Life is good.
Or it was.
No, it still is, it's just not as perfect as it was.
Not since I discovered the man in the basement.
Actually, I didn't even know we had a basement. I'm pretty sure it wasn't there when my wife and I bought our house nine years ago, so that was a shock in and of itself.
Let alone the man living there.
But off and on over the past year I'd heard thumping under the floorboards in the kitchen. At first, I thought it was the water pipes (the house is old and when it gets cold, there is a knocking noise). But this noise was different, more of a thud, thud, thud than a clank or whoosh. And I was the only one who could hear it, another oddity.
It was dusk on All Hallow's Eve when I finally had enough. I was alone. Everyone else must have gone trick or treating without saying goodbye. That wasn't like my wife or our three young children, but I knew they really enjoyed dressing up and getting candy, so I didn't think much of it.
Besides, the thumping had begun again, and after several minutes of trying to ignore it, I got up from my easy chair and book, and went to the kitchen.
Unlike other times, the din seemed to be localized, right in the center of the room. There also seemed an added urgency to it. I don't know how I knew it, but I did.
I knew my wife would be very unhappy when she saw the mess, but I couldn't stand it any longer. Without regard for the weather—it was cold and blustery outside, periodic flashes lighting the sky while rain threatened—I ran to the shed and found the pick axe and the sledgehammer. One way or another, I was going to find out where the infernal noise was coming from.
I made quick work of the flooring. It surprised me. I'm not very handy when it comes to fixing things, but apparently demolition is right up my alley. Halfway through the destruction, I realized there was a rather large empty space where I was digging, and as light shone down into it, the top of stairs.
A dirt cellar of some kind? For wine, perhaps?
When we were first looking at our house, we were told that flooring throughout the seventy-seven year old two-story structure had been redone. Apparently, in the renovation, the old owners had decided to cover up the cellar. Why? Was there something wrong with it?
Maybe it flooded. The water table was particularly high in this area of the country, and maybe the water came up enough one year and ruined the cellar. Instead of digging it back out and fortifying it, they decided to cover it up.
Possible. But as I continued to widen the hole large enough for me to comfortably descend the stairs, everything below seemed intact. I could now see to the bottom where there was a small landing and then a door. I realized that the thumping noise was coming from behind it.
I probably should have been a little anxious as I went down, not knowing what I might find, but instead, I was being fueled by a growing annoyance for the sound that would not abate. What was it? Why wouldn't it stop?
Before I knew it, I'd reached the landing and stood before the door. With one hand holding the oil lamp, I reached out with the other and grasped the rather ornate brass knob. It seemed out of place on such a rather humble looking door. And a hidden, covered up door at that.
Never mind! Open it!
With a twist, there were the creaks of hinges, the door gave way, and I held up the lamp in hopes of lighting the dank dim beyond.
I heard the male voice before I saw its source—a rather curious looking fellow, wrinkled, graying locks, full beard—sitting casually on the corner of a desk that matched him, if not exceeded, in age. I noted immediately that there was no chair, but then my attention returned to the man, as there was precious else to see in the 12 by 12 foot room.
The walls, ceiling and floor were all the same, a hard, off-white colored concrete. That was it. If there was any water damage, I could not see it. Just the old man and the desk.
"I beg your pardon?"
My voice trembled, but not from the unexpected sight of a man, living in the basement of my house, in absolute darkness and spartan accommodations no less, but from the temperature. I could see my breath coming out in wispy trails.
"Surely you've heard my knocking," the man said. "I don't know how long, but I've been at it quite a while."
"Months," I said, nodding. "A whole year."
"You're a stubborn one, I'll grant you that."
"What?" That seemed like a strange statement, coming from a strange man in a heretofore secret underground room.
"To have lasted so long," the man shrugged. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, though."
"I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're talking about," I said. The initial shock of finding him there was wearing off, and the annoyance was returning. At least the thumping had stopped.
"Of course you do," he said, crossing his arms. "Maybe you've forgotten. Maybe you don't want to remember. But you do know. "
"Who are you? What are you doing down here? How long have you been here?" The questions spilled out before I could stop them. I took another look at the room, realizing suddenly what the austerity meant. No food. No water. No means to survive on. The thumping had lasted a year. No one could live for that long without some source of sustenance.
The man smiled, the creases in his face deepening. He must have seen my startled expression, guessed at what I was thinking.
"Come on, now," he said, a hint of laughter in his tone, "You really don't need to do this anymore."
"Do what?" I snapped. I didn't mean to, but this whole thing was rather, well, unsettling. The man in the dark and without any sign of provisions for at least a year in a basement I didn't even know existed until mere minutes ago, and somehow, I was the one with the problem?
He waited for my words of exasperation to stop ringing in the small space. Then he said lowly:
"That the life you've been living is just an illusion, a lie. One you created inside your mind and have been traipsing around in for many months."
I shook my head. "I don't know who you are, or what in the world you're talking about, nor do I know how you got down here or how you managed to survive so long, but why don't you just go. You're free."
