The world is a dark place. This is a cold thought, isn’t it? It’s even darker if you’re dead yet cannot rest. Have you ever thought about what terrible power might anchor a spirit here on Earth? No spirit would stay willingly. If there is an afterlife, better it than to exist in limbo. And if there isn’t, well, better nothing than the alternative.
The stolen key fit the lock to the basement door perfectly. In one hand I had my phone, the flashlight switched on. I expected the lights in the utility room to work. The flashlight was just insurance. In my other hand I had the box of mice, Albert’s preferred food.
Why was I down there? Because I wanted to impress Monster. I felt guilty for Albert’s escape in the first place, even though I still wasn’t sure it was my fault. Like the arrival of the key in my room, Albert’s escape wasn’t something I had caused. It wasn’t a result of night terrors, either, no matter what the psychiatrist had said. There was something even stranger going on. Something that had caught me up in its grip.
The door opened and I enter the utility room, shining my phone’s light into the corners, up along the ceiling, looking for any sign of the snake. I shook the mice box. They squeaked and I felt a squirm of disgust in my stomach.
The light touched another door and I started in surprise. This door looked different. For one thing, it was made out of a different kind of wood from all the other doors in the apartment building. It looked solid and expensive and very old. Not modern at all.
I approached it, curious. There was no evidence of a gap at the top or bottom, no way a snake could have wiggled passed. As far as I knew anyway. I wasn’t a snake expert, was I?
The handle of the door wasn’t a regular door knob. It was a hooked handle, stiff when I tried to pull it down. Then, I heard a click and the handle moved. I pushed, and the door swung back.
I felt a difference in the air almost immediately. I also felt a gut-clenching surge of terror. What was I doing? This was beyond stupid. I shouldn’t be down here.
I looked through the open door, pointing the light from my phone. It was a bedroom. Blue painted walls, although the paint was peeling. A low ceiling, a tiny dusty window along the back wall, through which no light came. I was way below ground down here. Why would there be a window? There was a small bed, stripped bare of blankets and covered in dust. A tiny night table with a book and antique-looking lamp.
I tried to back away, to close the door. But I was too late. The little boy sitting at the little desk below the window turned in his chair and saw me. His face split in a big grin. “Laura,” he said. “Oh, Laura. I didn’t know you could come down here.”
He was the little boy whose blood had stained my quilt. My heart pounded. I couldn’t take my eyes from him.
“I thought that only Billy could come down here,” said the little boy. “He’s a bad man. I don’t like that we have the same name.”
“Umm,” I said. “Are you William Stephenson?”
His face went dark and sad. “Yeah,” he said. He sounded mad about it. “I guess so.”
I stepped forward into the room. “Why are you here? You lived a really long time ago.” I thought that maybe, if I could touch him, maybe I could break the spell.
“This is where I live,” he said. “This is my room. It’s better in here than out there.”
“And do you know Billy?” I asked. “The other one. The old man? Is he related to you?” I took another step forward.
“No. No, he’s an old quack. I don’t like him. He saw me back before I came here. He followed me. He wants to live here too. I guess he does sometimes. When he can get in. He was really upset when they tore down the main house because that meant it was harder for him to get in. It’s so cold out there, you have no idea, Laura.”
“Why did you come visit me the other night?” I asked, taking another step. If I reached out now, I could squeeze his shoulder, see if there was anything there.
“Oh,” he said. He frowned. “I scared you bad, huh. I do that sometimes. When there’s people who can see me. Not many people are able to. But when they can, boy, do I scare the pants off of them. I didn’t know you could see me. I don’t think I would have been in your room if I knew. I’d have been in Monster’s room. He can’t see me. He smells good. I like to go up to his room and do my homework when he’s there. We do our homework together. He can’t see me so it’s okay.”
“Did you open up the box that was in my room? There was a snake in that box.”
“I don’t know about a snake,” he said. “I didn’t open any boxes. It’s hard to touch things.” He reached out and took my hand. I jumped in shock. His hand was small and very cold, like an ice cube. “You’re nice,” he said. “I can touch you. I couldn’t touch a box, though.”
