Jack holds the key in his hand, turning it over and over. He examines it at every angle, admiring the smoothness of the surface and the precision that went into the design. Most people, he figures, never pay much attention to the subtle things they encounter in their lives. Certainly, if anyone else came across a mysterious key, they'd just as soon toss it or give up after attempting to open a few locks. There's no way they would take much notice or otherwise examine it to this level of detail.
The key is perfectly smooth and there are no seams, no slightly bumpy surfaces from when it was molten steel poured into a mould. The edges of the key are round. There are no words etched on the key such as the name of the maker. It has teeth as to fit a particular lock but has no grated surfaces from being cut. The base of the key is made of three empty circles, resembling a clover. It's silver, with a hint of blue, and when it catches the light just right it almost glows. Of course, he knows it doesn't actually glow, that would be silly—though he did take it to a dark closet just to be sure.
Jack is sure that a key this appealing must open an equally appealing lock. Perhaps some sort of treasure chest, the kid inside of him wonders. But where could such a lock be? He unceremoniously found the key wedged in the back corner of the kitchen junk drawer, so no clues there. It looks he's going to have to go from room to room, checking every lock he finds along the way.
The house isn't that special. It's an old Victorian, two stories tall, with the second story being more of an inhospitable attic with its low, angled ceilings, and hot summer heat. The floors of the house are made of wood, once polished and brown but now worn and grey and squeaky, sagging in the common areas. The walls are half wood panelling and half cream colored paint—though, with the age of the house, they might have once been painted white. Jack goes from room to room, peeking in closets, under beds, inside drawers and behind dressers. Nothing.
Next he considers the living room. Front and center is a large fireplace made of red brick, accompanied by a white marble hearth. To the left of the fireplace is an unsightly stack of greying logs in front of a small door, probably a closet for storing unsightly logs. He checks behind the couch, the chairs, rummages through the drawers in the coffee table, and looks through the knick-knacks on the book shelves. More disappointment.
In the sweltering attic Jack discovers some old locked suitcases but the key is too big. He breaks the locks of the suitcases with a screwdriver hoping to find whatever the key unlocks within, wiping sweat from his face and wishing he had the foresight to have taken them downstairs first. Old outfits and pungent mothballs suggest he should continue his search elsewhere.
Jack returns to the living room and slumps down on the couch, having explored every corner of every room without luck. His attention jumps to the pile of logs and the mess of dirt and bark they're leaving on the floor, and the small door behind them. Maybe whatever is locked is hiding inside the closet. And if not at least he can stack the logs in there and sweep up the mess in the living room.
Jack begrudgingly stands, approaches the small door, and tugs at the handle. The top of the door gives slightly but the logs keep it from opening. With a sigh, he slides the smaller logs away with his feet. As he gets deeper into the pile the logs get bigger. Soon he's on his knees rolling away big ones using both hands. With each moved log he stirs up more dust and wood smell; Tiny wood particles ebb and flow in sunlight that streams through a small curtain gap. Logs collide, scattering more bark to the floor. Some seem too big to even fit in the fireplace. The door is no longer held captive as the final log is pushed aside. He uprights the log and takes a seat, catching his breath and eyeing the amplified mess. I'll clean it later, he decides, reaching forward and pulling the door open. The long forgotten hinges cry screech as the door reveals what lies within.
The walls in the stairwell are adorned in ancient wallpaper, once white and floral but now browned with age. Veiny black tendrils of mildew dot the surface of the wallpaper, reaching out like roots of a horrible plant growing just inside the wall, twitching slightly as a cool draft seeps into the living room. The wooden steps, dusted with time, drift down into a sea of black—a darkness that swallows up the world a dozen feet away.
Jack has always hated basements. Once, going on one of his many adventures as a boy, he was trapped by a monster in a basement. He panicked and hid and cried but he couldn't hide forever. Each time he peeked from his hiding place the monster was still there, watching, waiting for him. After hours of hiding and worrying himself silly hunger kicked in. Accepting his fate he left his hiding place, only to discover the monster had transformed into a lifeless coat and hat resting on chair. As years went by he naturally found himself in more and more basements, each time growing a little more accustomed to them. Of course, he never saw the monster again, and he had mostly convinced himself that it was never there to begin with. Mostly.
These memories come flooding back as Jack realizes he's just opened the door not to a wood closet but to a basement. His instinct is to slam the door shut, barricade it with the logs, and leave the house forever. But no, monsters are the silly daydreams of children, nothing more. Besides, whatever this key opens must be down there, and he is determined to find it.
The wallpaper gives way to nothing resembling a light-switch. Jack saw some lights earlier while hunting for the lock and goes to get them. He procures an electric lantern from the utility closet and a shake-powered flashlight from the kitchen junk drawer and returns to the stairwell. He powers on the lantern and points it forward, aiming it into the heart of the darkness. Dirty concrete floor is about all that can be seen past the stairwell. Not wanting to dwell too much on the situation—and risk worry taking over—he takes the first step downward.
