He could only stop and stare. There was nothing else he could do at that moment. He’d skidded to a halt on his bike, nearly going over the handlebars, as he saw the abandoned house on one of his familiar trails. For 15 years, he had ridden along this pathway, twice a week, and not once during that time had he seen the semi-detached, set back from the path, surrounded by the trees the route cut through. A well trodden path led to a rusty gate. Beyond a low wall there was an overgrown garden, a haven for rodents and insects. How had he missed it, he thought, all these years, and yet so prominent, so obvious. It was not as though it was hidden. Perhaps he’d been so intent and focused on his exercise that it had literally passed him by. Peter Benson was an avid biker. A cycling enthusiast, 39 years old, and a competition veteran. He’d won on a few occasions, and he was trying to win everything there was. The Tour de France was his dream prize, and he supposed all his training was geared towards that. Anything he picked up along the way was a pleasant bonus.
He forgot his exercise regime, and left the bike on the side of the path and walked down to the gate. It creaked loudly as he opened it and walked through. He stopped and looked up at the house. It was in a poor state, in serious need of repair. The windows were opaque with grime, and the woodwork was split and fractured, the paintwork flaking away, the path cracked and overgrown with weeds. The roof was missing several tiles, no doubt they lay somewhere in the garden, victims of stormy weather. The front door was open ajar, as though the house knew he was coming, and was welcoming him. Yet it didn’t seem particularly inviting, despite the weather being pleasant, the sun hiding behind wisps of cotton wool clouds, framed by an ultramarine sky. He walked the path and did not hesitate in pushing open the door, which protested at the lack of oil on its hinges. He hesitated before stepping inside, not knowing why, not understanding the slight tinge of fear now burning inside him. He entered and stood in the hall, silhouetted against the doorway. The carpet and wallpaper were worn and tattered, as though they had been there for years, which they probably had. Stairs led up to the left into shadowy gloom, as though the darkness itself was asleep. Doors to his left and right were closed, and the door at the back, leading to the kitchen was ajar. He decided to try upstairs first, partly to allay his fears, and prove to himself that there was nothing to be afraid of. It was simply a rickety old house, still furnished, still with a few framed pictures on the wall, of nothing special, foreign scenery and ocean liners.
Silence hung in the air, and time itself seemed to have stopped here. As expected, a search of the upstairs rooms revealed nothing of any interest. A smashed bottle of whisky was spread beneath the front window, looking out onto the unkempt lawn. Each piece of glass had dust ingrained on it, and one of the windows was broken, as though something had been thrown from the inside, as there was no further glass scattered around save for that belonging to the bottle. Peter guessed that whoever was responsible had probably had a drunken mood swing. The duvet and pillow were also dusty, and looked delicate to the touch. Peter ignored it and went back downstairs. He decided to try the kitchen first, and it was when he pushed it open that he noticed that the front door was closed. Light beamed in through the grimy window above the door, but Peter knew that he had not closed it. He guessed that it probably simply swung shut of its own accord, nothing sinister or out of the ordinary. The kitchen door opened quietly when he pushed it, and again, he noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Upon the floor tiles lay a thick carpet of dust, amongst which there was a frying pan and a mug lying on its side. Nothing special. He was about to step inside, when he heard snuffling coming from his left, then scratching, followed by a low pitched whine. Peter saw that it was coming from the door beneath the stairs. More whining and scratching caused him to think that a dog had been locked in there. He stepped across immediately and unhooked the catch. He pulled it open about four inches when something made him stop. His instinctive alarm was flashing inside his mind. Something about it just wasn’t right. The scratching had stopped, and Peter backed away from the small door along the hallway. It opened a few more inches, and Peter stepped away to the front door, tried the lock, but it wouldn’t open. He could only stare in horrified fascination at the blackness beneath the stairs, and wonder why fear within him was burning fiercely.
Something began to emerge, slowly, like an animal emerging from captivity into new surroundings, for that was not too dissimilar to what it was. A snout, teeth, and eye sockets emerged, covered in transparent leathery skin. Peter stared as gradually the skeletal corpse of a dog came out, its skull hanging low, but those empty sockets undoubtedly watching Peter, wary of the strange human near the door, its liberator. It came out and stopped, and it was when Peter noticed the corpse of a young boy standing behind the dog that his world began to spin, as though he had suddenly acquired the effects of a strong hallucinogenic drug. The floor came rushing to him, and the ceiling kaleidoscopically turned, as did the two faces above him. That was when everything went black, and oblivion engulfed him, but didn’t give him rest, instead put him back exactly where he had fallen, only 34 years ago.
He stood in the hall as it used to be when it was occupied. It was as though he was in a dream, yet acutely aware, but here, there was nothing bizarre about it, rather like he was intruding on somebody else’s memory.
