Lukas Simmons was turning 30 and while he had an eight-year-old daughter, he had never been married. His daughter Amanda would probably not even call him either. Lukas understood. If her mother did not remind her, she wouldn’t know to call anyway. Amanda would be over for the summer soon and they would celebrate then. Lukas treated himself to his annual birthday dinner at Applebee’s and then drove home, just after the last of the reds and purples drained from the sky. His house was a few miles out of town. Once in his small town, he drove past the tall white water tower, bumped over the railroad tracks and turned past a grain elevator. A few blocks later, he turned down his street. Lukas had moved into the house nine years ago when he thought he was going to get married and start a family; he kept the house so his daughter would have plenty of room when she came to stay with him. He was proud that he purchased a home at such an early age.His hundred-year-old home was dark; however, it was not supposed to be. Timers should have lit up the gloom in both the porch and living room. Lukas feared the dark more than anything.The shadowy porch hid the front door in its black arms. The darkened entrance made the mailbox look like a giant crow perched on the porch and the lawn chairs look like little trolls. His adrenalin kicked up a notch as he fumbled to find the lock. Finally, the key slipped into the lock and he pushed the door open. Lukas reached his hand along the wall just inside the door feeling for the switch. Panic set in as he searched, fearing a cold hand would grab his wrist.A moment later, the entryway exploded in light. Lukas stepped inside and shut the front door. “You’re such a sissy,” he said aloud.He took a deep breath and listened. The old house had plenty of comforting sounds. The noises Lukas didn’t enjoy were the bats. There was nothing more unnerving than hearing the little demons as they screeched and scratched in the blower vents on either side of the chimney while trying to focus on a good TV show. They got into the attic and scrambled their way down the old walls. They flew up from parts unknown in the basement.Bats frequently appeared out of nowhere circling the rooms.*It was Saturday and he was excited to be hosting a poker night. Kyle, Jason, and Matt, the same group of work buddies as every month, would bring alcohol, meat to grill, and money to lose. Not a bad deal for Lukas, plus he had a great time. He didn’t actually care if he won or not, he just loved having people in the house.As the men trickled in, Lukas manned the grill. It was all sirloin this week. They settled around the large oval table in his dining room as the Texas Hold ‘em tournament began. Plastic poker chips and cards changed hands as the night wore on. After Kyle lost a third of his chips betting on a pair of tens, he remembered he needed to check in with the boss. He excused himself to the basement to send his wife a text message letting her know he was going to be out a few more hours. That was just an excuse, because he was actually curious to scope out the huge bar down in the basement. He pushed various bottles around and noticed a purple velvet bag that he knew all to well: a bottle of Crown Royal.He glanced upstairs and decided to sneak a shot. He did love him some Crown. As he picked up the bag, a loud knock thumped from behind the bar. It caused the glasses, lined in rows above the mirror, to rattle. “Shit,” he felt his heart surge and begin to pound.He caught sight of himself holding the velvet bag in the long mirror behind the bar and felt guilty.He heard scratching, like tiny claws rubbing against thin wood, behind the mirror.“What the hell?” He forgot the text he planned to send and bolted up the stairs, skipping two or three steps at time.“Guys, there’s something in the basement!” Kyle announced, panting and leaning against the doorframe to the dining room.The other men looked up from the table. Jason held a bright red cigar cutter in one hand and a long thick cigar in the other; he paused just as he was inserting the smoke into the cutter. “You blew the surprise, there are women tied up down there for later!”Matt started laughing, but Kyle only smirked. “No really.”“Just a bat, my friend. Relax,” Lukas said. The poker game and drinking continued for hours. Kyle lost all his chips and announced he needed to get back home. The rest of the guys teased him about being whipped. The game fell apart after Kyle left, and after a few hands, they agreed to go all in. Matt ended up taking it all by getting a full house on the river. Before the chips were even cleaned up, Jason was begging to go on a bat hunt.Lukas reluctantly agreed to the three am bat hunt mostly because they were all drunk and he wasn’t about to allow any of them to drive home. The men stumbled down the stairs into the basement. Lukas felt around the wall a couple times until he hit the light switch. They weren’t prepared for what the light revealed.Silver shards of mirror were scattered everywhere and sparkling like diamonds.“What the hell?” Lukas was intoxicated and not comprehending what he was seeing. The large mirror that took up most of the wall behind the bar was gone leaving a bare frame. The only part of the mirror still clinging to the wall was a long fang hanging down from the top.