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Scratch
by Shell St. James
Appearing in 3 Moon Digest

There were scratches on the inside of the basement door.

Cassie and Ms. Newman, the realtor, stared down at them in silence for a moment. Deep, raw grooves showed a lighter color in the dark oak door, reaching a height of almost two feet.

Ms. Newman recovered quickly. “Oh, I guess the previous owners had a large dog…” She tittered in that annoying way she had.

Cassie just nodded. Of course, that’s what it was.

She buried the incident in the back of her mind, remembering it now as she swung that same door open a month later, as a first-time homeowner. She was intent on braving the cellar, which was rustic in a not-so-charming way, possessing stone walls and a dirt floor. A workman was coming out today to install her internet and phone lines, and it seemed prudent to reacquaint herself with the location of the breaker box.

She stared nervously into the gloom. The weak light that filtered in from the cellar’s small windows seemed to be the only source of illumination. She flipped the light switch on and off and on again. Nothing happened. She had a vague memory of a naked bulb with a pull chain located in the center of the large cellar.

Had it burned out, then? Great.

Braving the pouring rain, she retrieved a flashlight from her car and returned, standing at the threshold, playing the beam over the shadowy stairs. She’d been down there only once with Ms. Newman, on a bright, sunny day, and it had seemed much less intimidating. The bulkhead doors located at the far end had been flung wide open, letting in a good bit of natural light.

Don’t be such a chicken, she scolded herself. You’re a grown woman.

She took a few steps and reached for the handrail as the wood creaked under her weight, recoiling in disgust as she encountered a spider web. She played the light over the unfinished walls, grimacing at the profusion of webs.

Even more unnerving, the back of the staircase was open, adding a surreal element as her flashlight beam skipped between the treads. The light seemed to reflect a shiny wetness on the dirt beneath the stairs.

A leak?

Dismayed, she continued carefully down the stairs.

Soon, she noticed a rank odor growing stronger, emanating from the gloomy depths. Something dead. A mental image of a flooded cellar and drowned rats popped into her head, and she stopped short, too creeped out to continue.

The doorbell sounded upstairs, followed by heavy pounding, and she quickly turned away, grateful for the excuse to delay investigating. She’d come back down with the workman. It would be less intimidating.

As Cassie climbed the staircase, the flashlight beam bobbed between the treads and she thought she saw movement, there in the mud. An irrational wave of panic overtook her, causing her to stumble and scamper quickly back up the stairs.

Reaching the top, she slammed the door and leaned against it, consumed with a child-like certainty that something had been chasing her. Catching her breath, she began to feel foolish.

How ridiculous. It was just a dark cellar. Nothing was down there.

More pounding. Cassie hurried down the hall. A phone company van was parked in the driveway. Opening the door, she found a man wearing a silver-hooded raincoat with green reflective stripes, regarding her with a sour expression on his face.

“Ms. Mullen?” he asked, flashing a lanyard with the phone company logo as rain dripped from his hood.

“Yes,” Cassie affirmed, opening the door wide. “I’m sorry, come in out of the rain.”

She led him through the kitchen and stopped at the cellar door, suddenly remembering the light didn’t work.

“I just noticed the bulb burned out,” she explained, opening the door. “I’ve got -”

The serviceman flipped the light switch, and a weak yellow glow permeated the gloom. Cassie stared, surprised.

“Oh, ok…” she said, frowning. Maybe a loose wire?

The man started down the stairs. Cassie began to follow him and then realized she’d left the flashlight on the hall table. She hesitated. She’d feel better if she had a flashlight, especially since she wanted to see the extent of the water problem.

“Ah…I’ll be right there to show you the breaker box,” she called.

“No rush,” he replied without stopping. “I can find it.”

Cassie grabbed the flashlight from the hallway table, but then noticed a puddle on the hardwood floor. She detoured to find a towel and mopped it up. Delayed, she hurried back to the basement door, reminding herself not to grab the handrail.

The stairs creaked as she descended. She looked around but didn’t spot the workman. The paltry light left most of the cellar in shadow.

“Hello?” she called, avoiding breathing through her nose.

The smell was foul, and she tried not to gag. As she stepped off the last stair, her foot skidded in the mud, causing her to windmill her arms to keep her balance. She caught herself at the last minute, barely managing to stay on her feet.

The cellar light went out.

Cassie fumbled for her flashlight, switching it on and zigzagging it around, a panicky feeling causing her throat to tighten.

“Hello?” she called louder, embarrassed that her voice held a note of panic. “Mr. ...um…phone company guy?”

She pointed the flashlight at the wall that held the breaker box, catching it in the beam. The workman was not there. She passed the light once more around the cellar, and something glinted in the far corner…like eyes.

Screw this. Cassie quickly turned to climb the steps, grabbing for the handrail, spiderwebs be damned.

A voice came out of the darkness.

“Hey there, little lady.”

Shining her light in the direction of the voice, one foot still poised on the bottom tread, she saw the workman, his silver raincoat catching the flashlight beam as he walked out of the shadows.

“I guess your light has a loose wire. I can check it out for you, but I need to ask you about the breaker box.” He stopped, obviously waiting for Cassie to join him.

She hesitated, then stepped back into the cellar, gingerly starting forward. A movement from under the stairs caught in her peripheral vision. She stopped in her tracks, swinging the beam in that direction.

A deep depression was barely discernable in the shadows, the blackness at the center gleaming wetly. The light illuminated the edges of the crater, and she watched, horrified, as it seemed to bubble and ooze. What the hell was that?

“It appears you have a water problem,” the voice of the workman sounded, close.

Too close.

Cassie jumped, swiveling her light back around. The beam hit the man square on the chest, the orange reflective stripes on his coat seeming unnaturally bright in the gloom. She backed up a step, her heart hammering.

Wait…didn’t his jacket have green stripes?

The door at the top of the stairs suddenly slammed shut and she whirled around.

The creature beside her emitted a chuckle. The strange, guttural sound ended with a gnashing of teeth like a rabid dog, freezing the blood in her veins.

Spinning back, Cassie darted the beam up at his face, and screamed as it reflected off feral cat eyes, yellow and glowing.

The beast snarled, revealing monstrous teeth, wickedly long and sharp, and knocked the light from her hand, slamming her down to the hard-packed dirt floor.

The flashlight rolled and then stopped; the light now fully illuminating the scene beneath the stairs.

The original workman’s arm extended from the pit, the reflective sleeve of his raincoat spattered with blood, his pale hand seeming to accuse the monster who impersonated him.

Sickened, Cassie saw the dark center of the pit was a swirling pool of carnage; fragments of shattered bones gleamed white in the flashlight beam, while black muck sucked everything down into a bubbling quicksand from hell.

With a strength born of sheer terror, Cassie twisted away from the beast, struggling to get to her feet.

She raced for the stairs, slipping in the mud, her breath ragged and gasping. The creature chuckled wickedly behind her, enjoying the chase as she stumbled up the stairs. She fell to her knees and began to crawl frantically.

He hooked her ankle as she reached the top, his claws piercing the leather of her boot, and held her captive, toying with her, not yet ready to reel her in.

Cassie screamed until she was hoarse, pounding and clawing at the door desperately, her nails shredding as she added her own marks to the harrowing testament of past victims.

#

“…really a lovely home… foreclosed…vacant for a while…” Ms. Newman’s voice drifted down to the cellar as high heeled steps clicked on the floor above.

The door at the top of the stairs creaked open, followed by a long pause.

“Yes… well,  I guess the previous owners had a large dog.” An annoying titter sounded, and the door shut.

The beast waited.

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