When I was 17, Dad took a job in New England. Leaving high school before it ended had me furious. I refused to remember which state Dad was forcing me to live in. Loading up his 1999 Ford Bronco was like watching two aliens in men’s bodies. Dad was one of those leathery-faced, blue collar-type men who didn’t say much, but had a galaxy full of ideas and positions so dense it could outrank a black hole. I’d taken an astronomy class a few months earlier. Mom died in a car accident when I was eight. An old man hit us going 80. I can still see Mom’s head slamming the steering wheel and hearing a short shriek before the detonation of metal. I can still feel the burn of the seatbelt across my chest. Luckily, Dad got me into therapy soon after, and I made a passable kid into my teens. Dad drove us out of Stillwater, Oklahoma, “Where Oklahoma Began!” and where my social life ended. Home was a quiet town with sprawling green lawns and a cramped, dingy main street. I would climb wrought-iron fences at midnight with my friends and trespass the “Richlands,” as we called it. I won’t forget the night after prom when I told Liz Tillie I loved her, lying in the grass on the slope of some millionaire’s compound. But summer had a way of teaching high school graduates harsh lessons about romantic commitment. Couple that with moving, and you’ve got yourself a kid with no attachments whatsoever. Dad called it a “charmed life,” being the only words he uttered in a week. But that never sat right with me. I’d always been one of those kids who hadn’t really understood what kind of person I wanted to be. All it took was a two-day drive to figure out I was not meant for change. New England smells like sugar in the spring and crisp apples in the fall—so I’m told. We arrived in the summer when it smelled like neither, but made my body sweat my water weight. I said we could’ve stopped in any of the cities we passed on the way—St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, New York. And I figured we’d be close enough to Boston to gain some sense of our old life in a new small suburb. But Dad kept driving, and the homes started to thin. When the roads turned to chalky dirt and dense forests filled the spaces between farmsteads, I wished Mom had lived. A few of the homes we passed were really old. Some were double-wide trailers with brown water damage stains and cluttered junk gardens. Others were squat one-levels that could’ve been pioneer homes. Rough brick under peeling plaster, dead vines under scorching heat, shutterless windows opening to darkness. We were going to live here? “How are we supposed to get food?” I asked. “I’m sure there’s a store nearby,” Dad replied. “I’m guessing it’s not a Walmart.” Dad grunted, paying attention to the road. The Bronco was fat, blue, and loud. I couldn’t believe we’d made the trip, worried my insides had flipped and I’d start shitting out my mouth; thank God for modern suspension systems—in other cars. Something appeared down the road under a low-hanging tree. It was a man. As we got closer, I noticed he was older, maybe 70s. He was wearing a pair of overalls with those faded railroad worker pinstripes. His face was long, tan, and wrinkled—so much that it was hard to find a space of flat skin real estate bigger than a fingernail. He walked with a dithering gait, as if being led by an invisible leash, meandering side-to-side. My first thought was alcohol, even if it was the early afternoon. My second thought was mental status. Dad slowed the Bronco as we approached the man. I wanted him to keep driving. When the man was close enough to pass, Dad stopped the car and rolled down the window. A rush of warm air and hot grass, and a constant, maddening buzz of cicadas or something. Dad looked at the old man. “Sir. Do you need a lift somewhere?” The second the words left Dad’s mouth, the old man turned on a dime and walked straight toward the open window. He stopped a few inches from the Bronco and looked at Dad with a pair of cloudy, pale yellow and gray eyes. His lips were crusty and dried with blood. Dirt lined every wrinkle. His brow and scalp were sparse with hair. And he was muttering something low and indiscernible. “Excuse me?” Dad asked. The old man kept muttering and staring. There was something unsettling about the way he stood, his pointed attention toward Dad, as if casting a curse upon my father. Every other string of gibberish came with an eye twitch. I’d seen a few mentally challenged people in my life, but none so confrontational. The muttering was quiet enough it began to sound like buzzing, blending with the cicadas. “Are you all right, sir?” Dad asked. Muttering. Buzzing. Dad gave me a glance, then checked the rear-view mirror. “We’ve gotta get moving. Are you sure you don’t need help?” The old man remained resolute in his opaque glare, his lips undulating. Dad put the Bronco in drive and we slowly peeled away. I turned to watch through the dark windows of the shell. The old man’s clouded eyes met mine as we passed the shade tree and disappeared behind a small hill. “Great neighborhood,” I said. Dad didn’t say anything, but I saw his eyes move to the rear view. We came to a stop after another mile. I hadn’t paid much attention to the structure centered in the driver’s open window because it was a barn. Why would I be looking at a barn? So we were going to be living in a barn. I argued with Dad as we drove through the opening in the property fence and down a set of rutted tracks. I imagined sleeping on hay bales. I remembered that scene from Saving Private Ryan where Matt Damon’s character recounted a story from his childhood, involving a barn, brothers, and a bra—I remembered the bra. At least Dad knew how to surprise me, even if unintentionally. Turns out there was a structure built into the back, with a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and a loft that connected to the barn’s interior. It was all very Smallville. A very grungy Smallville. The good: I had a great opportunity to develop my teenage dream of supreme coolness. As Dad unpacked downstairs and I sat on the edge of my loft bed, I could hear my peers saying, “Did you hear? Owen lives in a barn!” Girls would go crazy. I told myself I was hosting a party, with enough teenage mojo to surpass the kids in Can’t Hardly Wait. But then I stepped out of my mind for a second; I was supposed to be mad and sad. This back and forth usually happened. I have Mom to thank for that; she always wanted the best in any situation. The bad: there was no A/C, no internet, and no TV. There were cobwebs everywhere. And every time you ran the water, it came out brown for the first three seconds. The ugly: me. That party was never gonna happen. While I rifled through my suitcase, something slid around in the inner mesh pocket. I unzipped the pocket and pulled out the small picture frame of Mom and I. It was the size of my palm, a gift for my third birthday. She’d told me it was the perfect size for my “little life.” Each year after that, she’d given me another frame, slightly larger than the last. But I liked the first one best. I sat on the edge of my bed and admired the woman who would perpetually remain as old as my last memory of her. The apartment was so dusty, one swipe of your finger across the living room’s excuse for an entertainment stand would literally return a thick layer of grime. The walls were ’70s-style wood panels, with a few missing here and there. The windows in the living room were covered by a stiff, woven drape with a dull pattern I could only describe as abstract and meaningless. The more I walked through the apartment, the more I realized most of the upholstery had been hand-stitched. The end tables and nightstands were crafted with misshapen boards. The light fixtures were all covered in tarnished glass bowls filled with dozens of dead flies. Half the lightbulbs were out. The kitchen cabinets were thinly constructed, without hardware, and stained with a sticky film. The floor was a yellowing linoleum, peeling in the corners, with a huge portion cut out near the kitchen sink. Water stains in the ceiling. A whiff of mold every few seconds. And the sink itself was filled with open cans of tuna, now a collection pit for maggots and flies. I should have realized these were all clues not to open the fridge. I shouted to Dad in a fury that betrayed my age. There was a large bowl of dark purple and red entrails sitting on the middle shelf. The fridge had been unplugged and I had unsealed the door, leaving the apartment consumed by the rotting, meaty odor of deer guts. Dad reached into the fridge and took the bowl. I recoiled as he walked it outside and chucked the contents into the tall fields. When he came back, he didn’t say anything. Back to unpacking, I guess. I cursed under my breath, hoping he’d hear me. He’d taken me from my home and brought me here. I’d be better off living with that old muttering man. Mom’s signature mindset wasn’t kicking in this time. I laid on my new bed, which might as well have been a hay bale, and stared at the rafters as I slowly came to the realization that I would be spending the rest of my summer alone. That night I opened my eyes to moonlight knifing through the roof. I moved my head a little to each side, trying to detect other cracks. I hoped for rain, but could I trust Dad to call this place quits even then? I got up to pee, fumbling my way around dusty wood and rough boards; I was still in my shoes as I’d gotten a splinter earlier by just walking down the stairs. The smell of decay was still wafting around the humid apartment. And the sounds of the forest around the barn were alive and omnipresent. I heard it when I returned to my bed, something different enough to make me freeze and listen. It wasn’t the crickets at their harassing volume. Not the sigh of the trees as the wind coalesced their limbs and leaves. I heard it again, this time fully lucid: the low, almost imperceptible mutter of a person, probably fifteen feet from the barn. My body went rigid as my ears became the only working instruments. A string of incoherent babbling went on for about two minutes, pieces of phrases and words that would surface from a whisper like a bobbing buoy. Then it stopped. I waited. That old man was standing outside the barn. Why would he be walking around in the middle of the night? Had he been walking the entire day? Had we left a mentally challenged man to wander the countryside alone? It wasn’t our fault. Why would we be responsible? Were we supposed to perfectly discern his condition? The muttering started again, but closer. My breaths were caught in my throat, pumping against my adrenaline-clenched body. Should I have gotten Dad? Did this man need help? Against my burning mind’s reproaches, I slowly slid my legs off the bed. The muttering was like a pin in my ear, pricking every other second and triggering pain in my spine. I placed my feet on the floor and used every muscle in my body to carefully move toward the staircase. I slammed my shoe into my open suitcase and fell into the long dresser against the wall. The thudding noises were deafening. I laid on the floor for minutes, breathing tightly, listening to the rustle of leaves outside. The muttering had stopped. I waited, suddenly feeling a spike of heat on my cheek. I realized I had probably fallen onto a splinter. But the adrenaline overwhelmed my senses. I listened the entire night without moving, unable to hear the muttering—or anything moving—again. Dad asked me what happened to my cheek the next morning. I told him the truth. “Maybe there’s a group home nearby,” Dad said, working on the broken doorframe to the covered carport. “He needs help,” I said. “I’m gonna call the police.” Dad stopped his work and watched me leave, but didn’t say anything. I called the police. They said they’d look into it. I didn’t know my address. Dad didn’t either. I felt the phone call was as useless as I was last night. It was one of those things where I let frustration about reality force action. I probably could have gone outside and told the officer what our barn looked like, but in addition to their already uninterested demeanor, I didn’t have the energy to fully see it through. Instead, I left the barn and ventured into the forest myself. New England forests are dense and dark. It’s hard for light to penetrate the canopy. The trees had thick, gnarly roots as wide as truck tires, curling above and below ground. When I looked down a rare clear aisle of trees, all I saw was a mirror-like reflection of trunks and limbs and brush creating a distorted perception of distance. It made me slightly dizzy. I had to be careful where I walked; large divots marred the undergrowth every few steps. When I reached what I imagined was twenty feet, I stopped and took a long view of the surrounding area. I wasn’t a detective. Everything looked the same. I pushed aside some brush. Beneath the foliage was a dirt layer fettered with weeds, grass, and roots. And in the dirt a few feet away from where I stood, I found the imprint of feet. I had not come from that direction—and I was wearing shoes. I stood and looked toward the print’s trajectory. They led deeper into the forest. “What are you doing?” I spun with heated breath. Dad