Listen closely, Little One, and I shall tell you a tale of a day long since passed.
It was a day like any other, the sun was streaming in through the blinds, casting alternating rectangles of golden light — through which motes of dust floated, lethargically — and sepia-tinted shadow. Dave and Stella were out somewhere, and I was home alone.
Where was I?
My child, you hadn’t been born yet.
It wasn’t unusual for me to be home alone, I often was. I didn’t mind, in fact, I was quite content to look after the house, lounging on the sofa or taking sunbathing breaks in the garden. Now, the layout of the house was much the same as it is now; two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, kitchen and lounge downstairs, and the cellar beneath.
But we’re not allowed in the seller.
It’s pronounced ‘cellar’. And I know that, Little One. That’s why this is a horror story — and a precautionary fable.
Ha, just sit back and listen, my child. And perhaps you’ll learn a thing or two.
I was a youngster myself, at the time. Probably about the same age you are right now, in fact.
I’m not very old.
No, you are not, Little One. Now, pay attention.
I had been out with Dave — just out and about, you know, off for a walk, went to the park, the usual — but we were returning home. Now, you know how Dave and Stella are hard of hearing? Well, Dave and I were barely five minutes from home and in the distance, I heard it. This gigantic, bestial roaring. I remember thinking to myself that it must be something huge and ferocious, to make such a din. Dave, however, didn’t seem to take notice of the thing’s cries. At all. I tried to get his attention, to make him aware of the potential danger that lurked ahead, alas, to no avail.
As we got closer to home, the deafening, thunderous howling grew louder and louder, and something withing my gut — my instincts — told me that the sounds were coming from home. With every step I took, the noise became more intense, more defined, and I knew — I just knew — that Stella was doing battle with the beast, that Dave and I would have to step in and aid her in her skirmish with whatever monstrosity was making that commotion.
As we zeroed in on our base of operations, I prepared myself to witness the abomination. I was scared, I’m not ashamed to tell you. I was so scared; I was practically shaking. But Dave… Dave was acting like all was fine, all was normal, as if we weren’t listening to the raging shrieks of a beast from unknown origin.
He didn’t hear it?
He was oblivious, either wilfully or genuinely so.
We rounded the corner, our house in sight, and the screeching — the alien, unrecognisable screeching — reached fever-pitch, and I thought to myself that it couldn’t possibly get any louder. And still — still! — Dave showed no sign of panic or distress, either for his own wellbeing or Stella’s. Let me tell you, if I hadn’t been so frightened, I might’ve been confused and angry. As it was, I was just too terrified to register any other emotion.
And then, all of a sudden, the sound ceased.
No, not complete silence. Birds were singing in the distance. Somewhere down the road, music was playing, people were chatting and talking and laughing. It was as if the cacophony had never happened. I was befuddled — incredibly so! And still Dave approached the house, which now lay in an eerie silence.
Not wanting him to enter the fold alone, I was close behind him, eyes scanning the front of the building. Not a single thing stirred, it was preternaturally still, as if the house was holding its breath, waiting…
Without a second’s hesitation, Dave threw open the front door and called out, “Honey, we’re back!”
I tell you, I cringed with the loudness of his entrance — our element of surprise given away so cheaply! No stealth at all! And then — then! — Stella called back, “I’m just finishing tidying up, Hon, be with you in a sec. You still on for lunch with my sister?” Casual as ever, no sounds of pain or panic, no evidence that she’d just fought off or slain a ferocious animal.
“You bet!” Dave called back, reciprocating her nonchalance.
Confused, I ran to the kitchen, which is where I’d heard her voice coming from. She was just coming up the stairs from the basement, a light sheen of sweat dampening her brow. As if she’d just performed some light exercise. Other than that, she was fine. No wounds, no injuries, nothing.
“Hey, Winston! How’s it going?”
I let her know that all was well but tried to keep my earlier anxieties hidden. I didn’t want either Dave or Stella to think me mad, and even then, I must admit, I was beginning to doubt my own sanity. After greeting Stella — checking, double-checking and triple-checking that she was indeed fine — I scoured the house for any signs of the scourge I had earlier suspected, coming up with nothing.
You imagined it?
Now, that’s not what I said, Little One. And please, no more interruptions, my dear.
I took an afternoon siesta on the bed, the stresses of the day soon taking their toll on me. As I snoozed in a bar of sunshine, Dave and Stella called out, letting me know that they were heading out. I half-responded, in my doze, and soon I returned to my much-needed slumber. I awoke some hours later, the sun still shining but now much lower in the sky, the light trickling in through the window now a fiery orange. I called out to Dave and Stella, but they appeared to still be out, wherever it was that they went, or indeed go.
I stretched and made my way out of the bedroom, when I noticed a strange sensation.
What was it, Papa?
I had the overwhelming feeling that, although Dave and Stella weren’t home, I wasn’t alone.
I trotted down the stairs, trying to shake the feeling, trying to chalk up the earlier experience to a temporary auditory hallucination, trying to convince myself that I was being crazy — there had been no beast, and the only ones who entered the house were Dave, Stella and myself. I was half stepping from the last step when I froze, motionless, the crushing notion that something was wrong with the kitchen.
And then I saw it.
You saw what?
The cellar door was open.
