Matt crept through the doorway and flipped the light switch, lighting a third of the basement. Each step creaked and groaned, torturing his thoughts. He paused on the final step and noticed the toilet. He dared himself to turn around and look into the dark corners, eliminating potential threats, but then decided he'd better not.
The sound paralyzed him. He felt a small, almost insignificant breeze blow over his shoulder. With a full bladder, he reasoned that the entire task required less than one minute. Then, he could flush and scurry upstairs where Grandma's supper waited.
Matt began his business with chattering teeth. "There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear," he said aloud.
"What was that?" He flushed and ran upstairs bursting through the basement door.
"I hope you still love my casserole," Grandma said.
Matt regained his composure. "Uh, I do Grandma."
Matt loved summer vacation on his grandparents' farm except for one thing -- the unknown presence lurking in the dark places in and around the house. His disabling fear of this mysterious entity bewildered him, and the basement seemed to him the entity's favorite haunt.
His father once explained that the builder of the turn-of-the-century farmhouse never intended to include a bathroom. Rural South Dakotans used outhouses in the old days. By the late 1950s, Grandpa installed a toilet and shower in the basement, retiring the chamber pot Matt's father and siblings used on cold nights. The family also had an outhouse that intrigued Matt and he had peeked in there a few times. Brush and weeds now blanketed the structure. Aside from the occasional tree behind the barn, the basement held the only available choice for one's business.
Matt's parents escorted him to the toilet as a toddler, but now he had to brave the trip downstairs on his own. I'm fourteen. Why am I so scared of dark places? What is down there?
After supper, Grandma told Matt to take his things upstairs. "You can use your dad's old room, as usual."
Those steps creaked and groaned like the others in the house but only reminded him of their age, rather than of anything creepy. Alone upstairs, on a different level than his grandparents, gave him a little fear as well, but nothing compared to the basement. He felt at home after looking behind the bedroom door and finding his BB gun from the previous summer.
Later that evening downstairs, Grandpa said, "Time for bed. We're gonna rake the windrows at first light for bailing hay."
It's 9:15 p.m. and way too early for bed, he thought but noticed a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the shelf -- one of his favorite stories. I guess I'll read in bed.
Grandma used an old book to prop open the window in Matt's bedroom to let in a breeze. "Good night, Sweetie," she said.
The noise from the trees swaying in the breeze distracted him from his book, but the window's darkness threatened him. Several times, he turned toward the window to make sure nothing looked back at him. Is something out there? he thought. Nah, that's ridiculous.
Matt spun around toward the window. Goosebumps covered his arms. He hoped that maybe a branch hit the side of the house, but his thoughts wandered to the presence. Maybe it wanted in. Maybe it wanted him. He shielded himself with the covers. They always worked in the past to protect him from anything lurking around while he slept.
The incident reminded him of a poem his English teacher required him to memorize.
"Nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door."
The poem added to his fright. He found nothing to soothe him but prayer. "Dear Lord. Please protect me. Please protect me. Please ..."
Morning arrived with Grandma yelling from downstairs. "Matt, breakfast."
He noticed the clock only reached 6:00 a.m. and remembered his father's parting words, "Earn your keep." He jumped up for real farm work, got ready, and headed downstairs.
"Matt, how would you like some peach cobbler tonight?" Grandma said.
"I'd love it!"
"Then run down to the basement and get me a jar of peaches."
His excitement about the peach cobbler waned, realizing it meant entering the abyss. I have to go to the bathroom anyway so this will save me a trip later, he reasoned. As expected, the dark corners remained, taunting Matt. He managed his business and grabbed the peaches, almost simultaneously.
By afternoon, Grandpa drove to town for supplies while Grandma busied herself in the garden. Matt's younger cousins, Hannah and Bret, arrived earlier to play.
"I'm glad y'all came. I've been baling hay all morning and need a break."
The large farmhouse provided a great location for hide and seek, and each took their turn stalking their prey.
"Let's play ghosts in the graveyard. It's like hide and seek and kind of scary. One person hides and the rest go looking for him," Matt said.
