The man in my basement takes one step closer every week. - Chap 6
Rule 7: The intruder will not move so long as you have guests in the house (Guests who actually want to be there)
“Where are you?” said Mitch, sounding like he hadn’t slept in days.
“Home,” I said, rifling through a box of tools. My phone, set to speaker, sat on the garage floor.
“You didn’t see my calls?”
“…Yeah, my bad, service out here.”
“Look. Brandon,” he cleared his throat, “I need you to be one hundred percent honest. Did you speak with my… with the neighbor?”
A long, draining silence followed and then- CLICK. Mitch ended the call. Shaking my head, I went back to searching for tools; right now, I didn’t have the time to worry about Mitch. First I needed to barricade the basement door. Second, I needed to call every single person in my contact list and offer them the spare bedroom, rent-free. Digging through the tangled mess of tools, my hand finally gripped around a familiar, smooth, wooden handle. Out from the box, I pulled a hammer. Bingo.
Resting on a single crutch, I stood at the basement door, pounding nail after nail into scraps of two-by-fours and whatever else I could find. Unlike Paul, I didn’t have the resources or the knowledge to build an apocalyptic bunker door. This makeshift zombie-defense would have to do for now. Hammering away faster and faster, I once again fell into a strange calm. A meditative peace that filled every breath with purpose and- my hand slipped. The hammer slammed into my pointer finger and throbbing pain shot up my arm. Cursing through my teeth, I clenched my hand tight. The hammer fell to the floor and dented head-first into the hardwood. Fucking idiot. Fucking idiot. Stupid-Fucking-idiot. My thoughts exploded into a tirade of self-abusive screaming.
A few seconds went by, and the pain numbed. My thoughts cleared. I took in three slow breaths and squat down to pick up the hammer. I froze. Through the bottom crack of the door, the basement light was on. I honestly couldn’t remember if I’d turned it off or not. But the light being on didn’t bother me, not anymore, not after everything I’d seen. What bothered me was the dark shadow stood on the other side of the door. Flanked by orange glow.
That and the sound of breathing.
Barely audible, but unmistakable. Labored, strained, and rattling like an empty bottle of spray paint. Suddenly, the door pushed forward slightly, as if hands pressed against the other side. Breathing deep, I gripped my hand around the hammer and rose to standing. Leaning forward, I turned my head and pressed my ear flat against the door, listening. The intruder was whispering.
“Fucking-idiot…” he gasped, quick and stuttering, “stupid-fucking idiot,” labored breathing continued all the while, almost as if it were two separate voices. He was repeating my earlier thoughts aloud, right down to every random intrusion.
“Dent in the floor dent, dent in the floor, lights on? turn them off?” the whispering continued, “Is that breathing? I think I think …breathing? House. Coat-rack. Basement, Dent in the floor dent-“
-I’d heard enough; I stepped back, shook my hand out, lined up another nail, and hammered away. It’s not real, I told myself. It’s all inside of your head.
Finally, I slammed the last nail into the last board. I took four steps back and marveled at the ramshackle creation. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. My eyes flicked involuntarily to the bottom of the door. The light was off now and the whispering had stopped. Wiping my forehead, I turned back towards the living room and slumped down onto the couch. I took out my phone and pulled open my contact list. Time to find a willing guest.
Two hours later, dialing number after number; Straight to voice-mail after straight to voice-mail. And not a single a bite. Coat-rack. Only one person actually answered; a roommate from college, “I’d be more than down.” He said, “But I’m up in Canada now.” Of course. I tucked my phone away, just about ready to give up when-
-Three small knocks at the front door. I had a pretty good idea of who it was. Pushing up from the couch, I grabbed my crutches, marched across the room and pulled open the door.
“Hey… Brandon” there stood Howie, dressed in a red sweater, red jeans and a green backpack. Looking a little less chipper than usual.
“Hey Howie,” I said, trying my best to act normal, despite the fact a living nightmare stood mere feet away. Howie, despite all his quirks, was a sight for sore eyes. Sure, I didn’t trust him, but at least he wasn’t Mitch or Paul.
