A syrupy, peach-colored dawn pried back the previous night’s thunderheads in sickly, gray chunks, as if the sky were reluctant to hand over summer to a landscape this far north.
“God, I need more sleep than that,” Twyla said. “The light here really messes you up, right?”
“It’s the Upper Peninsula, not the arctic.”
Beezer turned onto Route 2, a lonely stretch of featureless two-lane walled in by black pine and white spruce—or maybe white pine and black spruce (he couldn’t remember).
“Still messes you up. It’s like murky but too bright for too long.” She’d told Beezer she was thirty-one, though he suspected she might be older. His own thirtieth had slipped by without fanfare months ago.
“Trees, trees, everywhere,” he said, not knowing what to say. The landscape was barren. Nothing but the road, the sky, the firs lining the shoulder. The flat land offered no hills by which to gauge distance. He felt like a rat in a maze. The occasional house slipped by—stubby, ranch-style, clapboard things tucked in amongst the trees, seemingly abandoned.
They turned down a logging path, bumping along for miles until they reached a trailer at the end like a witch’s house in a fairy tale. Rust-streaked, corrugated sides, a flue coughing woodsmoke, despite the relative warmth. Like the witch herself, Gamby Jakes pushed open the storm door, her sun-faded housedress loose on her old bones.
“He’s round back,” she said. “Probably won’t get much out of him though. Not today.”
Beezer waved a thank you. He and Twyla swung round to the ‘backyard’ (nothing but pine needles, dismantled snow-blowers, and lawn-mower parts spread out in triage). The man they’d come to see stood in his boxers in an inflatable kids’ pool of ankle-deep, clear water. A smashed soda can floated behind him.
“Why you come here?” the man said in a cartoonishly thick, Russian accent.
Twyla checked her notebook, whispering to Beezer: “Melvin Jakes. Forty-four years old.”
“Not Russian?” Beezer said under his breath.
She shook her head.
“You get my letter, ya?” Melvin hollered to them from the pool. “You want, you come to Turkish bath?” He gestured to the inflatable pool. “Is good for circulation.”
“No, thank you,” Beezer and Twyla said in unison, keeping their distance.
Melvin shrugged. His pale girth shook. He produced a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his trunks, thought better of it, and set the pack on a fold-out table nearby. The table contained more appliances, discarded mugs, plastic cups filled with mystery liquids, a record player plugged into a threadbare extension cord running back to the house.
He placed an LP on the turntable. The sly oboes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring crept through rattle-trap speakers propped against a spruce. Melvin slipped a pair of brass knuckles through his left hand, stepped out of the pool, and began terrorizing a boxer’s heavy bag dangling from a bough. The exertion turned his back blotchy.
“Is good exercise!” he shouted. “Have to be ready!”
“We’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind,” Beezer said over the pounding and the music.
“We’re graduate students,” Twyla chimed in. “From Ohio.”
Melvin shrugged as if to say he could care less. He kept punching. The orchestral din filled the yard.
“Let’s go,” Beezer said to Twyla. “The old lady told us we wouldn’t get anything.”
“I’ve seen it too!” Twyla shouted. “In the woods when I was a little girl!”
Melvin stopped, heaving.
Beezer wondered why Twyla hadn’t said. What else was she hiding? For instance, why had she lied about her age?
Then Melvin grunted a single word—“Dogman”—and began to weep.
Melvin cried for half an hour, slumped in a battered kitchen chair. Twyla rubbed his shoulder, whispered comforting words while Beezer looked about the yard. Anything that might be useful for the field study.
A hushed conversation bloomed between Twyla and Melvin.
Finally, Melvin pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “You are good people, ya. Igor sees.”
“You’re Igor?” Beezer asked.
“Of course.” His Russian accent grew heavier, more glottal. “Eez good you come.”
“He wants to show us,” Twyla said.
Igor/Melvin nodded, looking seriously at his bare feet. “Is happen to many more.”
“Other people have gone out there?”
“Did they all . . . you know?”
Igor/Melvin didn’t answer. He unlocked an army footlocker. Inside were three shotguns with wood stocks and foregrips. That’s all Beezer could say. He didn’t know guns. They looked old, like what soldiers brought home from world wars and hung on mantels.
Igor/Melvin handed them out. Beezer was about to refuse, but Twyla gave him a look: Accept it.
“We walk,” Igor/Melvin said. He headed into the pines. They followed.
A few hours in, the air was heavy, humid. Mosquitoes whined in their ears. Everything looked the same. Beezer realized he was completely in Igor/Melvin’s care. Not a reassuring thought.
Twyla hung back with Beezer, whispering, “I think it’s a form of depersonalization. Derealization, maybe.”
“I asked him questions. Diagnostics for standard dissociative experiences. What I could remember.”
“Nothing like that. More like, something bad happened. Made him feel like his world is unreal. He retreated. I don’t know how else to say it: he’s pretending. Like a little kid would.”
“Pretending at what though?”
“My first guess? To be somebody tough. Based on his age, a big, bad Russian from his eighties childhood. Not a real one though. Saying ‘ya’ instead of ‘dah’? Probably movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dolph Lundgren. Somebody like that. It’s why he agreed to take us, I think.”
