by Chris Dreith
A ghost story for your Halloween reading! This story was published on Barb Goffman Presents ebook line on Feb. 20, 2021 through Black Cat Weekly.
There is a fly buzzing around my nose. I twitch my mustache and it moves away, but it keeps coming back. I could catch it if I wanted to. Jump up and surprise it. But I don’t. Too tired. I just want to sleep a little longer.
Flies smell like grapes this time of year. Joanie always said flies are just a part of the Crush. When the grapes are harvested and crushed to make wine, flies love it. But I still don’t like them. Their constant hum, the way they bump into my face, I think their whole purpose is to irritate me.
Now it lands on my nose. I open one eye and watch the dang bug pop up and then settle back down. A low rumble rolls through my throat. I mean for it to be a growl, but it comes out a whine.
I form a plan. Joanie always laughed when she watched me form a plan. She said I think things through better than anyone at the winery. I slowly open my other eye. My muscles tighten. In a flash, I give my head a big shake, and SNAP! I catch that fly in my mouth and swallow.
Flies don’t taste like grapes. A little musky and a touch of dirt. Not bad. But not my favorite snack.
Might as well get up now. I stand, stretch my legs, lick my lips, and look around. The sky is changing from bright to dark. It’s my time to get to work. I’m security here, and I am the best. Joanie always said so.
My name is Robert the Bruce, after Scotland’s famous warrior king. I am a Scottish Terrier, a breed known to many as a “die-hard” because of our tenacity. I’m independent and rugged and too smart for some humans. Except Joanie, of course. She used to call me Bobby Brucie when we cuddled. I didn’t mind.
The winery has more buildings than when I was a pup. Big slabs of concrete and metal. Easy for me to sniff out perpetrators. I have an excellent nose and can tell if a mouse, rat, gopher, or coyote has been near and when. And of course, humans. Who can’t smell humans a mile away?
There is a light stuck on the top of a pole in the middle of the yard between the buildings. The winery humans turn it on when they leave each night. I don’t know why, but they seem to think it will keep away the bad things that come in the dark. I know that’s not true. Plenty of bad things come in the dark, and that little light isn’t going to stop them. Only I can. I’m security here, and I am the best.
Tonight, my usual routine takes me around the perimeter where I run off a couple of rats, surprise a family of mice burrowing under the walls (I can burrow better), and spook a flock of turkeys. No problem here. I check my pee-mail on the tall bushes and fence posts and leave some of my own for anyone who might want to check later. Then I venture through the vineyard and chase a deer just for the exercise.
We’ve had a bit of trouble with bats lately. They wait until dark and swarm in to eat the grapes. I’m always on the lookout for bats, but tonight I don’t smell any. A dark movement overhead glides by. I hear a soft hoot as the wind slips over feathers. I smell the red meat on the owl’s breath and the blood on his talons. Maybe that’s why the bats are gone. The owl and I have been a good team for quite a while now.
I’ve always loved the vineyard at night. Sometimes Joanie and I used to sneak out her window and lie down in the cool dirt and gaze up at the stars through the grape leaves—until that time a group of hungry raccoons showed up. I seem to remember something about screams, vines breaking, stitches at the vet’s, and Joanie’s dad making sure we didn’t sneak out at night again.
I amble along the rows, enjoying the aroma of the ripening grapes and the drying leaves. Suddenly my nose jerks my head to the side, and I catch a trace of human sweat and gasoline. I freeze and put my ears to work. Soft shuffling sounds and something being dragged through the dirt. My nose lifts so I can capture more scent. Three men, one smelling funky like old bread, the others like strong alcohol and not a good kind, like Petite Sirah. I’ve always liked Petite Sirah because Joanie did. She used to giggle when she said “Peetite.” It made my tail wiggle, but it’s not wiggling now, as I smell these men. There is a woman here, too, with oily dead-grass perfume that burns my eyes a little and will make me sneeze if I am not careful.
I follow my nose to the farthest edge of the vineyard next to a dirt road. I stand under hanging bunches of grapes and see two of the humans struggle to drag a bulky, rolled-up plastic tarp between the rows. My front paw is raised, and I’m ready to pounce, but I wait and watch. I made the mistake of chasing off a group of winery workers one time, when the new winemaker decided to do some night harvesting. The workers were so scared, none would come back in the dark, saying something about ghosts. I’m more cautious now, but these humans don’t look like they are here to harvest grapes.
The woman is having a difficult time climbing through the ravine at the side of the road. The bottom of her dress gets caught on the tall sticky weeds, so she pulls on it, and I hear the material rip.
“Damn,” she says.
Her perfume is starting to tickle the tiny hairs inside my nose. I stick my snout in the dirt and snort to clear it.
The two men gasp, looking wildly around. “What was that?” one whispers. I see the moon reflected in his eyes.
“Nothing! Keep going!” the woman growls. I am better at growling than she is, but she gave it a fairly good try.
The two men pull on the tarp again, but a corner gets stuck on the irrigation line and a shovel rolls out of the bundle. One stops to pick it up, and I hear a low moan from under the tarp.
“What the hell?” the woman screeches and hurts my ears. “I thought you said he was dead.”
