's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Rust Belt

Submitted by Spencer Farrington (email)

I can’t see anything.

The words, spoken in the muffled, nasal voice of a child echoed in my head even as I jolted awake with a gasp, startling Dr. Jacob back to the waking world with me.

Damnit, Mel, what’s wrong?

I looked at him, his stern, wrinkled face looking like a piece of dried fruit in the dark of the train compartment. Outside, it was a cloudy, starless night, leaving the stalks of the fields we were rushing past looking like an ocean of eyelashes, rustling in the breeze. Dr. Jacob must’ve caught the look in my eyes, even in the dark, because his tone of disgruntlement at his disrupted sleep turned to one of sympathy.

Oh, Melanie, I’m sorry. I’m sorry- did you have the dream again? I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped.

No, no. Don’t make excuses for me.

For god’s sake, Mel, you did what you could. We both did. Everything we could. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Our car was too small. Sitting in front, scrunched up against the dash, hurt my knees. I’d never been this far out in the country before. I hated it. Cornfields, and sad, dingy houses full of sad, dingy people. Everything was flat, but you couldn’t see far due to the monotonous, seemingly unending fields of dying crops, so in effect, it was like a crooked, rotting hallway without a ceiling.

It was a house call- an urgent one. He knew I needed the experience in at-home care, so he’d brought me along. I was, in a sense, his apprentice. I’d gone through medical school, and I’d treated a few patients, but he was the one whose work really spoke to me. Unexplained symptoms. Real medical mystery stuff. He worked in the back of the hospital, away from prying eyes. He worked alone, but not by choice. Nobody else wanted anything to do with what he did, because he couldn’t fully explain it. The most he’d ever say was that, sometimes, things happened that hospitals didn’t have medicine for. He said it mainly happened out in the country.

I thought there was something weirdly romantic about it- driving out to the farmhouse to treat some mysterious ailment that the god-fearing simple folk couldn’t treat. I was a few years younger and a few years dumber, and yes, I’ll admit, I had something of a superiority complex. I hated it out in the farmlands. I needed tall buildings, monuments to great accomplishments and human pleasures. I needed more than one restaurant near my house. More than anything, I needed to live somewhere where humans had already won, and there were no sorry reminder that we were killing the world around us- that was the feeling that the rural country gave me. Podunk towns, tornado-damaged houses, trailer parks, and porn shops next to child care centers. In the city, there was sleaze and danger, but it was blatant- gangs and slimy strip clubs. Out here, though, the dangers felt strange and thinly disguised. The kind of place where a family man would keep a woman locked in his basement for a decade or so, or where some cult would operate their communal farms guarded by armed goons.

After the two hour drive, which felt like half a day, we finally arrived at a cul-de-sac, surrounded by corn, with a single, large, antiquated house at the end of it. A couple barns, and a rusty old tractor parked out front by a slightly less rusty old pickup truck. The house was strange- it was much older, and much fancier than some of the other scattered houses we’d seen on the way there. It was almost plantation-style, just slightly smaller than a mansion. But it seemed almost abandoned- the white paint was peeling as though it hadn’t been touched in fifty years, and the windows were dusty to the point that you could very visibly write in the powdery grime that clung to the panes. What was strangest, though, was the smell. Vaseline. The whole place reeked of Vaseline. Greasy, caked-on, and squelching, as if a thick layer were coating everything.

As we approached, the door flung open, and a flabby middle aged woman with bleached blonde hair in a curled bob came running out towards us, red faced with tears that were streaking her pancake makeup. She was sobbing, almost screaming at us.

Please, god, Jesus god please, please please god no please no Jesus God no please-

Jacob interrupted, reaching to put a hand on her shoulder, trying to reassure her as he looked at me worriedly. We’re here, now. Please, try and calm down. Ma’am? Please, Ma’am, are you Mrs. Jessie-Anne?

My baby! My baby! Christ please, help my baby!

