Sammi drove her car, carelessly and happy, making her way through town toward her next stop. A bouncing upbeat pop song blared loudly through the stereo speakers, thumping and whumping. It caused her car to vibrate violently, rattling the windows and forcing a deep thrum to shudder through the nineteen-year old’s chest. Singing along to the song, Sammi smiled and danced as she moved, block by block, to the last house on Drummer Street.
Sammi was a CNA. She worked for a home health company, traveling to patient’s homes and providing care as they needed. While most of her care revolved around helping her patients eat or bathe, Sammi often spent her time simply visiting, socializing, or playing card and board games with the seniors she cared for. She enjoyed her job. Not only could she make her own schedule, listen to her own music as she drove from house to house, and avoid entitled customer types found in retails jobs, she enjoyed the work she did.
Sammi was a kind, soft-spoken young woman. She cared a great deal about her patients and it showed in her work. All her patients spoke highly of her. They enjoyed her visits and appreciated everything she did for them. Sammi was attending University to become a nurse. She was already halfway through her courses and was told by everyone she knew that she would eventually be an amazing nurse. For now, however, Sammi was not only happy working as a nursing assistant, she was proud of her position.
It was late in the evening. The sun was just beginning it’s long slow descent behind the western horizon, painting the sky in a brilliant display of pinks and purples which reached up and out for as far as the eye could see. The sun itself was a bright golden coin shimmering and gleaming. An orange haze had begun to engulf the orb, turning it into a fantastic neon red as it set just above the horizon. The summer was in full swing and Sammi was glad she still had a little daylight left before finishing her rounds. As dedicated to her job and school as she was, Sammi still looked forward to having time off with her friends.
Her car drove around a long winding bend. She was on her last stop, which was located at the top of a small hill surrounded by tall pines and sycamores. For as long as Sammi could remember houses had always existed along the long drive toward the top of the hill, but according to her patient who lived there, Mr. Black, the area had once been secluded and almost hidden by a much thicker, much denser population of trees.
Though houses had begun to pop up in the early nineties, the street was still less populated than most and was still long enough that there were no houses near Mr. Black’s two-story rambler. Sammi finished her ascent up the winding road and parked her car along the street in front of Mr. Black’s house. She climbed out and stood on the asphalt near her vehicle. Looking back down through the tall dark trees which surrounded the area, Sammi could just barely make out the details of the town below. It was a beautiful view and it took some time for Sammi to realize she was simply staring, gazing out at the sunset. This, she thought, must be why Mr. Black had built his house here.
Mr. Black was a polite frail gentleman. He was sociable and sweet, as most older men were. He, however, seemed to have a fondness for chatting and gossip. It never made sense to young Sammi, why a man so prone to socializing, would ever build a house so far from everyone else he’d ever known. He’d never married or had any children and Sammi often thought he must have lived a terribly lonely life, so far up this hill, away from the world. Yet, as she stood staring through the silhouettes of trees at the gorgeous sunset shining over the town below, she finally thought she knew the answer.
Sammi grabbed her things from her car, made her way up the front walk, and knocked on the front door before entering.
“Hello!” Sammi said loudly. “Mr. Black, it’s me, Sammi, from Home Health.”
For a long moment, there was no response save the cool silence which hung in the menthol scented air. Though Mr. Black was a clean and orderly man, almost on the verge of obsessive; his house, like many seniors’ homes, smelled bad. A mix between rotting flesh and chemicals which Sammi had never quite gotten used to
“Mr. Black?” Sammi called out. She stepped into the house, placing her things near the front door, and walked down the dark front hallway toward the living room. “Mr. Black, it’s Sammi.”
“What?” Finally came the reply Sammi had been waiting for. Though she had experienced death working in healthcare, she dreaded the notion of finding her patients alone in their homes, having passed without anyone besides them. It was a silly sentiment, or so she’d been told by others, but Sammi was a sweet girl who felt everyone should have someone close to them at the time of dying.
“Hello, Mr. Black. How are you? It’s me, Sammi, from Home Health.” She said, entering the living room. Mr. Black sat in his favorite recliner. The small tube TV he’d been watching was on mute. Closed Captioning scrolled across the screen. The lights were off and here, in the dim evening light, illuminated by the TV’s screen, the old thin man looked somewhat like a skeleton.
