Happy Halloween, dear reader! Whether you enjoy the spooky festivities or not, you can at least check out my scary story I wrote for the season this year. This one is “Malodorous” and runs more in the haunted house genre. It was inspired by an ordeal we had to endure earlier this year, though there were less spooks during that time. Fiction and reality mix as we follow the Tares, a young family looking for a place to put down roots. The fourplex they move into, however, may not be a good place in which to settle.
Story by J.R. Underdown
It was supposed to be a home full of happiness. It was to be the place where our little family could establish itself. Instead, it was a nightmare merged with reality and nearly tore us apart.
When our son was born my wife and I knew that the small apartment we lived in was not big enough to accommodate all our stuff plus a small child. Rather than purge excess, we opted to move to a bigger space. The goal was to execute this plan in the spring. However, my wife, unable to contain herself, began the search in the late fall. By early December, she hit upon the cursed house and scheduled a showing immediately without consulting me. I didn’t mind this too much; I try to roll with the punches. But I wasn’t eager to move in the bleak midwinter. Still, on a chilly Saturday afternoon, we drove to the property and I glimpsed my first view.
At the top of a dead hill (dead because of winter) sat the fourplex house, a monstrous ranch style with nearly enough windows to turn the structure into a prism if it were hollow. Broad, awkwardly spaced steps led down the hill from a quaint porch and ended at a dilapidated parking lot that was half covered in ice. What made the house, in spite of its surroundings, homely and appealing was the brick-faced front. The road in front of the building curved around to a barely noticeable access lane that led to other fourplexes and apartments. A driveway, seemingly paved to nowhere, brought us to the rear and a freshly paved parking lot. Any charm the front of the house produced was spoiled by its back. Ugly white siding covered the other three sides and was chipped in most places. More than anything, this revealed the structure to be old and a witness to too many winters. It all worked together to give one a vague sense of foreboding that this place only acted like it was homely while its true nature was old, decrepit, and forlorn.
Such was the house that my wife fell in love with, mostly because of the interior pictures. I had a gloomy perspective on the place, judging solely the exterior, but my wife held out hope.
She eagerly led the way, leaving me to shamble behind with the baby’s car seat. Through the rickety back door we found ourselves in a narrow hallway with cheap, thin carpet and the weight of years depressing it. Near the door was a stairway descending into the basement and up this dark passage came a tall, lanky old man with a placid face and eyes covered by thick, black plastic-rimmed glasses. He gave me the impression of a horrid hybrid of a turtle and a giraffe, but I had the wisdom to not remark on that out loud. Coming with him was an odor of cigarettes and we silently wondered if he had been smoking in the basement.
The old man, it turned out, was the landlord, Mr. Rivers.
“Mr. and Mrs. Tare?” He greeted us warmly enough, smiled genially at our baby, and led us down the hall to the front side of the house. Here were four doors, two on either side, set close together. The units on the left side were both recently vacated, he told us, one was a two bedroom, the other a three. He offered to let us see both and we acquiesced. The two bedroom, looking out on the back yard, failed to impress. Between the smaller space and the gawky green carpet, it floated in and out of our consideration like a vanishing ghost.
The three bedroom, however, was the stuff of my wife’s dreams. Wood floors, plenty of windows, and a recently remodeled kitchen and bathroom won her heart. I took it in with my usual indifference, though I leaned toward a more favorable opinion. I could see why this place enamored my wife and it certainly seemed to hold promise.
Mr. Rivers next showed us the basement. Descending the steps, we found a large, open space with four storage units guarded by 2-by-4s that reminded me of goofy cages from old horror movies where a monster or some freak imprisoned in its grasp. A couple washer and dryer units clung to the walls and two old, green doors stood on opposite sides. Littered about the space were items left by the previous tenant. That tenant, Mr. Rivers told us, left hurriedly after a divorce ended badly. He was unclear on much of the story, but the abandoned items seemed to us as a graveyard marking a previous life now passed.
