In lieu of a short story, here’s an experimental, existential short horror film that I shot on a telephone. Happy Halloween!
When he first came across it, it looked to him like the bowl of a giant toilet. It was porcelain, gleaming white, and it curved up to a lid at the top. The bowl was about six feet around, the black hole of a drain it fed into three feet around. But that was it–no tank, no handle to flush. Just the bowl of a giant toilet in the middle of a room.
It seemed like a living room. Every other room in this abandoned house was rotting away, but this one seemed immaculately kept. The carpet was vacuumed, there was art on the walls, and there were clean couches and chairs. He realized, standing next to the bowl, that all of the couches and chairs were pointed toward the drain. And then, from the side, he was pushed.
The back of his head hit the inside of the bowl with a crack. His arms and legs splayed out instinctively, but it was too late. He was already going down. His body got stuck about three feet down, shaped like the letter U, with arms, legs, and face pointed upwards. He could be a large drain plug.
Already, he could hardly breathe. His own chin was closing his windpipe, the back of his neck twisted in an unnatural angle. Pain shot out of his lower back like a fuel-fed fire. A putrid stench rose up from out of the blackness. Above him, figures started to appear.
They weren’t people.
They seemed to be perpetually in shadow, their features always just out of view. They stared at him with passive curiosity for a moment, then reached for his feet. Several of them worked at his shoes even as he kicked and thrashed. His spine exploded with pain at each movement.
They removed his shoes, then his socks, their fingers wet and cold on his skin. The smell from down the pipe seemed to be getting worse. He started to gag. The figures had cracked, uneven fingernails. Fingernails or claws. They raked them against his toes, slid them between his nails and the underskin of his toes. Some of them squeezed his toes till they felt like they might burst like overripe cherry tomatoes.
When the tongues touched, they were oozing strips of sandpaper on his skin, scraping between the toes to get the full taste. His vision tunneled as he slowly blacked out from lack of oxygen, but one feature came into view as everything else faded away. He saw their jagged teeth as they bit into his toes and ripped clean through.
He fought when they started to pull him out of the bowl by his feet, but eventually he slackened. The figures chattered and moaned like lovers in coitus as they waited for him to reach the top. When he did, he kicked everything he could make contact with.
And then, there was freefall.
And then, there was the sensation of losing yourself.
And that was all right.
I don’t have signal to call you and I don’t have time to text so I’m doing this through talk to text I apologize for any typos I don’t know exactly where I’m at it’s completely dark I felt around for any doors or Windows but there’s nothing the only light I have is from this phone and my battery is at less than 5% I hope that I’ll get the chance to send this to you but if I don’t hopefully they can get the message to you one way or another I don’t know who put me in here and I don’t know why but I’m here and I’m alone I’m hungry and thirsty and I feel like time is running out the memories that do come back are hazy men in suits shades their faces exposed although I can’t for the life of me remember what their facial features look like at all it’s as if that part of my memory has been wiped on purpose my body feels as if it’s taken a terrible beating but I don’t remember anything like that I hardly remember anything about my life it feels as if I’ve been in this dark room for my entire life at least I can still remember the you though I periodically hear noises noises that force me into one of the rooms corners for safety and when the noises her over I can smell food I have to walk on my hands and knees so that I don’t step on it and I find my food on a plane metal tray with no utensils I eat with my bare hands it’s never enough food but I guess it’s better than nothing I don’t know how much longer I can survive in here it feels like I’m wasting away and my mind is starting to play tricks on me staring into darkness listening into less than silence for so long has made me start to hallucinate I suddenly remember late night Wikipedia research when I heard about sensory deprivation for the first time the ganzfeld effect was it called I don’t remember what I do remember is spending summer nights with you walking through that open field that was only a five minute walk from where we lived coming out onto the grass and being so far away from everything it seemed I remember laying down on the grass and looking up at the stars light