Toby’s House, a House Haunted by a Furry Spirit

dogBy Elizabeth Ruth

Fiction

Toby was one of those small, frenetic dogs with a mop of snow white hair hanging over his eyes.  Cherry thought he was cute—and one of the most frightening creatures she had ever encountered.

The dog lived in the Bryan house, a beautiful house with the look of a small castle. Cherry knew every detail of the façade of the house because she stared at it warily every morning and afternoon as she approached it on her way to and from school; but it was the small dog that was her daily concern.

Toby—she knew his name because she had heard Mrs. Bryan call him one afternoon as he chased her down the sidewalk—was Cherry’s twice-a-day nightmare. She was terrified of the little dog; but he lived along the road her mother deemed safest for her to take to school. Cherry could not take the alternative route where there was no sidewalk unless her older sister or brother agreed to walk with her.

So every morning and afternoon, Cherry fearfully crept past the house, hoping that Toby was inside with the old lady.  Too often, he was not.

Sometimes Cherry would get half-way across the sidewalk fronting the Bryan property before the dog would spot her and rush out, barking furiously as she frantically ran—sideways and backwards–so she wouldn’t have to take her eyes off her furry nemesis.

Eventually, Cherry hit upon something that made her feel a little safer. One day, following a wild thunderstorm, she discovered a number of broken limbs on the sidewalk, most of them being dry wood from some long-dead portion of one of the trees.   Being dry, the limb had broken when it hit the sidewalk. One of the pieces was a sturdy stick a couple of feet long.  Cherry picked it up, at first just to clear the path in front of her; but she had walked only a few more steps when the little white terror burst upon her. Holding the stick aloft, Cherry said loudly, “Go home. Go home.”  The little dog stopped in his tracks and stared at her. Then he resumed barking until Cherry repeated even more frantically, “Go home.  Go home.”  The dog backed off and Cherry resumed walking, keep-ing her eyes on her foe until he finally turned away to resume his nap beneath a thick bush.

Cherry was trembling with fear, but her seven year old mind was working. If she had the stick every time she passed the Bryan house, she would be able to defend herself if the dog tried to bite her. She would be safe.

But she could not take a stick to school. Cherry pondered the problem until she noticed one of the trees alongside the sidewalk had a gnarled root that rose several inches above the ground. She bent down and placed her stick alongside the root in such a way that it was nearly hidden. She then hurried to school feeling more cheerful than usual. This afternoon she would have the stick to see her safely past the Bryan house.

That afternoon, Cherry bravely walked past the Bryan house with her stick clutched in her hand.  The dog did not appear. A relieved Cherry found another hiding place a half block past the dog’s home to stash her handy weapon for the following day.

For the next year or two—until Cherry was old enough to walk along the other roadway—the one without a sidewalk—she always kept a weapon hidden along the sidewalk and carried it past the dog’s home. Of course it was not the same weapon for all of that time. Occasionally one of the home owners would clean his yard and un-knowingly toss Cherry’s stick into a fire. Then Cherry would have to find another. When she couldn’t find one for a day or so, she would creep fearfully past the Bryant place, but when she again had a stick in her hand, she would march bravely by, ready to face her arch enemy at any moment.

As Cherry grew up, the Bryan house remained of interest to her.  Eventually, she realized the dog no longer lived at the residence. Still later a black ribboned wreath on the door signaled the death of Mrs. Bryant.

By the time Cherry was in high school, the house—at the hands of some new owner—underwent renovation and a face lift.  Its chipped white paint was scraped off and the house was covered by a coat of fresh grey, a small garage was built and the lawn was landscaped. Cherry, who lived in a frame house with no distinguishing features, was fascinated with the neat little house with tiny turrets and new dormer windows.

The Bryan house was her dream house but by the time she was able to purchase it years later, it seemed to be more of a nightmare.

The exterior paint was once again chipped and discolored. The driveway was riddled with cracks through which blades of grass triumphantly emerged.

The inside was a rabbit warren of tiny rooms, all originally intended for some specific purpose no longer rele-vant to the modern world.  There was the sunroom through which so much sunlight poured in the summer that it was unbearably hot while at the same time, the many windows created unbearably cold drafts during winter weather.

The kitchen suffered from mixed identity with its roots in the early 1900s and evidence of a mid-century cosmetic re-do.  There was a butler’s pantry, a formal dining room and an entrance foyer that opened onto the grand central hall.

In spite of the grandeur of these accouterments, the house had very little living space. Two upstairs bedrooms were all it boasted, and the only bathroom was on the ground floor.  All the closets were tiny.

There were some good points to the house, however. It was in the “old neighborhood,” the place Cherry had dreamed of returning to for the past thirty years; and of course, having been, in its day, an elegant house, it retained a certain panache.

