoli and cauliflower in her vomit join in the exodus away from the fire.
“No!” The young woman shouted while trying to help the burned boy to his feet. “The circle wasn’t finished!”
Kathryn wouldn’t have really understood the young woman’s concern even if she had been listening, but she was distracted by the ongoing supernatural event. For this, she can perhaps be forgiven.
Given the situation, she can perhaps also be forgiven for her next action, which was to start kicking dirt onto the black, shadowy fire in an attempt to put it out. This probably would not have worked on a mundane campfire and it certainly did not work on whatever this was.
Her efforts did succeed in drawing the attention of the entity behind the fire, however. Black flames began to slither out in her direction, both on the ground and through the air. They left smoldering, melted lines where they made contact. Kathryn skipped back before any of them could touch her shoes. She looked around for help, or maybe just confirmation that someone else had seen this and could share in its reality. Unfortunately, the burned boy and confrontational girl were now themselves fleeing the scene, joining their four companions.
That left Kathryn alone, phone still clutched in her left hand and still pointed vaguely in the direction of the retreating teens and the writhing dark fire. “What’s going on?” she screamed at the teens’ backs. They didn’t respond, but the volume of her own voice seemed to open the lock that shock had placed on her brain. In a practiced motion, without stopping her phone’s camera, she thumb-flipped over to the telephone controls and dialed 911.
Taking even a second to focus on that cost her, however, and one of the writhing flames slithered up from the bare ground and speared into her phone. It bubbled and melted into slurry of plastic and metal and silicon where the flames touched. Kathryn’s hand was only saved by a reflex borne more out of disgust than fear.
She backpedaled away from the fire again, keeping an eye out for another tentacle of black flame. One the branches also fleeing the fire caught under her heel and she sat down hard on the damp, cool earth. Her teeth clicked together and it was only by sheer luck that her tongue wasn’t between them at the time.
Sitting on the ground, ass in pain, Kathryn looked at the wreck of her phone, pursing her lips and hissing through her teeth. She’d had to wait a month for it to come in, and now she’d be phoneless for who knew how long. And her leggings were wrecked—she’d felt them tear when she fell. They were irreplaceable; the company who made them was declared to be some sort of pyramid scheme and went out of business.
When she looked back up, the black flames of the campfire had coalesced into a sort of roughly humanoid shape. It had too many limbs and the proportions were all wrong. More than anything, it reminded Kathryn of the shadows thrown on the walls of the cave by the firelight when her grandfather used to take her camping as a girl.
“What the fuck is your problem?” Kathryn shouted at the thing from the ground, punctuating it with an arm-spreading gesture. “And what are you doing to those kids?” A distant part of her mind told her that she was being a bit manic and the wiser course would be to just run, but that part was buried behind the insult to her position and anger about her belongings and growing concern about her daughter being one of those teens in a few years.
The thing just stood there, black flame limbs writhing around it. Kathryn didn’t know what sort of response she expected: could shadow fire demon things talk? If so, did they speak English?
“What do you want?” She tried again as she got to her feet. She figured that even if it couldn’t respond, it was no longer actively sending flames at her, so her attempts at communication were at least buying time.
Waves of greasy black smoke roiled out from the fire in which the entity stood. Where the smoke hit the teens’ bookbags and cloths, it pushed them farther away from the fire and left them smoldering. A second wave pulsed out, faster, and washed over Kathryn, pushing her back a bit with its force and leaving her to retch again at the odor.
“You want us gone,” she said while holding a hand up toward the entity, its message clear. “But then why…oh, they came to you. Woke you up,” Kathryn said.
“They will do that,” she conceded. “But you can’t hurt people for it.”
The black flames slithered out toward Kathryn again, moving faster this time. The entity apparently did not appreciate the defiance in the face of what it regarded as its just position.
Kathryn hopped back. “I recorded the ceremony on my phone!” she shouted. “They will never leave you alone, now, I promise you that. They’ll study you and do tests and they’ll probably be a Netflix series. Well, Hulu, at least.”
The tentacles coming toward her stopped but did not retreat. The entity added another, this one pointing directly at her ruined phone.
“The recording is not saved on the phone,” Kathryn said, using a similar tone to when she had to explain this to her mother a few weeks ago. “It’s on another computer, far away. If you…if I don’t make it home, my family will find it. The same thing will happen. Everyone will know. You’ll never get to rest.”
The tentacles remained, close enough that she could feel the heat. Close enough that she doubted her ability to get away without being scorched again.
“Let me tell you how we’re going to solve this,” she said, pointing back at the thing.
A few weeks later, the security cameras were installed at Humboldt Dog Park. Kathryn (with assistance from Mae and a coordinated social media campaign) had put unrelenting pressure on the cops and the city council and the neighborhood association, using a bloody hand towel and some burned personal belongings as proof that the woods presented an unsafe but attractive area for the area children and pets. The cameras were to be supplemented by additional fencing allowing for the forested area behind the dog park to be closed off. The neighborhood’s police precinct captain also promised additional patrols. The city council was now considering a curfew for all those under 18. She’d kept her end of the bargain: local teens wouldn’t so easily disturb the ancient thing’s sleep.
On the second Friday in June—the fencing being completed and there being no sign of additional adolescent nocturnal visitors—Kathryn’s routine visit to Humboldt was interrupted by a hacking, whining cough from Mr. Elsa. Heart in her throat, she hustled to the back of the dog park fence. Mr. Elsa was walking in circles, shaking his head and sneezing.
Kathryn scooped up Mr. Elsa and looked out toward the treeline, expecting to see the remnants of another campfire. But she saw only dandelions growing in the formerly dead ground where the creature had stood. Apparently, Mr. Elsa had gotten a nose full of their fluff.