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While I must admit I didn’t want the old Orchid House torn down any more than anyone else, after two hours of crawling around in a dusty, rickety old house, I was beginning to regret my decision to come along. Of course, when we had planned this during History, nobody had mentioned that it would rain tonight. Nobody had mentioned that the inside of the house whose lot we used to play around in smells like mold and cigarette smoke. Nobody had mentioned that spiders had made this place their favorite hangout.
So far I had killed sixty three of the multi-legged buggers.
Orchid House on Chelsea Street was the oldest house in the neighborhood, and nobody had lived there for God knows how long. Back when we were five or six, my brother, our friends, and I had spent a lot of time climbing around the old gazebo and trees in the yard, playing tag and hide and seek and capture the flag like regular little monkeys. When we started going to school, we would walk by it every single day. We still do, since the high school is only a few blocks further up Chelsea Street from the grade school. I guess we had always sort of considered it our property, since we had played there so much.
Five months ago, yellow tape and “Danger. Do Not Enter,” signs had been tacked to the windows. Then Arcamidia Constructs announced its plan to tear down the neighborhood ‘eyesore’ and build fabulous new condominiums.
Let me tell you, Arcamidia may say they will be fabulous, but if their past constructs are any sign, these new condos will be funky-colored art deco boxes that don’t fit in the neighborhood at all. Gives new meaning to the term ‘hideous.’ Mia’s dad calls them ‘mustard jar’. I’m not sure why, actually, but he also calls Mrs. Henderson’s murals mustard jar, so I’m pretty sure the phrase is not a compliment.
“Tell me again why we came into the arachnid colony?” Mia asked, pulling her red hair back into a tighter ponytail and glaring at the cobwebs in the doorway she just walked through.
“Because,” Jason replied as he followed her through the door. “Mr. Henderson says that his great, great, great grand-daddy came through this town on the Underground Railroad and stayed in the house with the thousand orchids while the slave catchers looked for him.”
“We don’t even know if this is the right house. I’m with Mia.” My brother Kyle brought up the rear, dusting silky strands of cobweb off of his “Motley Crew” t-shirt. He coughed and said, “Plan B.”
“Plan B isn’t going to work,” Jason retorted. “Staging a sit-in in the parlor isn’t going to stop Arcamidia from tearing this place down. Come on, you really think they’re going to listen to six teenagers?”
I wiped the sweat from underneath my glasses. We’d had this argument five times already.
“Where do we check next?” Mia asked me softly. “While they argue about it?”
“We checked the main floor and this floor. We should check the attic next and then the basement,” I pointed my flashlight up the stairs, wincing as I thought of how much time it would take to check every stair on the way up. Checking for both secret passages and weak boards.
A lightning flash illuminated the cracks between the boards on the windows and the hallway for an instant. When the room was lit, I could see past the cobwebs and mildew into a stately house in what had once been a grand and prosperous neighborhood. This house had seen generations of children grow up, and her neighbors fall into ruin, replaced by rows and rows of small houses that looked exactly alike.
“At least this staircase doesn’t have handrail,” Jason muttered from beside me. When we had been climbing up the main stair, he had nearly fallen when the handrail he was clinging to had given out.
Mia was running the beam of her flashlight over the walls. “I don’t think this house was ever even adapted for electricity. See these dials? They had gas lights.”
“Skip the sixth step,” Jason called over his shoulder as he started up. “And hug the right wall.”
I started up after him. “To think that yesterday we were all tree-huggers. I’ve hugged more walls today that there are trees in the world.”
My feeble joke caused a few chuckles. We fell silent as we all started to scan the area. My job was to tap all of the walls to see if there were open spaces.
How I was supposed to tell if there were open spaces from tapping on the wall, I had no idea. The walls all sounded the same.
“It smells strange up here,” Jason called down from the landing. “Like a combination of onions and mold.”
I rapped my knuckles against the faded wallpaper. Spiders scuttled away from the beam of my flashlight.
“You know, these steps are all made of different wood. Could that be, you know, important?” Kyle asked from behind me.
I could see Jason open his mouth to reply, could see him walk down a couple of steps toward us. The rain seemed to beat even harder than before, like twenty drummers were pounding away with microphones picking up and magnifying. The stuffiness of the house was oppressive, and the spider webs were sticking to my clothes.
Two loud crashes sounded in quick succession. One must have been thunder.
Dust clogged my mouth and throat and stuck to my face. A thousand bruises started to throb at once. Someone was screaming, the sound penetrated my confusion. What seemed like heavy panels covered my torso, and darkness covered my eyes.
