When I was about ten years old, my family moved. We ventured to a semi-suburban part of Georgia, where my parents opted for one of the older neighborhoods rather than the newer clusters of uniform homes.
The neighborhood we selected—Ivy Cascades—possessed a haphazard layout, with the homes and roads built along the tops of deep ravines and steep hillsides. My parents settled on an older, two-story brick home situated at the top of one of those ravines.
I remember standing on our driveway, looking down that hill in wonder. It was one endless expanse of ivy, with thickets of underbrush, weeds, and trees clinging to the precipitous banks. I tried as hard as I could to make out the bottom, but it was lost in the green swirls of foliage.
As we moved everything into the home, I gradually gained more and more freedom as my parents found less use for their scrawny son. I turned to the family dog for entertainment. Dyson, our two-year-old Labrador retriever named after a vacuum brand, took to our massive yard with glee.
I hunted with my father, and we’d trained Dyson to live up to his breed. Though he got distracted from time to time, the robust lab never seemed to tire of romps through the trees. To placate my boredom, I took Dyson out to the driveway and found a red ball in the garage for him to fetch.
Together he and I made our way to the edge of the driveway.
“C’mon boy! What’s this? Wanna play? Wanna play?”
Dyson nosed my legs and spun in circles, his eyes fixated on the ball. I tortured him a moment longer by holding it aloft, pretending not to know what he wanted before a pitiful whine finally broke my cruelty. I launched the ball as far as I could and Dyson went after it, a bolt of yellow shuffling down the deep ivy slope.
My eyes stayed glued on the ball until it disappeared in the leaves. Never before had I thrown something so far or so high. I knew in reality it was the angle of the ravine, but still a sense of power swelled in my chest.
I waited for my loyal friend to return, eager to try it again. It took longer than expected, but eventually Dyson reappeared, ball in jaw, slowly clambering up the side of the hill. The ravine must’ve been deeper than I thought.
Once he crested the hill, he plopped onto one side, panting and happy. I eased the ball from his mouth and bounced it teasingly. He looked at me reluctantly, fighting between his desire to fetch and to loaf about. Eventually the retriever in him won out and he stood.
With glee, I whipped the ball hard and long into the green abyss and Dyson followed it. This time I watched the dog rather than the ball. The lumbering, yellow animal had all the stealth of a bulldozer as he tromped down the ivy hill, but eventually he was swallowed up once more.
I sat at the edge of the driveway, kicking my feet and enjoying the Georgia sun on my shoulders. It took a couple minutes longer this time around until I heard the rustles of my faithful lab trundling up the ravine again. He looked tired, but happy. A long, pink tongue poked out to one side of the ball as he picked his way up and reached the top of the incline.
I hugged him tight and spoke to him in a sappy voice, telling him what a good boy he was in the way my father did when he retrieved a bird. There were a couple of scratches along his snout and jowls, but I figured they were from thorns or branches. He dropped the ball in my lap and pushed his head against my chest, clearly wanting more of the same treatment. I indulged him for another minute, building up to what I wanted in return. I held up the ball on more time and he whined. Something almost human glinted in his brown eyes. Hesitancy, perhaps? Fear?
I didn’t listen. I should’ve, but I didn’t. I was ten years old, infused with the power of throwing a ball farther and longer than perhaps any ten year old preceding me. Dyson pressed his head to my chest again as I stood.
“C’mon, boy, just one more time,” I said, rubbing his ears. He wagged his tail a couple times, giving me enough reason to launch the ball once more.
Dyson followed after it loyally, navigating the ivy-laden terrain with impressive speed. I watched him go and sat down again to wait. The swirls of bright green leaves and deeper, emerald ivy soon drew me into a trance. They moved with the wind, relaxing me as I waited. I must’ve held that trance for fifteen minutes, zoning in and out of the world around me. A thud from behind me caught my attention. It was my dad, dropping a couple boxes in the garage before the door slammed behind him.
I shifted my weight nervously. Dyson still hadn’t returned. I waited for another ten minutes, then another five, then an extra ten to be safe, but there was no sign of him. There were a number of things I knew could have happened. When we went hunting there were always possibilities our dog would get distracted or injured. But this was a residential neighborhood, not the wilderness.
