(Even more spooky fun)
Chapter 7: An Easier Return
The shakes started before I got onto the elevator, and only a strange encounter settled my nerves. The elevator stopped on the third floor, and there was Mr. Quesnelle. He got on and gave me a strange look as he pressed the ground floor button. Mr. Quesnelle was one of many old people in the building. I was sure he must have been one hundred, but he was probably in his late sixties. Like most of the people in the building, I was familiar enough with Mr. Quesnelle to know he was a local, retired businessman who had spent time on town council. A lot of people seemed to know him and I remembered him best from the year before, when Mrs. Quesnelle passed away from cancer. We didn’t attend the funeral, on account of Grandma’s arthritis, but we sent a card. I was quite shocked to be in the elevator with him so early in the morning. Mr. Quesnelle was dressed up nicely, with a suit, tie and shiny shoes; I felt self-conscious in my dirty overalls and shirt.
“Good morning, Mr. Quesnelle,” I said, almost suddenly. It seemed as though I had to say something, and good manners were important.
“Good morning, Alice,” he said, surprising me by remembering my name. “Up early, are we?” There was more to his question, of course, than the time of day. He was asking what I was doing up at this time of day, by myself, in dirty clothes, with a weird fishing rod contraption. Thankfully, I was prepared for just that kind of question.
“Yes, sir,” I said, trying to sound like I was doing something ordinary on an ordinary day, “I’m trying out my science project by the river.” I had hoped that would satisfy him, but I was prepared for his next question, too.
“Seems an odd time of day for that,” he commented casually. “I usually don’t see you up this early.”
“I know, but they changed the swimming schedule at the Y, so I have to get this done early.” Somehow, this seemed like a poor response, poorer than when I thought it up. “You’re up early, too, Mr. Quesnelle. Are you going for a walk?” It was a stupid question, really, but it was better to start asking than keep answering.
“Not this early,” he said, acting like I’d asked a silly question. “As it happens, I am going to church a little early to help prepare the breakfast for after the mass.”
“Oh,” was all I managed to say. I knew he was Catholic, and a member of the Knights of Columbus, so he went to a different church. Church breakfast events were fairly popular, so it made sense that they needed them prepared early.
The elevator reached ground, saving me from having to extend the awkward conversation. “I know Elwynn has been in poor health lately,” he said as he left the elevator, “but you are both welcome to come for our breakfast. It starts after nine. There will be pancakes.” He raised an amused eyebrow, as though pancakes were a good draw.
“Thanks, Mr. Quesnelle,” I said, happy to have talked about something other than me, “I’ll let Grandma know.”
“Good day, Alice,” he said, tipping his hat as the elevator door closed behind him, “and be careful with your project.”
“I will,” I started to say before the door cut me off.
I felt strangely relaxed after meeting Mr. Quesnelle. It was like a dose of reality had shaken me out of my fearful haze. Getting the bucket back seemed like an easy task, all of a sudden.
I didn’t meet anyone else on my way. I opened the door to the storage with care; I had probably riled up the rats, last time, and didn’t know if they would stay active or not. I poked my head around the corner. Nothing had changed, so I slipped through the door.
I went quickly this time, only slowing a bit as I rounded corners. As I got closer, I could make out my footprints in the thin dust on the floor. The smell was there again, so I tried thinking of flowers and spices. It was much easier than the previous night, with no bucket and a better sense of my destination. I was afraid, but not in complete terror.
As I passed the last corner, I turned the flashlight on. It was not the best flashlight, for sure, but it threw light better than any of the bulbs. I pointed it down the hall, where I could see the other grey door and the floor in between. I could not see the bucket from the end of the hall, so the farmer must have left it closer to 106. I crept closer, going slowly now, half ready to run away. With each couple of steps, I craned my neck to see around the corner of the nook. I was almost at the grey door before I caught sight of the bucket. The stupid farmer had left it really close to the door of 106, which was the worst place of all. If I could have kicked the farmer in the shins, right then and there, I would have. Luckily, I was prepared.
I set the flashlight down and pointing at the bucket; it was too far to light it really well, but it helped. I didn’t even try to make out the vague, shadowy shapes in the locker. I unwound my string and hook, being careful not to tangle it up. I hadn’t measured the string carefully, but the stick and string together would be more than enough to reach the bucket. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet away. I tried flinging the hook with the stick, but knew it would fail after a single try. I tossed the hook by hand, and struck the bucket on the first attempt. Unfortunately, the sound of it clanging on the bucket was magnified in the quiet of the storage; the fear of waking the rats came back. Did I wake them? Was I about to be attacked by a zillion rats?
