Genre: Horror/Science Fiction
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
THE THING AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRS
THE THING AT THE
BOTTOM OF THE STAIRS
By Daniel Skye
Jerry Carpenter was self-conscious about his hands.
They were tiny and weak, like a child’s hands. His palms were soft and smooth, not rough and gritty and riddled with calluses like his pop’s hands were.
Jerry’s pop refused to hug him as a child. He wasn’t the type to show affection. He wouldn’t even kiss Jerry’s mom in front of him, with the exception of the occasional peck on the cheek. The way he kissed her was the same way you’d give a quick smooch to a distant relative at a reunion.
He wouldn’t hug Jerry because he was afraid it might ‘queer him up’, in his own eloquent words. So instead, they’d shake hands. Jerry could vividly recall his pop’s vicelike grip. His hands were like catchers mitts and his palms were coarse. It was like shaking hands with a strip of sandpaper.
His father had the hands of a carpenter. And Jerry had the hands of a failed writer. They didn’t look like the hands of a murderer, that was for sure.
But if ten years as a criminal psychologist had taught Dr. Strickland anything, it was that looks could be dreadfully deceiving.
Hank Strickland’s field was clinical psychology. His duty was to assess numerous individuals in order to provide clinical judgment, and to deem whether or not the individual is mentally fit to stand trial.
In this particular situation, his job was to interview Jerry Carpenter and determine if he was faking insanity or if he really was a whacko.
Jerry had babbled a mad tale to his arresting officers. He declared that the sky had opened up. That a bright beam of light fell upon them. That he stood aghast as the light seized Audrey and pulled her up into the sky.
Jerry thought about going to the police that night to report her disappearance. But who would believe him? He knew nobody would buy his story. So he waited, and waited, and waited.
Audrey returned after midnight, arriving at the front door, confused and disoriented. She couldn’t recall a single detail. Even after Jerry had filled her in, she refused to believe him. She believed in God, Jesus. She believed in Heaven and Hell. What she didn’t believe in was aliens…until she learned she was pregnant.
A week after her mysterious conception, Jerry and Audrey received several visitors. Jerry had described them in vivid detail to the police. These were not the short, grey-bodied aliens with enlarged heads and big black eyes of traditional science fiction. These were monsters. Hideous creatures devoid of any normal, human qualities.
They communicated through the power of telepathy, speaking to Jerry and Audrey inside their heads, or so Jerry claimed. Conveniently, Audrey couldn’t not corroborate his story. These enigmatic beings had warned them not to speak of this to anyone, not to take Audrey to the doctors, not to even leave the house.
Audrey took a leave of absence from Massapequa Elementary School, and Jerry looked after her as he worked on his latest manuscript. They weren’t worried about the money they’d lose with Audrey out of work. They were worried about what was growing inside Audrey’s belly.
Nine weeks later--not nine months--she gave birth. And that was what really killed her.
The cops questioned Jerry for twelve hours. They made him recite his story over and over again. And every time he told it, there were no inconsistencies, no fractures in his story. Not a word had changed.
Hank Strickland traveled light. No files, no briefcase. He arrived at South Oaks Psychiatric Hospital with nothing more than a yellow legal pad and a ballpoint pen.
Two orderlies accompanied Strickland on his walk to Jerry’s room. One was a tall, dimwitted young man who rather reminded Strickland of Lennie from Of Mice and Men. The other was a short Irish fella named Rafferty who always looked pissed off. He glared at Jerry through the tiny window of the door, as Jerry rocked back and forth inside his padded white cell.
“Sick fuck,” Rafferty muttered. “Murders his wife and then tries to play the insanity card.”
“Everyone is innocent until proven guilty,” Strickland reminded him.
“Doc, I’ve seen plenty of ‘innocent’ people dragged through these halls over the years. Trust me, none of them have truly been innocent. It’s all just an act. It beats prison, right? A cushy, padded cell. Nice drugs to keep you all doped up. This place is paradise compared to prison.”
“Doesn’t look like no murderer to me,” the Lennie Small lookalike observed. “Look at those little girl hands. Hell, even his name is nonthreatening. He couldn’t harm an ant if he stepped on it with all his might.”
Rafferty supplied Hank with a folding chair and unlocked the door. “You sure you want to go in alone?” Rafferty asked. “I wouldn’t trust this freak if I were you, Doc.”
“I’ll be fine,” Strickland assured the orderlies.
“Well, we’ll be waiting for you right out here. Just holler if you need anything.”
“Will do,” Strickland said and stepped in. Rafferty slammed the door behind him and sealed it tight. Strickland unfolded the chair and took a seat, resting his legal pad and pen in his lap.
