The sky had begun to darken and fade. Smoldering gray clouds had formed so I couldn’t see the sunset in its full beauty, and a peculiar pressure in the air suggested rain might be in the making. Piercing whines and yelps of desperation cut through the silent dusk, and as I reached the other side of the house, I saw that Solo was digging furiously at the dirt near the cellar, then stopping to claw at the doors, seeking entrance.
As birds in a nearby tree scattered and shrieked at the commotion, I fussed and scolded the pooch as he unearthed worms, roots, grass, and clumps of dark soil with his sharp claws, making poignant sounds of desperation and misery as he did. Not once did he stop and look at me, for his full attention was riveted on the cellar. Once he even grabbed one of the door handles in his jaws, and pulled.
“Stop that! No! That’s bad, Solo! No!” Furious at the damage he was making, but more disturbed at his unfamiliar demeanor and possible meaning behind it; I reached down, grabbed his collar, and tried to break his attention away from the cellar. Whip-quick, he flailed and tore away from me with a wild, furious look in his eyes. His nostrils flared, and his jaws cracked wide as he uttered a tortured sound that was half mournful howl, half vicious snarl. Frightened, I backed off; certain that in this spell of madness he might turn on me and maul me if I tried to get him to quit digging. In fact, the certainty was so strong that I kept my distance, hoping the episode would wear off before that whole area of grass was ripped up and a treacherous hole was made. That seemed to be what he was trying to do: dig a hole into the earth so he could get in the cellar to answer whoever was calling.
Just how do you know that? I asked myself, but even the frantic dialogue in my head, even the creative Muse, couldn’t find an answer.
Solo went on digging industriously for ten minutes, maybe more, and the whole time I still called him, to get his attention, but it was as if I was merely an unseen apparition to him. His sudden, uncharacteristic obsession with the cellar jarred me, and at the same time a cold, shadowed corner in the back of my mind, a frenzied voice, was as eager as he was to get down there, just like in the dream.
That scared me more than anything. Then finally, he stopped, collapsed limply to the wet earth, and lay his head down on his paws, breathing heavily. I hesitated to go over to him, in case the episode wasn’t over. Maybe it was just letting him take a break and the strange altered state of mind he was in still hadn’t worn off. I took a few steps closer and heard him let out a sigh, and then his ragged breathing became slow and deep. He was sleeping again, and unresponsive.
For a moment I stared at the cellar doors, a hysterical part of me was afraid to go near them. Finally, I went up to Solo, picked the heavy lug up in my arms, and carried him into the house. Not once did he stir.
I took a few minutes to clean off his dirty paws and legs with an old washcloth and water, and then I took him to his bed and set him down. Only then did I realized a few warm tears were rolling down my cheeks, because Solo just didn’t do things like this, and seeing my best friend in such emotional turmoil was an immensely traumatizing and frightening thing. I looked over at my own bed and realized how sleepy I really was. Even if I hadn’t been so worried about Solo having another freak-out as I slept, one thing kept me from turning down the covers and heading off to dreamland. Some sudden, inexplicable thought spoke up in a toneless whisper, and it wasn’t my own.
If you go to sleep here, you won’t wake up.
Resisting the urge to nap, but leaving Solo to his dreams, I tried to dismiss the alien thought and went into the kitchen to brew a pot of extra strong coffee. You might imagine that the dog wasn’t the only one having a psychotic episode. I might have too, if it weren’t for a persistent thing called pride. For the first time in my life, I was unnerved that it was night. Half convinced that some primordial horror would appear at one of the windows, seeking to talk and have a cup of java, I shut all the blinds, turned on the brightest lamps, sat down in my favorite recliner and tried to banish the fear by watching an old sitcom. It wasn’t working. My chill only deepened, and cinematic images of the bizarre events of that day repeated through my head in an endless loop, as well as other things, half-seen notions contorting and then slipping out of sight like strange dark fish beneath a clouded pond, leaving only confusion behind. No noise came from the bedroom. Solo must have still been sleeping. Concerned I left him in the dark, I got up to check on him. Striding cautiously into the room, trying not to startle him in case he might still be in that unnaturally agitated state of mind, or even worse, in a state of aggression, I switched on the bedside lamp and saw that he was awake. He was sitting on the floor, panting, smiling. He wagged his tail a little. That glazed look in his eyes was gone. Together, we walked to the living room. I plopped back into the armchair, and he settled down at my feet with a contented sigh.
