“What about this one?” Kat holds up their phone. On the screen: a sprawling, old-style wooden ranch house nestled in half a square acre of disheveled grass. We’ve been searching for three weeks now; the landlord’s pressuring us to leave and we’re starting to get desperate. Affordable three bed places are thin on the ground lately. Anywhere big enough for three adults is an option.
“Looks a bit…. Wait, basement and garage?” Kat nods, eyes wide. I flick through the photos intently. They’re professionally taken. I’ve seen enough fisheye-lens property portraits to know the bedrooms aren’t as big as they seem, but there are three of them. The windows are wide, the floors are freshly laid, and the walls are bright with fresh magnolia paint. My eye catches on chipped skirtingboards and glimpses of peeling pain, just out of the edge of the frame.
“And cheap...$1600 a month. We might actually manage it”. There’s a gloomy shot of the basement, taken from the stairs; I make out a cement floor and a large sink, but not much else.
“We could do it up a bit,” Kat looks hopeful. “No harm in looking!”
The house squats way back from the road, and long grass sways in the expanse between it and the seven-foot wire-link fence that marks the property line. The neighbours’ houses keep their distance from the overgrown shrubs at the border.
“Old- style? Looks like it was built by the Pioneers.”
“It’s…spacious?” I try. “Lots of planting space!” Hermes doesn’t look convinced. Kat’s still fiddling with their phone and the heavy yellow lockbox clamped under the padlock.
“Damn contactless viewings”, they mumble, slipping off their mask and holding the phone to their face again. The identity verification app chirps. “Yes, I am who I say I am. Gotta keep your nice empty house secure, after all.” Their phone pings; the gate rattles as they punch in the code. A second later, and it reveals a rusted ring of keys.
They fumble one of them into the huge brass padlock, and together we heave it aside. The metal shudders over the uneven ground on rattling plastic castors. We walk slowly together toward it; the wooden steps up to the porch groan as we climb. Hermes and I glance around shiftily, keeping watch as Kat bends to turn the key, though we’re not doing anything we shouldn’t be.
“We’re in!” Predictably, the door creaks as it swings inward. It was painted brown, a long time ago.
The walls are indeed fresh with new paint, the trendy grey-laminate floors as sleek as they were in the photos, but they can’t mask the cracked bulging wood of the window frames, or the strange shape of the rooms. Wherever I look there’s an odd corner held out into the room at right angles, an alcove where a closet used to be, gaping open into the room. The skirting board is missing entirely—there’s a damp space where it used to be—and the floor shifts unnervingly under the laminate as we walk. I turn to speak to Kat and notice two heavy, square iron brackets bolted to the wall either side of the door. They, too, have been painted magnolia. I point them out to the others, make a halfhearted joke about keeping the landlord out, and try not to think about why they’re there.
Somehow, despite their size—almost the whole front wall—the windows completely fail to capture any light. An ancient doorbell crouches high in the corner of the room like a bulbous metal spider dotted with rust, disconnected from anything; careful magnolia brushstrokes around it signify that, rather than remove it, someone had chosen to leave it there.
A fireplace squats in the middle of the wall; it’s soot-blackened mouth breathes a musty drought into the room. I wonder how long it’s been since anyone looked inside, or what they’d find if they did. I decide that’s a job for someone else, and cover my mouth.
“Jesus!” A sharp crack noise breaks my train of thought; I spin in place to find Kat by an old brass-metal switch, looking confused. Nothing happens. They flick it up and down a few more times; still nothing.
“The light doesn’t work,” they shrug. “Guess we’re investigating in the dark, then.” I shiver a little. Their voice is hoarse under their mask; they reach for an inhaler and count out the seconds, taking a puff. “Hayfever.”
The next room’s smaller; a bedroom. Here, too, the front and side windows are huge. In such a small space it’s like being inside a fish tank. I can’t help but feel a little exposed. What draws my attention, though, is the ceiling fan. It’s enormous and ornate, lifted directly from some Edwardian ballroom. The centre is a bulbous brass-effect half-globe, its surface chased in thick filigree. The blades are huge; more like propellers. Made of real varnished wood, they’re so big they droop toward the floor like wilted flower petals. I walk under it; the top of my head moves it softly into motion. I hope none of our guests are tall.
The corridor to the kitchen wasn’t included among the photos in the listing, and I can see why. It’s full of sharp, irregular angles and empty corners grimy with dust. A piece of wood juts alarmingly from behind the paint. Next to the closet door is a small box, about a foot high, made of dry, brittle wood. I lift the lid and peer down into an empty pit about three feet deep, that extends past the bottom of the floor and abruptly ends. I put the lid back.
“Pit in a box!” proclaims Kat. They peer inside the closet. “Yikes.” I join them in the doorway, and can’t help but agree.
For one, the curtain pole is held in place by two-inch-thick metal chains, which have also been painted magnolia. I wonder what could have been hanging from them, and question whether I want to know. I cast my eye up to the ceiling, and take a step back automatically because it isn’t there. The top of the closet extends up past the ceiling of the corridor into the attic, where the shadows take on the shape of roof beams high above. The same musty drought blows in my face, tingled with a smell I can’t place. My eyes begin to itch.
