By Cody Plepel
On the north side of Chicago, underneath an old brick three-flat, there was a room that didn’t belong. It went unnoticed for decades; tenant after tenant assumed it was something it was not or never even saw it at all. The room was misshapen, its walls askew, meeting at odd, impossible angles. It seemed to grow out of the basement wall, a cancer in an otherwise healthy building.
Over time, slowly, the building died. When Tom Lattermore and his wife Heidi took ownership, it was more of a carcass than a home, its innards empty and decrepit. Tom and Heidi didn’t look much into why; the price was too good. Their plan was to live in the third floor unit and rent the other two. When he was honest with himself, Tom hoped fixing the place up would bring new life into their marriage. Some people had a baby to fix things. Heidi and Tom had an apartment building.
At their best, Heidi and Tom balanced one another. Tom’s wistfulness and entitlement bordered on caricature, while Heidi was grounded in all respects. To Tom, life was a dreary march toward death, punctuated by fleeting moments of joy. It all started with a perfectly normal, perfectly disappointing suburban childhood wherein his only delights had been sneaking into horror movies and shoplifting Stephen King books. He was a miscreant destined for unhappiness.
In many ways, Heidi was the opposite. There was never a woman more determined to be happy with what she had than Heidi. Her head never came close to touching the clouds. She excelled at what she put her mind to, which was often only achievable things, and suffered no fools, except for Tom, whose certainty that life had more to offer them was alluring to her after a life of rigorous discipline. Thus far, their marriage worked, in spite of everything. It had been her idea to buy a house and Tom’s to buy a three-flat fixer upper.
The couple made the third floor unit feel like home within a month. Tom cluttered his office with a mess of occult paraphernalia – books, posters, artifacts of dubious origin. The collection of said esoterism had been his life’s purpose until he met Heidi. For her part, she set the rest of the house right. Their home had three bedrooms, though two of them wouldn’t have fit a twin. A single hallway ran like a trunk along the entire apartment, with rooms – a dining room, an office, a living room – sprouting off of it. It had hardwood floors throughout, which Heidi covered in ornate rugs as soon as she was able. The living room even had a fireplace. It was perfect.
The work on the rest of the building went slower. Tom worked evenings all over the city while Heidi worked days as a paralegal, leaving little time for repairs. Heidi bore the brunt of the work initially – Tom said it was her idea – and began to carry the natural resentment of that imbalance accordingly. It didn’t help that they were unprepared for the deluge of costs associated with owning a three-flat. They were a week out from city inspection when Heidi overdrafted at the grocery store. She put the meat back and checked out with bread, peanut butter, and bananas. It was going to be close, but it looked like it would all come together. Until Tom noticed the room.
It was an uncharacteristically awful day in Chicago: a thunderstorm pummeled the city and engulfed the sky in an inky black. Tom never noticed, though. He spent the day fitting pipes in the claustrophobic basement. To enter, one had to walk down two narrow flights of stairs that led down from the building’s main foyer. As the stairs descended, the ceiling lowered, forcing any who entered to crouch through a small doorway into the basement itself. Inside it had an eight-foot ceiling with a maze of ill-fitting pipes and cobwebs. Long halogen lights dangled on thin chains. Old washing machines and the abandoned refuse of old tenants filled the room. Several small glass-block windows let in what light they could. Tom was putting tools away when the sensation of being watched crawled through him. When he looked around for the cause, he found the room.
He closed his toolbox and stared. This wasn’t on any floor plan they had. The room had an ordinary door, more or less, painted white with chipped spots that revealed a charcoal-colored wood beneath. More peculiar was that it had neither handle nor hinge. There was no knob. In its place was a small, metal slit; a rusty, red substance flaked from its edges. Tom rose to his feet and pushed gently on the door. It was immovable. He leaned down and peered into the slit. He saw only blackness.
He leaned his ear close and listened. Outside, the thunderstorm reached a new crescendo, the rain hammering the windows and walls and drowning out all other sounds. Water dripped through the grout of the glass-block windows and slithered toward the drains in the center of the room. Tom took out his notepad and was making a note about the door and the leak when the power went out. He fumbled around in the darkness, stopping when he noticed a crack of light shone beneath the door.
The light was strange, though. It did nothing to brighten the basement itself. Its luminescence was trapped somehow. As Tom leaned closer to inspect it, two shadows appeared, like someone stood in the room beyond.
“Hello?” Tom said.
The two shadows disappeared from beneath the door. Tom backed slowly into the staircase, left his toolbox, and clambered up the stairs to his apartment.
Heidi had already lit candles and was reading in the living room. She called out as he closed the door, “I’ve got candles out here babe.”
Tom crouched against the door and collected himself before entering the living room. Heidi wore a dark headwrap and her thick-rimmed reading glasses.
Without looking at him, she said, “You look like hell. Are you ok?”
He said, “Have you ever noticed that room in the basement?”
Her book fell flat on her lap and gave him her attention, “No? What room?”
“There’s a room in the basement that isn’t on the floor plan.” Tom said.
“Huh. It’s probably just a storage room,” her face took on a quizzical look, “Why?”
“I saw a light beneath the door,” he said, “I think I saw a ghost.”
“What? Did you open it?” Her voice squeaked when she was worried.
“No, none of my keys opened the locks.”
“Oh, weird. Well, it wasn’t a ghost. Probably just some trash a tenant left.”
“I mean, they moved away from the light.”
Real fear crossed her face, “Oh no – what if it’s rats?”
Relief washed over Tom, “You’re right. I’m an idiot.”
“An idiot who believes in ghosts,” Heidi said with a smirk, “Look who’s taking work home with them now!”
Tom wandered to the other side of the couch and plopped down. Heidi put her feet on his lap and went back to her book. Tom watched the rain roll down the windows, his mind turning over the possibilities, until Heidi decided it was time for bed. Once their nightly routines had finished and they were in bed, Heidi rolled over and looked at Tom in the lamplight. Tom laid on his back, his laptop open on his stomach.
“No kiss tonight?” she asked.
Tom’s eyes were far away, and they took a moment to return to the here and now. He leaned over and placed a kiss on her lips. Soon, Heidi was asleep. Tom, however, stayed awake that night. It could have been rats, sure, but why was the light on?
The next night, after work and with the power restored, Tom took a crowbar and chisel down to the basement. He set to work immediately, but he found no purchase on the frame itself. It was a seamless joining. Not even air would get through. Prying under the door had similarly futile results; it seemed immovable. The chisels he hammered dull on the bricks of the room itself, where they left no mark. As he worked, he sensed, again, that he was being watched. Sweating and fearful, he slumped onto the last step of the stairwell.
Tom flipped the light switch. He waited in the darkness, his eyes never leaving the door. There was only light beneath, no sign of whatever was there previously. Tom let out a long, shaky breath and wiped his hair from his brow. He got up, flicked the lights on, and gathered his tools. As he turned to leave, a soft knock came from behind him.
Tom froze. He strained every muscle in his body, willing himself not to move. Slowly, he turned around and flipped the light switch. The shadows were back. He forced himself to sit again, to try to remain sensible. The feet beneath the door never moved.
Tom raised his voice and said, “Is someone there?”
No voice, no sound at all came from the door.
Another knock, softer, almost welcoming.
“Hello?” Tom whispered.
The shadows moved languorously out of the frame. He rummaged in his tool belt and took out a small journal. He flipped through pages of house diagrams and sketches of apparitions to an empty page and tore it out, then took his carpenter’s pencil and wrote as neatly as he could, “Hello, my name is Tom. Who are you?”
He scratched that out. Names had meaning. He wrote again, “Hello, who are you?”
The paper shook visibly in his hand. He was faint with fear, and an acrid, bile taste soaked the base of his tongue. His mind raced. This was physically impossible. It made no sense. He could hear Heidi making fun of him already. But what if this was real?
Tom looked at the note again, then rose from his haunches and slid it under the door. Only a corner of the note was visible. With great care, he avoided looking into the room itself, fearing that might be looking into his own madness. He made his way back to the staircase and watched again. The note sat unmoving. Time stopped for Tom. All sound disappeared. He heard only the ticking of his wristwatch, and even that faded eventually.
An eternity passed; the note remained. A sudden laugh from Tom broke the spell. This was, in fact, ridiculous. He picked up his tool belt and slung it over his shoulder, casting one last look at the door before flipping the lights off.
The note was gone.
Tom dropped the belt in a clatter and stumbled to the door. He looked as far under the door as he dared, then all around the exterior of the room itself. The note was truly gone. There was no entity either, no sign of what might have taken it. Suffused with a mixture of fear and excitement, Tom gathered his tools and went back upstairs to tell Heidi what happened. She was in the shower, so Tom yelled through the door until she turned the water off. He didn’t care that she was annoyed; he was giddy. Had he found a ghost? Was this a poltergeist? Heidi came out of the bathroom in a towel to find Tom practically bursting. After he hurriedly explained what happened, she sat in silence.
Tom couldn’t take it, “Don’t you have anything to say?”