For several moments, the man just looked at me, staring. I don't know what I expected from him after my declaration of his freedom, but this wasn't it. Then, a tortured wheezing came from the man and he doubled over. It wasn't until he straightened up, hugging his ribs, that I knew what was happening. He was laughing at me!
"I'm free..." he managed to get out between gasps.
"Of course you are. You should probably be seen by a physician, and the police will probably want to know how you got here, in case a crime was committed."
"You know why I'm here," the man said. The laughter was gone, as quickly as it came, but the sad smile remained.
"I do, do I?" It was my turn to smirk. Whoever this old man was, he was obviously batty from being confined for so long. How he wasn't dead...
"You put me here."
"A year ago," the man said. He got up from the desk, took a step. "After the incident."
"You know." The smile faded, replaced by a grim line. The old man was apparently growing weary of what he obviously felt was some delusion or willful charade on my part. "You couldn't bear what you'd done, so you slowly, inexorably, crafted a new life. And in doing so, you locked me away, down here, covered any trace."
"I did..." I couldn't finish. None of this was making sense. The man needed help. "Just go."
"I can't." He started to fumble in his front pants pocket.
"You won't let me."
"Me?" I gestured towards the open door. "Haven't you heard what I've been saying. I want you to..."
In the palm of the hand that he had been fishing around in his pocket with was a brass key. Old fashioned, it was long and straight with but a tooth or two to turn a lock.
"What's that for?"
"Take it." When I didn't move, he insisted. "Take it." Again I did not move. "Fine." He took the key and plunked it down on top of the desk. Then he moved away from it to the far left corner of the room, where he resumed leaning. "Go ahead."
"I really don't understand..."
"You will," the old man urged. "All you need is in the locked drawer."
"I really don't see..."
I hesitated. This was way beyond the point of absurdity. Rantings of a rather harmless if not somewhat charming madman, hinting at some horrible wrongdoing of mine, so dastardly, so terrifying, that I blocked it out, fabricated a new life and banished him to this basement? And now, a key to a locked drawer was somehow going to clarify it all?
"Go on," the man said, pointing with a folded elbow at the desk. "It's not going to unlock itself."
I shook my head. If he wasn't going to leave, I should. Go back upstairs and call the police. Have them sort it out. That might mean court or some kind of hearing if the man pressed charges, but then it would be his word against mine. And surely my family would back me up.
Which reminded me. How long had they been gone? How long had I been down here? It seemed like hours, but more likely only several minutes had gone by. I hoped they came back soon. They really shouldn't be out there, anyway, the weather being what it was.
"Look, if you open the drawer and take out what's inside, I promise I will leave." Now the old man was sounding impatient. With me. Of all the nerve...
"All right." If he would leave, it would be worth indulging his fairy tale, or whatever this was. Resolutely, I went to the desk, grabbed the key and put it into the lock. Then, I hesitated. What was the point to any of this? Frustration and annoyance kicking in, I flicked the key and hearing a click, I pulled the drawer out.
Inside was a large photo in a fancy frame. A black and white image of my family. Only, it wasn't.
"Go ahead. Take a good look at it."
There I was, along with my wife. Aside from looking a little older, we were pretty much the same. It was everyone in the picture that had me mystified.
"What is this?"
"Your family, of course."
"I don't recognize anyone but my wife and I," I said, shaking my head. And yet, three of them, two women and one man, did look familiar. But the other three, obviously spouses, along with seven children of varying ages crowding in on their parents...
"That's because you're not seeing what was," the man said, "but what was to be."
I shook my head, closed my eyes. The clarity the man promised me did not come. "That's enough."
"I mean, I've had enough of whatever this is you're doing. I don't know you. I don't know what you're trying to do. I just want you gone."
"Then give it up," he said.
"Give what up?" I threw up my hands, almost dropping the image in the process. I managed to hold onto it and placed it gingerly on the desk. As I did, the picture frame was empty, the image of my family that never was, gone.
"The lie your living."
"That's just it, I'm not living a..."
"Look at me." With two quick strides, the man was upon me. I took a step back, but with strong hands he grabbed my arms. "Look into my eyes. See the truth."
I should have struggled, but I didn't. I wanted to, but I couldn't it. Instead, his eyes looked into mine, and suddenly, it was as if I was looking back at myself through his eyes.
"Do you finally see?" he asked, shaking me.
"Yes," I said feebly. Impossibly, I did. Memories, emotions—great rage, unstoppable violence, exhaustion, waking up to blood, so much blood, then being overwhelmed by horror, self loathing and deep, abiding regret—it all flooded in. I felt myself buckling under the weight of it all.
He let me go, and as he took a step back, I fell to my knees, then bowed my head to the floor, covering it up with my arms. How could this be? It couldn't be true, could it? No. Not this. Not this.
"I'm leaving now," the man said.
I tried to raise my hand to stop him—the old, bothersome man who I had really wanted to leave—but I couldn't move, couldn't say anything. There was nothing to say.
I heard the door close and I was swallowed up in darkness. It was better this way, better than living a lie. Better to live out whatever time I had left hidden, even from myself.
That way, I wouldn't have to face the man in the basement ever again.
Because the man in the basement...