stood at the tree line, sweaty, emotionless, hands dirty from work. “There are tracks here,” I said. “He was standing right here.” “There is someone here for you,” Dad said. I scrunched my face. “What? The police?” “No. A girl.” A girl? To see me? How did anyone know we were here? I followed Dad back out of the forest, taking a last look at the spiraling shade behind me. When I got to the front door, there was a girl about my age standing patiently with an older woman. The girl was dressed neatly, wore her brown hair in a ponytail, and flashed me a bright smile as I approached. The older woman nodded to me and smiled. “Hello. Hope we’re not bothering you. I’m Susanne Wilky and this is my daughter, Rosie. We were just driving home and saw your car parked outside. We live just three houses down the road. It’s Owen, right?” Dad was already gone. Would it have killed him to stick around and not leave me with the strangers? “Nice to meet you,” I said, shakily. “Your dad told us you’ve just moved in, which is great because there aren’t a lot of younger families in the neighborhood. Your dad said you were a Junior. Same as Rosie.” Rosie remained silent, no doubt embarrassed to be brought to the house; she probably would have remained in the car. I know I would have. “This barn hasn’t had people for a long time,” Susanne continued, giving the exterior a sweeping look. “Ever since we’ve been here. I wasn’t even sure if anyone owned the land. So I’m glad to have new neighbors. I hope you’ve got everything you need.” “Well, to be honest, no,” I said, thinking of the rotting entrails from earlier. “But we’ll be okay.” “Please let us know if you need anything,” Susanne said. “We’ll let you go. It was nice to meet you, Owen.” They said goodbye—Rosie out of necessity—and left to walk the ruts back to their minivan. I stood at the door for a few minutes, watching them reverse out of the property. At least there seemed to be some normal people here. The next few weeks were quiet. I stayed up late each night to see if I could hear him. No matter how hard I strained my mind and ears, he had seemed to understand that people lived here now. But that didn’t stop the other sounds from turning my nights into a sweltering, fever dream of paranoia. I was certain one night I heard someone chewing below me, in the barn—a squelch of juice against teeth. The police hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t shocked. Maybe when we went into town—basically a handful of unmarked shops—I would walk over to the station and see if anyone knew about the old man. School was starting soon—a thought I was simultaneously dreading and excitedly anticipating—and maybe kids knew something. Dad had spent the majority of his free time outside of work trying to fix apartment issues. I wanted to help, but his silence gave me the answer. I kept telling him about the barn roof, but it was low on the priority list apparently. He’d fixed the doorframe to the carport, the lightbulbs, some holes in the walls, and was in the midst of figuring out the plumbing situation. “Any progress?” I asked, watching him rip out the bottom cabinet board under the sink, pieces of flaky wood spraying everywhere. Instead of going into the wall, the pipes went underground. He didn’t answer for a moment, face-first into the exposed piping with a flashlight in hand, trying to glean an understanding of condition or placement or something. He retracted and sat on his heels. “I . . . don’t remember there being a basement,” he said quietly. Without waiting for me to contribute to a conversation, he stood and started stomping on the floor and listening after each barrage. “I’ll help,” I said, feeling more curious about a potential basement than helping him. We filtered throughout the first floor, stomping and knocking to check for anything hollow. Linoleum would have to be pulled up if there was any basement entrance inside the apartment. Dad thought the chunk of missing linoleum in the kitchen was a clue, so he began ripping up more. But I had a different hunch. I walked outside to the back, where the deep forest pushed up against the apartment. My arrogance was shot down as I saw a flat facade with no classic shutter door entrance. As I rounded the house to go back inside, I heard shouting echoing across the property, coming from the main road. I followed the fence posts to get a better angle, but tried to make myself small and unnoticeable. There was a good distance from the barn to the road. The old property across the street was one of those pioneer houses. They had built it upon a small knoll, surrounded by trees and a huge boulder that sat on their front lawn. The place was shaggy with grass and brush, unkempt from the broken shutters to the bent mailbox. When we had driven past the place, it had looked abandoned. But now I was watching two people outside on its rutted driveway. “Leonard!” a woman shouted, taking little short steps down the slope to the gravel road. “Leonard, please!” She was trying to catch up to a man who looked more like a depressed basset hound in human form. Drooping head, thin like a small tree, wearing clothes too big. I admittedly smirked at the domestic squabble, wondering what Leonard did in the same way I enjoyed reality TV. I folded my arms over the nearest fence post and admired the view. “Leonard!” the woman screeched, a blast of finality. The man kept walking. She jogged to reach him and caught his arm. Leonard stopped moving, but didn’t turn. “Stop leaving like this! Just tell me where you’re going! I can’t do this anymore. I’m so tired. Leonard! Look at me!” I started to feel a little uncomfortable, but kept watching. The woman pleaded with him to stay and to tell her where he was going. She began to sob. I took my arms off the post. It was time to see what Dad was up to. While I was about to turn around, I saw the flap of Leonard’s baggy sleeve move in my peripherals. When I checked again, the woman was on the ground. Leonard was strangling her into the gravel. I froze for a second. I had never seen anything like it. This sort of violence was only in movies. The woman’s flailing appendages got me to jerk back into reality and sprint forward, shouting for Dad. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, my body filling with hot energy. I rushed across our property through one of the tire ruts and bellowed at Leonard to stop. Leonard made a fast, vicious movement, shoving his entire body weight onto the woman’s neck. The woman’s flailing stopped. And so did I. I couldn’t voice anything. The act was a lightning strike to my brain. Regaining my spirit was like trying to start a cruddy engine. Eventually, Dad came running behind me. I watched Leonard stand up, leaving the woman’s body limp on the gravel. I saw his face as he turned toward us, gaunt, thin-lipped, gray, and emotionless. And I’m not sure if it was the nerves or my Dad shouting or the lighting in that moment, but I swear I saw Leonard’s mouth moving as if speaking low. Then he began walking away, up the road. Dad stopped at the woman’s body and told me to call 911.
School started two weeks later. The small class of thirty-eight Juniors split into a few classes that rotated through different subjects, desperately trying to operate like a big school. It was nothing like Oklahoma. Mid-periods weren’t a frenzy. Lunch was quiet. And everyone seemed to know everyone on a deeper level. Which was why the woman’s death—Molly Anbench—remained the topic of conversation for quite some time. It completely erased any sort of interest I had in the muttering old man. I hadn’t spoken to Dad about what happened. I kept hoping he would bring it up, but he simply went back to working on the barn. It reminded me too much about when Mom died. After the crash, Dad had retracted into a husk of his former self, at least the self I can remember, the one from the home videos. It was almost as if he’d disappeared. The man who continued to raise me did so passively, relying on my own skills, school, and therapy—others—to do the job. And now, as I keep seeing Leonard’s pulsing movement that ended Molly’s life replay in my mind, Dad was still absent. So one day after school I kicked the wooden railing of the loft, breaking the softened wood and sending shards onto the messy floor below. I hated this place. I hated Dad. I hated the feeling that I was responsible for everything but couldn’t access the same autonomy as him. Of course, he’d ordered me to clean up the broken pieces of the banister, but since he hardly went into the barn, he’d probably forget in a couple days. The only upside was that school wasn’t as horrible as I imagined. Most of the kids were either pleasant or too quiet. Rosie Wilky was always nice to me, but I couldn’t expect her to become friends just because my perception of our town included me, her family, the muttering man, and a murderer. She had her own group and I couldn’t be bothered to strike up a conversation, much less actively seek new friends. Coasting through the semester and keeping to myself seemed like the best option. One hot and sticky night I lay in bed in nothing but my boxer shorts. I was trying to listen for any sign of the old man, but the loft was unbearable. Despite my inner rage at Dad for the apartment, the lack of A/C, the disregard for the direction of my life, the damn banister was still gnawing at my mind. I groaned as I sat up and shoved on my sneakers. I picked up my phone, but I had forgotten to plug it in for the night. Cursing, I peered over the drop before heading downstairs. I would have to rely on the light from the loft as the barn had no wiring for electricity. I could hear Dad’s white noise machine as I passed his room on the way to the barn entrance. The light from my loft gave a warm glow across the upper barn, but provided little exposure to the ground, especially along the sides. The wooden floor was seasoned with flecks of hay, dirt, and oil stains. A strong smell of rusty equipment and old leather wafted about. The previous owner had left stacks of old hay, a canvassed manual plow, a workbench, and a slew of tools, wooden shelves, and empty drums. From the darkness, they all looked like rotting teeth peeking out of the shadows. There was just enough diffused light to make out the splintered pieces of the banister. I had a chance to look at the floor properly. I found it odd that it was made of boards. Wouldn’t they store vehicles here? Animals? Boards seemed a little weak to carry such weight, but what the hell did I know about farming? The wood was spaced a little, so you could see through the dark cracks. One of the pieces of banister was laying in line with a crack. I picked it up, revealing a pair of almost imperceptible cloudy gray eyes below the floor. They blinked. I fell back and shouted in fright. There was no sound below me. I was clenching the pieces of banister so hard they dug into my palm. “Who’s there?!” I shouted, so loud I hoped it would wake Dad. Only the wind outside answered. I scrambled to my feet and started stomping. “Who’s down there?! Get out of our house!” I let silence fall again. I could hear the faint whirring of Dad’s white noise machine, the trees swaying, the crickets, the creaking boards above. But nothing below. Suddenly the darkness from the corners of the barn floor began to encroach. Everything became thicker, more malevolent. I left the barn and turned on the kitchen light. I swiveled in a heightened sense of urgency, looking for Dad’s flashlight. I opened the sink cupboards and found it standing upright next to a clutter of tools. I took the plastic yellow thing, turned it on, and marched back to the barn. With the additional light from the kitchen and the flashlight’s burn, I confidently scrutinized the floor. The entrance to a basement wasn’t in the apartment. It was in here. I wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen when I found the entrance. Someone was in our basement, living underneath our floorboards. The eyes were forever implanted in my mind’s eye, too coincidental to not belong to him. The old man. Was this his home all along? I crossed the barn, feeling his eyes upon me as I searched. I wasn’t going to shine a light down there again. Not yet. Not until I found something. I moved a stack of tools, unfurled a canvass sheet, and moved some hay bales with difficulty. Nothing. As I moved to the other side, I felt a distinct give in the boards underneath my feet. I paused and looked down. A thin line in the shape of a square was cut into the boards, a little bigger than the width of my feet. At the bottom of the cutout square, there was a “handle” carved into the board. My back locked up. I needed to get Dad. I burst into his room and found the light switch. He jerked under the covers and looked up. “Dad, there’s someone underneath the barn.” It took a second for his eyes to adjust. He propped himself up and held his head. “What?” he asked hoarsely. “I saw someone under the floorboards of the barn. The door to the basement is in the barn.” Dad swung his legs over the bed and used the wall for support as he stumbled toward me. I let him lead the way, the two of us pounding into the barn, both wearing boxer shorts. He observed the surroundings.
