Tara Moeller © 2016
[Inspired by a photo I posted on my E. G. Gaddess Facebook page and an article about holes in the earth being considered portals to hell. There may be more.]
Kara hated the basement. Dark and damp, it smelled like something big had died down there a long time ago and was still rotting away in some forgotten corner.
When she’d inherited the family’s old house on the corner of Aberdeen Street and Sentry Lane, she’d been ecstatic. Summers at the grand old Victorian, staying in the tower bedroom in an old iron four-poster tucked under the eaves, had been the highlight of her life after her parents’ divorce. At Great Aunt Millie’s there was no fighting or 3 am phone calls, no interrogations of what went on at Mom or Dad’s from the other parent.
Great Aunt Millie had taken in Kara’s mother as a child, and so had been more grandmother than an ancient aunt. That didn’t matter; she’d been the one constant in Kara’s young life; and into her high school and college days, it had been Great Aunt Millie that got all the good news, from boyfriends to scholarships, first.
The Victorian farmhouse was beautiful and big and set up like a boarding house. At one time, it had been part of a farm, but as the century passed, the farmland had been sold off and the town had encroached, building up a suburban oasis from D.C. Now, it was the only Victorian on a street of cloned 70s one-story ranchers.
Kara had supposed that the money from the boarders would be enough to pay for maintenance. In those summers so long ago, the house had been full of folks renting rooms and eating home-made stew and fresh-baked bread. That had been the only income Millie had, and the house had always been well kept.
Only after she’d signed the paperwork had she found out that it was now on the Historic Register and it wasgoing to cost a lot more than she’s budgeted to keep it up. There were standards to uphold and keeping the house historically accurate was not going to be cheap.
So she was going to be in debt to her armpits.
And the first piece of debt was going to be fixing that damn smell from the basement.
Opening the door to the lowest level of the house, she held her breath and threw another bag of lavender-scented closet balls down the stairs, listening to the echoing tumble against the treads. She figured once she had enough down there, she might be able to last long enough to clean it out.
Jeff Matthews, her sole tenant left over from when Millie ran the boarding house, laughed. “It doesn’t smell bad if you keep the door shut.”
He was older, with graying hair at his temples, and worked temp construction jobs. He traveled sometimes to other big job sites and sometimes he didn’t work, like in the winter when construction ground to a halt. Kara had promised to keep on any boarders after taking over, she just hadn’t expected there to be only the one.
That was a problem. Even older, he was well built, lean and muscular, and one evening after a little too much wine, she’d let him fuck her. Several times the one night and into the next morning. He was good–very, very good–and a part of her wanted some of that again.
But then she found out about all his kids and exes, and she had no plans to join that group. She understood how it had happened, though. Why they maybe hadn’t been able to say no. He was good enough to make a girl forget birth control and a lot of other things.
The others had left, having been only rooming temporary for school or had moved on to an apartment.She’d put an ad in the local paper and on a national website, but so far, no one had called.
“I’d like to clean it out.” Kara slammed the door shut, rattling dust from the jamb.
“Then do it.” He called over his shoulder, not even looking over at her.
“I can’t breathe down there.”
He laughed again and flipped the channel on the big screen TV in the shared living room.
Kara had her own little apartment in the back, having taken over the space Millie had lived in. She had her own bedroom, plus a smaller guest room, her own bath and a larger room with a kitchenette and living area. It was nice, bigger than her apartment had been in the city.
That left Jeff full run of the big room–and he was taking advantage of it. She wasn’t sure how he’d adapt if she did get more boarders.
Flipping him off made her feel better, and she huffed and slammed the door. He didn’t notice; the game had come back on and he was once again fully focused on the screen.
There was half a bottle of wine left in her little fridge, and Kara considered finishing it off with her salad. But she couldn’t afford to be tipsy tonight. She still had work to do. Though there was no loan on the house, it needed more repairs than she’d been prepared to make, and there was little money inherited to support it.
So she was still working—freelance as an editor—after quitting her crummy proofreader position at a military contractor company that changed its name every three years or so in a scam to avoid paying taxes. The pay had been minimal, and she found she was making more freelancing, but the income wasn’t steady and she didn’t have any benefits. Not that she’d had a lot before, but even two weeks’ vacation was better than nothing.
A small part of her hoped there was something of value hidden in the basement, some storied antique she could auction off. Though she had to keep the house in near-original condition; the stuff inside was fair game.
