What Lurks Below

The siren screamed above us, the cramped cab of the fire engine quiet beneath it’s wail, the tension high as it dodged between traffic. We were already suited up, the reflective, fireproof jumpsuits loose fitting but still uncomfortable. My hand rested on my helmet. Jake caught my eye and hinted at a smile.

“So whaddaya think, stove left on? One too many multi-sockets again?”

“Yeah, I’m going with electrical fire. It’s always an electrical fire these days.” Gareth raised his voice over the vehicles engine and siren “Maybe one of those little heaters, you know?”

Jake paused. We all knew what was coming.

“Wanna bet?”

“Aw Jake for fucks sake… not everything’s a competition.”

“’Ey ‘ey, relax. It’s just a bit a fun, that’s all. At this time a year you might even be right!”

“Bit morbid though.” I said.

The siren took over as the engine lurched around a bend. There was a loud bang through the plexi-glass to signal we were nearly there. I put on my helmet, the others did the same.

“Last chance guys, I’m giving three to one on electric heater.”

“Jake drop it! I told you last time to stop with this.”

“Tch, only ’cause ya lost.”

We pulled to a stop, and another slam on the plexi-glass signalled to us to get out. Jake opened the door, and we dropped to the floor in turn. Tendrils of black smoke raced for the sky from open downstairs windows, and Jake and Gareth rushed up the garden path. I was about to follow, when the police car caught my eye, it’s two officers talking to a man they had held against the bonnet. I jogged over, and the woman turned away from him to talk to me.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s his house, says he set fire to it.”

“Shit, anyone else in there?”

She shook her head, but replied “He won’t say. Goes silent whenever we ask.”

The man on the bonnet finally managed to twist himself around to look at the fire engine, and began flailing under the policeman’s weight with renewed vigour.

“No! Nonono! You can’t put it out! You mustn’t! You have to let it die! Let it burn! Don’t put it out!”

I didn’t have time to listen.

“Alright, thanks.” I said to the police woman, and jogged back to the fire engine.

Neil was hooking up the fire engine to the water outlet, so I made for the house, gas mask pulled down over my face. Smoke clawed to out of the open door and the world turned black as I rushed headlong into it.

Fireproof suit or not, the heat was intense. I could hear the pressurised force of an extinguisher, and as I pushed through the smoke the orange flicker of flames began to reflect off the plumes tumbling across the ceiling. Gareth thundered down the stairs to my left and shook his head at me. Nobody upstairs.

In the kitchen, heaped against a door to one side, were the crackling remains of a table, several chairs, a desk, and what was left of some rugs and other material draped over the top. Jake was spraying it with his extinguisher, white foam smothering the glowing embers. Gareth and I took our own extinguishers off our backs, and in a few seconds more it was over. The original kindling was mostly gone, but the door was still standing, it’s blackened frame little more than soggy charcoal. Jake checked the handle, and pulled it open. Half way down the stairs he yelled up that it was clear. I nodded to Gareth, and he went to tell the others.

“’Man, what a state.”

“Blackened?” I asked from the doorway.

“Nah, nah it’s covered in mould down here. All over the walls. Disgusting.”

I glanced down the stairs, but Jake was out of sight. I ventured down to take a look myself.

“Anyone down there? Must’ve been trying to burn something.”

“Maybe he was a clean freak, ya know? This place is filthy.”

It was easily the worst basement I’d ever seen. The carpet was dank and soggy, brown patches here and there where the blue had bled away. The beams across the ceiling were thick with cobwebs, clustered in the middle of the room and heavy with dust. The smell of must and damp congealed beneath my nose like a drop I couldn’t wipe away, but worst of all were the walls. Bare concrete, covered with thick, green-black mould that made the cellar look like it had a rash. It glistened, and it’s clusters of small, furry patches were hard to look away from in their hideousness.

“I guess it would be the quickest way to clean the place up… but the fire was upstairs, so it would’ve burnt half the house down before it spread properly in here.”

“Yeah…” Jake pulled up his visor and peered at the fungus. “Well, not our job anyway.” He reached out and touched the mould. It crumbled under his gloved hand, and he smirked.

