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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Cellar Hole

Be careful who you talk to in dark places.

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The Cellar Hole


            It was boredom that drove Jeb Shay up into the hills north of the village.  He was 18, had finished his schooling the previous June, and still lived at home, working part-time at Leckey’s General Store to contribute at least a little to the family coffers.  He worked enough hours stacking jars and cans, dusting shelves, and sweeping to justify the meager paycheck he got every week from Bart Leckey, and gave enough of it to his parents to keep them from hounding him about the amount of time he spent idling. 
            No one in his family troubled much over him.  They never had, really.  His father was a silent man, not given to saying anything more than was absolutely necessary.  His mother often seemed preoccupied with her own problems, not least of which was the vexing question of how a vital, lively young woman had somehow become the middle-aged, graying housewife to a man who hardly ever looked at her, much less spoke to her.  Jeb’s older brother, Leonard, was 21, had gotten a two-year degree at the local college in bookkeeping, and had a steady job as the assistant to the village’s CPA; he spent all of his free time courting Sue Lounsbery, and from the bit of spying on them that Jeb had done during the previous year, they were soon to be married or soon to have no real choice in the matter.  Jeb’s younger sister, Sally, was 15, and was the academic star in the family, and despite her gender looked to be the only one of them that had a shot at a four-year college.  Sally Shay was likely to be a teacher or a nurse, given her brains, drive, and independence, and her eagerness to get out of the dark and still home in which she had been raised.
            Jeb, on the other hand, had neither a goal like his sister, nor an active romance like his brother; all Jeb had was jealousy, a lazy streak, and a bad case of middle-child syndrome.  He was left alone for the most part, and no one noticed him unless he overslept or was late for dinner.
            So it was that one day in early November, having done his shift at Leckey’s and still facing three hours before he had to be home, he struck off up the hill behind the general store, through leafless maple trees and past old stone walls that had been the boundaries of smallholdings a hundred years ago, and now marked nothing, accomplished nothing, only got in the way.
            Just like Jeb.
            He tugged his jacket tighter around him to block the wind, and worked his way in a zigzag fashion up the long, rocky slope.  It was steeper than he’d expected, and he was breathing hard before he got halfway to the top, and turned to rest and to see what he could see from his higher vantage point.  From here he could see the rooftops of Guildford, chimneys breathing out wood smoke.  He saw a shiny black Model A, just purchased that year by the village mayor, Charlie Upshaw, purring its way down Main Street toward the village offices, finally disappearing behind the old courthouse building.
            The village seen from above lost his interest quickly (Just like it does from down below, he thought glumly), and Jeb turned and continued his ascent.  He followed the line of a low stone wall, and soon came to the overgrown, tilted slabs of an old house foundation, nestled in one of the few flat spots on the hill’s steep slope.
            I wonder who lived here, Jeb thought.  No one’s lived up on the hill since I can remember.  I could ask Bart.  Bart Leckey prided himself on his knowledge of the village’s history, and undoubtedly would have an answer, although Jeb had privately wondered at times how much of it was true and how much made up so that Bart wouldn’t have to admit ignorance, something the shopkeeper hated doing.
            Next to what was left of the foundation was a vertical piece of wall with a gaping, dark hole in the center – an opening into what had once been the house’s cellar.  Jeb went around and knelt next to it, and peered in, but the sun was slanting at the wrong angle and nothing could be seen of its dark interior.
            And then a female voice, from inside, said, “Hello.”
            Jeb leaped to his feet, and backed away, his breath coming in a thin whine.
            The voice laughed.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
            “Merciful Jesus,” Jeb said.  “What are you doing in there?”
            “What are you doing out there?” the voice countered.
            “Talking to you,” Jeb said.
            “Well, then.  I’m talking to you, that’s what I’m doing in here.”
            “But why are you in the cellar?”
            “Maybe I was waiting here to talk to you.”
            Jeb frowned.  “How did you know I was coming?  I didn’t know, myself, not until I finished my shift at the store.”
            “Just a hunch.”  There was a smile behind the voice as she said, “Come closer.  You don’t need to be afraid.”
            Jeb walked back to the cellar hole, and knelt down.
            “You’re awfully handsome,” she said.
            “Thanks.”  Jeb blushed.  “Not as handsome as my brother, though.”
            “Well, I haven’t seen your brother, but I have seen you, and I think you’re awfully handsome.”
            “Thanks,” he said again.  “Don’t you want to come out?”
            “Not really.  I like it in here.  It’s cozy, and out of the wind.”
            “Oh.”  Jeb squinted, trying to get a glimpse of who was talking to him, but the darkness defeated him.  “What’s your name?”
            She laughed.  “I think I’ll let you guess about that for a little while.  Mystery is appealing, you know.”
            “Do I know you?”
            “Maybe.  You’ll just have to figure it out.”
            The wind gusted, causing the branches of the maple trees to creak against each other, and making Jeb shudder.
            “Are you cold?”
            “Yes.  It’s freezing.”
            “I’d invite you in, but you know, it’s not proper, a boy and a girl on first meeting.  You understand?”
            “Oh.  Sure.  Yes.”
            “Then we’ll just have to look forward to our second meeting, then.  You will come back?”
            “When I can.”
            “Good.”  It sounded like a dismissal.
            “I’ll see you soon,” Jeb said.
            “Yes.  Yes, you will.”