Heidi said, “A real ghost, huh?”
“Yes! Or something!”
Tom insisted that she go down and see for herself. With great reluctance, Heidi followed.
Nothing had changed in the basement, not even the dust patterns on the ground. Tom turned the lights on as they ducked into the room. Heidi looked between the door and her husband expectantly.
He said, “Are you ready?”
Heidi shrugged. With a deep breath, Tom turned the lights back off. There was no light on under the door. Heidi crossed her arms and tucked her hands beneath them, a sign Tom had come to recognize as disappointment.
“Was this just a weird way to show me you fixed the light?” she asked.
“No? No, the light was on.”
“Looks like it fixed itself then.” Heidi said.
She knocked on the door. The room seemed to eat the sound. Heidi spun on her heel and said, “Lame joke, Tom.”
She crouched beneath the small staircase opening and disappeared. Tom lingered behind, wondering where he’d gone wrong.
A crumpled piece of paper rolled out from the room.
Tom yelped and jumped away. He ran to the staircase and yelled, “Heidi, come back it’s happening!”
Her voice echoed out of the staircase door, “I’m over it, Tom!”
Tom approached the door on quivering legs and picked up the note. He took both sides of it in his fists, as though it might jump up at him, and stretched it between them. His writing was scribbled over in black. Something had been written in shaky, jarring lines beneath it:
Tom cast one more glance at the door. The two shadows were there again, watching him. Tom left his tools and backed out of the basement.
In their apartment, a reality show blared on the television, something about cabin renovations. The host and the family prattled on about drywall as Tom came into the living room and sat next to Heidi.
She asked without looking at him, “Did you find the ghost?”
Tom turned his head and stared at her. “It wrote back to me,” He handed her the torn paper.
She didn’t take it. She looked at him, then down at the paper, and said, “Very funny.”
Tom didn’t blink, nor did he move. He said, “No, I’m serious, .”
Heidi smiled cautiously, then snorted a small laugh, “Ok, good bit.” She turned back to the television.
“Heidi, look at the note.”
She huffed and took the note from him, glancing at it. She crumpled it in her hand and threw it toward the waste basket beneath the end table.
“What the hell?” Tom jumped up and picked the note out of the garbage.
“You wrote some Latin. Great joke.” Heidi was already back to the television.
“No I didn’t!”
“I don’t have the brain space for this now. Just tear down the room, ok?”
“What? We can’t just destroy it,” Tom said.
Heidi stared at her husband for a long moment, then said, “Are you being serious?”
“Yes, I’m being serious!”
Another long pause. Heidi said, “Inspection is in five days. It’s gotta be down by then.”
“What if this is real? A real ghost or something?”
“Enough, this is fucking stupid!” she yelled. He stared at her in mute fury.
Tom finally said, “Are you sure this is Latin?”
“Holy fuck!” Heidi turned off the television and stormed to their room, slamming the door behind her.
Tom nodded and sat back on the couch, reading the note over and over again. He put it into Google translate. It was, in fact, Latin. Quis es. Quis es? Who are you?
The note carved itself onto Tom’s soul. Quis es. Who are you? The question consumed him, and he woke the next morning, his mind decayed, wondering at how to answer it. After a hurried breakfast with a tepid peck from Heidi before she left for work, he dressed in the clothes he wore the day before and went to his office.
He pulled a dozen books off his shelves and poured over each. The stories within were a cavalcade of terror and ruin: sex demons, ghost families, ordinary men pushed to murder, stuff that would, under normal circumstances, be too far-fetched even for Tom’s broad horizons. But these circumstances were anything but normal. After all, he had a note from someone.
After Tom had satisfied his curiosity, he closed the books and translated a new note. Tom took a pseudonym: Ulysses. After a quick translation, he wrote:
Mihi nomen Ulixes est. Quod nomen tibi est?
My name is Ulysses. What is your name?
Tom read the note aloud to himself a few times, trying the ancient language on his tongue. He tucked a sheaf of printer paper beneath his arm, pocketed his phone, and hurried down to the basement.
It was a sweltering day, the sun beating down on the city through shimmering air. In defiance of the sun, the basement was in constant twilight. Tom didn’t bother turning the lights on. The light beneath the door remained, as did the twin shadows. Tom wasted no time. He set up his phone to capture any interactions and slid the note under the door, then perched near one of the busted washing machines and waited. Tense moments passed, but the note remained. He started when his phone fell over. He stood it up again, and when he turned back to the door, the note was gone.
