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“Quiet down, back there!” I yelled whilst driving down an all too familiar road. My best friend and his girlfriend wouldn’t stop laughing loudly at nothing; much like young couples do - for what reason I do not know. I almost regretted bringing them, but I really didn’t want to go alone, and inviting one of these two love birds meant inviting both. They were a package deal. Luckily the torturous sound of two young adults in love would soon cease, as I was approaching my destination. Finally, I would be able to loosen up.
“We’re here,” I stated, less to point out our arrival, and more to shut the two of them up. Fortunately for me, it worked.
My aunt’s old house was just as I remembered it; a rickety old cottage out in the middle of nowhere down a dead end dirt road, teeming with woods, wildlife, and the welcoming smell of roses that she would often plant outside near her stone walkway. That was when it had finally hit me. While walking down that very walkway, smelling those very roses, I stopped dead in my tracks with tears welling up on the exterior of my eyes.
“Are you okay?” my friend’s girlfriend asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. I just need a second.” They looked concerned, but they understood. What else would they expect of me coming back to my aunt’s house right after she died? Honestly it felt a little wrong. I may have been her favorite nephew, but after leaving me everything in her will, including her cottage, it seemed wrong to come here so soon. The service was held just a day prior. I knew everything she had wasn’t much, and I knew I wasn’t really here to collect on my inheritance, but I still felt bad - and at this moment, I felt even worse.
The memories I had of her were being dredged up with every step down her walkway towards the front door. I hadn’t seen her since I was 10 years old, but I could play every memory in my head like a movie. I was very close to her in those days. She might as well have been my mom. My actual mother cared for me, but she wasn’t exactly loving like my aunt was. I remember coming here after school to some cliché milk and cookies. Instead of watching television like a normal kid (she didn't own one), I would listen to my aunt play the piano for hours on end. We would sometimes go bird watching, or work in the garden; things that I have not done since then. These were some of my most treasured memories; but much like a treasure, I kept them locked up and hidden for many years, until now. I stopped dead in my tracks again before reaching the door.
“Seriously, are you okay?” my friend asked this time, seeming very concerned. He had never seen me like this before.
“I’m fine. Why don’t you two take that hike you were talking about? I’ll go on in and take a look around. You guys can meet me back at the car later.”
“If you say so…” He seemed worried, but also a little distressed, probably wondering why I brought him here in the first place if I was just going to send him away while I took care of things. It’s true that I wanted someone here, but now that I’ve arrived, I know I have to do this alone.
My friend and his girlfriend took off down a trail in the woods, and I was left standing there, looking at the house that I’d not seen in such a long time. The feeling that had overcome me was so strange. It’s hard to put into words. It was more than grief - it was a greater sadness. It’s funny; if my aunt could see me now, she probably wouldn’t even recognize me. I was tall, bearded, and wore glasses - all of which obviously were not true of my younger self. This just made me sadder. With one last deep sigh of emotion, I marched on and reached for the handle on my aunt’s front door.
My aunt did not have locks on her doors or windows, including the front door. The house was constructed so long ago, that it was not even built with them. Sure, she could have had some installed since, but she wouldn’t need them out in the middle of nowhere. She brought it up one of the first times I stayed here saying, “Trust the world, and it will set you free.” When I was a kid, hearing her say this made me feel safe. Being full grown and recalling this statement now, I find it very peculiar. But then again, that was my aunt for you; unpretentious and somehow oblivious to the rest of the world around her. Honestly, I missed that part of her the most. All of these memories came back to me piece by piece as I pulled the door open. The bittersweet release I felt was interrupted when I saw the inside of the cottage.
Everything, and I mean everything was exactly in its place. It was almost as if I was a kid again, coming over after school to enjoy my aunt’s company. My memories were playing out right in front of me like a nostalgic outburst of energy. I could see my aunt sitting at the piano, playing as she often would. I could see me, sitting there, eating some homemade cookies, listening intently to the music. I could see her again cooking me dinner in the kitchen, as I sat on the couch reading one of her old books. It was surreal to feel all of this at once, but I walked past my living recollections and went upstairs to see more.
I stopped quickly when I reached the top of the stairs. I realized that they only lead to a single door - the attic door. Although my memories were coming back to me at an exponentially fast rate, I had forgotten about the attic. I had no interest in it, and so I traveled back downstairs. I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for. Maybe just a little peace of mind to put my heart at ease. Maybe just something that would let me know without a doubt that my aunt passed away peacefully. I suppose the emotion I was experiencing was guilt. Yes, yes it was.
