Short Story: The Cellar Dwellers
Halloween 2017 Short Story
* Note: Mild language.
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Jonas Hawkins slipped his shades off as the last rays of the afternoon sun slid below the horizon. Storm clouds brewed a bit to the north, and they seemed to be heading his way. He figured he might meet up with the storm in Fairwell, his destination, if nothing happened to detain him. He hoped to apprehend the killer, Damian Branch, by then.
No sooner had the thought entered his mind and his truck began to sputter, then it died. He steered it toward the side of the road, then set the brakes to stop it.
He got out and checked under the hood. He couldn't make heads or tails of what he saw. He wasn't a mechanic. He was an Arconian deputy marshal. He didn't have time for these kinds of problems!
He pulled out his mobile communications device and turned it on. He checked for a signal and found that he had none.
"Damn!" He muttered.
He looked back the way he'd come. There weren't any homes or businesses or anything else as far as he could see. He looked forward in the direction he needed to go. Nothing that way, either. But he had to do something.
He eyed the storm in the distance, then checked his map. By his estimate, he was about five miles from the small town of Nottham. If he walked fast, maybe he could make it there before the storm reached him. He really didn't have a choice. It was either stay with the truck and go nowhere, or move forward and try to reach a town where there might be an auto shop and a place to spend the night. He decided to walk.
He pulled his overnight bag out from behind his seat. It had everything he needed for the short term. Once he got to town, he could get a room. He'd call around in the morning and find someone to tow his truck into town and fix it.
He put on his jacket, covering the guns at his sides, then grabbed his bag. It was getting dark fast, and the wind had picked up a bit. There was a chill in the air, and he shivered slightly as he set out.
The storm was drawing dangerously near by the time Jonas spotted any kind of building. He guessed he was on the outskirts of Nottham now. A large house loomed about a quarter of a mile ahead, and he quickened his pace in order to beat the storm to it. A few small raindrops hit his face, and a strong gust of wind sent a chill through him.
Several large oak trees stood sentinel around the old house, the style being something from a century or so in the past. No lights were on, but he hoped that someone was home.
He opened the iron gate, which creaked on rusty hinges, threatening to wake the dead in the cemetery he'd walked by a few minutes ago.
He stopped and looked up at the house as a memory came to him. A memory from his childhood. At about this time of year--late autumn--he'd been hanging out with a couple of friends, walking down a side street, when they came upon a very creepy house. There had been candles lit in the windows, but no other lights had seemed to illuminate the inside.
His friends had dared him to go up and knock on the door and talk to whomever answered. He'd taken that dare and marched right up to the front door even though his knees were knocking together so hard that he thought his bones would break.
He'd knocked once, twice, then a third time before a little old woman finally answered. She hadn't been scary at all. In fact, she'd been very friendly. She'd invited him in. His friends, too! Then she'd fed them tea and little pastries and treated them like royalty before sending them on home.
Jonas smiled at the memory. Then he snapped back to the present, and as he looked up at the house before him, he shuddered.
He forced himself to move. The steps leading up to the front porch were rickety, and some were rotted in places. The porch itself wasn't much better. The boards creaked under his weight as he approached the front door.
He pushed the button for the doorbell. Surprisingly, it worked, and he waited for someone to come and open the door. He listened for footsteps, but no one came.
He glanced in through one of the grimy windows. He couldn't see much of anything, but he thought he spotted movement. He went back to the door and knocked. Again, no one answered.
He tried the knob. It turned easily, and the door creaked as he slowly opened it, cringing.
"Hello?" He called out.
"Hello! Arconian deputy marshal needing assistance. Is anyone home?"
Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, causing Jonas to jump, startled. He closed the door behind him and set his bag on the floor. He reached for one of his guns, unhitched the safety strap, and slid the handgun out of its holster. He'd cleaned and loaded it earlier, so it was ready to go. He switched off the safety and started to move cautiously around the house.
As lightning flashed, he saw that the furniture was dated. The smells of mildew and dampness filled the air. Cobwebs clung to every corner, hung at the tops of the drapes, and stuck to the worn furniture. Dust was thick in the air. He couldn't see it, but it frequently made him sneeze.
And not for the first time, he cursed his luck.
"Next time, I'll buy a newer model." He grumbled at the inconvenience of being stuck in a dilapidated house out in the middle of nowhere. But he loved that truck. He was in no way ready to part with it just yet.
He pulled out his MCD and switched it on. Still no signal. He couldn't call his boss, Brett Collins, with it. It was useless.
Something thumped on the floor above him. A dragging sound followed, then another thump, followed by another dragging sound. It was as if someone with a wooden leg were walking around above him. He listened for several heartbeats, and as it continued, he decided to go investigate.
