I've never seen anyone fall in love as quickly as Rowen and Poole. Rowen's my former neighbor and current friend. Poole's a dog we found paddling around her family's pool one day. Both pairs of eyes seemed to light up the moment they met for the first time.
Rowen was a sullen, sardonic teen I never could've pictured getting mushy over an animal. I expected her to be outraged when a soaking wet hundred pound hound leaped on her and licked her face. Annoyed at the very least. She kissed him right back. People have facets you never know 'til you see them head on.
That's how I like to tell the story of how Rowen met Poole. It sounds sweet, and it really did happen, but it's not the whole truth.
Poole did try to run toward Rowen the moment he got out of the water, but he tripped and planted his chin on the cement. That was when I said something I've regretted ever since.
"Don't touch it. I don't think it's healthy. We should call animal control."
It was a callous thing to say, but it seemed right at the time. Here was a strange dog with no collar who'd just tripped over his own legs. Caution takes precedence over goodwill.
Before I was finished with the third sentence she was petting him and he was licking her. She heard what I said, though, and she rubs it in each time she tells the story.
Her family got the message out that they'd found a dog, but no one ever called to claim him. No dog matching his description was reported lost. There was a missing dog in our neighborhood, but he was a chocolate Labrador Retriever, and Poole's a tricolor Borzoi.
He became Rowen's responsibility. They couldn't have been happier with the arrangement. A loyal companion was just what she needed at that stressful time in her life. Her deepening seclusion quickly reversed when she had an adventurous, gregarious new friend.
She was the center of Poole's universe. He'd gallop toward her the instant he spotted her. He'd howl whenever she had to leave. It almost sounded like he was calling her name. "Rowen, Rowen, Rowen..."
Outside of school I hardly ever saw Rowen without Poole. She'd have him in tow whenever she was running errands on foot or dropping by to see friends. He'd ride with her wherever she drove. When we hung out he'd always be right there. She'd talk to him like he was one of our friends.
I wanted to like that dog. Rowen loved him, and he was clearly a positive presence in her life, but the best I could do was tolerate him.
He was always cold toward me, as if he understood that I wanted to cast him away the moment I met him. He used to greet me with a strange open mouthed growl that made me jump out of my skin. For Rowen's sake I'd make a show of petting him and talking to him cordially, but he didn't respond the way he did when he got affection from our other friends. After a while he stopped making those weird growls, and he never did hurt me or give any unambiguous sign of hostility, but I never started feeling comfortable around him.
A lot's happened since then. College. Work. The deterioration of our friend group. We're not the kids we used to be.
Poole was Rowen's pet 'til very recently. She still treated him well, and he was still a good boy to her, but they weren't crazy about each other anymore. She couldn't take him everywhere she went, like in the old days. She no longer had time to do things like drive a dog to the beach or the country. She'd pet him, but never vigorously. He'd come up to greet her, but wouldn't gallop. I'd rarely see them cuddled up together.
One evening not long ago something odd happened.
Rowen and I were planning to have a few drinks together. I stopped by her place. It's a big, old house converted to apartments. It sits next to another big, old house converted to apartments. The neighborhood's not laid out well. The streets are scarce and the alleys seem confused. I parked out of the way of the snow plows, and navigated the snowy sidewalks.
I was in a dark place between the two buildings when something knocked me over. It happened so quickly that I wasn't sure what happened. I heard a strange noise. A split second later I had a faceful of snow and my chin was scraping on ice cold concrete. I got a blurred impression of something that looked to be about the size and color of a timber wolf. From the force I felt it must've been running at a terrific speed. It was like a pair of hands punched me in the ribs. I saw and felt steamy breath pouring from its face.
There was something very weird about that animal. I don't know if it was how it looked, how it ran, or how it felt against my coat. Something about it was just wrong.
I quickly got back on my feet. More quickly than I would've thought myself capable of. I was ready to fight for my life. I found myself alone.
