Second Place Winner
Patt Brower is this year's Second Place winner. Patt is a Buda resident who escapes the mundane world by gardening on top of limestone, creating in the kitchen, and spending time with her husband and the household menagerie. Her first short story was written when she was eight, titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” about a space voyage and a picnic on Jupiter. Since then, she has continued to find material in everyday circumstances...twisted just a little.
by Patt Brower
When Agnes met Sophie, she wasn’t impressed. Her neighbor, George, showed up on her front doorstep clutching a small brown and white dog.
“What the heck is that?” she asked him when she opened the door. Her feet hurt and she didn’t feel like company. George’s blue eyes were red-rimmed, his nose swollen. He sniffled and held the dog out to Agnes.
“She has no collar. I’ve been calling her Sophie”
“What am I supposed to do about it?” Agnes asked. “I never liked small dogs.” Her upper denture slipped. Irritated, she pushed it back into place with her tongue.
“Look after her until tomorrow. I found her behind the market last night, chasing a raccoon away from an old cheeseburger. I’d take her to the shelter, but I can barely move.” He stepped closer and despite her intentions, she took the dog from him.
“There just isn’t a whole lot to you, is there?” Agnes said, looking into the small dog’s eyes.
“She’s little, but Jack Russells are really great dogs,” George said. “I’ll come over tomorrow. Thanks, Aggie.” He shuffled off the porch, down the walkway towards his house.
“Don’t call me Aggie,” she mumbled as she stepped back into the house and closed the door. A lifetime of big-boned hunting dogs and now she was looking after a lapdog. She sighed and set Sophie down on the floor. “Sure hope you’re trained.”
Sophie cautiously walked around the living room, sniffing along the edge of the couch and keeping an eye on the woman. “Sophie” appeared to be what these people were going to call her. That was okay. She’d been called worse. The man had been nice, his voice soft. He fed her, gave her a bath and a soft rug to sleep on. She wasn’t sure what to expect here. There had been a lot of changes in her life. She sat down, waiting for a clue about what was coming next.
“It’s just for the day. You probably need water and some food. I’ll have to go to the store.” Agnes knew she was being grumpy and didn’t care. Her back had been hurting from the moment she got up and now George left his cold germs all over the place. She glared at the sleek-haired little animal. Brown eyes stared into Agnes’s blue ones. It was a mutual assessment that surprised Agnes. She wasn’t used to being judged by a dog. She blinked, realizing she had lost her train of thought. She headed into the kitchen. “Come on, Sophie.”
Sophie heard the command and trotted obediently beside Agnes. It had been a long time since she’d been inside a house but there were memories of mealtimes and great smells back from somewhere in her past. Lately she seemed to always be dodging cars, bigger dogs and trying to scrounge food from garbage cans. She didn't remember much about her life before the streets, just that there had been people who fed her, hugged her. This old woman didn’t seem inclined to hugs. She looked up at Agnes, muscles quivering slightly in tension.
“I suppose I’m scaring you,” Agnes said when she realized the dog was trembling. She bent down and smoothed her hand over the little body. Velvet soft hair felt good against her hand and she could feel the tight muscles along Sophie's spine. “I’m not as mean as I sound,” she said. “Mmmph. If you were bigger, I wouldn’t have to bend down so far.” Pressing her hands hard against her thighs, she pushed upwards with some difficulty. “Now my legs will ache along with my back.” She opened a cabinet drawer and pulled out two plastic bowls. “These are kind of big, but they’ll do for now.” She filled one with water and set it on the floor. “I’ll fix you a couple of eggs then go to the store.” While Sophie took a small drink, Agnes got a couple of eggs from the fridge and scrambled them into a cup from the dish drainer. She set a pan on the stove and poured the eggs in as the pan heated. How much did a dog this size eat? She pulled the frying pan off the stove. “We’ll let this cool off and I’ll show you where everything is.” They moved together down the small hallway, Agnes shuffling and Sophie keeping pace with dainty steps. Each stole sideways glances at the other.
