's 2018 Horror Write-off:

The Damp

Submitted by D. Sierra

It all started with just a wet spot.

The apartment building I live in is pretty old, so I didn’t think a whole lot of it when I woke up one morning to find a wet spot on the carpet. It was close enough to the air vent that I thought it was probably just the air conditioning acting up. I called my building’s maintenance, and they said they’d send a guy down the next day to check it out. They told me that in the meantime, I should turn the air conditioner off and try to dry the carpet with a hair dryer or something. I diligently did what they recommended, not wanting to start any trouble with the apartment building’s management. After about ten minutes of trying to dry the spot with my hair dryer, I touched the carpet to find it every bit as wet as it had been when I woke up. I figured that either I needed to dry it longer or that a hair dryer wasn’t really powerful enough to make a difference. After another ten minutes of trying to get the carpet dry, I gave up and tried not to worry about it. In any case, maintenance would be there the next day and then whatever was going on what get fixed. The day went by uneventfully, and that night I went to sleep soundly with confidence that my air conditioner would be fixed the next day.

Nothing much happened before the repairman showed up. I was awoken briefly just before dawn by a short rattling sound coming from my air conditioner, but I chalked it up to the person living above me running their air conditioner while mine was turned off. I fell back asleep almost immediately, until around noon when I was woken up by the sound of knocking at my door. “Just a sec, be right there!” I stepped out of bed and decided to check the wet spot before letting the repairman in. Sure enough, it was just as soaked as it had been the day before. Mildly troubling was the fact that it was slightly larger than it had been the day before, but I still attributed it to the building being old and nothing working quite right all the time. I let in the repairman, who after twenty minutes of poking around my air conditioner, told me that it looked like the air conditioner’s water pipe was probably clogged, and that he’d have to pick up special equipment and be back the next day. I was mildly annoyed by this, as it was the middle of summer and quite hot outside, but he assured me that if I ran the air conditioner just enough to make my apartment a livable temperature, it wouldn’t do any more damage than what the clogged pipe had already done. With this assurance, he left for the day.

I ended up going out with some friends of mine that evening, and they thought my problem was pretty funny. They like teasing me for my choice to live off campus and commute to the university, but seeing as we were on summer break none of us had any classes at the moment. They just liked making fun of the fact that I chose a decrepit old apartment over the brand new dorms that our college had just built, so they thought that my air conditioner breaking was really funny. At any rate, we went to a bar, stayed out late, and I ended up getting home around two in the morning. As I stumbled to the bed, I stepped in the wet spot. Cursing, I shook off my now wet socks, and collapsed into bed. As I fell asleep, the dim realization spread through my mind that the wet spot must have doubled in size over the course of the day, but I was a bit too inebriated to care very much.

The rattling sound again. I woke up with a headache and saw it was still nighttime. A quick glance at my phone verified that it was just past four in the morning. Further from dawn than the night before, I was sure. Somehow, the fact that the rattling noise didn’t seem to occur at the same time comforted me a little, because it made it seem more like just a random sound from a broken air conditioner than anything else. I looked away from my phone, and for the briefest second I thought I saw something move in the darkness through my doorway. Suddenly I was paralyzed with fear. That hint of movement off in the darkness across my small apartment was probably all in my head, probably brought on by the alcohol, but I was terrified. I shut my eyes tight and lay in bed, trying not to move. I felt like a child just waking from a nightmare, unsure if the monsters were real and unable to do anything to fight them. But nothing happened. Time passed, and the terror faded. I fell back asleep, and dreamed of sweet nonsense until once more I was awoken by a knocking at my door around noon.

I opened my eyes and got out of bed to let the repairman in again. On my way to the door I noticed that not only had the wet spot grown again, but that down the hall from my room, against the wall of the living room, was a new wet spot. For some reason I couldn’t quite place, this sent a shiver down my spine. As soon as I let the maintenance guy in, I asked about the new wet spot. “Oh that? Don’t worry about it. The people upstairs are having AC trouble too. Some of the water that leaked into their place must have soaked through the floor and started dripping down here. It’s all getting fixed today.” Somehow this did little to assuage me. The repairman got to work, and after half an hour of poking something down the various tubes connecting to the air conditioner, he let out a triumphant shout. The sound quickly turned to disgust, and he exclaimed “This might be the nastiest thing I’ve ever seen on this job! C’mere, get a look at what was messing with your AC!” So I obliged him, going to look at what he’s pulled from the air conditioner’s pipes. He wasn’t wrong. It was an utterly revolting lump of greyish-pink, looking like nothing so much as a huge and distressingly solid colony of mold. But worse than how it looked was how it smelled. The smell was reminiscent of spoiled food and roadkill. The rotting stink of the thing quickly filled the apartment, and the maintenance man rushed to dispose of it in a trash bag he had brought along. I gagged, unable to handle the terrible smell now permeating my apartment. He told me that my problem ought to be fixed and the wet spot should dry on its own. He also advised me to buy some air freshener. After opening all my windows, trying all the while not to gag, I obliged him. I went to the store and came home with two of the largest bottles of air conditioner I could find, as well as a scented candle. The place had aired out a bit, but I still sprayed it down and burned the candle. A few hours later, there was no trace of the awful smell that had permeated the apartment hours before.

