[TW for body horror]
The basement has mold.
The first time she hears those words, Alice is five years old. Her hand rests on the old brass doorknob of the basement’s gritty oaken frame and she pouts when twisting her wrist does not budge the lock that holds it in place. Her father’s hand rests on her shoulder in a grip much tighter than one holding a five-year-old should use and he pulls her away from it. Alice remembers the way her hand slips from the door, her palms slick with sweat from the tightness of a grip she does not realize that she is using.
“You can’t go down there, sweetheart,” Her father states apologetically, “The basement has mold.”
“That’s okay,” She responds enthusiastically, “I don’t mind!.”
She does not understand how mold can hurt her. Her father takes the time to explain what it is. She leaves the situation with new knowledge and an intimate fear of breathing near strange plants that she does not know the origins of. She does not try to get into the basement again that day.
The next time she tries she is eight and she is positive that it is where her father is hiding her Christmas presents. The old door is decorated with the singular image of a snowman. It’s beady black eyes stare directly down at Alice as she reaches for the doorknob, judging her sins as she performs them. The attentive stare of the snowman makes her uneasy, and the gentle sound of that old song comes into the forefront of her mind. He sees you when you’re sleeping…
It is the snowman that makes her turn away from the door in the end. Its judgement grows too heavy on her young consciousness for her to bear herself to it. She cannot handle the responsibility of knowing that it will be the only one around her to share her secrets. She remembers the terrifying things her father tells her about mold and she steals herself not to enter. She does not tell her father that she tried.
She is thirteen when she finally finds herself asking a question that has long since made itself known on the tip of her tongue. Alice only now has the vocabulary enough to fully request a response from her father. She stares at him over the history book propped up on the kitchen table and raises an eyebrow. He does not take notice of her intent gaze, so she bring herself to ask the question out loud:
“Why don’t we have someone come and try to get rid of the mold in the basement?”
Her father looks at her seriously. He looks at her like he wasn’t ready for her to ask such a sharp witted question. For a moment Alice feels pride well up in her chest. She is proud that she manages to surprise her father, a man who never seems shocked at anything. She revels in that momentary sense of superiority for as long as it lasts before he shatters it with his own responses.
It lingers for so long that she almost misses her father’s noncommittal shrug as he goes back to his newspaper. His eyes trail along the words in black and white aimlessly and, for a moment, Alice wonders if he’s actually reading the newspaper at all. She wonders if he’s just pretending to in order to seem like he isn’t interested in her words. Though the thought hurts, it is not one she would put past the man and his varying quirks.
“I’ve had a few people come over to fix it,” He says, “But it always seems to come back. I’m waiting a bit longer before I call someone else to see if they can manage it.”
Alice accepts the answer at that moment. She is satisfied to know that there was, at least, an attempt to deal with the natural poison growing beneath them. It is only when she is in bed and on the verge of dreamless sleep that she considers the response. She gains a realization of how she had never actually seen anyone enter her house with the purpose of going into the basement. Just when did her father ever call these people to fix it? And when did they come?
She falls asleep and the thoughts are lost to the dreamless void shortly after. She does not remember them when she wakes up.
Alice is brought to the present by the sound of a kettle whistling shrilly through the late afternoon air. Her hands reach for the familiar buttons on the stove and she flicks the gas off with practiced precision. The tea kettle simmers down to a dull hum of heat and she reaches to pour some of the water into a waiting mug filled with a teabag of chamomile and honeysuckle leaves. They dye the water green and murky with their essence and it is all of Alice’s mental effort not to sip on the boiling hot liquid the moment it steeps into the cup.
Harold enters the kitchen and places two buckets of unopened paint down on the table. The old wood creaks beneath the added weight, a complaint against the suddenness of their presence, but holds even as he leans on its side. Alice finds herself hopping up onto the countertop as she waits for her tea to finish steeping. She tries to ignore the distinct discomfort that settles in the marrow of her bones as the house she had grown up in now looms over her. Despite her father’s death nearly two months ago,this was the first time she had returned to the decrepit little plot of land.
