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I don’t remember much of how I got back up to my house. The clouds above broke with the force of a monsoon. Though the dense tree cover afforded some shelter, a good amount of it filtered through and soon I was drenched. I couldn’t care less.
Visions of my dog were burned into my retinas. His broken body, his gentle eyes, that thumping tail, the nest of pale purple innards going taught and yanking my dog away. And now the ball.
“Wanna play?” It was a taunt. Visceral and foreboding. Choking back a sob, I gathered the ball in my arms and began scrambling back up the embankment.
Somewhere in my mind, the sensible part of my conscience screamed bloody murder at me to get out of there. Whatever had done that to my dog was ravenous, predatory, and ruthless. I could do nothing against it now. I was nothing but a wiry kid who saw something no one should have to see. For once I listened to the logical part of my mind and got out of there like a bat out of hell.
As I scrambled up the embankment, sobbing and shuddering, I heard a sound I will never forget. The squish of teeth scissoring through flesh and the final whimpers of our beloved pet.
I was pallid by the time I broke free of the thick ivy. My black hair was a mop of tangles and mud, braided with twigs, leaves, and crusted blood. The ball was clutched under one arm. I had planned to show it to my parents, as proof of the monster that had ripped apart our dog, but the rain and my jacket had smeared it. I tossed it aside as I dashed into the garage, shouting for my parents.
It was half past 6 in the morning, around the time my parents usually got up. My dad, bleary eyed and dressed in a bathrobe, was the first to here me. He was pouring himself a cup of coffee and ended up drenching himself with it. His curses joined my cries as my mom pounded down the stairs. She was probably fixing herself up for another day of moving boxes, but now she charged into the kitchen, looking half prepared and half asleep.
When she saw my father clutching a burned hand and me huddled on a kitchen chair, sobbing, she almost laughed. Perhaps she thought something funny had happened. That I’d scared my dad when he was getting coffee by accident and now we were both reacting to a loud, uncertain situation. She was half right.
My mom is a wonderful woman, average height, shoulder-length brown hair, bright blue eyes, and always patient. When she realized the true gravity of the situation—namely by looking at the raw fear spread over my face, she kicked into high gear.
As I lay slumped over the dining table, she crossed the kitchen and dug out an ice packet for my father. Then she sat him at the sink, turned the faucet on at high blast, and told him to hold it there no matter how much of a mess it made. My father complied with a stream of gentle curses.
Then she turned to me. I felt her arms slip around my sides and pull me against her. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” she said softly.
“I-I… Dyson… I sa-saw something… terrible. D-Dyson. Down the hill. Dead. B-b-bleeding, monster, ate him, ivy!” The words wouldn’t come out in cohesive sentences. Instead they were a torrent of abstract sounds pieced together in a way that made my mom look to my dad with a “he’s in shock” expression.
“Sweetheart… we know you miss him. But he’s only been gone a day. You had a nightmare.” My mom stroked my hair, picking out the twigs and leaves. “Were you searching for him?”
I nodded and shuddered, my thin shoulders shivering under my jacket. She seemed to realize my clothes were soaked through and she added “delirium” to her list of reasons for my bumbling. She slid my coat off, then my shirt, and wrapped a towel around me.
All the while my dad watched from the sink, a thoughtful look on his face. His hand, which had minor reddening and one or two blisters, was already looking better. He flexed his hand as he looked at me. “I don’t think that’s shock, Karen. I’ve never seen him like this before.”
My mom nodded thoughtfully. “Well let’s make sure both of you are alright before we jump to conclusions.” She moved over to the refrigerator and began rummaging through our meager rations for breakfast stuff. My mom always did that. Filling in uncertainties with something comforting. In this case it was blueberry pancakes and orange juice. She sent me upstairs to get changed and bandaged my dad’s hand in gauze in the time it took for the first pair of pancakes to toast.
As I got changed, my heart rate decreased enough to feel somewhat normal, but the visceral images of my poor dog lingered. The memories were sharp as ever, yet mercifully surreal to a certain extent. I peered down into the green abyss for a moment, envisioning all the things it could hide. What could have done something like that to a family pet? Let alone a large one? And the ball…the most unnerving aspect of all. Whatever tore Dyson apart could write and it was sadistic enough to taunt a child.
I shook my head and headed back down to the kitchen where I at least had company.
My mom gave me a sympathetic look as I eased myself at the table. Outside the rain poured down with a vengeance, turning the world into an expanse of muted greens and silvers. I dug into the pancakes while my parents talked to one another in hushed tones.
Words like “disturbed, exhausted, young, shock, and frozen,” trickled through my mind, but it didn’t bother me. I was only ten. I had seen something gut wrenching to the point where even I questioned its existence, and adults had a way of rationalizing the words of a kid to the point where they could be easily discounted. I knew what I said was difficult to believe, but at the very least my father vouchsafed my explanation with a second look.
