Lydia and Erika reached the bottom of the steps and disarmed as they watched the boys decipher which way to go. The fire-lit lanterns had been burnt out, or put out. Lydia wasn’t quite sure on account of the darkness they were subjected to once again.
“Guys, which way?” The quiet darkness made her feel as if she had no choice but to whisper it.
‘It’s incredible,’ she thought to herself, ‘how contagious silence can be.’
“Come on, this way.” Caleb said convincingly.
They all walked slowly, careful not to trip over debris on the paved walkway. It had the smell of carcass, which alarmed the guys. They didn’t remember smelling anything like that the first time around, but they had to push on regardless. And in an effort to keep the illusion of safety, they kept the newfound smell to themselves. The girls had obviously caught a whiff, but if they knew it wasn’t the same as last time, they would surely protest. The scent became stronger. It felt as though it was burning a whole right through the senses and the guys stole a quick glance at each other before turning back to the girls.
“Erika was right,” Aiden said. “Something isn’t right. This smell, it wasn’t...” but before he could finish his sentence her heard it. Hell, they all heard it. A scream, so blood curdling they couldn’t even imagine what caused it or where it came from.
Erika began running through the darkness with nothing but fear driving her. She whimpered, and it was a good thing too, because if it hadn’t been for those whimpers Lydia would have lost her completely. “Erika, stop! Please! We have to get out of here!”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” She cried back at her through snot-filled sobs. But when she did so, to Lydia it sounded off. She stopped chasing her. It didn’t sound right. It didn’t
sound like Erika at all. She was chasing a ghost of a girl she thought was her friend. She called out to Aiden. Nothing. She said his name two more times. Still nothing. They were gone, all of them, and in an instant, she was alone in the tar black basement of her majestic middle home.
She grazed across the floor in tiny steps that were so loud she almost had to cover her ears. ‘Isn’t that the way of it,’ she thought to herself. ‘When trying to be quiet everything seems louder?’ She pushed the thoughts away.
The harrowing echoes of her soft steps were louder than they should have been, of that she was sure. It was as if the floor were designed to give way to her location. She tried to find a corner to huddle in so she could regroup and figure out what her next steps would be. She slinked down to the ground, and sat with her back against the sticky stone wall and knees bent. She wanted to be able to jump up and make a break for it almost effortlessly, if need be. She still wasn’t sure what she going to find down here, but she was getting less confident as each second ticked by. She lost her friends again, and this Quincy guy seemed like nothing short of a hallucination at that point. Another ruse made up by the higher power to throw them off keel. She heard the slight sound of footsteps towards her, slowly at first, and then it shaped itself into a putt kind of run. She couldn’t move. She just listened and hoped that whatever was walking towards her
could see just about as much as she could in the dark. The footsteps approached her and silenced themselves when they were about, at her guess, 5 feet away. She wanted to say hello but if it was Aiden, or Caleb, or even Erika, she imagined they would have made some sort of sound. They, after all, had to be looking for her, too. A few moments passed. Lydia and the thing that walked toward her sat there, making no noise at all until she heard the loud—but light—footsteps again. They got a little closer to her and just when she was about to fling up and make a dash for it, they slinked past her, getting further and further away with every jaw bending step. She breathed a sigh of relief, and when the footsteps were far enough away, she knew what she had to do. She had to find that staircase and get the hell out of that basement.
She stood up slowly, careful not to make any noise, or as little noise as she could possibly make. It reminded her of a game she and her sister used to play when she was alive. A mixture of the classic games Hide and Go Seek and Manhunt, but they didn’t play it in the normal sense. They would wait for their parents to go out, turn off all the lights and draw the shades to make their own darkened fortress. They would hide from each other, at the same time as hunting each other down. The first one to find the other without being found themselves won. She would always win, though, because her little sister would always choose the same first hiding place—inside a
a vintage wooden chest her parents later used for baby clothes. It stood at the end of the bed in the guest room, the room the girls weren’t allowed in when their parents were home, and Lydia always thought how adorably independent her sister was. Breaking the rules by three years old and not giving a hoot about what anyone said. It made her sad to think about what her sister could be doing now that she was gone, but she couldn’t get wrapped up in the idea. Not there in this basement, anyway.
