When I was nine I was absolutely certain that something replaced our family dog. His name was Jackson. Our real dog was called Jackson, I mean.
It was September, and the leaves had already turned, and it was late enough in the year that mist gathered and tumbled along the river at night. I was letting Jackson out one last time before I went to bed. I stood just inside the screen door that led out to the backyard, which was edged by the river on one side and cornfields on the other two. I heard Jackson tramping through the weeds near the river, and I yelled for him to get out of there before he got a tick. It was too dark to see him properly. No moon that I remember. I did hear a little yip, and a sort of scuffle, and I saw the tops of the Queen Anne’s lace bobble around for a few seconds. But that was it.
Then Jackson came trotting back up to the door. I opened it to let him in and as soon as he came into the light of the kitchen, I knew it wasn’t actually Jackson at all. I don’t know how I knew. Something was just wrong: the legs suddenly a little too long, maybe, or the face too pointed. Like a photograph that had been manipulated to resemble my dog, but by someone who’d never seen a dog up close.
Mostly, though, I knew from the way it looked at me. It wasn’t like this replacement didn’t recognize me. It obviously did recognize me, because it didn’t growl or bark. But there wasn’t any warmth or affection in its eyes. There wasn’t much of anything in its eyes. Just a sort of emptiness that was smart and watchful.
That night, I didn’t let the Jackson-shaped thing sleep in my room. I never let it sleep in my room again.
Once, a few months after the real Jackson didn’t come back inside, I caught this imitation dog skulking around my baby sister Louise, who was only two years old then. And I just knew what it meant to do. I screamed at that thing like I’d never screamed before, and snatched my sister up off the floor to get her away from it, and knocked over a whole big plate of spaghetti and red sauce onto the rug. I got the ass-whooping of a lifetime from my dad but I didn’t care. I wanted that thing to know I was watching it.
I missed the real Jackson terribly, but I couldn’t tell anybody that. I knew they wouldn’t believe me.
Not-Jackson only hung around with us for about a year. Then it got out of the house somehow and ran off. We found it three days later in our neighbor’s apple orchard, tucked up in the notch of a tree, ten feet off the ground. Its body was all twisted and broken. The sight of it made me retch so I didn’t look at it for long, but I heard the neighbors tell my parents they’d be damned if they knew what could’ve done that to a dog.
Anyway, I’m thirty-seven years old now, and I’m writing all this down because I thought I’d finally gotten it through my head that nothing came out of the river and replaced my childhood dog. I’d convinced myself that Jackson was just Jackson, and a mountain lion must have dragged him up into that tree, even though nobody has seen a mountain lion around here since before my grandfather was born.
But my sister Louise called me a few days ago and asked me to help her clean up the dead wood and weeds on our side of the river. Louise lives in the house now that both of our parents are gone. While I was working in that overgrown patch along the river, I brushed aside some Queen Anne’s lace and found a neat little coil of vertebrae and ribs, and whatever the skeleton belonged to must have once looked an awful lot like Jackson. The real one. And ever since I got to the house yesterday night, I can’t help noticing that there’s something odd about my sister’s eyes when she looks at me.
Eleri Denham is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. Her work has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Ghost Parachute, Clover & White, and elsewhere. A Chicago native, she now lives in Oregon with her partner. Find her on Twitter at @eleri_denham.