Short and Jagged

Mark P. Lawley Click to read more...

Mark Lawley writes fiction, codes software and teaches math.  His work has been recognized by Ploughshares, Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, Nimrod, The Southwest Review and Azure.  He lives in Charlottesville with his wife and two bunny rabbits.  Read more at marklawley.com or tweet him at @MarkPLawley.

The chasm was a long grimace in the mountainside. It narrowed as it went deeper into the earth, but no one knew how deep it went. Three children huddled around the widest part of its opening, which was only a couple of feet across. Each of them wore either too little or too much for the weather. The sun was setting in the Wichita Mountains. Light snow flurries snaked along the boulders all around, and the wind sang low bottle notes into the rock fissure. From within its depths, a child’s voice pleaded for help.

“Let’s all calm down, smoke some cigarettes, and think this over,” Jared said.

“We’re not going to get in trouble if we get help,” Davida said from where she knelt at the lip of the chasm. She pushed her untended hair away from her face and stood. “We’ll be the good guys. So move your butts!”

“You’re the one who got him in there,” Jared said. “Don’t forget that part when you tell your mom.”

You pushed him in there.”

“You wanted me to. Isn’t that right, Nathan?”

Nathan was silent. He always allied himself with the biggest kid, so he was Jared’s sidekick for their 7th-grade year. But Davida had gained something like respect when she’d brought a picture of her tattooed father to a show-and-tell and said that he’d committed suicide last year. She proudly announced that she’d inherited his “strangler hands” and held up her knock-jointed fingers to prove it.

Nathan mumbled something under his breath and looked past the jagged scrawl of the mountains towards the overgrown, bungalow-filled neighborhood where they all lived.

“Isn’t that right—Davida’s basically the one who chased him into that hole?” Jared pressed.

“You did go on and on about finding his ‘moon base,’” Nathan said to her.

“Because he acts like everything’s his,” Davida said. “He has like six bathrooms in his house.”

“Please help,” came the crying voice from the fissure.

“Benjamin, quit being such a wuss and just climb out of there before I karate chop your face in half,” Davida said.

The crying grew louder.

*
Down in the pit, Benjamin was angled headfirst into the earth, his arms pinned loosely to his sides, his feet over a yard away from the surface entrance. His bleeding hands scrabbled for purchase on the stone. Rock dust got into his eyes. He held his breath in his strain to push himself back out, but his matchstick arms couldn’t muster that much force. Triangles of fading sunlight penetrated here and there on the sides of the hole, making a patchwork of geometric figures interrupted by his frail silhouette. Distantly, from somewhere above and therefore seemingly “below” his upside-down feet, he heard Nathan, the smallest among them, grumbling and crawling into the fissure.

Then came Nathan’s voice: “Oh, jeez, you’re really stuck! You’re f’ing deep in there! Guys, come look!”

The awe in Nathan’s voice induced total panic. In a desperation that made the blood rush even more to his face, Benjamin struggled to free his arms. He got his right free and pushed against the sides of the cave to guide his body upwards. But his hand became slick with more blood and melting snow, and he slipped and fell a few inches deeper into the cave.

“Benjamin, why didn’t you just run?” Nathan whispered. “When she kept making us follow you, why didn’t you just run back home?”

Benjamin could hear Jared scoff aboveground. “Everyone quit panicking and smoke a cigarette. Then just pull the stupid fucker out.”

Benjamin felt a gentle pull at his ankles, but he didn’t budge.

“There’s no way,” Nathan whispered to himself and retreated back up the hole.

Benjamin tried to calm himself and think through his predicament. His father had gone into orbit around the moon and had taught him how to think through things one tiny piece at a time. So he first thought about his “angle of entry,” then about the necessary “counter force” to push back out, then about the gravity and “coefficient of friction” that held him in. He pushed against the sides of the rock, ignoring the pain from the splinters in his hands that he’d gotten when Jared threw him into some bushes before chasing him into this pit. He tried to use his legs but found he was only wedging himself deeper into the earth. He took deep breaths but kept his mouth barely open so the floating grit in the fissure wouldn’t get into his lungs any more than it already had.

“Guys, this situation is serious,” he heard Davida say, using the staid, reasoning voice of an adult. “I really think we need to get our parents.”

“I could just text my…” Nathan began.

“Oh, I’ll pull him out,” Jared said. “And I’m keeping your phones.”

Where Nathan could twist and turn into the fissure, Jared’s bigger adolescent body just barely fit. He slowly slid down the hole feet-first, getting bruised and cut along the way.

