By William David Higgs III
He had been repairing foundations for fifteen years, but it only took him fifteen minutes to decide that it was the worst condition he had seen a house in. It’s a miracle this place is still standing, he thought.
He prepared to turn around when he heard clanging metal followed by a power drill.
Someone closed the grate leading to the crawlspace. He would have jumped to his feet to run if there was more than a few inches of clearance between his shoulders and the floor above. Managing to turn himself around, he crawled as fast as he could to the entrance.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing!”
No one answered. The repairman followed the sound of footsteps above his head.
Whoever bolted in the grate was already inside. He flipped himself onto his back, hunching his shoulders to clear the tight space overhead, and began pounding the floorboards with his fists.
“Hey! Hey! I’m still down here! Do you hear me?!?”
He heard footsteps over his head. He dragged himself forward with his feet, pounding the floorboards with increasing violence. He knew they could hear him. They had to be able to! The floor was no more than 12 inches thick, more than thin enough for the frantic beating of his fists to be audible.
“Help!” he cried. “Somebody help! Please!”
He paused. His throat was hoarse from screaming. The dirt floating around, which
scratched his trachea with every breath, helped nothing. His bruised, cut knuckles oozed blood through layers of grime and splintered wood. In an instant, his panic gave way to a dull dread that sank like an iron weight in his guts- the person overhead laughed.
He was unsure how long he sat in silence. Minutes? Hours? Through the grates of the
vent, he saw the growing shadows of twilight. The grates themselves were an especially dense,thick cast iron, common among older homes, held fast by hulking bolts driven deep in the cement. He experienced the strength of the material first hand when he shattered his left big toe trying to kick the vent out of place. Images of shattered bones, of broken bodies and faces twisted in red, hot anguish circled insanely in his head. His flashlight went out. Night fell. He was soon alone with these twisted images in complete darkness.
He attuned his ears to the groaning of the foundation. It was as if he could hear the
footings shift. The piers moaned softly like a person sighing at the point of exhaustion, letting out one last breath before giving in. The noises of the decaying house were periodically interrupted by pacing. After the pacing would follow a sound like wood being sawed. Then, for intervals of thirty minutes, the sound of a shower.
What were they doing up there? Him, he thought, remembering that the laughter had
“Wait a minute,” he muttered, “wasn’t it a lady who hired me?”
It had been a woman. Mrs. LaPenn was an older woman, who he remembered as having an especially high voice. She called for her foundation to be repaired after coming into an unexpected, though modest, inheritance from a distant uncle. It was not enough for anyone to envy too much, she rambled on the phone.
“Or maybe it’s enough for some distant relative, who was also somehow in the will, to feel like he wanted her cut?” he asked himself.
Maybe he was up there right now, sawing through the bones of his cousin. Maybe he
paused to shower every thirty minutes to bathe away the gore coating him in the process of dismembering the corpse. So what if there had been some repair guy when he got there? He’d just lock the poor fuck under the house and take him out when the job was done! Hell, maybe he’d just leave him down there!
His breath caught in his chest. What if the stranger intended to leave him here? It would be at least two, maybe three, days before anyone even realized Mrs. LaPenn was missing. Would he last that long without water?
Already his mouth, dry and crusted with dirt, stung from thirst. He was halfway to
dehydration. The coarse dirt swelling his sinuses and scratching his lungs didn’t help. He could make it a day. If he stayed conscious and didn’t pass out before police, who’d never think to check a firmly secured crawlspace, arrived. He needed to be awake to call out for help.
“I can survive a day like this,” he assured himself. He yawned. “It wouldn’t hurt to sleep a little, would it?” No, he answered. The police could arrive sooner than you think, he told himself, and you wouldn’t want to sleep through that. Mrs. LaPenn had lived far out enough for there to belittle chance of a neighbor passing by, and even if one did, they would be deterred from approaching the house by the yellow tape. By then he’d be too hoarse to scream. He would die sputtering desperate, dry pleas for water.
He had to stay awake. His eyes had acclimated somewhat to the darkness. Although his vision was dim, he made out the faintest traces of light. He saw as far as the bridge of his nose.
