The Urg by Constance Renfrow
Feb 25 ● BY Constance Renfrow
The Urg took over Carrie’s basement that same summer Britney Spears took over the airwaves. We were nine, and Carrie and I had sworn to be best friends forever, an oath we marked by spending most afternoons at her house, skirting the bog in the woods that stretched beyond her backyard, or mining for fossils in the dirt pile. The Burkes had the more exciting property, the better snacks, and also a pool. But best of all, we could watch far more than my own allotted half-hour per day of TV—meaning the commercials for Britney’s first album, her schoolgirl uniform tied open at the waist, and those blond braids she wore low.
Whenever she came on we would tuck the bottoms of our T-shirts into our collars and dance on the sofa with our bellies exposed. Yet, despite her parents’ leniency, this they expressly forbid, and so at that first deep groan I shimmied back down to the carpet, where Mrs. B had set us up with popcorn and a box fan.
I pulled my T-shirt down, stuck my arms behind my back and crossed them, beaming at the staircase from which I expected Mrs. B to descend. The noise sounded again, drowning out the refrain I would mishear for years: Kiss me baby one more time.
Carrie, however, remained on the sofa arm, her fingers wrapped around twin clumps of hair, forming two pigtails as impermanent as the girls dancing across the screen.
For a third time: a creak and a rasp, something grasping and world-weary, and finally I asked, “What’s that?”
“Oh,” Carrie sighed, batting her eyelashes the way Britney did in the commercial. “That’s just the Urg.”
I nodded, abandoned my perfect-angel pose, but she hopped off the couch, shaking the floor.
“Well? Don’t you want to know what an Urg is?”
“Carrie May, are you all right?” her mother hollered from her workroom upstairs.
“Sorry, Mom!” she yelled back, then leaned in to whisper, “Daddy says it lives in our basement. He says that’s the noise it makes when it’s hungry.”
This made sense in that it certainly sounded hungry. “Can’t we bring it some food?” I asked.
Carrie sighed again and dropped cross-legged beside me on the carpet. “We can’t. Jenn’s down there, she’ll tell on us.” Jenn, her sister, was fifteen and had basement privileges, but to us it remained off-limits, even to open the door.
The Urg moaned again, a loud rusty protest just as our episode resumed, and I threw my arms into the air. “Is this going to go on all day?” my little girl voice rising too high in my excitement, a shrill ache, like too much sugar at the bottom of my teeth.
Carrie shuffled to the TV on her knees and cranked the volume as high as it could go. When her mom yelled, she made clear that one more notch and she’d kick us out to the garden to uproot weeds.
By the end of the week Carrie had grown sick of the Urg bellyaching over our TV time, and Mrs. B had grown sick and tired of Carrie trying to sneak the volume higher. And I’d grown sick of the teen dramas Carrie insisted we watch just because Jenn did, so I didn’t overly complain when Mrs. B ordered us outside for an hour. When we returned, giddy and throat-scratched from “playing Britney” in our stadium in the woods, the Urg had fallen blissfully silent. Nevertheless, Carrie’s mom said, “Put on your swimsuits, girls,” already applying sunscreen to her own arms. With Jenn monopolizing the bathroom, Mrs. B instructed me to change in Jenn’s bedroom and demanded from Carrie no backtalk.
I changed quickly while eyeballing a photo on Jenn’s desk of Mrs. B as a bride, lacy hat perched on a mass of teased brown waves, grinning ecstatically into her purple-trimmed bouquet. Those muttonchop sleeves all princess white and poofy like Ariel’s at the end of The Little Mermaid. I remember I approached the picture hesitantly, its usual place the third shelf on the bookcase in the downstairs hall.
“What are you doing?”
I jumped, whirled around to see Jenn looking like she’d merged with the doorframe, her long pink towel the same shade as the paint and her cheeks. It was as if I’d caught her where she shouldn’t be. I thought of Jenn, then and now, as the prettiest real life person I’d ever seen; she knew how to French braid hair and glide down the precariously steep driveway on rollerblades. And, when we were really little, she’d give me and Carrie piggyback rides all over the house, bouncing us from wall to distant wall.
“Your mom said I could be in here,” I blurted, grabbing my discarded shorts and souvenir T-shirt. In the doorway she slowly crossed her ankles and folded her arms over her chest, but she didn’t order me to leave. I pointed to the photograph. “I like your mom’s dress,” I said, which she already knew, given how often Carrie and I proclaimed this same fact, flipping through her parents’ wedding album.
