26 Oct The Attic in the Basement
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"The Attic in the Basement"Written by Christopher Maxim
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Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
(A short film based on The Attic in the Basement, winner of Best Director in the BC Student Film Festival)
“Quiet down, back there!” I yelled whilst driving down an all too familiar road. My best friend and his girlfriend wouldn’t stop laughing loudly with each other, much like young couples do. I almost regretted bringing them, but I really didn’t want to go alone, and inviting one of those two love birds meant inviting the pair. They were a package deal. Lucky for me, the torturous sound of laughter would soon cease, as we were approaching our destination.
“We’re here,” I stated; less to point out our arrival, and more to shut the two of them up. I just wanted some peace and quiet so I could think clearly. I wasn’t exactly mentally prepared for what needed to be done.
My aunt’s old house was just as I remembered it; a rickety old cottage down a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere, complete with woods, wildlife, and the welcoming smell of roses that she often planted near the stone walkway. That was when it finally hit me. While traversing that very walkway, smelling those very roses, I stopped dead in my tracks, tears welling up in my eyes.
“Are you okay?” My friend’s girlfriend asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just need a second.”
They looked concerned, but understood. What else would they expect of me coming back to my aunt’s house right after she died? Honestly, it felt a little weird. I may have been her favorite nephew, but after leaving me everything in her will, it seemed wrong to go out there so soon. The service was held just a day prior. I knew everything she had wasn’t much, and I knew I wasn’t really there to collect my inheritance, but I still felt bad – and at this moment, I felt even worse.
The memories I had of her were being dredged up with every step I took towards the front door. I hadn’t seen her since I was ten years old, but I could play every memory in my head like a movie. I was very close to her in those days. She might as well have been my mom. My actual mother cared for me, but she wasn’t loving in the way that my aunt was. I remember visiting her after school and being greeted with some cliché milk and cookies. Instead of watching television like a normal kid (she didn‘t own one), I would listen to my aunt play the piano for hours on end. We would sometimes go bird watching or work in the garden; things that I have not done or even thought of doing since. These are some of my most treasured memories, and just like treasure, I kept them locked up and hidden away for many years, until now. As I approached the door to the cottage, I stopped in my tracks once more.
“Seriously, are you okay?” My friend asked this time, seeming very concerned. He had never seen me like this before.
“I’m fine. Why don’t you two take that hike you were talking about? I’ll go on in and take a look around. You guys can meet me back at the car later.”
“If you say so…”
The two of them took off down a trail in the woods, and I was left standing there, looking at the house that I’d not seen in many years. The feeling that overcame me was so strange. It’s hard to put into words. It was more than grief, greater than sadness. I guess the best way to say it is that I missed her. It’s funny; if she could see me now, she probably wouldn’t recognize me. I’m tall, bearded, and wear glasses – almost the polar opposite of my appearance as a child. Thinking of this just made me sadder. She would never get to see the man I had become. With one last sigh of emotion, I marched on and reached for the handle on the front door.
My aunt didn’t have locks on her doors or windows. The house was constructed so long ago, that it wasn’t even built with them. She could have had some installed, but she didn’t feel she needed them out in the middle of nowhere. She brought it up one of the first times I stayed there, saying, “Trust the world, and it will set you free.” When I was a kid, hearing her say this made me feel safe, somehow. Being fully grown and recalling this statement now, I find it very peculiar. But then again, that was my aunt for you; unpretentious and oblivious to the rest of the world around her. Honestly, I missed that part of her the most. All of these memories came back to me piece by piece as I pulled the door open. The bittersweet release I felt was interrupted when I saw the inside of the cottage.
Everything, and I mean everything, was exactly in its place. It was like I was a kid again, coming over after school to enjoy my aunt’s company. My memories were projected right in front of me like a nostalgic outburst of energy. I could see my aunt sitting at the piano, playing as she often would. I could see me, sitting there, eating some homemade cookies, listening intently to the music. I could see her again, cooking dinner in the kitchen as I sat on the couch reading one of her old books. I walked past these living recollections and went upstairs to see more.
I stopped quickly when I reached the top of the staircase. I realized that it only led to the attic. I had no interest in it, remembering that my aunt used it for storage, so I traveled back downstairs. I didn’t know what I was looking for, exactly; maybe just a little peace of mind to put my heart at ease. Maybe just something that would let me know without a doubt that my aunt passed away peacefully. In truth, I felt an immense amount of guilt being in that house again. Almost too much to bear.
