George Hastings pulled into the driveway, and didn’t get out of the car for five minutes. He gripped the steering wheel, and seriously thought about simply driving away, back home, back to his girlfriend. He remembered what she had said last night, that he didn’t need to go – ‘You don’t owe the old bitch anything.’ He just told her that this would help him sleep at night, and that she shouldn’t come with him.
‘Great, now you’re doing the lonely, independent macho-man thing, who doesn’t need a woman holding his hand.’ Her anger was just a camouflage over her concern, but it stung all the same.
‘That’s not it. You know that’s not it. I just don’t want you to have to see that house.’
‘I’m not some timid little girl, George. I’m a grown woman, for fuck’s sake.’
They’d argued some more, went to bed facing away from each other.
He left in the morning. The drive to Newdean had been unremarkable, though the sight of the town made him feel sick. It looked unhealthy, and the extreme heat that day only doubled his nausea. That feeling was still churning about in his guts as he sat in his car.
Eventually, he got out and locked the car. He was going to go up to the house, but then he noticed the front garden. It was overgrown, massively so. The grass came up to his knees; tall, thick weeds had sprouted all around. Strange, unfamiliar plant life had taken root, some of it standing surprisingly tall. He looked at one of the plants closely. The stalk was covered in tiny fibres, the leaves were large and flat, the flower on top gave off an unidentifiable odour. He felt an itch on his face as he leant close to it, and he backed away. He turned towards the house. It was painted white, though the paint was bubbling and peeling off, exposing the brown stone underneath. It reminded him of a picture of necrotic skin he’d once seen.
Five steps lead up to the front door. There was a large window in the front wall, for the living room, and two smaller ones on either side of the door. There was a chimney, never used to his knowledge. The back garden could be accessed through a side gate, but this was padlocked and he didn’t have that key, only the keys for the front and back doors. He took a deep breath, and climbed the steps to the front door.
That hateful stained-glass eye was still set in the door. He’d hoped his grandmother had removed it, but no such luck. ‘Keeps unwanted visitors out,’ she’d said once. He loathed and feared it, remembered nightmares about it (nightmares more recent than he cared to admit – he’d left this house nearly ten years ago, after all). He’d never brought school friends or girlfriends round, which he suspected was its intention. He opened the door, stepped into the hallway. Ahead of him was the kitchen. To his right, past the door to the living room, the corridor turned and lead to the bedrooms and his grandmother’s study.
The house was surprisingly cold, in sharp contrast with the heat outside. It was dark and smelled damp. In fact, yes, there it was, damp seeping out of the walls. A more rational part of his brain acknowledged this with annoyance, knowing that it would probably have to be addressed before he could try and sell the house; another, deeper part of his brain had carried on toying with his impression of the outside, that it was like skin that had started to rot, and the damp just reinforced this. It was as if his grandmother and her house had had a strange, symbiotic relationship, and as she now rotted under the earth, the house sympathetically decayed with her.
They’d been one another’s only family, following the death of his parents. His grandmother had taken him in, uprooting him from his happy childhood in London to her home in Newdean. He never felt at home in that town, as if he were a foreign body and it was turning its invisible immune system against him. His grandmother was a woman he’d never met before. She was his maternal grandmother, though all the old woman ever told him about his mother was that she left home at twenty years old. The old woman was a scientist of some kind. A botanist, or a biologist. She seemed to cross disciplines at will but was always deeply focused on vegetation, and the stranger zones of philosophy. ‘Experimental pan-psychism’, he half-remembered her calling it.
The garage had been a laboratory of sorts. He’d been forbidden from entering, but would peek through the windows if he had a chance. There were large metal tables, a workspace, glass vials and beakers in little stands, several microscopes, and complicated-looking machinery. He didn’t dare ask her what it was all for. Once, though, when he had peered through the windows late one evening, when the light was starting to fade, he’d caught sight of a shape swaying unnaturally. It was large, thick, moving by its own volition. It inspired terror in him for reasons he couldn’t explain. He fled back to his room. His grandmother noticed this, asked if he’d been snooping on her work.
‘No grandmother, I was just playing a game.’ He never called her anything but ‘grandmother’.
‘Just playing, eh? You’ve been spying on my work again, haven’t you?’ She hit him then, across the face with the back of her ringed hand.
He never did understand why she’d taken him in. He asked her once, shortly before he packed up and left for good.
‘Same reason I do everything, dear. To see what happens.’
Over ten years of neglect and abuse. She’d hit him, shout at him, even poke needles into his arms on a few occasions. That’s what happened to him in that house, at that old woman’s hands. That and the nightmares, which continued to haunt him, mutating and warping as time went on, as if they were pursuing a grotesque life-cycle of their own. He’d dream of his bed transforming into a great maw, swallowing him whole – the dream wouldn’t stop there, either. With horrifying clarity he would experience being digested, his consciousness spreading out and inhabiting every particle of his body as it was absorbed, processed, turned into nourishment.