Jenn slipped fully into the room and, arms clamped to her sides, snatched her brush from the dresser, and ripped the plastic bristles through her long thick hair. “Mom showed it to me once. The dress, I mean. It’s in the attic,” another place prohibited to Carrie and me. “You wouldn’t believe how tiny it is.”
I frowned into the picture glass, confounded by all those layers of fabric.
“How much did your mom weigh at her wedding?” she asked, her eyes narrowed as she surveyed me in my little-girl bikini, the kind with a thick ruffled top and skirt. I hugged my bundle of clothing, shifted my weight, and stuck out my knee.
“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t. I wondered if this was something everyone was supposed to know, some basic fact my parents had failed to impart upon me.
She said, “I bet it wasn’t much.”
The door slammed into the bumper, and Carrie hopped in, her beach towel wrapped around her legs. Her bare stomach eased and contracted as she chanted, “Mermaids, mermaids, mermaids!”
“Oh my god, get out!” Jenn hollered, a wounded cry, as she pushed Carrie back out into the hall. “You too,” she jerked toward me. I ducked under her arm, the warm damp of the terrycloth brushing my cheek as I passed. When the door slammed behind us the mechanism locked.
Of course, I did find out years later, when Carrie and I had started our freshman year of high school and Jenn had left for a college out of state.
That afternoon, my father arrived home early from his office, catching my mother and me at the kitchen table, our bowls of Maruchan beef ramen half empty—our daily routine. It was my mom’s first meal since breakfast; for me, it was an after-school snack. I’d been scheduled with fourth-period lunch but never could eat refrigerator-cold sandwiches at ten thirty in the morning, and I was always ravenous by the time Carrie and I, our best friendship discarded, nodded goodbye at the cul-de-sac bus stop.
“Ramen?” My father set his briefcase on his empty chair. “At this hour?”
I asked if he wanted a bowl, but sliding his hand down the slight curve of his stomach he said, “I’ve already got my points for the day.”
I stared down at the noodles coiled around my fork, thin and waterlogged. He’d started Weight Watchers over the summer, begun swapping quinoa for potatoes and twelve-grain bread for country white, and measuring endless cups of textured foods.
I said, “Sorry.”
My mom spoke over me, “Welcome home, honey.”
He slung his suit jacket over the seatback, kicked off his shoes, and padded to the fridge. The seal gasped open, and I heard him peel off a yogurt lid and scrape it with his spoon, three, four times.
I took a large bite of my noodles, flecking with broth the geometry homework I’d sprawled in front of me, the corners of my mom’s highlighted spreadsheet. She dabbed the blemish with a napkin.
“You know, at some point your metabolism is going to slow down,” my father said.
My mother rolled her eyes. “Your daughter’s thinking about joining color guard.” This was the conversation his entrance had interrupted, prompted by a phone call from Mrs. Burke, who bragged that Carrie had landed a small part in the fall play.
“Flag-twirling? Isn’t that for un-athletic girls?”
“I was also thinking about golf,” I muttered, and he sucked his spoon thoughtfully.
“At least that involves walking.”
That day, I actually grinned and told them both how much I weighed. When I’d gone searching for tweezers in my parents’ bathroom, I’d stepped on their scale. Three little red numbers, which, when spoken aloud, I thought they’d find admirable.
He grimaced. “Your mother weighed less than that when we got married.”
I thought then not how full the insides of my cheeks suddenly felt, or how the grease in my bowl congealed, but rather of Mrs. Burke’s wedding dress. Those muttonchop sleeves bigger than her waist wrapped in white satin. And her lips forever caught in a smile as she admired her flowers, or maybe her own self, lost in the folds of so much fabric. She seemed fragile, breakable, small.
My mom pushed her chair away, the urgent groan of it so like the Urg’s that at first I startled. She started to say something but stopped, and so I said, “Mom, how much did you weigh at your wedding?” Like it was an ongoing conversation we’d been having, just the two of us, for our entire lives.
When she looked at me I couldn’t discern her eyes or the expression of them, as if we were staring at each other through a distant, filmy haze.
“Savannah . . .” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No . . . it’s just—” I stammered, stabbing my fork into my bowl, “that I remembered something Jenn Burke said.”
“That poor girl,” my mom said, then sat back and sighed. “What did she say to you?”
