Featured Fiction


(Artwork by Carrion House)

The boy from Omran | Sherri Cook Woosley

 

 

The first time it rains at the new house water soaks the basement carpet, water that smells dark and secret like the ocean. Identical twins Jane and Alice stand on either side of the damp stain and watch the water in the middle gurgle up from underneath the carpet like a baking soda volcano from their school science fair. Then the water recedes with a sound like a bathtub draining. The girls are seven years old. Jane wears shorts and Alice wears dresses, Jane likes to climb trees and Alice decorates cupcakes, Jane is feisty and talks back while Alice simpers and smiles. Each morning the twins decide who will be Jane and who will be Alice.

“We’ll need to replace the door,” their mother says. She makes a face as the water squelches between her toes. Mother sells vacuum cleaners, but even the model 3200 would have trouble sucking up this much water. She’ll need to borrow an extractor and carpet blowers from the main office.

“That’s where the water is getting in,” Dad agrees. “This house is our personal money pit.”

He and Mother had bought the house in the country, but not near the golf courses that Dad managed. They couldn’t afford that. Instead, the run-down house sat under scraggly trees, far from sidewalks and sunlight, and now the school bus would come a half hour earlier in the mornings. Dad said this would keep them out of trouble.

Mother and Dad go upstairs, but the twins stare at the puddle. It is clear to them that the water isn’t rain, isn’t coming from the door, and isn’t stopping. Without needing to discuss it, the girls go to the attic to fetch their older brother, Peter.

Peter leads the way back to the basement, not because he believes the girls but because he is bored. Peter is in middle school and wears the typical uniform: athletic shorts, t-shirt, and socks the color of one’s favorite sports team, in his case, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Ewww, it’s really gross.” Unbeknownst to Peter, his disgusted facial expression is similar to the one his mother made earlier.

“We told you.” Jane puts her hands on her hips.

Peter kneels on the carpet in front of the fountain. “Why’d the parental units say the water was coming from the door?”

Alice shrugs. “Adults like to complicate things.”

“Well, I’ll make it simple.” He pulls out his Swiss Army knife, a present when he turned ten, and selects a serrated edge. He cuts the carpet with two strokes and pulls up the resulting corner to expose warped wood with a handle. A dank smell of mildew makes Alice sneeze.

“It’s a trap door.” Now Peter sounds excited.

“To what?” Jane demands. “Our backyard?”

“Maybe a root cellar.” Peter seizes the handle and strains. The twins get behind him and hold onto his waist for extra leverage.

The hatch opens with a wet sucking noise. The water around the edge of the hatch drains back down and the three bend over to look into the darkness. A wave of cold washes up and over them followed by the mineral smell of wet rock.

Then, from the cold, a boy’s head pops out of the hole up to his shoulders. He has a riot of wet dark curls, large limpid eyes set in a brown face, and looks about the twins’ age. His mouth gapes open as he sucks in air.

“Who are you?” they all ask, the boy included.

He answers first, English clear but accented. “Khalil.”

“Where did you come from?” today’s Alice asks delicately. She sees the dirt on his face and the way his collarbone juts out of the skin and thinks that he has been hungry for a long time.

“From Omran, across the ocean.” Khalil stands up straighter, taking pride in his homeland, and then gestures down into the hole. The children hear a faint sound that might be an echo of waves slapping against rock. “And then into this cave. But then the water started to rise higher and higher until I was floating against that piece of wood. I kept my foot against a piece of rock so I could press my face to the wood. I inhaled each time the waves went out, but I’m so tired.” He taps the trap door. “I almost drowned.”

“She means,” says Jane, “why are you in our basement?”

“I’m not in anyone’s basement.” Khalil’s shoulders straighten with indignation. “I’m waiting for my mother to call, but the phone ran out of battery because I’ve been waiting ever so long. It’s hard to tell time in a dark cave.” He holds up a cell phone in a baggie as proof.

