Below the Surface, Continued (Fourth Installment)

17Jul12

Steven had seen it in the basement when he moved in. Uncle Louis told him it was there and still worked fine, so it was really just a matter of retrieving it. He made sure to grab his cell phone and put it in his shorts pocket before heading to the basement. He knew it seemed irrational, but he felt better having it with him in case he needed it. He turned the doorknob and opened the door, listening to it groan as it swung open. He quickly flipped the light switch at the top of the staircase that lit the single bare bulb that hung above the center of the stairs and the fluorescent lights of the basement ceiling. He could hear the low and the clicking of the fluorescent bulbs as they came to life. Steven slowly made his way down the wooden steps, grateful that he had left his Crocs on because he surely would get a nasty splinter from the worn wood.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and took a quick look around. He didn’t really want to linger here, but he had to admit it was so much cooler in the basement. It was no wonder he and Harry had always spent so much time down here. Steven almost felt a chill and noticed goosebumps forming on his arms. He went back to seeking out the air conditioner. Looking around, he could see that the basement was sparsely filled since Steven had gotten rid of  a lot of the old things and boxes that Uncle Louis had stored down here. Louis had told him he could rid of anything he wanted to and Steven had cleared away much of the clutter of summertime relics, tools and clothes that were there. He had basically stayed away from the far end of the basement where the access was, but the air conditioner was on that side of the room, so he knew he needed to go over. He slowly walked to where the air conditioner sat on one of the many shelves Uncle Louis had installed to keep things from getting damp on the floor. Steven put his arms around the unit to lift it off the shelf and turned hid head to the right, gazing right into the access point. He was drawn to it moving away from the shelving towards the shadowy slant in the wall. The fluorescent light above the access hummed and flickered violently, and then seemed to slow into an almost hypnotic pulse as Steven approached the access. It almost seemed like Steven had floated across the floor, not even feeling the weight of the heavy metal unit he was holding until he was right in front of the access steps, or at least where the steps used to be. Uncle Louis had Oscar remove the steps back then. It took hours of back-breaking labor using a jack hammer, sledges and pick axes. Oscar and his crew had deftly erased the steps and any traces of the accident that occurred with it.

The fluorescent bulbs flashed again and suddenly Steven’s memory was back to that summer. They were 16, he and Harry, doing typical teenage boy stuff all summer long and loving every minute of it. Harry was the brother Steven never had and vice versa for Harry. They were close even though they didn’t really see each other that often outside of the summer. Harry had guided Steven through the winding teenage world of music, cars, girls and more, probably more than Steven really needed to experience. Harry let Steven into a world he barely even had a glimmer of in his home life. Sure, he knew his parents loved him in their own way and always gave him whatever he needed and more, but that was pretty much all he got from them. They hadn’t even come to his graduation from college, choosing a work/vacation in Napa instead.

The two boys were accustomed to sneaking out to Hayes Park, a meeting place for the local teens and the summer tourist teens where they could get together and listen to music,socialize and take the occasional experiment of drink, drugs and, if you were lucky, according to Harry, sex. They had been frequenting Hayes Park pretty much every night that summer, hooking up with various friends they had made and an even wider variety of girls. Harry seemed to meet more girls than Steven, and Steven always attributed it to Harry’s confidence and looks. He was several inches taller than Steven, much more athletic from his time on the track team, more muscular and much more confident. His dirty blonde hair and hazel eyes attracted almost as many girls as his charm did. Often Harry would disappear for about an hour and always came back with a smile on his face. He would often tell Steven about his latest exploits right here in the basement. The boys often slept on old army cots in the basement not only because it was so much cooler down there on hot summer nights, but also because the access provided an easy and convenient late night exit and entry from the house without Uncle Louis and Aunt Linda ever knowing.

It was on one of those nights, August 20th to be exact, that it happened. Harry and Steven strolled across the lawn at 3:30 AM, laughing, drunk and probably a little stoned too. Harry kept regaling Steven with the tales of the latest girl he had his eyes on. Sydney Taylor was pretty 16-year-old girl, a local who worked at the movie theater in town. Steven had seen her around Hayes Park, but she always backed off from serious involvement in anything, even if her close friends were involved. Harry had made it his mission the last few days to try to get to know her. She was a bit standoffish at first, but he seemed to be wearing her down. In Harry’s words, “she was primed and ready.”  They were laughing about how Harry was doing with her when they slowly opened the basement doors, crawled in, and were just closing them when the lights flickered on. There was Aunt Linda, standing there in her pink robe, waiting for the boys with a ghastly sneer on her face. She walked over to them and they both tried to keep a straight face as she lit into them about the dangers of sneaking out, drinking, drugs and unprotected sex. Both boys did all they could to keep from laughing out loud and tried to take it all, with just the occasional smirk or guffaw escaping. Linda decided to let them “sleep it off” in the basement, but in the  morning (which in reality was early afternoon by the time the boys woke up) Uncle Louis had been read the riot act by Linda and he was forced to impose a punishment on them. He grounded them for the weekend and made them sleep in the room next to the master bedroom that night to be sure there would be no more sneaking out.

