The dust storm was devastating. It screamed its way under the car’s hood and suffocated the thing until my engine gave up the ghost. Hardly mattered - I couldn’t see but five feet anyway and we’d been crawling along for an hour. I let the car coast down the very slight hill, praying not to get rear-ended.
We were still on the road, but beyond that I had no idea how far along the old highway I’d come. I imagined the endless feathery shadow of the treeline to the right and vast fallow fields on my left, but I couldn’t see them. Hoping there was a shoulder, I eased off the asphalt. Gravel under the tires. Crunching, we came to a stop.
I took the key out of the ignition and blew out a breath. What now? Millions of tiny impacts left miniscule scratches on the windshield and windows. It was easy to think nature itself had it out for me at that point. If I got out of the car, sand would pour into my mouth and nose, burying me from the inside out. Or millions of primitive, microscopic knives would rend my flesh down to the bone.
Or maybe I’d just get lost, mere feet from the car but unable to locate it for the intensity of the parched storm. Wander into the field, and die.
Had it been daytime, such morbid thoughts might have seemed silly. At night, though, all this and more seemed reasonable.
I could just sit in the car, wait it out. The dust storm would end eventually. Morning would come.
But was that a glimmer of light on the left? Some lonely farmhouse, its porchlight a beacon for lost souls such as me.
Or, a will-o’-wisp’s arid cousin, patiently waiting to lure me to that aforementioned dusty death.
After ten hours driving, no stops since a cheap diner lunch in a no-name town, I admit that the chance for some human company was the thing that pushed me out of the car door, leather jacket in hand.
I pulled the jacket on, bombarded with sand as a gust swooped in just to spite me. I almost skipped locking the car, then took the moments of stinging pain to see to it. Praying for an empty road, I sprinted through the void across the highway. I did not become road kill, and the storm did not murder me.
There was a lull in the storm and I saw the farmhouse’s porch light again. A breath of relief quickly earned me a mouthful of grit. It wasn’t a farmhouse though. It was a full-blown manor.
The dust blew in again but I caught a glimpse of the place first.
Old but maintained. Fresh white paint despite the abuses of nature. A wrap-around veranda. Warm light from many windows.
Someone lived there. Surely they would help me.
I started toward the house, bumped into the white picket fence before I saw it, then hopped over.
The sandstorm shied away from the manor and visibility increased.
By the time I mounted the steps to the veranda, I could see a whopping twenty feet instead of three, and motes of sand struck my face only infrequently. Perhaps there was a stand of trees or some other windbreak on that side of the house. Whatever the source of protection, I welcomed it.
The double doors of the manor’s entrance were a block of brown amidst all the white. Light shone through a long, red, rectangular window set above the doors. So the place had once been a… house of pleasure. Keeping these windows was typically considered cute - a sign of character - but I’d always thought it strange.
After a short hesitation, I knocked. The knocker was a looping, sinuous sculpture of brass that suggested a snake without being one. The polished metal clunked and the knock resounded in the heavy wood of the door.
When there was no answer I began to consider just going back to the car rather than knocking again. Clearly someone was home, but if they were unwilling to answer the door, I didn’t want to be a pest. I glanced down the porch. There was a pair of rocking chairs. It would be impolite to sleep the night in one without permission, but with the dust storm raging on, perhaps I would be forgiven.
I was still debating when I heard the sound of a latch, and the left side door opened.
The man standing in the entryway looked sleepy and confused at first. He scanned me from feet to head, seemed to have a thought, then breathed out and deflated as if resigned to something unsavory.
“It’s a nasty one out there, stranger,” he said, pulling the door open further and stepping aside. “Shake off the dust and come on in.”
I did so, and he shut the door behind me.
“Thank you so much,” I said, searching out his eyes. “You have no idea how --”
“Oh no, I do,” he said. “If it gets any worse it’ll rip a man’s skin off.”
I laughed hoarsely. “I’d been thinking the same thing.”
He grunted and started down the short hall.
The man was a head shorter than me, solidly built. A day’s worth of stubble covered his face. Thick, dark hair and eyes that seemed perpetually shadowed. He almost fit the profile of a farmer, but there was something still too urban, too polished about him for me to believe that.
He turned right into a den with two large, comfy looking recliners and a long leather couch. A classic baseball game played on a very large TV mounted to the wall.
“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to one of the recliners. “I’ll get you some water.” When I moved to obey, gratefully sinking into the still plush but well-loved cushions, the man nodded and exited the room through a door on its far side. His voice came back to me from wherever he’d gone.
“What’s your name, stranger?” he asked. I raised my froggy voice so he could hear me in the other room.
“Shane,” I said. “Shane McLeary. Thanks for letting me in. Really, I can’t --”
He cut me off again. “Alright, Shane. I’m Edmund.”
Edmund. Not Ed or Eddie.
The room was a one hundred percent standard man-cave. The giant TV, bulky furniture, and heavy bookcases built into the walls. There was a stand of pipes on one of the shelves, and a sweet lingering scent of tobacco. A family crest on one wall, decorative swords crossed behind a shield with a spear-wielding knight on it. Edmund’s dirty boots sat by the portal leading back to the hallway.
He returned shortly with a tall glass of water, dripping with condensation. He gave it to me, then fetched one of his pipes and a lighter, and sank into the leather couch with a groan from the glossy brown cushions.
I drank the water, washing the grit from my mouth. Edmund lit his pipe and blew out a few smoke rings.
“Storms have been getting worse lately,” he said.
“They’re bad everywhere,” said I, “or so I hear.”
“Hard to know what to believe these days, isn’t it?”
“Everybody lies,” I said.
Edmund grunted and nodded. “You smoke, Shane?”
“No thank you,” I answered. I used to, then decided life was too short. I wasn’t going to say that to a stranger though.
Edmund shrugged. “Might as well, I figure. Smoke, sand, water - something’s gonna get me one of these days.”