Tom picked up his phone and rewound the footage. Exactly as he remembered it, the footage showed nothing out of the ordinary until the phone itself began to fall. There, in a single frame, was a slender white hand reaching to drag the note further in, followed by static and then the ground itself.
The paper reappeared while Tom was looking at his phone. He set the phone aright and made sure it was recording and stable before he retrieved the note. It read:
NOMEN MIHI EST EPISTEMON ADIUVA ME
MY NAME IS EPISTEMON HELP ME
Tom checked the footage. The note had already appeared by the time he began recording again. When it did, the shadows had moved only slightly, almost imperceptibly. He wrote back on the same page:
Quomodo te adiuvare possum?
How can I help you?
Tom felt a frisson of danger in writing back. He slid the note near the door, further out than before, then turned away. He gave a four count and turned back around. The note was gone.
This was a singular moment in Tom’s life. A gift, proof of the supernatural, proof that all his looking and dreaming had not been in vain. Tom paced the room, ducking under the halogen lights periodically, as his mind reckoned with this new reality. The name, Epistemon, rattled in his head as well. He had read it somewhere. His pacing only stopped when the paper tumbled out from the room.
Tendrils of ice crawled through his guts upon reading the translation.
OPEN THE DOOR
Tom’s fingers trembled as he translated the next message:
Tom slid the note under. Again he paced. No sound from inside the small brick room. The paper returned, the back now had the same tiny writing as the front: barely legible, with erratic extra lines all around.
GIVE THE GIFT
Tom took a new piece of paper out and wrote:
Quod tu es?
What are you?
When he passed the note back, the shadows beneath the door moved to the side. Tom sat and waited for a response; at times rocking back and forth in a squatting position, at others walking laps around the room, but no answer came. The sunbeams shifted from near vertical pillars to small slivers on the wall. Still he waited. Finally, with a light scraping sound, the paper reemerged. Tom jumped to pick it up.
QUAESO NOLO MORI
PLEASE I DO NOT WANT TO DIE
Tom sat back on his haunches and considered the request. He wanted desperately for this to be real, but nothing of this world could have lived in this prison. The sunlight was almost gone, the room near dark, and Tom suddenly felt very alone. Exposed. Standing in front of something he couldn’t have imagined just a week ago. A new, much more primal fear of the dark roosted in his heart. He turned to leave.
Tom fell over himself in fear. He clung to the corner of the basement entryway. Dust motes filtered through the air off the ancient door. For Tom realized now that it was ancient, far older than he first esteemed. Something had shaken it to its very frame. The two shadows moved frantically behind the door like some ghastly shadow play. Tom backed out of the basement and went upstairs in a daze, carried by an abject terror that left him both dumb and feverishly alive.
At his apartment door, he looked down at the notes in his hand, unable to comprehend what he’d found. His mind sought only his wife and safety, solace in an ignorance he could never have again. He rubbed his hands – clammy with sweat – across his pants and opened the door.
Heidi was home already, chopping vegetables for dinner. Tom walked in a torpor to the kitchen where Heidi greeted him with a brisk kiss and a long look at the paper in Tom’s hand. Tom sat at their small dinette, the question and the look both passing him by.
“How’d unit 2’s flooring go?”
Chop chop chop chop chop.
Tom, his soul still in the basement, gave no answer.
“Hon?” Heidi asked.
Chop chop chop chop chop.
Tom looked at her desultorily. His forearms made a smacking sound as they clung with sweat to the vinyl table.
“I didn’t get to it.”
The knife stopped.
“You don’t really want an answer, you just want to be mad.”
“If you say that room, I swear to God.”
“Something is in that room, Heidi.”
Heidi’s knuckles whitened around the knife hilt. A tense moment lingered in the room.
“Do you even want to live here? To fix this place?” she asked.
“What a stupid fucking question. Yes, of course! What does that have to do with the room?”
He’d hurt her. She said, “Don’t curse at me. It’s just that you found some other thing, some mystery,” she put air quotes around mystery, “and then you’re gone, not here helping me. Again”
Tom rose from his seat, “But can’t you see? This is real. Something is happening.”
“But so is this. We’re real. I’m real. Can’t we just let this be real? Tear down the room and just be happy here with me.”
Tom seemed to melt, his body slumping with the weight of her request. He hung his head and tried to craft a neutral expression before looking at her. She was right, of course, but this was real.
“I can’t just ignore the room. Jesus, whatever’s in there wrote me a goddamned novel, practically.”
Tears welled in Heidi’s eyes.
Tom swallowed, “You’re not going to believe me.”
Heidi’s hands went to her hips and balled into tight fists.
“If this is real, prove it. Show me, or I don’t know.”
