Occasionally on Blumhouse.com, we like to send chills down your spine with short stories! This one is by Blumhouse staffer Zac Locke. Please enjoy “The Hounds of Glen Ellen.”
“Did you hear that?” she’d asked.
But he hadn’t, and told her so, and his eyelids were thick with tannins and drooped back down slowly like the drip of thick legs on a big Syrah.
But she’d heard it.
It was a howl.
She’d drunk half the bottle of wine too, over thin-crusted pizza with clams and a shared app of shaved Brussels, and he had fifty pounds on her easy, but alcohol made her sleep lightly until the slightest disturbance jolted her annoyingly, undeniably, awake. There she would lie in a cage of nervous malaise, unable to sleep yet unable to rise, with her husband—yes, she could say it now; it was official—husband, snoring deeply beside her.
Husband, she thought, as she lay awake. They had dated for two years, and been engaged for two more. Yet now that they were married, even though it had just been a few days, things felt different. Husband was for better or worse. Husband was for life. That was a long time. That was a lot of long nights lying awake next to a snoring man.
Tonight it was the howl that had jolted her awake, surely. Having been awoken by it, she couldn’t tell when the howl had begun; it seemed to her to have come from nothing and then simply to be the sound of the universe inside her and then, she couldn’t say exactly when, had faded back into nothingness.
One single solitary plaintive howl.
What else about it? She was recreating it from memory now, her ear buds still buzzing cellularly with the sound vibrations, so she wasn’t hearing the actual howl but her mind’s rendition of it and it seemed too perfect, that one solitary howl. The tenor was rich and sustained, like an opera hero’s final entreaty to his star-crossed lover. She kept waiting for the howl to repeat itself. She kept confusing the howl in her head with an anticipated howl from outside.
But another howl never came.
At the first play of sunlight against the clay-baked dirt of the vineyards outside their room, she fell back asleep. She dreamed that she was running down a long corridor, but that the more she ran, the longer the corridor became, until she could no longer see its end.
* * *
She awoke late in the morning to a note from her husband—there was that word again—stating that he was at breakfast; the second “B” of the tastefully redone and outrageously priced B&B they were staying at for their honeymoon, or “mini-moon” as they called it. They would just be here in Glen Ellen for the long weekend, having been married the previous Sunday in San Francisco. They’d go on the “real” honeymoon later. There had been talk of Thailand. There had been talk of next summer.
She was hungry, but she and her now-husband had stayed in enough tastefully redone and outrageously expensive B&Bs for her to know that he’d secrete a croissant, the sweet oils translucidating its paper napkin wrapping, plus maybe a banana if they had them, from the dining room for her to eat in bed.
She stretched. The hotel-grade curtains covering their ground floor sliding glass doors had kept the room dark even at this mid-morning hour. She plodded over the poured concrete floor to the bathroom, which was bigger than their apartment’s kitchen, and showered under a rain shower with extremely satisfying water pressure.
Feeling guilty about the drought, she turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, and wrapped a thick four-digit thread count towel around her body. She smelled of lavender. The rain shower dripped.
“Baby?” she said, but received no reply.
She turned off the bathroom fan.
The shower dripped again.
And then: scratch.
She left the bathroom, closed the bathroom door and stood still. She heard it again, a scratching sound, coming from the other side of the room.
Scratch scratch scratch.
She took a couple steps more into the room. The noise seemed to be coming from the curtains, or behind them.
She moved toward the sound. The scratches increased with frequency and vigor as she moved closer to the curtains and the sliding glass door. She stood facing it, trying to make her breath silent.
“Hello?” she said, but the scratches kept going.
She tightened the tuck on her wrapped towel, and flung open the blinds. A figure on the other side of the glass jumped. She screamed.
She’d come face to face with a wizened gardener, raking the fall leaves in the wooded area outside the room.
She unlocked the door and slid it open.
“Sorry,” she said.
“S’alright,” said the gardener.
She slid the door shut. Embarrassed, shaken, she drew the curtains.
She heard a click at the other end of the room and a creak and wheeled around to see her husband walking through the door, holding a croissant in an oil-blotched paper napkin.
“Morning sleepyhead!” he said, and turned on the lights.
* * *
They spent the day wine tasting and eating rich foods, but the aural memory of the howl plus the shock of the gardener had her slightly off. Her husband didn’t notice, she didn’t think, or didn’t act like he did. They followed his pre-planned, predestined route along the wineries in the valley, not straying from the program even when she dropped subtle hints like she was tired or hungry.
