The truth is I don’t expect them to show up at all. I’m used to getting blown off. It’s basic as hell—New Kid Blues, et cetera, et cetera. You arrive in town the same way you’ve arrived in the last six towns, midway through the semester—long enough for factions to solidify among the student body, but too late to find one for yourself. Split any group of kids into factions and overnight they’ll hunger for the blood of anyone outside their circle. It’s instinctual, a survival mechanism. Any new variable is a threat, and right now that’s me.
So I’m wary when this lanky rat-faced kid approaches at lunch. Older, maybe even eighteen. And yeah, very rat-faced, especially with those mean little eyes and that dopey smirk—an archetypal outcast, but that goes for most kids at Los Suelos K-12, and sharing outcast traits isn’t enough to make you kin. He sits down at the lunch table, sucks a strand of mucus back up a narrow nostril and says, “What’s good?”
I ignore him, figuring he’s talking to somebody else or just trying to fuck with me.
“You talk, man?”
I look up. “Sometimes.”
He smiles wide—sharp canines, like a coyote. “You’re new, right? What brings you to Los Sueblows?”
I push away my lunch tray. “Get on with it. You gonna shake me down? Show me the hands? You want my food?”
Rat-face puts his hands up, palms open. “Damn dude, who hurt you?”
I look at him, then back down at the tray filled with pink sludge and maybe eggs. “Never mind.”
He introduces himself as Matt, says his pop hauled him here like maybe ten years ago, and that he knows the deal around town. He tells me he can get me anything I need.
“Okay,” I say. “Cool.”
Then he leans in real close—skin smelling like old eggs, breath like rotten cabbage—and asks if I’ve heard about The Buried Man.
I smile. I haven’t heard of The Buried Man, but I know what it is. I’d been in this position before, in any number of bullshit towns, learning the mythos. Haunted bridges and murder houses. A Kansas cemetery might contain a gateway to hell, a New Hampshire hill town might house a Micah Witch, the Florida panhandle might have a skunk ape. The details change, but it’s all the same thing—an excuse to go out at night. Everything else is just local flavor.
So Los Suelos has a Buried Man.
“No.” I iron out my smile. “I don’t know about the Buried Man.”
Matt grins wide, revealing a barbell frenulum piercing. “Then you’re in luck. This Saturday’s a full moon.”
“Yeah. You’ll see.”
Taptaptaptaptap. I jolt up from bed, my room filled with warm blue light. Taptaptaptaptap on glass. I grope the side table for my glasses, squinting at the window. Taptaptaptaptap. A gray shape moves behind the glass. Matt, contorting his face into evil grins. The tapping stops, replaced by hushed giggling.
I get out of bed and pull on my pants and slide over to the window. I put my finger to my lips to shush him. Mom snores away in the next room over. I reach the bottom of the window and gently pull it up. There’s another boy standing away from the house. He looks more my age, maybe fourteen or fifteen—skinny, tall, in a black trench coat. “Lemme get some clothes on,” I say. “Wait over there.”
Matt nods, still giggling, and walks over to his friend. I get into some slip-ons and a shirt, then climb out the window and walk over to meet them.
“Dude, what is good?” Matt laughs. “This is tight. Thought you were gonna bitch out for a second.” He slaps my shoulder and points ahead, past a fence. “Let’s go. Up here.”
We climb over the fence and jog toward a long squat building, hard gray in the moonlight, a sign saying “Pala Hardware” on the front. Clots of rusted drums across the asphalt. Matt leading, the other boy by my side, his coat flapping like a cape. We head to the side of the building, beneath its shadow.
“Fucking beautiful tonight.” Matt pulls out three cigarettes, offering me one. I shake my head. He gives it to the other boy, sticks another between his lips, and tucks the third behind his ear. He points at the other boy. “This is Raf.”
I nod toward Raf.
Raf dips his head slowly, almost as a curtsy, eyes never leaving mine. “The pleasure is mine.” His voice is like chain dragged across stone.
Matt lights Raf’s butt, then his own, taking a deep drag. He french-inhales and puffs a few blobby smoke rings.
“What about the refreshments?” Raf asks.
“Oh yeah, dude, check this out.” Matt goes to one of the drums standing against Pala Hardware’s sidewall. He reaches in and pulls out a six-pack. He tears a can off and tosses it at me. I dodge out of the way, and the can skitters across the asphalt. “Ah shit, that’s like an automatic shotgun. I can take that if you want.” He hands me another can, gives the rest of the six-pack to Raf, and chases through the dark after the thrown beer.
