I always knew something was wrong with my basement.
Maybe it was the smell of sickly sweet rot that first clued me in.
Maybe it was the darkness that clung to the corners and hung from the low-slung ceiling like the swooped top of a gypsy tent.
Or maybe it was the iron bars forming a bizarre, door-less cage in the middle of the room.
Nevertheless, I didn’t think much about it. I left it alone, content to confine my evenings of chemistry homework, root beer, and softly droning radio news to the main floor. The basement, though strange, was merely a quirk of this old place. Other people’s houses creaked in the night. Mine smelled funny and seemed stuck in a horror novel. No big deal.
Or so I told myself.
It was a damp October night. I was nested in swaths of afghan in the corner of the couch, surrounded by sheets of unbalanced chemistry equations, when the radio clicked off by itself. In the sudden silence, a humming started. I glanced up. The single lamp behind me flickered, disturbing the pool of yellowish light for a moment. Nothing else stirred in my living room. I swallowed hard to pop my ears, the way I fix the pressure changes when driving in the mountains outside of town. But the soft hum continued, an undulating wisp of sound.
I sat very still for a few minutes and watched beads of condensation roll down the root beer can at my elbow. I couldn’t pin the gender of the humming voice. At times it sounded like a low female croon, but then it seemed more like a male tenor. There were no words. Just a rising, falling string of vowels. The more I listened, the less it sounded human. An ethereal echo wrapped the voice as it filtered through thin walls.
My arms prickled with goosebumps.
I hear people get nervous being at home alone in the dark—not that I have any friends to confirm it. But I like the solitariness and the darkness. It’s better than Dad tearing through the kitchen cupboards in search of food to settle his stomach swirling with alcohol. Better than screams berating his disappointment of a son. When he’s gone, it’s just me. And that’s just fine.
So when the humming began on that lonely October night, I wasn’t immediately frightened. But I should have been.
I don’t know when I left my nest of blankets, but all of a sudden I was standing in the dimness beyond the lamplight, at the doorway leading to the kitchen. A cool breeze brushed my face.
A breeze indoors?
The echoes expanded. They filled my ears, my head, my bones. The edges of my vision softened. My knotted shoulders relaxed. I found myself smiling—then wiped it away with a frown the minute I realized what I was doing. What was the matter with me?
The humming floated up the stairs and into the kitchen. It’s coming from the basement. So was the breeze, I realized. Without thinking, I wandered to the top of the stairs and peered into the deepening shadow at the bottom, where the door that should have been closed hung wide.
I stood on the fifth step down.
Just like that, with no recollection of standing on the four steps before it. I was just suddenly there, the same way I didn’t remember leaving the couch. Heart thumping behind my ribs, I turned and leaped to the top of the stairwell again. A sick sense of something horribly, dreadfully wrong crawled down my spine and settled in my gut.
But the strange voice swirled anew, louder and fuller. Its echoes overlapped each other, a layered miasma of sound. The sick feeling left my stomach, and the shadows downstairs turned into honeyed light. I smirked to myself. Don’t be stupid, Derrek, there’s nothing to worry about. What was so strange about the voice that had always filled this house and always wrapped me in safety? What was so strange about the way it turned darkness into golden brilliance? Wasn’t this the lullaby that filled my dreams?
I pinched myself. The shadows blackened again, though the voice continued. Always filled this house? Had it? My memory seemed patchy. I couldn’t recall whether I was hearing the song for the first time or the thousandth.
I blinked and took a step down, but found myself nearly at the bottom of the stairwell. This didn’t concern me in the slightest. Two more steps, and I stood in the open basement doorway. Here the humming intensified, a beautiful orchestra contained in one voice. The flowing vowels began to make sense in my head—they didn’t turn into words so much as meanings.
And like the voice was a current, I let it sweep me gently into the basement.
Time abandoned me for a brief moment, a moment in which I couldn’t tell if I’d been walking in the basement for a split second or a year—but it mattered little because standing before me was the iron cage in all its splendor.
And splendid it was, for gleaming vines of cast metal wound up the bars, decorated by metallic blooms that seemed to shiver in the breeze blowing through the basement. Silvery gold light streamed from within the cage—no, that was the wrong word for it. Cage was confinement and closure. This . . . this masterpiece of metal wrought by inhuman hands, this was perfection.
This was glory.
As if in agreement, the song swelled.
Come. Taste the glory.
Syllables streamed faster and faster, a crescendo of impressions: Safety, safe here, come, enfold, be enfolded, light, protection, beauty, ease, come, come, come.
I touched a bar, solidly anchored from the floor to the ceiling. The metal seemed to vibrate beneath my palm; it nearly purred with pleasure.
Dimly, I was aware of my unawareness—the way I feel when I’m half-awake and know that I’m wavering between a dream and reality. But this reality was so much better than the dream, because in the dream, the basement was wrong. It was smelly and dark and off. That was the nightmare, the fantasy of a dreaming mind. This was reality—this magnificence calling to me, drawing me with its never-ending song.
I don’t know when the song merged with my own thoughts, but my own voice somehow joined the other one. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be all right. Just quiet down. Relax. Everything’s okay. You’re okay. Just step inside.
Some little needle of unease poked the back of my mind. Why would I reassure myself when the safe haven of iron was here before me? That made it sound like the haven was bad. It wasn’t bad. I needed to step inside. It was good. It was glorious. Safe.
Come. It’s okay.
The needling thoughts bothered me. They disrupted the euphoria. So, to shut up that tiny voice, I smiled . . .
And I stepped through the iron bars to taste the glory.
The bars had always been spaced wide enough apart that I could fit between them. But the instant I stepped through, the singing broke off. The silvery gold light vanished, leaving me in the dusk of an underground room. It was as if the carved vines and flowers had never been, and now rough iron poles surrounded me, speckled with rust.
Clanking, creaking, the bars thickened. They swelled to twice their diameter, leaving no room to walk through.
My heart froze. My breathing thinned.
Then blinding panic erupted, and I threw myself, screaming, at the grid of iron. My fists met solid iron. My kicks couldn’t even vibrate the cage. There was no door, no lock. No way out. I shouted for help, but there was no one in my cold, empty house to hear me.
Sobbing—and hating myself for my weakness—hearing Dad’s derogatory tone in my head—I backed into a corner of the cage and sank to the concrete floor. The odor of rotting meat thickened, and the already-dim room darkened further. Why had I let myself be lured inside this prison? And more importantly, what had drawn me here?
The barest echo of the voice came drifting back. This time, it was as if I could see the sound floating just beyond the cage. I squinted, but the more I focused, the less I could make it out and the quieter the voice became . . . until it was silent again. I closed my eyes and focused on listening. The voice returned in pulsing echoes. Cracking open one eye, I heard rather than truly saw a swirl of red vapor.
Everything’s okay, Derrek. Surrender.
Knives appeared—blades pushing through the bars, all pointing inward. One scraped my backbone, and I dragged myself into the center of the cage. The knives lengthened. Closing the distance. Nearing my skin. A panting whimper sounded. Is that me?
You’re all right.
The singing vapor grew denser and louder. It sang in triumph. I clung to my fear, and curled into the smallest shape possible. The knifepoints hovered inches away on all sides. I covered my mouth to smother my cries. No. No. No.
Don’t worry, the voice sang wordlessly. It will be over in a moment.
As the vapor surrounded the cage and continued to sing, my pulse eased. My thoughts settled. I relished the damp concrete against my face and the comforting bars of safety surrounding me, keeping out all that was wrong and evil.
The first cold blade pricked my neck.