I’m only telling you this because I have to.
They say that telling it helps, that dragging the words out from my insides and into the world will give me some clarity. Or maybe it was lucidity. Or maybe it was both. I don’t remember. But even if I don’t believe them, I suppose I’m in no position to argue. I can’t always trust what I believe anymore.
Maybe there’s some beauty in that disorder, somewhere.
I had had enough. It’s not important what it was about. Sometimes parents, even the decent ones, have those days where they harp on you for something that they would be better served just letting be. It was one of those days – a big fight. I was pissed. They were pissed. Everybody was pissed. There was no way I was going to stay in that house. Not right then. (It’s worth noting that my folks are both are doctors – they believe in the cold strength of method and practice, not in the fiery strength of a belt; so, of course, I up and left the house with impunity. It’s not like they were going to hit me. I went out to get some air and left them wondering if I’d ever come back. You know the drill.)
Straight away I decided that I was going to meet up with Kaleb. I guess I can tell you that the fight with my folks had been about Kaleb – they didn’t want me hanging around with him anymore. Some of that ‘bad influence’ trash that gets thrown around in books and on TV shows and is always an easy way of avoiding parental guilt. It goes without saying that their disapproval only incited me to go find him and ‘hang around’.
Kaleb’s family moved in the summer after my accident; they lived on the other side of the river, but Kaleb usually hung out somewhere in the fields between – he didn’t like spending a lot of time at home, either. I had never even seen his parents.
When I first met him, Kaleb was melting little green army men in a fire that he had made. He was bigger than I was and stronger, pale where I was dark and his hair was black to my blonde. He was different. To me, he was cool. From that first day, we hung out all the time, but since I never knew what to do, we always did whatever he wanted. Even if I knew better, I went along for whatever adventure Kaleb wanted to have – sometimes we’d get into trouble, but that’s the price you pay for your friends when you’re young. But the older we got the less I wanted to follow him around. We were still friends and all, but he started doing strange things, things I wouldn’t have wanted to do on my own: chasing stray cats with burning sticks, blowing up frogs with firecrackers, that kind of thing. I guess he liked doing that stuff, but it never made much sense to me – I think that maybe burning up the little green army men had been enough. But, like I said, that’s just the price you have to pay for your friends when you’re a kid.
Anyway, I found Kaleb out by the big tree – I think it was an elder – in Henry Edwards’ fields. He was throwing rocks at squirrels. Lucky for them he was a terrible shot. He saw me coming and threw one over my head, just to screw with me.
“So your stiff neck parents told you not to hang around with trouble like me anymore, eh?” he said, like the uppity little Hell-raiser that he was.
“Yeah, they did. How the Hell did you know that?”
“Well it was written so big across your ugly face I could read it like a book.”
If you had ever read a book, I thought. I said nothing.
“Eh, fuck ‘em,” said Kaleb.
I laughed at the severity of it all and that was the end of it. What else was there to say?
We kicked at rocks as we walked up and out of Edwards’ lot and down through the dell until we came up to the Hill. That’s Hill, with a capital H. It didn’t have a name that we knew of (we’re not talking about the Seven Hills of Rome here), but it was significant enough – at least to us – that it had earned that capital distinction. It was the same with the Pit, which, of course, was dug down into the top of the Hill.
The Hill. The Pit. Now you’re getting the hang of it.
See, the Pit wasn’t just a hole in the ground. Oh no, it was much, much more than that. We found it a couple of summers ago but were too chicken to go far into it or to stay there for long, but that all changed a week or two before this story began when we finally climbed all the way to the bottom. But the Pit doesn’t end at the bottom, though I suppose I should start you at the top.
We found the Pit. We didn’t dig it, we didn’t hang the rope ladder that goes down into it, we didn’t do anything except kill time in and around it and make sure as Hell that we didn’t tell anyone that we had found it. It was just this open mouth in the earth, on top of the Hill. There was a pretty big oak on the far side of the Hill and that’s where the rope ladder was anchored. The rope was old as Hell, and slick in some places from wear and coarse in some places from rot. We don’t know who left it there, but then again we don’t know who dug the Pit in the first place. Or why the Hell this mysterious person would have done either. Maybe I should have just said that there was a lot we didn’t know.
