It all started about a year ago. The howling. I heard it while I was trying to get to sleep that night. I thought it was the neighbor's dog. Charlie liked to make noise. Usually, it was barking, but he could have decided a howl was more appropriate or decided to change it up. I was friends with his owner, Ben so I texted him about it. "Nope, Charlie is asleep on the couch here next to me." Ben wrote back.
I listened again and sure enough, there was nothing. I told myself I'd probably imagined it. I go to sleep. A few hours later, I heard it again when it woke me up. It sounded stronger and a little closer than before. It was like that for a few months. I'd hear it as I was getting ready for bed. I'd investigate only to find nothing. I'd get to sleep and be woken up between 2:30 and 3:30. Every single night for weeks on end. I'd start to ignore it and it would return at a different pitch or vibration. Sometimes it would even be musical as a song. Mournful, sad. No song I'd ever heard, but lyrical enough I knew it was supposed to be a song.
6 months ago, it became worse. Louder, more insistent, fearful even, and closer than ever. No longer was it the beautiful howling it had started out as. At first, I thought there was something wrong with my hearing and I went to get it checked; some strange form of tinnitus. According to the ENT doctor, there was nothing wrong with me. "Why do I keep hearing a dog howl then? It's not my neighbor's and Ben's the only one around me who has a dog."
"Is it consistent?" Dr. Penny asked. "That would give me somewhere to start looking." I shook my head. "Keep a journal of when you hear it and we'll see if there's some kind of pattern."
I bought a little journal and kept track of it. Consistently, every night it was there no matter what time I was getting ready for bed. Then again around 3. Soon though, I began hearing the howling during the day. It came at odd times, while I was concentrating at work, on my way home on the train, in the grocery store. I'd make a note in my little blue journal every time it happened, just like Dr. Penny told me to. I noticed it was increasing in frequency but that was the only thing consistent about it when it happened. It often startled me, appearing out of nowhere and seemed determined for me to pay attention to it. Another 3 months went by as I journaled. It did not get any better. People thought I was nuts. I started talking to the howl when they appeared. Asking it why it was there, what it wanted from me. When I got into a one-sided yelling match in the bread aisle of the grocery store, I knew I needed help. I went back to Dr. Penny and handed him my journal. "This has to stop. It's impacting my life. I can barely concentrate on my editing job. Co-workers are starting to notice me talking to myself. I feel like I'm going crazy! You have to help me!" I screeched in frustration.
"Alright, Erika. Let's schedule you for a brain scan. You have no other symptoms, nothing that makes me think anything is wrong with you except for that howl. The only explanation I can come up with is possibly a brain tumor. I know you probably don't want to hear that, but then again, maybe you do. It would be a reason. I'll also refer you to an actual doctor, not an ENT. I'll have him check you over as well." Dr. Penny explained to me.
He was able to pull some strings and got me an MRI for the following afternoon and an appointment with Dr. Slade. I was grateful and he was right. I didn't particularly want a brain tumor but as I was the only one hearing the howl, I'd take it if it proved I wasn't crazy. After leaving Dr. Penny's office I called my work. "I'm taking a few days off to see about some medical stuff," I told my boss at the publishing company.
"That's probably for the best." She sighed almost happily then went on to say, "I was going to talk to you when you came in tomorrow. Several co-workers have come to me. Your erratic behavior. The shouting and screams coming from your office for seeming no reason. They were afraid to confront you about it. I was going to ask you to take a few days off to see a doctor. I'm glad you went on your own. Call me next week and let me know how it goes? Alright? Good luck."
"Thank you. I hope it goes well too. I really hope this will help me get to the bottom of it." I wished. No sooner had the words left my lips the howl returned and this time he brought some friends. It grated on my nerves. There were 3 of them now, harmonizing oh so beautifully, but so adamant about telling me whatever it is they were trying to tell me. They kept it up all night and into the morning only stopping as I got in the car to leave for my appointment with Dr. Slade before the MRI.
Dr. Slade was very nice as he examined me thoroughly beforehand. "I don't see anything wrong with you either, Erika. You're a healthy 28-year-old woman. Let's get this scan over with. Hopefully, it will give us some answers." I nodded and got changed.
