The Basement

The trip down is always tricky in the dark.  Have you ever had something to do, some minor task, that you keep forgetting to do?  For me this list is long.  In this particular case, it was changing the lightbulb in the ceiling lamp that hangs in my basement.  This is the only light down there, now that it’s no longer my father’s workshop or the family game room from a long-ago childhood.

The stairs are in good shape, and for the first part of the trip down, there are walls on both sides.  But for the second part of the trip down, there is no wall or banister on the left side to keep you from falling off the stairs to the floor below.  Also, there are no windows to let even the smallest amount of light into the place.

Every time I go down there, I remember that I need to take a new lightbulb with me.  Not before I go down, but when I am stupidly standing at the top of the stairs, flipping the switch to let there be light.  At that point, I am already committed to going downstairs, and I’m much too lazy to turn around and go get a new lightbulb from my supply in the garage.

So I go down in the dark.  I curse the cell phone in part for this problem.  I carry mine with me wherever I go.  It’s my second right hand, my second brain.  My cell phone gives off a decent amount of light, although it’s no substitute for the overhead lamp.  Still, for someone plagued by laziness, my cell does nothing to encourage me to think harder about remembering to get a new blub to take with me.  Why bother to waste brain cells remembering that when there’s always a light source at hand, albeit only a so-so one.

With this staircase, there are ten steps down to a landing, then a 180-degree turn, and fourteen more steps down to the basement floor.  When you make that turn and leave the landing, you lose all light from the floor above.  At that point, I lean against the wall on the right as I make my way down.  My back slides lightly over the surface to help assure me that I’m not in danger of plunging over the left side to my death.

As I say, I always carry my phone with me, wherever I go.  So, of course, the battery will run low every once in a while.  It’s never actually died on me, however, at least not until last night.  

The moment I came to the landing, disparaging myself for not having brought a new bulb with me for the umpteenth time, my phone died.  I let out an exasperated expletive, then stopped to consider my next move.  Should I go back up and get the new bulb, or should I make the turn, lose the light from above, and head down to the bottom?

Again, laziness won the moment with some help from that little voice in my head telling me that I knew the basement like the back of my hand.  I could, if needed, find my way to what I needed down there in my sleep since I knew its exact location.

Like a fool, then, I made the trip down.  When I reached the bottom, the first thing I did was double-check that I’d indeed made it to the bottom bottom.  I hate thinking that I’ve reached the bottom of some stairway only to find out that there’s one more step.  That next step is a swoop that could easily lead to a broken ankle or even a fall to the floor.

Having determined that I was indeed at the bottom, I made a left turn and moved off toward the far wall.  I’ve never counted how many steps it is to that wall.  Sometime I should, I suppose.  To help with moments like this.  I’ve probably never done it due to the same lethargy that keeps me from retrieving a new bulb when I’m already standing at the top of the basement stairs flipping the switch that gives me no light.

It’s funny how I don’t remember I’ve forgotten the new bulb until I physically flip the switch and behold the darkness.  Why don’t I think of it as my hand touches the switch?  Or even when I open the door to go down.  That’s another mystery.

I walked slowly to the far wall, even though I know there is nothing in the way to impede my progress.  The chairs and tables have long since been tossed or are stacked out of the way against the walls.

Nearing the wall, I held my hand out and felt for the shelves that run around the perimeter of the basement.  I made contact, then knelt to reach for the bottom shelf.

There was a sound.  I heard it.  It was like a sigh or maybe a very soft cry.  I stopped moving and listened.  Nothing.  Only silence.

I moved my hand slowly to the left.  The sound came again.  I smiled.  It was like a bad movie.  I said, expecting I don’t know what, “Hello?  Is someone there?”  If I were in some B-grade horror movie, this is what I would ask, I thought.  I smiled again.  

Straining, I listened.  Nothing.  Just as I was about to move my hand, the sound came again.  Maybe a small squeak more than a sigh.  There are no mouse or rat traps in the basement, so I knew it couldn’t be a dying rodent.  Maybe, I thought, this is a sign that I need to buy some traps.