That night, I was woken up by a different sound. No rattling noise, as in the previous nights, but a few minutes before four in the morning, I woke up because I thought I heard my upstairs neighbors talking. I’m a light sleeper, which is why I’ve always been glad that for all its flaws, my building has fairly thick walls. But once I’d shaken off the fog of sleep, I realized that the muffled voice I was hearing wasn’t coming from upstairs. I opened my eyes, slowly. Nothing. Just a dark room. I tried to pinpoint the direction the muffled sound was coming from to no avail. Wherever I turned my head, the sound always seemed to come from some distance off to the side. As I tried and failed to shake the feeling that something was wrong, I realized why. I have neighbors upstairs and downstairs. My apartment is on a corner of the building and the apartment next door is unoccupied. It also couldn’t be from right outside my window, since I live on the third floor. But just as I had this disturbing realization, the sound stopped. I waited for some other strange thing to occur, but nothing came. My growing unease must have stayed with me into my sleep, once I manage to fall asleep again, because I dreamed unpleasant and disjointed dreams of wandering a rotting and moldy landscape while gurgling voices spoke to me from thick miasmas of stench and disease.

I woke up earlier than the past few days, thanks to my strange dreams. I opened my eyes and was greeted by the oddest sight yet. Black mushrooms had sprouted from the grate of my air vent. There were only a few of them, but a few mushrooms growing from an air vent is too many mushrooms growing from an air vent. I stepped out of bed to find that the wet spot had continued to grow, now being an impressive nearly three feet across. The problem was obviously not fixed. And just to top the rest of it off, the wet spot on the other side of my apartment had grown too. In fact, both wet spots had acquired a faint, greyish discoloration. I was mildly nauseated by the thought that this was happening where I lived, that I was being invaded by fungus. I called maintenance, but got the answering machine. I left a message, hoping I sounded desperate enough to get a quick call back, and waited.

I never did hear back from them.

I tried calling four more times in all that day. My friends called me, wanting to hang out, but I just got upset that they weren’t the maintenance people calling about my problem. Over the course of the day I occasionally went back into the bedroom to check the progression of the wet spot there, and I saw that the mushrooms growing from the air vent were slowly dissolving into a thick slime. I tried wiping up this slime with paper towels, but where it had touched the carpet, it left discolored patches that water didn’t get out. I became increasingly stressed out about what was happening in my apartment, even after some quick googling revealed that the inkcap family of mushrooms tend to dissolve into black goop shortly after sprouting, and are in fact harmless. Knowing what kind of mushroom was sprouting from my vents didn’t fix the fact that there were mushrooms sprouting from my vents. And besides, after seeing the pictures of what inkcap mushrooms were supposed to look like, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the ones that sprouted from my air conditioner looked only like vague approximations of inkcaps, with an odd meaty texture over an irregular, almost cancerous-looking cap. But I tried to put thoughts of what the mushrooms might have been aside, and went to sleep after never hearing back from maintenance.

This time, I was unsurprised when my sleep was disrupted by the odd, muffled voice. I still couldn’t make out what it was saying, but it seemed sufficiently far away that there had to be a rational explanation for it. I quickly began to fall back asleep, trying not to think of mold or mushrooms, when my air conditioner made the loudest rattling sound it had made yet. This shocked me enough that I opened my eyes. Looking dead ahead, through the open door of my bedroom, I saw something that couldn’t be real. A swaying figure was clearly visible, standing at the end of the hall. It stood roughly where the wet patch against my living room wall was, just standing there, swaying, as if caught in an odd and spasmodic tide. I couldn’t make out any details in the dark, and I was too terrified to want to, but the figure was definitely humanoid. The muffled noises seemed to come from it, as every so often it would sway faster, more violently, and this is when I would think I heard a muffled voice. I was too afraid to move, too afraid to do anything at all, except shut my eyes. I shut my eyes tighter than I’d ever shut them before, and after minutes or hours or days, the voice stopped. I opened my eyes and the figure was gone.

I slept only fitfully the rest of that night. The following day my friend Trevor called me, worried about my state of mind. He had realized this problem with the air conditioner was bugging me more than it should have, so he came around to take me out with him for a fun day out. After a little cajoling from him, I agreed that maybe taking a day to hang out with him and not worry about this weird damp spot would do my mental health some good. While I waited for him to come and pick me up I tried not to think too hard about how both damp spots had grown more overnight, and how the discoloration they carried had deepened to a similar greyish-pink color to that awful mass of mold the repairman had pulled from the air conditioner. When he finally arrived I was overjoyed to have a reason to get out of that apartment, even for a little while. We talked about trivial things on our way to the movie theater, but I was preoccupied with thoughts of that awful thing I’d seen at the end of my hall. Had I seen anything? There was no way anyone could have been in the apartment. I always put the deadbolt down and it was untouched in the morning. And who would break in just to stand in a wet spot and scare me? The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced it had to have been a nightmare. In my stressed state I had tricked myself into believing that I was awake while I was dreaming. It was the only rational answer.