“Yeah so… this is uh kind of… awkward, but I’m wondering if I could, crash here for a couple days?” he said, “I can sleep on the couch, pay rent, whatever. No worries if not,” he shrugged. I looked back over my shoulder, then back to Howie, “Uh… sure…”
Immediately, he pushed past me, strolled across the room, threw his back-pack on the floor, plopped down onto the living room couch, and kicked up his feet. “What’s with the door?” he said, pointing at the barricaded basement door.
Pulling the front door shut, I stepped forward, “It’s uh… it’s an art project,” I lied, “Replacing the door frame anyways.”
“Huh,” said Howie, clearly not buying it. Shrugging, he turned back to the TV, “Where’s the remote?”
Howie’s sudden arrival was suspiciously convenient at best and outright malicious at worst. But right now, I didn’t have time to think about that. If the rules held, his being here would at least buy me some time to figure out how to stop all this. Maybe I’d sell the house; maybe I’d defer ownership back to the bank. But judging by the “no third parties” rule, I doubted either of those would actually work. So far, the only people who knew about the intruder were Mitch and his father. And according to Mitch, he didn’t count as third party because he ‘already believed,’ but Paul, his father? That part was getting to me. Something was missing. Paul’s whole ‘fix your life, fix your problems’ spiel bothered me. But something else bothered me more, and I didn’t know what it was. Like that feeling you get when you’re about to leave home, and you know you’ve left something important behind. Like a nagging itch in the back of your head.
I offered Howie the spare room, but he preferred the couch. I didn’t fight him on it. I wanted to keep him here as long as possible. I didn’t even ask why he needed to stay. It was kind of nice to not be alone in the house for once.
At half past nine, Howie fell asleep watching jeopardy reruns. I muted the television and went upstairs. Tomorrow, I’d plan my next steps, but right now, I needed to sleep. I climbed into bed and flicked the light off.
A bump in the night snapped me awake. A heavy thud like somebody hit their fist against a wall. I climbed out of bed, and hopping on one leg, pulled on a dirty t-shirt and a pair of jeans. I tucked my chrome switchblade into my back pocket. Another thud from downstairs, heavier than the last. What was Howie gonna say about this? I grabbed my crutches, carefully moved down the stairs, and peered into the living room. The blue glow of muted television cast over the room. Howie was still fast asleep on the couch. THUMP. The basement door shook this time. Like somebody slammed their forehead against it. I back-stepped away, deeper into the living room. Howie was out like a rock. Heavy sleeper.
Okay. I told myself to breathe, remember the rules: barricading the door will slow him down, but it’ll be loud. That’s all this was. I’ll put in some earplugs and blast white noise and fall asleep. Turning back towards the kitchen, I stepped across the room as quiet as possible. Last thing I wanted was for Howie to wake up and start asking more questions- THUMP. This time the hardwood floors shook beneath my feet. I froze. My eyes drifted back to Howie. Still asleep, his face motionless, almost serene. I turned back for the kitchen. I was starting to wonder if Howie could even hear the sounds coming from the basement. Stepping into the kitchen I-
A small, muffled voice called out from behind. I looked back over my shoulder, towards the basement door. “Brandon?” The voice repeated, slightly deeper now. I turned around and faced it head-on.
“You in there?” from behind the basement door, the voice strained, sympathetic and familiar.
“You okay?” Suddenly, the voice shifted into a perfect mimic of my late father. Gently knocking, the same way he did to my bedroom door after Zack, my best and only childhood friend died. A memory I did my best to ignore until now. After Zack died, I biked home, sat on my bed and stared blankly at the vinyl-closet doors for six hours straight. Eyes tracing every path of woodgrain pattern again and again. The entire world outside dissolving into nothing. The star-scape painted walls around me somehow pushing closer and closer-
“-I’m here if you need to talk kid,” my father called out, one last time.