“Hello?” he called. “They don’t answer. I tried.” “You saw someone?” he asked incredulously, looking back at me with eyes of impossibility. “Up close. I think it’s the old man.”
“Owen,” Dad said angrily, with exhaustion. He growled in frustration, but didn’t press. “Where’s the door?” “Far end. Should I call the police?” “The—no. Don’t call nobody.” He ambled over to the front of the barn, found the door, and pulled up without hesitation. “Flashlight,” he said. I lobbed him the flashlight and approached his side. He pointed the beam down. There was a mangled wooden ladder of about five rungs, then dirt. It looked tall enough to crouch. “Dad, we need to call the police. You can’t go down there.” He didn’t answer. He got as low as he could and angled himself to try and see where the dirt floor led. “There are footprints,” he said quietly. “Dad.” “Shh,” he said. “I can’t see anything else.” He started to descend the ladder, keeping the flashlight on his feet. Once he hit the floor, he turned and pointed the light the other direction. I saw the excess light come up through the cracks at the other end, where I had seen the eyes. “Anything?” I asked, feeling colder than I had ever felt in my life. “Foundation here. Storage. There’s a concrete room or something ahead.” “A room?” “No door. Just an opening. Pillars inside.” With the comfort of my father’s presence, I felt bold enough to lay on the floor and dip my head into the opening. My mind brought the slanted image into view. Dad was shining his light around the space below the footprint of the barn, full of cardboard boxes, broken tool hafts, plant pots, an ironing board, and cans of food. He moved the light toward the apartment side, and I saw how the foundation opened to another space farther, with two pillars peeking out from either side. Something twinkled at the back of the room. “Hey!” I shouted, startling Dad and causing him to curse. “What is wrong with you?” he snapped. That was all it took. “Me?” I said, fuming. “I know what I saw. I’m not lying. What, you think I want attention? I’d rather be invisible than be here. Why the hell did you buy this place anyways? It’s a shit hole. You took me from my friends and brought me to this place. Why? Why do you hate me?” Dad was shaking his head. “You think I wanted this? You think I would have picked this place if I didn’t have to? I’m trying to keep you fed. I have to do what’s necessary.” “Fed with deer guts?” “We won’t be here forever.” “No, just enough to traumatize me, though.” “There’s nothing here!” Then the muttering started. The skin on Dad’s face stretched tightly. He spun in the dirt and pointed the light into the foundation opening. I saw the same back wall, the same pillars, the same twinkle—something black or . . . The muttering and buzzing continued, coming from that room. “Dad,” I whispered. “Come out,” Dad shouted. “Right now.” Nothing changed. “We’re going to kill you if you don’t get out of our house!” I yelled. “Owen!” Dad spat. “Call the police.” “I’m not leaving you here!” “Do it. Now.” I pushed myself up and sprinted to the kitchen. When I returned, the light from the flashlight was still coming up underneath the boards. Dad was talking. “If you don’t come out of there, the police are gonna get you out themselves. We bought this place. You can’t live here.” The muttering was right below me. I moved to the trap door again and laid flat. I saw Dad hunched forward, like a panther, a few inches closer to the concrete opening. This was the first time in as long as I can remember where Dad’s entire demeanor had shifted, like he had engaged a motor that had been inactive for a decade. A pale, wrinkly face turned the corner of the concrete room, opaque eyes reflecting in Dad’s flashlight like a cat’s. Dad’s body tightened and he braced for an encounter. The old man was still muttering as he continued to reveal himself. Flaccid neck, bare shoulders, chest, torso . . . I groaned as he exposed his fully nude body, completely irradiated with grime and dust. He wasn’t bothering to make a proper crouch, instead shoving his back into the floorboards above and scraping along the short concrete corridor toward Dad. Dad stumbled back before reinforcing his stance. “Stop!” Dad shouted. “The police are here. They’re going to take you away. Stop!” I didn’t hear any sirens or cars approaching. I watched as if encased in ice as the old man kept moving forward. Dad slowly backed up, but it became apparent to me that he was going to be the force between me and the old man. “Dad, come back, let’s lock him in there!” “I said stop! Sto—” The old man plowed into Dad and they fell into the dirt floor. The back of Dad’s head hit a joist on his way down. The flashlight spun into the floor, showing a part of their struggle. Dad’s forearm was pinned onto the dirt; the old man opened a mouth of black and yellow teeth and clamped down onto the flesh. Dad made a hoarse, desperate cry and they rolled onto the flashlight, crushing it. The brightness of the crawl space disappeared. I could only hear them now. I was screaming down the opening, readying myself to drop down. Then I heard a sharp smack and the struggle stopped. I heard someone panting. “Dad?!” A rumbling of gravel and tall grass came from behind. The police had arrived.
Hospitals were Mom’s domain. A doctor in faded green scrubs appeared in my fuzzy vision, as if materializing out of nothing. “Owen?” I was blinking the blur away, readjusting to the small waiting room, with its nearly empty vending machine, its pipes painted white to match the walls, and its ringing fluorescent lights overhead. I was the only one in the room. “Owen?” the doctor repeated. I looked up. “He’s okay?” The doctor was a short man with a wide face, making his smile seem longer than normal. “Your father’s doing fine. A little bump on the head, a few scratches, and a bite mark.” “What the hell was that guy on?” “What guy?” “The psycho who bit my dad!” “Oh, yes. I’m not allowed to discuss other patients, but I’m told the police investigation is ongoing. Now, we’ve given your father shots and made sure no infection will spread, if there was any. We’re going to keep him overnight to monitor him.” I stood. “Which room?” The doctor held out his hand. “Er—Owen. Your father asked me to send you home. He told me you need to sleep.” “What? Hell no. I’m not going back there. Aren’t the cops there anyways?” The doctor chuckled. “No. We don’t have a team of forensic investigators in this town. You should be okay.” “How am I supposed to get home?” “One of the officers here can take you,” the doctor said. “Or perhaps you know someone nearby?” I was holding my head in frustration. “I don’t—no. We just moved here. Can’t I just stay here? I’ll sleep on the chair. I’m not even tired. Why can’t I see him?” “Owen, slow down,” the doctor said, smiling. “Unfortunately, the officers think it’s in your best interest to head back home.” “What?” He approached quietly, folding his arms. “Owen. Your father’s attacker—he’s here. We’re providing care for him. The officers think it best if you weren’t here.” The thought of the old man getting help made me sick. I was too unnerved to give him the benefit of the doubt. Tweaking, mentally unstable—it was background noise to the idea that someone had been possibly living underneath me. An officer wearing one of those puffy black coats came out of the swinging doors behind the doctor. “You Owen? Let’s go.” He walked around the reception desk and backed into the glass doors. “C’mon.” I hesitated. The officer had a stoic face. Before I could answer, he was already outside. “You better go,” the doctor said. “Your father is fine. You can see him tomorrow.” “Whatever,” I said quietly, heading outside. The ride home was silent. I sat in the back of the pitch-black police car, the only illumination coming from the dashboard gauges. Weapons were fitted in holsters up front. His eyes never flashed me once during the trip; they were red and puffy and completely unfeeling. I was glad he had been at the scene, else I wouldn’t have known the way. When we stopped outside the barn—at 2:48 a.m.—he didn’t say anything. The car idled like a purring animal. “Okay, thanks . . .” I said, getting out. The moment I closed the door, he was backing up fast, and soon the lights from the car were gone, leaving me standing in the towering shadow of the barn. All around were swaying edges of black. Clouds above were masking any stars or light from the sky. I was steeped in night. Looking at the deadened mass that was the barn, I imagined sleeping alone. Every creaking board and nameless clacking would never let me sleep anyways. Why couldn’t I have stayed at the hospital with my own goddamned father? They really thought I was going to do something to that old man? The way everything happened had me confused, frustrated, and afraid. Without the presence, no, the knowledge of Dad’s body in the apartment, I felt incredibly exposed. I couldn’t move. I could not take another step forward. A little piece of me did want to investigate the basement. A part of me also wanted to hitchhike back to Oklahoma. And yeah, maybe a part of me wanted to do something to that old man. I was sweating, and the breeze was chilling it. Every second I stood there like an idiot, the surrounding sounds became more than nature. Looking at the front door, I remembered a face, a voice. There was another option. She had said “if you need anything.” It took me a second to actualize that I was walking toward the road. Movement felt freeing. My eyes adjusted well to the darkness and I could make out depth and form. I hit the dirt road and looked down either direction. Three houses down. But which way? I should have asked. That would have been weird. I decided to walk right, hearing nothing but the crunch underneath my feet. I looked at the giant boulder sitting on the Anbench property. The dark house looked like a part of the landscape. I kept moving, curving down the road, glad that the chalkiness of the dirt seemed to glow in the night. I was lucky that past the next bend, the forest gave way to flat fields. I counted the obvious homesteads and found the third house encased in a fence and gate. The mailbox outside was brick with no name printed. I had to chance it. I hopped the gate and walked up the gravel road. I could hear the old man muttering in my ears, see his filthy body advancing. Anxiety pulsed my chest, the kind that burns and cripples. Sometimes the muttering grew loud enough to make me spin in place, uncertain if there was something crouched in the tall grass or if it was all just swirling in my brain. The house was a long brick rambler with a three-car garage and a wraparound porch. They had a great curved lawn with a few toys strewn about. The windows were dark. I prepared for the backlash I was about to receive even if it was the right house, clenched my fist, and knocked loudly. I kept looking behind me, checking the road. There were dark shapes moving at the edges of the forests, leaves or something else . . . It took another few knocks to generate a response; lights began popping on inside. I heard voices. The porch light blasted with life, and I shielded my eyes. I saw the bay window curtains flutter. Then the door opened. It took her a second to remember. “Owen?” My heart leaped at the sight of Susanne Wilky. She was wrapped in a thin robe and holding it tightly. Her hair was messy, and her eyes had been forced to wake. “Mrs. Wilky, I’m so sorry to bother you. There’s