The beer is hot and stale but not unpleasant. Matt runs back. “Alright, you ready?” He takes out a black bar, unfolds a knife, and stabs the can. Foam sprays, and Matt sticks his mouth into it. He groans, sucking it down, then throws the half-emptied can at the building. “Fuck yeah. Alright alright alright.” His belch echoes off walls and rock. He turns to me. “Okay, so basically it’s like a mile and a half past the Monarch-Cypress intersection. Up this way.” He points toward the other end of the building and starts walking toward it.
I nod along, following him, burping warm foam into my mouth.
Raf walks by my side again. “So,” he says. “What hellish turn of fate brings you to The Sway?”
Flashes in my head. Mom crying on the telephone. Packets of white. A gun in the dresser.
“New job,” I say. “My mom got a new job.”
Raf nods. “Of course.”
We step out of the shadow to rows of vacant lot, dust skittering over asphalt, a warm cottonmouth wind rising up.
We turn south at Cypress Ave, toward the outskirts, the neighborhood behind us lit by a full circle of moon hanging high above the Bolt Gun Hills. Matt and Raf talk and laugh, jokes relying on contexts I don’t yet understand. I keep silent, watching the shrubs trembling in the wind.
“Alright, it’s coming up.” We enter a construction site and Matt points to a car-sized rock ringed by spiny blooms of thistles. “That’s always how you can tell.” He leads us to a small crater nearby, diameter of maybe a hula hoop.
“Oh shit,” Matt says, pointing at the crater. “I’ve never seen it come up before.” And just as he says that, there’s a sound—a hiss. Air releasing. Through the moonlight it almost seems as though the sand within the crater shifts. A gurgle. The sand turns brown, and begins filling with water.
“Man,” Raf says. “That is beautiful.”
I step toward the crater, now a small pool. “What is it?”
Matt smiles. “It’s The Buried Man.”
“And what the hell is The Buried Man?”
Matt squats down and plants his ass in the sand. “Alright, you ready for a history lesson?”
I laugh. “Sure. What you got?”
“So like, around two hundred, hundred-fifty years ago, when white boys finally started taking this place over, this place was part of the California Gold Rush, and folks were setting up mines all over the place. People were going crazy over this shit. And a lot of places had gold, but like ninety percent of the time, they found jackshit. Can you guess which category Los Suelos fell under?”
“Bingo. But before anyone knew that, this prospector Joe Barnsey bought out the land around here and hired up the locals to dig and sift for gold. Just over that ridge, maybe a hundred yards up from the river, you can still find the mine.”
“So is that where we’re heading?”
Matt laughs. “Fuck no. Going there in the day even is borderline suicide. I knew this one kid, thought he was hot shit, skipped class to go out there. Never found. Some folks are still looking for him.” He goes on telling me about this miner who, at this very spot, heard a crying that sounded like his youngest son. Like the boy was crying out from beneath the ground.
“Yeah? So what?”
“So he starts digging. He figures his kid had gone fucking around in the mine and gotten lost. It never occurs to him that he wouldn’t have been able to hear the cries from aboveground. Like, times were different. People were dumb. Anyway, he digs and digs. He digs so deep, with no concern for how he’ll get out of the hole. All he wants is to see his son and bring him home safely. So he digs until night falls, until the hole is twice as tall as he is. But he never reaches the source of the crying. The weeping always seems just below his feet. And as the shovel falls from his blistered hands, he looks up to find the moon positioned perfectly over the hole, shining its silver light down on him.” He stops.
“And so then what?”
Matt shakes his head. “The hole caves in on him. He’s buried alive. When he doesn’t come home, his family goes out searching for him. His wife said she could hear him weeping beneath the dirt. And when they called out for him, this little pool gurgled to the surface—his tears, from his ceaseless weeping, because he knew he’d never see his family again.”
I mull it over, and laugh. “Shut the fuck up, dude.”
“It’s true, man,” Matt says, but he’s laughing too. “It’s totally that dude’s tears.”
“Let me get this straight—so while this guy was digging, there had to have been somebody with him, right?”
“Nope, he was alone.”
“So how the hell would anyone know that he heard weeping from underground? How would anyone know he got buried alive? He probably got sick of mining and his family and dipped.”
Matt shakes his head. “You know how these things are, man. We just know it happened. Don’t need any witnesses or shit.”
“Okay, and why does he cry when it’s a full moon? How does he even know that?”
He laughs again. “’Cause who cares?”
I creep further toward the pool, blades of blue shimmering across its surface. “Really, though. What is it?”
“So, we actually have another reason for bringing you here.”
I turn back to him.
“It’s kind of an initiation thing.” He dusts his hands on the sides of his pants. “If you wanna roll with us, you gotta drink the tears.”
Raf starts laughing. Matt holds back a smirk.
Matt and Raf side-eye each other. “Yeah.”