“Hey,” I coughed, choking on the dust. “Hey, is anybody there?”
“Annie?” a familiar voice called out.
“Jason? What happened?” I coughed again, twisting around. “What happened?”
“The stairway collapsed. I think we’re in the basement.” My friend’s voice sounded muffled, like he was underneath something. It was too dark for me to see anything. The air smelled like mildew and plaster dust.
“Where are you?”
“Under some sort of table thing. I can’t really move. You?”
I twisted around, biting down hard on my lip with the movement sent a sharp shock of pain through my back. “No idea. There’s a lot of plaster…at least I think it’s plaster.”
“Why’d the stairway collapse underneath us?”
I coughed again, the beginnings of my claustrophobia making its appearance. I hate tight enclosed spaces. I always have, ever since I got accidentally shut in the closet when visiting my grandmother. Six hours of being stuck in a box, unable to move…I was five.
“I don’t know,” I said, swallowing hard. “I don’t remember anything after…” Come to think of it, what was the last think I remembered?
Coughing came from somewhere behind me and to my right, but Jason’s voice spoke over the coughing, his voice coming from the left. Someone else was trapped down here too.
“Concussion? That’s what they always say on the TV.”
“Who’s over there?” I called to the other cougher. Nervous sweat was trickling down my forehead. I hate tight enclosed areas. Hate them.
Only more coughing came from whoever it was to answer my question.
“Someone else is down here?” Jason called, voice panicked. “Did we all fall?”
“I will let you know my thoughts on our London Bridge effect when …alright,” I took a deep breath, trying to ignore the darkness. “You were coming back down the stairs. Who was behind me?” I yanked my right arm free of the rubble surrounding me.
“Kyle was behind you, but the stairs didn’t all go at once. I think that the section you were on fell first, then mine, then what Kyle was standing on,” the coughing was coming again from my right.
“So, Kyle’s section didn’t fall until after yours fell?” Was my brother safe, or was he trapped down here with me? Please, God, whoever you are, let my brother have not toppled down two stories with me. Let him be alright. Let him be able to call for help. “Where was Mia?”
Please don’t let us all die down here.
“I don’t think she was on the staircase yet,” Jason said, coughing.
I frowned, then thought of the pointlessness of the gesture. I was buried under plaster and the remains of a staircase and two floors of house. Nobody could see my face. “So, she might not have fallen,” a sharp shot of pain went through my left arm as I tried to pull it free. “She might have been the one screaming.” She might not be in this basement.
“Ann?” A choked and raspy voice as familiar to me as my own came from behind me. “Is that you?”
My eyes were slowly adjusting to the light. I could see pale outlines of the rubble around me. Large chunks of what I assumed were plaster from the walls and floors we crashed through covered my torso inhibiting movement, but my head remained mostly uncovered, perhaps one lucky break in a decidedly unlucky night. My legs were partially pinned by some sort of end table and more plaster…probably the hall desk from the first floor. More plaster and some huge chunks of wall were behind me, but if I twisted my head around and ignored the pain that caused, I could see some of the floor and some sort of wood or maybe part of a stair.
“Kyle?” I called, wondering where in the pile of debris my twin brother was. Oh, how I had gotten into this? The staircase had collapsed underneath us! It was a wonder all four of us weren’t dead.
“My arm is wedged into something,” he sounded like he had after he watched “The Poltergeist” with Jason. Scared. Fright was something I didn’t usually think of my brother as being capable of having.
“Mia will call the police. She didn’t fall,” I called back to him as I used my right arm to pull plaster off of my torso.
At least, I think she didn’t fall. It wasn’t as though I had any idea what had happened myself.
“Can you hear Kyle?” Jason called. “I can’t hear anybody but you. Damned plaster. Don’t you correct my language, Annie, don’t even start. The freakin’ staircase collapsed! Don’t you realize that?” Jason sounded as though he was a video of a chipmunk inhaling helium on fast-forward. “It collapsed with us on it, and now we’re in some dark basement where there’s only one person who knows where we are!”
Jason continued to rant along the same vain. I ignored that and the weak coughs coming from behind me and to my right. Kyle. At least three people trapped down here. I had gotten all of the debris covering my body cleared, and I was trying to lever the chair and miscellaneous wall chunks off of my arm.
“We didn’t even find anything, so the house is just going to be torn down anyhow, and we’re stuck in some Godforsaken basement in an abandoned house, and my back hurts, and there’s dust everywhere, and I think I broke my arm,” Jason’s voice was rising higher, if that was possible. “What are we going to do, Annie? What? Is there anything we can do? Anything at all?”