I splashed water in my face, shaking my head. I’d always thought that having to splash water in one’s face after a frightening, confusing episode was a dramatic contrivance. But I felt hot, almost feverish after the nightmare- it had nauseated me to be back there. I swore, for a moment upon awakening, that I smelled Vaseline. Dr. Jacob knocked on the bathroom door.

Are you alright, Mel?

No, not really, I said, half wanting to resign from my apprenticeship.

Take your time, please. I know how it is.

How many, I asked.


How many cases are going to be like that one was?

He hesitated.

More than I’d like, he sighed. When you’re ready, come back and sit down with me. We should talk. I confess- I’m worried about how all this has been affecting you.

I murmured something unintelligible and tired in affirmation.

The water out here in the country, even the clean stuff they loaded into the train’s bathroom beforehand, or however the hell they got water in a train, was strangely thick. It was only making the nausea worse when I thought about it too hard, so I stopped, dried myself off, and shambled out of the bathroom, looking like a short brunette asylum patient of some kind in my off-white PJs.

As I stumbled back towards the compartment, I rubbed my eyes, and for a split second, as my vision unblurred, I thought I saw something like melting paint dribbling from the ceiling.

The interior of the home was much like the exterior- dusty, dim, and indicative of that unique strain of rural blight that infested the Rust Belt. There were photos framed on the wall, of Mrs. Jessie-Anne when she was younger and happier with her husband, before the accident. There were a few pictures of little Joey Jr., with him holding his father’s baseball glove, and sitting with his aunt at a barbecue, smiling with a mouthful of missing baby teeth. Bless this mess, read a stained cross-stitch piece hung on the wall below another depicting ducks on a lake. The whole house reeked of Vaseline even worse on the inside.

At the end of a long hall, which was a sickly grayish brown from the worn-down wood that seemed to make up every surface, there was the sticker-covered door to a child’s bedroom. Joey Jr., without a doubt. Only child. Possessed of a nervous disposition. Traditional practice suggested that we should ask to enter first, to help the child feel more in control of their situation, so as to reduce their already-high stress levels during the illness.

Joey? We’re here to take a look at you. We’re doctors. My name is Dr. Jacob, and I’m here with my friend Dr. Melanie. We’re here to help you feel a little better, and see if we can get you some medicine, okay? Dr. Jacob rapped on the door with his knuckles.

A soft voice issued forth, sounding muffled beyond what a door should be able to muffle- just barely audible.

I’m sick.

I know you’re sick, Joey. That’s why we’re here. We came all the way just to see you, because we want to help you feel better soon. Is it alright if we come in, Joey? Don’t worry, we won’t get upset if your room is a little messy, okay? I said, trying to lighten the mood with my best kind-hearted-pediatrician-in-training voice.

You can come in. But I’m very sick.

Jacob and I shared a concerned glance as we opened the door. It stuck, for a moment, as we realized that the bottom of the door was stuffed shut with towels, sealing it. I bent down, and pulled them out, before pulling the door open. In my haste to get in, it took me a moment to register that the towels were wet.

As the door opened, we saw Joey, and the smell of Vaseline overpowered me. It was coming from his room, so intense that it was like having my face shoved into a pool of it. I felt, for a moment, like I was drowning on dry land.

It’s not contagious, you know. Not even a proper disease, really. It’s more of a… Hm. How can I put this?

Jacob was stymied, trying to come up with a term to describe the illness he was training me to treat when he, some day in the future, was no longer able.

It’s an infection. That’s more accurate, I think. On its own, it’s really not significant. But if you let it inside you, if it gets in your blood, it could be a problem. Not incurable, in its early stages, of course, but it could go septic if left untreated. I don’t need to tell you that, though. You’ve already seen what happens. That’s just one variation, of course, there are many other manifestations of the affliction that can occur. For early treatment, it's best to just look for blisters, discoloration, rash, in the early, minor stages following the initial depression.

But how does it get in your blood to begin with?