“Once we repaint the living room,” Harold says with an edge of exhaustion to his voice, “We should work on retiling the floors in here.”
“Should we get all new tiles or just order replacements for the old ones?”
“That’s up to you. Do you want to change the whole look?”
Alice sighs through her nose as she picks up her mug, her brain too muddled with the past several hours of moving to fully make the decision that faces her. She blows on the steaming hot cup of tea and looks up at the ceiling with idle interest. The silence that flows between the two lovers is viscous in its presence and leaves the both of them feeling overwhelmed without the use of words. Alice knows the old house well enough to hear the scrape of wood against tile as he sits down in one of the antique chairs lining the stained kitchen table. His fingers tap on the paint can lids to the tune of This Old Man.
“We should probably tackle the basement soon, too. What’s down in it, anyways? Storage?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been in the basement yet.”
“You’ve been in it in the past though, right?”
Something shifts in the air between the two of them. The oxygen around Alice grows heavier with the weight of her words and she tries her best to will away the growing anxiety that wants to swell in the pit of her stomach. She counts to ten in her head like her therapist had told her to when those overwhelming feelings of paranoia come up without warning. She tries to remember to count her breaths before she forgets to stop breathing altogether. She doesn't know why this sudden feeling of anxiety hits her with such intense waves, but she does what she must to get through it.
“Why haven’t you gone down before?” Harold’s frown is visible in his tone as he inquires.
Alice feels her shoulders rise in a noncommittal shrug. Her lips touch her mug in a slow show of sipping the hot chamomile from its confines. The herbaceous flavor coats her tongue and her muscles visibly relax as she sinks against the countertop.
“It has mold.” The answer falls from her lips as easily as it has every other time she has said it. She speaks it with the same intonation that her father always uses. There is no other explanation she needs to give because that is the only explanation that exists. It has always been the only explanation. She is content enough to take another sip of her tea as Harold shoots her a look that holds itself somewhere between incredulous and confused.
“Then shouldn’t you go down and take care of it?”
Her brow furrows. Confusion floods her stomach, or perhaps it is anxiety. She can’t tell the difference.
“Mold is dangerous, isn’t it? I don’t want to breathe it in.”
“I have a respirator mask in my truck. You can use that. You should know how bad it is before you start dealing with it yourself.”
Panic sets in her chest. She feels the slow constriction of her heart against her lungs and she isn’t sure that she can remember how to breathe. His words intrude on her reality for a few horrific moments. Her feet begin to kick the cabinets below her heels. They create a dissonant chorus whose moans match that of the tinnitus in her ears. Thrumming. Echoing. Endless.
“I suppose I could.” She agrees carefully.
Harold digs through his truck and finds his spare respirator. It takes a few moments of adjusting the mask’s straps before she is able to securely place it over her face and have it stay in place. The clunky, double-filter facepiece feels obtrusive against her nose and tastes like the inside of her air purifier. The flavor of its chemical coating burns her nostrils but she isn’t sure if that’s all that makes her want to pull it off.
The house was left to her in her father’s will and, thus, so was the basement and it’s key. The thing was a comically large victorian bauble with rusted brass along its handle and a set of oxidized teeth built to fit perfectly into its lock. Alice’s grip trembles as her sense of dread and curiosity grow in tandem with one another. As she exhales, her breath comes out in a muffled whistle through the filters. It is a testimony to their effectiveness. She feels all the more confined against it.
Harold does not see the way she hesitates as she slides the key into the lock. He misses the tautness of her shoulders as she turns her wrist. The gentle click of the bolts relinquishing their positions are suddenly the loudest thing that Alice has ever heard. Louder so is the ancient creak of unoiled hinges as the wooden door swings slowly inwards to reveal its singular case of concrete stairs. They descend sharply into a pit of murky darkness. Alice cannot see past the first four steps and, therefore, cannot determine just how many steps there are until she reaches the bottom.