been an accident. I didn’t know where else to go.” Hearing how shaky my voice was brought warmth to my eyes, but I fought against the release. I explained what had happened as fast as possible, and Susanne ushered me inside. “Sit down, sit down,” she said, rushing to the kitchen. I did as I was told. The living room was warm and cozy. Wood floors, a sectional, two armchairs, a wooden coffee table, fireplace, and kitsch placed on every mantle and shelf. Down the hallway I saw a room with a light on, the door ajar. I could hear low voices. Susanne brought me a warm cup of herbal tea and collected a blanket from a basket at the end of the couch. She started consoling me, but I was zoning out. The tea was hot in my hands and expanded my sinuses like menthol. My body had been tense for so long that I didn’t realize how sore I was. The softness of the sectional eased the discomfort and began a slow, outward spiral of relaxation. The hallway door opened, and Rosie stepped out in her own robe and pajamas. She didn’t seem too excited to be woken up at 3 a.m., but I was glad she at least smiled at me. “I’m really sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to wake you all.” “It’s okay,” Rosie said, her voice thick with sleep. “This’ll give me an excuse to miss school.” Susanne gave Rosie a look. Rosie took a seat across from the sectional on one of the armchairs. “Really, though, what happened? Are you okay?” I told Rosie the whole story. Speaking to someone my own age was unbelievably welcoming. I could tell Susanne wanted to stay, but her eyes were getting heavy, and I think she also saw what was happening. She told us she was going to bed and to get her if anything happened. I thanked her profusely and Rosie and I sat in silence as Susanne left her bedroom door ajar. “You’ve never seen him before?” I whispered to Rosie, as we spoke about the old man. She shook her head. “People here like to think they know everyone on the street, but time goes by and you don’t see people for years. I don’t recognize anyone like that.” “Do you . . . think he’d been living there?” “Ugh,” she said, pulling her legs to her chest. “I really hope not. But then again, you do realize what kind of place your dad bought?” “I wish I had,” I said, smiling faintly, remembering the outburst I’d given Dad before the night collapsed. “Wish we’d bought something like this.” “What does your dad do?” “Back in Oklahoma, he was in manufacturing. Or like a supply . . . something in manufacturing. Like management I think.” Rosie paused, waiting to see if I had anything else to add. “Does he still do that here? A lot of people here are farmers. Some work in town. I don’t think there’s a plant or anything nearby.” I was about to speak, but I had nothing truthful to say. “I . . . don’t know where he works.” “Oh. Well, it’s so new.” I looked at the dregs of my tea, realizing I hadn’t put the cup down yet. There was a long pause. I wanted to change the subject. “Did you ever find out what happened with the Anbenches?” I asked. “All I heard was that her husband went crazy and killed her. They still haven’t found Leonard. People are saying all kinds of things. I don’t know what to think. One of my friends, Tiffany Harris—not sure if you know her—anyways, her dad’s a cop. She told me they found all these weird notes in their house. They all said, ‘I have my purpose.’ Over and over again.” I thought to the cop who had driven me home, but he seemed a little too young. “That’s . . . weird.” Rosie shrugged. “We knew Molly a little. She’s been here a while. All she wanted was a good husband.” I sat in thought for a moment, remembering the strangling. “I was there, you know. I saw him kill her.” Rosie sat forward. “Seriously? Are you . . . okay?” I nodded. “I . . . I feel like ever since we got here, I’ve only been traumatized. Can’t tell if it’s this place or me.” “You didn’t kill Molly; it’s not you. You seem pretty normal to me.” I saw the way her eyes drifted down, as if she had more to say. “So it’s the area then?” “It’s . . .” she sighed, smiling out of embarrassment. “I don’t want to seem crazy.” “I just showed up at your house in the middle of the night. At this point, I’m the epitome of crazy.” Rosie smirked. “I wouldn’t recommend being on the other end either. Hearing someone pounding the door this early doesn’t give you good vibes.” “What is it about this town? Do you know something?” “Not really. It just feels like every so often there’s something strange that happens.” “Then why would you think you’d seem crazy? That’s not crazy.” “Okay, look. There are some people who say there’s something underground here.” “Like a man living in your basement?” “God, I hope not. No, not like that. Like . . . deep underground.” “Why do they think that?” “Well, for example, we have a basement. There’s one corner of that basement—right there—that has always given me a weird sensation over the years. Feels like . . . you’re spinning. One time we were having a family party down there for my birthday and my little brother fell off his chair for no reason. Banged his head on the wall when he fell. He said he just felt like doing it. I always get this nausea in my stomach when I stay down there for too long. It’s nothing too big a deal. And all of it can be explained, I’m sure. That’s why I feel like an idiot talking about it because you’ve just had a real experience and I’m talking about a corner of the house.” “You said people say there’s something underground, though. What something?” Rosie shrugged. “A lady at our church said she felt gravity pull her to the ground one night.” “Oh, so not crazy at all.” “I’m serious. She said she was walking across her lawn to get her hose sprinkler or whatever and all the sudden she’s pulled to the ground and can’t move. She said it was the reason for her broken leg.” “Does everyone think she’s crazy?” “Mostly, yeah. But she’s one of those people who makes up stories to sound interesting.” “I wish my stories were made up.” Rosie smiled, but it seemed forced. She was playing with her fingers. There was something else. “What is it?” I asked. “When . . .” she began, but then stopped and shook her head. “It’s late. Or early. We just met; I don’t want—” “If it’s too personal, I get it,” I said, but didn’t mean it. “I know I’m just some new kid, but you can trust me. This helps—talking.” I don’t know what I was blubbering about, I just didn’t want this to end. Rosie sighed, looking at the ceiling. “Okay. But you have to promise—” “I promise.” She allowed it with a brief look of accepting impatience, then gathered herself again. “I was . . . maybe ten?” She was playing with her fingers more, not making eye contact. “My mom’s always been a big education person. Good grades, college—everything. I’ve always wanted to go to college, but life was complicated back then. My parents were getting divorced. So, being ten, I thought I’d never get the chance to go to college. “We were at some town fair. I remember wandering off to a booth that had advertisements for one of the colleges around here. There was this . . . guy at the booth. He gave me a pamphlet and asked me a few questions. And then . . . he asked me to follow him. He said he had scholarship information, like some special track students could work through before college to get a full-ride. I know, I know. It was so stupid. But I followed him. Luckily nothing happened like that, thank God. But . . . something happened. “He led me to this old canvas tent behind a lot of the fair booths. I remember it was magenta and purple, stained and ripped. He lifted the tent flap for me, and smiled. His teeth were yellow or missing. And the tent smelled like piss. It was disgusting; the floor was covered in old papers and mud and empty carnival food boats. Dirty clothes and broken furniture. He must have slept there because there was this little station with a bed and one of those dressing room shades. There was a huge tarp covering the center of the tent, held by stakes. He knelt down and removed one of the stakes and pulled up a corner of the tarp to show me what was underneath. “It was only a few seconds, but I remember seeing the mud drop into a hole in the ground, like a funnel. It was wet and singed my nose with a smell I won’t forget. Like burnt hair and a landfill. And all around the funnel were marks in the mud. Like finger marks. That’s when I ran.” I was quiet for a moment, recoiling internally. “He didn’t try anything? Didn’t follow you?” Rosie swallowed. “Well, not exactly. In our backyard, the basement is exposed, like a walkout, you know? And my old room’s window looked out to the backyard. A couple nights after the fair, I woke up to go to the bathroom. And I saw the silhouette of a man standing outside my window, right up to the glass.” “What the hell,” I said, unable to contain myself. “When I screamed, he walked away. The police had searches but never found anything. They even had an officer stay outside and watch the house. But he came back three more times. Each time he was farther back from the window. And the last time I saw him, I was walking past my room, and you can see the window through the doorway. I saw him standing in our backyard, looking at the window. Looking at me.” “Nothing ever happened? They didn’t find him?” Rosie shook her head. “God, I’m sorry, Rosie.” “I moved upstairs and haven’t seen him since.” I sighed, wondering if there was any kind of connection between all these stories. A hole in the ground covered by a tarp? Leonard Anbench? A woman with a gravity-induced broken leg? The old man? Despite Rosie’s company, I would have given anything to be back home in Stillwater. The anxiety was back, warming my chest and making me feel alone. Rosie adjusted her weight. “Are you going back to the barn tomorrow?” “I don’t want to, but yeah. I just couldn’t . . . we’re having some electrical issues right now.” “Are you kidding? If that had happened to me, I wouldn’t have gone within eight feet of that place. Let alone at night.” I smiled, and some of the anxiety faded. “Thanks, Rosie. For staying up and talking.” “Well, this doesn’t happen every night. I’m glad you’re okay.” We chatted for another half hour until Susanne poked her head out and told us to go to bed. I really liked Rosie, and I could tell she at least enjoyed talking to me. But I wasn’t counting on taking her to homecoming. After saying goodbye to the Wilky family, full of a warm muffin, orange juice, and hash browns, I began my trek back home. It was already getting hot out, and the bugs were starting to sharpen their legs. Knowing one family in the neighborhood gave me a little confidence, but I was growing nervous with every step at the prospect of going back to the basement. When I passed the forest outcrop that separated Rosie and her neighbors from the barn’s side, I heard crunching behind me. Rosie slowed to a stop with her hair in a braid and a red plaid shirt and jeans. “Need some company?” she asked. My chest was glowing, but my face was confused. “How’d you . . . you want to come with me? Why?” “I’m a little curious, too.” “Your mom know you’re ditching school?” “Um. No. I don’t . . . usually lie. Look, it gets really boring around here.” “Well, it’s probably gonna be pretty boring there, too. And you’re not gonna enjoy the apartment.” “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” I held my tongue as we continued to my property, rounding the fence post and walking down the rut. “I’ve always thought it looked cool from the