This is an EXCERPT from Lot 149, a paranormal story about Keira, a recently divorced woman who purchases a decaying old farmhouse with a truly spectacular history. Her furniture and belongings have yet to arrive, she suspects her ex is holding her up. To help repair the house, she calls in Frank, a local handyman and pest control guy. Several unnerving things have already happened and Keira has become aware of the some of the history behind the house. In this excerpt they go into the basement.
“There’s more of them,” Keira stood, balancing on a step halfway down the basement stairs, struggling to hold a flashlight and sledgehammer in one hand while gripping the railing with the other.
“You’re sure?” Frank’s voice came from behind her.
“Lots more – Fr-ANK,” his name twisted as her voice rose in panic. Bugs, like gigantic cockroaches; thousands of bugs – bugs, that’s just what they are – she told herself, only bugs – covered the entire dirt floor, forming a glistening carpet of hard shells and waving antenna.
Each the size of her outstretched palm.
Thousands of bugs suddenly alerted; drawn to attention, antenna raised, soft clicking began. They knew, she thought, they know something.
The clicking noise was deafening – somehow communicating, she told herself, and then realized that was absurd. Bugs don’t talk. Angry buzz filled her mind, inaudible to the human ear.
Then they started to fly.
Her stomach dropped as a writhing carpet of insects suddenly moved as one, a glittering sea; wings slipped out from glossy shells, beating transparent membranes in the flashlight beam; they all rose together, launching into flight.
“Frank –” Her voice twisted it into a scream, and panic flooded; white sheet of terror flattening all thought. Bugs. Turning on the narrow staircase, Keira shoved past him, racing back to the top of the stairs, and stood panting in the basement doorway.
Bugs, it had to be bugs.
“I’ll get ‘em,” Frank waved his hand at the insects in flight. Swatting by the dozen, the air was suddenly thick with insect matter. A metal cylinder dropped down the stairs, thunk of wood striking metal then soft thud as it landed on the dirt floor; the gentle hiss of a bug bomb crept through the basement.
Backing up the stairs, Frank held the rail and lobbed a second bug bomb down the steps. Over the soft hiss of chemicals; the buzzing seemed to grow louder. Angrier.
Yellow fog filled the basement, drifting toward her, spiralling eddies caught in the flashlight beam.
Bugs flew stupidly, bouncing off stone walls and careening toward the light, only to strike the wall again. Cold furry buzzed loudly. It happened by ones and twos – insects suddenly dropped from the air, hitting the dirt floor with a soft thud and lay wriggling, black legs tracking furrows through the dirt.
“Is it working?” Keira called down.
“Seems to be.”
Keira watched from the doorway, her feet still firmly planted on the kitchen floor above, and stared. The wooden wall that stretched across the side of the basement seemed to shudder, bending and bowing ever so slightly; as though something was trying to get out. Her voice wavered, “Frank – did you see that?”
Turning around on the dirt floor, he swung at the insects while struggling to aim his flashlight beam toward the wall. Heavy chains, that the real estate agent said was part of a machine shop came into view; they still hung listlessly from the stone wall, each length ending in a metal cuff the size of a human wrist.
Keira closed her eyes at the sight, the neighbour’s soft twang echoed in her mind, they had two boys, long time ago, one of them had fits or somthin’.
“Nothing other than bugs over here.” Frank’s voice called out.
Keira opened her eyes again. “No – the other one.”
His light cut across the dirt floor. Cheap wooden panelling glowed beneath the beam, she felt it tighten, freeze, as though an animal was suddenly caught in the spotlight. Angry buzz of insects faded to a steady hum.
“What about it?” Frank bent, studying the wall; his flashlight beam splashed across the panelling.
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“No – I saw –”
Slow scratching noises resumed, a faint whisper creeping toward her. “Frank – did you hear that?”
It’s going to get him, the thought burst into her mind. It’s waiting. Her voice tightened in rising panic, “You know – maybe you shouldn’t be down there with all that spray – can you come up here?”
“Yep.” Frank turned toward her. Insects continued to drop around him, hard shells falling like rain, and spattered against each other onto the dirt floor. Legs waved frantically, then slowly stiffened.
“Be up in a sec.” He seemed to be staring into the darkness, looking for something. Did a shadow move?
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just want to make sure the spray’s killing ‘em. Looks like it’s working.” Suddenly he twisted his head, following movement in flight. “Crap, missed some.”