“Hey, man,” he whispered so only Benjamin could hear. “You don’t have to show us that moon base thingy you got. I’ll never even bring it up again. Davida was the one who was obsessed with finding it, okay. All summer long. ‘The moon base, the moon base. Let’s find the moon base.’ She’s such a little girl. Fuck her. I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t say, ‘Fuck her,’” Benjamin said and immediately felt ridiculous.

He felt two hands take firm hold of his ankle and pull. Pain electrified his flanks and ribs until he forgot all about keeping calm and screamed himself hoarse.

“Jesus,” Jared said.

“What’s going on down there?” Davida asked. “Are you being a dumbass, Jared?”

“Did you get him out?” Nathan asked.

“Why is no one smoking?” Jared shouted back. “Just look in my backpack. Three fat ones.”

“Please, it’s not like you brought pot,” Davida said.

“Jared, Jared,” Benjamin said. “I need you to go get my mom and dad. Now.”

“Shhh. Tell me what’s wrong,” Jared said. “Where does it hurt?”

To Benjamin, Jared’s voice was inappropriately sticky and warm down in the tunnel with only the two of them. Benjamin thrashed and fell a little deeper into the pit, driving his shoulder into a jutting claw of stone that arrested his downslide. He tried to keep still, but stillness only intensified the cold.

“It hurts everywhere,” Benjamin said. “My mom and dad won’t be mad at you. Just get them. I’ll make them pay you.”

“What if he has to pee?” he heard Nathan ask aboveground. “Will it like, drip down his stomach and into his face and stuff? That f’ing sucks!”

Eww! I’m going to go get help,” Davida said.

But Jared called up to the surface: “They’ll only call the police! Davida? I said, they’ll only call the police. Let me try some more. I only gave him one little tug. Everybody relax.” And to Benjamin, he said, “Okay, I’m going to get you out for sure now. Just grow an extra pair and get ready.”

Benjamin pleaded with him to stop, but Jared grabbed him firmly by both ankles and gave his mightiest pull. Benjamin’s wild screams filled the hole, echoing up and down it, hitting all-new octaves. Dull molars of stone clamped down onto his back, bunching up the flesh there like coiled towels and jackknifing his vertebrae. “Stop, stop, stop!” he begged in between screams, but Jared didn’t cease his unremitting, full-bodied exertion. Benjamin heard things inside himself popping and pulled against his tormentor.

Finally, Jared’s muscles and resolve waned, and he let go. Benjamin’s counter pull rocketed him the deepest yet into the fissure, and he was sure that the jutting abutment of rock now pierced his flesh. Pain came blooming anew in his shoulder every few seconds, making his entire body tremor. His tears fell down an unknown depth.

“Damn dude,” Jared said as he crawled out of the hole.

*

Aboveground, Nathan was berating Davida, saying, “I’ve always known where his moon base was. I just didn’t want to show you because it’s nothing but his dumb rock collection out in the mountains. He tried to move some speakers out there so he could listen to music. That’s all.”

“How do you know?” Davida asked.

“My dad told me.”

At the mention of “dad,” Davida recoiled. “Liar,” she said as her dark green eyes aged in her pale face. “You don’t know where it is. No one does. No one’s ever found it. We’re going to be the first ones.”

Benjamin’s fresh round of screaming interrupted them.

“God, that sounds so nasty,” Davida said. Her disdain for Benjamin drew the group back together. Jared and Nathan joined her in peering into the hole. “It’s like he’s fucking a pig down there!” she added.

“Yeah, check it out!” Jared cupped his hand around his ear and leaned over the hole with a clown’s smile. “That is the sound of someone literally losing his mind. Give it to her, Ben. You show that pig a good time!”

“No, the pig is giving it to him,” Davida said with a crone’s smile.

Nathan made such a show of laughing that he fell onto the ground. His face was agonized with mirth.

“It just makes you want to leave him there for a while,” Davida said.

“Yeah, just totally bury him alive until he learns his lesson,” Jared said.

“And stops being so nasty!” Davida said.

“Don’t hurt that pig, Benjamin. That’s animal cruelty. Mrs. Nelson is going to make us write our senator again.”

He kicked some snow and dirt into the chasm. Benjamin’s screaming stopped. Jared kicked more down. Then Benjamin’s begging voice drifted up to them, and Jared started imitating it in a whiny way, “No, stop, please, wah wah wah!” He crossed his arms. “If I acted like that, my dad would kick my ass.”

Davida winced, and her face was full of loathing. “Jared, shut up before I karate chop your brain open.”