She turns to look into the kitchen. Harold has gone off to get something from his truck once more. She is alone with the moldy basement she has never been allowed to enter.
It was fine, she reassures herself as she takes a step forward. It’s only mold. She is wearing a respirator. The only thing that will hurt her is the psychological damage that comes with seeing too much mold growing in one's basement walls. And, perhaps, slipping on one of the leaky stairs.
Stealing her courage, Alice descends the staircase. Her sneakers stick to the wet concrete with an echo of moist squeaks. There is no railing for her to hold onto as she falls into the depths below. She caresses the edges of the wall instead, using it as purchase whenever her feet miss the next step by a few centimeters. She does not notice that she is holding her breath until her lungs begin to ache beneath the weight of her skin. She exhales, but it is unsatisfying against the pressure of the respirator.
Her hands stop when she feels a switch beneath her fingers. She ceases walking as her feet hit even ground. There is an impounding silence as she simply stands there in the darkness. All the thoughts of her father come into the forefront of her mind as she calls upon his spirit for some sort of protection from the spores sure to be flying in the cracks of the walls around her. She flips the switch.
There is no mold in the basement.
The thing that stares back at her is not human.
Alice freezes as it shifts against the back walls. Pale limbs, twice the length of a normal human’s, reach out and touch at the concrete confines around it. Dull, cracked nails drag themselves aimlessly along the chipping drywall as it pulls itself upright and writhes against its own weight. Its face is neither human nor animal as its clouded, white eyes stare forwards at Alice with no discernable emotion other than bone-turning hunger.
It does not blink as it looks into her soul. It does not breathe as its mouth unhinges, limp and broken-jawed. Sets of gnashing, grinding, and spitting teeth bare themselves to the fluorescent bulb above its fleshy carapace. They are yellowed and cracked at the bottoms, pulled up into sickly grey gums that do not seem to have a start or end against its drooling, broad tongue that stinks of meaty, rotting wood.
She does not breathe as its fleshy, sopping head writhes in the joints of its neck. It twists and twists until the angle it hits is not one any human’s neck should be allowed to contort into. Its mouth is where its forehead should be and its eyes are upside down as it croaks out a noise similar to wind whistling through the eye holes of a skull. Alice does not know how she knows what that sounds like, but she knows it is the perfect description for what it is saying.
Its body begins to crawl, undulating like a newborn maggot, as it rises and falls towards her trembling form. The second noise that comes out of its mouth (or perhaps its eyes) is a wheezing whinny that scrapes like broken glass against her ear drums. It spurs her into action as she backs up towards the stairs once more. She turns off the light, but she can still see the whites of its eyes glowing in the leftover iridescence.
She can hear its nails scraping against the ground as she ascends backwards. A heavy thud of its body wiggling against the flattened concrete floor signals its attempt at movement, but it goes no further than that first step. She wonders if it is able to lift itself up the stairs. If it was, her mind argues, it would have certainly gotten out by now. She feels incredibly lucky that the unnamable abomination hasn’t seemed to figure out what ‘up’ is yet. She intends to keep it that way.
She reaches the top of the staircase after what feels like hours and she slowly closes the door in front of her. It clicks into place with a snap of the door handle. Her shaky hands shove the key back into the lock and she twists it shut. It’s only after the lock clicks and she tests its security by jiggling the handle that she thinks to pull the respirator off of her face. The ability to breathe properly through her nose once more is a gift in itself as she inhales sharply. Her mouth forms into a tight line and she cannot tell when she begins trembling, only that she cannot stop.
“Hey,” Harold’s voice calls out faintly behind her, “So what was down there?”
She faces him and tries her best to maintain calmness as she shrugs.
“Nothing,” She lies against trembling lips,
“The basement just has mold.”