“Em, I think it’s time we admit that sleeping in your basement isn’t as spooky as it was when we were little,” Halcyon said as she laid lethargically atop her sleeping bag, one arm behind her head and the other scratching her bare belly. Emma only let out a reluctant 'mm-hmm', in agreement.
The two girls had been best friends since their pre-school days, and the ancient childhood ritual of the sleepover had long been a favourite past time of theirs. Though they had most often slept in each other’s bedrooms, they would sometimes pick less conventional sleeping locales just to keep things interesting. They’d sleep in their living rooms, camp out in their back yards, and just a couple years ago they’d dared each other to spend the night in the city’s cemetery. It was a dare they’d both lost before the sun even set. They had been thoroughly creeped out by an encounter with a soft-spoken young woman who, after an initial period of reservation, confessed to a rather morbid infatuation with graveyards.
Neither of them were keen to find out what she’d be getting up to after dark.
Despite that misadventure, the only place they’d slept that had ever truly scared them was Emma’s basement, but neither of them could really remember why. It wasn’t even decrepit. It was a fully finished basement, with a bathroom, launderette, and large rec room. Granted, it was a little sparsely furnished and had a lot of storage totes stacked up in the corner, but that was pretty normal as far as basements went. Maybe it was just the unusual perspective of being beneath ground level windows or the otherwise claustrophobic sense of vulnerability that came from being below ground and underneath an entire house, but the last time the girls had tried sleeping downstairs they’d both come running up screaming, and swore to never venture down there again.
That had been years ago now, and neither one of them could remember exactly what it had been that had freaked them out so much.
"It was probably just a raccoon or possum or something that came up to the window that time," Emma suggested. “Even for little girls, we were pretty big pussies back then.”
"I am not now, nor have I ever been, a pussy," Halcyon retorted with an air of mock indignation. "And… I don't think that was it anyway. I remember running from something, something that was down here with us.”
“It was our imaginations then. We were young enough that being without any adult supervision was scary, and being isolated down here felt practically like being home alone. Any shadow or noise could have seemed like a monster,” Emma rationalized. “…Thanks for coming down here with me though. It wasn’t healthy, being afraid of my own basement for so long. I should have done this a long time ago.”
“Don’t thank me. Now you don’t have an excuse not to do your own laundry anymore,” Halcyon smirked. She stretched out like a housecat, letting out a yawn that was more due to boredom than fatigue. “Welp, now that cowering in terror is off the table, what do you want to do for the rest of the night?”
“I think there are some old board games in the armoire. Probably haven’t been touched in years,” Emma suggested.
“I’m game,” Halcyon smiled as she pushed herself up.
“Cool. I’ll go rummage through it, you drag that futon over to the table so that we can share a seat,” Emma instructed.
She heard the sharp screech of the futon being dragged over the hardwood floor as she sorted through the stack of games, only for it to come to an abrupt halt well before it could have possibly have reached the table.
“Come on, there’s no way you’re out of breath already,” Emma teased without bothering to look behind her. “A chick with abs like yours should be able to handle a little heavy lifting.”
“Emma; what’s this?” Halcyon asked, her distraught tone catching Emma off guard. She immediately ran to her friend’s side to see what she had found behind the couch that could have so instantaneously unsettled her.
It was a trapdoor; a wooden hatch built directly into the floor that had been completely concealed by the futon, a small indentation on its side offering the only possible grip to open it.
The girls stared wide-eyed at it for a moment, every possible explanation for and implication of its existence racing through their minds.
“Tell me you knew that was there,” Halcyon asked at last, her voice muted to a soft, pleading tone.
“I never come down here anymore,” Emma replied. “But my parents do. They must know about it. There’s no way they would have overlooked a trapdoor in the basement.”
“The futon’s pretty old. Was it here when your parents bought the house?” Halcyon asked.
“I… have no idea,” Emma admitted. “But we can’t be the first ones to ever move it. I’m sure my parents know about it.”
Halcyon knelt down, sliding her fingers beneath the indentation.
“What are you doing!” Emma hissed.
“I need to know what’s under this thing,” Halcyon replied, pulling on the door as hard as she could, but failing to get it to move.
