UNDERNEATH

NAME REDACTED

Savannah, Georgia

May 29, 2020

For those of you who don’t live in Georgia, let me explain: in late April, 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our governor decided to end the statewide quarantine early and let everyone back out into the wild. Most rational people thought this was a terrible idea: we were now more susceptible to the virus than ever, and he was essentially dooming the entire state. Now I get why you probably agree. But I might be able to change your mind.

     First, a little backstory. I moved to Savannah after an unsuccessful stint at a bourgeoise liberal arts school. Reading Plato and Aristotle and purposefully pretending we didn’t live in the twenty-first century didn’t really line up with my grounded ambitions, so I transferred to a more realistic establishment: the Savannah College of Art and Design. Long story short, this didn’t work out either, and I realized my problem was college in general: I would rather work towards my goals by myself, without having to scramble to impress some tattooed thirty-year-old who considered themselves a quote “real artist” cause they used to publish a comic strip in their hometown newspaper.

     Anyways I shacked up with a couple SCAD kids I’d met in my film class. They stayed in school, while I dropped out and focused on making a living – that was fine by me, since it meant I usually had the place to myself after work.

     The house was obnoxiously tall for a two-story joint, and deeper than your average skyscraper: it stretched back the entire block, only leaving a small rectangle of back yard. There were four units inside, stacked up like Legos: thanks to the layout of the place, we had sufficient square footage for three people, but it was bent and mangled into a bizarre hammerhead shape, with a living room on one end and a kitchen on the other, separated by a hallway that must have been at least seventy feet long by only three feet wide. This worked fine, for $1700 split three ways, until two of us stepped into the hallway at the same time and had to exert dominance to force the other person to let us by.

     We lived on the Savannah Eastside, on a street that would’ve seemed upscale to someone from the actual hood, but run-down and dangerous to someone from a nicer area. I grew up in the country, so this level of urban poverty wasn’t familiar – but the people where I’m from lived by the work of their hands, and didn’t much care to be told what they were and weren’t allowed to do, so there was some similarity there.

     When spring break came, my roommates had no reason to stick around – not when they could fly home on their parents’ dime and enjoy all the comforts that their states of origin had to offer. For one, it was pretzels and Jewish delis and maybe a Yankees game; for the other, it was…well, whatever they have in Fresno. He was from Fresno. Anyway, this spelled a week and a half of alone time for yours truly: even if I had the money to go home, which I didn’t, I wasn’t exactly keen on the idea. I’m not gonna get into my family issues here, but let’s just say I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents.

     Spring break came and went. I enjoyed my time alone, and came to feel apprehensive about my roommates’ return. I didn’t hate having them around, but there was something peaceful about having the unit to myself. I shouldn’t have worried though, because this spring break happened to take place in the year 2020. That didn’t mean anything to me at the time, but anyone listening to this in the future will know the significance of that year.

     The coronavirus hit Savannah especially hard, as it did with my hometown and any other community focused entirely on the whims of tourists. It was like the movies Jaws, I kept thinking: we had a town entirely built on the money dragged in by the tourist industry, and we couldn’t exactly keep pushing on without that income. All across Savannah, on the main drag and the side streets, cutesy tourists shops advertising local delicacies and tacky swag were boarded up, some even claiming that they would never open again. But to no one’s surprise, CVS didn’t close, and we so-called “essential workers” were forced to keep on keeping on, making less money full-time than our not-so-essential colleagues were making on unemployment.

     I would find myself walking the mile and a half route to CVS more often than not: the busses had shut down, and I couldn’t exactly afford to Uber twice a day. I was glad to be getting some exercise, but after an eight-hour shift on my feet, I usually just wanted to pass out. And even after a shorter day, when I wouldn’t mind staying up for a while and getting my chill on, there was never much to do: with my roommates and all the other SCAD students gone, I was forced to entertain myself in my skinny, barren apartment, nothing but an Xbox with one game and a few books I’d already read to keep me company.

