After Dad settled at Amita Assisted Living I moved into his house under Mount Usakam, on the road to an immense gravel pit dug deep in the side of the mountain. I’d been living in my van down by the lake. All night, loons called across the water and woke me up. I needed a place I could obtain solid rest.
“You can take care of the house but be nice to the neighbors,” he said. “They’re good people with no concept of time.”
He sat back in his big old guy chair and rubbed his white goatee. “You’ll dream well at night. I feel that only now I’m waking to the real world. I need other people around,” he said. “Real people.”
As he talked, a sweet old lady with shaky hands brought him a cup of tea. I drove my van up to his house the next day.
The edge of the place rested on the road edge. Only the gravel pit people lived further up. Their mobile trailer shack lay deep in the pit hole, and the residents kept their windows closed. I heard dump trucks pass all day, hauling loads of fill. I tightened up my earplugs, closed my windows like the neighbors, and tried to nap as the dust rose. Every night round ten I awakened and hosed down the outside walls, did gardening under the moon. I walked Fanto my beagle-spaniel cross up round the pit. As I passed the shack with the piles of rocks all round it I wanted to shout, “I’m the midnight man, hear my dark howl!” but I didn’t let myself go.
I preferred the silence, although it was great to sense the birds. Hawks blending into tree branches, owls flying by without a sound, sky predators on the hunt. One night I put Fanto back in the house at one a.m. and went out to hand mow the lawn. I had the feeling of eyes on me, zeroing in from above the trees. I stopped the lawnmower and under the quarter moon I heard a cat’s meow.
I perceived a shape, a boy standing in the vegetable garden under the cascade of stars. He meowed again.
“I’m over here beside the bushes,” I said. “What’s with the calling?”
He moved closer and out of the dark behind him rose two others, the shadow of a tall, thin girl with black tresses to her waist, and from the starlight another short grinning child with half her bright red hair shaved off.
“We’ve lost our bird,” the boy said. “Have you seen it?”
“What sort of bird is it?” I asked.
“It’s a cockatoo,” said the tall, thin girl.
“No, it’s a toucan,” the short grinning child added.
“No strange birds that I’ve seen,” I said. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
Two headlights shone from up the road; I heard the crunch of car tires. A vehicle stopped at the edge of the house. The three kids moved back into the trees.
“It’s the gravel pit people,” said one.
My motion detector lights flashed on. A huge, bushy-eyebrowed man in a black cowboy hat and a stout lady with a fur stole around her neck appeared out of the darkness.
“Say, you must be Ed’s boy,” said the big man.
“I’m fifty-three years old,” I told him. “Ed’s in the senior’s home.”
I backed up to the front door, grabbed the axe and walked outside again.
“I think an eagle landed in your big tamarack tree over there,” said the man. “I’m Joseph Lillace.” He paused. “Are you thinking of chopping some wood?”
The shadows of the three kids in the garden ducked down, then rose and ducked down again.
“I usually do my chopping after midnight,” I told John. “But now company has arrived.”
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” asked the woman. “Ed always did. I’m Dorothy. Dorothy Lillace.”
“We chose our names by numerology,” John explained. “My name used to be Ellis Filipchuck”
“We’re having such good luck,” Dorothy told me. “Ever since we found our true appellations.”
I remembered what Dad said.
“The gravel pit people love to drop by at all hours and play scrabble. Invite them in to keep our hospitable prestige in the neighborhood, and your part of the house contract.”
“It’s a bit late for a visit,” I said, “but we could all have a nice drink of tea.”
I dropped my axe and opened the door. I waved at the tall girl, who’d stood up again.
Joseph strode into the house. He smelled like burnt toast. They seated themselves on the old brown couch facing the picture window.
“Would you like Earl Grey or Breakfast Tea?” I asked.
“Coffee, and a game of scrabble,” said Dorothy. “Wow, what a nice black night it is out there!”
“Does your Dad still have that stuffed fox head on the wall?” asked Joseph.
He stood up and walked over to the game cupboard.
“I took it down,” I said. “Didn’t like its eyes following me around.”
A tap sounded at the door.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said.
“If it’s the demons from beneath the earth, tell them we’re still digging our well,” called Dorothy. “Until we have running water, we can’t pay any rent.”
Joseph set the scrabble game down on the coffee table.
I grabbed my axe again and opened the door. The three kids stood just down from the step.
