The Cold Place

In Issue 60 by Connor Fineran

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Photo by Evannovostro at Shutterstock

When my parents disappeared, I didn’t understand at first. I always expected difficult things in my life to come later when I was prepared. But nothing could prepare me for what happened the day I found the hole under the couch.

It was September. I’d just started seventh grade. My parents were out running errands, so I did what anyone would do: I wandered around the house, bouncing a ball up and around everywhere that it could be bounced. Its bruised tie-dye always made me so happy. And the way it bounced! I could bounce it off anything, and I could catch it between my fingers. The living room was the best place for that, off the couch and against the wall, to Dad’s chair.

When the ball hit the chair, it sailed into the ceiling before rocketing behind the couch. I heaved the couch from the wall. I didn’t see my ball. There was a hole in the floor, about the size of a mousehole like the ones I’d seen at my grandparents’ house. Only it wasn’t chewed away or sawed. Just a clean, perfect little hole in the carpet, and a draft of cold air blowing out.

I peered inside, expecting to see the basement. But there was only darkness, thick and impenetrable, like a wall of ink. The afternoon sun shone brightly in the living room, but when I let it into the hole, it disappeared straight down. The draft I’d felt was closer, colder. It was January cold, the worst kind. A bitter, cruel chill that bit my cheeks and scratched my ears. I reached inside, my fingers curling and going numb. I headed into the basement, standing where the hole should’ve been. I saw only the basement ceiling.

***

When you’re a kid, the world feels as small as your house. There are your parents, there’s your school, and there’s your home street. The rest of the world may exist, but only on TV or in books. And your parents are the axis on which all of it turns. They’re your keepers, your protectors. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to be.

My dad wasn’t much for conversation. When I saw him during the week, it was after he’d come home from work. I’d be cloistered in my room doing homework and hear the garage door open. Then my mom would announce dinner and we’d eat together. All the while, he remained silent. Mom would pry at him, trying to provoke an answer, but we usually ate in silence. When I saw he wasn’t watching TV or hiding behind a newspaper, he gave me only a stern glower. Mom, on the other hand, needed to know everything. She worked occasionally but stayed home most of the week. When I came home from school, she was standing by the front door anxiously wringing her hands. She greeted me with “Why are you walking so hunched like that? Are you hurt?” and “It’s so cold outside. You should’ve worn a warmer coat. Do you have a warmer coat?” On and on it went. It was like she was interrogating me, desperately clawing for information which she had little use for.

There were many things I didn’t question then, even before I found the hole. As far as I knew, they did everything parents were supposed to: They gave me a bed, they made me meals, they sent me to school. I never questioned Dad’s stern silence or Mom’s nervous needling. I never questioned why they’d yell at each other. I assumed it was something everyone’s parents did. Their fights would come infrequently but consistent enough like a storm. The first time I realized it was happening was after we’d gotten home from eating out one night. I woke in the night to hear two screaming voices that sounded vaguely like my parents in the kitchen down the hall. I got out of bed, pressing my ear to the door. I caught fragments of it: Dad’s growling baritone yelling about work and money, Mom’s shrillness mentioning him and the house. Something crashed, and a door slammed. I watched outside my window as a car sped off into the night. Then, silence. I went to bed after that, faintly aware there were tears in my eyes. From then on, I picked up on the odd electricity in the air that preceded their fights. I noticed the way Dad’s glower was deeper than normal, or Mom’s tone was especially prickly. It was an almost preternatural skill.

When I saw other kids, I wondered if their parents fought like mine. I would see them with their parents and wonder why they looked so happy. I thought I was missing out on a great party or a secret that everyone else understood. I wanted to be included, to know what made the other kids so happy when they saw their parents. I wanted to ask them, but the thought of asking made the question disappear from my mind.

Another secret was the hole under the couch. This, I knew, was extraordinary. Holes went somewhere. Here was one that had no ending, just an entry. The immediate comparison was a black hole like what I learned in science class. But this hole didn’t draw anything into it. It simply sat in the floor. I tried to put its existence out of my mind, but my curiosity showed me otherwise. When my parents were absent, I moved the couch to check on it. I tossed pennies and rocks, listening for a bottom. I lowered a jump rope and even a broom handle inside. Again, no bottom. I wondered if my parents installed it as a lint disposal system or trash chute. But even that felt too simplistic an explanation. The hole’s existence was geometrically impossible, and yet there it sat under the couch. There were few things that made absolute sense to me at that age, but I knew this was one that had no answer. It was a solid immutable fact of my home and I accepted that.