We got to the theater and watched a ridiculous action movie, the kind where the hero jumps out of a plane and fights bad guys mid-parachute. It was a long standing tradition of ours to watch cheesy action movies together and make fun of them. We got cheap pizza and went to his house and played video games after the movies. All in all, it was the kind of fun day with a friend that usually lets you stop worrying about stress, at least for a little while.

Or it would have been.

As the day became night, and the time we’d spent hanging out drew to a close, my thoughts were drawn again to the figure I’d seen in my apartment. It couldn’t have been real, and I knew that. But the way it was swaying… nothing healthy moved that way. Even for a creature that existed entirely in my head it was unsettling. We got in Trevor’s car and started to head back, and I couldn’t stop worrying about it. As we drove through the city, I noticed little things here and there that only drew my thoughts more towards the odd things I’d seen recently. A stain on the side of a building that was almost the same color as the wet spots. A dark puddle under a trash can that looked for a split second like the dissolving mushrooms. A guy who looked a lot like my building’s repairman. A twitching, swaying figure in an alley while we were stopped at a traffic light- - I must have gasped audibly, because Trevor turned to face me and raised an eyebrow. I pointed at the alley, “That guy, that’s him! He was in my apartment!” Trevor, ever the voice of reason, asked “What guy?” The alley was empty. Or at least, it was too dark to see very far into. “He was there! Some guy broke into my apartment and-” “-Dude, you’re just stressed out. Imagining shit. There’s no one in that alley, and no one but you in your apartment. We’ve talked about this before. You get panicked about something and go a little crazy. You’re always OK a couple days later when whatever’s stressing you has gotten fixed. Please, just relax.”

And the alley was still empty. I apologized, and explained that I had dreamed of an oddly moving figure at the end of my hall and thought I’d seen it in the alley. Trevor understood, because he knew that sometimes when I got stressed out about something I would obsess over it. And he was right on all counts, in that I usually felt much better as soon as I’d gotten whatever problem I was obsessing over taken care of. Regardless, my friends had my back, and as the light turned green I apologized again for being so much trouble.

Trevor dropped me off at my place, and promised he’d call me the next day to check up on me. I walked up to the third floor, and just as I had opened my door, I got a text from Trevor. Trev 11:44 PM: dude wtf you gotta move somewhere better Not knowing what had prompted that, I texted him back, asking him what he meant. His response was a little frightening. Trev 11:44 PM: the creepy guy near your dumpster. Trev 11:44 PM: went to throw out the pizza box from earlier Trev 11:45 PM: and there was some dude rockin back and forth next to your dumpster Trev 11:45 PM: weirded me out so I just left. drug addicts, smh The building I live in is old, but it isn’t in a bad neighborhood. We’ve never, ever had junkies squatting behind our building. I was immediately worried again and told him to drive safe. But a few minutes later I got another text. Trev 11:53 PM: sorry i doubted you and before I could reply, another. Trev 11:53 PM: sittin at a light and i see the same guy from the dumpster in an alley Trev 11:53 PM: had to be Trev 11:53 PM: just standing there Trev 11:54 PM: moving his arms and his head like he’s on something Trev 11:54 PM: and this damn light’s been red for too long

I lost it. I told him to run the light, to just get out, that if I hadn’t imagined it something was desperately wrong. And just as I got the next message, it really hit me. If it was just some junkie, how had they kept pace with his car? Trev 11:58 PM: i know this shit is weird but i’m not about to get a ticket for running this light i’ll text you when i get home and we

It cut off there. I must have texted Trevor a dozen times with no reply before giving up and running to my room. I closed and locked the door behind me, leaving every light on. I was panicking. Unable to bring myself back under control, I sobbed myself to sleep.

Nothing woke me that night. I slept as soundly as I had in days, with no terrible dreams, waking at around eleven in the morning to find myself well rested. I stared down the hallway in the light of the morning sun, seeing nothing unusual, and counted myself lucky. I was just happy to have made it to morning without anything bad happening. Right up until I remembered I had closed and locked my bedroom door the previous night. And left all the lights on. Now the door was open and every light was turned off. As the reality of that hit me I felt like my chest was going to explode, my heart was beating so fast. I was almost too afraid to step out of bed. But when I did, another awful realization hit me. Not only had the wet patches grown again, but as I walked down the hallway, I noticed a series of smaller wet spots, each about a foot in diameter, going from the spot at the end of the hallway to the spot under the air vent in my bedroom. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely manage to pour myself a bowl of cereal. I had to eat something. But after a couple spoonfuls of cereal, I found my appetite was gone. I was too frightened to keep eating.

