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#146

Basement Modifier



                 Boyd had just gotten home from visiting his wife Simone at the hospital in Multioak when his phone rang. It was his fifteen-year-old granddaughter Cecily.

                “Hey, Grandpa,” she said. “I just got home and saw a note from mom and dad saying they’re gonna be at a convention all week. I don’t like being here alone, can I come stay with you and grandma in Dalcette until they get back?”

                “Your grandma’s not here,” said Boyd. “She’s in the hospital, Cecily, they don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

                “Oh no,” said Cecily. “That’s horrible. Is she OK?”

                “She seems fine to me,” said Boyd. “But she didn’t want me to tell anyone because she didn’t want anyone to worry.”

                “So my dad doesn’t know?”

                “You’re the only one who knows other than me,” said Boyd. “I haven’t heard from your dad in weeks.”

                “Well, if you come get me, I can go with you to visit grandma,” said Cecily.

                “No, she won’t want you to see her like that,” said Boyd. He paused. “Wait, did you say your parents left you alone for the week?”

                “Yeah,” said Cecily. “They went to another Forever Skyward convention. Usually I stay with Regina, but her parents said I can’t anymore. Not for a while, at least.”

                Boyd was disgusted with his son and daughter-in-law. He’d never been impressed with how fanatical they were about that ridiculous sci-fi show, but now their fandom was taking precedence over their own daughter. “Did you try calling your parents?” asked Boyd.

                “No,” said Cecily. “It won’t do any good. They turn their phones off when they go to the conventions so they can be more fully immersed.”

                “All right,” said Boyd, walking into his bedroom and retrieving the keys to his truck from his bedside stand. “I’m heading out the door right now, Cecily. Get your stuff together and I’ll be there in a couple hours.”

                As Boyd drove down the interstate through the early summer afternoon, he couldn’t help but feel that having Cecily at the house for the week would be good for him. He was disturbed by his son’s indifferent parenting, of course, but the thought of being alone in the house while Simone was stuck in the hospital filled him with dread. With Cecily around, there would be less risk of any long, morose silences falling over the home.

                Behind Boyd, a cold front bore down on the mass of warm air encompassing Dalcette. Enormous, dark clouds began to form. A pretty big storm was brewing.

 

                Cecily was all packed and waiting on the porch swing when Boyd pulled into the driveway of the house she usually shared with her parents. Another girl was there on the porch swing too. Both girls stood up when they saw Boyd. The other girl was taller and prettier and much more slender than Cecily. She looked to be at least a year or two older than Cecily too. She also had a suitcase with her.

                “This is my friend Regina,” said Cecily as Boyd walked up the front steps and picked up Cecily’s suitcase. “Is it OK if she stays with me at your house too, Grandpa?”

                “Well,” said Boyd. “Is it OK with her parents?” He was having a lot of trouble believing Regina was really Cecily’s friend.

                “Oh, yeah,” said Regina. “They don’t care if I go. They just said Cecily couldn’t come over to our place again. We stayed up too late talking and laughing every night last time and my dad says we kept waking him up.”

                “Grandpa doesn’t care about that,” said Cecily, grinning. “He always says he sleeps like statue. Right, Grandpa?”

                “That’s true,” said Boyd. “It takes more than that to disturb my sleep.” He was still suspicious of Regina’s relationship with his granddaughter, and he doubted his ability to keep a girl who looked like Regina entertained, but he picked up Regina’s suitcase too and carried both girls’ luggage to his truck.

                It didn’t take long to run into the rain on the way back to Dalcette. It came down in nearly-opaque sheets that made Boyd nervous as he focused on keeping the truck on the road. Cecily and Regina, however, did not seem nervous at all and their incessant chatter filled the cab of the truck. Boyd had given up on trying to make sense of the girls’ conversation almost immediately. He probably could have gotten the gist and made an effort to participate under normal circumstances, but he was far too distracted by the worsening weather and his concern for Simone, which hovered in the background at all times.

                “Are you girls hungry?” asked Boyd. “There’s food at the next exit.” Boyd wasn’t hungry, but he needed a break from the strain of driving through the storm.

                “I could eat,” said Regina.

                “I could eat too,” said Cecily.

 

                Many Tacos Large was not crowded. The restaurant had formerly been called Muchos Tacos Grandes, but the new owners had opted for a direct English translation.  Boyd, Cecily, and Regina sat at a corner booth and ate their tacos. The only other people in the restaurant were a man in his early thirties wearing headphones and snickering to himself and a young family eating only ice cream and remarking over and over on the intensity of the storm outside the giant, plate-glass windows.

