The Smell of Night in the Basement
by Wendy N. Wagner
I looked up when Carlos came in with a girl, two Domino’s pizzas, and a bag of marijuana gummies. It was a big basement, finished in places, dirt in others, a kind of half-assed bathroom in the corner with no walls or a door for privacy. You got used to smelling somebody drop a deuce or rinse blood out of their hair in the utility sink.
They said they were vampires. Sometimes I believed them and sometimes I didn’t, but I didn’t really care. I got enough to eat. There was always plenty of drugs and dancing and people to fuck. The screams bothered me sometimes, but not so much I wanted to leave the basement or Luca. Not that he would have let me leave.
Carlos brought her down the stairs, and she almost tripped on her sparkled flip-flops. Her ankles were all tiny and tendons, like deer ankles. A red patch of bug bites spread up the stick of her left shin. She blinked at me and stood real still when Carlos shoved her into the middle of the room.
“She was sleeping in the back of a car,” he said. “Look how little and cute she is.”
Alicia poked the side of the girl’s neck with one of her long nails. The girl flinched away.
“And young,” Carlos said. “She said she started high school last week.”
I picked up my new nail polish, Electric Acid Orange, to show I was more interested in my manicure than a scrawny little mixed girl. “She’s been on the streets a long time. She’s probably a junkie.” I rolled the bottle between my palms to warm the polish. I cut her a side-eye. She was super cute with her long black hair and her button nose. Even Luca would probably think she was cute. “Definitely a junkie.”
“Fuck off,” Carlos said. “If I want a pet, I can have one.”
Gabriel emerged from the tunnel Carlos had started digging on the other side of the bathroom. “Only if Luca gives you permission,” they reminded Carlos. Then they shot me a look. They still resented Luca for keeping me around. They gave their spiked collar a twist as they stood there looking at the girl, running their tongue over their teeth.
Alicia opened the pizza box and took out a slice. Pepperoni and pineapple, because Carlos bought it. Alicia looked at the girl. “She right? You been working the streets?”
The girl nodded. She looked a little less scared, too, which I didn’t like. You act like you’re not scared, they might let you stick around. That’s how it had worked for me.
I put down the nail polish and crawled over the stack of mattresses so I could see her better. Up close, she looked even younger than Carlos said she was. She’d been wearing pink lipstick earlier, and it had left a stain around her mouth like she’d been eating a Popsicle. My momma used to give me Popsicles after I blew her johns to get the taste out of my throat. No one in the basement eats Popsicles. That’s one reason I like it here.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Kendra.” Her eyes went to my nails, still Sugar Poppin’ Pink because I hadn’t had a chance to start my manicure. “I like your nails,” she said, barely audibly.
“She’s cute.” Carlos took a bite of pizza. Grinned. “Like a puppy.”
“Don’t get too attached,” Alicia warned. “You know Luca says we’ve got enough pets.” She glanced at me when she said it.
I tried to look cuter as I reached for a piece of pizza.
“Pets?” Kendra asked. Her eyes looked impossibly big.
Carlos offered her a slice. “You just eat this, baby girl. Luca won’t be home for a while yet.”
I went back to my spot behind the mattresses and watched them eat. Carlos finished his slice of pizza, patted the girl on the head, and then returned to the tunnel. I could hear his shovel scraping in the darkness. Alicia had picked up last week’s New Yorker again and was slowly nibbling crust while she turned the pages. Her roots showed brown against the white of her hair, because Luca said we didn’t have the money for salon days. He’d still bought me my Electric Orange Acid polish, though. I was his pet, not the rest of them’s.
The upstairs floor groaned, so I sat up straight. Marcie and Luca had gone out hunting hours ago. She doesn’t usually take long. She’s so pretty with her short red hair—men will follow her anyplace, no matter how dark and cold. But it could still be Luca up there. He’s choosy, but he’s lucky, too.