“I’m not insane,” Jerry laughed. “But this room is enough to drive anyone bonkers. I mean, why all the white? And you know how quiet it gets at night? This room, this place, is enough to make anyone go crazy.”
“Mr. Carpenter, I’m Dr. Hank Strickland. I’ve been assigned to your case.”
“So you’re the one who’s going to decide if I’m coo-coo for cocoa puffs?”
“I’m not here to judge. I’m merely here to assess. This is just a simple psychological evaluation required by the state.”
“You want to hear, about my them, don’t you?”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Carpenter?”
“Call me Jerry, please. I insist.”
“Okay, Jerry. What them are you referring to?”
“Every paranoid schizophrenic has one. A them, a they, an it, an entity. You want to hear about all my paranoid delusions, right? You want me to say I’m hearing voices, right? That God told me to do it. That my neighbor’s dog spoke to me and gave me orders. That my wife hogged the remote and I finally snapped and butchered her. That’s what you really want to hear, right?”
“All I want, Jerry, is the truth. That’s it.”
“I’ve told the truth, Hank,” Jerry said, talking to him as if they’d known each other for years. “And look where it got me. Everyone thinks either I’m a murderer or I’m goofier than a pet raccoon. They think I’m suffering from delusions, hallucinations. Only, I can assure you, Hank, these aren’t delusions. I know what happened. I know what I saw with my own two eyes.”
“I’ve read all the police reports. It’s quite a story. I’ll bet you can understand why the cops are finding it a bit hard to swallow.”
“Swallow it, choke on it–I don’t give a damn what they do with the story. Because the story is not a just some yarn or fairytale. This isn’t a lie, a dream, a fantasy, a delusion. It happened.”
“Tell me more about it,” Strickland said, scribbling notes on his legal pad.
“Why? You said you’ve read the reports.”
“Ah, police reports can be so informal. I’d like to hear it from you personally. Specifically the details about the day your wife gave birth. Also tell me a little more about Audrey, if you wouldn’t mind.”
It’s a funny story how we met, Audrey and I. We met in high school. We didn’t go to the same schools, though. She lived in Braxton, and I lived in Cherrywood, one town over. But we both worked in the same shopping center.
I was working at a pizzeria; she was busing tables at the seafood restaurant next-door. We bumped into each other outside on a cigarette break one evening. We talked for a while. I told her how much I loved seafood, which was a lie. But I was a fan of fried calamari. And even though she was concerned about her figure, Audrey enjoyed pizza as much as anyone else.
So we used to trade. She’d bring me fried calamari and I’d give her a few slices on the house. When I finally got up the nerve to ask her out, I baked her a pizza shaped like a heart, boxed it, and brought it over to her.
I used pepperoni to spell out the words, “will you go out with me?” That was also the day I learned that she hated pepperoni with a passion. But she did adore the pizza I had made just for her. She said yes, by the way. And the rest is history.
We wound up going to the same college, and married shortly after we graduated. I went on to become a mediocre writer with a small publishing deal, and Audrey became a schoolteacher whose writing blew mine out of the water. She’d write on the side for fun. I’d like to think I inspired her a little.
She never tried to get any of her stories published, but she easily could have. She could’ve been big. I know what you’re thinking. That’s motive, right? I was jealous of my wife’s talents. But the truth is I never felt jealous or inferior. I encouraged her to nurture her creative side. Writing had always been an outlet for me, a way to escape reality. And it soon became one for Audrey.
But Audrey was working on another writing project she was hoping I’d never find. She had a diary she kept hidden under our mattress. I found it one day when I was looking for a place to stash some money I’d won in a card game.
Audrey was so vehemently against gambling that I could never let her find it. I couldn’t keep it in my wallet in case she peeked. I couldn’t put it on our bank account because she’d notice. I couldn’t present it to her because she’d want to know where it came from. So I figured I could get away with hiding it under the mattress and use the cash for the next game. And there was the diary. No lock. Just a small notebook filled with her most intimate thoughts.
I know I shouldn’t have looked through it. But what can I say? Curiosity got the better of me. And that’s when I came across those two earth-shattering words: Biologically infertile.
Audrey always wanted a baby. I think that’s why she became a schoolteacher. In a way, she was a mother to every student in her class. She cared for all of them as if they were her own. But the doctors told her she wasn’t capable of bearing children. She was biologically infertile.
We considered options over the years. Adoption. Finding a surrogate. But we just never settled on a choice. So much time had passed and things were perfect the way they were. A child would have complicated things at this point in our lives.
We lived a very normal life. We had dinner together every night, went to the movies, went on walks together, held hands everywhere we went. We went to church on Sundays. Audrey came from a very religious family, so attending church was a weekly requirement.
