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Underneath

The hairs on the back of Travis’ neck stood on end. He listened. He waited. He fidgeted about, hopped from foot to foot the black plastic bag full of trash swinging back and forth.  He was supposed to be dumping the rubbish in the can, but stood stock still. Minutes passed, but he heard nothing more. Exhaling, he walked up to the can, swung and tossed the trash by it’s red stretch handles. It sailed through the air, banging and falling and crunching its smelly way to the bottom of the bin. Travis walked back to the door, hopping up the steps. Then he heard it again.

uuuuuuaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh’

The sound seeped through the boards of the deck from the basement. Travis ran.  He scurried inside, closed the door and began to fasten the three locks; quickset-deadbolt-chain. Travis took unmeasured breaths, placed his hands on the washing machine and bent over. He didn’t want Mommy to see him scared. She had always said that the noise was nothing.  That when it sounded like something was moaning in the basement it was just the wind blowing against the supporting timbers, the bones of the house. The banging was just some silly opossum, like the one Travis had seen before.  They didn’t eat little boys mommy had said when Travis asked. Travis tried to feel silly about being afraid now that he was back in the house. But the fear persisted, annoying Travis like one of those little round burs that always stuck to his clothes after he played among the weeds, burs that would cling with hooked fibers even as he brushed and brushed them off and away.

Travis walked into the living room.  Mommy had on her reading glasses with a big thick book in her lap. She didn’t look away from her book as Travis walked into the room.

Did you take out all the trash?”

Yes maam.”

Even the bathroom trash?”

Travis would have cursed to himself if he had known any of the words. Instead he just thought ahhh how could you have been so stupid’ and suppressed the urge to smack himself in the head.

No maam.”

Well then isn’t there something you should do?”

Travis wanted to cry. He shook like the last brown leaf on a tree during the fall. His head slumped, and the little boy took gasps that were precursors to sobs.

Awwww… baby come over hear.”

Travis looked up and met Mommy’s eyes. She had pushed her thin glasses and the thick book aside, and held her arms open for him, beckoning him.

Come ere.”

Travis went to Mommy, and she engulfed him in her arms. She smelt of shampoo, green soap and fabric softener.

Did you hear the bad noise again.”

Yes mommy, yes maam…”

Aww, but baby… I have told you it doesn’t mean anything, its just the house breathing.”

Travis’s tears evaporated from the pink blush of heat he felt on his cheeks. He wanted to be big and strong and brave; instead of frightened by things Mommy said were silly. He tried to push away from her a little, but she just hugged him closer.

Just always remember, don’t go in or near the basement. Never. Neverever. It’s dark and you might slip, and there are rats and they have rabies… but nothing in there can bother you if you stay away. If you’re a good boy. It’s alright, I will take out the trash tonight for you.”

Travis was filled with warming gratefulness. He fell asleep in her arms.

Travis woke up as Mommy was putting him in his bed. He kept his eyes closed and stayed limp. He liked to listen to how Mommy acted when she thought he was asleep. She kissed him on the forehead, turned off his light as she walked out of the room. Travis listened to the shuffling sounds she made as she moved through the small house. Travis could barely make out the cracks and scrapes of the backdoor locks being undone. He felt more then heard her steps across the slatted boards of the wooden deck. Then there was quiet.  Travis wasn’t sure if he imagined the clattering of the thirteen heavy iron locks falling from the angled door that led to the basement from the back yard, the was the step, step, step of Mommy’s feet on the concrete stair.  Then it sounded like Mommy’s yelling. There was a few bangs, the house breathed some more, a few more bangs and the house and Mommy were silent. Even so, it wasn’t until Travis heard the clicks of all those heavy iron locks snapping into place that he was -eventually- able to fall back asleep.

Travis woke up the next morning.  He had been dreaming of something he couldn’t quite remember.  Mommy would be ordering and sorting all the paper with figures and exercises for today’s lesson. Travis yawned and sat in his bed, enjoying the feel of the spiderman pajamas. Travis wondered what it would be like to go to real school, but Mommy said that home school was better so he learned to stop asking for it. Still, it must be nice to have friends… to be away from his Mommy every once in a while. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth.  After he finished, Travis went back out to the living room which was currently the classroom.

Good morning Maam.”

Good morning Travis, have you brushed your teeth?” She always asked that.