The door at the top of the stair swung open, and Luca slipped inside, all blond hair and club clothes. A dolled-up granny leaned on one arm. Her smile was so glassy I could see my reflection in it. Luca saw me looking and winked at me. Then he turned back to his cougar, and as she looked up for a kiss and a cuddle, he gave the small of her back a shove. She somersaulted down the stairs with a crunch and a crack and a whimper.
“Soup’s on,” Luca announced. He threw back his head and laughed.
Gabriel pounced on the woman, their pudgy hands closing around her throat and squeezing hard. Alicia grabbed the woman’s feet and wrapped them tight in duct tape. Unconscious was best for storage. Semi-conscious was best for dinner. Awake was for play time.
Gabriel switched their grip to the woman’s shoulders. They had some kind of sixth sense about how much life was left in a body. “Muscle up, Alicia.”
She grunted as she hoisted the old woman higher. I saw the woman give a twitch and a jerk, but Alicia and Gabriel trucked her into the darkness too quickly to see if she had come awake or not. Carlos’s voice carried low and rumbly out of the tunnel, probably making some kind of joke about Luca’s catch, and they all laughed. They had a lot of good times in that tunnel. I stayed far, far away from it.
Luca dumped the contents of the woman’s purse on the floor. He opened her wallet. “Fifty-five dollars in cash,” he complained. “Hardly worth it.” He picked a plastic shopping bag out of the mess. “At least she took me to Whole Foods on the way here.” He began to spread a buffet of chocolate bars and snacks across the mattress heap.
Chocolate made him happy. Happy people like spending time with their pets.
I crawled across the floor to kneel beside him. “Looks like you landed a rich one.”
A bit absently, he stroked my hair. I was glad Alicia had let me wash it this morning. “My favorite prey. Middle-aged women with plenty of money who don’t look too closely at what they want to fuck.”
I leaned into his hand, pushing his nails into my scalp. “You’re so clever, Luca.”
I could see Kendra watching me, her eyes unreadable. I hoped she wouldn’t learn my tricks too quickly. I shifted so I blocked Luca’s view of her stupid cute face and smiled my best smile.
He patted the top of my head. “Are you being sweet just to get a treat?”
I shook my head, wide-eyed. “You know how much I like you.”
He put his hand in his pocket and then flipped a dime bag onto the ground. I snatched it up.
He laughed to see me like that. I should have hated him for making me crawl in the dirt, but for the moment, I could pretend he wasn’t even there. It was just me and the little bag. White powder, probably Molly. Hopefully Molly. I fucking loved that shit.
I poured some on the back of my hand and took a good lick. It was Molly. I took a little sniff, just to get the party started faster.
Luca kicked me in the hip, hard. “What’s that?”
I turned to look at him, and he pulled the bag out of my hand. He pointed with the other. “That.”
Kendra huddled on the bathroom floor with the empty pizza box, scraping cheese off the lid. She looked smaller and scareder than she had before Luca brought out the drugs.
“Carlos found her.”
Carlos appeared as if my voice summoned him, slinking down onto the mattresses and snaking his arms around Luca’s waist. He tongued Luca’s ear. “I thought she would be a cute little pet for the two of us.”
Luca shook him off. “We’re not an animal shelter.”
Kendra hugged the pizza box closer to her chest. I couldn’t help smiling at her. The Molly was already kicking in.
Carlos stroked the back of Luca’s neck. “No skin off my nose, baby. I just want to have fun.”
Luca turned into Carlos’s warmth and nuzzled his neck. They kissed, their tongues long, thrashing lizards. Carlos was the only one Luca would fuck. That’s why I made it a point to be his special pet.
The Molly began boiling inside me. I slid off the mattresses, watching Carlos and Luca twisting and moaning. I wished somebody would turn on some music. Now would be a good time to dance. I rolled from side to side, imagining it. The woman in the larder whimpered softly. I covered my ears. If she started screaming, it would really bring me down.