The steps are cold, noticeably colder than the incessant draft. Each footstep is paired with a whispered "kriiitch" as the ancient stairs protest the burden of Jacks unfamiliar weight. He takes a few more steps and gets a better view.
Jack sizes up his enemy by making an arc with his lantern. The walls are brick, maybe once the same red as the fireplace but now darkened with age and dust. The ceiling, consisting of long beams running the length of the house, is low enough to feel awkward but high enough to stand. Cobwebs litter the rafters, especially in the corners. The wall to the right is lined in dingy workbenches. Tall shelving, from floor to ceiling, appear to fill the far end of the basement. A few more passes with the lantern helps him bolster some confidence. Everything is quiet, still, waiting. He places the lantern on a step to act as a lighthouse and continues descending to the final step.
"Chacka Chacka Chacka." Jack gives the flashlight a long shake before turning it on. The light isn't as bright as the lantern but it'll be enough to get around. This flashlight just might be some childs toy; the beam is tiny. It's so small that it plays tricks on his eyes. As the light moves across the room things just outside of the beam reflect strangely and appear to move. He immediately vows to make his search for the lock a quick one.
Jack approaches the benches, starting with the ones closest to the stairs. Whoever last used this basement must have been a woodworker; a lathe, used sandpaper, chisels and other woodworking tools adorn the benches. Everything is so old that it's hard to tell where the dust of time ends and the sawdust of labor begins.
A handmade wooden box lies on one of the benches. It's covered in ornate designs of cobalt blue paint and gold foil, meticulously designed and carved. He eagerly turns the box over in his hands, admiring its beauty, when he spots the lock. Anticipating the end of this journey he pulls the key from his pocket and tries to open it. The key doesn't fit.
Annoyed, Jack pockets the key and grabs a knife from the workbench. He sticks the blade into the gap and works it back and forth. He twists the knife left and right, chipping some of the paint. He tries to fit the blade into the lock but slips and knicks his wrist with the blade, drawing blood. "Son of a bitch!" He throws the box on the ground, smashing it to pieces, destroying both box and silence. Chunks of wood and whatever was in the box scatter across the basement floor, their skittering sounds easily discernible in the otherwise silent basement. The only item from the box that's still identifiable is a small piece of folded paper, teetering slightly in the basement breeze. He reaches down and picks it up, unfolding the fragile, yellowed paper, and reads the handwritten words:
Tempered is the traveler,
Through trials of Fire and Ice.
Trapped below, eternally,
The monster howls thrice.
Jack can't help but think back to his monster memory as a child as he reads the final line. A burst of adrenaline and heightened awareness follows. He instinctively darts his flashlight around, suddenly feeling not-so-alone. He pauses for a moment to listen, but all he can hear is the soft noise of the ever-present breeze. He thinks back to the coat and hat on the chair and his tendency to overreact. "You make a better carpenter than you do a poet" he mutters, wadding the paper into a ball and tossing it across the room.
Once he finishes searching the benches he looks to the shelving. They're made of two by fours and particle board, probably by the woodworker. Each one is covered in old knick-knacks and equipment, jars of nails and screws, stacks of two by fours and scrap plywood, old newspapers, boxes and boxes and boxes of junk, sentimental or otherwise. Whoever took the time to build the shelves didn't take much time organizing them. As he steps between the shelves, distancing himself from the comforting glow of the lantern, the shelves begin to resemble a maze. Not a real maze meant to get someone lost, he tries reassuring himself.
Jack continues searching the shelves for several minutes, exhausting every inch of shelving, before concluding the lock for this key isn't here. He's searched every square foot of the basement without any luck. Spending even this much time has been taxing enough; what would be the harm of returning to the surface and throwing away the damn key forever? Defeated, but relieved with the thought of leaving, he gives up his quest and decides to make his way back.
Jack retraces his steps. Right, right, left… Shit! The entrance should be here. Where did he come in again? A slight panic kicks in. He turns around, takes another left, and catches the lantern light in the distance. Relieved, he takes a step forward, but then notices something he hadn't noticed before: a door in the wall between two shelves. His gaze immediately jumps to what he's been searching for: there on the door, next to the handle, is a smooth silvery lock that almost appears to glow blue in the light of his flashlight.
Jack approaches the door, shaking the light again, coercing a few more lumens from it. He pulls the key from his pocket and slides it into the lock. A harsh "ker-chick" breaks the silence. He swings the door open, eager to put an end to this mystery. With the key forgotten in the lock he bends down and steps into the cellar, his heart pounding with increasing intensity.
The cellar is small, about ten feet wide and ten feet long, and a couple feet shorter than the rest of the basement. A single pillar looms in the center of the room. More rafters run along the ceiling and impede what little clearance the cellar has to offer. The air is much more damp than in the rest of the basement. He takes a few steps toward the center of the cellar.
The empty cellar.
"That's it?" Jack thinks to himself. The far wall is lined in empty wine racks—once storing a formidable collection of spirits but has long since been abandoned. The floor is stained with several dusty red splotches, hopefully from a few misplaced wine bottles. He explores the small room, waving his flashlight around, looking for something, anything, to either give meaning to his subterranean journey or at least justify why he was so afraid to come down here in the first place. But there is nothing. Not even a chair draped with a coat and hat.
