By Dan Dillard
Could've been imagination, but I’d swear on the Bible he was there.
It was a simple exploration… I’m not even sure why I went down there in the first place. Those green metal doors called to me the way a tree begs a ten-year-old boy to be climbed. I couldn’t help it. I reached down and grabbed one door and pulled it up. An old-school root cellar, I thought.
In a puff of dust and cobwebs, a staircase was revealed. The steps were old concrete, nibbled at the edges, and crawling with life in the bright sunlight—the creepiest of crawlies searching for a shadow. Roaches and cave crickets seemed startled to see me, as if the doors hadn’t been opened in quite some time. At the bottom, maybe ten feet down, was a single wooden door, its luaun face warped by seeping moisture.
I exhaled, hearing my breath shake as I took the first step, crickets jumping to the walls and crawling in their mechanical way. Three steps down, I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. Then one jumped on me—a big one. I slapped at it and let out a squeal like an infant pig. Thankfully, alone, no one heard it. Six steps down, I met the overhang above the door. Also masonry, underneath it was covered with dead exoskeletons tangled in spider webs. I wanted to scrape them away for fear of something dropping on my head while I passed beneath, but had nothing but my bare hands.
The brass doorknob felt icy cold in my hand and I twisted it, opening the door into a dingy basement, full of old cardboard boxes. The walls were cinder block and the floor poured concrete—recent construction that didn’t match the age of the building. The only sound was the fan from the air conditioning unit in the building above my head and the occasional drip of water, somewhere in the back of this manmade cavern. On my right, was a light switch that I flipped. Relief filled my body as the room flooded with light from a single incandescent bulb. I could see an opening in the back, beyond another stack of cardboard and crates, it led to another room.
Something shuffled as I approached the corner. It’s likely a raccoon taking refuge in the much cooler cellar, I thought. I picked up a two foot long section of lumber that leaned against the wall and held it up like a bat, resting on my shoulder. The shuffle noise happened again. Careful steps took me around the corner, finding an old refrigerator. The door was mottled with freckles of rust and the long chrome handle begged me to open. As I reached for the handle, I heard the noise again, then a squeaking sound like a wet finger over rubber.
“Hello?” I said.
The word was weak because there was no desire for an answer. I removed my hand from the refrigerator handle and took another step toward the darkness. I could just make out a brick archway in the wall, older masonry work, from the original build. Another light bulb was over head, so I reached for it, finding a pull chain and yanking to illuminate the room. I was staring at a wall that had crumbled. Brick pillars from the turn of last century held up the ceiling above me, but the wall in between had fallen into raw ground. There was litter inside and a raggedy old blanket, the camp of a homeless person, perhaps.
When the shuffling sound happened, it was to my left, beyond the archway. I turned and stepped through the opening, immediately regretting my decision. There was no raccoon. Instead, there were seven bodies, each decapitated, propped in a sitting position against the wall. They sat in a pool of water, runoff from the ground above, a large sump area. Blood soaked the collars and fronts of their shirts. Some were fresh, others black and wrinkled with rotten age.
I gasped, clutching my mouth. Then the shuffling sound came again. A man stepped from the dark corner, the one I had yet to look at. He sniffed the air.
“Welcome,” he said.
Then he blew up a pink balloon and tied it off. His skin was unnaturally pale, his eyes glazed over in a silvery blue, blinded from years of darkness. His red lips, chapped and bleeding, gave him a clownish appearance, as did the wild wisps of hair that encircled his head. He was grimy, and chewed on an unlit cigar. A hobo with a sick hobby.
He took a marker from his pocket and drew a rudimentary smiley face on the balloon. Then he approached the first of the bodies and pinned it in place of the head. It smiled in gruesome comic fashion, staring at me. He blew up another and the marker squeaked as he gave it the same face, practiced an unknown number of times. I saw bits of rubber on the shoulders, and floating in the water around their legs, other faces he had drawn.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “I’ll call you Seventeen. Don’t rightly remember how many have actually come down here.”
I couldn’t move, transfixed by his odd routine. The man scratched at his stubble and rubbed his balding head. He made another face and pinned it in place. He took out his cigar and tapped non-existent ash from its unlit end.
“But she will be happy to have you.”
“Who?” I heard myself ask.
“The queen,” he said.
I felt my skin crawl, starting with my shoulders and up over my scalp in a wave. Gooseflesh covered my arms and legs. He made another face, finishing six of the seven. I turned to get away, finally finding myself in all the weirdness, but the exit was blocked. Thousands of the jumpy crickets, spiders, and cockroaches covered the floor, the walls; they were caked on the archway, bubbling like boiling liquid. When the fan upstairs cut off, I heard their plastic bodies scraping against one another.
“They’re hungry, you see,” said the hobo. “But the queen, she eats first.”
He dragged the body without the head to the opening he had walked from. I heard the shuffling sound again, and then I saw it. Just a glimpse of it, a huge cricket, the size of a bear reaching its front legs out and gripping the decomposed body only to drag it into the darkness.
“They have to age and taking the heads off helps. I keep them in the fridge,” he said. “But I need someone to talk to, Seventeen. So I put the heads back on. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.”
The sea of insects closed in, crawling on my feet, then up my legs, enveloping me in their swarm. Hundreds of bites stung my extremities, filling me with venom. They held me firm, so I couldn’t move. I couldn’t scream. I pictured myself screaming, but no sound came through my paralysis. I could see, though. I saw that man take a hacksaw off a single hook on the wall and I felt it drag a jagged gash across my neck. Not imagination.
For the last moments of my life, I watched my body propped against the wall, next to the others, and I saw myself smile from a pink balloon.