Those first few weeks had been the best. Free from work and my bank account stable, I was left with absolutely nothing to do but relax. I fixed my faucet, reread my favorite books, got around to starting a garden, and finally caught up on my sleep- those dark circles beneath my eyes fading at last. It wasn't until about the third week that I realized the downside to all of this free time: I began to get bored.
Yeah, yeah. I know boredom is “good for the soul” and whatnot, but I can accurately say that those sayings are only true when you're bored for maybe a few hours. I, however, had been bored for a solid week. It was a Friday, and I had been spending my morning staring at my seedlings, playing Flappy Bird, and wandering the halls of my house.
I had an unusually large house for a single woman who'd only just graduated from college. It was a two-story, Victorian-style house I'd inherited from my grandmother. Why she chose to leave it to me and not my five siblings, I'll never know. But at the moment I was glad for the vast variety of rooms I now found myself exploring.
My grandmother had been an odd woman. One of those sentimental types who hoarded everything. My family has been all too glad to leave her junk for me to stare at when we'd come to clean it out. Most of it was antique, the rest being little things people had given her over the years. I'd sorted most of it when I first moved in, something I regretted now that I had nothing else to do. I had explored every inch of the upstairs, so I found myself in the basement among the cardboard boxes I had yet to unpack.
THUMP. I moved a stack of boxes, knocking a rusty pan off of a shelf. I looked at the boxes, my bored mind putting together a plan for something I hadn't done since I was twelve. I knew my dad was coming over soon, but I had time to kill so I set about with my idea. Within minutes I had stacked more boxes and situated them in place. An hour later I stepped back and surveyed my box fort with pride. Beautiful. My gaze drifted away from my fortress and towards the spaces around me I hadn't seen before I'd moved the boxes.
This was a well-built basement, I noted. The walls were solid stone, not a hint of cracking in them. On the wall to my left, I was surprised to find a torch sconce. How old was this house?! I walked over to it, my interest piqued. It was real, hand-formed, iron. My hand reached up and touched it. It was covered in dust that easily came off on my fingers. Without thinking, I wrapped my hand around the base and pulled. That's what they did in movies, right?
And then the wall would- holy cannoli. I fell back as the wall rumbled and began sliding open. A blast of musty, cool, air hit me in the face, knocking the wind out of my chest.
“What the-” I coughed, forcing my lungs to work again. There was a freaking passageway in my basement! How-? What even-? I stared, slack-jawed, at the opening. The light from the flickering light bulb behind me illuminated only a few feet of the tunnel before fading out into pitch black. My head spun with questions.
What was I supposed to do? Is there some sort of authority you’re supposed to call when you find a freaking passageway? Maybe I should wait for my dad. He would know about a whole freaking tunnel in his mother’s old house, right?! No, I slapped my hand to my forehead, I’d nearly forgotten. He’d been that child. The one who had left the house early and never looked back. I’d only ever gotten to know my grandparents because my mother had insisted. Besides, the door might close by then. What if it only works once?
I looked around the basement as if the dusty boxes or my fort could help. My eyes landed on a rusted flashlight. Bingo. I grabbed it and jabbed the button. Nothing happened. Annoyed, I looked around for batteries. After a moment I remembered a package of Double-A’s I’d seen upstairs.
In a matter of seconds, I had the flashlight working. A weak beam of light flitted to life. I took a deep breath. It wasn't like I had anything else to do. Still… I could feel the tunnel luring me in. I bit my lip. What else was I gonna do? Take a nap in my box fort? Before I could change my mind I delved into the darkness.
Almost immediately, I wanted out. I turned and ran smack into the wall. The stupid thing had closed! I kicked it and fell to the ground, my big toe smarting. Heart hammering, I swore and felt for the wall again. Using it to stand up I found the flashlight and picked it up. In its dim light, I stared down the long tunnel. Great. No place to go but further in. A faint, dusty breeze, tickled my face. My stomach churned. There had to be a backdoor or something, right? Or else, where would that air be coming from? I swallowed the anxiety climbing up my throat, pointed my light on the floor and started walking.
I should’ve worn shoes. Something about being shoeless made me feel vulnerable— almost naked. Besides, the floor was rough and uneven, made of weathered stones. Little pebbles and rocks made me wince as I turned a corner. How long was this thing? The breeze started up again, making me shiver. I turned another corner and nearly ran into a door. I scowled at it. They really should have a sign or something. I looked around. This must be the end of a tunnel. I looked at the door again. It was one of the wooden doors with iron bars binding the wood together. It looked like it had come out of one of those old movies. It even had a metal ring for a handle!
Switching the light to my other hand, I gave the door a gentle push. Nothing. I pushed it again, this time harder. It budged, it’s rusty hinges creaking. Setting the flashlight on the ground I placed both hands on the door and pushed as hard as I could. BANG! I jumped a little as the door sprang open, breaking the silence. I picked up my flashlight again. My skin prickled with unease as I stepped into the dark room. My small beam of light didn’t help much. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I realized I couldn’t tell how big the room was. Maybe there was a light switch.
I found the wall with my hand and felt along its surface for anything that could be a switch. Nothing, nothing, noth- There! My hand hit a box. I flipped the switch inside. At first, nothing happened. I frowned. Then, a low crackling sound filled the room. A moment later, lights bolted to the ceiling flickered to life allowing me to see the room. I blinked and squinted. Ugh. It wasn’t a room! Well technically, it was, but it was more like a hall- a wider version of the tunnel behind me with doors every few feet on either side.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. THUMP! I swallowed hard. Where was that coming from?! I padded, softly, over to the first door. A rusty ring of keys hung on the wall beside it. I grabbed them and unlocked the first door. A buzzing noise overwhelmed me as the door swung open. A large machine rumbled and clinked in the corner. A generator. I breathed a sigh of relief and backed out of the room again.
