The Hole

He got off work thirty minutes ago. As usual, his boss kept him two hours past his out time. He headed straight home to grab the laundry and the grocery list his wife left for him on the kitchen counter. She wouldn't be home until morning. Six months ago, she was switched to working a different shift and now they only saw each other briefly in the morning, sometimes for a few minutes at night, and if they were lucky, for a full day out of the week whenever their off days lined up. He loved her, but he was considering filing for a divorce since she refused to quit and didn't want him to quit his job either. This never went deeper than a thought. Divorce was too expensive for either of them to weather. Today was their third anniversary. He considered buying a cake, but she didn't bother putting it on the list, so he wasn't going to bother either. It was already midnight now. He missed her leaving an hour ago. She was off now at the hospital. He loaded up a week's worth of dirty clothes into the car and drove to the grocery store. There was only one nearby open at this hour, and it would only be open for another hour. While he would prefer to go to the laundromat first, he didn't really have a choice. He went to the old store that had always been there. When he was young, his mom used to shop there late at night. Around the time he started kindergarten, the sign outside used to flicker on the letter Y, but the outside of the store and inside were well kept otherwise. Now, only three of the lights on the sign worked and the store was under different management. The outside hadn't been painted in over a decade, and the inside had a grimy feel to it. The interior had been painted once, a light brown color that hid much of the stains that accumulated on the wall from the leaking roof and various mishaps over the years. A single cashier worked the front. He could vaguely hear people moving around somewhere else in the store, likely the nightly stocking crew, but he never saw them. He went aisle by aisle, checking off each item. Tonight, the store was particular quiet. Usually, the store played a set of songs with ads mixed in. No radio played tonight. Halfway through completing his list, he peeked out at the cashier. She was nose deep in a lengthy book. He hadn't seen her before. He wondered if she turned off the music to give herself some peace and quiet while reading. Without the music playing, his mind focused on sounds it normally didn't. The humming noise some of the lights above him made, the mechanical noises coming from behind the closed doors at the back of the store, the way his shoes squeaked on the cheap, stained tiles. He hurried through the rest of the list. The lady rang up his items slowly, her mind seemingly on something else. She didn't say anything to him beyond his total. He thanked her when she gave him his change, but she was already engrossed in her book again. He left and put everything in the trunk. He walked around the side of the car to the back door on the driver's side to get the laundry bags out. The laundromat was across the road from the grocery store. He was parallel parked off the side of the street. There was a small parking lot at each building, but this was the easiest for him to quickly get between the two locations. A cop once told him he couldn't park there, but at this hour, he rarely saw police around. He dropped one bag on the ground and grabbed the other one. A bright light shined in his eyes, followed by a loud rumble. He looked over at the source. Two cars were speeding down the road, one on the wrong side of the road. He quickly moved to get out of the way as they raced past him. The car driving on the wrong side of the road sped up as he was trying to move out of the way. He could hear people laughing. By luck, he found himself on the ground, but in one piece. One of his laundry bags got knocked into the middle of the road. He rolled his eyes. Races like this were pretty common among the teens in the area. He dusted himself off and got the laundry bag. He returned to his car to close the door and get the other bag. The street was dead silent after that, aside from the crickets and cicadas. He walked over to the laundromat. The sign outside looked a brighter yellow than usual. The glow from it reminded him of fireflies. He assumed they must have gotten the lights replaced recently. Inside, the building was empty. It was a twenty-four hour laundromat, but staff never stayed past eleven. Sometimes, they left the TV on, sometimes it was off. Today, it was left on. As usual, the bathroom was locked shut. He knew how to open it without the key, so he didn't really care about that. A third of the machines were out of order. He was glad to see his favorite washing machine wasn't. That one washed clothes the best. He had a favorite dryer too. At this point, he had used this laundromat so often he knew the quality of every machine in the building. He dumped the laundry bag with their more delicate clothes in his favorite washer and the other bag in the next best available machine. Now, he waited. Most nights, at least two or three other people would be in the building with him. He was alone. The TV had been left on the news. He was grateful for that. Any human voice was better than none. The weatherman predicted sunny conditions for tomorrow. He hoped so, because tomorrow was his day off and his wife's day off too. They might be able to spend some time together for once. He regretted not getting the cake. When the news ended, a horror movie started up. He wasn't in the mood for blood and gore. He dragged his chair over to the mounted TV to change the channel. His fingers barely reached the buttons. He flipped through channels, but got static for most of them. The only other channels he could pick up were playing a religious program begging for large donations and an infomercial about a weight loss program. The religious program was near as unsettling as the horror movie, with all the talk of Hell and the evils of the world. He settled on the infomercial at first, but it was so grating he changed the channel back to the horror movie before turning the TV off. Without the TV, somehow, the laundromat became more eerie to him. He was left only with the sound of the washing machines and his own breathing. He stepped outside for a while, hoping for a car to pass by or to see what was going on across the street at the grocery store. By now, the grocery store was closed. There no cars parked in the parking lot around the front now. He assumed everyone had finished up for the night. His car