Elliott stopped by a pet shop on the way home from work the following day, where they picked up a collar and leash with hopes of bringing the dog home that evening. The only problem was that when they arrived on the hilltop, the dog was nowhere to be seen. They tried whistling for it, in hopes that it would respond to that. It did not.

Elliott was peering into the underbrush, in case the dog was just hiding in the shadows, when they got the creeping feeling that they were being watched. Ever since they’d gotten over their fear of being chased and bitten they’d felt pretty safe in the park, so it wasn’t as if they’d just made themself paranoid. The feeling came out of nowhere, as it sometimes does when one is actually being watched. 

“Hello?” they called, trying and mostly failing to sound confident. There was no answer, but the feeling persisted. 

They thought about fleeing, which is what a more rational person might have done, but they were still a creature of habit, and dammit, this was their hilltop. They looked about for something to defend themself with, as this was apparently the hill they had — quite literally — decided to die on. They found a fallen branch not far from the path, and once they were wielding that, a new wave of courage rose up in them. It’s amazing what a blunt object can do for one’s confidence.

“Who’s there?” they demanded, brandishing the branch. “I know you’re there, come out now!” they insisted with the conviction of the terminally brave.

The bushes rustled behind them and Elliott spun around to face the direction of the sound. A boy emerged from the underbrush, a watchful expression on his face and both hands held erect in a gesture of surrender. Elliott guessed he was in his early to mid teens — probably 15 at the oldest. The large, dark eyes that peered at them from under a mop of disheveled black hair held a curious air of both innocence and worldliness which Elliott had trouble reconciling. 

“Would you mind putting the stick down, now?” the boy asked, though he didn’t seem overly concerned. 

“Oh, right,” Elliott said sheepishly. “Sorry.” They set the branch on the ground. “What are you doing lurking in the bushes, anyway?”

“Does it matter?” 

“Well it’s a bit creepy.”

“Really? How old are you?” The kid’s tone was more curious than mocking, but Elliott couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. 

“23,” they admitted. “But nobody can tell you’re just a kid when you’re hiding off in the bushes like that.” 

“I was just waiting for you to leave,” the boy said, “I didn’t mean to creep anybody out.”

“Well, good. Anyway, have you seen a dog around here?”

“Nope,” the kid answered. “Are you missing one?”

“Kind of. Not exactly,” Elliott admitted, “I’ve been feeding a stray, but it didn’t show up tonight.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll just put some food out for it, and then I’ll leave you to,” they trailed off for a moment, considering, “to whatever it is you’re doing.”

“Alright,” said the boy.

“Alright.” Elliott set some treats out in the usual spot, and with one last look in the boy’s direction, they continued on their way home.

***

The teen was there again the next night, though this time he didn’t hide in the bushes. Elliott gave him a nod of recognition as they paused to set some biscuits out, then hurried along, leaving the kid to his own devices. The exact same scenario played out the night after that, as well. 

When Elliott ran into the kid for the fourth consecutive night, they found him kneeling off to the side of the path, half obscured by a gnarled old oak, and in the act of lighting a candle. He used a stick of burning incense to do it, and the scent of frankincense hung on the air, which is to say it smelled like a fucking cathedral.

Elliott found themself watching, transfixed, as the boy lit the candle and stuck the base of the incense into the earth so that it stood upright, a ghostly swirl of smoke trailing in the air. It was only when the boy turned to look at them that they realized they’d been staring. 

“Hello,” said the teen, who didn’t appear to be annoyed by the intrusion. He might have even expected it, given that they always seemed to run into each other.

“Hi,” Elliott responded. “Can I ask what you’re doing?”

“Just lighting a candle.”

“Right. Silly question… I guess I meant to ask why you’re lighting a candle.”

“Well…” said the boy, looking slightly sheepish, “it probably sounds stupid, but when my family first came here from their homeland, this was where they came to pray to their gods. That’s about all I know about it, but I like to come here and light candles. It makes me feel somehow connected to my ancestors.” 

“Oh, really? That’s actually pretty cool,” Elliott admitted. 

“I only brought one candle, but you can light an incense if you want,” the kid offered, holding out another stick. 

“Sure, thank you. It smells nice,” Elliott said, taking the stick. They held it into the candle flame until the end ignited, then waited for it to begin smouldering before blowing the flame out. They stuck the base into the ground as the kid had done, and the two sat in silence for a minute, watching the smoke. “What’s your name?” Elliott eventually asked. The kid seemed to think for a moment. 

