by Sarah Day
“Isn’t it cute?” Keishya, the realtor, spread her arms in the center of the kitchen like a starlet in center stage. “It’s a killer find.”
Lydia gingerly put her purse down on the counter. They’d seen three houses already today, all of them a bit too small or a bit too pricey or a bit too far from her work. Her feet hurt.
This house was cute, she had to admit. It had high ceilings and buttery yellow walls, hardwood floors, lots of cabinet space, a study where Matt could work on his electronics projects, and, if the listing was to be believed, a full basement with washer and dryer for laundry.
Keishya watched Matt poking his head into one of the bedrooms. She smiled at Lydia. “You two are a cute couple. Is this your first place together?”
“Oooh, big step!” Keishya winked conspiratorially. “You gotta be careful, moving in with a man—make sure he pulls his weight around here.”
Lydia smiled shyly.
“There’s a downstairs, right?” Matt asked from the bedroom.
“Sure is!” The toothpaste-advertisement smile on Keishya’s face tilted a little bit. “It’s… not as polished as the rest of the house, but let’s have a look.”
Lydia followed them down a flight of creaking wooden stairs near the back door. She’d had a friend once who was really into feng shui and said that staircases were like funnels for energy, sucking it to the bottom like water flows downhill. She understood where that particular belief came from as she descended, the air cooling and a tinge of mildew creeping into her nose.
The basement followed the same floor plan as the house above. The skin and muscle of hardwood floors and cheery paint were gone; down here, the house was reduced to its bones, a series of interlocking concrete rooms. Wires traced up the walls like veins, each ending in a single bulb that dangled in the center of the room.
In one room, a shining new washer and dryer huddled next to an ancient utility sink big enough to immerse a pillow, wash all your bras at once, or drown someone in. Rust flaked the circumference of the drain. Lydia shivered.
“Babe, this is awesome.” Matt patted the washing machine affectionately. “It’ll be so easy for us to do laundry!”
“For me to do laundry, you mean,” she said. Matt winced, and she squeezed his arm to reassure him.
“What’s in these other rooms?” she asked.
“Nothing. You could do anything with them—storage, a practice space, a yoga studio?” Keishya twinkled at Matt. “A man cave for gaming?”
The squeaks of their shoes’ rubber soles sounded back from the concrete walls. The lighting was like something out of a grindhouse movie, and the whispering echoes were eerie. Lydia checked over her shoulder.
The rooms were separated by doorway-sized openings with no lintels or doors. The absence of fixtures made it feel less like a house; it was like it had grown in this configuration, as though she was moving through a cow’s multiple stomachs.
Matt and Keishya’s voices receded behind her. It felt so much bigger down here than the house upstairs—it must be because there was no furniture.
Her eye fell on something in the next room, narrowly illuminated by a slice of light from behind her. The floor in that room was a different texture from the rest of the basement. It caught the light from the bulb over Lydia’s shoulder and held it, pulling it in gooey lines across the ground the way an oily puddle reflects the lights of passing cars.
Lydia moved cautiously into the room and bent to brush her fingers against the surface. They came away wet and tingly, the way her face felt at night after she spread chemical exfoliant across her skin.
Matt and Keishya were standing in the doorway. Somehow she’d come much farther into the room than she’d thought.
“Whatcha doin’ back here, babe?”
Lydia squinted, her eyes adjusting to the light. “The floor… I think it’s wet back here. Is there a leak?”
“A leak? Uh oh.” Keishya bustled past her, a look of businesslike concern on her face. She squatted down and patted the concrete perfunctorily, then stood up all smiles. “Nope! Floor’s just fine.”
Matt ignored her. He went into the basement room and ran a hand along a wall. His face was distant and unfocused, like he was listening to something she couldn’t hear. He smiled.
The dark room yawned out beyond them and Lydia felt a little dizzy. She had the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff looking down. The floor was smooth and uninterrupted. It blurred out beyond the reach of the light.
Keishya was staring at them both expectantly, her perpetual smile going a little stale.
“How long has the house been empty?” Lydia asked, more to fill the silence than out of real curiosity.
The realtor was clearly happy to get away from discussion of a leaky basement. “You know, I can’t say. I just started showing it last week, to a single guy and a little family with a dog, but… a couple months? I think that’s right?” She laughed awkwardly. “Sorry, I can’t remember. I’m honestly showing a ton right now and it’s hard to keep track. In this market, I’m surprised it hasn’t rented already.”