“See, it doesn’t even open. It was probably sealed before we even moved in, which is why my parents never mentioned it to me. It’s nothing but an architectural quirk of the house.”
“I feel something though. Something metal, like a lock,” Halcyon claimed as she wiggled her fingers deeper into the small indent. “I wonder if…”
The sound of sliding metal was followed by a small clink, and the door popped open. A pungent, musty odour of mold and stale air blasted upwards as it did so. Sitting in the hole was a steep, narrow staircase of rotting wooden planks, descending into the pitch-black underground.
“Holy fuck,” Halcyon gasped.
“Okay, so we have a sub-basement. That’s not that weird. It’s like a root cellar or something,” Emma shrugged. “It’s probably not fit for human habitation, which is why it’s covered up. Close the door and we’ll ask my parents about it in the morning.”
To Emma’s chagrin, Halcyon didn’t comply. She just continued gazing down into the inky black hole with a perverse mix of terror and curiosity.
“I have to know what’s down there,” she said definitively, going to grab a flashlight and an old bat to use as a weapon.
“What? Halcy, do you have any idea how dangerous that is?” Emma protested. “Those steps could break the second you set foot on them! There could be poisonous mold or gas or maybe even something living down there!”
Halcyon shone the flashlight down the staircase, revealing it to be less than seven feet to the bottom.
"Well, a fall to the bottom won't kill us. Let's just go down and take a quick peek. Then we'll know there's nothing to worry about," Halcyon proposed.
“Yeah, ’cuz girls wandering around a strange, dark place in their underwear always has a happy ending,” Emma retorted.
“You said it yourself; it’s probably just an old root cellar. Stop being a pussy.”
“Even if that is what it was originally for, that doesn’t mean the last owner didn’t use it to hide dead bodies. I just got over my fear of this basement, I don’t want to be retraumatized!”
“We came down to this basement to overcome our fear of it, and this is part of the basement, argo we should go down here too,” Halcyon argued.
“It’s ergo,” Emma corrected, crossing her arms and biting her lower lip as she considered her friend’s reasoning. “Alright, we’ll take a quick look, but I’m grabbing my phone.”
Donning her slippers and housecoat and sticking her phone in its pocket, Emma followed Halcyon as the two of them cautiously made their way down the small flight of wobbly stairs.
At the bottom, they were greeted by a pair of long, wooden shelves covered in thick dust, some empty barrels, and stone walls stained in dark mold and white mineral deposits.
“See, it’s just a storage cellar of some kind,” Emma sighed in relief. “Let’s go.”
Halcyon was not so easily satisfied. She turned her light to the shelves and saw that they were not completely bare. A few haphazardly placed mason jars still remained. Setting her bat down, she picked up the first one, blowing off as much dust as she could and held it up to her flashlight.
“Shit,” she murmured.
“What, it’s just fruit preserves,” Emma said, leaning in closer.
“No, look at it. They’re hearts. Little hearts,” Halcyon claimed, passing the jar to her. “From small animals, or maybe from aborted and miscarried fetuses.”
Emma peered into the jar, and saw that her friend was correct. The tiny red objects she had first mistaken for some red fruit were, in fact, minuscule hearts. She stared transfixed at them for several seconds until they all shared a slow, rhythmic beat in unison.
“What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck!” she cursed softly, shoving the jar back to Halcyon and stumbling backwards, holding her hand to her mouth in revulsion as her face contorted into a mortified rictus. Halcyon appeared not to have noticed the hearts beating, and calmly turned the flashlight to the remaining jars. She saw that they too were filled with miniature organs; lungs, livers, kidneys, eyeballs, stomachs, intestines, testicles, ovaries, wombs, and two broken jars with no remnant of what had once been inside them.
“Maybe the person who lived here before was an anatomist of some kind, and they kept their work specimens down here to avoid unsettling any houseguests,” Halcyon speculated. “Em, get your phone out and take some pictures.”
“No,” Emma whispered as she shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes. “Please, Halcy, let’s go.”
“No, we have to explore this whole place. Who knows what else is down here,” Halcyon objected. “Em, come on. Sure, this stuff is creepy, but it’s not dangerous. We’re fine.”
