09 May Wanna Play?
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"Wanna Play?"Written by Hayden Dalby
Estimated reading time — 48 minutes
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.
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 too 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 hypnotic state 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 ton 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 of 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 of 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.
My parents were hectic for a while. I was too drained, both emotionally and physically, to process the horrific scene. My mom called the police and demanded a cop car be sent to investigate, and my father placed a towel over the grisly scene as we waited for the police.
I was tempted to remind them of the thing I’d seen down in the ravine, but part of me knew they weren’t looking for monsters. They were looking for a psycho, a home invader and mutilator. My dad had grabbed the pistol again, as if the perpetrator would return. I didn’t protest. His presence made me feel better as I made my way out of the house and sat at the edge of the ravine.
Back in the house, I could hear my mom alternating between shouts and sobs, with quieter reassurances from my dad cropping up. I glared pointedly at the vast greenery below, searching for the creature. Nothing but swaying trees and ivy looked back, defying my probing gaze. As I sat there, my anger gradually subsided into pangs of fear. What was going to happen now?
The answer came in the form of a sleek blue-and-black Dodge Challenger pulling down our driveway. I watched passively as a pair of cops exited. One was a short, burly man with wispy blond hair and a thick mustache. The other was a black woman with her hair tied in a severe ponytail, but she smiled kindly at me.
“Hey, hun, we’re here to talk to your parents, are they inside?” She asked.
“Thank you. I’m Officer Dempsey, by the way, and this is Officer Wilkes.”
I nodded again. “I’m Aiden.”
“Nice to meet you, Aiden.” Officer Wilkes said, smiling. His mustache curled up against his nose, which almost made me laugh. “Well we’re gonna make sure everything’s safe, so you don’t have to be scared of anything. Fulton County’s best are on the case!”
I rolled my eyes at the cheesy words, but managed a half-hearted grin.
Officer Dempsey seemed to share my exasperation as she elbowed her partner and nodded for them to head inside. I watched them go knocking on the garage door, and then introduce themselves to my father. His eyes were dark as he gingerly shook their hands with his injured arm, explaining how my mom was still hysterical. They nodded understandingly and disappeared within. My dad stayed at the door for a moment, looking at me and then at the green void beyond. Even from across our driveway I could see something in his eyes had changed. He was beginning to believe me.
The officers did their best to act professional—asking questions and taking notes, Officer Dempsey consoling my mother while Wilkes confided in my dad. But it was difficult for them to treat the horrific scene pinned on our refrigerator with anything other than shock. That type of cruelty, particularly to an animal, was almost unheard of in this area. Though, as Officer Wilkes put it, “There’s a first for everything.”
After the police talked to my parents, they sat down at the table with me and asked me a series of questions.
“Aiden,” Officer Dempsey said in a gentle tone, “We understand you were the one to last see Dyson?”
I nodded. “He disappeared.” Technically it was true, but I knew going into the grisly details would only earn me more pity.
Dempsey nodded. “What was he doing when you last saw him?”
Being eaten, I thought. “He was fetching a ball.”
Dempsey jotted down notes and Wilkes rubbed his mustache. “And you and your dad hunt, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I fidgeted. “Pheasant and quail mostly. Game birds.”
“Good times,” Wilkes chuckled. “I hunt deer myself.”
“That’s wonderful,” Dempsey intervened, “But let’s go back to this…unfortunate incident. Wilkes would you mind taking care of the tail? I think we’ve gotten all the information we need, and no one wants to see it anymore.”
The officer nodded and stood, donning gloves and grabbing an evidence bag. My mom and dad were sitting in the living room, which lay adjacent to the kitchen. I could see the red in my mom’s eyes and the rings under my dads as he rubbed her back. Wilkes asked for their permission to clean up the crime scene, before bagging the limp yellow tail and washing away the blood.
I watched him wash away the evidence as Dempsey asked me a couple more questions. Was I distraught? Do I know who might’ve done this? Had I seen anything peculiar? And, finally, did I feel all right?
Honestly, I felt very little. Scared, but that was almost normal now. Uneasy, a little saddened, but also hopeful because now there was proof other than the word of a ten-year-old. The police said they were going to everything in their power to locate the sicko, reasoning he must’ve also been the reason behind our dog’s initial disappearance.
Ivy Cascades and the surrounding residences had a relatively tame past, with only a couple burglaries transpiring in the last decade. So something like a dead dog’s tail nailed to a refrigerator would be thoroughly investigated. One reassurance they made did catch my attention as the officers packed their stuff up and gave parting statements to my parents: they would be searching our ravine.
They wouldn’t find anything of course. I’d come to realize whatever tore apart our dog was too smart to be found. Perhaps the police would find something though.
For the rest of the day, I helped my parents with prepping the house. My mom kicked into high gear for distracting herself via efficiency. She scarcely talked to me or my dad, and focused on chores instead.
My dad was a little calmer. He was doing the “mulling things over in his mind” thing, trying to make sense of the sick prank and who may be responsible. Though neither of them said it, I knew my parents were rethinking what I’d told them. Now their hesitance to explore the circumstances of Dyson’s disappearance hinged on fear, rather than doubt. That made me feel better, because we were all on the same page and the police were investigating.
