Do you hear that?
My wife’s voice could barely compete with the sound of a plastic hammer smashing plastic building blocks and the delighted squealing of our two year old boy. My face was buried in budget tables and despite all the noise, the numbers were louder.
Of course I do, I mumbled. How could I not?
No. That. Her long, slender finger was pointed towards the basement door, slightly ajar.
I set down my pen, closed my laptop, and turned to face the stairway. All I could hear was the pounding. She stood with her arms crossed, waiting.
My eyes, bloodshot, met hers, focused. No, what is it?
You really don’t –
Shhh. I cut her off quickly, standing. In between the sounds of the human noise machine that the two of us had handcrafted, I heard a far-off mewing.
The cat had been missing for a few days, which isn’t unusual for cats, but was unusual for this particular cat, which seemed to think fresh air was poisonous. I pulled the loose string that ignited the bulb at the top of the creaky wooden staircase. She scooped up our boy, who dropped his toys in a clatter on the floor, and I descended behind her. Her bare feet barely made a sound, and the small slap of flesh on concrete when she reached the bottom snapped me back from a mind that wanted to wander to figures and numbers. She set the boy down on the floor and he began to scoot around.
He’s going to get all dirty.
He’s a toddler. Let him.
He stood and stumbled over to an old chair and tried to climb up. She stood still, pushed her long dark hair back from her ear, and cocked her head. Nothing but silence.
The basement was virtually unused except to store shit we didn’t need but didn’t want to get rid of since we’d moved in a year before. It was damp, dirty, full of old furniture and boxes that the previous owners had left behind. I meant to get down there and clean it but as it goes, a year had passed and it was still untouched. I wiped a box caked with dust with my bare hand and inspected the dull lack of color.
They say dust is mostly dead skin cells.
The lid barely resisted and the box exhaled a puff of ancient air into my nostrils. Unfamiliar feelings, wisps of unremembered memories swam in my brain as I lifted out discolored and worn photographs. A family, unsmiling, on a front porch, one figure slightly more blurry than the rest. A man, sitting atop a tree stump, smiling but with eyes unfeeling. Two children on a swing set, one laughing, one crying, or so it seemed. An adult standing behind the one laughing. A clear sky, an ancient tree. Picture after picture, there were hundreds of them. Faces became familiar, the same faces at national parks, baseball games, thanksgiving. In one, they all sat on a blue and white blanket, under a giant lone, leafless tree in a grassy field, enjoying a picnic from a basket, a picture of Americana.
Who took the picture? I said aloud. I turned to show my wife and could see she had been watching me. She put her finger to her lips as I began to speak again, tiptoeing towards the far wall. She crept back and forth, ear cocked, until she reached a large wooden bookshelf and put her hands on the side, straining, pushing, turning red. Her breasts swayed in her loose shirt as she put more effort in and I felt a stirring in my chest. The shelf gave a few inches and she glanced over her shoulder at me, caught me looking at her with the lust only she can spot. Her eyes narrowed, mocked me.
Are you going to help or watch?
As the wood scratched along the concrete, several books fell out like baby birds from a nest. The mewing renewed, still faint, but more audible. A cold rush of air moved past our legs out of a small hole the size of a shoebox, an open maw into the cinder brick wall.
Roger! she called, her hands and knees clapping the concrete floor. Roger! she called into the hole.
I ran upstairs and came back with a flashlight. Our boy was playing with a leather ball he found somewhere amongst the accoutrement. When I got back, she was still on all fours calling for the cat, who had begun mewing more frantically.
Do you think he’s stuck?
She flipped on the flashlight and shot the beam into the hole. Hm. I joined her on hands and knees and pressed my head up against hers. The light shone into a tunnel that went about six feet and then began to descend into darkness, into the earth. A crashing sound snapped us back and we turned to see our son standing next to a can of paint spilling its red guts onto the bare floor. Tears filled his eyes. The can’s contents spread, seeping across the concrete, lapping burgundy at his tiny feet.
You should have been watching him. He could have been hurt.
I went to him and righted the can, dusting him off and checking him over. My wife grabbed some towels from upstairs and began wiping the pool as my son giggled and pressed red footprints into the floor. She wiped his feet tenderly and I set him to sit on the bottom stair as we cleaned up the rest of the mess, the mewing not letting up. When we were done, what was left was a deep red smear and tiny footprints.
Spooky, she said, reading my mind, as she tore open a can of cat food. She walked it to the hole and set it down, pushing it a foot inside the darkness.
Maybe he just needs some encouragement.
The next morning the cat food was still there, and Roger was still mewing, though it sounded further away. On hands and knees I called quietly, whispering affections to the cat. Affections I was reluctant to admit. Nothing but the same mews in return. My arm reached as far as it could but my hand only came back with dirt and dust.
