I grew up in a small town, the kind where there were no strangers and no secrets.
I don't think I realized then that I had never felt true fear; nothing exciting happened when your town's population was barely breaking four digits. The whole place was centered along a mile-long strip of road, which housed all of our convenience stores and a few restaurants.
One of those restaurants just so happened to be a pizza parlor - it was nothing spectacular, but as a kid, it was worthy of excitement. At first, I would go with my parents, although over time, puberty and the ability to form my own opinions began to sour our relationship. By then I was old enough to begin going with my friends whenever I wanted, feeling wise and world-weary at fourteen.
Things were remarkably mundane in our community, and my friends and I usually had to find our own forms of entertainment; there's only so much enthusiasm you can have for visiting the river that ran through our town. People loved to swim in it, but I stopped going after a few years when I realized how dirty the water was.
That's when we focused in on the door. It was a tiny thing, tucked into the corner of the pizza parlor.
Someone had eventually asked the owner of the place what it was, and he maintained that it was just a small storage room where they kept boxes and cleaning equipment in. The padlock on the door, he claimed, was just to make sure no one went inside and accidentally hurt themselves.
It was a reasonable explanation, and no one really thought to question it.
The summer after our freshman year in high school, my friends and I finally decided to do a little investigation of our own.
We weren't really expecting to find anything. Honestly, the only reason we even considered it was because of that padlock. It wasn't one of those dinky little things you can find at any hardware store - it was heavy and industrious. Why would he need such a secure lock?
What can I say; it had been a slow summer. So we commenced our plan, and our objectives were simple: find a way to get into the restaurant when no one was around, figure out a way into the storage room, and do a little digging of our own.
I think we just wanted to feel the thrill of doing something illicit for once.
None of us were that worried about being caught, so convinced we were in our own invincibility.
I was the quiet kid in the back of class who never volunteered answers, but always had the correct one when called upon. I kept to myself for the most part, and I had never gotten into any amount of significant trouble in my life.
My friends, Jamie and Stephen, were much louder and more energetic than I had ever managed to be. Stephen and I had been best friends since before kindergarten.
When Jamie moved to town in third grade, she caused quite the scandal; her single-parent mom was a notorious alcoholic, and often skipped from job to job. We somehow became fast friends, and over time the friendship between Stephen, Jamie, and I flourished.
Together we became a staple around the various town hangouts, and we never got up to much trouble.
By then we had already pulled off the classic parental misdirect a thousand times. I told my parents that I was spending the night at Stephen's - even though I'm a girl, they trusted his family and me. They knew Stephen was a brother to me after having been friends for as long as we could remember.
Jamie's mom usually didn't notice or care what she was up to, and she had confessed to me during one of our sleepovers that she had played a little experiment once and went camping in the woods behind her house. She said she stayed out there for five days, and when she went back to her house her mom had never even noticed that she was gone.
Stephen just had to tell his parents that he was staying over at my place, and we were set.
We were so excited, thrilled with the idea of our disobedience. We reasoned that the only harm done would be the owner having to replace the lock.
On nights where either Stephen or I would manage to convince our parents to let all three of us stay over, we would laugh and plan late into the night about how we would deal with the wave of questions that would arise.
In our minds we felt like the grandest spies - when people would speculate about what had happened, and who would've broken into a place just to get into a storage closet, we would have to maintain our expressions and act as if we knew nothing.
We even planned out what we would do if we did find something. He might very well be hiding something valuable or even illegal back there. We decided that if there was any sort of treasure we would leave it be. If it ended up being something criminal that he was trying to hide, drugs, Stephen speculated, with Jamie maintaining that it would be a secret clone of the owner, then we would go to our small police station and report it. We would be the conquering heroes, and our misdeeds would be forgiven if we did discover anything of import.
If only we knew.
Finally, it was time for us to act out our plan. We had determined that the easiest way to get into the place after closing would be to find a way to stay inside past the nightly checks.