Tom produced the notes. Tom’s hand burned with the feeling of them. Heidi smoothed them and studied the writing. Her eyes glanced back and forth between Tom and the paper.
Finally, she said, “What’s going on with you?”
“Why?” Tom asked.
“You wrote all the messages, obviously.”
Tom took the papers in hand and looked in disbelief. It was his writing, not the jagged, unearthly writing from before. A faintness took him. It was as though a pale hand reached out and squeezed his heart, making each heartbeat more difficult. Heidi went back to chopping.
“This is so fucking stupid,” Heidi said.
Tom shook his head, “No, no. No, I didn’t do that.”
“Whatever. Tear it down tomorrow, or I will.” Heidi turned a podcast on. Tom was stunned. He wandered to his office as though in a dream. Heidi ate in the kitchen alone, and when she went to bed, she didn’t kiss him goodnight. Tom, for his part, forsook sleep again. He trawled page after page of his books until he found it: Epistemon was real. He was a character in a 16th-century treatise on witchcraft Tom had bought a decade ago. And now he was here, in his basement.
“We need drywall nails, floor varnish, and Murphy’s,” Heidi said.
Tom was crunching on some toast and nodded mutely.
“Did you hear me?” She asked.
Through a mouth full of bread, he responded, “Yes.”
“Nothing else either, I got the $200 warning text from the bank.”
Tom nodded again.
At the door, Heidi paused and said, “No more room today, right?”
Tom said, “No more room.”
Heidi was out the door a second later. Tom finished his toast and dressed for wet weather, then left as well. He traveled on autopilot, got coffee, and appeared in front of a Home Depot twenty minutes later. There, he collected drywall nails, the cheapest floor varnish they had, and some Murphy’s oil soap. His bundle in hand, he walked toward the register.
He stopped when he passed the home security aisle. Cameras. He wandered through it until he found a small internal camera with a cord extension and a phone app. $150. It joined the bundle in his arms.
At home, he put the varnish in the second floor apartment, the oil soap beneath the sink, and left the drywall nails upstairs. He took an extension cord and the camera to the basement. Epistemon was behind the door.
Tom set up the mount, the app, and the camera in silence. Epistemon was shy, and Tom intended to catch a glimpse of him. Tom dragged the long cord from the camera base, meant to see into walls or pipes, and shoved it underneath the door. The shadows moved away immediately. He looked at the feed on his phone for any signs of movement, for Epistemon’s feet, but the further in the camera went, the brighter and more distorted the picture became. What Tom could see was unsettling: a room with no furniture to speak of with a wall of darkness shrouding the back half, on the right of the door, shadowy blobs that could be Epistemon, or not.
Tom inched the camera closer. As a vaguely human outline came into focus, the camera feed winked out. The cord went taut, then immediately slack. Tom pulled it out from the room to find the end mangled, in shreds. The camera in the corner still worked, though, and it had caught his entire exploration. Tom was exultant. Evidence!
Tom watched the footage one one of the washing machines. It was midday. The sun did what it could, but its feeble rays left the room in a saturnine glow. It was clear in the footage: something destroyed the cord. When he finished reviewing, he returned to the live feed and watched the room on his phone for several minutes, hoping for something else to happen, some reaction. He’d invaded and gotten his glimpse. Wouldn’t Epistemon have something to say? Tom slid a note beneath the door:
Quare hoc fecisti?
Why did you do that?
Epistemon responded with silence. Tom tried every trick: looking away for a while, leaving the room, everything. The note remained. Tom did as well. He left the room reluctantly in the afternoon and climbed back upstairs. He made a late lunch with his phone on the counter, the camera feed open. Epistemon was there – the shadows were beneath the door – but he left the note untouched. Tom ate in a thoughtful silence until the front door of his apartment burst open.
It was Heidi. She called, “Tom? Tom! Where are you?”
Tom didn’t answer. He chewed his food and watched the room. Heidi came into the kitchen in a fury.
“What the fuck happened to not buying useless bullshit, Tom? My card just got declined at Jewel!”
Tom didn’t look at her, just at his phone. He sat in the dinette and ate while she talked. Heidi saw the phone and the feed.
“What the fuck is that?” she pointed at the phone.
Tom said, “I got a camera to watch the door.”
The silence that followed was smothering. Finally, Heidi said, “Fuck you.”
That made Tom look up, “What?”
“Fuck you. You fucking selfish prick.”
“Yes! We can’t even buy groceries! Because of this!” Heidi grabbed Tom’s phone and flung it down the hall.