When I was just shy of eleven years old, my parents moved out of state. This is when I stopped seeing my aunt. We kind of lost touch, especially seeing as she didn’t have any real means of communication out here - no phone, no computer - she didn’t even have a mailbox, and the nearest post office was over twenty miles away. Being older now, I could have easily paid her a visit, and I am sure she would have loved to have seen me. I’ve always thought about it, but I guess I thought she would always be here too. Unfortunately she had a heart attack young, and with no hospital or neighbors for miles, death came knocking on her unlocked door in a hasty fashion. At the very least, this visit has put the fleeting quality of life into perspective for me. At this point, this was probably the only thing that I would take away from this place. I may just leave it here to rest in peace, having found a little bit of closure to take home with me.
As I made my way down the stairs and back into the living room, I noticed something. I was in such a hurry to escape my corporeal memories that I did not notice this before. It was the desk - the desk where my aunt would sit and write for hours at a time. She said that it helped her experience the world outside of her cottage, by writing about how she imagined and wanted it to be. The more and more I remembered my aunt, the more I could see how isolated and somewhat unstable she really was. She was odd, but I loved her just the same, even now.
What I had not noticed upon entering the house, was that the desk drawer was open. I looked inside and found a single sheet of paper with my aunt’s handwriting on it. This is what it said:
To my dearest nephew,
If you are reading this, then the cold tides of death have swept me away once and for all. I know that we’ve not seen each other since you were a child, but I hope you still think fondly back on our time together. I was happy to look after you, and I know that you were happy to spend time with me. I don’t want you to be sad, or feel off-put about my death in any way. This is how it was, and in turn how it was meant to be. I will always hold you dear in my heart, even after passing, and I’m sure you’ll do the same for me. I want you to live freely despite this, and enjoy each and every moment of your life, just as I did mine. I will see you again someday, and I look forward to it. Trust the world, and it will set you free.
P.S. Don’t go in the basement.
I shed a single tear reading this passage, knowing that my aunt wanted me to find peace in this old house. The very closure I was looking for was in this very desk the whole time. The elation I felt almost distracted me from the postscript at the bottom of the page; "Don’t go in the basement". This last sentence had just now sunk in, and I noticed how out of place it was. Don’t go in the basement? Why not? Was my aunt hiding something? If so, what was it? Without further a due, I headed over towards the basement door with the letter in hand, knowing that the answers I wanted were down there. I took one last look at the letter before opening the door. Don’t go in the basement. It was so perplexing to me that I just had to know why. It was most likely the ramblings of an unstable woman on the verge of death, but what could be the real meaning behind it? Why the basement? Why me?
I could recall the basement from when I was younger, but I didn’t remember much. I had only been down there once. My aunt was outside gardening while I was inside reading one of her books. I grew tired of reading and set the book down on her desk. Soon after, I began wandering around the house out of boredom. I walked around the entire cottage rather quickly, making sure to avoid the stairs. My aunt had told me once that they were old and she had hurt herself falling down them, so I never went up them myself (I suppose this would explain why I didn’t remember the attic door). Finally, I came upon the basement. Knowing my aunt wouldn’t be in for a while, I decided to venture on. I turned the doorknob, and swung the door open. I could only see the top of the stairs descending downward into darkness. I only hoped that these stairs weren’t as rickety as the ones above. I pressed onward. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I could not see a thing. I started scrambling around looking for a light. After a few moments, I found an old string light in the middle of the room. I pulled the switch, and the room lit up, however dimly. What I saw disappointed me.
It was a typical basement, only smaller; concrete walls, concrete floor, and some old wood sitting off in the corner (probably some old floor boards leftover from the house’s construction). As a kid, I had hoped for something a lot more interesting, given the mystery surrounding it (I had never been down there, and my aunt never talked about it). The next thing I remember was my aunt’s voice as she came down the stairs saying, “You can’t be down here!” She sounded less angry, and more worried - probably that I would get hurt down there. I know that I had been down there longer than that, given the usual time that my aunt spent gardening, but this was all that I could remember. Maybe going down one more time would refresh my memory. Maybe this could shed light on my aunt’s strange message to me as well.