     I wasn’t surprised to hear that my roommates weren’t coming back to Savannah till the virus ended, but I was relieved when they told me their parents would keep paying rent. My situation wasn’t too bad, I decided: I was bored, sure, and I had to walk to work, but I was living by myself in a $1700 apartment, only paying $567 a month. If I could work through the boredom, I could learn to enjoy the freedom and privacy of living by myself.

     I had to guess that most of Savannah’s population was still around, unlike the students, but I couldn’t actually say for sure: CVS was dead as a doornail, and the once-thriving Broughton Street, center for arts and entertainment and legal public drinking, saw no visitors but the homeless and the occasional car. As I would turn on to Broughton, sweating in the humidity and looking forward to CVS’s air conditioned interior, I would always be surprised at how empty the street looked: where there should have been thick crowds of tourists and locals alike, seven days a week, there was now nothing. So much nothing that I could almost see tumbleweeds flitting across the pavement.

     Another downside of working through the virus was that I had plenty of time for smoke breaks. I had quit cold turkey more than a year before, but since we weren’t allowed to have our phones out at work, stepping outside for a cigarette was the only way to break the monotony, virus or no.

     Usually I would manage to ignore people asking for money on the street – I work at CVS guys, I don’t have any money either – but with the crowds dispersed into quarantine, there was no one for me to hide behind. I would step out for a smoke and immediately be accosted by someone wearing way too many layers for the ninety-degree weather, pushing a shopping cart and calling to me from behind rotten teeth.

     “Scuse me,” one of them said once, stopping in front of me and staring with glazed-over eyes. I was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, leaning against the front wall of CVS, a cigarette held in my latex-gloved hand. I didn’t have to worry about people stepping on me. Not anymore.

     “What’s up,” I said, shielding my eyes to look up at the man. He was pushing one of those two-wheeled baskets, full of black plastic bags: I couldn’t even begin to imagine what was inside them.

     The man tried to ask me something, and I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. At some point, in an earlier life, he may have had a thick Southern accent – but now, after losing most of his teeth and probably not having many conversations, his voice was almost impossible to understand.

     “What was that?” I asked. I always allowed myself one of these before deciding it wasn’t worth trying to communicate.

     The man repeated himself and I still didn’t understand, but I could make an educated guess. I pushed myself to my feet. “Are you asking for money?” I knew this could come off as insulting in certain contexts, but this guy was probably used to it. Both asking for money and people not understanding him.

     “Jus’ a quarter,” he replied. “I jus’ need a quarter, get somethin’ to eat.”

     “I don’t carry cash,” I told him, which was true. Well, I did have my lucky two-dollar bill in my wallet, but I wasn’t about to give that up. I usually did try helping people out when they needed it, so don’t think I’m some kind of heartless corporate pawn – but I was also struggling to make rent every month, something this guy, at least, didn’t have to worry about.

     “Uh,” he said, looking disappointed. Insofar as I could read any emotion on his weatherworn face, behind that thick, unruly beard. “Kybim a cigrit?” he added, and I almost asked what he meant, then it clicked. I usually would have left my pack inside, but we hadn’t had a customer in an hour so I figured I might as well have two or three smokes, stretch out my unlicensed break.

     I opened my pack and grabbed a cigarette, but he made a negatory sound. “Lemme gitit,” he said, reaching in and pulling out his own. I didn’t say anything, but it came off as a little weird that someone who lived on the street would be worried about catching something from a pharmacy employee. I let him use my lighter – one of those novelty lighters decorated with pizza slices we sell behind the counter – and he muttered a thanks.