A couple hours later the officers returned, sweaty and worn out. My mom poured them some lemonade as they explained their findings.
“It’s incredibly difficult terrain,” Dempsey said, wiping her forehead. “I enjoy hiking from time to time, but this stuff is another beast. I can see why you’d think your dog just up and vanished.”
My dad nodded. “And the home invader?”
Dempsey shook her head, but it was Wilkes who answered. “No leads there, though we’ll need to expand our search area a bit to see if there have been any other cases like this. Perhaps suspicious persons, similar crimes, pet disappearances.”
“And what about us?” My mom asked. She looked ashen. Her dark hair was limp with dust, and she wore a paint-stained sweatshirt over worn-out maternity pants. “Will one of you stay here? Like on a patrol?”
The officers looked to one another hesitantly. “We’ll send an officer around tonight.” Dempsey finished her lemonade and stood. “His name will be Officer Dunn. Buzz-cut, beard, tall and built like a linebacker, in case you want to check him out.”
My mom nodded, looking much more comfortable. I watched as my dad placed a hand on her shoulder, which she took and held to her cheek. They both seemed disoriented. “Thank you,” said my mom. “That’ll be fine.”
Wilkes and Dempsey stood together, getting ready to go. As they did, Wilkes called me over and said, “You’re a huntin’ man, right?” I nodded. “Well I almost forgot, but I have a little switchblade I’d love for you to have. Perfect for skinning ducks, pheasants, and most any type of bird.” He looked at my dad. “Mind if I give it to him?”
My dad said it was fine, and the officers lead us out to the police car, where he dug around for a moment, before snagging a small, well-worn blade. “I kept it sharp for many of my hunting years,” Wilkes said proudly, “You could castrate a fly with that thing.”
I took it, looking confused. “What does “castrate” mean?” I asked, thumbing the blade.
Wilkes suddenly coughed and rubbed his mustache, while Dempsey laughed from inside the car. “Er…your dad will explain it to you someday. Just take care of it and you’ll be fine, hear me?”
I nodded slowly, folding it in and out again as I walked slowly back to the garage. It took me a couple moments to realize my dad was still talking with Wilkes. I watched the officer rummage around again, before handing him something round and green in a bag. My dad took it, looked at it for a moment, and then shoved it in his pocket. He spoke with the officer a moment longer.
All I could make out was “Found it…ivy…nothing else…didn’t want the Missus to hear…I’m sorry…” Then Officer Wilkes shook my dad’s hand and slipped into the car. As the officers pulled away, my dad slowly walked back toward me, his eyes dull and distracted. He kept fiddling with whatever Wilkes had given him, but I didn’t have to ask why as I watched my father headed inside. I’d glimpsed the green object plenty of times, pulled it and tugged it about when it was attached to Dyson’s neck. It was his collar.
That night, sleep eluded me once more. Not in a restless or dramatic fashion, but in a crueler way, where you know you sleep will come eventually, but not for what will seem like hours. So I watched the shadows play on my ceiling. My bed lay facing the window, which offered a panoramic view of our endless backyard.
Patterns of leaves and branches as dark as oil danced across my vision, bobbing randomly and never resting. It took me a long time, longer than it should have, but I eventually came to a realization that one of those shadows wasn’t actually moving. It was thick and stood still as a rock. I guess I just thought it was a tree trunk, but even those swayed ever so lightly. This one stood still.
My blood ran cold. Only my eyes moved, tracking the shadows as I began to trace other details on my ceiling—arms branching from the figure’s shoulders just above my room, a long, long waist stretching across room where it dead-ended at the window. Trembling I lowered my gaze to the window itself and peered hard into the night. I wished I hadn’t.
There it was, leering at me from trees. It was tall, twisted, and it peered into my bedroom with a face as dark as oil and crusted with dead leaves. It had black lips pulled back over stunted and discolored teeth, with gaping wounds spread over its face. Stringy hair attached to a grey-brown scalp fluttered in the wind as it finally saw me looking back. That made it smile, showing me an oily-black tongue behind its rotting teeth. It pressed its face against the glass and put one deformed hand the size of a car tire against my window.
There was something limp in its hand. The monstrosity slid whatever it was holding over my window, and it left behind a greasy trail of blood, pus, and whatever else it was oozing. Then I saw the flecks of yellow fur and groaned. Dyson.
The thing was using my dog’s carcass as a toy. Slowly spelling out crude words on my window in festering bile. P…L…A…Y.
This thing still wanted to play. It slopped my poor dog against the window with so much force I thought the glass might break, but instead a shower of foul meat splattered over the word. Then the thing pressed its face to the glass once more, looking at me with a disgusting grin.
I looked at its face, taking in the massive lesions crawling with maggots along its cheeks, the jagged, stumpy teeth, and the eyes, which were little more than muddy pits. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I sat up slowly and shook my head.
“N-no,” I croaked. “I won’t play.” Saying those words felt utterly ridiculous, especially to a twenty-foot forest monster that could very easily have plucked me from my bed.
