Decay

by Tristin Deveau


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The house was old. This had been true even when Abigail and her late husband, Henry, first saw it over 50 years earlier. The young couple had fallen in love with the Victorian relic, surrounded as it was by modernity. They dreamed of restoring its anachronistic beauty, already hidden from most observers by years of neglect. When Henry was still alive, the couple had managed to keep ahead of the constant decay of time. Since his death, both the house and its sole occupant had started to wither, and the once vibrant colours of youth had long since faded to a muted grey.

Any who have lived in an old house eventually become used to its particulars. Familiarity makes one deaf to the creaks and groans of its shifting bones, blind to the crooked walls that settle a little more each day, and immune to the signature, musty odor.

The summer had been hot and humid. For the past week, the air had been oppressive – threatening a storm that never came. Abigail, always a fitful sleeper, had been especially restless. She was lying wide awake atop the covers in her too-hot room; the sun was still hours away. Fatigue had crept into every bone, and the shallow, wet sounds of her breath disturbed her. 

Abigail was suddenly aware of a smell lingering in the air. Not the expected scent of her decaying old house, but a different sort of rot; putrid yet horribly familiar. It had been twenty years, but she could never forget that smell.

“Henry?” Barely a whisper, Abigail’s voice was swallowed by the vast emptiness of the house, the only reply its consistent creaking.

***

It was almost noon before Jimmy Classon’s son, Duane, arrived. Seated in a worn wicker chair on the veranda, Abigail watched as the rusty pickup leisurely made its way down the street. Out the corner of her eye, Abigail could see a matching chair, long empty. She used to sit out here with Henry. They’d sit and chat as they drank their morning coffee, or perhaps read – Abigail, her romance novels; Henry, his westerns. Or, sometimes, they’d just sit in silence and watch the sun climb the horizon.

Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she’d sat out here. She’d lost her taste for romances, and the warm rays of the sun offered no comfort from the cold she’d feel whenever her eyes fell on the empty chair. Still in her nightgown, she was certain that she looked every bit the crazed old woman the whole town whispered her to be. She’d been out here all morning. The thought of entering the house, of that smell…

The crunch of gravel signaled Duane’s approach and Abigail, for decency rather than warmth, wrapped a tattered shawl around her shoulders. She’d been skeptical when Jimmy, insisting that he was too busy to come out himself, had told her that his son would take care of things. Duane had barely been talking the last time she had seen the boy, but it was a full-grown man who stood before her now. Has it really been so long?

She didn’t follow him inside. For the two hours that Duane searched the house, inside and out, Abigail stood on her front lawn, which was overgrown and full of weeds. As the time crawled by, she wavered, lightheaded in the heat, and had to brace herself against the railing to ease the burden on her labouring lungs. Abigail appraised the building that had been her home for the last fifty years. Time had not been kind. To either of us.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Renault. I couldn’t find anything.” The lad did look sorry. Embarrassed, even. “Maybe it was something from outside? Or some sewer gas?”

Jimmy had said as much when Abigail called him for help. “I know what I smelled, and I’m telling you, something has died inside that house.”

A look danced across the young man’s face, fleeting, but Abigail could read it plain as day. He was young, but not so young that he didn’t know the stories. The gossip. Her lips tightened; she knew what they used to say about her. Crazy Abigail Renault, as good as murdered poor old Henry.

Even the smell of death was preferable to standing before that look. And so, with a brief thanks, she dismissed Duane and braced herself to re-enter her home. To her surprise, when Abigail stepped back inside, the only scent that greeted her was its familiar musk.

Alone, as she had been for the past twenty years, Abigail moved through the empty house which groaned along with each step, as if it shared the pain she felt in her own joints.

***

It hadn’t been the first time that Henry had stormed off after they fought. He had disappeared before, run off for a week or more before returning and slipping back into the quiet routine of their lives as if nothing had happened. How could she have known? She had heard his angry footsteps and the slam of the front door. But it wasn’t the front door, was it?

He had survived a day at least. Maybe two. (Didn’t you hear him fall?) It’s an old house. (Surely, he must have cried out.) It makes all sorts of noises.

