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The Geyser— Drew Barth

Aug 30, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

The water in the middle of the ground already began to bubble as Dennis Pickett climbed down the basement stairs. He had only recently returned home from another series of errands, another series of items he had missed the last time shopping. His wife, Cindy, remained home. She had been the first one to mention a noise coming from the basement and had sent him out to buy her a new set of earplugs. Dennis thought it looked more like a crater than anything else. As though it were a new tub of ice cream, a single scoop from the middle had been removed while the rest remained. But inside the crater, a pool of water had risen, slightly murky and warm to his touch. He withdrew his hand and wiped it on his green pant leg.

“Did you see it?” Cindy’s voice bounced down the stairs. He sat by the crater and watched the water, knee digging into the concrete from which it formed. A bubble popped on the surface, and three more followed. Dennis would swear he felt as though the ground shook, that there was something under the basement. But he couldn’t swear, not with Cindy so close, she would make him drop another coin in the swear jar. A fountain appeared in the puddle before his eyes— maybe a couple of inches high— before it plopped back into the crater with a splash. The basement remained quiet, the tiny geyser barely registering as a noise in the cavern. The only other sound was Dennis himself scratching the stubble on his chin as he stood up and made slow progress up the stairs. 

He looked back down at the boxes that had piled up from the two years since Ethan died. He knew it wasn’t what they should be doing and tried to convince Cindy to try something else. But she looked at him with her eyes like broken stars, and he relented every time. 

“Well?” Cindy asked. She sat at the small yellow table in the middle of the kitchen. Despite the time of night, the room was bright, with yellows bouncing off of each other from table to curtains to the to-do list pinned onto the fridge with a magnetic banana. Yellow daisies splashed along the tile floor, their design faded from more than a decade of use. But the counters had always maintained a sky blue hue. As much as Dennis had gone out in the middle of the night to fetch whatever object Cindy needed, he never had to leave to find a new counter. Even with the scorch marks by the range and that ringed stain that remained by the sink no matter how many times he scrubbed. He knew the counter would remain after the house was empty, had the feeling deep down in his gut. Dennis was sure that the counter would survive centuries. As he ascended from the basement steps, not closing the door behind him or responding to his wife, Dennis looked at nothing in particular.

“Dennis,” Cindy said his name as though she were reading it off a grocery list. He looked up at her and tried smiling. Turning her head to face him, she raised an eyebrow and Dennis’ face went back to neutral. 

“It’s a hole, all right,” he said. “Or maybe a crater. I don’t know just yet.” He cracked his knuckles as his eyes wandered back around the kitchen. A slight pain came up from his knee, a nagging reminder that he shouldn’t have rested on it for so long. 

“A crater?” Cindy asked. She pushed herself away from the table, the yellow legs of the yellow chair scratching against the yellow tile.

“It’s like a little basin down there,” Dennis responded. The warmth of the water still clung to one hand. A thought floated through his head of using the crater like a sink, shaving and rinsing his razor in the water, of gargling with it after brushing his teeth. The warmth on his face rushed around between his teeth. He could renovate the whole basement, maybe get rid of the boxes this time if Cindy let him. A sharp knock on the table brought him back to the kitchen. 

“So, patch it up,” Cindy told him. She listed off materials: concrete and putty knives, a new shop vac to clean up the water, and some knee pads. She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and began jotting down the shopping list before tearing a piece with the items and handing it to Dennis. He looked down at the words but couldn’t read them for a moment. The words moved, slipped past his view to the other side. He flipped it over and found an ad for light bulbs. “Get a move on, now. It’s late enough and the hardware store closes soon.” 

Dennis nodded. He pocketed the list and pulled out his car keys after toying with a plastic star in his pants pocket. They barely had time to say bye when he was out the door, already in his car, already backing down the driveway and onto the street.

***

Cindy sat at the yellow kitchen table and tapped her fingers, filling the room with a slow rhythm. She had told Dennis about the hole after he had gotten home from work. Not quite a rumble, something more than a gurgle had come from the basement while she stood outside the door of their Ethan’s old room, the one she hadn’t opened the door to in two years. A small noise had barely registered to her despite being below her feet. She had wanted to throw the door open, to look inside for the first time since he passed away. Cindy could still feel the warmth of the room on her face since the last time she was there. The far window let in sunlight nearly all day so he would sleep under little glowing plastic stars all night. She remembered picking the box up at the store, the little yellow stars promising years of imaginative wonder for their baby. The aneurysm had stopped any of that from happening.

