That night he laid in bed unsleeping for hours. He was watching a single cockroach crawling along the hardwood floor. It traced its way up the stale white walls and climbed up to the roof, directly above him. Then it clung there, a solitary black dot in an empty field of white, and didn’t move.
He all red
in the living room. The drapes were open, but the window was a thick, oily black, and it seemed to be dripping. The anything outside of the room was lost in a darkness the light couldn’t penetrate.
A train of black insects were crawling in from the dark, each one a featureless speck as black as the dar
kness they had come from. At first it was just a few trickling in, but then they came in hordes, specks of darkness converging toward him and devouring the light on the way. Brennan tried to run, tried to escape the blackness, but there was nowhere to go. Then it caved in on him and it was complete.
He could feel the movement of a thousand flies and worms crawling along his skin. The thin hairy legs of insects were scratching against every inch of his body. Trails of mucus scum slid across him. They just wandered at first, tracing the contours of his flesh and sliding through any open cavities they could find. Then every one of them inched its way down and climbed off his foot.
He was completely alone in total blackness, naked now, cold and shivering. Traces of residual grime still tainted his bare skin. He knelt down and clutched his body to fight off the chill running through his spine.
Then a dead, rancid flesh it was
u d a boy coated in a thick layer of some black oozing liquid, as though he had been drowned in motor oil. He was no bigger than a toddler. He stared at him with his featureless face, blank and motionless. A thick drop of the black sludge slipped to the tip of his nose. It hung there for a moment, shaking and glistening, until it snapped. Then it came crashing down and splattered on the floor.
Slowly the Oil Boy lifted up his arms and held them up toward him. Brennan staggered back, his heart racing. Something caught his heel and he tripped and sprawled out into the dark side of the room and everything turned black again.
Then he was in his bed and it was morning and he was awake.
He struggled through a confused half-dreaming thought about where the child had gone. The thought that the child was begging to be picked up sifted through his mind. Then the dream started to slip and he remembered that he was awake.
For a while he just laid in bed. He felt a horrible flux in his stomach, as though the thick oil on the boy’s skin had splattered in his mouth and was struggling against the digestive acids. He didn’t have the slightest desire to move any part of his body, and he couldn’t come up with the slightest justification as to why he should. And so he just laid there, staring at the white ceiling.
Then a small black speck started to slither slowly across the white overhead. Its presence made him incredibly uneasy, though at first he couldn’t peg quite why. He watched it traverse the length of the ceiling and climb down the wall and then he was sure that it had escaped from his dream.
He watched the black speck crawl down onto the hardwood floor, turn, and walk out the door. He followed after it. He couldn’t tell if it was a cockroach or an ant or anything else. It seemed to be an absence instead of a thing, a concentrate lack of light, crawling through some strange intelligence of its own.
He followed it down the steps. An overwhelming dread struck him when he saw how close they were to the living room. But the speck went past it, on into the kitchen, where it climbed up the counter and slid into the sink.
When he looked in, the sink was infested with black worms, beetles, maggots and flies. They were gathered around the drain like they had been drawn to something inside it, each one of them slithering and scavenging around it, climbing over top of each other to fit. It was a writhing sea of them, almost completely obscuring the off-white porcelain underneath.
The black speck slid down the side, dripping in like a liquid, then was lost in the orgy of insects.
He had an urge to squash them with his hand, but just the though of it made him feel the microscopic hair follicles grating against him, the slime of the skin underneath, and the sick jerks of their bodies. He watched it with a strange union of disgust and curiosity, with the urge both to run and to reach right in, like a man looking over a ledge who feels an inexplicable temptation to jump.
A single flesh fly lifted out of the throng. It soared out over the sink and stumbled about the kitchen madly until it found refuge atop an oven burner and settled down.
