Until very, very recently, I lived in my family’s old house, on the outskirts a small town. I’d been living all on my own for a while, ever since my mum died. Her death, while very saddening, wasn’t really surprising; she was 86, after all, and not exactly the healthiest woman. I found her one morning, at the base of the staircase, with a very tortured look on her face, and already stone cold. Neither me nor the emergency workers that took her away could think of an explanation for why she was even down there, as her bedroom was on the second floor, but I chalked it up to her age at the time. She had been going a little senile, after all, and may have just been wandering around the house without knowing where she was or where she was going. If only I had known then what I know now…
With mother gone, I was now all alone in a house far too big for just one person. Back in the early 18th century, five families used to live here at once, and now it was just me. Three stories, a garden I had no interest in tending to, and an oppressive weight of emptiness. I would have moved out right then and there, but I was never great at managing my money, and the house was not in good enough shape to just sell outright. So, for the next year or so, I made attempts to clean the place up and get it off my hands. It didn’t go so great. See, I work… worked as a computer for a living, I hadn’t the first idea on how to renovate a home, I was barely able to move a shelf, so my progress was almost non-existent to begin with. And what certainly didn’t help was my increasingly poor sleep.
At first, I thought it was just house noises. There were creaks and groans, and sometimes something that could maybe have been very soft footsteps, but whenever I went to check, nothing was there, and nothing was any different from how I left it. I figured I was just getting a little stir crazy. I even went so far as to invite people over, something I’m not usually comfortable doing. I’m not good with parties. And, you know, it did help. After a night of getting to socialize and have a few drinks, I found I slept a lot better, without being woken up by… well, nothing, in the middle of the night. So, whenever I heard something in the night, I told myself it was all in my mind.
However, telling myself that didn’t stop that uncomfortable, oppressive feeling from growing stronger. That sensation of not being safe in my own home. I was chastising myself whenever I felt a cold chill go down my spine in the evenings, telling myself that I was acting like I was four years old again, scared of a shadow on the wall, that there was no reason to be this nervous. But, obviously, that didn’t make it go away. As time went on, I started genuinely losing sleep, going to work exhausted, and coming home with a heavy rock in the pit of my stomach. One day, after almost getting into a car crash because my thoughts were occupied with worry and seemingly irrational fear and my brain thought that driving the tin death can wasn’t worth focusing on, I decided that it couldn’t go on like this. I took a week off work, and I was going to use that time to finally buckle down, renovate the house, and, with any luck, find the source of my constant trepidation. Or, failing that, at least get it into a sell-able state, so I could at least run away from the problem.
Since I’m not exactly handy, as I mentioned before, I decided to start by clearing out the cellar, since anything that ended up down there over the years would not be missed if I broke it. They were almost entirely old, broken things stacked on cheap shelves and coated in spiderwebs, and so they went directly into the trash. It was exhausting labour, but I was fine with that, as it meant I would have an easier time going to sleep. During my many trips from the cellar to the trash cans outside, occasionally swatting an overeager spider off my clothes, something caught my attention. Our cellar was made up of several small rooms, one of which contained the central heating, as well as a boiler. We put the boiler in there because this room had a small sewer grate surrounded by a slight decline in the floor, which meant that if the boiler ever broke and spilled water all around it (which had happened on multiple occasions), that water would eventually drain away. My eyes only fell on the grate accidentally, but when they did, I suddenly felt my heart leap up in my throat, and I dropped the stack of broken flowerpots I was carrying. After I finished cursing myself and the universe, heart racing, I turned my attention back to the grate. I hesitantly went and took a closer look. I really can’t tell you what I thought I saw; a flicker of movement, maybe? A slight glint of light? I don’t know, but my subconscious mind recognized something there, something my conscious mind didn’t understand. Investigating it now, I couldn’t see anything unusual. It stank pretty badly up close, but that was to be expected. Shining my flashlight into the darkness unveiled nothing of interest, either, just old stone bricks and the water’s surface some ways down. I think I sat there staring down that hole for a solid minute before finally convincing my subconscious brain that I only imagined that face it thought it saw. I closed the door and got back to my work, cleaning up all the pieces of flowerpot, now with a constant sense of unease creeping down my back.
That night, my back ached, my arms were sore, and I was dying to finally crawl into bed. I took a hot bath and had a rich dinner, and when my head hit the pillow, I was ready to go out like a light almost immediately. I rolled around once and settled in comfortably, closed my eyes and… waited. Waited for sleep to come. An hour passed, then two, and still no sleep in sight. I cursed myself; it was like I was a child again, thinking about scary monsters creeping around my room and making myself more and more petrified with fear. Although I was mad at myself for it, I still rolled over, reached for my phonograph on the night stand where it peacefully sat, and put on something relaxing to drown out the silence. I would almost definitely be mad at myself for it in the morning, as this strategy always led to subpar sleep, but right then, the choice was between subpar sleep or no sleep at all.