Alice accepts the phone and passes it to Peter.

“It looks like a toy,” Jane says.

“It isn’t a toy,” says Peter with the authority of a middle schooler. He takes it out of the baggie and turns it over and over in his hands. “But it is different. A flip-top.” He runs a thumb over the port. “Maybe one of Dad’s old chargers will fit. Come on out and we’ll try it.”

“No,” Khalil says. “I can’t leave. My mother is holding back the monsters. She won’t know where I’ve gone.”

“What monsters?” Alice grabs for Jane’s hand. They scoot closer to the hole. It is possible to hear claws scrape against rock as if a lizard moved in the darkness.

Peter sets the phone on a nearby table and moves the twins aside. “Look guys, there’s no ocean around here.” He kneels down and reaches his arm past Khalil’s torso. It definitely feels like the side of a cave, the rocks sharp enough to dig into his hand. “Maybe an underground spring?” He pulls out the mini-flashlight on his Swiss Army knife. “I’m going to check it out.”

“The monsters are horrible,” says Khalil, moving to the side of the opening so Peter can climb down, but otherwise ignoring Peter’s explorations. “Ghuls. Bigger than me with arms that end in dirty claws. Their eyes are sewed shut, but their mouths are always open with sharp teeth. If they bite you, you turn into a monster too, but if you cut them open then maggots fall out.”

Alice shudders and even Jane swallows a nervous moan. “Why are the monsters chasing you?”

Khalil’s dark eyes meet Alice’s. “Don’t know. They attacked our village in the middle of the night. My mom and I got in a boat, but they chased us across the ocean, biting and snapping until our boat split in half. My mother held the sides together and I paddled as fast as I could. She called to the wind to blow us farther away from the monsters. Then we saw the cave. We thought we’d be safe, but the monsters came again.” He sighed. “I haven’t seen any of the other families from our village.”

“This cave goes on and on,” Peter calls from the blackness. “How can it be underneath our house in the woods?”

“Then what happened?” Alice asks.

“My mother gave me the paddle to use as a float. She let go of the pieces of the boat and we both swam for the cave. The monsters don’t see very well. I kicked and kicked my feet until I was in the cave and I crawled up onto the rocks. I wanted to use the paddle to hit the monsters, but my mother said not to. She spread across the opening, reaching her fingers up and up and up to the top and her toes down and down and down to the water. The wind pulled at her dress and it stretched like a boat’s sail until the moonlight was blocked, the water muted, and the monsters kept out. Over the wind, I heard her tell me to go, that she would hold them back and then come to me when it was safe.”

“You mom is really brave,” Alice says.

“Our mom sells vacuum cleaners,” says Jane.

“Kids, dinner.” Their mother’s voice drifts down the stairs.

Peter pulls himself out through the trapdoor. “Looks like the water is receding for good. Do you want to come out and go to dinner with us?”

Khalil looks around the room, the labeled cardboard boxes that still haven’t been unpacked since the move, the noisy fans by the door, the overhead lights beating down. It is all different than Omran and he can’t imagine himself in this place. It is too foreign, too strange. He is familiar with the feel of the cave and the sound of monsters and the hope of his mother, but he doesn’t know how to explain all these things so he just shakes his head.

Peter nods. “We’ll come back later. And bring you food.”

Khalil backs down the hole and perches on part of the rock wall. The water doesn’t reach his feet. Peter shuts the wooden door and flips the wet carpet back into place.

Food is already on the table: overcooked chicken breast, lumpy brown gravy, green beans, and rice.

“You forgot my place again,” says Peter. He is annoyed. Ever since they moved here, he attends a private school during the week and comes home on the weekends.

“Get yourself a plate and sit down for grace,” Dad says. When they’ve all bowed their heads, he says, “Let us look with eyes that see, feel with soft hearts, and give as we have been given. Amen.”

The bowls of food are passed around counter-clockwise.

“Jane, fix your hair, please. It’s hanging in your face,” says Mother.