I had to try to call Trevor. Maybe his phone battery had just run out and he had gotten home safe? That had to be it. I was worrying over nothing and a single phone call was all it would take to show me that I was just getting worked up and imagining things. So imagine my relief when after a couple rings, the phone was picked up. “Oh thank god Trevor what happened last-” “-Hello? Who is this?” It wasn’t Trevor’s voice. It wasn’t a voice I recognized. In my panic I almost hung up before the voice continued: “Sir if you have any information about the owner of this phone, we need to know it.” “I… I’m a friend of Trevor’s. Who am I speaking to?” “This is the police. We need you to come down to the station if you know anything about the owner of this phone.” They gave me an address, and I could barely write with how badly I was shaking. I only just managed to hang up in time to break down in tears. Something had happened to Trevor. My best friend was in trouble, maybe hurt, and it was because he’d tried to help me when I was in a bad situation.

And whatever had found him was probably what had been causing all of my recent problems. Was I next? The thought frightened me even more than I already was. Whatever had happened to him, would it happen to me? That awful, swaying thing that I had seen must mean me harm. A cold pit formed in my stomach when it hit home that I had no way of keeping it out. Locking the doors and windows was all I could do and it had done nothing. I had to go to the police.

So I went to the address they had given me, which predictably turned out to be the police station a quarter mile from my apartment. I was shown to a room where I spoke to a man who introduced himself as officer Valdez. He explained that much earlier that morning a car (matching the description of Trevor’s) had been found sitting at a traffic light, with no one in it. The engine was even still running. The only clue as to the identity of the car’s owner was a cell phone found on the floor of the driver’s side. Officer Valdez had the phone, which had been put in an evidence bag. He put it on the table as we spoke, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I told him everything I could. I told him I was Trevor’s friend, we’d spent the previous day together, and while Trevor was driving home he texted me about some weird guy who seemed to be following him. I explained that I had also seen a strange person hanging around my apartment building just before Trevor left. I even showed the officer my phone, with all the texts from Trevor from the previous evening. But as he was looking at what Trevor had sent me, I noticed something. On the cellphone, through the evidence bag, I could see just the faintest trace of something sticky and greyish-pink. The color of creeping corrosion and rotting meat, infection and infestation. I could almost smell it through the bag, like food left to rot for months in wet, cloying heat. I almost panicked then and there, but I managed to keep myself together while I finished talking to officer Valdez, who at the end of our conversation advised me to stay somewhere other than my apartment for a couple days while the police looked for the man who might have been following Trevor.

I didn’t even go back for anything. I had my laptop in my car and my wallet in my pocket. I went straight from the police station to the little hotel a few streets down from where I lived. I figured if this stalker or whatever was watching my apartment, they would just never see me come home. After renting a room for the next couple nights, I stocked the hotel room’s mini fridge with cheap food, turned on the TV, and tried to distract myself playing games on my laptop. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened to Trevor. Could this thing that was stalking me have killed him? Was I safe, now that the police knew? I just hoped that sometime soon I would get a phone call from Trevor, and just find out he’d freaked out and gone to stay with his parents and left his cellphone behind. But I knew it was an impossible thing to hope for.

I spent the remainder of the day distracting myself with computer games and stupid TV shows. I stayed away from anything resembling horror movies for my sanity’s sake. The last thing I needed was to see scare myself more. As the hours went by, I managed to calm down a little. Nothing had happened so far. While I was still worried and scared, I wasn’t in full-blown panic mode anymore. Maybe it really had just been some crazy homeless guy, and the police would catch him and I could go home.

I even managed to fall asleep, eventually. Sure, I left all the lights and the TV on, but falling asleep at all was more than I expected to manage. I was so exhausted that eventually I just sort of passed out. My dreams were less than pleasant. I dreamed of a dark, rain-drenched series of alleyways, never once meeting a main street. Each alley just opened up onto another, creating a claustrophobic labyrinth. Refuse of all sorts lay haphazardly strewn about, and even in the dream there was an awful smell. These alleys were entirely devoid of streetlights, but the whole scene was vaguely lit as though by the full moon refracted through a thin layer of clouds. The strongest sensation I had in this dream was a feeling of dread. I was running through these alleys. Not very quickly, because as is frequently the case in nightmares, I moved much more slowly than I should be able to. In this particular nightmare, one of my legs wouldn’t move, no matter how much I tried. But I was running nonetheless, away from something I never got a good glimpse of. I was certain that I was running from the thing that had been stalking me. I turned a corner to find myself just a few feet away from a familiar figure, waiting in the deeper darkness unlit even by the moon. It turned spasmodically towards me, and-