Matt hid first under a bed and heard his cousins coming up the stairs.
"Maybe he's in the attic," Hanna said.
Matt jumped out. "Boo!"
Hanna and Bret screamed.
"You scared me to death, Matt," Bret said.
Hannah pointed to the attic door. "I bet it's scary up there."
"Nah," Matt said.
Hanna challenged him. "Well, then go up there."
Since his fear of the attic surpassed his fear of the basement, Matt said, "I don't think we're allowed."
"Chicken?" Bret said. "Bawk, bawk, bawk."
"No. I'll go."
An upstairs hallway door opened to a steep staircase leading to the mysterious third floor attic. He took one step at a time, careful not to disturb anything or anyone up there.
"Let's close the door on him so it's really dark," Hannah whispered.
When he reached the top of the stairs, the door slammed. Matt spun around in a panic and heard Hanna and Bret laughing.
"Have fun, Matt," Hanna said.
The only light came through a small oval window in the peak of the roof, and he saw only a few feet in front of him. He forged ahead and noticed old boxes piled up on the right and a long rolled up rug on the left. The attic smelled musty. Too quiet. Eerie.
"Ahhhh! Who's there?"
No answer came, but in the far corner a torso seemed to materialize under the light. The shape held some sort of weapon. Panic set in. Is this the presence? He backed away into the stack of boxes knocking one of them over. Several toy dolls fell out. Their eyes gazed at him. Mocking him. He scurried down the steps, leaping over the final three, and crashed into the closed door. He exited and shut the door behind him.
"Well, what was up there," Hanna said.
Breathless, he said, "Nothing, just a bunch of boxes."
After his cousins left for home, Matt lay in a hammock and thought about the attic experience. Why am I so scared? What are these things that keep scaring me? Maybe it's my fault for going to dark and scary places?
Matt remembered an event from a few months before when an older kid dared him and his friend Adam to ride their bikes through Bloody Lane. The trip from their neighborhood to the arcade required about fifteen minutes of bike riding around the edge of the small woods. A shortcut ran through the woods, but few kids took that route because it required a trip down Bloody Lane. The Lane, as his parents called it, long ago ceased as a usable road for vehicles. Overgrown with brush, only bicycles navigated its bumps and craters. Two things existed on the lane -- the old Claymore home and family cemetery.
The legend always started the same. The Claymores abandoned the home many years before due to that double murder -- or did they? Matt heard this story many times and survived the lane twice before, but always with his older brother.
"We can do it," Matt said.
"What?" Adam said. "Uh, yeah we ain't scared."
Matt and Adam entered the lane at full pedal. One hundred yards in, the thought of turning back entered Matt's mind, but they were halfway through now. The house sat on the left marked with broken windows, moss growing up its sides, and shudders askew. The cemetery resided on the opposite side of the lane, forming a trap for an unsuspecting victim.
Adam yelled, "Don't stop!"
Panting, Matt nodded in agreement.
Minutes later, they emerged at the other end, shining with pride at their accomplishment but acknowledging their luck.
Matt felt that luck saved him on Bloody Lane a few months ago and must have favored him today to survive the attic experience.
"Matt, can you help carry in these vegetables?" Grandma said.
He rolled out of the hammock and ran over to the garden to help.
"You better take a shower tonight since we are going to church in the morning," Grandma said.
Ugh, he thought, knowing this meant a lengthy stay in the basement.
Matt loved his Grandparent's little church that rested on a hill. From over a mile away, the church steeple rose over the wheat fields -- reminding him of Little House on the Prairie. The minister read from Psalm 139, "Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You."
Matt despised darkness and craved light so this verse intrigued him. He learned forward in the pew as the minister explained.
"Darkness and light are the same to God. His hand can protect you in the light or in the dark."
That afternoon on the farm, Matt explored the outbuildings. Tripper, his grandparents' border collie, faithfully joined him. He noticed a yoke in the barn -- a relic of another era. The chicken coop stank and reminded him of the Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. Through the trees behind the coop sat an old Model A car, covered in rust and missing tires. He jumped in pretending to chase a gangster.
