I was terrified of Alex Schlovsky. I could feel my stomach clench and a cold sensation creeping up the back of my neck just at the sight of him—and that was before he held us captive in the secret compartment under the stairs.

Alex’s dad was always at work. I never saw him. He must have worked long hours or had two jobs or something. But, I swore if I ever did see his dad, I’d tell him what Alex made us do. I never saw Alex’s mom either. But, I could hear her upstairs while Alex had us locked in the cabinet with him. I could even hear her footsteps on the stairs just above us.

It seemed like Alex lived by himself in that house. My mom used to see him wandering around by himself at age three in a diaper. He was a couple years younger than we were. His house backed up to the woods that we walked through to get to the creek. He never played with us—a group of us ages seven to ten, landing in one kid’s house or another’s until we wore out our welcome. But, not Alex. He just appeared at the edge of the woods or sat alone on the curb tapping a stick in the gutter or brandishing it in the air like a sword. Sometimes he’d roll a ball across the street and ask us to bring it to him. He was only six years old then and not allowed to cross the street apparently. He was a handsome kid with tanned skin and white blonde hair dressed always in cut-off jean shorts. He never wore a shirt or shoes. A lot of the time, his feet were caked in dried mud from walking through the frequent puddles in his front yard. He spent a lot of time creating rivers in his yard with the hose.

Since he wasn’t allowed across the street, where we all lived, he’d pace up and down the sidewalk on his side of the street waiting for one of us to come outside. I always made sure to look out the window before I went outside. My mom said he was a bad seed and the best thing to do was to avoid him.

That’s not what happened that spring day when Angela and I were playing in her front yard and Alex appeared out in front of his house where he sat on the curb and tapped his stick in the gutter and watched us and then dragged his stick back and forth along the sewer grate.

Angela and I had been playing Chutes and Ladders on the sidewalk in front of her house. This was my least favorite game, and to me kind of pointless, and I was only playing the game for the companionship. We ate Lemon Coolers and drank lemonade. The weather was a little cloudy and we sat on the sidewalk in from of Angela’s house under the tree that occasionally dropped tiny red seed pods onto the game board when a breeze would blow.

I don’t remember where everyone else was that day or why it was just Angela and me at her house playing a civilized game of Chutes and Ladders on the sidewalk in front of her house while eating cookies. It felt surreal and almost like I was watching myself – like an out-of-body experience. That’s when I felt that cold chill run up my spine. I thought maybe a spirit had passed through me or something and I froze. I wondered if it was God giving me a calling like the nuns had talked about in school that spring. I had read the life story of Saint Bernadette four times that year from the school library until Sister Ann told me I couldn’t take that book out anymore. But it was too late. I was already convinced that someday soon, God was going to call me to sainthood and my fun was going to be over.

But not today, I pleaded. I’m sitting here with cookies and Chutes and Ladders and Angela and we were minding our own business. I didn’t want to turn my head. That was when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. I looked automatically unable to maintain the frozen stillness of camouflage and safety. Once my head turned, my eyes met not a spirit, but a round red object in its attempt to scale the ascending gutter toward our Chutes and Ladders game. It was Alex’s red ball and when my eyes followed the path across the street they met with Alex’s dirt caked feet on the other side. His dirty knees led to the loose strings of his cut-off jean shorts, his tan skin and his green eyes and white blonde hair.

Trapped in a trance and unable to look back at Chutes and Ladders, I mouthed Angela’s name in a hoarse whisper because I seemed to have swallowed my voice as my stomach clenched in a new twisted way. I was still staring at Alex when Angela picked up the ball and walked across the street toward Alex. Angela returned quickly saying, “C’mon, Emily. Alex wants to show us something.” My heart dropped into my clenched stomach and I hedged telling Angela that I’d probably have to go home soon.

“It’ll only take a second,” Angela reasoned.