A noise had shot up from below, like the kitchen table splitting in half. Her hand retreated from the door knob and she turned around to investigate. The beginning of the geyser had only been a small divot in the concrete floor. One hundred and thirty-three cardboard boxes hovered close to it, and she was sure to count them all just in case. They were filled with different bed sets, curtains, toys, clothes, all of the things they bought to prepare for their son’s life. Her mother told her it was too much, that one baby didn’t need all those things. Cindy had known what her baby needed. She had always known. Until she didn’t. She walked around the boxes and knelt down to study the hole closer. She heard popping-like lips smacking and a short burst of water sprayed her in the face. 

Cindy stood up from the table and paced through her yellow kitchen, opening drawers and cabinets. She hunted for an object, some kind of thing that could alleviate what she had begun to feel when the crater first opened. One drawer revealed standard scissors, left-handed scissors despite no one in the house being left-handed, safety scissors, three tape dispensers, and a spool of different ribbons. A spool of frayed twine that was there when they first moved into the house sat crushed at the back of the drawer. Cindy took the twine spool and examined the fibers. They retained a kind of whiteness. The end she held showed signs of aging, of yellowing slightly until it would look similar to the kitchen. She opened the door to the basement and planted herself at the top of the steps. The light behind her only made the darkness at the bottom denser. But she still heard something down there, something gurgling as though she pressed her ear to the bathroom door as Dennis’ bath drained. Gurgling was the only noise she could hear. A small fountain of water emerged from the crater, shot up a few inches, and dropped back to the puddle below.

“Did you get bigger?” Cindy asked. Not as much to the crater as to herself, questioning what she had remembered from a few hours prior. She stood over the crater, spool of twine in hand, and began to unroll the twine. It shivered through the air as it made its descent into the crater, stopping and lying on top of the surface. The gurgling had ceased, only the sound of Cindy breathing remained in the basement as she unspooled the twine into the little crater. The twine remained motionless, even after she was left holding the empty cardboard tube it had been wrapped around. The tube entered the water with a hollow plunk and floated back to the surface, bobbing among the twine. She crouched down next to the crater and dunked her hands into the water. The twine and tube sagged under her work as she pushed them further and further under the surface. Water sloshed over the sides of the crater, spilled out, and seeped around her knees. Her hands, warmed by the water, went deeper into the nasty little crater. They scraped the bottom and sides, feeling their way around for something to plug. Her finger brushed over a hole in the crater. She hunched her shoulders forward and began fitting the small cardboard tube and twine into the indent. Pushing herself deeper, Cindy felt the hole turn smooth with her twine and cardboard, her makeshift plug so Dennis would have a better time patching the thing up.  

Cindy wiped her brow. Drops of water pooled on her eyebrows, indistinguishable from sweat, and dripped down her face. She stood from the crater and walked back up the basement stairs. A quiet was left behind as she closed the basement and resumed her spot at the kitchen table.

***

Dennis woke up the next morning before Cindy. Her back was pressed against the wall, head only a few inches from the corner. Dennis remembered pushing their bed there months ago after he hauled the new armoire up the stairs and into their room. It was to be filled by the end of the week. More clothes and objects he left the house for in the middle of the evening took up the space as some new problem needed to be fixed by a trip to the hardware store. Or the electronics store. Or the pet shop that one time even though the last pet he had was when he was still with Ma and Pa. He pushed himself off the bed and opened one of the dressers that lined the room. His work pants were inside. They were olive green and bought from an army surplus shop when he was looking for shovels. He had come back that day with three shovels and pants. 

The sun filtered through their yellow kitchen curtains as Dennis looked out to the backyard. It barely held together through the ornaments they kept decorating it with like the ready-made herb gardens that failed and left plastic corpses behind to sit on the lawn for months. He made a note to do something about them later but knew he wouldn’t. Dennis took his bags of cement and putty knives and went down the basement steps. The crater had grown overnight. Where it was once the size of a small sink, it had now expanded to that of a kiddie pool. Dennis walked along the crater’s edge, looking to see where it could have grown. He pushed a stack of cardboard boxes further from the hole. They fit into another tower of boxes like a Tetris piece, but Dennis knew they wouldn’t be able to stay there for long. Water rippled on the surface, and a small jet jumped up a foot before it fell back down. Dennis sighed at his single sack of cement and began to climb back up the stairs. 

Cindy hasn’t seen any of this, he was sure of that. Dennis began setting up breakfast, pulling out a pan from the stack of ceramic miracle pans they had stocked up on months ago. Only one was without scorch marks at this point but they kept them all. He told himself he could have some use for a pan like that in the future. He cracked eggs and plopped them down with butter in the sizzling pan. It popped and squeaked on the heat. A hint of cooked butter, like toasted nuts, met his nose as he shuffled the pan. The percolator dinged on the other side of the room. He couldn’t remember the last time he had gotten up first, but he had been the one to make breakfast. Food had always been some measure of comfort when he made it for Cindy. She would barely eat anything when Ethan died, and the duty fell to him, meal after meal. 