“To play action hero?”
“To face his old fears.”
Beezer looked her in the eye with all the gravity he could muster. “Is that why you’re going? What exactly happened when you saw it?”
Time passed. Maybe they were walking in circles.
Twyla looked reluctant. “I’m thirty-nine, okay? Don’t pretend to be shocked. It’s embarrassing. At my age, going back to grad school. Stupid, right? My job wasn’t great, but it was stable. And before you say anything, I know there isn’t some cushy professorship waiting when I’m done. Probably not.”
She weaved away, through trees, disappearing behind pines. Building up to something.
Was it twilight? Or just the canopy? The light was inadequate. Failing. Maybe they’d been traveling all day. Time was slipping. Beezer refused to check his phone. He had a premonition whatever he saw would be bad: wrong time, wrong date, a text bearing terrible news.
When she rejoined him, she didn’t look ready to go on, so he said, “My brother was taken.”
She touched his shoulder. “Sorry.”
“Not here. A place like it. Dad took us camping. We told scary stories by the fire. Dad told us about the dogman. Not a werewolf. More real. At least, in my mind he was. A deformed recluse living in the woods, his face mangled. Didn’t matter why. Genetic. Industrial accident. The snaggleteeth and sunken eyes were what were important. His hideous face.”
She winced, uncomfortable. An old memory?
“Dad snored off to sleep, but Patrick was quaking. He had to pee. I wanted to scare him more. So I told him his pee was flammable. It’d catch fire and go right up his pee-hole if he didn’t walk way out into the dark. He was six. He believed me. I didn’t see him again for three days.”
Leaves crunched. The light dimmed.
“When they found him? He was dirty. Face and arms all scratched. He said a man took him. Described his shirt, pants, the song he was whistling. But never his face. He insisted he couldn’t remember the man’s face.”
Two major events shaped the life of James B. Zuckerbrot (Beezer, for short).
The first was the disappearance of his brother. Not the three-day vanishing act when he was six, but two decades later during Beezer’s twenty-eighth birthday.
A few friends had gathered at a dimly lit bar in Columbus to swap stories and take turns buying Beezer drinks. Then his brother showed up. Thinking this was someone’s thoughtful surprise—he hadn’t seen Patrick in seven months—Beezer stood and said, “You guys!”
He hugged Patrick but something was wrong. Patrick was always thin and twitchy, like his body forever remembered deprivation and danger. Now he looked downright starved.
“Can we talk?” The hallway to the restrooms was out of range of the bar-volume music. Patrick continued, “I had a breakthrough. I went to a psychic.”
This was disconcerting. “Did you talk to Dr. Giese about this?”
“Don’t patronize, Beez. It’s not psychological. I stopped seeing her anyway.”
Now alarming. “Are you still—”
“I swear to god, Beez, if you ask me about pills, I’ll walk out.”
“Fine. Okay. You went to a psychic.”
“No tarot. No palm stuff. He had eight balls.”
“Eight balls? Like . . . ?” Beezer gestured to his scrotum.
“Not eight balls. Magic eight-balls. A whole bowl. I picked one.”
“I asked it questions.”
“What else? The woods.”
Beezer had never apologized. He wished he could do it now. He couldn’t. Maybe he was too drunk. Instead, he said, “Those are toys, Patrick. For kids.”
Patrick wasn’t listening. “I asked it, ‘Who was the man in the woods?’”
“They’re supposed to be yes or no questions.”
“The triangle floated up from the dark. Like a ghost coming out of its grave. It said, ‘DOGMAN.’”
“Stop. Just stop. Have a drink. It’s my birthday.”
Patrick stuttered, “Beez, I forgot . . . but now I’m going up there.”
“I remember. He had a head like a dog.”
That stupid sentence. It was the last thing Patrick said before walking out and really disappearing.
That was the first event.
The second occurred a few months later.
“A neighbor,” Twyla said.
Night arose and arched its sleek back across the sky. How long had they been out? Beezer’s stomach growled. Up ahead Igor stomped doggedly.
“I guess you’d say it was kidnapping,” she went on. “When I was twelve. My parents trusted him. Why shouldn’t I? He came to the house while mom was out. Wanted to show me an animal in the woods.”
Beezer watched her for some emotion. Her face remained impassive.
“We lived in a suburb outside Iowa City. It was winter. There were trees like this where he took me. Not far from the house but secluded. I asked, ‘Where is it?’ He goes, ‘Oh, it must have run away.’ But there was a teddy bear on a branch. Things done to it. I think it was part of his plan. Instead, he took off and left me. I think he lost his nerve. Whatever he was going to do to me, he couldn’t do it.”
“Or maybe he really had seen something?”
“That he wanted to show the twelve-year-old neighbor-girl?” She flashed him a look. Grow up. “Walking back I saw the Dogman.”
Second major event of Beezer’s life: the flyer on the bathroom wall of a bar.
Do You Seek Answers? Have you encountered the Dogman?
Then a listing for a graduate-level night class at Buckeye College extension center.