“Damn!” Matt shouted and rubbed his head.There was a loud crunch under Jason’s shoe. “Be careful!” Lukas said. “Fucking Kyle,” Matt added. “Let’s just clean it up,” Jason said and started looking for a broom.“No way,” Lukas said. “We are way to drunk too clean up this crap.”Matt decided the situation warranted a drink, so he grabbed a bottle of tequila from the bar. The golden elixir made its way around the merry men. If they had looked down, they would have seen their legs and arms reflected dozens of times.in the broken pieces of mirror. A noise boomed from behind the fake wood paneling.“Holy shit!” Jason shouted and started laughing.The men fled toward the stairs, crunching broken mirror underfoot.*The next morning, Lukas began cleaning up from the party. All his friends had split before he woke up without so much as picking up a single bottle cap. As the fog in his brain started to clear, he remembered bits of what happened in the basement. Downstairs, the bottle of tequila remained in the midst of the silvery clutter, making the scene look like a treasure chest from a pirate movie. Lukas went back upstairs and found the broom and dustpan. By the time he completed the clean up, he was already blaming the alcohol and the bats.Still, he stared at the wall and wondered what was behind it. The last bat frontier, he surmised; the secret entrance that had been evading him throughout all these years of diligent bat hunting. Bat proofing the house was an obsession that had been ongoing for as long as he had lived there. The problem is that a bat can slip into a house in a space the size and height of one of those packs of free matches that gas stations pass out. In a house over a hundred years old, there are plenty of such spaces. Lukas had been erecting defenses and barriers in cracks, in the siding and foundations, gaps in the soffits, and vents all around the house. He had to know. He had nothing better to do and kept having visions of removing the wall and finding a whole colony of sleeping bats on the other side. He envisioned the bats scattering right in front of him as he tore off the wall. After that, the sluggish and sleepy bats would be all over the house looking for places to hide until dark, at which time the bats would wake and be flying through the house like flying saucers on a space-aged interstate system. He eventually started carrying the barstools, bottles, and glasses back to the laundry room. As he made trips back and forth, the sounds of the alcohol sloshing around in the bottles made his stomach revolt. He drank way too much the night before. Once the shelves were bare, Lukas alternated between pushing and pulling the bar itself slowly out of the way. The heavy wood bar screamed as he dragged it across the cement floor. Finally, the wall was exposed and everything was out of the way.He went back into one of the storage rooms and grabbed the pry bar from the pegboard wall. He popped off the crown molding then started to peel the panel off the wall. In the dark recess, He caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure. It was the silhouette of a young boy wearing tattered clothes standing there with his arms reaching out of the space. The apparition was just a shape, but Lukas recognized it as John, his bully of a big brother.“What the fuck?” Lukas jumped back and the panel slipped from his trembling hands and snapped back against the frame with a thunderous slap.He wanted to run up to his bed and crawl under the covers. Had to been my imagination, he convinced himself.He still had a death grip on the pry bar and was ready to defend himself from whatever was back there when he realized how childish his fear seemed. He chuckled and walked back up to the loosed panel and started pulling on it again. The wall peeled back like wrapping paper on a large present revealing the gray cinderblocks.The shadow John was gone.However, the paneling hid a surprise nonetheless: a fireplace. A bricked-up fireplace at that. One of the bricks was missing, revealing a black void, like a boy missing a front tooth.“Well I’ll be damned,” Lukas said aloud.Lukas could have wondered why the fireplace was sealed up. He could have wondered why the house had a second chimney in the first place. He could have wondered many things at that moment, but he was bat hunting and he saw the hole only as an access route.He got down on his knees in front of the bricked-up fireplace so he was eye level with the hole the missing brick left behind. He peered in and could feel cold air coming out of the opening, but he couldn’t see anything.What’s back there, his mind yelled.He pulled the yellow flashlight off the wall at the bottom of the stairs. He pointed the light into the darkness. It wasn’t much help. Dust filtered through the beam and he could only see the back of chimney. He scratched his forehead with the flashlight. He stared at the black hole and it stared, like an eye, back at him. There was nothing worse than the dark.He knew where his fear of the dark came from and memories of growing up being terrorized by John came to the surface as he worked. Lukas grew up in a home with a creepy, unfinished basement. In that