Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Jeremy had been trapped for 17 hours. Each time he moved, he wedged himself farther between the plaster walls. His shoulders ached, his ankles were swollen and his throat was filled with an arid sticky hoarseness. He had stopped screaming many hours ago when it became evident that no one was returning for him and not a soul was looking for him.
It had been a usual job: a property that needed renovations before the new owners moved in. The plumbing had been torn out and replaced by shiny new pipes and bleach-white toilets. The wiring had been so poor and erroneous that Jeremy had needed to reinstall the entire electrical panel.
The house was plainly old. Rumors of it being haunted had kept new buyers away for months but finally, a desperate family had purchased the rundown, crumbling house. With wooden rafters and floors that squeaked under the smallest movements, paint that had chipped into thin faded cracks and windows that were covered in a dusty film, sunlight strained to fracture through, leaving the house in a constant eerie dimness. But between the walls, where Jeremy had been stuck for 17 hours, it was a starless-night black.
He had slowed his breathing for fear of running out of oxygen. He was thankful for his ex-wife dragging him to the occasional ‘Yoga in the Park’ class. He made his inhales and exhales of equal length. Dust swirled with every slow stream of air from his nose, knocking up the smell of damp sand.
His sliver of an area also stank of his own sweat and piss. The insides of his jeans clung to his thighs, serving as a warm, tacky reminder of his incontinence. His head lolled against his chest; he could be sleeping, he wasn’t sure. The darkness was so pressing that he could not tell the difference between day and night, between consciousness and unconsciousness.
He had spent the first few hours screaming, then a bout of hurling curses at the house and floorboards for being so old and for snapping underneath his weight, followed by a long process of deciding if he should just allow himself to go to the bathroom or hold it until he was rescued. Hours passed. He had slept, this he knew for certain. He had never needed to make a decision about going to the bathroom because his bladder had given way during his nightmares.
He had dreamt he was being squeezed from all sides, being crushed like a car at an auto wrecker, metal plates pinching, crunching and folding him into a small square of his former self. And from his contorted square of limbs, he was still alive. He stared out into darkness, each heartbeat bestrewn with pain because his organs had been compressed to one-tenth of their size. His mouth was folded up and underneath his chin so if he stuck out his tongue he could lick his throat. His fingertips and toes were touching, wrapped together and tied in a fleshy bow atop of a Christmas present. Each time he moved them, a bone cracked. From behind him, he listened to the sounds of creaking wood, the bones in his fingers snapping, and slow, raucous breathing from an unknown source. Jeremy tried to muster out a weak hello, but his folded body didn’t allow anything more than a terrified murmur.
The breathing from behind him began to run its fingers along his rounded spine. It made the sound of a xylophone like the mysterious dark creature was playing hot cross buns with thin, mallet-like appendages along his vertebrae. The sound alone was enough to make urine dribble down his legs.
The sudden warmth woke him. He was screaming again.
He was thankful to find that he was no longer compressed into a square and that he was only being squeezed on his front and back. He cracked his jaw to confirm its presence and practiced a few tongue-twisters to check that his mouth and voice were functioning.
“How now brown cow,” he whispered and then yelled, “how can a clam cram in a clean cream can!”
“How can a clam cram in a clean cream can!”
He shivered and then wept. The tears broke out of him, covering his cheeks and the front of his stained t-shirt.
Jeremy had always been independent and comfortable being alone. He had pushed away his coworkers to work alone, his parents, so he could live alone when he was only 15, and then his wife. Lucy’s past warnings rang in his ears.
“It’s okay to be alone. It’s not okay to be lonely.”
Annoyance twinged at the sides of his weeping eyes.
“I’m not lonely. You’re right here,” Jeremy had said.
And then, she wasn’t. He had dismissed her like she was as insignificant as a maggot, claiming priority over his work, his hobbies and himself. Three years ago.
Had it really been that long? Yes, Jeremy counted the days, it had been three years since Lucy had left with barely even a second glance because he hadn’t even looked up.