Actually she was happy to be out of their hotel room. Although it was comfortable, cozy, and romantic (it even had its own fireplace), she had felt disquieted there this morning, dressing quickly and insisting they leave so hurriedly that besides one bite she had taken, the croissant still lay ensconced in its napkin, its oils gradually eating away at the white fibers.
They had not even had time for their traditional morning hotel sex. There would be time for that, she thought. After all, they had their whole lives together, countless trips to hotel rooms. How many mornings to wake up next to each other? Tens of thousands probably. A lot of mornings. A lot of opportunities for sex, albeit with the same man.
* * *
That night she had the dream about the corridor again. The corridor was long a straight and dark around the edges so she couldn’t feel the walls but sensed their closeness. The more she walked down the corridor the longer it stretched out before her. When she turned backward, all she could see was darkness; when she reached her hands into it they seemed to disappear into the black. There seemed to be no option to go back the way she’d come.
Around midnight, just when she was starting to feel a sense of desperation in re the one-way trajectory of her dream, she awoke to a crystalline, monotone sound.
She couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour; she had awoken clear-headed and untired. Predictably, her husband lay on his back, hands folded across his chest, breathing deeply. They hadn’t even been asleep long enough for him to really start the deep snoring. She didn’t consider waking him this time.
She folded her arms behind her head and stared at the ceiling. She assumed that like last time the canid creature doing the howling would stop at the solitary howl, but then she heard it again. The howl was a bit louder this time, sounded closer. She counted the seconds of the clear aural blast, as if she was calculating the distance of lightning by timing the eventual rumble of thunder. By the time the howl resolved back into the airy blackness of the outside night she had counted five seconds by her estimation. Whatever was making this noise had some lungs on it. Big lungs.
A minute passed. Then another. Then another. As she did last night, she awaited the next howl with a mixture of dread and anticipation, a cocktail of feelings she recognized from somewhere deep inside of her.
Listening hard, she heard the crinkling of dry pine needles on the other side of the sliding glass doors. Then she thought she heard a twig snap. Her pulse quickened and her breath became shallower. She tried to repress these physiological reactions so she could listen for footsteps. She heard none. And then, without warning of any other noise, she heard something:
She pursed her lips tight.
Scratch scratch scratch.
It sounded like the same scratching sound the gardener was making with the rake this morning. But that seemed impossible. It was past midnight, and she had heard no footsteps. Cold pinpricks of sweat started prickling her skin.
Scratch scratch scratch.
The scratching was so clear now it sounded as if were coming from inside the room. She leapt out of bed but once standing realized she had no plan.
On the bedstand there was a half-drunk bottle of wine. She lifted the bottle and took three long gulps, hoping it would calm her nerves. It did, or at least gave her a bit more courage to do what she did next, which was to approach the curtains of the sliding door. She stood still, or tried to, as she felt her body rocking slightly on its axis. Or maybe that was just the wine, or the adrenaline, making it seem that way.
She stared at the curtains. She had the sense that someone or something was staring back at her, through the glass, through the thick curtains. She had the sense that whoever or whatever was scratching was asking to be invited in.
And then it hit her: she had forgotten to lock the sliding door this morning after she’d apologized to the gardener. Whoever or whatever this was, if it was able, could open the door, step inside, and then what? She shuddered to even think about it. She tried to will herself to fling open the curtains again, to see what this presence was, to lock the door as fast as she could. But she felt paralyzed, her fingers not obeying her brain’s exploratory instructions to wiggle. She waited to hear a scratch again, and waited, and waited. She could still feel the presence of a living, breathing thing only an inch of glass away from her. Finally, from outside that glass she heard a soft crunch of treefall under weight, a gentle splintering of bark from a stump. And something inside her told her the presence was gone.
* * *
There was no note this morning but she knew where he was: breakfast always the priority, especially when it was included “free” with their stay. He always chided her for not taking advantage of all the amenities they paid for, but wasn’t a getaway for relaxing? There’d be plenty of time for early mornings once they had kids; she knew this from so many of her friends who’d already gone down that road. Plus with her long wakeful interlude last night, there was no way she was making the ten o’clock Sunday breakfast cutoff. In fact, they’d have to be checking out soon. This was the last day of the mini-moon. They both had to get back to the City for work tomorrow.
