THE TAPPING by Ray O’Bannon
Part one- Big Dreams
I have to laugh when I look back on things. There was a time when I thought my band might actually hit the top 40. There was a time I thought Rita and I would never be apart. For a while there, I really thought I had it made. As for all those doubters who thought I was headed nowhere... well, they were more right than they ever could have imagined.
My first hint that everything was about to crumble came in the form of a recording, informing me that the bands manager, Marty, wasn't in his office. Turns out he wasn't even in the country. Of course when he vanished, all the profits from the band's last three years of performances vanished with him. Marty had always told us we needed to stay on the road, needed to 'stay hungry', sell every last CD possible, get the word out about how incredible we were. Meanwhile he funneled all the cash into 'secure' accounts that only he could access. For our safety, of course. Some folks think his vanishing was a contributing factor in our lead singer's decision, two months later, to shoot himself in the face, but I'm not sure. I just know the band wasn't salvageable, so it was time to go do something else.
I decided to try a day job at a local music shop, record my own tunes in my free time and see where it went. As long as I had Rita, I knew everything would eventually work out. I even had a wedding ring in my pocket that night we went to Luigi's. The night she explained to me about how people change.
Thinking life had knocked enough stuffing out of me, I packed everything up and headed back to the one place I felt safe... my old home town in Colorado. Technically it's just a village, with a steady population of around five hundred people. The town sits in a remote area where 'city folk' seldom travel, and I felt more than a few pairs of eyes following me down the quiet tidy main street. A note tacked to a bulletin board at the grocery store told of a small cottage for rent. It was the cheapest lodging I was likely to find, so I called the owner, a fellow named Jeeter, and agreed to meet him at the place later that afternoon. At least it would be somewhere to hide until life decided to cut me some slack. Or until I ran out of cash and starved.
Jeeter arrived shortly before sundown, hopping out of an old battered pickup truck and holding out a greasy hand to shake. I'm usually fairly accepting of others, but I couldn't help taking an immediate dislike to Jeeter. Everything about us seemed in opposition... a quick glance would suggest to most anyone that I was probably just another hipster from Denver or maybe Phoenix, while Jeeter was every inch a country boy, from his oil stained cap (complete with John Deer logo) to his mud stained steel toed work boots. I was fine with that. My problem with Jeeter was the look in his eyes. They were mean eyes, eyes that said 'you ain't nuthin' so don't be thinkin' you are'. No, I definitely didn't like Jeeter. I did, however, need an affordable roof over my head, so I shook the greasy hand, put on a phoney smile, and we headed for the cottage.
I hadn't any particular expectations, so I was reasonably satisfied with what I saw. The place was a bit squalid and didn't look to have been inhabited for quite some time. There were boxes piled here and there atop a few wobbly old pieces of furniture. A small living room led to a single bedroom. There was a kitchen that might have been cute before all the mold took over. "Storm cellar down there" announced Jeeter, pointing to a door in the back of the kitchen. "Door's stuck but you don't need down there." I noticed a cheap little radio sitting on the kitchen table. And for some reason, to a guy whose material possessions mostly amounted to the recording equipment in the back of his car, that little radio seemed to say "It's OK, you'll be safe here, you're home". I thought I noticed a faint tapping, perhaps branches on the side of the house.
"I can get Hatty up here to clean the place out on Thursday" muttered Jeeter. "Last ones I rented the place to left all this crap behind, so you can just dump it out or whatever. I'll need that damage deposit now but you can give Hatty the rent Thursday."
Since he had already decided I'd take the place, and I didn't see any reason not to, I handed him the money and signed the contract he pulled from his coat pocket.
"There anything else?" he half asked, half snarled. There was almost a challenge to the question, and I suddenly realized what was really on his mind. He wanted to know if I'd heard anything about this place, knew any of the local rumors about the area.
"It's all good", I smiled. His look was momentarily hesitant before returning to a dismissive glare. He shambled out to his pickup and headed off into the gathering twilight.
Oh, yes, I'd heard the rumors. More than a few times.
Part Two- Asleep At The Wheel
In 1962 the town drunk ran his car into a busload of kids. He was accused of having been asleep at the wheel, although he swore some sort of 'abomination' had leapt out in front of him, causing him to swerve. Locals were outraged when he was not given the electric chair, and an angry mob was said to have visited his farmhouse. But he was never found, and never seen again. His story of an 'abomination' was laughed off as mere delusion, to be taken no more seriously than the other tales of ghosts and hauntings that were so abundant in this particular area.
