Freshly picked, the daisies looked wonderful in the all white hallway. A little bit of yellow and green was all Julia needed to rid herself of her feelings of melancholy.
When she’d first arrived at the house, she had loved the white walls with white trim and the white ceilings. The white banister and curtains had struck her as elegant. It all felt so clean. As time went on, she found it difficult to think of the place as home.
Portraits and family photos stood out as eyesores along with any artwork Julia tried to nail to them; and mirrors only added new angles of white and reflected her head of thinning white hair.
The walls stood bare now.
Without personal effects one could be wiped away as easily as a smudge mark on the walls, Julia felt. Her therapist would no doubt find such thoughts concerning, but she never made appointments anymore. The price of sessions had grown beyond her means and the trip to the city proved less than convenient. Rest and ginger tea were all the remedy she could rely on now. The beauty of the flowers, too, insisted upon a mention.
There was something about the house other than the abundance of white that the flowers helped with too—the smell!
Often enough Julia caught a whiff of the enduring odor still. The smell remained subtle and not altogether unpleasant in the summer and spring with the windows open. The kitchen door lined up with the front door and created a capable path for the flow of air. When the rain came, the windows remained sealed and the smell grew heavy and oppressive. Musty and thick with a disquieting presence, it often proved impossible to ignore.
It had rained all week and the odor served as the reason for Julia collecting the daisies from her garden. That’s where she must’ve gotten them, she reasoned. No, her husband must’ve picked them that morning as he did often. He’d typically presented them to her, though, to cultivate a smile on her lips.
Her or her husband—one of them must’ve collected the daisies. She simply couldn’t remember who.
Her mind often betrayed her in such ways now. She’d lose things and find them where she hadn’t expected. With age came difficulties, both physical and mental. In fact, earlier that morning she’d spent an hour searching for her radio only to find it stored in the garage. She hadn’t the slightest idea of why she’d even bothered looking in the garage, much less why she’d have stored the radio there. If her husband had taken it to work on it, a thought that crossed her mind despite her husband being out of the house, he would have brought it to his workbench in the basement. Not the garage.
Coming back into the living room, radio in hand, Julia saw someone standing at the window. At least, she thought she did.
Sometimes, from the corner of her eye, the curtains took the form of another woman. Certainly it was a trick of the light, but the curtains— sheer vertical folds—seemed to raise slender arms in a horizontal rebellion, and from the middle of the form, no less; too far up to be excused as the lower loose flap rising in the breeze, of which, more often than not, could not flourish being that the windows were closed. The lower folds themselves rounded often to create the appearance of a large skirt when even one door or window stood open.
The wispy arms rose now as Julia crept to the living room. Her eyes watered. Her ears rumbled. Ignoring the sight, Julia put the radio on an end table and returned to the flowers in the hall.
From her place in the hall, she heard a pair of voices. They sounded like persons speaking with hands drawn over their mouths. Julia thought at first it was the radio, but she hadn’t plugged it in yet.
Stepping towards the door, she realized a man and a woman spoke on her porch. The man’s voice sounded familiar and Julia wondered if it wasn’t a distant neighbor she’d perhaps met once. No, she thought, it was more familiar than that with its southern drawl, the deep baritone. Her nephew. Yes, the voice most definitely belonged to her nephew. Was he checking in after so long of an absence? Julia would be damned if she was to show even the slightest bit of excitement. At least not until Samuel broached the subject of his absence, or, at very least, knocked.
If she were being honest, she couldn’t trust her memory enough to be sure he hadn’t visited recently—yesterday even—but she felt it in her gut he hadn’t.
Shuffling to the door, she pressed her ear to it.
“The house is haunted by it.” The door distorted her nephew’s voice. It sounded almost as if the voices were in the door itself. A crazy thought, Julia knew. She grew concerned that her hearing might be failing. “It’s in the walls. It’s in the floor. I would have removed it myself, but after what happened, I couldn’t stand this place.”
Samuel cut the woman off, “Painted over it, no doubt.”
