by Jeff Weidenhamer
Gary never wanted to move to Evergreen. He was a city boy at heart, and the prospect of enduring existence in a bucolic hamlet of less than seven hundred might have urged a lesser man to forfeit his sanity. The only suitable coercion was secure employment and the promise of free lodging. The former was a position for the conservation district, a climate somewhat congruent with his Agricultural Degree, or so he convinced himself.
The latter was the house belonging to a great aunt, less than a year among the departed. An old house the family deigned to hand over to him, though not as any munificent gesture. No one wished to claim it.
Gary could see why. Memories of youth inevitably collapse under the scrutiny of old age. The house retained a charmless demeanor that had offended even his childhood sensibilities. It was an antiquated shell stripped of any historical value, far passed its glory on the frontiers of a dying town. It faced a vacant street, with a farmer's field behind, a graveyard of rusted implements, splintered hayracks, and the occasional livestock femur that local dogs might dig up and leave in unsuspecting flowerbeds.
When he crossed the threshold for the first time in two decades, he was struck by the unmistakable scent of old woman. Well-established stains bled from the ceiling, hairline cracks tickled yellow walls, corners of linoleum turned up in obeisance, as if renouncing its pattern. And the furniture -- an assortment of ancient, worn chairs, tables and dressers that would be laughed out of any self-respecting antique store, or burned outright if the owner was merciful. Pieces that had been stained and painted over and over, successfully smothering any rustic charm.
A plethora of knick-knacks were strewn across every bit of free space, a sure sign of a home in its deathroes. And the customary assortment of spoon racks filled to capacity with a lifetime menagerie of gaudy collectible spoons assembled from obscure corners of the world. He was forbidden by family decree to remove them from their perch out of respect for the deceased. Not that any of them wanted the tarnished utensils gracing their kitchen walls, but perhaps it gave them a sense of comfort knowing they were still there, Gary concluded after giving it some consideration. And beggars can't be choosers, he thought, wading easily into self-pity.
He brought with him his two great purchases: a twenty-seven inch television, ready for all five of the town's channels, and an obsolete computer that sufficed but barely to keep him connected to civilization. He was not yet so well established to own much else.
It was not a large house. One level. There was an attic in name only, not easily navigable without threat of injury. Kitchen, tiny dining room, living room, a diminutive bath, and one bedroom. Plus a little storage space that Gary had already plugged to capacity. No basement either. Not even a crawlspace, which forced him to the convert the dining room into a makeshift computer area. That left meals to be taken in front of the television in the big worn recliner Gary had dubbed the chair of a thousand farts, still suffering wounds inflicted by his aunt's old tom cat, who had heralded his mistress' journey into the hereafter by a mere four months.
Or so went the assumption. It had run away.
"Disappeared," Mrs. Sparrow corrected him one day. "One morning he just didn't turn up. We had a dog way back when my boy was in school. Same thing."
"Maybe something in the water," Gary had said, only half joking. He fancied finding a cat skeleton lodged in the thick, bawdy pink insulation of the attic.
He nearly melted in the summer months. No air conditioning, and really, he could not justify the expense if he could just hold out a few more weeks until cooler autumn weather prevailed.
As for heat, it had the standard fixtures of an old house -- broad thick grilles of black iron sufficient to cover a back door to Hell. He imagined the dust they would spew once he fired them up.
"It happened so suddenly, you know," Mrs. Sparrow told him as he deracinated the brittle skeleton flower stalks from his aunt's garden. He was not a gardener in any sense of the word, but the encroaching flora against the driveway proved a daily vexation.
Her withered arms folded over her protruding belly as she stared passed him to the house and clicked her tongue. "She was healthy for her age, you know, but I guess one can never know." And she shook her head and returned to her petunias.
Gary shook his head himself, lamenting the lack of fences.
He knew the family story. The old woman had passed on in her sleep one night.
The only way to go, really. Unfortunately, they had only found her in bed two weeks later after the paperboy complained she was shafting him, which really wasn't the most dignified way to be discovered, especially in the summer months.
Small town. Small attitudes. Gary had no desire to stay. Evergreen was a stepping stone. Time served to pursue a real career in Winnipeg or Calgary. A couple of years, perhaps one, if he was lucky. And really, as he would sometimes think with an occasional burst of optimism, the house was free, so he was saving a lot of money. And did one need to have a lot of friends if one could flee to the city on weekends?
