I always considered the end to be the end. When the machinery of the body fails, and the complex chemical reactions in our systems cease to fuel us, consciousness ceases. It’s fuel spent. And the lights go out.
I would grant that we understand very little of life and consciousness, but I always felt that the men and women who posit that life is pure mystery, do no service to what we do understand as a species. Out life blood carrying oxygen to our brain. Our brain feeds upon it to support the chemical reactions between the synapses. Those complex structures organizing information to be processed and presented to what we call consciousness.
It all seemed so simple, even if painful and empty, until I bought the house on Bainbridge street.
It was a house like any other. A simple but historic Philadelphia row home much like my two previous homes, which I had shared with my wife and daughter. Former wife, and former daughter. My daughter passed almost four years ago, and my wife is now my ex. I don’t blame her. I cannot understand how any couple survives the death of a child.
My move-in weekend was more like a move-in afternoon. I don’t have many things. Mostly just keepsakes that remain boxed, and have not been unboxed for a few years now. Most of my time was spent getting familiar with the inner workings of my new home. Learning the little quirks that came with each new place. Learning that there was a second switch in the bathroom that controlled the on-demand hot water. That the back door latch just needed a bit of wiggling before unlatching. That the hallway light switch was wired in the reverse.
It was at least two weeks before I found a “quirk” in the house that was beyond my experience. The night of the storm. Lightning strikes had overloaded the system, and must have flipped several breakers. The basement light remained viable, and while I struggled to find the panel, I also found a small half door behind the water tank. Knowing full well that building codes would not allow any electrician to hide a panel behind a door like this, I located the panel and re-engaged the broken breakers, restoring power.
Before returning to the first floor, I could not help but to investigate the small door. At this point, I had already located the electric panel, city water intake, water heater, tank and softener. All the utilities were covered, so what was behind the door?
Opening it gave me very little information. After prying the door open, and breaking the corroded lock in the process, I found a hole. Nothing more. A dark dry hole, encased in rough hewn concrete blocks. Fetching my flashlight I found that the hole was actually more of a tunnel. At first it was enclosed in standard cement blocks, but after a few feet it looked like stone. Cut in long linear striations.
The thought of it kept me up at night. My mind continued to circle the reasons for its existence. A utility or service tunnel to the basement of the row home next door? A secondary basement? Perhaps holding some worthless but interesting artifacts? This was Philadelphia after all, perhaps it was meant to store illegal income of some sort stemming from the days of prohibition?
My career was slow, being the holiday season, and the mystery began to weigh upon me in the daytime even more than at night. So one Tuesday afternoon, I decided to grab my mag light and settle the mystery once and for all.
I wouldn’t say that the passageway was big enough for me to navigate, but in the end I did manage it without too many scrapes and cuts on my back and knees. Five feet in I found another hole, this time in the floor, if you could call it flooring, and a decrepit wooden ladder descending straight down.
I tried to envision the layout of my house thinking that I should rightfully be in the neighbor’s basement by now. But being that the trip back would be just as cobweb and rough on my knees as the way in, I decided to descend the ladder and get a definitive answer on what this tunnel actually led to.
At the bottom of the splintering but basically stable ladder, I found myself in a small circular room. It appeared quite old, and was partially burnt by a long ago fire, but otherwise looked like it had been designed and laid out with some level of care and attention. The walls were gorgeous oak wainscotting about four feet high, and above that was elegant patterned wallpaper, though decaying and burnt away alongside the charred walls, wood, and furniture on the left of the room. The line of fire damage stopped short of the room’s center, in which sat two wooden chairs facing one another and a solitary curtain track hanging from the ceiling between them.
The only other item of note was a small frame on the left hand side of the ladder. Beneath the dusty glass was a list of typewriter written items. They read as such:
- Sit and open the curtain after midnight, before dawn.
- If you see someone you recognize, close the curtain immediately.
- Never take anything they offer you.
