by Meredith Jones
This story was selected by our editorial staff as winner of the inaugural Spooky Stories Contest. Meredith Jones was the featured reader at the second annual Terrifying Tales Night on October 30th, 2012.
Nina has these great black eyes, heavy-lidded and strange. When she turns them on you, there’s nothing for it but to do as she asks. I would rather be in Milwaukee, but I touch her arm instead and go to ring the doorbell.
Her uncle is a small man, a shriveled man, creased with infirmity and terribly bad luck. The last time he was in the hospital, Nina said, they cut out his blackened liver and replaced it with a pig’s. That was eight months ago, but he still moves with the ginger step of a pregnant woman, as though the foreign organ balances precariously on his delicate bones.
“Tommy?” says Nina. “How are you feeling?”
“Who the fuck is he?” asks Nina’s uncle.
“I’m Brandon,” I say, extending an optimistic hand. “It’s nice to meet you.” We have been introduced twice already, during the time Tommy spent in the hospital, but Tommy never wants to remember.
“Don’t you want to let us in?” asks Nina. I let my hand drop.
“No,” says Tommy, but he lets the door gape wider regardless. Nina pushes gently through, pulling me behind her. It is her left hand, the wooden one. I hold it tight.
We emerge into what I initially mistake for utter darkness. My perception stretches doubtfully and presents a sudden glimmer of slick black. Uncle Tommy has covered the windows in plastic garbage bags. I am suddenly reminded of bandages.
“Tommy,” says Nina. “Where is Henry?”
“China,” says Tommy, flippantly, I think. I wander over to the fireplace, which has been gradually materializing in the darkness. It is blackened, of course, buried in soot, but the mantelpiece bears a small proliferation of photographs in sharp-edged metal frames. I recognize one of the little figures: Nina, caught in infancy, recognizable by one infinite black eye. The other has been cut off, her red and squalling face split in two by some unskilled photographer.
“Don’t be silly,” says Nina. “Are you all right? Do you need to sit down?”
I turn. Tommy has gone pale, and he clutches his own elbows ungracefully. “I’m hungry,” he says.
Nina guides him toward the door, limned in daylight. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Yes,” says Tommy.
Nina steers her uncle into the kitchen, which is brighter but, if possible, even less cheerful. Long thin stripes jail the walls, and the porcelain sink is a thin, runny yellow. It smells of tuna.
“I’m sorry,” says Nina. “It isn’t usually like this. Henry cleans.”
“It’s fine,” I say. “What should I do?”
We search the cabinets. Tommy eyes me as I reach for a can of sliced plums. “Henry cleaned,” he says. “He’s gone.” Henry is Tommy’s brother, a sawed-off lump of a man with hands like chopping blocks. I have only seen him in pictures. There is nothing of him in Nina.
Nina clasps my hand. We have been engaged for six months. “Do you know where the bowls are?” she asks. “We’re going to make some soup.”
“Underneath you,” says Tommy. In the cabinet by Nina’s legs we find a bowl of beautiful bone china. The rest of the shelves are empty.
From the bowels of the house come the sound of footsteps, and Henry appears, half his bulk hidden by the door jamb. I am struck by how much he has aged since the pictures from Nina’s youth. There, his complexion was raw and ruddy, his chest taut as a fist. Formidable and dull. Since then, his skin has grown jaundiced and sickly, his belly caving in beneath his barreled ribs. He is decomposing as quickly as his brother in this house, their bodies shedding mass in a race to the center.
“Da,” says Nina. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’d like you to meet Brandon.”
Henry looks at Tommy, at Nina, at me, cataloguing our expressions slowly. He offers me an uncertain smile.
“Brandon, this is my dad. Have you been eating?” This to Henry, who shakes his head. “This house,” says Nina. “I’m worried about you.”
Henry is silent. This, perhaps, is his gift to Nina: the enduring ability to keep her secrets. What I know of her family is garnered from the things she says when she’s half-asleep, the old photographs on the mantelpiece. Nina lives almost entirely in the present. We move forward. No secrets in the future.
