“Hi Jack, I’m Dr. Stanley. Do you know why you’re here?”
Do I look like a moron? That’s how I wanted to answer this patronizing shrink. But I’d figured out by now that a bad attitude wouldn’t get me very far. So I said nothing.
“I understand you and Stevie were best friends a long time, ever since—” Dr. Stanley raised her eyebrows and nodded, a prompt for me to fill in the blank.
I capitulated. “Grade Three,” I mumbled.
The doctor smiled. “Tell me about Stevie. What was he like?”
Her use of the past tense irked me. The assumption Stevie was dead. And that I’d had something to do with it.
“Stevie is a great friend. A really good guy.”
She went with the tense change. “Do you ever have disagreements? Get mad at each other?”
I rolled my eyes. “Who doesn’t?”
This doctor was as subtle as a cat at a bird convention. Why not just come out and accuse me of killing my best friend?
Dr. Stanley frowned slightly and glanced at the wall clock over my head. Apparently, she still had time to introduce another line of questioning.
“Jack, could you tell me what happened on Tuesday when Stevie disappeared? Take your time. Try to include every detail you can remember.”
She settled back into her chair, maybe to communicate that she’d put on her listening ears? But I knew it wouldn’t do any good. That once she heard the story I’d already told my parents and the police, she’d reach the same conclusion they obviously had.
But at this point, what did I have to lose?
I began the narrative I’d practically memorized by now. “Stevie and I decided to hike up Hanley’s Mountain. It was nearly the end of August, so this was our last chance to do it before school started. We convinced our parents to let us camp out overnight, since Stevie just turned 16 and my birthday is coming up next month.
“Stevie brought Ruff along. His dog. Never goes anywhere without Ruff.”
Dr. Stanley leaned in. “What kind of dog is Ruff?”
“He's a mutt. I’d say lab, spaniel and probably some other breeds, too. A good size, not one of those little yapper dogs. Stevie’s had him for a few months.”
“Did Stevie’s parents get the dog for him?” asked the doctor.
“Nope, he was a stray that started coming around Stevie’s house. He put food out for the dog, which his parents weren’t too happy about. They didn’t want to encourage a stray. But Stevie really liked him, and his parents finally broke down. When no one claimed Ruff after they put an ad in the paper, they let Stevie keep him.”
“And Stevie is obviously very attached to Ruff,” said Dr. Stanley.
“Yeah, they’re never apart, except when Stevie’s in school,” I said, and then foolishly added, “He’s closer to that dog than he ever was to me.”
I caught the doctor’s reaction and mentally kicked myself.
I tried to do damage control. “I mean, a dog’s with you all the time. Always glad to see you, never argues, where a friend—well, it’s always more complicated with people.”
I gave up. I was just digging myself in deeper.
Thankfully, Dr. Stanley didn’t pursue the friendship thing any further. But she still had questions about the dog. She’d obviously read a copy of the statement I’d given the police.
She narrowed her eyes. “How do you feel about Ruff, Jack?”
“Well, we always had dogs till Hank—our last dog—died a couple of months ago, so I’m used to them.”
“That must’ve been tough. I’m sure you miss Hank very much,” said Dr. Stanley.
“Yeah, he was a great dog. We had him a long time,” I answered, trying to keep my voice from quavering. The lump in my throat had taken me by surprise.
The police hadn’t asked me anything about my dog. But the doctor must’ve thought it was important. Shrinks don’t just ask questions out of curiosity.
“You didn’t answer my question, Jack,” she said. “About Ruff. How do you feel about him? Is he a nice dog?”
Dr. Stanley wasn’t stupid. “Uh, yeah. He’s okay. I mean, he’s Stevie’s dog, not mine.”
“Could it be that you’re a little jealous of Ruff? And hurt because your dog is gone and Stevie still has his?” she probed.
“No, you don’t understand! It’s—” I stumbled over my words. How could I put this without sounding like a complete lunatic? “Ruff wasn’t your typical dog. He was—well, sometimes he seemed almost human.”
Dr. Stanley couldn’t seem to write fast enough. There was a brief silence as she caught up.
“Can you explain that, Jack?” she urged, pen poised.
“Well, most of the time, Ruff didn’t pay much attention to me. But whenever I tried to get Stevie to go somewhere without Ruff, or told him I thought he was spending too much time with the dog, it was like Ruff understood what I was saying. He’d start growling at me or nuzzling up to Stevie. When the dog nipped me, Stevie said he was just playing. But there was a look in Ruff’s eyes. It was like—I know it sounds crazy, but it was like he was mocking me. So you want to know how I feel about Stevie’s dog? He gives me the creeps!”
I hesitated about the next bit. I hadn’t shared this with anyone. Not the police, and not even Mum and Dad. But maybe this woman, who read people for a living—maybe she would connect with me and know I wasn’t insane or delinquent. That I was telling the truth.
“He killed Hank.” There, it was out.
Dr. Stanley gave me a sympathetic look, which encouraged me to go on.
“Hank was a real friendly dog. Never had a problem with other dogs till Ruff came into the picture. Hank did not like him. First time he saw Ruff, he got in front of me and growled at him. Wouldn’t let Ruff near me. Only other time I’ve seen Hank do that was once when I was out in the woods with him and we met up with a black bear. It was like he was protecting me from danger.