When I was just shy of eleven years old, my parents moved out of state. This is when I stopped seeing my aunt. We kind of lost touch, especially seeing as she didn’t have any real means of communication out there – no phone, no computer – she didn’t even have a mailbox, and the nearest post office was over twenty miles away. Being older now, I could have easily paid her a visit, and I am sure she would have loved to have seen me. I guess I just thought she would always be there. Unfortunately, she had a heart attack, and with no hospital or neighbors for miles, death came knocking on her unlocked door in a hasty fashion. At the very least, this visit had put the fleeting quality of life into perspective for me. At this point, I figured it was the only thing that I would end up taking away from the place.
As I made my way down the stairs and back into the living room, I noticed something. I was in such a hurry to escape my corporeal memories that I didn’t notice it before. It was the desk – the desk where my aunt would sit and write for hours at a time. She said that it helped her experience the world outside of her cottage, by writing about how she imagined and wanted it to be. The more I remembered my aunt, the more I could see how isolated and somewhat unstable she really was. She was odd, but I loved her just the same, even now.
What I hadn’t noticed upon entering the house was that the desk drawer was open. I looked inside and found a single sheet of paper with my aunt’s handwriting on it. This is what it said:
To my dearest nephew,
If you are reading this, then the cold tides of death have swept me away once and for all. I know that we’ve not seen each other since you were a child, but I hope you still think fondly back on our time together. I was happy to look after you, and I know that you were happy to spend time with me. I don’t want you to be sad, or feel off-put about my death in any way. This is how it is, and in turn how it was meant to be. I will always hold you dear in my heart, and I hope you’ll do the same for me. I want you to live freely despite this, and enjoy each and every moment of your life, just as I did mine. I will see you again someday, and I look forward to it. Trust the world, and it will set you free.
I shed a single tear reading this passage, knowing that my aunt wanted me to find peace in this old house. The very closure I was looking for was in her desk the whole time. The elation I felt almost distracted me from the postscript at the bottom of the page:
P.S. Don’t go in the basement.
How peculiar. What was down there? Was my aunt hiding something? If so, what was it?
Curious as ever, I walked over to the basement door with the letter in hand, knowing that the answers were down there. I took one last look at the warning. Don’t go in the basement. It was most likely the ramblings of an unstable woman on the verge of death, but what could be the real meaning behind it? Why the basement? Why me?
I could recall the basement from when I was younger, but I didn’t remember much. I had only been down there once. My aunt was outside gardening while I was inside reading one of her books. I grew tired of reading and set the book down on her desk. Soon after, I began wandering around the house out of boredom. I walked around the entire cottage rather quickly. Eventually, I came upon the basement, somewhere I had never played before. Knowing my aunt wouldn’t be in for a while, I decided to venture on. I turned the knob, and swung the door open. I could only see the top of the stairs descending down into darkness. Despite the bit of fear rattling in my chest, I pressed on. Once down there, my field of vision was filled with pitch blackness. This caused me to scramble about, looking for a light-switch. After a few moments, I bumped into a string, dangling from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Upon pulling it, the room lit up, however dimly. What I saw disappointed me.
It was a typical basement, but smaller, with concrete walls, a concrete floor, and some pieces of wood sitting off in the corner (probably some old floorboards left over from the house’s construction). When you’re a kid, there’s a bit of mystery and adventure injected into everything you do. This adventure ended on a flat note, leading me to an unused space, lost to the depths of the house. The next thing I remember was my aunt’s voice as she came down the stairs yelling, “You can’t be down here!” She sounded more worried than angry – probably scared I would somehow hurt myself down there. There was more to this memory, but that was all I could recall while standing in front of the basement door.
I turned the knob and swung the door open, revealing only the top of the stairs and the basement below, completely void of light. Instead of feeling adventurous like I did as a child, I now felt nervous, repeating the words my aunt had left for me over and over in my head, and then asking myself once more; why?
I crept down the stairs slowly, so as not to shake the foundation. That’s what I told myself, but I guess my sluggish pace was largely on account of the fact that I was frightened at what I might find when I reached the bottom. Growing impatient and uncomfortably anxious, I picked up the pace a bit. I felt the concrete below my feet, and I rapidly darted towards the center of the room, reaching for the light, praying that it still worked. I felt around for the string and then pulled it. To my delight, it still harbored electricity. The room became dimly lit. In a panicky state, I spun around looking every which way as I did. What I saw, surprised me.
