Ten-year-old Rick and his friend Brian went down into the vast, dark basement under Rick’s seaside home on the south shore of Long Island not looking for adventure. They had been having lunch in the kitchen and bouncing Brian’s ball back and forth to each other until Rick missed it, and the ball bounced across the floor and then into the opened doorway that led to the basement.
Rick and his Dad sometimes did projects down there, but there was something creepy about it. Now, for some reason, the lights weren’t working, so the boys crept downstairs with a flashlight. The unfinished area featured a huge oil boiler and hot water heater that hissed as the boys came down the stairs. Cobwebs hung between the thick steel columns that supported the house’s main beam. Only a narrow ray of light came through a window at the far end of the basement near the door that led out to the backyard.
“Where the hell is that ball?” Rick asked as they looked around the space filled with boxes, storage containers, and covered racks of winter clothing. Shelves supporting tools hung above a wide workbench where his father tinkered in his spare time.
The house above them seemed to creak as they continued to meander among the stacked containers looking for the ball. “What’s that noise?” Brian asked nervously.
“Dad says it’s the house settling,” Rick said.
Brian looked around with rapid eyes. “I…I don’t care about that ball. I can always get a new one.”
Rick took a deep breath. “I…I’m not scared. It’s just a dark basement.”
Brian stepped on something, and it squealed. “Oh, crap, I think that was a mouse.”
Rick pointed the flashlight into the corner and illuminated the red and blue ball on the floor. “There it is.” He walked towards it with Brian quickly following him.
He leaned on the wall as he bent down to pick up the ball, but the brick he touched sank into a crevice, and suddenly the whole wall swung open.
“What the hell!” Brian exclaimed.
“Holy crap! A secret passageway!” Rick said, his heart pumping in his chest.
Brian started backing up. “I’m not going in there.”
“Are you kidding me?” Rick asked.
“I…I have to go home,” Brian said, heading for the stairs.
Rick tossed him the ball and pointed the flashlight to illuminate his path out of the basement. After Brian left, Rick turned and started walking down the long, dark passageway. Debris on the floor crackled under his sneakers as he walked. Piles of rusty metal chains lined the wall on his right. On his left were dozens of old wooden barrels; some had cracked along the seams, and cobwebs and dust covered them all.
Cobwebs hung from the low ceiling, and he used the flashlight to clear them from his path. He came upon a large tub that sat under a rusted faucet jutting out of the wall. Rusty old metal pans, plates, and cups were scattered next to it, and a dusty ball-peen hammer was on the floor.
“What was this place?” Rick whispered, and then he heard it – the roar of the ocean coming from the darkness ahead of him. He stepped carefully and heard a crunching sound under his sneakers, and he looked down and saw an array of clamshells and other seashells.
At the end of the passageway was a heavy wooden door. He pushed on it hard but couldn’t budge the heavily rusted bolt. Behind the door he could hear a seagull’s cry and the crashing of waves. Rick ran back into the basement, got his father’s hammer and chisel from the workbench, and then came back and used them to unlock the door.
When Rick opened the door, a gush of cold seawater rushed over his feet. A few damp concrete steps led to a wooden hatch above them. Using the tools, he undid the rusted hook on the hatch and threw it open. He stuck his head outside, and he was in the middle of a cluster of grassy dunes with the ocean about twenty yards away. The dunes were part of a wildlife protected zone, wired off to keep the public out.
He thought about how he had walked past these dunes hundreds of times and never knew that this hatch existed. He turned around to see more dunes, his house above them, and his Mom pulling the car into the driveway, and he remembered that he left all the food on the table and the basement door open.
He grabbed a rusted handle gnarled by time and started walking back down the steps. As he hooked the hatch, suddenly he felt very cold and then something grabbed both of his ankles. Whatever it was pulled on him with great strength. He leaned down and swung the flashlight hard, and it felt like nothing was there, but his ankles were free.
He slammed and bolted the door, ran down the passageway quickly, and once in the basement he pushed on the brick that had opened the wall and watched as it closed with a thud and a cloud of dust. He shivered as he thought about what happened, and his ankles were sore.
When he went upstairs, his mother stood in the kitchen with her hands on her hips. “Richard James O’Connor – you’re a mess!” She always said his full name when he was in trouble.
Rick looked down at his soiled shirt and dirty arms. “Oh, sorry, Mom!”
Pointing to the back staircase she screamed, “Get upstairs and take a shower now!”
Rick didn’t argue with her and ran upstairs. His grandfather came down the attic stairs from his room and stared at him. He had powder white hair and mustache and always wore sweaters even in summer, but he had kindly blue eyes, and his mouth turned into a smirk. “What mischief have you been up to now, Ricky?”
“Oh, you know, the usual,” Rick said.