So after viewing the house several times, Cherry crossed her fingers and purchased it, plans bubbling in her head about changes and renovations she would make. She didn’t have a lot of money, but as a woman who had taken care of herself her entire life, she was handy; and she felt sure she could handle most of the work herself.

The problem was, from the moment she moved into the house Cherry could not seem to sleep under its old tiled roof.

Each night she woke repeatedly, believing a dog had just barked some-where nearby, perhaps as close as the foot of her bed. As Cherry did not have a dog the sound of a dog barking in her bedroom was understandably unnerving. She could only surmise that her long ago fear of the dog which had once lived in the house was causing nightmares. And of course, this seemed so silly she dared not take anyone into her confidence.

When several ladies in her church congregation noted that she appeared tired and urged her to slow down with the heavy work she was doing on the house, Cherry allowed them to believe she was indeed overtired because of hard work.  The fact that she thrived on work and appeared haggard because of lack of sleep might be entirely too difficult to explain.

Each night, Cherry told herself that the barking dog was only her imagination and that tonight she would be sensible and sleep the night through. Sometimes it seemed to work and she would be jubilant the next morning when she awoke well-rested.  Some nights it didn’t work at all and she slept no more than an hour or two at a stretch before the dreaded barking startled her from sleep.

Sometimes, the barking seemed to fade as Cherry wakened.  Other times she could have sworn that she actually heard barking after she was certain she was awake.  A couple of times she crossed the room and labored until the stubborn old window rasped open.  She then looked out over the neigh-borhood for the canine night owl which must be living somewhere near.  Each time she neither saw nor heard a dog, but when she returned to her restless sleep she was once again wakened by barking.

After one particularly sleepless night, Cherry looked in the bathroom mirror as she got ready for a day’s work. A haggard face looked back at her. Cherry, who prided herself on not looking her age, looked old.

That day, instead of going straight to work on her current  project, removing old carpet strips and nails to prepare her dining room floor for machine sanding, Cherry took a  cup of coffee onto the patio off  of her kitchen and sat down to contemplate her dilemma. Was a dog really barking SOMEWHERE or was it only in her head? Was she insane…? And more importantly, was she ever going to get enough sleep in this cursed house?

After Cherry finished her coffee she decided not to spend the day working. Instead she changed into some more presentable slacks and a crisp white blouse and walked across the lawn to where old lady Martin still lived in the house she had owned for the last fifty years. Cherry didn’t know any of her other neighbors, although she had seen some young couples getting in and out of cars in nearby driveways. She hoped Mrs. Martin knew them and would know if any of them harbored a dog that spent its nights barking at the moon.

Once through the amenities, Cherry launched into her agenda.  “There’s a dog somewhere around here that wakes me up every night.  Do you have any idea who it belongs to?” she asked.

Mrs. Martin looked surprised.  “Well no,” she answered.  “I haven’t heard any dogs.  The only thing I’ve heard is some hammering that starts pretty early some mornings.”

Cherry hastened to apologize and to promise fervently not to disturb her elderly neighbor again.

After she left Mrs. Martin’s, Cherry walked down the sidewalk in front of her home, turning at the corner to walk as far as the alley and then strolling along the alley until she reached her own back yard.  As she walked, she kept her eyes peeled on the back and side yards of each house she passed. If any of her neighbors had a dog, it must be one they kept inside the house. There were no visible dog houses or fenced areas to be found.

The neighborhood was nearly silent except for the sound of bees buzzing about in the garden at the end of the block. Apparently all the people in the houses roundabout were at work.  She doubted any of them kept a dog locked up all day while they were away from home. So where was the barking dog that awakened her night after night?

From a minor irritation, the sound had become a major headache.  She desperately needed rest and it cer-tainly didn’t help that she had begun to doubt her own sanity.

The next day an exhausted Cherry went back to work on the dining room floor.  When she thought of the barking dog, she reminded herself, “What can’t be cured, must be endured.”

Eventually, although still sleep-less, Cherry more or less grew used to the annoyance. When the barking woke her from her exhausted sleep, she would sit half way up in her bed and say, “Shut up, Toby.” Then she would fall back against her bed, press the spare pillow over her head and try to go back to sleep.

One day Cherry found herself at the local library browsing the contents of a shelf on the occult. A title caught her eye, “Animal Spirits,” the bold letters read.  She took the book off the shelf.

According to the book, most animal spirits were attached to living people or spirits of their former owners.  If the ghost of the human to which they were attached was exorcised from the home, the animal spirit would also leave. Cherry was bemused. Would she have to have an exorcism to rid her house of  dear old Mrs. Bryan and her beloved pet  in order to get a good night sleep?  She was so tired that the idea did not seem entirely ludicrous.