Tom rose from the booth, “You stupid bitch!”
Before he could say anything else, Heidi slapped him across the face.
Heidi shook where she stood, looking breakable. She said in a quivering voice, “Stay on the fucking couch tonight, asshole. Tomorrow, get your stuff and get out!”
The floorboards creaked under Heidi’s pounding feet. She tossed Tom’s pillow out of their bedroom and slammed the door. Tom left his plate, picked up his phone, and laid on the couch. He didn’t notice when Heidi got ready for bed or made dinner or even when she called her Mom in tears. Tom just watched the feed, occasionally muting calls from his work. He kept that cursed vigil until just before dawn, when Epistemon moved away and left the band of light unbroken again.
By the time Heidi left for work, Tom was in the basement with his laptop, phone, and a sheaf of paper. The basement’s darkness was oppressive. The morning light from the windows was a trespasser in dangerous lands, scrupulous and scared of being captured. The camera in the corner was still rolling. Tom set the laptop on the washing machine and started recording the feed. Silence hung over the dank room. Tom moved into the frame of the camera and wrote:
Cur incarcerati estis?
Why were you imprisoned?
SUPERBIA LUXURIAE PECCATUM
PRIDE LUST SIN
Quid facies, si te dimmitam?
What will you do if I release you?
RESPONDE AD OMNES QUAESTIONES ET VADE IN DOMUM TUAM
ANSWER ALL QUESTIONS THEN GO HOME
Tom hesitated only a moment before responding.
Quomodo aperio ostium?
How do I open the door?
SANGUINIS APERIRE SANGUINIS CLAUDERE
BLOOD TO OPEN BLOOD TO CLOSE
A vice held Tom’s heart. His heartbeat banged in his ears, a loud drum filling the universe.
Quid istuc est?
What does that mean?
SACRIFICATIO USUS EST AD SCIENTIAM
ONE MUST SACRIFICE FOR KNOWLEDGE
Tom went back to his apartment and returned with a small paring knife. He nicked his thumb. The red bulb of blood reflected the room’s feeble light. He studied his distended face in the reflection before smearing his thumb across the center of the door. For an instant, the blood laid atop the wood, as though a layer of oil separated it. Then the door consumed it. It seeped into the cracks and ran along the iron rivets before all trace of it disappeared.
Nonne hoc opus est?
Did that work?
USE THE ORIFICE
The slit. It had to be the slit. Tom squeezed fresh blood out of his thumb. As he went to smear it on the opening, an ornate blade emerged and slid upwards like a tongue. Tom jerked back, but it gouged his wrist. His scream rattled the house. Great gouts of blood spurted over the door and the iron slit. Tom clutched his arm to his chest and yelled at no one for help. The normal darkness of the room deepened and became almost tangible, a woolen blanket. The luminescence beneath grew rounder and fuller, an animal gorging on a meal after an age of hunger. The door remained closed.
Tom writhed on the floor and wept. Some old washcloths had laid in a heap in the corner since he’d moved into the building. He crawled to them and stuffed one into the wound to try to stop the hemorrhaging. Blood covered the floor. He slipped as he crawled back to the center of the room. Woozy and fading, he came to a rest prostrate in front of the door. His mind teetered on a precipice. The shadows under the door coalesced into a large blob. Unlike before, the light seemed to be pulsing, pushing hard against the dimness of the basement, like it was trying to break free.
A arachnidian hand, white like an egg and with slender, elongated fingers, appeared at the edge of the shadows and crept along the bottom of the door. It strained and struggled to push against some unseen force that laid just on the boundary of the room itself. Finally, it found a purchase on the basement side. With great, unearthly effort, it gripped the door. Tom’s chest grew taut. He wormed his way closer to the hand. Beyond, the light and shadows ebbed and flowed. A pallid face sank into view.
It was a sick caricature of a human. Its features were all wrong, a wretched approximation of nature. The figure had no hair. Most of the details of the face were washed out in shadow and light, but what was visible was misplaced and repulsive: a squat nose too high on the face and turned up like a pig’s, eyes too far apart, and a gaping pit for a mouth – no teeth or tongue in sight. All Tom registered was the pale, blue eyes, which looked unblinking at him. Tom’s shaky, ragged breaths scattered dust across the floor where it piled up on the boundary between this world and the room. For a brief moment, the two just looked at one another, neither moving. Then the white hand unfurled its fingers and strained to reach Tom.
Tom released his mangled wrist and reached out to the otherworldly being. Epistemon struggled to move their fingers even an inch, though no expression appeared on their face. Tom closed the distance and, with only a second’s thought, placed his fingers onto the white hand.