Mr. Black was getting on in years, nearly ninety, if Sammi could remember correctly. His Dementia had only grown worse over the years and to the detriment of the old man’s health, it had started to weigh on him. Often forgetting to feed himself or take himself to the bathroom, Mr. Black was at serious risk for complications and illness.
“Who?” Mr. Black said, looking up at Sammi as she made her way over kneeling beside him. A look of confusion spread over his gaunt wrinkled face. His thin white hair floated and danced atop his large bulbous head and a thin layer of white stubble covered his cheeks and drooping neck. Today, it seemed, his Dementia was worse. There were good days, and there were bad days, Sammi thought. Today was one of the bad.
“I’m Sammi,” she said smiling. “I’m here to help you this evening.”
Mr. Black nodded slowly. He’d never been much of a man to argue, even when he didn’t know where he was or what was happening. It was one of the few things Sammi liked about him. Always agreeable.
“Samantha?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m a CNA. I come by three times a week. Do you remember me?”
Mr. Black thought for a long moment then shook his head. “You look like Jennifer.” He said.
Sammi laughed lightly then smiled. “Oh, who’s Jennifer? You’ve never talked about her before. Is she a girlfriend?”
Mr. Black shook his head again. The thin wisps of hair still clinging to his scalp swayed back and forth, dancing like a falling feather. “I don’t remember.” He said. “But you look like her.”
Sammi was petite and small framed. A characteristic which often betrayed her strength and ability to transfer patients in and out of bed. Her long blonde hair was pulled tightly behind her head in a ponytail and her large sapphire eyes sparkled in the darkness, reflecting the TV’s blue glow.
“Well, you’ll have to remember who she is so you can tell me all about her.” Sammi said turning on a light. “In the meantime, let’s get you some dinner and get ready for bed. What do you say?”
Over the next hour, Sammi helped Mr. Black. She heated the food in his freezer, a microwaveable lasagna provided by the Home Health company. Helped him in and out of the shower, making sure to shave the stubble from his cheeks and neck. And helped him into bed. All the while Mr. Black was kind and polite, as always. He spoke with Sammi about his day, which he almost nearly remembered, only replacing details with memories from fifty years earlier a few times. He told her about his time in the army, and about his life afterward, when he’d built this home.
All the while, as Mr. Black spoke and socialized, there seemed a hint of deeper thought. A furrow in his brow which never went away. As Sammi helped button the silk shirt of the old man’s pajamas, she asked him, “What are you thinking about?”
His eyes, which stared off, gazing at a mile’s distance, came back. He looked at Sammi for a long while, his dark eyes watching her. She could see there was something there. A memory or thought which eluded him. It was as though it were on the tip of his tongue, or just out of reach of his fingertips.
“Jennifer?” he asked. His voice was coarse and suddenly dry.
“No, Mr. Black, it’s me, Sammi.” She had never seen him like this before. Never seen him seem so lost. Her heart ached for him.
“Jennifer…I-I still have it, you know.” He said. “I- I never got rid of it. Just like I promised.”
Sammi’s curiosity grew as the old man as if in a trance, looked at her but almost…looking through her. “What did you promise?” She asked.
“You know exactly.” He responded. “Don’t pretend you don’t.” his tone had become aggravated. “I’ve kept it, just like I said I would. Now stop looking at me that way. You always looked at me that way. It’s safe, in the basement.”
Sammi stopped, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She said.
Suddenly Mr. Black’s face relaxed. His demeanor changed again. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Sammi picked up the old man’s thin bony hand in hers and patted it gently. “It’s okay.” She said. “Ready for bed?”
Mr. Black nodded. Sammi stood and helped to slide the man’s feet into bed. She slipped off his slippers, pulled up the covers and tucked him in.
“Alright, “ she said. “Have a good night, Mr. Black. I’ll see you in two days, okay? Someone will be here to help you in the morning.”
Mr. Black nodded, adjusting the pillow beneath his head as best he could. “Goodnight, Jennifer.” He replied.
Sammi turned down the lights, leaving a bedside lamp on, and closed the door part way. It was odd, she thought, that he would call her Jennifer. The man was confused, for certain, she knew. But he had never before called her that name, never looked at her with that furrowed, thoughtful or lost expression.
