by Amy Wain
cw: body horror and violence
One of my favorite things to do as a child was to explore my old, falling-apart house. It had two floors and a basement, and each of them were in some state of disrepair. Years of neglect had caused the wallpaper to peel, the floorboards to warp and creak, and the pipes to rattle and whine. There were also things about my house that my parents couldn’t have fixed even if they had been rich; things that, at times, they minded a lot more than peeling wallpaper. Lights flickered, mysterious gusts of wind slammed and opened doors, and cups routinely flew off countertops and smashed on the floor. Creaking footsteps could be heard on supposedly empty floors and unintelligible whispers jerked us awake in the small hours of the morning. My parents were skeptics by nature, so they brushed off the instances as coincidences.
“This is a cute flower crown, Faye,” Mom said, brushing her fingers over the marigolds on my head. “Where did you get it?”
“From the woman with no eyes who lives in the basement,” I said.
Mom dropped her mug and, for the first time in recent memory, something smashed on the kitchen floor because of a flesh-and-blood human.
The woman with no eyes who lived in my basement was named Penelope. Her skin was sunken and tight on her skull, and her eye sockets were empty black pits. Her hair was wispy and sparse, the color of corn silk. She wore a black taffeta dress. She ran her thin, desiccated fingers through my light blonde hair and sighed with longing. She gave me crowns of fresh marigolds, though where she got them, I never knew. There were no marigolds growing near our house.
After my announcement, my mother went into the basement armed with a flashlight and a baseball bat. She poked around in every dark, cobwebby corner, but found nothing. “Where did you say she was?” she said.
I cast a doubtful look at the baseball bat and said, “I don’t think she’s going to show up if you have that.”
Mom’s eye twitched. She dragged me upstairs, put a chair in front of the basement door, and called my father, who was out buying groceries. I shrugged and went outside to run around in the empty, overgrown field that sat across the road from our house. When I came back that evening, Mom told me I wasn’t allowed to go into the basement anymore, and the basement door had gained a padlock. Dad thought it was my imagination. After a few hours, Mom decided the same thing. She was a skeptic, she hadn’t found anything, and after all, I was only six.
That night I tiptoed down the stairs in my dad’s old t-shirt and a pair of cupcake-patterned pajama pants. When I went up to the basement door, the padlock opened and fell; I caught it in my hands before it could hit the floor and make a noise. Instead, I set it against the wall and padded down the wooden stairs. The basement was pitch black, and when the door swung shut, I couldn’t see a foot in front of me.
“Penelope?” I said, my voice echoing off the damp concrete walls.
“Down here, flower,” came Penelope’s soft, rasping voice. I held my hands out in front of me and stumbled over to the space under the stairs, where Penelope pulled me into her arms.
“I don’t think Mom likes you,” I said.
“No, I don’t think she does either,” Penelope said. “Too close-minded. Not like you, flower. I know you won’t turn on me.”
“’Course not, you’re nice,” I said, yawning. I leaned against Penelope’s chest, which crackled like dry leaves. She wrapped her arms around me and began to hum an unfamiliar tune until I drifted off to sleep.
I woke to the sound of the basement door opening and Mom calling, “Faye, honey, are you down here?” The worry in her voice didn’t penetrate the sleepy fog in my brain, so I didn’t answer immediately. The light switched on and I squinted against the sudden brightness.
“The padlock’s on the ground,” Dad said. “How could she have unlocked it? Or reached it, for that matter…”
“Faye?” The steps rattled as my parents came down them. I yawned, stretching my whole body like a cat. Penelope was gone. I pushed myself to my feet and ran out to meet my parents.
“Good morning!” I chirped, a sunny smile on my face. My parents’ mouths fell open, their eyes flicking up and down my body in disbelief.
I looked down at myself and my smile only grew; I was covered head to toe in marigolds. They hung like strings of pearls around my neck, the longest loops almost reaching my belly button. Bracelets hugged my arms and legs from wrist to elbow, ankle to knee. My head was heavy with the weight of the multi-tiered crown on top of it. Penelope had braided my hair into the stems to keep it in place.
