The man in my basement takes one step closer every week. - Chap 5
Rule 8: You can leave the house, but NEVER sleep anywhere else. NEVER make plans to move (even browsing for houses online etc.) The importance of this rule cannot be understated.
Leg in a blue cast, I hobbled across the street on crutches. Forty-nine hours had passed since I fell down the stairs and saw the intruder in the basement. Or at least, I saw his hands. Enough was enough. I needed concrete answers and a concrete plan to deal with this. At this rate, the intruder would reach my room in weeks, maybe days. Pounding on the neighbors’ door, I stepped back when something inside moved. Through frosted windows, down the hallway, the blurry shadow of a door creaked open. Someone peered out. I waved politely, but they stepped back into the room and pulled the door shut. I raised my hand to knock again when-
-The door swung open. There stood P.T. Walker, dressed in blue jeans and a brown shirt. Looking even more Clint-Eastwood-like than before, “Brandon.” He said, smiling warmly. I opened my mouth to respond, but I realized I didn’t even know his name, just the initials. “Paul’s fine,” he said, stepping back from the door and motioning me inside. “Paul,” I said, propping forward onto my crutches and-
“-Wait.” He reached behind the door and produced a box of disposable light-blue masks, “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, putting a mask on himself and handing another to me. “Of course not,” I said and put the mask on.
“Getting too old to risk it,” said Paul, stepping back from the door, and once again motioning me inside. As I stepped in, his eyes dropped to the blue cast around my leg. He raised an eyebrow.
“Fell down the stairs,” I said.
He shut the door, and I glanced around the house. The interior of Paul’s house contradicted my expectations. Varnished oak walls with a smooth shine. Paul’s house felt like an old wall-street corner office, like in those movies where men in suits pull whiskey out from beneath their desks. There was no upstairs, only the first floor, a couple bedrooms, and a door that led to what I assumed was a basement. A long hallway led to the back of the house, and I noticed the room which someone had peered out from; The door was still shut. The air smelled like tobacco and vanilla. Not a bad smell, at least not me. Tobacco scent always reminded me of my dad’s house back in Georgia; Back when I was a kid and still somewhat happy. I kicked off my shoes and pressed my sock-covered feet against the floor. In this oddly fancy house, the carpet felt out of place; Green, scratchy, worn-down to the plywood in some areas.
“Please,” said Paul, motioning towards the living room. I shuffled deeper into the house, despite the sunny day outside, it was dark in here. All the blinds pulled shut, only a couple desk lights and beams of intruding sunlight. “Feel free to sit,” said Paul, nodding towards a long, green velvet couch. I slumped down and felt immediate relief. Hobbling around on crutches was more tiring than it looked. Paul’s living room stretched the entire house’s length, turning into a dining room halfway over. “Can I get you anything? Water? Coffee?” said Paul.
“I’m good. Thanks.”
Paul winced, as though I’d offended him. “You’re sure. Water?”
Paul sat down on a wooden stool across from me. A stool that creaked with antique strain. Crossing his legs, he leaned sideways against the wall, studying me like a therapist studies a client. “So?”
“Last night… I saw him.” I said, getting directly to the point.
Paul’s face remained neutral; he shifted weight slightly, “Saw who?”
His eyes suddenly lit up, and his lips twisted a little, like holding back laughter? I couldn’t tel
“Sorry,” he said, his face turning red. “Go on.”
Annoyed, I leaned forward in my seat, “What I saw has no rational explanation. Hands, barely human…”
“You take a photo?”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
He studied me carefully before continuing, “You seen a doctor?”
He glanced down at the cast on my leg, then back up to me.
I rolled my eyes, “Well, yes.”
“Did you tell him about…”
His face filled with strange relief, uncrossing his legs, he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, “Do not tell anyone else about this, not even Mitch, do you understand?” he said, suddenly serious.
“Sure…” I said.
Paul leaned back, reached into the chest pocket of his shirt, and pulled out a cigarette. He brought it up to his mouth and paused. Pulling off his mask, he tossed it back over his shoulder. He pinched the cigarette between thin lips and pulled out a pack of matches- a THUMP reverberated from somewhere deep inside the house. He froze, raised an eyebrow. Silence. He shrugged, struck the match and- another THUMP. Paul shook out the match and tossed it into an alphagetti’s tin can sat upon a yellow plastic crate to his left. “One moment,” he said, stepping up and marching deeper into the house. I watched as he rounded the corner and disappeared into the foyer hallway.
Now I was starting to wonder if coming over here was such a good idea. My initial meeting with Paul was surprising, to say the least. His long, drawn-out bear-safety monologue was odd, but endearing, in a weird sort of way. However, when Paul showed up at the diner, Mitch seemed truly disturbed. Either way, I just wanted answers; hopefully, Paul would give me that. Right then, the faintest hint of a smell entered my nostrils—the recurring smell of gasoline and burnt hair. So subtle, it might’ve been imagined. The sound of door clicked open in the foyer hallway, then it clicked shut. Muffled voices. Arguing? I tilted my head and strained to listen but-
“-Sorry about that,” said Paul, suddenly stepping into the room.