Before I left for work I crept into my boy’s room and leaned over the crib. His smooth skin, his dark eyelashes. He was the best thing I’d done with my life. He smiled, dreaming his pleasant dreams. Small stains of red paint remained on his tiny feet.
The carpet padded my entrance back into the bedroom. I crawled into bed, suit and black shoes and all, to the surprise of my wife. I embraced her, pulled her close, kissing her on the cheek as she murmured words I couldn’t understand. When I got up I watched my imprint lift from the mattress before closing the door behind me and making my way to work.
My headlights illuminated the front porch of my house as I pulled into the driveway, the pop of gravel under the tires competing with the crickets shrouded in the deepening darkness. I slid my key into the front door of the house and stopped as a sound wafted to my ears. A muffled thud, like two heavy object colliding. Then another. When the lock clicked and the door swung open I could hear my boy crying and the strike of another thud. A jolt, a wash of hormones swept through my body, igniting my skin and pushing a metallic taste into my mouth. My briefcase hit the floor and the thump released me. I was in the kitchen. My feet crushed a plastic toy left underfoot. Another thud. More crying. The basement door was wide open. Without thinking I was at the bottom of the stairs, and before me was my wife, hammering chunks of concrete from the wall with my sledgehammer, tears streaming down her cheeks and a wild look in her eyes. The red stain on the floor seemingly the only color in the basement.
Our flashlight rested on the floor, its beam disappearing into the dark hole the bookshelf no longer hid. Joining the sound of the mewing floating out, was my boy’s crying. She hadn’t noticed me yet, and she paused, gasping, breathless, between strikes on the wall. I rushed in and put my arms around her.
Honey. Slow down. It’s ok. He’s ok. I’m going to call the fire department. She wriggled out of my grasp and got on her hands and knees and peered into the growing hole. She saw only darkness, heard only the cries. As I ran upstairs I heard the sledgehammer thud into the wall again, again.
The phone rang once, twice.
Rick Stanton, volunteer fire department.
Hi Rick. It’s Steve.
Hey Steve, everything ok?
I paused. Well, no. I need you and some guys to come over and help.
As I put the phone back on the receiver, I noticed a silence. The pounding had stopped. I reached the bottom of the stairs just in time to see my wife’s pink bare feet disappearing into the hole. A wild sound escaped my lips as I leapt across the room and dropped to the ground, now barely big enough for her to crawl into. The flashlight illuminated her toes as they disappeared, wriggling like tiny worms. The crying and mewing, meanwhile, persisted. There was a knock on the door as my wife began to scream.
Four of us on our stomachs, three flashlight beams inhabiting the now-bigger hole, gaping, with jagged cement teeth, screaming, crying, mewing at us. Goosebumps raised on necks and arms. Sirens arrived outside and flashing red lights poked through the basement window wells. As the men deliberated, heavy footsteps lumbered across the floor above, shaking dust loose from the rafters, before lumbering down the stairs.
Hi Steve. His voice was louder than normal, to be heard over the noise.
We’re going to get them out, ok?
I tried to sound convinced as a hopeless feeling suddenly swallowed me completely and the screams and cries like tiny drills penetrated my skin and tendon and bone. My cheeks flushed and my fists clenched. The smallest fireman of them removed his gear and his colleague helped work a harness onto his hips. They double-checked the walkie talkies and fed rope into the hole as he wriggled his body into it. His shoulders, his hips, his legs, and finally, his feet.
What do you see? An officer asked into the black walkie hooked to his chest.
Just darkness, crackled a reply. The rope had a marker every ten feet. A half an hour passed and three of the markers slowly disappeared into the hole. The taut rope danced like a fishing line with a catch.
Any sign of them?
No, he replied breathlessly. But through the crackling, the screams sounded closer. One more markers passed and the rope slowed, stopped, went slack.
Status report? A fireman called into his walkie. Everyone stood still and listened. Strained to hear over the screaming of woman and child and feline. One of the fireman picked up the rope that lay slack like a dead serpent. We reeled it in and as the empty harness came into view, a deep throaty scream joined the cacophony.
Wide eyes and silent mouths. Despite the screams that seemed to fill the basement, fill every corner, every scrap of old furniture and every dusty box, a silence, an emptiness took hold. Walkie talkie static broke through, waking a red-eyed fireman from his stare into a void. He whispered back, and soon more men arrived. The men pounded away at the wall together with hammer and shovel. It didn’t seem to matter, the stone got harder and the hole in the wall didn’t seem to change in size. The men labored through the night, fought for every inch as the screaming continued, began to reside in their skin, stick into their minds like burrs. Exhausted, sweating, drenched, muscles protesting, Rick pulled Steve aside.
We need rest.
I don’t think I can.
One by one the fireman and police climbed the stairs, a faraway look in their eyes.
We’ll be back with more equipment and more men in a few hours.
