The man in my basement takes one step closer every week. - Chap 4
Rule 6: To others, the intruder will appear as a mannequin (or a rubber dummy, or a coat hanger etc.) Do NOT let guests near him.
What, exactly does ‘others’ mean?
Mitchell left the diner shortly after his ‘dad’ showed up. Before he left, I asked him about being the so-called ‘other’. He just shrugged and said, “rules aren’t set in stone.” The meeting revealed almost nothing save for more unsettling questions. Why was his dad still alive? Why was his bike parked in the driveway across the street? Was that even his dad? Was Mitchell messing with me? Was the ‘entity’ messing with both of us? Questions over questions over more questions. Rising dread lurked beneath the surface of all. Like reality itself were a blanket draped over some unspeakable terror; A veil that might be torn away at any second.
Highway Seven was emptier than usual.
My blue 1993 Toyota Hatchback reverberated with the drones of rubber against road. The red sun crept down behind the distant mountains. Shadows stretched longer as the day crawled westward. Against pastel pink skies, starling flocks moved like singular hive-minds. Driving always calmed me down. Before I owned a car, I used to go for these long, solitary hikes out in the temperate mountain rain-forests. There’s something about constant motion. Outside, alone and peaceful.
I was still committed to following the rules. At least, until I thought of something better. My next priority would be to get somebody over, a guest who actually wanted to stay. Maybe I’d rent out the spare bedroom, maybe I’d call up an old friend. Easier said than done, especially considering the pandemic. Either way, I needed to-
-Up ahead, parked at the side of the highway – the red Kawasaki motorcycle. I sped past before the image fully registered. Letting off the gas, I checked the rearview mirror. There it was, the red bike, about two hundred feet back. I pulled over and looked back over my shoulder. Only the bike was there, no rider. I shifted into reverse and froze. Breathed in and Exhaled. I shifted back into forward. The empty highway ahead, pin-straight to the horizon.
Just go home, I thought. But I didn’t listen, I shifted into back into reverse and head for the red Kawasaki. Lurching to a stop about ten feet away, I shifted into park, pulled the E-brake, and turned the keys out. Stepping outside, I squinted as rising plumes of dust stung into my eyes. There sat the bike – kickstand out, keys still in the ignition, helmet sat on the driver’s seat. I’m no mechanic, but the air smelt like engine trouble.
I glanced around; the highway shoulder went out for about twenty feet, then cut down into grassy fields. About fifty feet down, someone sat down on the edge of the shoulder: Mitch’s dad, P. T. Walker. At least that’s what I assumed from this distance. He sat with elbows resting on knees, staring off into the field, smoking. I stood there, weighing my options. Wanting to leave, but letting my curiosity win yet again. I walked over. The smell of gasoline getting stronger with every step. A red jerry-can sat on the hard-packed dirt beside him. I stopped about ten feet away. He glanced over, made eye contact, nodded, and turned back to the view.
“Car troubles?” I asked.
“Anything I can help with?”
“Nope.” He took a drag off his brown cigarillo, Vanilla flavored, judging by the smell. All my questions backed away. Sympathy replaced curiosity. Apparition or not, this man looked broken down. As though his life had been nothing but letdown after letdown after letdown. He studied something out in the distant fields. I turned to see what he was seeing. Nothing. Shimmering wind rippling through the flood grass. The last drips of daylight soaking back into the ground. He pointed, “off past the boardwalk,” he said, “about two-hundred feet.” My eyes followed his directions. Still nothing.
“Beside the water,” he said.
Then I saw it, three bears, brown bears. A mother and two cubs, drinking from the water. I’d never seen a bear outside of zoos. I didn’t even know they lived down here.
“Probably came down from the Bawlry.” He said, “Clear cut suburbs.” He spat dryly and pressed his heal against the spit and turned his ankle like putting out a cigarette. Just then, the mother bear looked up and glanced around as if she heard something. She held there a couple moments, then went back to drinking.
“So you’re friends with my son,” he said, watching the bears all the while.
