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cellar dweller

Donald McMann

There. He heard it again. It was tenish. A Tuesday. He’d been half-watching a documentary about forests somewhere and he’d awakened to the sound. Water running. A muffled bang, and then the sound of rushing water that ended almost as quickly as it began. 
          He muted the TV. Silence. It was as though someone had briefly opened a tap. Or flushed a toilet. In the distance. But that couldn’t be. Ever since Edna left, Dave Davis had lived alone in the big, split-level that had now been home for thirty-seven years. He couldn’t be sure, but he’d noticed this sound soon after winter set in. Soon after that first big snowfall. Two or three times a week, though it might have been every night. Thanks to the need for a little wine therapy for his stress, he might have occasionally fallen asleep in front of the TV. There had to be some explanation for those wine stains on his trousers. So, he could have slept through the mysterious sounds. It could be happening every night. This night, however, there was no doubt. He’d heard it. And tonight, he would check the bathrooms. For what, he couldn’t articulate. A leak? A worn toilet float. 
          “A ghost,” he said aloud.
          He struggled to his eighty-two-year-old feet, steadied himself a moment, and then checked the main floor powder room. Nothing. Reluctantly, he climbed the stairs to the bedroom level. The family bath was quiet. As usual. Just as with his en suite. Now that he was upstairs, he contemplated going to bed, but it was barely ten and besides, he felt uneasy. There was the bathroom in the basement, but the water had been turned off for years. Not likely a problem. He’d have some brandy and catch the news.

The next day Dave reluctantly called his son Richard. Richard had always helped out, but recently he’d become increasingly censorious. 
          “Dad, you shouldn’t be living alone. Dad, the house is falling apart. Dad, get some rest. Dad, you’re drinking too much.” 
          This call was more of the same. 
          “Dad, how much are you drinking these days? I’m not one to point fingers, but . . .” Richard’s voice trailed off.
          “How much am I drinking? Your implication is exactly right. I do have a problem with alcohol: I just can’t seem to get enough.” Dave chuckled at his well-worn joke. 
          Richard smiled just as he did whenever he needed a filling and his dentist, brandishing a hypodermic, said, “Let me make a point about flossing.” 
          “Okay. Okay—but you get enough brandy on board, and perceptions can be distorted. Do you fall asleep at night or just pass out?”
          “Sober or drunk—if I hear water running, there’s water running. I’m looking for a little support here. And what do I get? ‘You’re an old drunk.’ Or like yesterday—maybe I need someone to talk to. That’s exactly what I need: I need a new plumber.”

“You have a security system. Do you turn it on when you go to bed?”
          “Umm. Mostly . . .”
          “How about occasionally?”
          “Sure, but . . .”
          “How about”—and here Richard paused for effect— “how about never”? (Never had two, drawn-out syllables.)
          The discussion continued. Topics ranged from arthritis and mobility to judgment, to moving to some place smaller, to Type-2. Brandy may have made its way awkwardly into the conversation as well. Twice. And there were promises.

And then a new mystery. It was 6:37 p.m. on Thursday morning. Okay. It wasn’t p.m. But that’s the closest Dave got to successfully changing the clock away from Daylight Saving Time. The clock’s pink plastic case bore a large crack as evidence of Dave’s struggle. No wonder Edna left the clock. This day, however, as Dave lay in bed, the battle between reluctant joints and an insistent bladder raged. And then there was toast. Toast. Not fresh toast. It smelled like the memory of toast. No more than a whiff. But toast, nonetheless. Imagination. 

Dave found a new plumber. (Mike had retired a year earlier—why were people always retiring? Damned inconvenient. Doctors, lawyers, even his dry cleaner.) The new plumber was Glenda. Dave chuckled at her slogan: “My career goes down your drain.”
          He waited while she climbed from the basement up to the back door landing.
          “Everything’s fine. I turned the water back on, and when the tank filled, I put in a new float. I think I have to charge you ten percent extra, though.”
          “And why is that?” He sounded arch.
          “It’s the ten percent dead spider surcharge. Man. There had to have been a hundred of ’em. A thousand.”
          “I save them for making soup. You want some of the next batch?”
          Glenda laughed. Made a horrified face. “Not a chance, but everything’s fine downstairs. I bet that mysterious sound is your hot water tank topping up. Easy, right?”
          Dave was in the midst of a big sigh of relief when Glenda interrupted.
          “One thing, though.”
          “That electrical outlet on the light fixture over the sink?”
          “What about it?”
          “It’s not really meant for things like small appliances. Not safe, really. You got lots of other outlets down there. And even though the toaster’s not plugged in, it’s still on the vanity. It’s still a temptation. It’s still dangerous.”
          Glenda might have said more. Or maybe she didn’t. Dave passed back the debit machine—that much he remembered. But nothing else. Toast. The smell not quite disseminated by the time it reached his bedroom. Toast. The toast was real. Real toast. But why? Who?
          Later that night he heard the sound again. He went and stood at the top of the basement stairs. Listening. And then he called to her. 
          “Edna?” His voice caught. “Is that you? Edna?” 
          He closed the door to the cellar, and he locked it. He set the alarm. He poured some brandy. 


For as long as he has been working, Donald McMann has made his living by writing. He’s written speeches, magazine articles, obituaries, technical manuals, entire communications plans, abject apologies. He spent time in public relations, the likely origin of his interest in writing fiction. Between 2001 and the end of 2022, he was a full-time faculty member at McEwan University where he was an assistant professor in the English department. And he still writes short stories. His work has been published in Canada, the US, and the UK. He’s even been published in Asia. McMann lives in Edmonton, Canada with his wife and critic (not to be confused with a critical wife) Elsa Rice, a practicing lawyer. Don’s writing can be read at

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