The Wrong Basement
by David Sakmyster
Mary plugged in her hair curler, and the lights in our master bathroom went out. Again.
“For Christ’s sake,” I muttered, trying to finish shaving the left side of my face. “Every damn morning.”
“I’ll go,” she offered.
“No, I’ve got it.” Lather still coating my right cheek, a thin line of blood dripping from my upper lip, I headed downstairs. Through the kitchen, stepping over the sleeping cat in her usual position on the cool tiled floor, I opened the basement door.
Flicked on the light. Walked down the ten steps, counting them like I always did. Habit. Six, seven, eight…
Okay, eleven. Twelve?
Odd. I turned, looked back up, sure I had miscounted somehow. Then I glanced to my left, toward the laundry room where the fusebox hung on the wall over the dryer –
Except, no laundry room. Just a stack of old cardboard boxes and what looked like toy chests hugging the cinderblock wall, a wall with some mildew stains on half the blocks. I glanced to the right, where my workout equipment and new LCD 20inch TV should have been – and saw instead a small alcove with a desk, a lamp and an old recliner.
Creaking on the floor upstairs. “Did you say something?”
“Mary? Where’s the damn fuse box?”
She grumbled, “Knew I should’ve come down. You always-“
Then she froze on the second step. “Where’s our carpeting?”
I looked up at her helplessly. The seconds dragged on. Finally, I asked the more pertinent question:
“Where’s our basement?”
Three hours after we had both called in sick, we had gone through most of the boxes. A dizzying array of clothes, apparently in a sequential aging order, with baby outfits and toddler attire all the way up to probably early high school. Definitely for a boy, lots of blue and brown, most with stains and torn knees.
“Horrid stuff,” Mary said at one point. She held up a pair of overalls – fiercely plaid, painfully bright. “I don’t even think Goodwill would take these. Cute, I suppose, but so out of fashion.”
The whole basement had a musty smell, definitely in need of a dehumidifier running on high for a couple weeks. Mold, mixed with the smell of dog, and I noticed a lot of yellow fur. Maybe a Lab, or one of those little terrier things.
But I quickly turned my attention back to the treasures I had discovered in the toy chest. First, there were army sets – those tiny painted metal figurines in various poses, still in their original boxes. Then, GI Joes, in perfect condition, never played with. Three of them. A couple vintage board games, a metal pop gun and about a dozen yo-yos.
As I searched, my eyes occasionally drifted over my right shoulder – to the unnerving sole decoration on the wall: a pair of boys’ crutches, little wooden things, hanging on nails like reminders of triumph over injury. Then I noticed something else, on a shelf by itself. An inhaler, a little plastic thing, out of place like it had been set there and forgotten.
We worked fiercely, like we were on the clock. Maybe we knew – or figured that we didn’t have much time. If this basement had just appeared overnight, replacing ours, it could happen again, maybe at any time; and I had a feeling we didn’t want to be in it when we shifted to wherever it belonged.
“Should we bring some of this stuff up?” Mary asked, but I ignored her because I had opened the last chest, nestled away behind the toybox. And I think I forgot to breathe for close to an entire minute.
This one was full, full of comic books. Action Comics, to be precise. Ordered sequentially backwards in three stacks, the latest being issue number 101, from October 1946, with Superman floating above an atomic bomb test, filming it for the papers.
I nimbly stroked the three piles, exposing covers, mindful of causing the slightest damage and convinced suddenly that the entire contents might turn to dust without warning, like a staked vampire exposed to sunlight.
Instead, my rising excitement only threatened to explode as each successively lower-numbered issue revealed itself. I was humbly kneeling before Mount Olympus, and yet – it felt like I was among old friends. I recognized every issue from a lifelong fascination with these glorious storybooks; I had studied their covers in price guides and online web sites, and once, at a comic book convention in Denver, I even had the pleasure of holding an AC #27 – Lex Luthor’s first appearance (although the book was only in fair condition and worth a paltry $1,500).
Mary had always mocked my childish interest in comics, even going so far as trying to sell off my meager collection – most of them from the seventies, and none worth any serious money; but still – the nerve to try to sell them for a dime each at our annual garage sale?
I won out and got to keep my stash only by appealing to her parental instinct: I was saving them for if we ever had boys, and if in that future era they might actually want to stimulate their imaginations with dashing superhero adventures and pulp-era dialogue instead of fancy playstations or whatever they’ll have by the time Mary and I ever get around to procreating.
But this …this collection was incredible. I kept paging down: number twenty, seventeen, fifteen, seeing dollar signs vault higher and higher in my mind. #10, with Superman punching a dive-bombing German plane; #7, December 1938, with Supes hauling some thug around by his foot while soaring over the city.