Scores of insects flew out of the basement, heading straight for her. They’re after me, she thought.
Soft thump landed, then another and another; furious wriggling, Keira felt claws grasping, trying to get a grip on her hair and sliding down the strands, dropped onto her shoulders; the angry buzz grew louder.
Bugs in her hair. She screamed, the voice of pure terror.
Turning on the staircase, Frank grabbed the rail, and suddenly jerked backward, stumbling down a couple steps. Dull clatter echoed in the basement as the rail dropped to the ground.
Pin-wheeling wildly, he lurched backward, now in freefall. A shadow shifted across the dirt floor; the dropped flashlight cutting sharp shadows on rough stone walls, one shadow emerged from the rest, now growing heavy, taking on solid form.
It’s after him, she thought.
“Frank –” Keira reached down the steps and made a grab for him; missing his uniform, pest control logo still visible in the gloom.
Still falling backward, eyes wide, he stared up at her; behind him shadows swept through darkness; something caught in the flashlight beam, and then was gone.
Urgh, Frank groaned and braced his hands against the narrow walls, stopping himself; his eyes still too large in his face.
Reaching down the staircase, Keira extended her hand, and was met by his firm grip. His feet finally steady, he raced up the stairs and shoved her out of the way, slamming the basement door behind him.
Panting, he leaned against the wall, his eyes closed. Faint scratching whispered behind him. Slowly he opened his eyes, shaking his head.
Both of them stared at the door for a long while; white paint peels flaked off worn panelling, catching afternoon sunlight. Like dead skin, she thought.
Eventually Keira spoke, “You alright?”
He forced a smile, “That last step was a doozy – thought I was gonna be a goner.”
From behind the basement door, the sounds of scratching slowly grew louder. More incessant. Like something was trying to get out.
Frank nodded at the door, “We gotta –”
“What the –” Keira felt a sharp tug in her hair.
He reached toward her, “You got something – just –”
Suddenly aware of sharp claws grasping at her scalp, Keira screamed, and beat at her hair furiously. Bugs dropped to the ground, and started to scuttle across the kitchen floor.
She screamed again. Bare handed, Frank reached out, knocking the beetles from her hair, and crushing them beneath heavy boots. Dull thuds echoed through the wooden floorboards.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” terror took hold; Keira felt her mind stretching upon itself, she’s going insane.
Bugs. Driven mad by bugs.
The thought provided a measure of comfort. This could not be happening. Bugs. Sharp claws continued to cling to her hair, while she bent screaming, hands covering her face as Frank swatted.
Finally he slowed.
“Is that it?” Frank peered into her hair, seeking signs of movement.
“I think so.” Keira shook her head, waiting for faint clicking to begin. Nothing. She stared around the kitchen, whitewashed cupboards and worn countertop stared back. No bugs moving anywhere.
Scattered across the kitchen floor were dozens of crushed bodies, hard shells pulverized and oozing yellow fluid.
Her stomach churned.
Terror abating, she forced a smile. “What’d you we call it quits, maybe hit the local bar? I owe you a drink or two.”
He shrugged. “May as well finish the job. Gotta clean up anyway.”
Soft hiss broke through her mind. The scratching grew louder, both of them turned toward the basement door. Something was obviously there. Long moments passed before the scratching fell quiet, and then slowly faded away.
“What do we do now?” Keira stared at him.
“We gotta go down there.”
“No – not with all those –”
“Gotta see what’s behind that wall.” Frank looked worn.
“But what –”
“Gotta check it out, get rid of whatever’s there. Might be a trapped animal. Or a body decomposing, attracting all the bugs.”
“But – no, it’s probably –” she fumbled, “We should call the police. Or something.”
“For bugs?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Well – uh, there’s more…” she trailed off.
“You already called an exterminator. For bugs. And I’m it,” he smiled wanly. “Let’s check it out together.”
“But you know there’s something there, something – I don’t know what.” Her mind suddenly filled with bulbous white flesh, a towering creature with slack skin hanging over empty eye sockets and gaping maw. “Maybe a monster.”
“A monster in the basement?” Frank cracked a smile. “Cops are gonna love that one.”
“But you saw it too.”
“You saw a monster?”
“Well, no.” She folded her arms across her chest. “But there’s something.”
“You sure about that?”