He walked down the hallway to his old room. It seemed that after he’d left, his grandmother had converted it to storage. It was filled with cardboard boxes, and the mould had set in here as well. The boxes were breaking down, dissolving into one another, and a thick layer of green fur lay over them. He didn’t want to get close to them, they smelled revolting, but then he noticed something inexplicable – the fronds of mould seemed to be moving. They were pointing towards him, like flowers turning to face the sun. Experimentally, he moved his right hand over the mould on one of the boxes. The fronds of cilia moved with him, following the motion of his hand. He snatched it away, imaging the mould emitting a cloud of chocking spores.
He stepped back out of the room. He retreated to the kitchen. It was relatively dry in there, and he felt he could breathe easier, only then realising that he had started to wheeze. There was a single chair in the kitchen, a spartan wooden thing that was older than he was. He sat down in it, put his face in his hands.
Why had he come here? What was he trying to prove? Why didn’t he listen to his girlfriend? He silently accused himself of all manner of pride and stupidity.
He sat up in the chair, and took the room in. The kitchen was ugly, grey, plain. Everything in it looked, and was, cheap. He could still picture his grandmother preparing dinner here. One thing she’d always do was make sure he was well-fed. This wasn’t to say the food was particularly good, but it was nourishing and healthy. He’d never been able to shake the feeling that even that was some kind of veiled abuse, or part of one of her experiments.
It was then he noticed the back garden.
There was a large glass door in the kitchen, which lead into the back garden. He got up and looked through it. The back garden had been even more claimed by wilderness than the front. There was a stone path that lead from the kitchen door to a greenhouse at the rear of the garden. To one side there was a small pond. The stones had been almost all wrenched out of place by the plants sprouting from beneath. On either side, what had been carefully tended flowerbeds had erupted into bold, multi-coloured chaos. A great variety of unnaturally bright flowers now blossomed, unlike anything he’d ever seen. He unlocked the door, and ventured out.
The flowers were baffling. Their heads were conical, spherical, star-shaped, all elongated bizarrely. They stretched up too far, their stems were too thick, and their swaying… it wasn’t quite in time with the breeze. He carefully navigated what was left of the path and, just like the mould, he realised they were turning to face him as he moved past. A burning curiosity drove him further down the path.
It seemed obvious that this warped vegetation was the result of whatever experiments his grandmother had been performing. What could she have been doing to lead to such things?
His arms started to itch. He scratched through his shirt sleeves, and as he did so he felt tiny bumps on his skin. He rolled his sleeves up. The points on his arms where he itched – small green nodules had burst from his skin. They were growing from where the old woman had stuck needles into him. The nodules grew into tendrils, snaking out of his body, moving according to their own agency. In a panic, he grabbed one, and tried to yank it out of him, but his attack was answered with a searing pain; it was if he had tried to cut off a part of his own body.
He raised his arms, as if to give a blessing, and felt something else. He closed his eyes to focus on the new sensation. He could feel through the tendrils. He could feel the wind and the heat of the sun through them. He could even feel the presence of the other plants there. He opened his eyes, and realised he was standing by the pond. Or rather, he was standing where the pond had been. Instead, there was now a patch of green sponge, or lichen, or… he didn’t know what. It moved as if breathing, gills in the surface opening and closing. With each breath, a slight green haze rose from its surface.
The tendrils continued to grow, and thicken. His skin was sore where they had cut through him. The itch had spread, more nodules pushing out from his body, more tendrils blooming. He felt his awareness of the space around him grow as they grew. He looked about him; the plants were all facing him, leering, stretching out towards him. The surface of the pond-thing was rising and falling more rapidly, as if it were excited.
A movement caught his eye. It was in the greenhouse. The glass was fogged with condensation, stained green, obscuring the dense vegetation inside. He could see, in silhouette, a shape moving with awful familiarity. It was the thing he’d seen in the garage, all those years ago, only bigger, thicker, its motion more confident.
He couldn’t move. The tendrils had entwined themselves with the plants around him, started to burrow into the soil. His consciousness followed them, feeling the welcoming moisture of the earth. The pond-thing was spreading towards him, enveloping his feet. He began to sink down into it. The thing in the greenhouse broke through the glass, and lumbered towards him.
He wished unconsciousness would take him, but the opposite was happening. His consciousness spread out into the garden, into the vegetation and the soil. He felt the plants drinking the sunlight, felt himself drinking it.
The thing from the greenhouse reached him, and his transformation was complete.