“You can call me Puck,” he said. 

The kid was smart, Elliott thought, not giving out his real name to some stranger he’d met in the park. In retrospect they probably shouldn’t have asked, but if they were going to run into each other every night, it seemed like it would be less awkward if they had some way of referring to one another. Furthermore, the name, though somewhat ridiculous, was oddly befitting of the impish youth who appeared to them in the woods. Probably a drama kid, Elliott noted.

“I’m Elliott,” they replied. 

“Nice to meet you, officially,” said Puck. The two returned to watching the smoke in silence. Eventually Elliott began to get cold, since they’d dressed for vigorous exercise and were now sitting still. 

“I should get back to my run,” they said. “You be careful getting home,” they added for good measure. 

“I’ll be fine. I’m just going to stay until the candle burns down,” Puck explained. 

“Alright, well, see you,” said Elliott, and with that they began jogging back down the hill. 

***

After their post-run shower, Elliott found themself rummaging through their desk drawers for a pack of incense they’d bought at some point in college. At that time they’d hoped to use it to cover up some of the unsavory aromas produced by their then-roommate, but had found the scent a little too strong, and so after using one stick, the rest of the packet had been abandoned to the recesses of… somewhere. 

Had they thrown it away? It was possible — there’d been a great purging of things after graduation, when they’d moved into their current studio. Elliott was, in most respects, a bit of a minimalist, though they didn’t consider themself to be one. The day-to-day battle against the ever encroaching forces of clutter gave them the feeling that they were something of a hoarder, even as it drove them to an increasingly austere lifestyle. 

After sifting through the better part of their apartment, they finally found the incense in a box of some of their college things, which had been on a shelf in the closet. The scent of amber was a dead giveaway as soon as they opened the box, and they recoiled from it on reflex before triumphantly fishing it out from between a binder of their essays and a stack of old notebooks. 

When they left for their next run, it was with the package of incense, rather than the customary dog biscuits. There was something about the kid’s nightly vigil that made them think they could use a friend, or maybe a mentor — somebody who could generally be a  good influence. Elliott had no real qualifications in this area, but at least they could bring their own incense in a show of solidarity. 

On top of the hill Puck had already taken his place under the same oak tree, where he knelt in the flickering light of a candle, his eyes closed as shadows danced across his face. He looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps and his face broke into a grin as Elliott proffered the package of incense. 

“You brought your own,” he observed, the amusement obvious in his voice.

“Yeah, well, I’ve had it for years and I doubt I’ll ever use it again. You want it?”

“Don’t you want to stay and light a stick?” Puck asked, and Elliott had to admit that they did. 

“Alright,” they said, and used the burning candle to light the stick. “So do you like… pray, or meditate, or something?”

“Or something, I guess.”

Elliott began to wonder if maybe they’d misread the situation. The way the kid had appeared to them, hiding in the shadows, sunken into his faded black hoodie, had made him seem troubled. Now that he was demonstrating a confidence that Elliott themself lacked, they had to wonder if they hadn’t been projecting their own — yet unrealized — emotions onto him. Were they really so lonely that they were trying to hang out with a teenager?

The incense nearly burnt down, they stood to go, offering the remainder of the package to Puck again. The boy didn’t take it.

“Why don’t you come light another tomorrow?” he asked, his previous air of friendly mocking giving way to sincerity. Maybe Elliott had been right to begin with. 

“Oh… alright,” they agreed. Puck smiled. 

“See you then.”

And so began Elliott’s new routine, or perhaps it would be more fitting to call it a ritual.

 

Elliott had only just gotten back to running after their fall, and now a new wrench had been thrown into the delicate machinery of their routine. If variety is the spice of life, then Elliott had a bland palate indeed. Needless to say, they weren’t excited about the prospect of being chased again, but after a few more missed runs, they started to feel like they were about to succumb to cabin fever. 

It being autumn, the nights were only getting longer and darker, and due to their work schedule, they no longer had the option of running during daylight hours during the week. They didn’t want to give up running, though, so in a moment of desperation they formulated a plan: they would befriend the dog. 

They stopped by the grocery store and picked up some dog biscuits on their way home from work one evening. As an afterthought, they also picked up a small can of pepper spray on a keychain, just to be on the cautious side. That evening before they stepped out for their jog they slipped this and a couple of biscuits into the pockets of their running shorts.

