By Jarred Martin
It was last Tuesday, I think, when the sinkhole opened. I remember I was mowing the lawn. It was the last trim of the season and the grass was dry and starting to turn yellow. I pushed the mower around the corner to cut the area between the side of the house and the fence. I moved down that narrow strip, wishing the mower were a little wider, or the fence could come ahead so that I could cut the area in two clean passes, one going forward, the other coming back, instead of a third pass just to trim the few inches left behind, only to return pushing the mower along with its blades spinning, cutting nothing, which I considered a waste of my time and the lawnmower’s effort.
I was halfway through the first strip, near my bedroom window, when I felt the mower dip down suddenly. It settled down into a concavity as the ground beneath deflated like a collapsing souffle. I was astounded, and could only watch as the earth gave way, leaving a hole with a diameter of some three feet. With nothing supporting the mower, I was left bearing the full weight of it suspended against the side of the hole.
The motor was still running, and I could hear its reverberation echoing with the turning of the blades as I struggled to extricate it. I strained, planting my legs, and pulling with all the might of my back to no avail. It was growing heavy in my arms, and I felt myself slowly draw toward the edge, inch by inch as my strength flagged. I slumped forward, still struggling, bound to lose my mower, and perhaps myself, down the hole, when I felt a surprising force pulling me back. A pair of hands seized my shoulder, and then I saw a blur of motion coming around, which I recognized as my neighbor from the other side of the street. Mr. Fitzroy grabbed hold of the mower, and together we were able to lift it up onto solid ground.
I was in such a state that my hands refused to release the operator presence control bar, so Fitzroy had to lean down and flick the kill switch to stop the motor. The engine died immediately.
Without the blades turning or the engine puttering, I found the silence incredible. I was still a bit shaken, and as I collected my wits, Fitzroy took it upon himself to study the hole, standing over the edge and peering down. He whistled lowly, admiring its depth.
“Boy, you sure didn’t want to let go of that thing, did you? Ecclestone?” he asked, referring to the mower.
Despite the coolness of the afternoon I had begun to sweat, and I took a handkerchief from my pocket to dab my forehead.
“Do you know what could have happened to you if I hadn’t come along?” he said.
This was more than we’d spoken in a year. I try very hard not to get involved in the affairs of my neighbors. A cordial acquaintanceship can turn into a feud at the most superficial misunderstanding.
“No,” I sighed, my seclusion ruined, “what did you almost save me from, Mr. Fitzroy?”
“Well, imagine dropping that mower down and it lands upside down. You fall in after.” He shook his head grimly. “Like dropping a frog into a food processor.”
“That’s certainly a colorful image. Thank you, really, for your help, but I must—”
Fitzroy wasn’t listening. He’d wandered over to the hole again and was staring down into it, mesmerized. “Jeez,” he whistled once more. “Ain’t it deep? I wonder how far down it goes. It’s a sinkhole, you know,” he said, looking back at me. There was restraint in his expression. I had the strange notion he was battling the urge to look into the hole again. “I ain’t talking about the hole at the bottom of your sink, either. Groundwater erodes the soft rock, limestone, most likely. It settles into pools, and when the water evaporates, the pressure changes and down she goes.”
“Sounds like a potential for expensive property damage. Not to mention the legal liability of having a gaping hole in the middle of my lawn.”
“Hard to say,” said Fitzroy. “I don’t know about the law, but what you ought to do is get some sand, big bags of it, and fill it in.” He peered down into the blackness. I refused to look, not wanting to stand near it in case it should open wider. “Boy it’s deep,” he repeated. “Might want to think about a whole truckload of sand.”
Time passed in silence while Fitzroy stared down blankly. “I sure wonder what’s down there,” he said, finally.
The sun had begun to set, and we were now standing completely in the shadow of the house. I’d have to finish the mowing another time. And still Fitzroy lingered, gazing numbly down. I was suddenly more than a little annoyed at the man. Who the hell did he think he was to rush on to my property and start spouting off about limestone, and aquifers, and all sorts of nonsense? And why the hell wouldn’t he leave? Why did he linger, staring, staring down into the dark cavity on my lawn?
“It was all too kind of you to come and help me with the mower, Mr. Fitzroy, but I really must be getting inside.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, without looking at me. Finally, he tore himself away, and there was that same strained expression on his face, as if it took great effort for him to do so. He left at last, walking from my lawn and into the street, then onto his own property with a dazed expression. He didn’t even say good evening, which I was thankful for, as I’d heard enough from the man.
