Carol’s coworkers from Mike’s Party Supplies and Rentals showed up one at a time at her house for her Pasta Night dinner party. She greeted each person between sounds of the elevated train going by above her and with witty comments of loving the train because it made her beautiful home so affordable. Mildred, Carol, and Scott were looking around the living room which had a nice amount of seating and minimal decor.
“Where’s your husband, Gary tonight?” asked Mildred.
“He’s been away on a business trip for the past three days,” Carol said cheerfully.
Brenda joined the conversation, “Oh, you never mentioned anything at work.” She’d known Carol for two years and most of their lunch breaks were spent chatting about family and home. She thought Carol told her everything.
“Yeah, well, things have been busy,” Carol said, “and the trip caught us by surprise. They sent him to San Diego. It will be amazing if he ever makes it home.”
“You seem really upbeat about it,” Brenda said.
“Well, you know, I’m happy that he got this opportunity,” Carol said.
Scott went over to Brenda and whispered to her, “I remember Carol talking about her and her husband having difficulties in their marriage just over a month ago.”
Brenda watched Carol happily get everyone drinks and hors d'oeuvre. “That’s what she told me too. I guess they must have worked it out,” Brenda said.
The last guest, Jim arrived. After Carol greeted Jim, she announced, “I’m so happy to spend this evening with all of you. I encourage you to make yourself comfortable but please avoid going downstairs. I did some renovations to the basement but it’s not ready for company. I just need a moment to finish up dinner.”
“Let me help out. I brought a nice red wine to go with dinner,” Jim said and he and Carol went to the kitchen to finish cooking.
Scott and Brenda were looking around the living room. “It looks a little bare,” Brenda said, “No family photos at all.”
“Not everyone displays family photos,” Scott said, “I don’t.”
“True,” Brenda agreed, “but Carol’s cubicle used to be covered with them.”
“Maybe she took them all to work,” Scott said.
“But not anymore,” Brenda said, “I saw her taking them down yesterday.”
“Why do you think that is?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know,” Brenda said, looking around and tossing the thought around in her head.
Mildred called over to them, “Hey you guys, come check out Carol’s interesting artwork.”
Brenda and Scott went into the sitting room where Mildred was standing by a bookcase.
"She has some weird artwork pieces," Mildred said.
They saw a couple of sculptures on the shelf. One looked like a pair of hands tied together. The other was just a smile, but it looked like an evil clown smile.
"Well, the hands could be some sort of unity message, like, we're all in this together," Scott said, "I don't understand the smile."
"Hmm, Brenda said, "not what I would have expected from Carol but art represents a lot of different meanings for people. These must speak to her in some way."
"Okay," Mildred said, "Then what about this?" She walked them over to another bookcase that had doors and a cute lock with one of those old timey keys.
"Mildred, that looks locked," Brenda pointed out.
"Ah, come on. This type of key is practically begging for people to look inside. If she didn't want people in here, then why leave the key here?" Mildred said.
"She left the key in the lock?" Scott asked.
"Well, no. She left the key in this drawer in this desk next to the lock. That's pretty close," Mildred said.
"You're snooping!" Brenda said trying to make sure that Carol didn't hear. "We're supposed to be Carol's friends and you're snooping."
"She invited us to make ourselves at home and this bookcase was way too intriguing to leave alone. Anyway, you'll want to see what I found inside," Mildred said and opened the door.
Scott and Brenda looked inside, "This doesn't look too bad," Scott said as he held up a couple of silk scarves.
Then he picked up a tiny feather duster that seemed too small to clean with. Then he found further in, a pair of handcuffs, a piece of rope with a ball in the middle of it, and something that looked like a black mask.
"Whoa," Scott said.
"Right?" Mildred picked up the handcuffs, "What do you think Carol's new hobby is?"
The train went by making them all jump. "It's probably something very innocent," Brenda said as she took the handcuffs away from Mildred, "and we need to stop snooping."
"Yeah, but Carol never seemed like the type..." Scott said. He was cut off when they heard something bang from downstairs. It sounded like metal hitting the floor. "What was that?"
