Cellar Door, by Carmilla Voiez (part 4).
It was dark when I woke. My body shuddered with cold and my mouth felt dry. I tried to stand but my body wobbled so fiercely I decided to crawl to the kitchen to get myself a drink. Sweat dripped off my nose. The floor was closer than I thought and scraped the skin from my hands and knees each time I misjudged the distance and tried to slam my limbs through the floorboards. Somehow I reached Carl’s door and knelt up to open it. I had to shuffle to get through the narrow crack I’d managed to open. The kitchen was full of dense fog. It pressed against my mouth and nostrils. I felt its pressure against my eyeballs and eardrums. My brain writhed like a bed of snakes and the fierce noise of hissing was everywhere. I shook until my limbs could no longer support me and landed heavily on my belly, forcing the air from my lungs with an even louder hiss. Between the table legs I saw the cellar door, wide open and darkness beyond.
My thirst felt like broken glass in my throat. It took all my strength to pull myself up at the sink. Thankfully there were clean mugs on the draining board and I filled the same one three times from the tap. The water was cloudy, but it dulled the pain and only made my stomach churn for a few minutes.
I let my legs buckle and carry me to the floor, wondering whether I would make it back to the settee before passing out.
I woke with Carl’s blankets wrapped around me and no clear memory of making it out of the kitchen, let alone to the sofa bed. I felt as cold as death. My teeth chattered so hard I wondered if they’d shatter against each other. The skin on my chin felt too tight and the light in the room too blinding. I closed my eyes and placed my hand over my forehead. My fingers felt like ice and my head like fire. Checking one’s own temperature was problematic at best, but I was certain I had a fever. I tried to sit up and felt bile rise in my throat. It was no good. I just had to rest. I lay back on the damp pillow and tried to remember snippets from the past twenty-four hours. There had been dreams. Dark creatures expelled from my pores, slithering over my skin. Yolanda with a cold cloth pressed against my face, Carl holding a filthy tin bucket as far from his wrinkled nose as possible and hurrying out of the room. I tried to call out, but I couldn’t make any sound louder than a rattle come from my chest. My body was soaked as if from a deluge. My thighs slipped against each other as I tried to get comfortable.
Brief periods of bleary wakefulness surrounded by vivid dreams. In the dream world I explored the forest as bright eyes watched me from the shadows. I saw again the slow, heavy movements of creatures in the river, and I heard their siren call, telling me to join them. The sun rose and set and rose again. My body spasmed as countless black leeches pushed their way out through my skin, leaving me wet and sore.
Yolanda and Carl were there but not there. They cared for me and gathered what my body expelled. Changed soiled sheets and made me drink cups of cloudy water that tasted like lead. I was too weak to lift my hand and the drinking straw stuck to my scabby lips. I wished for death and was certain it would come for me soon.
The last time I woke I managed to sit up. My skin felt cool and dry, not cold and clammy. The haze in the room was gone and I saw books, statues and discarded male clothing with perfect clarity. The sunlight, which nudged through the gap in the heavy curtains, didn’t hurt my eyes. The fever had broken.
Carefully I stood up. My legs felt weak from lack of use, but held me steady. Muscles ached as I stumbled to the door, but I did not fall.
I opened the door quietly and stepped into the bright kitchen. Yolanda was there, sat at the table with her laptop. She looked up and smiled.
‘Hi Kate. How are you feeling?’
My knees buckled.
The pressure of her arm against my ribcage pulled me back. She was trying to lift me. I reached out to the panelled wall and supported my weight, pressed against her in an embrace, with my feet on the floor.
‘I thought … ‘
She looked at my face and smiled. ‘What did you think?’
‘How long was I unconscious?’ I asked.
‘Most of the day. If you weren’t better tomorrow we were going to get you to a doctor.’
‘Just a day?’
‘Are you hungry?’
‘Thirsty,’ I said.
‘I’ll get you some water.’
She helped me reach the table and I lowered myself onto a chair. She closed her laptop and filled a glass from a bottle in the fridge.
The water tasted so clear and fresh. It felt as though I had drunk nothing but sweat and sludge for weeks.
‘Where’s Carl?’ I asked.
