Below

by Ethan Robles

The knife was tucked deep in her right boot and her hand sat twitching by her thigh, waiting for the right moment to reach down, to pull it out, to kill him. The opportunity didn’t come and she chalked it up to the drive or the weather or her nerves.

Soon, she reassured herself.

The car stopped somewhere in the tame jungle of suburbia. The cookie-cutter houses stacked upon each other in neat rows, all leading to cul-de-sacs where innocent families watched the glaring light of their television sets and tried to escape the emptiness of their all-to-predictable lives.

Lana used to dream of predictability. When it first started, years ago, she let her mind wander away from the hulking men on top of her. She left their grunts and bad breath behind, falling deeply into the sanctuary of her mind. The world was brighter there, a suburban dream.  She woke to the sounds of school buses, left her bedroom, jogged through the neighborhoods as the sun rose, made a small breakfast, and watched a mindless morning show. These fantasies were comfort, but her customers easily destroyed these hopes. The sharp smell of their false love and their breathless exit from her body pulled her out of her trances. Soon, she stopped fantasizing all together, if only to save the association of images.

The rain pelted the car and she looked toward him. Over time, she learned to suppress her rage. It took two long scars and a knife wound, but she learned. She only looked at him with quiet indifference. If the look upset him, he did not show it.

“Showtime, girly,” he said. “He paid me for two hours. So, you’re going to give him his two hours.”

“Yes,” Lana said, keeping her eyes on him, the way he liked it.

“Good, girl,” he pulled a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lit it up. He pulled a long drag and it left his mouth slowly.

Lana didn’t move until she was told to move. The long, braided scar on her abdomen taught her that lesson.

“This is the last one this week,” he said.

She didn’t question him.

“You have been behaving very well. I am sorry that I had to do what I did,” he reached over, put his index finger under her chin, and let his thumb rest under her lower lip. “I needed to teach you.”

Her hand twitched and she wondered if this was it. The knife was warm against her skin now. The hilt of it dug into her calf. Pull the blade, kill him, run. Run until her legs gave out, until her breath died in her throat.

“I will take you off for the remainder of the week and you will have a break. It’s a reward. Does that make you happy?” He tightened the grip on her chin.

“Yes,” Lana said, the look of indifference still held, even if she could feel the hate pushing forward.

“Yes, who?”

“Yes. It makes me happy, Nolan,” she said, her voice steady.

“That’s my girl,” he smiled, and his row of crooked, yellowed teeth disgusted her. “I’ll wait for you here. Be good to him, he pays well.”

The conversation was over, and she was allowed to look away. She lifted her purse from the foot well and clutched it to her chest. She looked inside, knowing it contained nothing that she owned. Condoms, lubricant, massage oils, and cheap makeup; these were the tools of her trade. She raised the hood on her windbreaker and prepared to enter the rain.

The storm came down hard. The darkness was deep. The angered clouds covered any semblance of light, which left the sky looking like cold molasses.

She noticed the neighboring homes as her feet hit the sidewalk and she wondered if any of them knew about the pervert living next door. Neighborhoods like this blocked out the underbelly, they looked the other way, and tried hard to forget anything that they may have seen. The houses were mostly dark. The only light was the emanation of the television glow, crafting the silhouette of couch-ridden families glued to their nighttime entertainment.

At the door, she slung her purse over her left arm and rung the doorbell. Lana didn’t look back at Nolan, he would be watching. Though a week off was no big prize, she would take it.

She heard the muffled sound of footsteps coming from inside the house, despite the hard beating of the rain. The door opened smoothly.

“Come in,” the man said, turning away from the entrance to allow her passage.

The house was dimly lit. She could barely see the foyer that she entered.

The man closed the door behind her, followed by the soft click of a lock. She took two steps forward before she heard him release a low grunt. She heard the object strike the back of her head, but felt no pain. The force pushed her forward, she collapsed to the floor, and the darkness, which resembled the cold stickiness of the night, fell over her.