He stared at her, confused, as if she had violated some long-standing arrangement for no reason. Then he shrugged and said, “Hey, Nathan, I’m going to get the cigarettes out, okay?”

Nathan looked at Davida and let his gaze stray off towards the trees and boulders surrounding them. Davida fingered the rips in her jacket that she’d gotten from wrestling with Benjamin, when he’d refused to show them his moon base. She knew that last summer, Benjamin and his father set up the moon base somewhere in the Wichitas, and ever since, Davida had wanted to see something a father had built. But even when she held Benjamin down and Jared stood on top of his legs, he refused to reveal its secret location. Her hands and forearms still felt weak from the effort.

In the silence, Nathan whispered, “Maybe if we throw down a bunch of water, it’ll make it slippery, and he’ll be able to get out.”

“Or cooking oil from the kitchen,” Jared agreed.

“WD-40 from the garage,” Nathan said.

“Hey, I could get the sex jelly from my parent’s bedroom!” Jared said.

“Banana peels!” Nathan shouted victoriously. “Bunches, all packed in around him!”

“We got a lot to try,” Jared said, nodding. “We have a long way to go before anyone’s parents need to know.”

Davida looked at the sunset and the clouds riding in on a fast wind. It would be a cold night in the mountains. Benjamin had gone quiet again. She leaned over the rust-colored pit but couldn’t see him. The smell of desiccated leaves and winter flowed up from the fissure. Suddenly, she felt heavy with the knowledge of death. Death was standing with them over the cave, peering into its depths alongside them. In her dreams, her father didn’t know he was dead. Sometimes he’d come to give her a piggyback ride, and she’d have to explain again that he shot himself a year ago. He would look disappointed and then decay into a corpse in front of her. As she looked down into Benjamin’s cave, the heaviness of knowing death made her head bow lower, as if she were going to pray. She was the one who’d led the group to Benjamin, who’d scared him so badly he scrambled into the fissure to get away from them. And now, they both were stuck.

*

Darkness. His enemies had gone, and there was silence except when the wind made half-formed vowels in the fissure. He had never known such silence. He realized that until now, he’d never been truly alone, never truly out of reach of anyone. And the first thing he realized about this zero gravity of solitude was that he was no longer a complete person, no longer a Benjamin Spirer but just a voice that was not heard, a touch that was not felt, a force without Newton’s equal and opposite reaction.

Such fear seized him that he forgot who he was, so at first, the sound of his own name was nonsense.

“Benjamin?” That was a girl’s voice saying a recognizable sound. A special girl he hated, whom he’d gladly trade places with that very instant. This hatred, with its concrete immediacy, brought him back to himself.

“He’s down there, Mrs. Spirer,” Davida said.

“Benjamin?” called his mother.

Benjamin screamed for his mother, screamed until the blood engorged his temples, screamed so hard his exhale blasted grit into his eyes. The pain demanded that he rub the grit out, but his arms were stuck. This denial of instinct sent Benjamin into snot-producing convulsions.

“Honey, people are on their way,” she said. He could hear her trying to lower herself into the hole with him. “Firemen, doctors, everybody. Even Dr. Patel, the one who gave you the stickers.”

When Benjamin heard the ambulance’s sirens, he tried to have faith in America’s Professionals. Besides, his father the astronaut was among that group. Soon, there were several indistinct, new voices asking questions, of his mother and of him. “Do you hurt anywhere? Are you bleeding? Can you wiggle your fingers and toes?”

“Here’s a blanket I brought,” his mother said. “I’ll lower it down.”

“No! Don’t!”

“What’s the matter? You need it to be warm.”

The blanket slithered over his feet, enveloping his legs. It was a dark manta ray that was descending upon him, ready to cover him whole.

“Davida, make her stop! Davida!”

“Okay, sweetheart, okay,” his mother said, and the horrible thing was taken away.

Camera flashes lit the fissure around him until he heard his mother cursing as she never cursed in front of him. Searchlights turned on. White light filtered into the cave, stinging his eyes in the most wonderful way. Now he could make out what lay beneath him. Four feet below, there was rock bed the ashen color of the moon.

*

Davida watched the rescuers work by the searchlights. They camped and took shifts. They found a way to snake a tube of water down to Benjamin. The snow blanketed everything all around. The searchlights cast their glow far out over the Wichitas. Lichen-crusted, orange boulders and weather-blasted trees surrounded them.