Brennan watched it cautiously. He stepped away from the sink slowly and carefully and made his way over to the oven. The fly didn’t stir, other than to flaunt his wings and rub his hands in calm contemplation. He lifted his hand above it slowly until it blocked out the light. Then he slammed it down.
The fly took off as soon as his hand came down and shot back around the room.
Brennan managed to hold himself still and forced himself to watch it silently until it landed on the counter. He moved slowly toward a spool of utensils, his eyes on a spatula behind the fly. He had to reach for it slowly to keep from startling it.
When he pulled it out, the fly hopped into the air in a slight panic, but after a few confused circles it came back down.
He held the spatula up slowly. Then he brought it down as hard as he could.
He didn’t see anything escape. He kept the spatula pressed against the counter, the fly crushed underneath, as he look about to make sure it hadn’t gone away. Then he twisted it and dug it in to grind its bones to dust.
He kept the spatula down until he was sure it was dead. Then he lifted it up and it flew back up into the air unharmed.
Brennan chased it furiously trying to kill it, but he couldn’t catch it. Then it slowed and landed on the home phone. He managed to stop himself before striking again. He waited until he was sure it could not escape. Then he slammed his fist down and hit the hard plastic and knocked the receiver off with a startled ring and still the fly escaped.
He didn’t know what he was doing. He grabbed the phone and hurtled it in the direction of the fly, missing completely. The phone crashed against the wall, denting a hole into the drywall, before it came crashing down onto the ground.
The fly came to a gentle landing on the windowsill.
Then the moaning downstairs picked up again. There was no knocking just yet. Only a quiet, lonely cry from down in the basement, slipping up the stairs and into the room.
Brennan tried to ignore it. He fingered the hole in the wall and brushed a few loose pieces free, almost as though he were checking to make sure it was real. Then he gathered up the pieces of the phone.
The faceplate had fallen off and snapped in two, but it still seemed to be working. He could hear a voice in the earpiece speaking and it was saying “If you would like to place a call…”
He thought about the fly on his windowsill and listened the noise coming from downstairs and a part of him wanted desperately to reach out to somebody. He wanted to call Angela or Dr. Van Langenberg or just anybody, just to talk about it, just to have someone tell him what was real and what was not. But when he tried to imagine it he couldn’t stand the thought of it. Angela’s condescending sympathy. The doctor’s smug distance.
He looked up to the windowsill again and the fly was still there. The window was open a crack and the fly crawled out. As it touched the light outside it dissipated, molecule by molecule, like a powder stirred into water, until it disappeared completely.
When he put back the phone the boy downstairs started banging again and he realized what he had to do. He picked back up the receiver and dialed his realtor.
* * *
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The key,” Brennan said. He droned out a long hum into the receiver to fill the silence while he arranged his thoughts. “I want to know about the key to the basement, which I have not received – ah – at this present time.”
“I didn’t think there was a door,” the realtor said.
“I spoke with you – I spoke with you on, ah, Friday, April eleventh at – I believe – three-thirty PM – approximately – and at that time you communicated to me that you had provided me with all of the keys which were required. Which is a – ah – which is a misrepresentation.”
“There’s no door to the basement. It’s just an opening and then a staircase. I don’t know what you mean.” Her voice was shaking. It cracked when she said basement, the way children’s do when they lie
“No,” he said, then, “yes. There is a door at the end of the basement that is red and – ah – oak, and it requires a key which I have not received.”
“I don’t remember that, Brennan, but I’ve given you every key I have for your home. I’m sorry, but that’s all I was given.”
“What’s behind the door?” The receiver was shaking in his hand and he had to grab ahold of his wrist to keep it still. He realized he was shouting. He droned out another long note and rubbed his forehead to calm down. Then he spoke, soft and slow, “I would like to know what is on the other side of the door. I would like to know that.”
“I don’t remember any door in the basement. I’m sorry.”
The knocking started again. His shouting had woken the thing on the other side, and it was pleading. He moved to the top of the staircase and tilted the phone toward it so that she could hear. For a while he just waited for her to react, but she stayed silent. The only noise coming through the line was her heavy, nervous breaths.