“That’s my boy,” Pop said as he patted him on the shoulder and went past him, going down the stairs to the kitchen.
After his shower, Rick sat on his bed staring at his walls covered with Star Wars and New York Mets posters. He looked at his ankles, and each one was bruised. What grabbed him? Why was that passageway built? Why were all those things in there?
On Monday at school, Rick and Brian sat in the cafeteria during recess. Brian said, “Glad you survived that secret passage.”
“Oh, not baloney and cheese again!” Brian said as he opened his lunchbox. He glanced at Rick. “Just barely?”
Rick leaned toward him and whispered. “Something grabbed me down there.”
“I knew that place was weird,” Brian said.
“Yeah,” Rick said, tearing into his grilled cheese sandwich, “it was weird in there. I’m not sure what tried to get me.”
“Maybe a ghost,” Brian said, nodding his head and smiling. “What else did you find?”
“A lot of chains, some old barrels, and pots and stuff. I’m not sure what that stuff was used for, but the passageway ends on the beach in the dunes.”
“Something bad was going on down there for sure,” Brian said.
“Yeah, I’m not sure what though.”
“Didn’t your family live in that house like forever?”
“Oh, yeah, my father’s great-great grandfather built it a long time ago.” Rick’s eye widened. “Hey, maybe Pop knows something about it. He grew up in that house too.”
“I’d ask him if I were you,” Brian said.
After dinner in the good weather Pop sat out on the front porch in his rocking chair with a glass of beer and a cigar.
Rick went out and sat on the chair next to him. Pop glanced at him and asked, “Why were you covered in dirt the other day?”
Rick looked out across the dunes at the ocean. “Yeah, I…I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Funny,” Pop said taking the cigar out of his mouth, “but I remember the same thing happening to me when I was your age.”
“Really?” Rick asked.
Pop put the cigar into the corner of his mouth and rocked slowly in the chair. “Yes, I went into someplace I shouldn’t have been.”
Rick swallowed hard. “You know about it?”
“Sure, I do. I went down the basement exploring just like you. One day I was playing with my brother Jim, and we were rough housing. I accidentally kicked that brick when I was aiming for Jim, and that wall opened.”
“So, you know all about it?” Rick asked.
Pop nodded. “I went in with Jim, but he got scared when he saw the rusty old chains, and ran back upstairs.”
“Did you make it all the way to the wooden door?” Rick asked.
“I did indeed,” Pop said, folding his hands.
“Did you open it?”
“No, because something was blocking it.”
Pop leaned toward him and whispered, “It was a skeleton.”
Rick’s eyes bulged wide. “A real skeleton?”
“Yes, and it had a rusty gun in its hand and a big hole in its skull.”
“Well, what did you do?”
Pop leaned back and sighed. “I told my father, and he came down with me and checked it out.”
“Did your dad call the police?”
“No, he did not. He knew who the gentleman was – Hugo Junke. Not a very nice man, but he was a powerful with political connections. My father knew his family was still rich and powerful, and he knew that his father had done some business with this man.”
“What business were they doing down there?” Rick asked.
Pop sighed. “They were involved in an illegal operation, Ricky.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was the time of prohibition. They were making booze down there.”
“Yes, that’s how my grandfather made his money – but Junke wanted an unreasonable part of the profit and threatened to expose Daideơ as a bootlegger if he didn’t get it.”
“Wow,” Rick said. “So that’s why they fought?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. They started to fight and, as Daideơ got the best of him, Junke took out the gun. Daideơ lunged for his arm, and they struggled. Junke started aiming at Daideơ, but he managed to twist Junke’s arm as he pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit Junke in the head!”
“So left that man’s body down there all those years?”
“Yes, Daideơ sealed off the steps he used to bring the barrels up to the beach, where he would load them onto boats to be delivered to trucks on the docks. Daideơ ended his business because of this, but he had made enough money to survive, and Prohibition would end soon anyway.”
“But didn’t the police look for Junke?”
“Ah, yes they did, but obviously with no success. After I found his skeleton, my father decided to get rid of it, so we carried it out one night and buried it on the beach. Junke’s story finally came to an end.”
Rick thought of his sore ankles. “I…I don’t know if it did.”
“What do you mean, Ricky?”
“When I was down there, on the steps, something grabbed me by the ankles.”
Pop moved the cigar around in his mouth. “Well, I’ll be damned. Something came at me down there too. It got very cold, and then I felt something grabbing me by the arms. Somehow, I managed to get away, but when I told my father he made me promise never to go in there again, and I never did.”
“Does Dad know about it?”
Pop nodded. “Rich knows. I told him the story, but he was too scared to ever go into the passageway.”
Rick shook his head. “So, is the ghost trapped in there or something?”