Matt turned back to Lydia. He was still smiling. “We’ve gotta take it, babe. It’s such a nice house.”
Lydia looked at the light bleeding down from the staircase out of the basement, thought of the sunny kitchen, ran the mental calculation for her share of the rent, and agreed. It would be a bit of a stretch financially, but it had plenty of space and Matt would love having a place to do his electronics projects. And it was a nice house.
As they went back upstairs, she heard a contented sigh from the basement, like water settling in the pipes.
They moved in a week later. Their first meal in the new house was takeout pizza and beer, and Lydia took the following day off work to unpack. She wanted to cook dinner that night, but somehow all the kitchen boxes had ended up in the study, so she ended up unpacking everything in both rooms trying to find the things she needed.
After dinner, she looked at the sink, swollen with seemingly every dish in the kitchen, and experienced a moment of disorientation. The sleek white countertops were buried under greasy pans and bowls with webs of salad dressing lacing their interiors. Had she actually used all these dishes? She couldn’t remember, but she must have. She chalked it up to the chaos of moving. I must be more tired than I thought.
Matt was parked on the couch, a pint glass dangling from his fingers. A TV show burbled out of his laptop. In half an hour or so, he’d lumber up and to bed, or into the study to tinker with some electronics project, and the dishes would still be there in the morning.
Lydia’s back ached from moving boxes all day, but she knew he was tired too. Maybe they could do it together. “Babe, do you wanna—?”
As if on cue, Matt stood up, kissed her on the cheek absently, and went into the study. Lydia stood alone in the empty kitchen and tried to exhale the tension out of her shoulders and hips and knees. Matt had never been great about housework at his old place, either… but he’d also been at work all day, and she couldn’t fault him for being tired. Moving was stressful.
The kitchen cabinets were a soft, creamy white. She ran her fingertips over one of them, the paint so smooth and even she couldn’t feel the woodgrain.
It was such a nice house. It would take so little work to keep it that way. She pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.
That night she dreamed there was a woman in the kitchen. She stood at the sink, using a wire brush on a long handle to scrub something tenacious out of the bottom of a pot. Lydia stood behind her. She couldn’t see the woman’s face.
The sink was full of hot soapy water. Steam fogged the windows, diffusing the light. The kitchen was sun-washed in gold and white, beautifully illuminated like she imagined the inside of an egg would be just as the chick began to shatter it. She perceived the kitchen as one gleaming, cohesive being, sink and counters and water and pot all the same thing, all joined somehow. It was like the woman was washing a large, warm animal.
The woman moved woodenly, mechanically, an enormous version of the paper dolls Lydia had played with as a girl, their limbs jointed with shiny brass rivets. Her scrubbing arm rotated ceaselessly. Lydia watched her for a long time, hypnotized by the perfect interlocking circles of shoulder, elbow, wrist. The woman’s shoulders shuddered, either with the effort or because she was crying.
The next morning, there were dishes in the kitchen.
“Did you make breakfast?” she asked Matt as they were drinking coffee. It didn’t look like breakfast dishes—there were pots and pans like he’d cooked something elaborate, not the usual one pan from making eggs and bacon.
“What?” He looked up from his espresso. “No. I thought you did those dishes last night?”
She had done those dishes last night. She was certain of it.
“I did. I—”
Had she? She had gone to bed late. She must have been tired. Could she have missed some?
The pots and pans sat cold and sticky on the countertop, belying her memory.
“I… I must have missed some. Weird. I’ll do them now.”
Matt kissed her and grabbed his backpack to head to the train station.
Lydia was late to work.
She dreamed about a different woman. This one was raven-haired and thick. Her mouth was a coral-colored smear, her lipstick blurred and exhausted. She was on her knees in the bathtub, working the grout around the edge with a toothbrush. She’d had a manicure, but it was flaking and ruined. The skin on her hands was pink and tight-looking from using cleaners without gloves. As Lydia watched, she looked up from her work and spoke. She had a thick eastern European accent. Lydia couldn’t understand her; the words floated out of the woman’s mouth like soap bubbles, fading out with satiny pops in the air between them. She wasn’t really speaking to Lydia—she was looking in Lydia’s direction, but addressing her words to someone behind her.
Lydia turned, but as she turned she woke up.