Sammi was an exemplary employee. Stealing anything from a patient’s house had never once crossed her mind and never in a million years had she thought to go snooping. Yet, as she stood outside Mr. Black’s bedroom, his words returned to her.
“It’s safe, in the basement,”
Sammi had never been in the basement before. The house which was mostly one floor held everything the old man needed in his day to day life. When his knees began to fail him, his bedroom was moved from the second floor to the first, and even then, Sammi had rarely ever been up there, if only to grab something and return it to Mr. Black.
To be honest, Sammi had nearly forgotten the house even had a basement. She had only seen the stairs, hidden by a door at the end of the hallway, a few times. Once when she had first taken Mr. Black as a patient. She was trying to learn the layout of the house and mistook the door to the basement for a closet. And once when she was cleaning and looking for a place to store a box of photos. At the time the basement had seemed too dark and unsettling to explore. The photos had found a more suitable home in the dining room credenza.
Now, as Mr. Black slipped into a restful sleep, Sammi wondered…
I know I shouldn’t, she told herself. Snooping around the house like that is bad, but…
She simply had to know, who was Jennifer? Why had she come back to Mr. Black so suddenly, and why had the memory of her changed his whole attitude so much?
Sammi slowly walked down the hallway toward the door to the basement. I’ll only be there for a moment. She told herself. I’ll just take a peek. If there isn’t a giant red sign with Jennifer’s name on it, I’ll just come back upstairs and pretend it never happened. I’ll forget about the whole thing.
The door was closed but had no lock. Sammi turned the doorknob slowly and pulled. It creaked loudly as the door swung. It had been ages since the door had been used and as it finally came to a stop, Sammi was able to release the tense wincing expression on her face. Beyond the doorway, a long narrow set of steep stairs descended into darkness.
Sammi’s heart beat loudly as she stared down into the shadows below. She hesitated for a long while, debating her next actions. Then, cautiously, she took a step. Half feeling her way down, half straining her eyes, Sammi made her way into the cool damp basement. The light from the hallway above her was all that existed to illuminate the darkness.
Looking around in the unlit space, pretending not to see figures where unknown shapes and shadows seemed to loom, Sammi saw what she was looking for. Hanging in the center of the dark room was a single white bulb. A thin white string hung below it. She walked forward, stumbling over boxes she couldn’t see and wrapped her small fingers around the cord. She pulled it and with a sudden satisfying click, the light came to life. A dull yellow-white glow lit the room.
The basement was larger than expected. A single subterranean room surrounded Sammi on four sides. The bare cement walls and floor kept the dank space cool, even now during the summer. Piles and stacks of cardboard items and objects filled the large space, giving it an optical illusion of appearing smaller than it was. While she could count at least twenty feet to the corner where two walls met, the sheer number of boxes and items cluttering the basement made it feel tight and cramped.
Large unused pieces of furniture, a couch, a dining room table, a large oaken armoire, all stood in the center of the room, surrounded by and buried beneath a mountain of cardboard boxes.
If, Sammi thought, she were going to snoop through Mr. Black’s things, it would take days before finding anything related to this Jennifer. That was, of course, if there was anything in here at all.
Sammi started maneuvering through the room, stepping over boxes and doing her best not to trip on anything. Where do I even begin? She wondered. She walked over to a stack of boxes and began looking through them. Each box was labeled in neat penmanship, made with a thick black marker. “Kitchen” Read one, “Dining Room” Read another. At least, she thought, this would narrow things down a bit.
For another hour, or more, Sammi moved through the cramped space looking at the boxes and reading their labels. Just as his house above was kept in relative order, so were the boxes here in the basement. What once seemed like a random stack of objects, Sammi now realized as a meticulously organized grouping of items. Each box was separated by room in the house to which it belonged, and each item in the box was neatly and carefully placed inside. There was an almost obsessive quality to how everything, it seemed, was stored and organized.
When the young woman realized this, she was quickly and easily able to avoid whole sections of the house by merely locating their groupings and labels. What Sammi hadn’t counted on, was the vast number of things Mr. Black had hung onto over the years. For someone so clean and well kept, not including the faults of old age, Mr. Black appeared to have hung onto everything he’d ever owned.
Growing more and more exhausted, and feeling the need for a long hot shower, Sammi decided to give up. If there were anything in here, she thought, that had anything to do with what she was looking for, it would take an eternity to find it. That, however, was when Sammi noticed a lone red door.
