Author’s Note: This was the first short story I wrote in college. It will always be the work I feel closest to because I really discovered my voice while writing it.
“The Basement” is about so many things: innocence, abuse, imagination, and the limits of unconditional love. It started out with a random image I couldn’t get out of my head: a girl (dressed as a pumpkin) waiting in a rose garden for her mom to come home. I still to this day don’t understand how that weird, random idea came to me. But I trusted my gut, and wrote something that I’m pretty proud of.
Pumpkins and roses, Mommy said, are two different things.
Abigail was the former. She knew it because Mommy did. Her ears sprouted and hung from her head like rich green leaves bursting from soil. Unkempt orange hair touched her back. Once, in a gardening book of Mommy’s, Abigail found a pumpkin born with deep, white scales and shiny welts all over its skin. Abigail looked at the pumpkins and touched her own cheeks, her fingers trembling.
Mommy hated that Abigail was a pumpkin. She scolded her for the dirt under her nails and the lumpy sweatshirts she wore. It didn’t matter that they were the only things Mommy bought for her; it was still Abigail’s fault because they were all she could fit into. This embarrassed Mommy to no end.
She left Abigail there in the garden, right before pulling the dinged Camaro out of the driveway. Abigail counted the potholes the Camaro hit until it disappeared. Thorns scratched at the back of her hands and scourged paint off the orange costume, but she shuffled deeper into the garden. Ms. Dewitt’s house across the street faded from view. There were only the roses now and the lingering smell of old rain. The tall heads of the roses blocked out the deep October sun.
Abigail was obsessed with black holes. She read about them in a textbook at school, during a science lab. Later, she slipped that textbook in her backpack when Mr. Miller wasn’t looking. It was the only book on her shelf, and she memorized every word of the measly paragraph on black holes. She thought about asking the school librarian for help using the computers to find out more, maybe print off some pictures, but stopped at the last moment. Abigail had run from the library with her stomach as tight as stone.
Abigail liked to lay on her back in the garden. She liked to rest and keep her eyes closed instead of looking at the sun or clouds But today her enormous costume made it difficult. The paper-mâche was so thin it would crack under her weight. Maybe even shatter, like a big orange snow globe.
Abigail looked at the roses instead. They were impossibly tall. Most of them were up to her chin, some even taller. Mommy and Abigail’s house had holes in the roof, a boxed-up window, and termites in the porch. But no one noticed because they could only see Mommy’s roses. Neighbors ignored them because they were envious, Mommy said. Ms. Dewitt hated her because Mrs. Dewitt’s garden was just a bunch of weeds and shrubs.
Abigail hadn’t heard the Camaro come back up the driveway, but she knew Mommy was there because she smelled perfume and coffee. Mommy had a brown cup in one hand and silver bangles dangling off the other. She liked her hair tied in a bun with a scarf. She wore a dark red poncho and American Eagle jeans. These were her favorite clothes, but only Abigail knew they came from the Goodwill bins.
“Roses keep you company?” Mommy lowered her sunglasses to look at Abigail. “ Fuck!” Abigail shook a little. “Look at your costume. The paint’s gone all to shit.”
Abigail crawled out of the garden on her hands and knees. A rogue thorn lodged itself into the side of her hand. Her beefy, little hands. Instead of crying, Abigail bit her chapped lips.
“Do you know how much that paint cost? It was from Hobby Lobby,” Mommy said, as if that made all the difference. She wrapped her firm grip around Abigail’s non-bloody hand and led her inside.
The orange paint sat on the floor, a white sheet spread out underneath it. Mommy wet the brush with paint and went over the scratches. The sound was like Abigail’s muddy feet on the kitchen tiles when she used to play in the sprinklers and wear a swimsuit.
“I don’t know what I keep yelling at you for,” Mommy said. “This is all Dewitt’s fault. She can’t stop obsessing about my roses. But she’s stooped real low this time.”
Abigail thought about the new woman who came over last week. She had a gray patch on her black suit and shiny shoes that Abigail would perhaps like to have someday. Her hands were clasped around a clipboard and they trembled every time Mommy raised her voice. But Abigail got the feeling Mommy was more afraid of this new woman than the woman was of Mommy.
“What happened?” Mommy said. She scooped up Abigail’s hand, which was now covered in red. “Shit, Abigail, why didn’t you say something?”