Henry’s silence isn’t like Nina’s. I look at him. He keeps his eyes on the floor, round-shouldered under Nina’s gentle remonstration. He reminds me of nothing so much as the tall mute man who pushed the mops in an endless circle around the dim corridors of my high school.
“Good to meet you,” I say, and, indicating his great flat hands with dirt beneath the nails, “What have you been working on?”
“Motherfucker,” says Tommy. “Eating dirt.”
“What?” I say. Nina looks upset.
“Tell them,” says Tommy. “Tell them what you do.” Another shake of the head. Tommy begins to speak and doubles over, felled by a gasping, wracking cough. A trickle of blood inches down the corner of his mouth. No one else notices.
“What’s Tommy talking about?” asks Nina. The soup can rests forgotten in her hand. Six months.
Henry looks at Nina’s face and goes quite still, caught, like an animal. I do not envy him the opportunity to look directly into those eyes just now. A second, and then another, passes, and he strides across the room with two great steps and snatches Nina by the arm. I shout, but Nina doesn’t seem surprised. She lets herself be shepherded across the linoleum to the cellar door.
I look back. Tommy sits in the middle of the kitchen, balanced precariously on the chair’s edge, ropy hands caught up in each other’s fingers. He seems serene, if not quite present. I leave him to his own devices and follow Nina and her father down the stairs.
In the cellar, it is the black of underground, damp and hard-packed. Orange stains bloom on the surface of my vision, and I blink, waiting to adjust. The last step comes sooner than I think, and I stumble against Henry, who doesn’t seem to register the disturbance. There is no rumble of displeasure, merely the flat, unruffled reception of a brick wall.
“Baby?” says Nina. The spots fade, and newer, darker ones rise in their absence. I wait to see a wall, a corner, the shoebox dimensions of a cellar, but I see only blue-black craters in my vision. With one hand, I grope for Nina; with the other, I stretch out my fingertips to measure the distance between myself and the wall. My fingers grasp at nothing. The space seems infinite.
“Where are you?” I ask. I shut my eyes and the spots disappear. Open, and there they are. I realize, with a sudden flash of shock, what I am looking at.
The dirt cellar is riddled with holes, crawl-spaces in the earth barely wide enough for an increasingly skeletal man. Henry has been digging—and digging—and digging, stretching his fingers out underneath the house as far as they will go. My hand finds Nina’s, suddenly; I clutch at it with a force unlike me. Nina’s mother died in childbirth.
“Da?” asks Nina. Henry has wedged himself into the lowermost tunnel, scrabbling for purchase like a mole. Nina drops my hand, squats, tugs at her father’s swollen ankle. “Da, wh—”
Nina cannot finish the sentence.
We watch helplessly as Henry’s foot disappears. Nina lets out a little breath, and sits down on the cellar floor, apparently to wait for him. I crouch down, peer into the tunnel after him. For a tall, broad-shouldered man, Henry is quick; there is no flicker of him in the hole.
I put a hand in—then an arm. “Nina,” I say. “Feel this. I can’t feel my arm, it’s numb all the way to the brink.”
“Take your hand out of there,” Nina says quietly. I think of teeth in the darkness, and pull back. The downy hairs there stand erect, terrified. Nina, with her wooden hand, wouldn’t be able to feel it.
I crouch next to her and peer around the cellar. “This is incredible,” I say. “How long do you think he’s been doing it?”
Nina doesn’t answer. Months, I think. Years. Before I knew Nina, perhaps. Before I knew her, she existed like this, with big dark eyes and a dying uncle, a father who dug holes in the soil.
There is a silent noise beneath our hands, a noise made of movement. Something crumples, far away. Nina jumps to her feet and bends to the tunnel again.
“Da?” she says. “Da?”
A muffled cough. It could be Henry below or Tommy above, I’m not sure. Nina is sure—she levers herself into the tunnel as quickly as her father before her. I lunge and grab an ankle.
“Don’t—what are you doing?”