Saturday morning dawned rainy. It was a great excuse to not mow the lawn or weed the flower beds, so Kara wasn’t upset. It was also too rainy to go do anything though, even go for a run or meet the girls to visit an outdoor market as planned. The drops fell hard and heavy, beating against the metal roof.
Jeff was gone for the weekend, off to visit his third set of kids. He hadn’t married their mother, having married and divorced twice. Or maybe he was still married to his second wife and that was why he hadn’t married this one. She’d been told his story once, but she hadn’t listened after the details of his first family drama.
It didn’t matter. He was gone three weekends a month visiting his various children. Kara had no clue how he paid all the child support. Maybe temporary construction paid more than she knew. She paused, wrinkling her brow in heavy thought. Was this the oldest set, with the one kid he always had to pay bail for? It seemed one kid of his or another was in trouble with the law or at school, and sometimes both at once.
Lying in bed, she took a deep breath and gagged, rolling over to curl herself around her stomach and push her face into the pillow. She could smell the basement all the way in her bedroom.
Kara threw the blankets off the old iron bedstead and jumped up, grabbing her oldest t-shirt and pair of jeans. No matter what, she was cleaning whatever crap made that odor today. In the mud room, she shoved her feet in grubby rubber boots and checked for a working flashlight.
Ready, she stomped toward the offending door, taking deep breaths. Hand on the knob, she stopped. She couldn’t twist the knob; she just couldn’t make herself do it.
She stomped back to the kitchen, rifling through the towel drawer for one long enough to tie over her mouth and nose. Maybe, if she could filter some of it out, she could breathe.
Even more ready, she made her way back to the door, pausing before it again. She would get down there. Nothing would stop her.
And if she did, she’d treat herself to steak and whiskey at the pub. And dessert, definitely dessert, something chocolate all to herself. It would be worth the credit card charge.
She grabbed the handle, jerked it clockwise, and hauled open the door.
A hot wind hit her face, full of the reeking scent of rotting flesh. There must be an fucking dead elephant down there.
The stairs were narrow and steep with no railing to hold onto, only the wall. The plaster crumbled beneath her fingers, creating bits of rubble on the already-dangerous steps. The flashlight spilled its light on the treads, not traveling very far into the blackness.
Kara felt along the wall a few feet ahead, tenderly stepping down a tread and feeling further. Surely there was a lightswitch somewhere. The estate agent had turned a light on when she’d shown her the house.
Aha. She found the switch, flipping it up to a spark of old wiring.
The single bulb illuminated, swaying in a breeze from nowhere.
Staring at the swinging globe, Kara’s stomach dropped. It reminded her of being on a boat in rough waves, watching the sun at the horizon. She was getting sea-sick standing on a set of stairs heading underground. Figured.
Taking a deep breath she immediately regretted, she continued down, keeping the flashlight on. Though the bulb helped, it was like the darkness fought back and leeched some of the brightness out of it.
The floor was dirt, packed hard like concrete. She could stand straight up, which was a surprise. At five-nine, she usually had to duck in old cellars. Here, she had better than a foot between her head and the rough-cut ceiling.
Old pipes crisscrossed above and ratty wiring sagged. Shelves lined one wall; old jars, their lids rusted and crumbling, filled them. Probably jam and pickles as old as Millie or better.
A wall of furniture jumbled in a corner, spanning from floor to ceiling. There was an old armoire, the top ornate and curling to the edges; an equally ornate buffet stood next to it, a dresser of younger vintage stacked on top. Smaller items were stuffed into spaces between: crates and suitcases and trunks.
“Yes.” Kara stepped forward, reaching out one hand to stroke a curlicue. “These should be worth a pretty penny.”
Taking in a satisfied breath, she choked and gagged, swallowing down the bile that rose. The stench was coming from behind the pile of furniture.
“What the hell?” She tried not to take in too much air. The furniture was pressed up against the wall. How could anything be behind it? Maybe it was inside something?
She opened the doors to the armoire. Other than an old dress and cloak, it was empty. She grabbed a suitcase handle and pulled it from the pile, slow in case it was supporting something else. If the whole mountain of stuff fell on top of her, she wouldn’t be found until Jeff got back late Sunday– probably sometime Monday evening actually, once he was off work and wondering why his dinner wasn’t waiting.