A voice came from the back room:
"Stupid mutt, get it out of my sight. Damn things got the pox. I don’t want it here". A man appeared from the room, dragging the dog behind him. He didn’t have to drag very hard, as the dog did look ill. Its eyes looked sunken, and white discharge was streaming from its mouth. The man opened the door beneath the stairs and literally threw the dog inside. It hit the wall and Peter heard a crack. One of its ribs had probably broken. Suddenly a small boy came running out of the room from where the man had come, crying and reaching for the dog. The man caught him and lifted him up to face level.
"You care for that mutt more than me," he bellowed. He then dropped him, gave him a hard smack on the side of his head, and shoved him in with the dog and locked the door.
"You show me some damned respect!" the man shouted, then to himself:
"I’m going the pub". He walked along the hall, grabbed a jacket hanging on a nail in the wall, then walked through Peter, opened the door, slammed it behind him and stalked away to what could effectively be called his other home. Peter could smell that he had already started drinking when he had walked through him. The vision didn’t end there, instead it continued for a while with Peter simply standing where he was, staring at locked door. He was unable to move, unable to look anywhere else. In the vision, he had a thought. He guessed what the picture was beneath the stairs. The dog was lying there, dying of a disease, too weak to move, while the boy was curled up by it, crying, but Peter couldn’t hear any crying. So he was probably sniffling, or sobbing quietly into the fur of his pet.
The man never returned home. Nobody knew who he was, or where he lived. He had ingested far too much in the pub, and what instinctive radar pointed the way home to a drunk who clearly did not possess the ability to think straight, or even think at all, was none existent. He had collapsed whilst crossing a road on his way home, cracked his head against the pavement, and never woke. Through sheer hunger and frustration, the boy scratched the door trying to get out, but in the end had to face the inevitable.
With the dog’s rotting corpse beside him, he had sampled a few of the less repulsive parts, even attempting the shrivelled heart. All the while, whatever disease the dog had, was affecting him, and instinct also told him that his father was not returning. He had lay down beside his pet, and died.
Everything went black for Peter, and when consciousness returned, he found he was not back in reality, but in a graveyard, near an overhanging tree that had obviously been there many years. Perhaps the cemetery had been built around it. It was night-time in the vision, a half-moon casting a muted hue over his surroundings. He saw a dog emerge from behind him to his right. Peter guessed that it was same dog he’d seen earlier. It stopped, sniffed the air, and looked to follow a scent across to the nearest grave to where Peter stood. It began to dig franticly at the grave of a Sheila Morgan. The grave looked fresh, so the soil came away easily. After a few minutes, it stopped, half in and half out of the hole, then came out, shook itself as though it was wet, then ran away into the darkness.
Peter then awoke, back where he had fallen, only to find the boy corpse and his pet still looking down at him. Suddenly, a pain in his chest made him want to cry aloud, but he found he could not. Then he realised that the boy had his skeletal hand inside his chest, clutching his heart so it could not beat, could not pump blood around his system. The dog had fresh blood on its teeth and jawbone. Obviously while Peter had been having the vision, the dog had torn a hole in his chest so the boy could place his hand inside.
"What a lovely disease we have", the boy said. He then removed his hand, and it wasn’t long before Peter’s consciousness began slipping away. Light headedness made his vision blur, followed by darkness black as pitch.
After around five minutes, Peter stood up, stretched, then looked down at the hole in his chest. He then looked at the boy, who said: "Just making sure you got infected, and hastening your arrival".
"Infected? Don’t say that," Peter said, smiling. "Okay, that’s enough for the time being. Time to die for a while before we spread again. It’s a pity I can’t stop the process of decay, but I’ll have to work on that, I’ll have to mutate, evolve a progression of development that means we don’t age. After incubation, I’ll have to work on that".
"Shall we rest back beneath the stairs?" asked the boy. Peter nodded. "Yes, I’ll stay upstairs on the bed. See you in a couple of years". Peter walked up the stairs and lay down on the bed. The boy and dog went back beneath the stairs, the lock clicking behind them. Soon afterwards, in conjunction with their slumbering, or indeed, their dying, the house itself slowly faded away, vanishing into thin air, having as much substance as an airborne virus, a virus that had adapted itself to possessing human and non-physical form, in accordance with the requirements it needed in order to spread, and since viruses are technically neither dead nor alive, it slipped through death’s door because it needed to. It recharged it batteries like a hibernating mammal, like humans need sleep, and emerged back through the door into an existence in which it had maybe mutated as required for its survival, akin to animals adapting to their environment, or rats familiarizing themselves with poison, so it is no longer effective. Years later it would emerge back to where the house used to be, in order to spread. It did not spread fast, like other diseases, but it did not need to, it could not die, so had all the time in the world.
Twenty-two years later, George Clemence stood scratching his head in confusion. For the past eighteen years he had been walking his dog every day along the same route, and not once had he seen the house that was so prominent, so obvious, he wondered how on earth he’d missed it.