pollution gone away just for that moment so that we could see everything in the night sky as if it was all put in the sky just for us I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to see you again and that thought terrifies me I don’t know what I did to deserve this what I knew who I spoke to all I know is that I need to survive on a moment-to-moment basis I don’t even know if it’s day or night how much time has passed my beard and hair are long and that’s the only way I have of knowing that quite some time has passed I always cut my hair short and stayed clean shaven sometimes I can sense that someone is trying to talk to me I don’t know if it’s one of the men in the sunglasses but I do know that I can’t hear their voice rather I can hear it but not through my ears I’ve plugged my ears to test my theory and I can hear their voices even after I do it seems as though they’ve gotten in my brain as crazy as that sounds my battery is at 1% I don’t have much time I can hear the noises now I’m going to click Send I hope this gets to you and if it does please don’t forget me I’ll never forget you
To run into traffic on a sunny day, and to stand motionless as the cars come careening close, as they slam on their brakes and collide to avoid you. To break open a bottle of ink and to splash it over everything you own, leaving nothing out. To break into the house across the street and to sleep there. To get a gun and point it at your mirror self. To blow a hole in your wall and to stand in the spray of water coming from the struck pipe. To immolate a papier-mâché version of yourself on the front lawn, and to shoot at the squirrels when they get too close. To close the door on each of your fingers till your nails fall off and the skin underneath is oily and purple. To punch the replaced mirror again and again, till nothing remains. To find an old newspaper clipping of what happened and to eat it, not even tearing it up first, just forcing it down. To crush the shards down into granulated glass and to put this glass into peanut butter for the squirrels. To break the fingers of the first person you meet on the road and to kiss them on the head as they wail and flail. To punch your stomach until it’s black and purple, the skin raised in knuckle prints like welts on the flesh. To tear your calendar on the anniversary of it and to shove it down the garbage disposal, mangling your hand when you reach down and into it. To refuse pain meds when the ambulance arrives and they take you to the hospital, you going in and out of consciousness as the sirens wail and wail and wail. To rip off the dressing that they put on the hand and to wave the appendage in front of the doctor’s face like a treat for a dog. To get on all fours and bark when they ask what’s wrong with you, and to laugh your spittle into the doctor’s face. To leave before they’ve signed you out and to catch a bus back home, bleeding on the seats. To rub the blood on your face and gibber incoherently when you start to catch stares. To relay the memories back to yourself, waving your hand back and forth as you do. To incorporate the memories of the trauma, to dislodge it from the dwelling place it’s hiding in. To look at old pictures of her, before it happened, and to cry quietly to yourself. To put the pictures in a safe place and to be sure not to drip any blood onto them. To wash your hand and to wash your hand and to scrub it as the pain radiates like balls of lightning. To swaddle the wound in a rag and to soak the rag in gasoline. To light up what you’ve made, this human torch, and to wail and flail to get it off. To let it burn, somehow not tearing it off, and to watch as the smoking rag falls off on its own, no blood leaking from the wound anymore. To allow yourself two crushed aspirin and to swallow it dry, the metal taste seeping into you, filling you up. To fish the photos back out and to hold them up to the flame. To singe off your eyebrows for even thinking of it. To grab a fire poker and to wind up on your foot. To stop at the last second, and the stinging smell of fear. To inhale this scent deeply. To wash your feet and anoint them in oils. To shower in hot water until your bones ache and to get out and allow yourself a robe. To put away your knives and other sharp implements. To shove a screwdriver in the garbage disposal. To take the pictures out again, and to really look at them. To see beyond the accident, just her. Just you, before all of this, before all of what you’ve done. To look down at what’s become of your hand, what’s become of you, and to weep.
He wasn’t walking to work so much as marching, his polished-smooth black loafers clicking and resounding noisily against chewing-gum-laden pavement. He had his briefcase, and his tie, and his shirt pressed crisp till it looked like it might crack at the seams.
He felt important.