Mrs. Spirer sat at the lip of the chasm and prayed as erosion tracks lined her face. She was a tall woman who never wore makeup. Her hair was purple and jagged, and she had a beautiful, freckled face. She covered part of the pit’s entrance with a blanket in a futile attempt to keep out the wind. She nestled herself a couple feet into the hole as if it were an egg-laden nest and made room only for the paramedics. Benjamin called to her.

“We can’t just drill down to him,” said one man with a hard hat. “The cave might collapse. We’ll have to drill around him, beneath him, and up to him.”

“How long will that take?” asked Mrs. Spirer.

“Hours. Days. We have no way of knowing how much is dirt and how much is rock beneath us.”

“How many drills do you have? I can pay for—”

“It ain’t about pay for. We got our drill here, and some military contractors out at Fort Sill are giving us two within the hour. By tomorrow morning, every nearby town from Altus to Ardmore will donate whatever they got, too. We’re going to get your son out.”

Davida crouched nearby, besides some bushes, and told herself she didn’t care if she froze to death that night. Someone draped a jacket over her shoulders. She resettled into her crouch. She didn’t know it, but she actually stepped into Benjamin’s moon base. Her very foot planted right next to his favorite stone, a big glob of granite and quartz that was pale like the moon. She hugged her arms over her knees and watched Benjamin’s mother. Davida cried unselfishly, keeping it to herself, not attracting anyone’s attention away from the hole and Benjamin. She felt something strange within her grow roots, something strange enough to withstand all of this terrible cold.

*

Benjamin thought about the temperature of space, about suns going out in the void. Maybe all the stars had frozen already but, traveling at the speed of darkness, their demise had not yet reached earth. Benjamin couldn’t feel his body anymore: his existence was entirely in his blood-engorged face. And now, across that face where his existence had coalesced like a centuries-slow droplet of water forming on the tip of a stalactite, something crawled. Hairy, unfamiliar feet made its way along his cheek. It inched towards his right eye, then paused. It walked towards his mouth, tentatively feeling along the skin. Some legs perched on his nose, and Benjamin imagined that the thing was going to cover his entire face and devour it. His father was not there to remove it. That was because his father was perfect, and perfection did not deign to intervene.

Benjamin tried not to sob, but he couldn’t help but let out a spasm of swallowed crying. This startled the thing, so it quickly made its way up his face, but with one back leg nestled in the groove between upper and lower lip. Benjamin had the impulse to quickly open his mouth and bite the thing’s limb off.

His mind lost focus, like a camera pressed too close to something. The thing started creeping up into his hair, curiously exploring with its forelegs. Eventually, he was never sure whether it was there or not.

Days. He’d been down there for days. He didn’t know how many. Even more than he wanted water, Benjamin wanted to know the time. His thirst for the time was unquenchable, and those above would not give it to him. He constantly asked for it. They constantly lied. According to some rescuers, it had been eight-o’-clock for hours now. Even his own mother betrayed him. It was never as late as it really was, he was never in there for as long as he really had been. Everyone above insisted on okay-ness, on you’re-doing-real-good-Benjamin!, on you’re-almost-out-of-there-Benjamin! He wanted people to be honest and say, You’ve been down there for half a week, Benjamin. We have no clue how to get you out, Benjamin. You’re going to die, Benjamin.

He could no longer differentiate sunlight, moonlight, and searchlight. The drilling got closer. Every now and then, someone annoyed him with questions like, “Are you bleeding anywhere?” But to these inquiries, he said whatever was expected so that they’d leave him alone. Every so often, a hand touched his ankle and a voice announced, “His pulse is still strong.”

Finally, he stopped paying attention to the world above. Even when the drilling was so near that it rattled his teeth, he didn’t much care. The echoes and vibrations barely disturbed him as he took his space voyages from waking to sleeping and back. He was ready to find new secret places, to build a new moon base that no one would ever be able to find. He struggled downwards towards the light below him, giving desperate pelvic thrusts, grasping the sides of the tunnel and pulling on its uneven surface. He slid and jerked earthwards, not caring anymore about being wedged too tightly or having his lungs crushed, inching along slowly until his right shoulder refused to go any further over that ever-present jutting rock that had been his personal demon for so long now. In his tormented contortions, he started to feel slick and smooth like a pink fillet. He cut himself everywhere, and the wounds acted like glands secreting a lubricating sebum. His shoulder finally slid past the claw of stone. He thought he would feel incredible relief, but he simply felt numb there. The numbness spread.

He fought harder. And then, with a golden satisfaction, he touched the lower rock bed below with an outstretched, dripping hand. He gave death throe twists.

Voices echoed in the rock chamber: “Hold on son!” “We’re going to go to the rock museum, Benjamin!” “You okay?” “We’re coming!”