                Regina stopped eating every few bites to look at her phone. Sometimes whatever she saw there would make her smirk, sometimes it would make her furrow her brow, sometimes she’d show Cecily the phone and Cecily would attempt to approximate Regina’s expression with her own. Boyd watched the interactions between his granddaughter and her friend carefully, looking for any sign of condescension or superiority from Regina. But he didn’t see any. They really did seem to be friends. Actual friends. Cecily was clearly taken with Regina, but Boyd hadn’t noticed Regina taking advantage of Cecily in any way. Still, it just made him uncomfortable. He would have been more at ease if Cecily had invited a stouter, plainer girl, someone more like the rest of the family. He had his wife’s health to worry about, he didn’t need to spend time worrying about how the prettiness of Cecily’s new friend was affecting her self-esteem. Boyd had been immensely relieved when Regina ordered three tacos compared to Cecily’s two. And Cecily had ordered first. Boyd had to stop thinking like this.

                “Eww,” said Regina, grimacing at whatever she saw on her phone.

                “Let me see,” said Cecily.

                “It’s weird,” said Regina. “Just warning you.” She showed the phone to Cecily.

                “Eww,” said Cecily. “What is that?”

                “Told you it was weird,” said Regina.

                Boyd was curious about what the girls were looking at, but he didn’t dare ask to see it. He did not want to embarrass Cecily by being too inquisitive in front of what was certainly her coolest friend. “Do you girls want to share the guest bedroom?” Boyd figured sleeping logistics was safe territory. “Or we can put one of you on the hide-a-bed couch in the basement?”

                “Can we both sleep in the basement together?” asked Regina. “I love basements.”

                “Sure, I suppose,” said Boyd. “But the bed in the guest room is a lot more comfortable.”

                “But if we’re in the basement we won’t keep you up if we’re, like, talking and laughing,” said Cecily.

                “Well, whatever you want,” said Boyd. “It makes no difference to me. And you can always move upstairs to the guest room whenever.”

                “We won’t want to move,” said Cecily. “Me and Regina love basements.”

                Boyd had never before heard Cecily mention any feelings about basements in general. And yet, here she was, loving basements just like Regina. It made him sad. “Looks like the storm’s letting up a little,” said Boyd. “We should hit the road.”

               

                The break in the storm had been short-lived and rain continued to fall as Boyd and the girls crossed into the Dalcette city limits. Pulling the truck into the driveway, the complete darkness of Boyd’s house’s every window struck him, forced him to again confront the fact that Simone wasn’t waiting in any of those rooms, she was still at the hospital. Boyd parked the car in the garage and carried both girls’ bags as they scampered into the house ahead of him. As Boyd set the bags down in the living room, he heard the girls hurrying down the hall to the basement stairs, thumping down the steps to the landing, and then the footsteps ceased and he heard Cecily call, “Grandpa! The basement’s flooded! It’s totally flooded!”

                Boyd looked at the couch. He wanted to sit down on it so badly. These last couple of days had really taken it out of him. He had so many things to contend with right now. He didn’t want to deal with yet another thing. Not something of the magnitude of a flooded basement.

                “Grandpa! Come look! It’s so deep!”

                “I’m coming!” shouted Boyd. He sat down on the couch and took several breaths, which he did not count, he just went with the number that felt right. Then he stood up again and went to survey the damage.

 

                Boyd stood on the landing halfway down the stairs and looked out over his flooded basement. The water was a good two feet deep, much worse than Boyd had expected. It had rained pretty hard, sure, but enough to cause something like this? There was a sump pump in the basement utility room, but Boyd hadn’t checked on it in he didn’t know how long. Boyd decided it must be broken.

                “Don’t touch the water,” said Boyd. “There might be electrical current running through it.”

                “Oh, gosh,” said Cecily. “I didn’t even think about that.”

                The brown-and-white cushions from the hide-a-bed couch floated on the surface of the water. A lone frog sat on top of one of the cushions, riding it like a raft.

                “Look at the frog,” said Regina. She began to laugh and Cecily joined her. Boyd chuckled a little too so as to not seem like a grump.

