As I walked up the steps to my apartment I found a bright orange eviction notice stapled into the cracked paint of the brown door. It came as little surprise as I’d been avoiding the landlord for two months. I only left in the middle of the night for minimal groceries or to find the remnants of half smoked cigarettes outside the bus station entrance. Anything as not to be caught in her gaze and questioned yet again why the rent remained unpaid. With as little noise as possible I opened the lock to the apartment, leaving the orange notice stapled to the door, and closed it behind me.
A pile of mail littered the floor. I hadn’t bothered to pick it up in days as most of the contents could be discerned without opening. “Final notice,” “Shutoff notice,” and a pile of other envelopes from collection agencies. One envelope stuck out, a heavier bond than the others, and a gentle linen color. It bore no harsh ultimatums. The return address listed the law offices of Simpson & Brown in Decatur, Georgia. Peering out the window I saw Mrs. Plonski coming up the walk with her Pekinese and leaned back from the window as not to have my silhouette be seen. There were days I amused myself with fantasies of a young Raskolnikov, and thought even if caught at least I’d have three hots and a cot. In the end I had no grudge against the old maid who’d rented me the upper floor of the apartment for the past three years. I sat down in the worn leather arm chair beside the single window to the outside world and opened the parcel with curiosity.
Dear Mr. Pickman
Re: Alice Pickman, deceased
I am pleased to advise that we have now completed the administration of Alice Pickman’s estate and hereby enclose a cheque for $18,000 representing the amount of the inheritance due to you. In addition as the sole beneficiary to your Aunt’s estate, you have been awarded the deed to her residence of record.
I would be grateful if you would sign and return the enclosed form to acknowledge its safe receipt. Should you have any questions please contact my office at the number on the above letterhead.
Wallace Simpson, Esq.
As described the letter included a cashier’s check from a bank in Georgia and an acknowledgement to be signed indicating receipt of the check. A self addressed envelope to the office of Simpson & Brown completed the documents. Stunned I sat in the worn out chair rereading the attorney’s letter several times. A pounding on the apartment door broke me from my trance.
“Mr. Pickman! I know you’re in there. I saw you. Open the door.” I heard from the growling that she had her feral companion with her. I held the letter in my hand, looked again at the certified check, and unlocked the deadbolt. With the door barely gaping her scolding began. “I want you out of my apartment.” The Pekinese in her arms growled at me. “It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to your ‘issues’ Henry but I’ve got bills too. I need the money for the rent to put food on my own table. Isn’t there somewhere you could stay, family perhaps, until you got back on your feet?”
“Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Plonski. As it turns out I do have somewhere to go.”
“And what about the back rent? Don’t think you’re going to float out of here and not pay me!”
“Thirteen hundred dollars a month. Two months behind, right? You will get everything I owe within 48 hours.” She stood speechless, the dog of course continued growling.
“Forty-eight hours? No games?”
“No games Mrs. Plonski. Thank you for your patience.” With that I closed the door on her and the growling dog. I listened to her stand there for a minute and then head back downstairs with her ill tempered companion.
Who in the world is Alice Pickman? I wondered, incredulous that a fortune so benign would fall upon me now at the eleventh hour. Both my parents had been deceased going on seven years. My mother had been an only child. The youngest of three, I thought my father had been the last surviving Pickman of his generation. The maintenance of our genealogy suffered to say the least.
The next morning at the bank the cashiers check proved to be genuine. Up until the minute the teller handed me a stack of bills I expected it to be an elaborate scam of sorts. I asked the teller for two envelopes, the first to hold the twenty-six hundred dollars in back rent owed to Mrs. Plonski, the other for the balance of my inheritance. I didn’t like the idea of carrying around so much cash, and thought it would be prudent to get it in a bank account right away. It had been so long since I’d had more than twenty dollars in my pocket I couldn’t let it go just yet.
Two days later driving a rental car down 85 South, my disbelief at my change of fortune disappeared like the horizon behind me. I’d arranged to meet Mr. Simpson at Aunt Alice’s house that Thursday morning. From our brief conversation on the phone he sounded amicable enough but confessed to know little about my Aunt or the property. The night before my arrival I tossed and turned in a roadside motel room just outside Greenville.
Wide spaced rows of cypress trees flanked the road leading up to the house, Spanish moss veiling the surrounding gardens. I could see the upper peaks of the roof before seeing the house itself. Tall double paned windows graced the front facade. A large covered porch set with a table and chairs flanked the house on the left. A columned portico masked the magnitude of the front door keeping the entry dark even as I walked up in the morning sun. High above the second floor windows a bacchanalian base relief of a face peered from the outer walls. The entire structure exuded a massive elegeance.