road,” Rosie said. “Like for pictures and stuff.” “Maybe we’ll find another old man and you can put us all on Instagram.” “Deal.” I opened the door for her and anticipated the reaction to the smell and condition. Despite the daylight, the interior of the apartment was wing-clipped by those awful woven curtains; the entire space was like walking into a dark sepia photo. I couldn’t believe anyone lived here either. “I’m just going to be honest,” Rosie said. “It reminds me of those death photos people used to take.” “Oh, God.” “I mean, they did wear suits and dresses.” “Magnificently dead. I’ll take it.” We creaked through the apartment and found the barn entrance. My loft light was still on, and a few cracks and holes in the barn shone through to the floor. The barn had a musty, stale smell, sprinkled with hay and oil and something that tasted like iron. The trap door to the basement was left open. “Can we open the barn door?” Rosie asked, making her way toward the front. “Good idea.” We struggled for a while trying to get the thing to move. But it felt like something was catching the sliding mechanism on top of the door. I didn’t want to break it; I liked the idea of a locked door a few feet away from my loft. “It’s not much,” Rosie said, activating her phone’s flashlight. “Oh, nice. I forgot mine’s still upstairs, totally dead.” She shined the light on the trap door. There was blood on the ladder rungs, reflecting back. “Is that . . .” Rosie whispered. “Not sure who it belonged to,” I said, and held my hand out for her phone. “Mind if I take it?” I laid flat and checked the opening. Remnants of Dad’s flashlight were scattered across the dirt floor. Dirt was heaped in various clumps. Everything else looked how I saw it last night. “I’m going down.” “This is definitely not boring,” Rosie said, a little excitement in her otherwise quiet voice. I asked her to hold the phone, then descended, careful to avoid any blood. The smell of decay ran straight through me. I coughed at first, then asked Rosie if I could take the phone again. “I’m coming down, too,” she said. “You don’t have to.” “I want to.” I waited for Rosie to gingerly step down the rungs and join me in the cramped space. Our breaths were close. “It smells awful,” she said, covering her mouth and nose with her shirt. I started moving forward. It was hard to maneuver without my body wanting to fall forward. It would have been so much easier to crawl, but I wanted to avoid that. We came to the wrestle heaps. I could see dark spots in the dirt. I stepped forward and felt a small object under my shoe. I shuffled back and pointed the light down. “Shit,” I whispered. It was a blood-stained yellow tooth, root and all. Rosie groaned. “Let’s hurry,” I said. We made our way farther, entering the concrete room single file. The room was a box with two equidistant pillars and smelled the strongest. I started with the right side, where the old man had been sitting. I could tell there were prints in the dirt. Dark streaks and a smeared, glistening green substance marked the walls. “What’s that?” Rosie whispered behind me. I turned to look at her. She was pointing forward, at the end of the concrete room. I followed her finger and saw an obsidian pyramid sticking out of the dirt a couple inches, twinkling in the light. I went to reach for it and tried to pick it up, but my fingers slipped; it was stuck solid in the ground. The sides were polished and reflective. There were ribbed markings in the shape of semi-circles all across its surfaces. No pattern or system to its design. I tried to scoop some dirt around the pyramid’s edges, but the thing kept going deeper into the ground. “What the hell is it?” I thought out loud. “Let me see,” Rosie said, sidling past me. Her fingers ran over the pyramid’s surface. “So smooth.” I noticed something in the corner of the room was catching the light. I turned the phone slightly and pointed at the ground. Rosie noticed and looked. Upon closer examination, she shrieked. Dozens of pale, naked tails were sticking out of a mound of dirt, like an underwater sea creature. I could see the little fuzz of some hair sticking out. Dead, buried rats. I swung the phone around. A few other clumpy mounds. My breakfast churned as my brain linked the smell and the sight with the sound I had heard sometimes at night—chewing. “C’mon, let’s get out of here,” Rosie said, already waiting at the room’s opening. “Hold on,” I said, moving back to the pyramid. I touched it again. It really was so incredibly smooth. I wanted to know what it led to. Was there a giant pyramid below the barn? Was it some kind of bunker sticking out? I wanted to know if there was anything inside it. It couldn’t hurt to try and dig it out. I could get shovels and rakes and put the dirt in bags or baskets and haul it out. Maybe Dad could help. Rosie too. We could pull up the floor above to make it easier. Open the barn door. Sleep closely. So smooth. “Owen, please, I’m feeling sick. It’s bringing back memories.” “Huh?” I said, startled, my head spinning. Above us, something scratched against wood. It was coming from inside the apartment. Rosie took in a breath. I turned off the light. The sound continued, like a dog wanting to go outside. I brought Rosie to this place. Why did I think that would be okay? If anything happened to her, it would be on me. We needed to get out of the crawl space. I whispered to let her know. Before we could move, the front door to the apartment burst open. We froze. A shuffling movement entered the apartment. Someone spoke, but it was muffled and low. Footsteps creaked into the barn. We looked above us as a shadow crossed the slits. The person was limping and panting. The shadow was going straight for the trap door—our only way out. I pulled Rosie into the concrete room again and we each took a side behind the walls. I peered around the edge, just as the old man had done, and looked toward the lighted rungs of the ladder, the blood glinting. A shoed foot thrust itself into the opening, rushed and sloppy. I recognized the shoe, slowly revealing myself in the center opening, my heart quickening. The leg was followed by another, and then the thick torso and upper body. He was barely silhouetted in the dim light, disheveled hair like spikes atop two reflective eyes. “Dad!” I yelped. He didn’t startle. He stopped moving and stared. There was a heavy silence as I waited for a response. “Dad?” Dad inhaled. “Owen?!” His voice bellowed toward us, like he’d spotted an intruder. The blast rocked me to my bones, an internal shiver. “Sorry, you scared us! I didn’t think you’d be back from the hospital so early. How’d you get home? Are you okay?” Dad was breathing slowly, as if he didn’t hear me. “Us?” he said, his voice hoarse and drowsy. “Hi,” Rosie said, revealing herself. “I’m Rosie. I’m really sorry about what happened to you. If there’s anything my Mom can do—” “I was going down there,” he said. “Dad, you need to be in bed. What are you talking about?” “I’m going to bed,” he said abruptly, climbing back up the ladder. Without another word, he limped back across the barn and we heard his room door slam shut. My body released some tension. “Good lord. What is happening?” “I didn’t think hospitals drove people home,” Rosie said. “Let’s get some air.” The hot sun and light breeze welcomed us as we stopped halfway down the driveway and leaned against the property fence. “I’m sorry,” I said again, my body feeling weak. “We shouldn’t have gone.” “What do you think it is?” Rosie asked, undeterred. When I looked at her with a slightly surprised face, I blinked and saw the pyramid again. “We’re . . .” I began, trying to conceal that I was holding tightly to the fence post. “We’re gonna find out.” “I’m guessing that’s why the old man was there. I’ve never seen anything like that before.” I turned back to the barn, fully realizing that I wasn’t able to see the pyramid behind the wooden facade, but almost feeling like I could sense it, as if it were emitting a sweet smell. I thought of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. There was something intoxicating about that pyramid. And I was going to figure out what it belonged to. Rosie and I grabbed some lunch from the only town gas station a few miles away. Her presence was keeping me grounded, keeping my mind away from the pyramid. Laughing felt like the first bite of Mom’s homemade strawberry ice cream. The gas station clerk asked us what we were doing out of school, and Rosie told him that we were on a field trip, like we were a pair of elementary school students. It was stupid and a little cringey, but we laughed, and I’d almost forgotten about Dad and the barn. After loitering about the town’s sorry excuse for a main street, we ambled back to the dirt roads; Rosie was too guilt-ridden to keep her hooky a secret. She was anxious about homework and disappointing her mom. The chalky dirt reminded me of my own anxiety, but it also offered a small, enticing thought of getting to examine the pyramid alone. “What was your mom like?” Like a bolt of ice down my spine, Rosie’s question shook me from my inner thoughts. I’d forgotten I’d told her last night that Mom died. I saw Mom’s soothing face. That’s how I saw it now, despite having pictures—it was just an emotion. “Uh,” I started, unsure if I could trust her with the information I had kept hidden from the world for a decade. I had always been defensive and closed off when it came to Mom. “She was like yours.” Rosie gave a sympathetic smile. “Then you understand why I’m probably grounded.” We came to a stop. I didn’t realize we were at the barn’s driveway already. I saw the Anbench home, like an abandoned child. The home’s screen door was open, slowly swaying back and forth in the light breeze, tapping the frame. “We could delay the grounding,” I said, my eyes telling Rosie what I meant. She turned around to look at the Anbench home. She furrowed her brow. “You . . . wait, are you serious?” I smiled. “Kidding. You sure you don’t want me to walk you home?” Rosie looked relieved. “You need to take care of your dad. I’ll be fine. Text me?” “If I can find a wall outlet that works.” As I watched her walk away, my eyes drifted back to the Anbench home. There was something about it just sitting there—screen door swaying, vacant, crime scene—that prompted a curiosity in me. Was all this really connected? I have my purpose. The homes were just across the street from each other. I stared for a few minutes, looking for any sign of recent activity. When I realized I was casing the place, I shook my head and walked down the rut to my barn. “Just . . . kidding,” I said to myself. The next week was pretty uneventful. I was bored at school and bored at home. Nothing seemed to hold my interest except spending time with Rosie. She had a lot of AP homework, but we’d find time here and there to go for a walk or get something to eat. She was my savior in this little village. I thanked her more than what was considered normal, but I meant it. If I hadn’t befriended Rosie, I would have been miserable. Dad, on the other hand . . . The first night after he had come home, Dad was mute. He had shut himself in his room for most of the time, coming out only to use the bathroom. I don’t even think he had anything to eat. The second day he was more or less the same, but something minor had changed. Whenever I passed him in the hallway, I noticed an emptiness in his eyes. He usually at least glanced at me. He’d occasionally have something to