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The Scratching From The Cellar

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As usual, it began while I was having a very pleasant dream. A warehouse full of loafers to chew on; what more could a dog want? But just as I was settling in with a nice size ten I was forced awake by my housemate, Chester, who normally I call friend.

“Harold. Harold. Wake up,” Chester hissed in my ear, paw poised to smack my nose.

I snuffled regretfully awake and, in retaliation, shook my head forcefully giving Chester no choice but to dodge my flopping ear.

Finally,” whispered Chester when he was finished pretending to be unsurprised by my ear attack.

“What is it, Chester?” I yawned. The spot Chester usually occupied on the rug next to me was cold. He’d been awake for a while, then, never a good sign.

Just then there was a small crash from somewhere in the house.

“Someone’s in the basement,” whispered Chester.

Now I was on full alert. A burglar? “Should I alert the Monroes?” I asked, standing up.

“No,” Chester hissed, “Smell: there’s no strange human scent.”

I sniffed deeply, then frowned; he was right. I could smell something, but it wasn’t human. “What is it, then? Bunnicula again?” I turned to his cage, but our rabbit friend was safe inside, sleeping lightly. I turned back to Chester. “Where’s Howie?”

“In Toby’s room. The light’s still on but both of them are asleep.”

“What about Pete?” I asked, trying every option. Who knows what teenagers get up to?

“He’s in his own room, also asleep. I heard him snoring.”

I opened my mouth to ask about Mr. and Mrs., but Chester cut me off. “It’s four AM, Harold. Everyone’s asleep.”

Everyone except me, I thought. “We’ll have to be quiet investigating then.”

“Oh, I already looked,” Chester said, nonchalantly bathing his paw.

“What? Who did you see down there?”

“Nobody.”

I leaned close to Chester’s face and spoke very carefully, “Then why did you wake me up?”

Chester looked me calmly in the eye. “I saw no one,” he began as if I was missing something incredibly obvious, “because the source of the sounds was a ghost.”

I blinked at Chester, then sat down to go back to sleep.

Chester swatted my nose with a paw. “Pay attention.”

I reopened my eyes to glare at him.

“I only looked from the stairs. We have to investigate further.”

Part of me was curious, but I wasn’t about to admit it after my rude awakening. “If I do this can I go back to sleep?”

Chester rolled his eyes and sighed. “Of course.”

Reluctantly I sat up to face Chester, who was bathing his tail as cats do when pretending things aren’t awkward.

When he saw he had regained my attention, Chester continued explaining. “After deducing a ghost was in the house, I began researching the subject.” He nudged an open book toward me. “It says here you can banish ghosts with salt.”

“Salt?”

“Yes. They also dislike silver and iron, but I think salt will be easier to acquire.” Chester rounded the book to settle by my side in front of it.

I looked quizzically at the page, then at Chester. “Where did you get this?”

“Pete’s room.” Chester replied flippantly. “The rest of the house has annoyingly few books concerning ghosts. I even tried Hamlet, but that only told me you must speak to ghosts in Latin.”

“Do you mean all ghosts speak Latin? Why is that?”

“I know this one, Uncle Harold!” Howie said from the stairs. “Because it’s a dead language!

I chuckled politely.

Chester groaned. “Yes. Of course. That must be it. Now be quiet, we don’t want to wake the whole house.”

“You got it, Pop!” Howie replied in an exaggerated stage whisper, hopping down the stairs.

Chester ran a paw down his face, muttering something about being called “Pop” by a dog.

Another soft clatter echoed up from the basement, startling Howie into wedging himself between Chester and I. Even Bunnicula was now awake and watching curiously with his small red eyes.

I still wasn’t convinced it was a ghost, but something was making those noises, and that something was scaring my family. “Alright,” I said, standing, “let’s go face this intruder.”

“Let’s,” Chester agreed, trotting past me toward the basement, trying to reclaim the title of mission leader.

I let him, instead slowing my pace so Howie’s short legs could keep up.

“Hurry up!” Chester hissed, waiting by the basement door impatiently. “We don’t have all night!”

I knew him well enough to see through the annoyance to his hesitance to return to the basement alone, and decided to let his tone slide.

For a moment the three of us stood huddled in the doorway, staring down into the near-complete darkness of the basement.

Looking between Chester’s carefully constructed air of calm and Howie’s fearfully excited shaking, I made a decision. “I’ll go first.” I began walking down the stairs before the other two could protest or I could change my mind.

My ears were on high alert, and I was almost startled hearing the others cautiously start down the stairs behind me. The strange smell was stronger down here, and now somewhat familiar. Nothing looked out of the ordinary yet.

We reached the bottom of the stairs and reformed our huddle, each looking a different direction. I lamented that none of us could reach the pull string for the light. We could see in the dark well enough, but it would have made the room a little less creepy.