“Look!” I said unnecessarily. “Penelope gave me a gift!” I danced in place, the marigolds rustling with every movement. My parents gaped, dumbstruck, something like fear creeping into their eyes.
Mom threw away the marigold jewelry and Dad replaced the padlock. They scolded me for going into the basement against their wishes and forbade me from going down there again. When I asked why they didn’t like Penelope, Mom snapped, “There is no ‘Penelope,’ Faye, it’s just…not safe for you down there.”
That day, all the windows in the house flew open and refused to close until after midnight. Dad insisted they were just stuck. I could practically hear Penelope’s scratchy laugh coming through the floor.
Thus, the silent war began.
I crept into the basement at least twice a week. Penelope taught me how to make flower chains, braid hair, and whistle. I woke up festooned with marigolds and usually got discovered by my parents once they found the padlock on the floor. Each discovery meant I was grounded for a week, but I never managed to get through an entire week without being found again, so I ended up being perpetually grounded. My parents refused to admit that there was anything weird about the fact that I got the padlock open without a key, that I kept getting piles of marigolds seemingly from nowhere, or that I kept going back down to the basement in the first place.
Being grounded meant I wasn’t allowed to go outside, though that rarely stopped me. At some point in the day, my bedroom window would unlock on its own accord and I would climb down the gutter along the side of the house. A fortuitous series of broken dishes, slamming doors, and blown-out lights would keep my parents distracted long enough for me to get my fix of the outdoors and come running back.
Spring dragged on and summer loomed closer. I looked forward to being home all the time, and Penelope spoke longingly of the hours we would spend together. My parents bought three more padlocks for the basement and were exasperated to find them neatly lined up by the door in the morning. They gave me long, worried looks when they thought I couldn’t see. I brainstormed ways to get them and Penelope to finally meet, but both parties refused to be in the basement at the same time.
“Your parents are lost causes, flower,” Penelope said, looping my hair into a braided bun. “But we don’t need them, do we? We just need each other.”
“I want you to get along,” I said, knotting the marigold stems together. “If they won’t come down here, maybe you could just come out of the basement! That way they won’t be able to pretend you’re not here.”
“I can’t,” Penelope said. “The basement is where I…it’s where I am. I can’t leave it.”
“Have you tried?”
“Yes,” she said. From the tightness in her voice, I guessed this was a sore spot for her and didn’t argue further.
The last day of school went by in a blur of yearbook-signing and cookie cake. I sprinted off the bus and slammed into my mom, who had been standing directly behind the front door. “Whoa!” she said, grabbing my shoulders. “A bit hyperactive, aren’t we, dear?”
“It’s summer!” I crowed, throwing my backpack to the side. “I’m free! Free!”
Mom laughed and led me to the kitchen, where Dad sat at the table with a mug of coffee and a magazine. “Congratulations on another year, Faye,” he said. “Done with first grade already—Jesus, that makes me feel old.”
“You are old,” I informed him, climbing into a chair. He clutched his chest in fake hurt, and I giggled. Mom handed me a granola bar. I thanked her and started eating.
“So, Faye, we were thinking of doing something a little different this summer,” Mom said. “You’re six now—very grown-up—so we thought you could go to summer camp this year.”
Mom pulled a brochure out of her pocket and slid it across the table toward me. The Wilds was spelled out across the top in letters made to look like logs. The picture showed a group of backpack-wearing children following a young woman through the woods. I flipped through the brochure and found similar pictures of outdoorsy bliss.
“It’s a nature camp,” Mom said. “You’ll be outside all the time and you’ll get to make a ton of new friends. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
Excitement swelled in my chest and I bounced in my chair. “Yeah! When is it?”
“Two weeks,” Dad said, reaching over to ruffle my hair. “We have a lot of supplies to buy and packing to do, so it’ll go by like that.”
The word packing gave me pause. “How long am I gonna be gone?”
“Two months,” Mom said, and my eyes widened.
“Think of all the fun things you’ll get to do!” Dad said. “We’ll write letters and call you at least once a week, but I’m sure you’ll be so busy you won’t even notice we’re not there.”
