Around the time I discovered horror movies, I used to look up to check for axes dangling from trees. It was only something I did in the woods, and not anything I recall seeing in a horror movie, so I’m not sure where it came from. I also still checked nightly for monsters under the bed. I’d kneel down on the side of the bed farthest from the door and bravely pull up the dust ruffle. I’m not sure now if I meant to flush the monster out – you know, give him an escape route – or if it just hadn’t occurred that I would have no way out.
This seems as good a time as any to confess I used to believe a race of tiny vampires called the Dynamites lived under my bed. They all looked like Count from Sesame Street, although probably only the leader wore a monocle. Aside from the time I watched them parade up the side of my bedroom wall and disappear through a crack in the closet (chickenpox fever), I never actually saw them. When I checked under the bed in later years, I was expecting only one monster and much larger and more menacing. If I’d seen the Dynamites, I might have scooped them up like kittens while they counted and nibbled at my neck.
There are literally hundreds of scientific-sounding names assigned to all the things we’re afraid of. Cometophobia is the fear of comets. If, for whatever reason, you’re afraid of chopsticks, I’m afraid you have consecotalephobia and probably a difficult road ahead. According to one definition, sanguivoriphobia is the “irrational fear of vampires” which sounds like something a vampire would write. Arithmophobia covers the fear of counting. Teratophobia is a fear of monsters or having a deformed child, both of which I can understand, though lumping them together feels a little lazy. No one should mind if I slip in arboraxephobia.
The woods I checked most often for swinging axes was an undeveloped bluff at the end of our development. Everyone ignored the No Trespassing sign on the metal gate where the gravel road started, although I usually had the place to myself. This quarter-mile strip was prime waterfront real estate and would later become an early series of McMansions on dime-sized plots. But oh, that view. It’s no wonder someone made their summer home long ago on that desolate, lovely stretch.
The cottage had been a modest wooden clapboard with no porch and only a few rooms. It was long abandoned by the time my parents and I pulled open the rotted screen door and eased inside one Sunday afternoon. I remember pots and pans still in the cabinets and dishes thick with dust scattered across a kitchen table. Surprise Indian attack seemed the only logical explanation for anyone leaving dishes behind. I never went back inside.
Some years later, two known troublemakers skulked up the road from that direction just before the first black plumes of smoke began to rise. A dozen firetrucks couldn’t save the cottage. It went up like seasoned timber. A nearby barn with rusted out farm equipment were the only things left for us to climb over and keep us up to date in tetanus shots. And then we noticed the basement.
The cottage had burnt to the ground, leaving a smoldering hole with pitted concrete steps like teeth that grew mossy and slick with rotted leaves. We had lost a lonely old friend and gained a nightmare.
Sometimes I went to the top of the stairs by myself but usually with a friend, and never down into the belly of the basement. If I got down to about step eight, I could lean over far enough to see into part of the basement room to the left, but it was too black. The smell got me. Charred wood and burnt plastic, with an overlying bouquet of ammonia and mildew and maybe boiled blood. It was death, somehow, and I kept coming back to peer in without actually getting close enough to see anything
On the bus one day, a friend and I told a cute boy about the No Trespassing gate and the stairs and the very next day he and a friend tore up the hill from an angle we weren’t expecting like a couple of pirates. We thought for sure they would brave their way all the way down the stairs and tell us what they saw. In the end, they hovered on step four, maybe five, and then one remembered an orthodontist appointment, the other, homework.
One time I made it all the way to the bottom step with no one else around. The basement was still black but I made out some kind of shelf along the far wall. I never thought to bring a flashlight with me. The smell was worse at the bottom. The sounds weren’t right either. Maybe that steady click was dripping water. Maybe it sounded more like scratching.
One of my regrets in life – and I have a few by now – is that I never went all the way in. Around the time I started high school, the stairs and basement were filled and a stately home with cathedral ceilings and gleaming wooden stairs planted on top. While that house was under construction, I snuck in during a rain storm and saw someone had written HELP ME in what looked like blood on a second floor window. That house smelled like sawdust and drywall and nothing at all.
A wealthy family moved in and I filled in for their nanny a few times before graduating and moving away. The nanny kept a log for the family and used it to rat me out. Kristen did not clean up Robbie’s trains and the playroom is a MESS. In the second floor hall closet, the family hoarded massive stockpiles of hotel shampoos from Disney properties. I had no idea I would one day do the same, so it all felt very sinister.
Eventually I stopped checking trees for swinging axes. My old brain heard a creak from above and started assuming old branch in the wind. It occurs to me now that an axe looks similar to the kind of tomahawk an Indian might have used to catch a family by surprise one night during supper. The family would have jumped up quickly, shoving chairs to the side and heading to the only place they could think of to hide. The basement.