Phoebe Mason always had trouble sleeping. She was only a little girl, and, as was natural for little girls, she was prone to the nightmares that shook her from sleep in a 3 A.M. panic, leaving her defenseless in darkness, half-drowned in an ocean of sheets and sweat and tears. Even from infancy, she could scarcely get a wink without jolting upright and dropping open her mouth to scream for mommy.
To her father’s chagrin, she often demanded that her mother sleep with her so that she didn’t have to be alone. Every night for years, Phoebe’s mother spent the night with her, lulling her to sleep with sweet dreams in mind or soothing her when the nightmares shook her awake. But when Phoebe turned five, her father decided enough was enough.
“You’d think the kid would be able to make it through one night by now,” he had grumbled, walking past Phoebe’s bedroom, only to find her snuggled up with her mom.
Mrs. Mason was a patient woman, but her husband was right; it was time Phoebe learned to sleep on her own. As soon as Phoebe fell asleep that night, her mother slipped away, and the little girl was alone in the dark for the first time.
The Masons had moved into the house on Danby Drive only a few months before their daughter Phoebe was born. The house had not been lived in for years, and the last family before them had left suddenly. Mr. Mason had heard that they moved away because their young son went missing, but he thought it was unnecessary to mention it to his wife. Mrs. Mason, though patient and compassionate, had too many nervous tendencies, and to hear that a child went missing in this area would only worry her. Besides, it had been over a decade ago, and there were no such records since.
The first night Phoebe slept alone was the first night of anything unusual happening. She woke not from a nightmare but from the sound of something scratching from below. She did not jolt upright or gasp in terror. She didn’t even cry. She simply opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling, listening close to the scraping beneath her bed.
A muffled voice broke through the silence, and it wasn’t Phoebe’s.
“Hello?” it said. It sounded to Phoebe like a little boy.
“Hello?” Phoebe whispered back.
“Who are you?” it asked, after a pause.
“Who are you?” Phoebe retorted.
“Marcus,” said the voice cheerily.
“I’m Phoebe. Are you real?”
“I think so. I feel real. Are you real?”
“Yes! Of course I am! Where are you?”
“I’m in the floor,” said Marcus.
When Phoebe took too long to reply, he changed the topic: “Do you want to be best friends?”
“Okay,” said Phoebe, and thus began a most peculiar friendship between a little girl and the invisible boy that lives under her bed.
The next night, Phoebe insisted that she sleep alone, and this continued for several days. Mr. Mason was happier than he had ever been, particularly in the last five years, and Mrs. Mason, though she missed her bonding night times with her daughter, was relieved that the little girl was finally starting to develop a sense of independence. There were no concerns until both of the Mason parents woke in the middle of the night to the sound of their daughter’s violent laughter.
Mrs. Mason rushed into the bedroom to find Phoebe giggling to herself, hands covering her rosy cheeks in an attempt to stifle the noise.
“What’s so funny?” asked Mrs. Mason, trying and failing to feign happiness through her exhaustion.
“My friend is telling jokes,” Phoebe replied, still giggling a little.
Mrs. Mason glanced around for a phone or a walkie-talkie, finding nothing of the sort. “Your friend? What friend?”
“Marcus. He lives under my bed.”
A sudden look of understanding passed over Mrs. Mason’s face, and this time her smile was genuine. “Marcus?” she asked, and she bent over to peer under the bed. “Ah, very nice! Hello, Marcus!” her comment was directed at the dust bunnies, for she saw nothing unusual under the little girl’s bed.
“He’s not there, mommy,” Phoebe whined. “He’s all the way under the floor.”
“Ah, I see. So then what does he look like?”
Phoebe shrugged. Then she crossed her arms and pouted. “Mommy, go away. Marcus won’t talk with you around.”
“Of course not. But doesn’t Marcus know it’s bedtime?”
“Tell Marcus he should sleep, too. His mommy and daddy probably want him to go to bed as much as your mommy and daddy do.”
“But mom-my! Marcus doesn’t have a mommy and a daddy. He said they left him here a long time ago, so he doesn’t have to do what they want.”
“Well, then I’ll be his new mommy, and I want him to go to sleep. You sleep well now, all right, Phoebe, baby?”
Phoebe uncrossed her arms, placed them at her sides, and sighed deeply. “Okay, mommy.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Mrs. Mason left, shutting the door behind her, leaving Phoebe in the dark with her “imaginary friend.” A few moments of total silence passed, in which there was no scratching, no wind-blowing, no laughing, no jokes. In those moments, Phoebe was afraid that her mother had broken some spell by finding out about her friend, and now he must be gone forever. Or worse, Phoebe had ruined her own imagination by revealing it. She would have cried if Marcus hadn’t spoken up.