“Well – uh…” she trailed off again. Standing in the kitchen, bright sunshine streaming through the windows, this whole conversation seemed ludicrous. Maybe she did snap. First bugs, then monsters.
Frank smiled. “I didn’t see anything other than a bunch of bugs. Old houses like this get pretty spooky, lots of history. Plays tricks with your mind.”
“You’re gonna need a mask,” Frank held a respirator mask out to her, plastic googly eyes and enormous metal air filter. The stuff of alien movies.
He nodded and held it out.
Keira accepted it meekly and slid it on, the elastic strap catching in her hair; smiling, Frank reached out and untwisted the strap, and tightened it to her face. Then fit his own. His voice was muffled, sounding far away, like under water. He nodded at her, “So the sledgehammer’s still in the basement, right?”
She glanced around the kitchen, nothing. She must have dropped it in her panic. Flashlight was gone too.
Frank unclipped a small flashlight from his belt, and nodded at her. “Doesn’t hurt to have a backup, does it?”
Opening the basement door, they peered down the staircase; two flashlights lay on the dirt floor, sledgehammer dropped alongside. Everything covered in a thick carpet of dying insects.
The flashlights were still on, white beams caught waving insect legs and antenna, spotlighting thousands of insects writhing as they lay dying; faint clicking crept up the stairs.
Bugs. More of them.
Standing behind Frank, Keira whimpered.
His hands braced against the rough stone walls, he stepped onto the staircase; heavy boots sounding flat. As he stepped down further, Keira stared at the empty spaces between the wooden slats.
Anything could be under there; enormous hands reaching up, and then –
“You OK?” Frank turned around and nodded at her, his voice still muffled under the mask.
Suddenly both flashlights went out, the basement was thrown into heavy darkness; the weak light from the flashlight in Frank’s hand trembled.
Bugs, stone walls and dirt floor all disappeared.
Frank continued down the stairs, the flashlight beam catching rough walls and dying insects; his footsteps were muted as though buried underground. Keira followed behind.
At the bottom of the stairs Frank cut the flashlight beam over to the two flashlights lying in the dirt and picked them up; idly flicking the switch on one. Bright white light shot out.
This was not good.
Breathing heavily, he stared at her, eyes wide, fog beginning to creep up the bottom of his respirator mask.
“Maybe we should go,” her voice sounded far away. Keira turned back to the stairs, white daylight a small rectangle framed above. She imagined the basement door suddenly slamming shut, throwing them both into darkness.
Then that thing would –
“Frank, we should go.” She tugged at his sleeve. He didn’t seem to notice.
He was staring at the wall. Pulled in, her mind whispered.
“We gotta check it out first. See what we’re dealing with.” He didn’t look at her.
Keira glanced at the wooden wall stretching across the basement, an oddity enclosed by stone walls. Frank tapped the wall with his hand, a hollow echo resounded. Scratching was now quiet.
It’s waiting, she thought.
“Here, you might want this,” Frank bent down and grabbed the sledgehammer off the dirt floor. “You ready?”
“No, maybe we should –”
“I don’t know.”
Frank nodded at the wall. “Look, give it a few hits, it’ll open up, and we can see what we’re dealing with.”
“Do you want to do it?”
“It’s your house.”
“What about the bugs?”
“What’d you think’ll happen?”
“No idea, but I think you gotta start this somewhere.” Frank held out the sledgehammer, “It is your house, after all. Give it a go.”
She reached for the sledgehammer, and fumbled, nearly dropping it.
Struggling under the weight, Keira hoisted the sledgehammer, and stood, regarding the wall. Cheap wood panelling from late sixties design, put up sometime around then, and left for decades.
Faint twang echoing in her ear, the neighbour’s voice floated by. Ain’t nobody seen that boy for decades. Most of us though they put him away –
He had a thing for cattle – bit of a freak, strange things always happened when he was around.
Ol’ Johnston down the way said he did in his whole herd, but nobody could prove nothing. And then there was the Smith child –
The scratching sound grew louder, Keira closed her eyes, as though she could shut out the sound.
“You OK?” Frank stared at her, flashlight beam cutting across her face, and then darting to the cinderblock walls behind her.
She shook her head.
One of the bugs lay flipped upside down on the dirt floor, legs waving in the air and rocking on its shell. Frank stepped over to it, and crushed it beneath his boot, crunching sound of hard shell crackling. Faint hiss, then silence.