The footsteps ceased. He held his breath. He feared that if the murderer over his head heard the slightest stirring beneath him, he would crawl beneath the house with his bloody saw ready to kill again. It was better to let the stranger think he was dead.
The floorboards creaked. The man walked briefly, stopped, and then opened a cabinet, which creaked as if its rusty joints had not been disturbed for weeks. There was a ruffling sound. Plastic bags, he thought. Something fell into the bag with a loud thud directly over his face. Less than a foot stood between him and the bag, but the shroud of darkness was so profound that he might as well have been miles away.
He squinted. He could see the rim of his nostrils if he strained his eyes. Just like everyone else, the repairman heard that the other senses heighten to make up for a lost one. But he had never before been in a situation to experience the truth of the claim. As the night crept on and the darkness progressed, his vision left him completely. All that remained was the wet odor of the earth. Softer than a bird taking flight on the far end of a field, he heard the concrete footings shifting with a rasp.
When it seemed that it could get no darker, the front door opened. He could hear the
stranger dragging two heavy duty industrial bags across the porch. Then with a grunt of effort, he threw them over the side of the porch to a spot where Mrs. LaPenn put her trash.
Then footsteps fell heavy down the steps. He listened as they trailed off quietly through the gravel driveway and disappeared into silence. He waited for the sound of the stranger returning. There was only silence, terrible, crushing, heavy.
“How lonely,” he grumbled. “How fucking alone do you have to be to miss a killer!”
He forced his eyelids to stay open, resisting every blink. But why bother? The darkness around him had fallen over his face like a wet blanket. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or shut. Visions of bones breaking, of hands shattering beneath a hammer, of hot irons breaking through a skull, the foundations of the earth screaming as a face, a terrible, sickly face formed, wearing a look of sheer pain, alone in the churning magma at the center of the Earth rolled through the darkness in terrible lucidity.
These nightmare sights were interrupted only by the occasional sound, which tore the silence like a bullet. There was a rustle. “How close was that?” he asked. There were rats in the crawlspace. This was only logical. After all, why would there not be rats living beneath a house so close to the woods? It was a dry place, warmer than the frigid night outside. There couldn’t be a more hospital world for vermin.
Another rustle. This one was nearer than the first. Surely rats would be frightened by a grown man? Normally, yes. Any rat would be afraid of a man who could run or fight, who had the room to reach for a weapon. But why would a rat fear the repairman? He couldn’t even sit up. Even if he bawled his fist, where would he strike? His fist would land on the indifferent floorboards pinning him to the dirt. He had no room to fight. He had nowhere to flee.
More rustling. There were several of them. He listened to the scurrying and turning in the dirt, placing each sound around him. “There couldn’t be less than twenty of them,” he thought. That was a conservative estimate.
Then he heard a sound that would have been so small, so inconspicuous under normal conditions, even under normal conditions beneath a house. He heard squeaking. As it moved closer, he could hear the rats breathing. Fast, hyperventilating breaths, gasping every bit of available air for the small, heaving lungs.
Just as his sense of hearing was stimulated to the point of torture, he felt. For the first time since he drifted into this horrible world of sound, he felt something touch him. The beating fur of a rat brushed his face.
He screamed. His body writhed. The tears in his throat ripped as he let out one hoarse cry after another, thrashing every direction. He felt the skin of his nose tear on the floor. His blood smeared the floorboards.
The display of strength seemed to phase the rats. After all, rodents aren’t predators by nature. They are scavengers. They would wait until he finally passed out from dehydration to begin tearing into him.
He couldn’t remember how long he had been awake. He was unsure if he even was
awake then. The rat could have been nothing but a tactile hallucination. Just nerves, he assured himself.
His heart slowed. He breathed, totally indifferent to the grains of dust grating his empty lungs. Then, from nowhere, the sunrise overtook the night in a single instant. Just enough light came through the grates for him to see his nostrils, then the bridge of his nose. Soon he could even see a few inches forward. He saw the bloody prints left behind by his ragged knuckles. His blood and skin pressed into the wooden floorboards.
He made it through the night. He only needed to stay awake a little longer. That was, if someone would come by the house today. Maybe Mrs. LaPenn had a friend who came by in the mornings? That wouldn’t be unusual for a woman her age. He couldn’t remember how many times old women would drink tea on the porches adjacent to the houses he worked on. They were as much a part of the scenery as the birds or the carefully planted rows of trees on the sidewalk.
