Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Cold that Night Brings by Phil Richardson

Something terrible lurks in the basement of Richard and Joyce's new home, in Phil Richardson's horror

Richard was exhausted; he thought that moving day was never going to end. He was over sixty now and proud of his strength but the boxes were heavy and there were quite a few of them. Joyce said they would save money by hiring a truck and doing the work themselves. Their new house, actually quite an old house, had a staircase that had to be thirty feet high, and lugging boxes and bedding up there was a real chore.

The previous owners, the Brownards, seemed to be in a hurry to leave and had not haggled very much about the price Richard had offered. The Brownards were slightly odd, and they had told Richard if he bought the house, he had to follow one important rule.

"I don't mean to scare you," Mr. Brownard said, "But there are things that happen in this house that most people wouldn't understand. I would stay away from the basement if I were you - except for one thing; you've got to keep a bulb lit over that hole in the floor where the furnace used to be. I told my wife it was to keep the rats away, but there's worse things than rats that you need to keep away."

He wouldn't give Richard any further explanation. "Just don't let the bulb burn out."

When Richard told Joyce about it, he embellished the story, however. "Mr. Brownard told me there were slippery slimy things in the water and if you let the bulb burn out they would come upstairs looking for light and heat."

Joyce didn't think it was funny.

When they took possession of the house, Richard went to the basement and looked around. As Mr. Brownard had said, it was pretty empty. The coal bin, which was no longer used, had a few lumps of coal and a covering of coal dust not only on the floor, but also over the walls.

The pit where a furnace had once stood was filled with dark murky water, which eddied back and forth as though something underneath the water was moving. The dark, swirling water was almost hypnotic in its undulations.

Probably there's a spring or something feeding that pit. Maybe I can get someone to fill it in. Maybe it's rats like Brownard said. They're probably afraid of the light. I wonder how long a rat can live under water?

Richard didn't think much more about the pit and they had been living in the house for about two months when, just before dark one day, he went to the basement to put some empty boxes in the coal bin. While he was there, the basement light burned out. Luckily he had a small flashlight on his key chain and was able to get back up the stairs.

"Got to put a new bulb in. I wish I had one. I'll get one tomorrow," he told Joyce.

"Yes," she replied, "you run out of light bulbs and stuff but you never run out of beer."

That night, Richard and Joyce were sleeping in their bedroom across the hall from the basement door when...

Richard awoke with a convulsive jerk and almost fell out of bed. His eyes opened wide as he tried to pierce the blackness of the room, wondering what had disturbed him. As he turned on his side, Joyce, stirred and mumbled something about freezing. Then he realized that the room was not only dark, but also an icy cold had penetrated the heavy comforter on the bed, chilling his feet, and making his back feel as though it were bare to an arctic wind.

He decided that the cold came through the many cracks and crevices inevitable in a house that was over a hundred years old.

I'll have to get some insulating done. That's going to cost a pretty penny. It's always something. Better check the thermostat now though.

He rolled over, lifted the comforter and swung his legs onto the floor. Involuntarily he pulled his feet back; it felt like they had been thrust into an icy stream.

What in the hell is happening? Maybe Joyce left a window open.

He walked to the window, but it was closed and locked. He then hurried toward the bedroom door looking for the source of the chill air. Suddenly he felt a different kind of chill. His jangled nerves were sending out alarms, and his instinct told him something or someone was on the other side of the door. Something was waiting there - for him or for whoever opened the door. He hesitated, but his curiosity overcame his fear, and his hand reached out to touch the doorknob, which had the clammy feel of a dead hand.

He stepped back, uncertain and afraid, really afraid for the first time in years. Turning, he went to the dresser and rummaged around for his pistol. He found it, took it from the tooled leather holster and then remembered his wife had hidden the bullets "so no one would get hurt." By "no one," she meant herself.

It would make too much noise to wake her now to find out where the bullets were hidden and she didn't like to be awakened; once she had slapped him when he shook her awake.

Well, he had the gun and maybe just the sight of it would scare anyone out there. He went back to the door and the knob turned easily, but the door seemed stuck. He pulled and pulled, but it wouldn't open. It was as if something were pulling just as hard from the other side.

"Who's out there? What are you doing in my house?" his voice keened. The fear heightened the tone so high that he almost sounded like a woman.

"I've got a gun. I can shoot you right through this door. You let go of the doorknob or I will shoot." The barrel of the gun shook so much he could not have hit anyone, even if the gun were loaded.

"I mean it," he shouted, "I'm going to shoot!" Suddenly the door sprung open and he stumbled back. No one was there. Only the blackness of an empty hallway faced him. He stepped forward. The cold was even stronger here. It reached his knees, unobstructed by his thin pajamas, and he shivered.

"Must be a window open somewhere in this damn house," he mumbled.

