Our grandfather was obsessed with safety. Whenever my brother and I went out, he’d tell us to be careful and watch out for cars and slippery spots on the ground. If we were playing around the house, he’d demand we keep an eye out for sharp corners on the coffee table or wires we might trip over. Even when we were going to bed, he’d stand over us and warn about the dangers of our blankets getting wrapped around our necks. He’d demand that we listen to each other breathe if we ever woke up in the middle of the night. Just to make sure.
To make matters worse, he’d follow us in his pickup truck wherever we went, the loaded gun rack dissuading anyone from interfering with us. We could see him when we were in school, always parked outside, just in case anything might happen. As Reggie and I got older, we started to get tired of his nagging. We weren’t kids anymore. We didn’t need to be coddled and watched over.
When we turned 16, Reggie and I got a present very uncharacteristic of our safety-fetishizing grandfather. He’d adopted two adult dogs. Twin brothers, just like me and Reg. They were Caucasian Ovcharkas; apparently the same breed he used to work with when he was stationed in Siberia, back before he and grandma moved to the States. Over the 11 years we’d lived with him, we’d never been allowed to go near any dogs. Even little ones. “They’ll kill your brother,” he’d always say. The guilt we’d feel from that statement would always get one of us to tell the other to leave the animal alone.
The Ovcharkas were truly enormous. I’d never seen such massive dogs. They were both well over 200lbs and neither of them were overweight. When I leaned over and gave one a tentative pat, it felt like there was iron under the thick fur. Its tail didn’t wag and it didn’t look at me. Both animals just stared at grandpa. We were told their names were Mikhail and Sergey.
Reggie looked as uncomfortable as I felt. We thanked our grandfather for our gifts, but it was obvious we were unnerved. Grandpa asked us if we remembered the dog we’d had before our parents had died. Neither of us did. He told us it was a beagle named Chair. “A useless animal,” he informed us.
As our birthday dragged on, grandpa taught us how to care for the Ovcharkas. For the first few hours, they’d only listen to him. Whenever we spoke to them or even tried pushing them in the direction we wanted them to go, they’d wait for him to give the command before moving. By nighttime, though, the dogs had started to accept the commands from my brother and me. Their responses weren’t instantaneous, like they were with grandpa, but it was still progress.
The next day, we realized why we’d gotten our presents. The dogs were never to leave our sides. Rather than grandpa cautioning and watching us all day, every day, he’d simply transferred his authority over to the animals. We were pissed. Reggie especially. He’d always been the more outspoken one, and, as a result, had most often incurred grandpa’s wrath. This time, though, Reggie wasn’t slapped when he called the whole arrangement “bullshit.” Grandpa wrinkled his deeply-scarred face and yelled something in Russian. The dogs leapt at my brother. Reggie screamed and flailed, but the dogs had him on the ground in an instant. They stood over him, growling and frothing, until Grandpa yelled another word we didn’t understand. They backed away and Reggie got up. He didn’t complain anymore.
Since we were on summer vacation, we had a lot of downtime. Wherever we went, though, the dogs followed. We’d walk down the street with the two colossi in tow. They’d growl at anyone who came near, whether it was at one of our friends who came up to say hello or at the cashier at the store who yelled that no dogs were allowed in the place. Anyone who presented even a hit of a potential threat was intimidated by the growling guard dogs. For Mikhail and Sergey, a potential threat was being within five feet of us.
On a hot day in early August, we were at the lake down the street. As usual, no one wanted to be near us because of the two wary, grumpy Ovcharkas. Reggie and I went swimming. The dogs, of course, swam alongside. Out of absolutely nowhere, there was a speed boat bearing down on us. Before anyone, dog or person, could react, Reggie was struck. The hull of the boat crushed his skull and the propeller tore through his skin like wet paper. The driver just kept going.