There was nothing there. It was just how I left it when I was a kid. Even the old floorboards were there, still untouched. I felt relieved, but far more confused than before. Why didn’t my aunt want me to go down there? I pondered for a bit and figured that maybe there was asbestos or mold in the cellar walls. This would explain why she didn’t want me playing in there as a kid, and why she didn’t want me there as an adult either. She just wanted to keep me safe, like she always did. This made me feel better, but deep down I knew there was more behind my aunt’s plea. As I made my way over to the stairs, something gave me pause. Memories were coming back to me. I could recall being in the basement when I was younger, but there was something different about it. Different than how it looked now. There was a door. A door that led straight to the attic.
How could I have forgotten? It was all so clear to me now. I remember finding a door down there and entering the attic. I knew that it was the attic, because I peered out the window and saw my aunt gardening two stories below. I waved to her, but she was too busy to notice me. I found it odd at the time that I was able to travel directly from the basement to the attic without so much as climbing a single step, but I brushed it off. After all, I was only ten, and I had no interest in getting caught up in the semantics of how a house was built. Being older, this strange memory was perplexing. How could the basement lead to the attic? It isn’t even remotely possible. I tried to call on some more memories, but the details of that day were still fuzzy.
I tried convincing myself that it was a dream I was recalling. How could it have been anything else? It was nonsense, right? There’s no way it really happened. Somewhat comfortable with this hypothesis, I continued to the stairs, but not before giving the basement another once-over. What I saw eliminated all doubt from my mind.
There, in the middle of the far left wall of the basement, was the door from my memory. I squinted and rubbed my eyes, keeping them closed for a good few seconds before opening them again. When I did, the door was still there, as tangible and existent as ever. This couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. I knew for a fact that the door was not there just a few moments before, and I had already convinced myself that my childhood memory was nothing more than a bizarre dream. What the hell was going on?
There was only one way to find out.
After regaining some composure and mustering up a small amount of courage, I walked, however slowly, towards the inexplicable door. My unhurried movements mirrored my hesitant exterior, allowing me to stall for a moment while I gathered some nerve to actually open the damned thing. Despite my slothful motion, I covered the gap in a few seconds; a testament to the basement’s small size. The moment of truth was upon me. I took a deep breath, turned the knob, and pushed the door open. This was it. I would finally get to the bottom of my aunt’s plea and my own odd memories.
The door creaked and revealed the room behind it. Low and behold, it was none other than the attic; just as I remembered it, window and all! But how? The sunlight came through the window and danced across the room brilliantly, leaving me awestruck. I walked forward to look outside; to make sure that this was indeed the attic and that I hadn’t gone completely crazy. After peering out the window, that verdict was still up in the air.
Two stories below was my aunt’s yard. The grass was green as ever, and the sky was clear as day. Everything was so vibrant. I looked over at my aunt’s garden, and to my surprise, there was a person there. It was a woman, and she was gardening. Who was that, and why was she in my aunt’s garden? She turned around revealing her face, and to my surprise… it was my aunt. What? How? My aunt was dead! I watched as she was lowered into the earth.
Just then, I heard the sound of footsteps from behind me. Startled, I turned around to face the noise.
“Who are you?” a soft voice asked.
It was my ten-year-old self, standing just twenty feet away from me. I was in such a delirious state by this point, that I decided to just go with it and converse with myself.
“I’m… a friend,” is all I could think to say.
“You’re a friend of my aunt’s?” he asked innocently. I had forgotten just how curious I was as a child.
“Yes… a very dear friend.” My younger self walked over to look out the window where I was standing. I stepped aside and let him do so. He saw our aunt outside gardening below and waved at her. She didn’t notice.
“Do you have an aunt?” he asked.
“Yes… but she passed away,” I said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Just then, an epiphany struck. Maybe this was the reason I was here. Maybe this was the closure I needed all along.
“Listen to me. I know it’s hard for you to understand right now, but someday your aunt will pass away too. I want you to spend as much time as possible with her and visit whenever you can. You mean the world to her, and you will regret it if you don’t make an effort to be with her now, while you still can.”
“Okay,” is all he said. That’s all he needed to say.
After walking around and looking at some of the old stuff in the attic, including some old books that caught his eye, my younger self left the attic to venture back to the basement, and shut the door behind him. I looked out the window and noticed that my aunt had finished gardening and was now walking back to the house. This was when my next epiphany struck. I was beginning to remember more of the events from that day. It was all coming back to me. I remembered me as I look now, standing in the attic; the friendly bearded man with glasses! I remembered the conversation we had and even discussing it with my aunt afterward.
My astonishment was interrupted by more footsteps in the next room. This time, they were my aunt’s. I ran over to the door and listened.
“You can’t be down here!” she yelled in a worried tone.
