It happened before her parents died. Between the woods and the pond. The morning outside started deep gray; from her bedroom, it looked like evening. She liked it that way. It was rare.
She had one lamp turned on and was reading a book in her beanbag chair when her dad knocked on her door.
“Hey, Bethany,” he said.
He never called her Bethy. Everyone else did. Sometimes she thought this was his way of treating her like a grownup. Other times she thought it was a clue to a mystery.
“What are you doing?”
She lifted the book off her lap. It was a beaten-up Babysitter’s Club paperback. “I found them in the attic.”
Bethany’s room was full of things Carli had left behind. The beanbag chair, an old dollhouse. A heavy hand mirror, framed in fake-silver curlicues. Books and old CDs. A small glass coin bank shaped like Snoopy. Stuff Carli wouldn’t miss when she came home from college.
Her dad said, “I’m sure she’s glad you’re using them.”
“But you know your mom doesn’t want you going in the attic by yourself.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Uncle Russ is coming over this afternoon.
She smiled to be polite. Uncle Russ ignored her and for that she found him endlessly fascinating.
One time she’d sat right next to him on the couch, close against him but without actually touching, and it was like she wasn’t there at all. His arms, when he talked loud and gestured, they glided past her face like fish under a glass-bottomed boat. When she sat quiet enough, when Uncle Russ came visiting, even her parents forgot a little that she was there.
“And,” her dad said, “there’s…we’re going to be doing something today. In an hour or so. Something you might like to see. But we need to keep it a secret. If you promise not to tell Mom that you’re helping us, we could use some help.”
“Okay,” she said.
“That’s my girl,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her. “You should put some play clothes on. Your mom will put us both in time-out if she sees you got your new pants dirty.”
She couldn’t pay attention to her book after that, so she watched out her window as the clouds grew less thick and the wind-blown gusts of dirt settled back groundward. Bethany couldn’t imagine her parents keeping secrets from each other. So she knew her dad and her uncle and she were going to be planning a surprise party. Her mom’s birthday wasn’t for another three months.
The secret didn’t keep itself long. Bethany was standing near the old barn when her mom and her uncle drove up the long driveway toward the garage one after the other. Her uncle’s car was red. That disappointed her. She’d made a bet with herself that it would be blue. At least it was shiny and looked new. She’d gotten that much right.
The face her mom made when she saw Bethany reminded Bethany of the taste of sushi. She’d tried it once at her friend Beth Ann’s house. The raw fish had been disgusting, but she couldn’t spit it back out. Not in front of Beth Ann’s entire family.
“Bill, I thought we agreed,” her mom yelled.
“Kris,” her dad said. He was walking across the yard. “It might be something. She likes interesting things. Right, Bethany?
“Bill, you know she’s been getting all sorts of nightmares since Carli left.”
“I am not!” Bethany yelled. Her mom didn’t understand. Bethany knew about the monsters in the trees and the creatures at the bottom of the pond, the ones that shook the leaves and splashed the water at night. Bethany knew they were scary, but she wasn’t scared, because she knew they kept the worse things back.
Uncle Russ was wearing a dirty t-shirt with a picture of a motorcycle on it, and his thick mustache reached down past the sides of his mouth to his chin. It was shaped like a table for his nose, Bethany thought. He was the tallest person Bethany knew and he had enough hair on his arms to fill her grandpa’s bald head. Uncle Russ was at least two feet taller than her dad. They looked nothing alike. Her dad said that was because Uncle Russ was adopted; Uncle Russ said her dad was a bad genetic engineering experiment. Her mom looked funny hugging Uncle Russ, stretching on her toes. It was like watching a baby deer being squeezed up by an ogre.
Bethany yelled, “Hi Uncle Russ!” He didn’t react at all, and Bethany jumped once and smiled. It was a fun game. Her dad pulled her close to his leg. His jeans, his only pair, were rough against her cheek, and they were clean; she’d just watched her mom wash them two days ago. She twisted herself free and stood out of his reach.