As she walked around the house, Agnes talked steadily and the tones and pitches of her voice began to register with Sophie. She was learning the rhythm of the words. When they walked into the room Agnes called 'my room' her voice got softer, the corners of her mouth rising just a little. Sophie checked the room out carefully. The bed and rug smelled like Agnes. The closet had a multitude of scents, including an old long ago man-smell coming from some of the hanging clothes. A longer exploration was definitely in order.
“I better show you the yard. We don’t need messes in the house.” Sophie followed happily. She didn’t yet understand all Agnes said, but it didn’t worry her. She was good at figuring things out. Agnes held open the door in the kitchen and they stepped out onto the small deck.
“This is the back door and you do your business out on the grass.” Sophie sniffed around a little and found three small steps. She looked back at Agnes, dark brown ears pricked and pointed nose twitching slightly.
“Now you look like a real dog.” Agnes smiled before she could stop herself. “Go ahead. Make yourself at home.”
Sophie felt the vibration of the smile down to her toenails. Approval. She bounced down the steps and entered into Paradise. Grass tickled her feet and invited her to roll on it. It was too wonderful to pass up. She rolled, sniffed and let her tongue hang out to savor the garden air. Bushes and trees lined the grass and Sophie set about to learn them all.
Leaning on the railing of the tiny deck, Agnes watched her temporary roommate explore the yard. Sophie acted just like any of the bigger dogs Agnes had been used to. There had been setters and spaniels growing up. She and Charlie had a series of large mixed breeds throughout their fifty years together. All of them had been good hunters. After Charlie died, she felt too old for another dog. Here she was, looking after a very different dog, a dainty little girl not much bigger than a cat. At least she seemed to be enjoying the slightly overgrown garden.
Agnes frowned as she focused on her yard. Everything needed a good cleaning. She picked up a pair of gardening gloves that were laying on top of the railing. A dirty shovel leaned against the deck rail near the steps. She couldn't remember the last time she'd used it or why she hadn't put it back in the garage. It was hard enough to get out here and water once in a while. So much to do, it was overwhelming. Roses needed pruning, tools put away, the lawn mowed. Last week she'd mentioned to George that she thought there were rats nesting back here. He'd laughed at her, said he'd never seen rats since he moved next door. Looking around again now, she wasn't convinced.
"Silly old fart," she muttered to herself. "He acts like I can't tell something's in my yard." She looked down at Sophie exploring behind a rangy pink coneflower. “You see any rats, feel free to kill them,” she told her. Sophie gave her a sharp look then nosed deeper behind the bushes, her nose lowered, rear end held up by the stubby tail. She sniffed the ground purposefully. Her rump started twitching and her tail wiggled rapidly.
“You find something?” Agnes called. That corner looked worse than the rest of the yard. She’d redone the planting right before Charlie got sick. For one glorious season, it had been beautiful, a perfect spot to watch the pink flowers bouncing on a light breeze. A small concrete turtle sat at the foot of the bridge, resting near a wooden bench that overlooked the pond. After Charlie died, everything started to look tired, worn around the edges. A pile of broken pots and rocks cluttered up the area behind the bench. The coneflowers kept coming back, but they needed trimming. Sophie was half buried underneath, only the wiggling rear still visible. Agnes supposed she ought to see what was exciting the dog so much. She tucked the gloves she was holding into her pocket and shuffled across the deck, slippers flapping. The hole in the toe was getting larger. Charlie's feet had been bigger than hers. It was hard to throw his things away. Even his old shirts made her feel he was nearby. She looked down at her faded brown house dress and realized she’d worn the same dress yesterday.
“Same as being dead if there’s no difference between one day and the next,” she muttered as she made her way across the damp grass. She could feel the damp through the soles. Charlie would have hated the dress. He loved the bright colors she'd always worn. Maybe later she'd see if she could find her old garden clogs and a pair of overalls to work in. They'd be more useful if she was planning on tackling the yard work.