“Alright then.” I creep to the side of the pool and crouch down onto my knees. The water’s skin ripples. Crystal clear, like a jellyfish. I cup my hands and reach into it. Colder than I expected, colder than even seems possible. Icy, almost. I lift up a handful of water.
“Wait wait wait.” Raf’s voice, now filled with panic.
I tilt my head back and raise the water to my lips.
“Don’t! Don’t!” Matt joining him.
I drink it down. So cold. Like ice, or blades. I feel a push inside my head—vertigo—and I sway off-balance.
“Dude, it’s a fucking joke!” Matt shouts.
Raf’s mouth hangs open like a garage. “You should make yourself hurl.” Neither of them are laughing anymore.
“It’s just water,” I say.
“No, for real—there is so much contamination around here. You really should throw that up.”
“Raf’s right, dude.” Matt pushes himself to his feet. “You’re not even really supposed to drink the tap water here.”
Flashes in my mind of lead, of arsenic, of birth defects, of a life of blindness.
I hold my belly with both hands, now swollen, even though it was only a sip. “Oh.”
I double over and clench my stomach. Dry heaves, all my skin tenses, every muscle in my face flexing. “Argh.” I put my finger in my mouth, trying to touch the back of my throat. Dry heaves, my limbs going to pins and needles, and a thick glob of saliva falling from my bottom lip. But the water is still in me. My stomach gurgles and moves, like an eel’s nest. I reach my entire hand into my mouth, tapping where my tongue becomes my throat. My guts clench and hot fluid rockets up into my mouth, onto my hand, onto the ground.
“Whoa!” Matt shouts.
“Damn, son,” Raf says. “That was a heroic puke.”
I stay buckled over, hands on my knees, spitting to get the taste out of my mouth—bile and beer and mac and cheese with spaghetti sauce from dinner. And something else. Like a fire. Burning wood. No, burning plastic. Like a dollhouse on fire in my mouth, in my stomach.
I stand upright, the landscape blurring, blinking in quarter-seconds. I feel like a fever. I take a step and almost fall over.
“You alright?” Matt runs to me, around the puddle of puke, and grabs my shoulder.
“I’m fine, probably.” I step away from him, but the ground is unstable, like standing atop a water balloon. I feel myself falling and shift my weight to the other side.
“Hey!” Matt grabs my shoulders, keeping me upright. “You gotta sit down.”
“I’m fine. Can we just go home?”
“Dude, you’re not going anywhere like this.”
“Nah, man. It’ll be fine.” I lean back against his hands. “Just hold me up like this and I can walk.”
“I don’t know, man.”
Then I hear Raf. “I do need to get home.”
Matt lets out a big sigh. “Okay. Let’s go.”
We’re walking for only like ten minutes before I feel stable again, and Matt no longer needs to steer me. My stomach still feels a little weird, but I’m realizing it’s probably just psychosomatic—a product of the atmosphere and Matt’s story. We cross back through the residential part of town, past Pala Hardware, toward home. As we approach my house Matt taps my shoulder.
“Hey man, we good?”
I smile. “Yeah, of course. This was tight.”
He smiles back and points at my belly. “If you start feeling sick and shit, get that looked at.”
Raf holds out his hand. I take it. “Godspeed, sir.” And they both walk into the night.
I step to my window, slide it back open and pull myself up into the hot room. I strip off my clothes and fall into bed. The clock says 4:44 AM.
I’m falling. No, I’m floating. No, I’m sinking. Sinking in blue. A blue the shade of cosmos. A blue the size of the world.
Something ahead of me. No, below me. The place I’m sinking toward. A plane as broad as everything I’ve ever known. Coming closer, closer. And then I land. My feet meet the ground—clay and sand. Bubbles erupt all around me.
Through the blue, the blue like night, I see the rock, and the swaying thistles reaching out from it. And beneath me, I hear a quiet weeping.
I wake up wet. At first I think it’s sweat, but no, it’s wetter than that. I’m soaked. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. I bolt upright and slide off the bed. This hasn’t happened since I was little. My underwear, my sheets—fuck, my entire body. Even my fucking face and pillows, Jesus Christ. I gag. How could I have pissed this much? I smell my wrist. It’s salty, but not like urine. It smells like the beach. I press down on the mattress. Fluid squeezes through the fibers.
It doesn’t make sense. Water trickles from my tear ducts.
A knock at the door. “Bryce, you up yet?” The alarm clock reads 11:17. “I’m going grocery shopping, you want to come?”
“Hey, Mom. I–I think I’m coming down with something.”
“Oh no.” The doorknob shakes. Locked, thankfully.
“I don’t want you to catch it. I’m just gonna sleep it off.” I can’t stop sweating.
“Oh, okay.” Exhaustion and some sadness in her voice. “Drink lots of water.”