***

School, to me, was an obligation. Like my parents, it was something I accepted as a part of my world like the sun or the moon. This included the other kids I saw every day. They, like my parents, operated in ways that made little sense to me. I think it was because I never spent much time with them. Every day since I’d started going to school on my own, I kept to myself. I would sit by myself on the bus while everyone else shouted and talked. When I went to class and the teachers wanted us to form groups, I would always want to work by myself.

There was one time in third grade when I had to choose partners for an art project. I sat at my desk, quietly reading a book while everyone else paired up or found groups of three. The teacher, Mr. Lindsay, walked over to me and knelt by my desk.

“We’re doing a group project, Adam. You need to find a group,” he said, his voice low.

I said nothing, eyes on my book.

“Adam? Can you hear me? You need to put the book down.”

I continued reading, trying to avoid eye contact.

“Adam—” He gently pulled the book down. He’d robbed me of my shield. Now I was exposed. I saw everyone staring at me. Mr. Lindsay’s frame, though kneeling, dwarfed everything in my vision. He almost resembled my father. “Adam. You need to pick a group,” he gently ordered. He turned to the rest of the class. “Is there anyone who wants him in their group?” he asked.

I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. I was shaking violently but hid it the best I could.

Finally, someone from the group near the door raised his hand. I took a pencil and sat down, sitting away from the group. One of them, a girl my age, looked me up and down with a puzzled expression. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, a hint of accusation in her voice.

Inside, I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted to tell her why my dad never wanted to talk to me. I wanted to ask her if her mom made her feel like she was defective. I wanted to ask her about the secret to everyone’s families, and if she’d teach me so I could show my parents and maybe they’d be like everyone’s else’s parents.

“I don’t know,” I replied in a small voice.

On my lack of friends, my parents didn’t notice. My dad didn’t say anything anyway. Mom told me, “Why aren’t you more outgoing? You should smile more.” I didn’t understand why I had no one. It was another fact I lived with. And I would bear in silence.

That is, until I met Brandon.

***

I didn’t notice him at first. My attention was always directed inward, away from the rest of the world and its potential hazards. Yet in the corner of my eye, just out of sight but always near me, was this boy about my age. We shared many classes, and as a result I wanted to sit closer to him as often as possible. He possessed an energy that was magnetic to me, almost seductive in its ability to command my attention. It came one day in English class in mid-September as we were taking our seats that I decided to sit next to this boy. What surprised me the most was his reaction at my arrival. Kids normally looked at me with curiosity and disdain, then they turned away. Not this one. He turned and smiled. “Hi!” he chirped. His smile was wide and warm. It seemed as if a ring of light emanated from his grin.

“Hello,” I said under my breath.

“Nice to meet you! I’m Brandon!”

“Adam…”

“Nice to meet you, Adam!” He grinned one last time before turning back to the lesson.

For the rest of class, we worked together, occasionally helping each other if we got stuck. It was a standard ritual between desk neighbors. But where there was my usual anxiety of betrayal or judgment, I felt none. We worked together, and that was that.

Lunch for me was always lonely. I made my own lunch, and when there weren’t leftovers from dinner, I had only a peanut butter sandwich with whatever fruit I could find. I realized long ago Mom wasn’t going to pack my lunch. It wasn’t her style as a parent, it seemed. I would sit alone, munching on my sandwich on the far side of a table in the cafeteria while conversation and fun bubbled around me. Then a familiar voice piped up. “Hi!” It was Brandon again.

I waved to him as he sat down.

“Looks like we keep meeting each other, huh?”

“Yes.”

“What’re you eating?”

I looked down at my sandwich. “Peanut butter.”

Brandon wrinkled his nose. “Just peanut butter? That sounds bleh.”

“It is,” I said in resignation.

“Then why are you eating it?”

“I don’t have anything else to eat. I just eat whatever I have.” I looked at his open lunchbox. “What’s that?”

