BASEMENT by Steven L. Sears
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“Honey, you want to come down here for a second?” Carol tapped on the ceiling of the basement with the broom handle as she continued staring at the object on the floor. She could hear her wife moving around upstairs, cleaning for the party tonight. Amanda had been at it since early this morning. Carol didn’t really want to disturb her, she had been working her ass off and her patience was running a little short.

Carol’s job was to stay out of her way and the best place for that was here, in the basement, where she could finish stacking the plastic footlockers filled with knick knacks and legal documents. It was a walk-in basement, rare for houses in this area. Their new home was built on the side of a hill, so part of it jutted out over the low side of the slope. The previous owners had decided to use that space to create this basement, installing a concrete floor and shelves along one wall, placing the water heater and furnace in front of the crawlspace leading up under the house into the darkness toward where the hill and the actual foundation met. There was one bare light overhead and an emergency light that remained on constantly, creating dim shadows.

“Honey!” Carol hit the ceiling one more time, a little harder, with urgency. She heard the movement upstairs stop suddenly, followed by a gap of silence. She could almost imagine Amanda pushing her auburn hair from her face and rolling her eyes in frustration. Carol smiled a little bit to herself, frustrating her wife was one of her few joys. It was part of their game. Although she knew not to push it too far.

The familiar thumping of feet coming down the staircase was followed by an exasperated “What?” Amanda’s face pushed around the edge of the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, her blue eyes piercing as she glared at Carol. “I’m here already.” Amanda stepped fully into the doorway, brushing dust off the plaid shirt she liked wear when she worked. “What’s so important?”

Carol turned her attention back to the object on the floor, and nodded toward it. Amanda’s eyes followed her gaze. “Well I’ll be damned.” She reacted as she entered the basement to get a better look. “Oh, my God… is that a rat?”

Carol nodded. It was, in fact, a rat. A dead rat.

Rats were not a new thing to the couple. They were actually quite common in this part of the neighborhood. Carol and Amanda had bought this house less than a year ago, perched on the side of a hill surrounded by greenery and trees. Shrubbery hid the yard from the street, which gave them the privacy they craved when they went looking for a new home. The area was somewhat off the beaten path, a bit rustic, but still close enough to the city so Carol could get to work within five minutes. Amanda was a stay-at-home artist, they had turned the second bedroom into her studio. It overlooked the backyard, which, she said, gave her the inspiration she had lacked in the five years they lived in the condo. The new house had been a wedding present for each other, and they wanted it to be perfect for the both of them. Carol loved it because it had been a bargain, under priced in this market. When guests admired their home, Carol was quick to point out the facts and figures that made this house such a good deal. Amanda would just take their guests to the window overlooking the yard and point. If the guests were lucky, they could see the occasional deer or raccoons moving through the trees.

But the rats... Well, every home up here had to deal with them. At least that’s what the real estate agent had told them. It seemed to be true, they knew of other people who told the same stories. After a while, you just got used to the bumps and squeaks in the night from the attic, the sounds of scurrying little feet underneath the bathroom and around the chimney. The first night they had slept in their new home, it had awakened them and frightened them somewhat. After all, they were city girls. This “nature” thing was new to them. When they mentioned it to Barry, the veteran who lived across the street, he filled them in on the situation. “These rats have been living here long before we got here,” Barry said in between chews on the cigar that never seemed to be lit. “It’s just something you get used to.”

Amanda and Carol tried to get used to it. Rather, Amanda tried to get used to it. Carol decided to declare war. She immediately went down to Virgil’s hardware store and bought four wooden spring traps and three electric traps, small plastic boxes with battery powered plates designed to send a powerful charge through any small animal. She put one of the electric traps in the attic, one out by the hot tub, and one down in the basement. The wooden spring traps were spread out in the garden area.

During the night, they heard two of the spring traps snap. Then they heard the squealing, the plaintive sounds of a trapped creature struggling to free itself. This was mildly annoying to Carol, but excruciatingly painful for Amanda. She was always the more sympathetic of the two. Closing the window couldn’t keep the sound out, so Carol finally had to deal with the issue. She wasn’t too happy about it, as she pulled on her garden gloves and grabbed a hammer from the toolbox. Amanda heard the sound of a thump and the squealing stopped. She didn’t want to know how it happened or what had been done, but there was silence again.

The next night was a repeat of the first. And the same, the night after that one. The electric traps certainly worked, and they were quick and painless. At least the girls hope they were. In any event, none of those victims made a sound when they died. But, after a while, they realize that Barry was correct. It was just something they had to accept about their new neighborhood. Carol got used to emptying the traps on a weekly basis. Amanda wouldn’t touch them and pretended they didn’t exist.