When Uncle Russ and her mom got close he was smiling but his shoulders were slouched and his eyes were red. Bethany remembered the noises he’d made in the living room two days earlier. She’d heard them all the way in the kitchen, where she’d been doing her math homework while her mom stirred brownie batter in a large yellow bowl. They were frightening even before she realized he was crying. He’d sounded like bubbling, like he was fighting something that was clawing out his throat. That her mom ignored his cries was the worst.
“Hi Russ,” her dad said.
“Hey, big brother. Look, I know we been over this but I’m so sorry. I can’t even. You shouldn’t have to–”
Her dad pointed at the pond. “The spot’s there. Let’s get the shovels.”
Her uncle looked down at his feet, and then he and her dad walked toward the barn. She was never allowed to play by herself in there, even though there was nothing left inside but rotted wood and rusty power tools. Uncle Russ shuffled his beaten white tennis shoes over the dirt and dead grass. He kept putting his hands in his pockets and taking them back out. Her dad walked with his back straight and his head facing forward and his hands clasped behind his back. They looked like strangers in the same hallway.
“Bethy, honey,” her mom said, “I want you to go inside.”
“But dad said he needs me to help.”
“Your dad says dumb things.”
“But I want to help.”
“You’re too young to understand.”
“No I’m not.”
Usually this would have been followed by a “Do what I said,” or a “When you’re old enough to drive you can make your own decisions,” but instead her mom bit the tip of her thumb and studied the barn.
Her dad and uncle walked out, each with a shovel. Uncle Russ carried his like a baseball bat on his shoulder, while her dad held his like a sword. There was a flurry of barks from near the garage; their dogs, Maple and Elmer, talking. Bethany turned in a slow see-through circle and looked up at the roof of their house, with the dead television antenna like the skeleton of an extinct bird.
Her uncle was in trouble. It became clear. She already knew he stole cars. But then, something in the sky told her that other people knew. The police were looking for him, and some of them were trying to stop other police from finding him because they knew he was capable of wicked things. He was dangerous. He gave cars to poor people. He threw empty cars off cliffs to explode them so he could watch the pieces fall to canyon floors like petals off flowers of rubber and metal. Everything made sense. She could have told her parents the truth then but she knew they would have given her a far less exciting explanation. They always coated things in dull, mushy adult language. She’d learned early not to ask them too many questions about how the world worked.
Her uncle and her dad walked around the the pond. Her mom said, “Come on, Bethy. Let’s make sure the boys don’t throw their backs out.”
For a second, Bethany saw her dad’s spine speared upon a pole, clicking against itself in a rooftop breeze.
All afternoon, the two men dug, sometimes at the same time, sometimes either alone. They wanted to empty the hole fast. She wanted to help dig but her mom called her back whenever she got too close. Mostly she ran to the house for water and beer.
It wasn’t warm but they wiped sweat from their foreheads. Uncle Russ’s arms looked like mops.
It made sense when he took his shirt off. He went fishing and camping and wanted to go mountain climbing out west. He did landscaping for extra money. His skin was all dark brown or burnt. But her dad, he taught at a college an hour away. He spent his weekends playing chess on the Internet. When he took his shirt off, after Uncle Russ did, his back gleamed pale, and his sweat made him shiny and pink, like uncooked chicken wrapped in plastic wrap. He had no belly and barely any muscles. Bethany felt embarrassed.
Nobody said much while the hole took shape. Her mom joked that her dad’s skin was blinding them all. Now and then her dad and uncle talked about depth, width.
Later Uncle Russ asked about her dad’s classes.
“Another year of the same,” her dad said. He scratched his chin and examined his work. “The students have no vision for ontology. Total failure to recognize genius when they see it.”
“Kids, right?” Uncle Russ said. He spat then stabbed the spot with his shovel.
“Being and Nothingness. Sartre, they think. They think he’s…I don’t know. Hip. Easy.” There was dirt up and down his jaw. “They equate him with spiritual anarchy. They’ve little interest in the complexity and humanity of his existential vision. Its aboutness.”
Uncle Russ only dug. Bethany noticed this. This was one advantage of knowing someone who never looked at you. You could study them. She knew she’d never know what he was thinking at that moment.