“Good morning,” Dennis said. Cindy had entered the room yawning and stretching one arm behind her back. She didn’t respond, only sat down and rested her forehead on the kitchen table. Dennis continued to cook, frying the eggs until a golden brown halo had begun to form on the edges. He clicked the range off and he lay the plated eggs next to his wife. The coffee came just after that, in matching mugs they had picked up during a vacation at Niagara Falls. Stacked together, they completed a picture of a man in a barrel falling over the side, his excitement at the top and terror at the bottom. He bought the tickets to visit when they were discharged from the hospital and the mugs were the first in a series of mugs they would buy. Along with everything else. Dennis looked over at the calendar on the fridge. Only a week away from Ethan’s birthday.

“Did you patch the floor?” Cindy asked. She hadn’t moved her head from its spot. 

“Just working on it.” Denis sat down opposite and drank his coffee. He’d always preferred the bottom mug. Cindy looked up and pulled the plate closer, cutting into the eggs and letting the yolk spill out. It almost matched the table around it, contrasted against the edges of the white plate. Another commemorative artifact Dennis had picked up at a garage sale: a whole set of china with the pope’s face. Cindy refused to eat off of them until Dennis kept covering the awkward watercolors with pasta and cakes. She would be nearly finished with the meal before the face was revealed and Dennis would laugh that little laugh he knew she hated, like a wheezing cartoon cat. But then the wheezing laughter stopped, had become a routine they played out after the funeral. The plate, the food, the surprise, the cleaning. It was something to be accepted, had become another normal thing in their lives. Like the eggs and runny yolks, yolks that Cindy pushed through with the tine in her fork until it overflowed. Dennis looked away and out the window above the sink and into the backyard. No water accumulated there, and no puddles formed even in the longest rainy nights. It had remained as it was through the various objects that piled up and whatever effort he made to clean them. 

“Let me see,” Cindy said. She got up from the table and walked to the basement door. Dennis’ mug had stopped steaming, but there was still some warmth to be drunk from it. The curtains around the kitchen window already looked faded as though they had been there for years. He could remember putting them up a few months ago and yet here they were, the yellow beginning to pale at the edges. At the very least, the fabric matched the rest of the kitchen. Everything had become so faded. The curtains blended into the background to the point where he couldn’t tell cabinets from scribbles on the wall, as though they were all flat and flush against the surface. Two-dimensional containers for three-dimensional objects. He would need new paintbrushes, maybe some rollers, light green for the cabinets, and maybe black counters. Or maybe the opposite? He strummed his fingers along the yellow table. He would need to get a new table too along with new tiles. Nothing could clash. 

“Did you see this?” Cindy asked from the top of the basement steps. Dennis walked over and pushed his way between her and the door frame. He stopped at the second step to see the water lapping against the side of the concrete bag as it was beached at the bottom of the stairs. A new tide was coming in. The concrete bag was the only other thing he could see from the stairs besides the boxes that were stacked close.

“I should go get us some rubber boots,” Dennis said. He and Cindy walked from the door frame. She returned to the kitchen table and the congealing egg yolk, he to the front door. He picked his keys up from a small tray and went out to the car.

***

Cindy scraped the remains of breakfast into the sink and washed it down with the rest of Dennis’ coffee before flipping the disposal switch. She had wanted a house without one, without the noise of a thousand gnashing teeth every time they wanted to get rid of some garbage. But it was something to get used to. Everything was something to get used to. She always compared it to their first house, how the new one didn’t have a second floor but at least it had a basement; how the creaking of the tile floor gave it some character; how that one stain in the ceiling never seemed to disappear after all the times it was painted. They had painted everything when they first moved in, top to bottom. Cindy swore she could still smell that acrid paint scent lingering throughout every room. The smell was just another thing, the background of the house. 

Cindy rubbed her face as she left the table. A few of the tiles creaked, as they would. Light came in through the windows in little beams. It highlighted the dust that still hung in the air despite all their efforts to clean it. Dust never settled, never caked surfaces or cluttered up the little vents on their TV. It only hung in the air, suspended by some unknown breeze they couldn’t feel. Cindy didn’t know what was wrong with their home if it was the dust or something else. The creaking, the hollow noise that came from the sink, the fact that whenever they opened the closet at the end of the hallway, it sounded like a far-off laugh. 

