where the bad kids go
I walked Marco out the front door and stood at the porch step as he headed down the walkway. He turned to face me, but winced and looked down as the sun struck his eyes. For a quick second I caught a glimpse of the amber. He quickly whipped his sunglasses from his collar and slid them over his face.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay here?” He asked.
Marco pulled out his pocket notepad and clicked out a pen. He scribbled something on it quickly and handed it to me. It was a phone number. “Let me know if you need any help. Or company.”
“I think I’ll be okay,” I replied as I tried my best to hide a bashful smile.
“Maybe we can catch up some time while you’re here. Maybe over a drink, or some coffee?”
Whether or not he actually wanted to ‘catch up,’ I had to decline. “Now isn’t the right time,” I said. “I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”
“I’ll still be happy to help clean up the house,” he replied. “I can see if some of the other guys from the station want to volunteer.”
“Thanks,” I said. Marco stood in his place for a moment, probably waiting for something more. I looked at the house in the reflection of his sunglasses, and how the convex lenses made the house seem larger and more menacing. Then the reflection drifted away as Marco turned and started for his car.
“It was great seeing you, Marco,” I sputtered. Marco looked back, and I continued, “You look good in a police uniform. Just how I imagined when I was a kid.”
He smiled a flash of white teeth that popped from his tan face as he climbed into his patrol car. “Maybe we can go catch some bad guys sometime.”
I watched him drive off down the street from the porch that shaded me from the afternoon sun that hung above the house, the best protection it’d ever given me, and I turned and walked back inside.
The house had a different mood when I was inside of it completely alone. It seemed to have grown darker and the walls felt as if they had shrunk a bit. The air became a whirlwind of aroma that stung my nose hairs as the air spiraled down into my lungs. It was a foul smell of stomach acid from the poorly cleaned up, dry vomit. Or maybe it was the house itself.
Initiating the starting point of clean-up was difficult, so I did one more walkthrough of the house. The best place to begin would be the kitchen and living room, since those two areas were the most heinous to endure.
I opened the windows and turned on ceiling fans to allow some airflow throughout the house in an attempt to rid of the sour smell. The house creaked and groaned, an unwelcomed disturbance to its sad, lonely life.
Click. From the hallway, a low squeak escaped from the old hinges of a door and caught my attention immediately. I walked into the mouth of the hallway and noticed the basement door slightly ajar. It was easily the movement of the air, the change in pressure from within the house, that made the door open on its own. Right?
It had reminded me that I didn’t check the basement while Marco and I had done a quick walkthrough. I stared at the basement door, opened only an inch or two. My gut pulled me down the hallway, a string lifted my hand to the doorknob, and a voice in my head told me, Do it.
The door moaned a painful creak as the hinges scraped against each other like grinding teeth, and I stood at the top platform of the wooden stairs. The basement swallowed the steps and anything that went down it, a darkness so deep that one would almost feel nonexistent when standing in it; a black hole. Cold, heavy air snaked up the steps and carried a stench of more mildew and smoke—charred remains—and my stomach started to turn.
I gripped the handrail and began my descent. Each step sighed an exhausted squeak as I slowly made my way down into the darkness. I counted each step as I neared the bottom, something I usually did on any staircase, which helped calm my nerves that shot warning signals from every axon. The moment my foot hit the cold, concrete floor of the basement, I exhaled, “Twelve.”
I bumped into a light bulb that hung from a black cable at the base of the staircase, accompanied with a beaded drawstring. I pulled it and the swinging bulb hummed to life as the light danced throughout the cluttered basement. My shadow swayed against the brick wall behind me, and I grabbed the bulb to stop the show.
The basement was in the process of renovation when my parents bought the house, but it was never finished. The ceiling was a wooden, shoddy cover-up of the house’s foundation where spiders had once relaxed in their hammocks that turned into cobwebs over time. The walls were bricks cemented together in hopes that one day they would be covered by a proper insulated wall. The dirty, cement floor, covered in water stains and dry paint, was cluttered with dozens of unlabeled boxes that began to fall apart from water leaks and the humid atmosphere.