I am scared of small spaces, but I was more worried there was something seriously wrong with me than being in there and I made myself quiet and as still as possible. The whirring machine was nice after the harsh barking I'd been hearing. I hadn't slept much the night before and started to doze off in the machine. A loud thump startled me. Then a clanging began. There was shouting from the observation room and a few seconds later I was wretched out of the machine and pulled off the table. "COME WITH ME!"
I didn't know what was happening so I followed the tech out of the room. There was a loud explosion followed by the sound of glass breaking and a couple of thuds. My eyes widen and I stare up at the tech, half-naked in the hallway. He goes to open the door and hisses in pain. I can see some shadows under the door. His own eyes widen. "There's a fire. We need to get out of here." Dr. Slade and a few others join us in the hallway. The fire system goes off and as we pass the door of the observation room, I can see flames through what's left of the glass, licking at the ceiling. The fire doors are activated and close. As well as some sprinklers. The tech manages to grab a lab coat for me to put on and pulls me down the hallway and out into the street.
I can hear sirens in the distance and the scared shouting of people evacuating. Underneath it all, the low howl of my dogs or wolves, whatever they are, return. Dr. Slade comes over. "I'm so sorry, Erika. I don't know what happened in there. Are you alright?" I nod. "We didn't get the full scan done. I decided at the last minute to do a full body. Everything looks normal from what I was able to see before the explosion."
My body sags. That's not what I wanted to hear. Not that I wanted a brain tumor, but then at least I would have had an explanation. I would have known why the howls were tormenting me.
"Is there a history of mental health issues in your family?" Dr. Slade asks and I shake my head. "I'm referring you to a psychologist. I couldn't find anything wrong with you. My only other choice is to try doing the scan again. I'm sure you don't want that though. After that experience, I doubt you ever want to see another doctor." He smiles, but I can see it in his eyes he badly he feels. "If you follow me up to the hospital, we're going to draw some blood. That might give us somewhere to go. It'll all be ready when you go see Dr. Penicott on Monday."
Monday! I had to make it through another weekend being plagued by the incessant howls. I tap him on the shoulder as we walk towards the large building. "Can you give me something to help me sleep? I am not doing such a great job on my own."
The look in his eyes almost outdoes me. He looks so worried but he nods. "I can prescribe you something to get you through the weekend."
"I understand." I sigh. I just need some relief for a few hours. It was almost constant since I'd had the talk with my boss and had begun wearing on me. Near constant grating, harsh howling for hours on end. The tones changed. Almost as if the song was being passed around a pack as their voices tired. I just wanted it to stop. 10 and a half months of this was long enough.
Dr. Slade went and got some surgical scrubs for me to wear while I had tube after tube after tube of blood drawn. I don't know how everything could possibly be done by Monday afternoon, but he assured me it would be. He had also called in a valium/Xanax cocktail prescription that would help me catch some zzz's so I picked that up on the way home. I took the recommended dose and crawled into bed. Slowly the howling began to fade as I slid into sleep. But not for long. 6 hours later I was jolted awake to find I'd been crying. I was lying a pool of cold sweat. The howls had invaded my dreams. That's what woke me up this time. I perked up. I didn't hear anything. A smile plays on my lips. I got out of bed to change the sheets.
No sooner had I ripped the clammy sheets off my bed, the howling returned. I had spoken too soon. I looked at the calendar vaguely remembering what life was like before the shrieking howls. I suddenly found myself hungry and ordered a pizza. I put something on the TV. I don't even know what. I couldn't concentrate on anything anymore so I sat on the couch and waited for the food. When it arrived, he buzzed and knocked simultaneously so I would hear it over the raucous noise in my head, that I was imagining, whatever it was. I'm sure I looked like a zombie when I answered because he seemed wary to hand me the receipt to sign and quickly hurried away after I did.
I ate not really tasting, more for the fact I knew I needed food to keep up my strength. I had to make it until the appointment on Monday. That was what I was trying for. The only bright spot in my future that I could see. Something to focus on, even as the howls made a deafening cacophony in my ears. I ran out of the prescription on Saturday night. It was only 8 pills but even with the help of drugs, the howls followed me into sleep. At this point, it didn't matter if I was awake or not. I laid on the couch or in bed just staring into space, trying to rest. The howling grew closer as the weekend progressed. It had always been outside, echoing, at a distance, but now it had moved inside. I could hear the change of tone now because the howling was so familiar.