The creature’s misshapen features contorted into childish disappointment. It almost seemed to pout as it retreated slowly from my window and disappeared from sight. The last thing I saw in its muddy eyes was a glare I’d often seen at school when I was younger. When some kid annoyed me to play with them and they’d go silent when I refused. And they always got their revenge in some underhanded way.
I stayed where I was for a long time; slowly watching the ribbons of meat slide down my window like I did with raindrops in my car. “Play” was still smeared there, a grisly echo of my denial to the creature. Part of me was beginning to wonder what would happen if I did end up giving in to its demands. What if I sought it out and entertained its demands? Another notion sent a jolt through me. What if it had wanted to play with Dyson? And my dog refused out of loyalty to me. He already had someone to play with and the creature didn’t like that. And now I too had refused it.
I closed my eyes and began sobbing into my pillow. Then the screams started.
I jolted upright in my bed for what felt like the umpteenth time, wide-awake. It was coming from my parents’ room. I scrambled out of my bed and ran down the hall, where the screaming grew louder. My heart pulsed with each wail, and it wasn’t the terrified scream my mom had let out earlier that day. This one was full of pain.
I threw open their door and saw something out of hell. The creature had smashed open my parents’ window, covering the floor and bed with glass. It’s upper body loomed inside the bedroom, curled up against the ceiling and hunched over their bed. I see thick layers of moss, algae, and scabby chunks of flesh dripping from its frame. My mom struggled furiously at the hand it had around her waist, but she got nowhere. My dad had been thrown from the bed in the melee and he struggled for his pistol, but the creature slammed him across the room against the far wall.
The pistol flew toward me and clashed to my feet while my father lay stunned. His left arm had been shredded by the monster’s claws, leaving it in bits of broken bone held together by shreds of muscle. He peered up at the monster, his eyes glassy, before he croaked softly and toppled sideways, the shock knocking him unconscious.
The creature cackled in glee at his first victory. Then he turned his attentions to my mother, who still struggled and kicked. She only stopped when the creature looked her full in the eye and opened his rotting mouth.
The thing gurgled in a hideous breath “We play.”
My mom looked utterly confused as the thing squeezed her waist, shattering her hipbones and making her scream again. “N-noooo,” she moaned. “Nooooo.” Blood bubbled from her lips as she finally saw me cowering in the corner. “Get out,” she croaked, tears streaming from her eyes as she hung limp. “Get away, please.”
I only shook my head, my dad’s pistol now in my hands. The creature, thinking my mom was telling it to be gone, let loose a blistering screech. “Plaaaaaaaaay!” It screamed, and began beating her in against the floor as a child would a doll. Each blow made me wince as I crept forward. My mom hung from the creatures blackened hand, her skull cracked and one of her arms twisted in a bad way.
Quietly, I approached the creature, hot tears flooding my throat. “A-all right,” I sobbed, pulling back the hammer, “We’ll play.”
The creature smiled again, bearing its ugly teeth. It rose my mom up to me and I lifted the pistol in return. “See? We both have toys,” I choked out. Then I pulled the trigger.
BLAM! The first slug tore through his front tooth and blasted out of the back of his skull like a rotten pumpkin. Thick, oily liquid splattered over the room.
BLAM! The second round punched a hole in the creature’s face before he even knew about the first. Another splatter of brain matter and skull exploded from his head, causing him to screech and drop my broken mother.
BLAM! The third sheered off what I thought may have been its ear. It was hard to recall through the tears. I stepped over my mom as the creature struggled to retreat from the window.
“CHEEEEEEAT! YOU CHEAT!” It bellowed, weeping yellowish tears and covering its shattered face.
I made it to the window and finally saw the creature fully. Its legs were thin and scaly, like a chicken’s. Bony, black talons served as feet as the monstrosity backed toward the ravine. I fired again, dislodging a chunk of the thing’s hand with the powerful slug. “You wanted to play,” I seethed, leveling the gun, “I’m playing.”
I fired the final shot just as the creature leapt into the ravine, disappearing in seconds. A satisfying screech filled the air as it disappeared. I imagined that twisted underworld at the bottom of the ravine and could see why no one would find such a massive creature down there. This thing was part of the ravine. I could only hope I’d damaged it enough to kill it, but strongly doubted it.
Staggering back, I dropped the gun and slumped to my knees next to my mom. She lay face down on the floor, her hair thick with blood as I gently brushed it aside, sobbing. As soon as I moved her, I knew she was dead. The force of those blows against the floor had cracked her skull apart and concussed her over and over. I kissed her once and turned to my dad.
At the very least my father was breathing. Though his left arm had been sliced to ribbons, there appeared to be little damage done to any other part of his body. I did as he showed me and wrapped a bunch of sheets around his arm while he stirred. He winced in pain as I tried to prop him up. He looked blearily across the room and focused gauntly on my mom. A couple of tears leaked from his eyes as he began to lose consciousness again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
I finished tying his bandage to the best of my ability and went to call 911. The operator responded within seconds and I reported the grisly scene to her through a combination of breathless sobs and chokes. Once I’d given her our address, I slumped against the wall where my dad dozed and watched the window. A thought tugged at the back of my skull as I waited. Something didn’t fit in all of this. I rose to my feet and slipped from my parent’s room to go to the front door. From there I looked up our driveway and confirmed my suspicions.