He heard birds outside. The sound was less intense, less immediate, than the scurrying and frantic breathing of the rats. His senses at last returned to some kind of equilibrium.
With the birds, there was another sound- tires. He nearly jolted upward, quickly
remembering the bare inches of space between his head and the floorboards. Still the sound of tires drew closer. Tires crunched the gravel underneath as the car came to a slow stop. He pictured the motions that must have accompanied the sound. Gears shifted into park. Shoes, one person, stepped out of the car.
He mustered his pull himself forward to the grate. His legs ached with exhaustion. He felt pinpricks light up his calves. His left foot ached, the pain coming in waves with every inch progressed.
“Help,” he coughed, then sputtered pathetically, “please.”
Through the space between his feet he saw a face lean up to the grate. It was a woman. Maybe a friend of the deceased?
“You were supposed to come tomorrow. I wish you had.”
What did she mean? How did she know why he was there to begin with? Unless she was the one who hired him!
“Oh, I really wish you hadn’t remembered my name.”
“That’s going to limit our options!” said a voice from the porch.
He recognized the voice. Male. It was the stranger who had been hacking away at
something inside. “So he hadn’t been dismembering Mrs. LaPenn!” he thought.
Then what, or who, was in those bags? They went inside. They argued about something.
He was certain he was the subject of their dispute. The words he caught slipping through the floorboards confirmed his intuition.
“He… we could…”
Whatever they were planning on doing to him, it wasn’t good. From the other side of the porch he caught the scent of decay. The smell was sweet, sickening like amusement park vomit. The shadows of early evening crept through the iron bars. He saw himself in an amusement park. It was noon. A ferris wheel shined against the sun. All around the assemblage of rides and booths were empty fields that went on for miles. The air was hot. His sweat sank into his cotton t-shirt. His mouth was a ball of cotton that grew larger and drier the more humid the air became, as if in sheer defiance.
At the base of his throat came the sickening smell of vomit. He wretched. Vomit poured all over his chest. He was back beneath the floorboards. The sun sat outside. It had been a sweltering day.
“Hadn’t it been cold yesterday?” he thought. Heat and cold, inside and outside, above and below, various oppositions of binary elements popped into his head one after the other. Then his train of thoughts hit a brick wall. Thirst.
He only cared about water. The pockets of saliva between his teeth were reservoirs of relief, but they ran dry as his tongue drained them away. His heart rate increased. His body was desperate to get the drying blood through his veins. His organs felt like stones.
With what was left of his strength he kicked at the grate. Someone came down the porch. A familiar face looked down at him with pity.
“I’m sorry about this.”
Before he could reply, she sprayed mace through the grates. The burning gas set his dried out eyes on fire. He tried to scream, but could only wheeze and cough. Worse than the burning was the drying out of his already desertified throat. His lungs shriveled.
While the darkness had been a blanket last night, it had turned into an eyeless, iron mask. The weight of it was unbearable. He remembered the bloodstains above him. They glowed on the back of his eyelids. They spoke in shrill voices.
The rats were around him. He was beyond the pain now. He didn’t care if they bit him. Without water, he would turn to dust. He felt halfway there already.
He saw himself laying there. His face was illuminated by an unseen source of light. His lips were cracked to the point of resembling knife wounds. His skin was yellow and pale. Then, as if carried along by the sweet stench of decay seasoned by the mace, his face blew away, and behind it was another face.
“You know what happened,” the face said. “You can not die.”
The face repeated the words, “you can not die,” again and again. Each repetition became more violent. The words hardened. The face’s expression changed from one of pleading desperation to one of rage. Bluish veins bulged from the temples as the expression distorted until it was no longer a human face at all, but something scaled, with a pig nose and cat eyes. White fangs flashed at him.
And then there was nothing at all. Deep within the bowels of the house was a groan. The bolts that held the gate over the entrance to the crawlspace were unscrewed. Someone pulled him out by the boots.
He was sat upright by an unseen person. Something stabbed his arm, which he realized was an IV needle. A cool rag was placed on his forehead.
