The Water Under Her Stairs

 

TWUHS Cover

The Water Under Her Stairs is a short story about fear, tenacity, and facing the rising darkness.

Available as a free epub on the Kobo Store, and below in its entirety.

 

 

The Water Under Her Stairs

by Simon Best

 

For Rachael

Always my last light in the darkness.

 

Chapter One

Alice’s last dream was of oceans. Turning and flowing eternally beneath her, she flew with outstretched arms over the furrowed waves until they blurred together as one blue grey stipple under an endless blue sky. After ten years, twenty, a millennium, she arched downwards and pummelled deep, past fish and whales and coral and seabed, down, down, floating into darkness until nothing. The air smelled of salt as she woke blinking into waterless darkness.

She stared at where the ceiling was for a full minute before begrudgingly swinging her legs out of bed. The sight of water always made her want to pee. Swimming had always been problematic, the number of lengths and number of bathroom trips falling neatly into a symmetrically regular rhythm. Staggering to the ensuite, feeling for familiar clues so as not to give in to her eyes’ demands for light, she held her head in her hands while her bladder received its release. The flush almost made the relief completely disappear, though; the sound washing a new wave of tightness into her belly. How ridiculous, she thought. How bloody ridiculous.

Now thirst replaced pressure, her throat still reeling from the gallons of salty water waiting for her in her unconsciousness. The ensuite’s taps had never managed to provide the kind of chill that she so craved now. The best they could manage was a tepid, slightly off-copper glassful that didn’t look enticing even at three in the morning. The fridge downstairs was only a few months old, a crazy spontaneous purchase that came with the salesman’s number. The fridge had proved to be the more reliable acquisition. It had a built-in space in the door where the introduction of a cup wold magically produce the sweetest, coldest water humankind is capable of imagining. At least, that’s how it felt right then. Unable to fight this image hanging in her mind, Alice allowed her feet to follow their familiar path down her stairs and right into the kitchen.

Moonlight was drifting through lazy curtains, allowing her to avoid the obstacles in her path. Alice wasn’t an unclean person, she was just untidy. The battle between personal pursuits and immediate house responsibilities had never been a difficult one and she could often be found nestled deep in her couch, book or movie or phone or laptop in hand, while the evening’s dishes quickly joined the modest collection by the sink. Using the night’s dim light as her guide, she slipped her last clean glass out of the cupboard and under the tiny red dot in her fridge door. The water sprayed out abruptly and Alice did her absolute best to ignore the immediate reaction from her bladder. Filling the glass almost to the top, she heaved the liquid back with so much force that she had to gasp for air at the end. God, it felt good though. Who cares that she’d need to pee again in an hour. Totally worth it.

Leaning against the counter, glass in hand, she allowed her gaze to take in the room at such a quiet hour. The moon was highlighting the edges of everything. It looked so beautiful. The fridge made a quiet gushing noise, low and steady, replacing the taken water. Her house was her castle. Bought at the end of a particularly messy breakup with her childhood love, it was her ultimate retreat and declaration of independence. Lucky to have a job that paid enough to have extra, she set out filling it with things. Comfort in design, a chair for every occasion. It wasn’t a new house but certainly not too old, not needing much attention beyond the odd touch of paint or occasional need for basic tools. She had her home, paid her bills and watched whatever she wanted on the TV. The fridge refilled again, reminding her of her initial greedy thirst. Sinking another glassful, she rubbed her eyes filled with persuasive sleep and allowed her feet to make the move back to bed.

The floor was wet.

She stared down in bemused darkness and gently raised and lowered her foot. Squelch. Squelch. Ah, shit. The damn fridge still played its tune of refill and renewal, ignorant to its own overflow. Where the hell was she going to get a plumber at 3am? Or rather, how much was it going to cost her? That would cut into her contingency, she thought through her muddled mind, but that’s what it was for. Better than buying a house-worth of new carpets. Damn.

Slopping over to the light switch, wondering absently how she had managed to not notice the leak underfoot on her way in, she flicked on the light to survey the damage. The blast of rude white forced her to twist up her face and gave her a moment to berate her stupidity at not first checking the light switch for water. Slowly, the room came into focus, white turning to blue, then to yellow, until she was able to take in the view with disbelieving eyes. There was water everywhere. Gushing flowing, streaming, from somewhere.

Now panic was starting to replace her initial annoyance and she immediately got on her knees to see which side of the fridge was leaking. Not the left, under the tap. She could still hear the refilling noise of constant, increasing flow. Must be stuck. Shitshitshit. Confused now, she placed fingertips behind the fridge and pulled as hard as she could. The two inches of movement didn’t reveal a source either. But she could hear it. She looked down to see the current, now somehow larger, starting to make inroads over her toes. What? Already? Following the reverse of the flow, she traced a path up to the fridge then past, round the corner, new panic building over old at the realisation that the hall carpet was a stream. Back, back, round past the washing machine and bathroom, past and on and worse now, even ankles feeling effects, sloshing and breathing hard, now up to the trapdoor down to the basement. The oak panel was almost bobbling with escaping water, springing up with grateful urgency as she released the catch and looked down at the swimming pool that was once her basement. Padded, carpeted downward stairs obscured by endless upwards insistence of gallons and gallons of liquid.

Alice really needed to pee.

The first thing was to shut off the mains. But where was the mains? Kitchen sink, had to be. Running as fast as she could back into her sodden kitchen, she slammed open the cupboards and threw out the collection of old recycling, cleaning apparatus and various plastic bags, all then taken away by the current beneath. Reaching around in the half-light, she found a cold flat handle patiently waiting for an emergency. Not stopping to confirm her actions, she pulled it as hard as she could, biting the edges of the metal together, hoping to hear the gush relax and fade and stop.

Nothing happened. She waited then crawled then ran back to the basement door, hoping to see a change, a reduction, but if anything, it was increasing in its severity. Staring with unacceptance, almost panting with confusion, she was no longer worried about the cost of late-night repairs. But where was all this actually coming from? Maybe a leak from outside? It was possible a fire hydrant hat been hit and was emptying its load from the ground up, but even then, this was a lot of water. Even in the thirty seconds that she was standing there, the dark liquid was noticeably creeping up her shins.

Walking – wading – back to the front room, she moved to the phone but didn’t clear the table leg and crashed down like a shot soldier. For a second it was as her dream, except freedom was replaced by heavy water and the murk quickly removed the light. Spluttering and splashing upwards, all swimming pool elegance gone, her clothes saturated and hair tangled, her brain tried to process a new, rising action: OUT. Maybe the phone call could wait. Heaving back up and slopping left to her front door, her cold hands fiddled with the lock – always a little sticky, never quite immediately doing what it was told by fingers or keys – but the door remained resolute in its absolute closure. Finally the lock shifted begrudgingly against its own internal mechanism with an inviting click. Slamming the deadbolt out of its position, she twisted the handle down and pulled.