He wanted me to show him where I had seen Dyson. I gulped down a piece of pancake and reluctantly agreed. We waited for the rain to subside, and in that time I managed to convince my father to bring a gun in case there really was some sort of rabid animal. As a hunter, he was pragmatic enough to entertain the possibility of some sort of predator inhabiting the ravines.
My mom spent the time busying herself with the dishes and then continuing on projects around the house. That was something I noticed early on about my parents. My mom took difficult news like it was a chore, because that way she could turn it into something useful.
My dad was different. He a big, lanky guy who took difficult news in a somber way and mulled it over in his mind until he came to terms with it. When I fled up that hill and into the house, choking on my own sobs, there’d been a brief moment where he read the sheer panic on my face. He was thinking about what could scare a kid that bad. Only that pot of coffee burning his hand kept him from digging any further.
Now he flexed his burned hand and loaded a .410 pistol outfitted for shotgun slugs. It was meant as a deterrent for larger game that might charge us in the woods, but I wasn’t sure if anything could stop whatever could tear a full-grown lab open and drag him back with the ferocity I’d seen. And that ball…it flashed endlessly in my head as my dad slid five shells home.
‘Click.’ The ball rolled forward from the ivy.
‘Click.’ The reddish brown words burned into my retinas.
‘Click.’ “Wanna play?”
‘Click.’ “Wanna play?” “Wanna play?” “Wanna play?”
‘Click.’ My dad chambered the final round and slid the cylinder home.
“Ready, bud?” He gave me a small grin. There was stubble on his face and rings under his eyes.
“Yeah,” I said reluctantly, a shudder catching in my chest. I almost told him about the ball, but remembered it was blood-free now. If I mentioned it, my dad would probably just leave me behind.
Together we went into the garage and donned our boots, all-weather pants, jackets, and fluorescent vests. As we prepped, my dad looked out into the trees with a newfound interest. “You know, it’s funny,” he said, slipping the pistol into its holster, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen thicker vegetation in my life. Working through that stuff yesterday, great workout.” He patted his vested stomach, “Guess we can work off those pancakes your mom made.”
“Yeah,” I said again. I could tell he was trying to keep things light-hearted, but that just made things worse. “I just want him back.”
My dad nodded as we crossed the driveway and stopped at the edge of the rain-slicked ivy. In the overcast it looked black as oil, gross and slimy to the touch. “We’ll find him,” he assured me, “I promise.”
Yeah, I thought, that was the terrifying part.
Together we descended into the deep-green void. Much like my previous trip, the going was slow and the vegetation ominous. Everything below the sixty-foot mark was plunged into a perpetual twilight, illuminated by a hollow, yellow light. Beneath the initial canopy of broadleaves, ivy-clad giants and stunted, black trees reined supreme. Our footing was constantly tested by the tangles of vines and little, green leaves so dark they looked black.
In spite of my father’s company and that pistol hanging from his hip, I couldn’t shake the feeling that every moment we spent here was perilous. We didn’t belong in places like this. We only visited it, hunted the creatures that inhabited it, and left before we realized we were out of our depth. I began to imagine this as another hunt. For something other than whatever we were currently looking for.
To make matters worse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being observed. From some vantage point in this twisted, hidden world of ivy-choked vegetation, an entity watched us. I wondered if it had watched Dyson, too. Perhaps curious as to why the dog would return to its domain. Or why I would either, for that matter, after the horrendous things I’d seen.
I found the tunnel entrance with relative ease this time around. A ten-foot opening smothered in cascades of rugged greenery. I began trembling as visions of my slaughtered dog returned. My dad had to take my hand and gentle guide me around the edge of the sewer. He left his gun holstered, but unhooked the strap around its grip which made me feel a little better.
We knelt at the entrance of the tunnel, quiet as sin. A foul odor breathed through the vined-entrance, causing me to choke. Rotting meat.
My dad plugged his nose too, but he only laughed. “Whew, that sewage is nasty. Hope you didn’t flush anything toxic down here in the past hour.”
My vision swam. The smell was sickening to me, not laughably disgusting. It reeked of decay and malcontent, like the corpse of an animal struck on the highway. My dad thought it was just a backdraft of sewage—the type of stench you plugged your nose at and looked for someone to jokingly pin it on.
“Dad…it’s not sewage. It’s Dyson…remember what I said?”
He tugged at the bandages on his sore hand and wiped the sweat off his brow. Like me, he had thick, black hair, streaked faintly with grey. It made him look older now as a hint of sadness weighed down on his efforts to remain humorous. “I know, son. I know what you told me, but…why would he go in there? Why would anything live in there? It’d screw up their scent pattern and-”
“Just look in there, dad.” I was panicking. If he didn’t believe me enough to at least look, then I was on my own.
My dad sighed and nodded. “All right, step back for me then.” He took out his gun in case there really was some animal lying in wait. Perhaps a rabid coyote or cougar holed itself up.
