Chapter Twenty Six

Posted: April 27, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The year Maddie turned five, her parents decided they’d had enough of city life and set their sights on suburbia. On the recommendation of a colleague, they’d rented a house on the outskirts of their new town, a ramshackle old place with crumbling plaster walls and a leaky roof. Maddie didn’t remember much about it; far brighter in her mind were the memories of that first city apartment where she’d learned to crawl and walk and avoid cockroaches in her patent-leather party shoes, and the house she’d grown up in, purchased after six months in the shitty rental.

     But she remembered the first house’s basement.

     With its dirt-packed floor and perpetually damp walls, it was more cellar than a true basement. They’d never stored anything down there; Maddie couldn’t recall ever setting foot on the rickety staircase, let alone venturing down into the light-less space where the furnace groaned and heaved, sounding for all the world like an oil-fueled monster that hungered for five-year-old flesh. Within a few weeks she went from running past the cellar door at top speed to creeping by slowly, hoping her stealth would keep the Basement Monster from waking. Eventually she refused to go near it altogether; her parents quickly realized it was easier to let her sleep with them than to carry her kicking and screaming to her own room, unfortunately located just past the monster’s lair. Even then she would lie awake, sandwiched between them in the too-small bed, her body rigid as she listened to the house’s every creak and moan.

     That same childhood fear gripped her now, as the door behind her swung shut and she found herself descending another rickety staircase into a pitch black void. The heavy thud of Vinnie’s boots echoed with each step, followed by the quieter shuck of her canvas sneakers. Cringing, Maddie tried to adjust her steps, placing less and less of her shoe on each riser, until she found herself tottering on the balls of her feet.

     She realized too late that this exaggerated tiptoe was terrible for her balance; Vinnie stopped abruptly, jerking on her hand, and her top half continued to careen out and down. She had a brief vision of her head slamming into the concrete at the foot of the stairs before her right hand shot out, seeking the railing she thought she’d glimpsed from the doorway. Rough plywood slid across her palm; there was a quick pinch of pain, so sharp it made her gasp. The handrail swayed, poorly fastened…then held.

     “Jesus,” Vinnie hissed. “I said be careful.”

     “Sorry,” she whispered back. Her hand throbbed where the splinter had gone in; she sucked at the sore spot, knowing that wouldn’t draw out the wood but unable to stand the sting. “Aren’t there any lights down here?”

     “We’re not using them.” She heard the jingle of keys, then a quiet click – a small beam of light illuminated the last few steps. “Stay close,” Vinnie ordered. “And be quiet.”

     Maddie wanted to ask why they couldn’t just use the lights – she didn’t relish the thought of making her way through a dark, unfamiliar basement – but held her tongue. She didn’t need a light to see that Vinnie was scared; she could hear it in his voice, a slight quiver to his usual gruff irritation. Swallowing her fear, she gripped his hand tightly.

     “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

     He led her the rest of the way down the stairs, then veered off to the left. Plywood walls, unfinished like the railing, rose up on either side; they passed door after door, though she supposed “door” was a rather generous description – she was reminded of the makeshift barrier they’d thrown up after Webber had crashed into her apartment. Cheap brass-colored knobs with little thumb locks shone dully in the flashlight beam.

     When they’d walked farther than she’d have thought possible, and taken two more turns, she couldn’t keep a handle on her curiosity any longer. “What is this?” she asked, careful to keep her voice low.

     “Storage.”

     “What-” She stopped short as something brushed her face and trailed back through her hair. Visions of an intricate web, spun by the kind of enormous spider that thrived in cool, dark places, filled her head. She shuddered and moaned.

     “Sshh,” Vinnie whispered.

     “Something touched me!”

     The flashlight rose, revealing the delicate metal chain that dangled just beside her face. “It’s just the light pull,” he said. “Come on.” He jerked her forward.

     Her skin still crawling, she asked, annoyed, “Why are we creeping around in the dark?”

     She felt him draw closer, his hand releasing hers and moving to the small of her back; he bent down to whisper in her ear while they walked. “People sleep down here.”

     Maddie frowned. “So?”

     Rather than elaborate, he stopped, tugging on the hem of her shirt. “Here.” Moving quickly, he slipped a key into the nearest door’s lock; a door, she noticed, that seemed heavier than the others they’d passed, and sported a deadbolt the size of her fist. He slipped inside, pulling her after him; once she was through he eased the door shut again. She heard a soft snick as he re-bolted the lock.

     Vinnie moved away, muttering to himself, taking the light with him as he crossed the room. Maddie remained pressed against the door, considering objectively the situation she was now in. I’m in a locked room, inside of a dark basement, with someone who is carrying a gun. I don’t know how to get back out. My guide is a guy who, up until a few days ago, I thought was 100% crazy. She bit her lip to keep from breaking into hysterical laughter. What the fuck has happened to my life?

     “Come here,” Vinnie said, interrupting her reverie.

     She crossed the room carefully, shuffling her feet to keep from tripping over anything she couldn’t see. When she’d reached his side Vinnie turned, gun in hand, the muzzle pointing directly at her. Maddie froze, terrified, and opened her mouth to scream.

     “Here.” He flipped the barrel, presenting the gun to her butt-first. When she made no move to take it, he sighed. “It’s empty,” he said. “I’ll show you how to load it later.” Still she didn’t move. “Take the fucking gun,” he snapped, and his tone was so scathing and impatient, she had the thing in her hand before she realized what she’d done.

