“It’s nice,” said Phil, “I still can’t believe you own a house.”
“Me neither, bro,” said Howard, “I mean, not at all.”
The two were standing in the mostly undecorated living room. The walls were recently painted a deep Marsala color (“Color of the year 2015, bro. Get on that.”) and there was a massive cream colored leather couch that dominated the majority of the space. A TV played a football game neither really watched where large men hurled their bodies at one another, causing irreparable long term cognitive damages.
“I thought buying a house was something old people did,” said Howard. “I’m only twenty fucking five, bruh. I can’t believe Colin’s company is working out like this.”
“For you,” Phil said, awkwardly. “Colin’s company is working out really well for you.”
“Oh, dude, whatever. Fuck him. He’ll rehire you. Whenever he comes to his senses. Is that what they call it? What’s the term for when you fire someone from your sweet start up because you find out he slept with your girlfriend in college and straight up lied to your face about it but then you forgive him and hire him back? Is that called a rehire?”
“I don’t know if —”
“There actually is no word for that, Phil, because that has never happened in the history of the world.
Come on, let’s go upstairs. I want you to check out this view.”
The view was nice, Phil thought. Howard’s place was in Candle Hill, a micro neighborhood of the city which was rapidly acquiring a reputation as an exclusive, monied neighborhood due to the sudden, unexpected blossoming biotech scene. Twenty four year olds were buying mansions on hills, driving strange exotic luxury cars, drinking wine older than most states in America. Until six months ago, Phil had been on track to be one of them. Then, after a brief, scarily cold conversation with Colin, he wasn’t.
After he was fired, he had had grabbed a job as a research tech for the university. It provided a salary and health care, but no dental and all of his friends were buying houses.
Howard’s house was fantastic, he had to admit. A refurbished row home with gorgeous crown molding in every room, bright gleaming modern appliances, marble countertops. The street was quiet and tree lined, one of those city neighborhoods you never know about unless you live there. The secret world of the rich. Or maybe just the lucky.
“So, how’s Janus Industries? Are you just as busy as ever?”
“Ugh,” Howard frowned, “worse, if possible. This is the first night I’ve been home before eight in a month. Not complaining. We’ve all been swamped.”
“Are you guys still working on stem cell stuff?”
“Like I can tell you,” grinned Howard. “But the stuff we’re doing is pretty great recently. It’s exciting.”
An hour or so later, Phil was getting ready to leave. They were back in the living room and he noticed a door with a chain lock across the hall from the half bath.
“Dude, what’s up with that door? Is someone locked in the basement?”
He meant it as a joke, but Howard’s face went pale. Phil froze. Was his friend keeping someone locked up in the basement? Was he going to be killed for discovering it? Why had he even come over? Is this how he dies?
Howard ran his hand through his hair.
“Sit down, man. There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Do you have anyone locked in the basement,” asked Phil as he sat down, looking for any objects he could improvise into weapons.
“No. I don’t have anyone locked in the basement,” Howard said with disgust, “I mean, come on, bro.”
“Well done, man.”
“Second, I think something is in the basement. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m not. The guy I bought this house from was in a super hurry to move, which is how I got it at such a good price, I guess. When I moved in, I found a note he had left in the bedroom. It said I should always keep that door closed. And one day would find out why.”
“What was his deal? Was he crazy?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Howard, “but he seemed like a normal dude through the whole process. He taught bioethics at the university. Did some consults at Janus, too. Dwyer? Did you ever hear of him?”
Phil shook his head.
“He gets good comments online. Colin took a bunch of classes with him, actually. Loved him. Said he had fascinating ideas for regenerative tech and how to monetize it. Girls on his Rate my Professor page say he was kind of sleazy,”
“When I found the note,” Howard continued, “I thought he was nuts. My realtor told me his wife had just died. She figured it messed him up or whatever. So, I decided to not worry about it. Then, I heard it.”
“It was the first night here. I was just hanging out, quasi celebrating with champagne. I was by myself. Right here. In this room. And I hear someone walking up the basement stairs.”
“Do you know how quiet a place can feel when it isn’t just you? I had read his note that night. Now, the footsteps. Then the doorknob rattled. It opened, a tiny bit, just a crack, but the lock held it closed.”
“Holy shit,” phil leaned up on the couch. He was staring at Howard, watching his hands grab and twist the couch cushions. “So what happened?”