The train ride over had been slightly unusual–his Brahms-blasting headphones had stopped him from hearing anyone on board, but he was sure he didn’t see anyone either. And he was especially sure that the conductor never came by to check his ticket.
But no matter.
His mind was set on the tasks for the day. As usual, his day would consist largely of ensuring profits for his employers. And yes, said profits were ensured through foreclosing on honest, hard-working people, but the ethics involved weren’t for him to mull over. And after all, the orders were coming from above.
The train was one thing–he’d on occasion seen a car or two barren, had trips that were conductor-less, but the streets were another thing entirely.
There was no one walking anywhere. At all. Not a soul on the sidewalk, not even a pitiful-looking vagrant standing by the street corner.
But again, a logical explanation could readily be found, he was sure. Perhaps today happened to be some obscure holiday he’d never heard of, a holiday that even the hobos observed.
And so he walked on, still with his Brahms providing an amniotic lull from the outside world he was forced to pass through.
The confusion began to set in when he arrived at the office, confusion thick as a fog that billowed in from nowhere when there was no receptionist to greet him, no shoeshiner to polish his ever-dulling loafers. The situation was dire enough that the Brahms had to come out.
But it was all in his head after all. There was the familiar clicking on keyboards, the other important voices on important calls with important clients. It was fine.
But still, he saw no one ambling about the office with their equally-polished loafers and their ties and their shirts pressed so crisp they seemed like they might crack at the seams.
And so he got up. His polished-smooth black loafers clicked and resounded noisily through the office as he searched for signs of life.
It seemed like–but no, surely that was a foolish idea. But if he were indulging in thoughts that verged on foolish, he’d have to admit that there was no one in the office–at least no one visible. He could hear hands on keyboards and important voices chatting away, but he saw no one.
Maybe if he went back outside and checked–but no, that would be silly. Besides, he was sure to see someone soon enough.
But as the hours passed and still he saw no one, curiosity got the better of him. He marched back outside and scanned once more for signs of life.
Now, in the Brahms-less outside world, the full reality of his situation hit him with the force of Beethoven’s Ninth. There were conversations, deafening out here in the city, and lesser shoes walking, and cars honking, but no people. Not a soul in sight.
Voices all around him, harsh and cacophonous, laughing and tittering too. If he didn’t know any better, he’d say it was a taunting laughter.
But there–a car! He raced to the street’s edge, loafers clicking noisily, and what he saw sent him over the edge of reality.
There was no one driving the car. It accelerated and decelerated just fine, turned even, but there was no one behind the wheel.
Another car, also driver-less, passed by. And then another. And another.
His breath came in stuttered gasps, hollow and unable to satisfy his lungs’ demands. That was when he called out:
“Is anyone there?”
More laughter. Damning laughter.
“I can’t see you! I can’t see anyone!”
Deafening staccatos all around. Coming from everywhere.
“Please help me. I just need…”
And he was on the ground then, up against a wall. His loafers’ tips were frayed, ripped. And there was something in his hands. Something he was proffering to the people who were not there.
“I just need…”
He didn’t want to look at the something in his hands. Couldn’t bear to.
“I just need…”
He forced his eyes to look. To see. They made purchase with a faded and torn document. He looked closer. It was a notice of foreclosure.
Of his foreclosure.
“I just need… a little change.”
Most people would probably consider visiting the catacombs the creepiest part of making the rounds in Rome, but I think it’s pretty damn cool. Granted, I was raised on Night of the Living Dead and Tales from the Crypt, and my idea of a good time involves lots of red-dyed corn syrup, a couple friends and a camcorder, but still.
Funny enough, our tour guide looks the spitting image of Dario Argento, and his Italian comes out a lot more rapidly and incomprehensible than you’d expect for a guide, so after a while I just sort of tune him out and keep my eyes on the scenery. There are skulls everywhere. Centuries-old dust collects in wisps here and there, the kind that’ll make you sneeze uncontrollably if you breathe in even just a little too quickly. In its own way, it controls the very air you breathe.
