's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Mark "

Submitted by Sly Devil

Mark Jennings was an old man, fifty-four, but with none of the weakness that sets in at the extremity of age. He was rough and worn, like a well-carved piece of wood that has seen long decades of use. His eyes had a flat look to them; people said they had lost their light and mirth the day his wife died, twenty years ago, struck down by a brain tumor, dead during the operation to remove it. Mark had deeply loved his wife and had planned on a long life together with her, and after her death seemed to live every moment as if he were disappointed and simply waiting for things to end. He lived alone in the woods of New Hampshire and avoided company. The nearest neighbor was a ten minute drive, the nearest town twenty. He used to have a dog, one that he had owned with his wife, but it had died eight years ago, he would have replaced it, but he found the idea of raising a new puppy too painful. His wife had loved dogs, and his envisioned life with her had always included raising dogs together.

Instead, he kept cats, two of them. His wife had always disliked cats, so he found their companionship to not be a constant galling reminder of what he had lost. He had two of them, a large black male named Pluto, and a smaller, tortoiseshell-patterned female called Mars. Mark had served in the military from the time he was eighteen until the time he was forty-two, which meant he received a pension for having served a twenty year commitment. This was what he lived off of. His days were full of the sort of relaxing physical activity that he enjoyed; chopping wood, doing repairs on the house, hiking through the woods. It was an empty, repetitive life, devoid of meaning and the one he had loved, but it was a tolerable life.

One afternoon, in the midst of winter, a blanket of snow a foot deep muting the world, Mark was chopping wood in his backyard, when he glanced towards his house and noticed both cats staring out at him. It was not unusual behavior, but eventually it occurred to Mark that they weren't quite glancing in his direction, they were staring, eyes wide, at something past him. He turned towards the woods (his house was in the middle of a clearing and the woods were about fifty yards away), wondering what they could be staring at. He saw nothing, and was about to turn back to his task, when there was the glimpse of movement among the trees, far, far back, of something very large, hidden among the shadows of the woods.

Mark was no stranger to the wildlife of the area, and was cautious too. Bears were no strangers to his woods, neither were wolves, though they were rare. But what little he had seen of the animal, a mere moving shadow, had seemed much bigger than either of these. A moose, most likely, or so he believed. Mark was no hunter, but a moose was interesting nonetheless, and he resolved to look for signs of them during his walk the next day.

That night Mark dreamt, as he occasionally did, of his wife. Not of their life as it had been before the tumor, but their life as it would be if she had not died. She had aged with grace, her long dark hair not having grayed yet, and in addition to Pluto and Mars they owned a large black dog, of a breed Mark could not remember. Details in dreams escaped Mark, all he remembered was the happiness he felt during them, and the inescapable sense of utter loss once he had woken up.

After a breakfast of coffee and eggs, he began his walk by returning to the spot he had seen the large animal, though he found no trail – a heavy snow had fallen last night and covered up whatever tracks it may have left behind. Shrugging, he continued on his way, with some difficulty, as the snow on the ground was now well over a foot high even beneath the cover of the trees.

It was almost an hour later that Mark spotted the creature again. He was on the top of a hill, looking down towards a small frozen pond nearly four hundred yards off, smoking a cigarette and thinking he would head back for the day. With little warning, and barely perceptible movement, the creature appeared from the forest near the pond, utterly silent, like rolling fog.

It was gigantic, that much was clear, though it was difficult to tell exactly how large it was from this distance. It was no moose, but rather appeared to be canine in form, though of an unusual type. The dog Mark used to own with his wife had been a greyhound, and this was vaguely similar in form to that; but its back was even more arched, its body much more thin, torso, legs and snout much longer with the latter much more pointed. In addition, its entire form was covered in extremely long, black fur. Most striking of all was its manner of movement – quickly, but with a sort of savage grace, so smooth that it was almost difficult to tell how it was moving at all. Curiously, it seemed familiar to Mark in some way.

He bought out his phone to get a picture of the beast, but when he moved it must have heard him, for when he looked back at it it was staring directly at him. Mark had seen dead men, had faced danger, and very little frightened him. But he became acutely aware, in that moment, that this was a gigantic animal of a predatory nature and he was out in the woods alone. After about half a minute, the creature turned away and silently swept back into the woods. Mark took one picture of it as it walked away, but it was poor quality – you could barely tell what it was in the photo from this distance.

He waited for about twenty minutes, to make sure it was gone, and then trotted down the hill to where the creature had been, eager to see what sort of tracks it had left and perhaps take some pictures of them. He was passingly familiar with the wildlife of the area; though he was no expert, he knew that whatever the creature was, it was nothing familiar to these woods. What he saw when he got to the tracks astounded him

Rather than the canine prints he had been expecting, the creature left prints of what appeared to be humanoid hands in the snow. Extremely large human hands – Mark could fit his entire boot within the palm – with long, thin, tapering fingers. They were imprinted in the snow with such detail that Mark could make out the lines in the palm. With wonder, Mark took a picture of the prints. As he did, there was a low, guttural noise from the woods behind him. With a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach, Mark turned around.

The creature was there, not five feet deep in the woods, and Mark could see with terrible clarity the details he had missed from a distance. It was over eight feet tall at the shoulder, and stared at him with glazed, brutal, golden eyes. Some animals had eyes that let you easily see emotions that might be thought of as human in them. Not so this creature. These eyes had a flat, alien stare. The fangs in its snout were arranged in what seemed to be some sort of maniacal grin, and seemed off in some way – the arrangement of the teeth seemed less like they were in a dog's mouth, and more like they were in a horse's, or even a human's. Though he was no hunter, Mark owned a rifle, and now he dearly wished he had bought it with him.

