Discover more from Newton’s Tales of the Macabre
The Troop by Newton Webb
A Gruesome Body Horror Short Story: When a strange infection spreads through his new apartment building, Sam begins exhibiting bizarre symptoms and uncontrollable urges.
16th March, 2017, London
Sam avoided the annoyed looks of his fellow residents as he jostled past them, escaping the packed lift with a large Amazon box in his hands. Turning the corner, he fumbled for his keys, pulling them from his jacket pocket as he stood outside his door.
“You must be my new neighbour?” An old man with a brown cardigan stood outside the adjacent apartment. He must have climbed the stairs. The man shoved two packs of Ibuprofen into his pocket, freeing a hand to offer to Sam.
“Just moved in yesterday with my partner, Wendy.” Sam shook his hand. The fragile grip felt dry, like loose parchment.
“I’m Felix. It’s always good to have new blood in the troop.”
“Troop?” Sam asked with a chuckle. “You make it sound like a militia.”
“Oh, I apologise. I was just being a ‘fun guy’, a professional quirk of mine. I’m a professor of mycology.”
Sam regarded Felix quizzically while waiting for further information.
“Fungi! Mushrooms, toadstools, penicillin, yeast, black mould. It’s such a versatile area to study.” He leaned in closer, his breath smelling of pungent garlic. “A troop is one of the collective nouns for fungi. Did you know that right now your body is hosting a veritable cornucopia of specimens? It’s like a five-star hotel for fungi.”
“I did not…” Sam fidgeted. “Well, it’s been good to meet you Felix, but it’s my turn to cook tonight, so I’d best get on and rattle those pots and pans.”
“A pleasure.” Felix nodded and headed towards the lift. He called over his shoulder. “Don’t be afraid to knock if you need anything or have any questions.”
The scent of Bolognese sauce filled the apartment. Sam heard the door open as he stirred the pot. “Open a bottle of red,” he called out. Frantically he turned down the heat on the pasta and lifted the lid just in time to stop it from boiling over. “Bloody hell,” he muttered, eyeing the pan suspiciously.
Wendy came into the kitchen peering at the bubbling pots. Her blue eyes twinkled from beneath a neat raven black bob . “Spag bol again?”
“It’s my signature dish,” Sam said proudly.
“Yes, well, you need more than one signature dish if we are taking turns cooking or we’ll turn into spag bol.” Wendy popped a cork. He heard her ferreting around for wine glasses behind him.
“Do I get a kiss? Or just complaints about the food variety?”
Wendy considered the question before relenting. “I suppose you can.” She gave him a peck on the lips as she carried the glasses into the other room. “I’ll find something on Netflix.”
“No, no. I cooked. I get to choose the movie. Besides, I spent ages finding a good one at work today.” Sam drained the pasta and plated up. “Something we can both enjoy.” He carried the plates out to where Wendy was sitting crossed legged on the sofa, a pillow ready on her lap. She quickly put her feet down and patted her lap.
Sam dutifully gave her the plate. “I met our neighbour today. He is a character alright. He is a professor of mushrooms.”
“Really? That’s a thing?”
“Apparently. He had a European accent, I want to say German, but it could just be from around that area.” Sam started winding up the spaghetti on his fork, careful to avoid splashing tomato sauce on the new sofa. The flat was a new build and everything was shiny and clean. He was determined not to be the one in the couple who made the first stain.
“Couldn’t you ask him?” Wendy asked before suddenly pausing and turning up her nose. “Can you smell weed?”
Sam’s eyes lit up. “I can, it’s just like at uni.”
“Do you think it’s our neighbour?” Wendy put down her plate and was sniffing like a bloodhound to try to locate the source of the odour.
“It could be anyone. Modern apartments all have integrated air conditioning. See that circular thing in the corner?” He pointed. She immediately followed her nose to it.
“That’s vile. What if someone has the flu? Do the germs spread throughout the whole of our block?” Wendy went back to the sofa, her eyes still locked on the repellent vent.
Sam elbowed her. “Stop it. Germs don’t live forever, they only travel a short way before dying. It’s fine.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure how true that is. Maybe we should tape it up?” She poked her spaghetti with her fork. “A lovely new house and someone is stinking it up. That smell has really put me off my food.”
Sam curled up another roll of sauce coated spaghetti. “It is supposed to give you the munchies. I like it.”