“Anyhow, I was out walking with Hank, and he ran ahead like he usually did. Suddenly I saw an animal jump out from nowhere and attack him. As I ran closer, I could see it was Ruff. I called to Hank and screamed at Ruff to back off. Hank was quite a bit smaller than Ruff and no match for him. By the time I got to them, Ruff was gone and Hank was on the ground, dying.
“It was weird, because when I told Stevie, he refused to believe his dog would do such a thing. Even though I had seen what happened. ‘It must have been another dog that looked like Ruff. He’d never attack Hank!’ he insisted.
“I couldn’t reason with Stevie. He just got mad and wouldn’t hear anything bad about his dog. ‘You don’t understand, Jack,’ he said. ‘Ruff isn’t just a dog. He’s like a person. He gets me! So I know he’d never do anything like that.’
“But then I reminded him that he’d only known Ruff for a few months, that his dog had pretty much been a wild animal before that, surviving any way he could. Big mistake. Stevie wouldn’t speak to me for a week.”
When the doctor finally put her pen down, she nodded, like she had everything figured out. And I knew she didn’t get it at all, that she wasn’t going to believe a word of my story.
But she said nothing more about my account. Instead, she redirected. “Let’s get back to your hike. You were headed to Hanley’s Mountain.”
I sighed and continued my recitation. “Stevie’s mum dropped us off near the base of the mountain sometime after breakfast on Tuesday. We wanted to go early in the week, when there aren’t as many people around. It seemed perfect. The day was sunny and warm, and there weren’t too many cars in the parking area.”
I looked at Dr. Stanley, and she nodded for me to continue.
“We headed for the trail. Ruff raced ahead and Stevie ran after him. I took my time, as I didn’t want to tire myself out before we’d even started up the hill.
“The day went fine. We got to the top of the mountain late in the afternoon, then headed back down. By the time we found a place to camp, got the tent set up and had some supper, we were both so tired we fell asleep around sunset.
“I woke up suddenly to a full moon shining in through the open tent flap. Stevie wasn’t in his sleeping bag. Must’ve gone out for a pee, I figured, but after a couple of minutes, he still hadn’t come back. I grabbed my flashlight, though I didn’t need it; the moonlight was pretty bright. Then I heard Stevie’s voice, but he was too far away for me to hear what he was saying.
“It seemed pretty weird that he’d be talking out here on the mountain in the middle of the night. Maybe he was in trouble—with a bear, or something worse. I tried to be real quiet as I crept nearer to the voice. When I got as close as I could without being seen, I peeked out from behind some bushes. The moon shone into a clearing, on Stevie and Ruff. He was talking to the dog, who was standing there, shaking, like he was sick.
“Stevie was asking him what was wrong, but Ruff just stood there, and the shaking got worse. And this next part—you’re going to think I’m nuts, but you can give me a lie detector test—anything. I swear it’s true. The shaking got faster and faster, till Ruff was just a blur, and the blur changed shape. Got taller and thinner, till it was a man’s height. And then the shape started to unblur. I could see then that whatever it was actually was spinning around really fast, but slowing down. When it stopped, Ruff was gone, and there was this—creature, standing there in front of Stevie. The poor kid just stood there, staring. It was like he was frozen, too terrified to move.
“The thing was black and hideous, like those old paintings of demons. When it spoke, I knew for a fact it was pure evil. I can’t even describe the sound of that voice; it still turns my stomach just thinking about it.
"The creature was talking to poor Stevie. ‘I tried to get you not to come on this trip, Stevie,’ it said. ‘But you and your stupid friend just had to go ahead with your hike. As you can see, the full moon causes me to change.’
“The voice was mocking. ‘And then you had to get up to answer nature’s call just as I was taking my true form. We two made a good team, but now you’ve gone and ruined things. So I have to find a new form. Such a pity!’
“The creature started moving towards Stevie, who screamed like I’ve never heard anyone scream. I made myself as small as I could and covered my eyes. When I finally dared to peek out from the bush again, there was no sign of Stevie or the creature. I was so terrified that I didn’t move till the sun came up a few hours later.
“I still feel terrible that I didn’t try to help Stevie, but that creature…. Anyway, I doubt it would’ve done any good. In the morning, I looked around for Stevie, but after what I’d seen, I didn’t figure I’d find him. So I headed back down the trail fast as I could, to the ranger’s cabin at the base of the mountain.”
A look at the doctor’s expression made it clear I wouldn’t be getting any help from her. On the positive side, she didn’t think I was a basket case. Just that I was a liar, and not a very convincing one. So much for her ability to read people. I was released into my parents’ custody pending further investigation.
The next day, I heard that Stevie had turned up, very much alive. The police gave me a stern talking-to about the evils of “inventing stories and hindering an investigation,” but thankfully, didn’t take it any further. Stevie’s answers to their questions seemed to satisfy them, as they closed the file. His version of events was that he’d gone sleepwalking (something he was prone to) and that when he’d come to, he was way off the trail, totally lost. Eventually, a couple of hikers had found him and taken him to the ranger.
As for me, since lying was so out of character for me, my parents concluded that I must’ve dreamed the whole thing and somehow believed it had really happened.
I’m much older now and haven’t seen Stevie since we were kids. I did go over to his place once with my new dog, Beanie. Funny thing, though. Beanie was normally a friendly dog, but he didn’t take to Stevie at all. Kept growling at him.