“Where do you think he could’ve gone, mom?” Priscilla said, frowning with worry.
“I don’t know, baby. That’s why we have to keep looking. I’m sure he’s just lost,” Lauren said.
Lauren stapled a flier to the wooden utility pole at the end of the street in their neighborhood. The heading said, “Lost Dog.” Beneath it was a picture of a German Shepherd and the name “Max” printed in block letters.
Priscilla sniffled and said, “He’s not lost, someone took him. He told me this was going to happen, but I didn’t listen. Now he’s gone.”
Lauren shook her head and thought, “Is it normal for a 10-year-old to believe her dog talks to her?”
The sun was starting to set when they arrived home. As they walked up the driveway, Lauren saw her next-door neighbor, Petunia watering her garden.
Petunia turned around at the sound of their footsteps. When she saw them, her wrinkled face lit up with joy. She speed-walked over and said, “Well, hello there, neighbors! How are my darlings doing today?”
Lauren sighed, then fake-smiled as she said, “We’re fine, Petunia. How are you?”
Priscilla pouted and said, “No, mom, we’re not fine.”
“My heavens, why not?” Petunia said.
“Because our dog, Max ran away.”
“Oh my, that’s dreadful! Is there anything I can do to help?”
Lauren said, “Well, we made these fliers and we’ve been putting them up everywhere. If you wouldn’t mind taking a few and giving them to people you know, that would be great.”
Lauren took some fliers out of the stack she was carrying and held them out. Petunia grabbed them and then held one up to look at it.
“You poor dears. It must be very hard, not knowing where your dog is.”
Priscilla started to cry. Petunia kneeled down, put her hands on her shoulders and said, “You don’t need to be sad at all, young miss. If there’s one thing I know about dogs, it’s that they always come back.”
Petunia dug her fingernails into the girl’s shoulders and shook her as she stared into her eyes with intensity.
“Do you hear me? They always come back!”
“Ow, you’re hurting me!”
“Ok, Petunia, she understands. You can let go of her now.”
Petunia continued to hold onto Priscilla for several moments, staring at her as if in a trance. Then she stood up and said in a cheery voice, “I’ll let you know if I see him!”
Pale moonlight spilled in through the living room window and illuminated everything with an ethereal glow. Lauren sat on her couch and held the chewed-up tennis ball which had been Max’s favorite toy. She covered her mouth with her hand to stifle the sound of her crying.
She thought, “Oh Max, where are you? It has been a week since you disappeared. A few people called from the fliers, but none of them had any useful information. One person even tried to sell me a new dog, what a jerk!”
She glanced over at the pile of Max’s other toys and saw a frisbee, a stuffed moose, and a fire hydrant chew toy. They were all covered in bite marks. She furrowed her brow as she looked closer. “That’s weird,” she thought. “Where’s his dog bone?”
A peculiar noise caught her attention. It sounded like someone was whisper-shouting outside, but she couldn’t make out the words. She looked out the window and saw the outline of a person standing in Petunia’s backyard. They were wearing a hooded robe and had their arms stretched above their head.
Lauren watched as the person continued chanting and making bizarre gestures. Then they reached into one of the folds in their robe and took something out of it, and then held the object above their head. Lauren recognized it as Max’s dog bone.
She considered rushing outside to confront them, but as she started to get up the bone disappeared with a “pop.” Sparks flew everywhere. Then a bald, naked person crawled out of the dirt in front of the robed figure as if they were climbing out of a pool of water. Lauren saw that there was no hole in the ground from where they’d emerged.
Lauren stared in shocked disbelief. Then the person turned their head and looked straight at her. Their face had a passive, blank expression with smooth features with no eyebrows. Lauren ducked down beneath the window, out of sight.
The morning sun bathed the neighborhood in golden light as Lauren knocked on Petunia’s front door. “I have no idea what to say,” she thought. “But I have to know what’s going on.”
As Lauren lifted her hand to knock again, a voice behind her said, “Are you looking for Petunia?”
She turned around and saw an unfamiliar older woman standing at the end of the driveway.