Millie had included dinner with the boarding fees, and Jeff was keeping her to the contract. He seemed happy even if it was just baked beans and hot dogs.
There was nothing in the suitcase except some old papers, the type faded to illegibility. There was only rusted tin toys in one of the crates, and she couldn’t open a trunk that took a key, but it was too light for anything to be inside.
Dismantling the pile took most of the morning, and she found quite a few items she’d be able to sell—some for quite a bit of money if the right person bought it. She’d have to do some research this evening and take some photos for appraisers.
By lunch, all the small stuff was scattered across the dirt floor, separate small piles indicating what she thought was only junk, what she thought might be a collectible, and what she thought was an antique.
For the first time since getting the house, she felt like it was a good deal.
Trudging back up the stairs, Kara flipped off the light and entered the main floor. It was much cooler up here, and she shivered. She hadn’t realized how warm the basement had been.
Most basements were cool. There was probably a heating duct leak or a pipe wasn’t insulated, and money had been wasted warming an unused basement all winter. Once she’d finished with all the treasures she’d found, she’d have to get a repairman in to look at the ducts and pipes. Once she had some money, she didn’t want to waste it. There was too many other things that needed to be fixed.
Lunch was coffee and a bagel with the last scrapings of cream cheese. It was easy and filling and used what little was left in her fridge. She was due to go get groceries, but the fee for her last job had yet to come in. She checked her laptop, navigating first to her bank account; it still showed a 67-dollar balance, 55 of which was slated for her car insurance payment scheduled for deduction on Monday.
Sighing, she finished the bagel and downed her coffee. Tomorrow morning she’d have to use the crappy powder creamer instead of real half and half.
Delaying her descent back to the basement, she googled antique selling sites, skimming the contents currently offered for anything like what she had in the basement. All she wanted was an idea of what she might get. She could put some food on her card if she thought she’d get some money in to pay it off relatively soon.
There was a buffet on one site for a thousand dollars, but it was mission style. No way to tell if the ornate mess downstairs was comparable.
She gave up, dropping the screen down on the keyboard a little harder than necessary. Time to get back to work or she wouldn’t have anything up for sale anywhere.
Before tackling the big stuff—maybe she could get Jeff to help her shift the heavy items—she brought the lighter stuff of value upstairs so she could clean them. She knew better than to scrub them off, but they needed dusting and maybe a little polish. Enough to show up in internet auction pictures.
Back in the basement, while she stooped to pick up the last small crate, a flash of light illuminated behind the furniture still in the corner. Pausing, straightening, she cocked her head. Had it been a blood pressure flash? Maybe she was trying to do too much.
Then, it flashed again: a purple-blue light behind the right corner of the top of the armoire.
What the hell was back there?
Kara stepped forward, slowly because there was the possibility that the wiring was going and there might soon be a fire. She stopped. Did she want a fire? How much might the payout be? Could she contain it to the basement, so the house wasn’t damaged but the insurance claim would pay to get rid of the smell?
Sighing, she decided it wasn’t worth the risk. She needed to check it out, and if it was wiring, get it fixed. Hopefully, her credit card would handle the electrician’s charge.
Grabbing the edge of the armoire, Kara tugged on the heavy piece, scraping the thick legs on the dirt floor, leaving long tracks in the otherwise smooth surface. After several tugs and deep gouges, there was enough room to see the wall behind. Clicking the button in her flashlight, she aimed the beam at the wall.
There was no wall.
There was a hole.
A hole with no back.
She aimed the flashlight into the recess, leaning in to reach and see.
It was a fucking tunnel.
The purple blue light flashed again, lighting the entire tunnel, marking the curved rock walls for a moment.
It was a long tunnel.
Where the hell did it go?
Kara took a long gulp of cold beer, appropriated from Jeff’s stock in the big communal fridge. She’d already finished her half bottle of wine.
There was a tunnel to nowhere in her basement. At least, she assumed to nowhere.
Of course, if it went nowhere, why was there a pile of crap blocking it?
Was it a slave tunnel? She was in the South. Had there been slaves in her family’s history? Thinking hard, she tried to remember if Millie had ever said, but couldn’t remember any conversation that even touched on the possibility. It wasn’t something talked about.
Maybe she should have asked.
Were there bodies down there? Is that why it smelled so bad?