basement, there was a storage room at the far end of the main area. His parent’s used the storage room for shelving things they had canned over the summer. His mom canned everything from jellies to spaghetti sauce to stews. If it could fit in a can, mom canned it and stored it in that room. Two of the walls were floor-to-ceiling shelves that held scores of sealed up jars.Back in the farthest corner of the storage room was a closet.That closet was the scariest thing known to him. Nothing else could incite instant shaking and hyperventilating. Lukas’s father used to joke around about locking him and his siblings down there. The contents of the closet consisted of old doors stacked against the wall like a giant deck of playing cards and the old wooden baby crib that both he and his brother had used when they were babies. The old tattered crib looked like a little prison on wheels.There were no lights in the closet and the floor buckled, which made the door hard to open.One Saturday afternoon while Lukas played with his Big Wheels on the back porch, John, came strolling by and kicked one of his trucks.“Hey quit it!” John taunted him some more then grabbed Lukas by the waist and hoisted him, upside down, under his arm. John pushed the back door open with his free hand and started down the narrow basement steps. “Gonna lock you in the closet, you little shit!”“No, put me down!” Lukas protested, alternating between punching his brother’s leg and grabbing at the railing as they descended. “John please no!”“John, please no!” John mimicked. He turned the door handle and pulled hard. It squealed against the floor, but came open. “In you go, runt!”He forced Lukas into the crib. Lukas was trembling and shaking and he could feel spider webs clinging to his hair and arms.John backed out and shoved the door closed. Lukas heard a little metal clank of the lock. A warm wetness ran down his little legs and he plopped down in his piss puddle. In the crib, he cried himself to sleep cuddling in a musty forgotten blanket. Six hours later, his father had found him. John had hell to pay for his prank and his dad even took the door off the closet, but Lukas carried a flashlight around with him on a utility belt for five years after that.*Lukas stood on a paint spattered canvas tarp in front of the bricked-up fireplace holding a sledgehammer with both hands. He took a deep breath and swung the sledgehammer. The hammer sunk into the old bricks. The bricks cracked and dust exploded. He swung again and a couple more slid and fell back inside the darkness.Lukas thought of bats. Hundreds of bats hanging inside the forgotten fireplace, now disturbed by his pounding and racing, flying out from the opening. He picked up the sledgehammer and swung again. And again.Bricks toppled over and fell behind. As they fell, he kept hearing the bricks tumble, as if they were echoing. When the opening was large enough, he leaned far into the cold space and turned the flashlight on.Scorched bricks lined the back wall of the chimney from years of fires. He pointed the ray up the flue and his heart pounded in anticipation of dozens of bats rushing down the vertical tunnel at him. When nothing happened, he aimed the light downward and what he saw nearly caused him to drop the flashlight. Lukas bounded up the stairs, called Jason, and told him that he needed to come over right away.Twenty minutes later, Jason let himself into his friend’s house. Lukas was standing in a pile of broken red bricks, leaning into a large opening in the wall. Jason slowed down and felt the hairs on his arms stand on end. “Hey Luke.” His voice was quiet.Lukas pulled his head out. Despite the red dust all over his face and in his hair, Lukas was pale. “Jason.”“What the hell are you doing?”“Just look.”Jason had visions of a pile of bones lying in the fireplace. He stepped through the crushed pieces of brick and his gaze followed the flashlight into the dark chimney. He leaned in and looked down.“Oh my god!” he mumbled. “Those are stairs.”“No shit.”“Why would there be stairs hidden back there?”Lukas shrugged. “I dunno, maybe it’s the original cellar.” “We gotta go down there,” Jason said.“I know. You feel that cold coming up from there?”“Yeah I feel it.”It drifted up from the stairs and out of the fireplace like spirits moving through the room. Goosebumps rose on Lukas’s arms and the hairs on his necks stood up as if the very fibers themselves wanted to jump out of his skin and flee.“I figure we gotta go in backwards.” Lukas’s words sounded loud and out of place. He couldn’t believe he was considering going down into that darkness.Jason seemed to accept that answer. “Well, down you go, I will be right behind you!”“Me?”“Yeah, it’s your house, genius!”Lukas exhaled loudly but got down on his knees in front of the fireplace. Sharp points of brick shards and gritty dirt stung him under his palms and knees.From the reach of the light, he counted nine stairs and it looked liked the ceiling opened up so he would be able to stand after he got down a little ways. Some had rotted planks of wood on the footfalls, but most were crumbling dirt. “It doesn’t look safe!” Lukas called back. His temples were pounding.Lukas crawled out of the chimney and dusted himself off over by the bar. He didn’t want to go down there. The chilled air that oozed from the black opening now seemed like a tangible living force to Lukas and Jason. Jason approached the steps and left his friend by the cock-eyed bar. He knelt and examined the steps. “Hello!” Jason shouted into the void.