The Hole in the Homes

THE HOLE IN THE HOMES

Published in Beecher's Magazine Vol. 6. Finalist in 2016 fiction contest judged by Karen Russell.

***

Katie never loved anything as much as her baby brother. When Andy was born she was nine and at an altogether different stage in life. She was learning about her developing body, he was building the strength to support his head from the neck. She fiddled with her first training bra, he soiled diapers by the dozen. She wanted permission to wear lipstick, he longed for milk. She thought of boys, he craved his mother.

But their mother was seldom seen. And their home was without a father. And so, Katie gifted Andy with all she had to offer as a nine year old: attention and time. And she didn’t mind giving them up one bit. Everything about Andy, Katie admired. She loved his cradle cap and the thick layers of fat that protected his knees and how rubbery they felt when pinched. She adored how impossibly wide Andy’s marble eyes opened to all that was new (which, to him, was everything). Yes, she’d take Andy any time any day. Forget about being first string on the basketball team, getting a part in the school play or even for that matter, a chance to sit beside her longtime crush on the pleather seats of the school bus. More than anything, Katie wanted to be with Andy. When she got home from school, first thing she did was slip her backpack straps off her shoulders, drop her bag at the door, run to his crib and press her ear to his bulbous little belly so that she could listen to his stomach at work and imagine the mushed carrots, strained peas and bananas with rice churning inside.

The two shared a bedroom. And the room was square and the room was bare, if not for Katie’s bed, Andy’s crib and the nightlight between them.

Under the covers and with only a flashlight and chapter book for company, Katie stayed awake into the late hours of the night. Andy slept like the baby he was. He didn’t snore, he didn’t even mumble. There wasn’t a peep in their bedroom. The strength of the silence within their four dusty walls was unbreakable. When it rained, the windows didn’t make a sound. But some nights there was noise. Some nights, Andy stirred.

It could be said that Andy woke because of the intrusive moonlight making its way through the window in a thick slice. It could be said that Andy cried for a variety of reasons. But no matter the cause, cry he did. And when he grasped the lip of the crib’s railing with his itty-bitty fingers and managed to stand on his padded mattress and wail at midnight for his mother, it was Katie he got. It was Katie, in her loose fitting t-shirt she wore to bed, who picked Andy up and rocked him against her barely blooming chest. And sometimes, Andy, half-consciously, mistakenly, gummed her nipple.

He was such a hungry boy. Indeed, he’d had so little of the breast he was almost sickly. At least, that’s what Katie thought. She had a propensity for imagining their lives in the darkest ways. At a charity event in school she saw pictures of babies with big heads and swollen stomachs that caused her to fear what could become of poor little Andy. And she just could not have that.

Katie never loved anything as much as her baby brother, which is why she decided to take him to a better place.

They went through a hole.

Katie dug the hole in the closet when their mother was not looking (which was always) and when their mother was not home (which was often). Nothing was more important than its deepening. She gave up reading time to see to it. Her routine was simple. She shoved her bed across the floor to block the bedroom door, slipped a teething biscuit into Andy’s mouth, and while he watched her from behind the bars of his crib, she got to work. With a headlamp and shovel pilfered from their neighbor’s tool shed and with all the hustle and drive she’d learned playing basketball in P.E., Katie dug.

The only thing that slowed her down was the thought of their mother—not a fear of their mother, the thought of their mother—the image of their mother at the edge of the closet cliff, peering over the mangled, starchy carpet that frayed without order, to the dark below, where the light of a headlamp bounced in the dim and a shovel clanked against rock, causing her to discover just what was going on here: her daughter was digging a hole in her home. And even though Katie knew it was the right thing to do, she couldn’t help but think it was still a bad thing to do. The thought of their mother discovering the chasm she’d made brought upon her the heftiest sense of shame.

But, she dug on.

Procedures were in place. When it seemed as if their mother may be approaching their bedroom door, when Katie heard footsteps reverberating through the earth, and the rock walls surrounding her deep in the hole began to seep dust, she stopped her digging right there, wiped the dirt from her hands and scurried up a rope ladder of cardigans tied together by the sleeves, to the closet of the bedroom she shared with her baby brother, and with a half dozen dresses, covered the pit in the carpet of the closet like a manhole.

Goddamn, she worked hard at its progress, at deepening the pit. But such an escape takes days, weeks, months, semesters, school years. Before the hole was completed, Andy learned to crawl, walk and use a toilet. Katie graduated from D.A.R.E., studied how to give an infant the Heimlich with the heel of her hand and received her baby sitter’s license with a record breaking ninety-nine percent. And their parents’ divorce was finally finalized.

The hole was almost complete. The hole was almost ready for them. One night while a lightning storm raged silently outside, Katie woke Andy to tell him so.

