Expressive 2010 1st Place
Professor Kurt Harris
It had started in 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 full of ripe clothing and knocking it to the floor. It was funny looking, really. Against the yellowing wallpaper, it looked almost like a poor attempt at graphite, still fresh and drying. I lifted a hand to touch it, but thought better; up this close, the stench was overwhelming.
In fact, it’s hard to describe just how horrible the smell really was. It was like when the sink clogs and you pull out the stopper to find an enormous glob of hair. A smell somewhere between bile and ammonia that I could literally feel clawing down my throat, 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 open 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 janitorial duties at the hospital and had even had time to pick up a pizza on my way back. Now, I don’t like in the best of areas, I’ll admit, and whenever I pull into the unpainted parking space of my building, I always get the feeling that something bad might happen today. The apartment’s at least two hundred years old, and it shows. From the chipped red bricks to the way it tilts slightly as it approaches the upper tenth floor, “The Queen,” gives a sense of both unreliability and experience. And I’m sure it’s experienced a lot.
I push through the glass front door, complete with its 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 accomplished by staring at the floor as I walk, my face suitably blank. The first person I come across seems to have the same idea. He’s wearing cheap plaid over a greasy t-shirt, which matches his messy hair. He 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 old-timer’s tune 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 jest 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, much more apt to cause sadness than joy. He turns back 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 orange couch and turn on the TV. The television is older than Christ and doesn’t have cable, but that’s beside the point. I put in my favorite television series, “That 70s Show,” and begin the party with my best and only friends.
My parents came to 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 soap 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, “Yeah, 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 might have followed 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 unmistakeable sound of dripping. It was hard to hear, impossible during the day, but at night, when everything was quiet, that excurciating 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 had been opened. I was reminded of when I’d found my pet birds trapped behind the couch as a child, their rotting flesh and fecal fumes leaping off the carcasses, causing my body to shake with the knowledge of mortality. I had cried for my parents then, as I do 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 of the stench was the vents themselves, and not 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 finally begin to think rationally again. To finish the job, I sprayed air freshener into every corner of the rooom, and that’s when I noticed the spot.
A single, crimson red drip was gather in the very corner by the window. Building 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 toward the floor. It was bizarre; they began to take the shape of an upside 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. Already I could hear the mean 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 waved 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 turns out he’d hung himself over a month ago, and there he’d 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 speak a word to anyone. By the accounts of the few who knew him, he was a lonely man because he never took the time to be anything else; either he was too busy or he just didn’t care. And he died that way.
After a month hanging there, his head had separated from his body. The crash was the body hitting the ground and the following thump had been the rest of him. Everything inside him 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 anyone noticed he was missing was because of the smell, and his unpaid 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.