Her mom told her everyday to never go down there — and twice on a Sunday. But after years of being told this, there was only one thing Cindy could do. One night, feeling its inexplicable pull, after her mom had gone to sleep, Cindy grabbed her dad’s old Maglite and went to the basement.
She stood on the threshold in her slippers and dressing gown with an ear pressed against the peeling door. It was already past midnight, she should be sleeping, but the extreme stillness wouldn’t let her rest. There was no harm in looking; after all, it was too late to expect approval from her mom. Or that feeling she often saw on her friends’ faces, which she imagined was acceptance or love or something comforting like that — it was too late for that too.
Cindy opened the door. A creak announced a strange draft, one that smelled cold and ancient. She tried the light switch. Nothing. She tried it again. Still nothing. The descent was exhilarating, terrifying, all-consuming; all her fears reeled and cycled together at each step as the torch failed to shine past the heavy curtain of darkness. What was her mom hiding down there? At the bottom, she managed to make out a scattering of odd things: battered, leather suitcases with rusted clasps; scrawled, cardboard boxes stacked and sagging beneath each other — PHOTOS, MEMORIES, DIARIES; worn armchairs sitting on top of each other; her old bicycle with the pink basket parked next to her baby cot. Then she saw a child’s hand. It was attached to an arm on the ground. She stifled a silent scream. But it was only her old doll, Annie.
Then something else caused her heart to erupt through her mind and leave her body frozen. A figure stared at her from the shadow cast by the torch. Cindy’s mind wanted to run, but her feet couldn’t move. She turned the torch slowly until she found a pair of dead mannequin’s eyes staring back at her. The mannequin screamed. She screamed. The mannequin moved. In panic Cindy swung the torch, to her left, then to her right, she swung its weak light and found only darkness. She swung it back, but the figure was gone.
It had moved closer in those short seconds. It was upon her. She could smell its breath. It reeked of alcohol. Its voice was familiar.
‘I told you to never come here!’ The face in the torchlight was strange, yet familiar; the eyes were distant, filled with raw sadness and wet with tears. The voice slow.
‘Mom? Is that you?’
‘You shouldn’t be here.’
‘You scared me. What are you doing here? What’s going on? I thought you were asleep.’
‘Please, go away. Leave me.’
Her mom, whom she was used to seeing as forceful and inaccessible seemed so frail in the gloom of the basement. They stared at each other not knowing what to say. The first thing Cindy thought was, she must miss dad too. But her mom never talked about him, they didn’t talk about him since he left. In that moment, half-clothed in shadows, Cindy realised they didn’t really talk about anything anymore.
She extended her hand and felt the unfamiliar touch of her mom’s, who recoiled as more tears refracted in the beam.
‘It’s okay mom.’
At that moment, Cindy understood nothing is for free, everything had to be earned, companionship, respect, love, nothing is taken for granted; but sometimes, between parents and children, hidden reserves are kept, strewn somewhere among the bric-a-brac of the dark recesses of the heart. It was just a matter of finding them again.
‘Please, leave me alone.’ Her mom cried.
But Cindy didn’t. She couldn’t.
She sat next to her mom on the cold, dusty floor of the forbidden basement among remains of the past. She saw her mom as she had never seen her — vulnerable, fragile. She put her arms around her, her mom recoiled until her slight push became a deep, embracing pull and they held onto each other fully with tears wetting each others shoulders.
‘I’m sorry, honey.’
‘For failing you. I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to see me like this.’
Cindy said nothing and held her mom closer. How could she blame her? Dad’s leaving was his problem, not hers. And her sadness wasn’t entirely her own fault either. Her parents — grandpa John and grandma Marie — were messed up, and probably their parents too; each generation messes up in their own way and carries a little of the carnage over for good measure. Within that big soup mixture parents force feed their children — that magical elixir, they tell their children is for their own good — is a potent concoction of the happiness and pain they endured, sprinkled with hope that their children will succeed where they failed. Or fear they will follow in their own failures too.
‘I come here to get away from things,’ her mom said.
Cindy didn’t know how long they had been sitting there, but she could see the appeal of descending where nobody came, where nobody could see you, where there were no distractions, and be free and apart. Her mom wanted to keep it exclusively hers, she understood that. But Cindy felt its danger too, of the madness of darkness that consumed, working its way towards the heart without, within, and back again at the sacrifice of all else.
‘Come on mom. Let’s get some sleep. Then tomorrow we’ll clean things up a little.’ She grabbed hold of her old doll. ‘Put some things up for sale. I forgot about Annie. You think anybody will buy this? Maybe we’ll fix up the lighting, put some new chairs here, get some books. You can still get away mom, but isn’t it better to do it somewhere brighter, more comfortable? Or we can go for a walk in the park. Like we used to. How about that? I love you mom.’ She rested her head on her mom’s shoulder like a child does.
‘I love you too, honey. I’m so sorry.’ She kissed Cindy’s hair, the way a parent does when their heart tells them their child is in need.