Jamie had done a little reconnaissance mission and went to grab a late night slice of pizza. She was the one who noticed that when the bored employee who had the bad luck of being on the closing shift would do bathroom checks, they just looked under the stalls from the front of the room rather than actually going in and pushing in the stall doors.
Stephen was the one who figured out how to get past the lock; he found a pair of bolt cutters in his dad's shed that sliced through chains with ease.
From there, it was my job to manage the details. I established how long we would wait in the stalls after closing - two hours, just to be safe. A few days before the night of our plan, I casually started a conversation with one of the employees at the restaurant, Charlie. He was a senior, and I knew he thought I was cute. I had been so nervous that he would think my questions about the nightly cleaning schedule were weird, but I framed it as if I was asking when he got off work. He bought it and told me that most of the cleaning was done in the morning; they never bothered to do much at night unless there was an obvious mess.
I made sure we had supplies, headlamps so that our hands would be free, some energy drinks and snacks as we would no doubt be tired after all that time doing nothing, and a watch to make sure we were keeping track of time.
I was also the one who decided that we would get out through the back employee entrance. None of us expected our excursion to last more than an hour at most, and I didn't think the owner would find it too odd if an employee forget to lock the door as they were leaving at night.
We decided that we would head to the parlor at 8:00 P.M., from there we could order some dinner and regale each other with embellished stories for a couple hours, after which one of us would head to the bathroom and stay there. Stephen went first, and after another twenty minutes Jamie followed. By then it was only half an hour until close, and I made sure to settle our bill and linger in the front entrance. Once the sole front-employee headed back into the kitchen, I darted into the girl's restroom, making sure to catch the door as it closed so it didn't make a noise.
I had a quick, whispered conversation with Jamie through the stall door before heading into the neighboring stall so I could settle in for the wait.
Cell phones weren't as commonplace for teens back then, not in a town with as limited of a social calendar as ours, so you think we would've been easily bored with no entertainment.
But this was our first time really, truly breaking the rules. Even waiting in darkness for hours felt like an adventure of epic proportions with the anticipation of what was to follow.
Before we expected it, Stephen was pushing open the door to the room and asked in hushed tones if we were there. I almost fell over when I stepped down from the seat, the blood rushing into my legs all at once, but soon I was eagerly rushing out to pull Stephen and Jamie into a hug.
I couldn't help laughing and exclaiming, "Phase One of Operation: Pizza Hideaway complete!"
Stephen got into the act, straightening up into an exaggerated military stance and snapping out a sloppy salute, "Ma'am yes ma'am, commencing Phase Two."
Jamie just laughed helplessly, clutching at my side and trying to keep somewhat quiet. We were thrilled at the success of our deception.
Once we were all somewhat composed, we got out our headlamps and went into the main lobby, carefully navigating the tables into the back, a curious hush falling over us.
I think the sight of the stacked chairs and the complete darkness of the restaurant finally made it start sinking in that we were really breaking the law.
It didn't make us want to stop, but it gave us a sense of gravity.
The fact that it was just about a silly little door that we mostly expected was just a storage room was irrelevant; it was about the rush it gave us.
We finally made our way to the door. It was in the darkest corner at the very back of the restaurant, and unless we shined our lights straight at it, the three-foot-tall opening was indistinguishable from the wall.
I set down my backpack and we sat in a little circle and downed the food and drinks I had brought while joking quietly about what might be behind there, our last moments to speculate. We were impatient to get started though, and only a few minutes passed before Stephen reached into my bag to get the bolt cutters.
We decided that he would open up the lock while Jamie and I aimed our lights at the handle of the door to make sure he had good light to work with.
He struggled a little with fitting the blades of the tool into the small space between the handle and the lock, and for a minute Jamie and I cast nervous glances at each other, causing our lights to waver and Stephen to curse as he tried to get the right angle. Our worries were unfounded, however, and after a moment he managed to bear down with just the right pressure and snap the lock.