say to me, telling me to finish a chore or grab a tool. But he was silent now. I’d ask him about his arm, if it still hurt, but he wouldn’t answer. Remembering Rosie’s influence in my life and the way she had made me admit I knew next to nothing about Dad, I had tried to reach out in other ways. I’d bring him food. I’d clean the apartment. I’d ask him if he wanted to go see a movie or get something to eat—I didn’t even know if there were theaters nearby. But every time I was met with silence. Dad would wake up in the middle of the night and shuffle around downstairs for hours. Lights would go on, doors would slam. One night I heard footsteps come up the first steps to the loft and stop for about five minutes before going back down. Another night he pulled up a board that covered the pyramid. The sound startled me enough that I almost fell out of bed. When I poked my head over the loft and asked him what the hell he was doing, he simply retreated back into the apartment and into his room. I had been telling Rosie this as we walked back to the barn after school. “Maybe you should take him to the hospital,” she said. “But it seems . . . like a mental issue. He’s been working around the house. He’s not in pain, as far as I know. He just seems off.” “Maybe not the hospital then. A shrink?” “I don’t know how the hell I’d get him to go with me.” “It’s probably just like mild PTSD or something. I don’t know, Owen.” She was giving me her signature sympathetic look, like she wanted to fix it, but knew she was helpless. When we reached the barn property, I looked over to the Anbench home and saw a light on in the front room, coming through the crooked blinds. “Do you see that?” I asked Rosie. “Weird . . .” “It wasn’t on last night,” I said, feeling a stiffness in my chest. “No police cars.” “Maybe family came to get some things.” “Maybe . . . you said they still haven’t found him yet? Leonard?” “I don’t think so,” Rosie said. “C’mon, we’re supposed to meet them in ten minutes.” I pocketed the strange light for later. We were going to meet up with some of her friends at a park. “Let me put my stuff away.” I slid my backpack off as we entered the barn apartment, and I was met with the dark sepia tone. Dad had usually taken to turning on the lights, but now the place was dark and quiet. The first inhale I took upon entering brought an acrid smell of bad meat and vinegar. “Ugh, sorry,” I said, walking toward the kitchen like I was wading through a river. I noticed Rosie wasn’t following me. I turned around and saw her standing at the threshold. “What’s up?” Rosie looked introspective. She regained focus. “Oh. It’s . . . nothing. I just remembered something. Sorry.” She followed me inside, but her voice had changed when she said “sorry,” as if she were holding her breath. When we entered the living room, I saw Dad sitting on the couch. There was a plate of something on the coffee table, and I connected the dots to the stove, where a skillet lay glistening with grease or something. “Hey Dad,” I said, slowly walking toward him. “It’s kinda dark in here.” Now that we were closer, I could see Dad’s glassy eyes looking directly at me. He was wearing a loose button-down shirt that was open to his abdomen. He was sweating. I looked down at the plate. It looked like a roast that he had just thrown on the skillet for a few minutes. The plate was dripping with dark fluid. There were no utensils. “Hi,” Dad said quietly, his voice deep and soothing. I paused. “So . . . you’re talking now?” “I am.” “Okay . . . what is that?” I asked, pointing to the plate. “Dinner,” he said, smiling. “Why don’t you two take a seat?” My body was tense. The entire situation felt wrong. First silence, and now a sudden burst of openness? I could feel anxiety curling up my legs like black octopus tentacles. “Sit down,” Dad said. Rosie sat farthest from Dad on the only armchair. I sat on the end of the couch, a cushion away from him. “Are you feeling any better?” Rosie asked. Though her voice was genuine, I could hear the tiniest sliver of nervousness. “I feel wonderful,” Dad said, smiling at her. He had his hands on his knees, his back straight. The sepia light was coming from the window behind him, shrouding his face except for the glassy eyes. “What happened?” I asked. I was about to launch into a series of questions, but I remembered Rosie was there. “What happened,” Dad repeated. “Yeah,” I said, furrowing my brow. “Why are you acting so weird.” “Do you want some dinner, Rosie girl?” he asked. My spine tingled and I answered for her. “We’re not hungry. Tell me what’s going on with you.” Dad finally turned his head and looked at me. He moved his head forward an inch. “Have you seen it?” he asked. “Seen what?” “You’ve seen it,” he said, smirking and looking at Rosie. “You have, too.” We needed to leave. I had never seen my father behave like this. I wanted to get out. “What did I see?” Rosie asked. She seemed to be less aware of her surroundings and keener to make a connection with Dad. “Have you heard the story of Little Asher and the Milkens?” Dad asked, soothingly. “Dad, what are you talking about?” “Be quiet,” he told me, his voice changing to a deep, commanding tone. “I’m telling Rosie girl a story.” He looked at Rosie again. “Have you heard of Little Asher and the Milkens?” Rosie shook her head slightly. “No.” When Dad exhaled, he shuddered quietly. His breaths were quickening. “Little Asher and the Milkens came to a new planet for sustenance. They found a lush world full of life and potential. But with that prosperity came opposition, hatred, and malice. Little Asher had gone off on his own to search for tiny flowers and beautiful textures. But when Little Asher returned to his family, they had all gone. They had left the new planet. They had left Little Asher all alone. Little Asher was furious. Do you know what Little Asher did?” “No,” Rosie said. “Little Asher found that many Milkens made matters most malignant. But one Milken . . .” We waited for him to finish. “Dad . . . ?” I asked, feeling heat rise through my muscles, knowing this was some stupid analogy about me. Dad blinked. “ . . . devour.” “Okay, we’re going,” I said to Rosie. Dad pushed the plate of meat toward Rosie. “You better eat up.” “Oh,” Rosie said, smiling politely, “I’m really not hungry. Thank you.” “Don’t it smell good?” he asked, his teeth stained with meat juice. “No, Dad, it smells like shit,” I said, standing. “We’re leaving. And I’m calling a shrink.” Dad took the plate back and placed both hands on the sides of the slab of meat. He picked it up—the juices dripping from his hands, pieces of meat dangling—and took a bite. The squelching sound reminded me of the chewing I had heard under the barn. I took Rosie’s hand. We left the apartment and walked briskly down the ruts. It was only when passing the fence posts that I recognized what Dad had been eating. The deer guts.
We told Rosie’s mother what had happened. She wasn’t sure what to do either. Do you call an ambulance for someone losing their mind? Do you call a mental institution? Was Dad even right for a place like that? I was losing my father, my only connection I still had to life before New England, the only other person who knew Mom. I had decided I would take the Bronco and get Dad to the hospital. I could tell them whatever they did hadn’t worked and hopefully be pointed in the right direction. I took Rosie aside before I left and hushed my voice. “After I get Dad help,” I said, looking to make sure Susanne wasn’t within earshot, “I’m going to the Anbench house. Will you come with me?” “I thought you were just kidding about that?” she said, frowning. “You need to be with your Dad.” “Did you hear him?” I said incredulously. “He’s calling me Little Asher. My Dad needs doctors, not me.” “Then let the police handle it. What are you going to find that they didn’t?” “The home’s small, it won’t take long. If I’m going to keep living in that barn, I’d like to make sure I’m safe. You saw that light, Rosie. There’s something about that house. I know there’s a connection. You don’t have to come. I just don’t want to go alone.” Rosie probably wished the pause would give her time to think of an excuse. “Why not wait ’til morning?” “Because what else is going to happen if I wait longer? We’re talking about taking my dad to a shrink, Rosie.” I felt guilty about pressuring her, but I didn’t let up. I was being honest; I didn’t want to do this alone. But I felt so strongly about ending this whole thing and getting back to some sense of a normal life. Rosie sighed again, but this time, I could tell I had broken a barrier that she had been putting up. She wasn’t smiling. “If I get caught this time, I’m in deep shit.” I exhaled without thinking, a feeling of relief warming my chest. “Thank you. When can you sneak out?” “Be here at midnight.”
My breath was cold and my palms were clammy when I reached the barn. I didn’t know how I was going to convince Dad to come with me. I stopped in front of the door. It was ajar. I slowly entered, finding the lights still off at 6 p.m. I saw Dad’s door was open, his room dark. One of his shirts was on the floor in the kitchen. The silence was broken by a faint sound coming from the barn. I stopped to listen. It was . . . singing? A low, simple humming voice carried a mild tune with breaks in between. I walked into the darkened barn and felt my chest clench. The plank flooring had been demolished above the pyramid room, boards and splinters scattered around the new opening like it had erupted from within. I saw the top of the two pillars attached to nothing. And I saw a head of hair barely discernible in the haze of sepia. The humming was coming from him. “Oh, the dim, the dim, the dim . . . m . . . m . . . m . . . Drain the dim . . . drain the dim . . . m . . . m . . . m . . . m . . .” “Dad?” I asked quietly. The head of hair jerked toward me, and I saw the top of an eye just above the floorboards. “What . . . how did you do all this?” I continued, taking a step forward. He stared at me for a few moments. I took another step. As my vision cleared more and more of the room below, my heart soared and sunk and jumped. Dad was sitting open-legged in front of the pyramid now unearthed by at least a foot and a half. Dad moved his arms and scooped more dirt from the pyramid’s sides; the thing still wasn’t excavated yet. “Dad, you shouldn’t . . . you need to come with me. We need to go.” “Drain the dim . . . and . . . all the light . . . goes out.” I looked around at the room, feeling the pressures of my life—absent parents and loneliness and no way out. The only way was down. I had to get Dad out of this state, and I had to do it myself. I wasn’t going to let my adult life begin with everything my past had tried to take away from me. I jumped down into the pit. “Dad, we’re leaving,” I said, reaching under his armpits and pulling. Dad started muttering. As if electrified, I released him and fell against the edge of the opening. In the same low and buzzing manner, Dad was muttering just like the old man. My mind had a stroke-like moment of pause as I reckoned with reality. Was this a dream? Was I so traumatized by this place that I was replacing people with others? “Dad . . .” The muttering continued. It grew louder. I reached out to touch him on the shoulder. When I felt his flesh, it was cold and dewy. He spun and shoved me harder into the edge. The splinters scraped and punctured my hip. He took my head in a violent grip and slammed it into the floor.