“This? Ham and cheese with lettuce! And I got some grapes and a cookie!” The thought of anything better than peanut butter already wet my mouth. “Honestly, I’m kinda full.” He looked at me, then to his sandwich slice. “Do you want it?”

I nodded. He passed it to me, and I devoured it hungrily. It was so good, better than any lunch I had in a long time. I looked up to see his surprised face. “I think I really like ham.”

“You ate that like Godzilla!”

“Godzilla doesn’t eat things. That’s more like—” I rubbed my chin. “That’s more like the Alien.”

“Which one? The Xenomorph?”

“Yeah, that one!”

For the rest of lunch, we talked about monsters and movies. I told him about all the monster movies I watched when my parents weren’t home. Brandon did the same. We discussed the skills of the Predator against the malignancy of the Thing, whether the Godzilla of ’54 could beat the most recent incarnation. I expected that kids my age had no interest in stupid things like monsters. My parents, especially, turned their noses up at such trivial things, branding them a waste of time and energy. Yet here he was indulging my passion because it was his as well.

For the remainder of the month, we continued talking in class, at lunch, in the halls between. Our conversations drifted to other things: difficulty of homework, awful teachers, bathroom mishaps. The more we talked, the less I felt obligated to go to class. I didn’t want to do math, do English, or participate in physical education. I wanted to stay with Brandon and talk to him. Just talk, to connect. It was a beautiful feeling. Yet when conversation drifted to family, I diverted to something happier. To allow another into my private life was too dangerous. With hindsight, I realized that my mind was too tangled to truly explain all the experiences that were affecting me. If I were to tell him what I was going through, I needed something small. Not a door or a window.

“Does your house have a cold place, Brandon?” I asked one day at lunch. We were sitting together in our spot by the window.

“I think so. The basement’s pretty cold,” Brandon replied between taking bites out of his sandwich.

“No, a really cold place. Like—” I struggled to find the words— “like a place that’s deep and dark. And it’s so cold, like when you first turn on the shower cold. Like that.”

Brandon sat for a while, chewing carefully. His thoughts seemed timed with each bite he took. When he finally swallowed, he shook his head.

“Hmm,” I said wistfully.

Brandon blinked, then frowned. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

I knew he didn’t understand. How could he? Mine was a strange situation. I didn’t understand it myself. Others had their own experiences to draw from, never someone else’s. He didn’t live my life. I was merely the messenger.

***

“You wanna sleepover at my house?” Brandon asked one day. I didn’t know what to say at first. I’d never had one, but I’d heard of it. So, I said yes. “Awesome! Let’s do it Friday!”

Sleepovers for me were something I’d heard of all the time. They were these magical things where you stayed up all night and did whatever you wanted into the early morning. It was an occasion that friends held. This was not something I was used to, and that uncertainty scared me.

When I came home that night, I noticed one of the cars was missing from the driveway. I paid it no mind. Heading inside, Dad was sitting on the couch glowering at the TV. He held a green bottle that filled the room with a bitter smell. I’d seen Dad drink it before. He did it when Mom was out.

“Hey, Dad,” I said quietly. “How was your day?”

Dad said nothing. He took a swig from his bottle as the TV chattered.

I figured he was the best person to ask about the sleepover. Mom was too nervous. She’d find a reason to not let me go. I didn’t quite know how to form the question. This was something I knew I wanted. Would it catch in my throat?

“Dad—” I stammered. “My friend—” My heart pounded. A chill crawled up and down my spine. I could imagine his eyes under his furrowed brow, staring with that signature indifference. I shut my eyes, focusing on the question. “My friend from school asked if I could sleep over at his house Friday.” I opened my eyes again.

“And?” Dad answered.

I blinked, confused. “I was wondering if I could sleep over,” I said again, my tiny voice barely audible over the TV.

“Why are you asking me?” he mumbled.

“I’m supposed to?” I ventured.

“I don’t give a damn,” he said, taking another drink. “Do whatever you want.”

I could hardly believe it. I felt a rush of warmth followed by panic. What was supposed to happen now? I’d never done anything like this before. Several scenarios played out in my head as I headed to my room. What if Brandon turned on me? What if his parents turned out to be just like mine? Would our little friendship last after this?