For a second, I forgot it was the intruder speaking. For a second, I actually believed it was dad down there, gently knocking at the basement door. Silence. Lingering silence that stretched on for minutes – while I just stood there, paralyzed, not breathing, eyes locked on the basement door. Finally, my lungs forced me to gasp in air. Oxygen flooded into my brain, and awareness came rushing back. On the TV played a silent infomercial about some vegetable blender thing, and Howie was still fast asleep. I shook out my hands, went back into the kitchen, opened the drawer beside the fridge and pulled out a pair of orange ear-plugs. It’s not real, I told myself again, trying to take Paul’s advice. I slid the drawer shut. It’s all inside of your head. But again, the words fell flat. Like empty platitudes after a funeral. *I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for your loss.*I turned back across the living room and crutched my way onto the stairs.
Time to sleep.
I was halfway up the stairs when a different voice called out from behind the basement door. A teenager’s voice, strange yet familiar. I looked back over my shoulder.
“Brandon?” The voice repeated, this time tinged with fear. This time, completely familiar. Long-forgotten memories came rushing back. Memories of Zack, my childhood friend. Memories I ignored and shoved away because it was easier to pretend they never happened. It was easier to do everything in my power ignore it, than to face the dread head-on. It was easier to pretend Zack never even existed.
“Brandon… help…” ‘Zack’s’ voice quivered. Terrified. “Something’s down here…” he whispered. “Brandon?” He pulled at the door handle and the door shook. “Brandon?” he whimpered, the fear in his voice growing each time he spoke. “Brandon open the door please…” He pulled at the handle again, harder this time, “Brandon please, open the door…” He banged a fist against it. “Brandon? I’m sorry… Brandon?” His voice trailed off into sobbing whimpers and he slid down the door. Muffled weeping. An image crawled into my head, the image of Zack, green hoodie pulled over his head, curled up into a ball, weeping at the top of the basement stairs.
-A shrill scream of terror. Primal, almost inhuman. Followed by the quick-thumping sound of a body dragged over stairs, screaming and pleading all the while. Drug down stairs, down the hallway, into the rec room, kicking and screaming and begging. Up from the basement, echoing through a vent in the wall next to my ear: “I’m sorry,” Another voice, panicked and remorseful, “I’m sorry Zack… Zack I’m so sorry… I- I can’t… I don’t-“
-The sickening sound of bone CRACKED against concrete. Like a tree branch snapping in the wind. The percussive beat of skull against stone, again and again and again. Whimpering shrieks for help turning more unintelligible with every impact. Even worse, the person killing him was profusely and sincerely apologizing all while: “I’m sorry… Oh god… I’m so sorry Zack…” Sudden silence. Five seconds or five minutes, I didn’t know. Only silence. Silence and then, sniffling whimpers. Not Zack’s voice, not my father’s voice, the voice of who I assumed was the intruder, crying, almost sobbing, “Oh… no…” it moaned, filled with unimaginable guilt, “Oh god… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…” It wailed. Then I heard it drop to its knees and fall to its side and curl up into a ball and trail off into pitiful, whimpering sorrow. This went on for several minutes until, finally, it trailed off into more silence. Sniffling, the sound of somebody standing up, the sound of somebody dragging a body against concrete. Deeper and deeper into the basement, quieter and quieter as if the rec-room stretched on further than it should. Further and further away until… Nothing.
Dazed in a trance, I wandered up the stairs and into my bedroom. I pulled the door shut, stuck my ear-plugs in and crawled into bed. I shut my eyes and realization flood over me. Coat-rack. Finally, I understood the nagging itch in the back of my head. A realization so obvious, I hated myself for not getting it sooner. I burst into laughter. Not happy laughter, not funny laughter. Insane, compulsive laughter. Curling into a ball on my bed, I turned onto my side and stared at the fake cherry-wood vinyl-closet doors. The doors that reminded me of my childhood bedroom. My eyes traced along the paths of woodgrain patterns and the words of Paul played through my head all the while: “Take that coat-rack out past city limits and douse it in gasoline and burn it.”
I told Paul a lot of things, but I never told him about the coat-rack.