issue 7

A Very Deep Pit With a Monster at the Bottom, by Timothy Mudie

The earthquake hit three days before Lee felt his son kick for the first time. It was early afternoon, and Lee was halfheartedly scrolling job listings online. Every cover letter revision, every time he uploaded his resume and then had to fill out a form with the same information, a tiny hole widened somewhere between his stomach and heart. That hole was where despair lived, and Lee tried to brick it up with thoughts of Carissa, of their unborn son. He tried to keep those thoughts positive, to avoid anticipating all the myriad ways he could fail as a father. He could tick those off until the world ran out of fingers and never reach the end of the list.

He shut his eyes, took a deep, hopefully steadying breath, and felt the world shake. Nothing too extreme. Trembling under his feet and a dull rumble like a column of heavy trucks driving past.

Most people would write it off as a rare but not unheard-of minor tremor, tectonic plates adjusting to a more comfortable position. If Lee lived near a fracking site, he might suspect it was a side effect. Only a few might guess at the truth. Lee was one of them.

Tight, sharp claws gripped him around his heart and stomach and throat, like a tiny three-armed monster was clenching the organs. But Lee knew there was no monster inside him. The monster was underground, swallowing everything around it as it approached. Coming for him.

Why now? It had been years—long enough that Lee had fooled himself into thinking he’d escaped the monster forever. Asking why it returned was as futile as asking why it targeted him in the first place. After the first attack, he’d spent time in some of the half-unreal corners of the internet, scrolling message boards about similar monsters, where people wrote in the online equivalent of rushed whispers about what stalked them and why. Not everyone who commented was credulous.

When Carissa came home from work, Lee was staring at the wall above the living room window. The only sign that the earthquake had even occurred was a hairline fracture in the plaster, so unobtrusive that Lee couldn’t even be sure it hadn’t been there all along.

Carissa shifted her head on Lee’s chest, rolled to one side, the other, sat up a little, slid back down.

“It is literally impossible to get comfortable,” she said, one hand under her belly, the other pressing into the couch cushion as she searched for a good position. “By the due date I’m not going to be able to do anything but lie flat on my back.”

“You’re barely showing,” Lee replied. It was true, but he would’ve said it anyway if he thought it was what Carissa needed to hear.

She snorted. “That’s sweet and completely inaccurate, and if at any point during this you say I’m glowing, I’m going to smack you.”

Lee laughed. His hand drifted to join hers on top of her stomach, his pinky tracing her wedding ring while the rest of his fingers rested, waiting for a kick even though he hadn’t felt any yet.

He absently ran his socked feet along the floor. Had the earthquake knocked the boards off true? Was the monster under them right now? How would it happen when the monster came for him? A hole gaping open below him, or the creature bursting from the ground in an explosion of dirt and concrete? If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel vibrations below him, the monster stirring, swallowing, its unfillable stomach digesting as fast as its infinitely toothed jaws could chew.


“Sorry,” he said. “What?”

“Are you planning to hang out tomorrow or are you going to drop me off and come home?” Carissa asked. She twisted to look at him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Lee said. “What’s going on tomorrow?” The knowledge existed in his head; he just couldn’t access it. Buried under too many other concerns.

“Shower planning? Your sister’s?”

“Right.” With her own mother passed on since Carissa was twelve and her only sibling a younger brother, Lee’s mom and sister had jumped at the opportunity to arrange the baby shower. “I’ll come.”

“You don’t have to—I really don’t mind,” Carissa said, scooting more upright on her never-ending quest for a comfortable reclining position.

Lee considered. If the monster really was closing in, would it be safer to stay home or go out? A thought occurred to him: what if this wasn’t the monster that had almost devoured him as a teenager? He knew there were other monsters out there, but he’d never actually met anyone who admitted to being attacked by one. It was something you didn’t speak of, as if talking about a monster aloud would attract one to you. But once a monster was after you, you noticed things that might seem innocuous to others, the way a park ranger could look at uneven tree bark and know a bear was in the area. Lee needed to hold out hope that the earthquake was caused by some other monster, searching for some unlucky neighbor. Besides, what was he going to do? Sit at home and wait?

“That’s alright,” he said. “I’ll stop in for a bit, at least.”

Leaving the house had to help. Going out, talking to people, getting out of his head. Not thinking about the monster might not make it go away, but it maybe it would give Lee a chance to figure out how to escape from it for good. Maybe even how to defeat it.

That’s what Lee told himself. Then he promised himself that he’d believe it.

Flowerpots perched on the balcony of Jaclyn’s second-story apartment, sprouting broad-leafed basil and coiling tomato vines. Lee noticed as soon as he and Carissa parked. A new touch of domesticity that he hadn’t expected from his sister. He reminded himself that while Jaclyn was still his little sister, she was nearly thirty now, all grown up from her wild post-collegiate days.