We all stood there for a second after the screech the scrape of metal-on-metal had caused.
Luckily, or unluckily as it would soon come to pass, it really was too late for anyone to be in this area, and no one came around banging on the doors and shouting about intruders.
We felt safe enough to proceed after that.
Since Stephen had been the one to actually break the lock, we decided to give him the honor of opening the door for the first time. He reached out and threaded the now-broken padlock through the handle of the door and reached back to give it to me.
After I had placed the lock into my backpack, I kicked it to the side; we were going to toss it into the middle of the river after we had finished at the pizza parlor, and hopefully no one would be the wiser to our break-in for at least a few days.
We all shared one last keyed-up look with each other, full of nerves and exhilaration, before we crouched down and watched as Stephen reached for the door handle. He had to tug for a moment to get it to budge, the door obviously seldom being opened.
The miniature wooden entrance finally swung open on rusty hinges, and we peered forward in anticipation.
Only to let out mutual groans of disappointment when our lights revealed nothing more than a small cement room with a low ceiling and a few scattered boxes.
None of us wanted to look at each other, we had spent weeks planning this, and it would be a lie to say that there wasn't some small part of us that had been convinced that there had to be something in there.
With a scoff, Stephen kicked out and pushed a box to the side, which caused a small stack to topple over with a bang. The cloud of dust that resulted made us all start coughing. The old man who owned the place had been telling the truth after all, it really was just a musty little storage space.
Giving another drawn out sigh I leaned forward and crawled half into the space, a small box of four-by-four feet concrete, and began to haul the boxes back into place. That was when I noticed the breeze.
For a second I froze before I began to frantically move the boxes to the side in an attempt to find where it was coming from.
I didn't stop until I managed to unearth a round metal door set into the floor, sealed with another padlock. I fell back in amazement, hardly noticing when I landed on my tailbone.
I couldn't believe it, we had really found something. When my friends noticed what I was looking at, they too rushed forward, all of us squeezed into the overcrowded space and staring in awe.
The strangely protected door was one thing, but hiding what seemed to be a trapdoor under an obvious ruse of boxes meant that there had to be something down there.
We began a whispered conversation at the new discovery—we hadn't expected that we would have to dig deeper than we already had.
Stephen was eager to go forward, "Obviously there has to be something good down there, why would this guy need to hide it behind two locks if it wasn't important?"
Jamie was more reserved, and I could tell the nerves were getting to her as her voice shook just slightly as she spoke, "But why is it so dusty in here? I mean, if he actually had stuff that he cared about down there wouldn't he like, go down and check on it once in awhile? It doesn't look like anyone has been inside this room in years."
I agreed with both of them - it was true, if something was hidden behind this many locks, it had to be something the owner didn't want other people to find. It was strange though, that it was clearly neglected.
However, we had come this far, and I wanted to know what was down there. It seemed pointless to stop now, so I tried to suggest a compromise,
"What if Stephen and I check out whatever's down there and you can stay up here with the stuff and warn us in case anyone walks by the restaurant and notices something's up?"
We all knew that no one was actually going to come by, but Jamie was relieved at the excuse, and Stephen just wanted to see what was down there.
Once we had established the new plan and Stephen was once again armed with the bolt cutters, we moved forward.
With the boxes shoved to either side of the room, he had just enough space to squeeze forward and work at the lock, an even more heavily reinforced padlock that took him minutes to saw through.
When he finally managed to remove the lock, he barely glanced back at us as he reached down to heave open the door. When I saw it was hardly moving I shoved my way past a few of the boxes and managed to get a hold of the handle, and with both of us pulling with all the strength we could muster we were finally able to get it open.
What greeted us was a pitch-black tunnel with the top of a ladder rung just visible in the darkness and a rush of chilled air that held the faint, stagnant odor of stale pizza.
Stephen and I both glanced at Jamie and she gave us a nod - she was okay with us leaving her alone for a while.