Dear Lord, Jason was working himself up into hysteria like a hormonal sixteen-year-old girl. I finally pulled my arm out, wincing as the detritus on top scraped the tender skin around my wrists. Please let Mia not be down here. Please let her have called the police.
“Annie, my arm really hurts,” Kyle repeated from behind me. Jason kept right on shouting, unable to hear anything but himself.
“I know, Kyle, just hold on…I’m almost,” left leg free. “Clear. Try not to move.” That was what they always said on TV, right? Don’t move the injured victim unless absolutely necessary?
I worked my right leg free inch by inch, ignoring what I could of the pain. I’d decided that my being able to move around and find my brother was more important than momentary agony.
“Do you think they’ll ever find us?” Jason was still going. I tried to tune him out as I yanked by right leg out from under what trapped it, trying to ignore the pain from the scrapes I was collecting. “Or will we be trapped in this basement forever? What if we’re still here when they tear it down? What if…God, Annie, I’m so,” Jason’s voice cracked. If I had to place a bet, I would guess that he was crying. However, my right leg, despite feeling like it had been run over by a truck, was free.
I really wanted to panic. I really wanted to just cry until someone came and pulled us out. I almost did. But the instinct to free myself and to protect my brother was too strong. I pushed the panic away, and tried to remember where Kyle’s voice had come from.
“Kyle?” I called. My foot bumped into something, jarring the already sore appendage. A flashlight. Hopefully it had survived the plunge.
Hallelujah. Bright beam of light to chase back the shadows of this creepy old basement. I trained the beam on the wall of debris between me and Kyle.
It looked like half the staircase frame and quite a bit of flooring. A post had missed my head by about six inches, driving instead into the shallow concrete on the floor and shattering it. There was that wooden slab I had seen, but it was underneath the concrete, not above.
What was that? All thoughts of falling two stories went from my head as I knelt awkwardly down on my left knee and shoved the concrete out of the way. Sore fingers found an iron ring, like a handle. Standing and bracing myself on an unsteady leg and just as unsteady rubble, I yanked…and almost fell over.
“Police! Is there anybody down here who can hear me?” Thank God, the cavalry has arrived.
The door-type-thing shifted a little. I contemplated it for a moment before turning my head in the direction of the voice and shouting, “Yes!”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know…somewhere towards the middle.”
“Are you hurt?”
Come to think of it…yeah, I hurt like I had just fallen over Niagara Falls. “Not too badly. My brother’s arm is trapped under something, and my friend’s underneath some sort of table, and I’m not sure if he is alright.”
“Hold on, we’re trying to follow your voice. What’s your name?”
“Annie Namoro. I’m a sophomore at Benton Grove High School. My brother Kyle is down here too, along with our friend Jason Baxter. I think. Maybe Mia too.” I yanked at the trapdoor again, this time shoving my sore right foot into the opening.
“Miss East called us from her mobile phone. She’s already outside the building being checked out.” The cop sounded close now. I could see the powerful flashlights bouncing on the ceiling like spotlights at Anger’s Garage.
Grabbing hold of the splintered wood with both hands, I pulled up, shifting the rubble back and finally springing the door open. Shining my flashlight down into the depths of the hole, I saw an old ladder and some sort of cot. A rush of excitement flooded my stomach.
“Sir, I think I’ve found some sort of old bedroom or hidden chamber under a trapdoor over here,” I called. Light flooded the small area where I had fallen, and a tall firefighter stepped in.
“Miss Namoro, are you alright?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, but look at this. Don’t you see? I think it’s the old Underground Railroad stop that Jason’s grandfather was talking about,” I pointed down into my hole, but the firefighter ignored me.
“I’ll look later. I need to get you out of this basement. Can you walk?” I started to nod, but when I shifted my weight to my right leg, pain screamed and the world went fuzzy.
I woke up six hours later in the hospital. Five weeks later, I had shed the crutches. Kyle was alright, except for a concussion and a nasty break in his arm from where it had gotten trapped underneath the falling stairs. He still has no idea how his arm got underneath there, or really, much of a memory of the night at all. Jason had his share of bumps and broken limbs, but he ended up mostly in one piece, despite the more than twenty foot fall that the three of us had endured.
There was kind of a media circus, mostly centering on us, but later focusing on the “Find in Orchid House”. An African-American heritage group paid for an archeological team to come in and examine the subbasement I found. Old records of Underground routes and various other things from the 1850s were discovered.
I was just happy to get rid of my crutches and go back to school. After falling two stories, I was not real excited about going back into the spider invested building.