There was no patrol car in sight. The policeman Wilkes and Dempsey had promised never came.
It took the police 7 minutes to arrive. I counted. Starbursts of blue and red light scattered over the dense greenery as I sat next to my dad and tried not to look at my mom. My dad kept passing in and out of consciousness, mostly because the pain in his arm would wake him and the ensuing shock would send him back to sleep. At this point little fazed me. I tightened the sheets around his arm while he was passed out and ignored the snap of several bones shifting about.
When the police crashed through our front door and pounded up the stairs, I greeted them with the same blank stare. Wilkes and Dempsey were there and I searched half-heartedly for the gun. This was their fault. They’d promised me we would be protected. That there would be a squad car out front. But that didn’t matter now.
Instead I allowed myself to be whisked out of the house and down to an ambulance parked in the street. A paramedic placed a blanket around my shoulders even though I wasn’t could and checked my body for any signs of damage.
My father was carried out on a stretcher next. Two paramedics managed him while Wilkes followed closely behind, grimacing. They left my mom where she was. For forensics, I guess. I could still see her limp on the floor of her bedroom; skull cracked ever so slightly, her eyes empty.
I’m not sure when exhaustion overcame me, but the last thing I remembered was watching the lights flicker off the bottoms of the trees above me and then nothing. The next morning I awoke in a neat room filled with plastic chairs, plush toys, kiddie books, and an old TV. I felt something hard shift in my right pocket and bought out the hunting knife Wilkes had given me.
I opened the blade and stared at the polished steel, trying to come to terms with what happened the night before. Brief flashes of the nightmarish scene played out in my mind, shifting to the next in a blur of rotting, green colors. The memories were vivid—my dog smashing apart against the window, the screams of my parents, my dad being thrown and my mom being…slammed into the floor. I would never rid myself of that horrendous sound. That small, ear-grinding crack before her eyes rolled back and she went limp.
The blade reflected my ashen features, showing the blood drained from my face. Kids were not built for this caliber of loss. A dog could be grieved for with time, a mother over a longer period, but when a monstrosity ripped all of that away simply for a childish indulgence…it made your very existence questionable. The only reason I looked up when I saw Wilkes’ form slip into the room in the blade was because of my dad.
I still had him. I prayed to God the monster hadn’t sliced his arteries. As I looked up, I caught a glint of guilt in Wilkes’ eyes, and remembered the final peculiarity of the night before: no patrol car. I folded the knife closed as Wilkes took a seat opposite me.
“Where was the car?” I asked. “You promised me protection.”
“Yes…about that,” Wilkes stroked his mustache furiously. “Aidan, what happened to your parents was tragic. The brutality of a home invasion can wreak havoc on a child’s mind.”
“Home invasion?” I couldn’t help laughing thinly, imagining the gruesome visage of that atrocity breaking in. “A monster attacked us! It broke through our window, it killed my dog!”
Wilkes was fidgeting again, sweating. He took out his notepad and read over something. “Yes…that’s what you told us last night. But you were also catatonic, son. We’re having forensics look over the scene now, and…well the front door was tampered with. And there was dirt on the stairs.” I recalled the scratching. “Someone broke in, someone who probably staked out your home.”
I felt my throat close up. They didn’t believe me…or refused to believe me. “The patrol car. Why wasn’t there one?”
“W-we couldn’t…spare the m-manpower.”
Hot tears began to blur my vision. I shuddered, feeling my accusatory façade weaken. “You promised…my mom. She’s gone and my dad. You could’ve stopped it.”
Wilkes broke. “No one can stop it,” he almost shouted. “You think anyone wants to play with it? Anyone can stand against it.”
I stared at him, stunned. He knew. He must have seen it, encountered it somewhere. Then I remembered the day he’d gone to look for Dyson down the ravine. He and Dempsey had come back, finding nothing. Obviously they knew more than they let on. I took out the knife—a small, insignificant token from Wilkes, and dug the blade into the table between us.
“I stood against it,” I muttered. Wilkes just stared back, watching his reflection in the knife. “I shot it with a .410 revolver. Blew holes in its ugly face.” I looked up at Wilkes, suddenly feeling much older than my eleven-years. “So what now?”
Wilkes seemed to sag under my gaze. “W-We’re gonna put you up in a motel for a couple weeks with an officer.”
“Not you I hope.”
He winced at that, but continued. “You’ll stay there until your father is capable of taking care of you again.”
I felt guilt squeeze my chest. I’d forgotten about his injury. “How is my dad?”
“Stable.” Wilkes looked relieved to deliver some less brutal news. “He received forty-two stitches and a liter of blood, but the damage was reparable to a certain degree. We’re not sure if he’ll be able to fully use his hand again, but he’ll certainly live.”