With that assurance, Stephen began the descent down the ladder, holding his headlamp in his hand and aiming it down so he could see the next rung to step down to.
After he cleared the top foot of the tunnel I followed suit, attempting to push down the tension that I could feel building in my shoulders.
As we climbed farther down, the air began to cool and soon I was shivering. Looking back, the tunnel must have only been ten feet deep, but at the time it had felt like a hundred.
There was a brief drop at the end of the ladder, and Stephen and I found ourselves in a cramped space, roughly four-by-five feet. I was short enough that I could stand up straight, but Stephen had to hunch slightly.
That was when I noticed the third door; it was set into the wall opposite of the ladder. The space had a curious darkness, I don't know if it was because we were so deep underground, but our lights scarcely reached a couple feet in front of us.
It seemed to be made of the same concrete as the walls, with another padlock on the latch.
Stephen and I shared an uneasy glance, and I could tell the situation was finally getting to him. Having two locks was peculiar, but the depth of the tunnel and the clearly roughshod construction of the space was disquieting.
If the owner never bothered to come down here, why was he so worried about security that he had to use three locks that were basically the same? Anyone who could get through the first two would obviously be able to get through the third.
It was then that I began to question if it wasn't to prevent someone from getting in, but rather something from getting out.
I wish I could say that I erred on the side of caution and urged Stephen to leave things alone and head back up.
I didn't though. I couldn't quite manage to make myself believe that there was anything dangerous down there. I was so sure that things would be fine - nothing ever happened in this town.
Stephen had brought the bolt cutters down with him, and I helped shine the light on the lock as he went to break it. When it clanged down to the ground, he and I shared a fleeting look before he braced himself and began pulling open the door.
It had to have been heavy, since it was at least five inches thick. It also must have been designed to be relatively soundproof. When Stephen had succeeded in opening it wide enough that we would be able to slip through, I started noticing the noises - a curious, muffled scratching sound.
The darkness in front of us was just as complete as in the entryway, and as we continued to cautiously edge forward I reached out to grab Stephen's hand. As illogical as it felt, I was terrified that we would lose ourselves in the pitch-black if we got so much as three feet from each other.
As we shuffled forward I noticed the ground had an occasional crack that allowed a peak at the damp earth below. Even more curious were the small, light-colored fragments that were at the edges of the breaks in the cement. I tugged Stephen's hand to indicate he should stop and bent down to pick one up.
I'm still surprised that I didn't scream when I realized what I was holding - it was a piece of a broken fingernail. I think I was in shock because all I did was calmly bring it closer to my face. With the improved light, I could see the hint of blood at the edges where it must have broken into the nail bed.
Stephen was hushed and impatient; he didn't know what I was holding yet.
"Come on! We should keep looking around."
It was the first time either of us had spoken since we had gotten down here, and that's when I realized the absence of the scratching sound.
Have you ever noticed when a noise fades into the background? It can be something that puts you on edge, but if you hear it consistently enough, you stop keeping track of it.
While the scratching had worried me, it had continued even after we had entered the room, and after a couple minutes of nothing happening I had relaxed into it.
The scratching stopped as soon as Stephen spoke.
A sudden, overpowering sense of dread came over me, and I struggled to respond,
"Finger-fingernail, it's a fingernail - Stephen we have to leave! We have to go right now!"
I could tell he was confused,
"What are you talking about?"
By then my alarm was so great that I didn't want to risk lingering to explain it to him, instead I turned back toward where the entrance was and began pulling him forward with all my strength.
It caused him to crash into my back when I came to an abrupt stop, unable to control my trembling.
While the door was too far away for my light to clearly illuminate the space, I could just make out the hunched, skeletal figure standing in front of it.
After Stephen pulled away from my back, he began to protest.
"What the hell are you -"
I could tell the instant he followed the direction my light was pointed and saw the same figure in the doorway, only at his voice it had scuttled forward. That's when I noticed that it was moving on all fours; with the ceiling so low, there was no other way to move quickly. The scratching noise from before started up again as it moved, although it came to an abrupt stop after Stephen stopped speaking.