                The water had risen higher than the lowest two shelves on Boyd’s bookshelf, meaning all those paperbacks he’d enjoyed reading, or at least enjoyed having, were now sodden garbage. The cable box and DVD player were also under water, but the TV was still safe for now, although with the rain still pouring down outside, the TV probably wouldn’t last much longer. Boyd could not muster the energy required to save the surviving stuff in the basement from the flood. Even knowing how disgusted Simone would be with him if she knew he could have saved it and just didn’t wasn’t enough to motivate him.

                “This is so crazy,” said Regina, her smile both big and aggravating in its prettiness. “I didn’t even know basements could flood like this.”

                “Cecily,” said Boyd. “How tired are you girls?”

                “I’m not tired at all,” said Regina.

                “Me neither,” said Cecily.

                “I’ll tell you what,” said Boyd. “I’m worn out. But I’ll give you girls thirty bucks a piece if you’ll take a little while to try and rescue some of this stuff down here. I’ll shut the power to the basement off at the breaker box upstairs, and then you girls can use flashlights or we can run some extension cords and put some desk lamps on the landing here and you can wade out there and save the TV and some of my books and stuff. Would you be willing to help me out with that?”

                “Yeah!” said Regina. She seemed thrilled at the idea.

                “Sure, Grandpa,” said Cecily. “Of course.”

                “You don’t have to pay us,” said Regina. “It’ll be fun.”

                Cecily looked pained, but she nodded. “Yeah, Grandpa, we’ll just help you out.”

                “No,” said Boyd. “I’m paying you. No argument.”

                Cecily rolled her eyes like she was exasperated, but Boyd could tell she was pleased. Thirty bucks was probably nothing to Regina, but Boyd knew his son never gave Cecily anywhere close to that much money for any reason. He’d be surprised if Cecily even got thirty dollars worth of birthday gifts from her parents. Not that Boyd had 60 bucks to throw around, of course, but he hadn’t wanted the offer to seem pathetically small to Regina. And really, almost any amount seemed like a good deal to him as long as he didn’t have to wade around in his basement rescuing endangered stuff by desk-lamp-light. “Alright,” said Boyd, turning and heading up the stairs on weary feet attached to weary legs. “I’m gonna cut the power down here, then I’m gonna stick my hand in the water to check it out first, and then if it’s all clear, it’s all you.”

                “Let’s change into our swimsuits!” said Regina.

                “OK!” said Cecily, and they came racing up the stairs after Boyd.

                He did not understand their excitement, but he was grateful for it, so he wasn’t going to question it. He’d be dozing on the couch in the living room in mere minutes now.

 

                Mere minutes later, his right hand damp with basement water, Boyd was dozing on the couch in the living room. The last thing he’d heard before drifting off had been the giddy voices of Cecily and Regina in the basement, sloshing around and splashing each other, probably not doing a very good job of rescuing stuff, which was fine, Boyd just wanted to sleep and that was all.

                Boyd dreamt about his dumb son and his son’s dumb wife at their dumb convention. In the dream, they were standing in a long line for an autograph from some actor who’d had one tiny role in one obscure episode of Forever Skyward. Boyd kept waiting for something bad to happen, but nothing did. It was just like he was invisibly standing in line with them. He couldn’t believe they’d abandoned their daughter for a week with no prior notice for this.

                Boyd woke up to a shrill scream, shouting, splashing, footsteps pounding up the basement stairs.

                “Something touched me! My leg!” Boyd couldn’t tell if the voice belonged to Cecily or Regina. He got up from the couch too fast and hurt his knee. And his back. Both knees, really. Cecily came running into the living room, soaked from head to toe, leaving a wet trail on the carpet behind her.

                “What’s going on?” asked Boyd. “What happened?”      

                “I was carrying some books from your shelf to the landing,” said Cecily. “And something in the water touched my leg!”

                “It was probably just some more stuff in the water, Cecily.” Boyd hugged her, even though she was wet. Her wet skin and swimsuit dampened and darkened Boyd’s clothes at every point of contact.

                “It wasn’t just some stuff in the water,” said Cecily. “It touched me. It tried to touch me and it did. It wanted to touch me.”

                Boyd didn’t know how to argue against this other than to point out its base-level ridiculousness, a strategy he figured would offend Cecily, so he just said, “Where’s Regina?”

                “I don’t know,” said Cecily, stepping back out of Boyd’s embrace, calming down. “I thought she was right behind me. She helped me up when I fell in the water, but then I just ran. I thought she was following.” She turned and walked back down the hall toward the basement stairs. “Regina?”