“Well.” I said, as though talking to a person. “You sure wore yourself out, hmm? Tore up the grass, split apart some helpless earthworms. What’s gotten in to you?” He stared up at me, as if to say, What in the name of Old Yeller are talking about, Molly? There’s nothing that’s gotten in to me. Maybe it was you who did that.
Although Solo surely wasn’t thinking of anything that complex, it amused me to fill in what he might have said if he could talk and had the intellect of a human. I was glad he didn’t, because if he did, his imagination would plague him ceaselessly about the creepy things that, in one’s imagination, always seemed to go bump in the night.
Don’t you mean in the cellar? The things that go squish-squash in the cellar? The things that yearn for you in the cellar?
I shuddered, and my amusement swiftly dissipated. I wished these thoughts would stop. If my Muse was trying to be funny, the punch lines went right over my head. Trying to stay busy, I opened a can of wet dog food from the kitchen and poured the whole thing into Solo’s bowl. He devoured it quickly and gratefully, leaving not a single drop of gravy behind.
Eventually, I knew, sleep would be unavoidable. Would I really let one weird thought prevent me from getting rest? Or, would the same thing that had seized Solo’s undivided attention become my own obsession, where I’d go down in a mindless frenzy into the cellar against better judgment? That possibility made sleep seem much less alluring. But, I was increasingly worried because there was no logical basis for the assumptions of danger below, no source for the fleeting, knowing thoughts, no concise proof of the disconcerting atmosphere which hung in the air and stirred up such paranoid feelings. Yet it was, despite its absurdity, a gut feeling. All my life I always tried to listen to intuition during those rare times when it boldly arose, and it had always served me well.
So, I refused to sleep. I drank cup after cup of coffee as the hours passed, and I watched and laughed out loud at corny sitcoms, and even at commercials which contained little or no humor. It was not genuine laughter. It was nervous, dry, always fleeing as quickly as it came.
Even beneath the TV sounds and my harried, not quite right cackles, I listened carefully, acutely attuned to any noise that might have been out of the ordinary. The doors were locked and latched, as were all the windows, but I was not worried about home invasion. I listened for hours, even as my eyes drooped and stray thoughts cautioned me not to fall asleep. Solo already had, but only for short intervals. It was as if he too was trying not to sleep too deeply, and periodically he got up, wandered around the house, as though looking or listening for something. I did too, pacing the floors in a lazy shuffle, increasingly exhausted, despite the caffeine. Settling down in the armchair, I grabbed a paperback novel, strained to read a few paragraphs, but my eyes were too tired and my brain was too fried to concentrate on the story. Several times my eyelids drooped, slipped shut, but I shook myself back awake. Something about the entire house was lulling, and a miasma of groggy confusion. Without warning, the silken darkness of sleep crept up on me, and I dreamed. Deeply. Fitfully.
The pulling, pulsing force, so demanding, so insistent on me descending the stairs into the damp underground, spoke to me in a soothing language both new and old, but I don’t remember a word of what it said. We don’t always know what we’re doing in dreams, even if we’re walking into danger, so I listened to it even though I was intensely afraid. Barely able to see, slowly as though moving through water, graceful and knowing that as long as that bizarre force knew of and wanted me, I wouldn’t fall, I went down the cellar steps. A part of me screamed endlessly, told me not to do that, but the intense crimson light revealed the contours of each wooden step now, lit up my face, my eyes, my soul. It seemed to know everything about me in perfect detail, probing gently, knowing without judgment, seeing without filters, feeling and understanding with the deepest, strangest concern.
Maybe being afraid is not the right thing, I thought dully. Maybe going into that light is the way to achieve peace, the only way in the world to discover bliss, wonderful bliss out of which no one can remove me.