“I’m Alice,” says today’s Alice. She smooths her hair as, across the table, Jane shoves a napkin full of food into her pocket to give to Khalil later.

“Really?” Mother frowns at today’s Alice. “I thought Jane had the little beauty mark.”

Alice sighs. “Jane is the adventurous one. She wears shorts and talks back.”

Dad snaps open a newspaper and holds it in front of his plate like a privacy screen.

“Football tryouts are next week,” says Peter. “Have you signed the release?”

The whole house lurches, shaking from the foundation up to the attic. Windows rattle and lights flicker. Wind rushes through the kitchen and Peter smells the mineral scent of wet rocks.

“It’s the monsters,” says Alice. Her lower lip trembles.

“There’s no such thing as monsters,” Mother says, pointing her fork at Alice. “That’s the house settling. We’ll probably have to replace the windows before winter.” She sighs. “There goes the bonus I earned this month.”

“There are too monsters,” blurts Jane. “In our basement.”

The house quiets and all is still. Dad’s newspaper crinkles as he gives it a shake. “I don’t want any of you going down into the basement until we’ve fixed the leak.”

So they have to wait until almost midnight before the blue light and laugh track from the television in their parents’ bedroom goes off. At least there was time for Khalil’s flip phone to charge with an old charger at the back of the odds and ends drawer. Peter has his mini flashlight out and leads the way. Alice, thinking the middle spot is the safest, tells Jane, “You go behind me.”

“No, I don’t want to.” Jane adjusts a stuffed yellow and pink owl under her arm.

“You have to. Jane is the brave, adventurous one.”

Jane shakes her head. “I don’t want to be Jane anymore.”

“Too bad.”

As they descend the basement stairs, the reek of seawater and rock grows stronger. They work quickly to pull back the carpet and lift the wooden trap door. Khalil is waiting and takes the food from Jane, shoving it into his mouth as if the chicken weren’t dried out and the green beans squished from being rolled in the napkin.

Peter has been thinking about the water. About how something was holding the water back and now isn’t. About how the monsters are coming. He thinks Khalil’s mother is dead, but he doesn’t know if Khalil has figured this out yet. “Here’s your phone,” he says when Khalil finishes wiping crumbs on his pants.

The hope on Khalil’s face as the phone rings is a terrible thing and Peter looks away. They can all hear a woman’s voice in what is both a foreign language and clearly a recorded voice message. Khalil flips the phone closed. “She didn’t pick up.”

Peter clears his throat so he has time to think. “You need to come with us.”

“No, I can’t. I won’t leave her. You don’t understand. She’ll come for me.” He takes a step back into the darkness.

Jane says, “You can’t wait. Go find her.”

Khalil gives a single nod. His lips are pressed tight. Below him comes that terrible clattering sound of claws against rock.

Peter holds out his Swiss Army knife. In a gruff voice he says, “You can use the light by twisting. And there’s a sharp blade, if you need it.”

Jane offers her stuffed owl. “Just for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning and you can return it then.” She wants to give him an excuse to take it without blubbering or looking like a baby.

“That was a very Alice thing to do,” Alice says with approval.

The next morning the twins have an argument over who will be Jane and who will be Alice.

“We need a strong Jane, someone brave who can help Khalil today.”

“Being Alice is important today too. We need her to be sensitive.” Last night, as they walked back to their bedrooms, Peter had explained his reasons for thinking that Khalil’s mother was dead and then Jane had felt bad that she’d told him to go find his mother.

“Well,” says one twin doubtfully, “I’m not sure I’m brave or sensitive enough.”

“Me neither.”

While they both consider this problem, a mechanical whining interspersed with pounding comes clear. Peter runs past their room and shouts, “Come on.” They hear his footsteps crashing down the basement steps.

“I think we’ll both have to be brave. Maybe Jane can be brave and sensitive and Alice can be sensitive and brave.”