I didn't know where the thing had disappeared to. I wasn't even sure which direction it'd come from. There were prints from a few different people and animals, and my head was spinning as I tried to make sense of them.
It could've gone around one building or the other. Behind the hedges next door, perhaps. Or into the park across the street. Maybe it was just crouched motionlessly in a place I'd never think to look 'til it was too late.
The minutes it took me to get to the door of Rowen's building felt like hours. I've never had so much adrenaline in me. I felt worlds better once the door was shut behind me, but there was more strangeness to greet me inside.
When I got to the top of the stairs I noticed scorch marks, in groups of three, burned into the carpet. They got darker as I got closer to Rowen's room. They led right to her door.
I announced my presence. Nothing. She obviously wasn't waiting by the door. Poole wasn't running to the door either. After some waiting, and some more knocking and hollering, I let myself in.
The room was dark except for one lamp. Acoustic guitar softly drifted from the speakers. The air smelled of burnt hair and another scent I couldn't recognize. Rowen was sitting in the easy chair. Poole was nowhere to be seen. About ten feet away from the chair, right where the trail of scorch marks ended, was a big splotch burned into the carpet.
Rowen was near catatonic when I found her.
"Are you okay?" I asked over and over. She kept silently staring into nowhere. I was afraid she'd gone into shock or something. I was about to take her pulse when she finally responded.
"What happened?" I asked. She'd gone quiet again. That was when I noticed a dog tag among the ashes. "Where's Poole?"
"You just missed him," she mumbled.
"What happened?" I asked again.
"I need a drink," was all she said, and with that she stood up and walked to the closet to get her coat.
I was worried about Rowen, worried about Poole, and dumbfounded by the whole situation. When we got outside I forgot that for a few minutes and just worried about myself. The strange animal was on my mind again. All the way to the car I walked slowly and kept looking around. There were many places an animal could be hiding. I felt like I was being watched.
We made it to the bar without incident. After a few drinks Rowen started babbling about Poole. It sounded like a joke at first, but she plainly wasn't in a joking mood. After a while a coherent narrative emerged. It was crazy. Still, the most extraordinary story becomes believable when your best friend tells it with complete conviction.
She'd finished a long shift and wanted to lie back and listen to music for a while. Poole was staring at her. He'd had his walk, had his treat, and ignored his ball and rope. He was just sitting there, outside of petting range, staring at Rowen.
"What do you want?" she finally asked.
"I want the relationship we used to have," Poole replied in perfectly clear English.
Rowen stared at him, stunned, wondering if she'd just had some sort of hallucination.
Poole opened his mouth once again and said, "I'm tired of pretending."
He closed his mouth and eyes, and burst into flames. A pink fire consumed his fur 'til his whole body looked like one big neon light. Beneath the crackling of the flames Rowen could hear the straining, popping, and snapping of bone, gristle, and sinew.
When the fire died down Poole looked different. He was a little smaller. Patchy, grey moss covered wrinkly, charcoal skin. He had six-fingered hands where his paws used to be. He'd lost his tail, but grown a third leg. He'd lost his ears and his nose, but grown a twitchy caterpillar on his forehead. He was still glowing faintly.
"Goodbye, Rowen," he said, and he cantered away like a three-legged horse. He stopped at the door for a moment, looked wistfully at Rowen with those same brown eyes she fell in love with, and then he was gone.
Rowen hasn't forgotten Poole. Every day she's out there running around. Calling his name. Showing people his pictures. Looking for his tracks in the snow. Checking everywhere for a sign of her old friend. Every night she's up on the fire escape, listening for his distinctive howl. It's heartbreaking to watch her. To see that lost look in her eyes.
Poole's been gone three weeks now, and she's worried that we'll never see him again. I'm worried that we will.
Written by Lee Sherman (Floyd Pinkerton) for Bogleech's Creepypasta Cook-Off