Joe Crane sat in the kitchen of
his little house in Beaverton. June, his wife of 35 years, stood in front of
the stove, stirring stock into a chicken stew.
Both looked solemn, their
thoughts turned inward, considering the dark deed at hand.
Something scraped across the floor down below. There came a soggy sick thump and then an annoyed chitter.
Neither husband nor wife looked at each other, but both stiffened in their respective poses. Joe puffed nervously on his pipe, the cool blue smoke wafting to the ceiling, lifted up by a draft through one of the old windows then dispersed, its tendrils crawling along the stained plywood; June stirred her stew more rapidly, her thin mouth pressed into a tight, hard line. She sweated, her face pale, her usually kind brown eyes two muddy quartz. She gnawed on her lip until blood bloomed and then sucked the coppery taste off of her tongue, hoping to center herself.
A loud knock on the side door had both of them jumping. June dropped her wooden spoon, splashing hot stew over the edge of the pot. She pressed a hand to her hammering heart and breathed heavily; Joe startled in his chair but otherwise made no move to get up. June shot him a nervous look and went to the door. When she pulled the aged wood inwards she wore a smile just for Bill Crandall.
“Hi Miss June,” he said, tipping her a nod. “Joe around? I’m looking to borrow a hammer off him.”
“Oh yes, he’s here. Come in, Bill, come in.” June ushered him into the kitchen, her hand like a craggy claw on his arm. She squeezed his bicep too tightly to be considered friendly, but Bill was far too polite to say a word. She steered him towards the scratched kitchen table so Joe could see the boy, (young man, really—how time flies). His skin was bronze from long summer days working outside, his lips tipped into a light and friendly smile. June almost felt guilty. Very nearly.
Joe stood from his chair and extended his hand. “Hey there son, how are they treating you down at Waterloo?”
Bill grasped the man’s hand firmly. His fingers were thin and knobby, but his grip was strong. Joe released his hand and sat back in his chair, stuffing his pipe into his mouth and Bill shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his old, faded jeans. “Not bad, sir, not bad. I’m one of the tops in my class. Aced Bio Chemistry, but it’s good to be home for the festival, missed it last year,”
Joe shook his head. Bio-what? Who knew? They didn’t have things like that when he and June were young. He felt a pang of sadness, but buried it in a large puff of smoke. “Good, good to hear. Now, that hammer you wanted is tucked away in the basement. Would you mind getting it for an old man? I don’t make it down the stairs as well as I used to. It’s on the shelf by that old wood door.”
Bill felt uncertain for a moment, but reaffirmed his resolve when he took a closer look at Joe. Age had grabbed hold of him and none too gently, either. His cheeks were sagging and used from years of smiles, the crows feet by his eyes cracked several ways from time, and his chest was near concave, the muscles flabby and soft. The old man looked worn thin, brittle and faded. “Sure thing. Thanks for lending it to me; I don’t know where I put my dads. I thought I set it right on the bench in the garage. It was there one second, gone the next. He thinks I’m just careless.” He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. “Could be he’s right.”
“Well, it happens dear,” June said, patting the boy’s shoulder reassuringly. “I misplace things all the time.”
“You’re older than dirt, Junie,” Joe said with a lopsided grin. That’s good, act normal, he thought. Act normal and everything will be fine.
“Oh shush, Joe Crane, you’re not so young either,” June teased.
Bill laughed uncomfortably. “Anyway, I’m going to have to get him a new one I think, but thanks for letting me borrow yours in the meantime, I told him I’d have this float done for the Beaverton Day festival tomorrow. I’m almost there, it just needs a few more touches. It shouldn’t take me too long.”
Joe grunted noncommittally. A festival to celebrate all their sins. “Well, you best be getting on then.” He motioned to the basement.
“Right.” Bill tossed him a smile and moved to the basement door. It sat in the center of the kitchen, painted a faded yellow, scratched and flaking with use. When he opened it and looked down it was like peering into a stretching, black maw, the stairs a lumpy tongue, the walls a throat cavity. All it was missing was teeth—though admittedly, if he let his imagination run wild he could picture the support beams as crooked and rotten fangs. His heart thundered; he swallowed nervously and scolded himself for being frightened of a basement. “I’ll just be a second,” he announced and reached for the light switch on the side wall. It clicked loudly into the ‘on’ position but nothing happened, no light cut through the blackness. He flicked on and off twice more. On the second turn something popped loudly and the sound of tinkling glass landing against the concrete had him groaning.
Around Bill’s back, June gave her husband a wide-eyed and frightened look, but Joe just pulled himself unevenly from his chair and reached for a flashlight on the counter. “Happens more often than not,” he said, which was the truth.
“Probably bad wiring down there.” Bill replied and congratulated himself when his voice didn’t waver. “I’ll see if me and my dad can’t come over and take a look at it for you before I go back to school; we might be able to fix it.” He accepted the flashlight with shaky fingers. Why are you so scared? But he couldn’t say.
