The Underneath Place
The Cole house was an old colonial, built on the side of a hill. Six stairs led up to the red-shingled porch. The door was red as well; old, thick, made of oak. There was a crawlspace underneath the house, enclosed by a white lattice. Beneath the stairs, Elliot Cole pulled away the lattice, exposing the underbelly of his family home. It was his underneath place, the place where he came to bury his jars.
His Grandma, old and cataclysmically demented, lived in the downstairs bedroom at the back of the long hall that stretched from the front door to the back. She was eighty-three, and despite her deteriorating mind, her body still held strength. Sometimes she would get up in the night and roam around. She had cut herself with a broken teacup once, and Elliot's parents spent all night getting the bleeding to stop. After that, they had begun to lock her door at night. Still, Elliot could hear her in the sleepless hours of the morning, pacing in circles and whispering to whatever visitors came to haunt her. Elliot was afraid of her and since she had moved in he had stayed away from her.
A week before his eleventh birthday, Elliot woke to the sound Grandma's thudding footsteps downstairs. The morning was still premature; the sun was little more than a peeking crescent on the horizon outside of his window. He rolled around for a while, spending several minutes on each side until his arm would go to sleep before turning once again. Grandma's footsteps gained strength, and with each footfall, the floor beneath Elliot's bed began to shake. He stood up and crept out of his room.
His parents were still asleep, tucked away in their dreams at the end of the upstairs hallway. Elliot slunk down the stairs, careful to avoid the places on the floorboards that he knew were weak. He ducked behind the final wooden spindle at the bottom of the stairs and peered down the hallway. Grandma's door was open. Dim yellow light shone out from the doorway. It reminded Elliot of a painting in his church, the one where the gates of Heaven were swung open, and the light of God radiated out onto the ravished faces of the believers. The light made him feel sick.
He tip-toed down the hallway. Grandma's incessant babbling began to form in his ears.
"No daddy, no daddy," she whispered. There was a mixture of frustration and desperation in her voice, heavy on the desperation.
Elliot approached the doorway, wrapped his fingers around the frame, and peered in. Grandma was facing away from him. She was standing beside her bed and over her side table. She was stretching and flailing her arms, reaching out to the ceiling with her wrinkled and liver-spotted hands, before bringing them back down and twisting her grey, frayed hair into knots. Her once white nightgown had turned yellow like it was diseased.
"Ding dong, ding dong!" she said, spreading her arms back out like broken wings.
Elliot was still, keeping his silence in the room complete. However, he had not accounted for his parents, who were beginning to stir upstairs. The floorboards above him let out a wailing creak. Grandma spun around, twisting at the hips. It reminded Elliot of a serpent in a basket. Her eyes locked with his. They were still for a moment, their gazes freezing each other. Finally, Grandma's lips peeled open, and a wide grin spread across her face. The lower half of her body finished the turn, and she faced him. Her head cocked slightly, the grin plastered on her face, and she sat down on the edge of her bed. The motion was disturbingly smooth as if she had tapped into a buried reserve of her youthful elegance.
"Elliot," she said, "my boy. What are you doing up so early? Do come sit with me a moment. I have something I've meant to ask you." Her voice, still frail, had taken on a surety that Elliot hadn't heard in years. The glaze on her eyes seemed to slide away, like the layer of film on a cat's eye beneath its outer lid. With a twisted hand she patted at the neatly made bed beside her. There was a soft pat-pat-pat sound on the comforter. Her head cocked again.
Elliot fled. He stamped up the stairs, bolting into his room and shutting the door against his mother's cries of confusion. Inside, he leaned his back against the door and clutched his chest. It felt as if two great stones were pressing against either side of his heart. Sweat began to bead on his thin brow. He was hyperventilating. He began to hobble to his closet, doubled over and twisting his tee shirt into knots. He slid the door to his closet open. The paneled vents in the doors clanged together. He began to rummage through the piled clothes and toys that had amassed on the floor inside the dark room. He found an empty mason jar, took it in his hand, and turned back into his room. He sat down in front of his bed, cross-legged. He unscrewed the lid, put it aside, and placed the jar six inches in front of him. He leaned forward over it.
His mouth gaped open, and from it, he filled the jar with a violet fluid. It was viscous and hot in his throat. It tasted bitter on his tongue. It came from a place deep within him, lower than his guts. He winced and gagged as it continued to flow. He had never purged this much. Finally, it began to trickle off, and he spat the rest into the jar as best he could. A couple of specks missed the lip and landed on the floor. Tiny as they were, their glow was noticeable in the morning light. He leaned back, gasping. His chest hitched and then unlocked. His head swam with a kind of ecstasy, feverish. He sat for a moment, catching his breath and recomposing, and then screwed the lid back on. He made sure it was tight.