Just as when I was a kid, I turned the knob and swung the basement door open, revealing only the top of the stairs and the basement below, completely void of light. Instead of feeling adventurous like I had back then, I now felt nervous, repeating the words my aunt had left for me over and over again in my head, and then asking myself once more; why? I crept down the stairs slowly, so as not to shake the foundation. That’s what I told myself, but I guess my sluggish pace was largely due to the fact that I was frightened at what I might find when I reached the bottom. Feeling impatient and uncomfortably anxious, I moved a little bit faster. I felt the concrete below my feet, and I rapidly darted towards the center of the room, reaching for the light, praying that it still worked. I felt around for the string, found it, and pulled the switch. To my delight it still harbored electricity. The room became dimly lit. In a panicky state, I spun around looking every which way as I did. What I saw, surprised me.
There was nothing there! It was just as I left it when I was a kid. There were even the old floorboards left in the corner, untouched for many years. I felt relieved, but far more confused than before. Why didn’t my aunt want me to come down here? Instead of dwelling on the conundrum at hand, I chalked it up to asbestos or mold in the cellar walls. This could explain why she didn’t want me playing in here as a kid, and why she didn’t want me here now. She just wanted to keep me safe. This theory made me feel better, but deep down I knew that couldn’t have been the reason for my aunt’s plea. Just as I made my way to the stairs, I stopped dead in my tracks for a third time while here at the cottage. Everything was coming back to me. I could remember being here in the basement when I was younger, the same as it was now. The same that is, except back then there was a door. A door that led to the attic.
What a strange memory to have kept bottled up for so long. How could I have forgotten? I remember clearly finding a door down here, and upon opening it, I entered the attic. I knew it was the attic at the time, because I could peer out the window and see my aunt gardening two stories below. I remember waving to her, but she was too busy to notice me. I remember finding it odd at the time that I went from the basement to the attic without so much as climbing a single step, but I brushed it off. After all, I was only 10, and I had no interest in getting caught up in the semantics of how a house is built. I never thought about this incident again - until now, that is. Now, being older, I am deeply perplexed and troubled by this memory. How can the basement lead me to the attic? How? It isn’t even remotely possible. I still don’t remember that day very well. The details are a bit fuzzy. I can only remember looking out the window at my aunt. It must have been a dream. That is the only explanation. I must have dreamt about finding the door in the basement after going down there that day. Yes. That’s it. It has to be. How else could any of this make sense? Comfortable with my new hypothesis, I decided to go back upstairs. Before doing so, I turned around to take one last look at the basement. I really shouldn’t have. I really, really shouldn’t have.
There, in the middle of the far left wall of the basement, was the door from my memory. I squinted and rubbed my eyes, keeping them closed for a good few seconds before opening them again. When I did, the door was still there, as tangible and existent as ever. Needless to say, I was in a slight state of shock. This can’t be. It just can’t be. I knew for a fact that the door was not there just a few moments before, and I had already convinced myself that my childhood memory was nothing more than a bizarre dream. What was going on? Much like before, I knew that I had to move forward in order to satisfy my insatiable curiosity, and answer the pressing questions that lay before me in the shape of a door. I had no choice.
After regaining some composure and mustering up a small amount of courage, I walked, however slowly, towards the inexplicable door. My unhurried movements mirrored my hesitant and frightened exterior, allowing me to stall for a moment while I searched for some nerve to actually open the door. Unfortunately for me, the basement was small, and the space between me and the door was quickly covered in a matter of seconds, despite my slothful motions. The moment of truth was upon me. I took a deep breath, turned the knob, and pushed the door open, letting momentum take care of the rest. This was it. I might finally have the answers I had come down here for - or should I say up here? I couldn’t be certain at this point. The only thing I was sure of was the beating in my chest.
As the door opened, I became focused on nothing but my field of vision. What I was about to see would shed some light on the questions that have been raised since arriving at my aunt’s house. The door creaked in an eerie manner, and revealed the room behind it. Low and behold, the room was none other than the attic! It was just as I remembered it, window and all. How could this be? The sunlight from outside came through the window and lit up the room brilliantly, leaving me awestruck. I walked forward to look outside, just to make sure that this was really happening; to make sure that this was indeed the attic and that I hadn’t gone completely crazy. After peering out the window, that question was still up in the air.