Closing her eyes, she set the near-empty brown bottle on the counter and took a deep breath. She had to stay rational; this was no time for a freak-out session. Any bodies in that tunnel would be long decayed by now, only the bones left.
She needed another beer.
Jeff had a case in the bottom of the old commercial refrigerator, and another in the pantry. There was still most of the cold one left, so Kara pulled another bottle from the box and screwed the cap off.
Five minutes later, her bravado boosted, she stumbled her way back to the basement, baseball bat and hatchet in hand. Staring at the armoire, eerie light silhouetting it in the dark, she advanced.
The blue light lit the tunnel in regular bursts, so she didn’t bother turning on the flashlight. She just held the hatchet aloft and kept the bat down at her side, bouncing it against her thigh. Keeping to the curved wall, she pressed against it when the light receded and the darkness ruled, skipping ahead when the light flashed and she could see where she was going.
When the flash was contained in a round burst, she realized she was nearing the end of the tunnel, the walls dark against the opening that flashed. She slowed, listening. She still didn’t know where the tunnel was going, or what was making the bursts of light.
For all she knew, she was about to die.
The alcohol didn’t care about that. It was all for dying in battle, hatchet in hand. She listened to the buzz in her ears and scuffled closer, peering around the corner.
It was a cavern, its ceiling high and rounded, shining like glass, with a hole in the floor. Flames shot up from it, causing that burst of light. There was a short stone wall, with a wide top, ringing the hole, and more tunnels emptied into the round room.
Kara stepped inside. There was no one else around, just the flames and the other tunnels. She tried to count the number, but she couldn’t see when the flames were dormant and when they shot up, the light was so bright she winced and closed her eyes.
Feeling her way to the right, the hand with the hatchet feeling along the wall, Kara searched for the entrance to the next tunnel. Finding it, she ducked in, gained her bearings and started down it.
This tunnel was almost identical to the one that came from her basement: the same sloping walls and ceiling, the same stones and floor, until she got farther along, and the stone turned to reddish dirt, packed hard so that even her fingers barely scored the surface.
The air turned cooler and she heard water rushing over stones. A breeze wafted in, cooling her cheeks.
She kept moving, wondering where the tunnel would empty. There was no source of burbling water anywhere near her home. The river only meandered, and she couldn’t have gone far enough to get beyond that.
At the entrance, she stopped.
She was on a mountain, water rushing over the rocks to her left, misting the entrance, making the dirt beneath her feet slippery. Baskets lined the floor, some with fruits and vegetables, others with small, covered clay pots.
Taking the first basket, filled with fruit and vegetables, Kara’s stomach rumbled. She picked up a piece of fruit and bit into it, the lush flesh bursting over her tongue.
She grabbed another, smaller basket and a couple of clay pots from another, tucking all of it into the larger basket, along with the hatchet. She left the baseball bat behind, propped against the wall.
Scurrying back, she didn’t pause when it grew dark. She knew the tunnel would end at the cavern and that no debris would halt her passage. At the great room, she turned left, slowing, once again feeling along the wall, the basket now balanced on one hip with her hand holding it up.
Once she found the tunnel to her basement, though, she jogged the rest of the way, basket in both hands, running into the back of the armoire when she reached the end in darkness. Luckily, the basket hit first and little damage was done.
She squeezed the basket around the armoire and then her body, setting the basket down long enough to push the armoire back into place. If she could go in, something–or someone–could come out. She didn’t want that.
Gasping, she grabbed up the basket and trotted up the stairs, turning off the basement light at the top and slamming the door shut. For extra measure, she grabbed a dining chair and wedged the back under the doorknob as a makeshift lock.
Collapsing on the sofa, she fell asleep, hauling Millie’s old afghan over her, the basket of stolen goodies on the floor.
“You’ve been in the basement.” Jeff stood over her, the light from the window behind him turning him into a black silhouette. His mussed hair looked like horns sticking out the side of his head, one twisted just a little more than the other.
“Um, yeah. What else was I going to do in the rain? I wanted to clean out that smell.”
Sighing, Jeff shook his head, that twisted horn looking less like hair. “I really wish you hadn’t done that.”
Kara groaned and threw the bag of rose-infused moth balls down the steps to the basement, listening for the satisfied sploop when the soft sack hit the floor. “One day, this will work and I won’t have to smell that shit anymore.”
“I thought it smelled like rot?” Jeff spoke from the sofa, fast-flipping through the channels on the big-screen TV.