She took her first step towards the exit, or at least what she thought was the exit. It barely made any noise.
‘That’s weird,’ she thought to herself. She took her second step. Again, no sound. She wanted to stop and figure out why she could move in silence, but she was starting to fear the answers and just wanted to get moving. She took a third step. This time the noise was there but it wasn’t of her foot hitting the ground. When she allowed the weight of herself to be put on her third step she flipped forward and crashed through a glass enclosure. She fell and fell, not screaming or crying, just silent. “What is happening,” she managed to choke out. “Oh my—.” She landed feet first into what resembled a well and looked around. “God,” she finished.
“Not God, I’m afraid. Not even close.” A man’s voice echoed around her.
“Wrong again, my dear!” The voice had a chuckle to it that reminded Lydia of the Wicked Witch of the West, and she knew she wasn’t in good company—at least not the company that was going to be of any assistance to her.
“Can you see, deary? The lights down here have all been… remodeled.” The voice laughed again, as if some sort of riddle was present in his overtly vague comments.
“Yes, well no. Sort of.”
“Which is it Ms. Ashes. Yes, no or sort of?”
“Good!” The voice exclaimed. “Now, can you see my face?”
Lydia couldn’t. She could barely see anything but at that moment he asked it was as if a streak of light shone directly in her line of vision, bringing forth the look of the man she was trapped in the basement with.
Only he wasn’t a man, not in the generic sense anyway. He was more of a monster. His head was bigger than the average man’s head, and had little hair. Just straggly pieces sporadically placed as if he had gotten most of it ripped out and just left the rest for wear. And his skin was a putrid olive green, the type of green you find in the diapers of newborns, and covered in horrible puss-filled balls. His eyes, black and without pupils. And that stench. The same stench that stopped the boys in their tracks now surrounded Lydia and she was staring into the eyes of the being it came from.
His smile was a crooked mess full of sharp fanged yellow and black chompers. His nose, almost non-existent, as if at some point, it had been ripped off, or judging by the scars, bitten off. He was hideous, the ugliest thing Lydia was sure she’d ever seen. For the umpteenth time in the middle, she was truly terrified for her existence. This wasn’t like the others, though. This was much worse, much more fearsome. She looked up and around her for a way out.
“Ah, ah, ah, you’re not looking to escape, are you? You know I don’t get many visitors down here and when you showed up I was quite excited. I even planned a little suarez if you will. You wouldn’t want to be rude, would you? After all, I did plan it for you.”
Lydia didn’t care if she was rude to this, this thing. Not at all. She did however care if she were to be ripped into shreds by a hideous basement dwelling monster, so she asked the only question she could think of. “Who are you?”
“That, my deary, is the right question!” His menacing laugh echoed up through the walls of the well she found herself in. “My name is Sean the Great and Terrible! Great because of what I used to be, Terrible because of what I have become. My story is a boring one I assure you.”
“Tell it anyway,” Lydia said quietly.
He started telling Lydia his story, back to front and she immediately felt regret for asking.
“Well Lydia, as you may have noticed I’m not so easy on the eyes.” He smiled his crooked smile and Lydia tried to muster up an empathetic, ‘you’re not that bad’ but nothing could leave her lips.
“When I had a life, I mean, when I was on earth in a body I was quite the successful creature. I started my own business and became an international success. I had a family, too. A beautiful wife and three beautiful children. It’s true when they say success comes at a price, and that price for me was my beautiful family. I had organized a trip for the 5 of us. A little family vacation away from the hustle and bustle of the business I had created. I even flew my own jet, if you can believe it. Imagine this face flying a jet!” He laughed and laughed but Lydia just stared with a cold look on her face. She didn’t get the joke, if there even was one. He continued. “The jet’s engine failed and we plunged to our deaths. But for some reason, I survived. My whole family was dead in the cabin, but I survived. The island we landed on, somewhere off the coast of Alaska I believe was baron and lifeless. Instead of starving to death I decided in sheer panic that the best thing for me to do would be to survive. And I managed to do so for a short time.”
