He pulled open the basement door and stared down into the darkness. He flipped the light switch. The bulb at the bottom of the stairs spluttered and hissed but finally took on life. Why there wasn’t a bulb at the top of the stairs had been a mystery to Derek since he’d moved in. Apparently one that hadn’t merited a quick resolution.
Derek hunched over before descending, as though it would aid his hearing. He lit the lighter and took a step. He’d hated these kinds of stairs since he was a kid. Ones without risers. An awkward child, he’d always feared falling through his grandmother’s similar cellar stairwell.
A flashlight sat on the second step. He traded it for his lighter, felt the comfortable heft in his hand. Turning the beam on, he took another step down. By the time he reached the fourth step, he could bend and peer under the first floor into the basement. He swept the flashlight across the crowded area. Boxes piled upon boxes, two lives’ worth of unnecessary junk accumulated in one dank holding tank. But no signs of animated life.
Something tickled his ankles. He jolted and sprang back a step. Swinging the light over his feet, he saw nothing but the spotlight wavering on the steps. With both hands, he steadied the flashlight. And waited.
Four thin white snakes darted out from underneath the step then slithered back. Not snakes. Something else. Fingers?
Derek clamped his eyes shut, fat lot of good that would do him. But his mind decided to play tricks on him. The horrible sorta’ tricks Dr. Farraday would love to treat. Working himself into a panic, he breathed in deeply, exhaled, repeated. Nothing behind the stairs except for the furnace. And cobwebs. No fingers white as underground albino worms.
He opened his eyes and pointed the beam at the step again. Nothing there. Drawing his arm across his forehead to mop up the sweat, he turned around, prepared to put off his night hunt until the calm of morning.
From the corner of the basement came a solitary thump.
Derek’s hands jerked up. The flashlight slipped from his grasp, bouncing onto the step below him. Derek grasped for it, his clumsy reflex tapping it into the darkness behind the steps. When it hit the cement, it cracked like a brittle bone breaking. Miraculously, the beam still worked, pinpointing the bottom of a pyramid of boxes to his right.
A thump! Again by the door window. A hand slapping the windowpane?
Derek ran up the stairs and grabbed the knife. Before he could talk himself out of it, he descended the steps again. He kept his eyes on the door in the far corner while he maneuvered to pick up the flashlight.
He dropped to his knees so as not to bump his head underneath the steps. The basement bulb flickered and died, plunging him into overwhelming, threatening darkness. Derek fumbled with his free hand around the floor, following the flashlight’s hopeful ray of light. He grabbed the barrel of the flashlight and swung the light toward the door.
The furnace pilot light kicked on with a fwoomph, a sudden mechanical gasp. A small shriek hiccupped in his chest, rose to his frozen vocal chords, stayed there with the exit barred. His chest fell once he finally expelled his held breath.
He crawled out from under the steps, the flashlight’s beam leading the way. He stood still. And listened again.
Various groans and creaks, the sounds old houses make. The furnace’s pilot light hummed, hoping to build up stamina to birth heat. From somewhere, drops plopped, an agonizingly long trip down to the cement floor.
Something shuffled by the door. Derek passed the light’s arc over the pile of boxes barricading the door. The top box slid an inch. Then another. It fell to the floor with a clatter, a tin cup rolling out. Another box fell.
“Come out.” He hardly recognized the dry wheeze as his voice.
Something flipped up and slapped on top of the boxes.
A shadow rose, backlit by the moonlight filtering in through the window. Dark and formless. A bundle of moving rags. No, not rags. A dress, paisley-patterned, moving, swaying, filled with nothing but air. And Derek’s fevered imagination. But something else held the dress together.
The figure moved around the boxes. Coming closer. Thin long arms stretched out from the rotting material of the dress. Derek’s vision focused, blurs becoming sharper. An old woman lurched toward him. Strands of hair dotted her scalp. Her eyes were gray, dull orbs, glassed over. She opened her mouth. Nothing came out but gaping darkness.
Derek waved his knife. “Stop!” He whirled and ran for the stairs, the beam bouncing erratically in front of him with every movement.
He leapt for the steps and banged his head against the overhang. Falling back, he cursed and raced up the steps again, not slowing until he reached the top. He didn’t want to do it, but he had to. He had to know. He shot the flashlight’s ray behind him. Dancing shadows filled the circle of light.