-I woke with a start. The hotel room. All the lights were even still on. The TV was off, but I chalked that up to some sort of automatic timer turning it off if you didn’t push any buttons for a few hours. For the first time in days, nothing unsettling had happened while I was asleep. But I couldn’t shake off the nightmare I’d just woken from. That horrific stench, like rotting meat and an open sewer, and the overwhelming fear I’d felt as soon as I began to dream, culminating in the appearance of that awful thing I’d been seeing. It wouldn’t leave my thoughts. But, on the bright side, I’d woken early enough that the hotel was still serving the complimentary breakfast that came with the rooms. So I resolved to eat waffles until I felt better. But as I was changing into a clean set of clothes I heard, through my door, a muffled but shrill voice growing rapidly louder. Something was laughing, and running down the hall towards my door. I tripped over the pants I was putting on and fell to the floor. I flailed about frantically, looking for something to use as a weapon when the thing inevitably came for me, but to no avail. I could find nothing. I was about to scream when the laughter passed by my door and I heard a second voice. “Hey! Get back here, you jerk! Give me back my Ipod!” Kids. There were kids running up and down the hallway. I felt so relieved, and so stupid. This was a normal hotel, where kids ran in the halls, and twitching figures didn’t appear out of nowhere in your room. I needed to return to some semblance of normalcy. I was so high-strung that hearing laughing kids in the hallway had almost given me a panic attack.

I finished putting on my clothes and set out to get breakfast. Upon leaving my room I stepped on a wet spot in the rug, just outside my door. The panic I’d felt moments ago returned in force. Could it have been here? How had it found me? Had it gotten into my room? watching me sleep watching me sleep watching me- -the hotel had a pool. Abruptly I remembered that down the hall from my room was an entrance to the hotel’s pool. It must have been where the kids running in the hallway had come from. Even having realized this, it took me several minutes to calm down.

When my heartbeat had slowed to its normal rate and my panic abated, I made my way to the hotel lobby. There were bagels and donuts set up on a small table, and to my immense relief I was not alone in the lobby. There were an elderly man and woman, along with a couple of kids I took to be the voices I had heard in the hallway. The presence of other people made me feel safer, more normal. I ate in silence, but I was grateful for even the presence of the others. But I had no appetite. I ate half a bagel and found myself unable to continue eating, suddenly gripped by a very faint nausea that only welled up when I tried to keep eating. I resolved to eat later, and decided that I would go back to the police station to see if they had any news on what had happened to Trevor. But that faint nausea persisted as I walked out to my car, barely perceptible unless I focused on it. On every breath in, the barest hint of queasy sickness. On every breath out, the feeling dissipated.

I tried to distract myself, focusing on anything and everything else. The texture of my steering wheel. The color of the morning sky. But the nausea was there, beneath everything, in its formless and nearly invisible infectiousness. I found myself unable to stop coming back and focusing on it, and began wondering if it was really there at all. Was I just imagining this small, sick feeling in every breath I took? This small sickness like an unseen parasite made all the more insidious for its innocuous size. My mind wandered to those terrible dreams I had suffered of late, and those disgusting smells that seemed to accompany me into the waking world with each nightmare. As I drove I continued to ponder this sickness, that I could only notice because I was looking for it. Had it been there longer than I knew? Was I only just noticing this nausea because I knew to look for it now? Was this tied to the dreams, and the damp, and that awful swaying thing? My thoughts swirled in a miasma of anxiety and dread. I rolled down my window, desperate for fresh air, and realized I could get out of the car. I was done driving. I had arrived at-

-my apartment. I hadn’t driven to the police station. I had driven straight to my apartment building. And glancing at the time on my phone, it had been half an hour since I left the hotel. My apartment building is maybe ten minutes from that hotel, if traffic lights are unkind. Had I just sat in the parking lot for twenty minutes, thinking about how I felt a little bit sick? Had I driven so slowly that a ten minute drive had taken a half hour? Had I just driven in circles and ended up here by accident? Why couldn’t I remember what I’d been doing for the last thirty minutes?

I had no answers, and I couldn’t stay at the apartment building. Not with whatever awful thing had been following me probably still holed up there. I drove as quickly as I could to the police station, trying desperately to keep my thoughts clear of panic and sickness. I made my way there without further incident, but upon arriving I found myself still unable to shake the feeling of panic that accompanied the nausea and disorientation I’d been feeling. I stepped from my car and walked inside, slowly, taking deep breaths of the morning air to clear my head. Once inside, I went to the front desk to inquire if officer Valdez was in. After I explained that I’d talked to him yesterday, the officer at the desk was kind enough to go check if Valdez had come in for the day. As I sat and waited, I couldn’t help but notice a faint stain on the floor, in the far corner of the room. It was too small and too far away to really tell, but I began to imagine that it was that terrible greyish-pink color so telling of my abhorrent stalker, and wondered with a feeling of creeping dread if it had been here as well. Could it have passed unseen into a police station? Would the officer I’d spoken to return not with Valdez, but with a twitching abomination of corrosion and rot?