“God, please, please ….” I whispered, skimming past numbers five and four. “Three, two… Oh my…”
“What?” Mary asked, as I held it up like it was the Holy Grail: #1, from June, 1938. The Man of Steel slamming that green Studebaker into rock wall, glass shattering, tires flying, thugs running in terror.
“Mary – look, it doesn’t even have a slipcase, and it’s been seventy years… possibly all in this musty basement.”
I pulled my eyes away from the bulging biceps as. “So – it’s still in mint condition.”
She blinked at me.
“Honey, this … this collection is worth at least ….” I racked my brain. I had read through the price guide last month, just for fun, like I always did when the new guide came out “… two million?”
Mary continued blinking. “Dollars?”
She helped me carry the chest upstairs. Carefully, like she was carrying a tray of Tiffany China. I could tell the enormity of our discovery had finally sunk in.
Upstairs, the cat moved out of her favorite spot just before we stepped on her, and we gingerly set the chest down. Then, before I could think to stop her, Mary closed the basement door.
Immediately, she snapped her head around and looked at me. “Should I have-?”
“Open it,” I said.
She did. We both looked down.
“Oh boy,” she said.
I nodded, breathing heavily. “It’s gone.”
Once our own basement had returned, there was really nothing else to do. The moral choice no longer available to us. We couldn’t very well return the stuff, and legally …. I don’t know, it had all been in our house anyway, so was it really stealing?
In any case, there was nothing to do but buy one hundred and two plastic slip cases immediately, and spend the rest of the afternoon carefully encasing each of these treasures into protective custody. Deciding the excitement was over, and leaving me to my new obsession, Mary went back to work rather than lose an afternoon’s vacation. “I’m not counting these chickens,” she said, “until they’re hatched.”
I knew what that meant.
Once she was gone, and I had procured the bags, I first slipped on a pair of vinyl medical gloves. I didn’t want any oils, sweat or inadvertent fingernails to damage anything. Then I reverently perused the titles. Taking a quick, ever-so-slight glimpse at a few pages. Just to ensure the ink was still bright, and there were no torn pages or creases, missing back covers, that sort of thing. Then… into their cases they went. I moved the dining room table and chairs, and proceeded to lay out the issues. To see in totality what I’d found.
About a half hour later, I broke my trance. And I went to the price guide.
I was more than a little off. $4.8 million was the estimated value. But … if I could get them certified by one of the reputable collector guaranty companies – double that.
I sat on the floor, two feet from the start of the comics I had laid out so carefully. My pulse hadn’t come down yet. I didn’t give it a chance. I knew what I had to do.
Yes, I loved comics, and yes I was sitting amidst my dream, but this was different. My kids, if I ever had boys, wouldn’t be touching these things anyway, wouldn’t even set eyes on them until they were home from college and I opened up the safe and let them take a peek.
This was different, these were treasures never meant to reside in one place, especially with me. It was an honor to hold them once, to be in the same room, but that was all.
Now they could provide me–Mary and I–with exactly what we always dreamed of, a way out of the rat race. Into a bigger house. Hell, two houses, or three, in several states. Now we could start that family, and make it a big one. Pay off our debts, actually own another car.
It was a gift, the best ever.
I glanced to the basement door, walked over to it and checked downstairs.
I closed the door, smiled and headed for the computer. Called up my account on EBay, and got to work cataloging the collection and putting it out there. I created a new avatar for myself – a tiny framed image of Iron Man’s helmet: unbreakable and emotionless, and painted in gold.
If I didn’t get what I wanted on EBay, the next stop was the guaranty company, then dealers and auctions.
I smiled. Life was good.
Two days later, the bidding was still going strong for the remaining, most expensive issues. In the end, I had broken up the collection into twenty groups of five-issues each, setting the minimum bids at slightly under the mint-guaranteed graded amounts, and then seeing what happened.
Definitely a good strategy, as I had already pulled in more than I would have gotten otherwise, selling them piecemeal. I was left still with issues #1-5, which I hadn’t offered up yet, other than to reveal that they would be coming, after the public’s appetite could be stoked by the other sales.
I hadn’t received any of the money yet, as I had another two days before I needed to package and ship the issues, and I was so reluctant to do so …. I wanted to hold onto these treasures as long as possible.
Mary of course, had considered the sales as indication that our chickens had at last hatched. She quit her job, and she was out with her credit card going on a splurge. I would’ve joined her, but I didn’t want to leave the computer. The bidding was too exhilarating, the tension unbearable. I slept maybe two hours a night, hearing the beeps at all hours, those wonderfully-increasing bids.
On the morning of the day I planned to ship the first batch, and the morning I decided I wouldn’t part with number 1, not yet, I received a visitor.
Actually, Mary opened the door. Our cat lifted her head on the kitchen floor, meowed, then lay back down. I stepped over the feline and made my way to the door.