"How're you finding it for heat?" Mrs. Sparrow asked him one day in the fall. Just four months settled in now. "It's fine for the summer, but your aunt had a wicked time heating that place, let me tell you. Just wait till the first good frost. You'll be weather stripping every inch of that place. She could never keep it warm." And she shook her head and narrowed an eye to him. "How's it for mice?"
"I'm sure I don't know," he answered lazily.
"Well, she had something in that house. It would get in the cupboards, even in the freezer, if you can imagine. All number of things turned up missing. Chocolate. Especially that. Had a taste for Caramilk. And she couldn't keep a box of cereal in that house either. Spilled all over the counters when she'd come home after a tea. Or bread. Loved the bread. She'd even find crumbs in the butter dish, if you can imagine."
"Well, it must be dead," he said, and excused himself.
"I've got this crazy old lady living next to me," he told the secretary at the conservation district one Monday morning. He turned his chair to watch her tape the latest Family Circus clipping to the side of her monitor with her thick fingers. "She must spend all day watching my house, and can't wait to tell me everything that went on when I get home. She has no life. I think her husband's dead. God, if I was married to her I'd hang myself."
"Does she live on the north or south side?" the secretary asked absently, setting her roll of tape next to her pencil holder.
"That's my great aunt."
"Oh," Gary said, and he heard her fingers on her keyboard, and he turned back to his computer.
Through his months of captivity, the house failed to take on even the faintest glimmer of charm. Sojourns to the city grew ever sporadic. Friends had moved on without him. As days turned to gloomy greys and the roads were rimed slick with freezing rain, Gary was forced to content himself with poor television and an unreliable Internet connection. Even with those diversions, he grew bored.
He was not a voracious reader, but had been known to pick up a book or two, if only to be able to quote some obscure scientific notion on the few occasions that thrust him into a social gathering. Certainly not enough book smarts to make him an expert on anything of practical worth, but little enough to give him the impression he knew a little something about everything. Some evenings he found himself simply staring at the faded walls, tracing out the lines in the paint or counting the lumps in the stucco ceiling.
He had no flair for home decorating. The house lingered in virtually the same aesthetic state since the day he walked in, aside from the meager belongings he brought.
On one particularly tedious evening, as the first snow fell outside, he felt the tinge of rebellion playing in his heart. He began to remove the spoons from the burnished oak racks.
Why spoons? he wondered, as he stuck the Angel City Hall Birmingham Alabama in the ice cream carton and stuffed tiny heaps into his mouth. Why not forks? Or collectable knives?
Perhaps, he mused, stirring his cocoa with the 1980 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, it was a psychological thing. Forks and knives poked and jabbed. They were phallic. Spoons were metaphorical wombs. Maternal. Nonthreatening. They made people feel comfortable. Think of mother.
Of course. That was it, Gary thought with certainty, as he used the 1984 Canadian Papal Visit to pry loose an obstinate piece of gum lodged in his shoe.
The house was unsettled. The floorboards groaned incessantly through the night. Enough vibration to knock a bottle of cologne from the armoire in the corner of the bedroom. He heard the thud enough times in the cold hours of the night to shave a few years off his life, and he grew wise enough to keep anything off it.
The wardrobe was a hideous thing. Six feet of coffin, as he preferred to call it. Tall doors that never closed just right, rusty hinges that squeaked like a mouse in a meat grinder, and brown paint that shed flakes like dried bits of feces that clung to his clothes. What kind of sadistic architect omitted clothes closet from the blueprints, he wondered.
But Mrs. Sparrow had been right. There was a mouse. Or a rat, perhaps. Something getting into cupboards, emptying cereal boxes, taking pieces of candy, even chunks out of the bread.
It was subtle at first. Once, perhaps twice a week he would find the evidence. A little trail of crumbs, a bite from a chocolate bar. It grew bolder with time. Cereal boxes overturned and roughly opened, mounds of pancake mix splashed on the countertop.
The first few incidences had been a novelty. An offset to his loneliness. Like having a messy roommate, or so he guessed. But the unsanitary habits grew nettlesome very quickly, and it was time to evict his lodger.
Traps didn't seem to work. Too clever for that. And he chalked it up to just another discomfort of his internment, as he pulled another month off the calendar.
"Damn, it's cold," he admitted one night as he lay in the rickety bed, feeling the bumps on his arms even beneath the heavy quilt.