Kendra crept toward me, still holding the pizza box. My hands slid off my ears. My hair felt so soft under my fingers, like silk. Like nice things. I wished I could take Molly every second of every day. I wished life was just Molly, Molly, and sleep. If Luca didn’t give me drugs, life wouldn’t be worth living.
I smiled up at Kendra. I was crying a little, but it felt kind of good until a tear ran cold into my ear. Kendra looked from the men on the mattresses to me and back again. They had forgotten about us, all of them, Carlos and Luca caught up in the heat of their sex, Alicia and Gabriel in their own work. I heard the ripping of duct tape, and the granny’s whimpering stopped. No screams yet.
Kendra patted my arm. “Are you okay?” she whispered. She had a nice voice. It reminded me of a girl I knew back at Rowe Junior High, a girl who had helped me on a math quiz once.
Little sparkles danced around her head. I couldn’t help giggling. The basement stank of piss and old meat and no one had ever painted it, and the two lightbulbs set in the ceiling were white-blue fluorescent. There wasn’t anything pretty in the whole space, and yet, here was Kendra, sparkling like a star or a field full of fireflies.
I wanted to hug her, but I knew that was just the drugs. “You should leave me alone,” I warned her. I didn’t want to get too attached, not the way Luca was acting.
The door at the top of the stair burst open, hitting the wall and ricocheting. A man laughed, and another shouted something about beer, and I realized Marcie had come home with a train of frat boys. For a moment the smell of beer was stronger than the other stinks, and my mouth watered. Only good thing Gabriel ever did was teach me to drink beer.
Gabriel went straight for the sixer that the biggest of the boys held. There were some blood sprinkles on the side of their face, but I don’t think the frat boy noticed. Gabriel grabbed the boy’s crotch and took a bottle of beer. The boy giggled. The sound echoed in my head, light and bubbly, as Gabriel downed the beer in one long, thirsty gulp. I didn’t know how he could be so thirsty when they’d just drained an entire fifty-year-old woman, but when I saw them drink like that I knew shit was about to get real. I reached for Kendra, but the Molly made it too hard to aim or speak or clap my hands over my burning hot ears.
With a gasp for air and a happy burp, Gabriel slammed the bottle into the metal pipe of the stair rail. Glass crunched so loud I wanted to scream. The bottle slid through the air in a shining brightness that cut off the frat boy’s scream in a long arc of blood.
The room went spinny-spin-spinning, and Kendra screamed, and Carlos pulled away from Luca. A frat boy’s eyes went big as Carlos drove him into the ground with a laugh. Someone ran past me, and flesh went thud-squelch as the shovel from the larder connected with a boy’s head. Alicia reared back and swung again, light and Molly-colors blurring her outline. Sparkles flashed off the shovel. Light traced everything, sparkling, flashing, dancing light, and I crawled away from the blood and the screams, my body going hotter, then colder, and I buried my icy head in a heap of old blankets, and there was silence.
I woke up when Luca ran a razor between my toes and began to lick the blood there. The razor hurt, but his tongue felt nice, slippery and friendly like I imagined the worm from Sesame Street if it passed between your toes on its way to Oscar’s trash can. But then my stomach bounced, queasy and weird, and when he squeezed my foot, his hand was impossibly cold.
“You slept through the fun, silly.”
I opened and closed my mouth, but it was too dry to make words.
Off to my left, the sounds of mouths suckling. I craned my neck so I could see what was happening on the mattress pile. Gabriel and Alicia crouched in the twisted blankets, and I hoped for a second they were leeching one of the college boys, but they were working Kendra’s arms, one apiece, razoring little cuts on the softest places and lapping at them like kittens on their mother. Kendra just lay there, blinking once in a while, trying to fix her soul to the ceiling.
I smiled up at Luca. He hadn’t picked her. That meant I needed to be extra-good to him.
I looked for words in my dry brain. “Is my blood sweet tonight?”
“You know I only take the drugs you give me, right, Luca?” I thought my voice sounded real sweet. “I don’t mess with anything that would make me sour for you.”
