Downstairs

by Jonathan Arena

 

Madeline lifted her head from the warm pillow and stared across the bedroom. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the silhouettes of stacked boxes soon sharpened.

            The urge to unpack was strong but her mother insisted, rather shouted, that she get a good night’s sleep before her first day of school. Not the first day. Only her first day. At a new school, in a new city, as far away from her father as her mother could afford.

            She rested her head back down on the pillow, but now it felt cold. She flipped it over, but the other side was freezing. She sighed and just lay there.

            Glass smashed somewhere in the house. Madeline sprang from the bed sheets and looked to the door. She had left it open in the hope that it would help her sleep, but that was never going to be the case. She could not remember where the nightlight was packed, but now more than ever she wished she had searched a little harder.

            Her heart jumped from her chest when a second crash rang through the walls.

            It came from downstairs.

            She swung her feet to the side of the bed and tried to steady her breath. Inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. But to no avail.

            She slid off the bed and planted her bare feet on the hardwood floor. It was cold and foreign. Her last bedroom had carpet, and she preferred it. Moving one foot tentatively in front of the other, she approached the door and opened it wider. It screeched painfully against the old hinges.

            Madeline stuck her head outside. The hallway seemed a darker shade of black than her bedroom. So dark she could not even see its end. She had no idea where the light switch rested on the wall either. More than likely, it hid behind a stack of boxes. No use in trying to find it in this dark, she thought.

            She slipped her body out into the hall and took a few steps. After the crashes and the hinges, the silence now felt eerie and troubling.

            She tiptoed toward the next door, toward her mother’s bedroom. A dim light seeped out from underneath the closed door. She must already be up, perhaps even downstairs. Her heart slowed as more optimistic scenarios filled her imagination. Her mother frequented the bathroom in the middle of the night and must have bumped into something, knocking it over and breaking it. It wouldn’t be the first time. That must be it. But there was a bathroom upstairs, and what about the second crash? Her mind drifted again to the gloomier possibilities.

            She walked what seemed like a hundred yards to her mother’s door, maneuvering past more boxes and plastic crates that crowded the dark hall.

            She turned the knob and pushed it open.

            Light from a single lamp on the ground blinded Madeline’s eyes. She shielded them and moved beside the bed. Unpacked boxes and garbage bags of clothes filled the room and left only a narrow path.

            Her mother snored with her mouth open, sprawled on a coverless mattress. She clutched a glass bottle of vodka with only a few drops left. An unlit cigarette was stuck to her bottom lip, and her eyelids flickered as if she was having a dream. Or maybe a nightmare.

            “Mom?” Madeline seized the cigarette from her lip and placed it on the ground next to the lamp. She attempted to grab the bottle too but her mother’s grip was too strong.

            “Mom?” she repeated louder but her mother only shifted in position. Not even a gentle shake of her body garnered a reply.

            The sound of smashing glass rang through the house a third time. Madeline snapped to attention and stared at the open door of her mother’s bedroom. She swallowed.

            “Wake up, please,” she looked back to her mother, but had little hope of succeeding. Her mother snorted, mumbled and then snored louder.

            Madeline sighed and made her way back to the doorway. She looked once more at her mother before leaving and entering the black of the hall.

            Her night vision had been ruined by her mother’s lamp. She would have to start all over again. The end of the hall, beyond the lamp’s reach, looked blacker than the bottom of the well at her last home. The one where her favorite doll fell and stayed alone until her father rescued her. She crept down the rest of the hall, blindly moving her hands across the boxes that lined the path, relying on touch to find her way.

            She made it to the stairwell leading downstairs. She took another deep breath and, barely able to see the next step, persisted downstairs with a rigid grip on the railing. The closer to the last step she moved, the louder the noise became. It was a scraping, scratching sound that hastened its pace, as if frustrated and impatient. Madeline’s knees wobbled, but she held on to the railing even tighter and eventually reached the bottom.

            She listened to the sounds, and her mind wandered to even darker places, focusing on one thing and one thing only.

            Monsters.

