by James Reinebold
When we finished eating the leftover chicken and crusty mashed potatoes my neighbor had brought over the night before, Katie and I went to the living room to prepare for my first night of digging. I told her to find a flashlight and one of the shovels. She brought me Dad’s primary. I thought it was important that she watch as much as possible for when it was her turn.
The week before Dad died he hit another rock layer that stifled his progress. The shovel my daughter brought was chipped and a little too heavy by modern standards. The last thing Dad told me before he died was to look into getting a new one.
I don’t know why, but he wanted to be cremated instead of buried at First Baptist with the rest of the clan. His ashes were on their way express to Hawaii to be scattered in some volcano he had read about in a magazine.
“Come on,” I said to Katie. “Let’s go.”
The hole had been started in 1820 and was only a short walk from the house. Each of the previous generations of McElroys had done their share of it. My dad wanted to dig the deepest and break the record that Jacob had set so many years ago.
He ended up being short by four feet. Still, second place in our line wasn’t too bad and his father had lived unnaturally long at ninety-eight so the odds were against him. There was a chance I could break the record if my health kept up.
I watched as Katie carefully laced up her bright yellow rain boots. A light drizzle was starting to fall, so I made sure she put on her jacket. I didn’t want her catching a cold.
The color of the sky was beginning to morph into shades of orange as we trudged to the entrance. A blue tarp covered the opening to keep out the rain. I parted the overlaying sheets of plastic and we walked inside.
The hole, our hole, spiraled downwards with a five-degree angle of descent and a radius of thirty feet. Katie shined the flashlight down into the earth. The beam poked between rocks first uncovered 190 years ago.
She bent down and grabbed a handful of wonderfully soft mud, surface mud. I watched her fingers squeeze it and how beautifully it deformed to her touch. But I wanted to get started so I motioned for her to leave it be.
She led the way down. As she grew up I made sure to encourage her to play around the hole. We threw her birthday parties in it, opened our Christmas presents around the rim, and every Fourth of July I’d remove the tarp to set off fireworks from inside and she and my wife would watch them poke up from beneath the surface and explode in flashes of red and orange. She spent most of her time either there or in the sandbox Dad had built for her.
She was probably going to surpass us all. Her forearms and back muscles already were starting to bulge. The night I found her in the basement at my weight set struggling to lift the bar was perhaps my proudest moment as a father. Once or twice I caught her digging in the hole at night when Dad was asleep. I had to ground her, of course (it wasn’t her time yet), but inside I was happy.
Katie started humming to herself as we crept downward. The walls of the hole were smooth and bare of graffiti or other markings. But you could always tell where a changeover happened. Sometimes the digging got better and sometimes the digging got worse. Sometimes it wasn’t really better or worse – just different. But it was always different.
Soon we came to the bottom of the hole. The same spot I had sat and watched my father set down his pick and shovel for the last time. Katie unfolded the rusted lawn chair leaning against the wall while I angled the shovel into the ground and raised my foot above the blade. Some of the rain from above us had leaked through a hole in the tarp and reached the bottom. The rain would make the digging easier.
“Good luck,” she said.
I sighed and pushed the shovel into the rocks beneath my feet. Katie sat back in the lawn chair and watched me work, patiently waiting for her turn.
JAMES REINEBOLD is a computer scientist researching virtual reality in Los Angeles. He spends his spare time writing weird stories and programming video games. His personal website is www.reinebold.com.