The hair prickled up all over my body, a shiver running through me. I stared at the black rectangle, and it seemed to stare back at me, watching intently. It took me a while to realise that I was holding my breath, and I released it slowly and gently, so as to not make too much noise. It seemed as if the entire world were waiting for something to happen, motionless. The air was thick and still, it felt as if you could bite right into it.
I don’t know for how long I stood there, staring at that open door. Eventually, I built up enough courage to approach the entrance, my footsteps quiet — but not silent — upon the linoleum. I lingered at the entrance to the cellar. A cold air was drifting upwards, as if some ice giant were sitting at the bottom of the steps and breathing his frosty breath in my direction. I could see nothing, nothing but darkness.
What did you do?
I jumped up and pulled on the cord for the light switch that was dangling just inside the door, before the steps descended. The bulb slowly hummed into life, casting a sickly, pathetic orange glow that barely lit the stairs. Knowing that was the best I could hope for, I took a deep breath, mustered all the courage that I had within me, and went on down.
No! Papa Winston! You went down there?
I did, I did. I crept down the steps, the shadows rushing up to meet me, the darkness seemingly reaching out for me with snaking tendrils. The further I went down, the more the gloom seemed to swallow me whole. As I descended those rickety wooden steps, a strange chill began to seep into my bones, penetrating my heart and filling me with dread. But I pressed on.
You didn’t turn around?
I did not!
Slowly, gingerly, wooden steps creaking and groaning in protest beneath my weight, I went down, step after step. The cellar floor loomed ahead of me. I took one last despairing glance at the door through which I had entered — the door back up to the kitchen — and saw that it was naught but a tiny square of light. I swallowed hard with a gulp, and inched down the last of the stairs, heart jackhammering in my chest.
When I got down there, I was plunged into an almost eternal blackness. I now know that there is another cord down there for another lightbulb, but I didn’t know that at the time — it was my first time in the cellar. I froze there in the impenetrable night of the cellar, waiting for my eyes to adjust, shaking where I stood.
And then I saw him. His figure loomed out of the shadows! He seemed to be one with the shade itself!
Whatever did you do, Papa Winston? Did you run? Did you hide?
Why, I did what any good boy would do, Little One…
I did battle with the beast! As the hellfire raged in his eyes! Pow! Pow! I got in two strikes, quick as lightning! I must’ve struck him in his weak spot, as he roared in pain, a great, bellowing howl that seemed to go on forever. Then, the space above my head exploded as he whipped his appendage at me — like a mix between a tentacle and an arm — seemingly pulling in the very air itself, but — ha! — I was too fast for the brute! I ducked beneath his swing like a man doing the limbo! Whooosh! Right over my head!
Papa Winston! He ain’t scared o’ nuthin’!
As he was turned around, his attack missing its mark, I lunged forward — snap! — and took a bite clean out of him! I darted backwards as he whirled around to face me, his whining shriek intensifying in both pitch and volume, I assume from the agony of the damage I’d just dealt him.
But I wasn’t fast enough.
He spun around, quick as a flash, and loomed over me, this great, monstrous behemoth in the inky blackness of the void. My breath caught in my throat as I realised what was happening; he was using his height to his advantage. He was pouncing on top of me, in his death throes! In his dying breath (or so I had then believed) he dived at me with his last ounce of energy. I was young and fast, but I’d been caught off-guard, and Va-Khum saw his moment and seized it — toppling on top of me!
What did you do?! How did you survive?! How did you escape?!
I didn’t. Fortunately, at that time, Dave and Stella came home. Dave heard the commotion and came running down the steps — so brave! Not caring for his own wellbeing whatsoever! My previous judgement of him for not rushing to Stella’s aid was immediately dispelled. He rushed forward and severed Va-Khum’s lifeline. I’ve since learned that Va-Khum can only survive whilst plugged into those little holes in the wall by his tail.
Really? What a strange monster! Is he a alien?
I don’t know, Little One. I genuinely don’t know. He could be. Or perhaps he’s a demon from Hell. Or perhaps he was sent by the cats—
Yes, well-remembered, our mortal enemies! But as I was saying, I do not know from whence it came. All I know is that he plugs himself into the wall by his tail, and that Dave saved my life that day. I will be forever grateful for his daring and bravery — you’d do well to remember that, too, especially whenever he tries to brush our teeth or give us baths or tells us to leave something tasty we’ve found on the floor. Dave rescued me that day.
So, you got away unhurt, Papa Winston?
Ha! Not quite, my child. You see this scar here?
That’s what I got from Va-Khum, before Dave threw him off me. Remember that. He was a worthy opponent.
Did you kill ‘im, Papa? Did you git ‘im?
Alas, my poor, sweet, innocent child, I don’t think Va-Khum can be killed. I think he’s immortal.
Since that fateful day, many moons ago—
Yes, very good. Awoo. Anyway, as I was saying, since that fateful day, many moons ago, I’ve spied him on several occasions.
No! He survived?
Evidently, yes. But each time that I’ve laid eyes upon the foul beast, I’ve chased him off with a good volley of barks!
Yeah! Go Papa Winston!
Have you been practicing your barks?
I have! I have! Wan’ me to show you?
Not right now. Just remember, barks work one hundred percent of the time.
I’ll ‘member, Papa!
Good boy. And that, Little One, is the story of how I met Va-Khum. Some say to this day, he still resides in the shadowy recesses of the cellar, biding his time, watching, waiting, eternally patient…
He’s in the seller?
Fear not, my child, for old Papa Winston is here to protect you. Always.
29th May 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest