I will be away this weekend and unable to post anything. I will be driving, listening to podcasts and visiting family, mostly.
If I get ambitious, and I do mean if, a short little piece might get posted early next week. We’ll see.
I will be away this weekend and unable to post anything. I will be driving, listening to podcasts and visiting family, mostly.
If I get ambitious, and I do mean if, a short little piece might get posted early next week. We’ll see.
Riverview Apartments may have been a safety disaster, by far, but they had ridiculously good insurance. I was well taken care of in the years that followed. My mom’s distant cousin, Tina, ended up taking me in. The move to Alberta was the best thing that could have happened to me, considering. I won’t plague you with the various therapy and counseling measures I needed to adjust to a life without monsters; just realise I was generally less stable than your typical teenager and young adult. Who am I fooling? I have never been a completely stable adult. I never did tell the truth about my experience with Grandma and the monster. Who would have believed me if I had, right? I told everyone I woke up to the smell of smoke and tried to get Grandma out, but ran for it when the smoke was too bad. The knock on my head happened when I fell in the stairwell, not when Grandpa slugged me in the basement. Instead, I tried to forget about it and move on. At eleven years old, I had already dealt with the loss of family once, so doing it again wasn’t as brutal. Therapists would prattle on about survivor guilt and mourning while I secretly dealt with my fear of basements and sick, grumpy people. I went on with my life, despite the quirks, fears and neurotic tendencies that stuck with me, even to this day.
There’s nothing I could say or do to prove my sanity; even though my last two psychiatrists gave me a pass. The proof burned down that night. God knows, when I’m having a bad day I still deal with the guilt of Grandma, the people who died in Riverview Apartments that night, and, in some completely screwy way, even Grandpa.
You may have wondered why I’ve written all this down. If you guessed I was seeking closure or some type of redemption, you guessed wrong. No, I am way past that. I am sixty-four, now. I am a vegetarian. I spent most of my adult life working as an airline stewardess. I was married for a few years, and divorced. No kids. Airline work was perfect because I have trouble settling in one place, and airplanes have no basements. Therapists would suggest I have attachment issues, and they would be right; not that it bothers me, really. I retired from the airline a few years back. Now, I work part-time in a flower shop in Kitchener; yes, back to the start. The house I live in has no basement. I still keep in touch with Tina, even though she is living in a Regina retirement home. She would tell you otherwise, but she’s showing the early signs of dementia.
Anyway, I’m already trying to avoid answering the question; story of my life. Why write this? Why now? What’s the point? I’ll spit it out.
Earlier this year, I began having these flashes of anger, verging on rage. It started with difficult customers at the flower shop, but the spiking emotions began to happen almost randomly, after a while. I worked as a stewardess long enough to be immune to crap from customers, and I didn’t feel burnt out, so I was confused. At first, I wondered if this was some sort of delayed reaction, post traumatic behaviour; so I wrote it off. On especially bad days I took a depressant, which didn’t solve the problem but kept me calm. About a week ago, I noticed the skin on my left arm was irritated and dry. That developed into a rash that I used vitamin E and aloe to soothe. Yesterday, the green spots showed up. After the mother of all panic attacks had passed, I went to the emergency room of the hospital and waited forever to see a doctor. His diagnosis: probably an allergic reaction or infection. Of course, he wasn’t sure.
On my way back from the hospital last night, I realised two things had gone completely over my head, until then. A few months ago, I started craving, and eating, the odd bit of meat, contrary to many years of dedicated, vegetarian living. This was roughly around the time I started experiencing the angry spells. It was just the odd craving, here and there; I would have a hamburger at lunch or a hot dog in the park. The other thing I noticed was that the meat always seemed overcooked. I found a street vendor willing to undercook my burger for a few extra bucks, and it tasted almost perfect to me. All of that went over my head until last night, and I realised what was happening. The left arm was where he grabbed me, and now there are green, smelly spots on it.
Three hours ago, I ate a package of raw hamburger; and it tasted better than anything I’ve had in ages. If there had been more, I would have eaten it. That was the last proof I needed. I am the monster now. That old bastard got me, after all.
So, to answer your question more concisely, I am writing this as a warning. I plan to mail copies to the authorities. That will force me to do myself in because I might chicken out, otherwise. I don’t want someone else left in the same position I was at eleven years old. Years of being neurotic about personal security, among other things, have put me in possession of a thirty-eight calibre pistol. I took it out last night, but was afraid to use it. Even now, I’m afraid to do it. I have the email addresses for public tips to the regional, provincial and federal police; and, for good measure, the public health unit. Once I send this, I’m sure I can do the right thing; at least, I hope I can. I don’t want to become a monster.
(Alice is in a tight spot. Is she up to it?)
Chapter 10: A Battle in the Dark
In that second of recognition, I was frozen with fear. Killing it had seemed like such an easy task before I entered the locker. Now, face to face, I wasn’t sure I could do it. The tentacles that flowed from the bottom half of the creature were still; the upper part, the human-looking part, looked like a deformed man at rest. His face held only the faintest resemblance to the cranky old man I remembered as a child. The mouth that hung open was a little too large to be normal, and, even though there were several missing, the teeth were sharp and pointy, like a dinosaur’s. For the millionth time, I wanted to run.
The monster twitched and shivered. It grasped at the corner of a blanket with a couple of tentacles and covered itself. This was such a human action it shocked me. Could I have been wrong about Grandpa? Was I really about to murder a person for no reason other than my blind, stupid fear? Was I more of a monster for wanting to do it? My mind wandered to the stories I occasionally heard in the news, stories about other countries where people were attacked or killed because they were different. I always felt bad for those people; Grandma had told me to pray for them and the people who hurt them.
While I battled my conscience, Grandpa stirred. One of his watery, red eyes opened to peer at me. He must have been half asleep. He jumped back and growled at me. I jumped back, too. The next thing I knew, one of his tentacles lashed out and knocked the flashlight from my hands. It tumbled to the floor and started to flicker on and off. Grandpa was awake, but he didn’t seem very steady. I had a moment of hope as he lunged and I sidestepped into the corridor. That seemed to outrage him; he crashed through the bars, destroying the entire front of the locker in one, violent push. This was much stronger than I had imaged. The shattered wall of wood pulled down some of the wires hanging in the ceiling and I heard cracking and popping sounds from 106, or what remained of it. The lights in the storage began to flicker. I don’t know how, but I knew the time to strike had come; if I waited any longer, I would be in the dark and a lot of danger.
