Happy Halloween, dear reader! It’s been too long since a bit of fiction flitted across this blog, and so, I give you a spooky tale for Halloween.
The apartment I shared with Laura was clean, spacious, and incredibly hostile, as passionate romances also spur passionate break-ups.
After a week or so of couch surfing, I found a sublet in my price range a mile or so from my classes. Closer to campus were new complexes with attached gyms and single bedroom units well beyond a T.A.’s budget. My new place was one of the classic, yet dilapidated houses infested with young people that were common further from school.
It must’ve been a stunning place when it was new: a grand, old Victorian with broken stained glass windows and faded green shutters. The porch was unsettlingly soft, and the plaster stank of pot. But I was morose and the price was right.
My roommates consisted of a tidy, amiable drop out; an entomology student; a lesbian who never left her computer; and their rotations of friends and lovers. In the whirl of their lives, I was able to disappear into the background, the way I liked it.
My room was a surprise: a master bedroom with a full bath. The bathroom had a black and white tiled floor, a sink with separate faucets for hot and cold, and a huge claw-footed tub that had a circular shower curtain rod above it and a hand-held shower attachment.
At first I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d assumed that I’d be in an attic closet with a milk crate desk grading papers by kerosene lamp. To have so much private space, and a private bathroom no less, was downright luxurious. However, everything there seemed to be on its last legs from the roof to the floors to the dangerous wiring. The boiler knocked; the dingy windows blocked more light than they let in; and the whole house seemed to groan in the night.
Sometimes, the water in that bathroom smelled mildewy and stale. But after all, the house was old, and who’s to say when the pipes were last updated. Speaking with my roommates and they to a landlord, plus contractors who would dredge up any number of codes violations seemed like too much trouble and attention to bear.
That changed when I began finding the hair.
The enameled tub was always terrible at draining, but one day it stopped entirely. Reaching into the murky water, I pulled a thick clog of black hair smeared with grime. Gagging, I threw it out, and figured that would be the end of the draining issues. But the clogs kept coming, and I started finding long strands stuck to me after bathing.
I told the friendly drop out we needed a roommate meeting.
“Please, don’t use my bathroom while I’m out, or, I don’t know. Ask? And clean up your hair afterwards?”
The entomologist-to-be stared at me. “Dude, why would I use your bathroom?”
“Look, I don’t know, and I’m not accusing people.”
“You just did,” the lesbian gamer said. “You told us not to be freaky weirdos who get naked and touch your stuff when you’re out.”
“If I can interject here,” the drop out said. “I think what Mike is saying, is that there’s hair that isn’t his in his bathroom. Logically that means someone besides him is using it and, without pointing fingers, he’d like us all to be a bit more considerate about sharing space.”
The gamer sniffed, her nose ring glinting in the light. “We’ve never used that bathroom because the water stinks. Now if you would all excuse me, I have a raid to lead.”
The drop out shrugged. “I mean, that’s true. Sorry, dude. We can call the landlord and –”
“No. No. Forget it.” I’d been punished enough for bringing it up.
The roommates gave me a wide berth after that. Not that I blame them. I hadn’t bothered developing any good will.
After teaching a late class, I stopped at a bar to have a Jack and Coke. And another. And another.
I trawled through Laura’s Facebook pictures on my phone. She looked so pretty and happy and fuck her I didn’t need her and who the hell was that guy? No one normal smiles like that. Douchebag.
I rode my bike home and stomped up the soft porch, my feet squelching. I slammed the door to my room, which was resounding and satisfying.
Perhaps it was the booze or my high blood pressure from drunk rage biking, but I heard something in the bathroom.
“I knew it! I told you fuckers not to do this!”
I triumphantly threw open the door… and revealed nothing.
The weak light from my room shone on the antique hexagonal tiles. My toiletries still cluttered up the washstand by the sink. No water was running. The bathroom was empty.
Or was it?
The shower curtain twitched like breath behind a veil.
“Hello? Guys, this isn’t funny. I had a really shitty day.”
A faint scratching sound came from inside the tub. Then grew louder and more frantic. It sounded like nails scrabbling at the slick, deep sides.