I just nodded.
“You almost made the next town, you know.”
Millville. I’d known I was close. Made the engine’s failure hit even harder.
“If the storm lets up, you might even make it before dawn,” he said. “But if not, you’re free to stay. It’s… just me around here. My room’s downstairs so you’ve got six to pick from on the second floor.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“People have to pull together in these strange times, don’t you think?”
He pulled the pipe away from his mouth and froze in a way that raised my hackles, glancing at me sideways.
“You’re not here to kill me, are you Shane?”
The sudden, incongruous question threw me for a loop. “Um, no. No I’m… not that kind of guy.” I chuckled nervously, then saw the smirk growing on one side of Edmund’s mouth.
He laughed. My chuckle grew less nervous.
“You city boys, I tell ya,” he wound down to a chortle, then took a puff off his pipe. “Oh, I used to be one too. Then I came out here, and I just couldn’t leave.”
“I can imagine,” I said. Edmund smirked at this but I didn’t know why. “It must have been even better in the old days.”
“Must have,” he said.
There was silence, and I started to wonder if I should make more small talk. What did Edmund do for a living? I’d tell him I was an accountant. Was he retired? Any family? But there he sat, smoking and studying the ancient baseball game, stone-faced. I got the distinct feeling he didn’t really want to talk. Maybe I should excuse myself to turn in.
Edmund saved me from hesitation.
“You can head to bed, if you want, Shane,” he said. “I know I’m not great company. Been on my own a long time, you know? Probably out of practice.”
“I uh, I am pretty tired. I’ve been driving since eight a.m.”
“Brain dead and saddle-sore,” he said. “I know the feeling. Well, like I said, you can head upstairs and pick whatever room you like. Each pair shares a bathroom, not that it matters with only you here.”
I stood and picked up my water glass, took a sip. “Thank you, seriously, Edmund. I’ll find a way to pay you back for the kindness.”
He waved the notion away, eyes still locked on baseball. “Forget about it. Hey, feel free to raid the kitchen if you need something. If I don’t see you in the morning, nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I smiled. Leaving the room felt awkward, but so would lingering. I committed to the former.
The hallway outside Edmund’s den led around a corner to the stairs. Old but solid, they creaked as I ascended. The long hall upstairs was carpeted in thick crimson and the doors to all the rooms were closed. Classical nude paintings graced the walls, frames ornate but worn with age. I figured Edmund had inherited the place from an elderly relative. Could it even have been from the home’s original mistress?
I picked the nearest bedroom and opened the door. Dust scratched at the window behind its bronze-colored curtains. The bed was a heavy old four-poster, and there was a mahogany dresser, a side table, and a rocking chair. The door to the bathroom stood open. A shower was tempting, but for now I closed and locked the door.
I draped my leather jacket on the side table, set my water glass down next to it, and sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress sank down further than I expected and I almost fell backward. There were more paintings in the room, but I didn’t recognize them. Two on each wall, bronze-painted frames in contrast to the gaudy crimson and white patterned wallpaper that matched the carpet.
The images were painted in a similar style to the baroque pieces in the hallway, but seemed to depict more modern scenes. Each painting featured a nude.
Two of them commanded my attention.
The first was of a woman walking down the middle of a night time street in Paris, Eiffel Tower looming on the skyline. She was facing away from me and carried a black umbrella in one hand, held over her head to ward off a slanted rain. She was in mid stride, bare skin gleaming with rain water despite her umbrella. The only other figures were a homeless man reclining on the steps of a townhouse, staring into his cup and oblivious to the strolling beauty, and a posh businessman whose gaze had been captured by her.
The second painting depicted a room much like the one I was in. An extremely muscular man lay in the bed, bare-chested and otherwise covered by clinging sheets. A slender woman in sheer white nightclothes hovered over him, pressed against the ceiling as if by a reversal of gravity. The artist had been brilliant, suggesting with a very subtle tension in the man’s prodigious muscles that he desired to rise to his counterpart on the ceiling.
If there had been any doubt in me about what kind of place this had once been, these images dispelled it.
It made me feel strange about lying down in the bed, but it wasn’t like the house was still in business. Someone had long since cleaned and pressed the sheets and duvet. A slight musty tint to the air suggested that no one had been in the room in a long time, except perhaps to dust it.
I lay back horizontally across the bed, not ready yet to commit to retiring. I dozed off anyway and woke with a sharp intake of breath.
I sat up, momentarily disoriented by the unfamiliar setting. I checked my phone for the time - I had slept for two hours. The crick in my neck agreed with the clock.
I stood and went to the window, pulled back the bronze curtains. The dust storm still pelted the glass, and so all I could see was a light brown haze ringed in shadow. I hoped my car was alright.
I finished my glass of water and my mouth requested more. Much more.
Would I disturb my host if I went downstairs? But he’d said to feel free. Accepting his hospitality might be more polite than shutting myself in. I decided to go.
The creak of the stairs followed me down and I feared to bother Edmund. But when I entered the kitchen from the hallway and looked through into the den, he was out cold, stretched across the leather couch. On TV, a batter whose name I didn’t know hit a home run.
Edmund had a modern fridge and I filled up my water from the spout in the door. Curious, I opened the fridge to see what Edmund had stocked.
The door shelves were full of beer bottles, mostly Coors Original but a healthy variety of oddball craft beers. There was a bottle of white wine that looked like it had been there for a decade. Then apples, cheese, bread, and a large glass tupperware with some kind of leftovers. Beer sounded alright but I refrained.
I stood at the island in the middle of the kitchen and sipped my water, listening to the game on the TV. Vaguely I wished that Edmund was awake. The strange, dark night and disorienting nap had left me feeling soft and lonely. Conversation, even awkward conversation, might be nice. I drummed my fingers on the counter, and then I heard something.