            By the time Jeb got to his house, he was half convinced that he had imagined the whole thing.  He went about his chores, helped with dinner, and no one much spoke to him, as usual.  All that evening, the voice of the strange girl haunted him.  There was something familiar about it – but what girl he knew would be up there, on the hill behind the general store, hiding in an old cellar hole?  He tried out the idea of various girls he knew – ones he’d gone to school with, girls who came in with their parents to shop at Leckey’s, friends of his sister’s.  None of them fit.  None had the right voice, and certainly no girl he knew would have ventured into an abandoned cellar.
            The wind had risen to a howl by the time he went to bed, and the radiator was clanking in a futile effort to warm up his bedroom when he went in to ready himself for bed.  He got undressed, donned his pajamas, and pulled an extra blanket out of the chest at the foot of his bed before putting out the lights and climbing under the covers.  Relaxation eluded him for some time, but finally, he felt himself drift into that comfortable half-doze that precedes a gentle drop into the true realm of sleep.
            And then something touched his lips.
            He was startled into instant wakefulness, and pulled himself into a half-sitting position, leaning on his elbows.  There came a soft laugh.
            “I told you, we’d meet again soon,” the voice whispered, in the darkness.  And then there was another touch on his lips; another mouth, warm and moist, pressed against his.
            “How did you get in here?” Jeb asked, a little breathless, as the kiss broke.
            “Are you asking me to leave?” she said, a pout in her voice.
            “No!”
            “Good.  Because, you know, this is our second meeting.”  She kissed him again, and he reciprocated.
            “But… who are you…?” he said.
            “I don’t think you really care,” she said, laughter in her voice.  An unseen hand pulled the blankets back.  Jeb felt a tug on his pajama bottoms, and moments later, he was swallowed up by pleasure.