It was time to light the furnace. And with a resolve to do that tomorrow, he fell asleep.
He lit the furnace. After two hours of rubbing arms and layering clothing, the temperature remained defiant. He marched from room to room, stood on the grilles, and felt the warm air on his socks. Yet there was a draft taunting him from somewhere. After much investigation, he concluded that, in addition to lacking closet space, the bedroom had no visible outlet for heat.
As he lay shivering in bed, his aunt's supply of quilts long exhausted, he cursed the architect of the house, who must surely be dead, and with any luck, equally frozen in a suitable realm of eternal punishment...
He heard a thud. A rather intimate thud. And not the sort of thud implying a bottle of cologne had shuffled off the armoire. And then the slow, painful creak of ancient hinges that seemed to call out as much with warning as with protest.
He flicked on the lamp, his eyes squinting in the light as they fell on the doors to the wardrobe. One had swung open. He stared at it a moment, daring it to move, feeling his heart beating in anticipation.
Nothing. And it was not so remarkable a feat for the flimsily crafted casket, he decided.
He lay back, glaring at the ceiling, hands pulled behind his head.
He heard a second muffled thump.
He perceived the hiss of air in motion. A desperate, futile gasp. And a rattle of metal.
He sighed with the comfort of his epiphany. Just the furnace. And he closed his eyes, and after a time fell asleep with the lamp on.
When he awoke at dawn, both of the doors were ajar.
Returning home the next evening, he found the last of his cereal emptied from the cupboard. His last loaf of sundried tomato bread -- a minor pleasure not easily procured in Evergreen -- had been picked apart, and closer inspection of his tub of margarine in the cupboard revealed incriminating crumbs. The lid was on the floor, sticky with bread bits, errant strands of black hair, and a little centipede that had overstepped itself and succumbed to a rather unpleasant unguinous death.
The mousetraps had been sprung, but nothing had been snared.
Later, when he passed barefoot into the bedroom, he stung his soles on bits of cereal ground into the carpet.
"God damn it!" Gary cursed, spinning around. There was a tell-tale trail of Rice Crispies leading to the wardrobe. The doors were open again. He swung them wide and shoved back the clothes on the hanger, hearing the angry creak from the joints and sending a shower of tiny brown flakes into the air.
He expected to find a mousehole in the bottom. But it was intact. One of the few things in the house, he mused bitterly.
Further analysis of the scene yielded something unexpected. The bits of carpet snagged at the base of the armoire indicated the beast had been moved from the wall before.
With a deep breath he grasped the antique with flimsy arms, and after a fierce wrestling match, a remonstrative oaken groan signaled the surrender of wood to flesh. It moved, then stuck on something, and Gary had to lift a bit and then wobble the leviathan over the obstruction. His curiosity was firmly roused now, and when he had it free he peered behind to a remarkable sight.
The bedroom did have a grille.
"Well, well," he said, biting his bottom lip as he pondered the grate. That would explain the noise and the vibrations. But why would his aunt put the damn thing on top of it?
He chalked it up to senility, but then he felt cold air, and he had another answer, perhaps. No heat coming out of there.
He considered the metal covering for a moment. One rusted screw lay on the carpet. Perhaps it would warm up given time, and he was exhausted anyway, so he left the wardrobe where it was and went to bed, strangely uneasy, with a subtle musty odor reaching his nostrils.
That night he dreamed of his great aunt, lying in bed with him, a stack of pillows behind her back and her hair in curlers as he last remembered her as a child. She was ashen and feeble. A black mouse was perched on her shoulder, twitching its wrinkled nose to him, standing atop some flakes of cereal clinging to the old woman's cotton bedclothes.
It's smarter than you think, he thought he heard her say, but her lips seemed too slow for her words, and the busy mouse chewed at the little hole it had made in her cheek.
He awoke in the early morning to a rancid stench. If it had been the smell of something cooking, at least he would have the double pleasure of knowing that his rodent interloper had been roasted in the heating duct. But his bed could easily have been lying on a glacier all night, and the mephitic odor was birthed by something larger than a mouse.
Stumbling in the gloom, he found the light, and as his eyes adjusted he knelt by the vent, plugging his nose as he peered down. Too dark, so he retrieved a flashlight and bathed the grille in the warm glow.
