It was past midnight the first time the dog barked. The deep loud woof broke through the silence and Lucy awoke with a start. Her muddled mind deduced that somewhere a dog had made that hollow sound, before she plunged back into a deep sleep. The episode had slipped into a vague memory by morning.
The sun shone through the windows and the mug in her hand steamed with fresh coffee, but that wisp of a thought lingered so shadowy, she did not realize at once none of her neighbors owned dogs. Lucy’s house stood at the dead end of the street, flanked by a tiny ranch house owned by an elderly couple; their potty-mouthed parrot squawked Shakespearean insults from its perch by the front window.
Across the street lived a young family with an arrogant cat whose favorite pastime was to stroll past the window and provoke the parrot into one of its baroque tirades.
The house with the backyard abutting her own had stood empty for years. Weeds and bramble had grown into a tangled mass that reminded Lucy of Sleeping Beauty’s forest of thorns.
Lucy sipped her coffee and tried to recall the episode, the bass note ringing true in her memory. She cast her mind over the remaining neighbors, but recalled no dogs. Residents of the nearby streets would sometimes saunter down her lonely lane with their nervous, yapping little pups on a leash, none big enough for such a deep bark.
Her coffee finished, Lucy occupied herself with breakfast and put the whole thing out of her mind.
That night, the dog barked again. Not one note that broke the silence, but a series of bays that yanked Lucy out of sleep and into total wakefulness. She did not roll onto her other side and fall asleep this time. Instead, she listened. The barks rang out through the sleepy lane, but they were neither frantic nor joyful. She imagined a lone survivor on a deserted planet calling out in the hope of an answer.
Lucy stood and tottered toward the window. She peeked through the slats of the half-closed Venetian blind, but in the moonless night, only the dark mass of the thorny, abandoned house greeted her.
“Is anybody there?” the dog seemed to howl.
“I’m here, doggy. Let’s go back to sleep,” Lucy murmured and returned to bed.
The lamenting howling ceased.
The next day, as soon as the morning shower passed, Lucy put on her rain boots and coat and trudged to her backyard fence.
“Doggy, here doggy,” she cooed, tracing the boundaries of her property, but received no answer.
From her bedroom window earlier that morning, she had discerned no living being in the empty house and twisted yard. Lucy slipped her keys and wallet in her pockets and made her way up the deserted, puddled street. Hers was an old lane, at the edge of town, and though black snakes of tar meandered through the repaired pavement, new cracks had appeared.
She walked through the old neighborhood, greeting whoever was out and about on the streets. She asked whether they knew of a big dog living nearby, like a Saint Bernard, or a bloodhound, but only received shrugs and puzzled expressions in reply.
Upon her return, Lucy walked past the house with the parrot.
“Ninnyhammer!” The parrot squawked.
Just then, Mrs. Graybeard stepped out decked in full rain gear—boots, pants, coat and an oversized bucket hat—though the sun had pushed through the clouds and steam rose from the pavement. Lucy had taken off her own raincoat and hung it on her arm.
“Hello, Lucy!” Mrs. Graybeard’s thin, papery voice called to her, ignoring her parrot’s florid language.
“Hello, Mrs. Graybeard,” Lucy replied and waited as the old woman approached her.
“Never mind Fiddlesticks, he’s just a cranky old windbag,” Mrs. Graybeard said when she reached Lucy.
“Mrs. Graybeard,” Lucy said as they walked up the lane together, the niceties over, “did you hear a big dog barking last night?”
“Oh no, dear, I take out my hearing aids. Mr. Graybeard, my old coot, says the Apocalypse could be upon us and I’d never know it!”
“Oh, it’s just one woke me up. It sounded like it came from the house behind mine, but I know it’s been empty for years.”
“Oh yes, I remember them, Deanne and Sam, older than Methuselah when they died. I believe their children ensnared the property in a legal dispute. I’m on the welcoming committee, no one has rented or bought the house.”
“Oh, I see…” Lucy searched for a better reply, but Mrs. Graybeard continued, saving her the trouble.
“Though they had a dog once, a big one, either a Great Dane or a Dalmatian, let me think. Its name was… Kaiser, I believe. Whatever happened to that dog?” Mrs. Graybeard clicked her tongue, “My memory is not what it was.”
They walked in silence for a moment while Mrs. Graybeard floated in a sea of memories, trying to hook the right one.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Graybeard piped up, “Kaiser died before they did; I believe that sneaky shyster, Old Age, got him. After that, things went downhill for them. If I recall, someone broke in and frightened Sam to death—heart attack, my dear, watch those arteries. Afterwards, Deanne just let herself go. She always lamented Kaiser’s absence; he’d have scared the robber out of his wits. His booming barks kept the riff-raff away.”
The howling woke Lucy up again.
“Kaiser,” she murmured, her breath frosting the windowpane, “I hear you. Go to sleep.”
The barking stopped and Lucy prepared to climb back into bed. Then, snarls and growls broke through the night and goosebumps crept up Lucy’s spine. She peeked out the window again; a thin sliver of moonlight shone on the gnarled neighboring yard, but showed no sign of life.
The mesh of frenzied noise shook the walls, yet superimposed over nigh imperceptible sounds: cautious footsteps, the soft click of a doorknob and the slow turn of a door.
Lucy whipped around, frozen in place, watching her bedroom door creak open as her worst nightmare came true.
A tall, muscular, masked figure appeared, backlit by the hallway night-light.
She screamed, her voice intertwined with the snarling sound of gnashing teeth exploding through the wall. The thief tumbled backwards and squirmed, his arm over his face as if trying to fend off an attacking beast.
Growls and barks thundered, and in the dim, blue beam of the night-light, Lucy distinguished the gossamer figure of a Great Dane, trampling and biting the flailing man. Crawling and kicking, the intruder stumbled down the stairs, out of the house and into the night.
The yowling stopped. The flimsy image weaved into the room, and panting, trotted to where Lucy stood, mingling with the shadows of the darkened bedroom.
Lucy, aghast and frightened, felt a cold lick on her fingertips and warm breath upon her hand.
“Kaiser,” she bleated.
A woof blasted in the room.
“Thank you,” she yelped.
Kaiser’s long wolf-like howl faded into the darkness.