“How did you find food if the island was baron?” Lydia was genuinely interested, partly because of his inability to describe things in detail and the mystery it left in her mind, and
partly because she was starting to feel bad for this thing.
“I ate them. My wife, my children, I made a fire, I cooked them up and I ate them.” His laughter bellowed and in the few moments of his cackling Lydia realized that this thing, this monster, was not a family man with an unfortunate circumstance, he was pure evil. “I ate them and I almost made it! I ended up starving to death about 3 days before a helicopter noticed the crash. When I came here, I was met by an interesting man named Valentine who told me that I was never to live again.
“Valentine,” Lydia muttered angrily.
“Oh, you know him? I guess all us souls do. Anyway, he had told me that the higher ups had thought, had known even, that I did it purposely to dispose of my family and bask in my success alone. Which,” he smiled, “is true!” Laughter again. Lydia was absolutely petrified now. “I wanted them gone, you see. They were hindering my wants and that just wouldn’t do. I digress. Valentine told me that I would never live again, not in the human sense anyway. He told me that my only option to exist would be to exist alone here in this well for all of eternity, as I didn’t deserve to be in the company of anyone else. I was and always will be a monster. Over time, my outer appearance evolved into this, this thing you see before you. My outsides now reflect all that is on the inside. The true essence of my soul.”
“Wow,” Lydia whispered. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She was trapped down here with this cannibalistic lunatic and she wasn’t aware of any way out. She wondered—just for a second—if she was down there because she was a monster, too.
“Wow is right, my deary! But don’t you worry, I don’t have the hunger anymore. Not for other souls anyway. You’re fairly safe.” Everything the monster said was some sort of joke to himself. He cackled and laughed until all she could hear was wheezing and choking.
“Yes, deary. Fairly. No one’s ever truly safe. Not here in the middle.”
“What does that mean?”
“Whatever you want it to, deary. Now tell me, why are you here?”
Lydia began to explain her story in its entirety. She explained the imagination adventures they had and that they got into a little bit of a problem with Dexter whenever they left the mansion. She explained what Quincy had told Aiden and Caleb when she and Erika were trapped in one of the black rooms and what Valentine had warned them about. She told him about how they wanted to find the arch so they could be immortal and that’s when he stopped her.
“Oh deary, you souls are brave! The higher ups don’t want any more immortal souls. There’s enough as there is and it’s hard for them to keep track when they’ve got an entire universe
for a playground. It’s a big place you know. I’ll tell you this though, if you can make it through that arch, that’ll be some show! It sure would shake things up around here. But let me ask you, are you sure you want to exist as you are, forever?”
Lydia had never even considered the question, let alone really thought about it. Lydia Ashes existing for the rest of time. It didn’t sound bad, but did it sound good? She wasn’t sure anymore.
“I’m not really sure. There is one thing I’m sure of though, I can’t stay here.”
“But what about the suarez? I told you I had planned something exceptional for us.”
“I have to find Aiden!” Lydia was yelling now. She didn’t have time to keep some monster who ate his whole family company because he was exiled to an existence of solitude.
“Oh, you’ll find him deary. But first things first, you must accept my invitation. Let’s not make this harder then it is.”
Lydia wondered what he meant, but she sure wasn’t going to find out.
“Fine. I accept.” She tried to sound enthused but her tone just came off as pious. “Now let’s get this party started.”
Lydia watched Sean as he rose and realized that he was a lot bigger than she had first thought. He stood about 8 feet and was stacked to match. It was as if being a monster made you twice the size of a normal soul, in his case probably about three times the size.
“Follow me, deary,” he said through his crooked smile.
Lydia began following the monster through a series of winding corridors she was certain he couldn’t fit through, yet there he was leading the way. The stench grew stronger and stronger until it was almost too much to bear.
“We’re almost there.”