In the end, it was the smell that had led her to Henry.

***

Lying on the bed she once shared with her husband, Abigail was drifting into an uneasy sleep when her breath caught sharply in her throat. No. The rank smell of putrescence, of death and rot, filled the air.

Some animal must have found its way in. Got stuck and died. Sliding out of bed, the stench made her feel faint. Or the sewer has backed up.

Abigail steadied herself against the wall as she left the bedroom, her hand sliding along the dull wainscotting. All original, a beaming Henry would proclaim to their guests.

Henry. Despite her own assurances, she knew exactly what the smell was. Nothing else had that particular sickly sweet scent. Abigail gasped for air, the odor intensifying as she crept downstairs. With each breath, came a fresh wave of nausea.

She had to get to the front door (but it wasn’t the front door, was it?). She had to get out (what did you hear?), but she could not. Abigail had become a mere spectator in her own body – watching, rather than guiding, as she moved deeper into the house. The air, so thick with the smell of rot, felt as though she were walking underwater.

The cellar door was closed. Just as it did twenty years before, the rank air oozed through the gaps. Twenty years ago, she had felt no fear. Numb, Abigail knew exactly what waited for her on the other side (Didn’t you hear something?),crumpled at the bottom of the steps (A crash? A cry?).

Tonight, Abigail trembled as she stood before the door, which seemed to swell, the miasma it held straining to burst free and spread foul decay to every corner of the old house. Abigail saw herself open the door. The air around her rushed in and washed over her like a wave, a receding tide pulling her into the deep dark ocean of the basement below.

In the blackness, the ancient steps creaked (the house makes so many noises). The tainted air burned her lungs, she could taste the corruption as she breathed in and out. Her breath and the creaking of the steps the only sound.

(But wasn’t there another sound? A crash?) Abigail lurched forward as a rotten board gave way under her weight. (A cry?) Her surprised shout barely left her lips before she felt the first, jarring impact. Brittle bones, weak with age, twisted and broke.

There was no pain, not at first, as she lay on the cold concrete at the base of the stairs. Just an overwhelming feeling of wrongness. Her breath, shallow, drew in the damp, stale air, so familiar to any who have lived in an old house. When the pain finally came, the house, shifting its own tired bones, echoed her cries.

Before the sun had risen, her cries had turned to whimpers, then faded to silence.

When Jimmy Classon stopped by the following week, the only sounds he heard were the familiar creaks and groans that every old house makes. It was the smell that led him to Abigail.


©️ 2021 by Tristin Deveau


“Decay,” by Tristin Deveau, was first published on September 2, 2021 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 12.


Interview with Tristin Deveau, Author of “Decay”

What inspired your story?

A couple of elements helped form the basic idea. I grew up in an old house. When friends would sleep over, they’d be disturbed by the random creaks and groans, though to me they were the most natural thing in the world, like how my own joints would crack if I’d been sitting too long. When you are in an old house, you feel its presence in a way that you don’t get in other environments.

The other element I wanted to play with was using the sense of smell to create horror. Vision and hearing are often the most obvious choices to communicate that something is wrong, but I feel we tend to take our sense of smell for granted. It affects you on a more subconscious level. Smell is often associated with memory, so I thought it would be fitting use it in a ghost story. 

What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?

As cliché as it is, The Raven. It’s definitely a work that I revisit a lot, and was one of the first poems that really caught my attention in my youth. For fiction, while it may not fit completely in the Gothic tradition, The Haunting of Hill House is another work that I keep getting drawn to. I love a good ghost story, especially when there is a healthy dose of ambiguity. With both works, I think I respond strongly to the idea that you bring your ghosts with you. The supernatural element is just a manifestation of what’s inside.

How long have you been writing?

This will be my first published story (thanks for that!). Previous to this, I’ve mostly been interested in film. I’ve written and directed a small number of short films over the years, but have only recently started concentrating more seriously on writing.

What are you working on now?

While I certainly want to come back to prose, I’m currently working on finishing a feature length science fiction screenplay called Axiom, along with developing a couple of new short films.

What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?

You can learn more about my work at my website: tristindeveau.com.