There’s a chubby-paunched tourist who talks loudly on his cellphone while his other hand awkwardly clutches the sort of camera you’d see purchased by someone who wants the attention of being a photographer without doing any of the work, or else this guy. The Argento guide doesn’t pay him any mind as he zips along with his warp speed Italian, he must be all too used to this shit by now. He doesn’t even bat an eye when chubby-paunch drops his camera, which camera’s flash goes off all horror-movie-like and shines on one figure in particular as the tourist reverts to a Tourettic state.
The tourist picks up his camera and swears some more under his breath as its flashbulb dangles from a little wire. Our group moves up, until that figure I saw is directly ahead and foreboding as all get out.
Argento rounds a corner, speaking even faster as he goes as if the rapidity of his speech is dependent on making turns. The rest of the group marches on with chubby-paunch taking up the rear, but I stay behind. That creepy figure’s too damn awesome to just pass up.
The figure is a robed skeleton with neatly lined and ordered skulls behind him as if to intensify the impression he makes. The figure itself is well over six feet tall, and his billowing robe is a dark, dusky black that seems like it’s been cut out of the darkness itself. And there at the top of the robe, the figure’s skull stares through eye sockets that haven’t had eyes in them in well over two thousand years at least.
I feel at my shoulder, but I don’t have to: I find the strap of my backpack. My nearly empty backpack. Just the right size, one might say, for a pilfered skull, perhaps. I look this way and that, but no one’s watching. The only signs of life are the faint sounds of Argento’s lightning-fast speech and chubby-paunch’s loud cellular convo.
The skull comes off with a satisfying snap and sends up the same nefarious dust I told you about earlier. I cough and wheeze as it enters my lungs, some kind of instant karma or something. But curses be damned: before long I’ve got old giant Roman’s cranium in my backpack and I’m running along down the narrow corridor to catch up with my group.
I pant as I go, and move to round an upcoming corner. As I do, I slam hard into something and topple over on the ground. I look up, and there’s a skeleton with a sword in its bony hand, fully clad in Roman-appropriate armor. Its eye sockets light up with a fire when it sees me, and it’s all I can do to not let out the contents of my bladder and bowels all at once.
I get up slowly and kind of back away from the thing. Its hand reaches toward the wall as I do, and it clutches a weird lever of some sort as I turn and start to run away. And then, before I even know what the hell’s going on, a trapdoor’s opened up and I’m freefalling into pure darkness.
I’m still alive. Thank Romero. But the fuzzy feelings fade when I turn on my phone’s flashlight app and realize what it is that’s broken my fall: the belly of a once-snoring but now very awake Cyclops.
The big guy jumps up with a start, which sends my sorry ass down and off of him with a far more painful thud than the one you just read about. Faint torchlight sends glimpses of the beast’s form my way, but I kind of wish it didn’t, as that whole bladder-emptying thing I told you about has already taken effect and I’m worried the bowels will come next.
The behemoth swings for me and just barely misses my head as I drop down onto my stomach. His swing catches a mummified Roman warrior instead, and said warrior’s sword goes airborne and lands dangerously close to my face. I get up to my feet and pick the sword up. I suddenly remember the Odyssey. I knew there was a reason I read that dusty old thing. I dodge the next swing just as narrowly as the first and run around to the beast’s back. Using its back hair as handholds, I scurry up to its head and plunge my blade deep into its solitary eyeball. As he cries out in pain, he grabs me and flings me up into the air, and by some lucky twist of fate I soar right through the same trapdoor I came down.
I’m not taking any chances this time. I run my ass right out of there and don’t stop till I see daylight.
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the catacombs, my breath ragged. I grab the skull out of my backpack, toss it back in like it’s the plague crafted into skull form, and hightail it out of there. A flash blinds me as I run away–good old chubby-paunch.
So I was in the shower. I don’t know what time it was. Maybe two? Two-thirty in the morning? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I was tired, it was Halloween, and I hadn’t been able to do anything fun thanks to my absolute peach of a boss.
