003 – The Basement

Growing up in my small town, I didn’t have a lot of friends.  There weren’t a lot of kids my age in town anyway – most of the kids I went to school with lived out in the country.  I had a couple of close friends, but my only other source of companionship were my two cousins, May and Shelly.  May was my age and Shelly was a couple of years older.  They lived in a house just down the road from my grandparents.

Being that they were girls and I was a boy, we didn’t always get along, but in general we were always nice to each other, and we would pal around while my grandparents played card games with their parents at their house.  My grandparents watched me while my mom was working the second shift, so I went where they went.  Me and the girls, fortunately, found plenty of ways to entertain ourselves.  We would even make up the girls’ room in to a haunted house or play secret agent, sneaking from room to room.

Shelly used to love to tell horror stories.  Most of them weren’t very good, but that was ok when we were kids.  All that mattered was the punch line, the hook on the door or the noose swinging in the barn.  The thing was, Shelly always told the stories in the first person, as if she had seen them or was there when they happened.  It was just her style of storytelling, but somehow, when I was young, it made the tales feel more real.

There was also her eye.  Her left eye had what’s known as a coloboma, a deformation in the iris that made her eye look like a cat’s eye.  It both creeped me out and fascinated me.  It eventually mostly faded as she got older, but when she was about 12 and I was 10, it was fairly pronounced.  This exotic feature also added to the mystery of her stories, some of which she’d tell while wrapping a shawl around her head and pretending to be an old Gypsy.

One night instead of going to May and Shelly’s house, we went to their grandmother’s house.  Their grandmother also lived in town, and not terribly far away, but it seemed like traveling somewhere foreign.  The house was at the edge of town, off of a dirt road that wound out from the southeast corner of town on the far side of the railroad tracks.  It was a strange house, almost perfectly square and made of concrete blocks, two stories tall standing on top of a low hill.  You had to climb up steps around three sides of the place to get to the door, which was on the second floor.  It almost felt like a dwarf lighthouse or castle tower.  Shelly said that her dad, my great uncle, was going to tear out the steps and replace them with a ramp that summer so that their grandmother could get out of the house easier.  She was old and frail and would soon need a wheelchair to get about.

I had never actually been in the house.  I had ridden my bike out there once or twice, following May and Shelly, and we had played in the yard a few times, but I had never actually been inside.  We pulled up in my grandparents’ old station wagon, and I jumped out to greet my cousins.  It was late September, and it was getting dark early, so there was no time to play outside.  I remember, just before walking in the door, thinking how lonely it was at the end of that dirt lane, woods all around obscuring any view of town except for the old blue water tower peeking up over tall pines.

Inside, the adults quickly busied themselves with adult things – setting out chips in bowls, putting up card tables, and talking about people none of us kids had ever heard of – while the kids, me and my two cousins as well as their cousin, Tracy, found places to sit around the tv, grabbed a bowl of chips for us, and started telling stupid jokes that only kids understand.  We didn’t notice that the wind had picked up outside until a low moaning sound seemed to come up from the floorboards.

“Just the wind,” Shelly said, grinning, but I could tell she was ready to launch into one of her horror stories.  “Sounds like it’s coming from downstairs, doesn’t it?”

I nodded.  May and Tracy were too busy playing Cat’s Cradle to notice.

“Maybe it isn’t the wind,” Shelly said, looking over to the door that led down to the lower floor.  My great uncle had left it open when he went down to grab more folding chairs.

I shook my head, knowing Shelly was just trying to scare me.  “That’s just the basement.”

“No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.  It’s just the downstairs.  There’s a basement under it.”

“So there’s a basement, so what?” I said, but I was already dreading what she was going to say.

Her grin made her look like the Cheshire Cat.  “There’s another basement under that one.  And another under that.  And another…”

“Nuh uh,” I replied, employing the strongest argument a ten year old possesses.

“Go look,” she said, motioning to the door.

“I’ll get in trouble,” I said, but I knew that wouldn’t work.  She would dare me, or tease me all night long until I went and looked.  I instead went for a different strategy.  “I’ll go if you do too.”

This brought an approving look.  “Ok, secret agent style though.”  We both cocked our fingers and thumbs into make-believe guns and crouched down by the couch.  May and Tracy were enthralled in some board game and the adults were busy slapping cards on the table and gossiping.  We moved swift as shadows, or so we imagined, and slipped down the steps without notice.

