“What the hell?” Michael asked.
Before she could answer, light flooded the backyard. Blinded, she held up her hand to shield her eyes and dropped her bag. The light wasn’t coming from the back porch as she’d expected. Instead, it poured over them from several angles. As her eyes adjusted, Chantal realized that flood lights had been mounted on the fence at regular intervals. Dim spheres glowing through the trees showed that the enclosure was indeed as large as she had thought.
“That’s not -,” she began. Giving up, she turned to face Michael. His nose was crinkled in confusion and his eyes were widened with the beginnings of fear. Her chest clenched and her heart fought within it; she’d never seen Michael scared.
Both of them spun toward the sound of an engine turning over. A steady beeping told that the truck was backing, filling the gap in the fence and blocking their exit. On instinct, Chantal started jogging toward it.
“Clive?” Her throat contracted and the word was more of a yelp. Breathing was difficult. “What are you doing?”
The truck stopped and the engine died. Chantal slowed. There must be some explanation, she reasoned.
When a figure in a ski mask appeared, walking on the roof of the truck, Chantal let out a gasp.
“What the hell is this?” Michael’s voice boomed over her shoulder, causing her to jump. “What kind of prank are you pulling here?”
The figure ignored them both and bent to retrieve a rope that had been fastened to the roof. Chantal’s eyes followed the rope down to where it attached to the handle at the bottom of the truck’s cargo door. The man bent his knees and began to pull.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Michael’s voice sounded again behind her, but her heartbeat was so powerful in her ears that he sounded distant.
At the first metallic creak of the door rolling up, the entire frame of the vehicle began to sway. Chantal heard scratching from behind the door; familiar, like the sound of her dogs’ nails scrabbling on the kitchen tile but louder, piercing. The next sound was like nothing she’d ever heard or imagined. A deep, monstrous bellow echoed around the metal walls of the truck like the consuming roar of a fire.
Chantal stumbled back, bumping into Michael. She reached for him and said his name. Hearing the panic in her own voice, she began to tremble.
The door continued to rise and one of the floodlights was redirected to illuminate the opening. Chantal saw a flash of black, a glint of silver. Next came a wild eye, the white glowing orange-red like hot embers. Now, two large black noses pressed into the growing opening and the clamor increased.
The truck shook again and the masked figure nearly toppled off. He caught himself, but not before the sound of gasping rose from all directions.
Face contorted, limbs rigid with reluctance, Chantal turned and squinted against the bright lights. Visible along the top of the fence were other masked faces. Dozens of them. There were people somehow standing along the outside of the fence, looking in.
Michael gripped Chantal by the shoulders, forcing her body to turn with his as he spun in a circle. Under each spotlight, one of the spectators was elevated so that their torso could also be seen. These individuals held rifles, aimed toward Michael and Chantal.
As Michael rotated them back to face the truck, Chantal felt suddenly fluid, as if she would drip to the ground if Michael were not gripping her arms. The door of the truck was almost fully raised now, and the light streamed in, revealing the two beasts.
To her practiced eye, they resembled wolfhounds, but these creatures were larger – at least the size of a horse. Their fur was short and wiry, jutting out from their emaciated forms in matted clumps. Across their withers, the tall hackles looked sharp as barbs. They shied away from the light, muscles pulling across their bone structure.
Though their movement and behavior was canine, Chantal felt no ease or familiarity as she watched them. When their eyes turned on her and her husband, she saw the depth in them and knew they were like nothing she’d ever encountered; like nothing that belonged in this world.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Michael’s breath was visible as steam spouting over her shoulder. “Run for the fence, Chantal.”
She was frozen; the ice in her veins sealed her feet to the ground.
“Please, babe,” Michael said. His hands were on the sides of her face, twisting her toward him. His eyes gleamed as they bore into her. “Run!”
She swallowed and gritted her teeth. Michael shoved her away and ran to the left to retrieve the catch pole from where he’d dropped it. He turned to face the massive animals, wielding the pole like a weapon.
Chantal ran for the fence, slammed into it, and clutched the top. Something bashed into her fingers and she screamed, jerking them away. She landed and glanced over her shoulder in time to see one of the creatures jump lithely down from the truck. Its lips were pulled back, revealing the full length of its curved fangs. It made a barking motion but the sound was a broken wailing. It snapped its jaws and bloody saliva flew to the ground and sizzled on the cold earth. Michael did not back away.
Chantal moved down the fence line a few feet and again jumped, this time propelling her body upward with her feet, sneakers slipping on the smooth wood. She gripped the top of the fence and pulled herself up, shocked at her own strength. This time the person standing there flinched away and fell.
“Please,” she pleaded, straining to pull herself higher.
The nearest figure reached out and shoved her forehead with such violence that her neck popped and she whipped toward the ground. When she hit, her left arm surged with pain and she cried out.
She rolled and glanced back to the dogs. Michael was lifting the pole to strike one creature. The second was on the ground now, crouched. Its breath steamed up the air in front of its face so it seemed that Chantal watched it through a fog. Its eyes flared with purpose as it lifted one paw off the ground.
Chantal pushed herself to her feet and ran for the nearest tree. She managed to climb up a few branches and settle into a fork but the padding of incredible paws was close behind. Dry leaves crunched under her hands and an ugly gnashing noise rose from beneath her, accompanied by the smell of sulfur. She climbed higher, heedless of the branches scraping her face, her fear of heights forgotten.
The tree bent under her weight; she could climb no further. The hell hound’s steady breathing was drowned out by the agonized screams of her husband.
“Michael!” The word tore from her throat. She waited, holding her breath, but Michael did not respond.
The instant ache in her chest was replaced by panic. She tried to climb higher, but her injured arm refused to reach the next branch. She felt a searing pain in her foot, a downward tug. She jerked her leg upward, freeing it, and heard the frustrated scrape of claws against bark.
“Please!” she screamed into the blinding spotlights, which now aimed at her. She sobbed at the dark heads along the fence. “Why are you doing this? Help me! Please, help me!”
The sounds of the beast feeding on her husband invaded her mind and she swatted above her, seeking another branch and missing. She felt another sharp stab, the sensation of falling, and the darkness came.
* * *
Clive stepped through his front door, shutting it against the raucous sounds outside. His cell phone was pressed to his ear, the line ringing.
“Hi, Clive,” said a voice through the line.
“Helen!” he replied. “Still planning to bring the kids by tonight? I’d love to see their costumes.”
“We’re on our way.”
“Great.” He smiled. “The neighborhood has really come together this year.”