"Woof!" Tripper did his duty, matching Matt's intensity.
These things in the full daylight didn't scare him -- just dark places like the basement and attic.
He went to bed and lost himself in his book. He wanted to finish and stayed up later than usual. The thing outside the window bothered him again, but he turned the other way attempting to put it out of his mind. Something else entered his mind -- something worse than the thing outside the window. Oh no, I have to go to the bathroom. Maybe I can just hold it all night. He soon realized only one option existed -- the basement.
He'd always strategized his trips down there in the past, such as going while Grandma worked in the kitchen, just at the top of the stairs. Grandpa and Grandma slept in the next room meaning Matt needed to head all the way downstairs, alone in the darkness, and then turn that terrible black doorknob to the basement. Why does the bathroom have to be in the basement?
He loved his cousin's finished basement with pool table, television, and couches and spent the night there many times. Grandpa and Grandma's remained partially unfinished. Dark mud peeked through the wood siding and floor planks. Three of the four corners held dark secrets. The musty smell offended him. The cold temperature only added to the chilly feeling. No pool table. No television. The basement only offered mystery. Terror. Danger.
He headed on his journey, taking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for comfort. Should I take the BB gun? No, that's stupid.
He reached the kitchen and turned on the light, surveying the surroundings. All clear. I can do this. He went straight for the black door knob. "Squeeeeek."
He left the door open to quicken his exit, but his business at the toilet took an eternity. The whoosh sound and faint breeze occurred again sending chills through his body and his teeth chattering began.
Clop, clop, clop.
What was that?
Noises behind him pierced the silence. The presence taunted him. He flushed, turned around, and tripped over the first steps navigating the rest on all fours. As he reached the top, his hands landed on two legs. He looked up at the looming figure -- a harrowing silhouette.
His mind only went to one place. It's the Presence.
"You okay, Matt? I heard a noise and came down to check."
Grandpa's voice rescued him as Matt looked up in relief. "I, I, I had to go to the bathroom."
Grandpa surveyed the basement.
"You know Matt, this basement is a mess. How about tomorrow, we open the outside access and clean everything out of here. We can add some lighting, paint, and make this a fun place for you and your cousins to play. We can even enclose the bathroom area."
Matt's eyes widened. "Yeah, Grandpa!"
* * *
Many years later as an adult, Matt returned to South Dakota to visit Grandma, who had recently moved into town. Grandpa went to Heaven the year before.
"Matt, can you run out to the farm and get some peaches from the basement? I'll make you some cobbler." Grandma asked.
"Sure, Grandma." He looked forward to seeing all those memories.
As he drove within a mile of the farm, the house roof peaked over the treetops, but the barn towered over everything. Overgrown trees connected over the long driveway to form a tunnel.
He first walked around the barn, chicken coop, and old Model A and then headed toward the house, opening the screen door with its familiar screeching sound.
He turned the old black doorknob to the basement and found the peaches. The rows of canned goods had his mouth watering thinking of peach cobbler and buttery vegetables. He scanned the entire room and remembered the last time he feared its dark corners, but the well-lit room seemed inviting now.
Before Grandpa died, Matt talked to him on the phone. "I knew the basement scared you, but I also knew it was important to preserve a young man's self-esteem."
He laid the peaches on the kitchen table and decided to wander upstairs.
In the bedroom he used, behind the door, his old BB gun leaned in the corner. I bet Grandma didn't have the heart to move it.
In the hallway, he noticed the door to the attic. Since that frightful night in the basement, he'd returned there a hundred times but had never returned to the attic. No one dared him now. He had no fear.
He found a flashlight and headed up. The same boxes piled up on the right, and the same rug lay on the left. Then he remembered the torso. He shone his light in that corner and the torso with its weapon stared back. Looking closer, he noticed that no real torso existed.
Grandpa's army uniform from World War II hung in the corner with a Japanese sword he brought back as a souvenir. Matt let out a huge laugh and remembered part of the Psalm the minister had read, "Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You."