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       Mold, p.1

           Lindsey Goddard
 
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Mold


  Mold

  a short story

  by Lindsey Beth Goddard

  originally published in Jennifer Miller's Ladies Of Horror 2009

  Cassie set her suit case in the grass, studying the bungalow's timeworn porch with a nervous blink of her eyes. It was quaint, out of place among the newly constructed split-levels and condos she'd passed on the way. Brick pillars stood on either side of the front steps; the grout had long-ago cracked and turned yellow. Three small windows—even in size—lined the front of the house, framed with maroon shutters. Paint peeled in large patches, revealing the dull color of wood underneath. Cassie sighed. Her stomach felt hard, like the center of a tightly-pulled knot. She had never been on her own before...

 

  Cassie gazed at the baby cradled in her arms. Softly, she traced a finger down the side of his face. “Well, kiddo. Home sweet home, for now... I guess...” Scooping the handle of her suitcase into her free hand, she smiled at her baby, lingering on his deep brown eyes. You look so much like Nathan, she thought. How will I ever stop thinking about him?

 

  As she approached the porch steps, she tested the first stair, pushing on the wood with one foot. The porch had once been a dark maroon color. Now, large areas of light-brown wood were visible where the weather had stripped the paint. She ran her fingers down the wooden banister. Thick splinters of wood stuck out like porcupine quills, some loose and some dangling in the wind. The porch's railing had been warped by the passing of years, wiggling underneath her weight. She slowly ascended the stairs.

  The rusty hinges of the screen door creaked in protest as Cassie pulled it open. Taking a deep breath, she balled her fist and knocked.

 

  An elderly woman answered the door. Long white hair hung past her shoulders. Sagging skin forced her mouth into a permanent frown; her lips were puckered and dry. Her skin was a mosaic of liver spots and creases. But this is not what held Cassie's attention. In the center of the woman's eyes, where her pupils should have been, a smoky gray color blossomed, spreading across the surface of her irises.

 

  “You are... the new boarder,” the old woman wheezed, breathing deeply in between words. Cassie choked back a gasp as the woman reached out, touching the baby's cheek with her palm. A smile tugged at the corners of her withered lips, almost defeating that frown. “Please... please... come in...” She gestured Cassie inside with a sweep of her arms, her brittle hands shaking as she did.

 

  Cassie stepped into the den and looked around. The interior was an improvement from the outside, but not by much. A floral couch and loveseat sat to her right. An enormous collection of glass knickknacks decorated a plethora of shelves. The air smelled of dust and old potpourri.

 

  She turned back to the woman. “My name is Cassie,” she said, extending her hand for a shake. “And this is Caleb.” She nodded her head toward the baby.

 

  The old woman ignored Cassie's hand and touched her fingertips to her chest. “Barbara,” she wheezed. “Barbara... Jennings.”

  She shuffled forward, close enough for Cassie to feel the heat of her breath, and lifted her hand into the air. “May I?” she asked. The woman's outstretched fingers nearly touched Cassie's face.

 

  “May you what?”

 

  Before she could answer, Barbara placed her hand on Cassie's face. She ran a palm over her cheekbone, felt the curve of her chin. She pressed on Cassie's nose, groped her forehead. The woman's lips tried to form a smile, fighting against gravity. “You... are... pretty,” she said in a hoarse whisper.

 

  Horror struck Cassie as she stared into Barbara's vacant eyes. She can't see a thing. She is blind.

 

  “It's... not... so bad,” Barbara said, sensing the young girl's revelation. “I still... get around.” The old woman tried to smile again, but something seemed to catch in her throat. She paused, breathing deeply, lungs rattling in her chest. She put her hands on her knees, concentrating on breathing.

 

  After a moment, she stood upright again, hand to her chest. “Let me... show you... the basement,” she said.

 

  Cassie stiffened. “Furnished basement for rent”, the paper had said, but now she was having second thoughts. This house was old—really old—and the thought of living in the basement made her palms begin to sweat.

