I said, “We got a whole collection of weird shit like this at home. The stories you heard about us? They’re mostly true. This is what we do. We have a talent for it. We have seen shit that would fuel your nightmares. So you need to understand, Amy, that there is nothing you can say that will make us think you’re crazy. But we need to know everything if we’re going to help you. Do you want our help? Because weird things are happening tonight. Big, weird, stupid things.”
She brushed her hair from her eyes, nodded, then said, “Okay.”
“Talk to us.”
She said, “The basement.”
THE DOOR TO the basement was hidden behind a shelf. Not a cool pull-the-book-off-the-bookcase-to-make-it-swing-open Batman secret passage, but a regular old bookshelf that somebody had set in front of the slim door in the storage room to discourage strangers from going in. Strangers, or a thin girl without the upper-body strength to move a bookcase. It took John and me both to scoot it aside, even without a lot of books on the shelves.
Amy shoved open the door, then reached around in the darkness until she found a pull-string for a dangling lightbulb, the once-white string now a greasy brown.
Bare brick walls.
A smell like a pile of wet dogs.
I realized about halfway down the creaky stairs that we were letting the girl take point on our adventure into the dark basement and how utterly unheroic this was.
I reached out and, with a small move of my body, did something that would change my life forever. I gently moved Amy aside and stepped down ahead of her, putting myself between her and the shadows.
Cold down here. I saw little rectangles of white floating in the darkness to my left, ground-level windows buried under snowdrifts.
Around a corner I saw something long and jagged poking out of the darkness, like a tree branch. In the dim light my imagination went wild, seeing razor-sharp claws on the end.
I stepped around the corner, blinking to get some night vision back. In my adrenaline-charged state, I saw a monster, the “arm” ending in a squat body, covered with pointed plates like an alligator’s back, tall legs like a grasshopper, jointed backward and sticking up in the air, giving the creature a “W” shape. The head had twin bundles of eyes, clustered like an insect, which wrapped around to the back of a narrow skull. The mouth was long and equipped with mandibles that ended in points as sharp as hypodermic needles.
I stared at the thing, blinking, thinking it would reveal itself to be, I don’t know, a hot-water heater or something. Then I realized the monster-shaped shadow was, surprisingly, a monster.
Amy rounded the corner. I screamed “GET BACK!!!” and threw out a hand to stop her, catching her right in the face. I had the gun in my hand, yanking it free and firing in one motion, the sound deafening in the basement. I was sure the shot was wild, as likely to hit my foot as the beast.
The creature’s shoulder exploded in a shower of yellow sparks. The extended arm flew off, tumbled to the ground, the jagged end aflame.
I kicked the creature in the chest, knocking it to the floor. I picked up the severed arm and clubbed the beast with it over and over again, screaming at the top of my lungs over the thunk thunk thunk of the beast’s own limb smacking its crotch.
After a moment it became apparent that the monster was not fighting back. It lay there, its limbs splayed stiffly into midair, as if petrified. I gave it seven or eight more thumps with its arm and then dropped the limb on the concrete floor with a thud. I sucked in huge breaths of dank, moldy air, trembling.
John approached, looking down at the broken beast. He said, “It wasn’t very agile, was it?”
“Guys . . .” Amy pushed past us. She squatted and picked up the monster, setting it on its feet again.
“It’s not real, you guys. It’s a model. A prop. Jim made it.”
She balanced the thing on its feet, then stumbled past some strewn cardboard boxes and found another switch. This one turned on a fluorescent shop light overhead.
The creature was actually a lot more horrifying under the glaring lights. The other arm was curled at its side, with talons that looked like they could cut down trees. I could see my reflection in each of the hundred little bundled eyes, a kaleidoscope of my own very tired and pale face.
I said, “Oh. I’m, uh, sorry about that.”
She turned to me, eyes bright, looking like that was just about the most entertaining thing she had seen all year. I looked the monster over. It was, at the very least, an astonishing work of creature art.
John said, “Look at that. At the arm, the tendons and all that.”
I examined the broken arm on the floor, the wound ending in a frayed spray of torn bone and connective tissue. Big Jim had sculpted the inside of this thing, the musculature, tendons, bone, presumably organs as well. Impossible.