If you climbed down the rope ladder into the Pit, you’d start to pass through rings of these jagged wooden planks that stuck out just a little bit from the soil walls. And then, as you descended further and further, you’d pass through another and another and on and on until you finally reached the bottom – which, again, we did for the first time only a few days ago. It was like there had been platforms in this mine but that the center of all of them had been blown out, leaving only the splintered edges to be passed through on the way down.
At the bottom, there was a wall of the same worn, wooden planks, this time standing up vertically in the dirt. These hadn’t been blown out, but there were gaps in the planks and we could see between them. The dirt had been hollowed out on the other side and led away to the dark, winding Tunnel.
We’d been down in the Pit a bunch of times over the last week or so, but we’d only go down right at noon when the sun was high up in the sky and lit the way nearly to the bottom. Kaleb would never have admitted it, but I can tell you: we were too afraid to go down any other time – it was way too dark. But that time I was angry, or maybe just full of piss and vinegar, as people used to say. Or maybe on that day, I simply wanted to risk the darkness.
We climbed the rope ladder down and only had to go about halfway before we couldn’t even see each other anymore. At that point, we were just voices – voices in the dark calling out simple words that got swallowed up in the quiet of the earth. The dark, the quiet: they were terrifying. It seemed like such a bad idea, going down there, but I kept going anyway, deeper and deeper into the silent earth. Kaleb wasn’t even leading this time. Something in my stomach, or maybe it was my head, kept pulling me down – so down we went. But, damn, was it quiet. We started talking just to ward off the silence, just so we could pretend that we felt brave when really we were scared little boys.
“Christ,” Kaleb said. He did that kind of thing a lot. He’d just make some vague exclamation and leave it to you to drag whatever he wanted to say out of him, like he had some great secret and was really doing you a favor to let you hear it. Except that he never had anything great to say.
That’s how it always went.
“Oh, come on,” I said, “What is it?”
“It’s nothing, really,” he said, savoring the power I’d given him.
“What is it? What were you going to say?” I asked. But he didn’t say anything. He let the silence just hang there, like us just hanging there on that damned rope ladder. Then, when the silence was ripe and he was good and pleased with himself for luring me in, he finally spoke.
“I was just thinking about when we saw Clara Norton at Center Market yesterday.”
I laughed and the sound was sharp and clear, though it died quickly in that place. “You’re a hornball, you know that?”
“What?” he said, sounding hurt and more than a little offended. But he found his confidence in a hurry. “Did you see what she was wearing? Shit. I mean shit, Blake. I would get at that so hard if I could, you know?”
I just kept climbing down.
“Christ,” he said, “it’s pitch black down here and I can still tell you’re blushing. You’re such a queer sometimes.”
My lungs were tired and I was short of breath from the climb, so it took me a second to answer. Kaleb, of course, took my lack of immediate response as a sign of the accuracy of his ludicrous statements. He started laughing with that shrill, childish laugh.
“It doesn’t matter what I’d do,” I responded, once I had caught my breath, “because she’d never even look at me – at either of us. Even if we weren’t tremendous losers, she’s still a year older than us and girls – let alone girls as hot as Clara Norton – don’t go out with younger guys. That’s just how it is.”
“Jesus, man. Don’t you have any kind of imagination? It’s a goddamned hypothetical. Plus, I – for the record – don’t consider myself a loser. And I bet if I played my cards right, I could get with her.”
“Wow,” I said, “not only are you a chauvinist pig, but you’re a delirious chauvinist pig.”
“Oh, stop being so damned gay,” he said, “and get off your high horse. Just cause you don’t have the balls to go after girls don’t mean it’s savage.”
“Good one, Kaleb. Real good one. Play the courage card. Where was all that courage last homecoming when you had a chance to ask out Christine Beauchamp?”
“Oh, go to Hell. That was like a year and a half ago. Big deal. You would have choked, too. At least I got that far. And, Hell, I was still a kid then, you know?”
“Oh yes,” I said, feeling my intellectual pride swirling back to the surface, “you’re such a man now. How could I have been so foolish?”
“Yeah? Well, if you’re so grown up then when are you gonna stop hiding behind all your pretty words and grow a pair and tell your parents off, eh? When are you gonna stand up for me – Hell, when are you going to stand up for you? When are you going to stop being their little boy and stop seeing that shrink that they make you see and start acting like the man you think you are?”
I was too frustrated with him – he was being such an ignorant ass – to bother to respond. He could go to Hell as far as I was concerned right then. Kaleb, as always, took my silence to mean his victory.