“But what about Penelope?”
Mom and Dad glanced at each other and everything snapped into place. Locking the basement door didn’t work, so they’d just have to ship me as far from the basement as they could.
“That’s not fair!” I said, crossing my arms. “That’s—that’s mean!”
“Don’t you want to go to camp? Were you going to spend all summer in the basement?”
“Then it’s settled,” Mom said, crossing her arms right back. “No buts.”
That night, Penelope swore that I wasn’t going anywhere. When I ventured to say that camp sounded fun, the temperature dropped and the marigolds in my hands shriveled. I kept my mouth shut after that, letting Penelope hiss insults about my parents until I fell asleep.
Two weeks passed in a blur. While Penelope made her displeasure known—the windows refused to close and barely a meal went by without a plate or glass breaking—my parents refused to change their minds. Secretly, I started to agree with them. I wanted to go to camp. Sure, leaving Penelope behind would suck, but she didn’t have to be such a jerk about it. The open windows let in bugs and rain, and I was getting tired of the sound of breaking dishes.
On the day of my departure, I woke to the sound of every lightbulb in the house popping in a shower of glass. I carefully stepped around the mess on the floor as I got dressed, and a series of crashing sounds told me the kitchen cabinets were being emptied out. “Faye, come on, we’re just gonna grab breakfast on the way,” Dad called.
“Okay!” I yelled back. I stepped toward the door and it slammed shut with a bang. I huffed. “Real mature, Penelope.” My bedroom window slammed shut with an even louder bang, and I crossed my arms. “Penelope, cut it out!” I yelled. “I’ll be back, just let me go!”
There was a high-pitched scream and the floor beneath me collapsed. I fell in a shower of wood and insulation and landed on my back, the basement’s concrete floor knocking the breath clean out of my body. Penelope loomed above me, wreathed in marigolds and trembling with rage. “NO,” she screamed. “No, you are mine, flower! You’re not going anywhere!”
She fell to her knees beside me and cradled my face in her hands. For a split second, I thought she was going to kiss my forehead, and closed my eyes on instinct. Then I felt her bony thumbs pressing down on my eyelids.
I sucked in a breath and screamed, grabbing her stick-thin wrists to try and pry them away. Her papery flesh crumbled beneath my hands until my fingers closed around yellowed bone. The marigolds withered, the petals falling into my mouth and choking me as her thumbs pressed down harder and harder. I squeezed with all of my might and felt her bones crack and snap like dry branches. Penelope shrieked, falling backward, though her detached hands stayed clenched around my face. I worked my fingers underneath her death grip and pried them away, her nails scratching red lines into my face.
The basement door flew open and Mom leaped over the railing, a baseball bat clenched in one fist. Penelope turned to look at her, and I barely had time to think hey, they’re finally in the same room before Mom took Penelope’s head off with one swing. Penelope lurched forward, flailing her handless arms, and Mom hit her again with a solid whack to the ribcage. Dad, who’d followed close behind her, now ducked around her to scoop me into his arms and run back upstairs. He carried me to the bathroom, where he dabbed the claw-marks on my face and the scrapes on my back with hydrogen peroxide. Mom came back upstairs as I was changing into clean clothes, the bat still in her hand. “Don’t worry, dear,” she said, pulling me into a gentle hug. “You won’t have to worry about this anymore. We’ll make sure she’s gone.”
“She used to be nice,” I muttered into her shoulder.
“Just because someone acts nice doesn’t mean they are nice,” Mom said, petting my hair. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, sniffing. “I wanna go to camp.”
“Then let’s go.”
She kept the bat as Dad grabbed our bags—they had a few of their own, and given what had just happened, I’d be surprised if they didn’t check into a hotel for a couple of days. Mom stayed behind while Dad loaded up the trunk, his hands shaking. When she came out she gave Dad a nod, and he chuckled nervously. We got in the car and Mom hit the gas. I stared out the rearview mirror as we kicked up dust, and barely caught the first hints of smoke pouring out of the windows as we rounded the corner.