It was against the far wall, nearly hidden by the massive pile of objects in the center of the room, and completely obscured from view as she entered down the stairs. The door was closed, and in almost every way mundane save for the fact that it was painted red.
Curiosity once again growing in her, Sammi made her way, climbing over the long forgotten and highly outdated couch, past several cloth covered pieces of furniture, and over a small stack of boxes, to the door. Eagerly she gripped the handle and tried to open it. To her dismay, it was locked.
Well, now what? Sammi thought. She looked back out over the room. Even here, in the basement, the strong odor of menthol and… something else, permeated the air. She sniffed her nose as the pungent aroma stung her nostrils.
A key, there has to be a key. Sammi thought. Wading through the room, Sammi made her way to a stack of items labeled “Garage” and begun digging through them. She couldn’t be certain, and she wasn’t too hopeful that she was right, but it felt as though she had seen a set of keys in a box labeled garage. She dug frantically, allowing the excitement of opening the door fill her. The faster she searched, the more excited she became.
Sammi let out a sudden shriek of joy as her fingers, feeling beneath an old toolbox, grasped the edges of a key ring.
“I knew it!” She squealed.
She picked up the keys, lifting her hand in front of her face. The ring was small and held only four or five keys. The chances, Sammi knew, were slim that any of these went to the locked red door. But she had to try.
Back at the door, Sammi’s hands shook with excitement as she fumbled for the right key. One, two, then three. None of the keys were working. Then, with an all too gratifying and rewarding click, the fourth key turned and the door unlocked. Thrilled, Sammi swung open the door and stepped inside.
The room was dark. An endless pitch blackness surrounded her. The foul stinking odor which filled the house was now even stronger. Sammi gagged and held back a mouthful of bile as it rose in her throat. Reaching to the right of the door, Sammi’s hand shuffled along the wall, feeling for a light switch. Eagerly, as soon as she found it, she flipped it on.
All at once, the surroundings of the room filled Sammi’s eyes. Her mind, instantly berated by what she saw, filled her with a terror unlike any she’d ever known.
Along the wall to her left stood a counter and across from her, opposite the door, were three steel cages. At first, to Sammi’s eyes, they appeared empty. When she realized the third cage, farthest from the door, had something in it, her mind froze, clamming up like a broken computer.
Perhaps it was an animal, lying still and dark on the cold hard floor of the cage. It was medium in size, like that of a large dog, and brown… Only, Sammi thought, Mr. Black doesn’t keep pets and this room’s been locked for who knows how long…
Suddenly, with horror, Sammi’s brain began to fit the pieces together. Whatever it was in the cage, it wasn’t moving. Slowly, her knees wobbly and feeble, her hands shaking intensely, and her heart racing, Sammi stepped toward the cage. The closer she came, the more details she recognized. The more she saw, the less she wanted to.
Curled into a fetal position, their knees tucked into their chest, lay the brown rotting corpse of a woman. Her skin was bare, leathery and tight. Her long blonde hair lay across the floor dull and faded. Ancient petrified feces lay in the corner of the cage beside a small plate of crumbs. As Sammi came closer, the small, skeleton-like face of the caged figure came into view.
Sammi screamed as she saw silent shrieking skull, and was suddenly aware of how dull her shout had been. All along the walls, lining them from floor to ceiling were foam pads, like those of a music studio. The room was sound proof.
Looking away from the horror before her, Sammi turned to the counter. There, lying in a heaping pile of dried stained blood, brown and aged with time, were tools. Like implements for a cook, the counter was covered in tools designed for torture. Tears began to well in Sammi’s eyes as fear began to overtake her.
She had to leave. She had to flee this place, run away and never come back. Turning back toward the open red door, Sammi saw it. She hadn’t noticed it before as she came in. Sitting on a shelf beside the light switch, floating in a jar of yellow-brown liquid was a thin wide-eyed face.
Sammi screamed, as for only a moment, she thought she was staring at herself. Floating in the jar before her, was a small, petite face with long blonde hair which now floated like a tangle of seaweed, it’s bright sapphire eyes staring back at her with a terrified blank expression.
Stuck to the jar, just below the young woman’s slightly agape mouth, written on a piece of masking tape in neat clean penmanship, read the name, “Jennifer”.