The appearance of a dead rat on the basement floor wasn’t the surprise. What was different was the look of it. First of all, it was in the middle of the floor. There was nothing around it. There was no trap that it was ensnared in, it was just in the middle of a completely empty floor. The second unusual thing about it was that it was in a fetal position. Curled up, its eyes closed, its nose tilted down to its chest, the tiny fore paws and legs pulled close to its body.

“At least it doesn’t look like the cat,” Carol said. Amanda nodded, recalling the dead feline they found behind the garage when clearing brush. Far from being a still life in death, the poor creature had been ripped apart by some predator in the night. When asked about it, Barry didn’t seem surprised at all. He just nodded his head with the confidence of aged wisdom that drives young people crazy. “You’re living in the wilds now, youngsters.” He always called them “youngsters.” Amanda found it endearing, Carol found it annoying. “We got everything from the cutesy deer and ‘coons to bobcats and coyotes. Hell, we got a mountain lion marking territory just over the hill.” They had seen the coyotes at night, in the streets. The mountain lion was news to them. “Lots of predators out at night. No one has cats up here anymore,“ he continued. “They all end up like this one.”

Aside from quashing their plans to buy a kitten in the fall, it also motivated the girls to install motion sensors outside their window. A mistake they had to correct after their first week was spent with sleepless nights. It turns out almost everything in the woods has some sort of motion.

“How did it get there?” Amanda asked, leaning over the rat to peer at it. “I don’t know,” Carol responded. “It was there when I got here.” Amanda looked up. “Did it fall from the ceiling?” Carol shook her head. There was nothing up there for a rat to hold onto, much less a way for it to have gotten there. “Maybe it was crawling across the floor and had a heart attack,” Amanda offered. Carol shrugged. The thought hadn’t occurred to her. She wasn’t even sure that rats had heart attacks, but it was the only plausible explanation they had. “Or, just sick? Maybe?” Amanda was edging closer to it. She seemed fascinated. “You’re not going to try to paint this, are you?” Carol broached. “I don’t know,” she replied. “It’s interesting. Hand me the broom.” Carol gave her the broom. Amanda carefully nudged the dead rat, half expecting it to jump to life. “I wonder how long it’s been there?” she said as she flipped it over.

That’s when they saw the twine. A very small, almost threadlike bit of twine, wrapped around the rat’s throat. Tight. Too tight. Tight enough to suffocate the small creature. They stood up and looked at each other.

“Okay, that explains it,” Carol said. Amanda’s eyes grew wide with puzzlement. “Explains what?” she asked, confused. Carol started looking through the empty boxes near the water heater. “How it died,” she said as she pulled an old book box from the pile. Amanda shook her head. “I’m lost.” Carol took back the broom and set the box on its side near the rat. “It got itself entangled in some twine or string. Some of it wrapped around its neck and started to choke it.” Carol swept the rat body into the box. “It was just heading across the floor when it finally suffocated.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Amanda agreed. “But where’d it get the string?” Carol gestured up into the crawlspace, the darkness leading up under the narrow part of the house. “Probably up there somewhere. Maybe the guy who installed the cable left some. I don’t know. But somewhere.”

Carol picked up the box and held it with mock pride. “But never fear, fair maiden, I am here to dispose of said creature.” Amanda smiled broadly. “My hero!” she said with a feigned swoon. Carol gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I should probably check the other traps and make sure they still have bait,” she said thoughtfully. “Whatever,” Amanda replied, heading up the stairs. “Just stay out of my way! I’ve got a vacuum and I know how to use it!”

Carol took another look around the basement. Her explanation made sense, the rat strangled itself on errant twine, the case was closed. “Hmm,” she murmured to acknowledge the little bit of doubt remaining, then headed back upstairs, closing the door behind her.

***********************************

“Honey… you better get down here again.” Carol raised her voice toward the floor above the basement. She had come downstairs to retrieve the plastic foot locker containing the tax forms. Carol had to put together a financial package to discuss with the contractor. They had finally decided what they were going to do with the sun room and, as usual with the household decisions, Amanda had won. Instead of replacing the old aluminum roof and plugging the leaks along the walls, they were going to get an estimate on completely rebuilding it. Carol made her usual arguments in regards to income and debt. Amanda made her usual argument by pouting and looking sad. Amanda won. Carol loved her new bride too much to deny her much. The discussion was ended with Carol’s now-familiar admission of defeat; “We’ll find the money somehow.”

The tax forms and contractor were forgotten for the moment as Carol continued staring at the rat in the center of the floor. Another rat.