“Your mommy sounds nice,” he said. “She’s gonna be my mommy.”
He began scratching again, a quiet, persistent pattern of fingernails running against rough wood.
“She’s a nice mommy,” Phoebe concurred. “But I like talking to you better.”
“Someday you should help me up so she can be my mommy.” He scratched harder, the grainy sound of friction growing stronger.
Phoebe thought about this. “But I like it this way.”
“I don’t. I want her to be my mommy. Can you help me up?” Marcus was scratching madly now, hard and sharp against the wood, and the noise thundered through Phoebe’s ears until she could scarcely breathe.
Mrs. Mason couldn’t fall asleep that night. Instead, she lay completely and totally awake, scanning the ceiling, biting her fingernails. Something about that conversation had struck her oddly, and it was nagging at her.
At around 2:30 A.M., she could no longer contain herself, so she woke her husband by shaking his shoulder rather aggressively.
“What? What is it? What do you want?” asked Mr. Mason dazedly, still half-asleep.
“This house. Who lived here before us?”
“It was empty.”
“Come on, Jim. It’s an old house. Someone must’ve lived here.”
“Uh… I don’t know, twenty years ago some people lived here.”
“Why did they leave?”
“I didn’t want to tell you.”
“What is it? What happened here?”
“Their kid went missing. He was Phoebe’s age.”
Mrs. Mason had a sudden pounding of her heart, a sudden nagging feeling in her chest. Her head throbbed with every quickening step toward her daughter’s room. When she got there, she threw the door open and turned on the light only to find that the bed had been pushed against the wall crookedly, blankets strewn everywhere, and Phoebe was sitting on the floor clawing ravenously at the floorboards. There were tears in her eyes, and her fingernails bled, leaving crimson streaks on the wooden floors, but there was unbridled glee in her voice while she giggled to herself madly.
“What’s wrong, Phoebe? What’s going on?” Mrs. Mason repeated shrilly, trying to pull her daughter away from a slightly darkened spot on the floor. “You stop that! Stop this right now!”
But Phoebe was persistent, and the wood chipped away under her nails, creating little holes and crevasses in the floor. Only darkness lay beneath them, but it was an open darkness, like the space underneath a porch, filled with a vast and empty sort of black.
Mrs. Mason dragged Phoebe away but crawled closer to the spot. Gingerly, she dug her fingernails into the wood and pulled, scraping away at it. One of the boards was just faintly the wrong shape; its edges peeled in some places, leaving narrow gaps in others. It was wrong for the house, like it had never meant to be there. That was the one Phoebe had dug at, and eventually Mrs. Mason pulled the board loose. She instinctively brought her arm up to cover her face when she saw what lay below.
There lay the missing child.
There lay the body of a boy abandoned, ignored, forgotten.
A little corpse, a little mummified boy with empty, hollowed eyes, all blackened by time and rot, lying in the space below. He was covered in spider webs and dust and dead flies and everything that had ever made Mrs. Mason want to vomit. And he almost seemed alive, for his hands were facing upward, his fingernails were rubbed raw, and the petrified skin was embedded with wooden splinters that looked far too fresh.
Frank stood motionless, eyes transfixed on the stainless steel doors. Waiting. He watched the numbers count down – 52, 51, 50. He hated the word – E-L-E-V-A-T-O-R. It was too symmetrical – same number of consonants as vowels – unnatural. He had been trapped in an elevator for three hours when he was 7. The old man he was trapped with spent the time doing unnatural things to him. That was another word he hated – P-E-D-O-P-H-I-L-E.
He had managed to avoid this moment for nearly 40 years. He took the stairs, good for the heart – at first he would stop every 10 floors, but now he stopped every 5, burning legs, heaving chest. Wasn’t exercise good for high cholesterol? Dr. Smith said “you need more cardio, I don’t like these numbers”. What was that medicine he had refused to take?
As he stared, dread began to climb up his ankles, his legs, his buttocks and groin. It slithered over his hips and wound it’s way around his spine. Sweat trickled down his back. His neck and cheeks flushed.
Karma. It was karma that had written this comedy of errors. He had never cheated on his wife. 10 years of marriage, 2 beautiful children. Straight arrow all the way. But today he had broken his vows. The new paralegal was just too willing, too persistent and too hot. And now, there was Karma, grinning, laughing. Karma had hired the crew to repaint the stairwells today – stretching that yellow tape across the doorways. Karma had arranged his first trip in the metal box on a wire – the Otis death trap. Karma was conducting this horrendous atonal symphony.