Left satisfyingly alone, I took the mower and started to push it toward the garage, and as I did, I found myself staring at the sinkhole. It had a compelling depth to it that filled my mind with dismay and wonder. Even only staring at it rather than into it, as Fitzroy had, I began to see the appeal of such a thing. I tried to put it out of my mind. I pushed the mower into the garage, looking over the long streaks of uncut grass that I hadn’t gotten to. It bothered me to leave the lawn unfinished, but I was too distressed to finish the job, and planned to finish up in the morning before any of the neighbors started to talk about the crazy man who leaves his lawn half cut.
That night I simply could not make myself sleep. The house was stifling, as if all the heat of the day had come in and refused to leave, roasting me like an oven. Frustrated, I kicked the covers off and opened a window. The night air chilled the sweat on my skin, leaving me cold as the dead. I got out of bed entirely and sat in the kitchen with a glass of milk and turned on the radio. It was a clear night, and I should have been able to receive broadcasts from hundreds of miles away, but I received only static and garbled transmissions from one end of the band to the other. Still I didn’t shut it off right away. I sat and drank my milk with one finger on the dial, slowly going through the stations, listening to the static, the blasts of noise like waves crashing on a violent sea, and I began to hear voices in those waves: voices that hissed at me through the bursting whitecaps.
When I returned to bed some time later, I lay awake listening to a howling dog somewhere in the neighborhood. I imagined it outside my window, at the bottom of the hole, looking up and yowling. I wondered what it would look like to stare up out of a circle of darkness so grim that even the night seems bright by comparison. Would the moon eventually drift over that circle of bright night, aligned above the opening so it filled the sky with its pale glow for one perfect moment? I slept then without dreaming.
The next morning, I woke feeling somewhat rough. I recalled I hadn’t eaten the night before, there had just been the milk. Usually when I go to bed hungry my stomach is like a black pit gnawing away at my insides, but this morning that was not the case.
I was determined to finish up what I’d started with the lawn the previous afternoon. I only allowed myself time for a quick coffee. I took it black because, rather strangely, the milk had soured while I was asleep. It’s funny how something like that happens. Things are fine one moment, then they just go bad all at once. But maybe it had been like that all along, gradually spoiling over time so that I couldn’t notice until it was too late. I pondered this, staring down at the round, black rim of my mug.
I went to the garage to get the mower and found that it wouldn’t start. After yanking on the pull cord for some time, it occurred to me to check the fuel. I twisted off the cap and peered into the little round opening at the top of the plastic tank. It was bone dry; nothing but vapor inside. I filled it and continued to the lawn.
I was about to start it up when I noticed something across the street that made me stop. There was a young man lurking around Mr. Fitzroy’s property. I’d never noticed many guests at his house, and I’d certainly never seen this man before. He was suspicious to me, prowling around the yard, looking for unlatched windows, or loose basement bulkheads to sneak through, no doubt. Casing the joint, as they say in the movies.
He was a hoodlum, I decided. I certainly didn’t want him skulking around my property next, so I set off across the street to tell him just that, and let him know that he’d been spotted, and that he’d better clear out, because if anything were to happen, it’d be too easy to identify him now.
“Excuse me,” I made my voice as threatening as I could, approaching the man. “What exactly is it you think you’re doing here, might I ask?”
He turned around, startled, but I wasn’t buying the act. I stared hard at him, demanding a reply.
“I’m looking over these rusted screens. I was going to help replace them last winter, but I’ve just been so busy.”
“Replacing rusted window screens?” I repeated incredulously. “Do you really expect me to believe that you just go around replacing peoples’ rusted window screens for no good reason? I suppose you work for some sort of window screen charity, is that it?”
He looked back at me, doing his best to appear confused. “I’ve never heard of that before. I don’t work for a charity, either. I’m Mel’s son, Jason.” He reached out his hand, but I did not take it. He looked at his palm and fingers as though they might be dirty and quickly put his hand away. “You probably recognize me from all the pictures?”
“Pictures?” I said. “Which pictures?”
“The ones in the house. Dad had about a hundred framed pictures of me up. It’s embarrassing really, but I guess he was proud, so I shouldn’t say anything.”
“Yes, of course, the pictures.” I’d never been inside Fitzroy’s house, but he wouldn’t know that.
“Well, anyhow, you’ll be seeing a lot more of me around here, I guess. I’m going to do my best to fix this old wreck before I sell it off.”
“Mr. Fitzroy is selling his house? He never mentioned it. Why doesn’t he do his own repairs— leaks in the roof, and rusted window screens?”
The man claiming to be Fitzroy’s son gave me a strange look and then closed his mouth. His teeth clicked audibly. “I’m sorry, I thought you would have known even before I did.”
“Dad died early yesterday evening. We don’t know yet, but we suspect it was another heart attack. He had one before, about six years ago.”
“He seemed fine to me when we spoke yesterday.”
“You spoke to my father yesterday? When?”