I nodded, feeling the pressure in my chest lessen. “When will he wake up?”
“Three to four days.”
“And in the meantime, I’m just gonna hole up in a motel?”
Everything passed in a blur after that. The officer they assigned to me was someone new to the force, but friendly and comforting. I spent a lot of time watching TV and reading Goosebumps—a way of defusing my situation, I guess. Campy horror to dilute true horror. Whatever worked.
They made a mistake with my mother’s body. Cremated her in some bizarre mix up after analyzing her for evidence. Concussive force to the head caused by a blunt object was the official cause of death. The news of her cremation hit me hard. I’d been hoping to say good-bye in the way my parents often talked about: open-casket, condolences, comfort, and peace.
As difficult as those couple of days were for me though, my dad had it worse. He spent four days getting his hand stitched, probed, and bound back together. It had been a messy injury, with the creature’s claws hooking the muscle in his left arm and sliding it almost entirely free of the bone. And when he finally came around, sentient enough to recall the horror, he encountered precisely what I had from the day Dyson died: disbelief and pity.
No one believed him. They bought up shock, meds, pain, tragedy, loss, adrenaline, love, and pretty much every other logical diagnosis to filter his ravings of a tree-monster attacking him and his wife. He only went quite when the somber details of her cremation were reported.
When he knocked on my hotel door, he looked worn out, both mentally and physically. But he still remained strong enough to take my running hug in stride, holding be close as he laughed in a mixture of pain and relief. Only when we sat down together and the officer who’d been staying with me left to get groceries did he finally break.
I sat by, crying out my own grief while my father, reduced to a near-infantile state, absorbed the helplessness of his situation. He was never one for tears, but he sobbed in that apartment. Fractures of the monster, of his arm, and, most of all, of his wife—my mother—broke free. I found myself at a bizarre crossroads as I comforted him in mutual loss.
We’d switched places through brutal tragedy, all because some cretin wanted to play with us. A cretin powerful enough to intimidate law enforcement, I had to remind myself. No one would ever believe my dad or I about this. And, between the two of us, I feared I might be the only one who’d be able to move on.
More time passed. The investigation conducted on our home took a week due to the law checking up on the surrounding environment. I wondered if the creature would make another appearance, eager to play or to otherwise intimidate. In either case, I shuddered to think about that ungodly ravine. It was too deep to be natural, to contain such evil.
By the time the investigation wrapped up a week and a half after the initial incident, my dad seemed to be making a recovery. His hand, though far off from recovery, seemed to be giving him less pain, and we’d been able to spread our mother’s ashes in a nearby river.
When Wilkes came to us the day after, telling us we could move back into the house, I almost laughed. My dad held me back. “We need to get our stuff out of there,” he explained to me. “Your mother’s belongings, yours and mine, all of it. We’ll move far away.” I swore he glanced at Wilkes when he said that, but the officer only looked away guiltily. “One night,” he promised.
Fighting back a shudder, I nodded. “One night. Then we go.”
Some part of me knew this was lunacy, but my dad seemed as though he might benefit from closure. To take a piece of my mom away from that house himself. As though he could rescue her.
We went that afternoon, with Dempsey and the officer who’d looked after me. I’d insisted Wilkes not come. He hadn’t protested.
The officers helped us shift some smaller items into a U-Haul. When asked what to do about the larger stuff—beds, couches, furniture, my dad told them to get rid of it.
That night, I slept with my dad in his room. The officers were down the hall in the guest room. We pretended mom was there too, and that we’d grudgingly allowed Dyson to climb up as well. It felt hollow to me, but my dad seemed to find it therapeutic. As if some sense of normalcy had returned. Sleep came quickly for him, but slowly for me.
I stayed up a little longer, watching shadows dance along the ceiling.
I’m not sure which woke me. The scratching or the draft of air. Either way, I knew something was wrong. I was alone for one thing, the covers where my dad had been flipped up. More scratching came from the door, so eerily similar to Dyson trying to get in. It didn’t fool me for a second.
I dug into my PJ bottoms and took out the knife. Having the small weapon in hand offered some measure of comfort. The scratching continued, burrowing into my mind. I stalked over and yanked the door open…to find nothing. Just as I suspected. Then I felt a pull from the hall, sucking at my PJs and swirling toward the staircase.
Cautiously, I moved down the hallway, and stopped at the guest room first. No one there. My heart thudded and my grip tightened on the knife as I slipped toward the staircase and began to descend. The air continued to pull me along, like a great inhalation.
At the end of it, I found my dad sitting at our kitchen table, unmoving. I slowly crept around him, brandishing the knife for any sign of danger. There were none to be had.
“Dad?” I whispered, “Are you all right?”
My father turned to me and smiled, sad and pained. “I’m not sure, Aidan. I thought I was for awhile, but…I don’t know anymore.”
I stepped up to the counter and jolted when I saw why he remained so still. His arms lay palms up on the granite surface, one a patchwork of purple and yellow, the other still slightly red from when he’d spilt coffee on it. And in between, lay the .410 revolver.
My mind reeled from its appearance. The police would have locked it up as a piece of evidence…but then someone like Wilkes could have just as easily removed it.