Reggie’s corpse floated face-up in the bloody water. His face was destroyed. One eye was completely missing while the other draped itself over his left cheek. From groin to chin, there was nothing but a gory channel the same diameter as the boat’s propeller. Tangles of his shredded intestines leaked their contents into the water. Mikhail and Sergey swam in silence, staring at his carcass.
I was beside myself with panic and rage. I screamed and tried to drag my brother’s body toward the shore. As soon as I touched him, Sergey bit my arm. Hard. I let go of Reggie and hit the dog. He stopped biting. Again, I tried to move my brother. Another bite. This time, the dog pulled me away from Reggie while Mikhail swam in a circle around my brother’s body. I felt my radius and ulna snap under the pressure of Sergey’s jaw. I shrieked and started punching the animal. My assault did nothing to release the pressure.
Mikhail’s growl caught my attention. I felt it in my chest before I could hear it. I whirled around and saw something moving inside Reggie. No, not inside. All over. His skin was undulating and stretching while the bones underneath popped and crackled, as if they were all breaking. His ribs spread twice the width of his chest, some puncturing through the flesh as they went. The remains of his guts started slapping and flopping around like a net full of eels poured onto the deck of a fishing boat. A deep, resonant moan rose from the destroyed form of my brother.
I started to back away. This time, Sergey let me move. I swam backward while watching the unbelievable scene unfold. Both dogs watched Reggie while I stood on shore, overcome by fear and confusion. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I yelped and spun around to see the scarred face of my grandfather. He’d been following us again. He held a shotgun. On our sides, bathers were running from the lakeside toward the cars. “Watch,” grandpa instructed.
What I once knew as Reggie flailed and howled. The water, turbid from his inhuman thrashings, was pink and foamy from the release of his blood and other bodily fluids. His moaning intensified, causing me to cover my ears. I turned to run, but he held me by the back of my neck and wouldn’t let me move. “Watch,” he hissed.
Reggie stopped moving. The dogs, who’d been paddling close to him, barked furiously. Massive stalactites of bone began to erupt from the remains of my brother. As they burst through, the dogs attacked. They tore at the already-damaged flesh of the creature, ripping out thick chunks before pushing their faces in to get more. As they bit, the Reggie-creature moved toward us. As the water around it grew shallower, more of its body was revealed to us. It walked on five pillars of articulated bone; the segments joined by oozing, fatty tissue. It moved slowly, but deliberately. Bulbous, white eyes squeezed themselves from the cracked sockets of its skull. They rotated and then focused on my grandfather and me. He held me tighter.
As it walked, the dogs were tearing more and more of its body to shreds. Sergey attacked its legs. As the gristle and fat were pulled from between the segments, the creature slowed. Still, it didn’t stop. An ossified spike shot from the rib-area of the monster, impaling Sergey through his chest. The dog was dead. Mikhail, in a renewed frenzy, tore the remaining connective tissue from the other four legs. By the time it had stopped moving, it was only ten feet away from us. Mikhail ripped the creature apart, spitting its bowels and meat from its bulbous eyes all over the sand. And then he stopped. Whatever Reggie had become was dead.
Grandpa let me go. Mikhail ambled over to Sergey and began to lick the mortal wound in his brother’s chest. He whimpered and sat in the sand, panting. I sobbed as the pressure I’d felt released. My grandfather slapped me and held my face in a vice grip between his leathery palms. I stared at the deep latticework of scars covering his face.
“I always thought it would’ve been you,” he hissed. “My grandfather made the same mistake with me.” He traced the facial scars with his fingernail. Then he grabbed my broken arm, causing me to yelp. “At least this’ll heal.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The remains of the monster had turned into a foul-smelling gelatin. Seabirds were diving and collecting it in their beaks before it could absorb into the sand. Those who managed to get a beak full died moments later, falling from the sky into the lake or on the sand.
“I thought your father knew better,” grandpa grunted as we walked. I didn’t say anything. He kept mumbling in frustration when we got into the house. “A f*****g beagle,” he murmured. I sat on the couch and cried.