Story art by SvedOliver.
From the author: A father seeks the perfect companion for his daughter at a pet store that caters to unusual clientele.
The shop smelled like rotten eggs, and Dale wrinkled his nose as the door shut behind him. The place wasn’t like any pet store he’d ever seen. There were no cages filled with frolicking puppies and kittens, no aquariums sporting colorful fish, and no soft screeches and chirps of parrots and finches. It was empty; little more than a bare concrete room. The single note of color was a red door behind a long counter against the far wall.
An odd symbol had been scrawled on the floor in fading white chalk: a big circle with a five-pointed star in the middle. Dale found he didn’t want to step in that circle. To his relief, there was enough room to move around it.
Dale approached the counter. “Hello?”
The smell, the weird symbol, and the shop’s emptiness were starting to unnerve him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the post-it note Dr. Malphas gave him. She’d written an address and three words: Friend for Abby. This was the address. It had been difficult to find, in an area of town he’d never visited, had never known existed.
“Is anyone here?” he said. This time he heard muffled footsteps, and he took a step back. The red door opened, revealing darkness beyond, and disgorged a stink so revolting he slapped a hand over his mouth and turned away.
“Can I help you?”
Dale whirled back to the counter. A woman in a white dress stood behind it. She had long black hair, pale skin, and dark, almond-shaped eyes. Her age was difficult to determine. She could be eighteen or thirty.
The smell had faded and Dale took his hand away from his mouth. He held out the post-it note. “Uh, yeah,” he said. “Dr. Malphas sent me . . .”
The shopkeeper smiled. Her lips were very red. “Of course. She said you would be coming.”
“It’s about my daughter,” he said. “She needs a new pet. Something a little more . . . resilient than a dog or a cat.”
“I understand completely, Mr. Richards.”
“She doesn’t mean to hurt them,” Dale said, not really knowing why he was giving this woman so much information. “But puppies and kittens are so fragile.”
The shopkeeper placed one long-fingered hand on Dale’s forearm. Her skin was cold and smooth. “You don’t have to explain. Dr. Malphas told me all I need to know.”
Dale nodded. “Oh,” he said, surprised. What else had the doctor had told this woman about Abby? “So you’re a pet store?”
“Of sorts,” the woman said. “We cater to very special clients with very special children, like you and Abby.”
“I don’t see any cages,” Dale said.
“We keep a very limited stock, but I have just the thing for Abby.”
Dale smiled. “Really? Oh, that would be great. Her fits are always better when she has something to play with.” He was afraid to hope, but Dr. Malphas had been right about everything else.
“Step around the counter, Mr. Richards.” The shopkeeper opened the red door. The stink returned, but it didn’t bother him as much. If this woman could help Abby, he could put up with a little stench. He followed the woman into a small dark room that held a big cage, the kind you might keep a wild animal in, like a tiger or a bear. There was something in the cage, but it was too dark to see clearly.
“One moment,” the shopkeeper said. White light flooded the room from an overhead fixture, and Dale gasped at the sight of the thing in the cage. It lay on its side, its massive head turned in his direction. At first, he thought it might be a dog, but it was too big. Plus, the horns, the burning red eyes, and the shark-like teeth all added up to something very much not a dog.
“Jesus,” Dale said and instantly felt the shopkeeper’s icy grip on his arm, painfully tight.
“That is not a name I like to hear in my shop, Mr. Richards,” the woman said, her voice tight, angry.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. Abby didn't like that name either. “What is that thing?”
“A pet for a very special child,” she said. Her smile returned.
“It’s a little big."
“Look closer." The shopkeeper pointed one long finger.
He stepped closer to the cage and saw there were several small, squirming shapes in the straw beneath the beast, nuzzling at its belly. Dale realized with mingled disgust and delight the squirming things were the creature’s young.
“I can have one of the, uh, puppies for Abby?”
“You can,” the shopkeeper replied. “It will weather your daughter’s affections quite well. When it is grown, it can protect her from those who might wish to harm her.”
Dale nodded, remembering the priest at the hospital when Abby was born. He’d thrown a fit about the birth mark on Abby’s arm, and the police had removed him. There had been others, doctors mostly, a few neighbors. They’d had to move several times.
“I’ll take it,” Dale said. “What do I owe you?”
He felt the woman’s cool touch on the back of his neck and shivered. Her voice was in his ear. “Nothing, Mr. Richards. Just keep her safe. All will be repaid when she is ready.”