Nothing.

The water was high, now, somehow as high as her knees, so she supposed in her nighttime logic that the pressure was forcing the door closed. She blinked hard then stood straight, angled her body against the swing of the door, turned and pulled. Her submerged feet pushed hard into the sodden carpet, but there was no give at all. Alice double checked the locks – Yale opened, deadbolt gone, chain hanging as it always had against the frame. Twist, pull. Nothing. Nothing, again. Not even a tiny physical recognition of her efforts.

Alice stood and stared. The cold water lapped the backs of her knees as it swirled around her legs before hitting the door like a fist and running sideways to find a new home. She reached and tried the handle again, frigid muscles apathetic with the effort.

The door would not open.

 

Chapter Two

Alice slammed her clenched fists against the glass in sweeping overhead arcs, curves of water forming over her head as her hands scooped up the now waist-high water. She screamed, she swore. It didn’t help. The windows had been expensive upgrades, sold with the promise that the double glazing would save her money in the long run. It even made the white plastic frames seem acceptable. Now, this modern barrier from noise and smoke had become as stubborn as the door, closed hard and fast against curses and pressure. Slick window locks and oiled hinges were now firm and resolute, ignoring Alice’s pushes and pleas as she straddled the top of the living room couch.

A final frustrated kick sent her slipping backwards, flipping headfirst back into the murk. Silence enveloped her panic and, for the second time that night, she finally found her feet and emerged up amidst the floating remote controls and fashion magazines. The water was pushing around her, a think current attempting to sweep her legs away towards the hallway. It wasn’t just the strength that troubled her now; it was the ceaseless flow. The water itself was angry and motivated and threatening. It didn’t feel like it was going to stop. Her body was starting to feel troublingly light and powerless, a tiny bag of flesh thrust helpless into a raging torrent. Alice forced herself forward, strong legs heaving with the effort of sunken movement, towards the phone. The time for plumbers had passed. She needed help.

Jabbing 9-1-1 with frozen fingers, she held up the earpiece in anticipation of the questions that would soon come as a preface to the men with axes. The phone, though, was silent in response; uncooperative and disinterested in Alice’s increased demands. Even the keypad had gone to sleep. Teeth chattering with fear, or cold, or anger, or maybe all three, she flung her hand hard to the right and sent the phone to a watery grave, wall cable following its diving bell master along in the flow. Alice swore at the phone as it drifted away. Fists clenching in renewed frustration, her head tracked back to the window and, finally, her brain caught the intent. The water was up on the sill, lapping in like the rising tide biting a rock edge. It wasn’t the water pressure that was keeping these closed; and anyway, the windows opened outward. These bastards called for a different kind of persuasion.

Alice twisted to the right and pounded back into the kitchen, this time heading straight for the store cupboard. The folding door did its best to also remain shut but proved unable to match Alice’s rabid intent. Kicking aside the steady flow of pasta packets and chip tubes that were flowing out, she scooped the heaviest items into her arms – a giant tin of crushed tomatoes, a thick Maplewood chopping board, and a rolling pin. She sloshed back to the living room, weapons almost toppling into the water but just remaining safe in her grip. Lining them up on the deepening sill stream, she grabbed the tomato can, pulled her arm right back, then slammed it into the window as hard as she could.

Blazing spikes of pain sparked up her arm and shot into her shoulder, causing an instant of white light behind her eyelids. Her hand shook from the shock of tin hitting glass. The window did not seem to share the trauma, barely even noticing the event. Incensed by its bare-faced insolence, she hurled the tin together with a scream, both bouncing off their target in impotent apathy. Snatching the chopping board, she flung it like a frisbee with all her remaining strength only to watch it thud and slide down into the rising chill of liquid. Left only with only the rolling pin, she lunged forward and beat the glass from every angle with impassioned strikes backed by desperate screams of smashing, destructive intent.

Finally, with arm muscles spent and fingers red from the shock, she allowed the rolling pin to submerge by her feet as the image of an unfettered, undamaged screen of glass mocked her. With the water now easing over her belly button, she had the face the reality of the situation. The door was jammed, the windows were sealed, the water was flowing. Constantly, aggressively flowing. The phone refused to help, and she needed help now.

Pulling the curtains right back to the window frames, she pressed her face hard against the glass. It was three thirty in the morning and the world was sleeping. One of the main reasons she’d bought this house was the location – it was further out of town than most people liked, but that brought a wonderful stillness that just couldn’t be found in a town apartment. The act of separation had been an important theme in her personal redesign, not just from John but also people in general. Always friendly but now more careful to make bonds, Alice had carefully engineered a social circle that was more passive support system than close friend network. As she squinted out into the gloom, not a single light moved against the dark of the night. There was a road directly outside, that much was true, but this was the kind of neighbourhood where someone could walk home drunk in the middle of the street and not have their pissed stumbling interrupted by bikes or cars.

Still, a beacon is viewable from many angles and would be certainly more useful that throwing tins or wielding rolling pins. She almost had to swim as she made her way back to the kitchen lights, current growing in strength by the minute. This time she checked the wall before tenderly touching the switch, half expecting a flash and release but instead finding just cool plastic. Using her other hand to lodge herself against the kitchen counter, she began flicking the light off and on and off and on, over and over and over, almost smiling to herself because the even the bastard windows couldn’t stop light. Her eyes were fixed across the living room, desperately staring out the exposed window in anticipation of lights, uniforms, sirens, anything. Off and on and off and on, over and over and over again. Scattered recollections of Morse code – what was SOS? Dot dot dot dash dash dash? More dots? – soon led to a simple aim to be as a lighthouse, shining a warning in the dark, though the message this time was COME CLOSE instead of KEEP AWAY. Click, click, click, water now rudely forcing up under her breasts, lungs starting to fight the increased pressure. On, off, on, off, come on come on come on. Time drifted to 4am but the winter night showed no sign of morning light, each second click of the lights plunging Alice into two seconds of intimate, intense soaking black fear. Each flash of the lights as they came on blinded her anew, furniture shifting in form each time as the enclosing liquid pushed and pulled everything around her.

She stopped, lights blazing, and examined the sight across the room for signs of outside curiosity. The water was now flipping and frothing across her chest, swirling her vision along with it. Feeling the anger again pulse in her frigid veins, she threw herself forward towards the window. There had to be someone who could see what’s happening here. This thought came and went, muted as the constant sound of pulsing water, as she swam across the ocean that used to be her living room. Her bladder hurt with internal pressure, human protocol still forming ridiculous rules even in the face of crazed anarchy. When she finally slammed up against the window it was face first with wide eyes blinking away froth in an attempt to make out the dim early morning outside. The lights twinkled gently in the distant darkness, grass and trees sleeping with the birds. A world content and at peace. Alice’s breathing was pushing hard in and out of her lungs now and she had to move down the width of the window to avoid the forming mist. There was nothing. Wait.