His mother opened the door and swept Lee and Carissa inside.

“Good thing we have snacks—is there even a baby in that belly?” Lee’s mom exclaimed, eyeing Carissa with mock skepticism.

“Mom!” Jaclyn shouted from the other room. “You don’t say stuff like that.”

“What?” Lee’s mom asked. “She’s such a tiny thing. You’d think the baby would make her look like she’s shoplifting a bowling ball.”

“I don’t think that’s any better, Mom,” Lee said, hugging her.

Carissa just laughed. “It’s good to see you, Linda.” She hugged Lee’s mom as well.

Even as he made small talk, Lee’s eyes wandered the room. Tasteful floral prints and artfully arranged photos dotted clean unmarked walls. No cracks here. He admonished himself to relax as he sat on the couch between Carissa and Jaclyn, took the proffered mimosa.

Carissa looked at Lee and Jaclyn and laughed.

“What?” he asked with a smile.

“Just looking at the two of you next to each other,” Carissa said. “I feel like I can already see what this baby is going to grow up to look like.”

“Oh,” Linda said, “trust me, he’s going to be exactly like his daddy.”

Everyone laughed, but it felt as if all the sound dropped out of Lee’s world, the laughter and happiness suddenly lightyears away.

His son was going to be like him. He would inherit Lee’s traits. His long nose, wispy brown hair, his ability to roll his tongue and intolerance for cilantro. What about the monster? Would it pursue his son too? Would it spawn a little monster of its own to torment Lee’s child? How had he not considered this? What sort of father was he?

For the next few minutes, Lee smiled and nodded and acted his role. Downed his mimosa and told Carissa he needed to head home to do some work but would be back to pick her up. Everyone stood for the requisite goodbye hugs.

A tremor roiled the room. Nothing major, a vibration like a train passing inches away, except Jaclyn’s apartment was nowhere near train tracks. Glasses clinked in kitchen cabinets; knick-knacks rattled on living room shelves.

“Holy shit!” Jaclyn exclaimed, more excited than scared. “Was that an earthquake?”

Yes, but not the kind she was thinking. And now Lee knew for certain that the previous earthquake hadn’t been some other monster. Other monsters might be hunting other people, but this one was his. It followed him. It knew him. It wanted him. It wouldn’t stop.

Instead of driving home, Lee found himself winding through the suburban streets near his childhood home, the one his parents had sold five years ago so they could downsize. Even though it was only a fifteen-minute drive from his and Carissa’s house, Lee hadn’t been there since his parents had moved. Without thinking, he arrived at the park nearby, a fifty-acre patch of green surrounded by pavement and not-quite-cookie-cutter houses.

Lee exited the car, entered the park. On the kiosk at the entrance, nearly a dozen flyers hung, some crisp and new, others faded, their edges eroded away. Faces, the youngest maybe fourteen, the oldest with a retirement home contact number. All missing.

A stream ran through the park, barely a trickle most of the year, growing to a steady flow in spring. When they were kids, Lee and Jaclyn would come with their parents to the bridge that crossed the stream, throw sticks in on one side, rush to the other to see them emerge from beneath the bridge. When they got a little older, they explored deeper into the woods, discovering relics of high-school parties. Rusted beer cans, mounds of cigarette butts, cracked and faded red plastic cups. Secret glimpses of their future.

It was the same woods where Lee’s parents found him at the bottom of a pit shortly after dawn one summer morning. Dirty, bruised, near incoherent, but alive. His memories of the attack and the following morning never fully returned—drawn to woods in the middle of the night, wandering in thick trees, falling into a deep hole with a gaping mouth at the bottom, struggling, giving in. When they recovered him and for weeks after, his body felt like a shriveled, bitter husk. Try as he might, he couldn’t express to his parents or the therapist they brought him to what had happened. In retelling, he turned the monster into a metaphor and tried to banish it from his mind.

Months, sometimes years would pass, and Lee wouldn’t think of the monster at all before the memory reared unexpectedly. The monster was still out there. Content to follow him. To dig its pit and call for him and patiently wait for Lee to fall in. Would it call to his son? Lee couldn’t take that chance; he had to do something. He had to stop it. He had to at least try.

Lee drove to the hardware store and back to the park. It didn’t take him long to find where the monster had attacked him. Though erosion or trail crews had long since filled in the pit, a shallow depression remained.

Lee began to dig.

“Do you want to do something this week?” Carissa leaned against the counter next to the refrigerator, a can of ginger ale in hand. “Are there any good movies playing? Or there’s that brewery that opened up in Braintree. I mean, I can’t drink, but they have a food truck.”