The creak of a door, something soft scraping against wood, and a series of light taps, rapidly fading.
I wouldn’t have pegged Edmund for a cat person. I looked down the hallway past the stairs before deciding to check it out. Maybe the cat would keep me company.
The lights were off in the hall so that the far end was mostly in shadow. There I found a slightly open door, darkness beyond. When I pulled the door open further it creaked and I stiffened, foolishly guilty about exploring while Edmund slept. Past the door there was a stairway leading down. I’d always loved places that were old enough to have basements, and I couldn’t resist checking it out. I wasn’t about to go down in the dark though, so I felt around on the wall inside until I found the light switch.
The light source was down below, around a corner and nothing more than a faint yellow. It was enough to make out the steps though, and so I started down, watching the shadows for the cat.
It didn’t appear, nor did I accidentally step on it, but I did notice that the corners of the wooden steps were worn smooth.
I reached the bottom of the stairs. No sign of the kitty. The yellowed glass lamp hanging from the low ceiling illuminated a stone-walled room. The blocks in the walls were polished grey stone and mortar that sealed in a permanent chill. The floor was nicely laid concrete. There was a wine fridge and several stacks of boxes lined up against two of the walls. Washing machine and dryer. A half dozen retired paintings had been leaned up in a row in one corner.
At first I thought the cat must be hiding behind the boxes, but then I saw the shadowy alcove in the far corner. I approached the little nook to peer in. More steps, these of stone, leading down. The stairwell was dark and it breathed cool air. I thought I heard the patter of the cat’s feet on the steps.
Having come this far out of mere curiosity, it seemed harmless to continue down.
Basements were uncommon enough - a sub-basement was too rare not to peek at. Most likely it was a bomb shelter, or perhaps it had once hidden slaves or prohibited liquor.
A lungful of the air gave me a chill, but I went down anyway.
Dim electric lamps were bolted to the stone walls at steady intervals, providing just enough light not to misstep and kill myself with a seemingly endless tumble. I’d expected one or two full turns of the spiral, but the stairs went on. I began to reconsider my choice. Then my feet touched the floor of a large, dark room whose far walls could not be reached by the dim light from the stairwell.
I saw no light switches, no hurricane lamps or candles, and I had no fire of my own.
Surely my trepidation concerning the dark before me was childish, but then what good would exploring deeper be if I could not see?
I turned around to head back up, then heard a loud scraping sound and the footsteps of a man. A wave of guilt washed over me and I felt like a trespasser.
“Edmund?” I called. It must have been him, but he didn’t answer. The footsteps grew louder. Their heaviness disturbed me at first, but then I remembered Edmund’s boots. Still, I backed away from the stairwell. I could flee into the darkness if I had to.
Then came Edmund’s voice. My shoulders relaxed and I let out my breath.
“Here,” I said.
I heard him sigh. “I hoped you’d stay asleep. You come down for a snack or something?”
He was closer now, just a few spiral turns away.
“Just water,” I said. “Thought I heard your cat. I followed it and got curious. I was actually just about to head back up so, why don’t I follow you?”
Edmund hit the floor and stopped. He squinted slightly at me. “I’m afraid we can’t go back up.”
My stomach felt as if it had been filled up with sand. He’d trapped me down here. He was some nutcase that took in weary travellers only to slice them open and eat them in his weird, cold basement. I tried to keep my cool.
“I barely made it through before the door closed,” he continued. “And lucky for you that I did.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant by this and all I could think was that I needed to get past him somehow. He saw me twitch.
“It’s shut,” he insisted, but I was already sprinting past him, an arm out to ward off any attack. I heard him growl lowly but he did not try to stop me.
I bounded up the steps two or more at a time, almost slipped twice, but kept my feet. When I reached the top of the stairwell I found only cold, bare stone. The way back was indeed shut.
My experience with movies and books told me there must be a secret switch or button here somewhere, as silly as it sounded. I pushed at the stones in the wall foolishly, searched the ceiling with my eyes. Nothing. Edmund was right - the way was shut. If he could open it, it certainly didn’t sound like he was willing to. I started back down.
“I tried to tell you,” he said.
“What’s this about?” I asked. He pursed his lips. “You joked about me being a killer. What about you?”
Edmund shook his head. “It’s not like that.”
“You’re not exactly restoring my confidence, Ed,” I said. He prickled. But I was done being polite. Murderer or not, Ed here must be up to no good.
“It’s just how it works, Shane,” he said. “The only way out is through.”
“Through what?” I asked.
Not very helpful. The dread in my gut fueled a rising anger. Socking Edmund in the face might not open the door, but it would sure feel good.
“So what, I’m supposed to just trust you? Follow you through?”
“Trust or not,” he shrugged. “I wouldn’t want to go first though, if I were you.”
I turned away from him, exasperated. “What kind of place is this anyway?”
“No word for it,” he said. “But I can tell you it’s not good.”
His statement chilled me more than the subterranean air. If it wasn’t good, what was it?
I started to ask this out loud, pointless as it was, but Edmund was already on the move. Afraid to lose him in the dark, I followed him across the room.
As my eyes adjusted I found I could just barely see him. It was enough to keep me close without accidentally colliding. We came to a blacker darkness - a hallway? - and Edmund reached into a recess in the wall. I imagined spiders and roaches crawling over a cobwebby lever like in some old movie, but Edmund showed no such squeamishness.
He had retrieved a torch and now he lit it. Good thing he was a smoker and had his lighter.
The flame grew quickly and illuminated his face. He looked older than before, with wrinkles that I did not remember. Must be an effect of the flickering light - campfire shadows.
I followed him into the hallway. It was long and narrow. My weariness and confusion had dulled my mind and it took me long moments to realize the torch had been both prepared and accessible. How often did Edmund come down here? And why?
“Come on, Ed,” I said. He shot a sharp look over his shoulder. “Edmund, sorry. Just tell me what this is, alright? Maybe I’ll believe you’re not a psycho.”