Located square in the center of the back wall, hidden well within the darkness where the dull light bulb could not reach, was the crawlspace.
It was an old, wooden door flap built into the wall, black and burnt with a metal lock that had rotted away. The floor beneath the crawlspace, and the brick walls that encased the entrance, were painted with char from the fire that my mother used to take her life. It was a black pool of smeared ash that almost looked like a growth of something evil that sprouted from within the crawlspace. The ceiling above the crawlspace entrance was also severely burned and posed a threat to the kitchen floor above it.
Behind the door flap was a span of dirt and emptiness that stretched beneath the rest of the house, held by columns of cinderblock in a sturdy attempt to hold the structure up. It was a claustrophobe’s nightmare of a three-foot-high ceiling and pitch blackness, paired with the sensation that the house could crush someone like a helpless bug if ever caught inside.
When I was seven, my mom gently pulled me down the basement steps by my small hand. I couldn’t remember how heavily she drank around this time, but I remembered how her sweet and sour whiskey breath burned my eyes as she crouched next to me once we reached the bottom of the staircase. You’re a good boy, aren’t you Jesse? she would ask me. I nodded. I was a good boy. Her face dropped suddenly, and the light bulb above her, the one still used to this day, hid her eyes within sunken sockets.
She pulled me to the center of the basement, which wasn’t as cluttered with boxes and junk back then, and stood behind me as we both stared at the crawl space in front of us. It remained shut and locked, and the shadows of the basement blanketed the door flap in darkness.
This is where the bad kids go, she had claimed.
“What’s in there?” I asked as my imagination went wild. I wasn’t afraid or nervous. I was a curious kid.
My mother didn’t say anything. When I looked up at her, she stared at the crawlspace door intensely as if something from within it spoke to her. As I called for her, she broke from her trance and looked down at me. You’ll find out one day.
I had just turned eight when I went into the crawlspace for the first time. I had knocked over one of her cocktail glasses from the kitchen counter and it shattered on the floor.
My mother rushed into the kitchen, her arms stiff by her side, her fingers curled inward into a half fist, and her shoulders were raised with her back hunched, as if the sound of the glass shattering brought out some inner animalistic instinct from within her. Her upper lip quivered and revealed a snarl of teeth that just started to show signs of plaque build up. Her eyes were distant of life.
Look at what you did, she had hissed. Look at the mess you made, you little rat.
She barely allowed me to apologize before she grabbed me tightly around my wrist and yanked me across the glass-ridden floor. I shrieked as the tiny crystals punctured the tender padding of my feet, and I trailed small smears of blood across the kitchen floor and down the wooden steps of the basement. I realized where I was going.
She yanked the light bulb’s draw string and the light swung side to side like a trapeze artist waiting for the right moment. I was pulled toward the crawlspace that disappeared into darkness every other second while the light bulb calmed to a steady sway. Her grip tightened around my wrist, and her fingernails began to dig into my skin. She never let go as she unlatched the metal lock from the bottom of the door flap and swung it upward and open. A hook in the ceiling allowed it to remain open with a six-inch bungee cord, and the dark inside of the crawlspace smelled of death as if it were the very bowels of the house itself.
I was no longer curious about what was inside of the place where the bad kids went. My child instincts induced an electric shock that traveled through my small body that continuously told me, Danger. Get out. The peach fuzz on my arms and the back of my neck stood straight up. It was a nightmare I had never seen, but have felt multiple times before. I could sense that there was something inside.
My mother’s bony fingers squeezed underneath my armpits and she stuffed me beneath the house. I didn’t have time to grab the frame of the crawlspace and pull myself away from the hellish opening. My small body rolled across the dirty floor, and I was encased by a dim square of light that shone into the crawlspace from the basement. My mother’s shadow stood at the mouth of the crawlspace, but her shape was that of something else. Not my mother. Not a woman. Not a human.
