Russell J. Dorn

The December Featured Writer is Russell J. Dorn

Feel free to email Russell at: dornrussell@gmail.com


by Russell J. Dorn

The daisies looked wonderful in the all white hallway. A little bit of yellow and green was all Julia needed to rid herself of her feelings of melancholy. When she’d first arrived at the house, she had loved the white walls with white trim and the white ceilings. It all felt so clean. As time went on, though, she found it difficult to think of the place as home. One could be wiped away just as easily as a smudge mark on the walls, she felt. Her therapist would no doubt find such thoughts concerning, but she never spoke to that woman anymore. The price of sessions had grown beyond Julia’s means, and the trip to the city proved less than convenient. Rest and ginger tea were the only remedies Julia could rely on now. The beauty of the flowers, too, insisted upon a mention. 

There was something about the house other than the abundance of white that the flowers helped with, too—the smell! The fresh scent of the daisies helped a little, of course, but often enough Julia caught a whiff of the enduring odor, still. The smell remained subtle and not altogether unpleasant in the summer and spring with the windows open. The kitchen door lined up with the front door and created a capable path for the flow of air. When the rain came, though, the smell grew heavy and oppressive. Musty and thick with a disquieting presence, the smell was sometimes impossible to ignore.

It had rained all week and the odor served as the main reason for Julia collecting the daisies from her garden. That’s where she must’ve gotten them, she thought. She actually couldn’t quite remember. Her mind often betrayed her in such ways now. She’d lose things and find them where she hadn’t expected. With age came difficulties, both physical and mental. In fact, earlier that morning she’d spent an hour searching for her radio only to find it stored haphazardly in the garage. She hadn’t the slightest idea of why she’d even bothered looking in the garage, much less why she’d have stored the radio there. If her husband had taken it to work on it—a thought that crossed her mind despite her husband being out of the house—he would have brought it to his workbench in the basement, not the garage. 

Coming back in from the garage, radio in hand, Julia saw someone standing at the window. At least, she thought she did. Sometimes from the corner of her eye, the curtains took the form of another woman. Certainly it was a trick of the light, but the curtains—a form of sheer vertical folds—seemed to raise slender arms in a horizontal rebellion, and from the middle of the form, no less; too far up to be excused as the lower loose flap rising in the breeze, of which, more often than not, could not flourish being that the windows were closed. The lower folds themselves rounded often to create the appearance of a large skirt when even one door or window stood open. The wispy arms rose now as Julia crept as silently as she could to the living room. Her eyes watered. Ignoring the sight, Julia put the radio on an end table and returned to the flowers in the hall.  

From her place in the hall, Julia suddenly heard a pair of voices. The voices sounded like persons speaking with hands drawn over their mouths. Julia thought at first it was the radio, but she hadn’t plugged it in yet. Stepping towards the door, she realized a man and a woman were speaking on her porch. The man’s voice sounded quite familiar and Julia wondered if it wasn’t a distant neighbor she’d perhaps met once. No, she thought, it was quite a bit more familiar than that with its southern drawl; the deep baritone. Her nephew—yes, it was most definitely her nephew out front. Was he checking in after so long of an absence? Julia would be damned if she was to show even the slightest bit of excitement. At least not until Samuel broached the subject of his absence, or, at very least, knocked. If she were being completely honest, Julia couldn’t trust her memory enough to be sure that he hadn’t visited recently—yesterday even—but she felt it in her gut that he hadn’t. 

Julia shuffled to the door and pressed her ear to it. 

“The house is haunted by it.” The door distorted her nephew’s voice. It sounded almost as if the voices were in the door itself. A crazy thought, Julia knew. She became a little concerned that her hearing might be failing. “It’s in the walls. It’s in the floor. The mold was supposed to be removed. I would have removed it myself, but after what happened, I couldn’t stand this place.”

“What hap—?”

Samuel cut the woman off, “The new owners just painted over it, no doubt.”

The musty smell enveloped Julia and if it weren’t for her nephew and his uninvited guest speaking so softly, she would have moved away from the door and closer to the flowers to mask it. The daisies could always be relied upon to cover up the odor. She wished the woman would move off her porch and Samuel would come inside to explain what he was talking about. It was rather rude to stand on someone else’s front steps to have a personal conversation. If he was referring to her house having mold, she’d find that rather insulting. She cleaned religiously, after all, and her husband surely wouldn’t let such a disgusting menace cultivate. 

“Sealed, I would think?” the woman said.

“No,” Julia’s nephew said. “No—no! It’s very aggressive, the mold. The things it did to my uncle.” The man paused, seemingly troubled—almost as troubled as Julia had become at her nephew’s apparent lies. To exaggerate is one thing, but to make up nasty lies, well, it disgusted Julia.

At this point, Julia lost interest and pulled away from the door. Let them discuss renovations and imaginary ailments if they wished, she blasphemed. She had better things to do. They’d move away from her door eventually. 