“Halcy, I saw those hearts beat!” Emma screamed. Halcyon raised an eyebrow at her, then grabbed the heart jaw to inspect it.
“I think it was just shadows and your imagination Em,” she said after viewing the jar for a grand total of ten seconds. “Look, if you’re jumpy you can hold the bat, but I’m looking this whole place over before we leave.”
Halcyon slowly walked along each side of the shelves, shining her flashlight along the entirety of their length. At the far end of one of them, she found an old skeleton key hanging by a nail, which she happily plucked and hung around her pinky finger. The barrels were coated with a strange, sticky residue, but were otherwise devoid of content. When she shone her light upon the walls and looked closely, she was sure she could see the faded remains of chalk scribbles beneath all the mold and mineral stains, but no matter how much she squinted she couldn’t decipher any meaning, or even confirm that it was writing in the first place. It made her queasy nonetheless, reminding her of tally marks made on the inside of a prisoner’s cell. She wondered if maybe the anatomists had kept test subjects down here after all.
Moving her light slowly across the back wall, she was startled when its beam revealed a second door made of heavy wooden planks and bound with a chain and padlock.
“Em, I found something!” she called out.
“What?” Emma shouted back.
“I found another door!” she said. Emma came scampering over, baseball bat at the ready. “Where do you think it goes?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s locked,” Emma replied, pointing at it with her bat. “We can’t get in there.”
“I found a key,” Halcyon smiled, holding up her pinky finger. “It’s probably the key that goes to this lock. Should we at least give it a try?”
Emma groaned loudly.
“You’re going to do it no matter what I say, so let’s just get it over with,” she relented.
Excitedly, Halcyon grabbed the lock and inserted the key. Turing it slowly, the lock snapped open. Tossing the chains to the ground and pulling the door open, she eagerly pointed the flashlight into the unlocked area.
Before them was a hand-dug tunnel, barely any bigger than the door was, and stretching on for as long as the light would reach.
“What the hell?” Emma gasped as she raised a trembling hand to her mouth. Halcyon cautiously stuck her head in, moving the light around as she did so.
“I think it’s a bootlegging tunnel,” she speculated.
“No, think about it. Back during prohibition, someone probably used the root cellar to store bootleg booze. That’s why the only way in is a hidden trapdoor,” she reasoned. “I’ve heard that Sombermorey has a whole network of secret bootlegging tunnels. This one probably leads to a hidden exit somewhere so no one ever had to bring booze in or out the front door.”
“That doesn’t explain the mason jars full of tiny organs!” Emma objected.
“No, but it’s an old house. It could have had a bootlegger and an anatomist as former owners,” Halcyon claimed. “Let’s just see where this tunnel comes out.”
“You’re crazy! It could collapse in on us!” Emma protested.
“It’s obviously been here a while, nearly a hundred years if I’m right about it being used for bootlegging. It’s not going to collapse now,” Halcyon countered. “Come on, just a quick dash to the end to see where it comes out. It can’t be that long; it was dug by hand. It’s probably not even a hundred feet, it won’t even take a minute.”
Emma peered down the dark tunnel, looking for any signs of danger or habitation lurking in its foreboding shaft. She saw none, but she couldn’t see very far.
“Alright, but trade me the flashlight for the bat. You’re stronger and tougher than I am,” she proposed. Halcyon nodded in agreement, and the two of them switched items.
Halcyon wasted no time and leading the way, the bat held casually rather than preemptively poised to strike down any surprise attacks. Emma followed immediately behind her, quickly swivelling the flashlight left and right to make sure that no corner of the tunnel was left unilluminated for more than a few seconds. Step after step revealed nothing but packed dirt on all sides, and with each successful stride they put behind them, Emma became more and more optimistic that they might reach the end and find nothing more than a concealed exit to the outside world.
Then the beam from her flashlight fell upon something that both girls could only describe as bizarre. Neither of them panicked immediately, since the thing they now looked upon was so strange and unfamiliar they couldn’t even say what it was, let alone if it was something dangerous.
It looked like a tangled mess of long, fibrous yellow cords, frayed all along their length with ragged, branching tendrils hanging limply off the main stalks. Caught up within the mass were a number of tiny, wrinkled, pinkish grey blobs, like naked rodents huddling together in a mound of refuse for warmth.
