We’d been finding paint chips and broken bits of plaster on the carpet near the cellar door. I’d vacuum them up, but each morning they’d be back. At first, I thought it had to be from mice or termites burrowing into the wall. We’ve had mice in the basement since we moved in, but they’d never been seen anywhere else in the house. Despite that, I looked for evidence that they could’ve made the mess, but I couldn’t find any. There wasn’t anything out of sort whatsoever, aside from what we’d find in the mornings.
Larry didn’t think much of it. He mentioned something about a construction site a mile or so away where they’d been blasting out rock. Apparently the shockwaves they produce can form cracks on walls and ceilings. Just cosmetic issues, he assured me. Nothing structural. But neither of us could remember hearing any blasting – especially in the middle of the night.
My guess was whatever had been making our cellar warmer than usual over the last few weeks was to be blamed. Neither Larry nor I could figure out why that was happening, either, but we both assumed there was something with the furnace. The HVAC technician couldn’t find anything wrong, but even he admitted it was strange that the basement was a full 30 degrees warmer than the temperature set on the thermostat.
So, with the working belief that the paint and plaster chips were from the expansion and contraction of the doorway, we went on caring about more important things and hoped the heat issue would fix itself.
Last week, I was getting home late after a red-eye flight back from my sister’s. Larry was dead asleep when I walked in the house at 4:30am, and I was so sleep deprived I couldn’t believe I hadn’t killed myself driving home. After I put my stuff down and was getting ready to head upstairs, I saw something that, at the time, I was certain was the result of my exhaustion: the cellar door and the surrounding frame were moving in and out.
I shook my head to get my senses back, but the door and frame still moved in a slow, deliberate pattern. Tiny flecks of plaster fell with each contraction. I walked up to the door and put my hand on it. I still wasn’t trusting my eyes and knew that touch would confirm or deny what I was seeing. As I expected, the second I touched the door, the movement stopped. I went upstairs and slept for 10 hours.
Larry was at work when I woke up. He was pulling a double that day, and I likely wouldn’t see him again until the next morning. After I showered and went downstairs, I found quite a bit more plaster and paint on the floor than usual. The memory of what I thought I’d seen the night before came back, and I experienced an involuntary twinge of fear. It made me feel a bit silly – almost like how I’d felt when I was a little girl and still afraid of the dark.
I brought out the vacuum and started to clean up the mess. When I was running the vacuum over the carpet right next to the cellar, I felt hot air rushing out of the cracks on the sides and bottom of the door. Not warm. Hot. I shut off the vacuum and listened. Aside from the gentle rush of hot air, there was nothing.
I tentatively touched the doorknob, ready to pull back if it was too hot. It wasn’t. It was very warm, but not hot. The fear came again as I knew I was about to open the door and go downstairs. I didn’t want to. The child me wouldn’t have. But I’m 52 years old. This is our house, and we’ve lived here for 26 years. We know it inside and out. There was nothing to be afraid of.
The fear remained. I opened the door and was hit in the face with a rush of hot, wet air.
While the temperature wasn’t unendurable, it was entirely unpleasant. My plan was to rush downstairs to make sure nothing was on fire, then run back up and call the HVAC man for an emergency visit, no matter the cost. I tiptoed down the old, wooden steps and entered the basement.
The wind rushing up the stairs faded as I got closer to the bottom. All that remained was humid, oppressive air. I began sweating immediately, and I walked across the room toward the furnace. It wasn’t even on. I touched it, and while warm, it wasn’t close to the temperature of the room.
Condensation was covering the tiny windows at the top of the walls. And there was an odor. It was heavy and thick and reminded me of vomit. I felt my stomach churning as my mission now became finding the source of the smell. Whatever it was, it had to go.
It didn’t take long.
On the other side of the furnace, up against the wall, was a pile of dead mice. Tens of them. Maybe 50. They were hideously decayed and dripping with dark yellow slime. I gagged so hard I felt my eyes bulge and I pulled my shirt over my nose and mouth. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t noticed them before, and I was miserable about the prospect of cleaning them up. But it had to be done.
