's 2018 Horror Write-off:

90 Seconds

Submitted by John Bell (email)

Note: In 2015 I submitted a story to the cookoff called "Contentment". This story is a sequel of sorts.

I was having dinner with Carl, my neighbor from across the hall. I was hoping it was a date but I wasn’t sure, you know? I liked Carl a lot. He was friendly and funny with an easy going, dry sense of humor, and ruggedly handsome in a “spends weeks at a time in the woods” way (as opposed to, say, a “flannel shirt catalogue model”).

I wasn’t sure it was a date because neither of us had ever said anything about it being so. But I had asked Carl last week if he wanted dinner in my place after he helped me move a new couch into my apartment and he smiled and said “absolutely”, and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I might actually have a thing for him. I don’t know. It’s weird to remember feeling so anxious about a dinner with someone I liked. I don’t think I’m ever going to have one of those again.

Carl came over for dinner wearing a nice navy button down and freshly ironed slacks and I could tell he’d trimmed his beard all neat and I was just in sweats and I felt like a slob but he didn’t say anything. He had a bottle of wine, and when we hugged I realized he was good at hugs (you know a good hug when you get one), always a plus for me.  I already had a bottle of wine open so we just drank that first. I remember that, but I don’t remember what we ate. I do remember that dinner was nice, and that we talked about real stuff, hopes and dreams and family difficulties, etc. Not life changing conversation but the sort of conversation you hope you have early on with someone you like because it’s nice to know you can be a little bit vulnerable around each other and be comfortable. We’d finished my bottle of wine and Carl got up to open the bottle he’d brought. I told him that the corkscrew was in the first drawer on the right of the sink, next to the bottle of pepper spray. We both kept something for self defense in that same drawer; our apartments had identical layouts, and in that drawer in his place he kept a hatchet.

I got up as well to drink some water. I get hungover really easily and having a glass of water with me when I drink wine helps, even if it means I’ll be peeing all evening. The only clean drinking glass I had was one with Captain America on it, one of those collector’s editions you can’t put in the dishwasher, which is why I rarely used it. I grabbed it, opened the fridge, and filled it with water from a Brita pitcher whose filter I hadn’t changed in at least six months. Carl was looking for the bottle opener when he made a sound like “ugh” but more uvular, more disgusted. “Come look at this,” he said. “You’re going to want to call the landlady.” I drank some water and put down the glass. I looked at what Carl was pointing at.

Four tendrils were sticking out of the faucet, two white and two red. I grabbed a spoon from the sink and gently poked at one of the white ones. When I tried to pull the spoon away it, the tendril stuck to the spoon initially before it seemed to pull away, like on its own. I don’t know why I didn’t think more of that at the time. “Some sort of mold” I said. When you live in an apartment like mine, you get too used to mold. You start getting less repulsed the grosser it gets. I guess I thought that a sentient sink mold was no big deal. Add it to the list of things that’ll horrify my mom about my living conditions next time she visits. “I’ll be using the bathroom sink until that gets cleaned” I said. Carl kept looking at the sink. Something about it seemed to wrong with him, which I guess was a more typically correct response than mine. He shivered a little, then grabbed the corkscrew and opened the bottle of wine.

Two hours later, as Carl and I were having a serious, drunken, teary-eyed heart to heart about our childhood pets who had long since passed on. I all at once realized my bladder was near bursting. I rushed to the bathroom. After relieving myself, I tried to flush, but the handle was stuck. I pushed again, a little harder, but it wouldn’t budge. I lifted the toilet lid. Then, I dropped it on the floor, and screamed.

Inside the toilet basin was a souffle of tissue, pulsating red and white. The surface of the tissue was covered in black spots. They weren’t just spots though. They moved. Initially scattered seemingly at random on the surface of the tissue, they converged in the center and, I swear to god, they were looking at me. The tissue raised up a few inches and the spots rushed to the apex and it was looking at me. I screamed, and the spots disappeared completely, but the souffle of tissue remained. More than remained. It was growing, rising like a time-lapse video of bread dough proofing. It was then that Carl pounded on the bathroom door.