Right before I stepped off the stairs, where the light would envelope my form forever, I curiously fell back, while trying to understand why the urge to enter the thrall of this unseen force was so strong. Suddenly, I knew in a shattering instant that it wanted me because it was hungry…some ravenous vastly knowing thing the likes of which no one had ever seen or felt before. Horror gripped me, and squeezed me. I felt a desperate fear for my life, perhaps even for something more valuable than life. I resisted, struggled valiantly to pull away, to escape the voice….the endless, insistent voice.
Then it knew what I was about to do. Suddenly, there was a horrible deafening wrathful sound, akin to the wind howling, but it wasn’t wind, it was the cellar-thing, so displeased with my decision not to go to it.
It grasped for me, reaching, so hungry….hungry…
My eyes snapped open and reality blossomed again. My brightly-lit living room, the chattering, blinking TV, the softness of the armchair beneath me, all of it swam instantly back into focus, but the dream stayed with me more than any mental imprint should have.
A soft, brittle cry caught in my throat. I felt more in contact with the cellar-thing than ever before, more aware of the presence. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t real, but self-delusion wasn’t working anymore, if it ever had. Solo was sitting on his haunches at my feet, gazing up at me worriedly, his large, burly head tilted sideways. He whined softly as I met his gaze, as though he, too had undergone the dream, or something like it, but managed to pull out of it before it was too late.
Too late for what? It was only a dream. What could have happened?
I realized that my hands were holding the fabric of the chair with an extremely tight grip; as though I were afraid a sudden tornado would rage in and sweep me off to a fantastical place too dark to be Oz. My fingers cramped, and released the chair only with moderate effort. My heart was beating unnaturally hard again, but not fast enough to be alarming. I sighed and stood up. It was 4:29 in the morning. I had barely slept an hour. But the racing thoughts, even if sleep had seemed desirable, consumed all of my attention.
Something almost happened, didn’t it? But, what? It was a dream. Just a dream. Yet it seemed so….real. You’ve never dreamed like this, Molly, not in your whole life. Maybe occasionally you’d have a weird one, but not like this, never like this.
Outside, the autumn wind whistled through the boughs of trees, and breathed against the house, an initially creepy sound that through its familiarity had actually grown comforting in time. Now, it was too similar to the cellar-thing’s wretched sounds of protest. Unable to sit still, I strode into the kitchen, not to eat, but to lift up with one finger a slit of the blinds and gaze out at the night. It was too dark to see anything but the vague shapes of trees thrusting their slim, trembling branches into the blackened sky. The new moon was clad in a billowing robe of clouds.
Nothing hideous stared in at me through the slit of blinds. This expectation seemed ridiculous, but I couldn’t help myself. A colorful imagination offers both bright and shadowy hues. Tonight, it was not at its most vibrant. I let the blinds fall shut.
Solo padded in from the living room and went to the back door, whining. He wanted outside.
I slipped on my coat, turned on the porch light, and went out with him, so he wouldn’t wander alone. He never expressed an interest in venturing too far from the house, but in the country, you sort of worried about those types of things, especially with forests nearby, where wild animals dwelled. Occasionally the distant, haunting cries of coyotes echoed through the night, always proceeded by answering howls and yelps, forlorn families expressing their eagerness to kill.
They were deathly afraid of people, of course, and rarely ventured near our homes. The voices of the night didn’t strike fear into me. In fact, they were somewhat beautiful, reminders of normalcy and life’s natural order of things.
I worried about Solo and the cellar. It was an absurd fear, but I could not go down and prove it wrong. I could not. The burden of keeping this all to myself was becoming overwhelming. Yet, if I told anyone, they would think I was crazy.
As Solo loped through the yard, crunching and bouncing through leaves, the wind whipped and tugged and my coat, and ruffled my hair. It wasn’t bitterly cold, but chilly enough.
I wanted to sleep for a long time, deeply, peacefully, without the interruption of nightmares. But, despite the exhaustion, I could not. Gut feeling again.
Yeah, well…maybe gut feeling is full of cow manure. What is the worst that could be down there? A couple of rats? Some mold festering in one corner? Life isn’t fiction. There’s always been a way to explain everything. Why not now?