The light held for long enough to make out his body flopping against the wall, tentacles coiling and twisting madly. I rushed forward and thrust the stick into the center of his body with every ounce of strength I had. It felt like I got him. There was a second of heavy resistance followed by the stick moving freely forward. I felt like a monster slayer, knight and King Arthur, all put together.
Grandpa started screaming like wild, so loud I thought someone might hear. He lashed out with one of those human arms and caught me squarely in the head. The corridor swam before my eyes and I was on the floor, without remembering the fall. I could taste blood in my mouth and feel it on my face, warm and salty. The corridor smelled like smoke. I looked around, confused, and noticed the remains of 106 had caught fire. In the light of that fire, Grandpa lay on his side, twitching, with the stick lodged firmly in place. I was disoriented, but had enough instinct and adrenaline to get moving.
My head hurt like I’d bashed it off a wall. The corridor was almost completely dark as I stumbled out. It is something of a miracle that I made it to the door. The hall was filled with smoke, too. I was more confused than ever. I tried to get to the other end of the basement hall so I could attempt the stairs, but the smoke was so thick I could hardly breathe. The exit next to the elevator was open, with a few people gathered around it, already. I made it half way to the door before Mr. Gruber and Mr. Quesnelle came and pulled me the rest of the way. In my mental haze, the fact it was dark outside confused me; I had expected sunlight, somehow.
“Alice,” Mr. Quesnelle asked me in a scared voice, “are you all right?”
“Grandma,” I said, coughing hoarsely. “She needs help.” It was all I managed to get out before a wave of nausea and dizziness washed over me.
“The firemen have been called,” Mr. Gruber said.
“The fire department will get her out, Alice,” Mr. Quesnelle said, trying to be comforting. “They are almost here now.”
The little group of tenants guided me to the lawn on the other side of the parking lot. I hadn’t sat for more than a minute when a loud boom came from the building, followed by the longest, loudest jingling and crackling sounds I’d ever heard. When I looked, the whole side of the Riverview Apartments was raining down broken glass and chips of masonry; it rained down onto the parking lot, shattering and crashing with a sound like a waterfall, mixed with screams from the building. About five seconds later, the crashing stopped and was replaced with muttering and shocked voices from the little group of residents around me. The lights in the building had gone out. I was too far gone to appreciate how lucky we were to have moved away from the building, seconds before.
“Jesus,” Mr. Gruber swore, “that must have been the gas. We need to move farther away, in case something else blows.”
I was about to protest when another wave of nausea hit me and I threw up on the grass. All I could think of was Grandma, and how she might be sleeping through all this. The thought of losing her made me even more nauseous, and I nearly threw up again. Only Mr. Quesnelle managed to get me moving, assuring me that the firemen would save her.
The fire was out of control by the time the fire trucks had set up. Later on, the safety people discovered the wiring was faulty and the gas water heater wasn’t maintained properly. After the investigation, they tore down the building. Most of the bodies were recovered, including Grandma’s, but nothing was ever mentioned about the presence of a monster. A big part of the basement had caved in, so I always assumed that the combination of fire and rubble had obscured his features enough to hide his form.
(Alice makes a difficult, dangerous choice in dealing with her discovery in 106)
Chapter 9: A Desperate Solution
I paused. A lot was going through my head. I could tell from the way she asked that caring for Grandpa was not an option. When she started quoting the Bible, she was serious and argument pointless. In this case, I was smart and broke a commandment with my response.
“Yes, Grandma,” I said, hoping I sounded agreeable.
“I know it is scary, dear,” she said, trying to reassure. “Grandpa is terrible and the storage is an unpleasant place, but don’t you fear. Grandma has tricks of her own.”
“What tricks, Grandma?” I was genuinely interested now.
“Well, when Grandpa started getting sick, he always fussed about the light, especially if it was strong. That’s got worse since he’s been downstairs. The flashlight is bright and makes him uncomfortable, especially if you shine it in his eyes. If he gets excited, I use that on him.”
“Okay. Thanks, Grandma,” I said absently. I was forming plans of my own, and that bit of information might help.
I snuck down, early the next morning. This time I brought the flashlight and raid can. A little raid in the eyes wouldn’t tickle if he got too close.
I opened the door a crack and peeked in. Nothing had changed. I went carefully along the corridors until the final turn. Everything was quiet as I crept up to the dead end at 106. I turned on the flashlight before I rounded the corner. The bucket was close to the locker again, but the stick was roughly where I left it.
“Grandpa,” I said calmly, “I know about you now. Grandma told me everything. I’m sorry I said mean things to you. I understand now. I’m just going to bring the bucket back, okay?”
There was a bit of gurgling I didn’t understand. From through the wooden bars of the storage, the flashlight caught two, red eyes in the darkness. “Pretty Alice,” he said in that gross voice. “Grown ap now, big gurl.”
“Yes, all grown up,” I said, reaching down and grabbing the stick. “I’m just getting the bucket now.”
“Shtay. Shtay and visat wish mee.”
I reached out with the stick, going for the bucket. “I’m really busy, Grandpa,” I said. “Grandma’s a little sick, so I have to care for her. Maybe I’ll have time to visit later.”
A tentacle lashed out from between the bars and grabbed onto the stick, giving it a sharp yank that pulled me down. I dropped the flashlight as I fell, and he sprang from the locker with speed I never suspected. The flashlight had fallen so that it pointed to the wall, blinding me. The thing, Grandpa, was like a bunch of octopus legs coming out from the bottom of a human chest. The legs would grab the ground in front and pull it along. The human arms were long and gangly, with freakishly big hands and long fingers. I couldn’t see his head very well, but it seemed to have shrunk into his shoulders. Even in the dark, I could see his red eyes as those slimy tentacles grabbed my arm so tight it hurt.
