Alex Roth had already lived in the house for more than six months. He had no idea how he had failed to notice this small door before. Yet there it was in front of him. He came across the door by accident really, while he was in the process of performing the most mundane of tasks – his laundry. The landlord had been kind enough to replace the washer and dryer just before Alex began renting the house. Alex used the machines regularly and was grateful to have such top-of-the-line equipment. It was a far cry from his previous life of spending long nights in the Laundromat, even if he did have to go down into the dingy basement to use these.
On the day he discovered the door, he was attempting to screw the cap back onto his detergent bottle when it slipped from his fingers. “Crap!” he blurted out as he watched the cap roll into a small space between the dryer and the concrete wall. He stooped down and put his cheek against the cold wall in an attempt to see the cap, but it was too dark in the crevasse. Even though he couldn’t see the cap, he knew that he would inevitably have to pull the dryer away from the wall since his arm would not fit into the tight space.
After a few minutes of struggling with the machine, whose rubber feet did not readily slide against the concrete floor, the dryer was moved as far out as its power cord and vent tube would allow. The cap was there on the floor, but Alex suddenly shifted his interest when he saw the small door. It was a wooden plank door about three feet square, hinged on its left side near the corner of the basement walls. On the door’s right side was a rusty metal latch with a padlock through it.
“What in the world?” Alex mumbled to himself. He carefully worked his way behind the dryer to examine the door closer. He jiggled the padlock. The detergent cap lay unnoticed on the floor. A short-lived dilemma entered Alex’s mind: Do I retrieve the cap, push the dryer back and forget about this door? Or do I investigate further? The former was not Alex’s style at all, hence the reason the dilemma was short-lived. His only hang-up was that it wasn’t his property. He called his landlord.
“Tom, it’s Alex. Hey, did you know about the little door down in the basement behind the dryer?”
“Well, I saw it when they installed the new laundry units, but it was locked, so I didn’t mess with it,” Tom replied.
“Weren’t you curious at all?”
“No, not really. I’m pretty sure it’s just a small crawlspace for storage.”
“Do you mind if I open it and take a look? I’ll replace the padlock with a new one.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. It’s probably been closed up for a really long time.”
There was silence before Tom finally said, “Alex? You’re not really going to open it, are you?”
“Sorry, Tom, I’ve gotta go. There’s another call coming in.” And Alex hung up. That last part was a lie. He just wanted to get off of the phone before Tom told him outright not to open the door. Alex didn’t see what the harm would be, especially since he offered to replace the lock.
A few moments later he returned to the door with a hacksaw. After nearly thirty minutes of struggling with the saw blade against the hardened steel padlock, Alex cursed Hollywood for making it look so easy. Finally, the blade broke through and he was able to swivel the lock around and remove it. The latch then came free with little resistance. The door did not budge as easily. Who knows how long it had been wedged inside the tight opening in the concrete wall. With the help of a pry bar, it broke free with a pop and the door swung freely. He knelt down next to the opened door.
Alex was hit with the smell of dank, musty air. The darkness inside was absolute, the silence oppressive. He leaned forward just enough for his head to cross the threshold slightly. It was impossible to determine the dimensions of the interior without a flashlight, so Alex made another trip to his toolbox to retrieve one.
Upon returning, he knelt down once more and shone the light into the opening. Inside, it was quite a bit larger than he was expecting. Alex estimated it at about ten feet by ten feet, with a ceiling high enough to stand without crouching. The walls were not made of concrete, but rather stones that had once been carefully put into place, now covered with mold and mildew. Planks of rotted wood made up the ceiling, and the floor was compacted dirt.
A quick scan with the flashlight showed that, much to Alex’s surprise, the space was empty. The only thing that stood out to him was an area about midway down the left wall where some stones near the floor had dislodged and fallen into the room. Several small piles of dirt were on the ground next to the stones. Alex’s curiosity got the better of him, and he crawled through the doorway for a closer look at the area.
It was substantially colder inside the room, and the air was stagnant and stale. Alex made his way over to the loose stones and piles of dirt. Shining the flashlight on them, he saw that a tunnel had been dug where the wall was broken out. He moved closer, stooped down, and shone the light inside. The tunnel was about two feet in diameter, but its depth was unknown. Even with the light shining directly into the opening, all that was visible was the cylindrical earth of the sidewalls tapering off into pitch blackness.
Alex was momentarily chilled as his imagination took over. He envisioned some otherworldly creature emerging from the tunnel and attacking him – or a giant tentacle reaching out from the black depths – or a rotting corpse crawling out of the tunnel face-down at an alarming speed. He panned the empty room with his flashlight making sure he was, in fact, still alone. After gathering himself, he got on his hands and knees and looked into the empty tunnel again. Where could this possibly go? Why is it here? These were questions that could only be answered by further exploration. His mind was telling him not to enter the tunnel, but his curiosity was telling him otherwise.
Lying on his stomach, Alex used his forearms to inch himself forward in the dirt. The flashlight was in his left hand and the contrast between light and shadows bounced violently off the tunnel walls with each movement. Just a few feet in, he noticed that the tunnel began to angle slightly upward, as if heading for the surface. Even when he paused to shine the light directly into the center of the tunnel he still could not see anything but dirt walls tapering into darkness. The further he went the more he dreaded eventually having to back his way out. But when he finally reached a dead end in the dirt, that’s exactly what he had to do. He was disappointed that the tunnel just ended. No explanation. No purpose. It took him about ten minutes to wiggle his way out backwards.
Just as he reached the tunnel’s exit in reverse, he heard someone hastily coming down the basement stairs, shouting.