“I don’t know, Ricky, and I don’t think I want to know either.”
Rick looked at the ocean and watched the birds flying above the water. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Pop.”
Rick sat looking at his laptop for hours on Saturday morning. His father opened the door to his room and said, “Rick, it’s a beautiful day outside. Why don’t we go down to the beach and have a catch and a swim?”
Rick didn’t even look at his father. “I’m kinda busy, Dad.”
Dad walked into the room and sat on the bed next to the desk. “Pop told me about what happened downstairs.”
“Oh,” Rick turned and looked at him. “I’m sorry, Dad; I’m just looking up stuff about ghosts.”
“There is no ghost down there,” Dad said. “I’ve been in the basement hundreds of times over the years, and I never saw a ghost.”
“But you never went into the secret passageway!”
“No, I…I was too scared – still am!”
Rick clicked on a link and showed his father an article. “I’ve read a ton of articles about why ghosts haunt, but I think this is the reason for our ghost being there.”
Dad looked at the title and started reading the article. “Hmm. So, you think the ghost wants a proper burial?”
“Yeah, the article says the ghost wants its family to have peace and to be buried in the family plot.”
Dad sat back against the wall and took a deep breath. “You do know Pop and his father buried the man on the beach?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t connect him to it now, does it?”
“Rick, you just can’t dig up a body and bring it to the family.”
Rick’s eyes bulged, and he jumped up. “I got it! Me and Brian could be digging to build one of our forts and could come across it accidentally. We call the police, and they take care of the rest.”
Dad was about to speak when Pop stuck his head into the room. “I’m sorry about eavesdropping, boys.”
“That’s no problem, Pop,” Dad said.
“I think Rick has the right idea.” Pop came into the room and sat on another chair. “But the cops will see that Junke died from a bullet.”
Dad shook his head. “We can’t expose Daideơ’s part in this, and who knows what the legal ramifications are for us.”
Rick sighed. “But maybe if our family does the right thing, Junke will be at peace.”
“How far from the house did you bury the skeleton, Pop?” Dad asked.
“Oh, my, it’s been about 70 years now. The beach has changed; the dunes have changed.” Pop scratched his head. “I do remember coming up the steps and going down close to the water. It was late at night, and it took a long time to dig. The water started coming up around our ankles and pouring into the hole.
“We dumped the skeleton in and started pushing the sand back over it. By the time we were done, the water had completely covered the spot.”
Rick shook his head. “That isn’t a problem. We dig close to the water to make our forts.”
“But I don’t remember the exact spot,” Pop said.
Summer vacation began a week later, and almost every day Rick and Brian would be digging in different spots to build their sand-fort. Each day it would be more impressive than the last, but every day the tide would knock it down.
The weeks passed, and in late August Rick figured he would never find the skeleton. One day when no one else was home, Rick took the big flashlight and went down into the basement. He pushed the brick, the wall opened, and he illuminated the passageway.
He no longer felt afraid. He walked down the length of the space until he reached the wooden door. He said, “Mr. Junke, I’ve been trying all summer to find your bones to return to your family. I’m sorry, but I’ve failed.” The passageway suddenly got very cold. Rick looked down and saw the dusty hammer and picked it up, thinking he could defend himself.
“Look, I know what happened here, Mr. Junke. You wouldn’t be dead if you didn’t pull out a gun. I’m sorry about what happened, and I’m….”
The walls became covered with ice and the hammer frosted over in Rick’s hand, causing him to drop it. The wooden door flew open, as did the hatch that led to the beach. Rick felt the urge to go up the steps as if he were being pushed by the same frigid hands that had locked upon his ankles. He saw people on blankets and lounges, and kids running into the water.
The cold hands continued to propel him forward. Rick’s friend Bobby waved at him, but Rick had no time to wave back because he was pushed more quickly now. Suddenly, a few feet from the waterline, the icy grip stopped him and pushed down on his shoulders until he fell on his knees.
Rick realized that this was the spot where the skeleton was buried. He looked up and noted that it was about 25 feet from lifeguard stand number 13. People were all around him, so he whispered, “I…I understand, Mr. Junke.”
Rick and Brian appeared on the front page of the local paper after they found Hugo Junke’s remains – the long missing and presumed dead heir of the Junke fortune – identified by gold fillings in his teeth. His great grandson John Junke gave each boy a $1000 reward. With the gun still gripped in the skeleton’s hand, the police declared it a case of a covered-up suicide. Since it happened about 90 years ago, there were no living witnesses and no way to know who could have been involved. Junke was buried next to his wife and other family members.
Rick stood in the passageway for the last time, whispering, “Rest in peace, Mr. Junke.” Dad and Rick closed the wall and started finishing the basement, putting up paneling to hide that dark passageway and its terrible secrets forever.