Then the soft, soft squeak again.  I turned to the left, that being the direction from which the sound seemed to have come.  Reaching tentatively along the shelf, I tried to feel for what the sound might be.

If I indeed were in a horror film, this action might have resulted in my losing a finger or my whole hand to some fiendish elf or some such.  I chuckled softly.

The seconds ticked off.  I could hear them pass in my ear as the blood pushed through my veins.

Then there it was once more.  I’d reached as far as I could.  I rose and took a few steps to the left, began feeling along the shelf that stood at this height.  This would be paper goods such as napkins, paper towels, and toilet tissue.  Those are what I felt.

The sound came again.  It was lower down and still more to the left.  I slid over, knelt again, and ran my hand slowly along the bottom shelf.  These were a variety of canned goods here, soups and vegetables and such.

I stopped and waited.  I could hear only my breathing.

At that moment a cramp seized my left calf, and I jerked back, sitting down hard on the cold concrete.  I cursed aloud, then pushed myself back so that my legs extended out before me, trying to stretch out the pain.

And that’s when I felt the first sting.  It was like a small bite.  Maybe a young centipede? I thought.

I pulled my left leg toward me and felt for the spot.  I touched liquid, put my finger to my lips, and tasted blood.  Somehow I’d managed to cut myself.

Then I heard the sigh again.  Now there was a sting on my right ankle.  I pushed myself back away from the wall, butt off the floor, shuffling on my hands.  Stopping, I reached for the spot of the second sting, felt blood again.

I tried to stand, but I couldn’t get up.  My feet had gone numb.  I wondered if I’d been bitten by some creature whose venom was now coursing through my veins.

I boosted my butt again, and as best I could, I used my hands to propel me back and toward the stairs, my legs useless at this point.  But I’d miscalculated the direction and slammed into another shelving unit along the wall further down. Objects, I couldn’t tell what, fell on me, and something heavy landed on my right shoulder and chest area immobilizing me.  I felt another sting, this time by my crotch.  The pain was more severe, and I cried out.

Struggling, I tried to free myself from the weight on me, but I couldn’t do it.  It felt more like bricks now.

I lay in the dark, breathing hard, noticed that the whole lower half of my body had gone numb.  Closing my eyes, I tried to picture what position I might be lying in, where I was in the basement, and how best to try to get myself over to and up the stairs.

While my mind whirled around with these questions, I heard the small sigh again and brushed wildly at the area around my right ear.  It was as if whatever was making the sound was standing right next to my ear.

I opened my eyes.  There was light.  Lots of it.  It took me a moment to realize I was lying on my couch looking up into a lamp.  I could see the TV playing softly across the room.

“Geez,” I thought, “what the hell kind of dream was that?”

I tried to sit up and was pleasantly surprised to find I could do so without difficulty.  Looking at my hands, I expected to see dried blood.  There was none.  I reached for my ankles, turned them up into the light.  There were no cuts or bite marks.

I stood, went out to the garage, and grabbed a light bulb.  Heading over to the basement stairs, I opened the door and reached for my cell phone.  It wasn’t in my pants pocket.  I walked back to the living room and looked for it, but my search turned up nothing.

The hell with it, I thought.  I knew where the overhead lamp was, could find it in my sleep.  I made sure the switch was in the on position.  When I took the last step, I made sure it was the last one, then walked carefully straight ahead.  Reaching up, I snagged the hanging lamp and, with the new bulb held between my lips, unscrewed the dead one.  As I completed screwing the new one in, the light came on.

I looked around the room.  No mess, no disorder.  Nothing.  I headed over to the area where I imagined all my frantic activity had taken place, and the shelves were in perfect order.

Then I noticed something on the floor in front of the shelves.  I walked over and stooped down.  It was my cell phone.  The screen was cracked.

As I stood there wondering about this, my eyes wandered to a dark spot on the floor off to the left.  I walked over and knelt to get a better look.  Running my finger through it, I could feel that it was sticky.

Standing, I went back to be underneath the lamp.  I looked at my finger.  It was blood.

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