She unhooked the door flap from the ceiling and allowed it to slam shut. I screamed as I was immersed in total darkness, save for the soft glow that escaped through the cracks of the door flap. My mother locked the door flap and the click-clack of the metal echoed through the vast blackness. I breathed heavily as I remained in the same spot, too afraid to investigate and confused as to why I was receiving such a cruel punishment for something so innocent. I attempted to calm my breathing and heard my mother stomp up the basement stairs. Her footsteps thudded across the ceiling of the crawlspace, and I wasn’t sure if I was even looking in the right direction while trapped in the dark.
Silence soon inhabited the space, and I held my arms close to my chest as I squatted in the same position for who knows how long. Time was slow for a child, and I could’ve sworn that this was an eternity.
From within the darkness came the sound of fingernails that scratched along the wooden beams that criss-crossed along the ceiling of the crawlspace. Or maybe it was against the cinderblock columns? It was impossible to pinpoint where the sounds came from as the black swallowed them up.
Something dragged across the dirt near the opposite side of the crawl space from where I shivered.
Thump, thump, thump. I looked up, or where I thought was up.
A low chuckle. More scratching.
I couldn’t speak, nor could I even cry as something choked back my tears and my ability to shriek for help.
I heard a whisper from within the darkness. Come here.
“I’m scared,” I whined.
I’m scared, the voice mocked in a baby tone. It was my mother’s voice. There’s a monster in here. And it loves to eat bad, little kids like you. I searched for her voice, and I noticed slivers of sunlight at the other side of the crawlspace. The dusty beams of light cascaded through the cracks of the front porch. The space stretched further than I had thought.
A loud bang! sprung from the darkness, and I screamed. My pants grew warm as I wet myself. My mother cackled, and her voice transformed into a deep, guttural chuckle.
Aren’t you a little too old to be pissing yourself? Her voice held nothing but malice.
For the next thirty minutes, my mother stayed in the living room, the area just above the crawlspace, and each time a couple of minutes passed, she would jump from the couch and onto the floor above where I cowered. Whenever I screamed, that same cackle escaped her mouth. She mocked my fear. She whispered into the vents built in the floor in a sickly, raspy voice that wasn’t hers, and they traveled through the ducts and into the crawlspace where it sounded as if they came from all around me.
She pulled this stunt every time I was thrown into the crawlspace, an occurrence that happened more and more frequently as I grew older. Once every few months turned into monthly, then weekly.
I became convinced that when I did something really bad, she would enter the crawlspace through another entrance that I was unaware of. I could hear her drag herself across the dirt from within the dark, and her breathing was heavy and dry, almost exhausted. When I would think she was on one side of the crawlspace, I would hear her voice from one of the vents trickle out from behind me, and then the thud, thud, thud of her coordinating her next ‘attack’ in the living room. Sometimes I was convinced that it wasn’t her in the crawlspace with me, but with the mixed cocktail of darkness, fear, and a child’s imagination, I wasn’t sure what was real.
The last time I was shoved into the crawlspace was two weeks before the terrible night. It was a memory that I had promised to myself to never remember, repressed within the folds of my brain.
Until now, as I stood in the very moment.
At this point of my childhood, most of my days were spent away from my house. I didn’t have many friends, so I’d usually hang out at Marco’s house two miles away where his parents always welcomed me into their house. The nights, which I dreaded when the sun would finally set and I’d drag myself back home, were spent in my bedroom behind a closed door. If she found that the door was locked, she would use a bedroom key from her Kwikset to unlock it from the other side and punish me for that. If I attempted to block the door with furniture, she’d find a way through that as well, and I would be punished just as severely.
She had caught me with a magazine meant for girls. She snatched it from my hands and rolled it up into a tube, and she began to hit me with it. It wasn’t painful, though she was too drunk to notice, and I held up my hand to protect myself from the harmless attacks. She hit me harder with the magazine.
The magazine fell from her hand, and she continued to hit me. A literal slap on my wrist turned into closed-fist blows, and my eleven-year-old strength couldn’t match her drunken wails. The punches cracked against my brows, my cheeks, all over my head and I began to see bright flashes with each hit.