From his spot by the stove, where he stirred penne into arrabbiata sauce, Lee wondered if Carissa noticed the bulge in the tile under her left foot, unevenness pressing up from far below where the monster lurked. The knowledge of it caused Lee to shift uncomfortably from foot to foot.

“Maybe,” he said. “I’ve got some stuff to do.” Soon he’d be able to do things like go to the movies or out for a drink or lunch. As soon as the monster was gone and life was back to normal.

“Is there anything I can do to help you? With work or anything?” Carissa asked. “I know you’re hustling to get jobs, and you want get the house ready for the baby, but you need to take time for yourself too.” The hand that wasn’t holding the soda can drifted to her stomach. “You know how much we appreciate you?”

Lee turned off the burner and crossed to Carissa. They put their arms around each other. “I hope you know how much I appreciate you,” he said. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without you. I just want to do what I can.”

“You do so—” Carissa stopped herself, grabbed Lee’s hands. Beaming, she placed his palms on her stomach. “He’s doing it again—I’m positive. Can you feel him this time? Feel him kicking?”

Beneath Lee’s right palm, minute arrhythmic pressure. A tiny foot or hand; he couldn’t tell. He pressed his hand closer, as if he could already hold his son, reassure him that everything would be okay. All around him, the world shook, but when Lee looked into Carissa’s eyes, he saw it wasn’t an earthquake. This time the shaking was all him.

“I feel him,” he said. He bent, brushed his lips on the cotton blouse over Carissa’s stomach. “Hello,” he whispered. Quiet as he could; these words were only for his baby. “I love you. I’m your dad. I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”

Machete hanging off his belt, pick mattock on the ground next to him, Lee perched on the lip of a deep pit, balanced on a rudimentary crib stair, a wooden box filled with rocks. A set of them led partway into the pit before the wall dropped down sheer. He could get back up out of the pit, but only if the monster was dead. Lee stuffed his pockets with rat poison. If the monster swallowed him, Lee would make it pay. One way or another, this ended today.

Lee closed his eyes and listened. Birds chirped; small rodents rustled in the underbrush. Distantly, he heard cars driving on the surrounding roads. Closer, muffled voices from people out for a midday stroll.

Below him, the monster approached. He wanted to run, to keep on pretending he could avoid this for the rest of his life. Except it wasn’t just his life any more, was it?

Eyes screwed shut, Lee pictured his son. Goggling with Carissa at the indistinct shrimplike curves on the screen at the earliest ultrasound appointment; the primitive figurine features from the three-dimensional ultrasound; an imagined tiny, scrunched face looking up from a blue-and-pink-striped hospital blanket, Carissa lying in a bed beside him, exhausted and happy; a chubby smiling face covered in avocado or jelly or mashed banana; a three-foot-tall tiger swinging between his and Carissa’s hands and laughing on Halloween. His heart swelled, and his entire body seemed to constrict in on itself. Tears welled behind his eyelids and dripped slowly down his cheeks until his eyes burned and he tasted salt.

Joy and sadness and pain and anger and helplessness all swirled together inside Lee. Heartache.

The ground rumbled all around him. Pebbles hopped like hot oil in a pan. Rivulets of dirt trickled down the pit’s walls.

The ground erupted, spraying Lee with gravel and loam. Eyes shut against the grit, he teetered on the edge of the pit. This was it. All the years of running from the monster, hiding from it, hoping it would forget about him or go after someone else—all of it culminated in this moment. Lee needed to face the monster head on, the most primitive form of combat. Everything he’d read from people who had defeated their monsters informed him that it could be done, but that this was the only way.

The monster was quiet, no sound but the rhythmic chomping of its rows of teeth and its bellowslike breathing. Still, its inexorable presence, its dark persistence tugged at Lee. It would be so easy to walk off the stair and fall into the maw.

Too often, he’d felt that way. Today, he had to fight. He focused on the images of Carissa and their son. He wouldn’t allow himself to feel how the monster wanted him to. He would fight the monster with as much hope and joy as he could muster, even if it was only a crumb.

Picturing Carissa and his son, centering them in his mind, Lee touched the machete at his belt, hefted the pick mattock. He walked off the stair like he was going over the edge of a cliff.

The monster seemed shocked, and Lee pressed his advantage, swinging the pick mattock in wide arcs, chipping teeth and gouging holes in the monster’s pale gums. For a moment, Lee felt powerful, with no desire to give up, only wanting to battle the monster until he won.

The monster lunged toward him and roared, its tongue probing, beckoning, licking away the dirt below Lee’s feet, drawing him closer. When Lee knocked out one tooth, another slotted up to take its place. Every slice in the monster’s gums or lips or tongue was paid for in the dull ache that accompanied any drop of its blood touching Lee’s skin. Beyond the small lurches and seeking tongue, there wasn’t much the monster could do to fight, but it seemed content to wait, its patience its most potent weapon.