 

  Barbara waved a hand in the air, leading her toward the hallway. She opened a white door between the kitchen and the bathroom. A cold draft swirled up from the darkened stairwell. Cassie stood behind the old woman, gazing into the blackness with dread.

 

  Barbara flicked the wall switch to her right. Warm yellow light poured over the pink carpet of the stairs; a gentle hum of electricity filled the stairwell. The steps and basement floor were carpeted in dull pink, much lighter than a carnation.

 

  “Look around... down there,” Barbara instructed. “I... have—” She stopped in the middle of her sentence, struggling to catch her breath. “Trouble... with... stairs,” she finished.

 

  Cassie gripped the banister with one hand, a firm grip on Caleb with the other. The stairs were steep, and not very wide. She descended them cautiously, fingers tightly wrapped around the railing.

 

  She reached the bottom of the stairs, expecting to see cob webs and gloom. Instead she saw a mauve couch with plush pillows. A small kitchenette lay to her right, complete with a sink. An old refrigerator buzzed in the corner. A painting of a sailboat hung behind a mauve loveseat. An old TV sat, unplugged, in the corner.

 

  Cassie could barely make out the shape of a bed in the adjoining room. Walking past the living room, she reached her hand into the darkness, feeling for a switch. Her fingers scrambled over the wall, anxious to shed some light. She found the switch and quickly flipped it on.

 

  A blue quilt lay stretched over a queen-sized bed. Against the far wall stood a white dresser, and a full length mirror, framed in silver, hung near the nightstand.

 

  This wasn't the creepy basement Cassie had feared it might be. There were no cement floors... no spider webs. The furniture looked comfortable, if a little outdated. At two-hundred bucks a month, she couldn't pass it up. Money was tight right now with Nathan away.

 

  Sighing, she pinched the bridge of her nose. She would pay the old woman tonight. They would live here... for now.

  **

 

  Cassie rattled the hardware bag, eying the numerous nuts and bolts inside. They clinked together, glinting in the light, before settling back at the bottom. There were so many screws that Cassie began to wonder if she'd get done before Caleb's bedtime. The crib had been easy to take apart, but putting it back together looked a little more complicated.

 

  She yawned. It had been a long day. Most of her and Nathan's possessions were in storage now, so she didn't have to carry much down to the basement. Just a few boxes of clothes, a high chair, and Caleb's swing, where he sat in the living room watching the mobile spin above his head. No, it hadn't been the labor of moving that drained Cassie. It was the emotional strain.

 

  She missed him, plain and simple. Waking up to his smile. Smelling his deodorant when he held her. She missed every part of Nathan, and wanted him back...

 

  But Nathan Solomon belonged to the United States Army for the next two and a half months.

 

  Cassie groaned, fighting back the tears. She sat alone on the floor, surrounded by wooden pieces, with no man to lend her a hand. She reached into her pocket for the crumpled p
iece of paper she'd read twenty times since Nathan left. He had stuffed it into her pocket as they kissed goodbye. “Keep this with you,” he had whispered in her ear.

 

  She looked at the paper. It was wrinkled and worn from constant handling.

 

  Cassie,

  You and Caleb are everything to me. Take care of him while I'm gone. I wish I could have left you with more money, but this decision couldn't wait any longer. We can't make the rent, and I know it's my fault. When the eviction notice came, I couldn't sleep for days. The old lady with the furnished basement will take $200 a month. Take the money I left and stay there until I come back. I'm doing this for all three of us. Things will get better. Please don't cry.

  Love,

  Nathan

  A tear hit the page as she read the last sentence. “Please don't cry” was easier said than done.

 

  She stuffed the letter back into her pocket and grabbed the Ziploc bag full of hardware. Caleb's swing ticked with the soothing rhythm of a pendulum, causing her eyelids to droop. She scanned the pieces of wood on the carpet, wondering where to begin.