It was clear my wife wanted to commit, but my manner was too ambiguous. So we parted from Mr. Rivers saying we would talk it over. The talk began as soon as we sat down in the car.
“Did you like it?” my wife asked.
I shrugged and cocked my head at the building, as if a different angle might expose a new perspective. “It’s seen better days.”
“It’s an old house! There will be some wear and tear. But there is plenty of room. Having a third bedroom will allow us to set up a proper office.”
“With room to expand if another little one comes along.”
“The basement is also very nice and the storage unit is spacious.”
I finally pulled the car away from the house’s orbit and flung it out into space.
“So I’m guessing you’re fine with its appearance and location?” I queried.
“The location is perfect, I think,” my wife answered. She paused in considering its look. “The outside is a little off-putting. But I do like it.”
“Then so do I. Let’s take it.”
She stared at me blankly. “You don’t have any reservations?”
I shrugged again. “It gave me some weird feelings, but that might be the nature of so old a structure. Or maybe I’m just scared of change. I like our current place, for all its size problems. It’s comfortable. But maybe this is the kind of place we need, something to challenge us!”
My wife smiled and shook her head. “Why couldn’t you tell me that while we were still with Mr. Rivers?”
Within the hour she called the landlord and confirmed we would take the place. A few days later we submitted an application and deposit. As December rushed to a close and the year creaked into a new dawn, we looked forward to a bright future and picked up the keys to our new home. Mr. Rivers suggested we do a walkthrough of the unit and note any potential problems or things that seemed wrong and report them to the office. My wife needed no excuse to claim her new territory and we immediately drove off in its direction.
Soon we stood before the apartment’s door, my wife a whistling teapot of excitement, myself an indifferent man fumbling with the keys. Because Mr. Rivers didn’t know what the keys on the ring for our unit went to, it took me some time to find the proper one. It was, perhaps, an omen that merely entering the unit should be so delayed.
Once inside, the wife of my youth bustled about her new space like a puppy rejoicing in its master’s return leaving me to extract our fussy 6 month old son from his car seat. My wife noticed some cosmetic issues in her initial walkthrough—a chip on the corner of the bathroom mirror, paint peeling off some of the doors—in other words, signs of an old house. For my part, having an eye on practical matters of safety, noticed some minor cracks in the wood floor, holes drilled through the floor in all the rooms (apparently to run cable lines), and some of the windows not latching. Vague apprehensions grew in my mind like dusk creeping over the land. Checking the basement, we found it cleaned out and tidied up, with our storage unit empty and awaiting new monsters to cage. A faint smell of smoke hung temporarily when we first descended but cleared up quickly. The missus worried that someone had been smoking in the basement though there was no other sign to support this (she made me do a thorough check). Still, when we quitted the premises, my wife was exuberant and I was cautious.
The moving process soon began and it was beset by challenges. Both of our vehicles broke down at some point and frigid January cold hampered the level of desire to move. Slowly, at a grinding pace, we extracted our things from our previous abode and settled into a new life. I plugged all the holes I could find with steel wool and had a friend cut pieces of wood to wedge in the windows that didn’t latch. By month’s end, I was exhausted but beginning to look favorably on our new home. Mrs. Tare also had her share of fatigue, trying to set up house while tending a squirming baby, yet held herself up with the vision of what the place could be.
It didn’t take long, however, for that vision to start fading.
A single mom with two young kids took the two bedroom unit beside ours. My wife had most of the interactions with her and at first she seemed pleasant enough. Her apparent recent history, as she related it to my wife, struck me as concerning and suspicious. According to our neighbor (whose name was Ms. Courte), she came from the next state over where she had a thriving catering business. An unfortunate house fire, mixed with the misfortune of not having insurance, led her to end her entrepreneurial endeavors and relocate to our state in the hopes of restarting her business. She still had no insurance (much less a job), but apparently had friends lie for her so she could pass the application process and snag the apartment.
