Asher lives in a shithole.
It wasn’t always a shithole. A couple of centuries back it would have been a nice townhouse for a respectable family of means. Since then it’s been chopped into two flats, the old inner stairs torn out and replaced with a metal staircase out back. It’s poorly maintained, not soundproofed, and it’s cheap.
It’s cheap because it’s right next to the main road into the town centre, and with that comes the sounds of sirens. Because there’s three late-night pubs and a twenty-four hour garage that does business through armoured glass after eleven. Because there’s the council estate, with the rain leaking through the overhanging walkways and leaving little concrete stalactites behind it. It’s cheap because everything around here was made for poor people, and it’s a shithole because no-one cares about the places poor people live.
Within two weeks of his moving in mould started to bloom across the slapdash paintwork, green-grey patches and streaks on the walls and ceiling. It’s been five or six months now, and there’s a big patch on the ceiling that looks like a human body, stretched out in death. He’d worry, if he couldn’t hear upstairs thudding around in his big boots. He’s seen the guy once or twice after dark, a white blur of a face inside a hood and above a bulky dark jacket. It’s just him; there are never any guests.
Asher never has guests either.
When Asher can’t sleep for the sirens, the drunk couples arguing, he sometimes thinks about the thudding, the guy upstairs pacing forward and backward for hours.Thinks on how they share a house, technically, but don’t know each other. Asher feels like he doesn’t know anyone at all. He gets drunk with people and they tell each other horrible things but that’s not the same as knowing them.
Tonight he’s tired of thinking, so he goes out. He puts on eyeliner and a binder and a packer, and ends up at a club. There are lots of people there and he can pretend that he knows them and they’re his friends. People touch him by accident in the crowd and it’s not nearly enough but it’s what Asher gets.
Some girl he fucked once bounces over to him and calls him ‘Ashley’. He doesn’t correct her, especially not after she offers him a pill.
When they fucked he went down on her and she wouldn’t return it because looking at a cunt was too much for her in the moment and she freaked out, crying that she wasn’t a dyke. He left because she told him to get out. She’s nice in public though, and gives him drugs, and he doesn’t turn down free stuff.
“What is it?” he asks, and she shrugs. She’s speed thin and gurning.
“Molly, I think,” she shouts it into his ear.
The pill washes over him until all the light crawls up the walls. He doesn’t like it, it makes him think of his flat and the mould in it that never comes off. It’s eating him, the light and the mould. It’s eating him alive. It’s been eating him ever since he moved in.
How else to explain how he feels when the lights come on at the end of the night, lost and hollow, holding his coat in a boxy corridor with chipped green walls and a sticky floor. Some girl is sat down, her friend kneeling with an arm around her shoulders. She’s sobbing and wailing with her head hanging low and her legs sprawled like a broken toy, skirt riding up so he can see a flash of neon green lace covering her pussy.
He doesn’t mean to look, but he does.
“Oi,” says her friend, little eyes made smaller with lots of dark eye makeup, “Don’t stare, you fucking pervert.”
“Wasn’t,” he says.
He walks away quickly, shoulders hunched, and something hits him in the middle of the back, splatters wet across his neck. She’s thrown the dregs of her drink at him. He pauses, just a moment, and walks on, as she shouts and shouts.
He’s still buzzing, just a little, and outside the few visible stars shift about in the sky. Dawn is some hours off yet but there’s the faintest hint of more light on the horizon, an early autumn sunrise not yet crawling into life. Dark buildings sit silhouetted against it and it feels like there might be nobody alive, nobody at all. It’s just him, and the stars, and a city’s worth of empty rooms. He’s never felt more like he’s faking it, faking everything.
It’s not like any of it matters. It’s all just stuff he does without really knowing why. He’s not sleeping anyway and this way he’s not spending those hours wandering his mouldy flat and hearing the guy upstairs and thinking, thinking, thinking.