“I don’t give a crap what you think of me,” he said. I decided to keep calling him Ed after all. “Look, it’s an old place, alright? Stuff that was here before anyone ever settled. Sometimes the secret door is open back there, sometimes it’s not. I think the mechanism must be broken. But it always closes after someone goes through.”
“Why couldn’t we just wait until it opened then?” I asked, but Edmund shook his head.
“Might wait for days - I camped out in the basement a couple times to find out. At least this way we can be out some time tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” there was a shrill edge to my voice that I didn’t like. I calmed myself.
“It’s a long way, man,” Edmund said. “Nothing to do about it. What, you got somewhere to be?”
That shut me up. I didn’t really.
“No,” I answered. “Millville was just a stop. I figured I’d hang there for a week or two. Get my bearings.”
The long, straight hall ended in a ‘T’ and Edmund led us right through a series of shorter halls. There were heavy wooden doors at irregular intervals. Some were simply barred, but others had rough iron locks and handles. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was inside the rooms.
“Running away from something,” Edmund guessed. “Seems like kind of a luxury these days.”
He was right on both counts. Crossing state lines was an ordeal. The nasty weather didn’t help. I’d really thought my old Jeep was hardy enough to make it if a storm were to catch me out, but I’d been proven wrong. And about fleeing…
“It was a girl,” I said. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to share with someone since I hadn’t yet been able to.
“You’re running from a girl,” he stated, deadpan.
I scoffed. “Not like that. I… I just had to get out of there after things didn’t work out.”
“Sounds like a wuss move, man, I’m not gonna lie.”
“Yeah well it was a small town. Her town. Her people. No way was I going to have peace there, even though it wasn’t my fault.”
Edmund nodded and offered no more mockery.
We entered a short hall with an abrupt end. There was another of those heavy, locked doors. An actual skeleton key hung on a peg driven into the stone wall. Edmund fetched the key and unlocked the door, then put the key back. It swung open with a prolonged squeak. Beyond were more stairs.
“Aw, no. More stairs?” I complained.
“It won’t be the last descent,” Edmund said. “Come on.”
I didn’t like it, but I followed.
“So why’d you break up?” Edmund asked as we eased down the time-worn steps.
I hesitated but humanity got the better of me and I confessed. “She just wanted things out of the relationship that I couldn’t give.”
“Never heard that from a man before,” he said.
“Well it happens alright?”
He sniffed out a chuckle. “What was it? Get married? Settle down and pop out six kids?”
I scratched the side of my head. “Kind of the other way around. She wanted to live together, but she wouldn’t commit. I wanted to…”
“You wanted to get married,” now he uttered a full-bellied laugh. “Can’t tell you what kind of bullet you dodged, man. Lucky for you.”
“Lucky? I loved her.”
“So marriage made sense.”
“You only think it makes sense.”
“And the guy living alone in a whorehouse knows better?” I spat.
Edmund was silent for so long I thought that maybe he wouldn’t speak at all anymore. Then he did.
“Yeah,” he said. “I do.”
We came to the next landing. It was a long, wide hall. The central walkway was flanked by rows of fluted columns. Strips of electric lighting shone down from the ceiling, but it was still too dim to really see what was past the columns. I stuck close to Ed.
I hadn’t let go of the conversation yet.
“I don’t know… Call me a traditionalist but I just couldn’t imagine spending our lives together without getting married,” I confessed. Mom and Pop raised me in church and I’d never left. Actually, Mom had warned me about Larissa. Guess I should have listened.
Edmund grunted, but after a moment he responded. “Well, good for you, sticking to your guns.”
We seemed to be heading straight toward the far end of the room, where another closed door awaited us. Edmund passed under one of the dim yellow lightbulbs and I caught the glint of grays salted into his otherwise dark hair. I hadn’t noticed the grays before.
“How long did it take you to map this place out?” I asked.
Ed hesitated. At first I’d taken these pauses as reluctance, but I was starting to see he was the kind of man who often chose his words before speaking.
“There are maps in the house. They’re not always legible - old, you know - but altogether they give you a good idea of the layout. A dozen spelunking trips down and you know it like the back of your hand. The main path, anyway. Now, quiet.”
We reached the door, which was barred. Edmund lifted the bar and opened the door. We stepped through into a barely lit hall. I wondered why Ed would bother taking the time to come down and shut all the doors properly after a trip through. How often did this happen?
I started to ask but he waved me into silence with a sharp gesture. The only reason we should need to be quiet was if…
“Is someone down here?” I whispered. He gave me a hard look that wasn’t an affirmation but nevertheless shut me up.
The hall curved and bent around corners. I couldn’t see a reason for this as there seemed to be no rooms or side passages in this section of the complex. Perhaps it made sense in its original context. Perhaps the structure had once been above ground, and the passing of ages had buried it.
Dozens of turns brought us to a heavy door made of iron bars. It was open, unlike all of the other doors, we’d passed through, and I soon saw why. The locking mechanism had been smashed and ruined. No point in shutting the door if that didn’t work.
“What is…” I started, then shut myself up. I didn’t want to find out why Edmund had ordered silence.
We stepped through.
The hall beyond was straight and wide. In keeping with the suggestion of the massive iron door, the hall was lined with prison cells. We were in a dungeon.
Everything to this point had been fairly dry and well-kept, but the dungeon lived up to its image. Water trickled from low cracks in the walls and ran into drains in the unoccupied cells. Mould had taken up residence in the branching lines of grout between stone blocks and the tiny craters eaten away by moisture.
“Why on Earth is there a dungeon down here?” I stage-whispered.
Edmund’s finger shot up to his lips again and his eyes bore into me. Without words, he impressed upon me that the matter of silence was one of life and death.
Edmund turned and stepped lightly. I followed his lead.
