Frank Lytell eyed the two girls standing in front of the cooler, fully aware that they knew exactly what they wanted. The only reason they were keeping the cooler door open was so they could take advantage of the frigid air that was supposed to be keeping his meagre selection of drinks cool. If they didn't shut the door soon, he thought testily, the drinks would soon be room temperature, and there would be no point in anyone purchasing them.

"It's so hot," one of the teens complained, pushing damp blonde curls off her forehead. Sweat trickled down her neck, dampening her scandalously small tank top. Frank shook his head. What was her mother thinking, letting her out of the house in that getup? Even if the temperatures remained in the upper nineties, as they had for the past week, it was still no excuse for dressing in such a tawdry manner. Glancing down at his own permanently wrinkled pants, stained undershirt, and light cotton dress shirt, he nodded in approval. He might not be the picture of fashion, but he was decently covered. A concept that the current generation of youth seemed to disdain.

"I know," her counterpart agreed. She, at least, had the decency to pretend to examine the selection of drinks. Not that there was much other than the standard soda flavours. People nowadays didn't mind making the longer trip into Sleepyside for their impulse purchases, and he'd been forced to limit his stock. "I keep hoping to find strawberry pop," the second girl said wistfully, moving a few of the bottles in what Frank presumed was a bid to locate that one elusive bottle.

Not that she would find it, of course. He hadn't stocked strawberry pop in years.

"Don't be silly," the first blonde chided, darting a glance at the owner of the store. "Mom says Old Man Lytell hasn't stocked it since she was a teenager."

Frank pressed his lips together at the unflattering appellation.

"Shh!" her sister cautioned, snagging two bottles of root beer and letting the door (finally!) swing closed. "He'll hear you!" she hissed, and Frank didn't know whether to bless or curse the hearing aid that allowed him to catch every word of the irritating conversation. "Mom says he's an old, grim man, and that we shouldn't irritate him."

"Grim?" the other girl hooted, placing the cool bottle on the nape of her neck and closing her eyes as she sighed in relief. "More like grumpy," she complained. "I mean, have you ever seen him smile?"

The girls turned to stare at him, each one's motion mirroring the other's so perfectly that there was no doubt that they were twins.

How Trixie Belden had ended up with twin daughters was beyond him. He'd always thought it had been the Lynch family that was rife with twins. It was even more amusing that both of them were the spitting image of what Trixie, and, truth be told, Helen, had looked like at the same age. Thank God only one of them had inherited Trixie's brash and bold nature. The other twin was much more like the Wheeler girl who had been friends with Trixie two decades earlier.

It was bad enough that Trixie still lived in the area, and that she'd had the gall to procreate. If both of her daughters took after her… He shook his head. There were some things it was best not to think about.

"You planning on buying those?" he demanded gruffly, frowning in their direction.

"Of course!" one of them (the non-Trixie clone, obviously) said brightly. Smiling, she placed the correct change on the counter and motioned for her sister to follow her out into the muggy misery of the outdoors. "Thank you, Mr. Lytell," she said sweetly as she pushed her sister along.

The first twin opened the door, and Frank could practically feel the humidity level in the store rise. Honey-twin exited the store immediately, but Trixie-twin (as he'd taken to calling them, seeing as how he couldn't remember their names no matter how many times they were written up in the local paper) turned back to face him, a thoughtful expression on her face.

"I don't care what anyone says," she told him flatly. "You're not grim, or weathered, or stoic, or any of the other words that Uncle Mart uses when we talk about you. You're a grumpy old man, and that's all you'll ever be." Her words should have sounded rude, but they were spoken in such a matter-of-fact way that it sounded more like a clinical observation than an unflattering assessment of his character. Head cocked to the side, her gaze drifted over his stooped figure, and she speculated, "If you're not careful, you'll die alone. Alone and unloved." With a small frown she spun on her heel to exit through the still open door, nearly tripping over the sill.

He heard Honey-twin hiss, "I can't believe you said that!" as the door slammed shut behind Trixie-twin, but the words barely registered.