I stood, reading and re-reading the three sentences attempting to make sense of them. The first was clear, but the other’s spoke of something I could not rightfully intuit.
In the end, my initial decision to explore did not quell my curiosity in the least. Nor did it help me sleep soundly. In fact, each time I fell away toward scattered thoughts and restful unconsciousness I would think of the room. The chairs, the curtain. And the instructions and rules. Then sit up in my bed trying to make sense of it all.
Whether due to sleeplessness, novelty, or obsession I returned to the room days later at night, and pulled the curtain shut before sitting in the chair closest to the ladder. The left half of the curtain was partially burned but it did fully obscure my view of the other seat.
As midnight approached I felt a shift in the air pressure of the room. I chalked this up to the cold Philly night taking hold and causing low pressure that sucked the air from the room into the frigid ground surrounding it. It felt like the light began to dim and I tapped at my small portable camping LED that I had brought down with me. It did not flicker, but the room remained a bit darker than when I had entered.
Soon the cold began to take hold and my knees began to ache. I checked my watch in hopes that I could lay this silly little experiment to rest and return to my warm bedroom for the night. It was midnight exactly, so I pulled the curtain open, inline with the instructions posted on the wall.
There was a woman in the chair facing me. Plain as day. Solid. There. She looked like she was in her late thirties and was dressed in an extremely thick woolen dress that looked more like a blanket than clothing. She had dark hair, darker eyes and both her face and eyes appeared weathered beyond her years.
“My daughter’s have you seen them?” She leaned forward, tears building alongside her frantic look of confusion. “Where are we? Do you have them? Dede and Erina?”
Her evident desperation shook me from my paralysis.
“No, I’ve not seen them. We are in a bunker. In Philadelphia. Who are you?”
“Pheela…? A bunker? Have the Lezhe found us? Even in the mountains?”
“I’m sorry… I. Who are you? What is your name? Where have you come from?”
“My daughters, I’ve hidden them in the mountains, by a spring. Oh no. We are far from there, aren’t we. We are far and I’ve lost them. I must find them, they are by a spring on the eastern slopes, help me find them please.”
The woman cried and begged, leaning over, moving to try to take my hands but then retracting hers, as if stung. She shot up from her chair and began to scream.
“I must find them. Let me go. Why I am speaking these strange words. I know what I mean… but what leaves my mouth… Please. Please help me find my girls before the Lezhe take them, corrupt them. Please help me.”
Her look. Her dress. Her strangeness spoke of history. Spoke of a time before ours and I began to catch on. Over time, trying to calm her I asked where she was from. Who was after her children. What the last thing she remembered was.
In the end, with a combination of her offerings and my strong grasp of history I determined that this woman, the one seated before my basement in Philadelphia in 2020, was born in Albania and had fled into the mountains to escape the Muzaka revolt in the 1400’s.
The evidence of my eyes and ears, while in direct opposition to everything I believed about life, humanity and consciousness was undeniable. I was speaking with a spirit. A poor dead woman who had tried to escape a war and had likely lost her children in the process, Just as I had lost my daughter. And hundreds of years later was still experiencing that terrible loss, even after she had lost her own life, her very existence.
I spoke with her for hours. After much convincing she finally began to understand what I was just beginning to accept myself. In the end she placed her face in her hands and cried for some time, lamenting the loss of her children, and then her form began to start to come apart. To dissipate. As if she were made of fog lit by a prism of colors that began to spread and fade away into the space around us.
I was in tears just as she had been, before finally finding myself in an empty chamber, aside from and beneath my new home. A place of strange power that could bring forth spirits that were unable to find rest. Dead men and women who were still grasping to life, holding onto the loves that they had lost long ago. Beings whose immense care chained them to restlessness, in a world where very few people could ever experience or accept their existence.
I had always been skeptical of this sort of thing. But I am not so closed off as to discard this very tangible experience.