My free arm already had a hold of the raid can and I sprayed it straight at his eyes. The outcome was better than I had hoped. In one motion, Grandpa sprang back and released me. He was making noises that were a combination of screaming and moaning. I got to my feet, grabbing the flashlight and bucket before I ran. Grandpa lay on the floor, tentacles twisting and coiling almost franticly as I got away.
“Just for that, food will be late next time!” I called back at him.
Grandma was asleep when I got back. The tentacles left a greasy, grey slime on my arm that smelled bad and grossed me out. I took an extra long bath before school that day.
The days that followed are something of a blur. All I remember was plotting the end of Grandpa. I didn’t think of him as my grandfather, of course; he was just a monster that had been my grandfather a long time ago. Even before he tried to grab me in the storage, I knew he had to die. I got lucky the last time, but sooner or later he would catch me and, well, I still don’t like to think about that. My basic plan came to me quickly; the details kept me thinking and honing the plan to a deadly point. I slept lightly on those nights. The apartment had old, heavy doors and decent locks, but the thought of Grandpa getting out was more than I could bear. I even had visions of him crawling up the wall to the balcony.
Grandma had to be kept out of the whole thing. She was determined to care for Grandpa until he died. I figured she would try to stop me if she knew what I was up to. I didn’t talk about Grandpa with her, other than agreeing to bring the bucket down until she was better. Her knee continued to improve, but the strength was gone.
I waited until Tuesday to bring the bucket down; and so began my plan. It wasn’t really late, but later than usual. The plan was brutally easy. I slipped a pain pill into Grandma’s tea that evening, just to make sure she slept through the night. Her sleeping habits had been odd since her injury, and she was prone to falling asleep early, anyway. By nine o’clock, she was out like a light.
I got all of the remaining packages of her pain medication together in my room. They were all the samples left from the doctor. I opened them up and used a ladle to crush them in a soup bowl. There were six pills worth of powder in the bowl when I was finished. I sprinkled the powder over the meat in the bucket, and stirred it up. Body weight and dosage were not really concepts I understood as an eleven year old, however, I guessed six pills would be more than enough to make him sleep.
My next task had already been started the previous night. My trusty stick was nearly sharpened to a point. I spent the next hour making the point sharper, and hopefully more deadly. At the appointed time, I took the bucket to the storage.
I was more concerned about this trip than the last. Grandpa never seemed to wander far from 106, if the tracks in the dust were any indication, but I was very worried he would try to ambush me from one of the lockers along the way. I approached the end of the storage by shining the flashlight ahead of me with great care, checking every locker. I left the bucket as far from 106 as I thought I could get away with. There was no point in giving him an easy opportunity.
“Alice,” his gross voice came from around the corner. “I sarry. I bad. Alice good gurl.”
I was shocked that he would try and play for sympathy. He must have thought I was an idiot, or a much younger girl. My sympathy had dried up already, and there was nothing left to offer a monster. I left, offering him a false acceptance of his apology to keep him believing there was hope from me. Eat up, asshole, eat up.
I didn’t sleep that night. I fussed about the point I’d whittled into the stick and practiced using it like a spear. I was a monster slayer, or about to be. If the plan worked out, I wouldn’t have to do much more than jab a stick into the thing and leave. Six of those pills might have killed him, too, if I was lucky; but the thought didn’t occur to me. I let three hours pass before I went down to face him.
As I rounded the last corner, there was no sign of him. He could not have gone far. I crept to the light nearest 106 and peeked around. He was asleep or being extremely quiet, and I already knew how quiet he could be. The flashlight didn’t do enough to light up the inside of the locker. I took a deep breath and tip-toed closer. I was halfway there when I noticed sweat dripping down my forehead, already; the place wasn’t even warm. I was getting scared without noticing.
The bucket was in the usual place. The door to 106, now that I could see it up close, was a grungy thing. It was covered in stains and mold. It had no lock, so I used the edge of the stick to pull it open. The flashlight beam picked up peculiar forms and shapes inside the locker. I couldn’t see the inside very well, but something was definitely in there. I took two steps in before I figured out what I was seeing.
The place was filthy, I could smell that; but the coating of slime and mildew on the walls gave away the reason. There were several blankets on the floor, and one hanging on the wall facing the corridor. The odd bit of bone and rubbish seemed to be pushed up into corners around the wall. Lastly, in the far corner, huddled in ragged blankets, lay the sleeping monster.
(Alice faces the terrible secret in 106)
Chapter 8: The Secret in 106
Life went back to normal over the next few days. I had to do more chores and help Grandma do simple things, but she was mostly okay. She took one more of the pills from the doctor, but, other than that, she toughed it out. Her knee did look better with each passing day; however, Grandma was nowhere close to mobile. There wasn’t much I could do to help her. The doctor said rest and really gentle stretching were the best cures.
By Thursday night, the bucket was full again, and Grandma asked me to go down with it; I had been hoping she would forget.
“Please, Alice,” she said, noting my obvious fear, “my knee is much better now, so I’m sure this will be the last time you need to do it.”
I decided that one last effort with the bucket wouldn’t kill me. For all my fear, I had not been harmed in the storage. What would one more trip hurt?
Ten minutes after ten saw me descend to the storage, bucket and stick in hand. Again, I met no one. The storage looked the same as before, turn after turn, as I wound my way in. At the final turn to 106, I put the bucket down and used the stick to push it along the floor to the storage door. Just when I thought I was scot free, the bucket caught on the floor and tipped over, spilling meat, bones, juices and all. I was more angry than frightened at my clumsiness, and my emotions blinded my better judgement.
This is stupid, I thought to myself as I stomped over to the bucket; after all, I’d probably just scared myself into hearing things. I righted the bucket and started to put the meat back into it when something touched my leg. It was too firm a touch to have been a spider. I let out a short scream and jumped away from the storage, causing myself to fall. I took a terrified look at the storage as I scrambled away. Even in the dim light, I was able to see something long and snakelike pull back between the slats of 106, disappearing in the murky darkness.
“Asshole!” I yelled, as I got to my feet. It was the worst word I knew, and I put every ounce of angry, fearful emotion behind it.
“Alice,” came a deep, gurgling and unexpected reply. “Bad gurl.”