Yes maam.”  So far he always had.

It was only then that she kissed him goodmorning.

Now run along and get ready, today we have your Math and French lessons.”

The day passed like all the others.  The plain woman Travis loved droned on and Travis repeated lessons in dull monotone. But his imagination flew and flitted about, and he always had vivid daydreams. Travis dreamed about being on an adventure, or having a golden retriever puppy to play with, or trading sandwiches with Jimmy who was his best (imaginary) friend at real school not home school… but something lurked in the shadows of the daydreams. His mind was always drawn back to thirteen iron locks laying on the ground, a groaning darkness, pale white eyes looking out that blackness… Then Travis would catch his breath, and Mommy would catch him not paying attention.  Scolded, the little boy would focus again.  For a while, until the drifting seized him again.

That night Travis woke up, found that he had his hand on the backroom door. He should have been in his own bed why was he here? He must have… walked in his sleep? Travis thoughts were interrupted, he could hear the sound again.  The moaning that wasn’t supposed to be moaning, but it was moaning.  And standing in the laundry room, scared and confused Travis figured out something important.  Mommy had lied to him. He heard a scratching too, like the skittering of gnarled rat feet across cockroach shells. Travis put his hand back to his side quickly as though he had had a spasm, like he had touched fire. Dark liquid spread out in inkblot patterns between his legs. He backed away, and the moaning seemed to back away too till it was much less, not a sound so much as a suggestion of one. He ran quiet and quick with little squishes back to his bed.  Travis got under his sheets and shivered as he tried to go back to sleep.

The next day Mommy saw the stain on Travis’ pants, and instructed him to put all his clothes and beddings in the washer. Later, Travis woke up outside looking at the basement door. The moaning was louder now, and Travis ran crying wet in two places back to his bed.

Travis decided he would talk to Mommy about what was happening. What else could he do?  He didn’t want to keep peeing himself, didn’t want to keep waking up in places that weren’t his bed. They were eating peanut butter and jelly triangles without the crusts and apple slices and drinking sun tea at the table when Travis decided to speak.

Mommy what’s in the basement?”

Nothing is, nothing except rats and mice and bats maybe…”

Then why do you go down there?” Travis asked.

I never go down into the basement Travis, you know that…”

Travis looked away, embarrassed by her lie.

What, what? Look at me… Look at me Travis.” She pushed her plate away, grabbed Travis with her other arm. Travis didn’t look at her eyes

Did you go? Did you go to the basement!?! Were you a bad bad boy Travis?” She hit him with her open hand. Did you? Did you?” Mommy said, smacking Travis again, Don’t you ever ever go into the basement, don’t you ask about it! Don’t you dare think about it!” She said and sobbed as she hit Travis again and again and a third time, bloodying his nose. She pulled Travis to her, hugged him. She cried. Travis cried too.

Travis tried to be a good boy. He tried not to think about the basement.  But every time he tried not to think about it he was thinking about it, so he was a bad boy after all. Travis didn’t want to be a bad boy, he wanted to be a good boy but what could he do?  Mommy was being unfair.  She wouldn’t let him get a dog, or go to school… but instead she kept him all to herself and only let him go out with her every once in a while so he could gaze with wonder and envy as other kids played together on bright red jungle gyms and mirrored sun hot slides.  Through all these thoughts Travis would hear the moaning, the murmuring, the skittering whispering from underneath. Travis decided.  He was going to go into the basement.

Travis had read a book once, about how if Indians needed to get up real early they drank a lot of water. So that’s what he did. He drank extra water with dinner.  Since it was his turn to wash the dishes he drank extra water then too.  And then he drank some more after he brushed his teeth. He went to his bed, closed his eyes.  He opened them four hours later, running to the bathroom.

Emerging from the restroom, Travis was careful slow. He had to be. He couldn’t wake Mommy, didn’t want her to hit him again. Travis wiped his nose with his forearm, smearing a little trail of kiddie snot across the sleeve of his footie pj’s. Travis reached with small child fingers up to the knob, clasped his hand about it. He entered Mommy’s room.