                “I’m down here!” called Regina. “I’m trying to see whatever it was that touched you. But I don’t see anything moving.” She sounded disappointed.

                “Just come up,” said Cecily, her voice shaky. She held onto the doorframe at the top of the basement stairs, her toes barely protruding over the edge of the step.

                Boyd stood behind his granddaughter and looked over her head and down the stairs to where Regina stood on the landing, holding the desk lamp aloft with her left hand and playing the beam of her flashlight back and forth across the surface of the water with her right hand.

                “I’m serious,” said Cecily. “Please come up, Regina. Please.”

                “How big did it feel?” asked Regina. “Did it just brush against you or did it feel like it actually, like, grabbed you?”

                Cecily made a strange sound, turned, and pushed her way past Boyd, leaving him alone at the top of the basement stairs. Boyd wanted to tell Regina to come up, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it and he didn’t know why. He didn’t think Regina was even aware that he was still standing there until she said, “Come down here and tell me if you see anything.”

                Boyd went down two steps and then stopped. “It may have been some kind of water snake,” he said. “Or a frog like the one floating on the cushion.”

                “I don’t think so,” said Regina. Then she looked up at Boyd, her face eerie in the light from the desk lamp. “Should I bring the light up or leave it here on the landing?”

                Boyd pondered the question. Outside, the rain had stopped, meaning the water in the basement should start seeping back out from wherever it had come in. “Better bring the lantern up,” said Boyd. “In case the water keeps rising.”

 

                The next morning, Boyd went to Multioak to visit Simone in the hospital before the girls were awake. He did not tell Simone about the flooded basement. He’d checked on it right after he woke up and the water hadn’t risen, but it didn’t look like it had receded any either.

                “Cecily really wants to visit you while she’s here,” said Boyd, seated next to his wife’s hospital bed, drinking a can of pop.

                “No,” said Simone. “I told you I don’t want anyone else seeing me like this. I’m upset that she even found out I’m here.” Her head was propped up by two pillows. Her long, silver hair hung down in front of both of her shoulders.

                “But you look fine,” said Boyd. “You look totally normal except for the gown.”

                “It’s the context,” said Simone. “If Cecily comes and sees me here, she’ll think, ‘Oh, Grandma looks good this time, but it won’t be long before I’m seeing her here again, this is a sobering reminder of how close she is to the end, I need to cherish every moment with her!’”

                Boyd laughed. “Well, it’s not like she can’t think that stuff without seeing you. Just hearing that you’re here without being allowed to see you probably makes it worse.”

                “But I don’t have to see her seeing me like that,” said Simone. “That makes all the difference. Now go buy me a can of pop too. The doctor said I can’t have any, so we have to be sneaky.”

                “What kind do you want?” asked Boyd.

                “What you’re having,” said Simone.

                When Boyd returned with the can of pop for his wife, he cracked it open and handed it to her.

                “Thanks,” said Simone. “The doctor didn’t actually say I can’t have any. I just wanted to see if you’d do it.”

                “Well, I did it,” said Boyd. “Does that mean I passed the test or failed it?”

                “Oh, I don’t know,” said Simone. “I guess we’ll see if it kills me or not.”

                Boyd went through the drive-through at Newsworthy Burger on the way home from the hospital to pick up lunch for him and the girls. This turned out to be a grave error when the car in front of him sat at the pick-up window for twenty minutes trying to get the correct order. By the time Boyd pulled up to the pick-up window, he was too eager to get away to bother to check his order, which was another grave error because when he got home and opened the bag, instead of the three cheeseburger value meals, there were five hamburger patties on a bed of cold fries and also a pair of tongs which did not look at all sanitary. Boyd threw out all the Newsworthy Burger stuff and put a frozen pizza in the oven.

                Cecily and Regina lounged around the living room in the shorts and t-shirts they’d worn to bed.

                “How was the guest bedroom?” asked Boyd. “Sleep all right?”

                “Regina did,” said Cecily. “I was still too freaked out.”

                “Well, you don’t have to go down there anymore,” said Boyd. “I shouldn’t have had you do it, I was just so tired. But I’m feeling better today, I’m sure I can handle whatever needs to be taken care of down there.”

                “I’ll still help you,” said Regina. “I don’t mind. I want to.”

                “No, no,” said Boyd. “You’re a guest, you’re just here to hang out with Cecily.”

