Beneath

Short Story
First published in The Newhaven Journeyman in 2013.

Judith walked into the dark kitchen, her bare feet smacking across sticky linoleum. Light filtered through thinned curtains above the sink in a ghostly glow. She opened the silverware drawer and pulled out her tobacco tin and papers. Rolling a cigarette, she leaned closer to the curtains, peeping through the slit between them. Contrary to the gray glow, it was a bright summer morning. It had rained, and the road, trees and sky shone. Judith lit the cigarette. The tip smouldered a muffled red as smoke unraveled into the air. The houses across the street shone too, their lawns luscious. Judith let the cigarette hang in her mouth as she reached for the coffee pot. She shifted dishes full of stagnant water around in the sink, trying to manoeuvre the pot beneath the faucet. As it filled, she looked at their own lawn; it was sparse, brown, but with patches of green here and there.

A warm liquid spittled onto her feet and Judith jumped in surprise, the cigarette falling from her mouth.

“Shit.”

The pot was overflowing, water cascading over the mountain of dirty dishes and onto the floor. She reached for the faucet as her cigarette faded in the watery milk of a cereal bowl. She sucked her teeth and got the coffee brewing. Then she moved to the overstuffed fridge and yanked out bacon and a loaf of bread.

“Mama….”

Judith turned to see her four-year-old standing in the middle of the kitchen, squinting in yellow fridge light. She grunted. “What? I haven’t even had my morning smoke yet.” A rotten odour crept from the wall of bricked foods behind her.

“I had an accident….”

Her eyes dropped to where he was pinching and pulling at his underwear, a glistening running down his bare legs. She threw the food on the counter and slammed the refrigerator door.

“You filthy little pervert.” She grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him close. “Quit touching it!”

The boy froze. His eyes were dilated and filling with tears. He began to squirm and she squeezed his wrist tighter. “Cooper,” she snared his other wrist and bent so they were face to face. “You go sit in it. You go sit in your accident until I leave for work.” The boy whimpered. “Ah, ah!” Judith hooked him by the chin. “No breakfast either. Disgusting boy.”

She released him suddenly and he stumbled backward, unable to take his eyes off her. She returned the gaze for a moment, sizing up his meagre, trembling body. “Pathetic,” she spat. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Go!” Cooper ran out of the kitchen.

Judith scoffed and turned on the overhead light. Humming florescence flooded the room. She swung back to the silverware drawer. She pulled out the tin, fingers shaking as she tried to roll a cigarette. She licked her lips, “Can’t even have a damn cigarette.”

The TV blared in the next room — the twins were up. “Bobby! Johnny! Turn that thing off and get in here!”

There was a pounding of feet. “Why?” Bobby swung back and forth in the kitchen doorway.

Johnny slapped him on the back of the head as he passed toward the table. “S’posed to read scripture, not watch that junk, Bobby. Idiot.”

Bobby punched at Johnny but missed and hit himself in the backswing. “Ow!”

Judith stared at Bobby with an upturned nose. “Why can’t you be more like your brother? I thought I had twins, not Cain and Abel.”

“Why do we even have a TV then?” Bobby crossed his arms and clenched his teeth.

“It’s your father’s.” She lit her cigarette and took a long drag, staring at Bobby. He was so thin. People probably thought she didn’t feed him. “He told you you’re not allowed to watch it.” She turned and pulled a skillet from the pile of dishes on the counter, brushing it off with the hem of her robe.

“But it’s not fair!”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s why you’d never go in the basement either: because he says so.” Judith looked at him and raised the skillet slightly, the cigarette scissored between her fingers. “If I was you, I’d be more like your brother over there. Tend to your scriptures. You know how your father’d feel if I had to tell him you disobeyed.”

Bobby dropped his head and turned toward his brother at the table. Johnny was bent over his bible, hands folded neatly in front of him.

Judith began frying bacon. The coffee was percolating and she could taste its bitter caffeine on the back of her tongue. She tossed a few pieces of bread in with the bacon and sucked on her cigarette. She looked at the boys; there were two empty chairs across from them. “Where’s that lazy sister of yours?”