You let it in. You wallow in it, let it sink into your skin, and it starts to affect you. Slowly at first, but growing ever faster with the desperation. That’s what I’ve been trying to teach you. He said, with an exasperated sigh as punctuation.

I don’t understand, what are the bacteria? What medicine is effective? I found myself growing angry. Dr. Jacob had always been cryptic and prone to purple prose about his study, but I was growing rapidly tired of his poetic musings about illness. Goddamnit, just tell me what I need to do. I’m not here for a philosophy lesson. Just a medical one.

I can't give you a medical lesson. It affects the body, but it can’t be found there. The symptoms are just the body reacting.

I stood in the doorway, staring slackjawed at the atrocious scene that Dr. Jacob was now rushing to tend to. The room looked molten, as if it was in the process of being digested. Bits of it were liquefying and sloshing around, falling into fatty puddles of wood pulp, plastic, carpeting and metal. The child’s bed was warped into the shape of a pair of lips, seeming to weaken and droop in the center, leaving the mattress to collapse in on itself, leaving behind a greasy pile of cloth and stuffing. It was dark, and the windows were shut tight, sealed with tape. Every surface was coated in a thick, gravy-like coating of some Vaseline-like jelly, the source of the overpowering smell.

Joey, how long have you been feeling sick?

Joey was just a pair of long, spindly legs that stretched nearly to the ceiling, topped with a cubic, fleshy mass surrounded on its sides by what looked like a steel box, resembling a segment of an air duct.

I don’t know. I can’t see anything. I’m sick.

His snuffling, nasally voice was weak, and neither of us could tell where it was emanating from. He coughed, and spoke again.

Sometimes, air comes out of me, and it makes the room sick. Mom said I needed to stay in here so the house wouldn’t get sick.

Joey, Mel and I are going to talk with your mom for a minute, okay? We’ll be back, though, so just stay here, alright?

I want to go out to the fields. I want to dance.

Stay here, okay, buddy? Joey? Stay here, please. We need you to stay here.

 I want to dance. I want to dance. I want to dance.


Dr. Jacob stormed through the house, rushing up to the distraught mother with a look of anger I’d never seen on him before. He slammed his hand down on the counter, and yelled at her.

How long has he been sick?! How long have you been keeping him in there, huh? You should’ve called me months ago, and you goddamn well know it. He spat, with venom in his voice I hadn't thought that he would've been capable of mustering for a serial killer.

Jessie-Anne sat there in stunned silence, before breaking out into frantic sobbing.Your child is sick, possibly dying, and it’s your fault. You were too scared of people taking care of your child better than you can, so you shut him up and tried to act like nothing was wrong.

She jolted up from her chair and screamed in his face. You don’t know a thing about me, you fuck!

You’re not the first person to do this. You won’t be the last. We’ll be calling for CPS after this. You idiot. You weak, egotistical slime. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got him sick in the first place.

Jessie-Anne screamed, and ran out of the house after taking a half-hearted swipe at Jacob’s face.

Christ, Jacob, stop this!

No, no. I meant what I said to her. Get Child Protective Services on the horn. He won’t get better in a place like this, if he can, indeed, get better. This place is killing him, and it’s her fault.

Before either of us could argue further, though, there was a horrifically loud cracking sound. Joey was tearing open the roof from inside the house.

There was a long, sullen silence in the compartment we sat in. Dr. Jacob wanted to see if I could piece the puzzle together myself. I just wanted training- real, applicable training. Medical training. As if reading my thoughts, he responded, nearly on que.

This isn’t real medicine, you know. They let us work at the hospital because we’re treating an illness. But we don’t treat disease. Not as you think of it. We’re closer to fringe scientists, really. The problems of those afflicted can be solved- rest assured, Mel, we can help them- but, our main focus is figuring out what makes them sick in the first place. Because that’s what it is. A sickness, without a disease.

I thought on his words. I thought about the uniquely fetid qualities of the Rust Belt, the way they seemed to slowly creep out elsewhere. It almost left a stain on you. It was like stagnant water.