                “She can do what she wants,” said Cecily, turning in her chair to gaze out of the front window with an air of drama.

                “You can help me with the TV, Regina,” said Boyd, shooting a guilty look at his granddaughter. “After lunch. That’s more of a two-person job. And my back isn’t in the best shape. But once that’s taken care of, there’s really no need for anyone to be down there until the water drains out.” That reminded him that he needed to do something about the sump pump. Call a plumber or something. Maybe ask a friend to recommend a good sump-pump-repairing plumber.

                “OK,” said Regina, her voice bright. “After lunch, I’ll help you with the TV.”

                “It’ll only take a couple minutes,” said Boyd, more to Cecily than to Regina.

                Cecily didn’t say anything. The early afternoon sun shone through the window and onto her round, solemn face. The sunlight reached down and touched her face, but not in a purposeful, personal way. They just both happened to be in the same place at the same time and meaningless contact was made.

 

                Boyd and Regina didn’t need the desk lamps or the flashlights. Boyd had recently installed a new egress window in the corner of the basement and it let in enough daylight to give the basement a dusty, dusky look. The water was murky and gray and Boyd couldn’t see past the surface. He shuffled his feet as he walked through the water so he wouldn’t trip. He was still wearing his jeans, but he’d changed into the shoes he wore to mow the lawn and he wasn’t wearing any socks. Regina wore the shorts and t-shirt she’d worn to bed, although she’d slipped on a pair of flip-flops before stepping into the water. Cecily was still upstairs, refusing to even watch the TV retrieval.

                The basement TV was old and boxy. Not too heavy, but awkward and difficult to grip. Boyd led the way back to the stairs from the entertainment center, taking tentative backward steps so that Regina could walk facing forward. He also felt like he was bearing most of the weight, but that was fine, he was glad to have Regina’s help, he could tell he wouldn’t have been able to manage without her. He wished that she would stay more focused on the task at hand, though. She kept looking around, peering down at the water, trying to spot something. Boyd assumed she was still hoping to catch glimpse of whatever had touched Cecily’s leg the night before.

                Upstairs, the phone began to ring. It was the landline, which was abnormal. It occurred to Boyd that it might be the hospital, that they might be calling about Simone. He and Regina stopped, standing in the middle of the basement and clutching the TV with sweaty hands, water up past their knees.

                “Cecily!” shouted Boyd. “Will you answer the phone?”

                Boyd heard Cecily’s footsteps moving from the living room to the kitchen, the ringing stopped, and then a few moments later, he heard Cecily walking from the kitchen and down the hall to the top of the basement stairs. “Grandpa? The phone’s for you.”

                “I can’t get it right now,” said Boyd, nodding at Regina and beginning to back his way toward the stairs again. “Can you tell them to wait? Who is it?”

                “It’s somebody named Tom,” said Cecily. “I don’t know what it’s about.”

                “Just bring the phone down and set it there on the landing,” said Boyd. “I can’t do anything until we set this TV down.”He heard Cecily sigh and then begin to descend the steps. He couldn’t see her since his back was to her, but he saw Regina smile at her and say, “This is heavier than it looks, it’s a good thing you and me didn’t try to carry it last night.”

                “I’m just setting the phone right here on the landing, Grandpa,” said Cecily. “Up against the wall.”

                “Thank you,” said Boyd. “Can you tell Tom I’ll be there in just a-”

                His request was cut off by Cecily’s shout. “I see it! It’s swimming, I see it in the water!”

                Regina immediately let go of her end of the TV and it toppled out of Boyd’s hands and into the water with a loud splash. Regina whirled around, looking in all directions. “Where? Where is it, Cecily?”

                Boyd didn’t know what Cecily was talking about, but the note of terror in her shouts frightened him. He turned and hurried toward the stairs, lifting his sore knees as high as he could, the water sloshing up around his thighs.

                “It’s there!” yelled Cecily. “It’s right there, Regina, get out! Get out of the water!”

                Boyd grabbed the handrail and steadied himself as he mounted the stairs to the landing, his soaked jeans clinging to his legs, dirty water seeping out of the holes in his shoes. He stood next to Cecily, his chest heaving as he fought for breath, and tried to see what she was seeing down in the water, looked for a shape, a ripple, something. And then he did see something. A shadow of indeterminate size in the water, swimming along the edge of the main room toward the open door leading into the dark utility room.

