We call it the Spirit Hole, this three-inch gap in the floorboards of our bedroom that jealously watches us live while it only gets to be a hole. The Spirit Hole swallows everything: G.I. Joes, Hot Wheels, the cross pin from my first communion. When I drop anything, my stomach falls with it, bouncing over the warped floor and disappearing forever into the hole. Sometimes I stand downstairs in the living room and look at the ceiling, into the eyes of dozens of Batman action figures watching me from behind the cracking plaster.
I'm trudging home with my backpack and glimpse my brother in an alley, leaning on an unsteady garage with some glum kids, kicking rocks. John's three years older and started high school two months ago. He sees me and looks away, like I'm a passing car. Last May, every day we walked home together and set up massive battles between Ninja Turtles and miscellaneous bad guys—Darth Vader, Hobgoblin, a terrifying hula-hooping Ronald McDonald. Now we have an unspoken agreement in which he ignores me, and I shut up about it.
For the rest of the walk I keep my head down, which prevents accidental stranger-kid eye contact, which might lead to getting shoved, or called a pussy, or a knife pulled on me—the last of which has never happened, but any day now. I monitor my feet, stepping over litter and curbs with my right foot—so as to put my best foot forward—and avoiding cracks to prevent breaking my mom's back. I fail and picture my mom, at that moment, breaking in two while walking through the dining room. The usual guilty rock in my stomach gets heavier.
Our house is too far from school, I once told Dad as he tucked us in, like he used to do. He said we would scoot it closer, no problem. That's how he avoided discussion. One time he finished the creepy-crawl back scratch—with its eerie song about an oak tree luring kids into its hollow and trapping them forever—and I touched his whiskers and said I liked his beard.
"Well," he laughed. "You can have it when I die."
He left and I lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, realizing for the first time that my dad was going to die someday.
Awake like that in bed, Spirit Hole releasing its nightly groans of trapped souls, I often hear voices rise like instruments tuning, and then angry shouts, a box of crayons smashing on a wall, a plate cracking on the kitchen floor, chairs sliding and table legs shuddering, like the house is rearranging itself in the night. John sleeps, or pretends to. Alone in the dark, eyelids clenched, I slip into an endless fall behind my belly button, grasping at air, until that's gone, too. In the morning everything's bright and clean, Dad crunching on raisin bran, Mom sipping coffee at the counter. I walk extra-lightly on the eggshells those mornings.
Car alarms are sounding from the next block over. I finally reach the crooked concrete steps to our door. Dad's grandpa built our house himself and I know that we will never move, no matter how bad things get. The laundry machine is whirring in the basement. I shout downstairs but Mom doesn't respond. No way am I going down there with the possibility of being alone. I toss my backpack on the table so she knows I'm home, think better of it—leaving crap around could lead to playful teasing or tearful screaming—put it on a chair, think some more, find a stained stationary pad on the counter and write: Mom, I am here. Love, your son.
In the pantry I find some off-brand snack cakes filled with, according to the box, "Donkey Cream!" that are only for lunches, but I listen for Mom and then stuff one down. I shove the wrapper deep into the trash beneath cereal bags and pop-tart foil, and remember that Dad told me to take it out last night. A noise from the alley had scared me away, even with the security light blasting. I feel like a baby remembering it. The handle on the trash drawer is loose, one of the decorative knobs that my mom salvaged from my grandma's house, their red floral faces now dotting our kitchen like pimples. I tighten the knob and feel helpful.
I crawl up the stairs, dodging Nazi bullets as my socks gather dust and splinters. I have been reading a lot of novels about kids in the Holocaust and how awful it was, picturing myself there and how brave I would have to be. Like the novel kids, I would meet a braver friend, who would inspire my own bravery. I tear up thinking of how brave we would be.