I froze in place. I still can’t say what kept me there. My best guess is I never imagined something with a voice, speaking words. Part of me wondered what sort of person would go to this extreme to scare me. Either way, my anger converted to a flash of courage in seconds.
“You asshole!” I called out again, directing my rage at this deranged person. “You’re the one who’s bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!” This was as angry as I’d been in my life, and if I had had a proper range of vulgar words to use, I would have used them all.
Whoever was in 106 pushed the door open, causing me to back up again. Whoever it was stood as tall as I did; though they were substantially wider. I did not need to see clearly to know it was a monster. Not a deformed person or animal, but a true, blue monster from the scariest movies and books. It moved out of 106 with a squishy, sliding sound, like dragging a wet rug over thick mud; and it moved strangely, like it was half crawling, half hopping.
“Baad Alice,” it said again. “Draapping tha bucket. Spilling tha food an tha floor.”
“How do you know my name?” I asked when I had gone as far from the thing as I could without losing sight of it.
“You dan’t remembar mee, Alice?” it asked. The voice was very peculiar, like someone was trying to talk with a mouth full of water. Something about the voice, despite how it sounded, was familiar to me. At that moment, however, I was more focused on running than placing the voice of a monster.
“I don’t know any monsters,” I said.
It started making short, choking sounds I didn’t immediately identify as laughter. This thing was laughing at me, and my slight calm was immediately disturbed by another flash of anger.
“What’s so funny, asshole? Nobody likes asshole monsters!”
It stopped laughing. “Not monstar, Alice. Graandpa. Rememba now?”
Grandpa? I tried to look carefully at it, but there was nothing more to see in that light. My head was starting to spin. The thing, monster or Grandpa, started to laugh again, and I simply ran for the door. Either it didn’t chase me or was too slow to catch me. I took the stairs, two at a time, until I got to the fifth floor, barely able to unlock the apartment with shaking hands.
Grandma had been sleeping when I got in, but my hasty entry woke her. I was sweaty, shaky and felt faint.
“Alice, dear,” Grandma said, still groggy with sleep, “is everything okay?”
“Why is Grandpa in the basement?” I blurted out, harshly, not even sure why I asked it that way. “And why is he like that? What’s going on, Grandma?”
That shocked her out of her slumber. “What silly questions, dear. Did the rats frighten you again?”
I had a very sudden and harsh jolt of maturity. Nothing was right about the situation, and Grandma was holding back, trying to pretend she didn’t know. I had my first ever doubts about her character, and I felt very alone, very cheated.
“Grandpa is in the storage,” I stated without any doubt in my voice, the words forming around the obvious connections my mind was making, “and he is a monster. The meat bucket is how you feed him.”
Grandma made one last attempt to explain it away. “Alice, that’s not nice to say. Your grandfather passed away a long time ago. You have just scared yourself into seeing things in the shadows.”
“No,” I interrupted. “He talked to me. I remembered the voice. It’s him. What’s going on, Grandma? Please, tell me.” I felt like crying, only it wouldn’t happen. Grandma had lied to me about something big; I had to know what it was.
A serious look crossed her face, the kind that was almost angry. “Alice,” she said, pausing for a moment, “there are some things I need to tell you. I am sorry you had to find all this out. I was going to tell you, but I didn’t know how to say it. You might as well sit down, dear.”
I sat at the table, but I kept my distance from her. In some strange way, I was afraid of her, like maybe she was a monster, too.
“When you were little, Grandpa was already getting sick,” Grandma continued. “At first, we didn’t know what it was. Grandpa got these little green blisters and felt sick all the time. The doctors didn’t know what it was. They said he probably had an allergy or infection, and things like that. They knew nothing. Grandpa got so mad he refused to see doctors anymore. He got worse, though.
“Soon, he had trouble keeping food down. The only thing he could eat without making him sick was meat, and the rarer the better. For a short time, I thought he would be all right with that. Then, his mood started changing and he got, well, grumpy. He got angry and mean over any little thing. What’s worse is he started getting rough with me. Sure, he couldn’t get around very well but he was still quite strong, and something about him wasn’t right.”
Grandma stopped to grab a tissue. She was fighting her tears. “I’m sorry, dear. I’ve never told this to a soul, and it’s hard to say the words.” She paused to collect herself before continuing. I didn’t offer her any comfort; something still felt wrong about the entire situation.
“That last Christmas you were here, that was the last normal time he had. After you and your parents left, Grandpa’s body started to change. He started to have long, stringy growths from his legs and waist. And his arms seemed to grow, and his fingers, too. His teeth…” Grandma was never an actress about things, so I could tell the tears were real, but I still didn’t offer any comfort.
“Anyway, I couldn’t keep him in the apartment. The doctors kept calling and asking about him; worried about him spreading a disease to the general public. That’s when I put him in the storage unit. I told the police he wandered off in the night, and they believed it. A few weeks later they found a body near Vasey, and it looked a little like Grandpa when I saw it at the morgue, even though it was a bit rotten. I told them it was him and that was the end of it.”
“After that, I tried to get him back into the apartment, but we nearly got caught. So I set him up with some blankets and things. He has been there ever since. He doesn’t eat much and gets his water from the leak under the door. I know he is deformed; he’s worse than before, but it wouldn’t be Christian to let him die. Besides, I have a marital and moral obligation to support him.”
“Is he still mean?” I asked.
“I won’t lie to you, Alice. He has become the monster he appears to be. That’s why I warned you about rats and told you not to linger there. I don’t know what he might do if he caught you.”
“Why?” I asked, feeling a bit angry at her, knowing what she knew the entire time. “What has he done to you?”
Grandma hesitated, fighting tears again. “At first,” she said, “he would threaten me. Later, he was rough with me again. The only way I had to keep him under control was to cut off his food. After keeping him hungry a few times, he has learned to behave. That’s why I only feed him every few days. Now he is good to me, even if he’s unhappy about it.”
“Why didn’t you take him to a doctor?” I was full of questions and ideas, but only a few that needed answering. “A real doctor, I mean, that knew how bad Grandpa got. They might have done something.”
