Last year, Blumhouse Books held a short story contest, and the winners are featured in our book, THE BLUMHOUSE BOOK OF NIGHTMARES: THE HAUNTED CITY (now available). The story posted below is one of our fantastic and spooky runner-up winners.
Blumhouse.com is proud to present:
DRY WALL by Grady Hendrix
“And what do you do? Are you in publishing? You look like my daughter. She’s a writer,” said the withered, fake-tanned, saggy-armed, stretch-faced realtor whose name Carrie couldn’t remember. Shirley? Susan? Cynthia?
“I freelance,” Carrie said.
“What do you freelance? Freelance film? Freelance journalism? Everyone freelances.”
“I knew it. Did I tell you my daughter’s a writer? Her book’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. I’ll have to give you a copy – I bought a hundred from Amazon when it came out.”
Carrie lowered her head to protect herself from all these words beating her into the floor. The realtor’s voice took on a metallic echo as she cruised into another room of the empty apartment. Carrie trudged after her.
The realtor herded her through a tiny bedroom, a miniature bathroom, a microscopic foyer, and a cubbyhole kitchen. Words flew out of her mouth: refurbished elevator, security deposit, small fee, eastern exposure, successful neighbors, basement laundry, thick walls, fabulous detail.
By the time Carrie said she’d sign the lease it was more like a surrender.
Carrie was proud of her life. It was orderly and efficient. Her parents visited once a year for Thanksgiving. Her social life was mostly related to work, and work was an unending good dream. After a graduate writing program, the freelance gigs started flinging themselves into her inbox. She’d developed a roster of reliable clients: in-house corporate newsletters, trade publications, special advertising supplements. She emailed them content, they snail-mailed her checks.
With her career in order, the move to her new apartment was the beginning of Carrie’s Life: Phase Two. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but she would meet new friends in her new building. She’d make an effort. Instead of take-out: home-cooking. Instead of Ikea: antiques. Instead of Netflix nights: dinner parties.
Her life was a problem, but this new apartment was the solution.
Moving Day. All week, a heat wave had been suffocating the city, and now the building elevator was broken. She leaned on the buzzer for the Super, but he never answered. Finally she left everything in the lobby and dragged her three suitcases up the seven flights of stairs. She came back to the lobby, picked up one of her seven boxes, and the bottom promptly fell out and all of her plates (2) and her glasses (6) and her bowls (3) shattered on the floor.
By the time she’d lugged everything up to her apartment and dumped it just inside the front door, the pressure was dropping outside and the sky was black. With no cable and no internet, she made a desk out of boxes in the living room and booted up her laptop to take care of a couple of things for work. Spooning yogurt mechanically into her mouth, she reviewed some dry client copy, transforming it into upbeat, on-message corporate communication. It was only four o’clock, but outside it was storm-tossed and pitch black. The wind howled around the window frames and moaned softly in the other room.
She turned on her halogen lamp, and tentatively clicked out the first few words, then she got her rhythm and became a good machine, filling the screen with positive copy. A few fat raindrops tapped at the window like dead fingers. The sky flickered with heat lightning. Carrie kept typing.
She toggled between windows — corporate copy, her copy. Something tickled the back of her hand. Absently, she scratched, and felt something move. She looked down, and saw a long hair twined between her fingers. She pulled it out and held it up to the light. It was blonde and she was brunette. Great. Now she was going to have to scrub this place from top to bottom. She didn’t want to wake up and find the last tenant’s hair in her mouth. She added it to her to-do list and turned back to the screen.
Something tickled the back of her hand again.
Another long, blonde hair was draped across her keyboard. She tried to flick it off her fingers but it kept sticking. She looked around the apartment. Outside the little island of light from her halogen lamp, everything was pitch black. The hall to her pint-sized bedroom vanished into darkness. Someone could be standing in its doorway, watching her. The rain continued its fat tap tap tap on the windowpanes.
Jumping up, she ran to the wall switch, flipped it, and nothing happened. No light bulb in the overhead fixture, and she hadn’t brought any. She could go out and get them, but she didn’t have an umbrella, and this just sucked. She’d have to tough it out. But first thing in the morning she’d buy cleaning supplies and light bulbs…and then what? Sterilize her cubicle? Keeping typing garbage that nobody read?
She sat down at her laptop, read what she’d written, realized it was crap. Maybe tomorrow she’d volunteer to write for a non-profit, or pitch some stories about community leaders to a magazine. Tomorrow she could do that. She couldn’t hear any human sounds over the rain. No TVs, no radios, no one arguing. Just silence through the thick walls.
Another long, blonde hair drifted down onto her keyboard. Carrie looked up, then twisted her lamp’s neck around and illuminated a dark spot on the wall, four feet above her desk. She stood on her chair and brought her face close. There it was — a crack with a blonde hair sticking out of it. Using a bit of toilet paper she pulled it out, and another hair took its place. She pulled, but it wouldn’t come. Instead, it stretched, like it was still attached to someone’s head. She stumbled backwards, fell off her chair, grabbed her cell phone, dialed 911.
