The Care Dog
by Edward Ahern
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The food concourse at the Burnham mall was gap-toothed with vacancies. Ralph, as he always did, had brought Sheila, her large Care Dog tag swinging from her collar. As they walked toward a MacDougal’s a bulky, middle-aged man stopped in front of them. Sheila barked and started growling.
“Heel,” Ralph ordered. Sheila didn’t respond and kept snarling; neck fur raised. Ralph put more tension on the leash. “Heel!”
But the black lab stood stiff and bandy legged. Rather than back off the beefy man took a deliberate step toward them. Sheila, still growling, backed up.
Ralph forced a smile. “She’s never like this,” he blurted. “She’s gentle with everyone.”
“Not everyone apparently.” The man said. His assurance contrasted with unfashionable clothes—baggy black slacks, white dress shirt, and rubber soled arch-support lace-up shoes.
“My apologies, Mr.…?”
“It’s Father. Father John Mellon.”
“I’m Ralph Fields, Father. I’m sure she won’t hurt you, she’s my comfort dog.”
“I suspected as much. Who knows, perhaps we’ll become friends.” He took a quick half-step toward Sheila, whose nails scrabbled on the tile floor as she tried to lurch backwards.
Ralph moved between the priest and the dog. “I go to St. Benedict church, father, which parish are you with?”
Father Mellon smiled wryly. “None and all. I’m the diocesan exorcist at St. Eulalia cathedral, but my style is a little unorthodox and usually I just get moved around from parish to parish when they need someone to say masses.”
“Oh. I didn’t know we had one. Well, sorry again father.”
“Don’t be.” The priest hesitated. “I can be reached through the bishopric if there’s anything you’d like to talk about.”
As soon as Mellon turned and took a few steps away, Sheila, tongue lolling, padded up to Ralph and cocked her head, a sure sign she wanted him to pet her. Which he did. “I should have known, girl, he’s dressed in the official priest-in-civvies outfit.”
Once home again, Ralph walked immediately to Alice’s sewing room. “Funny thing just happened, dear” he began.
Alice didn’t look up from the whirring machine. “Funny happy or funny weird?”
“Weird. Sheila went a little mental at the mall, snarling and almost lunging at a priest, of all things.”
Alice stared up at him. “A cassocked priest?”
“Nah, he was in plain clothes. But it’s the first time in the month we’ve had her that she’s hasn’t been almost too sweet.”
“Since you’ve had her. She barely tolerates me. And I still don’t understand why we had to spend all that money for an emotional support dog when I’m under perpetual contract to provide TLC.”
“You provide love, Sheila keeps me sane and panic free.”
“For merely two thousand dollars. And without any training or performing any specific tasks.”
“She makes me a lot less anxious.”
Alice’s eyes went back down to her sewing. “Whatever you say dear.”
It was Ralph’s turn to prepare dinner, which he did. As he and Alice sat down in the dining room to say grace, it struck him that Sheila was never present when they said the brief prayer, and only showed up a little later to try and mooch scraps.
“Interesting,” he thought. “I wonder.”
After doing the dishes he went to their bedroom, opened up a jewelry box and took out his mother’s rosary, blessed many times over the years. Then he walked back out to the kitchen where they kept Sheila’s bed. He’d wanted to have her sleep in the bedroom, but Alice had issued a firm no.
It was early for her evening walk, but Sheila raised her head expectantly. Then Ralph pulled the rosary out of his shirt pocket and waved it in front of her. Her howl was close to a shriek.
Sheila averted her eyes and scuttled up the side of the kitchen floor and into the dining room, still howling. Ralph followed her, waving the rosary. Sheila’s howls turned to snarls and she snapped at him. Ralph pulled his hand away in time and pocketed the rosary. Sheila immediately went quiet and slumped to the floor.
“Jesus,” Ralph muttered, and Sheila whimpered.