But Harry had other plans. He knew he could shimmy down the drain pipe outside the window and get out. The problem was Aunt Linda kept checking on them, opening the door to see if they were still in the room. It was nearly midnight when Harry had enough.

“I’m getting out of here,” Harry said as he reached over and grabbed his sneakers.

“Your mom will completely freak out if you’re not here,” Steven told him, trying to appeal to his rational side.

“Then you stay,’ Harry told him as he finished lacing up his shoes. “Sydney is waiting for me and tonight’s it. I am getting her tonight.”

“Don’t do this,” Steven begged.

“Sorry man,” Harry shrugged as he opened the window to go out. he flashed Steven a mischievous grin and was gone out the window. Steven peeked out to make sure he got down okay and then saw him sprinting across the lawn in the direction of Hayes Park. Steven positioned the pillows and blankets on Harry’s bed so it might look like someone was sleeping there if the lights were out. Steven then climbed into bed himself and turned off the light near his bed, darkening the room. He felt badly not going with Harry, missing the party and maybe the chance to get with Sydney’s friend Isabel, who he had met a few days ago and looked awesome in the tight shorts and cutoff shirts she wore.

Aunt Linda peeked in a few minutes later while Steven was still awake but pretending to be asleep when he heard the doorknob. She took it as a good sign that the lights were out and left the room. Steven lingered awake in bed for a while, wondering about all the fun he was going to miss, and he drifted off to sleep with the hope that Harry would have a great adventure to tell in the morning.

Morning came and Steven was awakened to screams. Piercing, horrific, sharp screams. He shot up in bed and looked around. He looked first to Harry’s bed and saw he wasn’t there. The screaming continued and Steven made his way out of the room and down the stairs to the main floor. The screaming was loud but muted. He could tell it was coming from the basement. Steven hurried down the steps, but in hindsight, he wished he had gone slow. He saw Aunt Linda standing there screaming and wailing while Louis stood over Harry’s twisted body. Steven slower moved closer, in what seemed almost like slow motion. The adults didn’t even notice he was there. He was standing over Harry’s body and he looked down to see Harry’s face, almost frozen in a fearful cry, his mouth open as if to scream. He had obviously fallen down the cement steps coming in the basement access and hit his head on the step. A large divot above his vacant eyes revealed not only where his head had struck and taken his life, but a good portion of the inside of Harry’s skull.

The police came and took information from everyone, especially Steven. He finally admitted that Harry had snuck out, much to the dismay of Linda. After the body had been removed and Linda and Louis were finishing up with the police. Steven went back down to the basement. He still couldn’t believe his cousin was gone, but he also couldn’t believe Harry had mis-stepped  and fallen. They had utilized that access hundreds of times and more often than not in the dark and never had so much as stumbled, even when they were drunk or high. Steven examined the steps closely and couldn’t miss the large blood stain on the second step where Harry had met his end. There were still traces of hair and brain matter there as well, which repulsed Steven enough that he went up the steps and out the access, stumbling out into the fresh air and dry heaving along the way. He braced himself on one of the access doors as he bent over, gasping for breath, his nose running. it was then he noticed two things, two things he never told anyone about, ever. One was a footprint, a very small one, much smaller than Harry’s size 11 boats of sneakers. This footprint was so small it almost seemed too small, small enough that maybe it wasn’t a foot at all. Looking closer Steven could see the crescent shape. It could easily have been overlooked since there was only one and it didn’t really look like anything, but there it was, pressed into the earth at the top of the steps. As he pushed off the door to stand up, he noticed the scratch in the door. He had never seen it before, and it wasn’t big, but big enough for someone who used the door every day to notice. It wasn’t a normal scratch from say a garden tool or even a squirrel. It was deeper, not just a surface scratch and not something that could easily be done in the heavy steel door. It was done quickly and with purpose, but who, or what could do that?

Steven never had a chance to tell anyone about anything he saw. After the police left, Louis had Oscar there within the hour to seal the door and start removing the steps. Linda was too distraught to talk about anything, and Louis was on a mission to erase any signs of the accident. Steven didn’t know who he should try to talk to or what he would even say. So he said nothing.

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