By C. N. Martin
This basement is no place for a child to play.
That doesn’t stop me, though. Unfinished with uneven concrete floors, cool underfoot with every step away from the safety of the lit stairwell, I venture further into the unknown. Summer break just started. By the time September gets here, I’ll be a fourth grader in a new school. That’s also “uncharted territory”—I’ve been copying words and definitions from the dictionary into a notebook for a while to try and seem older. I’ll have to be brave. Going into the unused section of the basement will prove that I am.
Water trails to the drain in the sloped floor. Sometimes, the source is the washer. Other times, it’s a leak from outside after a heavy rainstorm. I tiptoe across the little barren stream on the concrete before strolling past the washer and dryer. I stop dead in my tracks. Ahead of me is the room in question. My fingers grasp onto the edge of the utility sink to help keep me standing.
The room is so dark, the few shafts of daylight from the rectangle window overhead are sucked into nothingness. My heart beats faster, and the longer that I stare into it, the more I start to lose myself in the hugeness of my task. Grandma says that my eyes are too big for my stomach when I take seconds at dinner and don’t finish them. I guess that counts for my adventure plans, too.
My destination is my grandpa’s workroom, a place that’s been ignored and left in the past. Dead 15 years before I was even born, he was a painter and a handyman after serving in the war; a workbench’s countertop is littered with tools, bench vice left unscrewed and empty with thick layers of dust and grime all over it. The room has become a dumping ground for things to be forgotten. Memories to be lost.
A graveyard of relics from a grandfather I’ve never met.
That’s one of the reasons that I want to go in so badly. There are pictures of him scattered around the house, yet when I ask what he was like, my family goes quiet. Mom and Grandma don’t really talk about him. My older cousins, like me, didn’t get the chance to meet him. What happened that they don’t want us to know?
They told me to leave it alone, but I won’t. I need to know about the man in those pictures. I can be brave, just like he was. If I swallow my fears and gamble with my overactive imagination, I can salvage a piece of him.
I’ve been holding my breath. My exhale is shaky and hurts when I release it. My right hand clutches onto the utility sink. In my left is a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flashlight. The pad of my thumb rubs a rounded, textured turtle shell button. It flickers the light on when I press it. Another smaller button is positioned beneath in the shape of a T. Pressing it triggers their tagline to electronically escape through the pinprick holes in the flashlight’s plastic barrel.
At the edge of the doorway, I aim my flashlight into the room. It’s smaller than my bedroom; if the room were empty, my twin bed would fit in here two times at most. Not far in, a 2x4 wrapped in a tattered old tarp has fallen across the frame, blocking some of my view inside. Deep breath. I duck beneath it and step inside, careful not to touch it directly. The tarp looks so old and crumbly that it could fall apart if a breeze brushed by it.
Inside the room is like another dimension. Sounds of the furnace don’t make it past the doorway, swallowed into the vacuum like dust bunnies. The air is damp and thick, summer’s humidity managing to slip past the dense concrete walls of the sublevels. Breath struggles in, shudders out. Already, a thin sheen of sweat is starting to coat my forehead and the top of my nose. The smell of mildew hangs heavy in the air. The light from my flashlight seems to fade with every second I’m in here.
Shining it on the workbench, rusted hammers and wrenches are scattered in no real order that I can understand. Outlines of dust look like shadows beneath each of them. I could swear that some look like they’ve been moved, though that can’t be right. The tools look less orange-red like rust; the shades have wilted to browns and blacks when they shimmer in the weak light. It takes a minute before I realize that they’re wet with… what’s that water on the outside of a cold Pepsi can? Condensation? But it’s too thick to be that, globs here and there like my Turtles ooze slime set.
The metal stool is padded and covered with black leather on the seat, but the leather is torn and peeling, unable to be sat on ever again. It looks like scratches from claws. There’s no chance that our cat—given the fitting name of Wild Child—can make scratches that big. Nubs of pencils sharpened by utility knives rest near their discarded shavings and scraps of paper with faded measurements. And there are words. Every piece of paper has some of the same words scrawled in increasingly unsettling print.