The rats didn’t come, and my desire to run for the door passed. I reeled in the coat hanger as carefully as I could, but even that made a racket. I decided to make one more attempt with the hook before trying something less noisy. I felt like I had pushed my luck too far already. My second throw was off the mark, and I completely missed the bucket. I decided to call the hook thing a dud and try another approach. I crept close to the bucket and used the stick to get under the handle, ever so slightly, and pull it closer to me. This worked well, except for putting me closer to 106. The feeling of being watched was stronger than ever. The bucket got closer and closer as I pulled it in short hops; it seemed to take forever.
Something made a sound in the storage; not as loud as before, but enough to hear. It was a breathing type of sound, if I had to describe it. Whatever additional sound it might have made was lost as I flinched hard and knocked the bucket over, which drowned out the sound. The upside of all this was the bucket falling into my reach. I grabbed it and ran. I nearly forgot the flashlight in my haste. The run back was nearly as fast as the previous one, but I had a bucket and stick to carry with me. As I reached the safety of the grey door, I took a glance back down the hall; if something was following me, it was a lot slower than I was.
Luckily, my trip up the elevator was clear of people. I was in a better state than the night before, but probably didn’t have it in me to speak with anyone. The apartment felt like a refuge from the madness in the basement, again.
Grandma was awake when I locked the door behind me. She had not completely shaken off the effects of the pill, but was mostly okay.
“Alice,” she said, “I called for you, dear. Where were you?” The way she spoke told me she was making an effort to think, despite fatigue. I supposed she was too foggy to remember.
I held the bucket up to show her. “Just getting the bucket, Grandma,” I said politely. “I tried to be quick.”
Grandma looked at me and the bucket like I’d asked a complicated question. It didn’t register with her. After a long, awkward moment, she slipped back to sleep with her eyes half open. The routine of waking in fits and starts was familiar enough; I just let her be and continued what I was doing.
I returned the bucket to the refrigerator. After that, I remembered to strip off the dirty clothes before I put everything back in place; I stowed my improvised fishing rod under my bed. All this was done with half an eye on Grandma. I washed up in the sink and put on fresh clothes for the day; exhausted at twenty to seven.
“Alice, dear, I am thirsty. Could you pour me a glass of water?” Grandma asked, as I was about to sit down.
“Yes,” I said, moving to the kitchen already, “just a second.” I poured her some water and got it to her hand. She drank a little and put the glass down. It occurred to me that she hadn’t eaten or drank much since returning from the hospital, and that needed to change. I wasn’t doing badly, but I had been able to eat during her rests.
“Are you hungry, Grandma?” I asked. “Do you need something else?”
“I need to use the bathroom, dear,” she said quietly. “Then I could use a bite, I suppose.”
“I can help you again,” I offered. Her knee did look a lot better; the swelling and colour were far better than before. Anyway, she accepted my help and we got her taken care of. Her knee seemed a lot stronger and she was miles ahead of where she had been. Breakfast wasn’t terribly fancy; fried eggs and toast. She was still pained from her trip to the bathroom, eating slowly and deliberately. I made tea and cleaned the table before sitting down.
“You took care of the bucket?” she asked, sipping her tea, like asking if I had taken out the garbage.
“Yes, Grandma,” I said, “but it was really scary. I, I–” Emotions stifled my words, and I was crying before I realised it. I had hoped I wouldn’t break down in front of her.
“It’s all right, dear,” Grandma said in a soothing voice. I went to her and we hugged for a minute as I sobbed away a day and night of fear. I was a wreck.
“Grandma,” I said, as the tears and sobbing finished, “I think there is something else in the storage.”
Grandma paused and looked at me, like she was trying to figure out if I was lying. “Why do you say that, dear?”
“Something moved when I went down there, both times. It is bigger than a rat, Grandma. I don’t know if I can go back down there. I’m so scared.” I started to cry again, but it didn’t last, I was mentally exhausted.
“There, there,” Grandma said, holding me again. “Everything will be okay, dear. Maybe you won’t have to go down there again. Or maybe you won’t have to go there more than once more. My knee already feels so much better.”
That wasn’t very reassuring. Grandma really couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds, and that was with my help. How could she honestly think of doing the trip to the storage, especially carrying the bucket? It was madness to think otherwise, even the doctor had said so.
I wanted to tell her that she was being stupid. I wanted to run away. I wanted to throw the bucket into the garbage and let the farmer starve. Instead, I told Grandma I would be okay and finished my tea.