     “Yeah have a good one,” I said, defaulting to my customer farewell. I waited for him to leave, but he didn’t: he stood there by his rolling basket, smoking his cigarette, his eyes drifting down the road to where Broughton crossed Bull, totally devoid of people. Realizing I could either stand here with him or go inside and stand at the counter, I let my eyes wander till I was also looking at Broughton. It was so bizarre, I thought: every time I’d come here in the last nine months, even back when I was at SCAD, Broughton had been packed: especially at night, there were people wandering around, taking advantage of the city’s lax rules on drinking outside.

     “Bad,” the homeless guy said, shaking his head. “Bad bad bad.”

     “What?”

     “ ’s no people,” he said. “No people outside.”

     “They’re all in quarantine,” I said, wondering if he even knew there was a global pandemic.

     “Bad,” he said again. “No people outside means no one walking on the ground.” He was speaking a little more clearly now, I thought, at least enough for me to understand most of his words.

     “Uh huh,” I replied, not wanting to ask what he meant. He might actually have heatstroke, I thought. Or, hell, he could have the ’rona.

     “ ’s old things here,” the guy continued. He sounded like he’d forgotten me – like he was talking to himself. Or maybe to someone I couldn’t see. “Old things in the ground…can’t get up and walk away with people walking round on top.”

     He didn’t say anything more. I dropped my cigarette and went inside. I didn’t exactly wonder what he was talking about – I had heard more than enough doom and gloom shit from people around Savannah, homeless or not. It’s supposed to be the most haunted city in America: I had even heard from a few tourists and coworkers that my own place of work, the dingy and corporately lifeless CVS, was haunted by the spirit of a woman who had been hanged in the square outside. One guy on the street talking about “things in the ground” wasn’t going to scare me, especially since I had no idea what he was talking about.

     This is the part that makes me sound like an idiot. Basically, I had the day off from work, I woke up late, and I started drinking early. Since I was bored, and under government-mandated quarantine while not on the clock, I thought I’d finally do something my roommates seemed morally opposed to: cleaning the house. We’d never bought a broom, for some reason, but we did have an old vacuum that our next-door neighbor had left out front with a free sign. So I grabbed my roommate’s Bluetooth speaker, cranked some Black Sabbath (to the annoyance, I assume, of my upstairs neighbors) and got to work vacuuming the hardwood floors. I never hated cleaning, at least, not with the added benefits of alcohol and loud music.

     Basically, I was struggling with the air vent halfway down the hallway. It was stuck closed, so I pulled the whole piece out of the floor and tried to wrench it open. Being the genius that I am, I took out my phone to answer a text one-handed and managed to drop it into the open duct. I reached down and tried to find it in the curving metallic tube, but it was too far gone.

     If I had dropped my phone down the vent in my bedroom, I would have been able to crawl under the house, slice open the ducting, and retrieve my lost love. But as it was, the hallway vent was just about in the middle of the house: I was gonna need some professional assistance.

     Now my landlord’s a pretty nice guy, and I’m kind of dedicated to making his landlording experience as easy as possible. That precludes hitting him up during a national quarantine and telling him I dropped my phone into the HVAC system. So I used my laptop to find an AC repair guy who was still in business and messaged him the details on Facebook. I could honestly take or leave my phone – she was getting up there in years, and the screen was more crack than glass – but I was worried about what might happen in October when we switched from AC to heat. Something along the lines of an explosion, maybe.

     The guy messaged me back pretty soon. I guess he didn’t have a lot of work on his plate. where about is the vent, he asked.

     halfway down my hallway, I sent back.

     how far under the house?

     I did some quick calculations. probably 25 feet

     It took a while for the AC guy (just occurred to me it could have been a woman, sorry) to respond to that. The ellipse bubble kept popping up then disappearing, then popping up then disappearing. Finally he or she told me it just wasn’t possible: they weren’t making house calls during quarantine.

     I almost messaged back, asking why they would string me along like that, but decided against it. Just wasn’t worth the effort. But I wasn’t about to leave my phone in the ducting and hope it didn’t explode, so I pulled on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and my tool box, and slipped into the tiny space between my house and the next. It wasn’t so much an alley as it was a vertical crawlspace, and I had to really squish myself in there.