The floor was a swampy mess from all the rainwater people were tracking in. Bright construction lights were pointed at the wall and everything was covered with plaster dust. A crowd of cops wearing wet black raincoats bumped shoulders. They were smoking in the kitchen, talking in the hallway, peeing in her bathroom, standing by the window to use their cell phones.
In the living room wall they had hacked a coffin-sized hole through the plaster. Inside the hole there was a mummified woman with long blonde hair tied to the studs with a rope around her waist. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth, her skin was paper, her eyes were boiled eggs. When they’d first seen her face through the hole in the plaster every joke had died on everyone’s lips. Carrie had felt sick, then she’d felt small. All her deadlines, all her blurbs, all her copy evaporated into nothing before this dead woman.
A long, low whistle filled the room.
“Jesus Christ…” someone said.
That broke the tension. Alpha cops barked orders and beta cops ran to bring things. More barking on cell phones. Men arrived with bags and boxes and vacuum cleaners. The medical examiner came, felt the husk for a pulse and declared her dead. Flashbulbs popped and they zipped her up in a body bag and carried her away like she was nothing.
An hour later the remaining technician’s flash went off one last time, then he turned to Carrie.
She didn’t know what to say. She’d expected something: a hotel room, a different apartment, some sympathy. But no one had offered and now the last person left in her dark apartment was this young technician.
“Isn’t someone going to give me somewhere to go?”
“Not me,” he said.
Outside the wind banged its fists on the windows. A plastic sheet had been stretched over the hole in the wall and tacked down around the edges. The changes in air pressure made it luff and snap.
“You can’t leave me here. You found a dead body in my apartment.”
“It’s not here now.”
He hoisted the strap of his case onto his shoulder and headed out the door.
“Have a better one,” he said from the hall. She heard the elevator come and take him away. She was alone.
Thunder echoed down the avenue outside and her desk lamp went out. The plastic snapped, one of the tacks popped out and plinked to the floor.
There were no friends she could call this late. No diner she could sit in all night. She didn’t even know where the nearest hotel was. She had no choice. This was her apartment. She had to ride it out until morning.
Wind shoved the building, made the walls creak, the windows vibrate. Carrie sat in the corner of her bedroom, a blanket pulled up to her chin. She could see the plastic sheet snapping in the dark. She had to keep watching it.
The sheet was rimmed in white where it covered her walls and then milky black where it covered the hole. Blotches of electric purple danced across her eyes. She could see something moving behind the sheet. Something like fingers, stroking the plastic, waving like sea anemones.
She closed her eyes. She would go to sleep and wake up in the morning. Behind her eyes she saw the woman’s dry lips pulled back over black teeth, and then the idea got into her head that maybe there’d been two corpses in the wall, and they’d only gotten one of them out.
This was ridiculous. She’d go and open the plastic sheet, just take it off the wall. It was worse imagining what was behind it. The hole would be better – at least it would be honest. Stiffly, she stood up. Rain pelted the living room window. The plastic sheet loomed larger as she approached. Before she could think, she grabbed the top corner and yanked on it as hard as she could. Tacks popped and plaster sprayed her face as the sheet rumbled to the floor.
Silence. Just the enormous hole in front of her, the wind rattling the windows. There was nothing in the hole, no second corpse, no one in her apartment. She was all alone.
A dry breeze blew out of the hole. It smelled dusty, but clean. Carrie decided she had to put her head into the hole and make sure there was nothing on either side of the opening. With her hands braced on the wall around the hole, half expecting something to grab her wrist, she leaned forward and dipped her face into the darkness. As her ears passed the edge of the hole she stopped hearing the wind and rain and just heard heavy silence. She turned her head to the right and left. Nothing but darkness.
It felt comforting in here, like a plaster blanket pulled up over her head. She noticed how thick the walls really were. There was a crawlspace between them disappearing into shadows on either side. On an impulse, she stepped into the hole and turned around, facing her apartment. She knew how the corpse felt now, all snug in its wall like it belonged there. She stretched her arms all the way out and they didn’t touch anything.
“I wonder how far back this goes,” she thought.
Sliding her feet sideways she shuffled into the crawlspace. The floor was dusty and smooth. She ducked to avoid a pipe and kept moving.
“I could stay in these walls forever,” she thought.
No one would be able to find her. They’d come in the morning and she’d be gone. No friends to make, no light bulbs to buy, no apartment to clean, no copy to turn in.
She continued to slide through the crawlspace and when she looked back, she saw that the hole in the wall was far back the way she’d come. She was inside the building now, more inside than anyone else.
“I wonder how far I can go?” She thought.
She kept moving into the walls. First she crept. Then she slithered. Then she crawled.