“Henry Pickman I presume,” came the voice from the porch. A rotund man in a suit blotting his forehead with a handkerchief walked down the front steps. He shoved the handkerchief into his pants’ pocket as he extended his hand to me. “Wallace Simpson. No trouble finding the place I hope.”
“No trouble at all. The house is gorgeous.”
“I’m afraid all is not at appealing as it looks. The inside needs a bit more T.L.C.” said Wallace. “Let me show you around the house.” He took a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the front door. Upon opening it he handed the keys to me – “These are yours from this point forward, and all that lies within.”
The front door opened to a small foyer, with a large staircase to the right. The steps were all covered with dust and plaster peeling from the walls. A large window at the top of the stairway let in scant light through its dusty panes. “Let’s start downstairs first” said Mr. Stevens. “I’ll give you a brief tour and then leave you to explore on your own. I promised the Mrs. I’d be home early this afternoon.”
Opposite the stairway in the foyer a doorway lead to the main living room with an exit out to a porch overlooking the garden. The kitchen and a large dining room were central to the house. At the rear stood what Wallace called the master bedroom, but the only elements therein looked like the dumpster contents of half a dozen antique shops. A large bathroom extended off one side of the “bedroom” with the other side offering an entrance to a screened in porch. The interior of the residence bore a sharp reflection to the pristine exterior.
“That’s the run of it” said Wallace, starting to cough into the handkerchief he blotted his brow with earlier. Upstairs there’s two more bedrooms, one of which your Aunt used, a storage room and a room stuffed to the gills with old books. I take it your Aunt loved to read.”
“It runs in the family” I said. Other than our surname an appetite for literature so far had been the only trait I knew we shared.
From the front door I watched as Wallace drove off and then I went to explore the upstairs. The plaster of the stairway had deteriorated to the point where the stairs were covered in debris and dust. At least the handrail felt secure as I ascended to the second floor. It appeared that Aunt Alice spent the majority of her time in the house on the second floor. A gallery lined wall to wall with books, an antique furnished bedroom, and a small bathroom comprised the upstairs level. I turned on the faucet in a bathroom and the pipes groaned but after a brief sputter of brown water into the basin, the faucet ran clear and steady. At least the plumbing appeared to be solid. “It may not look like much now” I thought, “but it will.” I grabbed my bags from the rental car and stowed them upstairs. I would need room in the trunk for the cleaning supplies. The GPS in the rental car located a home-improvement store about 35 miles away.
I returned to the house with a small artillery of cleaning supplies; mops, brooms, boxes of garbage bags, rags and various cleaning solutions for glass and wood. As the top floor seemed more habitable I decided to start there first. Eight hours and an equal number of garbage bags later I’d finished cleaning for the night. Most of the upper floor of the house had undergone at least a superficial cleaning.
Exhausted I retired to the furnished bedroom to sleep. An undated brown and turquoise paisley quilt covered the bed, presumably since my Aunt Alice last slumbered there. I removed the quilt to shake off the dust and my arms ached from all the sweeping and scrubbing. Exhausted from the long drive and the day full of cleaning, my sleep remained unsteady. At one point I woke to the sound of knocking. As the cobwebs of sleep dissolved I discerned the visitor had been no more than the wind rattling the window within its frame. I rose from bed and closed the window, surveying the dark landscape of the property. The trees shifting in the wind looked like stygian giants lumbering to and fro. No sooner had I drifted off again when again I awoke again to knocking. I reassured myself of the windows closure. As I stood before the moonlit panes I saw a nearby cypress bough, thwap against the house. In bed for a third time I closed my eyes tight and did my best to ignore the nascent knocking.
In the wee hours before dawn I found myself beset by strange dreams. Cold air and the smell of mold violated my nostrils. Water dripped against stone. An indistinct rumble followed the languid dripping, sounding something like a jack break of a truck on a distant highway. Within the dream I recalled feeling colder as the rumbling moan grew louder. It sounded as if a great chasm opened in the earth. Fear of the unknown paralyzed my being. The sound of stone groaning echoed in my ears when I awoke, my undershirt soaked with sweat. A storm had blown in overnight. The rain pattered against the rooftop. Perhaps that’s where the dripping water of my dreams had come from, I thought.
Cautiously I made my way down the debris covered stairway to the kitchen and brewed a pot of coffee. The groaning sound of the stone still echoed in my ears and the chill took its time to escape me as well. A deafening silence filled the old house.