The door closed behind them and I stood in the entranceway. Normally the mass exodus of guests would come with a sense of calm, relief, but a panic, unsettlement, seemed to unravel like a spool. I crept back down, bathing in the symphony of screams, and lay on the hard concrete floor. Somehow, sleep took hold.
Knocking. Pounding. My bony hips bruised from the concrete floor. The red stain beneath me like forgotten gore. I rose. The screaming seemed more distant, less urgent, yet, still there. Always there. I made it to the top of the stairs just as the men came down without welcome. They carried bags, dark and heavy, rope, lights. More men than before. New faces, hard and clean.
I brought help. We’ll figure this thing out. Did you sleep?
I stood back as the men set up pulleys, ropes, fed a camera into the dark maw and monitored what it saw on a small dancing screen. One camera after the other disappeared into the hole only to send back a blizzard of static. Nothing. Microphones sent down never seemed to find the source. The screams only sounding further away, as if there were trap doors. Exploratory measures exhausted, the men labored a jackhammer down the stairs. They chiseled, the pounding the only reprieve from the screaming. Hours of work made only a few feet’s progress and the tunnel clearly kept going.
Three young fireman whispered to each other in the corner of the basement. Another night passed as I slept on the couch, dreams filled with falling, dreams of heaving stones into a deep well, dreams of being buried alive, dreams of more and more screams added to the chorus. I awoke to the fire chief shaking me, his wide face pale, his eyes wet.
Three of my men are gone.
We walked down the creaky steps and I saw ropes attached to anchors placed into the far wall. The ropes lay solemn, still. The screams coming from the hole now muddled, nearly anonymous.
Somethin ain’t right. This ain’t natural. His hands were shaking. He looked up from the ground into my eyes.
I’m gonna go, an’ I’m gonna take what’s left of my men with me. We ain’t comin’ back. You call me if that hole spits them back up. But please Steve, don’t call for no other reason.
I nodded once, staring at the red stain on the floor. Out of my peripheral vision I saw his boots move towards the stairs, heard the front door close. Where there should have been silence was anything but. I lay down on the floor and fell into a troubled sleep, waking and dozing. I got up and turned out the light and lay back down.
For a time I slept and woke, slept and woke, only going upstairs into the light to open a can of beans, a can of corn, and descend back down the wooden planks anew, spooning the contents into my mouth before dozing again. Sometimes my boy seemed louder. Sometimes my wife. Sometimes the men. And somehow, I could still hear the cat.
I dreamt I was on a beach, a nameless beach, with my wife and child. Only our child was older, a teenager. He was strong and laughed as the waves tackled him and skidded him across the sand. A storm seared the sky with lightning miles away, but on the beach the weather was perfect. The distant thunder meshed with knocking at my front door, waking me. Wiping the drool from the corner of my mouth with my arm, I rose and climbed the stairs.
I could see a figure standing on the porch through the frosted glass.
Steve! You in there?
I’m comin’ Rick
The door swung open and Rick’s frown deepened. He instinctively put his hand to his face to cover his nose for the smell and then wiped his mouth, playing it off. Despite being a little quieter from upstairs, the screams persisted, and Rick had to raise his voice.
Steve. Just wanted to come by and see how you’re managing. If there’s anything new.
A flash of anger, then nothing. My eyes didn’t leave his. I either couldn’t form words or didn’t want to.
Mhmm. Look, I know we left you high and dry, but –
What do you want? I croaked. He looked at me for a long time.
Right. Your house doesn’t get much traffic, but you can kinda hear the screams from the street. We’ve had a few people call in. I tell them we’re aware of it, but I’d like you to put this sign on your door.
He pulled his hand from behind his back, revealing an oversized yellow sheet of paper. I took it from him without reading it.
He opened his mouth to say something and closed it again, turning and walking back down the steps. He glanced back one time, before climbing into his truck and driving away. The paper felt heavy in my hand as I turned it over to read it. I went into the garage and grabbed my hammer, a nail, and pecked the sign to the front door. Peck peck peck, until the nail could go no further.
Taking in the view from my front door, I inhaled deep breath. The cool, fresh air filled my lungs, fed my blood. The trees swayed from side to side, clouds passed behind them, the sun was full and high. I looked straight at it, for the first time. Your whole life, everyone tells you not to. I turned, stepped inside, and closed the door behind me. I stood at the top of the basement stairs, staring into the darkness, listening to the screams. Deep longing, deep aching in my chest swallowed me whole as I picked out my wife’s voice, my child’s. Feeling their pull, I descended.
Do you hear that?
That. She said, pointing towards the lone yellow house they were passing on the aged sidewalk. He cocked his head, listening. A breeze brought the faint sound of a chorus of voices, perhaps a movie too loud, or a group shouting.
Yeah, what is it?
I don’t know, can you go see what that sign says on the front door?
Sure thing. He jogged up the walkway to the front steps, paused, scratched his head, and jogged back.
Really strange. It said, “Stay out. Policed notified. Do not risk your life. Thank you.”