Nicholas was groggy when he woke up in the dark cellar. From his mattress he could see a thin horizon of light spill under the closed door. There was enough glow to make out the old stone walls that kept him prisoner. Somewhere above he heard the steady patter of driving rain.
Abruptly, the door opened and light poured in around the hulking silhouette of a heavy-set man. His hand moved to the wall and Nicholas found himself blinking at the harsh glare of an overhead bulb, which hung like a noose. A camouflage rain coat glistened with rain that dripped into a puddle at the man’s muddy boots. There was also mud on the large skeleton key that he pocketed.
Nicholas sat up. Like a trembling puppy, he pushed back into the immovable stone wall as far as his tensed knees could put him. From his school backpack he pulled his emergency inhaler. Two quick shots loosened his constricted lungs.
He kept his eyes on the man as he circled the cellar’s wood chair before settling in like a confident house cat.
“What are you staring at?”
“I’m not staring, Mr. Gundy,” Nicholas said quickly. “I’m watching you get comfortable. I think you should let me go. I can’t breathe in here. I have asthma.”
Mr. Gundy put his forefingers over his lips and pondered what he had in front of him. From his workman’s lunch box he pulled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “I brought you dinner.”
Nicholas glanced at his wrist watch and was startled to see that it was already night time. He’d been gone for twelve hours. Surely the police would have begun to search for him by now.
When Nicholas refused to reach for the sandwich, Mr. Gundy pushed it across the floor. Nicholas gulped it down. He abruptly stopped when he saw that Mr. Gundy enjoyed watching him eat like a starved animal. Without taking his eyes off Mr. Gundy he put the half-eaten sandwich back on the paper plate.
“It’s not polite to stare.”
“When you get hungry you’ll eat. There’s water here. The toilet is that hole in the corner.”
Having delivered dinner, Mr. Gundy left.
Nicholas thought about escape. After a short pause, he leapt to the door and tried to undo the latch by inserting his plastic medical card between the door and its jam. It did not budge and eventually, frustrated by his lack of progress, he abandoned the effort and put himself to bed trying not to feel sorry for himself.
In the middle of the night he was awakened by the far off sound of a man methodically putting a shovel into the earth. He closed his eyes to concentrate his hearing. Why would a man dig in the middle of the night?
Through the wood door he made out faint voices. A high pitched woman’s voice scolded Mr. Gundy. Nicholas strained to make out the words but the door’s thickness, and their distance from it, muffled the agitated conversation. He tiptoed in his stocking feet and pressed his ear to the gap at the bottom of the door in time to catch her question:
“Have you got a boy in there?”
A long silence followed.
Nicholas closed his eyes on the mildewed mattress and tried to will away the fluid building in his lungs. He tried not to worry. His distraught mother would be praying for his safe return but he had doubts that it would do any good. Why would God help him when he’d neglected all the kids on the milk cartons?
In his brief moments of drifting reflection in the twilight before sleep he tried to catalog the details of his abduction. How he’d seen the car drive up; how he tried to resist; how he couldn’t fight back properly when his glasses were knocked off. He would get out, he told himself, by being very clever, and when he did the police would ask him a thousand questions. He did not want to be unprepared.
When he awoke again in the dark he knew it must be morning by how alert he felt, but in the cell’s dimensionless time, in which there was no natural light to mark the arrival of a new day, he could only confirm his suspicion with a glance at his watch.
He went about his morning routines, straightening out the mattress and neatly folding the musty wool blanket. Before sleeping he’d neatly arranged his shoes. When he left for school each morning he tried to anticipate all the things that he’d need to get through the day, but it never crossed his mind that he’d need a toothbrush. He made do by rubbing the moss on his teeth with his finger. His urgent need to pee overcame his aversion to the awful smell that came from the hole in the floor. That he had not been miraculously rescued during the night meant that he was regrettably right about the power of his mother’s prayers.
He turned his attention to the left-over peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which was breakfast, and was surprised to see a house fly standing in the middle of the white bread. Instead of waving it off he watched it march boldly across the starchy surface. While he didn’t think of the insect as a companion, it was another living thing sharing his small cell, and that made it different from the flies he’d pinned to the specimen board.
By its size he knew it was a young fly. He also knew that they ate in the most atrocious manner. Remarkably, they could not bite. To eat they liquefied their food by depositing digestive saliva and lifted the meal to its mouth on its legs.