I called an Uber to pick me up and take me to my appointment when Monday rolled around. I was too tired to attempt to drive there myself. I would have been a danger to others. Dr. Penicott was a highly recommended psychologist and I hoped she could give me the answers I was seeking. I went into the bathroom and had a good talking to the howls in my head before my appointment. It didn't seem to help. Dr. Penicott invited me in and I got settled as she refreshed herself with my case. "As I understand it you have a howling that you hear and won't quit?" I nodded. I was concentrating really hard to listen to what she was saying. "Is it happening now?" I nodded again. "There is nothing in your medical history, nor in your more recent visits, that indicates there is anything wrong with you. I see why they sent you to me." She asked me a series of questions. When I last ate? Slept through the night? If I was under any unusual stress? Had anything traumatic happened to me recently? In my childhood? I was already exhausted and trying to focus on the questions made me more so. Is there even a word that conveys the level of tired I felt? "Erika!" Dr. Penicott tapped me on the shoulder, the touch getting through the fog. "Did you hear what I just asked you?" I shook my head. I hadn't heard the last 3 things she had asked me. "Alright. I am admitting you to Maple Hill, a hospital for those who have mental health needs. We can evaluate you there further and keep you in a safe environment while we do so. I can see how worn-out you are." She was right. I was too tired to argue.
Some nurses came in an helped me into a wheelchair. I heard Dr. Penicott talking to one of them, Lucy was her name. She was to be in charge of me, getting me to the facility where Dr. Penicott would see me later that evening. The howling became louder and I slapped my hands over my ears! "MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP!" I screamed and rocked back and forth. I really felt like I was crazy.
Lucy's voice was very soothing as she calmly spoke reassurances to me. "Hang in there, Erika. We're going to figure out where the howls are coming from and make them go along. You have to hang in there so we can help you." Dr. Penicott returned with some earmuffs that Lucy put on my ears. "I hope they help you?"
I shook my head no. Lucy goes to take them away and I stop her. "But they make me feel a little safer somehow." She nods and wheels me out of the office much to the stares of all the people in the waiting room. I hadn't realized but Dr. Penicott's offices were connected to Maple Hill so Lucy was able to wheel me over.
As I sat at the admitting nurse station and watched the other patients inside a glass bubble, I wondered how the hell I got here. Finally, they allowed us into the bubble and Lucy took me down a hall to a small quiet room with a bed. She helped me onto the bed and then gave me a shot of something. She pulls off the earmuffs and says, "I hope this keeps those wolves away for a while so you can get some rest. Everyone needs sleep." I nod and already feel the effects of the powerful drug pulling me into dreamland.
Sleep I did, but it was plagued by dreams of a giant black dog with red eyes and rather large teeth. I try to wake up to get away from this scary dog, but I can't, the drug is too powerful. I only wake again when Dr. Penicott has returned to visit me and gives me something to counteract the one from earlier. The howling has stopped and all remains quiet in the real world. Although the echo of its snarls and growls from my dream remain with me. I crouch on the bed hugging the pillow. I try to explain what I saw in my dream to the doctor, but I think she thinks I've deteriorated. "Dog. Dogs. Giant black ones. Black as coal, darker than midnight. They are moving shadows except for the glint of stark white teeth as they lick their lips and the glowing red eyes that look right through me." My eyes widen as I think I see one behind Lucy and the Doc. I scream and start crying. Lucy turns on all the lights so there are no shadows in the room and I feel a little safer. I'm able to calm down some. "I remember, Dr. Penicott. Last year, almost a full year ago. I was hiking through the hanging hills on my way to Castle Craig and I saw one. A black dog. It was fall and its eyes looked ruby from the fires in Massachusetts. It frightened me, which I thought odd. I'm a dog person. I love my neighbor's dog, Charlie. I watch him all the time. I even stop people on the road to meet their dogs. This one was different. It was quiet, made no sound and seemed to appear out of nowhere. I was happy when I saw it on my way there. On the way back, it appeared to me again. I suddenly felt immensely sad for no reason."
"That sounds like the legend of the black dog of Hanging Hills. But that doesn't make any sense. Why would you be hearing its howls? The legend says it never speaks." Lucy interrupts me. "And didn't you say you were hearing several dogs, not just one?"
"It started out with one, but now it's grown to about 3, I think. There's more than that. It sounds like an entire pack or 15 or more. They pass the song around when their voices tire so someone is always howling. I know it doesn't make much sense, but that's the only explanation I have. Can't the legend change?" I spit out harshly.