“Deary, how many times do I have to tell you. God has nothing to do with it.”
She wasn’t sure why, but his repetitive nature on the God subject made her uneasy. They arrived at an opening, brighter than anything she’d seen in a while. She had to lift her hand to cover her squinting eyes. It almost blinded her as she walked out of the tiny tunnel and into the opening. She looked around trying to make sense of it all.
The opening was some sort of cave, but it wasn’t a regular cave. It appeared as though it was a hollowed-out mountain and they were on the inside looking out. The brightness had no direct source, it was just bright, as if the rock walls of the cave were lit themselves. When her eye sight adjusted, she noticed a group of souls standing across the way. They weren’t free and partying souls, they were in cages. Trapped by Sean the Great and Terrible, she assumed. “What is this?” She said backing away from the monster.
“I told you Lydia, it’s your suarez!”
“But they’re all in cages! Why are they all in
cages?” She was alarmed now, so much so she backed herself up against the rock wall.
“Looks like you’re stuck between a rock and hard place, Ms. Ashes.” He cackled loudly, so loudly Lydia could hear the cages shake from the other side of the clearing.
“Let them go!” She screamed, and as if by no power of her own she ran towards the cages. “Let them go!” She screamed again. This time, the eyes from the cages focused on her and her alone. She screamed a third time.
“Let them go!”
When she reached the cages, she shuffled and grabbed at the locks as hard as she could. They wouldn’t budge. But what was even weirder was the fact that the souls weren’t making any noise at all. They were just staring at her questioningly—as if they had no clue what was going on around them.
“I’m going to get you guys out,” she whispered. “I swear it!”
“Oh Lydia, deary, they don’t want out! Don’t you see? You can’t see it, can you?”
“See what?” She cried loudly from across the clearing. “She what?” She slinked to her knees with locks still in her hands, and averted her gaze from the puzzled looks of the trapped souls to the ground she was kneeling on. She knew in her heart of all hearts that she was about to be trapped in a cage for all of eternity to keep this weird well-dwelling monster company. Nothing else added up or made sense of all these souls in cages.
She kept trying to hold back her sobs.
“Aiden, where are you?” she cried out. “Aiden.” She curled up in a ball on the ground, sobbing. This was it. She was never going to be immortal or reincarnated or see Aiden again. She was going to be trapped for all of eternity as entertainment in a cage with a bunch of mindless zombie souls. That was it. The end of her mission.
Just when Lydia was dancing on the line of surrender, the monster walked slowly towards her. She was laying on the ground in the fetal position holding back sobs from behind her hands.
“Deary, why are you crying?” the monster asked and she just ignored him. “This isn’t the end sweetheart, it’s the beginning.”
That confused her even further. The beginning, at least in her mind, never started with a cage. A cage was always the end of something. She looked up at the hideous beast that stood before her, wiping the tears from her eyes. She took a moment to really take everything in, trying to figure out exactly what was happening. She knew Sean was evil, and she knew that she couldn’t outrun or outwit him. He’s clearly been playing this game for some time and he clearly knew how to win. But he wasn’t being menacing. His cackle had ceased and he was looking at her with nothing but pure concern. For a moment, his eyes looked human—almost.
“Please, tell me something I can use.”
It was the only thing she could think of asking for in that moment. He wasn’t giving her much, and although she was terrified, her voice came off as nothing short of impatient and irritable.
“Okay, that’s a fair request. These souls don’t want to leave, and I didn’t put them in there either. I’ve been trying to get them to come out of those cages for, oh I don’t even know how long. They’re the only other living things down here besides me—and of course Quincy—but he’s on the upper level. It gets lonely down here, even for a monster, so I’ve been trying to coax them out for the party!” He was smiling now, that crooked smile Lydia loathed. “My plan didn’t quite work though so it will have to be a two-souled affair.”
“Why don’t they want out? I don’t understand.”
“They’re safe here. Contrary to what you might believe, anyway. It’s the safest place in the middle, even with me down here.”