“We get drugs tested at work. What if I test positive? What if my clothes smell of weed?” Wendy’s spaghetti sauce started to congeal as it was left untouched and cooled.
“I was playing. There is no way you can get high off second hand smoke. You’d get a stronger scent walking down the high street.” He looked pointedly at her plate. “I spent ages on that. Come on, eat your food.” He loaded up Cruel Intentions on Netflix.
“Oh, good choice.”
“I thought so,” Sam said smugly, as he shuffled closer to her on the sofa, cosying up to her.
29th March, 2017, London
Sam crept through the corridors, flaming torches illuminating his progress, the blade in his hand glinting in the firelight. His breath caught in his throat as, in front of him, the Spartan General addressed his troops, his booming baritone filling the living room.
“Who goes there?”
Suddenly, the scene erupted into chaos. Everyone swarmed towards Sam’s character. He was penned in. Uselessly he hammered the attack button before the screen faded to black.
“Bugger,” he swore, as he tossed the controller down on the sofa.
“Everything alright?” Wendy called out from the kitchen where the hissing sound of the stir-fry was creating its own unique symphony.
“You know, I think that stir-fry might be your signature dish,” Sam muttered.
He jumped as he saw Wendy leaning out of the kitchen door. “Don’t be grumpy, just because you died in your little game. At least I use different sauce packets with my stir fry and mix up the ingredients.”
Sam gave her a pained smile. “Shall I pour us a glass of red?”
“I’m taking a night off. My head has been killing me all day. So it’s water for me today and I bought us some detox tea.”
Sam nodded. That really wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear. “Oh dear, you poor thing. But would you mind if I had a glass?”
“You’ll need to pop to the shops. We are out.” Wendy returned to the kitchen. She called out, “I’ll find something to watch while you’re gone.”
Sam pulled on his trainers and retrieved the bin bags from the kitchen.
He nodded, giving her a leaving wink. “No problem.” Sam locked the front door behind him. Stepping back, he paused. Felix’s door was ajar. Sam considered the door, biting his lip as he pondered whether or not to get involved. He decided it was the neighbourly thing to do and knocked.
There was no response.
After knocking again, he left his bin liner outside and tentatively pushed the door open. “Felix? Felix…” Gingerly, he entered the room, gagging at the musty scent. The flat was silent as he paced through the living room. Trays of mushrooms lay open, the lids scattered across the floor. Mould ran up the walls. Sam coughed as he passed into the kitchen. Unlike the living room, the kitchen was clear, with little signs of use. Unease filled him as he waited outside the bedroom door. Something wasn’t right here. He knocked, hoping to discover that Felix was sleeping.
He opened the door, poking his head in. “Felix?” The room was empty. Sam gave a sigh of relief. Felix must be out. Sam picked up an old photo of Felix with what he presumed was his family. Far too much tweed for his liking, but it showed a middle aged Felix with a blond wife and two boys.
I wonder what happened to them?
Sam checked the bathroom on his way out, just to be sure, and closed the door, happy that Felix was probably down the shops.
With the release of trapped emotion that he didn’t know he’d been holding in, he took the lift down to the ground floor, humming happily. For the last week, the apartment block had been considerably less busy, so he’d had a lift to himself, and nobody stopped it on its inexorable journey to the ground floor.
When the elevator door pinged, he lumbered towards the bin store. Tutting, he noticed that someone had broken the utilities door lock.
The builders have only just finished construction… Animals!.
Dumping the rubbish, he came back to take a photo to send to the concierge. Even outside the basement door he could sense the warm humidity rising from down there, condensation was beading on the door. Sam didn’t envy the workmen who maintained the machinery down there.
He returned with a couple of bottles of red, just in case Wendy had changed her mind.
She winced at him. “You know, I think I’m going to bed. I left a plate in the kitchen for you.”
“Really? Have you taken painkillers?” Sam put the bottles on the table and settled down next to her on the sofa.
“Yes Sam. Of course, I have.” Wendy bit her lip, screwing up her eyes. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be snappy. I think it’s turning into a migraine.” She rose, rubbing her temples. “I’ll sleep it off. It’ll be alright in the morning.”
Sam watched her with concern. “Let me know if I can get you anything. I’ll keep the TV quiet.”
Fetching his plate of stir-fry and a glass. He settled in with a bottle of red and flicked the TV onto Netflix.
The next day, Sam woke to find an empty space next to him on the bed. He roamed the empty house looking for Wendy when he heard a splash from the bathroom. “Is everything all right in there?”