Of course he would die alone and unloved. Why would anyone expect him to die any other way than how he'd lived?

Stupid kids.

Stupid meddling kids.

Stupid meddling smart-mouthed kids.

The bell over the door jingled, and Frank looked up sharply expecting to see Trixie-twin returning for a second parting shot. Instead, he saw a firmly closed door, and a shadow on the other side of it. He squinted, impatiently trying to make out the form. As much as he hated the door opening and closing so much in this unbearably hot weather, he wasn’t in a position to turn away sales, either.

When the door stayed closed and the shadow remained still, Frank sighed and made his way out from behind the counter. He walked past the cooler, the shelves filled with dusty products, the barrel of peanuts, and still the door didn't open. He squinted through the fingerprints on the glass of the door, but what he'd thought had been a shadow seemed to dissipate before his eyes.

Frowning, he took a grimy handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at the lenses of his glasses. When he settled them back on his nose, the front stoop was empty.


A heat illusion, he told himself as he walked home. What were they called? Mirages? Yes. It must have been a mirage. As the sweat trickled down his back, he thought fleetingly of Belle. She'd been gone for years, but he still missed her. Hadn't had the heart to replace her. No, they'd been perfect together, he and Belle. Two old, rejected beings that were only of use to each other.

She'd been good company, he remembered. Never critical. It was more than he could say for most of his customers. Or himself, for that matter.

He regulated his breathing carefully as he walked along the path. Doc Ferris was forever telling him that he ought to wear one of those medic alert contraptions so that he could notify someone if he felt his heart go out. Frank snorted. For the amount of time it would take someone to find him, as far out from Sleepyside as he was, there was no point in paying for the silly thing. It would just give him false hope, should his heart give out.

Better to accept death when it came. Or at least not hope for anything better.

After all, he wasn't a young man. He'd seen more than one generation grow up, as attested to by the last customers of his day. Four generations of Beldens he'd known personally.

Some days he was convinced that was three generations too many.

"Evening, Frank."

Frank looked up and saw that Peter Belden had rounded a bend in the path and was walking toward him, his perpetual, friendly smile firmly in place. A mid-sized dog trotted obediently beside him, stopping as soon as his master did.

"Not one of Reddy's descendants, I assume," Frank said wryly, and Peter Belden laughed.

"No, he's much too well-behaved to be related to Reddy," he agreed. "This is one of the dogs trained by the students at Jim's school."

Frank nodded, thinking of the school on the Frayne property. He didn't see much of the students since they were allowed off campus only on special days, but he often saw evidence of the work they did maintaining the preserve. And, of course, the school seemed to be forever in the newspaper.

With the fleeting thought that he'd have no idea what was going on in the community without the rag owned and operated by Paul Trent, Frank shifted his weight from one foot to the other and wondered if he really shouldn't look into taking his old jalopy to work more often. He'd always prided himself on walking, but some days, especially when it was so terribly hot…

"I'll be by the store tomorrow with some jam for you," Peter continued. "Helen insists."

Frank felt his eyes narrow. The offer smacked of charity, and he'd be damned if he allowed that. Still, Helen had been sending him jam for years. It probably didn't mean anything.

"Fine," he grunted. "That'll be fine."

Deciding that his daily quota for civilized interaction had been filled, Frank continued down the path, ignoring the fact that even walking at a slow pace seemed to wind him.

It was the humidity, of course.

The air in front of him shimmered, a mass of... black. It didn't last long, but Frank stared at the place he'd seen it for long moments. The notion that the mirage was forming a specific shape niggled at the edge of his mind, but he cast aside the thought almost immediately. It was ridiculous, that's what it was.


He'd never known the walk through the preserve to take so long. It didn't help that he had to stop every ten steps to catch his breath, of course. He thought fleetingly of the dog that had heeled so obediently for Peter Belden, and wondered if he shouldn't look into acquiring one of the Frayne Academy dogs for himself. No animal could replace Belle, of course, but a dog might make the walk to the General Store a little easier.