And then she began to remodel her kitchen. It contained an antique cook stove with a tall black pipe disappearing into the wall. It had apparently been left there or placed there for nostalgic value long after such things had ceased being used for cooking. She wouldn’t dare to light a fire in it’s depths as she feared the chimney might be clogged and a fire might ensue. Besides, two of the round burner plates were missing. She hoped to find them but if she didn’t she would have to look into replacing them.

She decided she should start some-where else. If she couldn’t replace those stove lid things, she might have to get rid of the stove. Spending time cleaning and polishing it right now might not be of much use.

She didn’t plan to use the thing, but it looked interesting so if she found the lids she would probably keep it.  If so, she thought, she would probably remove the stove pipe piece by piece and give it a thorough cleaning. If leaves had fallen from her large over-hanging trees into the chimney, they would provide a nesting place for rodents. Not a pleasant thought at all.

After deciding to put off the stove cleaning pending locating the stove lids, she turned her attention to the wall beside it. It was covered in painted-over antique fabric, puckered and cracked. She assumed it was oilcloth. Along the base a water pipe sneaked from the butler’s pantry where the water heater was located around to the kitchen sink—apparently placed to be seen as little as possible without going to the effort of installing it under the floor.

On the upper part of the wall, she found a curious copper pipe with a deep green patina. It curved out at the bot-tom and ended abruptly. What could it be for? Had something been disconnected?

Because she had to start somewhere, Cherry began by ripping and scraping the oilcloth off the wall.  If she was lucky there would be plaster worth repairing.  If not….well she’d face that after she knew for sure.

The glued-on oilcloth was stubborn.  She worked on it a long time before breaking for lunch.  In the afternoon she switched to taking doors off cabinets in order to sand and repaint them. After they were all down, she sent out for pizza for her supper and after eating, she decided to spend a little more time on the oilcloth.  Surely she could complete the small area of wall before bedtime.

At 10:00 she was sure she’d be done with the tedious chore within the hour and decided to keep working.  After all, even if she went to bed, she wouldn’t actually sleep!

At about 10:30, when Cherry was crouching near the baseboard scraping away persistent strands of the old cloth, she was nearly startled out of her wits by the sound of a dog barking right beside her left ear.  She jumped up and whirled around, sustaining a blow to her head against the cast iron stove.

The pain brought tears to her eyes and the threatened blackout forced her to lean against the stove for support.  And the barking came again. It seemed to come out of the holes where the stove plates belonged. Cherry ripped open the door to the firebox and peered inside, feeling foolish when of course there was nothing there.

But the barking began again and with her head near the firebox, it seemed to be all around her.  She backed away wondering if the old cast iron stove as well as her bedroom was haunted.  Then she raised her head as she ruefully rubbed the knot on her left temple, and she saw the curved copper pipe once more and was seized by inspiration. She raced through the dining room, down the hall and up the stairs.  In her bedroom along the wall near the foot of her bed, she found what she was seeking—the other end of the pipe. She now knew what it was–although she had no idea what it was called. It was one of those communication conduits that houses used to have between the bedroom and kitchen.  Through that tube, the lady of the house could summon a servant to come up with her breakfast.

“So that’s where the sound came from,” Cherry marveled.  It came out of the stove holes and straight up the pipe right to the foot of my bed.  But of course that didn’t explain how the barking got into the stove. Cherry raced down the stairs and out the front door. Where was that chimney?

She ran as far back in her yard as she could get to look at her roof.  If the moon had not been full she would not have been able to see the black pipe rising above the one story roof of the kitchen end of the house.  Why didn’t she notice before that the main chimney—the one shared by two fire places in the house was nowhere near the kitchen?  The cook stove had its own “chimney.”

But how did that explain the bark-ing dog in the stove? There was certainly no dog on the roof! She reached again to touch the tender bump on her temple just as she heard faint barking above her head. Whirling around, she saw nothing but blackness. The houses behind her were shielded by a steep hill that rose above the valley where the old part of town had been built. High up on the hill, mostly surrounded by trees, there was a development of expensive new homes.

Again Cherry heard the faint barking overhead and slightly to the south.  “This is weird,” she said aloud and heard her last word echo back at her, “weird, weird…..” And all of a sudden she understood.  The dog was up the hill and who knew how far away. When it barked, the sound heard so faintly at ground level must be much louder at roof height, especially when it bounced off the wall of the larger house to her north.   The sound must travel down the pipe into the stove and out of the stove where the stove lids were missing right into the speaking tube that ended in her bedroom. And she had been ready to look for an exorcist!

The first thing Cherry did back inside was place a board across the holes in her cook stove, securing it with a heavy brick formerly used as a doorstop. Then she laughed all the way up the stairs, and was still smiling broadly half an hour later when she was ready for bed and snuggled in for a restful night of sleep.                                        End

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