“No… not really.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
“Didn’t say there was.”
He smiled grimly, clenched his eyes shut, and took a long, slow, drag off the cigarillo.
“Acquaintances,” I said.
“…People who, know each other tangentially.”
He nodded, “You moved in across the street, yeah?
“Ignore the crazies.”
“Neighborhood’s full of em’,” he said, “Seems like crazy’s catchin’.”
He blinked disappointed surprise, “Contagious.”
“Yeah, I meant to ask about-“
-He raised a hand, “Not right now.” He said, “You come by tomorrow, I’ll answer any questions you want about any of that, just …not right now.” He motioned towards the horizon as if it were the only moment of peace he’d seen in years.
He smiled warmly, took one last drag, and pressed the cigarillo down against the hard-packed dirt beside him, twisting it there until it went cold. Wiping ash-stained fingers onto his brown leather Jacket; He took a deep breath, exhaled, and pushed up to standing. He produced another cigarillo and offered it to me, I shook my head, “I just quit.” He shrugged, lit up, took a drag and exhaled more vanilla-flavored smoke, “You know what to do when you run into Baloo?” he said.
Again, he blinked disappointed surprise, “Bears. Up close.”
I shrugged, “Throw your hands up, make a lot of noise, yell?” I said, half-remembering something from grade school.
He scoffed, “That’s a good way to end up with your head viced between jaws with hot breath gusting on your face, and the sound of your own screams bouncin’ off the back its’ throat.”
I held back laughter at the brutally graphic description. He side-eyed me, deadly serious. He pulled another drag and exhaled the smoke out through his nostrils, “You run into one up close.” he continued, “…Just talk to her. Like your doin’ here. Pretend she’s an old friend. Long time, been a while. Tell her about your day, ask her how’s she’s been.” His cold-blue eyes filled with memories, drifting back and forth across the distant horizon as he spoke, “All the while, you keep backing up. Slow-like. Slow as you can manage. Not slow like you’re trying to leave, slow like, Huh, we both happen to be, going in the same direction.” He looked directly at me, “Know the difference?”
I grunted noncomittaly.
Nodding, he turned back, “She’ll follow. Curious. When you got about, fifteen, twenty feet between you. Take off your backpack, or your hat, whatever-” he looked down at the dirt. “Place that on the ground, she’ll stop to see what’s what. Sniffing, prodding. You back up faster now, but not by much.”
Again, he looked directly at me, “The trick is to accept the fact that you’re scared shitless. Accept that your head’s lying to you. Beggin’ you to run. Your head’s whispering every song in the bible: you can do this, you can fight, you can run…” He waved his hand as if to say: and so on… he looked away, “You let that fear take control-” he snapped his fingers with surprising loudness-
“-That’s it.” He flicked his cigarillo straight down, stomped it out, and spat. “Instead. You tell yourself: goddamn, I’m really scared right now – you take that and whatever else and you set it aside. Don’t push it away, don’t forget it, just set it aside and focus on breathing instead, focus on backing up, one foot after another. No shortcuts.” he trailed off into silence. “…Soon enough, she’ll lose interest and wander off…” He met my eyes again, “Usually.” He continued, “If Baloo wants a fight, you go for the eyes.” He shrugged, “At least you go down fighting’.” A few long seconds passed until I realized he was finished.
“Th-Thank you,” I said, not really sure what else to say. I turned back to the field, the family of bears was gone now. He chuckled softly and stepped back, “Look, you have any questions about any of this haunting bullshit,” he said, “You know where I live. Just come over.”
I nodded, still not sure if he was puppet, apparition, or real.
“I’ll just tell you straight up, Don’t take anything the neighbors say seriously, especially fuckin’ Howie.”
“Sure,” I said, turning back for my car.
“One more thing,” he squat down and picked up the red jerry-can. “You mind filling this up?”