I counted the keys on the ring— sixteen. I looked around. There were only ten doors. What could the other five keys go to? My curiosity overtook my need to find an exit. I unlocked the second door and peeked in. Crates. And blankets. This was a bunker. A memory flitted to mind, of the one time my father had told us stories of his parents.
They had lived through World War II. My grandfather had fought in the war and come back with only three missing fingers. My dad had been born only a year after they had bought the house I now lived in. I had one aunt who, like my dad, had left the house as soon as she could. If I remembered correctly, they both claimed it had something to do with my grandfather’s disappearance. Sketchy, right? They would never tell me the details, only that after he disappeared their family was never the same.
My grandmother became paranoid and anxious. My aunt said Nanna used to wake up in the dead of the night and come to check on my father and her as if she was worried they’d leave too. My dad had had a hard time coming to terms with it, I remembered. He’d told me that my grandfather had been a loyal man. Loyal to the bone, he’d said. Loyal, hard-working, and always present. Until that day of course. I frowned and shut the door again, trying to remember.
It had always been weird to hear those stories. The Nanna I’d known had been a sweet lady who made cookies and had a huge garden. She’d been worrisome, sure, but I couldn’t imagine her as paranoid. I opened the third door. Had this been here before my grandparents moved in? Or had Nanna constructed it after she grew paranoid? Either way, it was old. Nanna had been 99 when she’d died and they’d bought the house when she was in her twenties probably… that’d make it at least 75 years old, right? The third room had barrels and sacks of what I guess used to be grain.
I moved on to the fourth. Three cots, one slightly bigger than the others. Three, one for my grandparents, the other two for my dad and aunt. The fifth had more crates, as did the sixth. The seventh room was more interesting. It had a small creek. Water ran through a small grate where the floor met the wall and along a furrow in the ground to a second grate. This room was cooler. I frowned. Could this be where the breeze was coming from? I hoped not. There had to be a back door. An emergency exit or something. I sighed and shut the door.
Door number eight answered my question about five out of six of the extra keys. It had five trunks, each with a rusty lock. I spent a good thirty minutes opening them. The contents were basic. One had dishes, another had weathered folders and albums which I assumed must hold pictures and important documents.
The other three had clothes: girls, boys, and women. That answered the when-it-was-built question. Only my grandfather’s clothes were missing. I shut the trunks. Never before had I wanted to know about my family history so badly. I moved on to the ninth door, medical supplies. Finally, I got to the tenth. Surprisingly, it was empty.
I cocked my head and entered. That’s weird. All of the rooms so far had been fully stocked. Why would there be an empty room? I scanned the room. Just as I turned to leave something caught my eye.
I glanced at the keys. There were two more. Stomach twisting, I padded over to the keyhole and tried the first key. It slid in easily. I hesitated. Why was there a hidden keyhole anyway? Something about it made me shiver. I started to pull the key out but stopped. What if this was the exit? I pushed the key in and turned it. There was a click! And the wall began to rumble just like the opening in my basement. I stepped back and watched it open.
“What could possibly be in here-” I began to murmur to myself. My hand flew to my mouth and I stumbled away from the door. The acrid smell of decay and rot stung my nostrils. I stared in horror at the remains of a corpse.
Turning, I vomited right where I stood.
The flesh was shrunken and rotting. It hung by its arms— chained to the wall. I found it hard to breathe. What the ˆheck? I couldn’t look away. A stained shirt and pants hung on it, both loose on the dried and shriveled flesh. It almost looked like— Before I could stop myself my gaze flew to the hands. Seven withered fingers total. Bile rose in the back of my throat.
This was my grandfather.
Panic rising, I ran out of the room. My hands shook violently as I stuffed the last key in the last door. A wave of relief washed over me as it opened to a staircase. An exit. Thank God. I raced up them, the burning in my legs a welcome pain compared to the horrible terror building up inside. At the top I burst through the door, not caring what was on the other side.
I blinked in the blinding sunlight. I was outside. I fell to the ground, breathing hard. My head spun, my heart hammering. Who did that to him?! Did my family know? Why did he get left there? How long had he been there-
“Honey.” A familiar voice interrupted my spiraling thoughts. I jumped, looking around for the first time.
I was at the very edge of my backyard. Was the tunnel really that close? A man stood in front of me— My dad. I looked up at him.
“D-d-daddy, your— Daddy, your dad—” I pointed weakly at the door I’d just come out of, feeling sick. His expression hardened. I shuddered involuntarily. His arms appeared, helping me up. My legs trembled. He led me over to my back porch and sat with me on the couch.
“What’d you see, honey?” Something about his voice was off. He studied me. I choked on my words. Taking a deep breath I met his gaze.
“My grandfather. His— His body, it’s down there.” I pointed again at the door. My father sighed. Something screamed at me in my mind— a warning. I wasn’t in danger why was—
“I’m sorry, honey.” He pulled out his handgun. I stared at it, my body numb, as he pointed it at my chest. “Secrets must be kept,” He whispered.
I slid from his arms to the ground. My vision tunneled. I tried to talk, to call out to him, but I choked on the blood climbing up my throat. I stared at the porch fan, gurgling as the world went black.
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Wow. You write beautifully
Oh MAN, I was pulled into this story from the start because your narration is so engaging, but I did not see this ending coming!! So cool how you built up the tension and then ended it with that shocking reveal and the murder. Really great job Esther!
Whoa!!! This is creepy and dark and great!! The poor girl! The mystery just keeps building and building and I kept expecting something else but then there it is and wow! This is one that could go on and become and even larger story. I'd love to hear what happened in depth and why.
Nice story. It was haunting.