“Yes, I am. Do you know where she is?”
The woman raised her eyebrows, then looked Lauren up and down as if sizing her up.
“I… I’m her next-door neighbor, Lauren Mills. Our dog went missing last week, and Petunia said she’d help look for him. I was here to ask if she’d heard anything about that.”
The woman gave her a disbelieving look and scoffed, then said, “Well, I don’t suppose it would hurt to tell you. Petunia died earlier this morning. My husband found her laying in her front yard during his morning jog. It looked like she’d been weeding her garden when she collapsed. He called the ambulance, but she was already gone by the time they got here.”
“That’s horrible. Does she have any family?”
“Well, you’re her next-door neighbor. You’d know better than I would, wouldn’t you?”
Lauren’s cheeks turned red with embarrassment.
“We… we didn’t talk much. I suppose I didn’t know her that well. I’m sorry, ma’am, but what’s your name?”
The woman looked her up and down once more and said, “Patty Clark.”
“Were you friends with Petunia?”
Patty said, “Better friends than you were with her, apparently,” then turned and walked away.
Lauren walked into her house at around 6:30 in the evening, exhausted from work. “Hey Pris, I’m home! I hope you’re done with your math homework!”
Priscilla came running down the hallway with a huge, beaming smile on her face.
“Mom, guess what? Max came back! He’s home!”
“What? Where is he?”
“He’s in my room. Come see.”
Lauren followed her daughter down the hallway and into her room. There she found Max sitting in the middle of the floor. He turned his head to look up at her and held eye contact as Priscilla flung her arms around him.
Lauren felt overjoyed at first and took a step towards him, but then stopped mid-stride. She thought about how whenever she came home in the past, Max would be unable to contain his excitement. He’d be jumping around, wagging his tail, and begging for attention. Now, he was so calm and docile that he didn’t even seem like the same dog.
“Uh, when did he get here?”
“I don’t know. He was here when I got home from school.”
“What do you mean? He was sitting on the porch?”
“No, he was right here in my room.”
A suspicious look crossed Lauren’s face.
“Someone let him inside our house while we were both gone?”
“I guess so.”
“But the doors are all locked, or they’re supposed to be. Pris, did you leave the front door unlocked this morning and forget?”
“No, mom. I swear.”
“Are you sure?”
“I promise. I remember because the key almost got stuck in the door after I locked it. I had to pull really hard to yank it out. I almost missed the bus because of it.”
Lauren sat on Priscilla’s bed and said, “Then how could he have gotten inside?”
“I don’t know, mom, but the important thing is that Max is home again, right?”
Priscilla said, “How did you get inside Max?”
The dog continued to stare at Lauren. After a few moments, Priscilla said, “That’s weird, he didn’t say anything. He has never ignored me before.”
Lauren sipped iced tea in her living room as she watched television. Priscilla sat on the floor nearby, drawing a picture of a Disney princess. Max lay next to her, still and silent.
“Pris, did you and Max go outside and play today?”
“No, mom. I tried to get him to play fetch with me, but he didn’t want to. When I asked him what was wrong, he didn’t say anything. He hasn’t talked to me at all since he got back.”
They both looked at Max with concern.
“Maybe he’s sick,” Priscilla said.
“That could be. I’ll make an appointment to take him to the vet tomorrow.”
Someone knocked on the front door. Max jolted up and ran over to it. Lauren opened the door to find a delivery woman standing on her porch, holding an Amazon box.
“Hi, I have a delivery for Lauren Mills?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Great, sign here.”
Lauren took the box and put it on the floor. As she did, Max let out a low, aggressive growl.
The woman gave him a wary look and said, “Uh, he’s not dangerous, is he?”
“No, he’s a big puppy dog.”
Max growled once more and then pounced on the delivery person, knocking her over. He barked in her face as she tried to get out from under him.
“Ahh! Get him off me!”
“No, Max! No!”
Lauren grabbed Max by the scruff of his neck and yanked him off. He turned his head around and almost bit Lauren’s face, his jaws snapping shut mere inches from her nose. The woman got up and sprinted to her delivery truck.
