The Sign


I've always hated dogs. Fear was absent from my childhood, except when the subject was canines. Perhaps it was the wicked faces that terrified me. The long teeth that glisten beneath a pulled back lip. And across different dogs, that look always spoke the same threat, "You can't outrun me, and I'm going to feel your bones snap." This sentiment, I've been told, is absolutely wrong, but I can't shake the thought.

Or, perhaps my fear of the common animal of choice was due to never owning a dog. The family pets that I grew up with were cats, lizards, and some other weird pets like guinea pigs that seemed like a good idea at in the afterglow of a documentary and the fluorescent lights of a pet store. The universal traits among the family pets were a solipsistic attitude and utter indifference to their owners' toils.

Most likely though, my fear came from the back area, or more accurately, a "Do not go back there" area. Our yard was bordered on four sides: our house, two neighbors we knew, and a back area. This back area was huge, with tall grass and trees that climbed higher than any native tree for miles. When considering the total interest that all four borders held, that back area was the clear winner. Also, unlike the two neighborly fences, our back fence had a gate. It was a gate I had never seen used, and it had a padlock and metal sign on it. Blocky red letters warning the family, BEWARE OF DOG.

The sign's veracity came a priori. It had been there before we got there, and my parents, in raising me, had decided to imprint those letters onto my consciousness. The sign and its red letters were writ in my young brain, not to be questioned.

But, it only held until the age of 16. At this point, I noticed it, as one notices a kitschy painting that had quietly hung for years but doesn't fit the living room at all, and the sign's warning was examined. No one lived back there of course. And that sign was at least a decade old. Left behind by some unknown party that had long given up and moved on. I brought up my theory with my Dad, and he shot me down immediately.

"I heard it bark."

"You heard 'it' bark–like, a dog, back there? When? Did you see it?""

"Yes a dog bark, and yes it was back there. It was a few months ago."

I asked again about whether he saw it. He hadn't.

"How convenient. And how do you know it was from there? It was probably Shadow."

Shadow was a neighboring dog, too close to ignore and too distant from our neighborly influence to do anything about.

"Oh my God, I know what that three legged foghorn sounds like. The bark came from back there." His thumb jerked back in a point.

I raised an eyebrow.

"You keep saying bark. You mean a single time??" He nodded, and I smiled. "Dogs don't bark once. You ought to know that at least, from experience."

He sat down, leaned back, and folded his arms, looking to me like a donkey with a doctrine. He spoke flatly, "There is a dog back there, and it was a bark..well something like that."


"It was a dog noise! I don't want you back there, it's not safe."

Something in his tone made me drop the point…in my memory now it seems like a tone that makes you tread lightly because the person's full ego is behind the statement.

But my ego and and curiosity seemed to hinge in the other direction, the same direction as the back gate. That back area held this untouched mystery that was loud and unavoidable, just due to its proximity. I had no interest in meeting or running from a dog, even a cowardly mono-barker, but I didn't have much faith in the story.

I jumped the fence one Saturday, immediately dropping low and skittering out of striped vision of our fence's slats to dodge a stray unlucky glance by my family. As soon as I was over and clear of sight, my face went red and my heart began beating hard. I decided to get back in 30 minutes, to avoid any familial concern.

I ended up returning a full two hours later, but my absence was still unnoticed. That back area turned out to be even cooler than it looked. The scenery was idyllic, there were at least four good climbing trees, and I'd found a pond! Upon this last discovery I felt lucky and cheated. Lucky to have found it, but cheated out of years with such a paradise. This area, Eden indeed, seemed untouched. The quiet was almost too much for my joy, and in my excitement I let out a low-strength scream with balled fists. I felt like Robinson Crusoe, after he's found the natural wealth in his Island. The best part I thought, climbing back into my yard, is that I can visit my island anytime.

Well, anytime the parental eyes came off of me anyways. My parents' attention started to bug me, since it implicitly grounded me away from my new favorite area. I began to be more reserved, trying to withdraw and become less visible in the family, so I could find more openings to slip back into my real backyard. The secrecy was part of the fun. When you're young, you assume there's going to be a great need for secrets, sneaking, holding your breath right under the enemy's nose. Well, there had been a disappointing number of those moments, but this offered real adrenaline-fueled escapades.