His feet ache, the buzz fading into a kind of floating disconnection. Streetlamps make buildings look like cardboard cutouts. Someone a few streets away shrieks, the sound echoing and bouncing so Asher can’t tell where it comes from. A fractious-sounding dog responds with a fierce barrage of staccato barks. The air has a chill to it, the promise of a winter still months away. It makes his cheeks hot and raw.
He’s close to the flat. Not home. It’s never been home, it’s a place he lives. He’s close to it, and there’s a bleak dread in him about the idea of sleeping there alone.
Nights like this, he goes in by the back door. He feels both too exposed and too lonely for the front door, obscurely frightened that if he opens it too loud all the lights will come on in all the houses and everyone will come to look at him and hate him.
The metal stairway is apocalyptic in the dark, the sort of thing monsters lurk on in video games.
The door above opens and he stops, looks up. It is his upstairs neighbour, he of the thudding boots and blurred white face. The guy is standing on his landing staring down, the dark shadows of his eyes fixed down on Asher. The figure holds himself with a sag-shouldered lumpen exhaustion. His hands hang like dead things at his sides. His black, shineless coat and thin legs make Asher think of the kind of mushrooms that grow on decay and kill whatever eats them.
Asher is frozen in this moment, like seeing some feral urban animal at night, eyes on each other while both decide who runs first. They might be the only living things awake.
“Hello?” Asher says. His voice cracks into something half-pubescent, half-girlish, and he cringes. “Hi.” He lowers it now, deliberately, in the way he always does when talking to men he doesn’t know. “I think I live downstairs from you?”
The man angles his head down in a slow acknowledgement, and then turns back to his door. He goes back inside, moving with an injured, hobbling shuffle.
Asher feels bad, for just a moment. Not bad enough to not wonder what the fuck was going on there, what exactly is wrong with the man upstairs.
He keeps imagining even as he slides into his bed. His quilt feels like he’s trying to sleep under raw pastry, and he cannot make his brain stop. Is the guy disabled or something? Deformed? He had the hood up again. Does he work from home and only go out at night? He’s upstairs still thudding around. The light outside is cold, distant blue.
Asher’s eyes are dry and his mouth tastes of metal. He wonders what the man upstairs is doing, and if he would like company in whatever it is. Does the mould creep up his walls and ceilings, too? Does he watch nights dissolve into days and wish that someone wanted him? Asher could want him, even if his face was messed up, probably. Asher could want almost anyone, if they would love him. He’s good at sex, has made himself that, could unzip the coat and open the trousers and apply himself to whatever was in there. Could know him and be known back.
People do that, they do. They make friends with their neighbours, with people they meet. Fall in love. Asher’s never really had the knack. People don’t like Asher, at least not when they’re sober. People look at Asher and see he’s not quite right, not what they expect, and they hate him for it.
Asher eventually drifts to sleep to the man’s footsteps upstairs, to a thousand imagined versions of his face.
Sometimes Asher gets letters for upstairs, the postie confused or simply not wanting to go round the back to deliver. They always look like bills, brown paper envelopes with little clear windows for the address. There’s never a package, or a card. Asher usually just walks up the creaking metal stairs and posts them through the letterbox, neighbourly duty done. This time he takes a chance. He heard the thudding footsteps only about ten minutes ago, so he’s in.
He has this image in his head. It’s a good one, and he’s spent a week or so building it. They will strike up a conversation. Asher will be at his best, and whatever keeps the guy upstairs inside will go unnoticed. They will become friends. In his head Asher is calm, friendly, and easy to talk to. The guy likes him. Tells Asher his name, which is somehow always hidden on the misdelivered letters. Asher thinks he’s probably called something like Jake.
He knocks, and calls out.
“Hey! Mate!” The mate grates across his tongue. “I got your letter!”
