When my parents built the Dream House, the basement was left largely unfinished. There wasn’t really any need for another whole floor of living space, as there was plenty on the top two floors. Plus, the building had taken most of their funds – so while there were some walls and the famous secret room for food storage, everything else was framing and concrete.
My sister and I quickly turned the basement into our private playground. A rope swing was hung in what, years later, would become our bedrooms, and toys, Barbies, and books littered the floor. We wrote on the concrete floors with chalk, creating hopscotch patterns of all types. For the most part, the basement was a pleasant place to play. Like a cave, it remained at a constant fairly cool temperature, winter or summer. The only downside was the daddy long leg spiders who were determined to make the basement their home.
The basement had the added bonus of having the secret room, with its year’s supply of food, just steps away. We would often procure a box of cereal and stash it in a corner of the basement so that my mother wouldn’t find it, snacking on it whenever we wanted and to our heart’s content. Once, and only once, my sister and I got a craving for some peanut butter. We took one of the extra-large jars, cracked the seal and began to dip our fingers into the sticky goo, giggling as we shoveled the peanut butter in our mouths.
It wasn’t long before we were stuffed like little human Reece’s – but the peanut butter jar was still more than half full – and we worried that it would go bad if it was not refrigerated. After some conferring, we decided that the only way to escape punishment was to finish off the peanut butter so that we could surreptitiously dispose of the empty jar at a later date. Determinedly, we started scooping fingerfuls of peanut butter, licking them clean, and then dipping our hand in the jar again, over and over. As we progressed, our smiles disappeared, our movements became slower, and our brows furrowed. We were in PEANUT BUTTER HELL! Undaunted, we kept on – until the last of the peanut butter was gone. Unfortunately, for me anyway, it made an appearance again about an hour later.
My cousins – all seven of them – lived a few hours south of us. Every so often, they would come up to the Dream House to spend a day or two. While the adults did adult things upstairs, all of us kids would congregate in the basement, playing board games, planning mischief, or contemplating the hidden door. Now, I’m not talking here about the bookcase/door to the secret room – everyone knew about that – so it really wasn’t secret at all. The door I’m talking about was in the concrete wall, below the window well – so it was short, probably four feet high. Now, it wasn’t really a “door” at all – instead, one of my older cousins had taken some chalk and outlined the expansion joints – which just so happened to resemble a double-door (especially after he added little chalk doorknobs).
My cousin, Tommy, told us with a grave face that an angry little man lived behind the door. Apparently, if we had the means to open the door, we would see that the corridor extended away from the house, winding around the pine trees near the driveway, and ending up in a tiny, underground house where the little man lived. Tommy explained to his rapt group of listening children, that the little man only came out of the door when it was dark – mostly at night – and that he would cause chaos by messing with our toys and swinging on our rope swing. We were also told that the little man was not particularly friendly. If we happened to be in the basement when he came to visit, we might regret it. We all nodded somberly and with some trepidation – we had no plans to be in the basement when the little man came to visit.
Soon after, when we were all happily engaged in our play, the lights went off and basement was shrouded in darkness. We let out some initial squawks of alarm…and then there was silence. As we listened, frozen, we heard a scratching sound…and then a thump…and then, an evil cackle. Suddenly the lights flashed on for a moment, and we caught a glimpse of Tommy, wide-eyed and shouting, “It’s the little man! He’s come for you!”
You can imagine the pandemonium that ensued, as we seven children began scream and attempt to run for our lives – tripping over Barbies and each other in our haste to make it to the stairs, trying to navigate during the brief flashes of light and failing miserably. All the while, we could hear the evil laughter and the occasional scream from Tommy.
Eventually, Tommy turned on the light so that we could see that he was well and whole – laughing at our obvious distress. We collected the smaller children, who had been frozen in place during the melee, and calmed them – laughing uncomfortably to each other about the joke – insisting that we had known all along it had been Tommy messing with us. Still, from that day forward, whenever we were in the basement, everyone gave the hidden door a wide berth, we talked in hushed whispers about the little man, and we never, NEVER, went into the basement after dark! And I still don’t eat peanut butter.