“You see, Alice,” Grandma said, openly crying now, “if I had done that they would have taken Grandpa away. Worse yet, they would have taken him somewhere terrible and treated him badly.”
“Like a monster,” I said.
“Yes, Alice, just like a monster. That’s why I have to take care of him, why we have to take care of him. He’s still a person, dear, even if he’s gone bad. If I tell the police or doctors, they will kill him, even if they don’t do it right away. If I stop feeding him, he will die. Thou shalt not kill, Alice; that is a commandment from the highest authority. Do you understand, dear? You will help me take care of him, won’t you dear?”
(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.
(More horrific fun)
Chapter 6: Planning
I ran like the wind, or it sure felt like I did. I took the quickest glance back as I turned the first corner, only to see a carpet of rats was not chasing me. I didn’t slow down until I passed the last corner and saw the big, grey door in front of me, and I didn’t slow down very much. The heavy door opened easily as I pulled with every ounce of fear-powered strength. When I passed into the warm light of the basement hall, I closed it with urgency; I didn’t want the rats to get out.
I had no idea how long I had been in the storage area, but, if you had asked me, I would have told you it was an hour or more. I tried to act calmly, like I had not just survived a nightmare. It was not until I reached the elevator that I realised my effort would surely have been wasted.
It was well into the evening and I was in the hall, which almost never happened. I was covered in dust and cobwebs, highlighting the little lines of sweat running down my face and neck. That brought the fact I was sweating like crazy to my attention, which brought the fact that I was still panting and out of breath to my attention. The run was nothing, I could have run farther than that in gym class without trying; but I had never run from rats before, and I’m sure I had never run that fast, either.
Luckily, I escaped notice on my return to the apartment. I locked the door, even attached the little security chain we never used. Grandma was asleep in her wheelchair; everything was as I left it; suddenly, it felt like the safest, most wonderful place on earth.
I was filthy and needed to clean up. I tried to stay on the entrance rug as I stripped off the gloves, overalls and shirt, which were the biggest issues. My shoes could wait to be cleaned, so I turned my overalls and shirt inside out and threw them into a plastic bag. I kicked myself about forgetting the can of Raid as I checked pockets. Then, I checked the time. It was just before eleven. Had all of that happened in only twenty minutes?
I started to run the water for my bath. As I reached over to test the water, something fell from my hair and I nearly screamed. The tiny form of a spider sent equally tiny ripples through the bath water as it struggled, swimming for safety. Not a fatty, but too big for my liking. I was crying before I knew it. I had just enough sense to close the bathroom door so I wouldn’t wake Grandma, but not much more than that. I sobbed and sobbed as the rush of what I had just done caught up with me. I was an eleven year old wreck for several minutes. The tub was at the point of overflow for a little while before I turned off the taps. The spider had got free of the water to rest on the edge of the tub, where it sat, seeming to watch me; for a little while, I watched it back. It had to go, but I was completely spooked by it. Getting rid of spiders was Grandma’s job. In the end, a Kleenex and forced courage got the job done.
I cried again while I bathed, but washing seemed to clear my mind, so I felt much better. I got into my pyjamas and tried to settle down. It was strange to feel so tired, like I’d run a marathon or something, and be wide awake. It was the longest, short night I had experienced. I was able to drink a little water and eat a piece of bread. It was past eleven thirty and well past my bedtime. I really didn’t want to go to bed; the thought of being alone in a dark place was more than I could bear, so there was no point in actually trying it. So I took a blanket from the closet and got onto the couch. It was a rare thing for me to sleep on the couch, but it was comfy and fit me just right.
I was starting to relax, if only a little, when I realised that I would have to go back down to the storage to get the empty bucket. What little chance I had of sleeping ran off with that thought.
A million other thoughts stampeded into my mind; the planning was on and the resting was off. I said a quick prayer for God to help me; but they were just words, I was too distracted to pray properly. What could I do?
I got my notes from Grandma and turned the paper over. If I couldn’t sleep, I could plan. I reviewed my experience and put together a better plan than simply walking in for the bucket. My first thought was to camp out next to the storage door and intercept the farmer. Grandma had told me he was odd, but my new fear of the storage area was enough to risk upsetting her and the farmer. After all, this was technically a favour to him, so he could be made to see reason or get his slops elsewhere. There were two flaws, in addition to challenging two adults, which would make the plan fail miserably. For one, the thought of going downstairs and spending the night next to a nest of spiders, rats and whatever else was more than I could handle. The second flaw was that I would surely be noticed by someone from the building. I would have no proper explanation, in that case.
So, it came down to another approach. The main issue was 106. Something had moved inside that unit, something big. I wracked my brain to think of anything I had heard about rats, especially regarding their size, and came up dry. I convinced myself, just barely, that the sound wasn’t exactly what I thought; I had been scared, and whatever it was had made a smaller sound. I remembered my grade two science unit on sound, and how things could sound different coming from different places, so it must have been that.
Anyway, I began to form a plan. My goals were to stay as far from 106 as possible and spend as little time in the storage area as possible; easy enough with a little planning. The speed part was mostly solved already. I had been there once, so I didn’t need to go as slowly or waste time searching for 106. The return trip didn’t involve a heavy bucket, either; I could go quick, maybe even run, to save time. If I had finished the entire trip in less than twenty minutes, lugging a bucket and having other delays, then I could do it much faster at a run with an empty bucket.
My deep concern about 106 was still the sound I had heard and what might have made it. Even if my brain had exaggerated the sound, rats were involved. Not good things to get close to. The light was bad and I would be ambushed, sooner or later. Grandma might get well enough to do the bucket thing again, but that might take days or weeks, maybe more; so the rats would have a few chances to get me. I needed a way to get the bucket without getting closer than necessary. In the end, my solution was to rig up a pole with a rope, like a fishing rod, to hook the bucket from a distance. Several designs crossed my mind, but the realities of materials and construction ended each idea. The closest thing I could come up with, that had a chance, was to find a stick and tie some string to the end of it. I was pretty sure I could bend a coat hanger into a good enough hook and attach it to the other end. I couldn’t figure out why, but it seemed like an impossible task when it was really just a stick, string and coat hanger. Everything seemed like it would be hard to do.
