The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 1

As Josh relaxed and daydreamt on the wide steps that led onto the oversized front porch of his new home, he began to wonder if he had perhaps just stepped off a precipice. There was part of his brain that agreed with Lauren, his therapist, that he had to listen to what his body was telling him. Certainly, his physical and mental health had improved dramatically since he had tendered his resignation at Pragmore. As well, he was excited and thrilled to be getting back to his own art fulltime. But there was still that lingering memory that was floating around in the back of his mind of how badly his first go round at this venture had gone when he was a fresh graduate.

It was like this internal battle was going on inside him. He knew he could never go back to doing purely commercial art anymore if he did not want his health to a continue on a downward spiral. The position at Pragmore had been slowly killing him, both physically and emotionally, for a long time. He could look back now, and with Lauren’s assistance, see how he had been in denial over that for years. Josh’s stubborn streak, though, one he had possessed since he was just a kid, had made him dig his heels in and just plow ahead. It had finally taken some very serious health issues to make him wake up before it was too late.

Perhaps, Josh thought to himself, as he gazed over the front yard and the quiet street beyond, he had matured enough that this time it would be a much different experience. For sure, his technique and experience were much more evolved than when he had been just out of school. Despite the toll that Pragmore had taken on him, all the projects he had completed while employed there had contributed to his talents. Josh compared, in his mind, what he had turned out way back then with his work at Pragmore of late, and the two phases of his artistic production were not even closely comparable.

His early art had crude and rough talent, but if Josh was truly honest with himself, he had to admit that a lot of that stuff had been laughable. It was no wonder, he realized, that it had not been commercially successful. He was certain that a new go at this would be a different story…still he was not completely confident. He had walked away from financial security to what could possibly be a repeat of before…scraping and scratching to get by on a daily basis. The memories of those days made him shudder. He still had a nice cushion of funds from his inheritance from his grandmother, which Carl Timmons, his financial advisor, had helped him continue to grow over the years. As well, he had saved wisely from his days at Pragmore.

If Josh looked at this situation logically and rationally, he knew deep down that the money would not really be a limiting factor. It was hard, however, to let go of those old days and how he had, in his mind, failed miserably. As he sat and pondered, Josh came to the real issue for himself. It was not the money and how he would support himself. The bug in his brain ran deeper than that. He had known great praise and acclaim for his work for as long as he could remember, going back to his days as an adolescent when he had first become aware of his talent and his love for drawing and painting. The real burden that was hanging over him, he realized, was he wanted his new efforts at his art to be more than just financially rewarding.

To his chagrin, Josh understood that, like a lot of artists, he just wanted to be accepted for his efforts. Sure, the money would be nice, but deep down he just wanted to have people appreciate his creations. As he came to accept this now, like a bolt of lightning hitting him as he sat and looked out from the porch, Josh felt relieved. His situation had not changed at all, but finally acknowledging what he truly wanted, was a revelation and a relief. He was sure focusing on one would eventually attract the other. As the sun began to drop behind the upper levels of his new house, Josh stood slowly and arched his back, reaching his arms high over his head as he stretched out his whole body. He had not realized how long he had been sitting in one position and it felt great to release all the stiffness from his lanky frame.

Josh was not naïve enough to think this was just a physical release. As he exhaled deeply, he knew in his heart that the feeling he was experiencing as he stretched and listened to his joints crackle had as much to do with a psychological and emotional epiphany as anything. Josh stepped down onto the walkway that lead up to the house and turned to get a really good look at the home he had recently acquired that was to serve as the base for his new life. He had gotten the place for a song, really, relative to the real estate prices attached to all the other places in the neighborhood. The 2-story Victorian structure needed work, but it had good bones. It had captured Josh’s eye from his days as an undergraduate student, and he was still feeling as if he was in a dream of some sort that it was actually his.

From what he had been told by the realtor and what he had dug up on his own, he had found out that the place had been owned by an older couple that had lived there since back in the 1920’s, when it first was constructed. The previous owners had both died unexpectedly, within days of one another, and the house had remained empty and unclaimed for years. No immediate heirs or other relatives ever came forward to stake a claim on the house, and it finally reverted to the state. After a thorough search and waiting period, officials gave up and the house just sat empty.

The realtor that Josh dealt with had cut a deal with the state to take on the house as an investment, sure that there would be someone out there that could see the underlying value of the place, and would take it on as a project. Many people had come and looked, but in the end, all decided that it was just too much to undertake despite its history and solid foundation. It was a bet that the realtor seemed to have lost on until Josh came along. It was the location and long love of the place that made a connection for Josh, not the work that might be needed.

It was easy to see that the old place had once been an impressive and even imposing home. It had, however, over time, suffered some decline as the owners seemed to have not kept up with basic maintenance. It was not like the old place was falling down, but it had definitely seen better days. Josh had no idea why. Perhaps, he pondered, their health had faltered and they were physically unable to keep up with it all. Or maybe they simply did not have sufficient funds, as they had aged, to address all the issues a house of this size would require.