“Okay,” he said. “There is – ah – a chamber underneath my front yard. It is approximately – ah – it is two feet under the ground and it is one-point five thick – that is for the space inside, but there is brick also. How thick would that be. That would be – I don’t know.”
“No. Definitely not. I can assure you there is no such room.”
“Okay.” The groaning sounds started up. It was painful to listen to it and not be able to do anything about it. “Okay. I would like to contact the previous owners.”
“I can’t –”
“I would like their contact information please and thank you. Okay.”
“The previous owner is TD Bank. I can definitely provide you with that number if that’s what you need.”
“You indicated in a prior conversation that the owners had left three years ago. This was on – ah – Tuesday, April second.”
“I don’t have that. From what I remember they skipped town to avoid their bills, so – I can provide you with the bank’s number.”
“They had a baby.”
“Yes. There’s a crib, at least.”
“What happened to the baby?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I could look into this and call you back – is there a specific concern you have about the previous owners?”
“Where is the key to the locked door?
“There is no door in the basement. I’ve seen the basement. I promise you.”
“Why was the door in the basement barricaded?”
“Anna was there.”
He stopped. Every bone locked in place and the skin on his arms shivered like a cold spirit had passed through his body.
He said, “Okay,” then, “thank you,” and hung up the phone.
* * *
Black carrion beetles crawled along the steps as he descended down to the basement. One inched up his leg when he stopped at the bottom, and it bit into his flesh before he could throw it off.
He could feel thousands of them moving against his feet. From the top of staircase, the blackness on the ground had seemed to be noting more than an absence of light, but he could see it moving now, could see slivers of cement in the gaps between them, could feel every little insect twitching against his body.
He found the wine box of memories and carried it up with him as quickly as he could.
Anna was connected to everything. He didn’t know how or why, but the people around him were spelling it out in code. The box was full of her old things. He had to know if there was some kind of clue inside.
The top had been cut open since he’d put it there. It was a violent tear, as though a knife had been stabbed in and pulled through. It had cracked through the back of a picture frame. Small etchings, more careful but still clumsy, were scratched along the crack so that it made a design like this:
He turned the frame over. There was a picture of him and Anna together at Angela’s wedding. Anna was two months pregnant in the picture, though he didn’t know it when it was taken. She never told him the exact day she found out, but he could tell by the way she changed toward him. She was cold, defensive from then on in. She avoided him wherever she could. In the picture she was smiling, but that was a trick of the camera. She barely said a word that whole night.
The split in the frame had cut them in two horizontally. The strange marking came through and sliced into Anna’s belly.
This was a threat. Some who knew about Anna had left it for him. They had set it up so that he’d move into this house, and now they were taunting him.
He put the frame aside and searched through the box. Nothing else seemed to have been changed. Just papers and pictures, no different than when he’d put them in. He pulled a high school yearbook from the bottom and tossed it aside. Then he threw the empty box across the room and stopped.
There was nothing. Just his life. He couldn’t understand it.
In the stillness of the moment he could hear a voice coming through the walls. It was a woman’s. She was raving about something, but Brennan couldn’t make it out. Just one word: knocking, knocking, knocking.
Then there was a voice he’d heard before. He doesn’t think that we know. He’s sick. He did it.
It took a him a moment to recognize it. It was the Egg Man. It was the Egg Man and his wife, their voices carrying through the walls, talking about him.
The woman spoke again, but the only word Brennan could make out was cellar. Then the Egg Man saying, I’m going to take care of him.
He was still for a minute. He just shivered, listening, waiting for them to say something more, but that was the end of it. He watched the front door and he could feel the Egg Man watching him, closing in. He didn’t know what to do. All he could think was that he had to get past the locked door. He had to find the chamber on the other side. He had to do it now.