“Alex! Are you in here, Alex?”
“Tom? Is that you? Why are you…”
Before he could finish, the wood-plank door was slammed shut. Alex could hear the sound of a new lock being secured on the latch. Then the dryer was shoved back into place.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Alex yelled from inside the small room. He beat his fists on the door.
“It’s too late now, Alex. I told you not to open it,” Tom yelled back. Then, as quickly as he came, he was gone, and Alex heard his footsteps as he ascended the basement stairs. Alex continued to scream and beat on the door for several more minutes, but it was of no use. Tom was long gone.
The more time Alex spent locked in the secret room, the more he realized that it may be days or, heaven forbid, weeks before anyone came to search for him. And even then, how would they get into his house? Tom had obviously had a master key. If he’d locked the door on his way out, searchers would have to break the windows. Alex wanted to take matters into his own hands, so he decided to go into tunnel and dig for the surface.
In just a few minutes he was wedged in the tunnel on his stomach and forearms, flashlight in hand, facing the wall of dirt at the dead end. Alex’s first few attempts at clawing the loose dirt away were slow as he wasn’t sure what to do with the dirt that was breaking free. Once he established an efficient method of conveying dirt past his body in the cramped space, the work progressed at a much faster pace. The more he dug, the more he realized that he was absolutely committed to this escape route. The dirt that he was moving past his body was piling up at his feet, enclosing him completely and preventing him from backing out if he so chose. Realizing that this was essentially the point of no return, he had to decide if he wanted to press onward or attempt to wiggle out now while it was still somewhat manageable. He chose to dig.
Alex checked his watch in the flashlight beam. He had been digging, following the upward incline of the tunnel, for just over an hour now – inching his way forward. His fingers ached horribly; the nails worn down to nothing. He had to periodically reassure himself along the way that he could make it – the surface had to be close. Mere moments after he checked his watch the flashlight batteries began to weaken. The light grew more and more dim over the course of several minutes until finally, it was gone entirely.
The darkness was smothering. Alex could feel the walls of the tunnel hugging his body tightly. His mind tricked him into thinking that they were closing in even more, trying to squeeze the life out of him. He had to press on. He used the dead flashlight to break away more dirt, saving his fingers from further agony.
After a few more minutes of blindly transferring dirt behind him, a chunk about the size of a walnut fell away, leaving Alex’s fingertips to survey a small exposed segment of a smooth object of some kind barely protruding from the earth surrounding it. He worked frantically to uncover more of the object, desperately wishing he had the flashlight to see what it was. Alex continued clearing the area and evaluating it with his fingers until he had cleared away several square inches of it. He could not pry it out of the dirt. It was not a very hard object, but not entirely soft either. Even though the edges were smooth, there was a patterned texture of some kind embedded in its surface.
It was then that Alex remembered the button on his wristwatch that would light up its faceplate. He pressed it and held the watch directly in front of the object. There before Alex, embedded in the dirt, was the bottom of a tennis shoe. Using the edge of the shoe as a guide, he clawed more soil away until the lower cuff of a pant leg was revealed.
“Good Lord, I wasn’t the first one he locked in here,” Alex whispered, “This tunnel was someone’s escape attempt!” Alex worked at the dirt around the corpse, being meticulous not to disturb the remains. As he progressed, he felt the emptiness of the deceased person’s blue jean pant leg – the only exception being the hard bone wrapped inside it. Further on, he found what likely used to be a pink sweatshirt, now dark brown and saturated with caked-on mud and clinging tightly to the shape of a compressed rib cage. After this discovery, he assumed the body was female. He uncovered a dainty skeletal hand next to the torso, fingers grasping a flat object that was apparently being used as a makeshift shovel in the girl’s final attempt to claw her way to freedom. Alex was careful to keep the digits in tact next to one another as he removed the flat object. He checked it in the light of his wristwatch face.
A public library card.
Casey J. Potter.
“Oh my God!” Alex blurted out. “I’ve found her!”
Five years ago the case of a local teenager who had been kidnapped from the Spring Oaks Shopping Mall made headlines for months. It happened in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon, and the entire community was paranoid for weeks afterward. Casey Potter had become a household name locally, and was even recognized quite often on a national level. And now, Alex couldn’t believe he was lying next to her in her earthen tomb.
Alex continued digging his way forward. He did not uncover the entire skull, just the side of the jaw and one empty eye socket. He dug for what seemed like hours more before his fingers finally broke through the surface. A rush of fresh air enveloped him. Alex breathed deeply, the most refreshing breaths he’d ever taken. He had been digging for so long that it was dark outside when he finally extracted himself from the tunnel and rested his exhausted body on the lawn, staring up at the stars on that clear night.
– – – – –
In the following days, authorities exhumed the remains. Alex was hailed a hero by the media. He was interviewed by several of the local news channels, whose journalists all let out the same gasp as he described what he had been through. The Potter family received closure and was able to mourn properly for the first time in five years. Tom Drury was arrested and, initially, maintained his innocence. But after long hours of interrogation he eventually caved and confessed to the kidnapping.
Over time, the occurrences of strangers recognizing Alex in public dwindled. Hearing, “Hey, you’re the guy that found Casey Potter!” became less and less frequent. He had moved into a new rental house shortly after the incident, and everything was getting back to normal. And then he found the door. A small door in the back of a coat closet under the stairway. He debated with himself at length, but finally opened it with great trepidation. A wash of relief came over him when he realized that it was simply an extension of the storage space under the stairs, completely empty, and no tunnels.