Since I put my foot in my mouth and told you guys about Cutty’s cellar, I wanted to do it next. If I put it off, I’ll chicken out or procrastinate until last minute. I’m not a fan of talking about this one, but I stayed with Cutty a few days during our 8th grade spring break. The week before, our history class learned about secret escape tunnels built during the Civil War. Several antebellum homes had them, but now most are caved-in, closed off, or converted to storage.
For the first time, Google images was worthless. I tried to find a picture of another home’s tunnel, but none look close to the real thing. It’s exactly what it sounds like, I promise. They didn’t have time for anything fancy, the walls and ceiling were braced with wooden beams. They kept lanterns and what were essentially bug-out bags at the entrance. If you were being forced to use a tunnel, chances are you didn’t have time to gather supplies first. The other end exited behind a tree-line, or any place out of view.
Cutty’s cellar was caved in 6ft from the entrance. Wherever it came out was lost in history, but the previous owners concreted the steps. Crone Club had a fit, but you can’t un-concrete something, at least not how they wanted. It was deep enough to stay cool year round, and safe enough for Cutty’s mom to store her preserves. That’s all you need for now, let’s get on with it, shall we?
“So… what haunts the escape tunnel?” I asked Cutty.
“Oh, don’t be like that, come on. I promise I won’t try to sleep there.”
“Seriously. It’s not haunted. If it is, no one has told me about it.” She shrugged with just enough indifference to make me believe her.
I was disappointed to say the least, but I still wanted to be one of the kids who got to say they’ve been in one. “Let’s go look at it, I just wanna see it. Please?”
“I’ll take you if you swear not to do any ghost crap for the whole week.”
“Deal!” One week wasn’t a bad trade-off. I could always entertain myself with the swimming pool or golf cart.
“Fine, but no changing your mind when you only see jars of fruit, it collapsed before we moved here.” She lead me through the house, to the basement.
Before we progress further, there is one more thing I forgot to mention. It’s weirdly important to me you understand this, thank you for the indulgence.
Shortly before this took place, Dad gave me a camping kit. Among other items, it contained a canteen. I hate camping, there’s no electricity or bathrooms, but I love pretending to camp. It’s best to accept it as one of my quirks and move on, there’s a whole thing unto itself there; but what matters is, I had the canteen. I packed it partly because packing and unpacking are among my favorite activities, but mostly because I had a feeling. Don’t let the packing comment hold you up, it’s not why we’re here either. Nor am I leading you into a rant about premonitions or foresight, this goes straight back to my paranoia issue.
If you don’t suffer from paranoia, you may not understand how many ‘feelings’ we have daily. It’s more than one could feasibly indulge. At the tender age of 13, I was already in the habit of ignoring them. One’s gut can only cry wolf so many times before one hopes a real wolf comes along to devour it.
That’s why, when Gut screamed, “grab the canteen, we’re going on an adventure!” as we left Cutty’s room, I rolled my eyes. Sick of it.
“Last time I listened to you, I dove behind a tree to avoid a dangerous spy at school. Everyone saw! How did you think I would explain that?” I admonished.
Ok, back to the basement again. On the far wall, a small, wooden door hid the entrance to the cellar. It didn’t look old enough to be the original, but I imagine it had something less noticeable back then. We opened the door, and I could see the skinny concrete steps descending into darkness. It was deep enough for me to stand upright, but most men would need to hunch. The preserves were next to the entrance, most could be reached without leaving the steps. It was much smaller than I imagined.
Cutty reached in to pull a light cord, and a single, dim bulb lit up. “Here, this is the only light. Look so we can leave. Maybe we can get you a tan this week.”
I was so pleased, I didn’t remind her I can’t tan. I’m the kind of Irish that burns instantly, but returns to pasty white once the skin peels. Honestly, I’m not sure why we’re called white. The color is closer to peach if anything. Sorry, tangent.
I looked at the jarred fruit, dull as promised, and walked the few feet to the cave-in. It wasn’t a wall of earth as I pictured, dirt partially fell in, but the rotten timber blocked most of the path. “Do you have a flashlight?”