At that point it was only five feet or so in front of us, and had come close enough that I could begin to make out particulars of its appearance, or rather, her.
This close, I could see that it was a woman. Her back was bizarrely curved, a sickening lurch to her spine that was no doubt caused from the constant hunch she had to adapt in the space. She was so thin that I could hardly bear to look at her torso, the jutting of her bones painfully stretching her skin. It lent a spindly nature to her limbs, which led down into long, jaggedly broken finger and toenails - no doubt the source of the scratching noise.
After a glance at her face I no longer wondered why she only moved forward when we spoke, she was blind. Her eyes had an odd milky quality to them, seeming huge and bulging against the gaunt concave of her cheekbones. Between the lank strands of hair that stretch down to her hips, frayed and thin, I could make out the malice that twisted her thin mouth, showing a hint of yellowed, rotted teeth.
She was nude, although her skin seemed like a suit, given how it hung off of her—covered in the dirt of the walls and the scars that gouged at her upper arms and thighs. Exactly where you might scratch yourself when you were holding your arms to your chest, or hunched in the fetal position.
In that moment, I had never felt like more of an animal, reduced solely to fight or flight instinct. My mind was static.
When I noticed an equally panicked-looking Stephen opening his mouth, I made sure to forcefully clamp down on his hand, shaking my head when he glanced at me.
Trying not to take my eyes off the woman still crouched in front of us, producing a small rasping noise every time she took a breath; I put my hand carefully over my mouth, trying not to rustle my shirt.
After I left it there for a moment, I pointed at my eyes, then carefully at my ears.
She only knew where we were because we had been making plenty of sound moving about the room, and then later, speaking.
When Stephen first spoke, that was when she had finally paid full attention to us. Who knew how long it had been since she had last heard a human voice.
Even without us speaking, she cautiously moved forward. It was a slower lurch and slightly uneven. I knew she would manage to bump into us eventually, and I frantically glanced around to try and figure out how to get us out.
I had the idea that maybe if Stephen and I split up, if we were both yelling, perhaps we could disorient her with the volume of our voices.
Gesturing at him, I mimicked yelling and used my fingers to make a running movement, pointing him in one direction. I was trying my hardest to let him know what I was thinking.
The inherent sense of danger was unbearable and I wished I could prepare myself after Stephen got what I was trying to say. She was only moving closer though, so I just put up three fingers, trying to ignore the shaking of my hand.
By this point, the woman was only two feet away, and I knew if she stretched out her arms she would be able to grab one of us.
I quickly put down one finger, then the other, and with a final glance at Stephen, I put down the last one and was off like a shot.
We both began to shout. Mostly I was screaming, letting out the fear and tension that had been building ever since we entered the room.
I ran at a diagonal towards the back of the room while Stephen shot straight to the side. As I ran I noticed more details, things that to this day I wish I could forget.
In one corner, a pile of ratty blankets, the smell so rancid that it brought involuntary tears to my eyes. It was positioned right below an opening in the ceiling that went straight up, too small for any human to fit through.
As I looped back towards the entrance, I almost stepped into a large pipe that went straight down into the earth. More so than the blankets, the smell was indescribable.
Quickly veering to the side, I tried to catch sight of Stephen. Instead I saw that the woman was behind me, although far enough back that I could tell our plan was working. The space was large enough that our yells echoed and even I was developing a headache at the overwhelming noise.
I turned back towards the doorway and tried not to glance at the walls - at the writing and drawings scratched into them, indistinct and bloodied.
That's when I noticed Jamie.
She must have heard our yelling; we were being so loud that it would have been impossible for her not to have.
She had stepped into the room and was standing to the side of the door, bracing herself on the wall much like we had when we first entered.
Our headlamps were dim enough that she could probably only make out the lights coming towards her.
I began yelling at her, rather than just screaming my head off in fear.
