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Short Story: Subterranean

Hello.  I come bearing a short story.  I haven't posted this on webook.com yet, as I'm hoping to do at least another round of revision before that.  I would really appreciate any kind of feedback.  Please tell me what I'm doing wrong!  I can take it.

Title: Subterranean (I keep changing the title--any suggestions would be welcome)
Rating: PG-13
Genre: general fiction, slightly surreal
Word Count: about 3500
Disclaimer: All characters and content are created by me and belong to me.  They are not for sharing.
Feedback: Any constructive criticism is welcome (brutal honesty accepted and appreciated).  I would love to know what this makes you think/feel/wonder/want/etc.  

Subterranean

Stephen sat at his kitchen table and unfolded his newspaper, enjoying the feel of the crisp pages.  He sipped his coffee and glanced over the headlines on the front page.

“Dismal,” he said, and went off in search of brighter prospects in the Business section.

As he was going through the pages, movement caught his eye and he looked over the top of the paper to see an unfamiliar figure in his backyard.

One minute and forty-five seconds later, Stephen was storming out his back door, in his bathrobe and his good shoes for work – the only pair he’d found at hand.  He came to a stop beside the figure and waited with a carefully crafted icy glare.  The stranger, with thin brown hair draped limply over the tanned skin of his face and neck, continued what he was doing, not acknowledging Stephen’s angry silence.

“Excuse me, mister,” Stephen said finally, even more infuriated now that his angry silence had been ignored.

The other man still did not pause.

“Excuse me, you’re – would you please – oh for Pete’s sake, what in the name of god are you doing in my backyard?”

“Digging.”  The figure grunted as he continued shoveling.

“Yes, well, I can see that.  What I’d like to know is why!”

The other man gently deposited a shovel full of dirt on Stephen’s good work shoes.

“I – you – get the bloody hell off my property!”

The other man finally ceased his digging.  “If it bothers you so much, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” he said with a shrug.  He climbed out of the hole he’d created, rested one end of his shovel on his shoulder, and let himself out the side gate, all the while whistling a jaunty tune.

Stephen glanced in bewildered dismay from the six-foot-deep hole in his neatly mowed yard to his filthy shoes.

What a way to start off the week.  Well, he thought with a sigh, at least it can’t get any stranger.

He briefly considered calling someone (the police, perhaps) but decided against it.  As his father had once told him, a man wasn’t a man if he couldn’t solve his own problems (and nothing good ever came from throwing yourself at someone else’s mercy, his dad had added to the saying in later years).  Besides, Stephen was going to be late for work.  He resolved to forget the strange incident and concentrate on real life.

When Stephen went to bed on Monday night he succeeded in banishing all thoughts of the be-shoveled trespasser from his weary mind.  After a night of deep sleep, he blinked awake at 7:00 am, trudged into the kitchen in his bathrobe and bare feet, and made himself a cup of coffee.  After retrieving the Tuesday paper from his front doorstep, he settled into his routine of coffee, breakfast, and skimming the daily pages.  Until, once again, movement in the backyard caught his attention.  Stephen rose from his chair, carefully placing his coffee mug in the sink before going to investigate.

Thirty five seconds later, he stormed out the back door in his bathrobe and bare feet (his good work shoes were at the cleaners), desperate to get to the bottom of this.

“You there!” he said.  “Stop what you’re doing right now!”

The digging man, after one more shovelful, did stop, planting his shovel in the earth and folding his arms over the top of it, turning to face Stephen with a broad smile.

“Morning!” he said. 

Stephen found his cheer offensive.  “I thought I made myself clear.”

“Oh, perfectly,” the man said.  He shoveled one more time, than rested his shovel against his shoulder and once again let himself out, whistling the same jaunty tune.

It was only after the strange man departed that Stephen glanced down at the hole and found to his great surprise that it was significantly shallower than before.

Stephen went to work that day (in his second-best shoes) but found himself constantly distracted.  For once he had an intriguing story to tell, a puzzle to share, but sitting in his cubicle he had no one to share it with.

He thought idly that that was what friends were for.  Then he shrugged away his thoughts of the mysterious trespasser and allowed the four-by-four cubicle of desk, computer, pens and papers to consume his day.  And Tuesday night he only lay in bed a short while before drifting off to sleep.  He dreamed though, a dim slideshow of shouts, crashes, slamming doors and the silences that echoed afterwards.  The specifics were lost to him when he woke, and he felt only slightly melancholy as the last vestiges of sleep faded away.