“Leave that stuff alone. You’re like some kid inspecting a frog. Come on, we’re done here.”

As I turned to leave, I heard a puff. A dry, sudden gasp like an old man holding his breath for too long. I glanced back, and Jake took a step away from the wall, the back of his hand rubbing at his face.

“Agh, fuck.”

“What?”

“Just blew spores in my face! Urgh… It itches like mad, god damn it.”

He turned towards me, still rubbing away at himself as he walked back to the stairs, but his grunting just got louder.

“Shit man it’s burning, getting worse argh.”

“Look, come up stairs and wash your face.” I walked back to take his arm “If it’s still hurting you can go get it checked out.”

As I took his arm, he removed his hand to look at me. I baulked, his skin was bleeding, and as he saw my expression his own turned to panic.

“What? What is it?”

“You’re uh… you’re bleeding.”

He was blinking quickly at the pain, and another drop of blood ran from his cheek, the sore rippling into being as more began to spread across his face. I tugged at his arm, but he staggered, voice high with surprise.

“God, it hurts so much…” He gasped “What is this shit…”

He let out a low moan, and I could feel his strength draining. He put his bloodied glove back to his face, only to touch his own hand. The glove had a hole in it, a small circle like a drop of acid had sizzled through the thick, heat retardant material. His fingertips touched his bleeding face, and his eyes flickered with panic as his fingers started to bleed. A desperate, fearful moan escaped him.

I let go. I couldn’t help it, I didn’t mean to, but the instinctive, animal part of me wanted to get away. It was contagious, spread through touch, and every part of my body screamed at me to back my way up the stairs, my mind too afraid to let me look away, some sick curiosity, or maybe just needing to know where he was for my own safety.

“Jake, Jake come on man, you gotta get outta here. We gotta get you to a hospital.”

He seemed to remember me, his bleeding, pain racked face pleading to me as his trembling lips struggled to form a word. He dropped to his knees, and toppled sideways. I froze for an instant, before dashing back up to the kitchen and out of the front door.

“Call an ambulance!” I yelled out to them, “Jake’s been hurt! Quickly, he needs help!”

Gareth and the police woman rushed forward, her partner grabbing the radio as Neil pulled out his phone. They pushed past me and ran for the kitchen, and I tried to grab one of them before they got through the door.

“Wait! Don’t go down there!”

I wasn’t quick enough, but I raced after them, hearing them thunder down the stairs towards Jake’s body. I stopped at the door, the instinct to pull them back out and the fear of going down wrestling with each other in my head.

“Holy shit…”

Gareth’s voice echoed back up the stairs, and I hazarded a look down after them. The police woman had her hand over her mouth, and Gareth was kneeling down next to Jake.

“What… what happened?” She forced out, sucking in large, trembling breaths. I couldn’t see Jake’s body, but I called down after them, fear tumbling out with my words.

“It, it’s contagious! You’ve got to get out of there!”

They both looked up at me.

“We can’t just leave him! He’s bleeding badly, and he’s passed out!”

I was about to reply, about to tell them to run, that it’s the mould, that it’s spores were what started it and even touching the infected parts could spread it, but I froze. Above them, the thick, greasy fungus covering the walls began to peel. It sagged at the top as if too heavy to keep itself attached, a single sheet of living, green-black wallpaper coming apart from the concrete. My mind raced to warn them, but little more than a quiet whimper of horror escaped my lips, and the sheet of mould fell, an animal pouncing on it’s prey from above. The cloud of spores that rose behind it as it fell floated down after it like a miasma, and the three people were enveloped entirely.

I slammed the door to block out the screams, and it took a few seconds before I realised the only one left was my own. I couldn’t move. My whole body was shaking. A few spores had eaten away at Jake’s face, and torn through thick, fireproof gloves… but an entire wall? I took off my helmet, feeling claustrophobic. Tears streamed down my face and I threw up on the floor, my back against the door as if holding it shut would stop it getting me, too. The police woman’s partner came through the door, his face telling me I looked at least as bad as I felt.

“What happened? Where are they?”

I whimpered, it was all I could do. He made a start for the door, and immediately I was on my feet, hands clasping the door frame, using my body to try to block him from going inside.