Muffled voice broke the darkness and instigated a headache. My hip was screaming. I groaned and gingerly touched my throbbing head. My hair was crusty with what I could only believe was blood. “Owen?!” “Mom?” I asked, looking up at a bright beam of white that caused a stinging pain at the back of my eyes and fueled my headache. “What happened?!” she continued. I heard shoes hit dirt. Then someone’s presence knelt beside me. “Oh my God.” “Rosie?” I asked, connecting the voice as my eyes adjusted to braided brown hair. “I need to call 911,” she said, turning her phone away and opening the keypad. “Wait, wait,” I said, reaching up. Her arm was warm. She didn’t stop, pressing call, but helping me with her free arm into a sitting position. The pyramid stared me down. We were in the concrete room. There was no light coming through the top of the barn. Rosie had found me. It must have been midnight. My head hurt, inflicting residual pain in my jaw and face. I faded in and out of dizziness, using Rosie’s arm for support. When Rosie finished the call, she held the flashlight of her phone to my head. “Let me see.” “Where’s my dad?” I asked. “I don’t know. You never showed up—I tried texting you, calling you. I got worried. I ran over here and saw the front door wide open.” “Dad . . . he attacked me.” “What? Your dad did this?” “Something’s happened. He was different. He was singing.” “Owen, we need to get you to the hospital. You probably have a concussion.” “No. Dad . . . where’s Dad?” “There’s no one else here, Owen.” “He was . . . he was muttering!” “Owen, stop. You’re going to make things worse. Just rest for a second. I need to call my mom.” “Wait!” I yelled, grasping her arm and sitting up. Some lucidity came back. “Don’t. This ends tonight. I’m going to the Anbench home. I don’t care if you come or not. But don’t try to stop me or complicate it.” “Owen, please.” My adrenaline would keep me stable, I thought. I teetered to a stand and pulled myself out of the pit. Rosie made a frustrated noise and followed me. We rushed outside, into the imposing black. I was using the fence posts for support, my mind working faster than my legs. If there was anything that could give me insight into this hell, it was in that home. I was so sure of it. I kept my eyes on the boulder as it got closer. I fell onto my palms at their front lawn, feeling the cold grass between my fingers. I clenched and tried to urge my head to stop pulsing. Rosie knelt at my side and helped me stand. “This is so stupid, Owen,” Rosie said. But I kept moving. I ripped open the flimsy screen and started kicking the front door. In my enraged delirium, I broke the door open and fell onto the carpet. “God, will you stop?!” Rosie exclaimed, helping me again. Her voice and the quiet interior of the home gave me some pause. I looked around. What little light from the outside came through slits in the curtains and blinds. It was hard to make out the space, but we were in the living room. An old tube TV on a short stand faced a glass coffee table and a sectional. Behind that, a circular table and a plant that rose to the ceiling like a massive centipede. The place smelled like old cherries and vinegar and . . . something so horrible it caused my nose to burn. It was hard to keep from retching. “Owen . . .” Rosie said quietly, her voice thick. “Owen, we need to leave.” I blinked hard against the pain in my skull. Around the corner was the kitchen, marked by a sliver of two stools up against a breakfast bar. There was a door ajar before the kitchen corner. I stood and pushed through the door. “Wait!” Rosie exclaimed, but she was cut short by a dry heave. The electricity was out. I kept flicking the switch. A giant mass of black sat in the back center; this was the bedroom. I grew angry at the discovery of a simple, boring house. I retreated into the kitchen and felt my way around. “Owen, please,” Rosie said, breathing hard, still kneeling on the living room floor. “Please can we . . . this place . . .” “There has to be a basement,” I said, ignoring her clear signs of pain. Between the fridge and the other wall was a dark space. I stepped through it, using my hands as radar. This room was cooler. A back door with a window. “Rosie,” I called. “I need your phone.” “I can’t . . . I . . . remember what I told you?!” she yelled. “Rosie, please!” I yelled back, furious. “My dad is missing! I need answers! Please help me!” I heard a shuffling. I waited until Rosie came into the mud room breathing heavily, sniffling. “The police should be at the barn soon. We need to go out and wait for them. You’re just going to hurt yourself more. There’s nothing here, Owen!” “Please can I see your phone?” She made a grizzly noise and handed me the phone. I turned on the flashlight. A tall man in a hood was standing behind Rosie. The sight shocked me, and I fell backward into the opposite corner. Rosie shrieked as the man grabbed her and pulled her out into the kitchen. I shouted and screamed, finding my footing and following them out. I saw the tall shadow round the corner to the living room. I sprinted forward, losing balance at the turn as my head sent a wave of agony. Rosie was still screaming and fighting. I heard them go through the front door, the screen hitting the exterior. I tried to maintain my vision as I stumbled outside. Rosie’s voice was around the house. I used the siding as support, hobbling like a drunk. When I turned the corner, there was nothing. No sound, no screaming, no rustling. I stood as quiet as I could, catching my breath and trying to fight off my head trauma. The wind picked up, putting the grass and trees in hysterics. I shuffled forward, blinking like crazy. An old SUV was parked in the driveway, preceding a one-car garage. Using the SUV as support, I approached the garage. “Rosie!” I yelled. I rounded the garage and found an open side door. My chest was bursting. I wiped the sweat from my head and pushed the door open with a shaky hand. An odor unlike anything I had smelled before hit me like a tidal wave. Feces, salt, ash, burnt hair. I coughed and gagged, covering my nose and mouth with my shirt. The garage was pitch black. I called for Rosie again. For a split second, I thought I should have run and gotten Susanne. But the time it would take to get her might be the difference between losing Rosie. I held my breath and walked into the garage. My feet made a sticky sound as I moved. The air in the garage felt thicker. I put my hands out. There was something wet on the ground, the floor squishy and slippery. I heard someone whispering . . . or I thought I had. It hadn’t come from anywhere in the garage or even outside. It was incoherent and felt like it was coming from inside my head. I remembered I had Rosie’s phone, so I pulled it out and— Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump. Someone outside ran toward the garage from behind me. Before I could turn around, I was shoved forward. I tried to brace myself with my feet, but they didn’t hit solid ground. My upper body smacked against a fleshy, wet slope, and I fell. I slid down what felt like a tube. It gradually curved, and I was sliding on my back. The tube was getting tighter the farther I went. I tried to grip the sides with my hands, but they were wet and muddy. Soon the tube became so tight, I had stopped completely. My nose was touching the wall, I was spitting out mud, my arms were pinned above me, my legs cinched. The panic overwhelmed me as my body slowly descended farther. Soon the wall caught my open mouth and my teeth started peeling back mud, filling my mouth. I started gagging and coughing, but the walls were even tighter. My eyes were full of blackness. I would die here. My feet broke some kind of barrier, and I felt the walls give way. My thighs next, then my waist, and torso. Soon I was exiting the tube like a newborn and falling again. I smacked a solid surface about ten feet from the tube, coughing and sputtering and wiping my eyes. I vomited and started to catch my breath. The air was close here. I freed my eyes of the muck and looked around. I was sitting in a vast cavern, stretching far in every direction until blackness overtook depth. I sat on a clay-like surface, bone-colored and ribbed in random sections. The floor went off to different paths on either side and continued forward until it was cut off by an endless, black lake. The only light in the cavern came from this lake, a blue almost as dark as black, rippling and dithering between faint and nonexistent. There were no sounds except for a quiet lapping of water. I stood and approached the edge of the dark blue. I felt cold. My arms sprouted goosebumps. “H-Hello?!” I called. The sound of my voice echoed a few times. That strange internal whispering started again, rebounding off the edges of my brain. Kneel. I obeyed and knelt at the water’s edge, looking down at the gentle, yet ominous veil. See. I saw through the surface with the help of the faint light, seeing dark particles floating aimlessly. Far below, a black mass traveled across the deep. It was shaped like a fish, with both fat and pointed ends. Deeper. I noticed below the fish, a twinkling. I silently gasped as an immense, unknown entity lurched across my range of view before the light dimmed and obscured the thing. I sat back, listening and breathing shakily. Something was in the lake, something unbelievably massive. I looked across the lake, peering into maddening blackness. Where the hell was I and how was I going to escape? A pointless effort. I thought of Dad and our last moments together. He’d nearly killed me. Was he trying to? Was he down here? The wet and muddy hole I’d fallen through instantly reminded me of the hole Rosie was shown at the fair. Rosie. I still had her phone! I wiped my hands on my jeans and pulled the phone out of my pocket. My hands were shaking. I dialed 911. The line never connected. I held the device in my shivering, cold hands, thinking that this is where I would die. “I wish you were here,” I whispered, thinking of Mom. Your mother’s death was your fault. I cringed, feeling my eyes sting. I slid the phone back into my pocket and limped back to where I had fallen. I shouted for help up through the tube. Something behind me made a sound like metal on metal, far into the distance. I swirled and faced one of the darkened paths. I took the phone out again and turned on the flashlight. I checked the battery level. 48%. Before me lay a smooth path that led into a cave. I wanted to stay and wait for help, but with no reception and little patience, I walked forward. I didn’t know if Rosie had been thrown down here too, or if she was still above ground, but I had to try and find her. She would have abandoned you. My head thumped on each beat of my heart. All the mud and brown water from the tube had congealed to my face and hair. The cave curved for a while. I felt the walls. They were carved in different patterns that wended in unconformity and abstractness, hewn by precise and intricate tools. I checked the phone’s battery again. 