7:05 am found Stephen standing on his front stoop, in his bathrobe and bare feet, picking up the morning paper.  He turned to step back into his house, but his daily routine stuttered and stopped of its own accord.  He stepped away from the screen door and walked through his neatly-mown front yard and around to the side gate.  It stood open, and through it he could see the bent back of the strange digging man.

The man continued digging, muscles bunching and working under the worn flannel shirt, as Stephen approached and came to stand beside him.  His eyes followed the movement of the shovel, in and out, down and up, scooping up the dirt and tossing it into the pile just to the side of Stephen’s bare feet.  Once again, the hole seemed to have shrunk overnight.

“I feel as though I should thank you,” Stephen said, his voice stiffened by the uncomfortable attempt to be warm, “for filling in the hole.  Though you dug that hole, so I can’t really be grateful.”

For the first time in their brief acquaintance, the digger looked puzzled.  So puzzled that he even ceased his work to face Stephen.  “I’m not filling it in,” he said.  “Are you alright?”

Stephen was startled by the question, and by the curious wrinkle of the other man’s brow.  “I – oh – yes, I suppose so.  Thank you,” he said.  Then he remembered himself.  “I mean – whatever it is you’re doing in my backyard, would you kindly desist?”

The man glanced down at the hole, then back up at Stephen.  He shrugged.  “I suppose so.  See you later!”

Stephen stared after the man as he calmly let himself out, then gazed at the space he had left behind.  Stephen inched closer to the freshly overturned earth, peering in.  It looked like a dirt hole.  Glancing surreptitiously around him, Stephen carefully set one foot in the hole, his toes lightly pressing into the soil.  It felt like a dirt hole.  But Stephen had never experienced anything like this.  Could the dirt hole, then, be something extraordinary?

Stephen hoped not.  The whole affair was too messy for his liking.

With only a small amount of trepidation, he immersed himself in the comfort of his daily routine, finishing his breakfast and cleaning himself up, staring into the bathroom mirror as he carefully combed his thin brown hair.  Soon enough he was situated in the familiar context of his cubicle.  Nothing interesting ever happened on his computer screen, beyond the occasional spreadsheet mix-up, and the closest thing to interesting on the telephone was when an irate consumer hung up on him.  After his first such call of the day, Stephen stretched and headed towards the water cooler.  Nothing extraordinary ever happened in this space, Stephen mused as he sipped on the cool water and calmly surveyed the office. 

He drew in a deep breath, concentrating on the sounds of keyboards, pencils, and low voices.  After just a moment of silly sentimentality, Stephen discarded the paper cup in the waste basket and made his way back through the sea of private desk spaces.

He took his lunch at his desk, meticulously sweeping the crumbs into the trash when he was through, and then wiping down the surfaces with antibacterial wipes.  He worked straight through until closing, and almost drifted off on the metro as he rode home.  When he was once again safely ensconced in his own space, Stephen set to warming up a pre-made meal and watching his daily dose of TV news.  When the reporters spoke of the war overseas, Stephen’s thoughts strayed, of their own accord, to the framed photograph of his father, resplendent in his dress uniform, looking younger and prouder than Stephen ever remembered him.  The picture hung on the wall behind him, and for a moment he imagined that his father was watching him.  But he knew the expression in the photograph well, and knew also that his father had never looked at him that way, not since he came back from the war to a boy he didn’t recognize and a wife he didn’t understand.

Stephen fell asleep on the couch, waking later in the night with great chagrin.  He had not fallen asleep anywhere other than his bed in years, and could only attribute this strange fatigue to the unpleasantly taxing excitement he’d been subjected to the last few mornings.  His life had not been so emotional since his childhood, since those days when his mother would rant and cry and throw fits that only drove his father further into the hole he was digging for himself.  But Stephen didn’t like to dwell on ancient history, so he picked himself up off the couch and settled down in his proper place for the remainder of the night.

He was subjected to that same excitement again on Thursday morning.  Still tired from the previous evening, he was running a little late and didn’t make it out of his bedroom until after 7:00.  But by 7:15 he was in the backyard, verbally abusing the digger who merely stood quietly, looking bemused.

“What are you doing here?  Why –” Stephen’s voice cracked on the high decibels, and he took a deep breath before trying again.  “Why are you digging in my backyard?”  In the wake of the outburst, Stephen felt as though he were deflating, and could summon neither the words nor the energy to engage with this stranger any longer.

“Can’t you see?” the man said.