“Smart ass,” he said down to me, “Just know that you’ve got to pull your shit together someday. That’s all I’m saying. Someday you’ve got to grow up and put the books down and start being a man.”
I looked at his frail, pale body hanging above me and wondered, for the first time, what it was that he thought he knew about being a man.
When we finally reached the bottom, we crawled around a bit and let our eyes adjust to the dark. After a few minutes we could see enough to tell that, dark as it was all around us, there was a deeper darkness behind those wooden planks. I stood against them and looked into a nothing that I couldn’t even begin to see. There was a loud thwap that split the air right next to my ear, followed by sounds of Kaleb screaming, “Oh shit! Dammit!” He had done a diving kick at the planks, presumably in the hopes of breaking them down.
“What the Hell did you do that for?” I asked my moronic friend. Maybe I should have tried to sound more concerned. Oh well. When he had finished rolling around in over-exaggerated agony, he got to his feet and said – between gasps, “Well, we didn’t come down here just to look, did we?”
I hadn’t realized it before, but Kaleb was right. I wanted to get past the wooden wall. But we weren’t ready. Not yet.
“I don’t know, man,” he said, “I don’t think we can break those down – those are some thick planks and there’s no rot in ‘em.”
“No,” I said, “We can get past them, we just need some tools.”
Kaleb didn’t say anything, he just rocked back and forth on the ground, rubbing his throbbing ankle and looking up at me with a small, wide-eyed look on his face. When Kaleb was ready, we climbed back out of the Pit and walked home, splitting up at Edwards’ field. The sun was getting low. I told Kaleb where and when I’d meet him the next day and turned off to walk back to my folks’ place.
Hatchets and flashlights in hand, we descended into the Pit for the second day in a row. We climbed more quickly because of familiarity and the sense of security that the flashlights provided. When we reached the bottom, we went right to work on the planks – Kaleb working from the left and me from the right. We took out the bottoms first so that the planks were just hanging there like thin, orderly stalactites before we took to hacking away at the tops so that they came clattering down onto the soft earth. We piled them up just behind their opening.
“What do you think is back there?” I asked Kaleb before we started. He didn’t say anything; he just looked at me with his small, blank face. He was so pale, in the glow of the flashlights, like his skin had never seen the sun. I tried to remember when we were young and I was the small, childlike one – I remember thinking that he seemed so massive – but I couldn’t bring any image of that time to mind. Maybe I had forgotten already.
Even though it only took about three planks coming down before we could fit through to the other side, we kept working at it until all of them were brought down. We told ourselves that we were being thorough, finishing the job, making a sufficiently wide passage in case we needed to run side by side in escape from some mole-monster, but the truth was that we were just scared at the prospect of going deeper down this dark, dank passage that twisted about to who-knows-what-end under the surface of the world. We were stalling. It was some time before I worked up the courage to venture on.
“Come on,” I said, trying to sound tough, “Are you going to lie there all day or are we going to get moving and see what we opened up? Let’s do this. Let’s see how far the rabbit hole goes.”
Kaleb sat with his back against the wall of the main vertical shaft of the Pit, his flashlight beam diving into the opening we had made, where – after about forty feet or so – it was abruptly defeated by the all-encompassing blackness of the underground. It was cold and clammy in that hole, but the sweat beading up on my forehead wasn’t from the hatchet work – it was from the fear tearing apart my innards. But, if it was possible, I think Kaleb looked even worse than I did. Maybe his toughness didn’t run so deep after all. Slowly, he stood to join me and said, “If a rabbit did make these holes, I sure as Hell hope we don’t run into it.”
He let out a single, muffled laugh and followed as I led the way into the darkness. We walked the straight path for a couple of minutes that felt like an hour. It’s funny how time slows down when you’re going into the unknown. Perception really is a strange, strange thing.
Kaleb followed me and I followed my flashlight, which followed the lumpy path of the soft, cold ground. We had no conception of time or distance in that place. After some indiscriminate amount of bearing straight ahead, the Tunnel began to make a wide, arching turn to the right that grew sharper and sharper until I began to wonder if we were going to end up back at the start. Part of me hoped that we would wind our way back to the bottom of the Pit – there’s safety in going where you’ve already been – but, of course, we weren’t going back.