was the only car parked as far as he could see both ways. The gas station was closed now. Nothing would be open again until sunrise. Outside, all he heard were bugs. He looked up at the sky, wishing for an airplane to pass over. He went back inside and turned the TV back on. He didn't bother folding his clothes after drying them. He went straight home. The TV was put on, and a sitcom picked for his background noise as he folded clothes in the living room. He microwaved himself a TV dinner, then checked if he had any messages from his wife. There were none. He called the hospital, but the line was busy. He tried on his two-way pager, sending her a short message to call him and "I love you". She didn't respond to his message or call. He put the clothes away, then sent her one last message before turning in, "good night". Around five-thirty, he woke up. He couldn't get himself back to sleep. Lately, he had been having a lot of trouble sleeping. It was likely, he thought, because of the issues between him and his wife getting worse, but he didn't want to think about that. He sat out on the back porch for a while. The cool morning air made him nostalgic for when he was young and his mother used to take him down to the creek by their house to catch crawdads. She'd wake him early, around this time, and they'd be off after a quick breakfast. After that, they'd collect whatever berries or nuts were in season. He had a lot of fun doing that as a kid. It didn't dawn on him until he was older that the reason she took him on those morning trips so often was because they were poor, and she sought out any free food she could find. He had a falling out with her when he was older, around twenty. He was young and foolish then, and thought he knew everything. He didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her when she passed away. Only after she was gone did he find out from his aunt that she had been sick a long time. He was grateful, at least, for the memories. He had so few of his father. He died of cancer at a young age. His mother suspected it was caused by something at the factory, but she couldn't prove it. Since he was four, it had been only the two of them in their little house at the end of the road. He wondered, now that she was gone, who was living in their old home. Was it full of someone else's warmth or demolished to build a bigger one? Given the location, he presumed it likely shared the same fate as many of the old houses in that place. Unworthy of a bank's time, it would be left abandoned for the kudzu to consume and swallow whole until every board broke under its weight and sunk deep into the earth. He sat out there and waited for the sun to rise. His wife should be coming home not long after that. At seven, he went inside to cook breakfast. Since he didn't buy the cake last night, he tried to make up for it by making a really nice breakfast for the two of them. He got out some candles and lit them. A few roses were taken from the backyard and put in a vase. He waited, and waited, and waited. After half an hour, he called the hospital. No one answered. He paged her. Nothing. It was possible she stayed at the hospital to sleep, exhausted from her long shift. She did that sometimes, but she usually called or sent him a message to let him know. He reasoned that maybe she simply forgot to because she was so tired. He gave it another hour before calling the hospital again. No one picked up. He got in his car. On the way there, he noticed the gas station was still closed. The grocery store didn't appear to be open either. No one was in the laundromat. His car was the only one on the road. He drove faster, wondering if he missed some kind of evacuation. Surely, he thought, his wife would contact him about something like that. There was nothing about any emergencies on the news. This morning's news was a continuation of the same story from last night, and the weatherman cheerily predicted a sunny day ahead. At the hospital, the parking lot was empty. He went up to the building to see if anyone was inside. The doors were locked at every entrance. He tried contacting his wife again. Nothing. He went to a payphone nearby to call the hospital. No one answered. He called his in-laws' house next, then his boss. Desperate, he called 911. He held out hope that some kind of emergency evacuation had occurred without him knowing. He waited, but no one ever picked up. He returned to his car and drove around town. Every store was closed. Every parking lot was empty. His in-laws cars were absent from their driveway. The spare key they kept underneath the potted plant on the front porch was strangely missing as well. He peered in through the front window. The living room TV played the news. He couldn't make out what was being said, but saw a car chase and text scrolling across the bottom of the screen. He went around the back of the house. One of the back windows needed to be fixed and could be opened from the outside. He slipped into the house through the window. Room by room, he looked for his relatives. The house was empty. He sat down in front of the TV to see what was happening on the news. The message at the bottom of the screen was about the car chase, not an emergency evacuation. He flipped through channels searching for anything about why the town was empty. All the usual daytime shows were on. He tried using their phone to call 911, but their phone was disconnected. He checked the rooms again, to see what was missing. The closet was full, as were the fridge and pantry. Nothing appeared to be moved from the dresser. Their suitcases they always took on vacation were in the hall closet. With nothing to go on, he left their home and drove toward the next city over. Except for his car, the highway was empty. He'd never seen it like that before. Small as their city was, there were always at least a few cars going somewhere at this time of day. He only saw anything like this very late at night. He turned on the radio, but everything was static. After what seemed like an hour, he was no closer to the next city. That couldn't be right, he thought to himself. He should have already been there. He drove faster, and another hour flew by. As he drove, he watched the scenery more closely. He was traveling over the same area again and again. In the middle of the road, he U-turned. Within a few minutes, he was in front of the laundromat. He parked his car in the usual place and went inside. It was empty. The bathroom door was locked, even though it would normally be open during this time of day. The counter where staff usually sat during the