I’m not very religious myself, but I went just to appease Audrey. She believed in a higher power. Me, I tend to believe in what I can see with my own two eyes. That’s how I know what happened that day was for real.
The clouds departed at their arrival. I saw the ship before I saw that blinding light. The tractor beam, those conspiracy theorists and Sci-Fi writers call it. That light, that tractor beam, it snatched Audrey and sucked her up into the ship.
It wasn’t round or disc shaped like everyone imagines a UFO would be. It was an architectural monstrosity. Twice the size of a house, and three times as complex in its design. When that light took Audrey away, I was sure I’d never see her again.
But when she returned, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I thought the worst was over. But she hadn’t returned alone.
It started a day after the abduction. Cramps, nausea, fatigue, morning sickness, abnormal food cravings. She took a test the same day and confirmed her worst fears. Audrey was pregnant.
In two weeks, her belly swelled like cheap wood exposed to moisture. Her back ached. She was persistently exhausted, nauseous, in pain. After just nine weeks, her water broke. I had no time to get her to the hospital. Her contractions started instantaneously. That baby was ready to come out.
“Keep pushing,” I told her. “You’re doing great. Just keep pushing, honey. You’re doing fine.” But everything was not fine. I couldn’t see a head. I couldn’t see anything.
Audrey wailed and moaned. But this wasn’t the contractions. This was something else. She started screeching, howling in pain, pleading for me to do something. But I was powerless.
The pain was excruciating. Her belly, it just kept swelling. The baby, it was trying to force its way out.
Audrey was thrashing and kicking her legs around. Then she just…stopped. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t screaming. And that was when I saw all the blood. It was…oh, I think I’m gonna be sick…it was eating its way through her stomach.
Strickland sat with his hands folded in his lap over his yellow legal pad. Minutes passed before he spoke.
“That is quite a story,” Strickland concurred with the local police.
“Do you think I killed her?” Jerry asked.
“My personal opinion is not relevant.”
“I mean, come on,” Jerry said, holding up his hands in embarrassment. “Look at these hands. Are these the hands of a murderer?”
“Jerry, if you want me to believe you, why don’t you tell me what happened to the baby? If the baby is alive, it’ll prove your story.”
“The baby is alive. Only it’s not a baby. It’s a fucking monster. But I couldn’t bring myself to kill it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. So I locked it away in the basement. I told the cops to check it out.”
“So why didn’t the police find this horrific creature?”
“It hides. It’s like a chameleon. It can adapt to its surroundings, blend in. It lets you see what it wants you to see.”
“Uh huh,” Strickland said, unconvinced, scribbling more notes on his legal pad.
“Audrey had a little garden out in front of the house. There’s a rock beside it. It's fake. Lift it up and you’ll find a key underneath. Go there, doctor. Look in the basement. You’re my only hope. You can help clear my name. Go. You’ll see none of this is in my head.”
“Rafferty,” Strickland called. “You can let me out now. I think we’re about done here.”
Against his better judgment, Strickland drove his Range Rover out to the house that night. The key was right where Jerry specified, hidden under a fake rock beside Audrey’s garden. Strickland took a quick look around to make sure nobody had seen him. Then he went in through the front door.
The basement door was just past the kitchen.
Strickland stood in near darkness, with nothing but the moon shining through the window to light his path. He stood in front of that door for what felt like ages, steeling himself for the challenge.
“Come on,” he said aloud to himself. “There’s no such thing as monsters or aliens. You’re going to open this door and find nothing.”
He twisted the knob and the door opened just a crack. He peeked in and saw nothing but darkness. He opened the door wider and stood at the top of the stairs.
“Hello?” Strickland called out. “Anybody home?”
Silence. Eerie, unsettling silence.
Strickland dragged his hands across the walls, looking for a light switch and found one. He flipped the switch and the basement lit up like a baseball stadium.
“Hello?” Strickland called out again. The basement responded with a dull echo of his voice.
He waited, too terrified to descend the stairs.
The silence was maddening.
Strickland turned around and was about to call it a night.
Then he heard a creak at the bottom step.
It looked up at him with green, reptilian eyes.
Its body nearly resembled a porcupine, its brownish-yellow fur adorned with sharp spines. Only these spines were thicker and shorter in length than that of porcupines, and almost looked like spikes to Strickland. Most troubling was that the spikes seemed to pulse, contracting and expanding, as if each individual spike was a living, breathing organism.
Its mouth widened and a sound escaped that was anything but human.
As it ascended the stairs, Strickland closed his eyes and whispered, “There’s no such thing as monsters."