No one noticed when the strays started to go missing. It was just a cat here, another there, nothing too unusual for feral animals. Even as a kid, I was used to them coming and going of their own accord and sometimes wouldn’t see them for months. It was just how things worked in a small country town.
But then Sassafrass disappeared. She was the Binders’ beloved Siamese cat, an elderly girl with only one good eye and less teeth. She would sunbathe in a basket filled with blankets from dawn until dusk and then go in to sleep between them on the couch while they watched their evening programs. She rarely left her basket and never left her yard.
“Probably a coyote,” Dad said after Mr. Binder had come by to ask if we’d seen Sass.
“Poor girl,” Mom shook her head with a sad sigh.
Everyone felt sorry for the Binders, but no one thought much of it. There were plenty of wild animals who would have loved to make an easy meal out of old Sassafrass. While we agreed that it was a terrible end for such a sweet cat, it wasn’t surprising.
When Brutus, the Guerra’s miniature pinscher, vanished from their fenced in yard in the five minutes he’d been let out, the tune changed a bit and people were a little more concerned. If it was a coyote, it was being very bold and that made it dangerous.
After Brutus, two more cats and another dog were reported to be missing in the following month.
Word spread to keep a close eye on pets and to call animal control if there were any sightings of predators in the area. Everyone was quick to adhere to the warnings, except for my next door neighbor, Mrs. Berg. Her little black chihuahua, aptly titled The Queen, continued to have the same freedom she’d always had, running in and out of her dog door without concern.
I was very fond of the small dog, who would jump at the gate every time I passed, barking and carrying on until I leaned over to give her a scratch behind the ears. Only after I’d paid appropriate homage would I be allowed to move on.
So when I saw her sniffing about the yard as usual after the disappearances, I let myself in through the gate and marched up to the front door, The Queen bouncing at my heels.
“Erica?” Mrs. Berg looked surprised to see me on her front porch so early.
“Hi, Mrs. Berg. Do you know The Queen is outside?” I asked, trying my best not to sound too accusing.
I tried to withhold a sigh. If I, a fifth grader, could understand why it was a Bad Idea to let her small dog wander the yard, why couldn’t she?
“Aren’t you worried about the coyote that’s been taking all the pets?”
“Not at all, dear,” she replied with a smile. “A coyote wouldn’t make it very long in my yard.”
“I dunno, Mrs. Berg…”
“The Barbarian is keeping an eye on things, don’t you worry.”
“Th-the Barbarian?” I had forgotten about her second dog, a large, scarred mutt who sat quietly in the shadows. He never approached the gate like The Queen, never seemed happy to see anyone, he just…watched.
“Oh yes, he’s around. Thanks for your concern, dear, but if anything were to set foot in this yard, he’d know.”
“I did,” I grumbled.
“Yes, dear, and he knows.”
She nodded over my shoulder and I turned to find The Queen sitting between the front paws of the much larger Barbarian. While she was wriggling impatiently and whining for attention, he was completely still and staring, his dark eyes fixed on me. She’d told me once that his previous owners had choked him as a puppy, permanently damaging his vocal chords and rendering him almost mute. His silence only made him more intimidating.
I stiffened and pressed back against Mrs. Berg, who chuckled and gave my shoulder a pat. “Nothing to be afraid of; he knows you’re not here to cause trouble. He won’t bother you.”
I nodded uncertainly, mumbled an excuse about having to get to school, and skirted around The Barbarian, who made no move to follow. The Queen leapt up and shot off after me, barking all the way to the gate.
I didn’t start to breathe again until I was safely on the bus and away from The Barbarian. At least I felt better about The Queen, though; nothing was going to happen to her with him watching over her.
On my way home that afternoon, I noticed someone was stopped at Mrs. Berg’s gate. I recognized him from church, one of the teenagers from the newest family in town. He was watching The Queen run laps along the fence, barking her head off, a small smile on his face.
“Careful,” I warned him as I walked by, “the other one doesn’t like people.”
“No worries,” he said casually, “I just like looking. He’s cute, huh?”
“Oh, right. What’s her name?”
“That’s not a name, that’s a title.”
“It’s her name,” I argued. “Says so on her tags.”
“No, I live next door.”
He nodded and straightened. “Well, I’m gonna get going. Nice meeting you and The Queen.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
He sauntered on down the road, his hands tucked in his pockets, and I hung around a moment longer to give The Queen a pat on her round little head before going inside.
I didn’t think anything of it when I heard The Queen yapping away as I got ready for bed a few hours later. It wasn’t unusual for her to have a final run around the yard to assert her domain before going in for the night. I said goodnight to my parents, shut off my light, and crawled in to bed with the expectation of listening to The Queen until I fell asleep.
But now, there was only silence.
Maybe she went in early tonight, I told myself. Maybe Mrs. Berg got tired of her barking. There were a hundred reasons for a dog to suddenly go quiet, but all of the others seemed to crumble before my greatest fear: she’d been gobbled up by a coyote.
Nervously, I slipped back out from under the covers and tiptoed to my window. I could see down into Mrs. Berg’s yard, where The Barbarian was pacing beside the gate. His head was lowered and his hackles raised and he was staring after a man walking quickly down the sidewalk. Something was wrong.
I ran from my room to tell my parents, but they were already in bed and Dad hated when I woke them if it wasn’t an emergency. I didn’t think this would count. I hurried back to my window; the man was more distant now and The Barbarian more anxious. He was pawing and biting at the gate, which I’d never seen him do before. Dad may not have considered it an emergency, but I did.