The laundry wasn’t getting done. She didn’t know why. She did a load after work every night, but the hamper was always overflowing. She had known Matt was a bit of a clotheshorse, but she couldn’t believe the two of them owned so much clothing. She’d asked him if he’d found another box while unpacking and dumped it in the laundry without telling her, but he said he hadn’t. It was as if the washing machine was releasing generations of previous tenants’ lost socks and underwear little by little into Matt and Lydia’s clothes every time she washed a load.
The little zippered bags she used to wash her bras and stockings and blouses for work had gone missing in the move, and after a month of living in the house they still hadn’t turned up. She kept washing the delicates by hand in the bathroom sink and going to work with damp waterlines showing through her clothes. That didn’t make sense either; even hanging on a line in the mildewy basement, it shouldn’t have taken them so long to dry.
“Have you seen my delicates bags?” She was elbow-deep in hot water, scrubbing a period stain out of a pair of formerly white lace panties. The sound of the running tap drowned out her voice.
Her bangs stuck to her forehead in the steam. Exasperated, she pushed them away with a wet hand, cranked the faucet off.
“The bags I use to wash my bras. I can’t find them.”
“Dunno, babe. You gonna come watch the show?” Matt was in the living room in front of the TV. He had said something about making dinner tonight, but his version of ‘making dinner’ usually translated to ‘ordering a pizza.’
“I need clothes for work tomorrow, so, no?” She sounded like a jerk and she knew it, but she was tired and stressing about the next day already. Matt’s position on the couch irritated her, too—she knew her laundry was her responsibility, but it seemed like she’s been doing his as often as hers recently, not to mention the mysterious extra socks and panties and jeans that kept showing up. She felt like she’d been making endless trips into the basement, every basket heavier than the last.
Matt sighed audibly and cracked open a beer.
There was a pile of mail waiting when she got home from work the next day. She had to push the door open with her shoulder to move the detritus from in front of the door.
Lydia dropped her purse in the front entrance and groaned. Envelopes and coupon booklets and fliers and ads for local businesses and small phone books scattered like leaves around her feet.
This was way more mail than they should have been able to accrue in a day—had they missed some deliveries? Had the labyrinthine systems of the postal service finally gotten their mail forwarding right and delivered the last month’s worth of mail from their old addresses? Where had it all come from?
She scooped up the closest armful and carried it awkwardly over to the couch to sort.
“How was your day?” Matt asked from the study.
“Terrible. I’m behind on everything at work and my manager noticed and I have to do laundry again and now there’s a shit-ton of mail. I don’t know where it came from. I just feel like everything’s a mess.”
“You know…” she looked up and found him standing in the doorway, a dark beer cradled in one hand, the other cupped around the doorframe. He stroked the wood as he talked, absentminded and loving, the way he’d pet a dog. “You’ve been really stressed about the house lately, babe. Have you thought about just taking a week or two off work to just… stay in? Get it all in gear?”
She had, actually, but resented the suggestion when it came from him. “I don’t want to compromise my career just because the house is a mess, okay?”
“Okay.” He smiled. “I just love how much you care about keeping the house, and if you need some time off to focus on that, it’s okay. You’re so great with money, I bet you can make it work.”
He went back into the study. Lydia sat on the couch amid stacks of bills and promotional offers and advertisements and swallowed a lump in her throat. Matt was so nice to her, even when she was stressed out. His suggestions weren’t ever quite what she wanted to hear, but he was so reasonable it was hard to fault him.
“I wish you’d help me,” she whispered, but the empty room didn’t respond.
She dreamed about a blue-eyed woman in the bedroom, folding sheets. Lydia stood in the doorway and watched as she flicked a flat sheet up into the air, filling the space between them with a billow of fabric, and then caught it by its corners, tucking it neatly into a series of smaller and smaller squares. As the sheet shrank between them, Lydia saw the pattern of oblong red bruises on the woman’s forearms in patterns of threes and fours, like someone had grabbed her, grabbed her and clutched her, desperate not to let her go.
Lydia didn’t go to work the next day. Instead, she took a sick day, filled a bucket with hot water and castile soap and scrubbed all the windows, then realized how dusty the sills and doorframes and baseboards were, and while she was doing the baseboards, noticed the floors. It was exhausting but also soothing—although to be honest, she couldn’t much tell the difference between exhausted and relaxed anymore. They had lived here for months already, but it felt like they had just arrived. It seemed like everywhere she looked, there was something the house needed done.
She found herself in the kitchen, looking at the stairway down into the basement. Her back ached from stooping. The faucet in the utility sink dripped, the distorted echo coming up the stairs as a burbling growl.