Standing on the stoop, with a slight lean on a hospital-issue walker, was an elderly man in a brown suit, a polka dotted black and red tie, and a tattered old hat like Clark Kent used to wear in the old Superman serials.
He grinned at us while he fumbled in his front suitcoat pocket for something, then finally retrieved it in a shaking, arthritic hand. He brought the little plastic inhaler to his lips and took a deep breath. When he exhaled I smelled mint leaves and juniper.
Then he grinned through his dentures and said, “I believe you have something of mine.”
As I helped him into a chair in our kitchen, Mary got the coffee pot ready, and I noticed her hands were shaking as badly as his. I revised my preliminary diagnosis of arthritis in favor of Alzheimer’s. Maybe that would be our salvation.
Mary opened the basement door, gingerly. “Need to go down and get a fresh can,” she said, and stepped over the cat to proceed downstairs.
“Hate cats,” the old man said as soon as he took a seat, giving our pet a vile look.
“Dog person?” I asked, before I even knew I said it.
He nodded. “Always. Had a golden as a kid, my one friend during a bad summer where I was laid up with a broken leg. Dogs are loyal, faithful. Content to be anywhere you are, no matter what you’re doing, even if you can’t do more than sit …” He coughed, a throaty, wet sound, then added, “… and read.”
I swallowed. Hard. In the corner of my eye, I saw Mary, coming up the stairs, holding a tin of Folgers in both hands like a weapon. Her eyes were glassy, shell-shocked.
“So,” I said, my voice cracking. “Mister-“
Light streamed in from our sliding glass doors, and dazzled off our visitor’s eyes – eyes that momentarily took on a boyish glean when he glanced into the living room – where my collection was still spread out on the floor.
The old man broke out in a smile, and before Mary could close the door, our visitor stood up, displaying a surprising vigor and all but ignoring his walker.
“I can’t believe it,” he whispered, and took a step – right onto the cat. She screeched, twisted and scrambled, and shook the old man’s balance. He toppled forward, staggered and tumbled through the basement door.
The sounds from the fall were not what I expected, given the soft, carpeted stairs. Crunching, hard slamming echoes of bones against wood, competing with the cat’s lurid screeching.
I dashed to the top of the stairs and looked down.
Mary was at my side an instant later, and we both stared at the impossible.
I shook my head, then started down toward the crumpled form at the bottom, with his leg at a painfully impossible angle. As I got closer, counting off steps eight through twelve in my head, I saw something even more impossible.
I was approaching a young boy.
Five minutes later I had him propped on the old recliner, carefully lifting his leg, shutting out his screams as I finally got it elevated. Then, the ice packs – one for the already-bruising leg after I used a scissors to cut off the pants leg, the other for the cut on his forehead.
The boy seemed to drift in and out of consciousness, and kept mumbling incoherent things. He moved his left hand over the side of the chair and made kissing noses and called, “Here Chelsea, come!”
And for just a moment, I thought the shadows in the back, near the wall, shifted ever so slightly, congealing as if slowly taking form and lightening, turning yellow, and I heard what sounded like excited panting.
Without thinking, I went to the wall and took down the crutches and set them against the right side of the recliner.
“What are you doing?” Mary had taken a seat on the fourth step down.
I ignored her, went to the bookshelf and grabbed the inhaler. I set it in the boy’s shirt pocket, the shirt that looked ridiculously big on him at first, but now seemed just right. And the suit coat … was gone, and the hat – the fedora had turned into a Yankees ball cap with a vintage logo.
The boy licked his lips, blinked and opened his eyes.
“Hi mister. Who are you?”
I shook my head. “Nobody. Are you in pain?”
He shrugged. “Just a little. I’m okay. Hey …do you have anything to drink? Maybe some lemonade?”
I glanced at Mary, then back to him. The mark on his forehead seemed better, not so dark, and his sweat had dried. “Sure, kid. Be right back.”
I turned. “Yes?”
“Mister, I think I might be down here awhile, but that’s ok. How about, if it’s not any trouble, I don’t know – got anything to read?”
I waited a while, and ignored Mary, who kept hissing at me, trying to get my attention.
“I’ll see,” I said. “I’ll see.”
At the top of the stairs, Mary spun on her heels. “Don’t even think about it.” She tried to get past me, to the door, meaning to slam it shut.
I kept myself between her and the door. Finally, weary of fending her off, I said, “I think you should go.”
She gave me a look as if I had just punched her. And in that look, I saw our future. There would be no kids, no new house, no happily ever after. We were done; there might not even be a tomorrow.
But I knew what I had to do.
“Why did this happen?” she whispered as she headed out. “Why? I just plugged in my hair curler, that’s all.”
I had no answer. I merely scooped up the cat, and handed it to her before I ushered her outside, then shut and locked the door behind her.