The musty smell enveloped Julia and if it weren’t for her nephew and his uninvited guest speaking so softly, she would have moved away from the door and closer to the flowers to mask it. Daisies could always be relied upon to mask the odor.
She wished the woman would move off her porch and Samuel would come inside to explain what he was talking about. It was rather rude to stand on someone else’s front steps to have a personal conversation. If he referred to her house having mold, she’d find that rather insulting. She cleaned religiously, after all, and her husband wouldn’t let such a disgusting menace develop.
“Sealed, I would think?”
“No,” Julia’s nephew said. “No—no! It’s very aggressive, the mold. The things it did to—” The man paused, seemingly troubled. Almost as troubled as Julia had grown with her nephew’s lies. To exaggerate is one thing, but to make up nasty lies, well, it disgusted her.
At this point she lost interest and pulled away from the door. Let them discuss renovations and imaginary ailments if they wished, she fumed. She had better things to do. They’d move away from her door eventually.
It would be a shame to have a mold infestation, she thought, taking a moment to appreciate her own walls for a moment. She drummed her knuckles on the wood of the white banister, feeling superstitious. Treating any such infestation was beyond her and her husband’s means if, God forbid, one should take hold.
Presently, the white walls stood clean.
The place might not feel like home at times, but it had and it could again. She certainly felt safe inside away from the murmurs of those on the porch. At the moment, Julia found herself more annoyed than curious as to what they might be discussing. The house felt stuffy and she felt inclined to open a window, but she also felt that doing so would break the promise she’d just made herself not to engage her nephew until he had engaged her. Besides, there lingered moisture in the air. The wet weather made certain that the windows and doors remained sealed, if only to avoid damage to the hardwood floors.
Julia sniffed the flowers. Pollen tickled her nostrils and caused her to cough. She quickly covered her mouth in fear of being heard. She wasn’t allergic to the flowers. Rather her lungs were not in the greatest shape. The country air was supposed to help, but she felt it had done little to improve her wellbeing. In fact, it seemed almost as if the country had worsened her condition, though this might have just been the natural course wherever she took up residence.
A shriek pealed through the house.
Julia assumed for a moment it was the neighbor’s slaughtered pig, returned to life, but it was the tea kettle that whistled. Embarrassed, she finished arranging the flowers how she wanted them and hurried to remove the kettle from the stove.
Though no one resided near enough to hear—only the two murmurers on her porch—Julia felt it rude to allow the kettle to howl in such a way. Entering the kitchen, she saw that the kettle rested on a cool burner. The whistling died down. After a final weak cry, it fell silent.
Julia’s first thought was to see if the kettle felt hot or if she’d imagined the whistle. The steam rising from the spout told her enough. Second, she considered the kitchen door, which led outside. The Dutch door remained locked tight; the windows latched. She’d been standing in the hall—the only other way out of the kitchen—and saw and heard no one with the exception of her nephew who did not possess a key.
With some difficulty, she swallowed. Though she could make no sense of how the kettle had moved on its own, she decided it must be some science, some natural force that she was not privy to. Perhaps the heat caused the kettle to rattle away in a series of tiny steps. Perhaps an angle, too acute to see, but significant enough to allow gravity to take hold had caused the movement.
She had little patience for superstition even though she feared growing impairment to her mind and anything would be a greater comfort than the idea of her mind failing. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be, not with the depression and Alzheimer’s—a condition she refused to accept she had, but saw mounting evidence of. So perhaps she’d taken the kettle off before grabbing the flowers and the steam just got around to escaping now. Silly to think that might be the case, sure, but Julia didn’t even remember wanting hot water for tea in the first place.
Now that worry of declining metal health seized her, she decided tea would be nice. She poured herself a cup, spilling a little with a jolt of her arms. The sudden ringing of the telephone had startled her into getting water on the counter. Setting the kettle down she went to the hall where the landline hung. After brushing down her blouse and straightening her cuff, as if the caller might somehow see her, she answered the phone. She continued to brush her clothes to make certain she would be decent throughout the call.
