Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Smell of Death

drain to nowhere, originally uploaded by Jenn Platt.
With skiing postponed everyone is wishing for snow. This is what we got instead.

I'm posting a story with a little snow in it. Maybe it will bring some luck.

After all, snow helps slow the bleeding when you're running for your life.

The Smell of Death

The camphor smell of mothballs was pressing in on her in the heat and made her chest feel tight. Being convinced she was going to die didn't make it any easier to stand. There wasn't any peace in it. It didn't make her heart stop beating so fast. It didn't do anything about the stitch in her side. It didn't stop her foot bleeding.

It didn't make her want to live any less than she had an hour ago.

And it didn't make the damn smell go away.

When she didn't hear anything for a few minutes except her own breathing, she dropped out of the painful crouch she'd been holding and sat on one of the beams, careful not to put any of her weight on the insulation. She took her left foot in both hands and shakily maneuvered it near her face. It was actually worse than she'd thought. The thick skin had been sliced from the ball of her foot to within an inch of her heel in one ragged line. It gaped in the center, an unnatural crevice with the thick black clots of dirt and dust mixed with the red of fresh blood.

Her back teeth ground together when the banging started again. She felt like her bones were shaking and she cursed. It had been her fault. If she'd grabbed her shoes first it wouldn't have happened. But no, she went for the shirt, the pants, even her purse before she thought of shoes and then it was too late to grab anything, it was time to run and slice her damn foot open on a nail sticking out of the floor in the entryway. The same damn nail she'd been telling Mary to fix for a week. She prodded the heel end of her foot with her thumb and winced, she didn't even have anything to wrap around it. She couldn't use her shirt unless she wanted to give the bastard downstairs an extra thrill when he caught up to her.

Mary had been a fucking idiot to open the door. Jenna had been worse trying to lead him to the back of the house so she, with her cut up foot and no coat, could run out in the snow for help.

The banging stopped again and it felt like her eardrums were still rattling. How long was it going to take the fucker to find the attic trapdoor? How long would the junk she'd piled over it hold him off when he started banging away at that?

She looked at the shadowy pile of boxes and chairs and the moldy old sofa. It didn't seem like much.

She stretched her foot out in front of her and wondered if she could bleed to death from her foot before he used that hammer on her. Even if it was probably slower, bleeding to death seemed a lot easier than taking that hammer to the hip like Jenna. She could see snow swirling past the attic vent and wondered if Jenna was still alive, lying out on the lawn, crumpled where she'd been thrown, like a doll with too many joints. Jenna might get to die of hypothermia, not an option in the heat of the attic.

The silence was longer and the muscles in her legs shook as they let go of their tension. A small, painful part of her brain considered that some stitches and a tetanus shot could fix her up.

The booming crunch of the hammer on the trap door shook the whole attic. She slipped half off the beam and her elbow went into the insulation and crunched into the sheetrock. She barely caught herself in time to stop her whole body going through the ceiling. She scrambled back onto the beam but she couldn’t sit again, couldn’t just wait for him.

She’d managed to get to her feet when the pile of debris over the trapdoor lurched. The end of the sofa was in the air and there was a groaning shake through the beams. For a second, during the lull in the hammering, she felt a wild leap in her chest picturing the sofa crushing him to the floor. But then the pounding was back and she slipped on her torn foot backing away. She caught her balance on one of the ceiling beams and hissed when a staple went into her palm. She held on with the other hand and looked at it. At the base of her thumb blood welled up from two little tears in the skin like the world's smallest vampire bite. Something like a smile flashed over her face. She put her hand to her mouth and soothed the sting with her tongue, her eyes on the vent and the snow swirling outside.

The beam under her dropped by inches and the whole pile on the trapdoor dropped several feet. She grabbed automatically for the beam over her head and caught her palm on the staple. She held on until the banging started again.

She stared at the rising end of the sofa, absently sucking her cut hand. It tasted like mothballs; the hot sour smell was in her mouth.

She didn't want to die in the attic.

And suddenly the vent looked a lot bigger.

The beams shook every time the hammer hit, but not enough to keep her from making it across the attic to the sloping wall. The vent was waist high and biting cold to the touch. She grabbed the slats and gave it a tug. She wobbled on the thin beam she stood on with all of her weight on her good foot. The vent hadn’t budged. She held onto it and steadied both feet, the right curled over the front of the beam, the left heel braced against the back.

She took a deep breath and pulled hard. The vent lurched. Her foot slipped in the blood and she threw herself forward to keep from falling, slamming her head into the wall.

Shaking her head she scowled and wiped her bloody heel on the top of the beam. Bracing her feet again, she pulled, wiggling the vent from side to side, working it loose an inch at a time. She dropped it on the insulation when it came free and bent to look out, the cold air making her eyes water. Jenna was still on the lawn, dusted over with snow.

Not looking back at the trapdoor, not listening to the steady hammering, she put her arms through the foot of space that separated the attic from the outside. Her hands grasped rough tar and she shoved her head through, her shirt catching until she folded her shoulders in and pushed hard with her feet, feeling the tear as her left foot split up to her toes. It hurt so much she couldn't breathe and she lay half on the roof, starring at the white lawn two stories below.

There was a crash behind her, the house seemed to rock and the beam dropped away so her feet dangled. She sucked in the sharp cold air and heaved forward, getting her hands on either side of the hole and pushing hard. She slid out too fast, sure she was going to go headfirst off the roof, when her hips caught in the narrow vent hole.

"Fuck!" she swore, pushing harder and feeling her pants slide down an inch. She pushed again, sliding another fraction forward while her pants stayed put in the hole. She ground her teeth, rolled her eyes, and shoved, wiggling her hips until they slipped free sending her three feet down the icy roof until she caught the edge of the hole with her ankles.

Over her pounding heart and her rasping breath she thought she heard a thin high sound and craned her neck back to look at the road. But there were no red and blue lights coming for her.

The hand that grabbed her foot was hot and dug into her cut.

She kicked hard with both feet.

She shot across the roof so fast there was no difference between the feeling of sliding and falling. Not until she hit the ground.

For a second the world was red and she was sure she was dead.

Then she was gasping and snow was falling on her face. She couldn't breathe but she could move, she stumbled to her feet and fell. She pushed herself up again and refused to look back at the house. She limped through the snow, moving faster as it numbed her foot. She tripped on Jenna's hand but didn't stop. If she could get to the road she wouldn't leave tracks. If she could get out there she could hide in the bushes and wait for a truck to flag down. Which narrowed the possibilities to hypothermia or getting axe murdered by some crazy trucker when she flagged him down in her underwear.

At least death wouldn't smell like the attic.


  1. very graphic in a good way. Lots of good vivid details.

    'The beam under her dropped by inches and the whole pile on the trapdoor dropped several feet. She grabbed automatically for the beam over her head and caught her palm on the staple. She held on until the banging started again.'

    This whole paragraph just did not fit right with me for some reason. Why did the beam drop, it almost makes it sound like the ceiling is coming down below her. (maybe that was your intention, and having been up in the attic/on beams while work was being done, i get that the boards jump when they/nearby boards are hit.

  2. I got a little confused about the beams as well. Aside from that, wow! What a dark piece, and so well done. I wish I could write such a tense and stressful situation in this way. It's crazy how you have managed to pull together a story that reveals as it goes, all the while ratcheting up the tension. I'd like to say I'd love to read more about this situation, but I think I'd be too sad if the main character didn't make it. Nice work!


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