Carol called out from the kitchen, "Is everything okay? I thought I heard a bang."
"Quick, close this up," Brenda said, "I think she's coming."
"Is everything okay?" Carol asked. "Did something fall?"
"Umm, no, umm, we're fine," Brenda said.
Mildred stepped forward, "We thought the bang came from downstairs."
"Downstairs?" Carol said. She paused and looked towards the basement door. "Oh, well, it's probably nothing then. Let me go finish dinner."
"Shouldn't we check," Mildred said. She was certain Carol was hiding something interesting and was aching to find out what.
"Ah, no. There's nothing to worry about downstairs. It can wait, whatever it was," Carol said and went back into the kitchen.
"It's kind of cold in here," Carol said, changing the subject, "How about I put on the heat?"
"I guess," Brenda said.
Jim came out of the kitchen, "Is this sauce supposed to simmer?"
"My sauce," Carol said, "I'll put the heat on. Here's the remote. Maybe you'd like to watch something. Dinner's almost ready."
Scott played with the remote and Brenda sat on the couch. Mildred wasn't done looking around.
The t.v. came on and a commercial for the news announced, "Holiday blues can lead to more domestic violence, exclusive at ten."
A deep moan came from downstairs and Scott, Brenda, and Mildred looked at the door to the basement.
Scott put the t.v. on mute. They heard the moan again but it seemed softer.
"What was that?" Scott pointed out.
"Probably nothing," Brenda said.
"Nothing!" Mildred said and then started to whisper, "That was a moan. A man moaning. Someone's in the basement."
"No one is in the basement. It's not suitable for company. Carol said so," Brenda said.
"Said so because she didn't want us finding the man in the basement," Mildred said.
"What man?" Brenda asked laughing, "Carol's husband is on a business trip and Carol would not have another man at the house."
"But they were having trouble with their marriage," Scott said, "We both knew that."
The train went by causing everyone to jump.
"This is silly," Brenda said, "What do you think is going on?"
"I don't know, but things seem a little weird tonight," Scott said, "You have to admit that even though the house seems cozy, it doesn't quite seem like the Carol we know."
Another loud noise came from the basement. This one was a crash of something like a metal plate. It had to be round because it was rolling and started to do that spin noise that plates do before they are completely flat on the ground.
"I bet she has her husband tied up in the basement," Mildred whispered.
"Why? For what reason?" Brenda asked.
"They were having trouble in their marriage," Scott said.
"Most people get counseling or a divorce," Brenda said.
"Yeah, and most of them don't look as happy as Carol does tonight," Mildred pointed out and started walking around the sitting room.
"This is crazy," Brenda said to Scott, hoping that he would agree with her reasoning.
"Yes, but it's just so weird," Scott said, "The lack of photos at work and here. The way she's acting. The locked bookcase, the weird noises, all of it doesn't seem like the Carol we are used to."
A gasp came from the den. Brenda and Scott found Mildred running her hand along a door that was stuck.
"So, you're just giving into the Dark Side altogether now," Brenda said to Mildred, "You're not even trying to hide that you are snooping now."
"I'm just trying to collect enough evidence before we have to break Carol's husband out of the basement or fight for our own lives," Mildred said. "This door is stuck, help me."
"It's probably stuck because all of this is none of our business," Brenda emphasized while she watched Scott in disbelief. He was going over to Mildred to help her with the door. "What are you doing?"
"Helping. I'm proving that there is nothing behind this door. I'm on your side, Brenda," Scott said.
"Ah, and not because you enjoy using Mildred as an excuse to snoop around too?" Brenda asked.
"Well, you must admit, this is fun," Scott said.
Scott and Mildred jiggled the handle and worked on the door. Brenda stood in front of the door in judgement and prepared to tell them they were wrong as soon as the door was opened.
"It moved. One more good pull," Scott said.
The door swung open and a body came flying out onto Brenda. She wailed in terror.
Mildred screamed, "It's one of her victims! Gary's in the basement! Gary's in the basement!"
Mildred ran to the basement door.