He stood up and brought the jar back to his closet. The fluid bathed the dark in neon light. He had to bury it soon. He dug around the pile once more and took out his backpack. It had been empty since school had let out. He carefully placed the jar inside and then stuffed some clothes in around it like packing. He set the backpack down and covered it with more junk. He closed the door on the closet and, with his hands resting against the door, took a deep breath. He began to lay down for a while, but the room began to swim and had to rush to the bathroom to vomit.
After he had brushed the taste off of his teeth, he went downstairs for breakfast. His parents were both in the kitchen, his father sitting in silent contemplation of his paper while his mother stirred eggs. Neither of them looked at Elliot when he entered. His mother's hair, blonde and usually tied into a braid that fell triumphantly down her back, was disheveled and twisted. Her face was red, and occasionally she would lift the back of her hand to her nose. The sight made him uneasy. The look of his father, however, was not entirely unfamiliar to Elliot. The lines on his face had seemed to deepen into canyons, and his tight mouth sagged. Underneath his eyes were purple circlets. Elliot recognized this face as the mask his father wore after a long day at work, the kind of day where he would skip dinner and spend the evening in his study, sometimes until after Elliot had gone to sleep. No, the face was familiar. What was concerning about it was the timing.
His mother brought the skillet over from the stove and scraped eggs from it onto Elliot and his father's plates. They were slightly burned, and the way they clung to the pan made Elliot feel like he needed to vomit again. His mother dropped the pan into the sink with a loud clang and sat at the table. She rested her face in her hands and let out a deep sigh. There was silence for a moment before she spoke.
"I don't want her taken from here," she said to the emptiness of the room.
"You saw her hands," Elliot's father responded. "Those cuts needed stitches. We're lucky we got the bleeding to stop. Next time we might not. Next time it might not be her hands." He looked up at her with his sunken eyes. There was anguish in them, but there was something else there too. Elliot decided it was fear.
"If we take her to the hospital they'll have her committed," his mother continued. "48 hours at least, maybe 72. And that's just suicide watch. Once they see how she really is…" She trailed off. "Once they see that they'll never let her out."
"Maybe she doesn't need to be let out," Elliot's father said, his eyes moving back away.
"Oh for Christ's sake!" his mother shouted, her hands forming fists and slamming down onto the table. Silverware rattled. Elliot jumped back. "You talk about her like she's an animal! Like a fucking dog! That's my mother in there!" She pointed over her shoulder, towards the dark back bedroom.
His father let out an exasperated sigh. "Elliot," he began, but Elliot was already gone.
Elliot crept back to his room. The continued shouting of his parents obscured his footfalls. In his closet, he uncovered his backpack. Soft light spread out through the crooked teeth of the zipper. He hoisted the bag over one shoulder and looked at the floor. The continued arguing of his parents seemed to obscure like they were underwater. The colors of the room seemed to fade, save for the soft purple glow from the jar. For a moment, he seemed to be able to see through the floor beneath him. Below he could see that Grandma had stopped her pacing. She had come over to her wash basin, just beneath his closet, and was staring up at the ceiling. Through the ceiling. Elliot felt the dark hands of panic clasp his heart, but he didn't look away. Instead, he saw himself drop to his knees, reach through the floor, take his grandmother by the collar, and stuff her into a jar. He would bury her, her body as collapsed and deflated as her mind, with all the others. But he did no such thing.
He stared down at her, their eyes seeming to focus on one another. Grandma began to raise her left arm. In her hand, Elliot saw the distinctive gleam of a scalpel. He hadn't seen it until then if it had been there. She raised the blade to her throat and cut. Her motion was savage. She brought the blade back and forth like she was cutting through a tough steak. Elliot could hear the tendons in her neck tearing and snapping. There was no blood, however, and Grandma's solemn face never changed. Finally, she brought the blade back down to her side, back where he couldn't see it. The wound on her neck was a gaping mouth. Slowly, a dark liquid began to flow out of it. It was thick and a deep red, almost black, and it radiated a red light that reminded Elliot of the filth he had in a jar on his back. Horrified, he turned and left the room.
When he passed back by the kitchen, his father was gone. His mother was standing over the sink, her arms spread in a V and her weight resting upon them. The old counter groaned. The faucet was running, Elliot could hear it, but his mother was still. He left without speaking.