He spied a second grate about two feet down from the first, and below...he frowned as he washed it in the fire of the flashlight. Was it dirt down there? Roughly hewn walls of dirt, down, down in a jagged slope. He could not see the bottom.
Gary stared for several minutes, his mind attempting to reconcile what his eyes were telling him. He was no architect. But this made no sense. No wonder mice were getting in here. And no wonder it was so damn cold. It wasn't even connected to the furnace system.
A tiny rivulet of soil broke loose from the tunnel wall, and he watched it slip into the underdark.
Gary found the screw on the carpet, replaced it in the grille and wound it down until his fingers balked. He pressed his weight against the cabinet and shuffled and nudged it back into place. Then he went to the kitchen and had an early breakfast as he waited for the sun to rise.
"I've got a mouse or something living in my furnace," he told the secretary at the conservation district that morning.
He stared at her broad back, his fingers resting on his keyboard, waiting for her reply.
"Try a mousetrap," she said at last without turning, fingernails tapping away on her keys.
"I don't think it'll work. It seems to learn and adapt," he replied thoughtfully. "And it's not really the furnace, I guess. More like a tunnel."
"A tunnel." She paused her typing to sip from her zero to bitch in ten seconds coffee mug.
"Yeah. There's a vent for the heating duct but it's not connected to it, if you know what I mean. Maybe it fell away."
"And you have a mouse in there."
"Yeah, and it keeps stealing my cereal."
"I don't know. A field mouse, I guess. Or a rat, maybe. It has a healthy appetite."
"No. What kind of cereal?"
"You should switch to Corn Flakes. They're better for you," she said after a moment, and the rattle of fingers on her keyboard signaled an end to the discussion.
"Had your furnace looked at today, eh?" Mrs. Sparrow said as he walked from his car. She was shoveling her driveway.
"Had your furnace checked. I thought you might. Told you, didn't I? Did he fix it?"
"I didn't call anybody," he replied, and then more suspiciously, "Why?"
"Well, who was that in the house then?" she challenged, gloved hands on her imposing hips.
Gary stared at her blankly.
"The man in the window," she confessed at last. "I was out clearing the walk after lunch. Saw someone in your front window. Big man. Overalls, or so it looked. Hard to tell through the window, with the sun and everything. Figured he was looking at the furnace. Or did you get an exterminator in to get rid of the mice? I thought of that, too. Looked like he could be the exterminator type. No truck in your driveway, though."
"I...no," Gary said slowly. "In the window?"
She eyed him with geriatric aggravation. "That's what I said. You mean you didn't get anyone? You should have those locks checked, then. You lock your house when you're at work, don't you? I know it's a small town, but you can't take chances in this day and age. My cousin in Oakbank had friends who had one of them home invasions. You just can't trust anyone anymore."
Gary went inside.
It was cold, but he was growing accustomed to that. He imagined he should be adapting to it. Perhaps he might evolve a protective layer of flesh about his body, so that he might comfortably endure the elements like a polar bear or penguin, and then he would be the envy of everyone.
In light of Mrs. Sparrow's suspicions, however suspect, he made a quick canvass of the house to ensure no unwanted intruders lingered, ending up in the bedroom to change his clothes.
The wardrobe was no longer flush against the wall.
He tugged on the beast, pulled it back, and met the assault of foul and frigid that seemed to be waiting to greet him.
"Jesus," he muttered.
There were two screws lying on the carpet next to the grille.
"What the hell is going on?" He lowered himself to his knees, curiosity countering fear, reason outweighing suspicion. After all, he could not very well have a burglar tunneling beneath his house.
He shone the flashlight down. His eyes fell upon something trapped in the lower vent. He began unscrewing the top grate, and then, freeing it with relative ease despite its antiquity, he reached into the shadows.
His fingers felt the prickle of an icy breeze, and he wondered from where it might be coming. He snared the piece of paper and brought it up.
Silver foil, still sticky with remnants of pilfered Caramilk.
Maybe it was a mouse. But the screws...
Gary reposed against the wall, pondering the evidence. It was unlikely he had mice with a penchant for carpentry. Just as unlikely he had a thief with a passion for simple carbohydrates. If Mrs. Sparrow saw someone, perhaps he should call the police. And if not them, then at the very least the furnace company to get the thing fixed and maybe find out...
Or the exterminators. They'd track the bugger down.
He didn't need this. He had enough tedium in his life than to become obsessed with the mystery beneath his aunt's armoire.