“Holy shit…!” Amanda had stuck her head around the door and was staring at the creature. She rarely cursed except when taken by surprise. “Another one?” She stepped cautiously into the basement. Carol squatted down. “Hand me the flashlight.” Amanda grabbed the flashlight from the wall recharger and handed it to her. Carol flicked it on and turned the light onto the rat’s body. “Do you want me to get your glasses?” Amanda offered. Normally Amanda asked that to tease Carol, knowing how much her lack of perfect eyesight annoyed her. This wasn’t one of those moments and Carol didn’t take offense. “No…” she said, examining the rat in detail. “Get your phone, I want to take a picture.” Amanda nodded and disappeared. Carol grabbed the screwdriver from the top of the water heater and returned to the rat. “This is damn strange…” she murmured to herself as she poked the rat with the screwdriver. It didn’t move, she didn’t expect it to. Although it was in a fetal position like the rat from two days ago, this one’s death was obvious. There was a gash in the throat and a small amount of blood surrounding the body.

“Did you find any twine?” Amanda handed Carol the phone. “No,” Carol replied, putting down the screwdriver and keying in the phone code. She brought up the camera app and aimed it at the rat. “Seems a little sacrilegious,” Amanda said. Carol gave her a glance. Amanda shrugged. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t want someone taking pictures of me after I’m dead.” Carol took three photos and handed the camera back. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied as she picked up the screwdriver and flipped the rat over. The gash was fully exposed. Amanda inhaled sharply and looked away. “Just… take it out back and bury it,” she said. “I’ll toss it in the trash bin,” Carol responded as she looked around for another empty box.

“No,” Amanda returned her gaze to the dead rat. “Bury it.”

“Why?” Carol asked.

There was a long pause as Amanda struggled to articulate her feelings. “I don’t know,” was all she could respond with. “Just do it. Please.” Carol nodded and Amanda headed back upstairs.

“You’re anthropomorphizing, dear,” Carol whispered to herself, knowing that Amanda had a habit of empathizing with injured creatures, ascribing human feelings and emotions to animals. “It’s just a rat,” Carol stated as she found the empty box and flipped the rat into it with the screwdriver. “A disgusting, disease ridden, rat.”

She knew Amanda would check the garbage bin later to make sure she had, in fact, buried it. She’d have to go into the garage to get the shovel. As she headed toward the door, she saw the electric trap next to the water heater. It was empty. She reached down to flick the switch off, then back on. The red light on top flashed twice, reassuring her that it was still active and deadly.

She turned off the light and shut the door. She didn’t hear the squeaks in the darkness or the slapping of agitated tails.

***********************************

Carol stared with wide eyes. This was too much, her mind was having a problem processing it.

Two rats. Dead. In the middle of the basement floor.

They were lying face up, side by side, their paws curled toward the ceiling in death. Their bodies split open, identical to each other.

And there was no blood. Anywhere. As if someone had dissected the rats and washed the bodies before placing them directly under the bare basement light.

Carol and Amanda had been just about to go to bed when the furnace started to smell. Carol realized she had forgotten to change the filter, so she put on her robe and slippers and stumbled downstairs. She was so tired she hadn’t noticed the bodies when she walked to the filter box and pulled one free. When she turned back and saw them, she dropped the filter and her hand reflexively moved to her mouth in shock.

Carol was hard to shock. She wasn’t outwardly emotional, she was logical and always processed things from a position of facts. But right now, she suddenly felt very alone and exposed. Primal fear from her childhood creeped into her emotions. The kind of fear a child has in the darkness, wondering if it was true about the monsters under the bed.

She backed toward the door, her breath becoming rapid and shallow as she tried to push back her emotions in order to think.

This didn’t make sense. Someone was playing a trick on them. Her mind raced through the possibilities. It had to be someone with a key, obviously. But who? Amanda’s sister had one, but she was even more squeamish than Amanda, so that wasn’t likely. Carol’s Uncle Simon had a set of keys, but he had absolutely no sense of humor.

Barry? The veteran across the street? That was possible. They didn’t really know him and he’d been the one filling their heads with stories about these rats. Did he have a key? Did the previous owners give him a key, as many homeowners did with their neighbors? They hadn’t changed the locks when they moved in, it didn’t occur to them. Carol nodded to herself. Someone has a key and is fucking with them. It might be Barry, it might not. But it was definitely someone. First thing tomorrow morning, she was heading to Virgil’s to get a new set of locks.

“Do you need a sleeping bag down there?” Amanda’s muffled voice came from above. “Coming!” Carol yelled back. She wasn’t going to tell Amanda about this, not tonight. She might not tell her tomorrow or the next day. There was no reason to frighten her until Carol could find out who was doing this.

With abrupt resolve, she stepped back into the basement and grabbed the last empty box from the shelf. Using the broom again, she swept the two bodies into the box and closed the top. “This ends tomorrow…” she said softly.

She gave the electric trap another flick on and off, the light blinked. Somehow that eased her mind a bit as she took one more look around, then walked out, turning off the light and shutting the door.