After days of online research, visits to the library and then various small occult bookstores, I undertook a new mission. I learned that I had freed a soul that had been trapped and held from moving on, and I could likely do it again. Help others.
Over the next few months, I helped to free many souls. A young boy who had died in the suburbs of the United Kingdom during Germany’s bombing campaign. A father who had died in a flash flood in Virginia that had also taken his only son. A young woman who had been led to the top of a pyramidal structure in South American to give her life to Hun Ahau, a dark and demanding Mayan deity.
Sometimes it took almost until dawn, but each session ended the same. With the spirit accepting their demise, and peacefully dispersing, leaving me with a heart full of pride and a warm feeling that what I was accomplishing was well beyond any charitable act that anyone could possibly conceive.
That was, until I met Alex.
Alex was different from the start. Most spirits I had encountered began their sessions in disarray, confusion and desperation. Alex sat still, calm, and quiet. Taking me in. Taking in the space around us. Quietly examining everything, until I spoke first.
“Hello, I am David.”
“Hello David, I am Alex.” His eyes lock on mine. His voice was full of warmth, but his eyes seemed so… clear. Pointed and intense.
“Alex, do you know where you are? Do you know what is happening?”
“I do.” He coughed, and wheezed. “I am dead. I died in….” He bent over and began to retch and choke. “A fire. Died in…” The spasms overtook him.
“What is the last Christmas you remember? What year?” I had become somewhat skilled in getting background information from these spirits and played this by the book, though I was still writing that book.
“Can’t” he whispered, wheeled and shook. “Thirsty. Water.”
Alex’s eyes and face began to turn red as he struggled to catch his breath. His hands shot out and grasped the arms of the chair and his body twitched and twisted and he gasped for breath. His pain and discomfort was palpable.
Finally remembering that I had my pack, I reached down and handed him the bottle of water. After my second session I began bringing food and water with me. Some had been close to six hours long, and I had found that making sure I had some sustenance and comfort was the best way to ensure that I could endure them and complete my mission.
“Bread?” He gasped after drinking half the bottle of water in a long chug.
“I do. I do have bread”. I assured him. I had brought the makings for sandwiches as well, and handed him two slices which he devoured quickly, and then washed down with the remaining water.
“So Alex. What is the last Christmas you remember?”
He placed the bottle on the concrete floor, leaned in and stared deeply into my eyes as he spoke. “The last Christmas I remember. It was Twenty seventeen. I spent it with Alyssa. She was in her bed. A hospital bed in New Jersey, rotting from the inside. Corrupted and failing. Her beautiful blonde hair falling out in handfuls. I remember that I flinched at her smell. It was repulsive, and I was so ashamed. So ashamed to be so repulsed by the smell of my little girl.”
I inhaled sharply and gripped my seat. Those words. Alyssa. Those were not his memories, they were mine. Alyssa was my daughter. I was by her bedside at Christmas. I felt that…. That shame… the smell… it was… I froze, dumbfounded.
“But that is not my last memory thanks to you, David Walker. I will have many more like it. That makes me very happy, I can tell you. In fact, I’ll even let you stay and bear witness.”
At that, the man stood, walked around me, and climbed the ladder behind my chair.
What just happened? What was that? That was completely different from everything that had happened down here. Entirely alien. It soon fell upon me that I had made a fatal mistake. I had partaken in something that I did not fully comprehend. And I had done something I could not grasp. Something with untold consequences.
As soon as I could recover myself I rose, and with deep trepidation I approached the ladder to return to my home and think things over. Come up with a plan. Do more research. Something.
It was then that I finally saw it. The twin. The continuation. On the right side of the ladder, imprinted upon the scorch marks from the fire was an outline. Lighter than the burnt wall behind it. A rectangle. The exact same size and shape of the framed list of rules on the left of the entrance. Long ago destroyed in the fire. But without question displaying the remaining rules. Ones that I did not know. One of which I had clearly broken.