It had started in the farthest corner of my apartment; first as only the slightest hint of coppery red, before oozing from the ceiling and down the wall. I stumbled towards it, tripping over a laundry hamper and knocking it to the floor. It was funny looking, really. Against the yellowing wallpaper, it looked almost like a rookie’s graffiti, still fresh and drying. I lifted a hand to touch it, but thought better of it. Up this close, the stench was overwhelming like when the sink clogs and you pull out the stopper to find an enormous glob of hair. A smell mixed between bile and ammonia, a nauseous wave swept over me attempting to pull up last week’s dinner. In a panic, I ran to the window and was alarmed when it wouldn’t open. Furiously, I scrambled to unlatch the lock and rattled it up for the first time in years. As I swallowed the tastiest air I’ve ever had, I could only think, At least I know where the smell is coming from now.
One month ago had been a party for me. I’d gotten home early from my job mopping floors at a hospital and had even had time to pick up a pizza on the way back. Now, I don’t live in the best of areas, I’ll admit; and whenever I pull into the unpainted parking space of my building, I always get that feeling that something bad might happen that day. The apartment’s at least two hundred years old and it shows. From the chipped red bricks to the way it tilts slightly towards the top, “The Queen”, gives a sense of both unreliability and experience. And I’m sure it’s experienced a lot.
I push through the front glass door, complete with a head-sized hole, and begin the solemn march to the eighth floor and my room – number 48. I say solemn march because that’s what it is; I don’t want to see or talk to anyone here and that’s best done by staring at the floor as I walk, my face suitable blank. The first person I come across seems to have the same idea. He’s wearing cheap plaid over a greasy t-shirt and doesn’t even look my way as he slips into number 9: The Queen’s nightly brothel, if I’m not mistaken. The Queen’s a classy place.
I cross up the stairs past a room that has smelled heavily of curry since I moved here, the same screaming rock music playing like a theme song. The door is open and I see a huddle of kids shooting up heroin or cocaine or maybe even bleach mixed with water. Who cares? I certainly don’t. The walls up here are covered with what could either be mud or human excrement and I try my best to guide the bulky pizza box up the stairs without touching anything.
I see old man Taylor wobbling up the steps ahead of me. He’s got his veteran’s cap on again and he’s humming some sort of oldie under his breath. I feel bad for him, I really do. It’s hard to watch as his arms shake each time he releases the railing to climb up another step; his legs moving slowly with arthritis. Luckily, I’m on my floor now so I won’t have to wait thirty minutes before getting to my room.
“You having a pardy t’night, boy?” His voice is raspy from smoking and muddled from time. I turn to have a look at him, hooking the box under my arm.
“Every night’s a party,” I remark, failing to come up with anything better, “Why, what are you doing tonight?”
“Not’ing, I just want to say hello. No one says hello an’more.”
I smile to him and nod, thinking about how cold the pizza must be getting. He smiles back, a toothless thing before returning to his journey upward as I jingle the keys into my door’s lock. Inside, I smile when I see the pile of DVDs on the coffee table, the humming fridge with various appointments and magnets stuck to it and the window overlooking the sleeping town. I’d survived another day.
I throw the pizza down on the side of my mildew-streaked couch and turn on the TV. The television is older than Christ and doesn’t have cable, but none of that matters. I put in my favorite television series, “That 70’s Show”, and begin the party with my best and only friends.
* * * * * *
My parents came for a visit three weeks later. The first thing they said when they walked in wasn’t about how messy the room was; it wasn’t about how I hadn’t called them since last Christmas or how they thought I could do better than this dump. They complained about the smell.
I blushed and pointed at the sink full to the brim with soapy water and old dishes, but they were sure that wasn’t it. “It smells like something died in here,” they said. I fought back the urge to reply, “Ya, my hopes and dreams.” Honestly, I couldn’t smell anything. Needless to say, they didn’t stay long and I was alone again.
That night, lying in bed, I began yearning for the past. I vividly lived through my childhood for what must have been the eighth time. I saw all the mistakes I had made and all the chances I never took. I saw her again. Standing by the pool, waiting for me; but I’d never show up. I had told myself it was because I hadn’t wanted to get my hair wet at the time. Now, it felt like self-sabotage and I investigated every what-if scenario that could have happened if I’d gone.
There was a sudden crash above my bed as if a television or even a small bookcase had been kicked over. I was jolted out of my self-pity and back into reality. The crash was followed by a much smaller thump that was somehow more rattling than the first. That old man lived above me of course; he might have fallen over for all I knew. And yet, I did nothing. It all went downhill from there.
* * * * * *
The next night I was haunted by what was the unmistakable sound of dripping. It was hard to hear, impossible during the day, but at night, when everything was quiet, that excruciating sound would begin. Like the ticking of a clock, getting louder and louder, never missing a beat. I envisioned a puddle of blackness being filled by an unnatural cloud; within, my loved ones were drowning. I would turn to my static-strewn friends, but still the dripping continued, taking bits of sanity with every drop.
And the smell; that horrible yellow smell, like a portal into Hell had been opened. I was reminded of when I found my parakeet trapped behind the couch as a child; its rotting flesh and fecal fumes leaping off its carcass. I had cried for my parents then as I did now. But what could they do? I was enveloped in this travesty and I had shut them out of my life.
Desperately, I searched my prison for the source of this evil. I pushed through all the toxins under the sink, scattered the mothballs under my bed, and checked the vents for dead creatures. That’s when I found something odd. It seemed as if the source was coming through the vents themselves and not from my room at all. Immediately I bought a roll of duct tape and sealed off every vent I could find with three layers of tape. Gradually, the air began to clear and I could finally begin to think rationally again. To finish the job, I sprayed air freshener into every corner of every room, and that’s when I noticed the spot.
A single, crimson red drip was gathering in the very corner by the window. Growing in size like a blister, I watched as the bubble popped and streaked five inches down the wall. Several other red stalactites appeared and grew in size before following their comrade down towards the floor. It was bizarre; they began to take the shape of an upside-down tree, its branches a glaring sea of blood. I felt dinner begin to rise up my throat and I hurriedly shoved the window open, gasping for breath.
I was even more shocked by what I saw below. There was a group of at least ten men in bulky, yellow hazmat clothing exiting two white vans and running into the apartment. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I pulled my head back inside to look at the growing red mark as it began to reach and soak into the carpet floor. I jumped back in surprise before the spot could reach my toes and headed for the door. Already I could hear the men as they charged up the stairs past my door, towards – my heart skipped a beat – old man Taylor’s apartment.
I slammed open the door and waived down an approaching hazmat man. I could tell he was out of breath without even seeing his face.
“Please exit the building, sir,” he gasped.
He didn’t wait for me to reply and so I did the only thing I could: I walked down the stairs with everyone else into the cold night air, on the eve of winter.
* * * * * *
Old man Taylor had been found dead, I was told later. It turned out he’d hung himself over a month ago, and there he had stayed, like clothes in a closet or beef on a meat hook. No one had even noticed he was gone. His family never called him, nor he them. He didn’t have any friends to speak of because he’d never spoken a word to anyone. By all accounts of the few who knew him, he was a lonely man because he never took the time to be anything else. Ether he felt he was too busy or he just didn’t care. And he died that way.
After a month of hanging there, his head had separated from his body. The crash was the body hitting the ground, and the following thump the rest of him. Everything inside him had flooded out and dyed the white carpet around him red before soaking through the floor to repeat the pattern in my room. The only reason he was noticed missing was from the smell and a missing payment for his rent.
I look back on this and realize with horror that we really weren’t so different. I had shut myself off from the world into a cold loneliness I’m sure Taylor was very familiar with up until the bitter end. I’ve started going out more as a result. I’ve shut off the television and sold all my DVDs. I even called her again. I almost didn’t, at first. But during the past month, I’ve learned that life is too short and sanity too fragile to lock myself in my room anymore. In the search for change, I’ve put away my noose for good.
Credit: A.R. Scroggins
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