“No, you don’t need one. Let’s go.” Cutty was already out of patience. So difficult.
“I just want to see what’s past the cave-in. Come on, there has to be one in here.” I whined.
“No! There’s nothing but more dirt! I showed it to you, now let’s go swimming or something.”
“Fine. You win this round.” But I didn’t tell her she would lose the next. It occurred to me, I never promised not to revisit the cellar.
No one travelled that tunnel for over 100 years! I was consumed by the idea of being the person who discovered the tunnel’s exit. It was about history, not ghosts. If I had a conscience then, it would have been clear. Strangers would learn my name on the tour! I could hear it already, “And thanks to our adopted daughter’s efforts, we can now show you where the tunnel leads.” Cutty’s parents would say, beaming with pride.
If that weren’t delusional enough, I also convinced myself other homeowners would invite me to explore their tunnels. I saw myself being labeled the real-life Lara Croft. Yes, that was definitely worse. You see how the simplest things carried me away? I looked at a cellar for 30 seconds and it only took 30 more to believe it would make me famous. Ok, I’m starting to think I’ve had the god complex longer than I realized.
The rest of the day went slowly as I waited for nightfall, but I was able to locate a flashlight. When midnight came around, I heard the reassuring sound of Cutty’s snores. Quietly, I crawled out of her room, the embodiment of Lara Croft, professional, afraid of nothing. I set about my task with a rare seriousness, calm and confident.
“Don’t forget the canteen, you never know when you’ll need it!” Gut reminded.
“Screw you, I’m sick of it! Do you remember what happened when you convinced me to do stand up at the talent show?!” Not this time, Satan!
“It’s Brain’s fault you can’t say words correctly, I was only trying to help. Besides, this is different. I really think you should take the canteen this time.” It changed my fun butterflies to painful cramps with a side of nausea to prove it’s point.
“No way, you aren’t fooling me with that trick. I don’t care what you say, I’m not wasting my time crawling all the way back. You just want me to wake her up!” I accused.
“No… look, I know we’ve had our differences, but this time I’m…”
“La la la la la la la I can’t hear you, la la la.” That always shuts it up.
After I made it to ground level, I remained at the bottom step, making sure no one woke during my Grinch walk. One of those extra considerations that so often encouraged my false sense of grandeur.
The fantasy lasted until I was in the basement. Shining the flashlight on the cellar door felt like a hypnotist snapping his fingers to release me from a trance. My bravery evaporated instantly, but not my curiosity. In the end, Curiosity defeated Cowardice and Cramps. I had gone all that way, I didn’t see the harm in taking a quick look. I only wanted to know if I could see past the cave-in… but then I could see past it. A little, at the very top, I could see open space inside. The image reignited my fantasy, and my thoughts spiraled out of control.
Holy shit it’s really open back there. Holy shit ok, be cool, for once in your miserable life, slow down, take a breath, and think first.
“Hey, can I say something now? Because I would really like you to go back for more supplies, you have time to think about what you might need.” Gut warned.
“That’s a hard pass, I have to do this now, I only have 4 hours at most.”
“Isn’t that kind of a long time though? Could we at least talk about this?”
“No! 4 hours is nothing! Shut up, already!” Seriously, you cannot trust that thing.
“But we could…”
“La la la la la la la la.”
Alright, can’t waste time. Need to get through that pile without making a stupid mistake. That means getting in and out without loud noises, getting hurt, or breaking anything. Better make sure to close the basement door, that’ll help with sound. Wonder if I can endure closing the cellar door… yes… you damn well will either way because this is serious. We don’t have time for you to be a cry baby about claustrophobia. Don’t take anything from the pile unless it’s definitely safe to move. If anything could break, it would be the glass jars. There aren’t too many… smart! That’s totally what was going to screw us. “Great job, Brain! See, Gut? Why can’t you be more like Brain?”
I carried the jars carefully, one in each hand, to a table on the far side of the basement. I worried I might forget them later if I was excited about making history, but it seemed forgivable under the circumstance. When I closed myself into the cellar it took a few minutes of intense concentration to pretend a vast, open space was behind me, but then I got to work.