He was too old to be sucking his thumb with such ferocity. He was almost too old to be sucking his thumb at all. Yes, Andy had grown. His feet poked out of the bars at the bottom of his crib. His ankles sometimes got stuck between them and they were just then, as Katie kneeled beside the crib to tell her little brother of the journey ahead. She warned Andy that it would be scary at first, in the hole. It would be dark too. That was guaranteed. The hole would be darker than any space he had ever known. Darker than bad dreams? Yes, Andy, darker than bad dreams. Darker than a cave? Yes, Andy, darker than a cave. Even darker than where your thoughts go when you’re lonely, darker than outer space itself. The pit in the carpet of the closet, the hole in the home was an underground galaxy, a transitional place through which they must pass, Katie explained. There was no other way out of here. And they had to get out of here. So they had to take it, she told him. Andy agreed. He would go when the time came. Which was too soon.

How Katie thought she could hide such a gaping thing as a hole in the home, she would later ask herself as she fell through it. Their mother discovered their plan. And she barged in through their bedroom door with enough force to send Katie’s bed skidding across the wooden floor. I TRIED, DIDN’T I? was all she could say.

Her breaths were heavy and her face streaked with tears and the thought of what she was capable of in such a moment of heartbreak and rage, enough to cause Katie to pick up her baby brother and jump into the pit before it was completed. She took with her, just in time, a handful of supplies in one hasty sweep: a grab bag of gummy bears to feed them on their descent, a flashlight to guide them through the darkness, and a baby bjorn snugged tightly to her chest, into which she slipped her brother for protection.

They fell like skydivers. Their mother cried after them from the lip of the pit and her tears wet their backs the whole way down but her voice was soon lost to the noise of the air through which they plummeted. Even as they skirted the core of the earth, there was air. It resisted them. Blew against the crown of Katie’s forehead and caused her auburn hair to flow behind her in a streamlined mane. The air became the only thing audible, a mammoth howl that would not leave their ears, would not let them fall without meeting resistance. It blew at such a magnitude as to nearly keep Katie from inhaling. She gulped for breath as she plunged farther into the depths of the cool earth, cradling Andy’s sideways head to her breast with one hand, using the flashlight to illuminate their downward path with the other. By some miracle her wrist had slipped into the strap of the manmade torch and her thumb had found its button, and with only the conical light illuminating the abyss twenty feet ahead, she guided their two falling bodies through the pit by some feat of contortion she owed to having once taken gymnastics. Dodging stalactites and stalagmites, they fell. Resisting the forces of zero gravity, ushering gummy bears that seemed to float on the way into their mouths, they fell.

They hit the bottom hard.

In anticipation of their dead end, Katie summersaulted in the air, twisted so that her brother was safe, and broke the surface of the earth with her back. There was the sound of a great tear as they ripped through carpet. And after a fit of wheezing, once the plume of white flakes of stucco had trickled from the ceiling and settled on their supine bodies, they woke, not in China, but in the closet of their bedroom in their father’s home.

***

Their room was rectangular and the ceiling was angular, and beneath it a bunkbed waited for Katie and Andy’s sleepy heads.

Their father was understanding, compassionate, hospitable. He entered the room and turned on the light and there they were: two kids in the closet, caked in stucco. He hoisted Andy out of the baby bjorn. He wiped the ceiling flakes off of their skin and he warmed their little limbs that had been so chilled on their journey through the deepness of the hole. They sat on the edge of the lower bunk bed, and he gave them chips and he gave them juice, and they told him about the bad things on the other side. Katie had dug the hole to escape, she explained. Their father nodded and nodded and agreed they could stay. Yes they were his children and they could stay. So they did.

And in the room much like their old room they made a new room. They chose what color the walls were to be and hung backpack hangers and rock paper scissored for who got which drawers for toys or accessories. And everything was better. At night, Andy stretched his legs in his spacious bed. Katie read with a lamp at a desk. And only while hanging a sweater in the closet did she think of the hole in the home. Yes, Katie went so far as to cover it, literally. She placed a doormat over the circumference of the thing, she hid the spot where her and her brother’s bodies had blasted through to their father’s house. Hell, she went through five glue sticks to ensure the edges of the mat truly stuck to the floor. Katie and Andy never had to think about the hole in the home again and they lived out the rest of their happy days with their father. The end.

But homesickness is a disloyal uncontrollable thing that comes and goes like a cold in winter. When Andy was older, when Andy was stronger, Katie heard a noise from the closet in the middle of the night. She heard a violent rip. Every step of her bunked ladder, she skipped to get down to the bedroom floor. And behind the doors of the closet she found the mat torn from the mouth of the gaping hole.