Johnny’s head popped up. “Her door was shut when I went by, Mom.” He sighed solemnly. “She’s probably still sleeping.”

“Kalah! Breakfast!” Judith dished half the skillet of bacon, grease and limp bread into two relatively clean coffee cups. She set them in front of the twins.

“Fork?” said Bobby, clicking his tongue and rolling his eyes.

Judith slapped him across the face. “You’re not glad of it?” She picked up his cup and took it over to the sink.

“No! Mom, no! I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She turned it over and let the grease slide into the watery crevices between dishes.

Bobby puffed his lips and began to cry. “No, no….” He stood to leave.

“I didn’t say you were excused.” Judith flicked ash onto the floor. “You stay there until I say you can go.”

Bobby slumped back in his chair, lips quivering, staring straight ahead.

“Kalah!” Judith took another drag off her cigarette and filled her coffee cup. “Entitled little bitch. Every morning.”

“Mom….” It was Cooper’s high-pitched whine. “I’m sorry. Can I come out now?”

“No! Get back in your bed. I don’t want to hear from you again!” She took a sip of coffee and burnt her tongue. “Shit. Kalah!”

Kalah came shuffling around the corner and into the kitchen. She had on a short, thin cotton nightie. It exposed the soft curve of her behind. Spaghetti straps swung low, revealing the slope of her growing chest, peaked in almond shapes, dark through the fabric.

Judith sputtered. “What the hell is that?”

Kalah glanced at her mother and hunched down in her seat. “What?” She tucked a strand of long, frizzy, strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear.

Judith slammed her mug on the counter and flew to the table. She grabbed the neck of Kalah’s nightie and pulled on it, ripping. “This!” she screamed, her eyes protruding from their sockets, gawking from the thin material to the budding breasts they revealed.

“Mom!” Kalah tried to cover herself and looked desperately across the table at her brothers.

“You’re embarrassed?!” Judith let go and returned to the counter, picking up her cup. Her hand was shaking, the hot liquid splashing on her skin. “Yesterday you get your period and today you’re dressing like a whore! Exposing yourself to your little brothers! What’s wrong with you?”

Kalah crossed her arms and legs. Her legs were so long now. Long and thin. The lightest strawberry down covered them, shimmering, seeming so soft to the touch.

“Mom…” Kalah murmured.

“No!” Judith turned and began fumbling through the silverware drawer for her tin with one hand, her cup and a burning cigarette shivering in the other. “Just wait till your father sees what a slut you’re becoming.”

“He gave it to me.”

Judith’s coffee cup shattered on the floor. She slowly turned and stared at her daughter. Kalah’s face was flushed, her lips a brightening red. Her body seemed to swell.

“He told me to wear it.”

“How dare you! How dare you make up such filthy lies!” Judith bit her lip. “You’re trying to make me jealous?”

“What? No.” Kalah was near tears.

“Get out of here!”

The kitchen door swung open, the handle sharply tapping against the closed basement door. They all went silent.

Martin walked in, resting his back against the basement door for support as he surveyed the room and removed his muddy boots. He was nearly bald, with a poor showing of tiny, gristled hairs stretching over his large skull. Veins snaked from his head and bulged around his eyes beneath thinning skin.

“What the hell is that?”

Judith haphazardly rolled a second cigarette, lit it with the first still burning, and stood by him. “I can’t believe it either! I’m just as shocked as you, Martin. I told her to go get changed….”

“That!” Martin shot out a rigid index finger at the broken coffee cup on the floor.

Judith’s mouth hung open and both cigarettes tumbled to the floor, making little sizzles in the spilt coffee.

“Breakfast. Then clean it up.”

Judith moved to the counter and selected the least dirty looking plate from the pile. She began to run it under the sink faucet, scratching at the dried bits of food and rubbing the less encrusted mess with her thumb. The sun was shining brighter as the morning wore on. It would be a beautiful day. Judith reached to pull the curtains closed and noticed a large, industrial-looking door attached to the roof of the car.