            The next morning, he awoke, alone, twisted in a tangle of blankets.  His brain felt logy, sludgy, like he couldn’t quite put two thoughts together.  He got out of bed, at that point discovered that his pajama bottoms were a damp mess, and hurried to the bathroom hoping he wouldn’t meet anyone on the way.
            Fifteen minutes later, he’d cleaned himself up, rinsed his pajamas and brought them into his bedroom to hang on the radiator to dry, and dressed.  Then he headed downstairs, still feeling like his brain was wrapped in cotton wool, but hoping that food would help.
            He was working at the store that morning, so he fixed himself some oatmeal, and then consumed it in silence at the kitchen table.  His mother came in, dressed in her pale blue bathrobe, and put on coffee and sliced bread to toast, all without acknowledging his presence.
            “Hi, Mom,” Jeb finally said.
            Mrs. Shay jumped.  “Oh, Jeb!” she said, brushing a stray lock of hair back from her face.  “I didn’t see you there.”  She turned back to the loaf of bread.  “Are you working this morning?”
            “Yes.  I work till three o’clock.”
            “I see.  Would you like some toast?”
            “No, thank you.  I just had some oatmeal.”  He got up, rinsed his bowl and put it on the rack to dry, and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek.  “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
            “Have a nice day, Jeb.”
            Jeb donned his jacket and went outside.  The wind had died down, but it was still chilly and gray, and the ten-minute walk to the store was cheerless.   He passed two people he knew, but they didn’t greet him, and Jeb himself still felt too shaken and confused to feel up to saying hello himself.
            What had happened last night?  He’d had dreams of that sort before; he supposed every man did, sometimes.  But this dream was different.  There was something about it that seemed more real, not only than other dreams, but than reality itself.  While in the midst of it, he’d felt like every sense was stretched to the snapping point.  And now… he felt like there was something gone from him, some vital spark that he couldn’t quite conjure up.  He no longer felt groggy; he felt, on some level, not quite there.
            He opened the front door of the store, and went behind the front counter and donned his apron.  Bart Leckey came out from the back storeroom, humming tunelessly through his thick mustache, and almost ran into Jeb as he walked over to the cash register.
            “Jeb!” Leckey said, huffing a little.  “I didn’t hear the bell ring.  I didn’t know you’d come in.”
            That’s because the bell didn’t ring when I came in, Jeb thought, but he decided that saying this to Bart Leckey would just have brought up questions he couldn’t answer.   In the end, Jeb just shrugged.  “What do you need me to do today, Mr. Leckey?”
            “Oh, the usual,” Bart said, frowning at Jeb nearsightedly.  “Just dust and sweep.  The wind yesterday blew in dust and leaves, and of course there’s what folks track in.  It’s a never-ending battle.”
            The day passed in tedium, a steady stream of customers, a steady slow-motion list of menial tasks, the clock ticking the seconds out far too slowly.   He took fifteen minutes to eat an apple and a paper bag full of peanuts he’d bought for lunch – Bart gave him a discount on everything he or his family purchased, so it was easier just to eat something from the grocery store shelves and have Bart deduct the few pennies it cost from his next paycheck.  Then it was another three long hours of boredom before the clock stood at three, and Jeb was able to shuck his apron, write down his hours (and his lunch purchases) in the ledger, and escape into the cold November day.
            He found that his feet were heading back up the hill without any real conscious decision being made.  He half expected the old house foundation, and the dark maw of the cellar hole, to be gone; a figment of his imagination, or part of the bizarre dream from the previous evening.  But there it was, surrounded by a tangle of blackberries and osier.  His heart beat a little faster as he knelt, and looked into the darkness.
            “Are you in there?” he said, quietly, a little embarrassed.
            “Of course,” came her voice.
            “Did you…”  He swallowed, the redness coming into his cheeks, and hoped she wouldn’t notice.  “Did you come to my house last night?”
            “Of course,” she said again, and giggled.  “Who did you think it was?”
            “No,” he said quickly.  “I knew it was you.  I just… I just wondered if I might have dreamed it.”
            “No, it wasn’t a dream.”
            “I didn’t know…”  He paused, and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger.  Why wouldn’t his brain work?  He felt mired, like he could barely produce a coherent thought.  “I didn’t know you were going to do that.”
            “Didn’t you like it?”
            “Yes, of course I liked it!  But… I don’t… I mean, I don’t even know your name.”
            “Like I said last night, does that matter?”
            “It should.”
            She laughed.  “By which you mean, it doesn’t.  Right?”
            “I don’t know.  I just… I didn’t know…”  He stopped.
            “If you don’t want me to come back,” she said, “all you have to do is tell me.  Tell me you don’t want me, and that will be that.  No… hard feelings.”  There was just the slightest pause, and a hint of mockery, in the last phrase.
            “Were you going to come back, then?”
            “That depends.”
            “Depends on what?”
            “Whether you want me to.  I can be with you every night, if you want.”
            “You would… you would do that?”
            “If you ask.”
            “I…”  He paused, licked his lips.  “Okay, I’m asking.”
            She laughed.  “I wondered how long it would take you.”

            Three mornings later, Jeb stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror, looking for marks.
            She had bitten him the previous night; he was sure of it.  Just as he was teetering on the edge, his backbone arched like a bow, he felt her teeth clamp down on the muscle in his shoulder.  It didn’t hurt; or, more accurately, the pain was so wrapped up in the pleasure that it seemed like it was all one thing.  He looked, bleary-eyed, at his reflection, at the angle between his neck and shoulders, expecting there to be a neat, serrate bite mark there, with maybe a little bit of dried blood, but there was nothing.  His skin was smooth and undamaged – but when he touched the spot, it was sensitive, like there was an invisible bruise hovering just underneath the skin, out of sight.
            He held one hand up, in front of his face, held it close enough to his eyes that the outlines were blurry and transparent.
            I’m vanishing, came a thought out of nowhere.  She’s eating me alive.
            Nonsense, came a more prosaic voice.  You just aren’t used to nights like this.  It’s what you wanted, it’s what you were so jealous of when you used to spy on your brother making out with Sue Lounsbery.  Now you have it.  Enjoy it.
            Soon you’ll be gone, the answer came, as if it hadn’t heard.  Blown away like a dead leaf.
            He dropped his hand to his side, and then slowly, mechanically, put on his clothes, went downstairs to breakfast, went off to work, where no one spoke to him, no one even saw him there, a shadow among other shadows.