He knew that it was not a good idea to run, but didn't know what else to do besides stand there, frozen with fear, with the creature watching him. Finally, mercifully, the creature turned and melted back into the woods. Mark waited, watching, to make sure it had left completely, then turned and hurried back up the hill, and back towards home.

He was about fifteen minutes into his walk back when there was that guttural growl again. Once more, Mark froze, and then turned around. There, not twenty feet behind him, was the creature, with its mad gold eyes, staring at him. How long had he been followed? Mark wondered. He hadn't heard a thing, the creature, despite its size, moved through the woods almost completely silently. He dared not move a muscle. The creature merely stared, not moving closer at all. Eventually, as it had done before, it turned and walked away, disappearing among the trees.

Mark continued his walk home, well aware now that he was being followed. Every now and then he'd catch a glimpse of the creature off to his right, or behind him, staying at least a distance of fifty feet. It was terrifying, and he didn't know whether the creature was following him out of some animalistic curiousity or whether this was a stalking behavior.

Finally, his house appeared in view. When he got within twenty feet of it, the creature let out another weird, low grunt, and Mark finally permitted himself to run. He threw open his sliding glass door and leapt inside, slamming it behind him. Not that he needed have bothered, for the creature was not pursuing him; it had not left the cover of the woods.

Harrowed by his ordeal, Mark collapsed on his sofa. He eventually bought up his laptop, looking online for a creature that matched the description of what he had seen, but could find none. The tracks were what troubled him the most. He knew that there were some smaller animals whose tracks appeared similar to human hands, but none of an animal that large. In fact, he didn't know any animal, at all, that was that large. He contemplated calling animal control, but in the end did not so much decide against it as he was distracted by other thoughts.

The animal had seemed very familiar to him in some way, but he struggled to remember exactly how. Suddenly, he remembered.

With a dread and sadness Mark went into his room, and retrieved the most precious item he had in his possession – a box of letters, writings and drawings his wife had left him before she died. He had not looked at them in years, they bought up memories far too painful to deal with. Slowly, he opened it, meaning to only glance quickly at what he needed. Instead, he sat, weeping for an hour, as he always did when he opened this box, reading and re-reading his wife's letters, her attempts to reassure him, her final words of love.

Finally, he was able to put her letters aside and look at her drawings. The tumor had caused hallucinations that medication and operations had never been fully able to control. Many of the things she saw had been beautiful, in ways that she could never truly manage to describe, so she had tried to draw them, though her art was amateur.

Among all the fantastic things she had drawn, among all the bright colors and weird, alien forms, was a large, black dog-like creature, with human hands for feet.

Mark wasn't sure how to process this information. He didn't know what to think of much anything anymore, really. He had a pounding headache, and he was so, so tired; utterly drained emotionally, from being pursued and from having the memories of his wife dredged up. He felt disconnected, reminded of just how alone he was in the world. The box still smelled like his wife after all these years. He couldn't stop his grief, and so he slept to make it go away.

When he woke, it was night. Pluto was at the window, pawing at it. Mark got up to get a drink of water, and while he was in the kitchen, heard Pluto yowl in terror and go dashing out of the room. Mark returned to his bedroom, peering out the window, only to see those baleful golden eyes staring in at him.

He dashed to his closet, retrieving his rifle, then ran to the sliding glass door, throwing on the yard lights. His entire back yard flooded with light, revealing a world of muted snow, flakes gently drifting down from above – and the creature standing in his yard like an omen, staring at him.

Mark shouted at the creature to leave, but it did not respond. It didn't even move; it never removed those horrible eyes from him, with that wrong, toothy grin. Finally, Mark slid open the door and fired a warning shot into the sky. To his horror, it did not startle the creature at all, but it did startle his cats; Mars and Pluto both scrambled out the door. The creature eyed them with some interest, and began to move as if to chase after them. Mark found this too much to bear, and not wanting to lose his only companions to this creature, he stepped out of his house and aimed his rifle directly at the beast's chest. When it did not stop moving, he squeezed the trigger.

The shot rang out like a blasphemy against the world of silence that surrounded them, but the creature didn't stop moving. It didn't seem like it had even been affected in the least; Mark couldn't even tell if he had actually hit it. He fired again, and once more. Though no bullet wounds appeared – or perhaps they simply disappeared into the mass of black fur – the creature finally flinched, and turned back towards Mark.

He lowered his rifle, and then wished he had not, for the beast, whatever it was, opened its mouth. But this time there was not animal growl. Rather, this time, the animal said his name, quite clearly. It said it in the voice of his wife.

Mark dropped his rifle.

“Mark,” the animal repeated, in the soft, lovely tones of his dead wife. Everything else disappeared. His house faded away, thoughts of his cats faded away, the forest faded away. It was just Mark and this animal in a field of snow, beneath a starless sky.

“Leanne?” he replied.

“Mark, my Mark,” the animal cooed, stepping towards him. “I love you.”

“My god, Leanne, how is this possible?” Mark asked.

The animal gave him that flat, beastly stare, and then pounced upon him.

In his last moments, Mark's thoughts became blurred; he thought that the animal's dark fur falling around him was the hair of his wife, and he was happy for the first time in a long time. The last thing he ever saw were the beast's wild golden eyes, and it's manic grin of fangs.

Two days later, Pluto and Mars showed appeared at a neighbor's house, meowing for food. The neighbor fed them and read the number and address off their tags; when Mark did not answer the phone, the neighbor drove out to his house. They discovered his corpse in the back yard, partially covered in snow. There were no signs of violence. The autopsy found that his death was the result of a hemorrhagic stroke, bought on by an undetected brain tumor.