Martin sat in the seat next to Kalah.

Judith quickly dried the plate with the corner of her robe and slopped on the remaining bacon and fried bread. She set it down in front of him.

“Mom,” muttered Kalah, “can I have some…?”

“No,” answered Martin.

Judith beamed. “And go to your room!”

Before she could move, Martin held out his arm, the hairs grazing Kalah’s hard lumps. The neckline where Judith had yanked was crumpled and drooping, revealing the tiniest peek of a pink nub. Martin tossed his fork on his plate and exhaled noisily. “Judith, the cup!”

She bent to her knees and starting collecting ceramic shards. Then she began dabbing at the spilt coffee with the sleeve of her robe.

“Cover your sagging tits in front of the children.”

Judith looked up and saw Martin starring at her chest. Her robe was gaping open and her breasts hung like withered sandbags, more brown nipple than anything. She silently stood up and left the kitchen to get ready for work.

*

In a short while, with her Bountiful Grocery vest on and wispy hair pulled back into a tiny bun, Judith re-entered the empty kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks. The black maw of the basement doorway loomed before her: The door was gone. If she had coffee or a cigarette she would have dropped them. She wanted to go to the silverware drawer, to pull out her tin and roll the tobacco. But she couldn’t move. She had never seen the basement door open, and now it was removed entirely. Even when they bought the house he had inspected the basement alone, and since then it had remained his space. No one but him ever went down there. No one.

The door leading outside was also open. She could hear him in the driveway, his voice strained with the softness he used everywhere but in private. Judith rushed past the basement doorway, not daring to look, a cold breath chasing her out into the morning sunshine.

Martin and Kalah had removed the large metal door from the roof of the car and were now carrying it toward the house, Martin guiding it from the back and Kalah walking backwards with the front. Her nightie fluttering around her cheeks for the whole neighbourhood to see.

“What’s that for?” Judith asked as they trudged by.

Martin didn’t say a thing, didn’t look at her.

“Martin?”

They were manoeuvring the heavy door in to the house now.

Judith got in to the car and wrenched the stick shift into reverse.

*

That evening, Judith came home with grocery bags in hand to see Martin sitting at the table, facing her, facing the new, closed, basement door. The house was quiet. She stuttered as she made her way over to the stove.

“Martin…you’re usually watching TV….” She set her grocery bags on the top of the stove and started pulling out TV dinners.

“Does it bother you?” He sounded irritated.

“No.” She turned the oven on. “I’m thankful for your company.” She looked at him over her shoulder, embarrassed.

Martin was staring at her, his fist tucked under his chin.

Judith counted six TV dinners and began to unbox them.

“Kalah’s run away.”

She peeled the plastic off the tops.

“Judith? Did you hear what I said?”

Out the corner of her eye she saw Martin’s form rise.

“Kalah’s run away.”

Judith abandoned the plastic and opened the silverware drawer, withdrawing her tin. “How do you know?” Shredded tobacco leaf prickled her fingertips through the thin paper.

“I found a note on the front porch this afternoon. It said she’d run away to the city — not to try and find her.”

“Where are the boys?”

“Playing outside.”

The glue on the paper gagged Judith slightly as she sealed it around the tobacco. She twisted the tip tight, then snipped it off between her fingernails. She turned to Martin and lit the end. “Can I see it?”

“See what?”

“The note.”

“I threw it away.” He moved closer to her. “You saw the way she was dressing. You know what she went to the city for. We can’t condone a life of sin: she’s dead to us now.”

Judith blew plumes of smoke from her nose and stared at the ground. Martin was just inches away. He cupped her breast in his hand and squeezed. She hadn’t felt his touch there since Cooper.

He hugged her to him and began kneading her ass. She closed her eyes, nestling her head into the curve of his neck. He grabbed between her legs and Judith’s eyes opened wide with wonder; but they were immediately consumed by the image of the basement door. It stood there, behind him, the metal burning in the light. Closed. Locked. Alive.

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