I felt suddenly more nauseous, and had the front desk officer not returned quickly thereafter I might have fled. Her return would have been more welcome if she had Valdez with her, but she told me that the case was still ongoing with no sign of Trevor. This news shouldn’t have been a surprise, but nevertheless my heart sank, and the panic that had welled up in me like bile moments ago threatened to overwhelm me. Seeing my obvious distress, the officer told me that she could keep me updated on the case as long as I kept coming in. She went on to tell me that they were still hopeful on the prospect of finding Trevor, as apparently they found one of his shoes earlier. Trying my best not to sound rude, I inquired as to how finding a single shoe could mean there was any hope my friend was alive. She explained that it was found outside of the car, some distance away, meaning that Trevor had to have left the car on foot. She went on to say that while normally a single shoe meant very little, they had found his shoe stuck to “some sort of gunk on the sidewalk”, still upright as if it had come off while he was walking or running.

The revelation that my friend had left his car on his own two feet should have brought me some small measure of comfort, but all I could focus on was how they found it. Stuck to some sort of gunk. I was certain that if I asked further questions, I’d be told that the gunk smelled horrendous and was a disgusting greyish-pink color. The disgusting color of the same fungal corruption that my nightmarish visitor seemed to leave in its wake. I thanked the officer who had helped me for keeping me up to date on the case to find Trevor, and made my way back outside to my car, trying to shake thoughts of wet rot and horrific stalkers from my head. But just like my small feeling of nausea had progressed to an unbearable feeling of sickness while I had been in the police station, so too did my obsessive thoughts of the swaying figure and the decay it left behind take a turn for the worse.

As I began to drive back to the hotel, I became fixated on thoughts of decay. The way that, given enough time, the gross organic corruption of a dead body becomes the ubiquitous medium of soil, ceasing to be anything fearful. Ceasing even to be recognizable as what it once was. Was it not normal for life to grow from the composted bodies of dead things? Nothing could be more natural. Fruits, vegetables, grasses, trees, everything grew from the long-corroded bodies of every organism that had ever died. And if simple dirt was the end result of supreme rot and corrosion, didn’t that extend to even its smallest particles floating as dust in the air? We all breathe in tiny amounts of dust with each breath, taking that end result of rot and decomposition into ourselves. We begin to rot the moment we’re born, and continue to decay even when all that remains of us are the meagerest particles in the dirt and the dust.

These thoughts very nearly overwhelmed me, but I managed to drive slowly back to the hotel. As soon as I parked my car and opened the door, I fell out onto my knees. All I could think about, all I could focus on, was the nausea I felt and the thought that the ground I knelt on was the end result of billions of deaths and an endless cycle of decay. For several minutes I just sat there, trying not to think about it and to focus on something, anything else. This episode passed, and I slowly rose to my feet, feeling weak and lightheaded. I had to get back to the hotel room. It was far enough removed from all of this that I could rest there. And maybe rest was all I needed? Maybe if I lay down to sleep for a little while, my head would feel clearer and I could start thinking like a normal person again.

I made my way into the hotel slowly and shakily, getting an odd look from the guy at the counter in the lobby. Maybe he thought I was drunk or something. I didn’t particularly care how I looked. I needed to rest, to sleep. Just for a little while. I walked to the hallway my room was in, and stopped short. Had the hall always been this long? I felt a sudden wave of dizziness, and had to lean against the wall to stay upright. The lighting seemed dimmer than I remembered, and the numbers on the rooms were unfamiliar. Had my room even had a number? Or had it had a letter? I was so intensely disoriented that panic threatened once more to overtake me. But I breathed deep and calmed myself, and made my way back to the main lobby, even more unsteady than I had been before. The way back felt too long, and I could swear I walked through more halls to get back than I had to get to the hall that supposedly contained my room. But eventually I found myself back in the main lobby, back with the desk staffer who stared at me like I was a drunk. I tried to stay polite, and asked simply if he remembered what room I’d checked into. I gave him my name, and he gave me a room number I scarcely remembered. But I was clearly in the midst of a panic attack, and couldn’t trust my own memory of the place, so I thanked him and made my way towards the hallway that must contain my room.

I turned a corner, and found myself suddenly remembering how to get to my room again. The disorientation having faded, I silently praised the desk staffer for giving me the right room number. Gone were the unfamiliar, shadowy hallways I had wandered before, and I had to wonder if I had entirely imagined them. I made my way into my room and collapsed onto the bed, feeling exhausted and weak. A quick glance at my phone told me it was barely noon. Not wanting to go back to sleep so early, I decided to take a shower to feel better. The warm water always relaxed me when I was stressed out, and after zoning out in the shower for a while I always felt more awake. Once steam filled the bathroom I slumped to the floor of the shower and just let myself space out completely. I focused on the sound of the running water and the feeling of heat, and thought about nothing at all.

