Originally published in Cellar Doors Volume II: Words of BeautyTales of Terror, where it won an Editor’s Choice Award
By Matt Cowan
“By the way, John, the bathroom speaks at night,” Amanda said, opening a box marked KITCHEN.
John glanced over from hanging a picture in the adjacent room. “How unique, surprised they didn’t charge extra for it.”
Amanda placed a toaster on the counter. “Definitely don’t tell him then. We can’t afford any more and won’t find anyplace cheaper.”
“We’re living in the cellar of a rent-controlled apartment complex, can’t get much cheaper than that,” John muttered, inspecting his work. He’d bought the painting of a man and woman’s hands clasped together highlighting their wedding rings while still employed at Baxter Finance. Things were good then.
Amanda hugged him from behind, kissing his check. Despair was consuming him again. He’d been that way since losing his job, blaming himself for their having to sell the big house to pay off the debts he’d racked up. She’d tried to warn him they were living beyond their means, but he was certain he’d get a promotion big enough to cover everything. “It’s not so bad,” she whispered in his ear. “Once we get everything situated, it’ll be cozy.”
“I suppose it’ll have to,” he said returning the kiss. “So what does it say?”
Amanda gave him a confused look. “What?”
“The bathroom, you said it talks. What does it say?”
Amanda laughed. “I heard it last night when I got up around 2 o’clock. It sounded like muttering in the walls, saying, ‘Where do the mares dwell?’ or ‘There’s the nightmare well’… something like that.”
John shook his head. “Sounds like you were either half asleep remembering a dream, or you heard someone talking in the room above us. If that’s the case, we should be careful ourselves, no telling who might be listening.”
“I guess that must’ve been it.”
John took her by the hand. “Now, what say we take a break from unpacking and grab a burger from that joint down the street?”
Amanda winced. “How about I fix us some macaroni and cheese instead? We can eat it on the picnic table outside.”
John’s smile faded. “We aren’t so poor we can’t afford a couple of burgers, you know.”
Amanda raised her hands in a calming gesture. “I know, but we need to ration how often we do that. Our budget’s going to be tight for a while. For today just let me fix us something here?”
The muscle in his jaw throbbed the way it always did when he got angry. “Fine,” he said before retreating to their bedroom.
The next day John left early for a job interview at a bank around the corner. He wasn’t thrilled about it. The pay was a fraction of what he made before, but Amanda convinced him to give it a shot. The unemployment benefits wouldn’t last forever. She got up soon afterwards to continue unpacking. Opening the linen closet in the bathroom, a sheet of paper floated down from the top shelf to rest at her feet. She picked it up, examining the rough, charcoal sketch of a tall man on a vast throne, his face nothing but a leering smile. A crown of long, curved bones jutted from his head. She wadded it up and tossed it into the trash.
By mid–afternoon Amanda felt she’d made enough progress to warrant a break. The bare cement hallway outside her apartment was dark, illuminated by dim, flickering tube lights. Approaching the dust–covered vending machine alcove, she glanced at the door closest to hers. Its pasty, tan metallic surface was marred by swelled paint bubbles that bled liquid rust, giving it a sickly organic appearance. When she’d first seen it, its deplorable condition nearly put her off taking the place, but the landlord said it was an old utility room mostly used for storage these days, and he planned to replace it soon.
Amanda dropped two quarters into the machine, retrieving the generic soda that clunked out before returning to her room. Settling in before her desk, she began working on an article she hoped to sell to the local paper about an upcoming art exhibit.
John had little to say when he returned home. The bank took his resume and said they’d let him know in a few days. Amanda tried to cheer him up by suggesting they go for a stroll around the block, but he wasn’t interested. Instead he sank into his recliner and watched TV the rest of the day. At dinner her attempts to start a conversation received mumbled replies. He went to bed early, claiming the move had worn him out. If he didn’t find a job soon, she feared depression would overwhelm him.