I stank like popcorn, and I was nursing a burn from cleaning the popper that night. As the shower’s water cut on, my mind started to wander to all the faces I must’ve seen in the theater that night. It hit me that each face I saw belonged to someone with a life, hopes, and dreams. That seems like common sense to say, I realize, but it all just hit me then. That’s just the way my brain liked to work, okay?
So anyway, I was trying my best to open the shampoo bottle without aggravating the burn when I got to thinking. It was always so damn creepy in my house, empty and bare as it was when I’d get home from work. Anyone could be hiding in the shadows and I wouldn’t even know. Maybe it was childish, like I was scared of the dark or something, but who cares. It’s what I thought.
I started lathering up, it felt good to get rid of all that damned grease. I closed my eyes to the water as the shampoo washed away, remembering childhood days of tear-proof shampoo and bubble baths with rubber duckies. My stomach dropped out all of a sudden. My knees went limp, I felt like I was going to pass out.
I remembered something.
Under that water, beneath the cold chill of the bathroom air, I used to open my eyes and look out at the world. It was like everything was distorted, warped. Like I had my own little kingdom under the water and only I could see things in just that way. Maybe it was silly. It sounds weird recounting it. But it’s how I felt.
I’d lie there, supine in the tub, naked as the day I came into the world, and I’d will myself to keep my eyes open, imagining each patch of bubbles was some sort of weird iceberg or continent.
I cleared the bubbles away one time to look, and there was an old, wasted man standing naked on the other side of the room, smiling as he watched me.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. He didn’t seem like he was really there. To me he seemed like the abstract concept of a man. Like the suggestion of one. To me it was like he had always been there and always would be.
With everything as hazy as it was, he was sharper. Clearer. Like he wasn’t a part of the rest of the world. All of this I thought to myself as I lay perfectly still under the water, holding my breath.
He had great folds of skin that hung down and collected in rolls, like someone had hastily stitched together a body for him. He was sallow, wasted away. But even so, I felt like he could kill me at any moment. Not with his body though. He wouldn’t need that. He could just think it, and I’d be dead. With a single notion he could follow me wherever I went, even after death, and always be there to watch me. Like I would never, could never escape from him. He told me all of this with the look on his withered face.
His eyes were gray, with flecks of blood red. To the average observer he’d seem blind for sure. But they’d be wrong. What he had was a heightened sight, something that went beyond just seeing something. It was like he could be in your skin as he watched you, feel your every organ as it worked its hardest to keep you alive.
There was white foam at the corners of his lips, like he hadn’t had a drink of water in his life. I could tell the foam was fetid just from looking at it. I imagined little fruit flies drowned within it, not even knowing their mistake. Him not even bothering to wipe them away. Maybe he liked them there.
His teeth were pus-stained. Red, but not from blood. I could just tell. He wasn’t smiling so much as baring his teeth like a predator might do. It was all a grand gesture and it was all for me.
There was a moan, low and deep. It was from him, but it felt like it came from everywhere. I could feel its vibration even down there under the tub’s water. Its sound waves rippled the water’s surface.
I don’t remember anything more. The memory just goes blank after that.
I stood there in the shower, propped up against the wall so I wouldn’t fall. I could feel my heartbeat in my skull. Everything was all hazy after that, like the real world was as warped as it looked from under the water all those years ago.
I started to gulp in deep breaths, like I heard you were supposed to when you thought you were having a panic attack. I didn’t know if that was good advice, but I tried it anyway.
It must’ve just been some weird memory I’d made up. Maybe a nightmare I’d had long ago thanks to some horror movie from my childhood. That had to be it.
I turned off the water. The curtain was there, the only thing separating me from my towel.
A low moan slowly built. It felt like it was coming from everywhere. The water at my feet rippled, splashing at my toes like it was boiling. There was a high-pitched whine, and then everything went black.
That’s it. That’s all I remember.