A bit later, when he stopped and sat on the edge of the hole to drink a beer, he asked Bethany’s mom how her job was going. She ran a coffee shop downtown. She complained about customers. They were going away.
By early evening, the hole was rough but rectangular, one end as deep as her uncle’s neck, the other end a steep ramp. The wall of the deep end looked like it could hide the entrance to an unexplored tunnel. With her dad and uncle and mom standing silent nearby, Bethany snuck down the ramp down into the hole. She walked right up to the wall and felt herself go see-through, like she could pass through the dirt, like it was a curtain. She liked the sound of the word ontology. She felt someone looming above her, and she looked up and there was her mom, her arms crossed over her chest and strands of her hair sprouting out of the knot she’d tied up at the back of her head. All the sounds were distant: the whoosh of beer cans, knees and backs and arms popping, the returning breeze. She looked at the dirt. She saw little bits of roots like lost strings and the white eggs of underground insects. But it smelled cleaner than anything. She pressed a palm into it, poked holes into it with her fingers, left her marks there. It was firm but soft, like the comforter on her parents’ bed.
Then Uncle Russ belched loud and hard. Her mom laughed and turned away from the hole, and her dad said, “Go get it.”
Bethany looked once more at the framed sky. Then she ran back up the ramp. Her uncle was trudging away, holding his shovel.
She stood by her mom and they watched her uncle drive the shiny red car over the brown and green grass. He drove slow and sometimes the car got stuck and he revved the engine to jerk it out of divots and it jumped forward until it got caught again in another hidden bend in the grass.
He stopped it at the top of the ramp. It was beautiful and expensive. The car’s tires had thick white lines around the sides. It was small. Uncle Russ looked huge inside it. She imagined it belonged to a foreign dignitary or a Hollywood actor or an oil tycoon. Someone who would stop at nothing to find the person responsible for stealing it. She knew why this had to happen. Bethany couldn’t imagine being related to someone as famous as Uncle Russ.
He got out and looked down the ramp. “You sure about this?”
“I hardly spent all day digging to be uncertain now,” her dad said.
“Just get it done with,” her mom said. “I’m hungry.”
“What’s going on?” Bethany asked, her voice like a ghost’s.
Her uncle spat into his hand and worked it into his knuckle. He pulled his gold ring off and threw it into the hole. Then he reached into the car then joined her dad by the trunk and they put their hands on it and her dad nodded once, twice, three times and they pushed. Veins rose on her uncle’s forehead and her dad’s arms strained, and the car rolled forward. Her uncle’s feet slipped out behind him and he fell onto his knees but her dad stayed up as the car tilted forward and slid down the ramp and hit the bottom with a muted crackle.
Something like a frog sounded from the pond.
Her uncle pushed himself up and they stood around the hole looking down into it. The car looked like a toy in a shoebox.
It was almost dark when her mom asked what she should order for dinner. Nobody said anything, and she walked away. Bethany’s dad started flinging dirt back into the hole and her uncle got his shovel. The clumps of dirt landing on the metal hood sounded like night rain drizzling down on their house. The sound of a water burial.
She wondered what would learn to grow from this ground, what magic was in that gold ring.
A month later it rained for a week. Maybe it was the car’s worth of extra dirt inside it that made the pond angry, that made it threaten to flood the surrounding yard.
Bethany spent hours that week in the attic, sitting on boxes of books and blankets, surrounded by the dust on the things her parents left behind, looking out a window she cleaned herself, listening to the rain beating down on the slanted roof over her head, the occasional call from Carli from somewhere below. Bethany watched the pond so she could know the moment it decided to come for them, for the house, for what was left. She’d have to warn Carli so they could climb up the roof to escape the reach of the flood. They could tear up the roof boards and build a raft from the shingles.
But though the level rose it never flowed over. The earth wasn’t washed out of place. The car never surfaced, never sputtered air through the lumpy patch of green grass out by the trees. Things stayed below.
Darby M. Dixon III lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He has published book reviews in Identity Theory, The Collagist, and The Quarterly Conversation. He designs for for the web and whatever else he can, is currently preparing a series of literary-themed stop-motion videos, and has just started working on a graphic novel. His blog is called Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks.