“Corey? It’s Kim; we need to talk about these signs.”
The signs Kim Donaldson was referring to were the three signs stapled on the apartment door of her third floor tenant, Corey Jamison.
“Really, Corey, the other tenants on your floor are asking me what’s going on and I don’t know what to tell them. I’m removing the signs and taking them with me. Please don’t put up any more. Thanks.”
Corey Jamison sat in his chair seething and talking to himself. He felt that his landlord had no right taking down his signs. Also, they were for the tenants’ own good. Somebody could get hurt if they came into his apartment while he was “away.”
He stared at the pentagram that he and Kim had drawn with chalk on his bare living room floor. Two months ago, he had taken up the worn wall-to-wall carpeting and had put the roll against the far wall. The oak floor had been in pretty good shape and with a little oil the wood glowed like a refinished antique. Incense burned day and night in an attempt to mask an odor that smelled very much like the lion or the monkey house at the zoo. But not exactly like either. A dozen books filled the small hutch that stood up against one wall of his living room.
The books had started him down the path he was now walking. It had begun with one book picked up at a used book store. That book and some internet surfing had wet his appetite for the others. The knowledge that was in those books was now his. It had been hundreds of years since anyone had had the combined knowledge that was in those books. Individually, the books were interesting, but harmless. As a battery of information, they opened a new universe and gave the person with that information incredible power. Now that Corey was learning how to use that power he was more than ever sure that he wanted it.
Later that evening he went out to walk the streets of his old New Haven neighborhood to clear his head and ponder his next move. It was a beautiful summer evening for a walk and he wandered into a business section that must have been on the decline for a number of years. Without giving it much thought, he took down a couple of “POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS” tapes from the doorway of a burned out convenience store. When he got home he attached them in an “X” across his door. He could still open the door, get in and out of his apartment, but the message to those in the rest of the building was back in place.
After a little light dinner, he gathered the three most powerful books in his collection and once again sat in the center of his pentagram. Candles were placed on the edge of the circle enclosing the pentagram and all was set for continuing the experiment. Could he leave this universe, enter another, and still come back to the pentagram? He had found that he could. The question now was whether or not he could do it at will. He opened one of the books and began chanting. The living room became a little less distinct as he repeated the chant over and over in a sing-song monotone.
Gradually, the apartment was gone and Corey found himself sitting on the bare floor of what appeared to be a very old basement. A very, very old basement. The floor was a sort of cobblestone and the room was round rather than square. The animal smell was much stronger down here. Corey wondered if he really was “down here.” There were two doorways, narrow with rounded archways, no doors, directly opposite each other that opened onto dimly lit passages. A large, ugly rat with glowing red eyes was trundling past one of the doorways when it spotted Corey. It stood up on it’s hind legs and hissed at him.
Corey chuckled and thought that maybe the red eyes were due to it’s being in an old wine cellar all afternoon. Or maybe the rat was demon spawn. He liked the sound of those words; “demon spawn.” They reminded him of old horror stories he used to read as a kid. Now here he was in his very own horror story with his very own demon spawn giving him the evil eye. Corey chanted what was a warding off phrase he’d picked up in one of the books and the rat slowly lowered itself back to all fours and continued on its subterranean mission.
This was Corey’s fourth “trip” to the basement. He was still afraid to move around much as he feared if he moved too far from where he entered this place, he may somehow leave the pentagram in the universe he left. He didn’t want to do something irreversible. He remained calm and after a bit chanted the words that the book said would return him to his living room. The next time he planned to do a little exploring. He at least planned to leave the round room and see where the hallways went. If this caused him to be trapped in this alternate universe, so be it. He was ready for the next step.
As the basement features faded and the living room features gradually became clear, he could hear someone talking.
“….. and Mrs. Murphy just called me about this police line tape. She wanted to know if you were dead. She was worried that you had been murdered. Are you listening to me? Really, Corey, this has got to stop. Your lease is up in two months and if you don’t straighten out, I’m not going to let you renew it.”
“Go away,” shouted Corey.