He finally slid free and landed on the incredibly soft cave bed below. He was in a tunnel. Up ahead, the white light pulsed invitingly. He stumbled towards it and discovered that the glow emanated from a pool full of strange gems, each like a summer-blue afterimage of sunlight. He imagined the little lake was a watery artifact from the magical center of the planet. His thirst disappeared.

From the far side of the water’s edge, a female figure wrapped in a wet, bright white cloth glided over the water. She was completely encased in the clinging, translucent material. She was naked underneath, but this didn’t seem bad. She moved without disturbing her attire and without moving her feet. Benjamin grew heavy with sleepiness. The blindingly bright figure came closer.

“Shine that light down on him…”

“I’ve got to use the drill!”

“You’ll crush him!”

“I don’t have a pulse—I lost the pulse!”

“We don’t have time anymore. Benjamin! Let’s hear about your dad being a spaceman!”

Benjamin took the bright thing’s hand and found he could walk with her over the surface of the waters. She began teaching him a dance. He had never danced before. Her arms were strong and she kept his neck erect and held him tightly. His little feet kicked. Her hands were soft and warm, but sometimes she was so bright that he had to close his eyes.

Benjamin heard cheering and applause. He thought that he must be in a ballroom. His dance was impressive, and those were the sounds of approval. His legs dangled and wriggled, his head threatened to bob and sway, and his arms made lovely motions through the air. His partner was really Davida, the girl of his dreams.

“Bring him up here…thank God…oh God…move, move, move!”

“Is he breathing? Get the BVM over here.”

“Help the man…get the backboard and stretcher ready. Secure his back, Jesus you just pulled him out.”

“Had no choice—lost the pulse…”

Almost to the moon. Dad is probably there again by now. Except this time, he’ll actually touch down and walk on it, and this time, he’ll have a place for me, a campfire. And I’ll walk into the circle of its light and be there with him.

The woman of light wrapped her arms like a vice around Benjamin, leaned close to his face, and slid her tongue into his mouth. Benjamin had expected his first kiss to feel pleasant, but this was a strange pain. After her tongue went down his throat, she rhythmically breathed into him.

“Intubate him.”

“Got it.”

“Start the chest compressions.”

*

When they pulled him out, there was explosive cheering and bursts of camera flashes. The lights outlined Benjamin’s lank silhouette. A fireman held Benjamin as still as he could. The boy’s limbs dangled uselessly beneath him. His head and neck, which looked stretched out and unnaturally straight, were placed in a brace as soon as a paramedic could get to him. They laid the boy on the backboard and stretcher.

Davida shielded her eyes from the camera flashes as they took Benjamin to an ambulance. Interviewers descended upon the rescuers, who smiled unconvincingly at the cameras. Benjamin’s mother barged into the ambulance with her son, and Davida ran to its doors. As they swung closed, she saw Benjamin laid among white linens. The crowd applauded when the ambulance drove away.

*

Over the years, Davida took to wandering the mountains near the fissure. The town had fenced off the dangerous cave. People put delicate flowers for Benjamin on the rusted barbed wire. She often watched the morning sheen on the metal, the way it burned through the translucent petals.

At Benjamin’s visitation, Benjamin’s handsome Ivy League father had made all the kids laugh by showing that he could walk on his hands. He did this in the hallway of the funeral home, right outside a cold room that used to be a kitchen. Davida, not knowing what else to do, showed that she could walk on her hands, too. She and Benjamin’s father laughed together, but his laughter frightened her. She wondered where he’d been while his son’s life faded away in a hole.

Later, Davida fell extremely ill inside the showing room. Within the casket, whose plush inner cover was fitted with a canvas print of the American flag, Benjamin’s face was obviously absent of Benjamin. He did not “look like he was sleeping,” as some of the adults said. He looked like he’d left the building. There was an incredible not-there-ness. The corpse had nothing to do with him. She’d never seen a dead body before—her father’s funeral was closed casket. And yet, she still felt she hadn’t seen death firsthand. In Benjamin, there was merely the absence of life, which was something else entirely.

One summer, when Davida had begun to cut her hair short and jagged, she got curious while taking a walk near Saddle Hill. She wondered what was directly behind a thicket of trees off the path, near a table of rock. After the brambles cut her arms and face, after she stepped past the remnants of cigarettes that had gone unsmoked, after she forced herself through the interlacing branches, she broke free into a hollow depression on the mountainside. Her breath caught. For a fleeting moment, she believed she was on the surface of the moon.

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