She needed to do something down there, but she couldn’t remember what.
“Hey, given any thought to dinner?”
“Jesus Christ!” Lydia saw white. “Are you kidding me? I just spent an hour washing the floors!”
Matt stared at her from the living room and shame dropped onto her like a weighted blanket. Her ears rang. The palm of her hand throbbed against a cabinet door. Had she just slammed it shut? She never did stuff like that.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice wobbled. “I’m sorry. I’m just really tired and I’ve been so stressed at work and I keep having these bad dreams and… I just, I feel like I do everything to clean up around here and it never actually gets done. I wish I wasn’t the one doing it all.”
“Hey, I did the hand-washing!” he pointed at the drying rack beside the sink, where four small tulip glasses glistened in the overhead light.
“I know. I just…”
She didn’t know how to explain that the floors and the laundry and the cooking and the mail and the unpacking and the windows and the tidying and the dusting wasn’t the same as washing the glasses he drank whiskey out of. She didn’t want to broach the topic of who was working more at what—he would have said that rewiring lights in the closet was work just like doing the laundry was, but the difference was that he liked electronics, and neither of them liked laundry.
“Look, if you’re so concerned about all the housework getting done, why not just get a part-time job? You’re always complaining about being behind at work anyway. You could quit the nine-to-five and spend more time here. It’s obviously a bigger priority for you than work right now anyway. Maybe then you’d chill out a little.” Shaking his head, Matt walked out of the room.
Lydia stared at the empty sink, trying not to cry. The porcelain gleamed, the same white as a watching eye.
He avoided her for two days after that—Matt’s biggest flaw in relationship conflicts was a predisposition to the silent treatment. Lydia spent the weekend feeling alone while he worked by himself. Once she thought he spoke to her, could have sworn she heard him ask “You hungry?” but when she peeked into the study, he was sitting silently at his desk, looking at the wall.
One of her girlfriends called with an invitation to brunch, and she declined, worried about hurting his feelings worse by leaving. Instead, she took down some curtains, ran them through the wash a couple times. Who knew after three months of living here, they’d be so dusty?
Had it only been three months? She had to check the date. It felt like longer, but it also felt like yesterday. She was sleeping so poorly the days were blurring together.
She stared through the window in the washing machine’s door, watching the curtains orbit slowly, suspended in a haze of soapy water. Her face reflected wetly in the door. She looked worn and lined, but maybe that was just distortion from the curved surface. Or was she really that tired? Was she crying? She leaned closer.
A dark shape moved in the reflection behind her face.
She startled, trying to turn, and ended up falling, half on her side, her back against the washing machine.
A woman stood in the doorway, brown-haired and ashen-faced. Her eyes were sunk in sleepless hollows. She pointed to her left, deeper into the basement, toward the empty back room where Lydia’d thought there was a leak. Her hair rose in a corona around her head like she was underwater. She opened her mouth to speak, her jaw working soundlessly. The inside of her mouth was inky black, her dry tongue curled inside like worn leather.
He met her at the top of the basement stairs and she fell into him, gibbering with terror. She didn’t know what to say, how to explain that she’d just seen something out of her nightmares in real waking day, so she settled on: “There’s someone in the basement!”
He pushed past her, pounding down the stairs, and she staggered to the sink and filled a glass with water. Her hands shook so badly she spilled half of it. She stared into the drain, which looked blankly back at her, a single dark pupil in the sink’s white eye. Water gurgled in the depths of the sink and she thought of blood slurping through veins.
Matt was back, stomping heavily up the stairs. “Babe, you okay?”
“Where is she?” Lydia met him in the doorway to the basement, craned her neck to see around him. She fully expected to see a spectral shape emerging out of the darkness behind him.
He gave her a tight smile. He was breathing hard, and she could tell that he was annoyed, regardless of her fear.
“There’s no one down there, babe.”
She stared at him, disbelieving. “What?”
“There’s no one in the basement.”
“Yes there was! It was a—” the word ghost combined with nightmare and died on her tongue.
Matt’s face was turning red. “Look, okay, I’m here, you can give it a rest now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Come on, this is sad. Don’t lie to me about shit like that just because you want attention. You really freaked me out!”
“What? No, there’s someone down there, there’s really someone, a woman, I’m not—I’m not lying to you, Matt, I really saw—!”
“Would you just, like, stop being hysterical for a second? Fuck.”
“Why won’t you believe me?”