Amanda woke in the middle of the night roused by a scratching from the bathroom. She thought about waking John, but he was sleeping so peacefully she didn’t want to disturb him. Sliding out of bed into her slippers, she shuffled to the bathroom closing the door before turning on the lights. A stench like unwashed, sweaty bodies permeated the small room. Pinching her nose, she listened for several seconds. All was silent. After a fruitless search, she was about to return to bed when she heard the garbled voice again saying something she couldn’t understand. The only words she could make out were, “sleep”, “reason” and “produces”.
“Hello?” Amanda said, quieter than she meant. “Whoever’s talking, can you hear me?”
There was no response at first, but after a minute the scratching returned. It came from above her head near the ceiling. Amanda envisioned long, sharp claws digging their way through to her. She fled back to the bedroom.
The next morning John got his tools and promised to investigate. He’d heard nothing, but Amanda insisted he check it out. If it was a rat, they’d make the landlord get an exterminator. Amanda took the car they shared to get groceries while John worked. Exiting the apartment, she heard something moving behind the utility door. She ignored it as she raced up the dingy stairwell to the ground level of the Gallant House Apartment Complex and on to her car.
Amanda returned to find John in his recliner watching TV, his clothes speckled with white dust. “So, did you find anything?”
“I did,” he said getting up to help with the groceries. “Let’s set these down so I can show you how I solved the mystery of the blathering bathroom.”
Drywall dust covered the sink and toilet below a new cavity in the wall.
“Stand on the ladder and take a look,” he said, pulling it before the opening.
Amanda did as he asked. Mildewed air flowed from a tarnished, brass scroll–worked grate just beyond the drywall. Looking through it, she saw into a dark room filled with vague shapes. “This must be inside that room with the repulsive door. What do you think made those sounds… or the voices?”
“I don’t know, but if it’s a rat, I don’t see it getting through that grate to reach us. As to the voices, maybe you heard a maintenance man getting supplies or something,” John suggested with a shrug. “The vent must have been part of the buildings old ventilation system. I guess they’ve updated since then.”
Amanda shook her head. “I don’t think they use that room anymore, and the maintenance men avoid this level like the plague.”
Before John could reply the kitchen phone rang. Amanda continued to peer into the blackened room while he left to answer it. She thought most of the shapes must be furniture, a couch, a large chair, an overturned desk with legs jutted up like a beetle stuck on its back. To one side something skittered away from the patch of light cast from the new hole in the wall. Its flailing movements seemed erratic, but it moved so fast she wasn’t convinced she’d seen it.
John’s excited voice drew her to the kitchen. Still on the phone, his smile was brighter than it’d been in weeks. “No, I completely understand. I can be there by 8:00 if you like?” He listened, chuckled, then spoke again. “Excellent, I’ll see you then.”
“Who was that?”
“Guy from an investment firm. They must’ve found my resume online. He wants to meet for diner tonight to talk about a job.”
“That’s fantastic!” Amanda said pulling him into an embrace. “Have you heard of them before?”
“No, I think they’re new. I’ll find out more tonight,” he said pulling away towards the bedroom. “I need to get ready.”
After showering and changing clothes, he gave Amanda a kiss on his way out. Once he’d gone, Amanda took the vacuum into the bathroom to clean up the drywall dust. She snapped it off, silencing it, when the voice began speaking again. Clip–clopping footsteps echoed from the hole in the wall. Pulling up the ladder, she peered through the vent. Everything looked the same. She thought something shifted in the shadowed recesses of the chamber but couldn’t be certain. She tried to recall what she thought the voice said. “When opportunity knocks, the ambitious must pass through its door.”
As the night ticked away, Amanda struggled to occupy herself, cleaning the apartment, watching TV, reading, but she couldn’t focus on anything. Eventually she went to the computer to work on her article. She had trouble staying on task at first but soon fell into a groove. The artist whose work was being shown was a surrealistic painter named Artero Lima. His pieces were perpetually bleak, a tortured soul like so many artists tended to be. Flicking through an online gallery dedicated to him, she paused at a piece titled Numen, recognizing the garish, smiling man on the throne with a crown of giant bones on his head. The styles between it and the paper she found in the bathroom were vastly different, making her wonder if the sketch was a weak attempt to imitate Artero, or if they had perhaps been inspired by a common source. Tabbing over, she looked up Numen, focusing on the top search result for the latin word: “The presiding divinity or spirit of a place”.