Disappointed, but a little relieved, Jack decides it's time to leave. As he turns to leave, a gust of cold air blows past him. "BAM, BAM!" Both the upstairs door and the cellar door to slam shut. Startled, he straightens, straight up into an overhead rafter, hitting his head with a painful thud. "FUCK!", he yells, steadily lowering himself to his knees, dropping the flashlight. Angry at the sudden pain, and his own clumsiness, he pounds his fist onto the ground a few times. His hand now hurts, offering little distraction from the pain in his head. He rubs the top of his head and realizes just how exhausted he is after this whole ordeal. He lays down on his side, caressing his wound, and drifts off as the world around him—and his worries—slowly fade to black.
Jack wakes up surrounded in muddled darkness. The hard ground hints that he isn't in bed. After a groggy moment he recalls being in the basement. He gropes around for the flashlight, though his eyes must have adjusted to the dark as he can make out the outline of the basement walls and rafters and pillar. Finding the flashlight he blows the dust off and gives it a shake, adding vibrance to the dim cellar.
It must be morning. The once cold and damp basement is a bit more mild. He crouches, recalling the rafter incident, and cautiously heads to the door, grabbing one rafter after the other, just to be safe.
Jack opens the cellar door, half expecting to be locked inside, and steps into the large basement room. It's much darker than before; the lantern must have died. He heads toward the stairwell, passing by the workbenches; the once-creepy basement seemingly tamed and familiar. Spending the night somewhere and not getting eaten has a way of doing that to a person. He stands at the bottom of the staircase and takes a final look at the benches and tools. Maybe he'll pick up a new hobby someday, wire up some much needed ceiling lights, fix this place up a bit.
Jack walks up a few creaky steps, sliding his hand along the handrail, still grasping the flashlight. He grabs the lantern, blowing the dust off, and continues walking up the remaining stairs. Once he reaches the top he opens the small door and steps into the living room. He immediately realizes something has changed.
As Jack makes his way past the mess of logs he realizes the living room is much colder than before. He checks the windows, hoping to find one that he might have left open. They're still closed, just as he left them. He checks the kitchen; did he leave the freezer door open? Nope, it's still shut. He checks the fireplace damper, thinking that he might have bumped the lever while moving logs, but it too is closed.
With each room Jack checks he grows more and more anxious. He tries to distract himself by moving and organizing the logs over to the right side of the fireplace and sweeping up the mess but it doesn't help. He can't quite place his finger on it but he's starting to feel that he no longer belongs up here.
After about an hour of discomfort he decides to head back to the basement. He steps into the stairwell, closing the door behind him, and makes his descent. With each step he is further enveloped in the comforting darkness of the basement, the steps whispering their tale of solace.
Several loud, banging thumps awaken Jack. He sits up and listens, slowly regaining awareness. A moment later the thumps return, accompanied by an angry "Hey, quit running indoors!" Soft footsteps and muffled conversation continue overhead as he tries to figure out who is in the house.
Jack hears a sound that he hasn't heard in ages, accompanied by a shift in the pitch of the muffled conversation above. The sound he hears is the screech of the basement door opening from the other room. He heads out of the cellar to confront the invader with a feeling of apprehensive determination.
A small child manifests at the top of the stairwell; a boy from the looks of it, though the light from the living room behind him is nearly blinding. The boy hops down the stairs and sits on the last step, producing a small toy car from his pocket. "Vrrrooommm" he says, rolling the car back and forth on the ground.
"Hey!" Jack yells. The boy stops making noises and looks up. Jack runs to the stairs and tightly grabs the boys arm, shouting "What are you doing here!" The boy screams and pulls away from Jack with startling ease. Jack backs away from the stairwell and the loud thumps of approaching feet rain down from above.
A horrified woman barrels down the stairs and protectively wraps her arms around the boy. She's followed closely by a man brandishing a flashlight. He lunges past the woman and lands on the basement floor, a few feet away from Jack, catching him off-guard. Another woman, wearing a suit, appears at the top of the stairs and regards the ordeal with feigned concern.
Jack prepares for a fight when the man turns on his flashlight and darts the beam around the basement. The woman picks up the child and carries him upstairs, past the suit and into the living room. "There's a monster in the basement, mommy" the boy says. "Don't worry, honey, daddy will protect us" she replies. Jack shields his eyes as the overbearing light momentarily grazes him.
The man makes a couple passes with his light. With a shiver, he kills the flashlight and returns to the stairwell. The woman in the suit talks to him while closing the door behind them, locking it. Seeking answers, Jack follows them up the stairs, listening to them speak, until their voices become too faint to hear. He's only able to make out a few things being said: "… the basement has no windows … didn't even know there was one, as you can tell from the listing … probably don't need the storage … we can seal it off before finalizing the contracts … required to inform you there was a death in the house … nothing violent, it was an accident years ago involving a squatter …"