Sophie heard Agnes make her way across the yard. She better hurry if she wanted to share in the kill. There was something hiding in the space behind the bush. It smelled wonderfully rank. After rolling in the grass, she’d found the scent trail and followed it eagerly, an earthy, leaf mold, rotting smell that crawled up her nostrils and washed over her. She knew what rats and mice smelled like. She'd learned the sour stink of other alley dwellers. This was different. She poked her nose under the bush in front of her, and saw something scrambling towards the pile of rocks and broken clay pots. Before it could run to ground, she grabbed a leg and pulled. The creature fought as Sophie jumped up to get a better grasp. Her teeth closed on ragged cloth. With more strength than her small size seemed capable of, she hauled whatever it was kicking and squawking out onto the lawn. Her jaws clamped tight and she held on.
Agnes got to the edge of the deck just as the last bit of white rump disappeared into the fuchsias then came out backwards, pulling something much bigger than a rat.
“Get it, girl,” she yelled, rushing down the steps. She grabbed the shovel. That dog was too darned little to hang onto whatever she’d found. Maybe a raccoon or a possum, she wasn’t able to tell. As she got closer, the creature broke loose from Sophie’s teeth for a second and Agnes realized that it had arms and legs. Afraid it was a child, she hollered, “No!” at the same moment Sophie lunged up and grabbed again, pulling the creature down.
Sophie’s teeth closed on the stinking body and felt it moving vigorously. She was airborne and had it in her mouth. Her head twisted and…
“Ya stupid dog, put me down,” the thing howled. Startled, Sophie dropped it. The hunting fever still held her and she put a foot onto the squirming body. She could hear Agnes right behind her and was relieved to see her larger foot step on the thing and help hold it.
“What on earth did you find?” Agnes said. It was definitely not a child, but whatever Sophie had found was nothing she’d ever seen. She shifted her foot and put the shovel blade on the thing's neck. Expecting a rat, she was no happier with the filthy scraggly entity clutching the shovel blade.
“Ya let me go,” it snarled, in a prickly voice that rustled like dead leaves over sand. It stopped squirming as Agnes put pressure on the shovel. Sophie stayed in position, waiting to finish the job. The creature squirmed hard against the blade pinning it. Agnes bent forward for a closer look, ignoring the growling whining dog for the moment. Longer than Sophie by a few inches, it was man-shaped, but unlike any human she’d ever heard of. Wiry arms reached well past the shovel blade, grasping the wooden handle with long clawed fingers. It wore torn trousers, ripped and tattered long before Sophie tore them. It glared at Agnes with amber eyes above a broad short nose, thrashing and snarling, baring sharp dirty fangs through narrow lips. She got too close and it grabbed for her ankle. Immediately, Sophie dashed in and snapped at it. Agnes got her foot out of the way quickly.
“This sure as heck isn't a rat,” She said out loud. “It looks like something out of a horror movie.”
“My garden.” The creature hissed at her. It was a mocking echo of her own voice, as if it had no sound all its own.
“It’s not your garden, whatever you are,” she said. "Mine.” She stared at the thing. Rats would have been easier. You found them, you killed them. You didn't have a conversation with them. This thing looked like a nightmare made out of rotting leaves and scary stories. Sophie whined and barked sharply. ”Hush, Sophie,” The dog sniffed the beast, sneezed and sat back on her haunches, staring intently at the creature.
“Find your rats yet?” George called from the fence. Agnes didn’t turn around. She wasn’t willing to risk those filthy teeth.
"Caught something," she answered. "No idea what it is."
“That was fast work,” he said. "Pretty good for such a little dog. Maybe it's a possum? Seems kind of big for a rat.” He leaned further over the fence. “Need any help over there?”
“I thought you were too sick to be out of bed?”
“Just allergies. Took a pill.” He squinted, trying to make out what she was holding. "I've got a Have-A-Heart if you want to call Animal Control," George offered."
“I don't think they'll be much help here, but maybe the cage isn't a bad idea."
“I'll go get it."