The wall at the end of the line of cells had been smashed to bits and a tunnel dug into the rock beyond. It was hard to tell in the dim torchlight but I thought the ceiling there sloped downward.
Another several dozen paces and we were deep into the wet throat of the tunnel. The ceiling was indeed closing down on us. With every step, it was a little closer to my head.
Then the stone brushed my hair, and then I had to stoop to continue.
I almost asked how low it would get but held my tongue.
I found out soon enough anyway, when Edmund knelt and took a deep breath. With him out of the way I could see that the tunnel compressed to a space maybe two feet high.
“Oh, no,” I whispered.
Ed half-turned toward me. He pointed at the torch, then drew a finger across his neck.
I know my eyes went wide as saucers. We’d have to crawl through in pitch darkness. I backed up several steps. Me and tight spaces did not mix.
Edmund held out his open palms and shrugged, What do you want me to do about it?
I massaged the bridge of my nose. If Edmund was to be believed, this was the only way through. I had no way of knowing if that was a lie, but trying to find another way out alone could easily cost me my life. There was no telling how many labyrinthine branches we had passed behind all those closed doors.
I steeled myself. Phobias and hesitations aside, I was no coward. I nodded to Edmund and he nodded back.
He held up the torch, It’s time for light’s out, buddy. Then he rolled it against a dry patch of stone until it smouldered and left us in darkness. Darkness but for the hellish red-orange glow deep in the torch’s head.
As Edmund went prone and started to pull himself into the tiny gap, I remembered my phone. But when I took it out of my pocket and tried to wake it up, the screen stayed dark. So much for the flashlight app. As if being buried under countless tons of stone wasn’t enough, something down here was messing with electronics too. No wonder Ed hadn’t brought a flashlight.
I wanted to share my observation, if only to get his confirmation that this was another weirdness of the place, but I sensed that he was entirely committed to the gap by now - he probably couldn’t even hear me.
I knelt, took the largest breath I’ve ever taken, went prone, and followed.
The constant tamping of probably deadly panic, the crushing black, and the excruciatingly slow progress robbed me of all sense of time. Only mounting thirst and hunger provided any hint that it was passing at all.
At times the low ceiling scraped my back. Water dripped onto my face. Things crawled across my bare ankles above the loafer and I prayed they wouldn’t worm their way into my pant legs. My hand would brush against the tunnel wall and loose dirt would fall. I feared to make a noise, lest the whole thing cave in on us.
Several times weariness and sensory deprivation begged me to give up. I could just lie there until I died. It was unlikely Edmund would be able to rescue me even if he turned back to find me - how would he pull me through? So my life was in my own hands.
The instinct for survival pushed me on.
After however many hours, a change finally came. First it was a movement of the air, a breeze slipping past the invisible Edmund up ahead. Then it was dim flashes of light in between the motions of his crawling.
I thought I heard him whisper, We’re almost there, but it could have been my imagination.
Then the light grew rapidly and Edmund was out, on his knees, offering me a hand. I took it and slithered free.
We were in a small round room lit by glass-shaded lamps. I could not tell how they were powered, but when I gave thought to electricity I checked my phone again. Still dead.
I could see the ruin of what had once been a doorway but was now filled with the rocks and dirt we had just crawled under.
Ed had faced away from me, waiting for me to catch my breath so we could go on. His posture was different - he seemed to slouch. We were both filthy and exhausted and I couldn’t blame him for the lack of enthusiasm.
“How much further?” I asked softly. His voice sounded raspy when he answered.
“It’s still a ways,” he said. “Next level down, keep your eyes on me. Don’t take any side passages, no matter what you see or hear, do you understand?”
I didn’t but I nodded, then remembered he wasn’t looking at me. Why was he hiding his face?
“Yes,” I said. “Eyes on you. What’s the big deal though? What’s ahead?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he said.
“Try me,” I insisted. If the way forward was dangerous, I wanted to know why. The mysteries of Edmund’s insane basement complex had worn me thin. He didn’t reply and started to cross the room, relighting the torch.
I caught up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. It felt bony. I spun him around and gasped.
His face was emaciated, angular, his eyes sunken and shadowed. His hair was thin and damp, now fully silvered.
It was Edmund, but starved, strung out, aged. There was more to it, but I couldn’t say what.
He let me gawk for a moment, then cast his eyes down in shame.
“Edmund,” I breathed. “What on Earth?”
“Like I said, you wouldn’t believe me. Come on.”
He turned and I was too shocked to do anything other than follow.
The small round room let out into another tunnel of raw stone, this one intact. Within twenty paces it branched out into a dozen other paths. Ed was certain about ours though - he never hesitated at a junction.
We hit a steep decline and followed it down. I couldn’t believe that going even deeper into the earth would ever result in our escape. Yet I had no choice but to trust Edmund. I would rather have followed him for another two days through the cursed labyrinth than backtrack through the crawling tunnel alone.
We must have followed the descending tunnel for a thousand feet. It got colder and colder. I furrowed my brow when I saw that Edmund had begun to limp.
The sudden reappearance of architecture at the bottom of the long decline shocked me. I’d assumed we were truly spelunking from here on out.
Heavy blocks of grey stone framed out a large doorway. In the portal - darkness but with the faintest hint of a rainbow haze. I figured it was a trick of my eyes, like when you shut your eyelids really tight and every color is superimposed on the black.
Flanking the open doorway were six columns carved like totems, three on a side. At the base of each was a coiled snake, and each depicted the heads of a hare, a dog, and a horse, stacked in that order. The snakes seemed to slither up each column to bite the throat of the creature at the crown. There was the bust of a lion, an ox, a man, an eagle, a cardinal bird, and most shocking to my eyes, an alien. It had the elongated head and large saucer eyes they were so typically depicted with.
I did not want to go through that door.
“Ed,” I said, “are you sure we have to go this way?”
