(The spooky story continues. Enjoy)
Chapter 5: A Prayer in the Basement
Normally, I like to think things through before doing them; the same was true at eleven. What kept me from taking a moment was the sudden recollection of Grandma’s instructions about going quickly. If I mucked about for too long the rats would start waking up and taking notice, and then I would be in real trouble.
What got me moving again were two thoughts. The first thought was: spiders were something I could deal with. Sure, I had visions of hundreds or thousands or millions of fatties jumping down at once and biting me to death. A video about bugs in second grade showed a spider sucking the juices out of a fly, and that image came to me as clear as day. But I knew the spiders were scared of me, too; so long as I didn’t disturb them, they would probably just stay up in their webs. The one that touched my neck had probably been disturbed when I looked around the corner, so I would be more careful about that. I had never been bit by one before, but Grandma told me it was like a mosquito bite, and I had survived plenty of those. The second thought: I had forgotten to pray. A silly thing, perhaps, but it wouldn’t hurt. I really was a good kid, so I was sure God would help me. My attention at church service was not always the best, but I knew a few prayers by heart. A whispered prayer was better than nothing.
I picked up the bucket and took a few steps around the first corner. The comfort of the big, grey door was behind me now. I decided I could do it.
“Our Father in Heaven,” I began, as I turned the corner to see another length of hall; this one had storage units on both sides. The lighting was odd because all the bulbs did not hang directly above the hallway. Strange patterns of blurred shadow formed on the floor. I was being very careful about not looking into the storage units. Grandma hadn’t specifically mentioned, but if there were rats in our storage unit they could be in any of them. The storage units were shabby looking, on the outside, and most had some kind of padlock. So far, they all seemed to have their numbers showing in black paint. My math skills were pretty good, so I noticed the numbering system was highly erratic. The numbers in the first hall started at five hundred and something. The second hall started at 452, followed by 430, 426, 419, and so on. I didn’t like checking the numbers because it meant I had to look at the doors; and might antagonise the rats.
“Hallowed be thy name,” I whispered as I passed the second corner. The hall was much like the other, except the air seemed to be getting heavier, damper. There was another turn at the end of this hall, too. A quick glance at the ceiling confirmed the spiders were still with me.
“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” The storage numbers were making even less sense. A couple of them didn’t even have numbers. I was getting more frightened by the increasing distance from the entrance. If rats did show up, I would have to make a long, winding run for safety. I tried to focus on moving quietly and praying. After all, God was up there with mom and dad, and my little brother, too; I needed all the help I could get.
“On earth, as it is in Heaven.” I passed the third corner. The air was positively stale in the next stretch. Someone had left a broken chair, lying on its side, next to locker 297. Other than the strange feel of the air and my increasing distance from the safety of the grey door, I was starting to feel the tiniest bit better. I was making progress and there had been no sign of rats. The numbers on the units didn’t go down evenly, but they went down, so I was getting closer to 106.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” I rounded the fourth corner and thought I would die. At least one or two bulbs had burnt out along this hall. The tiny bit of light that carried over from the other hall was barely enough to see by. Pure force of will kept me moving because this fresh scare.
“And forgive us our trespasses.” I squinted through the dim light, gripped with fear. I tried to imagine Grandma coming down here with her arthritis, hurting the whole time, having trouble seeing the way. I kept moving forward, one scared step at a time. The lighting was roughly the same as I turned the next corner. The air got worse, though, and actually started to smell; it was a familiar smell I couldn’t quite place. I wondered if it was a rat smell. More than ever, I wanted to get the chore over with. There was another turn at the end of this hall. It started to feel like a nightmare.
“As we forgive those who trespass against us,” I whispered, almost forgetting to keep praying. By the time I made the next turn, things had changed from bad to much worse. The smell was a little stronger, and definitely more familiar. It was an unpleasant, earthy smell, so thick I thought it would never leave my nose. There was a single bulb at the end of the hall, dustier and dimmer than the others, making this the darkest length of hallway yet. As I made my way to the dim glow at the end of the hall, I noticed very few of the units were locked; a couple of them even had their doors hanging open to reveal sinister interiors, full of dust and shadows. The unit numbers only became clear to me when I got to the end of the row, close to the dusty little bulb. It was hard to tell for certain, but it looked like 159. I reasoned that the next length of hall would probably be the last, unless the numbers were completely mixed up.
“And lead us not into temptation,” I continued as I rounded the sixth, and hopefully last, corner. Two bulbs lit the way, this time, and they were nearest to me. The problem was that the far end of the hall was obscured in darkness, making it tougher than ever. Luckily, the left side of the hall was made of the same grey cinder block as the first length of hallway. Even my eleven year old sense of logic suggested the end was close, though it was darker and smellier than I cared for.
“But deliver us from evil,” I spoke, feeling like the words were sucked away into the darkness. This stretch made me think of a dungeon, like in the days of knights and maidens. It was a smelly, dark basement with lots of little passageways; all it needed were whips and chains on the walls to be complete. I tried to rid my mind of those thoughts. The door to locker 123, about half way up the hall, was completely off its hinges and lying inside the locker itself. I was angry with myself for having looked inside, but too scared for the feeling to linger. The ending of the Lord’s Prayer was badly timed because I felt like I needed it more than ever. I passed the final light bulb and got my first good look at the end of the storage, sort of.
The hall ended with a large door that appeared to be grey, like the entrance, with a nook to the left of it. A door! A door! I was filled with a flash of hope as I approached. I couldn’t be so easily trapped by the rats, after all. My hope didn’t last. The door was locked with two bolts, one at the top and another at the bottom. Each was secured with an oversized padlock, barring any passage to freedom. A large, shallow puddle of water had formed around the bottom of the door; a leaky pipe was my guess. The loss of that quick, hopeful moment was far worse than never having it.
The light was extremely dim at that point, and the bucket felt heavier than ever. The last unit to my right had no number, but the one before it was 118. I reached the grey, locked door and looked to the left. Despite the darkness, I made out the cheap wooden bars of a final storage locker. It was about ten feet down a dead end hall; and maybe it was just my imagination, but I could have sworn I saw the number 106 through the gloom.
The Wye Marsh, I thought to myself. The place smelled like the Wye Marsh. I had been there twice on school trips. The Wye Marsh was a swamp, just south of town, with a conservation and education center. It drew plenty of students and summer tourists to see some of the local bugs, animals and plants living in the marsh. It was spring when I first visited the place, and the smell of rot was the first thing I noticed. All the kids in my class were going on and making jokes about the terrible smell. Sidney Nelson got into trouble for making jokes about frog farts. It was practically the same smell in the storage, which got me thinking the building might have been built on a marsh. Or maybe Sidney Nelson was wrong, and it really was rat farts. Either way, it wasn’t good.
To make matters worse, I had the terrible feeling I was being watched; and it wasn’t spiders or rats doing the watching. I managed to convince myself it was all in my head and kept on toward the last unit, which had to be 106. Those last steps were the longest. Grandma had specifically said there were rats in that storage, and I was scared silly about it. Finally, I stopped in the middle of the hall, a good five feet from 106; I was not going any closer to a nest of rats. With a quiet sigh, I placed the bucket on the floor and turned to go.
Something moved in 106. It was a shifting sound, like a heavy rug being dragged over the floor. It is always difficult to judge things when you are scared, but I couldn’t imagine the size of rat it would take to make that sound. My heart skipped a beat and I ran without looking back. My imagination was more than capable of filling in the blanks, so looking back was unnecessary.