Mommy was asleep. Her bed had wispy almost curtains hanging from cubic poles, they made the bed look like it was covered with a death shroud. Mommy didn’t snore, but Travis could hear her grinding her teeth and saying dream things in a low voice. Travis walked over to the bureau, and stood on his tippy top toes to look. He reached over for the ring that had the keys to the basement locks…

Travis…”

Travis tensed every muscle and tendon till he was deer in the headlights still. Mommy had caught him, Mommy was awake. She would keep him inside for a month again and probably hit him and order the groceries online and he wouldn’t be able to even see the other children playing through the car windows. Why was she just laying in the bed, staring at him without saying anything? She was probably waiting for him to come over to her and accept his punishment.

Travis turned. Every degree of the turn was as if he was fighting himself; his neck didn’t want to turn, his back refused to pivot, his eyes didn’t want to look.  Why wouldn’t she say or do anything? Travis saw her laying there. Mommy snorted and then she turned away from him and proceeded to mumble more dream things…

Mommy had been asleep the whole time. Travis exhaled.  He had to be quick now. Travis snatched at the keys and ran, keeping them tight in a closed fist so they wouldn’t clink and clank. Before he knew it he was outside, surrounded by pitted shadows and hungry silence. It felt like there were eyes, eyes and teeth out in the night watching him. Travis heard a slight uuuughhhhhhh’ and he turned and faced the basement. Another uuuuuuggghhhhh,’ came and Travis’s resolve broke. He scrambled like a monkey back inside.  He was not nearly as cautious about noise now, but still made about as much noise as a mouse whispering secrets. Travis replaced the keys and then went back to bed.  Travis did not sleep.

Travis didn’t mention any of this to Mommy, but she suspected something with a mother’s intuition about children. He threw himself into his lessons and his chores, hoping for relief by working hard and being good. Travis didn’t sleep much and when he did he would often wake with a start… looking at white paint peeling back from the basement door.  Dark circles looped and spread beneath his eyes. Travis had to keep awake, even if it meant facing the shifting taloned silhouettes of tree branches dragging themselves across his walls.  Travis pretended not to hear the noises from the basement.

Mommy saw the tiredness spreading in Travis, she could taste the hint of the desperation on him. She tried to coax his secrets out, tried to berate it out of him; but when neither of these tactics worked she just accepted it. Travis was a good boy, and hadn’t done anything she knew about. If he didn’t want to talk about whatever was distressing him, then she wouldn’t force him. She didn’t understand that Travis was facing a compulsion he couldn’t understand or resist.  She didn’t know that every night he came one step closer to opening the basement.

Till the night finally came.

Travis snuck out of bed, stole the fistful of keys and again found himself before the basement. It was silent for once. He steeled his courage and tried the first key; dreading the slight schreeching of metal on metal.

The crescent moon leered down at Travis.  He tried key after key on the different locks. They were different kinds and brands, and he had to try different keys until he got them all off. He swung the basement door up and open, grunting as he used both hands to lift the heavy door. The little boy took a moment to breathe.  The moment dead behind him, Travis put a foot on the first grey step leading down.

The basement was humid.  There was a smell like dark green mold on white bread.  The little world under the house was wholly black, sickly sweet like jungle decay of malaria heat. Travis trailed fingers across the walls, feeling for a switch and finding only spiderwebs and the pebbled unsmoothness of the concrete foundation. A mass of string hit him in the face, and he almost screamed.He caught his mouth with his hand and settled.  It was a string. He pulled on it.  A bulb buzzed to life.

Travis stood in a swaying pool of light, dark blotches and dirt gave the light a feeling of splotchiness, of leprosy. The light swung back and forth above him . Squeeking things and brown beetles scurried away to glare at Travis with cold, pale eyes. In the farthest corner, Travis could hear breathing.

Every once in a while, the drunken bulb would swing far enough for him to catch flashes of the corner. He saw sickly white limbs. Around the limbs were chains.  And locks.

Hhh… hello?” Travis said. The breathing continued.

Hhhhe… hello?” Travis said again. There was laughter, dry and hoarse like noon day spit on high desert rock.

Travis, very slow and very cautious began backing his way to the stairs up and out of the basement. The laughter turned to weeping.  Chain clanked and slid across the concrete floor. Travis could just see the form of an emaciated, pale man.

Hello… son.”

***

Travis squatted so his light blue fluffy feety pajama pants wouldn’t get dirty from all the crumbs and dirt of the basement floor. His father relaxed as best the restraints would allow. Daddy had an eyepatch, like a pirate, except it was brown instead of black, and it was a little moist around the edges. Daddy was covered in bruises and sores. Travis -even though he loved Mommy, even as he loved Mommy- was learning how to hate Mommy. Daddy spoke in the placative whisper that Mommy’s beatings had taught him.