"If you aren't a rat or a gopher," Agnes said, "then you have to be something else." She looked at the ugly thing. "You look like something out of an old fairy tale, something to scare children.” Her thoughts raced back over the years, back to a childhood spent looking for fairies in the garden and fearing monsters in the dark places. Once, belief had been easy.
“A goblin? Is that it?"
"No goblin," it growled.
"You're sure not a gnome," she said. "Nothing cute about you."
"Gnome stupid. Goblin weak, sneaky," it said. "Troll strong, kill goblin, troll smart." Golden eyes stared into hers as it pounded its chest with its fist. The creature wrinkled its flattened nose and hissed.
“Why is there a troll in my garden?" she asked it. "What are you doing here?”
"Not your garden. Nightfog take garden. Nightfog make home.”
Sophie barked sharply and Agnes heard the side gate open. "Sophie, stay," she commanded. "Close the darn gate," she told George.
"I did. Don't get excited." He stared down at the troll. "What the hell is it? I brought an old cat carrier, couldn't find the cage."
Agnes rolled her eyes but kept them on the troll.
"Nightfog. It has a name." She shook her head at the cage he held out. "I don't think I want to try getting it into a cage."
"No cage, no cage," Nightfog whined, eyes growing bigger. It cringed away from them as George leaned down to look more closely. "I thought trolls were big hulking monsters, not this scrawny thing."
“You’re the one who taught Myths and Legends at the university,” Agnes snapped. "Maybe it's global warming or climate change. Maybe it has a hard time finding food."
George was leaning in towards the troll, but scrambled quickly upright when Nightfog lurched toward him with snapping teeth. Sophie rushed in, grabbed one of the troll's legs as it tried to reach George. Her heritage had not prepared her for trolls, but she knew how to react to things with teeth. She bared her own and a long deep growl came from her belly.
“Dog!” it spat. “Don’t like dogs."
"Sophie doesn’t like you very much.” Agnes told the troll. “She and I agree. Answer me. Why are you here?"
"Make good cave. Food. No dogs. No human."
"There's a dog now." Agnes raised her eyes, noticed the pile of debris against the house.
"Kill dog." The big eyes looked into hers.
"No, I don't think so," Agnes said. "You're going to have to leave."
“You pay.” The troll growled.
“Pay? Why would I pay you?”
Sophie listened carefully. She wasn’t sure why the non-rat thing was talking, but she knew Agnes didn’t like what it was saying. She inched forward, still willing to break its neck. The troll cringed away from her, restricted by the shovel that held it down.
“You’re not in a bargaining position.” she told it. “The way I see it, you leave my garden now and I keep Sophie from killing you.” She smiled and though her teeth weren’t yellowed fangs like its own, the troll scrunched closer to the earth. "Do you agree?"
"Nightfog made home," it wheezed when Agnes pressed with her foot.
"If I remember my fairy tales, you have to keep your word. Promise you'll leave."
"Two choices," she said. "Leave or face Sophie."
"Aggie, you can't just let it go." George started to put his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. "Look at those teeth, it's vicious." He rubbed his chin. "Probably best to kill it and then take the body to the police. They can figure out what it is."
"Should I kill you?" she asked it as she stared down at it. "Just cut your head off? Let Sophie have you?" Nightfog's eyes opened wider and malevolence poured through the blackness.
"Kill you. Climb in your window, kill you sleeping," it hissed. "Kill dog, drink blood."
"Let me call the police." George asked. "Aggie, be reasonable."
"No police, George. What will you say? The crazy old lady next door caught a talking rat? There's a troll in my neighbor's yard?" She glanced at him quickly, looked back to the troll. "Think they'll respond well?" George didn't answer.
"Time to choose, troll." Agnes said. She leaned down a bit, still leery of the sharp teeth. "Tell me you'll leave, go far from here, never come back."
"Nightfog go away."
"Not good enough."
"Nightfog go far away."
"All of it."