 

As soon as Lana opened her eyes, she wished that she hadn’t. A mean throbbing hammered into the back of her skull. Her head hung loose, chin touching her chest. She breathed deeply and tried to focus past the pain, if only to get a handle on her consciousness. After a few moments, she lifted her head and allowed it to lull backwards. Another mistake. The lump that formed at the base of her skull hit the back of the chair and caused a lightening bolt to shoot through her body. Her breath shook, while she waited for the pain to subside. Eventually it receded, leaving only a numb throbbing.

Lana forced her eyes open and tried to calm her heartbeat, but it was useless. The hyper rhythm increased as she looked around. When she tried to move her wrists, she found them to be tied to her chair’s armrests.

It was a basement. The exposed insulation and concrete walls gave it away. Hanging sodium lights lit the place, leaving only a few shadows in the room.

Lana willed herself to wake up. It was a dream. It had to be a bad dream. This could not happen. She’d suffered enough already and it could not have come to this. She was not tied up in the basement of a madman. She was not here. She could not be here. But the pain in her head had woken her from any thought of sleep, the numb ache of her wrists further proved her reality.  It was in this realization that she lost control.

The tears came out hot, streaming down her face. Crying only increased the pain in her head, which led her to sob more. Her lungs pulled hard gulps of air into her lungs and she cried.  At the thoughts of her own death in a dank, subterranean hell, she cried harder. Ignoring any pain, she pulled at her wrists until they began to bleed.

“Fuck,” she whispered in between her own tears. “Fuck all of it.  Fuck you all.”

It was in these faint whispers that Lana found the only emotion that mattered to her anymore, anger. It came faster and hotter than her tears and her body began to steady. The rage and the hatred, the only things keeping her alive in her newfound prison and the only thing she would know until she died. It was bigger than her pain or sadness and it gripped her like a long-lost lover, cloaking her in a tight embrace.

“Okay,” she whispered, lifting her head, and opening her eyes. “Okay. Come on. Okay.”

Her own voice calmed her. She took long, deep breaths and let the air escape steadily, allowing her body to relax. She breathed out forcefully through her nose, ejecting the mucus leftover from her tears.

The basement was bare, except for a metal stack of shelves in the far corner on her left side. The walls were the plain grey of concrete. Near the shelving the rain was leaking in and small puddle of water was beginning the spread along the concrete floor. One her right side was a large metal door.

So far, so good, she thought. Nothing threatening in her immediate vicinity, which was enough to calm her. The bareness of the place was irregular. This house was in the suburbs.  People brought their families out here. They also brought their junk. She’d been in enough family homes to know that basements were storage areas, hiding places for secrets. This place was barren, and she didn’t like it.

“I’m not the first,” she whispered to herself. It was a bold assumption, but she’d seen her fair share of bargain brand psychopaths. Her captor knew the ropes. She could feel it.

With nothing more to look at in the room, she looked down at herself. Her clothes were still on, a good sign. The cheap blouse and her tattered skirt were intact. There was a layer of dirt over the front of her body, but she didn’t see any blood, another good sign. Her wrists were tied tight. He used plastic zip ties and they were cutting into her skin with each movement. Her legs weren’t secured, so she picked them both up and took a look. No blood, no bruises, no soreness.  He hadn’t raped her…yet. He even kept the stupid cowboy boots on her feet. Then the realization hit her harder than her attacker.

The knife.

She lifted her right leg as far as it would go and twisted her calf inward. She could see the faintest outline of the hilt, still hidden in the boot.

Lana never prayed. She’d gotten over that superstition a long time ago, but now she found herself thanking a god she didn’t believe in.

With her assessment complete, she started to consider her options. She lifted her right leg onto her knee. She could just barely touch the boot with her hand. Grunting against the pain in her head and the soreness of her muscles, she lifted her leg and tried to move her hand toward the hilt of the knife. The movement started to push the chair backward and she found herself in a balancing act. She let her left leg drop to the ground and, with it, her chances at the knife. The chair dropped back onto its four legs and Lana let her head hang in disappointment.