At the bottom of the stairs leading away from the house, Elliot cocked his head over one shoulder to see if anyone was watching. The windows were empty. He darted under the stairs. It was dark under the stairs like a perpetual dusk had fallen. Motes of dust swam through the air. He found the loose piece of lattice and pulled it away. There was a scraping sound. He put it to the side and removed his backpack. Gently, he put the bag just inside the hole he had created. He got down on his stomach and began to slide himself underneath the house, pushing the bag as he did. Already he was concocting his excuse for dirtying his shirt. After he took care of the jar, he would go to the park for a while. Maybe fall off the monkey bars or play a game of baseball with some of the other kids.
He pushed further into the depths of the crawlspace. Occasionally he would feel the small lumps of a previous burial underneath his hands or legs. The gloom was nearly complete. Tentative light shone through the diamond holes in the lattice. Cobwebs clung to pipes and beams. Something was scurrying around with him. As he crawled he calculated where he was in relation to the house above him, and when he got to where he figured the kitchen was he stopped. He began to dig at the dirt with his hands. It was dry, and he could feel grit collecting and filling in the space between his nail and the pink flesh beneath. He did not have to measure his hole; since the beginning, he had always known when to stop. He took the jar from the bag. The color filled the darkness of the crawlspace and illuminated his dirt-stained face. Sweat clung his blonde hair to his forehead. The shadows the jar made seemed too long, and they seemed to be creeping inward. He placed the jar in the hole, careful not to disturb it too greatly, and began to fill in the dirt on top of it. The process only took him a moment; when he finished, he grabbed his bag, spun around on his belly, and exited.
Back in the daylight, he replaced the lattice and crawled out from underneath the stairs. He sat up on his knees and dusted off his hands. As he did a shadow fell upon him. He looked up and saw a silhouette obscuring the sun. Light poured through the shapes of wild hair. Elliot recognized it to be Grandma. He put a hand up to shield his eyes. Grandma was motionless on the dusty front lawn. A wind filled his ears with a hollow sound and grated his face with specks of dust. He began to speak, to ask her what she was doing out of her room, to ask her if she had seen him coming out from beneath the house, but without saying a word she turned and walked around the side of the house and out of sight.
He didn't follow her. Instead, he walked down the gravel driveway and cut through the yards that led to the playground. There was nobody there, so Elliot sat on a swing. He placed his backpack between his feet. He didn't swing enthusiastically; he just rocked back and forth, making semi-circle grooves in the dirt around his backpack with his feet like a halo. The earth was soft and dark, and once he dug deep enough worms began to wriggle their heads out. He paused and leaned forward on the swing, inspecting them. He watched until the sun had crested in the sky, and then he took his bag and began to walk home.
When he got home, the sun was over the house, beginning its descent to the backside. He took the stairs slowly, listening. He could hear sounds, possibly voices, coming from inside but he couldn't make them out. He imagined his mother and father sitting at the kitchen table with Grandma, still and calm, explaining to them how she had seen their son playing underneath the house. He could hear the snapping sounds the nail gun would make when his father secured the lattice back onto the house's frame. He could imagine his room, filling up with liquid filth and jars until the door burst open and the world was drowned out in neon silence. He opened the door.
The sounds were coming from the back, from Grandma's room. There were voices too, his mother's and Grandma's, mixing and growing to a feverish level. Elliot considered going up to his room and shutting the door and then began to creep forward. As he drew closer, his ears were able to peel apart the two voices and decipher what each of them was saying. There was desperation in his mother's voice, urging Grandma to calm down, to stop flailing. Confusion and anguish filled Grandma's voice. She spoke only in syllables. The sun's dim light was shining out from under the door, and again Elliot thought of the raptured faithful.
"Elliot," his father said.
Elliot turned to his right and saw his father sitting at the kitchen table, still dressed in his robe. There was a coffee cup in front of him, but no steam was coming off of it. He made a motion for Elliot to come over. The chair squealed on the floor as Elliot pulled it out. It dampened the sound of glass shattering coming from Grandma's room, but both Elliot and his father turned their heads to it.
"Your grandma is very sick," his father said, turning back to face him. "You know that right? I mean, you've heard her right?"
Elliot nodded his head. There was another crashing sound that came through the wall from Grandma's room, followed by a shout from Elliot's mother.
"Well," his father continued, "it's worse than her just talking to herself. If that was it then maybe we could keep her here but…" He trailed off. He looked down into his coffee, considered it, took a drink, and made a grimace before putting the cup back down. "Sometimes she hurts herself. Sometimes she cuts herself. We keep it from you, but she does."
Elliot thought of the face she made when she cut her throat beneath him earlier. His father took in a deep breath and then let it out.