     Holding it gingerly, she looked past him, to the box he’d drawn it from. Eyeing the contents, she sucked in a breath.

     “What the hell is that?” She stared, dumbfounded, at the pile of guns and ammo.

     “Insurance,” he said. “Hold this.”

     Hesitating, she finally stuffed the handgun into her waistband, the way she’d seen him do it, and took the canvas bag he offered. The cold feel of the metal against her back made her shiver.

     He worked fast, stuffing boxes of ammo into the bottom of the bag before adding the guns; he wrapped each weapon in a piece of cloth before setting it inside, muting the click of metal-on-metal. The bag grew impossibly heavy – by the time he’d cinched the top shut and taken it from her, Maddie’s arms and wrists were screaming in protest. Sweat trickled across the splinter in her hand, amplifying the sting.

     “Where did you get all of that?” She wasn’t sure she really wanted to hear the answer.

     He shrugged the bag up over his shoulders and picked up the light. “I have a permit,” he told her.

     “Yeah, but…aren’t guns….expensive?”

     He glared at her in the dim light. “Not everybody spends their money the way you do.”

     She thought about his tiny apartment, and the condition of his building, and bit back a retort. His spending choices were going to benefit them all now, there was no sense arguing about it.

     “We’ve been down here too long,” he said suddenly. “Let’s go.”

     Too long for what, she wanted to ask, but she never got the chance. Before he could flip the lock to let them out, a noise rose from the other side of the flimsy wall.

     “What is that?” Maddie cried.

     “We have to go!” Vinnie jerked open the door and shoved her out. “Run!”

     Stumbling, Maddie obeyed, jogging down the narrow hall. Vinnie stayed at her heels, aiming the flashlight ahead so she could see where she was going. As they raced past the other doors, Maddie saw a few shudder and shake. The noise crescendoed around them, an unearthly groaning.

     “Left!” Vinnie screamed. Maddie veered, bouncing off the corner as she took the turn too tightly. Her shoulder throbbed. Behind them, she heard a splintering crack.

     People sleep down here, he’d said, and suddenly Maddie understood. Who sleeps in a storage room? Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. She remembered Summer’s story about the tunnels – what she and Dirk had found down there. Subway tunnels or tenement basements, they were home to the same people.

     People who didn’t go to the hospital.

     People who crawled home, like cats, and died in the dark.

     Another resounding crack from the rear, followed by the even-louder roar of a shot. Vinnie screamed.

     It’s empty, she told herself. The gun pressed into her back, warm now, and useless. It’s empty, and he has the bag. Her fists clenched, but there was no bat. She slowed for a just a moment, trying to decide what to do.

     A hand plunged out of the darkness, latching on to her shoulder. Maddie shrieked.

     “Run,” Vinnie said, his voice hoarse. He pushed her. “They’re coming. Run.”

     She grabbed his hand, alarmed by the way he stumbled against her. His breathing sounded as ragged as her own.

     “Not alone,” Maddie told him. “Come on. Come on!”

     Now she was the one dragging him, gritting her teeth as he tripped and bumped his way along behind her. The flashlight was gone, but she thought she sensed another hallway ahead.

     Before she could ask, Vinnie yanked her to the right. The sounds behind them faded, until all she could hear was the sound of Vinnie’s boots stomping on the concrete, and the clank of the bag on his back.

     “Right,” he panted, as they came to another turn. A few more feet and they were at the stairs. Maddie tripped over the bottom riser as they started to climb; her face hit another step, smashing her bottom lip into her teeth. Gasping, the taste of blood in her mouth, she surged upward on her hands and knees. Vinnie scrambled past her, the ammo bag knocking her askew again as he went by; when her palms slipped off the step and she crashed down again, she felt panic bloom big and bright. They were going to find her here, scrabbling up the steps like a frightened animal. Any moment now, one would grab her ankle and yank her back down. Any moment. They were coming. They were-

     The door at the top swung open, letting in a weak shaft of sunlight. Vinnie heaved the bag off and up through the opening before turning back to grab her arm and haul her the rest of the way up the stairs. Her feet tangled together, and she fell into him as they stumbled out into the lobby.

     The door slammed. Chests heaving, they leaned against it; Maddie swiped her hand across her face, grimacing when she saw the smear of blood left behind. Her lip was on fire; her shoulder ached; she had a stitch in her side and the damn splinter was still in her palm. But she was alive.

     She laughed suddenly.

     “You okay?” Vinnie reached out, gently touching her swollen lip.

     “Yeah.” She giggled again. “It’s just…did you know I’m afraid of basements?” She bent over, laughing into her hands. “I always told my parents there were monsters down there.” She shook helplessly, tears rolling down her cheeks. “My mother never believed me.”

     The thought of Grace sobered her instantly; drained, she slumped back against the door. Vinnie waited, patient, until she was calm. “Okay?” he asked again.

     She nodded.

     “Okay.” Turning away, he picked up the bag, wincing a little at the weight before slinging it back over his shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he said, taking her hand.

     As they crossed the lobby, Maddie glanced out the glass doors again. The street was still quiet.

     “And then?” she asked.

     Vinnie frowned. “And then….” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

     Maddie sighed. They paused together, Vinnie’s foot on the bottom step, and looked up at the many flights of stairs between them and his apartment. Vinnie glanced at her, uncertainty clear on his face. As they started up the stairs, he muttered to himself. She didn’t catch all of what he said, only the last part, a repetition that made her shiver with fear.

     “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

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