Groggily she showered, the lavender smell of the soap helping open her eyes a bit but doing nothing to clear the tenseness of the previous two nights’ sounds. She’d never admit it to her husband, who’d probably take it as a personal affront, but she was glad this trip was ending. She couldn’t wait to sleep in her own bedroom tonight, on the third floor of an old Victorian walkup, with no trees or brush or anything else outside the window, where she could go sleep on the couch if she awoke in their bed, turn on the oven fan to drown out her husband’s snoring.
She let the water envelop her until her skin was soft and creased—drought-be-damned. Twenty minutes later, wrapping the towel around herself, she felt better: more relaxed, more optimistic, even a little hungry.
When she emerged from the shower she gasped.
A large, no, enormous, dog stood in her room, between her and the room’s door.
She didn’t dare make a move. The dog stood still, looking at her with calm, black eyes. The room was silent. There was a musty animal smell in the tense air.
She stared at the dog. It was bigger than any dog she’d ever seen, even bigger than her neighbor’s gangly Great Dane. Its lean shoulders were at equal height to her own. She could see the balls of bones in their sockets. The animal looked sleek and powerful. Its gray hair was clean but dull and matted thick. The animal odor that had now fully taken over the lavender scent was strong and feral.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
This was no dog.
This was a fucking wolf.
She felt a breeze, snapped her head quickly toward the sliding glass door. It was open. The curtains blew into the room gently. Snapping her head back to the beast, she caught a glimpse of the wine bottle on the nightstand. Using every ounce of willpower in her body, she inched toward the bottle. The wolf did not move. It did not change its implacable lupine expression.
She reached toward the bottle and picked it up slowly. The wolf took one step toward her, stopped. He was about six feet from her, less than his body length away. Six feet beyond that was the door. The open sliding glass door was on the other side of the room, too far to consider.
She raised the bottle above her head. It was almost half full, and heavy. The wolf bared its horrible teeth by pulling back top and bottom lips; she almost lost her will when she saw the pure white snarl of incisors and canines. Her arm dropped back down to her stomach in protection, some wine splashing to the floor. At once, the wolf’s pupils contracted, leaving a tiny black dot in the center of bright yellow eyes. The wolf stalked another step closer to her. She lifted the bottle again. Reached back as far as she could.
Click, she heard, and creak, and the door behind the wolf flung open.
“Good mor—” she heard, but her husband cut his salutation short as the wolf turned its threatening head toward him.
She pounced on the opportunity and let the bottle fly with all her might. It glanced off the back of the beast and, gaining momentum, flew toward her husband, whose eyes were wide with confusion and terror.
“No!” he yelled, and turned his head away from the projectile bottle just in time for the neck of it to strike him directly, like a lumbering dart, in the temple. The bottle seemed to lodge there unnaturally for a brief moment before it, and her husband, both crashed to the floor. The bottle reached first, shattering, with her husband right behind it. Unconscious, her husband could not break his fall, and his head hit the poured concrete floor with a terrible crack. Wine spilled from the open bottle. Blood spilled from his open head.
The wolf darted toward her as she closed her eyes tight, but merely brushed against her, the sensation so different than anything she’d ever felt, and scampered out of the open sliding glass door.
“Honey!” she screamed and ran toward the crumpled mess on the floor. She knelt beside him. Wine and blood mixed to dye red the napkin covering the croissant he must’ve brought her. At that moment a figure appeared at the doorway. She looked up to see a maid’s shocked expression.
“No, it’s—” was all she could say from her knees as the maid ran off in the opposite direction, yelling something in Spanish.
She leaned over her husband, shook him, felt for a pulse. Nothing.
“Oh,” she said, “oh.”
She looked behind her toward the open door. She could see no muddy footprints; no gray hair left behind. The musty smell had been replaced by the smell of wine, and of blood, and of fried dough, and the cool harsh air of death.
She almost jumped when she heard the sound from outside. At first she thought it was the same, long howl she’d heard the previous two nights. But then the sound raised its register to another note, and then lowered again, and she realized that the loud blast cutting through the air was not a wolf’s howl, but a police siren. And it was coming closer.
Zac Locke’s novella, Beverlywood: Sex, Murder, Existentialism (a Tuesday in Los Angeles), was published in serial form by Boston’s Novella-T and is available in text and audiobook. His short stories have been published or are upcoming in Hypertext Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, No Extra Words, New Flash Fiction Review, Tiny Lights, Yay! LA, Found Polaroids, and PushPen Press. Zac lives in West Hollywood, CA.