Their own room was next to the laughing closet. The hallway narrowed toward the end, Cindy and Dennis would walk single file to their room when they hadn’t fallen asleep on the couch. Then the second door, just a few meters away from theirs. She couldn’t remember the last time she looked inside or if Dennis had locked it and gotten rid of the key like she asked. She placed her hand on the doorknob to Ethan’s room.

A rumble. Something that felt as though it were out of a film. Cindy stumbled back and braced herself against the wall. Tremors shook the house, and pictures on the wall bobbed and swung. Her eyes widened as she sank down to the floor to better hold herself against the quakes. The noise of the rumbling had stopped, replaced by something Cindy couldn’t quite figure out. She walked back to the kitchen and the basement door. 

The basement stayed dark even after she flipped the light switch on and off multiple times. But the noise had been coming from there and continued. Louder, much closer to that roar she could hear at Niagara Falls. The light from the kitchen behind her illuminated enough. The bag of cement was buried under water now, likely a solid brick by the time they could haul it back up the steps. Water rippled out from the center of the room, although it had only reached the fourth step from the bottom. 

Cindy closed the basement door and went through the drawers in the kitchen. She knew they should put labels on them to give an idea of what could be inside but they never got around to working with one of their three label makers. She found the drawer filled to bursting with flashlights. Pocket-sized and metallic ones, black rubberized things that took the largest batteries they could buy, and the unused rechargeable ones pushed near the back. None of them worked. They never worked. She nearly ripped the drawer out of its socket but steadied her hand. The rechargeable one would have to do. She plugged it into an outlet and waited.

The basement still kept the sound of a waterfall. She flicked the light switch on and off again to see if anything had changed or fixed itself. Steps creaked in a different way. Softer than before as though the wood had already begun to absorb the water that slowly rose up. The only guiding light spilled in from behind her, tracing little shadows along pock-marked walls and the rivulets of water running down the further she descended. She remembered the sound in a different way, the more she sat and listened on the steps just above the water. It was less Niagara and more like the fire hydrant that had burst years ago, before Dennis or the cul-de-sac. She was younger, a couple of years older than Ethan had been, spinning in the water that rained down in the middle of spring, uncapped by the ceiling or sky. She remembered dancing, ring around the rosie, the mud between her toes as she got closer to the hydrant. But the momentum ended. It had to end. Simplicity never lasted long. Someone came up with a wrench bigger than her and twisted it around until the geyser became a sprinkle, then a trickle, and then a puddle with moist footprints scattered around the edges. 

Cindy shot up when the water began to flood her shoes. She hadn’t noticed how long she’d been sitting on the steps. She squelched in her wet shoes back up the stairs. The flashlight indicated it was still charging but Cindy needed to see what was happening in her basement. She pulled it from the wall and went back. It was how she remembered, a pillar of water shooting almost vertically. Rushing and white, coming back down as rain that covered the basement. Before she could relive her childhood moment, the geyser subsided, tinkled down into a small fountain, and disappeared completely below the surface of the water. The rain continued regardless, so much of the water stuck to the basement ceiling Cindy wasn’t certain the room above would hold under the moisture. 

***

Dennis stepped behind Cindy and into the basement. He had the rubber boots, a small yellow sticker still affixed to their side. The sack of concrete served only as a stumbling block for him as he attempted to walk into the center of the room, the mouth of the geyser. 

“Your boots are upstairs,” he said without looking at Cindy. She only shone the flashlight around the room as he explored. Only the ambient light from the kitchen stayed as Cindy left up the stairs. “Do we have any more flashlights?” he asked, wading farther and farther into the basement. No answer came. The water felt cool through the rubber boots but took on a warmth the closer he got to the center.

The crater was like an edge, a cliff formed into the floor. The toe of his boot felt the edge of the hole first, felt the falling away of the ground. He fell face first into the crater. He’d known that geysers were hot, that the water boiled and built up pressure that would launch skyward when hitting its peak. But now he could only close his eyes and attempt to pull himself from the water. What he thought had been the stairs was only the edge of the geyser’s mouth. He splashed around, crawled, and gasped for air and respite. Large swaths of cardboard filled his hands and nails as he flailed around. The torn box spewed its contents out as though it was a burst stomach. Photo frames with the stock family still inside, clothes Ethan never got to wear, and wooden toys Cindy’s parents gave them. The objects all went into the water like flotsam. The other boxes in the stacked tower came down as the base gave. Objects rained down in much the same way the water had previously— he scarcely had enough time to lift his head out before it was knocked down again by a box filled with Halloween decorations. Plastic skulls and bats intermixed with the wooden toys as Dennis resurfaced. 