Brenda expected the body to crush her but it felt rather light. She moved her head to get a look at it and discovered that it was a mannequin of a clown, one of those creepy Halloween clowns with the evil smile and the cheerful clothing. Brenda wailed in terror again wondering why would anyone have this. It was horrifying.
Carol and Jim came running out of the kitchen with all of the commotion and went to Brenda first. She was lying on the floor, swatting at the clown and screaming. Brenda was so mortified that she did not realize all she needed to do was calm down and she could easily get out from under the clown.
Carol grabbed the clown and sat it in a chair nearby.
"Scott! Help me!" screamed Mildred from down the hall, "This door is stuck too."
The train went by but this time everyone was too riled up to notice.
Carol called out to Mildred, “Don’t go down there. It’s not suitable for company.”
Brenda ran to help, “Mildred, stop! We all need to stop and calm down.”
Everyone gathered in front of the basement door. “What’s going on?” Jim asked, “Why is everyone so excited?”
“I’ll tell you why,” Mildred said, “Carol’s husband is tied up in the basement.”
The group became silent.
“Nice job, Mildred,” Scott finally said, “No need to ease into it, just blurt out what you’re thinking to our friend of two years.”
Mildred finally calmed down. In a softer voice she said, “I’m so sorry Carol. I don’t know why I got so crazy. I just needed to solve...I don’t know what I was solving.”
Carol burst out laughing, “My goodness, imagine me as a dangerous kidnapper.”
Everyone started to relax until another crash came from the basement, followed by another moan.
“I knew it,” Mildred said and yanked on the door again.
Carol tried to stop her but she managed to get the door open this time and ran downstairs. Brenda and Scott ran after her. “Mildred, this isn’t right,” Brenda said.
Carol and Jim followed the rest of them downstairs.
It was dark with just weird shadows throughout the room. The moan sounded again, “Did you hear that? He’s here,” Mildred said, “We’re here to help. Where are you?”
Carol put the lights on. The room was filled with boxes and random furniture with knick knacks on them. The floor had a metal vase, a silver metal anniversary plate, and a broken mug on it near the wall. Mildred looked at the items, “Those...those were the bangs and crashes we heard. But how?”
Carol began to explain but the train went by, shaking the wall the items were near and causing a ceramic ballerina figurine to shake and fall off a shelf. “Aw, I liked that one,” Carol said, “After the first bang, I figured I had put that shelf too close to the wall but I didn’t want to leave our party to come fix it. I was just going to deal with it later.”
“Here,” Jim said, “We can move it now.” Jim and Scott moved the shelf closer to the staircase.
“That side of the house always shakes when the train goes by,” Carol said.
“But what about the moaning?” Mildred asked.
“The pipes are old and I put on the heat,” Carol explained.
“Okay, but Brenda was attacked. What about that?” Mildred asked.
“I wasn’t attacked,” Brenda said, “That was a Halloween clown mannequin, which I still think is pretty disturbing. Why do you have that?”
Carol got quiet, wondering how much she wanted to share with her friends. She was happy but not sure how people would see her if they knew why she had a new excitement about life. “True, the clown is from Halloween but it started something new that Gary and I enjoy together which is something we needed badly. When Gary tried to scare me with the clown, his prank turned a different direction and I got excited and had a lot more fun than he anticipated. We discovered that we actually enjoy roleplay and cosplay. We’ve been a lot closer this past month and it’s been great.”
“That’s wonderful Carol,” Brenda said, “We’re all happy that you and Gary are feeling closer to each other,” Brenda turned to the group, “Right?”
Carol saw everyone smile and warm to her as they each agreed with Brenda and said, “Yes.”
“So, now Gary and I have been talking about our future and we want some more adventure. Gary’s business trip is actually a final job interview and it looks like we are going to be moving to San Diego next year,” Carol said.
“The boxes,” Scott exclaimed as if he solved part of the mystery.
“But I thought you loved this house,” Brenda said.
“Well, of course, we’re grateful for what we have but there’s always room for a new adventure,” Carol said.
Another moan came from the pipes. “Wow, I guess the heat really does sound like a man is trapped down here,” Carol said.