I don’t know how long I sat there. Time passed and the hot water kept flowing. For a long time I managed to keep my mind clear by just concentrating on the shower, and then I began to think about the last few days again. There had to be an explanation for what was happening. The figure that seemed to stalk me must have come from somewhere, must have some reason to torment me. But what had I done? The more I tried to think about it rationally, the more it seemed the most likely answer was that someone in my apartment building had gone crazy, stolen the maintenance guy’s keys, and decided to stalk me. The gross fungus I kept seeing had to be a coincidence, some freak infestation that was occurring all over town without my knowledge. And the stalker must have followed Trevor, ending in Trevor running away and being too freaked out to contact me again in case the stalker was watching. But then why hadn’t the police found him?

And who in my apartment building would stalk me anyway? I’d barely interacted with any of my neighbors, and the few I met seemed like perfectly normal people. But it was the best theory I had. And it meant that the stalker couldn’t get into my hotel room if they’d just been using the maintenance guy’s keys to get into my apartment. This thought was more comforting than it should have been, but having even a single room that the stalker probably couldn’t enter was as much solace as I’d had in days. I felt a tiny bit better, and turned off the shower. After drying off and throwing on the clothes I’d brought into the bathroom with me, I decided to make some of the food I had in the mini-fridge. But when I left the bathroom, I couldn’t help but notice there was a damp spot on the floor right in front of the bathroom door. Rather than panic again, I thought rationally for a moment, and saw that the gap under the bathroom door was fairly large. Steam from my shower must have gotten under the door and caused the patch of damp carpet outside. I very consciously thought no more on the matter, resolving to be logical about it and not frighten myself again.

I passed the day more or less normally. I watched some TV, wandered around the internet for a while, and made good use of the food I’d stocked the mini fridge with. While I was microwaving some lunch, I heard muffled voices through the wall. Once more, I tried to think logically about it. There were people staying in the room next to mine, clearly. Theirs were the voices I was hearing, not the voice of the stalker. Besides, there were two voices. It had to be just other people in the next room. If it was the stalker, it would have only been one. Right? The microwave dinged, announcing that my food was ready, and I dismissed the voices as being just next the people next door, with certainty. I went on just passing time, feeling safe inside the hotel room but still unwilling to leave, at least today. I kept the TV on for background noise, but I largely moved on to playing games on my laptop, eventually eating dinner and watching netflix until it was late and I was tired. I turned down the volume on the TV, intending to keep it as soft, ambient noise while I slept. I was confident that this was the beginning of a return to normalcy, and that soon enough Trevor would reappear, contact the police, and then this whole nightmare could start to be over. I drifted off to sleep to thoughts of my life going back to what it was supposed to be, with Trevor returned and the stalker apprehended. The last thing I was conscious of was that vague falling sensation that sometimes comes with falling asleep exhausted.

Until awareness returned, and I was in the lobby of my apartment building.

Was I supposed to be here?

Hadn’t I been somewhere else…?

My thoughts were fuzzy, and memory slipped away from me like sand through a sieve. The threadbare furnishings and dilapidated carpet were lit by an unfamiliar, wavering orange light. The room wasn’t even entirely lit, with the corners and the hallways to each side in almost total darkness. The strip lights in the ceiling seemed to be off, as no illumination, orange or otherwise, was coming from them. The light seemed to just exist, diffused through the center of the lobby, sourceless and still wavering. I turned to the windows at the front of the lobby. Even on dark nights, the street is visible from those windows. But now, they showed nothing save for total darkness, the faint reflection of the lobby, and the hint of what might have been rain. As I stared, I saw movement in the vague reflection of the lobby.

From the shadowy hallway to the left side of the room where did the doors go there used to be doors emerged a hideous figure. Greyish-pink skin stretched taut over an emaciated frame. Clusters of green and yellow boils erupted from its skin in swaths, disease and decay blooming from within. The creature turned its swollen head jerkily toward me, the motion more like a marionette than a human being. I ran. Without even checking behind me to confirm the thing was as close as it seemed in the reflection, I threw open the front door and sprinted into what should be the street, nearly running headlong into the wall. What wall I barely caught myself in time, fingertips brushing the carpet as I struggled to keep my balance Streets don’t have carpeting this is wrong and ran down the third floor hallway, having left through the front door of my apartment. But had my hallway always been this dirty? The carpet was discoloured in patches, rings of grey fading into a dirty off-white. Mushrooms grew where the carpet met the wall. Puddles of standing water were filled with tiny, writhing insects. Had it always been like this?
Why couldn’t I remember? But it didn’t matter I had to escape- -... something? What was I running from? I really couldn’t remember. My brain was as foggy as the hallway. The sourceless orange glow that passed as illumination in my building revealed the sluggish fog that filled the hallway, filled the building, and filled me. I slowed my pace and was glad that my hallway was so long. Otherwise with all that running I might have gotten somewhere. But hallways are supposed to be long. Everyone knows that. And as I made my leisurely way to the end of the hall, it was behind me again. I felt a growing nausea and just knew it was time to look behind me. And as soon as I saw it again I remembered why I needed to run. No matter how much fog it put in my thoughts, it couldn’t make me stop knowing why I had to run when I saw it. It lolled its overlarge head, smiling with far too many long, broken teeth. IT DOESN’T HAVE LIPS THAT ISN’T A SMILE and came towards me in that swaying, twitching way it had, cataracted eyes rolling in different directions. As it moved, the ragged sheets of corrupted flesh that hung from it in places fluttered like strips of torn paper. I ran again, but to my shock and dismay I could only manage a pace like running through molasses. I could keep ahead of the rotting apparition, but just barely. If I could only reach the door at the end of the hall and get into the stairwell, even slowed down I could jump down several stairs at a time. The door swung open, and with the creature scarcely twenty feet behind me I threw myself through it.