There was a car. On the road, lights on but parked hard on the curb, the driver seems to be looking at something. Looking in. Alice’s heart jackknifed into her throat and her pulse drummed into her ears. Eyes wide, she threw herself backwards, ignoring debris and tables and chairs and bowls and papers and so many bottles snacking into her face as she put all her swimming experience into her muscles and powered her way back to the kitchen lights. Hand up, screw the danger, click click click click off on off on come on come on come on see this dammit. She only realized she was yelling with every click click click when the water flew up into her mouth and throat and choked back her muffled breaths.

And then, with a fizz and a pop and thundering bang, all the lights went out.

 

Chapter Three

The tears that streamed from her eyes mixed with the blood seeping from her forehead until it dripped muddy flowers into the river by her feet. Alice sat sobbing in the dark on the floor of her upstairs landing, face on knees and hands over eyes. The metal lamp rested quietly to her left, its work now done. The deep gash on her head was testament to that. On finding that every single upstairs window was firmly closed – even the bathroom window (which she *always* left open to fight shower steam) – and that every latch was locked, her panicking hands tore the lamp from the wall and hurled it angrily at the hallway window. The window fought back and won without even a scratch of care, the lamp ricocheting back into her soft flesh.

The cold didn’t bother her any more. The only light was from the lamppost outside, weakly streaming through bare windows. Orange and black. Below her feet, stretching down the stairs and into the nighttime murk below, the restless water continued to build and bubble. She could feel the current through her toes as it began its invasion of the house’s upper level. It was as insistent as ever, pushing up from below, up from the basement, maybe even lower than that. Alice raised her head and forced together connected thoughts through the tears. How could that be? Where is all this coming from?

Forcing her legs to straighten underneath her, she ran once again to the window that overlooked the car. It was still there, but with no sign of the person she’d briefly seen ten minutes ago. Phone someone, damn you she screamed into the glass, wet lips brushing the cold surface. Police, Fire, whatever. Phone someone. She caught her reflection staring back with wide, confused eyes. Wet white pyjamas streaked with muck and now blood. Shoulders hunched and shivering, weak light stretching her shadows into empty spaces. It was actually a pitiful sight, and pity wasn’t something she ever wanted to court again. Straightening her back, she stood for a minute and stared at herself.

It was time to get dressed.

Her footfalls became damp stomps as she marched back into her bedroom, moving by touch and memory, stripping as she went. If it was about to get wetter here, and the rushing water over her ankles seemed to insist it would, she supposed that it was time to dress accordingly. First, bikini instead of underwear. Over that, her surfing wetsuit that hadn’t seen light of day since that evening in May. It still smelled of sand. Bare feet, bare hands, brown hair tied back under pushed-up snorkel mask. In the same bag was her diving gear – knife, torch, watch, all quickly clipped into the belt round her waist. The torch looked outward, its white light dancing with the streetlight orange and drawing strange patterns on everything. Even in this blurred glow, the bed looked so enticing. Alice turned her back and walked out before she could change her mind and just cuddle in.

Calves now. Was it rising faster? There was no stopping it, it seemed, so there had to be a plan. Up, up, up. The attic didn’t have any windows but tiles are easier to smash than bricks. Alice shuffled down the hallway until she was under the trapdoor. The access pole was leaning nearby and she quickly hooked it through the waiting loop. Push up to release the latch, hear that click, then down slowly so the folded ladder can slip down…except, even after the hard sound of metal latch releasing, the trapdoor wouldn’t swing down. Alice pulled again, this time more insistent. Damp hands squeezed the silver pole to stop it slipping, body leaning ever more into the effort, but it wouldn’t budge. The pole slopped into the water as the access hook snapped clean off, sending her staggering forward into the wall.

She took a breath and screamed a singular curse against water and windows and trapdoors and lamps.

The swearing turned her round and she chased back into her bedroom to grab her chair, its stack of piled clothes thrown into the sopping darkness now making its way up to her knees. Dragging it back felt harder than natural, clogging water pushing against her muscles with every attempt at rebellion. Slamming the chair underneath the trapdoor, she reached up but the tiny gap between ceiling and wood wouldn’t let her fingers take hold. After a second her knife came out, blade flickering briefly in the torch beam as it was pushed up into the gap. With gritted teeth, she pushed once, twice, splinters falling with the dust past her urgent eyes. The trap shifted begrudgingly. Another push, push, each effort adding a tiny glimpse of the trap’s side, and again, and again, a voice crawling out of her throat now in a continuous growl, growing louder with each push, each muscle strain, each quarter inch of success as she pushed, pushed, harder and harder and harder.

The release of the trap set off a total collapse of everything involved. The heavy wooden plate swung away and sent Alice flying forward, foot caught in the chair back. The ladder, designed to gently slip out with the downward angle, used the extra momentum to slam down into her back as she fell forward into the bubbling ocean in her hallway. The pain in her ankle as it twisted round the chair was quickly replaced by the knife slicing deep across her shoulder, blood spraying across the wall before the splash. Her open mouth gulped uncontrollably in the melee, throat and nose violently complaining about the intrusion. The water was heavier as she stood this time, and when she could finally breathe again, she tasted copper.

After two minutes of frantic splashing, she found her knife lodged underneath a fallen mirror. She slopped to the foot of the ladder and shone the torch upwards. The dark of the attic seemed to drink the light. Scanning around for a final alternative, but finding none, she forced herself to reach out and ascend before her fear persuaded her otherwise.

It was surprisingly quiet in the roof, almost as if the darkness was not only consuming light but also sound. Underneath her feet, below the ceiling, the constant inward flow continued now as a whisper of intent, crawling ever slower up to find her. Her plan, or at least the only thing resembling a plan, was to smash out through the tiles and take her chances on the roof. It wouldn’t matter if she had to stay up there all night – even the water wouldn’t be able to fill the open night sky. The weakest point would be around the guttering, and this is where she started. The attic was scattered with small boxes and stuffed bin liners holding things that might be useful at some point. A hose, some books, a shelving unit, some shoes, rakes, paints, brushes, suitcases. Residential litter. Choosing the path of least resistance, she grabbed the smallest stacks and unceremoniously threw them aside. The torch gave her small strobing views of everything. Finally revealing the spiderwebbed edge of the roof, Alice squeezed down and started thrusting out with her knife, but the hard joints refused to allow any glimmer of hope. Scraping up and down, she tried to feel for any structural weak points but was only met with solidity and splinters.