“You haven’t seen a snake then?” I wanted him to let go of my hand. My fingers stung in his icy grip.
He shook his head. But something in his expression gave him away. He was lying. The little boy was lying to my face. He had seen Albert. Maybe he had even opened the box.
I said, “Are you telling the truth, William?”
He dropped my hand. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t ask, please. Don’t ask me, Laura. Okay? Promise.”
“I need to take Albert back upstairs. Albert is monster’s snake.”
“Don’t ask.” William said angrily. “I said don’t ask.”
“You’re not telling me the truth,” I said.
“No,” he whispered. He was afraid, I realized, not angry. He was shaking with fear.
“What are you afraid of, William?”
“It needs to be fed,” William said. “It needs it. Else it’ll eat whatever it wants.”
He shook his head. “It’s not for you,” he said. “It’s for Billy. The old man. One day it’ll be big enough. I have to keep it fed the right things.”
Then his eyes brightened. “What are those?” He pointed at the box of mice.
“They’re mice,” I said. “For Albert the snake.”
“Give me,” he said. “It’ll eat mice.”
“No,” he said. “No you can’t know. You’ll stop me. I can’t let you stop me. It has to get big enough.”
I said, “William Stephenson, tell me what wants to eat the mice. What do you need to get big enough?”
He shook his head. “You’re better off not knowing,” he said.
“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me or you’re not getting the mice.”
He shrugged. “okay,” he said. He got up from his chair and walked hesetently to the bed. Then he got down onto his knees and looked beneath it. “Come here,” he said in a singsong voice. “Come on out and meet Laura. She’s brought you some tasty mice.”
The icy dread was back. The spell had been broken. The mice were going crazy in their box. They could sense something. Something under William’s bed.
I thought I saw something then, a line of black, like black ants crawling along the floor.
They spilled out from under the bed over the floor almost to the open door, a thick shifting carpet of black. I felt a scream catch in my throat. They formed the shape of a human face.
“Give me the mice,” William said. He took the box of mice from my unresisting hand, tore off the lid and dumped the squealing mice into the mass of ants. I watched, horrified, as the ants swarmed over the mice. The mice tried to run. One of them made it all the way to the edge of the black, squealing shrilly, before it fell and was sucked in and went silent.
A pool of red began to appear amid the black. Blood, I realized. Finally the face reformed, tiny white mice bones in its mouth.
I felt sick, disoriented. I couldn’t breathe. I was having another night terror.
“You should go now,” William said gently. “I’m sorry, Laura. But I told you so.”
He was holding the door open for me. My hand over my mouth I dashed out of the bedroom. Out of the utility room. I don’t think I breathed until I was back in my apartment. Then I collapsed on my bed, sobbing.
It wasn’t a night terror. It was real. There was a face of ants down in the basement under a little boy’s bed. They had eaten Albert. They had eaten the mice. I got up and went to the washroom and was violently sick.
I needed to get out of this apartment. I needed to go back to the university dormitory and forget about everything. Forget what I’d seen. Chalk it up to night terrors if I had to.
In my head I saw the black writhing face and was sick all over again. Afterward, I went back into my room and sagged onto my bed. I felt like the worst kind of shit.
My phone buzzed. It was Kate, my drama instructor. Hi, Laura. Just confirming that you are coming in tomorrow morning for our first meting. Just want to no numbers, so if you could reply that’d be great. Thanks.
Yes, I typed back. My phone buzzed a minute later. Kate, Excellent. See you tomorrow.
The thought of helping Kate with her project calmed me somewhat. Maybe, I thought wildly, I could tell her about what I’d seen. Maybe she could help. I should tell Monster. I should tell Brian. I couldn’t keep it to myself.
But who was I kidding? They wouldn’t believe me. Brian would be nice about dumping me. Kate would be polite and maybe suggest it would be better if I didn’t participate in her project after all. Monster, well, I wasn’t sure what he’d say. Maybe I could tell him?