He put on his boots before going back down to the basement so that the insects couldn’t bite at his feet. He still felt a few small feet crawling up pant leg, creeping up the legs on his hairs, but he suffered through it.
The spade wasn’t resting against the wall where he left it. For a moment he thought it had been taken, but the he saw it, lying on the floor, covered with black larvae withering on the wood. He felt them squish in his hand when it grabbed it, felt their slimy bodies slithering against him as they tried to escape.
It was still coated with them when he’d lifted it off the ground, and he had to run his hand along the wood to shake them off. Their guts squished out and stained against his palm when he passed them. He felt splinters from the wood cut into his hand and bury under his skin on the way through. Then he went back up the stairs and out the front door.
Outside the light was blinding, and he had to guard the sun from his eyes to keep it from burning. He had hoped to be alone, but there was a woman jogging, a car passing, two teenagers on the steps across the road, all of them staring at him as he emerged, an infested spade in hand, his skin red from bug bites, his clothing torn.
His instinct was to run back into the house and hide from their gazes. For a while he hesitated, his free hand on the door handle. Then he let go. He turned his head down so he couldn’t see them, walked into the yard, and turned his back to them.
He knew the locked door was in the centre of the wall, but he couldn’t be sure how deep the chamber on the other side went. He started the digging as close to the wall as he could. There was a bed of tulips and lavender planted there, and so the soil gave way easily. He dug the spade past the roots, threw them aside, and pushed through to the dirt.
The ground grew harder as he dug deeper. He had never done this before, and he was surprised at the struggle that it took to remove it. Stray roots from the maple tree in his yard would block the way, and he had to heave the spade down like an axe to cut through them.
Two feet down the spade hit something hard. He threw the spade aside and got down on his knees, scratching the dirt away with his hands, convinced he’d found the top of the chamber. But all that was there was a stone that had gotten in the way.
When he got back to his feet, the Egg Man was standing there at the edge of his lawn, watching him. He was holding a red apple in his hand. He wasn’t moving, just staring blankly. He lifted the apple up to his mouth and took a long, loud bite. Then he lowered it back down to his side.
“Hello,” the Egg Man said. He chewed the apple, his mouth half agape and bits spilling out onto his shirt. Then he said, “Neighbour.”
Brennan grabbed hold of the spade and crouched back.
The Egg Man took another bite out of the apple. Then he said, “Gardening?”
“Stay away.” Brennan hissed the words out on instinct. He thrusted the spade out wildly. “You stay away from me. I know who you are.”
The Egg Man dropped the apple and stepped back. He put his hands up and, for a second, seemed to truly be afraid. Then he said, “Everybody here knows what you did.”
“It wasn’t me.”
The Egg Man walked away without another word.
Brennan slammed the spade back into the hole, but there was just more dirt. No matter how far down he went, it was always just dirt. He widened the hole, brought it all the way to the wall, but there was nothing. The cement was straight in line with the wall.
He slammed the sharp end of the spade into the cement, but it took more off of the metal than the wall. He thrust it in again, putting every bit of force he had into it, then in flurries of violent blows. Nothing more than a chip came loose.
When he turned back he could see them watching him. Every eye on the street was staring at him, through windows on their balconies, some standing right out in the open just gazing at him, none of them moving.
He took the spade and went back in the house.
* * *
When he came back in, there was a thick crack split through the drywall. It had cut through from under the floorboards and crept up nearly to the ceiling. Smaller lines spilled out the side, making the image of three squares and two lines he’d seen on Anna’s picture.
Trails of black insects had climbed through where the crack split down into the basement and were crawling out of it here, spilling out of the wall. There were hundreds, worming their way along the hardwood; a scavenging, directionless hoard.
He leaned the spade up in the corner by the front door, then traced his fingers along the crack. The shape looked strangely familiar to him now. Not just from the portrait, but there was somewhere else he had seen it before. It wasn’t a mathematical code, it was something else. He felt sure of it.