She turned to see the first splash of water peeking over the trapdoor square.

Flipping round, she got her bare feet in the gap and kicked. Searing pain from her bruised ankle slammed shards up her legs into her hips. Supporting shoulder, sliced deep, stung loudly. She tried again, this time with just her other foot, but was only rewarded with a dull thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Alice started to realise that her understanding of house construction may have been a little naïve and then couldn’t hold the laughter back. What started as a chuckle quickly rose from her belly, emerging from her mouth as a loud cackle, head tilting back as the house shook with her booming, hysterical laughter. Oh God, I’m going mad drifted across her mind as she finally regained her composure. Her fingers were wet. This is what is feels like. The water is rising and there’s nothing I can do to stop it and I’m going to drown as my mind breaks in two. But then she wasn’t laughing any more.

There was light on her hand. Not from her torch, which was doing a great job of illuminating her wet and wrinkled feet. On the fingers of her right hand, almost imperceptibly faint, there was a tiny cocoon of…moonlight? How? Her heart leaped in unison with her legs. Tracing the beam carefully, she raised her hands to follow the light back to its source. Moving with all the care of a new mother with a baby, she crept her hand forward, eyes open wide to trace where it was coming from.

And there, high in the top peak where the two slanting roof sides met their holding wall, tiny and inconspicuous, was a sliver of moonlight peeking through the smallest of vents.

 

Chapter Four

Flash. Flash. Flash.

Alice balanced, mid splits, one foot on the boiler casing and the other on a wooden box filled with skiwear. Her right arm was reaching up, stretching to the vent, frigid thumb flicking the torchlight on and off and on and off in the feeblest of hopes that the signal would be noticed.

Flash. Flash. Flash.

When she was five, her father had taken her to a neighbourhood park in the middle of a ring of massive houses. Apparently some famous sports star lived in 283, and the mayor’s family had just moved in to another. It was mid summer and the air was drenched in the most beautiful dusty twilight that meant she was out way past her bedtime. Running though the trees and long grass caused a flurry of pollen and dust to swirl around their feet as they laughed and played, rubber ball bouncing around their feet. One of the houses framing the park had had a blinking light in the darkness, twinkling like the stars that were just starting to emerge. Alice had asked her dad why the house was flashing, and he’d just said that it was a movement alarm or something similar. What she only learned much later was that the family had come home mid-robbery and had not lived to survive the encounter, even though the wife had managed to set off the newly-installed warning beacon. People just don’t check flashing lights. We have our own problems.

Flash. Flash. Flash.

Behind, the water crept towards her in the absolute darkness. With her hand blocking much of the moonlight and the torch pointed outwards, there was no light to slice through the suffocating black. Her fingers would faintly glow red with every flash, giving the illusion that the freezing numbness was in fact heat and warmth.

Flash. Flash. Flash.

The only part of her that wasn’t thickened by total chill was the cut on her head and it throbbed with its own pulse. Now and again she’d have to use the back of her left hand to wipe away the blood that was still insistently oozing down into her eye, mixing with the sweat to sting and burn.  In her elevated position, she couldn’t feel the water yet, but she knew from the now familiar sound that it wasn’t far away. A wall of death rising to find its only victim.

Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash.

This wasn’t doing anything. As soon as this thought flashed across her mind, the muscles in her arm started to twitch in sympathetic surrender until Alice finally agreed to give in and drop down into the rising ocean beneath her feet. Clipping the torch back onto her belt, she turned and slowly took in the view. The tide was black and showed no sign of abating, its noise building into a persistent buzzing at the back of her skull. The tiny vent was the only way out for the water to go, and Alice had to force herself to accept that it would only start trickling out of there after she had been totally consumed.

Her entire body was shaking now, concentric circles spreading out from where each of her thighs broke the surface. She felt like giving in, lying down, allowing the water to achieve its inevitable conclusion. Laying silently as the air was washed out of her lungs. The water was everything that had ever been against her, all the unfairness and cruelty that she’d tried to sidestep. Punishment for daring to live. Here, up here in the highest point of her own home, this judgement was ceaselessly rising to smother her out of existence. Her shuddering was so violent now that her silent tears where almost spraying off her face, stone limbs starting to drag down into the calling night. So tired, so easy to fall.

Alice’s knees buckled and brought her face closer to the end. Chest slumping forward, arms dead and pointless, the water sensed its oncoming victory and geared up for the final charge. She stayed like that until the deep rose up to her nose, her final bubbles of air playing softly with the frothing liquid underneath. The torch was fully submerged now, yellow light shining up from under her chin and spreading a soft halo out around her head. A fitting light to ease her into the dark. Eyes open, shivers gone, she passively watched as the massive spool of green hose floated past her eyes and into the wall behind her, under the vent.

Under the vent. Wait. Wait. Alice’s heart found an extra beat.

Her dad had bought the hose for her when she was playing with the idea of creating something beautiful in her garden. Alice, he’d said.Tools are everything. She could hear his voice, even now. A good spade, a solid fork, and a hose that’ll stretch the entirety of the garden. Water is the key to beauty. Ha! She chocked a little as she laughed. Irony before death.

No, wait. Under the vent. Under the vent.

They’d pulled that giant spool up into the attic together, laughing as they did in the park, sweating and swearing in unison. What a waste of money! Industrial hose! Who’d ever need an industrial hose! The laughs had stretched long, long, long into the night,

the night,

the night

good night

Under the vent.

Alice’s eyes snapped open, waking from the dream and fighting against the soaking tentacles attempting to finally pull her down. The beat in her heart found partners now in her neck, pulses sending shockwaves of adrenaline through her as her realisation took hold. Suddenly her legs found life again and she hauled herself out of the deep, turning to grab the hose with the same momentum. Her dad had tried to drink a beer through this thing once. Pouring a Bud in one end, he’d spent five minutes manoeuvring the liquid down the hose’s length before spluttering with victory as the air was replaced with beer. He’d then taken a series of deep breaths and blown it back out the other end, spraying a nice pattern all over her wall.

She grabbed the bundle and untied the restraint, hose spreading out slowly in the rising water. Plunging her hands into the spool, she eventually found one end and clamped it firmly between her chattering teeth. The first time she tried to get her feet back up in the raised split position to reach the vent, her right slipped on the casing and she toppled backwards. This time, though, there was no shock or horror. Just reality. Alice had been fighting this – whatever this was – from the beginning, and now she fully viewed the impossible flood as her enemy. It had almost beaten her, but this faint glimmer of hope had sparked her resilience like a crank. Hauling herself back on to her feet, spitting a gob full of water out to her side, she leapt up again and was this time successful. Forcing her left hand into the upper awning for leverage, she used her right to force the end of the hose through the tiny vent opening and it eased upwards into the night air, end curving up like a plant searching for the sunshine. The vent’s blades had a slightly inverted V design which jammed the hose firmly in place.