The light was still on downstairs, which I discovered wasn’t nearly as sinister looking as I’d imagined.  The stairs ended in a room that was clearly being used for storage.  A door off this room was open to a small bathroom, and another led to a utility room with a washing machine and dryer. We crept into this room, Shelly pulling the string that turned on the bare bulb in the ceiling.  She pointed to a narrow door in the corner.  “That goes down to the basement,” she said.

The door looked old and had two sliding bolts holding it closed. Both were rusty looking, as was the hinges.  The paint, a sort of pea green, was badly peeling.  Shelly grabbed a big lantern flashlight and handed it to me, then found another silver flashlight for herself.  She went over to the door and carefully worked open the latches.  When the second one was almost open, I felt a wave of dread.

“I don’t want to go down there,” I said.  “There’s probably spiders.  I really hate spiders.”

“Don’t be a baby,” Shelly replied.  She finished opening the latch and pulled the door open.  It squealed as she opened it, causing us both to look back at the stairs to see if an adult would come down to check out the noise.  A few tense minutes later it was clear no one was coming.  Shelly clicked on her flashlight and pointed it down the steps.

I peeked around her.  The stairs were open, narrow planks of wood that looked positively ancient.  “Is there a light down there?” I asked, gulping; Scooby Doo had taught me you always gulped when looking down spooky steps leading into darkness.

“We’ll find out!” she said and began bravely thumping down the steps. I followed timidly, my eyes darting too and fro, looking for the dreaded spiders.  The basement was, however, surprisingly clear of cobwebs.  There was plenty of dust, but no spiders to be found.  Shelly found the switch, pulling the string to flood the room with light.

The room below was, in fact, sparse and mostly empty.  It was much larger than the utility room above.  In the center of the room was large furnace and a corroded water heater.  There were a few cardboard boxes with old Christmas decorations and other junk, but generally it was just a basement.  The floor was concrete and discolored, most likely from water damage.  There was nothing particularly scary about being down there.

Except for the trapdoor on the floor…

What a horrible concept, a trapdoor.  It implies so many bad and terrible things.  There’s just nothing good that comes from a trapdoor, and most assuredly, under that trapdoor, down in the dark, were where the spiders were.  Or worse, where the monsters were.  There was no power on Earth that was going to make me go down through that door deeper into the earth.

We walked over to it, saw that there were again two sliding bolts holding it closed, but these were much larger than the ones on the basement door.  They were as thick as my index finger and twice as long.  They looked to be made of brass, all tarnished black instead of rusty.  There wasn’t even a hint of scratches on them where they might have been opened any time in the recent past.  Shelly bent down and began working the latches free.

“Don’t do that,” I said, my voice very small.

“I said don’t be a baby!” she replied.  One of the sliding bolts was free.  She began working on the second.

“I’m going upstairs,” I announced and turned to the stairs.

“If you leave, I’ll tell everyone you were a chicken-baby-scairdy-cat!” she snapped, having real trouble getting the other bolt to move.

I stopped, looked over my shoulder, and weighed whether or not I cared about being called names.  I also realized I really needed to urinate, most likely brought on by fear, but I could still hold it for a little while.  “I have to pee!” I proclaimed, assuming that might get me out of my predicament.

Shelly grimaced.  “Can’t you hold it?” she asked.  I could, but I shook my head no.  “Can you at least stay here and I’ll go down?”  I shook my head again.  “OK, will you come back at least?”

I thought about it. “I’ll come back here,” I said, “but I’m not going down there, no matter what name you call me.”

The second bolt slid open.  “Ok, fine, go pee.  I’m just going to go look down here and I’ll be here when you get back.”

I didn’t wait for her to open the trapdoor.  I bounded up the steps, the need to urinate becoming more pronounced as I reached the top of the stairs.  I ran for the bathroom nearby, leaving the door open, and had one of the most explosive pees of my young life.  I barely had gotten my pants down before the warm stream issued forth, making the always pleasant tinkling sound as it hit the bowl.  For those brief moments of sweet release, I wasn’t thinking at all of the creepy trapdoor or what might be underneath.