HIST 634: Modern Intersections with the Monstrous
A class full of traumatized conspiracists posing as academics. The prof a booze-hound and lech whose career had taken a hard left somewhere. He said he had a degree from Yale.
“I saw the dogman because of my neighbor,” she said. “Evil draws a deeper evil to the surface. Can’t you just . . . feel it sometimes?”
He could. He had. What in more theatrical terms was called ‘impending doom.’ Economic destabilization. Climatological catastrophe. Species extinction. So-called ‘leaders’ who denied it all. Nothing made sense anymore. All the trekking and note-taking they called ‘field research’ was just Beezer and his fellow students, thinking people, trying to piece together what looked like disparate images from a story told by gibbering madmen. They needed reason. So they’d settled on folklore. One scary story in particular.
“Sometimes I don’t recognize myself,” he said. “Myself in the world. Without my brother.”
Twyla nodded. “I used to make fun of alien autopsy conspiracists, bigfoot hunters.”
“I guess we are ‘those people’ now.”
Beezer wanted to go home. What were they doing in the wilderness with old shotguns following a fake Russian? This was real life. They’d created its absurdity for themselves.
“Knowing we’re nuts doesn’t make the doom any less real,” Twyla said.
“But what would you do? If you saw the real Dogman, I mean?”
“I’d demand answers.”
But Igor shouted up ahead in the dark, “Nyet! Nyet!”
There followed a bright cracking of bones.
Facts. Twist them, erase them, obscure them, they remain facts. Patrick disappeared. Twyla trusted her neighbor. Melvin speaks no actual Russian.
Truth, however, sidesteps, misfires, erodes, rebuilds.
Instinct tells Beezer to run. He doesn’t. “Melvin, you okay?”
A howl of pain echoes through the trees.
Twyla yells, “Igor! Tell us where you are!”
Something stalks on padded feet.
Beezer fears turning on his phone or raising his voice again.
“Do you smell it?” Twyla whispers. “Wet dog.”
Fact: Fifth century BC. Herodotus recounted stories of the kunokephaloi, the dog-headed people. They had tails. They “barked.” They roamed the wilderness of northern Africa.
They were likely baboons.
Fact: Residents of northern Michigan have been reporting sightings of a “dogman” roaming their woods for over a century. A local DJ even wrote a novelty song about it.
Truth: At your first class on monsters, a fellow student shows you what she claims are pages of the ancient Greek Ctesias’s lost manuscript, Indica.
“This is the real thing,” she says. “Proof.”
The page is a metaphor in woodblock: animal versus human; id versus super-ego. Right away you know the manuscript is bunk—like magic eight balls, or makeshift voodoo dolls, or urban legends, or faux-Russian accents. But it’s also inexplicably true. The picture reminds you of Patrick. It tugs at you. You somehow lost your brother. It was somehow your fault. You didn’t protect him, didn’t love him hard enough. No facts adequately account for that. It’s just truth.
You snap a picture and spend the next two years searching for data that imposes a little reason. Now you’re here, close to what feels like an answer.
“Hear it breathing?” Twyla says.
“We should get help.”
They listen. Darkness. A hush.
Igor suddenly cries out, “I must break you!” A bone-jarring booooom produces a blossom of fire. Beezer sees—seared on his retinas—Igor, limping and bloodied, firing the shotgun at a beast emerging from behind a tree.
The thing turns and lopes away, possibly wounded.
Without knowing why, Beezer lunges after. “Come back!”
“Perestroika!” Igor shouts in triumph. His leg is bitten, broken. He hobbles to a halt. Twyla catches him.
Only Beezer gives chase. He knows now what, irrationally, he hopes to find.
He follows for miles by moonlight, not using phone, which might give up his position.
The beast finally falters and Beezer tumbles over it. He feels the body, still warm. He hears its shallow panting. It reeks of musk. There’s a coppery tang sharp as an opened vein, but he can’t tell if it’s hurt or only winded. He might be able to club it with a log or at least snap a photo. He resists. Debunking or proving the dogman’s existence would have the same effect. The hunt would be over.
Instead, he reaches out, runs his hand along its ribs, feels its heartbeat wild and fast as a bird’s. He half-expects it to bite him as he wraps his arms around it. It is large and light and tall and wiry. He lifts it to its feet—two or four, he can’t tell.
“Go on. Tell him I miss him. Wherever he is, tell him at least that. Tell him I love him.”
A low snort as it wobbles away through the pines.
What a luxury it would be to know which goodbye is the last, Beezer thinks. He waves before realizing how ridiculous a gesture it is. He laughs. Beneath the paint-smeared wheel of galaxies his grief feels almost bearable.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @robhollywood.
David Armstrong is author of the collections Going Anywhere and Reiterations, and a novella, Missives from the Green Campaign. His stories appear in Mississippi Review, McNeese Review, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Narrative, Iron Horse, Best of Ohio Short Stories, and elsewhere. His fiction has won Yemassee’s Short Fiction prize, the New South Contest, the Slippery Elm Prize, and Jabberwock Review’s Fiction Prize, among others. He’s a professor of creative writing in San Antonio.