He wished he had replaced the hallway light so he could see to move down to the living room. He reached out and felt his way forward. The walls did not feel so cold now - only the floor. Why? He reached the door to the cellar, tested the knob but it did not turn.

"Well, Joyce remembered to lock the cellar anyway."

When they first moved into the house, he had nagged Joyce about locking the cellar door. For some reason he was always finding it unlocked, and, sometimes, the door was even standing open so the dank, musty air from below filled the hall.

The cellar was so damp they could not store anything there. And, of course, there was the Pit. Whenever he was forced to go to the basement he avoided going close to the Pit. He blamed his fear on the fact that rats might be swimming in the dark, loathsome water.

Carefully he proceeded down the hall until he reached the kitchen where he flicked on the light. The sudden brightness caused him to squint and he held his hand up to shield his eyes. A quick look told him there was no one in the kitchen. The floor didn't seem as cold here either. He walked over and checked the outside door, but it was locked, the key still in the keyhole.

The door to the living room stood slightly ajar and he approached it carefully using the barrel of the gun to push the door open. Standing in the doorway he tried to project his voice with the strength of someone in command.

"If you're in there, you better come out. I've got a gun and I know how to use it!"

No answer. He reached in, found the switch, and turned on the light. He looked behind the door, walked to the center of the room, and then turned quickly to look behind him. Nothing. His hands had stopped shaking now. The comfort of light had sucked away some of his fear. He poked around in back of the drapes, opened a closet door and was satisfied the room was empty. He retreated to the doorway, turned off the light and backed through the door and into the kitchen.

"Might as well drink a beer," he muttered. "Best way to get myself back to sleep." He opened the refrigerator and had no trouble finding the beer as it occupied the whole lower shelf. The can he picked up was covered with drops of moisture but seemed almost warm in comparison to the cold he had felt earlier. He didn't bother with a glass, but guzzled the beer straight from the can.

Somehow, the one beer did not satisfy him. A lunchmeat sandwich followed and then a small dish of ice cream. He always liked to eat ice cream and drink beer. They seemed to go together somehow. Joyce, however, hated to watch him consume the combination.

"Nobody in their right mind would mix cold beer and cold ice cream. It just makes me sick to my stomach to watch you," she said.

He tossed his empty can across the room where it bounced off the wall and landed in the trash can—the result of much practice on his part.

"One more beer and I'll try to get back to sleep."

The second beer tasted like a third and then he lost count. Finally, his body bent forward and his head came to rest on the kitchen table; the Cold now forgotten, the sleep comfortable.

Back in the bedroom, Joyce slept on. Partly uncovered now and shivering in her sleep because Richard had pulled off the comforter when he got out of bed. In the hallway, the cellar door opened, seemingly by itself. The dark silence of the hall was unbroken by any human steps and the blackness of the hallway hid whatever it was that had opened the door.

Then, The Cold issued forth from the dank and moldy basement. Its darkness had a substance of its own and a fog surrounded it as the frigid air met the warmness of the house. The Cold turned away from the lighted kitchen and flowed towards the open bedroom door, drawn by the absence of light and the warmth of life in the room. The still form of the woman was a magnet for the essence that swirled and tumbled hungrily into the darkened room.

Flowing up the comforter that hung over the edge of the bed, The Cold hesitated over Joyce's body and then pulsed forward to the soft warmth issuing from her open mouth. A blanket of darkness engulfed her still form and an ecstasy of engorgement followed. The warmth of the woman was leached out quickly and then there was nothing left but a cold husk of a body that had once been filled with life.

The Cold flowed out of the door, down the hallway, hesitated at the kitchen, and then again descended back into the cellar. The black pool in the center of the basement rippled softly as the Cold entered and waited there patiently. Maybe other lights would burn out.

Hours later Richard woke to a stiff neck and a headache. Morning light dusted the kitchen. Beer cans littered the floor and the smell of stale beer hung in the air. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his head and then looked at his watch.

"Damn, it's seven o'clock! How come Joyce isn't up?"

He quickly put away the empty beer cans, dumped the dirty dishes into the sink and went to wake his wife. It would not be easy. She slept like the dead.

6 comments:

  1. Very cinematic and engaging. Loved the concept of a formless Cold that seemed to have a conscience. Would love to read more like this!

    Ziyad Hayatli

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  2. A good, creepy tale that moves along well. I liked the simplicity and that the author kept to the action. The hidden bullets were a nice touch as were the ending sentences. Well done.

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  3. Great idea. Very creepy. Has something of the Twilight Zone about it.

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  4. Got to love a protagonist who pauses in the middle of the terror for a beer... Lovely tale!

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  5. When in doubt, have another beer! A thrilling story of great specificity and economy. Very accomplished. I want to read more by Mr. Richardson.
    Philip DiGiacomo

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    Replies
    1. Always love these people who get all these warnings and yet they stay. I would have high tailed it out of there. Like the atmosphere and especially the formlessness of the "entity", always more scary than a traditional "monster".

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