“Hellhound, House Broken”
by Gerri Leen
The hellhound was patrolling the neighborhoods he’d come to love, waiting for his next call to action, when he smelled the unmistakable scent of what the humans called treats. Then he got a whiff of the human herself. He thought this was one he’d crossed paths with before, accidentally saved—well, okay, not so accidentally. She’d been so nice and the man waiting for her on the walking path so evil. He’d been sent to snatch the guy’s soul—he’d just collected it before the man could do anything to the woman, and no one had complained.
Hellhounds did enjoy a certain amount of discretion in how they did their jobs.
He could have made all kinds of justifications that the woman had worked in animal rescue, that she gave of her time and money, while the man was a predator. But no one had asked him to.
Although one of his hellhound colleagues had murmured during a hound meeting, “She gave you treats, didn’t she? Just admit it.”
“I admit nothing.”
“Yeah, right. I like the liver ones. Did she give you liver?”
The hellhound had wondered if they were talking about the same woman, or if there were more like her out in the world, but he hadn’t wanted to pursue it. He was a senior hellhound, after all. Gravitas came with that honor. He would never admit to bending the rules.
Or to heading off after the scent of both treats—and yes, they had been liver—and the woman. He had to run for some minutes before he found her. She was moving boxes from her car into a house.
Ah, she had relocated, as humans were wont to do. Only problem was, every time she entered this new house, she was walking by the open maw of a ghost she seemed totally unaware of.
The fact that she’d bought a haunted house wasn’t his concern. He should walk away. Just because he’d saved her once didn’t mean he should take any additional interest in her life.
But those treats smelled so damned good.
So he bounded up to her, trying to block her as she returned to her car for another box.
“You again. Buddy, how do you keep getting out?”
He could feel her happiness at the sight of him. She was one of the few humans he’d met who didn’t back away with dread at the sight of him: he wasn’t what anyone would call a pretty dog. Then again hellhounds generally weren’t called into action for nice people who didn’t judge on appearance. Maybe if he dealt with more of these “rescue types,” as she’d referred to herself when they first met, he’d have a larger sample to compare to.
“I don’t even want to know how many puppies you’ve sired. Your people are so irresponsible.”
She seemed fixated on the fact he wasn’t “neutered'” as she called it. Who would dare try that on a hellhound?
She reached around his neck, as if his kind would ever be collared, much less wear a tag that bore his name.
Didn’t she understand names have power?
Clearly she didn’t or she wouldn’t have written “Hannah Jackson” on every one of her moving boxes.
“Well, come in and see the place before the movers get here,” she said as she pulled another box marked “Fragile” out of the car. “Wish I could load you up. I’m getting super tired.”
He moved away slightly in case she actually tried, and then followed her to the door.
The ghost barring the entrance sneered at him. “Oh, new owner has a pet. Nice doggy woggy.” She was a pretty woman, as humans go, but malice pulsed off her.
“Tread carefully, spirit,” he said, which came out as deep woofs to the human but should put the ghost in her place.
The ghost however just laughed. “What are you going to do to me, harbinger? Make me more dead?” She crossed her arms over her misty chest. “I can’t wait to get started on her.”
“You. Will. Not.” Three strident barks, followed by a growl known to make demons weep.
“Shhh,” the woman said. “What will the neighbors think?”
The woman smelled of six dogs and four cats. The neighbors wouldn’t even notice him in the chaos once they moved in.
“This house has so much atmosphere, don’t you think, Buddy?”
It occurred to him that the woman had named him “Buddy.” He should leave now while his dignity was at least close to intact.
The ghost trailed after them, sliding her nails across the walls, the sound translating to a slight wail and the woman noticed.
“Mice in the walls, I think. My kitties will take care of them.”
The ghost smirked in a “We’ll see how long those cats stick around” way.
He got between them, looking as fierce as he was able.
“Buddy, I’ve got some treats in my bag here.”
He would lose authority with the ghost if he—oh, but it was liver. He abandoned his threat posture and bounded over to the woman.
“You’re such a good boy,” she said, rubbing his neck gently as he took the treat as delicately as he could from her. “I don’t understand why your people don’t take better care of you. If I could just figure out where you live…” She frowned. “We’re miles from my townhome. How far do you wander?”
To hell and back, but she would never understand.
“So,” the ghost whispered in his ear, almost causing him to jump. He shouldn’t focus on the woman; she was nothing but a distraction.
“Do you want another treat, sweetie?”
“Do you want another treat, sweetie? ” the ghost echoed, her voice mocking.
Yes. Yes he did. He pushed through the ghost and she burst apart when he touched her. There. It would take her a few minutes to reconstitute her form.
Now, how to get her out of the house forever?
Not that he cared about the woman. He just needed to handle this so he could move on. He was going to go, but maybe not right this minute—he closed his eyes because it felt so good when she rubbed his ears the way she was doing.
He really should get back to his hellhounding duties.
He sprawled in her new dining room instead and watched her unpack boxes.