“Here, drink this.” Someone placed a paper cup between his lips. Cool water burned the cuts in his lips and burned and froze as it trickled down his throat.
He felt his organs returning to life. The water seemed to wash a layer of dust away that had accumulated on his innards. His head spun. He was in an ambulance. Police lights lit up the house. He looked at the crawlspace and shuddered.
“When he’s ready, send him over to us.”
Who said that? That didn’t matter to the repairman. He took hold of the paper cup, which was set on the tailgate beside him. He drained the water. He felt as if he had passed years trapped beneath the house. It had only been two days.
After his head stopped throbbing and his voice returned, he stumbled from the tailgate of the ambulance. A paramedic pointed him towards a detective who was lighting a cigarette and watching the coroner begin to pull back the garbage bags to inspect their grizzly contents.
“I understand you wanted to talk to me.”
“You’re sure as hell right.” He blew smoke respectfully out of my direction. “You are the sole living witness to this thing. Could you identify a certain Mrs. LaPenn?”
He gestured towards a squad car where the old woman stared blankly out the window.
“Yes. I can. That’s her over there.”
“And I’d imagine you’d recognize that gentleman over there’s voice?”
The stranger, who was a tall man, bald as a cue ball with features disturbingly close to those of an infant, smiled.
“No. Who is he?”
“Mrs. LaPenn’s cousin. Jared LaPenn.”
“Had to be a distant cousin, right? He looks to be a lot younger than her.”
“Not that distant. And not that much younger, either. Mrs. LaPenn’s paternal aunt had him in 56’.” The policeman looked on cooly as they led the man into a car. “He was born one day after Charles Manson Junior. Isn’t that something?”
His tone struck the repair man as dismissive.
“Is he some kind of psycho or something?”
“He trapped you under there like that, right? Although, and please don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t think yours was the worst situation in that house.”
As the detective spoke, the coroner, too seasoned to scream, let out a groan. It struck the repair man as similar to the groans made by the creaking piers beneath the house. From one of the garbage bags, a mangled arm, the edges flayed terribly, a jagged bone jutting out like a yellowed knife, rolled onto the ground. The air smelled sweet.
“You’d be surprised, but Mr. LaPenn-.”
“Mrs. LaPenn kept her maiden name?”
The detective grinned. He dropped the cigarette to the ground, stomping out the lit end with the heel of his show.
“No. She was Mrs. Claybourne for years. That was until her husband went missing only a few weeks after their divorce. She soon married her current husband.”
“Yes, who is?”
“Why, Mr. LaPenn!”
He felt a sudden shock that dashed any remaining confusion from his head. He was sober enough for Saint Paul himself.
“Then who’s in those bags?”
The detective couldn’t contain his satisfaction any further. With a laugh, almost as smug as it was disgusted, said, “That was Mr. Claybourne.”
The repairman learned that the inheritance Mrs. LaPenn came into was from a relative of her husband’s, who willed that it should go to his most recent spouse in the event of his death.
The rest was cut and dry. Or cut and bagged, he thought. He’d earned the right to gallows humor. Mrs. LaPenn had killed her ex-husband in order to get the money and elope with her cousin-husband. Mr. LaPenn helped her to dispose of the body. The repair man had simply been there at the wrong time.
After he signed a statement, the repairman limped to his van. At least the broken toe was on his left foot. No. He stepped out of the car putting all his weight onto his right foot. Pain impaled his leg like an iron post. It couldn’t be! The pain was in his left foot! He shattered his left big toe. He knew it had been his left foot that he used to hammer the iron grate. His left, and only his left, toe shattered. He spent the night feeling the bones threading holes through his muscles like sewing needles. Why did his right foot, which he never kicked against the grates, sting with pain?
He got out of the van cautiously, careful not to shift any weight onto the toes of either foot. This caused him to lose his balance. He collapsed onto his driveway. Footsteps followed behind him. He looked over, by chance, to the side of his house.
“Oh, God! No!”
The grates were removed from his crawl space. Someone stood beside it. The repairman shuddered. He closed his eyes and listened for the rustling sounds of rats.
Bio: William Higgs III is a writer based in the Midwest. He writes crime, horror, and bizarro fiction. In addition to writing, William experiments with sound design and multimedia art.