No, that wasn’t it. It wasn’t just stagnating, it was dying.

Is it something in the location making them sick? Some sort of radiation?

Close, but no, that's not it. You’ve got it in reverse, in fact. They’re making the place sick. The quiet desperation, the way you can forget there’s somewhere that exists beyond the flatness and the decay. The total lack of escape. The way the night whispers to you, because you can hear nothing, because there’s nothing around you. The lingering demise of hope. People leave a mark on their environment- if there’s nothing left inside a person to leave a mark, once their dignity and ambition is drained from their shell of a body, what’s left to come out and leave that mark? What, living in our inmost depths, slips inside a person who’s lost the ability to dream? What happens when it spills over? What stain, then, does that leave behind?

His cellphone buzzed, indicating a text message. A moment passed, and he sighed. His face was full of resigned, quiet sadness.

We lost a family. Damn it. I seem to have, ah… He hesitated, his voice quavering. I seem to have dragged you out here with me for nothing.

We rushed out the door, giving me just enough time to snag a kit of emergency medical supplies I’d left at the entrance. Mrs. Jessie-Anne was running towards the corn field, screaming, leaving us behind to deal with her runaway child.

Dr. Jacob ran after her, screaming at her to stop, that she needed to help us calm her boy down, that she could still make it right, somehow. He hadn’t noticed, though, running after her, that her footprints had dribbles of fluid between them. I couldn’t see her clearly, but what I could see made it clear what was happening- she was vomiting. She was violently retching up a bubbling, creamy fluid that looked like boiling milk. She was screeching at the top of her lungs, telling Dr. Jacob to fuck off and go home.

Dr. Jacob continued heading towards her, starting to yell that she needed to remain there, that she might be sick too. Then, she lunged on him. She grappled him, and shoved him to the ground, going for his neck, trying to wring the life out of the old man. She was shrieking at him, not entirely in anger, but in pain. He struggled with her, her hefty frame threatening to crush his feeble old bones as she choked him while he struggled to grab onto something on the ground to strike her with.

I ran, out of instinct, to his side, shoving her, kicking her in the sides. If my Hippocratic Oath wasn’t already in jeopardy from having gone along on this pseudo-science venture with him, it was certainly in hot water now. She fell to the ground, kicking and scuttling like a rabid animal. I saw it, then. Her face was bloated, the skin drawn taut. Pockets of air and fluid, rising under her skin, making her face balloon even as she spewed milky, Vaseline-reeking slime from her mouth and nose.

Jacob, without hesitation, grabbed a large rock on the ground with his remaining strength, and, lifting it haphazardly into the air, proceeded to smash her head in. The rest of her body squirmed, and seemed to make screaming sounds of its own, before falling still, normal blood starting to pool around the milky gunk that had flowed out from her crushed skull. He collapsed, clutching his side, and struggling for breath. He was hurt- he must’ve broken a rib or something in the struggle.

Go! Give him a dose of this! If he’s not too far gone, it’ll keep him still until I can get the rest of the team here!

Jacob produced a vial of some heavy-duty tranquilizer which he had kept hidden safely in a padded pocket in the front of his jacket.

He’d done this sort of thing before.

We’re too late. I’m sorry, Mel.

Don’t apologize, Jacob. You didn’t do anything wrong by me.

I did. You came out with me to save lives, but I was too slow. I’m an old man. You more than kept pace with me.

You knew where to go. That’s more than I can say.

You’re more resourceful than you give yourself credit for, Melanie.

The sun would come up soon. The world around us was cast in liminal shade of blacker-than-black unique to the early, early morning. Silence filled the room. I was scared of what I’d see when the sun was up again, and I could better see the endless oblivion of rural Ohio.

I want to come with you. I want to see, I said, hesitantly.

You don’t have to, you know. Anytime you want, you can go back home, and you can go be a normal doctor. You can treat real diseases, and you can excise real tumors. You can get away from the metaphysical.

No. I need to do this. All the rust and dying crops… It’s been getting to me. But I think, honestly, that I’m starting to understand. Bit by bit.