"Point is," his father said," we can't keep her here anymore. She's gonna have to go to a nursing home. You know what that is?"
Elliot nodded, thinking of the faithful enveloped in God's light.
"We already contacted someone," his father said, "It's a nice place. Not far from here either, we can still visit her. They have to send a special nurse because of her condition. They won't be here for a couple of days." He leaned forward. "Your mom is upset, Elliot, really upset. That's her mother in there, do you understand? I know you like to keep to yourself most of the time, God knows I would if I were in your shoes. But maybe you can try to spend a little more time with her? She needs you right now."
Elliot nodded again. This time his father only nodded back in reply. Through the wall, Grandma let out a pained yowl. Elliot stood up from the table and began to go back to his room. As he exited so did his mother, closing the door to Grandma's room behind her and letting out a sob. Her pained face looked like a grin to Elliot. She turned and looked at him. Her eyes were dark and bleary, and they looked a deep shade of maroon in the light, and for the first time, Elliot thought of how beautiful she was. His mother started to come towards him, and he turned and went upstairs.
He lay in his bed until the sun met with the horizon and twilight became complete. The sounds coming from the room beneath his had ceased and his parents, who had begun to argue again when he first came upstairs, had separated. One, Elliot assumed it was his mother, had climbed the stairs and gone to their room while the other moved into one of the lower rooms on the other side of the house. His father had probably gone into his study.
Elliot got out of his bed and went over to his closet. He slid open the door and cleared away the clothes, exposing the dirty carpet beneath. He got down on his hands and knees and waited. Soon, the floor began to clear away and once again he was looking down into Grandma's room. For a moment he didn't see her. He shuffled around on his knees, adjusting the angle of his vision. Finally, he saw her. She was sitting on her bed, cross-legged above the sheets, and staring back up at him. Her face seemed sane, like the ghost of memory that he had of her when he was young. She was motionless, but something about her face and her eyes seemed to invite him. Elliot went to her.
He softly closed the door behind him and tip-toed down the stairs, careful not to alert his parents to his movements. He slunk down the hallway to Grandma's room. Her door was closed as he should have suspected but when he tried the knob it turned, and the door began to swing open. The twilight spilled out into the hallway. As the door swung open, Grandma began to come into view. She was still seated on the bed in the same position. Only her head had moved, bringing her eyes down to meet Elliot's in the doorway. He entered.
He walked across the room to her bed. As he did a smile began to crease her face. He sat down on the furthest corner, wary of getting too close, the image of her sawing open her throat still in his mind.
"Elliot," Grandma said, "thank you for coming to see me." The voice he heard coming from her was not the one he had heard earlier that day. There was no desperation, no anxiety. She was calm and sane and once again just Grandma.
Elliot was silent. Grandma patted the bed beside her.
"Come closer," she said with a small chuckle, "I won't bite, I promise."
Elliot remained still. He felt the filth begin to rise in his guts once again. Grandma saw this, and her smile faded into a solemn look of despair. Her face seemed to glow in the purple twilight.
"I understand," she said after a moment, "I haven't been myself lately. I've scared you, haven't I? Of course I have. It's hard, Elliot, to get old. Try to understand. It's taking all of my power to keep myself together now. I feel them, the voices I mean, and the twitching, rising in my belly."
Elliot thought he understood this. His bowels were now surging with panic. He wanted to flee, but he remained still.
"I know you want to leave," she continued, "so I won't take long. I have something to ask you. Do you know what it is?"
Elliot shook his head.
"I saw you earlier today, under the porch, and I know what you were doing. You're a very special boy, Elliot. I've known it since you were very young. I can bury things too, you know?"
Elliot began to lean away, and then braced himself. She was bluffing. Grandma let out a sharp cackle.
"You thought you were the only one?" she said, smiling. "No, it's an old family trick. Yes, we all do it differently, but we all do it. And I need you to do it once more. You talked with your father earlier didn't you? You know where they are going to send me?"
"I cannot go there," she said, her face becoming grim. The light outside was fading. "I cannot; it's a pain worse than death. But you can help me. You know what I am asking?"
He did. He had imagined it earlier when he watched her through the floor of his closet. Stuffing her into a jar and burying her under the house.
"Will you do it?" she asked, the desperation beginning to creep back. The light in the room was beginning to fade, her face becoming shrouded in darkness.
Elliot tried to speak, to tell her no, tell her that he couldn't, but no sound came out.
"I know what you are thinking," she said. "But you aren't killing me. I'm already dead. I tried to show you earlier. I just need to be buried. Please."
The last of the light faded, and Grandma's head fell. Elliot watched as she began to twitch and mumble to herself. He left the room as she began to stir.