One man bends down and pulls the edges of the tarp apart. A heavy whiff of the funky old bread hits me hard. It reminds me of the time when Joanie and I decided to get into composting. The pile was fun to run through, but that adventure didn’t end well, with me being sent to the groomers for the longest bath of my life and the compost pile getting an impregnable metal fence.
The tarp had been wrapped around the third man, like a burrito but not as tasty. I see a shiny piece of tape across his mouth and his eyes are open. The metallic scent of blood rolls across the ground to my nose. He groans again. One of the men raises the shovel above his head, ready to strike the man on the tarp, but the woman holds up her hand. “Not here, you idiot,” she hisses through her teeth. “Take him farther into the vineyard or someone could see the blood this close to the road.”
The two men drag the tarp through the rows of grapes again, the man inside bumping and bleeding. The woman walks behind and mutters into a cell phone she holds close to her ear. I follow.
I feel the air shift and hear the wind over feathers again. The owl is coming in close and low. One of the men ducks his head and drops the corner of the tarp.
“What was that?” he whispers and looks toward the stars. I know the owl is gone by now, but the human does not. He slowly kneels in the dirt and with one hand touches his forehead, his chest, and both of his shoulders. I hear him moaning and think he might be sick, but the other man does the same thing. They are both kneeling, mumbling with their hands covering their faces.
“Owwwww!” he cries and grabs the shovel as the woman tries to pull it away from him.
“You IDIOT!” she is screeching again, and I have had enough. I am lightning fast when I want to be. I leap onto the woman’s back and push her on top of the man with the broken shoulder and shovel. As they struggle to untangle, I latch onto the arm of the other man with my strong jaws and shake as hard as I can. He screams and rolls away under the vines. Like a bat out of hell, I turn back to the woman, grip a mouthful of hair, and drag her along a row, face down in the soft dirt. Her hair tastes like old shampoo, cigarettes, and sticky hair spray, so I spit it out. She spits out the soil and waves her arms like a crazy windmill, but I know she cannot reach me.
The broken-shoulder man is using his other arm to flap the shovel side to side, trying to hit me, but I know he cannot reach me either.
The other man who has my teeth marks embedded in his arm steps up just as the shovel is swung his direction. CRACK! And he goes down.
I hear the owl hoot in the distance. Yep. The owl is having as much fun as I am.
I see the woman’s cell phone. Its strange blue light is shining on the vines. I scoop it up in my mouth as I run circles around the humans. Round and round, faster and faster. They can hear me tramping on the leaves, crashing through the vines, but they can’t see me, only the strange blue light as it circles around them.
All three are screaming now. Noise like that can wake the dead. I stop and lie down, just to watch. I drop the cell phone and put my paw over the screen because that blue light is starting to make me dizzy.
I feel a funny tickle on my paw and see that the cell phone is shaking in the dirt. I push it with my nose and a tinny voice says, “Nine one one, what is your location?”
What is this? A low growl escapes me. “Are you in danger?” the tinny voice asks. “Do you need help?” Why is this cell phone asking me this? Doesn’t it know that I am security here and I am the best? Why would I need help from this little box? I growl again. “We have your location and are dispatching police immediately. Please do not hang up.” I growl my best growl and turn to watch the humans.
The three are huddled together now. I hear them crying and smell their salty tears and snot. One of them has peed a bit.
I might as well keep playing, so I crawl on my belly toward them. Joanie and I used to play hide-and-seek in the vineyard. Crawling on my belly was my best technique to sneak up on her. This has always been fun, but it’s a little exhausting. I’m breathing heavily and the humans can hear it. Just to keep the game going, I jump up and run toward them, veering off at the last possible minute and scooting back to the cell phone. A quick growl and I run like crazy, right past the humans this time, and spin around again. They felt the wind when I flew by, but they couldn’t see me. I’m loving this game!
Red flashing lights suddenly streak through the vines almost as fast as me. Sirens pierce my ears, so I stop the game and find a nice place to lie down, cover my ears, and watch.
Most of the screaming and crying stops, replaced with the three humans yelling at the police and each other. One man shows my teeth marks on his arm to a policeman who looks around, but of course, doesn’t see me. I enjoy watching.
A policeman has picked up the cell phone and is shining his flashlight on it. He shows it to a policewoman who holds open a plastic bag. He drops it in and wipes his hand on his pant leg. Could be drool. But maybe not.
Two humans roll a nice bed to the man in the tarp and give him a ride out of the vineyard. They have already removed the tape from his mouth, and he is talking about ghosts in the vineyard. The humans rolling him out laugh and shake their heads.
And then I see her. Joanie is walking through the vineyard from the winery buildings. She walks with a cane now and a younger version of her is steadying her as she comes toward me. I sit still.
The policewoman with the plastic bag meets Joanie and asks, “Do you have a watchdog here?”
Joanie’s helper shakes her head no, but I see Joanie looking out over the vines. A small smile is on her face. She knows I am a die-hard, and I will always be here for her. That’s all I need.
The sun is starting to come up now. My job is over for the night. I’ll just lie down for a while and take a little snooze. All is secure here. I am the best.
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