“Don’t worry,” my dad rotated his arms softly in the light. The fresh stitches in his left glinted black, his skin appearing translucent. “I’m finally at peace. I know what I am now—for your mother, for you. These are the perfect metaphor.” He wiggled his right hand, but his left remained limp. “Completely. Fucking. Useless.”
I winced at the curse. “Dad…please. You’re not. I need you, okay? We can get through this.”
My father shook his head sadly. “No one believes us. No one will ever avenge your mother.” He was crying again, a faint smile gracing his lips as he looked up to me. His right fingers wrapped around the revolver and suddenly the barrel was under his chin. “Go play, Aidan. Go play.”
I jolted. My father’s face ruptured in a miasma of gore and he flopped against the table. I gaped at him, hearing the shrill wheezes of his shattered jaw struggling to suck in one more breath. “Goooo-uhhhh….plaaaaay.”
Tears prickled my eyes as I marched past him, past the refrigerator where the hole in the door still resided. Through the garage, across the driveway, to the edge of the ravine. An emerald crevice yawned before me, and suddenly his face loomed out from the night. Ugly and patchy as ever, with pus dripping from open orifices, and scabby leaves peeling from his misshapen head. He hovered over me with a rotting grin. “Play?” he asked.
I nodded, the knife trembling in my grasp as I stepped into the void. “Yes,” I croaked hoarsely, slipping down the slope toward the sewer. “We’ll play.”
Silence reigned over the dark yard. The ravine seemed to suck in any natural light, leaving Wilkes with only his flashlight to guide him. He carried a pump-action shotgun in his other hand, well aware of the powers at play.
The only reason he was here in the first place had been thanks to a staccato call from Dempsey and the other officer staying in the residence that night. There’d been a garbled cry for help on his phone, followed by cries, then a voice, slimy and quiet, moaned, “Plaaaaaay,” before everything went silent. That voice sent rods of dread into Wilkes’ gut, making his insides churn. He’d heard it before, far too many times for any sane person.
When they’d received the call of a homicide in the residence a couple weeks prior, Wilkes knew immediately what the cause was. Yet he’d been too afraid to say anything. The creature, whatever the abomination was, had gotten to him before that, eager to play.
As Wilkes swept his flashlight into the garage, he briefly caught glimpse of Aidan’s father slumped over the kitchen table. Gulping, the police officer made his way into the home, half expecting to see the monster looming beyond the window, peering in. Immediately, Wilkes could tell man was dead – the massive wound in his head and spread of blood over the table left no doubt. Still, Wilkes could not help but feel a slight disappointment, both in himself and the ruined man before him.
He’d hoped the father might better protect the boy, seeming more resilient where he himself crumpled into self-pity. A coil of guilt squeezed Wilkes’ chest, reminding him that he’d been partially responsible for the father’s demise. That voice, like living oil, still stuck in his mind, writhing and burning. It had compelled him to cremate the mother, to weaken this family’s resolve to the point of breaking.
Staggering back out of the house after a moment, Wilkes walked back to the edge of the ravine, where an unnatural darkness yawned before him. The cold, diamond-shaped leaves of the ivy seemed to pull at him, compelling him to join them in that abyss. In spite of his cowering mindset, Wilkes knew what he had to do. He shouldered his shotgun, gripped his flashlight, and leapt down the side of the hill, sliding over the thick curtains of ivy and chasing after the monster who stole the boy in the night.
As he descended into the unnatural netherworld of the Ivy Cascades ravine-network, visions wheeled through Wilkes’ mind. He recalled the first time he’d slipped down this ravine, searching for the family’s dog. Missing pets were the norm in these bigger neighborhoods, with the majority of the cases stemming from an animal that has simply wandered too far.
He and Dempsey had split up to cover more ground, each taking one side of the tremendous rift. As he searched along his side – the slope nearest to the home – he’d stumbled upon the sewer opening the kid told him about.
It certainly had the potential for swallowing up a dog, especially a hunting dog. New and exotic smells to explore, fresh territory to mark. But when Wilkes stepped up to the opening, he sensed something else lingered in there. A gust of wind sucked at his back, the air filling with a rotting stench that seemed to try and pull him into this cavernous opening. He wished that had been the end of it, that he’d turned around and gone back, claiming to find nothing. Instead, he ventured in further.
Inside the sewer tunnel, the smell only worsened. A fog of bile and rotting meats billowed over him, but he had to ensure the family’s dog hadn’t gotten stuck. When he went to place a hand on the side of the sewer wall, he found a disgusting substance crumble under it. Even in the faint light of his flashlight, he had known then it wasn’t rust. Rather it was blood, layers upon layers of it, coating the walls of the sewer as if an animal had covered them from years of messy, rabid eating.
Stumbling in a couple more steps, Wilkes remembered coming across the first promising clue to the poor dog’s whereabouts: a tuft of yellow fur rubbed into the mesh of blood. But no body. And all around him, the tunnel continued to breath, pulling him in and drafting him out. He remembered exploring just a little further in, wanting to be absolutely certain. That had been the final mistake.