He held out his hands to indicate the wide tunnel. There was nowhere else to go. I could climb back up and try one of the branches, but if it led to the surface, surely Edmund would have taken us that way.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It just looks…”
“Like I said, just stick with me,” he pointed a firm finger at me. I nodded and gulped.
Edmund watched me for a moment, then turned and stepped through the strange doorway, torch held aloft. Averting my eyes from the wicked totems, I followed. The tunnel beyond the door was narrower than where we’d been, claustrophobic. There were new branches of tunnel leading off the center every few meters.
There was just enough light to see where we were going, but it wasn’t all from the torch. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Painted across the dark was the lingering suggestion of rainbow lights, kaleidoscopic squares and triangles spinning in infinity. They turned so slowly…
My feet led me off Edmund’s line and I stumbled on a partially formed stalagmite. He halted and watched me recover. When I looked at him I felt a sharp sense of embarrassment. Mere feet into the tunnel and I’d already been led astray.
There was something wrong with these caves.
I signalled that I was okay and we continued.
We came to a junction of five identical tunnels. Ed picked one on the left but I could not tell his criteria. The new path wound down in a shallow spiral and my heart sank with the elevation.
Then, another straight tunnel with countless branches of its own. This portion of the complex gave me the distinct impression of a hive.
I heard something - the whisper of fabric. I didn’t look.
A light patter of feet like the cat steps that had led me to the basement to begin with. I watched Edmund.
Then a giggle. A young woman. It startled me and I feared for her safety. I only refrained from looking because I realized she wouldn’t be amused if she was in danger.
A form appeared in one of the side passages. Edmund didn’t seem to notice. Despite the darkness I could tell she was lithe, healthy, wearing a dress of sheer, clinging cloth. Platinum hair spilled over her shoulders and bright eyes reflected the sourceless rainbow lights. She was smiling at me.
I wanted her. We could rush down the tunnel together and she would share with me her delights. We could linger there forever, in a place as cold or hot as I liked, on fine linen or rough ground.
In my surrender she would offer me every carnal freedom. Edmund was not invited and wouldn’t be able to find us.
Edmund. My eyes flicked over to him and I realized he was further to my left than before. My feet had wandered again.
The lithe woman stiffened in my peripheral vision and then seemed to flit away. When I looked at where she had been, she was gone.
“Ed…” I said.
“Eyes on me,” he ordered.
Then came the voices. They slipped across my mind like memories of a dream and I could not recount what exactly was said, but the suggested sensations lingered. There were the voices of all kinds of people - men, women, children.
Some words inflamed me, others repulsed. It was as if something was fishing in my mind. How to get the desired response, a response of unrestrained desire? Each of my reactions served only to reveal my weakness.
I watched Edmund through all of this, sweat dripping from my brow, my face and hands clammy. He trudged on as if none of it were happening.
The voices swirled, the vortex of them contracted. Their timbre and character focused to a point, cascading from merely female, to women my age.
They told me what felt like everything I’d ever wanted to hear, from the innocent to the lascivious to the unimaginably reprehensible. The words themselves were lost in a haze.
“Please --” I started to say. The extremes of pandering pleasure would drive me mad if they didn’t cease.
Edmund heard me.
“Don’t talk to them,” he said. “They’ll get you to look. We’re almost out.”
I knew he was right. I wanted to look. The desire was so strong it made my eyes hurt to focus forward.
But as in the pitch black of our crawl through the low tunnel, I prayed, I kept moving, and I endured.
I could see that the tunnel narrowed ahead. There were fewer and fewer branches leading away from the center.
The voices grew louder and I braced myself for screeching cacophony, but they became plaintive instead. Lonely, asking, begging.
Then they receded.
We walked a ways further, deep into the narrowed tunnel, with only the torch and that sourceless light to rely on.
Edmund slowed and barred my path with his arm.
“Careful,” he said.
We edged a little further forward before he stopped us completely.
“Stairs,” he said, pointing down. Then he pointed a few feet to his right. “Cliff. One misstep and it’s all over, got it?”
I couldn’t imagine how going deeper yet again would lead us out of this black hell, but any spirit I’d possessed had been spent resisting the voices. I just nodded. My own voice had deserted me.
We started down the stairs.
I trailed a hand along the stone to my left, a reassurance that there was more to the world than Edmund and the steps beneath my feet. Stupidly I reached out to my right to prove the open air and my mind reeled when there was indeed nothing there. Dizziness threatened to throw me over the edge, but a deep breath and my left palm on cold dry stone brought my senses under control.
Edmund’s limp grew more pronounced the further we went and I worried about him, but I knew there was no stopping now. The only way out was through.
After what felt like an age, pinprick lights flicked on in some distant firmament. They twinkled like fairy gems, in every shade and hue like the rainbow light that had guided us here and still suffused the air.
Far, far below, a structure was illuminated. A step pyramid lit by impossible crystalline lamps on stanchions at its corners. The whole surface of the monument was plated in gold and engraved with strange forms that I could not resolve.
On the pyramid’s flat top there was something that looked like an altar near one corner, with the incongruous shape of a bed opposite. Between was a low dais and something that looked like a throne.
“What is that?” I asked. My voice was hoarse.
“The seat of my mistress,” Edmund said. He turned his face halfway back to me and I choked. The skin of his face hung loose. His eyes were even more recessed, darker and bloodshot. His already thinning hair seemed to have fallen out in patches. His lips were parched and cracked. “It is the only way through.”
There was no thought. I turned to run back up the stairs. It would have been foolish. I probably would have slipped and fallen to my death. But suddenly I knew that would be preferable to taking one step further toward the monument below.
Edmund caught my wrist before I could flee. His grip was inescapable, holding me still as easily as a father restrains his child.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I swung at him but he caught my other wrist, then drove a hammering blow into my gut. I doubled over, the breath knocked out of me. As I gasped I felt his hand on the side of my head. He slammed it into the cliff face, and everything faded away.