Alice came running in, and Ralph waved her back. “It’s just—just a disagreement, she’s quiet now. Alice stepped toward Sheila, who issued a low growl. “That dog’s not right,” she said.
For the first time in months, he poured himself an evening drink and sat down in his study to think. Sheila eventually came in and lay next to him. He began to mutter to himself, a reliable sign that his panic was rising.
“It’s a dog, not a person, how can it react like that to religious stuff? Dogs don’t have souls, do they? I can’t keep a devil dog, but how do I return it? Can I return it, or would dumping Sheila set me off?”
As he drank, Ralph’s thoughts revulsed back to Alice, who recently was becoming distasteful to him. She kept him under foot, kept him isolated…Ralph, shook his head but didn’t lose this new dislike of her.
Then he remembered the priest from the mall. Father what’s his name—Mellon. Something or other Mellon. He pulled up a number on his cell phone for Eulalia Cathedral and called it, expecting to get a recording. But a human answered. “St. Eulalia.”
“I’m Ralph Fields from St. Benedict parish.”
“I need to speak with Father Mellon, is he staying there?”
“Miraculously, yes. I’ll take a message for him and give it to him tomorrow.”
“Please!” Ralph blurted out. “It’s really important that I speak to him this evening if possible. It’s—it’s a spiritual matter.” Ralph immediately regretted the lie, but hoped it would work.
A pause, then, “I’ll see if he’s still up. If he’s not it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much.”
Ralph held the phone tightly for the better part of ten minutes, then, “This is Father John Mellon.”
“Father, thank God. I’m Ralph Fields, we met this afternoon when my dog took such a dislike to you.”
“And I was so fond of it. Why are you calling, Mr. Fields?”
“Sheila, my dog, she just reacted violently to a rosary.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a food allergy? You teased it perhaps?”
“No, no Father, it’s a real reaction. And I’m dependent on her for reassurance.”
Mellon was silent for a few seconds. “Mr. Fields, are you able to leave the house without the dog?”
“Sometimes, if I have to.”
“Come to the cathedral rectory at 10am tomorrow. Without the dog. Meanwhile I need to do some reading.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
The next morning Ralph was let into a rectory office at ten, and waited fifteen minutes for Father Mellon.
“Hello Mr. Fields. Can I call you Ralph?”
They shook hands and sat. The cassocked priest carried a small recorder that he turned on. “My apologies, but this is required. First, I need to know where you purchased your support dog from.”
“The Enlightenment kennels. They have an excellent reputation.”
“Almost too good.” The priest went through three dozen more questions—when the dog was purchased the name of the person who sold him the dog, on and on.
“What’s all this about, Father?”
“You won’t be relieved to know. You’re not the only one to bring up Enlightenment and their rep, Jorge Consuegra. There’s been another case, a woman. I wouldn’t have caught on to it except that she’s also a painfully devout member of the diocese.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I’m not sure yet, Ralph. But I am theologically sure that while animals are innocents, both they and humans can be spiritually infected. I’m going to need your help with something you won’t like.”
Ralph stiffened. “What?”
Mellon shifted topics. “Both you and the woman are devout and vulnerable. Have you been having alien thoughts lately? Hatred? Greed? Lust perhaps?”
“No, nothing, just my usual anxiety.”
“Nothing? What about your wife? Alice, is it?”
“Noth—ah, just a little marital discontent. It’ll pass.”
“Maybe not, if Sheila’s promoting it as a first stage of possession. I need you to make an appointment with Consuegra and take me with you to Enlightenment.”
“That answer requires a little background. Demonic possession focuses on the most devout, which is why saints are so often tormented. But the church is undergoing major declines in attendance and strength of belief. This makes it harder for us, but also harder for the demons, who have fewer and less pious targets. So, if you’re a demon, what do you do? Go after the most vulnerable and still devout. And how do you do that? Maybe, just maybe, emotional support animals that contain familiars. And something in demonic possession of a human to install them.”
