I took Moku to the dog park in the forest when the leaves began to crisp, searching each face for Jesse from Tinder. She’d be the one in a gray sweatshirt with a beagle, she said after asking to meet. I browsed other profiles on the app while I waited, swiping half-heartedly before flipping to the last few screenshots in my camera roll.
Moku sat outside the fence while the other dogs played, like he always did, his head high, green eyes narrowing as he judged poodles and Yorkies. A lab sniffed him through the chain links, and he let it happen—still as stone—tense until the examination finished and the lab ran off to play with other more interested animals. Moku looked toward the forest trails, lifted his paw as though pointing to the woods.
“Allen?” a girl asked, edging along the inside of the fence. She could pass for Jesse, though she didn’t look quite like her photos. I supposed it was the subtle difference between reality and reflection, a mole on the left side when I remembered it on the right, a smile that was perfect on my phone and just a little lopsided here at the park. “What’s her name? She’s a husky, right? I think you told me that.” She leaned on the black fence, one arm draped over.
“Moku. Him, actually.” I tucked my phone away.
“Oh, right.” She offered a small laugh and tugged a string on her Yale University sweatshirt. I wondered if that’s where she actually went. “Is that Cantonese or Mandarin or something?”
“So you’re Hawaiian? Can you speak it?”
“I haven’t really used it in a while, but I can manage a conversation.”
“That’s cool. I thought you might be Filipino or something. I kinda have a thing for foreign guys.” She smiled. “Can you say a sentence in Hawaiian for me?”
Maybe that was her way of flirting. Moku looked up unblinkingly, and the silence of the trees called to me. A siren wailed behind me, and I faced the sheriff’s car driving by. “You gotta have him leashed outside the fence,” the cop said, sipping coffee. I clipped the carabiner to his collar. “You get fined for having him off leash outside the park.”
“I’m sorry, Officer.”
“Don’t let me see it again.” She bumped down the dirt road, disappearing behind the trees.
“What a bitch,” Jesse said. “Why don’t you bring him in here? He could be friends with my beagle. Did I send you any pictures of Sasha?”
“He doesn’t really play. Maybe we could walk one of the trails.”
“That sounds nice, actually.”
I wondered if she was the girl I wanted, if she could give me what I was looking for.
“Come on, Moku.” He sat stubborn as an oak just as I expected, even as I tugged the leash. But I had to try, especially after the cop’s warning.
“What’s the matter with him?”
“For some reason, he won’t walk with a leash. Just sits there. He fights me if I try to drag him.”
“I have no idea.”
“Was he always like that?”
“Ever since I got him from the rescue shelter, yeah. He was already a few years old, so I’m not sure how he was before.”
I unclipped the leash, and he jumped up, running around me while Jesse’s beagle panted playfully. “Moku! If you get me a ticket…”
I slipped onto the first trail we crossed, searching the trees for an out-of-place shadow, the crooked branches that would transform into bare bone when the moon emerged. Moku stayed at my side as the air chilled and the world melted into a spectral haunt filled with possibility. Each puddle of darkness offered a glimpse of fantasy, as I printed my imagination onto the trees.
“I’ve always loved the forest,” Jesse said, wrapping Sasha’s leash around her wrist. “When I was a kid, I spent hours in the woods behind my house. Building teepees and forts. Trying to light campfires, but it’s probably a good thing I was never too successful at that. I would never use a lighter, I wanted to do it just by rubbing sticks together.”
“It’s never as easy as it looks. Moku!” I slapped my thigh, and he snapped back from his investigation of a rotting log that might have hidden a dismembered limb, or the skull of an alien.
Jesse glanced back at the mouth of the trail, shoving her hands in her pockets. “Should’ve brought my jacket.”
“It is getting chilly.”
“We could warm each other up.”
My pulse fluttered as I wondered if that’s what I was looking for. “Oh yeah?”
She bumped into me with a smile, pushing me towards the trees, off the path.
“What about Moku and…?”
“They can watch if they want.”
“Moku never stays in the room when I… Sorry, if that’s TMI.”
“Kinda hot, actually.” She slipped her hand up my shirt and pressed her mouth on mine. Rough bark bit into my back. She tied Sasha to a sapling, and the beagle curled into a ball, chewing a twig.
“Moku,” I mumbled around her lips.
“Just put his leash on, right? You said he won’t move.”