It struck me as disconcerting that her house burned down. Though my wife was not told the reason, it made me wonder what kind of neighbor and house mate we had. The closing of her business struck me as suspicious since one would think that the logical course would be to rebuild in the area where you have already established a presence. Thus, my opinion of Ms. Courte (whose appearance was a mutation of an alley cat with a ferret) was that she was untrustworthy and potentially running from a dangerous situation. I worried that the danger would follow her.
Almost immediately the problems that seemed to haunt her like a ghost with a vendetta spilled over on us. Her brother, a shaggy-haired mixed breed of rat and Rottweiler, lived in the house to help with the kids. At least, this is what she told us. Instead, he was more of a nuisance for her and us. We knew he bothered her since she was constantly screaming at him and, given the thinness of the walls between our units, could usually hear their arguments as if we were hiding in their bathroom. He annoyed us by using our washer and dryer without our permission. But the breaking point came when, in a particularly heated argument, Ms. Courte threw her brother and a friend into the hall and slammed the door in his face. He threatened to break it down and was eventually re-admitted. His appearances, however, decreased significantly after that night.
I truly believe that poor Ms. Courte was doing her best to live at peace with her neighbors, but she didn’t do herself any favors by constantly yelling at and berating anyone within her unit, from her children (who were unruly and loud as well) to her family to her friends. Everyone was a target and we were privy to the conversation due to the thin walls. One particularly disconcerting dialogue my wife overheard was reported to me one evening upon returning home from work.
Originally, our bedroom shared the wall of Ms. Courte’s—until her incessant yelling stressed my wife out enough to change the rooms around. But one day, while my wife sat in bed trying to relax, she accidentally eavesdropped on the following confession of our neighbor:
“I’m scared. I’m afraid I’ll have to move again. I can’t even sleep peacefully at night.”
My wife didn’t know the context, nor did she hear much else, but the lines stuck with her.
“What do you think she meant by that?” she asked me over dinner.
I shrugged. “Maybe something to do with her brother. Maybe she’s been involved in drugs or a gang or something and she’s running from them.”
My wife glanced at our son in his high chair and then back at me. “Do you think we’re safe?”
I mulled this question over before answering, “I hope so. Maybe with her brother getting kicked out things will quiet down.”
This appeased my wife for the moment; though I could tell her rapture over our little home was beginning to wane. I was surprised to find myself settling into liking the place, in spite of all its irregularities.
For a few days there was relative peace. Ms. Courte still yelled at anyone within earshot, but by now we were assuming that was her normal voice and anything polite was a mask. A new trouble arose, however, and that was the presence of all the men who skidded in and out of her door at all hours of the night or day. These men brought fresh vehement screaming matches. Also, whether coincidental to their arrival or not, a weird smoky smell began creeping into our humble abode.
I barely noticed it at first, but my wife’s sense of smell was more sensitive and picked up the scent immediately. She thought it smelled like cigarette smoke. I, having worked with plenty of smokers in my short life, did not concur with that conclusion. The odor, when I finally could smell it, was stronger—deeper, I dare say—than cigarette smoke. It almost reminded me of a wood fire and I noted a house across the street constantly had smoke emitting from its chimney (the winter was a cold one) and so I chalked the smell up to that. My wife uneasily accepted this until the smell got stronger and she sent me outside to see if I could smell it there. I could not.
Then, over the course of the week, we both played the sleuth. My wife confronted Ms. Courte, since she noticed her smoking in the lower lot while checking mail.
“We’re not smoking in here,” our neighbor claimed. “I haven’t smelled anything either.” She paused and thought. “You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if my brother is hanging out in the basement and smoking. He hid down there a couple days ago and attacked me when I was coming in the door.”
This aroused a host of questions in my wife and at the next hint of the odor, I was sent into the basement seeking a culprit. The smell seemed stronger down there, but I couldn’t find any sign of human presence. I checked the crawl space under our side of the house (its opening was tall enough to stand in) and saw no person or cigarette butt.