In an instant, everything changed. Tom’s body left the ground. He floated up and up and up, into an unending abyss of stars and fire. He saw with murky eyes the roiling life and death of the world. Heat and hellfire scalded his face. He emptied his stomach into the aether. Tom flailed, tried to move, to no avail. Whether he moved at great speeds or not at all, he could not say. Did he move through space or time or both? He swam in darkness, an eternity of night. Beneath him, a great maw opened, its countless ivory teeth illuminated by the singular light of the room in the basement. In that light he saw Epistemon, the white figure, reaching, reaching.
From some unseen heights, as though through water, Heidi’s voice pierced this new reality. Tom convulsed on the floor, blood and vomit in streaks around him. Tom felt Epistemon’s touch still, fused with him. Tom’s face was battered and burnt, and Heidi cradled his head as she called his name. The night blurred. Heidi’s voice rang in his subconscious, though he remained dormant. Finally, blinding light brought him to his senses.
Paramedics had come and had already trussed him to the stretcher. Tom writhed beneath the binds and shouted, “Stop! Let me off now!”
The paramedics hesitated. Heidi appeared above him and said, “Tom, you’re hurt, they’re going to take you to get your hand looked at.”
Spittle clung to his lips as he rasped, “I refuse service, I refuse service!”
The paramedics, one a tall man, the other a sleight woman, stood over him and looked at one another, then at Heidi, who pleaded with them to ignore him. The man spoke directly to Tom, asked if he was truly able to refuse. Tom nodded, gave full throated assent. The paramedics unstrapped him and helped him up the stairs to their apartment where, moments after they left, Tom waved off Heidi, stumbled into their bedroom, and fell into a deep, restless sleep. He was not alone.
When Tom woke, it was with a start. Heidi was not beside him. He crawled out of the bed. He stood naked on trembling legs in the early evening light and felt him, Epistemon, in the basement below. His nascent knowledge was an exuberant power inside his breast, an endless dawn light. He perceived the world not as a man, but something more. He felt the currents of air from the window AC dance through his arm hair. His eyes pierced the dimness of the room and the evening with perfect clarity. As his strength returned, he walked as a newborn, frightened and full of potential. He heard Heidi’s heartbeat in the living room.
He followed the rhythmic thud out of the bedroom, down the hall, and into the living room. Heidi sat in the light of a single lamp reading on her laptop. She started when he entered.
“Tom! Whoa whoa, let’s get you back to bed.” she said.
“I’m not going back to bed.”
Heidi got up from the couch and put her hands on his shoulders. Her touch was an invasion that ignited something within him. His body burned with an unseen agony, but he remained rigid. A sweat broke out all over him. His eyes never looked at her. They studied something in the distance she couldn’t see.
Heidi said, “Yes, you are. If you won’t go to the hospital, it’s bed rest until the morning.”
His mind roared. “What’s in the morning?”
“We’re leaving. We’re done with this place, with that room.”
“No, we’re not leaving.”
Heidi’s hands fell slowly to her sides. She took a small step away from her husband. “Look at me, will you baby?”
Tom turned to her.
An ancient fear befell her. One born not in any modern time but long, long before, passed down through her ancestors until, at this very moment, she needed it. Her heart raced; her mouth went dry; a cold sweat soaked her on the spot. Whatever was in front of her was not her husband – it was something, someone, else.
Tom tasted her fear. To him, it smelt like sex, a vulgar affirmation of his strength, a validation of his new awareness. Both Tom and Heidi moved simultaneously. Tom lunged clumsily for her. Heidi fell away and scrambled over the end table and onto the couch. The lamp shattered on the floor and plunged them into darkness. Outside, nature itself protested: a sudden storm ravaged the city. Wind howled through the gangway and rain battered the windows.
Tom was on her immediately. He tossed her into the fireplace like she weighed nothing. Heidi fell in a heap. Dazed, she tried to crawl away from him. Tom grabbed her by the ankle and wrenched. It snapped easily, the crack echoed throughout their apartment. Heidi screamed. She rolled over and dragged herself toward the hallway.
Heidi cried, “Stop! Please Tom, stop!”
Tom, or the body that was Tom, feasted on the scent of fear in the air. Every inch of him was aroused, his senses heightened. He closed his eyes and sniffed deep. The air was thick with Heidi’s odor, but also the wet pavement outside, the varnish from the second floor unit, the food in the refrigerator. Tom raised his arms and swayed in place, drinking in the sensuous pleasure of it all. He let his head fall backward and rest as his power engulfed his mind. He didn’t care about Heidi anymore, so helpless, so frail. He was born anew.