Alice jumped down and found the other end. A day ago she would have convinced herself that breathing through a hose would be impossible, but so was a house filling with water, so was a house with every door and window firmly sealed shut, so was everything about her life tonight. No, this wasn’t just a crazy idea. This was a burning ember of hope that meant she may not have to die just yet, and that was good enough for now.

With a prayer on her lips, she lifted the hose up to her mouth and breathed in, hard. The water that had seeped in spat violently into her throat and suddenly her world was on fire. Everything became illuminated with crazed torchlight as she span on the spot, chocking until her eyes bulged, death smugly reminding her that it had come for her tonight. Finally, finally, the liquid cleared and air scraped down into her lungs past her soaked windpipe. She lent up against the boiler coughing with great whooping growls until the water stroked her neck from below. She didn’t have much time left. Grabbing the hose end once again, she began to rhythmically suck and spit, suck and spit, clearing out the hose’s water one mouthful at a time. She tasted the rusty iron of blood in her mouth, but kept going even when she had to tip her head back just to keep her head afloat. She’d be under soon. Suck, spit. Suck, spit. Suck, and spit, and finally the hose was clear.

It was time now. There was nowhere above left to go, and she had to go under the wave. Reaching up to fix her diving goggles over her eyes, she took a final test breath through the hose. This time, there was nothing but air, and very quickly the stuffy attic dust was replaced with the unmistakable chill of night. It was working. It was working.

Alice stood very still as the water in her house crested over her head and reached up, up, finally creaking against the roof peak and beginning its steady pour out the vent onto the ground far below. She was in the murky dark now, torch shining through the deep, silence replacing the steady roar that had been with her for so long. She remembered her diving training and kept her breath slow and measured. She had cheated death, or at the very least postponed it, and now in the weightless silence, she almost felt relaxed.

So. Now what. How long could she float like this? She could do it for a while, but how long before sleep, thirst or hunger took over? How to die: starve or drown? Choices, choices. She directed her torchlight onto the drifting hose length. It looked long enough to allow her to swim downstairs, would it be worth trying the windows again? Sending a signal, somehow? Surviving until morning and hoping that an early commuter spotted the girl floating inside her window? None of these options filled her with much hope. It was desperate straw clutching at best.

Then, a cramp of panic shot though her chest as she realised what she wanted to do. All of this, what had come for her – all of this had risen up out of the basement. Up until this point, she’d been running, climbing higher and higher to escape the oncoming beast. Now, she thought, now it was time to see what the hell this was, because she sure as hell wasn’t getting out of this house without stopping it first. And if she was going to die – and she was definitely not very far away from that eventuality – then she wanted to go with the knowledge that she’d at least tried to stop it.

She spun slowly and opened up the curves of the hose so that it was spread along the length of the attic. It filled her beams like snakes. Long enough?

Long enough.

Inch by inch, breath by breath, she floated along to the trapdoor and stepped over, slowly sinking against the still forceful current, slipping down, back into the ocean of her hallway.

 

Chapter Five

The world moved in slow motion. Now Alice was descending beneath the rolling, rising tide, the newfound peace was actually welcome. As she glided down into her upstairs hallway, the tangible proof of her life swayed past her in the current. Picture frames, pens, a single shoe floating like a jellyfish with lace tendrils. Behind her, the lifeline of her hose unfurled silently in the gloom, almost weightless in her hands.

Shadows danced into darkness as Alice’s head finally followed through the trap into the hallway below. She fought to control her breathing as her straight body sunk down to the softness of the carpet, toes gently taking her body’s weight as she slowly came to a halt. The hose trailed up above her head into the flooded depths of the attic above, the trickle of air still seeping into her tenuous shivering breaths. She slowly turned her head around, the torch clipped to her chest casting its white light onto her silently drifting possessions. The world moved in slow motion; silence and darkness creeping all around. It was almost peaceful. Alice had to blink herself back into focus.

She bent her knees then pushed her feet against the carpet for traction, her body eventually finding momentum to ease towards the hallway that led to the staircase. Even though her house was now totally flooded, she could still feel the upward surge of water pushing against her, its cold insistence draining whatever heat she had left in her body. Something hit softly against her head before falling backwards past her in the current. She stopped and took a breath; still air. She didn’t have a plan if that changed. She’d die.

Alice was outside her bedroom when the dull pressure of her bladder made itself known. Up to this point, she’d been so panicked by the rising tide that it had been put far out of her mind; now though, with her forced focus, it was yelling stronger than ever. She shone her light inwards and past her bed to her ensuite, toilet roll drifting through the gloom like an octopus. Shoals of clothes swirled in the push and pull of the current. The glimpse of her bathroom pressed hard into her abdomen, calling her pee out. She was surrounded by water; she could just release there and then and it would all be better.

Alice took another cool breath and twisted her back against the wall.Nope, she thought. This night had slammed into her enough. She refused to give it the additional pleasure of making her piss herself like an infant. Closing her eyes, he stood up straight and used her hands to pull loops of hose towards her, as mush as she dared pull without dislodging the other end; when she reopened them, snakes wound in layered coils all the way up the hallway. She climbed over the bannister of her stairs, carefully feeding the hose line over the top behind her, then began inching down the stairs into the murk below.

Step and breathe, step and breathe; she refused to allow her mind to think of anything else. The lower she got now, the more she needed to use handholds to ease herself forward; the pushing tide had gained an urgency and pressure on her every limb. It wants me to stop, she thought. It wants me to lie down and quit.

How easy that would be, Alice, it whispered in the silence.

How easy it would be to sit and let me fill your lungs.

Alice blinked and found herself back in the kitchen, back in front of the fridge. It stood ajar from earlier, a recent event that suddenly felt impossibly distant. The light sent out by her torch lit up a swarm of objects floating past her face: cup, straws, cloths, paper; all the detritus in her life now utterly consumed by the flood. Everything was moving in the invisible flow coming up from beneath, pushing down towards her from the corridor. After pulling the lengths of hose clear of the stairway, Alice pulled herself against the current, past the back of her couch, and towards the corridor. At the end would be the basement trapdoor, and beyond that, the water.