                Cecily saw him see it. “I told you, Grandpa! That’s not a frog!”

                “Regina,” said Boyd. “Get out of the water, come on. Neither of you can come down here anymore until we figure out what’s going on.”

                Regina stood in the water, breathing hard, wild-eyed. “You saw it too? You both saw it?”

                “No,” said Boyd. “But we dropped the TV, there’s no reason to be down here anymore until the water goes down.”

                “You saw something swimming,” said Regina, making her way to the stairs. “I know you did.”

                “I think the pizza’s ready,” said Boyd. He remembered the phone, stooped to pick it up. “Hello?” Tom was not there.

 

                That afternoon, Boyd was going to call someone about fixing the sump pump or finding some other way to get the water out of the basement, but then the hospital called and said Simone was struggling and wanted him to come see her. Boyd left the girls with instructions to stay out of the basement and some money so they could walk to the convenience store and get food in case he wasn’t home in time to feed them dinner. He told them he might end up staying at the hospital overnight too, depending on how Simone was doing. Cecily didn’t want to stay in the house overnight without him there.

                “It’s a fish,” said Boyd. “Or a beaver. Or, I don’t know, maybe someone flushed a baby alligator and now it’s grown up and it found its way into our basement.”

                “It’s not that,” said Cecily. “And you know it, Grandpa.”

                “I still haven’t seen it,” said Regina.

                “Actually, I don’t know that it’s not an alligator,” said Boyd. “I know almost nothing about it. But I know that whatever it is, it’s in the water in the basement, so if you stay out of the water in the basement, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s a simple solution, Cecily. Just stay up here and there’s no reason to even think about it.”

At the hospital, Simone didn’t seem sicker and the doctor didn’t say her health had worsened, but she was more scared, for some reason. She wouldn’t say why. Boyd thought she was probably just fed up with no one being able to figure out what was wrong with her. Boyd did not tell Simone about the flooded basement. He didn’t know what he’d say about it even if he wanted to tell her. At 9 o’clock, Boyd decided to stay the night, so he called Cecily and told her he wouldn’t be home until the next day.

                Boyd stayed in Simone’s room all night, except for a few bleary-eyed trips to the restroom, dozing in the chair next to her bed until she woke up at 10 in the morning. Then he ate breakfast with her and spent a while trying to convince her that she was OK and he was OK and their son was OK, except for a lot of his life choices, and Cecily was OK and she really wanted to come visit, she wanted to see her grandma. Simone wasn’t persuaded by any of it, but she eventually acknowledged that Boyd should probably go home and check on the girls.

                When Boyd arrived back at the house, there was an unfamiliar red car in the driveway. Inside, Cecily was sitting on the couch in the living room, glaring at the TV, the volume turned way up. She looked scared, exhausted, angry. When she saw Boyd, she used the remote to mute the TV. “I thought they were just coming to hang out, Grandpa, I swear. I thought we were just gonna watch movies all night.”

                “What’s going on?” asked Boyd. “Who’s here?”

                “Barry and Forrest,” said Cecily. “They’re in the basement with Regina, trying to get rid of whatever that thing in the water is.”

                “Who are Barry and Forrest?” asked Boyd, his temper rising. “Why are they here?”

                “They’re just friends of ours from home,” said Cecily. “We called them after you called and said you were staying the night at the hospital, so they drove down to hang out with us ‘cause we were kind of freaked out by everything, but then when they got here, Regina told them about the thing in the basement and they got all obsessed with it. And then…” she trailed off.

                “And then what?” asked Boyd, looking around the living room for evidence of some kind of disaster.

                “Well, I didn’t want to seem like a scaredy-cat,” said Cecily. “And with them here, I really wasn’t as scared. So we all went down to the basement late last night, and we had the flashlights and the desk lamps and everything. And we were all standing there on the landing and we heard something splash in the utility room, a big splash, and we saw the ripples coming out…Grandpa, I can’t explain it.”

                “What happened?” asked Boyd. “Are you hurt? Did something happen to you?”

                “No, I’m still the same,” said Cecily. She sounded frustrated. She put her head in her hands but she definitely wasn’t crying. She was just looking down at the carpet.

                Boyd wondered if he was being stupid. Was he missing something? Was he missing everything? He left Cecily on the couch and headed for the basement door, which was standing open. He heard voices from the basement. He was not looking forward to this. He was about to confront three potentially hostile teenagers and he was fat and old, this was yet another thing he shouldn’t have to deal with while his wife was in the hospital and his son was being a fool.