I went and got my dad. After explaining what happened, he told my mom to take me inside while he went looking. The thick vegetation would be difficult to navigate without the proper equipment, so he dressed in his hunting gear. My heart beat wildly as my mom tried to calm me, but I didn’t listen to her.
A sense of fear had been mounting in my chest. Not outright terror, but dread. Together, my mom and I waited for hours as my father combed the ravine and surrounding area. I could hear him tromping through the undergrowth, cursing on occasion as he slipped on dead leaves or some ivy. He found no sign of Dyson.
We all came to the same hopeful conclusion that he got distracted and wandered off. That a neighbor had found him and would call us soon, but I could tell my father shared my doubts. That lab was trained, loyal, and able-bodied on difficult terrain. Rubbing his eyes, my dad told us we’d continue to search tomorrow—put out flyers, talk to people. Though it would be difficult seeing as we’d just moved in.
By the time my father had returned, it was close to nightfall. We opted for an early dinner, which passed in dreary silence, and then an early night. I went to bed after kissing my parents goodnight. My dad held my back for a moment, reassuring me and telling me this wasn’t my fault. I suppose he thought it helped, but even at my age there was an awareness to these heavy situations where I knew some of the blame was mine.
Sleep did not come. My bedroom, which sat at the back corner of the house with a big window overlooking the ravine, waved with leafy shadows. I watched them, falling into a similar trance as earlier that day. Hours passed this time, but I didn’t care. The shadows were comforting in a way, just an endless sea of leaves.
I’m not sure when the scratching started, but I noticed it when my clock read 2:38. It was a feeble, pathetic sound, emanating from the base of my door. It sounded very much like someone was digging at it from the other side. I shivered and leaned over my bed to lower my eyeline with the space beneath the door. I could just make out something black scrabbling at the wood flooring. It dug with ferocity.
Gulping down my fear, I let my hope of Dyson’s possible return guide me to the door. I slipped across the room, feeling the shadows accompany my movements as I neared the door. Slowly, I grasped the door handle and yanked the door open to reveal…nothing.
An empty hallway with boxes cluttered at the other end and patchy spots of paint covering the wall. At the other end, the hallway dead-ended at a curving staircase, which led to the front door. My thin chest was pulsing as I lingered in the doorway of my room for any sounds. Part hope and part fear kept there, wanting it to be Dyson or for it to be nothing at all. Worst of all it could be something else. I heard the scratching again.
It came from down the hall. From down the stairs. Outside the front door. For a moment I considered just going back to bed, but guilt and longing for my dog lead me through that hall, down the stairs, and to the front door. This time I didn’t hesitate. I could hear the scratching at our door, clear as a bell. I grabbed the handle and yanked it open.
Nothing again. Just an empty stoop and a brick walkway leading off to the driveway. With a sigh, I shut the door and went back to my room. The adrenaline wore off pretty quick. My PJs were soaked with sweat, so I got changed before climbing back into bed. This time sleep came quite quickly.
Something awoke me at 5:42 in the morning. I wasn’t sure what. Outside it was a dark grey overcast with just the barest hints of sunlight creeping through. I didn’t hear scratching, or see shadows on my ceiling, or black things clawing at my door. It felt oddly surreal and tranquil. I slipped from my bed and got dressed. There was something I wanted to see.
I slipped into the garage and opened it from within. It slid open slowly, so I ducked under it. From there I ventured toward the edge of the ravine again and peered into it, trying to find the bottom. I wasn’t sure how far or deep my dad had ventured down there, but he’d been gone for hours. He didn’t know about the scratching, either. Why couldn’t my father, a lifetime hunter, find our big, yellow dog in the middle of a suburban neighborhood?
I tried to focus. My ten-year-old mind envisioned nothing but my father and my dog venturing down into the same ravine. Both were trained, both were comfortable in the wilderness, both had every reason to come home. Then a revelation hit me. Or at least the most logical solution a kid could think of. My dad had been searching for our dog, and our dog had been searching for a ball.
You didn’t look for dead things the way you did for the living. Yes, this dead thing was a ball, but a search for an inanimate object was more invasive than a hunt. My dad would’ve scanned the area for our dog, but Dyson, in his search for the ball, would’ve probed it. Invaded it with his heightened sense of smell. And he’d been successful the first two times. Something went wrong that last time. I had to discover what.