Of course she dove after Andy. She never loved anything more than her baby brother. Like a bat, she swooped, down, down, down. With her hands outstretched and her fingertips spread and her bust grazing the endless wall of sediment by inches, she fell, through the crust, through the mantle, through the inner and outer core, until she closed in on the tiny dot in the dark that was Andy’s upside down body. She got a hold of him by the pajama pants and gave his ankle a firm tug so he was within earshot. But he paid her no attention and simply slipped a gummy bear between his bottom teeth and lip as if it were tobacco. He wielded the flashlight now and he was barreling ahead. Over the whoosh of the air that resisted the two and wet their eyes and caused their cheeks to ripple, Katie shouted, YOU KNOW: THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER.

A stalactite appeared in their path and they dodged it like circus freaks.

GRASS? Andy said. I LEFT MY LEGO BACK THERE.

She wanted to stop him then, to cease their downward venture. But once they were falling, they were falling. Gravity did its thing. They fell and fell and swallowed chips and fell and learned what the pit was like from reverse. They felt the dampness of mud, the odd prickle of quartz on their fingertips, and they laughed and they cried, from euphoria and fright, because they were falling now and nothing could undo their decision, nothing could stop them from descending the dark and sometimes shiny layers of the in between at a hundred miles an hour and piercing the earth’s crust to be spat out the other side, into their old room in their mother’s home.

It wasn’t empty. The room was square, but not so bare. Andy’s crib was gone. A warm rug lined the wooden floor. And waiting for them beneath the window were two twin beds beside which sat their mother in a rocking chair, so very alone.

Katie’s throat clogged at the sight of her. She felt the weight of what she’d done, the shame of her escape. But their mother was understanding, compassionate, hospitable. She rocked in her chair and she gave them milk and she gave them cookies. And sitting on the edges of their new beds they told her things about the other side, but only the bad things because she wouldn’t want to hear the good things. And in the room much like their old room they made a new room. Katie bought a real bra. Andy got a Gameboy. They hung posters from the walls and Katie threw out the last of her dolls and Andy covered the pit in the closet. On top of the hole, he set the bottom of an enormous teddy bear. And Katie and Andy never had to think about the hole in the home again and they lived out the rest of their happy days with their mother. The end.

But homesickness is a disloyal uncontrollable thing that comes and goes like a cold in winter. In the middle of the night, Katie whispered, not so quietly, to Andy from her bed, WAS IT REALLY ABOUT THE LEGO?

WAS IT REALLY ABOUT ME AND THE MILK? Andy said back.

To which Katie said nothing in return. All she could do was roll over to sleep on her other side and leave her brother staring in the dark at her back.

She understood then that they would be returning through the hole. And then they would be returning from returning. No matter their remedies, the hole would always be open. She could hear the air within it seeping from underneath the plush teddy bear right then. It was a drafty thing. And it awaited them. Whenever they fancied, there was an escape.

WHY DO YOU DO THAT? Katie whispered to Andy from her bed, while he lay on the carpet in his pajamas with a Lego creation. He spent weeks constructing the plastic homes, taking pride in the shape of the roofs, adhering to color schemes, only, once he was finished, to smash them and all of their yellow headed occupants into cubic smithereens.

WHY? Katie whispered, with her ear buried in her pillow.

CAUSE, Andy said, I GOTTA MAKE SOMETHING NEW. PLUS.

PLUS WHAT?

IT FEELS KINDA GOOD?

It did. They navigated the hole in the carpet of their closets with such frequency they lost all sense of orientation and forgot up from down. And they enjoyed that, until they got queasy. They developed a severe inner ear thing and felt ill all the time. On the school bus, in class, in the hallways, on the basketball court, the earth felt as if it were shifting beneath their feet. And so they came to hate the hole. And they came to hate themselves. They forgot what they stood for and they forgot who they were. They didn’t really grow up anywhere. On their father’s side they said the bad things about their mother’s side. On their mother’s side they said the bad things about their father’s side. The good things got lost somewhere in between for only them to know. They even came to hate each other, for pulling the other into the hole. Once Andy was big enough, they grappled the whole way down: gouging, kicking, scratching, slapping, biting, cursing, glancing off the rocky walls that separated their homes so that by the time they got to the other side their arms were lined with nail marks and their shins thoroughly bruised.

Andy once sunk his buckteeth so deep into the bridge of Katie’s nose she worried about her brain. One time Katie backhanded her little brother at such a dizzying speed his head clocked a chunk of limestone and she had to cradle his unconscious body the rest of the way down, with her fingers interlocked around his microscopic waist and her chin buried in the limp muscles of his shoulder. She let her tears wet the back of his t-shirt then. And they fell gracefully, silently. Katie knew the hole that well. Her hair blew behind her and the wind rushed through her ears but didn’t disturb her in the slightest. She clung to her little brother for fear that part of her was missing back on which ever side they’d just left. She couldn’t help feeling that her molecules had been left behind.