When a late-summer tornado leveled a nearby street four days after Sam’s eighth birthday, his father took him to see what was left. It was while standing in a crowd of gawking neighbors that Sam saw, with unprecedented wonder, that the surface structures for half the block were completely and utterly gone; their basements—the bones of their foundations—were exposed to the air.
It had never occurred to Sam that so much was underneath.
After that, he began to imagine, with some regularity, descending feet-first into the ground. As if in a kind of elevator, except he was the elevator, and able to see the things below, even when Mother Nature’s finger didn’t peel away the earth like a scab. He adored what could not be seen, what was definitely there in a way that could not easily be proven.
When he looked at gas stations, he saw volatile reservoirs of petrochemicals, motionless but dangerous. Trees were tangles of roots; stop signs were cement cylinders. During an early-season soccer game, Sam stopped just short of kicking the ball down the field because he could see nothing but aluminum cans, packed deep in the earth like razor blades in apples, flattened and buried after years of picnics and storms. When a group of protesters occupied a local park, Sam saw the sewage tank beneath their Porta-Potty, festering and blue.
When he and his father went camping in the mountains, Sam saw his stream of urine soaking into the pine needles as a constantly elongating shape, filtering unevenly through the layers of loam and dirt and stones in a funny, stretched-out line. This sent him into a fit of giggles. Only when it went on for four minutes, and then trickled off into a staggering moan, did his father realize that something was wrong. Sam said the word “her” seven times quickly, softer with each invocation, and then fell to the ground, twitching.
Full of guilt, the parents who had previously banned all video games on the grounds of brain-mush bought Sam Dig Dug.
Sam considered it the best present that he had ever received in his life. He slid the nub of the joystick one way, and then the other. He moved his man through bright layers of dirt like they were nothing. He made new paths and destroyed the monsters. His mother watched this from the doorframe, her lip curling in a way that she would remember twenty years later. She watched Sam sitting there, triangles of hair damp with sweat and plastered against his skin like a cartoon character’s, eyes focused on the screen, a drop of saliva in the crease of his mouth. She found herself reciting the title over and over in her head. Dig Dug. Dig Dug. Clipped present tense, protracted past. A thing that only ever got bigger.