It would be a shame to have a mold infestation, Julia thought casually, taking a moment to appreciate her own walls for a moment.  She drummed her knuckles on the wood of the white banister, feeling suddenly superstitious. Treating any such infestation was beyond her and her husband’s means if, God forbid, one should take hold. 

Presently, the white walls were very clean. No black in sight. The place might not feel like home at times, but it had and it could again. She certainly felt safe inside away from the murmurs of those on the porch. At the moment, Julia found herself more annoyed than curious as to what they might be discussing. The house felt stuffy and she felt inclined to open a window, but she also felt that doing so would break the promise she’d just made herself not to engage her nephew until he had engaged her. Besides, there lingered moisture in the air. The wet weather made certain that Julia kept the windows and doors sealed if only to avoid damage to the hardwood floors. This, however, allowed the smell to take hold. 

Julia sniffed the flowers, causing her to cough. She quickly covered her mouth in fear of being heard. She wasn’t allergic to the flowers. Rather her lungs were not in the greatest shape. The country air was supposed to help, but she felt it had done little to improve her wellbeing. In fact, it seemed almost as if the country had worsened her condition, though this might have just been the natural course wherever she took up residence. 

A shriek pealed through the house like the neighboring prized pig’s squeal had a week before when the beast had realized it was being led to the slaughter. Julia assumed for a moment that it was the pig, returned to life, but it was the tea kettle that whistled. Embarrassed, Julia finished arranging the flowers how she wanted them and hurried to remove the kettle from the stove. Though no one resided near enough to be bothered by it, only the two murmurers on her porch, Julia felt it rude to allow the kettle to howl in such a way for too long. When she got there, she saw that the kettle had already been moved over to a cool burner. The whistling of the kettle died down slowly; then it fell silent after a final weak cry. 

Julia’s first thought was to see if the kettle was hot or if she’d simply imagined the whistle. The steam rising from the spout told her enough. Second, she considered the kitchen door, which led outside.

The white Dutch door remained locked tight. The windows, too, remained fastened, closed.  She’d been standing in the hall—the only other way out of the kitchen—and saw and heard no one with the exception of her nephew who did not possess a key. With some difficulty, she swallowed. Though she could make no sense of how the kettle had moved on its own, she decided it must be some science, some natural force that she was not privy to. Perhaps the heat caused the kettle to rattle away in a series of tiny steps. Perhaps there was an angle to the stove too acute to see but significant enough to allow gravity to take hold.

She had no patience for faith and little for superstition even though she feared some growing impairment to her mind. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be, after all, not with the depression and Alzheimer's—a condition she refused to accept she had, but saw mounting evidence of—so perhaps she’d taken the kettle off before grabbing the flowers and the steam just got around to escaping now. Silly to think that might be the case, sure, but Julia didn’t even remember wanting hot water for tea in the first place. Now that her throat had been seized with worry of her declining metal health, she decided tea would be quite nice. She poured herself a cup, spilling a little with a jolt of her arms.

The sudden ringing of the telephone had startled her into getting water on the counter. Setting the kettle down she went to the hall where the landline hung. After brushing down her blouse and straightening her cuff, as if the caller might somehow see her, she answered the phone. She continued to brush her clothes to ascertain she would be decent throughout the call. 

She thought at first the line was dead, but then she heard it: the labored breathing. A jagged in-out-in-out of air that might have been water for how much effort it demanded the caller’s lungs to exert in moving it. The silence surrounding the breathing seemed to occupy a physical space. The space yawned, hungry for substance and this set Julia on edge. 

“Who is this?” Julia said, a quiver betraying her otherwise assertive demand. 

The silence consumed even the rough breathing for an instant, before a deep voice whispered:

“Down?” Julia repeated after waiting a moment for the voice to say more.


“Who is this? Down? Down where? Don’t be so obscure,” Julia snapped in her growing alarm. 
“Is the phone line going down? The power, you mean?”


A click and dial tone followed the delivery of this second word, leaving Julia no chance to clarify who it was calling. She didn’t know if she lost her grip or if the cord got caught on something, but the phone fell abruptly from her hand to the wood floor.  Stooping, she retrieved the phone and placed it in its receiver before looking around the room. It felt as if someone had tugged it from her now that Julia had a moment to process the feeling. She looked to the front and back door and then the windows. The glass of each remained shut, but the white drapes had been drawn to allow the daylight in. Turning back to the phone, she inspected the cord. It didn’t seem to even have anywhere to snag—no crooked nail, no crevice in the baseboard. Julia stood barefoot, as indecent as that was, so surely she’d have known if her own heel or toes has caught the cord. 

It must’ve been her fingers slipping. Only—

The basement door was now ajar. 

If this weren’t disconcerting enough, Julia could see a man move over to the window beside the front door and peer in. He looked too old to be her nephew. Surely he hadn’t been away so long to look so much older. Perhaps it wasn’t her nephew, after all. Perhaps she had forgotten his voice. His fault for visiting so rarely, Julia thought. 