When Friday came, I made sure to slip out when no one was paying attention. Mom was in the kitchen washing dishes and Dad was in his office. I announced I was leaving, but no one stopped me. I arrived at Brandon’s house down the street, pillow filled with pajamas and toothpaste in hand. I rang the doorbell with a shaking finger. I expected to see my own mother answer the door, or my father glowering with Brandon in tow.

Instead, someone different answered the door. She looked nothing like my mother. She was less decrepit and nervous, greeting me with a warm smile I immediately recognized. “You must be Adam! Come in.” I entered, and I felt a change in the air. The house was smaller, but there was warmth and comfort that my own house lacked. Brandon’s home was far kinder in color and feeling. “You can set your things on the couch,” she said, motioning to the family room. I obeyed her instructions.

As if queued, Brandon bounded downstairs, his eyes bright. “You made it!” he exclaimed, grabbing me for a big hug. I welcomed it.

“Hold on, cowboy, let him settle first,” Ms. Hearth said, rubbing his shoulder.

I smiled meekly. “So…what do you do at a sleepover?” I asked.

“You mean you’ve never had one before?!” Brandon asked, eyes wide in shock.

I shook my head.

“Well, a sleepover is a cool thing where boys can watch movies and play games together, while under supervision,” Ms. Hearth said.

“No, they’re not!” Brandon protested.

“They are too,” his mother replied, ruffling his hair. “But first, dinner. How does spaghetti and meatballs sound?”

***

Eating at another person’s table was a strange experience to me. I’d done it only twice before when I visited my grandparents, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember the details. We’d driven a long way, three hours I think, to a small house where I stayed in an unfamiliar place that smelled of mothballs and hand soap. My grandparents were on my mother’s side, I think, because when we ate dinner, it sounded too much like how Mom spoke to me. I needed only to hear “Why aren’t you trying hard to make it work?” or “Why can’t you try having another child?” to know the situation was no different than it was at home. Dad remained silent as he always did, and I sat in silence.

I barely made a sound, watching Ms. Hearth and Brandon for any changes to their behavior. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself or disturb the peace. I did have one request, but a familiar fear rose in my throat. The part of me that was still stuck at home had every reason not to ask for it, but the part of me in the present had no reason to fear. “Pass the cheese?” I asked gently.

Ms. Hearth quickly snatched the cheese shaker from her side of the table and placed it beside me.

I gingerly took it. “Thank you,” I replied.

As we continued eating, questions swirled in my head like fall leaves. This family was beyond what I imagined. He had only his mother, yet she treated him nicely. When I looked at her, I didn’t feel resentment, anger, or anxiety. This was an enigma. I had to know why. “Where’s your dad?” I blurted to Brandon.

They both stopped eating. A gulf of silence opened, and I sat in the middle of it nervously twirling a noodle in my fork.

“Before Brandon was born, his dad and I didn’t get along too well,” Ms. Hearth said finally, her expression solemn. “We split up, and now I take care of Brandon.”

The expression on her face made me instantly regret my comment. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay, you didn’t know. It’s a hard lesson to learn at any age, right?” she said to both me and Brandon. He nodded.

“You take care of Brandon by yourself?”

“I ask for help when I need it, but it’s just us against the world for now,” she answered. “We’re doing pretty good, I think.”

I’d heard of this before: Divorce. This severance of mother and father that other kids mentioned in passing. “Why did it happen?” I asked, curious.

Ms. Hearth shrugged. “Sometimes adults just don’t get along. Other times one of them isn’t being nice to the other and they both need space. There’s a lot of reasons why people divorce. It’s hard, but sometimes it’s the best option.” She pointed to Brandon. “I was worried about him and only him when I left his dad. I’d never let anything happen to him, ever. Right?”

Brandon nodded again.

“What are your parents like?” Brandon asked.

My mouth ran dry. To explain felt insurmountable, like counting sand in a desert. Of all they’d shared with me, I knew I couldn’t show that part of me. How could I even describe the intangible menace I felt in my own home?

“They’re okay.” I lied.