Two stories below was my aunt’s yard. The grass was as green as ever, and the sky was as clear as day. Everything was so vibrant. I looked over at my aunt’s garden, and to my surprise there was a person there. It was a woman, and she was gardening. Who was that, and why was she in my aunt’s garden? She turned around revealing her face, and to my surprise, it was my aunt! What? How? My aunt is dead! This can’t be happening - it just can’t be! My private rant was interrupted by the sound of footsteps behind me. Startled, I remained frozen in place.
“Who are you?” I heard echo off of the attic walls. It sounded like a kid’s voice. I turned around to face the voice. What I found was unsettling. It was my ten-year-old self, standing just twenty feet away from me, asking who I was! My mind was in such a delirious state by now, that I didn’t even question the out of place occurrence standing before me. I decided to converse with myself.
“I’m… a friend.” Is all I could think to say.
“You’re a friend of my aunt’s?” he asked innocently. I had forgotten how curious I was as a child.
“Yes… a very dear friend.” My younger self walked over to look out the window where I was standing. I stepped aside and let him do so. He saw our aunt outside gardening below and waved at her. She didn’t notice.
“Do you have an aunt?” he asked while looking straight up at me.
“Yes… but she passed away,” I said.
“I am sorry to hear that.” I also had forgotten how polite I was as a child. I guess my aunt taught me that.
“Listen to me. I know it’s hard for you to understand right now, but someday your aunt will pass away too. I want you to spend as much time as possible with her, and visit whenever you can. You mean the world to her, and you will regret it later on if you don’t make an effort to be with her now, while you still can.” I relayed the only message I thought could help the younger version of me as he grew older. He looked at me with the most understanding stare, as if the events behind this message needed no further explanation.
“Okay.” Is all he said. That’s all he needed to say.
After walking around and looking at some of the old stuff in the attic, including some old books that caught his eye, my younger self left the attic to venture back to the basement, and shut the door behind him. I looked out the window and noticed that my aunt had finished gardening, and was walking back to the house. This was when my next revelation had taken place. I was beginning to remember more and more from that day. It was all coming back to me. I remembered me, standing here in the attic - the friendly bearded man with glasses! I remembered all of this now, from the conversation we had just had, to discussing it with my aunt afterwards. Just then, I heard more footsteps in the next room. This time, they were my aunt’s. I ran over to the door and listened.
“You can’t be down here!” she yelled in a worried tone.
I wanted to open the door and confront her, just to see her one last time and to tell her that I’m sorry for never visiting. I reached for the door knob, but I thought it best to leave my apology unspoken. That, and I was scared of what might happen if I had opened the door. She would probably have just thought that I was an intruder. Like I stated earlier, she wouldn’t recognize me all grown up.
I could hear her scolding me, and bringing me back upstairs. Instead of listening to find out what happened next, I just remembered. I could recall telling my aunt about the attic door in the basement, and the friendly bearded man in said attic. I can remember her telling me that I had “quite the imagination”, but at the same time, I remember her looking troubled when I told her everything, especially after I told her what the bearded man had said to me. She seemed to know more than she was letting on, looking back on it now.
As far as being in the attic, I remember it feeling just as it does now. The vibrant colors and surreal surroundings made it feel very dreamlike. Maybe this explains why, much like a dream, I had forgotten all about it. This attic seemed so disconnected from the rest of the world. Incredible at first, it was now beginning to make me feel uneasy. I suppose it was now time for me to leave. I headed back to the door and jiggled the knob. It wouldn’t budge. I turned it a little bit harder, but to no avail. I began to feel a wave of terror consume me. This didn’t make any sense. The doors in my aunt’s house had no locks. Then again, nothing made sense up until this point either. I backed up a little and ran into the door. It remained unmovable. I did this a few more times. Nothing happened. Feeling weary, I sat down and took a breather. Maybe if I just relax and rest my eyes, I can….before I knew it, I had fallen asleep. The otherworldly properties of the room may have attested to this. A good couple of hours must have passed before I awoke.
I opened my eyes gradually, rubbing them as I did. In a half asleep daze, I took a look at my surroundings. I was still in the attic. I jolted up, now fully awake, and tried the door again. It would not give in, even still. What was I going to do? My thoughts were interrupted by audible footsteps and voices in the house. It was my friend and his girlfriend! I almost forgot that I had brought them here with me. I was saved!
In a relieved stupor, I began calling out to them. It became quickly apparent that they could not hear me from wherever I was. I could hear them walking around, calling out my name. I increased my volume and started banging on the door.