“Whatever. I want it gone.” Kara slammed the door to the basement shut and turned back to the communal living room. It was still only Jeff living at the boarding house, and there just wasn’t enough income to pay someone to come in and examine whatever was in the basement. She rubbed her temple; just thinking about it gave her a headache.
“Why are you so worried about the basement? Just forget about it; Millie did.”
“I don’t know how she could just forget about it without a sinus infection. I can smell it all the way back in my room.”
“It’s not that bad.” Jeff glanced over his shoulder and eyed her up and down. “Want me to check out your bedroom?”
A thrill ran through Kara at the instant of his offer. She knew what he was really asking and a small part of her ached to say yes. “No. Stay out of my room.”
He shrugged and turned back to the game on the TV. “Suit yourself.”
“I will.” She had a friend tucked away in the top drawer of her dresser, new batteries in a box beside it. She could take care of herself.
“You got plans for the weekend?” He didn’t even turn around to ask the question.
Why did he care? Was he going to make another play on her? “Yes. I’m going shopping with Meghan and Sue.” Her fees for three jobs had come in and she actually had some to splurge with.
“I’ve got to go visit a kid this weekend.”
“Which one?” Kara tried not to sound judgmental, but from the look he shot in her direction, failed.
“My daughter. Gotta try to convince her to go back to school.”
Signing, Kara pivoted away and stalked to the kitchen. She couldn’t imagine Jeff being successful in that, unless he used the argument ‘you don’t want to end up like your old man.’
She made a rudimentary dinner: boxed mac and cheese, hot turkey sandwiches and kale salad. Jeff hated vegetables, so the salad was small, just enough for her really.
“Dinners on the table.”
“Yeah. Be right there.”
Kara didn’t wait for him. She’d learned the first week in the house that his ‘be right there’ could be five minutes or an hour. She ate the kale salad, leaving enough in the bottom so he could tell it was vegetable based, and a sandwich. She finished before he emerged from the living room, so she left the rest on the table to clean up later.
In her own rooms, she opened a bottle of wine and poured a solid glass for dessert. It was a sweet wine, recommended at the wine shop, and it went down smooth and quick. After her third glass, she was ready for bed; she could clean the kitchen in the morning.
Her head hurt when the sun broke through her curtains and fell on her face. Squinting, she sat up and pushed her hair out of her face, yawning. She’d fallen asleep in her clothes, her teeth unbrushed so her breath was rancid—but still not as bad as that damn cellar.
Jeff was already gone, a note amidst the dirty dishes on the table reminding her that he was off to see one if his kids and would be back on Sunday noonish.
Stretching, she cleared the table and filled the dishwasher. At least he’d been nice enough to eat everything so she didn’t have skanky leftovers to eat for dinner. She’d just started the wash cycle when the phone rang.
It was Meghan. “Hey girl. Look, I’m sorry but I gotta bail on shopping today. Overtime makes more cash, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
Meghan still worked for the industry contractor Kara had left, as another proofreader that did more real editing than she should, and since the company hadn’t replaced Kara yet, there was a lot more work to do than before. It meant a boon for the workers, but there would be burnout soon enough.
“And Sue is coming in, too. Sorry.”
Kara couldn’t blame them. If she thought the company would do it, she’d ask for a little part-time work. But once you left, they never took you back. It was policy.
“Maybe next weekend?”
“Sure.” Kara could keep the extra money until then—unless a bill came due.
Hanging up the phone, she wondered what she could do for the rest of the day.
Huh. That reeking odor.
With narrowed eyes, Kara stomped to the basement door and hauled it open, glaring down into the deep black. The scent wafted up, even stronger than she remembered.
She could do this.
Nodding,she closed the door and changed into grubbies and her rubber boots. A towel over her nose and flashlight in hand… damn. She needed batteries She thought for certain she’d had lots. She rummaged over the shelf where the flashlight was kept, and the batteries that went with it. Nothing. Nada.
Stomping a foot in frustration, she groaned. Why did this always happen to her? Popping open the battery compartment, she was surprised to find there weren’t even batteries in it. Surely she wouldn’t have left it like this? Was Jeff trying to play some weird unfunny joke on her?
She smirked. She could show him. It took D-cell batteries. She had D cells in her bedroom.