I awoke to the blurry sight of the distant rainbow stars. Something soft was beneath me. Hushed voices spoke nearby. Someone moved.
“Ah, yes,” came a woman’s voice. “He is awake. I am terribly sorry that it had to come to violence. I do so prefer consent.”
I heard her come nearer with a whisper of fabric. Boots shifted somewhere behind her. I tried to lift my head.
“No, my dear,” said the woman. “You must recover. Take your time - we have all that we need.”
Her face floated into my view and light fingers touched the bloody side of my head. She drew her fingers down my cheek to paint a trio of cold, wet lines.
“Clear your mind,” she said.
The suggestion was powerful. I strove to obey as if shaking off a concussion was a choice. Somehow, it worked, and her blurry face sharpened.
She was beauty.
Both real and a dream, her loveliness was at once visceral and unfocused. Were her eyes hooded and dark? Or wide, bright and blue? Her hair might have been a cascade of molten chocolate or a thin curtain of gold. Her appearance did not cease shifting as she studied me, and her voice followed suit.
She helped me sit up and I saw the rest of her.
Shoulders wide and strong. A full bust beneath a dress like silver mist. Or was she small and dainty? Were her hips low and nearly straight, with only the gentle suggestion of a curve, or were they wide with the promise of children?
Was it me that could not decide?
No, I realized. She was searching me out in the same way the apparitions above had done. But she was more powerful. She would not be denied.
“What is it that you want, Shane?” she asked, voice husky and low.
No, it was high and light, plaintive but inviting like a lonely flute.
“I can be anything you wish. This place can be anywhere.”
I couldn’t have spoken if I wanted to. I’d finally understood why Edmund had brought me down here. There was no escape. There was no way through. His mistress had set him to this. He served her and her alone. But she had used him up.
With effort that set a fire in my mind, I tore my gaze from the woman and saw Edmund. He looked even worse than before. There were leprous spots on the skin of his arms and face, and but a wisp of colorless hair remained on his head. His back was hunched and his mouth was covered in sores. He caught me looking and turned away in shame.
Then the woman’s burning cold fingers turned my face back to hers.
“What is it, my love?” she asked. “What will set your soul aflame for me?”
She captured my eyes with hers and I felt her digging in my mind.
“Where is it, darling? Let go. Give it to me and I will multiply it a thousand fold for you. Is it pursuit? Tradition? Is it eagerness and animal abandon? Fear?”
She leaned in closer. I could smell her. Even her scent was overwhelming. Sweat. Cinnamon. Lavender. Soap. Blood.
“Youth? Age? All you have to do is tell me. There is nothing I cannot give you.”
She shuddered as if chilled, then startled and froze. A smile spread on her lips, both naked and painted as red as my blood.
“Ah, there it is,” she moaned. “How loyal you are.” She chuckled. “She is brunette. Her hair waves and it is always frizzy. She complains but you find it endearing. She is tall but not taller than you.”
The woman’s appearance continued to shift. She took a deep breath and came closer to me. She put her hands on my shoulders and guided me onto my feet.
“Her face is delicate but for her lips. Wide mouth. Large teeth. She hates those too but her smile melts your heart anyway.”
The digging in my mind ached like a migraine. Her visage and form changed more and more rapidly… and settled on something familiar that was finally coherent enough to identify.
Brown eyes. Sad but bright. The wrinkle to the left of her mouth from that sardonic smirk of hers. Her long, pianist’s fingers still grasped my shoulders, possessive.
“I knew you’d come back,” she said. We stood in the doorway to her home. Vince the chocolate labrador watched us happily from the tile floor inside, wagging his tail.
I knew that it wasn’t her, but mercy… it sounded like her and my heart hammered as violently as the moment I’d fallen in love. The house smelled right. Even the dog’s panting was just as I remembered.
“I knew you didn’t really mean to leave.”
A sound escaped my lips but I couldn’t find words. I’d been reduced to a babe, with only half-formed syllables to express myself. As with the former apparitions, I knew I shouldn’t speak to her. I knew I shouldn’t look.
But it was too late. I had looked already, and her eyes had captured mine.
I wanted to look. I wanted to hear.
Because her voice was a song, because I hadn’t meant to leave, I’d just been a fool. The dust storm was a sign - it had stopped me just in time. The night would have passed, reason would have returned to me, and I would have gone back to her. Back forever. I would have done anything she wished then, just to remain with my love.
But now she was here. She’d come for me. Come to save me. Come to claim me.
She stood a mere foot from me, dressed not in a diaphanous, revealing nightgown as the last apparition had been, nor in the shifting fashions of Edmund’s mistress, but…
Mistress. This was not Larissa. I’d known it. I thought that for a moment I hadn’t cared.
She looked like her, sounded and smelled like her. She would feel like her.
“Does anything else really matter?” she asked. She pressed in close and stared into my eyes.
Did it? This Larissa would give me whatever I wanted. We were mere moments away from endless, perfect love.
“All you have to do is pledge to never leave me,” she said. “Call me queen, and be utterly mine. It is what you want.”
“What I want,” I repeated. My mouth was like sandpaper.
What I want.
I had something to express that, didn’t I? A trinket, valuable, but not too fancy. I had planned to give it to Larissa before Christmas. I had hoped to hear her say one devastatingly simple word. Yes.
“Yes,” I said, and Larissa smiled beautifully at me. “I wanted her to say yes.”
Larissa’s brow furrowed.
The velvet box was in my pocket still. It hadn’t been long since I’d struck out on the road, and I hadn’t been able to let go of it yet. I found it, held it before me as Larissa removed her hands from me and backed away a step.
I opened the box. Within, a thin golden ring with the biggest diamond I’d been able to afford.
Larissa’s reaction confused me. She’d said she’d give me anything. Why was she not beaming at the ring?