I yelped and flicked the light switch. Blinking in the bright whiteness of the room, I saw nothing. I heard nothing except my fast breathing.
Steadying myself, I pulled back the curtain, the rusty rings hissing against the curtain rod.
No one was in the tub. It wasn’t even damaged. I was about to write the sounds off as old house noises when I saw it.
A tangled clog of hair protruded from the drain, its dark tendrils like ink against the tub. A red liquid smeared the bottom of the faucet and dripped onto the pale enamel below.
I jerked the curtain closed, fled the bathroom, and swung the door so hard it bounced open again. My fingers fumbled over the handle as I searched for some kind of locking mechanism. There was only a gaping keyhole, and no key was ever given to me.
“Shit. Fuck. Shit. Fuck.”
I barricaded the door with a chair, and wrapped myself up in the covers on my bed. I stared at the keyhole, and it seemed to stare back like an empty eye socket.
I thought I would be too frightened to sleep, but I woke up to my alarm and a hangover just the same.
In the light of day, I felt embarrassed. How could I be frightened of a dirty bathtub? I needed to get my shit together. Start drinking green smoothies. Socialize with people in my department. Maybe get a peace lily or something.
I moved my chair back to my desk and flipped the bathroom light on.
Nothing there. Nothing to be afraid of.
I looked in the mirror as I brushed my teeth. Was I balding or just really shitty-looking today? My eyes had bags under them. Normally I would sneak some of Laura’s all-organic, super serum, whatever eye cream. But I wasn’t with Laura. I was just a shitty-looking lonely asshole.
My reverie broke when I thought I saw motion in my peripheral vision.
I glanced around and laughed weakly. Just my paranoia, apparently.
I went to spit when I noticed that the shower curtain was pulled back. Hadn’t I closed that thing?
I splashed some water on my face and left the bathroom. I needed a shower, but I was going to be late if I didn’t stop dicking around.
The time away from the house melded together – office hours, a couple classes, surfing the internet instead of researching. I declined an invitation to go out with some fellow grad students who would be a good influence, all clean cut, passionate, and curious.
Instead I went back to the same bar as last night, and had a Jack and Coke. And another. And another.
I Facebook stalked the people who invited me out. One had already taken a selfie with her cocktail. Why? What was the point of that? She had vacation photos up, too. She looked really good in a bathing suit. I didn’t know if I actually liked her, but I wanted her to like me.
It occurred to me that I should sober up and go home, but I didn’t want to go home. I could be perfectly alone in this bar instead.
I should’ve gotten a different sublet as soon as the roommate meeting went down. But I wasn’t going to get another sublet anymore than I was going to start drinking green smoothies.
I rode my bike home in the dark, drunk again. My front tire hit the curb, and I fell hard, the skin on my palms tearing on the asphalt.
“Ow! Shit. Sonofabitch!”
I walked my bike the rest of the way. It felt like forever, and my hands hurt gripping the handle bars.
This time, I tried to enter the house quietly.
The blue glow of a computer screen lit up the gamer’s bedroom. Animated voices and ineffectual shushing came from the entomology student’s. How could someone who studied bugs get laid so much?
I passed the drop out in the hallway.
“Hey, Mike. Dude, are you ok? Your hands–“
“I’m fine. Thanks. Just fell is all.”
“Well. You know. Don’t hesitate to…”
“Yeah. Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
I returned to my room and flipped on the light. My hands felt worse than they looked. All the same, I had to wash the grit off.
I took a deep breath, then went to the bathroom and plugged the sink basin. I turned on both taps, trying to figure out the right balance to get the water warm, but not hot.
The water smelled again, that stale, musty, mildew smell. It came out slightly off color.
I considered going to the kitchen to handle this, but thought better of it. I didn’t want to pass my roommates again.
Just rust, I told myself, and plunged my hands in. Little clouds of blood and debris lifted off my skin and settled at the bottom of the basin. Then I soaped up, which stung like hell, and rinsed again. Seeing the state of my only towel, I shook the water off my hands and laid on my bed.