“You better get going,” he nodded at her.
Closing her eyes, Keira swung.
The sledgehammer shot through the cheap paneling as though it was air, a bad dream, dissolving in a mist, she thought, then opened her eyes.
“Can’t see much with that,” Frank nodded at the hole, only about the size of a coffee cup. Darkness lay behind it, darkness so heavy you could reach out and touch it. Keira shuddered. She didn’t want to see more.
Sudden realization struck her. She knew, it was waiting for them, just behind the wall. They’d open it up, and then –
“You gonna hit it, or want me to try?”
She handed the sledgehammer over.
Wooden paneling splintered beneath its weight, snapping and crackling, and caving inward; a gaping hole appeared. Puff of air, cool and dank escaped, flowing over them.
Gooseflesh broke out on her bare skin.
“Stand back,” he nodded at her. “Gonna give another hit, see what’s in there. Open it right up.”
Keira turned toward the basement stairs, daylight still a small rectangle above. If the door shut now –
A yellow cloud floated around her; the remains of the bug bomb drifted by as though caught in a breeze, spiralling upward and towards the staircase.
Then was gone.
“Holy shit – take a look at this.”
Turning, Keira realized her foot was already on the wooden step, ready to leave. “What?” she asked dully. She didn’t want to see. She knew, a bulbous creature with greasy flesh, pale in the darkness –
“Looks like we found somebody, you might want to see for yourself.”
Following Frank’s flashlight beam, Keira peered into the hole and startled at the sight of a wide grin, teeth caught in grimace; frozen for eternity.
The beam wavered, darting over a corpse, sunken skin stretched over a skeletal frame, greasy blonde hair lacquered to his head. Likely male, and obviously dead for a very long time.
“Frank, get me outta here,” Keira grabbed at his arm. The flashlight jumped, skittering over yellowed remains and sunken flesh, tendons and bones standing in sharp relief.
Then she saw his hands. Each fingertip was worn down to well past the knuckle, and the nubby remains streaked with dried blood.
She let out a long scream.
Standing in the kitchen, Keira burst into tears; Frank stood awkwardly patting her shoulder while she blubbering into her hands, tears and snot streaming down her face. He glanced around the kitchen and grabbed a roll of paper towels off the countertop; leftovers from cleaning.
He held out the roll.
Smiling through tears, she took it from him and peeled off a couple paper towels. “You think I need the whole thing?”
“It’s a big shock – you OK?”
Sniffling, she looked around. “It’d be nice if there were some chairs around.”
“Come outside, sit on the porch for a bit, get some air.”
Slowly, realization dawned. “Do you think that’s the son – that used to live here, and, uh, did things?”
Frank shrugged. “Don’t know much about that story, but you sure got a body here.”
“What’re we going to do with it?”
“I dunno, can’t leave it here.” He nodded at her, “You got your cellphone handy, call the cops. They can take care of it.”
Grabbing her purse, Keira moved toward the door, “Can we do it from somewhere else, like maybe in town?”
Eyeing the basement door, he shrugged again. “Let’s go out in the front yard, I got some beer in my truck.” He forced a smile at her. “Think both of us could use a drink.”
Keira was still sitting on the running board of the pickup truck, cooler of beer beside her when the police arrived. Two cars pulled into the driveway, gravel crunching beneath their tires; an officer in each vehicle.
Frank slid his beer out of view.
Rolling the beer can between her palms, she watched the officers approach; big and little, she thought; both middle-aged males with the soft spread of rural policing. Mumbled introductions, Smith and Davis.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, one of the names rang a bell. Keira pushed the thought aside, she didn’t know anyone around here.
Davis nodded at her, “You’re the owner of this property?”
“Been here long?”
She shook her head. “Only a couple weeks.” Keira glanced at Frank, “It’s been a hard place to settle into, I’m thinking of letting it go.”
The shorter of the two, Smith, was staring at the barn, his eyes tracking along the ridgepole. The weathervane suddenly spun wildly, as though caught in a gale, then fell flat. He turned toward her, “I’d get rid of it if I were you.
Davis nodded, “Lots of better places around – maybe not at this price, but…” he trailed off, glancing back at the house.
“So now the cops are giving real estate advice?” Frank smiled at them.
Davis shrugged. “It’s a place with a lotta history; gets to be too much to deal with.”