“No,” she breathed. “I will not submit. You cannot…”
I saw her panic. Her fingers flexed, shoulders tensed. Larissa always flicked her eyes to the left when she felt trapped. Left and back, left and back.
“You cannot ask this of me,” she said, and backed away another step. “P-put that away. You don’t need it. We don’t need it.”
“I do,” I said. I’d forgotten that she wasn’t really Larissa, but it didn’t change my heart. “I love you, Larissa. More than anything on the planet. I need you, but it has to be right. We have to do it right.”
“No, no, no,” she said. I couldn’t understand why she’d promise me my dreams and then renege. Her foot struck the dog as she backed into the house and Vince slunk away with his tail between his legs.
I noticed that the back wall of the living room was gone. In its place was a gold-plated throne.
But that wasn’t right either, was it?
The shining gold was a veil. There were shapes beneath.
“Larissa, please,” I said. “I won’t fail you.”
But she was shaking her head, backing away. The living room was gone. The impossibly large cavern loomed around us. Pinprick rainbow lights flickered violently.
I fell to my knees then, out of words, and held up the engagement ring from the edge of despair. I knew now that Larissa wouldn’t take it. History would repeat. Why had I bothered to try again anyway?
But I had no other recourse. Without this, all I could do was move on and start over.
“NO!” Larissa screamed. I felt the force of it and fell on my back. The ring slipped from my fingers and I heard it rolling and bouncing down the steps of the pyramid. A sharp, cold wind blew across the top of the pyramid and thousands of rainbow candles blew out. The only light left was a sickly orange from the monument’s crystal stanchions.
But the structure was no longer bright and gold. It was grey, rutted stone, wet and mouldy. What had been a bed was a cold slab. The altar was shaped the same, but had also lost its royal veneer.
And the throne was not regal at all, neither metal nor stone, but a horrid thing made of the skulls and bones of men. Chalk white mortar held the structure together and blood-painted symbols stained each skull’s forehead.
I came to my senses and panic took me. I scrambled away from the throne of death, but a figure rushed to my side and stopped me.
“It’s okay, Shane,” said Edmund. He still looked and sounded horrible, but there was a light in his eyes now. “She fled. I don’t know what you did, but she fled.”
Ed smiled and looked up at the black vault over our heads. Then he looked back down at me, beaming.
“I think we’re free! What did you do, man?”
“She… she was searching for what I wanted most. She pledged to give me anything. I asked Larissa to marry me but she… she said no, again.”
Edmund let out a horrible laugh. It sounded sick, but somehow real joy rang through.
“Oh that’s rich, man. That’s great. I never would have thought of it - you’re a genius!” He slapped me on the back and the sting dispelled some of my shock. I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. “Come on, get up. Let’s get out of here in case she comes back.”
“I don’t understand,” I admitted.
“I may not either,” he said. There were stairs leading down to the base of the pyramid and Edmund led me toward them. “But my guess is you asked for the one thing she couldn’t do. Or wouldn’t do. She made an oath to you before hearing your terms. She said anything you want, right? She broke the compact, and lost her power.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I was no genius. If anything had saved me, it had been grace. I thought of the engagement ring, lost on the steps of the pyramid.
I decided to leave it there.
Returning by the way we’d come was a slog, but I was too bewildered and exhausted to be tense anymore.
The climb up the long stairs was painful, but Ed’s torchlight was a greater comfort than the rainbow lights had been.
The cave system where I’d narrowly resisted the glamours of those apparitions seemed to be empty. Either they had been a part of the mistress’s power or else they had no confidence that they could tempt us again.
Perhaps they’d been lesser spirits, hoping to feed off the mistress’s dregs.
The tunnels, the dungeon, and the complex were all the same. Going through the crawling tunnel, I let myself space out and not worry, and time seemed to go by much faster. The return trip from anywhere is often like that. Lack of anticipation, I suppose.
When we finally reached Ed’s sub-basement, I hadn’t even bothered to wonder how we’d get back in. The answer was simple as it could be - the way was open. I didn’t ask whether Ed had a way to open it, whether it had been some strange spell, or whether it was tied to the mistress’s presence. I just stepped through.
Ed himself still looked terrible. Worse in the electric light, in many ways. But his back was straighter and he smiled often. There was a life in his eyes I hadn’t seen even before our night of surreality.
We limped into Ed’s kitchen and guzzled cold water. He offered me food but I declined.
Then he told me to go get some rest in my room, but I couldn't imagine sleeping in there. I wanted nothing to do with anything the mistress had ever controlled.
The dust storm had quieted but not cleared entirely. I wouldn’t be able to get a tow until morning, so I had to stay somewhere. I decided that a rocking chair on Ed’s front porch was far enough from the madness for now, and though I expected to stare into the night for hours and probably not sleep at all, I think I was out cold within minutes.
In the morning the storm had settled. Lingering dust painted the sunrise red and the sky remained slightly hazy. It was probably as clear as it would get.
Ed called me a tow truck from Millville and waited with me at the side of the road. We leaned together against the white picket fence.
“Still planning to stick around Millville for a bit?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been a little too busy to adjust the plan.”
He laughed. “Well, maybe I’ll see you at the grocery some time.”
“Maybe we’ll grab a beer.”
“Sounds good, man.”
The tow truck arrived. I shook Ed’s hand and his eyes thanked me. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t want to invalidate his feelings. I hoped he’d leave the place. I prayed that his mistress had abandoned him when she fled from me. I’d probably come back to check on him whether I saw him in town or not.
The handshake was firm, and I used it to pull Ed into a hug. We didn’t know each other well, but now we were comrades of a sort. I thought the hug was in order, and Ed did not resist.
When we stood apart he turned his head to the side and I caught him wiping his eyes. I pretended not to notice.
The tow man hooked my Jeep up swiftly and invited me to hop in his truck. I gave Ed one last nod of farewell, then settled in for the drive to Millville.