With a nod the twins dress themselves in matching one-piece rompers—one coral and one turquoise. They run down to the basement.

The entire level is an anthill of activity. One man walks by with a two-by-four over his shoulder. Sawdust filters through the air. The door to the outside has been removed and the glimpse of trees is disconcerting. The insistent whine of a miter saw makes it hard to think. In all the confusion it takes Peter a moment to figure out what the men wearing the t-shirts of a local company are doing. They are cutting and spacing thick blocks on top of the wet carpet at intervals and cutting boards to make a new floor inches above the old one. They are sealing the entrance to Khalil’s cave.

“Mother,” Peter shouts.

Mother waves. She is wearing a construction hat. “We’re renovating the basement. There’s cereal and milk for breakfast,” she shouts back.

The sawdust makes Alice’s eyes water.

“Stop it,” shouts Jane.

Alice drops to the carpet and tries to pry up the boards covering Khalil’s trap door, but the grooves of one beam fit into the next one and it’s too hard for her.

Dad wanders around from work bench to work bench, nodding his head as if he were in charge. Peter feels a flash of anger and grabs Dad’s arm. “You can’t just cover it up.”

Dad motions the nearest man to stop the saw so he can hear. “What’s that, son?”

Peter turns in a circle to encompass the whole basement. “You can’t build a new floor on top of soaked carpet. Mold will grow and it will move up the walls and throughout the house.”

“Nonsense.” Mother joins them. “We’re very lucky that these men were willing to come out to work on a Sunday.” She puts her hand on Dad’s arm. “There are sprays for mold. No need to worry. We’re adding value to our house. No one would want it the way it is: with a leak.”

Dad nods to the construction man and the saw starts up again. Peter shakes his head and pulls Alice off the floor. Jane follows Mother outside, away from the noise of the saw, and puts her hands on her hips. She takes a deep breath and tells the truth. “There’s a boy and he needs help. Monsters attacked his village and now they’ve killed his mother. He’s underneath our basement and the construction is locking him in with the monsters.”

Maybe Mother should have laughed sooner because in the instant after Jane stops speaking, the children see Mother’s eyes shift to the right, her hands clench and release, and hear the false note in the laughter when it does erupt. “There are no monsters, no emergency, and certainly no boy in the basement,” she gasps. “Don’t your father and I have enough to do here with our house? Fixing the leak, replacing the windows, and I’d like to repaint the kitchen cabinets.”

“You can redecorate your house all you want, but this is an emergency,” Jane shouts. “I’ll show you the trap door. It’s right there.” But, the new boards cover the door and Jane can see that Mother doesn’t want to really look, the kind of looking that means moving things.

“Let’s say there is a boy under our basement. And monsters. First, the boy is probably a monster too. Second, if you let one in, you’re breaking the seal and letting them all in. Why would you let them infest our house? I say send them back to Omran where they came from. Everything is fine the way it is.” Mother’s chest rises and falls as she pants. “I have real problems without looking for more. Now, go play.”

The children stay outside while Mother puts the ridiculous yellow hat back on and steps through the open doorway.

The children are all thinking the same thing, but Jane needs to say it out loud. “I never said Khalil was from Omran.”

Alice feels betrayed. Her mother knew about the ghuls and the children like Khalil and kept it a secret.

Construction crews take lunch. Peter knows this to be a fact. So he and the twins walk around the side of the house where they can see the driveway.

“Why is she lying?” Jane asks. She is hurt and can’t keep the quaver out of her voice.

“She doesn’t want to see, so she doesn’t.” Peter is bitter, knowing that he will be an adult soon, but vowing that he will be different.

“The monsters are going to get Khalil,” says Alice, wringing her hands.

“We’ll help him,” says Peter.

Alice is about to cry. “How?”

“We’re going into the cave,” says Jane.

The construction crew pile into their logoed white van and drive toward town. Then Mother and Dad come out and walk toward their car. He puts an arm around her and the children overhear him say, “You’ll be safe by this evening.”