Despite my efforts to talk reason into my feelings, they continued to ebb and flow like a turbulent tide. I knew answers would lie in the cellar if I just took the time and practical measures to head down and look, yet I continued to stand there, arguing with myself as the wind picked up and Solo pranced up to me, relishing the coolness his kind was bred to enjoy.
We went back inside. Suddenly hungry, I fixed a platter of cheese and Ritz crackers and took them back to the chair. Solo begged, stared at me soulfully, and I couldn’t resist tossing him a few slices of cheddar, which he chomped happily and swallowed with comically loud gulps.
The TV became irritating, so I muted it with the remote. Moments later, the silence was somehow too unnerving to bear. It wasn’t the quiet of the countryside, the warm peacefulness that had always been the trademark of this little town.
It was expectant. Solo must have felt the lingering tension as well, because he was no longer interested in the cheese. He paced the floor, his nose low to the ground, busily sniffing. His bushy tail swung back and forth agitatedly. I said his name twice, but whatever elusive scent had caught his attention was apparently more important than what I had to say.
It feels like a spring-loaded trap, waiting to snap, like a smartly ticking bomb sitting in your lap.
That burst of rhymes should have been something to be welcomed, a string of sudden creativity. It only deepened my disquiet, perhaps because it was in essence a good description of how this moment truly felt. Solo halted in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. His body went rigid. He padded further into the room, vanishing behind the kitchen island. I still heard him snuffling, and alternately whining, conveying both canine fascination and bizarre fear. I did not get up to follow him, but waited, just now noticing the simple black and white clock which hung above the doorway, ticking steadily, slyly counting off minutes toward some approaching showdown.
Wait! Where did that come from?
Solo came back into the room and stopped in front of me. I flinched when he pointed his slender muzzle toward the floor and howled, his deep voice bouncing loudly off the walls.
“Solo, what? What are you doing?”
The dog could not answer, of course, and yet I always spoke to him as though he could talk, taking a sort of odd comfort from it. But, on that night, even words didn’t quell the fear, the creeping feeling of wrong. The dog barked three times. I hushed him, stamped my foot against the hardwood floor, and then he howled again, mournfully. His eyes were very wide.
“What is wrong with you?”
To my confusion and shock, Solo suddenly stopped making noise, and lay down on the floor. His fear-tensed body relaxed, and he rolled over on his side and sighed. It was a sigh of frustration, almost a snort, as though lying down like this was not something he really wanted to do. His eyes closed. His breath deepened.
“Solo…wake up.” These words slid out of my lips in a floating whisper, although they were intended to be louder. I had the most horrible feeling as my dog performed these strange rituals and then lay down sleeping right in front of me, the feeling that he had just tried to warn me of something dire in the only way his mind knew how, that he had smelled something far worse than anything that prowled the wilderness. Whatever had spooked him was in the house. As I contemplated this, perhaps I fell asleep, because everything stopped for a while, fading into flickering red murk. I could see no landscapes, no cellars, just shadows and the red, the passionate pulsing red, calling for me in the darkness. Calling.
Two parts of me were fighting and arguing. One, the fearful but practical side, protested avidly against the intruding force, while the other side was perversely eager to find out what it was, at all cost. I seemed to be listening to both of them from a neutral distance, unsure which one was right. Maybe neither side was. Nothing could really be seen, only felt. It seemed as though I had descended beneath all intellect, into a realm of feeling, blind feeling. A faith like this wasn’t faith at all and my parents would never have approved. The cellar-thing was calling, asking that I make a choice.
Listen, or resist?
There was no glow of dignity in this confined, mental space which was less like a dream than like an altered state of consciousness, caught right in the niche between the dream state and reality. It was like swimming through relentless currents, debating on whether to fight for breath or let it pull me into an abyss.
Abyss? What is going on? Where are we going? Where? What does it want? What does it want from me?
I struggled to be free from it. At first it was hard to pull away, so very hard, like a sleep paralysis episode, because I felt my body but couldn’t move it. My eyes rolled around spasmodically inside their sockets but the lids would not lift. The whole time they were distracting me with their arguing, more than just those two aspects of myself now. Some were not familiar. Their tones were cold, intense, eager, whispering subliminally in voices too alien to be me.