She thought at first the line had gone dead, but then she heard it. A jagged in-out-in-out of air that might have been water for how much effort it demanded the caller’s lungs to exert in moving it. silence surrounding each labored breath seemed to occupy a physical space. The space yawned, hungry for substance and this set Julia on edge.
“Who is this? Answer me!” she said, a shiver betraying her otherwise assertive demand.
The silence consumed even the rough breathing for an instant, before a deep voice whispered, “Down.”
“Down?” Julia repeated after waiting a moment for the voice to say more.
“Who is this? And Down? Down where? Don’t be so obscure,” she snapped in her growing alarm. “Is the phone line down? Going down? The power?”
A click and dial tone followed the delivery of this second word, leaving Julia no chance to clarify who had called.
She didn’t know if she lost her grip or if the cord got caught on something, but the phone tumbled from her hand to the wood floor. Stooping, she retrieved it and placed it in its cradle before looking around the room. It felt as if someone had tugged it from her now that Julia had a moment to process the feeling. She looked to the front and back door and then the windows. The glass of each remained shut, but the white drapes had been drawn to allow the daylight in. Turning back to the phone, she inspected the cord. It didn’t seem to even have anywhere to snag—no crooked nail, no crevice in the baseboard. Julia stood barefoot, as indecent as that was, so she’d have known if her own heel or toes had caught the cord.
It must’ve been her fingers slipping. Only—
The basement door now stood ajar.
If this weren’t disconcerting enough, Julia could see a man move over to the window beside the front door and peer in. Staring at the window, Julia froze, not wanting movement to give her away. The man looked too old to be her nephew. Surely he hadn’t been away so long to look so much older. Perhaps it wasn’t her nephew. Perhaps she had forgotten his voice. His fault for visiting so rarely, Julia thought.
As she held her breath, she thanked herself for her wardrobe choice that morning of a white. The man’s eyes passed over her, not recognizing her white shape against the white hallway through the sheer panels that hung between the windows and the drawn curtains. Her heart beat quickened as she studied the man. His gray bushy eyebrows made his expression intense, almost menacing, and unfamiliar. A neighbor? An old friend? Her landlord? It had been so long since she had signed the lease she wasn’t sure she could be trusted to recognize him. Julia leaned against the hallway wall as he cupped his hands to get a better look inside. She wanted very much to sink right into the white panels herself.
The man withdrew from the window.
Julia took a few breaths before a sound caused her to stop breathing altogether. The basement door had creaked.
Curtains hung motionless.
The voices outside had gone silent. Only the shifting noises of an old house remained—the hum of pipes in the wall, the occasional creak of beams and floorboards.
The basement door resounded with another loud creak. The hinges needed oil, Julia thought if only to calm herself with something mundane, for her heart had begun to race. Her forehead and palm felt clammy.
She stared into the wedge of darkness that led to the basement. Her husband must’ve left a Hopper window open downstairs. As logical as a draft of wind was, the explanation did little to calm Julia. Inching towards the basement door, Julia steeled herself. She stepped closer and found herself once again holding her breath. Closer still, she inched.
As she grew close enough to shut the door, the phone rang, startling her. Exhaling, she felt around for the receiver, not wanting to take her eyes off the basement entry. The moment her eyes moved from it, the darkness would pounce. Her gut told her this, at least.
As she pressed the phone to her ear, the same labored breathing as before pulsed from it. As she listened, she became aware of hearing the breathing not only from her left where the phone pressed cruelly on the folds of her ear, but also from the right. In fact the right ear heard the breathing even more clearly.
From the basement. It came from the basement!
With a clatter, Julia dropped the phone and looked towards the front window, hoping to see her nephew or at least the man that had been peering in, whoever he might be. He had stolen his face away, though, as if it had never been there at all.
“Down,” the voice called from the dark in a gasp, a death rattle, a strained whisper, “stairs.”
The basement door crept opened further.
Julia took one step back before her feet froze in place.
