Both Jacob and Dora did their best to forget what prowled behind the basement door, all in hopes that it might banish what lurked in the slime-caked depths. If truth be told, they both had an equal share in all that lived and waited beneath their feet, though they were loath to admit that to each other.
So they ignored the way the iron door quivered as if alive. They ignored the cold draft which wafted from beneath it, carrying the scent of decay and chrysanthemums. And as they played ignorance, what lay below them soon came between them.
Often times in the late hours when all ought to be silent, Jacob would find himself creeping down the stairs like a thief in his own home; he had memorized each floorboard, knew which kept secrets and which would give him up with creaks and groans.
He would find himself in front of the basement door.
He would stare at its faint inscription. He would read it out loud:
HERE IS ALL THAT WE BURIED AND SOME OF WHAT WE LOST.
Sometimes, as he recited the words, he would contemplate opening the door, though it had not yet come to that.
He had never told Dora about these excursions—he wished to, perhaps it would even be right to, but he could not bring himself to reveal his selfishness, his flirtation with the iron door.
He emerged that night to find the door open. And he felt cold. That was all. Cold.
Jacob stood at the basement’s threshold and stared down into its maw for the first time in years. He tried to call for Dora, but the shadows swallowed up the sound and regurgitated it as a painful rasp.
He took a step into the abyss. Then took another. Another. And all the while, as he descended deeper into the place they had promised each other they would never go, he wondered what had driven Dora to open the door, and this thought was more oppressive to him than the reigning gloom.
Jacob wasn’t sure what form the things they had tried to bury had taken after all of these years, and he didn’t remember what it was they had lost between them, either. The years had blunted these things, transformed from constant threat to an ethereal notion of unease whose origin could not be pinpointed. And all of this had been for the best. Supposedly.
But with each downward step, he felt the thing which had nagged him his whole life claw its way out of the realm of thoughts and immaterial and into that fragile construct of reality where what emerged could not be ignored. The scent of the thing was overpowering, now. The stench of rot. The sickening sweetness of chrysanthemums.
Not long now. Not long until the thing revealed itself and the form it had taken.
The basement: a room of emptiness and concrete and indeterminate size. Bigger than he remembered it, though. Perhaps the walls had receded someplace beyond his sight. Perhaps they had never existed in the first place.
And there, yards in front of him, was Dora. Though not as he had known her.
A guttural noise escaped him, something between a howl and a groan, and he staggered toward the pile of bones. The skeleton was Dora, he had known that before he saw the golden ring, the one he had given to her an age ago, on her finger.
He cradled the bones. Tried to weep and could not.
He studied the ring. The way it seemed to glow despite the shadowy murk was loathsome to him. He wanted to cast it away, where it couldn’t taunt him anymore. Where it didn’t ask anything of him. But he could not.
A presence, lingering behind him. The scent of all he had been running from bore down on him. A voice, soft, only a cut above a whisper.
“Welcome back, Jacob.”
Ashamed, so ashamed to do it, but Jacob dropped the bones. Sprung to his feet. Whirled toward the speaker.
He could only make out a silhouette—a man, or at least something man-like, held out a hand to him.
“Come to me, Jacob,” the thing said. “Let us go together.”
And, for a harrowing moment, all thought and rationale were suspended. There was only an oppressive weight, the doubling of gravity, and a deep longing to take thing’s hand. But then he saw the ring’s glow out of the corner of his eye. The heaviness in Jacob did not go away but grew distant as he became aware of the hammering of his own heart, the tightening of his skin.
He ran past the thing and up the steps; the thing followed close behind.
Out of the basement and into the approximation of light. He felt the thing’s gaze on him as he shut the iron door, felt its crescent smile on his back. Perhaps it was a futile gesture—what use is a prison without a prisoner? But Jacob obeyed the impulse. The door was shut once again.
“Bravo,” the thing said. “Do you feel better now, Jacob? Do you feel in control?”
Jacob turned to face the voice. To see what form it had taken.
It looked like a man. A bit too pale, a bit too thin, but otherwise an ordinary man. Save for one detail. In the center of its forehead, there was a small hole, and from this hole trailed a wisp of what looked like smoke. No blood, no gore, just vacancy.
Jacob stared at the hole for a long time. He clenched his fists to keep from shaking.
“Where is she?” Jacob asked.
The thing turned its head in an unnatural angle as if trying to see Jacob upside down.
“You know where she is,” the thing said. “It was her choice. It can be your choice, too, Jacob.”
A sob traveled up his throat at the mention of her name. But he swallowed the convulsion. It burned as it traveled back down. Burned all that was inside of him.
“I don’t understand,” Jacob said. “I don’t understand what you are. I never did.”
“I am your Patron Saint,” the thing said. “I am your angel of mercy.”
“You can’t take Dora. I need her.”
“I took nothing. I take nothing. All that I have was given to me freely.”
Jacob pointed at the iron door. “Go back.”
“Only if you go back with me.”
He thought about this for a long time.
And while he thought, the so-called Saint never left his side.
It followed him as he wandered through the haze of unreality which grief brings, as he spoke to people he had not spoken to in years about Dora’s bones. There were visits. There was a lot of talk. Jacob hardly heard what they said, and despite their intentions, he didn’t think they saw him at all. If they had, surely they would have pointed at the thing lurking at his shoulder. Surely they would have mentioned the sickening sweet stench which clung to his skin.
Those people, those blind do-gooders—they were wholesome. They were kind. They were not for him. This was what the Saint said, and Jacob could not help but believe it.
Come night, when Jacob laid down and did not sleep, the Saint straddled him, stared at him, smiled. And when he gave up on closing his eyes, he’d look into the unblinking hole in the Saint’s head. He would breathe in the smoke which trailed from it. He’d wonder how much longer he’d last.
But there were days—moments, really—when the Saint itself seemed to grow tired. It would fall behind, limp along. The smell of death and flowers would grow distant.
It was in these moments that Jacob considered things other than the loss of Dora and the Saint’s looming offer.