Thirty yards or so back into the tunnel, Wilkes found the same dirt wall the father mentioned from their venture. At a glance, the officer found the description perfectly accurate, but then another gust of wind blew against him, trying to suck him down. Shining his flashlight to the side of the tunnel, Wilkes noted a faint opening to the side of the tunnel – a diverging sewer perhaps. It was buried behind the wall of dirt and roots, but the draughts of stagnant odors were endless. Wilkes needed to investigate further.
He remembered pointing his light into the opening, feeling the tunnel’s breath raise the hairs along his neck. When he leaned in closer, to see what lurked beyond, a massive, yellowed eye appeared in the beam of his light. He yelled out, stumbling back against the crumbly walls, the eye watching him. Then it disappeared for a moment, taking the gusts with it.
Heart pounding, Wilkes began to scoot back frantically towards the sewer’s opening, but not before a long, grotesque hand reached out of the abyss and wrapped around his waist. Breathless and trapped, Wilkes realized the wall of dirt was actually a door of sorts, fashioned from mud and sticks and bone, fitted to the sewer. The thing that had him now was intelligent, capable of building things and hiding from others. Its grotesque features bore into his as it crawled out through the door completely.
“Plaaaay,” it moaned, drenching the officer in foul breath. It held something limp in its other hand, something yellow and ragged, flopping about like a rag doll.
Wilkes’ blood turned to ice. The dog.
“Plaaaay,” it moaned again. “Dog no fun no more. Play with me.” As if to prove its point, the monster dropped the lab’s carcass on the ground, causing Wilkes’ to yell out.
“NO, YOU FUCKING ANIMAL! NO!” Fury had tinged Wilkes’ voice, even as he remained entrapped in the thing’s long, scabby claws. “How could you do that to a dog? H-how?”
The creature looked confused for a moment, tilting its massive, lopsided head. Then it grinned sickeningly. “Dog no want to play. I make him stay.”
Wilkes began to realize what had happened. When the dog had retrieved the ball beside the sewer opening, time and time again, the creature had watched, enraptured by this friendly animal. But when the lab refused to entertain it, and instead went back up the hill to his loyal owner, the creature grew angry.
The monster’s hand had tightened around Wilkes’ waist, anger beginning to cloud its features. “You bring me play now. Better than dog.”
The officer shook his head and struggled. “No fucking way.”
The monster squeezed his waist, threatening to crush his hips and rib cage. “You bring me play. Or I take everything from you. Your love ones. They can play too.”
Wilkes went quiet, wheezing in the monster’s fetid hand. In a tight spot, the officer could only look back at those hideous features, imagining his doom. Eventually, he ended up agreeing with the creature’s terms – to bring it Aidan or lose everything he held dear. When he first returned to the surface, he knew he’d appear insane if he went on about the creature. Only Aidan had seen it, and no one believed kids about these things.
At some point, while in his own home, he’d tried to tell his wife about his encounter. But a scratching sound at their door interrupted him. When he answered, he found a pile of bones on the stoop, with a message in blood scrawled on the pavement: Trees watching. A hot gust of foul air had blown against the officer, as if to reinforce the point, and up in the foliage of the surrounding forest, he could just make out the ugly creature, hanging amid the canopy, grinning back.
Each night, the creature whispered to him through the trees. Dark, ominous threats promising malice and ‘special time’ for his loved ones if he failed. Those whispered had urged him to cancel the patrol car at the last moment, to deny any strange claims made by the family he was investigating, to cremate the mother and destroy the will of the father. All of it, every last thing to lead an innocent kid into the malicious grips of an abomination.
And now, as Wilkes slipped down the ravine to follow Aidan into the sewer, the officer finally surmounted the courage to tell that creature one last thing: No.
As the officer entered the netherworld below the uppermost canopy of trees, the atmosphere darkened into a murky, almost oily light. It was as if everything were lit with heavy, lead lanterns, casting a muted light that distilled any coloration into base greys, browns, and dull greens. Still, Wilkes had no trouble finding the sewer.
The gaping maw of the tunnel, smothered in ivy and ripe with foul scents, loomed before him as he rounded its lip. From deep within the sewer, Wilkes could hear the cackles of the creature and the low groans of Aidan. At least the kid was alive. Taking a deep breath, Wilkes clicked on his flashlight and entered the tunnel.
He almost dropped the light when he saw the boy pinned up near the ceiling, dangling in one of the monster’s hands. Aidan’s face was bone-white as the creature slid a claw deep within his stomach, worming it around slowly and torturously. Wilkes almost puked as the creature crooned, “Soft. Warm. Not kill you. Just play. Play with insides a little. Like teddy bear.”
Aidan groaned again, feeling hot pincers of pain split through his skull. He briefly took notice of Wilkes, before his head slumped forward, passing out. The creature stemmed any blood-loss with his fingers and filthy leaves, but dropped them when Wilkes yelled out, “YOU SADISTIC FUCK!”
The ruse worked as the creature whipped its head around, only to receive a face full of 12-gauge steel-shot. Screeching, it dropped Aidan to the floor, who moaned again and clutched his belly. Blood seeped through the ragged leaves.