He crept back to the kitchen. Soft light caressed him when he opened the refrigerator door. He fished around in the door until he found what he was looking for. He took out a large glass jar of strawberry jelly. It was half empty, and the sides were stained a crimson color that made his stomach turn. He took a butter knife from the drawer next to the sink and walked over to the garbage can. He opened the jar and scraped out the remaining jelly, wincing each time the knife squealed against the sides of the jar. He rinsed the jar out and removed the label. He washed and replaced the knife and took the jar back to Grandma's room.
She was off the bed, circling the room and reaching out with her withered arms. Elliot stood in the doorway for a moment, jar cupped in his hands in front of him like a communion chalice. He waited until Grandma turned and noticed him. The insanity in her eyes was now complete. He was afraid she would move on him but she did not. Instead, she fell to her knees. There was a sickening popping sound as one of her knees dislocated from the impact. She did not make a sound; she only hung her head. Elliot approached her.
He got on his knees about a foot away from her and placed the jar in the center of the space between them. Grandma's breathing had become a pant. Elliot took her by the shoulders. He felt sharp ridges of bones beneath her nightgown, and he had the mental image of the bones shattering in his hands. He grasped her lightly and brought her forward until her head hung over the jar. He took his hands off of her and unscrewed the lid, placing it outside the circle their bodies had made. He put his hands on either side of her head and began to apply light pressure. She opened her mouth and released a gasping wail.
Liquid, much like the filth he purged earlier, but a red color began to flow out from her mouth and into the jar. It glowed harshly, and it painted the room in a neon blood color. Grandma's body hitched, but Elliot kept her head in place. She made gagging sounds like she was choking, but Elliot did not tilt her head away. He knew once the purging began it would not cease. Her hands, sharp like claws, came up and began to rake at his arms, begging for freedom. The jar was filling up; Elliot knew it was almost over.
Grandma continued to struggle against him, her hands now moving up to his face to claw at Elliot's eyes. He closed them and turned away, but he would not remove his hands from the sides of her head until it was finished. Grandma's gags had turned into wails, deep and full of bile. He felt stings on his face as her nails tore into his flesh. She was pulling away hard, and Elliot had to hold her with all of his strength. He heard more popping and tearing sounds, and the tendons in her neck and spine gave way under the pressure.
Finally, the clawing ceased. Elliot heard a thudding sound as Grandma's hands fell limply to the floor. He opened his eyes and looked at her. She was still. Small droplets of filth were clinging to her grey and chapped lips. The jar was full. Grandma was dead. Elliot let out a pained child's sob and let go of her. She slumped forward to the floor, her head bouncing off of the hardwood once before coming to rest. She looked like a woman kneeling on her pew. Only she was dead.
Elliot cried then. He brought his hands to his face, tearing away now with his fingers. He did not reach out to her for he knew that whatever life she had left before was now glowing in a jar before him. He rocked back and forth on his knees until they began to ache. He sobbed until his throat burned. When he had nothing left to release he brought his hands away from his face. Grandma's body had begun to slump to the side. Her head was now out of view and in its place was a towering jar of red liquid. Elliot wanted to swipe at it, to send the stuff out onto the walls and in between the floorboards but he knew he could not. The best he could do for Grandma now was to contain her misery and bury it deep. He screwed the lid on the jar and left the room.
As he left the house, he did not creep. He paid no mind to the idea of being caught. His eyes were still stinging from the tears and snot was running down his chin. He went out the front door, clomped down the stairs, and for the second time that day, crawled underneath the house. He was careful as he made his way back, and he had to move slowly because one hand was holding the jar. Grandma's red glow provided the only light by which he could see. Above him, he heard the sounds of movement. He crawled past his burial mounds, determined to bury Grandma in the deepest part of the underneath place.
In the back of the house, just beneath where Grandma's body now lay he stopped. His eyes moved up. Bathed in red light, he could see the underbelly of the floorboards where Grandma's head was resting. He did not see through them as he had before, but somehow he still had the sense that she was smiling down on him. The movement from his parents drew closer; Elliot waited.
Above him, his mother entered Grandma's room and shrieked. There was more pain in her voice than Elliot had ever experienced. There was a thud above him as his mother fell to her knees. Dust came down on his face. She begged for Grandma to get up, to breathe, to not be dead. Elliot heard the muffled sound of his father's voice entering the room. He pleaded with Elliot's mother to get up. She needed to leave. She didn't need to see this. She snarled something back at him, but Elliot didn't catch it. He had taken his eyes away. He had begun to bury his Grandma.