But the smell persisted! It wasn’t constant, it wasn’t consistent, but daily it made its presence known and felt. Desperate to find some answer, my wife consulted our neighbors across the hall. They were, together, an unassuming pair that kept to themselves but were genial enough if approached. Inhabiting the parallel unit was Mrs. Brandywine, an older woman in her late 60s with her husband long dead and her children no longer home. She reminded me of a porcupine fish and an eel. Beside her was Mr. Hillshire, a stocky 30-something beast of a man who lived alone and said less than his neighbor. He was like a goat that married a bear. Both were long-time tenants and had a habit of standing in the hallway late at night in whispered conversation. Neither knew anything of the smell, though Mrs. Brandywine cast some suspicion on Ms. Courte and revealed that she had reported the tenant for being the source of unsavory disturbances in the house.
This knowledge emboldened my wife to pursue the same course. I stayed her hand for a while, though. We had no proof that the smell was from her unit and I had some pity for her and her two girls. The thought of being the cause of someone getting evicted from their living space didn’t sit well with me. I counseled my wife to give it time and see if the smell subsided.
I will not forget the night my mind changed on the matter.
I awoke to the vague feeling of a presence hovering nearby. It was Mrs. Tare, silhouetted against the open window. She sat on the bed with her head thrust close to the screen.
“What are you doing?” I whispered gruffly (I had work the next day).
“The smell is back,” she answered with a wavering voice. “I can’t sleep. I’m worried about it affecting our son.”
Realizing the situation was serious to her I sat up, rubbed her back, and shook my mind awake. Slowly the odor forced itself upon my nostrils, though I wasn’t as bothered by it. She began rocking back and forth.
“I’m going to take him and go to my mom’s,” she declared.
The statement struck me with horror for some reason. Perhaps it was the thought of being alone or simply the inconvenience of the situation. Regardless, I tried talking her down.
“Is the smell that strong throughout the house?” I queried.
“It’s stronger up front. But what if it’s bad in his room?”
With a muffled groan, I rolled out of bed and walked toward the front of our unit. Mrs. Tare followed, suppressing emotion and distress. The odor seemed faint in the living room. I noted this to my wife and she came in to sniff the air for herself.
“Maybe they stopped smoking,” she muttered and then broke down into sobs. I guided her to the couch. “I can’t stand this! I can never feel relaxed. I’m constantly tense and afraid of that smell!”
I consoled her as best I could and cast a wary eye over the dark room. Our little home of promise was turning into a haunted house. The terror that tortured my wife was clawing at me now. Her distress became my stress. I finally agreed to report Ms. Courte to the landlord and after some more coaxing, got Mrs. Tare back to bed.
The next morning, as soon as the offices were open, my wife called to file her complaint. Mr. Rivers seemed concerned, noted the other complaints, and promised something would be done soon. A couple days later, he called to inform us an eviction notice was delivered to Ms. Courte that morning and she would be out at the end of the month.
If we marveled at the wrath she unleashed on her children and friends, we were stunned by the anger she directed toward us. She blamed us and the other tenants for conspiring against her and, on numerous occasions, yelled through our adjoining walls that she wasn’t smoking and, if anything, we were the ones to be evicted since our son cried frequently. I could tell Mrs. Tare felt bad for our unfortunate neighbor but nevertheless relieved to see her go. I also felt sorry for her and, a couple weeks later, pitied her fate.
The end was in sight for Ms. Courte. My wife counted down the days until our neighbor was gone. I slowly joined in her sentiment as the odor only grew stronger. But then that night came—oh, what a fateful night!
We were awakened in the early morning hours by a loud banging next door. Through the walls we could hear the crying of Ms. Courte’s daughters. After lying there for a few minutes, I could ascertain that they were banging on their mother’s bedroom door (which we knew she frequently locked to keep her offspring out) and pleading for her to let them join her. We assumed this episode would pass quickly and tried resuming our sleep. An hour later, however, and those daughters still wailed upon the door, increasing in their fervor.
“Something’s not right over there,” my wife said with a note of fear.