Sashaying through the kitchen, humming a jaunty tune, she opened the top drawer of her dresser and moved aside her best frills to the purple joke gift from Meghan that was far better than any joke she’d ever been on the receiving end of. It was gaudy and glowed in the dark, but it vibrated with an unholy intensity that always got her off.
The spare batteries were in an unopened carton next to the long device and she pulled one out, splitting it open with one fingernail and pouring all four batteries into the handle of the flashlight. She pressed the button, and—voila!—there was light.
She shut the drawer with one hip and danced out of the room. She wasn’t happy to be descending to the basement, but there was a certain joy in circumventing whatever Jeff had planned.
It smelled worse the farther down the stairs she got, and about halfway down she considered turning back. But she was determined and forced her feet to keep moving.
At the bottom, she was surprised at the space. She’d thought it would be small and closed in because it was so dark, but the ceiling was high and there was little stuff down here. What was there, and some was big and some was small, was in a tall pile in once corner.
Kara frowned, a strong wave of deja vu sweeping through her when she examined the armoire and buffet. Maybe it had been upstairs when she’d visited as a child. That had to be it.
The odor emanated from that corner, and Kara couldn’t imagine what was behind it all. But she was staunch, and started moving out the boxes and smaller items, sorting as she did.
Soon enough, it was just the bigger pieces left and satisfaction welled. She had finally accomplished something.
A purple blue flash caught her eye and she started. Where had she seen that before? She dragged on the buffet, toppling the smaller chest on top of it to the dirt floor, where a small drawer and some papers fell out. She picked up the papers, ramming them in her jeans pocket, then tugged on the buffet again.
She could see a darker shape on the wall.
It was a hole.
A big-ass hole.
She shone the flashlight it.
Nope, it was a tunnel.
Fear rippled through her. She’d seen something like this before. Probably in a horror movie. But that was a movie and this was real life.
She stepped in, waving the flashlight beam around.
The blue light flashed again, filling the arching space.
She walked toward the light.
At the end, she stared at the surging blue flames, shading her eyes with one hand. Blinking, she explored to her left, instinctively looking for another tunnel. When she found it, she looked back, making certain her tunnel was still where she’d left it. When the flames surged again, she entered the new tunnel.
The air in this tunnel was dry and arid, and swept toward her, blowing fine bits of grit into her face. She squinted her eyes to keep it out, even raising a hand and moving her face to the side when the wind blew brisker.
At the end of the tunnel she stopped, shading her eyes from a bright sun and its reflected glare off sand. It was a desert, the wind whipping the rock particles in a swirling dance.
There were pots at the entrance to the tunnel, some stoppered to keep the contents from spilling out, others open so she could see what was inside. The closest one was open and held a yellow-gold resin. She scooped out a small handful, rubbing her fingers over the semi-smooth bits. A rich fragrance rose to her nostrils, and she though it oddly soothing. She stooped to pick up the clay pot, and another that was stoppered.
Turning, she made her way back down the tunnel, back to the cavern with the flame, where she shifted right to find her way home.
Back at the Victorian, she set the pots on the kitchen table and stared at them. Dread filled her. What had she done? Where had she actually gone?
She wedged a dining chair back under the doorknob to the basement, and rubbed a finger over an older mark on the wood back. It looked like someone had done that before.
Back at the table, she opened the stoppered jar and sniffed: oil, scented oil. The perfume filled the room, clearing away the rot rising from the basement.
Pouring her last glass of wine from the bottle from last night, Kara sat at the take, stroking her fingers over the clay containers. Why were they set at the entrance to the tunnel? Where had that tunnel gone? There was no desert anywhere near her home, so it wasn’t really possible that it had gone anywhere.
And yet, the clay pot of resin and the jar of scented oil were here, on her table. Pulling out her phone, she snapped a photo, smiling down at the last message from her mother.
Are you going to church in the morning? Mrs. Hubbard could use some prayers if you do.
No, she wasn’t going to church. But she would say a quick prayer for her mother’s elderly neighbor.
Downing the wine, she put her phone in her purse and the dirty glass in the sink. Since Jeff was away, she decided to watch something on the big TV, maybe stream something on Netflix. He had an account; she couldn’t afford to keep hers current. She could catch up on Supernatural.
Eyes drifting closed, she smiled at the scene on the TV: Dean Winchester exorcising a demon.