"A legend by definition means it doesn't change, Erika. I doubt that what is plaguing you is a black dog." Dr. Penicott interrupts our exchange.
"I know that's what this is. He recruited some of his other hellhound friends and they are tormenting me because they want me dead, for whatever reason that is! You can't convince me otherwise!" I answer triumphantly. I see a look pass between Lucy and the doctor. I know they don't believe me one bit, but I don't care. I know it's the truth. Once I put a name to it, the black dog and his friends, the hellhounds, I feel it is right. I don't know why it wants me dead though. That's really what's bothering me. I guess it doesn't really matter, I'm going to die. I know that now too. Probably on the anniversary of the night I first heard him. With the silence came clarity. "I think I'm okay to go home now Doctor," I say and wipe my eyes.
"You are not going anywhere until we figure out why you are hearing the howls or thought you heard them. Whatever it is that has fractured your grip on reality," she says fiercely.
"They've stopped. I think I'm in the clear." I lie smoothly.
"I don't believe you." The doc answers. "I'm keeping you here until I'm convinced you are well or made it all up for attention." She glares at me. "And just so we're clear. You are staying in this room while we figure that out. Dr. Penicott gives a large sigh and gets up from her chair. Lucy picks it up and removes it from the room. Now the only thing in here is the bed and it's made out of plastic for safety. Lucy returns with a needle full of something and I blink profusely at them both.
"I think you are going to come to regret that you didn't listen to me," I say calmly while Lucy gives me the shot. I continue to stare at them as I sink slowly into the bed. My eyes fluttering as I fight to stay awake, knowing it's useless.
Soon I'm asleep again. Fitful dreams, make me toss and turn but I do get some rest. Once I wake again the next morning the howling has returned. This time with a vengeance. It never stops now. Even when they give me something to sleep. They try not to give it so often. No one really knows the long-term effects of some of these drugs. But it always boils down to that. I cannot sleep without it and the facility knows it. Every three days or so I'm drugged up so I can sleep through the night.
It continues like that for the next month. Questions from Dr. Penicott about why I'm making things up. Lucy taking care of me when I'm allowed out of the room. I can never be alone except when I'm in that room. Lucy is my constant companion. She tries to be nice to me but I think I lost her trust that first day and I don't have the effort to try and regain it. Why does it matter when I know I'm going to die?
Finally, after 6 long weeks at Maple Hill, the night comes. The anniversary of the first night I heard Mr. Black Dog. I'm not on anything. I was told it was fine as long as I didn't make trouble. I promised I wouldn't, although I couldn't vouch for the black dog. I watch the day bleed into nightfall, the shadows creeping toward me across the room. At twilight, the howling and growling stops. I close my eyes for a second. When I open them it's the middle of the night. I can tell by the way the light from outside hits the tiled floor. I hear a low growl. My eyes flash to the corner of the room across from me where 2 small red eyes appear. A small black dog trots into the moonlight and sits down. His eyes are gleaming rubies and he cocks his head and silently pants as he watches me. I hear another growl and see several more pairs of eyes appear behind him. I bite my lip. This is it. The other dogs step into the moonlight. They seemed to be made of smoke, but materialize when the moon hits them. There are 5 of them. The size of small ponies or cows. They are terrifying. Porcelain teeth gleam as they creep toward me, their hackles up, growling angrily. "Hey, guys," I say cheerfully hoping they will back off. They don't. "Whatever this is I'm sorry. I really am. I don't know what I did wrong but if you tell me I'll make it up to you. Okay? I'll say it again. I'm sorry. You just have to tell me what I did wrong." They pause, all 5 of them staring at me with hungry eyes as they lick their own lips. "Are we good?"
With a howl of anger, the giant dogs fly at me reverting back to smoke. I think I'll be fine until I feel a sharp pain and see one of them has ripped a chunk from my calf. I scream. The others hop on top of me, each choosing their own part to attack. The tiny one sits there in the moonlight happily watching as they tear me to shreds with their razor-sharp claws and knife-like teeth. I scream as loud as I can until the blood starts to clog my throat. I hear a commotion at the door and know the nurses are trying to get in. They won't make it in time. I can already feel my body beginning to fail as blood spills onto the bed and the black and white checkered floor. With a bang, the door pops open and the dogs revert into shadows. The little black dog takes his time returning to darkness so the last thing I see before I die is his happy face and glowing red eyes.