There’s no answer, and he steps back a bit, frowning. He’s never really paid attention to it up here, but it’s in a state. The window overlooking the stairs is dirty, the blinds so faded and filthy he can’t tell what pattern they used to have. There’s a drooping grey rag of something between the blinds and the glass, and he realises it’s a scrap of old-fashioned lace curtain, now rotted and torn.
The flat looks not just empty but abandoned. If he hadn’t heard the footsteps he’d think it was.
He knocks again, impatient now. “I know you’re in there!” He looks down at the letter, crumpling in his hand.
He tries the handle and, to his mingled excitement and dread, the latch clicks. The door opens with a slow creak.
The air that rushes out is musty, damp, reeking of rot. Asher covers his mouth with his coat sleeve. The walls are black with mould. Curled yellow mushrooms cluster in cracks on the stained lino. The air is hazy with some kind of spore. How does someone live here?
The thud of the boots. He looks, squints into the shadowed interior. A bulky darkness detaches from the doorway and shambles with a heavy uneven gait towards him. Asher clutches the door frame with a trembling hand. It crumbles and leaves a greasy residue on his skin. He cries out in disgust and wipes it desperately on his coat. When he looks back up the figure is closer, the white face and black smudgy eyes, the awful lumbering motion.
Something is terribly wrong.
“I-” Asher says, and loses the rest in coughing. Asher’s heart is beating so fast and hard that he can feel it in his throat and temples. He doesn’t want to be here, but he can’t seem to make his legs move. His gut is cold and empty.
“Please,” he says, not knowing who he’s begging or why.
The figure moves closer. It makes no sound other than the thudding footsteps. Asher’s legs weaken and he sits heavily, throwing up a cloud of dust around him.
The white face moves out of shadow. The eye sockets are empty holes, and what’s behind them is soft, wet, grimy. He feels sick.
Closer still, heavy steps, his pale face and the empty eye-sockets are all that Asher can look at and there’s something at the edges of the eyes, of the grey lips. Freckles or moles but it’s not that, it’s mould, it’s a blackish spread of mould, and the face is bloodless, unmoving, there is mould and fungus growths eating at the edge of the skin. Asher doesn’t want to see this but he cannot close his eyes.
The thing lifts one arm and it moves wrong, it squishes and folds in a way flesh should not, and the terrible face–the mouth on the thing falls open, slack, and there’s no tongue. There’s no tongue, but there is a pouring fall of mould, some kind of awful webbing binding it together, and it all reeks of decay and neglect. The mould twitches over the coat zipper, writhes like a dying thing. Asher realises in a brief moment of clarity that the face is not attached to anything, that it is an empty skin stuck to a filthy wet mass.
If he opened the coat, the jeans, there would not be a man beneath them at all. There would be black mould walking.
He scrabbles back, crushing mushrooms under his sweating palms. The letter shreds under his bootheel as he hits the door frame. It shudders through his back and ribs. He hauls himself up, breaking more of the frame, and sprints for the stairs. He takes them two at a time, in blind panic, falls at the bottom. Lands heavily on his knees and sobs but keeps crawling, crawling.
He retches out on the gravel, bringing up a sour slime. It’s hard to tell but it looks grey. He wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. He’s sweating in it. He thinks about a shower, scrubbing himself down with bleach, and then thinks about the mould on his own walls, his tiling.
He walks instead, taking deep breaths of cold autumn air. It’s city air, so full of petrol fumes, burning plastic, concrete dust–but it’s not the air inside that flat. Asher has an idea of the spores landing in his lungs, rooting, spreading. Is that what happened to the man upstairs?
That flat, the dark damp rooms and the soft mounded shapes of what used to be furniture, how spongey everything was under his feet. His throat feels swollen, choked–he picks up into a panicked sprint, round the edges of the estate and down into the underpass, with the buzzing and flickering light and the graffiti flashing by in lurid colour. Cars rumble above his head. He leans against the wall, hand spread, and throws up over his shoes.
“Fuck,” he says. “Christ.”
Something terrible had happened, and no-one had noticed it, and the thing upstairs it, what? Still went out at night? Why? Following old patterns?
On his phone there are names. Would any of them notice if he never called them again? Would any pick up now? There’s the girl he fucked once who calls him ‘Ashley’, there’s the ex who cheated on him with–and dumped him for–a cis guy with a real dick.
There’s his mum.
His mum, number undeleted after all this time. His mum. There’s a small whining cry in him, wanting her, wanting Germolene on his graze and an affectionate hand on his head. That’s all. It’s what makes him swipe across to call her.
He’s thinking better of it by the time she picks up.
“Mum?” He starts to sniffle.
She speaks. His deadname in a rush of staticky noise.
“Mum, please. Something terrible has happened. Please.”
There’s a long, fuzzy silence. In it he thinks of how lonely it must be, to be made of mould. “Well, what did you expect?”
His own mother cannot love him. She said she did, but she meant it for a girl she thinks he killed.
He hangs up, hands trembling. He is numb all over.
If Asher died in his flat, and rotted away, no-one would even know until the bailiffs broke down the door. People would read it in the newspaper and think ‘how sad’ and then forget. They would say it was to be expected. Perhaps his mother would cremate him under a name that was never really his. Perhaps she’d just let him be thrown away and think herself free of it all at last.
He ran from the mould man. People run from Asher all the time and he’s made of meat and blood. They don’t want him. Asher doesn’t belong anywhere at all.
It must have taken a great deal of courage for the man upstairs to show himself to Asher.
He stands up, straightens his shoulders, and starts the walk back. He stops over a drain and lets his phone fall into the stagnant water below.
The door upstairs is still open where he left it. It hasn’t been long, yet it’s been forever. It’s the same softly rotting pile with a horror within. The living room is worse than the kitchen. It’s almost impossible to tell what anything used to be.
If he’s lonely, the thing that lives here must be lonelier still. He feels strangely calm, even as tears streak down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he says. The pile that was once a man stirs from where it lies in a slump beside the remains of a sofa. He thinks it looks at him. “I’m sorry that I ran. I was afraid.” Asher’s face is wet. His chest aches with sobbing. “Could you love me?”
The man upstairs hauls itself up, the softened lumbering lump of him, mould squashed into castoff human shape.
“I can want this, if you can love me.” He drops his coat behind him, strips off his shirt and his binder. His ribs ache with the release of pressure, his long narrow breasts drop down. His nipples harden in the cold. “Could you?” His boots next, his socks. The carpet beneath is spongey and wet, almost like moss if moss left a greasy residue across skin. It slips between his toes. A green-black wetness stains his toenails. Jeans. Undershorts. All discarded.
Asher sits down, bare arse on that disgusting carpet, spreads his legs to show himself.
“Please love me.” He can barely get the words out.
It takes a step towards him, slumping with the motion. The empty skin face turns its eye sockets his way. It’s more cautious of him than any human lover has been. It collapses beside him, piling up inside his heavy coat. It reaches. He realises the hands are gloves. He takes one off, and the mould loses the shape of the hand almost immediately, leaving a greyish-green lump with black webbing streaked through.
“It’s alright,” he says. It touches his right breast, which immediately goes numb. With a shaking hand he unzips its coat; the face falls off, the mould spills out and over his whole body. He cannot scream, because the mould is in his mouth, sour and fizzing. It is inside his cunt, his arse, where it tingles and burns. It’s inside him and it’s awful, it’s wonderful. He cannot breathe, not with it in his lungs. His skin melts inside of it, it melts inside of him, dissolving into every wet hollow, and he is not alone, not alone.
C.B. Blanchard is a trans, disabled writer who unfortunately lives in the UK. He has previously been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as multiple anthologies. On Twitter @BridhC he talks about fantasy, horror, and British politics (which probably count as horror).
Once upon a time he lived in a flat with a serious black mould problem, but his man upstairs worked for an insurance company and was not made out of mould.