She was close. She felt the knife under her fingers before the chair started to lean back. She would get it, she knew it now, and the thought comforted her. It would only take another shot. But for the moment, her heart was racing and she didn’t want any early attention from him. Whoever he was.

She began repositioning herself for another attempt, when she heard the metal door opening.

She thought about playing dead, returning to her sleeping state, and hoping that he would leave. No theater without the fight. But she wouldn’t. Lana would not allow fear to take control. She was afraid of Nolan. She was afraid of escaping him and what she would have to do to earn her freedom. She was afraid of the life outside of him. The time for fear was over. If she died in this basement, she would face her death with the bravery that she never had in life.

“Hello,” he said as he walked through the door and shut it behind him.

He was well dressed and handsome. He wore a cardigan sweater over a pressed button up shirt. His hair was styled and graying at his temples. He was tall and, beneath the clothing, his build was strong and solid. He walked behind her, and she waited for another blow to her head. But she only heard the padded footfalls of his loafers on the concrete.

He pulled something along the floor. Passing by, he set the chair down in front of her. He was careful of the distance, making sure he was out of reach of her legs.

“I’m sorry that we had to meet like this,” he said, removing the glasses from his face and leaning forward. He looked directly into her eyes and then leaned back, replacing the glasses. “You have a slight concussion.”

Lana was practiced in concealing her emotions. It was a constant effort around Nolan. The work came in handy now. She slipped into indifference and looked at him with neither hate nor fear, only existing in her seat.

“Are you afraid?” His face was calm, projecting the same indifference back onto her.

Lana did not answer.

“Usually, there is screaming. Or begging,” he leaned back, spread out his long legs and placed his hands on his knees. “I suspect you’ve done a lot of both in your life.”

No answer.

You don’t have to do this! I have family! I don’t want to die!” He pantomimed fear and let his voice rise. “You do this long enough and you hear it all. It is honestly upsetting to think that people believe that someone who would tie up a bitch in his basement would succumb to such nonsense.”

Lana had seen many types of madness from the lowest sexual perversion, to the most upstanding men in the community fucking in their child’s bed, but this man was different. From the first word, she knew that he would kill her without remorse or exception. This was no game to him. She needed to step very lightly, if she was going to buy herself more time. For now, she believed that silence would be the best way to tip toe through this situation.

“You are going to die here.”

Lana did not break her silence, but she did offer a small nod.

“Good.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I would end this discussion sooner, but I have unexpected circumstances to deal with.”

Someone had come. Someone had noticed. Lana’s mind raced with the possibilities. A neighbor, maybe a cop driving by and seeing…

Nolan. 

How long had she been down here? How much time had passed since he attacked her?

He paid for two hours. So, you are going to give him two hours.

He would come. Nolan was a monster and a sadist, but his mind was always reliable when it came to his money and his property. She was both to him. She just needed to know how long she would have to hold out.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, breaking her thoughts and bringing her back.  His voice went high. “Who saw me come in? The police? A neighbor?” he grinned. “Don’t worry about a thing, sweetheart. No one is going to ruin our time together.”

He stood and walked behind her again. She could feel his hands on the back of the chair before she was lifted up and turned around. He set her down gently. She faced the back wall of the basement. It was as empty as the front, except a shadow in the corner she could see a body, lifeless and bleeding.

She recognized the leather jacket and the pack of cigarettes that spilled out from the side pocket. Blood stained the smokes, turning their normal white cylinders crimson. Nolan’s blood was beginning to dry on the floor. She mourned him for a moment but found herself happy to see him dead. She imagined it many times.

She felt his hands run up her arms, over her shoulders, and onto her neck. He pulled her hair over to one side and moved his fingers behind one of her ears, leaving the hair pinned. His breath fell onto her and she could smell his aftershave.

“No one is coming for you. No one is looking,” he moved his hand across her chest and gripped her shoulder. “No one will know what has happened to you. You’re just another whore who walked into the wrong house.”

He squatted in front of her, still careful to be out of reach of her legs.