                Boyd didn’t even make it to the landing before he stopped on the stairs, struggling to process what he was seeing. There was a rope tied to the handrail. At the other end of the rope, floating in the middle of the basement, was an inflatable, yellow raft with two teenage boys in it, both of them brandishing four-foot-long metal rods, the tips of which were filed to sharp points. Regina stood on the landing, letting the rope feed through her hands as one of the boys used his homemade spear to push off of the basement floor and propel the raft closer to the utility room door.

                “What is this?” asked Boyd. But he knew what it was, the thought progression was pretty clear. “I told you not to come down here, Regina. This is my house and I said to stay out of the basement. Where did that raft come from?”

                Regina turned to look up at Boyd and the boys stopped propelling the raft toward the utility room, drifting in silence as they watched Boyd too. “Did Cecily tell you what happened last night?” asked Regina. “Did she tell everything?”

                “She said she couldn’t explain it.”

                “It’s only interested in her,” said Regina. “That’s why it only swims out of the utility room when she’s around. It’s trying to modify her, that’s all it cares about!”

                Boyd stared at Regina. He could only say, “What?”

                “We all saw it!” said Regina. “Barry, Forrest, tell him.”

                The boys both nodded from the raft, their simultaneous nodding causing the raft to bob in the water. One of the boys had his spear resting on his shoulder like he was a weary soldier, a pose he could not have earned. “We saw it, sir, it came right up to your granddaugher, it reared up out of the water. I didn’t hear it say anything, but Cecily seemed sure. ‘Modify,’ that’s what she says it wants to do to her.”

                Boyd was not one of those old men who can be charmed simply by being called “sir.”

                “And you’re trying to kill it?” asked Boyd. “This thing?”

                “We don’t want Cecily to be modified,” said Regina. “We want to keep her the way she is, how everyone loves her.”

                Boyd knew he had no hope of catching up now, no hope of grasping any of this. The scary thing was that it didn’t even sound like a youth thing, it didn’t sound like some cultural movement he’d missed out on. It didn’t sound like it had anything to do with computers. Boyd was good with computers. The one thing that struck him was the fact that Regina seemed to genuinely care for Cecily. Whatever Regina was doing, whatever the boys were doing, they were doing it for Cecily. Boyd’s granddaughter was important to them, somehow. Boyd knew why he loved Cecily, but he still couldn’t quite grasp why Regina and these boys would care this much about her, and that made him feel guilty. And it made him feel sad that he couldn’t see her how they did, that he wouldn’t understand it even if they explained, probably. There was so much about this situation, and just everything, that was beyond him. Not to mention Simone’s situation. And his son’s situation. He couldn’t even fix his own sump pump, probably. “And where did you get the raft?” he asked.

                “We bought it this morning,” said Regina. “We’re gonna return it when we’re done with it and say it had a hole in it and wouldn’t stay inflated.”

                “Don’t go in the utility room,” said Boyd, turning to head back up the stairs. “I’m serious.” His shoulders felt heavy as he returned to the living room, finding Cecily still on the couch, but flopped sideways on it with her head on the armrest.

                “I talked to your friends,” said Boyd.

                “What did they say?” asked Cecily.

                “Well, to be honest, I couldn’t make any sense of it,” said Boyd. “But I agree with them, Cecily, you don’t need to be ‘modified,’ whatever that means, you’re fine just how you are.”

                “But what if I want to be modified, Grandpa? I knew it wanted me and it scared me, but I kept finding reasons to go back. I went down in the basement by myself twice the first night while you and Regina were asleep, isn’t that messed up?”

                “Wait,” said Boyd. “Is this about puberty?”

                “Grandpa, I went through puberty two years ago, this is bigger than that, I think this would be like one of those awakening things.”

                “Oh, Cecily, you don’t need one of those,” said Boyd. “You should have heard what your friends were just saying about you. They like you how you are.”

                “I know,” said Cecily, sighing. “I don’t get it.”

                Boyd didn’t want to admit that he didn’t exactly get it either. He preferred to just be grateful for it, even if it didn’t make sense. Especially if it didn’t make sense.

                “Sir?”

                Boyd turned around to see the boys standing there, Forrest and Barry, he still didn’t know which was which. He’d been too focused on his conversation with Cecily to hear them come up the stairs and down the hall.

