THE HOUNDING by Sandra de Helen, available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.
CHAPTER ONE: The Hounding
CILLA CAN’T SEEM to shake the nightmare. She almost gives up her daily run rather than face the possibility of meeting those dogs in real life. Dogs are reality for every marathon runner, and each runner finds a way to deal with them. But for Cilla, the fear of being attacked runs so deep she feels it is part of her genetic makeup.
She jerks awake at 5:37 a.m. the sky barely light as she sits up, shaking, sweating, her heart pounding as she listens for the heavy breath, the pounding footsteps that haunt her awake.
Breakfast, newspaper, even the Today Show doesn’t erase the feeling that the giant hound is waiting for her around the next corner.
Finally she dons her running gear and sets out, determined to do her eight miles anyway. The Portland Marathon is seven weeks away, and Cilla intends to achieve her personal best. She adds a light windbreaker to her outfit, tying it loosely around her waist by the sleeves, because even though the calendar says August second, the temperature at ten a.m. is only fifty-one degrees.
As she crosses Highway 43 at Glenmorrie Road and starts the three point one mile trek that becomes Old River Road, Cilla breathes one small sigh of relief. She knows this stretch of road like no other. This is the one she includes on every run, every walk, and every bicycle ride. This beautiful road along the Willamette River has more trees and fewer dogs per square foot than any other property she knows.
Oh sure, there are houses, particularly at the beginning and end of the road. And yes, homeowners have dogs, but for some reason not so many dogs, and so far, she hasn’t hurt any of them.
Cilla always carries a pocket-sized can of mace and an umbrella, for the express purpose of warding off dogs. She read somewhere that letter carriers open automatic umbrellas in the faces of their canine foes and the dogs back up or run away. She tried it a few times herself and the element of surprise gave her enough lead-time to run away.
The sky is overcast. The low clouds and tall trees seem to enforce a certain silence. Cilla’s breathing is the loudest sound she hears. Her feet hit the ground rhythmically, one two, one two. She breathes in for four counts, out for four. Her thoughts seem to float just ahead of her, pulling her onward, coaxing her step-by-step, mile after mile.
As she reaches the eight-mile marker on Old River Road, she is halfway through her training run. Tomorrow she will run thirteen. Today is an easy day. She can feel herself begin to relax. Her breath, still keeping the beat, comes into her lungs a little easier. The ground isn’t quite so hard as it was a moment ago.
In the distance she hears a car door open. There are no houses for another half mile, either the sound carried along the river, or someone is parked somewhere ahead, probably enjoying the quiet.
Now Cilla hears the pounding footsteps, the heavy slobbering breath of her nightmares. She stops for a second to hear which way the sound is coming from. At the same time, she readies both mace and umbrella. The dogs are coming toward her. She whirls and begins retracing her path.
They are coming too fast. She piles on the energy, grateful for her years of running, proud of her ability to create bursts of speed when needed.
The hounds begin to bark. They see her. She glances over her shoulder. There is a pack of them. Big ones, small ones. Mutts, hounds, she can’t tell. Adrenaline shoots through Cilla’s body like lightning. She knows she cannot outrun these dogs for any great distance. She heads for the river. She feels sure she can out swim them, and doubts their ability to attack while in the water.
Cilla slides and falls down the embankment toward the Willamette. Damn! A barbed wire fence. She stands up, desperately hanging onto her weapons, steps on the bottom wire, and prepares to step over the top one. The wire snaps and the barbs from the top wire rip through her pants, tearing her flesh and causing her to cry out. As she bends to crawl between the wires, one of the dogs leaps onto her back, bites into the back of her neck and begins to shake her head viciously from side to side.
The powerful jaws of a terrier snap into her left side with a terrible force. Cilla fights for her life. She sprays the mace as best she can, pops open the automatic umbrella, and waves them both in the direction of the canines. She knows that some dogs are rumored to fight for hours, but she has the experience of years of nightmares, of horrible fantasies and planning how she will escape should she ever actually be attacked by her greatest enemy. She can’t believe it is actually happening, yet the pain is excruciating and she feels herself fighting to stay conscious.
When the canines refuse to succumb to the mace, and merely rip the umbrella skin from its ribs, Cilla drops the weapons and tries desperately to pull herself through the fence, not aware that the barbs are by now embedded in the palms of her hands. The first dog continues to shake her by the neck, the next is barking, snapping, tearing flesh from her leg. She can’t see it, but she can smell the hot blood intermingled with the scent of the dogs’ bodies and breath, and the fresh green smell of the undergrowth only inches beneath her nose.
She struggles beyond human strength to shake them free and at last manages to rid herself of the first one. Then, from somewhere far away, she hears a low buzzing sound. The dogs hear it too. They stop their attack and run away. Cilla disengages herself from the barbed wire, stands up and begins to survey the damage. A wave of dizziness causes her to sway, and a crushing pain hits the middle of her chest.
As she becomes aware that she is losing the battle for consciousness, Cilla thinks that in spite of the pain, in spite of the horror, the actual reality was not as bad as her fears, because she felt proud of her fight, and comforted by the approaching darkness.
The last thing Cilla ever hears is the sound of a car door slamming shut.