The Things That Follow: Part II
Every summer and every other winter, my brothers and I would visit our mother’s home in a place called Eden, NY. It was outside of Buffalo and surrounded by a deep old wood that sloped up and down hills crawling with evergreens. The brown and faded green corn fields hugged the hills and obscured the hundred year old homes from the one-lane highway that split the landscape.
Hidden in the hills, and along twisting dirt paths, were untold adventures for three boys with a will to explore. Sometimes, though, when you go looking for adventure you find it.
That summer, the cemetery sent us scurrying home just as dusk fell on the sleepy town.
When we returned the next winter, something was waiting.
Out there, so far from city lights, the eight thousand residents of Eden, New York had become accustomed to their midnight black evenings. The gray cloud covered sky brought evening in a hurry, and kept the stars at bay. The trees would whisper at the approach of gloom and shook their branches for extra warmth. Their leaves rested on the frozen floor beneath feet of pure white snow.
Inside, my mother kept a pelt furnace burning to keep the cold from creeping and crawling through the cracks of the old house. When the lake wind from the Great Lakes blew through Buffalo, we played inside.
My older brother had decided it was time to create a playroom in the basement.
This wasn’t a complete basement with carpet and lighting that was reliable. No. It was a dank, dark, musty place. There was one light bulb that hung in the center of the basement that could only be turned on by pulling a string underneath it.
Dramatic rendering of my childhood basement
That meant a half dozen paces in pitch black dark. It meant swinging your hand around, hoping to touch the string, but fearful of…touching something else. Fearful of turning it on, to see…something else.
When we went down in the basement together, it was bearable. That was how we found the almost secret compartment that lead to an enclosed room at the back of the basement. It was really just a plywood and wood-panel enclosure that ran from the ceiling to the floor in the shape of a box. There was another light inside, when you could find it.
Together, we painted the walls, we cleaned the room out. We dusted cobwebs, and we put toys in there we loved. I, for instance, put a Ninja Turtle set down there. Quite possibly the biggest mistake of my life.
After a full day of playing downstairs, my mother called us up to eat a meal of home cooked lasagna and scalloped potatoes. We ran up the stairs. I was the last one up, and I felt my heart racing. I couldn’t explain why. Just something didn’t feel right. I left the light on as I bolted up the stairs, not daring to be the one left behind in the dark.
Dinner came and went. We speculated about the room downstairs. Who had built it and why? Maybe it was to hide from Indians, we thought. Whatever the reason, we watched some television as a family and after a while, my mom told us it was time for bed.
“Not with out my Ninja Turtles,” I said. Then remembering where they were, I asked, “Mom, will you wait by the top of the stairs for me?”
She smiled knowingly. “Of course, I’ll wait while I let the dog out.”
I smiled back. Mother’s have no fear.
The darkness beckoned to me as I stood the top of the stairs and my mom let the dog outside. The back door stood next to he basement door. I could smell the basement usually, but this was the first time I felt it. Hadn’t I left the light on? I wondered.
Maybe my brother had gone back down and turned it off. I inched down the first step, my leg trembling. One foot in front of the other, I made my way into the belly of the beast. I reached the middle of the room, and waved my hand back and forth. The string had to be somewhere around here. But what if it had tangled on top of the light. That had happened before. I reached up and felt a fist full of cobwebs. The sticky strands made my hand recoil, but as I did, I felt the string.
I closed my eyes and pulled.
With a click, the light came on, casting an eerie pale orange glow that swung back and forth with the momentum of the string. Smiling in victory, I shouted up to my mom.
I heard nothing, in reply.
“Mom?” I said again. I could feel the tremble in my voice. The stairs waited behind me, but my toys waited in the dark enclosed room ahead. I hadn’t come this far to be turned away now. Besides, I was sure my mom waited for me at the top.
I sprinted forward. I opened the panel door, and in the dim light provided by the swinging bulb beyond, I found the next light. I pulled the cord.
It flickered to life.
I saw my small red case that held my Ninja Turtles and picked it up. Victory was mine.
And just like that, it was taken away.
The light above began to dim and then surge with light again. It did this in quick succession, each pulse of light quickened the pulse in my chest. I ran out from the door as it flickered off completely, the lone light bulb beyond swinging as a beacon to light my way. I took several hurried steps forward, my toy case clutched to my chest.
Then that light too pulsed with an electrical surge. I stopped in my tracks. I wanted to run to the stairs, but not at the cost of crossing the swinging light. Who knew what was causing the light to glow like that? Shouldn’t the light bulb have stopped its swinging by now? It swung more fiercely than it had when I first yanked the cord. I swallowed. My spit felt like a sideways brick, but there was only one way out.
I ran past the light.
It grew brighter in protest as I brushed past it, then it went out all together as I fell on the first stair in the dark. I could hear the light bulb swinging like a tether ball in blackness behind me. On my knees, I crawled up the stairs one at time and got to the top.
The door was closed.
The smell of the moldy basement enveloped me and the swinging light called to me below, I reached up and grabbed the door handle. I shoved the door outward so hard it bounced off of the wall behind it with a resounding CRACK. A breath of my mother’s smoke filled house hit me like a burst of fresh air.
I slammed the door behind me and gulped the air. My mother walked back into the house holding our dog, a speckled mutt that had three-inch long legs under the body of a barrel. I shot my mother an accusing stare.
“Sorry baby, he ran off.” She gave me a wry smile. She knew her betrayal.
“I hate basements.” I threw the words at her, hoping they would smack her in the face, but she smiled and I couldn’t be mad.
“Me too, they smell awful.”
And, for a time, I was content to forget what had happened to me in the basement. Although I never went back down alone, I still accompanied my brothers into that abyss. It was nearly two weeks later when I heard about what happened to my younger brother.
He was cryptic at first. But what happened to him, what continued to happen to him, makes my event look like child’s play. Whatever it was, it was just the beginning.
The Things That Follow: Part III [Wednesday]