Mommy retrieved the first aid kit from the hall closet. Some tweezers and Garfield bandaids did the trick. Abigail didn’t feel the thorn being ripped from her skin because she was studying her mother. She was poreless, with thick eyelashes that sometimes dropped black flecks on her cheeks. The only thing Abigail did not like was the chemical smell of her foundation.
Mommy pulled Abigail into her lap when she finished. Her eyes watered. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. “Am I really that bad?”
Abigail traced her fingers down her mother’s forehead, then her nose. They were soft like petals.
“No,” Abigail said. Mommy kissed her cheek.
“My sweet little squash.”
They let the paint dry, then went to the kitchen where a covered baking sheet sat on the kitchen counter. Mommy removed the plastic wrap and popped a dark square into her mouth. The smell of chocolate and hazelnut made Abigail’s head spin. Mommy had called her sweet and little. Little. Held her in her lap. If a good opportunity ever existed, it was now. Her heart hammered as she reached out to snag one of those perfect squares.
“Abigail,” Mommy said. She had the same tone her other neighbor, Todd, used with his pitbull. “Do you remember our deal?”
Abigail stared at the Elmo cookie jar next to the microwave. She would not let herself feel disappointed.
“Is fudge part of our deal?”
“No.” Abigail stared into Elmo’s ceramic mouth.
She would not be disappointed. And she would not think about the spinning in her head. Or the prickling pains in the bottom of her stomach.
“Will fudge make you happy?”
“No,” she said again.
Mommy stared at her for another minute before sighing. “Well, I better go get ready for tonight’s shit show.” She ate another piece of fudge and took a sip of coffee before going down the hall. Frank Sinatra’s velvet voice filled the house, and Mommy sang along. Abigail listened before putting the tray of fudge in the fridge.
# # #
It took Mommy two hours to get ready. She was the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, because that was one of the few VHS tapes they owned. Mommy spun around the living room, the dress hugging her thin waist and tossing in the air. Abigail gnawed at her bottom lip.
They went out to the driveway. An empty pillowcase sat in the Camaro’s passenger seat. It took Abigail a moment to realize it was for candy.
“We’re going to Foxwood,” Mommy said when they were in the car. “That’s where the bitch Dewitt goes.”
Children roamed inside Foxwood’s gates. They ran down the street, some in glow-in-the-dark exoskeletons, others with weapons and pointy teeth. Abigail didn’t see another paper-mâche pumpkin anywhere. The celery she found at the bottom of the fridge rolled insider her stomach.
“My stomach hurts,” Abigail said when they got out of the car. But Mommy didn’t hear her. Another mother and her child, a boy with an eyepatch and a parrot stapled to his shirt, had stopped next to them.
“Your dress is amazing,” the woman said. “But why isn’t your daughter Alice?” She looked up and down at Abigail’s costume, her brows furrowed.
Mommy stepped in front of Abigail and waved a hand. “I tried to convince her, but she wanted to make her own costume. Young girls have to be independent nowadays.”
The woman frowned. “Excuse me for saying this, but I’ve never seen a child look so,” she paused. “Well, my god, her arms are so skinny.”
Something strange vibrated through Abigail. She couldn’t move, so when Mommy pulled her away her ankles dragged on the concrete.
“Fucking bitch,” Mommy said. “Did you hear that? She was making fun of you!”
They turned down a different block and stopped in front of a house. It had white columns and a mailbox shaped like an identical house. A smiling old couple, dressed up as Popeye and Olive Oil, sat on the porch passing out candy. Much to the delight of the children, a fat orange cat sat between their lawn chairs. Abigail started walking up their path.
Mommy grabbed her arm. “Look who’s here.” she said.
Ms. Dewitt was across the street. Her granddaughter, Cindy, walked ahead with some other girls. Mr. Miller always picked Cindy to pass out graded tests. She would give Abigail a paper covered in red Xs and a sad smile. Tonight Cindy wore fairy wings three times as big as her head. Glitter sprinkled in her blonde hair. Another girl broke a piece of her Kit-Kat and gave it to Cindy, and she ate it with a grin on her face.
“Mommy,” Abigail said. She was going to be sick.
Mommy’s face flushed red. “I’m going over there.”
“Please, wait-” But she was already gone.
Abigail stood there alone and pulled at the loose strings on the empty pillowcase. Mommy yelled something at Ms. Dewitt, and Ms. Dewitt yelled back. Ms. Dewitt increased her pace and led Cindy and her friends around the corner. Mommy followed and disappeared.