The kids slip into the basement and begin dismantling the floor boards. It is similar to when they play with their Lincoln logs. Peter pulls back the carpet and they lift the trap door. Khalil doesn’t pop out. The reptile smell from the hole is even worse. Jane knows that it is the monster smell, but she hopes Alice won’t know that.

Peter goes first. The twins hold hands and follow. The rocks are slippery and it is dark. Darker than a bedroom with no nightlight.

“What if they come back and lock us in?” Alice says.

“We’ll have to hurry.” But Jane’s heart beats a countdown. She should have insisted on being Alice today. It would feel good to whimper.

“There,” whispers Peter. “I see something.” A speck of light in the distance. Maybe from a mini flashlight.

They make their way through the darkness, their gaze on the light. It doesn’t get much bigger, but now the children have to cover their noses with their arms to breathe through the rotten monster smell. Skittering sounds come from overhead. The monsters are crawling on the rock ceiling, the suction cups on their limbs giving away their position.

“Khalil?” Peter calls.

The light walks toward them and they see Khalil’s face. He has the stuffed owl and his toy-like flip top phone. His eyes are sunken and he looks younger than before. “I walked all the way to the cave entrance. Mother is gone.” He pulls out a piece of black cloth from a pocket of his dirty pants. “I found a scrap of her dress. She would never have taken it off. They ate my mother and turned her into a monster.”

Peter nods. The children step around Khalil like an entourage, letting him feel safe in the middle. In the faint light they see the ghuls. Like gray salamanders, they slither through the darkness on the floor, on the ceiling, it makes no difference. Like Khalil described, their eyes are sewn shut. The children are surrounded.

“Don’t run,” says Jane. “Whatever we do, we mustn’t run.”

Alice lets out a tiny cry. “But, we have to hurry. The workers will be back from lunch. We’ll be locked in.”

Khalil hands Peter the flashlight so he can take Alice’s hand.

“Let’s go,” says Peter. His voice trembles, but he moves first through the breathing darkness. His shoulders hunch as he expects a monster to fall on him at each step.

“Why are they waiting?” whispers Jane as they creep forward.

Up ahead they can see a dim light coming through the trap door. And then the largest monster hisses from the darkness. It moves forward to block their way out. Unlike the others, this one is black, the same shade as the scrap of cloth in Khalil’s hand. The monster opens its mouth and saliva runs down its needle sharp teeth. The stitches on the eyes look new, a thread hanging inches past the knot on the end.

Peter straightens. Monsters lurk in the dark, in the fear, in the unknown. Peter lifts the mini flashlight and points it right at the monster’s face. The monster hisses and ducks back into the shadows. Peter nods. He knows what he must do. “Go,” he says to the younger children. “I’ll hold him back with my light.”

“No,” cries Alice. “That’s what Khahil’s mother did. And she’s dead.”

Peter’s hand tightens on the flashlight. He doesn’t want to be lost in the dark, he doesn’t want to be left in the cave, he doesn’t want the monsters to bite him.

“Give me the light,” Khalil says. His eyes are dark, but his voice is steadfast. “You can trust me.”

Peter’s hand shakes as he hands over the light. Then he feels like he can almost sense the beam of light shooting from the flashlight in Khalil’s hand and spearing over his head into the darkness. When Peter is safe beside the twins on the carpet, he puts his hand out for the light. “Come on, I’ll cover you now.”

Alice’s lips press tight together. She can’t stop thinking about what her mother said. That if they let the boy out, the monsters will be free too. “Sensitive and brave,” she whispers to herself. “Brave and sensitive.”

In the cave Khalil feels like a leaf in the wind. His heart is broken by the biggest monster. He wants to go home, but knows he can’t go back. He wants the familiar, but knows the monsters destroyed it in their blind rage. He wants his mother.

The biggest monster surges forward, but Khalil scoots closer to the trap door.

“Come on,” Alice urges. “Please come out of there.”