I loved your Mother once. But then you were born and… and your, well she went a little crazy. She wouldn’t let me see you much and she said…”

Daddy stopped and looked up. There was a change in sound of the floor boards and Daddy and Travis both held their breathe. No more sounds came.  Daddy continued. 

She said I was crazy. But I… I didn’t know what she was capable of… I didn’t know she was like this, that she was just using me, to… to have you.”

Daddy began to sob. Travis reached over and hugged the dirty, foul smelling man. Daddy scooped up Travis into his arms, lifting him and taking comfort in his warmth. Daddy’s sobs subsided, and he put Travis back on the floor.

I don’t want to ask you, but I have to Travis.  Will you help me?  I have to get out.  I have to.  Your mother she’ll… she’ll kill me if I don’t. You have to help me get free. Will you help Daddy? Can you be brave for Daddy?”

Travis nodded.

Travis hid the pajamas that were dirty from the basement beneath the clean folded polo shirts. Travis couldn’t even smile at the naughtiness because couldn’t give Mommy anything to suspect. Mommy woke him up at 7:15, the same way she always did. Travis almost screamed, and then forced a cough to cover it.

Are you feeling alright?”

My tummy feels a little sick,”

Mommy felt his head with a hand that had chained Daddy six feet underneath them, and clucked her teeth.

Well you do feel a little warm…”

Travis decided that it would be less suspicious if they went through their lessons. I can still do the lessons Mommy.”

Mommy smiled You’re a good boy Travis.”

Travis smiled back at Mommy.

Travis had to pay attention through the long day, and listen to lessons on multiplication and geography as his mind drifted ever downwards, towards Daddy and the plan.  The next day ground on like a finger nail pulled slowly over a chalk board.  Travis flitted between paranoia, fear, doubt, and hysteria as he prepared to do what Daddy had asked him.  Travis wanted to kill, cry to and run from Mommy all at the same time… but he had to be strong, he had to help Daddy.  Evening came.  Travis was ready.

Mommy was having dinner, finished her orange juice. Travis drew up all his courage to ask Would you like more Maam?”

Daddy had said the plan might not work tonight, and that he could wait. But oh how Travis hoped it would, so that he and Daddy could be free and play in the park.

Why yes Travis, thank you for asking,” Mommy said as she handed him the cup.

Travis passed through the kitchen, left the cup on the countertop before veered to the bathroom. He found the labelless brown bottle in the medicine cabinet just like Daddy had told him. He opened the bottle, shook three pills out into his hand. Daddy had told him to use 3… but Travis decided he would use 5. Daddy would never know. He made a tight little fist around the tiny capsules, flushed the toilet and turned on the faucet for the time it would have taken to wash his hands.  He wouldn’t take any chances.

Travis’s sock clad feet shuffled over the linoleum.  The little boy opened the door of the fridge with his left hand and grabbed the orange juice. He glanced back to see if Mommy was watching. As far as he could tell, she hadn’t moved. Travis ground little white pills one by one ground, letting all the powder fall into Mommy’s glass.  Travis looked down the hallway to the living-room. Mommy was still wrapped up in her book. Travis poured orange juice into the glass, over the dust. He shook a little spilling just a little.

Travis cleaned the Orange juice.  He walked down the hallway back to Mommy. He shuddered inside. If Mommy found out, she would hit him again and might not stop. But if it worked Daddy would be free, and he and Daddy could go somewhere. Travis offered the glass to Mommy.  She glanced at Travis, said thanks’ as she turned back to her book.  She took a sip. Mommy pinched her face in, took another small drink.  Mommy turned to Travis.

Hmmm… does this taste funny to you Travis?”

Travis quailed inside. I think it said it expires on the 17th….”

Mommy pursed her lip, Not bad funny… just… hmm well different. Here. Try a little.” Travis took a tiny, tiny sip. Tastes ok,” he said as he kicked himself for adding too many pills. He should have listened to Daddy.