It’s hard. I know.


The knowing. The knowing you can’t go back to how things were with what you’ve seen. You can’t forget the smell. I understand. We’re of the same mind, Melanie. You see this place for what it is. More so than most. The way it sinks under your feet. It’s rotting, and you want to stop it before it spreads.

The train began to slow.

This is our stop, Mel. Grab your gear and get changed.

I was running with a syringe full of tranquilizer, in the middle of nowhere, with my only companion incapable of driving. That was stupid of me. Not something I’d do now, I hope. But then, I hope I never find myself in a situation like that again to begin with.

Joey was standing taller than the decrepit old house he’d torn his way out of by bashing his metallic frame against the ceiling. His legs shook unsteadily, constantly threatening to buckle under his weight as he swayed in the breeze with the corn, like he was part of the harvest. His legs twisted and shivered, leaving him tilting to and fro. He was dancing, putting on a show for whatever was lurking between the dead or dying crops, watching with rapt attention.

I drew close, yelling up to him, hoping to communicate.

Joey? Joey? Can you hear me? I need to listen to me. Your mother is… Your mother is in the hospital. She’s had an accident. You need to come with me and Dr. Jacob now, okay?

I was lying to a sick child, I realized. But what else could I have done? Told him we’d just smashed his mother’s melted skull down into the dirt? I had to wonder if he’d even care.

I’m dancing. I can’t see, but I think someone sees me, so I’m going to dance for them.

Joey, if you don’t calm down, I’m going to have to give you some medicine.

I can’t see anything.

The sun was almost set, casting everything in dark orange and purplish-blue. The house looked like an abandoned ruin at this time of night, with no light in its windows. The tractor and the car looked abandoned, too. Even though, just minutes ago, the house was full of activity, it now looked like just another fire hazard, left in the wake of poverty or personal tragedy. I readied the syringe.

This won’t hurt, okay, Joey? Just try and be calm.

The syringe pierce his skin. It was like putting a spoon into pudding. The flesh seemed to just give up, and in place of muscle, bone, or blood, beneath his thin pudding-skin, was only a vile, fatty, beige-colored concoction. The source of the Vaseline stench. I saw the contents of the syringe flow under the skin, creating bubbles of fluid where it displaced the rest of the unnatural rot that filled him. Upon retracting it, hands shaky with disgust, a spout of the sludge came bursting from the puncture, almost hitting me in the face, making me retch and fall backwards.

Joey made no sound of pain, nor did he indicate the slightest fear or discomfort as he, seeming to deflate as his body collapsed, the grease that filled him spraying onto the field like a ruptured hose. His legs crumpled, and his frame fell apart around the cube of raw, featureless skin beneath. Upon falling to the ground, he ruptured completely, leaving behind only the metal plating and a thin snake-skin of human detritus. From nowhere in particular, a weak, nasally voice echoed.

I can’t see anything.

It was a new moon, and the only light was that of the stars.

The scene at the old Travis house was eerily familiar. It was a newer place. Freshly painted, expensive SUV parked out front. A mile or so away from the nearest neighbor, as all these houses seemed to be. The lights were still on. They had a flat screen TV, and I think they had an Xbox hooked up to it. A normal home. But the western wall of the dining room was completely melted, and still steaming. There was a trail of filth leading out to the corn field nearby.

Christ almighty, I think it’s getting worse, said Jacob, a tone of rare surprise present in his horrified, soft speech.

It was there I made my final realization, the final piece of the puzzle that Jacob had been trying to convey. I understood it when I saw the flattened stalks of dried up dead corn that had been crushed as the family sloshed out of the home, moving out into the fields to die.

A crop thrives when it has sun and water, and dies when it has neither. But what of a crop that barely survives? It is not dead, but it is blighted, miserable, and inedible, unsure of whether to live or die. And the blight is spreading, slowly but surely. Something staring at us from neglected, nameless corners of the Rust Belt will see to that.