The thought of its enclosing darkness made her gasp, the air suddenly feeling weak and thin through the hose. Her heart skipped in her chest, and water pushed hard in every direction against her skin, squeezing the air out of her lungs. The spike of adrenaline caused her heart to pound and Alice fell slowly to her knees as her desperate hands clutched the hose tight in her mouth. She couldn’t get the air quickly enough, the strained gasps sucking in painfully low amounts of night air down through the tubing. She now thought of all her expelled carbon dioxide, pooling in the hose’s many coiled loops, now forcing its way back into her lungs to suffocate her. There was a new noise in her ears; a pounding, shouting, screaming terror bursting from inside her head, muffled by the wet hands all over her. The water probed at the edges of her mouth, begging to be let in. Her brain began its final surrender, preparing to give her up to the depths.

When Alice had been scuba training, something the teacher had said amused her so much she’d used it as a story for years. She – they – were in the Caribbean, paddling in glossy shallows, diving a few metres to stroke the fat fish that fluttered in every direction. Her love’s luminescent eyes shone amongst the coral, and they made love both before and after dinner each night. Their teacher was a German guy with a slight gut, funny in a literal kind of way. Very serious when it came to safety.

Guys, he said with a z instead of an s, guys. If you panic down there, don’t. Down there. Like they were exploring the Titanic, rather than a pebbled seabed barely under the water. Hold your breath. Reset your breathing. You will be fine. The world is a beautiful place.

The world is a beautiful place was a joking refrain that they’d used for years afterwards. Can’t find your keys? Don’t panic. The world is a beautiful place. Out of yoghurt? The world is a beautiful place. Their version of his accent had become more German as the years went by, only adding to the phrase’s hilarity. Except it stopped being hilarious when they split up. When Alice found herself alone. The world didn’t feel like a beautiful place at that point, and she’d never said it again.

Her chest could barely take in air now, blooms of black forming around her vision as she snapped back to reality. The world is a beautiful place. Using her last scrap of cognancy, Alice drew the biggest breath she could and popped the hose out of her mouth, keeping the end angled downwards to keep out the water. Then, she straightened her weak legs, and let herself float in the tide.

At first, the pressure in her chest threatened to squeeze her into darkness. Then, though, a feeling of weightless freedom washed over her, and she allowed some bubbles to slip out of her mouth. The tension that had twisted her muscles began to unwind as she floated gently backwards, Alice stretching out her limbs as the calm washed over her. Her chest relaxed, gently pushing the remaining air out of her lungs into the gloom around her. She stopped for a second, allowing her airless body to float and pitch wherever it wished, until finally her brain couldn’t hold out any more. She then slowly slid the hose back into her mouth, sucked and spat out the inch of water inside, then allowed the cool air inside to gradually fill her lungs.

The world is a beautiful place, she thought to herself as her body absorbed the fresh, clean air. The world is a beautiful place.

Alice opened her eyes and eased her body back down to the ground, allowing herself to sink low before pushing hard against the carpet. She slipped once again past the back of her couch, the night light faintly shining through the submerged windows. Her curtains clung to their rail as they were washed sideways by the strengthening current. She had to use her arms now, hands stretched either side of her to brace against the two sides of the corridor. She inched her way forward, the muscles in her mouth aching from the strain of keeping the hose in.

Finally, still fighting to keep her breaths measured, she reached the end of the corridor and peered right. The blackness here was overwhelming, an impenetrable dark that sucked away everything at its edges. Twisting her body against the wall, she managed to angle her torch over to the closed basement hatch. Or, at least, the hatch that had been closed; it was now fully open, hatch floating at an angle on its hinges. Alice could feel the intensity of the water as it poured out, forever pushing against her advances.

She dropped to the ground, making her body as flat as possible, feeling the invisible current slip over her body. Using her elbows, she slowly dragged herself forward, being careful not to snag the hose out of her mouth. She didn’t want to think about its length now; either it was long enough, or it wasn’t. She’d find out soon enough either way. Her head reached the edge of the trap and pushed over its edge, almost being thrown back by the emerging water’s ferocity. Alice had planned to stand and take the stairs slowly, but she was suddenly unsure that she’d be able to fight the pressure. Instead, she pulled hard and slipped down through the trap, sliding headfirst down the stairs, one by one, into the depths.

 

Chapter Six

Alice didn’t realise how much light the night sky had seeped into the murky water until it was removed. Up to that point, the house had felt dark, intimidating; now she was down in the basement, it suddenly seemed like a million times lighter upstairs. She had the overwhelming urge to stand and flee, ride the current back into the house, away from the absolute pitch of the basement. But then what? With light would come death, soon enough. No. She was in the basement now. The water came up from here; the water was pushing her away. The water didn’t want her to fight. So she fought a little more.

She got to the bottom stair and pulled as much hose as she dared behind her. It was hard to tell which direction the water was coming from; it seemed to twist and whirl around her on its journey up the stairs. Alice carefully got to her knees and began scanning her light around the far edges of the basement, looking past the thousands of floating particles to try and spot the flood’s origin. Each exposed pipe was checked, boxes pulled away from walls to hunt for cracks. As she moved away from the straight stairwell, the current became less obvious, rushing past her on all sides.

Alice pulled the last length of the hose into the basement’s far corner, the darkness sweeping in to fill the space immediately around the edges of her weak torch light. Still, she couldn’t find the source, no matter how hard she checked. The now familiar creep of panic was once again tingling up the back of her frozen neck; she’d come down here to find the source, but if it wasn’t to be found, then she had no way of stopping it. She backed up until she stood against the stairway, eyes still scanning the rear wall in the vain hope that an answer would suddenly reveal itself. She stood there and looked in desperation, trying to carefully draw measured breaths through the hose, but it was becoming harder to maintain her composure. If she couldn’t find the source, she couldn’t stop it; the water would win, and she’d drown here, tonight. Her tears pooled in her goggles, misting her vision even more.

Alice needed an alternative. Maybe the vent in the attic roof could be pushed open? Maybe she could just keep breathing until morning and hope for a rescue? She knew deep down that these were stupid ideas. She wasn’t getting out. She turned to go back up the stairs, and that’s when her torch flashed across the white figure crouched under the stairs, mouth stretched open wide, black eyes fixed on hers.

Alice screamed and the hose popped out of her mouth, her panicked arm knocking the flashlight off her chest clip and tumbling into the darkness. All around her was instantly a void, gravity and air disappearing as she spun backwards into the absolute gloom. She’d taken a gulp of water and it stung her throat, scraping against the edges, willing her to cough and breathe and die. He arms flailed either side of her, hitting something that was either floor or ceiling but not purchasing long enough to let her right her balance.

The pressure closed in around her, screaming into her eardrums, pulling at the edges of her mouth in desperate glee. Alice’s thrashing leg suddenly hit something hard, propelling her body into a sharp edge that sliced into her arm. She barely managed to keep her mouth clamped shut, feeling the dull warmth of her own blood escaping her into the surrounding murk. She knew she didn’t have long now; her lungs were already straining against the lack of air, the shock cascading through her veins demanding more attention than she could give. Soon she’d embrace the darkness and die down here.