            She stood there. The darkness was thick, but she knew there was a light switch at the bottom of the stairs. She remembered her mother turning it on, so Madeline rubbed her hands along the surface of the wall, located the switch and flipped it. The ceiling light in the hallway illuminated to reveal even more boxes.

            All noise ceased.

            Madeline walked into the living room and turned on another light. Nothing except more boxes and unpositioned furniture. She stepped into the dining room and switched a third light on. More boxes. No broken windows, no broken glass. She began to wonder if she had imagined the whole thing. Her father always said she had a wild imagination. It was why he took her on so many trips to museums and parks. But he also said there were times and places to use it and times and places not to.

            Uncertain, she continued.

            Something dropped to the kitchen floor. Light scurrying of sharp claws against hard countertop. Madeline hesitated but could see the kitchen light switch from the hall’s glow—she was almost there.

            She closed her eyes and took another breath before proceeding. Eyes wide open again, straining against the darkness, she lunged for the switch. The kitchen burst into light, and Madeline locked eyes with the monster.

            A raccoon.

            The raccoon gazed into her eyes. Frozen at each other’s presence, the two strangers remained tense and staring. The raccoon held a single cracker in his paws. His nose and whiskers twitched, and he began eating the cracker despite Madeline’s watchful eye. A mess of crumbs rained down on the kitchen floor to join the box of crackers and shards of broken glass.

            Madeline laughed suddenly. She laughed so hard she forgot all about the fear.

            The raccoon finished the cracker in a flash. Madeline looked down to the floor, where the rest of the crackers rested. She stepped forward and carefully avoided the sharp glass. The raccoon jumped back and showed its teeth. Madeline stared into the animal’s eyes once more and offered a gentle smile.

            “It’s okay, little guy. It’s okay…”

            She crept one more step toward the box and grabbed it from the floor. The raccoon snarled and studied her every move. Madeline’s hand dove into the box and pulled out another cracker. She presented it to the raccoon, and its eyes lit up. It reached out with its paws and snatched the offering in a hurry. It retreated back into the corner, where sharp teeth made easy work of the dry cracker. More crumbs flew into the air and onto the floor.

            Madeline’s smile widened.

            The raccoon never moved those piercing eyes from the girl. She even thought she saw a smile on the animal, but when the cracker was gone, the smile faded. It demanded more. And with little patience.

            Madeline obliged.

            When the box was empty of its contents, the animal demanded that too. It checked the box inside and out to make certain not a single crumb remained. When reality set in, the raccoon tossed the box to the floor and gazed upon Madeline with the eyes of a newborn puppy. The moment froze in time as the two species stared at one another.

            SMASH.

            A glass vodka bottle broke against the cabinets, and Madeline screamed. The startled raccoon rushed back out the open window and vanished into the black of the night. The window was not broken at all but wide open with no screen. The shattered glass was from the liquor bottles already piling up in the new house.

            Madeline turned to the kitchen doorway to see her stumbling-drunk mother. The cigarette hung from her lips once more, and she fumbled with the lighter. The bags under her eyes looked like they weighed a ton.

            “Get the hell outta here, ya damn rodent!” She finally lit the cigarette and puffed in perceived victory. “Damn thing, tryna break in my damn house. Mus’ be related to ya father!” She laughed a wicked laugh.

            Madeline closed her eyes and clenched her jaw.

            “One of his stupid, no-good friends, I bet!” She laughed even harder, a villainous cackle. “Let me tell ya ’bout men like that, hon! Let me tell ya all ’bout those damn rodents!”

            Madeline opened her eyes and looked down at all the broken glass on the floor. Her sense of fear flooded back in an instant. It surged through her body and crawled on her skin like a thousand spiders.

            “Your father… That’ll show ’em!” her mother rambled on. “Him and that damn cat! Son of a bitch. I hate cats! How the hell did it get in here? This is my house! My life!”

            Madeline ignored her mother, as she had grown accustomed to doing over the last two years, and stared out the open window, where life seemed more promising. Sunlight peeked over the horizon of the nearby hills and began peeling away the darkness outside. Sunrays reached Madeline’s nose and cheeks and warmed her face.

            She smiled again, but only for a moment.

From Into the Deep Woods

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© Copyright Jonathan Arena 2019