A rustling reached out through the silence of his contemplation to tickle his ears. Moving earth. He peered over the grate, swung the flashlight around, and caught a miniature avalanche trickling down the rough edges of the cavern. And something else. For the barest flash of a second.
It was gone. A movement of black. A living shadow.
He was frozen in place, the flashlight glaring down the chasm.
His heart pounded, and his mind fought for explanation. Badger? Wolverine? Feral dog?
And then it simply demanded a solution, and he climbed to his feet with renewed determination.
He dallied briefly with the notion of unscrewing the bottom grille just to see. But no, he would seal it up. There was obviously an animal under there, and he would keep it there.
He returned a short time later with a pail of water, freshly boiled, and the steam caressing his hand around the handle. Stifling the urge to indulge in a maniacal grin, he hovered by the vent, balancing on his heals, while rustling the wrapper of a chocolate bar. When that summoned nothing from the darkness, he dropped bits of the caramel chocolate into the hole.
After a moment there was a scratch. The sound of something sharp on something hard. Yes. Something down there. Something hungry.
"Come on, you little shit," he whispered, and when he could contain himself no longer, he let fly with the pail of water, sending a scorching torrent racing through the metal.
He swore he heard a yell. Something distant and hollow and bestial, but certainly not a mouse. He swallowed, but heard nothing more, and sat back, deciding he had imagined it. If the mouse had managed to survive, it would not be climbing out.
He returned with bits of wood and brick he had saved from his aunt's flowerbeds, and dumped them down the hole, listening to the reassuring clamor of debris hitting the metal gridiron. And when the pile reached floor level, he replaced the top grille and screwed it in firmly, pleased that he sealed off any whisper of cold air.
It had taken an hour, and when he finally pressed his back against the wardrobe and shimmied it back in place, he brushed off his hands and sighed with satisfaction. Whatever coterie of rodents that had taken up residence beneath the house would have to content themselves with new lodgings or die. And he would be warm. In bed.
And with that he went to sleep.
He awoke to a commotion. A metallic tumult resonating beneath his bed, and a tremble that fled up the walls. The sound of something large and strong against the grille. Before he could raise his head, there was a crash and the final protest of something old giving way, and then the snapping wood and the banshee cry of joints and hinges and nails ripped from their anchors.
Gary had scarcely enough time to see the ominous shadow of the monolith come crashing down, its top falling just short of the bed as he rolled out of the way. The wardrobe succumbed with an exhausted sigh, but Gary was already on his feet, pulling on the light.
In the blaze of illumination he squinted at the grille. It was askew, nearly off the opening, and still wobbling, as if the agent of its locomotion was not far away.
"You son of a bitch!" Gary yelled, grinding his teeth as fury overtook him. He went down on his knees, peering over the edge. It was nearly black, but he could see the bottom one was off, too. His pile of debris was nowhere to be found. Drawn into the abyss with the bottom grille, apparently.
"You want in? You want in?" he screamed, and reached for the pieces of wood from the wardrobe. "Here! Take it!" He yanked off a strip of board, gaining a few splinters in the process, and shoved it down the hole. "More? More?" He reached for his screwdriver and tossed it down, hearing it clang roughly against something. He grabbed a bottle of cologne and hurled it out of sight.
There was the sound of movement. A grunt.
Gary grinned viciously, pleased he had hit something. "Come on, you son of a bitch!" he bellowed, and with a gleeful laugh he scurried into the kitchen and retrieved the four empty spoon racks from the wall. He flung them down. He reached for more wood, anything within reach, tugging breathlessly, and continued with a flurry of broken boards until his hands were sticky with blood.
Rivulets of dirt streamed down the cavern. He imagined a surly wolverine scrambling for cover. Laughing, he grabbed the heavy grille and slammed it over top, banging it over and over until the house rang with the discordant metal symphony and his strength threatened to give out.
And then something from below.
A piece of cardboard. Something from a cereal box, tossed into the light.
A chewed, twisted plastic stick. An old pen.
Gary raged with a cold fury. "Ahhhhh!" he screamed, beating the metal grille with his fists. Flakes of rusted metal and black paint stuck to his fingers.
"Ahhhhh!" roared the cavern, in a dry, guttural voice, like a mindless child throwing a tantrum. Gary recoiled as a chicken bone struck him in the forehead and he fell back on his heels, paralyzed with fear, as if it had only now been allowed release in him.