The stranger, having climbed out of his hole, stood now on even ground and Stephen noticed for the first time that he was staring directly into the other man’s eyes.  He scowled and glared down into the hole.

Before Stephen could recover his beleaguered wits, the stranger had said so long and departed in his nonchalant fashion.  Almost a full sixty seconds later, Stephen rallied sufficiently to pursue the man, but when he came around to the front of the house, there was no sign anyone out of the ordinary had been there.  Stephen was furious – and confused – by the whole affair, and further infuriated by the fact that he was confused.  Stephen despised such fierce, uncontrollable emotions, but at that very moment he was caught firmly in the grasp of just such an emotion or two. 

He stormed into the house and yanked the telephone off the wall, punching in 9-1-1 and then waiting impatiently for the connection.

“Yes – hello – I’m calling to report a crime.  Trespassing and – and destruction of property!”

The woman on the other end asked him to calm down and please explain just what had transpired.  Stephen tried to do both, and had little success with either.  Regardless, the woman promised that someone would investigate.

Stephen waited in his house for the police to come.  He situated himself in the living room after calling his boss and saying he would be late.  His boss did not ask why.

Stephen waited in his front room for two hours, pacing periodically before his father’s watchful gaze, until the doorbell finally rang and he eagerly showed the officer the damage done to his backyard.

“Has he made any threats to your person?” the detective said.

“Well, no.”

“And he leaves every day when you confront him?”

“Well, yes.”

“And you can’t identify him?”

“Well, no.”

The officer sighed and, after taking down a few notes, stuck the pad in his pocket and turned around to leave.

“Wait,” Stephen said.  “That’s it?  What should I do?”

“You want my advice?” said the officer.  “Put up a ‘no trespassing’ sign.  That oughta scare him off.”

For the second time that morning, Stephen was left standing in his backyard, barefoot and be-robed, staring unhappily at the space where someone had been.

He did not go to work, passing the entire day in his yard and his house, doing what amounted to nothing.  He rose early the next morning, intent on confronting the strange man without being late to work.  The police had been useless, though Stephen had fastened a homemade “NO TRESPASSING” sign to the gate.

Since his perennial trespasser was digging away when Stephen stepped outside at 6:55, the officer’s advice was, apparently, good for nothing.  Stephen should have known better.

“Hello,” the man said.  He did not stop digging while Stephen marched across the lawn.  The hole appeared to be little over a foot deep. 

Stephen was not to be deterred.  “Who are you?”

The man shrugged, pausing momentarily to drag his sleeve over his sweat-soaked brow.  “Dunno,” he said.  “Who are you?”
Stephen gaped.  “That’s – that’s just not an acceptable answer!”

The man frowned slightly, as though in deep thought.  “I give people what they want.  A way out, usually.  Like an EXIT sign, or the period at the end of a sentence, or the last chapter of a book.”

Stephen took a deep breath that was supposed to be soothing but wasn’t really, and straightened his spine.  Taking great care to keep his tone level, he said, “I want you to leave now.”

The man hopped out of the shallow hole.  “Alright then.”  And he left.

Stephen tried to feel pride, vindication, but he couldn’t quite muster the emotion as he watched the stranger amble out of sight.  As he sat on the metro on his way to work, he tried to work out his uncharacteristically complicated state of mind, but the knot of emotions proved too complex to untangle on his own.  Staring at the blank surfaces of his cubicle, Stephen realized what he needed.  Shuddering slightly, Stephen bit back his nerves as he pondered how best to obtain his mythic grail: a listening ear and maybe, just maybe, a shoulder upon which to lean.

Stephen appraised the situation: other cubicles were off limits, as was the conference room, but sometimes people gathered by the water cooler.  One woman was there now, filling up a plastic bottle.  Stephen sauntered over.  He had never sauntered before in his life, but figured that it was the day for trying new things.  He reached his destination just as the woman straightened and began screwing the cap back on her bottle.

“Hello,” Stephen said.

“Hi.”

“I’m Stephen.”

“Rachel,” she said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“I, uh, I’ve never done this before.”

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Oh, okay.”

Rachel walked back to her desk.  Stephen remained by the water cooler although he was not thirsty.  After he’d been there for nearly twenty minutes, no one else had approached, and his knees were beginning to seize up.  Defeated, Stephen returned to his customary place.  So there would be no assistance coming from the coworker corner.  Well, he decided that perhaps he had been foolish to expect something so sentimental from people who were, after all, strangers. 

In retrospect, Stephen decided as he returned to work, the whole thing had been ridiculously rash.  He would have to sleep on it before he took any further action.