Jeremy began to hum to himself an hour later. Madness seeped into his mind like a spider crawling along his eyelids and over his brain. He began by humming children’s lullabies then some songs from Cats and then, One is the Loneliest Number. As he hummed, he thought of the electrical wiring that still needed to be done in the house. He was only halfway finished when he fell; therefore, only the lights on the first floor of the house would work. He was sure the owners would be unhappy with only electricity on one story of their new house. When he was removed from this gap, he would complete his work and stay away from old, fouled-up houses like this one.
He rolled his head backwards and hummed louder. He squinted into the black. There was a small light, the size of a pin that looked like a star in a distant galaxy, 20 feet above his head. If he could have lifted his arms, he would have tried to reach up and pluck it from the wooden slats and plaster.
Jeremy shifted his shoulders. Something cracked beneath him.
His humming stopped and yet, the song continued.
One is the Loneliest Number that You’ll Ever Do.
The second voice stopped. Jeremy took in a rough inhale coated with thirst and his past sobs. This was a nightmare. He tried to convince himself that he was dreaming again. He was about to be crushed by another auto wrecker, or he was just hallucinating. Just a friendly, humming hallucination.
The wood cracked again beneath his shoes.
The house had no basement but if he fell through this floor, he would fall through to the dirt-filled crawl space. He shuddered at the thought of crawling through insects, weeds and forgotten nails, and then being asphyxiated by dirt.
He hummed again.
Not Jeremy, someone else was humming.
He looked up to the pinhole light. A great wave of darkness like a cape flapping in the wind passed over it, blocking the tiny light for a brief moment. Then it went back the other way. It was moving downwards in a zig-zagging pattern that stirred up the smell of dust and rattled the walls with wooden squeaks.
Jeremy would have screamed if he hadn’t already convinced himself that this was a hallucination. He closed his eyes. Another crack below. The walls were vibrating and shaking with such violence that Jeremy could hear the nails clanging out of the wood and falling to the ground, pinging against the floor beside his feet. The humming became louder until all he could hear was that stupid, kitsch song, filling and pumping in his ear drums like a enormous cymbals were being crashed against the sides of his face. He opened his eyes.
A man with a long, toothy grin, wide eyes with black pupils and yellowy whites, and cheekbones that stuck and carved at the thin air hovered over top of Jeremy. He hummed, his tongue flicking behind his grin and pushing the melody forward like he was spitting down the song into Jeremy’s open, aghast mouth. The man put fingers made of bones on either side of his shoulders and pushed.
This time, Jeremy screamed. He let out a hideous, thundering scream into the sunken face of the man. It ripped through his body from the pit of his stomach and seemed to tear the barren thirst of his throat into two.
“How can a clam cram in a clean cream can!” The man screamed over top of Jeremy’s voice and pushed again.
The floor split.
The darkness of the crawl space swallowed him.
The man wrapped him and crushed him in the thick black of his cape, stealing his loneliness for his own, lapping up his madness with his flicking tongue, and crushing his spine with his bony fingers.
The new owners, a family of three called the Hallaways, moved in the next day. They immediately made a complaint to their realtor when they realized the second floor had no working lights. The Hallaways had a daughter named Anna who told her mother and father that the house smelled terrible but her parents could not smell what she did until a week later.
It took many hours to remove the lost electricians body from the crawl space. The Hallaways had to hire a contracting company to tear out part of the foundation to pull out Jeremy Sanders’ dirt-filled, maggot-infested corpse from their new home. Mrs. Hallaway had been sick after getting a look at Jeremy’s slack jawed, half-deteriorated face, frozen like he was in mid-scream. Mr. Hallaway had been told by the police that this electrician had stepped through the walls to fix some of the wiring for the second floor when a floorboard had snapped and he had fallen through two stories to the crawl space. He had broken his back on impact and slowly died in the dirt. He would’ve been reported missing earlier if he hadn’t often isolated himself.
Anna told her mother that the story the police gave was not true and that Mr. Jeremy had gotten stuck between the walls, singing and chanting until he was murdered by a grinning man. Mrs. Hallaway, naturally, thought that her daughter was making up ghost stories because Anna had always been fascinated by monsters and the macabre.
But when Anna began to cross through the rooms singing and reciting How can a clam cram in a clean cream can, over and over again and the house squeaked in response. Mrs. Hallaway started to believe that the smell of death lingering in the house did not only belong to the man who had died in the crawl space but to something that lived between the walls.