Shifting gears, Amanda began researching Lima’s artistic influences. She came across a 1797 etching done by Francisco Goya. It showed the artist himself, head slumped on a table, assailed by a horde of bats and owls. It was entitled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Hadn’t the voice from the vent the other day said something similar? Could someone in the other room have been mentioning the etching?
This drove her to research the history of The Gallant House. It catered to young, creative minds due to its proximity to the local art college and its affordable rent. Several prominent painters, sculptors and poets had stayed there. The few who spoke about it said they forged their bleakest but most inventive creations within its dingy walls, one going so far as to claim The Gallant House was ‘home to a brilliant, sadistic muse’.
Moving on to news sites she found an article about a pair of coed art students, who’d gone missing. They’d been renting the apartment she and John now shared when it happened. The case remained open with no motive or suspect.
The sound of footsteps descending the hallway stairs led Amanda away from her computer. She had to tell John what she’d discovered. She needed him to help her make sense of it all. The footsteps continued on past her door. Peering out the peephole, she saw someone entering the utility room, a maintenance man perhaps. Maybe he would let her inside to look around, put her mind at ease. She entered the hall in time to see the utility room door creak shut.
Reluctantly, Amanda approached the pale, disfigured door. An animalistic stench wafted off it, reminding her of a dead mole they found in the pool at their old house a few years ago. She closed her eyes and gave it a single knock before snatching back her hand. The door was cold and beaded with moisture. It felt like the flesh of a drowned corpse. “Hello?” she called, voice shaking. “If someone’s in there, I need to speak with you.”
When she got no reply, Amanda steeled herself and rapped on the door again. It gave like a sponge, excreting a yellowed fluid onto her hand. A wave of nausea overwhelmed her. She turned and fled back to her apartment, vomiting into the toilet seconds afterward. Once purged of her dinner, Amanda knelt in the silent room trying to compose herself.
A quiet chuckle echoed from the vent. Amanda tensed as the voice spoke, clearly this time. “The court of the Dead Prince welcomes a new member this night,” it said, sounding amused.
Amanda ran from the bathroom, slamming the door behind her as she snatched up her phone to dial John’s cell. His voicemail answered. She repeated the attempt, leaving messages begging him to call her back. When she calmed down, she resolved to find out who had spoken now that she knew someone was in the room. Taking a flashlight from the pantry, she climbed the ladder and peered inside.
The stygian darkness absorbed most of the light, but some of the furniture became more visible. A rotting, plaid couch lay to the right, foam stuffing erupting from torn fabric. The upturned desk was dented and stained with red paint. Beyond it, half concealed by shadows, rested a large, obsidian chair. Something moved about the room, receding from view whenever she tried to catch it in her flashlight’s anemic beam. Voices sounded from a corner. She stepped higher on the ladder, shifting her light toward it. Something large scampered across the beam, allowing her a brief glimpse. It moved upright on more than two legs, its flesh was white with a line of yellowed pustules along its core. Appendages thrashed above it, seeking purchase against the wall as it pirouetted out of view.
Amanda screamed, falling from the ladder at the sight of the abomination. Without stopping to assess any damage, she snatched her phone in shaking hands to dial John again.
It rang several times before he answered. “What is it Amanda?” he whispered sharply. “I’m at the interview.” The anger in his voice surprised her.
“John, I’m sorry, but something’s happening. There’s some sort of… creature or something in that utility room. I need you here!” the words tumbled from her mouth.
“Do you understand what this means for us? This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for! Everything depends on me getting this job, and you chose now to freak out about monsters of all things! Are you kidding me?”
“What? No, it’s– ”
The receiver captured another man’s voice. “John, we are very interested in you,” he said. “Your other employer may have been foolish enough to let you go, but I assure you… once you pass through our door, you’ll never leave. What do you say? Will you answer this knock of opportunity?”
Amanda recognized the voice. “John! That’s him! That’s who I’ve been hearing!”
“I’m too busy for this nonsense. I’ll deal with you later.”
“No John, you don’t understand. This must be a trick. I–” the line went dead before she could finish.
