Scratching the Surface


by Jason P. Burnham


Something is scratching the underside of the cement of my basement floor.

Is that impossible? Yes. Despite its impossibility, I can hear it from my desk in the second-floor study. And this is not the first time I’ve heard it—a quotidian rasping of variable duration that cannot be dissuaded.

I only really started to notice it when the power grid went down. I did ignore it then, though not willfully. I was too busy getting generators online, the ones that were supposed to flawlessly transition from grid to backup power. The brief blackout cost me a few hours, but nothing from the freezer, which would have been devastating.

I’m not sure why I still feel that it would have been devastating, seeing as there’s no end in sight to this indoor confinement. If anything, it might have been a blessing. I’ve thought about using a knife on several occasions, but as soon as I visualize blood dripping from my veins, the urge fades. I would pass out before making it deep enough to do any real damage.

Scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch. It’s louder and longer than usual today.

By the time the generators failed, the freezer was empty. The absence of electricity and gas makes cooking challenging. Did you know you can eat uncooked spaghetti? It’ll grind your teeth flat, but you can make it through a half-kilo bag if you chew all day.

Scritch…

Maybe I should go check on it today. Most days I don’t bother anymore.

Scratch.

When the mechanical noises from the generators went away, the only sounds left were intermittent winds, the voices, and the scratching. The wind, if you shut your eyes until you saw phosphenes, was just like any other wind. The voices… well… I got used to them about the time I really started noticing the scratching underneath the basement. The voices are just white noise to me now.

Scritch.

For some reason, I can’t ignore the scratching. I think it’s because it’s intermittent and of varying duration. The voices get pretty repetitive after a while. Come outside, come outside, come outside.

Before all the newsfeeds went down, I saw people dying when they went outside. Conspiracy theorists talked over footage of people disappearing and discussed why it was happening, but I never bought into any of their claims. It’s hard to present any logical arguments when there are no bodies to autopsy for corroborating evidence. And in all those conjectures, not once did anyone mention or hypothesize that the voices could become corporeal and scrape at my basement.

Scratch.

So what is going on down there? Maybe it is the voices, having undergone an ethereal evolution into flesh to satisfy their hunger, though that assumes the missing have been eaten. Maybe they have a quota to fill. Maybe they need more people than they got before everyone recognized, as one defunct newsfeed had a habit of saying, “Stay inside, stay alive.”

Scritch.

The materiality of the noise is still hard to believe. First of all, there is nothing underneath my house except dirt, rock, and some cast iron pipes that leak. Same is true for the whole block, except the McAllister’s who dug up their yard and put in copper alloy piping because it was supposed to last a hundred years. Pity nobody is in their house to test the warranty.

Scratch.

Two straight hours today. Perhaps if I pace around, socks on carpet, I can obfuscate the noise from below.

Scritch.

No such luck.

How do I know there’s nothing but pipes, rock, and dirt underneath the house? I’m no construction expert, but I have spent more than my fair share of money on foundation repair. Let me tell you, if there was something funny underneath our houses, those contractors would have found it. I’m also not a sound engineer or physicist or whatever profession it is that would know how sound travels from underneath my house, through concrete, up the stairs, and into my inner ear where it festers like a sore dipped in stagnant brackish water. But I know that’s what happens.

Scratch. Scritch. Scratch.

I’ve gone through phases. At first, I wrestled terror. The natural corollary, I thought, to the deadly outdoors was an evolution to something that could tunnel through the house’s foundation and diffuse through it into my lungs where it would dissolve me into dust, a pile among the other dead skin cells accumulated over months of forced isolation. It took me a week to go to the basement to confront the noise. When I finally got there and didn’t die, I got angry. If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with already! I stomped up and down the stairs, shouting at the scraping, banging pots and pans together, but it didn’t change, didn’t stop. Whoever or whatever was scratching couldn’t hear me, didn’t speak the language, or didn’t care.

Scritch.

As the salve of time eroded the edges of my anger, I started praying to the gods available to me from my Sundays-only Catholic mother and Buddhist turned Jewish turned agnostic father. I bargained with Mary, Jesus, Yahweh, Sid, a generic agnostic deity, and others I knew in name only. When nobody answers, you quickly run out of deities and serotonin. Only by some miracle of mild alteration in brain chemistry did I flounder my way out of the depressive slog that followed the godly quietus. Emerging from that gray haze, I focused all my attention on the scraping. What else was there to do?

Scratch.

I’ve studied geology and agriculture texts, city planning maps, architectural blueprints, all to no avail. There shouldn’t be anything down there.

Tink tink.

Tink tink? Now just what the hell is that? That’s not the right noise.

I find myself walking into the basement, illogically, to look at the sound, though I know there will be nothing to see, right? There isn’t even anything to feel. You would think that if someone or something was digging at the rocks underneath your feet, you would be able to feel it.

I reach the top of the stairs and see that I’ve carelessly left the lights on. At least I can see where I’m… Wait a minute. The power went out weeks ago. Or was it months?

From the cement in the center of the basement, a radiant white light shines, vibrating, pulsating rhythmically with the scraping sound.

Tink, tink, tink.

I never realized how much I could miss scritch and scratch.

I’m frozen to the third step from the top, crouched. I don’t know how long I’ve been squatting, but the sinews of my legs scream in a straining conflagration, as if I’ve run a marathon on a set of never-ending stairs.