I ran upstairs, grabbed a bucket, some kitchen gloves, and a bottle of bleach. Back in the stifling basement, I grabbed the vermin as quickly as I could, threw them all in the bucket, threw the gloves on top, and poured bleach over the whole area. I’d come back later and scrub the remaining slime and bleach and sloughed fur off the floor. I just couldn’t take any more at the moment.
I grabbed the bucket and headed back upstairs. I could’ve sworn I saw the cellar doorway widening and narrowing as I went, accompanied by waxing and waning gusts of hot air on my skin. My fear and disgust were bordering on terror as I burst through the doorway into the cheery living room.
I stood in the center of the living room, watching the doorway. It wasn’t moving. The bucket of dead vermin smelled incomprehensibly putrid. I went out the back door and was ready to throw the whole thing way out back where the property met the woods, when I stopped. There was smoke coming from the gloves on top of the mice. Another smell joined that of the putrefying rodents: burning rubber. I upended the bucket into the brush. I saw that the parts of the gloves that had touched the mice were bubbling and burning away.
As soon as I got back inside, I called the HVAC guy. He said he was booked solid all day and any work after 6pm would be at double the usual rate. I told him I didn’t care. I needed the furnace fixed. I needed whatever it was leaking removed. I couldn’t have our home in the shape it was in anymore.
The HVAC guy arrived around 7. I felt bad to be pulling him away from dinner with his family, so I made him a sandwich and some macaroni and cheese. He appreciated it, and brought the plate downstairs with him so he could eat while he worked. I wasn’t exactly sure how anyone could eat under conditions like I’d seen that afternoon, but I didn’t bother arguing. I left him to his work and went next door to see my elderly neighbor.
We got to talking, and it was almost 10 by the time I realized the HVAC technician was still working. I wished Gladys a good night and went home. The tech’s van was still in the driveway.
I walked inside and headed to the cellar door. Plaster and dried paint chips littered the carpet and were being blown across the room by the steady breeze coming up the staircase. Three deep cracks in the door frame and ceiling had appeared.
I called down to the technician and asked how it was going. He didn’t reply. I called again, louder. Nothing. That same fear welled up in me again. I looked around. This time, the cheery living room was dark. The windows showed nothing but blackness and the distorted reflection of diffuse kitchen light and the harsh illumination from the tech’s lamps in the basement.
I called a third time. He didn’t respond, but I jumped when a loud, splintering crack rang out right next to me as another fissure appeared in the door frame. I could’ve sworn I saw the frame move right before it happened.
My fourth and final call went unanswered. For the second time that day, I knew I’d go down the stairs. My 52 year-old body carried my frightened, 8 year-old mind down the steps. I felt hot, sticky air on my face.
The moment I reached the bottom, the smell hit me. It was just like it’d been with the mice, only heavier. I spoke the tech’s name, rather than calling it. My voice was small and weak and I realized, as I walked toward where he’d been working, I was shaking.
I reached the furnace and headed around to the other side. The smell was so strong, my eyes had started to water. But even through my bleary, tear-filled eyes, I could see the technician’s clothes and shoes. They were covered in the same yellow slime and smoked weakly as whatever was burning them ate its way through. The man who owned the clothes was nowhere to be found.
I ran upstairs and called the police, fully aware that the doorway was moving in and out as I ascended the staircase, feeling cool air against my face, followed by hot air against my back. I left the house and waited with Gladys for them to arrive.
It’s been five days and the technician has not been recovered. There’s been a town-wide search for him, and his wife and daughters have appeared on television begging for him to come home. Larry and I have allowed the police to search the house while we stay at a hotel. I’ve refused to go back until everything is resolved.
It wasn’t the terrifying strangeness of the cellar that has kept me out of our house. It wasn’t the still-missing man who came to fix our furnace. It was something else. It was the result of the chemical analysis of the substance on the HVAC man’s clothes and the mice I’d taken from the basement. Normally, we wouldn’t have been given that information, but Larry’s brother is a cop. He told us what it was, and now I know I’ll never set foot in that house again as long as I live.