Before she saw anything, she smelled an odor of rotten leaves and spoiled earth. The odor poured from the gloom, discharged like imperceptible pus from a large boil. Only when the door pressed flush against the hallway wall, could she see the possessor of the voice.
With the smell, Julia almost mistook the figure for a rotting log, but the log had shoulders and she could make out the silhouette of a head strung between the mounds that rose only to her knees. The figure pulled itself up a step, crawling like a half dead alligator. Near black, the figure’s wrinkled forehead and a single fleshy cheek stood out, vibrant peach in color. There were no whites to the eyes. Rather, polyps of a fuzzy green-black substance spilled from the hollow eye sockets in a pair of grotesque fountains.
“Julia,” the pitiful figure spoke, expelling a puff of spores.
Julia realized, to her horror, that the mass of green-black filth was her husband. She stumbled back and lost her balance as he reached out for her. Slamming hard onto her back, Julia struggled to catch her breath as she witnessed stray spores floating in the air. Spores crawled over the walls, too, surging from the basement, slouching outwards until the white wall had become covered in the same manner as her poor husband.
He crept out of the basement before he slunk on top of her.
Julia squeezed her eyes shut and wished she could seal her nostrils as she had her mouth, not even daring to scream as she felt the spores taking root in each of her pores; then the sponge of her lungs; then her moist eyeballs. The sensation made her nauseous.
Worst still than suffering the infiltration of her organs, she thought, was the scent that seized her thoughts. How dreadful this odor was, for now she smelled not only the musty scent of dirt, but the stench of something buried in it. Flesh, and pulp, and organs all decayed and Julia’s nose received each with equal disgust.
She smelled something else, too.
Daisies, she smelled daisies.
No. It couldn’t be daisies. She remembered that daisies did not possess a scent—at least not an agreeable one. Though she’d never noticed, others had claimed they reeked. They reeked of rot and manure, her husband frequently complained, yet he picked them often still, the aroma of his wife’s happiness overpowering all others. “Daisies are for looking at. Not smelling—not here,” her mother had told her firmly once when she’d wanted the bundle she’d picked from the neighboring gardens to festoon the tea table, a pleasant surprise for the expected afternoon guests. Yet, now, looking to the bouquet nearby, seeing the beauty of the white and yellow and green, remembering the arrangements of daisies and wildflowers her husband collected for her every other morning; the man who allowed her to display them despite the odor in the hallway where the air flowed or didn’t depending on if the doors stood open; as well as thinking about the flower crowns she’d made as a young girl—those crowns of dandelions, clovers, and juvenile daisies—she perceived a floral odor wafting from them nevertheless. The floral smell overpowered the revolting musk.
The weight of her decaying husband withdrew.
Creaking, the basement door closed.
Spores shed from Julia’s organs.
She opened her eyes to beautiful white walls, white banister, and white basement door. She’d fallen, she realized, embarrassed in her failing body. Perhaps she’d hit her head for she couldn’t remember the plummet or the impact. Still, her heart raced and she felt anxious. With no small effort, she made her way to her feet.
A faint musty odor disturbed her nostrils, but a faint odor meant so little in the grand scheme of things. She had a beautiful house to attend to and radio programming to listen in on. Besides, the scent of daisies would make the air bearable as her husband always said with a devious smile. Enjoyable even, Julia agreed.
She found her radio and plugged it in. She then moved to sniff her daisies and straightened them the way she wanted. Suddenly, she couldn’t even remember what had worried her a moment before. Her mind was a white wall, wiped clean. All she knew in that moment was that the daisies looked wonderful in the all white hallway.
This story previously appeared in The Horrorzine December, 2017 , and in audio format on the Scare You to Sleep podcast January 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Russell Dorn is an author from Reno, Nevada, who has short stories published in Third Flatiron's Infinite Lives anthology, Unnerving Magazine, Urhi’s anthology The Needle Drops..., and more.
Visit his website Russell Dorn for more information or follow him on Amazon and Twitter.