“Stop it!”Lukas watched Jason examine the stairs and saw yellow, withered hands with dirt-encrusted fingernails reaching out of the shadows, grabbing for Jason. The wrinkled fingers snapped and grasped at the air and they reminded Lukas of crab pincers. Dozens of hands reaching and clasping at the loose folds of Jason’s clothes. Little hands. The onslaught of disembodied hands continued until Jason was overwhelmed and he tumbled down into the darkness.Lukas blinked. Jason was still leaning into the open space, listening.“Get out of the way; let’s just get this over with!”Lukas backed down into the stairwell. He felt along the ceiling for a place to balance himself. The dirt was ice cold and he felt it sprinkling onto his hair.By the third step, the ceiling was too high to reach, so he braced himself on the dirt wall as a guide. By the fifth step, he was able to stand. Backward still, he could see Jason framed around a square of light above him.Lukas turned away from his friend and faced the darkness. The sun is shining and the sky is blue, he kept repeating to himself. His heart was beating like a drum.He moved the light from side to side, revealing earthen walls and oddly moving shadows. His breath rolled through the light.He stepped down and lurched to the right, smacking into the hard-packed wall. He pointed the light at his foot and saw the dirt had crumbled down onto the final step. The air smelled old like books that had been stored in a hope chest for decades. Lukas scanned the area at the foot of the steps. The dark space reminded him of a childhood trip to a cave somewhere in Arizona. Lukas swallowed hard.The sun is shining and the sky is blue, he continued to repeat.The beam of uncomforting yellow light cut through the black in minute slices. He focused the light in the center of the room. The beam revealed a dusty wooden crate.“Hola,” Jason whispered, barely an inch from Lukas’s ear. Lukas jumped.“Shit, man!” Lukas shined the light into Jason’s face. The light made his face look sunken and shadowy. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.” He turned the light back to the box on the ground. “Look man, there’s an old box down here.”Jason followed the light and spoke quietly, “Whoa, that’s a damn baby crib!”Lukas looked at what he thought was a crate and saw that Jason was correct. He recognized the old wooden crib. He slapped his hand over his mouth to stifle a scream. “What the hell is a crib doing down here?”Lukas didn’t hear his friend. The pungent odor of urine filled his nostrils. The scent whisked back in time to when his brother locked him in the closet. Jason grabbed the flashlight from Lukas and inspected the dusty baby bed. The paint had long since peeled away from the slats leaving them dull brown. In the center of the crib rested a yellow rattle and that same faded blue blanket Lukas knew from his nightmares. Rats had peppered the blanket with little black feces pellets. Or maybe it was bat poop.Fear hammered on every nerve in Lukas’s body. He was trembling. “Sun’s sky blue and shining.”“Huh?” Jason turned the light.“Blue, blues in the sun,” he stammered.“Get a grip, man!” Jason dismissed his friend and panned the earthy room. “Look! A passageway!”Jason walked toward the dirt hallway, shining the light at the walls. Tree roots, which looked like shadowy fingers, protruded from the wall. As Jason advanced, the light drained away from Lukas and the crib.Lukas stood trembling in the total darkness. He felt the urine rising inside him. Odd flashes of dim yellow emanated from the crib. The light called out to him somehow and an odd calmness absorbed all his fear. As dawn chases away the night, Lukas could see everything in the room clearly. He knelt before the crib. He sat there a moment, in the darkness, as if he were kneeling before an altar in church, then tenderly ran his hands along the rail. He reached in the crib, found the rattle, and gave it a shake. The tiny bell inside jingled.Jason swung the light around. “Dude, what the hell?”Jason saw his friend’s face in segmented shadows through the slats of the crib. Lukas was grinning and rocking the rattle in his hand.“Quit playing around, this place is creepy enough. Come on, let’s check out where this tunnel goes.”Lukas’s eyes were burning, so strongly that he held his hand up in front of his eyes, “Turn off the flashlight!” “Yeah, right.”A confusing fury rose in his stomach and his head pounded from the intensity of the light. He marched briskly toward his friend. “I said turn that damn light off!” He grabbed the flashlight out of Jason’s hand, cocked his hand back, and struck him in the face with it. The plastic tube splintered and batteries fell away.The light went out. Jason screamed and fell back against the dirt wall. “What’s wrong with you, asshole!” He could hear Lukas’s breath, shallow and gritty, in the dark. Jason didn’t understand why he was suddenly in grave danger. He realized that Lukas was blocking his exit