He flicked the tip of my toe. Blood flaked around the lines of his knuckles, crispy and brown. “The fuck you know about blood?”
I sat up real fast, checking his eyes for coldness. No one pissed off Luca. “Nothing, Luca. I just thought—”
“You don’t think, pet.”
I held my breath. Was this the day he stopped liking me? Was this the day he turned off the drugs or stuffed me in the larder like the others?
His blue eye-slits softened. “Of course you didn’t mean anything by what you said.”
I shook my head. In the larder, someone groaned, and the shovel thudded. The groan became a shriek. Marcie and Carlos were juicing their catch.
“I just want to make you happy,” I whispered. I trembled all over, and I hoped like hell he thought it was just the Molly coming out of my system.
He stroked my cheek. The powerful stink of sex and meat came off it, the smell of the basement, the smell of my mother’s shabby old trailer, the smell of night. “You always do your best to amuse me.” His smile reappeared. He was so much handsomer when he smiled. I could almost forget what he was when he looked like that. “In fact, I have a fun idea.”
His arm shot out, fast as a pit bull biting a baby, and closed on Gabriel’s arm. “Give me the girl.”
Gabriel slapped Luca’s hand. “You made me cut myself, bitch!”
“Shut up,” Luca ordered.
Alicia slid across the mattress, wrapping her arms around Gabriel’s middle. She kissed their cheek. “It’s all right, sweetie,” she crooned. A little of Kendra’s blood dripped out the corner of her mouth. “Brother hasn’t had a turn with our new little toy.”
Luca’s hand tangled in Kendra’s silky black hair. “Soft.” He began to wind it around his fist, pulling her closer to him, inch by inch. Her body slid to the edge of the mattress, her neck stretched awkwardly. I couldn’t escape those brown eyes, fixed on my own, the corners filling with brightness.
I sat up so I didn’t have to see the tears running into her eyebrows.
Luca loosened his grip on her hair and eased her arm out from under her. He held out his free hand. “Razor.”
Alicia dropped a blade into his palm.
He dug the corner of it deep into Kendra’s wrist. Blood welled up, thick and dark.
He smiled at me. “Drink up, pet. Be one of us.”
I looked at her wrist, at the blood—a lot of it—running down her arm. I had seen so much blood since Gabriel brought to me the basement. The smell bothered me no more than the hot stink of a fast food restaurant. I had seen every last one of the gang lick or suck or smear my own blood out of every limb and orifice I possessed. But this was different, somehow.
She had patted my arm after Luca kicked me. She had used that very hand, I realized. I recognized the stains on her fingers.
“Drink,” Luca ordered. There was ice in his voice.
I lowered my head. It’s just pizza sauce, I told myself. And if you eat your pizza, then you can stay out of the larder. I put my lips over the hot mouth he had carved in her wrist, and the blood pressed up against my tongue, thicker than whole milk. I gagged on it, but I knew how to make myself swallow.
I looked up at him, feeling Kendra’s blood running out the corners of my smile. “Did I do good?”
And then the blood hit my stomach, cold water on a hot skillet. My stomach bucked and heaved. I twisted sideways and spewed red and pizza.
“Don’t you waste that!”
He slapped the back of my head so hard, I fell into the dirt beside my mess. The stink of it made me gag and choke. I pulled my knees up, clutching them over my burning belly. My head hurt, too.
Luca stood up and kicked my ribs. “Clean it up.”
I crawled toward the bathroom, not trusting my legs. There was a pile of tee shirts with Greek letters on them, and I scooped up the puke as best I could. The utility sink was filled with clumps and bones, so it wasn’t easy. Carlos stepped out of the larder and watched me work, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I tried to catch Alicia’s eye, but she wouldn’t look at me. “I’m so sorry.”
Luca shoved Kendra’s body off the bed. She made a tiny sound when she fell, but she didn’t move. Blood still oozed out of the cut on her wrist. “Go ahead and get rid of the trash.”
“You mean, like, cut her up? Like the ones in the larder?”