Rubbing my chin, I headed back to the garage and dug through a couple boxes until I found what I wanted: another rubber ball.
It was a long shot, even for a kid, but I could think of nothing else. Plus the sky above was an ominous grey, with shaggy clouds so dark they looked purple looming. I needed to do this now.
Treading back to the edge of my driveway, I tossed the ball in my slim hands. It was neon blue, so at least it would stand out. I took it in one hand, cocked my arm, and lobbed it down the slope. As it sailed down, I slid after it, skidding through thick tangles of ivy.
The ravine was deeper than I thought. Far deeper. At least five hundred feet of sheer, dead-leaf covered slope shrouded in a layer of foliage thicker than the cloud cover above. As I descended I noticed something else. The trees that grew along the ravine’s precarious edges darkened all that was beneath, leaving everything that grew sixty feet or more from the top in a perpetual twilight. It all looked stunted and gnarled, with stubbier trees and pitiful bushes fighting for the limited sunlight shining through their brethren.
I made the mistake of touching one of these trees, and pulled back to find its trunk slimy and moist. A black, oily substance coated my fingers. I had to keep from gagging as I reminded myself why I was here. There was a ball somewhere further down, so I kept on going.
As I delved further into the rotting depths of the ravine, I noticed that the only plant life that did not change was the ivy. It blanketed the slope in emerald tendrils, stealing its share of the light and choking other plants. More than once I saw trees absolutely covered by its infestuous dominance. The trees resembled giants, taken over by time and petrified under cloaks of ivy.
I kept searching for the ball, hoping to spot a spark of artificial blue in the world of undulating greens, browns, and blacks. The further I went, the thicker the ivy grew.
My method of descent was to press myself against the leaves and slip down little by little. My left foot was extended in front of me and the right remained hitched to the side of the hill. I continued to slide, feeling my way around and trying to ignore the ivy giants hunched over.
About halfway down, my left foot hit a deadfall—some leaves caked atop a cluster of roots—and it broke through before I realized I hit empty air. I tumbled forward, crying out, and slammed into the dirt hard. It didn’t hurt terribly, but the impact did knock the wind from my lungs. I sucked in a breath, gaping like a fish as I scrambled to my feet. A clod of mud and roots lodged itself in my hair, and I shook it free.
Something glinted in the corner of my eye. The ball. It lay nestled at the base of a large cascade of ivy, which draped downward like a curtain. I must’ve fallen off the top of the thing.
I reached forward to pick up the ball, but cut my finger on something sharp when I tightened my hand around it. Quickly I withdrew my hand, sucking on the finger and tasting the liquid as it seeped forth. Once I staunched the flow, I took a closer look.
Whatever cut me was metal, rusty, and curved. It seemed to follow straight up from the slope at a similar angle to the cascade of ivy. I guessed it was an old sewer opening, completely overgrown by ivy. A cold feeling of unease slithered down my back, similar to what I’d felt that night. Above a low peal of thunder echoed through the trees, but I would be damned if I headed back now.
Ever so carefully, I leaned forward and lifted one of the strands. Something dull and brown glinted back at mean, along with a sudden flash of yellow. I almost screamed until I realized it was my dog. I’d found him!
I leaned forward to give him a hug, but he growled softly, remaining absolutely still. I looked at his eyes. Something almost human resided there. His tail thumped softly, but the rest of him remained shrouded by ivy. I tentatively reached a hand forward and lifted another vine free. Dyson licked my hand once as I screamed and recoiled.
He lay on his side, a massive wound torn through his middle. The poor lab’s intestines were strewn out on the cruddy metal floor, snaking back into the darkness of the tunnel. My heart pulsed and my ears roared as blood rushed to my head. I almost threw up, but my dog, for the final time, gave me that almost human look. Just before something yanked on his guts and pulled him back into the darkness with an inhuman screech.
I sat there, babbling, pale, and cold. I had thrown a ball down that ravine three times, and he’d retrieved it every time. In spite of whatever resided in that sewer. I knew I had to get out of there, to get away. My lab warded me off with his growl, saved me. But I couldn’t move.
I peered into the darkness, tears flowing freely and mixing with the blood staining my hands. Then something bounced forward, out of the darkness. It was a ball. A red ball.
It was crusted in blood and two words were smeared along its surface.
Credit: Hayden Dalby
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