"Get out! Run! Run, Jamie!"
Stephen shot past me, and I saw him make it through the door and reach the ladder, looking back at us with a frantic expression on his face.
As I reached the entrance, I snagged Jamie's sleeve and started trying to pull her toward the door. At this point, Stephen and I had stopped yelling - it would only give us away now.
I tried to hold up my finger in a shushing gesture, but Jamie had already been the most afraid out of all of us. Fear froze me, but it made her frantic, talkative.
She didn't realize the significance of my gesture, and I can't say I blame her after the scene she walked into. In a damning motion, she opened her mouth to speak.
"Are you guys okay? I waited but then I heard you guys yelling and -"
She was abruptly cut off and I lost my grip on her as she was pulled back into the room, a skeletal hand with ragged fingernails gripping her throat and piercing it as it pulled her down.
I like to say I would have gone back for her, would have fought, after all the woman couldn't be stronger than all three of us combined.
Only my light was focused straight at Jamie as she fell backward, and I heard the wet thunk as her head struck the concrete at an angle.
Something about that sound, and how her head looked, was so terribly wrong that I didn't have a moment's doubt that she was dead.
Stephen and I looked to each other before frantically trying to scramble up the ladder.
I didn't dare glance back, it had been enough to see my friend dead the one time, to see that woman crouching over her, bent so low her nose was touching Jamie's forehead.
We managed to make it to the top, and after I had pulled myself out of the tunnel, Stephen slammed the door shut. It had been so heavy that I doubted the woman would ever be able to push it open on her own.
I grabbed my backpack as we rushed past, and without speaking we both ran toward the employee door through the kitchen.
I can't say how long we ran, but it had to have been at least a mile - we reached the end of our town limits and hesitated at the edge of the forest, panting and leaning on each other. I was crying, but I hadn't been aware of it before then.
Stephen's face was blank. I had never seen him so empty of emotions, and as I clutched at him, he remained still, staring into the woods.
"What are we going to do, Stephen? What the fuck was that? She's dead! Oh god, she's dead -"
I began to sob, and in a mechanical motion, Stephen put an arm around my shoulders.
Eventually, he started walking back toward town, and we made our way to the only payphone. I kept furtively looking around to make sure the area was clear, but Stephen hadn't moved his eyes from the ground since he started walking.
I checked my watch; it had only been twenty minutes since we opened the first, miniature wooden door.
I handed Stephen a few quarters and he proceeded to dial 911. He didn't sound like himself when he spoke - it wasn't just that he was pitching his voice lower, it also sounded uncharacteristic, deadened.
"Someone's dead at Otto's Pizza Parlor. Look in the back."
That's all he said before he hung up; I was in a daze, I had cried more in the last ten minutes than I ever had before in my life.
It was that emotional shock that led me to following Stephen around as he proceeded to go back to his house, sneaking in through his bedroom window as we had ever since we were kids.
But he wasn't the same, neither of us were.
We held a muted conversation, him in a sleeping bag next to the bed he always let me have when I stayed over.
The ceiling kept blurring above my eyes, and eventually, I kept them shut so I couldn't tell that I was crying. Stephen did most of the talking; it was all I could do not to scream.
"We didn't discuss our plans with anybody, and other than the bolt cutters we didn't leave anything behind. They'll probably figure out they're my dad's, but they'll just assume she stole them from my house last time she was here. We'll go downstairs in the morning and convince my parents that yours were arguing so we came over here to stay the night and didn't want to bother them since they were already asleep. Nothing ever happens in this town. They'll want to say it's solved as soon as possible, you know how they cut corners."
They being the police. I didn't want to admit it but he was right - there were plenty of things our local law enforcement ignored in favor of keeping the town's peace. Besides, I had a feeling that whatever was up with that woman we had found was going to be far bigger news than the events that led up to her being discovered.
Not that I wanted to admit it at the time. Even the thought of lying, of shifting all the blame to Jamie, made bile rise in the back my throat.