“Are our renters in there?” the boy asked.
“If you’re talking about Joseph and Dorothy, yes they are,” I said.
“They’re our tenants,” said the girl with the half-shaved head. “We’re from under the mountain.”
“They owe us a large part of their souls,” the boy told me, “For all that gravel they’ve taken out.”
“Dorothy said to tell you they’re still digging the well. She said you were demons.”
“They never give up that story,” the tall girl answered.
“You should have a babysitter,” I told them. “You’re just kids.”
“The babysitter would be you, Mr. Norman,” the shaven-haired girl said. “Your Dad took care of us when he lived here. He laid out food for our cockatoo.”
“Is it a cockatoo or is it a parrot?” I asked. “I thought I heard an owl out here a moment ago.”
We all listened for a moment. I heard Joseph tell Dorothy “Put me down for a twenty-point word.”
“What sort of food did Dad lay out?” I asked.
“Mostly giant sides of beef,” said the boy.
I felt a vibration beneath the ground. It came from the gravel pit, and when it reached us I held onto the porch beam to keep from falling. The three kids spun around like tops, in a dance with the vibration, their heads bopping and their bodies loose. The boy and the shaven headed girl disappeared into the ground, or the darkness, I couldn’t see. I peered to the rear of the garden, where the raspberries met the woods.
“Behind you,” I said to the tall girl. “Those two trees. I’ve never seen them before.”
The tall girl turned around. She stared for a moment and looked up. “Those aren’t trees,” she said. “That’s our toucan.”
I stared where she did and sure enough the two trees fused together under a torso curving to the sky. At treetop level I made out a beak long as a diving board and two eyes like blue disco lights staring my way.
“That’s nowhere near a toucan,” I said. “Or a cockatoo.”
“Whatever. She travels under the ground,” the tall girl told me. “We thought she’d surface here. Once you feed a wild animal, they keep coming back.”
“I’ll see what I have in the deep freeze,” I told her, and jumped back inside the house.
I checked on Dorothy and Joseph. They sat frozen, halfway through a scrabble move. Joseph’s hand lay across the board, a letter E in his fingers. Dorothy pressed the teacup to her lips. The eyes of the animal that made up her brown stole looked up for a second.
“Are you folks okay?” I asked.
The Lillaces did not respond. I waved at the stole. It blinked back. Something touched my shoulder. I jumped and the tall girl whispered, “Time has stopped for them, in the presence of the bird. Hurry, we should load up the food.”
“Of course,” I said.
I trundled the wheelbarrow up from the basement and opened the freezer. A whole mess of suet sat in there, the fat all frozen and lumpy.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. “You always prepared for an emergency.”
The girl and I piled masses of it into the wheelbarrow, and I pushed out the overflowing heap.
The two other kids stood outlined against the moon, gazing up at the cathedral-sized bird. The boy meowed again, and I heard a piercing whistle like the sound of a storm whirling through the trees.
I moved the wheelbarrow up to the middle of the garden and backed away. A curved black beak moved down from the woods and snapped up a big lump of food. The bird’s tree legs quivered. The beak came down again and opened on the suet a few more times. The kids danced as the bird lifted its green, room sized head and swallowed. I looked up and saw a shooting star flame across the forest-fire burned peak of Mount Usakam.
“Get on board, we’re going to ride,” said the shaven haired girl.
“I’m not big on heights,” I said.
“You’ll love this trip,” she told me. “Your Dad rode with us too. It’s part of the deal.”
“What deal is that?”
“To honor you and your Dad, of course, for your caretaking.”
“How do we climb up there?”
The boy meowed twice, and again came the whistling, loud as a gale through the pines as the ravenlike beak bore down, blowing gusts of cool air in our direction, followed by the giant bird head, like a toucan, sure, and a face like a cockatoo but fifty times bigger with a wild turquoise eye and flame-colored feathers and the beak wide as a sheet of plywood gapped on the sides by two huge nostrils.
“Come on!” said the boy and the two girls followed, clambering up the beak. “It’s a trifle slippy.”
“Cover your head!” the tall girl said, as the bird began to move its way through the ground. Its feet twisted and intertwined, and the toenails fused like arrowheads. All stayed silent. We rode in the eye of the bird’s hurricane. All around I saw the trees blow back and the dust fly.