and the only way to escape was to go deeper into the black tunnel. He took off down the hall with his hands outstretched as he fled.Squeaking noises were above him and bursts of wind rustled past his ears.Lukas threw him to the ground.He climbed high on Jason’s back, grabbing his hair by the handful and beating his head into the ground. Jason stopped struggling.Lukas laughed. Like a caveman carrying his woman home, Lukas grabbed one of Jason’s ankles and dragged him back to the room. He hoisted his friend up and dropped him in the tiny baby crib. The crib ruptured under the weight of the man.Lukas bent down, in the dark, and selected one of the broken slats. He drove it through his friend’s chest. Blood ran off the sides of Jason’s body and soaked into the dirt.Lukas sat down next to his friend and slapped his palms on his stomach as if he were playing drums. He laughed again.The slats from the broken crib inched toward Jason’s corpse like snakes and surrounded him. Lukas stood up and backed out of the way.The slats stood upright as the yellow glow brightened and washed over Jason. After a moment, the light faded and the slats fell back to the dirt. The body was gone.Lukas turned and ran down the hallway until he found himself in another chamber. He looked around and saw, with perfect clarity, the ceiling was festering with sleeping bats. Music was coming from somewhere above him.At the end of this second room, there was another flight of stairs. He crawled up the steps, digging his fingers into the cold dirt as he ascended, because it made him feel feral. When he got to the top, the sound of a vacuum cleaner overpowered the radio.There were bricks in front of him but they were loose. He pushed one in and it clucked to the ground. Light shone through it. He peered through the opening. A woman wearing only a long blue t-shirt walked in front of a green leather couch while she vacuumed a rug.It was Kathy, his next-door neighbor. Lukas became aroused. He pushed brick after brick out until there was enough room to crawl into his neighbor’s fireplace. His pushed the soot-covered glass doors open.His eyes dilated from the bright room and made everything blurry.She hadn’t noticed him yet so he leaped off the edge of the fireplace.The woman shrieked as the dirt-covered beast lunged at her. He was growling and swinging his arms. She fell over a chair and landed on the floor. The monster hurdled the chair and pounced on her chest.He punched her in the face as hard as he could. He heard a crack and blood was all over her face. Lukas watched it run down and drip on the carpet. Dirt was falling out of his hair on to her face. He picked her limp body up, carried her to the fireplace, and forced her through the opening. She tumbled down the dirt steps into the dark.He stood in front of the fireplace listening. The vacuum cleaner was lying on its side but still operating, so he heard nothing. He sniffed the air but sensed no one else was home.He crawled back into her fireplace and closed the doors.Lukas dragged the woman back to where Jason’s body was and chose another slat from the pieces of crib. He impaled her chest with it, falling to his knees in the same motion.*Upstairs, Amanda and her mother let themselves into Lukas’s house. Amanda called for her daddy but he did not answer. She was so excited to be surprising him by arriving a week early, she could barely contain herself. The mom, not feeling comfortable wandering the house she helped Lukas pick out all those years ago, stood in the doorway with her hands crossed over her chest. Amanda did not have any such reservations. She dropped her pink Barbie doll backpack and sleeping bag roll on the floor and took off.In the cellar, Lukas became faintly aware of a voice calling for daddy. He looked up at the dirt ceiling and listened. Muffled stomps from creaking boards. The voice came again and this time he recognized that is was Amanda. “Shit,” he mumbled and began wiping his dirty blood-covered hands on his dirty blood-covered clothes. He smoothed his hair back and felt tiny clogs of dirt falling. He took a deep breath and started up the earthy steps toward the square of light at the top. A small silhouette partially blocked the light and he paused. “Daddy, are you down there?” Lukas strained to comprehend the words, as they jumbled in his fevered brain. He was panting. The voice sounded familiar, but suddenly he couldn’t place it with a face or a name. Without responding, Lukas leaned up the stairs as far as he could to see who was there. The figure resolved and he could clearly see a young boy squatting in the opening. It was his big brother John, but not the overweight, balding current version. What Lukas saw was the lanky twelve-year-old bully. Lukas knew that didn’t make sense, but that is what he saw. What is he doing here? His furious mind screamed. A soothing whisper answered him: “He’s come to lock you down here.” It came from the crib. A surge of hatred and resolve washed through him. “Not this time, John!” he snarled and scrambled up the crumbling dirt steps. Lukas’s dirty hands were trembling as he reached out of the darkness, grabbed Amanda’s ankle, and jerked her down the stairs.
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