Carrie and I struck out along the path behind her house and headed for the bog. The Urg had lived in the Burkes’ basement maybe a month, and its hunger pangs never seemed to abate, growling in the darkness every afternoon, and still we hadn’t been permitted downstairs to see it.
Rumor had it the bog once swallowed a tractor whole, farmer and all, and so every few days we’d trek through skunk cabbage and under widowmakers to see what the place had coughed up. Carrie’s dad had once let us watch a TV special on bog bodies, so we knew about how people could be preserved forever, their skin tight to their bones, muscles contorted at grotesque angles.
As always the bog was mostly silent, except for mosquitos that hovered above the swamped, rootless grass. No sign of a tractor though, no preserved farmer that we could see. Carrie looked around—the slope behind us, the house long disappeared from view. She tucked her shirt up.
“If you could be any age for all time, what would it be?” she asked.
I found a stick and stabbed it into the thick black muck. “Eleven,” I said. At eleven my favorite heroines met unicorns, moved in with eccentric aunts, or fought evil. At eleven adventure happened.
“I’d be sixteen,” Carrie said.
“Just because that’s how old Britney is.”
“No!” Carrie stooped to pick a fern and said, “When you’re sixteen you get to drive a car and go on dates.” She tugged hard, and the fronds came away stripped in her palm. She pouted, affected a pose. “You get to be sexy.”
The stick struck something hard, and I tried to maneuver to the edges of it.
“You don’t even know what that means,” I said.
She shook her head sagely. “My mom says it’s something you become when you grow up.”
My stick snapped, and I threw the broken piece atop the scum.
“Let’s do a show,” she said and pointed to our stadium, boulders on the hill arranged like a stage and seating. “We’ll take turns being Britney.”
“I don’t want to,” I said and climbed onto the tree trunk that stretched all the way to the other side of the bog. The property was owned by someone unknown, “No Trespassing” signs stapled to trees. “I want to see what’s this way.”
I didn’t look back but knew exactly how she’d be standing: arms crossed, hip cocked, and one eyebrow raised like Jenn’s.
I picked my way through branches and rocks, over dead leaves, and when my laces caught I tripped face-first into a pile of bones—a ribcage and a skull with a single protruding horn.
I screamed and screamed, and when Carrie reached me I said, “I think it’s a unicorn.”
“That’s just a deer, dumbbell,” she said, hands on her knees and panting. “Someone shot it.” She pointed to an arrow. I lifted it and made a spectacle, chanting like a sorceress to free the deer’s spirit from the hunter’s curse. After all, the previous summer I’d impressed Carrie with a nightfall potion I’d brewed, which turned late-afternoon into night and, as a result, a sleepover. When I stood and threw the arrow as far as I could the skeleton did seem lighter, almost satin-like, as though some great weight had suddenly risen.
Carrie pursed her lips. “Ew,” she groaned. “That’s not sexy at all.”
We found Jenn doing laps in the pool, Mrs. B reading in a lounge chair.
Even while swimming Jenn wore shorts and an oversized T-shirt, and when she paused to let the water hold her, her top billowed out, revealing a one-piece bathing suit, the patch of skin in the cutout pale in the chlorine.
Carrie dangled her dirt-streaked legs over the side and rubbed them clean.
“What are you doing?” I asked Jenn, feeling the ripples her strokes made between my fingers.
“She’s exercising,” Carrie said. “Duh.”
“Oh.” A cloud obscured the sun, muting the glare on the water. I remembered how Carrie and I would beg Jenn to pick us up and heave us across the shallows. Laps. “Isn’t it boring?” I said as Jenn slapped her hand against the side of the pool, gasping, “Forty.”
She called over her shoulder, “Yeah, well, we can’t all be stick figures like you.”
She pushed herself underwater, launching halfway across the expanse, and when she finally kicked up and swept out her arms she looked exactly like a Disney mermaid, beautiful and breaking the surface.
In the end my dad was right. Jenn too. My mom at twenty-four weighed less than me at fourteen. He made these calculations over the remains of our afternoon snack, all the while my mom telling him to stop talking and for me to stop listening, that they didn’t mean anything, these measurements, the difference between us just barely double-digit. But still, difference enough.
By the time Carrie and I got back to the pool in our swimsuits, Jenn had removed the cover from the hot tub and sat almost entirely submerged, her head resting on the edge, her back to us. Her hair wavered and rippled in the churning, bubbling sea.
Carrie cannonballed into the pool’s deep end, and my own squeal was far more impressive than the splash I caused.