And he did sleep on it, though not well.  As it was Saturday, he slept on it until nearly 8:00.  He did not bother with coffee or breakfast when he woke, choosing instead to get straight to the point.  He walked outside (he was too tired to storm) and stood in front of the man and his hole until the stranger lowered his shovel and looked up to face Stephen.

“Hello!” said the man.

Stephen did not understand the man’s seeming enthusiasm.  He felt too drained to muster much anger, not even a proper show of rage.  “You keep digging,” he said, voice dull and weary.  “You keep digging and digging and it feels like, I don’t know, but my whole life – nothing, there’s nothing left but you, you and your fucking shovel.  You’re always here, always digging, just out of my sight.  But I don’t want to see it!  I don’t want to see you, and every time I do I want you to leave!”

“Then I will,” the man said with a nod.

Oh.  “Good,” Stephen said.

The man stepped away from the hole – not even a proper hole today, just a few inches deep, though it was still long and wide.  He set the shovel against one shoulder and turned away, beginning to whistle.  “Be seeing you!” he called over his shoulder.

Stephen stared down into the hole, looking at the dark earth, the disturbed grass, and the occasional worm burrowing through the mess.  He looked at the gate, still swinging gently in the digger’s wake.  He looked back down at the hole.

Stephen remained calm.  He went back inside and set about preparing a cup of coffee (black, caffeinated) and a light breakfast.  Stephen listened to the morning news on the radio as he ate, though when the program was over he could not remember what he had just heard for the life of him.

Around noon, he picked up the telephone and did something he had not done in quite some time.  He paced anxiously as he listened to the ringing on the other end – once, twice, three times.

“Hello?”

“Hello Mother,” he said.  He sat down at the kitchen table, stretching the phone cord nearly all the way.  His mother’s voice was quick and anxious as she demanded to know why he was calling.  Was something wrong?  Was he sick?  Had somebody died?

“No, nobody has died.  I just wanted to talk to you.”

“Are you sick?  Do you need help?  Money?”

“No, I’m perfectly healthy.  I don’t need any of that.  I just –”

“Well then what is it?  You know I don’t like to talk about these things over the phone.  You can tell me over the holidays.  You are coming down to Florida to see me and your stepfather, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Mother –”

“So you can tell me...whatever it is, then.  Or write me a nice letter.”

“But there’s this man, this stranger, and he’s been – well, he’s been digging a hole in my backyard.  Or he dug a hole, and then started filling it in, but...he’s always there, and – I don’t know what to do.”

There was a long pause before she spoke again.  “Have you been drinking?  At this hour?  Maybe you’re feverish.”

“I’m not sick, Mother, I –”

“Of course you’re not, Stephen.  Well, if you won’t see a doctor at least get some rest.  Don’t go outside where you might catch cold.  Just stay in and drink plenty of water.  And soup!  Alright, sweetheart?”

“I...”

“You’ll feel better after you’ve gotten some more sleep.  Now I’ve got to go – it’s almost lunchtime.”

Stephen listened to the dial tone as she disconnected the call.  He shouldn’t be surprised – no, he wasn’t surprised.  His mother had retreated from all things complicated long ago, and he had been glad.  She was fine now, and they always got along when he joined her and her husband for Christmas.  He was glad to see her like that, as it was infinitely preferable to the way she’d been when he was still a boy and his father had left.  She was doing well now, and Stephen had no business mucking that up.

It had been a foolish thought, really.  A grown man, calling his mother?  He was ashamed of himself.  No, he would take care of this nonsense himself.  The whole business had gone on entirely too long.

Several hours later, Stephen sat on his back stoop as the sun set.  He did not intend to sleep that night.  He had done what he needed to do, acquired the necessary tools, and he was ready to face this, whatever it was, and this man, whoever he was.
The night was warm and gentle.  Stephen found himself slipping into sleep several times, but he always woke himself up.  Stephen knew what he was doing, and on this night he finally felt that he understood.  Nobody else seemed to, but that was irrelevant.  Now, he was unstoppable and he would not be deterred come morning.

Stephen fell asleep as the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon.  When he jerked awake, the day had long since broken.  His watch showed nearly 9:00, but there was no sign of another soul, and the ground was undisturbed.  Smooth, neat, orderly, unbroken earth—a sight Stephen could not comprehend.

With the gun in his hand, Stephen stared into the space and saw only a hole – great, gaping, growing inexorably larger each day.

fin

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