A noisome stench forced his stomach into his throat and he turned away.
The howl continued in a long, exhaustive breath while Gary pushed himself back and grabbed the flashlight, as if light might banish whatever concealed itself below.
Squinting in the harsh illumination. Pain. It growled. Curly, ragged black hair over its forehead, and gimlet eyes. Just liquid nimbus eyes peering out from beneath, aroused with fury. A fleshy, pocked face long surrendered to moustache and beard, rancid with rotting food. A valiant centipede clung to one long strand of hair until it fell away into the darkness. Teeth yellowed and blackened stuck in a mouth like bits of stone in tar. Fat, pink lips, moist and stained with sticky chocolate and muddy saliva.
A hand shot up to Gary's wrist. Thick. Callused
He gasped, flew back, and brought the corpulent forearm in the light. A haggard, worn sleeve and hirsute wrist, and a dirty palm squeezing his fingers.
"No!" he yelled, and slashed the flesh with a splintered piece of wood. It squealed like a boar and let him go. He scrambled, shoving the grille back, as if that would keep anything out, and then stumbled to the corner and hauled the night table over the opening. He grabbed a chair, some books, a lamp, anything he could find, until he had erected a tower of furniture.
He leaned against the wall, aware of the unsettling silence, and the early morning hour, and he wondered if it had all been a dream. Wondered at his stupidity, that he could dismiss so much as the actions of a rodent, and only now the truth was assailing him.
But the sting of his trembling wrist and palms, the vile stench clinging to his flesh, was evidence enough. He scrubbed himself viciously in the sink.
Minutes bled together.
He did not remember dressing or running to the police.
An hour later he returned with the young RCMP constable, whom he had woken with such a strange tale that he was certain his sanity was called into question. But his wrist was already bruising, and the officer assured him they would get to the bottom of it.
"So, you think there's an animal under the house?" he said as they drove back in the car, sparing a glance to his trembling passenger, who was absently running his hands over his wrists and shifting in his seat as if he had to urinate.
"No. It's somebody. It...I know it sounds crazy, but it looked like a wild man. And all this time I thought it was a mouse. And that really doesn't make any sense when you think back. I mean, how could a mouse do all that? Get in the fridge, and open Tupperware. They can't do those things. A raccoon, maybe."
"And he steals your food while you're at work."
"Yeah. Yeah, that's how it must survive. It...I don't know where it comes from. I..." He shook his head, the words slipping back into his throat.
They arrived at the house. It was dawn, the stars dying quickly. The east was stained pink, with a ribbon of bright vermilion breaking the cemetery trees.
They cautiously proceeded into the house. It was quiet. Cool, but not uncomfortably so. The constable noticed dozens of collectable spoons lined up like soldiers stretching across the length of the countertop.
"Nothing appears out of place here," Gary murmured, drawing the man's attention back. He gestured to the bedroom. The constable took the lead and Gary followed in his wake.
"Well, you built yourself quite a tower here," the man said, observing his handiwork. The lamp had fallen to the floor, and the fluorescent bulb broken on the carpet. The rocking chair teetered precariously atop the nightstand and Oxford's Concise Dictionary.
"Just...just have a look will you?"
The constable considered it dubiously, then proceeded to remove the chairs and lamps until they were sliding the nightstand back to expose the vent.
"Well, it is pretty cold," the officer admitted, and took out his flashlight. His nostrils flared at a peculiar odor. He shone the light down, and Gary watched his face furrow with curiosity. Gary was pleased.
He pulled back the grille and lowered himself to his knees, probing the light deeper.
"Jesus, you're right. This is some kind of tunnel. But the house doesn't have a basement..." He cleared away some of the debris, reached further, passed the opened space where the second grate should be, where he touched the cold hard dirt of the cavity walls.
"Watch it," Gary warned.
The officer sat up and ran his hand over his chin. "You say there's a man down there?"
"It looked like a man. Someone who hadn't shaved in years. Someone living down there. And the stink..." He felt vindicated.
"Yeah, it sure does. We should get Corporal Heide down here. Maybe dig down. We might have to tear up the floor." He began clearing away more of the furniture.
"That's okay. I just want it out." Gary sat down on the bed with some relief.