His gun drawn, he went to the stairs and took them ever so slowly.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
Jonas' heart pounded in time with the sounds above his head. What would he encounter? Was there someone up there? Was it the spirit of someone long dead? Was it something sinister?
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
He reached the first landing and started on the second half of the stairs. The footsteps grew louder.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
He began to doubt his sanity as the footsteps drew ever nearer. He raised his handgun and ducked down as he approached the second story. The hallway above him was pitch black, and he couldn't see a thing. He didn't dare turn on the flashlight feature of his MCD for fear of alerting whoever or whatever was up there.
He crouched down on the fourth stair from the second story floor and waited.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
A hand came down on his shoulder, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.
"What're you doin' here?"
Jonas' fear turned to anger as he recognized the voice of his brother, Jesse. He took a minute to compose himself in the darkness, grateful that Jesse couldn't see him.
"Cat got your tongue?"
"What are you doing here?" Jonas finally asked, thoroughly perturbed at the fun Jesse was having at his expense.
"I'm on a hunt. You?"
"I'm on my way to Fairwell to catch a fugitive. The truck broke down and I--"
"'Course it broke down. It's--what?--twenty years old?"
"You need to buy something newer, Jo. Why blow your money on that ancient relic?"
"It's my truck, and I'll do what I want with it. So back off."
When Jesse didn't answer, Jonas felt around. It seemed his brother had taken him literally and moved away.
And the footsteps above him continued. They were closer than ever.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
"Jesse!" Jonas called as loud as he dared.
Suddenly, there was a bloodcurdling scream. It seemed to come from all around him. His heart leapt into his throat, and he jumped up and ran down the stairs.
He didn't know how he made it to the bottom without falling and breaking his neck, but somehow he made it, and he ran for the front door. It stood open, but he didn't think about that as he grabbed his bag and made a mad dash for it.
Before he could reach it, it slammed shut. Then flames flickered to life in the fireplace.
Jonas stopped dead in his tracks. For a second or two, he debated crashing through a window, then dismissed the idea as reckless.
Slowly, he turned around. He expected to find a ghost or a demon standing there. Instead, he found Jesse.
"What the hell, Jess?"
"Then who was it?"
"Probably the thing I'm hunting."
"Figures!" Jonas spat.
"Yeah. Funny you should end up here while I'm on the hunt, huh?" Jesse smirked.
Jonas wasn't about to let his brother's boyish grin get to him. "What are you hunting?"
"A poltergeist. Supposed to be dangerous. Haven't seen it though. Not yet, anyway."
"Tell me about it." Jonas demanded. He wanted to know what he was in for.
"Supposedly, it's been killing people."
"Out here in the boonies? Who's there to kill?"
"Us for starters."
Jonas turned for the door. "I'm leaving."
He didn't get three steps before the fire went out and the door locked. He spun around and called out, "Jesse?"
"I'm here, Bro." Jesse was right beside him. He struck a match and lit a candle on a table nearby, then picked it up and started looking around.
"So why'd you take this job?" Jonas asked. "Just looking to kill something?"
"'Course you won't abide by the law, either. You'll do whatever you want however you want whenever you want."
Jesse glanced at Jonas. "What burr you got up your ass, anyway?"
"You started it."
"Yeah, you did. Do all marshals act like you?"
Jonas was about to respond when the candle went out, and they were cast in darkness again.
"Hurry up and light it," Jonas said. He'd faced many a poltergeist in the past, but it still always freaked him out a bit when the lights went out.
"Gone? What do you mean, it's gone? You just had it--"
"And it's gone. Someone or something came along and lifted it out of my hand."
"How did you not see them?" Jonas asked, perturbed.
"They grabbed it after the candle went out. I couldn't see 'em," Jesse said.
His tone of voice told Jonas he was equally pissed off.
Jonas was about to ask what his brother wanted to do next when another scream filled the house.
"Wha--?" Jonas began, but Jesse barreled on past him. Jonas spun around and called after him. "Where are you going?"
"That came from the basement."
Jonas followed his brother, but in the darkness, he got turned around, and Jesse was nowhere to be found.
"Jesse?" Jonas called out. "Jesse!"
He tried to peer through the darkness. Chills ran through him at the sensation that something wasn't right. He was no longer alone.
Meanwhile, Jesse was also lost, and he found himself at the foot of a staircase. A strange, dim light shone somewhere beyond the door standing slightly ajar at the top of the stairs. Something inside him screamed for him not to go up there, but as usual, his curiosity won out.
He took the stairs slowly. The third one creaked and nearly stopped his heart for the briefest of moments. He halted and listened. He heard nothing, so he continued.