“Hang on, Mr. Norman!” yelled the boy.
The earth crumpled and we dropped and fell beneath the earth. The top of the world shut down above us, and an acrid smoke rose from a light shining far below. Sweat poured from my face and evaporated instantly on the bird’s black head.
“Don’t look down!” screamed the thin girl, so I did and glimpsed pools of bubbling magma so bright I rammed my hand over my eyes.
The bird kept running, inside what appeared to be a humungus cavern lit dimly by the lava flow. I remembered Dad telling me Mount Usakam was a dormant volcano, but from this ride it appeared active as hell.
“Stay on the beak!” yelled the girl with the shaved head.
I watched her dive off the bird’s wide black wings and plummet towards the molten rock. The bird raised its beak and pushed my torso through an opening in the cavern roof, which snapped closed behind me. I stood beside a cracked wooden chair in a musty wallpapered bedroom. Dust covered photos of John and Dorothy Lillace lay beside a damp smelling blue and pink bed, the top being pink, the sides navy like a boy’s first sweater.
The thin girl and the boy stood beside me.
“Cassandra’s gone into the mountain,” said the girl. “The rocks were calling.”
Her pupils glowed like red-hot coals.
“Are Dorothy and John ever going to finish their game of scrabble?” was all I could say, as I stared at a wedding picture from what could be a millennia ago.
“They might be there a very long while,” said the boy. “Time moves on for those who pay their way, but for those who default, well, I can’t say.”
“They made a lot of money selling gravel off this mountain,” the thin girl chimed in. “And what did they replace it with? This lousy mobile home.”
“Where do I fit in?” I asked.
“You are part of our world now,” the boy said. “You live under Mount Usakam.”
“It looks like the real world to me,” I said, staring out at the dawn and the day rising in the East.
“It’ll always look like the real world,” the thin girl said. “But it’s not the same world.”
“Well,” I said, “Everything changes. It’s never the same world.”
The girl shook her head.
“Our giant cockatoo saved you from time paralysis,” she told me. “Thanks to your suet generosity.”
“The fact you had no fear impressed our mighty toucan,” the boy added. “You climbed right up onto its beak.”
I saw a figure up on the gravel hill, pushing a large rock towards the peak.
“That looks like my dad,” I said.
“It is your dad,” the girl told me. “He’s hard at work under Mount Usakam.”
“I thought he was in the senior’s residence.”
“That is in the world above,” the girl laughed and pulled on the bottom of her yellow T shirt on which I could vaguely perceive a likeness of the “cockatoo.”
“Well, is there part of me that’s still in this “world above,” talking numerology with the Lillaces?”
“I don’t think you want to find out,” said the boy.
“What doesn’t move in time disappears in time,” the girl added.
I noticed both the kids wore packsacks.
“We’re off to school now,” they said. “We’ll be back round four.”
“I know where you’re going,” I said. “To the center of the earth like Cassandra.”
“I guess you’ve got our number,” the girl waved, as the two slipped out the front door.
I didn’t check to see where they went. I rummaged in the Lillace’s cupboards. I discovered some expired beef jerky, then tried to follow the figure who resembled Dad, but he’d disappeared into the bush at the top of the gravel pit.
I spent a while looking for the bird, just to be on the safe side, then wandered down the road to Dad’s house. The garden looked good, plenty of raspberries. I knocked on the door for politeness’ sake, and no-one answered. I went in. I half-expected the Lillaces to still be there, playing scrabble.
“Who’s winning the game?” I shouted.
All stayed silent. In the living room, I upturned a very old teapot that contained no water and a few remnants of a dry brown material. I heard a snuffling sound from my bedroom, then a banging from behind the door. I opened it with a flourish, and my dog Fanto jumped into my arms.
“All’s well,” I said. “I remember I put you in here last night. You must be hungry.”
Fanto jumped on the table and licked up what was on it while I rummaged the deep freeze to find her a better snack. She hadn’t changed a whisker.
Even if I existed beneath the mountain only to serve child demons, I could still take my fiendish dog for a walk. I decided to go out while it was still light, before the owls awakened under the huge dome above, that apparently was no longer the sky.
Harrison Kim lives and writes out of Victoria, Canada. He grew up near a giant gravel pit, beneath which came volcanic rumblings. Stories appear in The Horror Zine, Bewildering Stories, Blue Lake Review, and others.