The basement didn’t show up on John’s radar until about a year after they had lived in the house, though other spots did, and much more quickly.
His daughters took note of the upstairs hallway before they even moved in. Em said it felt weird. John felt it too, and even Alice, who did not put much faith in the supernatural, said she thought of the countless footsteps of previous lodgers and families who used to live here.
El said nothing about the upstairs bathroom, just off the hallway and next to her room, but it was clear something inside the room that disturbed her.
The room disturbed John too.
Certain places in the house held shadows within them.
The basement had a much smaller footprint than the house, and resembled a cellar in many ways. Rickety wooden stairs led down to a crumbling cement floor, so degraded in some places it resembled gravel. At the foot of the stairs stood a small workbench, where John kept tools he used most often. Beyond the workbench stretched the basement floor, lined by shelves filled with old paint cans and floor tiles.
To the left of the main basement stood an arched doorway that led to the gas furnace and water heater. The archway used to lead to a coal cellar. The foundation of the old coal furnace still sat on the remaining cement floor, and a passageway to the outside for coal delivery could still be made out of the tumble of disparate architectural elements.
Behind the old furnace, an enormous containing wall loomed, ancient and crumbling. John had never ventured far enough to see what lay behind the wall, if anything. He watched the cable guy climb over the top of the wall when they had first moved in, so he knew he had access to the space.
John and Alice’s realtor, required by law to disclose the information, told them the basement contained a significant amount of asbestos. Since the removal of the hazardous material could potentially release more asbestos into the house, state law required the buyer of the property had to be informed of the presence of asbestos, and sign a wavier of state code safety standards.
The presence of asbestos scared both John and Alice, and while the danger was couched in arcane legalize, they had two small children to think of. They considered backing out of the sale.
In the end, they consulted a private contractor who assured them that as long as the insulation, tape and patching were not broken or dislodged, little to no asbestos would escape into the air.
Still, John and Alice never let the girls in the basement, and told them exactly why. They complied, or at least pretended compliance.
Alice had no reason to ever descend the rickety wooden stairs, as so never did.
John had reasons.
He explored the darkness behind the retaining wall exactly one time. They had lived in the house for about a month, and John had grown curious. So, while his family was gathered in the living room, he quietly descended the stairs, tucked a small step ladder under his arm and followed the path he watched the cable guy take. He set up the ladder, climbed the first couple rungs, turned on his cellphone light, and peered into the gloom.
The smell did not hit him all at once. He squinted as he peered into the darkness behind the wall, leaning forward, trying to discern any distinguishing features. The space appeared to be largely nondescript, most of the space taken up by dry, fine dirt, for about the first six feet. The air was thick with dust, motes of fine dirt crowded in suspension like fog. Beyond that, he could just make out the standard mix of crumbling wall patching and old red brick.
The smell caught up with him as he leaned deep into the dark hole. Mostly the air smelled of dust, floating above the peculiar red dirt, fine as flour. Some other odor crouched behind that scent, as if using it for camouflage.
The air, despite the dryness, smelled of stagnation. Of birth and decay and flawed mortality. He imagined all the families that had lived in this house in the over one hundred years it had stood in this place, the births and deaths, first kisses and final good-byes, Christmas mornings and dark closets, baby teeth under the pillow and sleeping cats on soft rugs and cold, lonely mornings in empty rooms.
The light changed in the dark space, not quite suddenly, as if rays of sun had momentarily broken through low, scudding clouds. The air grew noticeably colder, the pressure of it pressing against John’s skin like water.
He saw in front of him, in this dark, dry place, not the fine red dust he had seen earlier, but a mound of objects, a hill of lost possessions broken off of the lives of strangers, stolen from them and left here to molder. Eyeglasses. Thimbles. Broken pencils. Bottles of dried ink. Unpaired shoes, orphaned socks. Old photographs framed in shattered glass. Tupperware lids that fit no container. Dolls and bibs and sippy cups and blankets. Rusted tricycles and torn kites. Spoons and knives and forks and plates, teacups and tumblers, rotary phones, umbrellas, flash drives, the left behind flotsam and jetsam that comes from the simple act of living in a specific place at a specific time, all of it spirited away and collected in the foundation of this dark old house.
John sensed without knowing that these useless objects had been hoarded like treasure simply because they were artifacts from the lives of the living. Whatever or whoever had collected these objects stood waiting and watching, consumed by angry jealously at the simple mortals who dared to live inside these walls.
The light shifted again, the fog returned, and when it cleared John saw only the scrim of fine dust, hovering over the field of red dirt beneath.
Only one object remained.
An old gilded mirror, bright and winking in the light of the cellphone.
He climbed back down the ladder, stored it away, and climbed the stairs to his family.
He took great care to lock the basement door.