Father Mellon smiled. “But there’s a quick and cleansing way to determine that. I need to be in handshake range of Mr. Consuegra. Can you, do it?”
“What could I say to him?”
Mellon shrugged. “It wouldn’t get far past hello. Just call and tell him that Sheila is showing some contrary behaviors that you’d like to discuss in person. If my hunch is right, he’ll be quick to say yes.”
“And you won’t hurt him?”
“Not in the way you mean. And it’s maybe your best chance to have Sheila just be a dog.”
Ralph made the call while still sitting in the rectory office, and Consuegra surprised him by saying yes for an appointment the next day. Father Mellon, sensing how nervous Ralph would be, offered to drive, and picked him up the next morning in a Nissan sedan aged somewhere between beater and classic.
“Remember, Ralph, say almost nothing until we’re in close quarters, preferably in his office. He won’t like my being there, so just say I’m your legal representative- that’s not too much of a lie.”
“What can you hope to accomplish?”
Mellon displayed his sardonic smile again. Ralph wondered if he’d had a career in sales before the priesthood. “We’ll have to find out.”
They walked into the foyer and Consuegra, a short, gaunt man came out to meet them. He scowled at Mellon, and didn’t offer to shake hands. “Who’s this, Mr. Fields? I thought you were coming alone.”
“He’s- he’s here for support.”
“What’s this about? Sheila is one of our best emotional support dogs.”
“Please, could we talk in your office?”
Once in his office, Consuegra waved at two chairs on the other side of his desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks,” Ralph said and moved toward the chair. But Mellon quick-stepped closer to Consuegra, pulled out a miniature squirt gun and sprayed Consuegra’s head and face with water.
Consuegra screamed, his skin seeming to bubble into boils, “A priest, you brought a priest! I’ll rip out your soul and shit into it.” The room temperature dropped twenty degrees and a rank odor pervaded. Ralph coughed.
Mellon pushed Consuegra into his chair. “Stay down, foul one.” He took out a small crucifix, and faced it to the moaning man. “This isn’t just a cross, it’s a ciborium. It’s going to hurt like your hell unless you release the animals you’re tormenting. Once you do, I’ll leave.”
Consuegra tried to resume humanity. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t leave until the animals are free of their evil presences. If you lie to me now, I’ll chase you down with some helpers who’ll keep you in permanent agony. We’ll be checking Enlightened’s records, so every animal, you rank spawn of hell.”
“Fuck you, wanna be child-molester.”
Mellon smiled again. It wasn’t pleasant. He grabbed Consuegra’s hair and held his head against the back of the chair, then pressed the cross into his forehead. Consuegra screamed again, not like a man, but like a shatter-voiced soprano.
Mellon lifted the cross. “Again? I really love this part.”
Ralph cowered in his seat, his eyes rocking between the two men.
Consuegra’s features contorted. “And you’ll leave if I release them?”
“I said I would. Oh, and I’d find a new gig for yourself. The holy word will be going out. You and your pillow mates are on report.”
Consuegra’s skin reddened as the demon glowered from, then he nodded. “All right, it’s done.”
Mellon turned to Ralph. “Ralph, make that call to Alice, please.”
Ralph took out his cell phone and tapped onto her listing. “Alice? It’s me. Listen, could you please go over to Sheila and pet her? Then just tell me her reaction.”
He held the phone in silence for a minute, then,” Really. Just all warm and cuddly like she’s never been with you? That’s great, thanks.” Ralph hung up and nodded to Mellon.
Father Mellon patted the top of Consuegra’s head with the squirt gun. A few drops dripped out and Consuegra winced. “Time to go, Ralph.”
As they were leaving the office, Father Mellon turned back around. “You know I can’t leave you possessing poor Consuegra, baptized Catholic and all.”
“But you swore you’d leave.”
“Said I’d leave, didn’t say I wouldn’t come back. Be seeing you.”
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had four hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he manages a posse of eight review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction magazine.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.