“The door closed. I heard the footsteps go back down. I didn’t leave the couch. I couldn’t. I didn’t even sleep. Spent all night here, staring at the stupid door.”
“Has it happened again?”
“It has. Every third night. At 10:50. And Phil?”
“Tonight’s a third night.”
“Well then,” Phil stood up, “I’m going to find out what’s going on down there.”
And with that, he walked over to the locked door.
“You heard me,” Phil said, “I’m going into the basement,”
“Dude, that’s a bad idea? That is definitely an awful idea. I would like to ask you to reconsider —”
“Reconsider what?” asked Phil. His hand was on the doorknob and he had turned around completely to face Howard. “I don’t have anything, bro. I work in a lab getting paid nine dollars and eighty cents an hour. All my friends are millionaires. I eat ramen for dinner. Not by choice.”
“So you’re ok with being eaten by a monster in my basement? Because I assure you there is a monster in my basement and I suspect the monster will try to eat you and you’re my friend and —”
“Howard. You worry. Way. Too. Much.”
He unlatched the heavy chain.
“If I don’t come back, you can have my bike.”
And he opened the door and walked downstairs.
Howard spent the night on the couch. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t move. He watched the door. But it didn’t open. And at ten fifty on the third night, the door didn’t rattle and they weren’t any footsteps.
The next morning he went to work. There was a meeting with four other project managers that Colin unexpectedly showed up at.
Colin terrified Howard. He had ever since he started Janus Industries. Before that, Colin was nice. Thin and probably too into sushi and anime, but nice. After the company started, the niceness migrated from him and was replaced by something colder. Pressure, Howard told himself, Colin must be under a ton of pressure with the company. You have to be cold to do what he did. It was business.
At the meeting’s end, as they started to rise, Colin touched his shoulder.
“Talk to you for a minute?”
The other four shuffled out. The room felt too big. Colin stared at him.
“You ok? You look sick.”
“I’m fine. Just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
“Really?” Colin frowned. “I thought you left early yesterday. I was here for hours after you drove off.”
“Yeah, bro, I met someone for dinner for last night and bailed a little early. Sorry. I’ll check up on stuff tonight.”
“I’m sure you will,” Colin peered at him, his pale skin showing an architecture of blue veins below the surface. “Are you sick?”
“No. Not sick. Just couldn’t sleep.”
“Oh, just insomnia? You should take medication. No reason to let your biological system get in the way of your responsibilities, right?”
“Right,” Howard said, then added, in a desperate attempt to sound normal, “broseph.”
“Speaking of your responsibilities, your project isn’t going as well as I expected. We need that to improve. Quickly. Understand?”
“Yes, of course and I’m sorry I just —”
“Remember: results, not apologies. Right?” Colin smiled, briefly, for the first time in the conversation. His lips were thin. “Hey, you bought a house, didn’t you? A belated congratulations!”
“Oh, yeah thanks. I love it. Still decorating.”
“It’s Dyer’s old house, right? I miss him. He was always such a help to me. Well, take care.”
Howard began to walk out of the room.
He turned around.
“Who were you having dinner with? Last night? Anyone I know?”
Howard stood, semi frozen.
“No, I don’t think so. Bro.”
“Oh. Ok. Take care.”
Howard made it home that night by nine. Colin was still there when he left. He could see his office light burning from the parking lot.
Outside his house, where he always parked his car, Phil’s bike was still chained to the tree.
He went in. His footsteps echoed in the tall winding home. The lack of furniture made everything sound empty and full of echoes.
The door was still chained. There was no noise from the basement.
He barely slept. The next day at Janus it was the same: pacing the hallways, drinking too much coffee, sending off emails obsessively. At some point, waking through the office he suddenly stopped. At the far end of the open office, he saw an older woman entering Colin’s office. She walked in after Colin but before he closed the door she turned and surveyed the office. She had s small pinched face with a hawklike nose, small, deeply set eyes. She locked eyes with Howard. Did she smile?
And then the door closed.
That night, he fell asleep at his desk. Upon waking, he grabbed his phone and accessed his home security cams. They showed the same thing they had before: a locked basement. A locked bike.
He walked out into the hallway. The lights were already on. It was five fifteen in the morning. He could smell coffee already brewing. Lynn was at the machine. She looked up and smiled.