Upstairs on the landing at the top of the stairs sat a small room. Alice had tucked an old roll-top desk in the corner. Curious to its contents I rolled back the rickety panel. Among the stationary and envelopes laid a rolled up bundle of papers. The brittle rubber band holding them flaked into pieces when I went to examine them. The inspected papers turned out to be the original blueprints for the building of the house. Three pages, each signed in the corner by a Louis Turpin who I presumed to be the architect, and dated March 1828. There were three sheets of drawings – for three levels. Wallace said nothing of a basement. Why hadn’t he mentioned it? Could it be he didn’t know? The blueprints revealed the stairway lead down from one of the storage rooms opposite the screened porch. Torn between rushing to explore and sticking to the task at hand of cleaning the stairway my curiosity grew. The pitted walls needed more than ‘TLC’ but as it stood they were mine and no more would I be hounded by Mrs. Plonski and her feral familiar. As I nearly tripped on loose debris I decided I’d better stick to cleaning the stairs first and that I would have time to explore the basement later. I swept up the landing and then began to sweep the stairs. Every few stairs I’d shovel the debris into a dustpan which i emptied into a bag at the bottom of the stairs. It took several trips up and down the staircase but once I had the stairs were again safely navigable. Satisfied with my superficial cleaning I sought out the entryway to the stairway leading below the house.
When I opened the door it looked only like a large closet, packed to the gills with cardboard boxes and old lamp fixtures. I began to excavate the boxes to the hallway. Many it seemed were filled with old china, and wrapped in jaundiced newspaper dating back to the 1920’s. Not until the last two boxes were removed did I see the hinges and pull for a trapdoor in the floor. With a heave I opened the door and a cool, damp breeze blew up from the chamber. A wooden stairway descended into the darkness. A flashlight would be helpful but of course I had none. I took out my lighter and lit the flame. I made it down about three steps before the cool draft blowing up the stairway blew out the fire. A second try, this time with my hand cupping the flame I made it down 4 more steps. Again the fire blew out and now my thumb burned hot. I went back up the steps. Other than the walls of the stairway it had been too dark to make out any details of the level below or how many steps more there were to the bottom. Back to town again, this time for enough food to stock the refrigerator and pick up a few flashlights as well.
When I returned home I stowed the groceries and made ready to explore the underground room. I counted thirteen steps leading from the trapdoor in the closet to the floor of the room. The stairs were wooden and felt soft with years of moisture. The walls were stone and appeared to have been carved right from some underground rock as I could see no gaps to suggest bricks or clues of material assembly. The crypt beneath the house measured about twenty by twenty in dimension. A solitary fixture of a large stone table adorned the room. A recession in the stone bordered the table’s edge.. Inside the reservoir looked to be a dried liquid dark and coppery in the illumination of my flashlight. On one of the walls, perpendicular to what would be the head or foot of the stone table, featured a rectangular pattern of bricks. The bricks resembled the shape of a doorway – or what had been one, before being sealed over. I tapped the base of the flashlight against the bricks and heard no indication of a hollow behind them.
Right after that tapping that my luck took a turn due south. The trapdoor at the top of the stairway by some inexplicable wind blew shut with a thud. At the top of the stairs i pushed on the doorway expecting it to open again with ease but it did not. It would seem that the broom that I had left in the upstairs room after sweeping it out had fallen down when the trap door blew shut and had lodged against the door handle. I went up another step to leverage my shoulder against the door. As hard as I shoved it wouldn’t budge. I gave it one last thrust and with a crack the aged stair supporting me splintered and I fell to the ground.
The splintered wood ripped a gash in my calf and i felt a goose egg growing on the back of my head from where it struck the ground. I became woozy with shock. I steadied myself to my feet but the gash in my leg burned. I hobbled over to the table and lifted myself up as it were a physician’s examination table. The blood from my calf began to pool upon the table surface but stopped when it dripped into the reservoir bordering the table edge. Just then I recognized what the dried copper remnants were and that this had been no table but a kind of altar.
The flashlight began to flutter and went out. In frustration I threw it against the bricked doorway. I must have hit a weak spot as one of the bricks broke. My heart quivered when I heard that same sound of my dreams, a great chasm opening inside the earth, surrounding me in the basement room. Whispers emerged from behind the wall and became more pronounced. I looked to the fissure created by the thrown flashlight too scared to even scream, my breath frozen in my lungs as I saw a glowing green eye espying me from the darkness.