In a way, though, it was comforting to have Stephen take charge of the moment.
I didn't say a word, and eventually, I heard rustling as Stephen shifted in his sleeping bag.
"If we both stick to that, we'll be fine, you'll see. Jamie wouldn't have wanted all of us to get into trouble, what's done is done."
It disgusted me, but I couldn't think of anything else to do.
Eventually, I managed to fall asleep, but it was fitful; I kept waking up expecting the woman to be crouched in the corner.
When morning finally came we went downstairs and followed through with what Stephen had told me to say. His parents took it in stride; mine were known to have their troubles so they weren't surprised.
It turned the lie that we had given my parents into something believable, and Jamie hadn't told her mother anything at all.
It took a while for the details to filter through to us - we didn't bother to leave Stephen's house for the rest of the day, and his parents were out at work for most of it.
When they came back, their faces were drawn and pale as they pulled both of us aside to sit on the couch.
With terribly kind faces, they told us how Jamie's body had been found, their kindness grating on me as I contemplated my own deceit. I didn't have to fake the tears that ran down my face - my sorrow was unrelenting.
Over the next few weeks, we managed to collect the particulars of what had happened. This was the juiciest bit of gossip that our town had had for decades. In fact, the last time anything interesting had happened was when Otto's wife had packed up a bag and left him and their three children one day with no word. It had been such a tragedy, abandoning her family like that. In a community like this, people didn't leave each other when they were unhappy; they just stewed in their own misery.
Otto had apparently found a different solution.
He was nearing his sixties, and had built his pizza parlor in our small town nearly thirty years ago. It had been relatively successful what with it being our only pizza place. So successful that he closed it for two months in the mid-nineties in order to do a full renovation.
His wife had left him only a year after the unveiling.
Only it turns out, she didn't leave.
Instead, she found herself placed in a tomb that would be her home for the next two decades.
Over time, as the shock began to wear off, police started to release more information on the crime, and the gossips in town started to reveal what they remembered.
There was a part of the renovation that Otto had not revealed to the workers he was paying - a small section of the restaurant in the back that he had pardoned off.
Before he went into the restaurant business, he had briefly worked in construction, idly traveling around the United States and stretching his wings after escaping from the suffocating smallness of the town that he had lived in for his entire life.
After a few years, he returned in order to open up his own pizza place, claiming the recipes came down from his family. He married his childhood sweetheart, Melinda, and quickly fathered three boys.
It would have been an ideal situation, if he and Melinda actually liked each other. Everyone knew they had the most terrible screaming matches with each other, but as the fascinated and vile housewives will tell it, they would never get a divorce. It wasn't how things were done.
And Otto knew it. Opinions can change in an instant in a place like this, and he knew that if he had a long, bitter divorce, Melinda would get the sympathy of the town.
So when the construction workers would leave for the night, he would return to the restaurant and take advantage of the equipment they had left behind in order to build his own little hideaway. He dug beneath the foundation and hollowed out a roughly-constructed room. He even made a clever little vent in the ceiling, too narrow to ever crawl through. It led into his office, and he had a soundproof covering that hid it from view.
Once a day, he would drop the leftover pizza that was made down the hole along with a bottle of water.
He made sure to put in a wide pipe that went deep enough that it tunneled into a local waterbed, washing away any debris that went down it.
After all this time, I'm still grateful I stopped going swimming in the river.
And so, that's how she lived for over twenty years, slowly going blind and mad in complete isolation.
He had no need to go down to see her - his conscience made him drop down just enough food and water to allow her to survive, and out of an inexplicable and instinctual urge to stay alive, she did.
Seeing as he made sure to soundproof every possible entrance to the structure, I have no doubt that Stephen's voice was the first she had heard since she had heard Otto threaten her into the small, slanting room.
It's unlikely she could have imagined what he was planning to do.
It all worked out exactly as he had planned, and he enjoyed continued success and the love of his sons for many years.