These two exchanges had taken place a month ago. A lot has happened since then. A lot had also happened before then. We should probably talk first about what happened before the conversations about warning signs and police tape. Up until a few months ago, Corey and Kim had been a couple. At the time they met, Kim had been divorced for five years. The six unit apartment building had been part of the settlement. She was thirty-five years old and looked under thirty. Corey was twenty-eight and, well, also looked under thirty. Most of the tenants in the building thought they made a cute couple. When he rented the third floor one-bedroom apartment a year ago, there had been chemistry between Kim and Corey from the first day. After only a couple of days Corey asked if Kim if she wanted to have coffee on a Saturday morning and Kim readily accepted. The meeting went well; the conversation was lively, and they agreed to dinner and a movie that night. A month later they started having discreet sleepovers.
Corey is an English teacher at a nearby high school. After college, he had tried to make a go of it as a free-lance writer for various national magazines, but it just didn’t pay the bills. He had gone back to school to get his teaching credentials and had landed a teaching job two years ago. He had moved into Kim’s apartment building a year ago so that he could walk to work.
His work as a free-lance writer, while not financially rewarding, had fueled the interest he had always had in things “unknown.” The internet allowed him to follow the trail of any subject that he felt like pursuing. Corey became interested in some occult topics after stumbling across “Cellars of Old New England,” in Pennywise Used Books, a book store in an older section of New Haven. He was soon hooked on rites that secret sects had once used to converse with the unseen powers in New Haven’s past.
At first Kim was interested in Corey’s new area of study. She even encouraged him. Her ancestors on her mother’s side had come over from England back in the early 1600s and had settled with a Puritan colony near Salem, Massachusetts. She had done a little genealogical research trying to determine whether there was anything juicy in her background since her mother’s family had left Salem for New haven about the same time as the witch trials of 1692. She and Corey discussed the books he read and speculated as to why someone would have written about such things. If it wasn’t fiction, was it supposed to be true? If it was supposed to be true, what was it based on?
“Maybe back in those simpler times the power of suggestion was stronger,” said Corey one evening when they were in bed reading after dinner. “Maybe mass delusions or mass hypnosis was part of it. Many people think that’s what caused things like the Salem witch trials.”
That got Kim’s attention. “So since there weren’t any reality shows for people to watch they invented witchcraft as entertainment?”
“Well, not exactly,” said Corey. “I’m just doing some supposing here, but people didn’t have a lot of education at that time. If they saw someone acting out of the ordinary and couldn’t figure out why, they may have gone with the old “dealing with the devil” schtick for lack of any scientific explanation. People lived in pretty small communities. If you were different, you stood out. There must have been the occasional introvert back then and even people with mild mental illnesses. Once they were marked as “not like us,” they were pretty much doomed. New England didn’t invent occult stuff, it had been around in Europe for ages. Almost every other part of the world too.”
Kim had been pretty much okay when Corey had rolled up the old carpeting in his living room and had cleaned and polished the floor. She helped him create the pentagram from drawings from books and the internet. Together they had sat in its center and had chanted phrases that were part of a calling out to someone or something to open the way to another universe. Even though they had not yet been successful, Kim had felt some odd stirrings deep within her when certain chants were spoken. Corey claimed to feel nothing and was a little envious of Kim’s success. He started to accumulate more books, read them each a number of times, and worked harder at the chanting, sometimes into the middle of the night.
His obsession started to put a strain on their relationship and when he refused to answer the door one night, Kim angrily told him she didn’t want to see him anymore. Corey hadn’t answered the door because he hadn’t been there; it had been his first trip to the basement on the third floor.
Even though Kim was terribly hurt that Corey had chosen his occult interests over their relationship, she still loved him and wanted to be a part of his life. Even a part of his occult life. She hardly ever saw him come and go from his apartment anymore. It was summer, he didn’t have to really be anywhere until school started again in a month and a half, but he had to sometimes do things like grocery shopping and laundry, didn’t he? Now after having been told to “go away” twice in one day, she decided that she would check up on him for his own good.
A couple of nights later, she stood outside his apartment door with the passkey in her hand. She would wait until she heard the chanting and then sneak into Corey’s apartment and see what he was doing. She didn’t have to wait long. After only a few minutes, she heard Corey chanting some phrases that were not familiar to her. He repeated the same three or four phrases over and over, gradually getting louder and more insistent. The chanting then started to fade a bit and then sounded like it was coming from someplace outside of the apartment.