“I got this place so I could take in more fosters. No HOA here to tell me what I can and can’t do. So sick of that.” She prattled on about dogs and cats at the rescue she wanted to bring home. He lost the thread and was dozing when the ghost reappeared.
She was careful to steer clear, but the expression on her face was worrisome. “Just you wait, mutt.”
His hackles rose, and he started to growl in reaction.
“Buddy, I think my nerves are affecting you. Moves are so difficult.” The woman took a deep breath. “But I love this house so much.”
“Oh, yeah? Let’s see how you like it now.” The ghost seemed to be shimmering, pulling energy in, and the woman gasped and stepped back quickly as the spirit fully materialized.
The ghost sneered, then opened her mouth and roared like a lion.
He expected the woman to run but she didn’t. She stared at the ghost and said, “It just figures.”
Something in her seemed defeated—like this house meant more than just a new place to put her animals. Rage pulsed through him—how dare this ghost make his woman sad this way—and he got ready to leap.
But somehow the woman knew what he was thinking. She got between them.
“Are you nuts?” he and the ghost said together.
“Don’t hurt her,” the woman said, shaking her finger at him.
The ghost started to laugh silently.
“Stop that!” he barked at the ghost.
He could feel the energy of the woman change from sadness to authority—the kind he used on the younger hellhounds. “No. Bad dog. Sit. Down.” She wasn’t yelling but there was something in her voice that made him obey.
The ghost seemed shocked he obeyed—he wanted to hang his head in shame for the face he’d lost.
But then the woman advanced on the ghost, whose mocking look changed to a perplexed one.
The woman reached out but pulled back immediately when her hand started to go through the ghost. “Sorry. That was rude. Just wanted to see if you were, you know, solid.”
The ghost cocked her head the same way a hellhound pup would
“Okay, so clearly you’re a stray. I’m Hannah. And you are?”
The ghost looked confused.
“Has no one ever asked your name? That’s so sad. At the rescue, we find animals that we know have been loved, have had names and lives, but they can’t tell us about it. You can, though—I mean if you can talk and not just roar.”
“Of course I can talk.” Her voice was booming, but he heard something a little lost in it. “And I’m not a stray. This was my house. You’re the stray.”
“Whoa. Volume.” The woman used the same tone she’d used on him, and the ghost actually looked apologetic. “So what’s your name?”
Again, would this woman never understand the power of names. No spirit was going to divulge such a—
Seriously? The hellhound stared at the ghost in bemusement.
“How long have you been here?” The woman motioned for the ghost to sit down at the table, and of course the ghost would refuse so he readied himself to get between them but the ghost sat.
He lay down and put his paw over his eyes.
“I died in 1976.”
“Your hair. It’s a Farrah, isn’t it?”
The ghost preened, shaking the waves and wings in a way even he had to admit was attractive.
“You’re absolutely stunning.”
“For a ghost, you mean.”
“No, for anyone. Super pretty.”
“Thanks. You’ve got kind eyes.”
“Aww, thanks, Pam—can I call you Pam?”
“Great.” She puttered around the kitchen for a moment. “Can you eat or drink? I’ve got an extra soda here.”
The ghost shook her head. “But it’s nice of you to ask.”
“So you’re stuck in the house, right? Does that mean you died here?” She scowled. “The real estate agent didn’t disclose that. Oh, well.” She sat next to the ghost, as if they were old friends. “Sorry to drink in front of you.”
“I’m used to it.”
The hellhound read an energy he wasn’t expecting from the woman; she was enjoying this interaction. He sniffed deeply, could only smell animals on her, no other humans. Was she lonely?
He looked at the ghost he’d been ready to try to destroy. Was she lonely, too?
She and the woman started laughing over an old TV show called Charlie’s Angels.
When they wound down, as the woman petted him gently, the ghost said, “You do know he’s a hellhound, right?”
The woman looked alarmed. “Like on Supernatural? The one that was chasing Dean?”
He whined. Damn that show for making his kind common knowledge.
The woman laid her hand on his forehead. “Only, no, because you seem really nice, Buddy. You’re not here to drag me to hell, are you?”
If he could roll his eyes, he would. Sometimes he envied humans their range of expression. But he did wag his tail like some crazy pup at the dog park to show her he had no intention of dragging her anywhere.
It was demeaning but the least he could do.
The ghost’s smile was actually very sweet as she murmured, “Awwww, he wuvs you.”
He’d never admit that.
“Big mean hellhound wuvs the human.” The ghost was having way too much fun so he growled.
“Now, now, you two. Getting along is the key to peaceful cohabitation.”
“She could leave,” he barked, but the ghost just laughed at him, then turned back to the woman, who slipped him another treat.
“He thinks I should leave.”
“Oh, pffff. So tell me all about yourself.”
They were still getting to know each other when he heard the moving van pull up and quietly stole away, back to his real—if less treat-filled—job.
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, ASMR vids, and creating weird one-pan meals. She has work appearing in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Deep Magic, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Cast of Wonders, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing some longer projects, and is a member of SFWA and HWA. See more at gerrileen.com.