The Boy Who Lived under My House
I don't trust the neighborhood cats, so stealthy and smug, and they never say anything. But this story isn't about the cats. It's about the boy who lived under my house.
We became aware of each other the first time it rained in July. We live in a desert clime of wilted Americana. The landscaping persists thanks to sprinkler systems, but it never rains in July. When it rained, I heard him through the ductwork and outside vents. I guessed he was six or seven years old, telling by the delicate timbre of his voice. I wasn't scared. I understood he had found me and I had found him and that, like the landscaping, we would persist together. He told me he wanted to play in the rain. I told him he'd have to wait for another time because I was busy preparing for something important. But I imagined what the rain looked like to him through the slitted vents. The rain danced, spastically fresh. It slapped the ground before him. He could smell it on the grass, but I'm sure he wanted to touch it, to taste it on his tiny tongue.
I should make clear that in no way did I ever coerce, restrain, or control the movements of the boy who lived under my house. He just happened to live there, below me, waiting for me to play.
At night, I would walk across the kitchen floor to the fridge, snacking before bed. I couldn't help but wonder what my footsteps sounded like to the boy. He must have grown familiar with the sounds of the pipes, but human footsteps must have been terrifying the way they creaked and bowed the floorboards.
It was thinking about this that got me to invest in a rudimentary communication system. I removed a heater register and lowered a metal spoon on a length of yarn. I told him he could use it to clang on the pipes so I would know where he was. Our communications increased significantly. He would bang the spoon whenever he felt like talking and we'd find each other and talk through the floor.
One day, he told me he wanted to play soccer. He heard me watching a game on TV and thought it sounded fun. We talked about soccer through the tile in the bathroom. It was a game well-respected in the world but not in America. I asked him if he wanted to learn football instead. He said no; football sounded terrible in the walls.
We set a day to play soccer, a Friday. But when Friday arrived something important came up. By this time it was November and I had to get the truck ready for winter. There wasn't really anything wrong with the truck; it drove just fine. But it sat in the driveway peeling paint. I had to reassure the neighbors I'd take care of it, its appearance. So I took the last Friday in November, which happened to be the day we were supposed to play soccer. I didn't have any paint to repaint the truck, but I did have a cheese grater. I stood outside in the brassy sun grating loose strips of paint from the body, waving and chatting up neighbors who walked by. They could see I was in control of the situation. I forgot to tell the boy I couldn't play soccer, but he figured it out because I caught him peeping through the slitted vent on my way back to the garage.
To make it up to the boy, I told him we'd make a snow fort in the backyard when the first snow came. But when the snow came, I was busy on my phone doing something important. It was cold anyways. I imagined the boy huddled against a hot water pipe to stay warm, or covering himself in insulation, itching all over. The cold must have been a cruel revelation to him. Like life just wasn't what it promised.
It was nighttime when I heard him banging on the pipes. He asked me what was so important. I told him I was trying to get people on the Internet to like me. He told me he liked me and still wanted to build a snow fort. He didn't understand the urgency, the depths of my need. As the night wore on, my phone went chiming into the dark like a possessed instrument, binging and vibrating and spinning in my hand. Still, the people on the Internet wouldn't love me. I decided I would play with the boy in the morning because he had expressed so much interest.
I still remember that morning with horror. I opened the hidden door in the floor and lowered myself into the crawlspace. Everything was tight and cramped, the feeling of being trapped in your own body, but the views toward the yard, through the barred rectangles of light, were pure and magnificent. Like stripes of a fiery tiger on whose back you could be whisked away into lolling grass and taffy clouds. The sky the limit. I was worried the boy had grown cold in the night. I feared he was sick or deprived or not normal in someway. But he wasn't there. I couldn't find him. I shimmied along every pipe, every vent. I fought off spiders and rats. I clawed my way through the concrete dust, coughing and sneezing. When I found his spoon back near the entrance to the floor, I started to cry, and I couldn't stop crying. I flung myself up and then outside to the snow, bawling and yelling for the boy to come back. The neighbors looked dismayed and retreated into their homes. Only the cats came near me, leaving little footprints in the snow. I could tell by looking into their eyes that they knew, they knew.
Scott Neuffer—author of SCARS OF THE NEW ORDER (Underground Voices, 2014)—is a writer, journalist, poet, and musician who lives in Nevada with his family. His work has appeared in Fiction Fix, Underground Voices, Foreword Reviews, Construction Literary Magazine, Shelf Awareness, Human Parts, Entropy Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review
and elsewhere. He's also the founder and editor of the literary journal TRAMPSET
. His indie rock music is available on Apple Music and Spotify. Follow him on Twitter @scottneuffer