Using the passkey, Kim quietly opened the door and almost fainted by what she saw. Instead of looking into Corey’s living room, she was standing at the top of some stairs that led to a lower level. The stairway was narrow with stone steps that looked well-worn. The light from the hallway behind her only went about half way down these stairs so she had no idea how far down they lead. Looking more closely now, she could see that Corey’s apartment was still there. It was like this basement stairway was superimposed over the apartment. She could see Corey’s hutch and the rolled-up carpet against the wall. Hanging onto the doorframe with both hands, she took a hesitant step forward to see if she would go in or down. Her foot met just a little resistance but then settled down onto the first step.
Kim stood there trying to decide what to do next. She really didn’t want to go back to her own apartment to get a flashlight. She was afraid that when she returned the basement stairway would be gone. She wanted to see what was down there even though she knew that the occult was involved and it could be dangerous. She could hear Corey chanting and could still see him sitting in the pentagram in the living room. He had his eyes closed and a look of satisfaction on his face. But now Kim noticed that the chanting seemed to be coming from below her; coming from the basement. Corey’s apartment was like a scene from an old black and white silent movie; the stairway seemed to be more solid and real. Kim convinced herself that even though the light from behind her only shone about half way down the stairs and she couldn’t see much of the stairs after that, there was a faint glow at what must be the very bottom coming from the other direction. She wouldn’t need to risk going back for a flashlight if there was a light source down there.
Tentatively, she took a second step with her other foot to the second step of the stairs. Again, there was a slight feel of resistance like pushing through a heavy spider web. She touched the walls on the side of the staircase for balance and immediately recoiled. They were more than damp; they felt slimy and also that maybe they were somehow lined with something alive. Wiping her hands on her jeans, she continued one slow step at a time down the stairs. She had been right about the light at the bottom. When she was what she thought must be about half way, she could see a faint light glowing in what might be a hallway or tunnel.
She could no longer hear any chanting. It seemed that that part of the ritual was finished. Still moving cautiously, she arrived at the bottom of the stairs and was in a hallway leading in the direction from which she had just come. The light seemed to be coming from a doorway about twenty feet down the hallway. Beyond that doorway the hallway continued but was dark. The smell was that animal house odor that she and Corey had smelled while doing the chanting when they used to do it together. Walking as quietly as she could, she made her way to the doorway. She heard Corey’s voice in what was a low conversational tone. Who could be down here with him? Stopping just before the door, she leaned her head into the opening and peeked into the room. Corey was sitting in the middle of the room facing a dozen or so large rats that were staring at him in rapt attention. When Corey looked up at her, the rats also turned as one and looked at her.
“Welcome, Kim. Come in; please sit down with us,” Corey said with a broad, forced smile. “Our little group could use a woman’s touch, couldn’t we, guys.” The exaggerated wink he then gave her would have been cute a few months ago, but here in this creepy basement it looked horribly grotesque to Kim. It seemed to her that the incantations and spells may have taken a toll on Corey’s sanity.
The rats continued to stare at Kim and most of them had nodded slightly in agreement when Corey had made the comment about a woman’s touch. Some of them now licked their lips with their ugly pink tongues. Then, again as one, they turned to look to Corey as if asking for some sort of permission. When Cory slowly nodded to them, Kim bolted from the room and headed back to the stairs. Taking them two at a time she got to the top in seconds and quickly pulled the door closed. She heard a muffled thunk, thunk, thunk, as the first few rats couldn’t stop quickly enough and slammed into the closed door. Sobbing, she made it to her own unit and locked herself in.
Before it was even light the following day, Kim left for Florida. She threw what possessions she really wanted into her car and left the rest for later. As it turned out, there was not a “later.” From Florida, Kim worked with a realty company to sell the apartment house. She couldn’t see herself ever entering that building again. With the money from the sale of the apartment house Kim was able to buy a modest condo unit in Punta Gorda. One of the things she liked about Florida was that because of the weather, most of the buildings didn’t have basements. Still, many times in her new condo she dreamed about that last night in New Haven. And most of the time she woke up screaming; certain that she was not going to make it to the top of the stairs in time.
Roy Dorman is retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Benefits Office and has been a voracious reader for over 60 years. At the prompting of an old high school friend, himself a retired English teacher, Roy is now a voracious writer. He has had flash fiction and poetry published recently in Cease Cows, Gravel, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Press, Drunk Monkeys, Birds Piled Loosely, Black Petals, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, Cheapjack Pulp, and Yellow Mama.
Image by Steven Depolo