The redness churned. It was very wrong, and extremely terrifying. At first I hadn’t noticed my fear, only the fear of the other voices, the fear and the eagerness. But the cellar-thing, and I’m sure that’s what it was, continued to beckon, promising things, very good things. It was so conflicting, so confusing and strange, to be in this dark mix of emotion. But then I felt the force that was responsible for all of this growing impatient and irritated. It reached insistently, groping harshly for my mind. Frightened, I refused, and then came that howling, that hellish, unbearable, unspeakable howling, like the call of eternity.
A noise woke me. It was a hollow, muffled scraping noise that was different from the cellar-thing’s sounds of agitation. Solo was awake, sitting stiffly with his gaze focused on the floor. Then, there was a hard metallic clang that reverberated throughout the house. Solo jumped, backed up against my legs, ears pressing flat against his skull.
It’s getting in through the vents!
A cold, clenching fear, as harsh and unrelenting as a steel animal trap, closed over me, squeezed ragged breaths from me, and sent my clomping heart on a stampede towards terror. Self-delusion wasn’t working anymore. That had been a real noise, and regardless of what it was, there was something down there.
BANG! I nearly leapt out of my seat as that too-familiar sound echoed from outside, a noise I had heard since moving into this place. It was not the sound of something getting in through vents, but that of someone opening one of the cellar doors, and letting it fall noisily shut. Conflicted, seized by the urge to flee, get in my car, drive down the road, and get out of here, I wondered what could have been strong enough to lift those heavy doors. Then the clock for some reason caught my attention. It was 5:19 in the morning, and I hadn’t even slept an hour. I stood up, went into the kitchen, and looked out the window. There was a car in my driveway, with its headlights and interior lights on. There was no one in it, but after a few moments of studying it, I realized it was Kat’s car. For a few minutes, I waited in disturbing edgy silence for Kat to come up and knock, to ring the doorbell, but she didn’t.
What the hell? Did she go down into the cellar? Oh God, did she?
It was so unlike Kat to come over this time of night. In fact, she had rarely visited me after dark since we had known each other. She had never even been in the cellar, and whatever reason she might have had to go in there, it eluded me. The thought crossed my mind to call the police, get someone here to help, but what could even be said?
Hey, someone better get over here and bring lots of firepower because there’s a hungry thing in the cellar and my friend is down there with it.
Would I even be calm or rational enough to explain this without sounding like I belonged in a padded cell? They probably wouldn’t even have believed me, regardless.
I tried to live my life quietly, without drama or strife; save that for the fiction, and after all that had occurred the past few days, I finally couldn’t take the suspense anymore. If Kat’s empty SUV hadn’t been parked in my driveway, I wouldn’t have considered going into the cellar. If the thing that was down there had my friend, I wasn’t going to let it keep her. Acutely aware of the danger, even though I had never even SEEN the thing to begin with, I put on my boots, went to the kitchen drawer, and drew a long jagged steak knife from it. I had never hurt anything with a weapon before, and wasn’t inclined to do it now, but if the cellar-thing turned out to be real, perhaps it was better to be safe than eaten alive.
And why, again, are you so certain that something like that would happen? How does one just know something without having any concrete evidence at all?
Where does this weird knowledge keep coming from?
I just didn’t know. Nor did I understand why I was so afraid of going down there. But if Kat had, there was no telling what might be amiss, and what could be happening to her. Solo, such a faithful friend, wanted to follow me and protect me from the threat that loomed, but that seemed like a bad idea. If it could seize control of him again, the chance existed that he would turn on me under its malevolent influence. For his safety and mine, I left him in the house. The first thing I did was check the SUV, just to make sure she wasn’t there. The car was still running and the gas gauge was almost on empty. How long had it been idling here before I looked out the window and saw it?
“Kat! You out there?” I called hopefully, praying that she was close enough, and sane enough, to answer. There was no reply.
Reluctantly, I went down the path towards the cellar.
