by Nic Parsons
(This story is also available as a series on Medium. See my series section to read it that way)
. . .
“There has to be some part of you that still feels.”
“Feels what exactly?”
“Anything. I mean the whole reason you’re doing this has to be the manifestation of some emotion.”
“I don’t know, I guess maybe there used to be. I get little feelings every once in a while in the form of irritations and temporary romances. Over the years they’ve become less and less clear. More of a routine now, I think.”
“Well, if you’re on autopilot then what chance do I have of surviving this?”
“None whatsoever. Though I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy your company.”
The day was dreary as if mourning the loss of a loved one. The sky was painted in a thick grey throughout. It was the kind of grey that made the day hang in a constant state of evening. Cars zipped through wet streets and created a lingering mist. Streetlights were mirrored off the ground at every intersection. Umbrellas were out as people scurried about, wrapped in fall attire and hopping over puddles.
Noey walked out the front door of the bookstore. Another day’s work done. This is usually where people would call their friends or get excited about relaxing with a glass of wine on the couch, maybe with a loved one. These normalities were ridiculous in their ability to brainwash, yet they always had a spot in her head. The walk home was a long one and had become longer recently. Especially on evenings like these when the season had begun taking the leaves off trees and there was a pleasant chill in the air. Too many thoughts. They’ve become so scrambled and abundant that they’re really just noise anymore. Expressions of daylight and darkness ran through her head like a time-lapse video of the sunrise and sunset. A plethora of emotions hazed by the spin-cycle effect her mind had become so good at. It wasn’t an uncommon problem for a person to have. The antisocial people of the world knew what this felt like, when you have nothing to say to anybody you spend a lot of time in your head, often creating delusions of reality. But where these people had solace in their quiet home lives, Noey had only more chaos. Her job offered her a chance to forget about the things at home, albeit temporarily. She’d been employed there for many years now. Each year the job became more necessary in her life. Not for the same reasons it used to.
In the beginning, Noey found out quickly that it was a great place to meet men who shared a common-interest. Long before she began working for the store, she’d been a regular customer, frequenting its calming environment as often as she could. She would stand thin in front of the shelves for hours at a time reading descriptions on back covers, meticulous in the way she chose a title. She was slightly taller than most other women in their late twenties and modestly boasted a slim, beautiful profile. Naturally, after spending enough time there, she was approached by a young man. He asked the kinds of questions that sang melodies to her heart, dropping names of the classics, but also some lesser known stories she’d become quite fond of. She was quick to fall in love. Always had been. It brings with it the curse of appearing unchallenging. It’s not that she was especially needy. More that she loved profusely and without hesitation. She was in love with this man. He certainly wasn’t the first she’d loved this way, but this time it was different. The way he spoke to her was different. The things they shared in common. He was the one. He was going to prove all the others wrong. Not 6 months went by before he suggested they go their separate ways.
Noey woke from her thoughts and realized she was almost home. She turned the corner onto Larch st. and began the final stretch. She didn’t mind the rain. It calmed her. A few more minutes now and she’d be stepping through a door into a different world. One that used to calm her in a different way. There was no reason simple enough to grab hold of and analyze. She acted upon impulse in building this world. It simply was. Any thoughts that dared to go deeper were dismissed. She knew she was insane and didn’t care to ponder why.
She arrived at the front door and pulled out her keys. She unlocked the two deadbolts, then the doorknob and went inside. The place had a smell to it. Nothing grotesque. More like hollow or empty or cold. The walls surrounding her were cracked and grey with orange rust seeping out of certain places. They were bruised and wet all over as if it had felt a lifetime of pain. It seemed as if it wanted to moan and fall over in a final breath of exhaustion.
Noey walked through the living room and kitchen, to the short hallway. At the end there was a door with more locks. She fished in her pockets for a different set of keys and unlocked it. She didn’t like this part. The door creaked and opened into a long, descending staircase as pitch black as a child’s closet. She knew what was down there, but it never helped. Opening the door opened her mind onto itself. All the past pain and torment came through like a gust of wind or backdraft that had been cackling and trembling within its glass cage for years. It almost knocked her back. And wouldn’t that have been nice, to let it knock her back every now and then. To lay on the ground and just be helpless for a while, or maybe even longer than that. Hell, why not let it take her completely? How nice would it be to succumb to this for once. This was an old house and maybe one day it would crumble around her and just force her to the ground. Succumbing wasn’t her style anyway.
She began her descent, the wooden stairs creaking and bending with every step.
. . .
When she first toured the house, the entrance to the staircase had been bricked off. It didn’t take long at all for the realtor to bring it up. In an almost frantic gesture, she told Noey about it, probably half expecting her to walk out on the spot. No doubt there were more than a few potential buyers who were put off by a randomly sealed room in a house this old (and not in the greatest of neighborhoods). Noey, on the other hand, was more put off by the realtor’s overuse of perfume and hairspray than anything else. The scent pervaded her nostrils the second they met. The first time they shook hands Noey was wearing sneakers, blue jeans, and a black hooded sweatshirt, contrasting the realtor’s overdressed please-take-me-seriously clothes. Noey imagined the woman didn’t believe she was actually going to buy it until the deal was closed.
The two of them toured the living room and bathroom that was offset to it, then began walking into the kitchen where the realtor stopped just short of the entryway, pointing to a very short hallway with a door at the end of it.
“Go ahead and open that door” she said.
Noey, a little hesitant, walked towards it. Almost at once she felt an ominous aura present in the hallway which she quickly attributed to her potential psychosis. It’s not as if a thought like that was out of the question. She neared the door and surprised herself with the amount of fear running through her. Not enough to be crippling in any way, but enough to bring forth hesitation before grabbing the handle. She creaked it open slowly. Then she saw the brick.