Jeeter didn't realize I came from around here, so he didn't know I'd heard all those old stories as a kid. I knew Skyler's Ridge was supposed to be haunted by the spirits of Cherokee warriors, and that Sutter's Pond was said to be haunted by a young maiden who drowned there. I knew hunters in the area often reported seeing strange creatures, things they refused to describe but that left them with little further interest in hunting. I'd heard of Mickey Scissors, the undead child who roamed the night seeking other children to be his friend. And Molly Cleaver, who beheaded travelers late at night. Yes, I knew all the local folklore. Hell, I was planning to make it the theme of my next album. I knew the town drunk in 1962 was named Chad Harlish, and I knew I had rented his old cottage.
I'll admit I was a little uneasy when I first realized who's place I was settling into, but for some stupid reason I just couldn't give Jeeter the satisfaction of knowing the place rattled me. And to be honest, in the back of my mind, I suppose I was hoping the excitement of all those childhood ghost stories might lend some spark and inspiration to the music I was hoping to write and record there.
Once the various boxes were piled into a corner, the place didn't seem so bad. Hatty, who seemed like a charming little old lady, did a commendable job of cleaning the place up. She gave me a worried look as she was finishing.
"You shore you'll be alright here all alone then? You know nobody don't come out here much no more, on account of... well, you know... things."
"I'm sure I'll be fine". I replied.
And Hatty was right. Nobody don't come out here much.
I became accustomed to only seeing other people when I drove into town for groceries. My hopes for solitude, however, were ruined by the raspy drone of Jeeter's tractor. The rusty old farm equipment sent it's dry mechanical scream echoing across the countryside each day, and the notion of composing or recording music began to seem more and more a sad and hopeless joke.
So for lack of anything better to do, I found myself toying with the jammed door in the back of the kitchen. After enough prying, it finally flew open, nearly dumping me backwards. Before me were a set of loose and weathered wooden steps, which nearly dumped me forwards as I started down them into the darkness.
In more prosperous and populated areas, people have basements, in which one might play a game of pool or enjoy a video game. Here people have storm cellars, in which one might survive, should a tornado happen to throw your house into the next county.
This particular storm cellar seemed larger than most, And darker, if that's possible. It extended back farther than the foundations of the cottage, its dirt walls stacked with various farm tools and shelves, the dirt floor littered with scraps of paper and dry leaves. There wasn't enough light drifting down from the top of the stairs to properly investigate, and there was no bulb in the rusty socket that dangled at the top of the stairs. Still, if there was a socket then electricity might also extend down into the cellar, to run my recording gear.
Because what struck me first and foremost about the cellar was the complete and absolute silence. No Tractor screaming for its torture to end, no hint of the gusty wind that had shook the cottage all that particular day, no noise at all. Total silence.
'Perfect', I thought. Sometimes I'm a real twit.
After setting up most of my equipment on a large area rug I pulled from the bedroom, I took a better look around my new 'digs'. Most of what I found was ordinary junk... old hunting and fishing magazines, some camping equipment, old coats. The jars lining the cobweb covered shelves held moldy lumps that might once have been fruit of some sort. Towards the back of the cellar, however, were several rather unusual items, including a small desk piled with dust covered books and notepads.
The volumes looked antique, and seemed too nicely bound to be discarded in a cellar. Examining a few, I found them to be in a language I couldn't identify. One volume included illustrations of what seemed to be a human sacrifice. Another had images of something resembling an insect, and what appeared to be instructions for making various devices out of human bones. I tossed these books aside with a shudder, and noticed several wine bottles in a battered but elegant wine rack beside the desk. The labels were nearly illegible, but seemed to be in the same language as the books.
What was all this? Things left behind by the last people to rent this cottage? Or was this stuff the property of old Chad Harlish, that infamous drunk from the 60's? A little voice in the back of my mind suggested these odd items might belong to Molly Cleaver. Mickey Scissors would have certainly appreciated the illustrations.
I shrugged and turned my attention to the very back of the cellar. There was another pile of junk, mostly heavy looking metal parts from various types of farm machinery, sitting on a row of dusty planks. A large iron stove sat collecting cobwebs. Nothing interesting about any of it, so I wandered back to the front of the cellar. My recording equipment waited patiently, a stray beam of light from the doorway above gleaming brightly on the chrome of a microphone stand.
So OK... there wasn't anything holding me back at this point. No incessant bellow from Jeeter's tractor, No gigs demanding my attention (thanks to Marty the Vanished), no Rita to interrupt my concentration or talk sense to me. Not even a job to be up for in the morning. If I was ever going to create any worthwhile music in my life, now seemed like as good a time as any. So I started in.