“I spoke to Mr. Fitzroy last night, yes. We talked about—” A sudden idea struck me at that moment. I peered across the street at my own property, focusing on the side of the house. There it was, lying like an errant dot of black on an oil painted landscape. The sink hole. Fitzroy had been staring into it last night, and acting rather strangely afterward. Whatever he saw in that black pit must have been one of the last things he’d seen. Or maybe the last thing that saw him. “He helped me with my mower,” I finished. I turned quickly without saying goodbye and hurried home, skipping over the manhole cover as I crossed the street. The man must have thought me peculiar, and I wish I’d played it differently now. He must have known I realized something about him, that he looked nothing like Fitzroy, though he claimed to be blood relation. I couldn’t be sure what exactly had happened to my neighbor, but I knew one thing: that young man was not Fitzroy’s son. I was certain of it!
Back inside, I shut the door. Damn the lawn. I’d trim it some other time when I had fewer things on my mind. No, now was not the time to be out on the grass. I was vulnerable outside. He could see me out there while he pretended to be doing the repairs. But inside I was safe. Safe. Yes, I would be safe in here. I was determined not to leave until I had figured out what to do.
I turned on the radio. I wanted to hear some music, a political discussion, a commercial, anything to break that nauseating silence. Static. Nothing but static on every station. What did it mean? I listened to it. Waves crashing, over and over. The voices in them. Saying things I could almost make out, but not quite. Like the voices of drowning men calling out before the waves fell over them. What were they saying? What were they telling me?
And then I understood. Yes. It came to me very clearly. Whatever Fitzroy had seen in that hole had followed him, come right up out of the dark, and now it was living in his house, wearing his clothes, eating his food.
I listened to the voices in the waves as they explained it to me. I listened and stared deep into the speaker inside the mesh, round and black and pulsating with the sound that escaped it.
I lay awake that night, too aroused to sleep. I was thinking of the sinkhole outside the window. Only the wall of my house separated us. I wondered, would it be enough to protect me? Why could I not banish it from my mind? It was as if the hole was widening, forming some vacuum which sucked up my thoughts the way a sinking ship pulled drowning men down with it, down into the murky depths for ever and ever. I became obsessed with the idea that a small child would be attracted to the hole and want to investigate, maybe drop a stone down to see if it would produce a splash. In my mind I could see the child slip and fall in, and fall, and fall into the darkness, never finding the bottom, lost in the weightless vacuity.
I may have drifted off, I can’t remember. I recall the shadows dancing on my bedroom wall. Weird, dark shapes coming through the window. The shadows of things I could only imagine, emerging from the abyss. I shut my eyes.
Morning came and I wandered into the kitchen. I couldn’t remember eating anything the day before and I was famished. I opened my refrigerator to find a warm, soggy mess putrefying within. Black deflated shapes of things I could no longer identify lined the shelves and bins. The smell was ghastly. I found the milk, which was not too far gone, and sat drinking it. I fiddled with the radio on the kitchen table. I knew that there was no broadcast, but I listened out of habit and let the ocean waves of static wash over me while I drank my milk and breathed the awful stench of decay surrounding the room. Voices. Screaming. Drowning voices. I listened.
Suddenly I shot up out of my seat and took my glass to the sink and poured the contents out. I watched the milk, clean and white, be devoured by the drain, disappearing into the blackness. It was so simple. The explanation for my ruined groceries. It was gas! Some toxic cloud had spilled up through the sinkhole. Some odious fog wafting up to the surface, long fermented, trapped for years under the earth and released when the sinkhole open up. A malodorous fume leaking through my home, spoiling the food, tainting the air. I’d already drank the milk, but I was not too worried. “I am healthy. I am very healthy. I have a strong constitution.”
My mailbox at the end of the drive was full. I peeked through the window to get a quick view of the neighborhood. The mailbox was so stuffed with letters it would not close. My garage door was wide open as well. I longed to go outside and shut it, but that would be foolish. He was out there. He saw me peeking through the blinds and laughed, waving to me. He was checking the windows again at the house across the street. He was out there every time I looked, pretending to go around and around the house, inspecting it. I know what he was really up to. He was spying on me. Keeping an eye on me for the others. Yes, there were others. How many? How many more just like him had emerged from that patch of black while I lay asleep? It was impossible to tell. Were any of the old residents left in the neighborhood? Had they all been… replaced?
The lawn mower was still on the front lawn. The grass had grown up around it in two different layers: the swath I’d cleared before I had to stop, and the area I hadn’t gotten to. It was growing up around the sink hole. All the better to hide itself in the tall weeds. A trap, though I couldn’t be sure. I would never risk looking out my bedroom window at it to see what hideous things twisted and writhed at the bottom of that pit. I had no desire to know those things. And yet, I did know. I saw them. I saw their serpentine bodies in silhouette on my bedroom wall at night, like eels transforming into human shapes.