I woke with a start. The night had nearly passed. I was sleeping with my head on the table. Somehow, I had fallen asleep without realising it. My pen was still in hand and the paper resting under my head. I felt stiff and tired as I got up and went to the bathroom. I washed my face and checked the time: five o’clock. The previous night felt far away, like a dream. I wasn’t sure what to do about my fishing rod plan, but I had to do something soon. Grandma always got the bucket the next morning, and it was usually quite early. I decided I would try to put together my plan in the little time I had. If it wasn’t perfect, I could adjust it after.
I took last night’s clothes from the hamper and shook them off on the balcony. Normally, this would get me in trouble, but I didn’t have time to wash them and dirtying another set of clothes seemed wasteful. I got a flashlight and let myself out. There wasn’t anyone around as I left the building through the back door and crossed the parking lot. A small patch of lawn separated the parking lot from the bush, where the slope to the river began. It was just after five and only the outside lights of the building gave me any chance to see. I used the flashlight to search the bush until I found a stick suitable for the job. It was as tall as I was, and sufficiently thick for what I needed.
When I returned to the apartment, Grandma seemed to be stirring a little; the pill was wearing off. I didn’t slow down in my task. I found some string in Grandma’s craft supplies and tied a long, doubled length of it around a knot in the end of the stick, which I had stripped of branches. The coat hanger turned out to be a bigger job than I had planned. Getting the twisted part untwisted was a lot of work that ended up taking more than fifteen minutes, making a mess of butter knives, a screwdriver and braking a set of pliers. Once it was apart, bending it into a hook shape was fairly easy, and I tied the result in place with a triple granny knot.
It was almost six o’clock, and Grandma was getting quite restless. I had no exact idea of how long it would take me to get the bucket, but estimated it wouldn’t be more than ten minutes. Grandma probably wouldn’t wake up in that time, or so I hoped.
(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.
(The tale continues. It’s a rainy Friday morning, so much better for reading something scary. Enjoy.)
Chapter 4: Fatties
After tea, I got the wheelchair to the bathroom door. It was not big enough for the wheelchair to pass, so Grandma needed help from there. With her cane and a lot of my help, we got her to the toilet. She managed to relieve herself without any problems. She was in a great deal of pain from the simple effort of moving three or four feet to the toilet, though. I warmed up a wash cloth and helped her do a quick washing. I thought she was going to faint by the time that was finished and she returned to the wheelchair. On her request, I moved the chair into the living room and got her pill. She was taking shallow breaths and hardly moving, otherwise.
She took the pill with a little water. “The bucket,” she said tensely, before the pill started to take effect, “must not go down,” she cleared her throat a few times, “before ten o’clock. Promise me.”
“I promise, Grandma. It will be okay.”
“Good, now take the cross I wear around my neck, dear, and wear it.”
“But Grandpa gave that to you,” I said. “You always wear it.”
“I meant for you to have it, Alice,” she said with a quick clearing of her throat. “The Lord’s sign will give you strength. Say a little prayer while you’re in the storage, dear. You won’t be alone, then.”
“I will Grandma, I promise. Everything will be okay. Just rest now.” I was in caretaker mode, but my consolation was for both of us. I took her chain before she made a fuss. It was a simple chain with a small, silver cross hung on it. I had a hard time putting it on because of the tiny clasp, but it fit me.
Minute by minute, Grandma settled until she slept. Her mumblings were hard to understand, but had something to do with God and the storage. I tried not to think about what she was saying.
I made sure Grandma was comfortable before cleaning up from supper. Washing dishes and wiping the table felt like the most wonderful things in the world. I could have done it all night. Despite my efforts to drag out the experience, the time flew. The hands on the clock told me it was nine thirty.
What would I do in between then? It was the longest, scariest block of free time I’d ever spent. The day had been bad, true, but now I was standing on the edge of it, and running out of room. I tried my best to focus on what Grandma had said about never being hurt by the rats. It was small consolation to me, though; Grandma was a grown up and I was not.
At quarter after ten, I was a wreck. I had settled on a few points. I would be the best combination of quick and quiet I could be. Rats had tiny ears, so it stood to reason that stealth would be a huge factor. Also, once the bucket was in place, I would run back at full speed, at least to the elevator. Lastly, I would bring a small can of Raid. Nothing on the Raid can suggested it was useful against rats, but poison was poison, and a little bit in those red, icky eyes might be enough to save me.
I changed into my overalls. They were the denim ones I did my paper route and bottle collecting in. Crawling into ditches and bushes for empty bottles was dirty work, and the old, rugged overalls were perfect for the task. I stuffed the Raid into a side pocket where it bulged out but stayed covered. I made sure my new, silver cross hung on the outside of my shirt. It made sense that the cross would be more valuable if it was exposed; hopefully, having the same effect on rats as, say, vampires. I threw on some garden gloves and opened the fridge door. I hardly looked at the bucket as I lifted it out and closed the fridge. It was a little heavy, but I could handle it. A final check of the clock showed it was just after ten thirty. Ten o’clock was my bed time on school nights; I could usually get away with ten thirty, or maybe eleven on weekends. I wondered if I would be able to sleep, anyway.
I quickly checked the hall before walking to the elevator and pushing the call button. The building was very quiet at that hour; all the same, I didn’t want to explain myself to anyone. The elevator seemed to take forever. It arrived with a hum and the doors slid open to reveal the empty space inside. I got in and descended to the basement. I braced myself for the possibility of encountering someone, but the doors opened to the empty, basement hall. I wasted no time getting to the storage door. It loomed like a grey monster, scarier than Frankenstein or Dracula; it held back the terrible rats that were already causing me to tremble.
I fumbled with Grandma’s key ring. I had keys of my own, but was never given a copy of the storage key. It was a good thing Grandma labelled her keys with plastic tags. It felt like it would take forever, but I finally got the key out and into the lock. I had to jiggle the key around to make it turn. When it did, I pushed the door open and pulled the bucket in after me. The heavy door swung closed before I realised the storage lights were off. It was completely dark, too dark to see.
The moment of panic was harsh and terrible. Every rat and monster on the planet was bound to come running. How could they resist a terrified little girl in a dark basement?