“Mommy?” Abigail said. She took a step off the sidewalk, but it was the wrong choice. A minivan slammed its horn and missed her by a few inches. The teenage driver stuck his head out the window and yelled a curse word. The people on the street stopped to stare at the teary-eyed pumpkin girl.
Abigail turned and ran. Trick or treaters became blurry shapes and colors. She needed to get home. She desperately wanted to find the roses and hide under their strong petals and the smell of soil. She passed through an open gate. She went to her knees, crawling faster than her heavy costume would allow. She pushed past branches that tried to hold her back.
She stopped when she reached a wall. She had found a garden to hide in, but there were no roses. The pinching pain from the little claws that lived in her stomach came back. This time the claws wanted everything. The claws grabbed at her flesh, squeezing so hard that Abigail gasped. She wrapped her arms around her middle. Something inside her was opening up and falling apart at the same time.
Abigail dragged herself along the wall. She found it, not even a foot away. Open glass. Darkness. A curtain hung around the open window, like a black veil into another world. She crawled and grabbed onto it. She tugged, and it stayed still, so she kept going. She held onto the curtain, dangling halfway into the unknown. Tears tumbled into the dark.
The black hole was sucking in the rest of her.
Her vision spun. She would not let go of the curtain. She tasted salt water on her lips.
And then the black curtain fell, because she pulled it down with her.
Nothingness only lasted seconds. Blood from her nose dripped onto concrete floor. Pain seared from her nose to her forehead.
“Mommy.” She let out a sob.
Abigail wrapped her arms around herself. She hummed a Frank Sinatra song, and pictured Mommy in the garden. She imagined Mommy holding and stroking each rose tenderly, and nursing the ones that were sick. Abigail could smell the softness of Mommy’s perfume, and feel the warmth of her hands. But then she remembered watching Mommy disappear, and the loud roar of a car’s horn. Abigail cried some more.
Once the clouds in her vision dissipated, Abigail watched the small stream of blood grow longer. It stopped on the other side of the room. Piles and piles of stuff were stacked so they almost touched the exposed pipes on the ceiling.
Abigail wiped her nose and crawled over to the piles. A dusty mirror sat on the floor. She saw that blood coated her fat chin, and a tooth was missing its bottom half. The breast of the pumpkin costume was crushed. She sat up on her knees and little paper-mâche pieces fell from her chest. She picked the broken chunks off one by one, before finally pulling it all apart and throwing it aside.
A whole life lived down there. Three metal shelves were filled with old toys and other objects. Abigail first noticed the marionettes knotted together by their strings. A faded Monopoly box rested under them. A dusty pile of jewelry boxes hid sleeping ballerinas inside. One shelf had only cigar boxes, and those held a hundred polaroids ranging from a farmhouse to the Eiffel Tower. Abigail opened and touched everything she could reach.
And then there were the books.
She did not know it was possible to have that many in one house. There was not enough room for each little paperback and boxset, so towers of them had been built from the floor to the ceiling. Most of the paperbacks had worn spines and brown edges. Some were by men with complicated names or women with names that sounded like men’s. They were about other worlds where people wore silver suits and wielded swords.
Abigail pulled out a book from the middle of a stack. It had more cracks on its spine than the rest. A woman with orange hair touching the end of her back was on the cover. Her face turned to the side and a rising sun bloomed behind her. Abigail opened the first page and started to read under the small stream of light from the window. The story began with a woman sitting in a hospital next to a dying man.
Abigail read. She did not pull herself away from the words until a shadow appeared across the room. The shadow pulled a chain hanging from the ceiling. Abigail scrambled but there was nowhere to hide.
It was the old man dressed as Popeye. He looked at the open window and the curtains. The pipe fell from his mouth when he saw her bloody face and broken tooth. He went to Abigail but didn’t get too close.
“Are you okay, little one?”
“Did you fall from the window?”
“Do you know where your parents are? Are you sick?”
The old man scratched his chin and went upstairs. Abigail heard whispering, a high voice, some creaking, and then the old man returned with a burrito and a hoodie.
“You can put this on,” he said and gave Abigail the hoodie. It felt big and loose. He gave her the burrito next and apologized but that’s all they had. Abigail hesitated at first and then ate it in four bites. She wondered how the old man knew she was hungry.
“I’m Barney,” he said.
Barney smiled. Then he noticed the book in her hands.
“That’s one of my favorites. Have you read it?”
Abigail shook her head. “I have a shelf at home, but just one book.”
“Well, that’s no good.”
