Underground Monsters

Darren dared me to do it. We were sitting on the porch—Mom didn’t want us to go out into the yard until we knew what had happened—eating apples and talking about the holes.

We’d just gotten up and walked outside to put our bikes away like our Mom had asked when we noticed. Overnight, every single tree had been replaced by a hole in the ground. A perfect pile of leaves circled each hole. Not just in our yard but as far as we could see. The day before, there had been a forest—like a real one with a name—that blocked our view. But we could see everything now. The town, the lake, the school. Not to mention the blinking walls of our neighbors’ houses. I imagined them blushing from the sudden exposure.

“You think it was a machine?” I asked him.

He scanned the horizon. “An army of ’em.”

“No. Couldn’t be. We’d have woke up. Well, you and Mom would have for sure.”

“Maybe the government has developed stealth tractors.”

Shivers jangled my spine. I’d never thought of stealth tractors before. What else was the government doing that I’d never thought of?

“Naw.” I shrugged off my fear. “It was a monster. A picky one who doesn’t like roughage. And they’re going to find it and ask it to spit the trees back out.” I didn’t know who “they” were. I hoped Darren wouldn’t notice.

“That makes no sense, Arnold. We’d have heard breathing or crunching or footsteps or something”

“Makes as much sense as an army of tractors.”

Darren stuck his tongue out at that. He finished his apple and spit the seeds at me. I ran from him and sat on the stairs. A few minutes later, Darren sat next to me. First, we watched the stick figures of neighbors come out of their houses and survey what had happened. Then we watched the birds, frantically gathering on the ground or flying from the eaves of one house to another. I got scared again thinking about what was all missing.

“Gotta be a monster. It ate up all the squirrels and chipmunks, too,” I told Darren.

“All right, smartie. If it’s a monster, it’ll be hungry again, won’t it?”

“Not for a while, I think.”

“Well, but it will, and we’re gonna need to feed it or it will eat our houses, too.”

“Never thought of that.”

“So you gotta distract it by moving these chairs out into the yard.” He pointed to the four Adirondacks sitting back up on the porch. “I dare you.”

We eyed each other for a moment before I took the dare. I was thinking Mom usually wants us in the yard instead of playing video games so she couldn’t get too mad at me. While I was pushing the second chair down the stairs, Darren went inside to watch the news. It didn’t take long for me to move them, heavy as they were. When I was done, I joined Darren on the couch. Trees were gone everywhere. The newscasters were interviewing scientists who all had their theories, some blaming corporations, others blaming environmentalists, but it was clear it was all filler. They knew as much as we did. Our phone rang constantly: neighbors calling to compare notes.

The chairs stayed in the yard, untouched. I’d check them through the front windows every hour or so. I couldn’t rescue them because Mom grounded me for putting them out there in the first place. She still wouldn’t let us out of the house; everyone was afraid the ground was diseased. And Darren wouldn’t rescue them because he said they proved he was the smarter brother.

On the morning of the fourth day, I saw that the chairs had been stacked on top of each other, that the legs of one were growing into the armrests of another. Branches bushy with leaves had sprouted from the planks. Seedlings in their casings shaped like music notes dangled in the breeze. We ran inside to tell Mom. Darren made a point to tell her that moving the chairs was his idea. But she didn’t ground him.

By the end of the day, chairs, dressers, desks, and ottomans decorated every front yard in town. People had even pre-stacked them, though Mom told them we hadn’t done it that way and it had still worked.

Photo by Mikes Photos from Pexels

Early draft.

The Clockwork Creature

When Robert released the wind-up key, a high, thin whirr filled the laboratory. The silver gears inside the creature’s walnut-sized thorax set into motion its legs—eight jointed levers about two inches long—and pips of steam released from its palpus. Those attached to the front of its thorax reached and those in back pushed across his drafting table.

The clockwork creature’s lunge reminded him of a windy day on Lake Michigan: the red stripes of bathing suits, the yellow of lemon ice, the blue of his little brother’s body floating in the water. Robert and his brothers had noticed him all at once. They breaststroked to where Cecil’s nine-year-old body bobbed and worked together to keep Cecil’s face above water as they dragged him toward safety. Three arms holding, three arms reaching, six legs kicking behind.