 

  Something in the corner of the room caught her eye. Something black on the drywall, near the bed.

 

  She rose on all fours, pushing pieces of Caleb's crib out of her path. She crawled across the room, until she was close enough to touch the drywall with her fingers. It looked like someone had dipped a sponge in wet ashes and blotted the wall. Stains—like black ink—seeped through the clean, white paint. The darkest part was in the corner, where the two walls met. Black as tar, it bled into smoky shades of gray as it spread further up the wall.

 

  Cassie knew exactly what it was. “Mold,” she whispered.

 

  As a child, she'd seen mold like this in her father's basement. The pipes down there always seemed to leak, and he had neglected to fix them. Until it started to make everyone sick.

 

  Cassie sighed, exasperated, and fell onto her back. She stared at the ceiling, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

 

  If there was mold in the drywall, it would make the baby sick. She'd seen it on TV, read about it in magazines, and her childhood was living proof. Mold spores got inside your lungs; they made you cough, caused a fever. She couldn't put Caleb through that.

 

  First thing in the morning, Cassie would have a word with Mrs. Jennings. She couldn't live in this basement under such conditions. Something would have to be done.

 

  She lifted her head to take another look, and gasped.

 

  The corner was empty. The mold had disappeared. Clean white paint met her gaze, good as new. “What?” She pushed herself into a sitting position and stared blankly at the wall. “But it was just there... I saw it. There was mold... right there...”

  **

 

  Cassie awoke to the sound of the baby crying. She checked the clock. 2 AM.

 

  This wasn't like him. Caleb had been sleeping through the night since she started him on solid food. He rarely whined for a bottle anymore, especially in the middle of the night. And yet his little voice wailed, reaching peaks of frantic fury that caused Cassie's stomach to tighten.

 

  She threw her covers to the side and swung her feet onto the floor. “I'm coming, I'm coming...” she muttered.

 

  She rose from the bed, walking over to the light switch, nearly twisting her ankle on a toy. “Damn...” she said, rubbing her foot as she leaned against the wall for support. Her fingers found the switch. Warm yellow light flooded the room. Cassie's eyes widened; her breath caught in her throat.

 

  Greyish mold, like the kind she'd seen on cheese and bread, bloomed across the ceiling, snaking down the walls. Mold the color of ripe tree moss spread across the furniture. It framed the door, growing in every portion of the room.

  Caleb let out a hysterical yelp, and Cassie remembered why she'd left bed in the first place. She sprinted to the crib in three long strides, and peered over the rail, her heart skipping a beat.

 

  The baby wailed, but this couldn't be her baby. Not Caleb. Empty eye sockets stared back at her, rimmed with white puss. The tongue darting out of that screaming mouth was covered in fuzzy black mold. The fingernails were infected with fungus, yellowed and cracking away in thin pieces. A rash of purple blotches covered its skin, rotting in the tender creases of its arms and legs. The baby kicked and screamed, as if in pain or protest. Cassie couldn't tell which. A horrid odor invaded Cassie's nostrils, overpowering her other senses. It smelled like old garbage and stagnant water, like death...

 

  Cassie slapped a hand over her mouth. Her throat flexed, threatening to purge her stomach of its contents. She clenched her eyes shut, as tightly as she could, concentrating on calming her heart. The rapid thuds continued to thunder in her chest as Cassie strained to slow her breathing. And then... suddenly... there was silence. No crying.

 

  Reluctantly, Cassie forced her eyes to open. The first thing she noticed was that Caleb's skin was clean. When she sniffed, she caught the hint of baby soap from the bath he'd had earlier that day. He was sleeping soundly in his crib. The real Caleb. No black tongue, no empty eye sockets. “What's wrong with me?” she whimpered. “For Christ's sake!”

