The humidity in the house never seemed to go away. Erica, a few days shy of nineteen, placed her hand against the wooden door of the living room. And though she could tell how humid it was based on her breath, visible when it wasn’t cold outside, her palm against the door simply helped to confirm it. The room was humid. There was water pooled underneath the wallpaper beneath the window and the curtains found themselves pressed up against the glass. And while she could come to terms with the possibility of losing her security deposit, the mould piling up against the ceiling, climbing down the walls, was more than concerning.
It had started as a simple patch by the window. She didn’t think much of it at first, simply ran her fingers across and then frowned at the stains on her fingertips. She’d then gone and picked up a piece of paper, a pamphlet from a business she hadn’t looked at twice, and wiped the wall down, removing the black. It was back on the wall the following day, alongside a newer patch, right beneath the window. She used water on that one, and a bit of soap, hoping it would be enough to keep it at bay. The mould came back a few days later.
There really was no point in cleaning off the walls. Sure, it was dangerous for her to breathe in the air in the room. It was deadly. She had looked the symptoms up online and had wondered, always late at night, if any of the pain in her chest, the raspiness behind each breath, and the feeling of the ribs digging against her chest, had to do with the black on the walls in her living room. But she slept in her room, and the pain had always been there, since she was no more than ten, so it really had nothing to do with it. Then there was the fact that her hands always hurt when she cleaned it off. It burnt her fingers and her palms, though she could have also purchased a pair of gloves instead of pressing her bare hand against the liquid and smoothed it over the wall with her fingers, leaving prints of her hand all over the paint. And it always came back.
She liked to think that it was mocking her. That they were locked in some sort of eternal conflict wherein they gained territory, bit by bit, at first appearing to be no more than dust before the black consumed entire corners of the wall and sprawled over its body. She liked to think she could win by simply spraying it with a bottle she’d gotten at the shop for no more than ten to fifteen quid. It was unreasonable to give it any sort of sentience. She knew that. It didn’t matter though. It was much more entertaining to think of it as an entity rather than the thing it was. To think of it as some sort of battle rather than her with her arms stretched out. She didn’t speak to it. That was a line she would not dare cross.
She let the sponge fall into the bucket and water splattered against the plastic. The water was grey, bordering on silver. Normally she would take the bucket out, pour it down the sink. That day she simply stood, got her coat, and picked up her belongings. She even forgot to take the lunch she’d prepared for herself the night before, but she did take her wallet.
The journey to her university wasn’t long and it wasn’t short. Twenty five minutes on foot. Though that would depend on the person who walked it. It took five minutes for her to make it to the nearest bus stop, set outside a 24hr shop and by a pizzeria that was always open yet never seemed to have any customers. Then it was the matter of a ten minute ride, followed by a fifteen minute right that could be cut down to ten if she went through the park. It was only reasonable to cut through the park when the sun was still out since at night- well, things were different at night.
On that particular day nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She walked out of the house at the same time as her upstairs neighbour did. They exchanged a form of pleasantries but otherwise said nothing to each other. The bus arrived on time and she made it to the park. However, the man appeared before her eyes.
He was not immediately visible if you did not look down and kept your eyes instead on the distance, to where the park met the street and the traffic lights signalled the crossing. He was on the floor, in between bushes to the side of the main path. Not too far off but still hidden enough in the flora that he would have gone unnoticed had she not stopped and looked at her phone, as she usually did, just to make sure that she was on time. She did not see him until she placed her phone back in her pocket and her gaze shifted to the side.
The man was on his side. A leg was curled up, close to his chest. The other found itself stretched out, at an odd angle beneath him. His arms were normal, tucked close to him, by his head and chest. They made it seem like he was asleep but she wasn’t sure he was. His skin was pale, slightly greyish. His slightly parted lips were tinted off that same colour in the bucket back home. His chest was not moving and, by his side, were a couple of bottles.
He’s dead, she thought.