Keira tipped the beer to her lips. “Were you guys called here a lot?”
Davis shook his head, “Most of what you hear is just people talking, hearsay; anything out here happened before our time.”
“But –” Smith tried to interrupt.
Davis shot him a look. Smith returned to staring at the barn, his eyes glued to the ridge pole.
Keira pretended this didn’t mean anything. “So you’re taking it – the body I mean.”
Davis jerked his head back toward the road, “Coroner should be along shortly, we caught him in his tomato patch. Said he wanted to finish watering first.”
Smith glanced at his watch, and then nodded at the cooler. “I wouldn’t say no to a cold one.”
Davis looked over at Smith and shrugged. Frank tipped the cooler toward them, “Help yourselves, boys. Gotta big job ahead of you.”
Keira was on her third beer by the time the officers helped load the body bag into the back of the coroner’s van.
They nodded goodbyes, and then the police cruisers followed the van down the dirt road, dust hiding the lettering on it’s side.
“Hopefully that’ll solve your bug problem now,” Frank stood up.
“Um, do you mind coming inside with me, I want to grab some things.” She shrugged, “Think I’m going to stay in a hotel tonight.”
“Don’t blame you.”
They walked across the lawn in silence, late season day lilies still glowed fiery orange. Frank nodded at the overgrown grass, “You never did get a lawnmower, did you?”
Keira shook her head. “I think I’ll save it for the next property. One without bugs. Or bodies.”
Holding the kitchen door for her, Frank smiled. “You’re serious about getting rid of this place, are you?”
“Would you want to stay here?”
“Hell no,” he laughed. “Just wouldn’t want to lose out on my best customer.”
“I think I’m you’re only customer,” she smiled at him. “What’s the town’s population anyway, like ten?”
“More like fifty,” he grinned, “But they all know each other, so it doesn’t matter.”
Their footsteps echoed inside the empty house; the kitchen stood as they’d left it, whitewashed cupboards and worn countertops surrounded them. A scattering of dead bugs lay on the floor.
Keira smiled, “I’ll just be a minute, if you don’t mind waiting, I really don’t want to be –”
“I get it,” he nodded and then glanced around. “If you have a broom, I can take care of our little friends here.”
Keira pointed at the broom and dustpan in the corner, “They’re all yours. Knock yourself out.”
“Thanks, will do,” he grinned.
Leaving Frank alone in the kitchen, Keira fumbled around the bedroom searching through piles of clothing; the mattress and sleeping bag lay stretched across the floor. Her furniture still hadn’t arrived. And hopefully she’d be able to sell the place before it did.
What a mistake this turned out to be.
“Uh you know, it looks like your bug problem’s gotten worse,” Frank’s voice called out, “You might want to see this.”
There was an edge in his voice; hurriedly she crammed clothes inside a bag and shoved in a toothbrush, and then raced toward him. Half-zippered duffle bag slung over her shoulder, Keira stepped into the kitchen, “What?”
Frank nodded at the basement door.
A steady stream of bugs crawled out from beneath it; hard shells flattening momentarily as they scrambled through the crack at the bottom of the door; soon emerging by the hundreds. A wave of insects swept across the linoleum; maroon shells caught the fading daylight, antenna rose, pointing toward her; steady buzz filled the air.
Suddenly they launched into flight, transparent wings strung with pulsating veins, angry hum of thousands of wings beating together.
She screamed again, instinctively ducking and trying to cover her hair.
“No – wait,” Frank reached out, grabbing her shoulder. “You gotta stop it.”
Keira twisted away from him, tear threatening. Bugs. Oh god, more bugs.
Grabbing her shoulder again, he held her in a firm grip.
“Ow, you’re –”
“Shhh …” he held his finger over his lips, and eyes widened, nodded at the door. Keira turned, staring in horror.
A faint scratching sound drifted up from the basement stairs; faint whisper, slowly growing louder. Incessant. Something wanted out.
— END OF EXCERPT
Liz McAdams is a short, sharp, writer (again, we’re talking height, not word count) who clearly likes monsters and all things monstrous. Don’t worry, we’ll be locking her up soon so the rest of us can get a word in around here.
Liz’s work appears in the usual places, including Spelk, Near to the Knuckle, Yellow Mama and will be up soon on Shotgun Honey. Check her out at https://lizmcadams.wordpress.com/