"Nightfog leave," it hissed, pointed teeth clenched and eyes locked with hers. "Nightfog leave forever, not come back, go far."
"Agreed. Sophie, come here." Sophie looked at the troll, looked at Agnes. This was hard. She wanted to feel the thing's neck break, wanted to kill it, wanted to protect Agnes. But Agnes had commanded. In the end, the command won because it meant approval. She trotted over, looked back once then sat neatly beside Agnes. "Good girl." Carefully, she bent down until she could get a grip on the dog. "Stay."
She stepped back away from the troll, lifting the shovel off its neck. It rolled over, scrambled upright and glared up at Agnes, cunning in the amber eyes.
“I’m only going to hold her for a few minutes,” she told the troll. “After that, you better be gone. This is my yard.” It met her eyes. "You promised," she said and it took off in a skittering run. She watched it for a few minutes as it went under the fence into George's yard. She released Sophie who immediately ran to jump and bark angrily at the fence. She’d have to patrol regularly to make sure it didn’t return.
"Now it's in my yard," George exclaimed. "Why didn't you let me kill it?"
"I never knew you were so bloodthirsty." Agnes said. "I wouldn't worry about the troll. It was in my yard because I'm hardly ever out here lately. It doesn't want to be around people." She smiled at him. "You fuss around those flower beds of yours so much, you'll scare it away as soon as it tries to set up a home." She moved over to the cluster of rocks, brick and broken garden pots that Nightfog had fashioned into his cave. She pulled the gloves out of her pocket. "Want to help me tear this down? I see you got your gardening gloves.”
George followed after her, bemused. Not only had she asked for his help, she smiled. He hadn't seen her smile since Charlie died. He slipped on his gloves and together they demolished the three-foot high rubble pile. Sophie joined them happily, chasing after the few lizards and insects that scurried out.
“There’s still a lot to do,” Agnes said, “but it’ll take more than a day. Thanks for helping.”
“I could give you a hand sometimes,” George told her. “I can take the dog back, run her over to the shelter.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll take her to the vet down the street in the morning, see if she’s chipped and I’ll check the local shelters. For now, she can stay with me.”
“Sounds good to me,” he said, smiling. He waved and headed towards the gate. When he left, she gathered Sophie up in her arms and walked into the house with her.
“You know, Sophie, I’ve moved around more today than I have in the past year. I'm starving. What about you?" She set the dog down in the kitchen, looked at the scrambled eggs in the cold frying pan and left them sitting.
The old woman sounded happy. Sophie shook from her ears down to the tip of her tail, releasing tensed muscles, and waited while Agnes opened the fridge, searching through the shelves.
“Here we go.” She found a slice of meatloaf from a few days before, pulled two saucers out of the cupboard and split the slice in two. “Come here, Sophie.”
Sophie sniffed the heavenly aroma of meat and tomato sauce and eagerly began eating when Agnes set one saucer on the floor.
"Guess I ought to buy a new dog bowl, maybe a bed, too,” she said out loud. Sophie raised her ketchup spotted muzzle for a second before turning her attention back to the food. Agnes smiled slightly. Size wasn't an indicator of either courage or spirit or Sophie would be as big as a Saint Bernard. What an afternoon. A troll. In her own yard. Good thing George had seen it so she could be sure she hadn't turned the corner to senility. He'd probably try to convince himself differently, but she knew.
Agnes left Sophie eating and went to open the living room curtains. There were still a few hours left until dark. She caught sight of herself in the gold-framed mirror hanging on the wall. She had a closet full of decent clothes. It was time to move forward, throw this frumpy old rag out, time to get her garden in order, make sure there were no other surprises waiting. Maybe she could borrow a bit of Sophie’s courage and tackle things around her again, one step at a time. With the little dog as a companion, Agnes didn’t think she’d be able to get away with being as sedentary as she had been.
Sophie came up and leaned on Agnes’ leg. A bit of tomato sauce was on the corner of her mouth, but she’d get it later. Now, she just wanted to lean on Agnes. This was good.