I clung to my hedging-strategy by reminding Angela that we needed to pick up Chutes and Ladders from the sidewalk so we wouldn’t get in trouble. Carefully, I began stacking the cards one by one, but Angela scooped them all up and our game pieces and plopped then in the game box, folding and dropping the board on top of them and gesturing for me to put the lid on the box. Angela grabbed my hand and pulled me across the street to where Alex was standing.
Crossing the street from in front of Angela’s house, her pulling me along by the hand, I wanted nothing more than to pull away, dig my heels in, turn and run. But, I followed along, a compliant friend. Alex stood waiting, no expression on his sweet face, but a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes…and something else. Something that made my stomach clench even tighter and constrict and hurt.

We walked along the sidewalk to Alex’s house. Inside was dark and silent. Why was his house so dark and quiet? He left us near the door while he walked up the stairs to the kitchen. It fascinated me that some houses in our neighborhood had kitchens upstairs on the second floor. Peering up the stairs, I saw that the kitchen was just as dark and silent as the living room where Angela and I stood awaiting some uncertain and dooming fate.

As Alex descended the stairs, I could hear something clacking in his hands. He said nothing, but opened a large cabinet door and gestured for us to climb inside. Angela stepped up and crawled inside, holding my wrist and dragging me behind her. My clenched stomach began to twist and churn with an urgent message that I continued to unwillingly ignore out of pure fear. Alex climbed up behind us and pulled a long chain from above and a dim light bulb provided some illumination, but not nearly enough. Then, he hooked the latch inside the door. Why was there a latch on the inside? We sat facing Alex in a small space that I realized must be a storage space beneath the stairs. He just sat there for the longest time still not saying anything.

“What are we doing here, Alex?” Angela probed.

“We’re going to play a game,” he answered.

“Like Truth or Dare?” Angela asked.

“Yes, Truth or Dare,” he confirmed; “But I play a different way. I ask you a question and if I don’t like your answer, I give you a dare.”

“I don’t want to play,” I said.

“I don’t like that answer,” Alex told me. He looked at Angela, “Will you pull your skirts up and show me?” Alex suggested.

“No, Alex. We can’t do that!” Angela told him.

“I don’t like that answer,” Alex frowned and went on; “You’re not playing right. You’ll have to take a dare now.” From behind him, he brought out two containers. One was the familiar Morton salt container with the picture of the girl with the umbrella. The other was a rectangular metal container of pepper with three openings to pour, sprinkle, or scoop. He flipped open the pour spout on both containers.

I could hear the footsteps up in the dark kitchen of his mother shuffling around. My heart pounded so hard I was sure my chest would burst. I prayed for his mother to call him now. I strongly felt that Alex was due for a good spanking or, at the very least, a nap.

Alex told us both to close our eyes and open our mouths. I looked at Angela, my eyes pleading for her to break us out of here. Alex keyed on me, “Close your eyes. Put your hands behind your back and open your mouth. If you don’t, I have a knife, see?” and he pulled out a Swiss army knife from his jean shorts pocket.

All I could think of was getting out of this house. Clearly, Alex’s mother was unconcerned with his whereabouts. Angela was frozen. And I was cursed with the Catholic obedience in which I was raised. I did as I was told and the salt covered my tongue first prickling then burning my tongue as I held it in my mouth, a purgatory of waiting for Alex to forgive my sin of disobedience. Holding the salt in my mouth in the dim storage cabinet in the silent hell, my tongue began to swell; my throat and stomach burn.

And that’s where it ends—or, could have ended. Angela and I forever concealed in a storage cabinet holding salt and pepper in our mouths, our tongues and throats burning and swelling for all eternity. It felt that way.

Alex’s mom eventually called him. And he did allow us to empty our mouths’ contents into a paper cup, and he unlatched the cabinet, and we all climbed out. Angela and I left his house and the sun still hid behind the clouds, but I was never so delighted for clouds and air and trees and the feel of pavement beneath my feet on our ordinary street. We walked home in silence and never spoke of it. Alex moved away soon after that day and I still can’t look at a container of Morton salt and the girl with the umbrella without feeling my stomach clench and my tongue swell.

P.S. Wright is an emerging writer with a few published short stories and poems. She is a BFA graduate of St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, NC.