The discussion returned to lighter topics like plans for Christmas break and the newest Godzilla film due out next summer. After dinner, we watched a movie while sharing a bowl of popcorn. After the movie, we retired to the basement. Instantly I recognized a difference: This basement, though smaller than mine, had finished walls with a full carpet. I found it strange. I always imagined the basement as this uncanny place, the dark underbelly of the house. This was a welcome change. The basement had a couch and a TV. It resembled a smaller family room instead of the cold warehouse of my basement. While Ms. Hearth was setting up makeshift beds on the couch, I wandered over to below the family room about where the couch was located. I saw no hole. But I was still suspicious.

Later still, after we should’ve gone to bed, we stayed up jumping through channels of late-night TV. The thrill of disobeying our sleeping curfew was matched only by the sheer exhaustion we felt after three hours of it. There’s a sensation of almost cyclical insanity that comes from watching leftover movies and assorted programming playing on late-night television. Sleep truly was a release at that point.

A sudden chill woke me in the middle of the night. Brandon was snoring lightly beside me. I stared through the ceiling, looking through it to the family room above. My suspicion was too great to ignore.

I got out of bed, quietly heading upstairs. I had to satiate my curiosity. I had to know what was under their couch. In the dim light of the early morning, I carefully moved the couch away from the wall.

There was only carpet tangled with dust and a spare penny. No impenetrable darkness of a cold hole.

***

My mind was blank the next morning. Even waking to the unfamiliar but welcome smell of pancakes didn’t stop me from thinking about my discovery last night. It just didn’t make sense. What did this incongruity mean? This house was complete, without holes, obvious or otherwise. Brandon and his mother weren’t my parents. They were warm, inviting. I wanted to stay here and spend the rest of the day with Brandon. But my time was temporary. I would have to return home.

After breakfast, I packed my things and got dressed. Brandon met me at the door. “Did you have fun?” he asked.

“I did. Thanks for inviting me,” I replied.

“Awesome.” Brandon gave me a quick hug. “Let’s walk together.” He motioned outside.

I obliged, heading down the street to my house. We were three houses away. The October air was chilly but pleasant. Stray breezes kicked leaves into the air. We passed one house, and I decided to ask him. “Brandon, does your house have a hole?”

“A hole?” He cocked his head, confused.

“My house has a hole. It’s under the couch, but it goes nowhere. Like a tiny cave. And it’s really cold.”

“That’s weird. Do you know where it goes?”

I shook my head.

“Did you ask your parents about it?”

“No.”

“That sounds important. I think you should ask your parents about it.”

“They wouldn’t understand.”

“They’re your parents! That’s what they’re supposed to do!” Brandon exclaimed, shocked.

I was about to respond, but we’d already passed the other two houses. We stood in front of my house, and my mother was at the door with arms crossed. Her eyes were daggers, yet the rest of her face feigned disappointment. “Hello, sweetie,” she said, venom hidden in sugar. The sound froze my blood.

“Oh, hi!” Brandon waved. “I’m Brandon! I live down the street! We were just getting back from a sleepover!”

“I can see that,” Mom said with a fake smile. Immediately she looked at me. “Get inside.”

I desperately wanted to stay away, but her eyes were too frightening to ignore. “Bye, Brandon.”

“I’ll see you later!” He walked away, waving to me. “Let’s do this again!”

“Not if I can help it,” I heard her mutter as she led me inside. As I entered, she pointed to the couch. “Sit down, now.” I obeyed. She stood over me, staring down like a hawk. “Explain yourself. What were you doing at his house?”

I was silent, confused and a bit defiant. I avoided her gaze.

“Answer me.” She leaned closer.

“What did I do?” I said through shut lips.

“You were out all night. I was worried sick. I thought you were dead. Do you know what that feels like? To think your own child is dead? Do you have any idea what you did to me?”

“Dad said I could—”

“Your father is a damned idiot!” she screeched suddenly. I jumped, inching back. She closed in on me, eyes alight with rage. “I can’t believe you listen to him! What about me? What about how I feel?”

I tried to speak, but Mom’s anger stole the air from my lungs.

“You are forbidden from seeing that boy again! Do you hear me? You are forbidden from seeing him again!” She continued squalling. Hot tears welled in her eyes.

“But he’s my friend!”

