A Way Out

When my wife and I moved into our new apartment, we thought we hit the jackpot. It was almost too good to be true, and I know how cliché that sounds, like it’s the intro to every single creepy story you’ve ever read. “There’s only one catch,” I can just see the real estate agent selling that murder house to the unsuspecting newlyweds on every bad horror movie ever written. But there wasn’t any sort of warning when the broker showed us around.

It was exactly what we were looking for. It was more. It was a two-bedroom, two-story apartment, beyond what we had imagined was affordable for our price-range. The only sort of weird thing was that, for whatever reason, the building’s only access to the basement was through a door in the back corner of our living room.

And that does sound weird, right? But, and maybe this was us just really wanting this to work out, it didn’t look that weird, not really. It was just a regular door, a little old, it was locked and it remained locked, we didn’t even have a key. The landlord assured us that, other than the utility guy coming by to check the building’s gas and electric meter once every month or so, there wasn’t really any reason that anybody would have to go down there.

*

It took us a while to finally settle in, with the both of us working full time, the boxes from moving day just had a way of blending into the background of our daily lives. But after a couple of months we were mostly unpacked, and that’s when I started feeling it, a little uncomfortable having that door there all the time.

I blamed most of it on my overactive imagination. When I was a little kid, I was always scared to go down to the basement by myself. I’d think about old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark or scary stories told by classmates at school, and I’d freak myself out. Shadows would morph into monsters and footsteps from upstairs would turn into the muffled sounds of dead spirits. I knew it was all in my head, but the fear, that palpable panic, I’d run upstairs positive that something was chasing me up, reaching out to pull me back down into the darkness.

But I grew up eventually. Every once in a while I’d read something online, an especially creepy story, or I’d see that rare horror movie that kept me up for a few nights afterwards. But I was an adult, I’d grown up. All of those feelings, that mounting sense of dread, I could dismiss it when I really needed to. If I had to go to the basement, maybe I’d have like a sense memory of what it felt like to be terrified of nothing, but that’s all it was, nothing more than residual emotion.

In the weeks after we had unpacked, we started to get more comfortable in our new place. When I came home after work, it would feel less and less each day like I was walking into a stranger’s house and a little more like home.

Except for that door to the basement. At first I tried to will myself to ignore it. I’d tell myself, just wait it out, sure, it’s a little spooky, the idea of a blocked off passageway to a hidden downstairs, but I just had to learn to not pay attention. We set up the TV on the opposite side of the room, so as not to be forced to stare directly at it while we sat on the couch.

Only that seemed to enhance that sense of unease. It was like running up from the basement as a child, that tingling sensation on the back of my neck, like now when I tried to veg out on the couch at night, I’d feel the door, the back right side of my head would have this almost physical awareness of my location, my proximity to the door. There’d be the occasional shuffling sound, almost imperceptible. Which, yes, I was getting a little spooked, but this is the city, it’s a loud place. You hear noises everywhere. It could have been mice, or rats, something legitimately scary.

But it was getting to me, more and more, so I flipped the layout around so the couch now faced the door. And it was better, kind of. I still felt uncomfortable, but not as much, now that I could direct most of my attention toward the TV, pretend like whatever it was I was feeling was a result of whichever show or movie I happened to be watching.

*

The whole door stood out of place in the otherwise neatly kept living room. While the building itself was old, you could tell that the owner must have renovated this apartment sometime within the last ten years. But that door, it must have been from like way before. Years of paint jobs had accumulated on the top layer, giving it that kind of over-smoothed, rounded look. And the molding around the frame was a little more warped than the rest of the room’s woodwork.

A couple of times late at night I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. There was a gap underneath, maybe an inch and a half from the ground to the bottom of the door, and I’m telling you, a few times I’d be watching TV with most of the lights out, late at night, and I could see the reflection of the screen onto the tile flooring, illuminating just maybe half an inch underneath. That’s what I’m talking about, it was like I kind of saw just a tiny movement breaking that glow from underneath.

And each time that I thought I saw it, it happened so quickly that I didn’t even have a chance to really confirm if it had actually happened, or if it was just my mind playing tricks. You know, like sometimes you think you see something out of the corner of your eye, but it’s nothing? That’s what this was like, I’d be staring at the TV, I’d never get a chance to look at it directly, but that flicker, it gave this illusion, like something moving on the other side, something pressed right up against that door.