He caught a flicker of movement in the trees beside him and stopped. He'd walked these paths long enough to grow accustomed to the usual animals. Squirrels, rabbits, even a fox or two had made his walks interesting over the years. He could instantly tell that this animal was many times larger than any of the small varmints he generally encountered. Not a deer, though. This animal was darker, denser.

As if responding to Frank's unspoken desire for a better look, the black shape stepped out of the woods and onto the path. Frank stood still, staring at the black dog.

It was huge. Easily three times the size of the Beldens' new dog.

And solid. One look at the beast and he knew that he'd be no match for it if it attacked in any way.

Still, it didn't appear as if it intended to attack. It merely stood on the path, allowing Frank to look his fill.

"Hello," he said softly. "What's this?" Had one of the dogs from Jim's school escaped? It certainly didn't appear to be a stray…

The dog looked back at him, his expression curiously knowing. This was no tail-wagging, happy-go-lucky excuse for a dog, Frank realized. It was calm. Almost unnervingly so.

He hesitated, wondering if he ought to keep walking. Would movement galvanize the beast into action? It wasn't a risk he was eager to take. He considered waiting the animal out (surely it would get bored?), but something told him that the animal was infinitely more patient than he.

"Well?" he finally said, speaking as if the dog could understand him. "What now? Are you planning on coming home with me?"

The notion didn't seem as ridiculous as it would have even one day ago. Something about this dog was… comforting. He was solid. Without thinking, Frank reached out a hand. The dog moved toward him instantly, and before he quite realized what had happened, his hand was resting on the animal's back.



Still, he wasn't quite sure that he liked the way that the dog looked at him. Not as if he were going to attack. No, he looked at him as if he knew something that Frank didn't. Well, he thought, tentatively relaxing and allowing a little of his weight to rest on the dog's back, that could be any number of things.

Frank took a step forward, and so did the dog. It was easier, he realized, to walk when he had something to help him balance. Probably he should have found a walking stick years ago. Somehow, though, he had a feeling that a walking stick wouldn't respond to his every move as smoothly as the dog did. It was kind of like walking on a cloud, he thought, and then chided himself for his fanciful thinking. The heat wave had obviously addled his thoughts.

Step after step they walked down the path, and Frank realized that he hadn't needed to stop to rest in a long while. Which didn't make sense, not really. He'd been walking for what felt like forever. Shouldn't he have reached the edge of the preserve?

When the dog slowed his pace, Frank discovered that he'd been putting more of his weight on the animal than he'd realized. When the dog slowed, Frank was forced to, as well. Try as he might, he couldn't muster the strength to walk on his own.

Well. They would make it to his house eventually. As long as they kept moving, he'd be fine.

It was sometime later when Frank realized that he was no longer moving. He could still feel the dog under his hand. In fact, he could feel the body of the dog underneath his entire body. Was he riding the dog? No. The trees around him were still. He was lying on the dog, staring up at the sky.

He turned and found himself looking into the eyes of the animal. It was the same knowing look that had unsettled him earlier. Now, though the dog had shown no signs of wanting to harm him, he felt his chest clench. His heart constricted painfully, and his eyes grew wide as he struggled to breathe.

Still the dog looked on.

Frank stared back, eyes bulging with the effort of drawing in air.

He grew dizzy from the lack of oxygen reaching his brain. The world around him began to grey, and the dog… The dog gave him one last look, one that Frank futilely hoped was sympathetic, and then the dog, too, became a black mist.

A lone howl echoed through the preserve.

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Author’s Notes

Happy Halloween!

I recently read Omens by Kelley Armstrong and was absolutely fascinated by the many omens that she described. I decided then and there that I *needed* to write an omen-related story for Halloween. And what better omen than the grim? A massive black dog that warns of imminent death. Really, could there be a more intriguing omen?

Grim is dedicated to the fabulous Mal, without whom I would never have rekindled my love of all things spooky. *hugs*

Thank you to MaryN for editing and graphicing. I just don't have the words to tell you how much I appreciate everything that you do. *hugs*

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. Story copyright by Ryl, 2014. Graphics copyright 2014 by Mary N.

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