My best friend was swallowed by the earth when I was ten years old. Eleven years later and I don’t remember much about him. His name was Jake Delong and I think his parents were separated. He lived with his mother. I always liked how she said my name: To-om, pronouncing Tom as if it had two syllables. She was a tiny woman – even at that age I was only a few inches shorter than her – and she had jet black hair that hung to her waist. I was entranced by her hair, it always moved fluidly with her as if it was a single sheet instead of individual strands. She never paid much attention to us, just stared at walls a lot, and so we played at his house more often than mine.
We lived about a mile apart, in the country surrounded by forests and fields, and I would walk over to his house on the weekends during the school year and every day during the summer. It was fall when it happened, though I can’t say whether it was a Saturday or a Sunday. It was the beginning of fall, I think, and one of the first truly cool days of the season. In my memory, the trees are drenched in red leaves. But I’ve learned that sometimes my memory has changed my past to fit into something more poetic.
We liked to play on a bluff that was behind his house. We’d run across it, leaping around while carrying sticks for swords. We were always knights off to save maidens from ogres. That day, though, we weren’t carrying anything. We were just running, running so fast. He was about ten feet away from me. He was always faster with longer legs that were better than mine for imitating the galloping of horses. I think this time the ogre was chasing us.
I ducked behind a tree. I saw Jake. He turned once as if to look for me. Then the crack and he was gone. I closed my eyes until the search party found me, hours later, in the dusk, with all of my muscles locked up from crouching for so long. They led me down the bluff and past his house and all the flashing lights. There was a stretcher being pushed. All that black hair hanging down and so still. I never asked what happened. I think it must have been a cave in the bluff. Maybe it had a weakened roof and that’s why it happened.
It’s strange to think that in eleven years I lost so much of what occurred. All those bits and pieces of who Jake was. The memory of his death became like a dream, some half-remembered strangeness that I couldn’t quite believe. I woke up one time wondering what ever became of that kid I was friends with. It took me the whole day before I remembered that he had died.
I’m going to school for a degree in psychology and so I volunteer three days a week at the student crisis center. It’s not as crowded as I would have thought on a campus this size. Mostly it’s cases of midterm stress and break-up blues. Sometimes, though, it’s terrible. There are the ones whose whole bodies shake so much that even their pupils seem to be vibrating inside their eyes. There are the girls who can’t remember what exactly happened and rub at their thighs and arms as if they’ve been out in the cold just a little too long to ever warm back up. The worst, though, are the ones who can remember exactly what happened. The bruises decorate their skin like badly-done make-up. I tell them that they need to go to the police. They always just shrug as if it is some cost of living that I could never understand.
I usually work Thursday nights, Saturdays and Sundays. But on Friday, I get a call at 5 pm. They need an extra hand because it’s coming up to midterms.
I ride my bike in. It’s three miles only and I love the exercise. There is something so calming about the rush of air against me. It’s like I’m in a fight with the wind but I always know that I’m going to win.
Our office is located on the first floor of the Student Health Center. The receptionist, Carrie, is a sophomore. She always smiles at me when I come in.
“Hey, Tom, can you handle a rough one?” she asks.
“It’s a domestic, I think. She asked to speak with a woman but Chelsea and Siobhan are both busy. You’re the best of the guys at talking to girls, so, I thought…” She blushes and lets her sentence trail off. I’m not sure if that was a compliment or not.
“Okay, I’ll try.” So Carrie tells me the room number.
I walk in and wish that I hadn’t. The girl sits, in one of our pathetic blue hard-backed chairs which we always talk about replacing but can never afford to, staring at the wall. She barely moves when I walk in but I can tell that her whole body tenses.
“Hi, I’m Tom.” I extend a hand which she doesn’t take.
“Trina,” she says without any sort of intonation. It makes her name into some meaningless collection of sounds.
“Okay, do you want to talk, Trina?” On the first day, they told me to always use people’s names. It makes the person feel like they are really being listened to.
She doesn’t stop staring as she says, “I think I lost him.”