He sat down on the couch across from me with pin-straight posture. A brown, velvet couch with old-time drawings of farms and ducks that reminded me of a sofa at my grandma’s house. The same one I slept on after grandpa’s funeral.
“You want answers?” said Paul, striking a match, lighting up the cigarette and taking a slow, satisfied drag. The smoke lingered around him for a moment, then slowly drifted back towards the dining room.
“Why does Mitch think you’re dead?” I asked directly.
Paul nodded, as though expecting the question, reaching over the side of the couch, he tapped his cigarette; Small bits of glowing ash broke off and fell into the tin can.
“Back when Mitch and Rachel, his sister, were in high school,” said Paul, “I had some serious …health issues. I still do, full disclosure, but I’m medicated now and, that helps.” He lifted the cigarette to take another drag, but stopped short, remembering something, he lowered it and continued, “After my dad passed away I, started to believe something was stalking me. Toying with me.” He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, “It started with small things at first, bumps in the night, food going bad before the expiry date. Things too small to talk about, but too big to just, you know, brush off,” he met my eyes, looked away and took a short drag off the cigarette. I thought back to the expired milk in my fridge, one of many unanswered questions still festering in the back of my head.
He sighed, “I’m a rationalist at heart, so, the possibility of something, unnatural,” He waved his fingers like a magician, “That never crossed my thoughts.” He paused again, glancing over at me, judging my reactions as he spoke, “Now bare with me through another monologue because all this leads to a point,” he continued, “One night, back in 94, the kids and their mom were fast asleep. It was Thursday, so I went down to the basement for canned peaches and a late-night beer,” he pointed down at the floor, “The light wasn’t working so, I came back with a flashlight and…” he trailed off into silence, his cold-blue eyes still locked on the floor, latched onto a single point. “This time somebody was down there. Just standing there. Stood down the basement hallway with their back turned, I wanted to call out, scream, run upstairs get my Nine mil, but instead, I just froze. Like roadkill in headlights,” Paul looked directly at me, “That’s when it hit me. I realized that the intruder, almost seven-foot-tall by the way, he was half-ways stuck into the concrete wall. Like the mold was set around him and dried there.” Paul shook his head like a chill went down his spine, “I couldn’t even think straight,” He said, rubbing his forehead with the back of his thumb. A weird tick that suddenly stood out to me. Mitch did the same thing, and so did Howie.
“Things just got really bad after that. The more I tried to fight it, the worse it got. Of course, nobody else saw him. They just saw a stack of cardboard boxes.” He paused again, looking around the room, “One night, cold, autumn night, I downed one and a half mickey’s of Koval and brought my nine-mil downstairs. I walked straight up to the intruder,” he made a gun with his fingers and pointed at me “pressed the barrel between his eyes, and pulled the trigger.” He mimed the motion of gun kick-back and limply dropped his hand back onto his thigh. “Buddy didn’t even flinch. Bullet went straight through him, ricocheted off the back wall and struck me in the hand.” Paul held up his left hand; the pinky finger was cut-off short at the first knuckle. I hadn’t even noticed until now. He shook his hand like it went numb and leaned back into his seat again.
“After that, Holly threatened to leave me, take the kids with her,” he rubbed the side of his palm against his thigh. He glanced across the room and his eyes locked on the door I assumed was the door to the basement. “Let me show you something.” He said, pushing up from the couch. I remained seated. After my last encounter with the intruder, I wasn’t a big fan of stairs, or basements. “You coming?” Paul looked back at me the same way my dad used to, struggling to hide the disappointment. I cleared my throat, grabbed my crutches, and pushed to standing. He smiled a half-smile, pulled another disposable mask out from his back pocket, put it on, and strolled across the room. He stopped in front of the basement door. He reached over and pulled a ring of keys off of a gold-brass hook in the wall. Humming to himself, Paul rifled through until finding the one he wanted. He unlatched the chosen key and turned the lock. No dice. He re-latched the key and went back to rifling, still humming. Meanwhile, I stood about ten feet back, eyes locked on the mysterious room at the end of the hallway. The door was shut.
“You live alone?” I said.
“Yes,” said Paul, “Well yes and no.” He pulled another key out and gave that one a try. No dice. “An old …friend lives in the room down the hall. I’m the caretaker, sort of.” He said nonchalantly.
“That’s good of you.”