     It wasn’t hard to pull the metal siding off my building’s foundation: the screws were more rust than metal, and popped out after a couple twists. I had to awkwardly bend the metal back and lean it against the other house just to prevent it from snapping back into place.

     I laid down on my stomach and shined my flashlight into the darkness under my house. There was a space of maybe eighteen inches, and I couldn’t see exactly what was holding the place up: there were a few uneven stacks of bricks, like a Jenga tower, and a few rotting boards, but I seriously hoped those weren’t all.

     The ducting was visible a couple feet in, but I knew those tubes weren’t where I’d find my phone. If I could even fit in that narrow space, I wouldn’t hit the right tubes for another twenty-five feet. This was ridiculous, I told myself. Just let it go. Buy a new phone.

     But the idea of hot air blasting an electronic device in a foil tube scared me: if it didn’t explode, it would at least set on fire, and then I would be homeless. And possibly dead. I could suck it up and crawl through a couple spider webs if it meant not burning down my house.

     So I stuck a roll of duct tape in my back pocket and leaned my head in under the house, resting on my forearms, my hand bent awkwardly to keep the flashlight ahead. I didn’t think about what could be crawling over my body – or worse, under my clothes. The pebbles and discarded two-by-fours that littered the ground cut into my arms, and I knew it would only get worse from here – but I pushed on, inching my way further under the house until I could feel my boots leaving the grass.

     I was laying kind of diagonally, trying to avoid the first duct: but I knew I had to get by it somehow. There was no going around, either: the AC unit sat a few feet away, HVAC tubes sticking out from every side like a giant, silvery spider hanging from the underside of the house.

     Thankfully, I could still see: there was enough sun filtering in from behind that I was able to worm my way under the tubing without having to feel my way around. It was uncomfortable for sure, trying to use my head to push the ducting up and over the rest of my body as I inched along, but at least I wasn’t blind. I felt the tube slide down my back and over my ass, my knees bumping and scraping against the rough ground, and then –

     Darkness. I froze. What the hell? Had I suddenly gone blind?

     No – I had covered the flashlight with my arm. It was still on, casting a circle of white LED light into the maze of HVAC tubing – but, I realized, all the natural light was gone. The first duct, the one I had just managed to crawl under, acted as a curtain, shielding the sunlight from reaching any farther under the house. All I had was the flashlight, and almost twenty feet left to crawl.

     A lump was growing in my throat, and I tried to swallow it down. I had thought there would be a lot more room down here – thought maybe the ducting would be taped up or thinner towards the middle. But all I could see was silver, reflecting the LED of my flashlight: and beneath those low-hanging tentacles of foil, a rough ground, littered with pebbles and nails and shards of wood.

     What if I got stuck? I thought, my mind rebelling and letting those tiny fears worm their way into my brain. Maybe I was already stuck. Maybe when I tried to move forward, my clothes would snag or my body would be trapped and I would panic, lashing out in terror and bringing the house down on top of me.

     “Shut – up,” I told myself, catching a mouthful of dust and airborne dirt. Slowly, trying not to give way to the claustrophobia that I hadn’t foreseen, I moved my arm up and pulled myself forward, just a little, just enough to prove that I wasn’t stuck. My boots dragged across the ground, riding on legs that were as useless to me as to a paraplegic. I realized my eyes were closed, warding off the dust and dirt that threatened to blind and choke me. I could feel the thin metal ducting move across my forehead and scalp like a butterfly’s wing.

     I must have gone at least fifteen feet, I thought. If I’m almost six foot, and I covered my body’s length at least twice…

     I opened my eyes. Again, blackness. A tube hung right in front of my face, and my flashlight was hidden from sight. I swallowed. This was fine. I was just under my house. It was like I was crawling on the ground outside. But then, for the first time, I wondered how I was going to get out. Was there enough room under the metallic tentacles to turn around and crawl back the way I’d come? Could I back out, feet first?