“No, he’s the one who made me lose him when he hit me,” she says. I see the blood then, spreading down her thighs from under her black skirt, the red almost looking as if her veins have cracked through her skin, and I see the way one hand touches the bump of her stomach. I call for help.
I remember I spent the night at Jake’s house once. My parents were overly protective and didn’t like me going to sleepovers but they had relented on this occasion.
We stayed up most of the night telling scary stories to each other. Finally we lay down to go to sleep. We swapped a few secrets, mine were the kind that kids keep: the girl I had a crush on at school and stuff like that.
“No one else in my family knows where my mom and me live,” Jake said.
I turned to him but in the dark his face had no features. I thought it was a strange secret but I didn’t tell him that.
In between classes, I study at my favorite café. I like to study where there’s a lot of talking around me. The voices help me concentrate.
I look up and Carrie is standing there smiling. Outside of the office and its buzzing fluorescent lights, I notice that her hair isn’t brown like I’ve always thought but a light auburn almost the color of rust.
“Oh, hey,” I respond. Her gaze darts to the seat across from me. “Do you want to sit?”
“Oh, sure.” She smiles and sets her drink down. It’s a Raspberry Rave without the coffee: steamed milk, raspberry syrup, and whipped cream on top. I try not to let the disgust show as she sits down. “So, how are you?”
“Oh, studying, so, ugh.” She laughs and takes a sip of her drink. A little cream stays on her lips, the white against the red mimics the contents of her cup.
We sit a moment in silence before she asks, “So you got tickets for the game on Saturday?”
“Oh, no.” I don’t say that I’ve never liked football. I love basketball but to say I prefer it always seems like sacrilege on this campus.
Her face brightens, “Really? Because I have this extra ticket and it’s just going to waste. So why don’t you, you could, you know, come with me?”
I say yes because I hate to tell people no.
My parents took me to a psychologist after Jake’s death. It’s why I decided to go to school to become one. She was a tall woman with a deep voice. She always talked to me about my dreams. I kept having one where I was walking through Jake’s house and I would hear sounds coming from the basement. I called out his name but he never answered. So I would open the basement door and the basement was the night sky and I’d fall into it. The stars growing brighter and brighter until I woke up.
Carrie leans over shouting in joy as we win. Everyone around us stands up and then we all rush the field. I don’t even realize I’m in the rush until we’re all jumping up and down on the turf.
Hours later I watch the news and hear about the guy who got trampled. There were thousands of us and only one of him. I check the soles of my shoes for blood, for some stain trace, but there’s nothing. I wasn’t even on the side of the stadium where he died but I imagine that I might have heard a crunch under my feet, some quiet snap ending of a life; it probably sounded just the same as running over twigs or dead leaves.
We walked into his house one time to see that the front window was cracked, lines webbing out as if they were being strung by invisible spiders. There were voices, crying, and Jake looked at me and said that we needed to leave.
They have a closed casket at the guy’s funeral. I know this because I go. I didn’t know him but I was one of the rushers.
His parents and little sister sit in the front row at the service. His sister is only ten or maybe eleven. I watch her the most. She keeps pulling scabs off of the palms of her hands; yanking quick and then marveling at the bloom of blood that appears. Four crescent-shaped scabs on each palm.
I go to the restroom and come out to find her standing in the hall staring at a mirror.
“Hi,” I say, quiet, as I’m going to walk past her.
“Did you know my brother?”
“Not really. We went to the same college.”
“Oh.” She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear in swift movement; I look down at my shoes. “He could climb into mirrors.”
I look up at her. “What?”
“He said he’d teach me how, but now…” She shrugs.
I look at the mirror she is staring at. It’s covered in tiny fractures and so my face appears disjointed.
“Hey, Tom, you’re bleeding.” Those are the first words of my dream that night. I open my eyes into the dream and Jake is staring at me. He’s my age now, eleven years of aging that he never actually got, but I still recognize him. I nearly say his name but then he says those words. I put my hand to my face and my fingers come back hot and sticky with blood.
“Jake, what’s happening?” I ask.
“I think you fell.”
I look down at my arms because I can feel my bones beginning to crack beneath my skin. “No, you’re the one that fell.”