If you can believe it, I was too scared to scream. I frantically pawed for the door handle, desperately trying to reopen it for some light. The tiny sliver of light from under the door was worthless and I was about to wet my pants, I was sure. My hand came across the light switch before it reached the handle, and the shock of the lights coming on was almost as bad as the shock from the darkness, except I could see what I was dealing with; and it wasn’t much better.
The storage area was scary. Even if I hadn’t been told about the rats, I would have suspected them; and much worse, too. The floor was cement, badly overdue for a sweeping. The outside walls were bare cinder block. The ceiling, in the places you could see it, was the same, plain concrete as the floor. A crisscross of pipes, valves, hoses and vents hung from the ceiling like a crazy, metal spider web. The storage units were the truly ominous part, however. They were cages made from thin slats of cheap wood, nailed together to create four by four spaces; each had a door made from the same slats that swung open on old hinges. Those wooden walls stood about six feet high, maybe more, and almost touched some of the pipes. A combination of chicken wire and boards had been used to cover off the tops of the units, and this blocked the light even more. The lighting was provided by a series of dusty bulbs hanging from the ceiling. They threw a very dim light; only the bulb at the entrance seemed properly bright.
Directly ahead was a small hall, formed by the outside wall on the right and a line of wooden storage units on the left. To the immediate left of the door was a tiny nook with a broom, dustpan, and shovel, all of which were covered in thick dust. The place was dirty and scary.
It took a moment to settle myself after the panic of being caught in the darkness. I picked up the bucket and started on my way. I did my best to be quiet and made good progress toward the end of the hall, where it turned to the left. The corner scared me; I knew the rats would be nearby, and the corner would be a great ambush point. The hall was too narrow for me to approach the corner and see all the way around it. I kept going forward and stopped right before the turn; deciding to pop my head around the corner for a quick look. I put the bucket down and took a deep breath, trying to be brave for Grandma. I carefully stuck my head past the corner of the storage unit to see a short length of hallway that ended in another left turn. I breathed again.
Something touched the back of my neck. It was a quick, light touch, but a touch. I let out a squeak and twisted around so fast that I bumped into the outside wall; I nearly fell, swatting at the back of my neck like it was on fire. Whatever had touched me must have been quick because I could not see it. Had it come from inside the storage unit? It was the closest thing to me and the gaps in the wood were more than wide enough for something to reach out, like a quick rat, perhaps. The air felt stuffy, all of a sudden, and it seemed as though I could not breathe fast enough. In those seconds of fright, I looked down at the floor to see something moving; it was too small to be a rat.
I leaned down to see a spider scurrying for the safety of the storage unit I had just been standing next to. It was a type of spider I recognised. In the spring, especially on humid days, we would get them on the balcony. Grandma really hated them and I usually let her handle their removal because they were icky. These spiders were a pale, fleshy colour with large abdomens and spindly legs. I shivered even though I was relieved it had not been a rat. I brought my foot down on the thing in an act of retribution for scaring me silly. Then, and I don’t know why, I looked up into the ceiling.
The light bulb hanging in the corner made it hard to see the ceiling clearly. I lifted my hand to block out the light bulb and see the ceiling in detail. I wished I hadn’t. The ceiling was more than just a spider web of pipes, tubes, hoses and wires. It was laced with webs, a lot of them; and there were more spiders perched up there than I would have thought existed in the whole world. If this wasn’t bad enough, many of those spiders were what Grandma would call fatties. They were great big ones with abdomens as wide as dimes; I had never seen so many fatties, and never thought they could get so big; they covered the ceiling for as far as I could see. The terror in that moment caused me to forget the little can of Raid I had brought along. I had my first, serious urge to run back.
(More scary goodness.)
Chapter 3: Avoiding Rats
“Alice, dear,” Grandma snapped, more than a little harshly, and cleared her throat. “You must write this down so you don’t forget it.”
“Yes, Grandma,” I said, nearly jumping out of my seat. My hands shook as I wrote point form notes about moving quickly to avoid rats. The writing was legible, but would have failed a handwriting test at school.
“The next morning, you must go and collect the bucket,” she continued. “You must go quickly then, too, because the rats are always around. They will be sleepy in the morning, but you can’t be sure. Now, when you are bringing the bucket down or getting it back you must never, never look into the storage units. The rats will be there and feel threatened if you look at them. They get very nasty if you provoke them that way. Do you understand?” Another clearing of the throat followed.
“Yes, Grandma,” I said again, careful to write it down this time.
“That’s a good girl. You know your numbers, so write down one, zero, six. That’s the number of our storage unit, and it’s painted on the storage door. Ours is the last one at the end of the hall. You will leave the bucket in front of it.”
I scribbled the number down, trying not to think about sharp teeth, slimy tails and angry red eyes. I had no special fear of rats, but going into a basement full of them was definitely changing that.
“Grandma?” I started to ask a question.
“Just a moment, Alice,” she interrupted. “Read your notes to me.”
“Uh, okay, Grandma,” I said, brushing aside thoughts of twitchy noses and scratchy rat claws jumping out at me. “I bring the bucket to the storage. I must go quickly. There are rats. I must not look into the storage unit because of the rats. The storage unit is 106. It is the last one. I leave the bucket in front of that storage.”
“Good,” she said. “You must not tell anyone about this, Alice. I am not really supposed to leave the meat for the farmer, but he is poor and needs the food for his animals. This is why we leave it in the storage and tell no one. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Grandma,” I answered in complete reflex. It felt like a lie. I understood what she was saying, but what she was asking made no sense. My honest, guilty thought was that the farmer should starve rather than send me into a basement full of rats.
“If you go late in the evening, like I do, and return early in the morning, no one will see you go. If they do see you, tell them you are taking it down to the garbage room. They may think it strange, but it is better that way.” She cleared her throat again, and I could tell she was running out of energy to fight the pain. She would need the medicine soon.
“The bucket should have been brought down last night,” she said, beginning to struggle with her words. “That is okay, but we must not make the farmer wait another day. It is very important you bring the bucket down tonight. Promise me you will do it, dear.”