As Alice slipped down helplessly to the ground, her hand closed around an edge of hose loop. The spark of its existence travelled up her fingers, forcing what remained of her brain to take notice; but which way was the end? She swung round her other arm, spikes of pain pulsing in her shoulder, and gripped the hose. Left or right. She went left, spooling the hose through her hands, length after length, seconds away from an unstoppable gasp that would drown her quickly. Loop after loop, faster and faster, sound dimming and bright lights sparking the edges of her vision as she faded, then the metal hose edge hit into her hand. Its looped weight had kept the end angled down; tiny bubbles ticked her fingers as she snatched it up to her mouth. This time she didn’t care about the threat of residual water. Alice spat into the gloom, jammed the hard end in her moth and inhaled sharply, damp cold air shooting down into her lungs with glorious insistence.

She lay there on the ground, gasping deeply into the hose, airless panic slowly being replaced by the tingling fear of what was down there with her.

She needed her vision back. Her torch was heavy enough to probably still be in the same place she dropped it – about a metre from the stairs, and the thing – but she wasn’t sure where she’d ended up in the basement. She shifted slowly backwards until she hit something solid. It was cold and metallic, a storage container for tools. That meant she was near the back, on the left. Placing her right palm on the container’s door, she twisted her body into the direction of the stairwell, although in this total darkness, she really had no way of telling if she was right. Her eyes were starting to play tricks on her, flashing streaks in her periphery that caused her heart to jump every time.

She took away her hand, got on all fours, and began to slowly crawl forwards.

With each inch she closed in towards the stairwell, free hand carefully sweeping the carpet in front to feel the hard edges of the torch. If she was going the right way, whatever it was she saw under the stairs would be waiting for her, maybe even watching in the gloom as she shuffled closer. Her neck tightened at the thought, chocked tears forming in her eyes. Still she advanced, one knee length at a time, closer and closer. The current swirled around her head, whispering its promises to her, louder with every movement. Alice couldn’t hold back the shivers now, her whole body starting to shake in frozen, terrified unison.

Its dull, black eyes peered at her through the darkness. She could feel it now, a prickling spreading on her skin as it gazed at her body, willing for her death.

Alice’s trembling hand then brushed against something metallic and she instantly snatched the torch up to her chest. For a few seconds, her numb fingers couldn’t find its power button, panic causing them to bounce around the flashlight’s exterior. But then there it was, and a small wave of relief washed over her as its weak pool of light once again jumped into life.

She knelt on the sodden carpet with the light angled down, forcing her breaths into a slow, rhythmical pattern before bringing the light up.

When it slowly illuminated the cold, twisted feet under the stairwell, she almost popped the hose out of her mouth once again. It was hard to breathe with chattering teeth; her right hand held the hose end firmly in place. After a few seconds, Alice gently brought the light all the way up and forced herself to see the whole creature.

It crouched there, staring intently, pitch eyes reflecting the torch light back at her. It had its thin legs bent down into a deep crouch, squat arms clasped around its knees. It was totally white and naked, its chubby skin rolling down its sides in waves. Perched on a thick neck was a round, hairless head, ears thin and pointed, mouth open wide in a silent bellow. Out of its mouth came the flood, the endless pushing water powerful enough to leave a visual haze of a wake behind the current.

And the eyes. The staring eyes. They never left her.

It was difficult for Alice to even breathe, her subconscious screaming at her to run, and die. The thing under her stairs wasn’t a person; it was a monster. She forced herself to stare, allowing the adrenaline to push its way through her veins in a thin attempt in self-control. It stared back, unmoving. It was difficult to Alice to remain directly in front of it, so strong was the torrent of water pushing out of its mouth. She wondered briefly where all the water could be coming from; a scream for logic in an entirely illogical situation.

She shuffled slowly to her left, careful to keep the thing illuminated as she went. It had no discernible pupils, but the muscles straining around its neck told her that it was tracking her too, mouth still open and gushing, but beady eyes tracking her movements. The rest of its body remained in gargoylesque stillness. She dared to crawl another metre towards where it crouched, finding bravery in its lack of action. Her heart was just starting to calm now; her initial panic reflex now replaced with a sickening curiosity.

The thing blinked. Once, quickly, but definitely a blink, pale lids fluttering for just a second. And its eyes were wider. Was it scared? Up to that point, Alice had assumed that all the fear was hers. Very carefully, she crept forward another step. It blinked again, eyes widening this time into perfect round black globes. Its body still didn’t move, bleached skin reflecting her weak torchlight back with a surprising intensity.

Alice didn’t break the mutual stare and eased forward. It blinked again. Maybe it was the final confirmation of its own discomfort, or maybe she was regaining her nerve, but at that point a singular thought popped into her mind. Suddenly, Alice realised that this whole, ridiculous situation actually had a resolution.

She was going to have to kill it.

There was a tool cabinet behind her on her left; inside was a handsaw. An image of the serrated blade sliding into that thing’s flesh flared across her eyes and she lost focus for a second; she’d never even killed as much as a spider before. The water pushed past her face and pulled her back to reality. Alice allowed her head to turn left, scanning the wall for the cabinet, half expecting that thing under the stairs to suddenly appear next to her in the gloom. What she was looking for wasn’t far away, the cabinet’s horizontal handles just a little more than an arm reach away.

She set her knees on the carpet and eased open the bottom drawer. It slid out without argument, instantly sending a cloud of dust into the suspended water around her. To her relief, the handsaw lay exactly as she’d remembered. Even in her frozen hands the metallic handle felt cold and heavy, sliding through the water horizontally as she turned back to the stairwell.

It was still there, mouth agape, water pushing out as before. Except, when it saw the tool Alice held in her hand, she could see its body twitch from head to knee. Just once, a trembling wave travelling down its body, eyes wide once again with fearful uncertainty. She felt sure it was scared. Its fear gave her fire.

She wanted it dead. Its face pushed an anger up from her chest to her eyes, tensing the muscles in her shoulders. The fact that this thing was trying to kill her, to drown her in her own home, began to inspire a rage that burned the cold out of her flesh. She crawled forward, cat-like, eyes never breaking its stare, her shoulders and hips rolling her body in one fluid motion over the flooded floor. It twitched again, now blinking in regular pulses, unsure how to react to this incoming threat. Good, she thought. Good. Feel it. Here I come.

However, her newfound bravery started to drain as she pulled up close to its body. It was within reaching distance now, the thick water jet almost screaming its way out of its open mouth past her face. Its twitching turned into a regular, sustained shiver, white flesh shuddering as she drew closer. As horrific as it looked, Alice noticed its increasingly childlike reaction to the threat she represented. Now she could see it closer, it wasn’t simple fear she saw; there was a deep, uncontrolled terror beginning to sweep through its whole body, and it looked powerless to react.