On the other hand, I was growing to hate the lie, a red-lettered warning about a dog. It wasn't true. Any time I tried to subtly undercut my Dad's half-baked, half-barked "dog noise" story, I couldn't offer real proof. Because of the lie that hung right here, unimpeachable without my confession. I'd been back there; there was no dog; and it was safe.

I hadn't explored the whole back area yet, but I was chipping away at the unknown, finding the fun wasn't front-loaded at all. If anything, there was more intrigue the further I went in. I'd found a huge pile of dirt in one area, which I spent the day flipping down and proclaiming my rule from. The whole place really blew my puny yard and neighborhood parks out of the water.

Actually, there was something that bugged me about that day though. I realized that there weren't many animals back there. I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me before, but after I stopped shouting from the dirt hill, I realized, I hadn't seen any animal back here. Surely there must be some back here, but not even the wind was carrying birds nearby that day. This fact seemed to have some symmetry with the absence of other humans. This place was all mine. A second passed feeling lucky again, but then a moment of panicked vulnerability: if I got hurt, would my parents know to search here?

I went home feeling undecided and uncomfortable.

The next day, I was decided. I made up my mind to explore as much as I could. I didn't like feeling uncomfortable back there, and exploring all of it seemed like a smart step toward less worrying. It was a weekday, but instead of catching the bus, I pulled the classic hide-and-wait-for-the-parents. When I finally got the house to myself I grabbed a water bottle and Rice Krispies. Both went into my cargo shorts, and then we all went up and over the fence. Pocketed with treats, I walked right by the pond I normally stopped next to. It was fun, but today I was interested in that alluring frontier.

The dirt hill came into sight, and I ventured on. The dotting trees became thicker ahead. I pushed straight into them, but as soon as I'd gotten myself thick of trees, I saw a clearing ahead. I had to dip under some brush to get there and my arms picked up a few scratches. When my head lifted, I heard it:

A loud snap from a branch breaking. A human? Stranger danger went through my mind for a second. Another second brought something worse to my brain, "You can't outrun me, and I'm going to feel your bones snap." My heart kicked me with both feet, and my ears suddenly pounded with adrenaline. Where did it come from??

I heard slow, patient movement. Something big was in the bushes somewhere behind me.. Was it following me? I froze and got as low as I could. I tried to hide, though the open clearing didn't do much for the tactic. Then another noise broke the last bit of courage that held my breath still. A snarl. You might call it a bark, but it was definitely a dog noise. Dear God, no. I jumped towards the opposite bushes, arms up in an X, trying to bulldoze through the tough foilage. Immediately I was slowed, and my bare shins tore skin as they kicked and high legged into the brush. It was behind me now, that was certain. "You can't outrun me". As soon as I stopped trying to hide, it dropped the same pretense. I could hear a heavy, God it sounded big, body tear into the foilage behind me. Words tumbled out as a mix of asking for help and expletives, jumbled and senseless, screamed between breaths, but I knew I wouldn't be heard. I was the only one here, except for the four legged death behind me.

I didn't actually feel it catch my heel; it was more of an observation as my leg pulled back when it should have pushed forward to catch the next step. I hit the ground hard in a sprawl, skidding to a stop in the dirt, back naked to the sky and face to the floor. I felt …

I felt my brain scratch like a record, being skidded like a DJ with a heavy hand on the vinyl. My eyes opened slowly with the crust of eye-mucus. My head pounded and thoughts came as the dull observations of a system's check. It was night, and my throat burned. My entire body felt brittle and spent.

Against my back I could feel the rough wooden slats of a familiar fence; on the side for people out of the family.

My hand was holding something. A glass pipe with thin walls, now cold, with a lot of black in it. Had I smoked it all?

And what the hell was that? Did I just OD? My finger came up and found drool drying on my chin. An involuntary shiver ran through my body, and I threw up.

There was no sign on my family's fence, and I could see the other side of the greenbelt from here. The back area was just a tiny sliver of no-man's land between our yard and the neighbors behind us. Frayed memories drifted in and out, finally landing on red letters, based somewhere in my childhood–"Don't do drugs." It was a lie, and it was true. I rolled my eyes and threw up once more.

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