What's at the bottom of the stairs? [Daily Slice entry for 04-25 prompt].
|In The Dark
C'mon, Jackson, be a man! Jeff chided himself. They're just stairs, for crying out loud, no matter what Professor Lundin would say. He smirked at the thought. The professor in question would undoubtedly expound at length on how the descent into a dark place causes fear, because the darkness represents the base emotions we have suppressed most deeply and of which we are forever afraid.
'Complete twaddle!', Uncle Nigel would say, thought Jeff. A dark place is just a place without any light. What difference does it make, if it also happens to be downstairs?
Well..., the most cautious part of him ventured.
None! Jeff told himself firmly, quashing the internal naysayer.
Stephen Chatwell, the Pledge Committee's Chair, had shown him an old floor plan that had been unearthed in the college archives by a former fraternity brother, now a Structural Engineering major.
"See this?" Chatwell had asked, indicating the lower portion of the sheet. The drawing showed a stairwell that extended downward for several flights and then abruptly ended, apparently unfinished. At the bottom of the drawing, someone had penned "Here There Be Evil".
"Rumor has it, the stairs connect to an old underground passageway; your task is to check it out. This 'master key' ought to come in handy," he'd said as he handed Jeff a crowbar.
Jeff shook himself to dispel any lingering doubts, then turned on the video camera and aimed it at the door. The Pledge Committee had made it clear that he was to make a complete video record of his quest. It must begin with a shot of him forcing the lock and then continue, unbroken, to the bottom of the stairway and/or whatever passageway to which it might lead, and then back to the top of the stairs. He was also required to speak every so often, to confirm that he was the one carrying the camera. If he stopped the recording for any reason before returning to his starting point, he would be deemed to have failed in his quest and would be denied membership.
The crowbar made short work of the hasp, and Jeff started down the stairs. The camcorder's light, ordinarily capable of illuminating an entire room, seemed to get swallowed up by the stairway wall's dull surface and Jeff couldn't see much more than a dozen or so feet ahead. The air, too, was odd. He'd expected a stale or musty odor, but he was surprised when he detected a hint of sulfur. Matches for some explorer's torch from years gone by, he'd guessed. At least, that's what he'd thought, until it began to grow steadily stronger. It was also starting to get warmer.
Jeff checked his watch and was astonished to find he'd been on the move for nearly fifteen minutes. Just how far down does this thing go, anyhow? he wondered. Suddenly, something brushed against his cheek, startling him. He flinched away from the sensation and swung the camcorder around. There was nothing to see. Cobwebs, or maybe a moth, he finally decided. Ugh. He continued downward.
After five more minutes, he was really starting to wonder where this thing would end up. He was also starting to hear things. Every so often, a rough scraping noise would softly echo in the confining stairwell and, as time went on, it seemed to get closer.
Finally, at long last, the camera's light began to show the edges of the stairway walls. The long descent was over! Jeff cautiously stepped down from the last tread and swung the camcorder this way and that. The light failed to illuminate the far side of whatever room or cavern he'd finally reached, but he could just make out some small objects on the floor ahead. He walked over and bent to examine them.
He let out a startled shout and jumped back. He was no biology or anatomy major, but he was pretty sure he was looking at human bones. They looked pretty old, too. A coughing snarl from behind caused him to spin around. Fear flooded his system with adrenaline as the light shone on--he didn't know what. His fight-or-flight response made the unsurprising choice to flee, but he didn't even get two steps back toward the stairs.
A clawed hand briefly came into the camera's view as a scaly arm flashed around Jeff's midsection from behind. The camcorder fell to the ground and the light went out, but the camera's microphone still worked. If anyone ever got a chance to play back the recording, all they would hear--after the initial screams, of course--would be an hour of gnawing and chewing noises, followed by a rough scraping sound that gradually faded away.
* * *
"So, what do you think, Stephen? It's been over three hours."
"I think they're still hungry and Jeff isn't coming back. Put the new lock on and let's get out of here."