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 runners-up.
Blumhouse.com is proud to present:
by Linden Binkerd
“There are eight stories, divided into four apartments per floor. The building was originally a shirtwaist and dress factory, which closed in 1911 following a fire. The structural damage was minimal, and it was rented as storage space by the owners until we renovated it as apartment units earlier this year. You’ll notice the beams-“
The air was cool inside the eighth-floor apartment as the realtor, a crisply-dressed young man named Alex (who David thought looked like he’d wandered out of a cell phone commercial) ushered them inside, and in spite of himself, David was impressed. It was huge. Where the brick was not exposed the walls gleamed a soft white, and every appliance was spotless chrome.
David’s attention wandered to a framed picture propped on the living room mantel. Several men in a black and white photograph, standing in the street in front of this very building. There was a sign across the top floor of the building, but he could only see the bottom edge of the letters. The eighth floor had been cropped almost entirely out of the picture.
“Ah, yes,” chirped Alex. “There’s a copy for each tenant. That’s the earliest known photograph of the building. The negatives were found only a few months ago. It seemed like a nice touch.”
“Why did they cut off those people?” David asked.
“Hmm?” The realtor frowned in confusion.
David pointed at the sliver of top floor, where the long, wide windows showcased a collection of people standing on what must be interior ledge of the windows. Trouser legs and dresses crowded the top of the frame. There seemed to be quite a few of them.
Alex shrugged. “Too bad we can’t call the photographer and complain, isn’t it?” He laughed to himself, and the couple joined in. “Still, it’s a great conversation piece.”
David could see the entryway reflected in the framed glass, and frowned slightly as the elevator opened, letting out several women and children in heavy, long coats who quietly rushed into the propped-open apartment door across the hall. He turned to find he had missed seeing them in person. The door was swinging gently closed. They were dressed a little warm for the weather, he thought. At least they’re quiet, although I’m not too thrilled about living next door to an entire litter. Such old fashioned coats. Jews, maybe?
He started to say something about the family to Susan, but his wife and the realtor had moved into the kitchen and his bladder was reminding him of the long car ride. By the time they’d seen the office and master bedroom, which featured even more of those amazing long windows, David had completely forgotten to ask, slightly worried about sounding anti-semitic, and was feeling the long car trip more. He pointed at the master bathroom. “Does that work?”
“Knock yourself out!” Alex assured him. “And when you’re ready, I’ll take you folks up to see the amazing patio and grill we’ve created on the roof.”
If Susan wasn’t in love before, the words patio and grill had her beaming from ear to ear. In no time flat, she’d asked David to meet them on the roof when he was finished, and she was out the door, practically dragging Alex along. That’s what you get for teaching her how to use Pinterest, he thought to himself as he zipped up. Finally she’ll be able to use those damn paper lanterns–
He noticed something under the sink, which broke his train of thought. The crisp whiteness of the wall was broken by a dark brown stain where the wall met the tiled floor.
He prodded it curiously and the soaked plaster gave way. It looked like a wound, now, and even stranger, there was something in there. David knelt, reached his fingers into the space, and caught at the thing. It was, he realized, a small scrap of cloth. It had been wadded up tightly, but caught on the edge as he pulled it out, unspooling into his hand. He gagged at the sudden smell of rot and char in the freshly-scented room. It was soft pink with pinstripes, badly faded in some places and burned in others. David frowned. Behind him, in the apartment, the bedroom door closed.
“Sorry to take so long, Susan,” he called out as he opened the door. “Look at what-oh, sorry.”
David found himself staring at the back of a tall woman in a long coat, staring out the open bedroom window. Her hands dangled at her sides.
“I thought you were my wife,” explained David.
The woman trembled slightly, but otherwise remained motionless. Her hair had fallen down from a high bun, half hanging across her back in a fall of dull brown. It was long, almost to her waist. She’s one of the women from the apartment next door, he realized. Maybe not Jewish. Maybe one of those weird cults? She might as well have been a statue.
“Helloooo,” called David, aware he sounded like someone calling to a stray dog. Her hands, he now saw, were coated in something black. Smears of sooty color had been wiped from them onto her coat. Has she been gardening?
She didn’t move. David felt uncomfortable. He opened his mouth to say something else to the pillar of a woman between him and the bedroom door, but as he did so, she leaned forward.
Tipping forward like a penguin on ice, she tumbled over the edge and was gone.
He was at the ledge himself before he realized he had moved, staring wildly into the empty space that he had assumed must have a fire escape. This has to be a joke, he thought. Instead he saw only the sidewalk below. Empty, except for a boy on a skateboard practicing tricks under a sign that said No Skateboarding or Rollerblading Allowed.
“Hey!” he cried hoarsely. “Did you see a-“
The boy started, glanced up, then shot a guilty look at the sign and skated away. David trembled with adrenaline. Then he gasped as something pinched him hard in the ribs.
Unseen hands gripped him under his arms and he felt his legs leave the ground entirely. Swearing, flailing, he grabbed at the edge of the open window, hooked one foot under a mercifully exposed brick under the windowsill. The smell grew stronger and he almost fainted at the pain from the hands he couldn’t see, crushing his ribs in an attempt to shake him free of his death-grip on the ledge. Wind whipped past his exposed right side. Something wet filled his pants and trickled down his sock. He was dimly aware of having pissed himself as his sweaty fingers began to be pried free. He wept, and gasped for air.
No, he heard himself shrieking. No, no, god no.
His hand was being lifted from the sill. The wad of fabric slipped free and drifted lazily downward.
Gravity returned to him like a landing astronaut. David opened his eyes to see his wife and Alex, gaping at him from the open bedroom door. David’s urine was going cold down the front of him and he had lost a shoe. He did the only sensible thing he could think of. He ran.
Bolting down the stairs, three at a time, David made it to the front steps before Susan could catch up to him, and by the time she did she was coughing from exertion. The cough became an ugly wet sound as he reached up from his own ungainly sprawl to balance her.
“Susan, your asthma-“ he heard himself say as if from a distance, but then she was gagging. The color was leaving her face as she wheezed.
David, knowing absolutely zero CPR, suddenly remembered a moment of childhood in which he had swallowed a penny. He raised a hand high in the air, and slapped his wife on the back, right between her shoulder blades. She made a sound like a hork, and something flew out of her mouth with an arc that would make a softball player jealous. David ran for it, abandoning his wife in obsessive pursuit. He somehow knew what he would find, only to find Susan close behind him as he knelt to pick up the small viscous object.
A small, tightly wound piece of burned cloth, the size of a grape.
They stared at the delicately printed pinstripes in silence.
Across the street the defeated boy sat on a park bench with his skateboard across his knees. This neighborhood sucks, he grumbled to himself as he popped open a can of soda from the corner kiosk.
Dimly, he could hear the man at the kiosk start coughing, and then he gagged at a rising smell himself. It reminded him of the time his cousin had burned a dead raccoon from the highway. Then the yelling guy ran outside, and a lady too.
Afterwards, he never knew why he looked up, instead of at them. Instead of looking at the kiosk guy who was coughing even louder now. He looked up. Just in time to see a man’s body leave the window. Just in time to hear it land on the people below.
Just in time to feel the tickle start in the back of his own throat.