Thanks to the screaming crunch of the rusted handle, there was no hope of sneaking in through the bulkhead. The green paint had long since settled into the mossy, dented cover for the wooden steps that led to the cinderblock walls of the apple cellar. And once I had the strength to turn the handle without begging for my uncle’s help, it was my own private panic room, there to shield me from the older, local neighborhood kids who lived in my cousin’s town year-round.
About a week before school ended, half-way through June, my stomach would begin to contract and cramp, sending me running to the toilet to heave and retch into the bowl with futile effort. I had given up pleading not to be sent to New Hampshire every summer. Camps were too expensive, my parents said. Having acres of forest and fields and a lake to jump into would teach me self-reliance and fill my lungs with fresh air. My cousin’s family had a very different idea of parenting than my own parents; from sun-up until we could name every constellation in the summer sky, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. And so did everyone else.
The first year, it was everything my parents hoped it would be. At eight years old, I explored the lakeside for tiny fish and frogs and dragonflies. I climbed trees and dug up mushrooms to make meals for the fairies that I knew lived in the forests. I reached up to strip milkweed pods from their stalks and spent hours trying to separate each silky strand from its home. When my parents came to collect me on Labor Day, I cried bitter tears that mourned the prison of the New Jersey suburbs.
The second year’s joy didn’t last more than two days. I returned eager to find my old haunts and discover new adventures and playmates. Another year in school had built up my confidence, and I was excited to be a part of the older kids’ games of Capture the Flag and Sardines and Freeze Tag. My cousin, two years older, welcomed me with an intensity that I mistook for familial affection. What I didn’t know was that he wanted to be a part of the older kids’ games too, and I was to be the initiation rite.
The eighties were prime-time for stories of satanic rituals, usually involving babies or small children or unlucky, drunken men stumbling out of bars. The kids in my cousin’s town thought it all sounded like fun, and they had seen Rosemary’s Baby on someone’s Betamax, so they were experts.
Held down on a Star of David they thought was a pentagram, I was fed salads of dandelion heads mixed with water from the lake, and when someone was lucky enough to scoop up some of the tiny fish I had admired the summer before, I was told to swallow them, or else. My memories include daylight hours locked in a shed with a squirrel, spankings with wooden spoons, and having three or four of the teenagers stab my belly with forks. I remember something about being fed milkweed pods, but maybe I dreamt that. There was a burning amber drink that made my head swim and my throat burn – that was the opening ritual accompanied by Blue Oyster Cult, Billy Squier, or – strangely – Steve Winwood.
I took to hiding, from right after breakfast to when we were called in after dark. At first I’d climb a tree, armed with a Girl Scout canteen of water and a pocketful of Nilla Wafers. I peed in my pants, not caring how I’d explain the extra laundry. Later, I learned to overcome my fear of spiders and carpenter ants as I nested under the porch. They eventually found me there.
Finally, two long summers later, I discovered that I could open the bulkhead into the apple cellar on my own. And that was where I finally found some relief. It wasn’t that it was utterly safe, it was that no one could break in without warning. I could nap, read, write, daydream, knowing that the scream of the metal straining to turn the gears of the door would give me time to scuttle away or find a safe cave to back into.
What I didn’t count on, what had never occurred to me that summer that I turned twelve, was that the stairs leading from the house to the basement which led to the apple cellar would darken with a shadow taller than a teenager’s. When Labor Day dragged my parents back to collect me, my sun-starved complexion and scabbed over cuticles convinced them that New Hampshire summers were not as idyllic as they had hoped.
I never cried, and I never told.
This piece of fiction was written specifically for the speakeasy at yeah write. The image included was the prompt, combined with an idea that owes its birth to the Resilience prompt over at #30WriteNow challenge at Ms. Mary Mack. Check out more writers who blog and bloggers who write at yeah write.