The man didn’t seem to see her in the white hallway. Julia froze, not wanting movement to give her away, thanking herself for her wardrobe choice that morning of a white blouse that matched the walls. Julia’s heart beat quickened as she studied the man outside the window. His gray bushy eyebrows made his every expression intense, almost menacing. A neighbor? An old friend? Her landlord? It had been so long since she had signed the lease that she wasn’t sure she could be trusted to recognize him. Julia leaned against the hallway wall as he cupped his hands to get a better look inside. She wanted very much to sink right into the white panels herself. 
The man withdrew from the window. Julia took a few deep breaths before a sound caused her to stop breathing altogether: the creaking of the basement door. 

The curtains were motionless. The voices had gone silent. 

A moment later, the basement door resounded with another loud creak. The hinges needed oil.

Julia stared into the wedge of darkness that led to the basement. Her husband must’ve left a Hopper window open downstairs. As logical as a draft of wind was, though, the explanation did little to calm Julia. Inching towards the basement door, Julia steeled herself. Closer, she stepped.
She found herself holding her breath. Closer still, she inched.  

As she grew close enough to shut the door, the phone rang, startling Julia. She exhaled as she reached blindly to grab the receiver, not wanting to take her eyes off the basement entry. As she pressed the phone to her ear, she was met immediately with the same labored breathing as before. As Julia listened, she became aware that she heard the breathing not only in her left ear where the phone pressed cruelly on the folds of her ear, but also in the right. From the basement she heard the breathing even more clearly than through the phone.  

With a clatter, Julia dropped the phone and looked towards the front window, hoping to see her nephew or at least the man that had been peering in, whoever he might be. He had stolen his face away, though, as if it had never been there at all. 

“Down…” the voice called from the dark, “…stairs.”

The basement door opened leisurely. 

Julia managed to take one step back before her feet froze in place. 

Before she saw anything, Julia smelled an odor of rotten leaves and spoiled earth.  The odor poured from the gloom, discharged like imperceptible pus from a large boil. Once the door opened fully and stood flush against the hallway wall, Julia could see the possessor of the voice. With the smell, Julia almost mistook the figure for a rotting log, but the log had shoulders and she could make out the silhouette of a head strung between the shoulders that rose only to her knees. The figure pulled itself up a step, crawling like an alligator. The figure appeared near black everywhere save for the wrinkled forehead and a single fleshy cheek. There were no whites to the eyes. Rather, polyps of a fuzzy green-black substance spilled from the hollow eye sockets in a pair of grotesque geysers. 

“Julia,” the pitiful figure spoke, expelling a puff of spores. Julia realized, to her horror, that the mass of green-black filth was her husband.

She stumbled back and lost her balance as her husband reached out for her. Slamming hard onto her back, Julia struggled to catch her breath as she witnessed stray spores floating in the air. Spores crawled over the walls, too, surging from the basement, slouching outwards until the white wall had become covered in the same manner as her poor husband. 

Her husband crept out of the basement and then slunk on top of her. Julia squeezed her eyes shut and wished she could seal her nostrils as she had her mouth, not even daring to scream as she felt the spores taking root in each of her skin’s pores; then the sponge of her lungs; then her moist eyeballs. The sensation made her nauseous. Worse still than suffering the infiltration of her organs was the scent that seized her thoughts. How dreadful this odor was, for now she smelled not only the musty scent of dirt, but the stench of what was buried in it. Flesh, and pulp, and organs all decayed and Julia’s nose received each with equal disgust. 

She smelled something else, too. Daisies, she smelled daisies—a small reprieve. The floral smell slowly overpowered the revolting musk. The weight of her decaying husband withdrew. She heard the basement door creak as it closed. The spores shed from her organs.  

Julia opened her eyes to beautiful white walls, a white banister, and a closed white basement door. She’d fallen, she realized, embarrassed in her apparently failing body. Perhaps she’d hit her head for she couldn’t quite remember the plummet or the impact. Still, her heart raced and she felt anxious. With no small effort she made her way to her feet.

A faint musty odor disturbed her nostrils, but a faint odor meant so little in the grand scheme of things.  She had a beautiful house to attend to and radio programming to listen in on. Besides, the scent of daisies would make the air bearable as her husband always said. Enjoyable even.

Julia found her radio and plugged it in. She then moved to sniff her daisies and straightened them the way she wanted them. Suddenly, she couldn’t even remember what had worried her or even that she had been anxious just a moment before. Her mind was not unlike a white wall recently wiped clean. All she knew in that moment was that the daisies looked wonderful in the all white hallway.

Russell J. Dorn is author of several young adult horror and children’s picture books. His short stories have appeared in Grotesque Quarterly, Schlock!, and Quail Bell Magazine and his work is due to appear in the upcoming Infernal Ink Magazine. He is the co-creator of Felipe Femur, a free children's website about a skeleton and his monstrous friends (www.felipefemur.com) and is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno. Visit his website for more information: www.russelldorn.com