“I wonder if she knocked herself out with drugs,” I conjectured.
After a few minutes more, my wife said, “Should we do something?”
“What can we do? Call the cops?”
“You could go over and check on them. That smell is so strong! She may be burning the house down for all we know!”
I could tell the distress was overtaking her, so I agreed to go knock on their door. I pulled on a pair of jeans and socks, slipped on some sandals, and stepped out into the cold central hallway. The smell was fainter and my head felt clearer, whether because of the weaker odor or being more awake I could not tell. I stepped up to Ms. Courte’s door and took a moment to listen. The girls still raised their raucous and the sound was heard clearly through the door. I knocked, lightly but firmly, and the noise ceased. I figured the two were debating whether or not to open the door. I knocked again, a little louder this time. Soon I heard the pitter patter of children’s feet and the door being unlocked. It opened by a crack and I saw the two young girls pale and distraught.
“I’m Mr. Tare,” I began, “I live next door. Is everything okay?”
The oldest shook her head and started tearing up. “Something’s wrong with mommy. We heard a scream and now she won’t answer.”
Strange, I thought, we hadn’t heard a scream. Or maybe that’s what woke us and we didn’t realize it. Pressing slightly on the door, I tried to carefully pick my way through this awkward situation.
“Do you mind if I come in and check on her?” I asked.
The oldest swung the door wide. Clearly they were ready for an adult’s intervention. As I passed through the Courte’s unit, I wondered what we would do if I found our neighbor dead. Should we offer to watch the girls? Do we call for cops or medics? I was painfully aware of my inadequacy in the situation, but I soldiered on in an authoritative way to give confidence to the girls. I approached the bedroom door and knocked.
“Ms. Courte? This is your neighbor, Mr. Tare. Are you okay? Can you open the door? Or do you need assistance?”
When the expected answer of silence came, I considered the door knob.
“Can one of you girls fetch me a paper clip?” I asked with a slight smile. Both ran off and soon returned with one. “Had to do this once when I locked myself out of a house,” I explained, hoping to keep their fears light.
As I fiddled with the lock, I started noticing the odor again. It seemed stronger at the door, stronger than I had ever smelled it. I turned to the little Courtes.
“Do you smell that?”
“Do you smell it often?”
The oldest nodded again. “Every night. It was worse tonight.”
I nodded silently and focused on my task as much as I could. At last, the lock clicked, I turned the knob, and rushed into the room. The odor stopped me as if I ran into a wall. It was overpowering and I had to back out.
“What is she smoking?” I asked aloud to myself.
I remembered the girls just then and told them to stay back. Pulling my shirt up over my mouth, I reentered. I couldn’t stay long, the smell being so overwhelming, but I got a good look at the scene. On the nightstand something like a cigarette lay with a thin stream of smoke filing up from its tip. That must have been what was causing the smell, I thought, though it seemed extremely potent for such a small thing. My wonder increased when I looked upon the bed and found it empty. The sheets were thrown off and strewn about but there was no body.
Unable to handle the smell or make sense of the situation, I retreated to the hall and shut the door. Ms. Courte’s daughters waited on the threshold of their room and looked up with inquiring eyes.
“Stay in your room,” I commanded. “I need to go call for help.”
They obeyed, scared. Oh, that I would have ordered them to come with me!
I quitted the unit since I needed to fetch my cell phone and upon reaching the central hallway found Mrs. Brandywine and Mr. Hillshire poking their heads out from their abodes.
“What’s going on?” asked the former.
I jerked my thumb back behind me. “Our neighbor’s gone missing and left her kids alone.”
“Did you smell that odor you were complaining about?”
I paused and considered her. “Yes. I think she was smoking something.”
The odd couple exchanged glances and then Mrs. Brandywine stepped out. “I think I know where the smell is coming from.”
“You do? It’s not from her room?”