I fumbled with the clasp as she fumbled with my belt, and I clipped it on his collar. At least, I thought I did. Then we collapsed into one another, the rush of adventure burning my blood, excitement rising as I wondered what watched from the shadows while the sun sank faster, darkness eating the forest. Branches crackled, leaves crunched, Jesse’s sigh filled the air like a ghostly moan, and I floated out of my body, for a moment, drifted towards the treetops to watch the young lovers intertwine on a mossy bed.
And when they finished, I returned and turned to Moku so we could make our escape. But he had vanished, his leash left half-hidden in freshly fallen leaves. I looked through the trees, holding in a cry. I ran down the trail, cursing my flashlight left in the car. I ran the other direction, past Jesse pulling up her pants who asked plaintively, “Where’d he go?” while Sasha licked her mistress.
“Moku!” Soon the trail would disappear, the sickle moon barely slicing the sky, and the ghosts I imagined would emerge. “Moku!” My breath misted, and the pallid silence of the forest answered, deafening and utterly complete.
“Hey, I need to get back,” Jesse said. “I’d help you look, but. I’m really sorry. Sasha gets nervous in the dark. Text me, though. Maybe we could meet up again.” I barely heard her words, saw only her silhouette dissolving down the trail as my blood thickened, my whistle piercing hollows and groves back towards the road, hoping he’d come, willing his bark to echo through the trees, imagining it, replaying it in my mind. It didn’t work, though, and I broke the forest barrier that separated the woods from the road, that kept civilization safe from haunted realms, prepared to wait there, on the edge, in a circle of soft orange lamp light until he came back, or until the cop returned and dragged me away.
I crouched down, rocking on my heels until I heard a bark—could it just be a dog from the emptying park? No, it was too familiar. It was the same bark I heard in the animal shelter when I first saw him sitting away from the other dogs and knew I’d take him home, knew we’d understand each other, solitary observers of the world. Again, the bark cut through me like a ray of sunshine breaking winter clouds. In the middle of the road, Moku’s eyes reflected the twilight. “Boy! Why’d you do that to me?” I ran and hugged him, running my fingers through his fur when the lights of the sheriff’s car blinded me.
“Mountain Top’s closed,” the cop said. “And where’s his leash?”
“We’re leaving now.”
The reds and blues of the light bar flashed through the dark trees disturbing the ghouls who prowled the forest and sneered at those who entered their domain.
In bed, when the world outside had long since settled into its nocturnal rhythm, Moku pressed against my leg, a soft lump in the dark that woke me. Somehow, he had nestled under the covers, and my hand explored his rigid body. Tick, went the clock, more slowly as I returned to sleep’s shores, until Moku moved—and I heard a bark in the hallway. I sprang up, away from the deflating lump disappearing, ripped the covers off to reveal a dent in the mattress melting away, Moku gone. I cracked the door and found him there, out in the hall, his eyes sharp, intelligent, more lucid than before—glazed with the wisdom of countless years like the kupuna of my old village. He pushed his way into the bedroom and curled in a corner, watching me as the hours dragged and I stared back at him, wondering if what I saw, what I felt, could just have been a dream. The shadows danced for me, that night, and every sound from the sleeping house became an echo of the bark I heard.
When the phone rang in the morning, I didn’t answer at first. I never answered a number I didn’t recognize. But when the caller spoke on the answering machine, I picked it up.
“This is the Sheriff’s Office. Are you the owner of a husky with a blue collar, has a tag with the name Moku? It lists your name and number.”
“I am.” Moku lay at my feet, chewing a bone, and my heart skipped, mind racing. Would I be getting a ticket in the mail? Then I saw his collar missing.
“A pair of hikers found him this morning. He’s here at the station.”
I looked down again, and Moku was gone.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“It looks like he fought with a coyote or something. I’m sorry, we tried to save him…”
The phone cracked when it hit the floor, as a bark echoed upstairs.
AJ CUNDER graduated from Seton Hall University with his Master’s in Creative Writing and currently serves as a submissions reader for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. His award-winning work appears in Permafrost Magazine (Finalist, 2017 New Alchemy Contest) and is forthcoming in The Lindenwood Review (Honorable Mention, Issue 8 First Chapter Contest). His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Breath & Shadow, Harpur Palate, Door = Jar, Rose Red Review, and Moonchild Magazine, among others. He has served as a volunteer fire fighter, police officer, and advocate for those with disabilities, living with type 1 diabetes himself since the age of 17 months. Find him on Twitter @aj_cunder or online at www.WrestlingTheDragon.com.