“Not so good. The water seems to help my head. But I didn’t sleep a wink. I’m going to call the doctor when they open.” Her voice sounded weak and croaky. “I think it’s the flu.”
Sam recoiled from the door but thoughtfully called out. “Do you want me to stay at home with you?”
“No, I’ll be fine, but could you be a treasure and get some chicken soup on the way home? The good stuff, not the creamy stuff.”
The creamy stuff IS the good stuff.
“Sure, no problem. I’ll get some drugs from the pharmacy, too.”
“Thanks Sam.” He heard Wendy topping up the bath with fresh water.
How long has she been in there?
“I’ll see you around six then. Rest up. I hope you get some sleep.” Sam gave a last lingering look at the door and then, when Wendy didn’t reply, he went to get dressed. He’d have to buy a toothbrush and some deodorant for the office. No worries.
Sam returned to find Mr Belgin, the landlord, pacing in the corridor. Bin bags lined the corridor.
“Oi,” Mr Belgin stalked towards him. “You left your door unlocked. I had to enter to make sure you weren’t doing anything untoward like your neighbour.”
“Was Wendy inside?” Sam ignored his landlord to push open the door. “Wendy?”
“She isn’t in, nobody is. I said I have to enter. The police are involved.” Mr Belgin had his arms crossed, waiting for Sam to pay him due attention.
Sam returned. “What do you mean? What happened?”
“Drugs probably, magic mushrooms. The police took samples from each of the trays. I’ve had to clear the rest. I’m just waiting for Destiny to arrive to let her in so she can deep clean the property. There is mould everywhere. It’s disgusting.” Mr Belgin jingled a set of keys. “I changed the locks. If he has a problem or wants to wait for a section 21, then he can take me to court. I’m having none of it.”
“Of course, fair enough.” Totally not fair, but best not to argue with the landlord. “Well, I need to see if I can get hold of Wendy. Let her know what’s happened.” Sam said, slipping into his apartment, clicking the door shut behind him. He called Wendy. The phone was ringing from within the flat. He followed the sound to the bathroom, yanking open the door.
There was nobody in there, just an illuminated, vibrating phone.
Wendy never left her phone behind. She would happily play with it even when they were watching a movie. It was a permanent attachment to her hand.
Sam dashed outside.
“When was the last time you saw Wendy?” he asked Mr Belgin.
Mr Belgin shrugged with disinterest. “Don’t suppose she’s legged it?” Suddenly, his eyes blinked wide open, and he turned to regard Sam with a look of anger. “Remember, contractually, she still has to pay rent until the end of the term.”
Sam didn’t answer. He was already closing the front door as he yanked his phone from his pocket to call the police. He gingerly sat on the edge of the sofa, tapping his foot on the floor as he looked at his phone anxiously.
What do I say? My girlfriend went missing while I was at work? I haven’t even waited an hour.
She would never leave her phone.
He decided to wait it out and pour himself a glass of wine. Nervously waiting for the door to open, he looked around but couldn’t see her keys anywhere. She must have felt better and gone for a wander, but then why would she leave the front door unlocked?
Sam took a deep gulp of the wine.
Has she left me? Did she leave the phone behind so I couldn’t see her on Google Maps?
His nails scratched down the side of his arm, leaving pale white lines behind.
Maybe she has gone. New phone, new life, new man?
“Fuck.” He refilled his glass. The sides of his temples throbbed as a stress headache flared up.
Just what I need.
He drank deep. A glass of red would sort him out. If Wendy didn’t come back by ten, he’d call the police. Even if it hadn’t been twenty-four hours, at least he could register her missing. This wasn’t like her.
It was eleven when he woke, guiltily staring at the empty wine bottle beside him. “Wendy?” He paced round the apartment calling her name. He tried the police, who politely took his information before reassuring him that most times, these things are just down to human error. If she was still missing by tomorrow evening, he was to call back.
When he hung up, he flung his phone onto the sofa, where it bounced. Calming himself, he went to charge it in case she called him. He lay down on the bed. A searing pain flared in his left temple. The pending hangover wasn’t helping.
Closing his eyes, he failed to sleep as he spent the night with his eyes shut, worrying about Wendy. Even his headache got worse.