He struggled against the monster for so long that he lost track of how long it had been. Minutes? Hours? Days? The monster’s strength didn’t wane. Meanwhile, Lee’s arms felt rubbery, and his feet throbbed as he planted them ever more firmly into the crumbly soil. Sweat poured from his forehead and pooled in the hollows of his chest, lower back, and armpits. His panting lungs burned. The rat poison in his pockets weighed heavier and heavier.

He dropped the pick mattock onto the ground, inches from the monster’s replenishing teeth and lolling tongue. His fingers found the machete. He couldn’t hurt the monster fast enough with the pick mattock to do lasting damage. If he could completely sever the monster’s tongue at the root, maybe it wouldn’t heal. Inflicting more damage more quickly was all his frantic and near incoherent brain could think to try. But to do so, he’d have to get in close, hope he could cut and retreat before the monster clamped its jaws shut. He had to attempt it. Whatever he could do to prevent the monster from devouring his child, he would do it. He took a deep breath and thought about Carissa and their baby. Maybe it was a trick of the light, a shadow as the sun passed behind a cloud, but it looked to Lee as if the monster smiled.

He raised the blade and prepared to attack.

Roaring filled the pit. Lee’s eyes sprung open. The sound came from above. He looked up just in time to see a rock fly into the pit, cracking a long tooth vertically down the middle. Lee gawped as Carissa slid into the pit, skidding to a stop next to him. Fury and fear hardened her features. She spat at the monster and grabbed the pick mattock.

Carissa jabbed the sharpened end of the mattock into the monster’s gums at the base of a tooth and levered with the handle, dislodging the tooth completely. It clattered into the monster’s throat, bringing forth a slight gag as the monster swallowed it. It shuddered, and the ground trembled. Lee dropped to his knees so he wouldn’t lose his footing and fall into the mouth. He stabbed the monster repeatedly with the machete, holding the hilt with both hands. The monster gurgled and grunted and spewed cold, burning blood.

Again and again, Carissa brought down the pick mattock, knocking out teeth as quickly as the monster could replace them. She snarled and swore and didn’t let up, though it took all Lee’s energy just to stay mostly upright. The sun set above them. For a second, he feared he would spend the rest of his life in this pit, battling a monster that couldn’t be beaten. And then Carissa lifted the mattock above her head with both hands and flung it end over end right down the center of the monster’s wide round black throat.

It choked. It spasmed. Carissa stumbled backward, and though Lee could barely stand, he pushed himself into position to break her fall. She kept her feet, leaning against Lee, his face pressed into her back. When she stepped away and he could see again, the monster had vanished.

“What—?” Lee stammered. “Where?” He grasped Carissa around her waist and hugged her tight. “Are you okay?”

“Are you okay?” she replied. “Is this where you’ve been coming the last few days? Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because it’s crazy,” he said. “And I was trying to protect you. If you knew there was a monster after me, then you might be in danger too. You and the baby.” As he said it, Lee realized how foolish he sounded. Not telling Carissa about the monster wouldn’t protect her from it. All it would do was keep her from being prepared.

She helped Lee to his feet, wiped sweat from her brow, leaving behind a black streak. “You’re lucky I thought to look for you here. I got home and you weren’t there, and you weren’t answering your phone…I worried. I remembered you telling me how you used to come here sometimes when you needed to think. And you’ve been so withdrawn the last few days. Probably thinking a lot.” She shrugged. Lee knew what she meant. Even if he thought he was hiding his worry, she knew him.

“But you…” He paused. Wasn’t sure how to bring this up. “You don’t seem too surprised about the monster.”

Carissa laughed hollowly. “The only surprise is that it was going after you, too. I thought I was the only one.”

Lee blinked at her. Had his jaw dropped open?

“Fine,” she snorted, “I should have told you, too. But, like you said, you try to protect the people you love. And I thought it was gone. I thought I’d beaten it.” She rested her hands on her belly, the pick mattock leaning against her thigh. “I guess maybe that’s impossible. Or maybe this is a different one. No one ever talks about this.”

Lee looked at her hands, at the stomach underneath them, their child inside her. “What are we supposed to do then?”

“There’s two of us now,” Carissa said. “If it comes back, we fight it together. And I bet there’s other people who would help.”

Lee smiled. He tasted dirt, blood, sweat. He was caked in it. It grimed his teeth. He held out his hand for Carissa to take, and she did. Together, they climbed out of the pit.

Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including LightspeedBeneath Ceaseless SkiesDaily Science FictionWastelands: The New Apocalypse, and LeVar Burton Reads. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s