Something hammered into his temple and turned his vision kaleidoscopic. Many Heidis stood above him, iron fire poker in hand. They raised it again and slammed it down, leaving Tom in darkness.
The world came into focus. Tom laid in a pool of his own blood. Moonlight reflected off of it. He winced at the pain that gripped his head.
The sound reverberated through the building. Its old frame shook in protest. Tom pulled himself to his knees.
“Heidi?” Tom called. Blood leaked out of his temple, coloring his body crimson. The memory of his fight with her was distorted and shimmery, like looking at someone through water. Panic rose within him.
Tom pulled himself to his feet. “Heidi! I’m sorry! It’s me!” he called. The power, the awareness had disappeared. He was just Tom again.
He staggered through the apartment. She was nowhere to be found.
He found his phone on the kitchen counter. Tom fumbled to pick it up, the damage to his tendons hampering him. He left it flat on the counter and swiped it on.
He touched the camera app, opening the feed to the basement. Heidi stood, sledgehammer in hand, in front of the room. Scattered all about the floor were wood chips. The hammer had torn great divots out of the door, leaving it pockmarked in shadow. Heidi reared back – then, suddenly, she let the hammer fall. Her head tilted as though listening to something. She limped closer to the door. Tom dropped his phone and stumbled toward the front door. He screamed, “Heidi!”
He fell down the first flight of stairs. As he rose, he cried out again, “Heidi!” It was pitch black in the building. Tom felt his way down, slipping occasionally, yelling all the way down. Finally, at the basement, he emerged from the stairwell and screamed, “Stop!”
Heidi wasn’t there.
The door was open. Just a crack.
Tom froze at the entrance. The darkness in the basement was impenetrable. Tom saw nothing outside of the light from the crack in the door, which spilled out onto the floor in a distorted parallelogram. At its base, a sheen of bright red blood glinted in unearthly light. Tom choked out, “Heidi?”
When no answer came, he swallowed and said, “Epistemon?”
Again, no answer came. Tom took furtive steps into the basement, careful not to step in the light of the room. With silent footfalls, Tom approached, picking up Heidi’s sledgehammer on the way. Tom prodded the door with the handle. It creaked as it opened, an ancient scream. The room was impossibly bigger on the inside. No walls could be seen, and where the light ended, a curtain of darkness blocked all sight. A smell, one that Tom did not recognize and would never forget, wafted out of the open portal. With it, a susurration of voices emerged. Whispers clamored to get inside him, each speaking a foreign tongue.
Tom called out, “Heidi?”
Her voice called back, “Tom! Is that you?”
“It’s me! Where are you?”
“I’m lost in here! My hand’s bleeding. Something’s in here with me!”
Tom swallowed his fear and stepped to the precipice of the room. “Heidi, come to my voice!”
“I can’t! It’s like it’s coming from everywhere. Please! Come find me!”
Tom urged himself to go inside. His mind screamed at his legs to move, but they disobeyed. Tom’s voice was like a rat caught in a trap, “I can’t, baby. I can’t.”
“What? Tom please!”
Tom wept. Everything he’d learned, everything he’d seen came to nothing. Tom screamed into the room.
Heidi’s voice rang out, “Oh god, he found me. Oh holy god!”
Tom cried out, “Heidi!”
She screamed. Something cut it short. The light of the room changed and became less luminous. A sinister tinge of red appeared. It pulsed with new energy. Something stirred within the room. Tom gripped the door frame and peered inside.
“Heidi!” he screamed.
A vast entity loomed beyond the wall of darkness. Tom only knew because he felt its presence, the weight of it. Epistemon. At the edge of the light, the wall of shadow shook like a curtain. The air grew frigid. Tom’s breath came in white mist in front of his face. Epistemon, whatever it was, was coming.
Tom fell back from the door. He crawled beneath the glass block windows and covered his face in his hands. Through his fingers, he watched. Heidi stepped through the doorway. Once she crossed the plane, she bent over and shook with laughter, then stood straight and sniffed deeply, smelling the basement air.
“Heidi?” Tom asked.
He was wrong. That wasn’t her smile. Decay filled the air, and the world around him seemed to wither and die. Tom struggled to breathe. Heidi’s gaze enveloped him completely, blocking out anything but her. She walked towards him.
About the author: Cody Plepel is a game developer and writer based out of Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in the deserts and mountains of Arizona, where he learned to tell stories in the dark around a campfire. When he’s not writing or gaming, he’s painting, rock climbing, or reading with a cat in his lap.
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