“Yeah well, I owe them one,” said Paul, unlatching a third key from the ring, holding it up to his face and studying it like a pawnshop owner studies a suspect diamond. He brought it down to the lock, pushed it in, and turned. The door clicked open. “Third time’s the…” Paul looked around searching for words, the same way Howie did. Shaking his head, he tucked away the key and stepped down into the dark. He flicked the light on and cold fluorescent glow stammered to life. Concrete walls. Wooden steps smothered in layers of dust. Paul looked back over his shoulder, “You good with stairs?” he said, glancing down at my cast-covered leg
He nodded, a hint of pride in his eyes. “Use the railing,” said Paul, turning back and stepping deeper into the basement. I Hobbled across the hallway. Stood at the top of the stairs, I peered down. The flight of steps seemed longer than expected. Like it went one and a half stories down, instead of just one. Paul stood at the bottom, another door in front of him. Though maybe ‘door’ wasn’t quite the right word, more like a bunker hatch, metallic and bolted with an arm-sized lever instead of a doorknob. Paul gripped his hands around the lever, braced himself against the wall, and pulled. His wiry arms flexed and strained as the lever slowly lurched towards him. Gritting his teeth, Paul yanked harder and harder until finally, the lever gave way, swinging backward suddenly. The bunker door itself shifted downward with an echoing clang, and clouds of dust particles burst out from the edges. Paul wiped his forehead with the back of his arm, squat down, and grabbed the bottom of the door, hoisting upward, he lifted the door into a vertical swing. The hatch pressed flat up against the ceiling, and there was nothing but darkness ahead. Paul crept forward, and silence followed. Five long seconds ticked by until – a light flicked on. Cold, stuttering glow. “You good?” Paul’s voice echoed up the staircase.
“Yeah,” I said and stepped forward, once again being dragged the magnetic pull of morbid curiosity. Going downstairs on crutches was even more tedious than I anticipated. The whole precarious downward journey took about three minutes until, finally, I stepped into the basement. Dirt floors, plywood walls. A long narrow hallway led to a two-way fork in the path.
“I’ve got an engineering background,” said Paul, strolling forward, “Built this place from the ground up” He stopped at the fork in the hallway and looked both ways, thinking. He looked left, he looked right, then looked left again – He shrugged, ‘gotta be this way ‘. He pushed forward, and I followed. “Basement’s bigger than you’d think,” he said. I rounded the corner after him, another long narrow hallway led about fifteen feet down till reaching another two-way fork. Paul kept walking, and I kept following, “I put up these walls, built a maze around him, slowed him down like hell,” he rounded another corner, “Then I put up the bunker hatch and…” he trailed off into silence, rounding another corner, we entered a ten-foot by ten-foot room. He stepped into the middle, froze, and turned to face me, “This is the construction of a madman.” He said playfully, looking around, “Holly left me half-ways into me building it.” He shook his head and spat, “I don’t blame her.” He looked then looking directly at me, “Look, kid,” he paused and glanced around one last time, “You want all this to go away, you wanna stop having these encounters? Work on yourself.”
I blinked ‘are you fucking kidding me?’
Half-shrugging, he continued, “Look, I know how it sounds. After Holly took the kids and left, I stopped drinking, got help, professional help. Started taking meds, the right meds. And sure enough, all this went away. No more man in the basement, no more altered reality bullshit. I know it’s the last thing you wanna hear, but this… it’s all in your mind.”
“You don’t think it’s a little odd that my ‘hallucinations’ match yours.”
Paul nodded understandingly, “What do you think triggered all this?”
I shook my head; I didn’t know.
“The note.” Said Paul, “The note my son, well-meaning though he was, left on your doorstep.”
I just wanted to leave now. I was tired.
“You ever heard of Tulpa?” said Paul, reaching forward and placing his hand onto my shoulder. I didn’t respond. I just stood there, staring at him blankly, leaning on my crutches.
“Tulpas are these things that don’t exist until you believe they exist. The more you believe, the more they exist, the more they fuck with you.”
“Look. I’m not saying that’s what this is, but it might be what this is.”
“Mitch, bless him, he still thinks it’s all real. He thinks it got to me years back, thinks it’s controlling me now, using me to trick others into following it or something. It’s a different story every time.” Paul shook his head, “All I can say is this: It’s not real, but the only way to stop it is to figure out what’s wrong in your life and fix that.”
Something upstairs — three quick, staggering footsteps. Paul glanced up at the ceiling, then back down to me, “Ignore the coat-rack, follow the ‘rules’ until you’ve fixed your life, or until you stop believing it, then you take that coat-rack out past city limits and you burn it. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said noncommittally.
Finally, he pulled his hand off my shoulder, “You need help, with anything, I’m always here. You got booze problems, life problems, anything.” He said, his eyes filled with sincerity. “This thing, it really messes with your head, makes it hard to know who you can trust, you know? Sometimes it feels like it’s almost, jumping in and out of people you know, controlling them, but it’s all in your head” his tone was shifting now, almost sounding excited. Part of me wondered if the intruder was controlling him right now, deriving twisted pleasure out of messing with me. I shook off the thought and-
-Another thump upstairs. Paul acted like he didn’t hear it.
“I should go,” I said, stepping backward.
“…Sure kid,” Said Paul, talking to me like I was his son.
I turned around and as fast as I could without tripping, I crutched my way out of the basement maze, up the stairs, and out the front door. I stepped out of Paul’s house and took a deep breath of fresh air. Stepping outside felt like getting rescued out from a drowning river. I exhaled relief. At this point, I didn’t trust Paul, or Mitch or even fucking Howie for that matter. Nothing was stable, and everything was getting worse.
I hobbled back across the street and- my phone buzzed to life in my front pocket. I stopped in the middle of the road, pulled out the phone, and flicked on the screen. Squinting, I held it up to my face; Twenty-seven missed calls from the neighbor’s son. Of course.