“I’m in here, guys!” I yelled, still not knowing whether I was below or above them. They still couldn’t hear me. I began to panic.
I started screaming at the top of my lungs and banging as hard as I could on the attic door. I still received no response. With a dead voice and pained hands, I simply gave up. I put my back against the wall and slid down to a sitting position, with a few tears streaming down my face. I just sat there and listened, as my friend and his girlfriend conversed from within the house.
“Where could he be? He said he would meet us at the car, and he wasn’t there. If he’s not here in the house, then where else could he be?” my friend asked his girlfriend.
“Did you try the basement?” she asked.
“Yes. There’s nothing but some old floorboards down there.”
“What about the attic?” She asked.
“I tried there too. It’s just filled with a bunch of old, dusty antiques.”
“We’ll have to call the police and have them look for him too. He must’ve gotten lost in the woods looking for us.” I appreciated my friend’s girlfriend’s efforts, but I knew they would heed no results.
As they made their way out of the cottage, my heart sunk. If he had already been in the basement and the attic, then where was I? My mind was racing. I came here looking for answers, and I found none. Instead, I’m trapped in an attic for what I can only guess will last an eternity. I quietly sobbed in the corner when I remembered something. As a kid, I looked at some old books up here. I could only remember the title of one of them. It was called “A Rough Guide to Witchcraft”. I remembered finding the book to be an odd part of my aunt‘s collection, just as I do now. I jolted up once more and began looking through some of my aunt’s old books. I started throwing them all over the place, until I came across the one I was looking for. Yes! Here it was. I still didn’t know why I thought it would help, but I was so desperate that anything seemed like a light at the end of the tunnel now. I opened it up and read the preface:
The spells in this book are to be followed precisely. If even one step is not followed properly, you could potentially open a can of worms so horrific and convoluted, that it may never shut again, and you will bear the consequences of your failure. Use these spells at your own risk.
The odd nature of the preface littered my nerves with a sense of worry. I was not liking where this was going. Before turning the page, I noticed that the old lace bookmark usually hanging from the book, was inside. I opened up to the page and read aloud:
“Chapter VIII: Horticulture.”
I glanced over at the next page and noticed a spell meant to “bring your garden to life”. The spell itself was in Latin. It was to be enunciated while performing a ritual that included surrounding the area in a special sand that I had never heard of, and the usual lighting of multiple candles. My Latin was a little rusty, but from what I could read, it said something along the lines of “bring above that which is below”, which I assumed referred to the growing of the plants. I could only gather that my aunt performed the ritual here in the attic, because there were some dormant candles in with her stuff. The inclusion of this book in my aunt’s collection now made sense to me. She wanted to spice up her dull garden, and instead of taking care of the plants normally, she resorted to witchcraft.
Was my aunt a witch, or did she just dabble in it for a while? After reading the entire book before and after chapter eight, I believe she purchased this book just for that one spell. I couldn’t find any reasons in the book for what was happening to me, but I could only gather that my aunt didn’t know what she was doing, and did not follow the instructions to a tee like she should have. This failure resulted in this. What is this exactly? I can only assume that this is the “consequences” mentioned in the preface. My aunt did indeed open a can of worms, and in doing so, I can no longer open the door back into my normal life. I am stuck here in this illusory attic - an attic that seems to be a realm of its own. The only comfort I find is in knowing that I gave my younger self some great words of wisdom, that I already know he heeded - whether he knew it or not. I may not have visited her when I grew older, but I did make the most of my time with her when I had the chance. For this I am glad, even if she was the reason I was trapped here.
I am growing now to accept my fate. She did warn me after all. I should have listened. This is my fault, and mine alone. With the endless paper and writing materials here in this old attic, I am left to do nothing but write down in words what has happened to me, in the hopes that someone may come across it, somehow - the words of a living ghost. If you are reading this, please listen to what I have to say. Your time here is not boundless, and at any moment the horrid hand of the unknown could come knocking at your door, there to bereave your loved ones, and steal you away from your blissful, ordinary existence. The cause of this sudden upheaval will most likely be death, or in my case, something far worse. Last but not least, if you are ever in this neck of the woods and you feel a need to stop in and say hi, go right ahead. I can’t promise you that you’ll get a response. I just want you to remember two things; your life is fleeting, so spend your time wiser than I did mine - and whatever you do, don’t go in the basement.
Written by Christopher Maxim