I wanted to open the door and confront her, just to see her one last time and to tell her that I’m sorry for never visiting. I reached for the knob, but I thought it best not to go out there. She would probably have thought that I was an intruder, lurking around her house. As I said before, she wouldn’t recognize me all grown up. My apology would have to go unspoken.
I could hear her scolding the younger version of me and then bringing me back upstairs. Instead of listening to find out what happened next, I just remembered. I could recall telling my aunt about the attic door in the basement and the friendly bearded man. She told me that I had “quite the imagination,” and told me to wash up for dinner. Looking back now, I remember a troubled glint in her eye, especially after divulging what the bearded man told me. She seemed to know more about my experience than she let on.
I stood there for a while, taking everything in. Eventually, I decided it was time for me to leave. I grabbed the knob and jiggled it. It wouldn’t budge. I turned it a little bit harder, but to no avail. A wave of terror consumed me. This didn’t make any sense. The doors in my aunt’s house had no locks. Then again, nothing made sense up until this point either.
I backed up a little and ran into the door. It remained still. I did this a few more times, and even tried breaking the window. Nothing happened. Feeling weary, I sat down and took a breather. This is when I heard a distant echo of footsteps and voices coming from within the house. It was my friend and his girlfriend! I had almost forgotten about them. I was saved!
In a relieved stupor, I called out to them. It became quickly apparent that they could not hear me from wherever I was. I heard them walking around, calling out my name. I increased my volume and started banging on the door.
“I’m in here, guys!” I yelled, not knowing whether I was below or above them. They still couldn’t hear me. I began to panic.
I started screaming at the top of my lungs and banging as hard as I could on the attic door. I received no response. With a dead voice and pained hands, I gave up. I put my back against the wall and slid down to a sitting position, a few tears streaming down my face. I just sat there and listened as my friend and his girlfriend conversed from within the house.
“Where could he be? He said he would meet us at the car, right? If he’s not in the house, then where the hell is he?” my friend asked his girlfriend.
“Did you try the basement?” she asked.
“Yes. There’s nothing but some old floorboards down there.”
“What about the attic?” she asked.
“I tried there too. It’s just filled with a bunch of old, dusty antiques.”
“We’ll have to call the police and have them look for him too. He must’ve gotten lost in the woods looking for us.”
As they made their way out of the cottage, my heart sunk. If they’d already searched the basement and attic, then where was I? I quietly sobbed in the corner for a while before looking through some of my aunt’s old things. It was all I could do, at this point. I didn’t care for any of it, save for one treasure of hers that caught my eye. It was a book with a blood-red symbol hand-painted on the front. I had never seen anything like it before. I opened it up and read the beginning aloud:
“The spells in this book are to be followed precisely. If even one step is not executed properly, you might endanger yourself and those around you. Use these spells at your own risk.”
The odd nature of the preface littered my nerves with a sense of worry. Was my aunt a witch? Before turning the page, I noticed an old lace bookmark saving one of the pages. I opened up to it and looked at the chapter heading:
Chapter VIII: Horticulture
I glanced over at the next page and saw a spell meant to “bring your garden to life.” The ritual involved lighting some candles and making a circle of some special sand I’ve never heard. From within the circle, you are to recite the spell, verbatim. My Latin was a little rusty, but from what I could read of the incantation, it said something along the lines of “bring above that which is below,” which I assumed referred to the growing of plants. I gathered that my aunt performed the ritual in the attic, as there were some dormant candles in with her stuff. The inclusion of this book in my aunt’s collection now made sense to me. She wanted to spice up her dull garden with a bit of witchcraft. I can say with some confidence that it more than likely backfired. I’m now stuck in this damned place; a place that seems to be a realm of its own. I will more than likely spend an eternity here.
I am growing now to accept my fate. She did warn me after all. I should have listened. This is my fault, and mine alone. With the endless paper and writing materials here in this old attic, I am left to do nothing but write down in words what has happened to me, in the hopes that someone may come across it, somehow – the words of a living ghost. If you are reading this, please listen to what I have to say. Your time here is not boundless, and at any moment the horrid hand of the unknown could come knocking at your door, there to bereave your loved ones and steal you away from your blissful, ordinary existence. The cause of this sudden upheaval will be death, or in my case, something far worse. Last but not least, if you are ever in this neck of the woods and feel a need to stop in and say hi, go right ahead. I can’t promise you that you’ll get a response. I just want you to remember two things; your life is fleeting, so spend your time wiser than I did mine – and whatever you do, don’t go in the basement.
Credit: Christopher Maxim
(Click HERE to check out Christopher Maxim’s book, How To Exit Your Body and Other Strange Tales)
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