“No, I don’t think that it's rabies,” the veterinarian said through the phone. “Otherwise there would be other symptoms present as well.”
“Well, then what else could be the problem?” Lauren said as she stood in her kitchen.
“It’s impossible for me to say without an examination. Can you bring him to my office sometime tomorrow?”
“I don’t how he’ll react to me trying to put him in the car to take him to the vet. I’m afraid he’ll flip out again and attack me or my daughter. I’m… scared of him.”
“Alright, well in extreme cases like this, we can have a local dogcatcher come by and pick him up. I hate to have to do that, but it sounds like we have no other choice. If he becomes unruly, they’ll use a dart gun to tranquilize him.”
“Well, whatever you think is best, doctor.”
“Don’t worry, Ms. Mills. We’ll find out what’s going on with your dog and do whatever we can to help him.”
Lauren said goodbye and hung up the phone. Then she turned around and felt startled to see Max sitting a few feet away, staring up at her.
“Max, I didn’t know you were there,” she said. Then she thought, “I must be going crazy, talking to the dog like I expect him to say something back.”
Max continued to stare at her, then let out a low growl and walked away.
Lauren awoke with her brow covered in sweat. She looked at the digital clock on her headboard and saw that it was 3:03 a.m.
A noise came from the hallway. It sounded like the same whisper-shouting she’d heard before in Petunia’s back yard. She got up and grabbed the metal baseball bat she kept next to her bed and tiptoed out of her bedroom. The whispering grew louder, and she realized it was coming from Priscilla’s room.
She shuffled down the hallway and opened the door. In the moonlight, she saw Max standing next to Priscilla’s bed. Priscilla was there with the sheets pulled up to her chin, staring at him with an expression of pure terror.
The door creaked as Lauren opened it, and the whispering stopped. Max turned to look at her, but his face wasn’t that of a dog. Instead, it was the face of the person she’d seen crawl out of the ground in Petunia’s back yard. It gazed at her with the same smooth-featured, eyebrowless, impassive expression it had before.
She gasped and turned on the lights. Max’s face returned to normal in an instant. Then he turned around and walked towards her. She stepped aside, shaking, and he sauntered past her through the doorway like nothing had happened. He continued down the hallway into the living room, his claws clicking on the hardwood floor.
She looked back and saw that Priscilla was now asleep. She spent the rest of the night sitting at the edge of her bed, gripping the baseball bat tight. The next morning, she called the vet and canceled her appointment.
When Priscilla woke up, Lauren said, “Honey, what was Max saying to you last night?”
“Last night? He didn’t say anything to me, mom.”
“Yes, he did. I saw him whispering to you and it looked like you were afraid of him.”
Priscilla gave her a confused look, then shook her head and said, “I don’t remember that at all, mom. Max still hasn’t spoken to me since he came home.”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Lauren said to the librarian. “I’m looking for a book called ‘Encounters with Witchcraft.’”
“Oh, that’s one of our oldest titles,” the librarian said. “It’s a rare book from the 16th century. Might I ask how you heard about it?”
“Oh, I Google’d ‘animals with human faces’ and it came up in the search results. It’s for my daughter’s reading assignment on animal spirit myths.”
“I see. Well yes, you’re free to study it in one of our private reading rooms, but we can’t let you check it out. It’s too valuable and fragile for general circulation.”
“That works for me.”
The librarian led her to a small, empty room with bare brick walls and bright fluorescent lights. Inside was a wooden chair and a table with a bookstand on top of it. Lauren sat down and waited. The librarian returned with the book a few minutes later.
“Please do be careful with it,” she said as she placed it on the bookstand.
“I will. Thank you.”
The librarian left the room, and Lauren looked at the tome in front of her. It was bound in old, rotten leather. When she opened it, a dank, musty smell emanated from within. The vellum pages were moldy and worm-eaten. The ink was so old that the lead in it had rusted and turned brown. She leafed through the pages until she arrived at a section on the subject of familiar spirits.