It was another few minutes before Carol crawled back into bed. Amanda had already drifted off, but roused herself enough to cuddle up against her wife, putting her arms around her, spooning her. Carol pulled Amanda’s arms around her closer. Amanda buried her nose in her hair and mumbled, “Did you do the heater filter thingie?”

“Yes,” Carol replied, trying to sound at ease. “All taken care of.”

“Good,” Amanda whispered, drifting back toward dreamland. “Go sleepies now.”

Carol’s eyes were still wide open. Tomorrow, she thought. I’m taking care of this tomorrow. She sighed deeply and allowed the warmth of her partner to pull her toward her own sleep.

Silence and calm fell over the household. Mostly.

‘What do these new Gods want from us?’ Sil asked himself as he faced Nikta in the darkness of the crawlspace. They stared at each other, sitting on their haunches, tails twitching, their eyes perfectly adapted for the night. The vast numbers of the Tribe surrounded them, their two leaders. The Tribe was confused, scared, and looking for guidance. Nikta, however, showed none of the fear of her brethren. She was angry.

“Do you still believe these Gods can be satisfied?” Nikta’s eyes narrowed. Sil didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. They had all witnessed the latest insult. The God, the tall one, had, again, rejected their sacrificial offerings. And, worse, had deliberately sent a message by making sure the Death Tunnel was activated. The Tribe had lost several to those machines. Twice more than had died in the Snap Dragons.

Sil had been hopeful that an arrangement could be reached. The Gods before these had allowed them the freedom of the night, and the Tribe respected their dominion of the day. It worked for many winters, the uneasy truce kept many of his people safe. But those Gods were gone, overthrown and replaced by these two.

It was assumed by the Tribe that the truce would continue, but the new Gods destroyed that hope within a few days. They placed the death traps among them. The tall one personally killed Mesta as she struggled in the Snap Dragon.

Sil had preached calm. There was nothing to be gained in a war with the Gods. He knew it, it was a part of the Tribal lore. Co-existence was the only path.

But four sacrifices had been offered to these Gods. All volunteers, all willing to die for the Tribe. Sil was still troubled by their martyrdom, as they died without making a sound. The ceremonies were swift, and each body placed in the center of the God’s room with the respect and honor due to martyrs for the Tribe.

The last two had been Sil’s mother and sister. It was his final effort to show the Tribe how much he was willing to give up to avoid a conflict with the Gods.

But the Gods continued to wage their war. The sacrifices meant nothing. And the final insult, they hadn’t even consumed the offerings in proper tribute. Sil choked up as he recalled personally cleaning the bodies of his sister and mother, hoping that final preparation would be enough. It was not. There was no denying it. There were no more excuses.

Sil had failed. Nikta knew that. She curled her lip in satisfaction.

“Well?” she snarled. “Give us a response, great Sil. Or should we prepare three more volunteers for useless sacrifice?” The Tribe slapped the earth with their tails in anger. “Or four? Five?” Nikta continued, her confidence building as the slapping grew louder. “Perhaps the entire Tribe should be sacrificed, would that be enough?”

A thousand gleaming eyes stared at Sil, waiting.

Sil knew the price for failure and he accepted it. He closed his eyes and raised his snout, revealing the soft tissue under his throat.

Nikta bared her teeth and sunk them into Sil’s flesh, cutting through the throat and the spine, snapping it and instantly killing her rival. Sil fell to the ground, lifeless.

Nikta turned her blood soaked face toward the Tribe, studying them. Their eyes glowed in the darkness, their tails began a slow, rhythmic slapping on the bare earth.

“We tried the way of peace,” she said in a low tone. “But we were ignored. Our sacrifices went in vain. And now we have war!”

The slapping of the tails intensified. Nikta recognized the rising of the bloodlust in her Tribe. She had them in her control. They were ready. She raised up to her full height, her fur bristling, as she bared her teeth. “As we destroyed the cats, we will destroy these Gods!”

The Tribe hunched down and hissed, their tails slapping madly in anger. Then, as one, the massive army of rodents moved, a low rumble pulsed the earth as they climbed up the walls, into the cracks and crevices, filling the empty space between the walls, crawling upward.

Nikta remained in the basement, now alone with the body of her former adversary. There was a bit of sadness as Sil and Nikta had grown up together, had played together when young. Despite their differences, Nikta would still honor him.

“No, my friend, these are not Gods,” Nikta said quietly as she began to eat. “They are mortal, they are flesh and blood. They are no better than the cats. Nor more powerful.”

The sounds of struggle could be heard above her, screams and shouts merging with the rabid squeaking of the Tribe as it attacked the Gods.

No, she corrected herself. Not Gods at all.