“A’ight boys, you know where we are. Let’s case this place quick and get the fuck out. Josey, you hit the upstairs. Rambo, this floor. I’ll take basement.”
Josey and Rambo share a look that’s hard to see through the shadows cast in the darkness, but Duncan catches it all the same. “You boys got somethin’ to say?”
“You sure we need to hit the basement, Boss?” asks Rambo guiltily.
“And the attic too?” adds Josey, following with, “Lis’en, I don’t mind goin’ up there, but the basement… there’s plen’y on this floor alone, you follow me Boss?”
“I swear to Christ, if you two numbnuts are trying to speak on the rumor about the ghost I’m going to lose my shit. Now if you got somethin’ to say, say it.”
Neither of the boys say a single word.
“All right. Away ya go, then.”
Duncan watches Rambo walk off into the shadows. Josey starts climbing up the stairs, and if it wasn’t for those stairs a’squeakin’ like they are, he’d think Josey just walked up through the air. Don’t matter, though; this house is stacked from shingle to septic tank, and all the really good stuff is down in the basement. A ghost, yeah, okay boys. How about a rumor to keep the meek away? Sounds more like it.
A chilled gust blows into Duncan’s face as he opens the door that leads down into the basement. The hinges are silent, so they must have been oiled recently. That means somebody lives here, there is no ghost. That settles it. That settles it once and for all.
Each step Duncan takes squeaks louder and louder. Halfway down they start to bend beneath his weight, and the railing breaks off before reaching the bottom of the stairs. There’s at least a ten-degree difference in temperature down here, and Duncan can’t hear a single air conditioner running… but would he? This house is old, ancient old, and the basement’s underground. Sure, it’s cold down here. It should be cold down here. Don’t mean there’s a damned ghost.
Duncan clicks on his flashlight and sweeps across the room. Lots of furniture, lots of artwork, lots of random things dispersed throughout. There appears to be a bar off on one side and it appears to be covered in bottles; appears, that is, because it’s covered by a white sheet caked with at least half an inch of dust, just like everything else down here. Everything but the massive pencil sketch of Marilyn Monroe in a cheesy golden frame hanging on the back wall. Hanging crooked on the back wall.
Silence for seven full seconds, then Duncan allows himself to laugh. “Maybe, heh, maybe that’ll summon the ghost. Yeah, know what? Fuck it, I ain’t scared’a no ghost, I’m’a straighten it just to be spiteful.”
And so he does. And so he jumps high enough to clock his head on the low ceiling when he hears the framed sketch click.
“That wasn’t… hold on, did the wall come out a little bit here?”
Duncan’s semi-clever hands find a lip running from the floor up to the ceiling. He grips it and pulls, and a three-foot wide section of the wall swings out. Speechless, his jaw hanging open, his chin scruff mingling with his neck scruff, Duncan steps around and peers into the secret room behind the sketch. The walls, floor, ceiling, all painted black. There’s a spotlight shining on an old woman in a nightgown sitting in a rocking chair. She’s holding a box in her lap, both her hands are on it. Her eyes are glued to it.
“Uhm… uh, Miss?” Duncan tries as the air leaks from his lungs. “Ah-uh… are you, eh… are you the ghost of this house? ”
The old woman cackles but doesn’t look up. “No, honey, I’m no ghost. I live here, I hid while you were at my door. I was hoping you wouldn’t find me, but here you are.”
The old woman looks up. Duncan damn near soils his garments.
“You won the prize, young man. The most valuable thing in this whole house is in this box, right here in my lap. Come to me, come take it.”
Everything in Duncan’s being tells him not to, but… he must. Each step takes eons. He’s before her in seconds. Duncan gets down on his knees, takes off his gloves, puts his hands on the box. It feels like it’s made of scales. He almost draws his hands back, but he cannot. It’s too late, he’s touched it, he must know what’s inside, he mus–
The box is open. Standing on a red velvet pillow is a sizeable carved wooden turtle.
“What… what is this?” Duncan sneers as he leaps to his feet hastily and begins to back away. “What… what are you, woman? What’s going on?”
“Open the shell, Duncan,” says the old woman. She hasn’t blinked once.
“Wh…” ‘Did she just say my name?!’ “… what?”
“Beneath the wooden turtle’s shell is the most valuable thing in this house, young man. You opened the box, now open the turtle. Come now, it’s all for you.”
“It’s all for me,” comes pouring out of Duncan’s mouth, but he doesn’t mean to say the words. He doesn’t mean to walk to the old woman, he doesn’t mean to take the shell off the wooden turtle, but what he sees beneath the turtle’s shell? The glorious singing wonder of what spirals beneath the wooden turtle’s glorious shell… Duncan’s entire life led to this moment. It was all meant to happen, every high and low, every made friend and earned enemy, every life taken, every death dealt… it was all meant to happen.
“What… is it?” Duncan is back on his knees, his mouth overflowing with drool.
“It’s our Universe, young man. Isn’t She beautiful?”
The stars, the planets, the harmony of the spheres, the ethereal song and dance! Beauty is an insult, it doesn’t compare! “I…” Duncan is beginning to weep. “I see Her…”
“And She sees you, young Duncan. She sees you.” The old woman reaches out and takes Duncan by the wrist. “Touch Her.”
Duncan wants to look up, but he can’t take his eyes away. “Touch…”
“Touch the Universe, young Duncan, so She may know She has touched you.”
Duncan’s hand hovers closer and closer to the Universe, he feels Her light and Her warmth, he begins to hear the whispers of all those who reside within Her. He can see his family, friends, ancestors, his genetic progenitors, the offspring of his offspring’s offspring… and the closer he gets, the more of them disappear. He tries to pull away but he can’t stop, he’s too close, the Universe is right there Duncan I’m right here, please Duncan, I wish to see into your mind, to hear your thoughts, to feel your touch! Please Duncan, please! Do not fight me, I am you, Duncan! Please! Touch me Duncan, please!
Duncan gives in and makes contact with the Universe. Every last cell in his body spontaneously combusts into blinding white light, then he is gone. The shell is back on the turtle. The old woman is alone in her secret room.
Bethany closes the box and puts it on the floor. She then gets up, creeps over to the secret door, and gently shuts it. It’s a shame he had to find her, but the other two won’t. The other two will run away scared, just like all the robbers do. And if they do find the secret room in the basement? Well… then Bethany will give them the prize.