At the top of the stairs I see Marie Stevens from my class in the line of fire. I lunge and shove her aside, tackling the Nazi behind her and letting him have it in the face, having mercy at the last moment, when one more blow from my slim-but-deceptively-strong arms would kill him. I leap up and take a bullet in the abdomen as I flop onto my bed. Marie is momentarily pissed, having just been shoved, but then realizes what I have done for her and tears fill her eyes as she holds my hand and I struggle to breathe.
It occurs to me that Marie and I aren't safe in this elevated position on the bed, and that I don't know the layout of this battlefield whatsoever, and soon I have plastic army men positioned all over the floor, barricaded behind balled socks and John's stacked CD cases. The little guys have each other's backs. They're best friends. Some of them grew up together.
I'm directing paratroopers when I glance at the window and see someone in the alley looking up. My stomach flips and I drop to the floor. Sunlight pushes through the dirty glass. I hope it's not Marie. She has to pass nearby if she's headed to Jordie Butler's house. Jordie would be even worse, if he saw me still playing the same battle games we used to play, when now he and Marie and Camille Kincaid play truth or dare with kissing—according to Jordie, overheard last week in the boys' bathroom. I hope that Marie knows that I would never make her kiss me. I'm better than that.
A crouched machine gunner slips from my hand. I dive but he bounces twice, slides into the Spirit Hole and disappears. That draining feeling empties my chest. One more lost.
Glass breaks in the alleyway and the sound tingles my spine and sends ants scurrying to my fingertips. Now I know who's out there. The Empty Man has come early. The Empty Man, who watches my window late at night, who sometimes when I can't sleep slithers into my room through Spirit Hole, liquid darkness. My eyes are always shut tight but I know he's there. Even the Empty Man has rules. Rule One is that he can only take kids who are awake, and if he tries to take a sleeping kid he gets vaporized, so he has to be a hundred-percent sure that this kid is awake. Even if my breath gets loud and ragged as he limps toward my bed, if my eyes are closed, how can he be sure?
I listen from the floor. The Empty Man dragging his bag of empties. I creep my eyes above the windowsill. The alley is vacant. This is all a sign that I won't sleep tonight, and the Empty Man will come.
The wood floor groans near the Spirit Hole.
"Haven't you eaten enough?" I whisper.
A louder groan, pouring from the hole like a speaker, and I scramble away. My gut turns over with a familiar squish that means I need to take immediate action. The hole blocks my path to the door so I take a running leap, sliding on my socks.
I rush down to the bathroom with barely time to lift the seat to check for bugs. I have never found bugs there but I know that if I don't check, even once, the bugs will be there that time, crawl up my ass, and then I will die. Maybe due to the bugs, maybe by sheer will of refusing to deal with the bug situation in my ass, but I will die.
Seated, I drop my head into my hands as my stomach gurgles. The hallway floor creaks.
"Patrick?" my mom calls. "You all right?"
"I'm fine!" I have to squeeze the words through the pressure in my guts.
"Okay. Don't stomp down the stairs like that. You'll break the stairs."
"I'm going to the grocery store. You okay by yourself?"
"You didn't take the trash out last night. Your dad told you to take the trash out."
"Don't wanna hear it. I'm sick of this. We ask you to take it out, just one tiny thing you can do. I guess I'll have to do it." The doors muffles her voice, but I'm realizing what mode she's in. "You all think I'm your servant. I'll do everything. I'm sick of it!"
"I'll do it in a sec!"
"Not in a sec! Now! You can't even help your own mother?! You have to always be selfish?!" Her shouts echo through the bathroom. I hold my face, dig fingers into cheeks, waiting for it to end. "You are a selfish, selfish boy! You selfish little boy! After everything…I can't even do this. No, I can't do this."
Footsteps punctuate her sobs and I'm left alone, curled on the toilet. My hands tremble on my forehead, but I wonder if I'm doing that on purpose like she says I do.