He reached the top and peered into the room. There were boxes sitting here and there. Some old furniture, trunks, a rack with very old, moth-eaten clothing. He went in and looked around.
As soon as he stepped away from the door, it slammed shut behind him.
He whirled around in time to see an axe held by a disembodied hand come down with enough force to stir up a good breeze. He barely dodged the blow, somersaulting across the floor. He frantically looked around for something with which to defend himself. There was nothing, so he dove for cover behind a pile of boxes which he hoped were full of very durable things.
He heard footsteps behind him.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
His heart pounded doubly as fast as the footsteps.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
He peered out from behind the boxes. The axe came down, and Jesse dove back just in the nick of time. The blade sank into the floor, and the invisible force wielding it tried to yank it free.
Jesse kicked out, but there was nothing for his foot to connect with. He stumbled to his feet and ran for the door, but it was somehow locked from the outside.
Thump -- drag -- thump -- drag.
The poltergeist was coming. The footsteps were right behind him!
Why'd he have to lay his gun down when he'd picked up the candle? Stupid, stupid, stupid!
He turned back and saw the axe coming toward him. It swung through the air, and he ducked. He ran to the other side of the attic and ducked down behind a huge china cabinet. Hopefully, the poltergeist didn't see him hide!
Jonas was beginning to sweat, and Jesse was nowhere to be found. He had ammunition, but it wasn't the kind he needed to take out anything supernatural. And he didn't know his way around this house. He was completely lost.
A sound caught his attention. Somewhere to his right. He opened his mouth to call out, but thought better of it, deciding that silence would be more prudent. Slowly, he made his way in that direction, his handgun cocked and ready to fire in case of trouble.
A dim light came on overhead. It flickered, but stayed lit, revealing to Jonas that he was in a narrow corridor with several doors to either side. All the doors were closed except the one at the very end of the hall, which lay open about halfway. Whatever lay beyond the open door, he couldn't tell, as the room was dark.
He heard a light whimpering, and he stopped to listen. It seemed to be coming from the dark room directly ahead. That got him moving again. It sounded like a child in fear, and he couldn't just leave them like that.
He approached the door, stopped, and listened. The whimpering was louder now. It sounded like a young girl.
The door swung in easily as he opened it wider. The light from the hallway illuminated the room beyond enough for him to see that there were stairs leading down into some sort of cellar.
Slowly, he descended the stairs, keeping his handgun ready. His surroundings grew darker the further he went. His heart pounded faster and harder with every step, but he kept going. His protective nature would have it no other way.
When he reached the floor below, he spotted the girl sitting against a wall, her dirty knees drawn up under her chin. Her long black hair hung over her shoulders in matted curls, and her dirty face was streaked with tears.
Jonas crouched down and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm a deputy marshal. I can help you. Are you all right?"
The girl looked up at him, her eyes wide in fear. She skittered out of his reach, then jumped up and ran around the stairs and down a short corridor, disappearing around a corner.
Jonas glanced up. There was a dim bulb flickering over his head. It illuminated his immediate surroundings, but the rest of the basement seemed very dark. He couldn't tell how large it was.
"Hello?" Jonas said quietly. "I'm not here to hurt you. I'm here to help. Come out, and I'll do everything I can to make sure you get back home safely."
He heard a flurry of footsteps ahead and to his left, and he moved in that direction. He found the girl hunkered down in a corner of the room, and he went to her. He knelt in front of her. This time, he didn't touch her, but he gave her a warm smile. "My name's Jonas. I'm an Arconian deputy marshal. See?" He held up his badge so she could see. She reached for it, then glanced up at something behind him.
Jonas began to turn, but in the next moment, something hit him on the back of the head. He saw stars, then everything faded.
Jesse was beginning to tire when he spotted what he thought might be a pipe made of iron. The end of it was sticking out from beneath the china cabinet, and he dragged it out.
The axe--and the poltergeist holding it--appeared around the corner and swung at him. He was ready for it this time, and he ducked, then slammed the iron pipe into the entity. Its eyes bugged out, and its jaw dropped, then it turned to smoke and vanished in a puff. The axe dropped to the floor beside Jesse, its blade buried deep in the wood.
Jesse stumbled back against the wall and slid to the floor. That fight had taken a lot out of him, but where was Jonas? Jonas had the instincts required of a law enforcer. He had to know his brother was in trouble. So why hadn't he come?
Unless Jonas was in trouble, too.
But that would mean there were more than one entity in this house, right?
Jesse shoved himself to his feet and strode over to the door. He had a strong desire to get out of this room and find his brother. Nothing, not even a solid, locked door would stop him.