The nearest gas pump was about three miles out. I brought the jerry-can back full, and we drove home the same direction. Despite my reservations, I liked P.T. Walker. He reminded me of my old man, rest in peace. Still, I didn’t know who to believe, and I couldn’t shake the way his eyes moved outside the diner. Maybe I was paranoid, maybe I was seeing things. But no amount of paranoia explained the coat-rack in the basement; Which, first thing tomorrow morning, is what I meant to ask him about.
I pulled up into my driveway and sat there a good moment before stepping out. Orange streetlights bounced over wet asphalt. Frantic moths swarmed the unnatural glow like flies to a corpse. A small gray dot of a cat or raccoon shimmied down a neighbors fence and slinked across the fresh-cut lawn. The house across the street was dark, and the driveway was empty. Maybe he took a different route back.
I stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind me. When I saw the basement door, the weight of everything suddenly came crashing back. The door was shut, yet almost pleading with me to open it. Silently begging me to check and see if the coat-rack was still there, see how much further along it was. Turning away, I went for the kitchen. But I stopped in the living room and looked back over my shoulder. Fuck it. May as well get this over with. I spun around, marched over, yanked the door open and flicked on the light. Taking a deep, slow breath, I stepped forward, one step at a time and- my foot slipped, I tripped forward seven quick steps and tumbled over headfirst into the corner.
Throbbing pain shot up left leg. My shin was snapped, turned left at a ninety-degree angle. The bone inside pushed up against my skin like a swollen cyst and I almost puked at the sight. Thankfully, I was in too much shock to fully appreciate the rising pain. “Fuck…” I hissed, gritting my teeth and pushing back into the corner as the long dark hallway stretched out before me. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t even reach the second light, I could barely think. I grit my teeth and clenched my eyes shut. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. The adrenaline pushed me into a strange state of calm. I opened my eyes. Everything was slightly brighter now as my vision adjusted. Nothing but shadow. I pulled out my phone, turned up the screen to maximum brightness, and shone it down into the hallway.
The coat-rack was still there, but closer now, stood in the entrance of the rec-room. Now a heavy wool coat hung from its top. About five feet closer, I guessed. So much for one step a week. I tucked my phone away and turned back towards the exit. Carefully shifting my body weight to avoid more pain. A tedious process. I couldn’t afford paramedics or an ambulance, so I’d have to crawl up the stairs. Of course.
A solitary drop of water fell somewhere in the darkness. The coat-rack’s dim silhouette stood motionless. I’m not sticking around for this, I thought. I was about to turn away, but something moved. Behind the coat-rack, something rose to standing. I only saw the shadowed outline of a person, and the faintest hint of pinkish-red skin. Like the skin of a dying pig. I froze. Paralyzed. My eyes adjusting bit by bit. The wool coat shook as two gaunt, yet unnaturally large hands wrapped around the its’ middle. Gripping tight, the hands lifted the coat-rack noiselessly off the ground. Silence. A quick step forward. A stuttering exhale, as though it took great effort. Then it set back down. More silence. The coat-rack hoisted upwards; another quick step forward. The schlick sound of wet bare-feet pressing on and off the concrete floor. Another strained exhale, and they set it down. There was an almost hypnotizing, percussive rhythm to it all. Again, the coat-rack hoisted up, and -I’d seen more than enough. Twisting to my side, I clawed my hands onto the banister and hoisted myself upward. Wincing in pain as my snapped leg drug uselessly behind me.
More footsteps, more stuttering breaths. It was moving faster now. Getting closer. I pulled myself forward, one tedious thrust at a time. Gritting my teeth through the rising pain.
Whoever was holding the coat-rack was on the stairs now. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t look back. I kept pulling forward, inching closer and closer to escape. All the while, a terrible image projecting into my head. The image of long, ever-stretching arms with pig-colored skin, sliding up the stairs reaching for my shins. Inching closer and closer until- I gripped the door frame with both hands and launched myself forward. Lurching into the upstairs, I spun around and kicked the door with my good leg. It slammed shut with satisfying finality. Catching my breath, I listened. Listened for the slightest movement below. Seconds went by, minutes, nothing. Pushing up to sitting, my racing thoughts finally steadied. Time to barricade the doors.
More updates on the way