When he turned back, the slow shuffle of the insects on the floor had started to make its way into the living room. Others he could see ahead were crawling up the stairs and on to the second floor. Their movement, that a moment ago appeared senseless and directionless, now seemed to be a procession leading a path, showing him where they wanted him to go.
He followed them up the steps, taking care not to step on any of them. He didn’t know anymore if the drawings were a threat or something else, but he wanted to see it through. He didn’t want to do anything that might make them stop or turn on him now.
The trail went on and into the third room.
It was the empty one, the one he never entered. He stayed back and watched the crack under the door, expecting a light to flicker, expecting a knocking to start. But nothing happened. Just an endless procession of insects, crawling underneath and disappearing into the black.
He opened the door.
It was completely dark inside. There was a dim light seeping through the curtain, and it was enough to make out the silhouette of a crib, but there didn’t seem to be anything else. It was just an empty room, no different than how he’d found it.
He had to slide his hand along the wall to find the light switch. Then he flicked it and the light came on.
There, standing before him, was an apparition from his nightmares.
It didn’t seem like he had been revealed by the light. It was like the darkness just stayed where he stood. It was the black shadow of a young boy, short enough that he only reached Brennan’s waist.
The bugs crawled up the boy’s leg and seemed to sink into the oily liquid that coated his body. It seemed to drip off of him, spilled down his cheeks as though pieces of him were melting off of his body. A pool of the black liquid was starting to grow around him.
The Oil Boy’s face was turned to the ground, but slowly he lifted it up and looked Brennan in the eye. He seemed to be shivering, but it may have been the shifting of his skin. Then he lifted his hands and staggered forward.
Brennan rushed out of the room and slammed the door shut. He tried to lock it, but he couldn’t from the outside. He ran down the steps, nearly falling from the uncontrolled force of his feet, broke through the living room and out the front door.
He stopped before he could leave the doorway.
The Egg Man was there, standing on the sidewalk, watching him again. There was a hammer in his hand, hanging limply down at his side. He stared at Brennan, his eyes blank and expressionless, and he would not blink.
“I didn’t lock him in there,” Brennan gasped out. Then, louder, “It wasn’t me! I didn’t do anything!”
The Egg Man didn’t move. He just stood still, watching him. Then he started to swing the hammer loosely, back and forth.
Brennan stepped back into the house and locked the door shut. He took the spade from the corner and waited, ready to defend himself.
The house was empty now. Every last one of the bugs had disappeared. He went through the first floor holding the shovel like a spear, but he didn’t dare go up the stairs to the second floor. There was nothing. He was completely alone.
In the kitchen he realized he was shaking and he made himself stop. He put the shovel down on the counter, took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the tap.
There was a white scum lingering in the sink, but he couldn’t be sure if it was residue from the bugs or just the build-up of soap and time. He ran his fingers through it and it felt slimy against his skin, like mucus. Then he rubbed it off on his shirt and drank down the water.
There was a sound he could hear now. A clamour of different voices, all of the neighbours talking, words like knocking and he’s sick slipping through time and time again. There was a gentle moan of the boy downstairs, too tired to knock now, just weeping from behind the locked door.
He pulled himself back into the hallway and looked at the crack in the hall again. A drawing of a crib, crawling in from downstairs. It had to be from the boy behind the door, he felt sure of it. He’d never learned to talk or to write. He had to draw, Brennan was sure of it now. Then it hit him as clear. It was the boy who belonged in that crib. That was what he’d wanted to show him, but he hadn’t known how. He’d been trapped there, in a space that couldn’t be more than foot deep, for as long as the crib had been in that room. Three years at least.
Brennan went back into the kitchen and looked through the fridge. He found a pack of Kraft Singles and headed down to the basement. It was clean now, the infestation had disappeared.
He knelt down by the door. He opened the packets of cheese and slid them, one by one, under the door.