     And – where the hell was I? I had thought I would be able to just eyeball it, figure out which duct lay directly under the hallway – but now that I was here, in a forest of silvery limbs, I couldn’t even imagine which was which, or what was where. Could I feel the phone, I wondered?

     The harder I swallowed at the lump in my throat, the harder it was to breathe. I leaned painfully on one arm and grabbed a hold of a tube where it was lowest, squeezing it for the telltale form of a cell phone. But no, it didn’t work: the metal spiral that made up the ducting’s skeleton prevented me from feeling what was inside.

     “Shit,” I muttered. “Shit shit shit! Calm down!” I almost yelled, knowing I was near a dangerous precipice: if I panicked, if I let myself give in to the fear and the claustrophobia, I could end up hurting myself. Or worse. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.” It was like talking to a baby, my rational mind telling my impulsive one to keep its cool. But I swallowed the fear, pushed back the panic, and reached up to jiggle the duct. I thought if there was a phone inside, I would either feel it or hear it – but there was nothing. Fine, this just wasn’t the right tube. I could try another one, try all of them, but only where they hung the lowest.

     No. No no no no. Giving in to the insanity of trying too hard was almost as bad as letting the fear take over. This was ridiculous. I had tried, and I had failed. It was time to call the landlord.

     “But how will I get out of here?” I said. I thought maybe, if I spoke out loud and in an upbeat tone, I could convince myself that escape was just another problem to be solved: just another rude customer to deal with, just another homeless man asking for a smoke.

     Turning around seemed like my best option, though it wasn’t going to be easy. I slid my legs up, splitting as far as I could, and carefully, ignoring the debris digging into my palms, pushed myself to my hands and knees. My nose was almost touching the ground, but at least I could turn. It took a while, with the ducts blocking me at every move, but eventually I had come around in a half-circle.

     My stomach twisted. Wait. Where was the light? Where was the hole where I’d pulled off the siding? All I could see was more ducting, more silvery foil over metal tubes. And to my left, more of them. To my right. Expanses of shimmering silver butterfly wings, the LED dancing off them, everything fading into black as the light moved back and forth.

     Which way? Which way was it? I could barely move. I tried to shimmy forward, but my knee slammed into something – a wooden board, maybe – and I crumpled in pain, my face hitting the ground. I came up coughing out dirt, and still, I could see nothing.

     Just move, I told myself. Just move!

     And I moved. I moved, an inch at a time, my heart hammering in my chest, my stomach twisted in panic and my brain screaming that I was going to die here, trapped beneath hundreds of tons of wood and cinderblock and that accursed silver foil. Just give up. I heard the words in my head as clear as I had ever heard words spoken aloud. Just give up. There’s no way out. Give up and lay down and –

     I stopped. My hands, now battered and bloody, the broken nerve ends screaming, had felt something else. Something different. Not dirt, not pebbles, not broken glass. Something smooth.

     A plastic bag, I thought. I shone the flashlight down, but this new material was washed out in LED. I felt around with my other hand, wincing as hot blood mixed with dirt and grime. It wasn’t any material I knew. It felt rubbery: cool and smooth.

     But this wasn’t a way out. I no longer cared what was under the house in this black pit of misery. I needed to get out if it took the rest of my strength. I pushed myself forward, a little more, a little more, my knees scuffing against whatever it was I was on top of.

     I fell to the ground, my face again scraping the rocks. My knees had come out from under me, jolted sideways by some unseen force; had I slammed into something? Was there an animal down here, scittering around in the darkness?

     But no – no. It was moving. The ground beneath me, the very crust of the earth, it was moving, sliding sideways, pulling my legs along with it. Without thinking I crawled forward, scrambling away from the unseen push.