I DON’T CARE!” she roared. “You will never see him again!” She stomped off to her room. I heard a slam, then sobbing. I sat in shock on the couch, a cold breeze climbing up my back.

Back in school the following Monday, I could barely look at Brandon. I was terrified that my mother would smite me for my insubordination. When I passed him in the hall or saw him in class, I looked away. His normally kind expression fell in dismay. When he approached me, I shrank away from him. I couldn’t bear that I’d ruined our friendship.

Mom and Dad’s arguments were far more intense now. From what I made out through the walls of my room, Mom called Dad an “idiot” and a “horrible bastard of a father,” while Dad retaliated with “then stuff him back in your womb. He’ll survive.” After which, their words would become incomprehensible. Something would crash, and doors would slam. I lay back in bed, feeling responsible. I wished there was something I could do to make them stop, but I knew better.

It was around that time that I noticed the draft blowing through the house. At night it was more noticeable. The house was always chilly, but this chill was different. On nights when I couldn’t fall asleep, it dug into my scalp and froze my bones. It was a raw, angry chill I couldn’t weather even while wearing blankets or socks or sweaters to bed. November had come, and yet this cold felt more akin to a brutal January cold. An angry winter’s breath was loose in my house. I tried to carry on as normal, as the outside weather justified my heavy clothes. Kids at school whispered at my large winter coats in class, but I didn’t care. Whatever heat I could salvage from the outside world helped me back home.

I recognized this cold. But I only felt it up to my wrist a month ago. I knew it had something to do with the hole. So, when my parents were out of the house one afternoon, I heaved the couch from the wall. The hole was still there, as expected. When I last saw it, it was about the size of a mousehole, large enough to fit my hand. But that was over a month ago. Now it was big enough to fit my arm. The cold wafted in my face like arctic wind, biting and sharp. I could see down farther now. The sides were sheer hewn stone, like concrete or marble. The darkness, too, was easier to see. It held an almost physical quality, like the cold. Where the cold was sharp and needlelike, the dark was a shapeless mass with a will of its own. A flashlight from under the kitchen sink barely cut through it, only for it to dissipate. I found a stray penny on the carpet and tossed it down. It ringed as it hit the sides of the hole, but otherwise disappeared out of sight and sound.

Over the next couple of days, I watched the family room when I entered the house, watching for the darkness growing under the couch. Every time I had a moment alone, I would move the couch to check on the hole. Using the back of the couch for reference, I eyed the hole’s growth. The first week of November had arrived, and the hole was now nearly the full length of the couch itself. So large, in fact, that the hole was now visible. The couch’s ends still stood on solid ground but only just, as the middle dangled over darkness. The cold was far worse now, blowing from a hole that only grew larger and larger. Against all my past experience, I hoped the knowledge of this change in our house would reach my parents. I couldn’t be the only one witnessing it.

I was so foolish to trust them.

By the second week of November, the couch had disappeared, the hole removing a considerable portion of the family room. I was barricaded in my room bundled in sweaters and coats doing homework when a deep shout echoed through the walls. “Where the hell’s the couch?”

“I don’t know, where you left it!” Mom yelled back.

“Don’t pull that with me! You got rid of it, didn’t you?”

“Maybe I did!”

“You know, you’re a real piece of work doing this to me! I work, I give you money for you and that pussy kid, and you do this to me! You have no respect for me!”

“I never did!”

“I pay the bills around here, I give you money for all your junk, I paid for the kid’s crap! I can leave whenever I want, and then what? You’ve got nothing!”

You told me to keep him! You got me pregnant! You did that!”

“Yeah, ‘cause you were a whore then! The only reason you’re not on welfare like a whore is because of me!”

On one hand, now I knew why my father never talked to me. That didn’t stop me from crying that night.

As the month wore on and I continued trying to pretend they would see the hole, I would pass Brandon at school. I expected him to hate me, to look away as I did. Instead, he nodded at me with a sad smile. There was no anger in his eyes, only a deep sadness of betrayal. That stung me most of all. It was that revelation when I realized a truth I’d buried inside. It was a feeling I’d possessed yet could not find words for. Meeting Brandon and meeting his small family, so full of joy and love, made me realize a truth almost heretical: I hated my parents. I hated Dad’s scowling silence. I hated Mom’s shrill nagging and her contagious nervousness. I hated their arguments and how predictable and trivial they were. I hated that we never had guests, that we never went anywhere, that we had nothing in our stupid cavern of a house except the sheer contempt and venom spitting from these two miserable people pretending to be my parents. And yet I knew my anger was useless. My discovery was too late to matter.