Dread was now holding Frank’s head in both hands, jamming it’s tongue down his throat like the paralegal had done 2 hours ago in his office. He swallowed hard. Dread was now swirling around in his stomach, making his head spin. And then “ding! – the elevator opened it’s jaws wide, an empty stainless steel and faux wood grain crypt.
“Grow up, be a man” he scolded himself. He mustered every ounce of courage and stepped across the threshold. He closed his eyes and the doors slid shut behind him. He was alone in the box. How many elevator accidents were there every year?
“There, you’re in. Was that so horrible?” He opened his eyes and watched the numbers count down. 48, 47, 46, 45, 44, and then BAM! It happened. First there was a loud pop and then the sound of the cable whipping around in the elevator shaft. The lights flickered and then went out – plunging the universe into darkness. Emergency power clacked on and an eerie red light flickered to life – bathing the interior with a hellish glow. Metal groaned, the floor shuddered and then another “BANG” and the elevator went into free fall.
“I’ll come clean if I survive this” he pleaded in his head. “I’ll tell her the whole story and we’ll get past it all. Just let me survive this – please!” The floor dropped and a sickening weightlessness filled his chest. A flurry of images swirled in his head – his mother, smiling, sending him alone to the corner grocery, the firm breasts of the paralegal, the horrid grin of the elevator pedophile – thick, dirty fingers unzipping his fly.
His heart pounded in his throat, a lightening bolt of pain radiated through his shoulder and down his arm. He felt sick. His stomach spasmed and he vomited. It hung in the air for few seconds, victim to the same free fall and slowly draped itself across the walls. The fall seemed to last forever. How can four stories be such a long trip?
He remembered that someone somewhere saying “if you jump just before impact, you will survive“. He had to time this just right. He watched the numbers dwindle – 40, 39, 38. He crouched, ready to spring. Down, down, the elevator plunged – 30, 29, 28, 27. Faster and faster, the smell of hot metal and burning paint flooded the chamber. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4.
The pain in his arm intensified and he felt an unbearable weight upon his chest. He couldn’t breath, he couldn’t move, his arm was on fire, his chest collapsing. Through a haze he saw the numbers – 3,2,1. The lights flickered and he tried to jump but his legs buckled. Suddenly…
…everything stopped. There was no crash, no twisted metal, no wrenching impact. The lights flickered and everything was still. The pain in his arm was gone. His chest felt light. His breathing was regular and he had stopped sweating. He blinked and wiped his eyes. He was OK. He had survived. “Ha! Karma my ass! I am alive!” He began to laugh. He slumped down against the back wall and laughed like a giddy schoolgirl. The lights flickered again and “ding” the doors opened.
He looked up and smiled. Through the yawning doors he could see a dark corridor. It was constructed from quarried stone blocks, each about 2 feet by 3 feet. They were scarred and stained by centuries of wear. Torches flickered a faint orange glow, intimidated by the darkness of the corridor. White objects littered the stone block floor of the corridor. He squinted and his smile disintegrated. Is this the sub basement? The smell of rotted meat and sulfur wafted into the elevator. He closed his eyes and opened them again.
A dark figure was now standing before him. Thick gloves covered meaty hands and he was dressed in a heavy coat and loose pants of a stiff fabric that appeared to be coated in soot. A long, dark object dangled from his left hand and trailed along the floor. His face was a mystery. It was as if the area where his face should have been was bending the light around it – an ocular dead spot. Must be an effect of the fall he thought.
Frank blinked again and rubbed his eyes. “Hey – you with the fire department?” He straightened up and brushed dust from his sport coat. “Man am I glad to see you!”
Silence. The figure did not move.
“Boy, I’ve always hated those damn things. I think I might need some medical assistance – that was quite a fall.”
The figure remained motionless and mute.
“Hell – o! I said I think I might need some kind of medical check up…”
With a lightening flick of his wrist, the figure whipped the rusted chain through the darkness. It struck Frank just below his jaw and wound around his neck 3 times.
He tried to scream, but his trachea was crushed by the chain. He dropped to his knees and grabbed the links that continued to tighten, mangling his airway. He sputtered and the warm thrill of blood painted his lips.
The figure jerked his arm and dropped his captive prone. Slowly, the dark stranger began to drag Frank into the darkness of the corridor.
Frank tried to scream, but managed only a gurgle. His writhing arms and legs disturbed the bits of bone and dried flesh strewn about on the floor.
He watched behind him as the elevator doors slowly closed, devouring all hope. Above the door, illuminated numbers flickered for a moment – an upside down 4, a backwards 3 and an 11. He heard the breath of his captor rasping – or was it a low, whispered laugh.
Copyright SkullDugFilms – 2013
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