The realtor spoke immediately.
“Before you ask, I really don’t know what’s in there. This house has no history of crime that I know of and all the research my company has done on the subject has led to dead ends.” Then she paused. “It’s harmless I’m sure. A bit of an eye-sore once the door is open, but harmless.”
Noey stared for a while, in a trance, before realizing the growing silence. “It’s…it’s not a problem.”
The woman seemed confused for a brief moment.
“Good!” she barked back excitedly. “That’s fantastic! It really is a great house. A bit of a fixer-upper, but with a little work it could be really cozy…great for couples…I don’t know if you’ve, well, got someone moving in with you. Maybe trying to start a family? When I was your age, young like you, I went browsing for houses with my fiancé and we-“ she faded out. Noey was too fascinated to pretend to listen any longer. She just stood there, staring at the door. She gazed upon it almost longingly, as though it was filling the emptiness that had consumed her life lately. She romanticized it, thinking You’re mine. I’m going to buy this house, and then you’re all mine. I’ll be back with a sledgehammer, fucker. She chuckled audibly and at once realized the realtor had suddenly stopped talking.
“Are you alright?” she asked. Noey looked back at her, smiling a genuine smile.
“Yes.” she said. “I’m great.”
Two weeks later, the house was hers. She took the day off work, woke up early and drove to the hardware store. She tried holding a few sledgehammers before deciding on one. Many were too heavy for how light she was, but she needed it to be heavy enough to do much of the work itself. At the register was an elderly gentlemen with a scrappy haircut and glasses. He moved slowly, but his hands were strong and rugged. He’d likely been some sort of contractor who was too old for the work anymore, but enjoyed being around the tools he knew and the people who used them. Noey could tell he was going to be the chatty type.
“Well hello there, Miss.” He said promptly.
“Well hello yourself.” She smiled. She handed him the sledgehammer.
“This is mighty big for a little lady like yourself,” he said harmlessly.
“Well this lady’s got some big work ahead of her. Got a wall that needs a makeover.”
“Ah yes. Well, this will do the trick. You got yourself a young gentleman to help you with all that work?”
His implications, though a bit old-fashioned, were pleasant enough in their own way. Noey appreciated his timely outlook on life. It was evidence that simplicity still existed in some places of the world.
“No gentleman for me” she said.
He scanned the sledgehammer then began to look her over.
“Oh, um, a lady then?”
Noey chuckled. “No lady either.”
He paused. “Sounds mighty lonely if you don’t mind me saying so.” The expression in his eyes shifted to a more serious tone. He hesitated for a moment. “You know, having someone is important. You spend enough time alone, you forget the best parts about being human. You can forget that life isn’t really life without that connection.” He paused again, waiting for a reaction. When she didn’t say anything, he continued “You’ll have to forgive me. I sometimes let my age convince me that I’m wise. I’m sure you’re doing just fine.”
“I am. I’m not intending to spend the rest of my life alone. I guess I’m just recovering from a few bad eggs. What about you? Do you have someone?”
He checked to make sure their weren’t any customers coming, reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and removed a picture.
“This is my Edna. We were together 40 years. She passed away last October.”
He handed her the picture. It was an old black and white photo, wrinkled with bent corners like he’d kept it with him every waking hour of his life.
“She’s beautiful” Noey said and handed it back.
“Yes she is. I remember when I used to get upset about this and that. No matter how distant or irritated we were with one another, all I needed to do was look at her or hear her voice to calm me right down. That’s all it took. Like it was a reminder that I was alive and I that I had something to live for…I loved her very much.” He handed Noey her item and the receipt. “And I’m convinced you’ll find someone like that for you one day. Don’t let a few bad eggs throw you off. Don’t give up hope.”
Noey took the items and glanced at his name tag.
“Thank you, Martin. I really appreciate it. I don’t intend to give up.” She handed back the receipt.”I won’t be needing this. If it breaks, I know where to find you.” She smiled. “Have a good day, Martin. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”
It was on her first night in the house that she went to work on the brick wall. It took her several hours to clear it out enough to squeeze through. And she was surprised to find herself afraid when peering in. It was a rush. A feeling unlike the mundane cocktail of emotions she had become desensitized to. She could tell almost immediately that this could turn into an addiction. Not like she wasn’t already used to indulging. Yet this was different somehow. It was radiant as if the fear itself was warm and somehow comforting. Once she was on the other side of the wall, she looked down. In the midst of all the darkness, she could make out a staircase leading down. She fished a flashlight out of her pocket to see the extent of it, but it turned right about 20 feet down. Noey inhaled deeply, sucking in what was probably an unhealthy amount of dust and coughing slightly.
Well, there’d be no point in giving up now she thought and took her first step down.
. . .
The first time she went into the basement, it took Noey almost 7 minutes walking down all the stairs. These days, she could do it in about 5 if she hurried. As she neared the bottom, she could begin to hear him. She heard him mumble through sobs. She heard the rattling of the chains. Step by step, the noise got a little louder. When she was on the last step, her head began to throb. She stopped to lean against the wall that traced down a long, cement hallway. The smell was thicker down here. Water dripped from crevices in the ceiling. The hanging lightbulbs pulsed and flickered. When the headache passed, she moved on. At the end of the hallway was an old red wooden door. She stopped in front of it and stood there for what seemed like minutes. She was afraid. Probably of herself, though she couldn’t be sure. She could make out his words now.
“Help” he said softly, in a voice drained of hope.
“Please. Help me.”
Noey put her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath, and went inside.