I finish and shuffle to the kitchen, feeling sorry for myself and how I get beat up for every tiny mistake, and also knowing deep down that I'm rotten inside, that something is missing in me that would make me good, and other people have it and I don't. Mom might feel bad later. Maybe she will get me a treat at the store. One of those plastic tubs of ice cream they get for parties.
I slide out the trash drawer and remove the bag, wet with orange juice and egg whites. It's too full and as I lift it the side peels open, revealing a nest of damp plastic and tanned corncobs. I trail coffee grounds to the back door and reach the fence before remembering that the Empty Man was just out there. I listen and crack the gate. The alley glows orange under overgrown trees. I rush to the dumpster, heave the bag and sprint back to the gate just in time.
A trail of milky celery tops and greasy napkins leads from the back door to the kitchen. I wipe it up, gagging. When I reach the trash can I realize there's no bag and I have to set down this mess to get a new one. Tossing the last napkin in the bag, the empty space in my chest suddenly fills with fury and I hate this shit trash can and I slam the drawer. The knob leaps off and hangs for a moment on a string before falling to the floor like a gunshot, porcelain fragments skittering across the hardwood.
I'm frozen, hands up. Slivers of red flowers wink at me from the floor.
I drop to my knees and sweep the pieces together. A splinter stabs my palm and I have to pull it out, but I'm okay. I run upstairs and set the bits on my dresser and search for my old modeling glue. My fingers are sweaty, fumbling through my junk drawer. Yo-yos that never worked, valentines that everyone in class had to pass out, a velvet ring box full of baby teeth. All this junk won't get out of the way and I grab a handful and throw it on the floor, tears pinching the backs of my eyes.
My grandma's broken flowers watch me from the dresser. The knob is in about a thousand pieces, and despite my gluing skills, this is too many pieces.
I slump on the bed and rub my forehead to get the brain circulated. Mom might be in a better mood when she gets back. I cover my face with my hands and yell.
With a deep breath, I get up and sweep the shards into my palm. The Spirit Hole seems to swell, ready for a feeding.
"It's coming, it's coming," I mutter.
I crouch and shake the pieces down. They tumble silently into the dark, gone like grains of salt into water.
As soon as it's done I scurry away from the hole. Nothing happens. It's just a hole in the floor of my room, framed in a rectangle of fading light from my window. There are probably more pieces in the kitchen. Just as I reach the doorway the Spirit Hole moans. I stop. It groans again, slowly, wavering at the end like it's out of breath. I watch the hole, squared in sunlight.
Cracking sounds like branches breaking, and a shard leaps out of the hole, plinks across the floorboards and lands at the foot of my bed. A fragment of petal stares up at me.
My stomach plunges, scalp tightens. I take some quick breaths and step toward the piece of the knob. The floor creaks a question. The Spirit Hole is still, dust settling into it through a sunbeam. I squat and reach for the knob.
A sharp groan like a revving engine tears through the room and I topple backward. The sound descends into a stuttering creak, bubbles in a dry throat, as ants run down my arms. I scramble back, crab-walking until my head slams into the wall. The sound continues, uh uh uh uh, slowing as I scuttle toward the door. My breath is gone. My guts twist with sudden urgency.
The door is closed. I fumble with the knob but it won't turn beneath my sweaty palm. My breath comes fast with an involuntary whimper, like a dog at the door. My intestines are roiling. The rest of me is empty, lost in a spiral, hands useless like a rubber doll.
The hole coughs and sighs. I whirl, back against the wall beside the door. Shifting sounds of dragging clothes, and then the room goes still.
"More." A man's voice, quiet and breathy. Muttering, close, lips pressed against the underside of the hole.
I push against the wall as something shifts below the floor. I can't breathe. Pressed to the plaster, falling, no-no-no-no, but this is happening. Stomach twisting. The Spirit Hole swallows sunlight, and a long, gray finger rises from the hole, pointing to the ceiling. All is still. Dust specks circle the finger.
It snaps to the floor. The finger taps three times, and the hole begins to expand.