He looked at the iron pipe, then at the door, and realized the pipe wasn't enough. He remembered the axe, and went back for it. It took some effort, but he yanked it out of the floorboards and took it back to the door. He rained blow after blow upon the hard wood, shredding it until there was a hole large enough for him to squeeze through. Armed with both the axe and the iron pipe, he returned downstairs, determined to find Jonas and get him out of whatever trouble he was in.
When Jonas came to, he found himself bound to a table. A lab table, hospital bed--something.
"What the--?" he began, then stopped when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.
He turned his head that way, then regretted it as a wave of pain and nausea overtook him. He laid his head back down with the thought of biding his time by pretending to still be unconscious.
"Nice try, young man, but you won't fool me that easily."
Jonas opened his eyes and looked up to find a very old man with long, wild, white hair standing over him. The man was hunched, and his nose was very large. His dark eyes were small, and his voice was scratchy, as if his vocal chords were brittle.
"What do you want with me?"
"I sense your power, son. I aim to take it."
The old man tapped Jonas' temple with a long, gnarly finger. "Your psychic power, of course."
"I don't know what you're talking about. And you'd better let me go. Others are looking for me, and when they find me, they'll--"
"No one is looking for you. And if they were, they would arrive here too late. Your body will already be buried someplace they'll never find it."
Jonas gulped. He struggled against his bonds, but they were solid. That's when he noticed his handguns were gone.
"Where are my weapons?"
"You have no need of them, but they are safe, I assure you."
"Return them to me. Let me go." Jonas fought harder, but to no avail.
"I can't do that. I need your power."
"I have my methods, and I assure you, they are very painful. Excruciating, even."
Just then, the sound of footsteps filled the room. The old man turned to the child. "Whoever that is, take care of them."
Jonas hadn't noticed her there, and her presence confused him. Their eyes met, and she displayed the smallest of smiles before turning to obey the old man's command. Then it hit Jonas. She was in on it with the old man--whatever it was. Did they prey on unsuspecting visitors to this aged, abandoned house? Did they prey on hunters, teens seeking thrills, people like him just hoping to find a communications device with which to make an emergency call or two?
Well, he had to get loose and make sure they didn't prey on anyone else. He resumed his struggle against his bonds, but still, he couldn't break free.
The man hovered over him. He put a strange contraption on Jonas' head. It was made of wires and springs and had a cord attached to a machine. Jonas didn't like the look of it at all, and he fought harder.
There was a commotion, then the sounds of someone trying to break into the room filled the air.
"Jesse!" Jonas called.
"I'll get you out, Kid. Hang on!"
Jonas glanced up at the old man. "Better let me go. If you don't, you'll have to contend with him, and you really don't want to do that."
The old man hobbled over to Jonas' guns and picked one up. "Oh, I'd guess that these will take him down quite nicely."
Jonas' heart pounded, and he called out. "He's got my guns!"
In the next moment, Jesse burst into the room. The gun went off, and Jesse stumbled back a step as a red bloom appeared on his left sleeve. His face took on an expression of rage, and he rushed forward, axe held high. He buried the blade in the old man's skull before he could even blink.
The old man collapsed to the floor, and Jesse ran to Jonas. He unbuckled the bonds holding him in place, then he helped him up off the table.
"You don't look so great, Kid," Jesse said.
"You don't look so hot yourself, so get off my case."
"Y'know, this would've been an easy hunt if you hadn't shown up." Jesse growled.
"If you'd told me you'd be hunting here, believe me, I would have taken a different route. I want to be stuck in a haunted house with you about as much as I want a root canal."
Jesse laughed at that. "Good one, Kid. I'll have to remember that."
"I meant every word," Jonas said, trying to look serious and angry. He wasn't completely able to keep up the charade, and a small smile played at the corners of his mouth, despite his efforts at appearing annoyed.
Together, they made it up the stairs and out onto the front porch. Jesse grabbed Jonas' bag on the way out and helped him into his car.
"I'll take you into town and make sure you get settled. I've got a connection in Nottham, and towing your truck shouldn't be a problem. My friend should be able to fix it for you, too."
"Thanks," Jonas said, giving Jesse a suspicious look.
Jesse shrugged. "You're my kid brother. I've gotta look out for you."
"You don't believe me?" Jesse asked. He put a hand over his heart. "I'm hurt, Kid. Really, I am."
He closed the door and went around to the driver's side and climbed in. "At least the trip into town should be less eventful than the past couple of hours in that house have been."
"If I never see this place again, it will be too soon," Jonas said. "That house needs to be condemned."
They drove in silence, and as they went, three figures gradually appeared in the back seat, as if from the ether. There was an old man with white hair, a large nose, and beady little black eyes. A young girl sat to his left, and a man with a wooden leg sat on his right. All three had empty, dead eyes.
"He who would travel happily must travel light."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
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