's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Stephen "

Submitted by Rhakshasarani

Stephen no longer lives in the apartments down on Del Fuego Avenue. He hasn’t since the incident.

Stephen was an artist… at least that was what it said on his business cards. It was not much of a living, and some months he had to resort to selling his blood. He got scurvy once. Some days he had no water. But he was happy, in a way.

There is an old building down on Maple Lane, far back from the road on its own property. Stephen loved how the world seemed to turn grey around it, lose all color right up until the edge of the property line. They said it used to be an asylum, or a secret CIA facility, or the headquarters of a cult. The only thing anyone really knew was that there were a lot of things meant to spell “keep out” that weren’t signs, because signs only encouraged the curious. The property was allowed to run wild, blackberries grew over the mouth of the building and weed trees divided the one driveway. The timbers rotted and glass splintered and the whole thing looked like it could fall on the unwary tagger at any minute.

Stephen loved every inch of it.

Stephen sold a painting and a sculpture and after he paid his bills he decided to do something fun. He bought a rechargeable flashlight and camping gear and a fold-away knife, and he packed all this in his backpack and went exploring.

He had a feeling this was illegal, so he went at night. The brambles were easy enough to avoid, but at first he couldn’t find a way in. Then he lucked out and found what must have been a drop-off door, he got his hand in the drop-slot and unlocked the door from the inside.

Time had not been kind to the building. The first few rooms he explored had water damage, the flat grey wallpaper looked like it was rusting at the bottom. He realized it would have been a good idea to bring some sort of mask, god only knows what was growing in the dark and the damp in here. The air smelled stale and clean, like a hospital room. He passed through several hallways of little importance and was just starting to get impatient when he found the rooms.

It had to be a laboratory, he thought excitedly, or some kind of hospital. The walls were lined with steel instruments and light panels for viewing x-rays. A lot of the tools looked like fancy icepicks, and there was one bladed loop whose function he couldn’t guess. There was an examination table too, with a rusty brown stain in the middle.

Then he noticed the door on the other side of the room.

He wasn’t as excited this time, even though there was more in the new room. It was mostly pictures. Lots of pictures. Weird pictures. Mostly men, from teen-agers to elderly, in hospital gowns. Some had silver boxes strapped over their eyes like blocky sunglasses, some drooped in their chairs as if asleep while a lab-coated figure held up one arm. One man smiled unevenly at the camera, black smudges on the inside corners of his eyes.

There were papers too, but Stephen couldn’t figure out what they were saying because they were written in some kind of code. There were diagrams of skulls and drafts of equations, or maybe some kind of formula.

Stephen wasn’t excited anymore and promised himself that the next room would be the last. He wouldn’t even take a souvenir with him. Then he opened the door and everything went wrong.

Stephen can never go back to his apartments on Del Fuego Avenue. Even if they let him out, Stephen couldn’t live around other people. It’s too risky. Stephen got sick in that last room, and it would be chaos if someone else were to catch it. They told him this, the people that made it.

Stephen went into the last room and found out what the building was hiding. He’s still not sure who wrote it on the wall, maybe one of the men in the pictures, or even a lab coat. He doesn’t remember how he figured it out, but once he did his brain shut down and he dribbled and fell against the wall because his body didn’t work anymore. They came because of his screaming, the neighbors heard him screaming because he forgot how words worked.

That writing on the wall was the equation in completed form. They burnt it from the wall but they couldn’t burn it from Stephen’s brain, they said. They were so sorry, they said. Stephen was sorry too, a sorry excuse of a human being after that sentence skinned his sense of self from him.

They taught him how to use his body again, after a fashion. Now he can stand on his own, use the toilet, and some days he can even feed himself. But they can never make his brain whole again, nor could they fix the men in the picture. He has to stay in here because whenever he speaks, whatever he writes or draws is in danger of repeating the formula. Because, like any virus, it wants to reproduce.

So this is Stephen. He was happy once. Now he isn’t even there. He’s telling you this story, but it all happened to someone else. Him.