He grunted. “Just take her out to the street. And take your shit, too.”
I stared at him. “What?”
He jerked his head toward the stairs. “Go on now. Get.”
Gabriel made to grab Luca’s arm, but the look in Luca’s eyes stopped them. “You’re just letting her go? What if she tells someone about us?”
“Who’d listen to her?”
I sank down onto the floor beside Kendra’s body. “Don’t make me go. Please.”
Luca’s lip curled. “Get out.”
My tears turned his face into crystal, all sparkle and shine, like vampires were supposed to be in those books Alicia had given me when I first woke up in the basement.
“Wasn’t I a good girl? Didn’t I do everything you asked?” I stretched my hands out to him. Begging, though I knew he hated begging. Weeping, though I knew he hated weeping. “Please, Luca! Who will take care of me out there?”
The tendons stuck out from his neck, and his face had gone red. My legs shook. He could kill me, I realized. I wasn’t his pet any longer, and any second, he could kill me like he’d killed my mama and her pimp.
“I’m going,” I said. I took hold of Kendra’s ankles. Her tiny little flip-flops had fallen off sometime. Someone would find them, twisted up in the blankets or under a shirt, and they’d throw them away just like us.
I hadn’t seen Marcie come out of the larder, but she stood by the stairs, her face splattered and streaked with gore. She folded her bloody arms across her chest and watched me struggle up the stairs.
“Lock up after her,” Luca ordered. “I don’t want her coming back.”
Kendra’s head bump-thump-bumped up the stairs, one slow thud after another. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead, but I hoped she was dead. I stared down at her pointed, freckled face and tried to imagine her soul flying up the stairs and then out the basement door as I opened it.
On the other side of the door, the side I hadn’t seen since the day Gabriel carried me into the basement, I stepped on linoleum tile. Normal linoleum like you’d see in any regular house, beige but clean. I couldn’t imagine any of them mopping it.
The light over the stove lit up the dark kitchen as I dragged Kendra’s body, not so heavy, but getting heavier every step, past the fridge and down the hall, Marcie following slowly behind and sometimes stepping on Kendra’s hair. I paused, breathing hard. I wasn’t used to carrying heavy things, and my body felt weird from all the Molly. I took a long breath of air. It was warmer than it was in the basement.
“Keep moving,” Marcie said, her voice low and rumbling. “I ain’t got all day.”
I tried not to groan as I grabbed Kendra’s ankles again and started dragging. Her tank top was riding up in the back, exposing her pale brown belly. It matched the carpet in the front room, even down to the gray undertones. I wished I could stop and fix her shirt, but Marcie growled at me when I slowed. She even growled as I fumbled with the deadbolt on the front door. Cheerful lace curtains let in the streetlight, sick yellow all over my tee shirt. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had seen light that wasn’t fluorescent blue. A year? Two years?
“Go on,” Marcie urged.
I opened the door, and even my fear of Marcie wouldn’t let me keep moving. I stood on the porch for a second. Had anyone missed me in the time I’d been gone? Did Mrs. Hargrave, the homeroom teacher, ever wonder had happened to the girl who sat in the back and picked at her nails? Did anyone remember me, anyone at all?
My legs began to shake again. I looked into the darkness of the house, where Marcie’s face made a vague pale spot.
“Don’t make me go out there, Marcie. Please. I’ll do anything.”
She shoved Kendra’s shoulder with her boot. “Get moving, or I’ll bleed the both of you.”
“I can’t be alone, Marcie! Don’t make me go!”
She reached for Kendra’s hands and, with a grunt, hoisted up the girl’s torso.
“I’ll give you anything you want. My blood, my pussy, my nail polish—anything, Marcie.” I pawed at her arms. “Please! I’ll be good, just don’t make me be alone!”
Marcie dropped Kendra onto the front stoop beside me. It wasn’t a big stoop, just a square of concrete and a green welcome mat with the word “HOME” half-covered by Kendra. “Get lost,” Marcie hissed, and slammed the door.