For a tense few moments all that could be heard was our breathing, then faintly an eerie scratching rose from the gloom to the left. Chester jumped slightly and Howie tried to burrow into my fur. Focusing on my protective instincts rather than the newly terrifying basement, I bravely turned toward the sound.

I proceeded cautiously, wary of Howie waddling on my left and Chester slinking in stealth mode on my right. As a group we silently inched forward, carefully navigating around piles of furniture draped in sheets that made everything look ghostly in our current state of mind.

The scratching stopped just as I thought we reached it, as these things are wont to do. Sniffing the air cautiously, I was now positive I recognized the intruding scent, but to my frustration I still couldn’t place it.

With the impatience of a scared puppy, Howie spoke up from his position practically under me. “Wh-where did it-?”

Something rustled behind us. We all whipped around clumsily, but saw nothing.

“Uh…hello? Ghost?” I began, wanting to get to the bottom of this.

Latin,” Chester hissed, fur raised to its full potential. If I wasn’t so on edge, I might have laughed at the sight.

Instead, I wracked my brain for any Latin phrases I knew. “Carpe diem?

“…Carpe noctem?” offered Chester.

Veni, Vidi, Vici,” I supplied, feeling a bit silly. If only I knew any Latin greetings.

Quid pro quo.” Chester wasn’t faring any better, at least. “Bona fide. Ad hominem,” he tried with increasing agitation.

Howie however looked between the two of us with increasing confusion. “Pop? Uncle Harold? What are you telling it? We don’t want to make it m-mad…”

As if on cue, a baseball bat tumbled off a nearby stack of boxes and crashed to the ground inches from Chester.

The three of us instantly took off running for the stairs, tripping over ourselves, each other, and various objects in our haste to get away. I looked back just once, long enough to see a small shadow disappear into the rafters.

We regrouped in the living room by Bunnicula’s cage, huddled together as close as possible and panting heavily. More soft noises rose tauntingly from the basement.

“Now what? Do we move?” asked Howie, eyes wide as dinner plates.

At this point I thought that was a fantastic plan, but as usual Chester had other ideas.

“No. Now we retaliate. This is our house,” the declaration lost some of its gravity with Chester attempting to smooth his fur with his tongue as he spoke.

“So…salt?” I asked, recalling the earlier events of the night.

“Salt.” Chester turned and marched into the kitchen, Howie and I following a half step behind.

Chester headed straight for a cupboard by the fridge, jumping easily onto the counter. Standing on his hind legs he pawed open the door of a cupboard on the wall.

“How’d you know the salt was in there, Pop?”

“Because, unlike you, I take time to observe the goings-on in the kitchen even when it doesn’t involve my own meals. Now be quiet, I’m trying to concentrate.”

Howie and I watched, obediently silent, as Chester slowly inched a rather large salt container toward the edge of the cupboard.

Suddenly the salt tipped forward. I held my breath as it fell as if in slow-motion and became the second object to narrowly miss hitting Chester in the head that night.

The cardboard cylinder clattered to the ground and rolled in my direction, miraculously not spilling. The three of us froze for a moment, listening intently for any signs of the Monroes above or the whatever-it-was below.

There was some shuffling from Pete’s room, but after a minute nothing followed it. Our mission remained secret for now.

Chester landed lightly on the floor. “Now, I know the ritual so I’ll lead the charge. Harold, you have the biggest mouth, so you carry the salt. Please.” The ‘please’ he added as an afterthought, but at least he was trying.

I nodded, and began inspecting the container at my feet to determine the best angle of approach.

“What can I do, pop?” Howie asked, a little too loud.

“You keep an eye out for the ghost and the Monroes, and warn us if you see either one. That’s very important.”

“You got it, pop! I can do that!” Howie attempted a salute with his too-short legs. “So if I see them, I howl?”

Chester sighed. “If you must. Now let’s get moving. Harold?”

I gingerly lifted the uncomfortable container. It was made of cardboard and already slightly dented, but with some effort I was able to hold it securely lengthwise. It tasted slightly of, well, salt.

“The best strategy will be to chase it out the basement window.” Chester whispered when we reached the bottom of the stairs. “Harold, I’m going to need you to draw a line with the salt at the foot of the stairs. This will keep the ghost from leaving in that direction and entering the house. Here, I’ll open it for you.” He reached forward and flicked open the little metal piece of the lid. Salt began leaking out.

I carefully tilted my head and drew a clumsy line.

Chester inspected my work. “It’s not the straightest line, but it is unbroken. It should work nicely. Well done. Next-”

He was interrupted by the mysterious scratching. This time, I thought sounded a lot like claws. It definitely sounded like it was getting closer.

A lot of things happened at once.