She was mere inches from its silent screaming face now, but her hand stayed down, cold saw resting on the carpet near the thing’s crusted and hardened toes. Alice knelt there for a second, staring into its eyes, her body now accustomed to the rhythm of dragging and pushing air up and down the hose’s length. There washed over her a question, a sudden doubt of action that had been so clear just moments ago. Her wish to kill was dissolving as she came closer to the action. But still the water came; still it stared at her with eyes so wide. There would be no other end to this, she realised. Not if she wanted to live.

Alice’s right hand gripped around the saw’s hard handle and slowly raised it forward. The serrated blade slipped through the water towards the thing’s flesh, glinting in the pale light of her torch. She got the impression that its focus was shifting from her eyes onto the sharpened instruments closing in on its flesh. She lowly extended her arm, shivers rippling through her arm either from fear or cold. She was so full of both by now that she couldn’t divide them any more.

The thing under the stairs shook hard, too. The blade pushed into the folds of the skin around its neck, Alice taking a full breath before gripping the handle hard before slicing her hand to the right.

The thing finally burst into movement as a blast of black ink shot into the watery darkness around them. The hose popped out of Alice’s mouth for what would be the final time, the air in her lungs screaming at the sudden shock. It was all she could do not to gasp out in surprise as the thing scrambled across the floor, one podgy arm desperately pawing at the deep cut on its neck. Alice swivelled round, trying to keep it in her torch light as it scampered, but the saw was now nowhere to be seen.

Desperate not to lose her advantage, and emboldened by the sudden shift in power, she lunged forward and grabbed it around the neck. Even in the frigid water she could feel how cold its skin was; a new wave of nausea and disgust had to be pushed down once again. She didn’t have much air left in her lungs; this was now the time to fight or die.

The thing reached up and tried to push her off, but her position behind meant that the lock of her arm around its neck was too much to fight. It was as desperate as her now, she could feel that; the whole night had boiled down to this single war of attrition. She squeezed and held fast, it wriggled and writhed; at some point, one of them would have to give.

The extra effort was having an effect, though. Her final breath was nearing its final moment of usefulness, lungs straining against the pressure. She would drown soon, even if she could kill this thing that was somehow, against explanation, still pouring water out of its open mouth. Her body was heavy and numb, mind foggy outside of its one desire: to kill what ever this thing was. She squeezed her last squeeze, tight through searing muscles, and felt her eyes droop into nothingness.

And then the thing in her arms finally snapped its mouth closed.

Instantly, a booming crash reverberated throughout the house as every window burst outward from the pressure built up inside. It wasn’t just the force keeping them shut suddenly being removed; it was something more, like the water was being rudely spat out through every opening. Alice’s body suddenly got dragged upwards towards the basement hatch. As she popped up like a ragdoll into the ground floor hallway, she saw her arms were empty; the white gleam of the thing’s skin disappeared into the moonlit gloom with eyes and mouth closed now, a dull streak of black spiralling behind it before disappearing completely.

The escaping current sucked her feet-first down the hallway, faster now, thudding her against the walls and twisting the green hose around her like a snake. Alice didn’t have enough left to take it in, though; the flurry of movement was slowly rolling around her as she flipped helplessly in the flow. Her lungs were finished. She faded.

Then suddenly her skin on her left leg was torn and open, blood streaking back to the jagged window frame that she’d just been dragged through. She screamed out in pain and gasped into the water, except it wasn’t water anymore but cold air. She hit her front lawn hard, rolling and skidding in the sodden grass as the torrent of water continued to push against her back. She finally came to rest against her front fence, a river flowing outwards beneath her, mouth wide open to swallow up the freezing night outside.

 

Epilogue

There had been a blocked pipe in her house.

Alice pushed herself up on her hospital bed and itched at the bandage on her arm as she watched the news. Her house looked unreal through yesterday’s camera lens, ambulance lights streaking across empty windows and doors in the early morning light. She didn’t remember seeing a TV crew so it must have been filming when she was already in the back of the ambulance.

There had been a blocked pipe and a build-up of pressure; when the metal burst, the whole house got saturated in an intense outburst of pent-up water. The fire chief was interviewed as saying that he’s never seen anything like it. Luckily, the owner of the house escaped with only minor injuries.

Then the news story changed to that of a squirrel asking a student for a nut; Alice’s night had been relegated to the quick throwaway stories at the end of the broadcast. She allowed her head to rest back as, for the hundredth time, she wondered if her memory of those few hours was actually real. Maybe it had been a burst water pipe, pushing her out in her sleep, forcing her dreams to justify the sudden jolt of action. Perhaps the pain-relieving drugs the paramedics had injected were responsible for the construction of such a wild fantasy.

But then, against logic, she could still see it when she closed her eyes: white skin, piercing eyes, open jaw impossibly wide. She’stouched it. Sliced it. The water pushing out of its mouth, ceaseless and black, willing her under. Darkness and blood spiralling into the gloom.

Her thoughts drifted to the nightmares that had started to come in waves. Alice had woken mid-choke a few times, lungs drowning in imagined depths, wriggling so hard that the tight bandages around her legs and shoulder had had to be re-wrapped. But she’d noticed that, even in her dreams, she had not gone passively to her death. In each one, she’d woken in a fight.

She tried to distract herself by thinking of the practicalities; how the police had reassured her that her house would be quickly boarded up, so her possessions would be safe. How the insurance company had asked for a complete list of damages to prepare compensation. But, as she mentally listed the contents of her broken home, they didn’t feel real. Like they were from an older, less relevant part of her life.

Alice sat up again and opened her eyes. She was still exhausted, yet sleep wouldn’t come, but that was fine. She welcomed this insomnia; not just to keep the subconscious flood away, but also as she had so much to think about. The news may have reported a burst pipe, but she needed the real truth.

She wasn’t imagining it.

There had been something under her stairs.

– – –

Eight miles away, Alice’s house sat silent and still in the fading afternoon air. Each window and door was now covered in wood panelling that had been nailed tight across the frames. The water had disappeared, leaving just the smell of damp and musk. It was surrounded by police tape, a single officer sat bored in his car tasked with guarding the unstealable.

Inside, the late sunlight filtered through the panels to show a home in ruin. Furniture upended, floor dark and littered with clothes and plates and cups and books. A long thread of hose lay unspooled along the hallway floor. The light reached as far as the splintered trap that led to the basement stairs which were now utterly smothered in darkness.

And down in the basement, from a dark place under the stairs, came no sound at all.

 

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