I wait to hear the front door shut, for Mom’s car’s ignition to rumble, for the sound of dirt and gravel shifting beneath tires. Then I run to the bathroom and jump in the shower. The water stings, like it’s tearing through my flesh. I close my eyes. My skin feels like it’s peeling off in sheets. I open them again and everything is normal, just water cascading off my body.
Once all the salty wet is scrubbed off, I get out and towel myself down. Immediately I’m dripping with sweat again. I unplug Mom’s hair dryer and head back to my room.
I strip the sheets, pillowcases and mattress cover. I press down on the mattress again. More salty liquid rises over the fibers. It must be completely saturated. My stomach churns.
I open the window and hang the mattress cover over it. I turn on my fan and point it toward it. I plug in the hair dryer and point it at the mattress, waving it over the surface. I don’t feel hot but I keep sweating. Tears keep pouring from my eyes, but I’m not crying.
Mom leaves me a plate of Italian mac and cheese at my door. When she goes to bed, I bring it in but I don’t eat. I sneak to the bathroom and pee for fifteen straight minutes.
Monday morning and things are still wet–wetter than before. I sit up and water presses out of the mattress, sloshing onto the floor. Wet fills my mouth, an anti-cottonmouth, and I keep swallowing, gagging on thin saliva. I sweat through my clothes the moment I put them on.
I leave for school before Mom wakes. I leave a note, lying, saying I feel better. I need to find Matt.
It’s hot out but the sun doesn’t dry me. The wet keeps coming out. Out my tear ducts. Out my mouth, out my skin. Leaving a trail behind me like a slug. My clothes cling to my thighs and armpits, rubbing them raw.
I get to school and Matt’s standing at the front entrance, playing hacky sack with himself. He sees me coming and smiles. “Hey, man.” Then his lips straighten and his forehead scrunches. “You okay?”
“What did I drink?” The words glug out. A mouthful of drool falls with each syllable.
“What?” Then a flash of realization across his face. “Oh, I don’t know. Just buried water. Dude, you are not looking good.”
“I’m not feeling good.” A rush of water from my tear ducts.
“You should go to the doctor, man. Or at least the nurse.”
I shake my head. “Never mind, I have to go to class.”
I jog down the hall to first period, geometry. All the other kids look at me, sweat and tears pouring from my face, through my clothes, but they take their eyes away once Mr. Mann comes in. He begins talking about transformed figures, rigid and non-rigid transformations, even though I think he’s mainly an English teacher. I look down at my desk and close my eyes. It isn’t black in there but blue. An endless blue. Bubbles and shapes in the haze. The opposite of void–space filled completely, to the brim. It feels like the future, like a premonition.
In only a moment, not even a second, my bladder fills and releases.
Pee shoots against the front of my already-soaked pants, all over my lap and down my leg. I jump out of my seat.
“Excuse me!” Mr. Mann shouts.
I cover my crotch. Everyone looking at me again, giggling. “I-I-I-I–”
“Sit the hell down…” He looks at his desk. “… Bryce.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.” Piss dribbling into my shoe, onto the floor. And before getting a response from Mann I just take off, through the door down the hall, still pissing, leaving a trail of sea water piss on the linoleum. I shoulder my way into the bathroom and yank my pants open. I pee. I pee for five minutes. Ten. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Thirty. The bell rings; other students come into the bathroom and piss and shit in the unoccupied urinals and stalls. I keep pissing through it all. I can’t stop.
The bell rings for the next period, and when I no longer hear commotion in the hall, I stuff myself back into my pants, still pissing, and open the door. I run. I run to the front entrance, past a yelling hall monitor and administrator. I run to the outside, to the heat, to the dry, and I keep running.
I don’t know where I am and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it’s dirt. The only thing that can dry me—it has to be. I push through the shrubs and brush, hunched over, groping the ground until I find a long, thin rock, like a spade. I grasp it, falling to my knees. Water falling from my eyes in torrents, blinding me. Water falling off my skin in sheets. Pissing, shitting water endlessly. It all hits the ground and sinks through it. Absorbing it, becoming dry.
The rock slips in my hand. I lift it above my head and bring it down in the dirt, scooping a tiny amount to the side. I spit gallons of water onto the dry turf, and keep digging. Sweating, weeping, pissing water, shitting water, vomiting it. I scratch at the dirt with the rock, deepening it slightly. In hours, maybe an entire day, it will be deep enough for me to slip my body into. But even then, will it be enough? I will have to keep digging, until I’m far enough under, to the point that I can’t climb out. It’s the only way. It’s all I have left. The dirt will dry me, absorb me. The only thing that can. It will plug and hold me, until one day it’s no longer able to, and I will burst forth and flood the earth.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.