My wife is easily spooked, and so I didn’t want to say anything to her, not directly, she’d start to panic, I’d have to start accompanying her downstairs every time she needed anything from the ground floor. But she started spending less and less time in the living room. Eventually we set up a smaller TV upstairs, and we wound up kind of just hanging out almost exclusively in the second bedroom. It was this unspoken thing between the two of us, almost like we were afraid to verbalize exactly what it was we might be thinking.

Because what if I told her, hey, honey, I’m getting really creeped out about that basement door? I can’t explain exactly what’s making me feel uneasy, and I don’t have anything to back up my unexplainable but growing sense of dread. What if she said, “Me too?” Would that have made it real? It’s like, I can think about my own crazy thoughts and fears, but to hear them validated like that? No, I wouldn’t want to ever go downstairs again. And what were we supposed to do, break our lease? Find another apartment?

*

I had this dream one night. I was downstairs watching TV, and the door to the basement was open. There was a man sitting on the stairway, and even though I was conscious of the fact that this was totally out of the ordinary, I still just kind of sat there, hoping that if I could pretend to ignore what was happening, then it wouldn’t be real, that maybe he’d wouldn’t interact with me either, maybe he’d go away.

But he turned his head toward me. I couldn’t make out what he looked like, because he was just sitting there on that first step, obscured by darkness. “Come here,” he said, “I can show you a way out.” And despite the fact that everything in my head told me to get the hell out of there, in my dream my body just kind of calmly stood up and starting walking toward the door, like I didn’t have any control, like I was getting sucked in.

That’s when I woke up, it was the middle of the night and I had a lot of trouble even just laying there trying to go back to sleep. I kind of just waited out the rest of the night under my covers, pulling them really tight, all the way up to my head. I forced my eyes shut, absolutely terrified that if I looked up I’d see something in the room with us, like I’d open my eyes and there’d be a face staring at me from only inches away.

I was getting lost in my imagination, and when the sun finally rose, I took a shower, I packed my stuff up for the day and I bolted out of the front door without so much even looking back toward the living room. “Did you sleep well last night?” my wife asked me on the phone sometime during that day, and I lied, I told her that everything was fine. “Did you?” I asked her back, and she was kind of just like, “Yeah. Me too. Fine.” And I couldn’t tell if she really was fine, or she was afraid, like I was afraid, like maybe she needed me not to be afraid, because I kind of felt like I needed her not to be afraid. It was getting too much, I was starting to feel a little boxed in.

When I got back home, there were footprints coming from the basement door, white, dusty footprints, like from work boots maybe. I froze where I stood and called up the super. “Hey man, did the utility guy come today to check the meter?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “The utility company’s got its own schedule, and their own key to the building, so it should be like I said, like every month or so.”

“But you weren’t around today? Like you didn’t see if they went down to the basement?”

“Look man, I just don’t know OK, I’m sorry, is everything OK with the place?”

“It’s just some footprints, must have been from the basement.”

“Yeah man, that could be it, I’m sure it was the utility guy.”

After I hung up, it took me a couple of minutes to muster up the will or the energy or courage or whatever to move from where I stood. I walked to the basement door, I put my hand on the knob, and I turned. It wasn’t locked. I kept my hand there for a minute, like would I pull the door open? Part of me felt drawn to, but I was frozen, I didn’t want to see what anything looked like, I didn’t want to give my mind anything real to build any more dreams or illusions around, OK, I didn’t want this basement to be any more of a reality than it already was.

I called the super back up.

“You know what? I don’t think it’s going to work out. OK, it’s not enough privacy, not with people having access to our place, I think we have to figure something out.”

“That’s going to be tough,” he told me, “If you want a way out, it’s going to cost you.”

My wife must have felt similarly uncomfortable, because she didn’t tell me I was crazy when I told her I wanted to leave. We agreed to the terms right away, the first and last month’s rent, plus the security deposit, gone. She went with my line, that she didn’t like it that other people had access, but I could tell there was something else.

And now that we’re in a new place, it’s like I still can’t shake the feeling, that mounting sense of doom. Like when I try to sleep at night, I can still sense it, something hovering just right there, like all I have to do is open my eyes. Every noise I hear is something coming to pull me down. And I can’t shake it, right, I’m not getting over it, I don’t think my wife’s herself lately either.

And when I dream, I’m still right there in that living room, or I’m even right here in this bed, and there’s that open door right to my side, a little closer each time. I want to turn away, I want to do something, anything, but that guy is calling to me, “Come here,” always hidden in the shadows, and I’m not sleeping at all really anymore, I just feel like I’m losing it, like I don’t know how I’m supposed to deal with any of this, it’s like I’m totally unraveling here.

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