One note says:
Another is the scratches of cursive, shaky and scribbled so quickly that it’s hard for me to read. The words that I am able to pick out don’t make sense:
...Stalks from the darkness…
…Vicious, the most dangerous…
…This place is not safe—
Behind me, a yowl penetrates the doorway. My heart leaps into my throat. The sound pierces through into the workroom, loud enough that I startle and turn. A feline shape arches its back, tabby brown and black hair standing on end, spitting hisses and swatting her paw in my direction. I furrow my brow.
“Dang it, Wild Child!” I shout, stomping my foot. Even though my voice feels muffled through earplugs, I guess that’s enough for her to stop her foolishness. She turns tail and bolts away.
A gurgle of a chuckle bounces from a darkened corner, the sound like tar bubbling past a boiling pot lid. Goosebumps sprout along the back of my neck and up into my hair. My hand shakes as I turn back toward the workroom, aiming at a growing pit of darkness that grasps onto the beam of light and slowly strangles it out of existence. The light casts across a form that shimmers, the reflection from something wet. The source of the laugh.
“I have waited so long,” the voice croaks. Crouched low in the corner is a human-like body, their head resting in the crevice where the walls meet, their torso shuddering with every heaved breath and wheezed laugh laced between their words. Human-like, but nothing else about it makes me think that it’s human. I can see bones beneath slick graying skin, a mountain range of vertebrae arcing to the floor. Filth layers its body. Some parts of it look like a banana gone bad—rotten, wrinkled black skin. Long, matted hair grows from its scalp, patches missing and replaced with scabbed fields of gaps.
I should run.
My legs are rooted to the spot.
I should scream.
My throat seizes, clamping down on itself and restricting my breathing.
“Do you have any idea… how long I’ve waited?”
A scream won’t escape from me, words won’t escape, but my thoughts are enough. I know I shouldn’t ask. If Grandpa knew that this place was dangerous, his leftover notes should be enough of a warning for me to keep quiet. Still, my thoughts betray me.
Waited for what?
The figure’s head turns, revealing eyeless sockets and a long, twisting tongue that licks its chapped, worn lips. My scream finally makes its long-awaited appearance. It’s muted, swallowed into this other dimension. My flashlight drops from my shaking hands, the light flickering as the figure stands, bones and joints creaking as it rises to its full height until the crest of its shoulders touches the ceiling. An otherwise unassuming form in the corner of the room transforms and contorts into a towering mass of sinew and misshapen, funhouse-mirror limbs. A distorted “cowabunga” burbles from the small speaker holes, already resigned to fading away into the gloom. The figure’s arms hang low to compensate for the hunch it has in this cramped room. Dirty, bloody knuckles grind into the ground, taking the bulk of its weight as it inches closer.
Its face is close enough that its rancid breath invades my senses, cueing my gag reflex, the might of my stomach retching against my diaphragm. The figure sniffs me and laughs again when I flinch back and bump into the tarp-covered wood. An unnatural cloud of dust gusts free and surrounds me, hovering in stasis in the air and getting into my eyes, my nose, my mouth.
I can’t see—I can’t find the exit! A coughing fit folds me in half as I try to catch my breath. The backs of my hands scrub furiously at my stinging eyes. Panic fills the spaces where childish adventure once lived within me. A tiny voice in the back of my mind tells me that I can’t pass back through to the normal world of the basement even if I could make it there.
Through tear-filled eyes, I can see the figure’s tongue whip as unpredictably as a mythical sea serpent while its teeth grow longer, longer, longer, pointed spikes meant for maiming and gnashing, not chewing. Its jaw unhinges, mouth widening unreasonably large enough to fit a human—a child.
I’m crying so hard that I’m hiccuping because now it makes sense what it wants.
“A meal,” the figure responds.
C. N. Martin is a library clerk by day, strategically surrounding himself with books in his day job, and he becomes the embodiment of an overactive imagination while writing at night. He is twice published, the first being a short horror story titled "The Attic" in the anthology Mirrors Reflecting Shadows, a joint publication from Anxiety Press, Outcast Press, and Roi Fainéant Press with proceeds benefiting The Trevor Project. The second is a flash fiction story titled "Have You Seen This Person?" published on 101words.org.