“Why do you keep going in the basement?” Jeff stood over the recliner, the light from the bright ceiling fixture haloing his head, sweeps of mussed hair pointing out like daggers.
Kara giggled. “You have horns.” Only half awake, she yawned and stretched, forgetting she was upset at her boarder for hiding the flashlight batteries.
“What’s on the kitchen table?” He crossed his arms across his check, glaring down at her.
“Table?” Kara sat up, trying to remember. “Oh, the pots. Yes, I found them in the basement.”
“Not in the basement.” Jeff leaned down, pushing his face close to hers. “You didn’t stay in the basement did you?”
Kara blinked, focusing on what looked like a short horn growing out of his head just above his right temple. “Um, no?”
Jeff sighed. “You really need to stop doing this.”
Her headache in the morning didn’t even need a beam of sunlight to trigger it. Consciousness came with the throbbing ache deep in her templates.
It was strange. She couldn’t remember drinking enough to get a hangover.
Sitting up, the world swirling around her, she stumbled from bed, grabbing the bedpost to keep from hitting the floor. Groaning, she considered calling for Jeff to help, but thought better of it last minute. She really didn’t need him in her bedroom, even in the state she was in. If she let him, she’d only be worse off.
Once she’d washed her face and brushed her teeth—she hadn’t last night and her mouth felt like it was part of that damn basement—she was ready to emerge.
In her bedroom, she noticed her purse on the chair. That’s not where it belonged. She always set it inside the closet, next to her shoes.
Picking it up, she glanced down into it. Her phone sat on top of everything.
That wasn’t right either.
She picked up the phone, pressing the button to light the screen and flipping her thumb over to open it.
There was a photo, of her kitchen table, with a couple of clay pots setting on it. A memory of warm scent reached her nose and she sneezed, a small explosion going off behind her eyes. Calling out, she sank to her knees, dropping her phone so that it skittered across the floor to settle beneath her bed.
“Hey, you okay?” Jeff pushed open her bedroom door and leaned through, bare chested, in flannel pajama bottoms.
Kara stared. His chest was all lean muscle with a smattering of still dark hair, his shoulders broad, his torso tapering to a toned stomach that just didn’t quite display a six pack of abs. Sighing, she pulled her eyes up to his face. He looked concerned, his brows descended over his eyes in a deep frown. “I’m okay.”
“Why are you on the floor?”
“Wondering?” He straighten and pushed the door open farther open, stepping to tower over her.
“I’m wondering what you did with the pots.”
“Pots?” He stepped back, eyes narrowed. “You mean the dirty dishes?”
“No.” Kara used the bedpost to drag herself to her feet, staggering when her head throbbed. The light stabbed at her eyes, making the throbbing feel more like daggers stabbing into her head. “The ones I brought up from the basement.”
Jeff stared at her, his muscles rigid. He reached up a hand toward her head and Kara flinched back.
“Easy. I’m just going to take the pain away.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“I suppose you shouldn’t.” He reached further and Kara couldn’t lean any farther away without toppling.
He touched a gentle finger to her temple and the pain disappeared and memories surged.
She’d been down to that basement more than a dozen times.
“What the fuck?” Without the pain she could stand unimpeded.
“Millie only went down once. It was easy to convince her to stay up here.”
“What?” Kara stared, her palm itching to slap, but self-preservation overrode the impulse, reminding her that whatever he was, he could easily cause her pain—if not downright kill her.
Jeff sighed and crossed his arms, tilting his chin up so that he could stare down at her. “I’m a guardian of the portals. I was placed here to stop your family from using the one your ancestor’s built their home on top of.”
“They built the house on top of it? Surely they didn’t know-“
“They knew. That’s why they built the house here. To give them exclusive access to the portal.”
Kara shook her head and staggered to the side of her bad, sitting down on the edge. “I don’t- How?” She looked up at Jeff. “What are you, you know, species wise?”
He sighed. “I’m a lesser demon.”
“Lesser?” She roved her eyes over his form. If this was lesser, what was more?
Grinning, Jeff winked. “Like what you see, huh?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, I don’t.”
“Just tell me what you are.”
“I already did.”
“Okay, fine. What is a greater demon, if you’re a lesser?”
“One that isn’t part human, but pure demon.” He stepped forward, leaning over so she could smell the musky male aroma that drifted off his skin.
“So-“ she opened her eyes, leaning back when she realized he was right there, in front of her, “you’re part human?”