“Your turn’s coming, my dear,” the voice came again from the wall. It sounded closer this time, like the speaker stood directly opposite her bathroom wall.
Amanda’s mind churned with all that had happened since moving in. Something inhuman resided in the dank utility closet in the cellar of The Gallant House, and if she didn’t act soon, she feared it would claim her husband. She ran up the ladder in time to see something recede. Thrusting her dying flashlight into the cavity illuminated a figure moving toward the obsidian chair, she now recognized was a throne. It wasn’t alone. Someone else stepped into view to regard Amanda.
“John?” Amanda gasped.
He looked confused. “What are you doing here?” he asked, as though in a haze.
A bulky, misshapen figure scuttled out from the shadows behind John.
“Get out of there, John!” Amanda screamed.
He looked perplexed, not noticing the bulky form shuffling toward him. “What are you talking about?”
“John! It’s behind you! Look out!” she screamed, but it was too late.
A hideous creature moved into the halo of her flashlight. The unholy abomination was a mishmashed collection of arms and legs topped by a pair of gibbering heads facing opposite each other. Its movements were uncoordinated causing it to turn several times as each head struggled to look at John.
The realization of what the creature was, sickened Amanda, two human beings connected back to back to form a single torso, half of it male, the other female. Its eyes were glazed white like a corpse. Both faces stretched their mouths to bare teeth filed into spikes. They emitted an agonized moan in unison. John’s eyes widened as the thing grabbed him with flailing arms. Sickening cracks and gurgles sounded as it pulled him from view. Amanda’s light caught someone stepping off the throne before the batteries gave out. He was bloodless, wearing a crown of bones. His unnaturally wide mouth smiled at her with dry, split lips.
She ran from the apartment into the hall. The utility room door stood open. Beyond it the male side of the four–armed amalgamation struggled to reach behind itself to grab John who was held tight by the female side. The dead girl’s head buried sharp fangs into John’s neck, spewing forth blood in torrents.
The figure on the throne strode past the carnage. “Amanda,” its commanding tone called from the doorway. “Come. Your husband needs you now more than ever.”
She hesitated as the male side of the beast spun its snarling counterpart away to take its place in the feeding frenzy on John’s limp body.
“Fear not,” the crowned man said. “He will live again. I will immortalize him… and you as well. I will turn you and your husband into a new masterpiece. You will be together forever. Is that not what you’ve always wanted?” He asked, full-lipped mouth stretching into a wide grin.
“It was,” she whispered through a sob as she turned and raced up the stairwell, exiting The Gallant House apartments forever.
Matt Cowan’s love for the horror genre stretches back beyond his earliest childhood memories. At a young age he stopped having nightmares after beginning to enjoy them a bit too much. His primary literary influences are Ramsey Campbell, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Fritz Leiber, and H.P. Lovecraft.
“The Collective of Blaque Reach” was originally published in 2008 by Dead Letter Press as the bonus chap book story for those who purchased the anthology BOUND FOR EVIL: CURIOUS TALES OF BOOKS GONE BAD. It was also read on episode 90 of the Tales To Terrify podcast in 2013.
His short story, “Here He Comes A Wandering”, won the Pod of Horror Christmas Horror Story Contest in 2009 and was read on episode #58.
He’s had stories appear in INDIANA HORROR ANTHOLOGY’s 2011 and 2012, as well as INDIANA SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGY 2011 and INDIANA CRIME REVIEW 2013.
His short story “Christmas Wine” will appear in the forthcoming O LITTLE TOWN OF DEATHLEHEM charity anthology to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation from Grinning Skull Press.
In addition to writing fiction, Matt produces articles highlighting some of the legendary names in the field at his new blog Horror Delve, which can be found at mattcowanhorror.wordpress.com. He lives with his beautiful wife Lynne and stepson Brett in Lawrence, Indiana where he works for the local water utility. He’s currently crafting several more tales to fill the void left by his long lost nightmares.
You can read my story “The Shadow Man of Moon Spine Bridge” here: https://horrordelve.com/2014/10/31/the-shadow-man-of-moon-spine-bridge-by-matt-cowan/