I nodded. None of it made any sense. I wondered whether this too was a dream. It felt slow and gentle, like an impressionist’s rendition of a scene. Spots of light and only the idea of a kitchen, a friend, a table. I touched the table top and thought I felt wood, but distantly like a memory.
Yolanda pursed her lips. ‘How are you feeling?’
I shook my head slowly, afraid that too swift a movement would send me away from this scene. ‘You don’t want to know. Any new photos?’
‘I’m just working on yesterday’s. I thought it best not to leave you alone.’
‘No need. Maybe you ate something that didn’t agree with you. You didn’t drink the water, did you?’
I shrugged. I couldn’t remember whether I had drunk the tap water or just dreamed that I had.
‘I should have warned you. Sorry. We don’t have drinking water. We don’t even use the tap water to make coffee. Maybe we should take you into town and get you checked out.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
She touched my forehead and I thought I might weep. ‘At least your fever has broken. Will you be okay for a minute if I go and tell Carl you’re awake?’
‘Just refill my glass first.’
As Yolanda left, I found myself staring at the cellar door again. Had it all been a dream brought on by bad food or toxic water? It had felt so real: the noises in the cellar, Carl falling and my locking him in there, Yolanda’s disappearance, the car driving away, leaving me behind, alone. It had all happened, hadn’t it? It wasn’t just a dream. Did that mean I was dreaming now?
I downed the delicious water and made my way across to the door. It was bolted again. I touched the cool metal and stood there for a moment, weighing my options. If I went down there what would I find? Could I prove to myself either way, whether Carl had been locked in the cellar? Whether we had even gone down there together?
I heard footsteps on the porch and returned to my seat.
‘Katie!’ Carl said smiling. ‘Welcome back.’ He didn’t look angry.
‘When was the last time you saw me awake?’ I asked.
He frowned. ‘Dinner. You went to bed early.’
‘We didn’t go into the cellar?’
He shook his head.
My mind screamed, liar! But I couldn’t trust my memory and why would Carl lie to me?
‘Do you want me to take you to the doctor?’ he asked and walked towards me, touching my forehead in the same gentle way Yolanda had before.
I shook my head and a fat tear pooled under my eye then rolled down my cheek.
‘It’s okay,’ he said, clasping my hand. ‘It was the fever.’
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Yolanda asked. ‘Your dream, I mean.’
My cheeks burned and I felt ashamed as if I really had locked them both in the cellar and left them there. ‘I just remember the cellar was really muddy, flooded.’
Carl searched my eyes for more, but I wasn’t ready to offer it. That’s it. If the cellar was muddy it couldn’t have been a dream.
‘Can you show me the cellar?’
‘So I can convince myself it was only a dream.’
Carl looked over his shoulder at Yolanda who shrugged.
He looked back at me. ‘Sure. If you want.’
‘Will you come with me?’ I asked.
He looked a little nervous.
‘Did you get locked in there? As a kid I mean. You look frightened.’
‘How did you know that?’ he whispered.
‘It was dark and I was scared. I thought … ‘
‘There was something down there with you?’
He nodded slowly. ‘I’ve never told … ‘
‘Did it hurt you?’
Yolanda stepped forward and placed her hand on Carl’s shoulder. ‘Enough.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘Maybe you should go to bed.’ Yolanda’s stare was cold. Was she angry?
‘I’ve slept enough,’ I argued.
Carl drew away from me. Yolanda whispered something in his ear. He nodded. I couldn’t hear what she said, but it made me anxious. Carl glanced at me, frowning, then left.
Yolanda sat beside me. ‘Tell me about your dream.’
I shook my head.
She sighed. ‘Okay, you want to see the cellar?’
My skin crawled. I wasn’t sure any more.
‘Come on then.’
The light switch was the same as my dream, but the cellar was brighter when Yolanda switched it on. No longer just a dim puddle of light that barely reached past the end of the stairs, but a swathe of illumination that filled the small room. The floorboards were dry, not mud and concrete. I almost didn’t bother to follow her down the stairs, until I saw something familiar in the corner. A tin bucket, the one Carl had carried from my room. Logically it probably contained my body waste, vomit or something else. The way he’d held it suggested a strong, unpleasant smell. But it was the only touchstone that connected my waking world with the fevered dreams and I wanted to take a closer look.