My mind tells me to relieve the ache by climbing back up the stairs, away from danger, but my feet have a different notion and I’m suddenly sitting on top of the light source on cold cement.

“Hey!”

I’m startled by the voice, but realize it’s my own. At no point has my mind thought that speaking to the sound was a good idea. Don’t talk to tink tink!

The scraping continues, wobbling light illuminating the ceiling above.

“Hey!”

I’m not sure why I keep doing this. My psychologically fragile subconscious must want answers.

Great. Now I can feel vibrations.

“Hey!”

Hey shut up, one part of my brain tells the other.

The tink-ing stops and the light stabilizes.

“Hello?” calls a muffled voice from under my basement.

Finally, brain and vocal cords are in agreement and I stay silent, sliding away from the light source. There’s no world in which I want to talk to the thing digging up into my house. But where can I go? They have a captive audience. Leave the house and I die. I could go upstairs and lock the basement door, which I assume will be a microsecond barrier for the thing tunneling through pure rock into my house. Stay here and at least maybe I get to see what is going to kill me.

“I say up there—I’m almost through. Move aside and give me a few minutes.”

I nod obtusely, as if the voice can see what I’m doing. Scraping, tink-ing and the vibrating light resume in earnest. I can hear it for what it is, metal struck by metal driven into cement, up toward me, toward my house. I gulp deeply, sucking the sweat off my upper lip as I wait for my killer to emerge. I wonder what they will look like. How did they get here? Why are they doing this? It has to be some modification of whatever is outside, though the voices are invisible. Maybe I won’t see my executioner after all. They do sound different than the voices, but maybe that’s because they’re under a foot of rock.

BANG

A flash of light forces me to close and shield my eyes. My retinas hurt and I’m regretting not running upstairs to cower behind my flimsy wooden door.

Scritch.

When I open my eyes, a woman looks down at me from next to the opening in the cement. I’m trembling and find no voice. She is tall, taller than anyone I’ve ever met in real life, having to hunch just to fit in the basement. Even bent over, the back of her head presses against uncovered wood and wires in the ceiling above, which, if I remember correctly from our contractors, is about nine feet. Her skin is faded, grayed, as though it hasn’t seen the sun in ages. Her eyes are equally dull chestnut, but piercing in their gaze. Her arms are too long even for her extreme height, gangly fingers punctuating well-muscled forearms, biceps, and shoulders. Noticeably absent are a source for the now absent light and any tool or other implement that could have been responsible for the digging and metallic tink-ing. The shape of her is… off. Edges that are too sharp, the angles too many, the joints too gnarled. I imagine that simply touching her would draw blood. I take this all in, but it is so overwhelming that I cannot conjure any emotion—just emptiness.

She stares at me, either studying or waiting for me to finish assessing her, I cannot tell which. I notice something else in her face. Anticipation? A predator stalking prey? A viper coiled like the curls of her hair, waiting to strike?

No. I’ve seen this look before on my children’s faces. The faces I haven’t seen since they never returned from their soccer game. This is eagerness. Like the time at the rocket launch countdown. Or just before they saw their first gray whale on a boat tour.

My brain and vocal cords are at war again. “How- how did you do all this?” For her to tunnel through concrete all the way to my house, even if she were my neighbor, which she is not, would have taken ages. She had to have been doing this long before the outside became a Stygian hellscape.

Scratch.

My eyes dart between the woman, the hole she emerged from. There is nothing to have made the sound other than her. As if… as if the sound emanates from inside of her.

Scritch.

Disappointment flashes in her elongated eyes, which don’t quite move in tandem. She thought I had an answer for some question of hers.

“What do you mean?” Her voice is jarring, having changed not at all after emergence. It still has that muffled, beneath-the-rock quality, almost like her vocal cords are buried deep within her chest, the chest that rises and falls fitfully, as if it needs more external pressure than my basement atmosphere provides. I can see the muscles retract between her ribs underneath a skintight gray garment only partially obscured by an overlying brown robe.

Scratch.

“How did you get under my house? It must have taken years to dig this.” I have a million other questions, but this is all that squeaks out. Are there others? Who? Are you human, because you sort of don’t look human. No human I know emanates scraping noises from… where did it come from?

“Yes, digging this tunnel took time,” she says, impassive as a daydream.

“How did you know to start digging?” Who let her know the outside was dangerous?

“They told me too.” Her too-long fingers curl and uncurl.

Scritch.

The beads of sweat on my upper lip have coalesced with that dripping off my forehead, the pools under my arms, the droplets down my spine. What did she just say?

“Wh-who?”

She shakes her head, too small atop the thin gray neck. “This means that you don’t know what they look like.”

Scratch.

“I… what?” Everything inside me wishes I had never heard this scraping, that I had stayed upstairs.

“All that effort to come up and hear about what they look like and you’ve never even seen them.” She pauses wistfully, if this creature can be such a thing. “I think they’re probably as beautiful as their voices.”

Scritch.

Beautiful? The voices? The ones constantly telling me to come outside to die?

“Pity really. Guess I’ll just have to keep digging.”

Scratch.

With that, leaving me speechless, she scuttles back into the hole, folding and bending and jumping all at once. When she disappears, the rock that she dislodged falls back into place, but not before a puff of air floats in from the tunnel underneath.

Scritch.

How do I know there was a bolus of air? I can smell it.

It smells just like the outdoors, I think as my body fades into nothingness.

Scratch.