Her voice seems to come across a long distance. “It’s collapsed. I have to get him out.”
“The tunnel’s collapsed?”
She doesn’t answer, and in my confusion, I loosen my grip on her ankle. In a moment, Nina has disappeared. I place both hands on the threshold and peer inside. Nothing. I can’t even make out the walls.
Nina’s mother died in childbirth. I crawl into the hole after her.
The numbness envelopes me, so that I cannot tell if my eyes are open or closed. It is uniformly, entirely black. I can’t feel the earth beneath my fingers. I can’t feel the roots brush my forehead. A deep, thudding rhythm fills my ears; it is my own heartbeat.
A hand—a knee—a hand—a knee. Forward. I would rather be in Milwaukee, with my relatives. They have all met Nina, have said how lovely she was, how practical her mind, how gentle her touch. They do not mention the wooden hand. They do not mention the bottomless gaze.
I pause—or I think I pause. The sound of my heartbeat thickens, doubles: a second beat has joined my own, perfectly in time. Nina’s? I crawl forward once more, terrified, alert, waiting for the teeth. I should be waiting for her outside the maze. We should be waiting for Henry. But I am tied to Nina, and she to Henry. It is a web, bizarre, circuitous, familial.
When we were in school together, I asked Nina about her hand. She said nothing for a long time, and held it up to the light in front of her as if it were someone else’s. When she looked at me her pupils were enormous, despite the fluorescent lights, and she asked me to lie on top of her. We lay there unmoving for an hour, maybe more. I saw that she was deep down somewhere, and that I was weight, the anchor, the hand keeping her in the present. This is how it is: Nina spends her life caring for other people, and sometimes she allows me to hold her hand.
My breath comes in little shallow gasps. I press one hand to my chest, wait to feel my lungs expand. I can’t feel them. I can’t feel anything, not even the drum-tight rhythm of my heartbeat, echoed by its twin.
“Nina?” I say. “Baby?”
My hand meets a hand, meaty and unresponsive. The surprise of both touch and interpretation send a blow to my lungs, and I cough like Tommy, upstairs. Henry is dead, collapsed beneath a shower of dirt. I touch his hand again, shake it, grasp it in my own. Henry is dead. Motherfucker, I think. Eating dirt.
Nina must have met him on her way, or gotten lost in the space beneath her house. I am growing closer, the heartbeats quickening. There is no present in the hole; now stretches out indefinitely. Before I knew Nina, I think, she existed like this, with big dark eyes and a mouthful of secrets, a family buried in the little red house.
A hand on my shoulder. I grab for it eagerly, turn: but it is Tommy, looking at me as though he has just asked me a question.
I am in the living room.
“Who the fuck are you?” repeats Tommy. His black eyes have grown milky at the edges.
The blackout windows stare at me. I glance around. There are no tunnels, no dead man, no cloying dirt. Only the soot-stained mouth of the fireplace, supporting its array of photographs.
I push past the sick man with his hog’s liver, walk to the mantle and pick up the picture in its silver frame. I see now that it has been folded over, the rest of the photograph hidden from view.
Two infants cry together, their hands caught up in each other’s fingers. The skin there is marbled, fused together, veins pushing through the knuckles in an inseparable web. They are identical, recognizable by those terrible black eyes. Hands cradle the two, big hands, male hands. But not Henry’s. There is nothing of him in Nina. Nothing at all.
Doubled once more. Henry and her mother, making their slow escape from the clay; Tommy and I, spilled out into the daylight. Nina’s sister, waiting for her twin.
Two heartbeats sound in my ears. Behind me, Tommy coughs into his fist again, piteously.
“Tommy,” I say, without turning around, “where is Nina?”
His hand brushes mine, and then he grasps it, wanting, it seems, some kind of reassurance. His palm is wet with blood.
“Underneath you,” he says.
Meredith Jones is a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studies history. She has previously been published in UNC’s literary magazine Cellar Door and semi-independent all-purpose collective Should Does (http://www.shoulddoes.com), for both of which she now works as the fiction editor.