My sense of sympathy and loyalty rushed in at that moment. My new fear of rats and a weird, poor farmer no longer seemed so daunting. Grandma needed me in a way she had never needed me before. This was important to her, important enough to suffer through her arthritis to tell me about. It occurred to me that all the other little things I had done, like the paper route, collecting bottles, cooking and cleaning, hadn’t mattered like this. I was desperately afraid, but at that moment I would have walked into a rat nest with a cheese necklace if she had asked.
I promised her I would take care of the bucket and be very careful. I kept my million questions to myself; Grandma was in too much pain to answer anything. I gave her the pill and brought her some water. Ten minutes later, she was drowsy, mumbling slightly about the bucket. After another ten minutes she was sound asleep.
The immediate wash of sympathy for her began to fade, and the fear came back. I tried to focus on the written list, but the details were already burned into my memory; I would not forget those details if it killed me. The rest of that day was spent thinking about rats. I had never seen a real rat before. My entire experience with them had been in picture books and television, which was more than enough. I had no specific ideas about them or what they would do to me, but I didn’t need details to know it would be unpleasant.
The rest of the day was spent in something like a fog. I cleaned up the oatmeal dishes, kept Grandma propped up in her chair, tried to do homework, and things like that. My mind would not play along, however. I chipped a bowl in the sink, nearly woke Grandma twice, and couldn’t remember anything about my homework a second after I stopped looking at it. I literally spent my day thinking about rats, farmers and stinky buckets of meat.
Grandma slept through lunch and I decided not to wake her. Sometimes, on a busy day, she would miss lunch, so I felt it would be harmless. It wasn’t until almost supper time that I began to shake out of my fearful daze and do something properly. I began with getting supper ready. I wasn’t sure if Grandma would wake up for supper, but I made enough for both of us, anyway. I prepared chicken noodle soup from a can and made two cheese sandwiches. It was a light supper, but enough for us; and there were cookies for dessert if Grandma was especially hungry. The second thing I did was prepare a list of questions. Mostly, they were little detail items about getting into the storage area, what time I should leave, and how fast rats could run. I did add on some other questions regarding potential options that occurred to me. For example, could I bring the bucket directly to the farmer? He must not live too far away, right? And what if I left the bucket somewhere else in the building, like the garbage room? I tried to keep my questions to a minimum, knowing Grandma was not fond of constant questions, though an encounter with rats was testing my sense of restraint.
I kept the supper warm until the last moment, and Grandma began to wake. She was groggy, like before, but shook it off faster than the last time. I was glad she was hungry. I gave her most of the soup and ended up making her a second sandwich. She had eaten three cookies before I had her tea ready. We had started late, so it was well after supper when I set out the tea.
“Thank you, Alice,” she said, still sounding tired, “that was a meal. You are a strong, smart girl.”
“I almost started without you,” I said, adding milk to our tea. “Your medicine is really strong.”
“I suppose it is. The day has passed me by. What did you do with your time, dear?”
“I cleaned the dishes, did my homework, and I made supper. I stayed with you. Are you going to be okay, Grandma? Your knee looks a little better.” This was true. Her knee was still grossly swollen, but it seemed to have receded a little.
“It still hurts, but I will be fine,” she said. “It will be back to normal in a few days, I’m sure.”
“But the doctor said it would be a month, maybe more,” I said.
“Alice,” Grandma replied with hints of condescension, “the doctor sometimes gets things wrong. I know my old bones better than he does, and I say it will be fine in a few days. You’ll see.”
I wasn’t going to argue with her. The knee looked terrible to me, far from healthy, and I doubted her. Then again, Grandma had been pretty tough with her arthritis, so maybe she would recover faster.
“Do you need another pill now?” I asked. She seemed much better than the last time she was awake.
“Not right away, dear,” she said. “I need to go to the bathroom and change clothes, if I can. The pill will knock me out too quickly for that. Let’s just enjoy our tea now.”
“Okay, Grandma,” I said. It was nice to have her awake with me. Spending the day alone with thoughts of rats had been terrible. I couldn’t help but ask, even though I badly wanted to prolong the moment of normality that was happening. I was usually good at starting up a difficult discussion, but I was at a complete loss. My list of questions was in the other room; as if I needed it.
“Grandma, what if I asked Mr. Gruber to get rid of the rats for us? He wouldn’t have to know about the bucket, right? I’m sure he would do something about it.” Mr. Gruber was the superintendant for Riverview Apartments. He was an older man, always a little grubby and usually hard to find.
Grandma gave me an odd look, like she had lost her concentration. “There is no point in telling Mr. Gruber about the rats. He already knows about them and has been trying to get rid of them. Rats are tricky, and hard to kill. Maybe he’ll get them all, one day.”
More information on rats that merely fuelled my fear: rats were tricky and hard to kill. I would have guessed they were tricky. Being hard to kill was nothing I would have guessed, and my anxiety heightened another notch. If they were tough enough to survive Mr. Gruber’s efforts, then what chance would I have if the rats attacked me?
“Does the farmer live far away? Maybe I could bring the bucket to him? It would be better for him if he didn’t have to travel here, right?” It took everything I had to speak slowly.
“He does live far from here, dear,” Grandma said. “He passes through town, so it doesn’t cost him anything to come here. Besides, you couldn’t carry the bucket that far.”
That ruined my thoughts of putting the bucket on my newspaper wagon and pulling it there.
“What if I left the bucket in the garbage room, Grandma? It would be better than leaving it with the rats, wouldn’t it?” At some point, without having noticed it, I had started to cry. I was so scared that it just happened. Grandma reached over and held my hand.
“Alice, dear,” she said quietly, “I know the rats scare you. They scare me, too. If I had a better way to get the bucket to the farmer, I would have thought of it long ago. I don’t want you to feel really scared about them, dear. Just remember not to look into the storage unit and don’t linger. If you are a good girl, and do as I say, they will leave you alone, all right? All right?”
I nodded my head; my eyes were a wash of tears. Words would only have caused me to break down and start bawling.
“That’s a good girl,” she said, patting my hand. “Grandma has brought that bucket down for a long time and the rats haven’t hurt me yet, so I’m sure you will be fine.”