Josh recalled, with a wry smile, how the realtor had tried her best to put a spin on the current appearance of the house when she first had shown him around. He was certainly no salesman, but Josh did his best to not let himself snicker at all the contortions and hoops the poor woman was putting herself through to try and convince him of the home’s deeper appeal. Josh could not have cared less. The location of the house was perfect…at the end of a cul-de-sac, a bit removed from the other houses on the street. He had a feeling that based on when the house was originally constructed, that it had a solid foundation, and the report from the home inspector confirmed this.

It was really just cosmetic details that needed attention. Though there were many of these that would need attention over time. However, Josh was more than happy to take all of that on. He knew that he would need some breaks, both physically and emotionally from his art once he began again, and having remodeling and refurbishing projects on the house seemed like the ideal fit. As a high school student, and during his summer breaks from the university, Josh had hooked up with a local contractor, David Garrison, who had been a family friend for years. It had been a great summer job, and with Garrison’s instruction and patience, Josh had picked up quite a bit of knowledge and skill that looked as if it was now to come on handy as he looked over the long-neglected frame.

There was much, he knew, to be worked on both inside and out, and Josh saw this as much of a challenge as his new art endeavors. As the sun finally dropped behind the horizon, and the dark of the evening took over, Josh jogged up the stairs and then across the uneven boards of the porch and headed inside. He closed the heavy, thick oak door behind him and flipped on lights as he went through the lower level. Josh had taken a cursory inventory during the various walkthroughs that he had done during the inspections, but now all the work that would be needed finally began to look a bit overwhelming.

Fortunately, the interior was in need of more of a surface cosmetic touch than the exterior, and Josh figured he could get to that after attending to the outside. It was late summer, and he knew he would need to get all the dilapidated and warped woodwork outside taken care of before fall bled into winter. Despite the background he had acquired from David Garrison, he knew that issue was well beyond his skill level. And he really wants to get a jump on his art now, rather than spending the next few months refurbishing the entire exterior of the house. He made a mental note to talk to some people around that might know of good contractors in town that could do a much better job, and in a much quicker fashion with a team, than he could do part-time on his own.

Josh would have loved to have had his old mentor take this on, but unfortunately, Garrison had passed away just after Josh had graduated from college. Perhaps the realtor or even the man who had done his home inspection would know of someone…maybe the inspector even did this type of thing himself. As Josh moved back through the house and into the kitchen, a clap of thunder struck, rattling the house, and making Josh jump as it boomed across the sky. With no warning, a ragged shard of lightning tore through the black sky as well, illuminating the shadows in the kitchen just as Josh was reaching for a switch to turn on a light. He had no sooner touched the light switch, then the lights he had turned on behind him went dark and the house was plunged into darkness.

More thunder and lightning followed and a heavy torrent of rain began to fall. Josh waited a few moments, hoping that the electrical outage was just temporary. But as he waited, nothing changed. The storm continued to rage and his house stayed dark. Just in case a fuse had been blown during the storm, Josh felt his way to a drawer in the kitchen to retrieve a flashlight so he could check the breakers in the basement. The beam from the flashlight gave Josh a comforting feeling in the dark as he reversed his path and opened the door off the dining room that led down to the basement. He flipped the switch to the light in the basement on as he stood at the top of the stairs that led downward, but nothing, as he had expected, came on,

The old wooden steps creaked eerily under Josh’s weight, but they were solid and he was soon on the earthen floor below. Besides some furniture that had been left behind by the former owners after they had died, there were various boxes and old crates here in the basement that Josh had to work his way around in order to gain access to the fuse box panel. He forced up the old rusty cover from the fuse panel and redirected the light to the breakers. Sure enough, the breakers had flipped off and Josh sighed with relief. However, when he set them back on, nothing changed.

The overhead light in the basement remained off. Josh walked back to the bottom of the stairs and looked up through the stairwell and all the lights upstairs remined off as well. He sighed with disappointment and went back to the fuse box to close the cover. With the age of the house, and for the length of time it had remained unoccupied, Josh supposed he should not have been overly surprised that some electrical work would be required, in addition to extensive TLC. It annoyed him that the inspector might have missed this, but then again perhaps a transformer of some ilk had gotten zapped by the lightning strike and it was unrelated to the house’s wiring.

Josh decided he would wait out the storm and then recheck everything in the morning to get a better picture before having a discussion with the inspector. As he turned to go to the stairs to go back up, Josh caught something out of the corner of his eye as he spun the beam of the flashlight around. Beyond the stacks of boxes was an old crate that looked ancient. He had remembered the crate well, but had not given it a second thought during the times he had been down there. It was not the crate itself, though, that made him stop in his tracks and wander over.