With the floodlights on, I saw the cellar doors were closed. Despite the trench Solo had dug, all looked as it should be.
How convenient. What a perfect way to get you down to it, Molly. A friend in need, what good human being could resist a trap like that?
I took a deep breath, then another, and held it, as though the atmosphere below might prove to be toxic. Such a prospect that seemed insane enough to rival the fantasies of a drug addled lunatic, but if I wasn’t crazy and this was real, it still seemed wise to be prepared. As I lifted the heavy doors, the knife wedged uncomfortably in the back pocket of my jeans, I was assaulted by that achingly familiar blinding crimson glow, which blocked my view of what lay below. Gasping, I shaded my eyes with one hand, assaulted also by a strange almost pungent odor that seemed like that of rotting vegetation. Yet there were other smells underlying it, ones vaguely familiar, suggestive of what might waft from a meat locker. I swallowed hard and forced myself (or was forced by something) to continue down the stairs. The redness ahead appeared murky, as though it originated from behind a thick fog. I became increasingly aware of my own pulse, slow and steady despite the dread and fear that lingered and intensified. Crazily, with each step I took, it seemed to grow stronger, felt less like my own heartbeat and arterial rushing than like that of some other force. I felt it in my temples, throat, wrists, and even on my eyes, a painless yet disturbing pressure.
This felt so personal, and alien. The option of running seemed and more wise by the passing moments, but I couldn’t. I had to keep going, finish what I had started, and resist the primal fear. I had to find out what was growing in my cellar. With a soft, wet organic sound, my feet hit the concrete and almost slipped out from under me. There was something mushy covering some parts of the floor, something pale red and flecked with gray. It was unlike any substance I had ever seen outside of dreams, shining obscenely in the scarlet haze. For one wild moment I waited for it to move, to swarm over me, but it didn’t.
What the hell is going on? Don’t go any further, just get out of here. This isn’t right, isn’t natural. Get out.
Ignoring the Muse’s plea, lifting my boots with a moist sucking sound and taking another few cautious steps, I was having a hard time seeing. I fumbled for a switch that would turn on a light, to no avail. My once familiar cellar was now dominated by an unknown and unimaginable presence. My cellar was its home now, whatever it was, and therefore suited to its preferences, and not mine. Even the dank, damp smell of underground was gone, replaced with that organic but unnatural scent. A dull anger swelled in me, with nothing tangible to direct it at, but I nourished that anger in an attempt to stave off fear, and to provide a distraction from the eerily steady unrelenting pulse that was both within and without me, and not entirely my own. Afraid of slipping on the newly glistening spongy floor, I leaned on the wall for support, and withdrew my hand in tingling revulsion. Whatever was here had evidently spread to the walls as well as the floor, because the warm, reddish gray ooze clung to my fingers like sticky strawberry jelly. It was not moving, not burning, so maybe it wasn’t alive. Part of me didn’t count on it. I looked over at the adjacent wall. It was not only slimy with that stuff, but completely covered in strange tangled masses of long, root-like things, which were colored a deep maroon but also flecked with pink, orange, and gray. They resembled vibrant worms, each slightly thicker than my own fingers, and tapered with stringy ends. My mind struggled to find words to explain what these things were, to no avail. If they were part of some kind of plant or fungus, they were unlike any the world had ever encountered. Although they didn’t twitch and writhe, I grimly expected them to, and closely watched them as I went deeper into the roomy cellar.
Get out! Get out while you still have a chance! Please, you have more than enough to live for. Go upstairs, call the police, and tell them there’s a burglar or something. They’ll believe that! Get out of here and go! Now!
But I didn’t. My remaining slivers of rational thought were pulled inexorably forward, toward the growing pulsing thing that had consumed my thoughts for far too long, which had crept like some terrible foreign corruption into my heart. Heart. Somehow the word seemed so appropriate for whatever was down here.
My mind was so obsessed on finding Kat, on understanding why all this was happening, that I was walking straight into a danger that could not even be fully grasped. I sloshed ahead, wiping the currently inanimate gunk on my jeans, my blood quivering under the influence of whatever monstrous force dwelt here.