And about ten minutes later, I made my way down those twelve stairs, lugging the oak chest behind me, using the stairs as a ramp. I dragged the chest over to the recliner, and then went back up for the lemonade.
When I returned, the boy had the first issue in his hands, easing it out of the slipcase.
“Careful with those,” I said. “They might be worth something someday.”
He looked at me like I scolded him, but then nodded.
“Have you read those yet?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, feigning disinterest but barely able to contain the whirl of excitement in his eyes.
“Son, you’re in for a hell of a treat.”
Sometime near midnight, barely able to stay awake, I looked in on my guest one more time, saw him rapturously devouring the next issue as the stack of read comics had now grown larger than those unread.
“Good night,” I called down, to which he merely mumbled, “Uh-huh,” and went on reading.
My smile stayed with me long after I went up to the kitchen and closed the door.
In the morning, I opened the basement door and descended the ten steps, and stood amidst my barbells and my Soloflex and stared sadly at the twenty-inch screen hanging from the ceiling beam.
EBay banned me for life. All the orders were cancelled and irate bidders sent me so much hate mail that I had to terminate my email accounts; and as for my home address which apparently is easier to find than I would have thought – well that problem soon corrected itself. Mary and I tried to work it out over the next few months, but it was just no good. The basement had made us face things about each other that we couldn’t overcome. I’m convinced I did the right thing, but she never forgave me. I don’t bear her any ill-will, but I never felt the same way about her again.
She managed to get her job back while I lost mine; she kept the house in the suburbs, and I had to move into a low-rent city apartment, struggling every month to keep from being evicted.
Finally I found a part time job at a library, just above minimum wage, but at least I could still use their Internet connection. Desperate for money and resigned to the fact that there was no point in keeping my old comic collection, I put the whole thing up for bid on the Comic Book Guide’s website. I said goodbye to my old friends, to Captain America and Doctor Strange, to Iron Man and The Justice League, to The Flash and the X-Men and The Avengers, and all my heroes.
Three weeks went by without a single nibble. Nothing above my starting bid of a meager four hundred dollars.
Then, with only a couple hours left in the bidding period, and after I hadn’t even checked the site in days since I’d been reduced to two shifts a week in budget cutbacks, I looked again.
One and only bid. Not bad. $1,000. A little more than two dollars for each. I clicked on ‘view bidder’. Didn’t get any information other than a name – Superficionado#1.
Chuckling, I went back to the main screen and just then, another bid appeared. $3,000.
I gulped. The bidder: Krypton-lover#1. I narrowed my eyes.
Another bid – Superficionado#1’s counter:
A minute later, another beep.
And another $4,000 had been added from the lover of Krypton.
I sat back, bewildered. And for the next two hours, while I should have been re-shelving books, I watched in utter fascination as these two bidders duked it out.
Then the time expired and I sat there, breathless, staring at the final bid from Krypton-lover#1.
I blinked. Pinched myself.
Then saw a message pop-up from the winning bidder. I clicked it open.
Would like to meet, check out the merchandise in person. Tomorrow, the parking lot in front of Empire Comics on Merchants St. Noon.
I crossed my arms, suddenly thinking this had to be a joke. The bidder happened to be in town? I went back and clicked on ‘View Information on Bidder’, and saw nothing – no history, no rating. Nothing.
What knucklehead would possibly offer up such a price for a collection so obviously worth next to nothing?
But then I thought – what knucklehead wouldn’t at least show up tomorrow and take that chance?
So I arrived an hour early the next morning, under a weak yellow sun that glinted off the windows of Empire Comics, and I sat with my boxes in the back of my truck, like I was a kid again, waiting for my dad to come back from his errands. I read through a couple of my favorites while I waited. And waited.
Eventually, a polished black limo pulled up. Stopped in front of me.
The window unrolled. And an old face beamed at me from the shadows. The door opened and it took a moment to recognize him. The flimsy Hawaiian shirt, the khakis and sandals – and his bronzed leather skin were such a contrast to what I’d witnessed a few months ago.
He’d obviously been spending some time on an island, or a yacht.
He handed me a large envelope while his driver came out and relieved me of my last remaining cherished possessions.
The old man shook my hand, turned and took his seat inside the limo where he produced an inhaler and took a deep breath as the driver took him away.
I opened the envelope.
Inside was my check for a quarter-million.
And, still in its slipcase, Action Comics #1.
David Sakmyster is the award-winning author of over two dozen short stories and two novels, including from Variance Publishing THE MORPHEUS INITIATIVE, book one in a series about remote-viewers and psychic archaeologists searching for ancient mystical artifacts. In 2009 Dragon Moon Press published his epic historical fantasy tale, SILVER AND GOLD.
Story © 2009 David Sakmyster. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish