The blackness of the basement was like crude oil, without the shiney surface. It seemed thick and deep and troubling. We could see the stairs going down three, maybe four steps then vanishing, like reason to an insane man.
"We're not going down there," I declared. "I can't even see the bottom."
"Your eyes haven't adjusted yet. We'll be fine." Anne radiated her selfconfidence. Or her greed. I wasn't soaking up either one. I was seeing headlines: Local Boy Dead At Sixteen; Just To Keep A Girl.
She slowly stepped onto the first tread and I could hear the wood pop from where I was standing. And that did not sound good.
She went a few more steps down, with each one the old staircase creaked and moaned more and more. When she was in the middle, it started to shake from side to side. "Get on back up here; that things gonna fall!" I demanded. As usual, she did the opposite, running down the last few steps. At least there was a floor down there, that was a relief.
I suddenly had a new thought, a new dread. "What if there's a snake down there? Come on back up."
In the light cast by the open doorway, she looked like she was floating on an ebon sea. She faced me and extended her right hand, palm up. "Let's see, a snake on one hand," she then extended her left hand, also palm up, "or all the money I'll ever need on the other. Hhmmm...which [i]will[/i] I choose?" She turned and moved out of the light into the darkness of the basement, saying "Get your ass down here."
I couldn't let her disappear into that black sea: what if something happened? Worse still, if I didn't follow her, would I ever get to second base? Let alone third...
I slowly put one boot on the first step. It creaked a little, but held. Then the second step, then the third. Now it was shaking under my weight. Suddenly I felt a cold breeze wrap around me and go up into the kitchen. It was ice cold!
The secret door to the kitchen slammed shut. The force was so strong I fell onto the middle of the staircase. It began to shudder and shake, I heard the splintering of wood. Before I could get up to jump off, the whole thing collapsed in a cloud of choking dust.
The dust was everywhere; in my mouth, my nose, all over my clothes. And I couldn't see.
I heard a familiar voice. I expected a question about my well-being. A show of concern. What I got was, "Great. Wonderful. Good going, Mr. Einstein. May I call you Albert?"
I picked myself up from the wreckage of the stairs and tried to brush some of the dust off. No bones appeared to be broken, but I felt the bruises and couple of small cuts.
My eyes were beginning to adjust and I could see that it wasn't so dark down here after all. Here and there were little shafts of light coming from the ceiling above. Not a lot of light, but it did help. I couldn't see a window anywhere. This really was a hidden basement, though not a very big one. It seemed curiously small for such a large house.
I didn't care. The main issue I was facing was how to get the hell out of here. Looking around I spotted old wooden crates stacked in a corner. Off in the distance I could make out Anne, feeling along the walls. I dragged the crates over and started stacking them up under the secret kitchen door. All the while wondering about that blast of icy cold air that had blown past me before the door slammed and the world went out from under me. Was that a ghost?
With the last crate in place, I climbed up on top to see if I could open the door. To my surprise there was a small pull handle way up in the middle. For some reason, I had expected it to be lower. At any rate, it was out of reach. I tried to get my fingers under the bottom of the door, but to no avail. I was frustrated. How were we going to get out? Any second now, I expected Anne to announced that she had found the Foster fortune. That'd be great: we'd be rich! Right here. Til we starved to death in the dark. Would it get so bad that we would have to eat wood and dust? Worse than that, what if I died first? She probably wouldn't hesitate to start a fire and roast her devoted boyfriend. She'd probably say something like, "For a boy with no taste, you sure taste good."
I climbed down from the crates, thinking I could maybe find another secret door somewhere, maybe one to the outside. I heard a shuffling noise in the kitchen above. Instinctively I looked up. The secret door was slowly opening, creaking on it's hinges. My heart beat faster. There was nobody in the kitchen. This was all gettin' to be too much for me.
"Oh good, you got the door open. Come and look at this." She was a few feet away and I could see better now that the kitchen door had opened itself. "This part of the wall is covered in beaded board. When I knock on it, you can hear that there's concrete behind it." She was making her way along the wooden part of the outside wall, knocking every foot or so. "But why would anyone cover a cement wall in ceiling board? Unless they were trying to hide something."
No sooner had the words left her lips than her knuckles rapped out a hollow sound. "Aha," she said, sounding immensely satisfied with herself.
"Oh no, not another 'Aha'. I haven't recovered from the last one yet," I said. I wanted so much to climb up those crates and run out of this strange house and never look back.
"We're about to be rich. Shut up." She pushed on the hollow-sounding part of the wall and just like in the kitchen, there was creaking as a secret door slowly swung away from us, slowly swung into an even darker abyss. There was no light at all in there. None.
There was a boom over us, coming out of nowhere. It sounded like something extremely heavy had fallen to the floor in the room right over our heads. A fine mist of dust came cascading down onto us. We both cowered, not sure if the house was about to collapse. After a minute, the dust settled and there was no further noise.
I looked at her. "Now what the hell was that? The house reacting to you knocking on walls? I don't think so! Can we please get the hell out of here?"
"I don't know what that was. Maybe a piece of furniture fell over as the house settled; I don't know." As she spoke, I could see her breath, the way you do on a cold winter day. I could see my breath, too. "We can't give up now: we found the hidden room."
I said, "I know we found it. That's great. But have you not noticed all the wierd stuff that's been going on the whole time we've been here? Maybe somebody doesn't want us to find the money."
"A little noise in an old house? That's hardly wierd, Derek."
"Have you felt how cold it got once you opened that door? I can see my breath, and yours. Now that's wierd this time of year, even in a basement in an old house."
"Well, it was just trapped air that's been below ground and hasn't warmed up yet. Nothing to worry about. Besides, don't you want to see what's in there?"
She had me there. As scared as I was by everything, I was very curious about whether the legends about the Fosters was true. Still, it was so damn dark in there. You couldn't see walls or floor or anything. Besides, I knew there was no way that Anne was going to leave now.
We stepped into the doorway together, shivering from the strange cold. She stopped, I moved forward a couple of feet. I turned to her. She was a silhouette in the gloom. "What is it?", I asked.
"I feel like I'm being watched," she said slowly, "by several sets of eyes. Do you feel that?"
"No, I don't." I was taken aback by her change of heart. "What happened to Miss Gung-Ho?"
"I can feel a cold stare." Her hair was moving in a breeze, a breeze I didn't feel. I couldn't see her face, but felt her sudden fear. It was like an emotion she had never considered feeling before.
"Alright," I offered, "I'll check it out. Just stay there." I turned to look into the blackness. "I wish we had brought a flashlight."
She didn't reply.
I felt a cold chill start at the base of my spine and shoot up to my neck. Even though I couldn't see my skin, I knew there were goose bumps everywhere. I had the feeling I was surrounded. I heard breathing; it wasn't mine, it wasn't Annes' and it was coming from beside my ears. What the hell?, I thought.
I heard Anne scream and fall. As I spun around the door slammed shut, plunging me into complete darkness. "Anne?! Are you alright?" I shouted. I heard no reply and knew instinctively that she was outside. I moved toward where I thought the door had been and down I went, tripped over something unseen. I lay there for a moment, trying to get my bearings. Ahead of me was a thin sliver of prescious light creaping in under the door. I started to get up when I felt a boot kick me in the ribs. I went down again.
Suddenly, I could hear the sound of several boots walking around me in a circle, and a jingling sound. Spurs! An unseen boot slammed into me on the other side of my ribcage, the spur jangling. I balled up and tried to rise and make toward the door. A rain of fists came down upon me out of the blackness. I screamed in pain and lashed out with my arms to try to ward off the blows.
They backed off a bit and I stood upright and staggered to the door, pounding on it. "Anne! Open the door!" No sound from outside, just the boots and spurs still circling. I felt fists strike the small of my back and I careened backwards onto the floor. A boot kicked me in the thigh, another in the side of my face. Each time I could hear the spurs jingle.
Again I managed to get to my feet and stumble to the door. I banged on it, real panick settling in. "Anne! For God's sake open the door!" I felt a boot stomp the back of my knee and I went down again. Then there was creaking and a small shaft of light pierced the darkness. I scrambled to the door and grabbed the edge with my fingers and pulled.
Before the door would open enough for me to get out, I felt the weight of unseen bodies thrust against it, my fingers getting caught on the jamb. The pain was excruciating! If I didn't do something fast, I was going to die in here.
"Anne, push on the door!" I screamed. With renewed desparation I forced my throbbing fingers to pull harder than ever. Under my breath I muttered, "Let me outta here, you bastards! Keep your damn money!"
The resistance on the door slackened and I pulled it open, just enough to slip through. It slammed shut behind me. Annes' arms wrapped around me, displacing the chill. "Are you okay?" she asked. "What the hell happened in there? I heard scuffling. It sounded like a fight. Is there somebody in there?"
After I caught my breath I said, "Yeah, several somebodies. Only they don't got no 'bodies' just fists and boots." I looked up at her. "There's no money in there. Just ghosts."
"Are you sure? Maybe we can go get a flashlight and come back. You can draw whatever it is out and I'll slip in and look around." She was still not giving up. In that moment, I did. No girl was worth this.
I straightened up and said, "We're going now."
She said, "Oh no, we're not. Not until I know for sure."
Before I could argue with her, the door to the secret room slowly opened in front of us. We turned and watched. Shadows were coming towards us. I heard the crunch of cowboy boots on the floor and the sound of spurs. I grabbed Annes' hand and pulled her behind me as I headed for the doorway to the kitchen.
I clambored up the crates and dragged myself onto the kitchen floor. Turning around I reached down and pulled her up. She was no sooner up than the crates fell back into the gloom of the basement. I could hear the boots and spurs and see three shadows in the shape of men, trying to get through the door. I pulled it closed and we went into the hall, making for the front door. Doors were slamming throughout the place, making the whole house shake.
We were through the front door and out into the johnson grass. You could still hear the doors slamming inside and the house rattling. In my panic, I couldn't find my bike! I screamed at Anne, "Where's the bike?" She didn't reply. She was standing still, facing the house. I was too spooked to yell at her, so I kept looking for our only way out of here.
Finally I found it, got it started, and turned to look for Anne. She was a few feet away, staring at the house. "Come on," I said. Then I saw what she was seeing.
The front door was opened and standing on the porch were three dark shapes, the shadows from the basement. They were staring at her and she was staring right back.
I said firmly, "Anne. We have to go. NOW."
She turned, climbed on behind me, and we sped away. Rounding the corner and getting to the top of the hill where we had stopped on the way here, I brought the bike to a stop. We were both breathing hard. There across the road, in the field of tall grass stood the old Foster ranch house. What my mind was thinking she put into words, "Did that just happen?"
I looked down for a moment. Blood from a cut somewhere on my face dropped onto my jeans. Another drop landed on the bike's tank. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it did."
"I don't know. I still think you could distract whatever they are and I can slip into that hidden room and get the money." She never gave up. And why was it me that would do the distracting?
Before I could answer, I noticed movement in the johnson grass next to the house. "Look," I said.
"What the-" she blurted out. The grass was parting, in three places, like the wake of a boat on a lake. And they were headed right for us. "Damn," she said.
I didn't say anything, just twisted the throttle and the bike spewed gravel behind us. At the next turn in the road I looked back. On that hill where we had stopped were three shadows in the middle of the road.