Halcyon slowly stepped closer to it while Emma held the light steadily upon it. The closer Halcyon got to it, and the longer she looked at it, the more a sickening sense of recognition dawned upon her.
“Are those… brains?”
Suddenly, the mass sprang to life; its long, trailing spinal cords whipping about in all directions; the small, glistening ganglia quaking with a basic yet horrific sense of awareness.
Both girls screamed at the abomination’s abrupt burst of activity, and Halcyon reacted instinctively by bludgeoning it with the bat. Writhing convulsions of agony shook its spongey form as it desperately pulled itself backwards to safety. Its forward-facing spinal cords swung about blindly and wildly in the hopes of disarming its attacker. By sheer luck and brute force, it succeeded and knocking the bat out of Halcyon’s grip, along with whipping her across the face and drawing blood.
"Run!" Emma screamed, grabbing her friend's hand and dragging her back towards the cellar, her slippers falling off her feet as she did so. Halcyon glanced back to see if the grotesque thing was chasing them, but could see nothing in the dark. She tried to listen for any sign of pursuit, but the monster had no voice and the faint sounds of its neural tentacles were impossible to hear over the racket of their own thundering feet. Even if there had been light, the cerebral creature had no eyes to see. But it could feel. The receding vibrations in the ground as the girls ran away was a highly novel sensation, and what little intellect it had compelled it to follow them.
When the girls reached the cellar, Halcyon slammed the tunnel door shut and attempted to reapply the chain and padlock.
“Leave it!” Emma pleaded. Before Halcyon could even respond, the creature threw its full weight against the door, bashing it open and sending Halcyon flying backwards and into the nearest shelf with enough force to knock it over, taking the second shelf down with it.
The glass jars all shattered upon the ground, their collections of miniature organs set free.
Emma grabbed Halcyon and the pair made a mad dash for the stairs, ducking under the toppled shelf and screaming in anguish as their bare feet cut upon the glass shards. The brain beast crawled above them on top of the shelf, and the girls could feel its splayed nerve endings licking at their heels. When they burst back into the basement, Emma slammed the hatch shut and held it down with all her strength.
“Lock it! Lock it! Lock it!” she screamed as she heard and felt the creature pounding at it from the other side. With trembling, fumbling hands, Halcyon managed to get the door locked, and then went to drag the storage totes over to hold the hatch down in place of her friend. They fled in terror from the monster’s banging, screaming and crying up the stairs, just as they had all those years ago.
Emma's parents drove both girls to the hospital to have their injuries treated, and once they had calmed down enough, they were able to explain what had happened to them. Her parents and the hospital staff were understandably skeptical, but didn't deny the obvious fact that something had clearly happened to the girls. The police were contacted, and their investigation did indeed find the hidden hatch to the root cellar, with toppled shelves, broken glass jars, and a hand-dug tunnel. The tunnel was caved in though when they arrived, and there was no trace of any miniature organ collections or brain monster. The police agreed with Halcyon’s original theory, that the cellar and tunnel had been used for bootlegging, and that some potent leftover fumes had been trapped down there to fester for nearly a century. Exposure to the fumes had caused the girls to hallucinate the whole experience and injure themselves in their panic.
Emma and Halcyon both chose to accept this theory. The investigation hadn’t found any evidence of hallucinogenic substances in the cellar, and there was also the fact that Emma’s slippers were otherwise inexplicably missing, but a hallucination certainly made more sense than a living creature made of nothing but brains and spinal cords. It was far more rational, and comforting, to believe that that thing had never been real, and wasn’t still out there somewhere, possibly with a host of other organ monsters that they had set free.
Neither of them ever went down to that basement again though. Emma’s father even bolted the hatch shut for her peace of mind. Though Emma and Halcyon wouldn’t openly discuss the incident with each other, they were both plagued by the same nagging questions; had they been down there when they were children and blocked out the memory? If they had, and it was real, were they the ones who originally freed the brain beast? But then who had locked it in the tunnel? Surely not a pair of frightened little girls fleeing for their lives. Most concerning of all was the fact that there had been two broken jars in the cellar.
If one had contained the brain beast, then what had been in the other?
Written by The Vesper's Bell