I threw myself at the wood, scratching and pounding. “Please! Let me back in! Please!”
The deadbolt gave a final thud.
I crumpled to the ground. The rough fiber of the welcome mat bit into my knees. “Please,” I whispered. “Please.”
Beside me, Kendra groaned. I whipped around, staring at that stupid little face. She was so cute, so small, so perfect. Even Carlos had thought she’d make a better pet than me.
“Fuck you,” I hissed. “I hate you. I hate you! You and your poison blood, you ruined everything. I’m alone out here because of you!”
She groaned again and pulled her knees up to her chest.
I scrubbed tears off my cheeks with my palms. “I hate you,” I whispered.
Then I slapped the wood of the door. “I hate you all!” I shrieked.
No one answered. The house sat there, quiet and ordinary, its secrets sealed away from me and the yellow streetlight.
I wrapped my arms around my belly and crumpled forward. I had been a pet. I had been someone. I had had enough to eat and drink and someone to buy or steal me nail polish, and now I was out here. Alone. A-fucking-lone.
The tears came harder. I was alone. So alone. And now I wasn’t even in the blue-fluorescent light of the basement, but back in the cold and the dark, and there weren’t even any drugs to take me out of the darker cold that was my head.
Kendra gasped. I turned around, not sure if I’d really heard it. Sparkles outlined her head, like the lights I’d seen on Molly, only I was pretty sure I wasn’t high.
“It’s raining,” Kendra whispered. “We’re outside and it’s raining!” She pulled herself up using my shirt until she managed to grab onto my shoulders. “You saved me.”
I just looked at her. The sparkle on her hair was just rain. The drizzle had turned her bangs to frizz.
She burrowed into my neck, her tears wetter than the rain. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.”
It took me a second to remember how to hug her back. It felt weird to touch someone so warm and soft.
“Thank you,” she repeated, over and over. “Thank you.”
My legs wobbled as I got us to our feet. Neither one of us had shoes. My feet were still bleeding from the cuts between my toes. If I had been a vampire, I could have smelled it, but instead I only smelled the faint stink of garbage and car exhaust. I wondered if I would miss the smell of blood, or if, like Popsicles, the memory of it would turn my stomach.
Broken glass winked in the yellow streetlight. I’d forgotten about dangers like glass down in the basement. I wondered what else I’d forgotten down there.
“You’re shaking,” Kendra said. “Are you all right?”
“Who’s going to take care of us,” I whispered. “Who’s going to make sure we’re okay?”
She didn’t think for even a second. “You can do it. You saved me. You can take care of both of us.”
I looked down at her, at her enormous, trusting brown eyes, at her pointed chin. So cute. And I was, too. We were two cute girls who knew how to act cuter.
I reached for her hand. “As long as we stick together, I’m sure we’ll find somebody.”
About the Author
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of the forthcoming horror novel The Deer Kings (due August from Journalstone), as well as the SF novel An Oath of Dogs, and two Pathfinder tie-in novels. Her short fiction has appeared in nearly fifty publications. She is the incoming (2021) editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and also serves as Managing/Senior Editor at both Nightmare and Lightspeed. She lives, works, and makes mischief in Portland, Oregon. You can keep up with her at winniewoohoo.com.
About the Narrator
Kara Grace is a green witch who lives in Michigan but is always dreaming of running away to New Zealand and opening a crystal shop in the side of a mountain. She adores the Escape Artists, and has been honored to read for them many times over the last decade. She hopes to branch out in the near future and is always open to new adventures or projects.
You are most likely to find her deep in the woods admiring and making friends with bugs and other wildlife, or underwater watching the sunlight filter through the surface. She is an avid gardener and is enamored with herbs and datura (moon flowers) in particular. She also enjoys moon rituals, creating herbal medicine, and hula hooping. She looks forward to a future where she can make a living using her voice to bring the written word to life, or alternately perfect a spell to turn herself into a fox and sneak away into the woods forever.