“Are you all right?” he shouted. I fumbled for the doorknob and opened it, right as a fresh batch of red and white tendrils shot out from the toilet basin and latched onto the bathroom sink. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll go get my hatchet,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. A hatchet didn’t seem to have much use against whatever the hell this was.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to be completely unarmed right now.”

That made sense for Carl. There was definitely a “gather everything you need to survive” vibe right now.

I left the bathroom as Carl bolted out my apartment and down the hall to his place. I waited for him to come back. I waited one or two minutes maybe. It wasn’t that long. Then I heard Carl scream. It was undeniably him, undeniably from his apartment, the sort of scream that makes you involuntarily sick and cold at the same time.

At this point, I still thought that what we were dealing with was mold. I know how stupid that sounds, but it turns out that it takes a little while for a person to adjust to their reality being completely, permanently altered. It takes some time for someone to realize that their pleasant evening of wine and conversation is the last shred of normality they will ever know.

For me, it took 90 seconds. It was a lovely 90 seconds of ignorance.

After hearing Carl scream, I reached for my drawer where I kept my pepper spray. When I did, I saw a bright red sticky string was winding along the handle. I saw that the string extended about six feet from the spout of my sink, which was now almost completely covered in flesh save for a small opening where more of those sticky red and white tendrils dangled. When I looked back toward the drawer I saw that there was more flesh creeping up, steadily and visibly, toward to the counter, toward the drawer handle. That’s when I saw that there was a glass of water, half-full, right above the drawer. I guess something in my gut said “give the thing what it wants”. I reached for the glass, snatching it from the exploring tendril, and placed it on the floor, centimeters from the border where flesh met parquet flooring. Almost immediately a small tidal wave of flesh snapped forward, covering the top of the glass. I could see the creature pulsate as a new set of tendrils shot out of the flesh cap and into the water. I opened the drawer, grabbed my pepper spray, and headed toward my door. I opened my door and poked my head out. There was still screaming. But it wasn’t just Carl. I heard screams above and below me. I heard screams down the hall. I pounded on Carl’s door. No response. Carl wasn’t screaming anymore. I tried his doorknob. It wasn’t locked. I always told Carl he’d get robbed if he forgot to lock his door. I looked inside. His lights were on. No mysteries here. There was a small hatchet on the floor.

My 90 seconds were up.

There were reams of severed three-foot-long red and white tendrils on the ground near the hatchet, wriggling like nightcrawlers. Carl was pinned to the fridge. I could tell from here that he was dead. I didn’t get close enough to check, but there are times when you just know, like when someone is three feet off the ground, covered in a blanket of pulsating skin and muscle, only their already partially mummified face showing. I’d heard his scream less than two minutes ago. As I watched his face in a numb shock, I could see his cheeks growing gaunter, his skin turning dry and gray, in real time. It likes water. Earth is a good planet, humans a good species, for something that likes water. His left hand was just poking up over the edge of the blanket of skin and tissue. His fingers started wriggling, independently of one another, in different directions. When his eyeballs started to shrivel, I ran back across to my apartment and vomited. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t have time. The screams around the building were growing fewer now. My time was up too if I didn’t move. I looked now at the wall of flesh in my kitchen, growing slowly across my floor. But it wasn’t making any sort of move for me. I didn’t think about why. But I wasn’t sticking around after seeing what it did to Carl. I ran, out of my room, down the emergency exit and out the back, and tried not to listen to the screams.

The world ends pretty quickly when there’s no water. The ones who find water are lucky. None of us has any special survival skill. I think we have similar stories, all of us. We will never fully understand this creature, but none of us tried to hurt it. I haven’t survived all on my own. It has let me live. It might even like me.

A few days ago I was camping out in one of the few buildings downtown that is relatively flesh-free. When I woke up I felt my elbow touch something smooth and round and sticky. Beside me on the ground was a Captain America drinking glass, covered in pink viscous, with a little bit of water still at the bottom.