It would die in three weeks. That was their life cycle. He was glad he wasn’t a fly. Unlike the specimens in his backpack, this fly had a fluorescent yellow tint and he couldn’t recall if this was a different species or, like different colored kittens in a litter, a natural variation. When he got out he would want to show it to his teacher, so he captured it with his glass specimen jar.
It was evening before the cellar door opened again. Mr. Gundy appeared unannounced as a hulking figure in the doorway and then, like the first visit, he circled the chair before slumping in it.
Nicholas was surprised to see an exhausted man with deep red circles around his eyes and the hollow expression of a man who had not slept. Nevertheless, he seemed to have made a brave effort to present himself handsomely however shabby the result. Torn tissue stuck to his lip where he’d nicked himself shaving, his clean shirt was rumpled, and his hair was heavily oiled in place.
“I brought you a book. It gets boring in here, doesn’t it? The woman in the mall said you’d like it.”
Nicholas glanced at the cover and pushed it back across the floor. “I’ve read it. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books….You’re a lonely man, aren’t you Mr. Gundy? I think you should let me go. If you like I can visit you in prison.”
“That’s nice of you but I don’t need to be in prison to have your company.”
“I could be your friend if you were in prison….May I speak to your mother?”
Mr. Gundy smiled revealing inflamed gums. “Mother doesn’t want to speak with you. She’s ill. She doesn’t like little boys. What’s that?”
Nicholas lifted the specimen jar to show off its population of flies, which had grown to nine. They had arranged themselves around the glass to avoid one another but now buzzed in an agitated state.
“They come in under the door to eat my food. I wrote a report on house flies. Would you like to read it?”
Mr. Gundy waved a fly off his beaked nose and then, as tired as he was, he landed a mortal blow. The dead insect fell to the floor.
“I hate flies. I’ve always hated flies. I know all about flies. The barn was full of flies. The day we sold the last cow was the happiest day of my life.
“I hung fly tape everywhere in the barn and watched them wiggle for hours trying to escape. None ever did. I always bought the best tape.
“One day when I was a little boy, like you, she caught me burning the dead flies and she sent me down here.
“Three slave boys burned to death in here. Did you know that? They worked the farm a long time ago. One night the house caught fire and they couldn’t get out. I talked to them when I was in here. Have they visited you?
“I told Mother I was scared of them. She didn’t believe me. She laughed. ‘You’re a good for nothing, like your father. You make up stories.’ ‘No I don’t.’ ‘Don’t lie to me. Do you think I’m an idiot?’ ‘Yes, you’re an idiot.’ ‘God help you from the hand that lays a stick on your back’.”
Suddenly aware that he had lapsed into a conversation with himself, Mr. Gundy shot a look at Nicholas.
“What are you staring at?”
Nicholas was stunned to hear Mrs. Gundy’s disembodied voice coming from her son’s mouth. Frightened that he was in possession of dangerous knowledge about the man, Nicholas piped up with an innocent dodge, “Nothing.”
Mr. Gundy’s eyes rolled into his head and his body twisted defensively against the demon that had taken possession. In this state of torment, Mr. Gundy stumbled out of the cellar.
Mr. Gundy did not return for two days but at odd hours, and never at the same time, food and water were slipped through the half open door, but Nicholas never saw who brought it.
In the day long periods that had no morning or evening he relied on his watch to know when to sleep, eat and rise. To keep his mind from drifting to scary thoughts, and to stave off the ever present boredom, he invented word games. There was one in which he tried to play scrabble in his head, but because he was his own opponent, his easy victories became monotonous. He turned his attention to a more consuming challenge. Curious about the size of his vocabulary, he began an alphabetical list of every word he knew. His goal was to prove he knew more than ten thousand words. That, he remembered from somewhere, was the mark of a genius. He’d always wanted to be a genius.
In his frequent moments of reflection between the hard labor of culling words, he thought about escape. He did not yet know how he would get out but he was certain that his best opportunity would come while Mr. Gundy was in the cellar. Nicholas had observed that Mr. Gundy did not lock the door during his visits. He developed several tentative escapes. He dismissed throwing the unscrewed light bulb because it was unlikely to knock him out. In the depths of his desperation it crossed his mind to get the not-too-quick-witted man to drop his trousers with a promise of a forbidden touch and then, with the man hobbled by his own pants, he’d run out the door.
On what he calculated was his fifth night, a fierce storm descended on the county and Nicholas was kept awake by the hastening chatter of driving rain and nearby lightening strikes.