“How deep do you think this goes?” I asked Kaleb after we had been walking a good long while.
I didn’t turn back to look at him, but I heard his voice say, “Deep,” in a flat tone.
“I wonder who in the Hell made all this,” I said, “and why,” I added as an afterthought. My voice sounded strange in the deep, dark Tunnel. It echoed off the curved walls all around us and bounced back to my ears, warped and bent. Kaleb said nothing. There were no words left in him.
After walking for so long in the dark, in the same repetitive fashion, we fell into a routine. When Kaleb and I both smashed into each other and stumbled backwards, we were a bit surprised to see that the Tunnel hadn’t ended, but rather had been blockaded once more by wooden planks.
This time around the planks were horizontal and had been well laid. They were snug and tight – we couldn’t see past them to what lay beyond. We started working them over with our hatchets, cutting through the strong wood. We began at the top this time, Kaleb still on the left and me on the right, and chopped out each plank all the way to the ground. Once again, we were being thorough, finishing the job, telling ourselves that we wanted to be able to walk through the opening rather than crawl under it or hurdle over it.
When we had gotten about half of the wall down, we noticed that – sitting on the other side – there was a giant rock in the middle of the Tunnel. It was huge, a veritable boulder. For whatever reason, Kaleb was fascinated with this thing – I could see his eyes straying to it from where he worked. His face was thin and tight and twisted with intrigue and concern. He looked ill. When I finished the right side of the planks I had to take over for Kaleb on the left because he had completely abandoned the project. He had gone to the other side of the opening. He stood, wordless in the dark, staring at the rock.
It was just as I chipped out the very last plank, opening the Tunnel to the fullness of our paranoid designs, that Kaleb did a very strange thing. For no reason that I could discern, he took his hatchet backwards in his hand – the blade pointing upwards – and raised it above his head, and then brought it down with full force so that its flat end smashed against the rock with a sharp, whining clang.
Logic tells me that Kaleb’s strike against the rock couldn’t have had anything to do with what came next, but I’m not entirely sure that our surface logic holds so deep in the interior of the world. Either way, the next thing I knew I could hear a low rumble like the beating of one thousand timpanis on the far side of the earth. The ground began to shake. Little pieces of dirt started balling up and rolling down the Tunnel walls like the drops of sweat rolling down my back. The sound and the motion were deep and guttural; it was as if some great, deep-seated indigestion in the belly of the world had finally found its tonic and now the discomforting pressure was percolating up to the surface to be released.
I shouted – though I don’t know what I said – at Kaleb who was staring, dumbstruck, at the rock. He staggered, as if waking from a daydream, and looked at me. He was transparent. Neither of us said anything. There was nothing left to say. We turned and ran.
It took only moments for us to be back on the straightaway, though the Tunnel had seemed miles long when traveling in the opposite direction. The earth was shaking. The sound around us was loud and wild and silent. It was the sound of chaos.
I tore through the first planked opening and into the bottom of the Pit, smashing into the wall where the rope ladder hung impotently. I was two knots up before I looked down. Kaleb was on his knees just inside the opening. He must have tripped on the pile of planks. His flashlight was spinning on the ground next to him and he was looking over his shoulder, back down the Tunnel. Then the light was gone and the darkness swallowed him.
The earth lurched and flung the rope ladder out so that I hung, suspended in the darkness, in the center of the Pit. It occurred to me that I could let go in the middle of that black space and let gravity take me. It would be easier that way. All I had to do was accept that I was helpless. I heard the earth singing out to me and nearly yielded to its call. But I found that I still had control; I gripped the rope tightly. Momentum took over and the rope swung back, smashing my face into the soft wall of the Pit. With the taste of dirt in my mouth, I climbed as fast as I could climb. When I reached the surface of the world, I threw myself up out of the darkness and ran from the Pit with the fading light of the sun beating on my back.
I ran. I ran until I was down the Hill, until the Pit and the collapsed Tunnel were far behind me. I ran until I could see Edwards’ tree – it was blooming in pink blossoms. Or maybe it was still bare. Hell, maybe there was never any tree at all – I don’t rightly remember. I was a wreck. My legs trembled above the trembling ground. My ankle was killing me. My hands were raw and bloody. I threw myself onto the cruel earth and I cried. I found solace in weeping and I embraced the safety of it. I’m not ashamed. I cried until there were no more tears left in me, and when I couldn’t cry anymore, when everything had melted away into the purity of saline truth, I pulled myself to my feet and walked home beneath the blue night sky.