I hadn’t even finished getting to my feet when I was hit by the smell. Like roadkill, left in the sun for days in the most humid part of summer. Like the decaying slime dredged up from the bottom of a lakebed. Food gone bad so long ago that it’s hidden beneath a whole ecosystem of mold. It was wet rot and fungal corruption, and something worse than either. too much I vomited. I couldn’t fight the nausea any longer. The violence with which I was sick brought me back to my knees, and I must have spent more than a full minute heaving onto that floor. But eventually I got back up, and took a good look around me. I was in a stairwell, but it couldn’t be the stairwell in my apartment building. There were superficial similarities but all the details were wrong. My building has four floors. I live on the third. I was standing on what had to be at least the tenth floor up. The ground was lost in hazy darkness, and the stairs continued up as far as the odd orange illumination brighter now let me see. So with ten floors visible below me, who knows how many above, and the stairs disappearing into darkness in both directions, I decided to go down. Eventually I would have to reach the ground floor, and then I could-

-I could do what? How had I gotten here? Why was I in this strange stairwell? Had I been… worried about something? I couldn’t shake the thought that I’d been doing something urgent, but I had no idea what. Regardless, I thought that maybe I’d remember what was so important on my way to the ground floor. As I descended, I couldn’t help but notice how unpleasantly damp the stairwell was. The carpet was wet, the walls were wet, the railings were wet, and the air was thick with humidity. I walked down the stairs at a slow and thoughtful pace, noting that the wavering light seemed to always be focused on where I was. How considerate. It even showed the clouds of greyish fog that wafted up the stairs, hanging in the humid air. As I went lower, the smell of the place stopped bothering me. It began to seem almost natural. Even the odd, fleshy patches of green and yellow and pinkish-grey that grew under some of the doors and crept up the walls on the lower floors. They were sort of nice, like welcome divergences from the monochrome world revealed by the orange light. After at least twenty floors, a respectable distance for a stairwell, I could finally see the ground.

I ran my hand along the rail, which at this point was rusted so badly that pieces simply flaked away, and delighted in the knowledge that my purpose awaited just behind the ground floor exit. Soon I’d remember. I walked very slowly and carefully down the last few floors, taking care not to trip in the spots where the carpet had corroded away entirely to reveal mushy, rotting wood. My shoes were completely soaked, and here water ran down the walls constantly, dripping down the steps like a dozen small rivers, pooling in some spots and filling with tiny creatures. I reached the door and took a hold of the damp, rusted handle, when a muffled voice spoke behind me. I couldn’t make out the words it said, so I turned around. I was nearly face to face with the horrific, decaying creature. Its sightless, bulging eyes rolled and I could see each pulsing boil growing from it, nearly bursting with corrosion and sickness. It reached out, and a soft voice whispered nothing to no one.

I woke up with a start. Sunlight streamed gently through the blinds, and I could hear the faint sound of birds outside my window. I was back in my bedroom, in my apartment. I remembered falling asleep in the hotel, but I was definitely awake now. This wasn’t a dream, a nightmare, or anything short of reality. So then… had I dreamed everything? Had the stress of my air conditioner breaking sent me into such a terrible, obsessive breakdown that I’d dreamt a convoluted nightmare of rotting stalkers and fungal corrosion? It had all seemed horrifically real, but in a nightmare that’s normal, it usually seems real at the time. Did that mean that maybe Trevor was ok?! My phone, I saw, was on the dresser at the other end of the room, so I went to call him. My relief was entirely temporary, lasting as long as it took for me to pull myself out of bed. My foot squelched into the carpet, which was entirely soaked through. Dread rising in me, I saw that the wet spot had grown to encompass the entire room. The whole carpet was soaking wet and discoloured. As I stood there, trying not to panic, I heard the faintest sound of footsteps outside my door. Paralyzed by fear, I could bring myself to do nothing. Across the room, the doorknob turned.