“What’s it about?” Abigail held up the book.
“An astronaut travels through time to save a man from dying.”
“She travels through a black hole.”
Abigail stared at him.
“Do you know how to play Go Fish?” Barney asked.
She didn’t, so Barney showed her. Abigail was confused at first, but Barney was patient. He never yelled or cursed at Abigail, not even when she made big mistakes. Julia, Barney’s wife, came downstairs and asked Abigail questions. She brought a warm rag for Abigail to wash her face with. Julia looked at her nose, touching it delicately, but said it wasn’t broken, just bruised. She was a retired nurse, she said. Julia asked Abigail if she would like to go upstairs and watch some T.V. Abigail shook her head. She wanted to stay with the books.
One time, Julia came downstairs with a phone in her hand. She asked for Mommy’s name again, and Abigail told her. Barney followed Julia upstairs. Abigail could only partially hear what he was saying. Something about not calling the police yet, because they’ll take her somewhere. It didn’t sound like a nice place, by the way Barney spoke of it. Abigail’s stomach hurt again, but the pain went away once Barney came back and gave her a warm smile.
Barney had stopped asking questions, but Abigail told him things anyway. She told him about Ms. Dewitt, Cindy, and the roses. She told him about science class and the new woman with a clipboard and nice shoes. Barney raised his eyebrows and seemed curious about that. So Abigail explained that Ms. Dewitt called the woman because she was jealous of Mommy’s roses, and how Mommy didn’t know that Ms. Dewitt would sometimes bring Abigail food while she was at work. And then Abigail’s stomach rumbled, so Barney brought down a platter of burritos and Halloween candy.
An hour passed and Abigail wondered if Mommy was looking for her. She wondered if Mommy would be angry when she saw how much Abigail had eaten. She pushed the plate away and explained this worry to Barney.
Barney did not say anything for a long time. He stared at the pile of cards in front of them and scratched his beard. Then he stood up and began rubbing his eyes.
“You have nothing to worry about, Abigail. Nothing at all.” He went back upstairs.
Abigail looked at herself in the mirror while Barney was gone. She could hear him talking to Julia again, but didn’t bother trying to listen. She was perplexed by what was in the mirror, by something she hadn’t seen before. The deep, even grooves her cheekbones made. The sharp point of her shoulders, and the rings of black under her eyes. She closed her eyes and opened them again. But that strange girl was still there, staring back at her. Abigail wondered if Mommy could see this girl too.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang upstairs. Then a loud noise. Julia yelled at someone, but that person yelled louder. Abigail smelled perfume and coffee. Barney came down the stairs first.
“Hide this,” Barney said. He put the book Abigail was reading in her jacket. “Don’t worry about bringing it back.”
Abigail felt confused. The old man had so many grooves and dark spots on his face that she lost track. And somehow he was beautiful. But not beautiful like the roses. Beautiful like the cracked spines of his books or polaroids of the farmhouse. Each little wrinkle held a story that Abigail didn’t understand.
She was in Mommy’s arms now even though she did not want to be. They were flying up the stairs and out the door. She saw a glimpse of Julia standing in a shiny kitchen. She scowled, and a phone was pressed against her ear.
Mommy cried but no tears were in her eyes. But she must have worried about Abigail because she said it over and over again. The smell of her runny foundation made Abigail’s eyes burn. Mommy’s fingers felt like thorns, and her perfume smelled like weeds and musty soil. Abigail wanted to push her away, and run back to Barney and the books.
Abigail left Barney and Julia’s house as fast as she fell into it. She watched the white house and the orange cat on the porch fade into the dark. Trick or treaters were gone, but underneath streetlights she could see the wrappers they left behind. It wasn’t until they were in the car that Abigail remembered her tooth on the basement floor.
They drove in silence until Mommy stopped at an empty gas station. Mommy’s hands shook as she turned off the car. She put her head against the steering wheel and heaved. Abigail looked out the window.
“I stepped away for one minute,” Mommy said. “One goddamn minute, Abigail.”
Abigail looked at her reflection in the window. Flecks of dried blood were still on her face.
“I went crazy. I ran around that whole fucking neighborhood. And she knows I lost you. She fucking knows it.”
Abigail did not look at Mommy while she cried. Abigail did not reach over to hold her, or stroke her cheek. She kept staring at the girl in the window, the one who sat alone in the dark. She reached inside the hoodie and stroked the pages of Barney’s book between her fingers. They felt softer than rose petals.