By the beginning of the second week of November, the hole had taken most of the living room. Where the couch had been, there was now only the hole. There was still the TV, a few armchairs, and a table. The walls of the hole were visible now. They were an ashen concrete color, perfectly cut and hewn. For an unnatural formation, their deliberate construction was disturbing to me. Of course, I was the only one who noticed, and when I brought it to my dad’s attention as he was preparing to sit and watch TV, he glowered at me and said, “What hole?” In the remaining weeks, I watched as the hole grew and grew, silently expanding ever larger across the floor. First the armchairs disappeared, then the table followed. Then one day I came home from school to find the TV had disappeared, the hole now the entire size of the family room.

December arrived sooner than expected. The neighborhood was lit in red and green and blue, the vivid lights of celebration in full bloom. The streets were dusted with ice and snow, making the walk to the bus stop slippery. Our corner of the street looked as dark as the hole. The façade of the house hid the growing emptiness. By this point, the hole was expanding beyond the family room into the kitchen. There was the barest bridge of the floor left at the front door now. There was a tiny lip of the floor leading to the kitchen and the bedrooms, leaving a small bridge along the wall. I had to shimmy along the wall, after tossing my backpack across the gaps. The kitchen was half swallowed, but a sizable amount of floor remained. Any usable chairs were collected in the corners of the room.

The night of December 14th was the last night I saw my parents in any state. We were gathered in the kitchen, eating what we’d had for the last three months: takeout. The fridge, stove and oven had fallen into the hole. We sat on spare chairs in the remaining corner of the room. For a while we ate in silence, an empty wind blowing soundlessly through the house. The hole seemed to watch us eat, waiting for something to happen. I finished first, tossing my food and Styrofoam into the hole, watching it tumble down into the dark. My chair grunted as I sat up to leave.

“Where are you going?” my dad demanded gruffly.

“To my room, where else?”

“You aren’t going anywhere. You wait until we’re all done with dinner.”

It was here I realized I was at a crossroads. Two possible avenues: I accepted this situation and conceded to the inevitable bleak outcome, or I would do something about it in some small way. What’s the worst they could do that wasn’t happening already? “I’m going to my room,” I said, shaking but stern.

Dad stood up with a start, snapping to full height faster than I’d ever seen any man do. He towered over me. Mom sat on the side, eating her dinner in her lap. “What did you say?” he growled, leaning closer. “Are you being smart with me?”

“Yes,” I said, looking him directly in the eyes.

“Listen to me—” He violently grabbed my wrist, yanking me to the floor and pulling me up again. Pain flashed in my wrist, springing tears I tried to hide. “Are you listening to me?”

I said nothing.

He scoffed mirthlessly. “You think you’re so big to mouth off to me? You think that makes you a man? Remember one thing, bud.” He pulled me over to the hole. I made a pleading look at Mom, who merely shook her head disapprovingly. “If you ever, and I mean ever think about acting like a fool to me again, you’re going in there, understand?” He dangled me at the edge. He could’ve tossed me in with a flick of his wrist, but miraculously he resisted. “Do you hear me, boy?” he repeated, voice harsher.

“Yes,” I answered quietly. His grip was so tight I could barely speak through the pain.

“Good.” He grunted, dragging me back to the chairs. He released his grip. “Now stay.”

I obeyed for the remainder of the meal. When my parents had thrown their garbage in the hole, I went as fast as I could across the small bridges to my bedroom, shutting and locking the door. I sat on my bed, arms wrapped tightly around my knees. I rocked back and forth while tears silently flowed down my cheeks. My wrist, red and bruised, pulsed with every quickened heartbeat. My attempt at rebellion yielded bitter results, for now I knew my parents’ true faces. There were truths I expected but was not prepared for, and this was one of them. I knew I couldn’t stay here. I had to run away. The other part of me, still tied to my life here, made me question where I’d go. It was winter. I wouldn’t get far in the snow.