  **

 

  Cassie relaxed on the smooth white porcelain, allowing her tension and worries to wash away in the steaming bath water. Barbara Jennings' basement might not be a luxury suite, but at least Cassie had her own bath tub. The ceiling had been finished with drop-down tiles. A faux marble counter adorned the wall to her right, highlighted by four light bulbs above a brass-framed mirror. A small basement window behind the tub had been decorated with floral drapes, blocking out most of the sun.

 

  A candle flickered on the sink top, filling the room with the sweet scent of vanilla. The smell of candles always helped to calm Cassie's nerves. She desperately needed to relax.

 

  They had spent three peaceful days in Mrs. Jennings' furnished basement, and things seemed to be working out fine. The kitchen area was really a bar with a sink and microwave, but Cassie didn't need a stove. Jarred baby food required little preparation. The washer and dryer were in good shape, and the TV set got basic cable. There was no reason to complain, not really, but the memory of the hallucinations never left Cassie's mind. She could still see the mold whenever she closed her eyes... everywhere... even on her baby boy.

 

  She dipped her head beneath the water, running pruney fingers through her long, dark hair. Water poured from the faucet, filling her head with a gentle rumbling noise as it hit the porcelain. She'd been in the tub so long, she decided to open the drain and start running a fresh batch of hot water. She listened to the torrents spilling into the tub, holding her breath underneath the water. The drain gurgled as the water roared.

 

  Then a shrill sound filled her ear drums. A high-pitched buzz—like the hum of a thousand fluorescent lights—overwhelmed the muted splash of the water. She brought her head above the surface, but the buzzing continued, deafening Cassie to every other sound.

  She turned the dial on the faucet, stopping the water. The shrieking persisted in her head.

 

  She rose from the tub, neglecting to grab her bath robe, running to the light switch near the sink. She flicked the lights off, hoping electricity was to blame. The orange flame danced on the candle wick, casting flickers of light across the darkened room.

 

  Still the high-pitched assault on her ear drums continued.

 

  Cassie's lips trembled as she raised her palms to her ears in a feeble attempt to block out the sound. And then a voice—so tiny and hushed, she almost didn't hear it above the keen
ing. “Kill Caleb. Love me...”

 

  “Love me.”

  **

 

  The world was dark. She could hear voices in the distance. No—not the distance. The conversation sounded closer, as she struggled to open her eyes.

 

  “An allergic reaction,” someone mumbled. Her eyes were thin slits as she finally pulled them open. Blinding light washed over her senses. A dull beeping noise came from somewhere across the room. The heavy scent of disinfectant hung in the air, and she felt the plastic bed liner wrinkled beneath the thin sheets of the bed. She knew this place. She was in a hospital.

  “Cassie,” a man said softly, luring her back to reality. “Can you hear me?”

 

  “Yes,” she tried to say, but it sounded more like a question than an answer. Her throat cracked with the effort of speaking. She could open her eyes all the way without flinching away from the light, but it was tempting to close them again and drift into a foggy slumber. A middle-aged man stood before her. The white jacket and stethoscope around his neck told her everything she needed to know.

 

  “I'm Doctor Barnes,” he said, extending a hand. She raised her own hand, shakily, and he grasped it. “I'm afraid you've been unconscious for a couple of hours, Mrs. Solomon. Tell me: what is the last thing you remember?”

 

  “The bathroom,” she whispered as the memory returned. “There was... so much noise... in my head... and then...” She looked around, suddenly shocked and confused. “But how did I get here? What happened?”

 

  “It was—” he checked his clipboard, “Mrs. Jennings. She knew something was wrong when the baby wouldn't stop crying. She called for you down the stairs, several times, but you didn't answer. She was afraid that all three of you would be in danger if she attempted to descend the stairs and fell. So she phoned for an ambulance.”

 

  “Oh,” Cassie said, growing silent for a moment. “But what caused me to black out, doctor?”

 

  “I'm not sure, but I believe it was an allergic reaction. To something you ate, or to toxins in the air, such as mold spores. Do you have any known allergies? Any history of headaches, sneezing, coughing? Any past episodes, such as loss of consciousness?”

 
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