daytime and sold detergent was locked up. The TV played the news. He opened the back door of the laundromat to see if anyone was around back. Outside, it was pitch black. He ran back inside. Through the glass at the front, he saw it was dark outside there too. He ran out of the building and back to his car. He sent his wife another message. As he drove home, he listened for her response. Nothing came. At home, he tried calling 911 again. His phone was now disconnected. He tried his pager again and waited in front of the TV. He kept the volume on as loudly as he could, terrified of the silence around him and what he might hear in that quietness. Morning came an hour later, the sun's morning light blinding him from the windows at all sides. He peered out the front window. His wife's car wasn't there. No messages came in. He drove back out into town, tired but unable to sleep. He parked in the grocery store parking lot. The sign on the front read "closed". He pressed against one of the doors of the grocery store. It swung open. The store wasn't locked up, but no one was inside. He yelled out in hopes that someone would answer back. Where the cashier from the other night was he found the book she had been reading tucked away underneath the register. Everything was running as it should be. Every register and light were on, the freezers were working, and the AC blew down on him from above. The noises from the back of the store were gone, as was the music. In the bakery section, he picked out a cake. A chocolate cake with chocolate icing, his wife's favorite. He took it to the front and paid for it himself by playing the role of the cashier. Then, he went straight home. It was night again and the driveway was empty when he pulled in. He sent his wife a message simply saying "I love you". The TV played the news, another car chase. He opened the cake at the dining table, cut it and put a single piece on his plate and one on the plate he placed across from himself. He sat and waited. Hours passed before sunrise came. The cake was left on the table when he went out into town. He checked the hospital again, then his in-laws' house. Every part of town was driven by. Down the highway, he drove the car as fast as it could go only to end up back at the laundromat. He broke down in the car and screamed. Lonely, he drove out to a familiar place he hadn't seen in years. There, down an old, cracked road, he found the remnants of what was once his childhood home. Kudzu consumed everything but a few boards here and there. He stepped through the winding vines and purple flowers. Kudzu beetles flew into the air as he went deeper in. A few bit at his arms, but he ignored them. He found the place where his backyard once was, where his mother often sat in the mornings before they went out to collect crawdads. For a moment, he thought she might be there, as impossible as it was. If everyone who should be there was gone, he thought, maybe someone who should be gone wouldn't be. She wasn't there either, but the air smelled like his memories of her. The running water of the creek reached him, but he couldn't see the way to it anymore. Kudzu covered up all the old paths he knew. He settled for trying to get into where his old bedroom was. With his pocket knife, he cut back what he could of the kudzu. He found the kitchen and then the living room. Some of the boards of the floor were still there. He stepped on a broken door. A few nicks along the side gave away that it used to be the door to his bedroom. He cut deeper in. When he crossed through the place where the doorway once was, he tripped on the remains of the carpet that used to line the floor. Through the kudzu, he fell deep into the earth. The fall happened so quickly he had no time to react and reach for anything. He landed on his back, facing the blinding sun above him. His pager fell out off his belt and landed beside him. He sat up. Nothing appeared to be broken, on him or the device. He put the pager back in its carrying case on his belt and dusted himself off. How deep he fell, he wasn't certain, but it was too far down for him to simply jump up and reach the top of the hole. He tried to climb along the dirt and rocks, but he couldn't get a good grip. The long kudzu vines snaking their way down into the hole weren't strong enough to support his weight. He sent out a message, "help me". He kept trying to climb out, but his efforts were in vain. He next tried to dig into the earth itself to make areas for himself to grip onto better. Red clay, rocks, and kudzu roots all made this impossible. He yelled as loud as he could for help, knowing no one would answer him. He gave up and sat down against the clay and rock. For the next hour, he sent message after message. No one responded. He tossed the pager in frustration. It tumbled down a long ways through cracks in the rocks along the bottom edges of the hole. Then, it went off. He stared in its direction before rushing over to try and get it to see the message. The space it fell through was big enough for his arm to fit through, but nothing else. He reached as far as he could. The pager was too far down for him to get to. He tilted his head at an angle to get a better look at the pager itself. He could see there was a message, but the pager was too far away for him to read it. He tried to force him arm further down, but he couldn't. His arm got stuck. To free himself, he dug at the ground until he could dislodge it again. Then, he kept digging. He pulled rocks aside where he could. By sunset, he'd dug away everything he could on that side. Now, he could go deeper in the hole, but the pager was still out of reach. Another message came in. He couldn't read it. In that dark hole, he tried to sleep. It never came. He stared up at the night sky, nearly as dark as the hole he was trapped in. Morning came without him knowing any sleep. He tried to dig deeper at a different spot, but the pager, now going off every hour, remained always slightly out of reach. And there he continued on throughout his days, which he stopped counting after the tenth and forgot the word for after the fiftieth. He paced, hungry and weary, unable to rest in the peaceful arms of sleep or death. The only hope in his solitary prison was the light of the sun peaking into the hole at dawn. At its light, he howled in agony like a beast, arms stretched out to its brilliance. He was too small and far away to be noticed, by the sun or anyone else, if anyone ever came. It went on like that until his wife gave her consent to let him go.
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