“Start at the top, you don’t want anything falling on your head.” Brain smartly recommended.
The wood was old and rotten, had I been smart enough to understand what termites were and how many were likely in that pile, the story would probably end here. But I was a moron, so let’s continue.
I worked slow and steady, genuinely terrified, but soon I had a hole big enough. All in all I was pretty proud of the work. I’d barely made a sound with none the wiser and all signs pointed to the hard parts being behind me; only fame and glory lay ahead.
Oh that poor fool, how I shake my head in derision.
I put the flashlight in my back pocket and crawled in, using my hands to lower myself to the ground on the other side. Excitedly, I retrieved the light and looked around, but I stirred too much dirt to see well. The space felt smaller than ever, and the idea of having a panic attack down there gave me a panic attack. I tried to use my shirt as a face mask, but it too, was covered in dirt. I inhaled more, causing me to fall, gagging and thrashing about. When finally able to stand and breathe again, my watch read 1:37AM, but I couldn’t have been on the ground more than 5-10 minutes. I tried to look around again, but the flashlight only showed a wall of dust. I walked forward cautiously, hand held out, wishing I had a walking stick.
“You mean like you might have, had you thought about supplies for 5 minutes like I asked?” Gut chimed in.
Refusing to be sucked into mind games, I marched onward. I’m terrible at judging distances, but I would guess the real cave-in was less than 20ft from the first. A right and proper one, no question. The disappointment washed over me with another loud snap of a hypnotist’s fingers. Except this time, it wasn’t in my imagination, it was a real snap. Well, technically it was a crack. As in the crack of an old wood beam breaking. Because that’s what it was.
Shining the light toward the entrance, I looked for the source of sound. For the first time, I noticed part of the ceiling beam was still in place, not just part of the debris. Or it had been until that moment. As I debated whether I should stay put or rush through, it collapsed, effectively closing my hole. I didn’t panic at first, it didn’t seem realistic. There was no part of me that believed getting stuck down there was a possible outcome. I waited until I was confident the pile was settled before further inspection.
I worked at it same as before, from the top. I moved a few small pieces of wood and scooped away dirt, but the newly fallen beam was too heavy to move. I shoved with all my strength, tried breaking pieces off, but it was hopeless. I stayed calm long enough to make the same assessment for the rest of the pile, but panic ensued when I had to accept reality. I was stuck, no matter what I used for leverage, or where, I wasn’t strong enough to move the pieces that mattered. Even if I had managed to make a hole near the bottom, I’m not sure I could have forced myself through. As unreal as being trapped seemed, being crushed by debris seemed very plausible. Another glance at my watch told me it was 2:16, it’s weird the details you remember in a crisis.
I sat against a wall to rest. Body began noticing how sore and tired it was, but Brain was determined to escape without getting caught. Had I been desperate enough to call Cutty, I couldn’t have anyway. Texting didn’t exist, Cutty didn’t own a cellphone, and mine was upstairs because they were useless in 2002.
Desperation makes normal people do crazy things. So yea, my thoughts started to get away from me again, sue me.
Ok, ok, ok, this is fine, you’re fine. What’s the worst that can happen? They clear the mess in the morning and give you a good lecture? So what? There’s worse things, not like they’re going to eat you. Calm down, take the yelling with dignity and move on. Maybe they’ll think it’s funny! That be great, wouldn’t it? Yea, I bet they’ll think it’s funny. No one got hurt, nothing is broken, they even know what’s back here now. Nothing but aces.
“Hey, now that you mention it, how early do you think they’re going to find us? Because we didn’t tell anyone what we were doing, and we closed both doors.” Brain acknowledged
“Well, her dad wakes up early. It could be 6 or maybe even sooner if we’re lucky. It’s after 2 now… that’s only 4 hours. That’s cake, it’s nothing. We can hang out in this tiny space for 4 hours. We have light, everything’s fine. We’re going to face the dust cloud and pretend it’s all wide open spaces out there. It’s fine, we’re fine.” I soothed, holding legs to my chest, rocking gently.