He shakes his head. “I didn’t fall.”
I feel my shoulder blade snap and watch as it breaks through my flesh. I wake up.
“Hey, Tom,” Carrie says as I walk into work. Her hair is tied back loosely and strands of it are falling across her face.
She stares at me for a moment, frowning. “Are you feeling okay?”
I shrug. “Yeah, just didn’t sleep well. Is there anyone for me to see?”
“Yeah, a guy is worried about his roommate. He wanted to talk to someone about it.” She points to the room with one hand and picks up her coffee cup with the other. I notice a thin line spreading up the porcelain but I don’t say anything.
The guy is in one of our smallest rooms. He’s reading a textbook when I walk in.
“What class?” I nod at the book.
“Geosci 120. Natural disasters.” He says.
“Sounds interesting. Though I think it would make me paranoid.” I extend a hand. “I’m Tom.”
“Dave.” He shakes my hand. “I’m not here about me. It’s my roommate.”
“He’s been—” He looks around the room as if the word he needs is going to materialize on the walls. “Off, I guess.”
“Off how, Dave?”
“I don’t know. Just off. He keeps saying that people are made of porcelain, but then never explains what the hell he means.” He raises a hand to his mouth and chews at his thumb, I watch as the nail breaks off raggedly. He pauses, then, “I think he’s gonna hurt someone.”
“You should go to the police.” I say.
“I, but, I’m just not sure. Can’t you guys talk to him or something?” He looks me in the eyes and I see how the whites of his are marred with burst blood vessels.
“We can’t. It’s against our policy.” A rule I always wondered at until my boss explained it had to do with our insurance.
“Okay, I guess I’ll try to convince him to come here.” He looks unsure.
“Please do. Or if anything comes up, just go to the police.”
He nods as he stands up, then leaves without saying anything more. I sigh, look up at the ceiling, and notice that the plaster is beginning to crack.
“Hey, Tom, you’re bleeding,” Jake says as he passes me a basketball with a perfect bounce pass.
We’re playing at night on a concrete court surrounded by the ocean. I catch the pass, see where my hands leave bloody palm prints on the ball.
I watch a star fall out of the sky and splash into the water. It leaves a glowing trail as it sinks into the deepness.
I pass the ball back and when he catches it he shatters into silvery fragments.
Carrie leaves a message on my phone.
“Hey, so I was wondering how you are? We haven’t talked so much. Do you want to get coffee? Or something?”
I don’t call her back because I keep thinking of how happy she looked, laughing as she jumped up and down on the field.
I pick up one of my shoes from the floor. The sole is breaking away and now there is a gap between it and the cloth part. I stick my fingers into the gap and they come out covered in a rusty brown dust. But it’s just mud.
I wash my hands in the bathroom sink. My reflection in the mirror looks older than I am. I reach out and touch the surface, for a second it seems to ripple like a skipped stone sent across a lake.
I remember how loudly my joints popped as they helped me to my feet. My father was a cop, back then before he retired, and he was the one who wrapped a blanket around me.
“Tom, did you see what happened to Jake?” he asked in the softest voice that I’d ever heard him use.
“No, not really. Just that he was there and then he wasn’t. I heard the crack, though, when the roof broke.”
My father blinked. “What roof?”
“The roof of the cave. The one he fell into.” I said and then my father stared at me for the longest time.
My head feels like my skull is cracking from the inside out, I think from not sleeping. I go for a coffee. I’m crossing the Mall area on campus. It’s near noon and so it’s really crowded. I hear the crack and I recognize it.
Someone screams. A girl drops a glass bottle of juice as she falls. The pieces scatter across the pavement and the liquid seeps into the gaps in the ground.
I hear more cracks of sound, just like how ball lightning was once described to me: a giant popping an air-filled bag between his hands.
I watch as the ground begins to open into giant chasms. Another crack. Then the earth swallows me back into the stars.
Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate from Wisconsin. Her work has appeared such places as Rosebud, Rock & Sling, Booth, Sleet, Split Lip Magazine and more. Follow her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes