© Copyright 2022 Ian MacTire, All Rights Reserved, except where otherwise noted.
“What are you afraid of?” Elizabeth asks Patrick, before taking a sip of her wine.
“I’m not afraid of a damn thing!”
Patrick is an insufferable man who is not one of the original group, but is instead a guest of one of the others.
“No, seriously. Everyone is afraid of something, whether they want to admit it or not.”
He snorts. “Nope! No fear.”
While the rest of the group groans and throws spirited jeers at the bastard, she rolls her eyes and turns my way. “What about you?”
A memory flashes from my childhood:
My family and I moved into an old farmhouse. As an adult, I might engage in conjecture at what memories might be contained within its walls and at what stories the house might tell. Young as I was, I lacked the mind for such things. Upon arrival, I hopped out of the car and ran inside to inspect the place. On the first floor I found a kitchen, dining room, master bedroom, and a bathroom. The stairs would lead up to rooms that would be used as bedrooms for us kids. I claimed mine and returned to the moving truck to help unload our belongings. With all the boxes carried in, and before we moved the furniture inside, we sat down to take a break. My mother made us something to eat, and I took the opportunity to take a better look around.
The place appeared to be in satisfactory condition, though I did not know its age. My initial inspection of the place missed the door at the back of the dining room. This led into what I assumed to be the laundry room due to the hookups for a washer and dryer. The only occupants: a lone cinder block, some windows, and yet another door. I pulled the door open. A whiff of cool, musty air greeted me, which conjured up images of old dungeons that I read about in some of my favorite stories.
The natural light coming through the windows illuminated the stairwell just enough to partially see inside. Bare walls, with no insulation or drywall to speak of, exposed wires which snaked down between some beams. The scene reminded me of a skeleton exposed beneath decayed flesh. The wires themselves, they were like alien veins overlaid with spider webs. Several black widow spiders nestled within. A fleeting, curious thought occurred to me that too many of them resided in such a small area. The thought did not remain long. They posed no threat to me provided I did nothing to disturb them.
I peered down a short flight of concrete steps which led downwards. The basement below stood in darkness and none of the light from up here could pierce it. The entrance itself seemed like a dark mouth, open and hungry. Trepidation about heading into possible danger worked itself through me, but I viewed myself as a brave adventurer. I would go down and explore. Perhaps I would find treasure and become rich!
I groped around for some kind of light switch or pull cord but found none. I thought briefly about grabbing a flashlight but decided against it. If I went looking for one, mother would want to know why and then nix the idea. I wanted to claim the the riches below for my own. I reckoned there must be some kind of light switch below. I took my first step down, leaving the door open in case my name was called. The door immediately swung shut behind me. It startled me and left me in near total darkness, with only a sliver of faint light coming from the bottom of the door. This must be the reason for the cinder block. My first dungeon puzzle solved!
I headed back into the laundry room proper. I dragged the block over and used it to prop the door open so the path ahead would be somewhat illuminated. Down I went, taking care not to disturb the spiders. Down here, the darkness was thick enough to seem like I discovered the end of existence. Cool, moist air brushed across my skin, which cause goosebumps to form on my arms. The void seemed to swallow all sound, though at the time I did not realize it.
I put a hand out gingerly and felt around for a light switch of some kind, hoping I did not encounter any spiders. My mother would become furious with me if I got bit. She always got angry with me over something, real or imagined. I encountered neither.
I took a tentative step into the darkness and the ground beneath my tennis shoes gave a little. Dirt! Uneasiness welled up within me, the pit of my stomach forming a small knot for some unknown reason. Something felt unnatural to me about such a basement.
With my other hand, I reached out for the wall and found myself rewarded with the cool touch of concrete. It felt rough beneath my hand. I proceeded forward gingerly, using my fingertips to keep me connected with the wall. Some mortar crumbled beneath my touch and I heard it lightly hit the floor.
I used my other hand to sweep back and forth, looking to find a light source. The thought never occurred to me that there might not be one. Who would have a basement with no light source? Vampires maybe. I pushed that thought away. The search for the pull cord required me to step away from the safety of the wall from time to time, until —
My fingers brushed the cord and caused it to start swinging back and forth in a gentle swaying motion. A wave of relief washed over me as I struggled to try to capture the cord. Once I succeeded, I gave it a tug and the bulb rewarded me with dim light. The light did not extend too far into the room. I tried my best to survey my surroundings. From my vantage point, I saw the wall I had been touching, the bottom of the stairs, and part of a nearby wall, but not much else. I stepped forward beneath the light and tried to survey the rest of the room.
I put a hand against my brow in an attempt to view things better. Darkness shrouded the far walls, and only the vaguest of details made themselves known. Dim, dark gray shapes of what looked to be shelving. Each of the walls lacked any discerning features save one. This one held a door, and it stood closed. I took a hesitant step towards it, thinking to explore what lie beyond. An overwhelming sense of dread welled up and threatened to swallow me whole at the thought of such an endeavor. A shudder worked its way down my spine, and the urge to run crashed through me.
I turned to face the steps and memorized the path before pulling the cord and returning the basement to its original darkened state. With great haste — but not running, brave adventurers do not run in the face of fear — I found the stairs and went up. I dragged the block away from the door and let it shut. My heart continued to race, a sense of relief spread throughout my body as I realized my safety. I determined I would be best served to leave the room well alone and avoid it at all costs.
And this I did, for a little while at least.
This situation would change one day when my mother got angry with me yet again. She made me go into the basement as a punishment. I can no longer recall the reason for her anger. Her ever present anger always simmered just beneath the surface. A beast waiting to be let free to devour all within its path.
I never could figure out whether her anger would result in yelling, or would escalate to near brutal violence. Exiled into that pit of horror was a new one for her . After I entered, she slammed the door closed behind me. The sound of her moving the washing machine in front of the door announced that escape was impossible. What little light might slip through the cracks disappeared, and darkness enveloped me.
I stood with my back to the door and stared into the darkness, doing my best not to cry. The door I left closed during my earlier exploration came to mind. Images began to conjure up all sorts of nastiness waiting for me. The panic began to rise and I did my level best to try to swallow it. Panicking at this moment would not be helpful. I knew, on that instinctual level that kids have, that I needed the light on so whatever waited would not be able to attack me. Monsters could not get you in the light, the closet closed, and your feet tucked secure on the bed and not hanging over the edge.
My thundering heart beat sounded a loud dinner bell for whatever laid in wait: come eat the soft flesh of a young boy. The image of how enticing such a meal might be sprung to mind, and I swallowed hard. I strained to listen for any noises that might alert me, but the whump-whump-whump of rushing blood prevented it.
I choked down my fear and worked to still my pounding heart. My earlier thoughts of being a brave adventurer were nowhere to be found now. I braced myself for the task ahead and took a tentative step down. The total darkness made impossible any efforts to try to make out any of the steps. Furthermore, the odds for my survival would lessen should I fall and break my neck.
Mother would be even more angry at having to be inconvenienced to take me to the hospital. This assumed I did not get eaten, which I imagined to her would be the best possible outcome. She would of course take all the sympathy she received from people outside the home who knew nothing of the banal horrors happening within these walls. Without witnesses though, my life would be made a living hell. This thought made me angry, which in turned gave me courage. Much like a match, this feeling flared bright and hot for a few seconds before snuffing itself out.
I remembered the spiders. Without vision, I could not discern their location. I still did not fear them. They only posed a threat to me should I disturb them. My fear lay more so in being bitten, and not knowing when — or if — my mother would decide to release me from this punishment. I held a tentative hand out in front of me in an effort to avoid crashing into any webbing, while using the other one to touch the wall to guide me down.
In this fashion I made my way down, all the while trying to be as quiet as possible. I told myself that no monsters, demons, or vampires existed down here, and Cthulhu lay sleeping under the sea. This did not help much, because in horror movies, the victims never believed either until much too late. Though I tried to move with grace and skill, I stumbled often. My fingertips failed to find the webs, but my arms did not. At one point I blundered face-first into one. The sticky strands attached themselves to my face.
A cry of revulsion escaped me. My hands went over my mouth in an effort to stifle it, lest the things lurking in the darkness become aware of my presence. This assumed they had not noticed me. My body shuddered as I swiped at the webbing to get it off me. Visions of an angry spider getting ready to pierce my skin with poisonous fangs came to mind, and I became desperate to flee downwards to find the light faster.
The panic I had managed to keep in check broke free. I stumbled down the last few steps and on to the dirt. My mind conjured images of some terrible evil which lied buried beneath the earthen floor. Because of the noise, this abomination began to stir from its slumber and would soon consume its first meal in years. In frenzied panic, I swung both arms in an arc in front of me in a desperate bid to locate the cord. I prayed I found it before I found anything else, or before something found me. This did not stop me from “seeing” the formless shapes that twisted and undulated as they moved towards me. If only I could find the damn light!
One of my arms hit the pull cord, setting it swinging in a wide forceful arc. My hands grasped in a frenzy for the safety that the cord represented. In my mad scrambling, I managed to get a hold of it. My state of mind being so panicked, it caused me several seconds to realize that I had a hold of the cord. I gave it a hard yank born of fear and desperation, and–
The light did not come on. I almost cried at that moment. I pulled it one more time, yanking a little less hard. This time the light came on.
Relief washed through me. The light bulb, dim as before, still did not illuminate the entirety of the room. It was enough to wash away the monstrous forms that were mere seconds from consuming my young flesh. At that moment I did not care about the level of illumination. It was my friend, my savior. I took a look around to see that only I occupied the basement. The door I dared not open still stood blessedly closed.
I realized my breathing came rapid and short. My heart threatened to burst through my chest. Taking deep breaths, I tried to stifle the laughter threatening to spill forth. I recognized this laughter, thanks to the myriad stories of horror I consumed up to this point in my life: madness. It would consume me if I did not try to regain my senses. Remaining under the light, I surveyed the room and worked to calm down. Thankfully, the only noises in the room came from me.
There in the silence, I perceived the sensation of something crawling on my skin. I glanced down and saw the webs covering me. Several spiders crawled along the strands and on the skin of my arm and chest. Crying out in terror I began swatting them off me. I did not care where they went, so long as they were not on me. I pulled at webbing which to my mind seemed vast and almost consuming. It resisted my removal efforts. It seemed the more I struggled, the more I got wrapped up in it. In hindsight, I suppose insects caught in webs must have a similar reaction, though at the time that thought never occurred to me, and in any case likely would not have done me any good to think it.
I worked frantically to rid myself of these dangerous arachnids, and all the while the tears threatened to spill. In my mind, my mother’s words — “big boys don’t cry” — echo, and the flushed heat of shame spread across my face. I did my best to stifle the tears. If my mother saw even the remainder of them, she would be even more angry. I had no way of telling how she would react. She always threatened to give me a reason to cry if I did.
The webbing almost removed, I heard the washing machine being moved upstairs, followed by the door being opened. My mother called down to me to let me know I could come out. I repeated the same steps as the first time I came down here, but this time I made a mad dash up the steps and into sweet, blessed daylight. I slammed the door behind me as I went through, determined to keep whatever lurked down there — along with those spiders, who would be looking for revenge for the destruction of their homes — from escaping. My mother yelled at me for slamming the door, but I did not care. Her vitriol was a better alternative to where I had been mere moments ago.
I apologized and moved the cinder block in front of the door to keep the door closed. Doubt lingered that such an action would hold back whatever slithered below, but the scraping of the block across the floor would act as an alarm. It would alert me that the monster slipped free of its prison. I left the laundry room in as much of a hurry as possible, as my mother got angry whenever we ran in the house, and running was loosely defined with her.
That night, I barricaded myself in my room. I intended to stay awake in case the thing broke loose, determined I would not be killed and eaten in my sleep. My siblings lay sleeping in the other rooms, but I could do nothing for them. Whatever lived in the basement wanted the meal that escaped its grasp. It would be looking for vengeance. I did my best to stay awake, but sleep would not be denied. The sunlight on my face jolted me awake. I survived the night, as did my siblings. A surge of joy rushed through me at being so victorious, for the ordeal was over. I imagined the beast fuming in defeat, my victory secured.
From the time I emerged from the basement and over the next few days, I would sometimes feel something crawling on my skin and would swipe at it. I lived in fear of seeing a spider, glaring at me with multiple alien eyed menace, ready to inflict revenge. I never found one on me. When I did notice a spider in its web, I would often wonder whether it knew what happened, until the thought faded with time. What did not fade away was the fear that had developed. I now found myself avoiding them wherever possible.
I avoided the basement, only going near when I needed to do the laundry and only when I ascertained that my mother was not nearby. The thought that some horror lurked below the house haunted me, as did the idea that it seethed in disappointment at having missed its chance at making me one of its meals. The certainty that it would not miss its chance next time seemed as sure as the sun rising.
For the remainder of the time I lived there, fear and panic rose within me whenever I went near the basement door. I did my best to be brave, but I still did my business as expeditiously as possible. When we moved away from the farmhouse, I do not think I have ever felt more joy and relief than I did the day we left. As an adult, I still feel the ghost of fear and panic in the pit of my stomach at the thought of that incident.
The memory came and went in a flash, and so without missing a beat, I replied:
I take comfort in the laughs this causes, as well as the ensuing conversation about how frightening spiders are. Patrick’s jabs are easy to ignore, because I am still alive. I escaped the clutches of whatever nightmare my younger self seemed certain to have been down there. Arachnophobia is a small price to pay for my life.
The thought of that formless horror lurking in that basement, coiled and waiting, sends a cold shiver skittering up my spine. I do my best to suppress it. For some reason, my mind conjures cold reptilian eyes seething with its fury and hatred. I try to take a calm drink of my whiskey sour and gulp it down instead. A small price to pay indeed.