            That night, he ate dinner without speaking to his parents or his siblings.  His sister was eager to get to her studies, his brother to his usual tryst with Sue Lounsbery; and soon it was just Jeb there, with Mr. and Mrs. Shay, silverware clinking against plates, the quiet sounds of a meal among people who hardly know what to say to one another.
            Jeb finished eating, and looked from his father to his mother.  He wanted to get to his room; he didn’t know when the woman would come to him, but he could already feel the desire rising in him.  His mind was playing over what they had already done together, and thinking about what undreamed heights she might take him to that night.  It was only a little after seven; she might not come for three hours, or more, and he wondered how he would manage to wait that long.
            She is stealing your mind, came a warning voice, in his thoughts.  She wants all of you.  She started with your groin, now she’s taking your mind; your heart will be next.
            Again, he forced the voice away from him.  Stop listening, said a voice, and it sounded like a little like his own voice, and a little like hers.
            If she isn’t evil, then why does she say that you have to turn the lights off before she’ll come to you?
            Because what we do can only be done under cover of darkness, came the voice, sweet and seductive, and now it was clearly her voice.
            “May I be excused?” he said, setting down his napkin next to his plate.
            His mother looked up at him, and frowned, as if seeing him for the first time that evening.
            “Of course, Jeb.”
            He stood, tugging his shirt down to hide his erection, and turned to make his way upstairs to his bedroom.
            “Jeb?”
            He half turned back.  “Yes?”
            Mrs. Shay looked at him curiously, anxiously.  “Are you all right?  You don’t look… yourself.  You seem pale.”
            “No, Mother, I’m fine.”
            “Are you sure?”  She twisted her napkin between her hands, looked at her husband, who just gave a little shrug and said nothing.  “It just seems like…”
            Like I’m not here, came the thought, unbidden, but the desire was stronger, the need for what his unseen lover could do, would do to him, would make him feel.
            “I’m fine, Mother.  There’s nothing wrong.”  He managed a smile, and she smiled back, faltered a little, and then visibly relaxed.
            “All right.  That’s good.  You know, it’s so easy to catch a chill in the winter.  I wondered if you might be ill.”
            “There’s no need to worry about me,” he said, and turned back away toward the stairs, feeling the heat rising in his loins.  Any thoughts of pushing his strange lover away were gone, chased from his mind by raw need.  No, he thought, and as he ascended the stairs his smile took on a quite different quality, one his mother would not have recognized.  Chilled is the last thing I feel right now.

            And so it went.  Work, silence at home from parents and siblings, each night new pinnacles of desperate pleasure, and each day his reflection in the mirror looked less… there.  Every morning he checked his body for marks; there was one night that she spent minutes that felt like hours, her warm mouth pressed on the skin above his heart, while his naked body writhed in a desperate twist of pain and ecstasy, and he bit his lip till the blood flowed to keep from crying out and awakening his sister who was sleeping in the next room.  But there was nothing there the next morning, no bruise, just a tender spot on his chest, right above his left nipple, that ached under his touch.
            And as he walked to work that morning, he was quite sure that when said hello to Mrs. Wentworth, who had been his ninth grade writing teacher, she looked around to see who had spoken to her… and then looked right through him and kept on walking.