“Right, but… why would he come down here when he wakes up? Wouldn’t he just… get up and go about his day? I mean, he’s only going to see a closed door if he sees it at all. He’s going to assume you and Cutty are still asleep, just like her mom will. Won’t this depend on what time Cutty wakes? What time was it yesterday? 10-10:30?” Brain corrected.
“Fuckballs, you’re right. That’s nearly 8 hours. But… but… we can’t. We can’t do that, we can’t.” The rocking became less gentle.
“I can’t help but notice this is the perfect situation for a canteen and candy bar” Gut joined the conversation. A bit too smug if you ask me.
“If you say one. More. Word. I will tear my stomach open just to rip you out.” Gut was blessedly silent for the remainder of this story, but for the rest of my life it will use this instance to force obedience. That’s called emotional manipulation, and it’s barbaric.
“So… do you want to like… maybe try digging again?” Brain broke the awkward silence.
“Might as well.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if this was when we saw a ghost?” Brain whispered.
“I hate you so much.”
“What if we have to use the bathroom?” Brain asked hesitantly.
“Shut up, don’t think I won’t rip you out too.”
I alternated between trying to dig, and rocking on the ground for the first hour, but when the flashlight batteries died, my morale plummeted to a new low. I only had two more panic attacks in the total 6 hours I waited. If someone had presented it to me as a ‘what if’ scenario, I would have guessed a complete system shut down. Noises you hear in the dark, while trapped inside the bowels of a home with that history are… well, they’re fucking terrifying. When your eyes have nothing to see, they create something to see. It’s a thing, super interesting, you should Google it, but it’s also heart attack fuel. If I closed my eyes, I felt like something was reaching out to grab me. The illusion was complete with the dust and bugs crawling on me. Even now, I don’t understand how I only had two panic attacks. Maybe they lasted longer than I thought. Needless to say, it felt longer than 6 hours, but Cutty got up when she realized I was gone.
“Where are you, dumbass?” She called out.
“Dude! Thank goodness! Dude over here come to the back of the cellar!” I leapt with joy, I never knew how literal the phrase was until I experienced it for myself. Simply exhilarating, I hope to feel it again some day.
“What the actual fuck have you done? Do you have any idea how lucky you are my parents went to work without noticing this? Mom’s fruit is going to be ruined, what the hell is wrong with you?” I could hear her replacing the jars as she spoke.
“Alright, I know I’m an asshole, I completely agree with every bad thing you want to say. I swear I will sit quietly and listen to every word, and we can do whatever you want for the rest of the week. I don’t care just please, please, help me get out. I have to pee so bad, you don’t understand, and I’m so thirsty, please get me out.” My heart sank as I said it. If she wasn’t strong enough, and her parents were at work, I was screwed. I explained how I became trapped and forced myself to wait quietly while she tried to dig me out.
“You are such a bitch for this! This stuff is disgusting, I’m getting filthy. Do you understand how screwed we are if we can’t get you out? Do you know what Crone Club would do if they found out? Mom wasn’t even suppose to keep the fruit there!”
“Yes, I know, I assure you the fear within me is bubbling over, much like the urine within my bladder. Please, I’m begging you, tell me you can move that thing. If you can move it just a little I can squeeze through the hole I made.
“Yea, yea. I think I can get it, calm down. You’re lucky I even got out of bed this early.” She griped.
“I know, I’m incredibly lucky because you’re the best person in the entire world, all hail Queen Cutty.”
“I think we can move it now. The bottom was wedged, but if you can push on it from your side I think we can get it.”
“Yes! Yes I can! Just say when, I’m ready!” This time, it moved easily. We pushed the beam away, and I leapt through the opening. I could have kissed Cutty, had I not been required to immediately run for the bathroom. I drank a gallon of water, ate several pop tarts, and told Cutty the whole story. She wasn’t a good sport, but she wasn’t a bad sport either. She didn’t tell her parents so I can’t complain too much.
Well, there you have it. The cellar story. Before I go, I want to say thank you once more. I don’t think I had 150 followers if you combined the life time totals of all my social media accounts. Thank you all, this has been truly incredible.