Breaking from his daydream, Robert flipped the machine over. An upturned crab. Its rounded chassis wobbled as its legs clawed the air. He watched as its energy slowed and stopped, then he traded his lab coat for a smoking jacket and wandered back into the main house to inquire what meal Mrs. Chambers planned for luncheon.

The thing was still upside down when Robert returned to his laboratory weeks later, but no dust had settled upon it—a rare sign of Mrs. Chambers’s presence. Its arms curled as if to beckon him closer. Turned upright, the creature became a science to him once more, a puzzle to be solved. He found himself humming as he oiled its joints, cleaned the gears with a pipe cleaner, and retightened each screw.

Cecil had also been fastidious. One day Cecil had pulled Robert into father’s study. He had replaced a shelf of Father’s engineering books with a row of empty milk bottles.

“Have you been thirsty?” Robert said with a laugh.

“Look closer,” Cecil whispered. Robert bent down and one of the bottles flashed chartreuse.

“Fireflies?”

Cecil nodded vigorously. “Yes, and Japanese beetles and ash borers and bumblebees. I’m starting a collection.”

His collection.

Robert dropped the screwdriver and before he knew it, he was running through the main house, past his brothers’ laboratories filled with steam-powered printing presses and cannons, and into his father’s study. Freddie and Ambrose popped up at the door asking what had happened. Robert did not answer. He was focused on the bottom-most shelf of milk bottles. Robert pulled a bottle out and saw the specks at the bottom. A low mewl escaped him.

“What in blazes is the matter, Bobby?” Freddie snapped. Ambrose stood silently behind him; the look on his face was granite, except for the caterpillars of his mustache.

Robert held the bottle out to his brothers. “I forgot Cecil’s insects.”

The sun was high on a summer day when Mrs. Chambers entered the laboratory, feather duster in hand. As usual, she began with the sitting area near the fireplace. She was moving Robert’s pipe and writing notebook from a side table when a pair of shoes under the drafting table across the room caught her eye. When the shoes moved, she screamed.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chambers.”

Mrs. Chambers noticed a smearing of Robert’s words. She spotted several bottles of wine under the table next to him.

“Mister Robert. I’m sorry. I will come back when the room is unoccupied.”

“No!” Robert said. “That is, stay, please.” He crawled out from underneath the table.

Apprehensively, Mrs. Chambers continued to dust. The room was silent, except for his soft humming and an occasional blowing of air into one of his inventions, a small thing with ghastly arms. When she had almost finished her work, Robert spoke again.

“May I show you an invention inspired by our dear Cecil?”

“Of course, sir.”

Robert wound the small contraption, and she watched as it labored across the drafting table like a lame crab. No, that wasn’t the motion. What had she ever seen that moved like that?

“It’s a clockwork spider,” Robert said when he registered the confusion on her face.

“I’ve never seen a spider walk like that, sir. You know best, of course, but shouldn’t the legs be on the sides and not front and back?”

“Of course! Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. It’s not natural. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?”

Mrs. Chambers returned to dusting as Robert began the process of reattaching legs and calibrating them to move side-to-side instead of up and down.

Early draft: constructive criticism welcome.

(photo credit: Pavlofox at pixabay.com)

Jupiter

The horse’s tongue grazes the back of my neck. It’s soft, slick, with muscle behind it. But Jupiter’s always liked to lick the sweat off me on summer days. Kurt says Jupiter licks him, too. Says it’s because Jupiter considers us part of his herd, or he’s asserting his dominance over us or something. But I just think he’s sweating too much and needs the salt. I guess that makes me his salt-lick-slash-shit-shoveler.

I bend my knees a little, pitch the shovel forward across the stall floor, and walk to the wall. Jupiter waits a second before he follows. I hear him scoot forward, and then his tongue is under my ear, making me jump a little. I tell him “Hee-ahh,” all long and slow like the month of August. Jupiter obeys by keeping his tongue to himself and letting me finish mucking his stall. That’s when I hear a horse—probably Hester—at the other end of the barn let out a low hoot, a stomp like a two-step, and then the melody of a conversation.