The only thing he could hear was water sloshing around as a toy floated by and bounced off his legs. Cindy grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back to the stairs, flashlight between her teeth. She pulled him onto the nearest dry step and slapped his back as he gasped and coughed water from his lungs. His arms and face looked as though he’d gotten a sunburn, that special kind of red usually equated with lobsters and beets. He continued to cough as Cindy went back down into the water, filling her arms with the objects that floated around. 

The rumble began again. Dennis hadn’t felt it yet but a sensation of panic still shot up through him as though he were poked with a cattle prod. He scrambled up the stairs, coughing up as much of the water as he could, and went to grab Cindy. 

“Do you feel that?” he yelled as he waded toward her. 

“I can’t just leave everything down here. Not now.” She didn’t even look at him, only continued to pick up more wooden toys before they could be ruined. He knew she needed her mementos, but not now. 

“I don’t like the sound of that rumble. We need to get out of here.” Dennis tried to move Cindy toward the stairs but she refused and shook him away.

“It’s happened before,” she said, grabbing a photo frame that had fallen out of her arms. “It’s just a geyser.”

“Christ, then we need to get out of here.” Dennis put his arms under Cindy’s shoulders and dragged her back. The toys and frames and objects fell from her arms. She thrashed and flailed, grabbing a floating planet toy and chucking it at Dennis’ head. He only brought her further toward the stairs. 

“Let me go.” She yelled and screamed and kicked. “I need to save something.” Her arms thrashed over the surface of the water.

“It’s fine.” He rested on the stairs for a moment before a gurgling came from the center of the room. Dennis could barely make out the bubbles bursting on the surface and let out a huff. Cindy had gone mostly limp by then, shivering sometimes, before she shrugged his arms off. They both sat, looking at each other before she went up the stairs first. Dennis looked back out at the basement as the water grew louder. He closed the door just as the geyser burst again, sounding like a hurricane behind him. Cindy stood and braced herself against the kitchen table. Dennis remained with his back pressed against the door in case the water finally rose to the top and tried to burst through. He knew he couldn’t keep it back but made the attempt anyway. 

The rumble stopped, replaced by something that sounded to Dennis like a dozen garbage cans careening down a flight of stairs. He looked at Cindy and she stood up from the table. The noise was sharp, sudden, and had already dissipated. Only the sound of an incoming rain went through the house. Like waking up to a storm, still refusing to get out of bed to look out the window. They ran through the house. Dennis knew what the sound meant, he could see where the geyser would lead when he was in the basement, staring at the ceiling. It was only a ceiling there, but a floor somewhere else. 

They stopped in the hallway, in front of the door neither of them had opened in two years. Dennis did once when he had beat her home from work. He’d opened the door and walked in, watched dust trail off into the air, bounce off the yellow walls. One of the glowing stars they put on the ceiling had fallen off and sat in the middle of the room where he nearly stepped on it. He balanced himself against the crib and the toy box to put the star back. It stayed for a moment before falling again into the carpet. Dust filled his fingerprints as he dropped the star into his pocket. He didn’t think Cindy would notice the marks in the dust if she ever went in without him. 

The desire to try again, to make the star finally stick this time, came over him like a warm wave and wouldn’t get out of his head. He wanted to go back down to the basement to find a stepladder and try to put the star back up. To hold his hand against plastic, against the ceiling. It would work this time, he knew it would if all the other stars had stayed up during those two years. That would at least have been something, would have made his efforts worth something. Even if he had to come back again and put the star back onto the ceiling over and over. 

***

Cindy watched as Dennis unlocked the door but she could already hear it, the water breaking through the floor of Ethan’s room. The carpet frayed and the wood splintered and cracked from the pressure below. She didn’t know how much longer the ceiling would last. Streams of water came into the hallway like a sprinkler. Cindy couldn’t look anymore and ducked to the side and pressed her back against the wall and pressed her hands against her ears to keep herself from witnessing the room come apart. 

“Just close the door,” Cindy yelled. As if in response, a small plastic star tumbled from the doorway. The pale green of it stood out among the dark carpet, not quite glowing. She picked up the star and wiped the water and ceiling dust from it. The little brown eyes that would have looked at this star every night and dreamed of them had gone. Only water would reach out and touch these stars now. But at least she knew she had one left. She squeezed it in her palm, the sharp points pressing into her skin. 


Also, read Mannu Bhandari’s short story, Sayani Bua translated to English, published in The Antonym Magazine

The Competent Aunt— Mannu Bhandari


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Drew Barth is a writer living in Clermont, FL, and received their MFA from the University of Central Florida. He is a regular contributor to The Drunken Odyssey.

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