There wasn’t any funeral or service or anything. They didn’t even try to get his body out – that really pissed me off at first – but maybe, if you think about it, there’s no point in digging him up if you’re just going to bury him again. My parents didn’t really seem to care which sounds pretty damn cold – even for doctors – but I don’t think they were trying to be assholes about it. They’re good enough people, my folks, but I think that maybe they thought he got what he deserved, what was coming to him, his comeuppance for being such a Hellion. I couldn’t bring myself to be mad at them for their lack of response; it just – it wouldn’t have been worth the effort for anyone involved. Some things you just have to let go.
I went across the river to Kaleb’s house a couple of weeks after it happened. The house was empty. I don’t know why I thought his folks would tell me that they moved – Hell, they might not have even known who I was – but they didn’t. And I guess that’s fine. I can see how they wouldn’t want to be here anymore. For a million reasons. I can understand that.
I didn’t go back to the Pit for a long time. Not for a long time.
You know, it wasn’t like in movies and shows and books, where people always get to spout their famous last words, those last, dramatic gasping lines from their deathbed where they impart some sage wisdom that they’ve gleaned from their newfound proximity to the Almighty. You know what I’m talking about. You see that kind of thing everywhere. So you come to expect it. But that wasn’t how it was. Not at all. The whole thing was so damn unceremonious that I can barely believe it. There was all that rumbling and that was it. No last words or tearful goodbyes or go on without mes – Hell, Kaleb didn’t even get to turn around and flash those sad, but wise and brave, puppydog eyes that movie characters always have right before they go. Dirt just came pouring down and his light went out. That was it. It was over. Just like that, he was gone.
But I guess that’s how it is sometimes. When I remember that day, deep under the earth, when the dirt swallowed him up, I realize that it doesn’t matter what I expected or how I think things should have been. Sometimes things happen around you and all you can do is deal with the truth that you’re dealt and pick your way through the whole dreary mess one careful step at a time. Because in the end, we’re all down there, deep underground, prying at boards to see what comes next, and we have no idea when, or how, it’s going to end.
“I know it’s been difficult, Mrs. Mansfield, but I think he’s coming around. He’s an incredibly intelligent child, you know. His vocabulary and reasoning are advanced years beyond his age. But he has some issues dealing with sociality; that’s where he’s behind the curve. That said, it appears that he’s finally letting go of this Kaleb, letting go of the crutch that he’s used to hold himself up, or hold himself back, depending on how you look at it. Kaleb wasn’t the first, but there’s a chance that he might have been the last.
“It won’t be easy. Unfortunately, with a mind like that, growing up will be the hardest thing for Blake. His attachment to Kaleb and the others that came before was not coincidental. He doesn’t feel that he has a whole lot in common with most of his peers but, for a child as bright as Blake is, that’s not completely atypical.
“It won’t be easy – Lord knows nothing ever is – and you’ll need to be strong for him: a constant, something he can rely on. But he’ll be alright. Just give him time. And room to breathe.”
Do I think about it a lot? Yeah, I do. Not as much as right after it happened – I mean, Hell, I was just a kid and my best friend had just died right before my eyes – so you can bet I thought about it a lot. But there is nothing that time will not erase. I heard that in a song once. It sounds crazy, but it’s not so far off. Days passed. I started going outside again. School was coming up, so I let my anxiousness about that fill most of my mind.
They told me that I didn’t have to forget Kaleb, but that I shouldn’t dwell on him. For once, I’ve been trying to do what they said. But you already know that: it’s why I’m writing all this down in the first place. They say I’ve got to write it down, got to talk it out, that it doesn’t matter who’s listening, just that I’m saying it. It’s the action that makes the difference – and I think that’s one of the great truths of the world. Or maybe it is. It’s still hard to trust my beliefs sometimes. But maybe this time I’m right. Maybe that’s all there is: action. Maybe I get it now. Maybe we’re all just stumbling around on our crutches until the earth shakes us and our eyes refocus and we see the beautiful illusion for the fabrication that it is. Maybe this is the lucid clarity that Doc is always talking about. Or maybe I’m still all wrapped up in the dream and one day – maybe one day soon – the earth will open up and swallow me too, and all that will be left is the whisper of my words on your lips.