I stared up at the cracked plaster ceiling and felt a sort of discombobulation that told me I was still drunk. It wasn’t fun anymore. It was never fun.
I pulled out my phone and called Laura. I hung up after one ring. She’d still see a missed call though. Why was I so stupid? I covered my face and groaned.
My hands smelled like the water. I rubbed them on my shirt, which accomplished nothing.
I began crying then, and felt even worse for it. I wiped my eyes with the back of my smelly hands.
“Jesus, get a hold of yourself,” I said, pushing the tears back.
Before my forced calm could sink in, I heard something: a faint scrabbling from the bathroom, then silence.
“Just your imagination,” I told myself, but my heart was pounding so hard I felt it in my skull.
The silence continued, and I almost felt normal when I heard a slow, rhythmic sound. The soft smacking of wet feet on ceramic tile.
The hardwood in the bedroom creaked. Dark footprints and water droplets appeared on the floor.
“What? No. No no no no no.”
But the floor kept creaking, and inevitably the footprints appeared one after the other. They only stopped once two prints were right next to my bed, facing me. A puddle began to form as the dripping continued. The dank, mildew smell grew stronger.
Without thinking, I pulled the covers over my head and froze. I saw vague shadow through my quilt, and it began to grow. My eyes snapped shut, and all I could do was hope that whatever it was would go away.
I felt a pressure like hands, and then moisture as water trickled down my arm.
I screamed. The smell vanished, and the pressure stopped.
Shocked and terrified, I spent a few minutes trembling. Then I decided I could not handle this shit by myself.
I threw off my covers and ran from my room down the hall, turning on all the lights as I went.
I knocked on the drop out’s door. He was hazy-eyed and had a joint in his hand.
“Woah, Mike. What’s up?”
“I dunno, man. I think I’m going crazy.”
His brow furrowed with effort. “Why, bro? What’s up?”
“Can you come up to my room and look around? I swear to God I’m seeing things.”
His face relaxed, and he laughed. “Sure. Yeah, don’t feel bad or anything. Lacey didn’t really like it before she transferred out. These houses, man.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I was feeling stupid already. I probably had a nightmare and didn’t realize it. Worse, I was getting a stoner to double check my sense of reality.
He entered my room and spun in a circle. “So what am I looking for?”
“Um, wet spots. Like someone who didn’t towel off walked through here.”
He spun in a circle again. “I guess they dried.”
“Can you, ah, check the bathroom? Like, the tub and sink, too?”
He laughed again, but walked in and turned on the light.
The tiles were dry. The tub was dry and clean except for the persistent ring around the inside. The water in the sink came out clear and scentless.
“Looks fine to me, Mike.”
“Yeah, it’s just – I swear there was someone here.”
“What, like a ghost?”
“No. Like maybe I’m having a ministroke?”
He laid a hand on my shoulder, the only physical contact I’d had in months. “Dude, Mike. Don’t worry about it. You’re fine. You worry, too much.”
I smiled and nodded, unsure of what to say.
“You wanna split a joint?”
“Oh! No. Thanks, though. I think I’m still drunk.”
“Sure, sure. Just let me know, and I’ll hook you up.”
He shrugged again and loped off down the hallway.
I looked around the room, and saw what I had when I first moved in: an almost luxurious, dingy sublet.
I turned out the lights and laid down. My covers were dry. If I listened carefully, I could hear the gamer issuing orders, the entomology student getting it on, and the drop out giggling at whatever he decided to get stoned and watch.
I sighed, and began to drift off listening to the activity humming through the house.
Then I heard something rhythmic: wet feet on tile.
“It’s not real. It’s not real, damn it.”
The floor boards creaked. A damp stench filled the room. In the darkness, I could make out a vague shadow.
I closed my eyes. “It’s just another nightmare. Just wake up.”
I felt a gust of cool air as the covers lifted and my mattress sunk down next to me.
I couldn’t even scream.
Something wet and cold touched my side, then my neck. It had long nails, and its long hair brushed over my face. Its hand closed around my throat.
I haven’t been alone since.
(Featured Image: Wikipedia)