“Now that, I believe.” Lydia was bemused. She had not even a hint of an idea as to why any soul would want to continue being trapped in a cage in the basement of the most interesting, albeit unnatural, place she had ever encountered. She did remember Valentine though, and his inability to explain why they weren’t allowed to graze, and what would happen if they were to be caught by someone other than him.
“I’m not the worst thing here, Ms. Ashes. And although I am a monster, I’m not here to harm you. I’m actually rooting for you my deary. I
want you to win!”
“Rooting for me? What do you mean?”
“And I for one think it’s incredible what you and that soul mate of yours are trying to do. Once upon a time I even tried to do the exact same thing. I didn’t make it very far, obviously. But boy did I attempt it. The higher ups tend to have a good handle on these types of things, especially when it’s the likes of me that’s trying to become immortal. Nobody wants a monster to have that sort of power.”
“How do they control it? I mean how did they stop you?” Lydia didn’t care about him anymore. Her interest was feigned, but she thought she’d find answers if he could tell her exactly what they did to him.
“Well they do see most everything. They could be watching us right now. What happened was, I found my soul mate. She was a wonderful young woman, a monster like me. Kelly was her name. She was a murderer in her lifetime before coming here, killed over 50 men I think. But she was my monster. That’s for sure. We made our break for it, for the immortal arch, and almost managed to make it, too, but about a minute before reaching the arch we were attacked.”
“My Kelly always maintained it was the higher ups the entire time, and I didn’t believe her up until…” He trailed off without finishing. His eyes flickered with a sadness Lydia recognize all too well. It was grief. She held her gaze and
waited for him to continue.
“Well up until she was disintegrated before my eyes. It was too quick, I couldn’t... I couldn’t do anything. One minute we were hand in hand, running towards eternity, the next, nothing. A flash of light and my hand was empty. There weren’t even any remnants of her left. It was just me and nothingness. And then they sent me down here.”
Lydia wasn’t sure, but she could swear she saw one faint tear run down the side of Sean’s mangled cheek. It was incredible, in all sense of the word. A monster, dead and crying for the soul mate he lost who knows how long ago. For the first time since their encounter, she felt empathy for him.
‘Maybe monsters aren’t born at all. Maybe, just maybe, his soul was forced to bend that way.’ She wanted to speak the thought aloud, but couldn’t, so she just gave him a look of comfort and reached out to touch his monstrous hand.
“Well I see this party has taken a turn towards Sadsville.”
He was forcing a smile now, and Lydia realized that whatever was going to happen, whatever plan she decided to execute, wasn’t going to be easy and it could even lead to a fate much worse than a simple reincarnation.
“I guess we will have to reschedule!” He turned away, cackling again, as if the flash of humane sadness had left him completely.
“I’m sorry,” Lydia said, “You know, about Kelly and everything.”
“Oh deary, sorry’s only count in horse shoes and hand grenades. Or something like that.” He winked. “Now let’s get you back to your friends, wherever they may be.”
“You’re going to help me?”
“Only until you find Aiden and the other two. Oh, and Quincy. You’ll need him.”
“Well, where could they be?”
“Oh, they’re around. Just have to open your eyes.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why is everyone here so damn vague?”
They laughed together, which left Lydia’s ultimate question unanswered again. She decided to ask a second question, hopefully this time receiving an answer.
“Do you regret being, you know, evil? I mean you still had the same chances as any of us, but you were horrible in life. Do you wish you could have done it differently?”
“Not really, deary. I mean I wish I hadn’t eaten my family because I did die anyway. But you don’t get a second chance at the same life. Just a first chance at a new one.”
She didn’t say anything and just kept walking. The words repeated over and over in her head. ‘You don’t get a second chance at the same life. Just a first chance at a new one.’ She couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe her plan to be immortal with Aiden wasn’t the right path. Maybe she wanted a new first chance, too.
“Okay, so we must devise a plan, deary. To find your friends, I mean. And Mr. Peters. Any ideas?”
“Hey, you’re the basement expert. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
“Be careful, Lydia. Not every move is the right one.”