                “Yes?” said Boyd. “You don’t have to call me sir.”

                “OK,” said one of the boys. “Well, I think we fixed your sump pump. It was just unplugged. We went into the utility room on the raft and we didn’t see that thing, but we had our flashlights and we saw the sump pump plug was, like, most of the way out of the outlet up high on the wall there, so we just pushed it back in. If you turn the power back on, I think it’ll start working again.”

                “Oh,” said Boyd. “Well, thank you, but I told you not to go into the utility room.”

                “We know,” said the other boy. “But we did it for Cecily.” Both boys smiled over at Cecily on the couch and Boyd was shocked to see that the smile Cecily returned to them was nothing if not condescending.

               

                Boyd turned the power to the basement back on. The sump pump sputtered to life. The water receded slowly, inching its way down the basement walls while Boyd, Cecily, Regina, Barry, and Forrest ate Newsworthy Burger value meals in the kitchen. By ordering eight value meals, they had been able to scrape together five meals worth of edible food, which wasn’t bad considering how cheap everything was. The lunch discussion seemed like normal teenager talk to Boyd. There was no mention of the thing in the water in the basement, no mention of monstrous entities bent on modifying his granddaughter. But the dynamic seemed different to Boyd, he noticed that the other kids all seemed to defer to Cecily. At one point, Regina pulled out her phone to show something on it to Cecily, and Boyd clearly saw how eager Regina was for Cecily’s approval, how relieved she was when she got it.

                And then it was time to check the basement. Boyd led the way down the stairs, the teenagers following him in a line: Cecily then Regina then the boys. Boyd was surprised by how normal everything looked. He could see that the books on the lower bookshelves were warped and that the cable box had been reduced to a dead hunk of plastic, and the couch cushions had come to rest in the middle of the floor as the water had disappeared from beneath them, but other than that, the basement just looked like his basement. The carpet squelched under Boyd’s feet as he walked through the main room to the dark utility room, where he reached inside and flipped the switch.

                And there, lying on the damp cement floor, was a thing, maybe two feet long, amorphous, pale and inert. The teenagers followed Boyd into the utility room, fanning out as they entered, forming a half circle around the thing. None of them seemed surprised to see it. Boyd waited for one of them to say something, but none of them did.

                “Is that it?” asked Boyd. “Is that what you saw, Cecily?”

                “I guess,” said Cecily.

                Boyd was baffled. That pathetic lump didn’t seem capable of modifying anything, certainly not in a way that someone might consider an awakening. Boyd walked over to it and flipped it with the toe of his shoe. He didn’t know what he was expecting. Maybe a face of some kind, a penetrating eye or two. But no, its spindly appendages, if that’s what they were, just flopped over onto the cement. Boyd looked at Cecily out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t read her face. Was this really what she found so frightening and seductive? Was this really what Regina and the boys felt the need to protect his granddaughter from? This thing that just shriveled up and died when a sump pump got plugged back in?

                “Well, OK, then,” said Boyd, stooping to pick up the thing with his bare hands. It was not very heavy, but it was slippery. “Come on, everyone.” He turned and headed back out of the utility room toward the stairs, holding the thing out away from his body with both hands. “We’re going to the hospital to see Cecily’s grandma.”

                “All of us?” asked Cecily.

                “Yep,” said Boyd. “Everyone.”

                Boyd drove his truck while the kids followed in the boys’ car. Halfway to the hospital, out in the country between Dalcette and Multioak, Boyd stopped his truck along the side of the road, scooped the thing out of the bed of his truck, and tossed it into a sunny bean field.




Discussion Questions

  • Explain how a sump pump works in a way that a child or a man who is not handy could understand.



  • What’s the difference between a pedestal sump pump and a submersible sump pump? Use beautiful metaphors in your answer, please, to keep your answer from becoming too dull and technical.



  • When I was very young, I saw a frog riding on a bamboo mat floating on the surface of the water in our flooded basement. Do you believe me?



  • Did you know not to wade into the water in your flooded basement without first turning off the electrical power to your basement? If not and you’ve been electrocuted before, was that how you got electrocuted?



  • How did people get water out of their basements before sump pumps? How did people get water out of their basements before buckets? How did people get water out of their basements before they knew it was definitely not a good idea to drink that water?



  • Would you let a thing modify you? Or are you happy to live the rest of your life unmodified? Or would it depend on what the thing was?