"You know," the constable began, shoving the nightstand farther back to allow him better access, "the local history buffs have always been on about as urban legend that Al Capone came up north during Prohibition. To hide out. Had some tunnels built under the town. Under some houses. They wanted to investigate it. Maybe turn it into a tourist attraction, you know? Never found anything, though." He shrugged. "But this is the damnedest thing."
"Really?" Gary brightened.
"Yeah, a couple of them even said some of the workers died. Or were offed by Capone, so they couldn't tell. Like...what is it -- pharaohs?"
The constable turned back.
"Hello?" he said. He flashed the light. "Jesus Christ! It...hello? Can you speak?"
Gary began to tremble. He pushed himself back on the bed, not wanting to see the thing again. The odor permeated the room.
"What's your name? Can you speak?" The corporal turned to Gary. "Go call the precinct. Tell them to get over--"
Gary watched the man's face vanish. He saw red, and when he wiped it from his eyes, and when the ringing in his ears faded, he saw the RCMP officer lying askew by the grille, half his head gone and the carpet stained with blood. His limbs twitched a little.
"Oh my God. Oh my God," Gary whispered, and his legs were jelly. He slid off the bed to his knees. "Oh God oh god." He stared at the vent and his heart pounded and he ground his teeth together. His hands were red.
"You son of a bitch," he breathed. "You son of a bitch." He stared at the dead constable, and instinctively reached for the pistol in the holster on the man's hip. Gary was trembling violently. But then the pistol was in his hand and he stood at the edge of the vent, arms outstretched to the abyss.
"Come on!" he yelled. "Come on!" He fired. The gun bucked, and he squeezed off a succession of shots. And then it was emptied, and both wrists ached, and he stumbled back and tossed the gun down and ran into the street.
Very quickly the remaining RCMP officer in Evergreen, bolstered by three others from detachments in nearby towns, were at Gary's house, while the collective neighborhood gathered behind the police lines, anxious to see something of interest.
Gary had returned with the police. His incoherent ramblings and bloodstained face and hands had done little to instill confidence in his story, but it was the notion that the police officer was murdered that brought them there without hesitation. He led them into the house, reciting his tale as best he could. As they entered the bedroom, there was the constable, his blood well-soaked into the carpet.
"It's down there!" he assured them, before he realized the grille had been replaced, that each screw was firmly in place. The furniture remained pushed about as before.
The officers examined the scene, and then, under Gary's persistence, removed the covering of the vent. There was another iron grille two feet below, and they removed that, as well. But there was only dirt there. Well-packed. A few gum wrappers that had likely fallen through in the intervening years.
Gary ushered the men to his cupboards, but there was no cereal, or bread, or chocolate, or even margarine. Just bottles of soda, pizza pops and microwave popcorn.
The sink, they noticed, was filled with dozens of novelty spoons, some bent in half, others twisted until the metal had snapped completely. Gary fished among the pile of cutlery, beginning to weep. He finally sank to his knees, hugging the Amish Acres Napee Indiana to his chest.
Gary was arrested for the murder of the RCMP constable. The killing bullet was never found, nor any of the other rounds from the empty chamber. It was assumed the murderer disposed of them before running to the authorities. As it was, Gary's bloody fingerprints were all over the weapon. Investigators dug down several feet into the moldy soil of the heating vent before finding impassable clay.
Gary had a nervous breakdown. A hearing was delayed until a psychiatric evaluation could be performed. Unfortunately, much to the surprise of his lawyer, Gary was found mentally fit to stand trial. Given Gary's persistence in adhering to his explanation, his lawyer was averse to allowing him to take the stand in his own defense. He pressed Gary to consider a plea bargain to manslaughter. Over the course of several stressful months, Gary had fallen into a severe bout of depression and apathy, and at last acquiesced. The whole sentencing wrapped up rather quickly after that.
For some time after there was talk in the coffee shops of Gary's perorations of a monster under the house.
"Poor boy. He was a loner, for sure," Mrs. Sparrow confirmed to the media and anyone who would listen. "A little off, to be honest. Always talking about men's privates and spoons."
Gary was in prison three years when he claimed to hear things from the heating vent in his cell. He would later puncture his wrists with a makeshift knife carved from a cafeteria spoon, crude, but efficient enough to bleed to death.
The house was bulldozed a year after the arrest. It was an unspectacular death for an unspectacular home. The town purchased the land to build an outdoor skating rink. Nothing out of the ordinary was revealed as the building came down with a weary, thankful sigh, and the rubble hauled away.
A simple character home. No basement.