Part Three- Ghost Stories
The days and nights began to run together the way they do when I'm really focused on my music. I left the cellar less and less often, eventually even setting up a camping cot I found, so I could sleep down there with the equipment and record when I awoke with various song ideas at three or four in the morning. And I was beginning to feel good about the music. The material centered on those old ghost stories from my childhood. I even managed some fairly haunting 'chanting' on one track, based on my interpretation of the odd syllables found in one of those antique books.
My eerie surroundings were definitely providing me inspiration. I had only one real complaint. There seemed to be something wrong with the recorder. My playbacks would constantly include an odd tapping sound, very faint but noticeable.
As the music continued to develop, the tapping became more and more of a frustration. The nearest suitable repair shop was many hours away in Denver, and my finances were stretching a bit too thin to allow a costly repair. So it was something of a relief to eventually realize the recorder wasn't the problem. I began to notice the tapping even when the machine was shut down.
Late one evening I finally grew annoyed enough to set everything aside and try to trace down the source of that nagging clicking sound. It reminded me strongly of dry branches tapping the side of a house, although that couldn't be the case down here in this musty old cellar. I concentrated there in the silence until I heard it again. It seemed to come from the back of the cellar, from somewhere near the rusty pile of farm machinery.
I approached the junk pile and bent close. Were there rats back there behind the junk? Were there some sort of large insects burrowing around or something? I listened carefully but the tapping had stopped. I moved a few of the closer hunks of metal and listened again. Silence. Then a sudden loud thumping that literally sent me jumping backward.
It took me a moment to realize the thumping had come from upstairs, from the front door. I stomped disgustedly up the rickety wooden stairs to find Jeeter standing on my doorstep with a case of beer in his hands. How absolutely wonderful.
He stumbled past me and plopped down in the living room, waving a beer in my direction impatiently. I considered explaining that I was busy, but Jeeter looked as though he'd already had more than enough to drink, and didn't seem particularly attentive to anything I might want to say. He did, however, seem bothered by something as I took the offered can of beer and sat down across from him.
"You had any problems out here?" he asked.
"Nope, everything's cool. What sort of problems did you have in mind?" Something told me this wasn't about vandalism, petty theft or any of the usual problems one might encounter out here in the sticks. My gut told me he was about to start in with the ghost stories, and sure enough...
"I just dunno if you oughta be out here all alone by yourself and stuff. You know, ain't healthy. 'Specially with what they say goes on out here sometimes. I know you don't know 'bout none of that, but I just figure..."
"If you mean Chad Harlish, I realize this was his cottage. If you mean the spirits of those kids he mangled, I haven't been bothered by them. And if you mean Molly Cleaver then maybe it's time to call it a night."
You could have knocked Jeeter over with a feather. "How'd you know all that?" he muttered indignantly, as though surprised that I might know anything at all.
"I'm from 'round here, Jeeter" I grinned. "Grew up just south of Chigger Springs. Used to go fishin' out by the Hadley farm and tell ghost stories all day long."
"Well..." he sputtered before realizing he didn't know what to say. "I just figured you oughta be stayin' back in town, like normal folk. Ain't no sense bein' out here anyhow, and maybe you don't take stock in them old stories but there's plenty folks around here what do." I was amazed to see a faint trace of fear in those mean eyes of his.
"You just come on back to town with me, I'll refund some of that damage deposit and maybe you can find you some lady folk to feed you up right and give you a little of what you been needin'..."
Have I mentioned that Jeeter's basically a putz? I was wondering how to best get rid of him when the situation resolved itself rather promptly. He glanced at the open door in the back of the kitchen and grew visibly paler.
"You ain't been down in that damn cellar, have you?" he stammered.
"Sure, I've been recording a new album down there. The acoustics are great." You could have again knocked Jeeter over with a feather, but this time I didn't feel like chuckling at his reaction. I could tell he was alarmed for some reason.
"Told ya you didn't need to be goin' down there!" he scowled. "Ain't nothin' down there nobody needs to be messin' with!" For a moment I felt threatened as he lurched to his feet, then saw he was turning away from me and towards the front door as he spoke.
"Ain't none of my business, and it ain't gonna be, but I don't see why you dumb ass kids can't just listen to reason and do what people tell you to do in the first place, instead of..." He continued ranting drunkenly, though there wasn't any conviction in any of it. He was clearly nervous, if not actually frightened.
"Listen, I appreciate your concern" I said, mostly because that's the sort of thing you're supposed to say. All I really wanted to say was 'Cram it'.
"Just be careful driving home, and don't worry about me. I'm fine out here, I really am." He gave me a last disgusted look and staggered out into the darkness. His pickup roared to ratchety life and he jangled off into the darkness.
He even left behind the rest of his beer. I grabbed a can and headed back to the cellar.