He hurts inside so bad; his new friends don’t fill the gap of loss.

Then Jane says, “The other children from your village are going to need help. You have to be brave and come out first. Letting the monsters eat you won’t help anyone.”

A mix of emotions makes Khalil shake so hard he is afraid he will slip from the damp rocks. “I can’t,” he whispers.

“You won’t be alone,” Peter promises.

The biggest monster hisses and moves closer to Khalil, but the boy stops shaking. “You were once my mother, Amena,” he says to the monster. “We rowed across the ocean together. If there is anything inside of you that remembers me, please let me by.”

The monster opens and shuts its mouth, the teeth sliding past each other with a sickening sound. It appears confused and scratches at the sewn shut eyes with dirty claws. Khalil feels a moment of illicit hope, that his mother is inside and can be saved. The claws rake down the monster’s cheeks and a smell seeps out so rotten that Khalil gags. No, there is nothing left of his mother in there except some tickle of memory responding to his voice or maybe his scent. She keeps scratching at her body and Khalil understands that this confusion is all there is.

“Thank you for protecting me,” he gasps. “Thank you for—” He doesn’t know what to say because crying ‘I love you’ to this rotten salamander creature doesn’t feel right, but ignoring her doesn’t either. “Thank you,” he finishes.

Khalil turns away and scrambles through the hole. After he’s through, the children slam the trap door down and hear scratching from underneath.

Peter puts an arm around Khalil’s slumped shoulders. “Come with me, my friend.”

***

When Mother has called the children for dinner, Khalil walks into the kitchen wearing Peter’s clothes: athletic shorts, t-shirt, and Steelers socks. They are large on him and he has to hitch up the shorts.

Alice pats the chair next to her. “You sit here.”

Mother glances at the boy from the basement and then speaks to the wall that is Father’s newspaper. “I found some new light switch covers for the bedrooms. I think they’ll add a touch of class.”

Jane clears her throat until Mother looks at her. “Mother,” says Jane. “You forgot to set the place for Peter again.”

They all know that this is the moment when Mother can speak up, say that Peter left for school, but Jane is willing to gamble. Mother has ignored the fact that there are children who are lost, crying in the darkness across the ocean, and need a place to stay. She wants to think about her house and her work and her normal routine. But it is another thing, Jane knows, to look at the actual child in the actual kitchen and make the choice to ignore him.

Khalil holds his breath. Everything is so strange and different. He is a refugee; his family is dead and he has nowhere else to go. He feels a hand reaching for his under the table and gives Alice a grateful look. He appreciates the plan that Peter, Jane, and Alice made: that he would be Peter while the real Peter was at school, but Khalil does not want to be Peter. He is not ashamed of his village or his mother and he will not dishonor her sacrifice. He pushes himself to a standing position and announces: “My name is Khalil. I am from Omran and I need a place to live until I can save the other families from my village.”

Father’s newspaper sinks until his eyes peep over the top edge.

Mother throws a wild look around the kitchen as if afraid that the house will tumble down. Maybe it will. She closes her eyes and steadies herself against the table. “We should leave. Walk away right now.”

Alice notices that Mother’s closed eyelashes resemble stitches, crisscrossing her cheeks. She thinks that maybe the sightless ghuls were not confined to Omran in the first place. That maybe there are monsters inside of everyone.

After two beats of Jane’s heart, Mother’s eyes open and the illusion of stitches disappears. Jane knows she has won. Kindly, she says, “We have to stay. We have to do the next right thing. And then the next. That’s all we can do.”

Mother turns away from the table and brings back a plate, silverware, and napkin.

Dad says grace and snaps up his newspaper again.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sherri Cook Woosley earned her M.A. in English with a focus on comparative mythology from University of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in Pantheon MagazineAbyss and Apex, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her debut novel Walking Through Fire is coming out in 2018 from Talos Press. Find her at www.tasteofsherri.wordpress.com or @SherriWoosley

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