Melinda was telling Marcus about her mindfulness practice, the new app she was using, and she was about to tell him how she had felt a shift, a release, like some part of her head, grinding against others, had settled into a spot, like a puzzle piece dropping into place, but he interrupted her.
“Honey, could you have a look at this rash on my back.”
“It’s not a rash. It’s some kind of puncture. Did something bite you?”
“I don’t think so.”
Two days later, on the verge of sleep, he remembered that sting in an abandoned mineshaft when he was a kid. It had been like a hot screw going in slow. He beat at the spot, but it kept going. That was it. The pain stopped. He forgot about it.
He forgot about it again until the middle of the morning, when he was spooning ground coffee into the French press, thinking about digging. He found Melinda in her workroom sitting in a lotus position on a pillow with white earbud cables running from her head to her lap.
Melinda stayed calm and paused the app. Dealing with his interruptions seemed easier. That almost brought her joy, that absence of annoyance, the saint-like patience she felt. It made everything feel light, even looking at the hole again. It wasn’t a gross inconvenience. It was an act of loving kindness.
It was a deep dark hole about an eighth of an inch across. The skin around it was red but smooth, unpuckered. When she got close to it she could swear she felt a breeze, a jet of cool air across her eye and her cheek. She touched the skin. It was warm. She licked her fingertip and held it just above the hole. It was cooled by the air current.
“Take a deep breath and hold it. Now let it out. Cough.”
The air current stayed constant through all that. So it wasn’t coming from his lungs. She couldn’t believe she was doing it, but she brought her nose right up to the hole, into the steady stream of air rushing out of it, and sniffed. It smelt earthy, not like rain after a dry spell, more like a dirt floor in a woodshed.
“What were you doing in the mine?”
“Looking around. Casey was probably looking for something old to rip off and sell. All we had was a penlight. We couldn’t see much at all and Keith was the one holding it and he was being an asshole, turning it off, shining it in our eyes. We were tripping over stuff. We got pretty muddy. Water was dripping on our heads and the damn light flickers and goes out and stays out and we shouted at Keith. We were really freaking out. And the light comes back on and even Keith is freaked out because the light’s really yellow and dim. So we started re-tracing our steps, but it’s hard to see and we don’t know how far we had to go and the light goes out. Steve’s cussing. We’re all cussing and Casey is shouting for everyone to shut up and we see we can see a glow of daylight from around a corner and right then, that’s when I got stung. I was so muddy when we got out of there I climbed in my bedroom window so I wouldn’t get in trouble, but I still got caught by my Mom, but she didn’t do anything to me because she’d just got a call that my Dad had died up in Chicago. It was from his girlfriend. My Mom hated her, but I remember her being nice. We never saw her again after the funeral.”
“You never told me about the mine before.”
“It kind of got pushed back by my Dad dying right after.”
She was dreaming, and in the dream everyone was walking down a long and immense hallway. It was a high school hallway, but everyone was in a good mood, like it was the last day of school. Her name was being called, floating down from a stairwell she was passing. She left the procession and followed her name up the stairs and into wakefulness.
Marcus was on his side, his bare back to her. The hole was a black dot on the surface, below his right shoulder blade and almost under his arm.
“Marcus?” she whispered, even though she knew it wasn’t his voice.
“Melinda. Tell me about the mindfulness.”
She slid down the bed and closer to Marcus, so she was leaning over his side.
The voice was coming from the hole. It was insane, and if the small voice hadn’t sounded so gentle, so in need of solace, she would have started screaming. Instead she started talking, in a whisper, even though nothing would wake Marcus short of a drenching with ice water, and the voice was genuinely interested.
Then she got her phone and held one of the earbuds over the hole. The other one was in her right ear. She played a guided meditation, and focused hard, breathing away the tension of the situation, faintly aware of Marcus’s ribs moving with his breathing under her hand.
The shared mindfulness sessions became her nightly act of compassion. She was sure they were having a positive impact on her. And Marcus seemed more relaxed as well, at least for the first week or so.
Despite all her googling she could find nothing about reincarnation and holes in people, or possession and holes, or any ancient or modern theories that might support her notion that Marcus’s Dad was somehow, ectoplasmically, magically, embedded within him. The voice was no help.
“Are you Marcus’s father,” she asked one night, earbud in hand.
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you, Melinda?”
She caught herself before she could say “Marcus’s wife”. Grasping for the right answer brought her face-to-face with a vast blankness. She took it with her into the guided meditation she started.
Marcus’s calm demeanour gave way to agitation. Not even Tiger King could hold his attention. He started show after show. He paced the rooms of the house.
“This lockdown is starting to get to me,” he said to her. He was gritting his teeth. She rubbed his back, between the shoulder blades.
“You should try some meditation.”
That look he gave her.
“Or, how about that game you used to be really into? EverQuest? You called it Evercrack, but this is probably the best time to be addicted to it.”
That idea seemed to take.
“Maybe. But you have to delete it for me when lockdown is over or if I, you know, lose it.”
Before heading to bed, Melinda looked in on him in the den. He was in front of the computer, but he wasn’t playing a game. He was looking at an aerial view of a forest.
“What’s that, honey,” she said, draping an arm around his shoulder.
He traced the mouse cursor along a yellow line that ran between the trees.
“I found the fire trail that we followed to the mine. Now I’m trying to find the mine. We had to leave the trail and walk up hill a ways, but I can’t tell how hilly it is and I can’t remember which direction we went off the trail.”
He dragged the map, bringing a further section of the fire trail into view along with more trees. He kept dragging and the green trees gave way to burnt out forest. He dragged through them, and at the right of the window, set in the bare earth of a scorched hillside, within a vee of darker rock, a black oblong appeared. When it had reached the middle of the screen Marcus stopped dragging. He clicked twice to zoom in and let go of the mouse and sat still.
Melinda felt it in his shoulders, the trembling.
“That’s it. That’s gotta be it,” he said, and sniffed, wiped the heel of his hand under his eye. “It’s just a goddam hole. Why am I getting so”
It was a couple of hours before he could speak coherently again. Then it was real late and they went to bed together. Marcus fell asleep as soon as he was horizontal. Melinda was left staring at the ceiling, back to wondering who she was, if she had great voids boarded over like Marcus had.
She rolled over towards him and pulled the sheet down from out of his armpit. The hole in his side was gone. What was that? Who was she? Who was Marcus? She rolled over onto her back and put her earbuds in.