“You should thank him. He saved you a few hours.”

He walked behind her. There was a sharp slam as the large metal door swung closed. She listened carefully and could hear the subdued turning of a lock. Her breathing was the only sound now.

Nolan’s blood made her nauseous. Lana didn’t expect to feel her stomach turning at the sight of the dead man. She expected elation, but only found the sad sickness that accompanies the feeling of death.

His words rattled in her head and he was right. No one was coming for her. No one would ever look for a two-bit whore who never had the sense to be anything more than a walking dick deposit. If it had been any other day, this would be her death. For a moment, she allowed herself to believe that it was a better this way. It was easier than being crushed under the weight of an obese john whose heart finally gave out, better than growing old and not being able to recover from one of Nolan’s beatings. If it had been any other day, she would have laid back and accepted it. But there was the knife and the knife was hope. It shined the idea of freedom in her eyes and even in the dankness of the basement, she knew she would not allow that to burn out.  So, with a deep breath she went to work.

She lifted her leg onto her knee and stretched her calf upward. The chair became unbalanced again, but she held tight. Her probing finger could feel the hilt of the blade. She grabbed it between her forefinger and middle and began to slowly lift it out of the boot. The blade turned and began to cut into her calf. The pain stopped her, but she accepted the warm trickle of blood dripping into the heel. The feeling focused her, sharpened her, and she began to carefully remove the weapon from its sheath. Once the hilt was poking out of the top of the boot she was able to grip it. She let her leg down and allowed an oncoming cramp to ease out of her leg.

Her breath was controlled, her eyes focused. No room for mistakes. Somewhere, deep inside of her, she understood that the bravery and drive could fail. Her chance was based on her sole success and any knot in the works would drive her to tears and failure.

Lana turned the knife in her hand and poked the blade back toward her forearm. The tip punctured skin and another trickle of blood fell from beneath her wrist. She’d positioned the blade onto the zip tie and began to work the blade back and forth, cutting into the plastic. The band broke and her hand was free. In the elation of the moment, she nearly dropped the knife. But she calmed herself and began the quick work on the other wrist.

Lana stood, free of her confines, and rubbing the slim cuts in her flesh.

She took a breath and stifled a laugh.

She worked quickly, knowing that he could be back at any moment. It wouldn’t be easy. She had felt his strength. He could easily take her down if she didn’t play the game smart.

Lana moved to Nolan’s body. She kicked it once, just to be sure. When he didn’t move and she knew that he was nothing now but meat, she hooked her arms under his armpits and began to drag him to the door.

He was heavy in death and she needed a break at half the distance, but she found her strength and continued on. She placed him in front of the door. Half of his body lay against the metal, the other half, the legs, where strewn out towards the wall. She looked down at him and decided to move him once more. She flipped him, so he faced the door. Lana decided that she had seen enough of his face.

“Part one.  Done.” She whispered.

Nolan was the easy obstacle.

She eyed the large metal shelves opposite the door. She would need to be careful when moving them. Early suspicion would not help her. The metal would grate against the concrete if she dragged it and that wouldn’t do.

She found a way by lifting each side and shifting it closer towards the door. The work wasn’t easy, and she found herself straining to move the shelves without noise. Each time she placed it on the ground, she inched it closer before allowing it to touch the concrete. It moved, but the process was slow. Her brow brimmed with sweat and she began to get nervous.

After many close calls and numerous trips between the opposite ends of the shelving unit, it was positioned in front of the door. The fluorescent light cast its shadow upon Nolan’s body. Now, it was a waiting game.

She was tired, and her muscles began aching. Her head didn’t help the situation. The dull throb continued throughout her work. She leaned against one of the walls and let her eyes close. Her legs kept getting wobbly on her.

Lana put a hand to her head and felt the large lump that had formed at the base of her skull. Even the slightest touch shot roaring pain throughout her body.

“Fuck,” she whispered to herself.