     My boots hit dirt and I realized, it wasn’t the ground that was moving, not the grit and grime that we stand on every day: it was the smooth surface, the rubbery unknown that I had disturbed, that I had crawled on without knowing its true nature.

     I tried to move, but I couldn’t. I was frozen in place. Everything was black around me. Even the circle of LED light seemed to grow dim as I felt something, a presence, dear God I felt another life in the darkness, moving behind me, moving around me. Moving inside me.

     A tiny, insignificant, almost comical pop sounded from above me. Not daring to breathe, not hoping to move, I craned my eyes to watch through my peripherals as one of the silvery tubes came apart from where it was attached, slowly floating down like a feather in the wind, its ragged, open end coming to rest on my back.

     It was a tube. An AC duct. Foil and wire. Nothing to fear.

     I looked away. I looked into the blackness, into the forest of foil-plated limbs, imagining I was somewhere else, anywhere else, imagining I hadn’t blocked myself off from the sun and the sky and the eyes of God as it slithered through the tube, it slithered through the duct and across my back, it reached the ragged end and strained to touch –

     Then I was moving, I was crashing through the tubes, barely able to feel my knees and hands as they were torn up. I slammed into duct after duct, not moving them out of the way, just pushing through and following that circle of light wherever it would lead until it wasn’t a circle it was a hole and the light wasn’t LED it was –

     Sunlight. Sunlight in my eyes. Grass under my knees. I fell headfirst into the metal siding, awkwardly sandwiched between the two houses. My flashlight rolled away, and I curled into a ball. Somehow, I knew I was safe. I knew I was out in the open, between the green grass and the blue sky. It was over.

     “Was that you making all that noise?”

     A chill ran through me as the voice came from somewhere nearby. For a second – and I only realized this later – for a second, I had almost forgotten there were other human beings in this world.

     I blinked in the sunlight, trying to see who had spoken. When my eyes were adjusted, I could make out a human figure leaning into the alley from above. After a few more seconds, I recognized my nextdoor neighbor, leaning out her window and looking down at me, a mixture of surprise and concern on her face.

     “What,” I managed to say. I realized I was panting, breathing harder than I ever had before.

     “I was trying to figure out where all that noise was coming from,” she called down to me. “The metal sounds. What are you doing down there?”

     “I…I…” My mind was a blank. There was nothing. No fear anymore. No panic. Just the horrible, ungodly realization that there was something I didn’t understand. “I…lost my phone,” I said.

     “Uh huh.” My neighbor didn’t look convinced. “Well…try to stay out from under there,” she said. “Folks in Savannah like to talk about what's under their houses. You know – other things. How’s the vacuum?”

     “What?” I breathed.

     “I saw you boys take my old vacuum. Is it still working?”

     “Uh. Yeah,” I replied. But I wasn’t listening.

     Other things. Those were her words. The words that have rang in my ears ever since then. It almost sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Other things. That could mean anything. Literally, anything. And yet, somehow, I know exactly what she meant.

     I’m only realizing now that I’m not sure what I expected you to get out of this story. If you don’t live in Savannah, then, feel free to just write me off. But if you do live in Savannah…

     Well, to be honest, you should be fine. The governor of Georgia officially ended the quarantine, and, if you’ve been on Broughton Street recently, you’ll see the sidewalks full of tourists and locals: almost as packed as they were before this all started. And yeah, it’s a little frustrating that these people coming in from other states are ignoring how dangerous this virus really is. But work has picked up again at CVS, so we’re not usually too bored, and at least this way I can go have a drink after a long shift.

     That’s not what this is about. I can take or leave quarantine, but I now know something I didn’t before: that there are other things in Savannah, not just humans and not just ghosts: other things that we can’t see, because they live just below the surface of the earth and the surface of our sanity. So next time you find yourself complaining about your local government ending the quarantine early, try to remember – there are much worse ways for our world to end than a simple virus.

© copyright 2021 Nathaniel J. Nelson