Then I realized I had somewhere. A sanctuary down the street. I packed my most valuable possessions, mainly some books and a favorite stuffed animal, and all the clothes I could carry. The only way was through my window. There was no way I was leaving along that hallway ever again. I threw open the window, frigid but natural cold hitting my face. I stood at the threshold for a long moment, fully comprehending what I was about to do.

I jumped through and was down the street in an instant.

“Adam, what are you doing here?” Ms. Hearth exclaimed when she answered the door. She was dressed in pajamas. Brandon was behind her, looking puzzled. “Oh my God, what happened to your wrist?” Even her gentle touch stung.

I had to tell her and Brandon or take this to my grave. “A hole.”

“A hole?”

“There’s a hole in my house. My Dad, he grabbed me. You see?” I brandished my wrist. “He grabbed me. Mom didn’t want me to see Brandon again. She yelled at me about it, and Dad wanted to throw me in the hole. It’s all over the floor, it goes nowhere. The hole’s so cold. It’s so cold—” The words wouldn’t stop. Like a faucet left on, they spilled out with little end in sight. Only when Ms. Hearth pulled me inside did I slow down.

“Adam,” she said, hands on her shoulders. Her eyes were full of concern. “Calm down. It’s okay. You’re safe now.” I saw Brandon coming closer. He had his mother’s eyes, in every sense. “You’re safe.” She kept repeating that as she embraced me, with Brandon joining. We held each other for a while until my heart stopped pounding. I never wanted to leave the embrace, but inevitably it ended. “We’re going over there together, okay? All of us are going there and we’re going to talk to your parents.”

I shook my head. “You can’t.”

“Yes, we are. Together.”

“They’re gone,” I said gravely.

It took more coaxing, but I finally agreed to join them as we headed down the street towards my house. I stayed close to Brandon, and his mother held onto me. We passed my mailbox, heading up the driveway. There was no house. There wasn’t even a car in the driveway. There was only a bare spot of concrete, slowly being covered in snow.

***

I retreated within myself, even as the therapists and social workers and journalists pecked at my mind. Nothing I could tell them would make them understand. I didn’t understand. But I was far away at that point.

I stayed with Brandon in the time between the local authorities and Brandon’s mother researched what was to be done with me. I found out years ago my parents had written out a will, but there was no inheritor ever named. No family members, close friends, even godparents. Not that it would have mattered. Any wealth they had disappeared with the house. In the weeks after their disappearance, we waited for any additional parties to emerge to claim guardianship. December turned to January, then to February. No one came. All the while, I remained in the spare room of Brandon’s home, locked away from the world and its ilk. That is where I wanted to stay. A cold dark place from which I would never leave. A part of me hoped my own hole would appear to take me to my parents to wherever they were now. It would’ve been familiar.

Brandon and his mother stayed with me the whole time. Then one day, they came into my room to announce they’d officially adopted me. With time, I felt myself thaw. There was a candle in that dark place, flickering but warm and bright. I knew for certain, for the first time, I wasn’t alone. The years that followed made the fire burn brighter. I finally understood that secret the other kids knew.

And yet, that cold never went away. It happens when I’m least expecting it, the cold returning. I’m careful with what I say around people. I saw Dad’s glare in others’ eyes, his hand on my face in a gentle caress. I heard Mom’s chittering in gentle jokes. The cold inhabited moments of doubt and solitude. In those times when the future felt most uncertain, I remembered the cold place and its whispering chill on my neck. I see my parents in that dark place, watching and waiting for me to join them.

Sometimes I drive down that street, where my home used to be. The mailbox is different, and so is the house number. There’s a new house there, open for viewing for potential buyers. People go in and out, but no one’s bought it yet. It sits with the others, with their template designs and tiny manicured lawns.

I’m tempted to head inside, just to see if anyone found a hole.

About the Author

Connor Fineran

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I've been a lifelong literature and writing lover. I was heavily involved in the Undergraduate English Society at my alma mater George Mason University, where I submitted fiction for peer review as well as providing feedback to others. Currently, I am a member of the Reston Writers Review, a group of writers based in the Loudoun County area of Northern Virginia.