I glanced at the door. When would they come for me? Why did they allow me to persist? For what purpose?
In the bathroom later, looking into the mirror above the sink, peering deeply at my own reflection. The eyes. Staring into my own pupils, round and dark like holes, I wondered if they had changed. Could it possibly be that they had gotten to me without my knowing? Was I me anymore? I observed the reflection for any irregularity in my appearance. The image was pale and underfed, wearing stained clothes. He looked dirty with his unshaven cheeks and smudges on his face. Most of all, he looked tired. I pulled my reflection’s lips back to inspect the teeth: yellow and caked with tartar. And then I saw something and let my pried-open lips go. Far back in a bottom tooth, one of the broad molars had an abscess: a black cavity hardly larger than a grain of pepper. How deep did it go into my tooth? The gums? My jaw? Festering, corrupting me from within. Is that how they got in? I was so concerned about the sink hole, I hadn’t considered there may be other entrances. Just as empty. Just as dark. Just as deep. A network of holes spilling out the bitter abscesses they can no longer contain: The long black eels with human faces.
And below me: the sink! I quickly stuffed tissue down into the drain and left the bathroom, making sure the door was shut tightly behind me.
That night, I crawled into bed though I seldom slept these days. The sinkhole was mere feet from me. If I listened, I could hear the wind rushing over the top of it. I turned away, twisting the bedclothes around my overheated body.
The hole in my yard, I thought. The great drain through which the world slowly drips. I pictured it widening, growing so vast it consumed all, casting us into a deeper darkness.
Fitzroy said something about sand that day. I remember him telling me something about it. What was he getting at? What was he trying to tell me? Fill the hole with sand. A warning, perhaps? I pondered this, repeating his phrase in my head. I may never know what it meant.
Later. Much later. Losing track of time. The grass outside the house was tall; dry and yellow like a field of early wheat. I could only see the handlebar of the mower when I looked through the window, peeking up from the dense verdure. I saw the other. He was outside Fitzroy’s house every time I looked through the blinds. His face is slowly changing into mine. When it does, as gradually as waning shadows creeping across the surface of the moon, he will come for me.
There’s no electricity anymore. Some kind of waves come up from the hole in my yard and block the currents. The faucets are dry. I no longer trust them. I’ve stuffed all the drains with paper. I’ve been drinking the water from the back of the toilet, but I suspect it has been tainted in some way as well.
I turned the dial on the radio, remembering how it used to produce the brilliant crashing waves, but the sea is still and quiet within it now.
Yesterday, or the day before, a man knocked on my door. I hid in the closet until long after he was gone. I was tempted to look through the peep hole, but I knew better than to expose myself. What would I have seen if I had?
It is not the same night as before. Things have changed. I cannot sleep. I will not sleep. I am horrified by the shadows twisting across my bedroom wall. They emerge from that awful pit outside my window: Those twining serpentine shadows, like worms spilling from a festering wound. They are so numerous now they surround the house. I think it is night. I think I will try and escape when it is daylight. There are still shadows then, but the day makes them wary and still. It is my only hope. I do not know where I will go.
I will escape.
I turned the doorknob slowly, not knowing what I would find when I opened the door. I didn’t know what was left for me, but I did know that it was time to leave. I had not seen the other for ages. If he has become me, then so be it.
I stepped out into what should have been the light of day, but I found the neighborhood bathed in a gloom more appropriate for late evening. I took my first cautious steps out onto the lawn, disoriented by the uncertainty of the hour.
I saw him then: the creature across the street, the one who had taken residence in Fitzroy’s home. He stepped out of the house and stood on his porch, gazing up at the sky. The gloom was too complete to make out his features, but if I could, I was certain he would bear a countenance exactly like my own. I was too disturbed to study him closely, because in the next seconds all of the doors of the houses along the street began to open at once, and all of my treacherous neighbors began to exit, each turning their heads as Fitzroy’s imposter had. Dozens of them, mothers holding infants, or gathering small children to their skirts. Grown men and youths. Dogs within their fences held their heads skyward and all throughout the neighborhood not a single bird sang. They stared in silence at the source of the darkness.
And then so did I.
A great chill fell over me as I gazed upward. I stood stunned in the eerie gloom, for there in the sky was a black shadow the size and shape of the sun. At first, the glow of the daylight could be seen around the circumference, a dull orange bleeding out around the edges, and then, seconds later, there was no light at all. I found myself cowering before a circle of black so perfect, so complete, devouring the light of day. Standing in that hideous shadow, that sable cancer cast over the sun, I could not help but think of how it looked so much like a great black hole had opened in the sky.