He nodded, slow, his eyes boring into her.
Swallowing hard, she struggled to keep her train of thought steady. Right. “Where are the pots?”
“In the mud room right now. Hidden.”
“With the flashlight batteries?”
He sighed and stood up, slouching. “Yes. And the silk you brought back another time, and the gems on another trip.”
“Why hide them? Why not take them back?”
“If I go in, I can’t come back out.”
“Oh.” Kara frowned. “But you said you were a guardian?”
He nodded and paced the length of the room, striding to the door, pausing, pivoting, and marching back. “Yes. But I broke my pledge when I refused to kill Millie and only wiped her memory.”
“You’re supposed to kill anyone who finds the portals? But the others, they aren’t guarded.” Kara sat back up, indignance coursing through her veins.
“The others are revered and no one enters. Mainly because the guardians of those gateways always killed if someone does, then throws the bloody body back out. I didn’t.” Jeff craned his neck, the resounding crack making Kara wince. He stared up at the ceiling. “Maybe I should have, but she was just curious, like you.”
“No. They used the tunnels to make raids on the lands where the other portals emerge. That is a dangerous thing in and of itself, but when your great-great—I think another great is in there—grandfather sought to use the flame for his own gain, well… things got hairy in a big way.”
Shaking and shivering, Kara swept her palms over her arms, seeking to warm them.
Jeff sat beside her, draping one arm over her shoulder, providing warmth.
“I-I-I did-didn’t see any-any other demons.” She leaned into him. This Jeff offered comfort and warmth, without the sexual undertones.
“You wouldn’t. You can only see the ones assigned to the portal you enter. And they can only harm those who enter the one they are sworn to guard.”
“That sounds… odd.”
“It prevents them from slaughtering humanity. Many demons would. Most like to kill.”
He shrugged. “I suppose it was okay the first few times, but then, after a while, it becomes routine.” He leaned close, once again exuding an aura of sex. “I’ve decided there are other things I’d rather do.”
Kara threw off his arm and he laughed.
“I’m trying to be serious.”
“I am serious. There are far better things to do than waste energy killing people. When a demon exerts energy on stuff like that, it takes it out of him. Literally. I lost my right hand for a full fortnight the first time I had to kill a human that entered my portal.”
Raising a brow, Kara cocked her head to the side. “And when you exert yourself for sex?”
“Let’s just say, I don’t really have all these kids. But I like to go out on the weekends and get some. Easier to hide for a day than explain why I’m missing a body part.”
“So it had nothing to do with what body part you use to exert this energy?”
“Um, no.” But he chuckled.
“Can you stop the odor?”
He shrugged. “Sure. But I’d really like you to stay out of the portal.”
“Okay. On one condition.”
Raising a brow, he tried to look imperious but failed when he offered a crooked grin.
“Can I sell the stuff I’ve already brought through? Not all at once, but just a bit at a time, so I can pay to keep up the house?”
“Can I get a split of the cash?”
“What, you think I like working construction?”
Kara had never really thought about it. “Why don’t you do something else?”
“Temp construction work is about all you can do without proper ID.”
“Oh.” That’s right. He was really a demon. “So, I can’t exorcise you?”
“Uh, no. I’m not possessed… possessing… whatever. I’m half human.”
“What does a full demon look like?”
“Really? You want to ask me about that?”
“Fine. Don’t answer.” She glared him down. “Do we have an agreement?”
“Do I get a cut?”
“We split what’s left after the maintenance on the house.”
Hmm. Kara considered the offer. It was actually pretty fair under the circumstances. “Agreed.”
He held out a hand and she took it, offering a single, firm shake.
Grinning, he tugged her close, leaning down.
“Um, this isn’t part of the agreement.”
“Come on, you know how demon deals work. You watch that show.”
“This isn’t a deal.”
“Isn’t an agreement a deal?”
“Fine.” She spit the word out through gritted teeth.
His mouth descended, his lips moving firm and soft against hers. She stayed rigid, not reciprocating until his teeth nipped at her bottom lip and her womb shuddered. Sighing, she opened her lips, moving them with his.
He let her hand go, sliding his palm around her waist, pulling her closer.
Shifting, she leaned into him, sliding her arms around his neck. Why not? He didn’t really have all those kids. And she’d used up all the D-cell batteries.
And she was curious to see what body part he’d be missing come morning.