44%. I needed to move faster. Something behind me splashed, as if a small thing had jumped from the lake, or maybe someone had pulled it out. I stopped, pointing the phone toward the direction of the cavern. I didn’t hear anything for another minute. No dripping. No walking. No breathing. No sounds whatsoever. I turned back and followed the cave deeper. You are worth nothing. The carved walls ended, cut diagonally by another surface. There was a triangle-shaped opening before me, embedded into the rocky walls. The opening reminded me of something I had seen before. Rosie’s phone rang, shaking me where I stood. The screen lit up my face. The caller said, “Mom.” To save battery, I quickly turned off the flashlight and then answered the call. “Mrs. Wilky!” I exclaimed. “Hello?” Susanne’s voice said in my ear. “Mrs. Wilky, I’m underground, underneath the An—” “Rosie?” Susanne said, maintaining the same tone. “Rosie, are you there?” I raised my voice and tried to tell Mrs. Wilky again. “Rosie, if you can hear me, please call me back. Please come home. Are you with Owen? Please call me, Rosie.” “Mrs. Wilky!” I yelled. She hung up. I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at the bright screen. As I was trying to call Susanne back, a gaunt, gray face with dark eye and mouth holes appeared from the black background to the left of the phone. I dropped the phone as clammy hands with long fingers violently grasped and handled me, trying to gather me into a constricting grip. I kicked and flailed, then opened my mouth and bit as hard as I could on the arm crossing my chest. The body recoiled and I was free. In the dark, cold interior of the new area, I put my hands out and jogged away, spitting the taste of salt and sulfur from my mouth. I hit a wall and followed it down, hoping to find an opening, keeping one hand in front of me. You never deserved anything. You can’t save anyone. My headache surged, and I blinked away tears. I nearly fell as the wall ended, but I held my hands out to discover a new corridor. I used my elbow to free up one hand so my face wouldn’t run into anything. The cold air was rushing through me. Behind me, I heard thumping, naked feet. Let him consume your pathetic life. I sped up, wondering when the corridor would end. The cold air turned warm just as the corridor opened. I tripped on something, falling onto the hard floor. A constant failure. My legs were across the thing that had tripped me. It had some give to it. I reached out and started touching it. I felt what was distinctly a human arm. It was warm. I went up the shoulder, the neck, the face. I felt hair. In desperation, I cried, “Rosie?!” I started tapping her cheek and asking her to wake. The thumping feet were closing, probably halfway down the corridor. The person wasn’t waking, so I tried pulling. I was going to have to lift and carry. But there was no time. If this was Rosie, I wasn’t going to leave her. And that meant standing my ground. Your face down his throat. Your body chewed and snapped and consumed. The naked feet slapped toward me. I kept envisioning the pallid, clay-like face. I shielded the person and braced myself. “What do you want?!” I shouted. The feet stopped. I couldn’t see anything. I knew it was standing only a few feet from me, but I couldn’t hear it. It wasn’t breathing hard. What I can’t have. I was either dead or not, so I took the person by their armpits and dragged them in the opposite direction of the gray thing. One of the sides had an opening and I took it. More whispering invaded my mind, and I swear I heard Dad’s voice in the mix. He always hated you. As far as I could tell, the naked feet weren’t following anymore. I stopped dragging the person every few seconds to listen. Eventually, I saw a faint red glow coming from a room at the end of our current corridor. I dragged faster and we emerged into a tall, square room with raised pedestals at each corner, and a single corridor that descended into darkness. It was hard to tell where the light was coming from, but the room emitted a hazy red glow from its corners. I laid the person down and sat to catch my breath and try to calm my splitting headache. Your organs will explode. When I looked down, the glow was enough to tell me that it was Rosie. I checked her as best I could for injuries. She looked fine, I thought. I started trying to rouse her again. I am going to devour her. “GET OUT!” I shouted, scratching at my head. My voice didn’t echo. The room seemed to absorb the sound in a matter of seconds. Furious and agonized, I stood and looked down the faintly lit corridor that descended into nothing. I stepped to the threshold. Something was laying at the bottom corner of the hallway just as it melded with shadow. I couldn’t make it out, but it didn’t match the austere and sleek craft of the rest of the walls. So close. I took a step forward and Rosie coughed. I retreated and knelt at her side, helping her sit. She only coughed a few times before registering something had happened. She skittered backward into the wall as I tried to calm her. “What happened?!” she exclaimed. “What—where am I?!” I tried to explain as best I could, but it was hard to get sense through. Rosie was hysterical. “There’s something behind us from the way we came,” I told her. “A man or something. We have to take this next corridor. We’re going to get out of here. I promise.” Rosie was breathing hard. “I’m . . . I’m just so tired.” “We can do this, Rosie.” I reached out to take her hand and elbow. “Owen,” she said, making no effort to move. “What if we die here?” I sighed. “We might.” “My head hurts,” she said, flinching and gingerly touching her forehead. “We need to move.” “I want to see my Mom again. My little brother. My dad.” I paused. Her anxiety was infecting me. I thought of my own dad who was missing and possibly driven mad. I wanted to see Mom. I saw her face looking down at me, smiling. It comforted me. “I wish I could tell my dad ‘sorry.’ I should have done something. Now he’s gone.” Rosie was crying quietly. The whispers had stopped. Feeling emboldened by Mom’s memory, I stood and held my hand out. “C’mon,” I said. “We have to at least try.” Rosie looked up at me with a swollen face. “I think . . . I think it was Leonard Anbench who took me.” There was a sound like scratching, coming from deep within the structure. “I shouldn’t have pressured you to come,” I said, my guilt overwhelming. “I wanted to,” she said in a defeated tone of realization. I took her hand and together we stood in the center of the red room. We came to the threshold of the descent. I saw the black mass of shadow at the end again. I ignored it as we slowly walked. The air was silent. I wanted to go back. The red glow was getting dimmer. We stopped at the edge where the light ended. The sheer magnitude of the unfathomable gripped me and wouldn’t let go. “D-Did you hear that?” Rosie asked. I listened again. Beyond the wall of black, I heard a shifting of leather, like a suitcase being dragged across carpet. The mass of black that had been sitting against the bottom corner of the hallway moved back into the abyss. “This is my pyramid,” a voice spoke, lower than the lowest decibel and with such power that it sounded as if it was speaking behind my eyes. Rosie was sobbing. I turned around to run, but the pale, gaunt thing was standing at the top of the descent. My heart seized. I recognized the stature of the pale thing, its shoulders, its torso, its arms and legs. It was Dad. “A purpose,” the unseen entity said. “That I may feed.” The entity inhaled, shuddering the entire structure. “Let me open your skull.” Dad took a step forward. “Dad, it’s me! It’s Owen!” Dad was muttering as he slowly walked toward us. I cowered before him as he took me and held me back, facing the wall of darkness. I watched Rosie cry into her hands like a crumpled beetle. It said something in a language that made me cringe and weep, then: “Your family holds you tightly. Mine deserted me.” “What are you?” I asked, crying. “Control.” “Please . . . please let her go. Take me instead!” “I will take her.” A long, black appendage wrapped around Rosie’s leg and pulled her into the veil of dark. She screamed at the top of her range, but was cut short by a sharp, cracking sound, then a slow crunching of something brittle and squishy. I was frozen as I listened to another snapping like the sound of a plastic bowl being shattered, followed by a series of more crunching, smacking, and bubbly excretion. I heard Dad’s muttering in my ear as the juicy crunching continued: “Zortus, Gimm-o, Yil’ys, Ozuu. Zortus, Gimm-o, Yil’ys, Ozuu . . .” The words repeated again and again and again. I felt faint. My mind was consumed by the muttering whispers. I spoke them as it did, taken to a place I had never seen before—impossible landscapes of blood and endless pits and unfathomable voids. And then I was taken beneath the surface of the great lake underneath the garage and drowned with the incomprehensible beast that began devouring me whole.
I woke to buzzing. My legs were moving. Blood pumping. Muscles whirring. I opened my eyes. A chalky dirt road ran ahead of me, lined with bright green grass and hanging trees. To my right, immense fields; golden grains as far as I could see. I dithered in place for a moment, just my legs getting used to motion again, of course. I wanted to touch the grains, but my arms were so lethargic and heavy. I tried a few times, seeing my hand barely break my line of vision as it pathetically reached out and fell. I stumbled forward, urging my legs to work. It felt like I was treading water and pushing through pounds of pressure. Ahead, something rumbled in the distance. A bright red truck rounded the bend and came down the road toward me. I shuffled a little to get out of its way, but it started to slow down. I was cursing my body to do what I wanted, but nothing felt the way it had. The truck came to a stop next to me and idled. I bent my head toward the driver and squinted to see. The image was fuzzy. “Hello there,” the driver said, a middle-aged voice with a lot of energy and friendliness. “I wonder if you know the area well? My kids and I just bought a condo up here and are wondering if we’re in the right spot. Think you could help us?” My throat was dry. My face hung forward, and it felt like my skin was separated from the rest of my body, hanging loosely. I wanted to speak, to scream and tell him what had happened, about Rosie, about Dad, about what lived underneath the ground. But when I told them, all that came out was muttered. “Dad, let’s go,” one of the girls in the truck said. “Hey,” the father said, “everything okay, sir?” I thought I was bellowing with every ounce of energy in me, but I continued to mutter, buzzing through the same phrase I had learned underground. The father hesitated, trying to ignore the whispers of his kids. “Listen, I’m gonna head up the road a bit and see if any of the folks who live here can help you. Just stay right here, okay?” “Dad, why do we have to help the weird old man?” “Be quiet,” the father said, then looked back at me. “Stay put, okay?” As he rolled up the window, I saw the reflection staring back at me. A gaunt, wrinkled face of a man in his elder years. I watched the truck leave me in its dust, screaming within my brain for someone to help me.