“Sullivan’s all talk.” I recognize the machismo right away; I’d recognize it underwater and in space. “He won’t really tell your mama. He probably wants to read it as much as you do.”

“I don’t know. He’s not that into end-of-the-world stuff.” My brother’s girlfriend’s voice, Serena. She’s the only one I know that can make two syllables out of the word ‘world.’

“But he is into knowing what everyone in class is talking about. Trust me. He wants to read it, too. And that’s too bad because you’re going to give it to me when you’re done, aren’t you?” I can only assume my brother tickles because Serena laughs and nothing he said was funny. I hear a quick grunt and then the unmistakable click of a kiss breaking apart. “Does that convince you?”

I can’t hear Serena’s answer; she’s all whispers. It takes two or three of their clicks for me to think to tell them I’m here. But then I get a better idea.

As quiet as I can I pull the latch on Jupiter’s stall—its creak blends into the other barn noises: whinnies and water pumps and bats in the rafters preparing for their evening chase. Kurt and Serena are still talking softly. I look at the horse standing a few feet away, twitching its ears at me. It’s the one time I can remember when he doesn’t charge me after I open the door. I offer up my arm, and he starts licking. Slowly, slowly, I inch Jupiter out of his stall and into the thoroughfare. Once he’s out it’s like someone’s riding him, I guess because he wants washing. He walks right onto the thick mats that line the shower stall. A surprised shout echoes off the roof.

“Damn it, Jupe, stop licking me for a minute.”

“How’d he get in here?” Serena says, sounding unphased.

“Hold that thought. I’m just going to put him back.” When Kurt turns the corner, flushed and missing his shirt, I make sure I’m giving him my widest grin. He skips right into a run. Then it’s my laughter bouncing around the barn, and I’m hiding in the orchard out of breath wondering how long I should wait before I go back in.

 

The Closet In the Basement

On my ninth Christmas Eve, my parents went out— probably to finish Christmas shopping. They had put Arnold, my 17-year-old oldest brother in charge of my other brother, Hans, and me. Arnold told me he wanted to show me something in the basement. It was thrilling following him and Hans down the stairs. My brothers actually wanted to do something with me for once! This could go either very well or very badly.

Our basement has this closet in one corner that was locked year-round. That was where they led me. The door of the closet is made of raggedy, gnarled barn board slats. Up until that night, I was always scared of that door. It looked like what a gate to Hell looks like in old movies, you know? Now that I think about it, one of my brothers probably planted that image in my head.

Hans inserted a key into the lock, then threw open the door. Christmas presents! Tons of them in various states of dress. We ogled the ones that weren’t wrapped, and Hans showed me how to carefully peel back the Scotch tape from the presents that were.

Before I peeked at my first present though, Arnold prepped me on how to act surprised when I opened the gifts the next morning: “Remember exactly how you feel when you see what’s inside, Nathan. That way you can recreate it when you open this in front of Mom and Dad.” I had to ask what recreate meant. Once they told me, I couldn’t get over how smart my brothers were.

After we had our fill looking at the presents, we patted the tape back down. Arnold locked the closet door. When my parents came home that night, we were primly seated in front of the television, quiet as mice.

*****

A few weeks ago, Arnold told me he is moving to Seattle. It’s really good news. He needs a change. His announcement just shook me and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I remembered the night my brothers showed me the Christmas closet.

That’s the memory that comes back to me whenever I walk into my parents’ house and see the presents under their tree. Now that even my niece and nephew are adults, the holidays are less about presents and more about appreciating being together as a family.

That’s what jolted me about Arnold’s announcement. His moving to Seattle is the beginning of the end of that. His son and daughter will still be in Michigan. He’s not abandoning us, but his Christmas visits will inevitably dwindle. I’ll feel his absence. I’ll want to go down to that basement and throw open that creepy closet door hoping Arnold’s in there waiting to surprise us.