Mommy turned back to her book, and took a few more sips. Finally she closed her book. I… I am going to get scome newww Orange juice, maybe the glass was dirty…” She got up, and staggered, dropping the glass. Wha… hrmmm? What’s… oh, Travis, wait… on no… th, pills Trwavis you don’t know what your doing…” She fell onto the floor, making throaty breathing noises. Travis lifted her head up, grunting, took the necklace with the key to Daddy’s chains off her. He ran to get the other keys, so he could unlock Daddy.

The next minute or so were a jumbling fumbling of metal clicking of keys as they scratched their way into the locks on the basement door. When he got to Daddy, Travis was crying. Daddy was too. Daddy said I want to do this… together,” So together they put the key into the lock and turned it. The chain slid off Daddy, and they smiled together underneath the house.

Up in the backyard, Daddy stared at the sliver of moon. I feel like a new man up here… I feel, whole again.” Travis had a niggling feeling that they should be going, but Daddy knew best.

trwavis…. Get away from him…”  and then BOOM.”

A bullet passed through the air above Daddy’s head. Daddy dodged a split second later jumping and rolling off into the shadows of the back yard. Mommy flipped the porch light on, suceeding only in ruining her and Travis’ night vision. Daddy stayed in the shadows somewhere, silent.

Trawvis, trawvis darling honey… you you don’t undertsand. He’s… he’s a bad bad man. I had to lock him away, had to! Now stop hiding youy…” then Mommy called Daddy a bad word. Mommy pulled back the hammer on the 357 revolver and fired into the night.

Looks like you couldn’t hit me even if I was still chained down… darling,” Mommy fired into the blackness where she had heard the voice, not hitting anything but fence. Daddy laughed. Mommy fired at the laughter. A bush rustled and Mommy quick turned and fired at it and was rewarded with a cry of pain. Mommy walked away from the door and light, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she began to see what she had hit in the bushes.

A cat, the projectile exploded out the back of one of its legs lay there hissing and bleeding and dying. Mommy heard the callussed feet quick over the cobblestones behind her.  A rock came down in a savage arc, smashing and cracking her skull. She fell limp, and hit the cobble stones wet. The gun clattered away from her hand.

Hello darling.”

Mommy muttered something incoherent and tried to crawl. Daddy squatted next to Mommy to whisper into her ear. Travis walked closer so he could hear.

″…dreamed of of being together. That’s right, for the first three years I dreamed and fantasized that we could be a family again. And then, and then you ground quicklime into my eyes.” Daddy removed his eye patch and Travis could make out an empty membraned socket where the eye was supposed to be. It was leaking. And after the loss of the eye, i could see teehheee… I started to have a different dream. The dream that I would be squatting over you, telling you this. And then Travis wouldn’t be our son, he would be mine.” Daddy noticed Travis. Travis, put your hands over your eyes… I don’t want to see this.” Daddy said as he picked up the rock again. I love you,” Daddy said to Mommy as Travis covered his face. Travis heard a of crunch and squish, then he didn’t hear Mommy breathing anymore. Travis let silent tears into his palms.

***

Travis kicked on the edge of the motel bed, letting his feet lift up and kick down. Daddy had told him to run to the car, that they had to leave. Daddy had followed soon after, dragging two garbage bags so full they were too heavy to carry. Travis had cried all the way to the motel… but Daddy explained how everything was going to be alright now.  They were all going to be together again. Travis had felt better after that. The motel room smelled mustiness and old and Travis wondered what was in those big heavy bags sitting across from him. Daddy came out of the bathroom and asked, What do you think?”

Daddy looked like a whole new person. He had shaved his beard and trimmed his hair and put on new clothes that weren’t ragged and didn’t show his sores or bruises. His father had a new patch he’d just made out of an old shirt and it looked good. But there was something wild about his eye… Travis didn’t look long at that eye. Travis’ attention slid down Daddy’s face onto a broad and warming smile.

We’re free Travis, we can do whatever we want! And do you know what I want to do?”

Travis shook his head.

I want to eat…” Daddy opened up the trash bag, and Mommy’s dead eyes stared at Travis. Travis screamed and crab walked back to the other edge of the bed and hugged his legs to his chest.

Maybe you don’t have the taste for it now Travis, but I bet you’ll get it in time. After all, you are my son.”

Up next In the Defense of Mummies (This Article first Appeared in the December 2375 issue of Mad Science Monthly and is reprinted with permission. Mad Science Monthly accepts no
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