            “Mr. Leckey?” Jeb said, just before quitting time, three days later.
            Bart Leckey turned around, and frowned.  “Oh, it’s you.  I thought you’d already left for the day.”
            “It’s only 2:45.  My shift goes until three o’clock.”
            “Well, of course.  What is it, then?”
            “Do you know who used to live up there on the hill?  There’s an old house foundation up there.”
            Leckey’s frown deepened.  “Well, that hasn’t been a house for, oh, probably a good seventy years now.  Belonged to a family named Curtiss.  Long gone, upped stakes and moved west, to Iowa, I heard.  Place fell into ruins, land taken for taxes.  Still belongs to the county, I daresay.”  He paused.  “Why?  What’re you doing up there?”
            “I was out for a walk, and came across it.”
            “Is that so?  Well, might be better you didn’t.”
            “Why?  It doesn’t look dangerous.  There’s barely any of it left.”
            “It’s just…”  Leckey chewed on the end of his mustache, and gave Jeb a queer look.  “It’s best left alone.  People have gone missing up there.”
            “I’ve never heard of any.”
            “Hasn’t happened in a while.  Last one I knew of happened when I was a young man.  Fellow named Harkins.  Richer’n Croesus, became convinced there was buried gold up there.  Wouldn’t tell anyone how he knew; just hinted that he’d ‘heard tell from someone who knowed.’  He kept going back, you know, you’d see him going up the hill, every day, carrying a pick and a shovel.  One day he didn’t come back down.”
            “What happened to him?”
            “Couldn’t tell you,” Leckey said.  “No one ever found a body, so hard to say for sure.  Only thing I could think of was that he’d gone crazy and got lost.  But there was some as said he’d been tricked, that there was something up there on that hill that catches people by whatever their weak point is.  Draws ‘em away, eventually they’re so lost they can’t find their way back again.  Harkins – well, if there was a way to catch him, money was it.”  He made a snorting noise.  “Like as not, that’s just a lot of foolishness.  Harkins probably got lost up there, or fell and broke his leg and starved.  Bad end, but no need to talk about evil spirits.”
            No, came a purring voice in Jeb’s ear.  No need at all.
            “Thanks,” Jeb said.  “I think my shift is about over.  Can I go now?”
            “Certainly, Jeb.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

            Jeb trudged up the hill, as the wind grabbed at him and flung specks of snow in his face.  There was a thin white crust of it around the cellar hole when he got there.
            “Are you there?” he said, his voice weak, and sounding as if it were coming from far away.
            “Of course!”  Her voice was strong, vital, filled with life.
            “I talked to Mr. Leckey today.  He knows about you.”
            “I know you talked to him.  I was there.  But he doesn’t know much, and most of what he thinks he knows is wrong.”
            “What are you?”
            The voice was sweet, seductive.  “Only what you need me to be.”
            “Did you kill Mr. Harkins?  Way back, when Mr. Leckey was young?”
            “Kill him?  Why would I do that?”
            Jeb lay down on his belly, with his face right next to the dark opening.  He squinted.  He thought he could see a shape, a vague, human shape, just inside, but it was out of reach of the light from outside.
            “You hooked him.  Mr. Leckey said you did.  You hooked him by his weak point.  That’s what you do.”
            “Oh, then,” the voice said, laughing, “I guess we know where your weak point is.”
            “That wasn’t fair,” Jeb said.
            “What wasn’t fair about it?  I gave you a chance.  I gave you a taste, then I offered you a choice.  I told you then that if you asked me to go away, I would.  And I would have.  I never lie.”  She paused.  “You begged me.  Just last night.  You begged me to keep on, to make you feel what you were feeling.”
            “I’m not begging now.”
            “No,” she said, and her voice turned harsh.  “I see that.  So what is it you want?”
            “Go away,” Jeb said, and rested his cheek on his hands.  “Go away.  Let me be.”  His voice was muzzy, slurred.
            “Oh, but Jeb, my darling, my lover,” she said, “I think it is far too late for that.  What you have left is hardly anything at all.”  A sad, pitying tone came into her voice.  “I thought you’d last longer, I honestly did.  I didn’t know how easy it would be to empty you.  Perhaps you weren’t anything much to start with.”  She paused.  "Or maybe I was just hungry.  It has been a long time, after all.  Far too long."
            “Please,” Jeb said, as his eyes closed.

            Ten minutes later, a deer minced its way through the little dip in the side of the hill.  It avoided the cellar hole, by some primal instinct against danger; but it looked for a time with its liquid brown eyes at the outline of a man, stretched on the ground, a silhouette in dead leaves and dark earth that was bare of snow.  But then the wind blew, and the snow came down harder, and the outline was blurred and lost in a haze of white crystals.

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