“Well, you’ll have to show me later, I need to get my phone and call…”
Suddenly the air was pierced with the shrill screams of two little girls. I turned quickly and dashed back into their unit. The odor slowed my steps. I peered into their room, found the smell strong there but nothing else. The girls were gone too! Hurriedly I darted around the apartment like a madman trying to find them, but they were nowhere.
“I know they were here,” I explained to Mrs. Brandywine, who joined me. “There’s no way they could’ve got out.”
“I think the smell has something to do with their disappearance.”
I stopped and stared. “What do you mean?”
“Come with me,” she beckoned.
I followed her. I followed her down the stairs into the basement. She led me to the access door to the crawl space on our side and opened it. “In there. I think you’ll find your answers there.”
A sensational curiosity seized me and I blindly walked in. No sooner was I in the black space than Mrs. Brandywine shut the door behind me.
“Hey, what’s the meaning of this?” I yelled and reached out for the string attached to the light bulb. I happened to look into the darkness, perhaps out of fear of a raccoon or something like it. I froze completely.
My eyes were slowly adjusting to the pitch black world I entered and I now saw its demonic inhabitants. Rising from the earth were thin, orange streams of smoke each forming a menacing eye. It looked like a great company of cigarettes and if only it were so! The foul odor swept over me and I grew sick. The smoky, blazing eyes crept toward me.
Get out! Get out! My mind finally screamed its command to the body and I turned and smashed into the door. Apparently Mrs. Brandywine wasn’t expecting much in the way of resistance, or her strength was small compared to mine, but the door gave way and I bowled over her and vaulted up the steps.
At the top, I heard two screams. One came from Mrs. Brandywine below. The other belonged to Mrs. Tare.
My world was unraveling! Madness ruled the night. I rushed into our unit. All was dark; the smell increased. My wife screamed again and drew me to our son’s room. When I reached it, I stood agape at the scene.
In the dim glow of a nightlight, I saw Mr. Hillshire holding back my frantic wife with one hand and with the other held up our baby to…
I had seen pictures and depictions of demons before, but to see one, smoky and orange, wispy and incorporeal, pushed me further to the brink of insanity. It trailed up from one of the holes drilled in the floor. And it bent! It bent over our son. Is that what this smell did? Consume?
The need for action overtook me. I hoisted my son’s diaper pail and hurled it at our treacherous neighbor. It stunned him and our boy dropped from his grasp. Thankfully my wife, now unhindered, dove to catch him.
The being before us seemed enraged and the toxic fumes filled that small space. I reeled and Mrs. Tare was slow to recover. Mr. Hillshire, however, ran from the room. Fighting off sickness, I grabbed my wife and pulled her and my son to safety.
We started for the front door but stopped short. Silhouetted in the entryway was our formidable neighbor.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he grunted. “But you forced our hand.”
“Let us out!” I demanded.
“It’s too late. The sacrifices must be made.”
Feeling that time was of the essence and that any action taken out there would be impeded by Mr. Hillshire, I took my wife’s hand and led them to the back section.
As we passed our son’s room, the beast that appeared there lunged at us. My wife screamed, but we ducked under its grasp and took refuge in the spare room.
“We’re trapped!” my wife fretted as I slammed the door behind me.
“Not quite,” I said, but immediately stopped.
The odor was engrossing the room. In the corner, coming through a hole, another smoke demon rose and took shape. Mrs. Tare screamed again.
Wild with desperation, I picked up a box still unpacked from our move and launched it at the window. Thankfully the old glass shattered beneath the force. A cold, chill wind swept in and pushed away odor and demon. But it was a short-lived victory. The smell resumed its attack and now multiple beings formed in the room.
“Out the window, quick!” I yelled and helped my wife and child to the safety outside. As I cleared the portal, an orange, spectral hand barely missed dragging me back. My last sight through the window was the door flying open and Mr. Hillshire being greeted by the smoky forms. As my family escaped the premises, we heard the agonizing screams of the final tenant of that accursed place.
*All rights reserved. 2018.
P.S.-If you’re still wanting more spooks, check out the story I wrote last year for Halloween!