She wasn’t sure how long she waited. Nolan’s watch was busted and gave her no sense of time. After awhile, she spotted a cigarette untouched by Nolan’s blood. She picked it up and fished Nolan’s lighter out of his pocket. She lit up and let herself slump down onto the floor, making sure not to bump her head. The smoke was heavy, and it kept her awake. She quit the cancer sticks long ago and the urge to cough came, but she suppressed it and the nicotine high softened the aching of her head.

The sound came halfway through the cigarette and it brought Lana back to reality. It could have been nothing, just trick that her mind was playing. But she could swear that it was the muffled sound of a loose floorboard squeaking somewhere outside of the room.

She dropped the cigarette and got to her feet. The knife in her hand, she took her place behind the shelf and waited. Her heart beat in her throat and she could hear nothing but it’s natural rhythm.

A click, the sound of the lock.

The door struggled against Nolan’s weight, like she had planned. He cursed on the other side of it and pushed.

“What the fuck!” He screamed.

He continued pushing and eventually managed to edge Nolan far enough away for him to slide into the room. He slithered in, pulling himself through the small opening.

“What the hell did you do?!” He yelled, his eyes darting into the corners of the basement.

He was more than halfway through the opening when she took action. She put her shoulder to the shelf and pushed. She hoped that she had placed the shelves correctly; otherwise things were about to go very wrong.

The metal fell and struck him in the chest, pinning him against the wall. One leg was still behind the blocked door and he was trapped.

Lana hoped that the shelves would crash down on his head. She hoped that the weight of it would knock him out and save her the work. Not so lucky.

He screamed when it hit him. Lana assumed that it was the first time that the prey had come after the predator. She liked that thought.

“You stupid bitch!” He roared, his face becoming inflamed.

Lana didn’t answer him. She began climbing the shelves and making her way toward him, the knife still clenched tightly in one hand.

As she approached, he began working his arms and trying to free them. His shoulder beat against the wall. His muscles thudded against the concrete and the arm began to shake loose. His eyes stayed trained on her, even as his body contorted to free itself. One arm pulled free from under the shelves and lunged for her.

He grabbed her hair. Lana screamed in protest and he pulled her head to the side. He pulled her face close to his. His grip tore at her scalp.

He pulled her head back and for a moment their eyes met. Lana spit in his face and thrust the knife into his throat below his Adam’s apple.

There was a pop as the knife split organs followed by the helpless gurgle of a dying murderer. His grip loosened on her hair and his hand went for her wrist. She let him take it, the fingers grasping gently. With his hand on her arms she pulled the blade out of him and felt the warm spray of blood on her face. She watched his eyes as life left him.

Lana fell backward and the shock began to set in. Both of her killers were gone now, both were dead next to one another.

There was new strength in her body. She dipped a shoulder under the shelves and lifted. They righted themselves and stood back in their upright position. Nolan’s body was heavier the second time that she moved it, but her back held against the weight and she was able to pull him from the door.

The metal swung open easily and she stepped over the nameless stranger. Lana looked down at the man, expecting a hand to shoot out at her feet, but none did. His eyes were lifeless, staring into nothing.

She made her way up the stairs, not pausing to examine her surroundings. She entered a hallway and followed the light. Along the way, the wobble returned to her legs and she bumped into the walls of the house, leaving prints of blood along her path. The front door was in sight. Even now she could remember the simple red signifier of suburbia.

She flung the front door open and fled into the yard. Tears came, her control lost, her stoicism gone. The rain was still coming down, but she could see light behind the clouds.

Lana stumbled and fell to her knees. The knife, still clutched in her hand, hit the ground without a sound. She screamed into the sky and looked up, as if waiting for an echo.

She lifted her head to the clouds and allowed the rain to wash off the blood and sweat.  The rain purified her and she felt clean. She made it up from below and into a world of soft, pattering droplets. Lana thought it was a beautiful sound, like the sound of freedom.

 


About the Author

Ethan Robles is a writer and current graduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a big fan of the horror and science fiction genre. Most of his stories deal with normal people in inhuman situations. You can find previous publications at the literary blog Horror Homeroom.