I stepped back and waited as my father softly drew the vines back. He flicked on a flashlight in his other hand and rolled its beam all over the entrance to the sewer. I craned my neck, expecting to see some terrible black beast looking back, but there was nothing. His beam reached fifty feet back, illuminating more of the same cruddy, rusted out corridor. Some limp plants hung from the sides of the wall, and a faint line of scummy water filled the bottom. Aside from the dinginess of the place, it was remarkably ordinary. No blood, no guts, no fur or skin or bits of bone. My dog was gone, devoured or taken somewhere else.
“Well it’s certainly creepy,” my dad laughed, trying once more to lighten the atmosphere. “I can see why you think Dyson might’ve disappeared in there.”
I shook my head. “No…something pulled him in. I don’t know what it was, but I saw it.”
My dad rubbed my shoulders and pointed to the where the extremity of his beam faded out. “It caved in. It’s hard to tell with the metal being the same color, but there’s a wall of dirt. Dyson couldn’t have gone this way.”
I bumbled at the revelation, searching frantically for an explanation. My dad seemed content with letting me talk, but he wasn’t listening anymore. For him, we’d achieved resolution. He holstered his pistol and began to lead the way back up.
I followed slowly, numbed by the feeling that I really might’ve hallucinated the entire thing. Guilt, grief, exhaustion, all of those things conglomerating into a delusion that removed my part of the blame. I don’t understand why I would imagine something so horrendous, and neither did my parents. And they didn’t want to know where their child came up with such atrocities, so they pandered me for an appropriate amount of time, before delivering their own explanation. Which I was ready to accept as I steadily clambered up the hill.
At least until I felt something tug at my jacket—a draft of wind being sucked into the tunnel, trying to take me along with it. Something about that felt wrong, but I was too dejected to investigate. All I knew was that wind didn’t blow through a dead space. There was probably another entrance.
After we rejoined the modern world at the top of the ravine and shrugged out of our hunting attire, I was ready to focus on something else. I guess that was my mom’s doing. I wanted to find something to occupy myself for the rest of the day, and my dad was all to happy to oblige.
We spent the rest of that day painting the kitchen and living room walls in a light shade of yellow. It fit the home’s spacious, contemporary furnishings, and warded off the oppressive greenery around us.
That night I fall asleep with little trouble. The shadows of the swaying trees above me lulled me into a hypnosis again, and I stayed that way until I was on the precipice of slumber. Just as I was ready to pass out once again, the scratching returned. As ever, it was a frantic, pitiful sound. Thin shadows darted along the space between my door and the floor, and I watched them passively. Fear mingled with the desire to sleep, and for once I let sleep win me out. The scratching faded with the darkness.
The next morning I awoke at 6:32. Rather early for me in spite of the past couple days wearing me down, but it felt good to be free of my bed. I got dressed quickly, hearing my parents moving about down the hall as well.
As I slid a bright green shirt sporting the logo of some tacky restaurant over my head, the memory of the scratching returned. I shuffled over to my door curiously and opened it to check for a detail I hadn’t thought of before: claw marks. Whenever Dyson slid on our wooden floors, my mom always flipped out about the scratched he would leave, but I never saw him inflict too much damage. Just a small graze amid the thousands of our home.
The base of my door was scratch-free, however. Not a mark where I expected a tons of them to be. I scanned the small lip of wood where the doorframe met the floor and gave it a closer look. I started on the left side and moved right, taking in every inch of the raised wood. Something caught my eye when I got within a couple inches of the right frame.
It was small and faint, carved in the same sketchy righting as the blood-smeared ball: “We gonna play somedaaaaay!”
I shuddered at the childish enthusiasm. It was the type of writing one could expect from an adult talking to a kid or a dog. Condescending and syrupy. I gagged at the thought that whatever killed my dog might’ve thought it was only playing. Tug of war with his guts? There was no way. No way. My mind reeled at the message, trying to dampen the fear blossoming in my chest. But then a bone-scorching scream from downstairs shot that fear through me like a bolt.
I scrambled downstairs in seconds, my father two steps ahead of me. This time he and I were careful not to jostle one another for fear of another accident as we stumbled into the kitchen. We found my mom standing paralyzed in the kitchen, a glass shattered at her feet. She was gaping at our refrigerator.
My heart was seized in a cold fist as I saw the gristly sight too. A thin line of blood trickled down along the sleek metal surface of the fridge, coming from a long, ragged, yellow tail nailed into the fridge door. It looked as if it had been brutally hacked off, with a couple vertebrae dangling from the thicker end.
My dad cursed and swept my mom up in his arms, while I watched on. If this was a game to whatever had done this, was the horrific sight before me some twisted variation of ‘pin-the-tail’? I didn’t want to know, didn’t care too. All I knew was that we were being toyed with in a sadistic child’s game. And whatever the thing was had invited my parents to play as well.
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