“That’d be awful nice, dear,” June said and shuffled back to the stove-top. “Just get that hammer over to your daddy; else he won’t want to be doing nothing for you.”
Bill smiled and ignored his drumming heart. “Yes ma’am.”
Armed with a flashlight he descended the old wooden steps. They creaked under his weight but held sturdy enough. He held the flashlight firmly and depressed the button; the light that pooled out of the old tired bulb was dull at best, but it cut a dim swath through the dust and cobwebs, just barely bright enough to see by.
It looked as though no one had been down there in years—and he would be right. Joe and June Crane avoided their basement at any and all costs, and not just because they were old and feeble now.
When Bill reached the bottom of the stairs he felt a sense of dread climb in his chest and flutter there like a trapped bird. He almost turned around and forgot about the hammer, but he knew his father would be mad as a bull if he came back without it.
With that in mind he pushed further into the darkness. The flashlight’s weak beam found the old wooden door. Rumor had it that when the town was young, the doors acted as a connection between houses, a secure means of travel back in the 1830’s when Canada was helping slaves escape. Bill knew there was no solid proof of this, it was just a story that had been born Beaverton and would likely die in Beaverton—no one seemed to know the truth and whenever he tried to research the connecting tunnels he never found any information, but he was curious about the doors. He knew the Smith’s had cemented theirs. Bill saw Sean going down there with a bucket of cement every once in awhile to redo it. Apparently it wouldn’t hold. Something about too much moisture down there.
A rough scraping noise brought him crashing back to reality. He swung the flashlight back and forth but the beam exposed nothing. He frowned. Must be a squirrel or something getting in here, he thought to placate his heart—it was trying to tear free of his chest; better tell Joe when I come up.
He shrugged as indifferently as possible and moved on, drawing closer to the door. He could see the concrete wall on either side of the wood, but no shelf. He furrowed his brow, replaying what Joe had told him. On a shelf beside the door. Maybe there was another one? He turned away to search the other side of the basement. It seemed this was the end of the linked houses; there was no exit door on the other side, just smooth concrete walls.
His booted foot crunched glass from the exploded light bulb, the sound deafening in the quiet dark. He looked up and found himself back at the wooden door again. Except this time it was open just a crack.
Bill swallowed hard. There weren’t many times in his life he could recall being honestly terrified. He thought briefly back to when he was 14 and believed he had run over his father’s foot with the tractor they kept for farming. He had been scared then, but he hadn’t tasted iron in his mouth—not like he did now.
Cold air crept out from the cracked door. It chilled his ankles, then his legs as it wormed its way up around his body like a cold, sickly embrace.
Forget the hammer, he thought viciously.His body screamed for him to move away from this dark pit and he tried, but it was like his legs were frozen in place. He looked down, flashing the light at his feet and saw dark tendrils working their way around his ankles. When the flashlight touched them they backed off slightly, but tightened when the light flickered. The door yawned wider, screeching on its hinges.
Something moist suctioned to the floor then smacked as whatever it was lifted itself up and dragged its body closer.
The flashlight flickered threateningly. Bill panted, the breath exploding from his lungs. He wanted to scream, but only a gurgle escaped his lips. The thing that came from the darkness wasn’t anything but legs, and red, and teeth, like a spider that had spit out its insides. And it was hungry.
Bill knew he couldn’t run.
It was too late for that.
In the kitchen, the Cranes’ closed the basement door against the thick and choked gasping, hoping to at least mute the sound, but those awful wet noises wanted to be heard, the gross pops and the almost screams. Joe leaned his crooked back against the worn wood and tried to muffle the sounds with his body.
“He was just a boy,” June whispered.
Joe glared. “He was my brothers’ age when it was his turn.”
She looked abashed, but continued. “Yes, still just a boy.”
“It’s the way it has to be, you know that. Jack Crandall knew that,” he barked.
“There just has to be another
way!” June was close to tears. They were both too old to
continue on with this burden, keeping this dirty town secret. Beaverton, North America's secret Horror Shop.
He put his arm around June’s shoulders and pulled her to the kitchen table. “This is the way it is,” he reaffirmed—for his wife as much as himself. “If we could do things differently we would. It’s almost over for us, Junie—who knows if we’ll live to see another one?”
June's shoulders quaked, but she was slowly regaining control over herself. She sniffled and nodded her assent, but heaved a shaky sigh. “You’re right, this might be the last. Another 8 years, we probably won’t be around to see it.”
Joe nodded and re-lit his pipe. The smoke coiled around the overhead light. It flickered and a chill spider-walked up his spine, for a moment terrified that Bill Crandall hadn’t been enough, for a moment thinking that soon he and June would be next. The light flicked again and then was still. The bulb glared out its shining light and all was quiet in the basement.