“Familiar spirits, or familiars, are supernatural entities that assist witches in the practice of magic,” she read. “They appear in many guises, often as an animal or humanoid creature. If you banish or destroy the familiar, then the witch who summoned it will suffer grievous injury. They may even perish.”
The lights went out, and a chill wind blew through the room. Lauren heard a dog panting in the darkness behind her, and fear trickled down her spine. There was a low growl, and then the sound of claws clicking on the tile floor. Lauren sensed that it was Max, or whatever Max had become.
Lauren thought about slamming the book shut and running away. Then she thought about how the creature had accosted her daughter in the middle of the night, and it made her angry. She thought, “This thing is trying to scare me. It knows I’m on to something and it wants me to give up, but I won’t.”
She said, “No, Max. Bad dog.”
A loud growl echoed in the darkness, and then angry barking.
“No, Max! Bad dog!”
The growling and barking intensified, and the creature snarled with rage. Lauren slammed her fist down on the table.
“NO, MAX! BAD DOG!”
The lights came back on, and the creature seemed to have disappeared. Lauren continued her research unbothered for the rest of the afternoon.
Lauren snuck outside and scurried over to Petunia’s back yard. The full moon provided enough light for her to see where she was going.
Once there, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a chunk of Max’s fur. Then, she placed it on the spot where she’d seen the familiar crawl out of the ground. She lit a match and burned the fur, then took out a piece of paper and began to read aloud.
“Flamma defaeco malum. Perdere magicae spiritus. Patiens a nobis liberate.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” said a voice in the darkness.
Lauren looked up and saw the robed figure standing a few yards in front of her. They said, “You’re not even pronouncing the words the right way.”
She started to repeat the chant, “Flamma defaeco malum. Perdere magicae—
The person snapped their fingers and the piece of paper burned to ash in an instant. Then they pulled their hood down, and Lauren saw that it was Petunia. She cackled and said, “Hello, my darling! Are are you surprised to see me?” Then she smirked and said, “Petunia died earlier this morning. My husband found her laying in her front yard during his morning jog.” Her voice sounded exactly like Patty Clark’s.
Lauren stared dumbfounded, and Petunia cackled once more.
“And now you’re here to try and banish my familiar, aren’t you? Well, I can’t let you do that.”
Petunia snapped again. Her familiar materialized at her side with its human-like face on Max’s German Shepherd body.
Petunia said, “I do appreciate you looking after my pet for me while I was away, but now it’s time for this good boy to come home.” Then, she pointed at Lauren and said, “Tear her throat out!”
The creature didn’t move.
“I said tear her throat out!”
It turned to look at Petunia. She looked back at it and said, “I told you to tear her throat out, stupid beast!”
Fangs sprouted from the creature’s mouth and it pounced on Petunia. She cried out, but it bit a chunk out of her throat in one smooth motion, silencing her.
Lauren sputtered for a moment, then said, “What the hell is going on?”
The familiar looked at her and said, “I sense great strength within you. Far greater than within this one.” Its flat, emotionless voice seemed to come from far away and then up close at once. “I shall grant you extreme power. Power you can use to achieve anything you wish. Immortality, riches, pleasures beyond imagination. All I want is a sacrifice.”
“A sacrifice?” Lauren said. “You mean my daughter, don’t you?”
It stared at her but didn’t respond.
The familiar took a step toward her and said, “That is an unfortunate choice. For I shall have her soul either way.” It then took a running leap and pounced on her, knocking her over.
Lauren screamed as the creature stood on her chest, pressing her down with incredible strength. It opened its mouth and she closed her eyes, waiting for it to bite. But then she heard Priscilla’s voice.
“Flamma defaeco malum. Perdere magicae spiritus. Patiens a nobis liberate. Unde factum est daemon redire!”
Lauren saw Priscilla standing nearby with her arms above her head. She was wearing her pajamas. The creature’s face contorted into a look of pain, rage, and surprise. It said, “Nooo!” and disappeared with a loud popping sound and a shower of sparks, then silence filled the air.
Lauren rushed over to her daughter and hugged her tight.
“Baby, how did you do that? How did you know what to say?”
“Max told me before he disappeared.”