Cellar Door by Carmilla Voiez.
While the stairs were dry the ground at the bottom squelched and I felt myself sink a fraction before hitting rough concrete. ‘Euch.’ Why hadn’t I put shoes on?
I felt Carl’s breath in my hair and moved forward to let him descend. ‘It must have flooded,’ he said. He turned on the torch and swept the ceiling with its beam. ‘Can’t see where the water got in though.’
‘May I?’ I asked and took the torch from his shaking hand. ‘You can go back up if you want.’
I felt his hand skim across my shoulder before it fell to his side. ‘And let you face an angry badger on your own? I don’t think so.’
‘You think it’s a badger?’
‘I don’t know, but I guess it could be. Maybe it dug its way in here somehow and can’t find a way back out.’
‘It sounded big.’
‘Badgers are pretty big bastards.’
‘Is it safe?’ I asked.
‘Dunno. Give me the torch back and I’ll go first.’
I clung to the light. ‘No. It’s okay. Let’s just listen for a moment.’
When the air creaked, my mouth gaped between my bulging eyes and hammering chest. ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked, nostrils flaring.
‘Yes,’ Carl replied. ‘Was that what you heard before?’
‘No. It was more of a rattle. I’m glad you heard it too this time. I was starting to worry that I was losing my mind.’
‘Sorry I didn’t believe you … before.’
‘You believed me enough to come down here with me.’
He was silent for a moment. His eyes flicked from left to right as if weighing options. ‘Full disclosure. I had ulterior motives for following you down here.’
‘Oh?’ I looked towards the wooden stairs that led back to the kitchen, wondering whether I would reach them in time. ‘What motives?’
‘Nothing bad. Just thought I’d do the hero thing.’
I laughed awkwardly. ‘Wanted to get me all to yourself?’
He snorted. ‘Hmm, if you want to put it that way.’
I felt tension squeeze my rib cage and had no idea how to reply. ‘Let’s find that badger,’ I said, eventually.
It wasn’t a large space, but there were rows of shelving to look behind. As I moved around I felt colder and colder. My toes felt numb and my shoulders shook, making the torchlight dart about spasmodically. Carl stepped closer and the upper half of my body warmed a little.
‘Want my jumper?’ Carl asked.
‘I’m fine,’ I answered.
‘It came from there.’ I pointed at some shelves with half disintegrated cardboard boxes blocking the wall behind. I told myself to move towards it, but found I was rooted to the spot.
‘Allow me,’ Carl said, prising the torch from my fingers.
The stair light didn’t reach me and the torch was moving further away. I was swallowed by a darkness that didn’t make sense based on the size of the cellar. The torch beam flickered then went out.
‘Damn!’ Carl’s voice sounded distant.
I felt something wet and heavy slide swiftly across my bare foot and screamed. Heading for the light and the stairs I slipped and slid but managed to stay vertical. I reached the bottom tread and stood there trying to penetrate the darkness with my eyes.
‘Carl? Carl, answer me please. This isn’t funny.’
‘Say something or I’m going?’
Still nothing. The silence felt like a great weight I carried on my shoulders. I knew I should go and help him. He might have fallen, bashed his head, but the thought of the slippery monster kept my feet from straying from the relative safety of the wooden stair. I tried to convince myself that Carl was playing a prank. That any minute he’d come towards me laughing at my fear. I waited for the punchline for what felt like an hour but may have only been a minute.
‘Carl?’ There was no strength to my voice any longer. I doubt anyone would have heard me.
The clang of metal hitting metal sent me scuttling up the stairs like a cockroach. In the kitchen my fingers hovered over the bolt, but I couldn’t lock him in there, could I? He’d come with me to help or possibly seduce me, either way he’d faced his fear of the cellar and I couldn’t betray that.
I had two options, look for another torch and head back down, this time wearing shoes and my coat, or wake Yolanda and ask for her help. I delayed choosing and sat on a wooden chair by the cold fireplace, staring at the unlocked door. The door didn’t move. The metal sounds didn’t return, but neither did Carl.
I am too ashamed to admit how long I sat there like that. All that time Carl could have been bleeding to death and I did nothing to save him. I wanted to get Yolanda, but in some deep recess of my psyche I knew the door would open as soon as I stopped watching it and the monsters would get me. I wanted to call her downstairs, but doing so would mean confessing my cowardice, and possibly my responsibility for her brother’s death. She would surely hate me. She could never understand. What I did, seemed at the time to be the lesser of all evils, or so I told myself. I crossed the kitchen and bolted the door then headed upstairs to wake my friend.
‘Yolanda,’ I called and turned on the bedroom light.
The faces receded from the curtains and the light threw shadows over the creases of Yolanda’s blanket. She didn’t stir. I took the opportunity to dress warmly before I patted the crease I assumed covered her shoulder. My fingers pushed the bedding down and I felt only mattress beneath. I pulled back the covers to expose her empty bed. There was a dark crease from head to foot as though some weight had lain there in the night, but no one and nothing slept there now.
I looked out of the window, just in case Yolanda was outside, but it was too dark to see anything and dawn was still hours away. I couldn’t catch my breath. My head felt too light and my body too heavy. What the fuck was I supposed to do now? I sat on the edge of my bed and tried to calm down. Carl was locked in the cellar. We’d gone in there because I’d heard a noise. I’d assumed Yolanda was asleep, no I didn’t assume, I’d heard her snore, or something. I’d heard something. But Yolanda wasn’t here now. Where was she?
I closed my eyes and concentrated on taking deeper, slower breaths. I heard laughter, but it could have been my imagination. Was Yolanda in on it too? Were they both playing a trick on me? No. That was too cruel and Yolanda was my friend, my only friend. I was the butt of everyone else’s jokes and Yolanda had taken me under her wing, shown me I was someone worth knowing. Unless that was a lie, a plot, to get me here and play this trick on me. It was elaborate, it felt unlikely, but it was possible, and what other solution was there to the absence of both my friends? If Yolanda had been in the cellar she might have made those noises. Then it was only a matter of getting me down there. Getting something, a dead fish maybe, to touch my foot and they would see the real me, the coward, the frightened child. Oh what fun! What a scream! They were probably filming it too. I’d be the star of YouTube. Running away, sobbing, shaking. Why else would she have asked me here?
I shook my head, but the thoughts wouldn’t be deterred. They hadn’t planned on my locking them in there though. Their trick had backfired. If I let them out would they laugh at me or apologise? If I let them out …