They reasoned that if they ran into the dog, the food would probably distract it long enough for them to get away. It might even convince it that Elliott would be a more stable long-term food supply if it didn’t try to eat them immediately. Fortunately they didn’t have to test this plan, because their run went uninterrupted, and they eventually returned home still in possession of the biscuits, as well as a general feeling of foolishness. 

It went the same way the following night, only this time they decided to leave the treats, reckoning that they were probably getting stale. They placed them on the ground a little ways off from the trail at the top of the hill, near the underbrush where they’d first seen the animal. Once again their run home went without incident.

On the third night Elliott once again set out with a dog biscuit in their pocket. As before, they made it to the hilltop without a sighting of the animal, only this time as they began their descent, they happened to look back over their shoulder. In the dark of the evening they could just make out the shape of the dog — a darker spot within the darkness.

Elliott froze. The dog didn’t move, but simply stood at the top of the hill observing them. The two stood watching each other for over a minute before Elliott worked up the nerve to take the biscuit out of their pocket and toss it into the bushes behind the dog as a diversion. 

Once again, the dog didn’t move, and so the standoff continued a minute longer before Elliott dared to take a step backwards. When this elicited no reaction they ventured another, and then another. They proceeded to walk backwards halfway down the hill, not wanting to turn their back or run, for fear of being chased.

 Eventually the dog turned back, vanishing into the shadows, and a moment later Elliott heard the distinctive crunching of a biscuit being eaten. This was the opportunity they’d been waiting for, and at last they turned and sprinted out of the park as fast as they could. They made it home without another sighting, and in record time.

The next night the dog was already waiting for Elliott when they reached the hilltop. Naturally they were still apprehensive, but they did their best not to panic as they placed the treat on the ground, taking care not to make any sudden movements. For its part, the dog made no move to approach them, but sat watching from the shadows until they stepped away. 

Elliott watched as it came slinking out of the darkness towards the biscuit, its tail twitching once or twice in appreciation as it began to eat. They sensed that any danger the animal might have posed had passed, now that they seemed to have forged an understanding. As they began the jog home it was with a curious new sense of fondness for the dog.

As this routine went on night after night, Elliott began to consider the possibility of adopting the dog. Given that it was always roaming the park at night they assumed it was a stray, though stray dogs weren’t common in this area. It also seemed unusually healthy for a stray, though they’d only seen it in darkness. It didn’t appear to be malnourished at any rate, and its coat was thick and glossy. 

They might have been projecting, but there was something in the silent, watchful nature of the animal that appealed to them, too. It always waited politely for them to put the food out, never begging or jumping at them, as some of the poorly trained dogs they’d known tended to do. All in all it seemed like it would make an excellent pet — they just couldn’t understand how it didn’t already belong to someone. 

Finally there came a night when, having set out the usual offering of a biscuit, Elliott remained kneeling on the ground by it, waiting for the dog’s approach. The stray seemed wary at first, but eventually grew bolder and, with great caution, approached Elliott who held out a hand for it to inspect. The dog sniffed it once or twice, then slowly lowered itself to the ground.

Elliott’s heart raced as they carefully extended their hand towards the dog, which held perfectly still, watching them. As their hand approached its face, they stopped to allow it to sniff them once more, and to their surprise it gave their hand a single lick. Taking this as encouragement, they reached the last few inches to pet the dog’s head. Its fur was soft and smooth, and surprisingly cool from the night air, though he could feel heat radiating from the animal’s body beneath. 

The stray accepted this affection, though it didn’t appear particularly interested in more. Elliott decided not to push their luck and withdrew their hand, at which point the dog got to its feet and proceeded to eat the biscuit. Elliott was growing cold from lack of movement in their thin running clothes, and so they began the journey home, telling themselves that before winter they would adopt the stray. They didn’t know then that something else entirely was in store for them.

a dog sits in the middle of a road on a rain night, silhouetted by a street lamp

It was a dark and moderately stormy night — at least it was rainy and somewhat windy. Not exactly the kind of storm you’d harness in order to reanimate a corpse into a metaphor for man’s obsession with conquering death, but storms exist on a spectrum, and they don’t all have to be that dramatic. It was, however, exactly the kind of damp autumn evening when a slight misstep might set off a chain of events which would nearly put an end to life as we know it. 

Elliott was running, enjoying the feeling of the wind in their hair, which fell over their brow in floppy brown curls. They had run cross-country in high school and college, and while they’d never been a track star, they had built up enough stamina for running to be easy and enjoyable. 