Really, who would want to go to the effort of exploring a small storage closet that held nothing but some old boxes and cleaning supplies?
Even knowing that Melinda might have continued to suffer for what may have been decades to come if we hadn't have hatched that inane plan made out of boredom and the curiosity of youth, I would still take it back in an instant if I could have Jamie back.
Melinda died of a heart attack shortly after she was taken into the paramedics' custody; I can't say I blame her. I think she held onto that miserable life just long enough to know she had escaped.
Everything in town settled after a while. Otto was sentenced to fifty years, a death penalty for a man his age, and his sons moved out of town under the shroud of shame and grief that followed them. The basement was filled in with cement and the pizza parlor was renovated into an Olive Garden, the first chain restaurant to ever grace our town.
No one bothered to question why Jamie was there by herself, or any of the discrepancies about the break-in. Her mom was the town disgrace and Jamie's death only fueled her drinking - it was easy to reduce it to the simple tragedy of a young girl from a broken home acting out.
Stephen and I were never the same - we held on for a few months out of habit. But we never spoke about what had happened, and I couldn't stomach the way he had shut himself off from the events of that night.
But I grieved, oh how I grieved. There were some days I felt as if I could hardly breathe, as if the weight of what we had done would crush me.
My parents took me to a doctor, tried to get me on medication. Depression they said, potentially an eating disorder.
Truthfully, I just couldn't eat without thinking of that horrible pit, with the vent that would drop down discarded food once a day.
I begged my parents to move after what had happened. Finally, after months of seeing me slowly wither and turn on myself, they agreed. We left quietly four months after the incident, I never even said goodbye to Stephen.
I don't know what I would have said.
Eventually, even I couldn't resist the drag of time, and before I realized it, I had begun to move on. One day I found myself smiling, and from there it became easier every day.
I never forgot Jamie, and to this day I am so law-abiding that my friends make fun of me for it. Over time, I started to forgive myself. We all made the agreement to explore what was in that little pizza parlor hideaway that night, and Jamie was a victim of chance and stupidity. Melinda could have grabbed any of us - I don't think she was doing it out of any real sense of hatred for us.
I think she had just had so long to stew in silence and isolation that all she had left was the hatred.
You might wonder why I'm finally speaking out after all this time. Even though it was ten years ago, I could still come into quite a bit of trouble, and it is without a doubt the most shameful experience of my life.
You see, I had come to peace with what had happened that night. I dragged myself kicking and screaming into acceptance. What I learned changed all that.
I had never looked into the details of what had happened that night, seeing as I was there to experience it firsthand.
Last night, I finally felt strong enough to revisit the event. I decided out of morbid curiosity that I would start reading some of the backlogs from our town's newspaper.
I knew it would be picking at a healed wound and yet I couldn't talk myself out of it.
That's when I learned a detail that I had never been privy to before - it took a long time for police to release the information.
It was on the front page of the town's small newspaper on the anniversary of the tragic break-in. They must have thought the timing was apt.
In a town as small as that, it can take quite a while for police to respond to a call. In this case, forty-five minutes.
All we had known at the time was that Jamie had been found dead. This didn't surprise me, as I had seen her die.
Or so I thought. She must have just been dazed for a time.
In fact, the coroner estimated she had been awake and alive for at least twenty minutes before she finally succumbed to her injuries, only minutes before police arrived.
Cause of death was massive blood loss from not only a head wound, but from the numerous, serrated tears found on her body.
Melinda had been scratching away at that room for decades, I imagine she might have had enough of a frame of mind to try the trapdoor - without leverage though it would have been impossible for her to open. We had locked her in.
Jamie was always so afraid, she must have started yelling as soon as she woke up in that cold, terrifying hideaway. The yells must have turned to screams when Melinda came to investigate the noise.
The thing is, I don't think she was even aware of what she was doing. The screaming must have been awfully disorienting after decades of silence.
In the end, the only defense Melinda had left were her fingernails.