It seemed right to assume that he was not really alive since he did not move. Though, there was no smell. She had always assumed that dead people would come with a smell, kind of like when the meat she’d bought went off in her fridge, green and grey growing on the container. It was always a question of whether a dead person would smell worse. The man, on the other hand, carried the scent of dirt, vomit, and something she couldn’t quite recognise.
She did not call anyone. Not an ambulance, nor the police. There were many crossing through the same park as she and while many did not notice the man they did see her standing before him, blocking the path. Someone would call eventually. And, as she walked away, she thought that it didn’t even matter if no one called. In the end, he would be picked up at night by faceless men in black caps. His family would get a note. They would then make their way to the white building with no windows and long halls. A building of a single floor, where the doors at the back were wide enough for black vans with wide bellies to make their way through. Then, they would be taken to a room with two silver tables and hundreds of boxes on the wall. On the table, covered with a sheet, would be the man. And there would be a doctor in the room, standing to the side, holding a tablet between their hands. They would lift the sheet up, long enough for you to say, ‘Yes. That’s him.’ And the sheet would fall down, the documents signed, and the family pushed out the door with a thank you note and a time for when to return to pick up the ashes.
She stopped by the store on her way back home. There wasn’t much money in her account but it had been days since she last went shopping. Days spent looking at her dwindling cupboard, eating dry cereal and pasta for nearly every meal. She’d even begun to sleep more. Waking up only when it was absolutely necessary and spending most of the day in bed, eating only when it felt like her stomach was making its way through her muscles.
There wasn’t much in the store. There rarely was. When she was younger, at about five maybe six, she could remember walking down the aisles and seeing a few empty shelves. She remembered her mother tapping her foot against the floor and brushing her fingers against her chin. They still made their way around the entire store, walking up and down the halls. She kept doing it as she grew, unless she was dressed in black or carrying a backpack with her. The men at the front door always kept their eye on you, even if it was a bright blue or with a few butterflies on the back.
She bought some mould remover. Something stronger than the kind she had at home. And she also looked around for small bags to hang inside her wardrobe. The kind that absorbed moisture. There was no mould inside the wood, but it was something she never quite stopped thinking about. At times she even dreamt of it making its way across the carpet, over the legs of her bed. She dreamt of it finding its way to her mattress. That she would have it on her pillows. She picked up the bottle and dropped it in the little plastic basket.
“Remember.” A voice said through a speaker. “If you see something. Say something.”
A chill travelled down her spine. She kept her eyes focused on the shelves and the way her fingertips fell against her palm when she held her hand palm up. The words always made her feel like there were people watching her.
She packed her belongings and handed the money while wondering, mentally, if she would be able to handle the mould. If that day would be the day it would be gone. However, the rain that fell as soon as she turned to the exit made it all too obvious that more water would flow in from the cracks.
The landlord had tried to fix it already. They’d sent contractors and boarded up the house in scaffolding. They’d walked into the house and looked at the walls, trying to figure out how the water had made its way through the wood, propped up to keep the curtains a few centimetres from the wall. It didn’t make sense. But it happened, so they had to try and fix it. The contractors assumed it had to do with the wall above the windows, but the water always found its way through.
“You should get going.” The young man behind the counter said. “It will be curfew time soon.” There were dark circles under his eyes. His mouth seemed trapped a few moments before saying something. His jaw lowered but his mouth closed. He’d been working there since her first year at uni, but she had yet to learn his name.
“Thank you.” She muttered, picking up the bag with her mould remover, small box of apples, ham, cheese, some bread, and several pot noodles of varying flavours. It was a bit of a pathetic shop, but the men and women behind the counters never cared about what she bought. She waited a few minutes in front of the doors, watching the rain fall and hearing the clock in the background. The man behind the counter told everyone who walked up to him to go home and most said, “Thank you.” They then walked out, sometimes straight into the rain and at others standing by her, for a few moments, trying to see whether or not the rain would stop at any point.
“The air is heavy.” An old woman said, letting out a deep breath. She stood beside her, holding in between her fingers a black plastic bag. “It never used to rain this much.”