Nicholas was suddenly awash in the harsh glare of the overhead light. He rubbed his eyes. Mr. Gundy was in the doorway in his mud splattered rain coat. Water dripped from his soaked hair. He carried a heavy canvas bag.
“It’s time to leave. Mother knows you’re here.”
Nicholas went to retrieve his backpack.
“You won’t need that.”
Nicholas slowly turned around to face his captor, buying time so he could reconcile Mr. Gundy’s remark to the earlier conversation he’d overheard, and to run through what he should do. He could see a hammer and hack saw protruding from the bag.
“Can I bring my flies?”
Nicholas held up his jar of agitated flies. Dozens of them. The bright light stirred them into a swarm. Nicholas thrust the jar at the wide-eyed man.
Deftly removing the aluminum foil cover he released the trapped insects into Mr. Gundy’s face. They erupted into the air and formed a black cloud around his head.
Coughing violently to expel insects from his throat, Mr. Gundy waved his arms to bat off the attacking swarm.
With Mr. Gundy distracted, Nicholas made his escape. Cast iron wall sconces lit the dripping stones in the low, dark tunnel that Nicholas encountered outside the cellar. The narrow space was filled with rusted carcasses of old farm machinery. In his flight Nicholas pulled the mechanical wrecks over, blocking the path behind him, and screamed, “Help,” unaware that his plea was drowned out by the cacophony of iron clanking against stone.
Quite suddenly the tunnel divided. To his left, a narrow wood staircase led up to a closed door, which he knew must be the way out. Ahead, an ajar door led to another cellar room in which he was surprised to see Mrs. Gundy. She was seated facing the far wall.
Upon hearing Mr. Gundy’s angry grunts as he cleared the machinery from his path, Nicholas wasted no more time debating his mortal choice and plunged forward, pushing open the heavy door with outstretched palms.
“Mrs. Gundy,” he cried.
She sat in calm repose facing the stones. Her gray hair shone in the overhead light’s white glare. She was perfectly still, as if in prayer, and even at the risk of rudely interrupting, Nicholas blurted out,
“My name is Nicholas Bishop.” The words tumbled out so fast that they tripped over each other. “I am ten years old. I live on Clove Road. Your son kidnapped me. I need your help.”
Hardly had he finished speaking when he noticed on his left a shovel stuck blade-end into a tall mound of freshly turned dirt, and at its base, a newly dug grave. He was only able to ponder this odd sight briefly.
Nicholas heard Mr. Gundy stop on his climb up the steps, pausing to reconsider the choice that Nicholas had made, and then he heard the man’s heavy footsteps land on the treads on his way back down. He walked with the certainty of a man in command of convincing evidence.
Nicholas’s heart was pounding in his chest. He ran to Mrs. Gundy for protection just as the door slammed open. A mysterious wind blew through the earthen crypt stirring dust into swirling clouds that gathered into the ghostly shapes of burning childrens’ faces.
Nicholas stared in horror at Mrs. Gundy’s face. Its dry skin stretched over protruding bone. Her jaw was sprung open in an immortal scream. White, worm-like maggots crawled in a living mass in the eye cavities giving her a life, even if it wasn’t her own. New born flies alighted from the skull.
Nicholas turned around and was startled to see Mr. Gundy sitting cross legged on the dirt floor like a punished child. His hands scratched the earth, not to dig, but just as a thing to do. His glazed eyes didn’t move from his mother’s corpse. His shoulders swayed, his head bobbed and an aching, disembodied moan came from deep inside.
Nicholas did not dwell on the odd sight of this young man lapsed into a mournful reverie. It was possible that Mr. Gundy simply pursued him to keep him from seeing the dead woman, and not to harm him, but that was a debate that he preferred to have when he was safely away. He seized the moment of the man’s incapacity to run from the room.
* * *
It never seemed like a miraculous rescue to Nicholas because even in the darkest moments of his captivity he clung to the notion that he was different from all the other kidnapped children. They were less resourceful, less steadfast or merely less lucky. He knew that he wasn’t meant to die in that haphazard way.
It was only later in life, as the passing of years made him aware of the precarious line between life and death that he fully appreciated his close call. If his mother had not been hit by a sudden anxiety that she was sending her son off school in a drizzle without an umbrella, she would not have run down the driveway in time to see him snatched off the street. If an alert detective had not serendipitously corrected for her dyslectic transposition of the license plate’s last two digits, the state troopers would not have been standing at the top of the staircase when Nicholas burst through the cellar door a few steps ahead of Mr. Gundy.
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