The beam of the light had picked up an odd indentation in the basement wall as it passed over the back edge of the old crate. Josh’s curiosity got the best of him and he squirmed his way through several stacks of well-worn cardboard boxes to reach the closest edge of the crate. He stood in front of the crate and focused the beam of the flashlight across the top of the musty and aged crate. The old wooden container was just a bit taller than Josh, nearly reaching the top of the low ceiling of the basement. There was just a narrow gap between the crate and the back wall of the basement, and Josh squeezed his way between the crate and a heavy old box that he could not move. He shone the light into the gap and sure enough got a clearer image of what he had sensed moments earlier.

What had originally appeared as just an old indentation in the back wall of the basement, was in fact what sure looked to Josh like a door of some sort. He moved closer, the back edge of the crate digging into his hip as he panned the light up and down. Sure enough, it was an old door. The panel looked as if it had not been accessed for years, as cobwebs and even steaks of mold covered it from top to bottom. An old padlock sat in a hasp to one side and was covered with rust and scratches. Josh wondered if the realtor or maybe the inspector knew of this door and what is was for. He himself had just not looked that closely and to Josh it was a new discovery.

Josh assumed it was probably just some old room off the basement that the old owners had used for storing canned or preserved fruits and vegetables. His grandmother and many of her friends had similar places that they used for this, all left over patterns from their days during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. What Josh could not reconcile with that possibility, though, was the old padlock. Why, he pondered, would you need to lock up jams and jellies and beans? Josh stared at the door for several minutes as he tried without success to figure this out. Finally, he gave in to his curiosity and moved closer. Despite the crate’s large size, it was relatively light and Josh was able to slide it away from the door so he could gain access to it.

After maneuvering the crate about a foot or so away from the wall, he moved behind it and took a closer look at the padlock. He lifted it from the hasp and tugged, but it was firmly locked. The whole device was heavily rusted and covered with deep scratched and indentations, as if someone had been at it without a key. The opening for a key looked ancient as well and Josh doubted there still existed one he might locate. The lock itself was substantial, and the condition of it made Josh decide further pounding on it would be useless. He shone the light around the hasp and saw a solution. Time had eaten away at the wood frame where the hasp was attached.

Rather than find a hammer or a chisel of some sort to beat away at the padlock, which had been Josh’s first inclination, he saw all he would need to do was to detach the hasp form the rotting wood frame of the door frame and the lock would just fall away. He backtracked to a cabinet near the stairs where he had stashed some of his tools earlier. From the old tool box he had inherited from his father, Josh with drew a hammer and a long screwdriver. He figured if he could not remove the screws from the hasp to get it off the frame, assuming they might be as rusted in place as the padlock, then he could simply use the claw end of the hammer to pry it away from the decayed wood.

When he returned to the door, Josh found out quickly that his assumption as to the nature of the screws of the hasp was correct. They seemed frozen in place. However, even though it would not have been his optimal choice, he was able to use the hammer claw to pry off the whole thing. Chunks of the rotted wood fell away and the hasp came loose easily and hung attached to the padlock. Josh laid the flashlight on a box aiming the beam at the door where the lock and hasp were attached. He tried pushing on the old door, but it would not budge. If in fact his assumption that the lock had been unopened for years, and therefore the door unopened for that long as well, then it was likely the wood of the old piece had perhaps swollen over time as was just wedged into the frame.

Josh tried pushing harder, but the door remained stubbornly in place. He tried forcing it open with his shoulder, but all that was doing was bruising his arm and shoulder.

“OK, door…you asked for it…..” Josh said out loud.

He pushed the crate back a bit more and wedged himself into the space between it and the door as he sat on the floor, bracing his back on the crate. He lined his feet up on the edge of the door, just below where the hasp dangled below the padlock and pushed with all his might against the door. He seemed to feel a slight movement at the edge, but the door was still stuck. With a combination of frustration and fueled by his natural stubborn streak, Josh pulled his feet back as far as he could and then pistoned them forward into the side of the door where he had been pushing. The door creaked loudly and screamed against the tight fit of the door frame and finally popped free of its hold on the opening. Josh cried out in pain as he slipped flat on his back and the back of his head snacked into one of the diagonal boards that was on the lower half of the crate. He sat up and rubbed his head as the door sat ajar, leaving just an opening of a few inches. Josh retrieved the flashlight from the box where he had left it and looked through the small opening after cleaning away the cobwebs that still hung from the door opening. The small aperture was too narrow to actually see anything, so Josh grasped the door by its edge and pushed it until it was fully open.

The door moved easily in his hands once the initial resistance had been broken. It was a short opening and Josh stooped as he walked into the opening and shone the light ahead of him, sure that he was just walking into a root cellar of some sort. However, the light did not find the walls of a storage room. The light shone into the total blackness of the opening as Josh stepped inside a few steps to find he had stumbled upon a long, hand-dug tunnel.

“Holy shit……” Josh said in a voice overlaid with utter shock and surprise.

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