“He was into that stuff,” Amy said. “He had all of those sci-fi magazines, and he used to have subscriptions to magazines about makeup and effects and all that stuff. Always mixing big buckets of latex. He wanted to do that stuff when he grew up. This one took him two months. He would come down here after work and just stay. I wouldn’t hear him until early the next morning. Just hours and hours . . .”
She trailed off, the memories of her dead brother taking her mind elsewhere. It seemed like a bad time to mention that I thought it would take a six-man crew from Industrial Light & Magic to make a prop like this, on a budget of a quarter-million dollars. This was soy sauce craftsmanship.
Jim, you crazy fucker. I’m starting to think we could have been friends.
“Come on,” she said. “Over here.”
She went through a short doorway that John had to duck through, a corner of the basement that may have been a coal room decades ago. She knelt down and plugged in a yellow extension cord, bathing the room in a harsh glare of light. Two halogen work lamps stood on thin metal stands, illuminating a small work space including two folding metal tables and dozens of jars and tubes, dye and latex and plaster and every other thing. White five-gallon buckets were piled high in one corner.
Amy said, “He had boxes and boxes and boxes of sketches and notes. He used to write these science fiction stories, really bad ones. He wouldn’t let me read them but I’d sneak looks and the hero would always wind up tied up and naked and at the mercy of these beautiful female alien princesses who would ‘torture’ him. Jim, you know, he kind of went a long time without a girlfriend.”
She was kneeling over a stack of cardboard banker’s boxes. She pulled the lid off one and brought up a series of sketch pads.
“He was doing something bigger, a novel or a screenplay. I’d tell him that they wouldn’t let him do his own props and write the movie both. He said James Cameron did his own designs and models for the robot in Terminator, though. You know that scene in The Matrix where they’ve got a shot of Keanu reaching out to open a door and you can sort of see the reflection of the camera crew in the doorknob? Jim saw that the first time he watched it. Just a total expert. He had all these plans, always talking about selling the house and moving and . . .”
She shrugged, cutting off the words, I think, to keep tears spilling out with them. She handed me a bundle of four or five art pads. I flipped through them, saw sketches of joints and muscles and hands and claws and eyes. I flipped further and saw something that caught my eye.
It was a group of men, walking with three beings that were not men. They were pure black, their limbs represented on the paper by heavy swaths of charcoal. Drawn like they were men made of shadow.
The men in the picture were in a small room, at a doorway. One of the dark creatures was reaching out as if to open the door.
I flipped more pages. I saw another sketch of a doorway; this one was familiar. I had just seen it an hour ago. It was the abandoned balcony door upstairs.
I glanced back at the broken sculpture and said, “All this, that thing back there, Jim said it was for a story he was working on?”
“He never talked about it. But I saw his notes. You know, after. He kept a journal with all that stuff and I had to sort through everything.”
She wiped at her cheek with her sleeve and I felt like an ass for asking. We didn’t ask another question, but she said, “It was parallel-universe stuff. Typical sci-fi, alternate reality and all that. I think his story was about the people on an Earth, a parallel Earth, you know, that was real close to this one and they were trying to build some kind of bridge between the two. Then they would . . . you know—invade.”
“And that creature back there?” I asked. “How did that figure in?”
She shrugged. John said, solemnly, “I’m gonna guess that was the thing that tied him up so the naked alien women could interrogate him.”
Amy laughed and I suddenly remembered why I keep John around. I glanced back again at the one-armed creature and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I COULDN’T HAVE known at the time, right? That maybe all of our answers were there, in Jim’s stuff? That maybe he had pieced the whole thing together?
At that moment, on that night, I just wanted out of there. The rotten smell of guilt hung over every thought. Especially on the subject of Jim.
So, yeah, we clomped up the stairs and flipped out the lights. All of Jim’s materials were thrown under a blanket of darkness, never to be seen by human eyes again.
I never went back down there, from that day until the day we burned the house to the ground.
BACK UPSTAIRS JOHN asked Amy if she had ever seen a jellyfish-looking thing around the house or a huge bag full of what looked like butcher trimmings. To my complete lack of surprise, she said she had not.
She also said that she had never caught anything on the webcams, that they were set to click on at the sign of movement.
“It’s always just me rolling over,” she said. “I move around a lot in bed because of my back and all that.”
“The other times you went missing,” John thought to ask, “how long ago was it?”
“It happened for sure Sunday night, then Tuesday night. Then last night, you know.”