“No! No!” I shouted, before finally managing “You can’t go in there!”

This only seemed to urge him on, and he grabbed hold of me. With little more than fear inside me, I don’t know how I held on as long as I did, but he eventually tore me from the door frame enough to push me away. I tumbled into what was left of the charred remains of chairs, the ash that crumbled off them reminding me for a moment of the cloud of deadly black spores.

“No! Please! Don’t go in!”

I couldn’t say it, I couldn’t tell him, my mind trying to block it out, as if telling somebody would admit to myself that it was true, that it had happened. He pulled open the door, and looked down the stairs. Blood pounded at my ears, and he disappeared inside.

I wept. I couldn’t hold it in any more. What could you do against such a thing? It eats through anything, and it was alive. It had to be alive. It had swooped down on the three of them like a bird of prey, it had waited until they were all down there to do it. It could have done it when Jake was alone, but it hadn’t. It had waited. Nobody would believe me. How many would it eat before somebody noticed it? How out of control did it have to get? Even then, how could it be stopped?

The burnt table next to be cracked under my weight, and I scrambled up. Fire. Heat. It was mould. It was a plant. I had to burn it. It thrived down in those cool, damp conditions. That was why the man had been burning his own house down. He understood. He had tried. It had to be stopped.

Everything in here had been burnt already. I pushed myself up, moving towards the living room. There had to be something in here. Something big, something flammable. The sofa. It was a small two seater sitting opposite the door into the kitchen. I picked up one end and slid it across the carpet, the wooden frame inside lighter than I expected. With the kitchen table burnt and collapsed, the sofa fit through the door and just about had room enough to be angled into the basement stairs. I swallowed, and opened the door.

Lying on the stairs, trying to claw his way up, was the police officer. Behind him, on the floor of the basement, was a large, brown, colourless patch with metal parts left in the middle. Gareth and Jake’s oxygen tanks, the police woman’s handcuffs and badge. Buckles from their clothes. Nothing else.

“Help… help me…”

I looked down at the policeman, trembling myself, the sofa poised to be pushed through the door.

“This stuff… it sprayed me, oh god it hurts, please…”

I backed away, the kitchen counter stopping my retreat. I glanced around, and grabbed a clear bottle of yellow liquid from the side. The stove lighter lay next to it.

“I’m sorry…” I kept repeating “I’m so sorry…”

I tipped the bottle over the sofa. The flower pattern wilted under the oil as it stained the fabric, and I clicked the igniter, willing it to light. A hand grabbed onto the arm of the sofa, blood from the sore mingling with the oil, and the policeman pulled himself up. He reached out, trying to grab my arm, desperation in every strained movement.

“Please… I need help… an ambulance…” He groaned, and doubled over the sofa, chest heaving to stay alive.

I kicked out at the sofa, more to get him away from me than otherwise, and with his weight on the far end it tipped up and began to slide down the wooden stairs. His weakened cry of anguish was somehow more horrifying than a scream; even with the infection, he was still human, still a person. But it was still too late for him. I swallowed my doubts, and clicked the igniter to life.

Climbing down the stairs was the hardest thing I’d ever done. The festering mould on the walls looked harmless, if disgusting, yet somehow that made it all the worse. A creeping terror, so harmless in appearance that nobody thinks twice about going close. You go to clean it off, and instead it spreads to you. How long before it learns to lie dormant? To only start infecting once it’s carrier is out with hundreds of others?

The delicate blue tooth of a flame wavered at the end of the igniter, and I shared it’s hesitation, but I forced myself down to the sofa, and touched it to the yellow stain. It burst into flame, spreading through the oil and feeling it’s way across the unsoiled fabric, beginning it’s slow consumption of the sofa. I backed away, and turned to dash back up the stairs.

I didn’t see it. It was impossible to. The space under the stairs was pitch black, the gaps through the stairs barely two inches wide. But I heard it. ‘Poff’. A tiny cloud of dust, seemingly disturbed and sent out into the air, flicked out into my face. The tiny dry flecks landed on my cheeks, my hair, my lips. It itched.

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