She yanked me by the hair and pulled me off of my bed, and I struggled to my feet as I was forced out of the bedroom and down the hallway toward the basement door. I screamed as I pleaded, “Don’t take me down there! I’m sorry!”
She ignored my whines as she dragged me through the basement doorway. I managed to latch onto the doorframe and pulled myself away from her bony grasp, but she quickly snatched my leg and yanked upward.
My body fell onto the upstairs platform, and she began to drag me down into the musky basement. My fingernails dug against the wall as I tried grabbing onto something, anything. My heavy head bounced repeatedly against each wooden step as she relentlessly pulled me to the bottom of the staircase. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Twelve times.
Dazed, I remained on the dirty basement floor and watched her drag herself lazily to the crawlspace. She unhinged the metal lock and opened the flap, then turned back to me, expressionless.
As I sluggishly crawled back toward the staircase, she lifted me up from beneath the arms carelessly and walked me to the mouth of the crawlspace. I could feel the icy air from within spill out into the basement, and goosebumps bubbled to the surface of my skin. She whispered in my ear horrible things, and I was too terrified to speak. He’s not your friend. That faggot. You two will rot in Hell. You make me sick.
It was not her.
She hoisted me into the crawlspace and I tumbled through the dirt. I wheezed as the dirt whirled into my lungs, and I turned to see my mother release the door flap. The smack! made my ears ring, and I pulled myself through the dirt and darkness to the mouth of the crawlspace. I pounded on the door and pleaded to my mother to open it. With no response I began to shove my shoulder into the door.
I gave up after a few minutes and started to sob to myself, left alone in the darkness for the umpteenth time. I had wished that I was caught in a nightmare, which for a moment I believed was true, and that I would wake up in what I considered the safety of my bed. My sobs subsided. I heard from the other side of the door flap the sounds of my mother’s breathing, slow and rhythmic, and raspy like the desert wind. It’s in there, she had said. I can feel it.
“What is it?” I pleaded, but she didn’t respond.
I wasn’t sure how long she stood outside of the crawlspace, or if she had even been there at all, but my attention was directed to deep inside of the cramped, underground cavern beneath the house.
Something else was in there.
I was a blind victim in a nightmare and relied heavily on my sense of hearing to pinpoint exactly where the sound of something heavy dragged itself through the dirt.
Whatever it was moved from one side of the crawlspace to the other, and it wheezed dryly deep breaths of dirty air, the tortured breathing of something that had been there for eons. I heard the sound of wet, sickening pops of old, arthritic joints as whatever it was dragged itself closer to where I sat. Its breathing became heavier, and a low, guttural croak escaped from its dry throat. I stiffened myself up against the door flap in pure terror, unable to move or scream. I closed my eyes, covering them with my hands, the main self defense of a kid even though it made no difference as I was already surrounded by an ocean of darkness. I could feel the thing squatted next to me, staring at me; even though I couldn’t see it, I could feel that it was mere inches from my face. It held its breath, and I held mine.
I was trapped in there with something else for what felt like hours, when in reality it was only five minutes. The door flap swung open and I spilled out backward and onto the cold concrete floor. I jumped to my feet and backed away from the crawlspace, from my mother who had been on the other side this entire time. For once she looked afraid. It was as if my experience had confirmed something for her, and she watched me scramble up the basement steps, pale as a ghost.
I had made a vow to myself to never go into the crawlspace again, whether or not there had been something else in there. I chalked it up to fear-induced paranoia paired with an active imagination like any sensible person would.
Since the incident, and following up to the terrible night, I had nightmares about the house, about the darkness, and how I was swallowed whole by despair and terror. I had holed myself up in my bedroom to avoid getting in trouble and being sent back down into the bowels of the house.
I had forgotten about this crawlspace, pushed back into the dark recesses of my mind a life I’d wanted to never remember. And here I was, standing in the basement in front of the rotting crawl space entrance. For the first time in sixteen years, I felt like the helpless child from that very night all over again.