After they had been talking for a few minutes about nothing in particular, he looked around. Upon not noticing anyone beside the two of them, he dropped his voice.
“Lynn, your team is working on stem cell stuff right now.”
“Like everyone else here, yeah.” She looked amused. Lynn always looked amused, especially when people weren’t being that funny.
“But you aren’t doing the same kind of stuff as everyone else on your team.”
“What do you mean,” she asked. She didn’t look as amused.
“I talk to everyone here. I know Colin doesn’t like any of us to talk to each other, but I do. And I talk your team. And they say you’re working on some something they aren’t being kept in the loop on.”
“If they aren’t being kept in the loop why would you be kept in the loop?” She had gone back to amused. But not that amused.
Tell her about Phil, tell her about the house, the door, he thought, but he didn’t. He was watching the way her eyes all of the sudden widened at something behind him.
“Good morning,” he heard Colin’s voice. “Another day, another chance to do it all again.”
He smiled at the two of them and poured scalding hot coffee into his tan colored mug.
That night, Howard got home at ten forty three. He unlocked his door and walked across the grandly echoing hardwood to his kitchen. He poured a glass of wine (red, Chilean, not that bad at all) and he stood, staring at the door.
The noises started on the stair, the dragging, shaking walk. He listened to it as it grew closer, closer. He flung upon the door. And there was Phil, looking skinny and pale and horrified.
They sat together on the couch. He had grabbed Phil a blanket and he had wrapped himself up in it. His teeth were chattering. His eyes had huge dark circles.
“I don’t know, man,” he said, pushing his fingers into the bone colored couch, “I don’t know what happened.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Opening the door? I kind of remembering walking down the stairs. That’s all. Maybe I heard voices? But holy fuck I was down there for three nights? What the hell happened to me?”
“I don’t know,” Howard said thickly, “I don’t know at all. But this has something to do with Janus, I think.”
“Why would this have anything to do with Janus? This is just a horrible weird thing that happened to me!”
“No, I — things have been a lot weirder there after you left than I told you. There’s a lot of secret projects going on. We can’t talk to each other there anymore. And the shit he has us doing with stem cells…it’s weird. I think Colin is trying to do something.”
“Like what?” Phil had slumped against the back of the couch and was rubbing his temples.
“I don’t know. But you know Dwyer’s wife? The one who I said died?”
“A saw a photograph of her when I moved in here. And I think I saw her at Janus the other day.”
Phil sat upright.
“You saw her?”
“Or someone who looked a lot like her. It was from far away.”
“Jesus,” said Phil and he was quiet for a moment. “What the hell do you think is happening?”
“I don’t know and I’m starting to lose — where are you going? Don’t you want to go to the hospital? I’ll take you.”
Phil had stood up.
“No, no. I have to get home. I’ve been gone for three days. I have to red my cat. I’m terrified Admiral Flufferson is going to be starving. I’ll go to the hospital tomorrow, I guess,” he paused. “I’m not really sure what I’m going to tell them. But look: you should come with me. Whatever is happening here? Man, you don’t want any part of it.”
“Oh god. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to my mom’s tonight. Fuck, bro, what is this?”
“I don’t know but we’re going to figure this out. Somehow. Together. Right?”
Phil left. Howard stayed on the couch, his head spinning. He was trying to put everything together but he couldn’t. When he was growing up, he remembered trying to put together puzzles but never being able to get all the right pieces and just giving up. His older brother admitted a few years ago he would his puzzle pieces when Howard wasn’t looking, just to mess with him. That’s what he felt like now. Here was the puzzle. But something wasn’t there that he needed and he had no idea how to fix it.
And then he heard something
Moving slowly up the stairs.
The basement door, he realized, wasn’t fully closed after he got phil out. The door was wide open. The footsteps got closer and closer and then, into the light stepped Phil.
He didn’t look ok. He could barely walk, taking only a few steps and before he fell. There was drool in the corner of his mouth. Howard ran to him, trying to help him sit up, leaving him against the wall in the pallid light of the hallway.
“Oh my god, Howard. Oh god. I can’t. Oh my god. There’s something horrible happening. They’re making things down there. They call them extras. Oh god, I don’t know what —”
There was a banging on the front door.
“Howard!” called Phil from outside, “there’s something I need to talk to you about! Open the door!”
Credit To – Kevin Sharp