As the moment passed, I heard giggling behind me.  I turned, red faced, and saw May and Tracy standing there.  I had already zipped up and I didn’t think they had seen anything, but it was still embarrassing.  “Where’s Shelly?” May asked, grinning at me.

“Down in the basement,” I said, face still the shade of a ripe tomato.  May’s giggling face quickly darkened.  She glanced over at the basement door.  Clearly she was as scared of that place as I was.  “I hafta go back down,” I said, hoping the girls would come with me.

May was shifting back and forth from foot to foot.  Tracy was half-way back up the stairs to the living room.  Had I been older, I would have sighed, but instead I just gave a little shrug and headed back down the stairs to the basement.  May stood at the top of the stairs, but she wouldn’t come down.

I reached the bottom of the steps and looked around.  Shelly was nowhere to be seen.  The trapdoor was a patch of inky black in the floor across the room.  I shuffled over toward the yawning opening, not wanting to go, but concerned now for my cousin.  She could have tripped, or hit her head, or…or a monster could have eaten her.  Yes, that was a completely logical and rational thought for a ten year old.  I peeked over the edge and turned my light down into the dark gulf.  All I saw where steps, more like a ladder, made of the same kind of tarnished metal as the slide bolts on the trapdoor.  The floor below looked to be made of packed earth.  There was nothing at all visible down there, just an earthen room at the bottom of the steps.

I didn’t want to go down there.  It smelled bad, like when bananas go foul, and it just felt wrong.  I was still looking, trying to shine the light around to see if Shelly was laying at the bottom of the steep steps.  “Boo!” a voice called from behind me.  I jumped, squealed and spun around.  I was sure, absolutely sure, that a monster was there, a monster spider or maybe a giant rat.  Had I not just emptied my bladder, it would have done so on its own.

Shelly was grinning and holding in giggles.  Her cat’s eye was bright with glee.  I was near tears.  “Oh come on, big baby,” she said, helping me up.  I was sniffling, holding back tears.  “I didn’t mean to scare you that bad!”

“It’s ok, I just…” I started.  A sound came from the open trapdoor.  I looked down, but saw nothing.  Shelly acted like she heard nothing, but I saw her eyes dart to the hole and then back at me.  There was no fear there, just…anticipation?  It was strange, almost predatory.  “Are you ok?” I asked.  She nodded.  “Did you go down there?”  She nodded again.  “Did you find anything?” I asked, hoping for a different answer.  She nodded a third time.

It was that slow, unblinking nod that set me off.  I dropped my flashlight, the cheap plastic device breaking as it hit the concrete floor, and ran up the stairs.  May was standing there, and for a second I thought she might bar my way.  After all, wasn’t she Shelly’s sister?  What if they had been down here before?  What if they were in it together, to make me go down there, into that deeper basement, and maybe deeper still, though more trapdoors, deep into the earth.  But she just stepped aside, fear in her own eyes.

I ran up to the living room, found my great uncle waiting.  His face was disapproving, but wasn’t there a note of fear there too?  I can’t entirely remember.  May came up just after me, and we were both forced to sit in the corner for the rest of the night.  My uncle went down the steps to collect Shelly.  He didn’t return for several minutes, much longer than I thought was necessary.  Shelly followed, quietly, grinning at me. She looked in no way chastened.  She sat on the couch and stared in my direction.

The rest of the evening consisted of me sitting in the corner, snatching glances at Shelly.  She seemed to be watching me every time I looked.  That big, stupid grin remained on her face.

I didn’t see my cousins for a couple of weeks.  The next time I saw Shelly she seemed completely normal and I basically forgot the whole incident.  Two weeks is an eternity for a ten year old, after all.  One day, several months later, we were sitting at the coffee table in they living room, watching cartoons while the adults played Euchre, and Shelly leaned over to me.  “There’s more basements down there,” she whispered.

I sat bolt upright and looked at her.  She was just grinning and didn’t look at all unusual.  I asked what she said and she shrugged and turned back to the TV.

As we grew up, my cousins and I grew apart, and eventually I lost touch.  I learned Shelly was pregnant several years back, but she miscarried.  Apparently it happened at her grandmother’s house, which she had moved into after her grandmother passed away.  My grandmother wanted me to go with them to cheer her up…I wouldn’t, and I still can’t go down that lonely dirt road.  All I can think when I see it is, “there’s more basements down there.”

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