There was a route they liked to take through a nearby neighborhood with a large park. The park had a long, steep hill, and they had their route planned so that by the time they got to the base of the hill they’d be all warmed up. The hill overlooked the town of Madrona, Washington, and they found the view was good motivation to keep going up the steep incline, though after a few months of this routine it had ceased to feel difficult. 

With summer over, the rains which would last all of winter and into the spring had set in. Soon after, the leaves began to fall. This made the descent from the wooded hill treacherous, as it was often slick with wet leaves. It was under these conditions that a minor accident changed Elliott’s life.

They usually made three laps around the park, in order to get some good hill training in, since it was the only part of the run that still felt at all challenging. They’d done their first round without incident, and were just coming over the crest of the hill on the second lap when their foot hit a patch of wet leaves in the dark.

“Oh god!” they yelped as they hung briefly in mid-air like a cartoon coyote, before gravity took hold and they plummeted to the ground.

As they lay on the path trying to catch their breath, they took stock of their injuries. Their ankle hurt a bit, but didn’t seem to be sprained or broken, and while their right knee ached something fierce where it had hit the paved walkway, a quick visual assessment showed that it was just badly scraped. 

They sat there in the dark for a few minutes longer, feeling grateful that nobody had seen what had likely been a rather undignified looking fall. Elliott was a slim person, with long limbs, which could give them either the appearance of grace or, more often, that of a baby giraffe learning to walk. The lack of witnesses was only a small comfort though, and they couldn’t help feeling sorry for themself, all alone as they were in this moment of minor distress.

They sat in stunned silence and watched the blood trickling down their leg from the scrape, only to bead at the back of their calf and fall to the ground.

Drip. Drip. Drip. 

They were still being rained on, and the high from their run was wearing off, along with their body heat. Sighing, they picked themself up and began limping back home. They were definitely going to be sore in the morning. 

***

As expected, Elliott’s knee was quite stiff by the following day, and so to their annoyance, they decided to take a few days off from running while they dealt with the inflammation. They’d always been irked by disruptions to their routine, but they’d learned from their years spent on cross country teams that runners who continue to run while injured are only setting themselves up for more injuries in the future. With this in mind, they begrudgingly spent the next few evenings watching videos and reading forums, trying to ease their restless mind. 

It was only three or four days before they were sufficiently healed to go running again, and the weather was still damp. Not being a complete fool, this time when they got to the crest of the hill, they decided to slow their pace and just walk back down, rather than risk slipping on the wet leaf sludge which still lingered on the path. 

They had only just begun the descent when they were startled by something moving in the shadows. Eliiott’s shoulders tensed as some primitive part of their brain was activated. This part of their brain was keenly aware that humans were not actually at the top of the food chain.

Frozen in place, they peered into the darkness off to the side of the trail, hoping it wasn’t a coyote or mountain lion, or any other wildlife large enough to cause them grievous bodily harm. When the movement started up again, this time joined by a clear rustling sound, their legs suddenly remembered how to move, and they jumped back in alarm.

Without thinking they bolted down the hill, forgetting all previous concerns about falling. To their horror, when they looked over their shoulder they saw that something was following them just off to the side of the trail. They didn’t have time to get a good look, but from its silhouette it seemed to be a good-sized animal, and they internally kicked themself for ignoring all the reports they’d heard about urban wildlife sightings. 

Elliott full-out sprinted all the way back to the apartment, not stopping until they reached the door. They looked back once again as they fumbled for their key, expecting to see a rabid stray come tearing around the corner after them at any moment, but to their relief, no such thing happened. With shaking hands they slotted the key into the lock and opened the door, stumbling over the threshold. 

As they turned to shut the door behind them, they were surprised to see a stationary figure down at the end of the block, silhouetted by the streetlight. It was the animal they’d seen — now they could clearly see that it was not a mountain lion, but definitely a canid of some sort. At this distance they still couldn’t tell if it was a coyote or a dog, and as it didn’t seem intent on coming any closer, they took a moment to study it.

It was sitting completely still in the middle of the street, showing no signs of panting from the exertion, unlike Elliott. Its long, triangular ears were held erect above its head, reminding them of the fairytale line, “my what big ears you have.” 

The animal suddenly cocked its head to the side, as if to respond the better to hear you with

Elliott slammed the door and ran all the way up the stairs to their apartment. 

a dog sits in the middle of a road on a rain night, silhouetted by a street lamp