The creature tripped over his long legs, hunched in the tunnel and clawed at his face. Wilkes pumped and fired, again and again, tearing the monstrosity’s grim features into fresh gashes of green and black bile. It wriggled and writhed, cowering under the bombardment as the officer slowly approached, his flashlight dangling and his shots illuminating the tunnel.
With a pathetic moan, the creature cried out. “Nooooo. No fair. Stop. Not plaaaaay. Stoooop. It burns!” Wilkes walked right up to it for a final time lowered the gun to its jaw, and splattered its brains all over the sewer floor just as the creature swiped at his neck.
The monstrosity bucked and kicked feebly, thrashing in the sewer and clutching its ruined face while Wilkes dropped to his knees, breathing heavily. His hands were at his throat, struggling to hold the sloppy gash in place, but he knew the injury was severe. Slowly, he crawled over to Aidan, who’d gradually come around during the melee. The blood flow from his stomach had staunched for the time being, though it burned fiercely, and he looked at Wilkes slouched beside him.
“Wilkes,” I groaned, clutching my waist, “Your throat.”
The officer grimaced, holding onto his neck. His moustache was steeped in blood, but he managed to etch out a couple final words. “G-get out.”
I could barely hear him, over the pain-choked throws of the monster, but I understood. He wouldn’t last any longer than the creature. I began to rise up against the wall, using the curve to aid me. My insides churned, but nothing, hopefully, had been punctured. As I rose, I gave the officer one final squeeze of his hand as he slowly lay back.
Just as I almost stood though, another hand encircled my other ankle. It was covered in crusty, discolored gore, and held onto my ankle like a vise. Then the creature’s head, ruined and cratered, entered the glow of Wilkes’ flashlight. One large, blood-shot eye gazed up at me, pleading, full of pain. Through ruined jaws, it quaked. “P-please…play.”
I stared back at it, fumbling in my pocket with my one free hand, and then, with a scream, I buried Wilkes’ folding knife into its eye, all the way through the sludge. It croaked one final time, just as Wilkes sighed, his eyes going glassy. I leaned in, teeth grit together, grinding the knife in. “You killed my dog, you fucking shit stain. No one will ever play with you.”
I left the knife buried in its ruined skull, just to be sure. Then, straightening, I took hold of my wounded gut, and very slowly, stumbled out into the night. Getting back up to the top of the driveway took a long time. It was agonizing and endless, but I eventually crested the ivy ravine. My insides burned from being shifted around and were very likely infected. But, living in the moment, there were far greater worries. I wanted to be gone from that place for good. To wash it from my mind and move on.
With a pained grunt, I ventured into the house for the final time and called the police.
Those series of events took a long time to recover from. It’s been over ten years, I’m 21 now, living on my own, well the fuck away from Georgia, and in pretty good condition. It took awhile to come back from the damage that creepy fuck did to my guts, but fortunately, he didn’t tear anything. I guess he really was just playing.
Emotionally, I was a fucking wreck. Equal parts trauma and grief plagued me for years, before the graces of therapy resolved my issues. I got a foster home, wonderful surrogate parents in Nowhere, USA – no trees, no ravines, no fucking ivy. There were few other relatives on either of my parent’s sides, so their losses were attended mostly by myself, close friends, and one or two long-distance relations.
As far as the details of the case went, any evidence of the monster dissolved back into the forest. The police found zilch when it came to that fucker, but I could hardly care. My dad, the death of Wilkes, and the disappearance of the two officers staying with us that night, were all ruled freak homicide by an unknown assailant. Of course I was investigated, but it quickly became evident that I probably wasn’t able to make two full grown officers disappear on my own. Or kill my own father for that matter.
Wilkes…Wilkes disappeared too. I’m not sure whether the forest sucked him into their depths or something else took him, but no word of his whereabouts ever made it out of that ravine. Growing up, I struggled between hate and admiration for the man who’d both condemned my family to the clutches of this monster and sacrificed everything for me in the end. Either way, I ultimately felt sorry we were unable to find him, though searchers did locate the shotgun and folding knife in the sewer. I tossed the knife in the fire.
A top-to-bottom analysis was done of that tunnel, by the way. And the investigators only found dirt in there. No crusty blood, no false door, no hidden opening capable of housing a massive cretin. Just an old, abandoned sewer. I guess the ravine reclaimed it…or shifted it.
The more I thought about that uncanny underworld buried between the suburbs of Ivy Cascades, the more I began to suspect the entire landscape lived and breathed. An ancient, malicious force breeding creations as evil as hell and resisting against the slow encroachment of urban development.
Whatever transpired in that neighborhood though, it no longer concerned me. I’d escaped, survived, recovered. Now, living in a nondescript home off Buttfuck Boulevard in a speck of a town, I spent my days working quietly, keeping to myself, and taking care of my new lab.
I named him Dyson. He never roamed beyond my sight, never spent a second away from me, and never, ever went beyond my reach just so he could plaaay.
Credit: Hayden Dalby