With worry for The Queen clouding all other thoughts, I shoved my feet into my sneakers and crept as quickly and quietly outside as I could.
The Barbarian tensed as I approached and I suddenly had second thoughts about what I was doing. While I’d pet and played with The Queen hundreds of times, I’d never so much as touched The Barbarian and I had no idea how he’d react to me. I paused just on the other side of the gate, my hand halfway to the latch, and I froze with uncertainty.
And then he tried to whine, a strangled, pained sound, and he pawed at the gate again.
Swallowing my fear, I unlatched it. The Barbarian charged passed me, fast and focused and heading in the same direction the man had gone. With no sign of The Queen in the yard, I set off after him. We went down our street, over three, up another. The houses were getting further apart and the street lights were becoming fewer and my feet were starting to drag, but The Barbarian kept going.
I hesitated when he veered off the road into the dark woods, but he was getting more excited, more anxious, and I knew we had to be close. If The Queen had been taken, I had to help get her back however I could! My parents probably would have disagreed, but they weren’t around to argue my child logic, so I darted into the shadows after The Barbarian.
The Queen was whining. I heard her before I saw the faint glow of the fire ahead. Even from a distance, I thought she sounded distressed, not at all like her usual self, and my heartbeat started to quicken. I could just see The Barbarian ahead of me, weaving quickly around trees, his footfall as quiet as a shadow.
I was less stealthy and ended up stumbling over an upturned root, which sent me sprawling to the ground. I cried out and grasped at my scraped knee, trying to see how badly I’d cut it in the dim light.
I didn’t even realize I’d been spotted until a hand closed on the back of my nightgown and I was yanked upright.
The teen I’d run into outside of Mrs. Berg’s earlier kept a tight hold on me while he stared me down. Any smile or warmth I’d seen earlier had vanished, replaced by a chilling coldness. I tried to say something, to ask why he had The Queen, but he just started walking me wordlessly towards the clearing and his fire.
The Queen was tied to a tree trunk by an old rope and, when she saw me, she strained against it, yelping sharply. I tried to wiggle out of the teen’s grasp to go to her, but he forced me to sit on the ground.
“Why’d you take her?” I demanded, trying to stand again.
He knocked me back on my bottom and turned away from from me, back to whatever he’d been doing before I arrived. I started to push myself up again when I saw them.
Sassafrass, so old she’d never have even been able to put up a fight, nailed through her one good eye to a tree. Brutus, now missing all of his legs and his ears, was below her, a line of long nails running down his spine into the trunk. Around them, on other trees, more cats and dogs in varying stages of destruction and decay were displayed.
My mouth hung open, but I couldn’t make any sound come out. It was like all of the air had been forced from my lungs and I could just clap my hands over my eyes and shake. Across from me, The Queen continued to struggle to get to me.
“You shouldn’t have followed me,” The boy said. He sounded disappointed. “Why can’t people just leave me alone and mind their own business?”
When he turned to face me, he had a nail gun in his hand. A wet warmth puddled beneath me and I couldn’t keep the tears from falling down my cheeks as he walked towards me.
“You’ll promise not to tell, but you will. They always do,” he said. “I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you, but I can’t let you tell.”
He knelt in front of me and took my hand in one of his and gave it a gentle squeeze while he pressed the end of the nail gun to my temple.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, “I’ll make it quick for you. You won’t even feel it, ok?”
There was no screaming or yelling or begging. I had forgotten how to move or speak, I had forgotten how to close my eyes and just gazed up at his eerily calm face through burning tears, and I had forgotten that I hadn’t come alone.
The Barbarian gave no warning. He struck hard and fast and from behind, his large jaws closing on the teen’s shoulder. He ripped him backwards and the nail gun went flying off into the darkness. The teen’s frightened screaming wrenched me out of my panicked state and I crawled on all fours to The Queen, who leapt at me and licked my face while I tried to untie her with shaking hands.
I tried not to look towards The Barbarian and the teen, who was still screeching and thrashing and crying.
Once I had The Queen untied, I scooped her up and started to run back in the direction I’d thought I’d come from. I paused only once, to give a short, hysterical call over my shoulder.
I didn’t think it would work and was off without waiting. Fear drove me onward, blindly, and I sobbed while I hugged The Queen to my chest. The woods were a confusing tangle and I had no idea if I was going in the right direction.
Not until The Barbarian appeared in front of me and took the lead.
I followed him all the way back to the street, where my frantic crying woke up half the neighborhood, and I didn’t stop until I was in front of my house. I collapsed in my yard, The Queen still in my arms, and I screamed.
The Barbarian and The Queen remained with me until my parents and neighbors and the cops were swarming around me. It was only after I was safely tucked in between my parents, a heavy blanket wrapped around my shoulders, that they got up and trotted back to the gate, where a confused and concerned Mrs. Berg let them into the yard.
They continued to watch me through the fence, though, that night and for many more after. I was plagued by nightmares of the teen with his nail gun coming after me and of images of those poor animals he’d murdered in the woods. Whenever it became too overwhelming, too frightening, I’d run to my window and pull back the curtains and I’d look down into Mrs. Berg’s yard.
And every night, I’d see The Queen and The Barbarian staring back up at me, letting me know that as long as they were there, I was safe.