I settled on recordings of comedy plays I had seen so many times that I could quote them from memory; something so familiar it would be easier to blend out and go to sleep. As I put the phonograph back on the night stand to do its thing, my heart once more skipped a beat; that time, it not only sounded like footsteps, it felt like footsteps too. That incredibly minor vibration passing through the walls and floor, in sync with the muffled, silent thunks of feet. I’m not proud to admit it, but I was petrified in fear. Instinctively, I scooted back to the furthest corner of the bed, as far away from the door as possible. After the almost two minutes it took for my panicked breaths to settle, I was once more angry at myself for my reaction. Maybe mum was right, maybe I should have gotten a nice wife and kids by now after all, so then I wouldn’t have to act like a kid myself anymore. I got out of bed, my legs shakier and my hands clammier than I would have liked, grabbed a candelabra for light, and went to investigate. Maybe then my stupid brain would finally shut up and turn itself off.
First I checked the kitchen, and I grabbed my largest kitchen knife off the rack, just to be careful. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, although I cursed myself for once again not finishing my bundle of bananas before they turned brown and gross. Then I checked the living room, bathroom, and my father’s old, abandoned office. My next stop were my mother’s old bedroom and bathroom. I tried not to pay attention to the fact that I was checking literally everywhere else before going down the stairs to the cellar. But as every other room proved to be empty and just as I left it, gathering cobwebs, a thick layer of dust, and a thicker layer of sadness, I eventually had to bite the bullet and creep down the stairs.
An involuntary shudder went through me every time my feet hit one of the stone steps too loudly, creating a very audible fwap that would stand to alert any potential threat to my presence. My rational mind tried telling my instincts that there was nothing to freak out about, but it didn’t help. When I finally reached the bottom of the stairs – those fourteen steps felt like a lot more than just fourteen – my hand hovered over the matchbox hesitantly. My brain couldn’t decide whether the fear of the unknown monsters lurking in the dark was worse than the fear of the intense shock and panic that would definitely ensue as soon as the dim, ancient lamp flickered to life and illuminated the lurking horrors. After a few long seconds of internal chastising, I forced my hand downwards, the warm yellow flame came to life, revealing… well, nothing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Just dusty old shelves, slightly less overflowing than they had been a day before, a few broken pieces of furniture, and an old, rusty bike. The only sign of life was a very fat spider sitting in a thick web in the far upper corner of the room. Still, I took the time to check inside the ancient, mouldering cupboard, ignoring the fact that nothing larger than a six year old could possibly fit inside, then peered into the tiny potential hidey-holes behind the other junk. Anything to delay having to check the wash room. Sadly, to my utter lack of surprise, there was nothing to be found no matter how deeply I peered into the dusty corners. The only things staring back were mouse turds and dust. I made a mental note to get some mouse traps later in the week while steeling myself for what I had to do next.
The old door to the wash room wasn’t properly set into the frame like, well, a proper door; there was a gap of almost a centimetre between the edge of the door and the surrounding wall, allowing a weirdly potent stench to seep through unhindered. Also, any sound inside should have been able to reach my ears easily, yet there was nothing to be heard. One half of my brain was trying to tell me that that’s a good sign, while the other was busy thinking about a spider, sitting silently in the centre of its web, ready to strike. My hand was clammy and shaking as I wrapped my fingers around the door handle. The old wood creaked slightly as I threw the door open with one quick, jerking motion.
My whole body deflated and a big sigh of relief escaped my lungs when the light hit the grate, revealing it to be exactly how it was, exactly where it should be. The entire room seemed just as I last left it. I stepped inside, and I felt my legs almost give out under me. It seemed the building panic and anxiety had done a number on them. Since I was already plummeting towards the ground, I caught myself and transitioned into kneeling next to the grate. Despite all my weird fixation on the stupid thing, I hadn’t yet examined it closely. The first thing I noticed was that weird stench again. It was horrible. And not just the usual sewer stink kind of horrible, this smell was like nothing I’d ever smelled before, and it immediately made me wretch so badly, I almost threw up right down the grate. The closest thing I could think of is… Imagine the smell of liquorice, except a hundred times more intense, and the liquorice is rotting. There was a strong, sickly note of sweetness mixed in with the usual sewer stink, and it made it so much worse. I took a few deep, steady breaths to suppress the nausea, but it didn’t help as much as I would have liked. My stomach was still in almost painful turmoil, and my eyes were watering. Very slowly and carefully, with my shirt pulled over my mouth, I leaned over the grate to examine it more closely. At first, it looked normal – just an old, rusty grate, rectangular and with ample gaps to let water flow through. I experimentally rubbed my finger along one of the grates, and little crumbs of rust came off – this thing really wasn’t in the best shape anymore. I felt it creaking and moving under my touch, and that’s when I noticed that the whole grate was moving. It looked like the whole thing broke out of the surrounding floor quite some time ago, and was only loosely sitting on top of the hole. I tried lifting it, and it came off without any resistance. There was now an open, wet hole in my cellar, just barely large enough to be a tripping hazard. It was a good thing I never stepped on this grate before while crossing the room to get to the washing machine, the twisted ankle would have been bad enough even without all the thick rust getting into any scratches and giving me blood poisoning. I put the rusty grate to the side and made a mental note to get this fixed as soon as I could figure out who I’d have to call to fix it. Then, I looked back down at the hole, and my heart froze in my chest.