I put down my book and got up to go for a walk. I had been around the back of my house many times, but for some reason it was only now that I noticed the door. Square, small, and painted white to match the surrounding clapboard, it stood out starkly against the sloping, featureless expanse of the back yard. How had I never noticed it before?
There wasn’t any latch or handle, so I forced my fingers into the crack underneath and managed to pry it slowly backward through the grass. When I had it wedged open wide enough, I peered through the crack and was met with a long, clammy darkness that seemed to pulse with spiderwebs and dust.
So Eli had not been making things up. Houses had secrets. Here was mine, beneath my house, just like he had said it might be.
Part of me wanted to venture in. The day was just bright enough that the first few feet were illuminated. I could see the space was big enough for me to squeeze into comfortably, lined with rough unsanded boards and bulging with exposed insulation.
But suppose someone was living in there? The image that sprang to mind was that of an old, dirty man with wild eyes and long yellow fingernails. One of my books had gone missing a few days ago. What if he had it? What if the man in the passage under the house had crept into my room at night and stolen my book?
I tried to push the door shut again, but it caught on the grass and wouldn’t close. Feeling suddenly nauseous, I backed away down the sloping lawn, then broke into a run to the edge of the property.
There was a patch of trees between my house and the street behind it. All the leaves had fallen and the branches were bare and colorless, scraping at the low-hanging sky like they were trying to pull the clouds down. I trotted between the trees, crunching leaves, eager to put as much distance between myself and the crawlspace as possible.
Just as I was emerging from the trees into the street, having decided on the vague destination of a small park a few blocks away, a sudden swell of country music made me glance up. The truck was turning the corner.
I stopped on the verge and waited for it to pass, retreating a few paces back into the woods. It was loud, and I tried to keep to quiet spaces whenever I could. The sudden noise felt like a bloom of blinding light in pitch blackness.
The truck cruised by, music blaring. I still remember the lyrics -- ‘cause you don’t forget, when things come around, who’s got your back and who let you down; I was waitin’ on you way too long and it hurts to see that I was wrong …
I climbed back out of the woods and prepared to dart across the street.
The music ceased abruptly.
I froze with one foot on the tarmac. The truck had just reached the end of the street and had its blinker on to turn left at a four-way stop. The sudden silence was nearly as jarring as the music had been.
How long had the truck been making left turns? Had it just been circling the block, over and over again, gliding slowly past my house? Was I being watched?
My heart was thudding painfully. I was very alone out here. The streets were so wide, the windows along the streets empty and dark.
The truck didn’t turn. The blinker cut out.
Then it began to reverse toward me.
I sprinted across the street and up the steps to the nearest house, throwing myself at the front door and pounding on it with fists and feet. The truck stopped in front of the house. The passenger-side door started to open.
I jumped sideways off the porch and ran around the back. I heard the crack of a car door slamming and the sudden rev of the engine.
Hadn’t I heard something at school? Something I hadn’t wanted to think about too hard, or pay too much attention to? Teachers muttering in hallways about implementing a new hand-holding policy for classes going between buildings? Something something suspicious characters? Can’t be too careful, probably nothing, better safe than sorry …
What happened when a kid disappeared off the street? Teachers and parents got scared and quiet. They exchanged meaningful glances over our heads in class and wouldn’t answer questions. That was all I knew.
I didn’t want to become a sad and knowing silence.
The truck was going to be faster than me, no matter what. I had to outsmart it. Instead of running to the next street over or hiding in the woods between houses, I turned on my heel and ran back the way I had come, toward my own house.
As I crossed back over the street I heard a squeal as the truck slammed its brakes and began to reverse full-speed toward me. I launched myself down the verge and into the woods. I knew it was going to drive around to the front of my house next. Cut me off. Grab me right off the front porch. Stuff something in my mouth to stop me screaming. And all my mom would ever find of me would be my book, left lying open facedown in an empty chair.
I had to go where they wouldn’t think to chase me. Where they wouldn’t even try to look. I fell to my knees next to the crawlspace door and tore up the grass and my fingernails ragged dragging it open, fighting with the hard November earth. I wasn’t a skinny kid, but I was a desperate one. I cut my belly on the splintered edge squeezing my way inside.
I crawled on my hands and knees into the dark, coughing up dust and choking on cobwebs, scrambling as fast as I could from that sliver of cold white daylight.
A moment later I realized the mistake I had made. If the people in the truck got out, if they chased me around to the back of my house, they would see the little door was open. They would know I was in here. There was nowhere else I could go to hide.
Then, as if the thought itself had triggered it, the gap of daylight vanished. The crawlspace door closed, and the dark rushed in.
I think we all have something a little bit like this, deep in our childhood memories. A story you don’t really tell anyone. A truth you only reveal a tiny piece at a time. I hid this one from everyone, including myself, really.
Until now, I never really thought about the crawlspace door closing itself.
Because that’s what happened.