When the sun rose, Sam was still awake, rubbing his temples. Both of them were causing him extreme pain, although the left one felt several magnitudes of pain worse. Remembering Wendy, he poured himself a glass of water, then climbed into the bath, turning on the hot water. He lay back gasping with shuddering relief as the warm water steamed around him. A smile grew on his face. The release from pain was transcendent. He took a sip from his glass, but the cold liquid caused his headache to flare up.
As the bathwater cooled, his headache got worse again. He let out some of the water and turned the hot tap on again, gasping with relief as the bathwater began to warm up.
His pain eased immediately as he lay back in the bath with his head immersed in the water. A sneaky suspicion crossed his mind.
The utility room. It’s moist, it’s warm. If Wendy had a headache like him, she’d have gone down there. He got up, frantically drying himself, ignoring the searing pain in his skull as he pulled on his clothes. Sam limped to the lift. The muscles were seizing up in his legs. It felt like the worst hangover of his life.
When the lift reached the ground floor, he opened the utility room door to a wave of humidity. The pain receded to a mild throbbing. He eagerly walked down the stairs, his hands sliding down the condensation slicked walls as his shoes squelched on the slimy, mould ridden floor.
A comforting musty scent immersed Sam. It reminded him of Felix’s room. The rhythmic orchestra of dripping pipes echoed around him as he looked around him in awe. It was an industrial cathedral, at one with nature.
This is disgusting. Why am I so happy?
His eyes widened with relief when he saw Wendy, among several other people, in the dim light of the machines.
Wendy, oh God, what has happened to you
She had wrapped her arms around one of the copper pipes, her skin was flushed where it was pressing against it. The foam insulation had been ripped off. A beautiful fungal cap had burst through one of her eyes and was growing upwards. Glistening fungal growths accented her face as water dripped down onto her. She had never looked more beautiful.
He looked around for a free pipe, and his mind reeled with gratitude as he found one in the far corner.
Why am I not running? I should get the police, the ambulance?
Sam tore off the insulating foam pipe covers and groaned with pleasure as he too wrapped his arms around the copper and snuggled his cheek up against the warm pipe. From the corner of his eye, he spotted Felix. He’d got the best collection of pipes to cosy up to. The most glorious pair of fungal caps had erupted through both his open eyes. Felix’s flesh was already feeding them.
Oh, Christ, look at him. That’s going to happen to me. Why can’t I move?
Sam closed his eyes contentedly. Even as his body defied the warmth to shiver.
Breathing deeply in the moist air, he waited for his ascension.A smile was plastered across his face.
There was a roaring in his mind, like distant thunder. It slowly grew louder. It wasn’t thunder, it was screams, the constant sound of trapped souls. He could hear them all. All the victims that had been absorbed into this new family, no, this troop.
One cry resounded louder than all the others. He tried to focus on it.
“Run! Run! Sam, you have to go before you lose all control for good.” It was Wendy. He could hear her voice in his mind.
He tried to move, but he had no control over his limbs at all. A tear ran down his smiling face.
If I can cry, I can move.
He focused on his fingers, forcing every ounce of his will into them. His head exploded with pain, but desperation and the screaming cries of his girlfriend gave him strength. His index finger twitched. A grim confidence filled him as he slowly released his grip on the pipe.
Sam fell to the floor with a thud. He crawled over the putrescent bodies, ripe and blooming, as he slowly made his way to the door. Gore, filth and ichor coated him. He would have gagged if his body hadn’t been so intent on acting like everything was fine.
“You’re doing it!” Wendy roared in his mind as he made the stairs and crawled up towards the hallway. It felt as though it took hours, but it could have been only minutes. Time had lost all meaning for Sam.
His eyes felt gritty as he woke. He could feel cotton sheets wrapped around him. Sam blinked under the harsh lights. He could hear commotion and moved his head, his brain was shrouded in fog. Looking up, he could see a drip feeding into him.
A nurse came into his room. “Ah, you are awake. You read about things like this in the paper, but I never expected to see it happen.”
“What… what happened?” Sam’s throat was dry and she lifted a beaker to his mouth. He drank gratefully.
“The whole building has been condemned. Severe mould infection had spread throughout. We are treating the residents with intravenous antifungals. You were brought in by ambulance, you poor lamb.” The nurse checked his vitals and updated his chart. “I’m pleased to say that you appear to be making a full recovery. We’ll have you out of here soon.”
Sam looked at her, tears running down his face. “If it is working, then why can I still hear the voices?”
If you enjoyed this free short story, then please consider Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1. My first collected works on Amazon containing sixteen short stories and novellas by Newton Webb.