Part Four- Waking Nightmare
Jeeter's visit had left me more amused than upset, but as I returned to that dank and silent cellar I once more began to grow uneasy. What was causing that insufferable tapping? Was I sharing the place with vermin or some burrowing creature from outside? I decided the album would have to wait until I puzzled the matter out, so I headed for the pile of farm machinery.
After moving most of the scrap metal from the planks, it became apparent that there was nothing behind the pile to explain the noise. A bare dirt wall stared back at me as I once again heard the tapping. I now realized it was coming from below the wooden planks on which I stood.
I bent down and listened intently. Yes, there was no question about it. A faint tapping sound was issuing from somewhere below the dusty boards. My first attempts to move the planks had no effect. They were apparently nailed down to some sort of framework, but I eventually found a crow bar and pried them loose. What I found beneath made my blood run cold.
The boards had concealed a pit there in the back of the cellar, a hole some five or six feet across. My first irrational reaction was that it was bottomless, and that out of it might pour a ghastly stream of horrible monstrosities at any moment. I lurched back in an inexplicable panic.
When nothing threatening manifested itself, I began to gradually calm down. After all, why be frightened by a hole in the ground? There weren't any rats pouring out, much less undead zombies or giant spiders. It was probably just a dry well, once used to supply water to the cellar. Or something. Probably.
Still, there was a nagging doubt in my gut as I stumbled back to the front of the cellar. Something about that dark angry looking pit had unsettled me badly, and I found myself needing to sit down and gather my wits. I finished the beer and sat there in the near darkness, listening to the silence. Then the tapping began again.
Maybe I was worn out from the album project, or maybe I was tired of everyone expecting me to be scared of legends and fantasy. Mostly I think I was just sick of life wrecking my career, trashing my chances with Rita, and generally knocking me around however it chose. A rebellious little voice in the back of my head said 'You've put up with enough crap. You gonna be scared of the ghosties now?'
I stomped over to the desk and, feeling reckless, uncorked one of the wine bottles from the nearby rack. The stuff tasted nasty and seemed to go straight to my head. Wine of the Ghosties! Well, look out Mickey Scissors, there's a new kid in town.
Among the camping gear I had noticed a thick coil of rope, which I now pulled from the surrounding clutter. I began tying knots every few feet, and secured the end to the base of the old iron stove at the back of the cellar. Then I tossed the rope down into the waiting darkness.
I didn't hear the rope hit bottom, and those irrational fears came boiling back up from the back of my mind. Unfortunately I was too aggravated to stop now, so I gave the rope a good hard tug to be sure it was secure, and swung myself down into the pit.
I remember thinking I might be getting into a bad situation, though the rope seemed sturdy enough and the silence was unbroken save for my own rustling about as I descended into the dark. I had imagined that the light from my recording area would shed some faint illumination once my eyes had adjusted, but this didn't seem to be the case. I considered climbing back up for a flashlight, deciding instead to first see how deep the pit went. As it turns out, I'm probably lucky I didn't bring the light.
I had continued making my way slowly downward for several minutes when I first heard the sounds from below. A faint tapping that quickly became a sort of rattling sound. The rattling grew louder and I was suddenly thrown off balance as something below me yanked at the end of the rope. Clutching at the knots in sudden desperation, I managed to avoid falling into the waiting darkness, but I could now feel a steady tugging on the rope. Something heavy was climbing up it!
It seemed the thing below was coming ever closer, and I expected at any moment to be grabbed and pulled back down into that monstrous pit. Then suddenly my head was above the floor and I could see my recording gear gleaming across the room, lights winking brightly as though enjoying my shocked state of panic. And then the rope broke.
Part Five- And Now...
As I tumbled down into that inky darkness, I collided with whatever it was that had been beneath me. It issued a terrible screeching sound as we hurtled downward. Then it hit bottom, and I came crashing down on top of it.
I will never know what it was, and for that I thank the heavens. It was killed instantly in the fall. And it apparently cushioned my fall, for I survived. For that I curse the heavens for all eternity.
For I have never been able to crawl back up out of this dark lonely pit. And I have tried so very hard.
I sometimes wonder how it is that I am still alive. I should have died of starvation long ago, yet still I continue. I go on living here in this tiny hole in the ground. I don't think I'm human anymore. My limbs don't feel the same as they used to, and there seem to be more of them. I don't understand it. But it's hard to concentrate because of the hunger. I've been here so very long.
What was it Marty used to say? you gotta stay hungry. Well, Marty old pal, I think I've got that covered. And as for Rita's explanation that sometimes people change... you better believe it.
But lately there's been something new. I've been hearing sounds from up above. I don't know who you are, but I hear you up there. And I know my savage hunger will soon be satisfied. You'll come down to me and I will feed. You'll come, I know you will.
All I need to do is keep tapping.