Erica held her breath for a second before letting it go, aware that it would be too rude to walk away in that instant. It would be too obvious that she was running away from the conversation. Instead, she said, “I’ve heard.” She muttered. “It helps cool down the city though. Even if we’re not built for it.”
“It wasn’t this cold either.” The old woman commented. “I always assumed the world would grow warmer. At least that would save us some money on the energy bills. You can always do something about the heat, but the cold? There’s nothing you can do with the cold.” Erica nodded, not really listening. She wondered if she should simply make a run for it. “My grandson bought me an electric blanket the other day. It kept us warm throughout the night.” Erica turned, looking for a clock. There were still twenty minutes before curfew fell into effect. Words came at her but they went in through one ear and out the other. She could feel the pain in her chest growing, making its way up her neck and down her ear. The burning sensation it left behind made her feel nauseous. “Thank God my husband isn’t alive. It would’ve broken his heart.”
“That you have to wear an electric blanket?” The comment slipped through Erica’s lips. She’d been too focused on the door and the rain slowly pooling up against the floor to hold her tongue.
“The rain.” The woman said, somewhat annoyed. She seemed offended. “The rain would’ve broken his heart.”
“Why?” Erica said, finally turning to the old woman and seeing the woman’s face, aged and distant. There were dark spots all over her arms and her cheeks. Dark shadows sunk her cheeks and her thin hair made her seem sickly.
“He liked his garden.” The old woman said. “Specifically his rose. Oh, how he used to tend those roses. Sometimes I wonder if he loved those bushes more than me.” The old woman sighed, her eyes falling on the water pooling up on the street. The city lights flickering against the sidewalk. “Of course they're all covered in black rose spot now. Nothing to be done about that I suppose.”
Curfew would begin in ten minutes.
Erica made her way through the main street, rushing somewhat. So long as she made it away from the cameras it would be fine even if she were five minutes late. Her hands held the bag close to her chest, groceries buried against the fabric of her jacket. She rushed through the streets and climbed up the hill to her home, lounging forward. The streets were empty. And though it was not the first time she’d been late out at night, cutting it close with curfew, she could feel a weight on her shoulders.
Her mother called her as soon as she made it through the door of her home. They spoke often. Every day, a few minutes after curfew had set in. They spoke of the weather, mentioned the rain that never quite seemed to leave. She’d tell her mother of her day, starting from the mould on the walls to the walk to school and the walk back home. She’d talk about interesting things she saw, though they usually were only about the sort of food they’d had all day and what they would have for dinner. They’d talk about people they knew, the things they did, who they talked to, who they loved and who they could not stand. They’d talk about her degree. They talked about everything they could talk about and when they ran out of things, both of them sitting quietly on the line, they hung up.
“How’s the mould?” Her mother asked her.
“It’s gone on some walls.” Erica said, dropping her groceries to the floor and making her way to the room. The walls were wet. “The paint has started to peel off though.” It had bubbled at first and she, out of curiosity, had pressed her finger against it. The whole thing ended up cracking and falling onto the floor. “I might need a fan or something to suck out the moisture from the room. It’s too humid.” She wondered how much a machine like that would cost. “How is Lucy?” Her sister, three years younger.
“Better.” Her mother stated, and Erica could hear the smile on her lips. “They said that if this continues she’ll be allowed back home on Monday.”
“Good.” She muttered. “That’s really good.”
“Did you have a good day?”
Erica shifted her phone from one ear to the other. She kneeled in front of the mould. “It was good. It didn’t rain in the morning. And it was quite nice on the way to campus.” She could see the path again, if she thought about it long enough. “There was a man.” She said, running a finger against the wall. “He was lying on the grass. He seemed very ill.” The mould painted her fingertips black. “I think he was dead.” Her mother said nothing. And it suddenly dawned on her that they were not in the same room. That they were on the phone. That while it wasn’t often that people listened in, you just never quite knew. Erica coughed, rubbing the mould off with her other fingertips.
She asked, “Have you spoken to grandmother recently?” She hadn’t heard from her since her birthday. Four months ago.
“You should call her.” Her mother said.
“I will.” But she wouldn’t. Neither of them ever did.