“Because there’s nothing there!” He ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know what’s up with you, Lydia! You’ve been a huge bitch ever since we moved in together! Is this your anxiety? What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem? I’ve barely been sleeping, I do all the housework, I have a real job too, you might remember—you know what, screw you!”
“That would be a nice change, too!”
Lydia stomped into the bedroom and slammed the door, trembling with fury and terror. The windows vibrated softly in their frames. She had the sudden unbidden image of a cat purring.
“Keishya, hi. It’s Lydia Downs, you might remember, I rented a house from you with my boyf—”
“Oh Lydia, hi! How are you? How’s the house?”
Lydia tapped a pen against the coffee table to disguise the fact that her whole body was trembling. She hadn’t slept in a day and a half and she was jittery with caffeine. “It’s great! Great. I was just uh. I was wondering.” She heard her voice sliding up in pitch and swallowed against the feeling that birds were about to explode through her mouth. “We found some stuff in a closet? I think a tenant might have left it, maybe. I was just wondering if you had contact info for any of the previous people who had lived in the house.”
“Oh, wow, okay! That’s real nice of you. Let me just pull some stuff up on the computer… I can see if we have forwarding addresses or anything like that and you can come drop the stuff off at our office, how does that sound?”
“Fine. That’s fine. I just… I just need to know who lived here before us. Was it a woman?”
“Just a sec…”
Silence stretched out over the line. Lydia stared through the living room into the kitchen, at the top of the basement stairs. She would have to do laundry soon.
“Lydia? You there?”
Keishya’s voice was different.
“I, uh. I don’t know how to tell you this. The last tenants were a couple, man and woman, but… only he moved out.”
Lydia’s mouth went dry.
“She disappeared. Annie Harrison. There’s a link to a missing person’s report and everything. Wow, how awful. I had no idea.”
Lydia pulled her laptop into her lap, plugged “Annie Harrison missing” into the browser.
The phone fell out from between her ear and her shoulder, bounced on the couch cushions, and landed on the floor. Keishya’s voice burbled out of it, but Lydia wasn’t listening.
The woman in the basement stared out of her laptop screen. There were news articles about it. Gone without a trace, no farewells or resignation letter or suicide note. She’d just not shown up for work one day.
Lydia flashed back through the nightmares, dozens of them, almost nightly since they’d moved in, and every time a different woman. Had they all lived here? How many others had disappeared from this house?
She opened a new tab and plugged the house’s street address into the search bar, appended woman missing. Annie Harrison’s face appeared again, but stacked underneath it, a double handful of thumbnail images, smiling faces, all women. All missing women.
From the door to the basement came an immense, wet grumbling, like a stomach growling. She flashed back to the wet patch on the basement floor, the tingle of her fingers smeared with fluid—a tingle like acid.
Lydia staggered up to her feet, toward the front door. A pile of laundry she was sure hadn’t been there that morning nearly tripped her.
She flung the door open and found Matt standing on the front porch, backpack slung over one shoulder and keys in his hand. He was just getting home from work.
When he saw the look on her face, he smiled. He looked gentle and sweet.
“Hi babe. Did you figure it out?”
“I have to leave.”
He reached out and touched her cheek. She flinched.
“You can’t leave, babe. There’s so much to do in the house.”
Something clattered in the kitchen and she spun, saw a stack of dirty pots and pans collapsing, rolling across the floor. In the bathroom, the tub made a belching sound. Dark water splashed up from the drain.
“Go back inside, babe. Let’s go down to the basement.”
She remembered Matt running his hands along the basement wall softly, almost fondly, like the house was a beloved pet.
“Get out of my way.”
“We’re hungry. Do you know what’s for dinner?”
She squared herself to muscle past him, braced her palms on the doorframe to push off—and pulled them back, gasping, as something sliced her hands. Her palms were dotted with blood. She squinted at the wood, which glittered with razor-edged points.
The doorframe was lined with tiny teeth.
The house’s jaws slammed shut.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Kat Day is a PhD chemist who was once a teacher and is now a writer and editor. By day she mostly works as a freelance editor and proofreader of scientific materials, with bits of article and book-writing thrown in. By night she… mostly does all the stuff she hasn’t managed to do during the day. She’s had articles published in Chemistry World, has written science content for DK and has produced scripts for Crash Course Organic Chemistry. Her fiction can be found at Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @chronicleflask , or check out her blogs, The Chronicle Flask and The Fiction Phial. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern. Kat joined the team in 2019, and became assistant editor in 2021.