The Smell of Death

There it was again, that same smell from earlier in the day. It was a thick, sour smell that bit at the sinuses like a living thing. It made you think of tooth decay and boiling tar at the same time, of the worst kind of cigarette smell laced with rotten death. That had been what it smelled like before. Now it was the same, but a dozen times worse. It made Peter gag as he stepped out of one of the side exits of Harris Hall into the crisp evening air.

He walked on, hoping to quickly pass whatever invisible cloud he had walked into. The stench only got stronger. He tried breathing through his mouth but that only made it worse. It was so potent that he could taste it. The roof of his mouth started to tingle. He tried to hold his breath but it was too late. His lungs were already full of the noxious fumes. He quickly decided to try a different path, past the library and down one of the back roads. It was longer but eventually he would be able to swing back around and come at the parking lot from the east. He hooked right through the shadowy courtyard of one of the campus coffee shops, it’s windows dark and the maroon table umbrellas folded up for the night.

As he walked Peter tried to turn his mind to something else, to ignore the pungent odor, but it was proving difficult. The smell was so distracting that even simple thoughts got lost in the sensory overload. Maybe that was it, he thought. Just focus on another sense, something easy. Just not taste. Sound, then. He would focus on the sounds of the campus at night. There weren’t many sounds this late at night, this far from the dorms, but even without a wealth of foot traffic there were always sounds. The wind was rustling through the autumn leaves. A car in the distance was blaring it’s radio at full blast. More rustling, closer this time, more localized. Probably a squirrel or something.

And the soft, repetitive sound of footsteps behind him.

At first, Peter thought it was just an echo from the high brick walls on either side of him, an artificial valley playing acoustic tricks in the nightly silence. But when he came to King’s Street, one of the narrow roadways that crisscrossed the campus, mostly frequented by school shuttles to take the lazier students to class, and he jumped over the part where the flagstone crosswalk was crumbling away he still heard them. He even heard a slight pause between footfalls a few moments later, as if someone had just jumped over the same spot on the path. Then they resumed their regular tempo.

Peter grew uneasy. Maybe it was just a consequence of watching too many real crime shows in his free time, or maybe it was the general creepy atmosphere of lonely, shadowy paths through old stone buildings on a late autumn evening. Maybe it was lightheaded-ness from trying to hold his breath. Whatever the reason, a niggling paranoia crept up his spine and settled in his hind brain. It may have been his imagination, but it sounded like each footstep came just barely after his own with a slight irregularity, as if someone were trying to mask the sound of their footfalls against his own. As casually as he could Peter glanced over his shoulder.

There was no one there.

Peter stopped walking and turned around. The sound of footsteps was gone, and there was definitely no one there. He was sure of it. Almost sure. Not unless they had ducked around that corner. Or behind that tree. Or into that especially dark alcove. He took a step forward, back the way he’d come. Nothing.

Suddenly the stench was back, stronger than ever. Whether it had been there all along and unnoticed or had caught up with him like a living thing he didn’t know, but when it washed over him he didn’t care. He spun on his heel and kept walking. Barely ten paces later the sound of footsteps started up again.

Peter quickened his pace. So did the footsteps. They had character now, an identifiable quanitity to the sound. Not the “flap flap” of flip flops or the “clack clack” of high heels. These were the dull “tump tump” sound of heavy work boots. Peter sped up even more, almost jogging now. The unseen pursuit matched his pace. Peter whirled around, keys in hand and sticking out between his fingers like tiny claws. This time the footsteps did not stop. Tump tump. They continued coming, still behind him. Tump tump. Peter spun again, tump, around, tump, and around, tump, until he was dizzy. No matter which direction he faced the sound was always behind him, always closing. Tump tump. The steady, rhythmic beat of footsteps was coming for him like the dreaded pendulum swing of a demonic clock. Tump. Tump. Tump. Tumptumptumptumptumptump….

Peter spun around one final time and ran as fast as he could. He broke from beneath the cover of trees and onto the university’s main concourse. He could see the library in front of him, the student union was to his left. The entire area was bathed in bright white light. Peter crossed the street and caught his foot on the curb. He twisted as he fell, landing on his back in the neatly manicured quad in front of the library.

There was nothing behind him. No sound, no smell, nobody. Just the shadows from which he’d emerged and a thin mist rising from a sewer drain into the coolness of the night. Breathing heavily he stood, brushing bits of grass from his jeans and straightening his book bag. He cast a few nervous glances around, this time to see if anyone had witnessed his panic stricken flight. But there was no one around. Peter stood a little straighter, barely even shaking now, and headed for the parking lot.

When death came for him, he was half way to his car in a brightly lit and nearly empty parking lot. There was no sound, no smell, and no warning. There was just a quick, violent pressure against his mouth and a sharp, wet pain at the base of his spine. He struggled for a few seconds, but the unseen force held him tight, pinned his arms to his sides, silenced his cries and even lifted him until he was nearly off the ground. Then there was a quick series of jabs, each one higher on his spine then the last, and his body went limp. Death came quick, and with relatively little pain. He was glad of that. As his senses began to fade and eventually winked off his only regret that his sense of smell was the last to go, that sour, evil smell had returned, that the last thing he ever knew in life was the smell of death.

(This was an attempt at building suspense and trying to throw an ironic, curve-ball kicker in at the end. Lemme know what you think.

Thanks
~E.W.)

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