Eyes clamped, shaking, I hope that he believes that I'm asleep, cowering against the wall, mumbling "muh-muh-muh" uncontrollably. I sense the Spirit Hole breathing, pulling, a magnet that will drag me across the floor into the Empty Man's arms and his bag of darkness, and I can do nothing. I am not strong, I am not brave, and I will soon be gone. I picture Mom on the doorstep with plastic grocery bags, realizing that the house is empty and just standing there, ice cream dripping onto the threshold. John lies in bed staring at my empty covers, remembering the games we played, that we had fun. Dad taking the trash to the dumpster and looking to the sky, stars blotted by the glow of the city. Marie and Jordie staring at my empty desk, trying to remember who used to sit there. Time will slip away.
I'm clutching my knees and shaking as I sob, so my toes tap the floorboards. My cry is loud and it feels good. Tears warm my cheeks and salt my tongue. My back is raw from rubbing against the plaster.
Breath returns and I can swallow again. The smell of old clothes. I crack my eyelids, and through wet lashes I see the window light, now a gray splotch near the closet door. The room is dim. Eyelids flickering, I reach over my head, groping for the doorknob. It turns and I slip out the door.
After the bathroom, I sit in the living room with all of the lamps on. I wait for Mom to find me with my knees clutched to my chest, rocking on the couch with a thousand-yard stare, but it takes a long time and eventually I start flipping through a magazine about stalactites.
The back door opens and grocery bags rustle. I walk in as she sets canned tomatoes beside the stove.
"Hey honey," she says. "Can you help me with this stuff?"
She doesn't see my pitiful expression but flashes a smile toward my side of the room. She's calm and distant, which makes me feel the same. I put away cereal and peanut butter and big bags of shredded cheese. I turn around in the pantry and she has a bag of marshmallows cocked back like a football, grinning as she heaves them to me across the room. She starts dinner while I put away the cold things.
"Mom?" My voice is high. She's chopping onion. "I'm really scared of the thing in my room."
"Don't talk about your brother that way."
"No, seriously. The scary thing in my room. You know."
She sighs and sets down the knife. She pinches her forehead and faces me.
"We're all scared, Patrick," she says. "Your dad and I are so worried. But if you keep your eyes closed, he won't take you down there, and we'll all be fine."
"But what if he does take me?"
"Follow the rules," she says, "be brave, and someday all of it will shed like a second skin."
I don't know exactly what that means but she kisses the top of my head to signal end-of-discussion, and I know better than to push.
I finish the groceries. Mom goes for the trash can with a handful of onion skin.
"Uh oh. Where's Grandma's knob?" She crouches, looking under cabinets. She puts her hands on her hips and pouts her lip. "Did you see it?"
That night after dinner—Dad prying John for information about his day—after washing dishes, packing our lunches and lying that I have no homework, I wait for John to head upstairs first. He ignores me, but when he sees his CD cases stacked around the room he picks some up and slams them onto the bedside table, our only communication of the day. I pick up the rest and put them away. I'm careful not to look at Spirit Hole.
The shard of knob is at the foot of my bed. While John changes clothes, I pick it up and turn it in my fingers. Without thinking, I slide it between my lips. It's small on my tongue. As John turns around, I spit it out and kick it under the bed.
We lie with the lights on, and for some reason Dad comes up to say goodnight like he used to. He doesn't try to tell a story or do the creepy-crawl back scratch, just leans on the doorframe and says goodnight boys. Even John mumbles goodnight. Dad taps the doorframe for a minute, biting his lip, before heading downstairs.
John turns out his light and I reluctantly do the same. The streetlight in the alley catches the windowpanes, projecting a cross on the wall above my dresser. I close my eyes.
I tell myself that I will sleep tonight. I will lie with my eyes closed, my big brother four feet away, and I will sleep, and even though our room is dark, the future looks bright, bright, bright.