The dark shadow darted across the floor right in front of us, no more than a blur. This caused Chester to hiss and jump backwards, crashing into me. I bit through the container I had been carrying so carefully thus far and spit it out, sending salt everywhere including my unfortunate mouth.

“The ghost! It’s the ghost!” Howie shouted. Then he started howling.

The howling proved to be what finally awoke the Monroes, and loud thumping and other frantic activity could be heard from the top floor as the three of us again crashed back up the basement stairs.

Mrs. Monroe appeared first, flicking on lights as she moved through the house towards us. “What on Earth is all this racket?”

Howie howled again, directly into my ear.

I whimpered, but didn’t break the huddle we had formed.

Mrs. Monroe took us in. “What’s gotten into the three of you?” She ran a hand through my fur, shaking loose some salt. “Is this salt?

“What’s goin’ on, mom?” asked Toby.

The rest of the Monroe family had clamored downstairs and were inspecting the scene.

“It looks they knocked the salt down and scared themselves,” offered Mr. Monroe. “Don’t know how they reached it in the first place, though.”

Mrs. Monroe sighed, looking back at us. “Why must you do these things in the middle of the night?” She stood up. “All right everyone, the sooner we clean up this mess the sooner we can go back to sleep.”

Toby and Pete groaned.

A howl rang out, and everyone’s heads whipped around to stare at the source.

Howie had somehow slipped away from Chester and I, and was valiantly alerting the Monroes to the presence in the basement.

Pete reached the door first and looked down. “Looks like most of the salt’s down there.” He announced, sounding only vaguely interested. Suddenly he jumped back a few steps. “I heard something! Something’s in the basement!”

“You know, I think there is.” agreed Mr. Monroe after a moment of listening. “I’ll go have a look.”

“Is that what you were trying to tell us?” Toby asked Howie.

At the same time Mr. Monroe asked, “Pete, where’s your baseball bat?”

“It’s in the basement,” Pete replied, shrugging.

Mrs. Monroe retrieved a hefty frying pan from a cupboard and handed it to her husband. “Take this.”

Mr. Monroe descended the stairs and turned on the light while the rest of us huddled at the top.

“Well there’s no human down here, but I found the salt container. Looks like Harold chewed it open.”

I hung my head, a little embarrassed. The taste still lingered in my mouth.

“Is that really all this was about? Salt?” Asked Mrs. Monroe from halfway down the stairs.

“No, wait a minute, there’s animal footprints in the salt.”

The scratching sound began again, and Mr. Monroe looked toward a corner of the ceiling. “Why, there’s a squirrel!”

I breathed a sigh of relief. A squirrel! At last the scent clicked into place. I should be ashamed, a dog not recognizing squirrel scent, but in my defense I didn’t expect a squirrel indoors.

“I want to see it!” Toby pushed past me and ran down the stairs.

Mrs. Monroe caught her son. “No, it might be rabid.”

“Squirrels can’t get rabies,” Pete protested, right behind his brother. Teenagers like to think they know everything.

“Either way, you can see it when it is outside.” Mrs. Monroe said instead of arguing, and corralled everyone back up the stairs. “Everyone move, give your father some room to catch it.”

“Gee, a squirrel! That’s too bad, I wanted to see a ghost.” Howie said, forgetting his terror moments ago. “Do you think they’ll let me chase it?”

I doubted that. “I for one am very glad it wasn’t a ghost.”

Chester remained silent, opting instead to bathe his tail.

“Coming through!” announced Mr. Monroe, carrying a wriggling bundle of sheet.

Everyone followed him to the back door, where he released the squirrel into the backyard. As the squirrel ran off into the bushes, I noticed it was already getting light outside.

Mrs. Monroe caught Howie by the scruff of his neck as he was halfway out the door. “Now, Howie, leave it alone. It’s had enough excitement for today.” She closed the door. “Besides, you three need a brushing and a bath to get rid of all that salt.”

Howie whimpered, but Mrs. Monroe held tight. Chester seemed to have resigned himself to his fate, or perhaps he was simply exhausted. He allowed Toby to pick him up with an uncharacteristic lack of struggle.

Mrs. Monroe addressed the room at large. “Alright, time to get cleaning. And since we’re all up already, we might as well start breakfast. It’ll be morning by the time we’re done.”

I perked up at that. “A bath won’t be so bad with early breakfast to look forward to, right Chester?”

Chester fixed me with a withering stare over Toby’s shoulder.

“I still don’t know why you all were playing with the salt,” Mrs. Monroe muttered as she carried Howie up the stairs.

-----

That afternoon, as I was drowsily heading to the living room for a nap, I heard it: a small clatter from the basement. All the Monroes had left for the day. I sniffed the air and found nothing amiss. Determined to believe I was just hearing things, I changed my course to join Chester and Howie’s daily meditation session. Suddenly I could use the relaxation.