The kitchen’s a haphazard assortment of wooden cupboards, doors and drawers, many of which don’t seem to belong together. Everything is covered in a thick layer of white gloss paint, the brushstrokes visible in the fading light. The peeling Formica worktops are slightly askew on top of the mismatched cabinetry; the worktop to the right is about a foot lower than the one on the left. On the lowered side is a sink held in place by globs of silicon sealant. I pull open a drawer; there’s a metallic rustling as about forty loose keys slide forward.
It’s a couple of uneven steps down to the utility room, but the ceiling is much higher than the kitchen’s, slanting steeply down to meet the three foot high wall opposite the door. It’s narrow but long and the floor is grubby pink mottled lino. To one side is an exterior door, through which I see glimpses of the yard and a couple of shabby outbuildings. I take a step toward it.
“Fuck!” Something pale and bulbous looms toward me from a hole in the wall. I flinch away, and shout as my head cracks on the sloping ceiling; the noise brings the others crashing into the room.
“Caught me by surprise… what is it?” Now that the pain’s subsided a little, I’m slightly embarrassed to see the thing isn’t moving. The hole in the plaster is about a foot square, jagged and unfinished, cut around two metal spigots. Thick round globs of something white and puffy surround them, stuck together like the dripping larvae of some horrible creature oozing out of the wall.
Kat examines it from a few feet away, still hesitant to go near it. “Sealant, I think. For the appliance taps. It’s dry, but… that is an impressively bad job.” The engineer in them seems a little in awe.
Hermes calls out from behind the other door. It’s a bathroom of sorts; a tiny toilet sits on the short side of the room, so that the slanted roof is directly over the cistern. There is no sink. Above it, in the middle of the ceiling, is another worn metal light switch. I flick it a few times. Nothing happens. My nose has been running for a little while now, and my eyes are sore. Kat takes another puff on their inhaler.
“Are you sure it’s in here?”
“Yes. The agent hasn’t been here, but she assured me the basement is in the garage.”
“That explains some things.”
The garage is a large, square wooden structure, imposing, in a derelict kind of way. The huge barn doors were once trimmed in red, but that was a long time ago; now they sag on their hinges, held together with a heavy lock. I drag the door open to let in as much light as possible; it doesn’t help much. In honesty, there’s not much a basement could do to convince us to take the place; now we’re propelled forward by something else. Morbid curiosity, maybe.
I enter first, Kat and Hermes’ phone flashlights at my back. At the lights move, we make out a cement floor coated in thick dust and dried grass. Decaying wooden planks hold up the walls and ceiling, rounded at the corners with age and neglect. Kat flicks a switch; in the corner, a single fluorescent tube flickers dimly to life and fills the room with dull, quavering light. To the left is a heavy wooden worktop crisscrossed with deep gauges. A huge pegboard looms above it. As we move the light there’s a sharp metallic glint from the far side. I move in for a closer look.
“Argh! Razorblade!” I jump back; clean and bright in the flashlight, it’s halfway embedded in the top of a sawn-off beam. Kat and Hermes murmur their warnings, and we give it a wide berth, but even as we move I keep my eyes locked on the savage little blade.
Opposite the tube light’s a square hole. On inspection, it’s the top of a set of rough concrete steps that lead down into darkness. Kat steps forward. I throw out an arm to take the light from them.
“You’re the driver. You go last.”
The light behind me trembles, casting dark square shadows in front of me as I descend. The ceiling is low, less than six feet, but the corners of the room hold irregular pools of shadow. I look up, and blanch as a large metal hook swings into view. The ceiling is littered with about thirty of them, not far above my head. I step back and notice the floor isn’t even; it slopes steadily down to the centre of the room, where a metal grate covers a large drain in the floor.
“Plants?” Hermes murmurs, drawing a little closer in the dark.
There’s another click, and the quiet sizzle of another tube light. This, too, flickers in the gloom. It really only darkens the shadows at the edge of our vision; the disturbed dust floats in and out of them without a clue as to what’s there, and I’m seized with a desire to expel them. I pick a shadow at random and investigate; as I draw nearer with the light, it stays as dark as ever. A square patch of shadow, and a few floating dust motes in the blackness. I realise with shock that I’m seeing into the foundation of the house; with uncharacteristic self-preservation, I decide against reaching into the hole for a closer look.
Great place to hide a body, I think, and then regret it.
Outside, Kat pulls in a deep lungful of air.
“There’s some weird mould in there or some shi,” they say. “I could not breathe.” Once we’re out of the gate, padlock reaffixed and keys stowed in their heavy yellow lockbox, we all take a breath.
“I see why the security now. It’s not so we can’t get in… it’s so the house can’t get out.” Hermes snorts; he is beginning to return to his usual colour.
“Oh Jesus, you wouldn’t want that. It’d be a danger to the neighbourhood. Best keep it locked up nice and snug.”
I think about making another quip, but the sun is beginning to dip behind the trees and there’s a chill in the air. Best avoid tempting fate, I think. Best we just get away, first.
Arsha Adarsh is a chronically ill, Desi poet and writer from the UK who’s fallen in love with The Oregon sky. They find healing in the weird and the unexpected. Their work’s been published by Ang(st), Ayaskala, The Daily Drunk, Ghost Heart, Analogies & Allegories, and others. They’re a BOTN 2020 nominee. Find out more at https://aadarsh.ink, or follow them on Twitter @arsha_writes or Mastodon @firstname.lastname@example.org. They’d love to hear from you!