“Mom—Mom! Guess what we found!” Mrs. B stuck her finger in her book.
“A deer skeleton!” I burst out, and Carrie sent a wave of water at me. I yielded her the story and slithered under the diving board.
“It got shot. Savannah touched it.”
Jenn pushed herself up to sit on the deck. “That’s disgusting.” Under the diving board, where even the light rippled blue, she sounded thick and distorted.
“Poor thing,” Mrs. B said. “It probably starved.”
“No, Mom, it got shot.”
“You don’t understand anything, do you?” Jenn said, standing all the way up, then heading for her towel.
“Be nice to your sister.”
Right then, without a word or warning, Jenn pitched forward, slapped hard against the deck, and stayed there, rigid, and Carrie screamed, “MOM!”
Mrs. B’s book slipped through the plastic slats of the lounge chair as she ran, ordering us out of the pool.
I gripped the graveled surface of the diving board while Carrie, huddled and shivering on the pool stairs, burst into tears.
“Did Jenn die?” she wailed, and finally I swam over to her and wrapped my arms around her clammy warmth.
“That’s enough. Get a towel.”
The water dripped from our suits as we handed Mrs. B our dry beach towels, which she wrapped around Jenn so we couldn’t see how pale she’d gone, the goosebumps, or the way her wet clothes clung.
Jenn stirred, shook her head and trembled, and gave no answers to her mom’s flurry of questions. What happened? Is it that time of the month? Did you eat enough at breakfast?
“Just light-headed,” she mumbled. “I’m fine, Mom. I’ll be okay.”
There would be other collapses, other spells that wouldn’t be blamed on hot water, low iron. I wouldn’t know about them until Jenn came back from college on leave, when I, finally an upperclassman, had arranged to swap that fruitless fourth-period lunch in the cafeteria for an extra elective: Home Ec.
A meeting with health services, failing grades, roommates who reported her. Mrs. Burke told my mother everything at our dinner table one late-winter evening, raking her fork through the devil’s food cake that I’d baked in class and nibbling at crumbs.
“Thank goodness for those girls,” she said, though from where I listened at the kitchen island over a cup of black coffee I did not, back then, believe their intentions so pure. “She hid it so well from us.”
When Mrs. Burke had gone my mom sat me down next to the leftover cake and insisted I eat most of a wedge.
“You can talk to me, Savannah,” she said, our afternoon ramen an embarrassment of the past. “Please don’t let what happened to Jenn Burke happen to you.”
I know now what she meant to convey, but then the cake caught like a warning at the top of my throat.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “I won’t.”
Mrs. B called the woman next door to watch us while she brought Jenn to the doctor. This lady made us put on dry clothes, served us sandwiches cut into fours, and settled into Mr. B’s armchair to watch the Food Network. The clock on the microwave said it was almost time for our show to start, though Carrie kept dissecting her sandwich, tearing off the crusts, separating the ham and the cheese into little piles like the chef on the screen.
The Urg would growl soon, I knew, and I jerked my head toward the basement door. “While we have a chance,” I whispered, and Carrie shrugged, told the neighbor lady we were going to play in the basement. She adjusted the volume as we clattered down the stairs.
I’d imagined the Burkes’ basement would be like mine—a long cold world of concrete and spiderwebs, splintered beams crossed with whispering pipes. In the center of it all the Urg, green and hairy and hungry. But Carrie found the light switch, revealing pristine carpet and painted walls. A big-screen TV on the far side, her mom and dad’s exercise stuff arranged before it like seating before a stage.
New and fresh and no place for monsters to hide.
“Where’s the Urg?” I asked.
“I dunno.” Carrie shrugged and turned on the TV. She sat on a machine with a long metal bar, a handle, and a spinner, and as the image slowly cleared she yanked on the handle, pulling out a long bungee rope. It tugged her forward, and she leaned back again, the seat sliding along the rail as far as her legs could extend.
The Urg’s shush, its truncated groan.
“That’s the Urg?” I whispered.
But the hour changed, and the channel launched into the opening sequence of one of Jenn’s dramas—girls in sexy dresses and boys with pop-star hair, parties, and dancing and fun, their heads turning as the main character descended the stairs. Her small waist angled to the camera, eyes wide and blinking.
Even when it cut to Britney—who shimmied and sang, I still believe!—the Urg starved and wheezed, shuddered and heaved, and Carrie said that once the commercial ended and Jenn’s show resumed, if I really wanted, she might just let me take a turn.