THE BASEMENT

Chapter 1. In the Basement

A child’s voice woke him. “She sang and she sang and she waited ‘til her belly broiled!” it shrilled. Feet clomped on the floor above him. Pieces of grit fell onto his upturned face and closed eyes. “We’ll go a-waltzing Matilda for free!”
It’s ‘his billy boiled,’ Demetrius thought indignantly, screwing his eyes more tightly shut. And Matilda goes waltzing ‘with me,’ not ‘for free.’
He drew in a breath of musty air and felt a sharp pain shoot through his ribs. Throbbing, stinging, and aching sensations buzzed throughout his body like a swarm of cicadas.
“Blame the jolly humpback…!” screeched the voice above his head. Off key, wrong words, he fumed, eyes still closed, recalling the college labor history course where he’d learned that “Waltzing Matilda” dated from a long-ago Australian sheep shearers’ strike. He pictured himself stretched out on the lush green lawn of the University of Maryland studying Principles of Horticulture, with Jane sitting beside him, her head bent over Wretched of the Earth. He tried to keep his woozy mind on that scene, but the cold, rough surface he was lying on refused to dissolve. With a sigh, he rubbed his eyes, opened them, and sat up.
In the dimness he saw a moldy stone wall stretching off to the left. Halfway along it was the door he remembered crashing through in the middle of the night. Now it was obviously daytime, but the bleary gray light gave no clue of the hour.
Demetrius stifled a groan as unwelcome memories flooded in: the helicopter roaring overhead as he dashed across the dark, overgrown yard toward the big house looming out of the shadows. The earth suddenly falling away, pitching him forward down a steep stairwell. His palm slamming against the doorknob he’d grabbed in a desperate attempt to break his fall. And his rush of disbelief when the knob turned, the door burst open, and he shot through it.
He had hurtled through blackness, crashing into object after hard noisy object, finally landing in a heap on a cold cement floor, head spinning not with stars but with red and blue police lights, searing white flashlights, and the watery orange lamps of the deserted streets he’d just fled through. Hunched in the dark, he had listened to the helicopter prowl like a frustrated tiger above the house. Eventually its noise had faded until he heard nothing but his own heart thudding in his ears.
As soon as he mastered his breathing and the urge to throw up, his mind ordered him out of there, before people came down to investigate. But his animal self remained motionless.
After an eternity he let his clenched muscles relax. The chopper’s roar must have covered the racket he’d made.
Demetrius crawled back over to the open door, edged it shut, and groped in slow motion among the obstacles littering the floor for a place to sit. His hands encountered a flat surface a few inches off the ground, hard as the floor but slightly less cold, being covered in what felt like thick paper. He dragged his aching body onto it and slumped over in exhaustion, his mind going dark as the air around him until—who knew how many hours later?—the sound of the child’s cheery squawking roused him.
Now Demetrius glanced down at his makeshift bed—a slab of hard material in a stiff paper sack lying flat on the floor—then craned his neck for a better look at his surroundings. Wincing at the crackle of the paper when he moved, he eyed a stairway to his right behind a tangle of pipes and held still to listen. The chill air was heavy and seemed full of low rumbles, like the sound effects in an old movie set on a submarine. But no voices or other threatening noises reached his ears, so he let out his breath and continued to gaze around the basement—what he could see of it in the murky light filtering through small dusty windows.
He spotted his duffel bag near some overturned boxes. Somehow he had kept hold of it as he plunged through the door and then lost his grip in the crash landing. With a suppressed grunt he hauled himself to his feet, picked his way over to the bag, disentangled it from among battered boxes and random junk, and retraced his steps in slow motion clutching the bag to his chest.
Inching past a rectangular object as big as a horse, he felt tempted to peek underneath the dingy cloth covering it, but the merest touch produced a cloud of mold-laden dust. “Don’t you get distracted, Tree!” his grandmother’s voice advised inside his head. Giving her a nod, he moved past the large object, set his duffel bag down on the floor, and collapsed once more onto his seat. Every molecule in his body was sore, but at least nothing seemed broken or sprained. No one had discovered him, nor—he shuddered at the thought—had any dog sniffed him out.
Again Demetrius heard the child’s tuneless voice overhead, happily garbling “Waltzing Matilda.” He grimaced in renewed annoyance, then let his eyes wander over the pipes twisting like jungle vines among the mildewed stone columns. He squinted through the gloom at the massive, corroded-looking beams shouldering the low ceiling. Vague shapes like crouching animals filled the cavernous space.
It was not a reassuring vista, but contemplating it allowed him to postpone, at least for a few moments, facing the mess he was in.

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